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The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar: A-

Alas, in the time that I’ve had to listen to The Joy Formidable’s first proper album, The Big Roar, I haven’t found much to write about. I’ve been far too busy enjoying the album and taking in the great amounts of fun, joy, distress and catharsis this trio can conjure for a fifty-minute product that has the potential to mean the world to countless amounts of listeners.

In many ways, The Big Roar can be compared to Los Campesinos! Romance Is Boring, another album by a British group that seethes with erudite bravado; its UK release was almost an exact year before that of The Big Roar. However, The Joy Formidable are a lot more raw than Los Campesinos! in a lot of ways. Rather than clever wordplay, The Joy Formidable hinge their appeal on the performance of guitarist and lead singer, Ritzy Bryan. Whether strumming elastic chords or jading riffs with distortion, Ritzy’s guitar parts sound just on the verge of implosion, and The Joy Formidable’s bassist and drummer accommodate this attitude, excellently. Ritzy’s lyrics don’t riff on angst-y subjects in a stream-of-consciousness whimper like that of Los Campesinos! Instead they opt for poignant adages that are often just as affecting. “Love is the everchanging spectrum of a lie!” Ritzy hollers in a jarring falsetto on The Big Roar’s epic opener. “I don’t want to see you like this,” she pleads on a later track. These vague statements can seem to many like pompous posturing, but the massive heft of the band’s musicianship, coupled with Ritzy’s confident swoon, make these overarching declarations far from platitudes.

The Big Roar is the first indie rock album I’ve ever heard that prominently features double bass drum. Not surprisingly, many of The Big Roar’s tracks crumble under the weight of their own entropy, collapsing into bouts of chaotic fuzz and crash cymbal. To heighten this state of pandemonium, drummer Matt Thomas will begin wailing on his set to elevate the heaviness of the band’s tracks more than I’ve ever heard a group like them do. On the album’s centerpiece, the raucous “Whirring,” Thomas even weaves double bass triplets into the din that overtakes its second half. It’s unexpected at first, but becomes exceedingly appropriate as it is the highest musical addition the band could have incorporated at that point. When the song sputters close to the seven-minute mark, one wonders why other bands haven’t tried it before.

The Big Roar, by its end, feels like the culmination of multiple albums, because it’s packed with so many peaks that are overtaken by silence, there are a handful of cases when one thinks that there is no way that the group could continue after such a prompt aural beating (This effect even occurs midway through a song, as on the two-part “Llaw = Wall”). And yet The Joy Formidable carry on, hurling life-affirming climaxes at you like you were the last picked for a dodgeball game. The Big Roar is such a ridiculously promising debut for this London group, I’m surprised other critics haven’t received it as rapturously. It’s the perfect mission statement, because it establishes The Joy Formidable’s sound, but still leaves some aspects of it to be explored and improved upon, and I have the utmost confidence that they will continue to make great music as they get a more confident footing as a band. Welcome aboard, The Joy Formidable. Glad to have you with us.


R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now: C+

It’s one thing for a band to cop the performance style of R.E.M. and make something half-assed as a result. It’s something else, entirely, when the band whose style people are copping to make crappy albums are copping the copping of those bands to make something supremely shitty. R.E.M. are supposed to be this influential band that was a bastion of pre-indie rock (and they are), but on their newest album, Collapse Into Now, they sound downright amateurish, stripping the elements that made them unique of all pretense. Not a ballast can be found on Collapse Into Now to keep it from preening into a big dumb STATEMENT of an album.

So where to start? Music: Collapse Into Now suffers from the same ailment that struck The Hold Steady’s most recent album, Heaven Is Whenever, in that the lack of variety in the guitars makes it sound far too dense and monolithic. The guitar and bass work of Peter Buck and Mike Millis, respectively, is decent, but the production on their instruments is nauseating in its lack of dynamics.

Lyrics: Oh boy, here we go. Never have I ever heard such a decent album bogged down by such awful lyrics. Michael Stipe has written some fantastic songs in the past, but, on Collapse Into Now, he seems to take himself so seriously, he not only believes he can get away with reciting inane poetry like, “I cannot tell a lie / It’s not all cherry pie” and “This is not a parable / This is a terrible,” but believes that it is high-end art to be analyzed and admired. Over a pseudo-shanty built upon accordion and acoustic guitar, Stipe breathes solemnly, “The kids have a new take / A new take on faith,” with the utmost intention of having you hang on his every word, but that heavy-handedness is laughable to even consider taking seriously. “Mine Smell Like Honey” pairs inane lyrics with an even more inane song title, “Walk It Back” tries and fails miserably to form a chorus around a clumsy phrase and “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” is just as bad as its title would suggest.

Collapse Into Now even has somewhat of an arc of shitty lyrics, climaxing on final track, “Blue,” by far the worst song on the album. In it, Stipe lets loose in a five-minute, distorted, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, slinging the type of non sequitur vomit that could only come from someone who doesn’t think anyone would be smart enough to read into a single line or phrase. “Yellow circus left the stakes a broken ropes world’s useless mug / The ties that bind, ha ha / I can be a bad poet / Street poet / Shit poet / Kind poet too,” and he goes on like this for a few more stanzas before Peter Buck coos a soft refuge, but not for long, as we’re thrust back into the fray of Stipe’s pretentious psyche. That’s right, pretentious. “Blue” is so awful, it could make you lose faith in what R.E.M. has become over the past decade. It confronts you, directly, with the possibility that the band may believe significantly more than just their own hype.

It is in this regard that Collapse Into Now sounds like the work of an R.E.M. cover band, because it masterfully takes the notable aspects of the group and exaggerates them into agonizing caricatures. When Stipe sings in a lower register, he has a habit of trailing off his notes, making them sound, intentionally or not, much more poignant than any logic garnered from his lyrics could justify. He sounds like what my Michael Stipe impression would sound like if I wanted him to sound conceited and provincial. It’s surprising to hear such labored drivel from a group as respected as R.E.M. I’ve heard some heinous ‘90’s rehashing in my time, but it is a genuine disappointment to hear such a stalwart so spectacularly spin out as badly as the band does on Collapse Into Now.