Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?: B+

It’s funny talking about What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? now, as the group that NME had crowned “The Return of the Great British Guitar Band” has all but fizzled out in the six months or so since their debut album was released. Listening to the London group’s newest, one will note that all the hype that was hoisted upon them was probably not warranted. This is not because the group’s debut is particularly bad, but because it is very much a “little” album.

You know, a “little” album. One whose creators intended to lay down a long player’s worth of songs for the joy of making music and perhaps some na├»ve ideas of rock and roll stardom. With it, you got some clever lyricism, a charismatic but introverted leader, maybe some nifty guitar solos. It’s by no means distinct, but, then again, it never aspires to be. What Did You Expect features all these elements to some extent, giving more credence to the album’s sarcastic title, and yet The Vaccines were still forced into the stratosphere before they had gotten remotely close to honing their craft. It’s no wonder American audiences have yet to be turned on to them.

It should be noted that What Did You Expect is still quite good, despite its modesty. It’s loaded with solid melodies and that aforementioned clever wordplay from frontman Justin Young. The group sounds like prime Futureheads as they spell out the name of the titular model in “Norgaard” and the bluntness in the chorus of “Post Break-Up Sex” (“Post break-up sex / That helps you forget your ex / What did you expect / From post break-up sex?”) is refreshing, even if it sets the depth bar pretty damn low. Young’s ruminations on “Family Friend”, (“Do people really feel as high as a kite? / I don’t know if they do but they might”) ain’t exactly Nietzsche, but the track has a precocious theatricality to it that still makes it an enjoyable listen. Call it froth, but sometimes froth tastes really, really good.

On paper, The Vaccines sound like a group that should be dismissed, immediately. However, six months in, What Did You Expect is still worth the time. It may not have the bombast of Oasis or the pseudo-wryness of Arctic Monkeys, but The Vaccines’ newest bests both Suck It and See and the new Beady Eye album by sounding more like a British Yuck (I’m aware Yuck are from the UK, but they play a style of indie rock that is distinctly American), which is still quite satisfying. I feel bad that The Vaccines were subject to that big ‘ol hype machine, of which admittedly fewer and fewer bands seem to be falling victim to, but What Did You Expect is still one of the best of its kind released this year. The great thing about “little” albums like it that set such low goals is that sometimes it’s fun to see them hit the mark every time.


Devin Townsend - Deconstruction: B+

For nearly twenty years now, Devin Townsend has been one of the most confounding artists that metal, or any genre, has had to offer. The man’s newest solo album, Deconstruction, does not sully his reputation in this regard. Many of the album’s tracks feature an unctuous blend of humor and instrumental proficiency. Townsend’s theatrical singing over the double bass drum triplets of “Juular” gives the track a circus-like feel, the man relishing his creepy timbre with every word he speaks. The beginning of “Praise Be Lowered” sounds almost Radiohead-like before it descends into the distorted screams of chaotic black metal. “Stand” and “Planet of the Apes” are crunch-metal odysseys, Townsend recruiting screamers from Emperor’s Ihasahn to Between the Buried and Me’s Thomas Giles to give each track a grainy edge. It’s no surprise that Deconstruction feels like a massive stage production, a fitting end to Townsend’s madcap Devin Townsend Project series.

But I’m telling you right now that you’re not going to remember Deconstruction for those tracks I just mentioned. The seven songs on this nine-track album? Nonsense. In fact, in retrospect, the hushed acoustics that conclude “Sumeria” sound like a primer for where the real album begins.

The true Deconstruction begins with the slow guitar picking of “The Might Masturbator”. The track builds to standard but complicated prog metal, but completely dismantles itself five minutes in to reveal a country tootin’ Townsend, tongue firmly in cheek, as he brags, “Oh yeah, you don’t even know / I’m real good at that savin’ the world thing / I’m ready, I got my savin’ the world boots on.” And then the track just goes bonkers. First it’s Dream Theater-like time signature perversion, then Broadway “sha la la’s”, then an electronic siege of insanity as Townsend blusters on about addressing “the intergalactic community” which all leads to a chant of “Give it up / The world”… THEN the track goes back to prog metal before Townsend literally fancies himself a ringmaster, talking about men with sixteen testicles and vagina-faced women before the fucker just crowns himself The Mighty Masturbator to a rapturous AMEN. Next track “Pandemic” never stands a chance.

Now would be a good time to note that there is also a concept behind Deconstruction. As if the album couldn’t sound more convoluted, its accompanying storyline may be even more ridiculous than all the sounds Townsend throws at you combined. Deconstruction is about a boy who goes to the Underworld in search of the answers to the mysteries of the Universe and is offered them in the form of a cheeseburger, only for the protagonist to reveal that he is a vegetarian (or as Townsend pronounces it, “vegemetarian”), rendering his entire journey utterly worthless. With that in mind, it sounds like Townsend is just fucking with us at this point, dickslapping our conventions of how seriously we take any kind of art.

And if you think that this concept is difficult to understand, don’t worry, because Townsend lays it out for you by literally interrupting a track to reveal the story’s punch line, and you will hear full choirs singing about cheeseburgers like it’s all a fucking coronation. The title track, where the crux of the story is told, bests the batshit crazy factor of “The Mighty Masturbator” not only because it’s more blatant in its display of lunacy, but because Townsend and his band perform the thing with surgically precision. As Townsend rants about what the main character could do with his knowledge, the drums punctuate his fantasies of SEX and MONEY with snare hits that seem to come out of nowhere. But if you’re getting the impression that, other than the storyline, “Deconstruction” is all poise and finesse, the song literally starts with Townsend laying a massive fart, and the last thing heard on the song is a man repeating, “Bullshit, it’s bullshit.” Again, a song succeeds this track, but would you really care if I told you about it?

So, clearly, Deconstruction is a lot to take in. It intends to probe listeners relentlessly on how far they will go to appreciate music that refuses to back down from even the basest forms of humor. I came very close to not rating Deconstruction, because its incessant need to make disjointed and patently ludicrous statements almost defies critical inspection.

Realistically, however, the actual hooks and songwriting chops of Deconstruction do not quite impress as much as they shock. “The Mighty Masturbator” and “Deconstruction” are both fantastic songs, and, while they do make up twenty-six minutes of the album, its other tracks look insignificant in comparison. However, I will say this: If you think Lady Gaga is challenging ideas of what is and is not music, a few listens to Deconstruction will inform you that’s all a hulking pile of horseshit. Townsend had some massive balls to make an album like Deconstruction, and, based on its meticulous production, its message-without-a-message actually sounds thought through and it sounds like Townsend had great fun making it. Despite the fact that there is a good chance you will despise Deconstruction, I would recommend it, because it is a legitimate challenge to our conventions on music. You may not enjoy it, but you cannot deny that you’ve never heard anything quite like it before.


Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver: A-

The success of For Emma, Forever Ago has always baffled me. The album was released in mid-2007 to minimal acclaim, but, sometime in early 2008, Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, was beginning to get namedropped by friends and family that I had never figured knew all that much about music. Perhaps it took the winter of 2008 to be the catalyst for For Emma’s frigid tales of isolation to realize their potential to people, but, by 2008’s end, Bon Iver had become as much of a household name as Vampire Weekend, whose debut was released about six months after Vernon’s.

And then Justin Vernon was on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeah, Bon Iver came out with the Blood Bank EP and Vernon released two side projects under the names Volcano Choir and Gayngs in that time, but what really matters is that the man who had created a mythos of holing himself up in a cabin with a crippling physical/mental ailment to release tortured acoustic tales was singing “Pussy and religion is all I need” alongside some of the most recognizable pop figures of all time in all but a few years. The albums that were released between For Emma and Fantasy gave hints of the deeper breadth to which Vernon could perform, but I would still argue that Vernon’s creative shift between 2007 and 2010 was one of the most radical of all time.

And this radical shift has a subtle effect on Bon Iver’s highly awaited, pseudo-self titled follow-up to For Emma. Vernon has mentioned in interviews that the main thing he took away from working with Kanye was that the man was incredibly willing to take strange, seemingly unworkable sounds and tirelessly mold them into affecting showstoppers. This principle is heard throughout Bon Iver, Bon Iver, particularly on the album’s first and last tracks. “Perth” begins with a strategically caustic guitar line and undulates with snare hits and harmonized falsettos. At first, the track sounds like expected Bon Iver, but, at its midpoint, it slumps sonically, only to be revived with concise cymbal hits before gliding into a breakdown of syncopated double bass drum. Taken out of context, this new movement sounds like some downtempo heavy metal, something that wouldn’t sound out of place on Alcest’s most recent record. However, coupled with Vernon’s immaculate guitar tone, this new presence adds serious emotional heft. The sound carries “Perth” to its end, introducing Bon Iver, Bon Iver with a jarring contradiction that proves to be the album’s best.

Where “Perth” borrows from the hipster-reviled reaches of metal, “Beth/Rest” takes its sound from the maligned cheese of ‘80’s analog schmaltz. It’s a ballad, featuring a keyboard line that’s connotation is nearly impossible to ignore. Nevertheless, Vernon achieves the impossible by reversing entire decades of Bonnie Tyler and Foreigner ballads to give the characteristically synthetic sound an undeniable soul. Vernon understands the style very well and almost seems to taunt the listener as he embellishes the track with reverbed guitar high tones, but it’s still an unbridled success. It too proves itself to be one of Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s best songs, because it ruthlessly doubles down on polarizing styles and normalizes them so that you couldn’t imagine them being performed any other way.

The rest of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Promotions are calling it Bon Iver but Vernon himself calls it Bon Iver, Bon Iver) is less divisive. Vernon has characterized his newest as a spring to For Emma’s winter, but the album gives little indication of weather or even temperature. Instead, the season Vernon evokes on Bon Iver, Bon Iver lies within the mind; constantly, the man recalls cryptic moments in his childhood amidst arrangements that have a blue, polished sheen of nostalgia. A bike bell rings throughout “Michicant” as Vernon recalls when “I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age.” “Halocene” delves into tender specifics that I’m sure only Vernon truly understands. A line like “3rd and Lake it burnt away, the hallway / Was where we learned to celebrate,” has little relevance to me, but Vernon’s vulnerable delivery aside the naked acoustic guitar creates a recognizable mood that I can easily ascribe my own meaning to. In this way, it often feels as if Vernon is translating his own memories to yours.

“Calgary” even begins as if from the middle of a thought. Vernon’s verse enters a line late, causing the track to stumble slightly before its familiar vocal progression gets into a groove. As the last track before the controversial tones of “Beth/Rest”, the song feels as if it is wrestling itself from a dream. Its bridge bounces with distorted guitar and distant vocals, as if to signal reality intruding upon Vernon’s fantasies that flew with such abandon up to that point. What is incredible is that you feel intruded upon as well, drawing attention to how effectively Bon Iver, Bon Iver introduces you to the recesses of Vernon’s psyche. With repeated listens, “Beth/Rest” even wears less and less to make the entire album feel like an immense, uninterrupted dream sequence.

But, yeah. Naked. That’s an excellent way to describe the appeal of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Vernon’s voice is similar to TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, especially in the few times he lowers his voice. It’s delicate and rarely unadorned, ornate harmonies surrounding it constantly as to sound synthetic at times. New instruments such as a horn section and the stylings of bass saxophonist Colin Stetson can be heard throughout the album, but these developments never distract Bon Iver, Bon Iver from that central vision of one guy with an acoustic guitar, except maybe now it’s a guy with an acoustic guitar and a Macbook Pro. Thankfully, Kanye hasn’t spoiled an artist that is proving to be one of the most formative of this decade. His versatility has allowed him to take disparate influences and create a product that still feels wholly his, beautifully marred by the travails that are only garnered from an artist that is honest with both himself and his eager (and appreciative) audience.