Album Review: Everything Now

I’m sure the irony of Arcade Fire’s opus on commercialism being their most commercial record was intentional. That just doesn’t make it clever. Ultimately, the most lasting and successful criticisms are couched in enduring forms. That’s what makes Neon Bible such a magnificent treatise on religion in the post-millennium. Besides Win Butler’s profoundly insightful lyrics, Neon Bible is sonically timeless. It both incorporates and subverts contemporary musical trends. Arcade Fire used to understand how potent this aural subterfuge could be and produced a trilogy of classic records in this style. Unfortunately, their fifth studio LP, Everything Now, is simply disposable; and not in a way that reveals any profound truths or subverts any social preconceptions.

The opening moments of Everything Now proceed solidly enough. The titular track apes ABBA to spectacular effect. The twinkling piano lines and call-and-response chant is undeniably catchy. And, while the track drags on a bit, Win Butler’s preacherly vocals propel the tune with a fervent and derisive energy.

Likewise, “Creature Comfort” addresses self-harm, illusions of fame, and other sensitive subjects with nuance and care. The grimy synth groove and macabre lyrics contrast well with the lightness of the keytar and vocal melodies. Even the much debated, apocryphal lyric about a young girl contemplating suicide while listening to Arcade Fire’s “first record” is quite chilling in context. It’s not the self-serving anecdote that some have asserted, but rather the horrified reaction of an artist understanding their influence.

After these two bright spots, however, the record takes a deep dive into mediocrity. “Chemistry” and “Peter Pan” both sit firmly in the bottom tier of Arcade Fire’s otherwise illustrious canon. The two versions of “Infinite Content” are an interesting experiment, but ultimately reveal little about social obsession with consumption. Even Regine Chassagne’s track (usually a highlight of any Arcade Fire LP), “Electric Blue”, is thoroughly disappointing. It’s mostly four-minutes of a strange, repetitive falsetto melody.

The tail end of the record recovers with the haunting “Good God Damn” and “Put Your Money on Me”, but these late gems only further highlight the brevity of Everything Now. It’s a short record, made shorter still by the three reprises of the title track, two version of “Infinite Content”, and general lack of quality throughout the middle.

The problem lies in Arcade Fire’s commitment to their new dance-rock sound. It undermines the groups key strengths: expansiveness, earnestness, and emotion (for the record I didn’t mean to make those alliterate). While they are certainly capable of producing rich grooves and catchy melodies, these alone don’t equate to meaningful music.

By comparison, their contemporaries in LCD Soundsystem crafted a form of indie-dance-rock that explored compositional and lyrical ideas in a novel way. Yet, the Montreal indie-collective has yet to rise to this level. At least Everything Now makes Reflektor look better by comparison.

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Album Review: Favourite Worst Nightmare

It would have been easy for a young band coming off their critically-heralded debut album to become complacent and lean in to the sophomore slump. I guess we’re lucky that Alex went through a traumatic breakup, because the Arctic Monkeys came roaring back with another richly detailed record exploring heartbreak, maturation, and the sinister side of partying.

Like their debut, Favourite Worst Nightmare is a narrative album. It roughly catalogs the story of a relationship. Yet, supernatural and gruesome details continually slip into the story. Turner describes “a circle of witches”, devious criminals, and a murder scene as he weaves together the aftermath of love with gothic omens.

It’s a magnificent and rapturous album that revels in Turner’s free-associative lyrics. The brooding second half brilliantly contrasts the breezier early tracks (which echo hits from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not). It’s this fusion of heavy alternative rock influences with the up-tempo rhythms of post-punk that makes Favourite Worst Nightmare so unique.  Arctic Monkeys, delved deeper into the underbelly of the debauchery that defined their debut and discovered a magnificent work of love, longing, and horror.

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Album Review: Melodrama

Only Lorde, queen of minimalist theatrics, could get away with calling an album Melodrama. Well, not just get away with; triumphantly succeed. Lorde’s long-awaited sophomore record has been hailed as a bold new direction for popular music, but you might not pick up on that by just listening to it. That’s actually to the album’s credit. Melodrama feels familiar and authentic, perhaps even more so than Lorde’s debut, the fantastic Pure Heroine.

Lorde leverages every ounce of emotion from her husky voice. In particular, tracks like “Supercut” and “Liability” showcase this confidant vulnerability. In the wake of heartbreak, she is shockingly self-aware, but not in a manner that feels self-serving or manipulative. Indeed, most of Melodrama is a keen meditation on the anxiety of love for young adults. “Green Light” moves between vengeful, hesitant, and ecstatic all within a few bars. Even Lorde’s more…ahem…melodramatic ideas such as “Homemade Dynamite” find quiet and impactful textures in the singer’s voice like when she whispers “boom” with palpable irony.

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However, Melodrama is far from a perfect album. The sense of literary vision that permeated the best of Pure Heroine like “Team”, “Glory and Gore”, and “Buzzcut Season” is greatly diminished. And the melodies don’t rise to the lofty heights of Lorde’s previous singles. But Melodrama captures in it’s best moments an authentic and sympathetic picture of a young woman grappling with stardom, heartbreak, alcohol, and sexism.

The revolutionary impact of the record is felt in its ability to balance pop expectations, minimalism, and Lorde’s immense emotionality with poise and sophistication. It’s a pop record that doesn’t portray sadness with a ballad and joy with a banger. Rather, Melodrama (in defiance of its name) deals with many conflicting and complex emotions within each track. So basically it’s Inside Out for pop music…actually scratch that last one.

Album Review: Crack-Up

Emerging from a six-year hiatus, the Fleet Foxes have released their most structurally ambitious record yet. Crack-Up captures the earnest folkism of their debut and suffuses it with experimental textures. Synths artfully punctuate the largely-acoustic instrumentation and Robin Pecknold modulates his voice emulating the dynamism of his fellow Seattlites in the grunge movement.

While the often-linear song structures and electronic palette add novelty to Crack-Up and refresh what could have become another tired roots act (a la Mumford and Sons) the album doesn’t elicit the same sense of grandeur as its predecessor Helplessness Blues. The lyrics are less abstract, but consequently more predictable. For an album that takes substantial structural risks with songs like the excellent “Third of May / Odaigahara”, “Cassius, -“, “- Naiads, Cassadies”, and “On Another Ocean (January / June)” Pecknold’s more literal lyricism feels out of place.

However, what Crack-Up lacks in lavish vision it makes up for in musical scope. For a band coming off an extended hiatus, the Fleet Foxes have returned tighter and more dynamic than ever. Jumping between ecstatic highs and foreboding lows, the Foxes display a keen instinct for the emotional energy of their audience. The tracks on Crack-Up, despite lengthy run times, don’t linger overly long on the same instrumentation or melodic idea. It creates an album that is diverse, surprising, and well worth the six-year wait.

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Album Review: RELAXER

Comprehending Alt-J’s often opaque and free-associative imagery begins with first understanding that the British art-rock trio are obsessed with language. From “Fitzpleasure” to “The Gospel of John Hurt”, the bulk of singer Joe Newman’s lyrics have prodded at the form and syntax of language.

Indeed, the band’s most successful tracks have cleverly subverted linguistic expectations; such as on the aforementioned “Fitzpleasure” where Newman dryly sings “treasure, pleasure, leisure, les yeux” slurring his diction so that the words become indistinguishable.

So far the band has produced two substantial records that simultaneously interrogates the listener’s conception of language while rendering lush sonic environments to facilitate this inquiry. Yet, their third record RELAXER unwittingly conducts a new linguistic experiment: how are lyrics interpreted in an inconsistent musical context.

RELAXER begins confidently enough with the magnificent “3WW” and “In Cold Blood”. The former tells a pastoral story of sexual awakening, brilliantly supported by sudden changes in dynamics and melody. The post-coital letter narrated by guest singer Ellie Roswell contains the most sensual use of geography this side of Bjork’s Biophilia: “Girls from the pool say ‘hi”/The road erodes at five feet per year, along England’s east coastline”.

This track, followed by the uptempo single “In Cold Blood” and hauntingly bastardized cover of “House of the Rising Sun” make for a strong opening to the LP. However, the momentum quickly disperses with “Hit Me Like That Snare” a cringeworthy tune that cannot be excused as merely ironic. The balladic “Last Year” plods along like many Alt-J tunes, but never rises to the glorious, revelatory peaks of tracks like “Nara” or “Taro”.

There are snatches of greatness scattered throughout the brief second half of RELAXER. But these moments on tracks like “Deadcrush”, “Pleader”, and “Adeline” are only fleetingly brilliant; ultimately too innocuous to return the album to the euphoric highs of its opening minutes.

This inconsistency, combined with the remarkably short run time, creates in RELAXER a record that feels disposable. For a band that carefully crafted the arc of their first two albums including intro tracks, song sequels, and melodic motifs across records, RELAXER is haphazard and careless. For every beautiful and symphonic moment like the end of “Adeline” there’s a drawn out and tedious acoustic guitar arpeggio a la the first few minutes of “Last Year”.

It’s a shame, given how interesting so many of Newman’s lyrical ideas are throughout the record. He continues to explore the nuances of delivery and sound in a novel ways, but the impact of this exploration is dramatically undermined by the weak musical context. Ironically, this actually leads to the most interesting revelation of all: the necessity of non-verbal sound to the meaning of language. Ultimately, RELAXER is not a poor record, but certainly a comparatively disappointing and underdeveloped one.

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Album Review: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

In retrospect it seems like a cosmic joke that the snotty, young band that put Myspace music on the map would long outlast the now defunct platform. Yet, Arctic Monkeys have grown into one the most acclaimed and influential acts this side of Nirvana. With their frenetic debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not the post-punk group from England confidently showcased their abilities as masters of cynical observation and wit.

Whatever People Say I Am tells the story of a drunken night in the city. Yet, for all its disaffection, there’s an endearing strain of naiveté and earnestness that underlies each snide remark from singer Alex Turner. His world-weary vocals betray idealism beneath the veneer of youthful arrogance.

Musically, the band brings a potent mix of jagged, Gang of Four guitars and breakneck drum parts. Drummer, Matt Helders, is equally capable of producing thunderous rhythms a la Dave Grohl and spindly hi-hat patterns in the vein of Stewart Copeland. It’s this interplay between the glassy guitars and cymbals against the booming skins that makes this record rich where other cynical, adolescent works feel laborious. It also helps that the vocal melodies are incredibly catchy—see “I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor” and “When the Sun Goes Down”. The result is not only one of the most assertive and mature debuts in rock history, but the launching pad for one of the most celebrated modern rock acts, bar none.

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Album Review: DAMN.

“Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence” Kendrick Lamar remarks on the mythic closing track “Duckworth”, which describes how many years ago his father survived a run-in with Kendrick’s future manager Top Dawg. It would, perhaps, be more accurate to say that Kendrick was born from contradiction, though.

Across four diverse studio LPs, the Compton rapper has built a career on honest interrogation of himself, his community, and black identity in post-Obama America. This has often meant exposing hypocrisy and naiveté in his own ideology; a lyrical trait that stands in stark contrast to many of his musical peers.

On To Pimp a Butterfly, undeniably Kendrick’s magnum opus, he exposed the white corporate underbelly of hip-hop and examined his own role in reifying the exploitation of black communities. Yet, on his latest masterpiece DAMN., Kendrick raps with renewed confidence and zeal, now seemingly inspired by his contradictions rather than tormented by them.

The track “DNA” effectively launches the album and showcases Kendrick’s more militant approach to his own demons. The intro to the song plays clips of Fox pundits patronizingly criticizing Lamar’s lyrics on police brutality before Kendrick rebuts: “I got royalty inside my DNA”. Yet, ever fickle, Kendrick belies this pronouncement on lead single “Humble” by commanding himself to “sit down/be humble”. The impact of this track is heightened by the context of album, especially considering that, upon its release, many assumed the song to be calling out Big Sean or other artists.

With this sense of authority, DAMN. is perhaps the definitive “old-school” record in contrast to the progressive and forward-looking Butterfly. DAMN. hits hard and doesn’t waste time, an element that is reflected brilliantly in the single-word, all-caps track titles. These songs are punctuated views of the world through the eyes of a confident, but conflicted artist at the top of his game. This engrossing dichotomy, between eminence and fallibility, is best showcased in the latter half of the record beginning with “XXX”.

“XXX”, which features a shockingly effective collaboration with U2, addresses the desire for vengeance in the wake of police homicide. Lamar’s bereft friend begs Kendrick for guidance saying: “I know that you annointed show me how to overcome”. The normally intellectual and reserved Lamar passionately responds: “I can’t sugar coat the answer for you, this is how I feel/If somebody kill my son that mean somebody gettin’ killed”.

The line hangs over the track as Kendrick goes on to preach “ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward”. This verse is the most powerful and strident on the record and Kendrick brilliantly undercuts it by then immediately telling his friend “Matter fact I’m ’bout to speak at this convention, call you back” before addressing his fictitious audience with the knowing line: “alright kids we’re gonna talk about gun control”.

Following this mesmerizing highlight are the tracks “Fear” and “God” each of which stand as lyrical highpoints in Kendrick’s illustrious career. Finally, the record closes with “Duckworth” which tells the all-but-apocryphal story of how Kendrick’s manager once nearly killed his father. In the chilling conclusion, Kendrick acknowledges that his father’s death would have sent him into a predictable and irreversible spiral before issuing that evocative and defining declaration “whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence”.

And it should be now clear that Kendrick is the greatest rapper of his era. His records serve as monoliths not just within hip-hop, but within the realm of art and creative expression as a whole. Kendrick’s masterpieces, which Damn. is absolutely included in, stand alongside the works of Ellison and Morrison in their ability to problematize and interrogate cultural identity in America. And like these great American writers, Kendrick Lamar is remarkable for his vision, conflict, and intense mortality.

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Album Review: Home of the Strange

It’s incredible to think that Young the Giant are already on their 3rd studio LP. The alt-rock radio darlings have been turning out hits with a ferocity that stands in contrast to the unadulterated lushness of their sound. Guitars tinged with tasteful reverb and delay color each of their records and lead singer Sameer Gadhia’s voice is simply majestic. His pure and sustained tone evokes a more technically proficient Chris Martin and makes each track on Home of the Strange an aural treat.

Indeed, with their eponymous debut and follow-up Mind Over Matter, YTG have proven themselves to be agile and adept musicians, but it is the unmistakable voice of the man with two mics that distinguishes Young the Giant from many of their equally skillful peers. To that point, Home of the Strange marks a turning point for this now firmly established rock outfit. It’s the first time that YTG has felt wholly original in their songwriting.

Tracks like “Jungle Youth”, “Silvertongue”, and “Amerika” feel abstruse and new. No longer does the band simply rely on the vocal performances to showcase their identity. Now the guitars, synths, and (especially) basslines each carve out a comfortable spot in the tunes that is memorable without stepping on the toes of the melody. Let’s not kid, Sameer is still the star here. His commanding delivery moves from shimmering to howling without the slightest hint of effort. However, Home of the Strange feels more fully developed than any previous YTG record. It’s the work of a seasoned and unified group that understands that stepping into the spotlight doesn’t mean hogging the limelight.

Home of the Strange is, true to its word, an often bizarre record. However, it’s crafted with such self-assurance that this strangeness is inviting rather than off-putting. It’s like an inside joke that you are just hearing for the first time

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