Frances The Mute

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Album: Frances the Mute

Artist: The Mars Volta

Released: March 1st, 2005

Highlights: Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus, The Widow, Cassandra Gemini

The nature of “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the debut album by The Mars Volta, comes as a rather nice surprise when the context that surrounded rock music at the turn of the century is taken into account. While the bands that were supposedly revitalizing the genre and presenting it to a new audience sourced much of their inspiration from a back-to-basics approach, like The Strokes and The White Stripes, to name a few, the 2003 record constructed by the Texan sextet was anything but simple. Its long multi-phased tunes, conceptual grandeur, and jazz looseness – in fact – made the work land on one of the rhythm’s most inherently complex variations: progressive rock. And true to the style’s forward-looking name and boundary-pushing heart, the band repackaged it originally with a layer of Latin influences that were true to their heritage as well as a shell of volume, speed, and modern sound manipulation techniques that were extracted from various musical movements that unfolded after the genre’s peak in the 1970s.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies, and perhaps partially due to them, “De-Loused in the Comatorium” was a commercial and critical hit. And so, for its sequel, “Frances the Mute”, the band opted to keep the course to see what else they could pull off within the same scope. Consequently, much like the debut, “Frances the Mute” gravitates around a concept; one that, once again, revolves around the group’s deceased sound technician, Jeremy Ward. While carrying out repossession orders, he allegedly found, in the backseat of a car, a diary containing the memories of an adopted man’s search for his real parents. Noticing he had a lot in common with the guy, Jeremy kept the diary, and the material in it would eventually inspire his bandmates’ development of the thematic chain that keeps the tracks of “Frances the Mute” together.

People mentioned in the book had their names used for the characters that appear in the plot as well as for the songs’ titles themselves. And as the album rolls on, the protagonist – Vismund – gets ever closer to the truth, with each person that shows up revealing extra bits of information. Cohesiveness aside, it is worthy to point out that “Frances the Mute” suffers from the same problem that held back “De-Loused in the Comatorium”; that is, its lyrics are so cryptic that it is unlikely listeners would figure out what the record is talking about if its creators had not revealed it. Truth be told, this sophomore effort is, to a degree, clearer than the prior release, as one can pin down references to a disturbing tale that involves Vismund’s mother, a rape, one or more priests, a murder, a child deformed whether as a result of the violence of its birth or as an outcome of the natural biological roulette, and an attempt by the woman’s sister and mother to speak out against the crime.

The stream of dumbfounding verses is not as extreme as the one seen in “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, which housed linguistic oddities such as “Transient jet lag / Ecto mimed bison / This is the haunt of roulette dares / Ruse of metacarpi”. Therefore, the feeling that the writing is trying so hard to be smart that the only target it is hitting is that of silliness is not so constant. Yet, in spite of clear evolution, lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala still struggles to make words sound good side by side, as seen in “My nails peel back / When the taxidermist ruined / Goose stepped the freckling impatience”. His tendency to opt for flowery vocabulary has two negative consequences: firstly, it invariably implodes the fluidity of the lines, which is a quality one would expect to gain from employing odd words; secondly, it punctually makes the verses so indecipherable that their meaning becomes lost and the plot’s impact is diminished.

The joy of listening to The Mars Volta, however, mostly stems from the band’s daring and inventive instrumentation. On that front, a few complaints can be made, since “Frances the Mute” features some electronic interludes that do not build interesting ideas and, in comparison to “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the record does not create spectacular melodic moments with the same consistency. Nevertheless, most of what its five tracks and seventy-six minutes offer is satisfying. As opener “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus” evidences, the group is still heavily toying with dynamics. Starting with a quiet acoustic intro of guitar and voice, it does not take more than one minute for the band to explode out of the gate with ferocity, as the rhythm section of Jon Theodore and Juan Alderete de la Peña lock onto an impossibly fast groove adorned by the hyperactive guitar of Omar Rodríguez-López and the high-pitched voice of Cedric. As the tune evolves, though, the band stops for a calm and seemingly improvised instrumental break, rises back up to an orchestra-backed apex, reaches a coda where the song implodes, and finally makes the piece evaporate into a mass of electronic beeps.

Out of the other four cuts, two follow a similar pattern of loudness and quietness. “L’Via L’Viaquez”, narrating the protagonist’s encounter with his aunt, plays with the band’s mixture of American and Hispanic heritage, possibly ranking as the most obvious example in the group’s discography of that blend. Its fierce hard rock verses are sung in Spanish; contrarily, its choruses, which turn down the volume to fall into the sway of Caribbean percussion and piano, are written in English. Meanwhile, closer “Cassandra Gemini” is – in all of its thirty-two-minute glory – a giant among other stars of progressive rock. Carrying the record’s best chorus, whose lyrics nicely encapsulate the journey of Vismund, it feels massive, and as it goes through its multiple phases, it makes good use of an orchestra, a brass section, electronic elements, and – of course – a whole lot of fast hard rock madness to barely let listeners breathe.

Differing from these tracks, the pair of “The Widow” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” show other, more accessible, facets of The Mars Volta. Rightfully chosen as the first single, the former is – surprisingly – sheer pop rock goodness: clocking in at three minutes, when its dull electronic outro is discounted, it is a ballad with acoustic picking in its verses, a beautiful melodic explosion in its chorus, and a blistering guitar solo. In turn, the latter, is slow mass of echoing guitars, noises, and horns that seems to be floating in outer space, threatening to come back to the ground in its dramatic brass-infused chorus, and building to a climatic final part.

Even with its reduced, but not totally eliminated, lyrical problems, “Frances the Mute” winds up not being as enjoyable as “De-Loused in the Comatorium”. From a musical perspective, it is not as significant of a revelation as that record, regardless of its stronger Latin roots and its duo of calmer tracks. Furthermore, though great, its heavier, fast-paced, and more expansive tunes – which are, in the end, the heart and soul of the band – for the most part do not exhibit the major hooks boasted by nearly all the songs from its predecessor. Still, the album remains as further proof that, in the peak of their powers, The Mars Volta were an excellent progressive rock act; one that, to a degree, showed the trappings of the genre, but that – at the same time – was good enough to give a generation without many contemporary examples of the style their own musically adventurous idols to admire.

On Avery Island

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Album: On Avery Island

Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel

Released: March 26th, 1996

Highlights: Song Against Sex, Where You’ll Find Me Now, Naomi, April 8th

There is nothing incredibly romantic about the Avery Island that lends its name to the first album by Neutral Milk Hotel. In the real world, it is nothing but a salt dome covered by swampy land and surrounded by the bayous of Louisiana. However, the combination of the record’s cover, depicting a distorted yet colorful carnival, and the music contained within it, constructed by Jeff Mangum and given flight by the arrangements and production of Robert Schneider, materializes the image of a whimsical but odd location. In it, as if unable to grow up when confronted with the sheer brutality of the world, the playful innocence of childhood has – instead – been corrupted and driven wild, retreating to a somewhat safe realm that it has created for its own sake.

It goes without saying that many are the elements of “On Avery Island” that contribute towards forming that image; a work of art that is this consistently themed cannot, after all, be built on a single trick. But most of the credit for that achievement has got to be attributed to the talent of Jeff Magnum. The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and – by the time the album was recorded – only official member of Neutral Milk Hotel approaches serious topics, such as suicide and the heartbreaks generated via what he perceives as meaningless sex, by using words and sentences that exhibit a degree of naivete, as if he were unable to comprehend those subjects thoroughly or express himself without being clumsy. And to boost that frail nature, he proceeds to sing his lyrics with a visible vulnerability that is somehow coated in the layers of self-defense which are only exhibited by those who have dealt with these troubled matters way too often.

In spite of the awkward surface, though, there is not – almost miraculously – anything uncomfortable about the way Jeff Magnum approaches those points; he comes off, instead, as likable and sensitive. Consequently, the blows land fiercely. When writing about the death of his grandmother and the regret he felt for not being there beside her when it happened, for instance, he uses the simple imagery of one who has just recently learned the concept of spirituality, singing “As her spirit is climbing / Through the hospital wall and away / And I wanted to hold you / As you made your escape”. Delivered with so much sweetness and with a voice whose lack of formal qualities adds a high degree of sincerity to the feeling described, one cannot help but be moved by it.

Given the fragile quality that underlines the album, it would be easy to picture Magnum quietly going through the tunes of “On Avery Island” while sitting on a bench and shyly strumming an acoustic guitar. The work, however, carries a noisy lo-fi aesthetic that gives a totally unique edge to the material. It is not, of course, that the recording style was a stranger to the indie rock genre. Earlier in the same decade when Neutral Milk Hotel put out their only two efforts, the boys from Pavement had already built a successful career on such sounds, and “On Avery Island” does have a bit of a lazy lethargic aura that could draw comparisons to Stephen Malkmus’ group. The originality of the album actually stems from the unlikely pairing of the folk heart of the tunes with the noisier side of the lo-fi ethos.

With three exceptions, Magnum’s voice barely gets a rest from having to climb over thick walls of feedback to be heard. On some occasions, they come in temporary bursts, which is what happens in “You’ve Passed”, where the wave of noise rises and falls back as the electric guitar is punctually strummed. Mostly, though, the barrage is a relentless attack, giving these songs, which are very much pop and melodic at their core, a heavy distorted underbelly. It is a move that creates a constant mixture of irresistible hooks and nigh-hardcore buzz, one whose closest widely known comparison is perhaps the first trio of albums released by Weezer; with the difference being, naturally, that where Rivers Cuomo is a power pop fanatic who is unavoidably awkward, Jeff Magnum is merely a reserved guy who drinks from folk.

His brand of folk, though, is not just noisy. It is also filtered through a very well-constructed psychedelic lens. It is through it, in fact, that “On Avery Island” gains the carnival contours that appropriately fit in with its cover, complementing the innocent wonder of Jeff Magnum’s lyrics. Adorning the record’s sonic assault are keyboards and horns that bring an extra wacky component to the already frantic music; and while the electronic sounds of the former instrument make it seem like the theme park’s carousel is spinning uncontrollably in slow-motion, the brass gives off the impression that the place’s marching band has collectively spiraled out of its mind due to an unfortunate blend of drugs. In addition, this psychedelic value carried by “On Avery Island” is also responsible for firmly tying all of the tracks together, as thanks to the way the tunes smoothly transition between one another the record feels like an atomic whole, further establishing a powerful aesthetic coherence.

In this wild imaginary space built during “On Avery Island”, the introspective and the noisy stand side by side comfortably. The album’s three quietest cuts – the mostly acoustic trio of “A Baby for Pree”, “Three Peaches”, and “April 8th” – are sad delicate beauty, but even if they are more soothing than the rest of the songs on the record, they are not without their share of weird sounds as the last two have low drone-like hums that add a haunting aura to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the work’s more cacophonous side, although quite uniform, smartly draws from different sources: “Song Against Sex” is a torrent of words and images delivered in ways that challenge the concept of metric, vaguely recalling what Bob Dylan tends to do; “You’ve Passed” sounds plodding, threatening, and exotic, with its dissonant instrumentation recalling “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground; “Gardenhead” is so reckless and heavy it almost qualifies as hardcore; and the sweet melody of “Naomi”, when paired up with its slower pace, nods to the more emotional branches of punk.

At times, the conceptual psychedelic side of “On Avery Island” happens to get the best of it. Clocking in at a ridiculous thirteen minutes, closer “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” is motionless instrumental noise and reeks of unnecessary indulgence. “A Baby for Pree” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” are essentially the same song, with the latter being the much better and more developed version of the former. And “Someone Is Waiting” is more of a coda to “You’ve Passed” than a standalone track. One might say instances such as these, besides contributing to the album’s thematic cohesion, also go along with its ramshackle lo-fi vibe, and that argument is certainly not invalid. Nonetheless, they indicate that, as fully formed as it may sound, “On Avery Island” is not the full realization of a musical idea. Such peak would only truly come with its sequel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”; regardless of that shortcoming, though, Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut is one incredible musical trip down a rabbit hole of corrupted innocence.

Victorialand

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Album: Victorialand

Artist: Cocteau Twins

Released: April 14th, 1986

Highlights: Lazy Calm, Fluffy Tufts, Oomingmak, Little Spacey, The Thinner the Air

Ethereal. That is likely the adjective most frequently associated with the sound of the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish trio formed in 1979. Such link is, in fact, so strong that the band is often cited as one of the points of origin for all kinds of musical styles that lack an anchor that firmly ties them to the ground, be it dream pop or shoegazing. From the very start of the group’s career, their music, first introduced to the general public via their 1982 release, “Garlands”, took flight on how the guitar playing of Robin Guthrie – a misty cloud of screeching, ringing, and grinding – was accompanied by elements that were hardly solid. The percussive work that backed it up, either handled by a human or a drum machine, was sparse and punctual; meanwhile, the vocals, delivered by the gifted Elizabeth Fraser, were an indecipherable chant.

As unique as the Cocteau Twins might have been, though, their discography had – up to the days preceding the coming of “Victorialand” – held somewhat blatant ties to the scene that surrounded them. The dark and gothic aura produced by the music in “Garlands” and “Treasure” made it easy for one to draw comparisons between the trio and Siouxsie and the Banshees, especially when the sonic audacity that permeates the two bands’ work is taken into consideration. Meanwhile, the meatier moments of their second effort, “Head Over Heels”, such as “Sugar Hiccup” and “In Our Angelhood”, pointed to the more forward-driving and accessible instances of the post-punk scene.

Named after a region of Antarctica, “Victorialand” bucks the trend of easy comparisons and throws the Cocteau Twins towards the unknown. Guthrie, the instrumental heart of the band, chooses to strip the trio’s music bare, removing pieces from a constitution that was already quite basic in the first place. In the process of doing so, he bumps into a sound so light that it floats; so lacking in physically solid particles that it simply cannot be touched. As such, “Victorialand” is an absolute landmark in the band’s career. Within a trajectory that was all about making ethereal tunes, their fourth album is the point in which the Cocteau Twins show the world how heavenly and spiritual they can get. And they drive so intensely in that direction that they blast through the stylistic limitations of post-punk and land directly in ambient music.

There are no drums whatsoever throughout the entirety of “Victorialand”. Likewise, there is no bass. The album’s credits, actually, reveal that aside from Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and Robin Guthrie’s guitars, the only two other instruments present in “Victorialand” are a saxophone – audible in the lengthy introduction of the first track, “Lazy Calm” – and a tabla, the record’s sole percussive element, which makes a brief appearance towards the ending of the very same song. Looking at the album as merely a radical exercise in ethereal music, however, is misguided, because the Cocteau Twins presented here produce far more than a lighter and less anchored version of the band’s previous sound.

There is a visible change in mood brought by “Victorialand”. Borrowing a page from its Antarctic title, there is a palpable distance and coldness to the music. Fraser and Guthrie can be heard through waves whose origins are far away, and the inherent reverb they carry indicate the duo is somewhere which is vast and wide open. Furthermore, a wintry chill seems to envelop them, one that indicates that walking into the breeze in which they are can be deadly. Differently from the band’s previous material, though, which tended to care threatening undertones, in “Victorialand” the danger is subdued by beauty. It is a definition that may sound incongruent given the perils of low temperatures, but it makes sense when the alluring wonders of white snowy landscapes are considered: the danger is certainly there, but it is easy to forget about it when confronted with so much visual splendor.

Fraser’s signature soprano voice, in all its technical wonder, mostly utters words rather than the seemingly random sounds that made up most of “Treasure”. Yet, Elizabeth remains an enigma. She bets on cryptic poetry constructed by disassociated words, and names the tracks by quoting the book “The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth”, especially its passages that deal with both the Arctic and Antarctic. More importantly from a stylistic standpoint is the fact that her vocals, following the tradition of the Cocteau Twins, act like yet another musical component; instead of being highlighted at the forefront, they are as much a part of the songs’ instrumental body as Guthrie’s guitars. And together, they form a cold breath that takes the shape of beautiful music.

Abandoning the cacophony and the grind that dominated the guitars of their previous albums, Guthrie takes a much more delicate approach to playing, focusing – instead – on light arpeggios, picking, and clear tones, going so far as using acoustic sounds to form the core of two tunes: “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” and “Feet-Like Fins”. Fraser, at the same time, avoids melodies that verge on pop – which do show up punctually in songs like “Lazy Calm”, “Fluffy Tufts”, and “Oomingmak” – for material of more classical inspiration, a quality that is undoubtedly made stronger thanks to the soprano nature of her voice. “Little Spacey”, for example, is part waltz part airborne ballet; and numerous are the tracks whose vocal lines boast a dramatic and operatic value that would sit comfortably in a music hall, even if the singers – in that case – appear to be floating in the mist miles away from the audience.

“Victorialand” is an album of remarkable musical and thematic consistency, as its packaging, title, and music uniformly pull in the same direction. Moreover, its tunes hold a hypnotic draw that drags listeners into its icy claws, keeping them immersed through the brief thirty-two minutes for which it lasts. Some of its cuts are certainly better than others, as at least a couple of tracks go by without building towards something significant or truly hooking audiences to notable instrumental and melodic baits. But the overall experience it presents is excellent, not only because it is the most ethereal work of a band that is tightly associated with the word, but also thanks to how it boldly drives post-punk to the realm of ambient music. Sonically, the Cocteau Twins were always daring; they, however, never showed as much audacity as they did in “Victorialand”.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters

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Album: Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Artist: Fiona Apple

Released: April 17th, 2020

Highlights: I Want You to Love Me, Rack of His, Ladies, Cosmonauts

Standing at the end of Fiona Apple’s 2013 record, titled “The Idler Wheel” for brevity purposes, there was a remarkable tune named “Hot Knife”. In it, the album, already notable for how its stripped-down nature augmented the invariable visceral quality of Fiona’s writing, chose to take that rawness one step further. Rather than being anchored by the singer’s piano, the song was built on the combination of a nigh ritualistic drum and an army of overdubbed voices that repeated a straightforward catchy line over and over again as if part of a tribal chant. Percussive elements and somewhat odd structures were, until that point, not unfamiliar to “The Idler Wheel”, as those two pieces are an integral part of that work’s unique sound from beginning to end; “Hot Knife”, though, is significant because it marks the moment when they simply overtake the musical traits one would expect out of a Fiona Apple track.

Discussing “Hot Knife” is necessary because, quite appropriately, its position as the closer of “The Idler Wheel” turns it into a very blatant bridge between that release and “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, the first Fiona Apple record to be published in eight years, showing – therefore – a staggeringly continuous musical evolution by an artist who had not created an album in a long while. Superficially, to someone who is familiar with Fiona Apple’s material, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” could be explained as the extension of the musical concept found in “Hot Knife” through the duration of a full-length record, with only a couple of clear links remaining to connect it to the piano-driven – and more conventional – portions of “The Idler Wheel”. Sticking solely to that description, though, would be ignoring the depth, power, and artistic merit of one spectacular release.

As Fiona Apple fans know, the singer-songwriter has, despite her fame, lived a quiet simple life away from the spotlight in recent years, frequently alternating between taking her dog for a walk and staying home. And it is precisely from her house that Fiona drew much of the musical inspiration for “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, as most of its tunes were gestated by her and the members of her band as they walked around the place banging household objects and singing melodies over the percussion. Although the final product is by no means entirely home-made, as it carries the crispness of tasteful studio production, it absolutely retains that do-it-yourself spirit, not just because it deliberately keeps unexpected moments in, such as Fiona giggling randomly, cursing for messing up the lyrics, and her dogs barking loudly at the end of a tune, but also due to how the beats – visibly made with whatever was available at the moment, like a chair, a metal butterfly, or good-old stomping – are always the heart and soul of the tracks.

Fiona’s piano is not absent. Smartly, as if to slowly ease listeners into the wild ride, the record opens with two songs, “I Want You to Love Me” and “Shameika”, that are grounded on the instrument. However, by the time “Shameika” approaches its chorus and the piano starts to follow the percussion’s primitive bang, rather than be accompanied by it, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” starts revealing the mischief that it is up to. And when the third track comes around, Fiona’s signature musical weapon will be out of the picture, only making another two punctual appearances: in the chorus of “Under the Table”, quite briefly; and in the pre-chorus of “Cosmonauts”, one of the best sequences in the album and a moment that – both instrumentally and melodically – would not feel out of place in “When the Pawn” or “Extraordinary Machine”.

Stylistically, though, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is defined by the instances when the rhythmical elements take the front seat, and the tunes that fall into that category can be further – and roughly – classified into two types. For starters, there are those essentially constituted of only banging and singing. “Relay”, “Newspaper”, “Heavy Balloon”, “Drumset”, and “On I Go” qualify as such, and their bare-bones construction highlights the fact that many of the album’s melodies – as stated by Fiona herself – came to her while she was walking or marching, whether outdoors or indoors, as they have a primitive, rhythmic, and natural flow. Meanwhile, with beats adorned by an upright bass, keyboards, and light guitars, all sparsely presented, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, “Under the Table”, “Rack of His”, “Ladies”, and “Cosmonauts” carry an inescapable and sometimes smoky jazz vibe that evidences the album’s loose, relaxed, comfortable, and improvisational creation.

The rough, visceral, and basic edge that lifts “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” spectacularly sometimes works against it, especially when Fiona chooses to build sections of songs – and occasionally whole tunes themselves, like “On I Go” – on hooks or lyrics that are repeated way too often, which will certainly lead a few folks to wish some cuts had been more developed. However, at the same time, that instinct-based constitution ends up being a perfect fit for a record whose central message is so urgent, relevant, and necessary that it lightens up furious fires in the hearts of those that can nod to it with the recognition that they can relate to what the lyrics describe.

Across “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, Fiona occasionally jumps out of her central subject to write a genuine love song (“I Want You to Love Me”), discuss depression (“Heavy Balloon”), take a look at long-term relationships (“Cosmonauts”), explore loneliness (“Drumset”), and even reminisce about a childhood schoolmate (“Shameika”). Through most of the way, though, the album sees her channeling the abuses, violence (be it physical or psychological), and terrible relationships she has gone through to talk about the desire to speak out against all of it. Truthfully, from a general point of view, it is a collection of topics she has written about in the past with a high degree of frequency. However, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” – perhaps due to the passage of the years as well as the contemporary context surrounding all types of harassment towards women – presents a different perspective on the matter, reading and sounding like a call to arms for women around the world. The title song, for instance, urges those in damaging relationships to escape. While “Under the Table” focuses on the refusal to be silenced by men, and “Relay” is about having the courage to stop a vicious cycle that has the one who has been hurt spreading the pain towards others.

Furthermore, “Rack of His” turns an objectifying remark employed by men on its head, with an angered Fiona brilliantly singling out the rack of guitars of her lover both as a target of destruction and as a metaphor for the women he has used. “Newspaper” and “Ladies” approach, each in their own way, the partnership that should exist between women when confronting their abusers. “For Her” is a look at the discredit with which those who report rape are faced. And closer “On I Go” refers to the strength to keep on going despite it all. Given the number of women that will relate to “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, the album easily ranks as the most meaningful work ever produced by Fiona Apple, and it is also certainly the one most relevantly aligned with the context around it. With that urgency in mind, the frantic energy that punctually betrays the record balances that problem by actually augmenting the importance of the message. And carrying remarkable lines and inescapable melodies by the dozen, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” will certainly be heard, remembered, and give motivation to those in need of a voice.

The New Abnormal

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Album: The New Abnormal

Artist: The Strokes

Released: April 10th, 2020

Highlights: The Adults Are Talking, Selfless, Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus, Ode to the Mets

Nonchalance and The Strokes have always walked side by side. Born within the New York rock tradition and, appropriately, borrowing from two of the city’s greatest acts in pairing up The Velvet Underground’s indifferent coolness with Television’s entwining guitars, the band that – as proclaimed by critics – brought the genre to the 21st century has always emitted a considerable air of casualness in relation to the world that surrounds it. And nowhere has that disregard been more evident than in the productivity the group has exhibited since 2005. Following a constant creative streak that saw the release of three albums in half a decade, the five members of The Strokes have – ever since the irregular “First Impressions of Earth” – fallen into a pattern that has them reactivating the band from time to time and frequently tiptoeing around rumors of studio work.

Given the constant activity the individual pieces of The Strokes have had outside of the group, such attitude has certainly not stemmed from lack of interest in music or from the desire to avoid the limelight: it is clear Casablancas, Fraiture, Hammond Jr., Moretti, and Valensi enjoy being engaged in artistic projects. Therefore, when combined with the irregular quality of the pair of records they have published since that initial stretch, “Angles” and “Comedown Machine”, and with the fact the first of the two was put together with members of the band barely meeting physically, it is impossible not to get the feeling that the boys – in their indecipherable nonchalance – either see The Strokes as a gigantic burden or as a relatively unimportant part of their current lives. Consequently, and perhaps unfairly, every new release by The Strokes comes attached to suspicions regarding the energy that was put into the package.

“The New Abnormal”, their sixth full-length studio work and third in almost fifteen years, is therefore absolutely preceded by doubts, especially in the minds of music aficionados that are not part of The Strokes’ most devoted audience, as those will undoubtedly question if the band still cares at this point and if they should feel the same in return. As far as that matter goes, “The New Abnormal” holds no answers at all, and it is improbable a future album by The Strokes – if there are any – will ever bring closure to that riddle. This 2020 release, however, carries a far more noticeable achievement: it conjures the image of a group of musicians that, rather than getting together to fulfill some non-existent obligation, has joined forces because they wanted to. In other words, “The New Abnormal” is the first time since 2005 that The Strokes emerge out of an album feeling like a band.

Due to the nature of Julian Casablancas’ work outside of The Strokes, which boasted echoes of the more synthesized faction of new wave, “Angles” and “Comedown Machine” came off as extensions of the singer’s solo career, as if the rest of the band could not muster the energy to pull the material to a middle-ground that could retain some of the group’s signature. In “The New Abnormal”, that balance is reached, and The Strokes – as such – seem to complete the transition they started nine years ago. Casablancas gets his share of synth-laden ballads and falsettos, but he never veers too far into that terrain because the band is there to anchor most of the tunes to the tight rhythms and angular riffs they became known for.

It is impossible to know whether that nature is the result of a concession made to fans or of a compromise reached between The Strokes themselves, but the bottom line is that there is some awareness of the situation on the part of Julian. In “Bad Decisions”, the first single and the track that is most reminiscent of their indie beginnings on account of its pure rock instrumentation and snaking guitar leads, the singer seems to address an audience that is disappointed with the turns that the music of their idols has taken. It is a tune that could be read as some sort of peace treaty, but selected as the cover letter of the album, it works more like a bridge to the rest of “The New Abnormal”. The Strokes, in that unadulterated state, are nowhere else to be found in the record; they are, as “Bad Decisions” reveals, quite alive, though, even if – as the result of a good and natural musical evolution – they are somewhat different.

The great middle ground struck by The Strokes is nearly omnipresent in “The New Abnormal”. “The Adults Are Talking” opens with a brief electronic beat that, although constant in the whole song, soon gets drowned by the drums of Moretti and the hypnotic guitars of Valensi and Hammond Jr. “Selfless”, whose melody culminates with a beautiful Casablancas falsetto, is a ballad tastefully decorated by electric instruments. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is guided by synths, but the presence of Fraiture’s bass in the verse and the tune’s rocking chorus serve as reminders that the aura of The Strokes is still there. With a more ethereal body and slower pace, “At the Door” relies almost solely on synthesizers, clicking due to its excellent melody and because its electronic constitution brings an extra flavor to the album. “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” flirts with robotic dance music. And “Not the Same Anymore” reaches its climax with an angular riff that could have been on the slower moments of “Is This It” and “Room on Fire”.

With its general mid-tempo pace and a batch of tunes that take their time to evolve, the songs of “The New Abnormal” have lengths that are a bit unusual for The Strokes, with only two cuts falling slightly below the four-minute mark. Curiously, the best and worst moments on the record are its two most epic tracks: “Ode to the Mets” and “Eternal Summer”. On the positive end, closer “Ode to the Mets” is like a well-deserved victory lap; guided by a catchy and simple synthesizer line, which Julian follows note-by-note vocally, it progressively builds to a rousing outro. On the negative end, there is “Eternal Summer”; co-written with the Butler brothers, of the Psychedelic Furs, it loses itself in multi-phased synthpop and annoying vocal inflections by Julian, which at points seem to emulate the ranting moments of Roger Waters in “The Wall”, bringing memories of the worst pieces of “Comedown Machine” in the process.

Thankfully, with the exception of “Eternal Summer”, which is sadly the longest song on the package, “The New Abnormal” is devoid of missteps, easily earning the title of being The Strokes’ greatest album since 2003’s “Room on Fire”. Seventeen years after that release, the young boys who put that record together are now grown men. As a consequence, it would be wrong to hope the quintet would sound as youthful, meaningful, and full of energy as they did in those days; just like it would be unfair to want the 2020 version of The Strokes to emulate the sound they had in their first two fantastic works. “The New Abnormal”, as such, delivers the best one could expect out of the current incarnation of The Strokes: a solid album where the band succeeds in evolving without abandoning the unique traits that made them great in the first place. Whether they care about being The Strokes or not is irrelevant when the product delivered is so engaging.

Gigaton

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Album: Gigaton

Artist: Pearl Jam

Released: March 27th, 2020

Highlights: Who Ever Said, Superblood Wolfmoon, Dance of the Clairvoyants, Seven O’Clock

The infamy punk rock has as a genre with tragic personal stories is absolutely fair, as the rhythm has not only a variety of sad tales, but also a notable handful of unfortunate cases – such as Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders – that loom quite large. However, as far as being the musical style with the biggest quantity of misfortunes, it is the grunge movement that ought to get the strongest level of attention. Shockingly, over the years, the mightiest groups of the cultural phenomenon have either disintegrated into erratic careers filled with ups and downs or simply exploded due to the loss of their central figure, with many of them sadly facing both of those situations. Nirvana irremediably ended with the death of Kurt Cobain; the Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden broke up and reformed afterwards only to, when their returns seemed to be gaining traction, lose their frontmen to their ghosts. While Alice in Chains, though able to resurface quite competently after some years, originally disbanded following the tragedy of Layne Staley.

Amid the blows suffered by their contemporaries, Pearl Jam has always stood as a steady ship. Surely, like any group of people who have joined forces to do something great, the band’s lore is not without drama, but a successful career with no interruptions, no big personnel changes, and relatively steady releases has turned them into an entity of alternative rock. And, like the mavericks they seem to be, the group has plowed through it all and remained seemingly unaffected by all the traps of the music industry, to the point that even with no hits produced in quite a while, the quintet has toured extensively and intensely, drawing large crowds of faithful to stadiums around the world regardless of the current state of affairs.

It is with that spirit that Pearl Jam gets to their eleventh release, “Gigaton”. To the world that lives outside of the group’s bubble, they are completely untouchable, standing firmly unaffected by negative opinions and influences; to those in their realm of influence, contrarily, there is a communal feeling in watching the band come to town or publish new material. Thirty years into their career, that unique status has done Pearl Jam some good and – obviously – some bad, as while it has allowed Vedder, Ament, McCready, Gossard, and Cameron to keep on doing what they want, it has also tied them to a very clear safety zone.

At times, in the very recent past, that combination has yielded results that have been purely negative, with the generally shunned “Lightning Bolt”, released in 2013, serving as the largest example of the problem that exists in that extreme comfort. In “Giganton”, though, the balance seems to have shifted. In the grand spectrum of Pearl Jam albums, it is certainly a work that leans towards the safe, landing far from the unpredictable material of “Vitalogy” and “No Code” as well as from the light genre detour of “Backspacer”. But even if it is easy for one familiar with the band to know what they will get in “Gigaton”, that does not mean the record lacks virtues.

In fact, “Gigaton” has plenty of qualities. For starters, its first two tracks, “Who Ever Said” and “Superblood Wolfmoon”, are among the finest rockers the band has pieced together after the stellar trilogy that opened their discography; packing powerful riffs, furious speed, and easy choruses, they touch upon all the staples of Pearl Jam classics. “Never Destination”, though certainly not as good as that opening duo, is another very competent heavy-hitter. Although slower, rawer, and featuring guitars that seem to grind, “Quick Escape” is equally powerful thanks to a chorus that fantastically releases its relentless tension. Meanwhile, “Seven O’Clock” – lasting slightly over six minutes – is a slow-cooking ballad with tasteful guitars and punctual keyboards that, carried by the album’s best melody, would be iconic if it came during a time when Pearl Jam could reach the outside of its bubble, as the group did in their debut.

Lying in the same vicinity of quietness, length, and good taste, the two tracks that bring “Gigaton” to a close are also quite successful. With an acoustic core but plenty of appearances by electric guitars, “Retrograde” holds a grand coda which lends it an epic feeling that can be found in the most powerful cuts of “Ten”. “River Cross”, on the other hand, is a rarer gem: a tune that finds little parallel in the Pearl Jam canon, reaching for uniqueness in how it is built over a floating and misty mass of keyboards and drums. Such originality, as it turns out, can also be observed in “Dance of the Clairvoyants”, the leading single and best track of “Gigaton”. With writing credits going to all members of the band, an uncommon occurrence for Pearl Jam, the song was the product of a jam session, a nature which it displays quite clearly in its nervous, uncertain, percussive, and organic constitution, recalling – surprisingly – the admirable awkwardness of the Talking Heads, especially in Vedder’s jittery vocals.

If trimmed down to these tracks, “Gigaton” would have been a late-career marvel that is worthy of the size Pearl Jam has when hitting the road. Sadly, the record’s running time is inflated to fifty-seven minutes due to the inclusion of a few passable – though not bad – tunes that, to aggravate the issue, seem to be concentrated towards the second half of the album. Firstly, there is “Alright”, an atmospheric ballad that does not find a worthy thread of melody. Meanwhile, coming in sequence, “Take the Long Way”, “Buckle Up”, and “Comes and Goes” threaten to sink the flow of the whole package. The first, written by Matt Cameron, was probably originally intended for his work with Soundgarden given some of its traits and would have maybe gained actual purpose if performed by that band. The second is a circular acoustic tune that goes nowhere. And the third, despite its great melody, is dynamited by how it is stretched to six minutes by repeating the same pattern over and over again.

The blatant weaknesses of “Gigaton” make the album vulnerable to fair criticisms regarding its length, its pace, and its almost complete lack of surprises. However, just like it was not affected by the unfortunate tragedies and drama that abounded in the grunge movement, Pearl Jam will likely not be touched by those complaints. And, in the end, that is not too bad. At this point, the band is not exactly playing to convert anyone or to make a significant artistic statement; they are doing it for the sake of the millions of fans they have around the world and, of course, for their own satisfaction, as it is clear they have a blast being an alternative rock entity that has challenged odds and expectations to survive long enough to welcome the beginning of the fourth decade of their career with a pretty good effort.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope

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Album: Give ‘Em Enough Rope

Artist: The Clash

Released: November 10th, 1978

Highlights: Safe European Home, English Civil War, Tommy Gun, Stay Free

Although strong and significant, the punk rock movement did not last for too long, with most of its representatives either burning out spectacularly or abandoning the boat quickly. In hindsight, it was not a surprising turn of events. After all, while the fast, furious, and reckless ethos of the genre created an environment that fueled the self-destructive behavior of many of its artist, its stylistic limitations – and the public outcry coming from the faithful who saw any new sounds as betrayal – chained musicians to a very tight scope that must have felt like a large ball and chain to those who wanted to explore their musicality more thoroughly. From the very start, however, even if qualifying as a punk band, The Clash seemed neither bound for a wreckage nor willing to pay too much attention to the constraints of that prison.

Even though their third record, “London Calling”, is generally considered to be the moment when the group turned their backs on the punk phenomenon, there had been – prior to that point – plenty of signs that The Clash did not care about the style’s rules. Their 1977 debut, for instance, which was absolutely filled with the roughness of the English genre, carried “Police and Thieves”, a reggae cover that rather than transforming the Caribbean rhythm, respected its characteristics and relaxed tempo. Meanwhile, midway through 1978, the band would release a single – the fantastic “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that took the flirtation one step further by actually mixing punk and reggae not only in sound, but also in theme, as the tune recounts a day when Joe Strummer went to the titular club to catch popular Jamaican artists.

Compared to the eclecticism of “London Calling”, which would come one year later, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is rather tame when it comes to musical evolution. In fact, many are bound to label it as a punk record, which is not entirely out of the mark. Nevertheless, even if it does so far more lightly than “Police and Thieves” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, the album reconfirms the reality hinted at by both of those tracks, which is that Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon – whether because they understood punk was limiting or because they refused to stand still – were not the kind of guys to dwell in the same place for far too long.

In a way, the change presented by “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” can be easy to miss, for – as a whole – the record is even louder and more aggressive than its rebellious predecessor, “The Clash”. Vocally, Joe Strummer, likely the most genuinely angry and politically engaged man in punk rock, takes the reins in nine of the album’s ten songs, and although frequently drowned by the sound and fury of the instruments, he alternates moments when he sounds bitter with sequences when he comes off as utterly wrathful. As a consequence, Mick Jones, the guy with a pocket full of melodies that lean towards the pop and a softer voice, only gets one chance – which is unquestionably taken advantage of – to shine at the mic. More significantly, however, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is simply an album that was produced to slay, as where in “The Clash” the instrumentation came off as if it were being played in a tacky garage; in their sophomore work, the boys seem to be on a stage with mighty amplifiers.

Filled with fierce riffs that attack as directly as possible, whilst not forgetting that energetic punk spirit, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” could qualify as a hard rock work. Jones, displaying a better sense of the unique ringing guitar leads that he unleashed in “The Clash”, comes up with another strong set of lines that hold a sweeping quality. Headon’s drums sound gigantic and cutting. Simonon’s bass is thick, clear, and creative. The rhythm guitars deliver heavy pounding punches. And, in the middle of it all, Strummer shouts so his message can be heard, as he approaches both critical worldwide matters, such as misguided foreign policies and terrorism, to local themes, like the state of the punk rock scene. It is a mixture that turns tunes like the fast and explosive “Safe European Home”; the marching “English Civil War”; and Tommy Gun, with drum fills that emulate the sound of shooting, into some of the heaviest and most vicious tracks the band ever produced. And, though not up to the same quality standard, “Last Gang in Town”, in which the whole band cooks a massive groove, and “Guns on the Roof”, which borrows the riff from “Clash City Rockers”, are a thrill as well.

As consistently loud as it may be, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is not devoid of moments that, much like “Police and Thieves” on the debut, stick out rhythmically from the pack to blatantly reveal The Clash were not purely about punk. And further proving the band’s flexibility, they all land incredibly. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, featuring a playful loose piano, is a shuffle that provides a sarcastic look at a major drug bust that took place in Wales. Even if electric, “All the Young Punks” is nearly a ballad; boasting a yearning melody and sweet backing vocals by Jones, it is a homage to the band itself, analyzing their role as trailblazers and even defending their signing of a contract with a major label. At last, “Stay Free” is the record’s climax: written by Jones to a friend who had been arrested, it reads like an honest heartfelt letter and sounds like a pop rock anthem, with four verses that build to a cathartic chorus in which – hoping his buddy is free and part of the crowd – he urges the guy to have a drink on him.

Crushed, in the band’s discography, between one classic debut and a third effort that is repeatedly ranked among the ten best records of all time, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is often seen as a second-rate The Clash album, and two of its tunes – “Drug-Stabbing Time” and “Cheapskates” – give support to these arguments, as they do lack inspiration and feel like lesser tracks that got left out of “The Clash” for not being as good as the rest of the compositions. The status the band’s second effort carries, though, is more revealing of the group’s value than of its quality, because many are the artists that would kill for a work like “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”: one that does not rest on the laurels of its greatly praised predecessor and fearlessly challenges expectations, preparing the crowd for the wild musical trip that was imminent.