We

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Album: We

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: May 6th, 2022

Highlights: Age of Anxiety I, The Lightning I, The Lightning II, We

A certain level of concern in regards to the dangers of modernity has been present in the work of Arcade Fire from day one. In their classic debut, “Funeral”, one of the key tracks – “Rebellion (Lies)” – talked about the hardships of living in a world drowning in mass-produced manipulation. In the follow-up, “Neon Bible”, television was given a dark hypnotic nature in “Black Mirror” and was employed by cynical televangelist in their power-seeking obsession. In “The Suburbs”, contemporary urbanization – with its malls and gated communities – destroyed organic neighborhoods and eroded the joys of youth by creating a generation of children who had their freedom severely limited. In “Reflektor”, among the many themes approached by the band, there was the irony of how, in a society that is more linked than ever, the finding of true connections and the showing of genuine empathy has become so rare. At last, in “Everything Now”, there was a deep dive into the matter of social media, with the songs mostly looking at the effects these networks have in the human brain, including depression, anxiety, insecurity, and attention deficit.

Given “We”, the band’s sixth record, kicks off the proceedings with a two-part track called “Age of Anxiety”, it is very easy to feel Arcade Fire has run out of new topics to sing about and that the group is merely repeating itself at this point. After all, as the song’s title implies, its verses go on to touch on matters that had already been vastly explored by lyricist Win Butler, especially in “Reflektor” and “Everything Now”, as the band’s creative leader talks about rather contemporary mental troubles: brainlessly consuming content just for the sake of it, feeling inferior due to the perfect personal image most people expose on social media, being suffocated by an onslaught of worrying news, and trying to find solace in pills that only make it all worse.

Instead of dwelling on those issues here, though, Arcade Fire uses them as the starting point for a distinct narrative; one that unfolds through ten tracks and, as it is the norm for the band, turns “We” into a conceptually cohesive whole. After emotionally succumbing to the woes of his era, the main character watches as the world itself crumbles, with the album gaining contours of apocalyptic science-fiction when the only way out of the sinking ship that is plant Earth involves an interstellar trip in the search for a new beginning. The ultimate realization of “We”, however, is a bittersweet one, as Win seems to point out that wherever it is that humans might go, our nature and problems will follow, and as he envisions a future where these situations will play out over and over again (perhaps in continuously different shapes), he concludes the best he can do is prepare future generations, his child in particular, to better deal with the inevitable turbulence and be there for them while he can.

Thematic value, though, is far from being the main concern when it comes to “We”, because in that regard – despite a few recent lyrical missteps – Arcade Fire has repeatedly proven they can deliver the goods. The big question mark hovering over the album in the eyes of those who have followed the band is actually centered on the music; to be more blunt, the focus is on whether the group can still produce a work that matches what they did on their first three albums or if the mixed reaction to “Reflektor” and the flood of negativity surrounding “Everything Now” mean that one of the greatest and most influential indie bands is irrevocably creatively finished. The verdict ends up falling somewhere in-between those poles: “We” might not be enough of a resounding success to sweep doubts away for good, but it is certainly a better album than its two predecessors.

If there is one particular aspect in which “We” loses to “Reflektor” and “Everything Now”, that would be musical reinvention. In those two albums, Arcade Fire expanded their craft to incorporate elements of synthpop, electronica, as well as Haitian music (in the case of “Reflektor”) and disco (in the case of “Everything Now”). Perhaps as a conscious reaction to the backlash, in “We” the band abandons that sort of experimentation to fall back on the safety of their early sound. As such, even though it is possible to glimpse remnants of their past stylistic detours, with electronic instrumentation punctually emerging in a few songs, “We” is by all means a return to Arcade Fire’s iconic brand of indie: folk at heart but grand in how it incorporates emotional outbursts and baroque pop orchestration into the formula. Because of that nature, it can be easy to label the album as a retread; and, to an extent, it certainly is. But at the same time, “We” is far from just being a redux version of “Funeral”, “Neon Bible”, and “The Suburbs”.

It is true that the two parts of “The Lightning”, which are the greatest moments of the record, could be put into any of those three albums without coming off as jarring, as the song builds to a bombastic two-minute rushing and pumping coda that is a burst of adrenaline matching that of “Keep the Car Running” from “Neon Bible”. The same logic applies to “Unconditional I”, whose earthly folk base and grandeur carries echoes of heartland rock. But, everywhere else, “We” appears as a far more intimate and electronic album than the band’s classic trio. The pair of tunes that make up the “Age of Anxiety” suite do reach explosive climaxes, but before that they are piano-and-voice ballads underlined by electronic beats. “End of the Empire” eventually uses keyboards and orchestration to swell into grandeur, but most of its four parts – which amount to nearly nine minutes – are spent floating in space via a soothing bed created by those same instruments. Sung by Régine and featuring backing vocals by Peter Gabriel, “Unconditional II” is a synthpop gem cut from the same cloth as “Sprawl II”, from The Suburbs, with bright keyboards adding sugar to what is essentially a very contemplative and wishful tune. Finally, the title track is a quiet closer sitting on nothing but an acoustic guitar and Win’s voice.

Like it happens with the theme, the music makes up for a pretty stylistically consistent listening experience; moreover, clocking in at forty minutes, “We” is a lean record that avoids the pitfalls of length that doomed “Reflektor” and caused “The Suburbs” to be perceived by some as excessively long. The problem with this brief nature, however, is that paired with the long multi-phased nature of the songs, it gives birth to an album with just a few tracks – eight, to be more precise. And when that is the case, any musical misstep ends up representing a considerable chunk of the work. Sadly, in “We” this issue is particularly evident due to how its two longest tunes are also the weakest ones by a solid margin. The almost seven minutes of “Age of Anxiety II” simply do not click: the call-and-response between Win and Régine, which was clearly intended as a hook, is closer to annoying than to engaging; additionally, its dancing electronic coda, which is basically half the song, is not a very interesting climax. Meanwhile, the four parts of “End of the Empire”, which essentially constitute one nine-minute track, are not dynamic enough to justify their length, lack a good melody, and are ultimately undone by Win’s poor lyrics, which evidently falter here despite being very good through most of the record.

As a musical middle ground between their three stellar early albums and their two usually maligned follow-ups, “We” may smell of compromise and retread, but a closer analysis ought to reveal a work that is relatively strong. Its sci-fi thematic aspirations are nicely realized in a concise fashion and are a very respectable nod to the Yevgeny Zamyatin book of the same name. Simultaneously, its music has a solid mixture of classic bursts from Arcade Fire’s past, which are the album’s best moments, with new good musical findings that are a direct result of the more balanced approach between indie and electronica. Consequently, even if it may not convert the non-believers or fail to rescue fans that moved on after its two predecessors, “We” is likely to be warmly embraced by many as proof that Arcade Fire still has something to say.

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Fear Of The Dawn

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Album: Fear of the Dawn

Artist: Jack White

Released: April 8th, 2022

Highlights: Taking Me Back, Hi-De-Ho, Esophobia, That Was Then This Is Now

Be it as the creative leader of The White Stripes or in the first two records of his solo career, Jack White displayed clear reverence for the traditional genres that gave birth to rock, with blues usually coming off as his greatest source of inspiration. It is true that, in a stylistic sense, what Jack did alongside Meg was rather different from the work he put out on his own: with her, he banged out garage tunes that echoed the utmost simplicity of blues; whilst alone, his tone was more subdued, polished, and sometimes intimate. Nevertheless, in both cases, his music, though sprinkled with quirky flights, remained anchored on tradition and it is safe to say most of his fanbase would be thoroughly satisfied if Jack opted to build a lengthy career out of those flavors. But then 2018 came around and his third solo effort, “Boarding House Reach”, was unleashed upon the world, proving that Jack White is a pretty restless individual.

Obviously, one could already have made that deduction by looking at his numerous side-projects or reading between the lines of the last two The White Stripes albums, but “Boarding House Reach” made that reality more blatant than ever because it burst through the boundaries of the genres Jack tended to explore. In essence, it was a rock record, but that label only truly stuck occasionally, because Jack seemed far more concerned with stretching himself towards avant-garde territory via electronic layers, strange production touches, and a songwriting approach that skewed his usual tendency towards pop hooks. In a way, it seemed that sensing rock music was no longer mainstream, Jack concluded that the time was ripe for it to be pushed to odd places; after all, since only the aficionados are still tuning in, one might as well take them for a wilder ride.

Because of the drastic artistic break that “Boarding House Reach” represented, “Fear of the Dawn” arrives alongside some degree of doubt, as one naturally wonders if that album was just a brief strange detour or if White is entirely committed to cementing himself as the king of rock and roll weirdness. As it turns out, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, because even though “Fear of the Dawn” shows no interest in reuniting the singer-songwriter with what used to be his style of composition, it does bring the music back to a firmer garage-rock format. In other words, the songs in “Fear of the Dawn” are still positively weird and initially unwelcoming, but most – if not all – of them could be executed in their entirety by a band armed with nothing but guitars, bass, drums, and a microphone; something that did not apply to “Boarding House Reach”.

This partial reconnection with musical past is made evident by how numerous of the tunes here could conceivably be done by The White Stripes themselves. While all of Jack’s previous solo works had at least one or two tracks with such a characteristic, in “Fear of the Dawn” this feature applies to nearly the entire album, as the majority of the tracks expose a very simple recipe: pounding riffs, guitars that are played at distortion levels that bring them within an inch of utter destruction, performances that are utterly savage in their rawness, and unexpected instrumental left turns where Jack goes atomic as he allows himself to be overcome by primal instincts only channeled by those who are very much into what they are doing.

One could point out that such list of ingredients is not too different from what The White Stripes brought to the table, which could make “Fear of the Dawn” a retread, and that argument is absolutely correct. However, a couple of components contribute to making the album radically distinct from what came before it, and the first is songwriting. With his former beloved band, Jack – whether intentionally or not – wrote for the masses, letting loose plenty of pop hooks that made the duo’s inherent wildness and oddity more universally palatable. In “Fear of the Dawn”, as it was the case in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack is writing for the converted (or perhaps for himself), which makes the record a work that is not concerned with delivering melodic sugar, focusing instead on the freewheeling energy that exists within the utter abandon of garage rock. Here, Jack is not trying to charm anyone into listening; contrarily, he is actually daring his audience to keep watching as he goes completely ballistic.

The second element, and possibly the most important one, that adds character to “Fear of the Dawn” is the sheer breadth of the sounds Jack is able to extract out of his guitar. In fact, it is this particular facet that is responsible for building a stylistic link between “Fear of the Dawn” and its predecessor. It feels like even if he loved all strange noises contained in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack was somewhat miffed he reached for them without using his signature instrument; consequently, this time around he enacts revenge upon the world by causing the guitar to emit a variety of textures that the average musician would extract out keyboards, synthesizers, or other electronic devices. Because of that, it would be no exaggeration to claim “Fear of the Dawn” finds a way to break into new territory for the guitar right in the middle of an era where there are rumors the once world-dominating instrument is done for good.

Given there is a prevalence of garage rock tunes that bring The White Stripes to mind, it goes without saying that the weird sounds of Jack’s guitar are mostly used in that context, creating – therefore – nastier and experimental takes on that music, which wisely employ that artistic freedom to boast rarely witnessed song structures and a good amount of instrumental freak-outs. However, in another detail that ties it to “Boarding House Reach”, “Fear of the Dawn” displays some eclecticism, opening the way for moments when the guitar is deployed to create hip-hop grooves, little flourishes that recall electronic beats, and other touches that sometimes are used in standalone songs but that occasionally also add unique flavor to cuts grounded on garage rock.

Because of its frantic experimental soul and the shunning of traditional hooks, “Fear of the Dawn” can get a bit lost on its carefree spirit, and during moments like those a few tracks can land on the ears like they are heavy, loud, and weird just for the sake of being so, exhibiting therefore a lack of purpose. Nevertheless, the thrill of listening to it will remain intact through most of the way to those who have love for noisy guitar-playing. And besides being the heaviest album Jack has ever put out, be it alone or as part of a band, it is also – up to its release – the most genuinely interesting record of his solo adventure, as it balances his newly found wish to take rock music to new grounds with what he does best as an instrumentalist: extracting a tuneful and refreshing racket out of electric guitars.

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Unlimited Love

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Album: Unlimited Love

Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Released: April 1st, 2022

Highlights: Black Summer, Not the One, It’s Only Natural, White Braids & Pillow Chair

For such a long-running band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have always displayed a very good level of stability in their lineup. Vocalist Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea have been in for the ride from the very start. Meanwhile, drummer Chad Smith may have missed the group’s first three records, but he has since then become as essential to the band as the other two veterans. It is in the position of guitarist that it all gets shakier, because – as of 2022 – the Californian quartet has gone through a whopping eight guitar players, with five of them holding on to the spot for long enough to be there during the recording of albums. Despite such a slew of options, when asking any Red Hot Chili Peppers fan to say who is the definitive owner of that position, the answer is bound to be the same; even if some may utter appreciation for Hillel Slovak, one of the band’s founders and a young talent who was lost to heroin in 1988, the name of John Frusciante will get most, if not all, mentions.

Such dominance is, of course, not accidental. It was with John as their guitar player that the band began to mature in “Mother’s Milk”; it was in his presence that they recorded their breakthrough and most critically acclaimed album, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”; and it was thanks to his fantastic creative input that the Red Hot Chili Peppers produced – in the run of “Californication”, “By the Way”, and “Stadium Arcadium” – a string of high-quality commercial successes that made them one of the biggest rock acts in the world. After leaving the group and staying away for a whole decade, during which the Red Hot Chili Peppers released two records and toured extensively with newcomer Josh Klinghoffer, “Unlimited Love” marks the return of Frusciante to the lineup; and given his history with the band, it goes without saying that their 2022 work arrived with high expectations attached to it.

Reportedly, during the sessions for “Unlimited Love”, a total of about fifty songs were recorded, in spite of how Frusciante himself had expressed self-doubt regarding his ability to compose straight rock tunes following ten years experimenting away from the genre. It is a number that could be credited to an outpouring of creativity stemming from the reunion of artistic soulmates, but the fact is that – at least with Frusciante – the quantity is not so absurd and could actually be considered par for the course to the band: the sessions for “Californication” as well as “By the Way” produced similar numbers, and those of “Stadium Arcadium” yielded an album with twenty-eight songs. Maintaining those traditions, “Unlimited Love” is a mammoth of seventeen tracks and seventy-three minutes.

Again, it is an extensive collection whose length could come off as exaggerated to most groups but that, for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is standard operating procedure. The difference is that, this time around, the final product blatantly suffers because of that. Sure, some may argue “Californication” and “By the Way” were also excessively long; and an even larger portion of fans and listeners likely remember the two hours of “Stadium Arcadium” as bloated. But during “Unlimited Love” that problem is more apparent and undeniable than ever, which leads one’s mind to wander in search of explanations for why that is the case. And, as it turns out, those are pretty easy to find.

For starters, “Unlimited Love” simply lacks the variety of colors and flavors present in “Californication” and “By the Way”. Mostly, it consists of mid-tempo funky grooves of a very relaxing nature, with Flea showcasing outstanding creativity in outside-the-box basslines while Chad anchors the rhythm with class and Frusciante settles on guitar scratches. With a few exceptions, like in the great lead single of “Black Summer”, there is little of the psychedelic flourishes, layered instrumentation, and seeping choruses of the band’s turn-of-the-century pair of “Californication” and “By the Way”, as they go for – instead – the stripped-down garage setting that dominated “Stadium Arcadium”. It had the potential of being a successful recipe, as “Unlimited Love” could have emerged like a leaner version of that generally good 2006 release. But the album fails to get there due to its second prominent issue: a notable lack of remarkable inspiration.

“Stadium Arcadium” was certainly long, but it had numerous particularly notable centerpieces that drove the album to the stratosphere and kept its audience engaged. “Unlimited Love”, contrarily, lacks these revelatory points. Be it in the funky cuts that dominate it or in the pieces of calm balladry that punctuate it, listeners will know what to expect and they will get it every single time. Anthony will either rap or intimately sing during the verses only to kick into catchy bursts when the choruses come around, showing he still has the voice and the melodic knack to deliver moments that have the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ signature all over them. This is not inherently bad, as there is value in nailing a formula repeatedly. The problem with “Unlimited Love” is that most of these instances feel manufactured or mundane, because the inspiration to generate awe with some regularity does not seem to be there and the overall basic production makes the issue even clearer since it rarely works towards elevating the songs from their original raw state.

Aligned with the dominating quiet tone of the album, the absence of this spark contributes to the final problem that plagues “Unlimited Love”: the lyrics Kiedis has come up with. Gibberish has always been his style, but when that nonsense is accompanied by inspired melodies, frequent and great psychedelic touches, or frantic rhythm, the wackiness becomes more digestible and perhaps even evocative. When they are backed up by subdued instrumentation, though, they take a central position that makes their weaknesses more apparent. Aggravating matters is the fact that the quality of the gibberish has simply diminished; in other words, there is an abundance of downright embarrassing phrases, which are sometimes bad enough to take the power away from tunes that would otherwise be great, like “These Are the Ways”, in which a fiercely rocking chorus loses might due to what is sung in it. And this lyrical problem is so apparent that even Anthony indirectly admitted to it, saying the words in “Unlimited Love” did not go through any sort of quality control because he had trouble creating lyrics to all tunes the band produced during the sessions.

“Unlimited Love” is not a disaster. “Black Summer” is an immediate classic. “The Great Apes”, “Bastards of Light”, “White Braids & Pillow Chair”, and a few others feature creative guitar work by Frusciante. “The Heavy Wing” is a successful rocker. Closer “Tangelo”, the sole acoustic track of the package, is simple yet moving. At last, despite being predictable, most of the album’s ballads (with “Not the One” and “It’s Only Natural” being the highlights of the bunch) are perfectly fine because Anthony’s gibberish does not rear its head so much when it comes to love songs. Yet, as the return of John Frusciante, the overall result is very disappointing and the album could have been improved in several ways: its lyrics could have been polished, its size could have been cut, or – among the nearly fifty tunes created during its sessions – the band could have selected a more varied tracklist. After all, given what they have created alongside John in the past, it is hard to believe their reunion yielded so much bland midtempo funk and so little of everything else.

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Icky Thump

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Album: Icky Thump

Artist: The White Stripes

Released: June 19th, 2007

Highlights: Icky Thump, You Don’t Know What Love Is, 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, Rag and Bone

Although creativity is often associated with absolute freedom of expression and the power to explore a boundless artistic expanse, there are times when establishing apparently suffocating constraints on the whole creative process can lead artists to impressive breakthroughs, as they are forced to work with a limited set of tools. For example, take the case of Jack and Meg, of The White Stripes. Setting out from Detroit in 1997, the pair wanted to play blues rock as a way to pay homage to the black musicians deeply admired by guitarist and vocalist Jack White. Although the style was far from being in vogue during that decade, the proposition by itself was not exactly original as by that point rock history had registered plenty of instances when white suburban kids from the United States or from across the Atlantic modernized blues so effectively that they made a fortune out of the venture. Jack and Meg, however, had a slightly different plan, as they opted to tackle that style with nothing but a guitar and drums.

To say that the approach worked would be an understatement: that limited setup made the duo birth a type of blues rock that was punk in its raw delivery, visceral in its no-frills presentation, and accessible thanks to Jack’s ability to write snappy pop melodies to go along with the raucous noise. Moreover, with the recording of four excellent albums in which the band progressively matured that sound whilst sticking to the same radical constraints, they were able to become critical darlings and a considerable commercial force. And it was not until their fifth record, “Get Behind Me Satan”, when Jack and Meg gave themselves the chance to move out of their guitar-and-drums configuration to go for a type of music that while still rooted in traditional American sounds and exhibiting garage ethos, allowed itself to get a bit weirder and stylistically varied.

“Icky Thump”, which closes The White Stripes’ discography and follows the unexpected sounds of “Get Behind Me Satan”, can – especially in the wake of its predecessor – be considered a return to the group’s roots after a short one-album detour. Where “Get Behind Me Satan” had a bunch of piano-centered tracks, not to mention the somewhat sinister marimba-led trip of “The Nurse” as well as the mandolin-based ditty of “Little Ghost”, “Icky Thump” mostly rids itself of stylistic oddities and posits that Jack and Meg still had something of value to extract out of a guitar and a drum-kit. Given the strictness of the setup and the fact that by that point they had already created nearly four hours of good music using it, one would not be considered crazy for betting against the band’s success in that endeavor. “Icky Thump”, though, beats the odds and shows The White Stripes could still break into new ground with their rudimentary approach.

Although labeling “Icky Thump” as a back-to-basics work is not incorrect, the version of The White Stripes seen here is not the same one that had appeared on the 2003 masterpiece “Elephant”. If that were the case, the “Get Behind Me Satan” journey would not have taught Jack and Meg anything worthy; worse yet, because of that, “Icky Thump” would have merely come off as a step back, something that is not very interesting from an artistic standpoint. Thankfully, none of those statements are true, and the reason “Icky Thump” is a meaningful trip to a not-so-distant past, rather than a dull retread, is exactly due to how, here, The White Stripes emerge once more like a garage blues rock duo, but – this time around – they are a band that is not afraid to add some layers and complexity to their primeval racket.

Examples that reveal such characteristic abound throughout “Icky Thump”, but three of its first four songs send that message with a particular clarity. The opening title track is based on a threatening pounding and culminates on an iconic riff that works as a wordless chorus; it is a formula that is not too distant from the one used on the classic “Seven Nation Army”, but the tune has various unpredictable instrumental breaks, including one where Jack improvises on a keyboard, that lend the song a quirky epic structure that suits the strange tale it tells. Clocking in at an unprecedented, for the group, five minutes and a half, “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” is equally filled with brief instrumental breaks, but most of its uniqueness comes from the fact it pulls a new trick in The White Stripes’ catalog, featuring bluesy acoustic verses that are interrupted by guitar freak-outs that make it seem the band is in the middle of the titular storm. Finally, the much briefer “Conquest”, which cleverly compares romantic pursuit to bullfighting, materializes its theme in music by bringing in a Spanish-flavored horn section.

If stripped to their essence, none of these compositions would have felt out of place in a record like “White Blood Cells”, as they display dirty straightforward playing laced with quirky jabs. As such, what fans get out of “Icky Thump” still has a blatant The White Stripes signature all over it. However, the elements that ornate these tracks and their wilder structures could have only been made by the group that went through “Get Behind Me Satan”, as here the duo often disrespects their unwritten guitar-and-drums rule and threatens to sound like an actual full band. And this attitude is nearly omnipresent in “Icky Thump”. It appears in the keyboards that soften “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to the point it becomes the track in the entirety of the band’s discography that comes the closest to being a bona fide – and excellently written – pop rock song. It can be seen in the mandolins and pipes that deliver a Scottish folk flavor to “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn”. And it is vivid in the pair of “I’m Slowly Turning into You” and “A Martyr for My Love for You”, respectively a bitter attack and a ballad, which have their drama accentuated via keyboards.

Of course, being a The White Stripes’ work, “Icky Thump” inevitably embraces the band’s traditions and boasts a light-hearted (and absolutely brilliant) acoustic closer, “Effect and Cause”, as well as a handful of tunes where Jack and Meg – in full attack mode – are left alone with their signature instruments; and out of that bunch, a couple of career highlights emerge in the utterly menacing “Little Cream Soda” and in the theatrical “Rag and Bone”, where the duo exchanges words in the role of junk dealers who try to convince listeners to give them their stuff while rocking proud and loudly. However, even in those more orthodox instances, the band still sounds fuller – albeit thankfully not overproduced to dullness – and the tunes come off as more full-fledged than usual.

“Icky Thump” may not be a peak for The White Stripes, as differently from the band’s trio of best records, the album has a few minor issues: “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn” and “I’m Slowly Turning into You”, which are instrumentally solid, can verge on annoying due to how Jack sings them on an uncomfortable high pitch; “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)” is an experiment that could have been cut; at last, the rocking “Bone Broke” and “Catch Hell Blues” are good but lack a defining trait. Yet, it is truly hard to find a band that waved goodbye to the world as stylishly as The White Stripes did in “Icky Thump”; and more impressive than that is how the record goes back to basics while proving the pair still had plenty to say within that limited style, showing that the guitar-and-drums constraint the pair imposed on themselves early on worked greatly to their benefit until the very end.

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The Boy Named If

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Album: The Boy Named If

Artist: Elvis Costello and The Imposters

Released: January 14th, 2022

Highlights: Farewell OK, The Difference, Paint the Red Rose Blue, Magnificent Hurt

It is a fact of life that most artists go through a very defined creative cycle as their careers go along. Early on, sometimes immediately and sometimes following a few works that display growing pains, they come off as musical revelations that can do no wrong, as the combination of a fresh artistic vision and the sharp pen of youth paves the way towards greatness. After that successful stretch, which to some lasts only one record and to others might be extended for quite a while, a degree of dullness begins to set it, be it because the songwriting chops start to fade or because said artist fails to successfully evolve past the musical style that initially brought them so many laurels. At that point, a fork on the road appears; one that, some may argue, separates the great from the good, the average, and even the bad. For while in some cases the degradation of creative output is irreversible, with the path ahead only presenting diminishing returns, others are able to take a higher ground that will lead to some late-career achievements.

Given he is neither Nick Cave nor Tom Waits, two of the few who have somehow escaped this narrative of ups-and-downs to stay exclusively on the road of creative success, Elvis Costello has followed this route. His initial run of glory came to a halt with the nadir of his career, 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World”, and ever since then Costello has failed to reach the highs of that first run. In Elvis’ case, though, the narrative comes with a caveat, because despite the fact his discography since the 1980s holds no equals to classics such as 1978’s “This Year’s Model” and 1980’s “Get Happy!!”, the once angry and nerdy British punk has at least managed to keep the journey interesting and dignified thanks to a pen that still has some bite as well as a wish to experiment and build collaborations inside a myriad of musical genres, such as classical, R&B, baroque pop, and even hip hop.

As strange as it may sound, Costello’s remarkable consistency in the decades following his peak years is somehow detrimental to the perception of how good “The Boy Named If”, his 32nd album, actually is. The reason is quite simple: when an artist has been consistently good, but never exceptionally bright, for so long, it is pretty easy to take their presence and their achievements for granted. As such, any claims that point to the latest release by Elvis Costello as a work of some quality do not leave much of an impact in the ears of those who are still keeping track of the man’s career; after all, he has been so steady for such a lengthy period of time that the fact he has put out a good work is not news: it is almost a given. On the heels of such regularity, the only shocking news that could come out of Costello’s camp is if he happened to fall on his face and put out a record as bad as “Goodbye Cruel World” or as dull as “North”.

To correctly put “The Boy Named If” in perspective, rather than singing praises to its quality, a better strategy – therefore – is going ahead and relying on the old cliche of claiming this is the best record the artist has put out since a stellar and preferably very old album of choice. In the case of “The Boy Named If”, it might be the best release by Costello since 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom”. Of course, every listener’s mileage varies, especially when it comes to a songwriter with such a large, varied, and consistent discography as Elvis; consequently, there are those who might prefer his soulful collaboration with legendary Allen Toussaint, “The River in Reverse”; the frantic and wordy country of “King of America”; the rocking rebirth of “When I Was Cruel”; or the catchy material of “All This Useless Beauty”. However, quite likely, longtime Costello fans will hold “The Boy Named If” in very high regard.

Opener and third single “Farewell, OK” might lead one to think “The Boy Named If” is successful because after roaming through quieter realms of pop music, Costello has opted to pull out his guitar to rock like he did in the late 1970s. Considering the tune’s vicious riff, furious pace, and nearly shouted vocals, that is an easy assumption to make; one that is further confirmed by other noisier cuts on the album, like “Mistook Me for a Friend” and “Magnificent Hurt”, a duo where a mighty beat constructed around bass and drums as well as keyboards who sound fiercely cutting bring back memories of the “This Year’s Model” era. However, as a whole, the Costello seen in “The Boy Named If” is not the angry punk of his early days, but the pop chameleon that would emerge from 1979’s “Armed Forces” onward.

Considering Costello’s stunning eclecticism, it would be a bit unfair to say “The Boy Named If” is an excellent display of his multiple facets; after all, thirteen tracks and fifty-one minutes is far from being enough to encompass every genre he has toyed with during his career. Yet, “The Boy Named If” almost qualifies as a friendly abbreviated summary. There are sophisticated, percussive, and playful exercises that tread the line between pop and rock (“Penelope Halfpenny” and “The Death of Magic Thinking”); there are impressive and immediately likable electric ballads (“The Difference” and “My Most Beautiful Mistake”) as well as a gorgeous piano-based meditation (“Paint the Red Rose Blue”); there are heavy and loud guitar attacks (“The Boy Named If” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?”); and even a couple of melodic detours into theatrical vaudevillian terrain (“The Man You Love to Hate” and “Trick Out the Truth”).

All in all, it is not a recipe that is new when it comes to Costello albums; in fact, his previous release, 2020’s “Hey Clockface”, already displayed a similar combination, even if it had a larger focus on mellower tunes. However, this time around the proceedings feel different due to how Elvis sounds absolutely revitalized. It is not because he rocks out more often, though that certainly helps; it is simply due to how “The Boy Named If” has neither dullness nor notable missteps. Sure, some songs are more interesting than others, and that evaluation will most likely hinge on what flavor of Elvis Costello every listener enjoys the most and the least. But overall, the record feels like peak Costello because he is clearly operating in maximum force both in melodies and lyrics. Truth be told, even through the lowest of his lows, Elvis retained the ability to come up with absolutely fantastic couplets, but in “The Boy Named If” he returns to the mojo of his peak. Melodically, meanwhile, where some of his recent works had some less-than-inspired moments, “The Boy Named If” is consistently good with remarkable and plentiful peaks.

Because of that, Costello’s 2022 release gives him the undeniable late-career peak that many of his songwriting peers had already achieved. To mention a few, “The Boy Named If” is to Elvis what the trilogy starting with “Time Out of Mind” was to Bob Dylan, what “The Rising” and “Magic” were to Bruce Springsteen, what “Old Ideas” was to Leonard Cohen, and what “Turbulent Indigo” was to Joni Mitchell: a late-career victory that more than being good is actually a return to the form of the days of glory. Since Elvis Costello never struggled creatively for as long as those other legends, it is easy to take “The Boy Named If” for granted as yet another solid work. But it only takes a few listens for one to realize this is quite a special pearl on a consistent sequence of gems.

five

Hallowed Ground

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Album: Hallowed Ground

Artist: Violent Femmes

Released: May 14th, 1984

Highlights: Country Death Song, Never Tell, Jesus Walking on the Water, Hallowed Ground

It is always particularly tricky to firmly single out the point when any musical genre came to existence; after all, like it happens in any art form, rather than occurring in a very defined moment, artistic revolutions unfold little by little, with a myriad of previous rhythms and influences slowly being aggregated and transformed into something that is entirely new. Yet, when the Violent Femmes burst into the scene in 1983, carried by a self-titled debut record that would go on to become a cult classic, they did so on a musical mixture that was pretty unique; to the point it would not be wrong to claim they invented it. Led by Gordon Gano, the trio from Milwaukee landed on a genre that was labeled as folk punk, and although that is a name that might bring images of an acoustic troubadour suddenly electrifying their compositions to tackle some balls-to-the-wall rock and roll (much like Bob Dylan did in 1965, only wilder and with some Iggy Pop thrown into the mix), the whole shtick pulled off by the Violent Femmes was quite different.

Gano and his crew did not use electricity, meaning that the folk portion of the genre attributed to them came from the prominent use of a good old acoustic guitar, the instrument around which absolutely all of their tunes were built. The punk half of the equation, then, was left to be mustered by the two other main variables found in the formula of a rock band: composition and performance. Therefore, it was with the use of that pair that the Violent Femmes birthed a thirty-six-minute showcase of how a good deal of reckless abandon, youthful hormones, angry energy, and sharp concise writing could make an acoustic setup be as punk as a The Clash concert or a trip to CBGB in the mid-70s.

If every true punk rocker needs some sort of fire to be burning inside them, then anyone listening to the Violent Femmes’ debut would quickly conclude that, in Gano’s case, the origin of that flame was none other than adolescent sexual desire. While numerous are the bands that have been started and instruments that have been picked up with the goal of hitting it off with a bunch of girls, the Violent Femmes – in that very first album – seemed to be a megaphone for Gano to vent about his frustrations with the opposite sex, be it his heartbreaks, his unstoppable lust for pretty much any female he came into contact with in high school, or his failed attempts to fulfill his desires. It is material that can be horrifyingly embarrassing, sure, but it is music so simple, so irresistibly catchy, so stupidly fun, and so honest that not singing along to it is almost impossible, even if it is with some tongue-in-cheek thrown into the mix.

Imagine the shock, then, when the horny and somewhat light-hearted group from 1983 decided to, in the next year, start singing about Jesus and follow up their successful first effort with a weird and dark work that owes far more to gospel, country, and Gothic music than to folk or punk. That is what “Hallowed Ground” represents, and although the turn is rather abrupt, Gano has downplayed such transformation, claiming that the songs present here were written and ready to go at about the same time as those of the debut and that, in the end, the band had to choose whether they would begin their discography with the catchy acoustic tracks or the disturbing religion-soaked tunes. Given the difference between the two parts, it is a statement that might be hard to believe, but the truth is that the jovial Violent Femmes of the past can still be perceived in “Hallowed Ground”.

No, listeners will not catch Gano crying over a girl who ignores him here; they are far more likely to hear him refer to a bunch of biblical passages. Yet, these are songs certainly written by the same guy who penned “Violent Femmes”. The jittery melodies and quirky vocal hooks, out of which the Pixies would go on to build a career later on, are still present and they tower over the proceedings, turning these mostly gospel tunes into a strange sort of bubblegum rock. Moreover, especially when the album gets to songs that gravitate around acoustic instrumentation, the unique punk demeanor of its predecessor comes to the surface, because although here the unplugged guitar is usually accompanied by extra elements (like a marimba in “I Hear the Rain” and a whole country outfit in “Jesus Walking on the Water”), there is a recklessness to the performances that subconsciously ties “Hallowed Ground” to the debut.

In fact, stemming from that nature is another piece of the puzzle that allows the Violent Femmes to be far from unrecognizable in this second effort, and that would be how it is incredibly hard to tell if Gano is serious or not about his chosen subject. It is not just the inherent abandon of the band that leads to that question; the silly melodies, the exaggerated feelings exposed in the lyrics, and the wacky singing all contribute to that doubt. As such, if in the self-titled album all of those elements caused the Violent Femmes to come off with a veneer of parody and humor as they exposed their sexual woes, in “Hallowed Ground” it can be hard to tell if the religious undertones of the record are meant to be taken with a straight face, which creates an ambiguity that makes the weirdness all the more appealing. Truth be told, Gano himself has said he had a Christian upbringing and that the biblical nods as well as allusions to Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost are serious. Yet, even armed with that information, a listener can be doubtful because “Hallowed Ground” is simply – and charmingly – very ambivalent.

Nonetheless, as much as it may still hold ties to the band’s past, “Hallowed Ground” undeniably breaks into new ground in multiple ways. The country-flavored acoustic epic tale of “Country Death Song” could, instrumentally, be in the debut, but both its length and its dark five-minute story – which is grounded on the tragedies often tackled by traditional folk music – would make it out of place in that record. Meanwhile, the electric quartet of “Never Tell”, “I Know It’s True but I’m Sorry to Say”, “Hallowed Ground”, and “Black Girls” is even wilder. The first is a Gothic seven-minute multi-phased tune, with a cathartic guitar solo included, that encompasses within it an overwhelming amount of darkness. The second is a gentle gospel ballad that could be sung in a church without many lyrical alterations. The third goes back to sinister Gothic terrain, albeit with a leaner structure. And the fourth, which has some questionable lyrics, is a wild guitar-and-brass jam filled with improvisational goodness.

Due to what came before it, it is awfully hard to judge who exactly “Hallowed Ground” was meant to appeal to. The hormone-filled teenagers that sang along to the Violent Femmes’ first record and probably related to the feelings exposed within it were possibly shocked that their favorite horny songwriter had suddenly decided to write about religion. Simultaneously, the crowd who enjoys gospel music is likely to seek artists that do not make it so dark and that are able to write it in a way that makes their devotion blatant rather than questionable. Yet, strange niche audiences do exist, and for those whose ears are open to the odd overlap between punk performance, folk instrumentation, country tinge, Gothic darkness, and religious imagery, “Hallowed Ground” should be a weird delight, because young Gordon Gano sure knew how to write a great hook, and in the Violent Femmes’ second effort they are as abundant as they were in the band’s debut, even if – here – they are dressed in much stranger colors.

five

Is This It

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Album: Is This It

Artist: The Strokes

Released: July 30th, 2001

Highlights: The Modern Age, Barely Legal, Someday, Hard to Explain

Sometimes history is written in such an appropriate and convenient way that no screenwriter could have done it any better; in fact, occasionally the real-life unfolding of evnts is so perfect that any fictional script containing the same story beats would have have run the risk of being shot down for alleged lack of plausibility. Take the case The Strokes’ debut record, the beloved “Is This It”. The album, which was responsible for introducing the music of the New York quintet to the planet, came out at the dawn of the 21st century, when that roller-coaster ride was not even one-year-long. As such, it propelled the band to stardom right when the world, caught in a new-millennium hype, was desperately looking to label whatever fresh elements it could find as an example of the new – and hopefully bright – age humanity had just stepped into; and given The Strokes were, thanks to the strength of “Is This It”, the talk of pretty much any rock-leaning circle, the group was quickly heralded as the genre’s claim to ruling, or at least having some considerable space, in the era that was just starting: rock would make it to a new century rather than being relegated to the one in which it was born.

That might all sound a bit melodramatic to anyone who was either not there or simply not paying attention, and The Strokes themselves would end up suffering to a degree because of the status they reached right out of the gate, but the band did signal a kind of change with its arrival on the mainstream; one that rock was in desperate need of back then. With the giants of grunge either being a distant memory or a having a diminished status, the icons of Britpop either going for daring innovations or crawling to stagnation, and with a vast assortment of alternative acts merging rock with other genres to come up with combinations of greatly varying levels of quality, there seemed to be nobody out there with an urge to play rock music in its purest essence. To put it in practical terms, no one of elevated stature seemed to be willing to lock a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, and a vocalist inside a room to explore the possibilities found within that limited combo.

It was a crisis that, to some, showed the format had grown stale and that the only way for rock to move forward and survive was by merging with other rhythms. By putting out “Is This It”, The Strokes – whether they planned it or not – countered that notion and ultimately produced the irrefutable proof of its fallacy, as they showed there was still untapped magic in the sonic realm that can be reached by a group of friends that get together to have fun, turn on some amplifiers, and bang out some straightforward rock music; making it quite unsurprising that, following the record’s release, bands and labels alike would breathe enough oxygen into the format’s corpse to resurrect it for good under the moniker of garage rock revival.

To a point, that is a label that fits what The Strokes do in “Is This It” just fine: the band plays with energy, there are no obvious production embellishments, the record feels like it was constructed via live takes, and there is nothing but guitars, bass, drums, and vocals being used. On the other hand, the garage genre feels misused on The Strokes, even if slightly. The adjective, after all, brings to mind wildly ferocious acts such as The Monks, MC5, The Stooges, and the early days of The Kinks. In common, those bands have two vital characteristics: they were so loose and spontaneous that if most of their tracks had ad-libs nobody would be surprised; and the tunes they played were so simple a listener could be fooled into thinking they materialized in the magic of the moment. For The Strokes, however, those truths do not hold: singer Julian Casablancas does throw some shouts into the mix but they are more exception than norm; more importantly, there is no way one could be convinced the meticulous songcraft boasted by “Is This It” came to be on the spot.

Obviously, it is not that The Strokes play some undecipherable progressive music; with eleven tracks and thirty-six minutes of length, “Is This It” is as beautifully lean as it gets. It is just that the interplay seen between the guys is so perfectly weaved it can only have come out of consideration, calculation, and – of course – a lot of rehearsing. Therefore, even though The Strokes certainly belong to the garage genre (so much that they ignited the whole process of bringing it back to life), they are a different type of garage group: one that will knock the audience’s socks off not by sheer fire, but by flooring them with hypnotizing interlocked parts played with the utmost vigor while the singer seems to be on a friendly competition with the instrumentalists to see who will squeeze the largest amount of hooks into the three minutes they have to go through the song. In a way, this precision is perfectly tied with the concept Julian Casablancas had for the album, which – according to him – should sound like a band from the past that came to the future to make a record: “Is This It” captures that concept, displaying a group that is old-timey in its immaculate tight rhythm, but still young enough to be energetic and write about complicated relationships or nighttime adventures.

Although bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti are invaluable to the interplay due to the clockwork base they set, which they rarely leave to join in on the fun, the men responsible for the instrumental duel that defines “Is This It” are guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. Whether they are playing alternating riffs that bounce off of each other or simultaneously unleashing distinctive guitar lines, the work they do here is comparable to that of other New York legends, allowing the band’s influences to come to the surface. When they are chugging along to distinctive rhythmical runs, they summon thoughts of The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison. When they are dueling, though, and one (usually Valensi) takes a line that is of a more prominently lead nature, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television come to mind. However, as the album progresses and the pair relentlessly show teamwork as well as creativity, vocalist Julian Casablancas makes it clear the heart of the band is simply far poppier.

That is because neither The Velvet Underground nor Television ever aimed for the types of hooks seen here. Sure, Reed could pen amazing melodies, but he was too much of a poet to be chained by them; as for Verlaine and Lloyd, they were from a school of technical proficiency and, especially, improvisational detours that are alien to what The Strokes do. “Is This Is” gets those guitar duels built from millimetric handcraft and squeezes them into the tight space of a standard pop rock song, with no room for excess, pretension, or self-indulgence. And when the melodies and guitar lines slowly reveal themselves to be uniformly stellar, it is easy to understand why the work is loved by both rock fans as well as people who want their music to be as catchy as possible.

“Is This It” is an album that can be debated through many lenses. Thanks to its garage construction, it can be seen as ground zero, at least on the mainstream, for a movement that would go on to define rock music during the early 2000s. Due to how it rehabilitates the instrumental setup of a standard rock album, without additional sounds or external genres ever touching the songs, it can be regarded as a glorious announcement that showed the world – in the best possible way – that rock still had plenty to say as humanity moved into the 21st century. Because of the status into which it launched its makers, it can be looked at as a promise that was never truly fulfilled. Finally, and more importantly than any of those, it can be viewed as one of the best records (be them debuts or not) of all time, because rarely has so much expert songcraft and fantastic instrumentation been so nicely condensed into thirty-six minutes of perfect rock writing and performance.

five

Trans

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Album: Trans

Artist: Neil Young

Released: December 29th, 1982

Highlights: Computer Age, Transformer Man, Sample and Hold, Like an Inca

After building an unmatched streak of greatness throughout the 1970s, Neil Young went for quite a wild ride during the following decade. Like it happened to many of his generational peers, some of his work in the 1980s fell victim to the production trends of the time, which were not inherently bad, but were certainly far from being a good combination for the type of material he tended to write. However, although drowning in reverb, getting carried away with the use of cheesy synths, and making proud use of lousy-sounding gated drums could all be selected as recurring themes in the output of Young through the 80s, they are ultimately dwarfed by a concept that appeared far more often in his discography of that era: genre-hopping.

If in the 1970s Neil had built a career out of both a mixture of folk and country as well as sludgy hard rock, which he generally produced accompanied by Crazy Horse, in the 1980s he left those tight confines to do some well-intentioned – but usually unsuccessful – exploration, which is why a confused fanbase and very angry record company eventually got a rockabilly album (“Everybody’s Rockin’”), a work of pure country music (“Old Ways”), and a trip down the alley of blues rock with a big brass band riding shotgun (“This Note’s for You”). Absolutely none of those detours, however, were as unexpected as the one seen in “Trans”; because while rockabilly, country, and blues rock were all somehow related to the rock and folk Young produced in his classic era, what this 1982 release carries comes from virtually nowhere.

Trans is such a weird little piece that it is even hard to corner it so it can be properly labeled. A look at the personnel sheet reveals that, at its heart, the album involves the usual Neil Young sidekicks playing their signature instruments: the Crazy Horse gang is on board, and so is legendary Ben Keith with his slide-guitar magic. But although the core of “Trans” does have the expected mid-tempo sludge and plow of a rocking Neil, the record’s surface has the shiny electronic layer of a synthpop work, with a blaring Synclavier presiding over much of the music. As if that combination were not sufficiently weird to alienate most of his audience, Young opts to sing most of the songs through a Vocoder, a device that processes his voice so that he sounds like a hard-to-understand robot.

Conceptually, it is a classic recipe for disaster: a veteran singer-songwriter that built his fame on folk and hard rock during the 1960s and 1970s looks at the synthpop-making youngsters of the early 1980s and decides he wants to join in. And in practical terms, it is an undeniably strange adventure. As such, it should come as no surprise that “Trans” is disliked by many and is usually seen as an integral part of a lost decade for Neil. Yet, those who are willing to look past the initial shock and able to deal with production values that are obviously dated might just discover that “Trans” is not just the craziest result of Young’s genre-hopping; it also happens to be the best work born out of those experiments.

For starters, there is the matter of the vocoder. More than a stylistic choice, the heavy processing that Neil’s voice goes through has meaning, as his hard-to-understand robotic sentences are intended to capture the feeling he experienced when trying to communicate with his son, Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. The vocoder, though, does not simply get a pass because of the heartwarming story behind it; it should get praise because it suits the material of “Trans” very well, which ought not to be a surprise considering that by 1982 Kraftwerk had already proved quite a few times that mechanical voices are an excellent match for synthpop. In fact, this theme of elements that would otherwise be tacky clicking in place nicely because of the music is at the center of the album: the 1980s production that would go on to harm – to varying degrees – many of Neil’s works during the decade is great for “Trans” due to its synthpop nature; moreover, the touching balladry as well as the mid-tempo sludge Young tends to forge alongside Crazy Horse snuggle smoothly in the arms of the odd genre.

The first facet of that partnership and its fine marriage with synthpop show up in “Transformer Man” and “Hold on to Your Love”. The former, which was written directly about Neil’s son, has the singer’s voice absolutely drenched in the Vocoder and as the verses progress, their pitch gets higher and the melody blooms into utter beauty. The latter, meanwhile, ditches the Vocoder but is driven by a full-blown synthesized groove, and a quick listen to its catchy chorus and signature Crazy Horse harmonies makes one wonder why it never became a hit. The second facet of the partnership, the heavier side of the spectrum, is more frequently explored, generating a wide and interesting myriad of feelings frequently anchored on strong melodies. “We R In Control”, “Computer Cowboy”, and “Sample And Hold” are mechanical, threatening, and dark, sometimes appearing to anticipate a cold future dominated by robots. Grounded on a sleek picked futuristic guitar riff, “Computer Age” is a great encounter between rock and synthpop. Finally, “Mr. Soul”, which Young wrote in 1967 for his first band, Buffalo Springfield, is reclaimed and heavily redressed here, with its repetitive and iconic riff being a nice fit to the machinery of “Trans”.

Despite mostly being a synthpop album, “Trans” does not stick to that genre all the way through: two of the nine tracks stray very far away from synthesized rock. It is a move that was not exactly new for Young, as even some of his most revered releases have one or two tunes that stylistically stand out like very sore thumbs; and in a way, it could be argued that the pair of tracks that step out of the line here stop “Trans” from feeling unified and threaten to make it come off as a mess. Although the complaint is certainly not invalid, it loses a bit of weight when the quality of these alien cuts – which bookend the record – is considered. Opener “Little Thing Called Love” is an absurdly fun rockabilly track where Ben Keith’s slide guitar and Nils Lofgren’s electric piano throw one hell of a party, with the band drunkenly joining in to sing the chorus in beautifully harmonic fashion. Meanwhile, closer “Like an Inca” may, on its magical soaring chorus, also exhibit those classic Crazy Horse harmonies, but it is a vastly different piece of music: a nine-minute acoustic epic whose strums bring the Andes so vividly to mind that it is possible Neil ripped them off from the titular civilization.

Ultimately, it is easy to see why “Trans” is a record that generates many negative responses. Its production is dated; some of its tunes can be mechanical, cold, and downright odd; most of its vocals cannot be understood; it showcases a legendary artist extremely far from the musical rhythms that gave him such status; and it is not even stylistically consistent. However, somehow, these alleged flaws click into place to form an enjoyable whole. Its 1980s production is a perfect match for its synthpop heart; its mechanical beats embrace the robotic vocals to paint dark pictures of either a sinister future or a painful difficulty to communicate; its two visits to other genres are fantastic; and its experimental nature proves that be it in the safe confines of his folk-country and hard rock or in the embrace of other genres, Neil Young can write remarkable melodies.

five

The Mollusk

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Album: The Mollusk

Artist: Ween

Released: June 24th, 1997

Highlights: Mutilated Lips, The Blarney Stone, Buckingham Green, Ocean Man

Whenever an outrageously idiosyncratic band signs a deal with a major label, there is always – understandably – some concern among fans that the pressures that come with a contract of the kind will harm creativity freedom. Take the case of Ween, for example. Before signing up with Elektra Records in the early 90s, the duo formed by Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo had spent over five years working independently and cultivating quite a reputation with amateurishly recorded lo-fi tracks that jumped between countless genres and boasted lyrics drowning in juvenile jokes. Out of that phase, the pair was able to squeeze not only a vast collection of cassette tapes but also two full-length releases – “GodWeenSatan: The Oneness” and “The Pod” – that together carried more than two hours of material that was absurdly noisy, highly experimental, unbelievably eclectic, positively crude in humor, and occasionally quite catchy to boot. Yet, as unlikely as it may be, and probably because of that last characteristic, by 1992 Freeman and Melchiondo were dragged into the bowels of the music business.

Their first two albums as part of the ruling system, though, showcased Freeman and Melchiondo had opted to be a nuisance from within rather than a cog in the machine, since “Pure Guava” as well as “Chocolate and Cheese” were – like their predecessors – works so big they felt unedited, so varied they could come off as unfocused, so abrasive they were bound to please only established fans, and so thematically ridiculous an unaware listener would probably conclude the lyrics were written by high school students. As such, at least during that period, Ween fans could safely sleep in the knowledge that the wackiness of their favorite music maniacs had not been tamed by the powers that be; and it is precisely at that point that “The Mollusk” comes in.

Released in 1997, “The Mollusk” sees Ween putting together, for the first time ever, a work that falls into the definition of what the boring general public perceives as an album. Obviously, that does not mean its predecessors were not proper records; they were, when it is all said and done, sequences of songs published under a name and with beautiful cover art. But thanks to their length, variety, and noise, they were more likely to be seen by most human ears as wild experiments in madness to see what sticks to the wall than as calculated efforts that are intended to deliver some sort of message. “The Mollusk”, on the other hand, is notably well-behaved: it clocks in at only slightly over forty minutes, it is almost devoid of lo-fi aesthetic, and – more shocking than everything else – a good look at what is sung in it reveals it might even have a degree of thematic cohesion. In other words, “The Mollusk” is Ween sitting down and making a normal album.

It is possible to say that before “The Mollusk” Freeman and Melchiondo had already done something of the sort. After all, one year earlier, the pair had gone down to Nashville, gathered a bunch of experienced musicians, and released “12 Golden Country Greats”: a concise trip through all corners of the titular genre that does not leave the duo’s signature humor out of the equation. However, given that project’s focus on a singular style, the Ween stamp it carries is a bit faded, as if it were a little detour on the journey rather than an actual stop. “The Mollusk”, on the contrary, has the band’s fingertips all over it because despite its cleaner production and controlled size, it is a wild journey through a kaleidoscope of genres, which is what one expects out of Ween.

Truthfully, when compared to works like “The Pod” and “Pure Guava”, the genre exploration conducted by “The Mollusk” is not so significant. For starters, the record does not have enough room to be so wild since it only has fourteen songs whereas its older brothers either approach or break the twenty-track threshold. Secondly, as revealed by its title and cover, “The Mollusk” has a notable lean towards maritime music and sounds that nod to the ocean, which narrows its boundaries considerably. Yet, inside them, the record has quite a ball, going through an old-timey vaudevillian ditty (“I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight”), a drunken pirate song akin to Tom Waits’ carnival period (“The Blarney Stone”), a slice of medieval balladry (“Cold Blows the Wind”), an art pop exercise on imitating Peter Gabriel (“Buckingham Green”), and an irresistible gem that either single-handedly inaugurates the underwater folk genre or at least marks its peak (“Ocean Man”).

The king of the proceedings, though, is undoubtedly psychedelic pop. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Ween decided to go so strongly in that direction, but the fact is that the genre benefits the record in at least three visible ways. The first is that it opens the door to a myriad of sonic oddities that lend “The Mollusk” the necessary quirkiness that fans want from Ween; the best example of that result is in the hilarious effects thrown into the vocals of “Mutilated Lips”, which is a fantastic and trippy pop song. The second is that it equally unlocks production trickery that helps the album attain its aquatic soundscape, like the keyboards that imitate woodwinds in the title track, the unsteady wave-like rhythms of “Polka Dot Tail”, and the lush ambiance on the obscenely silky-smooth pop of “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)”. Finally, betting on a genre that is – at its best – cleverly melodic and technically skillful plays right into the hands of the band’s greatest abilities.

Although humor and eclecticism tend to be the terms most closely associated with Ween, they had always been a group that thrived on melody and on technical prowess, especially the one exhibited by Melchiondo with a guitar in his hands. Nevertheless, in most of the material that preceded “The Mollusk”, songs in which these two variables met were not so easily found because one had to sift through a good deal of wildness to locate cuts that went for one without leaving the other behind. In “The Mollusk”, however, the balance between technical goodness and melodic excellence is the norm, and guided by the light of catchy and musically rich psychedelic pop, Ween delivers an absolute barrage of great tracks that are memorable from a singalong standpoint as well as from an instrumental perspective; the solo in “Buckingham Green”, for example, should be mentioned in any list that attempts to rank epic guitar moments.

Of course, this being a Ween album, there are still a few moments when Freeman and Melchiondo go a bit too far into the joke and hit bum notes: opener “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” lacks creative spark, “I’ll Be Your Jonny on the Spot” nods to their noisy lo-fi origins without leaving much of a mark, and instrumental “Pink Eye (On My Leg)” is a bit dull. However, by any standards, “The Mollusk” is a major musical victory. It proved Ween could find a balance between their impetus for wild experimentation and the focus usually required to produce a solid album, and it manages to hit that target perfectly without relinquishing any type of audience they may have. Fans will still find humor, eclecticism, and eccentricity; while outsiders will encounter a tuneful work filled with catchy and fun tracks. As it is the pattern for Ween, “The Mollusk” is dubious enough to leave one guessing whether the duo is tackling these genres out of love or out of mockery; what is not questionable, however, is the caliber of its songwriting genius and the joy that can be found in this pleasantly watery collection of tunes.

five

Sadinista!

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Album: Sadinista!

Artist: The Clash

Released: December 12th, 1980

Highlights: The Magnificent Seven, Hitsville UK, Something About England, Somebody Got Murdered, Up in Heaven (Not Only Here), Police on My Back, The Call Up, Washington Bullets, Charlie Don’t Surf

The fact The Clash was a pretty eclectic group was relatively well-known prior to the release of “Sandinista!”, their fourth album. After all, this was the band that in the early fiery days of their career had not only thrown a reggae cover – Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” – into the mix of their debut work but also released an original single – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that merged the Jamaican rhythm with punk rock. Further cementing that notion, as the 1970s were coming to a close, the English quartet would put out the sprawling “London Calling”, which saw the acclaimed punks correctly assessing that the genre was a sinking a ship and masterfully exploring, through a whopping nineteen tracks, a multitude of musical styles without losing any of their visceral energy, political edge, and sharp songwriting skills that made every corner of that album’s rhythmic trip land on at least one inescapable hook.

Yet, even if by 1980 The Clash had already developed notable credentials as punk rockers who loved to step outside their initial niche, nothing could have prepared the world for what was coming next. Rather than letting the classic that was “London Calling” stand on its own as a massive carnival of styles, the band opted to take a shot at topping it not just in terms of quality but also in relation to size, and so its follow-up, published less than one year later, would end up amounting to a gargantuan beast of a scope rarely seen in popular music, featuring thirty-six tracks that went on for nearly two hours and a half. And showing that despite wild stylistic detours the group was still punk at heart, the band would convince a shocked label to put out the humongous behemoth at an accessible price by accepting to take a considerable cut in royalties.

Although, quite understandably, it is the size and variety of “Sandinista!” that often get the most attention, one of the most significant aspects of the record is usually overlooked: its sound. With a cover showing the band standing in what seems like a large abandoned warehouse, the album hits the ears in a way that somehow resembles that location, with a spacious soundscape that leaves plenty of room for echoes, reverberation, and large drums. It is true that, to a point, that approach makes “Sandinista!” the most dated of all The Clash records except for the disowned “Cut the Crap”. Yet, in spite of that description, the album almost completely avoids the tasteless production choices that would haunt the 1980s to emerge as a work that carries a very specific time stamp whilst not being damaged by it in the slightest.

Given its size, it is easy to fall into the trap of merely labeling “Sandinista!” as some sort of expanded “London Calling”; that is, an album where The Clash merely double the amount of genres they choose to tackle. Alone, that would already be quite an achievement, but “Sandinista!” feels more meaningful than that for a simple reason. In London Calling, when the band was going for rockabilly, ska, or any other style, rock was generally still there lying in the background; moreover, the record had at least a handful of bona fide punk tracks. In “Sandinista!”, meanwhile, the journey goes further away from The Clash’s origins, coming off as a more daring affair. Here, when the band opts to explore a genre, which happens in nearly every tune, they go into that direction with full commitment, abandoning the safety of rock completely. Additionally, only two songs in the whole package qualify as pure punk: the moody and introspective “Somebody Got Murdered”, which looks at the banality of violence in big cities, as well as the furious and anthemic “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)”, which primarily criticizes the conditions of the housing built for London’s lower classes.

Everywhere else, The Clash jump between styles nonstop. Built around an unforgettable bass riff, opener “The Magnificent Seven” is a wordy rap track depicting the mechanical routine of an English worker. “Hitsville UK”, a sweet musical homage to 1960s pop, is a duet between Mick Jones and his then girlfriend Ellen Foley that talks about the struggle of punk bands. “Junco Partner” covers a blues song by turning it into a groovy and loose reggae. “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, penned by drummer Topper Headon, flirts with disco while nodding to the Cold War. “The Leader” emulates the speedy folk-rock of Bob Dylan’s electric phase to touch on the numbness caused by mass media. “Something About England” opens with music hall theatrics before becoming epic historical punk. “Rebel Waltz” has a gentle picked guitar, a psychedelic aura, and a floaty melody that takes listeners to a camp where rebel soldiers dance around the fire at night. “Look Here”, written by jazz great Moose Allison, is transformed into a furious and decadent swing. “The Crooked Beat” goes back to reggae by building a song that stands mostly on the bass of Paul Simonon. “Somebody Got Murdered” finally brings punk to the table. Both “One More Time” and “One More Dub” follow by delivering an extra taste of Jamaica with the participation of Mikey Dread. And that is just the first third of the album.

Through the rest of its run, “Sandinista!” goes on to touch on funk with “Lightning Strikes (Not Once but Twice)”; on calypso with the irresistible percussive work of “Let’s Go Crazy”; on gospel with “The Sound of Sinners”, in which Joe Strummer proves he would be a very effective preacher; on new wave with the energetic and catchy “Police on My Back”; on post-punk with the marching of “The Call Up”; on late-night jazz with the smoky vision of nocturnal New York created by “Broadway”; on British folk with “Lose This Skin”, which has Tymon Dogg taking the lead with wild vocals and violin; and on whole lot of experimental instrumentation that gives birth to everything from marvelous tunes such as “The Equalizer” and “The Street Parade” to less notable creations like the nigh electronic “Silicone on Sapphire” and the meandering closer “Shepherds Delight”.

Unsurprisingly, as a work made up of thirty-six tracks, “Sandinista!” is a bit uneven. Its first half is nearly flawless, but eventually the album loses steam and its irregularity comes to the forefront quite strongly on its final two sides, where it seems like the band – to achieve the number of songs they set out to put together – opted to fill up that closing stretch with some highly experimental remixes and dub versions of previous songs, like “Mensforth Hill”, which is nothing but “Something About England” backwards with a few overdubs. Out of the last twelve tracks, six fall into that category, and making the drop in quality more blatant is how these tunes are accompanied in that last leg of “Sandinista!” by some of the least inspired compositions of the record. Yet, any album that is this adventurous, varied, and bountiful can overcome some duds, even when they are tightly packed together; and “Sadinista!” not only gets away with its missteps, but reaches the status of classic thanks to the simple fact it has more than twenty songs that qualify as excellent.

In any context, that would be a pretty good threshold, but in “Sandinista!” it is even better because those tunes have the specially talented touch of The Clash. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were a nearly infallible songwriting duo, and here they were still rolling at full speed, both operating with style throughout multiple genres and coming up with many powerful hooks that underline grand sociopolitical statements, like the anthem against interventions by foreign powers of “Washington Bullets” or the catchy comment on the Vietnam War brought by “Charlie Don’t Surf”. As such, although the size of “Sandinista!” makes it one of the most daunting and hard-to-digest albums in the history of popular music, the rewards for those who give it a shot are plentiful, because quality songwriting that is backed by engaging performances and vital messages has always been a rare commodity; and when unforeseen eclecticism is thrown into the equation, “Sadinista!” surpasses rarity to become a one-of-a-kind gem.

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