Living With War

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Album: Living with War

Artist: Neil Young

Released: May 2nd, 2006

Highlights: After the Garden, Living with War, Shock and Awe, Roger and Out

As history tells, “Living with War” started coming together as an album when Neil Young, while in a hotel somewhere in Ohio, caught a glimpse of a newspaper whose cover carried a headline related to the then on-going Iraq War. Above the picture of a wounded soldier inside a surgery room located on an airplane that was flying the man back to Germany, the text lauded the medical advances that were being achieved amidst the conflict, coldly overlooking the drama and sadness of a human being struggling to stay alive as a result of a futile campaign. Moved by that underlying trivialization of life, Young went back to his room and started writing songs intensely, with many of the tunes coming to him simultaneously given the urgency of the message he wanted to send and the mighty power of the emotional state he found himself in. For a while, Young – an artist that, since the sixties, had never been afraid to call out politicians – had intentionally held back from producing tracks related to the war, as he felt that it was up to a newer generation of composers to rise in protest against it. However, since time had passed without the appearance of any significant stance regarding the matter, Young quickly headed for California, gathered a group of musicians, and walked into the studio to pour his soul into the tapes, assembling – in a boldly immediate way – the ten cuts that form “Living with War”.

Just like taking shots against powerful men who wear suits, recording in a rushed approach was – at that point – far from being new to Young, as his early career is filled with songs and sometimes entire albums, such as “Tonight’s the Night”, that are famous not only for their quality, but also for being put together on the spur of the moment, maintaining – therefore – the rough edges of first takes and intoxicated sessions. Similarly to those efforts, “Living with War” certainly displays quite blatantly it was haphazardly constructed. Firstly, because it sounds like Neil Young by the numbers, meaning that the work puts little effort when it comes to breaking into fresh musical ground; its ten tunes are, without exception, carried by mid-tempo guitars that, despite having a very dirty tone, are played in simple, delicate, and clear strums. Secondly, because there is little to no variation in the compositions, as they are all centered around basic chord changes that repeat themselves over and over again, with some choruses occasionally showing up to throw some energy into the steady machine. And finally, because Young sings lyrics that are so direct, leaving any sort of subtlety or metaphors out of the table, that he sometimes dates the tunes badly, as it happens most notably in the fun and rowdy “Let’s Impeach the President”, where audio excerpts of George W. Bush’s interviews are used to portray how the then-president changed his mind constantly and often contradicted himself, and in “Looking for a Leader”, where both Obama and Colin Powell are directly cited as potential future presidents that will be able to get the United States running again.

In spite of generating those shortcomings, the approach Neil Young took in the writing and recording of “Living with War” also bears positive results, and it is arguable that the good outweighs the bad. The emotional trigger that led to the album is very much alive in the way the tracks are executed, as the songs materialize through fiery performances by both the band and Young, and the latter – in particular – does some astounding guitar work and singing. He delivers a couple of remarkable solos that are as dirty as they are moving; he disrupts the firm and fixed instrumentation of many tracks with some of his signature noisy outbursts; and he sings with the same sort of immediate urgency that hit him in that Ohio hotel, for as the words transit between being angry, hopeful, and sad, his voice follows spectacularly, making “Living with War” sound – above all else – genuine. No amount of force and honesty, however, could make for a satisfying listen if the tunes themselves had no value, and regardless of how they are not exactly surprising or inventive, it is impossible to deny that Young came up with loads of excellent melodies for the album, meaning that as the guitars stay locked in straightforward and constant chord changes, listeners are likely to be touched by how the words are being broadcast.

“Living with War” is, consequently, a record packed to the brim with hooks. And like Bob Dylan, from whom he clearly borrows the melody of “Chimes of Freedom” to give birth to “Flags of Freedom”, Neil uses those catchy turns repeatedly throughout the songs as a way to connect the many verses of his compositions. It is, other than an acknowledging of the quality of those hooks, a nod to folk protest music, as many of the work’s tracks feel like they were made to be sung by protesters that march together for the same cause. In fact, that quality is so evident that “Living with War” features a very prominent choir that joins Young either for entire songs, as it happens with the title track, or for the strongest melodic moments of most of the other tunes. It is a production choice that may, despite its thematic suitability, be seen by some as cheesy – and these will be happy to know that the album has a stripped down version, dubbed “Living with War: In the Beginning”, which removes that and other extra accompaniments. Still, the choir has the effect of bringing an additional doses of wide-reaching anger to many of the cuts found in “Living with War”, augmenting the emotional punch of a package that is already quite powerful and highlighting the qualities of a very consistent late-career effort. An album that, in spite of its punctual problems, simultaneously holds some best angry and beautiful moments of Young’s discography, and also the rushed and ragged vibe that has always made him such an interesting, independent, true, and wild artist.

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Nowhere

nowhere

Album: Nowhere

Artist: Ride

Released: October 15th, 1990

Highlights: In a Different Place, Dreams Burn Down, Paralysed, Vapour Trail

Rock history has plenty of albums whose art work captures quite perfectly the material contained within. In a single picture, guided by both artistic sensitivity and power of synthesis, they are able to convey the main musical nuances of the record as a unified and mighty piece. “Nowhere”, the debut of the shoegazing band Ride, certainly ranks among the finest examples of that phenomenon. The uncrested wave depicted in its cover is a fine fit for the sound displayed in the eight songs that form the effort: it is quiet music that moves slowly; yet, in the way that it swells over and surrounds those it touches, it reveals the true magnitude of its incredible size and volume, washing away everything that stands in its path and, through its strong undertow, pulling listeners into a world where their senses are challenged. That highly stimulating experience, which is only possible through great studio trickery in sound engineering and musical arrangement, may come off as being unusually advanced for a first album. However, “Nowhere” is actually the culmination of a creative cycle; one that, during the year of 1990, yielded three EPs in which the band slowly fine-tuned the process of giving birth to their vision by traveling all the way from what was merely a slightly noisy take on alternative rock to a fully developed perspective on the shoegazing fever.

As part of that genre, “Nowhere” features all the characteristics one familiar with the style is well aware of. The soundscape it paints is lethargic and dreamy, as if listeners and musicians alike are either under the influence of a substance that slows down time or in a watery environment that makes the musical waves propagate leisurely. In the midst of that angelic bliss, though, there is a fierce battle constantly taking place, for while the soft vocals and sweet melodies try to take the music to an accessible spectrum, the almost omnipresent noise and the indifference with which the lyrics are sung threaten to make the tunes inscrutable. The result is part pop and part psychedelia, but the mixture brought forth by Ride is somewhat different from the one contrived by their more popular genre peers of My Bloody Valentine. Because where in Kevin Shields’ band the struggle between the beautiful and the rough produces a sonic assault that feels like the shrill of a supernova, in the work of Ride that conflict is less fierce. There is noise, but rather than serving to drown the music, it works towards adorning the songs. Consequently, the vocals appear more prominently in the mix, and instead of being forced to rise and face the cacophony, the guitars are allowed to be played with a more traditional approach. As such, Ride puts a heavier emphasis on the pop side of the balance, serving as a clearer bridge between the shoegazing movement and the Britpop fever that would be its offspring.

That softer strategy has both good and bad ramifications. By leaving the vocals out in the open, the album highlights the strength of its melodic peaks; listeners are not forced to dig for the beauty amidst the cacophony, because bliss will find them. At the same time, though, that relatively naked scenario means instances where the record falters cannot be hidden: when melodies lack a moving spark, their weaknesses will be noted; and the same applies to the fact that Mark Gardener and Andy Bell, though able to carry a tune with some competence, are not exactly excellent vocalists, a reality that becomes rather obvious when the pair attempts to harmonize or reach for higher notes. Save for “Decay”, however, none of the tunes are completely sunk by those faults. Whether through interesting catchy hooks or via alluring instrumental shifts, the record’s other weakest melodic moments – “Seagull”, “Kaleidoscope”, and “Polar Bear” – find some success: the first because of its unique vicious pace, its outbursts of noise, and its frantic drumming; the second due to its very basic and fast-paced approach to the genre; and the third thanks to how layered guitars with different clashing effects divide the same musical space with a soft acoustic strum. That final element, in fact, points to the second positive trait found in Ride’s tamer brand of shoegazing: the opportunities a cleaner soundscape creates for a wider instrumental palette.

And the band certainly takes advantage of that, extracting the record’s finest moments out of that open window. “In a Different Place” is downright gorgeous, as a beautiful delicate picked guitar riff is accompanied by steady drums during the verses until the song is elevated into a chorus that is both ethereal and noisy. Also dabbling into dreamy balladry, “Dreams Burn Down” features a guitar that occupies a large space despite its light tone, as if it were being played by U2’s The Edge, while also ringing stunningly through the water in which the song is apparently embedded. “Paralysed”, with its excellent instrumental coda, is the album’s best combination of the unplugged and the electric. And “Vapour Trail”, the closing and finest track to be found in “Nowhere”, is carried by a constant and simple riff that is, despite its changeless nature, transformed as the tune goes along due to very tasteful changes in both melody and the mix of instruments that accompany it. As such, even if the lack of the usual shoegazing sonic assault ends up making the stumbles in “Nowhere” much clearer than they would have been had they been drowned in noise, the space opened up by that lighter approach allows Ride not just to give their own spin to the style, but also to find remarkable gems that are enough to turn their debut into a milestone; one that may not be flawless, but that is nevertheless enjoyable through most of its run.

After Laughter

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Album: After Laughter

Artist: Paramore

Released: May 12th, 2017

Highlights: Hard Times, Forgiveness, Pool, Caught in the Middle

Fast-paced tracks, a basic approach to instrumentation, highly melodic choruses that lean towards the anthemic, and the expression of feelings in a rather dramatic way. All of those characteristics are intimately tied to the pop punk genre, a brand of rock music that seemed to apply to more than half of the successful groups that emerged in the early 2000s. As time would go on to reveal, though, another trait was particularly prominent in that scene: the almost total inability that artists thriving in that style displayed when it came to breaking into new musical realms. In hindsight, that odd common ground was perhaps not too surprising; after all, many of the forefathers of the genre – like the Ramones and Green Day – had, despite their long careers, already gone through arcs of general artistic stagnation by the time the wave of young pop punk rockers conquered the mainstream. Consequently, one could have easily guessed that acts such as Blink 182, My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte, and Sum 41 would die in the genre into which they were born by either not even trying to go out the door or falling to pieces in the attempt. For a while there, it seemed Paramore was destined to go down the road traveled by their peers, because although their first three records showcased clear signs of growing maturity and quality, they – save for the occasional ballad – did nothing to escape the clutches of pop punk.

That narrative began to change with their 2013 self-titled work. Across a whopping seventeen tracks, the band – without the man who had, since their inception, been their main songwriter – overcame the odds to put together an excellent and varied album of alternative rock that sounded like Paramore, but successfully danced to the tune of various different influences, including funk, power pop, noise rock, and more. With such a wide palette of new sounds laid across the table, the group could have embraced any of them in order to build a uniform sequel, hence making “Paramore” go down in history as the necessary crazy and heterogeneous experiment that needed to be conducted before the band could move on. However, what the trio does in “After Laughter” is take another unexpected detour, this time towards the arms of pop rock. It does not completely throw away what was done and achieved during “Paramore”, for the bubblegum aura that surrounds “After Laughter” gains stunning originality due to how it is sprinkled with a love of new wave that was very much evident in that album. Still, the fifth record by Paramore is also their second straight blatant break with the past, because the twelve tunes it carries have little to no resemblance to what was done before. It still, mostly thanks to Hayley Williams’ unmistakable voice and personality, sounds like Paramore; yet, it is so far apart from their pop punk origins that it could have been released under another brand.

As an album, “After Laughter” sounds playful, sleek, and colorful. There is a joyful bounciness underlining a great portion of its tracks, whether they are energetic, like the opening trio of “Hard Times”, “Rose-Colored Boy”, and “Told You So”, or introspective, like the pair of “Forgiveness” and “Fake Happy” that follows right afterwards. It is easy to see Hayley Williams jumping around stage while she delivers the lyrics to much of the record. Rather than coming purely from its pop heart, though, that irresistible sway originates from how “After Laughter” mingles keyboards and synthesizers with an organic percussive approach of Caribbean blood. Marimbas, bells, and percussion that delivers polyrhythmic beats are as constant as the electronic components of the music, smartly adding a warm organic vibe to a sound that could have – otherwise – come off as overly processed. Due to that, “After Laughter” is as glossy as it is primal. It is the alluring encounter of the Talking Heads’ rhythmic experimentations of the “Remain in Light” era with the immediacy and catchiness that the pop scene tends to demand, showing that while Paramore is very much still looking to take a bite out of the commercial pie, they want to do so by delivering music that has artistic value and pushes forward. It is true that the album has moments when it retreats towards the mundane, like in the acoustic ballad “26” and in the piano-based closer “Tell Me How”, which are beautiful but – alongside the pointless electronic experiment “No Friend” – rank as the weakest points of the record. Mostly, though, the core recipe of “After Laughter” is not just boiling finely, but also delivering incredible pop treasures.

Through a brush with ska (“Caught in the Middle”), a meeting with synth-pop (“Rose-Colored Boy”), a trip through colorful and soft psychedelia (“Pool”), and numerous encounters with gigantic hooks delivered both via Hayley’s voice and catchy synthesizer work, “After Laughter” presents an interesting dichotomy between what is being played and what is being sung. If, instrumentally, the record hints at brightness and energy often accessed by those who are happy, its lyrics – as a clear link to the band’s pop punk origins – reveal emotional trouble and pessimism, with many of them ranking as some of the most cheerful-sounding takes on depressive states of mind to ever be recorded, a theme that is smartly summarized in “Fake Happy”, a track about how those who are struggling emotionally tend to put on a positive facade out of fear of being judged or sheer shame, masking their sadness with empty smiles. It is a keen take on society, but – more interestingly – a sharp reference to the record itself, which disguises a whole lot of anguish with the feel-good air emitted by its relaxed music, the dancy nature found in its beats of electronic and percussive origins, the excellent synthesized pop luster that powers its tunes, and the contagious melodies Hayley delivers with impossible consistency. More than being a reinvention and a rare example of a pop punk band being able to abandon the genre with success and show both vitality and flexibility, “After Laughter” is a genuinely good album of thematic and musical excellence.

Combat Rock

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Album: Combat Rock

Artist: The Clash

Released: May 14th, 1982

Highlights: Should I Stay or Should I Go, Rock the Casbah, Straight to Hell, Inoculated City

When The Clash gathered to lay down the bases of what would turn out to be their fifth full-length studio work, the band certainly had a problem in their hands. The punk rock movement that had guided the group through their first two releases was, by then, long gone. To make matters worse, the ground they had explored in their subsequent works, “London Calling” and “Sandinista!”, was so vast that almost nothing they could potentially produce would be revelatory, because where the former had been an eighteen-song stylistic shift that saw the quartet embrace genres related to rock as well as the black rhythms they encountered in the multicultural arms of London; the latter was a delightfully indulgent trip through world music that, via the natural ups and downs contained in the vastness of its thirty-six tracks, dynamited every single barrier between the band and the styles that existed outside of their geographical confines. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon could, therefore, not really produce anything that would come off as being bigger than what they had already done; likewise, they could not put together a more varied package than those of their previous two efforts. Their answer to the tight corner into which their past excellence had taken them was “Combat Rock”.

When compared to “London Calling” and “Sandinista!”, “Combat Rock” feels almost inconsequential: it only has twelve tunes and it runs its course before the fifty-minute mark is reached; in other words, it is a normal album rather than a notably ambitious product. However, there are bridges that can be built between it and its predecessors. For one, “Combat Rock” is not hermetically shut. Surely, even during their punk days, The Clash always showed awareness regarding what was musically going on outside the domain in which they operated; however, the influence of “London Calling” and “Sandinista!” can be felt in the sense that, here, no walls whatsoever stand between “Combat Rock” and the world. Unquestionably, the blood that runs through its veins is still politically engaged and socially conscious; its tunes, after all, approach matters such as the fight against authoritarianism, the existence of rampant inequalities, the proliferation of atomic weapons, the cruelty of the capitalist engine, the love society has for violent entertainment, the damages caused by wars, among many others. Still, that punk aura is diluted in the music itself, which mostly abandons aggression for the sake of stylistic flexibility. In hindsight, though, where “London Calling” and “Sandinista!” – due to their releases in 1979 and 1980, respectively – seem to boldly foreshadow the world music tsunami of the 80’s, “Combat Rock”, in the way it lets diverse rhythms freely seep into its heart, feels like it is merely riding the dominant wave of globalized sounds. The absence of a more prominent trailblazing nature, however, does not stop “Combat Rock” from feeling audacious.

African percussion, recalling the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”, emerges as an integral element of many tunes, often fighting for the spot of ranking as those songs’ leading instrument; unusual composition structures abound; spoken passages are not a rarity; and, melodically, Strummer and Jones appear to take some inspiration out of the Middle East. It is a cauldron of influences that gives “Combat Rock” an exotic vibe, as if it had been crafted by a group of Englishmen that exiled themselves from their home country for a while in order to get in touch with the world, losing some of their British aura in the process and gaining a beneficial cosmopolitan spirit along the way. As such, there is a degree of Englishness to some of the tracks: “Know Your Rights” is as ferocious and as punk as The Clash ever got; “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, with its classic riff and famous call-and-response format, is an unashamed and successful shot at chart-friendly rock; and “Atom Tan” is a shiny piece of guitar-oriented pop. What dominates “Combat Rock”, though, is the worldly. The dancy reggae catchiness of “Car Jamming” almost makes the capitalist horrors Strummer sings about come off as amusing. “Rock the Casbah” is part disco and part Middle Eastern rebellion. Both “Red Angel Dragnet” and “Ghetto Defendant” pair up rhythm-centered instrumentation with a blend of singing and talking, with Paul Simonon and Kosmo Vinyl narrating and acting out the violent event that the former talks about and writer Allen Ginsberg beautifully spilling his own poetry over the latter. Meanwhile, “Overpowered by Funk” dives into the genre that names the song; “Sean Flynn” is a very weird atmospheric piece of free jazz; and the start-and-stop cinematographic nature of “Death Is a Star” makes one feel like they were transported to a charmingly decadent theater.

“Combat Rock” does not work completely. “Know Your Rights” may be powerful in lyrics, but it lacks the sharp melodies and dynamic shifts Strummer and Jones used to create with so much ease, and that missing extra spark can be noticed in many other tunes that rather than reaching for greatness are merely satisfied with achieving some quality. Furthermore, “Red Angel Dragnet” gets lost amidst its narration, “Overpowered by Funk” is clunky thanks to its genuinely annoying sound effects and melodic hooks, and “Sean Flynn” is pointless indulgence. These issues make the album be inconsistent; its high points and interesting experiments, though, make it worth it, with its two major hits (“Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah”) and the pair of “Straight to Hell” and “Inoculated City” appearing as highlights. Out of that final duo, the second stands out due to how its mechanical marching army-like progression matches the content of its lyrics; meanwhile, the first is a unique anthem whose existence could not have happened without the focus “Combat Rock” puts in rhythm. Lyrically approaching English and American resistance towards immigration, especially the latter’s treatment of Vietnamese children fathered by soldiers during the war, it is a dark, atmospheric, and moving number that speaks volumes about The Clash’s firm position as a heavily political and musically inventive group. And although “Combat Rock” does not capture that machine at the peak of its powers, those two elements gain fantastic traction in the tracks where they meet true inspiration, which makes “Combat Rock” a good farewell from a lineup that would fall to pieces soon afterwards.

Around The Sun

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Album: Around the Sun

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: October 5th, 2004

Highlights: Leaving New York, The Outsiders, Final Straw, Around the Sun

The generally accepted narrative concerning the final phase of the long career of R.E.M. – a period that started with the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 – has it that, following that event, the band lost the ability to deliver records of considerable quality. As such, a remarkable run that began with 1983’s “Murmur” supposedly had 1996’s “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” as its final piece. If on one hand the storytelling sticks, for indeed none of the albums released during the period in which the group worked as a trio rank among their finest; on the other hand, it does not, for it is perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss albums that do hold some value. Case in point, the first two works that came out in those final years, 1998’s “Up” and 2001’s “Reveal”, feature a noticeable amount of tracks that range between consistent and excellent, and both – true to the band’s ever-changing nature – explore rather distinct styles: the former being a moody electronic rock work that is clearly a product of a world still feeling the effects of Radiohead’s “OK Computer”, and the latter coming off as a bright colorful album that dabbles into summertime joy and melancholy alike. Surely, as it happened with much of their post-1997 output, these records are good with a caveat; in their case, the fact their material could have used some editing, a task at which Bill Berry was reportedly very good. Nevertheless, their above-average quality is enough to debunk the established narrative regarding the group’s twilight era.

Out of the five records R.E.M. released without their drummer, though, there is one that clearly strays away from the pack and works towards confirming the perception the band quickly disintegrated when Bill Berry walked out. That album is, of course, 2004’s “Around the Sun”, rightfully and widely seen as the group’s nadir. Its link with its two predecessors is clear: from “Up”, it borrows a generally gloomy demeanor that is felt through songs in slow tempos and instrumentation centered around electronic beats, pianos, and acoustic guitars; meanwhile, from “Reveal”, it takes the production excesses and the integration of synthesized layers into the band’s sound. Differently from them, however, “Around the Sun” is not powered by those traits; it is actually severely held back by them. Its sad and pessimistic spirit, perhaps a product of the George W. Bush years and the Iraq War, subjects that Michael Stipe touches upon both heavily and lightly during the course of the record, turns it into a uniform mass of mellow alternative rock numbers. It is, certainly, a definition that could easily apply to “Up” itself, but where that record gained rough and interestingly sentimental edges thanks to its electronic work, which was experimental and tasteful in equal parts, the tunes in “Around the Sun” are brought to the ground by production that is so intensely calculated it drowns whatever life its songs had in the first place.

Once again, having too much production is a comment that could fairly be thrown at “Reveal” as well. However, the studio trickery in that work was so absurd that one could pretty much be sure the album was being very tongue-in-cheek about it; furthermore, its exaggeration was a perfect channel for the summer vibe it was trying to broadcast. “Around the Sun”, contrarily, seems to be pretty serious about its gloss; and, unfortunately, in its case, that gloss is cold ice silently leaking into its veins, causing it to sound like a winter record that went so deep into its sad mood that it now stands lifeless on the ground. That seriousness, in fact, emerges as the greatest problem of “Around the Sun”. Through their career, R.E.M. wrote and performed a good share of stern tracks, to the point that the album that is usually seen as their best, “Automatic for the People”, dove into suicide, death, depression, and aging. Yet, through it all, they always seemed to know having fun was necessary, an element that was continuously present in their output. “Around the Sun”, though, has no fun at all; it does take a shot at it with the circus-like “Wanderlust”, but it is hard to count it as a breezy detour when it is one of the weakest cuts here. Nobody seems to be enjoying “Around the Sun” all that much: Peter Buck is playing basic strums and riffs that sound mechanical; Mike Mills is so disconnected that his stellar backing vocals are nowhere to be seen; and Michael Stipe, he of the cryptic lyrics and unusual subjects, writes a whole lot of sappy straightforward words concerning troubled relationships and abandonment, wearing a hat that does not suit him that well.

Despite the heavy criticism it deserves, “Around the Sun” should not be dismissed entirely. After all, a clearly below-average release by the boys from Athens would still be a decent album by the standards of many other bands. Overall, Stipe’s melodic work is good, and it lands on praise-worthy heights in more than a handful of occasions, with “Aftermath” standing out among them. Furthermore, some tracks are downright strong. “Leaving New York”, the leading single and opening track, may be overly sentimental, but it has a fantastic chorus and an organic sound that should have been the blueprint for the rest of the record. “The Outsiders” is beautifully moody; its thick atmosphere signals the silent – yet certain – coming of change its lyrics imply, and while Peter Buck delivers one impressive guitar line in the chorus, rapper Q-Tip shows up for a very good hip-hop break. “Final Straw”, which reads like a direct letter to then-president George W. Bush, is carried by a brilliant acoustic strum and has extremely powerful lyrics that, through Stipe’s wise choice of words, gain contours generic enough that they could be used to question misguided leaders and lovers alike. And closer “Around the Sun” is a classic R.E.M. pop rock track, with an inventive rising coda included. These bright spots, vastly outnumbered among thirteen songs, obviously cannot save “Around the Sun” from its general lifelessness, showing not even Bill Berry’s editing and mediation between the group’s songwriters could have rescued it. They do, however, indicate the final result had the potential to be different if the band had taken a lighter approach to the production of the album, as there is quality to be found amidst the dullness. Perhaps then, the often repeated and unfair dismissal of the group’s post-1997 output would have been avoided.

In Through The Out Door

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Album: In Through the Out Door

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: August 15th, 1979

Highlights: In the Evening, Fool in the Rain, I’m Gonna Crawl

Albums that are produced by fractured groups do not always necessarily suffer from such a context, as rock history has plenty of examples of records made amongst turmoil – such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” – that, nevertheless, found greatness amidst personal chaos. Sadly, “In Through the Out Door”, by the giants of Led Zeppelin, is not one of those positive instances. Famously, as the work that would turn out to be band’s final release due to the unexpected death of drummer John Bonham just one year later was being put together, the English hard rockers were broken into two camps. While bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant were clean and fully committed to the project, despite the fact the latter was suffering from the recent loss of his young son, guitarist and main songwriter Jimmy Page as well as Bonham himself were struggling with substance abuse. As such, it is easy to attribute much of the surprising irregularity of “In Through the Out Door” to that state of affairs, because with Page – their main creative force – failing to be his usual productive self, it fell on the shoulders of Jones and Plant to guide much of the album in composition and arrangement, with the pair getting full writing credits in two of the record’s seven cuts and with the bassist – previously a rare sight as a songwriter – having his name, alongside those of Page and Plant, attached to the other five tunes.

The shift in the gravitational center of Led Zeppelin’s creative process can be heard clearly, because where the group’s first seven records featured Page’s guitar as their leading instrument, in “In Through the Out Door” it is the synthesizer of Jones that takes the spotlight. With the exception of the excellent “Fool in the Rain” and the passable “Hot Dog”, a tongue-in-cheek jab at rockabilly which at least turns out better than the band’s shots at reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) and funk (“The Crunge”) seen in “Houses of the Holy”, the tool that was used as the immaculate backing to inventive exercises on hard rock suddenly gets to carry songs all the way to the finish line. And, unfortunately, it reveals it is not totally up to that task. Nowhere is that notion clearer than in the ten-minute “Carouselambra”, where the band tries to create yet another lengthy track of epic size and magnitude, in the vein of classics such as “In My Time of Dying” and “Achilles Last Stand”, only for it to become dull before the conclusion of its first ninety seconds due to the lack of inspiration of its synthesized hook and the clunky, almost non-existent, melody of Plant’s vocals. Surely, along the trip, it tries to – in an almost progressive fashion – shift in tone and go through distinct phases, but the more it contorts itself the more awkward it gets and the more blatant its problems become.

Although problematic, “In Through the Out Door” is not to be thrown away in its entirety. Certainly, there are consistent annoyances that run through it, like the lackluster guitar solos Page executes and the fact Plant’s voice is in a weird limbo between his signature wails and his solemn lower register, being unable to find any of those edges and standing – instead – on an awkward middle ground that does not seem right for any of the songs save for “Fool in the Rain”. Still, there are bright spots. Opener “In the Evening” succeeds where “Carouselambra” fails, as its nearly seven minutes are well spent creating a song that has a psychedelic edge and displays urgent power, perhaps because – for it – Page bothered to come up with a mighty guitar riff that is worthy of the band. Meanwhile, “Fool in the Rain” is a sunny and stylistic oddity for Led Zeppelin; a playful and light song about the despair of a guy waiting for his date at the wrong place without realizing it, the tune features clever interplay the piano of Jones and the guitar of Page, and contains a samba-inspired shuffle where Bonham proves why he is constantly ranked as the best rock drummer of all time. And as a final highlight, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a relaxed slow-paced blues that locks on a perfect balance between synthesizer and guitar to create an atmosphere of pain, tension, lust, and anguishing love.

Ultimately, what these tracks reveal is that for “In Through the Out Door” to have worked as a whole, Led Zeppelin would have had to build it via the same approach employed in their first seven works; that is, through cooperation. Page’s state of mind during the album’s recording harmed far more than the songwriting, because even his usually stellar production work feels sloppy, as the balance between the instruments and Plant’s voice feels off in pretty much all tracks, and better arrangements or a firmer sound could have done big favors to decent tunes such as the straight rock of “South Bound Saurez”, and the sweet synth-based ballad of “All My Love”, whose lyrics were written by Plant to his deceased son. However, given the context that surrounded it, Led Zeppelin’s usual balance of forces and creative collaborations does not show up in “In Through the Out Door”. The musical shift the album proposes, whether purposely or not, is an interesting one, for if the band had continued, one can only hope they would have moved forward stylistically. Unfortunately, the fate of Bonham and the band’s admirable decision to refuse to go on without their friend turned what could have been seen as an interesting transition record that had the potential to pave the way to more masterpieces into an irregular farewell that clearly displays the band was not working together.

Leisure

leisure

Album: Leisure

Artist: Blur

Released: August 26th, 1991

Highlights: She’s So High, Bang, Sing, There’s No Other Way

There are bands that put out debut records that indicate they seem know where they want to head to but clearly display they are still ways away from getting to the place they have their eyes on. Meanwhile, there are groups that produce first works that are so fully formed and confident that a listener unaware of the artist’s rookie status would think the album was put together by wise veterans. And then there is the case of introductions such as the one created by the Britpop giants of Blur. “Leisure” is a major oddity; an initial step that stands so distant from everything that would come later that it could, save for Damon Albarn’s recognizable voice, easily be blindly labeled as an effort made by a group of English blokes somewhere between 1989 and 1992. Its placement within that four-year interval and inside the geographic boundaries of Great Britain would not be without reason, and that is because “Leisure” reeks of the era in which it was made: a time when British rock, though still producing a solid number of remarkable works, was stuck in the patterns established by the shoegazing of My Bloody Valentine and the Madchester of The Stone Roses. Inside that spectrum, “Leisure”, despite its balance between noise and pop, is far more in line with the latter than with the former, as it is more concerned with sugary hooks than sonic assaults. Its problem, however, is that such an alignment might be too close for comfort.

One can, of course, find distinctions between what Blur does in “Leisure” and what The Stone Roses did in their self-titled masterpiece. Although both records have reverberant and colorful underwater soundscapes, the guitar approach of Graham Coxon greatly differs from that of John Squire, because where the second was an orchestrator that followed on the footsteps of The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the first emerges as a noisy pounder whose dirty and mighty distortions become cleverly hidden by the pop flavors Albarn likes to throw into the compositions. And for those very same reasons, “Leisure” could – in a way – be linked to the rest of Blur’s output, as during its fifty minutes Albarn reveals his nose for catchy melodies; Coxon engages in some fearless racket; and the duo of Alex James and Dave Rowntree join those diverging spirits via some firm yet lively playing. Two key ingredients, though, are missing in “Leisure”: creativity and personality. It does not quite do enough to carve out a shape of its own, and Albarn’s lyrics, which would by 1993 develop a social sharp eye akin to that of The Kinks’ Ray Davies, are frequently dull and feel unfinished, even if the words to “Bang” do show glimpses of what would come later.

In fact, it is a comparison to the band’s inaugural Britpop effort, “Modern Life Is Rubbish”, that reveals where “Leisure” falters the most. Because in that album, Blur was able to mix old-school English musical traditions with absolutely contemporary sounds in order to forge music that was as quaint as it was current. Here, contrarily, listeners will surely get the contemporary; that is, the pop of The Stone Roses with tinges of the noise of My Bloody Valentine. What they will miss, though, is the classic dosage that lifted Blur to stardom and allowed the group to find their own acre of land in the widely varied Britpop scene. Amidst the criticism it deserves, there are bright points to be seen in “Leisure”. The three singles extracted out of it are genuinely great. Following a clearly defined formula, they stand out thanks to impossibly catchy melodies and stellar guitar playing. “She’s So High” is backed by a gigantic guitar wall whose riff pounds as well as it cuts; meanwhile, “Bang” and “There’s No Other Way” have all the playful bounciness of Madchester. However, given the recipe that is used in the creation of those standout moments is repeated over and over again during the course of the album, many of the other tracks end up merging into one another due to a mixture of excessive similarity and utter lack of remarkable traits. And although many of the tunes that use that mold cannot truly be labeled as bad, except for “Slow Down” and “Repetition”, they can be accused of being generic.

To be fair, “Leisure” does – in two of its twelve songs – step out of the confines of its basic framework. Those instances are “Sing” and “Birthday”, and in them the band plays around with constructing ominous and noisy atmospheres that broadcast feelings of suffocating depression and endless lethargy. Though equally interesting in purpose and experimentation, their results could not be more different, for while “Birthday” manages to both be lyrically lousy and feel long despite lasting for under four minutes; “Sing”, with its drone piano, steady drums, and ear-piercing effects, is nothing short of a master work, one that is – in an album filled with safe choices – so strange in its inventiveness that it would be used as the basis for one of the best songs, “1992”, of the group’s most wildly experimental album, “13”. Its greatness, however, cannot save “Leisure” from being – at most – harmlessly average. Its four best tracks are certainly a mandatory listen for anyone who is even just remotely interested in the fantastic trajectory of one of England’s greatest rock bands; the rest of its tunes, and the record itself, though, are only worthy of the time of Blur fans or dedicated music aficionados, because not much about it hints of what was to come with the arrival of 1993 and the beginning of Britpop, making the leap between “Leisure” and “Modern Life Is Rubbish” stand as one of the best and most impressive transformations in rock history.