Captain Fantastic And the Brown Dirt Cowboy

captain_fantastic

Album: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Artist: Elton John

Released: May 19th, 1975

Highlights: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tower of Babel, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, We All Fall in Love Sometimes

Extravagance has, for the longest time, been an adjective that is closely related to Elton John. From the glasses to the outfits; from the life of luxury to the massive vices; from the wild on-stage persona to the charming yet difficult off-stage personality; from the exuberant pop craft to the abundant musical inconsistencies; the journey of the singer-songwriter has been one of intense extremes, with little room being left in his lore for moments of calculation or control. And along that road of excess, the first of the two albums he would release in 1975, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”, represents perhaps the peak of all the absurdity.

Surely, with its eleven tracks and forty-six minutes of length, the album looks rather humble when put beside the sprawling magnificence of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, which – released two years before – featured seventeen tracks and almost reached for the eighty-minute mark. However, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not outrageous in sheer size; its utter lack of restraint actually comes to the forefront in the nature of its content. In it, both Elton John and Bernie Taupin, his lyricist, choose to build an autobiographical record that, rather than telling their story in straightforward terms, dresses them up – respectively – as the titular pair of heroic characters, making the work qualify as a huge exercise in constructing one’s own personal mythology.

If that sounds like exaggerated self-importance, that’s because it certainly is, especially when one considers that, by 1975, Elton John was merely six years into his career. And if there ever is a point when it is acceptable for artists to pay homages to themselves, it absolutely does not come so soon in their trajectory. Yet, for John and Taupin, the ego trip just works. Partially, it clicks because, given his track record, it seems to be just the kind of ridiculous attitude the singer would have, and his ability to pull the preposterous off with a tongue in his cheek just makes the acrobatics endearing instead of objectionable. But, more flagrantly, it succeeds because, following a quick succession of seven great albums packed with gems and only one dud of a record, the quickly put together “Caribou”, it is simply impossible to say the pair were not entitled to toot their own horn in public, for they were in the midst of one of the greatest creative runs in rock and roll history.

With that being said, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not the best Elton John album. It does not have the cohesiveness and rich musical heritage of “Tumbleweed Connection”; it lacks the immediacy of “Honky Château”; and it fails to match the variety and quality peaks that lie within “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Furthermore, its excessively sleek production not only reveals shades of the middle-of-the-road pop rut John would be locked in for many of the years that would follow the record’s release, but it also somewhat erodes that hectic, unpredictable, wild, loud, and rough nature that can be found in the best cuts of the classic era of his career. Nevertheless, when it comes to sheer consistency, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” stands firmly next to the finest works the singer has produced.

The title track, which opens the album, starts with a gorgeous country segment worthy of the greatest moments of “Tumbleweed Connection” before turning, during its second part, into a very good rocker. And it is in the first half of that tune that the key to the album lies, because in it the junction of the delicate acoustic guitar strings and John’s moving singing makes the narration of the meeting between the city-slick Captain Fantastic and the country-raised Brown Dirt Cowboy be both humbling and touching, as it depicts – with absurd honesty – the uphill battles the pair faced before they found each other as well as in the beginning of their shared career. The empathy created by those brief, but magnificent, two minutes is essential, not just for how it dispels any potential aversions to a self-homage, but also because struggle is, in fact, the subject around which the entirety of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” seems to be built, as – one way or another – nearly all of its songs touch on that matter.

With listeners firmly attached to the two central characters and, therefore, interested in the fights they have to win, the album departs on an engaging musical and thematic journey that does not embellish fame, choosing – on the contrary – to mostly tackle the brutal elements that come with it, especially as it centers on the years when Elton and Bernie were still trying to make it big. There are nods to substance abuse; references to the schemes and politics of the entertainment industry; notes on the grueling challenges young artists need to face, as they are explored by publishers and forced to relentlessly tour small venues to earn enough money to buy a meal; takes on the personal and emotional troubles that come with such high demands; and, on a brighter side, sweet homages to the beauty of shared artistic creation, which, in the end, is what keeps the ship afloat.

Musically, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is mostly formed by tunes that lean towards slow tempos and bittersweet tones, as both John and producer Gus Dudgeon go for an accessible brand of soft piano rock with plenty of keyboards, extremely clean guitars, and a nose for moving songwriting. There are, obviously, tinges of other stylistic influences that had – before that point – been part of the singer’s repertoire, like the country-flavored spectrum of American roots music and a flashy glam approach that merges the rock and roll silliness of Marc Bolan with the flamboyant well-produced characterizations of David Bowie. But, despite those forces and a handful of moments when the record either threatens to take off, as in the frantic chorus of “Bitter Fingers”, or rocks out shamelessly, as it does in “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket”, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” feels like a large collection of tracks that flirt with balladry.

To some, that may lead the record to be an excessively sterilized version of Elton John, but the most likely outcome is that it will actually be perceived as one of his greatest moments. The melodies are invariably excellent, even if they are not, for the most part, as immediate as those carried by John’s most famous hits; and allied with the candidness of Taupin’s lyrics, the general sweetness that permeates them, and the fragility that is displayed throughout its running time, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is successful in being not only a wonderful listen, but also in transforming what could otherwise be a concept that reeks of indulgence and self-importance into a likable look at the wildness of the pursuit and attainment of fame.

Advertisements

New Skin For The Old Ceremony

new_skin_for_the_old_ceremony

Album: New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Artist: Leonard Cohen

Released: August 11th, 1974

Highlights: Chelsea Hotel #2, There Is a War, Who by Fire, Leaving Green Sleeves

Famously, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen only added the titles of singer and songwriter to his list of occupations relatively late in life. For while many musicians start their careers in the field right as they bid farewell to their teen years, with many of them going on to write their masterpieces before the age of 30, Cohen only published his first album when he was slightly over that mark. His 1967 debut, humbly titled “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, was recorded and released by the time he was 33, and every single one of the notes that are part of it seems to announce its nature as the work of a man who was thoroughly confident in one area whilst being slightly insecure in another.

The words of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” are those of a battered veteran who has learned his craft quite well, as they entwine religion, sex, love, and women into a fabric that is so whole they seem like one subject; and they achieve that while landing with the emotional impact of a mallet being swung by an angry brokenhearted god and with the taste of a connoisseur who has been through the finest-written pieces of poetry. Contrarily, the somewhat naive instrumentation that accompanies them as well as the stiff singing that airs the verses reveal a musician that was still coming to grips with his newfound role. And in one way or another, the two albums that would quickly follow that striking debut would capture that balance in an ever-shifting state, as Cohen continued to exhibit stunning mastery over words and growing comfort in the shoes of a singer.

“New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is the fourth album of Cohen’s career, and also the last piece of his early folk-based works, and – arriving three years after its predecessor, “Songs of Love and Hate” – it seems to mark the point when he acquired a confidence in his musicianship that matched the one he held in relation to his poetry. That is not to say, of course, that the musical greatness of “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is comparable to the excellence of its verses; for that to be so, Cohen would need to have the nose for melody displayed by the likes of Dylan and Young, which would – given his effective pen – almost immediately make him the best songwriter of all time. That, however, is not the case. But in “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” it is easy to see that he has grown in guitar-playing and singing.

On the two fronts, it is notable how Cohen abandons his former rigidity, often a sign of insecurity, for a looser approach. In his acoustic playing, he alternates between picking and strumming, sometimes within the same track; toys around with changes of tempo; and never falls back into the recurring Spanish-guitar patterns that, due to their sheer lack of variety, held back a few tunes of his first three albums. In his singing, meanwhile, listeners will come across revelatory energy and emotion, as Cohen will – with some frequency – step out of his otherwise monotonic grumble to utter words as if he were feeling real pain or anger, emerging, therefore, as a victim of anguish rather than a mere narrator of dark emotional tragedy.

That relentless sullenness, which is missing, had obviously served its purpose quite well in the three albums that preceded “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, as it made Cohen come off like a man who had been through so much that the damage caused by the experiences he went through had simultaneously blessed him with endless wisdom and cursed him into becoming a powerless ghost. Its absence here, though, lends the album very vivid colors. “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is, obviously, neither cheery nor optimistic; there is hardly room in the vocabulary of Leonard Cohen for such positivity. It is, however, warm and – in some weird ways – even playful.

In “Is This What You Wanted”, where he uses an avalanche of metaphors to compare himself unfavorably to his partner, he sounds like a brokenhearted drunk who occasionally finds enough clarity to broadcast frustration. In “Chelsea Hotel #2” he beautifully recalls a quick sexual encounter, trying to hide his blatant longing with rehearsed indifference. In “Lover Lover Lover” he alternates a confrontational conversation with God and a defeated call for a lover who is gone. In “Field Commander Cohen”, a similar variation appears, as Cohen uses a marching strum to talk about his surrealistically heroic life in the army before reverting to a soft picking that reveals he has run away from battle and now rests in bed with a woman while his peers die. In “Why Don’t You Try” he dabbles into an almost humorous meeting of jazz and music hall to depict an argument between a couple.

In “There Is a War” he, sometimes in dissatisfaction and sometimes in acceptance, concludes war is a natural and continuous part of human society. In “A Singer Must Die” he addresses critics in a mocking and self-deprecating tone. In “I Tried to Leave You” he offers a fun take on how long-term relationships can become inescapable prisons. In “Who By Fire”, the gloomiest cut on the record, he draws from a Hebrew prayer to look at the numerous ways in which one might meet the inevitable fate of death. In “Take This Longing”, where he comes the closest to the Cohen of the first three records, he coldly despairs and humiliates himself in front of a woman who refuses to love him, asking for her affection even if it is temporary and fake. And in “Leaving Green Sleeves” he pulls off the same act, with the difference that his plea is loud and anguished instead of silent and depressed.

The result of that myriad of feelings and, most importantly, tones, is the most colorful album of the first portion of Cohen’s glorious career. And despite the fact “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” does not contain any lyrical achievements that are comparable to the finest poetic moments of “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, “Songs from a Room”, and “Songs of Love and Hate”, it makes up for that disadvantage with singing and playing that display greater confidence; with melodies that are more pronounced; with arrangements that are richer than those seen in the opening trilogy; and with production choices that are more consistent and tasteful. Allied with Cohen’s unfaltering word-craft, which is always far above average, those virtues make “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” shine, establishing it as one of the best works of the poet-turned-songwriter.

This Is Not a Safe Place

this_is_not_a_safe_place

Album: This Is Not a Safe Place

Artist: Ride

Released: August 16th, 2019

Highlights: Future Love, Jump Jet, Shadows Behind the Sun, In this Room

The cover of Ride’s sixth album, “This Is Not a Safe Place”, features an outstretched arm that seemingly tries to reach for the ocean. Those familiar with the band ought to recognize that large mass of water as a callback to the uncrested wave that dominated the art of the group’s debut, “Nowhere”, a record that alongside My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” and Slowdive’s “Souvlaki” was pivotal in defining the shoegaze genre in the early 90s. Therefore, listeners approaching the record with some knowledge about the group and its history may look at its visual presentation as some sort of nostalgic longing, as if Ride were trying to recapture that long-gone magic.

By listening to “This Is Not a Safe Place”, however, what one is bound to discover is that its art is either a kind of ironic joke or that Ride does miss the past, but that such feeling is more related to youth or perhaps relevance than it is to stylistic matters, because “This Is Not a Safe Place” sounds nothing like “Nowhere”. It is not exactly a revelatory statement; after all, as their career evolved, Ride never really stood still musically, for even the successor of “Nowhere”, the joyful and colorful “Going Blank Again”, had little to do with its precursor, even if it did have a lot to gain back then if it had tried to mimic its successful prequel closely. “This Is Not a Safe Place”, though, does not feel entirely fresh as far as Ride is concerned, because it has very obvious precedence in the band’s discography.

That echo, in particular, is found in 2017’s “Weather Diaries”. The first album released by the band in twenty years, it works as a blueprint for “This Is Not a Safe Place”, the sophomore effort of this new era of Ride. Much like its predecessor, the record filters some of the inherent characteristics of the group while expanding others towards the space that was left open by the elements that were removed. The excluded feature, for the most part, is noise; one of the defining traits of shoegaze and one of the most prominent assets of “Nowhere”, the cacophony is almost nowhere to be seen. As a replacement to it, “This Is Not a Safe Place” leans heavily towards wide soundscapes filled with melodic lethargy.

It is not, obviously, that noise is out of the equation. Ride knows the genre it emerged from quite well, and it is aware of the expectations that surround it. It is just that rather than accompanying the entirety of the album’s runtime, the buzz is only punctual. As such, tunes like “R.I.D.E.”, “Repetition”, and “Kill Switch” are actually built around walls of feedback, while “Fifteen Minutes” has a chorus that bursts into a mass of static. However, not only are moments like those far outnumbered by tracks where blissful calmness takes over, but they are also lackluster when compared to the rest of the record, as they either feel forced (“R.I.D.E.”) or are downright awkward in their attempt to give a modern dancing edge to the band’s signature sound (“Repetition” and “Fifteen Minutes”).

The moments when “This Is Not a Safe Place” truly clicks are those when Ride comes into contact with their poppier side, the one that was vastly explored in the beloved “Going Blank Again” and in the polarizing “Carnival of Light”. In those instances, the band unearths a guitar sound that has the jangling grace of The Byrds and aural harmonies that also recall the folk rock quintet; nevertheless, even if in at least one cut that mixture is used to propel a straightforward pop rock gem, the irresistible “Future Love”, which could have easily been recorded in 1967 save for some of its more contemporary details, most of the times they are inserted in large heavenly environments that turn the jangling into chiming and the earthly voices into angelic presences.

In those tracks, Ride nearly turns into a psychedelic outfit. The guitars and vocals reverberate as if suspended high above the air, hitting listeners like soothing mist; and both the clean production and strong melodies accentuate that beauty. “Clouds of Saint Marie” sounds so vivid and peaceful that it feels like the musical manifestation of floating amidst the clouds; “Eternal Recurrence” is a trip through underwater darkness thanks to how it matches a steady slow rhythm with an underlying layer of hums and noises; “Jump Jet” grabs listeners by the arm and throws them into a vortex of moving colors, ranking as the album’s most blatant shot at psychedelia; and closer “In This Room” is a gorgeous epic that stretches close to the nine-minute mark without ever feeling indulgent, as its melody and highly atmospheric guitar work safely carry it to the title of best cut in the record.

Featuring the same sensory value and level of quality as those tracks, but exploring a slightly different palette of sounds, are “Dial Up”, “End Game”, and “Shadows Behind the Sun”. The first and the last adorn the album’s significant wide soundscape with a much simpler instrumental backing, as they gravitate around acoustic strumming supported by arrangements of electric and electronic nature; and in that match, “This Is Not a Safe Place” encounters music that is simultaneously intimate and distant; fragile and self-enclosed. “End Game”, meanwhile, is the antithesis of “Repetition” and “Fifteen Minutes”; a cut where Ride toys with building a song on beats and repetitive hooks of contemporary spirit and pulls it off remarkably well.

Although gathered one after the other towards the tail-end of the record, these three tracks serve not just to give “This Is Not a Safe Place” a pleasant sprinkle of variety, but also to display positive signs that the group, despite mostly treading the very same territory explored by “Weather Diaries”, is not longing for the past its cover alludes to. In fact, much to the contrary, “This Is Not a Safe Place” shows Ride is still trying to push forward and being able to find some success along the way. And regardless of the missteps it contains, the album is – in the peace, tranquility, and lethargy evoked by its guitars, vocals, and production – the output of a group that is very much alive, emerging as the rare example of a band that, following a long hiatus, has returned to build on its legacy rather than to tarnish it.

Tonight’s the Night

tonights_the_night

Album: Tonight’s the Night

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 1975

Highlights: Tonight’s the Night, Roll Another Number (For the Road), Albuquerque, Tired Eyes

Like it happened with “On the Beach”, its predecessor, the title of “Tonight’s the Night” can be awfully deceiving. While the first record was given a name that brings ideas of a relaxing paradise to mind, only to then reveal itself to be an album built on bitterness, anger, and lonesome contemplation; the second was dubbed with an expression that electrifies the brain with positive expectations and youthful excitement, almost making the neurons prepare themselves for impending hours where limits are few and possibilities are many. What lies below that surface, though, is the depiction of – quite possibly – the darkest and most depressing moment of a career that has lasted for more than fifty years, as the proclamation of the sentence that names it was spurred not by thrill, but by the kick in the gut that one receives when discovering someone close to them has passed away. And in the case of Neil Young, that crushing sensation came twice in a very short interval.

First, the singer-songwriter went through the horror of discovering his friend, the talented guitarist Danny Whitten, had overdosed on alcohol and medication in the evening of the very same day he was dismissed by Young from an upcoming tour due to his inability to keep up with the rehearsals. About six months later, and serving as the subject of the title track, a telephone call let him know one of his roadies, named Bruce Berry, had met the same fate via a combination of heroin and cocaine. The human tragedies that lie within drug-inflicted problems were not by then unfamiliar to Young, who in 1972 had already addressed the topic in the classic tune “The Needle and the Damage Done”, a track inspired by how he saw strangers, those around him, and even himself lose a bit of their talent and humanity to those substances. But the deaths of Whitten and Berry appeared to be some sort of tipping point for Young, a juncture when the pile of catastrophes grew so big that it broke him.

It is out of that wreck that “Tonight’s the Night” emerges. The title works as a reference to the nights when he was told about those deaths; the nights when friends were lost; families were shattered; tears were shed; and eternal scars were created. And even though it is impossible to know for sure what Young felt on those days, he does a pretty remarkable job in conveying it through music, for as the opening track silently announces that tonight is the night when tragedy is about to arrive via a phone call, listeners are taken through an emotional journey that holds no bright colors or points of relief, as the album navigates a spectrum dominated by sorrowful shades of white, black, and gray.

As far as records concerned with sadness go, though, “Tonight’s the Night” is somewhat strange. For although it certainly works as a funeral of sorts, where its attendees are so destroyed by grief they can barely speak, there is an unusual celebratory vibe that permeates it. Part of it has to be attributed to the raw and honest way in which the album was recorded, as throughout its course it becomes clear that besides committing most of the tunes to tape while so heavily intoxicated that all of the tracks threaten to fall apart, Young, his band-mates, and the work’s producers opted to use a lot of first takes – in all their spontaneous erratic glory – in the construction of the album. As such, “Tonight’s the Night” is immaculate in how it takes its audience to a room where musicians that chose to drown the sorrow of their unbearable losses in drugs and alcohol – the very same substances that killed their friends – gather around a microphone to play for the souls of the departed.

It is a smoky, drug-addled, and real musical celebration that is part burial and part seance, and amidst flubbed notes, clumsy harmonies, mistimed entries, and blundered lyrics, raw human misery comes through. “Tonight’s the Night”, however, is not just a work of bold atmospheric greatness, it is also a masterclass in songwriting, and it is in the combination of those elements that it shows its qualifications to rank as a rock and roll landmark. Presented here, in reckless abandon that is too depressed and drugged to get up from the chair on which it is sitting, are numerous staples of the Neil Young repertoire, including ballads of uncanny beauty, hard rock numbers whose guitars are played from the gut rather than from the heart, cuts of charming folk simplicity, and tasteful country infusions, all underlined by a piano-rock approach that gives the album its central musical personality, and in each of those categories, the harvested crops of “Tonight’s the Night” come either on top of the rest of his rich output or quite close to the summit.

The two versions of “Tonight’s the Night”, which open and close the album, are visceral, tense, bare-bones, and threatening. “Speakin’ Out” is piano-based blues at its loosest state. “World on a String” is a short, fast, and catchy slice of riff-focused hard rock. “Borrowed Tune”, which employs a slowed-down version of the melody from The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane”, shows Young at his frailest, as he confesses he has ripped Jagger and Richards off because he is too wasted to write his own tune. “Mellow My Mind” is so soft, tipsy, and beautiful one is inclined to give Young the relief he asks for. “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” has stunning harmonies sung by vocalists that are too stoned to get them right. “Albuquerque” stars a pedal steel guitar that tugs at the heart and is, by itself, enough justification to place Ben Keith as the instrument’s greatest and most tasteful player ever. “New Mama” is such a fragile combination of voices and acoustic guitar that it feels like it will break at any moment. “Lookout Joe” is a clumsy and energetic explosion of distortion. And “Tired Eyes”, which alternates an almost narrated verse with a drunk chorus of gorgeous melody and cathartic sorrow, is absolutely gripping in its sadness.

Most haunting and moving of all, though, is “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown”. Quietly stuck in the album’s first side, it sticks like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the tracks not just due to fact it is a live recording, but also because of how it carries a purely happy energy that has no place in a work like “Tonight’s the Night”. Its inclusion in the album, however, is more than justified once one realizes that the person who sings it, plays its lead guitar line, and signs it alongside Young is none other than Danny Whitten himself, in all of the beautiful and inescapable glory that he had before an overdose ended his short life.

More than a nod to his departed friend or even proof that the stoned musical seance that is “Tonight’s the Night” was so well-conducted that the spirits of the dead did come out of their graves, it serves as a poignant warning on how substance abuse has the capacity to corrode lives little by little until they simply cease to be; and that the overwhelming sadness which lingers on in the hearts of those who stay behind – one that is accurately documented in the other tracks of the album – has a weight that is equivalent to the beauty of that soul and the capacity that it displayed for touching the lives of those around it. And in spontaneously exploring, via fantastic music, these two sides of death, the one that is snuffed out and the one that desperately tries to find the strength carry on, “Tonight’s the Night” acquires the magnitude of an all-time great artistic achievement, and also of a brutally vivid depiction of life at its roughest emotional edges.

Fever Dream

fever_dream

Album: Fever Dream

Artist: Of Monsters and Men

Released: July 26th, 2019

Highlights: Alligator, Ahay, Wild Roses

If there was one particular fuel that powered many of the groups that were an integral part of the boiling indie wave formed during the late 2000s and early 2010s, that substance was innocence. It is not that the young people who played in those bands believed the world was a perfect place that would seek to do them no harm; after all, Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”, perhaps the foundation stone of that movement, was an album very much built on trauma, disappointment, and loss. It is just that, from the perspective of an outsider, it seemed those groups were confident that the youthful, honest, and somewhat naive energy that ignited their hearts could lead them not just to a better future, but also embed them with the inclination to continuously celebrate regardless of all the pain.

However, as most people – either through personal experience or third-party reports – know, sometimes the obstacles simply win out, and all those colorful gestures, anthemic sing-alongs, and jubilant musical catharses stop making sense. At that point, if a group is not true to their hearts, they can easily continue to put out tracks that keep up appearances; a strategy that may work for a short while, but that will eventually turn the artists into a caricature of their original selves, as it will not take long for the false facade to start showing its cracks. If, on the other hand, the musicians in question are sincere, they are likely to produce the frequently labeled mature album, a record that replaces whatever happiness and excitement existed there in the first place with loads of introspective sorrow.

With “Fever Dream”, it seems that Of Monsters and Men have reached that crossroad in their career, and the Icelandic quintet has chosen to take the latter path. It is not exactly a very surprising turn of events. Firstly, because honesty and vulnerability have always been essential components of their appeal; and secondly, because even though they were part of the indie scene’s branch that was the most prone to excessive naiveté and celebration (that is, the folky one), their songs, including the festive hit “Little Talks”, invariably carried sad undertones that stopped them from coming off like the many phony and slightly obnoxious bands that plagued the genre and made them emerge as likable, true, and relatable humans.

As a consequence of that truthfulness, “Fever Dream” cuts ties with any sort of wide-eyed wonder. The vocal interplay of Nanna and Ragnar, always an integral part of the Of Monsters and Men sound, feels less like a duet between partners that find in each other shelter from the storms of the outside world and more like distant messages exchanged by two lovers who are drifting so far apart they can barely touch and who see themselves so numb to any external stimulus that it is nigh impossible for them to feel anything. Therefore, “Fever Dream” is fragile, tense, and extremely intimate. So much, in fact, that at times it seems both singers are whispering rather than singing, and that quality makes the record stand quite close to the work of The XX, a band that, also via a mixture of female and male vocals, operates inside those same confessional confines.

That is not, however, the only break that “Fever Dream” brings to the table, since it also represents a huge shift in sound for the band. Truth be told, Of Monsters and Men have never actually sat still in musical terms, for stylistic differences between their debut, “My Head is an Animal”, and their sophomore record, “Beneath the Skin”, were already pretty notable. This time around, though, the leap is far larger, because the band instantly goes from an indie rock ensemble to a synthpop outfit. There are, of course, a few connections that can be made between “Fever Dream” and its predecessor, particularly in terms of the wide soundscapes they present and of the heavy use of prominent percussive bases in some tunes, like it happens in “Alligator”, “Vulture, Vulture”, and “Wild Roses”. In the end, nevertheless, the two are totally different creatures, as the large ringing guitars that characterized “Beneath the Skin” give way to keyboards, synthesizers, and a whole lot of electronic beats.

Even if commendable from a musical standpoint and honest from a thematic one, “Fever Dream” is not exactly a success. Its first two singles, “Alligator” and “Wild Roses”, are undeniably great, perhaps because they tap into a very good balance between the band’s charming melodic indie work and their recently discovered fondness for synthesized instrumentation. Everywhere else, though, the group simply struggles to latch onto a thread of personality. As such, “Fever Dream” ends up being one of those records that never truly offend listeners with outbursts of poor taste, but that fail to leave any sort of considerable mark to make them stand out from the surrounding crowd. Surely, at times, it is arguable that the album goes way too deep into its introspection, degenerating into sequences of slow tracks that are too similar to one another in their sulkiness; still, none of its pieces are truly bad.

The core issue here is that, for the most part, the catchy components of the songs – such as the choruses of “Stuck in Gravity” and “Wars” – are so commonplace there is always this looming feeling that they have already appeared somewhere else; more specifically, in the output of an artist that writes, produces, and arranges tunes with the sole purpose of propelling them straight to the top of the charts with a good amount of certainty. To a degree, it is sort of ironic that an album that is, in content and in lyrics, attempting to be honest winds up sounding so calculated, but it is precisely on that weird middle ground that “Fever Dream” lands, specially in the tunes, which are – sadly – the majority, where not even a glimpse of the original Of Monsters and Men can be caught.

It is always tough to identify the point after which change is so radical that it erodes what made a certain group sound great in the first place; and it is equally complicated to measure how much of that evolution is praiseworthy artistic growth and how much of it is negative loss of personality. And “Fever Dream” will offer plenty of ammunition to the sides that see it under a good and a bad light, for while it is hard not to be touched by the pop beauty of “Ahay” or moved by the way Nanna almost breaks down while singing the chorus of “Róróró”, it is equally unlikely that the ears of many longtime fans will make it unscathed through the excessive and fabricated gloomy gloss of “Waiting for the Snow” and “Stuck in Gravity”. Due to that, “Fever Dream” is worth at least one thorough listen, because despite lying at the end of a road that was new and exciting to the band, the path they chose to follow led them to the overcrowded waters of safe pop music. And even if to some that final result will be unpleasant, there is always a crowd out there that will fall right into the embrace of that kind of sound – especially when it is so genuine and relatively well-written.

Hejira

hejira

Album: Hejira

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: November 22nd, 1976

Highlights: Coyote, Amelia, Hejira, Song for Sharon, Refuge of the Roads

During a very short period of time between 1975 and 1976, Joni Mitchell took a total of three road trips across the United States. In the first, she was part of the festive gypsy-like caravan that was Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. In the second, she led her own tour for the promotion of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, which would be cut short due to internal strife in her band. And in the third and final leg of her adventure, the folk singer – going from coast to coast – crossed the country twice, moving from Los Angeles to Maine in the company of a few friends and then driving all the way back to California alone through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

With all the feelings, meetings, separations, little celebrations, occasions of lonely contemplation, and experiences that are so intricately connected to the act of stepping on the road, it is only to be expected that a sensitive and observant artist of the caliber of Mitchell would use those remarkable moments as the raw material of her ultimate craft: songs. And in that sense, “Hejira”, the album she recorded shortly after those trips, confirms the forecast, for it reads very much like a travelogue, as its nine tunes serve as brief windows into one or more key instants that marked not only her journey, but her wandering spirit as well.

Albums for or about road trips were not exactly new in 1976, and they have appeared in such abundance both before and after that year that they could easily constitute a genre of their own. However, in addition to the notable quality of its cuts, which exhibit one of history’s greatest songwriters at the peak of her powers, there is a softness and delicacy to the soul of “Hejira” that set it apart from the crowd. Surely, while Joni chronicles her exploits, the mundane friction between rubber and asphalt is vividly present, and physical distances, human longing, and earthly matters form a considerable part of the record’s contents. Nevertheless, the road in “Hejira” is also spiritual, working like a standalone realm isolated from daily stress that allows those who give themselves to its endlessness to escape worries, confront inner demons, acquire knowledge, and live episodes that can be safely left behind in the black-and-white infinity of the roads.

The credit for that thematic achievement has to be shared between many parts. It can be given to the unparalleled craftsmanship Joni has regarding putting words together. It can be attributed to her flawless angelic voice. And it can be linked to a singing style that alternates playfulness, honesty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness. Above it all, though, it has to be laid at the feet of her production work, because “Hejira” sounds absolutely aural, as if all of its parts were gliding in the very thin line that separates what is real from what is spiritual. Its guitar work, be it electric or acoustic, is pure yet pervasive, feeling strong but threatening to elude one’s touch if they try to capture it; its bass lines are prominent, especially when handled by the legendary Jaco Pastorius, who solos tastefully over Joni’s steady strums; and all other instruments delicately float around those two central pieces.

That transcendent soundscape carried by “Hejira” gives muscle to music that finds balance between refinement and accessibility. In Joni Mitchell’s career arch, the album stands right at the point that separates her initial run of records centered on plain folk and flowery pop from the wild experiments in jazz she would later take on; as such, even if it does carry, to an even larger degree, the stylistic and structural sophistication that began to appear in its two predecessors (“Court and Spark” and “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”), “Hejira” still clicks as a universally appealing piece.

There are, of course, punctual challenges to be found along the way, and they mainly arise from the stronger leaning towards jazz presented by “Hejira”. The songs are mostly long, with the two shortest of the bunch clocking in at four minutes. Moreover, all of them lack a chorus, either relying on single sentences that serve as hooks or just being formed by lengthy sequences of verses that are propelled by cyclical instrumentation. Consequently, their flexibility and the fuel that keeps them engaging throughout their duration come, instead, in the minor instrumental and arrangement variations that occur every once in a while; in Mitchell’s signature knack for twisting melodic lines as she sees fit; and in the lyrics. And as far as that last particular item goes, “Hejira” is an inexhaustible trove of treasures, treading both on specific episodes and philosophical contemplations.

“Coyote” addresses, with fondness, the separation from a former lover who also happened to be a womanizer. “Amelia” sees the singer talking and comparing herself to lost aviator Amelia Earhart; feeling comfortable with their mutual position as strong independent women who undertook – each for their own reasons – lonely journeys, Mitchell opens up about subjects that trouble her. “Furry Sings the Blues” recalls Joni’s encounter with blues legend Furry Lewis in a poorly kept Beale Street. “A Strange Boy” narrates an affair she had with a man in his thirties who still lived with his parents. “Hejira” covers the reasons why Mitchell broke up with her boyfriend and drummer during the tour supporting “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. “Song for Sharon”, in ten magnificent verses, is a letter to a friend, and in it Joni approaches the subject of marriage: a dream that she has nurtured since childhood but that has always eluded her. “Black Crow” explores four ways in which she is a whole lot like the titular bird. And “Blue Motel Room” gives listeners a glimpse into one of the many lonesome nights Mitchell had while on the road, as she contemplates the empty room around her while longing for a distant lover.

In that context, the stunning closer “Refuge of the Roads” is the perfect final chapter to a flawless travelogue. Encompassing multiple meetings she had during her trip, Joni Mitchell concludes her portrait of the roads that cross the United States – or any other country, for that matter – as sacred spaces where remarkable human experiences, be of the bitter or of the sweet kind, take place. As she travels through thoughts, smiles, tears, and the warm embrace of those she cares about, though, Mitchell does not lose sight of how her journey – regardless of the emotional weight it may contain – is ultimately an insignificant one amidst the immensity of the highways, of the country, of the world, and of life itself.

And as the bass of Jaco Pastorius keeps on ringing as “Hejira” comes to a close, listeners are reminded that the roads Mitchell – and many others – traveled by are still out there, and that as the record plays, the encounters and contemplations that happen in them are, in a regenerated state, still unfolding at that very minute. Because, sure, the roads seem endless; however, they do hold a final destination for everyone, and it is only thanks to the cyclical ways of the universe that the stories that have them as a scenario repeat themselves infinitely with slightly altered details. And for as long as they occur, “Hejira” will be their spiritual soundtrack.

Let’s Rock

lets_rock

Album: Let’s Rock

Artist: The Black Keys

Released: June 28th, 2019

Highlights: Shine a Little Light, Walk Across the Water, Sit Around and Miss You, Go

As its title clearly indicates, “Let’s Rock” – the ninth album by The Black Keys – arrives with the purpose of reconnecting the duo from Ohio with the sound that made them catch the eye of the indie scene in the beginning of the 2000s. And that is because following an opening winning streak of four records centered around blues and the stripped down music emanating from a simple guitar-and-drums setup, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney wisely decided to look for some artistic refreshment by forging what would turn out to be a long-lasting partnership with producer Danger Mouse, who worked together with the pair to slowly infuse the band’s purely rock and roll genetic code with flavors of contemporary pop.

It was a process that made their output more universally palatable and yielded a quartet of albums that gave them considerable commercial success; however, the last leg of that journey, 2014’s “Turn Blue”, displayed, in its irregular quality, that the once productive bond between musicians and producer was starting to show signs of fatigue. And in that context, “Let’s Rock” emerges like a sign that Dan and Patrick were wise enough to notice that erosion before it was too late, because not only does the record see The Black Keys parting ways with Danger Mouse, but it also is the product of a rather unpretentious studio session that recalls the way in which the group put together their first works, as “Let’s Rock” was born out of the band’s decision to walk into the recording booth with their instruments to see what would happen.

Looking at “Let’s Rock” like a retread to the past, though, is only visualizing about half of its constitution. After all, it would naturally be impossible for Dan and Patrick to push a magic button that would allow them to go back to being the guys they were in 2002. As such, although the album has plenty of echoes from those days, for all of its twelve tracks have a garage spirit that gravitates around prominent riffs, it also boasts plenty of remnants from the Danger Mouse era, because many of them feature beats as well as melodic turns towards dancing grooves that would make those tunes feel right at home in the music charts. And it is in that balance between The Black Keys’ blues roots and their trip through the waters of pop songwriting that “Let’s Rock” operates.

Concerning the more old-school portion of that recipe, there is one particular band to which “Let’s Rock” looks quite fondly, and that would be T. Rex. It is not just that the album’s cover presents an art style that strongly recalls that of the English glam rockers greatest classic, 1971’s “Electric Warrior”; the presence of Marc Bolan’s group is actually felt pretty much everywhere in “Let’s Rock. It is in how Dan employs, through most of the way, a guitar tone that is punchy and fuzzy; it is in how all of the songs never kick into full gear, being stuck in a solid mid-tempo groove that is grounded on rock and roll; it is in how the melodies have a notable sweetness to them, which is augmented by Auerbach’s soft voice; and it is in how female backing vocals, which are perfect for the moments when the tunes move to their dancing segments, are abundant.

Ironically, in spite of its nature as an album that juggles both the distant and the recent past of The Black Keys, “Let’s Rock” opens up with two tracks that do not do much merging of styles: “Shine a Little Light” is, in verse and chorus alike, a smooth pop gem that would not be out of place in “El Camino”, ranking alongside “Get Yourself Together” as the record’s most obvious nods to the Danger Mouse years. Meanwhile, “Eagle Birds” is pure blues rock, albeit one that gains glam contours thanks to the female vocalists that back Dan up in singing the song’s hook. Everywhere else, though, the junction of the two musical veins that have guided the The Black Keys through their career is evident.

“Lo/Hi” and “Go” are carried by irresistible fuzzy riffs in their verses, which are smoothed out by the somewhat sleek production, before exploding into excellent choruses that gain muscle and power thanks to the backing vocals; a similar construction, but with a more marked use of the female choir as a bed for Dan’s singing during the verses, is presented by the closing trio of “Breaking Down”, “Under the Gun”, and “Fire Walk With Me”. At the same time, “Walk Across the Water” borrows blatantly from T. Rex’s “The Slider” but succeeds in masking that inspiration ever so slightly by incorporating, into the original’s body, a pop hook that is way too contemporary to have been written by Marc Bolan; while “Sit Around and Miss You” employs much the same strategy, but – in its case – the victim is the chord progression from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Marry”, which is deployed as the basis of a laid-back quasi-ballad.

It is not a whole lot of stylistic variety, which is not too surprising since “Let’s Rock” has The Black Keys not only working with no synthesizers or keyboards, but also looking back to a time when they toyed around with a genre that has a very limited scope. But inside those tight boundaries the album finds a good deal of quality: its songs are catchy and get straight to the point, generating a listening experience whose length is just about right for its monochromatic ways; the homages it pays are flavored with musical twists that transform them considerably; and the record sounds like a good summarization of what the band has produced so far, wrapping the two distinct legs of their career into one neat package.

Not all that “Let’s Rock” contains is above average, in particular, its middle sequence of “Tell Me Lies”, “Every Little Thing”, and “Get Yourself Together” is generally passable, as they grasp for the inspiration that most of the other tracks, each to their own degree, show; additionally, the spark of greatness seen in the best moments of classics like “Rubber Factory”, “Brothers”, and “El Camino” is only seen in brief glimpses when the best songs of the album come around, meaning that its highs are not as praiseworthy as the highlights from other points of their career. Still, regardless of its punctual stumbles and stylistic limitations, “Let’s Rock” is fun and feels fresh in how it combines basic blues instrumentation with pop songwriting; more importantly, it shows that The Black Keys are looking to move on from an era that, despite being very productive, had clearly reached the end of the line.