The Car

the_car

Album: The Car

Artist: Arctic Monkeys

Released: October 21st, 2022

Highlights: Jet Skis on the Moat, Body Paint, Big Ideas, Perfect Sense

The Arctic Monkeys were never a band that stood still for too long. Sure, their first two albums were stylistically rather similar, perhaps being the product of blokes that were still too young to move forward, but after that fantastic opening duo their discography started to gain interesting colors. Their third work, “Humbug”, had the English quartet heading down to the California desert to record with Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age fame, and the dark hard rock aura of that band’s work heavily informed the sound of that album. Meanwhile, its follow-up, the saucily titled “Suck It and See”, rang with the chimes of jangle pop and flirted with the psychedelic echoes of the Madchester movement. A few years later, before unleashing record number five upon the world, vocalist, guitarist, and principal songwriter Alex Turner would quip that the only modern music he was interested in listening to at that moment was hip hop, and indicated that the band’s next album would merge the style’s beats with Black Sabbath riffs; the combination did come to fruition, and “AM” was so successful in its formula that it managed to break the Arctic Monkeys into the American market.

Yet, none of the steps in that intriguing journey had prepared the band’s fans for what was to come next. Released in 2018, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” was a shock. Yes, the Arctic Monkeys were no strangers to change, but up until that point they had gone through an arch that felt natural, retaining their core strengths and changing the surrounding ornaments. “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, on the other hand, dared listeners to find remnants of the group within its tunes; and although these could be located here and there, what came through was a different beast altogether. Gone were the fast-talking swagger, the street smartness, the hurricane rhythms, and the pounding guitars. In their place, what one encountered was music that seemed to be made by a band that played in the lounge of a luxurious hotel; more precisely, one situated in the area of the Moon that is known as Tranquility Base. Needless to say, reactions were mixed.

Because of that, even before “The Car” showed up on the horizon, there were abundant discussions on whether the band would continue down the same quirky path or move on to different grounds. According to Alex Turner, the intention was to travel down the latter road, as when he sat down to write new material he did so with the goal of going back to being loud. However, given artistic muses are among the universe’s most fickle creatures, the songs reportedly just did not want to go in that direction. And, before he knew it, Turner was writing more music in the vein of “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”. As such, to those who did not like that record, “The Car” brings little hope; it is mostly more of the same and it does not present a jump in quality that is big enough to convince someone that the Arctic Monkeys can pull off that style. Contrarily, to folks who appreciated the band’s turn into odd sci-fi lounge music, “The Car” should rank, at worst, as interesting.

As usual, though, simply labeling the album as more of the same is missing the nuances that make it effectively different. Because, ultimately, that is what “The Car” is: its constitution is, like that of its predecessor, firmly grounded on easy-listening instrumentals, which Alex Turner uses to spin wordy lyrics with nigh free-flowing melodic structures; however, there are elements that make it unique. The first and, some would argue, the most important is the absence of irony. In “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, the Arctic Monkeys were playing lounge music because that was the concept; they were meant to be emulating a fictional band performing at a non-existent hotel so that Turner could go through the science-fiction playbook of talking about the silliness of humanity while using a futuristic scenario. In “The Car”, though, the subtext is gone; there is no wink and no tongue-in-cheek. The Arctic Monkeys are playing easy-listening for the sake of doing it.

On its own, that should not be a bad idea. After all, thankfully, there is not a rule out there dictating good albums should be built on concepts. But to ears that did not get along with “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, that is a major blow, because, once again, many of the tunes Turner brings to the table feel flat. Too often, he meanders through lyrics without hitting on a hook; and frequently, the skillful group makes its way through instrumentals that are pleasant but not sufficiently special to leave a mark. To boot, given how the type of music that is played here naturally puts a strong spotlight on the vocal work, Turner’s voice comes off as not being suited for that task. And although he, like his bandmates, should be commended for trying something distinct, the fact of the matter is that the sum of the parts leaves a lot to be desired: Turner is not as moving of a crooner as he thinks he is, even if he has not lost a step when it comes to writing engaging lyrics; and it feels the Arctic Monkeys are being underused as instrumentalists in this brand of easy-listening music.

Still, all is not lost in “The Car”. For starters, as a whole, the album emerges as a more varied work, a trait that is nicely exemplified by its opening three tunes: “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball” feels like a straight continuation of the previous record, but with the added touch of majestic strings; “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” is led by a surprisingly funky guitar riff; and “Sculptures of Anything Goes” is dominated by a haunting synthesized landscape that could have come out of an experimental post-punk track. And that goes without mentioning the acoustic flourishes seen in the title track as well as in “Mr Schwartz”; the rocking conclusion in lead single “Body Paint”; or the abundant use of orchestrated arrangements, which are so frequent they make “The Car” as much of a chamber pop work as the albums Alex Turner put out with The Last Shadow Puppets, his side-project.

Sadly, without the hooks to back it up and the irony to make it intriguing, the musical evolution seen in “The Car” falters through most of the way. That does not mean, however, there are no redeeming tracks in the bunch, as just like it happened in “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, there are at least four songs here that qualify as being enjoyable. “Jet Skis on the Moat”, which also flirts with funk in its guitar, has a genuinely beautiful chorus and a recurring hook in its verses; and the same goes for “Body Paint”, which has the added benefit of being the album’s most dynamic tune, including extensive orchestrated work and a coda that pulls out distorted guitars. Besides having a great melodic climax, “Big Ideas” oozes the irony that “The Car” lacks almost everywhere else, as Turner strings together into a meaningful narrative cliched phrases usually said by those who have huge creative projects in mind but that never bring them to fruition. And “Perfect Sense” wraps up the album as a touching string-laden lullaby.

Once more, then, the Arctic Monkeys have put together a work that is bound to be divisive. While “The Car” certainly surpasses “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” as far as dynamism is concerned, this is still a band that made their name playing incredible barn-burners suddenly embracing a kind of music that was projected to lie pleasantly in the background. And when one adds the general melodic and instrumental flatness of the work with the loss of the conceptual irony that fueled its predecessor, the result is a package that feels unremarkable despite possessing a few noteworthy moments. As such, even if a band should never be criticized for trying something different, especially when that target is not the fruit of commercial pressure, it is nigh impossible to hold back disappointment when a great group loses itself in the search for artistic renewal; and, to those who did not enjoy “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, “The Car” is confirmation that the Arctic Monkeys are currently adrift.

five

Doggerel

doggerel

Album: Doggerel

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 30th, 2022

Highlights: Nomatterday, Vault of Heaven, Haunted House, There’s a Moon On

With the release of “Doggerel”, the Pixies have officially put out as many albums in their second coming as they had done through their classic original run. Sure, purists may say the band is still one EP away from that threshold, as their debut, the remarkable “Come On Pilgrim”, was a twenty-minute eight-song recording that remains a cornerstone for all indie rock that is produced. Yet, the fact of the matter is that for every full-length work they created as independent heroes who toiled away in relative obscurity, there is now one album they built as veterans who joined forces again under the Pixies flag to bask in the well-deserved notoriety the band had gained since their abrupt breakup in 1993. At first, no fans whatsoever were mad about what seemed, initially, to be a victory lap; after all, everyone could happily agree the group should collect the laurels they did not get back when they were younger. However, when the matter of new material was brought into the equation, the atmosphere soured.

Some, including original bassist Kim Deal, thought the Pixies should not make anything new. Their discography, it was argued, was borderline perfect: a legacy that had to be protected. And given nobody had any hope the band could match their previous output, many thought they should just tour and go home. Others, meanwhile, were eager to listen with an open heart. That discussion, of course, does not matter. The Pixies will do whatever they – or more specifically their creative leader, Black Francis – want; and so, nearly a whopping twenty years after the group reunited, the cogs have continued to turn regardless of what some think. Kim Deal, who is an amazingly talented individual that greatly contributed to the Pixies’ signature sound, jumped ship before the band went into the studio to make “Indie Cindy”, which was their first package of new material in more than two decades. Following her footsteps, a few fans opted to either not pay attention or not put too much effort into trying to embrace the group’s second phase.

It is impossible to know how aware Black Francis is of naysayers or if he cares about that noise, but it is hard not to consider, even if only for a second, that the lines that open “Doggerel” might allude to these people. In “Nomatterday”, as his band opens the way to the album that will make the discography of their revival period as large as the one from the good-old days, the singer states “You know, I know that you don’t really hate me / But I suppose that I probably irritate you”, before asking listeners not to waste their time on him. Yes, he could be addressing a previous lover, a current affair with whom he is having a falling-out, or someone who is bitter towards him. However, besides being too good to be ignored, that possibility adds some swagger and a taste of wicked revenge to what is to come.

Such angry feelings, though, do not materialize all that much in “Doggerel”. Starting from “Indie Cindy”, it was clear that the new incarnation of the Pixies was more interested in melodic softness than their younger selves. Obviously, melody had always been there: Black Francis has proven, in the more than twenty albums he has released as a musical artist, that he knows how to write a catchy vocal line; and one of the many charms of the Pixies was their ability to combine unhinged punk noise, hellish screams, and a dark undercurrent with irresistible pop hooks. But as tunes like “Greens and Blues” and “Ring the Bell” proved, this was a band that now felt comfortable writing more straightforward indie rock. With the follow-ups, “Head Carrier” and “Beneath the Eyrie”, this tendency was accentuated, as melody seemed to be gaining more room in its battle against abrasive noise; and in the context of such struggle, “Doggerel” often feels like the culmination of that process.

It goes without saying that this can be seen as a bad trait. Rightfully, nobody wants to see the Pixies, in all their quirkiness and originality, shift towards the indie rock mean. And some will say “Doggerel” is too close to that line for comfort. Yet, doing so may be missing the subtleties that make the album special, because this is not a record in which the Pixies become boring conventional musicians; this is actually their work that most successfully bridges the gap between their identity and the general independent scene they helped birth. In other words, this feels less like a compromise and more like a middle-ground, one that they had been building towards. Because, yes, “Doggerel” is the mellowest and more melodic work to ever receive the Pixies stamp, producing plenty of moments that stick to one’s ear or reach for an unexpected level of pure beauty. But the musical staples of the group can be heard all over these tracks.

“Nomatterday” and “Dregs of the Wine” dive deep into quiet-and-loud dynamics; “Get Simulated” drinks from “Cactus” as well as “River Euphrates” to squeeze a quirky basic punk tune out of pure friction; and “Vault of Heaven” has a spacious ambiance that seems to have been taken straight from “Bossanova”, with Joey Santiago promptly filling that void with one of his remarkable alien riffs. But it is not just in the framework of the songs that the touch of the Pixies is present; that magic is in the little bricks that build these tunes. David Lovering remains a steady metronome that pulls off some sneaky surprises. Paz Lenchantin delivers a pile of fantastic simple bouncy bass lines that are frequently prominent in the mix, and her sweet backing vocals alternate between being dorky and enhancing the beauty of the softest melodic moments. Joey Santiago creates various marvelous textures and little catchy licks with his unique guitar-playing. And Black Francis often pulls out his acoustic guitar – as he did back in the “Come On Pilgrim” days – to add rhythmic chugging to many of the cuts.

Nevertheless, even if they are indeed still the Pixies, the band employs the fresh terrain on which they landed to build songs that could not really be anywhere else in their discography. “The Lord Has Come Back Today” is a bona fide gorgeous ballad that gains momentum as it goes along. Augmented by keyboards in their marvelous climaxes, “Haunted House”, “There’s a Moon On”, and “Who’s More Sorry Now?” boast arrangements with a fullness that was unknown to the band. And many of the songs, especially those who fall on the angrier and noisier side of the spectrum, run away from the standard verse-chorus structure, with the highlights on that front being “Nomatterday” and “Dregs of the Wine”, which almost feel like multi-phased little operas.

Not everything in “Doggerel” is perfect. As it happened on the previous three albums of the reunion era, the lyrics can feel somewhat awkward, as Black Francis seems to try to channel the weirdness he could summon with so much ease in the past only to fall flat. Additionally, “Get Simulated” lacks the hooks of its peers, “Pagan Man” is the point where the album bumps into conventionality, and “You’re Such a Sadducee” is instrumentally marvelous but melodically dry. Still, as a whole, the record is a thoroughly enjoyable and fun indie rock ride. And instead of getting lost in empty discussions about how it compares to the work of the band’s distant past, its quality should be celebrated for what it is: proof that the Pixies are alive, doing well, touring, collecting the laurels they earned, and respectably maintaining their creative juices flowing to keep on adding to one of the indie rock’s greatest discographies.

five

Toast

toast

Album: Toast

Artist: Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Released: July 8th, 2022

Highlights: Quit, Goin’ Home, Gateway of Love, How Ya Doin’?

When recording their work, musical artists often struggle with deciding the point in which a song is ready to be immortalized in a piece of media. Some prefer to stick to early takes of the material, when the tunes are raw and spontaneous; others choose to labor tirelessly over the tracks in order to polish their rough edges, try different approaches, and bring forth the very best version of the compositions; and there are also, of course, those who shackle themselves to neither method, opting to instead feel what is more appropriate for each individual song. Ultimately, though, this is a matter to which there is no exact answer, as there are plenty of examples of albums that have been ruined because they were overcooked in the studio as well as various records that could have used an extra layer of care to either further highlight the value of what they contained or simply raise the quality of the material to a professional level.

As far as that discussion goes, Neil Young has always been a bit of a radical. A firm believer in the lightning in a bottle that is captured by initial takes, he has been both lauded and criticized due to his haphazard approach to recording. His greatest classic, “Tonight’s the Night”, was powered by a reckless spontaneity that went as far as including bum notes, out of tune vocals, and performances that miraculously reached their end despite the fact everyone present in the room was clearly quite high on alcohol and drugs. This unedited looseness also vitally contributed to the greatness of other peaks in his catalog, such as “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, “On the Beach”, “Zuma”, “Ragged Glory”, and “Psychedelic Pill”. On the other hand, his inability to sit with a song for too long has also led to criticism and duds: some claim Young hires the best musicians around only to have them play utterly basic parts since he does not give them the time to develop their magic; and especially in the late part of his career, many have been the cases in which albums that obviously needed a little more work were shoved out the door.

This duality makes it impossible to determine whether Neil is right to work in such a manner: sometimes he is, and occasionally he is not. There is no absolutely correct answer. Yet, it is safe to say most music fans would not change much about how Young operates; after all, nobody would want to eliminate an undercooked dud like “Peace Trail” at the cost of robbing “Tonight’s the Night” of its defining ramshackle spirit. Therefore, not many would disagree that this philosophy has yielded positive results that far outweigh the negative ones. Neil’s 2022 release, “Toast” further reconfirms that notion, and it does so in a way that is specially illustrative of how putting too much work on songs can sometimes ruin them.

Like “Homegrown”, which came out in 2020, “Toast” is not a contemporary work, but an archival release of sessions that went unpublished at the time. And, once more, this is a package that mixes tunes that would go on to come out in another form with songs that had never seen the light of day. In the case of “Toast”, it contains three tracks that should come off as new to the ears of many fans and four cuts that would be reworked and put out one year later in 2002’s “Are You Passionate?”. To those in the loop, perhaps that is not such an appealing perspective: the compositions of “Homegrown” that were known by Young’s audience were stone-cold classics, which in turn made the unreleased album have a revered status; meanwhile, “Are You Passionate?” is one of the singer-songwriter’s most maligned works, so in theory the idea of listening to an album mostly made up of bad cuts should not be all that exciting. But this is where “Toast” brings its twist.

As it turns out, “Toast” reveals those four tunes are not inherently bad: they were just cooked to a point that caused their qualities to be nearly totally eroded. In “Are You Passionate?”, Neil dabbled into soul music by pairing up with one of the genre’s most iconic bands, Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Yet, although the instrumental performances were by all means excellent, the partnership did not truly gel. Young seemed awfully out of place trying to imitate the mannerisms of soul singers, the compositions did not suit the style too well, the mellow vibe made the good lyrics describing romantic feelings of joy and pain sound corny, and the proceedings emerged as contrived. In “Toast”, contrarily, Neil is right at home. Joined by his favorite partners in crime, Crazy Horse, he executes these songs with passion and ragged glory in relaxed mid-tempo jams, and as the tunes’ melodic moments are reached, the members of his legendary backing band step up to the plate to beautify them with their signature country-tinged harmonies.

The usually long length of the tracks, the plodding pace, the charmingly clumsy licks and solos, the nasty distortions, and the melodic softness could cause one to think “Toast” is a work that can be described as Neil Young and Crazy Horse by the numbers. To a point, that evaluation is not incorrect; and to the delight of fans, this is yet another record that proves that when he is accompanied by his longtime collaborators, Neil is almost guaranteed to produce something of value. But “Toast” stands out from other records attributed to that partnership because there are blatantly strong romantic undertones running through it: decorated by a catchy sweet solo that is frequently used to good effect, “Quit” is sung in a nigh falsetto and is punctuated by a female backup singer who repeats “Don’t say you love me”; “How Ya Doin’?”, released in “Are You Passionate?” as “Mr. Disappointment”, is driven by longing and painful love; and “Boom Boom Boom”, which would become “She’s a Healer”, is a blues-based dirge written in celebration of a lover’s power.

This romanticism may show that Young intended, from the get go, to give these songs another treatment or perhaps it is this nature that led him to think soul music was an adequate direction. Nevertheless, the point remains that all of these tracks sound better under the guidance of Crazy Horse, and even “Goin’ Home”, which appeared in “Are You Passionate?” in pretty much the same state as it is heard here, gains value because it feels more at home when standing beside these rocking tunes. In addition, the previously unreleased songs that “Toast” introduces to the world are all of respectable quality: “Standing in the Light of Love” is a pounding barn burner with a searing lead riff working as its hook; “Timberline” hints at being a mindless rocker that will go off the rails, but then it takes a delightfully emotional turn as it reaches its chorus to flirt with gospel via lyrics and surprising keyboards; and “Gateway of Love” is a ten-minute Crazy Horse masterpiece, oozing melodic beauty from every corner while delivering all guttural guitar nastiness that is expected from the band.

Thanks to that, “Toast” is an album that clicks in multiple ways. At its most basic, it is a very worthy addition to the Neil Young and Crazy Horse discography. However, it is also a welcome release for many other reasons: it rescues three songs from being utterly forgotten by presenting them in much better versions; it allows another trio of tracks to escape from Young’s apparently very musically rich vaults; and it reconfirms that the man’s decision to work haphazardly and bet on early takes is not off the mark. Because more often than not, there is great magic to be captured as a band is still trying to grab a total hold on fresh songs, and if too much consideration is poured into the process, a lot of beauty may end up being lost.

five

Setting Sons

setting_sons

Album: Setting Sons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 16th, 1979

Highlights: Thick as Thieves, Wasteland, Burning Sky, The Eton Riffles

Like many other great bands, The Jam nailed the process of making a record right out of the gate, as their debut, “In the City”, is deservingly held in very high regard. However, it can be argued that the trio’s work in that first effort falls onto a bit of an odd middle-ground: it is by all means a fantastic and classic start, but one would not be criticized for saying the group had yet to find a voice at that point. The reason for that, of course, has to do with the timing of its release and the nature of its content: coming out in 1977, at the height of the punk fever and one month following The Clash’s debut, the album’s focus on punchy power-chord riffs and its touches of political thought meant that Paul Weller’s gang was too close to their peers for comfort. And because of that, although “In the City” certainly speaks volumes about the singer and guitarist’s knack for songwriting through its hooks, the record still runs the risk of being seen as a product that emulated the music of its time to a larger-than-desirable degree.

By the release of “Setting Sons”, however, the notion that The Jam could not break away from the crowd had been blown to pieces: not thanks their second album, “This Is the Modern World”, which had actually worked towards giving even more voice to their critics; but due to their third effort, “All Mod Cons”. In it, Weller emerged like a punk version of The Kinks’ Ray Davies; that is, someone who is able to make resounding points – in his case, political – via a nigh literary look at British characters and situations. To boot, he and his band had risen to the occasion and delivered a more nuanced musical package, because, sure, there was still plenty of punk rock in there: a better term does not exist to describe the iconic riff of “A Bomb in Wardour Street”. But, at the end of the day, the album opened itself to the influence of new wave and power pop, hinting at the future adventurous spirit that The Jam would display.

As the follow-up to that album, “Setting Sons” expands on that growth: if “All Mod Cons” was flexible, this forth chapter threatens to be eclectic. It is not a radical departure from the past: it does not flirt with post-punk and experimentation in the same way that its successor, “Sound Affects”, would do; and it certainly does not jump into funk and soul like The Jam’s farewell, “The Gift”. As such, when it is all said and done, punk prevails, guitars get the spotlight, and Weller is still rather angry at a number of different targets. But “Setting Sons” showcases a firmer grasp on the ideas that began being explored in “All Mod Cons”, to the point it is possible to say that if the band did indeed find their voice in their third record, in this one they polished it into its finest version.

Simply put, everything in “Setting Sons” shows a greater degree of maturity and inspiration. Paul Weller comes off as a man on a major songwriting streak: there is not a tune in the bunch that goes by without a hook that emits an iconic vibe; therefore, to unaware listeners, this is one of those albums where it is hard to tell what was a hit and what was not. Moreover, in lyrical matters, new topics have emerged while old ones have been enhanced. In the group of fresh subjects, “Thick as Thieves” and “Burning Sky” are tales about lost childhood friendships, but where the former paints the situation in a sad romantic light, the latter goes for a colder approach. Meanwhile, in the set of recurring ideas, there is “Smithers-Jones”, penned by bassist Bruce Foxton, which is an achievement in recreating the dullness of corporate life with beautiful music; and “The Eton Riffles”, which is likely The Jam’s most famous political statement: a brutal criticism of the British class system that looks at the privilege and nasty behavior of those who can afford to go to the country’s best schools.

That is not all, though, because the musical aspect of “Setting Sons” is also incredibly noteworthy. The instrumentation, arrangements, and production are much richer than before, and it is precisely through them that the album manages to surpass “All Mod Cons” in sheer flexibility. At times, the lushness is so considerable that listeners would be excused for thinking they are going through a British guitar pop album from the 1960s, written by forgotten contemporaries of The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles. This is the type of sound The Jam was aiming for here, and although trying to stand beside those giants is no easy task, the band pulls it off – after all, they were in the process of becoming legends themselves. And the benefit of that strategy is astounding because no other punk band was going down that particular road, as those dinosaurs of the past were usually seen by the movement – at least publically – as figures to be avoided. As such, what The Jam cooks here is mostly original.

Yes, there are songs in “Setting Sons” that could have been present in “All Mod Cons” or even “In the City” without feeling like abrupt deviations: opener “Girl on the Phone” is an incredibly catchy slice of punk that flirts with light romantic pop; and “Saturday’s Kids” has pounding riffs, dirty guitars, and an ironic sing-along chorus. But everywhere else, the music is more dynamic. “Thick as Thieves” and “Wasteland” are the definition of anthemic: songs without choruses that keep building in sadness and melodic beauty to a cathartic release. “Private Hell” may concern personal matters, but it sounds like punk apocalypse. “Little Boy Soldiers” manages to be operatic in how it packs different movements in a little more than three minutes. “Burning Sky” is more straightforward, but it uses the looseness of the letter format of its lyrics to equally include numerous melodic shifts that form a punk epic. “Smithers-Jones” is an orchestrated piece of baroque pop that inevitably recalls “Eleanor Rigby”. And “The Eton Riffles” has The Jam employing the album’s instrumental fullness to assemble their heaviest song ever: an angry all-out guitar assault that also happens to be incredibly catchy.

“Setting Sons” is not perfect. Originally conceived as a concept album about a group of three friends who meet again as adults after a non-specified war, the record was not able to deliver on that promise due to a rushed recording schedule. As a consequence, only fragments of that idea survive, in tunes like “Thick as Thieves”, “Burning Sky”, and “Little Boy Soldiers”. But truth be told, that problem does not actually hurt the album, as it will go by unnoticed to those who are not aware of that background. What harms it are little irregularities that, in some cases, are a result of how it had to be put together more quickly than anticipated: “Girl on the Phone” is fantastic and “Saturday’s Kids” is decent, but they do not gel well with the other tracks; “Little Boy Soldiers” is a clever idea that does not quite stick the landing; and the inclusion of the fun cover of the soul classic “Heatwave” to close the record is, like the appearance of “Girl on the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids”, a clear attempt to fill up space.

Yet, “Setting Sons” remains a wonderful achievement that marks a unique encounter between punk rock, new wave, and British guitar pop. And although the race for the title of The Jam’s best album is a hard one due to the consistency of the band’s short discography, their fourth release emerges as a worthy candidate: Paul Weller never wrote such an incredible batch of songs and the group never sounded as sure of their voice as they did here, especially because the trio would go on to disband without having enough time to fully polish the musical direction in which they would go after this album. Because of those qualities, “Setting Sons” should be an essential part of any punk rock, new wave, and guitar pop discography: it exists at the edge of those three sub-genres, and it masters them with class. There are not many other records that can make that claim.

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Cruel Country

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Album: Cruel Country

Artist: Wilco

Released: May 27th, 2022

Highlights: I Am My Mother, Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull, Tired of Taking It Out on You, Hearts Hard to Find, A Lifetime to Find

Although they arguably reached their artistic peak while operating within the indie and alternative scenes, the country rock label was always attached to Wilco. It made sense. For starters, the band’s frontman, Jeff Tweedy, initially emerged as one of the leaders of alternative country group Uncle Tupelo; therefore, a lot of Wilco’s early work – particularly their first two albums – exhibited traits of the genre, as if their key songwriter was progressively working his way through shedding the skin he had accumulated in the beginning of his career. Meanwhile, down the line, as Wilco grew slightly freakier and notably more experimental, the country qualification remained even if not much of the style could still be clearly identified in the band’s sound; this persistence might be harder to explain, but it can be attributed to numerous reasons: the popularity of Wilco’s early material, the fact none of their alternative generational peers came as close to the acoustic tonality of the genre, and the generally downcast demeanor Tweedy often showed during the group’s indie incarnation.

Yet, even though country was always there in some form or intensity, the bottom line is that Wilco never truly embraced the genre, at least not through the course of an entire album. Their first two records carried way too many radio-friendly electric anthems to qualify, and the works that followed may have had plenty of contemplative acoustic music, but they usually received a rather weird treatment before being committed to tape. That reality, however, changed with “Cruel Country”, because in their twelfth release, the members of Wilco – as stated by none other than Jeff Tweedy – throw themselves into country music without much reservation.

Based on the length of “Cruel Country”, one has to assume that either the band was very enthusiastic about that perspective or Tweedy happened to have a lot of unreleased country songs stashed away in his closet, because the album clocks in at nearly eighty minutes and contains twenty-one tracks. From the start, it is reasonable to see those numbers as problems; after all, rock history has shown repeatedly that long records are only able not to sink under their own weight if they check one of two boxes: variation or message. “London Calling” and “Exile on Main St.”, for instance, thrive because of the former; “Quadrophenia” succeeds due to the latter; and “The Suburbs” showcases both traits. “Cruel Country”, though, does not have these qualities.

In style, the songs merge into one another, since most of them are short acoustic tracks with delicate electric or piano ornaments; and over this instrumentation, Tweedy steadily sings in the sullen whispery mood he has uniformly adopted during the last decade or so. In message, meanwhile, “Cruel Country” does not really have a powerful overarching theme. Before the album’s release, Tweedy spoke of how the record was an examination of the beauty and ugliness that the United States was capable of producing; and country does indeed come off as the appropriate genre for that confrontation because while there is a lot of beauty in it, the style also has an intimate relation to regions of the country where ugly political ideas have the most traction. This interesting contrast, though, does not materialize lyrically to a very notable degree, because even if it is alluded to in the title track as well in a few others, the truth is the tunes that make up “Cruel Country” are mostly concerned with general sadness and relationship trouble.

The combination of these absences could spell disaster for the album, but surprisingly it does not. Surely, there will be listeners who will come away from “Cruel Country” thinking its songs are too similar and that the monotony of its mood mixed with its length turn the work into a nice substitute for sleeping pills. It might not be the fairest assessment, especially since “Cruel Country” is one of those albums that need to be given plenty of time for the music to sink in and the hooks to start emerging from the thick persistent fog; however, it is a reasoning that can be understood: perhaps a little more variety could have helped, maybe a stronger editing process could have made the record’s qualities be more evident, and there is a chance Tweedy could have elevated a few of these tunes by trying not to sound hopeless through an entire track. Nevertheless, the fact remains that “Cruel Country” might be the most enjoyable Wilco album in a long while.

Just like Big Thief had done it in February with their equally countrified and long “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You”, Wilco prove that sometimes lengthy albums can throw variation and message out the window to succeed via sheer songwriting power. Although they may take time to emerge, mostly because Tweedy does not wrap his voice around them too strongly, the melodies are notable throughout the record, regardless of whether they come to the forefront in choruses of sweeping sadness or in quiet verses whose nice little variations can pass by unnoticed. When it comes to lyrics, even if Tweedy is moving through places and themes that are very recurring to him and his audience, the words tend to not only land well, but also show that indie gloom goes rather nicely with a country tinge.

Moreover, despite not being stylistically varied, “Cruel Country” does a good job stretching its muscles in the tight realm it operates. Cuts with a full-band setup contrast with songs carried solely by Tweedy’s voice and his acoustic strumming. The slide guitar goes from evoking contemplative sadness in some tunes to ushering a borderline happy country fair flavor in others. And Wilco does not miss the chance to throw some of their alternative flair into these mostly rural proceedings. Although these odd turns are overall not very frequent, there are a couple of songs with extended instrumental codas, there are a few tunes that have unexpected variations in structure in spite of their brief nature, and there are tracks where traditional country instrumentation takes a back seat to Wilco’s more sparse ambiance, with drums, punctual guitars, keyboards, and other effects filling up the space.

“Cruel Country” may fail to reach the target Tweedy set for it, because not much in its constitution materializes as a trip through the beauty and ugliness of the rural United States. However, as a journey into country music by a band that had long been associated with the genre while never fully dabbling in it, the album is a success. Obviously, as an indication the group could have dug a little deeper, the material would have benefited from a thematic approach a bit more distant from the Wilco standard or from a higher degree of variation in mood. But it is safe to say most who spend a good amount of time with “Cruel Country” will be happy the band finally embraced their country roots in a nigh unadulterated state. And there is a good chance those fans will appreciate the fact that instead of a normally sized package of forty minutes, Wilco has delivered a whopping eighty minutes of good music.

five

Dropout Boogie

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Album: Dropout Boogie

Artist: The Black Keys

Released: May 13th, 2022

Highlights: Wild Child, It Ain’t Over, Burn the Damn Thing Down

Regardless of what the future might hold for them, it is already safe to say The Black Keys have built a very unique career arch. Starting as a duo that rode the wave of the garage rock revival of the early 2000s while borrowing much of their musicality from blues, the band inevitably drew comparisons to The White Stripes; and since Jack and Meg had been around for longer, naysayers were quick to label Dan and Patrick as mere imitators. The truth, though, was – as it usually is – much more nuanced, and a good look at the facts ought to reveal The Black Keys were far from being copycats due to the simple fact they brought something new to the table. Because where Jack liked to pervert the blues via his weird pop sensibilities as well as primitive pounding, Dan and Patrick were more faithful to the genre, daring to build contemporary songs on top of licks, bars, and chord progressions born by the Mississippi.

Eventually, though, the recipe started to change, perhaps on account of how the band’s fourth album, the solid “Magic Potion”, showed signs that it was time to move on. And like any group with a good deal of artistic talent, The Black Keys started stepping away from their origins; a change that slowly occurred over the course of another four albums and that saw a progressively greater amount of pop, soul, and psychedelia being thrown into their sound. Blues aficionados that originally saw The Black Keys as the last of a long-lost breed may not have liked the metamorphosis, but it cannot be denied that the whole process brought positive results to the duo: they got more popular, penned a few hits, probably grew richer, and – most importantly – put together two excellent albums in “Brothers” and “El Camino”.

It is at that point where their career arch becomes unique, because while most groups would keep on going down new roads, The Black Keys – maybe influenced by the lukewarm response received by 2014’s “Turn Blue” – decided to go back to the past and rekindle their relationship with blues. Released in 2019, “Let’s Rock” was responsible for signaling that return. Arriving two years later, “Delta Kream” loudly proved the pair was very serious about this musical trek to the past due to how it was an album of blues covers. The year of 2022, meanwhile, sees the continuation of that trend with “Dropout Boogie”, which – to those that were for some reason still doubtful after two records – further confirms this is no brief detour or a quick fling with an old passion: it is for real.

Now, as flashy as it might be to say that The Black Keys are doing blues rock again, it is important to note such analysis is superficial. There sure was a lot of the genre in “Let’s Rock”, and for “Delta Kream” that goes without saying; but, particularly when it comes to the first one, when reading a statement like that it is easy to think the band is suddenly writing the new “The Big Come Up” or another “Rubber Factory”. That is not the case at all, because as not-so-silently stated by the cover of “Let’s Rock”, its music might be drenched in blues, but its main influence lies elsewhere; to be more specific, in T. Rex and its classic “Electric Warrior”. And the link exists in how both records are built on mid-tempo bars and rhythmic guitar bits that are blues staples, while covering it all in a scratchy distortion, in a hazy vibe that sometimes feels psychedelic, and in pop songwriting.

Describing “Let’s Rock” is essential when talking about “Dropout Boogie” because both are rather similar; one could randomly rearrange their songs to make two different albums and critics would not complain about lack of cohesion in any of the releases. On one hand, that is not a good sign because it screams of stagnation and because the only time when it is acceptable for a band to write two equal albums in a row is when they are honing their craft, which is a moment that is long gone for veterans like The Black Keys. On the other, “Dropout Boogie” manages to make that similarity more acceptable thanks to how it presents enough new elements to create some separation, as it seems to use “Let’s Rock” as a base rather than an artifact that must be copied.

Most of that distinction stems from how “Dropout Boogie” seems to go for a kind of middle ground between the version of The Black Keys that created “Let’s Rock” and the one that produced the more colorful quartet that includes “Brothers” and “El Camino”. Given the band’s career arch, it feels like with “Let’s Rock” as well as “Delta Kream” they were testing how far into blues they could go while maintaining the audience that they had gained with their massive more eclectic hits, whereas here in “Dropout Boogie” they are dialing back a bit and throwing those folks a bone by smoothing the edges, softening the roughness, and essentially looking for some balance. As a consequence, the record delivers blues rock that has a lot of touches from the soul, the pop, and the psychedelia that dominated the band’s second phase.

These traits are very present. They are in the more subdued guitar riff and in the female voices heard during the chorus of “Wild Child”. They are in the dancing groove that dominates “It Ain’t Over”, which becomes even more apparent due to the electronic buzz of borderline disco nature that accompanies the tune’s main hook. They are in the soul bridge of “For the Love of Money”. They are in the high backing vocals that appear in the chorus of “Your Team Is Looking Good” and many other songs. And they are omnipresent in both “How Long”, which is a lazy psychedelic ballad, as well as “Baby I’m Coming Home”, which culminates in a longing pop melody. Therefore, even if “Dropout Boogie” does carry a few tunes that stick more firmly to basic blues, like “For the Love of Money” and “Didn’t I Love You”, these stylistic inflections end up defining the work.

Sadly, though, the overall package does not amount to much for a few reasons. Firstly, this middle ground over which the band opted to build the album comes off as awfully safe, with the mixture it contains failing to capture most of the good characteristics The Black Keys had in the two distinct moments of their career. Secondly, maybe due to how it softens the rough edges of “Let’s Rock”, the record simply lacks the energetic punch required to make its blues rock framework truly click; in other words, “Dropout Boogie” reaches the ears like a work that was done by a great band in auto-pilot mode. Lastly, the songwriting simply is not there, and although there are a few notable good moments, many tunes qualify as pleasant but bland. Because of those issues, “Dropout Boogie” is the weakest blues-based album The Black Keys have ever put out; and if the quality of “Magic Potion” and “Turn Blue” signaled it was time for the band to end those respective eras, perhaps “Dropout Boogie” is an indication that the group should wrap up this return to the past and move on to more productive grounds.

five

Moondance

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Album: Moondance

Artist: Van Morrison

Released: January 27th, 1970

Highlights: And It Stoned Me, Caravan, Into the Mystic, Brand New Day

In the case of most versatile songwriters, it takes a little while for them to show the different styles they can produce with their pen, which makes the whole process of change feel like natural artistic evolution rather than inherent eclecticism. Bob Dylan did not go from folk troubadour to electric beatnik poet in a day; Nick Cave’s transition from hellish gospel to heavenly balladry took more than half a decade; and Tom Waits spent quite a few years as the drunkard who plays sad songs for lonely souls at the local piano bar before becoming the circus leader of a haunted carnival of freaks, degenerates, and outcasts. In Van Morrison’s case, however, that versatility came more quickly, as each one of his first three works reveals a slightly distinct facet of his craft.

His awkwardly titled debut, “Blowing Your Mind!”, still carried the smell of blues and rock, especially in the long-winded highlight of “T.B. Sheets”; and these elements were undoubtedly linked to the fact Van had just left behind his Belfast band, Them. The follow-up, “Astral Weeks”, was folk rock that stretched its muscles via free-flowing jazz influences, as most of the songs crossed the five-minute threshold by engaging in organic emotional and philosophical journeys that made Van look like a man who decided to tape his search for musical catharsis or spiritual revelation. “Moondance”, meanwhile, abandons the pretensions that elevated its predecessor to the masterpiece status to show that the man from Northern Ireland could pull off radio-friendly soft rock.

Whether calculated or not, the move was understandable. “Blowing Your Mind!” had achieved success via the single “Brown Eyed Girl”, but it had hardly left a mark as a complete work. Meanwhile, “Astral Weeks”, as mighty and revered as it may be, looked like commercial suicide by an artist that was far from being established, since the meandering character of its tunes – be them long or brief – meant they were about the trip instead of the destination; as such, they did not produce any hook that was significant or immediate enough to make the album catch the ears of the general public. In that sense, it is easy to look at “Moondance” as some sort of compromise; a time when Van gave in to external forces because he felt this was a pivotal moment in his career: either he could commercially deliver in his promise as an artist or he would likely not get any other opportunities.

Yet, it is not all that simple. In a sense, “Moondance” could be compared to what Joni Mitchell would pull off four years later in “Court and Spark”. After all, both albums display very artistic and idiosyncratic songwriters that had previously challenged musical conventions presenting a work that, superficially, could feel excessively conformist. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and like it would happen in “Court and Spark”, the greatness of “Moondance” is evident to anyone listening to it, but the elements that make it stand out in the midst of a flood of radio-friendly soft rock released during the 1970s – which is a fad that it partially helped create – are so sneaky that some who come into contact with the record might not even notice it to the point they are able to articulate it in words.

For starters, however, it is important to address the obvious: “Moondance” is beloved because it is an astonishing collection of great songs. If it were not so quaint, it could be one of those classic albums in rock history that could deceive listeners into thinking they bought a collection of greatest hits. Through the record’s thirty-eight minutes and ten tracks, Van Morrison simply does not miss, delivering a sequence of great choruses, an abundance of marvelous hooks, and a trove of emotionally meaningful moments that are catapulted to the sky thanks to beautiful arrangements as well as great performances by both Van and his band. The album’s soft nature means it never engages listeners too directly, but pretty much all of its tracks quietly envelop one’s brain until they begin to unconsciously sing along to the endless amount of verses that seem to have been built for that very purpose.

But the ultimate secret of “Moondance” is that, in a way, it does not completely abandon the spirit of “Astral Weeks”. In lyrics, Van once again emerges as a man who likes to write about moments of delight; those little simple events, often missed by most, that are capable of elevating the human soul to some sort of higher ground. And again, he finds these gateways to transcendence in nature (“And It Stoned Me”), music (“Caravan”), and love (“Into the Mystic”). He seems to be out in a search for borderline miraculous occurrences, and the songs lyrically and musically somehow capture this particular state of mind. Unlike it happened in “Astral Weeks”, Van will not take listeners on a seven-minute emotional journey about the beautiful girl he used to see walking down Cyprus Avenue as a teen. Instead, “Moondance” feels like an abbreviated version of that quest, either because it has learned a shorter path to delight or because it opted to focus on the transcendence that follows the long meditation.

What matters is that this approach brings a great degree of spontaneity to these concise tracks, and its success in “Moondance” makes it unsurprising this unchained impulse would become a concept that is intimately tied to Morrison as an artist. This freedom is everywhere here, albeit in a more restrained mode than in “Astral Weeks”. In the title song, where the record embraces jazz, there is a prevalent feeling of improvisation, especially in the walking bass line and in the woodwinds. In “Caravan”, the start-and-stop chorus seems to show Van testing his band, because the hook that signals the movement is used irregularly through the track to great effect. The transition between verse and chorus in “Into the Mystic” is so seamless it comes off like an organic transformation done on the spot. “Come Running” is the kind of joyful free-flowing southern shuffle that could have been executed by The Allman Brothers Band. “These Dreams of You” is loose and very well-played acoustic blues. “Brand New Day” has Van trading lines with his female backing singers in its cathartic chorus. “Everyone” has a hook so simple it appears to be ad-libbed. And the lalalalas of “Glad Tidings”, which also show up in “Caravan”, have got to be a spontaneous product of sheer happiness.

Immersed in this feel-good environment, “Moondance” absolutely grooves, because – as it has often been the case in his career – Van Morrison anchors his folk softness in the rhythm of the black music he admired, especially R&B, jazz, and soul. Therefore, both the album’s light and more energetic moments gain very tasteful power. Horns bring an extra dose of spiritual elevation to the chorus of the acoustic ballad “It Stoned Me”, the soul backing singers add beauty to the fragile whispered infatuation of “Crazy Love” as well as to the nigh gospel revelation of “Brand New Day”, and the thick rhythm section causes the title track, “Come Running”, and “These Dreams of You” to swing. Surrounded by these sounds, captured by its infinite hooks, and stunned by its marvelous songwriting, “Moondance” becomes impossible to resist. And perhaps that was Van Morrison’s plan all along, because by condensing the soul-searching without abandoning his identity, the invitation of “Astral Weeks” turns almost into an intimation for us to see life through his eyes. Consequently, “Moondance” is nothing short of revelatory.

five

We

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Album: We

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: May 6th, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Fear Of The Dawn

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Album: Fear of the Dawn

Artist: Jack White

Released: April 8th, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Unlimited Love

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Album: Unlimited Love

Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Released: April 1st, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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