Return Of Saturn

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Album: Return of Saturn

Artist: No Doubt

Released: April 11th, 2000

Highlights: Ex-Girlfriend, Simple Kind of Life, Bathwater, New

For a while during the first half the 90s, it seemed like No Doubt was going to be that decade’s version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The comparison may seem absurd at first, but the parallels are actually plentiful. For starters, these were two Californian bands of mostly white youngsters who found the identity of their sound in the merging between rock and a rhythm of black origins: funk for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and ska for No Doubt. In addition, rather than approaching that mixture with seriousness, the bands thrived in employing a silly tone in their music. It is not, of course, that they lacked respect for the genres they were drinking from; much to the contrary, there was genuine admiration displayed in what they were doing. But youthful energy got the better of them and their output came off as a bit foolish.

To accentuate the comparison, in both cases the bands were able to make it out of that initial cocoon to showcase a more mature form. While the Red Hot Chili Peppers did so with their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, No Doubt broke through on the strength of “Tragic Kingdom”, their 1995 album. A key difference, however, was that if the former group found success with the same creative nucleus that had made four albums, the moment of revelation for No Doubt came when Eric Stefani, the brain of the band until that point, opted to get out of the picture, leaving the task of steering the ship to somebody else. And although, in a way, most of the members rose to the challenge and carried the load, it was his sister, Gwen, who stepped into the spotlight more firmly.

“Tragic Kingdom” had been a bit of an unexpected hit. A band that had, up to that point, published two commercially failed records and almost been dropped by their label as a consequence was trying to give it another go under the guidance of an inexperienced leader. However, not only did No Doubt perform the tracks as if their lives depended on it, because they did, but the band also matured and wrote with the same sense of urgency. The time to grow up, even if ever so slightly, had arrived, and the four members pulled through it, with an occasional hand or two provided by their former leader.

As the follow-up to that pivotal work, “Return of Saturn” does not really sound like it was made with blood, sweat, and tears. “Tragic Kingdom” was incredibly well written, but it was rough around the edges, showing a band on the verge of stardom; comparatively, “Return of Saturn” is much sleeker. This is by all means the creation of a band that had succeeded and, as a consequence, gained access to the recording company’s vault that paved the way to better production and greater aspirations. Sure, there was already plenty of pop to be found in “Tragic Kingdom”, as it exhibited the traditional brand of accessible, catchy, and energetic alternative rock that No Doubt would become known for. But “Return of Saturn” is a bigger pop statement. It is a work put together by people who had already made it and were thereby able to look at the process of creation like well-versed professionals.

It is a description that makes “Return of Saturn” sound like it was easy to birth, but evidence truthfully points in the opposite direction. A whopping five years actually separate the two albums: a dangerously large interval that had already killed the seemingly unstoppable momentum of other bands, like Elastica and The Stone Roses, and one in which No Doubt faced plenty of creative obstacles. As such, even if generally feeling like pop rock bliss composed by experts at the craft, “Return of Saturn” has undertones that indicate it is the product of a crisis, with the one that was being faced by Gwen Stefani being in most evidence; a natural consequence of the fact she was the leader of the group and the person responsible for writing lyrics.

The name of the album refers to the astrological phenomenon that is believed to hit those that near the age of 30, with the specified planet coming back to the point where it was on the person’s date of birth and that human having to face the responsibilities of adult life. For Stefani, who was around that age when much of the record was made, the crisis brought by Saturn seems to be one related to love and marriage. Throughout the work, almost not a tune goes by without her longing for what she sees as true love. Some songs, like “Simple Kind of Life” (an orchestrated power ballad with lo-fi treatment) or “Marry Me” (a passable loose ska jam), dive fully into that topic. Meanwhile, others deal with marginal feelings related to that subject; the stop-and-start punk of “Ex-Girlfriend”, for example, has Gwen wishing for the end of empty relationships. And a number of tunes approach matters that are part of the cauldron of emotions that boil up as one gets older: lusting for those that should be forgotten (“Bathwater”), envying youth (“Staring Problem”), and even mortality itself (“Six Feet Under”).

It is, fortunately and naturally, a far cry from the material of their first two albums. And even though the subjects are neither rebellious nor electrifying, not only are they true and well-handled, but No Doubt also does not forget the value energy has for their music. “Ex-Girlfriend”, “Six Feet Under”, and “New” flirt with the good kind of pop punk; “Artificial Sweetener” bangs in distortion aided by a keyboard that lends the track a new wave feeling; and “Bathwater” as well as “Staring Problem” recall the group’s early days by incorporating brass into the racket, even if the latter exaggerates on the silliness. “Return of Saturn”, however, is a record of ballads, and it is in them that its biggest weaknesses can be found, for although “Simple Kind of Life” more than proves the band can write a slower tune very well, that consistency is not kept throughout the tracks.

The first issue comes in the album’s sequencing itself, as the rockers are more prominently present on the first half while the ballads appear mostly on the second; given “Return of Saturn” has one hour of music, this imbalance causes it to drag towards the end. Secondly, nearly all of the slower songs follow the same pattern: jangled guitars or muffled punk riffs on calmer verses with loud emotional explosions on the choruses. It occasionally works, as it does in “Too Late”, and the melodies are generally good, but the fact the best two ballads here (“Simple Kind of Life” and “Magic’s in the Makeup”) do not use that formula is quite revealing of how a leaner or perhaps more varied approach to them would have done “Return of Saturn” some good. Due to these misses and a set of energetic tracks that show some punctual inconsistencies, “Return of Saturn” is not quite as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, its strength cannot be denied, and No Doubt’s first record after finally breaking through is an enjoyable portrayal of how success does not make one immune to problems: be them creative or personal.

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Homegrown

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Album: Homegrown

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 2020

Highlights: Separate Ways, Try, Homegrown, White Line, Vacancy

As a result of the ever-shifting tireless mind of Neil Young, many have been the projects that – during his long career – have either failed to gain enough traction to get out of the ground or simply been left lying complete on the cutting floor of the editing room of his prolificness. And though a quick survey among his fans is bound to elicit a number of endeavors whose non-fulfillment have left them frustrated, when asked to choose one between those they would want to have access to the most, the biggest slice would be likely to point to “Homegrown”, an album Young put together in the middle of the 70s and that was so prepared for release that it even had received an album cover. However, right when it was about to be green-lighted into the market, Neil – as he is wont to do – changed his mind and left it behind.

The reasons why “Homegrown” has always had such a legendary status are numerous and understandable. For starters, it was produced by Young during the 70s, a decade when he chained a sequence of incredible albums that has hardly been matched. Furthermore, as the artist’s lore says, the record was scrapped in favor of the masterful “Tonight’s the Night” following a listening session when the two were played back-to-back and Neil opted for the latter because he perceived “Homegrown” as an unbearable downer; and considering “Tonight’s the Night” is itself utterly dark, such comment generated curiosity. Finally, general descriptions of the work have been published throughout the years, with Jimmy McDonough in Young’s biography, “Shakey”, talking about each track and Neil himself saying “Homegrown” was the missing link between his three country albums (“Harvest”, “Old Ways”, and “Harvest Moon”), two of which rank among his greatest successes.

As of this year, Neil Young fans can stop wondering and start listening, because nearly half a century after “Homegrown” was tackled yards away from reaching the audience, it has finally been released to the general public. And although the assessment made by Neil regarding the album’s style pointed to good old country, just like the record’s iconic cover, what comes out of “Homegrown” is a weird blend between “Harvest” and “Tonight’s the Night”. From the first, it gets the crispy acoustic value of the genre, its harmonies, and its instrumentation: case in point, besides Neil himself, the most prominent musician in the album is the always magical Ben Keith, who brings a dobro, slide guitars, and backing vocals to the table. From the second, meanwhile, it borrows the feeling of drugged despondency, as its acoustic numbers are so frail they frequently threaten to break and its electric tracks reek of the emotional abandon of “Tonight’s the Night”.

In fact, “Homegrown” at times feels disjointed. Over the years, the record’s tracklist surfaced in many forms, with songs coming in and dropping out of what was supposed to be the finalized album with such a speed that it revealed the work’s nature was foggy to all parts. The now officially released version is one that is very rough around the edges; such quality, it is worthy pointing out, has always been present in Young’s best works. But in “Homegrown” it seems to be more glaring than ever: the twelve tunes are mostly very brief; a few, like the piano-and-voice “Mexico”, feel underdeveloped; and “Florida”, a lo-fi spoken-word retelling of a hallucinatory dream or drug trip that is accompanied by the playing of wine glasses, feels like a quirky B-side.

It may sound like criticism, and at some points that spirit does detract from the album, but Neil and his crew sure know how to make the rambunctiousness work in their favor. Take, for example, the ironically titled “We Don’t Smoke It No More”: built on a traditional blues pattern that is held for five minutes, it is mostly a loose instrumental that eventually reaches a couple of verses when Neil and the group basically state they have quit drugs. The decadent smoky vibe, however, very much the same one that was prevalent in “Tonight’s the Night”, says otherwise, and with all of those involved being clearly quite stoned, a listener cannot help but both applaud the jubilant vibe the band keeps and feel some of that joy as well. Other great, though creatively superior, moments of rowdy drug-fueled rock emerge in the excellent “Vacancy”, a galloping electric tune that is reminiscent of “World on a String” from “Tonight’s the Night”; and the title song, which had already seen the light of day in 1977’s “American Stars ‘n Bars”, but that here gains a looser and more interesting version.

On its acoustic tracks, the record also features a few songs that Neil ended up putting out in albums that followed the shelving of “Homegrown”. “Love Is a Rose” is a short folk tune with a sweet simple melody and some harmonica, and it was released – in the same version that appears here – in the compilation “Decade”. Similarly, the haunting beautiful dirge of “Little Wing” had shown up in 1980’s “Hawks & Doves” and “Star of Bethlehem”, which features gorgeous harmonies by country legend Emmylou Harris, was also present in “American Stars ‘n Bars”. More notable is the case of “White Line”, published in 1990 as a vicious rocker and one of the highlights in the excellent “Ragged Glory”, it emerges in “Homegrown” in its original form: a stripped down unplugged take with Robbie Robertson accompanying Young on guitar that serves to make it even more clear that the track has one of the best melodies ever coined by a songwriter who is a master of the craft.

Speaking of impressive melodies, “Homegrown” holds three marvelous gems that only an artists of the caliber of Young would have dared not to release for over forty years. Opener “Separate Ways” recalls “Out on the Weekend” from “Harvest”: anchored on a steady basic beat, barely driven forward by crispy guitars, and haunted by the touching pedal steel of Ben Keith, it is one of those sad part folk part country tunes that took Young to stardom. “Try” has a similar construction, but although the singer still sounds absolutely defeated, the more positive lyrics, an eventual rising piano, and the backing vocals of Emmylou Harris sprinkle some color into the misery. Finally, “Kansas”, which has nothing but one guitar and voice, is utter dark misery, the one fans would expect from Young during the “On the Beach” and “Tonight’s the Night” era.

It goes without saying, but “Homegrown” ends up not living up to the expectations that surrounded it. After all, there are not many records out there that could have delivered material to match a legendary status that was built for almost half a century. And, in fact, if put side by side with much of Neil Young’s output during the 70s, it would be closer to the bottom of the list than to the top. Some of its impact is certainly lost due to how a slice of its tracks had already been heard either as they appear here or in a slightly different format. Moreover, its little flaws are hard to deny. Yet, likewise, the same can be said for its greatness: it is simply inescapable. The decision to release “Tonight’s the Night” in its place might have indeed been the correct one, as that album is clearly much better. But denying the world of the beauty, misery, wildness, and excellence of “Homegrown” for so long was a mistake: one that Neil, as the artist and originator of these tracks, had the all the right to make, but one that has thankfully been corrected.

Frances The Mute

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Album: Frances the Mute

Artist: The Mars Volta

Released: March 1st, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Avery Island

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Album: On Avery Island

Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel

Released: March 26th, 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorado

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Album: Colorado

Artist: Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Released: October 25th, 2019

Highlights: Olden Days, Green Is Blue, Milky Way, I Do

Fifty years separate “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, the first album Neil Young ever recorded alongside what would go on to become his signature backing band, Crazy Horse, and “Colorado”, his 2019 release that has the singer-songwriter reuniting with the band for the first time since 2012’s “Psychedelic Pill”. It goes without saying that the five decades that stand between “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Colorado” have seen the world go through many changes; however, as every Neil Young fan ought to know, Crazy Horse has stood immune to it all, aware that as their leader went through a myriad of musical experiments and different sets of musicians, he would always eventually feel like returning to the comfort of the band that is so firmly attached to his legacy.

And so, following a stint of six years during which the ever prolific Young produced five albums with collaborators that ranged from Promise of the Real to Jack White, the old man opens the doors of the barn to take the horse for yet another spin. For fans, that is a move which always brings, with it, both excitement and hope; but this time around, it seems the two feelings come in extra intensity. For in addition to, naturally, rejoining Neil Young with the filthy and spooky plod of Crazy Horse, the reunion that gives birth to “Colorado” also comes amidst a series of irregular albums and a creative streak – including a lengthy tour – in which Young’s enthusiasm with the youth of Promise of the Real at times made it seem like his collaboration with Crazy Horse was done.

As it turns out, it was not, and with guitarist Frank Sampedro being replaced by Nils Lofgren, who records his first studio album with Crazy Horse since 1982’s “Trans”, the trio which is complemented by Ralph Molina and Billy Tabot answers the calling of Neil Young. Unsurprisingly, “Colorado” has all the makings of a record put together by that historical collaboration. As the perfect accompaniment to the singer and his usual stylistic explorations, Crazy Horse knows how to get nasty and throw themselves in the mud by using rough guttural guitar distortions that are employed to build mid-tempo songs while simultaneously succeeding in conjuring beauty via sweet harmonizations when the tunes ask for it. And it is out of these pieces that “Colorado” is mostly made of.

At times, these elements appear separately. The traditional harmonies are used to bring an extra layer of smoothness to tracks that, leaning to a softer side, venture into the mixture of folk and country that Neil Young showcased in albums such as “Harvest”; meanwhile, the bellowing guitars and the trudging rhythm that is so peculiar some – as it happens in pretty much all Crazy Horse records – will call it amateurish and dull, are the backbone of earth-shattering hard rock cuts. More often than not, though, those pieces will appear together, unlocking a sound that, nearly exclusive to the collaboration, manages to be instinctive and primitive at its core whilst exposing an aura that is delicate and sentimental. “Colorado” thrives because of that nature, which ought to make all fans happy with the fact Neil Young and Crazy Horse are still going; the album, however, cannot escape some of the problems that have afflicted the songwriter’s output as of late.

Firstly, there is the matter of the lyrics, which suffer not just because Neil Young has turned a bit mono-thematic in recent years, with the focus of the old hippie shifting to environmental problems and politics, but also because he seemingly cannot tackle those topics with poetry, relying on direct wording that results in oddities like “I saw mother nature pushing Earth in a baby carriage”. Secondly, there is the songwriting itself, which has simply become irregular. Finally, and probably greatly contributing to the prior item, there is how Neil Young is now way too devoted to his ever-standing belief that working too much on songs erodes their quality, a philosophy that did wonders to his discography when he was in his artistic prime but that, lately, has caused more harm than good, as the tunes are sometimes not developed with the due care and the takes that make it to the album sound a bit premature.

The tracks that are damaged because of those problems are many. “She Showed Me Love”, which at thirteen minutes should theoretically qualify as the tasty Crazy Horse jam of the album, is actually a disappointment as a consequence of bad lyrics, an uninspired melody, and a lack of musical ideas to justify its length. Both “Help Me Lose My Mind” and “Shut It Down”, although passable, have Young ranting over solid hard rock groves that are broken up by harmonized choruses; an idea that he has explored way too frequently in his latest works. And “Rainbow of Colors”, borrowing the melody from Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”, is a shot at a sing-a-long rock anthem that praises the different kinds of people who live in the United States; despite its good intentions, the result is lackluster and partially embarrassing, with its only saving grace being that it is not half as bad as “Children of Destiny”, the song from 2017’s “The Visitor” in which Young used the same recipe.

Still, amidst the mistakes, and appearing like proof that Neil Young is an incredibly talented individual who, past the age of 70, is still working hard and sharing his gift, “Colorado” also happens to hold some gems. “Think of Me” is a beautiful and positive acoustic song that – with drums, a piano, a harmonica, and plenty of harmonies – could be a missing track from the excellent “Prairie Wind”. “Olden Days” is a gorgeous reflection on the loneliness of old age, and thanks to a heart-touching guitar lick by Nils and an unexpected falsetto by Young, it gains a lot of emotional resonance. “Green Is Blue”, led by a piano and complemented by gentle guitars, is a great environmental tale that stands shoulder to shoulder with the classic “After the Goldrush”. “Milky Way” is such a slow and precariously loose Crazy Horse jam that it continuously threatens to break down. “Eternity” is simple and playful thanks to its unusual backing vocals. And closer “I Do” is an introspective acoustic number that, in a rare turn for late-career Neil Young, operates lyrically on many levels.

Therefore, the reconnection between Neil Young and Crazy Horse ends up being only half of a victory, because as great as that match may be, it is simply not enough to allow the former to escape the habits that have plagued him in recent years. In many cases, “Colorado” displays a Neil Young that packs all of those problems into the same version of himself, and even if that person in question is a beloved old man fighting a very worthy fight in the best possible way, the music he produces can be poor. Still, Neil Young is just too good to fail completely, and with Crazy Horse by his side he actually produces a work that is decent, sinking to notable lows in numerous cuts, but coming across multiple successes that should make all listeners that sit down with “Colorado” happy that Neil is active and pumping out records.

Ghosteen

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Album: Ghosteen

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Released: October 4th, 2019

Highlights: Spinning Song, Bright Horses, Waiting for You, Sun Forest, Hollywood

It is understandably hard to dissociate 2016’s “Skeleton Tree”, the sixteenth album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from the death of Arthur, the band-leader’s fifteen-year-old son. After all, not only do many of its lyrics work as perfect references to that sad occurrence, but its body – made up almost entirely of slow-tempo atmospheric tracks that dwell on heartbreaking sorrow and emotional despair – also make a strong case for the establishment of such a link. Yet, that correlation is not entirely true; after all, by the time tragedy struck, the record had been almost completed, with only a few sessions remaining to conclude the album, meaning that most of its pieces – save for perhaps a bunch of verses and vocals – were already in place by then.

Contrarily, when it comes to “Ghosteen”, the sequel to “Skeleton Tree”, the connection simply cannot be denied. The title of the album, which employs an Irish-language suffix to create a word that means, in a direct translation, “little ghost”, is already large enough of a clue to let listeners know what the record is about. “Ghosteen” and Arthur are one, and all of the songs Nick Cave created for it uniformly stem from the feelings and ideas that have gone through his mind ever since his son passed away. As consequence of that, “Ghosteen” travels through a spectrum of emotions that is only accessed by those who have suffered tremendous losses in life; a myriad of sentiments that will be introduced to those who have not, and that will be painfully familiar to those who have.

With all tunes being a product of the collaboration between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, “Ghosteen” works, from a musical standpoint, like the final chapter of a trilogy that began with 2013’s “Push the Sky Away”. In it, following the departure of two of the Bad Seeds’ most important and long-tenured members, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, Ellis emerged as Cave’s most prominent collaborator, and together the pair went on to explore the atmospheric minimalism of lush ambient music produced by synthesizers and droning violins. “Ghosteen” is the, supposedly, closing entry of that phase, and it also qualifies as its most ambitious instance, for it dives much deeper into these elements than its two predecessors.

To a point, that ambition serves “Ghosteen” quite well. The textures it conjures are, at times, almost orchestral, slowly developing a series of isolated elements into various movements that continuously build via slight variations, achieving the emotional apexes that Nick Cave’s lyrics and themes call for. That complexity, in fact, reaches its pinnacle in two of the album’s final three songs, “Ghosteen” and “Hollywood”, which flex the atmospheric sound Cave and Ellis have crafted so extremely that they push past the twelve-minute mark. Yet, much like “Push the Sky Away” and “Skeleton Tree” did before it, the band – with their head firmly buried deep in what is, for the Bad Seeds, totally experimental grounds – does not forget that, above all, these are still meant to be pop songs even if they are dressed up in great minimalism; and for that reason, “Ghosteen” does not fail to bring many hooks – of the heart-wrenching sort, of course – along into the crushing journey it proposes.

And a journey is indeed what “Ghosteen” qualifies as. Only, as Nick Cave himself appears to realize during the course of the album, the road that is followed by it has no real end; it is guided, perpetually, by the wish to find a feeling that brings relief: be it understanding, conformity, peace, or the strength to move on completely. However, the events of the past simply have too strong of a gravitational pull, never truly letting go and distorting the path so violently that it sometimes moves sideways or even backwards. And as he despairs for a thread of hope, he seems to just be able to uncover some comfort in three thoughts that, quite appropriately, close out the album: the ideas that peace of mind is still a long way away, that he will find relief when his time comes, and that – as evidenced by a Buddhist tale he narrates – every family in the world has already gone through a major loss.

It is an utterly devastating conclusion, not only due to its miserable nature but also because of its undeniable truthfulness, and it is brutal to see Nick Cave expose himself so clearly in his lyrics and in his singing. He tries to hide in a world of fantasy only to be brought back into reality by thoughts of death (“Spinning Song”); he talks himself into believing in the impossible return of his baby (“Bright Horses”); he breaks down as he calls to Arthur (“Waiting for You”); he remembers happy moments and sees bad omens in them (“Night Raid”); he depicts beautifully sad images, always tinged with the presence of his son, of ghost-like children ascending into the Sun (“Sun Forest”) and of galleon ships sailing into the morning sky (“Galleon Ship”); he picks up broken messages that come from beyond the grave (“Ghosteen Speaks”); he gets lost in sad cyclical thoughts of love (“Leviathan”) as well as stuck between the present and the past (“Ghosteen”) ; he seeks refuge in his imagination (“Fireflies”); and he runs away from it all looking for some solace (“Hollywood”).

In the end, he does not find what he was searching for; perhaps nobody truly ever does. But he learns how to work through it, coming across lifelines to which he can hang on. And all of the process from initial despair to some sort of consolation is mapped in the tracks of “Ghosteen”. There is no denying that, be it from an artistic or from a personal standpoint, the album is a product of admirable courage, for it takes some barely charted bravery for someone to be so open about such intimate sadness in front of so many people. At the same time, “Ghosteen” feels utterly necessary, because other than the fact its lyrics make it blatant that creating the album went hand in hand with the attempt by Nick to heal some of the wounds, it also comes off like a message from someone who has been through the worst of all pains to all of those who have experienced, or will experience, similar tragedies; an outwards scream that tries to make it clear that nobody is really alone when facing relentless sorrow, for it might as well be the most human of all feelings. Those details alone are enough to make “Ghosteen” a must-listen and another powerful entry in the almost immaculate discography of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

In the face of such importance, the fact that its tracks contain atmospheric beauty, lyrical sadness, and melodic creativity of a rarely seen sort is a nice bonus. At some points, though, not all of those elements are present, and when that happens, “Ghosteen” can hit some spots that – given its nearly seventy-minute running time – feel like they could have been cut, as it happens in “Night Raid”, “Ghosteen Speaks”, “Leviathan”, and “Fireflies”, which either fail to come up with compelling melodies or dynamic instrumentals. Yet, “Ghosteen” is still able to remain engaging all the way through, because whether it is through the strength of its core message, through the brutal sincerity of the process it narrates, or through its emotional power, it is an album that carries a spiritual force that is very much real, as if Nick Cave tapped deep into a well of misery – perhaps deeper than any other artist – and dared to take what he found to the surface, transforming it into a healing potion for himself, a musical gift to his fans, and a gentle helping hand to those who have lost somebody.

Tonight’s the Night

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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

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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.

Black Monk Time

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Album: Black Monk Time

Artist: The Monks

Released: March 1st, 1966

Highlights: Monk Time, Shut Up, I Hate You, Complication

For quite a while, The Monks have been baffling those that are interested enough in rock to be willing to take a look at the oddest and most obscure corners of the genre. Formed by five soldiers of the United States’ army who were stationed in a small town in West Germany, the band was one of those musical sparks that, rather than going through the process of fading away, burned out quickly, coming together, playing some concerts without ever having the chance to step in their home country as a group, recording an album, and disbanding in slightly more than four years.

And, truth be told, the footprint left by these fine gentlemen – who, sticking closely to the name they went by, wore black habits and shaved tonsures – would not be so notable had they, time and time again, not been mentioned as some sort of weird atemporal phenomenon that somehow anticipated trends that would only show up much later in the annals of music. As most critics and historians have it, The Monks – during the twenty-nine minutes of their one and only album – tease: with their experimentation, the avant-garde tendencies of rock that would only emerge in 1967 through The Velvet Underground; with their stripped-down production, the basic nature of the garage rock style, which would find its defining moment a few years later via The Stooges; and with their careless and wild playing, the roughness of the punk movement, which was one decade away.

It is a lot to pack into such a small amount of time, and it is a junction of branches so unexpected in both temporal and geographical terms that “Black Monk Time” may initially be seen as a product that is almost from another world; and, indeed, back in 1966, West Germany probably felt like a different planet to those in England and in the United States, the centers in which rock was developing. There are, however, method and sources for the strangeness of the record, two factors that make it slightly more earthly. For starters, as mad as all the tunes contained in it might seem, they are usually firmly grounded in the beats of rockabilly, meaning that they come in fast, bouncy, playful, and packed with short driving riffs; moreover, there is a lot of doo-wop and surf music influences that emerge when the whole band harmonizes in velvety, but mildly twisted, vocalizations.

And these are a pair of flavors that would not be hard to find in many groups of the era. It is undeniable, though, that the crazy far outweighs the typical. Larry Clark plays a searing and untamed organ whose prominence in The Monks’ music, especially when it goes into short frantic improvisations, at times recalls the work of The Doors; Dave Day uses a banjo more frequently than he employs a guitar, giving the brief pounding riffs a folk-country edge that feels amusingly out of place within the confines of what the group is doing; and Roger Johnston delivers unusual drum patterns whose speed and chaotic heart serve to enhance the spiraling insanity of the tracks.

The star of the show, though, is Gary Burger. With his loud, piercing, and feedback-laden guitar, he brings forth not just noise, but also utterly reckless mini-solos of delightful spontaneity; and with his rather elastic voice, he talks energetically, he screams in excitement, he shouts in blatant threat, he preaches in lunacy, and he appears to try a little bit of yodeling at some point. His is the perfect unhinged facade of a quintet of folks that sound absolutely demented. It is in that psychosis and in their annoyance at the restrictions of rock music, which reportedly frustrated them, that The Monks find their identity; and, much to the pleasure of listeners, “Black Monk Time” – as idiosyncratic as it may be – contains plenty of hooks and great moments, even if they are dressed in too much madness for the general population to warm up to them.

In “Monk Time”, while the band pounds relentlessly, Burger – like a cleric – spreads the word on the harms of the Vietnam War and also finds the time to introduce the members of the group; in “Shut Up”, The Monks repeatedly build up to the glorious, menacing, and violent moment when they shout the catchy four-word chorus in unison; in “Higgle-Dy-Piggle-Dy”, a basic repetitive beat is the platform for the vocalist to spout gibberish and for him as well as Clark to go crazy with their respective instruments; in “I Hate You”, whilst Burger goes on a shrill rampage of rage, the other monks counter humorously with a deadpan harmonization; and a similar kind of vocal interplay, but leaning towards the angry, is what carries the beautiful hurricane of insanity that is “Complication”.

The value of “Black Monk Time” might be inflated by those who see it as the point of origin for all kinds of rock that are wild, spontaneous, unfiltered, bold, or downright crazy. Certainly, these are all adjectives that apply to the music of The Monks, and surely there are bridges, some clearer than others, between what they built here and a lot of what was to come later, even if – at the same time – “Black Monk Time” is perhaps too far apart from the sounds of punk and garage rock to be seen as the ancestor of those genres. More relevant than discussions on historical relevance, though, is the fact that the album is highly original and fun.

Nobody sounded like The Monks back when they were active, and it is likely – amidst the mountains of songs that are produced every year – that no one has ever come close to playing like they did. Their uncontrolled brand of rockabilly has a loose, unpretentious, and rowdy vibe that is invariably endearing, punctually hilarious, and weirdly infectious.

“Black Monk Time” does lose some of its initial steam as it approaches its end, for the three tunes that close it out – despite the funny “That’s My Girl” – lack the strong ideas that abound in the first half of the record; moreover, thanks to the repetitive nature of their music, a few tracks – regardless of their brevity – may annoy some due to how they keep beating listeners over the head with the central hook over and over again. Even with those problems, however, “Black Monk Time” is a unique blast; an album that may not be as otherworldly or as important as advertised, but that has the potential to be more entertaining than anticipated.

I Am Easy to Find

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Album: I Am Easy to Find

Artist: The National

Released: May 17th, 2019

Highlights: Oblivions, I Am Easy to Find, Not in Kansas, Rylan, Light Years

Detractors of The National have always been quick to point out that the band’s music contains an homogeneity that the quintet – twenty years into their career – has been unable to escape from. The monotony these critics perceive has manifested itself in the endless melancholy of Matt Berninger’s lyrics; in the constantly low-key and delicate arrangements present in the group’s tunes; in the unshakable sullen mood constructed by their approach to production and writing; and in the immense effort these natives from Ohio dedicate to assembling records that are so tightly knit in themes, instrumentation, and pace that they feel like indivisible pieces. Such comments are, of course, very much true.

However, whereas these traits are taken as motives for displeasure to those who are unable to see what the fuss is all about, they are – at the same time – the qualities that have led The National both to amass a considerable following as well as to gain major respect from the specialized press. And much like those who depreciate the indie rockers, these admirers are absolutely correct, because while operating in a very tight niche, the band has displayed an uncanny level not just of consistency, which can understandably be interpreted as excessive comfort, but also of sheer good taste, for ever since they found their footing in 2005’s “Alligator” it is awfully hard to locate a purely bad tune or even an unpleasant note in The National’s discography.

“I Am Easy to Find”, their eighth album, will not change the mind of either camp: fans are bound to be captured once more by the group’s gorgeous gloom; meanwhile, naysayers will dismiss it entirely. The difference, this time around, lies in how long it will take for the factions to reach such conclusions, because the nature of the new material seems destined to amplify the polarization. The National’s records have always been growers, requiring repeated spins so that their hooks and intricate beauty reveal themselves, but “I Am Easy to Find” takes it to another level, because it is – somehow – slower, sadder, softer, more uniform, and more subtle than any other work the band has ever put out. As such, some additional dedication will be demanded of those that want to be swallowed by its aura, and not many minutes will be needed for frequent critics to realize the characteristics that annoyed them have gotten much more outstanding.

“I Am Easy to Find” achieves that accentuation in a number of ways. For starters, it is constituted of sixteen tracks that go on for sixty-three minutes, making it The National’s lengthiest effort; and although that running time does not considerably surpass the one from “Sleep Well Beast”, the record feels much longer on account of how it is almost uniformly made up of very slow tunes. Furthermore, the soft rock approach, which was still very much alive in the previous album, is replaced by sparser arrangements anchored on large drums, straightforward yet moving piano parts that simply mark key changes, tasteful orchestration, and electronic beats that gain new prominence in the band’s music; a mixture that makes “I Am Easy to Find” a piece of very moody chamber pop.

It is a slight stylistic shift that, on its own, simultaneously keeps the album quite comfortable in The National’s canon and allows it to qualify as some sort of artistic evolution. The most noticeable change in sound “I Am Easy to Find” carries, though, is the presence of five female vocalists that take turns sharing singing duties with Matt Berninger, at times harmonizing with him, occasionally taking the lead through entire verses, and once crashing into engaging chaos (“Where Is Her Head”). Even if some listeners, especially the band’s most devoted fans, may wish they were guided by the singer’s unmistakable half-drunk baritone during the entire course of the album, the guests actually work wonderfully.

Firstly, because they bring forward an emotional edge that sometimes is not entirely captured by Berninger’s voice; most importantly, though, because the constant interchange between male and female subjects is in synergy with the lyrics of “I Am Easy to Find”, which seem to gravitate around a couple that, when together, goes through continual instabilities and, when apart, appears to be in perpetual longing for each other’s presence, as if their fates were written in such a way that they are left with no alternative but to face, hand in hand, the hurdles that life throws their way. Truth be told, it is not exactly fresh lyrical terrain for Matt, who seems to be in an eternal mid-life crisis, but his poetry is – as usual – well-done, and the conjugal themes, powered by the shared vocals, resonate, making up for some pretty stunning music.

Undeniably, though, “I Am Easy to Find” is held back by the junction of its length with its consistency in instrumentation and tone. It is a problem that could have easily been remedied by cutting some of the album’s moments that reek of indulgence, like its two dull instrumentals (“Her Father in the Pool” and “Underwater”); its unnecessary choral interlude (“Dust Swirls in Strange Light”); or a few tracks that just fall flat, such as “Roman Holiday”, which is melodically uninspired, and “The Pull of You”, which is mostly constituted of spoken passages. Surely, not everything that would remain would qualify as stellar, since “I Am Not Easy to Find” does have a few tracks that, despite being pleasant, feel like The National on autopilot (“You Had Your Soul with You”, “Hey Rosey”, and “Hairpin Turns”).

However, that would allow a much bigger portion of the album to come off like what it truly is: The National at their best, which is what can be seen in “Oblivions”, the record’s best exploration of the duet between a man and a woman; “Quiet Light”, “I Am Easy to Find”, and “Light Years”, which are utterly moving in their subtle beauty; “Not in Kansas”, a six-minute tour de force that holds a pair of unexpected choral interruptions and that, like a good Bob Dylan track, is able to go the distance on the heels of strong melody, simple but beautiful instrumentation, and gripping lyrics; and “Rylan”, a very good slice of upbeat and accessible indie rock. As such, due to its excess, “I Am Easy to Find” does not fully realize its potential. Even so, anyone who takes the time to sit down with it and work towards unearthing the most polished edges hiding in the large mass of dense gloom will be rewarded, for amidst the rather uniform fog it is possible to spot one of the best contemporary rock bands operating at their peak; the problem is that one will likely need to squint to see it.