Punisher

phoebe_bridgers

Album: Punisher

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers

Released: June 17th, 2020

Highlights: Garden Song, Kyoto, Chinese Satellite, I Know the End

“Punisher”, the second album by indie rock singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, derives its title from a quirky concept coined by the girl herself. In her mind, the term refers to a person who – as sweet as they may be – is completely unable to tell that those who are listening are not that interested in what is being said; and, as a consequence of that unawareness, the speaker simply keeps on talking without noticing they are the source of some social discomfort. As Phoebe puts it, a punisher can either be somebody one meets at a party and cannot stop rambling about bothersome topics or even a fan who, delighted at crossing paths with their idol, is too excited by the experience to even consider the source of their admiration might be busy, tired, or momentarily closed to interactions.

As an artist, it seems obvious Phoebe created the term out of personal experiences, since she is – after all – a human of some fame, which has undoubtedly caused her to be approached in less than ideal occasions. However, the album’s title song smartly shifts roles, putting the singer herself in the position of the one that is dishing out the punishment. And as a homage to her greatest inspiration, the person that is targeted by her uncontrolled mouth in the scenario imagined during the tune is none other than Elliott Smith, the legendary indie folk singer who died in 2003. Having lived close to Phoebe’s Los Angeles neighborhood before his passing, she imagines cornering him by his house and shudders at the mess she would make out of the situation.

Comparisons between Bridgers and Smith are nothing new, as they have been around since the girl’s 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps”; and Phoebe, even before writing “Punisher”, was never shy about who her biggest source of inspiration is. It is possible to say, though, that whatever parallels exist between the two artists – and they are certainly there – similarities have been somewhat over-amplified. In “Punisher”, Bridgers calls herself “A copycat killer with a chemical cut”, but the truth is her music is distant from Elliott’s. Smith was a folk singer at heart, one whose tunes of sorrow could be perfectly replicated when he sat on a stool with his acoustic guitar and almost whispered through a torrent of miserable words. Phoebe, on the other hand, is part of a far more developed indie scene, one with shiny production, full-band arrangements, and effects that add atmosphere to an intimate setting.

Rightfully, one could say that the passing of more than twenty years is responsible for that shift, as during that time the indie movement went on from being on the fringes of rock to the center stage; and such change in position transformed its aesthetic from garage lo-fi to delicate pop craft. Yet, the fact remains that the point in which the work of Phoebe truly meets that of Elliott is in the emotional realm. These are two artists that hold, in their writing, the ability to summarize devastating feelings in concise statements. They do not construct images carefully; they pile emotions on top of each other, remembering scenes in a fragmented dream-like manner in which every frame of the disconnected plot they retell was engraved in their heart thanks to the burning intensity of a feeling.

It is with that skill at full display that Phoebe returns in “Punisher”, and once more – as it was the case with Elliott – one has to wonder if the singer will be able to support the weight she carries on her shoulders. There is certainly a great deal of strength within her as well as an admirable courage in the fact she is able to be so open about it all, but the tunes are so delicate and her voice so frail that the breaking point always seems to be around the corner. As “Punisher” goes on, Phoebe checks all the boxes one would expect out of a sad album, including failed relationships, death, and depression. However, she adds to the pile some more unique and rather personal stories, including the lack of faith alluded to in “Chinese Satellite”; caring and trying to rescue a destructive person from their own demons in “Graceland Too”; feeling drowned by a mountain of terrible current affairs to the point one is sure the apocalypse is nigh in “I Know the End”; and, of course, the anxious awkward encounter of the title cut.

It is a lot of turmoil, but the weight of “Punisher” does not come solely from the fact it talks about sad matters; it also originates from how genuine Phoebe is as an interpreter and writer. There is little doubt she has gone through all feelings described here; this is no flowery storytelling. And the frailty of most tunes augments that perception. Guitars are always picked or plucked, rarely being strummed at all; the rhythmic low-end of the songs is created by a conjunction of occasional pulses as well as atmospheric effects by numerous tasteful synthesizers; and keyboards add a relaxing backing luster to the tunes, making them float in the air as if the instruments were being played on the surface of the Moon. In the middle of that aural magic, numbed by hurt, Phoebe painfully whispers like somebody who is watching a sad slow-motion film of her life passing through her mind.

Although consistent in mood and pace, “Punisher” finds ways to occasionally break out of the pattern that dominates it, a progress that makes it slightly better than its good but overly monotonic predecessor. “Kyoto” is a pleasant surprise, a tune in which Phoebe makes use of her band to rock out a little and go for a slightly faster tempo, which nicely suits the theme of disorientation seen in the track; in addition, the song is made brighter by the use of a brass section and both an infectious rhythm and a soaring chorus that make it perfect for radio play. “Chinese Satellite” adds more intensity to its chorus each time around, eventually throwing violins, frantic drums, and a noisy guitar into the mixture. “ICU” has a chaotic start-and-stop steady beat that owes a bit to The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”. “Graceland Too” is catchy misery with a country tinge. And “I Know the End” has almost half of its running time dedicated to an epic cathartic sing-along outro that borrows from the indie rock playbook.

Overall, it is awfully difficult to find fault with “Punisher”. It is a concise work of great thematic and musical cohesion. Furthermore, it has no obviously weak cuts, even if some of its slower parts at times flirt with merging with one another in their lethargic beauty. As great as it may be, though, it is possible to say the defining work of Phoebe’s career is still – hopefully – ahead of her, because the one element that “Punisher” lacks is a unique creative spark to further separate it from the scene that originated it. Although not quite the copycat of Elliott Smith she shames herself for being, in wading through the terrain of well-produced indie sadness, Phoebe navigates too close to what a listener expects out of a genre that has been very omnipresent during the past years. And even if melodically and lyrically she is a point out of the curve, the music has yet to find a truly remarkable breakthrough. Consequently, “Punisher” is just about flawless, but its perfection is excessively grounded on what has been done before.

four

To Bring You My Love

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Album: To Bring You My Love

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: February 25th, 1995

Highlights: To Bring You My Love, Meet Ze Monsta, Send His Love to Me, The Dancer

“To Bring You My Love” presents a combination of qualities that is, to say the least, very unlikely. On one hand, it is a record of intimacy, featuring a collection of songs that (with the exception of the ruthless banging of “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Long Snake Moan”) are quiet and subdued; as such, it is an album that forces listeners to lean in so they can enter its universe appropriately and grasp everything PJ Harvey is trying to say. At the same time, though, her third work is also positively fierce, and while it deals with feelings that usually indicate a sullen atmosphere, such as maddening love and death, the album turns the table on these topics; rather than being sucked down into defeat by them, it opts to stand tall in the midst of the misery, expose its suffering soul for the world to see, and bask in the courageous glory of the act. “To Bring You My Love” is, therefore, a triumph of displaying relentless passion in a restrained manner.

The keywords for that achievement are heart and performance. In her two previous albums, “Dry” and “Rid of Me”, PJ Harvey had already shown she had plenty of those. Her lyrics, entwined with blatantly stated emotions so powerful they sometimes spilled into threats or violence, had turned the indie rocker coming from the English countryside into a somewhat dark menacing figure in the minds of her audience. To further enhance and validate that impression, she and her band executed these tunes ferociously: the sound was raw, as if performed from within a dirty garage; the playing was loud as well as rough, concocting a peculiar mixture of blues with punk; and PJ Harvey interpreted her lyrics with the authenticity of someone who had lived through them, screaming in pain, shouting in anger, singing in defiance, or staring her target down in hatred when necessary.

It is not a surprise, then, that “To Bring You My Love” is a masterclass of performance. Considering the wild nature of its predecessors, however, the true shock here comes from how PJ Harvey has almost completely shifted gears when it comes to expressing herself. Instead of breaking into her lover’s house and screaming on his face while building a fabulous racket with her guitar, in “To Bring You My Love” she is taking a sneakier approach, luring listeners into the inner workings of her psyche and exposing – in a much calmer and sinister manner – what goes through the veins of her body. It is, essentially, the distinction between performing a revealing emotional monologue on a stage and whispering those same truths to a an individual that is inside her home.

With a lot of room for emotion and little space for either instrumental flourishes or ornamental touches, “Dry” and “Rid of Me” were basic, minimalistic, and raw. In another glorious turn of incongruence, given how different it is from those records, those characteristics are also valid for “To Bring You My Love”. However, needless to say, once again the record gets to them in a very distinctive way. As PJ Harvey’s break into the mainstream, the album’s production is much more full-fledged: the sound is clean, stripping nearly all punk and garage ethos from the music; the instrumentation is varied, as pianos, keyboards, strings, and light electronic treatments come into play; and all of these are combined to give the work a sleek luster and some carefully engineered atmospheres. Yet, even if for the first time accompanied by so much decoration, PJ Harvey’s inherent rawness is not drowned.

A good portion of that victory stems from the fact that, quite boldly and despite the extra treatment, many of the tunes are left in a very bare-bones instrumental state. The title track, in fact, may be the finest example of that approach, because even though an additional louder guitar punctually emerges and a few haunting keyboard lines are occasionally played, the song – which goes over the five-minute mark – is mostly carried by PJ Harvey’s voice and her electric guitar, as she delicately picks a quiet (yet mighty and threatening) blues-inspired riff. Those who have listened to “Dry” and “Rid of Me” may expect, like in many instances from those albums, the tune to explode into a furious thunderstorm at any moment as tension slowly builds when the other two instruments come and go as well as when the singer puts an extra force behind her hypnotizing words, but PJ Harvey never attacks, intimately declaring – instead – the insane sinful lengths through which she would go to be with her lover, and leaving the dark clouds to just loom in the distance ominously.

Various other tunes follow suit. “Working for the Man” is even more naked, as despite the nigh constant presence of a very light jangly guitar, its leading instruments are the steady drums, the simple but catchy bass line, and PJ Harvey’s whispers about picking up a whole lot of lovers while driving around. “C’mon Billy” is essentially made up of an acoustic guitar and voice, and as she sings from the point of view of a woman who tries to convince the father of her child to meet their kid with the intent of seeing the man again, she does so with the intensity of someone who is playing a vicious rock song. “Send His Love To Me” is another acoustic track, but one that has some percussion and a spectacular combination of strings with an organ. “Teclo” features nothing but a voice and electric guitar duo that slowly builds up emotion as PJ Harvey states the death of her lover will also be her end. “Down By The Water”, in which a woman drowns her infant daughter, has tasteful and eventual orchestral touches, but is guided by a nasty noisy organ, bass, and drums. “I Think I’m a Mother” is a stripped-down blues number drenched in effects. And “The Dancer” builds an epic ballad with an organ and watery guitars.

From a cynical perspective, these are tunes that should not click. They are mostly long; they are not very dynamic; most of them have no pronounced choruses; and their structures are not very well-defined. However, not only do they work, but they are utterly gripping. PJ Harvey, drinking from the bluesmen of old, throws a load of religious references into her songs, as if only supernatural forces – be those of God, Jesus, or Satan – could understand her woes or help her get rid of them. Meanwhile, channeling one of her idols, Howlin’ Wolf, she pours herself into these tracks madly, whether it is to shape dark atmospheres (“I Think I’m a Mother”), emerge like a threatening giant of immeasurable force (“To Bring You My Love”), or throw herself down in utter despair in search of a higher power that can save her (“Send His Love to Me”). In that context, the basic but impossibly catchy instrumentals are accompanying music for her performance, and her feelings are delivered via uniformly excellent melodic work that will subtly sneak up on listeners.

“To Bring You My Love” is then an album of clashing values. It is intimate, but ferocious. It is sleek, but raw. It is straightforward in instrumentation, but unbelievably involving. It is basic, but sonically diverse. It is melodically subtle, but inevitably catchy. And, ultimately, it is one of those rare breakthrough albums that package the artist for the mainstream without compromising their essence. Working alongside Flood and John Parish as a producer, PJ Harvey abandons her garage beginnings to find a sound that is bare-bones, unique, and challenging, but also approachable. In its rawness, it stays true to her early music. In its simplicity, it allows her to keep on leading the way with her unfiltered emotions. And as it supports one encounter between inventiveness and spotless songwriting, it produces one of the rock’s masterpieces.

five

Phrenology

phrenology

Album: Phrenology

Artist: The Roots

Released: November 26th, 2002

Highlights: Rock You, Thought @ Work, The Seed (2.0), Rhymes & Ammo

By the time “Phrenology” came out, The Roots were not strangers to eclecticism. This was, after all, a group that was at the forefront of the alternative hip hop movement. By playing instruments and, therefore, producing their beats and grooves in a more organic manner than most artists of the genre, the Philadelphia band was pushing boundaries from the get go, be it by centering their music on a loose, jazzy, and smoky atmosphere; by lyrically sidestepping some of the common themes of the rhythm; or by occasionally toying with the rap format itself, as their debut work, “Organix”, featured a twelve-minute song that is better described as a hip hop jam and pretty much all of their first records presented spoken-word tracks that dabbled in poetry and emotional storytelling.

Still, for anyone that was tracking their progress up to the release of “Phrenology”, its release must have come with quite a shock. Just three years before it, The Roots had succeeded in breaking through on the strength of their fourth work, the hip hop classic “Things Fall Apart”. And although, in it, the band had been able to retain all elements that made their music unique and noteworthy, one of the achievements of that record was exactly the trimming down of their indulgent tendencies, which often revealed what appeared to be a lack of focus, and the delivery of a musical package that albeit ambitious, conceptual, and experimental, also happened to feel like a concentrated effort that balanced those audacious flights with accessible hip hop. As such, “Phrenology”, one could expect, would be a continuation of that progression.

The Roots, however, are not an ordinary hip hop group. And, because of that, “Phrenology” is not the run-of-the-mill successor of a classic. Rather than building on what was laid down, the band – perhaps knowing that the only path to advance after such a marvelous work was to look elsewhere – destroys what was in place. Consequently, in a way, a parallel could easily be drawn between “Phrenology” and The Roots’ initial effort, “Organix”, because the two records feel like the start of something new: they venture into the unknown, tapping their way through a dark room with the knowledge that there is a valuable discovery there. The search is messy, plenty of objects are broken, a few stumbles occur, there are plenty of growing pains, and at times one wonders if the quest is even worth it; but, in the end, something of value is found, even if it might not exactly be what the band was looking for in the first place.

The difference between “Organix” and “Phrenology”, of course, lies in the nearly ten years that separate them; a time The Roots used to go from a promise in development to recognized artists. Due to that, not only is “Phrenology” far more satisfying, but it is also a more interesting and adventurous journey. And it is precisely in there that rests the shock of “Phrenology”, because rather than showcasing a dozen different ways of putting together a hip hop track with jazz flavors, which was the whole operating procedure of “Organix”, it is an album of variety so wild that it is a bit jarring. As besides carrying that signature The Roots combination, “Phrenology” dives into funk, neo soul, rock, punk, electronic music, and more.

Aside from “The Seed (2.0)”, a rock-rap fusion guided by an addictive riff that culminates in one sweetly melodic chorus courtesy of guest Cody ChesnuTT, there is absolutely nothing in “Phrenology” as catchy and immediate as many of the tracks from “Things Fall Apart”, like “The Next Movement”, “Dynamite!”, “Adrenaline!”, and – of course – “You Got Me”. Moreover, whether it is in the seven-minute sound collage that concludes the otherwise excellent “Water” or in the passable electronic hip hop experiment of “Thirsty!”, there are a few moments here that would have been better left on the cutting room floor; especially considering the whole album clocks in at seventy minutes. Because of that, “Phrenology” is one of those projects that demands that listeners work towards appreciation. With time, its unproductive or indulgent detours emerge as natural parts of the discovery process it documents so well and honestly; in addition, more importantly, true musical gems begin to pop up from where, initially, it seemed like no value could be extracted.

When it comes to the highlights of the package, “Rock You” may appear straightforward at first, but soon enough its threatening, banging, distorted beat turns into a heavy hook; meanwhile, both its lyrics and the way it unexpectedly segues into the twenty-second hardcore punk curveball of “!!!!!!!” are a perfect introduction to the wildness of “Phrenology”. Likewise, “Thought @ Work” might seem too messy on an initial listen, but truthfully it is yet another hard-hitting piece of hip hop; here, over a funky base featuring horns with enough swagger to drag even the shy onto the dace floor, the band unleashes a layer of noises that at times recalls the Beastie Boys in “Paul’s Boutique” while Black Thought raps viciously. Finally, stuck between the messy seven-minute “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”, which matches spoken-word vocals, electronic interludes, and instrumental breaks, and closer “Thirsty!”, “Rhymes and Ammo” can be overlooked, but besides having the most infectious chorus of the record, it also shows how powerful a rap track can be by using three basic elements: one solid drum beat, one frantic keyboard hook, and a fantastic vocalist.

Even if it lacks the immediacy of “Things Fall Apart”, “Phrenology”, in its all-encompassing and somewhat conflicting glory, does not leave poppier moments out of the equation. Both “Sacrifice” (featuring Nelly Furtado) and “Complexity” (featuring Jill Scott) use the traditional recipe – the one that launched “You Got Me” to success – of joining rapping verses delivered over relaxing grooves with sweeter choruses that are melodically sung by female vocalists. But like the inventive little creature it is, the album does not approach them as straightforwardly. In “Sacrifice”, the chorus is more of a duet, with the relatively flat – nearly spoken – melody trying to recreate an argument; it is an interesting concept, but the tune fails because the rapping lacks punch and Nelly’s falsetto delivery comes off as more annoying than appealing. “Complexity” is more successful in that proposal, as its unusual beat does not stop Jill from delivering a touching chorus and coming off as a better companion to Black Thought. On a similar tone, “Break You Off” is another utter success; its light guitar touches and the soothing R&B vocals of Musiq serve as thick hooks under the rapping, and the track has a wonderful, equally blissful, instrumental coda that extends the song past the seven-minute mark.

“Phrenology” is hard to define. It can be too complex and indulgent, as it is in “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”, but it can also be basic and alluring, like it manages to be when it builds “Rolling With Heat” by using just drums and processed horns and “Quills” by using drums, bass, and fuzzy synths. It can employ guitars for beautiful picking adornments, as in “Pussy Galore”; for good rock riffing, as in “The Seed (2.0)”; for lightning-fast punk, as in “!!!!!!!”; or throw them out alongside other instruments for some electronic trip, as in “Thirsty!”. It can be downright wonderful (“Thought @ Work”); good but flawed (“Water”); or passable (“Sacrifice”). It can be jazz, hip hop, rock, funk, neo soul, or poetry. It is confusing, it is delightful, it is overwhelming, and it is – most of all – the work of a band that tried to start from scratch after finally having brought their sound to full maturity. It is a bold move, and its successes and failures show that The Roots are ultimately too good, creative, and artistic to make the same album twice.

three

Gigaton

gigaton

Album: Gigaton

Artist: Pearl Jam

Released: March 27th, 2020

Highlights: Who Ever Said, Superblood Wolfmoon, Dance of the Clairvoyants, Seven O’Clock

The infamy punk rock has as a genre with tragic personal stories is absolutely fair, as the rhythm has not only a variety of sad tales, but also a notable handful of unfortunate cases – such as Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders – that loom quite large. However, as far as being the musical style with the biggest quantity of misfortunes, it is the grunge movement that ought to get the strongest level of attention. Shockingly, over the years, the mightiest groups of the cultural phenomenon have either disintegrated into erratic careers filled with ups and downs or simply exploded due to the loss of their central figure, with many of them sadly facing both of those situations. Nirvana irremediably ended with the death of Kurt Cobain; the Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden broke up and reformed afterwards only to, when their returns seemed to be gaining traction, lose their frontmen to their ghosts. While Alice in Chains, though able to resurface quite competently after some years, originally disbanded following the tragedy of Layne Staley.

Amid the blows suffered by their contemporaries, Pearl Jam has always stood as a steady ship. Surely, like any group of people who have joined forces to do something great, the band’s lore is not without drama, but a successful career with no interruptions, no big personnel changes, and relatively steady releases has turned them into an entity of alternative rock. And, like the mavericks they seem to be, the group has plowed through it all and remained seemingly unaffected by all the traps of the music industry, to the point that even with no hits produced in quite a while, the quintet has toured extensively and intensely, drawing large crowds of faithful to stadiums around the world regardless of the current state of affairs.

It is with that spirit that Pearl Jam gets to their eleventh release, “Gigaton”. To the world that lives outside of the group’s bubble, they are completely untouchable, standing firmly unaffected by negative opinions and influences; to those in their realm of influence, contrarily, there is a communal feeling in watching the band come to town or publish new material. Thirty years into their career, that unique status has done Pearl Jam some good and – obviously – some bad, as while it has allowed Vedder, Ament, McCready, Gossard, and Cameron to keep on doing what they want, it has also tied them to a very clear safety zone.

At times, in the very recent past, that combination has yielded results that have been purely negative, with the generally shunned “Lightning Bolt”, released in 2013, serving as the largest example of the problem that exists in that extreme comfort. In “Giganton”, though, the balance seems to have shifted. In the grand spectrum of Pearl Jam albums, it is certainly a work that leans towards the safe, landing far from the unpredictable material of “Vitalogy” and “No Code” as well as from the light genre detour of “Backspacer”. But even if it is easy for one familiar with the band to know what they will get in “Gigaton”, that does not mean the record lacks virtues.

In fact, “Gigaton” has plenty of qualities. For starters, its first two tracks, “Who Ever Said” and “Superblood Wolfmoon”, are among the finest rockers the band has pieced together after the stellar trilogy that opened their discography; packing powerful riffs, furious speed, and easy choruses, they touch upon all the staples of Pearl Jam classics. “Never Destination”, though certainly not as good as that opening duo, is another very competent heavy-hitter. Although slower, rawer, and featuring guitars that seem to grind, “Quick Escape” is equally powerful thanks to a chorus that fantastically releases its relentless tension. Meanwhile, “Seven O’Clock” – lasting slightly over six minutes – is a slow-cooking ballad with tasteful guitars and punctual keyboards that, carried by the album’s best melody, would be iconic if it came during a time when Pearl Jam could reach the outside of its bubble, as the group did in their debut.

Lying in the same vicinity of quietness, length, and good taste, the two tracks that bring “Gigaton” to a close are also quite successful. With an acoustic core but plenty of appearances by electric guitars, “Retrograde” holds a grand coda which lends it an epic feeling that can be found in the most powerful cuts of “Ten”. “River Cross”, on the other hand, is a rarer gem: a tune that finds little parallel in the Pearl Jam canon, reaching for uniqueness in how it is built over a floating and misty mass of keyboards and drums. Such originality, as it turns out, can also be observed in “Dance of the Clairvoyants”, the leading single and best track of “Gigaton”. With writing credits going to all members of the band, an uncommon occurrence for Pearl Jam, the song was the product of a jam session, a nature which it displays quite clearly in its nervous, uncertain, percussive, and organic constitution, recalling – surprisingly – the admirable awkwardness of the Talking Heads, especially in Vedder’s jittery vocals.

If trimmed down to these tracks, “Gigaton” would have been a late-career marvel that is worthy of the size Pearl Jam has when hitting the road. Sadly, the record’s running time is inflated to fifty-seven minutes due to the inclusion of a few passable – though not bad – tunes that, to aggravate the issue, seem to be concentrated towards the second half of the album. Firstly, there is “Alright”, an atmospheric ballad that does not find a worthy thread of melody. Meanwhile, coming in sequence, “Take the Long Way”, “Buckle Up”, and “Comes and Goes” threaten to sink the flow of the whole package. The first, written by Matt Cameron, was probably originally intended for his work with Soundgarden given some of its traits and would have maybe gained actual purpose if performed by that band. The second is a circular acoustic tune that goes nowhere. And the third, despite its great melody, is dynamited by how it is stretched to six minutes by repeating the same pattern over and over again.

The blatant weaknesses of “Gigaton” make the album vulnerable to fair criticisms regarding its length, its pace, and its almost complete lack of surprises. However, just like it was not affected by the unfortunate tragedies and drama that abounded in the grunge movement, Pearl Jam will likely not be touched by those complaints. And, in the end, that is not too bad. At this point, the band is not exactly playing to convert anyone or to make a significant artistic statement; they are doing it for the sake of the millions of fans they have around the world and, of course, for their own satisfaction, as it is clear they have a blast being an alternative rock entity that has challenged odds and expectations to survive long enough to welcome the beginning of the fourth decade of their career with a pretty good effort.

Hootenanny

hootenanny

Album: Hootenanny

Artist: The Replacements

Released: April 29th, 1983

Highlights: Color Me Impressed, Within Your Reach, Buck Hill, Treatment Bound

As defined by the dictionary, a hootenanny can either be an informal folk music session at which artists perform for their own enjoyment or a placeholder word to refer to an object whose name the speaker has forgotten. It is hard to think a term could have two meanings that are so divergent; yet, regardless of the reason why The Replacements opted to select the expression to dub their second album, many listeners will come to the conclusion that the two definitions apply perfectly. The first description clicks because “Hootenanny” is as informal as it can be, and its loose nature indicates that the Minneapolis boys are playing and recording these tracks for nobody’s sake but their own; meanwhile, the second is suitable due to the fact “Hootenanny” is so wild and incongruent that putting a finger on what it is exactly turns out to be a challenge.

Anyone who is familiar with The Replacements’ debut, the excellently titled “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash”, ought to know that ingredients such as informality, looseness, and wildness are not exactly news for Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars. They are elements that have always been part and parcel of the band’s package, as The Replacements simply do not exist without the good and the bad that are an inherent part of the careless demeanor of four boys that were outsiders among the outsiders and who, despite understanding that rock and roll was the only possible salvation for their lives, were simply unable to keep it together for long enough to grab a hold of that opportunity as strongly as they should have.

“Hootenanny”, however, deserves the name it carries more than any other record by The Replacements because it amplifies the innocent recklessness to a degree that was not reached by the group either before it or after it; and, to boot, it adds fuel to the fire by being stylistically errant to a point that makes it impossible for someone to classify it with any level of certainty. “Hootenanny” is a musical contradiction of the rarest kind: an album that is clearly a step forward in comparison to its predecessor, but that, at the same time, is far more clueless about what it wants to be.

“Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” was brutally focused: it packed a whopping eighteen songs into less than forty minutes because they were played in the fast and furious tradition of the American hardcore scene, and it was able to give the genre a unique sway by anchoring itself on the rock and roll flavors of the punk sound of the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. It may have been monochromatic, like most rookie efforts in the style, but it sure was exciting and knew what its purpose was. “Hootenanny”, contrarily, simultaneously breaks away from that mold, hence leading the boys much closer to the kind of music that would give them three borderline masterpieces, and staggers around aimlessly and drunkenly. Its performances are so all over the place it feels like a rehearsal for an album rather than an official release; many of its tunes are so underwritten they could pass for demos; and it shoots towards such a ridiculous amount of targets it feels like a work-in-progress.

Shockingly, though, even if such nature definitely holds the record back tremendously, it does not demolish it entirely. As history would go on to prove, The Replacements sure knew how to write gigantic statements whilst hanging on the very edge of utter chaos; and although “Hootenanny” does not prove that ability, as it simply is not good enough to have numerous tunes that could be considered unquestionably excellent, it at least hints at that unlikely skill.

The cuts “Run It”, “You Lose”, and “Hayday” – though exciting and energetic – show the group treading water and revisiting the vicious punk spirit of their debut. The soul of “Hootenanny” is actually found in its other nine tracks, which have The Replacements having an absolute blast by seemingly doing whatever it is that came to their minds when the tape started rolling. Obviously, such irresponsible mindset gives birth to moments that, in spite of being clearly fun for the performers and somewhat endearing for the audience, are not exactly successful: the title track and opener is built on a traditional blues progression that gets more chaotic by the second as Westerberg shouts “It’s a hootenanny” repeatedly; “Willpower” is an unexpected shot at post-punk which, mixing the atmospheric drum-and-bass darkness of The Cure and Joy Division, stretches for too long; and “Mr. Whirly” breaks up a standard punk number with a mid-section taken straight out of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”.

The unbridled madness, however, does have its notable results. Even if based on hardcore instrumentation, “Color Me Impressed” has such a sweet melody it is almost bubblegum pop, making it an undeniable The Replacements’ classic. “Take Me Down to the Hospital” has a fantastic running bass line by Tommy Stinson, turning a punk track into a bouncy boogie. Over the beat of a drum machine and decorated by textures produced by guitars and keyboards, “Within Your Reach” is an excellent power pop ballad. “Buck Hill” is a stellar jangly instrumental that nods to early R.E.M. and gives signs of some of what was to come for The Replacements in the future. “Lovelines” is downright hilarious, as it is impossible not to laugh with Westerberg as he reads – and mocks – classified ads of a personal nature found on a local newspaper while the rest of the group executes one playful shuffle. And closer “Treatment Bound”, recorded precariously, is a marvelous acoustic song that shows how strong Westerberg’s songwriting could be.

“Hootenanny” is awfully hard to pin down. While most albums tend to be a very static portrayal of artists during a certain period of their lives, The Replacements’ second effort might as well be a picture that was taken with the target in motion and that, as a result, came out as a blurry unidentifiable mess. There is failure and there is success; there is moving forward and there is standing still; and there is both proof that it was a haphazardly put together product, which arises in its lack of focus, and also evidence of some careful planning, as the album carries a good deal of lines that are so smartly crafted it is hard to consider they were made up on the spot in spite of how impossibly sharp Westerberg can be with a pen. Regardless of those irregularities, “Hootenanny” is – in the least – a fun ride, because although its overall amateurish vibe can turn some away, there is something infectious about listening to a band like The Replacements have such a blast. And it is exactly such a feeling that “Hootenanny” encapsulates.

Goats Head Soup

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Album: Goats Head Soup

Artist: The Rolling Stones

Released: August 31st, 1973

Highlights: Dancing with Mr. D, 100 Years Ago, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), Angie

From the get go, the odds were heavily stacked against “Goats Head Soup”. After all, between 1968 and 1972, The Rolling Stones had reached the peak of their creative powers and, in the process, the band had mounted what is likely the most legendary run of albums in rock and roll history. Made up of “Beggars Banquet”, “Let It Bleed”, “Sticky Fingers”, and “Exile on Main St.”, it was sequence of works that drank from Chuck Berry and other stars of the genre as well as from a large number of blues legends, learned the basics of what they had done, revamped the rhythms they employed, and introduced them to a large new audience that – otherwise – would probably have remained unaware of the greatness of those American musicians.

Because it is not a nigh flawless classic that stands as a mandatory stop for anyone looking to get a hang of what exactly rock music is, “Goats Head Soup” marks the end of that run. It is the comedown following the transcendence. It is an absolutely normal album that does not get even close to the landmark status of its four predecessors. With so much spectacular material released, and with so much history written, in such a small amount of time, it is easy to look at the fact “Goats Head Soup” is not utterly stellar as the product either of creative exhaustion or from how, after abusing drugs for so long, the group’s vices had finally taken their toll on the five British lads.

It is impossible to say for sure if those claims are valid, and the substance-abuse take is particularly questionable because not even the mythological narcotics-related events of the “Exile on Main St.” era were able to stop Jagger and Richards from creating a masterpiece. What is undeniably true is that “Goats Head Soup” is the beginning of a transition; the starting point of a journey that would have The Rolling Stones slowly cleaning the dirt, blood, sweat, sex, and booze of their blues influences until their arrival at the pure – and very much lifeless and mundane – rock sound that would mark a lot of the rest of their career. But “Goats Head Soup” hangs onto the lifeline not only because, as an early stage of the transition, a huge part of the filthiness remained, but also because Jagger and Richards were still writing well whilst Mick Taylor (the not-so-secret weapon of the band’s classic period) persisted as a contributor despite the troubles he endured in the hands of his two most famous peers.

“Goats Head Soup” is different because where the four major works that preceded it might as well have been made inside an hermetically sealed chamber in which only roots American music existed, their successor has a far more cosmopolitan character. Mostly recorded in Jamaica, which according to Richards was one of the only countries in which he was allowed to live at the time, the album incorporates local musicians, African percussions, and funk sounds (courtesy of a clavinet that is very prominent on two tracks) into the cauldron of The Rolling Stones’ circus. These elements contribute to taming some of the band’s dirty debauchery and adding a surprising layer of sleekness to the music, and although – as one might expect – such trait occasionally damages the album, it also takes the band to interesting new grounds.

The distinctive aura of “Goats Head Soup” is visible from the get-go, as “Dancing with Mr. D”, even if built over one catchy riff, gains unique dark contours in its mid-tempo and in its chant-like chorus, which play around with The Rolling Stones’ supposed satanist image. “100 Years Ago” goes the other way and brings funk to the table, starting with a beautiful melody delivered over a leading clavinet before evolving into a fast jam that has Mick Taylor shining on guitar. Carried by a piano, “Coming Down Again” is a gorgeous ballad that has Richards singing while his guitar decorates the track with rainy descending effects created with a wah-wah pedal. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” has a signature The Rolling Stones rocking groove, with horns included, that flirts with funk thanks to the reappearance of the clavinet. And “Angie” closes out the first side with the band’s most famous acoustic number: one of the few instances in the group’s discography that has Jagger genuinely evoking feelings of heartbreak.

Meanwhile, bookending the second half of “Goats Head Soup” are two rock and roll tunes that are the closest the band gets to their traditional sound. “Silver Train” and “Star Star” are blatantly inspired by the swinging steady rhythms of Chuck Berry (especially the latter), but the results they produce are rather different, for where the first is too clean for its own sake and comes off as a track Jagger and Richards could have penned on autopilot in spite of some interesting guitar-playing and the clever usage of the harmonica to simulate a train’s whistle, the second is simply a thrill. Between those two numbers are another three cuts that display “Goats Head Soup” is attempting to break away from the past.

Although being a blues-based loop consisting of two changing lines and a simple chorus, “Hide Your Love” finds personality in the bouncy piano that leads it, in the free-flowing lead guitar by Taylor that accompanies it, and in how it slowly builds to catharsis by having the intensity of Jaggers’ voice rise and by bringing new instrumental elements to the fray as the track progresses. “Winter” is – by that point – The Rolling Stones’ lushest ballad, evoking the coldness of the season via its moving melody and the nicely arranged strings that close it. Finally, “Can You Hear the Music” feels like an improvised jam (with horns, guitars, keyboards, percussion, and even a flute) that, though not completely great, does carry one or two inspired moments.

There is no doubt “Goats Head Soup” could have been a better work. Its tracks are somewhat unevenly distributed along its two sides, with all of the best ones being contained in the album’s first half. More gravely, its infamously murky production is a considerable mistake, because although the gloss it adds does further help the record stand on his own, it also ends up creating a layer of mist that separates listeners from The Rolling Stones, therefore diminishing the power of the group’s rawness and characteristic interplay. Yet, even with those issues and one or two moments that flirt with the lackluster, “Goats Head Soup” is a strong album that has been unfairly – but understandably – debased by its predecessors, and anyone listening to it either with no knowledge of the context of its release or without expecting it to have the same impact as its older brothers is likely to see it for what it is.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi

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Album: New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: September 9th, 1996

Highlights: New Test Leper, E-Bow the Letter, Leave, Bittersweet Me, Electrolite

As the 1980s became the 1990s, R.E.M. concluded its transition from an independent group that toiled away in a small label to global superstars that would go on to sign what was, by then, the largest contract in the industry’s history. However, true to their commitment to musical craft, the band continued to act in their own way. Case in point, despite ranking as gargantuan commercial successes, 1991’s “Out of Time” and 1992’s “Automatic for the People” were not backed up by highly-anticipated global tours, events that would have certainly caused the records to sell even more copies than they originally did and the vaults at Warner Bros. to receive obscene amounts of money.

When 1994 came around, though, and the band had at its disposal the glittery and delightfully decadent set of rocking tracks from “Monster”, which were far better suited for large arenas than the acoustic introspectiveness of its predecessors, R.E.M. felt it was time to hit the road for the first time in six years. Inspired by one of their greatest musical idols, Neil Young, who recorded a full album of original material (“Time Fades Away”) amidst one of the biggest tours of his life, the band decided to do the same, and the result of that experiment in creativity would come out in 1996 under the title of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”.

In common, “Time Fades Away” and “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” share the fact that the respective series of shows that birthed them were filled with trouble. For while Neil Young and his crew spent their nights emotionally wrecked and consumed by all sorts of illegal substances, R.E.M. had to deal with plenty of medical emergencies, which culminated with drummer Bill Berry having a life-threatening aneurysm during a concert in Switzerland. In approach, though, the albums are greatly different, as “Time Fades Away” was put to tape as new songs were haphazardly performed in front of an audience that did not want to hear them, whereas “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” not only lacks drunk debauchery, but is also a mixture of tracks recorded during shows, in soundchecks, in studios, and even a little instrumental piece put together inside a dressing room.

In a sense, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” was not the first time R.E.M. took a shot at making the so-called road album; after all, their sophomore full-length work, 1984’s “Reckoning”, had been written on the road and, thanks to the emotional effects of the band’s inaugural long tour, displayed lyrics centered around traveling, distance, and homesickness. But the two efforts could not possibly be more distinct, because besides obviously capturing the group at very disparate points in their career, the influence that constant motion has on the albums is simply not the same. Surely, with a handful of tracks (not to mention a cover) that nod to the concept and consequences of movement, there are some moments when “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” overlaps with aspects of “Reckoning”; but where the latter is a slick, controlled, and focused product of the studio, the former is a sprawling package: a collection of disparate photographs that have an interesting lack of unity due to how the subject they portray is always on the move.

Clocking in at sixty-five minutes, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is the longest R.E.M. album. Although that size is more a consequence of the length of the tunes (with nearly all of them going over the four-minute mark) than of the amount of tracks the disk contains (fourteen), the band makes use of that space to shoot at a surprisingly vast number of directions; and much to the joy of fans who admire the group’s ability to change their sound and to the credit of Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe, very little of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” can be tied to what R.E.M. did before it. There are echoes of “Monster” in how the record often chooses to simply rock out, but rather than showcasing the glam aura of their 1994 work, these instances have a large open sound that is clearly the outcome of the arena environment in which the tunes were gestated. And there are tinges of accessible pop rock, but they are twisted by unusual length, abrasive arrangements, and raw production.

“New Adventures in Hi-Fi”, therefore, erodes a lot of the commercial value the band’s music slowly gained during the period between 1986 and 1992. The prime example of that turn is leading single “E-Bow the Letter”: featuring Michael Stipe emotionally reciting a cryptic text with considerations on love, fame, and distance while the band plays a haunting march and Patti Smith shows up to deliver a heart-wrenching refrain, the piece is frequently pointed out as commercial suicide and as the main culprit behind the album’s relatively low sales, which were especially disappointing in the United States. Yet, in spite of its blatant lack of marketable traits, “E-Bow the Letter” is absolutely stunning, and it is in that fine balance between impressive quality and absent financial viability that much of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” exists, even if it does contain a couple of immediate hits, like “Bittersweet Me” and its catchy flirtation with the band’s jangly past, the folky match-up of piano-and-banjo seen in “Electrolite”, and the transformation of a Nirvana-like riff into the backbone of a rowdy alternative rock song executed in “So Fast, So Numb”.

“How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” carries a beautiful chorus, but its alluring sparse, mysterious, and subdued verses are more like the R.E.M. of “Murmur” than the one that signed to Warner Bros. “The Wake-Up Bomb” is an utterly explosive thrill, but similarly to other rockers of the album, such as “Undertow” and “Binky the Doormat”, its wide sound clearly indicates it was recorded live. “New Test Leper” is a flawless piece of alternative country, but its marvelous lyrics – focused on a talk show guest that is ostracized by both host and audience – do not exactly have mass appeal. “Leave” is dark, epic, noisy, and has Stipe and Buck simultaneously landing on a great melody and on fantastic guitar hooks; but the fact it is one of the best tunes the band has ever recorded ends up somewhat obscured by its seven-minute length, the long acoustic instrumental segment that opens it, and an urgent buzzing siren that constantly stays on the background. “Departure” has a marvelous poppy edge, but it is a blistering and fast attack of vocals and guitar. “Be Mine” is an electric ballad that could easily be a hit, but it is purposely stretched. And “Low Desert” is great, but it achieves that position via a sweaty, heavy, and tense slow-tempo dirge.

Even through their very successful streak of “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”, R.E.M. never truly stopped being guided exclusively by their desires, since those albums reached notable sales more by accident than by design. “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is, therefore, not too different from its popular siblings; still, it drives home that point far more obviously, as – in its case – artistic freedom clearly works against commercial value; a turn that certainly did not please many folks at Warner Bros. and fans that jumped aboard the train due to universal hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts”. Regardless of such nature, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is completely masterful, be it for its stylistic range, its ability to blatantly broadcast the fact it was done while the band was on the road, or the sheer quality of its tracks. As such, although its musical flexibility can cause some of its songs to have varying effects on different people, the impressive amount of undeniable hidden gems it contains is rare enough to make it qualify as one of the best works of the decade and one of R.E.M.’s finest moments.

Beneath The Eyrie

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Album: Beneath the Eyrie

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 13th, 2019

Highlights: In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain, Catfish Kate, Silver Bullet, St. Nazaire, Daniel Boone

The ominous nest on the cover. The gloomy title. The fact it was recorded inside an isolated church somewhere in upstate New York. All signs seem to indicate that the Pixies, in their seventh overall studio album and third since their return, have suddenly gone gothic. And greeted with the somewhat surprising keyboard, one that would not be out of place in The Cure’s “Disintegration”, that accompanies the rising guitar of opener “In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain”, listeners may buy into that notion and have it partially confirmed when seeing that the following track on the batting order is named “On Graveyard Hill”. “Beneath the Eyrie”, however, does not follow through on that initially suggested thematic, presenting no major stylistic shift to those who are familiar with the band. And that is just about fine.

At this point in their career, the Pixies are unlikely to gain many new fans or break into some revelatory ground. They are not bound to come upon another “Surfer Rosa” or “Doolittle”, records that would go on to influence a new generation of musicians and all the ones that would follow. Likewise, it is highly improbable they will bring back into the fold former fans who think the band should not continue to exist when Kim Deal, their iconic bassist, is out of the picture. Right now, the Pixies are writing, recording, and touring for the converted: those who are able to accept the notion that the group is – and has always been – a vehicle for the songwriting of Black Francis to be broadcast as it is accompanied by the signature guitar playing of Joey Santiago, the tight drumming of David Lovering, and a talented female bassist and vocalist who is able to provide some sweet harmonies and is unafraid to occasionally take center stage. And under that guise, “Beneath the Eyrie” is good.

The record is not without its missteps. Age has, obviously and naturally, affected Black Francis’ voice and lyrics, but where the first is – despite far from its past might – still good enough to carry a tune, the second have lost their mythological and surrealistic charm, at times coming off as if they are trying too hard to land on that likable quirky former style. Moreover, out of the twelve songs brought by “Beneath the Eyrie”, three of them rank close to the bottom of the band’s output: the oddly theatrical “This Is My Fate”, whose only saving grace is how it aims for a new niche for the Pixies; the pedestrian “Ready for Love”, which does have a pleasant Santiago guitar break; and “Birds of Prey”, where Francis talks dully and the melodic combination of Paz’s backing vocals and Joey’s little licks fails as a hook due to how it is closer to annoying than to catchy.

Everywhere else, though, “Beneath the Eyrie” is safely above average. It goes without saying that such a mark is not quite good enough for a band that had a nigh immaculate original run of four records; and in the sense that the album certainly does not keep up with any of the members of that stellar quartet, it surely leaves the door open for arguments that mention a tarnished legacy and a pointless release. However, in the sense that the Pixies are a rock band and that “Beneath the Eyrie” is a rock record, what stands is the fact that their seventh effort is a mostly fun listen grounded on what the group does well, which is using punk guitars, aggressive grooves, bare-bones instrumentation, and an idiosyncratic match of lyrics and vocals to support pop melodies that surf the waves of constant shifts between quietness and loudness.

The usual suspects are all here. In “St. Nazaire”, the Pixies go hardcore, Black Francis screams without a care in the world, and Santiago finds a riff that is mean enough to evoke hellish images. Meanwhile, “On Graveyard Hill” and “Catfish Kate” employ the most well-known of the band’s recipes: verses anchored on raw bass and drums that eventually are pulled into exploding catchy choruses, with the difference being that in the first the Pixies lean towards the punk and in the second they step into the pop by adorning the cut with acoustic strums and an almost wishful melody. “Long Rider” does not stray too far away from that mold, even if it bets more heavily in the harmonization between Francis and Paz and on a darker tone in its verses, which evaporates by the time it gears up to the refrain. Other cards that the Pixies have pulled during their run, but that are not as common as these, also show up in fine form and in a slightly altered approach.

“Daniel Boone” can be compared to the classic “Motorway to Roswell” given it is – by the band’s standards of song length – a nearly five-minute acoustic epic; only where the track from “Trompe le Monde” was filled with alien guitars and an extraterrestrial plot, the “Beneath the Eyrie” centerpiece is an atmospheric low-gravity slice of lunar beauty. “Los Surfer Muertos”, sung by Paz, could be a great lost cut from “Bossanova”, as it carries the mid-tempo pace and mysterious wide soundscape of that record, being part surf rock on mushrooms and part outer-space weirdness. At last, “Silver Bullet” – a strong contender for the spot of best track in the set – is a western ballad (a theme already explored by “Silver” from “Doolittle”) that musically grasps the tension of a duel in the scorching Sun.

Closing with “Death Horizon, a simple acoustic song that is pleasant enough but not quite sufficiently great to justify the noble position it has in the album’s track list, “Beneath the Eyrie” is not completely solid. It has, after all, some very visible holes that are a bit hard to overlook. It is, however, by almost every single standard in rock music, a good album: its cuts are generally very good and, in their briefness, rarely overstay their welcome; its production brings out the best in the band, only intruding to highlight and bring forth notable aspects of specific songs; and its songwriting is competent even though the pen of Black Francis has clearly seen better days.

Its main problem stems from the fact that one of the few rock standards to which it does not live up is the original sequence of records by the band that made it. It is a curse that plagued “Indie Cindy” and “Head Carrier” before it, and it is a shadow that will engulf – even if partially – everything the Pixies will put out until they call it a day. To those that have fallen to it, “Beneath the Eyrie” will undoubtedly land flat, hitting their ears like the sound of a group that is dragging their legacy through the mud. To those who are still listening, though, it holds a good deal of value and some remarkable gems. And while the former group will, understandably, walk away in disgust; the latter will be happy to know Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering are still – Deal or no Deal – doing it and enjoying the massive well-deserved laurels that they should have gotten between 1986 and 1993.

This Is Not a Safe Place

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Album: This Is Not a Safe Place

Artist: Ride

Released: August 16th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help Us Stranger

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Album: Help Us Stranger

Artist: The Raconteurs

Released: June 21st, 2019

Highlights: Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying), Sunday Driver, Now That You’re Gone, Thoughts and Prayers

Out of all hats Jack White has worn in his journey as one of rock music’s most prolific and versatile modern mavericks, The Raconteurs have certainly been the outfit that has brought him the closest to the genre’s pure essence. In a way, through the myriad of projects that he has tackled, he has never strayed far from the rhythm’s ethos, but each of the vehicles for his wild creativity have always had idiosyncrasies that have turned them into oddities.

It is arguable a band could not possibly be rawer and more basic than The White Stripes, but their wacky and bare-bones approach to music was so strange that the homages they paid to blues and garage rock emerged as if performed by noisy little devils; meanwhile, The Dead Weather has always seemed to be more concerned with sludge, darkness, and atmospherics than with the good old practice of songwriting, a method that has given them a personality of their own; and at last, Jack’s solo career, although starting with plenty of nods to folk, country, and blues, signaled to the world with 2018’s “Boarding House Reach” that it would work as the field in which he would have the freedom to plow for stylistic weirdness and experimental insanity. As such, The Raconteurs stand as the sole link Jack White maintains with the heart of rock and roll, and the release of “Help Us Stranger” – coming a whopping eleven years after its predecessor, “Consolers of the Lonely” – indicates he is in the mood to get back to basics.

Consequently, anyone walking into “Help Us Stranger” expecting some sort of musical revelation or groundbreaking experience is bound to be disappointed; after all, as the two other efforts the band has put out ought to prove, The Raconteurs work as some sort of meeting place for friends that tend to gravitate around other projects to get together, jam, relax, write some tunes, and hopefully put out an album containing the results of the sessions.

It is a light approach that produces equally light rock and roll, with its distinctive feature being – of course – the fact that the tunes that form the record have the signature of Jack White, whose nose knows how to smell hooks of the sweet and weird kinds, and Brendan Benson, who brings in the soft sensibilities of power pop and indie rock, which go a long way towards smoothing out the bluntness of his creative partner. “Help Us Stranger” is the third variation on that theme, and in terms of quality, it stands nicely between the irregularity of “Broken Boy Soldiers” and the excellence of “Consolers of the Lonely”, finding a handful of victories as well as a couple of failures in its delightful attempt to merge the usual sudden guitar freak-outs of White, which are plentiful, with the poppy breeze of Benson, which is especially prevalent when he steps to the microphone to either harmonize or take on lead vocals.

From the get go, the album throws at listeners one of the prime examples of that merger, for opener “Bored and Razed” is propelled by a raw drum beat and a mad searing soloing guitar before it goes into an explosive chorus that is equally powerful and laid-back. More subdued in regards to dynamics, the title track, which follows it, has Jack punctually going into short dirty solos that recall The White Stripes while Benson strums an acoustic guitar and joins White in singing an easy melody that gains weird contours due to numerous freaky synthesized vocal effects. Leaning to the more conventional side, but still qualifying as rockers with an offbeat sort of energy, “Sunday Driver” and “Live a Lie” star crunchy fun riffs, but with the former working far better than the latter thanks to how the hook of the first one is fun while that of the second flirts with lack of inspiration.

As a counterpoint to those more agitated numbers, “Help Us Stranger” has plenty of mellower detours: “Only Child” shines in its melodic greatness and in the keyboards that add color to what would otherwise have been a pretty standard instrumental backing; “Shine a Light on Me” has a prominent piano and frequent grand vocal harmonizations that recall Queen’s most operatic moments, and even if those do not work entirely they do add a unique flavor to the album; “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” borrows heavily from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” without coming off like a lazy rip-off due to its great coda and fuzzy guitar; and “Now That You’re Gone” matches an anxiety-building verse led by Jack’s guitar tantrums with a marvelous melodic chorus carried by that same instrument taking on a sweet chiming tone.

As a whole, there are a few purely lackluster moments along the way; more specifically, they appear in the the cyclical and repetitive nature of “Don’t Bother Me” and “What’s Yours Is Mine”, which indicate Jack – when going into “Help Us Stranger” – was not totally out of the mindset he had when writing the experimental madness of “Boarding House Reach”. Additionally, the Donovan cover of “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)”, despite closing out on a magnificent rave-up worthy of The Yardbirds, only really gets interesting when that moment comes up. Still, “Help Us Stranger” is a very enjoyable listen.

One could argue, reasonably, that the album lacks a brighter inspirational spark, because even its standout moments are not truly stellar, with the sole exception to that rule being closer “Thoughts and Prayers”, an emotionally charged, dusty, dangerous, and rickety country piece that has a spectacular arrangement of acoustic strings, a loose fiddle, and a vibe that makes it feel right at home in a lonely western town. However, traveling through the not-so-elevated ups and the far-from-disastrous downs of “Help Us Stranger” is ultimately satisfying, as the album has all the genuine and easygoing spirit of a project that, besides being about having fun with rock and roll, is also very much focused on gathering friends without much ceremony or flair.