Path Of Wellness

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Album: Path of Wellness

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: June 11th, 2021

Highlights: High in the Grass, Worry With You, Method, Bring Mercy

Through their career, Sleater-Kinney has achieved the miracle of never sounding like they were treading water creatively despite being a band that has always operated within a tight scope. Born inside a scene heavily influenced by the ethos of punk rock as well as those of the American underground hardcore of the 1980s, the group that has rarely employed anything other than two guitars and a drum kit managed to retain both integrity and artistic merit via small stylistic leaps. Their opening trilogy of records, which culminated with “Dig Me Out”, saw a smooth progression in the balance between aggressiveness and songwriting chops; “The Hot Rock” was a marvelous exercise in quiet tracks brimming with guitar interplay; “All Hands on the Bad One” and “One Beat” exhibited the accessibility of turn-of-the-century indie rock, which had started to flirt with the mainstream; “The Woods” was a catchy wall of noise; and “No Cities to Love” matched the briefness of punk with the luster of contemporary production.

Then came “The Center Won’t Hold”. Released in 2019, the predecessor of “Path of Wellness” certainly did not break the streak of creative freshness; what it did, in fact, was quite the opposite, as the album saw Sleater-Kinney working alongside St. Vincent – appearing in the role of producer – to re-engineer their music like never before. Sure, the rock band, the guitar interplay, the songwriting, and the unique voices of Corin and Carrie were still there, but working behind the board, St. Vincent infused Sleater-Kinney with her brand of avant-garde pop, throwing electronic beats, vocal effects, outlandish guitar distortions, and other tricks of the sort into the mix. The result of that venture was one of those albums that split journalists and fans into two different camps: while the former group loved it deeply, perhaps somewhat influenced by the meeting of two critical darlings; the latter party hated it, probably thanks to a sound they did not recognize as being Sleater-Kinney and due to the fact turmoil during the record’s production led to the departure of otherworldly drummer Janet Weiss.

Two years after what might rank as the most delicate moment of their career, Sleater-Kinney puts out “Path of Wellness”, and the record sounds like a type of compromise. Tackling the task of producing the album themselves, Corin and Carrie undo the weird artistry of “The Center Won’t Hold” as if conceding to fans that the road they took back then was not ideal. And in executing that move, the duo reverts to the sound of the “No Cities to Love” era: a basic type of rock that, based purely on guitars and drums, is rare and therefore quite important in contemporary music, but also one that carries enough smoothness not to come off like a blatant nod to the band’s garage beginnings.

In a way, emulating “No Cities to Love” is far from being bad; after all, that work was by all means a marvelous return from a beloved indie outfit that was emerging following a hiatus that bordered on ten years. But for a band that has always found a way to move forward, the reversion executed by “Path of Wellness” is inevitably disappointing, since – for the first time ever – Sleater-Kinney is officially treading water and presenting the world with a work in a style they have already done and mastered in the past. Still, even if it is a retreat to safe grounds, “Path of Wellness” is not without traits to define it among other records of the band’s discography; and those characteristics would certainly have to be its generally slower tempos and the quiet nature of its tunes.

It is impossible to say “Path of Wellness” never rocks out, because it certainly does. At one point or another, all songs explode into guitar hurricanes: sometimes they are ringing, sweeping, and beautiful (“Worry With You”, “Method”, and “Shadow Town”) and sometimes they are noisy and nasty (“Path of Wellness” and “High in the Grass”). But there is no tune in the entire work that spends all of its length in attack mode, since from the very start there is a clear plan to oppose quieter verses with lifting choruses. In the first, the drums play simple patterns while the guitars weave into each other, one usually taking on the lower end that would otherwise be covered by the bass and the other focusing on higher notes that are often picked. In the second, meanwhile, Corin and Carrie unleash the simple catchy melodies that they know rather well how to write whilst making a considerable racket. However, it is worth noting that even when they do step on pedals to release those signature Sleater-Kinney rough guitar sounds, the girls frequently do so without going beyond a mid-tempo threshold.

When combined with a large set of tunes that do not pick up significant speed at any point (“Method”, “Tomorrow’s Grave”, “No Knives”, and “Bring Mercy”), those characteristics may cause some to say “Path of Wellness” displays Sleater-Kinney in a tired state and that Corin and Carrie have run out of energy after all these years. Perhaps, the assessment is not totally unfair, since “Path of Wellness” does feel paler than other Sleater-Kinney albums. However, such evaluation overlooks the strength that can be found in the record’s more subdued approach. For starters, the quiet-and-loud dynamic works wonderfully in tracks such as “High in the Grass” and “Worry With You”, whose choruses are major moments of melodic delight with noisy undertones. Moreover, two of the slower tunes, “Method” and “Bring Mercy”, are easily among the most beautifully introspective songs the band has ever coined, matching some of the material in the wonderful “The Hot Rock” as well as the classic “Modern Girl”, from “The Woods”.

The real problem of “Path of Wellness” is its irregularity. Its highlights are excellent; the opening title track is not melodically brilliant, but it becomes pretty fun when it explodes in its second half; “Complex Female Characters” has Corin and Carrie switching vocals, with each one singing rather distinct portions of the slow track as if they were two different sides of the personality of a woman who is talking to herself; and “Down the Line” inverts the usual dynamic of the album by pairing a more aggressive verse with a lighter, and very much engaging, chorus. Sadly, though, the four-track sequence that goes from “Shadow Town” to “No Knives” – which is stuck right in the middle of the album – is a lackluster group that has instrumental value given how Corin and Carrie play off of one another like very few guitar duos in rock history, but is a mess of uninspired melodies that never build to anything significant.

Paired with the fact it is a bit of a stylistic retread, that irregularity puts a considerable dent on “Path of Wellness”. Undoubtedly, the level of damage is far from being enough to make it a bad album: as of their tenth release, Sleater-Kinney has yet to produce a dud. Yet, “Path of Wellness” runs the risk of landing on the ears of some fans as if it were one, because even though the guitar interplay, the weird vocal inflections, and the solid songwriting are all present, the prevalence of slower tempos, the absence of the irreplaceable drumbeats of Janet Weiss, the record’s artistic tameness, and its uninspired moments may be too much to some. Yet, analyzed on its own, “Path of Wellness” stands; it might not be revolutionary or excellent, but it is a good set of songs. And despite playing it too safe, the talent behind them is still sufficiently strong to infuse most of them with quality.

five

Daddy’s Home

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Album: Daddy’s Home

Artist: St. Vincent

Released: May 14th, 2021

Highlights: The Melting of the Sun, Down, Somebody Like Me, ..At the Holiday Party

There has always been a lot of David Bowie in the work of St. Vincent. Stylistically, given both of them are quite linked with the contemporary sounds that have surrounded their respective careers, the overlap is rather thin, since they are products from totally different eras. However, from a conceptual standpoint, the British man from London and the American woman from Oklahoma certainly present a similar approach to their craft. It is not just because St. Vincent, like Bowie himself, quickly learned that there is great power and artistic merit in immersing oneself in an album so thoroughly that a new stage persona is born out of the experience. It is also, and probably most importantly, because the two have a knack for transforming the music they hear in a similar way.

St. Vincent operates in a pattern that recalls David Bowie thanks to how she is capable of going into a starring contest against the pop trends that are emerging. In that battle, her goal is to understand those fads so deeply that she can succeed in deforming them to the very edge that separates what is listenable and universally likable from what is weird and excessively highbrow. With that analysis, she can figure out how many odd beats, noisy elements, unusual production choices, freakish guitar solos, and outlandish passages she can squeeze into an indie pop song before it gets to the point where genius becomes lunacy. As such, more than an exquisite creator, St. Vincent has invariably been a transformer.

For someone who has, through six studio albums, excelled in conducting mutations, her seventh work, “Daddy’s Home”, ranks as a considerable surprise. Yes, there is a visual metamorphosis executed in St. Vincent herself, as the sexy pop diva seen during the “Masseduction” days makes way for the a sleazy and confident woman seen on the record’s cover; someone who has possibly gone through a rough past, lived dangerous loves, and sought relief on all sorts of substances, both legal and illegal, greatly shocking a very conservative society on multiple occasions. However, when it comes to the music itself, “Daddy’s Home” is less of a transformation and more of a channeling, as St. Vincent aims for rhythms and a production style that are blatantly old-school, nodding to the soft rock, soul, and jazz (all polished with a layer of psychedelia) that would likely get played in the shady bars that the character she is representing frequented during the early 1970s.

The selection of that period is, of course, no accident. As St. Vincent has pointed out, those years unfolded right between two massive cultural and musical movements: the hippie wave of the late 1960s and the punk rock tsunami that would hit in 1976. Surrounded by two phenomenons that were highly idealistic and shackled by all sorts of rules, that window of time saw genres freely flirting with one another to create gorgeous new sounds, and it is on that rich musical mixture that “Daddy’s Home” is grounded. Yet, even if it is decidedly bent on musically replicating a distant past rather than performing a radical transformation on the music that existed back then, “Daddy’s Home” is far from being creatively dull.

The trick here is that most, if not all, listeners will certainly grasp the era St. Vincent is paying homage to. That same audience, however, will likely fail to identify where exactly – be it a particular artist or an individual track – lie the sources of inspiration for the tunes of “Daddy’s Home”. Truth be told, there is a specific moment in the record when Annie lets one of those secrets slip by, since “Live in the Dream” sounds – in its beautiful floaty, lush, and hazy psychedelia – like a great lost cut from Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”, including an epic guitar solo that almost replicates that unmistakable and untouchable David Gilmour tone. However, everywhere else, like the cunning woman on the cover, St. Vincent keeps her cards close to her chest: she does not reveal her contacts and will not disclose the names of her lovers, whether they are powerful New York City crime bosses or that charming young waiter that works at the joint across the street from her Brooklyn flat.

Despite that very tight connection to a defined time and place, “Daddy’s Home” is not without very clear St. Vincent fingertips here and there. “Pay Your Way In Pain” is jazzy, relaxed, and smoky like the rest of the album, but it has not just a pulsating distorted beat, but also incredibly weird interactions between Annie and her background singers; the title track boasts a couple of screams that nod to James Brown and an uncertain groove that seems to be too drunk to stand on its feet; and the excellent “Down” feels like a calculated compromise between a contemporary art pop hit and a retro funk number. Nevertheless, most of the album’s tracks have no such duality, fully dabbling in genres like psychedelic soul (“Down and Out Downtown” and “…At the Holiday Party”) as well as psychedelic folk (“The Melting of the Sun” and “Somebody Like Me”). It is not a wide stylistic window, but operating within it St. Vincent comes up with what is by far her most sonically uniform record up to date.

Nicely contrasting with that musical cohesiveness, inside the album itself her lyrics cover a myriad of themes. Although “Daddy’s Home”, much due to its title, received attention before its release on account of how it dealt with the fact Annie Clark’s father left prison following a decade-long stint locked up due to a white-collar crime, that topic is only touched upon during the track that receives that name. Everywhere else, St. Vincent talks about the painful struggles of life (“Pay Your Way In Pain”); reveals her appreciation for major female artists that came before her, like Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, for blazing the trail she now walks on (“The Melting of the Sun”); fondly remembers a late childhood buddy (“The Laughing Man”); portrays a woman seeking revenge against an abusive lover (“Down”); discusses how her desire not to be a mother can be harmful to some of her relationships (“My Baby Wants a Baby”); notices how a friend tries to hide pain behind fake smiles and alcohol (“..At the Holiday Party”); shows reverence for a tragic Andy Warhol superstar (“Candy Darling”); and even writes a love song (“Somebody Like Me”).

Tied together by quiet drums, subdued funky guitars, soul background singers, a jazzy brass section, a sleazy aura, and a floaty psychedelic spirit, those lyrical themes and musical ideas meet in “Daddy’s Home” to form one of those records that have a very specific vibe; one that is preserved from the cover to the last seconds of the final track. More than being an impressively homogeneous piece that, in spite of that trait, does not allow its tunes to merge into another, “Daddy’s Home” is also St. Vincent’s most unwavering record. Undoubtedly, this is a work that is neither as electrifying nor as inventive as her previous albums, but, as far as songwriting goes, Annie has never been sharper, since there is not a bad tune in sight, or many melodies that do not hit or hook. And even though, like David Bowie, St. Vincent’s secret weapon is to infuse art into what she hears in order to transform it, she just happened to strike her most consistent moment in a work in which she chose to replicate rather than to mutate.

five

Endless Arcade

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Album: Endless Arcade

Artist: Teenage Fanclub

Released: April 30th, 2021

Highlights: Home, Everything Is Falling Apart, The Sun Won’t Shine On Me, Back In The Day

Out of the numerous often subjective sub-genres that rock music has spawned over the years, absolutely none are as hard to grasp as alternative rock. Originally used as a very general net to encompass all artists that worked away from the mainstream market, that label has been employed to qualify all sorts of bands: hard rocking grunge acts like Nirvana, post punk children like R.E.M., avant-garde noisemakers like Sonic Youth, and even softer groups like Coldplay, which are one among many that earned the tag long after alternative rock had stopped being a synonym for underground music. Beginning their career in 1989, therefore prior to the moment when the lines between what is alternative and what is mainstream were blurred, Teenage Fanclub are yet another act that proves how colorful – and undefined – that category is.

Labeled as alternative due to their underground and borderline lo-fi origins, the Scottish group has – for more than three decades and ten studio albums – been extremely loyal to the power pop style. Built on smooth chord progressions, steady guitar strumming, and mid-tempo rhythms that materialize in relentless walls of sound, their songs carry sweet melodies that recall the pop song-craft of Brian Wilson and that are boasted by innocent starry-eyed harmonies that nod to the earliest phase of The Beatles or to The Beach Boys themselves. In the midst of that impeccable regularity, the parameter that has defined the different eras of Teenage Fanclub has been noise; more specifically, how much buzz they infuse into their guitar walls.

Early on, in their first two releases, that parameter was set quite high. Their great 1990 debut, “A Catholic Education”, could stand up to the loud shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine; and its follow-up, “The King”, threw such a grand load of noise into the formula the radical thrashing nature of the material was too much to bear. Ever since reaching that extreme point, which deservingly earned the band a critical scolding, Teenage Fanclub started a lengthy process of dialing down on the racket. At first, when an ideal balance of noise and melody was accompanied by a maturation in songwriting, the results included power pop gems of the stature of “Bandwagonesque” and “Grand Prix”. Soon afterwards, though, starting from 2000’s “Howdy!”, their aggression began to be too diluted for the group’s sake.

Initially, there was a bit of charm in the general calmness of the music; after all, here was a band that, following ten years of hiding their heavenly melodies in varying degrees of distortion, opted to do something different by letting them stand on their own. However, as time and records passed, Teenage Fanclub seemed stuck in an inescapable sequence of increasingly mellow works that made fans yearn for the electric sparks that had once lent the act so much personality. As of 2021, therefore a whopping two decades after the beginning of that slide down the rabbit hole of peaceful pastoral production, Teenage Fanclub has yet to find their energy back because, sadly, “Endless Arcade” continues to follow the same path.

Perhaps it is a bit too harsh to treat the quartet from Northern Britain as if they have been creatively dry during the past twenty-one years; that is simply not true, since throughout that stretch, which includes six albums, there is not a dud to be found. It is a fact, however, Teenage Fanclub has been creatively stuck, because aside from their collaboration with Jad Fair (a vocalist with a singing style that recalls Lou Reed), it is quite hard to give distinct definitions to the records from that era. “Endless Arcade” is not different, and consequently, what fans will find in it is a continuation of what Teenage Fanclub has been doing for a while.

Clocking in at seven minutes and featuring two instrumental breaks with lengthy guitar solos, opener “Home” teases that the album may go in a unique direction, given it flirts with the wild guitar workouts of the band’s early years. Nonetheless, quickly, “Endless Arcade” reveals it is mostly business as usual: its tunes are compact and melodic; its harmonies are tight and beautiful; and its guitar tones are gentle and clean. Truth be told, there are moments when the band threatens to break away from that mold: “Warm Embrace” bounces with a joyous energy that is maybe exaggerated; “The Sun Won’t Shine On Me” has a combination of folk rock jangle and harmonic work that summons memories of The Byrds; and “In Our Dreams” sports a noisier guitar hook that bumps on colorful psychedelia. But whether individually within the scope of the tunes in which they appear or inside the album as a whole, these elements are not enough to make “Endless Arcade” distinct.

From a critical standpoint, though, “Endless Arcade” presents a bit of a conundrum. Sure, as it is the case with nearly all Teenage Fanclub releases after “Howdy!”, it can be rightfully accused of being artistically stale. Yet, when it comes to songwriting, there is hardly a bad tune to be found here. “Home” stands out due to its nature as a somewhat loose, but well-behaved, jam; “Everything Is Falling Apart” shines on the meaty chug of its guitars as well as the relative furious explosion of its chorus; and both “The Sun Won’t Shine On Me” and “Back In The Day” enchant deeply thanks to their melodic beauty. But there is not a song here that goes by without delivering a notable melody, a tasteful chord progression, or an irresistible guitar strum. It is true that the stylistic sameness of these less memorable tracks causes them to merge into one another and also into many of the cuts of the mellow albums that preceded “Endless Arcade”, but – as the ultimate Teenage Fanclub seal of quality – this is a record that, after two or three spins, will have listeners randomly humming a few of its melodies.

As the first work following the departure of longtime bassist, singer, and songwriter Gerard Love, “Endless Arcade” could have been a big opportunity for Teenage Fanclub to break the trend in which it has been stuck since 2000. However, the mental synergy between the group’s trio of leaders has always been so extreme that the absence of one of them ends up not making much of a difference. Without their friend, Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley are forced to carry a heavier load, having to write six songs apiece instead of the usual four each composer tended to get. But, for the good and for the bad, the results remain the same, and with twelve tracks of melodic beauty but slightly excessive mellowness, “Endless Arcade” is yet another good work by Teenage Fanclub that could have been more interesting if briefly soaked in the electric spark of the band’s alternative origins.

five

Cyr

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Album: Cyr

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins

Released: November 27th, 2020

Highlights: The Colour of Love, Dulcet in E, Wrath, Ramona, Anno Satana

Ever since their heyday in the 90s, when the fantastic sequence of albums comprised of “Siamese Dream” and “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” put them on top of the alternative rock world, The Smashing Pumpkins have been a bit of a mess. Active through most of that interval, with the exception of a six-year break, all of those who do not follow the music universe too closely would be easily forgiven for thinking Billy Corgan’s group had disbanded long ago. After all, the records they have put out since that pair of releases, with the exception of the very good “Adore” from 1998, have failed to make any impact with the general public; worse yet, lost amid lineup changes, internal fights, and the ego of a front-man who is a bit hard to deal with, the band has seen many of its early fans move on to other pastures.

Such a scenario may lead one to think that The Smashing Pumpkins have been pretty bad for nearly twenty years; and some are certain to build an argument in that direction, especially former fans who passionately followed them in the 90s. But, truth be told, even if continued relevance has eluded them and personnel consistency has been non-existent, the group has not really produced any work that straight up stinks. Sure, most of their output since the days of glory has been marred by silly conceptual grandeur that has repeatedly failed to come to fruition and – as the critics will point out – an impressive amount of embarrassing lyrics. But Corgan is, ultimately, too good of a songwriter to produce a major disaster of an album, let alone a bunch of them; and, as such, The Smashing Pumpkins have, in a way, remained afloat to the few who are listening and have continued to publish works that, though not excellent by any means, have been mostly good.

It is in that position that the band gets to its eleventh release, the mysteriously titled “Cyr”. However, this time around there is a twist, as the album is a product of the reunion of three of the four members the band had during its classic run, an encounter that had not happened since the year 2000. Truly, some will point out that 2018’s “Shiny and Oh So Bright” was actually the moment in which that trio came together, and that would be correct. But, as Corgan said it himself, that release was a bit of a rushed and spontaneous work; so much that it contains only half an hour of music. “Cyr”, meanwhile, is a calculated effort: one that has been planned, conceptualized, and slowly built by the band.

As collaborative of an album as it may be, “Cyr” will never convince anybody it is anything other than a product of Corgan’s mind: as he is such a complete leader of The Smashing Pumpkins that he reportedly recorded most instruments of “Siamese Dream” himself. And although it is kind of silly to complain about Corgan having total control given that The Smashing Pumpkins have always been his band, for the good and for the bad, it is always a bit worrisome when Billy gets too caught up with conceptual matters, as those flights of grandeur have always tended to be the band’s downfall, since records that had the potential to be good collections of songs – such as the “Machina” pair and the scrapped “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” – have historically gotten lost in the middle of foggy ideas.

“Cyr” is by no means different. With seventy-two minutes of music, it shows all the problems of The Smashing Pumpkins’ conceptual works: it is too long, it could have been trimmed down to a far more consistent release, and it has a concept that will fly over pretty much everybody’s heads, a characteristic that makes many of Corgan’s words here sound silly or pretentious. On a brighter note, it has the traits that stop the band’s most gigantic ideas from falling into the garbage bin, because its tunes are good, its hooks are plentiful, its melodies are beautiful, and it has an uncountable assortment of catchy moments; little musical sparkly gems that stick to listeners’ brains like bubblegum. It is, in many ways, The Smashing Pumpkins at their best and at their worst.

“Cyr”, however, makes an extra effort to put additional weight on that worst side of the equation. As stated by Corgan, musically the album is guided by a desire of his to respond to critics that have called him out for making the same type of music over and over again. “Cyr” is, thereby, paraphrasing Billy’s own words, a fight to display he is a contemporary musical artist, not one that is stuck in the 90s. Sadly, it seems Corgan’s idea of contemporary sounds is quite limited to the world of synth-pop, as that is the style in which all of the album lands. Truly, considering the creative drive behind the record, it could have been much worse, as Corgan would not be a good fit for the kinds of sounds that dominate much of the contemporary landscape; so, in a sense, synth-pop was probably a good choice for The Smashing Pumpkins. At the same time, results could have been much better.

The main problem here is neither concept nor length, but the fact The Smashing Pumpkins fail to make synth-pop of their own. From the outset, they were a band with a unique skill of merging the heaviest of riffs – uncorking walls of guitars powerful enough to make metal bands envious – with the sweetest and most vulnerable pop melodies. And ever since those days, Corgan and company have taken good advantage of those skills. Here, though, they do not. Overall, there is both beauty and darkness to be found in “Cyr”, a mixture that recalls the “Adore” era, when the band used electronic sounds to explore a nigh Gothic vein of their pop inclinations. But where “Adore” was original in spirit while retaining The Smashing Pumpkins’ heart, the originality of “Cyr” comes off as generic because it carries very little of the band.

It is hard to the deny the greatness of a tune like “The Colour of Love”; the beauty of an electronic ballad such as “Dulcet in R”; and the incredibly tasteful production touches of the record, like the processed female vocals that permeate most of the tunes and the occasional appearances of jangly guitars, as the ones that add a touch of alternative rock to “Wrath”. But, in the end, “Cyr” is both excessively homogeneous for its length, running out of steam by the second half when the quality of the tunes clearly degrades; and slightly too safe of a synth-pop effort, even if The Smashing Pumpkins turning to that genre is quite a bold choice. And perhaps that is what is so disappointing about it: the fact it is simultaneously courageous and not sufficiently audacious. At least before it is all said and done, Corgan gives us a glimpse of how good and original his band can be in this setting, as the tune “Anno Satana” provides a look into what “Cyr” could have ideally been: powered by synthesizers, sure; dark, absolutely; but also packing a heaviness that leaves the unique mark of The Smashing Pumpkins on synth-pop.

three

Real Gone

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Album: Real Gone

Artist: Tom Waits

Released: October 3rd, 2004

Highlights: Hoist That Rag, Don’t Go into That Barn, Dead and Lovely, Make It Rain, Day After Tomorrow

As Tom Waits transitioned from the inebriated, gloomy, and raspy-voiced man who sang late at night in a bar full of desperate souls looking for consolation in a drink to the mad junkyard prowler who seemed to make music with recycled spare parts, one element of his art stood as a solid rock unaffected by the massive changes going on around it: his trusty piano. Whether as the leading heart of gut-wrenching ballads or as the backbone of an orchestra of circus musicians and back-alley beggars, it was by using the instrument that Waits channeled the soul, jazz, and – especially – blues traditions into the alcohol-soaked misery of his early years as well as into the cursed cabaret music found in the later half of his career.

In “Real Gone”, though, probably looking for a brand new approach to composition and arrangements, Waits drops his piano by the same dump in which he likely picked up the tools his band had been working with since “Swordfishtrombones”, from 1983. And for the first time ever, in his fifteenth studio album, the singer-songwriter spends a whole record without sitting on a stool to either pour his sadness onto the keys or bang them wildly. As a consequence, in a career that carries a great deal of musical variety in spite of its aesthetic constancy, the 2004 release threatens to rank as Waits’ most uniquely sounding effort. Such major break, however, cannot be solely attributed to the absence of the piano.

Spiritually, “Real Gone” features a strong connection with both 1993’s “Bone Machine” and 1999’s “Mule Variations”. From the latter, it boasts the quite distinctive feeling that, with the exception of a few techniques that give it a more modern coating, the music it contains is coming from almost a century ago: its instruments creak, its production is dry, and as if transmitted by an old radio that has trouble grasping its signal, it sounds distant and corroded by static. Meanwhile, from the former, it borrows a demeanor that is simultaneously ferocious, loud, and dark; “Real Gone”, like “Bone Machine”, feels like it was recorded in one of the waiting rooms leading to hell, and it is so proud of its rowdy ways that, not satisfied with producing one vicious racket, it also opts to spit it all right in the face of its listeners.

The method “Real Gone” uses to reach those qualities is, however, distinct from the ones employed by those other classics of the singer’s catalog. Its grainy and aged aura emerges from the fact its pair of producers, Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits himself, have opted to take a visibly lo-fi route here: none of the pieces that make up the music of “Real Gone” sound as they should in normal conditions, with the voice of Waits and the guitar work of the always masterful Marc Ribot coming off incredibly distorted and the percussion clanging like big metal trash cans. Even more unique, though, is how the record achieves its moments of aggressive racket: in these, “Real Gone” gains a nigh industrial core that is neatly summarized by the title of the brief interlude “Clang Boom Steam”, as these tunes move forward as if musically propelled by a noisy machine that is leaking gas and oil all over the place.

Amusingly, much of the sonic lunacy in these wilder songs is reached in outrageous ways: more specifically, through the usage of turntables and beatboxing. The first tool is not that ubiquitous, only showing up in opener “Top of the Hill” as well as in “Metropolitan Glide”, but it leaves a considerable mark thanks to how unexpected it is, adding an urban, funky, and modernized luster that rather than diminishing the value of Waits’ usually idiosyncratic performances only ends up augmenting it thanks to the dissonance between his organic traditional musical sources and the delightfully out of place disc scratching that accompanies these two tracks. The beatboxing, on the other hand, is more pervasive, as Waits explores the application of his mouth (and the wonderfully disturbing sounds it can make) as a percussive instrument; he spits, scats, growls, blows, gargles, and clears his throat through almost half of the album, and the result is a symphony of human horror that suits the menacing soul of his blues and folk-based compositions quite well, especially in the tale of slave-trade told in “Don’t Go into That Barn”.

Like any Tom Waits album, “Real Gone” has plenty of quieter tunes to build a more comfortable – yet not so welcoming either – counterpart to the cuts in which it flat out bangs. In the tracks of the sort that are found here, Waits appears like the old and weary bandleader of a rural outfit that travels around in a rickety chariot spreading some darkness through already gloomy pieces of the land. Songs such as “Sins of My Father”, “How’s It Going to End”, “Dead and Lovely”, “Trampled Rose”, and “Green Grass” are tales of death, despair, and crime told through incredibly well-formed and scrambled imagery. And without exception, they are backed up with basic, steady, and sparse acoustic instrumentation. Surely, every once in a while, the electric guitar of Marc Ribot pops up to deliver a fantastic lick, but mostly they are led by banjos and acoustic guitars that sound so old it feels like they could fall apart at any moment, while Waits sings like he could meet the same fate.

As a statement to the good taste and talent of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, there is little to nitpick about the seventy minutes of music held by “Real Gone”. One could attack the unnecessary nature of the instrumental-only beatboxing of “Clang Boom Steam” and “Chick a Boom”, but they are so brief it hardly matters. Furthermore, it is possible to point at the length of “Sins of the Father”, which goes on for ten minutes, as excessive; but although the song does not have enough instrumental muscle to go such distance, it certainly makes up for it in the story it tells. And in a way, the same applies to “Circus”, which can be accused of being the dullest shot Waits has ever taken at spoken-word, but that exudes one alluring vibe nonetheless.

“Real Gone” is, when it is all said and done, one string of successes, and they come in many flavors. Whether he is emulating a death-metal-singing pirate to the sway of Caribbean rhythms in “Hoist that Rag”; scaring everyone in the neighborhood with the dancing lo-fi word-association of “Shake It”; screaming at the top of his lungs from heartbreak over the nasty blues groove of “Make It Rain”; or tackling, with surprising candidness, sweetness, and straightforwardness the horrors of the Iraq War through the acoustic-folk take on the sad journey of a soldier in “Day After Tomorrow”, the Tom Waits of “Real Gone” is not just a master of his craft, but also a man that shows an uncanny ability to innovate within the tight confines of the mad musical universe he built for himself to exist in.

The Woods

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Album: The Woods

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: May 24th, 2005

Highlights: Jumpers, Modern Girl, Entertain, Rollercoaster

As they grew out of the underground punk rock scene where the band had gotten their start, a few notable elements began to emerge as defining characteristics of Sleater-Kinney’s sound. For starters, slowly but surely, Carrie Browstein and Corin Tucker developed an intertwining pattern of guitar-playing which on its apex, reached in “The Hot Rock” from 1999, recalled that of Television during the “Marquee Moon” era; with the caveat that though equally clean and clashing, the girl’s method was not as technically flashy and – making use of that trait – they used the style to build tracks with a greater pop rock inclination than the ones produced by the New York quartet. Furthermore, as they played their instruments almost like two independent leads, Browstein and Tucker also sang in dissonance, rarely harmonizing and often going for melodic lines that could have easily been used as the base of two different tracks.

It sure was a lot of content to unpack, especially when it came in short yet potent packages of three minutes, but by 2002 that recipe had yielded four albums of great music. And these records, besides being excellent, had allowed Sleater-Kinney to bring their work to an audience that was not there to hear the punk rock gems which were their self-titled debut and its sequel, “Call the Doctor”. However, following such run and maybe realizing that the recipe had gotten slightly tired, the band took a three-year break between new material (their longest one up to that point) and came back into view with a rather retooled musical outlook, producing – in the process – their most widely acclaimed album: “The Woods”.

The seventh studio release by the trio is so jarring that it takes a good while for one to notice that, deep down, there are remains of the old Sleater-Kinney sound under it. To a lesser degree, the band’s two guitarists still play disjointed parts that somehow gel; likewise, they frequently switch lead vocals and occasionally go their separate ways melodically. However, in “The Woods”, the lean punk rock the girls used to do is replaced with a towering powerful pounding of suffocating stature. Strength and ferocity were never absent elements in the Sleater-Kinney formula; they were always there, even if wrapped in the quirky catchy charm of records such as “Dig Me Out”. But here, it seems that the anger that had always driven the trio rose to the surface and gained a visible physical shape of mighty proportions.

Released during an era plagued by excessively loud recordings that caused much of the music to lose its audio fidelity, “The Woods” could be listed as yet another victim of that tendency. Not only does the album bang, but it does so at a volume so extreme that it creates a thick layer of distortion which permeates all pieces that compose it: Browstein and Tucker, drowned in what seems to be a symphony of static, have to either scream to be heard or resign themselves to the fact it is all too much; Janet Weiss, always a masterful tasteful drummer, is forced to hit her kit as if she were part of a heavy metal band that constantly plays in overdrive; and the guitars seem to come out of cheap amplifiers that cannot handle them, with much of their constitution being sheer feedback.

It could be disastrous, but “The Woods”, differently from its contemporaries that stumbled on poor mastering, actually uses loudness as a stylistic choice. While many albums of the era were clean-sounding records whose crispness was lost somewhere in translation, in the case of Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 release that characteristic is actually there by design. Sure, at some point when listening to it one has to wonder how the music would have sounded if “The Woods” took a more controlled approach in relation to volume. However, although it could be argued a few of the tracks would have been improved by a cleaner presentation, the album would likely not be as interesting and strong if that path had been chosen. Corin and her signature vibrato screams would not have to be so fierce; Carrie, always one quite talented in the art of sounding mad, would not take her craft to new heights; and Janet would lose out on a great opportunity to sound trashy and thunderous.

More serious, perhaps, would be how Sleater-Kinney would not be able to explore new perspectives on their songwriting. A track like “The Wolf”, for instance, which opens up the album, has a large plodding riff of a magnitude that is nowhere else to be found in their discography. “Steep Air” is so lo-fi and drowned in feedback that even its vocals are distorted beyond recognition, giving birth to a moment of such untamed noise that groups like The Velvet Underground and Pavement – which are quite familiar with soundscapes of the sort – would blush. And nearly all of the album’s tracks are eventually broken by moments of instrumental freak-out so dizzying that they could be compared to the live assaults of loudness famously carried out by “My Bloody Valentine”; an experiment that reaches its peak in audacity when the girls violently jam to extend “Let’s Call It Love” to the eleven-minute mark.

Contrarily to what its rough presentation may indicate, though, “The Woods” also carries moments when Sleater-Kinney strongly flirts with the mainstream, as if the knowledge they were going to work towards imploding these tunes via an aggressive aesthetic made them free to write for a wider audience. “Jumpers”, which came to life when Browstein read an article about the suicides that take place on the Golden Gate Bridge, has her and Corin harmonizing on the verses over slinky guitars until the tune bursts into a chorus that feels like a cry for help. “Entertain” is a catchy percussive march in which Browstein (sounding more furious than ever) rants against artistic staleness and cheap entertainment. Lastly, “Modern Girl” is a ballad – a rare sight in the Sleater-Kinney catalog – that might as well be the most beautiful and heartfelt song the trio has penned; with a mildly sarcastic tone, the cut wistfully narrates the mundane life of the titular character, and as it becomes increasingly evident that the beauty seen there is both fake and deceiving, the tune is slowly overrun by feedback.

Although in disguise, “The Woods” still presents a handful of tracks that have a more notable Sleater-Kinney signature, like “Wilderness”, “What’s Mine Is Yours”, “Rollercoaster”, and “Night Light”. In tunes such as these, the guitar interplay is more pronounced and instead of pounding mindlessly or flirting with accessibility, they carry speed and energetic bounciness that can easily be related to the previous era of the band; one where they escaped from the confines of underground punk to break past the riot grrrl movement in which they started. Regardless of the songwriting style it is approaching, however, “The Woods” is an album that simply erupts, turning the loudness that was so prevalent in the music around the time of its release into a weapon and giving a physical listenable manifestation to the sheer strength that had always been present in the work of Sleater-Kinney.

A Kiss In The Dreamhouse

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Album: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse

Artist: Siouxsie and the Banshees

Released: November 6th, 1982

Highlights: Cascade, She’s a Carnival, Melt, Painted Bird

Despite often – and rightly so – being labeled as one of the forging forces of the gothic rock movement, Siouxsie and the Banshees were rarely strangers to the concept of light. It is undeniable that when the band started their career with the sequence of “The Scream” and “Join Hands”, there was little space in the ominous darkness of their work for some luminosity to break through. But by the time their third effort, “Kaleidoscope”, came out, the idea that there was not enough room for artistic creation in the tight corner in which they had originated seemed to be quite clear in the minds of the band members, and so Siouxsie and the Banshees began to expand their sound in order to allow light to leak into the music.

To a point, such evaluation could be made about any gothic rock outfit that lived long enough to question themselves about the direction in which they should go next; eventually, in most cases, the music got brighter. But following “Kaleidoscope”, Siouxsie and the Banshees developed a very unique relationship with light. The Cure, their most popular followers, for instance, would go on to constantly operate inside the extreme dichotomy of utter gloom and joyous bubblegum pop, producing songs that were entirely in only one of those two camps. For Siouxsie and the Banshees, though, light and darkness never achieved total domination over one another, transforming most of their discography – especially their classic run – into a display of how those two elements could coexist.

During that period, there is little doubt that “Juju”, their fourth album, stands as the strongest proof of that formula’s greatness, as the popularity of singles “Spellbound” and “Arabian Nights” ought to confirm. But it is its successor, “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, that qualifies as the most interesting piece, because in it what is bright and what is sinister converge in rather intense states. The result of that radical mixture is a record that although firmly anchored in the post-punk tradition is also able to drive straight into psychedelia; merging the grayness of the British industrial towns that generated angry and dark acts such as The Fall, with the daring artistic extravagance of someone like Kate Bush.

The despondent post-punk undercurrent comes from the mechanical clank of the drums and bass; as it happens in the songs of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ contemporaries, Joy Division, these instruments loom tall, serving as the body of the tracks and broadcasting an uncomfortable aura thanks to their inhumanly steady plod. Meanwhile, the colors come from what is built on top of that framework, which – in the case of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” – turns out to be quite a lot. Specifically, the album is not notable because it brings keyboards and strings into the equation; the former had already been used to great effect in “Kaleidoscope” and the latter only appear in two songs. “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is actually remarkable due to how audacious it is sonically, as its tunes – straightforward in construction – are decorated by layers of noises, overdubs, and effects that lend the pop contours of the band’s music one lush body.

The oddity of the parts greatly benefits from the versatility of Siouxsie Sioux herself, a woman that could sing – without ever feeling out of place – in a graveyard, at an avant-garde music festival, at a pop show, or in an opera house. And throughout “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, the singer and the Banshees make good use of that wide palette. Over a hypnotic and robotic duel of bass and guitar, “Cascade” dramatically builds to its chorus three times; and in every instance, it does so differently, with new instrumental lines and noises appearing in each run. “Green Fingers” takes a similar approach, but rather than feeling like a build-up, it is more of a constant rush adorned by occasional distorted hums and one quirky psychedelic hook played by a recorder. “Obsession”, meanwhile, follows the opening pair with industrial minimalism; part sinister march and part haunted nursery rhyme, the song is a repetitive melodic line sung over what appears to be a rainy landscape which is punctuated by a beat constituted of a guitar and a bell, as well as by the occasional appearances of menacing strings.

“She’s a Carnival” brings a radical shift of pace and mood to the album, throwing listeners into a hyperactive celebration of love that perfectly captures the vibe of the song’s festive title. In “Circle”, on the other hand, the once happy carnival seems to have taken a disturbing turn; led by a keyboard that plays what is best described as the sound a carousel makes when it is either broken or stuck in a bizarre time loop, the tune is a dissonant mass of elements that clash as Siouxsie sings about how children are negatively affected by the bad behaviors of their parents. “Melt” takes “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” back to the denser atmosphere of its first few tunes with a wide and majestic dream pop song that is, in both lyrics and music, drenched in sexual pleasure.

“Painted Bird” is, in the vein of “She’s a Carnival”, another slice of energetic pop rock, but in it the omnipresent darkness is more palpable, not only because of the grand cutting guitar line played by John McGeoch and the discomforting vocal overdubs by Siouxsie, but also due to how the song deals with the shocking story present in the book of the same title, where a man paints birds in a different color and returns them to their flock only to see them killed by their peers. “Cocoon” is bepop jazz but with a twist worthy of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, as the band appears to improvise a simple shuffle over a thick layer of odd sound effects and an echo-laden atmosphere. And “Slowdive”, which merges crude post-punk instrumentation and strings, describes a dance that – thanks to the moves it includes and the song it should be performed to – is ideal for a decrepit club whose attendees are mentally deranged or greatly affected by drugs.

There are times when the off-the-wall experimentation of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” dents it to different degrees: “Circle”, though conceptually excellent, verges on annoying because of the cycle in which its keyboards are stuck and of its length; “Cocoon” is a unique take on jazz, but could have benefited from firmer hooks; “Obsession” has a captivating melody, but its instrumentation could have been more developed; and “Slowdive” works as a post-punk dance number, but does not really leave any considerable marks. However, when “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is firing on all cylinders, it displays one of the finest and most inventive bands of the era doing what they did best; that is, packaging both light and darkness into accessible songs that push the envelope in artistic terms but retain an irresistible appeal. Siouxsie and the Banshees may have produced a few records that are better than “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”; they have, though, never been as fascinating, jarring, psychedelic, and extreme as they were in their fifth release.

The New Abnormal

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Album: The New Abnormal

Artist: The Strokes

Released: April 10th, 2020

Highlights: The Adults Are Talking, Selfless, Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus, Ode to the Mets

Nonchalance and The Strokes have always walked side by side. Born within the New York rock tradition and, appropriately, borrowing from two of the city’s greatest acts in pairing up The Velvet Underground’s indifferent coolness with Television’s entwining guitars, the band that – as proclaimed by critics – brought the genre to the 21st century has always emitted a considerable air of casualness in relation to the world that surrounds it. And nowhere has that disregard been more evident than in the productivity the group has exhibited since 2005. Following a constant creative streak that saw the release of three albums in half a decade, the five members of The Strokes have – ever since the irregular “First Impressions of Earth” – fallen into a pattern that has them reactivating the band from time to time and frequently tiptoeing around rumors of studio work.

Given the constant activity the individual pieces of The Strokes have had outside of the group, such attitude has certainly not stemmed from lack of interest in music or from the desire to avoid the limelight: it is clear Casablancas, Fraiture, Hammond Jr., Moretti, and Valensi enjoy being engaged in artistic projects. Therefore, when combined with the irregular quality of the pair of records they have published since that initial stretch, “Angles” and “Comedown Machine”, and with the fact the first of the two was put together with members of the band barely meeting physically, it is impossible not to get the feeling that the boys – in their indecipherable nonchalance – either see The Strokes as a gigantic burden or as a relatively unimportant part of their current lives. Consequently, and perhaps unfairly, every new release by The Strokes comes attached to suspicions regarding the energy that was put into the package.

“The New Abnormal”, their sixth full-length studio work and third in almost fifteen years, is therefore absolutely preceded by doubts, especially in the minds of music aficionados that are not part of The Strokes’ most devoted audience, as those will undoubtedly question if the band still cares at this point and if they should feel the same in return. As far as that matter goes, “The New Abnormal” holds no answers at all, and it is improbable a future album by The Strokes – if there are any – will ever bring closure to that riddle. This 2020 release, however, carries a far more noticeable achievement: it conjures the image of a group of musicians that, rather than getting together to fulfill some non-existent obligation, has joined forces because they wanted to. In other words, “The New Abnormal” is the first time since 2005 that The Strokes emerge out of an album feeling like a band.

Due to the nature of Julian Casablancas’ work outside of The Strokes, which boasted echoes of the more synthesized faction of new wave, “Angles” and “Comedown Machine” came off as extensions of the singer’s solo career, as if the rest of the band could not muster the energy to pull the material to a middle-ground that could retain some of the group’s signature. In “The New Abnormal”, that balance is reached, and The Strokes – as such – seem to complete the transition they started nine years ago. Casablancas gets his share of synth-laden ballads and falsettos, but he never veers too far into that terrain because the band is there to anchor most of the tunes to the tight rhythms and angular riffs they became known for.

It is impossible to know whether that nature is the result of a concession made to fans or of a compromise reached between The Strokes themselves, but the bottom line is that there is some awareness of the situation on the part of Julian. In “Bad Decisions”, the first single and the track that is most reminiscent of their indie beginnings on account of its pure rock instrumentation and snaking guitar leads, the singer seems to address an audience that is disappointed with the turns that the music of their idols has taken. It is a tune that could be read as some sort of peace treaty, but selected as the cover letter of the album, it works more like a bridge to the rest of “The New Abnormal”. The Strokes, in that unadulterated state, are nowhere else to be found in the record; they are, as “Bad Decisions” reveals, quite alive, though, even if – as the result of a good and natural musical evolution – they are somewhat different.

The great middle ground struck by The Strokes is nearly omnipresent in “The New Abnormal”. “The Adults Are Talking” opens with a brief electronic beat that, although constant in the whole song, soon gets drowned by the drums of Moretti and the hypnotic guitars of Valensi and Hammond Jr. “Selfless”, whose melody culminates with a beautiful Casablancas falsetto, is a ballad tastefully decorated by electric instruments. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is guided by synths, but the presence of Fraiture’s bass in the verse and the tune’s rocking chorus serve as reminders that the aura of The Strokes is still there. With a more ethereal body and slower pace, “At the Door” relies almost solely on synthesizers, clicking due to its excellent melody and because its electronic constitution brings an extra flavor to the album. “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” flirts with robotic dance music. And “Not the Same Anymore” reaches its climax with an angular riff that could have been on the slower moments of “Is This It” and “Room on Fire”.

With its general mid-tempo pace and a batch of tunes that take their time to evolve, the songs of “The New Abnormal” have lengths that are a bit unusual for The Strokes, with only two cuts falling slightly below the four-minute mark. Curiously, the best and worst moments on the record are its two most epic tracks: “Ode to the Mets” and “Eternal Summer”. On the positive end, closer “Ode to the Mets” is like a well-deserved victory lap; guided by a catchy and simple synthesizer line, which Julian follows note-by-note vocally, it progressively builds to a rousing outro. On the negative end, there is “Eternal Summer”; co-written with the Butler brothers, of the Psychedelic Furs, it loses itself in multi-phased synthpop and annoying vocal inflections by Julian, which at points seem to emulate the ranting moments of Roger Waters in “The Wall”, bringing memories of the worst pieces of “Comedown Machine” in the process.

Thankfully, with the exception of “Eternal Summer”, which is sadly the longest song on the package, “The New Abnormal” is devoid of missteps, easily earning the title of being The Strokes’ greatest album since 2003’s “Room on Fire”. Seventeen years after that release, the young boys who put that record together are now grown men. As a consequence, it would be wrong to hope the quintet would sound as youthful, meaningful, and full of energy as they did in those days; just like it would be unfair to want the 2020 version of The Strokes to emulate the sound they had in their first two fantastic works. “The New Abnormal”, as such, delivers the best one could expect out of the current incarnation of The Strokes: a solid album where the band succeeds in evolving without abandoning the unique traits that made them great in the first place. Whether they care about being The Strokes or not is irrelevant when the product delivered is so engaging.

EVOL

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Album: EVOL

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: May 1st, 1986

Highlights: Tom Violence, Shadow of a Doubt, Starpower, Expressway to Yr. Skull

There are, quite naturally, plenty of elements to be found in “EVOL” – Sonic Youth’s third album – that can be easily linked to pieces of the two full-length releases that preceded it: “Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising”. The guitars, whose sounds expand and hang in the air for a while like a thin mist, present a delicacy in their physical manifestation that heavily contrasts with the uncomfortable feelings their atonal essence gives life to. As a consequence, the instrumental backing of the album’s tracks becomes shapeless, mysterious, and looming; the kind of material that could be employed as the musical basis of a psychological thriller that takes place in an urban, dirty, and industrial dystopia. And on top of those pieces lie vocal performances that are bold in their cold sloppiness, using partial indifference as a pathway to artistic value.

Yet, despite those glaring similarities, if there is one turning point to be found in the career of a group that – through thirty years, fifteen studio albums, and numerous labels (both big and small) – remained true to their alternative roots, “EVOL” is certainly it. The work marks the departure of drummer Bob Bert and the arrival of his replacement, Steve Shelley, which would stay with the band until the end of their run. And although it is hard to say how much that new addition contributes to the leap that is taken, as “EVOL” seems to be the natural conclusion of an evolutionary arch that was already relatively visible in its two predecessors, the fact of the matter is that a lot of that transition goes through Shelley.

“Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising” were morbid, mean, and menacing like a film depicting horrifying madness that threatens to break through the screen and drag listeners into its downward spiral towards insanity. “EVOL” is not too different; but, in it, the noise of Sonic Youth gains notable muscle. Where in their first two albums the band was prone to getting lost amidst their unique craft, with the quartet going on to produce many songs that degenerated into aimless attempts at creating dark atmospheres through racket; in “EVOL” the group emerges as a more focused entity. Instead of drifting out dully into the ether, their more experimental hours are anchored to the ground; meanwhile, their ability to construct tracks whose structures have a more traditional lean – which do so without ever abandoning their noisy edge – is more explored.

“EVOL” is, as such, the moment when Sonic Youth realized that their relentless desire to challenge the limitations of guitar music should not bar them from looking at the possibilities that reside in the more straightforward pop approach. It is a record that proves to the band as well as to their followers that pushing for abrasive tones, aesthetically unpleasant tunings, and weird distortions are not mutually exclusive with embracing the power of good hooks; and, in that process, “EVOL” shows that the extremist and confrontational rejection of conventional rock and roll values captained by the no wave movement – in which Sonic Youth was born – could be tamed into an excellent middle ground.

The record opens with a triple punch that immediately announces Sonic Youth has changed for the better. “Tom Violence”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, and “Starpower” are not just the finest tunes the band had coined up to that point; they are also testaments to how Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, and Shelley could embrace sheer catchiness without losing their personality. By far the poppiest points of the album, they are fully developed pieces that merge immediacy and experimentation. In “Tom Violence”, sandwiched between segments with beautiful ringing guitars and a fantastic melody, there is a gripping instrumental break that disintegrates before slowly springing back to life. The delicate whispers and picking of the dreamy “Shadow of a Doubt”, Kim Gordon’s signature song, are interrupted by a nightmarish slice of noise that has the singer screaming in the background as if trying to escape from perturbed sleep. Finally, “Starpower” catches a hold of its racket to alternate between occasions when it drives forward in punk rock fashion and instances when it becomes abstract.

At the same time, though, “EVOL” holds enough room for Sonic Youth to go purely experimental, and in those cases the band also displays notable growth; particularly in how they are – almost always – able to steer clear from pointless indulgence. Boasting spoken vocals that seem recklessly thrown over its fantastic backing track, “In the Kingdom #19” recreates a car crash. “Green Light” flirts with pop when it opens with Moore singing a hypnotizing melody, but quickly ventures into noise. “Death to Our Friends” is an angry and fast-paced instrumental. “Secret Girl” is half a weird intro filled with dull sounds and half a fantastic recitation of poetry by Kim Gordon, who does so over a simple but touching piano loop. And “Marilyn Moore”, the album’s sole misstep, has bored and irregular vocals by Moore, which match an equally uncertain instrumentation.

Appropriately, the catchy and the experimental sides of “EVOL” meet in perfect harmony to give birth to the record’s culmination: its closing track, “Expressway to Yr. Skull”. Clocking in at seven minutes, the song starkly opposes the rest of the album, which delivers its contents in relatively brief spans. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” uses a format, of which “The Diamond Sea” is likely the best and most extreme example, that Sonic Youth would go on to tackle multiple times during their career, as the tune grabs a melody many pop songwriters would have killed for, uses it for a small amount of time, and makes a sudden turn towards the land of lengthy musical freak-outs, essentially pushing the formula of “EVOL” to its utmost limits before the record slowly decomposes and comes to a close.

Although a surprisingly strong effort by a band that, slightly more than one year earlier, was clearly looking for solid footing, “EVOL” ranks among Sonic Youth’s best efforts without quite making a serious run for the top spot. Almost entirely free of instrumental frivolity, it still falters in lyrics and vocals, two areas which – for many – the band would never exactly nail, but that would nevertheless see clear evolution in the following years. Yet, as the muscular backbone of their tracks would start gaining notable strength with the follow-up, “Sister”, and as the substance in the band’s songwriting would also increase, “EVOL” is a unique middle ground between Sonic Youth’s purely atmospheric beginnings and the rest of their career, which would be more firmly grounded on the alternative scene. And, in that sense, it is a key – and thoroughly enjoyable – moment in the history of all kinds of rock that see noise as an integral part of their constitution.

Slowdive

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Album: Slowdive

Artist: Slowdive

Released: May 5th, 2017

Highlights: Star Roving, Sugar for the Pill, No Longer Making Time

Following 1995’s “Pygmalion”, their third full-length release, the renowned shoegazers of Slowdive officially disbanded after being dropped by their label, perhaps a sign that the movement they had helped popularize had, propelled from a cliff by the explosion of the Britpop phenomenon, run its course. In practical terms, though, the group never really went away, for three of its five members – including main songwriters Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell – continued to make music under the moniker of Mojave 3 through slightly more than a decade.

Such a shift in formation could easily have been seen as a minor lineup tweak for many bands, which would certainly soldier on whilst bearing the same flag; however, to Halstead and Goswell it worked as an opportunity to retire an old brand full of expectations on its shoulders and replace it with a disguise that would allow them to, with a foot still firmly planted on the dream pop terrains they so skillfully navigated, incorporate new sounds into their formula free from any sort of pressure. Life, though, has cyclical ways, and as interest in the shoegazing genre was reawakened by the return of My Bloody Valentine to touring in 2007 and their successful release of “MBV” in 2013, the name Slowdive was also to come out of its slumber shortly afterwards, a move that likewise ended up generating a series of shows and an original self-titled record.

The twenty two years that separate “Pygmalion” from “Slowdive” are a lot of time; a timespan that is certainly long enough for one to go into the album without any confidence that the version of the band contained in it will resemble in any way the group that broke apart in 1995. And indeed that is the case, for where “Pygmalion” was so sparse and dreamy that it was more ambient music than rock, “Slowdive” has bones, muscles, and structure. However, since “Pygmalion” was itself a large departure for the band at that point, that discrepancy does not mean “Slowdive” is an oddity or a product that does not relate to what came before it.

The truth, in fact, is quite the contrary: the biggest surprise of the record lies in how much it sounds like Slowdive; not the experimental outfit that birthed their third album, but the shoegazing giants that constructed a chain of wondrous EPs and two of the genre’s greatest albums: “Just for a Day” and, especially, “Souvlaki”. As a consequence, “Slowdive” feels more like a rebirth than a continuation; more like a look towards a glorious past than an evolution; and although that nature can cause it to be a victim of negative remarks regarding artistic stagnation, the twenty-four-year gap between it and “Souvlaki” makes it feel as when the return of a friend that had been absent for a while is followed by the very pleasant realization that they have kept all of their best traits.

“Slowdive” is, as such, appropriately titled because it is very true to the staples that fans associate with the band’s name. The soundscapes in which its eight tracks exist are so immense they transcend the barriers of headphones and stereo systems to engulf listeners into the lethargic ambiance that must live in the depths of the ocean or in the far reaches of space. Peacefully floating amidst those angelic environments, one is greeted by a myriad of sounds: the guitars of Halstead and Savill gently arrive in the form of rings or pulses from distant stars, always merging noise with beauty; the rhythm session of Chaplin and Scott lands with enough force to propel tunes forward but not with enough strength to dispel the mystical aura that surrounds the music; and keyboards and electronic elements appear as both gentle ornaments and velvety layers that fill up the empty spaces.

On top of that majestic haze, the voices of Halstead and Goswell show up like whispers, the messages they carry barely discernible, but the melodies that give them shape usually remarkable. At times the singers clash into some sort of beautiful cacophony of sounds that emanate from distinct sources, and at times they harmonize tightly; they are, however, invariably effective in how they transmit a tranquil tone that caresses listeners as they drift.

Along that sensory journey, the sonically uniform tracks that constitute it carry enough distinctions to keep the record interesting all the way through. “Slomo” is a grand opener that softly grows as it goes along, incorporating new pieces into itself until it fills the entirety of the soundscape; “Star Roving” is a rarity for Slowdive, a tune that rather than coming in like a soft mist moves like a fierce rocket; “Don’t Know Why” is an elusive mass of murmurs and instrumental shifts; “Sugar for the Pill” shows the band has their ears open to the success of introspective indie acts such as The xx; “Everyone Knows” tests the limits of noise and melody; “No Longer Making Time” plays with quiet-and-loud dynamics by bursting into the album’s most cathartic chorus; “Go Get It” ranks as the most experimental cut in the record, being hurt by an exaggerated reliance on a refrain that, albeit catchy, flirts too closely with clichéd terrain; and closer “Falling Ashes” is centered around a simple piano loop and an endlessly repeated melodic line that never get tiring thanks to their inherent beauty and the power of Halstead and Goswell’s whispered harmonies.

Along that path, old fans will be accompanied by the happinesses of knowing that following the detour of Mojave 3 and the loss of identity seen in “Pygmalion”, Slowdive has not just returned, but also reunited with its finest version; meanwhile, those that bump into the band for the first time with the release will be welcomed by the Slowdive sound in its best state, one that may not recreate the revelatory experience of “Souvlaki”, but that is nevertheless enough to submerge listeners in a serene pool of tranquility where atoms of beauty wash over their bodies.