Phrenology

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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.

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Return Of Saturn

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Album: Return of Saturn

Artist: No Doubt

Released: April 11th, 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Frances The Mute

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Album: Frances the Mute

Artist: The Mars Volta

Released: March 1st, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall Heads Roll

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Album: Fall Heads Roll

Artist: The Fall

Released: October 3rd, 2005

Highlights: Pacifying Joint, What About Us?, Blindness, Youwanner

Word on the dirty back alleys of rock music has it that The Fall, the highly prolific English post-punk outfit led by Mark E. Smith, produced – during their forty-two-year career – thirty-one albums that were all variations on a single theme. To a point, such poisonous gossip is true; after all, the group’s leader himself, in one of the most notable tracks put together by the band in the years that preceded the release of their debut record, boasted that: “We dig repetition in the music / And we’re never going to lose it”. Aptly titled “Repetition”, the song would go on to serve not just as a defiant anthem, but also as a musical manifesto to which The Fall would always remain faithful.

The repetition, however, though steady and relentless, was sneaky; constantly coming in different flavors. The band, slowly yet surely, incorporated new elements into their sound and dropped countless others in such an organic way that those who were tracking it closely did not see it happening, for exactly like looking at oneself in the mirror every day, the change could only be perceived by being confronted directly with the past. Therefore, even if most entires that stand side by side in the discography of The Fall are at times hard to tell apart, the differences come in droves when the items being compared are chronologically distant.

“Fall Heads Roll”, although certainly a product of various shifts, does not exactly respect that norm. Undoubtedly, like the albums that came right before it and similarly to every single piece in The Fall’s oeuvre, it grinds in a way that is as demented as it is threatening, like a chainsaw-wielding killer who is trying to break into a house and murder its occupants by using his only weapon against all obstacles that stand in his path, whether they are as solid as walls or as easily breakable as windows. Additionally, under the endless cyclical destruction, there can be found a myriad of synthetic noises, brought in by talented keyboardist Elena Poulou, that add a modern touch to the roughness while nodding to the electronic beats with which The Fall played during much of the 90s.

Yet, “Fall Heads Roll” feels rather different. Coming close to many releases, with its predecessor “The Real New Fall LP” being the exception, in which Mark E. Smith sounded bored and the band lacked any sort of forward energy, it is full of vitality; as if that old grumpy and drunk neighbor who could do nothing but yell threats from his window suddenly decided to get out of the house and attack by-passers. More relevant to that notable distinction, however, is the fact that the album simply sounds extremely muscular: it surpasses all other The Fall records as far as sheer strength is concerned, meaning that “Fall Heads Roll” pounds so heavily at its loudest moments that it might as well be pointed out as Mark E. Smith’s shot at hard rock.

It goes without saying that if “Fall Heads Roll” can indeed be labeled as such, then it is hard rock in The Fall’s own terms. The riffs are, as usual, so short and simple that it is sort of surprising nobody had ever used them before; or perhaps their absurd straightforwardness is what kept them from being taken by other folks in the first place. Moreover, the only sort of musical acrobatics that occur can be found in the band’s ability to build mighty grooves that sometimes go the distance by repeating the same idea over and over again while Mark E. Smith rants like a maniac over them. At last, while the instruments are captured with a clearness and crispness that is nearly unforeseen for a group like The Fall, the iconic singer is – as rules dictate – positively impossible to understand to many people in Britain and to almost everyone outside it.

Out of that fine-tuned formula, the band extracts a few career highlights. “Pacifying Joint” is a delightful racket; an obvious pinnacle in The Fall’s integration between repetitive riffs and electronic music. “What About Us?” follows the same recipe, with the difference being that the pulsating waves coming out of the keyboards build to an amazingly catchy chorus based on a call-and-response hook sung by Smith and Poulou where a man from East Germany complains to Harold Shipman, a real-life doctor and serial killer, that the criminal should give the morphine he uses to murder old ladies to him instead. Meanwhile, “Youwanner” is constructed like a vicious ever-descending spiral that drags listeners into its deadly guitar-based downward trip. And then there is “Blindness”; easily ranking among the best tracks The Fall produced during their incredible run, it is a gripping seven-minute jam that starts only with drums, bass, and keyboard but slowly swells to a tsunami of sounds that is both unstoppable and inescapable.

Although these tunes stand tall amidst the collection that surrounds them, the rest of the cuts in “Fall Heads Roll” are not to be ignored either. “Midnight in Aspen” and “Early Days of Channel Führer” are oddly introspective and nearly beautiful, with the latter featuring a very rare sight in The Fall’s catalog: an acoustic guitar. In “I Can Hear the Grass Grow”, a brilliant The Move cover, and “Bo Demmick”, which uses the Bo Diddley beat, Smith pays homage – in his own way, of course – to a passion of his that has always been present in the band’s sound: old-school rock and roll. “Ride Away” is an odd piece of stumbling reggae which immediately qualifies as the weirdest opener to a The Fall record. “Clasp Hands” has the group coming quite close to their post-punk origins. “Assume” is centered on an interesting snaking guitar line. “Breaking the Rules” is short and carries a riff that is almost playful. And “Trust in Me” is a bit of a lackluster closer that could have worked better towards the middle of the album as it does have a hypnotic weirdness to it despite a general lack of inspiration.

Given the overall consistency of The Fall’s lengthy and productive musical journey, “Fall Heads Roll” does not – in the end – feel like a revelation or a culmination. Its excellent integration between guitars and keyboards had already been achieved, albeit under much lighter distortions, in 1993’s “The Infotainment Scan”. Furthermore, the mightiness of Mark E. Smith’s band, although never captured so clearly, was not a secret to those who were paying attention. Yet, “Fall Heads Roll” is significant, not just because it is – ultimately – the heaviest album ever put out by The Fall, but also due to how it is a very strong late-career work. One that announced, twenty-four albums and twenty-nine years into the group’s arch, that they still had fuel to burn; and one that, with Smith’s passing and The Fall’s retirement, shines among the best pieces assembled by a one-of-a-kind relentless and repetitive madman.

Extraordinary Machine

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Album: Extraordinary Machine

Artist: Fiona Apple

Released: October 3rd, 2005

Highlights: Extraordinary Machine, Get Him Back, O’ Sailor, Oh Well, Please Please Please

The third entry in the small, yet remarkable, discography of Fiona Apple is especially notable for two reasons. The first is, of course, related to the confusion that surrounded its release. Going through a grueling breakup, producer and friend Jon Brion met an idle Fiona for lunch and begged her to save him by going into a studio, writing some songs, and giving him some work. The singer-songwriter complied, and the two, during a long period of time, labored over what would be the first version of “Extraordinary Machine”. The material produced in those sessions, however, would never officially see the light of day, as the record company judged it to lack any sort of commercial quality.

What followed was chaos, as tracks produced by Brion began to leak to the press, fans organized protests outside of the label’s headquarters asking for the album to be released, and Fiona rushed back to the studio with a new team of producers to rebuild the record from scratch, later attributing that decision to how the lack of an incubation period for the tunes before they were taken into the Brion-led sessions made her unsure of the direction in which she would lead the songs. After all that glorious mess, and an extra bunch of months in the studio, “Extraordinary Machine” would finally make it to the public more than three years after the lunch that originated it, but in clothes quite different from the ones it was going to wear at first.

Much like Fiona herself, the Brion album was charming and quirky, with its strong piano-based tracks being backed by tasteful, yet wacky and overpowering, string arrangements. Contrarily, the output of the sessions guided by Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew is more pasteurized, fitting in more nicely not just alongside contemporary music as a whole, but also with the two albums Fiona had put out before it. Despite its more straightforward approach, though, the officially released version of “Extraordinary Machine” is bursting with personality, not only because – as a Fiona Apple record ought to be – it carries the emotional hurricane that lies within the body of a clumsy transgressor, but also due to how it captures that outcast soul at a very transformed state.

And that is where one will find the second defining trait of “Extraordinary Machine”: the fact that Fiona is still an introspective, confused, somewhat miserable, and lovely weirdo, but that she has learned how to get a major kick out of the situation. The album still has plenty of room for mad and intense Fiona, as she breaks windows that might metaphorically represent love, threatens to kill an ex-lover, and pens a couple of tunes that are unmistakably sad. Most of the time, however, what she is doing is actually having a quiet ironic laugh at the crap life throws at her while letting her friends know that she is doing just fine, it is just that her mind operates on a unique wavelength that makes her a bit hard to grasp.

The title track and opening number, one of the two songs that appear just as they were recorded by Jon Brion, is already a universal declaration of sorts. The “Extraordinary Machine” is none other than Fiona herself, as over plucked strings and occasional horns that bring about a vaudeville vibe, she announces both her oddness and her resiliency. Still, it is no wonder her friends are terribly preoccupied, as over the course of the album she seems to – in lyrics that are too personal to be fictional – completely clear the checklist of possible relationship troubles. There is the ex-boyfriend that is hard to forget and the men that she goes through in her failed attempts to find someone that moves her the way he did (“Get Him Back”); there is unrequited love (“Parting Gift”); there is cheating (“Oh Well”); there are abusive (“Not About Love”) and non-functional (“O’ Sailor”) relationships whose true natures are only revealed in hindsight; and there is a myriad of insecurities regarding the truth behind expressed feelings.

Emotionally, “Extraordinary Machine” is nothing but devastating. It is unlikely, for instance, that the fantastic love-related metaphors Fiona pulls off during “Red Red Red” or the frustration expressed in “Oh Well” will fail to make a brokenhearted individual cry. Likewise, the piano-and-voice rawness of the performance captured in “Parting Gift” shows a human being at a rather broken state. It is, therefore, quite a miracle that, overall, the tone carried by the record is one of brave defiance and humorous self-awareness. When Fiona is not standing proud and tall amidst her tears, she is poking fun at her misery with marvelous insight, and – in the two cases – what supports her seems to be the understanding, acceptance, and pride she has of her uniqueness, for, as she states in the lines that close the album, “Everyone else’s goal’s to get big-headed / Why should I follow that beat being that / I’m better than fine”.

As much as the Brion version of the record is undeniably more interesting and creative from an artistic standpoint, the Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew production suits the material perfectly. With her piano and voice always firmly holding the spotlight, Fiona’s gifts are well-supported by clever instrumentation and varied arrangements. In the moments she is focused on sadness, the drums, keyboards, guitars, strings, and horns that accompany her powerfully rise to let her stand afloat; meanwhile, in the moments she aims to laugh while looking at the mirror, the music gets quirky and wild, as it does in the vibraphones used in “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)”, in the noisy undercurrent of “A Better Version of Me”, in the colorful energetic groove of “Please Please Please”, or in the frantic break of “Not About Love”, when Fiona spits words out like a machine gun and the band goes bonkers.

These alternations between the Fiona who is sullen as well as angry and the Fiona who is basking under the light of her weirdness are certainly an important part of the high degree of quality found in “Extraordinary Machine”. However, those features would not hold much weight if the album lacked in songwriting, and it is in that department in which it shines the most, as – once again – the singer displays, besides notable consistency, an impressive ability for being creative in lyrics and melody without losing the firm grip she has on the traits that make a track be simultaneously likable, accessible, and odd. It is an intersection inside which Fiona has existed from the get go, and in “Extraordinary Machine” it is thoroughly explored once more; as bonus, though, it comes – this time around – with a better, renewed, and more confident understanding of herself as a person, and both her lyrics and the tone of her songwriting gain quite a bit from that development.

Living With War

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Album: Living with War

Artist: Neil Young

Released: May 2nd, 2006

Highlights: After the Garden, Living with War, Shock and Awe, Roger and Out

As history tells, “Living with War” started coming together as an album when Neil Young, while in a hotel somewhere in Ohio, caught a glimpse of a newspaper whose cover carried a headline related to the then on-going Iraq War. Above the picture of a wounded soldier inside a surgery room located on an airplane that was flying the man back to Germany, the text lauded the medical advances that were being achieved amidst the conflict, coldly overlooking the drama and sadness of a human being struggling to stay alive as a result of a futile campaign. Moved by that underlying trivialization of life, Young went back to his room and started writing songs intensely, with many of the tunes coming to him simultaneously given the urgency of the message he wanted to send and the mighty power of the emotional state he found himself in.

For a while, Young – an artist that, since the sixties, had never been afraid to call out politicians – had intentionally held back from producing tracks related to the war, as he felt that it was up to a newer generation of composers to rise in protest against it. However, since time had passed without the appearance of any significant stance regarding the matter, Young quickly headed for California, gathered a group of musicians, and walked into the studio to pour his soul into the tapes, assembling – in a boldly immediate way – the ten cuts that form “Living with War”.

Just like taking shots against powerful men who wear suits, recording in a rushed approach was – at that point – far from being new to Young, as his early career is filled with songs and sometimes entire albums, such as “Tonight’s the Night”, that are famous not only for their quality, but also for being put together on the spur of the moment, maintaining – therefore – the rough edges of first takes and intoxicated sessions. Similarly to those efforts, “Living with War” certainly displays quite blatantly it was haphazardly constructed.

Firstly, because it sounds like Neil Young by the numbers, meaning that the work puts little effort when it comes to breaking into fresh musical ground; its ten tunes are, without exception, carried by mid-tempo guitars that, despite having a very dirty tone, are played in simple, delicate, and clear strums. Secondly, because there is little to no variation in the compositions, as they are all centered around basic chord changes that repeat themselves over and over again, with some choruses occasionally showing up to throw some energy into the steady machine. And finally, because Young sings lyrics that are so direct, leaving any sort of subtlety or metaphors out of the table, that he sometimes dates the tunes badly, as it happens most notably in the fun and rowdy “Let’s Impeach the President”, where audio excerpts of George W. Bush’s interviews are used to portray how the then-president changed his mind constantly and often contradicted himself, and in “Looking for a Leader”, where both Obama and Colin Powell are directly cited as potential future presidents that will be able to get the United States running again.

In spite of generating those shortcomings, the approach Neil Young took in the writing and recording of “Living with War” also bears positive results, and it is arguable that the good outweighs the bad. The emotional trigger that led to the album is very much alive in the way the tracks are executed, as the songs materialize through fiery performances by both the band and Young, and the latter – in particular – does some astounding guitar work and singing.

He delivers a couple of remarkable solos that are as dirty as they are moving; he disrupts the firm and fixed instrumentation of many tracks with some of his signature noisy outbursts; and he sings with the same sort of immediate urgency that hit him in that Ohio hotel, for as the words transit between being angry, hopeful, and sad, his voice follows spectacularly, making “Living with War” sound – above all else – genuine. No amount of force and honesty, however, could make for a satisfying listen if the tunes themselves had no value, and regardless of how they are not exactly surprising or inventive, it is impossible to deny that Young came up with loads of excellent melodies for the album, meaning that as the guitars stay locked in straightforward and constant chord changes, listeners are likely to be touched by how the words are being broadcast.

“Living with War” is, consequently, a record packed to the brim with hooks. And like Bob Dylan, from whom he clearly borrows the melody of “Chimes of Freedom” to give birth to “Flags of Freedom”, Neil uses those catchy turns repeatedly throughout the songs as a way to connect the many verses of his compositions. It is, other than an acknowledging of the quality of those hooks, a nod to folk protest music, as many of the work’s tracks feel like they were made to be sung by protesters that march together for the same cause. In fact, that quality is so evident that “Living with War” features a very prominent choir that joins Young either for entire songs, as it happens with the title track, or for the strongest melodic moments of most of the other tunes.

It is a production choice that may, despite its thematic suitability, be seen by some as cheesy – and these will be happy to know that the album has a stripped down version, dubbed “Living with War: In the Beginning”, which removes that and other extra accompaniments. Still, the choir has the effect of bringing an additional doses of wide-reaching anger to many of the cuts found in “Living with War”, augmenting the emotional punch of a package that is already quite powerful and highlighting the qualities of a very consistent late-career effort. An album that, in spite of its punctual problems, simultaneously holds some best angry and beautiful moments of Young’s discography, and also the rushed and ragged vibe that has always made him such an interesting, independent, true, and wild artist.

Around The Sun

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Album: Around the Sun

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: October 5th, 2004

Highlights: Leaving New York, The Outsiders, Final Straw, Around the Sun

The generally accepted narrative concerning the final phase of the long career of R.E.M. – a period that started with the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 – has it that, following that event, the band lost the ability to deliver records of considerable quality. As such, a remarkable run that began with 1983’s “Murmur” supposedly had 1996’s “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” as its final piece. If on one hand the storytelling sticks, for indeed none of the albums released during the period in which the group worked as a trio rank among their finest; on the other hand, it does not, for it is perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss albums that do hold some value.

Case in point, the first two works that came out in those final years, 1998’s “Up” and 2001’s “Reveal”, feature a noticeable amount of tracks that range between consistent and excellent, and both – true to the band’s ever-changing nature – explore rather distinct styles: the former being a moody electronic rock work that is clearly a product of a world still feeling the effects of Radiohead’s “OK Computer”, and the latter coming off as a bright colorful album that dabbles into summertime joy and melancholy alike. Surely, as it happened with much of their post-1997 output, these records are good with a caveat; in their case, the fact their material could have used some editing, a task at which Bill Berry was reportedly very good. Nevertheless, their above-average quality is enough to debunk the established narrative regarding the group’s twilight era.

Out of the five records R.E.M. released without their drummer, though, there is one that clearly strays away from the pack and works towards confirming the perception the band quickly disintegrated when Bill Berry walked out. That album is, of course, 2004’s “Around the Sun”, rightfully and widely seen as the group’s nadir. Its link with its two predecessors is clear: from “Up”, it borrows a generally gloomy demeanor that is felt through songs in slow tempos and instrumentation centered around electronic beats, pianos, and acoustic guitars; meanwhile, from “Reveal”, it takes the production excesses and the integration of synthesized layers into the band’s sound.

Differently from them, however, “Around the Sun” is not powered by those traits; it is actually severely held back by them. Its sad and pessimistic spirit, perhaps a product of the George W. Bush years and the Iraq War, subjects that Michael Stipe touches upon both heavily and lightly during the course of the record, turns it into a uniform mass of mellow alternative rock numbers. It is, certainly, a definition that could easily apply to “Up” itself, but where that record gained rough and interestingly sentimental edges thanks to its electronic work, which was experimental and tasteful in equal parts, the tunes in “Around the Sun” are brought to the ground by production that is so intensely calculated it drowns whatever life its songs had in the first place.

Once again, having too much production is a comment that could fairly be thrown at “Reveal” as well. However, the studio trickery in that work was so absurd that one could pretty much be sure the album was being very tongue-in-cheek about it; furthermore, its exaggeration was a perfect channel for the summer vibe it was trying to broadcast. “Around the Sun”, contrarily, seems to be pretty serious about its gloss; and, unfortunately, in its case, that gloss is cold ice silently leaking into its veins, causing it to sound like a winter record that went so deep into its sad mood that it now stands lifeless on the ground.

That seriousness, in fact, emerges as the greatest problem of “Around the Sun”. Through their career, R.E.M. wrote and performed a good share of stern tracks, to the point that the album that is usually seen as their best, “Automatic for the People”, dove into suicide, death, depression, and aging. Yet, through it all, they always seemed to know having fun was necessary, an element that was continuously present in their output. “Around the Sun”, though, has no fun at all; it does take a shot at it with the circus-like “Wanderlust”, but it is hard to count it as a breezy detour when it is one of the weakest cuts here. Nobody seems to be enjoying “Around the Sun” all that much: Peter Buck is playing basic strums and riffs that sound mechanical; Mike Mills is so disconnected that his stellar backing vocals are nowhere to be seen; and Michael Stipe, he of the cryptic lyrics and unusual subjects, writes a whole lot of sappy straightforward words concerning troubled relationships and abandonment, wearing a hat that does not suit him that well.

Despite the heavy criticism it deserves, “Around the Sun” should not be dismissed entirely. After all, a clearly below-average release by the boys from Athens would still be a decent album by the standards of many other bands. Overall, Stipe’s melodic work is good, and it lands on praise-worthy heights in more than a handful of occasions, with “Aftermath” standing out among them. Furthermore, some tracks are downright strong. “Leaving New York”, the leading single and opening track, may be overly sentimental, but it has a fantastic chorus and an organic sound that should have been the blueprint for the rest of the record. “The Outsiders” is beautifully moody; its thick atmosphere signals the silent – yet certain – coming of change its lyrics imply, and while Peter Buck delivers one impressive guitar line in the chorus, rapper Q-Tip shows up for a very good hip-hop break. “Final Straw”, which reads like a direct letter to then-president George W. Bush, is carried by a brilliant acoustic strum and has extremely powerful lyrics that, through Stipe’s wise choice of words, gain contours generic enough that they could be used to question misguided leaders and lovers alike. And closer “Around the Sun” is a classic R.E.M. pop rock track, with an inventive rising coda included.

These bright spots, vastly outnumbered among thirteen songs, obviously cannot save “Around the Sun” from its general lifelessness, showing not even Bill Berry’s editing and mediation between the group’s songwriters could have rescued it. They do, however, indicate the final result had the potential to be different if the band had taken a lighter approach to the production of the album, as there is quality to be found amidst the dullness. Perhaps then, the often repeated and unfair dismissal of the group’s post-1997 output would have been avoided.

Era Vulgaris

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Album: Era Vulgaris

Artist: Queens of the Stone Age

Released: June 12th, 2007

Highlights: Turnin’ on the Screw, Sick Sick Sick, Into the Hollow, Make It wit Chu

The music produced by Queens of the Stone Age has always been underlined by a thick, yet low-key, layer of dirtiness. It has been present in the uncanny sway of their drone-like riffs; it has been vivid in the way Josh Homme’s elastic voice, which can quickly transit from low and menacing to an alluring falsetto, adds unlikely prominent hips to muscular hard rock; and it has hinted of its presence through lyrical subjects that have included revenge, drugs, dark imagery, and all sorts of sensual pleasures. All that filthiness, however, had – up until the release of “Era Vulgaris” – been of the sexual kind. Rock music and sex were never strangers to one another.

Yet, somewhere along the move from the bouncing rhythms and riffs inspired by the genre’s pioneers, such as Chuck Berry, to heavier and stiffer styles that often dabbled into foreboding subjects, that link got lost, and Homme and his ever-changing crew took it upon themselves to bring such connection back to the louder spectrum of the rock universe. In that sense, “Era Vulgaris” is notable because, after four albums, it breaks that pattern; the band is no longer channeling the pleasurable dirtiness of sex, but the raw and physical filth of a good old garage.

It is not, of course, that the group suddenly went, over the course of two years, from the melodic, mid-tempo, and relaxed desert rock of “Lullabies to Paralyze” to the no-frills rock and roll of a garage band. It is just that, here, they take the most basic approach they could possibly use to reproduce their signature sound. Homme is still pulling off colorful explosions of soothing melodies in the midst of vicious guitar pounding, as he does when “I’m Designer” goes from its verses to its chorus; likewise, the band is still taking slow-tempo detours, and in “Era Vulgaris” they materialize in the poppy and playful flirtation of “Make It wit Chu” as well as in the sinister “Into the Hollow”, where Homme shines not only through his rising falsetto, but also via an utterly remarkable lap steel guitar line.

However, save for in the former tune, where Queens of the Stone Age gets close to the mass-appeal they tapped into during “Go with the Flow”, there is no hip-shaking, no rock and roll swing, and no sensual delights. “Era Vulgaris” pounds mightily, and its highly distorted guitars – which are captured in all their grainy rawness – land accompanied by loud and dry drums. It is groovy stoner rock without the filters that usually make its edges rounder, and it alternates moments when it clicks with instances where it sinks.

During the moments it is firing on all cylinders, “Era Vulgaris” sits comfortably beside the band’s other stellar records. “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “Battery Acid” are taken straight out of Josh Homme’s songbook of tunes that, carried by almost monotonic guitars, crush listeners repeatedly until they fall into a state where they either experience sheer delirium or crave for mercy. Similarly, “Turnin’ on the Screw” is a classic Queens of the Stone Age track that oddly and perfectly matches sludgy evil (in the slow pace and mean riffs of its verses) and catchy melodic hooks (in the relaxed and nearly psychedelic vibe of its chorus).

When it falters, though, the album falls into dull patterns that make it easy for one to agree with the established perception that says “Era Vulgaris” is the group’s weakest work. “3’s & 7’s”, led by a riff that recalls the one from “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, is energizing and fast-paced until it reaches a disappointing bridge that makes it stop dead on its tracks and lose its initially excellent direction. Meanwhile, “Misfit Love”, “Suture Up Your Future”, “Run, Pig, Run” meander in search of a clever idea or defining trait but find absolutely nothing of interest, making them feel like they last much longer than their actual length.

Perhaps, with the help of a lusher production, such as the one employed in the dense “Lullabies to Paralyze”, some of these duller tracks could have gained some value; the sinister atmosphere of “River in the Road”, for example, could have certainly been made extremely immersive with a more layered sound. Amidst the empty spaces left by the basic approach of “Era Vulgaris”, though, their flaws become very clear. However, the main problem of the album is not that the appealing feminine aura that surrounded the band’s violent sound in previous works is absent, because even if Queens of the Stone Age is indeed a far less interesting entity when it is all testosterone, the rawness of “Era Vulgaris” feels refreshing and makes it different.

The issue here, sadly, is that Josh Homme falls short of the high standards usually expected of him in relation to coming up with sexy melodies, nasty riffs that pound as well as they bounce, and hooks. Still, “Era Vulgaris” is not bad; after all, at least half of its twelve tracks rank as enjoyable, and if listeners are willing to excuse a few bumps on the road, that number can be even bigger. Nevertheless, for a group whose name has, ever since its inception, stood as a synonym for quality and inventive hard rock, the album does not deliver as much as one would hope.