The Ultra Vivid Lament

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Album: The Ultra Vivid Lament

Artist: Manic Street Preachers

Released: September 10th, 2021

Highlights: Still Snowing in Sapporo, The Secret He Had Missed, Into the Waves of Love, Afterending

Despite having both the respect of most rock aficionados, especially those from the United Kingdom, and a long solid discography that now gains its fourteenth entry, the Manic Street Preachers were never groundbreaking from a musical standpoint. Starting with their hard rocking debut, “Generation Terrorists”, the band initially allowed their inflammatory political stance and vicious lyrical themes to be the defining traits of their work, and with the unbelievable talent of James Dean Bradfield to turn his bandmates’ turbulent free-flowing words into catchy songs, the boys from Wales were quick to become an explosive sensation. Yet, even if the Manic Street Preachers were never musical revolutionaries, their lengthy career has at least allowed them to show enough talent to eventually drop their original punk-guerrilla demeanor in favor of varied aesthetics.

As such, especially as they grew older and tamer, the band branched out; and Bradfield, who is responsible for the tunes alongside drummer Sean Moore, proved that more than the leader of a passionate political band, he is a bonafide pop rock songwriter of notable skill. With that ability, the Manic Street Preachers have been able to do a bit of everything, including operating as outsiders in the Britpop scene (“Everything Must Go”); making the usual album packed with wild stylistic detours (“Know Your Enemy”); going into glossy turn-of-the-century alternative rock (“Lifeblood”); betting on mostly acoustic instrumentation (“Rewind the Film”); and producing a record centered on electronic experimentation (“Futurology”). “The Ultra Vivid Lament”, the group’s latest work, is yet another link on this chain of rhythmic variations, with the Manic Street Preachers embracing lush piano rock.

Given “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is slathered with a layer of shiny gloss, the kind of music it packs is not exactly unprecedented for the band; in fact, comparisons with “Lifeblood”, from 2004, are pretty much inevitable. And since that album is, among fans, one of the most divisive entries of the group’s catalog (with some hating it for its excessive polish and others loving it for its strong songwriting), “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is unlikely to be received very differently. Nevertheless, perhaps as a consequence of the fact Bradfield composed most of the tunes on his piano rather than by using his guitar, there is a notable gap between the two records, because this 2021 release is a considerably quieter affair than its 2004 sibling.

It is not that “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is an album of introspective piano ballads. Quite on the contrary, most tracks on the record have that energetic forward motion that has always been characteristic of the Manic Street Preachers. But with Bradfield’s guitar clearly taking a backseat to the piano and with the music exhibiting a finely produced sparkle, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” sees the band flirting with pop more strongly than ever, to the point all the glitter has led many to claim the clearest musical influence on the record is none other than ABBA; more precisely, the quartet’s expertly crafted piano pop, not their disco leanings. To an extent, giving “The Ultra Vivid Lament” such a label is dangerously reductionist since, most certainly, that attitude was prompted by the first singles, “Orwellian” and “The Secret He Had Missed”, which do get very close to the signature sonority of the Swedish icons; far more than any other tracks of the work. However, the fact this evaluation of the album is not too far off the mark is a good indication of what the Manic Street Preachers are going for here.

The new artistic course makes at least one victim: the invariably gripping guitar acrobatics of Bradfield. They are by all means here and their quality remains excellent, but save for the one in “Still Snowing in Sapporo”, the more subdued tones of these spotlight moments take away some of the energy Bradfield usually brings to the forefront. Yet, even with its tendency towards piano pop, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is still a Manic Street Preachers album through and through. There is the initially quiet introspective cut that develops into a sweeping rocker (“Still Snowing in Sapporo”), the catchy political anthem (“Orwellian”), the radio-friendly pop rock duet (“The Secret He Had Missed”), the melancholic ballads (“Diapause” and “Afterending”), and the songs with choruses that are so easy, natural, and effective it is shocking to realize they had not been written before (“Complicated Illusions” and “Into the Waves of Love”). Aside from Bradfield’s unmistakable fingertips in melody and structure, the other component that brings the Manic Street Preachers stamp to “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is, of course, the writing of Nicky Wire.

Based on the feelings evoked by his usually poetic imagery, it is easy to conclude the bassist is tired; not because the lyrics are poor, which is not the case, but due to how he frequently alludes to a worn out state of mind. Although many of the tunes are vague when it comes to revealing the source of that fatigue, the fact “The Ultra Vivid Lament” often nods to political losses and polarization makes the album come off as the band’s reaction to the current political climate of their home and of the world as well, and that seems to be the main cause of Nicky’s tiredness. He watches facts being ignored and words being twisted (“Orwellian”), he talks about forged desires and toxic agendas (“Blank Diary Entry”), and – as an older man – he sees himself defending the middle ground and remembering the battles he has lost in the past (“Complicated Illusions”).

Some may argue that given their status as a fiery political band, which was mostly built on the early days of their career, maybe the Manic Street Preachers could have come up with a more earth-shattering response for a time of such turmoil even if they are now older and much more mature than the boys who wrote “Generation Terrorists” in 1992. But, in the end, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope. Showing there is still a little of the left-wing rebel inside him, Nicky asks those around him to keep on fighting while saying the elite, represented by the boys from Eton, will not win (“Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”), which indicates that he may be tired and worried, but that he is far from being defeated. Sure, that is far from being a grand statement and, backed by glossy piano rock, the message may end up being somewhat diluted. However, when it is all said and done, the Manic Street Preachers know they cannot change the world on their own, but they can influence the general outlook by being among the hands responsible for a far greater push; and, in that sense, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” fits the bill just right.

Musically, the album is far from spectacular. “Quest for Ancient Color”, “Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”, “Black Diary Entry”, and “Happy Bored Alone” are melodically uninspired, and in the case of the third one, the result is a huge disappointment considering it features the stellar vocal talent of Mark Lanegan. Moreover, the record’s musical proximity to “Lifeblood”, which is stronger in terms of songwriting, means it can feel like either a retread or a moment of stagnation. Nonetheless, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” has enough strong tracks to qualify – at least – as a pleasant listen, and although its turn towards piano pop has the potential to alienate some, it can equally attract a few and show the Manic Street Preachers still have a few kicks in them, even if they are softer and poppier.

five

Pressure Machine

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Album: Pressure Machine

Artist: The Killers

Released: August 13th, 2021

Highlights: West Hills, Quiet Town, Runaway Horses, In the Car Outside

For better and for worse, The Killers had never been able to shake off the bombastic sound that was so pivotal in propelling them to the eyes of the public in 2004 with “Hot Fuss”. On one hand, that characteristic played right into the hands of Brandon Flowers’ songwriting, which – with a knack for explosive choruses – was sure to keep on delivering at least two major hits per album. On the other hand, however, the fact The Killers seemingly only knew how to operate in full throttle meant that, outside a very dedicated fanbase, questions remained as to whether the band was anything more than a one-trick pony that was destined to be a classic case of a group that releases one debut of stunning quality only to then enter a brutal process of artistic stagnation with ever diminishing returns.

Rightfully, a follower of the band’s trajectory can argue that with the warmly received “Wonderful Wonderful”, their fifth release, Brandon and company were able to tone down the explosions that by then had become predictable to fall on tamer soundscapes made up of keyboards, synths, and guitar effects. But the truth is that, even with that record, The Killers could not get away from their natural lean towards grandiosity; they had merely swapped the cinematic heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen during the “Born to Run” and “Born in the U.S.A.” days for the equally bombastic arena-rock-for-the-masses frequently weaved by U2. In other words, they had simply exchanged one type of grandeur for another.

With their seventh album, though, it seems change has finally truly come for the band from Nevada; and, as it turns out, they end up gaining a lot from it. Although Brandon Flowers, like his bandmates, spent a good portion of his life in Las Vegas, an important part of his childhood unfolded in the state of Utah, within the small towns of Payson and Nephi. And it is the last one in particular (whose population sits at around 6,000 inhabitants) that he uses as a source of inspiration for “Pressure Machine”, in which he holds a magnifying glass to the elements that surround the people who live in such a small community at the deep heart of the United States and turns those individual pieces into serious, thoughtful, and subdued – especially for The Killers’ standards – tracks that come together to paint a larger and very vivid picture.

Since the moment Brandon Flowers burst into the scene as a songwriter, comparisons between his work and that of Bruce Springsteen have been common, and understandably so. After all, here were two artists that used bombastic heartland rock to turn the mundane struggles of average American characters – be them workers or anxious teenagers – into heroic tales. As such, when Brandon, with “Pressure Machine”, suddenly steps on the break to coin more intimate pieces about folks who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream, it is only natural for one to be reminded of Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, the dark, lo-fi, acoustic, and masterful 1982 release by Bruce. But, ultimately, “Pressure Machine” is not so daring: even though amateur-sounding recorded interviews with some inhabitants of Nephi precede nearly all the tracks, lending them a very real context, this is a finely produced album that – appropriately – sounds like it came from an important band and a major label.

Needless to say, the fact “Pressure Machine” lacks the sonic audacity of “Nebraska” does not detract from its worth. More importantly, this aesthetic disparity does not even make the comparison absurd, because what The Killers achieve here is by all means similar: like “Nebraska”, “Pressure Machine” is a realistic glimpse, frequently narrated in first-person, into the vast United States that exists away from the country’s worldwide-known and highly influential urban centers. Wearing the shoes of various characters, occasionally within the same song, Brandon touches on topics, people, and events that he, from personal experience, knows to be a part of a small and isolated community such as Nephi. There is the knowledge, sometimes sadly resigned and sometimes satisfied, that most people will never leave the town; there is the strong faith and the equally powerful pressure generated by religion; there is the beauty of living in the midst of natural splendor; there is the kid who causes trouble around the place; there is the young man who is driven to suicidal thoughts due to how his homosexuality is not accepted; there is addiction to opioids; there is the yearly rodeo; there are crimes and stories whose tales spread; and more.

Immersed in this mixture of light and darkness, musically, what makes “Pressure Machine” so special is that although the brand of heartland rock present here is quieter, the fingerprints of The Killers are still all over the tunes; that is, in this work, the band nails the elusive artistic achievement of changing one’s sound without abandoning the signature characteristics of one’s music. Yes, almost half of the songs on the album (“Terrible Thing”, “Runaway Horses”, “Desperate Things”, “Pressure Machine”, and “The Getting By”) are intimate guitar-and-voice cuts punctually embellished by harmonies or strings; and all of those are the types of tracks The Killers of old would never have gone for. Consequently, save for the voice of Brandon Flowers and a couple of melodic peculiarities, there is not much in them that can be connected to the group’s previous material. These folk moments are, however, nicely counterbalanced by a set of more muscular songs; and in these, some of the band’s bombast comes through.

Opener “West Hills” is cinematic from the start, encompassing characters as well as scenes that exist in Nephi and in the natural expanse that surrounds it, but it cooks quietly for more than two minutes before unleashing strings and guitars on the repetition of a chorus that gets progressively grander. “Quiet Town” is a straightforward mid-tempo rocker that could have come from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Cody” is tasteful country rock with a sweeping chorus. “Sleepwalker” and “In the Car Outside” follow a structure mastered by The Killers in many of their hits: pulsating verses led by keyboards that are catapulted to explosive choruses, the former supported by a more electronic arrangement and the latter by gorgeous ringing guitars. And “In Another Life” is every bit as anthemic as “When You Were Young”.

Accompanied by a strong set of calmer tracks and at times being themselves formed by a few segments of a more subdued nature, the climatic moments of these bombastic tunes have room to breathe, taking advantage of wider dynamics to be more effective than ever. And the fact “Pressure Machine” is filled with the most remarkable group of melodies Brandon Flowers has created since “Hot Fuss” certainly also helps in that regard. When those two qualities are considered alongside the thematic marvel displayed within the album, the result is that The Killers have pulled off a musical rarity: with their seventh work, they have not only broken a trend of artistic staleness that had been going on for a while, but they have also reached a career-high when their best days seemed to be far behind them. And best of all, they did so without completely abandoning the bombast that has always defined their music.

five

Blue Weekend

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Album: Blue Weekend

Artist: Wolf Alice

Released: June 4th, 2021

Highlights: Delicious Things, Lipstick on the Glass, Play the Greatest Hits, The Last Man on Earth

While the indie class of the 2000s was interested in either reviving garage rock ethos or exploring the value of bombastic compositions, that of the 2010s had its eyes firmly set on the introspection of dream pop. Be it innocently playful or overwhelmingly depressive, the independent scene – the apparent final bastion of rock music – spent most of that decade producing artists who loved gentle guitars, whispery vocals, as well as intimate songwriting. At times, that inspiration veered towards an earthly folk sound, giving birth to more organic acts like Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers; on other occasions, though, the tunes floated straight to the ethereal realm inaugurated by the Cocteau Twins, and drifting in the vastness of that space one could find bands such as The xx and Daughter.

Coming from London and putting out their full-length debut right in the middle of the dreamy 2010s, Wolf Alice certainly belongs to that second group. Yes, singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell may have started the act as an acoustic duo, but proving that in the minds of her generation folk music is not too distant from dream pop, the project began gaining members and shape until it slowly transitioned into a more ethereal atmosphere by the time of “Blush”, their 2013 EP. Yet, even then, there clear signs Wolf Alice was looking to explore far more than the gloomy quietness that their indie peers were keen on tackling; Ellie and the boys also wanted a piece of the furious guitar walls frequently exhibited by My Bloody Valentine, and they were more than willing to pack the two dream pop factions into the same work.

There is plenty of criticism that can be directed at “Blue Weekend”, the band’s third album. For starters, from a purely artistic standpoint, it showcases no significant evolution in relation to its predecessors; starting with “Blush”, Wolf Alice was quick to announce what they wanted and, eight years later, they are still doing it, because although “Blue Weekend” has the dream pop calmness often seen in the indies of the 2010s, it also contains an untamed guitar fury that is usually forgotten by members of that scene. Moreover, a complaint can also be aimed at the excessively derivative nature of the band’s music, which by closely embracing the shoegaze movement in its two key facets – the noisy loudness of My Bloody Valentine and the reverb-laden melodic beauty of Slowdive – ends up not finding the same level of originality encountered by other bands that are part of its class.

Certainly, there is truth to these points. However, they are not strong enough to disqualify “Blue Weekend”. Stylistically, it might not be very different from the two records that came before it, but it is not totally stale because it brings the Wolf Alice sound to its peak. And sure, the transformation it applies to its inspirations might not be enough to let the band claim the music as its own; this is by no means comparable to what fellow indies The White Stripes did when they brought blues to the garage or, to pick a more contemporary example, to what Phoebe Bridgers executes when she uses her love for Elliott Smith to bring singer-songwriter folk sadness to a new generation. Still, ultimately, all music is derivative in one way or another, and even if Wolf Alice might cross the line that makes one say similarities are just too big to ignore, it is undeniable that the emulation that they perform is not just well done, but also without parallel in the scene in which they were born.

Nevertheless, if a listener wants to look past the fact “Blue Weekend” is an excellent recreation of the sound of major shoegaze acts and visualize other qualities, they will most likely be able to do so. The first greatly positive trait is how the album blatantly pulls from a myriad of influences and consolidates those sources under the same cohesive musical umbrella. The muffled guitar of opener “The Beach” coupled with a melody that slowly gains steam makes it seem that, like a tune from a 2000s indie band that dabbles in bombast, such as Arcade Fire, the track will eventually explode into catharsis. The waves of reverb-infused guitars in “Delicious Things” recall Slowdive. The high-pitched vocals of “Lipstick on the Glass” and the track’s floaty aura nod to the Cocteau Twins. “Smile” has verses with so much nasty noise that it flirts with industrial music. “Safe from Heartbreak” has a heavy reliance on acoustic picking, which makes it the album’s most obviously folky moment. “How Can I Make It Ok?” toys with the electronic influences of shoegaze. And any time the guitars kick into overdrive to construct impenetrable walls of distortion, it is impossible not to think of My Bloody Valentine or Ride.

The second major strength of “Blue Weekend” is simply how melodically gorgeous it is. Always keen on building moving soundscapes, the dream pop genre has always heavily relied on channeling beauty through ethereal instrumentation and vocal work, and when it comes to the latter, Ellie Rowsell undoubtedly delivers. This is not the type of shoegaze which tries to hide uninspired melodies behind astounding walls of sound. That description may apply to “Feeling Myself”, which is the sole point of the album where the vocals meander; however, everywhere else, whether she is betting on full-fledged choruses (“Delicious Things”), recurring phrases that serve as hooks (“How Can I Make It Ok?”), or a more free-flowing structure that slowly rises to splendor (“The Last Man on Earth”), Ellie is constantly enchanting.

More than summoning beauty like never before, “Blue Weekend” also sees Wolf Alice take its other major facet (the noise-making) to its most fully realized state. Given at least half of the tracks eventually launch into guitar cacophony, examples of the proficiency with which the band rocks out are abundant, but the finest and most definitive one is unquestionably “Play the Greatest Hits”. Following a pattern established on the previous two albums, the track plays the role of the only cut in the work where the group goes loud and fast from the beginning to the end; and breaking the tradition, rather than being the dullest moment on the record, it is actually a strong contender for being the best one. Ellie’s voice still breaks into a somewhat silly childish wail when she chooses to scream, but the tune’s hook is so massive and the noise is so fierce that the punk attitude that seemed unauthentic in songs of the type in the past comes off as absolutely genuine.

“Blue Weekend” may not be revolutionary and it may emulate its sources with a proximity that is too close for comfort. Nonetheless, its power and quality are simply undeniable. From the get go, Wolf Alice always stood out among a sea of bands made up of dream pop fans on account of its choice to aim for shoegaze grandeur instead of going for quiet introspection with modern flavors. It was a move that worked well to isolate the group, but it was also a choice that led them to imitate sounds that had already been explored thoroughly in the early 1990s, making the whole experiment come with a large question mark attached to its value. With “Blue Weekend”, though, these doubts and questions can be put aside, because, sure, the album does not push the genre to new places; however, it shows Wolf Alice can put out a work that is a worthy addition to the hall of great shoegaze records.

five

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

Van Weezer

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Album: Van Weezer

Artist: Weezer

Released: May 7th, 2021

Highlights: Hero, The End of the Game, I Need Some of That, Sheila Can Do It

In a career that has spanned over twenty-five years and produced more than a dozen albums, there is one specific criticism that has constantly followed Weezer wherever the band has gone: the fact that their leader and songwriter, Rivers Cuomo, has frequently fallen victim to his uncontrollable corniness. With the exception of the band’s debut, the classic “Blue Album”, there is not a single record in the group’s whole discography that can escape such comments. Most of the time, the fair complaints have stemmed from Rivers’ inability to stop himself from sounding absurdly melodramatic as well as from his apparently non-existent capacity to approach his feelings with maturity. However, negative remarks of the sort have also been caused by the band’s numerous failed attempts to come off as hip, modern, and cool, which have all gone as spectacularly as one would expect given they were executed by an extremely geeky group of guys.

With that in mind, the choice to give their fifteenth album the ridiculous name of “Van Weezer” is absolutely genius. In a way, it is yet another unbelievably corny move: after all, not only are they paying homage to Van Halen in the most awkward possible manner, but they are also inevitably setting themselves up for comparisons against the genuinely cool hard rock legends. As if that were not enough, the title and cover may also trigger thoughts of the extravagant hair metal produced during the 1980s: a scene heavily influenced by Van Halen and that coined a type of sound and aesthetic which, much due to their cheesiness, have radically fallen out of favor with contemporary audiences.

“Van Weezer”, therefore, concentrates in concept alone a shocking amount of corniness in the same package. And it is precisely because of that high density that the album is so smart. There is so much cheesiness to it that the only explanation for the embarrassing awkwardness is that it was deliberate. More than being a homage, then, the record is one of those bad jokes told by a comedian who is fully aware of its foul quality. If the audience opts to laugh, they are admitting to have some fondness for the terrible material; if the public chooses to criticize the act, that means they are too sour and dull to appreciate the lovable silliness. In conclusion, there is no way those listening to the joke will come out of the experience looking too good; it is impossible to win against such cleverness.

The title of “Van Weezer”, though, is not just an open declaration of corniness. It also happens to be a letter of stylistic intentions, as the band signals that after five albums hopping between a myriad of genres, they are ready to rock out again. And as the nod to Van Halen reveals, Weezer pulls out pedals and amplifiers aiming for the loudness of hard rock. It is a premise that should make longtime fans think of “Maladroit”, the fourth release by the group, which exchanged their usual power pop sound for large riffs of heavy metal inspiration. But, truth be told, “Van Weezer” is not as weighty as that work, emerging – instead – as a solid compromise between the group’s signature constant distorted strums and the testosterone-infused riffage of the heavy metal world.

Much of that needs to be credited, for the good and for the bad, to the production. “Maladroit” was raw and dry; it felt like a series of tracks recorded by a band playing live and loud inside a garage, with little to no touches being added after the music was first committed to tape. Contrarily, in “Van Weezer”, there is a bit of a hair metal gloss. Thankfully, the drums drenched in gated reverb and the tacky keyboard noises (two hair metal staples which were also among the greatest musical plagues of the 1980s) are nowhere to be seen. Yet, “Van Weezer” clearly trades part of its potential roughness for a brand of hard rock with pop leanings, meaning that even though it is among the heaviest works by the band, it does not go as far in that direction as it could have.

That subdued approach is somewhat harmful to “Van Weezer” because it diminishes its capacity to be a rather unique entry in the group’s discography, since the combination of distorted guitars with simple song structures and catchy melodies seen here has been prevalent in more than half of Weezer’s albums. Nevertheless, the record carries a few exclusive traits. For starters, the fact it balances the band’s usual strumming with extravagant riffing makes the segments of a few songs be more heavy metal than power pop; the opening of “Blue Dream”, for instance, flagrantly borrows from Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”. In addition, the tones of the solos tend to have a bright screaming quality to them, recalling the ones seen in the early albums of Metallica. At last, as a whole, the choruses of the tunes are anthemtic energetic singalongs, exhibiting melodies that would cause metal fans in a stadium to do some fist-pumping before realizing the music is excessively poppy and the lyrics talk too much about feelings.

Undoubtedly, there are some dull moments in “Van Weezer”, and they happen to be concentrated towards the second half of the record: “Blue Dream” has a great riff, but does not build to anything significant; “1 More Hit” has an embarrassing pre-chorus and a heavy metal break that does not gel with the rest of the track; “She Needs Me” is melodically uninspired; and “Precious Metal Girl” is a forgettable acoustic closer. But everywhere else, the combination brought by “Van Weezer” works. “Hero” explodes out of the gate; “All the Good Ones” begs for listeners to clap along; “The End of the Game” has a chorus whose melodic beauty would be worthy of the “Blue Album”; “I Need Some of That” has an irresistible call-and-response refrain; “Beginning of the End” is melodically moving; and “Sheila Can Do It” is pure power pop goodness.

Despite the fact it uses deliberate excessive cheesiness as a shield, it is impossible to let “Van Weezer” get away from criticisms concerning clumsy lyrics, which are indeed abundant. Yet, even if combined with the weaker tracks, which make up almost half of the record, Cuomo’s unshakable corniness is not enough to bring the work down completely. In a discography that has nearly as many good album as it has bad ones, “Van Weezer” can be easily filed among the enjoyable group. The heavy metal motif could have yielded more significant results with a rawer production, but the bottom line is that, through ups and downs, “Van Weezer” is a fun listen. Clocking in at thirty minutes, it is a short, relaxed, and satisfying effort put together by four guys who were clearly having a blast trying to emulate their hard rock heroes as best as they could. And in the midst of muscular riffing, screaming guitars, and fist-pumping choruses, the band finds enough inspiration to breathe a little freshness into their sound while being able to both take advantage of their well-known strengths and showcase their familiar awkward weaknesses.

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

Sweep It Into Space

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Album: Sweep It Into Space

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: April 23rd, 2021

Highlights: I Ain’t, I Ran Away, Garden, And Me

The canon of rock music has no shortage of groups that made a career out of regurgitating the same format over and over again. AC/DC has spent nearly half a century writing variations on the same blues-infused hard rock framework; the Ramones were so technically limited all they could play were fast down-stroke tunes that were coated with lovely pop hooks; Motorhead put out twenty-two albums of furious and concise heavy metal nuggets whose brevity and speed were almost punk; The Fall became legends by creating thirty-one records in which a drunk curmudgeon from Greater Manchester rambled endlessly and unintelligibly over a clockwork-like industrial post-punk clang; and Dinosaur Jr. has been out in the wild for more than three decades mostly betting on the same recipe of loud guitars played with reckless abandon, beautiful melodies delivered with lazy vocals, and – of course – blistering solos that display mind-boggling skill.

Out of that entire list, which certainly could be longer, Dinosaur Jr. is the band that has been more successful at avoiding criticisms of artistic stagnation, and it is possible to understand why. Unlike AC/DC, the trio from Massachusetts never came close to having enough worldwide appeal to rake in millions of dollars via albums and tours; unlike the Ramones, they were never crowned the kings of a specific genre; unlike Motorhead, their output has neither been constant nor too prolific; and unlike The Fall, they are not lead by mad a man who has left a trail of bad attitudes behind him. As it turns out, there are benefits to being the lovable slacker underdogs of a genre that is, by nature, underground, and Dinosaur Jr. has absolutely taken advantage of all those perks.

Starting their thirty-first year as an active band and going into their twelfth album, nobody really expected J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph to do anything different. After all, theirs has been a winning combination that has yielded no flagrantly bad works and given them an untouchable cult aura in the eyes of the few who have heard about them. Moreover, always followed by a slacker fame that has probably grown annoying, J Mascis is simply not the kind of guy who seems to have enough energy to leave his comfort zone. However, in “Sweep It Into Space”, Dinosaur Jr. sounds quite different.

It is not that J Mascis and the boys pull out synthesizers, go acoustic, or embrace the contemporary quirks of indie rock to perform singalong anthems. There is nothing that radical here. Much to the relief of Dinosaur Jr. fans, “Sweep It Into Space” is an album that respects the band’s signature: its constitution is guitar, bass, and drums; it features all the rough corners, in writing and performing, of garage rock; it sports lo-fi ethos; its guitars are loud; its songs have humble lengths; its melodies are of a captivating relaxed beauty; its instrumentals are almost always on attack mode; its solos are an utter thrill; and it is sung by a man whose weird nasal high-pitched drawl would be enough to keep him away from the microphone in any band where he is not the boss. What makes “Sweep It Into Space” so different are the little details, which within the group’s limited scope of work combine to bring change of a relatively big scale.

It is hard to establish where the shift stems from; maybe the guys just wanted a change of pace. But the album’s credits point to the man controlling the soundboard: Kurt Vile, of The War on Drugs fame. Out of all Dinosaur Jr. albums, “You’re Living All Over Me”, from 1987, had been the only one in which J Mascis did not act as a producer. In “Sweep It Into Space”, he shares the duty with Vile and the result is a bit tamer than usual. Gone is the screaming loudness that made listeners feel Mascis was always on the verge of blowing up an amplifier as they wondered if the album should not have come with some sort of label warning that putting one’s face too close to the stereo whilst playing some tracks could lead to deafness or mutilation. That big and dirty Dinosaur Jr. guitar chug is obviously still present, because that is what Mascis and his peers do, but what was once an impenetrable wall of furious sound is cut down to an angry parapet.

It is arguable that some damage is done in that process: Murph’s drums, which were usually given a very frontal space in the mix, are sent to the back and lose their usual pounding force; fans who prefer a more aggressive tone may look at “Sweep It Into Space” as the first time in which Dinosaur Jr. has sounded old and safe; and the fact Mascis’ voice is not shrouded in a loud instrumentation makes its natural awkwardness, which is usually lovable, the center of attention. But “Sweep It Into Space” also gains quite a bit from that new approach. Perhaps influenced by the knowledge his vocals would be upfront, Mascis pulls off a great performance within his limitations, almost going as far as expressing the feelings his lyrics talk about. More importantly, be it as a consequence of the emphasis on voice or due to inspired writing, the melodies are simply the most consistently excellent ever since those of “Farm”, the 2009 delight that proved the reunited original Dinosaur Jr. trio could still put out records that matched those from its classic era.

In addition, thanks to the production, “Sweep It Into Space” has some extra color in its tunes. Surely, as a Dinosaur Jr. work, there are examples of nearly all kinds of loud guitar playing: in “I Ain’t” they are a constant underbelly of noise; in “I Met the Stones” they flirt with metal crunch; in “To Be Waiting” there is a soloing guitar that draws sweet melodic lines on top of a basic strum; in “Hide Another Round” they play with start-and-stop riffs until letting it all loose in the chorus; and the list goes on. However, mellower details are also thrown into the mix, and they bring a nice variation to the album. “I Ran Away” as well as “And Me” underline their electric racket with crispy acoustic guitars that recall those of poppy The Cure classics “Just Like Heaven” and “In Between Days”, giving a breezy forward motion to these catchy tracks; guided by a piano, “Take It Back” swings in its chorus, making it feel like it was recorded while the band members danced around the room with joy, which is rather unexpected and unlikely; finally, Lou Barlow’s “Garden”, which might be the best cut of the record, has quiet-and-loud dynamics that enhance the inherent beauty of its gorgeously moving chorus.

Allied with the production, these details make “Sweep It Into Space” easily rank as the softest album Dinosaur Jr. has ever put together. As such, one’s enjoyment of the material contained within it will strongly depend on how tolerant that listener is to watching a band known for their volume and noise tone it down a little bit. If that notion is accepted or overcome after multiple listens, “Sweep It Into Space” should earn its place as not only one of the strongest works by the band since their 2005 reunion, but also as the most accessible and universally enjoyable point of their wonderful discography. Because, unquestionably, in their previous eleven records of racket, Dinosaur Jr. has eventually been more intriguing and downright better than they are here; but as beloved underdogs well into their fifties, these alternative legends have just put out their most unique work, and they did so without losing sight of their unmistakable essence.

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

Punisher

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Album: Punisher

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers

Released: June 17th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

four

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.

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