Punisher

phoebe_bridgers

Album: Punisher

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers

Released: June 17th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cyr

cyr

Album: Cyr

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins

Released: November 27th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three

Hey Clockface

hey_clockface

Album: Hey Clockface

Artist: Elvis Costello

Released: October 30th, 2020

Highlights: No Flag, They’re Not Laughing at Me Now, Newspaper Pane, Hetty O’Hara Confidential

Back when he burst into the scene during the tail-end of the 1970s, it was pretty hard to tell Elvis Costello was going to end up being one of rock’s most eclectic songwriters. Looking like a British, punk-rock-influenced reincarnation of Buddy Holly, with glasses and suit naturally included into the package, Costello made a name for himself by fusing literacy, anger, and heartbreak into three-minute catchy wordplay-ridden hand grenades that exploded with the maniacally skillful new wave sound of his legendary backing band, The Attractions. Despite the success of that early package, though, it would not take long for the singer to show there was more to his musical palette than a well-dressed and sleeker take on punk rock, because right on his fourth album, “Get Happy”, he jumped ship to land on a mind-twisting twenty-track exercise of making Blue-Eyed Soul sound as frantic and vicious as possible.

Many years and a lengthy career have unfolded since that day, and Costello took good advantage of that time to explore the full extent of his eclecticism, not only by penning tunes with multiple stylistic leanings, but – perhaps more significantly – collaborating extensively with an astoundingly large group of musicians that includes Paul McCartney, the London Symphony Orchestra, Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint, The Roots, Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Nick Lowe, T-Bone Burnett, Anne Sofie von Otter, and others. It is a list that displays Costello’s initially geeky appearance was not just superficial, as the man’s desire to work together with various different names reveals the heart of a music nerd has always lied within him.

When talking about his 2020 release, “Hey Clockface”, such consideration is important because, through more than thirty records and countless flirts with distinct genres, Costello had – until this point – never produced a work with so much self-contained eclecticism. Sure, he had plenty of stylistically colorful albums before “Hey Clockface”, such as his divisive 1989 work, “Spike”, and his widely beloved “Imperial Bedroom”, from 1982. But listening to “Hey Clockface” is likely to give his longtime fans a feeling that a life’s worth of musical exploitation has led to the stunningly varied moment at hand.

It is not that “Hey Clockface” comes off as a lazy recapitulation of what has happened so far; Elvis Costello is too much of a restless mind for such dull sameness, but there is indeed some blatant retreading. A trio of piano-and-voice tunes (“The Whirlwind”, “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip”, and “Byline”) recalls, for instance, “North”, the album of love-related ballads he put out in 2003. The vaudevillian title track as well as “I Can’t Say Her Name” nod to detours in the genre that the singer has made in the past, with the former being more energetic and the latter carrying a quiet defeated tone. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” channels his soundtrack work: with words that speak of love but instrumentation that hints at something darker, the song could be one of the pieces of a noir musical. And the theater stage would also be a very fitting place for the presentation of a track like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?”, an acoustic lament with the occasional appearance of jazzy brass.

Contrarily to that more traditional set, the album – be in its overall production or in writing – gives plenty of signs that it is still pushing ahead. In the case of those more refreshing tunes, an interesting pattern emerges. As it happens pretty much everywhere in “Hey Clockface”, these are cuts that can be safely traced back to a specific point in the singer’s career. However, their arrangements – which join old-school sounds, contemporary grooves and beats, as well as the signature Elvis Costello layer of boldly placed noises – do one good job at arguing this group of songs as a whole happens to be quite different from everything he has done.

It may seem like a complicated configuration, but take the example of “No Flag”. Here is a track that would fit right at home – both in spirit and quality – in the three fantastic albums that constitute his post-punk phase. It is vitriolic; it has Costello part shouting and part singing; it is guided by a guitar riff that alternates sheer grinding force with poppy hooks; and it has a chorus whose unexpected greatness is reserved to masterful songwriters. Yet, dressing the song up is a cleverly lo-fi treatment, one that could have come out of Tom Waits’ “Real Gone”: rather than drums, the song’s percussion is a pulsating beat and some scatting; Costello’s voice is distorted; and the tune has a brief psychedelic bridge when a mass of quirky sounds joins the central beat.

Other examples like that are plentiful in “Hey Clockface”. “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” feels like a reread of “Hurry Down Doomsday”, from 1991’s “Mighty Like a Rose”, since it has Costello sort of rapping and sort of ranting over a beat made up of more elements than one could count. “Newspaper Pane” starts by threatening to be post-punk, but slowly cooks into another monster: a stream-of-consciousness jam that has keyboards and brass combining into one great groove. “We Are All Cowards Now” is made of darker material lyrically, as its words read like a very accurate description of our contemporary social environment, but is supported by an equally creative backing of effects, pianos, and guitars. Finally, “They’re Not Laughing at Me Now” is yet another song that could be the theme of a character in a musical (in this case, someone that waits hopeful for the day it will all turn around), but its cacophonic drums and its thin keyboard hook (worthy of The Attractions) give it a more outside-the-box presentation.

It is undeniable that “Hey Clockface” suffers a bit from its eclecticism: the mixture of quiet piano tracks, vaudeville-inspired theatrical moments, and tunes holding a more contemporary and forward-looking perspective makes it feel like three unfinished albums glued together under the same package. Its greatest flaw, though, is that it has Costello’s pen alternating heavily between brilliancy and dullness. Out of its more traditional tunes, only “Hey Clockface” and the closer piano ballad “Byline” are noteworthy, with the others not just getting lost in the midst of dull melodies and basic arrangements, but also being painfully concentrated on the second half of the record. Joined by two forgettable spoken-word pieces, the lackluster tracks amount to half of the package. The remaining songs, each with its own intensity, lean towards the positive side of the quality spectrum, but are not shiny enough to make “Hey Clockface” better than decent. The fact that most of them are cut from the same cloth, however, indicates that perhaps the album would have benefited from a more prolonged gestation period; one that would allow it to overall sound more like “No Flag” and less like “The Whirlwind”, and for its eclecticism to be trimmed down to a more focused and refreshing release.

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Letter To You

Album: Letter to You

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: October 23rd, 2020

Highlights: Janey Needs a Shooter, If I Was the Priest, Ghosts, Song for Orphans

There is an old cliche in the world of music reviews that goes as follows: an artist that has been around for a relative while releases a new batch of tracks, a tide of hype swells to surround the record, and both critics as well as fans go on to proclaim that the album is the best one the public figure in question has put out since an item in their catalog that is generally perceived as a classic. It is a sequence of events so likely to play out that one can bet money without fear of losing any of it that, for instance, all albums published by The Rolling Stones since the 1980s have been dubbed by someone somewhere as their finest hour since “Some Girls” and every fresh work by The Strokes following their debut, “Is This It”, has eventually been proclaimed to be their best since that 2001 classic.

Given the ridiculousness that is often attached to such claims, it would be wise to avoid them; however, not making some comments of the sort about Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter to You” is nigh impossible because, quite simply, the material deserves it. Through his lengthy and productive career, Springsteen, even during the many years that have passed since his peak, never really fell asleep at the wheel. Save from 1992’s “Human Touch” and 2009’s “Working on a Dream”, there are no blatant duds in his catalog. But following 2019’s already highly inspired “Western Stars”, “Letter to You” comes off as a significant step-up in terms of quality when compared to the average Bruce record of the past thirty years.

As such, “Letter to You” is his most consistent record since “Magic”, from 2007; and, more significantly, it puts forth quite a claim for the title of being the best album Springsteen has created since the work that is often defined as the tail-end of his classic run: 1987’s “Tunnel of Love”. It is a crown for which there is good competition, but “Letter to You” seems to outmaneuver them with style: it does not feel as bloated as the excellent “The Rising”; its highs are more pronounced than those of “Magic”; and although not as stylistically bold as “Western Stars”, it edges that one out on the strength of better pacing.

The first big piece of news coming from “Letter to You” is the return of the mythical E Street Band. It is worth noting, though, that the group was not away for such a long time, as “Western Stars” is the sole Bruce Springsteen album released after the turn of the century not to have his usual gang aboard. The presence of the E Street Band emerges like being deserving of fanfare, though, due to how alive they sound here. To put it in simple (and heavily cliched) terms, it has been a whopping forty years – dating back, therefore, to “The River” – since the group was captured in such a pure and true state. Deep into success and fame, they retain the aura of playing like a fine-tuned bar band that tackles small venues; an ensemble that does not play for the paycheck, but for free drinks, for the communal experience that is inherent to tightly packed shows, and for the pleasure of being in a band beside a large cast of friends. And in “Letter to You”, be it through arrangements or production, the feeling of the music they produce is heavily akin to what they did in the 1970s.

The fact the E Street Band is, better than in recent recorded history, cooking that hard-to-replicate sound that defines heartland rock is probably greatly helped by the quality of the tunes Springsteen has brought to the table. Opening with the quiet folk acoustic picking of “One Minute You’re Here”, in which the singer ponders about the frail brevity of life whilst seeing death like a train coming from the horizon, “Letter to You” has been labeled as an album concerned with the passage of time and mortality; and Bruce himself has stated much of the material here was inspired by those who were close to him, but are now gone, including E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, as well as George Theiss, the leader of his first group.

And indeed, many are the songs here closely tied to those matters. “Last Man Standing”, guided by a signature riff that combines guitars and keyboards, can be interpreted as Springsteen looking at himself like one of the final members of his generation that is still present either in this world itself or up on stages around the globe. The anthemic “Ghosts” has the singer confronting memories of those who have passed. And closer “I’ll See You in my Dreams”, one sweet rocking ballad, captures him clinging to the hope of seeing his deceased friends while sleeping. But in a touch of thematic beauty, even tracks that are not directly centered around these topics fit right in, whether it is in lyrical passages that nod to nostalgia as well as the passage of time, or in songs that gain a unique lean in meaning thanks to the record’s context, such as the title track, which could be seen as being about writing a letter to a friend, but that surrounded by so many thoughts on death reads like a testament that encompasses accumulated wisdom and tries to pass it to newer generations.

That effect is most powerfully noted in the trio of “Janey Needs a Shooter”, “If I Was the Priest”, and “Song for Orphans”. Written around the time Springsteen was working on his first album, the fact their quality stands out within such a strong set of tracks as the one present in “Letter to You” speaks volumes about the sharpness of his pen back in those days. In addition, they are extra appealing for two reasons. Firstly, because even though their lyrics have no references to death, they end up seamlessly merging into the work as a whole thanks to how their date of composition brings nostalgic feelings. Secondly, they are alluring due to how they boast one unique match: in words, they exhibit the long-winded, psychedelic, and Dylanesque parade of characters that defined the tunes Springsteen wrote for his first two albums; in music, though, they carry the E Street Band classic sound, a recipe that Bruce had yet to develop back in the era when he was writing like a beat poet. As such, their fabric, other than carrying excellent melodic work, also contains an interesting match of past and present.

There are accusations that can be directed towards “Letter to You”. The fact it has a sound so characteristic of Bruce Springsteen at his peak causes the moments when his sharp writing slips a little bit to threaten to crash into parody, an accident that arguably materializes in the fast-paced “Burnin’ Train” and that almost comes to be in “House of a Thousand Guitars”. In that sense, it would have been better for the record if it featured a couple of refreshing stylistic turns, something that is only seen here in “Rainmaker”, an excellent tune that reads like a metaphoric attack on the Donald Trump administration (taking a very insightful look into the factors that led to his election) and a song that trades quiet verses for choruses that explode into orchestral thunder. Nevertheless, limitations in tone and style do not dent “Letter to You” too much, for – at the end of the day – Springsteen has, at age 71, turned in a late-career gem: an album that despite showcasing maturity and old age, still features the jovial, energetic, optimistic, and anthemic traits of his work with the E Street Band. It sounds true, it hits hard, and to many it will rank as the best Bruce Springsteen record since the most recent classic of their choice. It is cliched, but it is quite appropriate.

Song Machine Season One

Album: Song Machine Season One

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: October 20th, 2020

Highlights: Chalk Tablet Towers, Aries, Dead Butterflies, Désolé

Ever since the incredibly successful and kaleidoscopic “Plastic Beach”, an album in which the usual sullenness of Gorillaz gained a whole lot of colors thanks to a horde of guests, the creative audio-visual project of musician Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett has seemingly alternated between releasing two types of albums: those in which most of the tracks are built via various collaborations as well as features; and those in which the core of the virtual band go through their creative process in a more hermetically sealed chamber. As proof that great art has no recipe other than good old inspiration and the urge to say something important, successes and failures can be found in those two types of efforts.

As far as albums where the band worked primarily alone, 2018’s “The Now Now” can be pointed out as a consistent breeze of minimalistic creativity while 2010’s “The Fall” ranks as a malformed and dull artistic statement. Meanwhile, in relation to works in which the door of the studio was blown open so that Damon Albarn could explore sounds emanating from different parts of the world, “Plastic Beach” itself emerges like a successful cohesive whole whilst 2017’s “Humanz” was judged to be a junction of pieces that, besides not fitting together, were so touched by outside influences that they ended up corroding the essence of the band.

Released in 2020, “Song Machine” falls into the category of a Gorillaz collaborative effort. In fact, it has such a large number of guests that all of its eleven tracks boast at least one outsider joining the band in both performance and writing. As such, inside the scope in which it exists, it feels less like “Plastic Beach” (an album that still left room for Gorillaz to operate on their own in spite of the abundance of features) and more like “Humanz”, in which guests were as omnipresent as they are here. And although such comparison is not likely to be too positive for fans of the group at first, “Song Machine” actually triumphs where “Humanz” had failed.

Many are the reasons for that difference in outcome. For starters, and to begin with the most meaningful one, there is the simple fact that “Song Machine” has good tunes. Sure, “Humanz” found a couple of those as it ventured into the band’s usual blend of electronica, experimental pop, and hip hop, but in many cases its cultural openness and artistic boldness led to cuts that had interesting flavors that did not mix into cohesive parts, as songs simply did not find the melodic hooks, clever grooves, and alluring chord changes that the band thrives on. “Song Machine”, on the other hand, not only carries musical and cultural diversity, but also unites those elements in songs that have contemporary pop flavor as well as quirky adventurous spices.

Moreover, “Song Machine” greatly benefits from the fact it is free from conceptual ambitions. “Humanz” had those in spades, and since their translation from theory to album was not nicely done, a disjointed product was born. Truth be told, “Song Machine” – like any Gorillaz record – has some fictional background: in its case, the opening of numerous portals in the group’s Kong Studios, which consequently let 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel travel to where their guests are and bring them in to collaborate. But here the storyline or theme is not the purpose of the venture, only an excuse for Albarn to work with those who he admires and for Hewlett to give animated life to the crew’s adventures, thereby lending the whole affair a loose and unpretentious spirit and allowing the songs to shine on their own.

“Song Machine” is, in fact, so free of constraints that it is more of a playlist than an actual album. Most of the songs that make it up were released as singles, usually accompanied by music videos, between January and October, only to finally be compiled into a standalone record once they were out, and the collection’s subtitle – “Season One: Strange Timez” – indicates Albarn intends to give the project at least one more spin. It is an approach that could have generated a work that ran the risk of falling victim to complaints regarding lack of thematic or sonic consistency, much like “Humanz” did, but as tracks change and guests come and go, “Song Machine” stays grounded on experimental electronic pop with plenty of the usual hip hop segments that are expected out of Gorillaz; and to further enhance the band’s signature in these tracks, Albarn himself (appearing as 2-D) gets plenty of vocal spotlight, usually sharing it generously with his guests.

What is more remarkable about “Song Machine” is how the guests, especially those coming from genres the band does not usually explore, heavily shape the nature of the tracks in which they appear. Robert Smith, from The Cure, shows up on opener “Strange Timez” and, thanks to his unique vocal inflections, turns a sparse background of playful sounds and beats into one of his band’s moments of colorful naive weirdness; Beck brings his urban funk to “The Valley of the Pagans”; with the help of Leee John, “The Lost Chord” flirts with disco; “Chalk Tablet Towers” has St. Vincent delivering her unique brand of dirty and catchy art pop; “The Pink Phantom” boosts a hip hop track by having the grand voice of Elton John take over on the chorus; the unmistakable bass of Peter Hook, from Joy Division and New Order fame, transforms “Aries” into electronic post-punk; and Fatoumata Diawara matches relaxing danceable pop with beautiful African vocals in “Désolé”.

It goes without saying that, to a point, such phenomenon of guests influencing the tracks they contribute to has happened ever since the inception of Gorillaz; in fact, Damon Albarn might as well claim that is one of the reasons he loves the project so dearly. In “Song Machine”, however, that interesting creative tug of war seems more prominent than ever, coming off as the defining trait of the album and its central fuel. “Song Machine” may not have an assortment of great tracks that compares to those of “Plastic Beach”, but as an extreme experiment in the abundance of collaborators, it lands as a package that is far more consistent, appealing, and fun than the one executed by “Humanz”. Without statements to make or messages to push, the music gets a great chance to shine, and it steps up to that challenge quite nicely. To top it all off, the freedom found in the format and creative conception of “Song Machine” paves the way for a group that is already very open to become even more interesting when the device is given another spin.

Rough And Rowdy Ways

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Album: Rough and Rowdy Ways

Artist: Bob Dylan

Released: June 19th, 2020

Highlights: I Contain Multitudes, False Prophet, Crossing the Rubicon, Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

From his early days under the spotlight, Bob Dylan has always been a master at the craft of creating an image under the guise of which one Robert Allen Zimmerman would present himself in front of his audience. That is not say, of course, that the singer-songwriter who best defines the profession is fake and that the work he has put out is not genuine; both of those claims are obviously false. It is just that Bob Dylan, from the get go, knew how to use his power over music and words to expand his expression beyond the physical album format so he could tap into the construction of a full-fledged person. As such, Dylan as the world knows him, the figure who has been a traveling folk musician, the unintended voice of a generation, a revolutionary rocker, a beat poet, a born-again Christian, and much more, has invariably been the ultimate creation of a brilliant man born in Duluth, Minnesota.

As he approaches the end of his eighth decade on Earth and releases his thirty-ninth album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, the Bob Dylan that the world sees has some general traits in common with his past iterations: he is still enigmatically witty, making listeners vaguely aware that he is up to some shenanigans without letting them know exactly what the nature of the prank is; he retains a wordy nature that wildly alternates between staggering surrealism, apparent nonsense, uncommon keenness, and well-forged intelligence; and he keeps on, perhaps now more than ever, challenging the notion that there is a threshold of greatness a voice must surpass in order to be recorded singing its own tunes, a silly stipulation that many have thankfully been shrugging off ever since Dylan burst into the scene.

But, as it could not be any different, the Bob Dylan of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is notably similar to the one fans have come to know as his late-career persona; the one that has been kicking around since the artistic rebirth of 1997’s “Time Out of Mind”. After seven years without publishing original material, a time which was spent – to the dismay of many – releasing five albums covering songs once interpreted by Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan comes out of that period sounding a whole lot like he did on 2013’s “Tempest”; that is, quite old, very much traditional (albeit in his own quirky way), undeniably smart, and with the artistic fire that is inside him still burning rather strongly.

“Rough and Rowdy Ways” is, in a way, an album of extremes. On one hand, there are the moody, slow, atmospheric, sparse, and thoughtful ballads; reminiscent of much of the material found in “Time Out of Mind”, thanks to their introspection, ambiance, and the near absence of percussion, these mellower tunes lead listeners to contemplate a frail and human Bob Dylan, one that sings beautiful words of love (“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”) and pens character studies on himself, approaching matters such as artistic inspiration (“Mother of Muses”) as well as the complex gorgeous contradictions that exist inside every human being (“I Contain Multitudes”). On the other side, there is the grizzly old bluesman; a figure that has been present since the masterful “Love & Theft” from 2001, it is the one that makes the title of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” ring true and that brings the signature Bob Dylan slyness to the table.

Dylan has often stated that he is not a particularly gifted melodist, claiming much of his musical material has been either straightaway taken or adapted from traditional sources like folk, blues, or spirituals. And to some ears, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” may prove that point. The rocking numbers, entirely built in blues rhythms and licks, do not bring much that is new to the the formula. Meanwhile, the ballads have melodies that are quite shy, with some of them getting closer to recitation than to actual singing. But supported by his taste (which has rarely shown failure since 1997), accompanied by one excellent band, and ushered forward by words that prove he can still write from a plateau above most of the rest (one that is Nobel-prize worthy, to be exact), Bob Dylan and his crew skillfully push most of the ten tracks to the finish line, with “My Own Version of You” and “Black Rider” being the sole stretches on the record when its minimalism in balladry gets the best of it.

“Murder Most Foul”, for instance, could – in its absurd length of seventeen minutes – verge into long-winded madness. However, the combination of Dylan’s rough voice, an errant piano, weeping strings, and hypnotizing lyrics (which somehow encompass the death of John F. Kennedy and multiple old cultural references) turns it into a spiritual journey. The same applies to the very best cut and melodic moment on the record: “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”. Carrying the only chorus in the entire album, albeit one whose lyrics always change, it looks at the titular Floridian island as a nigh utopic paradise for the weary, with a gentle accordion bringing in a tropical wind throughout its nine minutes. “I Contain Multitudes”, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”, and “Mother of Muses” are more straightforward ballads in both scope and format, but they touch deep nonetheless, with the second being particularly notable for how it sees Dylan adopting the crooner persona from his recent Frank Sinatra work.

The borrowing executed by Dylan, which will be acknowledged by the accused immediately, is done in lyrics as well as in music, and it ought to be revealed in all facets of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” to anyone who is willing to look deeper into the matter. Never is it as obvious, though, as it is in the times when Bob decides to rock the house. “False Prophet”, which sees the singer emerging like one shady boastful figure, copies “If Lovin’ Is Believing” by Billy “The Kid” Emerson, but improves on it via words, licks, solos, and one mean mid-tempo groove. Meanwhile, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” has Dylan stealing from himself, as the track’s rowdy rackety vibe recalls “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” from “Blonde on Blonde”. Finally, “Crossing the Rubicon”, bursting with yet more tasty licks and rhythms, has verses that build into quietness as Bob Dylan does it like Julius Caesar and dares to go past the point of no return, only he does it so many times during the tune that he either is quite uncertain regarding what he is about to do or is taking the mantle of various characters that have each done it individually.

“Rough and Rowdy Ways” may not measure up to some late-career statements pulled off by Bob Dylan. All parts of the trilogy consisting of “Time Out of Mind”, “Love & Theft”, and “Modern Times” are stronger. Moreover, although it is more solid than “Tempest”, the fact it is locked in a limiting musical dichotomy turns it into a less interesting and vital work. However, among the many shapes taken by the always chameleonic artist, the one that appears in “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is between those capable of producing high-quality material. Old man Dylan – the one that drinks heavily from tradition, confronts death, lets listeners look into some personal thoughts, and still squeezes in dozens of jokes – remains a mystery that is hard to unwrap. Most importantly, he continues to produce good music.

Homegrown

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Album: Homegrown

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fetch The Bolt Cutters

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Album: Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Artist: Fiona Apple

Released: April 17th, 2020

Highlights: I Want You to Love Me, Rack of His, Ladies, Cosmonauts

Standing at the end of Fiona Apple’s 2013 record, titled “The Idler Wheel” for brevity purposes, there was a remarkable tune named “Hot Knife”. In it, the album, already notable for how its stripped-down nature augmented the invariable visceral quality of Fiona’s writing, chose to take that rawness one step further. Rather than being anchored by the singer’s piano, the song was built on the combination of a nigh ritualistic drum and an army of overdubbed voices that repeated a straightforward catchy line over and over again as if part of a tribal chant. Percussive elements and somewhat odd structures were, until that point, not unfamiliar to “The Idler Wheel”, as those two pieces are an integral part of that work’s unique sound from beginning to end; “Hot Knife”, though, is significant because it marks the moment when they simply overtake the musical traits one would expect out of a Fiona Apple track.

Discussing “Hot Knife” is necessary because, quite appropriately, its position as the closer of “The Idler Wheel” turns it into a very blatant bridge between that release and “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, the first Fiona Apple record to be published in eight years, showing – therefore – a staggeringly continuous musical evolution by an artist who had not created an album in a long while. Superficially, to someone who is familiar with Fiona Apple’s material, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” could be explained as the extension of the musical concept found in “Hot Knife” through the duration of a full-length record, with only a couple of clear links remaining to connect it to the piano-driven – and more conventional – portions of “The Idler Wheel”. Sticking solely to that description, though, would be ignoring the depth, power, and artistic merit of one spectacular release.

As Fiona Apple fans know, the singer-songwriter has, despite her fame, lived a quiet simple life away from the spotlight in recent years, frequently alternating between taking her dog for a walk and staying home. And it is precisely from her house that Fiona drew much of the musical inspiration for “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, as most of its tunes were gestated by her and the members of her band as they walked around the place banging household objects and singing melodies over the percussion. Although the final product is by no means entirely home-made, as it carries the crispness of tasteful studio production, it absolutely retains that do-it-yourself spirit, not just because it deliberately keeps unexpected moments in, such as Fiona giggling randomly, cursing for messing up the lyrics, and her dogs barking loudly at the end of a tune, but also due to how the beats – visibly made with whatever was available at the moment, like a chair, a metal butterfly, or good-old stomping – are always the heart and soul of the tracks.

Fiona’s piano is not absent. Smartly, as if to slowly ease listeners into the wild ride, the record opens with two songs, “I Want You to Love Me” and “Shameika”, that are grounded on the instrument. However, by the time “Shameika” approaches its chorus and the piano starts to follow the percussion’s primitive bang, rather than be accompanied by it, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” starts revealing the mischief that it is up to. And when the third track comes around, Fiona’s signature musical weapon will be out of the picture, only making another two punctual appearances: in the chorus of “Under the Table”, quite briefly; and in the pre-chorus of “Cosmonauts”, one of the best sequences in the album and a moment that – both instrumentally and melodically – would not feel out of place in “When the Pawn” or “Extraordinary Machine”.

Stylistically, though, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is defined by the instances when the rhythmical elements take the front seat, and the tunes that fall into that category can be further – and roughly – classified into two types. For starters, there are those essentially constituted of only banging and singing. “Relay”, “Newspaper”, “Heavy Balloon”, “Drumset”, and “On I Go” qualify as such, and their bare-bones construction highlights the fact that many of the album’s melodies – as stated by Fiona herself – came to her while she was walking or marching, whether outdoors or indoors, as they have a primitive, rhythmic, and natural flow. Meanwhile, with beats adorned by an upright bass, keyboards, and light guitars, all sparsely presented, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, “Under the Table”, “Rack of His”, “Ladies”, and “Cosmonauts” carry an inescapable and sometimes smoky jazz vibe that evidences the album’s loose, relaxed, comfortable, and improvisational creation.

The rough, visceral, and basic edge that lifts “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” spectacularly sometimes works against it, especially when Fiona chooses to build sections of songs – and occasionally whole tunes themselves, like “On I Go” – on hooks or lyrics that are repeated way too often, which will certainly lead a few folks to wish some cuts had been more developed. However, at the same time, that instinct-based constitution ends up being a perfect fit for a record whose central message is so urgent, relevant, and necessary that it lightens up furious fires in the hearts of those that can nod to it with the recognition that they can relate to what the lyrics describe.

Across “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, Fiona occasionally jumps out of her central subject to write a genuine love song (“I Want You to Love Me”), discuss depression (“Heavy Balloon”), take a look at long-term relationships (“Cosmonauts”), explore loneliness (“Drumset”), and even reminisce about a childhood schoolmate (“Shameika”). Through most of the way, though, the album sees her channeling the abuses, violence (be it physical or psychological), and terrible relationships she has gone through to talk about the desire to speak out against all of it. Truthfully, from a general point of view, it is a collection of topics she has written about in the past with a high degree of frequency. However, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” – perhaps due to the passage of the years as well as the contemporary context surrounding all types of harassment towards women – presents a different perspective on the matter, reading and sounding like a call to arms for women around the world. The title song, for instance, urges those in damaging relationships to escape. While “Under the Table” focuses on the refusal to be silenced by men, and “Relay” is about having the courage to stop a vicious cycle that has the one who has been hurt spreading the pain towards others.

Furthermore, “Rack of His” turns an objectifying remark employed by men on its head, with an angered Fiona brilliantly singling out the rack of guitars of her lover both as a target of destruction and as a metaphor for the women he has used. “Newspaper” and “Ladies” approach, each in their own way, the partnership that should exist between women when confronting their abusers. “For Her” is a look at the discredit with which those who report rape are faced. And closer “On I Go” refers to the strength to keep on going despite it all. Given the number of women that will relate to “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, the album easily ranks as the most meaningful work ever produced by Fiona Apple, and it is also certainly the one most relevantly aligned with the context around it. With that urgency in mind, the frantic energy that punctually betrays the record balances that problem by actually augmenting the importance of the message. And carrying remarkable lines and inescapable melodies by the dozen, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” will certainly be heard, remembered, and give motivation to those in need of a voice.

The New Abnormal

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Album: The New Abnormal

Artist: The Strokes

Released: April 10th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gigaton

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Album: Gigaton

Artist: Pearl Jam

Released: March 27th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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