Album: Free

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: September 6th, 2019

Highlights: Loves Missing, James Bond, Page

A series of atmospheric hums emerge inside a wide and sparse soundscape. A duel of freestyling trumpets, one that seems to come out from somewhere in the depths of a dirty alley and another that appears to be far closer, is sparked. And suddenly, as the relaxing immersive racket reaches its apex, Iggy Pop shows up to deliver four words that seem to encompass the essence of his eighteenth album. “I wanna be free / I wanna be free / Free”, he speaks with that signature low tone, which has characterized him through his whole solo career but that has become surprisingly solemn and maybe even wise with age, before vanishing like a voice from beyond that has breezed by listeners with the goal of delivering a succinct message that hides some sort of major revelation.

If freedom is what Iggy wanted, then that is exactly what he has found with his 2019 release, “Free”. Following “Post Pop Depression”, his collaboration with Josh Homme and quite possibly his most successful album since 1977’s “Lust for Life”, Iggy could have certainly taken the easy way out, gathered the very same band, and built yet another testosterone-infused album that is as heavy and dark as it is sexy and insightful. But apparently, returning to good old straightforward rock after an interval of two albums and sixteen years was enough for the singer to realize that, ultimately, the genre that launched him to the world alongside The Stooges is also a hand that constrains him.

Suffocated by it, “Free” works like some sort of declaration of independence by Iggy Pop. Its unexpected style is likely to make it an album that his fans, especially those who jumped back into the bandwagon after “Post Pop Depression”, did not want him to produce at this moment in time. However, its content, title, and opening statement broadcast in blatantly defined waves that “Free” is the album Iggy Pop wanted to create as of 2019. In a way, it is strange that such a personal message is delivered through a record in which only three out of the ten songs have him as a co-author. On the other hand, though, such characteristic reveals that “Free” has a nature so urgent that it just had to be unveiled whether Iggy had the material in him or not.

The result is a piece that is, in equal parts, odd, charming, irregular, and daring. “Free” could be labeled as a jazz album thanks to how its most prominent instrument is, by far, the trumpet of Leron Thomas, whose improvisational spirit is so dominating that he gets writing credit for nine of the record’s tunes. It could also be filed under the ambient category, for the moments when Iggy is supported by background noise, usually accompanied by a horn, are more numerous than those when he has a full band behind him. Finally, it would not be out of place in the spoken-word universe, as it holds a bigger quantity of talking than of singing. What “Free” really is, though, is all of those musical moods combined into a brief but meaningful package.

All in all, two are the cuts in “Free” that approach what one would expect out of a contemporary Iggy Pop record. “Loves Missing”, the finest tune in the album by a large margin, still has fragments of “Post Pop Depression”, as it starts with a dangerous combination of drums and insinuating guitar licks before slowly accentuating its dark sexy vibe when more guitars come in and the beat gets progressively more chaotic. Meanwhile, “James Bond” uses a bit of the same recipe, with the difference that stands between both songs being the fact that while the former grows by moving forward, the latter does so by going in circles with an ever-increasing intensity. Everywhere else, “Free” poses a considerable challenge to those that step into it.

Even if there is a clear distinction between the album’s two halves, that difficult aura exists in both parts. The first five tracks of “Free”, with the exception of the opening number, feel more like fully developed songs. In addition to “Loves Missing” and “James Bond”, that initial segment also includes “Sonali” and “Dirty Sanchez”; however, where the first pair borders on conventional, the second duo is positively weird. “Sonali” has an unusual beat and a myriad of electronic adornments that, at least instrumentally, make it sound a whole lot like a Radiohead song, and Iggy Pop wears his Thom Yorke hat proudly by trying to deliver lines and melody amidst very uncommon musical timing. Quite contrarily, “Dirty Sanchez” is an old-school Iggy Pop rant that includes ridiculous character-building lines such as “You desensitized sluts / Are always playing with your butts”, with the twist being that it is backed up by a marching drum, an out of control trumpet, a call-and-response structure, and a guitar and bass that try to keep the madness anchored to a solid groove.

Following that segment, the second half brings with it a myriad of spoken word tracks that are perhaps a bit too tightly packed together for their own good. As different mixtures of atmospheric sounds and wild horns fill up the vast silence, Iggy Pop basically sits and reads poetry: two original texts, “Glow in the Dark” and “The Dawn”, as well as Lou Reed’s “We Are the People” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”. Although Iggy’s voice does have the potential to make even a cake recipe sound engaging, it is unable to turn these tunes into must-listens, even when they consist of words as poignant as those of Reed and Thomas. Thankfully, though, the final part of “Free” does have a positive note, which comes in the form of “Page”, where an echoing picked guitar brings new spice to the side’s usual instrumentation while Iggy – taking full advantage of his voice – plays the role of a crooner as he sings a track that is beautiful, wishful, and moving.

Despite its highlights, which are indeed great additions to the Iggy Pop canon, “Free” never quite gains enough traction to be a good record. “Dirty Sanchez” is so terrible it is almost embarrassing, and not even the funny turns its rant takes can save it; “Sonali” simply falls flat; and the absurd amount of spoken-word tracks the album carries drags it down, even if none of them are downright bad. As such, “Free” winds up being a record that, while rather meaningful to Iggy Pop himself, will likely go down as one of the weakest entries in his discography, because although the album’s flirtations with experimental constructions and jazz are interesting – not to mention a nice nod to “Blackstar” by David Bowie, who was a crucial figure in Iggy Pop’s life – they are just not carried out with the required spark.

Around The Sun


Album: Around the Sun

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: October 5th, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll Be Your Girl


Album: I’ll Be Your Girl

Artist: The Decemberists

Released: March 16th, 2018

Highlights: Severed, Sucker’s Prayer, We All Die Young, Rusalka Rusalka / Wild Rushes

After “The Hazards of Love”, released in 2009, it was obvious The Decemberists had a problem. It is not that the album qualified as a grand culmination of their sound and as a masterpiece that would be hard to surpass; actually, not only was it a pretty irregular record, but the label of career magnum opus was also far more suiting for its two predecessors, “Picaresque” and “The Crane Wife”. The problem The Decemberists had to tackle following that album was that, with it, the band had taken their opulent, epic, wordy, and charmingly highbrow brand of folk to its ultimate extreme of grandeur: a lengthy rock opera. Therefore, what was – from the get go – a journey in which big narratives, occasionally loose structures, and lush instrumentation got increasingly more ambitious had reached a peak; and, like all summits, the sole exit it offered was downwards. The Decemberists, naturally, took it, and along the descending path they slowly stripped their music off many of its defining traits, consequently unearthing a safe, accessible, and mostly great country record (“The King Is Dead”), and a generally unremarkable folk rock work (“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”) that failed to stand out within the overcrowded genre despite its value.

“I’ll Be Your Girl” is the continuation of that trek, and yet another shot at solving the nagging question of where to go next. What The Decemberists do here, though, is throw synthesizers at the problem, and – as it turns out – decorating bland and stripped down folk rock with the electronic instrument does not make the wolf at the door go away: it merely changes its appearance. Within a bubble, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is by no means awful: most of the songs packed into it are melodic, catchy, fun, and carry a bounty of hooks. Additionally, in order to better integrate their folk mannerisms with the synthesizers that dominate the record, Colin Meloy and his crew mostly drop their acoustic tools in favor of electric ones, hence giving birth to unexpected praiseworthy moments in The Decemberists lore, such as the low guttural guitar riff of “Severed” (which would not have sounded weird, if played with more punch, in a Black Sabbath album) and the traditional blues riff that backs the joyful sing-along chorus of “We All Die Young”.

The downfall of “I’ll Be Your Girl”, ultimately, is that it is a The Decemberists album. As such, in the opener “Once in My Life”, when Meloy takes on the role of a character who pleads to the heavens for a sole success after a lifetime of failures, one expects a gripping tale describing a series of situations in which hope was shattered into sorrow; what listeners get, instead, is five minutes of a self-pitying chorus, punctuated by electronic synth-heavy instrumental interludes, that is repeated so much it goes from decent to grating. That theme reappears through a good portion of the album; personages that could have had their lives transformed into deep stories – like the suicidal man of “Sucker’s Prayer” or the killer of “Cutting Stone” – are left undeveloped, and the brief straightforward nature of the songs makes them over-reliant on choruses that sometimes backfire, either due to sheer annoyance (“Your Ghost” and “Everything Is Awful”) or exaggerated repetition (“Once in My Life”).

There are saving graces to be found in “I’ll Be Your Girl”. Among a couple of other instances, the sunny Californian vibe of the instrumentation of “Sucker’s Prayer” cleverly contrasts with the dying wishes of its narrator, proving the humor of Colin Meloy (a man occasionally capable of singing about tragedies with a tongue in his cheek and using words that send all his fans towards the nearest dictionary without coming off as a unlikable pedant) is still intact. Furthermore, the glorious eight-minute two-part piece “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” showcases The Decemberists doing what differs them from the rest of the indie folk crowd; that is, using a complex song – which goes from a piano ballad to an explosive coda – grounded in the genre’s traditions to tell a detailed story. Despite the bright moments it carries, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is not only a little bit too generic for its own good, but it also comes off as the work of a group unable to move to new musical grounds without losing its identity. If The Decemberists are able to find that balance, though, down the line the album may be seen as a fun, quirky, and flawed detour by a band in search of a new summit to climb. For now, it is nothing but the pleasant – yet generic – folk rock of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” with a load of synthesizers added to the formula.

All Nerve


Album: All Nerve

Artist: The Breeders

Released: March 2nd, 2018

Highlights: Nervous Mary, MetaGoth, Spacewoman, Dawn: Making an Effort

Although it may be purely coincidental, one has to wonder whether Kim Deal’s creative outpours are not genetically programmed into her being to, as precisely as clockwork, be activated with the passing of every ten years. The legendary bass player and occasional vocalist of the Pixies, who provided a much needed sweetness to Black Francis’ violent madness, founded The Breeders back in 1989 in order to find an artistic outlet for her songwriting, which had no room to breathe inside a band dominated by a great composer that was in the midst of one historical roll. Following the release of the solid “Pod” in 1990 and of the utter indie classic “Last Splash” in 1993, it took The Breeders a whole decade to follow up their influential masterpiece. It was a time that operated drastic changes in the music scene but that – as “Title TK”, from 2003, and “Mountain Battles”, from 2008, would show – failed to erode Kim Deal’s desire to use her group and her writing skills to craft an abrasive brand of straightforward noise rock that relied on sugary female vocals to find the right degree of pop to make itself palatable.

Fast forward another ten years, and yet again Kim Deal – alongside her sister, Kelley, as well as bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim MacPherson – has taken The Breeders out of their Ohio garage for one more rodeo. And if the decade that rushed by between “Last Splash” and “Title TK” did not alter Deal’s approach to writing and The Breeders’ take on indie, neither did the years elapsed between “Mountain Battles” and this new release. The instrumentation is minimalistic to the point “All Nerve” often toys with the contrast between silence and sudden guitar punches; the songs are simple and brief, rarely significantly eclipsing the three-minute mark; and, grounded in this tight scope, The Breeders strive to come up with tracks that try to challenge indie accessibility without breaking it, turning in a collection of tunes that are – simultaneously – inscrutable and direct. What is different in “All Nerve”, especially when put beside its lauded counterparts of the 90s, is that the elusive balance of weirdness and loveliness is slightly off.

The Breeders do still sound like a rough, noisy, and punk garage band; and the vocal interplay between Kim and Kelley remains an irresistible delight. However, “All Nerve” suffers from an overall lack of ideas. Locked in plodding slow-to-mid-tempo grooves, many of the songs come and go without leaving a mark, making them sound like the work of a band that, despite carrying a trademark sound, just reformed to put eleven songs together without considering whether or not they had something urgent to say and showcase. The tunes that do find either a hook or a distinguishing trait to be defined by work fine: “Nervous Mary” stomps forward mightily and takes advantage of the clash between a robotic vocal delivery and a tense melody; “MetaGoth” is haunted by a screaming background guitar that lends it a ghastly aura; “Spacewoman” works thanks to how its silent beautiful verses are broken apart by a chorus whose punchy guitars wash over listeners; and “Dawn: Making an Effort” is a stunning electric ballad that goes drum-less through most of its duration and extracts gorgeous sunrise-evoking music from echoing guitar picking.

These great moments, though, even within a record that is relatively short, are just way too diluted among tracks that are either mundane or plain bad, as it is the case of the two songs that bring the album to a quite anticlimactic close. Despite being true to The Breeders’ ideal of sound, therefore, “All Nerve” amounts to an album that stands somewhere between forgettable and average. It is not that, almost three decades after their debut, time has outpaced the band; after all, the current indie-dominated rock scene looks up to alternative legends such as The Breeders and the Pixies, bands that wrote the book on how to be successful and receive widespread acclaim without compromising their values. It is just that “All Nerve”, amidst a crowded indie environment with plenty of albums that rely on the blueprint designed by those bands, is not good enough to either stand out like a statement by veteran trailblazers or seem significant given the long lull that preceded it.

Dance Hall At Louse Point


Album: Dance Hall at Louse Point

Artist: PJ Harvey and John Parish

Released: September 23th, 1996

Highlights: Rope Bridge Crossing, That Was My Veil, Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool, Civil War Correspondent

By the time “Dace Hall at Louse Point” came out, PJ Harvey had already published three full-length records in which she had, masterfully, explored different flavors of blues-influenced garage rock. Despite her rightfully earned critical acclaim, therefore, she had yet to mutate into the musical chameleon that would go on to put together stylistically unique albums of genres such as contemporary rock (“Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea”), haunting piano balladry (“White Chalk”), and English folk music (“Let England Shake”). As such, “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, her collaborative effort with her band’s guitar player and friend, John Parish, marks the first time PJ Harvey showed signs of the multifaceted artist that lay within the rough, sexual, and violent image she had held up to that point.

Truthfully, much – or perhaps all – of the experimentation that exists within “Dance Hall at Louse Point” stems from Parish, not Harvey; after all, with the exception of one cover (“Is That All There Is?”) and two brief instrumentals (“Girl” and the title song), all tracks have their music penned by Parish, while it was left for her to focus on the lyrics. Still, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” gave listeners a first view of Harvey out of the confines in which she was musically born. The album does not completely abandon blues and rock: those are still the cornerstones on top of which the songs are constructed. However, Parish’s approach to those genres is far more unusual than Harvey’s. In common with her songwriting, Parish’s is in equal parts rough and discomforting, but while Harvey uses those characteristics to build fully formed tunes that lure listeners into their claws, Parish does not smooth the rough edges of his compositions.

Such a quality means that “Dance Hall at Louse Point” sometimes feels too unstructured or unfocused for its own good, as if it is the work of two friends who were more concerned with pushing one another to new places than with using that methodology to create music that is uniformly enjoyable. As a consequence, there are instances in which the experiments work; and there are times when the resulting pieces of music fail to be engaging. Parish’s adventurous song structures never take Harvey out of her comfort zone when it comes to lyrical themes: she is still usually penning and singing quite powerful takes on women who are either broken by a former partner or anguished over the mixed signals sent by a new potential lover. What his music does, though, is challenge her to lay down melodies over rather abrasive surfaces.

Therefore, when Harvey succeeds in doing so, the album clicks in place, as it happens in the acoustic blues of “Rope Bridge Crossing”; the folk “That Was My Veil”; or in “Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool”, which is quietly aggressive and violently explosive like Harvey’s usual brand of garage rock. On the other hand, when the melodies and music fail to stick together, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” is left meandering throughout a barren musical landscape in search of melodic centers of gravity that are just not there. As a result, PJ Harvey and John Parish join forces to produce a record that is rather irregular and that does not yield much that is truly remarkable aside from a few songs. The most important outcome of “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, though, is not the tracks contained within, but the experimental and stylistic push that it provided to PJ Harvey so that she felt willing and confident to tackle new and bold musical grounds with her future works. History has already proven such jump-start to have been quite valuable.

Wonderful Wonderful


Album: Wonderful Wonderful

Artist: The Killers

Released: September 22th, 2017

Highlights: Run for Cover, Tyson vs. Douglas, Some Kind of Love, The Calling

It seems that, on the roadmap of many bands where one more prominent figure stands out from the rest of the group, there lies a record that will be labeled by critics and fans alike as a solo effort disguised, by superficial branding, as a collective creative product. In a way, The Killers could have been immune to that recurring theme; after all, numerous of the band’s songwriting credits have been historically shared between Brandon Flowers and some of the other guys. On the other hand, the fact not-so-devoted The Killers’ fans would be hard-pressed to name the band’s instrumentalists says a lot about Flowers’ towering presence and dominance. After four records, though, the scales seem to have tipped and the time has finally come for the album that feels a whole lot like the result of a solitary endeavor: “Wonderful Wonderful”.

Truth be told, the names of Keuning, Stoermer, and Vannucci – the first one to a lesser degree – do appear attached to the record’s tracks. However, the guitarist, bassist, and drummer of The Killers rarely make themselves be heard; without exception, their performances are not the anchoring point of any of the tunes: when they do show up, they merely complement the musical landscape that surrounds Flowers’ lyrics. As a consequence, “Wonderful Wonderful” feels like a sequel to Flower’s solo incursions into synthpop territory rather than a continuation of The Killers’ last record, “Battle Born”. That statement, on its own, is not detrimental to the record. In fact, running through “Wonderful Wonderful”, there is a powerful introspective and personal lyrical tendency that is not present anywhere else in The Killers’ discography, and most of the tunes do pack good melodies that rest on top of layered keyboards that are usually used in the construction of powerful ballads, with the cheery disco leading single “The Man” being an upbeat exception to the norm.

What is telling about “Wonderful Wonderful”, though, is that its best cuts emerge when The Killers are operating in their bread-and-butter territory. “Run for Cover” and “Tyson vs. Douglas” do feature prominent keyboards that are integrated into the music’s fabric nicely, but they employ those elements to fuel The Killers’ usual mixture of tense verses and extravagant sweeping choruses, and it works wonderfully well; “The Calling”, meanwhile, achieves greatness by taking a bluesy groove and guitar licks and adapting them to the band’s sound. Everywhere else, Brandon Flowers is treading too close to anthemic stadium-sized U2 ambitions for comfort; sure, sounding huge and being unfamiliar with the word constraint has always been The Killers’ defining trait, but those two pieces used to be employed in the building of songs with a distinctive character instead of tracks that seem to have been manufactured so that a tasteful The Edge guitar solo is inserted in the chorus and bridge.

With that being said, “Wonderful Wonderful” is not a bad album. Following Dave Keuning’s announcement he will not be touring with The Killers in support of the record, one could assume the old adage of creative differences between band members could be the reason why it lacks a distinctive flavor. Regardless of empty and futile suspicions, though, “Wonderful Wonderful” rarely fails despite the generic soul of many of its tracks. It is clearly a work into which Flowers – armed with a pen, his voice, and his keyboards – poured his heart and soul, and it shows. Hopefully, however, it will serve The Killers as a brief pit-stop on the way to a new sound rather than a place where a prolonged stay will take place.



Album: Humanz

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: April 28th, 2017

Highlights: Saturnz Barz, Andromeda, Busted and Blue, Let Me Out

A party taking place right before the end of the world, in an alternative reality in which Donald Trump had become president. It is the instruction Damon Albarn, the leader of Gorillaz and the singer of Blur, gave to the sixteen collaborators that would give birth to “Humanz”, the fifth album by the virtual band and the first since the 2010 pair of “Plastic Beach” and “The Fall”. Back when handing out those instructions, little did Albarn know the parallel dimension he envisioned would materialize; and, given the world’s political state signals the apocalypse is indeed right around the corner, “Humanz” could have come off as the work of a visionary, an album that captures the atmosphere of the context in which it was released, like some self-shaping sponge. Sadly, that does not happen, for while “Humanz” delivers the party – as it consists of fourteen dancy tunes (discounting all interludes and the intro) of electropop and hip-hop – it fails to conjure the apocalypse.

The album’s concept, therefore, was left shattered on the ground somewhere in between its planning and execution, and it is relatively easy to see why: it is just too hard to pull off any kind of coherence when all tracks feature at least one collaborator both in writing and performing. Albarn’s experimental soul, and his wish to work alongside others, yielded excellent results in “Demon Days” and “Plastic Beach”, so it is not that the Gorillaz formula is inherently bad; it is just that something did not quite click this time around. That is why “Humanz” ends up being a record in which great tunes like “Ascension” and “Strobelite” (which do represent Albarn’s original concept – the former by pleading a love interest to give in to desire because the sky is falling and the latter by posing questions about the frailty of existence over a pulsating beat) share space with “She’s My Collar”, a song about relationship angsts in the digital era.

If the inconsistency of “Humanz” existed in thematic terms only, it would be rather negligible; after all, numerous are the great albums that do not gravitate around the same subjects. Likewise, the same could be said about the fact “Humanz” feels more like a compilation by various artists than a work by musicians working together, as the unifying elements of the Gorillaz sound (such as 2D’s voice) are more absent than present. The problem here, though, is that such irregularity leaks into the quality of the tracks. “Saturnz Barz”, in its alternation of Popcaan’s rapping and 2D’s nonchalant singing, has the makings of a Gorillaz hit; and the dreamy electropop duo of “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue” is equally brilliant. Sadly, “Humanz” has just way too many tracks that are either downright terrible or unremarkable.

“Momentz”, with its grating beat and high-pitched vocals, is a disappointment given the previous collaboration with De La Soul had birthed the classic “Feel Good Inc.”; “Charger” is devoid of lyrical meaning and musical purpose; “Sex Murder Party” and “Carnival” meander without going anywhere; “Hallelujah Money” has powerful lyrics but, with its lack of melody, is too close to pretentiousness for comfort; and “We Got the Power”, the long-awaited product of the partnership between two Britpop geniuses (Albarn himself and Noel Gallagher) is a cheesy conclusion with an empowering message that could have been penned by someone in primary school. In the end, even if it has moments that will go down as some of the finest by the band, “Humanz” is too fragmented to rate as anything higher than an average and disjointed apocalyptic party.

Different Gear, Still Speeding


Album: Different Gear, Still Speeding

Artist: Beady Eye

Released: February 28th, 2011

Highlights: Four Letter Word, The Roller, Kill For a Dream, The Beat Goes On

Although his voice lent relentless defiance to the songs that served as the soundtrack for the teenage years and early adulthood of a generation, Liam Gallagher never really was Oasis’ greatest talent, as all melodies and lyrics that propelled the group to super-stardom had come from his older brother’s brain. That is the reason why Beady Eye is such an utterly intriguing concept, as the group’s line-up can be described as Oasis without Noel Gallagher, the man responsible for – even in the band’s more collaborative final two efforts – creating most of the tunes. The question that arrives attached to “Different Gear, Still Speeding”, Beady Eye’s debut, then, is whether the remaining bits of the Britpop phenomenon would drown or float without their former creative leader, and it does not take long into the album to realize that neither answer is thoroughly correct.

“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has little to none of the pop-rock subtleties that marked most of Oasis’ numbers; as it turns out, Liam Gallagher is way too driven by instinct to have the time to stop and pay attention to any of that. That is why even though “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not an album comprised exclusively of loud straight-up rock tracks, it feels like a record done with feeling rather than one created through an extensive thoughtful approach, a tactic that has the benefit of making the music sound almost unanimously fun, but whose downside is the quality slips it causes. In a way, it is “Be Here Now”, Oasis’ loosest and most overblown work, without the absurd indulgence of a modern rock mammoth that has run out of control, but with songwriting that is far more irregular.

“Different Gear, Still Speeding” has its shining moments: the violent riffs of “Four Letter Word”, which support a Liam Gallagher that comes off as the vocal representation of a mighty force of nature; “The Roller”, a perfect bubblegum piece of pop-rock music that could comfortably sit, even in terms of quality, in either “Definitely Maybe” or “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”; and the gorgeous balladry of “Kill For a Dream” and “The Beat Goes On”. Its lesser moments, some of which are plain bad and others that are merely average, tend to be saved by the fact that the album shows a band that is surprisingly flexible, albeit one that never truly transforms its influences into something completely fresh or remarkable.

“Millionaire” is a decent swing at writing a song built on a variation of traditional blues’ progressions; “Beatles and Stones” is a fun rock track that name-drops the boys from London and Liverpool, but that actually borrows its angular riff from The Who’s “My Generation”; “Bring the Light” has enough Rockabilly blood in it to make Jerry Lee Lewis climb on top of his piano; and “For Anyone” could be a mid-tempo acoustic song from one The Beatles’ first five records. “Different Gear, Still Speeding” is not excellent and might not have enough juice in it to even qualify as a great album, but it is a fun, honest, and energetic attempt by Archer, Bell, and Gallagher to keep on rolling following Noel’s abandoning of the ship.

Wilder Mind


Album: Wilder Mind

Artist: Mumford & Sons

Released: May 4th, 2015

Highlights: Tompkins Square Park, The Wolf, Wilder Mind

Big shifts in sound are not, by any means, inherently bad. In fact, most – if not all – of the greatest rock bands to ever step on the face of the earth have, at some point, abandoned a niche within which both themselves and their fans were thriving to find new unpredictable waters. “Wilder Minds” is one of those major stylistic leaps, for – as it is accurately broadcasted by its cover art – it leaves the explosive countryside banjo-wielding folk music of both “Sigh No More” and “Babel” behind to embrace tunes that emit an aura that is contemporary, urban, and nocturnal. Mumford & Sons depart from a farm town and head towards a bustling metropolis and – in the process – they fall into a hole.

The issue here is not that the songs are mostly bad; Marcus Mumford’s gifts as a songwriter and his knack for uncovering anthemic melodies that are born to sustain huge choruses would never allow such a result. The problem is that his band hops out of the indie folk bandwagon that was getting a bit too crowded – albeit one whose rise and establishment they were mostly responsible for, and end up climbing aboard a chariot that is even more packed. In the attempt to reinvent themselves, they – instead of breaking into new ground, as great bands will often do – become an indistinguishable blob among the mass of prefabricated bands whose only goal is making it to the of the charts. Popularity is not necessarily negative, but when it is achieved by conforming to the norm, it is rather dull.

There are redeeming moments to be found here and there. Among the electronic pulses, the layers of lush production, and the guitars – which frequently tread the angular line so vastly explored by The Strokes, Interpol, and Franz Ferdinand, some tunes truly soar. “Tompkins Square Park” has a relentless forward motion that peaks when its remarkable chorus kicks in; “The Wolf” features a glorious guitar explosion packed with hooks; “Wilder Mind” is a sad ballad in disguise; and both “Snake Eyes” and “Just Smoke” have strong traces of the catharsis-inducing choruses found in “Sigh No More” and “Babel”.

Other tunes, meanwhile, are not victims only of the production and musical direction; they suffer due to the shockingly generic writing. “Believe”, naturally chosen as the first single, is a showcase of that syndrome: a song so utterly predictable it could be safely placed in numerous records that break into the top of the charts. As disappointing as it may be, “Wilder Minds” will certainly find its crowd, because – at times – it is able to be irresistibly catchy. To those who do not appreciate the terrain it explores, though, the glimpses it gives that the old Mumford & Sons is still there to be found and rescued will work as little drops of hope that the band can come around with an original record in the near future.

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino


Album: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Artist: Arctic Monkeys

Released: May 11th, 2018

Highlights: Star Treatment, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Four Out of Five

Between “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” and “AM”, amidst the transition the Arctic Monkeys took from lovable and snarky dorks to lovable and snarky cool dudes, many have been the constant underlying themes to that journey. The boys could always write and execute aggressive and effective rock songs; whilst Alex Turner and his sharp pen created smart wordy lyrical content to serve as the edge of the sharp razor of the Arctic Monkeys’ sound. In “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, the band’s sixth record, those themes no longer coexist; in fact, it is arguable their once perfect symbiosis has turned sour, as one organism had devoured the other after a full decade of peaceful cohabitation.

It does not take the full length of the album’s opener, “Star Treatment”, for one to realize which side has come out on top. As Turner engages in highly poetic almost free-verse musings in what seems to be an unusually personal tone, it is flagrant “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is, purposely or not, a stage for his lyrical ambitions rather than for his incredible skills as a music writer. And as the sole composer of pretty much all of the band’s material decides to take the reins more strongly than ever, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley, Matt Helders, and everything else fans have come to know as Arctic Monkeys take a back seat.

With “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, Alex Turner aims, in both ambition and theme, for The Moon. Inspired by an assortment of science-fiction works, which used strange futuristic landscapes to talk about the problems of the world, Turner builds – as the title implies – a Hotel & Casino facility on Tranquility Base, the landing site of the Apollo 11. And his infatuation with his fictitious construction runs so deep that instead of accepting the role of an outside observer to the happenings in the hotel, Turner turns the Arctic Monkeys into the house band; the group plays as the guests arrive in the lounge; as they hang out at the taqueria on the roof, which has just gotten a four-star review; as they marvel at the technological wonders of the place; as they consume indigestible amounts of food and information right on the way to alienation; and as they gaze upon rockets being launched from the Earth while sipping a cocktail.

It is gorgeous imagery filled with layers of commentary on religion, media, politics, and contemporary behavior in general. And, more impressively, there is an astounding integration between music and theme, for by making the Arctic Monkeys play piano-led and keyboard-heavy 70s lounge pop, a music genre that was itself often concerned with space-age subjects, Turner evokes the hotel’s design and aura through sound.

In the end, though, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is a work of art that belongs to the field of music; and, as such, the most important components it contains are its songs. And therein lies the problem. Through the course of the record, Turner, Cook, O’Malley, and Helders prove they are a pretty capable lounge band, as they drop everything that defined their previous works and embrace, quite nicely, soft drumbeats, gentle guitar work, and layered slow-tempo lethargy, with the thick bass of O’Malley likely ranking as the sole component of their sound that made the transition in one piece.

However, as talented as the house band may be, somebody should have told the hotel managers at Tranquility Base that the group they have hired lacks songs. Rarely do any of the tracks here leave a considerable mark, because – in a case in which it is blatant the lyrics came before the music – the words completely subdue the tunes. Turner is so in love with what he wants to say that the melodies and instrumentals become an afterthought; they are there to, merely, serve as a bed upon which he can distill his poetry. And what he has written is so irregular in metric and rhyme that the majority of the record consists of steady grooves that lack interesting chord progressions or rhythmic shifts.

Additionally, it is not exactly helpful that, stylistically and rhythmically, all tunes land pretty close to one another, as the Arctic Monkeys, showing praiseworthy commitment, fully throw themselves into the role of a lounge band. Melodic peaks and notable songs do appear on occasion, as “Star Treatment”, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, and “Four Out of Five” succeed in finding remarkable moments within the confines of this retro-yet-futuristic sound that is strongly shackled by the lyrical content it carries. Yet, they are far from being enough from stopping the album from being the first complete dud in a career that, up to this point, had only offered impressive works.

Within music, or any art form, change is absolutely necessary, especially when one considers that rock, as a genre, has long ago stopped being the leading style in terms of innovation; and it is indeed commendable the Arctic Monkeys took such a grand leap, and with such dedication, into what will, probably, turn out to be a one-time-only detour into lounge pop. However, with so many tracks that lack distinctive features and that end up merging into one another out of a sheer lack of character, it cannot be denied the result of that bravery ended up being negative regardless of any thematic victories.