The Ultra Vivid Lament

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Album: The Ultra Vivid Lament

Artist: Manic Street Preachers

Released: September 10th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Path Of Wellness

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Album: Path of Wellness

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: June 11th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Van Weezer

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Album: Van Weezer

Artist: Weezer

Released: May 7th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Endless Arcade

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Album: Endless Arcade

Artist: Teenage Fanclub

Released: April 30th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Cyr

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Album: Cyr

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins

Released: November 27th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hey Clockface

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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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Hootenanny

hootenanny

Album: Hootenanny

Artist: The Replacements

Released: April 29th, 1983

Highlights: Color Me Impressed, Within Your Reach, Buck Hill, Treatment Bound

As defined by the dictionary, a hootenanny can either be an informal folk music session at which artists perform for their own enjoyment or a placeholder word to refer to an object whose name the speaker has forgotten. It is hard to think a term could have two meanings that are so divergent; yet, regardless of the reason why The Replacements opted to select the expression to dub their second album, many listeners will come to the conclusion that the two definitions apply perfectly. The first description clicks because “Hootenanny” is as informal as it can be, and its loose nature indicates that the Minneapolis boys are playing and recording these tracks for nobody’s sake but their own; meanwhile, the second is suitable due to the fact “Hootenanny” is so wild and incongruent that putting a finger on what it is exactly turns out to be a challenge.

Anyone who is familiar with The Replacements’ debut, the excellently titled “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash”, ought to know that ingredients such as informality, looseness, and wildness are not exactly news for Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars. They are elements that have always been part and parcel of the band’s package, as The Replacements simply do not exist without the good and the bad that are an inherent part of the careless demeanor of four boys that were outsiders among the outsiders and who, despite understanding that rock and roll was the only possible salvation for their lives, were simply unable to keep it together for long enough to grab a hold of that opportunity as strongly as they should have.

“Hootenanny”, however, deserves the name it carries more than any other record by The Replacements because it amplifies the innocent recklessness to a degree that was not reached by the group either before it or after it; and, to boot, it adds fuel to the fire by being stylistically errant to a point that makes it impossible for someone to classify it with any level of certainty. “Hootenanny” is a musical contradiction of the rarest kind: an album that is clearly a step forward in comparison to its predecessor, but that, at the same time, is far more clueless about what it wants to be.

“Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” was brutally focused: it packed a whopping eighteen songs into less than forty minutes because they were played in the fast and furious tradition of the American hardcore scene, and it was able to give the genre a unique sway by anchoring itself on the rock and roll flavors of the punk sound of the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. It may have been monochromatic, like most rookie efforts in the style, but it sure was exciting and knew what its purpose was. “Hootenanny”, contrarily, simultaneously breaks away from that mold, hence leading the boys much closer to the kind of music that would give them three borderline masterpieces, and staggers around aimlessly and drunkenly. Its performances are so all over the place it feels like a rehearsal for an album rather than an official release; many of its tunes are so underwritten they could pass for demos; and it shoots towards such a ridiculous amount of targets it feels like a work-in-progress.

Shockingly, though, even if such nature definitely holds the record back tremendously, it does not demolish it entirely. As history would go on to prove, The Replacements sure knew how to write gigantic statements whilst hanging on the very edge of utter chaos; and although “Hootenanny” does not prove that ability, as it simply is not good enough to have numerous tunes that could be considered unquestionably excellent, it at least hints at that unlikely skill.

The cuts “Run It”, “You Lose”, and “Hayday” – though exciting and energetic – show the group treading water and revisiting the vicious punk spirit of their debut. The soul of “Hootenanny” is actually found in its other nine tracks, which have The Replacements having an absolute blast by seemingly doing whatever it is that came to their minds when the tape started rolling. Obviously, such irresponsible mindset gives birth to moments that, in spite of being clearly fun for the performers and somewhat endearing for the audience, are not exactly successful: the title track and opener is built on a traditional blues progression that gets more chaotic by the second as Westerberg shouts “It’s a hootenanny” repeatedly; “Willpower” is an unexpected shot at post-punk which, mixing the atmospheric drum-and-bass darkness of The Cure and Joy Division, stretches for too long; and “Mr. Whirly” breaks up a standard punk number with a mid-section taken straight out of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”.

The unbridled madness, however, does have its notable results. Even if based on hardcore instrumentation, “Color Me Impressed” has such a sweet melody it is almost bubblegum pop, making it an undeniable The Replacements’ classic. “Take Me Down to the Hospital” has a fantastic running bass line by Tommy Stinson, turning a punk track into a bouncy boogie. Over the beat of a drum machine and decorated by textures produced by guitars and keyboards, “Within Your Reach” is an excellent power pop ballad. “Buck Hill” is a stellar jangly instrumental that nods to early R.E.M. and gives signs of some of what was to come for The Replacements in the future. “Lovelines” is downright hilarious, as it is impossible not to laugh with Westerberg as he reads – and mocks – classified ads of a personal nature found on a local newspaper while the rest of the group executes one playful shuffle. And closer “Treatment Bound”, recorded precariously, is a marvelous acoustic song that shows how strong Westerberg’s songwriting could be.

“Hootenanny” is awfully hard to pin down. While most albums tend to be a very static portrayal of artists during a certain period of their lives, The Replacements’ second effort might as well be a picture that was taken with the target in motion and that, as a result, came out as a blurry unidentifiable mess. There is failure and there is success; there is moving forward and there is standing still; and there is both proof that it was a haphazardly put together product, which arises in its lack of focus, and also evidence of some careful planning, as the album carries a good deal of lines that are so smartly crafted it is hard to consider they were made up on the spot in spite of how impossibly sharp Westerberg can be with a pen. Regardless of those irregularities, “Hootenanny” is – in the least – a fun ride, because although its overall amateurish vibe can turn some away, there is something infectious about listening to a band like The Replacements have such a blast. And it is exactly such a feeling that “Hootenanny” encapsulates.

Ass

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Album: Ass

Artist: Badfinger

Released: November 26th, 1973

Highlights: Apple of My Eye, When I Say, I Can Love You, Timeless

It is impossible to write about Badfinger without at least making a passing mention at the dark cloud that hangs over the course of the group’s career. Active since the early 60s under a different name, the band’s talent did not go unnoticed by famous British rockers of the time, with The Who as well as The Yardbirds securing the quartet as an opening act, and The Kinks’ Ray Davies auditioning to produce them. Badfinger’s greatest claim to fame before they ever put out a full-length album, though, was the fact they were the first band to sign a contract with The Beatles’ own label, Apple, and such a magnificent nod of approval from the biggest name in the rock and roll game certainly generated a lot of expectations regarding what they would achieve.

It does not take long for one to listen to some of the best cuts by Badfinger and realize why The Fab Four saw so much promise in them. The boys could play tastefully; they could harmonize beautifully; they possessed an innocent hard-working demeanor; and in both Tom Evans and Pete Ham they had two great songwriters who, each with his personal signature, displayed a knack for crafting accessible pop rock gems with universally likable melodies. In constitution and in style, parallels between them and The Beatles were inevitable; however, while the boys from Liverpool were able to achieve constant success and deliver a string of groundbreaking records, Badfinger remained an eternal promise.

Certainly, there were a few hits here and there; moreover, the two albums that directly precede “Ass” got their fair share of critical acclaim. Sadly, though, amidst bad breaks and poor managerial decisions, the second of which would directly lead to the heartbreaking suicides of both Evans and Ham, Badfinger never had enough time and peace to acquire the traction their talent indicated they would inevitably attain. In a way, following the consistent and very good duo of “No Dice” and “Straight Up”, “Ass” offers the early signs of the fall, marking the start of a generally descending curve the group would never recover from.

“Ass” begins to materialize a change, and such a move was arguably necessary for Badfinger. As good as they were, “No Dice” and “Straight Up” struggled to surpass a certain quality threshold because they often had problems getting away from the middle of the road. The greatness seen in tunes like “Without You”, “Name of the Game”, and “Day After Day” was undeniable; their charm is so natural, their melodies are so impeccable, and their capacity to move is so timeless that it is surprising to think they did not exist before 1970. In their hooks, harmonies, and smoothness, though, Badfinger was still lacking the spark that opens the doors towards the kind of utter excellence only achieved by a select few; the one that stylishly breaks into new irresistible grounds that audiences did not even know they wanted to be introduced to. To make a The Beatles’ parallel: Badfinger was looking for its “Rubber Soul”.

“Ass”, unfortunately, is certainly not comparable to The Fab Four’s sixth studio work. In theory, at least, Badfinger had the tools to make a leap of a similar magnitude. With “Ass”, though, they seem to jump the wrong way. Produced amidst a good deal of confusion, the album’s ten cuts bring quite a surprise to anyone looking at their credits. Half of the songs featured in the record are written neither by Evans nor Ham, but by guitarist Joey Molland, who – up to that point – had already penned a handful of tracks but remained a tertiary creative force within the band. And given drummer Mike Gibbins is responsible for one tune of his own, that means just four of the songs in “Ass” come from Badfinger’s greatest writers. That configuration would, of course, not be a problem if the contributions of Molland and Gibbins were excellent. Unfortunately, they simply do not live up to the group’s usual standards.

“Cowboy”, by Gibbins, is an amateurish slab at country rock. Meanwhile, sequenced one after the other, “The Winner”, “Blind Owl”, and “Constitution” are loud, electric, and utterly generic. With the first and the last being by Molland and the middle one by an uninspired Evans, they flounder in their attempt to rock out. “Constitution” is particularly embarrassing for awkwardly verging on testosterone-infused hard rock, driving home – very clearly – the point that Badfinger was indeed made for the softest spectrum of pop rock. Molland, however, does deliver three tunes that are – in different levels – praiseworthy: the exciting “Get Away”, which is bouncy rock and roll accompanied by a wild guitar and a brass section; “Icicles”, a simple and decent ballad that stumbles in its verses but succeeds in its chorus; and the spectacular “I Can Love You”, which carries the classic Badfinger sound but that instead of operating in the usual intimate atmosphere, feels absolutely grand thanks to its arrangement and melody.

In fact, as proof that “Ass” is a bit of a misguided shot at change, most of its best moments are found when the band is doing what they did in “No Dice” and “Straight Up”; that is, executing some good old power pop balladry. Other than “I Can Love You”, such instances come to the surface in both Pete Ham’s “Apple of My Eye”, the opener and a surprisingly sweet farewell letter to The Beatles’ label, as Badfinger was getting ready to move to Warner Bros.; and Tom Evan’s “When I Say”, which uses great harmonies, touching melodies, and a nice brief solo to check all of the boxes to get the Badfinger stamp. The exception to that rule is closer “Timeless”, a Pete Ham composition that breaks the rules and is resoundingly successful. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, it is a dark, slow, and dramatic piece that drinks from progressive music in its usage of the flute and in the three-minute solo that ends it, and from hard rock in the vicious guitar riffs of its chorus.

Had it been more like “Timeless” and less like “Constitution”, the change that begins to be executed in “Ass” could have produced good results. As it was put out, though, the album feels like an unfortunate turn towards music that is louder and more electric. It is a decision that rather than finding Badfinger an extra layer of personality winds up corroding a good part of the band’s charm; and it is a mistake that, due to the prevalence of Joey Molland’s compositions, feels like it could have been avoided if Tom Evans and Pete Ham had either been given more room to operate or been a more active part of the album’s construction. And much to the loss of the rock genre, the first and brutally talented formation of Badfinger would not have much time left to correct the course.

Presence

presence

Album: Presence

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: March 31st, 1976

Highlights: Achilles Last Stand, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Tea for One

As one of the pioneers of hard rock, Led Zeppelin were never strangers to heaviness. However, accompanying the godly blasts produced by the instruments of Page, Jones, and Bonham, there were always elements that added interesting nuances to the mighty pounding. The frequent notable influence of blues singers-songwriters brought a soulful emotional layer to the table and lent the band’s sound an irresistible sway that had been left untouched by most British groups not named The Rolling Stones. Plant’s high-pitched roars and sensual stage presence diluted some of the pure testosterone that emanated from the moments when the band went for full-blast rock and roll. And the gift Page and Jones had to, respectively, play the acoustic guitar and all sorts of keyboards let Led Zeppelin stretch past hard rock with some success and frequency.

It is a combination that, from “Led Zeppelin” to “Physical Graffiti”, yielded wondrous results, for it allowed the band to seamlessly tackle explosive bursts of – up until then – unforeseen power like “Communication Breakdown” as well as flirts with progressive rock of the scale of “In the Light” and moving orchestral folk balladry such as “The Rain Song”. Led Zeppelin, then, far beyond being among the most consistent groups of the era, were also – quietly – one of the most versatile; a quality that often goes sadly unsung even amidst the considerable amount of compliments thrown at the quartet.

“Presence”, however, shifts that balance completely. Mostly gestated by Plant and Page while they were away from Jones and Bonham, and made during a period in which the singer (recovering from an accident) was far from being in complete health, the album is – perhaps – the closest the world would ever get to a Jimmy Page solo record until the release of 1988’s “Outrider”. From the first to the seventh song, it is an unfiltered display of hard rock acrobatics, and given its focus on electricity, its absence of mellow moments, and the fact it boasts no keyboards whatsoever and only one instance of barely audible acoustic-guitar playing, “Presence” also happens to safely qualify as the heaviest Led Zeppelin album.

It is a label that is undeniably appealing. Yet, sheer weight does not exactly automatically translate into notable quality, and it is in that aspect that “Presence” falters. Aside from the marching epic that is “Achilles Last Stand” and the slow-burning blues of “Tea for One”, which bookend the track listing, the dryness in arrangements, the similarity in pace, and the homogeneity in the guitar tones that permeate “Presence” make all of the other cuts merge into one another, an accusation that can not be made regarding any other record in the band’s discography, not even the irregular duo of “Houses of the Holy” and “In Through the Out Door”, which often stumble due to a colorfulness that “Presence” could have used. Such lack of variety undeniably hurts it, but the main culprit in this particular case has got to be the songwriting.

Where Page and Plant had once gelled into an entity that operated in perfect synergy, “Presence” shows the pair having trouble to join their parts into a cohesive unit. Jimmy’s guitar parts, by all means the backbones of the tunes, offer the usual technical prowess that is accentuated by overdubs deployed with the taste and care of a maestro. They are, however, more complex than those of any other Led Zeppelin album, featuring a horde of licks and phrases that do not allow them to stand in place for too long. If on one hand that is a trait that keeps the instrumental portion of “Presence” playful, interesting, and dynamic inside the tight confines in which it operates, it is also an architecture that puts a considerable degree of pressure on Plant to come up with melodies that are not only good, but also suiting to the guitar fireworks of Page. The singer, sadly, does not pull off any of those tasks.

Fortunately, the failures are not simultaneous. The individual melodies are either lackluster or at odds with the backing track, never the two at the same time; and on at least two songs, “Achilles Last Stand” and “Tea for One”, they make it unscathed to the finish line, with the caveat that the latter is a less inspired rewrite of the classic “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. It is hard to say whether Page or Plant is most at fault: the guitarist could have dialed down on the complexity without losing his usual flair; the singer could have been more inspired; or his voice, which had lost a good part of its higher range by 1976, could have left the door open for wider melodic opportunities had it retained its original greatness. But the fact of the matter is that it feels “Presence” could have benefited from tighter cooperation between the parts involved.

All is not lost, though. Even if, many times, threatening to be average, the album is never truly bad. Page, Jones, and Bonham are masterful as usual, and although Led Zeppelin records have historically thrived on the quality of their sound, the band’s instrumentalists were never captured quite as vividly as they were in “Presence”, which merges a straightforwardness that nearly speaks to the ethos of garage rock with all the high-budget gloss and studio trickery that Page loved to employ. The balance between bass, drums, and guitars is impeccable, with all instruments sounding absolutely huge and clear without ever overpowering one another; as such, the proficiency of those three guys with their respective tools of work could not possibly have been made more evident.

Furthermore, in spite of how the songwriting quality is the lowest of any Led Zeppelin album, “Presence” does hide a trio of gems: “Achilles Last Stand” is, clocking in at ten minutes, the band’s best epic track, offering historical performances by Page and – especially – Bonham; “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is a thrilling stop-and-start tune that boasts a wicked harmonica solo; and “Tea for One”, though not exactly fresh, brings about the much-needed sexy blues sway that is sadly missing from the rest of the work. Inserted within a catalog that includes monsters of the height of “Led Zeppelin IV” and “Physical Graffiti”, it is easy – and fair – to see “Presence” as a minor work, one in which the natural cracks of creative exhaustion following relentless writing and touring were starting to appear very blatantly; and that comparison risks leading many to label it as a downright bad album. “Presence”, however, is enjoyable, for although the Page and Plant magic of other releases was not so strong anymore, it was still carrying enough force to uncover a few notable moments. And with players like Jones and Bonham to back it up, even the lesser products of that match become worthwhile to a degree.

Colorado

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Album: Colorado

Artist: Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Released: October 25th, 2019

Highlights: Olden Days, Green Is Blue, Milky Way, I Do

Fifty years separate “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, the first album Neil Young ever recorded alongside what would go on to become his signature backing band, Crazy Horse, and “Colorado”, his 2019 release that has the singer-songwriter reuniting with the band for the first time since 2012’s “Psychedelic Pill”. It goes without saying that the five decades that stand between “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Colorado” have seen the world go through many changes; however, as every Neil Young fan ought to know, Crazy Horse has stood immune to it all, aware that as their leader went through a myriad of musical experiments and different sets of musicians, he would always eventually feel like returning to the comfort of the band that is so firmly attached to his legacy.

And so, following a stint of six years during which the ever prolific Young produced five albums with collaborators that ranged from Promise of the Real to Jack White, the old man opens the doors of the barn to take the horse for yet another spin. For fans, that is a move which always brings, with it, both excitement and hope; but this time around, it seems the two feelings come in extra intensity. For in addition to, naturally, rejoining Neil Young with the filthy and spooky plod of Crazy Horse, the reunion that gives birth to “Colorado” also comes amidst a series of irregular albums and a creative streak – including a lengthy tour – in which Young’s enthusiasm with the youth of Promise of the Real at times made it seem like his collaboration with Crazy Horse was done.

As it turns out, it was not, and with guitarist Frank Sampedro being replaced by Nils Lofgren, who records his first studio album with Crazy Horse since 1982’s “Trans”, the trio which is complemented by Ralph Molina and Billy Tabot answers the calling of Neil Young. Unsurprisingly, “Colorado” has all the makings of a record put together by that historical collaboration. As the perfect accompaniment to the singer and his usual stylistic explorations, Crazy Horse knows how to get nasty and throw themselves in the mud by using rough guttural guitar distortions that are employed to build mid-tempo songs while simultaneously succeeding in conjuring beauty via sweet harmonizations when the tunes ask for it. And it is out of these pieces that “Colorado” is mostly made of.

At times, these elements appear separately. The traditional harmonies are used to bring an extra layer of smoothness to tracks that, leaning to a softer side, venture into the mixture of folk and country that Neil Young showcased in albums such as “Harvest”; meanwhile, the bellowing guitars and the trudging rhythm that is so peculiar some – as it happens in pretty much all Crazy Horse records – will call it amateurish and dull, are the backbone of earth-shattering hard rock cuts. More often than not, though, those pieces will appear together, unlocking a sound that, nearly exclusive to the collaboration, manages to be instinctive and primitive at its core whilst exposing an aura that is delicate and sentimental. “Colorado” thrives because of that nature, which ought to make all fans happy with the fact Neil Young and Crazy Horse are still going; the album, however, cannot escape some of the problems that have afflicted the songwriter’s output as of late.

Firstly, there is the matter of the lyrics, which suffer not just because Neil Young has turned a bit mono-thematic in recent years, with the focus of the old hippie shifting to environmental problems and politics, but also because he seemingly cannot tackle those topics with poetry, relying on direct wording that results in oddities like “I saw mother nature pushing Earth in a baby carriage”. Secondly, there is the songwriting itself, which has simply become irregular. Finally, and probably greatly contributing to the prior item, there is how Neil Young is now way too devoted to his ever-standing belief that working too much on songs erodes their quality, a philosophy that did wonders to his discography when he was in his artistic prime but that, lately, has caused more harm than good, as the tunes are sometimes not developed with the due care and the takes that make it to the album sound a bit premature.

The tracks that are damaged because of those problems are many. “She Showed Me Love”, which at thirteen minutes should theoretically qualify as the tasty Crazy Horse jam of the album, is actually a disappointment as a consequence of bad lyrics, an uninspired melody, and a lack of musical ideas to justify its length. Both “Help Me Lose My Mind” and “Shut It Down”, although passable, have Young ranting over solid hard rock groves that are broken up by harmonized choruses; an idea that he has explored way too frequently in his latest works. And “Rainbow of Colors”, borrowing the melody from Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”, is a shot at a sing-a-long rock anthem that praises the different kinds of people who live in the United States; despite its good intentions, the result is lackluster and partially embarrassing, with its only saving grace being that it is not half as bad as “Children of Destiny”, the song from 2017’s “The Visitor” in which Young used the same recipe.

Still, amidst the mistakes, and appearing like proof that Neil Young is an incredibly talented individual who, past the age of 70, is still working hard and sharing his gift, “Colorado” also happens to hold some gems. “Think of Me” is a beautiful and positive acoustic song that – with drums, a piano, a harmonica, and plenty of harmonies – could be a missing track from the excellent “Prairie Wind”. “Olden Days” is a gorgeous reflection on the loneliness of old age, and thanks to a heart-touching guitar lick by Nils and an unexpected falsetto by Young, it gains a lot of emotional resonance. “Green Is Blue”, led by a piano and complemented by gentle guitars, is a great environmental tale that stands shoulder to shoulder with the classic “After the Goldrush”. “Milky Way” is such a slow and precariously loose Crazy Horse jam that it continuously threatens to break down. “Eternity” is simple and playful thanks to its unusual backing vocals. And closer “I Do” is an introspective acoustic number that, in a rare turn for late-career Neil Young, operates lyrically on many levels.

Therefore, the reconnection between Neil Young and Crazy Horse ends up being only half of a victory, because as great as that match may be, it is simply not enough to allow the former to escape the habits that have plagued him in recent years. In many cases, “Colorado” displays a Neil Young that packs all of those problems into the same version of himself, and even if that person in question is a beloved old man fighting a very worthy fight in the best possible way, the music he produces can be poor. Still, Neil Young is just too good to fail completely, and with Crazy Horse by his side he actually produces a work that is decent, sinking to notable lows in numerous cuts, but coming across multiple successes that should make all listeners that sit down with “Colorado” happy that Neil is active and pumping out records.