Cyr

cyr

Album: Cyr

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins

Released: November 27th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three

Hey Clockface

hey_clockface

Album: Hey Clockface

Artist: Elvis Costello

Released: October 30th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three

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

ass

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

colorado

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.

Merrie Land

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Album: Merrie Land

Artist: The Good, the Bad & the Queen

Released: November 16th, 2018

Highlights: Drifters & Trawlers, The Truce of Twilight, Ribbons, The Poison Tree

It took a lengthy eleven years for The Good, the Bad & the Queen to produce their second work, and although a long absence of the sort is certainly unwelcome for a group that gathers such unique and varied talents, it makes a whole lot of sense for their sophomore effort to come out towards the tail end of 2018. And that is because Damon Albarn, their leader and the creative force behind the band’s lyrics, has always had a knack for dissecting the intricacies of British life and exposing them through delightful pop hooks; a task he thrived in during the middle period of his career as the singer of Blur.

And with the realm of Elizabeth II amidst some historical political turmoil as it tries to find a way to negotiate the United Kingdom’s way out of the European Union, Albarn unquestionably ranks as one of the musical voices that could broadcast the troubles of the current day. As a man of many simultaneous projects, he could have called upon any of them to give musical backing to his lyrical exploits. However, since Blur has long moved beyond British themes, Gorillaz exists in its own weird universe, and his solo output is often more concerned with matters of the depressive mind, it is only natural that he would reactivate The Good, the Bad & the Queen: an outfit whose name and debut record indicate it was born to dive into all that is British.

“Merrie Land”, then, is a vehicle to talk about the Brexit, which – naturally – makes it more British than tea. Yet, as far as its writing style goes, the record’s inspiration could not be more American. As stated by Albarn himself, when putting lyrics to paper, he took a page out of the Lou Reed book of songwriting, which favors prose over poetry and throws both metric and rhyme out the window. Interestingly, though, stepping out of both his comfort zone and also the area usually explored by Reed, Damon is not very concerned about specific characters in “Merrie Land”; his eyes, in fact, turn towards the environment and scenery he sees in a nation that has, through its voting, revealed sadness, anger, frustration, division, and general unhappiness with the image it sees in the mirror.

As such, while Reed rode the subway and walked down the dirty alleys of New York to write about the people whose existence the city itself preferred to ignore, Albarn moves through the piers of Blackpool to try to capture the atmosphere that led to such a critical decision. To a point, it works. “Merrie Land” is bleak; so much that its title feels sarcastic. And the album has an introspective stream-of-consciousness mood that makes it quite clear it was built through observation and loose writing.

It is a combination that makes it an alluring piece to anyone trying to catch a glimpse of the situation it describes, even if at times Albarn’s lyrics get too cryptic for one to grasp the link between what he is singing and the social moment he is portraying. But “Merrie Land” has its share of problems. Musically, Albarn and his keyboards are joined by Paul Simonon, the bassist of The Clash; Simon Tong, the guitarist of The Verve; and drummer Tony Allen, one of the creators of Afrobeat. And, together, they come upon stellar instrumentation (which includes all sorts of synthesizers, a choir, and strings) that finds a unique middle ground between contemporary pop and the traditions of British music hall, forging a sound that is complex, decadent, and gloomy; a perfect complement to the album’s subject matter.

Sadly, the wild prose of Albarn does not adhere very firmly to that fabric. In tracks such as “Merrie Land” and “Gun to the Head”, the spoken nature of the singing these kinds of lyrics require does click with their instrumental backing. The same, though, does not apply to the meandering “Nineteen Seventeen”, “The Great Fire”, “Lady Boston”, and “The Last Man to Leave”, an issue that becomes more serious when one considers the lyrics to many of these songs are obscure in meaning.

As a statement on how Albarn’s delivery of prose can become aimless at times, the moments when “Merrie Land” avoids dullness entirely come when he abandons that style and takes a more straightforward approach to his craft. “Drifters & Trawlers” has an interesting contrast in its pairing of a breezy, almost sunny, instrumentation with a lethargic and appealing vocal line. “The Truce of Twilight”, carried by a mean Paul Simonon bass line and an infectious call-and-response melody, evokes a sinister vibe. “Ribbons”, which depicts the colors of the countries that form the United Kingdom tied around a Maypole, is a gorgeous and evocative folk number. And closer “The Poison Tree”, where a sad European Union seems to come to grips with the fact that the United Kingdom is leaving, is a song of heartbreak lifted to relaxed resignation by colorful guitar and keyboard work.

As a whole, therefore, “Merrie Land” is not consistent, for its lackluster cuts are almost as numerous as its good numbers. Nevertheless, like any album where Albarn talks about English life, it provides an interesting look into staples of the country’s society while also working as a point of reflection to anyone who wants to understand why phenomena of the kind have been happening in other nations. And even if the picture it paints is not as complete as the ones seen in Blur’s “Modern Life is Rubbish” and “Parklife”, it is still vivid and thought-provoking.

Always Ascending

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Album: Always Ascending

Artist: Franz Ferdinand

Released: February 9th, 2018

Highlights: Always Ascending, The Academy Award, Lois Lane, Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow

Ever since their excellent 2004 debut, dance music has always been an integral component of Franz Ferdinand’s sound. In fact, impossibly tight beats and grooves that begged audiences to dances were the main ingredients that made their material stand out among the myriad of indie guitar bands that appeared during the 21st century’s early years. As their career arch evolved, much of the group’s works concentrated upon presenting different balances between the rock music their instrumental setup of guitar, bass, and drums suggested, and Alex Kapranos and his crew’s wishes to attach a mirror ball to the ceiling, turn on walls of strobe lights, and transform their concerts into open-air night clubs. When that mixture leaned too heavily to one side, as in the innocuous “Tonight”, the music ran sour and dull; contrarily, when none of the two sides of the Franz Ferdinand coin overwhelmed its counterpart, fans were rewarded with efforts that were, at worst, solid and entertaining.

For “Always Ascending”, the group arrives somewhat transformed. Nick McCarthy, founding member and guitarist, is gone; and, to make up for his absence, the band brings in multi-instrumentalist Julian Corrie and producer Philippe Zdar, both of synthpop fame. That, alongside an album cover that could have been easily used for a electronic music compilation, should be enough to let listeners know where “Always Ascending” heads to. Never before in their entire career had Franz Ferdinand embraced synthesizers and keyboards so thoroughly. And, surprisingly, after having wisely toned down those elements for “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action” in the wake of the cold reception that “Tonight” had received, this particular trip back to the land where unbridled synths meet the band’s jumping rock beats is far from unrewarding. Surely, there are occasions when “Always Ascending” falls flat, but in-between the punctual lack of inspiration Franz Ferdinand uncovers a few gems that would not have been found had they remained restrained to their previous safe framework.

On the negative side, “Lazy Boy” and “Finally” are grand examples of synth-rock failure; reliant on the repetition of their respective chorus and bridge – like a far less thrilling “Take Me Out” – the tracks depend on hooks that are just not there. “Huck and Jim”, meanwhile, only shines in its lo-fi distorted chorus. Everywhere else, though, the band succeeds to different degrees. With the exception of the gorgeous closer “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow”, one of those layered yet silent ballads that seem to be eternally floating in outer space, “Always Ascending” is packed with rather dynamic tracks with segments that widely vary in instrumentation, energy levels, and style, showing Franz Ferdinand was clearly able to find a considerable amount of worthy ideas. The title song, for instance, begins with a lengthy heavenly intro before breaking into a dance rock body; “Paper Cages” approaches its great chorus differently every time it comes around; “Feel the Love Go” has an extended coda where a wild saxophone that could have come from The Stooges’ “Funhouse” seems to struggle against a swelling wall of electronic music; and the synthesizer work put into “Louis Lane” and “Glimpse of Love” is downright spectacular.

It is true that, sometimes, even during the album’s finest moments, the hooks that were clearly planned to be the centerpiece of the songs are not as great as they could have been. And given the band seems to have gone into the process of writing “Always Ascending” with the mindset to come up with simple melodies that are repeated over and over (a staple of the electronic genre), the listening can become grating at points. Nonetheless, the album offers quite a bit of enjoyment. Kapranos is still bursting with coldness, coolness, cynicism, a feeling of superiority, and cruel judgment, and he aims his acid pen towards many: the idealistic youth that wants to change the world to achieve happiness, those who have seen their best years go by and now have to dwell on the misery of what is left, a self-centered generation that engages in online posting competitions to see who is living the best life, and people who watch their lives through screens. Whether one is part of those groups or not, the positively British way of criticism works, and so does the music, because although it is far from being solid all the way through, “Always Ascending” is an interesting new take – with a few highlights – on the sound of one of the few relevant bands of the turn of the century that is still alive, kicking, and being artistically daring.

Who Built The Moon?

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Album: Who Built the Moon?

Artist: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

Released: November 24th, 2017

Highlights: Holy Mountain, Black & White Sunshine, The Man Who Built the Moon

Three albums into his post-Oasis career, “Who Built the Moon?” indicates Noel Gallagher has wisely come to grips with the fact the sound he had established alongside his High Flying Birds was in need of a shake-up. The group’s self-titled debut as well as its sequel, “Chasing Yesterday”, were solid records that faltered for being stuck in light mid-tempo rockers, an area that Noel had deeply explored for the good part of two decades whenever Oasis veered away from the bombast of their massive guitar walls. As a consequence, the second leg of his artistic trajectory – albeit falling on the positive side of the rock-star-goes-solo chart – lacked a defining trait, a colorful tinge that would elevate the band from an act that is listened to by many because they are led by a brilliant songwriter that once guided a phenomenon, to a group that has caught the public’s attention because it does, with a good degree of quality, something different.

Truth be told, “Who Built the Moon?” does not quite achieve that goal. It is a big and commendable step in that direction, for it decorates Noel’s songwriting with a great number of effects and musical elements; but it falls short from its target due to one simple characteristic: its occasional lack of inspiration. One of the greatest songwriters of modern rock, Noel – through some borrowing and some creating – has always had an uncanny knack for capturing engaging melodies that are so natural they sound like they have always been part of the fabric of the universe. In “Who Built the Moon?”, though, they are not always there; it is hard to pinpoint whether the punctual absence of hooks is due to a shortage of ideas or a more experimental approach to composing. However the reason, though, “Who Built the Moon?” and its wild and wide palette of instruments and production touches, which lend it an almost psychedelic aura that nods towards hippies and the Summer of Love (a perfect fit for Noel’s signature simple feel-good lyrics), end up being held back by that issue.

When its punches land, “Who Built the Moon?” sounds like one of the greatest works Noel has ever birthed. “Holy Mountain”, with its horns and tin whistle, recalls glam rock, Marc Bolan, and T. Rex; the jangle of “Black & White Sunshine”, the pulsating beat of “She Taught Me How to Fly”, and the marching strum of “If Love Is the Law” pave the way to great choruses; and “The Man Who Built the Moon”, with a dark vibe emitted by a sinister guitar tone and an ominous electric piano, boasts impeccable melodic work. Contrarily, when it does not succeed, it hits some very unremarkable spots: the vocal passage that is meant to be the hook of “Keep on Reaching”, delivered by a choir of backing vocalists that constantly reappear through the record (often to good effect), does not work; the bluesy guitar lick of “Be Careful What You Wish For” is mundane, and it is used to take a song that does not shift its rhythm at all close to the the six-minute mark; the riff and melody of the verses of “It’s a Beautiful World” are dull, and the chorus is as predictable as the song’s title; and the instrumental “Wednesday”, broken up into two equally monotonic parts, does not go anywhere.

As “Fort Knox”, the semi-instrumental that opens the album, announces when it throws all elements of the record at the listener (including an alarm bell), “Who Built the Moon?” is unique within the canon of Noel Gallagher. It is worthy of applause due to how it fearlessly walks away from the production and musicianship style he has employed during much of his life, and about half of its content shows the songwriting gift the more centered of the Gallagher brothers has. The fact it does not come off as a fully realized piece, though, reveals it may end up working as a transitional effort that will eventually lead the band to greener pastures. If that is the case, then, the future looks promising for Noel and his High Flying Birds; for now, though, the results of this still young journey are average.

Heartworms

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Album: Heartworms

Artist: The Shins

Released: March 10th, 2017

Highlights: Name for You, Mildenhall, Half a Million, Heartworms

Through internal ups and down, the firing of band members, and one hiatus from which it seemed like the group would never emerge, The Shins have always stood as a comfortable and safe net for the indie movement. Unlike acts that – purposely or inadvertently – eventually find a way to break into the mainstream, which is viewed by more extremist listeners as some sort of unforgivable act regardless of whether it is done with artistic integrity or not, The Shins have remained right below the line separating the two clashing musical universes. In a way, such a fact may as well be seen as miraculous, for not only does the band’s debut date from 2001 (the year in which indie was propelled into the stratosphere by The Strokes), but James Mercer – The Shins’ leader and songwriter – has more than a few times written tunes featuring hooks that were powerful enough to drill through the wall guarding the market’s mainstream.

It is hard to know exactly why the breakthrough never came; as Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo proves, quirkiness and awkwardness can win out when dressed up with genuine anger or irresistible pop sensibilities, and the wacky Mercer has a lot of the latter. Independently of the whys, though, and safely stuck in indie haven, where an eager audience will always be waiting for his next move, Mercer and The Shins get to their fifth record in “Heartworms”. By now, the world (or at least the small portion of the population that is listening) knows what to expect out of the band, and that is exactly what they get: light pop rock songs that lean towards the sweetest spectrum of folk music and that are decorated with Mercer’s seemingly endless stash of catchy melodies and lyrics that are smart without taking themselves too seriously.

What is different about “Heartworms” is how the folk rock elements are overtaken by modern electronic elements. These are not exactly new to The Shins: through their discography, sometimes to a lesser degree and other times to a much stronger level, synthetic sounds have always been present. “Heartworms”, however, pushes the boundaries to new heights. Although in some tracks they seem to be missing in action (“Painting a Hole”), Mercer’s acoustic strum and pleasant riffs can still be heard: they are in the entirety of “Name for You”; they guide “Mildenhall” and “The Fear”, the album’s purest folk tracks; and they make faint but key appearances in “Rubber Ballz”, “Half a Million”, “Dead Alive”, and “Heartworms”, where they are buried below keyboards. “Heartworms”, however, is undoubtedly characterized as a record where most of the musical hooks are not in the guitar, but in the colorful sounds that come from elsewhere.

The best aspect of “Heartworms” is that despite the shift in instrumentation, the album still sounds like a work by The Shins; the band’s soul – Mercer’s soul, that is – was not lost in translation. It is a far more psychedelic take on The Shins’ music, one that makes it seem like Mercer spent the time between “Port of Morrow” and “Heartworms” listening to a whole lot of acid-influenced rock like The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Axis: Bold as Love” or Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and then proceeded to spit out his own contemporary and less technically prolific version of that music. It works well, and even though there are a few moments when it sounds like some songs will succumb to their electronic excesses, Mercer always manages to rescue the tracks via his signature melodic sorcery.