Challengers

challengers

Album: Challengers

Artist: The New Pornographers

Released: August 21st, 2007

Highlights: My Rights Versus Yours, All the Old Showstoppers, Myriad Harbor, Adventures in Solitude

There have been uncountable albums in the history of music whose making is strongly associated with certain mind-altering substances of varying degrees of legality and strength. “Exile on Main St.” was created by The Rolling Stones while the house in which it was recorded received constant shipments of heroin; “Be Here Now” is the sound of Oasis swimming in a pool of cocaine; “On the Beach” is part of a revered trilogy of records by Neil Young that were put together while he indulged heavily in alcohol; “The Libertines” was miraculously assembled as one of the band’s two leaders, Pete Doherty, struggled with crack addiction; acid was involved in the construction of dozens of psychedelic works, including The Beatles’ “Revolver”; The Velvet Underground’s “White Light / White Heat” walks hand in hand with amphetamine; and although marijuana had certainly been a part of Bob Marley’s diet for quite a while before 1978, perhaps no album of his is as intimately tied to the leaf as “Kaya”.

When they debuted in 2000 with the release of “Mass Romantic”, though, The New Pornographers broke into new territory as far as substance abuse goes by making a record that was fueled by obscene amounts of coffee. Truth be told, there are neither oral nor written reports that this was the case, but it is hard to explain the highly energetic, bombastic, hyperactive, and wordy power pop forged by the band via any other drug. Yes, there are plenty of other narcotics that would be able to produce the wild euphoria responsible for tracks like “Lettter From An Occupant”, which are bursting with a silly type of energy that would be downright embarrassing if it were not being backed by such magnificent hooks and captivating confidence. But a coffee overdose seems like the most plausible explanation for the band’s sound.

The reason for that is simply that it would be very weird to picture Carl Newman and his bandmates walking through the shady streets Lou Reed described in The Velvet Underground classic “I’m Waiting For The Man” only to be harassed by the cops, meet a suspicious drug-dealer, and eventually score some heroin. As their music proves, The New Pornographers sure enjoy some sweet and loud rock and roll, but they do not look like the kind of people who would drown in the dangerous cliches of the genre’s lifestyle. Their power pop carries such a strong undercurrent of indie and geeky mannerisms – as if they were early Elvis Costello with the anger replaced by calculated corniness – that one is more likely to find them inside a library, with members sneaking up to the espresso machine a few dozen times during the day in order to get their blood pumping for the upcoming gig.

In “Challengers”, however, it feels like either the band has abandoned their coffee addiction or someone changed the espresso formula due to budget concerns and ended up diluting the grains in too much water, because the explosiveness so blatant in its predecessors is mostly gone. In a way, it is a move that makes sense, because by 2007 The New Pornographers had already put out three albums – including the rightfully highly praised “Twin Cinema” – that exploded relentlessly from beginning to end. As such, a turn towards calmer waters is a stylistic shift that came just at the right time for the band. Yet, as it is bound to happen when groups alter their music, fans of their early work might find that the record is a bit too tame for their liking.

With that change, what The New Pornographers do is veer towards heavier folk leanings. To a point, the genre had always been a part of their sound, much thanks to how some of the band’s members – especially Neko Case and Dan Bejar – strongly dabble into folk in their careers away from The New Pornographers. But in “Challengers”, rather than sticking quietly to the background, folk comes more prominently to the surface, going as far as leading the way in most of the tracks. Because of that constitution, “Challengers” as a whole makes comparisons between The New Pornographers and their peers in indie geeky bombast, The Decemberists, not seem so absurd, with the notable difference that while the latter focus on relatively serious and meaningful storytelling, the former goes for senseless wordplay and mindless power pop fun.

The result is that, in “Challengers”, songs take a little longer to cook and arrive on the irresistible accessible hooks that are the ultimate weapon of The New Pornographers. If up until “Twin Cinema” tracks would blow out of the gate fully formed and dragging listeners for the ride, those of “Challengers” require some willingness and attention on the part of fans. “My Rights Versus Yours” starts sparse and acoustic, only hitting a defining electric chug and its central melodic line more than one minute into the proceedings; “All the Old Showstoppers” is quicker to explode, but its quieter verse reaffirms the notion that The New Pornographers are operating at a new pace here; and as the most extreme proof of that fresh approach to songwriting, the excellent “Unguided” teases so much at the arrival of a cathartic moment that the tune goes on for six minutes, which is almost a progressive rock threshold for a band that usually operates in the three-to-four-minute standard.

To boot and further drive home its folky inspirations, “Challengers” dares to occasionally turn its back on fun hooks to bet on introspective beauty instead. The title track is an almost fully acoustic number where Neko Case is left alone to sing and shine; “Failsafe” borrows the tremolo effect from The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” to coin a song that flirts with the more dancy vein of dream pop; “Adventures in Solitude” is half call and response harmonization between Case and Newman, and half orchestrated catharsis; and “The Spirit of Giving” concludes by ascending into the heavens with prayer and preaching, as if it were a classic gospel song.

Sometimes it feels the highs of “Challengers” are neither as astounding nor as frequent as those of its three predecessors and, allied with its diminished immediacy, that characteristic may cause some to look at the record as a lesser entry in a marvelous artistic run. However, as the bouncy, energetic, fun, and silly “Myriad Harbor” and “Mutiny, I Promise You” prove, “Challengers” still finds The New Pornographers at the peak of their power pop prowess. Sure, none of the tracks here are likely to make listeners feel like they have been hit by a wild high-speed train of fun; ironically, the only one of the record’s tracks that breaks this rule and rides a wave of bombast from beginning to end, “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth”, is also the album’s weakest song. Yet, anyone that is patient enough to keep on waiting for the hooks to emerge will probably realize “Challengers” is a solid release by The New Pornographers that slightly shakes up their sound at the right moment.

five

Sweep It Into Space

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Album: Sweep It Into Space

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: April 23rd, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

154

154

Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.

three-half

Phrenology

phrenology

Album: Phrenology

Artist: The Roots

Released: November 26th, 2002

Highlights: Rock You, Thought @ Work, The Seed (2.0), Rhymes & Ammo

By the time “Phrenology” came out, The Roots were not strangers to eclecticism. This was, after all, a group that was at the forefront of the alternative hip hop movement. By playing instruments and, therefore, producing their beats and grooves in a more organic manner than most artists of the genre, the Philadelphia band was pushing boundaries from the get go, be it by centering their music on a loose, jazzy, and smoky atmosphere; by lyrically sidestepping some of the common themes of the rhythm; or by occasionally toying with the rap format itself, as their debut work, “Organix”, featured a twelve-minute song that is better described as a hip hop jam and pretty much all of their first records presented spoken-word tracks that dabbled in poetry and emotional storytelling.

Still, for anyone that was tracking their progress up to the release of “Phrenology”, its release must have come with quite a shock. Just three years before it, The Roots had succeeded in breaking through on the strength of their fourth work, the hip hop classic “Things Fall Apart”. And although, in it, the band had been able to retain all elements that made their music unique and noteworthy, one of the achievements of that record was exactly the trimming down of their indulgent tendencies, which often revealed what appeared to be a lack of focus, and the delivery of a musical package that albeit ambitious, conceptual, and experimental, also happened to feel like a concentrated effort that balanced those audacious flights with accessible hip hop. As such, “Phrenology”, one could expect, would be a continuation of that progression.

The Roots, however, are not an ordinary hip hop group. And, because of that, “Phrenology” is not the run-of-the-mill successor of a classic. Rather than building on what was laid down, the band – perhaps knowing that the only path to advance after such a marvelous work was to look elsewhere – destroys what was in place. Consequently, in a way, a parallel could easily be drawn between “Phrenology” and The Roots’ initial effort, “Organix”, because the two records feel like the start of something new: they venture into the unknown, tapping their way through a dark room with the knowledge that there is a valuable discovery there. The search is messy, plenty of objects are broken, a few stumbles occur, there are plenty of growing pains, and at times one wonders if the quest is even worth it; but, in the end, something of value is found, even if it might not exactly be what the band was looking for in the first place.

The difference between “Organix” and “Phrenology”, of course, lies in the nearly ten years that separate them; a time The Roots used to go from a promise in development to recognized artists. Due to that, not only is “Phrenology” far more satisfying, but it is also a more interesting and adventurous journey. And it is precisely in there that rests the shock of “Phrenology”, because rather than showcasing a dozen different ways of putting together a hip hop track with jazz flavors, which was the whole operating procedure of “Organix”, it is an album of variety so wild that it is a bit jarring. As besides carrying that signature The Roots combination, “Phrenology” dives into funk, neo soul, rock, punk, electronic music, and more.

Aside from “The Seed (2.0)”, a rock-rap fusion guided by an addictive riff that culminates in one sweetly melodic chorus courtesy of guest Cody ChesnuTT, there is absolutely nothing in “Phrenology” as catchy and immediate as many of the tracks from “Things Fall Apart”, like “The Next Movement”, “Dynamite!”, “Adrenaline!”, and – of course – “You Got Me”. Moreover, whether it is in the seven-minute sound collage that concludes the otherwise excellent “Water” or in the passable electronic hip hop experiment of “Thirsty!”, there are a few moments here that would have been better left on the cutting room floor; especially considering the whole album clocks in at seventy minutes. Because of that, “Phrenology” is one of those projects that demands that listeners work towards appreciation. With time, its unproductive or indulgent detours emerge as natural parts of the discovery process it documents so well and honestly; in addition, more importantly, true musical gems begin to pop up from where, initially, it seemed like no value could be extracted.

When it comes to the highlights of the package, “Rock You” may appear straightforward at first, but soon enough its threatening, banging, distorted beat turns into a heavy hook; meanwhile, both its lyrics and the way it unexpectedly segues into the twenty-second hardcore punk curveball of “!!!!!!!” are a perfect introduction to the wildness of “Phrenology”. Likewise, “Thought @ Work” might seem too messy on an initial listen, but truthfully it is yet another hard-hitting piece of hip hop; here, over a funky base featuring horns with enough swagger to drag even the shy onto the dace floor, the band unleashes a layer of noises that at times recalls the Beastie Boys in “Paul’s Boutique” while Black Thought raps viciously. Finally, stuck between the messy seven-minute “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”, which matches spoken-word vocals, electronic interludes, and instrumental breaks, and closer “Thirsty!”, “Rhymes and Ammo” can be overlooked, but besides having the most infectious chorus of the record, it also shows how powerful a rap track can be by using three basic elements: one solid drum beat, one frantic keyboard hook, and a fantastic vocalist.

Even if it lacks the immediacy of “Things Fall Apart”, “Phrenology”, in its all-encompassing and somewhat conflicting glory, does not leave poppier moments out of the equation. Both “Sacrifice” (featuring Nelly Furtado) and “Complexity” (featuring Jill Scott) use the traditional recipe – the one that launched “You Got Me” to success – of joining rapping verses delivered over relaxing grooves with sweeter choruses that are melodically sung by female vocalists. But like the inventive little creature it is, the album does not approach them as straightforwardly. In “Sacrifice”, the chorus is more of a duet, with the relatively flat – nearly spoken – melody trying to recreate an argument; it is an interesting concept, but the tune fails because the rapping lacks punch and Nelly’s falsetto delivery comes off as more annoying than appealing. “Complexity” is more successful in that proposal, as its unusual beat does not stop Jill from delivering a touching chorus and coming off as a better companion to Black Thought. On a similar tone, “Break You Off” is another utter success; its light guitar touches and the soothing R&B vocals of Musiq serve as thick hooks under the rapping, and the track has a wonderful, equally blissful, instrumental coda that extends the song past the seven-minute mark.

“Phrenology” is hard to define. It can be too complex and indulgent, as it is in “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”, but it can also be basic and alluring, like it manages to be when it builds “Rolling With Heat” by using just drums and processed horns and “Quills” by using drums, bass, and fuzzy synths. It can employ guitars for beautiful picking adornments, as in “Pussy Galore”; for good rock riffing, as in “The Seed (2.0)”; for lightning-fast punk, as in “!!!!!!!”; or throw them out alongside other instruments for some electronic trip, as in “Thirsty!”. It can be downright wonderful (“Thought @ Work”); good but flawed (“Water”); or passable (“Sacrifice”). It can be jazz, hip hop, rock, funk, neo soul, or poetry. It is confusing, it is delightful, it is overwhelming, and it is – most of all – the work of a band that tried to start from scratch after finally having brought their sound to full maturity. It is a bold move, and its successes and failures show that The Roots are ultimately too good, creative, and artistic to make the same album twice.

three

Return Of Saturn

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Album: Return of Saturn

Artist: No Doubt

Released: April 11th, 2000

Highlights: Ex-Girlfriend, Simple Kind of Life, Bathwater, New

For a while during the first half the 90s, it seemed like No Doubt was going to be that decade’s version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The comparison may seem absurd at first, but the parallels are actually plentiful. For starters, these were two Californian bands of mostly white youngsters who found the identity of their sound in the merging between rock and a rhythm of black origins: funk for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and ska for No Doubt. In addition, rather than approaching that mixture with seriousness, the bands thrived in employing a silly tone in their music. It is not, of course, that they lacked respect for the genres they were drinking from; much to the contrary, there was genuine admiration displayed in what they were doing. But youthful energy got the better of them and their output came off as a bit foolish.

To accentuate the comparison, in both cases the bands were able to make it out of that initial cocoon to showcase a more mature form. While the Red Hot Chili Peppers did so with their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, No Doubt broke through on the strength of “Tragic Kingdom”, their 1995 album. A key difference, however, was that if the former group found success with the same creative nucleus that had made four albums, the moment of revelation for No Doubt came when Eric Stefani, the brain of the band until that point, opted to get out of the picture, leaving the task of steering the ship to somebody else. And although, in a way, most of the members rose to the challenge and carried the load, it was his sister, Gwen, who stepped into the spotlight more firmly.

“Tragic Kingdom” had been a bit of an unexpected hit. A band that had, up to that point, published two commercially failed records and almost been dropped by their label as a consequence was trying to give it another go under the guidance of an inexperienced leader. However, not only did No Doubt perform the tracks as if their lives depended on it, because they did, but the band also matured and wrote with the same sense of urgency. The time to grow up, even if ever so slightly, had arrived, and the four members pulled through it, with an occasional hand or two provided by their former leader.

As the follow-up to that pivotal work, “Return of Saturn” does not really sound like it was made with blood, sweat, and tears. “Tragic Kingdom” was incredibly well written, but it was rough around the edges, showing a band on the verge of stardom; comparatively, “Return of Saturn” is much sleeker. This is by all means the creation of a band that had succeeded and, as a consequence, gained access to the recording company’s vault that paved the way to better production and greater aspirations. Sure, there was already plenty of pop to be found in “Tragic Kingdom”, as it exhibited the traditional brand of accessible, catchy, and energetic alternative rock that No Doubt would become known for. But “Return of Saturn” is a bigger pop statement. It is a work put together by people who had already made it and were thereby able to look at the process of creation like well-versed professionals.

It is a description that makes “Return of Saturn” sound like it was easy to birth, but evidence truthfully points in the opposite direction. A whopping five years actually separate the two albums: a dangerously large interval that had already killed the seemingly unstoppable momentum of other bands, like Elastica and The Stone Roses, and one in which No Doubt faced plenty of creative obstacles. As such, even if generally feeling like pop rock bliss composed by experts at the craft, “Return of Saturn” has undertones that indicate it is the product of a crisis, with the one that was being faced by Gwen Stefani being in most evidence; a natural consequence of the fact she was the leader of the group and the person responsible for writing lyrics.

The name of the album refers to the astrological phenomenon that is believed to hit those that near the age of 30, with the specified planet coming back to the point where it was on the person’s date of birth and that human having to face the responsibilities of adult life. For Stefani, who was around that age when much of the record was made, the crisis brought by Saturn seems to be one related to love and marriage. Throughout the work, almost not a tune goes by without her longing for what she sees as true love. Some songs, like “Simple Kind of Life” (an orchestrated power ballad with lo-fi treatment) or “Marry Me” (a passable loose ska jam), dive fully into that topic. Meanwhile, others deal with marginal feelings related to that subject; the stop-and-start punk of “Ex-Girlfriend”, for example, has Gwen wishing for the end of empty relationships. And a number of tunes approach matters that are part of the cauldron of emotions that boil up as one gets older: lusting for those that should be forgotten (“Bathwater”), envying youth (“Staring Problem”), and even mortality itself (“Six Feet Under”).

It is, fortunately and naturally, a far cry from the material of their first two albums. And even though the subjects are neither rebellious nor electrifying, not only are they true and well-handled, but No Doubt also does not forget the value energy has for their music. “Ex-Girlfriend”, “Six Feet Under”, and “New” flirt with the good kind of pop punk; “Artificial Sweetener” bangs in distortion aided by a keyboard that lends the track a new wave feeling; and “Bathwater” as well as “Staring Problem” recall the group’s early days by incorporating brass into the racket, even if the latter exaggerates on the silliness. “Return of Saturn”, however, is a record of ballads, and it is in them that its biggest weaknesses can be found, for although “Simple Kind of Life” more than proves the band can write a slower tune very well, that consistency is not kept throughout the tracks.

The first issue comes in the album’s sequencing itself, as the rockers are more prominently present on the first half while the ballads appear mostly on the second; given “Return of Saturn” has one hour of music, this imbalance causes it to drag towards the end. Secondly, nearly all of the slower songs follow the same pattern: jangled guitars or muffled punk riffs on calmer verses with loud emotional explosions on the choruses. It occasionally works, as it does in “Too Late”, and the melodies are generally good, but the fact the best two ballads here (“Simple Kind of Life” and “Magic’s in the Makeup”) do not use that formula is quite revealing of how a leaner or perhaps more varied approach to them would have done “Return of Saturn” some good. Due to these misses and a set of energetic tracks that show some punctual inconsistencies, “Return of Saturn” is not quite as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, its strength cannot be denied, and No Doubt’s first record after finally breaking through is an enjoyable portrayal of how success does not make one immune to problems: be them creative or personal.

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Song Machine Season One

Album: Song Machine Season One

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: October 20th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Will Be Alright In The End

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Album: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Artist: Weezer

Released: October 7th, 2014

Highlights: Eulogy for a Rock Band, The British Are Coming, Da Vinci, Cleopatra

From the early days of their career, it was pretty clear that Weezer – more specifically their leader – had one incredibly hard time adjusting to the pressures, trappings, and expectations that come with being a popular rock band. Rivers Cuomo’s demeanor is quiet, introspective, nerdy, and lacking much self-esteem, and all these traits, especially when combined, forge a personality that is not quite equipped to deal with the spotlight; at least not without first going through a whole lot of growing pains. As such, much of the group’s career can be read as a clumsily performed balancing act between two forces: the need to deliver material that the fans will appreciate, a pull maximized by Cuomo’s low confidence; and the artist’s absolutely natural urge to give air to what he feels, which – in the case of Rivers – includes a good amount of awkwardly expressed sentimentality.

It has always been an odd road. Along it, advances and retreats have been common from both parts. “Pinkerton”, Weezer’s second work, was famously dismissed upon release only to slowly rise to the status of masterpiece over the years, with many changing their perception regarding the album. Similarly, the two records that followed it, “Green Album” and “Maladroit”, were initially treated warmly; however, as the band produced one dull shot at mass appeal (“Make Believe”) and two silly attempts to be hip (“Red Album” and “Raditude”), the pair began to be analyzed as part of the band’s classic period, exposing a genuine rock sound that fans claimed to miss and that Weezer – very much aware of those complaints – tried, but not quite succeeded, to revive in “Hurley”.

If there has been one point in this tortuous post-Maladroit journey in which the two sides of the struggle have been satisfied, with Weezer putting together the album that they wanted whilst pleasing folks who longed for the return of their classic sound, then it is “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. Surely, as an artistic statement, its follow-up, “White Album”, is stronger, since it feels like a revitalizing step forward rather than a return to familiar grounds. But “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is equally alluring not only because it is a fun listen, but also due to the fact it is a delightful rarity in music: a conscious and successful move by an older band to go back to sounding like they did in their glory days.

Here, it all begins with producer Rick Ocasek. The leader of The Cars, and master of constructing immortal tracks that matched the dangerous attitude of rock with the accessibility of pop, had already lent his talent to two of Weezer’s best works: their untouchable debut and their solid third release. His presence behind the board, therefore, points to the music the boys were aiming to create. And, by all means, they hit it right on target. Like The Cars did in their heyday, Weezer rose to stardom via the combination of rock and pop. But where Ocasek’s group drank from the keyboard gloss of the era, Weezer borrowed their sweetness from power pop as well as from The Beach Boys while getting their heaviness from hard rock, punk, and even the grunge that dominated the scene at the time they got their start. Consequently, like both the “Blue Album” and the “Green Album”, “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is sustained by two elements: a stream of impossibly catchy melodies and a constant bed of guitars that is relentless like those of the Ramones, heavy like those of Kiss, and towering like those of The Smashing Pumpkins.

The return to the band’s roots as well as the ever-existing tug of war between Weezer and its fans are actually acknowledged by Cuomo himself in some of the lyrics, a move that brings thematic freshness to “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. In the first single, “Back to the Shack”, not only does he recognize he might have alienated his audience with the musical detours he took in the years that preceded the record, but he also expresses concern over it, declaring Weezer will try to recapture the magic that was lost. As expected, the album also touches on Rivers’ usual topics of preference, including girls and his troubled relationship with his father, but even these tired matters seem to be tackled more charmingly this time around. When it comes to relationships, for example, “Da Vinci” is a likable, funny, and geeky love song, with the singer saying the subject of his affection could be neither captured by the Italian genius nor explained by Stephen Hawking; at the same time, in relation to his progenitor, “Foolish Father” turns the issue on its head when Rivers expresses fear that his daughter might see his own flaws down the line.

The album is not a smooth journey of power pop goodness all the way through. “Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Back to the Shack”, curiously the first two songs, are a tad average. Although they have plenty of guitar punch, with the second recalling the heavy metal flair of “Maladroit”, their melodies are mundane and their hooks feel forced. The opener, in particular, is further damaged by how in it – as its title indicates – Rivers falls victim to his greatest enemy, his self-pity, lamenting the fact he has been abandoned by his girl, his father, and his audience. Fortunately, as soon as “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” reaches its third cut (“Eulogy for a Rock Band”) and the spectacular riff it carries, the record kicks into a sequence of remarkable tunes that the band had not coined in well over a decade.

It is all there. Like it happened in the “Green Album”, the thick distorted wall of guitars joins the tracks at the hip, as if they were part of the same whole. Therefore, it is up to the elements buried in the noise – the searing lead guitar lines, the melodic work, the cutting solos, and the sunny backing vocals – to set them apart. And they do it quite well. “Lonely Girl” bursts out of the gate as immediately and loudly as “Buddy Holly”. “I’ve Had It Up to Here” has the band locking on a dancy groove and Rivers delivering a surprising falsetto. Covering the American Revolutionary War, “The British Are Coming” is the best song Weezer has produced in a while, making one wish Cuomo would take on historical themes more often. “Da Vinci” has verses built on playful whistling and acoustic picking that recall “El Scorcho”. “Go Away” is a sweet duet with Bethany Cosentino that mirrors the slower moments of the group’s classic era. “Cleopatra” pairs up unplugged guitars with electric ones in the same way as “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”. And “Foolish Father” builds to a choir cathartically singing the album’s title over some hard rock pounding.

“Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is a triumph. And it is, thereby, suiting that it ends on what feels like a victory lap: a three-part suite that contains one song, “Anonymous”, book-ended by two loose and fun instrumental segments. Much like “The End”, which basically closed out The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”, it feels like a well-deserved celebration by a group that has just lifted a huge burden off its shoulders. But where the Fab Four were saying farewell to a career of musical wonder, Weezer is partying for a much simpler reason: getting back on track. On the great scope of musical history, the two occasions hardly compare; however, to Cuomo, to his bandmates, and to their fans, the moment will certainly feel just as big, because not only does “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” create a – temporary – peace treaty between the factions, but it also proves that Weezer is still capable of delivering good music, even if much of their output following “Maladroit” says otherwise.

Frances The Mute

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Album: Frances the Mute

Artist: The Mars Volta

Released: March 1st, 2005

Highlights: Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus, The Widow, Cassandra Gemini

The nature of “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the debut album by The Mars Volta, comes as a rather nice surprise when the context that surrounded rock music at the turn of the century is taken into account. While the bands that were supposedly revitalizing the genre and presenting it to a new audience sourced much of their inspiration from a back-to-basics approach, like The Strokes and The White Stripes, to name a few, the 2003 record constructed by the Texan sextet was anything but simple. Its long multi-phased tunes, conceptual grandeur, and jazz looseness – in fact – made the work land on one of the rhythm’s most inherently complex variations: progressive rock. And true to the style’s forward-looking name and boundary-pushing heart, the band repackaged it originally with a layer of Latin influences that were true to their heritage as well as a shell of volume, speed, and modern sound manipulation techniques that were extracted from various musical movements that unfolded after the genre’s peak in the 1970s.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies, and perhaps partially due to them, “De-Loused in the Comatorium” was a commercial and critical hit. And so, for its sequel, “Frances the Mute”, the band opted to keep the course to see what else they could pull off within the same scope. Consequently, much like the debut, “Frances the Mute” gravitates around a concept; one that, once again, revolves around the group’s deceased sound technician, Jeremy Ward. While carrying out repossession orders, he allegedly found, in the backseat of a car, a diary containing the memories of an adopted man’s search for his real parents. Noticing he had a lot in common with the guy, Jeremy kept the diary, and the material in it would eventually inspire his bandmates’ development of the thematic chain that keeps the tracks of “Frances the Mute” together.

People mentioned in the book had their names used for the characters that appear in the plot as well as for the songs’ titles themselves. And as the album rolls on, the protagonist – Vismund – gets ever closer to the truth, with each person that shows up revealing extra bits of information. Cohesiveness aside, it is worthy to point out that “Frances the Mute” suffers from the same problem that held back “De-Loused in the Comatorium”; that is, its lyrics are so cryptic that it is unlikely listeners would figure out what the record is talking about if its creators had not revealed it. Truth be told, this sophomore effort is, to a degree, clearer than the prior release, as one can pin down references to a disturbing tale that involves Vismund’s mother, a rape, one or more priests, a murder, a child deformed whether as a result of the violence of its birth or as an outcome of the natural biological roulette, and an attempt by the woman’s sister and mother to speak out against the crime.

The stream of dumbfounding verses is not as extreme as the one seen in “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, which housed linguistic oddities such as “Transient jet lag / Ecto mimed bison / This is the haunt of roulette dares / Ruse of metacarpi”. Therefore, the feeling that the writing is trying so hard to be smart that the only target it is hitting is that of silliness is not so constant. Yet, in spite of clear evolution, lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala still struggles to make words sound good side by side, as seen in “My nails peel back / When the taxidermist ruined / Goose stepped the freckling impatience”. His tendency to opt for flowery vocabulary has two negative consequences: firstly, it invariably implodes the fluidity of the lines, which is a quality one would expect to gain from employing odd words; secondly, it punctually makes the verses so indecipherable that their meaning becomes lost and the plot’s impact is diminished.

The joy of listening to The Mars Volta, however, mostly stems from the band’s daring and inventive instrumentation. On that front, a few complaints can be made, since “Frances the Mute” features some electronic interludes that do not build interesting ideas and, in comparison to “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the record does not create spectacular melodic moments with the same consistency. Nevertheless, most of what its five tracks and seventy-six minutes offer is satisfying. As opener “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus” evidences, the group is still heavily toying with dynamics. Starting with a quiet acoustic intro of guitar and voice, it does not take more than one minute for the band to explode out of the gate with ferocity, as the rhythm section of Jon Theodore and Juan Alderete de la Peña lock onto an impossibly fast groove adorned by the hyperactive guitar of Omar Rodríguez-López and the high-pitched voice of Cedric. As the tune evolves, though, the band stops for a calm and seemingly improvised instrumental break, rises back up to an orchestra-backed apex, reaches a coda where the song implodes, and finally makes the piece evaporate into a mass of electronic beeps.

Out of the other four cuts, two follow a similar pattern of loudness and quietness. “L’Via L’Viaquez”, narrating the protagonist’s encounter with his aunt, plays with the band’s mixture of American and Hispanic heritage, possibly ranking as the most obvious example in the group’s discography of that blend. Its fierce hard rock verses are sung in Spanish; contrarily, its choruses, which turn down the volume to fall into the sway of Caribbean percussion and piano, are written in English. Meanwhile, closer “Cassandra Gemini” is – in all of its thirty-two-minute glory – a giant among other stars of progressive rock. Carrying the record’s best chorus, whose lyrics nicely encapsulate the journey of Vismund, it feels massive, and as it goes through its multiple phases, it makes good use of an orchestra, a brass section, electronic elements, and – of course – a whole lot of fast hard rock madness to barely let listeners breathe.

Differing from these tracks, the pair of “The Widow” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” show other, more accessible, facets of The Mars Volta. Rightfully chosen as the first single, the former is – surprisingly – sheer pop rock goodness: clocking in at three minutes, when its dull electronic outro is discounted, it is a ballad with acoustic picking in its verses, a beautiful melodic explosion in its chorus, and a blistering guitar solo. In turn, the latter, is slow mass of echoing guitars, noises, and horns that seems to be floating in outer space, threatening to come back to the ground in its dramatic brass-infused chorus, and building to a climatic final part.

Even with its reduced, but not totally eliminated, lyrical problems, “Frances the Mute” winds up not being as enjoyable as “De-Loused in the Comatorium”. From a musical perspective, it is not as significant of a revelation as that record, regardless of its stronger Latin roots and its duo of calmer tracks. Furthermore, though great, its heavier, fast-paced, and more expansive tunes – which are, in the end, the heart and soul of the band – for the most part do not exhibit the major hooks boasted by nearly all the songs from its predecessor. Still, the album remains as further proof that, in the peak of their powers, The Mars Volta were an excellent progressive rock act; one that, to a degree, showed the trappings of the genre, but that – at the same time – was good enough to give a generation without many contemporary examples of the style their own musically adventurous idols to admire.

Gigaton

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Album: Gigaton

Artist: Pearl Jam

Released: March 27th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who

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Album: Who

Artist: The Who

Released: December 6th, 2019

Highlights: All This Music Must Fade, Ball and Chain, Hero Ground Zero, Street Song, Break the News

It may be jarring to some, but fans of The Who – particularly those who are familiar with Pete Townshend’s personality and its unique blend of insecurity, arrogance, and dangerously honest rhetoric – will not be too surprised when they realize the band’s guitar player and songwriter opens the group’s twelfth album by penning a review of his own. Sung by Roger Daltrey, the first verses of “All This Music Must Fade” claim that “I don’t care / I know you’re gonna hate this song / And that’s fair / We never really got along / It’s not new, not diverse / It won’t light up your parade / It’s just simple verse”. It is a great, but obvious, defense for a man who – well into his seventies – knows that any music he produces at this point will be compared unfavorably to his classics of the past; and it is also a perfect description of what many people will feel regarding “Who”. Yet, the statement is not entirely accurate.

Townshend is correct when he says that the batch of eleven original tunes in the album is not new, diverse, or structurally challenging. Likewise, it does not take the knowledge of a music business insider to confidently state that the tracks of a The Who record released in 2019 will not light up any parades. He is probably lying, though, when he says he does not care. As much as the public’s perception of “Who” will not do much to affect the life a multimillionaire rock star, Townshend has always – accidentally – let the world know he is very much worried about the acknowledgement of his genius, and that is bound not to change. Finally, his immediate disparaging of “All This Music Must Fade” is downright wrong: it is a fantastic tune, one that carries his band’s signature sound whilst being contemporary enough to make it with any kind of crowd.

Although the quality of the songs oscillates as “Who” moves along, that is a description that could easily apply to the work as a whole. In a way, the record is a bit of a miracle; after all, since the band’s last good original product, 1978’s “Who Are You”, more than four decades have passed, and during that period the group was far from productive, releasing two mediocre LPs (“Face Dances” and “It’s Hard”) during the 80s that failed to reconstruct the band following the death of legendary drummer Keith Moon and publishing “Endless Wire” in 2006, a bloated and conceptual piece that diluted some very good musical moments amidst an overwhelming amount of lackluster cuts. However, looking at “Who” from another perspective reveals that its relative success makes sense.

Townshend has always been an excellent songwriter, and not only does “Who” come on the heels of a worldwide tour whose quality proved that, up on a stage, the current incarnation of The Who could still deliver the goods, the album also benefits from the fact it holds no frills at all. “Who” is the result of a well-oiled machine and one of the British Invasion’s brightest composers walking into a studio, doing what they know best, and putting the whole process on a tape. Without a storyline or an overarching message for him to get lost in, and with a very good band operating at high capacity, Townshend succeeds in assembling an enjoyable and straightforward rock album, an artifact that many doubted he was still capable of creating.

As it is the norm with The Who, the operation was not as simple as it looks. Townshend and Daltrey, who have repeatedly stated over the years they were never friends, recorded their parts separately and by using different producers. Nonetheless, it all comes together. Despite the lack of a unified theme, “Who” could be seen as some sort of older brother to “The Who by Numbers”, for while in the latter Townshend’s personal lyrics revealed that a rock and roll hero had come crashing into a mundane midlife crisis (showing such dreaded phase is an inevitability even to those who seem immortal), the former has numerous tracks that deal with old age. Starting with “All This Music Must Fade”, in which the songwriter embraces the fact that everyone eventually becomes irrelevant, regardless of whether they have written their names in the history books or not, the album features several moments when Townshend confronts his wrinkles, going into digressions about mortality, reincarnation, wisdom, and The Who’s own history.

It is a recipe that could be dangerous for a rock album, for the genre was never really favorable to the ramblings of older folks; “The Who by Numbers” itself was – despite its greatness – warmly received in large part because of its tendency to deal with thoughts that appear as the years accumulate. The theme, though, is much safer this time around: Townshend knows most of those who are still listening to him are old as well and, therefore, can relate; furthermore, still showing sings that – at heart – he remains a rebellious punk, he makes it clear he remains ready to fight. In “Rockin’ in Rage”, he mockingly and cleverly summarizes that conflict in the chorus when he says “I’m rockin’ in rage, forward and back / My bones is engaged / They splinter and crack”.

Appropriately, the music of “Who” also exhibits that dichotomy. It is punctually angry and occasionally contemplative. “Ball and Chain”, for instance, is a tense and quietly furious blues track where Townshend gets political, attacking the injustices of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; “Beads on One String” is a ballad showered by lush synthesizers that seems to simultaneously comment on two kinds of war, those that are personal and those that are collective; “Break the News”, written by Simon Townshend, is a gorgeous acoustic stomp; “Street Song” could be the steady soundtrack to a march or a protest; “Hero Ground Zero” is – like the best tunes out of “Tommy”, “Who’s Next”, and “Quadrophenia” – simple but able to muster a gigantic size thanks to a layered arrangement that includes electronic elements and an orchestra; and “I’ll Be Back” is the classic Townshend jab at folk, being honest and filled with personal anguish.

“Who” fails to reach for full excellence due to a few dull moments: “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” starts out promising but could have used a better chorus; “Detour” is playful and bouncy, relating to the band’s R&B origins, but ultimately uninspired; and both “I’ll Be Back” and “She Rocked My World” click as intimate statements but do not nail it as songs. However, there is no denying it is a worthy addition to The Who’s canon: it features tasteful production; it has Townshend being particularly inspired in his signature usage of synthesizers, which invariably enhance the tunes quite a bit; it boasts fantastic vocal performances by Roger Daltrey, whose voice has aged unbelievably well; and it simply contains a lot of notable songs. In the end, the self-deprecating statement that opens the album is nothing but a bluff; Townshend knows that “Who” is good, and most that listen to the album without questioning whether The Who should be making music as of 2019 (a matter that only truly concerns the members of the band and their will) are likely to realize it.