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

Painful

painful

Album: Painful

Artist: Yo La Tengo

Released: October 5th, 1993

Highlights: Big Day Coming, Double Dare, Nowhere Near, A Worrying Thing

Saying that, by 1993, Yo La Tengo had yet to release anything of significance would be a rather misguided statement. Up to that point, the New Jersey indie rockers had put out a wide assortment of marvelous tunes that embraced quite a few styles: there was the unsung jangle pop anthem “The Cone of Silence”; the surprisingly introspective union of gentle electric strums and relentless noise heard in “Barnaby, Hardly Working”; the immaculate folk harmonies of the gorgeous “Alyda”; the half country-like instrumental and half loud shoegaze lethargy that made up “Detouring America With Horns”; the pop rock bliss of “Upside-Down”; the blistering guitar fury of the nine-minute “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss”; and countless others. Nevertheless, despite all that excellence, Yo La Tengo certainly did not feel like a fully-formed group.

The reason for that was simple: almost a decade and five albums into their career, the band did not have a defining full-length release. There were cases when still budding songwriting abilities produced records that were part greatness and part filler, with the debut “Ride the Tiger” being the most blatant example of that problem; there were moments when musical concepts were not thoroughly developed to the point of yielding works that felt complete; there was an album of decent country covers; and there was plenty of stylistic soul-searching, since Yo La Tengo was such a weird confluence of varied musical inspirations that sometimes one could tell the band had trouble either sticking to one road or finding a middle ground between their influences that the trio could claim as its own.

Then came 1993 and, with it, the release of “Painful”. In a way, it was a continuation of the evolution that had been displayed by its predecessor, “May I Sing With Me”, which had showcased Yo La Tengo was at last ready to bring their music to full maturity in a work that felt complete. However, “Painful” had not only a greater degree of musical cohesiveness, but also a firmer grasp on songwriting goodness and a mightier dose of the key element that had been eluding the band for so long: focus. And with those tools in hand, Yo La Tengo succeeded in delivering their first truly essential album; the one in which they proved the genre-hopping of their past had given way to a very defined identity.

The fact “Painful” has focus and stylistic consistency does not mean, however, Yo La Tengo abandoned their adventurous eclecticism before heading into the studio; if they had done so, they would have also lost a major part of their personality. Consequently, this is an album that has crispy guitar jangle, touching folk picking, country harmonization, furious noise that flirts with the wilder moments of The Velvet Underground, hazy introspection that borders on dream pop, and guitar walls that nod to shoegaze. These are ingredients so disjointed that it is hard to conceive how a band could pull them into a unified whole; it would be much easier, in fact, to see them coming together to form a sprawling delightful mess that could rate as the “Exile on Main St.” of the 1990s. But, quite contrarily, Yo La Tengo fuses these pieces into forty-eight minutes that feel more like an alternative rock suite than a collection of disconnected ideas.

What “Painful” ultimately proves is that Yo La Tengo is a band that follows no rules. They can write and execute small tracks that feel like interludes, regularly sized songs, or more sprawling tunes whose length would be daunting to average listeners. Although somebody who is used to the more adventurous corners of rock music would expect the big cuts to be the ones where the band goes wild in their noisy trips while the shorter tunes remain the most accessible, that is simply not the case, because Yo La Tengo is a band that is constantly pushing against one or more predefined standards, and settling into any of those patterns would be giving up that attitude almost completely. And so, through the entirety of “Painful”, the band is seen succeeding in subverting concepts and forging their unmistakable brand of indie rock.

On the shorter side and qualifying as the two tracks of the album that most clearly display the shoegaze influences of Yo La Tengo, “From a Motel 6” and “Double Dare” turn tall screaming guitar riffs into their choruses and main hooks, making those loud moments nicely contrast with the soothing vocals of their verses. Almost equally concise, clocking in at slightly less than five minutes, “Sudden Organ” is another excellent racket, but one built on a distinctive and nigh tribal drum pattern, a nasty guitar that delivers a notable low hum, and – as the title implies – an organ so wild that comparisons to The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” are not absurd. At the same time, though, the band also uses brevity to put out a trio of calmer tunes: the mesmerizing interlude of “Superstar-Watcher”; the whispered and only suggested beautiful melody that hides in “A Worrying Thing”; and the breathtaking “The Whole of the Law”, which transforms the original by power pop band The Only Ones from a drunk country tune into a song where a gently strummed guitar and punctual percussive touches are all that accompany Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley as they stunningly harmonize.

When it comes to the lengthier numbers, “Painful” confirms an ability that had already been insinuated by the band’s previous releases: their knack for excellently extending tunes that would normally have no business being so long. Opener “Big Day Coming” boils down to an organ and background guitar feedback that stay steady whilst Kaplan slowly delivers a trio of stanzas; it is simple, but the beauty it generates is so grand its seven minutes breeze by. “Nowhere Near” is similarly stripped down, with the key difference that it eventually disintegrates into noise during its second half; yet, its six minutes could loop forever that nobody would wish for the end of the dream-like state produced by the instrumentation and Georgia’s gentle vocals. “I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long” has Kaplan repeating the title for nearly a whole five minutes, but behind him such a mass of noise that could escape at any moment builds so intensely one cannot help being anything but gripped. And closer “I Heard You Looking” is a seven-minute instrumental centering on a riff any guitar amateur could pull off, but the way the band dynamically sustains it for so long is sheer talent and magic.

What is most impressive about “Painful” is that even though it is invariably pushing boundaries to form its own take on alternative rock, the record never puts a wrong foot forward. Although some of its song lengths might indicate that is the case, the wild adventurous spirit of Yo La Tengo never goes too far here. “Painful” is far from being an accessible album that can please anyone with a love for alternative rock of the early 1990s because be it melodically or instrumentally, Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew are always throwing curveballs that can be slightly hard to swallow for some even if they happen to appreciate some of the band’s folk and country influences, which can still be heard to a point. Yet, the truth is there is not a single tune in its tracklist that fails to deliver some sort of musical gem, be it an irresistible strum, a gripping instrumental passage, a moving melody, or all of those items combined. And with so much to offer, it is no wonder this first instance of greatness by these indie legends rightfully stands among their best works.

five

Blue Weekend

blue_weekend

Album: Blue Weekend

Artist: Wolf Alice

Released: June 4th, 2021

Highlights: Delicious Things, Lipstick on the Glass, Play the Greatest Hits, The Last Man on Earth

While the indie class of the 2000s was interested in either reviving garage rock ethos or exploring the value of bombastic compositions, that of the 2010s had its eyes firmly set on the introspection of dream pop. Be it innocently playful or overwhelmingly depressive, the independent scene – the apparent final bastion of rock music – spent most of that decade producing artists who loved gentle guitars, whispery vocals, as well as intimate songwriting. At times, that inspiration veered towards an earthly folk sound, giving birth to more organic acts like Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers; on other occasions, though, the tunes floated straight to the ethereal realm inaugurated by the Cocteau Twins, and drifting in the vastness of that space one could find bands such as The xx and Daughter.

Coming from London and putting out their full-length debut right in the middle of the dreamy 2010s, Wolf Alice certainly belongs to that second group. Yes, singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell may have started the act as an acoustic duo, but proving that in the minds of her generation folk music is not too distant from dream pop, the project began gaining members and shape until it slowly transitioned into a more ethereal atmosphere by the time of “Blush”, their 2013 EP. Yet, even then, there clear signs Wolf Alice was looking to explore far more than the gloomy quietness that their indie peers were keen on tackling; Ellie and the boys also wanted a piece of the furious guitar walls frequently exhibited by My Bloody Valentine, and they were more than willing to pack the two dream pop factions into the same work.

There is plenty of criticism that can be directed at “Blue Weekend”, the band’s third album. For starters, from a purely artistic standpoint, it showcases no significant evolution in relation to its predecessors; starting with “Blush”, Wolf Alice was quick to announce what they wanted and, eight years later, they are still doing it, because although “Blue Weekend” has the dream pop calmness often seen in the indies of the 2010s, it also contains an untamed guitar fury that is usually forgotten by members of that scene. Moreover, a complaint can also be aimed at the excessively derivative nature of the band’s music, which by closely embracing the shoegaze movement in its two key facets – the noisy loudness of My Bloody Valentine and the reverb-laden melodic beauty of Slowdive – ends up not finding the same level of originality encountered by other bands that are part of its class.

Certainly, there is truth to these points. However, they are not strong enough to disqualify “Blue Weekend”. Stylistically, it might not be very different from the two records that came before it, but it is not totally stale because it brings the Wolf Alice sound to its peak. And sure, the transformation it applies to its inspirations might not be enough to let the band claim the music as its own; this is by no means comparable to what fellow indies The White Stripes did when they brought blues to the garage or, to pick a more contemporary example, to what Phoebe Bridgers executes when she uses her love for Elliott Smith to bring singer-songwriter folk sadness to a new generation. Still, ultimately, all music is derivative in one way or another, and even if Wolf Alice might cross the line that makes one say similarities are just too big to ignore, it is undeniable that the emulation that they perform is not just well done, but also without parallel in the scene in which they were born.

Nevertheless, if a listener wants to look past the fact “Blue Weekend” is an excellent recreation of the sound of major shoegaze acts and visualize other qualities, they will most likely be able to do so. The first greatly positive trait is how the album blatantly pulls from a myriad of influences and consolidates those sources under the same cohesive musical umbrella. The muffled guitar of opener “The Beach” coupled with a melody that slowly gains steam makes it seem that, like a tune from a 2000s indie band that dabbles in bombast, such as Arcade Fire, the track will eventually explode into catharsis. The waves of reverb-infused guitars in “Delicious Things” recall Slowdive. The high-pitched vocals of “Lipstick on the Glass” and the track’s floaty aura nod to the Cocteau Twins. “Smile” has verses with so much nasty noise that it flirts with industrial music. “Safe from Heartbreak” has a heavy reliance on acoustic picking, which makes it the album’s most obviously folky moment. “How Can I Make It Ok?” toys with the electronic influences of shoegaze. And any time the guitars kick into overdrive to construct impenetrable walls of distortion, it is impossible not to think of My Bloody Valentine or Ride.

The second major strength of “Blue Weekend” is simply how melodically gorgeous it is. Always keen on building moving soundscapes, the dream pop genre has always heavily relied on channeling beauty through ethereal instrumentation and vocal work, and when it comes to the latter, Ellie Rowsell undoubtedly delivers. This is not the type of shoegaze which tries to hide uninspired melodies behind astounding walls of sound. That description may apply to “Feeling Myself”, which is the sole point of the album where the vocals meander; however, everywhere else, whether she is betting on full-fledged choruses (“Delicious Things”), recurring phrases that serve as hooks (“How Can I Make It Ok?”), or a more free-flowing structure that slowly rises to splendor (“The Last Man on Earth”), Ellie is constantly enchanting.

More than summoning beauty like never before, “Blue Weekend” also sees Wolf Alice take its other major facet (the noise-making) to its most fully realized state. Given at least half of the tracks eventually launch into guitar cacophony, examples of the proficiency with which the band rocks out are abundant, but the finest and most definitive one is unquestionably “Play the Greatest Hits”. Following a pattern established on the previous two albums, the track plays the role of the only cut in the work where the group goes loud and fast from the beginning to the end; and breaking the tradition, rather than being the dullest moment on the record, it is actually a strong contender for being the best one. Ellie’s voice still breaks into a somewhat silly childish wail when she chooses to scream, but the tune’s hook is so massive and the noise is so fierce that the punk attitude that seemed unauthentic in songs of the type in the past comes off as absolutely genuine.

“Blue Weekend” may not be revolutionary and it may emulate its sources with a proximity that is too close for comfort. Nonetheless, its power and quality are simply undeniable. From the get go, Wolf Alice always stood out among a sea of bands made up of dream pop fans on account of its choice to aim for shoegaze grandeur instead of going for quiet introspection with modern flavors. It was a move that worked well to isolate the group, but it was also a choice that led them to imitate sounds that had already been explored thoroughly in the early 1990s, making the whole experiment come with a large question mark attached to its value. With “Blue Weekend”, though, these doubts and questions can be put aside, because, sure, the album does not push the genre to new places; however, it shows Wolf Alice can put out a work that is a worthy addition to the hall of great shoegaze records.

five

Path Of Wellness

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Album: Path of Wellness

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: June 11th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

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

Neon Bible

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Album: Neon Bible

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: March 5th, 2007

Highlights: Black Mirror, Intervention, Antichrist Television Blues, No Cars Go

“Neon Bible” is the second album released by Arcade Fire. And if there is a word that unites it with its predecessor, “Funeral”, it has got to be the adjective apocalyptic. As perhaps the most influential and recognized members of a movement that brought, to indie rock, many of the feel-good hippie vibes that had seemingly died with the sixties, it may surprise outsiders to notice there is so much doom and gloom in the material of the band. But perhaps taking a good look around and dreading the possibility the world is going down the drain soon is very much something to be expected out of a group of people who try to view reality through lenses that might be a bit too loaded with positivity for their own good. And perhaps as proof of that, “Neon Bible” packs more than enough despondency to intrigue skeptics and pessimists who are naturally repelled by the colorful peace, love, and hope ethos of a band like Arcade Fire.

The apocalypse of “Neon Bible”, however, is quite different from the one portrayed in “Funeral”. In their debut, affected by the loss of numerous relatives, Win Butler and his crew envisioned a dark world in which the adults were dead while the kids were left to fend off for themselves in the midst of a cold dystopia. And when not busy with fiction that hit quite close to home, the band approached the tales and hardships that inspired the disturbing images of its core suite, ultimately fearing that with nobody else left to protect them, the weight of responsibilities and of a reality full of lies would perhaps be more than what they could carry.

In spite of its look at a few worldly matters, “Funeral” was mostly a domestic affair: an album concerning the battles and pain that occur within the walls of a house or a neighborhood. “Neon Bible” climbs over those to get a more general glimpse at the horizon, and – to nobody’s surprise – what it finds is not exactly comforting. In fact, it actually makes it all seem even more miserable, since the world outside is not going to help any wounds heal; if anything, it will make the state of affairs even worse given that when domestic life is in disarray, the struggles away from home can become even bigger than they already are. Not accidentally, then, the monument to sorrow that “Neon Bible” builds feels bigger than the one constructed by “Funeral”: in the debut, it was a broken house; here, it is a Gothic cathedral of massive stature.

The fact “Neon Bible” brings forth images of grand religious architecture is not accidental. As the record’s name implies, religion is the central theme here. Yet, the subject is not approached in a very broad sense. Win Butler seems to have his eyes set on the power of televangelists; people he perceives as hypocritical and whose popularity may be a symptom of an illness that afflicts society. In a way, some might look at “Neon Bible” as a sequel of sorts to “Funeral”, one in which the abandoned and hopeless kids of the first album look for solace in the word of God as preached by television personalities. But, naturally, the work is a bit more global than that, since it seems to understand that absolutely everyone has the type mental weaknesses that those figureheads explore for their own gain.

The title “Neon Bible” is in itself a source of mockery and fear for the narrator. Alluding to the fiery and often exaggerated religious claims made by televangelists, who turn a scared book into entertainment business, he ridicules the constant threats that viewers are going to hell for relatively inconsequential sins; at the same time, at the back of his mind, there is this little concern that if what is being said is true, he and pretty much everybody else are doomed. As the album goes on, he analyzes the hypnotic mind-controlling power of television (“Black Mirror”); looks at people whose only solace in life comes from religion and desperately attempts to wake them up (“Intervention”); tries not to be manipulated by a world of propaganda (“Ocean of Noise”); goes biblical and uses a parable to talk about the inevitability of sin (“The Well and the Lighthouse”); dives into the power-hungry psyche of a televangelist and his exploration of his daughter for financial gain (“Antichrist Television Blues”); fights to defend the little parts of his life that are still free of control and consumerism (“Windowsill”); and searches for a way to escape (“Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go”).

“Neon Bible” is clearly an album at war with mass media, and it depicts that struggle with a huge sound. Truth be told, despite of its domestic nature, “Funeral” already felt pretty large, especially in its communal and anthemic choruses. But “Neon Bible” takes that grandeur to a new level. When the songs are intimate, they are drenched in thick and dark layers of synthesizers that threaten to drown listeners into the overwhelming despair and anxiety the characters feel when trying to remain in control whilst living in a world that wants to engulf everyone in its zombie-like rat race. Meanwhile, when they are explosive, “Neon Bible” shows it is the Arcade Fire album that best knows how to create bombast, betting on organs and on an almost omnipresent orchestra to generate soaring movements with enough power to make the walls of a concert house tremble. The result is an album that is sonically consistent in its Gothic darkness while also being pretty varied.

“Black Mirror” has steady instrumental patterns, soaked in a sinister hum, that perfectly replicate the hypnotic nature of television. “Keep the Car Running” uses a mandolin and a bouncy bass to propel an otherwise typical slice of catchy Arcade Fire alternative rock. Washed in a pipe organ and strings, “Intervention” is the best cut of the album; an epic of historical proportions that has the band going through the tune with the passion of people who are trying to save a loved one from being brain-washed by televangelists. “Ocean of Noise” musically replicates tides, swelling and deflating as it goes along, with the instruments dancing around as if aboard a ship that is being hit by tall waves. “The Well and the Lighthouse” recalls The Cure’s colorful pieces of pop rock: moved by a pronounced bass in the verses, the song eventually peaks when it is decorated with jangly guitars. “Antichrist Television Blues” is a rockabilly freight train, coming at listeners at a rising pace while it bounces on a notable bass line. Decorated by an accordion and strings, “No Cars Go” is essentially made to serve as a marvelous moment of catharsis in concerts. And “My Body Is a Cage” is a keyboard, percussion, and voice track that seems inspired by the darkest moments of Nine Inch Nails.

“Neon Bible” is the type of sophomore effort that had a lot to live up to. Loved by some and hated by others, “Funeral” is one of those rare works in rock history that truly deserves being labeled as seminal, since its spirit was the spark that ignited a whole movement. “Neon Bible” cannot claim the same credentials, but it is just as good: save for the dull “Back Wave / Bad Vibrations”, it has no weak tunes; in fact, the writing is so inspired that nearly all of its tracks are at least excellent. And in addition to showing one of the era’s best bands working at the peak of their powers, this is an album that does not tread water. Yes, it is still quite apocalyptic; it still has plenty of anthemic choruses; and it still holds thematic ambitions that materialize extremely well. But this is a totally different creature, and sitting beside the neighborhood of “Funeral”, the cathedral of “Neon Bible” is sure to forever stand as one of the grand monuments of rock music.

five

Bug

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Album: Bug

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: October 31st, 1988

Highlights: Freak Scene, Yeah We Know, Pond Song, The Post

As a more extreme and less popular version of the punk rock movement which inspired it, the American hardcore scene of the 1980s also naturally featured a far lower degree of professionalism. That is not to say the people involved in it did their job poorly or amateurishly; in many cases tasks were actually performed with much more passion than in its seminal counterpart. But given the corporate world of big labels and magazines showed little to no interest in taking over the reins of the music that was being made in the underground, the influence of money was minimal and positions – whether they were on the stage as a band or behind the scenes as part of the network that supported hardcore musicians – were far more accessible to anyone who was willing to give it a shot.

Ultimately, what this wide entry point meant was that nearly anyone with a guitar or the wish to say something could find a way in; a reality that for punk rockers in the 1970s quickly dissipated when the huge companies stepped in to attract its most famous offspring. As a consequence of that fact, American underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the Butthole Surfers, which were mostly made up of individuals whose visible artistic talents did not match up with the expectations of the mainstream, could plug in to the amplifiers and rock.

In their midst, however, roamed one guy who was a bit out of the curve. J Mascis, the leader of Dinosaur Jr., was certainly a member of this independent environment. His talents, though, were more akin to those of folks who transited in the pop music charts. He could play guitar with a high degree of technique and he would showcase that ability clearly by frequently stepping into blistering solos. He could write songs based on classic chord changes that exhibited a smoothness that recalled power pop. And, on what was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ethos of a deliberately noncommercial scene, Mascis could write melodies with the potential to reach thousands. As such, it is no accident that to many of his musical peers, the vocalist and guitarist of Dinosaur Jr. was always seen as the man with a gift.

In spite of these greatly marketable skills, Mascis and his band never made it big, which means that something stood in the way. Anyone listening to “Bug”, the third release by the group, ought to recognize at least one of the elements that ended up keeping Dinosaur Jr. out of the big leagues; and that would be noise. Mascis enjoys playing as stridently as possible, making it sound like whatever amplifier he is using is about to implode due to the volume. Because of that, his simple, approachable, and lovable pop writing is drenched in a vicious guitar attack that veers into the limit between what is tuneful and what is feedback. If that is not enough of a tall barrier to widespread recognition, then Dinosaur Jr. builds it higher thanks to the vocal drawl and slacker attitude of Mascis.

Those two characteristics need to be mentioned together because they are nearly inseparable. Like a moody teenager or a stoned uncle, Mascis sings as if he is totally detached from both the feelings he is talking about and the noise he is making; his attitude tells listeners that he either does not care or is simply too cool to make an effort. Locked inside this unique lazy demeanor that would go on to construct the careers of a few bands, such as Pavement, Mascis does not even try to sing within the parameters of what most would judge as merely adequate; likewise, although his inborn creative greatness hands him a bunch of pop rock gems, his choice is to leave them unpolished and augment their original roughness by giving them a bath in underground noise alongside his bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph.

This battle of accessibility versus laziness and abrasiveness not only defines the entire career of Dinosaur Jr., but also firmly puts them in the underground scene they would otherwise not be a part of. “Bug” is particularly notable for being the point in which that combat reaches its most interesting level. It is not a stalemate, because laziness and abrasiveness certainly win the round, but the balance feels just about ideal. Whether they are pushing forward furiously (“Let It Ride”) or floating in a lazy haze (“The Post”), the members of Dinosaur Jr. here are always pairing up the right amount of melodic goodness to keep one attentive with the correct dosage of ear-splitting madness to stop the whole project from diverging into the mellow terrain its sweet hooks could lead it into. The sole exception to the norm is “Don’t”, which – sung by bassist Lou Barlow – is a cacophony of screaming vocals and guitars, hence shifting the equilibrium too much to one side.

Like it happens with nearly all other works by the band, it is nigh impossible to say the murkiness of “Bug” is polished, but the album holds a few touches of care that greatly benefit its excellent material. “Freak Scene”, the best cut of the record, is a delightful constant barrage of fuzzy strum, but its melodic beauty is enhanced by an accompanying acoustic guitar on its second verse; and that element reappears with even more constancy in “No Bones”. At one point, “They Always Come” brings down the noise to let the melody shine, but Mascis humorously turns the tables by singing in an unusually muffled tone. “Yeah We Know” has a rhythmic driving force that when combined with the cold vocals recalls The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Pond Song” seemingly nods to R.E.M. by featuring jangling verses and a chorus that tames the feedback slightly. “Budge” has a hook played on a relatively clean and slim guitar that nods to Sonic Youth’s more conventional moments. And before getting to its glorious chorus, “The Post” has a large, sparse, and dark soundscape on its verses, which indicates some post-punk influences coming from The Cure, Talking Heads, and even Joy Division.

“Bug”, therefore, is not just an album in which the struggle between pop rock sensibilities and freewheeling hardcore noise-making that defines Dinosaur Jr. gets to its most ideal level. It is also a work that knows how to nudge its sound, even if ever so slightly, towards interesting places that add an unexpected variety to the band’s usually steady music. Given his slacker spirit, it is unlikely J Mascis will ever admit putting effort into bringing out the best of the tunes he wrote for the project or even working on any of the songs until they were truly complete. And anyone listening to the album is sure to feel parts are missing or that “Bug” was not finished. But the fact is there is nothing really missing, and the record is as complete as pretty much any mainstream release. The noisy, chaotic, and lazy mess is just how Dinosaur Jr. operates; and although that has certainly kept them out of the top of the charts, it has also made their greatness even more interesting. And that quality has never found a better display than “Bug”.

five

The Woods

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Album: The Woods

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: May 24th, 2005

Highlights: Jumpers, Modern Girl, Entertain, Rollercoaster

As they grew out of the underground punk rock scene where the band had gotten their start, a few notable elements began to emerge as defining characteristics of Sleater-Kinney’s sound. For starters, slowly but surely, Carrie Browstein and Corin Tucker developed an intertwining pattern of guitar-playing which on its apex, reached in “The Hot Rock” from 1999, recalled that of Television during the “Marquee Moon” era; with the caveat that though equally clean and clashing, the girl’s method was not as technically flashy and – making use of that trait – they used the style to build tracks with a greater pop rock inclination than the ones produced by the New York quartet. Furthermore, as they played their instruments almost like two independent leads, Browstein and Tucker also sang in dissonance, rarely harmonizing and often going for melodic lines that could have easily been used as the base of two different tracks.

It sure was a lot of content to unpack, especially when it came in short yet potent packages of three minutes, but by 2002 that recipe had yielded four albums of great music. And these records, besides being excellent, had allowed Sleater-Kinney to bring their work to an audience that was not there to hear the punk rock gems which were their self-titled debut and its sequel, “Call the Doctor”. However, following such run and maybe realizing that the recipe had gotten slightly tired, the band took a three-year break between new material (their longest one up to that point) and came back into view with a rather retooled musical outlook, producing – in the process – their most widely acclaimed album: “The Woods”.

The seventh studio release by the trio is so jarring that it takes a good while for one to notice that, deep down, there are remains of the old Sleater-Kinney sound under it. To a lesser degree, the band’s two guitarists still play disjointed parts that somehow gel; likewise, they frequently switch lead vocals and occasionally go their separate ways melodically. However, in “The Woods”, the lean punk rock the girls used to do is replaced with a towering powerful pounding of suffocating stature. Strength and ferocity were never absent elements in the Sleater-Kinney formula; they were always there, even if wrapped in the quirky catchy charm of records such as “Dig Me Out”. But here, it seems that the anger that had always driven the trio rose to the surface and gained a visible physical shape of mighty proportions.

Released during an era plagued by excessively loud recordings that caused much of the music to lose its audio fidelity, “The Woods” could be listed as yet another victim of that tendency. Not only does the album bang, but it does so at a volume so extreme that it creates a thick layer of distortion which permeates all pieces that compose it: Browstein and Tucker, drowned in what seems to be a symphony of static, have to either scream to be heard or resign themselves to the fact it is all too much; Janet Weiss, always a masterful tasteful drummer, is forced to hit her kit as if she were part of a heavy metal band that constantly plays in overdrive; and the guitars seem to come out of cheap amplifiers that cannot handle them, with much of their constitution being sheer feedback.

It could be disastrous, but “The Woods”, differently from its contemporaries that stumbled on poor mastering, actually uses loudness as a stylistic choice. While many albums of the era were clean-sounding records whose crispness was lost somewhere in translation, in the case of Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 release that characteristic is actually there by design. Sure, at some point when listening to it one has to wonder how the music would have sounded if “The Woods” took a more controlled approach in relation to volume. However, although it could be argued a few of the tracks would have been improved by a cleaner presentation, the album would likely not be as interesting and strong if that path had been chosen. Corin and her signature vibrato screams would not have to be so fierce; Carrie, always one quite talented in the art of sounding mad, would not take her craft to new heights; and Janet would lose out on a great opportunity to sound trashy and thunderous.

More serious, perhaps, would be how Sleater-Kinney would not be able to explore new perspectives on their songwriting. A track like “The Wolf”, for instance, which opens up the album, has a large plodding riff of a magnitude that is nowhere else to be found in their discography. “Steep Air” is so lo-fi and drowned in feedback that even its vocals are distorted beyond recognition, giving birth to a moment of such untamed noise that groups like The Velvet Underground and Pavement – which are quite familiar with soundscapes of the sort – would blush. And nearly all of the album’s tracks are eventually broken by moments of instrumental freak-out so dizzying that they could be compared to the live assaults of loudness famously carried out by “My Bloody Valentine”; an experiment that reaches its peak in audacity when the girls violently jam to extend “Let’s Call It Love” to the eleven-minute mark.

Contrarily to what its rough presentation may indicate, though, “The Woods” also carries moments when Sleater-Kinney strongly flirts with the mainstream, as if the knowledge they were going to work towards imploding these tunes via an aggressive aesthetic made them free to write for a wider audience. “Jumpers”, which came to life when Browstein read an article about the suicides that take place on the Golden Gate Bridge, has her and Corin harmonizing on the verses over slinky guitars until the tune bursts into a chorus that feels like a cry for help. “Entertain” is a catchy percussive march in which Browstein (sounding more furious than ever) rants against artistic staleness and cheap entertainment. Lastly, “Modern Girl” is a ballad – a rare sight in the Sleater-Kinney catalog – that might as well be the most beautiful and heartfelt song the trio has penned; with a mildly sarcastic tone, the cut wistfully narrates the mundane life of the titular character, and as it becomes increasingly evident that the beauty seen there is both fake and deceiving, the tune is slowly overrun by feedback.

Although in disguise, “The Woods” still presents a handful of tracks that have a more notable Sleater-Kinney signature, like “Wilderness”, “What’s Mine Is Yours”, “Rollercoaster”, and “Night Light”. In tunes such as these, the guitar interplay is more pronounced and instead of pounding mindlessly or flirting with accessibility, they carry speed and energetic bounciness that can easily be related to the previous era of the band; one where they escaped from the confines of underground punk to break past the riot grrrl movement in which they started. Regardless of the songwriting style it is approaching, however, “The Woods” is an album that simply erupts, turning the loudness that was so prevalent in the music around the time of its release into a weapon and giving a physical listenable manifestation to the sheer strength that had always been present in the work of Sleater-Kinney.

On Avery Island

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Album: On Avery Island

Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel

Released: March 26th, 1996

Highlights: Song Against Sex, Where You’ll Find Me Now, Naomi, April 8th

There is nothing incredibly romantic about the Avery Island that lends its name to the first album by Neutral Milk Hotel. In the real world, it is nothing but a salt dome covered by swampy land and surrounded by the bayous of Louisiana. However, the combination of the record’s cover, depicting a distorted yet colorful carnival, and the music contained within it, constructed by Jeff Mangum and given flight by the arrangements and production of Robert Schneider, materializes the image of a whimsical but odd location. In it, as if unable to grow up when confronted with the sheer brutality of the world, the playful innocence of childhood has – instead – been corrupted and driven wild, retreating to a somewhat safe realm that it has created for its own sake.

It goes without saying that many are the elements of “On Avery Island” that contribute towards forming that image; a work of art that is this consistently themed cannot, after all, be built on a single trick. But most of the credit for that achievement has got to be attributed to the talent of Jeff Magnum. The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and – by the time the album was recorded – only official member of Neutral Milk Hotel approaches serious topics, such as suicide and the heartbreaks generated via what he perceives as meaningless sex, by using words and sentences that exhibit a degree of naivete, as if he were unable to comprehend those subjects thoroughly or express himself without being clumsy. And to boost that frail nature, he proceeds to sing his lyrics with a visible vulnerability that is somehow coated in the layers of self-defense which are only exhibited by those who have dealt with these troubled matters way too often.

In spite of the awkward surface, though, there is not – almost miraculously – anything uncomfortable about the way Jeff Magnum approaches those points; he comes off, instead, as likable and sensitive. Consequently, the blows land fiercely. When writing about the death of his grandmother and the regret he felt for not being there beside her when it happened, for instance, he uses the simple imagery of one who has just recently learned the concept of spirituality, singing “As her spirit is climbing / Through the hospital wall and away / And I wanted to hold you / As you made your escape”. Delivered with so much sweetness and with a voice whose lack of formal qualities adds a high degree of sincerity to the feeling described, one cannot help but be moved by it.

Given the fragile quality that underlines the album, it would be easy to picture Magnum quietly going through the tunes of “On Avery Island” while sitting on a bench and shyly strumming an acoustic guitar. The work, however, carries a noisy lo-fi aesthetic that gives a totally unique edge to the material. It is not, of course, that the recording style was a stranger to the indie rock genre. Earlier in the same decade when Neutral Milk Hotel put out their only two efforts, the boys from Pavement had already built a successful career on such sounds, and “On Avery Island” does have a bit of a lazy lethargic aura that could draw comparisons to Stephen Malkmus’ group. The originality of the album actually stems from the unlikely pairing of the folk heart of the tunes with the noisier side of the lo-fi ethos.

With three exceptions, Magnum’s voice barely gets a rest from having to climb over thick walls of feedback to be heard. On some occasions, they come in temporary bursts, which is what happens in “You’ve Passed”, where the wave of noise rises and falls back as the electric guitar is punctually strummed. Mostly, though, the barrage is a relentless attack, giving these songs, which are very much pop and melodic at their core, a heavy distorted underbelly. It is a move that creates a constant mixture of irresistible hooks and nigh-hardcore buzz, one whose closest widely known comparison is perhaps the first trio of albums released by Weezer; with the difference being, naturally, that where Rivers Cuomo is a power pop fanatic who is unavoidably awkward, Jeff Magnum is merely a reserved guy who drinks from folk.

His brand of folk, though, is not just noisy. It is also filtered through a very well-constructed psychedelic lens. It is through it, in fact, that “On Avery Island” gains the carnival contours that appropriately fit in with its cover, complementing the innocent wonder of Jeff Magnum’s lyrics. Adorning the record’s sonic assault are keyboards and horns that bring an extra wacky component to the already frantic music; and while the electronic sounds of the former instrument make it seem like the theme park’s carousel is spinning uncontrollably in slow-motion, the brass gives off the impression that the place’s marching band has collectively spiraled out of its mind due to an unfortunate blend of drugs. In addition, this psychedelic value carried by “On Avery Island” is also responsible for firmly tying all of the tracks together, as thanks to the way the tunes smoothly transition between one another the record feels like an atomic whole, further establishing a powerful aesthetic coherence.

In this wild imaginary space built during “On Avery Island”, the introspective and the noisy stand side by side comfortably. The album’s three quietest cuts – the mostly acoustic trio of “A Baby for Pree”, “Three Peaches”, and “April 8th” – are sad delicate beauty, but even if they are more soothing than the rest of the songs on the record, they are not without their share of weird sounds as the last two have low drone-like hums that add a haunting aura to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the work’s more cacophonous side, although quite uniform, smartly draws from different sources: “Song Against Sex” is a torrent of words and images delivered in ways that challenge the concept of metric, vaguely recalling what Bob Dylan tends to do; “You’ve Passed” sounds plodding, threatening, and exotic, with its dissonant instrumentation recalling “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground; “Gardenhead” is so reckless and heavy it almost qualifies as hardcore; and the sweet melody of “Naomi”, when paired up with its slower pace, nods to the more emotional branches of punk.

At times, the conceptual psychedelic side of “On Avery Island” happens to get the best of it. Clocking in at a ridiculous thirteen minutes, closer “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” is motionless instrumental noise and reeks of unnecessary indulgence. “A Baby for Pree” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” are essentially the same song, with the latter being the much better and more developed version of the former. And “Someone Is Waiting” is more of a coda to “You’ve Passed” than a standalone track. One might say instances such as these, besides contributing to the album’s thematic cohesion, also go along with its ramshackle lo-fi vibe, and that argument is certainly not invalid. Nonetheless, they indicate that, as fully formed as it may sound, “On Avery Island” is not the full realization of a musical idea. Such peak would only truly come with its sequel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”; regardless of that shortcoming, though, Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut is one incredible musical trip down a rabbit hole of corrupted innocence.

The New Abnormal

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Album: The New Abnormal

Artist: The Strokes

Released: April 10th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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