Sadinista!

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Album: Sadinista!

Artist: The Clash

Released: December 12th, 1980

Highlights: The Magnificent Seven, Hitsville UK, Something About England, Somebody Got Murdered, Up in Heaven (Not Only Here), Police on My Back, The Call Up, Washington Bullets, Charlie Don’t Surf

The fact The Clash was a pretty eclectic group was relatively well-known prior to the release of “Sandinista!”, their fourth album. After all, this was the band that in the early fiery days of their career had not only thrown a reggae cover – Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” – into the mix of their debut work but also released an original single – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that merged the Jamaican rhythm with punk rock. Further cementing that notion, as the 1970s were coming to a close, the English quartet would put out the sprawling “London Calling”, which saw the acclaimed punks correctly assessing that the genre was a sinking a ship and masterfully exploring, through a whopping nineteen tracks, a multitude of musical styles without losing any of their visceral energy, political edge, and sharp songwriting skills that made every corner of that album’s rhythmic trip land on at least one inescapable hook.

Yet, even if by 1980 The Clash had already developed notable credentials as punk rockers who loved to step outside their initial niche, nothing could have prepared the world for what was coming next. Rather than letting the classic that was “London Calling” stand on its own as a massive carnival of styles, the band opted to take a shot at topping it not just in terms of quality but also in relation to size, and so its follow-up, published less than one year later, would end up amounting to a gargantuan beast of a scope rarely seen in popular music, featuring thirty-six tracks that went on for nearly two hours and a half. And showing that despite wild stylistic detours the group was still punk at heart, the band would convince a shocked label to put out the humongous behemoth at an accessible price by accepting to take a considerable cut in royalties.

Although, quite understandably, it is the size and variety of “Sandinista!” that often get the most attention, one of the most significant aspects of the record is usually overlooked: its sound. With a cover showing the band standing in what seems like a large abandoned warehouse, the album hits the ears in a way that somehow resembles that location, with a spacious soundscape that leaves plenty of room for echoes, reverberation, and large drums. It is true that, to a point, that approach makes “Sandinista!” the most dated of all The Clash records except for the disowned “Cut the Crap”. Yet, in spite of that description, the album almost completely avoids the tasteless production choices that would haunt the 1980s to emerge as a work that carries a very specific time stamp whilst not being damaged by it in the slightest.

Given its size, it is easy to fall into the trap of merely labeling “Sandinista!” as some sort of expanded “London Calling”; that is, an album where The Clash merely double the amount of genres they choose to tackle. Alone, that would already be quite an achievement, but “Sandinista!” feels more meaningful than that for a simple reason. In London Calling, when the band was going for rockabilly, ska, or any other style, rock was generally still there lying in the background; moreover, the record had at least a handful of bona fide punk tracks. In “Sandinista!”, meanwhile, the journey goes further away from The Clash’s origins, coming off as a more daring affair. Here, when the band opts to explore a genre, which happens in nearly every tune, they go into that direction with full commitment, abandoning the safety of rock completely. Additionally, only two songs in the whole package qualify as pure punk: the moody and introspective “Somebody Got Murdered”, which looks at the banality of violence in big cities, as well as the furious and anthemic “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)”, which primarily criticizes the conditions of the housing built for London’s lower classes.

Everywhere else, The Clash jump between styles nonstop. Built around an unforgettable bass riff, opener “The Magnificent Seven” is a wordy rap track depicting the mechanical routine of an English worker. “Hitsville UK”, a sweet musical homage to 1960s pop, is a duet between Mick Jones and his then girlfriend Ellen Foley that talks about the struggle of punk bands. “Junco Partner” covers a blues song by turning it into a groovy and loose reggae. “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, penned by drummer Topper Headon, flirts with disco while nodding to the Cold War. “The Leader” emulates the speedy folk-rock of Bob Dylan’s electric phase to touch on the numbness caused by mass media. “Something About England” opens with music hall theatrics before becoming epic historical punk. “Rebel Waltz” has a gentle picked guitar, a psychedelic aura, and a floaty melody that takes listeners to a camp where rebel soldiers dance around the fire at night. “Look Here”, written by jazz great Moose Allison, is transformed into a furious and decadent swing. “The Crooked Beat” goes back to reggae by building a song that stands mostly on the bass of Paul Simonon. “Somebody Got Murdered” finally brings punk to the table. Both “One More Time” and “One More Dub” follow by delivering an extra taste of Jamaica with the participation of Mikey Dread. And that is just the first third of the album.

Through the rest of its run, “Sandinista!” goes on to touch on funk with “Lightning Strikes (Not Once but Twice)”; on calypso with the irresistible percussive work of “Let’s Go Crazy”; on gospel with “The Sound of Sinners”, in which Joe Strummer proves he would be a very effective preacher; on new wave with the energetic and catchy “Police on My Back”; on post-punk with the marching of “The Call Up”; on late-night jazz with the smoky vision of nocturnal New York created by “Broadway”; on British folk with “Lose This Skin”, which has Tymon Dogg taking the lead with wild vocals and violin; and on whole lot of experimental instrumentation that gives birth to everything from marvelous tunes such as “The Equalizer” and “The Street Parade” to less notable creations like the nigh electronic “Silicone on Sapphire” and the meandering closer “Shepherds Delight”.

Unsurprisingly, as a work made up of thirty-six tracks, “Sandinista!” is a bit uneven. Its first half is nearly flawless, but eventually the album loses steam and its irregularity comes to the forefront quite strongly on its final two sides, where it seems like the band – to achieve the number of songs they set out to put together – opted to fill up that closing stretch with some highly experimental remixes and dub versions of previous songs, like “Mensforth Hill”, which is nothing but “Something About England” backwards with a few overdubs. Out of the last twelve tracks, six fall into that category, and making the drop in quality more blatant is how these tunes are accompanied in that last leg of “Sandinista!” by some of the least inspired compositions of the record. Yet, any album that is this adventurous, varied, and bountiful can overcome some duds, even when they are tightly packed together; and “Sadinista!” not only gets away with its missteps, but reaches the status of classic thanks to the simple fact it has more than twenty songs that qualify as excellent.

In any context, that would be a pretty good threshold, but in “Sandinista!” it is even better because those tunes have the specially talented touch of The Clash. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were a nearly infallible songwriting duo, and here they were still rolling at full speed, both operating with style throughout multiple genres and coming up with many powerful hooks that underline grand sociopolitical statements, like the anthem against interventions by foreign powers of “Washington Bullets” or the catchy comment on the Vietnam War brought by “Charlie Don’t Surf”. As such, although the size of “Sandinista!” makes it one of the most daunting and hard-to-digest albums in the history of popular music, the rewards for those who give it a shot are plentiful, because quality songwriting that is backed by engaging performances and vital messages has always been a rare commodity; and when unforeseen eclecticism is thrown into the equation, “Sadinista!” surpasses rarity to become a one-of-a-kind gem.

five

The Ultra Vivid Lament

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Album: The Ultra Vivid Lament

Artist: Manic Street Preachers

Released: September 10th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

In Absentia

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Album: In Absentia

Artist: Porcupine Tree

Released: September 24th, 2002

Highlights: Blackest Eyes, Trains, Prodigal, Collapse the Light Into Earth

Writing good songs is by no means an easy task, regardless of the genre in which the artist chooses to operate. However, there have always been especially tricky particularities when it comes to penning a worthy progressive rock tune. As the punks themselves were quick to point out in anger during the 1970s, there is something inherently pompous – and therefore contrary to the spontaneity of rock music – about setting out to create conceptual works with multiphased tracks containing lengthy instrumental passages as well as movements that recall those of a classical piece. Any band who veers too far into that territory is bound to come off as being too pretentious for their own sake. To prevent such excessive self-indulgence, progressive rock composers have no choice but to counterbalance that excess with some good-old pop hooks, consequently having both to develop a talent for merging the complex with the catchy and to be aware that going too far into the latter spectrum is not wise either, lest they want to alienate their original audience.

For Porcupine Tree and its leader, Steven Wilson, the reaching of that middle-ground did not come quickly. Some fans may argue that by the group’s second or third albums (“Up the Downstair” and “The Sky Moves Sideways”, respectively), the band had already reached that point. But it was not until their fourth release, “Signify”, that the guys were able to trim down all the fat to deliver a work that was challenging, yet approachable and thoroughly likable, and with that magic equilibrium attained, Porcupine Tree would unleash a sequence of progressive rock classics, like “Stupid Dream”, from 1999, and “Lightbulb Sun”, from 2000. Coming on the heels of those records, “In Absentia” partially continues the trend while also somewhat setting a course of its own.

The continuation comes from how “In Absentia” is an album that packs sequences of instrumental flexing, examples of structural complexity, and moments of melodic accessibility without going overboard with any of them. Moreover, even if sometimes it manages to tie all of those elements inside the same track, it is able to do so concisely, for although most of its twelve tunes have more than five minutes in length, the longest ones fall below the eight-minute mark. Meanwhile, the sign that “In Absentia” is breaking away from the band’s successful immediate past and the proof that Steve Wilson is an artistically restless individual comes in how the album throws a solid dose of loud metal instrumentation into the music.

In a way, the mixture was – at that point – neither unforeseen nor new for Porcupine Tree. Anyone listening to the direct predecessors of “In Absentia” will notice that contrasting mighty walls of guitars with acoustic passages that could have come from a pop-rock album could be considered the band’s signature sound; however, here, not only do the guys simply choose to be louder and heavier than ever, usually building the instrumental portions of the songs over a fierce metal pounding, but they also go for that volume more often, with just four of the tunes escaping the touch of deafening distortions.

Opener “Blackest Eyes” is swift in announcing the increased potency of Porcupine Tree’s aggression. Right as it gets to twenty seconds, the band erupts in a burst of fury, with debuting drummer Gavin Harrison showing he was a perfect fit to play on a record of this nature by delivering furious rolls and fills. And just like it perfectly encapsulates the album’s volume, the tune is also a vivid display of how the group masters dynamics and how the metal leaning of “In Absentia” makes the gap between quiet and loud more blatant than ever, since the song has a mostly acoustic body that peaks in a chorus of angelic harmonies before returning to a vicious guitar attack. Even if acoustic passages are not as common as they were in previous works, given the more subdued moments tend to be led by muted electric crunch, keyboards, bass, or synthesized effects, this dynamic trait appears in a good slice of “In Absentia”, equally emerging – with various structures – in tracks like “Gravity Eyelids”, “Prodigal”, “The Creator Has a Mastertape”, and “Strip the Soul”.

This meeting between a soothing type of progressive rock and the violence of metal may be the defining trait of “In Absentia”, but it is far from being the only trick it knows how to execute. “Trains”, the album’s most popular song, does eventually turn heavy as it approaches its closure, but most of its six-minute length is an acoustic, layered, and multiphased adventure that includes a handful of notable melodic movements. “Lips of Ashes”, “.3”, and “Heartattack in a Layby” are ethereal psychedelic clouds of gentle sounds and floating melodies. “The Sound of Muzak” has tense verses with picked acoustic guitars and nearly spoken vocals that unfold into a heavenly chorus. And closer “Collapse the Light Into Earth”, with a piano, strings, and harmonies drifting through outer space, is a touching gem that treads the line between transcendental chant and apocalyptic echo.

Despite the variety found in the tone of its songs, “In Absentia” is a very consistent album in terms of sound, working inside a delimited spectrum and exploring it to its furthest limits. This coherence also exists in the record’s theme: even though it is not a conceptual work, the album tends to touch on psychological issues that can run so deep they may cause a person to lose touch with reality, with who they are, or with any sort of morality. Consequently, Steven Wilson’s main concern, which has always been the pressures of modernity, reappears but is accompanied by subjects such as regret, child abuse, and serial killers. At times, the disassociated images and thoughts that try to replicate the consciousness of the record’s troubled individuals can seem like they are excessively heavy-handed, but their usually dark nature has such synergy with the music of “In Absentia” that the fact Wilson appears to occasionally try too hard can be overlooked.

Nevertheless, “In Absentia” has a couple of problems that are not so easy to ignore. “Strip the Soul” is simply a weak tune; lacking any sort of melodic spark, its quiet-and-loud dynamics feel like a needless exploration of ground that is better covered elsewhere in the record. Besides, the four tracks right in the middle of the album are a classic case of questionable sequencing, since three of them (with the excellent “Prodigal” being the exception) are heavy on instrumental passages, which while great could have used some separation. Yet, there is no denying that “In Absentia” is a marvelous work of progressive rock and one of the brightest spots of Porcupine Tree’s discography, because in addition to boasting that ever elusive balance between complexity and accessibility, it also carries a heaviness that suits its subject, a firm acoustic pop-rock layer that makes it approachable, and a new artistic step-forward for a band that would go on to build one of the genre’s most impressive runs of records.

five

Court And Spark

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Album: Court and Spark

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: January 17th, 1974

Highlights: Help Me, Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Raised on Robbery

To a point, Joni Mitchell was a clear representative of the hippie dream of the 1960s. Starting her career towards the tail end of that decade, the Canadian singer-songwriter crafted her music in the folk tradition that was such an integral part of that movement. It is true that Joni was rarely a political creature, therefore shying away from writing the kind of material that would lead her genre contemporary Bob Dylan to, much to his horror, be seen as the voice of that generation. Yet, through her demeanor, through her fashion sense, through the imagery evoked by her gentle compositions, and through the randomness of timing, Mitchell’s early folk work is certainly a staple of those pivotal and culturally active years.

At the same time, though, it was easy to see her talent was way too big to be contained solely within that scope. She may have written “Woodstock”, the timeless anthem that will forever stand as an immaculate depiction of the legendary festival and its attendees, but besides famously not singing at the event, the tune is narrated by an outsider that is looking in, as if Joni herself were aware she was not entirely a part of the hippie scene. And anyone who listened carefully to her folk ballads was bound to agree, because her usage of unconventional tunings, the free-flowing nature of her melodies, the vivid scenes she painted with her lyrics, the conversational tones adopted by her characters, and the subject matter of her songs did not belong to the counterculture of the 1960s; they were very much her own.

All of that is to say that Joni Mitchell was never one to adhere to conventions. One may try to label her young self as a hippie folk singer, but doing so is overlooking the depth of what she was pulling off. Not surprisingly, then, given the nature of her artistry, a similar reasoning applies to her 1974 release, “Court and Spark”. Word on the street has it that Joni’s sixth studio work is also her most mainstream one, and there is surely data to back that up: the record received a double platinum certification and is her best-selling work; furthermore, its second single, “Help Me”, was the highest-charting song of a career that spanned four decades. Any observer, consequently, would be tempted to view the album as a direct shot at the commercial tendencies of the time.

Such an evaluation would not be completely wrong. Before “Court and Spark”, Mitchell had already occasionally abandoned the quirky inflections she threw into her folk to pen memorable tracks of blatant accessibility, like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “The Circle Game”, “Both Sides Now”, and “Woodstock”. But “Court and Spark” tips the scale into that direction more heavily than ever, because rather than making a concession to a wide audience in one or two scattershot tunes, it opts to open the floodgates: out of its eleven tracks, four are so immediately catchy that they ought to be featured in any list ranking Joni’s ten most popular songs. Yet, there is much more to “Court and Spark” than the inescapable hooks of “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris”, “Car on a Hill”, and “Raised on Robbery”.

After five albums of elegant and sophisticated folk, “Court and Spark” sees Mitchell starting to open herself up to the genre that would define the later half of her career: jazz. As it happens with early flirts, though, what emerges out of “Court and Spark” is a shy touch. The wild experimentation of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, the epic scale of “Hejira”, and the total dive into jazz seen in “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” are still on the horizon. “Court and Spark”, instead, is a pop album whose acoustic heart is gently decorated with jazz instrumentation, which is a description that should suffice to explain its success.

However, as it is usually the case with Joni Mitchell, there is a catch. At its most accessible, “Court and Spark” is rich, layered, warm, and catchy. Its meticulously crafted pop sits on a soothing web that recalls the California sound pioneered by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, making it nothing but appropriate that Mitchell’s life in Los Angeles clearly influences many of the record’s lyrics. But an attentive listener will realize the catchiness of “Court and Spark” is not a given; in fact, it is sort of miraculous. Its tunes, especially those on the album’s first half, are so brief that the whole work threatens to come off as a uniform suite rather than a record of straightforward pop; and the unconventional structures of the tracks themselves further enhances that notion, subtly implying that it is not only the instrumentation of jazz that Joni is bringing to the table: she is also taking advantage of the genre’s spontaneous soul.

Examples of that wild aura abound. “Help Me” may have been a major hit, but it lacks a chorus completely, leaving its main hook to come out of the titular exclamation that opens its three of its four verses. The title track, contrarily, does have a chorus of exquisite quality, but it only shows up once, splitting the four verses that constitute it right in the middle. “People’s Parties” and “Same Situation”, the former acoustic and the latter piano-centered, feel like two parts of a mini-opera, serving as prime examples of Joni’s ability to slowly build free-flowing and almost conversational melodies to peaks of emotional grandeur. “Down to You” is equally operatic, embracing – in its five minutes – multiple passages, including an orchestrated break. “Just Like This Train” may have a more traditional structure, but there is nothing orthodox about its melody, and its jazzy sound proves to be a perfect company to the more playful side of Joni’s songwriting. And like “Help Me”, “Trouble Child” is rather sneaky in hiding its hook, saving it to the end of its two final verses.

As such, it is a mistake to look at “Court and Spark” like the usual moment when a major idiosyncratic artist makes concessions in their work in order to get a taste of commercial glory. The truth is that despite its chart performance, there is little about it that is typical: from Joni’s decision to stick a riveting rock and roll song (“Raised on Robbery”) and a wacky tongue-in-cheek jazz cover (“Twisted”) in the record’s track list to the fact the album documents the early stages of her experimentation with jazz. “Court and Spark” is not one of those works that is naturally successful because of what it contains; it is actually miraculously successful in spite of what it contains. And what it has is the work of a musical genius, one that while concocting her own version of the California sound finds the time to write four hits without ever abandoning her sophisticated and unique songwriting gift. “Court and Spark” proves that playing around with jazz was perfect for Joni Mitchell, and although the road ahead had one higher peak to offer, if “Court and Spark” had been all that had come out of the journey, it would have already made it worth it.

five

Challengers

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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

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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

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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

Van Weezer

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Album: Van Weezer

Artist: Weezer

Released: May 7th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five

Daddy’s Home

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Album: Daddy’s Home

Artist: St. Vincent

Released: May 14th, 2021

Highlights: The Melting of the Sun, Down, Somebody Like Me, ..At the Holiday Party

There has always been a lot of David Bowie in the work of St. Vincent. Stylistically, given both of them are quite linked with the contemporary sounds that have surrounded their respective careers, the overlap is rather thin, since they are products from totally different eras. However, from a conceptual standpoint, the British man from London and the American woman from Oklahoma certainly present a similar approach to their craft. It is not just because St. Vincent, like Bowie himself, quickly learned that there is great power and artistic merit in immersing oneself in an album so thoroughly that a new stage persona is born out of the experience. It is also, and probably most importantly, because the two have a knack for transforming the music they hear in a similar way.

St. Vincent operates in a pattern that recalls David Bowie thanks to how she is capable of going into a starring contest against the pop trends that are emerging. In that battle, her goal is to understand those fads so deeply that she can succeed in deforming them to the very edge that separates what is listenable and universally likable from what is weird and excessively highbrow. With that analysis, she can figure out how many odd beats, noisy elements, unusual production choices, freakish guitar solos, and outlandish passages she can squeeze into an indie pop song before it gets to the point where genius becomes lunacy. As such, more than an exquisite creator, St. Vincent has invariably been a transformer.

For someone who has, through six studio albums, excelled in conducting mutations, her seventh work, “Daddy’s Home”, ranks as a considerable surprise. Yes, there is a visual metamorphosis executed in St. Vincent herself, as the sexy pop diva seen during the “Masseduction” days makes way for the a sleazy and confident woman seen on the record’s cover; someone who has possibly gone through a rough past, lived dangerous loves, and sought relief on all sorts of substances, both legal and illegal, greatly shocking a very conservative society on multiple occasions. However, when it comes to the music itself, “Daddy’s Home” is less of a transformation and more of a channeling, as St. Vincent aims for rhythms and a production style that are blatantly old-school, nodding to the soft rock, soul, and jazz (all polished with a layer of psychedelia) that would likely get played in the shady bars that the character she is representing frequented during the early 1970s.

The selection of that period is, of course, no accident. As St. Vincent has pointed out, those years unfolded right between two massive cultural and musical movements: the hippie wave of the late 1960s and the punk rock tsunami that would hit in 1976. Surrounded by two phenomenons that were highly idealistic and shackled by all sorts of rules, that window of time saw genres freely flirting with one another to create gorgeous new sounds, and it is on that rich musical mixture that “Daddy’s Home” is grounded. Yet, even if it is decidedly bent on musically replicating a distant past rather than performing a radical transformation on the music that existed back then, “Daddy’s Home” is far from being creatively dull.

The trick here is that most, if not all, listeners will certainly grasp the era St. Vincent is paying homage to. That same audience, however, will likely fail to identify where exactly – be it a particular artist or an individual track – lie the sources of inspiration for the tunes of “Daddy’s Home”. Truth be told, there is a specific moment in the record when Annie lets one of those secrets slip by, since “Live in the Dream” sounds – in its beautiful floaty, lush, and hazy psychedelia – like a great lost cut from Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”, including an epic guitar solo that almost replicates that unmistakable and untouchable David Gilmour tone. However, everywhere else, like the cunning woman on the cover, St. Vincent keeps her cards close to her chest: she does not reveal her contacts and will not disclose the names of her lovers, whether they are powerful New York City crime bosses or that charming young waiter that works at the joint across the street from her Brooklyn flat.

Despite that very tight connection to a defined time and place, “Daddy’s Home” is not without very clear St. Vincent fingertips here and there. “Pay Your Way In Pain” is jazzy, relaxed, and smoky like the rest of the album, but it has not just a pulsating distorted beat, but also incredibly weird interactions between Annie and her background singers; the title track boasts a couple of screams that nod to James Brown and an uncertain groove that seems to be too drunk to stand on its feet; and the excellent “Down” feels like a calculated compromise between a contemporary art pop hit and a retro funk number. Nevertheless, most of the album’s tracks have no such duality, fully dabbling in genres like psychedelic soul (“Down and Out Downtown” and “…At the Holiday Party”) as well as psychedelic folk (“The Melting of the Sun” and “Somebody Like Me”). It is not a wide stylistic window, but operating within it St. Vincent comes up with what is by far her most sonically uniform record up to date.

Nicely contrasting with that musical cohesiveness, inside the album itself her lyrics cover a myriad of themes. Although “Daddy’s Home”, much due to its title, received attention before its release on account of how it dealt with the fact Annie Clark’s father left prison following a decade-long stint locked up due to a white-collar crime, that topic is only touched upon during the track that receives that name. Everywhere else, St. Vincent talks about the painful struggles of life (“Pay Your Way In Pain”); reveals her appreciation for major female artists that came before her, like Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, for blazing the trail she now walks on (“The Melting of the Sun”); fondly remembers a late childhood buddy (“The Laughing Man”); portrays a woman seeking revenge against an abusive lover (“Down”); discusses how her desire not to be a mother can be harmful to some of her relationships (“My Baby Wants a Baby”); notices how a friend tries to hide pain behind fake smiles and alcohol (“..At the Holiday Party”); shows reverence for a tragic Andy Warhol superstar (“Candy Darling”); and even writes a love song (“Somebody Like Me”).

Tied together by quiet drums, subdued funky guitars, soul background singers, a jazzy brass section, a sleazy aura, and a floaty psychedelic spirit, those lyrical themes and musical ideas meet in “Daddy’s Home” to form one of those records that have a very specific vibe; one that is preserved from the cover to the last seconds of the final track. More than being an impressively homogeneous piece that, in spite of that trait, does not allow its tunes to merge into another, “Daddy’s Home” is also St. Vincent’s most unwavering record. Undoubtedly, this is a work that is neither as electrifying nor as inventive as her previous albums, but, as far as songwriting goes, Annie has never been sharper, since there is not a bad tune in sight, or many melodies that do not hit or hook. And even though, like David Bowie, St. Vincent’s secret weapon is to infuse art into what she hears in order to transform it, she just happened to strike her most consistent moment in a work in which she chose to replicate rather than to mutate.

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