Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Final Super Review for 2013

Happy New Year! Obviously, its been a little. No good reasons why. But let's just wrap-up 2013 with a hat trick of reviews of records – all on the same day (October 29th) – earlier this fall I've been meaning to share my thoughts on. They correlate with three different acts at different stages of their careers. The first is one of few rock acts that can make an impression on the overall pop music scene these days. The second is a rabble-rousing troupe from Wales and the third an experimental fusion rock outfit from Texas. My reaction to their respective output is presented in ascending order of positivity, at least in my view.

The Arcade Fire (NMT)
New Release: Reflektor
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Record Label: Mercury Records
Sounds Like: Hey Rosetta (NMT); Rah Rah (NMT); The Talking Heads
Location: Montreal, Quebec

Look, there's no shortage of critical reaction to the ambitious fourth release from the most well-known multi-gender, instrument-swapping rock collective – a double album clocking in at more than 70 minutes of run time (although it will still fit on a standard blank 80-minute CD for burning purposes). Some think it sets a new vanguard for contemporary instrumental experimentation and thematic courage. Others think it fails according to every measure conceivable and the group is perpetually pulling one off on its hoodwinked audience. You're probably not surprised to read that my impression, then, is somewhere between those polemics.

I do think the group is capable of producing moments of brilliance, both on record and in live settings. All of their past releases have had handfuls of transcendent tracks as well as long stretches of overreaching nonsense. This is no less true on Reflektor's 13 cuts. The flashes of influence from David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and The Talking Heads that began percolating up on their previous effort – 2010's The Suburbs (NMT) – are at deluge levels here. Whether that's a welcome nod to the predecessors who informed their sonic trajectory or ugly recidivism depends on your taste.

I'm far more interested in how the group – which currently is constituted of six full-time members in the studio, along with an assortment of touring musicians – is able to weave the new material into their arena-scale live show. Having never seen the band in concert before their tour supporting The Suburbs, I was thoroughly won over by the unit's ability to reach epic levels of performance across their entire catalog at the time, especially the rave-like interaction between the group and audience on selections from their 2004 debut release, Funeral. I suspect several Reflekor tracks will manage a similarly successful transition to the stage. All the other baloney about whether the act is too full of itself in asking concert attendees to dress up for dates on 2014's worldwide tour or whether it offers anything constructive commentary on the plight of Haiti (from which co-leader Regine Chassagne hails) are all cheap shots at a group that's desperately trying to preserve the flash and flair that used to accompany rock bands of their caliber, ground that's been almost entirely ceded to the rap, hip hop and shock pop genres. I give them points for at least giving it their all.

There are a few overarching negatives, though. First, its a crime that Chassagne doesn't receive a lead vocals track of her own. While co-leader Win Butler is still the better overall singer – Chassagne can come across as breathless at times and her preference to sing in French is fine in short doses – she's, by far, the better live performer, as anyone who's seen her command the stage on "Haiti" off Funeral can attest. Butler can seem aloof and has the worst stage banter instincts in live music history, while Chassagne is graceful and demanding.  She deserves a fuller platform. Along those same lines, there are several between-song interludes that I guess are supposed to feel like some kind of concert experience. They're awkward and pointless, and if the aim is for some ironic commentary on bad performance dynamics, they've missed their mark. In addition, Butler and company like to drop references, especially historical ones ("Joan Of Arc," Eurydice, Orpheus) but they're entirely devoid of context or illumination. It's an assortment of information that's incumbent on the listener to interpret, not the educational experience you receive in a Colin Meloy or Will Sheff song. Sure, I may be too pedantic to get some of the call-outs that are obvious to those are more well-read on Greek mythology or criticisms of colonialism, but the job of an artist isn't to make your audience feel uniformed. Lastly (and sadly), the second half is largely unproductive. There's a few interesting moments in both "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" and "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" but no single track is fully realized on its own.

Come for: "Reflektor" (six minutes is unquestionably long for a leadoff single and the record's title track is assuredly too repetitive at times; it also has the meatiest rock choruses and is the album's zenith in both tone and performance)
Stay for: "Normal Person" (don't dig too deep into co-leader Butler's reflections on normalcy – a fetish that appears in nearly every negative review of Reflektor – while missing the muscular instrumental noise that's the heart of the effort's most well-rounded track; there's also guitar solos aplenty, which should quell much of the fear that the band's transforming into an electronic-focused act; you can draw a line from this track to The Suburbs' "Modern Man," both of which underscore the Talking Heads influence most transparently) 
You'll be surprised by: "You Already Know" (this Motown-flavored pop confection is decidedly the sonic outlier on the record and its great for that reason; the track's bass line is the tune's backbone, the best of an album that has numerous outstanding bass parts, with bass duties usually shared between Tim Kingsbury and Richard Reed Parry; I do wish the over-accentuation of syllables on the chorus was a little less pronounced)
Solid efforts: "We Exist" (touches of The Clash here, with the stabbing guitars and rolling bass line, and a fine chorus when it comes around, but its a lot of repetition to endure at times); "Here Comes the Night Time" (I really wish the frenetic, carnival-like intro and outro that bookend the track's midsection were actually the bulk of the number, which is the band's commentary of the original and ongoing colonial posture towards Chassagne's Haiti; how well that message is conveyed lyrically is less important than the well-rendered Carribean vibe of the song as a whole, replete with steel drums and varying rhythm signatures); "Joan Of Arc" (after an ominously metal-like intro – one I wish they'd explored a bit more – the number's bouncy groove is enjoyable); "Afterlife" (there's some pretty cool rock-electronic synthesis here, but not a whole lot of variation beyond the core lyrical and instrumental hook, so its twice as long as it needs to be)
Meh: "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" (the track's namesake is truly apropos, because the bulk of its firt half really features some kinds of awful sounds, which I'm not sure are connected with a larger purpose other than proving that, yes, they can produce an awful sound; still, find your way to the 3:00 mark, when the number brushes the periphery of Pink Floyd's more productive experimentation); "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" (I think there's something here, but its sparse and not aided by the number's nearly dead-stop, again around the 3:00 juncture; the rest is kind of uneven);
Skip to next track: "Flashbulb Eyes" (I appreciate the sonic effect they're trying to achieve – as evidenced by the title – but its not very enjoyable but for a tiny fraction of the 2:42 runtime); "Here Comes the Night Time II" (the kind of ambient electronic dirge that led me to mostly avoid groups like Nine Inch Nails); "Porno" (not nearly as risque as the title suggests); "Supersymmetry" (remember every bad notion you have of double albums because its on full display here; even worse, after the 5 and 3/4 minutes of avant garde noise, you'd think there'd be some kind of neat hidden track at the end of its 11:17, but there's little more than quiet and brief instrument flourishes strewn about the remaining 6 minutes; dreadful)

Los Campesinos! (NMT)
New Release: No Blues
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Record Label: Wichita Recordings
Sounds Like: We Were Promised Jetpacks (NMT, NMT), Broken Social Scene
Location: Cardiff, Wales

Unlike Arcade Fire's naked ambition, the similarly-sized outfit from Wales – Los Campesinos! – seems to be quite content plugging away at what they do best on their fifth full-length release, No Blues: plucky, infectious indie pop-rock. The group consistently spins out easy-to-digest, relatively joyful-sounding tromps that belile frontman Gareth's recurring themes of mortality and gloom. Seriously, in addition to the entire tracks of "What Death Leaves Behind" and "Cemetery Gaits," there's morbid gems like "We all know we're gonna die" and "May she who casts the first fist of dirt across the casket have mourners lick the mud from her fingernails."

My main issues with the 10-track release are 1) although the group is among the best at meeting my 3-2-1 ratio of uptempo-to-midtempo-to-ballads, their slow songs are not particularly enjoyable. This is nothing new for the band, and even the less enjoyable slow numbers are more worthwhile than Arcade Fire's stabs in the dark at experimentation on Reflektor. 2) I would have like to have heard more input from Gareth's sister Kim, who handles keyboard duties and occasional lead vocals. Neither figure prominently on No Blues

Come for: "Avacado, Baby" (the record's first single is quintessential Los Campesinos!)
Stay for: "What Death Leaves Behind" (the infectious melody obscures the morbidity, in the They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT) / Barenaked Ladies tradition)
You'll be surprised by:  "A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man" (among the most well-rounded tracks in the unit's catalog while still catchy; what's that? A meaningful acoustic guitar part?)
Solid efforts: "For Flotsam" (again, stuff like this is what the band does best); "Cemetery Gaits" (the chorus hook is undeniable); "As Lucerne/The Low" (the kind of sing-along you can't wait to participate in live); "Let It Spill" (gradual builder);
Meh: "Glue Me" (this is one of the slow numbers mentioned above as a bit sludgy, but the chorus still benefits from a top-flight hook); "The Time Before The Last Time" (ibid); "Selling Rope [Swan Dive to Estuary]" (no Los Campesinos! track should ever run 6:18)

White Denim
New Release: Corsicana Lemonade
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Record Label: Downtown Records
Sounds Like: The Sheepdogs (NMT, NMT); The Black Keys (NMT)
Location: Austin, Texas

While The Arcade Fire was overly ambitious with Reflektor and Los Campesinos reliable via No Blues, the group in this set who took the greatest leap forward on their latest release is the classic rock quartet from Austin, White Denim. I fully intended to review their sixth full-length album, D, back in 2011 but never quite got around to it. Maybe because I wasn't blown away with the collection other than a few numbers ("Drugs" being one of those). Regardless, their new effort is more deserving of some attention. Previously, the group would frequently become mired in extended jams that really aren't what get me going on record (I have a bit more patience in a live setting). Here, they haven't needed to sacrifice their top drawer musicianship in exchange for tighter songwriting and audience accessibility.

Come for: "Pretty Green" (the leadoff single is a nice strut in the rhythm track and the type of hazy 70s pop hooks so successfully employed by The Sheepdogs and The Black Keys recently; it's a shame this song wasn't released in 1977)
Stay for: "A Night in Dreams" (the record's leadoff hitter benefits from an excellent boogie groove while frontman James Petralli's stream-of-conscious vocals recall Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott and the guitar harmony effects employed by Petralli and Austin Jenkins are a pretty clear nod to Steely Dan)
You'll be surprised by: "Come Back" (enjoy the fusion of jazz and hard rock here; I wish I could hear this one under the needle on vinyl)
Solid efforts: "Corsicana Lemonade" (the pairing of the pitter-patter rhythm and Petralli's barely-louder-than-a-whisper vocals combine to produce a sense of urgency, albeit one that's somewhat restrained); "New Blue Feeling" (this feels like a very deep Beatles cut off Abbey Road; the twin guitar harmonies here are the best instrumental sounds on the album); "Distant Relative Salute" (southern-fried licks); "Let It Feel (My Eagles)" (this number grew on me the more I listened to it, but the playful melody takes a little too long to not to be scared of its shadow); "A Place to Start" (although its ironically positioned at the end of the record despite its title, it's easygoing, gentle nature is the perfect place to wrap things up; kinda wish there was a saxophone solo in there, though)
Meh: "Limited by Stature" (I like the acoustic guitar treatment on top of the rather trippy arrangement, but I'm not totally digging Petralli's wavy falsetto through much of the track); "Cheer Up / Blues Ending" (as the title's second clause implies, this is plenty bluesy, but also a bit clumsy, as it feels like most of the time its trying not to trip over its feet)
Skip to next track: Nothing repugnant

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