Monday, December 20, 2010

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

10. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

One of the most surprising albums of the year, The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang is a passionate, heartfelt ode to nostalgia, a collection of rough, throaty barroom rockers without pretension or gimmick. The guys from New Jersey are so powerfully connected to their roots that their music runs the risk of being derivative, even imitative; even writing about them is difficult without namedropping their obvious Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison influences (see?). But this set of twangy, contemplative tunes so keenly recreates the best parts of the band’s heroes that they manage to make their own meaning, even if you never quite clicked with the likes of the Boss. Between bouts of air guitar and toe-tapping, you can’t help but wish for the old days along with the boys, even if, as Gaslight suggests, those days weren’t all that great anyways.

9. Beach House – Teen Dream

Here is an album with the strange power to deceive through simplicity. Everything here is slow and lilting, seemingly written according to a formula of lazy beats and cloudy synth lines. Listen closely, though, and you find layers upon layers of texture and rhythm, all creating a sonic portrait under which Victoria Legrand sighs with grace. Her vocals actually take a back seat here, lying down under the weight of Beach House’s rich musical signature. Dream-pop leanings aside, there is an intense discomfort at work in these songs, seeking a fulfillment that always seems on the edge of vision. On “Real Love,” Legrand sings, “There’s something wrong with our hearts.” Doesn’t get much more honest than that.

8. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast

The Florida outfit’s shark-adorned debut album Astro Coast takes classic surf rock and pushes it into the bass age. From the beginning, the album rides guitar riffs as thick as marble, punctuated by screeching solo lines and the heavily echoed singing of frontman John Paul Pitts. His vocals feel so modern that they feel almost out of place among the power chords and driving rhythms that back them, but strangely, Astro Coast never seems conflicted or misguided. Immediately listenable and deceptively deep, these tracks have an upbeat presence that is largely absent in most of the year’s best (and worst) music, and chances are you’ll want to swim right to right to the album’s end and come back again.

7. Sleigh Bells – Treats

Speaking of musical conflicts, this Brooklyn-based band’s debut is a doozy. Sleigh Bells is the musical child of pop singer Alexis Krauss and hardcore guitarist Derek Miller, and it sounds exactly like you would expect an album of such disparate influence to sound. From the outset, Treats overwhelms the ear with pounding drums and overdriven guitars, set to a vaguely poppish beat that wouldn’t be out of place in a radio rap tune. The calamity of the opener, “Tell Em,” is so vicious that it seems almost unsalvageable, save for Krauss’ vocals. Amongst the noise, her chants are just beautiful enough to soften the blow without stopping the punch entirely. She maintains this balance throughout the album, keeping that synth-rock feel with just a touch of pop vocal sensibility. It’s a truly unique sound, making it one of the most original albums of the year.

6. Cee-Lo – The Lady Killer

In truth, this album is nearly impossible to review with any kind of honesty. The success of its lead single, the hilarious and deservedly sensational “Fuck You,” could tempt many to ignore the album the Cee-Lo created around it. Listening to the record though, one can say that this would be a terrible mistake. On The Lady Killer, Cee-Lo prudently takes a moment to warm up the listener before jumping into “Fuck You” with the appropriately titled “Bright Lights Bigger City,” a funky anthem based on a chorus synth line that is nothing short of massive. Later, Cee-Lo cedes the spotlight to Lauren Bennett in “Love Gun,” which attempts and nearly succeeds at replicating the defiance and sexual pulse of “Fuck You.” Cee-Lo deftly brings out the funk on The Lady Killer, melding his feel for pop hitmaking with his classical soul. Surprisingly, he often abandons the romantic persona of the album’s hit, but the music is so damn good that you can’t help but love him anyway.

5. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

My strategy when writing lists like this, and reviews in general, is to listen to the album that I’m reviewing while I write. Sadly, I seem to have hit a roadblock. That is the virtue of Titus Andronicus’ sophomore album, The Monitor. It has a pure rock ‘n roll attitude that refuses to let me focus on anything else. The album’s opener, “A More Perfect Union,” may be the best rock song of the year. It begins with a snippet of an Abraham Lincoln speech, introducing the album’s Civil War theme, and then launches into a barrage of rolling drums and buzzing guitars. When vocalist Patrick Stickles rouses the troops with his slightly off-key holler, one wonders how he got to be a singer, and how this band can possibly be so damned good. Now, let me get back to rocking.

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

And now we come to the album that I’ve been afraid to review for weeks. Out of his depression, online rants, and awkward television interviews, Kanye has managed to come up with the most challenging set of his career and of the year. True, Kanye’s music has lately become so difficult to separate from his questionable persona that anything he releases is likely to be confusing, at best. Behind all the attention-whoring, though, Kanye remains an incredibly talented hip-hop artist. In terms of production, this album is wildly different from his previous work, using less blatant sampling in favor of a darker atmosphere. Technically, Fantasy is far from Kanye’s best rap work; his rhyming is often ragged and unpleasant, forcing the listener to turn to his supporting cast, which is considerable. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Pusha T, and Nicki Minaj all make notable contributions, filling the gaps where Kanye himself seems unable to say what really needs to be said. Despite her infuriating public presence, Minaj proves herself an extremely capable rapper on “Monster,” the album’s rap-battle ego-fest. However, everything on both ends of the album seems to lead to one point. “Runaway,” Kanye’s self-conscious tribute to assholes, is by far the best track here, combining a brilliant verse by Clipse MC Pusha T with surprising humility from Kanye. It’s a stark moment on an album that may not even be Kanye’s best album ever, but is certainly his most memorable.

3. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

For a humble-looking nerd, James Murphy sure is tricky. In “Dance Yrself Clean,” the album’s opener, he taps and clicks with almost frustrating patience, waiting over three minutes before launching into the electro-pop beast that is the next six minutes. This Is Happening is strange in its organization alone, with all but one song clocking in at over five minutes, and three at over eight. Despite its generous track times, the album is starkly minimalist for most of its duration, featuring synth patterns that sometimes sound like they were made with a cheap loop creator. Give him time, though, and Murphy will make you rock out in original and unexpected ways. The crushing pulse of “One Touch” roars with unstoppable energy, rocking so hard it will make you wish it kept going past the nearly eight minutes that it bores into your skull. Have no fear, though; Murphy provides plenty here to get you dancing. Just don’t let him fool you.

2. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

More than three years overdue, OutKast MC Big Boi has finally released an album that proves he is just as worthy of the spotlight as his somewhat crazier counterpart. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is the best hip-hop album in years, more creative than anything OutKast ever did and more straight-up entertaining than anything anyone did this year. The album is produced by a variety of guests along with Big Boi’s own team, leading to a varied mix of sound that constantly keeps the listener guessing. Chico Dusty is never predictable, always good, and often brilliant. Three songs form the album’s strongest set, starting with “Shutterbugg,” the best hip-hop track of the year. Based on a chugging vocal loop, the song leans and pops with funky vigor, while Big Boi brings his signature rhyming style between a sick chorus line. “Tangerine” is darker, dirtier; a distorted guitar line reverberates over tribal drum samples that bounce with filthy energy. “Hustle Blood,” the most surprising track on the album, features a shockingly good performance by Jaime Foxx and deeply sexy production from Lil’ Jon, booming around a chorus so soulful it’ll reverberate for years.

1. The National – High Violet

And so we arrive here, at an album released by a band that is notoriously difficult to praise. Unlike many of the year’s best albums, High Violet is neither particularly creative nor immediately approachable. Had it been released sooner than a month or two ago, it may not have cracked my top ten. That’s just how the National are. Their music grows on you, creeping up from unremarkable mediocrity to something that is crushingly honest and deeply evocative. Their last album, Boxer, holds a place very dear to me, and it is difficult to compartmentalize High Violet and recognize its virtues apart from the latter album. After months of struggling, it now feels like an album that is altogether more cohesive, layered, and mature than Boxer. Unlike its predecessor, High Violet is a unified statement, commenting on the nature of manhood in the modern age, with all its expectations and disappointments. Despite its subdued tone, it manages to feel ambitious. “Terrible Love” opens with slow grandeur, only to fall into the bitter reflection that is “Sorrow.” Singer Matt Berninger hums with depression that feels all too genuine: “I don’t wanna get over you.” Later, his voice expands to encompass the scope of the album’s centerpiece, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a driving track that captures all the stress and complication of adulthood when Berninger laments, “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe.” High Violet never rises out of its lyrical doldrums, speaking in “Lemonworld” of class confusion and social fatigue, and trying to fake adulthood in “England.” Taken together, High Violet is sometimes uplifting, always heartbreaking, and so, so, beautiful.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Story in Progress: Section One

This is the first section of a story I started writing a few weeks ago. At some point I'd like to develop it into something longer, but this is what I have so far. Let me know what you think.

He woke with a jolt in a dry darkness. The air left his lungs in a gasp, as if he had been hit in the gut. He looked around in the close black with the momentary panic of someone waking in a new place for the first time. After a moment, he flexed his hands weakly, rousing them from stiffness and slowly forcing them back to life. He was calmer now; he still could not see, but he remembered why. His breath heated the cold metal before his face, and sweat began to drip from his nose. It was time; he had to get out.

Stretching his arms slowly outward, he pushed on the familiar ridged surface before his waist until he heard a click. His hands now free, he quickly wiped his face before unbuckling the straps around his chest and legs. Heat returned quickly; his breath was again quick and labored, and every movement ached. With a desperate motion, the man pushed on the warm steel behind him, leaning his body into the curved wall that faced him. A click sounded, but he did not move. A faint whimper escaped his lips. Frustration took over as his lungs filled with warm, spent air. A last twitch of energy pulled his head back and jerked it forward, into the dark barrier. This time the click was louder, and he felt the door give. With a high squeak, it fell forward and down, and Jacob Clarke tumbled into the light.

He lay still for a moment, closing his eyes against the blinding sunlight. Forcing himself onto his back, Clarke lifted a hand to cover his eyes before opening them. Tears streamed down his face as his tender retinas perceived the light of what he realized was merely the dim glow of a sunset. He had been lucky - the light of a midday sun could have blinded him permanently. His childlike eyes eventually stopped watering, and Clarke weakly smiled in the joy of his sight, after twelve years of darkness.

Gathering himself, Clarke examined his surroundings. The black shell that had held him was now a heap of bent steel. He hurriedly crawled back to the pile and began to search, pushing aside chunks of shell that were already collapsing into dark dust. After a moment he pulled a small leather parcel from the heap, which he opened in delight. Inside he found a package of semi-frozen meat product and a small bottle of distilled water. He breathed on the food package excitedly before wolfing down half of its contents, chasing the tasteless mixture with two gulps of water.

His strength somewhat renewed, Clarke finally stood. A cursory scan told him that he was in a coniferous forest, fairly dense but open enough to allow travel. The ground where he stood was mostly flat and was mostly covered by needles, some bright blue, some a deep, rusty red. Behind him stood a small foothill that lead to a mountain, stretching to perhaps fifteen thousand feet at the summit. He saw no clear path out of the area, but knew he must move soon.

A sudden breeze blew over Clarke, and he shivered under the sweat of exhaustion. A poignant scent entered his nostrils, like old eggs and car exhaust. Clarke’s eyes blurred momentarily, and as he gazed at the ground beneath his feet, the deep red of the dry grass forced sharp realization into his mind. His breath stopped short, caught by the sudden knowledge that every breath was toxic. Panicked, Clarke stumbled to the remains of the black shelter, throwing the remaining pieces aside as his lungs clinched tighter in terrible immediacy. His last ounce of strength heaved away a small segment of steel that covered the floorpiece of the shell, revealing a small silver package lined with tiny blue capsules. His strength almost gone, Clarke ripped the aluminum package and choked down two of the pills before his vision faded once more to black.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R (Deluxe Reissue)

Some artists have a unique talent for attitude, an intrinsic charisma that often is both natural and ludicrous. Elvis gave it a name. The Rolling Stones gave it a dark sexuality. In the modern era, this attitude is embodied in Queens of the Stone Age, the eclectic modern rock act spawned from the ashes of desert metal gods Kyuss. Fronted by ex-members Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, Queens have managed to isolate the most focused aspects of their former band while introducing a sense of humor that was seriously lacking with Kyuss. Queens, the result of this experiment in facecrushing rock, have managed to create something original and consistently excellent in a career that saw a musical high point in 2000's "Rated R."

The most immediately noticeable trait of "Rated R" is its incredible ability to party. The opener, "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," consists entirely of Homme singing a laundry list of narcotics over a dense mix of power chords and chest-thumping bass. "Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol.....c-c-c-c-c-cocaaiiine!!!" says Homme. Ok, so on the subtlety scale, this one earns about a negative pile of turds. But then, Queens have never been about subtlety, preferring instead to slap you in the face while shouting vague innuendos in your ear. This tactic is surprisingly effective, and chances are it won't bother most listeners.

But Homme doesn't really seem content with stating the obvious. The following standout track, "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret," finds him in total command of his own mystery, daring the listener, "Leap of faith, do you doubt?/ Cut you in, I just cut you out." The deceptive sweetness of the chimes that echo throughout the song only serves to shock when Homme's distorted guitar roars into the chorus under his oddly charming falsetto. The album is filled with brilliant moments like this; the hand-drum intro of "Better Living Through Chemistry" and the Nick Oliveri's terrifying howl in "Tension Head" are two more examples. The former is dominated by the creep of Oliveri's twisting, sliding bassline, which stands out as one of the album's best musical statements and its most unshakable earworm. Likewise, "Tension Head" rides a vicious guitar riff from Homme into Oliveri's animalistic shriek, extolling the virtues and vices of the hard-partying lifestyle for which the bassist was later fired from the band. It's this interplay between Homme and Oliveri that makes "Rated R" so successful as a whole. Homme provides a laid-back, intriguing charm that is both tempered and enhanced by the downright sleaze of Oliveri's vocal chaos.

Though Queens has continued to rock after Oliveri's departure, their raw edge has been a little tempered in later releases. Fortunately, this year's reissue of "Rated R" contains an extra helping of the Queens in their absolute prime. Five unreleased tracks have been included, highlighted by the Carly Simon parody "You're So Vague" and the pounding thrash of "Born to Hula." Even better are the ten live tracks included on the album's second disc, mostly derived from the band's performance at the 2000 Reading Festival. The set contains a few of the album's best, executed in a searing fashion that should make any fan desperately crave for some tour dates. Closing out the live material is a rendition of "Millionaire," a song from on of Homme's side projects that would be recorded for the next Queens album. It stands as arguably their best song, and it's fascinating to hear it live before it was recorded in 2002. Less facemelting but equally amusing are Homme's antics throughout the set, during which he tells the crowd several times, "This is a song for you!"

Overall, "Rated R" deserves the deluxe treatment, and it is well served by the chosen bonus material. Submit yourself to "Rated R"'s distorted heat, and you'll be dazzled by its desert thunder. By the end, you undoubtedly will find yourself echoing Oliveri and Homme in the set's closer with an eager, if less throat-shredding cry: "This one's down.../Give me some more!"

Friday, July 30, 2010

Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

Before we begin, a quick preface: my name is Ben and I’m going to be hopefully contributing to this blog on a fairly regular basis, especially in terms of reviews.

The Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

So it’s come to this, the most impossible-to-review album of the year (unless, of course, Radiohead follows up on rumor and releases something, but that has yet to be seen). Arcade Fire put themselves in a difficult place after starting their career with one of the landmark albums of the decade, a work that garnered massive critical and popular acceptance. Of course, as with any band that comes out with something of Funeral’s stature, backlash is inevitable, and the band did little to temper that backlash with their second album, Neon Bible, a decent if incredibly bloated work trading on awkwardly used Springsteen-isms, only occasionally reaching the highs of power and poignancy that so defined Funeral. So, here, another three years later, they’ve released The Suburbs, and, inevitably, we must attempt to consider it in multiple ways.

The problem with a band like Arcade Fire, one that seems fully formed from the second they come into popular view, one that releases a bona fide classic as its first major release, is that from then on, considering their work will become a constant tug of war. On one hand, we have to try and consider their albums as objectively as possible, as products, statements of their own. On the other hand though, it is impossible to ever fully separate Arcade Fire from Funeral. It’s their definitive work, and will be, probably for their entire career unless they can pull a Radiohead and drop an album so innovative and advanced as to make Funeral sound like a mere stepping stone.

How then, is the album? Well, in the objective-rating sense, pretty fucking good. Better than that, even, a potential album of the year contender, guaranteed a major presence on end of the year lists ranging from the glossiest of magazines to the depth of the blogosphere. There are numerous standout tracks, ranging from “City With No Children,” a stronger invocation of classic Springsteen tropes than anything on Neon Bible, to the ambling, cosmic Americana inflected “Wasted Hours.” “Month of May” and “Ready to Start” are propulsive, thrilling rockers, “Deep Blue” perfectly encapsulates everything appealing about their apocalyptic tendencies, and “Half Light II” instills a new wave sensibility that balances magnificently with the Neil Young-esque guitar stomp. There are some weak spots, as, without the immensely diverse and unusual instrumental decisions found on Funeral and remaining as one of the stronger aspects of Neon Bible, a lot of the tracks blur together as almost interchangeable guitar and keyboard driven indie rock anthems, albeit uniformly strong ones. When they stretch out, however, and add the instrumental flourishes that so distinguished their debut, the results are unsurprisingly tremendous.

The next question, and perhaps the more important one, is how does it stack up? And, perhaps inevitably, the answer is, “adequately.” The peaks in tracks like “Tunnels,” “Power Out,” and “Rebellion (Lies)” are approached, but never equaled by “We Used to Wait,” “Suburban War,” and the like. The general absence of the ornate instrumentation so prevalent in the past can put an uncomfortable amount of light on Win Butler’s lyrics, which, when surrounded by grandiosity always sounded appropriate, but, in certain contexts here can sometimes seem alternately forced and embarrassingly elementary. The Suburbs, while certainly personal and sincere, doesn’t come close to the grand, tortured emotional statement that was Funeral. And, of course, it couldn’t. Funeral was the product of a very specific set of circumstances, circumstances that can’t be duplicated on a regular basis. It would be absolutely unreasonable to expect Arcade Fire’s later works to match it. But that’s the trouble of starting your career with a classic. So, while “Sprawl I (Flatland)” could have been the crowning achievement of a lesser band and “The Suburbs” suite in many hands would have seemed a pinnacle of ambition, The Suburbs will forever lay in the shadow of the now near-mythical classic that preceded it.

To avoid ending this on a down note though, one song deserves special recognition, a track that resides proudly in the canon of untouchably great Arcade Fire songs, up there with the gothic grander of “Intervention,” the exhilaration of “No Cars Go,” and, admittedly the majority of Funeral. This is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” It is thoroughly unlike everything else the Arcade Fire have done to this point, but thoroughly recognizable as nothing else. An immense, almost electro-pop track, clearly indebted to the new wave acts claimed by Arcade Fire as influences this time around, but thrillingly vibrant and vital, sung by Regine Chassagne. This track reminds us that while Arcade Fire may be perpetually trapped in a quixotic attempt to define themselves outside of a monolithic work, they remain capable of astonishing audiences in ways that could never be expected.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Concert Review: Kings of Leon @ Fiddler's Green Amphitheater, 7/20/2010

Thanks to my lovely girlfriend Meg, I had the chance to see Kings of Leon this week at Fiddler's Green (or Comfort Dental Amphitheater, as it will heretofore not be called). I've been relatively familiar with Kings of Leon for a while now, but I'd never gotten into their music much past the singles from their last two albums, so I was looking forward to hearing their music in a different setting than contemporary radio.

I've always felt that Kings of Leon are one of the more unique rock bands to gain mainstream success in the last few years. Their 2007 effort, "Because of the Times," gained considerable success overseas, while the more recent "Only by the Night" (2008) employed a more mainstream rock sound that granted them larger recognition in the States. Some longtime fans found this move somewhat alienating, seeing the more accessible approach as a kind of sellout for radio play. Granted, "Only by the Night" did and does receive a great deal of radio time, but this has never bothered me much. It's not a sin for a band to seek a wider audience as long as the material is still strong, which I felt it more or less was.

That said, I've consistently been bothered by KoL's album sound. Across the board, the band's albums suffer from poor mixes that make the music feel much weaker than it should. In studio, KoL seems more or less content to undercut their guitars in favor of upmixed drum tracks and cranked vocals. Unfortunately, this trend really doesn't suit the group's talents. Lead singer Caleb Followill tends to put a great deal of energy into his vocals, and while he's certainly competent, his tendency to miss notes is somewhat amplified by loud volumes.

I was pleased, however, to discover that these issues are virtually nonexistent on the live stage. The band opened Tuesday's show with the quasi-industrial chugger "Crawl," which happens to be one of my personal favorites of theirs. I was instantly surprised and pleased by the aggressiveness and power with which the band played. Drummer Nathan Followill (they're all Followills, three brothers and a cousin) competently lead the group around most of the songs, as he does on album, but more noticeable was the force behind guitarist Matthew Followill's riffs. These simply blasted from the first moment, making an instant and substantial improvement on a good repertoire that simply begs to be performed live.

From here, Kings of Leon moved into a diverse selection of their career's work, sampling from their earliest albums, "Youth & Young Manhood" and "Aha Shake Heartbreak." Songs like "Slow Night, So Long" and "Immortals" provided a glimpse into territory that was, for me, entirely unknown. I was impressed by these early entries, as much by their actual quality as by the band's decision to fill a good portion of their setlist with older material. From there, the band played their obligatory hits "Sex on Fire" and "Notion" to great effect, and to the great pleasure of the night's enthusiastic crowd. After a short setbreak, KoL played mega-hit "Use Somebody" before closing with the excellent "Black Thumbnail," which served as an powerful bookend to an extremely entertaining night.

While their new work differs from their earlier material, their entire catalogue is bound together by its visceral, gut-level impact. To enjoy Kings of Leon, one must try not to think too much; their music hits low and fast, with all the frenetic energy befitting a great rock show. While each member contributed a great deal of intensity, Caleb Followill provided a passionate focal point for the entire experience. He sings with a reckless abandon that few modern singers dare to approach, boosted by the increased instrumental power that the band demonstrated all night. The man simply bellows every line, and rock fans should be more than willing to listen.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Concert Review: Tool @ Red Rocks, 6/29/2010

I had the good fortune to get my hands on tickets to see Tool on their summer mini-tour this year, where they played two nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. Here's my review of the show.

The first time I saw Tool was at Bonnaroo 2007, where they headlined on the main stage. At the time, I considered that show to be the best I'd ever seen, until I saw Nine Inch Nails on their Lights in the Sky tour. Tool's visuals were as spectacular as I expected that night, and they played a great, if a little predictable, setlist with the fantastic live sound for which they're known. Last year's set at Mile High Music Festival was almost identical, though with a somewhat poorer sound mix that left me just a bit disappointed. In light of that, I went into this week's show trying not to get my hopes up too high for any surprises; if anything, I expected another solid set from one of the best live acts in the business.

Fortunately, my expectations were blown away from the first note. After a dismal set from hip=hop duo Dalek, the lights at Red Rocks went out and the amphitheater began to echo with the sound of Timothy Leary's ragged voice stating, "Think for yourself...question authority." Fans of Tool will recognize this as the live intro for "Third Eye," the thirteen-minute, rarely-played closer to Tool's second album, Aenima. Tuesday's rendition of the song was easily the best live version I've heard, and it charged the night atmosphere with furious intensity. It was an entirely unexpected start to one of the best shows I've ever seen.

Maynard James Keenan's vocals were the strongest of his that I've heard in a live setting. Likewise, his energy was off the charts for most of the concert; the simian dance of his mohawked silhouette was a constant source of entertainment. Instrumentally, Tool is always stellar, both on album and live, but they seemed especially tight for this show. Bassist Justin Chancellor provided a meaty foundation for guitarist Adam Jones, whose distorted guitar lines were as varied and complex as I've heard from him. Of course, Danny Carey continues to prove that he is by a wide margin the best drummer in music today. Watching Carey play is one of the greatest displays of musical excellence in the business; the man simply astonishes every time he takes his seat behind the kit, and Tuesday was no exception.

Following "Third Eye," the band moved into the heavy chug of "Jambi," from their most recent album. From their, Tool moved through classics like "Stinkfist" and "Schism," always concert favorites on which the band has expanded and perfected over the years. Another pleasant surprise came in the form of "Intension," which provided a downtempo interlude before the heavier "Right In Two," which was also unexpected. Of course, no Tool show would be complete without the nine-minute epic that is "Lateralus." Tool invited openers Dalek onto the stage for this number, and the duo did an admirable job of not butchering the song. It wasn't as memorable an appearance as, say, Tom Morello's at the Bonnaroo show, but Dalek's ambient electronics provided an interesting take on a song that is already great. Tool closed the show with "Aenema," the fiery title track to their second album. I saw them play this at Bonnaroo, but Tuesday's performance was intense in a way that was not possible at a festival show. The entire crowd seemed behind this one, ranting and screaming and pleading along with Keenan until the final blast. It was a massive display, and is definitely one of the best tracks I've ever seen performed live from any band.

Visually, Tool seems to have somewhat reimagined their live approach for this tour. The large screens that backed the band previously were increased in both size and number, and Carey's drum kit was lit from underneath. The screens played a mostly new series of animations, some from Tool's stop-motion videos and some different entirely. This effect was coupled with a stellar laser setup that kicked in at perfect moments throughout the show. The most remarkable visual element was, however, not the band's doing. About an hour and twenty minutes into the show, the moon rose behind the huge rock formations around the stage, bright orange and gargantuan. It provided an anchor for the chaos of the lights on stage, and was the kind of perfect moment that happens only very rarely at any live show.

Ultimately, though, it's Tool's instrumental preciseness and the fullness of their live sound that makes them such a great act to behold. When the band sticks to their comfort zone and plays their hits, they're great. When they take chances, as they did with "Third Eye" and "Right in Two" last night, they're phenomenal. Despite claims that the band is aging, Tool's show is still one of the very best, and is something that any music fan should see.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Roots - How I Got Over

For almost two decades, The Roots have remained a beacon of musical and intellectual quality in the mire of a hip-hop scene that has undergone constant fluctuation. For a casual hip-hop listener like myself, The Roots embody everything that is best in the genre: powerful lyrics, aggressive production, and a stellar live show that stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Lead MC Black Thought has never shied away from a bit of modern wisdom rapped with spirit and intensity, backed by the always-excellent production and percussion of drummer ?uestlove (I'm going to try to write that name as few times as possible for the sake of my sanity). Unfortunately, their unique approach to hip-hop has always kept The Roots more or less out of the commercial spotlight, though fans of the genre will undoubtedly appreciate their influence. This trend has never really changed, so whenever the band decides to release an album, it always comes as both a surprise that they continue to successfully reinvent their music and a disappointment that their type of work isn't less prevalent in the popular music scene.

The band's latest effort, "How I Got Over," comes after they have been thrust into the spotlight by virtue of being Jimmy Fallon's late night band (probably the only thing of value Fallon has ever been associated with). On a large scale, the album marks a significant departure from the band's last release, "Rising Down," which was 16 tracks of caustic hip-hop fury at its finest. This time around, The Roots find themselves more or less in relax mode. "How I Got Over" contains some of the most laid back material the band has ever released, largely as a result of its chilled-out, almost ambient production style. As usual, the songs are anchored around ?uestlove's beats, which are as solid as ever, if not particularly remarkable here. More surprising is the use of piano and light synth samples that seem to float around the drums. These musical choices have the dual effect of creating an exceptional flow over the album's duration while making the individual songs nearly blend together. As a cohesive product, the album works particularly well in this regard; it is listenable on a broad scale in a way that "Rising Down" was certainly not. Unfortunately, this makes "How I Got Over" difficult to engage in on the intimate, smash-your-face way that makes much of The Roots' material so effective.

Fortunately, it doesn't seem that the band's recent exposure has altered their poetically realistic worldview. Black Thought seems as inspired as ever, engaging in topics ranging from religion, modern discourse, poverty, and so on. As usual, guest appearances abound here, with P.O.R.N., Truck North, the Dirty Projectors, and various others offering their stylings to the record, but none with the same power as Black Thought himself. His disgust with the state of modern media is apparent on "Dear God 2.0," the album's first standout, where the MC observes, "technology turning the planet into zombies/ Everybody all in everybody's dirty laundry," and asks, "Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?" These are deep issues for any rapper, and Black Thought tackles them with courage and intensity. For all the uncertainty contained in the first half of the album though, The Roots seem to offer some reconciliation. On "The Fire," a notable collaboration with John Legend, Black Thought raps a kind of fierce determination that was previously absent from the album: "You can't escape/ the history you was meant to make/ That's why the highest victory is what I'm meant to take/ You came to celebrate/ I came to celebrate." Coming from Black Thought, it's a convincing sentiment, and is ultimately the emotional high point of the album.

More than anything, "How I Got Over" is the most mixed bag The Roots have created in years. In the end, enjoyment of the album will likely come down to the listener's mindset. Longtime fans, especially those who enjoyed "Rising Down," may be disappointed by this album's laid back tone, mostly devoid of musical aggression. However, listeners are also encouraged to take in "How I Got Over" a few times before making judgment; its ideas are rapped in such density that it merits repeated listens. Though it lacks a significant number of excellent songs, the album works well enough as a whole that the dedicated listener will forgive the absence. If nothing else, "How I Got Over" proves that The Roots are as observant as ever, and are perhaps even hopeful about what they see.


Stream the album for free here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How to Destroy Angels - EP

Those readers who have followed my blog or who know me personally will know that I am a diehard fan of both Nine Inch Nails and its key member, Trent Reznor. This week, How To Destroy Angels, Reznor's first project since declaring Nine Inch Nails to be on hiatus, released its debut online, a free six-song EP. The band features Reznor along with his new wife Mariqueen Maandig (formerly of West Indian Girl) and longtime colleague and multi-instrumentalist Atticus Ross.

Early clips and suggestions from the band's members suggested that HTDA would at least be influenced by Reznor's musical signature, but differences in sound were evident from the start. Most notable of these is the introduction of a female vocalist in Maandig, whose undulating whisper provides an intriguing change to the sound that Reznor more or less perfected in two decades of Nine Inch Nails. The first single, "A Drowning," finds Maandig at her most aggressive, breaking over the song's mix of fuzzy electronics and distorted guitars to lend a firm foothold on a song that focuses mostly on atmosphere. The song is unique in this way, because for the majority of the EP, Maandig's vocals are mostly used for texture, rarely rising above a soft lilt.

Thankfully, the combination of her voice and Reznor's signature electronics seems to work, at least for a short set like this. Though the EP certainly isn't short on atmosphere, its greatest strength lies in its percussive hooks, most of which are reminiscent of late era Nine Inch Nails. Computerized distortion blares in tandem with the more organic sounds of keyboards and occasional strings, creating a synthesis acoustic and electronic that recalls tracks from Reznor's masterpiece, "The Downward Spiral," while incorporating the harsh soundscape of "Year Zero." The EP's final single, "The Believers," represents the most complete fusion of these elements. The song's acoustic elements lend a tribal feel to the heavy percussive beat, punctuated by bursts of the static and fuzz that made "Year Zero" memorable. Maandig's vocal restraint also contributes here, an almost instrumental sigh that intones, "We are the ones who still believe." Focused without being constrained by its own direction, "The Believers" is the strongest number of the set. Indeed, it seems that Reznor has found inspiration in this new project, in which he is free to explore sonic realms outside the darkness embodied in Nine Inch Nails. Likewise Reznor, and the musicians around him, truly do seem to believe that they are on the road to capturing something musically unique.

Despite this, it occasionally feels that the group loses direction. "BBB" commands, "Listen to the sound/ Of my big black boots," a line that seems ridiculous by itself, let alone repeated ad nauseum as it is. It's an unfortunate lapse, because musically, "BBB" boasts one of the tightest, sexiest grooves on the album. It's certainly a hook worthy of Reznor's extensively sexual canon; it's just a shame that the chorus line comes off so hackneyed. Fans will easily forgive the oversight, though, and it remains one of the set's only weak points.

On a large scale, "How to Destroy Angels" accomplishes exactly what it intends, introducing a new brand of industrial pop backed by the genre's undisputed master. Fans of Nine Inch Nails will undoubtedly seek to locate the record within the NIN catalogue, but this EP really needs no history lesson. It knows its strengths and plays to them well, drawing on powerful contributions from each member (Atticus Ross' bassline on "Parasite" is one of the best in years), and it inspires hope for the band's future. In the past, Reznor was at his best when he sought to construct cohesive, complex albums without shying from the power of a great hook. A short collection like this, successful as it is, makes us wonder what the trio plans for its first full-length release, presumably later this year or early next. If nothing else, let it be said that "How to Destoy Angels" shows great promise, and it proves that age and marriage, at least for Reznor, are not creative obstacles in the least.


Get the album here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Return to Cookie Mountain

Recently, named Spoon the band of the decade, based on a number of arbitrary criteria that don't seem to have a whole lot to do with the music Spoon released and supported by my friend Hugh at Warm Sound, Aqueous Transmission. I don't much care for Spoon, so I've decided to defend my own pick for band of the decade, TV on the Radio. I've decided to start with a review of their second album, “Return to Cookie Mountain.” Though TVotR (as they will henceforth be referenced) released an excellent EP (“Young Liars”) and an full-length record (“Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes”) in 2003 and 2004 respectively, their sound did not reach its deserved fruition until “Return” was issued in 2006.

TVotR's unique combination of funk, rock, and electronic elements is more fully explored in this second album, largely due to the explosive production of David Sitek. Though the band employs diverse instrumentation and unique lyrics, “Return” features a broad, epic sound that is almost entirely unheard of in the realm of indie music, which relies so frequently on instrumental minimalism and stripped-down production. The synthesized soundscape of “Province” provides an early indicator of the album's musical color, featuring the elegantly harmonized vocals of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone over an expansive background of electronic sound. “Hours,” meanwhile, represents the best vocal melody on the album, where Adebimpe regretfully states, “You listened for the truth/ Just too bad they lied.” The song's mournful, dirgelike vocal bridge highlights Adebimpe and Malone as perfect vocal counterparts; the album plays on this interchange through its duration, and it remains one of the record's greatest strengths.

Instrumentally, “Return to Cookie Mountain” benefits greatly from the addition of a live drummer in Jaleel Bunton, whose percussive skills provide a sense of groove that was strikingly absent on TVotR's previous releases. Bunton's work finds ways to remain relevant over the constant barrage of melodic instrumentation, most powerfully so on the frenzy of “Dirtywhirl” and in the churning grind of the album's closer, “Wash the Day.” However, no song on “Return to Cookie Mountain” finds a better balance of musical ferocity and lyrical presence than on the album's brilliant centerpiece, “Wolf Like Me.” The song's primal beat feels like a chase through the wilderness, paralleled by the deranged intensity of Adebimpe's vocals. The terror in his voice betrays a savage honesty; when he confesses, “My heart's aflame,/ my body's changed, but god I like it,” you're forced to believe him. Malone's late entrance into the song is a conciliatory decree: “We're howling forever,” he cries. The end result of these elements is undoubtedly the best song on the album, and a strong candidate for best song of the decade. With the whole of “Return to Cookie Mountain” revolving around the song as an emotional anchor, one can't help but feel that TVotR is a band striving to illustrate a universal torment caged in the intricate rhythms and broad progressions of their music. The result is an excellent album, almost certainly the year's best, and a candidate for best of the decade.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pretty Hate Machine: Happiness in Suffering

This is a piece I did as a writing sample for school. Let me know what you think.

Trent Reznor, frontman and creative arbiter of industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails, has always been something of an enigma as a musical artist. While his roots lay in the burgeoning synth-pop movement of the 1980’s, Reznor’s development as a musician and composer are somewhat abstract, owing largely to the stark originality of his creative catalogue. By the early 90’s, Reznor had established himself as the father of industrial music, spawning a variety of well-intentioned imitators that never managed to replicate his commercial and artistic success. Strangely, though, this fame seems largely to have been retroactively attributed to Reznor’s early work; at the time of his 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine, the majority of critics either ignored or deemed the album mediocre at best. Despite this fact, Reznor has become recognized as one of the best composers, producers, and performers of electronic music in the world, though a great deal of his material employs traditional instruments.

Likewise, Pretty Hate Machine has developed as one of the markers of change in the popular music of the 1990’s, partially because of the excellence of its composition, but also because of the intense originality and striking honesty of its lyrical content. Instrumentally, the album relies heavily on synthesizers and electronic percussion, making sparing use of electric guitars as backing textures. Famously, Reznor recorded the album during a stint as janitor at a Cleveland studio, working exclusively by himself through the entire album. Reznor’s solitary nature at this time is apparent in the music; moreover, his intense loneliness serves as the album’s primary source of power. Drawing from this, Reznor finds time in the album’s relatively sparse ten songs to explore love, faith, addiction, and every possible response to each. Though his lyrics have an undeniable tendency towards the dramatic, Reznor’s musical and vocal skill never leave his words feeling anything short of entirely genuine.

Most striking about the music Pretty Hate Machine is the strange juxtaposition that Reznor creates from the very first beat. “Head Like a Hole,” the album’s classic opener, features an infectious dance club beat under Reznor’s frustrated growls against some nameless controller. This musical contrast continues throughout the album, and it partially explains why Pretty Hate Machine has garnered so much cult success since its release. More interesting, however, is the voice that rides the ever-present beat. Reznor’s always dramatic, often tortured voice lends to the music a presence that is inconsolably alienated, yet deeply human. This is a trend that is evident through the caustic rage of 1992’s Broken EP and refined to musical and lyrical perfection in 1994’s masterpiece The Downward Spiral, though neither album did so with the shocking originality of Pretty Hate Machine.

Beyond the melodrama of Reznor’s words, the most dominant trait of Pretty Hate Machine is the apparently solitary theme of every song. Tackling serious subjects like religion and addiction is no meager task for any songwriter, and Reznor’s strict focus on the individual makes them seem altogether inaccessible. However, the initially terrifying intimacy of his words betrays their unique beauty. Paradoxically, Reznor’s lyrics here are so intensely personal that they become undeniably universal. Consider the agonized confession of “Terrible Lie”: “Seems like salvation comes only in our dreams/ I feel my hatred grow all the more extreme/ Can this world really be as sad as it seems?” Here, Reznor’s religious torment, though based in personal questions, reflects the rejection of spiritual faith in an increasingly secular society striving to maintain religious influence. Likewise, when Reznor states in “Kinda I Want To,” “I know it’s not the right thing…but kinda I want to,” his rejection of sexual repression echoes a society in which youth were previously taught to ignore their sexuality entirely. More broadly, Reznor’s talent of humanizing the unrelatable translated into an album of uncompromising social power, establishing Pretty Hate Machine as the harbinger of a generational attitude that was reflected in all art forms throughout the 1990’s.

At first glance, the timing of Pretty Hate Machine’s release has as much to do with its relevance as does its content. Debuted at the end of 1989, the album has the unique position of being one of the last major works to arrive on the popular music scene before the decade changed. However, to state that the album’s release date is responsible for its importance would be to shortchange its quality. Specifically, Pretty Hate Machine’s themes seem both to mirror and to predict the angst and social disconnect discussed by more commercially popular bands like Nirvana. However, aside from some basic thematic similarities, the Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails strove to illuminate vastly different subjects. Where grunge explored boredom and apathy, Trent Reznor depicted a deep-seated personal disease that directly affected 90’s youth as a whole. In essence, Reznor cried the pain of a generation without a meaningful cause or sense of unity, one that did not fit the mold constructed by the social powers of its time. By picturing himself as an outcast, Reznor created through Nine Inch Nails a sense of common struggle in which the archetypal pariah became intimately human. Likewise, more than any other artwork of its time, Pretty Hate Machine and the deliberate honesty of its lyrics preserve the vulnerability of isolated youth while speaking to the common repression, fear, and religious anxiety of an entire generation.