SECOND WAVE Part 2: 2001

2001

 

 

 

 

THE ARGUMENT | DISCOVERY | GIRLS CAN TELL | MISS E… SO ADDICTIVE | NO MORE SHALL WE PART | VESPERTINE | WEEZER (THE GREEN ALBUM)

 

 

 

THE ARGUMENT – Fugazi

(Dischord)

*****

I’m on a mission to never agree.

Strangelight\Cashout\Argument

The Kill or Untitled

 

How does a combative, individualistic musical collective like Fugazi go out with style? Dying honorably in battle, of course. Well, okay, that metaphor was a stretch. I guess what I mean is they left us with their finest, grandest moment.

It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into making The Argument; it’s well-played and immensely satisfying. I’ve listened to it countless times (easily much more than any other record I downloaded for these reviews), and been awestruck every one. Its sound combines the ferocity and rawness of the Jesus Lizard with the depth and forethought of Talking Heads’ music, while keeping the rhythmic, diverse predilections of both. On a cosmetic level, it makes for a refreshing, consistent and enjoyable guitar rock album. But those who yearn for more can stick around and notice all the little tweaks the band puts into that framework.

The Argument has carefully considered, strikingly mature statements written and performed with the utmost integrity and care, and the songs are all varied and exciting in their own way. Fugazi’s themes and lyrics are focused to pinpoint precision, yet they go all over the place sonically, in a diverse but not “Hey! Look, we’re trying a new genre!” sort of way. They crunch, sway, and shriek to thrill the listener. The rhythms and melodies of these tracks almost undergo character arcs during their running time, remaining familiar but going through breathtaking and fascinating changes and developments. Every instrument’s part sounds like it was planned meticulously, that the band had a viable idea of something memorable and noteworthy to do with it. Their technique is impeccable, with deft, complicated touches and tricky patterns. The greatness of every individual performer is compounded when combined with the whole and basically blends into a full-band clamor of genius. I was later stunned to find that Ian MacKaye (rhymes with the first two syllables of MacGyver) and Guy (rhymes with “key”) Picciotto split authorship of nine songs, enough to qualify them both as masters of the form. Additionally, bassist Joe Lally contributes “The Kill”, which is just as accomplished as the other members’ efforts and fits in precisely with their aesthetic.

There is so much territory covered on this record it’s staggering. Even if one analyzed the compositions on a second-by-second basis, it would be evident the LP in consideration is a fully evolved, perfectly realized masterwork. In short, Fugazi didn’t cut any corners making The Argument and had no dearth of inspiration while creating it. Every track is like a noirish vignette – if Martin Scorsese were a bigger fan of punk than the Rolling Stones, this is totally what he’d score his films with. This band has a cinematic grandeur and gritty realism that’s hard to find these days. It’s very tactile, as opposed to the effete, ethereal and uninvolving soundscapes that permeate modern indie pop.

The group has two drummers and three guitarists (who all do an astonishing job), so it’s obvious that there’s an abundance of stuff to listen to here. They even recruited a cellist for this record, and she is used more than capably to add solemnity and grief to the proceedings. There’s far more crooning and murmuring than shouting, and when that comes up, it’s certainly more mellifluous than the hoarse scream hardcore bands so often use. With one exception: on “Full Disclosure”, Picciotto sounds like a guy who can only yell, trying to sing. His voice is winningly ragged, but he produces some great skewed melodies over the course of the LP.

MacKaye and company just defer to what a given song needs. They set out with an agenda and they’ll be damned if they aren’t following through with it on this last try. Nothing about The Argument is standard. There’s texture and soundscaping where you’d expect a riff, and memorable grooves when you were expecting a mood-setter. Not one meter of sonic space is taken for granted; no single note is perfunctory; everything is utilized to its fullest extent at all times. These independent rockers present everything with such clarity, sympathy and deceptively low-key rhetoric so as to defuse any potential pretension or bombast. This masterpiece is one I respect for its conception, appreciate for its impeccable construction and replay endlessly for its flawless execution.

In fact, I would argue that Fugazi takes all the best, most intriguing and sophisticated parts of progressive rock and incorporates them into the humble, thrilling and intelligent mold of hardcore punk. I mean, the most complex track here, “Epic Problem”, has like seven different parts in it! That’s insane! Those kinds of clever tricks and unique manipulations are just what prog bands do, and when it’s applied to concise tunes and music that actually kicks ass, nothing could be better.

The songs all have at least a couple bona fide catchy hooks and enthralling parts each to entice the wary listener, but the band’s musical ambitions are so deep that even after several listens, I got a huge kick out of sitting back and attuning my ear to the numerous details they pack in. And there are tons of those, not to mention dozens of attention-grabbing guitar and drum tones, along with vastly different methods of compositional construction and arrangement. At times, it can be imposing, confusing and almost overbearingly cerebral (especially for people who normally wouldn’t give the time of day to riff rock), but give it a little patience. In short, you should listen to this record if you like it when an artwork transcends the limitations of its medium and does awesome things you’d never expect.

Because The Argument is a sterling lesson in how to make elaborate and potentially overindulgent ideas work as music – graft the harsher, trickier parts into a more accessible format, like the beautiful semi-ballad that emerges from the title track’s found-sound news report collage. Or the hyperspeed, look-at-my-chops solo break in “Nightshop” that, since it’s short and flashy, serves as a permissible and downright exciting bridge between the catchier portions. Placing Guy Picciotto’s off-putting, raw-throated shout in the midst of the hookiest, most straightforward tune here, “Full Disclosure”. Putting the album’s most controversial and inflammatory message in the calm, atmospheric “The Kill”.

Balancing things out like this is the ideal way for any artist to retain their message, creativity and continuity while entertaining the listener and not shifting to extremes that make them seem like a caricature. Plus, it gives the audience lots more to discover with each successive listen, as they uncover layers of thought and sound they disregarded the first time through.

The chugging bass riff at the core of “The Kill” is the song’s beating heart, driving its energy and making it comprehensible. “Oh”’s rhythm guitar initially sacrifices melody for a mad and impressive display of what seems to be scattershot Morse code in musical form. “Cashout”’s easily overlooked bass and cello undercurrent is one of the catchiest, most propulsive and exciting things here. “Strangelight” is organized almost like an operetta, with mellow, foreboding flourishes opening the song and a tense raga-like jam closing it. The drama and eventual explosion in between is managed exquisitely.

As a side note, this record is also a defining example of an unbreakable compositional rule I’ve come up with after months of consideration: a high point of a song is always made even better if it is kept tantalizingly short and leaves the listener wanting more. My reasoning being that it takes far, far longer for that section to grow stale or overly familiar, and its premature decrescendo ensures tons of replays to experience that incredible portion again and again. It makes sense that you’d want to keep the best part of your tune succinct, rather than repeat it and wear out its welcome. Of all the examples that demonstrate this rule, I can’t think of hardly any cases where I’d change it and prolong the ending. Especially when it’s combined with proper buildup and tension beforehand – that makes the moment of glory that much more majestic and deserved. A lot of the material here follows this rule of being concise, so the final product will be that much more exhilarating.

The Argument is a hard rock album that walks softly, carries a big stick, and knows when to use it. It has the most vivid, sensible use of dynamics I’ve heard in a long while. Fugazi’s volume controls aren’t an on/off switch; they masterfully weave through all the levels of the audible spectrum. The loud parts will kick in when you thought you were already listening to the loud parts. You’ll hear wisps of noises during the quiet bits that may as well be peeping mice for how they stack up to even the calmer sections. Its buildup and release of tension is constant and brilliant – each cut develops, blossoms and excites, always boasting several musical ideas at a time and unfolding with a sense of profound drama, spectacle and purpose. Likewise, the band’s music walks the delicate path of being incendiary, yet also very matter-of-fact and realist. They can show unbridled rage, but it’s always justified aggression with a noticeable amount of reason and consideration behind it.

MacKaye and Picciotto wouldn’t be caught dead peddling the same “punk”-posturing crap lyrics numerous opportunistic teen angst groups have been unleashing upon the public recently. Their beliefs are what they are, and they fashion them into uncompromising, compelling and clear-eyed prose. The lyrics are some of the best I’ve heard in this entire project – they’re well-informed, not too obvious, fairly poetic, and not just sloganeering. Every stanza is economical, insightful, tricky, complex, and avoids clichés like the plague (which I realize is itself a cliché.) They’re decidedly politically/socioeconomically motivated, but also touch on more personal issues.

The genius touch that keeps the words from being mere invective (albeit perfectly written and considered invective) are the sporadic hints that humanity is still fighting back. Naturalistic details like the wet spot on the carpet in “Nightshop” and “Put your shoes on, come on over” in “Strangelight” indicate that despite their dissatisfaction, Fugazi reassuringly recognize that human imperfection and influence still remains in this increasingly soulless world. Despite the messes we’ve made, they say, we’re still essentially good and have the capacity to make things better. Basically, they’re radical humanists, which is about the best thing an artist can be. They’re considerate toward their fanbase, but are daring enough to challenge them if necessary while relentlessly experimenting.

I know lists are an amateur writing technique and aren’t usually fun to read, but this record demands fairly specific detail even when making a general assessment of its quality. So, song by song:

“Cashout” is an astute, bracing criticism of tenement housing, the poverty rate and the irresponsibility of civic leaders in regards to both.

“Full Disclosure” is a brief, but passionate anthem that begs for a release from the homogeneity of mass media. For such a common sentiment, all that is needed is a brief, literate minimum, and Fugazi acquiesce.

“Epic Problem” cleverly parses some vague personal trauma of Ian’s and the methods with which he obscures and combats it in his psyche and daily life.

“Life And Limb” is a sadistic mockery of American jingoism and bloodlust in general. It’s satire played so close to the chest it would almost come off as sincere and sweet, if not for the occasional jarringly brutal line.

“The Kill” is so brilliantly enigmatic, it works on several levels. I still can’t decide if it’s about an Islamic extremist or an American soldier, but the parallel the song illustrates between their respective motives is chilling. And I’m sure that once I pin down why the surprise ending occurs, it will be a revelation as well.

“Strangelight” paints a portrait of corporate sprawl as not just a “take down the man, he made everything concrete” screed, but a legitimately eerie setting that’s just as likely the modern businessplace as it is a futuristic dystopia. It also includes what I surmise is the most badass depiction that I can recall of the hallucinogenic fatigue known as Sick Building Syndrome.

“Oh” is about outsourcing and the folly of monopolies and globalization, overlaid with the mental decay of a nameless worker before he does what little he can to protest his situation.

“Ex-Spectator” examines the hypocrisies and challenges of accurate journalism, and how one reporter deals with the uncomfortable realities he discovers regarding the nature of objectivity, truth and perception.

“Nightshop” bemoans the lifelessness and senselessness of the modern lifestyle (as well as the hopelessness most feel when they think about it) with the acuity, cleverness, detail and lack of preachiness that characterizes Radiohead’s best work on the subject. (Speaking of preachiness, I’m about to read into this record way too much and extrapolate its “meaning” based on vague details, so take this next part with a grain of salt. Hey, at least it has a positive moral!)

The title song gets its own paragraph. It’s one of my most beloved compositions of this whole enterprise, and I can’t believe my good fortune at having come across it. Everything on the record builds up to it. As a whole, The Argument is – to be very reductive – about fairness, integrity and reason in our civilization, and how we have gradually lost touch with those qualities. However, injustices come and go; anger seethes and ebbs; beliefs change over the years. Fugazi are an outspoken band, yet they are wise enough to know this cycle of unfairness is fated to last, in some form, as long as our species survives. Realistically speaking, the big evils we face are too much for a few unorganized people to stop, but the minor battles of everyday life stand to change even more, when approached with the right attitude. The compounded effect of a million noble deeds has enough influence to offset larger atrocities from happening in the future and break that unfortunate pattern. Fugazi is composed of four guys with lots of good will, an unwavering integrity, innate creativity and an eagerness to put right what’s wrong with the world. On this album, they’ve settled down a bit to relay that sentiment with weary darkness and dignified composure, but just as much enthusiasm as always.

They realize that in the grand scheme of things, mankind’s petty disputes and swindles change little; we really just need to get in touch with ourselves and what we perceive as equality, as kindness, as truth. Because, idealism aside, the world won’t get better unless its inhabitants get better. Though we may be existentially or even ideologically separated, acts of kindness and benevolence are what bring us together. In summation: all of us, individually, must do what good we can, while we can. That’s as fine a parting message as any.

“Argument”, then, is the protest song. It is not condemning a certain agenda; it is about protest itself, and the ongoing challenge of doing what one can to change things. The details here seem specific, but the message they create could be applied to anything in today’s tumultuous sociopolitical climate (as well as the circumstances of past conflicts). It is a perfect expression of the dissent, optimism and inherent dignity in the human spirit. It embodies the rage, righteousness, and empathy that decent people have when they search to find objectivity and balance in this world. It’s a reminder that regardless of how bad things get, how cruelly those in power treat others, no matter what the specifics of the treachery are, there will always, always be someone there to fight back and speak out. And – with a little courage, a lot of knowledge, some compassion and understanding, and above all, a willingness to create change – that person could be you. That’s incredibly heartening and adrenalizing, and possibly the most powerful musical statement I’ve encountered in this project.

Not to mention the song itself is just freaking orgasmic. The last sixty seconds of “Argument” are topped only by the beginning of the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man” as being my favorite minute in all of music. The anticipation beforehand and the spectacular release it offers is unparalleled. I feel wary trying to color your personal reaction to the end of this experience, but listening to it, I can’t help imagining infantry triumphantly riding into their final battle, determined for victory, facing long odds. For a moment, Fugazi seems to confidently lead the charge against all the ills humanity has visited upon itself, and you can fill in the blank as to what those specifically are. The enemy is present, but one isn’t quite sure who or what they are; and couldn’t you potentially be just as much of a threat yourself? Coupled with the foreknowledge that the band agreed to amicably split after this record, there is a grim finality to this moment. A baroque, ghostly interlude sets the scene: the calm before the storm, a moment of quiet reflection and reaffirmation of purpose. A few powerfully struck guitar notes clang like the bells of reckoning. The band and listener are one, tensed and ready to strike. The end is at hand, and the victor will be decided…

Here it comes –

 

 

DISCOVERY – Daft Punk

(Virgin)

***

If critical thought was like being at a rave, this album would get a score of WOOOOOOOOOOT out of UN TISS UN TISS UN TISS UN TISS points.

Voyager\One More Time\Face To Face

Nightvision

 

Alright, I’ll get it off my chest now: Daft Punk are, for better or worse, my example of what not to do when it comes to making techno artful. Sometimes they fall into the bitter depths of suckiness outlined by my “weaknesses of electronic music” essay, which stings even more because they occasionally rise above those shortcomings with really great tunes. The aforementioned failures, however, are some of the ballsiest, most blatant cases of offensive creative laziness and worthlessness ever committed to tape. First, they’ll take a sample, which is in no way their intellectual property, and then proceed to loop it with few other accoutrements for way too long. I mean, I will think Sigur Rós is overrated to the end of my days, but at least they write and play music! This garbage is unforgivable. Daft Punk, at their worst, steal and then push a button. Ta-da! Music! No thanks. I’d say that doesn’t even meet my definition of music.

Also, the song “Nightvision” is the closest that recorded noise has ever come to being nonexistent. It’s almost literally soundless. You know when bands sometimes put several seconds of silence between the last track and a bonus track on a record? It’s like that, except a little louder. The displays of hubris and the ways these French robots sometimes cheat the listener are an utter vulgarity. Even the ostensibly original songs that consist of more than just a looped sample are merely an instrumental revolving around one repeated melodic figure. Then there are the words. To say the lyrics are dumb is a colossal understatement. I’ll be kind enough to totally ignore them, as they’re essentially without content of any sort.

But I’ll be optimistic and get to the good stuff. Discovery isn’t very ambitious, but judged for what it is – an unassuming electro/dance album – it’s pretty good. Of course, that’s ignoring a lot of factors here that don’t pass for competent songwriting, hence the low grade. But among the filler, five or six tracks are absolute classics of the genre – and most of them are at the very start. This record is so frontloaded it’s embarrassing. I don’t know why Daft Punk felt the need to continue after the first four compositions, when it’s so painfully evident that those house their best ideas and the rest of the album is mostly screwing around and stalling for time. The later tunes are more moody and ambient than you’d expect, though they’re not without their share of booming bass. While I’m discussing the LP’s second half, I’d like to give a shout-out to the excellent “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, which didn’t fit anywhere in my song list.

So, yes, Discovery falls far short of being essential listening, but make sure you check out the handful of excellent songs here. They alone make the album noteworthy. However, my thoughts on the band in general are far less positive. In the interest of fairness, I will now make an analogy of quality that is genre-specific: Daft Punk is to LCD Soundsystem as REO Speedwagon is to the Beatles. There; my rage has been temporarily quelled. I can go home now.

 

 

GIRLS CAN TELL – Spoon

(Merge)

****

Spoon is overrated.

Lines In the Suit\Everything Hits At Once\Take A Walk

Me And the Bean

Part 3 of the Spoon Saga

 

Maybe my hatred for Spoon is just a rationalization for my frustration with trying to comprehend their appeal. Because I truly do not get why anyone would like them. It only makes me more angry when I get hints that there might be some measure of promising material in a given song, but then it never amounts to anything. I concede that my irritation is a bit silly, because Spoon is such a mundane band, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting that enraged over them. Yet I do. Even when I play their music and I’m like “Meh, that was sort of a little bit not lame”, I’m furious at their underperformance, since all the decent parts do is give me hope that is soon dashed by boredom.

You see, there are certain groups that attempt to embroil the listener in an absurd, egotistical cult of personality, like the Mars Volta. Then there are collectives who are painfully unassuming and nonchalant, like these guys. Britt Daniel probably would have been better off, and felt more fulfilled, as a hot dog vendor. You wonder when the hell he and his buddies are gonna actually commit and play something that stands out and asserts itself. Their instrumental displays are mind-numbing and tediously precise. It’s like they’re not trying at all, because if they did, they’d stand the chance of breaking an ungainly sweat. Yes. That nails it. Exactly that sort of wimpy-ass, privileged-kid detachment is the hallmark of Spoon’s underwhelming career. There’s no artistry to be found, because there’s nothing ventured. No risk, no definition, no identity. It’s all lazy, lackadaisical, mechanical rhythms and meager piano accompaniment which happens to be palatable in a pinch, if there’s no other alternative. But there certainly is. So why do people even bother?!?

This band is totally incompetent at creating thoroughly engaging tunes. When they do accidentally stumble across a hook, they bludgeon it to death. I liked the one memorable vocal line of “Lines In the Suit”. By the end of the song, I definitely didn’t need to hear it again anytime soon. This is superficial music, with nothing sonically outstanding or lasting about it. Those two impulses undermine each other and that’s why Girls Can Tell doesn’t work as well as people say it does. It’s a collection of chilled-out jams which require no investment of emotion or thought. There’s too little here to get excited about.

Let me explain – part of the reason I listen to music is to be impressed by the artist. Spoon does nothing to earn my admiration; their songs are all ones you or I or someone’s dad could write. When I listen to the New Pornographers, I’m genuinely in awe of the band’s talent, ingenuity, and intelligence. When I listen to Spoon, I’m like, “Okay, those guys played a song. So what?” It’s impossible for me to get enthused about them, because they are indie disaffection personified.

Their compositions don’t build or evolve; they drag and stagnate. Their bland, airless sound could feasibly be original, and I think they are a somewhat unique band, but in a way that’s unappealing. Their stylistic choice is a dead end; it’s too minimalistic. There is a refrain of sorts in most of these tunes, but each one is so simple and unimaginative that it doesn’t validate a full listen. They usually have a ratio of one tiny catchy part for every song, with the rest of the running time being wasted by treading water. My point is that Spoon needs a lot more to hang their hooks on than this anemic, quiet skiffle. For instance, I’d suggest adding something to distinguish their work from all the other nobodies out there who could make music of a similarly low caliber.

Alright – to be fair, a couple tracks here actually go somewhere and develop, as if the performers actually valued their audience’s time and support. But the songwriting itself is still primordial and crude. Some tunes in their catalog may rise above the usual level of quality, but even those aren’t exactly masterpieces.

Furthermore, something innate about the band simply perturbs me. They make records that have most melody removed, with only infrequent, unobtrusive overdubs interrupting the static rhythm track. Other than Britt’s amateurish, sing-songy vocal lines, they make music without the “music” part. There’s none of the joy, discovery, complexity or originality that good pop music is capable of. This is zombie rock; a lifeless simulacrum going through the motions, while somehow gaining as much accolades as worthwhile artists do. That is what frustrates me to no end about Spoon. It appears as though they have nothing but contempt for their audience, and so I’ll return the favor.

They’re such a faceless, nondescript group. Their albums are so barren and lifeless, without any sort of message or idea of what they want to be. For instance, I can’t imagine anyone getting deeply invested or interested in Gimme Fiction. It’s just useless, time-wasting clutter along the highway of rock and roll. Spoon’s aimless, half-baked song scribbles geriatrically shamble along like Mr. Magoo, aggravatingly inept and clumsy but somehow avoiding pure tragedy, time after time. Their whole repetitive, predictable shtick is limp, bland, lethargic and uncertain. Throughout, it seems as if everyone in the studio is really close to just tossing down their instruments and saying “Ah, forget it, I’m going home.” If they didn’t adhere so strictly to the same songwriting approach, this would be a fairly diverse record.

In fact, the reason the majority of their catalog seems to exist is to showcase fairly pedestrian rhythms, rather than any memorable ideas. I’ll admit those rhythms have a certain snappiness and hypnotic quality, but that doesn’t mean that the weak melodies and unremarkable lyrics they carry along are any good. It’s just putting a flashy veneer on music that’s essentially not too impressive or invigorating.

Their records are very tiny and plain, to boot, so none of them has any appearance of auspiciousness, importance or heft. It doesn’t even seem like Spoon has any influences – these songs could have been written by a savant nine-year-old in 1956 for all the good it would do. I mean, what genre is this? I thought for five minutes and all I could come up with was “Blah”.

I have a theory that Spoon’s output is painstakingly calculated to not offend anyone, but ends up not overly pleasing anyone. Much to my chagrin, they were tabulated as the top-rated band of the decade by useful data aggregator Metacritic. However, due to the way the website’s system worked, a lot of decent scores were favored over half outstanding scores and half mediocre scores, even though they should have ended up with the same average. I have a hunch that Spoon benefited from a lot of decent scores wherein critics found their music pleasant, but unremarkable and harmless. Because I never hear of anyone who professes to love this band, and people’s reasons for praising them are always very vague and shifty, I’m going to assume that they’re just generally okay with reviewers, rather than beloved, as it would seem. So basically, Spoon isn’t the group that critics love the most; it’s the group critics hate the least.

What else to complain about? Besides being haughty and flat-out dull, Britt’s hoarse, talky drawl is so lacking in presence, it’s sometimes the quietest thing in a low-key mix. That’s not a good decision, considering he just kinda orates where there could have been a vocal melody, and when he does bother to write one, it’s a boring sing-songy thing he might have made up on the spot. It doesn’t help that he sounds like Billy Joel trying to do a ridiculous impression of himself. On the rare occasion that his lyrics have some power and wit, the accompaniment does everything in its power to muffle their quality. But frequently, they aren’t remarkable and seem laboriously fussed over in order to become indistinct, boring and average.

BUT…

Despite all that grumbling just now, somehow I came around to this record. Yes, consider the above rambling bitchfest a precursor to the rage instilled in me by the awful Gimme Fiction (still to come). Because although this collection does in some part share Spoon’s typical weaknesses, once I learned what to expect from the band and how to optimally listen to their work, I found a lot of good stuff in between all the humdrum indie rock.

The performances, while still laid back, have some presence here instead of sounding clipped and hesitant. They even shoehorn in some new sounds and instruments. Not enough, in my opinion, but there’s some neat stuff to be found. Furthermore, Britt actually stretches his register beyond “speak everything in one note” and actually makes his voice go up and down! To create vocal melodies! Imagine that!

There are still parts in each song that are too melodically empty, dry and purposeless, but they’re nicely balanced by having at least one decent hook in each track. And the parts have interplay and contrast rather than just coalescing into a synchronous, quiet one-note glop. I think my sense of exhaustion with this band is exacerbated by the fact that Spoon doesn’t do bridges. There is no respite from the tune the song repeats until its demise.

I suppose it’s true that Girls Can Tell doesn’t commit any serious compositional crimes, which earns it a relatively high score, and it’s too short to irritate me more than it theoretically could. But I personally find Spoon frustrating because they settle for tepid mediocrity instead of using their potential for something greater.

************************************************************************

Is it obvious that I created this review by unceremoniously smashing together the original manuscript from when I hated Spoon with a passion, and a chipper addendum from when I later learned to appreciate this record? Because a lot of the first part was me getting mad over the flaws of Kill The Moonlight and Gimme Fiction that I hadn’t yet covered. Oh well, I wanna get these reviews out within the next century, so I won’t change it. Plus, once I relistened to the group’s catalogue, Girls and the Ga album seemed like masterpieces in comparison to those other two dung heaps.

Aaaaanyway, my point is: Nevermind what I said before! Girls Can Tell is good enough, especially with the tremendous handicap of being a Spoon LP!

 

 

MISS E… SO ADDICTIVE – Missy Elliott

(Elektra)

****

If the lyrics weren’t a little bit too dumb, this would be a masterpiece.

One Minute Man\Get Ur Freak On\Old School Joint

One Minute Man (Remix), just because it’s so unnecessary

 

With its sitar-and-tabla backing track, “Get Ur Freak On” is a huge step forwards for hip-hop production. You’ve heard it before. “One Minute Man” is another big advancement; you’ve heard that, too. Miss E… So Addictive introduced the impeccable work of Timbaland, one of the best producers of the decade, but let’s not forget the performer herself: Missy Elliott is quite a restless and rambunctious persona, and this is her formal debut as well. Apparently back in those days she considered herself an R&B crooner like Aaliyah, since she sings a surprising amount here. Her guest rappers are all talented and construct watertight verses, even though they’re all a bit too stereotypically gangstalicious and pimpadelic to be truly excellent. (Ironically, Timbaland’s stanzas are the only ones that are really awkward and dumb, but he only features on one track, so it’s all good.)

Elliott is alternately bold and humble when necessary, but hasn’t really developed her sense of humor yet (except on “I’ve Changed”, which amusingly calls itself on its vocal showboating). There’s a constant theme of female empowerment, and suffice it to say she’s looking for equality in her relationships, judging by the message of these songs. A lot of Missy’s lyrics are about asserting power, influence and sexual dominance (this, in turn, inspires her guest stars to write parts that are equally hell-bent on clubbing, sex and drugs). Those topics get played out over the album, but it’s novel to hear a female musician who’s ravenously horny and boastful. Now that I think about it, a handful of the compositions are intimate and romantic, but the implications of those are pretty trite and bare-bones. Honestly, Elliott and her crew get more mileage out of finessing clever lines from the old hedonistic, trashy pastimes rappers are so keen on.

So Addictive is truly a grandiose commencement for the very talented Timbaland, who would pretty much dominate how pop music sounded until Danger Mouse came along. Hopefully his style is recognizable to you by now; just know that he’s the at the top of his game here. Even when a particular beat might seem fairly simple, its accompanying music is so inventive, thick and progressive that it withstands multiple plays. Plus the percussion just sounds more fresh here than on many a hip-hop record I’ve listened to. It has a stronger presence and it’s more natural. Each track is very distinctive, to boot. I was never like “Okay, is that all you could come up with?” halfway through a song, as I might think with, say, a Jay-Z tune.

I wasn’t that way with the music, at least. Elliott’s choruses are often just a bunch of regrettable, generic club-hopping motivators, but at least a chant instructing the audience to start dancing or wave their hands in the air is easy to ignore in its intentional stupidity. Each composition doesn’t feature many lyrics quantitatively, and their repetition gets old before the melody does. Yet even when the words get dumb, they serve their purpose as party fuel, and the ingenious arrangements provide some sustenance for the more cerebral listener. There are also very few skits here (arguably none, since the exact definition of a “skit” is nebulous), which you know by now is something I appreciate in rap. In fact, the interludes all qualify as real songs by my standards, something that may have been unprecedented in the hip-hop landscape of 2001.

There are plenty of quality throwbacks on Addictive to an era where the genre was more forward-looking, musically inclined (even including singing at times!), and just generally made without the irritating affectations and overly exaggerated production of modern rap. Paradoxically, the album doesn’t sound dated in the least, other than the occasional temporal reference. This is because Missy’s futuristic bent and off-the-wall personality wonderfully compliment the slightly retro aesthetic: she takes that formula and inserts gracefully implemented synths where, in the past, there would have been old funk or rock samples. This was a fresh (but not necessarily new) idea. Indeed, Miss E was made right before hip-hop became too regressive and recursive, with new hopefuls simply streamlining the most shameless tactics of their forerunners to make money while the industry gradually collapsed into a creative slump.

The record slips a little bit at the end, but it’s still good. It’s cheap that they include the remix of “One Minute Man” as an official album track. Sure, Jay-Z does the verse on it this time, but it’s not that great and nothing else is different as far as I can tell.

Miss E… So Addictive is getting an extremely strong **** because of the hip-hop handicap, and because in relation to most of its rap peers, it’s a ton better. It’s also a way to recognize some of the other good work Missy did last decade. But the LP has some noticeable flaws, and would get a low **** under normal circumstances. The only weak points – the lyrics and repetition – are fairly predominant ones, although they aren’t outright awful, and are easy to forgive in the larger picture. With that caveat, this is an incredible debut.

 

 

NO MORE SHALL WE PART – Nick Cave And the Bad Seeds

(Mute)

N/A (****)

Nick Cave is from Australia. This fact didn’t fit anywhere else.

…[THE MORE YOU KNOW]

Hallelujah\Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow\Oh My Lord

Gates To the Garden

 

You need to be really patient with this recording. If it was a breezy collection of short, poppy tunes, I’d listen to it one hundred percent more. But that is not what Nick Cave is for. In fact, my shorthand for this review was packed with adjectives that I’ll conveniently string together as a primer on what Nick Cave is for, and what he represents. He is: an anachronistic voice in contemporary music; a tortured troubadour, like if Emily Dickinson was a badass, depressed dude; a storyteller first and a musician second.

No More Shall We Part is dark and biblical, somber, even funereal. Hold on; I’ve got more adjectives to unload. It’s also nocturnal, neoclassical, and pastoral. Alright, now that you’ve got a general feel for the album’s aesthetic, I’ll get a little more detailed.

All the elements of his craft are laid bare from the outset – it’s easy to tell for yourself whether or not you like Nick Cave after listening to only a few songs. He doesn’t hide behind showy production, or an inhuman emotional distance. He acts as the last horseman of the Apocalypse, come to siege the scourge of mankind and beseech him for his folly.

Judging a musician’s “honesty” in their craft is a tricky and ultimately fruitless proposition, but it’s safe to say that when someone writes this style of music with this sense of purpose and maturity in this day and age, they’re certainly not faking it. Or at least they have no discernible reason to be doing so. Nick is so straight-faced and insistent the whole time, that he doesn’t seem to comprehend what is easily the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in a serious song – it’s unintentional, but when he sings the title of “Sweetheart, Come” in a faux-British accent, it sounds EXACTLY LIKE “Sweet hot cum”! HAHAHAHAHAHA HOW COULD HE NOT NOTICE THAT?!?!?!?! He says it like twenty times too! Oh, Nick Cave, you silly goose!

A lot of the tracks here are Dickensian tragedies with the desolation of a Steinbeck novel and morose chamber-pop instrumentation. There’s also tasteful, pensive orchestration to accompany the autumnal, doomy and lovelorn lyrics. In more literal terms, Nick relies heavily on delicate piano figures with fragile string accompaniment. The melodies are bolstered by really nice arrangements, but they themselves are the very spirit of simplicity. His phrasing and general mastery of intensity keeps the repetition from becoming tired. Cave sings with a guttural bellow that can turn straining and high-pitched or quiet and sensitive, conveying existential angst and dour mourning through snarling, depraved vocals. And of course his lyrics are deft, and the main thing that kept me listening. The record is very transportative and seems to have been recorded in the distant past – perhaps the simpler, more gruesome Elizabethan era. I had the benefit of first listening to No More on a fittingly dismal day. There was a broiling storm and an insistent downpour. An onslaught of misery to accompany a miserable (in a good way) album.

Now for the main issue with the record – three-quarters of the LP is deliberately paced slower than death itself (almost defiantly so, to rebel against the bright, immediate pleasures of pop music.) Make no mistake; most of these songs are dirges, not ballads. Yes, it’s pretty monotonous, but the patience-testing length and sluggishness is excusable, since this music falls more within the realm of theater or song cycle than pop/rock music. Those long-form styles demand a larger investment of time.

And that’s the thing: the buildup from the slow and mood-setting stuff flows incredibly smoothly into the electric, cathartic sections of release. Without the preceding tension, the upbeat tracks would feel unearned and relatively unremarkable. It’s theatrical, in the best sense of the term.

So this album slogs and goes on really long, but it feels absolutely necessary with the atmosphere and message the band is aiming for. Nick’s ranting and proselytizing are deserved since he takes the time to build up those sentiments and offer sympathetic characters and situations to place them in. He constructs bleak melodramas of inward thought and minimal action. There’s pain, desolation, broken hearts, and man’s inhumanity to man in general. His lyrics occasionally get dangerously Dylanesque (as in the bizarre, melodic “God Is In the House”), but pull it off right before reassuringly switching back to late-period Johnny Cash fare. He pens heavily symbolic verses whose significance is fairly clear, but whose details beg for interpretation.

The songs that are intended to be ballads are artfully and finely rendered like the rest, but become a bit too boring since Cave is already a crooner, and they’re terminally sluggish. That’s why the dynamic shift in “The Sorrowful Wife” is one of the most surprising things it’s possible to hear. If anything on this album could be classified as rock music, it’s that – essentially a heavy blues jam! “Hallelujah” and “Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow” also get really anthemic and upbeat at the end, and “Oh My Lord” even rocks with electric guitar!

It goes without saying that this LP isn’t for everybody (hence the avant-garde handicap, although it could conceivably be considered a bunch of ballads). But it is a musical document that’s competently written in a lyrical and melodic sense, it’s played and produced well, and its listlessness is a conscious artistic decision, and therefore deserves some lenience. Save No More Shall We Part for a dark and cloudy night, and get ready to bask in some gothic tones!

 

 

VESPERTINE – Björk

(One Little Indian)

****

She told you she was freaky.

It’s Not Up To You\Undo\Unison

Harm Of Will

 

I knew exactly what Björk’s strengths and limitations were going in to Vespertine (protip: her style relies heavily, heavily upon her voice and its intricacies, as well as unobtrusive, gentle electrobeats), so I didn’t feel pissed or betrayed like I would be if my uninformed expectations or standards weren’t met. Her melodies aren’t all that great except here and there, but listening to this music on its own terms, I really had no problem with that. Björk does her own thing and doesn’t necessarily fail; there are almost always some cool sounds and at least one noticeable hook in each track. Sure, there’s much better stuff out there, but she deserves some respect and you should probably give a couple songs a listen.

Recipe for the first song – static keyboard with changing, churning electronic percussion. Rinse and repeat. It’s technophilic music; not dancey electronica, but rhythmic, with subtle, odd loops and beats. (Cool fact I learned later: numerous percussion tracks for the album were made using natural elements like boots in snow, leaves crinkling, and water dripping. I think this outstanding idea is underutilized, if anything.) The disc becomes more organic at times, with pitch-perfect acoustic guitar, glacial bells, synths and symphonies. Yet it never loses its alien aloofness and homogeneity. If not for Björk’s intensely vulnerable performances, this would be a cold, bracing record; instead, it’s sensual and insular. Nevertheless, her music and vocals sound like sensible music being played backwards – Satanic messages sold separately.

Björk’s voice definitely suits the songs and their message well, but I tend to appreciate her lyrics just about as much as her vaunted vocal prowess. Yeah, she’s a good singer. But she’s not amazing. Her voice here is timid, fragile and breathy, but is capable of unhinged shouting and lower pitches as well. Good, not great.

Her prose, on the other hand, is actually really good, especially for someone I assume is not a native speaker of English. It’s starkly honest and shockingly intimate, sometimes to the point of T.M.I. But somehow it never becomes distasteful… okay, maybe once:

“A train of pearls/Cabin by cabin/Is shot precisely/Across an ocean.”

Yep, sounds like her significant other didn’t pull out in time. Thanks for the info, Björk! [gag]

It is pretty badass for her to just completely disregard scruples and etiquette and make an LP that may as well be called Incredibly Specific Problems I Have With My Boyfriend – Oh, And Also How My Vagina Is Doing. Presenting this record’s lyrics to Freud would be like testing Newton on single-digit addition.

It’s actually hard to discern at first, but the album art depicts the Icelandic nutcase wearing her infamous swan dress. Also, there’s a drawing of a swan overlaid on it which I didn’t notice for the longest time, thinking it was just some lens effect on the picture. One day, it jumped out at me that there’s this swan up in my grill all peering into my business, and I was like “WOAH!”

…Um, yeah. I should probably get back to the music itself. Vespertine is hard to criticize because Björk knows exactly what she’s doing and by her own paradigm, she’s doing it flawlessly. It’s just that that perspective doesn’t quite dovetail with what I consider to be acceptable in great music. But definitely check this out briefly and see if it’s your cup of tea; if you’re bizarre like Björk, this could potentially be an exquisite listen.

 

 

WEEZER (THE GREEN ALBUM) – Weezer

(Geffen)

*** 1/2

Remaining colors needed for Weezer’s self-titled LP rainbow: orange, yellow, indigo, violet.

Don’t Let Go\Island In the Sun\Photograph

Smile

 

Opinion is subjective. I understand this. But I’m fairly certain some things are so universally agreed-upon that they’re the next best thing to fact. One such thing would be the assertion that Weezer’s first two albums completely (and rightfully so) overshadow everything they’ve done since. Another is this: from 1997 onward, they started to atrophy and become a parody of themselves.

Now, for that second statement, the subjective factor would be to what degree they have stagnated. Weezer have tried so many weird, ridiculous and desperate schemes for notoriety that it’s even harder to discern what constitutes an artistic failure and what’s a moderate success. And that is a huge point of contention among everyone who’s ever listened to the band. What could I possibly say at this point to persuade you that Weezer merely kinda suck, or on the other hand, ruin the world with their awfulness? I think everyone’s developed a pretty solid, unimpeachable belief of their own by now. They may be the most easily judged group in the modern musical climate.

In my opinion, nothing Rivers Cuomo does anymore is the work of an independent creative mind; his output is a hopeless, schizophrenic series of gambits designed to hopefully win back fans. Some of these work better than others. Now, it’s not that he’s giving his followers what they expect from him – that would at least result in a consistent, mildly enjoyable catalogue. No, with each new record Rivers is consciously trying to predict what his listeners will enjoy, judging by changing trends and fashions, while using whatever cheap techniques he hasn’t tried before, whether or not he’s comfortable or proficient with them.

It’s a sad display, because:

1. He doesn’t necessarily try to be diverse so much as he comes up with a series of goofy novelties and gimmicks, as well as a fabricated persona to try out (Maladroit = Metalhead, Red Album = The whole band basically dressed as the Village People, Raditude = boring, arrogant cock rocker/hip-hopper, Hurley = generic emo wannabe).

2. No matter what he does, he’ll never be as good as he was on the first two LPs.

Now, many defenders of Weezer think (also rightfully) that haters are holding Cuomo to an unfair standard, since it’s a given that his songs will never reach the heights of those twin titans. And yes, nostalgia and impossible expectations do fan the flames in many a naysayer’s heart. But I’m not one of those people. As I said, if Rivers put out unassuming, fan-satiating throwback album after throwback album, I’d have absolutely nothing against the guy. I’m not expecting Blue Album-level excellence, nor am I automatically deriding whatever new product he puts out on principle. I simply think that for at least the past six years (maybe more than that), Weezer’s music has just been uniformly awful, by any measure. To be sure, there are flashes of the former greatness once in a while, but overall, Weezer since 1997 is a constantly churning sea of mood swings: lulls and rebirths, thoughtless cash-ins and alienating meathead-rock, hermetic insecurity and arrogant confidence.

Anyway, that entropic decay began on 2001’s The Green Album (note that the band fell back on self-titling their album once again, as well as insultingly producing barely thirty minutes of music after a five-year hiatus). Fortunately, Cuomo still had a sense of dignity and rationality at this point. Nevertheless, on Green, he (and Weezer, by extension) is an empty shell, devoid of personality, integrity, or anything that constructs an artist’s identity. Besides that, though, it’s a terrific record.

Basically, they revamp the ideology of the Ramones’ debut, with all the flat-footed chord pounding, unapologetically naïve idealism, and uncanny simplicity that entails. Rivers was clearly trying to mimic the summertime pop of Blue here, but succeeded in tone only – for all his efforts, Green has a sonic palette of glossy vapidity. There’s a peaceful sense of emptiness here. There’s no need to engage oneself or think during any of this material; it’s wafer-thin appeasement. The basic approach is streamlined and circumspect; every tune is skeletal and soulless, despite containing some top-notch melodies.

There is a kind of dumb-fun Zen to be found in the barre chords of stuff like “Knock-Down Drag-Out”. The predictable tune of “Crab” is nonetheless infectious. Meanwhile, “Island In the Sun”, “Photograph”, and possibly even “Hash Pipe” are classics on par with Blue and Pinkerton’s near-perfect tracks. However, the second half of the album does have a couple boring duds that even the “brisk, lightweight pop” tag can’t excuse.

The record’s style is implied by its sterile cover, and definitely supported by its singles (Weezer would craftily release each album’s best songs as singles in the future, as if they knew everything else was trash). That aesthetic is simple: plodding, minimalistic, throwback guitar lines; hackneyed, but yearning lyrics; all the other instruments don’t have that much to do.

This transparency and low-stakes fan satiation presents an interesting phenomenon. If you’re listening to hair metal, you know what to expect from the lyrics and don’t care if they suck. With this LP, I knew what to expect from everything and lowered all my standards accordingly so that I can just pleasantly listen to it. It’s a perplexing case where most aspects of a composition are inconsequential and trite, but the tune as a whole is charming enough to merit a listen.

I’ll give Green some major sympathy points, because it’s unassuming, never aspires to be anything more than it is, and doesn’t pull any dumb stunts (Cuomo would really begin doing that later). It truly is mindless fun, and the primal nature of the music benefits the overall work as much as it neuters every individual song.

Honestly, this should only earn a high ***. But I’m a(n old school) Weezer fan and this was their strongest offering of the decade, so it gets *** 1/2. Plus, as power-pop albums go, you can’t get more poppy and pandering than this. Basically, The Green Album fulfills the essential obligations of a lightweight rock record and ends quickly without much of a fuss. Sure, it’s patronizing and simplistic, but it never pulls any truly distasteful moves, unlike the band’s 2008 schizophrenic failure Weezer (The Red Album), their 2009 abomination Raditude and their 2010 even-more-of-an-abomination Hurley. It seems to me the harshest criticism against Green is merely that there is so much more rewarding and intelligent music out there one would be better off listening to. But if you have a thing for Weezer, well, here you go. It’s right there in the title. 

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