SECOND WAVE Part 3: 2002

2002

 

 

( ) | BLACKLISTED | THE EMINEM SHOW | SEA CHANGE | SONGS FOR THE DEAF | SOURCE TAGS & CODES | TURN ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS | YOU FORGOT IT IN PEOPLE 

 

 

( ) – Sigur Rós

(Fat Cat Records)

N/A (***)

5\1\6

7

 

 

 

 

BLACKLISTED – Neko Case

(Bloodshot)

****

Her band of subservient boy toys: blue-balled. Her throat: gold-plated.

Stinging Velvet\Deep Red Bells\I Wish I Was the Moon

Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)

 

It’s hard to imagine, especially now that she’s refined indie royalty, but by her own admission, Neko Case is and always will be a redneck country girl at heart. Back in the day, she started off belting C&W tunes and, at one point, made it to the Grand Ole Opry. (I think it’s safe to say I respect any musician that has the notoriety to get invited to, and the spunk to get banned from the blindly traditionalist, stuffy Opry. Neko is one of a few performers who did both, along with Johnny Cash and possibly k.d. Lang, so that counts for bonus points.)

Case’s early records call to mind the days of classic Motown divas, bluesy belters, wild-eyed Western boys and folk troubadours. Her later works incorporate those influences into a cohesive sound that’s all her own. Blacklisted is the turning point between the two phases, very much her Rubber Soul (or Help!, if you want to be a stickler). It’s also the first album where Neko really stands out as a talented songstress, and for good reason – much like the Beatles’ early work, there are some great covers here, but the originals are sometimes even better.

While this breakthrough LP is definitely closer to her country roots, the “alt-” is now recognizable. Her progressive and impressionistic tendencies, as well as her eclectic musical influences, are beginning to tentatively show themselves here. The songs are more punchy and youthful; lacking the deep wisdom of Middle Cyclone, but just as cool-headed and mature. It’s a very reliable set, but it lacks the surprise and discovery of her later experiments. Despite some energetic highlights, there are a handful of lo-fi, low-key tunes that are pleasant, but go nowhere. Considering all its naïve caprices (I mean that in a good way) and the vigor of Case’s voice, it’s ironic to note that the LP as a whole demonstrates a throrough knowledge of both lovelorn country music and the blues. The somber undertones might be due to a few atmospheric, but boring jazzy, slow numbers, whose sorrow even permeates the numerous uptempo jaunts.

I might be mistaken, but it sounds like Neko’s more unhinged on this album. Her voice is more forceful and brassy than usual (if that’s possible), and her lyrics have the same dedication to quality control as always. I’m hearing more parts here that approximate the music from records yet to come, which is unfortunate. They’ll retain their grades since they’re a better honing of her sound, but Blacklisted technically did produce the germ of those few borrowed melodies.

Each of its tracks has roughly the same arc and musical attractions, rather than spanning and encompassing the numerous sides of her talent like Middle Cyclone does. “Look For Me” is a wispy torch ballad that relies heavily on Case’s acrobatic voice. It seems that she was largely coming into her own in terms of adding good instrumental parts to those pipes, however, and so most of the tunes are agreeable. There’s also an unexpected and awesome Aretha Franklin cover (“Runnin’ Out Of Fools”) – it’s powerfully sung, despite being a bit incongruous. The backing band is nice and professional too, working out the sound they’d utilize on the next two marginally superior records. There are a handful of intriguing musical ideas here Neko would never revisit, but they don’t quite come to fruition. So everything here is nice, but the red-headed chanteuse would repeat these achievements with more surprises later on.

On Blacklisted, Case tries to honor and do right by her forebears through reverent imitation rather than by setting her own path (in fact, three of the tracks on this brief LP are actual covers). It’s a bit too stuffy, perfunctory and traditional to earn anything higher than a ****. It lacks the confidence, musical heft and auspicious nature that **** 1/2-range albums have. All in all, however, it’s a very good record. It’s a rare case of me needing to downgrade an LP for technical reasons, despite the fact that I really love it a lot.

 

 

THE EMINEM SHOW – Eminem

(Interscope)

***

God damn. The mighty have fallen…

Cleanin’ Out My Closet\Without Me\When the Music Stops

Superman

 

There are few things more boring than a once-edgy performer who thinks they have nothing left to prove. (Except for Spoon; they’re boring as hell.) When an upstart musician is more concerned with commerce than art, they’ll just repeat the same behaviors that were once risqué until they become old hat and their art suffers for it.

That is, unfortunately, the path chosen by one of the greatest rappers of our generation. And it’s a shame, because he could have done so much more. My viewpoint is this: if you take the same chance twice, surely the second time it no longer counts as a risk. And if your public image hinges primarily on taking risks, then when you pull the same stunt again, it stands to reason that it would soil your reputation and people would lose interest. That’s where Eminem finds himself on this muddled, unsure response to the blockbuster Marshall Mathers LP. There’s a worrying sense here that he had only one unique trick up his sleeve, and he spent it on that classic. Now everything else is redundant. His once-provocative shtick has become a hollow charade. His free-spirited, irreverent rhymes are now cheap shmuck bait for the easily offended.

The problem is he’s still trying to be confrontational and controversial when he was beginning to be accepted as a cultural icon. In the furor over his previous record, he had grown to be a prominent figure in the celebrity culture he used to rail against, which introduced the artistic hurdle of hypocrisy. Plus, he just uses the same pro-free speech, “keeping my integrity” arguments he did on the Marshall Mathers LP, presented here as tired rehashes. There are stale antiwar and anti-Bush statements that reek of bandwagon-jumping, while Shady desperately tries to find a new way to piss off the lowest common denominator with minimal effort. All the elements that made its precursor great are either diluted, made exploitative and dumb, or aren’t present at all. Almost everything on The Eminem Show is uninspired and crude, and it’s a pitiful shame.

However, Marshall’s ego hadn’t taken the blow yet. Everywhere there are signs that he thinks he’s at the top of his game; apparently nobody was around to tell him otherwise. Since he’s more confident on this album, his lyrics have slackened up due to laziness and complacency. He aims toward the hip-hop tactic of talking about how great he is, which is infinitely less entertaining than Marshall Mathers’ balancing act of protest, pathos, insanity, humor and depravity. Some parts sound more like indulgent spoken word sections that have no coherence with the rhythm and only the vaguest of rhymes. He does try singing more here, though, and it’s fairly good, I guess. Eminem himself produces most of these songs, and it’s noticeable. His beats are eclectic and pretty cool, and definitely distinct from Dr. Dre’s work. Then again, a lot of the music sounds like retreads of older tracks.

But… even when Shady’s working against himself, he’s so naturally talented that the project becomes salvageable. “Without Me” is still a sterling classic, somehow making petty, dated references and attacks stand up over time. His prose periodically still shows the signs of syllable-stomping splendor that he once created without even trying. Another plus is that he gets more experimental on this outing, with a few straight-up R&B cuts, some odd song construction, an instance of mostly successful (though heavily sentimental) Aerosmith sampling, and even a country-western parody. The obvious drawback to that is the eclecticism takes him into some really dumb places. Despite some solid music, tracks like “Drips” are unimaginably childish, tasteless and disgusting. The country song is pleasantly surprising, but ultimately nothing more than a novelty. The wounded crooner “Superman”, despite its ambition, is just mind-numbingly uneventful.

To balance those out, Marshall sticks to his guns on the first three cuts, which makes for an excellent start that this patchy album doesn’t live up to. In fact, even the handful of top-notch tunes still reek of the manipulation and recapitulation I complained about earlier. The last six songs in particular seem like stopgaps, prolonging the record way after it should have ended. To be fair, those compositions are mostly acceptable, in and of themselves. Generally speaking, though, the spark is gone. I’ll give The Eminem Show a courteous *** because its highs ever so slightly make up for some truly embarrassing lows. Whatever made Eminem great on the Marshall Mathers LP is barely here. He would soon get even more stagnant. For better or for worse, Slim Shady finally proved himself on this glitzy, calculated, big-budget release. It was all downhill from there.

 

 

SEA CHANGE – Beck

(Geffen)

****

Come on in, the water’s lukewarm!

The Golden Age\Lost Cause\Sunday Sun

Round the Bend

 

Hailed as the breakup album of the decade and a nigh-unparalleled artistic transformation, Sea Change was the record where Beck got disarmingly honest and depressed. He stripped down his sound a bit, and focused on one basic style for the LP’s duration. It’s an amazing achievement to hear Beck finally shed his cloak of irony and surrealism and actually write stuff that means something to him (and its import is quite obvious – for once, that’s the real Beck Hansen you hear on this album).

For about four-fifths of the recording, he deftly shoehorns his eclectic M.O. into these songs in modest ways that befit a bunch of heartbroken ballads. He examines loss and longing from a variety of angles, and seemingly never runs out of fresh metaphors and images. The work is surprisingly tender; I imagine it would be really cathartic as the soundtrack of a romance gone to ruin. The melodies are decent and mostly exist to strengthen what is a quite good slow-burn mood piece. Magnificent producer Nigel Godrich does the best he can with the minimal material he’s afforded. However, things go sour along the way. Hansen’s tunes are good enough, but they were never his strong suit to begin with. He usually depends upon his far more interesting arrangements, and since they’re all but absent here, some of his appeal is gone. The format of all the compositions is tired and rote as well, and this doesn’t help what is already a flaggingly slow set.

To hear Beck calm, focused and biding his time is almost asphyxiatingly claustrophobic. Listening without the crutch of his “constantly changing” gimmick is harsh at first, but he proves capable of writing some excellent music – “some” being the operative word. It seems like he only had enough quality ideas for forty minutes (Sea Change would be better if pared down to that length) but decided to pad it out at an interminable pace, with the same sounds he’d already made, repeating sentiments he’d already conveyed. It’s just that sometimes the album goes from protracted sluggishness to total lifelessness, like on “Round the Bend”. Luckily, the LP soon picks up with the only truly upbeat song here, the lovely “Sunday Sun”.

So this album’s virtues and flaws go hand-in-hand in a back-and-forth struggle: though it’s a welcome surprise that Hansen showed dedication to one specific theme and mood for a whole record (not to mention that he got contemplative and serious for fifty whole minutes while staying on one subject), parts of this are just a chore to sit through. He’s commendably stepped out of his comfort zone, but he’s not such a good artist that he can excel outside of that area. He kind of coasts leisurely, and that’s being charitable. It’s impressive that Beck made a long album full of downer songs which never gets self-indulgent, although on the flip side, I wouldn’t be extremely excited about listening to it anytime soon either.

At the end of the day, while it’s a mixed affair, Sea Change is a compelling statement and is definitely worth checking out. Plus, the numerous alternate covers that came with the record are really stunning. There’s no arguing about that.

 

 

 

SONGS FOR THE DEAF – Queens Of the Stone Age

(Interscope)

**** 1/2

Gloom and doom. Take note, emo kids. Come to think of it, boom also.

A Song For the Dead\No One Knows\You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire

Six Shooter

 

Songs For the Deaf is a lovably decadent, flashy hard rock record with exactly the same concept behind it as The Who Sell Out: mimic a segment of radio broadcasting, with the obligatory channel-surfing, DJ blather, and station IDs. Queens Of the Stone Age pull it off wonderfully, keeping the conceit going at regular intervals and making sure it never gets old. The interstitials in particular are awesome – they’re goofy enough to be good parodies, but also believable enough to sound like the real thing.

Disregarding the band’s penchant for darkly toned songs, most of the time, subsequent tracks sound totally different (as they should, during what is ostensibly a radio-scanning session). For instance, there’s the new wave ambience of “Hangin’ Tree”, the country strut of “God Is In the Radio”, and “…Millionaire”’s agitated noise. There’s the next best thing to a power ballad, “Do It Again”; and a total rock god riff fest, “No One Knows”; the foreboding downer “First It Giveth”, and the gravelly blues of “A Song For the Dead”. “Another Love Song” is ska-influenced carnival music, “Six Shooter” is a chaotic avant-garde din, and the last tune, “Mosquito Song”, is a totally surprising and effective left turn into Elizabethan folk with string section bombast. It’s a refreshing break from the onslaught of the album, has one of the group’s better melodies and works convincingly.

Backtracking to the beginning, if the aforementioned first track here doesn’t get you pumped, nothing will. Probably the best song ever that could reasonably be qualified as screamo. The second, extremely popular song needs no introduction or evaluation (even though I’ve already mentioned it). Its perfection and outstanditude are self-evident. Now that I’ve unwittingly turned this paragraph into a boring, song-by-song list, I might as well mention that “Go With the Flow” is a modern version of “Suffragette City”: a not-too-heavy, but intense glam rocker that relies on one riff basically the whole time for an enormously enjoyable vamp, with a pounding, insistent piano in the background and an exaggerated vocal melody. I’m not sure why I brought that comparison up, but there it is. Now on to the rest of the review!

Songs For the Deaf is confident and more than capable. Its lack of sermonizing or angsty whining puts it miles above every other modern nu-grunge or metal band I’ve ever heard of. Because that humility and talent is the only thing separating them from some of those groups, to be honest. These riffs seem at first like basic stuff that other musicians could have feasibly come up with, but they’d probably foul them up with annoying lyrics or a pompous concept or grating vocals or any of the above. QOTSA are wise enough to just let the music speak for itself. Only after a few listens is it apparent that not just anyone could have written these tracks – there are plenty of cool details around the periphery of the tunes. Because of this, the compositions are polished and lean and the band are swaggering champions of modern guitar rock who will take their place with the all-time greats.

To deflate this ravenous praise for a moment, I have to bring up Songs’ major flaw: the record is very monotone. It can become dreary to the uninitiated listener, especially with the recurring droning vocal harmonies. The tunes themselves aren’t overly serious, but they are fairly imposing, and so the radio interludes add much-needed levity to the proceedings. Gothic melodies and tunings help intensify the downbeat mood.

The guitar and bass make it their first priority to assist the already-strong hooks rather than indulging in wankery right off the bat, which is fine by me. By the same token, when the time for solos does come, they are definitely listenable and usually pretty impressive. QOTSA have their cake and eat it too in that respect – the musicianship is pretty magnificent, especially Dave Grohl’s celebrated return to the drumkit. The man is a beast behind the skins. Lead singer Joshua Homme (apparently pronounced like it rhymes with “mommy”, which took me forever to figure out) does an admirable job of bellowing one minute and crooning the next.

The songs do all sound of a piece (which is fairly inevitable considering the same instruments are used for the whole album), but are noticeably distinctive even the first time through. They’re heavy, dark and angry, but also very nimble and melodic. This band can create a riff-based groove like few others (I’m thinking of “God Is In the Radio” specifically, but there are more). It helps that pretty much everything is toned to sound like staggeringly awesome Seventies rock goodness. Every band member seems like he’s in a good-natured competition to outdo the others, resulting in some totally badass performances. I have a feeling that listening to this record on such tinny speakers (they definitely have a lower end, but the EQ is off) is depriving me of some supernatural bass lines. I’ll give QOTSA the benefit of the doubt on that one.

The tunes work fine as the straightforward boogies they are, but sometimes I worry about them being a little too underwritten and repetitive. The record as a whole never grows redundant or tiresome, but you could say each song does to some degree. However, when the moments of minor fatigue and disinterest are spread out like they are, it makes the album that much more tolerable and the error more forgivable.

Plus, QOTSA do the whole gothic rock thing differently enough so that they make something new out of that idea. These are completely intense, involving and engrossing compositions which are, simply put, fun as hell. In other words, the scenery might get a little indistinct sometimes, but that doesn’t matter when you’re flying by it at ninety miles per hour. In between all the thrashing and distortion, the band is kind enough to scatter “rest stops”, if you will – some short acoustic or quiet sections within the songs, not to mention the actual ballads. These aren’t nearly as contrived as you’d expect; Songs For the Deaf combines ugliness with beauty really well. It knows the value of both in music, and balances them nicely in taut, adrenaline-pumping anthems.

It’s amazing how quickly and painlessly this CD makes an hour go by. Especially dealing with their brand of lead-footed, downbeat pop metal, I expected it to get frustrating awfully quickly, but that never happened. Homme’s lyrics conjure typical angsty images, albeit in a more acceptable, coherent way than other aggressive rock bands. And that’s not to say that any of the specific lines are clichéd, because I can’t remember any in particular that seemed corny or maudlin.

I was thinking of a way to extend my analogy comparing the three biggest Seventies/Eighties hard rock bands to the three biggest Nineties/2000s hard rock bands, because I think Queens Of the Stone Age definitely qualify for the third current-day spot. If Foo Fighters are the modern equivalent of Led Zeppelin much like the White Stripes are the new AC/DC, by my estimations, that would make QOTSA the Black Sabbath of the 2000s. Make of that what you will.

There’s no baggage to Songs For the Deaf, no overblown expectations of legendariness it’s purported to have. That just makes it easier to enjoy these songs without pretense. Whereas sometimes an artist makes music that’s clever, complex and reasonably melodic, yet you eventually stop returning to it, QOTSA make sure this album is easy to put on and enjoy repeatedly. It’s still an artistic success, but it’s more invested in catchiness and entertainment than intricacy and originality. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?

 

 

 

SOURCE TAGS & CODES – …And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead

(Interscope)

**** 1/2

It’s coming together in relatively straightforward ways.

Monsoon\Relative Ways\Baudelaire

For interludes, Life Is Elsewhere. For songs, Homage.

 

Source Tags & Codes is a strikingly pure album. There’s no irony, ambiguity or confusion muddling it – …And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead (the band’s ridiculous name) are certain of their artistic purpose and execute it perfectly. This results in possibly the best use of bombast the decade produced. It’s as if Sigur Rós scaled down their grotesque ambitions and managed to write good songs within that same spacious framework. Oh, and also hard riff rock entered the equation somehow &mash; make no mistake, there are some gloriously overdriven guitar lines here. Buried somewhere behind their din are a bunch of other instruments to add color and clever arrangements to the tunes. It’s all very forthcoming and clear-eyed – prog without pompousness, if that makes any sense. In fact, these are basic verse-chorus-verse songs with some succinct, interesting soundscaping in between them. That’s probably the best way the band could have organized things; uncluttered, but with some definite scribbles and glitter around the edges. That way, there’s enigmatic stuff to mull over, but it’s nicely spaced between tunes that are very easy to get a bead on. The lyrics are complacent, but never annoyingly bad. In fact, they’re serviceable and decent most of the time. They consist of short, cryptic philosophical questions melded with self-flagellating and morbid statements, one reason I consider this a prominent forebear of modern emo music. Another is the extremely aggressive, harsh vocals, which somehow still support good melodies.

Codes is one of those records that is its own self-contained world. It seems like this was recorded in an alternate universe where 2002 was kind toward grandiose arena rock. It hints toward a raucous art-punk movement that might have been, but honestly, that scene probably could never have lived up to this initial statement. The album’s sound is a straightforward shoegazer din that’s far less thorny and pretentious than the band name and LP cover would suggest. Though they do regularly showcase some cool guitar interplay or crazed drum parts, …Trail Of Dead specialize in breathtaking, expansive, tolerably noisy guitar pop songs without the tedious, inaccessible math-rock excesses of bands like Dream Theater. The unfortunately named group was previously and would later continue to be associated with that exact brand of corny, esoteric fantasy prog-metal, but here, they wisely reined it in and crossed over into indie territory so well that you’d be hard-pressed to tell they were a bunch of geeks at heart. (All I have to base the “fantasy nerd” label on are the band’s image, later history and the fancy-pants interstitial songs.) They have just enough artsy, high-minded song elements scattered along the perimeter of their tunes, which is precisely the best place for them to be while allaying any accusations of pretension. Not that they would be in the first place, because the ferocity of their riffs offsets the pomp by quite a bit – they’re all very basic and punkish, but with enough modulation and oddness to remain memorable.

I suppose in that respect, it’s easier to see how those guitar parts helped STAC catch on with the hip crowd. It’s fascinating how the modest amount of fame and notoriety the record afforded the band soon turned into a dead end, as the indie sources that briefly hyped them lost interest when they became more medieval and arcane. So this album is a lark, a strange singularity, a cult item. It uniquely combines several contrasting musical cultures in a satisfying way, along with its aforementioned influence on the emo scene. Just for the interesting place it holds in 2000s rock, I’m boosting it to a low **** 1/2.

I’m a little wary about praising music which may be too simplistic, but that’s always preferable to favoring music that’s too esoteric and elitist. I appreciate that in an increasingly two-faced, enigmatic culture, this group has chosen to eschew obfuscation, as the saying goes (as well as foregoing irony, to my relief). One sizeable criticism they won’t avoid, however, is that most of these tunes rigidly follow the same structure of “ambling, poppy riff, sometimes with frenetic drum fills and rolls, in the verse plus lurching, half-time rhythm and ringing riff in the chorus or bridge”. It sounds overly complex, but I recognized the format easily after a while. There’s some disappointing riff recycling which besmirches their songwriting ability – a couple of songs even have almost the same drum pattern, while I just realized, to my dismay, that the guitar part in the title track echoes “Relative Ways”’ hook way too closely. Even still, as a whole, I can’t help but enjoy their numerous variations on that theme, conveyed with jovially simple, catchy melodies.

…Trail Of Dead offer basic, uncomplicated pleasures which are easy to put on and play whenever. Source Tags & Codes is a weird, cool diversion; as if one year, the crowd from Lollapalooza decided to crash the Renaissance Faire.

 

 

 

TURN ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS – Interpol

(Matador)

**** 1/2

And turn up the reverb. No, even more. Still more.

Untitled\Obstacle 1\Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down

Say Hello To the Angels

 

It’s time to discuss the two-thousand-pound gorilla in the room. He really needs to go. He takes up too much space with his immense bulk, flings his feces all over the place and throws a tantrum when I try to watch Magnum P.I. in the den. All right. Now that that’s done, I can address the unfortunate, looming unspoken truth regarding pop from last decade: I strongly believe that, with a few exceptions, generally speaking, everything that can be done in modern popular recording has been done. All the significant innovations of rock as we know it have already been achieved. Unless you’re a true visionary like Wayne Coyne or Thom Yorke, you’ll never stand on the same level as the all-time greats.

But that’s not to say minor revelations and small displays of ingenuity aren’t important, because that’s all today’s bands can usually lay claim to. The standard has been lowered for the current class of musicians. They’re not going to invent an entirely new way to perceive rock’n’roll, so if they come up with a unique lyrical conceit and creative riff, they’re breaking relatively new ground in comparison to most other groups. To clarify, a modern song, in and of itself, can be just as accomplished and enjoyable as the average Sixties single; it’s just that the requirements for notability are different now.

Therefore, any originality that could be achieved nowadays is with the presentation or permutations of the music itself. So unless I note that something is “truly, amazingly innovative” or “revolutionary” in these reviews, this sort of modest, pleasing novelty is really what I’m talking about when I refer to “creativity”. The real advancements at this point are happening with tweaking the minutiae of old paradigms. It’s in the formula of what Seventies and Sixties bands the contemporary group sounds like. It’s in the microscopic, but impressive flourishes, countermelodies and soundscapes they create. It’s in the verbal twists I can honestly say I’ve never heard in the past. In the 2000s, “originality” was all about putting a fresh coat of paint on an old façade.

In this respect, Interpol succeeds beyond imagination. I enjoy albums with an air of mystery (and ambiguity, as I’ve mentioned), and Turn On the Bright Lights has that in spades. The Helvetica font on the cover is unbelievably fitting. These guys were meant for Helvetica (or maybe the other way around) – they embody its sleek, almost unearthly precision.

Group leader Paul Banks’ vocals are desperate and wavery; he drones more than he sings, which you don’t hear a whole lot these days. It’s very Ian Curtis-like, as has been noted endlessly by critics. I think he sounds sort of like David Byrne as well. The lyrics are despondent, androgynous and lethargic with the saving grace of being absurdly silly every so often (whether intentionally or not). They’re very well suited to the music.

Most praiseworthy of all, this band is exquisitely tight and technically impressive. Granted, they’re basically pulling off the same flashy tricks with each tune, but like the well-oiled machine they are, they never once disappoint. The record is very thickly produced given its relatively straightforward compositions, and its ringing, sterile sound is instantly recognizable. Interpol’s methodology is to smoothly transition between many increasingly exciting parts, culminating in an ending that’s usually groovy and rousing.

At first, the whole album sounds like one long jumbled song, except for the poppy, striking “Obstacle 1” and the wonky “The New”. Every listen thereafter, it unravels a little more, and you learn to hear through the echo and sustain and discover fairly different-sounding tracks beneath the shimmering surface. I began to distinguish individual parts from the rich and dynamic mix – constant pounding drum fills and rolls; the dueling guitars’ steady stream of rapidly plucked eighth or sixteenth notes, giving an impression of constant motion; fretboard runs that are almost acrobatic in the way they ricochet off the vocals and each other. There are lots of arpeggios and interplay; the patterns probably aren’t hard to play, but they’re breathtaking in practice. It seems like Interpol is constantly filling every blank space with sound, playing insistent riffs at all times and then leaving them behind, moving on to other ideas, switching tempos and changing melodies, while the listener is still reflecting on and piecing together things that happened sixty seconds ago.

Despite my lowered expectations for creative achievement, this band does have a few overly derivative missteps which I must point out. Unfortunately, far too many times they simply come off as the goth Strokes, slightly modulating several of that band’s guitar lines (although the Strokes sorta ripped off a few riffs too, so in this case I might charitably call it a homage). The general sound of the two bands is notably similar, and the setup and production values of their songs are also quite close. This comes to a head on the nonetheless decent “Say Hello To the Angels”, which I may start referring to as Emo “Last Nite”.

But that’s where Interpol’s disadvantages end. Their style, whoever may have done it before, still sounds cool and futuristic here. Plus, the band lends their own flair to the formula. It’s hard to describe effectively, but Bright Lights is so deliciously spacey and taut that it sounds positively lunar in places. Their songs are comparable to that phenomenon where a cloud goes across the sun and almost imperceptibly darkens the daytime – when you pay attention, nothing really seems to change; and yet, it certainly does, in a way that’s more intuitive than cognitive. These tunes evolve and build a great deal, but it’s so seamless and impermeable that it seems like they just sneakily shift sideways.

With a cursory listen, it’s hard to notice the album’s components moving – though they are, like clockwork, echoing across the underbelly of the mix; or, in nonpretentious terms, the band is playing all over each other like crazy. They shade in all their notes, deepening them with reverb and harmonics, while presenting the riffs and rhythms of each tune in different patterns and variations, which has a really cool effect. Their mathematical sense of economy and tempo, the inevitability and vigor of each chord struck, is wonderfully rhythmic and hypnotic.

However, Bright Lights does get worryingly samey and dirge-like by its last few tracks, instead of staying mesmerizing and intertwined. Not really so much because of lagging quality toward the finish; rather, it’s just a tad too long and by that juncture, you’ve heard the extent of the group’s capabilities. At that point, you’re left to work out the details for yourself. This is a record it pays to know like the back of your hand – the more familiar you are with it, the more you’ll like it. Sure, Interpol aren’t doing anything too spectacular, judging by the outsized achievements of years past. But just under the surface, there are some astounding and remarkable things going on here. Turn On the Bright Lights is what passes for originality these days, and I’d have to agree.

 

 

YOU FORGOT IT IN PEOPLE – Broken Social Scene

(Arts & Crafts)

*** 1/2

“It” must have meant adequacy.

Stars And Sons\Cause = Time\Pacific Theme

Pitter Patter Goes My Heart

 

When a band’s called Broken Social Scene, I really don’t expect the first track on their album to sound like “The Great Gig In the Sky” stuck in a rut. So these guys pleasantly surprised me from the get-go. The fact that lyrics didn’t start until halfway through the second track shocked me even more. Most of all, I was baffled that the vocals weren’t cutesy indie-pop whining! What a wonderful development! Unfortunately, the first two cuts sound like potentially awesome instrumental loops in search of actual songs. Such is the case with the majority of the album, I suppose.

You Forgot It In People strikes me as a bunch of promising, dynamic and interesting tunes which are tragically transformed into boring, anemic background music and extended into aimless dickery far beyond the end of the actual compositions. The better tracks do a bit to make up for this, but overall, the staleness and aimlessness here is quite obvious. It’s clear that the band has some promise, but they do what they can to squander it.

On the other hand, BSS succeeds at the problem every identity-creating, ambitious indie outfit faces with a new album: finding a sound that’s unusual and interesting without being too contrived, boring or grating. So when they finally dip into navel-gazing antics on the third song, it’s actually acceptable and pretty decent.

This constant tonal shift deserves mention, as well. They don’t switch genres so much as constantly give you something that doesn’t seem like it’s from the same band. In sequential order, there is: a ponderous synth loop; meandering bar rock; precious mumbly wimp rock; a stomping garage-rock noisemaker; a loungy ballad; impossibly dense surf-rock ska; symphonic bluegrass with a distractingly tweaked vocal part; poky, clean-toned hipster rock; a wordless and compositionally confused Western motif; an ambient groove with high-pitched guitar and chanting; a well-done histrionic take on the moody Coldplay piano ballad; disaffected coffeehouse prog-folk; and a tepid string quartet instrumental. Maybe this variety is due to the group having like thirty million freaking people in it. Planning tours must be a logistical nightmare.

But I digress. I think it’s safe to say that Broken Social Scene is more interested in sounds than melodies. Fair enough, although I wish they could have focused on both, which is definitely possible. An inordinate amount of these songs have nowhere to go after they relay their main idea, and indulge in spirited, but unmemorable, skrankly noise solos, synth goofs, drones or listless repetition. The lyrics are completely unremarkable, sparse placeholders. Every so often, they become surprisingly obscene and gross, but either way, they’re nothing to write home about.

This band doesn’t offer much that you can’t get better somewhere else. Their tunes are perfectly respectable, but not excellent. But hey, at least these compositions have more depth to them than there is in the typical Spoon album (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga notwithstanding). They just need a couple more revisions so we don’t get another batch of rough draft ideas.

In summation, I suppose You Forgot It In People is the sound of a potentially great band screwing around in their early stages, trying to figure themselves out. They fail awkwardly one moment, then succeed charmingly the next. Overall, I suppose it’s an okay effort. It’s more perplexing and schizophrenic (in a bad way) than enjoyable. Unfortunately, according to critics, this is Broken Social Scene’s peak, so… don’t bother. 

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