SECOND WAVE Part 8: 2007

2007

 

 

 

BOXER | CASSADAGA | GA GA GA GA GA | GRADUATION | HISSING FAUNA, ARE YOU THE DESTROYER? | KALA | LIARS | PERSON PITCH | RAISING SAND | SKY BLUE SKY | UNTRUE | WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK  

 

 

BOXER – the National

(Beggars Banquet)

*** 1/2

Unassuming and understated to the point where it becomes a problem.

Apartment Story\Mistaken For Strangers\Ada

Slow Show

 

Boxer starts the way so many bad, self-absorbed albums do: with a generic, basic piano and a sketchy, plaintive melody. But the National are too reserved to be cloying, and too smart to act precocious. They hold back just enough and have an air of integrity to their work. Because of the band’s punchy sparseness and low-voiced singer, they sound vaguely like a combination between Spoon and Nick Cave. Their lyrics are agreeably humble and direct, with an acceptable amount of quirky, indie diary-of-my-feelings lines.

I can totally agree with the Leonard Cohen comparisons that have been foisted upon the record; its music is funereal, and the prose is sometimes quite randy and despondent as well. These songs are sketched-out ideas that sound unfinished and just repeat the one part the songwriter seems to have completed before getting stuck. Their tunes are pleasant enough, but that doesn’t mean that they’re worth remembering. This is kinda like Coldplay for sophisticated intellectuals – it’s still mostly moody parlor music, but without Chris Martin’s dumbed-down lyrics and other faults. The National are just as hopelessly romantic and sensitive as that band, but they’re humble and wry about it, and never go too far or get too corny.

Boxer mostly fails to leave an impression on me, but at least it doesn’t leave a bad impression. It’s unobtrusive to a fault; however, this LP is very to-the-point and short, so that’s refreshing. The group does get away with some showy flourishes hidden behind the suffocating veneer on their tunes, which isn’t immediately obvious because the record is so meek and morose. Even the more upbeat songs are masked behind the National’s tidy, monochromatic sound.

The B-side “Blank Slate” should have been included on the album, as it’s better than anything here (though the record does seem to get more confident and fleshed out as it progresses). Anyway, I’m surprised this band is so hyped, as I can’t see anyone being absolutely thrilled by Boxer. But there you have it – apparently lots of people were. Me, I could take ‘em or leave ‘em.

 

 

 

CASSADAGA – Bright Eyes

(Saddle Creek)

*****

State of the Nation: not lookin’ good.

Hot Knives\Four Winds\If the Brakeman Turns My Way

No One Would Riot For Less

 

Bright Eyes was at the same artistic waypoint as Modest Mouse in 2007: both groups had made two (three? I guess I’ll count MM’s Sad Sappy Sucker reissue for the purposes of this analogy) albums in a row that were the unsurpassed peaks of their respective careers. Where did they have to go from there but down? Fortunately, neither act toppled too far; in fact, these guys arguably surpassed their earlier achievements.

As is always the case with Bright Eyes, a discordant piece of musique concréte starts off Cassadaga. “Clairaudients” is a particularly good one, with a thick glaze of psychotic, worrying strings surrounding prognostications of psychics that tie heavily into the album’s themes and the circumstances of its writing and recording. Despite the hints of pretension (the real lyrics don’t begin until 2:15), once Conor Oberst starts singing, he more than makes up for that. He has always been good at assembling a litany of buzzwords and well-worn topics and somehow breathing life into them, finding new angles to examine and adding relevance and eloquence like few other lyricists can. Even when he’s packing tons of ideas into a broadly themed song, he gives each one the clever context and analysis it needs. Here, they’re also grounded and given pause by the relics and details of time and place, motivated by the cross-country journey that inspired the record. This feat is especially impressive considering these are all concepts he’s used before, yet they still seem fresh and thought-provoking. His word-association lists on “I Must Belong Somewhere” are breathtaking, despite the song’s basic structure and simple tune. Just another case of Oberst’s outstanding writing rescuing a potentially unremarkable composition.

Not to be outdone, the production, arrangements, melodies and vocals all endeavor to be pleasant and striking on this album. The songs are clear and confident, the lyrics are poignant and eloquent, and Conor’s voice is at its best, unstrained and fully in key (not to mention being assisted by numerous talented backup vocalists). He’s gained more perspective and restraint as a poet, but lost none of his disappointment, confusion or rage. Nevertheless, compared to his outbursts and polemics of old, Cassadaga is an uncharacteristically calm, reflective record. It sounds like Oberst’s already an old man who’s seen too much; in what must be either an act of frustrated resignation or merely a sarcastic put-on, he renounces his partisan politics and embraces unfeeling neutrality in “Middleman”.

Though cool artistic decisions like that abound on this outing, what’s most applause-worthy is that Conor has finally mastered the perfect foil to his patient storytelling – dynamic musicianship. His backing band was always a strong suit, but when they stepped up their game on the jaw-dropping Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, I had doubts that their creativity would translate into Bright Eyes’ preferred style of country-folk. Yet here they are, back in their genre of choice, and the band is still highly proficient and just sounds excellent, propelling these sometimes unassuming laments into the realm of greatness. It’s easy to miss due to the general complacent vibe and laid-back production, but Oberst does a stunning job here integrating so many styles and influences into his sound. This set ranges from straight-up cornball country music (with Conor even inflecting his voice to a Southern accent in places) to luxurious Hawaiian pop to a hypnotic Indian raga. It’s even more diverse and potent than other muso-historical documents such as Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. There’s Hispanic culture, Nawlins horns, East-Coast blue-blooded strings, old-school blues, and Native American chanting. It’s rustic, but forward-looking and sounds as fresh and pristine as anything from the modern era.

These impressive musical experiments are a pleasant surprise; however, I’m equally awestruck at how skillfully the record avoids being a rehash of something Bright Eyes has done before. At this stage of the band’s career, that’s hard to do, but the group always stays a step ahead of anything that could be considered a rewrite, though at times the songs do sound overly formulaic. Oberst has gotten better at adorning what are essentially simple folksy compositions. He has the same songwriting mannerisms and cadences as always and a few passages are a bit familiar-sounding, but I find those easy to shrug off. Actually, the biggest problem here is the relative slowness and slight overrepetition of the songs, but their melodies are strong and aid each track immensely. Despite their easygoing length, these tunes aren’t as indulgent and overstuffed as one would expect. Whereas on Lifted the immaculate lyrics occasionally carried the song, here the (still excellent) words are sometimes superseded by the top-notch music.

Ornate, well-balanced, thoughtful, relatively short, somewhat auspicious, competently played and moderately catchy: those are all the qualities I expect from a well-made composition, and while Cassadaga isn’t an album I’d claim to be perfect, it deserves accolades for deftly doing all of those things. As if that wasn’t enough, Bright Eyes definitely has a unique, perfectly expressed artistic vision on this effort. In fact, if you considered it a rock opera or song cycle, I’d say it’s the most successful one of the decade.

With that starry-eyed praise, now seems as good a time as any to discuss the record’s inevitable low points: “No One Would Riot For Less” kills all the momentum of an album that was already uncomfortably slow. That entropy is compounded by the pretty, yet lethargic closer “Lime Tree”, but other than those two, the tunes here are just attractive and upbeat enough to hold interest, while remaining resigned and elegiac.

In its pastoral majesty, spiritual lushness and ever-slackening pace, this LP seems for all the world like a final farewell. Bright Eyes have reportedly planned one last album, which they are working on now. I don’t know what they could do that hasn’t been done on Cassadaga. But Digital Ash In A Digital Urn knocked my socks off, so here’s hoping for a shocking, exceptional left-field sendoff.

 

 

 

GA GA GA GA GA – Spoon

(Merge)

**** 1/2

That is the worst album title ever. I defy you to find one that’s more grotesquely juvenile, clumsy and off-putting. It cannot be done.

Don’t You Evah\The Underdog\You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb

The Ghost Of You Lingers

 

Part 2 of the Spoon Saga

 

Is there a blander band active today than Spoon? Don’t answer that; I don’t think I can take it if there is.

It took me a long time to come around to this record. My first reaction was a knee-jerk rejection, which is somewhat understandable given my history with the band. On second thought, I found it decent, but still not too great. Finally, on the third outing, I was able to see past the group’s weaknesses and notice this is a dizzying upswing in quality for them; so much so that I grew suspicious. The hooks are all fairly simple, but first and foremost, they’re damned memorable, and also delightfully tactile as a bonus. It seems that Spoon’s dogged focus on tone actually pays off here, instead of resulting in an amateur, muddy snoozefest.

Britt’s lyrics are still about average, domestic things while occasionally becoming elitist for the sake of elitism. But this cooler-than-thou prose gets split a few ways: trivial daily activities and banal thoughts; lines that are too vague and cryptic to signify or imply anything; or describing what happened one time when he went out drinking. His Steely Dan rasp seems affected and forced to the point where I’m convinced that it’s not how his voice actually sounds, and he’s a pathetic hipster trying to cripple his performance so that it might seem more “authentic”. Eh, whatever – I’ll take it. It’s okay, superficially speaking.

Ga as a whole comes across as refreshingly dynamic and fast-paced, though the compositions are still very dry, methodical, and fairly minimal once you look harder. It uses all the trademarks of Spoon’s previous tunes in service of far better melodies; nevertheless, I’ll even the playing field by using the “that technically makes these pseudo-rewrites” cop-out, because honestly, if I had to give a Spoon record a perfect grade, my heart and brain would explode. This isn’t legendary music; it’s very good music. Nevertheless, it’s astonishing to hear Britt Daniel writing nice little pop ditties.

This album isn’t blindly reliant on rhythm at the expense of everything else, like Kill the Moonlight and Gimme Fiction were, but it doesn’t have as many good hooks, intriguing structures, clever lyrics, memorable performances, or well-written melodies as countless other LPs I’d rather listen to. It’s less bland than the band’s other work, but that’s clearly no raving recommendation. However, overall, it is still a great record. It’s a lot like the White Stripes’ Elephant in that it ably disguises all the flaws of a limited group. The result is a nearly classic recording, even though it still has visible problems.

Let’s get into them now. Do a few piano chords and literally nothing else excite you? Well, you’d better hope so, because that’s all the piss-poor “The Ghost Of You Lingers” has to offer! (That, plus some truly uninteresting vocals.) Also, the first track is propulsive and fun, but it’s too uncomfortably evocative of Gimme Fiction’s underachieving, uninteresting formula – I guess you could see it as that record’s scraggly, boring sonic aspirations being developed into the entertaining, legitimate song they always wished they could be. The band and singer are cold and uninterested, as always, but this time they actually lay down some intriguing grooves. These include the two poppiest and most pleasingly orchestrated tracks (and not coincidentally, the first two I began to like), “The Underdog” and “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”. Now, remember when I said that the White Stripes’ “There’s No Home For You Here” and “The Denial Twist” were two of the most shameless, tasteless self-ripoffs I’ve heard in rock history? Well, Spoon gives them a run for their money with these dual carbon copies. Taken solely on their own terms, they’re equally great songs, but considering both of them exist, one of them is entirely unnecessary. I just can’t decide which I’d eliminate.

Speaking of rewrites, Spoon’s albums sound worryingly similar. Heard one, heard ‘em all – one’s opinion just depends on whether they’ve heard the best one (either this or Girls Can Tell). I have to conclude that producer Jim Eno was as big an influence on their sound as his far superior namesake was on Talking Heads, and he’s partially to blame for their deficiencies. Now that the gang has an additional producer, it follows that the compositions are more “lush”, so to speak. The most uncharacteristically symphonic tune (noted above) was fittingly engineered by Jon Brion, of all people!

During my first listen, the simple act of composing an interesting, enjoyable pop song such as “Cherry Bomb” seemed like an absolute miracle, which it shouldn’t have. In actuality, the band writes a handful of great pop ditties here. But they’re not much more than that – agreeable novelties that happen to have a catchy vocal melody a few shades above my dismissal and instrumental backing that’s admirable. The music is more dense than usual, I suppose, so there’s that. Plus, this outing is wisely short. Basically, Ga is still a bit too restrained, but I got past that eventually. It’s accomplished and engaging while it’s on, but still very slight in retrospect. Much like Vampire Weekend, the record would be deserving of a higher rating if it weren’t so lightweight. The stakes here are so low that even when these slacking Southerners succeed, it doesn’t feel like a victory. Before, Daniel couldn’t write a guitar line to save his life. He writes a few decent ones here. Now they have the problem of being small fish in a big pond: yeah, so what, Britt? Your riff pales in comparison to the dozens of better ones written last decade. All in all, it’s a valiant effort, but relative to the entire music world, it’s a losing proposition.

I admit it’s a little unfair to be so harsh when, judged on its own terms (and especially in comparison to those two previous failures I love to namecheck), Ga is really good. It’s a laudable improvement for Spoon, but I still feel as if there’s something missing. I suspect it’s closely related to the same kind of distracting detachment that MGMT has. The group includes all the details I wanted here, but occasionally they don’t have a solid tune underpinning them. The structure will usually go “minimal, poky, yet nice melody for verse and chorus, then mediocre bridge section with random atmospheric instrumental parts in it, then back to melody”. Hey, it’s a step in the right direction, I suppose. Actually, I’d like to specifically mention the awesome closer “Black Like Me”, which, wonder of wonders, seems to sidestep the hipster affectations and just deliver a nice, emotive song. (Plus, it has what I think is a clever allusion to the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” at the end, only – in a fitting move for such a minimalist bunch – their tremendous last note never happens, leaving the listener with thirty seconds of silence.) The band is lucky they have absolutely no pretensions whatsoever (except maybe for Britt – I’m not so sure about that guy), or else I wouldn’t have made it through this exceedingly dry, nondescript album even once before I got used to it. Furthermore, now that they’ve overcome being out-and-out sucky, they’re still merely on the level of “affable”. So it was hard to reconcile giving a rating mostly reserved for quintessential, intricate, important recordings to music that was inauspicious, but fun. 

But I digress. When all is said and done, I really do like this LP. I just needed to vent the last of my frustration with this group. Spoon graduate from kindergarten with this release, but that only makes them more susceptible to getting beat down on the songwriting playground by superior musicians. I’m not yet certain whether this band has true talent. But on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, they had a whole lot of luck. And I, for one, am relieved. It took him years, but as the record’s most telling line indicates, Britt Daniel has finally learned how to “humanize the vacuum”. 

 

 

GRADUATION – Kanye West

(Roc-A-Fella)

****

Lullabies for hustlers.

Can’t Tell Me Nothing\Stronger\Drunk And Hot Girls

Good Life

 

From the moment I looked at the track listing, it seemed that Graduation would be the culmination of my journey toward hip-hop as art. Thirteen tracks. An incredibly musical album as a precedent and forebear. Generally excellent reviews. No. Skits. A fairly short running time. Very few guest stars and producers. Would this be it?

“Good Morning” gets the record off to a strong start. The samples here are interesting. This record finds Kanye sampling much more eclectic stuff (including some white artists), and adding enough substance to make them noteworthy. The music isn’t nearly as deep, complex and melodic as that of Late Registration, but there are still plenty of good tunes and it goes without saying most of these stand head and shoulders above what usually passes for catchiness and creativity in hip-hop. As far as the mix goes, I’ll give West the benefit of the doubt that most of this production is original material (suspending disbelief even further and assuming that he did most of the production himself). In fact, Graduation started a really original trend in modern pop – this LP is a cross between rap and Europop.

That paradigm change is really the key to the high score – satisfying though they are, some of these songs are pretty simplistic. The innovation of introducing techno-rap to the masses boosts it quite a bit. Vitally, Kanye’s transition from hip-hop to new wave is seamless, with some inspired keyboard hooks (the backing tracks are occasionally too broad and formulaic, but that’s not often). The melodies themselves are a tad weaker than the average Late Registration track, but West’s bold performances and integration of all sorts of orchestration and accompaniment make these compositions worthy successors. Even though the tunes are based completely around samples, he expertly constructs his own musical tracks to house them, rather than passively looping the samples without any accoutrements. He also fiddles enough with his sources that I was totally unable to identify any of the lifted segments, despite being familiar with many of the songs they came from. The only conspicuous theft is the chorus from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” in “Stronger”, but it’s fun enough, so no harm done. All of these audacious elements fall into place on the magnificent, stunning bonus song “Bittersweet Poetry”. Elsewhere, “Homecoming” is a sweet love letter to the city of Chicago that’s not too trite or forced. On the negative side, West fouls up two tracks with guest spots by the awful Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain, who threaten to turn them into lame club jams.

On Graduation, the outspoken MC always sounds like he’s a step away from bursting into song, and in fact, he does so on the outstanding, delirious, menacing “Drunk & Hot Girls” (with a Can sample, of all things!). It’s very synth-dominated, and makes a clearer link between this and the crazy, experimental 808s And Heartbreak.

Kanye actually croons decently, making melodies that cater to his limited range, and eschewing the Autotune that would dominate on the follow-up. He also sounds extremely leisurely here, which is different than sounding lazy or uninspired. His calmness and confidence are infectious, especially when paired with the soaring music. As a result, the album is slick and airy in a tuneful way, rather than just being another insubstantial, overproduced hip-hop LP. It follows Yeezy’s notoriously fickle emotions all over the place, and it turns out the guy can be really honest and forthcoming when he wants to be. Sometimes, he’ll digress from the topic to mention timely concerns and random things that are on his mind, but those references are sensible and well-integrated, and will probably age gracefully. These grandiose proclamations seem like the precursor to his popular Twitter feed, but again, they’re perfectly acceptable as lyrics.

The particularly egregious and gaudy shoutouts are excused because they seem incidental and off-the-cuff, where other rappers would make a big deal out of them and try to sell them as clever lines. Plus, these temporal and superficial details read better than they should since this is the hip-hop equivalent of a “day in the life” record, ones that musicians make concerning all the things that happened to them when they were on tour. I know rap is a fairly realistic genre that frequently discusses current news and items of interest, but Graduation is strictly focused on Kanye’s (no doubt interesting) life immediately after becoming famous. At first, he dealt with success in a surprisingly prosaic, genial way. He can get really starry-eyed, but always questions that avarice and pokes fun at it. He expresses wonder – and for once, gratitude – at being on top of the world. Some of the rhymes are slow and sloppy, but others are really inventive and smart, so those cancel each other out. Furthermore, he intermittently keeps up his overarching college motif throughout. I’m not nearly experienced enough with the genre to claim that this sort of album hasn’t been done before, but… well, I certainly haven’t heard anything like it yet. This is a portrait of the artist, not a product endorsement like Jay-Z songs frequently are.

Because the LP is lyrically focused on Kanye’s headspace over the span of a year, it seems to be (thankfully) isolated from hip-hop culture at large. However, that means it’s subject to West writing what he knows, and what he knows is how great he is. I’m actually fairly okay with a giant ego massage as long as he can write “I’m awesome” in a clever way thirteen times. In fact, he actually gets in a few self-effacing and self-deprecating jokes. It’s interesting to hear a rap album with one consistent thematic focus, especially one where the performer rather astutely assesses his fame and ego. On the flip side, both Yeezy’s persona and his music are becoming more artificial and robotic here. It’s like he’s invoking the indomitable spirit of the soul singer and recasting it in his own self-aggrandizing, superficial image. It’s oddly intimate, and this introspection would also become more fleshed-out on Heartbreak. It’s ironic that such a boastful record as this could be so musically laid-back and contemplative.

So, all things considered, did Graduation live up to what I expected? Not really, but given my towering standards, it did pretty well. At first, I thought it was good, but not on the level of Late Registration. Afterward, its greatness snuck up on me, to the point where I was close to giving it **** 1/2. I do get the feeling Mr. West could have tried harder here and come up with something even more awesome, but this will do.

 

 

 

HISSING FAUNA, ARE YOU THE DESTROYER? – Of Montreal

(Polyvinyl)

**** 1/2

More the edges, not the middle.

Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse\Suffer For Fashion\Gronlandic Edit

Faberge Falls For Shuggie

 

Sure, I could compare Of Montreal’s sound to Brian Wilson’s pop symphonies, as I have with tons of other indie bands who share that influence. But that’s boring and obvious, and I detect other inspirations at work here. If I may compare, Of Montreal = the Shins + Yes + the better aspects of Animal Collective.

From the first track, it becomes evident that Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is a slightly more successful glam rock revival than Oracular Spectacular. It has a unique sound, but is clearly indebted to David Bowie, T. Rex and the like, while also drawing a lot of inspiration from Europop. The lyrics are sometimes pretentious and bloviated, but entertainingly so. I think of them as very Shins-esque: literate, grandiloquent and oddly cryptic. There are wry turns of phrase and silly lines scattered throughout all the soul-searching, so the proceedings never get too stuffy. Overall, the outsized, breathless stanzas mesh perfectly with the overzealous, active music to achieve a warped state of disco-funky dream logic.

Hopefully, I’m not making this sound more difficult than fun – if you’re going glam, it’s a given that you’ve got to be outrageous at some point. You just need to be likeably outrageous, and bandleader Kevin Barnes has that covered. For example, his occasional tendency to go over the top and get musically self-indulgent (“Faberge Falls For Shuggie”) is still unhinged and fun to listen to, even when the melodies are scattered, affected and weak. Thankfully, however, most of them are thrilling, with unexpected, treated sounds popping out everywhere and a real sense of cohesion and sonic inventiveness once one gets used to the unfamiliar surroundings and really digs into the record. There are grand synth parts of all colors and stripes, excellent harmonies, good programmed and sequenced beats, and awesome decadent guitars. Though some of the tunes are opaque at first, it’s quite obvious that they exist and Kevin was purposely trying to create them, unlike the seemingly improvisatory, aimless “compositions” of Animal Collective. “Suffer For Fashion” in particular is an inspired, marvelous indie rock statement of purpose in the same vein as the Shins’ “Caring Is Creepy”.

These are lovingly crafted, symphonic acid pop songs. I guess that makes this like the gay cousin of SMiLE, then. It’s a flamboyant, jubilant, kaleidoscopic record; even when Barnes is being too dour or overbearing, everything is so intriguing and colorful the experience remains tolerable. By balancing many different sides of his personality, they all become easier to take. There are exploitative references and ironic humor, canceled out by intimate self-loathing, which is leavened by silly posturing and phrasing, and that in turn is coupled with surreal nonsense. Also, though his twisty, incomprehensible vocal melodies go off the rails a bit too frequently, there are always some solid and memorable sections in each song. Those helium-voiced choral harmonies are similarly hard to warm up to; they’re warbly, slightly off-kilter and layered atop each other like hotcakes. But once you’re familiar with the effect, it sounds really cool and the tracks grow a lot more distinctive.

Hissing Fauna’s structure is compelling: it’s a bunch of three-and-a-half-minute synth-pop songs with a huge, twelve-minute marathon sandwiched right in the middle. “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” is a paranoid disco groove that’s hypnotic enough and has a sufficient amount happening to merit its running time. Even though the tunes get more psychotropic and incomprehensible after “Past”, there’s a lot to unearth in them. The diversity here is wonderful, as well – the band glides freely between whichever styles it feels like, while keeping the glam vibes going. Sure, Barnes goes a little overboard on this release, but it’s so idiosyncratic and exciting that I’ll give it a **** 1/2 for effort.

A brilliant theory I came across makes this album even smarter in retrospect – it could be said that these tracks detail the numerous ways one deals with a breakup, and the different parts of one’s life it affects. That’s an excellent concept, and it enriches the record a great deal, as if there wasn’t enough here already. It’s a lot to take in, but that’s part of the point. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is as whimsical, fantastical, self-effacingly weird, ostentatious and overstuffed as its title, and this sentence.

 

 

KALA – M.I.A.

(Interscope)

*** 1/2

M.I.A.’s first two albums are named after her parents. Kala suggests that she’s playing favorites.

Boyz\Paper Planes\Jimmy

20 Dollar

 

What, critics? And to think I trusted you. This…. this was supposed to be weird and interesting??? I’ve heard this simplistic stuff a hundred times before. It’s called rap. I guess you’re not familiar with that style. It’s so hackneyed and boring that I don’t even have any unique or insightful complaints about it. Reductive and uncreative samples, minimalist spoken vocals with stupid lyrics, repeated way too much over a boring rhythm? Yep, that would be called bad hip-hop. So where’s this unusual, distinctive music I was promised?

Okay, calling Kala “hip-hop” is an exaggeration, but not by much. There are some heavy, indistinct world beats here, but that’s really not enough to compel me. If they could be considered catchy, they’re catchy in spite of themselves in the most irritating way possible, so that’s basically a wash. Even though the mix is fairly eclectic and deep like on Arular, here it’s used for a sedative effect rather than that record’s sense of excitement. I’ll be generous and say that one or two of these tracks are engaging, but M.I.A. basically uses the same gimmick of vaguely Indian dance drones for every song, so it only works for like three or so before growing stale.

There isn’t a particular element of this album I can even single out to appreciate. What do other people enjoy about it? The Clash sample Maya stole? The mediocre beats she probably didn’t create herself which are looped unimaginatively for the duration of a song? The nagging, childish, irritating yelps of chanting that she thinks pass for a chorus? Kala is a leaden lump of dullness and wasted potential. Extremely underwhelming. …And it’s still better than Ágætis Byrjun. Seriously, screw Sigur Rós. I hope they somehow get fired from being musicians.

In any event, I should explain why this record gets such a high rating, for all its faults. The thing is, M.I.A. finds a way to combine these unimpressive pieces into a far more entertaining whole. Maybe it’s that same begrudging charm I got from her overbearing quirkiness on Arular.

On the positive side, it’s quite evident that Maya is an eclectic artist who isn’t afraid to take risks. That could pay off in the future. I also like that her politics are rabble-rousing, yet personal (and the fact that she has an agenda at all gives her that much more of a reason to exist). But the album is too hard to differentiate when every song uses a similar formula. Plus, it’s tiringly long, and her totally fake lower-class revolutionary image gets beaten like the proverbial dead horse here. It’s one of the less annoying factors in play, but bears mentioning.

Technically speaking, despite Kala’s flaws, it’s deserving of a *** 1/2 because I’d much rather listen to any of these tracks than anything else on modern hip-hop charts, though that’s more a condemnation of sucky rap than a compliment to M.I.A.

It’s evident on this record that Maya is onto something good with the “world music compendium” concept. It just doesn’t click because of its homogeneity and the lame rap influences. If she can just develop the songwriting talent to back it up, her next album might be awesome. I’m confident that she’s a brave and independent enough musician to break free of all the terrible practices hip-hop forced on her and create something truly great.

 

 

 

LIARS – Liars

(Mute)

**** 1/2

Sometimes the flaws in the small picture are a necessary part of the big picture. Plus, Liars’ flaws are more interesting than some bands’ successes.

Cycle Time\Houseclouds\Plaster Casts Of Everything

Leather Prowler

 

It was clear from the two or three compositions on Drum’s Not Dead which I’m comfortable calling songs that Liars have at least some skill at writing interesting, dynamic music. They were just unfairly withholding it, for whatever that boring-ass album’s conceptual purposes were. So their leap from * 1/2 (by normal rock standards) to **** 1/2 in the space of two records isn’t all that insane. In fact, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Liars is a beguiling, apocalyptic mystery. This cool-as-hell record is full of infernal, gothic art rock where the tone is dire, the synths are crystalline, and the guitars are angular to the point of unrecognizability. The vocals are murmured exhortations and the mix is suffocated with atonal sounds that are listenable in defiance of all traditional norms of beauty.

The first two songs are aces all the way, top to bottom. No arguments. “Plaster Casts Of Everything” and “Houseclouds” may contain more substance and creative nuance than every other track Liars have produced combined (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but still). Along with “The Other Side Of Mt. Heart Attack” from Drum’s Not Dead, they’re a perfect triumvirate of respectively loud, midtempo and quiet tunes to start with if you’re new to the band.

Now, this music isn’t absolutely masochistic, painful instrument raping like I make it sound – I’m merely emphasizing that everything here is just so weird. It runs perpendicular to how songs are “supposed” to behave, while retaining the melody one reasonably expects, and I admire that. It seems as if it was developed specifically to contradict all the patterns of rock music. The production is sharp and imposing, yet the cumulative effect of the instrumentation and tones is hazy. The tunes defy convention, but they’re relatively palatable. The record as a whole is woozy and insistent. This results in a cool, disorienting listen; no album has created psychological unease like this in quite some time. Its sound has some definite similarities with the menacing, brooding, orgiastic tribal music of Drum, except now those numbing, jagged soundscapes are futurized and crafted into a more aesthetically pleasing form.

Liars is bachelor pad lounge music from hell. It’s not too confrontationally harsh or ironically unlistenable, but it is quite dark and schizophrenic. These guys like to take fairly brisk melodic phrases and distort and repeat them until they become nightmarish and surreal. That is to say, they still make songs that mainly appeal to one’s appreciation of strangeness, but at least this time they’re actual songs – and memorable ones, to boot! Manageable tunes lurk in the dense mix, hidden behind the zombified thumping of drums and cavernous buzzing of detuned guitars. This brings to mind the impressiveness and tactile sensation behind the LP’s guitar tone, not to mention the really thick, deep textures of sound.

Despite all my seemingly negative signifiers, these awesomely replayable tracks are way better in every respect than those on the previous album. I surmise that, although raw and murky, they remain fun due to their conciseness. Basically, it’s hassle-free, economy-sized artsy drone! That’s key to enjoying stuff this bizarre – when a musician gives you a smaller chunk of material to study, it’s less taxing and more fun to put on habitually. Also, when a band as uncompromising as this releases a hefty dissertation of a record, there really isn’t anything melody-seeking listeners can focus on. But here, it’s all concentrated into an old-school forty-minute LP format – plus, there’s next to no filler. Considering it’s not hard to get on board with this surprisingly listenable set, I’d call it the group’s greatest achievement.

One of the best things about this album is that it’s a self-contained world. Thankfully, Liars are creatively inspired musicians who sound and behave like few others, which makes this record seem like every microscopic detail has a purpose and is exactly as it should be. Even when there are weak spots, they are so curious and otherworldly, I can’t resist listening to them either. Each piece of the puzzle gives the impression that it has a reason for being there, even if a couple segments are hard to deal with.

And there are a few missteps, to be sure. For instance, a few guitar parts sound worryingly similar to each other, but the band still gets a lot of mileage out of their hypnotizing tone. (“The Dumb In the Rain” in particular steals a bit of stuff from the surrounding songs, but I’ll rationalize it as summing up the album’s musical themes.) Even riskier is “Leather Prowler”, consisting of an intentionally atonal skrankling sound and an iffy melody that’s completely overshadowed by too much echo and drone. If not for these perceived objective slights, I’d easily give this album a *****, since I definitely enjoy it that much.

But again, strangely enough, even the weaklings simply feel right within the context of the work – it’s just that they don’t quite fit my personal standards for artistic excellence and adequacy. I guess it wouldn’t be a Liars record if there weren’t a spaced-out, go-nowhere percussive mood piece, and if its appearance here is limited to one track, I find that tradeoff totally acceptable.

Though one or two songs on Liars are iffy, the band’s overall style and the strange art they create is incredibly impressive and fun to listen to. More importantly, I believe this album is the best Liars are capable of making and so it should be treated with the concomitant respect.

 

 

PERSON PITCH – Panda Bear

(Paw Tricks)

***

Good Lord, does Pitchfork ever want to have buttsex with this album (with them as the bottom).

Bros [or, if you want to save some time, Ponytail, but imagine it being repeated six times with a few whacked out percussion loops on top of it.]\Take Pills\Comfy In Nautica

Search For Delicious

 

Problem #586 with modern music: even artists who are trying to be revolutionary confuse sounding idiosyncratic with actually being original. They’re like “I’ve got it! I’ll be the first person to put the sound of an armadillo farting onto tape! Genius!” Hey, by all means, go for it, tardface. But it doesn’t mean you have any unprecedented ideas. And if you’re that desperate and radical in your search for creative inspiration, A) I have reason to believe your melodic ideas are lacking and B) the finished product will more often than not sound dreadful because of all the pointless, awkward sounds you’re cramming into it.

That ceaseless and mostly futile urge for notability is the whole motivation behind the cutesy, quirky indie aesthetic: the quest to distinguish oneself and establish a unique persona through bizarre and sometimes unseemly sonic choices. Except everyone’s lazy and uses the same signifiers of “just strange enough” art and sound design to trick dumb people, and with such widespread use, the vocal tics, shy personalities and pompous, verbose lyrics are no longer unique. In fact, they become downright annoying, unnecessary and disingenuous, which is my major beef with the scene. It’s a massive put-on, which I normally have no problem with, but this cultural bait-and-switch is especially forced and obnoxious, not to mention it’s used more often than not for miserable artistic ends by people who disgustingly and desperately want to be adored, even if they have to erase their actual personality to do so.

Anyway, now for the actual review. Neither Animal Collective, nor its composite musicians, will ever escape the label of “pothead music”. Lead singer Noah Lennox (A.K.A. Panda Bear)’s solo project is no different. Person Pitch is like a calmer version of AC. It’s easier going and more agreeable than the spastic, shrieking Merriweather Post Pavilion – P.B. actually writes some endearing, Beach Boys-esque vocal melodies. However, it’s even more despicably overindulgent than his band’s breakthrough – those nice tunes are all overshadowed by limp, droning samples and sleep-inducing reverb and repetition. There’s hardly any melodic instrumental backing either, which makes the compositions even more aimless and leaden. The instruments seem primarily chosen to provide texture, not notes. That’s nice, I suppose, but he needs to get the basics down first.

On this album, Lennox only abuses studio effects and crazy electronic manipulation sparingly, but the overall slurred style takes that initially entertaining gimmick to absurd and tedious lengths. I guess that’s what this is, all accusations of pretension notwithstanding. Panda Bear makes a brave move to warp and evolve the familiar sounds of tropical music, but stretches them too far with too little incident in a gesture that’s typical of his lack of self-restraint.

Actually, though he does his darndest to make the production indistinct in order to hide it, most of these songs are emaciated and underwritten (well, all of them are underwritten melodywise, but some at least have those dumb noises to fill the void). Not much is there to keep me around by seven or so minutes in. Every track uses the same exact formula – the swishing accompaniment and faraway, blurry harmony-stacked vocals repeating unremarkable lyrics in a round for what seems like eons. Vocally, Noah sounds like the bastard child of Ezra Koenig and Mike Love. In fact, Person Pitch is essentially a Beach Boys record caught in a rut for forty-six minutes, heard with one’s head underwater. And if that sounds cool to you, then it’s actually like something else that doesn’t.

Let me try a different metaphor: this record is a stoned beach bum – sure, it’s dedicated to having a good time, but you can barely notice with all the druggy haze. And it turns out he’s so messed up, he just keeps spinning in circles muttering until you’re like, “Um, okay, I’m gonna leave now.” Nope, that one was even worse. Nevermind.

Lennox isn’t afraid to go excessively long-form and trancelike with his tunes, and he should be – it’s costing him major compositional adequacy points. Each track here is good enough in its essence, but becomes unfortunately bloated, like the proverbial fat person with a skinny person inside trying to get out. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to make a song fourteen minutes long in order to establish a trippy atmosphere.) He miraculously steps to just the right side of the weird/accessible demarcation for two relatively clear-eyed, coherent songs: “Carrots” and “Comfy In Nautica”. The rest is a psychotic wilderness of archetypal hallucinogenic sounds, wherein the Artist Known As Panda Bear manipulates and phases the same few samples until they no longer carry any meaning or impact, like when you say someone’s name repeatedly to the point where it sounds weird and unnatural. Like I said, the majority of these songs start off mildly entertaining, but get stretched like taffy until they collapse, every one becoming a bore.

The meandering, generic tape-loop psychedelia which comes from this process isn’t too memorable. It also has the fault of using preexisting musical material as its backbone. Nice try, Noah, but all the sonic trickery and animal names in the world can’t hide your dark secret – Person Pitch is not original. This, in turn, renders moot his inadvisable quest to do extreme, polarizing things in order to achieve innovation. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition: a mad scientist either hits upon something new and useful with his antisocial, ungodly tinkering to earn the approval of the populace, or he creates a hideous monster and the townspeople loathe him for it. That’s the horror-movie equivalent of making post-rock – win big or lose big. To mix metaphors further, Radiohead hit the jackpot their first try and Noah Lennox squandered his fortune at the tables continuously convincing himself he was this close to lucking out. For shame, Panda Bear! (The complex advantages and disadvantages of the record are more nuanced than that, but I can’t resist a snappy analogy. Man, metaphors are not my best friend today.)

If you’re looking for positives, the structure of Person Pitch is interesting, with two really long songs strewn about five normal-length ones in a relatively symmetrical layout (which apes Pink Floyd’s landmark Animals, but this kind of format is so cool and done so infrequently that I don’t mind). And again, I’ll pull out the “it could be worse” argument. Because the issue is really more that I’d expect something with [x characteristic] and [y characteristic] to be a lot more satisfying. But really, I do not endorse or recommend this recording. Except for “Carrots” and “Comfy In Nautica”. They can stay. It’s off to the Pitchfork offices for the rest of them! And I hope that whoever ranked their Best Albums of 2007 dies from a heart attack during their deplorable carnal acts! That’s what they get for keeping In Rainbows from #1! I mean, really, Pitchfork – people expect you to suck up to Radiohead! Come on!

Ahem. Yeah. Anyway, Person Pitch! ***!

 

 

RAISING SAND – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

(Rounder)

***

Led Zeppelin for old people… who don’t like rock music. So basically, ignore that comparison.

Please Read the Letter\Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)\Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson

Polly Come Home

 

The Grammys declared this album of the year during possibly the best year for music last decade. The Grammys can go blow themselves. Everybody knows that trophy was just a concession by the Academy of Recording Arts for never giving Led Zeppelin one in their heyday because the Academy is a bunch of old farts who are dumb as hell and can’t spot musical trends and talent until twenty or so years later in retrospect. All right, I’m done venting. Time to make a level-headed assessment of this record.

Raising Sand is an album where the lyrics are so basic and generic, they really don’t matter much. It’s a collection of old-timey cover tunes where every track is a slow, blues-based groove. There’s enough stuff going on in the mix for them not to suck, but it does get awfully tedious. Especially since there are precious few rock songs – this set is far too ballad-based. I guess the playing is competent in a workmanlike way, though you can tell everyone involved is just a faceless session musician with little involvement or interest in the project.

This record would be better in one sitting if it were sequenced properly. There is a long stretch of boring songs followed by two upbeat tunes that could have leavened the proceedings earlier. Once it gets beyond a geriatric pace, it’s reasonably fun. I mean, the first few slow tracks are nice, but the next seven or so are a death knell. I think the sudden metal guitar at the beginning of “Nothin’” is a hilarious tease after such a quiet LP. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss do have a certain chemistry together, and the clash between their vocals is always interesting. But this really is a fairly boring, pedestrian affair that veers dangerously close to becoming elevator music.

Let’s see, what other good things can I say? Um…I like that there’s a song called “Killing the Blues”. Yeah, that’s right, Robert Plant! “Kill Yr Idols”! And… eh, I’ve got nothing.

As you can see, it’s quite obvious this album didn’t truly deserve its Grammy. Again, 2007 was arguably the second best year of the decade for rock music (edged out by 2005), so there were far more worthy contenders for the award. Don’t be fooled by the guy from Led Zeppelin on the cover – Raising Sand is basically adult contemporary sap. Yuck. There’ll be no juice running down any legs tonight, I can tell you that much.

 

 

 

SKY BLUE SKY – Wilco

(Nonesuch)

*****

Wilco, you’re too good for me to make a pun about this album title indicating its quality. I like you enough to not do that.

Side With the Seeds\Walken\Shake It Off

Please Be Patient With Me

 

Some occupations are unfairly maligned in the arts. It’s said of them that if the practitioner is doing their job, you won’t be able to notice their work. Take, for example, the typographic and cinematographic editor, light and sound crews, producers, studio session men, and so forth. They mold their contributions seamlessly into the medium, or weave them, unnoticed, into the culture-consuming patron’s consciousness. Such people are the unsung heroes of their discipline. Rather than being audacious and outlandish, like the auteurs who get all the credit, they tend to be workmanlike and dependable. Those two qualities are all over Sky Blue Sky.

Ever since they veered suddenly into mellow, thoughtful music on this album, Wilco has been venomously branded “dad rock” by their estranged indie-rock fans (while classic rock-loving fathers predictably began to adore them). Though I can see how devotees who were into the band’s experimental side would be alienated by this thoroughly traditionalist LP, its genesis was already hinted at with the folksy abstraction of A Ghost Is Born. Nevertheless, this album is ready-made greatness that will stand against the tides of fashion like a cliff.

If musicianship is your thing, Sky Blue Sky is your thing. These performers are beyond professional at what they do and exemplify a camaraderie and group dynamic that can’t be faked, only learned and perfected. The songs are loosely constructed, but tightly and elegantly played. It’s a very satisfying listen, in the same pastoral, fulfilling way that a vacation is satisfying. Every note sounds considered and necessary – if there were any less, the record would be too minimalistic; any more and it would be a glut of tedious jam sessions.

Sky’s rambling, meandering tunes take their time, but have their destination firmly in mind. There are inventive touches throughout that seem almost improvised on the fly. This is a very comfortable record, never bluntly jolting the listener’s sensibilities, but trust me, it won’t put you to sleep either. It’s just upbeat enough to hold interest (and if you want more reckless, fist-pumping rock, check out the stupendous B-sides). All the outspoken, dramatic rage, sadness, and elation have been wrung from Jeff Tweedy’s songs, not that that’s bad; now the compositions are all just calm and at ease, lived-in and inviting, while those emotions simmer under the surface. His lyrics here trend toward being a tad more comprehensible than usual, which makes them perfectly poetic. There are themes of nature – not of the green-minded activist sort, but the sort created by a man who knows the country and the earth – and this is nothing if not a natural record.

For an example of the enthralling, absolutely unique mood the group sets in nearly every track, I’d recommend “Walken”. It’s the most rocking, straightforward song on the LP (and by the end, it actually does absolutely kick ass). It seems reminiscent of various old-school genres, but Wilco vividly reinvents them for modern consumption. This is as diverse as albums get without ever having an identifiable, set genre. All the sounds flow instinctively out of the reservoir of Tweedy’s mind – it’s not like he would attempt an ill-fitting reggae cover here just to have something unpredictable. It’s all stuff he’s familiar with, but the sheer range of styles this guy is proficient at is pretty huge.

Sky Blue Sky is a wise, nuanced respite from the hectic, hype-crazy, neon-lit world of modern pop music. While everyone else is doing backflips and screaming to try and get noticed (even if their histrionics are ironic and winking), Wilco makes the honorable sacrifice of being the understated band on the outskirts of notoriety, doing their job incredibly well – the band we tend to forget. Don’t make that mistake.

 

 

UNTRUE – Burial

(Hyperdub)

*

Claims of this album’s purported quality.

Raver\Near Dark\Ghost Hardware

(Untitled), or for real songs, In McDonald’s (Did I say real songs? Hahahaha, my mistake. There are no real songs on this album.)

 

Going in, I was led to believe this was electronica and I was reasonably interested. I then saw the album was categorized on Wikipedia as dubstep, instantly went “Oh, jeez”, and hunkered down for what was shaping up to be a tough listen. Funny how biases work like that. However, it had gotten outstanding reviews, although the listed pullquotes on Metacritic were suspiciously ridiculous and obtuse, not to mention sparse. Nevertheless, any good will I harbored went to hell once the music began playing.

Untrue is dance floor trash (with all the inevitable derivative elements of that genre) clumsily trying to be moody and serious. There are vocals plunged into a bunch of effects and pitch changers alongside skittering beats that are just a bit better than the average dub/trance track, which is to say, not very good. Burial uses some found sounds for rhythms, but takes a step backwards by using the same ones in every song. Apparently, he thinks that record crackles and pops and static sounds are atmospheric and poignant.

It’s evident that lyrics were not a huge priority for this record, given that there are hardly any and when there are, their content is the same inconsequential crap that’s littered dance music since the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. It seems like nearly every other tune is an indistinct interstitial space-filler. As a novelty, I admit I found Untrue mildly affable at first. But what started off as an agreeable distraction soon dragged on interminably long with nothing whatsoever to recommend it, finalizing its low grade more and more with every passing minute.

Since I’ve come to expect this sort of formlessness and insubstantiality from dub and electronica/dance, this record doesn’t offend my sensibilities as much. It’s like visiting one’s relatives in the South – sure, they’re illiterate, inbred and racist, and that sucks. But you can’t be too hard on them; they don’t know any better. That’s the majority of electronic music in a nutshell: puerile, culturally isolated and cerebrally stunted. This album is wise in not striving to be something else that’s beyond its limited grasp – it is what it is, even if that’s a failure. Although it’s supposedly the peak of dubstep, this LP sounds so superficially similar to its synthesized ilk that I find it hard to differentiate from them. Stacked up against the best of an incredible year like 2007, I fail to see why Untrue got so much praise. It’s sure not getting any from me.

 

 

WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK – Modest Mouse           

(Epic)

****

Steampunk powered by the hot air coming out of Isaac Brock’s mouth.

We’ve Got Everything\Dashboard\Missed the Boat

Spitting Venom

 

Make a generalization and Modest Mouse will fall through its cracks. They’re weird, that’s just the best way to put it. Frontman Isaac Brock writes some of the most ingenious, playful and striking melodies in the current musical scene, but has always approached them in such an abrasive, postmodern way that until now, I found it difficult to recommend the band to anyone.

Brock has a viewpoint and songwriting style I’m absolutely confident is unparalleled in modern rock music. It sounds homegrown, as if he taught himself, going by his own backwards, twisted rules. He adopts and discards new aesthetics all the time, while finding a part of himself he can express through them. He’s uncompromisingly cruel and cynical, so much so that at times he can be silly and jovial about it. His compositions never grow too satisfied with themselves. This is wonderful, as they shimmy around and develop brilliantly, presenting the listener with numerous new ideas.

Isaac’s lyrics are a pastiche of rural mundanity, suicidal animosity, bewildering paradox, spacious philosophy, mechanical ambiguity and farcical nonsense. In practice, they are a hell of a lot more approachable and memorable than that sentence would suggest. The guy is knowledgeable and loquacious in the fields of science, mathematics, philosophy and history without ever resorting to the lazy, hacky “Hey look, I’m smart!” tactic of esoteric references. He spins yarns of skepticism, tragedy and allegory with a tone that ranges from critical irony to regional patois to withering sarcasm as he muses on futility, infinity and decay. If I could soil the legacy of two genius authors for a moment, Brock’s prose reads like a bizarre combination of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s dystopic, satirical vignettes and Mark Twain’s pithy, pessimistic one-liners.

Chicken-scratch guitar, a ferocious lisp, itchy energy and odd instrumental accoutrements are the frequent hallmarks of an Isaac Brock tune, but aside from that, all bets are off. The guy has crafted three-minute new wave pop songs, confounding have-to-get-used-to-them nine-minute epics, comforting slow burn ballads, and brutal short song sketches. But it’s not like he does these things just because he can. They all sound very rich and meticulously planned out, and have a sense of purpose, an idea to get across, which separates them from pointless, meandering experimentation.

The outspoken bandleader’s brusque, malleable voice can go from a cherubic falsetto all the way down to a laconic, quiet tenor and then switch gears to delirious, hyperactive shouting, often in the same track. That comically exaggerated style is best showcased on the grumbling, squealing “Fly Trapped In A Jar”. This record in particular has some of his most indulgent, rough-throated singing (as well as some of his sweetest).

All this and I haven’t yet mentioned the other musicians! Well, that’s quite unfair, as both drummers the collective alternates between are incredibly talented and have similarly skewed, groovy styles. The bassist successfully keeps the frantic din around him grounded, while providing some remarkably melodic parts that could serve as leads. The keyboards (and other odds and ends) are also competently manipulated, and surprise of surprises, these dudes can really write a horn chart (or string chart, once in a while). They are far, far from ska, but when they do drag out the brass ensemble, they always give the players something cool to do, resulting in some wonderful Tom Waitsian arrangements.

Anyway, now that you readers have a better grasp on this outfit, I suppose I can wrap up the meet and greet section. I felt that I never gave this band an appropriate introduction, so this review would be as good a place as any. One last thing I noticed as I reviewed their strengths: after some deliberation and comparison, I think they could be considered the modern equivalent of Talking Heads. That’s more or less the highest praise I can give. Somewhat unfortunately, this is pretty much their Speaking In Tongues.

Getting to the matter at hand, I’m going to discuss We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. All the glowing praise I used to describe Modest Mouse still applies to this album for the most part; it’s just that they’re running out of new ideas and their style is growing thin.

We Were Dead is one of those LPs that initially shapes up to be a classic, with a really tight first half, and then sort of sticks around for longer than necessary, becoming bloated, redundant and self-parodic. It’s a bit tedious to hear this many songs that follow such a limited formula (on the disc’s second half, at least). However, the tunes are individually impressive, with elaborate structures and multiple cool hooks. It’s funky and rhythmic stuff, while simultaneously neurotic and painfully white. I guess you could call it sloppy, drunken, self-destructive dance punk. Kinky, jumpy riffs abound, with inventive synth underpinning and the occasional stylistic experiment. There’s attention paid to texture, which is a concern so minimal that numerous groups wouldn’t even think to provide it, yet it’s all the more gratifying that MM does.

Brock also continues the tradition of his sharply contrasting backing harmonies, which are like the conscience beneath a song’s belligerent id. But his vocal melodies are at their most unapproachable on some of these tracks. Furthermore, the instrumental parts and arrangements are sometimes disappointingly bare-bones; these are archetypal Modest Mouse compositions, but they’re not always entertaining ones. Perhaps a carnival sideshow is an apt metaphor for the record’s sound.

In addition to all the lyrical tropes I addressed earlier, there is a huge nautical motif on this album, as well as a steampunk influence present in the music videos and concept art. In fact, transportation in general seems to be a recurring theme. I’m not sure what all the ideas here add up to, but with Isaac Brock narrating, you can be sure it’s not too happy.

The immensely talented Johnny Marr (of legendary Eighties band The Smiths) inexplicably joined the lineup for this release, but he is criminally underused. Without his help, the technical impressiveness of We Were Dead would have taken a slump. Unsurprisingly, the song where he features the most prominently is the best here (“Dashboard”). Those are the specs; everything else is just a bunch of musicians coasting on talent and a good reputation.

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank finds Modest Mouse speeding along, when all of a sudden, they get stuck in a rut three-quarters of the way through the record. It’s regrettable, but I’m sure the group will get back on their feet soon enough. I just hope all these trains, planes, automobiles and ships take them somewhere new and interesting.

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