DEATH MAGNETIC | FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS | MODERN GUILT | ORACULAR SPECTACULAR | THIRD | VIVA LA VIDA (OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS)
DEATH MAGNETIC – Metallica
Cyanide\My Apocalypse\All Nightmare Long
The Unforgiven III
ROCK. ROCK. ROCK ROCK ROCK. DUMB. DUMB. DUMB DUMB DUMB. This is the reason why American Idiot wasn’t even successful in being the best comeback of the decade. Unlike with that album, I can blissfully ignore the worst lyrics of Death Magnetic. They sort of mesh sonically with the musical onslaught until it’s one big blast of power and energy.
Before this, Metallica’s problem was that they were no longer dependable. They alienated fans with excursions into whiny grunge, power ballads, and St. Anger, which was apparently a big piece of poop. Well, here they deliver with razor-edged precision. I’m no Metallica expert, but everyone else is saying that this is almost as good as their first five albums, so I might as well chime in too.
Magnetic is catchy, streamlined speed metal performed by capable pros of the genre. It’s an almost unrelenting assault, only slowing down for the obligatory ominous acoustic mood piece, “The Unforgiven III” (and despite the respite it offers, its turgidity, repetition and overblown orchestration render it the LP’s weak link). All these monolithic songs are cleanly compartmentalized into radio-ready, riff-driven sections, and at an average of seven-and-a-half minutes per track, they justify their length with tons of great parts. It’s hard to differentiate these colossal compositions at first, yet the experience never seems overlong or boring, insanely enough (not even the extremely prolonged instrumental!). Each tune is slightly reminiscent of the band’s past work here and there; after all, the Metallica sound has been purified and modernized on this record. So, while I could say that one of “Broken, Beat And Scarred”’s riffs sounds strangely familiar to me, or point to “The Day That Never Comes” as being extremely reminiscent of The Black Album, none of them are ripoffs. A few of the guitar parts are a bit too similar to each other or are otherwise underwritten, but they’re all memorable and the band never lingers on them too long. The strength of the guitarwork is that it accumulates so many dependable riffs together at once that it’s easy to overlook if some of them are somewhat generic or simple. And so what? Even the lesser ones still kick ass.
Some other small touches I appreciate are that James Hetfield strives to make decent vocal melodies in a genre which doesn’t ordinarily have a use for them. Also, the band is still dedicated and energetic on stage – I heard live recordings of several of these songs and, if anything, they seemed better than the studio versions! For the most part, the music here is uniformly exceptional, so I’ll just voice my disapproval for the elements that don’t work.
The lyrics are the primary flaw. They’re pretty dumb, with histrionic, weirdly phrased non sequiturs probably meant to convey a threatening atmosphere. Not content to merely be senseless, there are mixed and even dropped metaphors as well, not to mention some strained and goofy clichés. The kind of stitched-together-adjectives style they display here (as exemplified by ”The End Of the Line”) has always irritated me. It strikes me as lazy, silly and probably the easiest type of writing you could toss off, because the words don’t actually say much.
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh – the lyrics aren’t always outright embarrassing, sometimes using intriguing symbolism and colorful imagery. It’s arguable that the band’s Cro-Magnonesque, overdramatic and grammatically stilted prose is humorously likable in its overkill. Plus, I was never expecting incredible wordsmithing to begin with. That’s never been Hetfield’s strong suit, so he came up with ways to compensate for it.
One thing does kinda bug me, though: Metallica’s ridiculous effort to appear sinister in this day and age does not fit. They’re four middle-aged guys. Come on! But that’s a failing of the genre’s trappings, not this group specifically, so I’ll overlook it for once. To be fair, it doesn’t come off as comically overzealous as it could have; the quartet does still have some vague sense of menace after all these years.
All in all, it would be foolish to assert that Death Magnetic wasn’t a notable recording. Each band member performs like they did in their prime (well, I guess the new bassist is in his prime), and they’re playing the type of music they excel at. It’s enough to make even a thrash outsider like me proud and nostalgic all at once. In today’s mainstream musical climate, the feigned aggression and evilness of metal has no place, so it’s amazing that these grizzled veterans of rock made it relevant again in their old age, if only for a little while. \m/ (>.<) \m/
FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS – Flight Of the Conchords
Where’s Albie? His absence disappoints me greatly…
The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)\Business Time\Bowie
Ladies Of the World or Au Revoir
Comedy is an art that automatically weeds out the weak. This is helpful, since in theory, the only comedians you’ll hear about are the talented survivors whose material is worth your time. Music works in a similar way; the most talented artists become household names, and strengthen their “brand name”, so to speak.
When those two exceptionally different art forms are mixed, the outcome presents some interesting characteristics. As it turns out, the twentieth century spurred the rise of musical comedy acts with the advent of television, and soon there was a whole show based around a parody band called Tenacious D. (If you’re not a cool person and don’t know who they are, it’s Jack Black singing and Kyle Gass on guitar.) When HBO picked up the show, they probably didn’t know that it would spawn imitators from Down Under.
Flight Of the Conchords, as the previous paragraph so kindly foreshadowed, is another musical comedy duo that is similar to the D in many ways. It consists of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. If you couldn’t tell, they’re from New Zealand and spend this LP doing an admirable job of balancing between making their accents understandable or Americanizing them for the purposes of the composition. They teamed up a few years after their ancestors, but they still pull off tunes that are simultaneously reverent and irreverent, funny and cool. They, too, have (or should I say, had) a funny, self-titled TV show that blended pop numbers and modern sitcom plotting.
The thing is, the D’s episodes would be divided between plotlines loosely related to certain pet themes or concerns of the musicians which led smoothly into musical performances covering the same ideas. Their songs were linked to the jokes and stories of each episode, but were tremendously successful in standing on their own. I suppose I should spare you a tangential essay and just say that this is where Flight Of the Conchords falters.
Flight Of the Conchords is a very visually accomplished show, with dense, tightly knit stories and themes. McKenzie and Clement don’t waste time in their music videos (which are usually awesome, stylized fantasy setpieces) recapping what they’ve already established. So these tunes lose about fifty percent of their comedy unless you’ve seen their respective video clips. It doesn’t help that the guys are so wonderfully deadpan that it’s hard to tell exactly what the joke is without proper context. Plus, the topics of the songs fare better when they’re placed in their respective episodes, whereas Tenacious D can be easily read on its own as a brilliant, LP-length parody of rock excess. That’s why the D’s album works a little bit better.
Within the context of the show, FOTC’s ditties are creative, impeccable and joyful. But when they’re spread out on an album without the benefit of the duo’s eye-popping cinematography, it seems deceptively like another hacky music-comedy frat-guy clone. Trust me, they’re not. It’s just that this record lacks some of the magic Bret and Jemaine created on TV. To be extremely reductive, it seems to me that with Tenacious D, the show was secondary to the songs, and in the case of FOTC, the opposite is true. Their program is so accomplished and funny that when you get down to the nitty-gritty, the compositions need the images to achieve their full potential.
Furthermore, it seems on a handful of these tracks that the music came second and is overshadowed by the jokes. Even the weakest ones are still just as enduring and worthwhile as a lesser Tenacious D song; it’s just that they ostensibly made this into a full-band project for a reason. If they were going to make one-liners with musical afterthoughts, they shouldn’t have bothered with the instruments. FOTC’s funnier songs are musically underwritten, and the more melodic songs aren’t as humorous. Such is the way of life, I suppose.
But with such talented comedic and musical minds, there are fortunately exceptions to those generalities. A few tunes here would hold up as instrumentals, and some of the gags would work even without the music or prior knowledge of the show. A couple tracks even combine those two strengths into what are the highlights of the album. Plus, these guys are such endearing showmen and decent songwriters that this is definitely a fun listen. It’s just that I can definitely see inexperienced newcomers potentially dismissing them as derivative, opportunistic white-guys peddling shticky irony pop, when they’re so much more than that.
This missed potential extends to the production: everything is recorded nicely and clearly, but there’s usually a very small amount of things to listen to, sometimes just guitar picking. When they fully flesh out a song (for example, the lush, impressively thorough “Bowie”), it only makes the others seem emaciated in comparison. It’s even more disappointing when they pull some amazing melody out of nowhere, because it shows that they were competent enough to make the whole record musically accomplished if they wanted to, yet they didn’t. For the majority of the running time, they return to the same familiar genres, using guitar rap and effete, way-too-basic acoustic ballads a few times as novelties. But by the same token, Bret and Jemaine’s successes show their prodigious comedic and musical ingenuity as much as they throw the duo’s weaknesses into relief.
I know it’s not fair to solely compare the work of these two talented, humorous guys to talented, humorous guys who have gone before them – but is it fair to measure them by the standards of their own work in another medium? In this situation, I’d say yes. If you agree, forget the record and just buy the series on DVD; it’s very nice. Flight Of the Conchords rose above all the other mediocre hack job singer/comedians for a reason… it’s just that, judging by the album alone, that reason isn’t as easy to see.
MODERN GUILT – Beck
Apparently, Beck’s guilt is my entertainment.
Gamma Ray\Chemtrails\Profanity Prayers
This is just an all-around exciting, fun record. Wow. My review will probably sound gratingly similar to an excited kid rattling off all the countless features his favorite new toy possesses. Forgive me.
Modern Guilt is a rootsy album done the way only Beck can do it. It’s also relatively stripped-down and low-key but, Beck being Beck, still has an ironic cornucopia of diverse touches. He plays some blues, folk, soul, skiffle, funk, psychedelia, new wave, rock and electronica for your enjoyment. I just noticed something – there is no awkward, ironic hipster-rap to be found here, and the record is that much better for it (this was the case with Guero, as well).
Guilt is remarkably rhythmic and propulsive, but also very tuneful. There are musical surprises around every corner, which is exactly what Beck is great at. That’s the fun thing about him – you never know what he’s going to do next. Is this current song not floating your boat? No worries! You’ll be hearing something totally different before too long! This release is a short thirty-three-minute jog through his twisted soundscapes. The arrangements are attention-grabbing and counterintuitive, with inspired choices of instrumentation and showcases of interplay, and distinctive, popping percussion that’s miles away from your typical “bass, snare, bass, snare” 4/4 patterns.
Danger Mouse produced this; that must be why the music is so awesome. Beck gets a lot of the credit too, though, since he helped. The way these songs all seem of a piece is a testament to that genius production, because when you sit down and listen to all the crazy-ass instruments and noises in each one, you realize they’re really not. The impressive ideas and artistic touches are waiting just under the surface for those who want to hear something new. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that Beck pilfers from a few of his old melodies. His devil-may-care aesthetic and lack of discipline ensures that. But the ripoffs are done justice here. (He also briefly steals a Ramones riff in “Vampire Voltage No. 6”, to startling and impressive effect.) Speaking of which, the four bonus tracks on the extended edition are just as good as the album tracks. They should have been added to the LP, considering it’s very short and left me wanting more. That would be an incredible, robust piece of work.
Hansen’s lyrics are still splendidly delirious free-associations and non sequiturs, but they’re less scattershot than those on Odelay. Hell, he even becomes coherent a few times. Here, it’s just single lines that don’t relate to each other, whereas on Odelay, subsequent words didn’t make any sense together. This record shows Beck’s more ruminative side in a far more endearing setting than the sometimes boring Sea Change. He tries for a consistent message here, which is wisely only presented in small bits and pieces. There’s some stuff about politics, philosophy, environmentalism, etc., and those lines are concrete enough to establish a sense of purpose without getting preachy.
Beck certainly hasn’t lost his touch since “Loser”, and that’s a pleasant surprise. He just does what he feels like – it’s bound to sometimes be bad and sometimes be good. Modern Guilt is totally the second option. It contains all of his best qualities. For instance, his problems are relying on novelty more than melody and stretching his projects too long. Well, here’s an unironic and brief collection of quirky, catchy tunes. That just about fixes things. Even though he cuts and pastes tons of random influences, these are songs, not impenetrable collages like he’s done in the past. If there’s any weaknesses present at all, it’s that it’s a bit too short, light and repetitive. This guero still has a little trouble making compositions with lasting substance; however, this set may just be the closest he’s going to get to a total classic. Keeping all of his limitations in consideration, he made exactly the type of album that hides them.
ORACULAR SPECTACULAR – MGMT
Avuncular pop junk-ular. Okay, I think I need to cool it with the wordplay for a little bit.
The Youth\Kids\Electric Feel
Of Moons, Birds, And Monsters
All right, guys, you can stop with the irony now.
Much like Kala, I was promised something wondrous and layered with this release. I eventually found it, but it took far too long. Oracular Spectacular is a collection of great, but frustratingly opaque synth-rock tunes created with a new strain of irony – not the self-important type that bugs the piss out of me, but a perfunctory, sorta pointless kind that’s basically an affectation.
MGMT gallantly tries to single-handedly stage a glam-rock revival with this record, successfully following David Bowie’s lead into the 2000s (unbeknownst to them, Of Montreal was doing something similar at the time). With glam, it’s a given that image will trump content. But that’s a challenge to improve and flesh out the content rather then rest on one’s laurels or spend more time on the image. Instead of having a driving focus, many songs here are sort of amorphous, distended blobs of ideas. (What I didn’t realize at the time is that it’s not the band’s fault – this sort of compositon construction is par for the course when you’re dealing with glam pop.) It initially caused me to judge the album as above average, yet uninspiring and disappointing. I liked it more the second time; it’s just that Spectacular is really difficult to assimilate. There are plenty of small creative flourishes to unpack for many listens afterward, but I was left feeling cold after the first, when they should begin to register. If they don’t, it’s a bad sign. When you dissect all the songs on OS into microscopic pieces, I suppose they show a wide range of influences, talent and ingenuity but MGMT compressed them so tightly, most of them sound the same the first few times through.
Now, I’m certainly not advocating the position that good music should only be enjoyable in the moment and that you shouldn’t need to get used to it (after some familiarity, these melodies do assert themselves as quite good). But first impressions matter too. The art that really stays with me remains exciting and enjoyable in the short-, medium-, and long-term. Beyond its three hits, Oracular Spectacular has practically nothing to offer the new listener, but give it time. While it’s not as immediately gratifying as, say, Vampire Weekend, the imagination on display here runs deep.
MGMT seems like the kind of band that tries to hide behind their general sound rather than proudly display their melodies (which is the LP’s primary hindrance, as the suffocating, hermetic production only serves to obscure tunes which turn out to be quite interesting), but they at least get points for shamelessly owning up to such presumptuous fakery in the first song. “Time To Pretend” is an enjoyable, albeit stale, simple synth disco tune. It was hyped as one of the decade’s best songs, so I was sort of sad to find that out. Though even the worst song on this effort is quite good, its melody is actually rather repetitive and meager – much weaker than the catchy and astute retro-funk mimicry of “Electric Feel” led me to believe it would be. Folks, I hate to say it, but “Time To Pretend” rehashes the same thoughtless, stupid clichés that “Rock Star” by Nickelback does (and many bands before have done as well)! Sure, it voices them in a way that’s not as annoying and sometimes approaches cleverness, but the words are really close to being trite and generic. (The rest of the album’s lyrics are okay; they’re unremarkable, disconnected and vague.)
A more immediately pressing concern that occurred to me while familiarizing myself with Oracular is how closely MGMT’s sound resembles that of the less coherent Animal Collective, especially Andrew VanWyngarten’s overzealous messianic yelp. It’s kind of a scratchy, warbly thing reminiscent of Perry Ferrell or Win Butler, with hints of Black Francis’ nasal, not-quite-in-key howl. The rest of the band (just one more guy, I suppose, although I presume it took a traveling carnival’s worth of people to record this stuff in-studio) rides a particular homogenous vibe through much of the album, but every passage would be distinct if taken out of context (although some are unmemorable due to the hazy mix and overly straightforward hooks). You can certainly tell when the duo changes up their melodies, which is good. Actually, the overexposed and echoey engineering is a double-edged sword, simultaneously allowing for some mind-bending sonic variety.
Though their oversimplicity initially bothered me, I think MGMT strikes a good balance of accessibility and complexity between their crazy musical backdrops and basic, sloganeering melodies and refrains. For example, when I first heard the mighty, house-shaking, “Look at me!” synth riff of “Kids”, I was like, “Yeah, that’s really nice and all, but when are you gonna give me something substantial?” Answer: never. I grew to like that part, in all its bludgeoning obviousness and repetition, but the entire song hangs on it with precious little else besides a similarly overextended chant. The key is that it is quite memorable, and there are lots of little details to appreciate around the edges.
That reminds me of a distinction I want to stress: sometimes good-but-not-great records have a few noticeable flaws, which are excused by some truly exceptional strengths. Others never become suspect or grating, doing their job competently, but definitely lack anything outstanding. Oracular Spectacular is the one of the purest examples I’ve heard of the second category. There is one utterly perfect track here (the dead-on, old-school funk rocker “Electric Feel”), and the rest is hard to get a hold on. Even once I started to truly respect this LP, my ratio of “being impressed” to “being entertained” was still tilted in favor of the former. I suspect this will rectify itself over time, with more familiarity.
The thing is, I’d rather have something incredible with a couple charmingly clumsy parts you can just sequester off from your experience. Case in point: the Flaming Lips have two decades’ worth of flabbergastingly good albums, and yet nearly every one has one or two small but pleasant filler tracks to humanize the experience, and make the sweet stuff that much sweeter.
I would express a knee-jerk distaste for Oracular’s needless postmodern effects and posturing which cloaks their great songs in a wall of irony. But the thing is, these compositions still sound like they were written, played and sung by human beings with ideas – not by a faceless songwriters-for-pay coalition, or a machine, or a misanthropic, nihilistic audience-baiter – and that’s always welcome. Even though a few melodies here are so simplistic they sound like nursery rhymes, it was probably for the best that MGMT made their debut so lightweight. Otherwise, in their inexperience, they would probably have gone overboard with bloated and inadvisable experimentation. Now that they’ve established themselves with a good-natured album, however, it seems that the stage is set for a more serious follow-up, Congratulations (which is, as I predicted here, even better). Continuing in their defense, keeping it low-key while still being quirky was a good idea which, when paired with the straightforward lyrics and basic tunes, diffuses most of the distracting, faux-artsy pretentions the group might have had. If a band doesn’t have the staggering talent necessary to keep ambitious songs out of the ghetto of self-importance, I definitely prefer that they just tone it down and stick to what they truly are. MGMT does just that here, mastering the tightrope act of making glamorous, creatively-minded anthems, while being fairly unassuming and not overly didactic or preachy. That might have been their plan all along. Who knows, maybe these guys are even smarter than I give them credit for?
I mean, none of the music here could be described as subpar, and actually, relative to the entire indie scene, the record is very good, but I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that OS’s schizophrenic sound is merely a happy accident caused by the band’s search for something that is truly musically transcendent and timeless. They surrepetitiously stall and flounder around while looking for that, resulting in some interesting sonic somersaults. But in my opinion, they really only achieve that effect in one song. No harm, no foul, MGMT. Maybe next time, you’ll utilize what you’ve learned. (Spoiler from the future: they totally do.) Because there are a lot of things to like about Spectacular; they’re just all blended into a dreary, hallucinogenic muddle by the psych-happy production, pedestrian prose, and bizarre retro irony. That’s the album’s big stumbling block on the way to earning my unbridled enthusiasm – even after I eliminated my preconceptions of what it would be, it seems to me that the group could have taken these aesthetic elements and done something even better with them. As it stands, it’s a really excellent LP. Just don’t listen expecting ten “Electric Feel”s like I did. In the end, I still like the idea of MGMT more than I actually like MGMT. But only by a small margin.
[NOTE: This album was digitally released in late 2007, but I’m including it in the 2008 reviews based on its CD release time.]
THIRD – Portishead
We Carry On\The Rip\Hunter
Portishead returned after an unjustifiably long period of inactivity with Third. It’s a good record, and they’re a very unique band. Their songs are uncluttered and focus their energy on the several bizarre instrumental parts they set in motion. The lyrics are clichés set afloat without any particular message, narrative or context. In their own way, they’re acceptable (though to clarify, placed against my standards, they come up lacking). What I’m trying to suggest is that this album is very manageable and easy to get a hold on. Though the music is odd and interesting, it’s not a tangled mess of sounds that takes forever to make sense of. Immediacy is an excellent feature to have, and so I commend Portishead for mastering it.
The production here is excellent and exciting, but not showy or overbearing. Every song is very distinctive and atmospheric, with some exotic sounds. The band’s peculiar style has the rhythmic emphasis and relatively static structure of electronic music, but is otherwise totally different. All the instrumental parts here sound like samples, when in actuality, they’re original material made to sound especially unusual, which works excellently. However, those cool backdrops are all here to support the vocal performances, which are decent, but nothing special. The playing is usually genial and warm, while the beats are harsh and mechanical, which makes for an interesting contrast, especially when the two are intermingled with singer Beth Gibbons’ delicate falsetto. With her classical female vocals, the record sounds like Kate Bush meets Brian Eno.
Portishead’s songs rely more on their textural qualities than their tunes, which is unfortunate. The melodies are alright, that is, but not immediately ingratiating and more than a little interchangeable. Histrionic exaggeration and self-pity are the order of the day, lyrically speaking – the words are a jumble of stock angsty phrases and vague, unearned sentiment, while being too minimal and repetitive to really get anything meaningful across. If you’re not averse to overblown panic, melancholy and sorrow, you’ll be fine, but I do have a problem with those theatrics.
In summation, Portishead seems to be primarily interested in making a sonically invigorating experience, without thinking much about putting any reason or concept behind it. They traffic in mopey, dour new wave with ethereal, personal statements of mourning. Frequently, the musicians use disparate elements from different styles to create weird, warped and very distinct musical juxtapositions. This nifty tactic is a step in the right direction, but it needs more substance and melody. The record is also oppressively slow, but elegant and agreeable enough to make up for that deficiency.
Third retains a **** because it functions as relatively dynamic and engaging art, and also as sparse and agreeable background music. That’s really all I can think of – it’s a very cut-and-dry album. In fact, after some consideration, it’s not my kind of thing. Honestly, it’s sort of boring. Very tasteful and chill, though! Basically, I only gave it **** so I could write that killer tagline. So sue me.
VIVA LA VIDA (OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS) – Coldplay
The last straw?
Lovers In Japan\Viva La Vida\Violet Hill
Reign Of Love
SERIOUS. COLDPLAY ARE BIG SERIOUS ARTISTS NOW.
…Um, I don’t buy it for a second.
The thing is, while that notion is just silly, they do seem to be taking some adequate steps toward respectability here. This is still pop balladry writ large, but at least they’re starting to make mistakes due to experimentation, which is a screwup in the right direction. However, that’s one of the most positive things I can allow myself to say about Viva La Vida.
The issue is that, while Coldplay’s desire for respect grows and they try to be sonically ambitious, their songwriting itself gets more predictable and generic. For my money, X + Y was a (relatively) perfect balance of the two. Here, the composition and lyrics (for the most part) go into the toilet, and the band thinks they can compensate for that loss with some crazy bells and whistles. Well, they were partially right, but only because they cheated and got a bona fide musical genius to write some actual good stuff for them to lay their crap on. Read this carefully, Chris Martin fans: THE ONLY REASON THIS ALBUM IS GOOD IS BRIAN ENO.
Vida opens with an artsy-fartsy instrumental interlude that basically fulfills their goal of being sensitive, albeit in the bluntest, most pandering manner possible. It’s a great example of how this record would suck ass without Eno. When you listen to “Life In Technicolor I”, his background arrangements and production are the stars of the show, and rightfully so. The only thing Coldplay themselves provide is the fairly rudimentary melody for two and a half minutes.
All the dynamics and vitality in this recording were no doubt entirely Eno’s doing, too. Without that, it would be exactly the same as A Rush Of Blood To the Head (which is admittedly pretty good), but with even less integrity and subtlety. The band overestimated how good their tunes were and let Brian do the heavy lifting. As a result, the actual melodies of these tracks are probably worse than those on Rush Of Blood. I’d even go so far as to say that everything on this musical document which sounds innovative, invigorating and unique for Coldplay to be performing started as an idea in the mind of Brian Eno, and was more than likely carried out by him as well.
As if that wasn’t enough, Viva La Vida might just beat out American Idiot for the esteemed “Most incompetent lyrics” award. It’s a showcase of meaningless clichés awkwardly strung together for no reason, phrased with an unearned air of importance and pretension, in an unsuccessful attempt to convey some vague idea of uplift and placidity (which, incidentally, doesn’t match the record’s aesthetic at all). Martin makes the same syntactical and rhetorical mistakes as Billie Joe, as if the two don’t know what words actually mean.
However, I do like the whole prismatic, rococo art motif the LP has going for it. I suppose that extends to the modestly varied song styles covered, while the titles are nicely evocative and have a sense of geography. Well, you can tell it’s not a good sign when I’m giving faint praise to just the names of the tracks this early in the review. I swear, Chris Martin is the only person alive who could be creatively inspired by Dickens, Russian neoconstructivism, baroque painting and progressive conceptual rock… and then take all that and turn it into a bunch of lazy, sloppy, smarmy, corny love ballads like he always does.
Alright, perhaps that’s a stretch – like I said, there’s a bit of totally ill-fitting ambition here, but it’s so uneven, Chris and company may as well have accepted their fate as a swooning pop group and made “Yellow Part 2”. Any given composition with a functional melody might have disgusting lyrics, and a song with decent words may have a generic-ass tune. Some tracks with numerous parts have a boring stretch with a nice payoff afterwards. There’s no consistency to the material, as Martin flails around with his feigned, clueless “experimental” side exposed, thinking everything he touches will turn to gold. Such is not the case.
These songs take the least amount of effort possible to superficially appear complex and nuanced. It’s not enough, although I’ll admit some ideas are pleasant and new for Coldplay. “42” rocks in the middle and becomes a fully developed anthem at the end. It comes pretty close to being a fully qualified success, if not for the just-a-smidgen-too-dumb prose. I remember hearing “Viva La Vida” for the first time in an iTunes commercial (it figures). Its lyrics actually blew me away. I’ve got to give the guys some credit – acknowledging their own inferiority and irrelevance was something I never thought they would do in a million years, and I applaud them for addressing it. Pity they somehow simultaneously turned said song into an overblown, self-righteous crescendo.
In the midst of such fluffy fare as “Strawberry Swing”, the band comfortably adopts almost operatic-sounding touches. Well, more accurately, Brian Eno does. But maybe these sensitive Brits have learned a thing or two from that brilliant musical mind and can construct a truly deserving, artful LP next time out. God knows they’ve got the ravenous audience to support it.
Truth be told, when things work here, they definitely point the way toward that future potential classic. Coldplay knocks it out of the park exactly once, on “Violet Hill”. It’s a protest-ish song, I guess, which might feasibly misfire in Martin’s hands, but the lyrics are fine. They lay out the same old acceptable arguments and images, yet that isn’t really the attraction here – the music nails exactly what Chris was going for here, without overreaching or overestimating his talent.
However, I don’t think Coldplay will ever achieve such peaks over a whole album; X + Y was the closest they got. I found it hard to explain the revulsion I initially had while listening to Viva La Vida; I suppose all those pleasant mediocrities and sparse successes piled up, one by one, teetering on the edge of pompousness and insignificance, but until now, they were kept in check. With the fourth record, it all came tumbling down and any misgivings I had toward the group were brought to the fore.
So yes, I will be much more cautious about them from now on. In fact, the one thing that bothered me most throughout their career, the thought that kept me wary despite their massive sales and relative good press, finally came into play here, dredging up some eerie similarities and unforgivable plagiarism. I will speak about it now and then put it to rest forever.
Oh, look! Coldplay tried to get really serious and conceptual on this record! Like another band whom they are absolutely not!!! Whom they could never hope to equal in any fashion! You know, that one band that people always accuse them of stealing from? The one Chris Martin’s wife introduced with such glowing, raving praise at the 2009 Grammys that it made him look positively castrato in comparison (which he really is)? His art isn’t even good enough for his spouse! He’s admitted in interviews that his entire career is based on copying this band. The leader of this band replied, amused, that he’d like to see how Chris would rip off their difficult masterpiece once Coldplay got to that stage, if they were ever brave enough.
Well, here we are. Obviously, in comparison to band numero uno’s record, Viva La Vida is absolutely embarrassing; a pretentious, dumb mess. Coldplay’s idea of being serious performers is showing up to the aforementioned Grammys looking like a cheap simulacrum of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yeah, real understated, classy move there, guys. Even the Beatles didn’t ever do that in public, you shameless, undignified assholes! They really have no artistic vision or direction of their own at all, do they? The other band, in contrast, waited politely until they were such a cultural commodity that the Grammys begged them to perform, to which they graciously accepted, giving a memorable, unique performance and then humbly stepping down from the spotlight (in fact, with their performance’s unprecedented arrangement style, only two band members were visible on stage). Coldplay, meanwhile, barreled into the ceremonies, seeking as much good press and attention as they could muster, and knocked off a song to appease the raving crowds.
Let me back up. This parasitic relationship all began when one day, Chris Martin said, “Hey? Who are the most influential, creative, approachable, and popular musical figures of the last twenty years? Let’s see: U2, R.E.M., Pavement, the Pixies, Radiohead, Nirvana, Blur, Oasis… Screw “influences”! You know what they say: Good artists borrow. Great artists steal! Lemme just pick one of those templates, and… We’re gonna be the greatest artists the world has ever known! Call the copyright lawyers, I’m on a roll!”
But this was hardly the first manifestation of Chris Martin’s “inspiration”. Coldplay’s first album was reasonably close to rock. They got their initial formula from the group which shall henceforth be known as the Other Band. After that, The Ego Of Chris Martin took over, and relegated his band to mostly supporting, minor roles.
Coincidentally (?), two years earlier, the same thing happened with the Other Band. While their frontman was a perfectionist, they had a second virtuoso in the band who helped a lot too and though their album was strange and difficult, they made sure the other group members had numerous interesting things to do. In contrast, I can’t imagine Will Champion was totally flipping stoked to play a low-key, 4/4 beat for the whole recording process of Coldplay’s second LP. The Other Band’s record was a masterpiece, but it was also a team effort. A Rush Of Blood To the Head was basically the Chris Martin Show with a muffled session band.
The Other Band had a hidden song unobtrusively and secretly buried at the end of their experimental LP. “Ha!” said Chris Martin. “That’s pretty good, but I can top it. Bigger is better!” So he included two such songs RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS ALBUM WHERE EVERYONE WOULD NOTICE THEM AND BE IMPRESSED (just for good measure, throwing in another one at the end as well)!! Pretentious? “Huh? What’s that mean?”
The Other Band had a vocalist who was known (at the time) for singing sensitive songs in a vulnerable soprano. Chris Martin copied that, too. He then committed the selfish folly of trying to be a tastemaker, inescapable cultural figurehead and fashionista of questionable taste. He was never as good as his idol and inspiration, which was no doubt a source of constant frustration to him.
The year after their difficult classic was released, the Other Band graciously put out a whole new record of exceptional tunes they had worked on, as well as playing a small, concentrated amount of shows in auspicious venues. Coldplay didn’t see the logic behind this. “How is that supposed to raise brand awareness and foster demand for product?”, they thought. And so, they didn’t respond with a supplemental LP of their own. They wanted to focus on touring to promote their latest singles. A self-professed environmentalist and free trade proponent, Chris Martin was dedicated to making their new major-label release inescapable, even if he had to drive, fly and cruise around the world, spending lots of money and using lots of resources to do so.
Shortly thereafter, he named his daughter Apple. Yeah. Apple. The most prominent member of the Other Band named his son Noah (a normal name, if you’ll take note.) I’m sure Chris Martin was proud of his originality that day, though his offspring will need therapy because of it.
The Other Band had numerous music videos directed by Shynola which were classics of the form. Coldplay was like “Alright, get this Shynola guy on the line for the “Strawberry Swing” video. You know what we have to do.” Likewise, the Other Band had a famous composition that incidentally referred to a certain whimsical science fiction saga. “Hey, that’s a good idea!” Martin said, as he took it for his own with the song “42”.
A couple of years after their dual-album extravaganza, the Other Band was wise and restrained enough to head back to their roots and give the public a diverse assortment of everything they’d ever tried and then some. Their leader finally recognized that his bandmates were exceptionally talented and wanted to let them assert this as a group in the studio. Coldplay did the same, expanded their musical palette, and came out of it with a modest success, I have to admit. I’ll give them that. Chris Martin followed suit, letting his decent band play a stronger role in the tunes.
At this point in time, the Other Band vociferously, but politely spoke out in favor of free trade, all the while trying to keep it separate from their musical output and not appear as media-hogging, arrogant activists. Chris Martin got wind of this, and… “[Gasp!] That band’s trying to outdo me at being nice to people! I’ll show them! I’ll be really, really nice to people!” He then put colorful band-aids all over his arms and thrust them into the collective face of the paparazzi to “create awareness” of some political issue, but mostly it created awareness of how dumb and overbearing Chris Martin is, which was already widely understood. What wasn’t understood was how decorating oneself in a silly way was actually being nice to underprivileged people. “This is really important,” he thought, “So it needs to be part of my music too.” He then put the band-aids on the cover of Coldplay’s most recent recording, so everyone would sympathize. Nobody did; or they did, but not enough to do anything about it. Maybe they didn’t see the cipher in the booklet, whose disappointing message was tantamount to the Ovaltine shill the kid from A Christmas Story decoded: “MAKE TRADE FAIR”. [Slow clap] Well. Done. Okay, Chris, let’s move beyond declarative sentences – that is, once you’ve mastered “SEE SPOT RUN” as well!
Meanwhile, the Other Band relentlessly toured their rootsy album (with careful eco-friendliness and restraint, of course) and soon retreated into the studio for a period of reassessment, rest and recording. Coldplay took the same tack a couple of years later, while The Ego Of Chris Martin was no doubt expecting to craft a masterpiece that was worth such a long wait.
When Coldplay came back into the fray with Viva La Vida, their “we’re back” song consisted of Martin acknowledging his absence, but also gravely overstating his importance and fame. He admits he’s been gone for a while and is no longer at the forefront of the media landscape as he was a few years hence. In the intervening period, guess who did gain a ton of notoriety because of an excellent record they put out? That’s right, the Other Band! Their “we’re back” song was humbly conflicted and unconfident, asking why the group found themselves back where they started, when in truth, they had covered more ground in a more adequate fashion than Coldplay could have in the length of ten careers. Their release deservedly dominated the critical and public cultural conversations for a little while, and Chris was probably jealous. He no doubt examined the band’s LP cover at some point. It was colorful, and indeed, named after refracted light. “Of course!” he must have said as he studied his source material. “I’ll have a lot of songs reference colors on my next masterwork and have a general multi-hued theme! After all, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?”
Oh yeah! I almost forgot. Coldplay’s “we’re back” song, which is tellingly one of the album’s best, was later sued for copyright infringement. In the process, it was discovered that it closely resembled several other tunes as well. The artists that wrote them were nice enough not to bother with further legal action and took pity on Chris’ poor, unscrupulous soul.
The Other Band thought of a miraculous distribution strategy and made their long-awaited record available as a free download with the option to pay whatever amount you wanted. Several months later, Chris Martin stole that idea too, releasing just one track as a free download. (“Let’s not get crazy. Just release one song for free. Otherwise we’ll be broke! Nobody would pay for our subpar music when they could get it from a legitimate free source! Also, I want them to pay for the rest because I deserve monetary compensation for being Chris Martin, The Genius.”) The Other Band’s idea went smoothly and was extremely successful. It even earned the group an outstanding profit. Coldplay’s download site crashed horribly soon after launching. Their single sold reasonably well, a relative failure for such a marketable band.
Recently, the leader of the Other Band (illegally?) snuck into a climate change summit to see if anything was being accomplished and to try and influence the opinion of various world leaders. Meanwhile, Chris Martin was probably busy relaxing by his “Chris Martin relaxing by a Chris Martin-shaped pool”-shaped pool.
As of this writing, the Other Band has once again released a difficult, rewarding, surprising, and intriguing left-field LP. It’s Coldplay’s move now. I have my money on the group continuing to be a bunch of incompetent buffoons, unless they pull themselves together and return to doing what they do best: romantic piano pop. [Last minute editorial note: Coldplay’s new record was recently announced. I have spent the last ten paragraphs relentlessly disparaging this band, and even so, I still cannot find the words to adequately convey how jaw-droppingly retarded, colossally ill-advised, and hilariously corny it appears, to say nothing of the music. And it’s not even a new style for them to besmirch! It’s basically Viva La Vida 2: Electric Boogaloo – “This time, it’s Vida-ier!” So that’s it. You are dead to me, Coldplay. Embarrassment of the century.]
There’s a difference between being famous and losing your dignity. For the Other Band, being lauded and respected was incidental – a happy accident that occurred as a result of their complex, yet likable work. In Coldplay’s case, they became famous and greedily wanted more, making everything bigger, brighter, louder and shinier to compensate for their ever-stupider music, which the lazy public was settling for.
Now, I must admit after all this slander that I respect Chris Martin for at least trying to do fresh, artistic things with his music. He’s just so pretentious and senseless that they turn out to be crap. He has his heart in the right place, but lamentably lacks a brain. That, and he needs to step out of the shadow of the Other Band for a change. The best thing he could do to measure up to his idol would be to stop trying to outpace him. He needs to just do what he feels like, instead of feeling pressured by his inferiority complex to do embarrassing stuff that won’t age well. Hopefully you’ve figured out the identity of the Other Band by now. Though I truly am sympathetic for Chris at the end of the day, I don’t expect this cycle of shameless mimicry will ever end, so long as that group continues to be excellent and Coldplay remains mildly terrible.
YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.
I give Chris Martin one star. I give Brian Eno five stars. This album is, naturally, exactly in between.