Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Pair of Reviews, Part 2: Yeasayer, "Fragrant World."

The new Yeasayer disc, “Fragrant World,” is not technically a sophomore release (it’s actually the band’s third studio-record). However, it faces many of the same fabled pressures of an act’s second album, as it is the follow-up to 2010’s universally-acclaimed “Odd Blood,” which catapulted the group to “It-band” status (recent releases by Animal Collective and The Dirty Projectors, among others, face similar pressure.)

Yeasayer navigates this potentially-tense moment in their career brilliantly with “Fragrant World.” If the record lacks “Odd Blood”’s urgency (which to my ears it definitely does- there’s little if any of “Mondegreen” or “O.N.E.”’s edgy dance-rock here), this is instead a more confident, reflective, mature Yeasayer. Comparatively, this record is almost ‘laid back’… but not in a bad way.

To my ears, the most notable aspect of this album’s interest is the instrumentation. Yeasayer has managed something many musicians might find unthinkable here- somehow, they’ve stripped even more of the ‘organic’ instruments from their mix (I can only locate a couple brief snippets of sound of this disc that I’m entirely confident are made by guitars) while making a record that I would be FAR less comfortable describing as ‘electronic’ than their last. This is not a synth record, this is not an electro record, this is DEFINITELY not a dance or EDM record. This is a well-written psychedelic indie-pop record constructed largely from a palette of ‘What the hell makes THAT noise?’ sounds. 

In my eyes, it’s about time that rock songwriting caught up with hip-hop production in this regard. This is a ‘think outside the box’ record that amazingly manages not to SOUND like one, unless you’re either stubbornly partial to the safety of the box, or you’re paying close attention to the xylophones, pizzicato, noise-swells, glitches, melodica, etcetera that sit in the spaces that guitars might otherwise go. This album should be required-listening for every musician in a guitar-bass-drum cliché-format rock band, to fuel a little thought toward how their songs are put together, and why. 

Oh, and those sub-hits throughout are IMPRESSIVELY low. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Pair of Reviews, Part 1: Bloc Party, "Four."

I haven’t reviewed anything here in a while. I think it’s probably overdue. I picked up a couple of highly-anticipated new records this week, so I’ll give you my take on two releases back-to-back.

The first, today, will be the new Bloc Party record, “Four.” I’ll follow that in short order with a completely contrasting spin on the new Yeasayer, “Fragrant World.”

To anyone who kept tabs at all on the hiatus/ feud/ reunion/ recording-process drama leading up to the new Bloc Party disc (played out extensively in the music press, on Twitter, etc.) we have to realize really quickly that we’re in for a bumpy ride with this record when the first thing that comes out of the speakers when you pop it in is ambient, “behind-the-scenes”-ish recording-studio sounds. Uh oh. They’re drawing our attention from the get-go to the notoriously tumultuous recoding-process (and these noises continue intermittently between tracks throughout.) Buckle up.

I’m just going to have right out with it- this is quite possibly one of the most confusing records I’ve ever heard. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t entirely “dislike” it… But the reasons that I kind of “like” it have to do with being a long-term Bloc Party fan sort of witnessing a documentation of an attempt to make a record by four people who are very obviously no longer on the same page musically. I find it more fascinating than listenable, and I have a hunch that most listeners who haven’t followed the ebbs and flows of this band’s career are going to be listening to this one wondering what the hell they just purchased.

We had all heard the rumors that, after each previous release got progressively more electronic (amidst certain mumblings that the rest of the band may not have been thrilled with frontman Kele Okereke’s leadership in this regard) that this record was going to be something of a “return to rock” for the band. I think many of us assumed (for better or worse) that this meant something of a return to the post-punk of “Silent Alarm.” “Four” is most definitely NOT that. In fact, as much as it’s a departure from anything even remotely electronic, it’s somehow an even MORE drastic departure from anything even remotely similar to the band’s sound prior to getting all “dancey.”

In short, this record not only sounds like the band is going through motions… but those “motions” seem to be based on fragmented, disjointed whims. Stylistically, this thing is ALL over the map. Sure, there are chunks of post-punk thrown in, but less Gang of Four and more Sonic Youth/ Refused… mixed haphazardly with shards of things like syncopated jazz with… is that a banjo??, shimmering atmospheric yet uneventful shoe-gaze, and more than a few moments that sound downright… wait for it… heavy metal??? (The album‘s closer, “We’re Not Good People” seems to be pretty much a disingenuously-earnest parody of a thrash-metal song, while the second track, “___” seems to channel Merciful Fate/ King Diamond?) For an apt example of just how extreme this awkward stylistic-mashup gets, cue up “Coliseum.” I hate saying this, because I still love this band, but hearing a British indie band trying to sound like southern-American blues-rock/ groove-metal is just downright cringe-inducing. This is probably all-around one of the worst songs I’ve heard in a while. (I HOPE this track is supposed to be a joke, but if it is, Bloc Party’s taken the “dry” in “dry British humour” to unprecedented extremes.) The tracks on the record that sound most like “Bloc Party” (in ANY of the band’s prior forms) sound fragmentary, unfinished, incomplete… they all seem to either fade out or end abruptly just as they feel like they’re about to turn into something memorable or catchy. (Oddly, the two most fully-realized Bloc Party-esque tracks are the two additional songs on my limited-edition copy, which don’t appear on the regular version of the disc. These ["Mean” and "Leaf Skeleton”] sound like the products of, say, “A[nother] Weekend in the City” era of the band, with an even greater dose of Joy Division influence?)

Here’s my hunch on this one- the crux of the issue here is the role that Kele plays in relation to on songs-of-Bloc-Party-past. If you follow the evolution of Bloc Party’s sound prior to this album, the front man’s solo-record while the band was on hiatus, “The Boxer,” WAS the next Bloc Party record. And it was brilliant.

Comparatively, Kele’s power as a vocalist just doesn’t show up on “Four.” Without hearing “The Boxer,” some listeners might think that during the band’s hiatus the singer had somehow lost the energy in his voice, which has always been one of the band’s trademarks. He never leans into his parts at all, and those parts are leveled FAR lower and less dominantly in the audio-mix than on any prior Bloc Party disc. Content-wise, both tonally and lyrically, Kele’s contributions are far more dark, cynical, and often downright angry than we’ve seen from him prior. Kele sounds very much like he checked out on the creative-process for this album, and I would wager that his contributions to the musical writing-process were far less than on past efforts. Let’s face it; following up “The Boxer,” Kele has quite a bit of possible time left in him as an indie-chameleon golden-child… the other three members of the band? Probably less so. It seems like he threw up his hands and said something along the lines of “Let’s let these kids make the record that they want to make, and I’ll just drop some vocals over the top.” The resulting album is definitely interesting… but extremely problematic.

That being said, I’d love to see what the rest of the band does in the inevitable post-Kele era. I’m hoping for something in line with Bauhaus post-Peter Murphy as Tones on Tail/ Love and Rockets, or Johnny Marr post-Smiths, personally.