1. Tweedy- Sukierae   8.2  

    Jeff Tweedy opened the last double album he made, Wilco’s 1996 epic Being There, by wailing that he was “so misunderstood.” At that point, it was easy to see where he was coming from. Wilco was still the less successful, and less highly regarded of the two bands that evolved from the breakup of alt-country kingpins Uncle Tupelo (the other being Son Volt.) Plus, Tweedy had just become both a new husband and father. His band’s first album, A.M, showed little of the brilliant exercises in genre-bending Wilco would go on to undertake. Fast forward eighteen years, and that first child, his son Spencer, is his newest musical collaborator. Almost as if to tip his hat to just how much change has taken place since he repeatedly thanked us all for nothing on “Misunderstood,” Jeff Tweedy pulls a complete reversal on the opening track of Sukierae, titling it “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood.” Its a mark of something we haven’t previously heard from Jeff, a subtle dive into uncharted waters, and an acknowledgement of progression. 

    Sukierae, surprisingly, shows a truly electric dynamic between father and son. Where one may have expected Spencer to give Jeff’s increasingly dad-rock-ish songwriting an extra level of cozy domesticity, Spencer pushes his father’s songwriting to a level it hasn’t reached in over a decade. Whenever Jeff may be approaching complicity, Spencer seemingly grows impatient, and interjects a terse, unexpected rhythmic change, or a little flourish here and there. Tweedy seemingly relishes the opportunity to flesh out his songs on his own, without the serious chops and input of Nels Cline or Glenn Kotche to take into account. With impressive contributions from Spencer, the emotional specter of Susan Tweedy’s (Jeff’s wife, Spencer’s mom) battle with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma constantly looming, and the satisfaction of working almost completely independently, Jeff Tweedy creates an often shockingly great album in Sukierae

    Inevitably, with 20 songs that clock in at a total of 71 minutes, Sukierae does have a couple duds, but its highs can stand head and shoulders with virtually any post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco track. After a bit of a slow start, the record really kicks in with the almost Yo La Tengo-esque “Diamond Light Pt. 1.” Spencer really grabs the spotlight here, pushing the song forward relentlessly with a hypnotic, angular rhythm. Jeff’s supple bass lines also give the track a live, organic and almost experimental feel.

    Rather than being clustered into one space, Sukierae's highlights are sprinkled generously throughout its tracklisting, ensuring the album's continued freshness. After the ordinary, mid-tempo “Wait For Love” comes the perfect power-pop of “Low Key.” After the intriguing, but lengthy “Slow Love,” the gorgeous, mournful “Nobody Dies Anymore.” And so it goes, with the album's lead single (and weakest track,) the classic-rock aping “I'll Sing It” followed by the irresistibly mellow (and satisfyingly Wilco-esque) jam, “Flowering.”

    The album’s second half is particularly strong, complete with the sterling country-folk ballad “New Moon,” another batch of power-pop perfection in “Summer Noon” and the spare, introspective “Down From Above.” Tweedy saves the seriously un-Wilco-like material for those who have stayed for the second half of the album, giving an the listener an incredibly rewarding taste of his other songwriting talents. Possibly the album’s finest moment arrives close to its conclusion. On “Fake Fur Coat,” Tweedy echoes Nick Drake more than the Americana-folk he usually takes cues from, crafting a beautiful acoustic number that truly stands out in his discography. 

    And that’s definitely the most surprising, and thrilling takeaway from Sukierae. Even after two decades, Jeff Tweedy apparently still had quite a bit more up his sleeve that he hadn’t showed us yet. It took a collaboration with his son, who is equally as inspired on this record as Jeff, to bring those songs out. At once comfortable and experimental, Sukierae is the record Wilco fans have been dying to hear since they renewed their creative streak with 2011’s The Whole Love

    09/18/14

     
  2. Mutual Benefit- The Cowboy’s Prayer (EP) (Reissue)   8.0  

    Rarely have I, on first listen, immediately connected with an album as deeply as I did when I first heard Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond late last fall. It’s simply a masterpiece, one that grows thicker and more note-perfect with each passing listen. It isn’t much for the summer months, but now that it’s getting cold again already (at least here in Amherst) it once again has entered my consciousness. 

    Although it was the first that most people had heard from the brainchild of the project, Jordan Lee, it was hard to see that Love’s Crushing Diamond was actually a culmination, rather than a fully formed debut. Lee has actually been recording as Mutual Benefit for almost half a decade, recording ambient bedroom-pop that often dove headfirst into experimentation and sonic collages. The Cowboy’s Prayer was his most recent release before Love’s Crushing Diamond, a brief, 5-song EP that shows Lee still trying to flesh out his sound, but showing flashes of the astonishing songwriting that would make LCD one of the most endearing, engaging and surprising albums of the decade so far. 

    What you don’t hear on The Cowboy’s Prayer are the baroque-flavored strings that would make LCD such a lush, vivid musical experience. What you do hear is the quiet vulnerability in Jordan Lee’s voice, and, at times, his intrinsic sense of where to place all of his various ideas. Opener “Auburn Epitaphs” is by far the EP’s strongest display. Its strength lies in its total focus, at first at least, on Lee’s voice and acoustic playing. Its easy to forget amidst all of the other flourishes Lee puts in his tracks just how supple a guitar player he really is. His own harmonies provide the listener with a nearly-full glimpse at what Lee could do with a fully formulated idea, completed with a sufficient sonic palette. 

    The rest of the EP shows Lee still searching for his musical identity. The ethereal folk of “Passenger” fade into the mostly unremarkable, bleeping electronics of the title track. “Backwards Fireworks” and the closer are certainly pretty, but their spareness doesn’t quite capture the same, vulnerable emotional space that Lee would learn to bask himself in two years later. As a whole, the final three of the five tracks feel like more of a set up than anything else, setting the table for what’s to come. 

    Of course now we know that Lee did in fact expand on his earlier promise, and built it into an almost incomprehensibly great record. Visible in The Cowboy’s Prayer is the foundation on which Lee built Love’s Crushing Diamond. While it doesn’t stand on its own nearly as well as LCD, this EP shows an artist who clearly had something special waiting just in the wings. 

    09/16/14

     
  3. Ryan Adams- Ryan Adams   7.7   

    One of the strongest survivors of the short-lived mid-90’s alt-country, or y’alternative, wave over the past two decades has been Ryan Adams. Unlike Wilco, who have developed into something far greater than that small sub-genre ever allowed them to be, and Son Volt, who started with a bang, but quickly faded into Americana-aping sameness, Adams has been unbelievably consistent. Since the breakup of his band, Whiskeytown, Adams has released fourteen albums in just about as many years. This self-titled effort comes after a career-long three year gap since his last record, Ashes & Fire. Being self-titled, it already has a sense of reclamation, not a return to form so much as a return to self. And although its far from his most affecting record to date, its 11 tracks of classic Adams. 

    So what is “classic Adams,” really? In this case its a healthy dose of rousing rockers with beer-soaked, regretful lyrics, smokey guitars, and tear-in-your-beer ballads with a similar amount of those three aforementioned characteristics. There’s no “Come Pick Me Up” or “New York, New York” on Ryan Adams, but there is a sense of, as cliche’d as this term has become in the music industry, “back to the basics.” This record is self-titled because its Ryan Adams doing what he does best: writing Ryan Adams-style songs.  

    Opener “Gimme Something Good” has a central riff straight out of the bar-band playbook, but Adams’ classic rock stylings, as always, sound more authentic and true to the emotion of their source than put on. “Kim,” the album’s centerpiece, is anchored by a gorgeously simple riff that vividly captures the humid-summer-night vibe that encompasses the record. “Trouble” sounds like the end result if Neil Young & Crazy Horse and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were thrown into a blender. But again, Adams’ rock with a capital R is not only self-aware, but effective, because without self-consciousness, it can set to work getting your head nodding. 

    "My Wrecking Ball" is the ballad that the Gaslight Anthem have spent their entire careers trying to write, while "Shadows" is the album’s dark mini-epic. Some of the criticisms of this record have been its sameness in tone, which is a fair point. "Shadows" does seem to have the same guitar effects as "Kim," but in that way it sort of ties the album’s two best tracks together almost as one cohesive point. Closer "Let Go" is another strong ballad, featuring strong acoustic playing from Adams, and works as an effective coda to the album’s summer night semi-theme. 

    While its doubtful that Adams will ever craft anything as restless, poignant or devastating as his masterful 2000 solo debut album, Heartbreaker, he has become quite dependable. With his prolific nature, he is a slightly unlikely candidate for the “dependable” label, but the last fifteen years have shown Adams crafting quite the catalog of country-fried rockers and ballads. There were only ever so many new places he could go on his fourteenth studio album, so instead, he chose, it seems, to reconnect with himself. As such, Ryan Adams isn’t a rebirth, but its definitely a reminder. 

    09/14/14

     
  4. U2- Songs Of Innocence   5.6   

    One of Saturday Night Live’s better skits in the last few years was a fake ad for match.com, featuring the amazing Kate McKinnon as Martha Stewart. When asked why she joined match.com, McKinnon deadpans “because I’m Martha fucking Stewart.” It’s in that same spirit that, alongside Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 6, U2 announced the immediate release of their new album for free on iTunes. But not only was it free, it had already been put on your iTunes account for you. With that, Songs of Innocence immediately became the most widely distributed album in history by an incredibly wide margin, with copies given away to all 500 million of iTunes’ customers.

    The question is not only who is universally popular enough to get away with this, but who else would have the gall to engage in such a ballsy distribution tactic? The answer can only be U2, the most world-conquering rock band there is. Their singer went to the White House and, incredibly, succeeded in making George W. Bush give a shit about the spread of AIDS in Africa. They set new worldwide box office records with every tour they go on, selling out the world’s largest stadiums in minutes. They’ve gotten their own iPod and started their own fashion trend/wildly successful clothing line for charity. It can be incredibly easy to forget amidst their status as global semi-ambassadors that U2 are actually still a band who actually still makes and records music once every few years. 

    What always constituted U2 at their best was a complete lack of modesty or reservation about what they were doing. They wanted to not only be the biggest band in the world, but the most important and the most influential one as well. The album that blew them up, The Joshua Tree was, in that way, a perfect storm of universe-sized ambition, unforgettable songs and an incredibly diverse sonic palette. Who can forget the stunning guitar work of the Edge on “With or Without You” or “Bullet the Blue Sky”? Its difficult to, because at the time, U2 truly sounded like no one that had come before them.

    In their more recent days, the quartet has taken to fully acknowledging their status as the biggest band in the world. And really, they did make a couple good records once they became comfortable with the reality of their position. All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb did as well as they did because they were both loaded with great, adrenaline-loaded stadium rock songs. “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On,” “Vertigo,” and “Crumbs From Your Table” did their jobs, and did them incredibly well. U2 became truly the most universal rock band in the world once they began to fully acknowledge themselves as the preachy, syrupy, socially conscious stadium-rock band that they are. 

    But 2009’s No Line On the Horizon showed quite a few cracks on the surface. It was an “experimental” album, one that actually came off as more preachy than usual in its desperate attempts to not be preachy. Musically, it was all over the place, but its production made it sound like the same shade of white and grey that adorned its cover. Five and a half years, and countless promises of new sounds and genre experimentations later, and we are brought to Songs of Innocence

    Songs of Innocence really desperately tries to set itself apart from the rest of the band’s discography. If nothing else, it certainly sounds as expensive as it likely was to make. A total of five producers handled this record, including Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth and previous collaborator Flood. And while it certainly isn’t bland, it doesn’t really have the sonic dynamics, the explosive eruptions of emotion, that a U2 album needs to be a real success. While it’s title is a reference to the band’s formative years in the late 70’s Dublin, the hungriness of the band’s youth doesn’t really permeate the music as much as the quartet probably wanted it to. Bono writes in the album’s liner notes that Songs of Innocence is the “most personal” U2 album ever. And maybe that is the case for him at least, because this is without question the most Bono-centric U2 album in the band’s long history. With the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen mostly relegated to the sidelines, Songs of Innocence is the weakest U2 album in at least fifteen years. 

    "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" cuts right to the chase, vaguely detailing the band’s first experience at a Ramones concert. Where Bono could have been unusually detailed and heartfelt, he uses his typically over the top lyrical view to make the encounter sound more like some spiritual vision. "I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/heard a song that made sense of the world," he croons over some unfortunately fuzzed-out riffing. That fuzz is the first sign of the sad fate the Edge suffers on this record. Regardless of the track, or producer, the Edge is completely buried in the mix, reducing his contributions to little side statements here and there. Rather than leading the charge as he always has, the Edge (and the rhythm section of Clayton and Mullen, really) are made auxiliary to Bono, taking a backseat to whatever he has to say. 

    Even songs like “California (There Is No End to Love,)” which has something that approaches a soaring chorus, never gets to the height where it needs to be. Ballads like “Song for Someone” are too vague and plodding to match the band’s usually cheesy, but affecting slow numbers. Closer “The Troubles” (which, no, isn’t actually about “The Troubles,” of course…) wastes the considerable vocal talents of Lykke Li, by stringing out her contributions over another poorly mixed, Bono-centric, slow-burner. 

    Although there were five producers on Songs of Innocence, Danger Mouse is listed by the band as the primary producer, with the four others acting more as overseers. Songs of Innocence continues his tradition of diluting the excitement and dynamics of great artists (Beck, the Black Keys, James Mercer) and turning them into a muddy, indistinct pile of fuzz. Although this is far from U2’s finest batch of songs, one once again has to wonder how this album would have fared without Burton in the control room. 

    Songs of Innocence, at its heart,is a batch of contradictions. It features U2 trying to experiment, and move away from a strictly stadium-rock sound, while simultaneously keeping things mellow enough so that half a billion people can enjoy it. The band are trying to echo the relentless drive of their past, while trying to sound like the future. And the gaping holes in this strategy are far from flattering.

    09/12/14

     
  5. High Dive- EP   7.6

    If anyone’s ever been to Bloomington, Indiana, they know the sort of environment it is. Its an oasis of culture in the middle of thousands upon thousands of square miles of nothing but cornfields, strip malls and beat-up old trucks. There’s a beauty in all of that fast-disappearing rust-belt Americana, but nonetheless, when you pull into Bloomington, its a breath of incredibly fresh air. High Dive, a quirky but tuneful pop-punk quintet who hail from Bloomington, truly capture that fresh-air feeling in their music. Their songs are a bastion of escapism and romanticism, spitting quietly in the face of the shitty world. 

    The band has an unmistakable air of camaraderie about them. When I saw them and Nana Grizol live at Brooklyn’s Death By Audio in May with my friend, what drew me to them weren’t their songs or energy (which were both stellar non-withstanding) but the vibes they gave off. Even though my friend and I were Jersey kids, in a mostly unfamiliar part of New York, it felt in some strange way like we were watching one of our friends’ bands perform live. The entire band seemed to be mainly focused on having a great time just rocking out together. They urged us to buy their merchandise not for themselves, but to help another band on the bill, the terrifyingly awesome Macedonian punk quartet Bernay’s Propoganda, get a flight home. It’s that adherence to punk’s best values that gives High Dive’s unassuming pop-punk attack a special edge. 

    While the band’s first two releases were mostly dominated by singer/guitarist Toby Foster, their new EP (hehehe) contains contributions from other members, including new guitarist/singer Ginger Alford. Alford’s one song on the EP, “Untouched,” actually steals the show entirely, with a Springsteen-esque, triumphant riff and an earworm of a chorus. On opener “Equal and Opposite,” Foster takes a strong stance, closing the song by spitting out “so when we fall, divided/it will be our own damn fault again/for every action an equal and opposite/for every action consider the consequence.” Foster’s non-preachy call to arms puts another one of punk’s best selling points into High Dive’s arsenal; the idea that actions always have consequences and that what you do or say is never irrelevant. 

    Oh yeah, the rest of the EP is pretty good too. The perfect let’s-runaway/ road trip rock of closer “Sirens” shows Foster in beautifully romantic form, spinning a tale of longing that conjures vivid images of an empty highway. “Seventeen” also centers on one of Foster’s best lyrical subjects, that of the invincibility of youth. Foster tells you “I swear we are as free and beautiful as we were when we were seventeen,” for once, making that feeling seem within reach once again. 

    While pop-punk may be entirely fazed out as a squeaky-clean, mainstream genre, it’s more frayed edges are still alive and well. Cloud Nothings have made a career out of bringing back its tunefulness, then pummeling those catchy songs into your head with a noisy, visceral attack. High Dive are much more laid back than that, preferring to be more friendly than sonically confrontational. But make no mistake, these guys are a punk band at heart, espousing all of the genre’s best qualities: liberal politics, anthemic songs of rebellion and youth and a true sense of punk as a community; something that often gets lost in today’s music. Plus, as they prove once again with EP, they have the songs to boot.

    09/10/14

     
  6. Karen O- Crush Songs   8.1  

    Although she first became known to us as the Olive Oil-esque yelper for the glitzy post-punk trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen Orzolek has shown herself to be the most creative when operating outside of the trio. Her vocals with the band tend to be over-driven, frantic in their desire to punctuate the band’s distorted attack. Its when Orzolek has dropped her wild, unhinged frontwoman persona that she has really shined. On the band’s greatest song by miles, “Maps,” Orzolek never stretches herself, resigned to a plaintive vocal delivery. But its that honesty, that bare-bones vulnerability in her voice, that makes the song so damn amazing every time you listen to it. When she isn’t trying to be a rock star, Orzolek has one of the sweetest voices in music. 

    This was further emphasized with “Moon Song,” her note-perfect acoustic contribution to the Spike Jonze film Her. Her incredibly affecting delivery, hesitant strumming and shameless romanticism, fit in beautifully with the film, one of the greatest cinematic examinations of human relationships ever made. So when Orzolek announced Crush Songs, an acoustic collection of songs she recorded alone when she was “crushing a lot" in 2006 and 2007, it seemed like the perfect storm of circumstances. 

    And in many ways, Crush Songs is a perfect little record. In 25 minutes, Orzolek packs in fifteen brief tracks, some of which barely clock in at a minute. But these 15 tracks are less songs than they are notes. They work almost as a dotted line along which you can chart Orzolek’s emotions. Inevitably, given their simplicity, these songs have some limitations. But in many cases those limitations actually serve as strengths, giving Orzolek more room to express herself directly and powerfully. 

    And express herself Orzolek most certainly does. Opener “Ooo” is simply gorgeous, with Orzolek crooning “Cause even the sound of his name/carries me over their reach/back to some golden beach/where only he remains.” On “Rapt,” she sounds equally sweet, but her tone has changed, singing “love is soft, love’s a fucking bitch.” “Visits” includes a super lo-fi drum machine, and shows her basking more in uncertainty, singing “the worst is gonna come out slow.”

    In this incredibly intimate setting, Orzolek gives you a bag of contradicting emotions, devils and angels on her shoulder and a vivid portrait of how an empty heart can toss the mind around in all sorts of ways. Orzolek called this record “the soundtrack to an ever continuing Love Crusade,” and for that sole purpose, this album is quite brilliant. When you’re on a “Love Crusade” as she calls it, or in any sort of emotional bind, you’re never sure of anything. You sometimes need a voice that’s blunt, sentimental or nostalgic. Or you just need someone who knows what you’re going through, who’s been there before. On Crush Songs, it almost feels like Orzolek is right there with you on your whatever your own crusade may be. As a life soundtrack piece, it doesn’t get much more unique, simple or effective than this.  

    09/08/14

     
  7. Interpol- El Pintor   6.9   

    During the early part of the last decade, New York City, after more than two decades in the doldrums, once again became rock’s front and center, its cutting edge, its heart and soul. An explosion of bands fully equipped with the city’s attitude and restlessness took over rock’s most creative wing, where some of them still hold sway as among the genre’s best. The Strokes brought the cool, the National brought the white-collar, intellectual anxiety, the Walkmen showed up with the genre-bending romanticism, while LCD Soundsystem had the dance floor. Interpol, more than anyone, brought the darkness. 

    Their timeless classic of a debut album, 2002’s Turn On the Bright Lights, stood in stark contrast to the other NY rock masterpieces of the time, the Strokes’ relentlessly chipper Is This It and the Walkmen’s fragmented, distant Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is GoneTurn On the Bright Lights was at once moody and direct, suave but incredibly vulnerable. Paul Banks seemed at most to be a reluctant frontman, spewing out his often awkward, quietly tortured lyrics with uneven force. But when taken with the dueling, interlocking guitars of Banks and Daniel Kessler, the stunning bass lines of Carlos Dengler and the mechanical steadiness of Sam Fogarino’s drumming, Interpol became a truly extraordinary force. Turn On the Bright Lights was an album of incredible catharsis, a record that dove headfirst into the grey, emotional bleakness of post-9/11 New York City, rather than dancing perilously around the subject. Where the National later took the mantle from them in this regard, Interpol was a band that masterfully expressed the failures of life, and the things that got left unsaid. 

    In their trademark black suits, they embraced the effortless cool of post-punk in both their demeanor and their records. But sadly, Interpol fell victim to one of the worst cases of First Album Syndrome in rock history. 2004’s Antics was rock-solid, but lacked the spellbinding structures that took Turn On the Bright Lights to such great heights. But on Our Love to Admire, and later, the band’s self-titled 2010 album, the band’s sharp edges were completely dulled. The sleek darkness that enveloped their early records became more muddy, their dynamics predictable, their songs frustrating and inconclusive. And on top of it all, after the completion of Interpol, Carlos Dengler, the architect of so many spine-tingling bass lines, and the foundation of the band’s sound, departed to work on other projects. 

    So, El Pintor doesn’t seem to have a whole lot going for it on the outset. But, unlike the band’s previous two efforts, El Pintor has a sense of liberation about it. While it certainly doesn’t measure up to the band’s first two albums, El Pintor is reminiscent of the Hold Steady’s Teeth Dreams in the way that it conclusively marks a new chapter for the band. Interpol doesn’t change any of the building blocks of their sound for their fifth LP, but they make do without Dengler, sounding nothing if not highly re-energized. 

    Opener “All the Rage Back Home” is the album’s crowning moment, beginning with a somber passage that explodes into a classically urgent Interpol chug. Banks shows himself to be a competent replacement on bass, gamely keeping pace, but unsurprisingly, lacking the dynamics of Dengler’s playing. “My Desire” and “Anywhere” are kept afloat by Kessler’s nimble riffing. Without Banks to play off of, Kessler isn’t quite as expressive on the axe, but he certainly does his best to fill in the gaps, moving around Banks’ vocals more than he used to. “Same Town, New Story” and “My Blue Supreme” are a bit adventurous by Interpol standards, both messing about with the band’s musical and lyrical formula. If nothing else, “My Blue Supreme” is amusing for its chorus (“cruising in my blue supreeeemmmeee.”) The image of Paul Banks, complete with glasses and a suit, cruising in slow motion in  a sporty blue convertible down the Sunset Strip or the Pacific Coast Highway is wonderful enough to make up for any of the song’s pitfalls. 

    From there on, El Pintor becomes a bit clunky and moored in its place. The guitars aren’t as fluid as they are in the album’s first half, coming off as more blocky, while the band settles into a weaker groove than the strong start that defined the album’s beginning. Interpol become slightly more content with the small niche they’ve carved with their post-Dengler attack, seemingly not as willing to take the risks that made tracks like “Same Town, New Story” and “My Blue Supreme” noteworthy.

    If the band had fallen out of love with El Pintor, “Same Town, New Story” may not have been a bad name for this record. Interpol still cover the same ground here, not giving up their ground as the snazziest dressers in rock, or the best purveyors of a certain kind of Joy Division indebted gloom-punk. But the Interpol that made El Pintor is a different beast from the Interpol that made the band’s last two, largely disappointing records. This Interpol isn’t as crafty or sweeping, but they are slimmer and more streamlined. They’ll never make anything like Turn On the Bright Lights again, and the sooner people recognize that, the more they’ll grow to like El Pintor

    09/06/14

     
  8. Hey guys. I know I haven’t been posting that much the past few weeks, it’s the slow album release schedule. And with moving back in to school and all, it’ll probably be another couple weeks before I start posting reviews again. 

    But September looks like it’s gonna be incredible in terms of new records, so I look forward to returning to regaling you all with my opinions once again at that point. 

    So I’m retiring. But like Brett Favre, I’ll just return not too long after. 

     
     
  9. Electric Würms- Musik, Die Schwer zu Twerk   6.0   

    At the end of 2013, I didn’t think it would at all be difficult to remain a huge Flaming Lips fan for much of the foreseeable future. Why would I get fed up with them? I had seen them play a remarkable, incredibly cathartic concert in May, and they had issued a wonderful single (“Sun Blows Up Today,”) a terrific EP (Peace Sword,) and a great LP (The Terror) in 2013. Even if Wayne Coyne seemed to be going through a protracted midlife crisis, one that he seemed to be in total denial of, he was still the Fearless Freak, one of the main preachers of musical gospel that I turned to in times of strife. 

    Then came Miley Cyrus. And then the Native American headdress controversy. Then the firing of Kliph Scurlock. That coupled with all of the other strange, slightly embarrassing publicity stunts Coyne had undertaken, made supporting the band, specifically Coyne, suddenly quite a bit more difficult. With the firing of Kliph Scurlock, and his support of such brazen cultural appropriation, Coyne seemed to take a stance against the very outsiders he had always so perfectly reassured with his music. Then came the Sgt. Pepper’s cover album with Miley Cyrus and two trillion other collaborators. What was so disheartening was that the band seemed to be resorting to embodying their status as pop culture’s resident psychedelic band. I mean, why the fuck Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Pretty much anyone with at least a vague conception of what rock music is has heard the album a million times, do we really need the Flaming Lips to do a weird, sinister version of it?… 

    Ok, I’m breathing now. In and out… In and out… So what this all leads to is Electric Würms, a Flaming Lips side project that features Coyne (thankfully) taking a back seat to Steven Drozd, and focusing on the bass. Drozd handles the guitar and lead vocals, while psychedelic experimentalists Linear Downfall handle everything else. The title of their first release translates roughly to “music that is hard to twerk to,” a pertinent, but still annoying Miley reference. The title is pertinent in that most of this release is mostly formless jamming, songs that begin and end without making much of a statement. Unfortunately, the krautrock Electric Würms deliver on this is a combination of the genre’s worst elements, monotony, lack of dynamics and lack of melody. While those negatives were morphed into thrilling positives by groups like Kraftwerk and Can, Music Die Schwer zu Twerk features neither of those bands’ relentless ambitions, and mostly features contentment with its own jamming.

    The album’s first half is by far its weakest. “I Could Only See Clouds,” “Futuristic Hallucination” and “The Bat” are almost bland at best, an endless slog at worst. They meander along with a weak pulse and little else, their bleeps, bloops and rhythms forming little more than a krautrock spin on elevator music. While the stronger, more rhythmically inviting “Living” kicks things up a bit, “Transform!!” settles the album back into the directionless jamming that so compromises its first half. Its only the most unlikely of closers, a simplified version of Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise” that makes Musik, Die Schwer zu Twerk worth listening to at all. In four minutes, the band not only condenses but streamlines the eleven-minute Yes classic into a beautifully understated piece, also bringing some desperately needed melody into the picture. 

    Its quite telling that the highlight of this side project release is a song someone else already wrote. The other five pieces on this record are almost entirely unfinished, barely out of the sketch stage. Maybe Coyne saw it as a chance to give Drozd some much needed time in the spotlight after his constant headline-grabbing. But by seemingly rushing these tracks out, Coyne and Drozd have done themselves a massive disservice. These songs all have small hints of brilliance waiting in the wings, hints of vivid, colorful ideas that could have developed into something worthy of the Flaming Lips’ extraordinary catalog. But as they are, they sound like vaguely intriguing background music, but little else. 

    08/19/14

     
  10. Wire- Document & Eyewitness  (Reissue)   6.8   

    Although Wire normally get thrown under the “post-punk” label, it doesn’t really fit. Pink Flag, 21 angular, confrontational yet tuneful tracks of forward-thinking rock, was already light years ahead of the game when it was released in 1977. At that point, “punk” was just starting to poke it’s head out of the underground, preparing to change the world, but not quite there yet. Wire had already phased out punk’s more simplistic tendencies, and had injected it with a sense of art-school adventurism and political consciousness, while the first wave of normal punk was occurring. On their next two records, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154, the band pushed the genre’s boundaries even farther. Creatively, the band operated on their own planet, independent from punk, rock or pop. They’re the classic example of “post-punk” being thrown onto a band that defied easy explanation or labeling. 

    The last album released during the band’s first lifespan, Document & Eyewitness, is legendary more for its messiness than its accomplishments. The album is built around two extremely lo-fi recordings of different live shows, one in 1979 at the Notre Dame Hall, and another in February 1980 at London’s Electric Ballroom. The shows are an often cringe-inducing, but occasionally fascinating listen. Both shows were packed by an audience full of punks expecting to pogo and mosh to Pink Flag songs. Instead, Wire fed both audiences a set of jarringly experimental, previously unheard material. The only song the band touched on from their first three albums was a searing version of “Heartbeat,” from Chairs Missing

    On the album, the tension between band and audience feeds the often sub-par, poorly recorded material. The band didn’t just stop with the music itself, noisy and unconventional as it was. The trio had a live goose onstage, random onscreen projections and dancing bells. The bad vibes nearly boil over on one of the album’s most incredible moments, a sardonic, half-assed version of the band’s classic “12XU.” A clearly infuriated Colin Newman (bassist/singer/songwriter for the band) attempts to discuss the new material with the audience, only to be drowned out by angry catcalling and requests for “12XU.” Finally, the band launches into a hilariously abbreviated version of the track, further alienating the already restless crowd. 

    The material is as musically wide-ranging as it is inconsistent. The nine-minute “And Then…” is a stunning, heaving, proto-industrial piece that sounds like it came straight from a David Lynch film. “Go Ahead” is a wild piece of electro-punk, while “Midnight Banhof Cafe,” one of the album’s two studio cuts, has a more familiar, tuneful Wire vibe to it. But as fascinating as some of these cuts are, and as intriguing as it often is to hear Wire experiment so unashamedly, most of Document & Eyewitness remains a tough slog. The brutal screaming on “We Meet Under Tables” renders that track virtually unlistenable, while “Piano Tuner” and “Zegk Hoqp” take one decent idea and stretch it so far beyond the breaking point that they are entirely unsalvageable.

    Much of the London show, in the end, is incredibly difficult to get through more than once. This is one of the few times Wire truly over-extended themselves, an album where they took their relentless progression way too far. They were always ahead of the times, but by the time they reached Document & Eyewitness, they themselves seemed to have forgotten exactly what they were trying to do. And, with the impressive re-recording of much of this material on last year’s Change Becomes Us, we’ve all seen the potential the tracks on this record had, making this record little more than a curiosity. But what a fascinatingly flawed curiosity it is. 

    08/15/14