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MR|Review – Mastodon, “The Hunter,” Nada Surf, “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy,” Kanye West & Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne”

12 February 2012 in MR|Review

The Hunter should be a moment for metal in the musical mainstream like Metallica (“The Black Album”) was for Lars & Co.

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This is a potentially troubling comparison for several reasons: the Black Album, besides spawning a ton of hit singles, can be criticized as a commercial sellout, as an aesthetic betrayal of the band’s sound and identity (and fans’ expectations of such), and for not rocking nearly as hard as Metallica’s earlier work.  These points 1) have some truth to them regarding Metallica, 2) could also be applied to The Hunter, but 3) would be absolutely wrong in Mastodon’s case.

The Hunter has cleaner vocals, more straightforward rhythms, and lacks an overall narrative or conceptual structure relative to Mastodon’s previous albums – things fans, myself included, love – but it shreds as hard (dare I claim… harder?), presenting the band’s strengths and signature elements in a new context that happens to be accessible to anyone who likes loud music at all.

In a parallel universe, The Hunter is where radio-friendly metal should be in 2012; pushing the boundaries of what the mainstream can absorb in terms of polyrhythms, weird riffs, and song structure, while also providing immediacy and viscereality that can bring you under its spell on the first listen.  Don’t miss it.

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There are a million guitar-pop bands (I’ve been in at least six of them myself), and the tiny variations among bands’ styles can elicit widely varying opinions of those bands.  Cory adores Surfer Blood, for example; I think they’re good, but they haven’t struck me as anything special yet.

On the other hand, within the walls of my house, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy is a four-star record, and I’ve listened to it every day since CA gave me the vinyl a couple weeks ago.  (We’re also seeing them in Omaha in March; psyyyched!)  Nada Surf’s particular spin on catchy, literate, slightly muscular guitar-pop hits me exactly the right way; I just can’t predict if you’ll feel the same.

Case in point; people went nuts for the Yuck record last year which, again, seemed solid but nothing to get excited about to me.  So we’re in a weird situation where 90s revivalism is over-hyped (I don’t know why; maybe it really felt that good in the moment), and I’m under-rating a record I love (because of how I imagine some imaginary aggregate of listeners and readers will feel about Astronomy‘s place in the musical universe a few years from now, when it’s not new).  Yuck is an 8.1, Astronomy’s a 2/5, I feel the opposite, and I’m half of the issue because I’m trying to bring a normal distribution to my ratings and have chosen to offer them as a guide to readers, and not necessarily a reflection of how I feel about the record myself (which is what these paragraphs are for).

You might find Nada Surf more of a four than a two if you like: subject matter that goes beyond boy-likes/hates-girl, vocal melodies and phrasing that follow more intricate lines than usual in guitar-pop, stellar rhythm sections, and unpredictable harmonic shifts between verses and choruses.  I’m not sure why I love Nada Surf and not Surfer Blood, but these are some of the musical differences, for what they’re worth.

Must-hear!
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Owww! My ears!

What happened to hip-hop being the black CNN?  Hip-hop is much bigger than the conscious stuff, Public Enemy, and black Americans’ experiences, but in this period of national import, as we struggle with economic depression and serious differences regarding what kind of country we will be, I hoped two of our biggest stars in not just music, but culture as a whole, would have more to say.

Nada Surf managed to weigh in on global warming pretty artfully (“No Snow on the Mountain”), which is a concern that’s no less real or acute for being very Stuff White People Like.  What about jobs, wages, and working conditions?  As I type I realize I’m projecting my own concerns onto this album, but it still seems like an opportunity has been missed.  I haven’t written much about those issues either, so I’ll commit to working on addressing them while calling on Kanye and Jay to do the same.

Watch the Throne is a good record because of its constituent parts – beats, especially, but also flashes of lyrical brilliance – but it adds up to less than the sum of them, and is culturally significant as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does.  It’s of its moment, good for what it is, but falling short of its potential to be less time-bound in the way that The Blueprint or Late Registration, in their greatness, are.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience.

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