MR|Review – Foo Fighters “Wasting Light,” TV On The Radio “Nine Types of Light,” Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues,” Wye Oak “Civilian,” and The Twilight Singers “Dynamite Steps”

New Foo records carry a heavy load of expectations from fans and critics alike, so it’s taken some time for me to resolve how I feel about Wasting Light; damned good.

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It’s raw, it’s loud, it sounds pretty good for a modern rock record (a big deal’s been made of the use of analog gear and tape, and Dave must now have the most famous garage in the world, so much ink and so many pixels have been spilled), and the band seems hungry again.  After the initial rush of the clear standout tunes like “Rope,” “White Limo,” and “Bridge Burning,” other songs took their turn sticking in my head.  “Back & Forth” has slowly revealed itself as a top-shelf jam; “These Days” really works emotionally, almost in spite of some potentially clunky lyrical moves, and “Arlandria” is proving surprisingly durable on repeat.

Some writers have mentioned that the choruses aren’t as rousing as they’d hoped, but I have another take on that; I think the verses are so strong, good choruses pale a bit in comparison.  “Rope” is the textbook case.  It has a riffy, rhythmic verse with a great melody, cool vocal harmony, and weirdo turnaround.  The wide-open chorus is almost a notch down in energy until it gets to “You… go… I… come… loose!”

(Sidenote – Just like last time, note the P4k is still talking about what the record isn’t, instead of what it is!)

One change on Wasting Light is the shift in the spirit of Dave’s lyrics.  Scattered across their records to this point are defiant, life-affirming, and subtly philosophical little glimmers like “What if I say I will never surrender?” (“Pretender), “Memory mend me / Know I’ve seen my share, things I can’t repair / I’m breakin’ to you / Pleased to meet you take my hand, there is no way back from here…” (“No Way Back”), or simply the “On and on and on…” that closes “Aurora.”  On the new album, this space is filled with lines like “Whatever keeps you warm at night / Whatever keeps you warm inside” and “Tell me, now, what’s in it for me?” (“Bridge Burning”) that sound almost selfish and defeatist.  “One of These Days” may give a clue for interpreting them, though; there, the line “But it’s alright, yeah it’s alright,” sounding pat and trite, is followed by a rebellious “Easy for you to say!” suggesting that Dave is playing with some irony.

All of the “Best record since The Colour And The Shape” claims do a serious disservice to the outstanding There Is Nothing Left To Lose, but I understand the feeling.  I’ve already gotten more mileage out of Wasting Light than I felt I had reason to expect, and it will keep cruising for me for a long time.

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All that said, the record I need to tell you about, the record that’s been saving my life this spring, is Nine Types of Light.  And it was a huge disappointment at first.

I love TV On The Radio, and was excited for …Light, but my first spin of it left me thinking “Huh?  Banjo?  And the second half of every song sounding like it doesn’t belong to the first half?  Why does it seem like this band is just playing to my head, not my heart… and not even doing a great job of that?”  I couldn’t be happier that I gave it a second and a third chance.

Now, “Second Song” and “Killer Crane” can make me misty just by their opening bars.  “No Future Shock” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” bounce me up and give me a jolt of verve any time I hear them, on the stereo or just in my head.  The whole record’s subtext, to me, is that it’s OK to be alive, to be human, to be in the time and place I am, and to keep being.  I can’t promise it will sing you those same things in between its notes, but in true evangelistic fashion I can’t avoid sharing with you that that’s what it’s doing for me.

Technically, Nine Types of Light is a small evolutionary step for the band; some fresh textures (like the banjo mentioned earlier, which I can dig at this point, or the pentatonic clean guitar line in “Keep Your Heart”) and new types of songs, but in line with their trajectory to this point.

I would love to give TV On The Radio five stars for their work, but I think too much of my attraction to …Light is personal to justify it.  I don’t know if music culture as a whole will be looking back on this record in 10 or 20 years as a high point, but I’m sure I will be.

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I write this as a Fleet Foxes fan, and someone for whom Helplessness Blues holds many treasures and continues to reveal more; this record will not convert anyone to the band, and while it’s excellent on its own terms, I can’t give it a general recommendation within the purpose of MR|Review (see the end of this post).

Fleet Foxes’ unique musical vocabulary of American folk, indie rock, backwoods harmonies, and art-rock arrangements arrived fully formed on their debut, self-titled LP.  Helplessness Blues takes some risks in expanding that language, and some of them work.  The overall effect has an undertone of self-consciousness and headiness, though, rendering the new album a more distant experience.  The exceptions, such as the first half of the title track, only put the general vibe in relief.

Helplessness Blues is growing on me, but if you are wondering whether to check out Fleet Foxes, get Fleet Foxes.

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Wye Oak’s Civilian was an impulse buy from the Amazon mp3 store’s daily deal, and holds up.  I’m impressed with the guitar work, which adds noise and atmosphere to the already-solid songs, and Civilian combines a broad appeal with a strong aesthetic voice.  The deeper I get into it, the cooler it is.

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Here’s another record that demonstrates that a two-star rating in MR|Review is actually an honorable evaluation.  I have an irrational love for Greg Dulli’s work, whether in The Afghan Whigs or The Twilight Singers, and the Singers’ new Dynamite Steps is a great record for fans, but maybe not newbies.  (That would be Blackberry Belle.)

It hits its marks a little better than Helplessness Blues, though in fairness, it’s less ambitious.  There are rockers, slow burns, and an epic closer.  Its biggest effect on me may be that, for the first time, I’m checking the Singers’ tour dates regularly, hoping to catch them soon.

Dulli’s always played a sort of gorgeously self-destructive romantic, and one thing I think about when I listen to his bands is whether the music speaks to the romantic in me, or whether I take vicarious pleasure at its debauchery precisely because I lack that drive.  Dynamite Steps hasn’t moved me any closer to an answer, but I’m grateful for the provocation, commiseration, and celebration. -h

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.

Best Records We Heard In 2010

20. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire – The highs are so high – “We Used To Wait,” “City With No Children,” and the unstoppable “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” – it doesn’t matter that the album as a whole sprawls like its subject.  What could have been a predictable polemic on the inner and outer rings many of us occupy is, instead, a diverse set of snapshots that resist quick judgments.  Arcade Fire is now three-for-three, and practically indie rock perennials at this point; let’s not under-appreciate them (as that other band you can set your watch by, Spoon, seems to have been this year).

19. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem – If James Murphy & Co. end their run here as reported, it caps an impeccable 3-album streak. The bangers (“Dance Yrself Clean,” “One Touch,” “Home”) groove as hard as anything in their catalog. LCD Soundsystem’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall also reaches its peak here; from the breezily self-referential “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” we’ve come all the way to “You Wanted A Hit,” where self-awareness upstages the song itself.  In a few songs like that, Murphy’s lyrics have become the main course instead of a spice, and they aren’t enough to hang the weight of a whole track on, keeping this record out of my top 5. -h

18. Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens – I don’t understand this record yet. It’s overwhelming, it’s occasionally frustrating, and it sweeps me off to some other headspace. Seems like I’m always doing something weird when I decide to listen to it, or maybe it’s that it makes whatever I’m doing feel a bit weird. I would say it’s one of those that everyone should hear once, exceptonce simply can’t do right by it. “Adz’s” spot on the list is because, whatever else it is or becomes for me, it’s a capital-A musical Accomplishment. -h

17. History of Forgotten Things – Jed Whedon & the Willing – I can’t add much to my MR|review, except that it continues to hold a place in my regular rotation. -h

16. Maximum Balloon – Maximum Balloon – Critical consensus was that Dave Sitek’s solo-plus-guest-vocalists work as Maximum Balloon was TV on the Radio Lite. I think that reflects a shallow listen; this album is poppier and cleaner than his full-time band, but equally creative and an outstanding listen.  Opener “Groove Me,” in particular, has been in heavy rotation for me, but Maximum Balloon is one sexy chunk of smart pop from top to bottom. -h

15. Together – The New Pornographers – After the exuberance of “Electric Version,” which I picked up earlier this year, “Together” was a grower, but after living with it for a few months it has fully flowered as a complex, but still immediate, pop record. -h

14. Body Talk – Robyn – Along with the rest of the hipster nation, I nominate Robyn for the place in mass culture currently occupied by half a hundred interchangable electro-pop songstresses. This record can be our Madonna, our U2, and our Michael Jackson all in one for 2011. -h

13. Lisbon – The Walkmen – I’ve been a casual Walkmen fan until this year, but I’ve become an evangelist for this record.  Perfectly sparse, hauntingly melodic, it’s a union of craft and small moments writ with wide emotion that was unequaled in 2010. -h

12. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison – Like I’m going to say about another record coming up, this one has been reviewed almost to death.  But I always liked Van Morrison, and figured I should pick up the album he made that everyone considers his 100% essential classic can’t-live-without record.

I am not sure what I expected; maybe I thought it would be racked with songs like “Domino” or “Brown Eyed Girl.” But this record isn’t really a pop record at all, almost. It’s more of a long jam session with lots of improvisation and mournful melodies. It’s a gorgeous record, and all the tracks seem to sort of blend in together with each other. But it’s inspiring, and it’s heartbreaking, and more than anything, it shows off what an absolutely amazing vocalist and lyricist Van Morrison is/was. I still can’t quite get over how unique his voice sounds on this meandering soul-folk record, especially on songs like “Madame George,” which I think is my favorite.

I am not sure if this record is as essential as everyone says it is, because I’m not sure if everyone would (or should) like it. But I think I get it. -Cory

11. Survival Story – Flobots – Cory’s been on me about Flobots for a while (full disclosure; he knows and hangs out with some band members semi-regularly), but after seeing them –kill– at a free all-ages warm-up show in KC this year, I got it.  It took a room full of kids responding to this band and vice versa in a way that is honest, precious, and too rare, but I got it.  “Survival Story” plays to Flobots’ strengths: aggressive live-band hip-hop jams, progressive rhymes, passion born of conviction coupled with openness to others and our ideas, and an intangible sort of “we’re all in this together” community spirit.  A couple standout tracks, “If I” and “Whip$ and Chain$,” push in a soul-influenced direction that I hope they’ll continue to explore.  It’s not a perfect record; I always skip “Superhero,” and the hook on “Good Soldier” has two extraneous notes (“…again”) that drive me nuts.  But consider this an invitation; see them before you form an opinion, and see if they don’t draw you in.  -h

10. What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood – Mynabirds –  The Mynabirds are an Omaha band by way of DC, and the main songwriter, Laura Burhenn, writes songs that are at once totally new and interesting and original but also instantly nostalgic. This record’s production is fucking rad and perfect for this kind of music; you want to say you’ve heard these songs before, because the tactics used on this record (the guitar sounds, the bled-together-sounding soul techniques, the soulful vocals, the falsetto background vocals) are familiar, but they aren’t really used anymore. On top of that, she’s written a bunch of amazingly unique songs that, if recorded differently, could have sounded like a hundred other indie releases this year.

This record works perfectly because it’s an epic blend of honest-to-goodness genuine soul music and lovely pop music. “L.A. Rain” sort of sounds like a song that’s been in played in movies and at wedding receptions for 40 years, and could easily be amongst classic soul songs without any disruption. I think the challenge for her will be to switch it up on the record to keep her aesthetic fresh. I’m thinking she could make a big riff-record. Possibly with dance-synths. And 100 backup dancers on each song (you can really hear the dancing). -Cory

9. High Violet – The National – Reviews of High Violet tended to stress its continuity with The National’s previous records, “Alligator” and “Boxer,” but I heard it as a subtle, but giant, leap ahead. Those records are fantastic indie rock music. The first time I heard “High Violet,” it sounded like just music, unbounded by genre or instrumentation or history. It was raw and pure, and as each song built and ended I didn’t know what I would hear next.  Even though I try not to be too jaded in general, exhilaration is a rare emotion for me to have with a record.  I found it here.  -h

8. Everything In Between – No Age – I kind of thought No Age would gradually get poppier and a little tighter and more produced, since that’s just sort of what bands do, especially as they have more access to gear and studios and engineers and stuff. Plus I think No Age has a third member now, helping them flesh shit out.

What I was pleasantly surprised at was how well it suits them; I always figured that a big part of their appeal for me was the fact that their albums sounded like live recordings, or even one-mic basement recordings. I thought better production make them lose some of their charm. But with this record, I feel like they’ve found the perfect balance between their brand of fuzz-weirdo-punk and their minimal recording aesthetic.

Everything I liked about their music before is still there (the really weird and beautiful effects; the really weird and beautiful vocals; the really weird and beautiful guitar solos and drum sounds); they’ve just clarified it a bit for us. I think if they kept getting less scuzzy an more glossy, they might eventually become less exciting, but I could also see them somehow having a hit single that played on “True Blood” or some shit. They could be the band that shocks/pleases their old fans while completely blowing the minds of their new ones. They could be the band that brings this kind of music into the mainstream arena. I’d be just fine with that. -Cory

7. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy / G.O.O.D. Fridays – Kanye West – Everyone has already said just about everything one could possibly say about this record; it was highly anticipated for artistic and sociological reasons (this is Kanye’s return to hip-hop from “808s and Heartbreaks;” this is first record since his total meltdown; his personal tragedies; etc.). Everyone was waiting to see if his arrogance and creative genius would continue to produce instant-classic albums. If there ever was a record whose reception was based on and wholly intermingled with everyone’s expectations of it, I think this is it.

Despite everyone’s astute observation that this album is really weird and creative and fun and lyrically schizophrenic, and despite that fact that I DO enjoy the record quite a bit, I feel like the most honest thing I can say about it is that it’s a really, really good hip-hop record. A lot of critics are calling this the most important record ever, giving it a 156% out of 100%, and letting the record sleep with their girlfriend. What I think they’re missing is that this wasn’t even the best hip-hop record to come out this year. Howie’s gonna cover this, but I think Big Boi, for example, knocked it out of the park even harder and with less flaws.

Some of the weird shit on Kanye’s record that everyone is praising, I think comes across as cheesy/sloppy. I don’t know who sings the “Oh oh oh”s on the first track, but it’s too much: it sounds like someone’s doing a cartoon voice. Nicki Minaj has a great verse on “Monster,” but she (even more so than Lady GaGa) seems to epitomize the “Being weird is really big right now so I am going to be really weird all the time and see how far that gets me” approach. And she’s obviously a good rapper; I am not sure why she has to go all over the place with her vocal affectations. And can I say that I’m not a big fan of fake British accents?

Finally, for the list of guest stars Kanye’s got on this record, I think they’re underutilized. I think he could have made a better record by making the songs shorter and taking out the vocorder solos (????) and letting his buddies shine a little more. That all being said, it’s on this list for a reason. Kanye West is one of the best rappers/producers out there, and this album is just as fun to listen to as Graduation or Late Registration; I think selfishly, I just want him to dial it back a little bit and make another College Dropout.  -Cory

A “really, really good hip-hop record” and an “instant classic” are the last things I’d call “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which suggests a reason for all the ink spilled over it; it’s a Rorschach test.  Between “…Fantasy” and the free releases on the “G.O.O.D. Fridays” series, Kanye’s had as productive a year as anyone else in the game, and it’s the struggle to grasp his music in 2010, rather than its ultimate cultural status or aesthetic quality, that earns it a place on my list.  No one has challenged me more this year, precisely because I’m not sure yet whether this album is at all classic or really good.

Kanye’s ego gets most of the attention, but it’s his uninhibited expression of id that raise questions for me.  Do I identify with this?  If so, what does that mean?  If not, does it suggest I’m afraid of something in myself it’s hard to see expressed?  This has always been a part of Kanye’s music, but it’s never been this raw, with fewer of those classic hip-hop signifiers running interference, allowing me to enjoy records like “Late Registration” without being too disquieted.  Together, “…Fantasy” and “…Fridays” are an amazing body of work by a man who is both pop star and artist, and I’ll be wrestling with it long after the year-end lists and blogs have moved on. -h

6. Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son of Chico Dusty – Big Boi – This one caught me by surprise; I expected a solid record, but I hadn’t bargained for the schizo-bounce, the neutron star-density of the rhymes, or the out-sized hooks. Whether you kick back, lace up, or buckle in, enjoy. -h

5. Transference – Spoon – Simultaneously deconstructing their indie-iconic sound and hitting all their marks on “Transference,” Spoon make it seem easy.  But it isn’t. -h

4. The Fame – Lady GaGa – As opposed to my #2 pick this year, this record is immaculate pop music produced with a top-40 gloss in mind. What sets Lady GaGa’s record apart from a ton of other big pop acts is that she clearly cares a LOT about ingenuity and progress.

I think a lot of people like her because her music sounds like the other really fun dance music that’s out, and they’re just hearing the big beats and wacky synths. That’s a big part of why I like her music, but I also hear immensely well-written songs! I feel like when/if these songs are performed acoustically, the beauty and the originality is still there; it’s not just a mediocre album dressed up with party beats and autotuned vocals; it’s 10 amazing pop songs that also happen to be fun as shit to listen to and perfect for pants-off-dance-offs.

Part of me gets a little peeved when she’s obviously just being weird for the sake of being weird. I feel like that detracts from her songwriting sometimes, as if she’s trying to make up for a lack of talent. But when I hear songs like “Paparazzi” and “Starstruck,” I am impressed every time with her sense of melody and transition. And my pants are usually danced all the way off.   -Cory

3. How I Got Over – The Roots – The increasingly desperate and hungry emotional arc from “Game Theory” (2006) and “Rising Down” (2008) reaches the breaking point on “Now or Never,” almost midway through this record.  The next song, “How I Got Over,” points ways forward both for the implicit narrative of the albums, and for The Roots themselves, as they write their way out of the dark corner they’d painted themselves into.  The rest of the album sounds like a band of kids exploring sound and following whatever catches their ears, but with the experience and chops of true pros. I love this record on its own terms, but the way the band wrote themselves out of the situation they were in prior to it makes it amazing. -h

2. Astrocoast – Surfer Blood – It was awesome when Pitchfork still had their agreement with InSound: if you read a review of an album or a track and you thought it sounded cool, you could just scroll to the right and click “play,” and listen to it as much as you wanted. I remember reading the review for this record and thinking that I would love it, solely based off of the review. It said something like, “This is a great guitar album like Weezer’s The Blue Album,” and I figured if it was anything like that record, I’d probably be pretty stoked.

When I clicked “play” and heard the first few bars of “Floating Vibes,” it was love at first peep. I understand why people compare this band to Weezer and Pavement: they play riff-driven rock music with big melodies and guitar solos (where have they gone, anyhow?). On paper, I supposed they’re very similar. But things that drew me in were more universal, and less specific to a small group of bands.

Simply, the melodies are amazing. They’re the type of melodies you can instantly sing along to, but that aren’t contrived or predictable or obvious. This is my favorite type of melody, and this is my favorite part of listening to music. Also, the production was another huge factor. They self-recorded this record as bands are often wont to do, and they caught the absolute perfect mix of scuzz, reverb, low-end, lo-fi surf garage-pop-rock awesomeness. More and more, I find myself most impressed with pop music that’s produced as if it weren’t pop music at all. Surfer Blood embodies that sentiment for me. They’re not pop-punk; they’re punk-pop.  -Cory

1. Contra – Vampire Weekend – Cory suggested I write about our top pick, since I was a late convert to the charms of 2008’s self-titled record.  The band doubled down on their aesthetic this year, turning the “Catchy melody,” “Weirdo sound,” and “Universal emotion via detailed snapshots” knobs each up a few notches.

What excites me most about Vampire Weekend is that these guys seem to have a rock-solid sense of themselves as a group.  “Contra” is an album made by men who are following their hearts and ears, regardless of what anyone is saying or expects or thinks they should do.  Not only has that made for our top record of the year, it’s a hopeful sign that they may have more in store for us.

Old school – I’ve been building my Beatles and Stones LPs up over the past two years, really, so 2010 I’ll designate the Year of David.  Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars,” “Aladdin Sane,” and “Low” all made their way into my life this year, and I’m grateful to the artist, his band members over the years, and whatever gods of used vinyl have been smiling on me.  These should be on the list next to Cory’s “Astral Weeks,” but I just couldn’t find the right place; it felt like apples and oranges.  -h

Best Records We Heard In 2009 | 2008 | 2007

Best Music Drew Heard In 2009

MR|Review – Girl Talk, “All Day”

You’ll find your own moment in All Day, when a favorite or long-forgotten pop hook comes at you sideways from the flurry of samples, and you smile like an idiot. That’s what Girl Talk is about, and it’s a beautiful trick.

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Mine came toward the end of “This Is The Remix,” when the chords hits from INXS’ “Need You Tonight” took over a beat that had been built out of “Cecilia” and Kid ‘n Play.  It was a little moment of pure joy.

The pickle is, now that I’ve had it, it’s had.  The juxtaposition won’t work for me again, since I can anticipate it; I’ve internalized whatever it has to offer in that mode, and can’t discover it again.  The power – a beautiful, fun power, for sure, and the product of amazing curatorial and technical craft – is gone.

(Bit of background – Greg Gillis is a DJ who goes by Girl Talk, and makes sample-crazy remix/mash-up music, mostly rap vocals over non-rap beats, switching songs in and out of the mix every 10-20 seconds.)

Since the effectiveness of All Day diminishes quickly with repeat listens, it may be best to think of it as an ad for Girl Talk’s live show.  Having heard the record, I’d happily make the trip to recordBar to hear Greg throw down for a couple hours.  But even more than that, All Day is an argument for a hypothetical Girl Talk app.  Isn’t that the end game of this aesthetic?

Imagine; a database of drum beats, bass lines/chords, rap verses, vocal and instrumental hooks, breaks, etc., and an algorithm that shuffles them all together into and endlessly mutating stream of pop music, creating new opportunities for juxtaposition and joyful surprise every time we listen.

Then, make it tweakable; set your own preferences for beats per minute, “ADD” level (how long samples play on average before being switched out), even allow users to upload and tag their own samples, effectively crowdsourcing Girl Talk.  How fun would that be?!

Even if All Day has have a larger point about our cut & paste culture, or perhaps even can be interpreted to comment on spiritual ideas like Buddhist impermanence, wouldn’t the hypothetical app just reinforce that as well?

In rating All Day, I fell back on my own criteria; if you’re interested in music in 2010, you should check out Girl Talk and enjoy what Greg is doing, or better yet, go see him DJ live.  But along with that, this album has zero stars in my iTunes.  My preference is for work that has the potential to sustain repeated, in-depth attention with new insight and meaning.  While you could spend hours studying the taxonomy of All Day‘s samples (or just go to the wikipedia page), I don’t find much here after the bursts of pleasure at hearing things like 2Pac over Sabbath, or Katy Perry and Snoop over “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” have passed.

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.

MR|Review – Jed Whedon, "History of Forgotten Things"

Whedon’s quirky, warm indie-pop is recommended if you like the Shins, Imogen Heap, or The Postal Service, though Jed’s album is more theatrical (in a good way!) and diverse than any of those groups.  (Stream 3 tunes here, including the incredible “Tricks On Me,” which drew me in to the record.)

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UPDATE 19-Aug: As I listen to the record at least once a day, the word that comes to me is “compelling.”  It’s got hooks, yeah, but it’s got something more that keeps pulling me back.  Beautiful.

Vocal melodies and performances, and production, are “History…”‘s strengths.  I hang on this album’s words in a way I only rarely do, and the lyrics are supported by a strongly identifiable melodic voice and instrumental sounds and arrangements that give each song its own vibe.  Whedon covers a lot of territory, too, from the spacey “Ancestors” to the soft alt-country vibe of “Tricks…”.  Each tune has a sprinkle of wonderful little sonic details; even different sections of songs are jumping out to me after repeat listens (like the bridge in “To Be Money”).

A couple songs feature drum fade-ins that highlight the GarageBand-ness of the whole project and forgo the opportunity to make higher-impact entrances, but you may well find that endearing instead of how it mildly disappoints a structure-nerd like me.  For future tours and/or recordings, a live drummer (hi!) could add another dimension of rhythmic and dynamic variation to Jed’s tunes.  The drum programming is good overall, and there are some nice touches, so I assume Jed got what he wanted out of whatever tool he used; I just would have made some slightly different choices in that department.

“History…” bears its relationship to the rest of the Whedonverse – “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog” and “Commentary! the Musical,” “Dollhouse,” Felicia Day (who shows up on violin here), Maurissa Tancharoen, and brother Joss – lightly.  Previous encounters with this network of artists may add to your appreciation of the album, but are not at all prerequisite. -h

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.

MR|Review – How To Destroy Angels’ "Free Digital" EP

It’s hard to imagine a passionate How To Destroy Angels fan.

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As favorably inclined as I am toward Trent Reznor’s work, there’s just not much I can recommend here; the “How To Destroy Angels” EP resembles nothing so much as “The Fragile” b-sides, albeit with a better signal-to-noise ratio.

On the other hand, the good news is that the creative partnership between Trent and Mariqueen Maandig works at a fundamental level, and has potential for the future. Concept’s solid, it’s the execution that fails here. There’s just not enough cool ideas to work with as in NIN’s better material, and what is here hasn’t been used to maximum effect. The result is slightly noisy chillout music; fine, I guess, but nothing I can get excited about. -h

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.

MR|Review – Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ "The Brutalist Bricks," Broken Bells’ "Broken Bells"

I write this as a guy who thinks “Shake The Sheets” is a 5-star record, and got into Ted Leo’s older stuff because of it and to the extent that it points toward “Sheets;” “The Brutalist Bricks” is less than the sum of its parts.

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Leo & Co.’s inclusion of some fresh sounds – acoustic guitar, synthy noise – are welcome in theory, but make “Bricks” seem a bit too ProTooled.  Song arrangements depart from verse/chorus/verse, which, again, seems good on paper but never gels.  Wish I could say it did; my hopes were high, but this is a classic record that’s for fans only.  If you don’t love TL+P already, “The Brutalist Bricks” won’t convert you.

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As impossible as it would seem to predict before hearing “Broken Bells,” this superduo’s debut – the Shins’ James Mercer and Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz’ “Demon Days” – sounds about like you’d expect. And it will probably deliver at about the level you anticipate.

I imagine it went down like this:

1) James demo’d some songs

2) DM took each element, chords, vocals, lead lines, etc., and treated them as sample sources for his own re-creations

3) Voila; “Broken Bells.”

I’m sure it was more collaborative than that, but that’s about what we hear.  And it’s super-solid; no more, no less.

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.

MR|Review – Spoon’s "Transference," Vampire Weekend’s "Contra," The xx’s "xx"

“Transference” poignantly illustrates the difference between “catchy” and “poppy”; it’s the former, only.

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Songs on Spoon’s latest album seem to fall into two categories: arranged and de-arranged*.  The arranged tunes are new Spoon classics, the kind of hooky, simmering jams the band has been cranking out since “Girls Can Tell” (“Written in Reverse,” “Trouble Comes Running,” “Out Go The Lights”).  They’re so consistent, it would be easy to take them for granted if their consistency didn’t make your next favorite band sound like fakers.  The arranged stuff gels as songs, with verses and choruses, and reminds me more of older Spoon than “Ga…” or “Gimme Fiction.”

The de-arrangements are stuffed full of memorable hooks that are assembled into less-recognizable sections that aren’t easily classified into traditional pop structure (“Before Destruction,” “Is Love Forever?” “Nobody Gets Me But You”).  It’s tempting to call this the experimental stuff, but it isn’t for Spoon; this type of production has been part of their DNA for a long time, and they pull it off.  I’m as likely to sing a catchy part from “Before Destruction” as “Who Makes Your Money?”

Of course the songs exist on a spectrum between the artificial poles of “arranged/de-arranged.”  The record as a whole plays as a weirdo collection of super-catchy rocking-out bits.

Describing Spoon as minimalist never quite rang true to me.  They’re economic; they don’t waste a note.

“Nobody Gets Me But You” is a great tune, but leaves the album feeling unfinished.  It’s not a closer; I always think there’s one more song to come.  Thinking about the psychotherapeutic record title, maybe that’s intentional.
Another way I describe the five-star “must-hear” rating is “revelatory.”  While “Transference” is outstanding, it hasn’t yet shown me anything new about music, myself, or the world.

*Note; not “deranged.”

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Vampire Weekend’s debut seemed impossible to follow up; I could not imagine what this record would sound like.  Somehow, almost magically, it is perfect.  I didn’t let myself work up hopes that the band would both experiment and succeed wildly, but if I had they would have been fulfilled.

Beautiful earworm hooks, stellar lines like “Here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten” and “My ears are blown to bits / from all the rifle hits / but still I crave that sound…,” Afro-pop tones, meticulous performances – they’re all here.  The arrangements are lightweight and underplayed, ending up being all the more meaningful for it.

Comparing this record to “Transference,” I’d give it the edge, which surprises me.  I enjoyed “Vampire Weekend,” but never figured I’d become as passionate about the band as I have in the past two weeks.

The XX XX Cover.jpg Must-hear!
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“Contra” and “Transference” have been almost universally lauded by critics.  So has “xx” by The xx.  The difference is there’s nothing special about “xx.”  It’s completely serviceable, nondescript indie music.
Some of my usual haunts – AV Club, P4k, AllMusic – raved about “xx,” and it made a ton of year-end lists.  If you’re hearing something I’m not, I invite you to comment and set me straight.

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.

MR|Review – U2, "No Line on the Horizon"

“No Line on the Horizon” realizes a nearly-complete synthesis of “The Unforgettable Fire”’s aching, open-skied soundscapes and the amped-up, cut & pasted “…Atomic Bomb.”

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Walking a middle line critically, I find “No Line…” to be a good album both in context of the band’s discography, and the current state of rock music. It hits the right touchstones and pushes some boundaries, though individual listeners seem to be hearing more of either one or the other.

The opening title track matches an ominous “Achtung”-ish verse with a neo-classical-U2 chorus organically, sounding vastly better than it looks on paper. “Magnificent” succeeds almost in spite of demo-level lyrics and melody – a bit more revision would have gone a long way – yet this is the familiar story of much of U2’s best work. Producer Brian Eno’s famous preference for early takes and spontaneous performances shines through, and generally works, the fact that it’s been five years since U2’s last album notwithstanding.

To the record’s vast credit, seven of the eleven songs have lodged in my mind for whole days in the week or so since I picked it up. Nothing galvanizes a universal moment quite like “Beautiful Day” did; nothing tries; “No Line…” generates its glimmers of infinity in the particulars. “Moment of Surrender” finds its connection standing at the ATM, “I’ll Go Crazy…” in self-deprecation, and the impeccable “Breathe” in simply surviving from one second to the next.

I fully expect these songs to gel further on tour, in the tradition of “Bad,” “A Sort of Homecoming,” “In A Little While,” and “New York.” “No Line…” isn’t as self-contained as the band’s essential “Achtung Baby,” with its de- and re-constructed edgy pop, or the eternal anthems of “The Joshua Tree.” It wrestles with uncertainty. It swaggers (“Get On Your Boots”) and stretches (“Unknown Caller”) and asks if that’s what we want from U2 in 2009.
Can we stand it?

Bono shapes insights like “The stone was semi-precious/We were barely conscious/Two souls too smart to be in the realm of certainty/Even on our wedding day,” vivid images (“She said ‘Time is irrelevant, it’s not linear’/Then she put her tongue in my ear”) then climbs up to the pulpit crying “Soul rockin’ people on and on/C’mon ye people/We’re made of stars… Stand up for your love” – do we need him to choose? Contradiction, imperfection; forces in a tension that, for the moment, produce magic.
I was prepared to love this record and, accordingly, bought it on vinyl. It was the right choice; songs that variously soar, burn, and pummel are predictably over-compressed on CD and digital.

“No Line on the Horizon” is a rewarding listen, becoming more substantial with time. It sits comfortably with “War,” “The Unforgettable Fire,” “Pop,” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” in U2’s second tier of studio efforts; perhaps, rather than the gushing of fans and griping of haters, the range of critical responses is a solid indicator of U2’s improbable relevance.

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.

MR|Review- Blondie, "Parallel Lines"

Blondie’s classic “Parallel Lines” isn’t nearly the tour-de-force I expected after reading Pitchfork’s review of this year’s reissue.

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Given a near-perfect 9.7 rating and called the group’s best, “easily,” (Allmusic agrees with a 5/5) I figured it was my time to take the plunge into the group’s work.

Do you have those lists of bands that you know are classic, that you should really get into at some point? I do. Sometimes they’re great: The Clash, Depeche Mode, and Neil Young are all artists I came to intentionally, after those formative high school years, and have come to treasure. I hoped Blondie could be added to the list.

I’ve gotten off track – “Parallel Lines” is a solid pop album that straddles new wave and bubblegum. I’m fully prepared to be raked over the coals by Blondie fans.

But the hooks aren’t any catchier than those of a thousand over new wave bands, and they’re not subversive or tough enough to take the record to the next level. If you’re not into Blondie, put them at the bottom of your get-into-them-someday list, or cherry pick some hits from iTunes.

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.

MR|Review- Foo Fighters/Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace

echoessilencepatienceandgrace.jpg 4/4. Recommended. Period.
3/4. Recommended for new music heads generally, and people who bring an interest to this album.
2/4. For fans only; less-than-recommended for others.
1/4. Avoid this album.

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace is a way-better-than-average mainstream rock record.

Criticism has hit the Foo Fighters’ latest from both sides; P4k says it’s not enough like The Colour and the Shape, while the AV Club complained “Dave Grohl and company fail to keep the surprises coming.” Both angles essentially discuss what the record isn’t, avoiding a face-on reckoning. In an atmosphere of such high and incompatible expectations, what’s a Foo to do?

A little something for everyone, including your muse. Radio rock, Dave’s songwriting interests, the band’s back catalog, and artistic progress all make their arguments on Echoes…, and it’s when they synthesize and coexist that the result seems to work, rather than they collide. For example, the contrast between rocker “The Pretender” and the mellow “Stranger Things Have Happened” strikes me better than the mostly-acoustic “But, Honestly” with its tacked-on punk ending.
I’ve tried to get past my own expectations as I’ve carried ESP&G around since it was released last week. To its great credit, nine of the 12 tracks have been stuck in my head for at least part of a day, and “Come Alive” and “Erase/Replace” have each had their own.

The lyrics’ subtle, amorphous, but mature spirituality have also struck me. “The Pretender” hides a radical existential self-affirmation within its FM-owning wrapping. “Erase/Replace” laments the breaking of a promise the singer held sacred. The singer’s “absence of faith” is felt openly and honestly in “Home,” while the darkness of “Come Alive” gives way to a breaking-in of the infinite life of the universe.

I keep hoping the Foos have another four-star album in them. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace isn’t it. In the meantime, it’s a worthy addition to the discography (reviewed below).
MRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpg Foo Fighters

MRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpg The Colour and the Shape

MRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpg There Is Nothing Left To Lose

MRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpg One By One

MRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpg In Your Honor I

MRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreviewtiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpg In Your Honor II (acoustic)

MRreviewtiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpgMRreview2tiny.jpg Skin and Bones