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.

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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