MR|Review – Jed Whedon, “History of Forgotten Things”

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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. MRreview.png

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.)

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

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

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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. MRreview.png

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

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

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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. MRreview.png

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.

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.

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

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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. MRreview.png

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

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.

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MR|Review – U2, “No Line on the Horizon”

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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. MRreview.png

“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.” 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.

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