Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Margot & The Nuclear So & Sos - The Dust of Retreat

It’s sort of a cliché to say, but this album grabbed me from the opening note. That eerie keyboard kicks it off, and I found myself saying, “Hey…this could be amazing.” And then Richard Edwards starts singing, and I was hooked. The opening track, “A Sea Chanty of Sorts” is an amazing song…slow, gorgeous and beautiful. Just how I like ‘em. The first time I heard this album I must’ve listened to that song at least 3 times before I let the second track start.
But, when I finally got past that first track, I found that the rest of the album is nothing to shake a stick at (unless it’s a good stick…in which case, shake away).
You can strip down the songs to next-to-nothing and you’ll find that, at heart, this is a folk group. The songs all sound like they were written alone on a guitar.
And that’s the beauty of this group. They take songs, simple little songs, and flesh them out wonderfully. None of the songs are suffering from too much going on, but, at the same time, you could strip them down to only a guitar and they would sound just as beautiful.
That’s not to say that all the songs are fleshed out. There are a couple of tracks on the album that are stripped down to their essence. “Jen is Bringing the Drugs” and “A Light on a Hill” both fit this description, and both of them are heartbreakingly gorgeous.
The majority of the album, however, has a bit more instrumentation. “Quiet as a Mouse” and “Talking in Code” show off their incredible musicianship, as they break out their entire arsenal of guitars, cellos, trumpets, percussion, keyboards, and more. The songs both seem at the point of bursting, and that’s when Richard transforms from the soft-singing front man into the strained-singing-to-the-point-of-almost-screaming.
However, like so many albums, there are a couple of missteps…but only a couple, and they’re tracked back-to-back, so it’s easy to skip them if you want to. “Paper Kitten Nightmare” isn’t actually that bad of a song…but it’s the chorus that kills it. Really, who wants to hear a grown man meowing repeatedly in a song? I never thought that was a good idea before, and I sure don’t think it’s a good idea now. But, take that out of the song, and it’s pretty good. “Barfight Revolution, Power Violence” isn’t really a bad song, either, it’s just…I don’t even know. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what my problem with that song on…maybe it’s just that it sounds like they’re trying to hard to play like “the kids” are playing these days…all driving, chunky guitars and a chorus of “C’mon c’mon/Get back together”. It’s like Jet or something…and I’m sorry, but I’m just not really digging on that when I’m listening to a fleshed-out folk-pop album. Maybe some other time, though.
All things considered, this is a really great album. Extremely catchy and easy to connect/listen to. The songwriting is amazing, the songs are’s just a great album. Plain and simple.

Rating: 8.7

Essential Tracks: “A Sea Chanty of Sorts”, “Quiet as a Mouse”

Favorite Tracks: “Jen is Bringing the Drugs”, “A Light on a Hill”, “Talking in Code”

(Added note: “Talking in Code” may well be the song of the year by the time all is said and done. It is, quite simply, stunning.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Roots - Game Theory

To say that The Roots are one of the best groups in hip-hop is a gross misunderstatement. There’s not a group in hip-hop right now that comes close to them, and there’s not really many others out at the moment in any style that can touch what The Roots are currently doing.
I’ve been a fan since 2002’s Phrenology, an amazing mix of hip-hop, pop, rock, punk, psychedelic, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It was a bit spotty, but, overall, I really enjoyed it. I fell in love half-way through the album, and I’ve yet to look back. I picked up all their previous work, and, when The Tipping Point dropped in 2004, I was all ears. At first, I was a bit disappointed. It seemed as though they weren’t pressing forward or experimenting as much. They stripped down their sound…much more basic. That one took me a bit more to get into. But, once I did, I couldn’t stop myself from listening to it every single day. It wasn’t long before I proclaimed it their best album.
That experience taught me this one thing: never put expectations on The Roots. Ever. There are few groups that I can actually say that about anymore, but, with The Roots, you never know what to expect from album to album.
So when I heard they had a new one coming out, I decided not to read anything about it until it actually came out. No need getting my hopes up, or setting up expectations that didn’t amount to anything. When it came out, I’d hear it and make up my own mind.
However, when I finally heard Game Theory for the first time, I still felt a little let down. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Did it not seem together? Did the songs not flow into each other? It was a bit darker than I was prepared for, so maybe that was a part of it.
Over the next couple of weeks, I listened to it about twice a week…just enough to feel it out. At the end of those 2 weeks, I was in. Fully and completely. Even now, months after it was released, I can’t stop listening to it.
The sound is fuller than on The Tipping Point. There are more guest appearances and samples on this album, but they never distract from the core group, and they never take anything away from the actual song (except for a brief moment on “Long Time”, but that’s only for about 1 second).
The group is tight. ?uestlove is an absolute master on the drums…I could listen to that dude play solo all day. Between his drumming and Hub’s impressive bass lines, there’s not really a better rhythm section around. Capt. Kirk Douglas’ guitar is on full display here, always in the background, but always worth listening for. And Kamal Gray is exceptional on the keyboards.
And Black Thought? Well…Black Thought continues to be one of the best (and, sadly, one of the most overlooked) MC’s in the business. Lyrically he can’t be beat, and his flow is second to none. It’s been said for a while now that he’s at his best when he’s angry, and you can certainly hear that here. He doesn’t just rap…he spits. And it’s incredible.
Every track on here is amazing. From the angry, political “False Media” and “Game Theory” to the great vocal hook on “Don’t Feel Right”, to the quasi-R&B of “Baby” to the driving, synth-heavy “Here I Come” to the dirge-esque, Radiohead-sampled “Atonement”, all the way down to the chilling finale, a tribute to their good friend (and hip-hop legend) J-Dilla. There’s not a single song on here that isn’t absolutely incredible.
And that’s the story of The Roots. They do what they do very well. Sometimes they play it a little closer to the vest than normal, but I think that’s just to prove to the world that they can beat the other hip-hop “artists” at their own game. Yet, when they decide to experiment a little, do things a little different…well, they’re the best in the game at that, too. And, hopefully, it’ll only be a short time before the rest of the world sees this, too.

Rating: 9.4

Essential Tracks: “Game Theory”, “Don’t Feel Right”, “In the Music”

Favorite Tracks: “Here I Come”, Atonement”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Thom Yorke - The Eraser

So, apparently, this guy Thom Yorke is in Radiohead. Who knew? And Radiohead are a group from England who, at the moment, are vying for “Greatest Rock Band in the World”, even though they haven’t released an album since 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Also, as anyone who reads Rolling Stone can tell you, Radiohead killed rock n’ roll sometime around the release of Kid A, so, obviously, there can be no “Greatest Rock Band in the World” anymore. Duh.
While Thom is, indeed, still gainfully employed by Radiohead, he decided that it was also time to step out on his own. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. After their extensive tour in support of Hail to the Thief, all of the members were completely wiped out, and they decided it was best if they just took a break for a while. After all, they all had their own lives, and Yorke had just recently welcomed his firstborn son into the world.
During this downtime, Yorke found himself messing around on his laptop. Chopping up bit of songs, looping them, setting them to beats…and so on and so forth. Pretty much no different from what half of the world is currently doing in their own spare time. But the difference between them and Thom Yorke is that he is Thom Yorke and they are not.
But even a genius needs help, so he called longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (who has also worked with Beck, Paul McCartney, Pavement, Travis…you know, pretty much everybody and their mother) to help him put his stuff together. They sat down together, messed around a bit more, got some direction, wrote song lyrics, and….boom. Solo album, finished.
At first listen, it comes off as a bit boring. All skittering beats, chord stabs, and the blips n’ bloops that turned a lot of people off to Kid A and Amnesiac…only there’s more of them here. Everywhere you look there's another slew of computer blips coming your way. There are also not many highs and lows here. Even on “boring old Kid A” (not my words) you had the crazy building horns and in-your-face-bass of “The National Anthem” right before the droning “How to Disappear Completely”. Mountains and valleys…of sound, anyway. And that’s not present on this album. Song to song pretty much stays the same. There are not even really any changes within the songs themselves. They start in a general direction, and they end in that same direction. A little bit of building here or there, but not enough to really give you the sense that he was trying anything different with the songs.
But then you listen to it again. And again. And again. I think it took me a grand total of 4 listens to get to like it and 7 listens before I really started to love it. Even now as I listen to it I find myself loving it more.
And I realize what it is. First of all, his voice is much more up in the mix here than it is on any Radiohead CD. He has such a unique and gorgeous voice that it’s nice to see it getting the recognition that it deserves. They also didn’t use any effects on his voice, which is also a huge difference from his work with Radiohead. Second of all, he does such a great job with the sound of this album. To borrow a term from Eno, Yorke definitely creates his own vast soundscapes on this album. Behind the blips n’ bloops there’s always something going on. Perhaps it’s just more blips n’ bloops…but they’re different. There’s an air of hugeness and sound to this album. To me, the best time to listen to this album is driving in the rain. As the rain beats down on the car, I turn this album up, and the sound fills up the entire car. There are very few albums that I can actually do that with, but I’m glad that I’ve found another one.
In short, if you’re looking for a Radiohead album, you’re going to be disappointed (although you will hear some of their work throughout the album in the form of various loops). This album was never meant to be another Radiohead album. But, if you’re looking for a great album from a great artist, definitely check this out.

Rating: 8.8

Essential Tracks: “The Eraser”, “The Clock”, “Skip Divided”

Favorite Tracks: “Atoms for Peace”, “Cymbal Rush”

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Killers - Sam's Town

I really wanted to hate this album. After all the press and praise surrounding their debut album, Hot Fuss, The Killers kind of blew up. They were everywhere. Suddenly, without warning, Brandon Flowersssss had become Bono. You couldn’t escape them. Even a year and a half after its release, there was still no slowing them down. Flowerssss starting talking smack to the emo bands and fellow nu-new-wavers, insulting them, their music, and, I assume, their mothers.
Then came talk of a new album. They changed their look. Instead of the made-up glam look we were used to, the new photo shoots had them unshaven with long hair. Instead of pink suits Flowerssss seemed more at home with jeans and a bolo tie over his western-style shirts. They name-checked Springsteen like it was going out of style. And they weren’t in the least bit likeable.
The Saturday before this album was released (that would be last Saturday, for you all keeping track), they played a set on SNL. New look. New music. And, apparently, they picked up Wayne and Garth’s cameraman to play guitar for them, which is pretty cool. And they weren’t really very good.
And yet, through all of this, I was still excited about the new album. Looking forward to it, no matter how much I didn’t want to be.
The album itself seems to be a feeble attempt at a concept album. You’re introduced into this world in the first song, “Sam’s Town”. There is then a short, less-than-a-minute track called “enterlude”, where Flowersss proclaims over a piano line, “We hope you enjoy your stay/It’s good to have you with us even if it’s just for the day”. Then it kicks into the album, or, I suppose, into the town. What follows are half (or full) narrative songs about, I suppose, Sam’s Town. At the very end of the album, they bid us farewell with “exitlude”, where they thank us for stopping by. The end. The only problem? None of the tracks are tied together at all, except, I suppose, by a very thin line. Someone forgot to tell them that, if you’re going to make a concept album, you actually have to have a concept.
Yet now, as I sit here listening to the album, I forget about all that stuff. I don’t care what they said, who they said it to, or how much they desperately tried to be different on this album, or tried to force it to be something it’s not. All I really care about, at this moment, is how good this album is.
Is there a misstep here or there? Oh…of course there is. Songs like “For Reasons Unknown”, “Read My Mind”, and “Uncle Jonny” are not the best of songs by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it sounds a bit too much like they’re trying to be Springsteen…caring more about that than actually writing a good song. But, even in those songs, there’s still something good.
But, for the most part, this is a very solid, extremely listenable album. The Killers are still very much stuck in the 80s, only they’re hitting the rock side of the spectrum on this album. Some of the synth lines are very much nods to that era (at least once I thought they were going to kick into The Dire Strait’s “Walk of Life”, but, unfortunately, they did not). And, with lyrics like “We're burning down the highway skyline/On the back of a hurricane” and references to running with the devil, it seems like they’re blatantly ripping off the imagery used so often by The Boss and The Coug. But, somehow, they have put their own stamp on it, making it seem like it was their idea and style all along.
The Killers themselves show how much they have grown as a band since their last album. Flowersss has shown much more vocal range on this album than their previous one, while guitarist Dave Keuning has helped them to pull out of their new-wave/glam-rock image with some very convincing guitar work.
I think my favorite part of this album is how often the chorus’ turn into sing-a-longs involving the entire group, and, I assume, everyone who listens to it. Songs like “Uncle Jonny”, “My List”, “Why Do I Keep Counting?” are among those that almost sound like they were recorded in a bar at happy hour, with the masses singing at the top of their lungs. There’s a sense of camaraderie in those songs, and also a sense of fun, which I suppose is what draws me to them. It’s nice to see a band not feeling the pressure on a highly anticipated second album. So many artists seem concerned with the sophomore slump, and they fold under that pressure. The Killers seemed to have bucked that pressure by changing a bit (but not too much), and having fun with it. I’m very excited to see what they do next. If this album is any indication, I think we should continue to see great things from The Killers with each release.

Rating: 7.8/10

Essential Tracks: “Sam’s Town”, “Bones”, “My List”

Favorite Tracks: “When You Were Young”, “Bling (Confessions of a King)”, “Why Do I Keep Counting?”