Friday, May 09, 2008

Death Cab for Cutie, Scarlett Johansson, The Black Keys

In a desperate attempt to catch up on my backlog of reviews, I'll throw a few reviews at you this week, even though they don't really have anything to do with each other.

Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs

What was I to expect of the new Death Cab album? Transatlanticism was the best album of their career (slightly edging out We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes). Then they got signed to a major label, released Plans, and got boring. It isn't necessarily a bad fact, there are some fantastic songs on it. But, all in all, it's just sort of - for lack of a better word - blah. So where would this album land: in the land of creativity or the land of complacency?
As it turns out, it lands somewhere in the middle. It's a good, but not great, pop album. I like pretty much every song on the album, which is a good start. I'm not crazy about "I Will Possess Your Heart": who thought it was a good idea to make an eight-minute track, the first five minutes of which consists of an instrumental section that goes pretty much nowhere? Oh, they add some instruments here and there, and they try to bring a sense of building to the music, but it just doesn't seem to fit. They nailed the instrumental section perfectly on "Transatlanticism", so I know they're capable of good things...they just weren't able to pull it off here.
Another knock is that, on first listen, there aren't a whole lot of songs that stand out from each other. Multiple listens definitely bring out the intricacies of the songs, though, so keep listening.
The production is's a pretty slick sounding pop album (but not in a bad way). I think this is what they were going for when they made Plans, but weren't (for whatever reason) quite able to pull off. It has a great pop feel to it, but they are still able to show off the creativity that made so many people fall in love with them in the first place.
As it stands now, this is my third favorite Death Cab album. Looking at the strength of their catalog, that's not a terrible place to be.

Final Thought: If you're already a fan, you'll be extremely happy with it. If you're not yet into them, this isn't a bad place to start. It's a good album that gets better with every listen.

Favorite Songs: "Cath...", "Talking Bird", "Pity and Fear"

Scarlett Johansson - Anywhere I Lay My Head

I have been intrigued by this album from the first time I heard of its planned release. A covers record is usually a pretty tough sell. A covers record of an artist like Tom Waits would be an even tougher sell. Trying to sell a Tom Waits cover album to his fanbase with a Hollywood starlet singing the songs? You're sure to raise curiosity, but I doubt there were a lot of people looking at this album and saying, "You know, I bet that will be good and not in the least bit gimmicky."
Then trickles of information started coming out. It's being produced by Dave Sitek (from TV On the Radio). David Bowie signed on as a guest vocalist. Nick Zinner (from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) was on board.
I started getting excited. I started to talk myself into it. "She has a deep voice...maybe she can pull this off."
But nothing really prepared me for what I heard. It was...good. Perhaps even slightly better than good. They went an extremely smart route with this album. Instead of trying to recreate the songs as they were originally recorded, Johansson and company completely reimagined the songs. The starkness in these songs has been replaced by lush arrangements; the gritty vocals replaced with Johansson's striking baritone.
Scarlett Johansson's name may be on the front of the album (and will likely draw the majority of the sales), but this show belongs to the production of Dave Sitek. He does an absolutely fabulous job with the arrangements, keeping the imaginative spirit of Tom Waits in the songs, while adding a touch of creativity himself. At times, the songs are backed with a massive wall of sound ("Falling Down"), while other times, the instrumentation is fairly minimal, but still drenched in enough reverb to give it a lot of depth ("I Wish I Was in New Orleans"). A bit of '80s dance/synth-pop even finds its way on to the album ("I Don't Want to Grow Up"). Sitek's talents are on full display, and he doesn't let us down.
And, of course, hearing Bowie's voice on a couple of the songs ("Falling Down" and "Fannin" Street") is fantastic.
In fact, if there's one knock on this album, it's the lack of emotion in Johansson's voice. Waits conveys emotion through his voice in a way few artists know how to do. Listening to Johansson finding her way through these songs in a voice that is darn close to monotone at times is a little rough. At times, Sitek's production threatens to make Johansson's voice nothing more than a background instrument, which wouldn't always be a bad thing. If she decides to follow a singing career, she will definitely grow as a vocalist. This is a great starting point for her. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Final Thought: It's better than you think it is. Strip away the fact that Scarlett Johansson is a well-known actress, and you still have a pretty good album on your hands. Don't overlook it just because an actress is involved.

Favorite Songs: "Falling Down", "Anywhere I Lay My Head", "Who Are You"

The Black Keys - Attack & Release

The Black Keys have always been kind of a one-trick pony. These two guys from Ohio play some of the dirtiest, nastiest stomping blues that you have ever heard in your entire life. Through a number of albums and tours, they never really evolved; they opted instead for perfecting their dirty brand of blues.
All that changed sometime last year.
There had been word for quite some time that Danger Mouse was going to be producing a new Ike Turner album. Then a rumor started that The Black Keys would be Ike Turner's backing band. To get ready for the album, the Keys wrote an entire album's worth of material, and, with the help of Danger Mouse, recorded it. They even laid down some scratch vocals to give Ike an idea of what to do. Sadly, Ike Turner died before he was able to start on the project...but the Keys had an album that was pretty close to finished. So they went back into the studio, re-recorded the vocals, and released the album.
I'm not sure how much of that is true, but, seeing as how I've heard it from a couple different sources, I'll believe it.
It all amounts to the best album The Black Keys have ever released. They're still a blues band; no doubt about that. But it's easy to hear their evolution. Where once they released nothing but straight blues songs, with a man on guitar and one on drums, now they have a bit more depth. Banjos. Flutes. Organ. Atmospheric guitars. It's nothing too drastic, and it's not overblown, but it's a definite change in their sound. After years of releasing straight blues albums, it's great to hear a slightly tweaked sound coming from them.
It's unclear how much of this shift came from their own evolution and how much of it came from Danger Mouse's influence. Frankly, I don't care who is responsible for it. I just hope to see more from this bluesy, creative and soulful Black Keys in the not-too-distant future.

Final Thoughts: A blues album for people who think that all blues albums sound the same. There's a freshness and creativity to this album that I haven't heard from a blues band since The White Stripes broke away from the genre. Highly recommended.

Favorite Songs: "I Got Mine", "Strange Times", "Psychotic Girl", "So He Won't Break"

Check back next week for an old-school rap battle.

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