Don’t be shy; step right up for this, the second Weekend Review of the new year. It’s long in coming, so each weekend until we catch up, I’ll be bringing you these month-at-a-glance reports. I’m very happy with the focus and concision of the new format, as you’ll see below. However, it appears to be less than iPhone-ready, so I’m working on ways to fix that. After all, there’s nothing worse than visiting a site on your iPhone and coming to the realization that you won’t be able to read it properly. Well, I suppose there are probably a few things worse than that, but what I mean is that there’s just no excuse in the 21st century for websites NOT to work smoothly on mobile devices, so please know I’m working on that.
I hope you enjoy reading, and hurry back this week (and, of course, next weekend) for all-new music-related content on the Laptop Sessions cover song music video blog!
The People’s Key
Bright Eyes &
February 1, 2011
Top Two Tracks:
“Triple Spiral” & “Jejune Stars”
This being my first Bright Eyes album experience, I must say it’s a mixed bag: lyrically excellent, yet musically ranging from masterfully beautiful to far too weird to be listenable. I didn’t expect the sort of alternative country sound I’d heard from Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band when they opened for Wilco a couple summers ago. However, I certainly didn’t expect the sort of spoken word nonsense that stretches for MINUTES across the beginning of the first track (which is a shame, as “Firewall” is actually quite a strong song otherwise) and resurface elsewhere.
On paper, it is understandable why Oberst added Denny Brewer’s “shamanic vocals,” as the liner notes refer to them. After all, they add a certain inimitable spiritual, existential ambience to the record. They also grow old quite quickly and distract from the excellent music being laid out and the even more profoundly impressive lyrics being voiced throughout, especially on standouts like the driving rock track “Triple Spiral” and the early gem “Jejune Stars.” The latter track lyrically raises issues (and the bar) that will stretch throughout the remainder of The People’s Key, as Oberst sings, “Come fire, come water, come karma, we’re all in transition / The Wheel of Becoming erases the physical mind / Till all that remains is a staircase of misinformation / And the code we inherit, the basis, the essence of life … / It’s just so bizarre, is it true what we’re made of? / Why do I hide from the rain?” He is referring, of course, to the fact that our bodies are made up – by an overwhelming percentage – of water, yet we carry umbrellas and seek shelter from the rain.
Elsewhere, though, the songs drag a bit, as on “Approximate Sunlight” and “Ladder Song.” All in all, this could have been an outstanding album rather than one I pay a complisult (see: Community; combination compliment & insult) by writing something like:
The People’s Key falters and falls short at various points, yet there are a series of truly first-rate tracks, like the closer “One for You, One for Me,” which make the album worth the purchase, if you’re willing to skip a few tracks and fast-forward through several others.
February 15, 2011
Top Two Tracks:
“Shook Down” & “Suicide Policeman”
Yuck is one of the pleasant musical surprises of 2011. The band’s debut album is a distorted, grungy, feedback-ridden gem that sparkles as often as it crackles.
What is most impressive about Yuck is their sense of ebb and flow, clearly evident through the arrangement of tracks here. The smoother sound and brighter vocals of “Shook Down” slip in after two tracks where the garage rock mentality ruled and where even the vocals were run through with distortion. Then, by the end, that pedal-processed guitar sound sneaks back in just in time to make the transition to the dirty-sounding “Holing Out.”
This is the sort of well-planned craftsmanship that helps to hide the fact that this is a first album. If nothing else, Yuck is one of the noisiest, most energetic rock albums of the year. It isn’t perfect – the noise overtakes the tracks here and there and the quality fades noticeably by the end – and, in fact, the final two tracks are wholly unnecessary and should have been cut entirely, shipped off to bonus track land. (Which reminds me, if you buy this album – which you should, I highly recommend it – don’t waste your time with the bonus track editions.)
In modern music criticism, I feel as though something has been lost, namely a sense of appreciation for the rock essentials: riffs, solos, catchy choruses, snappy lyricism. Yuck has all these components. Although I was initially put off by the level of grunge that absolutely pervades several tracks, I’ve come around to the careful sonic mastery displayed by the band more and more with each listen.
The final verdict? Not perfect by any means, but one of the most exciting releases of 2011.
The King of Limbs
February 18, 2011
Top Two Tracks:
“Codex” & “Little by Little”
Even longtime Radiohead devotees appeared thrown by this release. The sessions for the record were announced… a whole week before its release, and the band decided to release the album a day early because… well, why not? With all the moves that make them an interesting band for reasons outside the music, Radiohead ushered The King of Limbs into their long tradition of norm-breaking practices.
The music itself is strikingly sparse at times, but this does not – and is surely not meant to – conceal just how much attention has been paid to subtlety. The percussion is particularly notable this time around as clicks and clacks and clangs and taps abound. Additionally, there is a riff-driven feel at times, though not in any traditional sense. In many ways, this is another of those albums from Radiohead that are clearly produced using fairly standard instruments, yet where just how to reproduce these sounds and songs would prove elusive.
Truth be told, I am not a fan of Radiohead: I fall firmly into the category of liking OK Computer and thinking much of their other work is seriously overrated. That being said, In Rainbows (2007) changed my mind a bit – and even made my top albums of the decade list. The King of Limbs continues my reappraisal of the band, particularly when the breathtaking, heartbreaking beauty of a song like “Codex” and the oddly catchy nature of tracks like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Little by Little” are undeniable. The acoustic loop on “Give Up the Ghost” and even the nearly-instrumental “Feral” add texture and unpredictability to the mix, as the lack of a clear single or rock sensibility threaten to flatten the record.
All told, the eight tracks of The King of Limbs offer the perfect length for an album of subtleties and stripped-down, built-back-up beauty like this; any shorter, it couldn’t be called an album, and, any longer, it would lose its momentum and appeal.
And so, for the first time in my life, I offer up to you a review of Radiohead that includes my seal of approval. It’s not the most rocking record, but that’s not the point. It is, however, a starkly beautiful album of subtle complexities and unique qualities, quirky enough to be interesting but not so much as to be alienating.
This year, we’ll start with the notable debuts. Or, more appropriately, the notable debut (singular). I listen to a great deal of music every year, and even this only scratches the surface of a solitary droplet in the oceans of new material released, so I should preface this with the disclaimer that there may indeed be other, excellent debuts that I’ve missed. If there are any that you know about, I encourage you to leave that information in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out asap.
That being said, the award for best debut of 2011 goes to Yuck, a band that I picked up because I thought the album cover was kind of cool and quirky. At first, I was hesitant, as this is low-fi, distortion-heavy garage rock. However, tracks like “Suicide Policeman” gave me a shock and all but dared me to listen more carefully and not find substance. By the second listen, I was taken with Yuck’s raw but purposeful style, and it is without reservations that I pass them along to you here.