Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Geezers and pleasers

So many artists from the so-called "indie rock" boom of the early to mid-2000s resurfaced in 2017, many with comeback records after a long hiatus. Meanwhile, the new album from the War on Drugs was considered the high-water mark of the genre—which only confirms that whatever was once known as "indie rock" is all but dead. Which makes the few triumphs below even more valuable.

Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder (Arts and Crafts)

It’s hard to believe Broken Social Scene didn’t already come up with that title earlier in their career. It defines both their sound and their live experience: a warm embrace, almost suffocating at times, all the biggest emotions laid bare and expressed through gesture. Vulnerability presented with a small army of friends. A big, big love with a big, big sound, forever and ever, amen.

Broken Social Scene took a hiatus after touring 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record, which is a good thing: this was never a band built for the recording/touring cycle, and time apart has always benefited the project. This time out, singers Leslie Feist and Emily Haines are noticeably back in the fold, joined by Ariel Engle (AroarA, Hydra). The horns also play a larger role, giving everything an extra heft. With so many solo outlets for the individual members, Hug of Thunder benefits from a united sense of purpose: everyone involved knows what this particular band does well, and hence we have one rousing song after another that also happen to be filled with sonic shades that tickle the tiny corners of your headphones, the kinds of songs U2 has been trying to write for the past 25 years and failing, songs marry pop melodies, stadium ambition and experimentalism. Even the lower-key, more subtle material seems designed to echo out across large festival fields.

As with any band this size, and with this level of talent and competing egos, the real trick is avoiding bloat and excess. With this group of old friends, it sounds like that gets even easier with age. (July 6, 2017)

Stream: “Halfway Home,” “Skyline,” “Please Take Me With You”

Filthy Friends – Invitation (Kill Rock Stars)

Since the demise of REM in 2011, all members have been laying low. Michael Stipe has popped up on a couple of late-night talk shows for a skit or two. Mike Mills is trying his hand at symphonic works. Peter Buck has been putting out solo albums quietly on a tiny, independent, vinyl-only label. All seem more than happy to have nothing to do with the machinery of rock’n’roll.

Except here comes Buck with a powerhouse new band, on the venerable punk label Kill Rock Stars. It features musicians from the Fastbacks, REM’s touring band, and--King Crimson?! It’s fronted by Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, who recently restarted that power trio after a nine-year hiatus.

Yes, it sounds a lot like the singer from Sleater-Kinney fronting a more raw version of REM. Buck’s sound and songwriting style is unmistakable, and certain tracks here harken back to REM classics. “Windmill” is a more than obvious nod to Television’s “Marquee Moon,” a key touchstone for both Buck and Tucker. On the other hand, “Come Back Shelley” slinks like T.Rex (the band), which would have been hard to detect in either of their other bands. Tucker doesn’t feel compelled to constantly channel the aggression that Sleater-Kinney so often demands; she sounds more than comfortable toning it down here, in ways she didn’t on her own solo records, while never dulling the unique edge she’s always had in her voice. While there is softer material here, like the breezy, almost jazz closer “Invitation,” Buck and company were obviously attracted to Tucker for what she’s known for in the first place; a voice like hers can’t be tamed for long.

“Holding on to the past won’t make it repeat,” she sings on the opening track. Between the pedigree on hand here and the strength of the new material, Filthy Friends are looking forward to a time when their CVs don’t matter as much as the new music they’re creating. For a bunch of old folks on their second or third go-around, they sound excited and hungry--and not at all too old for rock’n’roll. (Aug. 24, 2017)

Stream: “Despierta,” “Faded Afternoon,” “No Forgotten Son”

Iron and Wine – Beast Epic (Sub Pop)

In many ways, Beast Epic winds the clock back to 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days. There are no dub reggae grooves, no jazz excursions, no crescendos, no danger of veering into jam-band territory--even if all those things were welcome extensions of Beam’s aesthetic. Instead, it’s 11 three-minute songs where you can hear the squeaks of the strings as Beam moves around the neck of the guitar, even when he’s surrounded by a full band that applies the most delicate of touches throughout. For what it’s worth, he’s also returned to the Sub Pop label that gave him his start, after two bigger-budget records for major-label affiliates.

Just in case listening to Iron and Wine didn’t already always make you feel older than you were, Beam admits that this, more than any of his others, is made by a middle-aged man. He recently said, “Where the older songs painted a picture of youth moving wide-eyed into adulthood’s violent pleasures and disappointments, this collection speaks to the beauty and pain of growing up after you’ve already grown up. For me, that experience has been more generous in its gifts and darker in its tragedies.” The best of times, the worst of times: that pretty much sums up your 40s, doesn’t it?

Beam could easy cash out by writing less oblique lyrics, by doing acoustic covers of pop songs (his take on the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” helped launch his career), by decorating his songs with more conventional arrangements. He has a beautiful voice and writes beautiful songs: that’s all he needs. But that’s what he did on his very first album. Every album since, even here on a somewhat back-to-basics record, he’s still full of surprising ideas and pushing himself. Middle age isn’t about giving up. It’s about trying harder. (Aug. 24, 2017)

Stream: “Summer Clouds,” “Last Night,” “The Truest Stars We Know”

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (Columbia)

The hotly anticipated comeback album by the band who taught indie kids to dance opens with… a ballad that sounds like a Cure B-side from 1990.

Many LCD fans were upset that after announcing a break-up and playing a triumphant last show at Madison Square Gardens, filmed and recorded as Shut Up and Play the Hits, that they’re now back on the festival circuit just four years later. Those fans are going to be even more upset to hear an album like this sullying LCD’s legacy. What’s worse, bandleader James Murphy—always a self-aware guy, to say the least—appears to know it, as he sings: “I’m not dangerous now / the way I used to be once / I’m just too old for it now / at least that seems to be true.” Self-flagellation is one thing; doing it on a poor track with even worse lyrics is another crime entirely.

Much of American Dream sits at mid-tempo, which is fine: bands change and mature, and one can’t expect the adrenalin rush of the first two records over and over again. (Also: The Cure’s Disintegration is a great record.) But the slower tracks here, with the exception of the title track—which bears an odd resemblance to “Worlds Away” by ’80s Vancouver band Strange Advance—are dire and dirge-like. Ballads have never been James Murphy’s strength, and that’s not about to change any time soon.

Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire have already had trouble this year convincing people that the magic of 2004 is still alive. LCD Soundsystem isn’t helping their case.

Stream: “Call the Police,” “American Dream,” “Emotional Haircut”

The National – Sleep Well Beast (4AD/Beggars)

This is the National’s seventh album. They’re inexplicably popular. They’re the somnambulant Arcade Fire. U2 with zero charisma. They’re ostensibly a rock band, but their music sounds like divorced bankers opiated on too much expensive red wine.

Not much has changed here, unless a few more synths here and there are considered revolutionary for such a static band. The production is marginally more interesting, on songs like “Empire Line” and “I’ll Still Destroy You,” both of which tap into the hypnotic trance of German art-rock or West African guitar music—in the most subtle ways possible, of course. Singer Matt Beringer still sings like he’s five minutes away from falling asleep. The rest of the band backs him begrudgingly, playing as if they had something better to do.

Beringer says this is a midlife marital crisis record, and that he cowrote many of the lyrics with his wife as a way of working through their troubles. “Blame it on me, I really don’t care / it’s a foregone conclusion,” he sings in what sounds like an act of mutually assured destruction on “Carin at the Liquor Store.” “I’m going to keep you in love with me for a while,” he claims on “Dark Side of the Gym.” Good luck with that. (Sept. 7, 2017)

Stream: “Nobody Else Will Be There,” “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “I’ll Still Destroy You.”

The War on Drugs – A Better Understanding (Warner)
Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (RCA)

“Is the War on Drugs rock’s new torchbearer?” That headline comes from a publication not known for hyperbolic pop-culture pieces: The New Yorker. Maybe the magazine’s target demographic—and its arts editor—has forgotten what rock’n’roll is, or what it sounds like. Or maybe this is just another nail in the coffin of rock’n’roll, rock music, indie rock, or whatever you want to call it.

Almost every song by the War on Drugs is approximately the same tempo, and it’s not one likely to raise a pulse. Almost every song has chugging acoustic guitar and electric pass and pulsing keyboards, with some guitar leads snaking around the lead vocals. Sometimes there is some xylophone or bells to make you think of “Born to Run.” The songs that don’t have any of those elements are too narcoleptic to mention, though the 11-minute dirge “Thinking of a Place” underscores just how rarely this band actually goes anywhere.

Sure, some of this album is pretty. And I’m sure a War on Drugs song sounds great when you’re stoned. But unless you’ve been pining for Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham to have produced a Grateful Dead album in 1977, there’s likely not much for you here.

Nor is there much hope for aging indie rock fans in the latest from Grizzly Bear, who, like the War on Drugs, are making their major-label debut in 2017. Grizzly Bear are like Radiohead with fewer interesting bits and more obtuse song structures. To their credit, they’re wonderful harmony singers, and certainly have more sonic imagination than the War on Drugs or most guitar-based bands. But their songs are all sharp angles and seemingly assembled by cut-and-paste. It’s cleverness without charisma, full of smarts but no swagger. Maybe the vocals are too distracting, placing the band in a pop music context when they’d be better off liberating themselves from any structural formats at all. As it is, this is egghead experimentalism that doesn’t coalesce in any fashion. At a time when the most experimental pop music is coming from R&B corners, listening to a band like Grizzly Bear seems archaic and unnecessary. (Aug. 31, 2017)

Stream the War On Drugs: “Up All Night,” “In Chains,” “Holding On”
Stream Grizzly Bear: “Wasted Acres,” “Mourning Sound,” “Glass Hillside”

Wolf Parade – Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop)

What year is it again? New albums by Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Feist, New Pornographers, and now Wolf Parade—it’s like the last 15 years never happened. Except a lot has happened. Those artists were at the epicentre of an explosion of Canadian rock music that set a new template for years to come. That they’ve all remained vital, together and in separate projects, is a testament.

Wolf Parade went on hiatus in 2010. Dan Boeckner has had three bands since: Handsome Furs, Divine Fits and Operators. Spencer Krug abandoned his other band, Sunset Rubdown, to record solo records as Moonface. Drummer Arlen Thompson and guitarist Dante DeCaro busied themselves with low-key projects on Vancouver Island.

During their first incarnation, Wolf Parade always sounded like they were in a hurry: every song had a propulsive intensity, played as if it were the last gig of their lives. Everybody in the band sounded like they were falling over each other on a postage-stamp-sized stage in a dingy bar on St. Laurent in Montreal. Now they’re older, wiser, living on the West Coast, and some of the chaos has subsided. Due to their own maturity and the presence of producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney), every instrumentalist is heard more clearly in the mix—especially drummer Arlen Thompson, who really shines.

The overall intensity remains: Wolf Parade are as virile and vital as ever. And with Boeckner and Krug both writing songs that complement each other perfectly, this is as good a comeback as one could ever hope for. (Oct. 6, 2017)

Stream: "Lazarus Online," "Valley Boy," "Weaponized"

No comments: