Thursday, June 06, 2013

Great Expectations

The more rapturous the reception to an album, the more devoted the fans for a band, the greater the expectations for any subsequent release. Here are four recent releases that were confronted with this obstacle.

The Strokes - Comedown Machine After a brief period of incomprehension, I fell head over heels for Angles, the last album from the former saviors of NYC rock - in fact, it's now my favorite of theirs after Is This It?, their instant-classic debut. The energy, the intricate but not dispassionate guitars, the precise work of the rhythm section, the heart-on-sleeve vocals of Julian Casablancas, and the overall mixture of gloss and scuzz made for a thrilling listen. Many complained about the band's supposed 80's fixation on Angles, but while the the sonics of the late new wave era were evident, The Strokes use of sophisticated chord sequences and counterpoint-riddled melodies make for a far deeper musical experience than that surface would suggest.

So my expectations were high for Comedown Machine, not because I'm still desperately waiting for Is This It? Or Angles redux, but because I just wanted another great album, no matter what it sounded like. And Comedown Machine delivers, and at almost as consistently a high level as Angles. It has a similar combination of ballsy rockers and keyboard-heavy songs, and features about as many of complex arrangements and clever production details, not to mention jaw-dropping guitar solos from Nick Valensi. Like Angles, it's a very witty album with a great sense of fun. While there have been hints of a tortured process in the studio and tensions between band members, if they were giving any interviews they might suggest that their fans lighten up.

Many have dismissed Comedown Machine and Angles as essentially Casablancas solo albums. The other guys must be bringing something to the table, however, as I found Phrazes For The Young, his actual solo album, an unsatisfying listen. Other complaints have centered around Casablancas's use of falsetto (which doesn't bother listeners of the wretched Passion Pit). While its true that the vocals on something like Chances make Casablancas sound lost and lonely, I take that as the feeling of the song not an incompetent vocal performance. As for comparing One Way Trigger, the first single, with A-Ha's Take On Me, it's the same issue of surface versus depth. While the Strokes take some of the spiky style and romantic sweep from the Norwegians, the melody is entirely different and the little rocket of a guitar interlude that starts at 1:30 could only come from Valensi and his six-string partner, Albert Hammond, Jr.

I'm not going to tell anyone what to like, but I hope people will give Comedown Machine (and Angles) a listen with an open mind, whether they're fans of The Strokes or not.

Iron & Wine - Ghost On Ghost Sam Beam's project is another case of early work being held so dear that any alteration in the formula is met with a sense of near betrayal. The fact is, Beam has been building on his original recipe of strummed nylon strings and hushed vocals for almost a decade now and his latest only continues that trajectory. One major difference between Ghost On Ghost and predecessors Kiss Each Other Clean and The Shepherd's Dog is the use of crack session musicians like Tony Garnier and Brian Blade. But this is no slick anonymous effort; the sound is lush, evocative, and completely distinctive. There are horns and strings, an increased (and sometimes raucous) jazz influence and always the sense that Beam is doing exactly what he wants to do.

Just like every other Iron & Wine record, all the sounds are in support of brilliantly crafted, enigmatic songs that demonstrate Beam's deep engagement with American and British folk traditions. When performed solo, these songs prove that Beam is developing one of the richest song catalogs of the current century. Even though there are moments of darkness and sorrow on Ghost On Ghost, overall the mood is lighter than the last album, which, while never surrendering completely, had a creeping bitterness similar to that evinced by Van Morrison on Hard Nose The Highway. While Beam's essential mellow-ness has always benefited from a slight edge, he sounds like he's in a good place on Ghost On Ghost and I'm happy to join him there.

Mount Kimbie - Cold Spring Fault Less Youth The first album by the duo of Dominic Maker and Kai Campos, Crooks & Lovers (2010), was one of the best electronic records of recent years, harking back to the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) of the 90's delivered by artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre. In some ways it was almost chamber music, featuring pieces that were abstract and unconventionally structured. It wasn't hard to imagine something like Before I Move Off in the concert hall rather than the club. With so much electronic music becoming almost entirely beat-driven, Mount Kimbie was a bright spot.

They still are, but that brightness is slightly dimmed to my ears, as Cold Spring Fault Less Youth is a far more conventional record. While their command of texture and production remains firm, and this is a gorgeous sounding record with a great sense of color and space, these are mostly very definite songs instead of compositions. There are verses and choruses, more prominent vocals (with the stentorian King Krule on two tracks) and abounding 4/4 rhythms. While the end result is not a turn-off like when lovable eccentrics Efterklang went pop, I do find myself searching for more to get interested in while I'm listening. It might be that a series of deconstructive remixes will reveal the heart of these tracks - I'll be sure to keep my ears open.

John Fogerty - Wrote A Song For Everyone How many living legends still regularly stride across the rock'n'roll stage? It's a pretty short list but John Fogerty is definitely on it. As the leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival he helmed a band that put out seven albums in four years, with at least five of them being stone classics. As a songwriter, he duked it out with Lennon & McCartney for the top spot on the charts. Proud Mary alone has been covered over 100 times. He was also a dynamic performer who proved his ridiculous guitar chops on Creedence's last tour, when they played as a trio following the departure of genius rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty. Fogerty plays both lead and rhythm with a command and fury that's hard to understand when just listening - I'd like to see video! 

In any case, by the time CCR atomized, Fogerty's place in the pantheon was assured. I grew up a fan and have remained one ever since. My wife can tell you that I was playing a tape I made of favorites when it was deeply unfashionable to do so. This new project has him working up new versions of some of his classics with a hand-picked cast of partners. It's been in the works for a while, and while my expectations were as low as mentions of the Foo Fighters and Kid Rock could make them, I wasn't prepared for the train wreck result. The worst thing is that many of Fogerty's own vocals are mannered and the guitar playing is completely pedestrian. The two new songs he eked out are filled with cliches. One, Mystic River, even has a bridge that takes enough from Black Water by the Doobie Brothers that it might be actionable. You'd think someone who was sued for plagiarizing his own songs - as wrong as that was - would strive to be more original.

As for the guests, is his taste really this bad? Besides the Foos & the Kid, he chooses to work with Jennifer Hudson, Zac Brown and mostly other mediocrities. How about Lucinda Williams, Wilco or Jonathan Wilson - artists who are on the same level? I'll say no more except if you love Creedence, NEVER listen to this album.

P.S. I'll let those who thought Daft Punk's Homework was really all that weigh in on whether their latest, Random Access Memories, is a culmination of what they stood for, or a rejection of those principles.


  1. Wow, it almost makes want to go out and get these records!

  2. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Currently relistening to Angles and having a great time. Definitely didn't give it enough consideration the first time around.

    Comedown Machine on deck...