Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Now Scything: The Dead Weather,

Doves, Asobi Seksu

The Dead Weather
Score: 6

Not sated by being the backbone of two bands concurrently, Jack White managed to start a third. In The Dead Weather, he sets his ax aside and gets behind the drum kit, letting Alison Mosshart of The Kills sing lead. Still, you'll hear plenty of him on Horehound. There are a few reasons for this: 1) Much of the album involves backing vocals, which he is supplying; 2) His voice tends to cut through hers when they sing in unison; 3) They both have backgrounds in bluesy garage rock, so their singing styles are similar (which makes it easier for his vocals to sneak to the front). Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age (guitar, keyboard) and Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs (bass) fill out the lineup, and Fertita's organ runs lend a '70s feel. Dark boogie blues are the focus of Horehound, which teems with seedy characters and outlaws. There's even a pony named Lucifer. Whether it's the grinding buzz of first single "Hang You From the Heavens" or the scrabble of sticks in "60 Feet Tall," Horehound delights in its seaminess and foreboding. On "So Far From Your Weapon," Mosshart groans out, "I tried to give you whiskey, but it never did work / suddenly you're begging me to do so much worse." White echoes the lines, clearly feeding on the suspense. Now, has he had his fill, or are The Dead Weather just whetting his appetite?

Kingdom of Rust
Score: 7

The fourth album by Manchester trio Doves amalgamates their distant past, near-present and ... parallel universe past? Sci-fi excursion "Jetstream," an homage to Vangelis and the 1982 film "Blade Runner," evokes Kraftwerk with its atmospheric synths and shooshing hi-hat patter, drummer Andy Williams striking with metronomic efficiency. "We always wanted to write an imaginary song for the closing credits," the band wrote on their Web site in late January when they gave away the song as a prerelease. "Jetstream" doesn't really fit with the rest of the album, though Kingdom of Rust is their most varied one to date. "Compulsion," with bass flapping like baggy pants, is the kind of song they used to bust out in the early '90s as Sub Sub, their pre-Doves incarnation. 'Course, one difference is that in those days, anthems weren't their calling card. Kingdom of Rust, like each Doves album before it, finds consistency and strength in Jimi Goodwin's vocal melodies, which soar conspicuously through every track. Even though they never would've worked for "Blade Runner."

Asobi Seksu
Score: 6

Hush doesn't possess the verve of 2006's Citrus, but at least Asobi Seksu were up front about that. Instead, it gives their chiming guitar pop a slightly mild tenor that takes a few listens to appreciate. "Layers," chaste and dainty in its glimmering, is the clear standout, and a faster approach likely would have unspooled it. Overall, Hush is very similar to Citrus in dynamics and song structure, so anyone who enjoyed it would almost certainly find Hush appealing. The main difference between the releases, aside from the obvious fact that they're comprised of different songs, is that Hush seems to have a diaphanous film over it, whereas everything on Citrus snapped with crisp and masterful reverb. This production choice might help unify the album, but it does slightly restrain uptempo moments and crescendo passages. When Yuki Chikudate is oh-oh-whoaing to infinity on "Transparence" and the drum kit is taking a beating and James Hanna's guitar is surging ... it never quite takes off. The track's still lovely, but after tasting the sky, you don't feel the same way about the ground.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Piece it together, then pull it apart

Grizzly Bear
Score: 8

Altogether more complex than its nearest predecessor, Veckatimest pulls Grizzly Bear out of the Yellow House and into a larger setting. New environments can open the body to bombardments of stimuli, and this album feels like a representation of that.

Melancholy has the edge, although the chipper "Two Weeks" --- chortling Rhodes, irrepressible high notes, glorious harmonizing --- is apt to temporarily blind you with cheer and fool the memory banks into believing it carries more weight than a single song. The title confirms the band's continued intimate relationship with place: in this case, an island off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts. And while they didn't record the album there, they did do some recording in nearby Cape Cod.

The word "veckatimest," previously unknown to most of the band's audience, imparts some mystery. The island is not listed in the 2008 U.S. Census; the band says it's uninhabited. But if a terrain is uninhabited, can it really be known? Veckatimest, with its tangle of moods, poses the same question.

Grizzly Bear have their range pitched somewhere between peaceful and pensive, sliding forward and back, but with occasional eruptions of acidity. In "Fine for Now," which begins
a cappella with the guys blending notes, the guitar flitters restlessly. A minute in, it booms its presence, foreshadowing the weighty show of force to come. The song ends with half a minute of roiling: cymbals crashing, bass shuddering, a guitar ordered to trench like grunge never died.

Even with the smaller temblors earlier in the song, the display is unexpected, and halting at first. Swats between rounds of pretty warbling. Similarly surprising, the lusty sax that cries out before the first chorus of "I Live With You" delivers a beguiling smacker before it scoots out the door. The tone here is part plea, part lament. "And they'll try," Dan Rossen sings, "they'll try. They'll try / to keep us apart." He later shifts from "they" to "you," as though he's putting a face on an enemy. And there's a warning embedded: "You brought us this far / We'll do what we can." Duo crashes of guitar and cymbals unshroud the resentment in the lyrics, and the noisy contractions imply both internal flagellation and a stifled anger breaking free.

It's tempting to think of Veckatimest as a puzzle, but a 3-D
one, so that the innocent "Cheerleader," featuring the Brooklyn Youth Choir, could occupy the same space and never have to see the torment on the shadowed side. Surely, with its cautious gait, tottering drums and bass, and demure vocals, it would be scarred for life if exposed to such paroxysms.

Founder Ed Droste speaks of a pattern on "Foreground," but as the delicate piano prepares the guestroom for the choir, the shape of Veckatimest remains equivocal: "Take on another shift / Palms in the middle, hands in the middle / Work out another rift / Something is muffled, another juggle / This is a foreground / It is a foreground." Somewhere in there, there's a background, too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boom and bust

The Crystal Method
Divided by Night
Score: 4

The Prodigy
Invaders Must Die
Score: 5

Back in 1997, the tide was high for big beat. The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and The Crystal Method had infiltrated commercial rock radio, and contemporaries of lesser stripes, like Apollo Four Forty and Propellerheads, were gaining word of mouth. Electronica was going to be the next big thing. With Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky and techno having crashed the gate for electronica a few years before, it was reasonable to see big beat's successes as a prelude to a mainstream takeover in America.

Instead, the next two years spurned the forecasters, as the rise of teen pop and nu metal eclipsed whatever gains big beat was making, and, in short time, each staked a stronger claim to the term "takeover."

Stubborn in their longevity, big beat's big four have persevered to this day, with The Crystal Method's Divided by Night the latest shot across the bow. In a sign of solidarity (or coincidence), the Los Angeles band have followed in the footsteps of their transatlantic Brothers, making an album that not only brings aboard plenty of guest vocalists, but that places its nocturnal declaration squarely in the title. But where the Chemical Bros' most recent album, We Are the Night, had litheness (and some lighthearted humor in "The Salmon Dance"), Divided by Night is a bulkier customer. The title track and "Dirty Thirty" start the album with an appealing robo-workout, synths sidewinding and squelching, respectively. "Drown in the Now," though, usurps their role, arguing with its lengthy build that it is in fact the rightful album opener. And the tracks that follow wouldn't seem to object, all hewing to a formula that de-emphasizes the DJ and gives the floor to the guest vocalist.

Of course, the drawback to this approach is that if the vocalist doesn't carry the track, the beats and synths aren't likely to, because they've been assigned a less active role.

Matisyahu can be an impressive performer, as 2005's Live at Stubb's showed, but surely "Drown in the Now" must've looked a mess even on paper: Middle Eastern chants; fast, reggae-inflected rap; Sting-like callouts; big beat's humping and thumping. Justin Warfield's collaboration, "Kling to the Wreckage," doesn't come out any better. The Crystal Method hook the She Wants Revenge singer up with an overly busy palette of whizzing synths that clashes with the morbid quiver inherent to his voice.

"Sine Language," a collaboration with fellow producer-DJs LMFAO, hits a sweet spot, maybe because The Crystal Method are more skilled at cutting loose than inspiring contemplation. LMFAO turn in a humorous performance outfitted with impressive lines ("I got five dollars, but I feel like a million") and terrible ones ("At the club, the line is long / about as long as my dingalidong").

The Prodigy, always the most forceful of big beat's big four, bring high-octane pummeling on Invaders Must Die, from the rally cries of "Colours" to the spasmodic warnings of "Piranha." Fat of the Land fans will recognize nods to "Smack My Bitch Up" in "Thunder" and "Invaders Must Die," and "World's on Fire" could be the aftermath of "Firestarter": Keith Flint keeps spitting, "The world's on fire / the world's on fire / and it's about to expire."

The album's prize cut, "Warrior's Dance," starts off with the whistles of an evil sax, as we, like snakes roused from woven baskets, surrender to the sound, transfixed. Summoned. Murky synths churn in the background, and a pitched-up house diva issues an invitation: "Come with me to the dance floor / you and me, 'cause that's what it's for / show me now what it is / we got to be doin' / and the music in the house / and the music in the house." WHOOM! The set crumbles away and we find ourselves in a superclub, shaking it like we've just been elasticized and snapped into motion.

"Warrior's Dance" gives Invaders Must Die a surge that carries into the next few tracks, making Flint's typical exhortations in "Run With the Wolves" and "World's on Fire" more meaningful than they deserve to be. For the most part, the album's heft is false, an illusion perpetrated by the production, which confuses simple loudness for power. Despite tracks coursing with aggression, Liam Howlett captures little feeling of risk or danger.

Invaders Must Die charges along, changing course only for the finale, "Stand Up." The celebratory, house-party vibe brings to mind a victory feast after the battle, the proud horn section blaring away in triumph. The Prodigy have survived to fight another day. Now, what about that American takeover?