Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Quarterly Review - Day 3

Alright kids, we're here at the final day of our quarterly review. We're wrapping things up with another smattering of writing and music (and a video!) and getting you all primed for Thomas Hanks Thursdays tomorrow. There might be a surprise on Friday if you're good. Hopefully we'll be updating almost every day from now on, so bookmark that shit and get familiar. Bon Appetit.

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

The trap is inescapable; Tribe Called Quest was bound to have Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders held against them, while Hail to the Thief and even to a lesser extent Amnesiac were both very good albums, it was, and will continue to be, nearly impossible for Radiohead to up the bar after Kid A and OK Computer. In a lengthy discussion, my friend Stephen (who you will be hearing from here soon enough), said that Arcade Fire, to him, are like Neutral Milk Hotel -- if Aeroplane were their last album, that would be fine by him. I am admittedly more stingy than Stephen: I want another Neutral Milk Hotel album, though it could never live up to Aeroplane, so I was mega-hyped for Neon Bible.

Funeral this is not. Missing are many of the parts that made AF so successful - comparatively the layers are flimsy (though still shoulders above most), and, on the influence tip, gone is Bowie in favor of Springsteen (a mistake, though not the pitfall I expected it to be). What is here, however, are Win Butler's orchestration and lyricism, as well as great melodies. An early leaked version of the single "Intervention" had a british disc jockey commenting after the song was over, "Man, if that doesn't touch you somewhere special (no homo?), whew, I feel sorry for you," and his sentiments are true: the song is about a family dying, and someone who is working for the church for money, and is a great commentary on various levels, depending on how the listener chooses to apply the metaphor. "Keep the Car Running" is another track in the same veins as Funeral, that frolics and skips about in "dreams through the same old city with a different name" and Butler & Co. tease the breakdowns/build-ups, then explode all over your face. And yes, the best song is "No Cars Go", a song from their first EP, with but stronger production this time around, which seems almost masturbatory (that's a real, no spell check word?). Other than those three tracks, the listener is no doubt going to give up on this quickly. But go back, and listen to tracks like "Bad Vibrations," "Ocean of Noise," and "The Well and the Lighthouse." You might be surprised to find a very good, albeit sophomore, album, as long as you don't hold Funeral against them.

Matty G: I totally nerded out the day this came out. I picked it up right when the stores opened and then played it about three times that day. I listened to it maybe five more times that week and...I haven't really listened to it since. I'll put on "Intervention" or "Keep the Car Running" on my way to class, but I haven't listened to Neon Bible as a whole since the week after it came out. Which is funny considering how much I was raving about it that week. I even declared it better than Funeral.

It's two months later and I feel kind of stupid. I still think Neon Bible is great; it's one of my favorite albums this year so far, but it's a far more uneven record that its predecessor. There's three or four really great songs ("Intervention," the new version of "No Cars Go"), a handful of ones that are good ("The Well and the Lighthouse," "Antichrist Television Blues") and only one that maybe should have been left out ("Black Wave/Bad Vibrations"). But really, what were we supposed to expect? How was this supposed to be better than Funeral? Could you even imagine what a record better than Funeral would sound like? (Assuming you agree with the rest of the world and think Funeral is damn near perfect.) So really, Neon Bible is what any reasonable person would expect: a good record, if a bit uneven, that solidifies Arcade Fire's place in the musical landscape. I feel like they might have another truly facemelting record in them somewhere, but I'm perfectly fine biding my time with albums like this one.

Beirut - Lon Gisland

Matty G: Really just pick this up for "Elephant Gun" and the new version of "Scenic World," not that there's really much else here. "Elephant Gun" is as good as anything on Gulag Orkestrar (maybe better) and hints that Zach Condon may not have just lucked out with his first record. The re-done "Scenic World" transforms the lo-fi synth pop of the original into a full blown klezmer jam. "Carousels" is decent, but just sounds like one of those middle tracks from Gulag Orkestrar that you only listen to because one of the good songs is next. If there's any flaw with Beirut, it's that Zach Condon has only written a few great songs, while the rest are just good. But really good. The worst moments on Gulag Orkestrar were still better than a lot of other standard indie crap that came out last year. This EP is a nice little something to tide you over until another album, which will hopefully be sooner than later. I just hope that Condon doesn't succumb to exhaustion and can keep putting kicking out the jams.

Bloc Party - A Weekend in the City

Shilzzz: Much like Arcade Fire, if not to a greater extent, Bloc Party reined in their efforts on Weekend to avoid the sophomore jinx. They restricted their tricks, and seemingly focused on having a solid, if not very interesting, second album. And that's what you get. Blah, blah, the singer is exploring his homosexuality more lyrically, and that's the only real risk they take. "Hunting For Witches" is the strongest track here, both lyrically and musically: "I want to be an ordinary man with ordinary desires," while the panning of vocals, and strong guitars draw the listeners attention. "Waiting for the 7.18" is closer to the rest of the album, where Kele dilly dallies around the beat. OK... I want to like it, but it's not going to happen. I liked their first album because my girlfriend at the time constantly played that "bluest light" song. Well, she's not around anymore, and neither is this album.

Matty G: Any way you look at it, this record should have sucked. Silent Alarm was so mega-hyped that no one would have been surprised if Bloc Party just imploded under the pressure. However, the band proved strong and emerged with a better album than before, even if it is still a bit flawed. There are a few songs here that are definitely skip-worthy, but for the most part the band succeeds in distancing themselves from the whole dancepunk thing they were unfortunately lumped into a few years back.

If I were a real music writer, I'd probably discuss how the album seems to be about the existential crises caused by modern life. But that's just boring and no one wants to read it. "Uniform" tries to be a commentary on everyone's favorite dumbasses, scene kids, but it just comes off as arrogant. "Where Is Home?" is kind of like Garden State but with a little less melodrama and a lot less Zach Braff. The final three songs of the album are easily the best work the band has done yet and "I Still Remember" is one of my favorite songs of the year. I'm sure a lot of people were like me and almost wrote these guys off, but Bloc Party has proved they actually have what it takes to stick around and still be relevant.

Blonde Redhead - 23

Question: what is the best idea record companies have had in the last, oh let's say, decade or so? Answer: giving free mp3 downloads to people who bought the album on vinyl. Sub Pop, Touch and Go, and 4AD are a few of the labels doing this, and hopefully the rest of independent record companies follow suit. 4AD, the label Blonde Redhead moved to for their latest album, 23, allows not just one, but three digital downloads, which is good,because I'm a dumbass and the first time I downloaded it I couldn't unzip it. But that's neither here nor there.

Blonde Redhead is probably one of the more underrated indie-rock groups, and this is another example why more people should be listening. Some of the songs sound like tougher, underground levels of the first GameBoy Mario Bros. game, with chimes falling like overhead bricks, drums like Mario's rhythmic high-stepping echoes off cavernous walls, guitars bouncing around like those crazy rock villains. What separates this record from Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons or Misery is a Butterfly is that brothers Pace and the chick with the long name gave this album the same vibe as the others, but formatted it for pop ears. And it works, as far as scaling back, in the ways Arcade Fire or Bloc Party wanted. As wonderful as long-named girl's voice is, the stand out tracks are ones with a male vocalist, "SW" and "Publisher." Really, the album is like one of those fire crackers you set on the ground that stays there, but shoots sparks and twirls around hypnotically, or maybe like a large, tightly wound spring unfurling.

Various Artists - Ed Rec Vol. 2

Matty G:
As good as the folks over at Ed Banger Records are (and they are), sometimes I think people give them too much credit. They've put out a handful of really great songs (see: anything by Justice, DJ Mehdi or Sebastian) and while they haven't released anything bad yea (at least not that I've heard), the rest of the stuff is kind of forgettable. That's not going to stop me from following the label all year though. The label has an overall aesthetic that reminds me of the work that Factory Records or other similar labels used to do. They've even got an in-house artist that handles all of the album art and it gives everything a nice sense of cohesion. But like I said, not everything the label puts out is worthy salivating over.

Everything Justice put their hands on turns to gritty gold. This comp has "Phantom" and while it's not as good as "Waters of Nazareth," it's still better than about 99% of electronic music that's come out in the past year. Uffie brings just as much attitude to "Dismissed" as anything else she's done and Mr. Flash and Busy P both turn in a few decent efforts. The So Me remix of the Klaxons is just unnecessary and Krazy Baldhead's "Strings of Death" isn't anything special. Despite the unevenness of the labels second compilation, it's still worth checking out if only as a primer to one of the most consistent labels out there.

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