Music Reviews- The Albums of September 12

So far, 2006 has been a bit of a disappointment as far as quality albums are concerned. Sure, we’ve seen great albums from Belle & Sebastian along with newcomers Band of Horses and Tapes and Tapes, but aside from those, there hasn’t been much that has blown me away in the first eight months of the year. Thankfully, September 12th gave us four albums that put 2006 back on track. Here are my thoughts on each of them.

TV on the Radio/ Return to Cookie Mountain, 9.2/10

2004’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (8.6/10) was enjoyable enough of an album for a band’s first attempt at a full length, but many considered it a bit of a let down after TV on the Radio’s Young Liars EP had shown so much promise the year before. While certainly innovative and interesting with unique style, Blood Thirsty Babes seemed to drag at points. With their sophomore effort Return to Cookie Mountain, TV on the Radio has succeeded in making the album that we all knew that they were capable of after Young Liars.

On the whole, the album is much more crisp and a bit rockier with the addition of actual drums. Opener “I Was A Lover” is a much more immediate way to begin an album than “The Wrong Way” was last time around. With syncopated drums, horns, electronic keyboards and heavy guitar feedback, the song progresses softly but with authority. It is with the next track, “Hours”, that we begin to see TV on the Radio’s more focused direction. Eerie, repetitious drumming opens the track along with a hummed harmony from lead singer Tunde Adebimpe, a technique that the band uses throughout the album in its melodies. The drumming becomes quite intense as the melody soars on this more upbeat but moderately dark track.

The next song is “Province”, which is already better than any song on the last album after only three tracks. We haven’t heard anything this deep from TV on the Radio yet; “Province” moves along slowly with one of the album’s most impressive repated piano riffs, more hummed melodies and a crescendo-esque chorus complete with Adebimpe straining in falsetto that “Love is the province of the brave.” The band gives us a break from the first three amazing tracks with “Playhouses”, probably the album’s only disjointed moment. Perhaps this is planned, as the song that follows, “Wolf Like Me” is the clear standout sitting in the middle of this collection of incredibly diverse musical arrangements. Pounding drumming and heavy electric guitar feedback prevail in this raucous, foot-stomping rock song. The song even slows down towards the middle, giving the listener break while still leaving him anxious for the beat to pick up again and overall demonstrating the band’s progress in arranging their music. This song is an instant classic.

Normally, I would not break down each song on an album individually. However, the album’s songs do not ever seem to blend, and it is often hilarious how different each song is from the one before it. Nevertheless, this is to the band’s credit, as successful experimentation and innovation are what seperate this work from most of what we have heard this year. The chanting, tribal drumbeat of “A Method” provides the closest to a cappella that the band attempts as the drumming is the only instrumentation, and is an improvement over Desperate Youth’s eventually redundant “Ambulance” which was made in a similar style. “Let The Devil In” is an anthemic, circular jam that seems to carry the album’s most care-free energy.

TV on the Radio have plenty of juice left for the album’s final four tracks, none of which have a single weak moment. “Dirtywhirl” is perhaps the most accessible song on the album, but this is not to say that it is not a step forward for the band musically. Sure, the melody is redundant, but in a manner that fails to tire the listener’s ear. Adebimpe seems as involved vocally in this song as any he has ever recorded, delivering an added intensity. “Blues From Down Here” features a new vocal from the deeper throated Kyp Malone, along with instense, rolling drum work that make this track the album’s darkest moment, and possibly one of its most underrated.

“Tonight” would have been a fine conclusion to this work as it slows down the pace noticeably with more beautiful vocal harmonies and undertones of light cymbals. Instead, Return To Cookie Mountain concludes perfectly with “Wash The Day”, a slowly building, progressive finale reminiscent of but superior to previous album closer “Wear You Out.”

Overall, what seperates this album from their last work is indeed a combination of the drumming additions and the soaring melodies, but mostly the incredible diversity from track to track. There is never a lag. The album’s intensity builds until the last track concludes in a manner which seems almost as if the album is exhausted and out of breath from its journey. They certainly still sound like TV on the Radio, but with much more focused direction.

Yo La Tengo/ I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, 8.8/ 10

This Hoboken New Jersey duo has been around since the early 1990s, and with this album have seemingly delivered a collection of experiments that fail to blend together with any continuity but meanwhile allow for creativity that we have never seen from this accomplished band. I actually prefer it slightly to their first release of this decade, the more cohesive but less exciting And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (8.6/10).

This is not to say that I Am Not Afraid does not have its own re-emerging themes. For one, Yo La Tengo exibits piano and horn based elements in a manner that we have never seen, and these are some of the album’s most memorable tracks. The poppy “Beanbag Chair” brings images of Belle and Sebastian, and sets the tone early in the album for a level of cheeriness and cuddliness that most had forgotten after some of the admittedly brilliant but often drab tunes of recent releases. Never has Yo La Tengo been as bright and cheery as on the piano-heavy sing along “Mr. Tough” which repeats as carefree as can be, “And we’ll forget about our problems if only for a little while.” The sweet, simple honest lyrics of “Sometimes I Don’t Get You” are complemented perfectly by the added piano element and “The Weakest Part” takes cuddly to a new level with softly grinding piano chords in the album’s prettiest arrangement.

Aside from these four piano-heavy tracks, nothing sounds even remotely the same, and at times it almost seems as though the stronger and weaker tracks alternate. Admittedly, the album is probably overlong at fifteen tracks, especially with two of them coming in around the ten minute mark. Nevertheless, with half of these songs extremely strong, that still makes for quite an album.

Unconventional opener “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” begins with a thunderous bassline that is repeated through the duration of the ten minute song backed by horns, electric guitar feedback and softened vocals. “The Race Is On Again” is probably the most familiar sounding song on the album, with soft, rolling guitars and Simon and Garfunkel-eque minor chord shifts. To add to the diversity of the conglomeration of material, Yo La Tengo gets wildly rocky towards the end of the album with “I Should Have Known Better” and “Watch Out For Me Ronnie.” The former shows late 1960s rock characteristics backed by feedback-laden 7th inning stretch organ sounds, while the latter exhibts energetic, intense garage rock fit for the White Stripes.

On the whole, this album is far from perfect, but in an odd way that is what makes it as good as it is. At times it almost seems like these guys just decided to record every different song in every different way that they had ever wanted to, with reckless disregard for the consequences. Of course, there are moments where these experiments fall short (although never completely flat), but the moments where they succeed provide us with, amazingly and impressively, some of Yo La Tengo’s greatest work to date.  

Junior Boys/ So This Is Goodbye, 8.7/10

Among others, one element of musical creativity that 2006 was lacking was a great electronic album. Mylo, Thom Yorke and The Knife all provided above average efforts at this broad genre, but not until So This Is Goodbye did the year see its first truly classic electronic example.

Junior Boys derive their style from smooth, well-integrated electropop with a bit of early 80s pop synth that approaches but never quite reaches melancholy. What seperates their sound from other successful electropop acts such as the Postal Service and the Notwist is an underlying continuity of sound that is almost angelic in nature. This is the ultimate “chill” album, and this will turn off some, but on the whole, the album works incredibly well as a sum of its parts.

The songs blend together quite well, from the opening synthesizers on the dancier “Double Shadow” all the way through the album’s prettiest track, brilliantly placed closer “FM”, which plays like a soft lullaby. Highlights in between include standout “Count Souvenirs”, where bittersweet synth and minor keys showcase some of vocalist Jeremy Greenspan’s best work. The first single, “In The Morning” follows, with probably the album’s most upbeat electricity. Complete with electronic keyboards, peppy beats and a killer synthesized riff, the track rocks but still never comes anywhere near “cheery”.

The title track doesn’t disappoint either, rolling steadily along in the darkness with some of the best lyrical work seen here. The track that follows is “Like A Child”, which begins with an immediately enthralling stand-alone beat that continues to pick up all of its more complex instrumental pieces one at a time. This particular track demonstrates Junior Boys at their most atmospheric, and might be my all around favorite song on the album.

Some will argue that this album is too soft or too depressing to be enjoyed, especially towards the end, but they are the ones who have trouble seperating what is beautiful from what is simply bland and melancholy. What makes this album work so well is that the songs can play so softly together without ever seeming like a downer. This is certainly mood music on the surface, but beneath, repeated listens will reveal much more. With their sophomore album, Junior Boys have nearly perfected their art.

The Rapture/ Pieces of the People We Love, 8.1/10

After 2003’s epic achievement Echoes (9.6/10) and the subsequent death of the once promising genre labeled “dancepunk”, everyone knew that The Rapture was going to have a tough time replicating its previous greatness. That didn’t keep me from looking forward to this album for the past three years, and now, I feel like The Rapture did about as well as anyone could have expected them to.

Gone is the underlying darkness of some of Echoes most brilliant tracks, such as “Olio” and “Sister Savior”, as well as the success of intermittent slowdowns such as “Open Up Your Heart” and “Infatuation” that showcased the band’s ability to diversify their sound. Instead, this album is a mostly upbeat collection of dancier tracks. If you liked “House of Jealous Lovers” but didn’t like the rest of Echoes, then this will feel like home.

Some of these attempts to recreate their biggest hit have their own signs of progress, such as the harmonic, dance-inducing opener “Don Gon Do It” and the radio friendly, catchy “Get Myself Into It.” Others begin to sound like less complex filler, the title track for starters. And attempts at softer songs don’t live up to the complexity they demonstrated on their last album. “Calling Me” is pretty enough, but gets redundant pretty quickly. The same can be said for closer “Live In Sunshine,” which seems more out of place here than anything did on Echoes– those songs sounded more innovative than misplaced and were a big part of what gave that album so much depth.

Despite some of these flaws, Pieces succeeds overall.  Towards the middle of the album, The Rapture seems to accept their inability to duplicate their stellar debut and just has fun being upbeat, and some great songs result. “First Gear” is a groovy but relatively silly prelude to the album’s two standout tracks, which appropriately promises to “Get down/ whatever it takes.” And then, The Rapture gets down with the decidedly catchy and incredibly upbeat “The Devil.” Killer basslines and guitar riffs move this smooth groove along nicely into one of their best party songs.

The insanely fun “Whoo Alright-Yeah Uh Huh” overcomes its goofy title with intermittent guitar riffs, rolling percussion and relentless vocal chanting before atari-esque electronic keyboards pull it all together. This is the best song on the album, and amazingly, probably the furthest from sounding like anything on Echoes. Listening to The Rapture has certainly never been as fun. Towards the end of the album, the anthemic “Down For So Long” works nicely as well.

After repeated listens, the album probably suffers most from its lyrics. From the opening lines of the album, “High/ High as the sky/ Low/ Low as it goes” to the incessant repetition of “My my my my mustang ford” and “I hear her calling me” later in the album, it is clear that The Rapture sacrificed some of its depth to create an album with more spunk. And if that was its goal, than it succeeded. Expect to hear these catchy, upbeat riffs and beats at a party near you in the not too distant future.

Coming soon: The Decemberists/ The Crane Wife and The Hold Steady/ Boys and Girls in America

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