Brief Album Reviews, February

The year seemingly was set to get off to a musical bang as three of my absolute favorite bands on the planet all released new albums within three weeks of each other. Perhaps I expected too much from the sophomore efforts of Bloc Party and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and from The Shins third go-round, because unfortunately none of the above lived up to the best of their previous work. However, this is not to say that these albums are not worth a listen or are not without their own spectacular moments. As briefly as possible, here are my thoughts:

Bloc Party/ A Weekend In The City (8.3/10)

The follow up to 2005’s superb Silent Alarm (9.4), my favorite album of that year, lacks a bit of the urgency and intensity that made that album one of the best of this decade. Nevertheless, the boys from Bloc Party prove that they are still capable of rocking, and innovating, even if that innovation may arguably be a step backward rather than forward. On A Weekend In The City, we find Bloc Party still in touch with their somewhat unique sense of rockiness, while at their best demonstrating a moving emotionality and at their worst seeming somewhat sappy.

The good news is that the album starts with a big bang. After opening with an acappela vocal that initially (but not ultimately) seems like a stretch for leadman Kele Okerere’s range, “Song For Clay (Disappear Here)”contains catchy riffs and turns out to be one of the album’s greatest successes. Never again on the album is the slow-song start into hard-core rock jam metamorphasis accomplished as effortlessly or effectively, although they certainly try this technique throughout on less successful tracks such as “Uniform”and “Waiting For the 7:18”. “Where Is Home” succeeds moderately in this new style later in the album, although it still takes a bit to really get going. Second track “Hunting For Witches” continues the energy early in the album by combining elements reminiscent but never quite equaling that of classic previous tracks “Banquet” and “Price of Gas.”

What I loved most about Silent Alarm, some will recall, was its intensity, especially in terms of the percussion. This time around, Bloc Party steers more toward crescendo rock, which at times seems pretentious and forced, but at others results in songs of impressively beautful arrangements. This is a different album to be sure, but not without its own credits on the slower tracks. “On” builds nicely in front of syncopated beats and innovative drumming, as Okerere delivers a simple love song. In the second half of the album, “Kreuzberg” and “Sunday” add more of the prettiness, for lack of a better word. The music is good, no doubt, but those who loved Silent Alarm as much as I did while being able to admit this will still notice moments of monotony.

What really ends up saving the second half of this album is the wonderfully poppy rock song “I Still Remember,” which would have served perfectly as the closer instead of the laboring “SRXT”, which leaves something to be desired. All in all, it’s a shame that Silent Alarm had to come first because this would have been a debut worthy of praise. As it stands, Bloc Party remains a band worthy of praise, and A Weekend In The City showcases their ability to re-create their art and not fall back into familiar habits. I just happen to prefer the old habits slightly.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/ Some Loud Thunder (7.8/10)

After 2005’s self-titled debut knocked me to the floor and after seeing Clap Your Hands Yeah perform new material live last fall, I was out of my mind with excitement for this release. As the album begins with the title track, that excitement is revisited in full force, as poppy synth feedback and that unmistakably unique Alec Ounsworth voice carries through well-arranged beats that can’t help but force a boogie. But then something incredibly disappointing happens. Clap Your Hands completely abandons everything that made their debut such a head-turner.

What makes this so frustrating is that the album doesn’t contain a single song that is downright bad; it instead contains several songs of mind-boggeling mediocrity. Gone are the rolling psych-folk guitar lines and consistently tight vocal deliveries. Instead, the band slows things down to a crawl, and on many occasions Ounsworth’s incredibly identifiable vocal style grows redundant and heavy on the ears. The melodies on the weaker tracks still carry their own credits, but altogether I can’t help but get the feeling that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah half-assed this one on the whole. Most disappointing to me is that my favorite “new track” I heard back in October at the Vic didn’t even make the album. I figure that is because that track was incredibly upbeat while still showing innovation and would have stuck out like a sore thumb here.

Okay, so it isn’t all so bland, and maybe I’m being too hard on them again due to how surprisingly good their first album was. The band really succeeds in its new style on “Mama, Won’t You Keep Those Castles In The Air and Burning”, adding a gloriously bittersweet feel to a catchy, almost atmospheric refrain. This is probably the best song on the album, because the band proves they can change their style and still write a great song. Admittedly, that is the true sign of any elite band, it’s just a shame that the several other attempts on Some Loud Thunder fall so short of achieving the same. And getting back to sticking out like a sore thumb, the other song I heard (and liked) live back in October was a song called “Satan Said Dance”, which could be described as either silly or horrifying depending on what kind of mood you are in. That song did make the cut. It lands in the middle of the album, and shows off the dancier side of the band by combining somewhat unoriginal but still catchy electronica with guitars that I imagine are supposed to sound possessed by the devil. I actually really like the song for what it is, and if hell is really just Satan making you dance throughout eternity, that still sounds horrible enough to convince me to strive to live a good life.

Unfortunately for the cloven hoof, if that is his gig, he won’t have much success if he pops in the rest of this work for his fallen.

The Shins/ Wincing The Night Away (8.2/10)

James Mercer and company step outside the box on their third album Wincing The Night Away and deliver a collection of tunes not completely baroque or poppy while as transcendant at times as it is inconsistent overall. Everyone knows the masterpiece first single “Phantom Limb” is marvelous, but one track does not an album make.

Luckily, the Shins don’t disappoint early on. Opener “Sleeping Lessons” slowly builds behind light electronic beats and feedback into a pounding crescendo that gets the album off to a great start. The next track “Australia” sounds like vintage Shins–bright, upbeat, unrelenting, slightly tropical and reminiscent of the best moments of the epic Chutes Too Narrow (9.4). Towards the end of the album, “Girl Sailor” is a surefire highlight lyrically, a Mercer sings “But you’ve won one too many fights/ wearing all of your clothes at the same time/ but your good times end tonight.” This track reminds me of the subtle heartbreak of the brilliant “Gone For Good”, even adding a touch of the same twangy western elements.

The Shins add some innovation as well with dancier tracks such as “Sea Legs” that don’t work as well but don’t fall completely flat either. “Turn on Me” rolls along nicely and cheeringly enough but borders on being almost too bubble-gum cutesy. “Black Waves” and “Split Needles” both bring the album to a pause while showcasing a darker, drearier side of The Shins that doesn’t exactly fit but isn’t altogether unmoving. Overall, Wincing The Night Away certainly provides its fair share of highlights, even if those highlights don’t amount in quanity to either of their previous two efforts. They’ve definitely tried some new arrangements on this album and rocked out on some immediately memorable tracks. The forgettable tracks notwithstanding, these guys have proven that they are going to keep making great music for many years.

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