Music Reviews- July and August 2007

Spoon/ Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, 9.3

It is truly amazing to me how easily Spoon continues to pump out such great music. I was equally amazed to realize that after this impressive album, Spoon is currently the only band that boasts four albums ranking in my top 100 of the decade. Considering powerhouse bands like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Doves and The Decemberists only have three a piece, this is certainly something worth noting. On Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon combines elements from all of its terrific previous work into short, intense, diverse pop-rock songs that pack serious punch, and the result is the band’s best album to date aside from 2002’s influential, stunning opus Kill The Moonlight.

The album opens with that characteristic bluesy Spoon guitar grind on “Don’t Make Me a Target” as leadman Britt Daniel sings about “nuclear dicks with their dialect drawls.” As piano chords creep into the forefront about halfway through, the tune becomes all so familiar yet still incredibly refreshing. I heard them play this song at last year’s Pitchfork Festival, and was able to easily identify it here after only having heard it one time many months ago. The devastating “The Ghost of You Lingers” follows and serves as this album’s “Paper Tiger”, using softly syncopated keyboard lines and eerie, echoing vocals to perfectly capture the mood of sadness that the song is intended to create. This song actually makes me want to cry.

The short, poppy “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” switches the mood quickly with its upbeat percussion and the addition of triumphant horns and tambourines. The dancy “Don’t You Evah” draws comparison to past classics like “Turn My Camera On”, “Was It You” and “Stay Don’t Go”, using a rolling bassline and catchy percussion beneath upbeat guitars. The intense acoustic guitar on “Rhthm & Soul” bears resemblance to Gimme Fiction’s “I Summon You”, although I actually prefer this track to that one, while tracks like “Eddie’s Ragga” and “My Japanese Cigarette Case” tend to get lost in the shuffle of superior songs despite their own qualities.

Spoon really serves it up in the album’s second half, beginning with the album’s first single “The Underdog.” We see the band at its most triumphant here, as jangly guitar riffs and horns combine wonderfully to form one of the album’s strongest tracks. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga ends powerfully as well. Penultimate track “Finer Feelings” keeps things moving with its tambourine percussion, jabbing bassline, hand-clap chorus and the bittersweetly hopeful lyric, “Sometimes I think that I’ll find a love/ One that’s gonna change my heart/ I’ll find it in Commercial Appeal/ And then this heartache’ll get chased away.” “Black Like Me” closes the album with its beautiful melody and the unforgettably honest lyric “I’m in need of someone/ To take care of me tonight.” As the coda turns the regretful melancholy of the tune into a full-blown emotional break down, the album ends on a perfect note.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga flies by, as its ten tracks last only 36 minutes, but the songs are so concise and well done that it doesn’t need to be any longer. This is one of those albums where every song is great, which makes it seem to move along even more quickly. Spoon has certainly found its own unique sense of musical perfection here, balancing bluesy piano, jabbing guitar lines, eerie syncopation and flat out enjoyable rock music all into one piece of work.

The New Pornographers/ Challengers, 8.1

Something about the general sound of The New Pornographers suggests that one should never fear having to listen to bad music created by them. The band, a collection of solo artists from the Montreal area, has been making music together for nearly a decade now, and while nothing they’ve ever done stands out as stunning, they’ve remained one of the most consistently good bands on the planet over that time period. This time around on the softer, sweeter Challengers, the band’s maturity shows; although they don’t quite top 2005’s Twin Cinema, the best album they’ve ever written, they certainly are making progress beyond earlier efforts like Electric Version and Mass Romantic. Some will miss the power-poppiness of their earlier work, but Challengers offers a softer side of the band.

As was the case on their most recent album Twin Cinema, the Neko Case tracks steal the show here. These songs really set the tone for an album that almost sounds like a collective goodbye. Case’s unique vocals soar over the the light guitar and piano on the beautiful title track as she proclaims that “We are the challengers of/ The unknown.” Later, the optimistic ballad “Go Places” works wonderfully well as Case begs the simple lyric, “Like classics play aces/ Stay with me/ Go places.” The shorter, somewhat dubby “Failsafe” enters new territory for the band with Case’s vocals somewhat subdued underneath guitar feedback, producing an effect somewhat like what Cocteau Twins might have sounded like off of LSD.

Then, of course, is the main man, A. Carl Newman. His songs provide a strong backbone on Challengers, although not nearly as poppy as his previous work. Opener “My Rights Versus Yours” starts things off with a catchy, if slightly unhappy melody, and almost sounds like a “Bleeding Heart Show” part two that doesn’t have the energy or ambition to build into the breathtaking coda that made that song one of the best that the band has ever written. But what really shows the band’s progress is the strength of the songs in which each singer collaborates. Early on, “Myriad Harbor” is fun enough beyond intertwining vocals and a catchy acoustic guitar riff, but the real treats come later on during tracks like “Unguided” and “Mutiny I Promise You.” The former might be the most simply beautiful track the band has ever written, while the latter provides a return to the upbeat, disco-esque feel of “Sing Me Spanish Techno.”

The album finishes as softly as one would expect from its overall tone with the seemingly religious track “The Spirit of Giving,” which features Dan Bejar’s patented spoken word vocal style above Case. Challengers in the end is a very nice album that demonstrates what a great band can accomplish when they relax and don’t take themselves too seriously or try to do too much with too little. The members focus more on tune and melody than on rockiness this time around, and the finished product is quite refreshing.

Prodigy of Mobb Deep/ Return of the Mac, 8.0

Mobb Deep’s The Infamous was released in 1995, and is without question one of the greatest rap records of all time. This begs the question- Where have these guys gone? After the decent follow-up Hell on Earth in 1997, rap duo Mobb Deep fell off the radar for a decade. With Return of the Mac, half of the equation returns in stellar fashion, as Prodigy combines razor-sharp lyrics with impressively produced musical elements laying beneath. The album feels a bit overlong at 17 tracks (four are interlude pieces), although all of them succeed.
The title track gets things off to a great start, pulling together tales of inner-city life in New York with intense beats, horns and xylophones. “Stuck On You” sounds incredibly modern, as Prodigy uses the popular tactic of layering computer-manipulated female vocals over the beat as a chorus, and it creates a track with an easy-going, carefree attitude. Somber guitar riffs on “The Rotten Apple” carry the slower track along as one of the album’s strongest. Probably the most surprising thing about Return of the Mac is how much it depends on musical elements as opposed to relying solely on beats. Horns and strings provide backbone for the show-stopping “Take It To The Top”, which uses a dramatic violin riff underneath lyrics that seem to mimic the confidence Prodigy demonstrates in making this unlikely comeback.

Other standout tracks include the autobiographical “Legends”, the slow groove of which is probably the most reminiscent of the Mobb Deep days as anything on this album, and the more accessible “My Priorities”, which sounds more fit for dancing to in the club. Overall, it’s great to see Prodigy back in the game. Return to the Mac may not deliver quite the tightly-wound punch that Prodigy did 13 years ago with his partner Havoc, but it is certainly titled aptly.

The Clientele/ God Save the Clientele, 7.8

The Clientele’s laid-back, somewhat atmopsheric music has always felt soft and relaxing, and on God Save The Clientele, this style is demonstrated to its fullest extent. At times, the album may seem to lull you to sleep; The Clientele often suffers from the common problem of not creating music with enough personality to separate itself from its own songs. This album sounds great, but doesn’t make any steps forward from The Clientele’s previous work. At 15 tracks, many of which blend together, it becomes difficult to separate the album’s individual parts.

Opener “Here Comes the Phantom” sets the tone for the album, moving along softly behind simple guitar chords and a beautiful melody. Second track “I Hope You Know” rolls along nonchalantly and provides a simple, yet pretty tone of bittersweetness. However, there are times when the softness of the music takes “pretty” to the level of over-sentimentalization and becomes a bit too much to bear. Such is the case on tracks like “Isn’t Life Strange”, “No Dreams Last Night” and “These Days Nothing But Sunshine”, the titles alone of which seem to be trying a bit too hard. “Queen of Seville” works much better, as the ballad doesn’t take itself too seriously, although The Clientele should be careful not to lull its listeners to sleep too quickly.

Some of the album’s best moments come on more upbeat songs like the piano-driven “The Dance of the Hours” and the swingingly harmonic “Winter On Victoria Street.” Strong track “From Brighton Beach to Santa Monica” bears resemblance to The Clientele’s earlier work, while innovation can be seen on tracks like the upbeat but heartfelt “Somebody Changed” and the funky, guitar-driven “Bookshop Casanova”, which adds some violin for good measure. On the whole, it’s a collection of pretty good music, but it suffers most from softer tracks in the middle that seem to weight the better songs down.

The White Stripes/ Icky Thump, 7.7

On Icky Thump, The White Stripes return to their roots, delivering an album based on the bluesy rock that brought visions of Led Zeppelin on earlier classics like White Blood Cells. A lot of it sounds similar to previous material, while the band also expands on its garage rock sound by partaking in some moderate experimentation. There are a handful of great tracks here, and although this album doesn’t really come close to topping the aforementioned work or even Elephant, I’d consider it a step up from 2005’s relatively weak Get Behind Me Satan.

Actually, Icky Thump succeeds most on bluesier, slower tracks like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues”, where the band seems at its most Zeppelin-esque. The title track has some unique character as well, as it “thumps” along as guitar solos and riff bursts alternate beneath Jack White’s chanting vocals. And the Irish folk interpretation on “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” works well in the middle of the album, showing some innovation and experimentation from the band on their sixth full length. More innovation is present on the strange spoken-word grinds “Conquest” and “Rag & Bone”, which while not my personal favorites, certainly enter new territory for the band.

At times, some of the weaker tracks can wear towards becoming annoying, as it seems White may be trying too hard to recreate some of the band’s earlier greatness. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see him back with Meg after spending last summer with pals The Raconteurs, and to see them both getting back to the basics of what made them great to begin with, and throwing in some new tricks along the way.

Interpol/ Our Love to Admire, 7.4

Interpol made one of the decade’s greatest albums back in 2002 with Turn on the Bright Lights and followed that one up impressively two years later with Antics. What made those albums great was the heart-wrenching vocals, the catchy guitar riffs, perfectly timed bass-lines and complex rhythm arrangements. This time around, the band settles for a collection of soft, repetitive and often overdone tunes that don’t hold a candle to any of their predecessors. It is beyond shocking to realize that there isn’t a single song on this album better than the worst song on either of the previous two albums (take your pick).

That said, it’s still Interpol, and the album isn’t “bad” by comparison to the rest of the music world, it is just massively disappointing because of what we’ve come to expect from these guys. The album opens with probably its strongest song, “Pioneer to the Falls.” An eerie guitar opens the track before Paul Banks’ cryptic vocals echo into the sky and drums pick up and carry the song along nicely. But then something happens- the song shifts massively into drawn-out string and horn sections and accapella breaks. What seems at first as merely a change of pace musically becomes evidently a huge detriment to the band’s signature sound as the album progresses. Second track “No I In Threesome” moves along well enough and provides a chuckle, but never achieves greatness. Sadly, it’s all downhill from here.

Interpol’s music isn’t supposed to be uplifting, but I can’t remember it ever being as boring and depressing as it is on Our Love To Admire. Songs like “Scale” grind along slowly in a lackadasical manner, while rockier attempts like “Heinrich Maneuver” just seem incredibly redundant musically. When the following track “Mammoth” begins, it’s difficult to realize that anything has changed. After that, “Rest My Chemistry” and album closer “Lighthouse” drag so mercilessly that one can’t help but be happy that the end is near. By the time that better slow tunes like “Pace is the Trick” and “Wrecking Ball” finally arrive, we’re too tired of listening to fully appreciate them, and they still don’t sound like the Interpol I know.

I know this review sounds like I should have given Our Love To Admire something like a 3.0/10. Again, the album isn’t “bad”, it’s just shockingly below expectations for a band that has accomplished what these guys have. On the whole, it suffers from over-thinking, as most of the songs drag due to repetitive arrangements and the addition of drawn-out solos and unnecessary string and horn additions. I’m all for innovation, but hopefully Interpol gets back to basics next time around.

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