Saturday, June 29, 2013

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (2013)


(XL)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

He tapped ash on the floor. "This is a dump. This is unbelievable. But the kid don't know how to live even when she's got the dough." His speech had a jokey metallic rhythm, like a teletype. "So," he said, "what do you think: is she or ain't she?"

"Ain't she what?"

"A phony."

"I wouldn't have thought so."

"You're wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you're right. She isn't a phony because she's a
real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can't talk her out of it. I've tried with tears running down my cheeks."
~ Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote

"Pop" is such a condescending word, right? Unless you believe in it, in which case it suggests the most sublime and feverish things that can emit from our headphones. Pop wouldn't be pop without a bite of banality -- its essence of aim for the jugular requires an absence of literary construct. We can allow wit, we can allow the occasional poet to make his or her way onto the legislative floor, but immediacy is always everything. It's no wonder we have skepticism when guys who look just a little too comfortable with all this show up on stage. Oh, Vampire Weekend take themselves plenty seriously -- with a whole crop of indie rock bands that emerged in the last decade, they're real thoughtful bastards. They read the right books, went to the right schools, have the right pedigree, listened apparently to the right music growing up. They look they're enjoying themselves, which is a big plus in a world of neo-shoegaze, but that's never been the key to anything; people who hate all this frathole posturing have legitimate reasons for doing so. Appropriation? Maybe, but more likely that case of the cutes they've got -- their album covers carefully designed for maximum Futura eyesoring, the cheerfully asexual DMB-like broadness of their, uh, "vibe," and the prep in the room: the essence of their music is that it's about itself.

Nearly four decades after David Byrne barged onto stage in conservative garb and announced that he was violently opposed to compassion, love and oxygen, the conversation about whether he was joking or joking-but-serious or jokingly serious about not joking has yet to end even after three or four Ages of Irony, we've lost count. The old histrionics about the Clash's diplomatic son and the Rolling Stones' image-mongering futzing of their prep school background are a dimming light that explodes anew each time a new generation gets caught up in the permanently recycling rock & roll narrative. And after Talking Heads were accused of co-opting black music forms, after Graceland was accompanied by not just charges of appropriation but plagiarism and failing to credit collaborators and playing Sun City, after tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus reenacted Mbuti chants into a preview version of ACID, we're still plenty uncomfortable with African music making headway into the mainstream strictly on the backs of four American white dudes (who aren't actually, but that's another matter). My own feeling is that Vampire Weekend rub people the wrong way in large part because they are sincerely coy about and aware of all these things, and that this blowback and backlash and instant adulation has made their third record what it is: an exciting, beautiful, affirming Great record -- the first Great record by a straight-on rock band of this decade, if you ask me.

Nobody's mind will be changed by Modern Vampires of the City, and let's not waste time grumbling that anyone's wrong about it per se, although it would every ounce of my energy to pretend I didn't fall in love with it within the first world-embracing seconds of "Obvious Bicycle," and thus my perspective is probably faulty. So let's take it back to the original point -- pop itself banal but in the best way, and maybe pop about pop banal in the worst... musical mythos, a berserk and heartfelt attachment to the very act of listening, is all Vampire Weekend are really here to tell us about, from the cologned hue and cry of "A-Punk" to the rock & roll aftermath of "Giving Up the Gun." To be sure, Vampire Weekend and Contra, neither nearly as yuppied up or Cape Codded as was often charged, danced on a wire between cleverness and passion, inspiration and affectation. But that was the point.

Not anymore -- not only is Modern Vampires of the City, the band's instantly immortal third album, their best and most ingratiating to date, it's their warmest and most genuine, which gives them a new kind of liberated free reign. Vampire Weekend don't have much in common with the Beatles musically or artistically, but the newfound directness in their songwriting, and the renewed pleasure rather than obsessive-compulsive busyness in their committed precision is the same kind of leap forward that A Hard Day's Night was after With the Beatles. They're not "loose" or spontaneous and they never will be -- every note of music here feels obsessed over and arrived at -- but they've learned to wring immense catharsis out of their music. It's always clear and restrained but never, ever stiff.

The wit we talked about earlier is in the music and performance, not the lyrics. Not that there's anything wrong with Koenig's pop culture-doctorate wordplay, but it only seldom comes to mean much to me in and of itself: in the disarmed storytelling of "Giving Up the Gun" and "Diplomat's Son," sure, or in "maybe she's gone and I can't resurrect her / truth is, she doesn't need me to protect her." But generally, what I come back for is a spark that's enhanced but not defined by Koenig's verbiage. His delivery is a different matter, but we'll come to that. By musical wit, I really mean that the songs are so consistently surprising and filled with detail and tossed-off beauty that becomes clearer and more resonant with time. The most intricate of the new songs, "Step," moseys around on top of delicately pretty keyboard and harpsichord but hits hard with sly lyrical asides and skewed-up vocals; it's midtempo but fills its sporadic beats with such bounce that it feels like dance music.

But then there are "Diane Young" and "Finger Back," pop songs so overstuffed with pleasure they come on like web-age Alex Chilton, only radio-smarter. (Ariel Rechtshaid's sparkling production helps.) Like most bands that learn to take immense pleasure in the possibilities of studio-based craft, there are any number of performance impossibilities on these songs. Koenig's vocals extend, speed up and overlap; the drums are overdubbed and echoed until they become oceanic, and the songs in general are delightfully hooky and strange constructions that have everything to do with harnessing a moment. I have no doubt Vampire Weekend can do great things live, but no band can work all this magic on stage. That's one but not the only mark of how they've changed since 2010. The other is audible in the sweetness of "Unbelievers," as comely and universal a straightforward rock song as I think can exist in 2013, and "Everlasting Arms," a ballad that brings the most regret allowed yet from the band's sunny playbook -- which only increases its sting. But even the slow ones like "Arms" and "Hannah Hunt" take left turns, boast unexpected instrumentation, and never cease with the rhythmically calculated shots of enthusiasm and grace. For a record that so constantly changes pace and style, it's incredibly consistent and unified.

Because Vampire Weekend have mostly (and deliberately) left behind the aural texture of their first two records, in favor of among much else a newfound Middle Eastern influence probably owed to both the band's new confidence and to the artistic renewal from Rostam Batmanglij's work outide the band, the commonality now is Koenig's tireless (if often uncannily similar to Paul Simon) voice. He's settled into himself enough now that even his tics and cries and wobbly spoken-word asides are revelatory, evocative of both Buddy Holly's nervous energy (a great fit with the burst of joy on "Diane Young" and the classicist '50s doo wop form on "Don't Lie") and Bobby Fuller's almost godly grandness. The latter is clearest on two expansive cuts that provide the album's climax: "Worship You" and particularly "Ya Hey" bite off a huge spiritual-emotional chunk quite fearlessly and prove the band to be intimidatingly expert at such rich pop fulfillment that towers, entices, bites like hallmark alt-rock predecessors from "Bastards of Young" to "Dreams" to "Bleeding Heart Show."

And they know it too, which will piss some folks off -- they'll read it as arrogance. But when greatness is a given, as it has been at various times for the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Neil Young, and now Kanye West, a comfort in the audience-listener relationship can overtake. As "Ya Hey" wrings out with a hook that should be Wings-level annoying but just feels like a shower of bliss, as "Worship You" enters that last chaotic chorus, and as "Obvious Bicycle" says fuck off to all preconceptions and both opens and reveals itself as slowly as it can get away with in 4:11, it's as if an admired friend is speaking to you again, giving you the latest warts-and-all message even if the goals have changed with the years. That's a classic rock & roll conceit that was dissolved in the MTV period and forgotten by the Internet age: shrouded in mystery, an artist comes out and says their piece and retreats again, and we're grateful for what they contribute. Art-punk phony hipsters, I don't give a fuck, man -- I wish more music made me feel like this does but it doesn't. I'm not even sure the rock idiom has room for a whole lot of music that makes me feel like this.

What makes this a probable classic, though? I don't think Vampire Weekend or Contra are masterpieces, but I'm pretty sure this is -- and I've struggled over the last few weeks to determine whether this impulse was deeply felt or just overexcited. It might be exciting and beautiful, but it nabs at something more soulful than such platitudes indicate. Let's look at the post-millennial records I'd call Great: Stankonia, The College Dropout, Donuts, Have One on Me, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and whokill are all individualistic and restless, devilishly inventive but emotionally felt albums with virtually no weak cuts between them, and each with an overwhelming enough number of highlights that naming my favorite cut is a constantly evolving struggle. All of those records challenge the time-tested idea of "the album" itself and served at various times to completely infiltrate all aspects of my life. When I'd wake up in the morning, tUnE-yArDs or OutKast would be playing in my head, teasing with the unexpected changes and eccentricities within and without the songs; and when I revisit those records, that starts to happen again. But one other thing those six LPs have in common is that they're not "rock" albums per se. Limit us to straight records by rock bands and my picks become more sporadic yet. Exclude Yo La Tengo and there's only three: In Rainbows, The Coast Is Never Clear, Wincing the Night Away. It's hard to elicit real imagination from guitar music these days. But those each became my world, and so has Modern Vampires of the City -- its march and saunter and slink through city streets lifts me right up... and then knocks me back down with that eerie closing run of "Hudson" and "Young Lion."

Let's liken the descent into bleakness on this finale to "A Day in the Life" or "The Overload," hailing both from albums that various critics have likened to this one. That should tell you what stakes we're dealing with here. And since the Beatles were playing a part on Sgt. Pepper and David Byrne was playing a part for four straight albums and Kanye West is upholding a persona and preconceptions attached on Yeezus, I can't say that I'm all that interested in whether anything about this is authentic or not. All I care about is it's brilliant and divine, and I'll feel it in my bones probably as long as I'm breathing. I bet it's more likely that you'll feel the same than it is that you won't, but if not, that's part of the experience really, and this is one band that makes that feel like an inherently joyous process.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Arcade Fire EP (2003)


(s/r)

I was something of a latecomer on Arcade Fire. It seems sort of weird now, but I heard Neon Bible about a year after its release and only got around to Funeral at the very end of the decade. I admire the band very much and love all three of their albums, but I'd be lying if I said I felt a really deep connection to them -- if my reaction to news of their pending fourth album was much more than "oh cool, I bet that will be good." I think they would have loomed larger for me as a younger man -- not that they're unsophisticated, but the bluster and urgency and all that mattered a bit more to me as an obsessive U2 fan in high school. At certain moments, though -- "Windowsill," "Haiti," "Intervention," "Sprawl II," and most of their live performances that I've seen on Youtube -- I feel a certain electricity and for a few fleeting seconds I completely get it, and in those brief moments all the intellectual stuff and critical faculties are gone and I just feel the fist-pumping glee and catharsis of it all. They are perhaps the only band capable of seeming periodically like The One and Only Band, if you know what I mean.

Despite not being particularly good, the band's debut EP -- which I've just heard this month for the first time -- is actually another of those moments, but for a completely different reason. Hearing it has led me to want to reconsider carefully my reasons for not being absolutely agog over their work in general, because this flawed, slightly goofy and tentative EP gives the lie if nothing else to any question that Arcade Fire do not fully believe in all the Spectorian pyrotechnics and blissful overrangements that characterize the work on their albums. Even if it sounds alternately like U2's barely-finished October and an atypically macho Flying Nun release, Arcade Fire leaves little doubt on one point: this band's music is "big" by design. With full instrumentation -- typically eccentric: banjos, accordions, yelling, chanting, things to slap and strike as in the overzealous pow wow in some elementary school music class -- and fuller enthusiasm but barest production, this seven-track EP melts the band's dynamic down to its essence.

To some ears, it'll remain the best thing ever attached to them; their virtues emerge fully formed with but two exceptions -- Win Butler's voice, never exactly an instrument of unfaltering grace, is weak and untested here; and we must remember that Funeral and Neon Bible felt immediate because hi-fidelity, full-blown production is so naturally suited to the group's songs. But those songs are already driving and earnest, if derivative, and demanding of constant attention. The sad lullaby that opens the record and the bad twang ("your... father was... a perrrr-vert") that end it are its sole notes of mild ambivalence. As for the rest, its compressed but unrestrained attachment to grandiosity quickly calls the early Replacements to mind. Except, you know, they didn't have a Björk soundalike, a nice rolling piano, or a bassline like the one that lifts up the ground on "I'm Sleeping in a Submarine."

Always wide-eyed and impulsive, the band's core form here is a revealing thing indeed. They were already business-savvy grownups in 2003, but they were seriously releasing songs called "The Woodland National Anthem" and coming off like adorably communal fantasy geeks hanging in the living room, Mom just behind the door with lemonade and marshmallow squares. There's even emo! Belted out with aplomb, of course. The ground-level honesty and optimism here is actually a mark of directness that, especially on a confessional like "My Heart Is an Apple" (god, these song titles), signify the most emotionally fragile material the band would emit until 2010's The Suburbs (itself forecasted here by a line in "Vampire / Forest Fire" about living there). And as if to prove the point that this group needed only distribution and a nice glittery studio to blow up properly, we get an early take on "No Cars Go" that comes off like a strange hybrid of OMD and Spandau Ballet, attempting but not really achieving the march-to-the-capitol power of the Neon Bible version. For some that'll make it worse, for others better, but no one except the most hardened cynic about this remarkable band will dispute that it's at least interesting. If you like their subsequent work at all, you should really hear this record if you haven't already.

[SEE ALSO:]
Neon Bible (2007)
The Suburbs (2010)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Deerhunter: Monomania (2013)


(4AD)

!! CAUTION !!

It probably wouldn't displease Bradford Cox, were he able to muster up the energy to care, to know that there are an awful lot of people who are very conflicted about him -- from a certain perspective, which could be indie-rock generational or just taste or history with his various projects, undoubtedly Monomania is what someone's been waiting for ever since they heard a certain twist or lift in his voice. It bears noting that Cox's voice is divisive enough by itself -- a sort of ashen croon that easily recalls both Paul Westerberg and John Lennon, just as unmistakable as either but used far less resourcefully -- without the lurching back and forth of the music he helps write and perform for Deerhunter, or crafts on his own under the name Atlas Sound.

A contrast can quickly be drawn to Damon Albarn, whose work with Blur is recognizably distinct from the material he creates with Gorillaz or the Good, the Bad and the Queen, but his personality, hidden or explicit, is incredibly consistent. The difference is that Albarn has a media empire at his disposal and isn't controlled by emotional whims; Cox is a troubled, often seemingly irrational personality and his reflection of self in his music one week, intimate and decisive as it may seem, can easily bear little resemblance to the persona he seems to be driving at by the time he has breakfast the next morning. The current Deerhunter album, for better or worse, finds him in self-absorbed abrasive raving mode -- and worse yet, with a band giving him all the space he needs to indulge.

Some of us were finally sold on Deerhunter after many years of resisting their slightly prog angle on traditional alt-rock because of Halcyon Digest, a record so confident, beautiful and arresting that it seemed it could not possibly be a fluke. If Deerhunter's earlier music was tentative and uninvolving, Atlas Sound's first several years after inception were downright drab and monotonous, but that pseudonym's 2011 record Parallax was one of the most stunning recordings of that year and seemed to verify that Cox was only hitting his creative stride, perhaps enabled by the more-than-niche popularity of his less polished work. Though recording style is one of the most serious obstacles to enjoying Monomania, the difference in Cox's last two albums had little to do with such surface-level matters and everything to do with his newfound ability to temper his expressions of loss, grief and very occasional elation. There was never any doubt that Parallax was an exorcising of demons, but it was also the work of an obvious showman: it gave pleasure, it gave catharsis, and it did both simultaneously and then did it again.

Aesthetically, Monomania heads back to the garage -- but without the idealism and spirit that prompts young bands to retreat there to begin with. Landing far afield from Halcyon, the band's performances here are obligatory, speed-fevered and markedly joyless. But the band is scarcely the story here. With only one tune written and sung by guitarist Lockett Pundt (who now puts out his meandering own solo records under the name Lotus Plaza), not coincidentally one of the two here that almost works, this is as much a Cox showcase as an Atlas Sound album, at least in terms of its exposure of his present mood and mindset. Despite its odd, sudden fixation with dive-bar southern-fried classic rock, which it has neither the audacity nor the recording quality to convincingly imitate, Monomania sounds like the operational, defiant non-catharsis of a depressed person going through the motions: samey, uninteresting, workmanlike.

If you loved Deerhunter before Halcyon Digest, it's hard to say how you might feel about this, as it represents a broad change in tactic that starts to seem broader yet with each repeated listen. Unmistakably though, everything you loved about Halcyon is gone here; the songs are, if anything, equally melodic -- but Ariel Pink has taught us how little that finally means when meshed with muddy, hollow apathy. The songs are what Thom Yorke used to call "fridge buzz," only they're not on the radio, which means they might offer something in a different context ("Neon Junkyard" could be a Pavement b-side, if Pavement had ever so completely lacked grace and intelligence); together, they're deathly dull. Even Pundt's song, the jangle-pop "The Missing" (which unsurprisingly sounds like Lotus Plaza) is essentially a laundry-list of indie rock tropes that don't receive the muscle or sincerity that a lifer band like the Bats or Superchunk can give them when they trot out such beaten-horse things.

If the previous Deerhunter record was a celebration of the past as filtered through individual lives and through music, Monmania's chief evocation is of playing a bad record serviceable enough that you can't be bothered to stop cooking dinner and turn it off; given full attention, the skip button is so tempting that one nearly has to slap one's hand to keep it away (and I don't think I've made it all the way through "Dream Captain" yet, in half a dozen attempts, unless I was driving or cooking). "There's nothing much left of me," indeed. Maybe that's why Deerhunter seem to have designed Monomania as a road album; it sure as hell isn't a headphones album, another excuse uncertain rock bands often make. "Pensacola" fits slightly with this idea -- it's a Replacements-derived night-drive song of sorts, if your night drive gets stymied at the first stoplight immediately after you start to pump yourself up. That's the real theme here, if anything: short-lived enthusiasm hitting a wall -- witness the way the barely-there title track positions itself as a showpiece then rapidly falls apart, and where's that skip button again? Or better yet, the strongest song on the album, "Blue Agent," plays up the John Lennon and Beatles comparisons with its infectious melody and Chuck E. Cheese riff, but its initially exciting throwback feeling gets increasingly shapeless and bottoms out.

For his part, Cox has a certain studied dedication to all this, in the sense that he sounds like he really wants to get the vocals done so he can leave and go play Call of Duty or something -- the modern equivalent of Kurt Cobain rushing through the In Utero sessions so he could have more time to shoot up. Cox's vocals get amplified and distorted and panned to one side and pumped all the way up in the mix until they're in your face or all the way down until you can barely make them out, but none of the trickery can mask the inadequacy and disinterest here, or the dichotomy between the music's targets and his performance. He's neither passionate nor sexual enough to be a glam rocker... and that isn't meant as a knock, it simply lends itself to the overriding feeling that his time would be better spent outside of the barroom-emptiness atmosphere. (You can almost hear the darts being thrown, the people feeling miserable.) His wailing in the dark here simply can't match the confessional grace of Parallax -- or certainly, of songs like "Helicopter" on Halcyon Digest that were almost painfully thorny and moving, something emphasized by the way a self-conscious drama like "Nitebike" thuds to the ground.

Cox and Deerhunter are to be commended for leaving safety, which has been a recurring theme in their work; it's useless and even insulting to suggest that they run for cover, time after time, and so far no two records they've released are remotely alike, which is nearly always a good sign. But there's something surprisingly disappointing about how what seemed like the slow search for a decisive voice is now being knocked out in favor of tortured distortion, songs and recordings up their own asses with fake machismo and faker grit -- classic rock that doesn't care. It's already inherently unpleasurable and incredibly annoying by track two, screaming down a rabbit hole that feels gross and tiresome.

With a sort of tip of the hat to fellow modernist liberal rockers Titus Andronicus, a New Jersey band whose music more convincingly evokes southern rock (but then, weren't two of the hallmark bands of that movement from California and Canada anyway?), we close out on a piece of... ideology? "Punk" is more distinctive than the other songs but still muddy. It hasn't really earned its own triumph anyway, if it were to go for it. But "for a drunk, I was young" sums up Cox in a certain slapdash, tossed off way. He's always been a stream-of-consciousness lyricist, like his great predecessor Michael Stipe, but that only underlines the way that both his mental state and his desire to musically bury it correlate so strongly with how good or bad his music turns out to be. As the band slides dutifully in behind their leader, they never assert themselves or achieve any serious magic. Though clearly strong and equipped to do more than they can with this material, they bring us only power pop with no power. There's nothing wrong with being unambitious, but this much apathy about the final sound and effect of a record is toxic. It's never been clearer that Cox's impulses and whims are Deerhunter, which is both admirable and unnerving -- and does not speak very well to the continued exuberance or significance of their recordings.

Still, a mysterious and brilliant album like Halcyon Digest deserves a lot of prolonged goodwill, and there's every reason to believe that a certain distaste for the type of music being constructed here has to be blamed for my feelings about it, as with Kurt Vile's albums. In other words, my biases play a part here and have perhaps no relevance to anyone else's emotional attachment or detachment from Monomania. All the same, to me this sounds like a sleazeball bartender singing in a locker room for 45 minutes. It makes me feel uncomfortable and unhappy. But maybe I'm the one with demons here.

[SEE ALSO:]
Halcyon Digest (2010)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: Make It Happen (1967)


(Tamla)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Plain-jane guitar music just doesn't seem to be commanding my attention much so far this summer, and no, it's not really summer yet, but when we reach the upper nineties outside and you tell me it's still springtime, that's when I etc etc. A fine time to let go of some of that oppressive heat with the shedding of some old-fashioned conventional wisdom. Let it be warned that what you're seeing here is a theory in progress -- but you know that thing you've read in every rock & roll reference book about how '60s Motown LPs are skippable because they're utterly full of filler, thus excusing the tendency of most scholars to judge the label's seminal output of that seminal decade solely on the basis (admittedly strong) of all those seminal singles and radio hits? Starting to think that maybe there's some element of writerly research laziness that led to such a conclusion.

For now, we're just dealing with one exhibit in our argument here but more will follow. Make It Happen is an interesting and unusual record historically, having been released under two separate names for commercially savvy reasons. This is a lovely, consistent half hour of music, and I have trouble imagining that it alone among the wall of attractive soul records lining the shelves at Gravity here in town is the big holy-grail assembly-line Motown record that's actually Good and Consistent. We've long been at the mercy of compilers over at Universal who seem to think that what we care about is the chance to hear, I dunno, the Marvelettes singing Gershwin. Whatever. No way -- the albums that I've heard so far from this period emphasize the speaker-blowing power of the hits but also operate and elaborate on the idioms established by those hits. There are a lot of obscure songs by the Supremes that are just as well-crafted and instantly appealing as their singles. And do you really think that a savvy if bullish capitalist like Berry Gordy would expect to sustain in the marketplace putting out shit artwork in the decade of the Beatles and Beach Boys? Hell, the Rivieras put out great albums in the '60s, you best believe luminaries like those under Gordy's abusive regime did the same.

This is illustrative of a tendency to more seriously consider white music than black in longform; I think Make It Happen has just as much to offer as Pet Sounds or Revolver and is certainly in the same wheelhouse of song-cycle variance and brooding meditation. One important distinction: the Miracles record sounds a thousand times better in stereo than the two touchstones. In fact, it's such a revelation to hear these songs with such a wide, expansive frame that you fully believe it's a newer recording than it is, so cleanly and lushly and flawlessly produced is it.

But that's all technical shit really, isn't it? What matters is the top-caliber writing and performance, just out of the gate on the prototypical groove of "The Soulful Shack," halfway between psychedelia and quiet storm. You can sense the Motown stylistics adapting to Smokey Robinson's peculiarities, and the Funk Brothers were always masters at adaptation -- "My Love for You" compares favorably to "Just My Imagination," still four years ahead. They never stop working within the so-called "Motown sound," but they can sound like so much more, including a thorny garage band on "Dancing's Alright," a sort of arthouse "Wooly Bully." The cover of Little Anthony's "I'm on the Outside" is done up like a jazz standard, and the Miracles' propensity for pure body music rolls back around on "It's a Good Feeling," nearly as good as (and much looser than) "Going to a Go Go." The point being: leader, singers, writers, producers, band, label are by no means resting on laurels here. There's heart and effort to spare in this.

This is undoubtedly on the upper echelon of Motown LPs, but it explains a basic element of the label's strategy. Go beyond the singles, and Smokey and the group use the keymarks to establish and sink into a mood -- one that you will find intensely complementary if you're a fan of the hits; that's good strategy both commercially and artistically, and there's a sense of hands being held to enter more adventurous, uncertain territory. "More Love" is a more personal and raw and delicately structured tune than ever reached the radio from Robinson's pen, and its bass and piano-saturated bottom-heaviness carries through from the dramatic "Don't Think It's Me," which boasts a compressed intensity and thumping menace that give the midsection of the record a surprisingly unsettling quality, not far from the Impressions' work of this same period -- or Marvin Gaye's more carefully produced records in the early '70s. Freed from the constraints of the 45, constraints which normally lent him his definitive context, Smokey is able to explore the sensuality in his voice and lyrics on a song like the romantically demanding "After You Put Back the Pieces." You may get confused by the songs' titles (which include a tune called "More Love," one called "You Must Be Love," one called "My Love for You," and one called "My Love Is Your Love") but you won't forget any of them.

Still, the singles do burst out the same way they do on, say, a Wilson Pickett or a Cars record, and that's not a bad thing. "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" is still, for me, one of the peaks of the Miracles' output, a fascinating inverse of the sinister, controlled fury in a production like Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," wherein the only output is darkest, tormented pain put across by Robinson's stirring, stunning performance. But of course "Tears of a Clown," an accidental-of-sorts collaboration with Stevie Wonder, is the monument here. Correctly placed at the end of the record because (as any DJ knows) virtually nothing can follow it without a radical change of mood and breaking of spell, it features the most powerful playing in the Motown catalog outside of "I Want You Back"... and at the time of the LP's release, it wasn't a single.

Which proves something. It was so unmistakably a classic that AOR stations gradually picked it up, as did a few Northern Soul jockeys in the UK, and Motown felt no choice but to let it into the marketplace, where it became Robinson's biggest-ever hit. How it was missed the first time around is one of those baffling questions we can never answer. With a profound urgency, witty and erudite and desperately sad lyrics, and a tricky, Eastern-inflected yet entirely unique production and melody, it's as perfect an expression of lonely defeat as "Tracks of My Tears" and yet unlike that song, it discovers triumph and transcendence in its sense of loss; no one but Robinson could ever get so much swing out of the way he sings the title at the close of each chorus and then, without taking a breath, slyly add "when there's no one around" and lead us directly into the next drum fill to another part of a song that, much in the vein of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," simply never flags. It just keeps building and building on top of itself and it would simply burst if it did not fade out.

But let's reiterate: only a hit three years after the album was released. A gem buried on one of those supposedly filler-squashed Motown LPs. But here we are. So close to a scenario in which it was never discovered and I might only uncover it upon exploring this album for the first time a few years ago, and I could say "this song is incredible, an absolute masterwork," and would you believe me? No. Because it's on a Motown album, man, a '60s soul album, a collection of black music from the '60s. Those guys didn't have Total Artistic Control of their discographies then, y'all, didja know that? Didja know? (Though Smokey probably wielded a fair bit of power -- bottom line, it's irrelevant.)

We've expressed a theory in this space before that all popular music as we know it is a process of reeling and coping with the consequences of what was laid on tape in the '60s; by the end of that decade, nearly every basic idea and concept that could exist as an outgrowth of pop music form had been at least approached if not fully defined. Secondarily, we must remember that conventional wisdom can be very dangerous, and in fact usually is; it wasn't so long ago that we truly believed Alfred Hitchcock storyboarded and immaculately planned every frame of his films and did nothing but rote committing to film on his sets, and barely a decade ago it was still believed that the Beach Boys seldom played on their own '60s records. Quite apart from that -- take others' views, this blog included if you care enough to read it regularly, as a roadmap but still with a healthy grain of salt. Your own exploration will by definition reveal far more to you. Ignore any facet -- any facet -- of Motown in the '60s at your own risk. This record is sumptuous and pleasurable from beginning to end, it shall endure the storms of time, and there's not a chance in hell that it's alone.

[SEE ALSO:]
Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology (1961-72)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

L7: Bricks Are Heavy (1992)


(Slash)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This remains a transcendent record. If you're already an advocate for the riot grrl movement, a brief but shining period when women-in-rock could be characterized as an unreductive "trend" that did not wholly involve the leering eyes-from-above of A&R patriarchy, then this seems obvious to me as its keystone. Suppose you're not, though. It really isn't relevant to anything here because this has nothing to do with any movement or any time period at all. Perhaps you think a song called "Diet Pill" could only be a missive from late-night infomercial hell of a specific period, but that would mean you haven't borne witness to its menace and swagger that fires up and over so much of what's defined as "grunge." Maybe you don't like Butch Vig's pervasive-at-the-time production style, which tends to flatten everything into a kind of stereo sludge (here and on Siamese Dream and Nevermind, and probably Garbage's records), though if his and the band's compression of joy, megaphone, and rolled R's on "Scrap" doesn't get you to lift yourelf up and pogo, you may be a total loss.

Maybe you didn't enjoy the '90s enough to think that the sound of the Beastie Boys boiling over -- complete with catchphrase: "break out the big guns!" -- on "Everglade" is a pleasant glide into the L7 universe. Or maybe you have metal and grunge problems; I sure as shit do. Like I said, this is sheer grit, sheer dirt, but it's beautiful -- my defenses go completely down for the schlock-shock riff that opens "Wargasm" and I'm convinced that if all these problems and prejudices don't evaporate for you when you actually hear this music, you just got pop music problems. Catchy as fuck problems.

One major element of this success is that the songs are consistently surprising, even if their production is just streamlined radio-friendly-unit-shifter cleaned-up rock mess (not much "fuzz" here, so to speak). "Slide" is a good example, rapidly exploring bottom-heavy angst, then getting bored or restless with that and moving on to Aerosmith slanging and then finally indie-rock muddiness, all with astounding versatility. The great theme of this band's career, thanks in large part to the snarling apathy in Donita Sparks' wondrous vocals (Suzi Gardner's too, but especially Sparks'), which are somehow hyped-up and apathetic at once, is the open contempt toward boredom itself, toward the entire stay-in-your-place, this-is-what's-expected-of-you mode of the world. "Don't preach to me!" Sparks demands -- she's not nasty, she's just direct, though she's quite capable of screaming and bending her voice to demand, but it's the band that does the duty of sinking us down into the murk and stabbing at us.

That might not make Bricks Are Heavy sound like a shot of utter pleasure, but it is. (And monkeys can fly.) It's bigger and bolder than its fine predecessor, Smell the Magic, in every sense -- and represents the all-time ideal of a commercial breakthrough, admittedly allowed in large part by the success of a lot of bands I don't like much, that's really uncompromised and bold. At under thirty-eight minutes, it's wonderfully quick and concise and races by before you know what's hit you. Moreover, it can boast the kind of classicist perfect sequencing that harks back to Brian Wilson's earliest explorations of what works in the LP form. I sadly don't own this on vinyl, but I can just imagine how great it would be when Side Two pumps up with the slow burn of "One More Thing," like coming back in after intermission.

And how brilliant that the melodic slow burn itself is so splendidly fierce. It may indeed be L7's finest cut overall, though there's a lot of competition; bassist Jennifer Finch, in one of her two lead vocals here, gets to explore the caverns in her hugely full-bodied singing and walks out with a benchmark of supreme passion undiluted by any of the moments competing for your attention here. In two lines -- "Politics messing with my rights / There's nothing to do tonight" -- she defines beautifully what should have been the essence of rock & roll in the '90s, and what set this band apart: that they "got" it, so to speak, unlike most of the groups that populated the "alternative" boom. They weren't just socially conscious, they were hedonistic, they called out bullshit, they sought pleasure, they sought the stupid and the glossy teenage doom and gloom of the New York Dolls and Todd Rundgren and the Shangri-Las. They were "it," and all the facets of "it."

But if "One More Thing" was the apex, "Pretend We're Dead" is the quintessential moment -- seeking and finding ultimate pop perfection in the unhinged. "Shitlist" and "Monster" are equally strong statements of purpose (the latter is practically Cars or Bangles if they'd been allowed to respond to the full range of their impulses) but "Pretend We're Dead" is the revelation. Underneath the noise, it's all pure pop music of the Ramones or Tommy James variety: pure exuberance. The catchphrases again: what's up with what's going down? And what explodes is the confidence. Grunge was so much about navel-gazing or exposing a false vulnerability. L7 is about assertion, independence, delirious bluster. They're David Bowie. They're Dion, circa "The Wanderer." Okay, fine, they're a little Patti Smith too; and while it would be egregiously unnecessary, and not a little reductive, to claim that "gender" is at the forefront here, gender is an inescapable preoccupation. Because there are lots of people who wouldn't accept a band that doesn't attempt to meet an audience halfway on that audience's definition of femininity -- we wouldn't have let a female David Bowie become a millionaire because we find female expression of individuality gross. (See: every time Madonna ever did something the public felt was unladylike; every time she dares to exist as a non-neutered female public persona above 40 now.) On "Pretend We're Dead," Sparks doesn't scream, she doesn't coo, she doesn't lilt, she just belts -- dripping with the smart, the cynical, the confident, the sarcastic. It's not that she doesn't give a fuck; it's that she doesn't give a fuck if you realize she gives a fuck.

We as a culture find that quality attractive in male rock stars; we're allowed to see eroticism in their command. I've long felt that Bricks Are Heavy was a major and brilliant record. Revisiting it recently has edged me closer to believing it's close to a masterpiece, and may in fact be a masterpiece. The only caveat is that there should be untold hundreds of bands like L7. There are, in fact, but we haven't gotten to hear them; their success is one-in-a-million. I love the Bangles and the Go-Go's but both exercised in far more conventional, traditionally "female" pop song roles. I love Madonna and Janet Jackson but theirs was/is a definition of a specific idea of sexuality and femininity. It's sad that things have to be so reductive; it's sad that there even has to be a paragraph here about the fact that we have to be careful not to give L7 credit for empowering things that a zillion other bands we've never heard of have done and are doing. But that's the only, and I mean only, reason this isn't an A+. And the next time I listen to it, it may be.

[SEE ALSO:]
L7 (1988)
Smell the Magic (1990)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Any Trouble: Where Are All the Nice Girls? (1980)


(Stiff)

!! CAUTION !!

So many "promising young" white Power Pop bands sprang up in the early '80s in the wake of New Wave and New Paisley and whatever else, the only way you can keep up is to take a trip to your local record store's $1 bin and keep a list in your thinkpiece notebook. Why is it that so many of them seem more than vaguely sexist? Assuming the Knack with their disgusting tomfoolery as being the tip of the iceberg, here we have "promising young" songwriter Clive Gregson dripping condescension in even just the LP title. But why should I depress you. Any Trouble was recommended to me, given my Big Star leanings and somewhat less strong (at the time, now almost nonexistent) power pop leanings, and I've always been tempted to write it off based on the girl-baiting Men's Rights shit in the title alone.

But on a preliminary listen to this record, it seemed hard to dismiss it, which in its way is even more unfortunate. Because yes, Gregson can write a great melody. That's how they get you into their apartments, these power pop dudes. "Why don't girlz like me, I can write MELODIES." This record's "Second Chance" is a pretty impressive one, white reggae new-wave riffing and all, so is the lilting "Foolish People," and there are others too. There's variance in the writing more than in the clipped, highly compressed and dry-as-all-hell sound, very much of the time, but there is variance, more at least than on the Knack's records. Any Trouble aspire to a slightly more high-minded context: Elvis Costello is everywhere, especially on the opener "Yesterday's Love" (though Costello'd never allow such awkwardly pseudo-confessional lyrics), and it's only fair to point out that a litany of critics have called Gregson out on more or less aping Joe Jackson. (It may or may not be relevant that I enjoy both Costello and Jackson far less than I feel I'm probably supposed to; they're both great writers but seem unreasonably smug to me as performers. We will no doubt be reevaluating both in the context of this blog at some point.)

Early on, Gregson's desperate verbosity is sort of charming and a good fit with the relaxed band atmosphere, giving songs like "Playing Bogart" an interesting, oddball intensity and drama. But then he starts singing, uh, "expressively" and the results are a little contrived and a lot sexist, as he's chosen his most impassioned numbers to be the ones that reveal his true colors: "The way that girls act is a problem to me / Everything they do is to bring misery." Uh... huh. And later, there's a song called "Girls Are Always Right," and you can probably gather how sincere that shit is.

The tunes on the back half all sound basically the same; the slow ones are dimly-lit-toolshed-housed-by-angry-fedora-wearer death, the fast ones are insufferable "smart" "pop." Melodic or not, Gregson's idea of a hook turns out to be perpetually annoying and endless repetition of things like "the heat THE HEAT the HEAT the heat THE heat" or "oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh," and this after it initially seemed like a fun feature that the songs had no space between them and began to seem to run into one another. So: a lot of ugliness in such a tiny package, but if you like this sort of thing, I guess go for it?

Friday, June 7, 2013

One-sentence reviews #7


Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Mosquito

(Interscope)

!! CAUTION !!
Karen, are you okay? :(

***

Lisa Germano
No Elephants

(Badman)

Like a dead-quiet Nicolas Jaar or Owen Pallett with much more baggage of history (she's been getting quieter and quieter since '92 or thereabouts), but nothing here sticks to me; it does sound pleasingly weird on headphones, though.

***

Iron & Wine
Ghost on Ghost

(Nonesuch)

!! CAUTION !!
or, Dork Diaries: Selections from the Not-So-Great American Songbook; the last blow-wad major label debut record was like outtakes from his Sub Pop period, this is like stuff he'd have discarded before the tape started rolling then, but I guess there are mouths to feed, the only reasonable justification for how freaking far this guy's fallen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Big Star: Third / Sister Lovers (1978)


(PVC [orig] / Rykodisc [reissue; horrendous cover not pictured])

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

[Review is based on the fourteen principal tracks on the Rykodisc edition; nobody in the universe knows how this record's actually supposed to be sequenced but I tend to prefer the PVC edition, only with the sides reversed.]

It was an accident. Sister Lovers was created by a disillusioned man, his faith lost in the "bottom line" mentality that had engulfed his life's work. It is thrown out with little care for how it sounds, almost no concern for the final product or for order and sense. It is a mental breakdown on record... and its beauty is harrowing, shattering, something everyone must hear. The record has no real title, no sequence, no definitive track selection. Stax went under and nobody wanted to release it. The final product, surfacing in some form four years after it was recorded, is a haunting discovery that never leaves you.

This music is different from #1 Record and Radio City in absolutely every sense. The energy and pop appeal of those records has disappeared along with Chilton's enthusiasm. Like the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, it feels like an abortion, and it is, but the magnificence of it just underneath the surface outweighs almost anything else in rock music for seduction and grace. It leaves you feeling that you have witnessed an elegy, for much more than the disintegration of a band... maybe more like a dream. Sister Lovers, mildly surreal and sonically off-kilter, sounds precisely like a dream, by turns nightmare and fantasy, never close to linear. No effort has been made to knock the songs into perfect shape to tantalize the listener, the trademark perhaps of Chilton's songwriting. This material is ragged and gloriously so... it doesn't take the easy way out, but it pulls you into its web and won't let go.

For all his unrest, Alex Chilton -- alone on this record as a disintegrating duo with drummer Jody Stephens -- always rocked with the utmost confidence, but his quicker songs here share the remainder's obsessive feeling of things-falling-apart. He's half-insane on "Kizza Me," his vocals screeched out as he's surrounded with completely extraneous piano and strings. "You Can't Have Me" attempts a "Don't Lie to Me" that sinks quickly into Jim Dickinson's reeling bed of sound, soon obscured by the elements. The dissonance is ultimately impressive, but not until after it's just strangely addictive.

The climax of the dissonance is in the record's most vital track, "Kanga Roo," a theater of paranoid soundscapes that sinks you into a universe of its own, confusing and gorgeous and bizarre and ethereal and riveting. Opening with a squeal of feedback, the song is a ghost with a bag of erotic tricks, the instruments obeying no melodic rules from a random drumbeat, the noises bouncing off the walls from all directions before Chilton's fragile voice arrives speaking in tongues. "You didn't say excuse / Knew what I was doing / We looked very fine / As we were leaving." The lyrics are poetry of the unconscious, the words of a dream that is deeply moving for reasons we cannot explain. For all his cynicism at this point, Chilton had never sacrificed himself so totally to the music before this. He has created a unique moment that startles, surprises, taunts, and ultimately comforts. It's one of the most brilliant and fascinating rock songs ever recorded.

And what does it take to conjure up something like this? Is Chilton's bitterness responsible for the subdued, magnificent insanity of "Kanga Roo" and Sister Lovers as a whole? How much can this possibly be a rejection of pop-music values when it is so impressive and, looked upon today, such a signature moment for it? The hardened creature we see here is no longer reaching out so unconditionally; he is not creating "September Gurls" or "Back of a Car" or anything so easy on the ear, and I don't think it's because those were difficult songs to write. It is not wholly unreasonable to see the sound of Sister Lovers as a result of Chilton's distress at his band's lack of success, but at the same time, its style is a linear progression from the slightly off-kilter Radio City in the same respects that the second LP went farther than the first. It was, after all, Chris Bell whose life and dreams were all poured into #1 Record and who was devastated almost beyond help when it was not a success. (Perhaps appropriately, Sister Lovers contains a tribute to another pop-music exile with a cover of "Femme Fatale.") One natural conclusion from the buried, unkempt beauty of these songs (except "Stroke It Noel," which buries nothing) is that they are not designed at all to shock a listener with disarray. Chilton is not a psychological loss; he is just hardened, and he will make lovely music but he will not give an inch. The listener must do some work of their own to uncover the power here, and that makes the songs all the more rewarding. It is in this sense that the album's disorganization makes it even more magical.

There is something appealing about the haphazard nature of some selections, but it would be unfair to cite this as a trait of the entire album. A great deal of work obviously went into elaborate productions such as "For You," a song by Jody Stephens that amounts to pop perfection and doesn't really even sound uncommercial at all, even for 1974 (or 1978). Nonetheless, a feeling of vast loss is palpable; nobody who could come up with the solemn "Big Black Car" could be thrilled with the world. That's, of course, to say nothing of "Holocaust."

"Holocaust" is one of the most unworldly, hopeless cuts in the annals of recorded rock music. No forgiveness here, and no pleasure -- "Your mother's dead / She said 'don't be afraid' / Your mother's dead / You're on your own / She's in her bed." The bleak, naked piano-driven meditation evokes John Lennon's primal-scream Plastic Ono Band. It feels as if there is no way out. Then comes the fragmented "Kanga Roo" and the world falls into place. More than a remarkable feat of production and songwriting, it's awkwardly, audaciously romantic.

Speaking of which, Bell had populated the second half of #1 Record with sweet, quiet ballads assuring his place as a master of his craft. Chilton has his own collection of acoustic popcraft on Sister Lovers -- "Nightime" is one of his most enormously affecting songs, beautiful and desperate with lyrics eloquent enough to stand up to the astonishing melody, and "Blue Moon" is as fragile as a Nick Drake cut and even more emotionally exhilarating... its production as note-perfect in its quiet, sad romance as "Mod Lang" was in its own fast-paced agenda. These gentle cuts are never simplistic; Chilton always bites as much as he croons, but you are still ready to surrender by the end of both.

It is "Stroke It Noel," however, which provides the album's must humbling grace, and it's one of the prettiest songs in anyone's catalog. Just over two minutes in length, its every second devoted to sheer magic, the strings and singing and silent suggestion of a dance swooning along with (most assuredly) the listener. Nobody has captured this so perfectly and unpretentiously; far away from the dirge of "Holocaust" is this song that exhibits Chilton's boyish enthusiasm and joy, his untouchable lyricism adorning a song of indescribably affectionate elegance. This track alone would make Big Star worth knowing and loving.

But there's more astounding pop alchemy, even if the evocative subtlety reaches its peak with "Noel" and "Roo." "Jesus Christ" is bliss, "O Dana" is joyful, teasing anger, both wrapped up in overwhelming packages... but never tidy ones. The songs stack up seemingly at random, yes, but in whatever order, they add up to so much. It is all accidental transcendence, but that's what all pop music ought to be. Chilton is doing his best even if he no longer feels that there is a purpose; it's only a bonus that he is a master of his craft.

Even with such a tiny following, Big Star never stopped caring about their audience, never stooping to insult them or careening overhead to perplex them. This is music for the people, so no wonder they were bitter about not being noticed. But they were always charged with love. "Thank You Friends" might be ironic but it doesn't matter now; it sounds like truth, and it's just what we (and they) need(ed). And "Take Care" is a landmark of supreme vitality, a band given the rare chance to say goodbye knowing they meant it, possibly knowing it wouldn't mean much to anybody but them for a good while. It means the world now; "Take Care" is a steady waltz that welcomes as much as it leaves behind. It's a final message from pioneers who got scalped and a songwriter with so much to provide. This album might be the best present any rock band has ever given. Take it, and enjoy.

[Originally written and posted in 2004 at my old website.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74)
#1 Record (1972)
Radio City (1973)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Strokes: Comedown Machine (2013)


(RCA)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

"I love the new Strokes record" is not a sentence I ever expected to utter again in my life; you know how much I enjoy differing with conventional wisdom but I have to follow along with the rock masses in alleging that the Strokes have virtually defined the Law of Diminishing Returns for the new millennium. I bought fully into the hype of the band in 2001, tried to pretend I hadn't in 2002, secretly adored their hyped-up-until-kersplat sophomore record in 2003, and everything since then has been, well, to use a phrase that was much less loaded back then, "complicated." The band's mythology has been second only to Interpol's in the NYC-scenester hall of shame. They had it all: outsized egos for no apparent reason (they've never enjoyed the kind of commercial success that their press savvy would suggest), lengthy profiles that made it sound as if they wanted to slit one another's throats, and a weird sense of drugged-out empty promises and post-lust haze.

When I rediscovered Is This It at the close of the last decade, it seemed suddenly clear to me that there would have been no widely acceptable way to follow it, but there was something admirable in the way this workhorse just kept at it. Combine the front-loaded First Impressions of Earth and the even more front-loaded Angles and you can come up with a decent if bizarrely sickly party record, but the writing seemed to be on the wall; frankly, I dreaded hearing Comedown Machine, fully expecting a harshly ugly contract-fulfillment piece of early-onset dad rock & roll. Following their weird discovery of early-'80s bargain bin power pop and New Romantic records, we seemed in for the Strokes to join their indie rock brethren and start trying to ape the soft rock titans of their new favorite decade. In between veiled insults, the next Julian Casablancas interview would surely include something about Tom Petty being his "savior."

I don't know what happened instead. It's hard to get a handle on it because Comedown Machine is such a pure burst of pleasure almost from start to end, but while the Strokes time machine train ride through the 1980s continues with their evident acquisition of a copy of So, some hung-over Eurodisco and whatever the fuck inspired that vocoder bit on "Happy Ending," they are suddenly playing with a dedication that is entirely new to them, and a sense of spirited songcraft that has been absent from their work for at least the past decade. It's as though they suddenly started to care, and the paltry reaction to Angles seems, if anything, to have helped; they are back from the dead, and freed at last from the curse of expectations, the grappling for what was never really theirs to begin with: a wisp of a moment that passed before they could harness it in all the ash and regret of 2001.

The liberated Strokes aren't wholly different from the neo-Strokes of Was That It? that have generated three records now. "50/50" is a brief burst of what I'd consider status quo give-the-people-what-they-want sans early vitality, and the first single from this is just as completely terrible as the first single from Angles: "All the Time," easily this record's worst selection, sounds almost comically tired (and bears a curious resemblance to an early unreleased R.E.M. song called "Mystery to Me," but that's neither here nor there). Like Interpol these days! But we also have here evidence that this band, never personality-driven enough to begin with to tempt us to try and "grow up" with them (like say, R.E.M.), has learned how to age gracefully now. In all the busy riffage of "'80s Comedown Machine," there is a lively and romantic... calm? It's nearly indescribable, but it's transcendent in its effortlessness like early '70s Stones, or New Adventures in Hi-Fi or the National -- the kind of rock music that manages to spin fascination and heavy emotion from shades of gray.

That makes Comedown Machine sound less lively and exciting than it is. I love it on headphones (the way I fell hard for Room on Fire), but I love it while driving at night -- can it be that this band's non-flukish calling is a nocturnal new wave that's here allowed to shine? You can make the case easily with "One Way Trigger," an actually unusual and sensual piece of alternative-ish rock, a truly rare thing today; it's a striking contrast of seduction and manic energy and puts an end to years of mediocre lead performances by Julian Casablancas. His falsetto on this brash pop concoction is great. No, really. He puts it into better service yet on "Slow Animals," a calm slow-burn nest of a groove that shows verifiable songwriting growth from this band. The hook is subtle, well-crafted and actually dances atop itself, allowing them (especially Casablancas) to get lost in themselves for the first time in what seems like eons. They've never seemed less self-conscious, and the resulting song is true magic -- their best in ten years, perhaps longer if you don't love "What Ever Happened" as much as I do.

A distinctive feature of both "Slow Animals" and the splendid "Welcome to Japan" is not merely their more assured grooves, compared to tracks on Angles that attempted similar bigness and glitter, but the Strokes' ability to ride them to their logical conclusions and continually discovering new places to take the song, a contrast to their formula of presenting the entire layout for a given track in the first ten seconds with little variance. "Japan" boasts a tricky, intricate chorus even if you can't ignore lyrics like "what kind of asshole drives a Lotus?" as well as most listeners probably will. Its virtues apply to the full record: it's danceable and rollicking, sure, but more than that it's purely lovely -- an evolution beyond the gimmickry of Angles that feels something like, uh, maturity (the good kind).

It's not a contradiction, it's juggling. In that regard, we have the direct and personal, catchy "Partners in Crime" that swims in vulnerability but also swagger; the sheen of calmness on opener "Tap Out" that sets it apart instantly, while the vocals themselves are able to impart a sense of urgency in their weird soulfulness, a weight Casablancas would once upon a time have been reluctant to carry. Is the freedom of leaving a big label really this persuasive, and has it ever before prompted a group to discover so many new capabilities? After all these years, it's like they're only now realizing their full potential. Clearly some folks will be put off by the rampant cheeriness and vocal layering and whatnot, but there are so many towering pieces of pure joy here so fuck the old logic that image problems matter. Maura Johnston wrote that she believed she enjoyed this record because she never bought into the Strokes' mythos in the beginning; I did, at an age when I unwisely believed the best thing a young band could do was sound as much as possible like old bands I really dug. But this still lands for me.

And what's the big secret the Strokes have abruptly stumbled upon? Well, that they're a BAND! Creatively restless and adventurous, enough so to cook up a kooky song like "Call It Faith, Call It Karma" that's playful but not up its own ass, sounding like it could've played in the strip-boat sequence in Beasts of the Southern Wild. All the more fascinatingly, they're a really excellent band that can do things their peers often cannot. On "Chances," they commit cardinal sins: initially it sounds like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, not a big stretch for obvious reasons, with a shade of spaced-out grimy mid-'90s nightclub, then there's some impeccably crafted but highly odd Berlin / Mr. Mister thing that happens and it's earned and playful and fun, not intolerable like so many sinister soft-rock revivalist moments in the recent history of "indie." The thesis? Through hard work and trial and error, they've developed and have learned how to make their various obsessions and musical hangups work for them, and how to turn them all into something distinctive but broadly appealing. The happiest possible ending, only I now hope it's not an ending -- when mere weeks ago I swore this would be the last time I ever checked out a new Strokes album. Nope!

[SEE ALSO:]
Angles (2011)