Artist: The Raconteurs
Released: March 25th, 2008
Highlights: The Switch and the Spur, Many Shades of Black, These Stones Will Shout, Carolina Drama
If sharing creative duties was a part of Jack White’s set of skills, it never really had the chance to surface for during most of his career he was the sole driving force behind The White Stripe’s musical direction. Everything changed in 2006, though, when Jack joined other established musicians – Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler – to form The Raconteurs, where songwriting was done alongside Benson, and White was put under a stronger environment of concurrent ideas and thoughts.
The first output of that experiment, 2006’s “Broken Boy Soldiers” was intriguing albeit not strong; a generally pleasant album whose roughness and irregularity clearly showed a group going through the process of coming together. 2008’s “Consolers of the Lonely” is a different story altogether: a strong collection of fourteen songs that bursts with incredible chemistry, especially between White and Benson; and tackles multiple genres with a unique mixture of Benson’s British pop-rock and White’s love for Americana.
More impressive than the record’s constant loud guitar punches is the dynamism of its tunes. The title song starts out with a dirty bluesy riff before exploding into a rhythmic verse that culminates with a loud chorus and then reverts back to the slow-paced ways of its opening; “The Switch and the Spur” is a mini western multi-phased rock-opera that comes off as something Queen would have written on their “Bohemian Rhapsody” phase if they were American; “Top Yourself” goes from a weary country ballad to a mad guitar attack as if Jack’s anger towards the song’s subject suddenly spilled over; the great “Many Shades of Black” gains tones of decadency from its over-the-top horns; and “These Stones Will Shout” is constructed on a glorious crescendo.
“Consolers of the Lonely” spotlights White finding a flexibility that he could only achieve by working outside of the guitar-and-drums confines of The White Stripes and by joining his talent with someone as brilliant as Benson. It is more than a solid rock record, it is a modern and stellar display of guitar music built on a fantastic array of influences that come together perfectly whether it is on unusual, yet accessible, tracks or more traditional numbers that explore folk, balladry, and straight-up garage aggressiveness. American roots rock is dressed up with the polish of British Invasion music and the result is an album that bridges two continents and finds great beauty in a transatlantic collaboration.
Artist: Frank Black
Released: May 23rd, 1994
Highlights: Thalassocracy, Calistan, Speedy Marie, Headache, Superabound, White Noise Maker
Greatness is not a stranger to Frank Black; a man who captained the Pixies through their historic late-80s and early-90s run. Yet, even when it comes to someone like him, “Teenager of the Year” is simultaneously mesmerizing and surprising; not because its quality is unparalleled to his works as the frontman of the gigantic group, but due to its gargantuan size and relentless quality. His second solo album is, by all means, a massive tour de force; a twenty-two track creative explosion that, differently from most works of such scope, never slows down or drags.
It is true that not all songs bear the same quality, but – to those accustomed to Frank’s quirkiness as a lyricist and vocalist – every single tune falls somewhere between stellar and good, with an impressive quantity leaning towards the former range. As it had already been demonstrated on his eponymous debut, Frank – differently from what would be found on a Pixies record where most songs, in spite of their self-contained dynamics, would eventually feature loud guitars – likes to pair up direct punky electric songs with quieter ones a listener could easily describe as mellow if not for their cleverly odd words.
It is obvious Frank is still enamored with space, and that seems to be his most recurrent theme. On “The Vanishing Spies” he talks about satellites accompanied by atmospheric keyboards that lend the song touches of the Pixies’ “Bossanova” period; “Fazer Eyes” hints at alien abductions; “Big Red” fictionalizes the colonization of Mars, with the melting of the planet’s ice caps turning it into a blue watery planet; “Space Is Gonna Do Me Good” has Frank dreaming of abandoning the mundane confines of earthling adult life and having a blast in space; “Pie in the Sky” celebrates the power of the Sun; and both “Calistan” and the ska-like “Fiddle Riddle” look at a sci-fi dystopian future.
It is not all about stars and planets, though. Black is a weird romantic, and it shows on “Speedy Marie”, a sweet declaration to his then girlfriend; and Sir Rockaby, whose rhythm borders on soul music. And he can also be witty whether it is through pop culture references or historic insights, which is displayed on the two ninety-second loud songs that open the album – “Whatever Happened to Pong” and “Thalassocracy”, and on “Ole Mulholland”, an epic on the achievements of the man who brought water to Los Angeles. With impressively varied subjects and styles, “Teenager of the Year” is a remarkable one-hour musical voyage led by one of the world’s most interesting, unpredictable, and unique songwriters.
Released: January 19th, 1980
Highlights: Tattooed Love Boys, Kid, Brass in Pocket, Mystery Achievement
Before the new wave movement got so heavily buried in synthesizers that tracing its origins back to the cinders left by punk rock after it had burned the whole house down became impossible, there were the Pretenders. And before the group themselves – one of the genre’s first and finest examples – succumbed to that fad, there was their self-titled debut: an album that perfectly captures a moment in music history when punk was moving on to cleaner and less rough grounds, but that – many years after its release – is still able to sound fresh and exciting.
With a few notable exceptions, the songs here follow a clear pattern: simple riffs filtered through a smooth production that meets an odd, yet perfect, match in Christine Hynde’s unique singing. Although she has an unstoppable ability to write pop melodies that could potentially diminish the wildness of her band’s playing (as evidenced in “Kid”), she stops that from happening by singing as irregularly as possible. She cannot bring herself to attack her lines properly. Sometimes it seems she barely tries to pronounce the words written on paper, and on other occasions she is so overtaken by energy that two sentences that should have a similar harmony sound nothing alike.
When the Pretenders are not performing with the power of a garage band, albeit one whose sound has been cleaned up, they are showing decent versatility. Her adoration for Ray Davies, something that is noticeable on her melodies, comes through on The Kinks’ cover of “Stop Your Sobbing”, which might top the original. Meanwhile, the album’s final sequence of numbers holds nice surprises, such as “Private Life”, whose attempt at reggae is so well-done it became a popular cover on the hands of Grace Jones; “Lovers of Today”, a power ballad with painfully slow guitars that convey the singer’s delicate anguish; and the epic “Mystery Achievement”, where a bass-driven verse explodes on an incredible chorus.
The greatness of the Pretenders would not last very long, for after the passing of two of its members due to drug problems and the release of the amazing “Learning to Crawl” the group, despite Hynde’s commendable strength of will to keep the show on the road, failed to achieve the same level of quality displayed here. Still, it is partially comforting to know that, before their peak was up, they delivered one of the most complete, original, and incredible debuts in rock history.
Artist: Franz Ferdinand
Released: February 9th, 2004
Highlights: Jacqueline, Take me Out, Darts of Pleasure, Michael
In the writing of a first album, bands have something that will become scarce through the rest of their careers: time. Since it takes a couple of years for most to be given the opportunity to head into the studio and record their debut, chances to write material and test it on the road, with the benefit of not carrying the weight of being a big-name act, are abundant. Such fact explains why many introductory works often sound like greatest hit records of top-notch and fresh quality. The early 2000s gave the world a couple of those records in The Strokes’ “Is This It?” and The Libertines’ “Up the Bracket”, and Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled premiere is yet another example of that phenomenon.
What the band does is adorn the garage rock of the turn-of-the-century in impeccable metrosexual clothing, preserving the genre’s angular guitars, and then taking it out to the most prominent nightclubs in the city. It is bivalent music; working both while being executed on the stage of a festival or as it is blasted by speakers towards a dance-floor, and Alex Kapranos sings the tunes with such an incredible nonchalance that one cannot help but wonder whether he feels superior to everything that surrounds him or if his overwhelming suave is impossible to control.
Not a single track among the eleven presented here falls short of being remarkable. The melodies and riffs form songs that are sexy in their emotional coldness and beats that leave no stone standing still. The profusion of incredible harmonies is, in fact, so great that two of the best ones – perhaps as to further impose the band’s image as being too good for this rock and roll thing – are used as mere intros to “Jacqueline” and “Take Me Out”, getting replaced by maniac guitars a few seconds into their lives. The former begins as a silent and beautiful acoustic number before the group suddenly introduces their signature guitar sound to the world; while the latter starts with a fantastic robotic chord progression that could have supported a huge hit and then diverges into the dancy and delightfully repetitive single that made the group famous.
By switching tempos constantly, going from the fast-paced “Michael” and its irresistible riff, the menacing “Cheating on You”, the catchy “This Fire” and the quirky “Tell Her Tonight”, to the beautiful “Come on Home” and “40 Ft”, but never losing their pose, Franz Ferdinand shows a good deal of versatility. They might sound like the cleaner and better dressed counterparts of their contemporaries The Hives, The Strokes, The Libertines, and The White Stripes, but the talent and heart are absolutely equivalent.