Artist: The Decemberists
Released: March 22nd, 2005
Highlights: We Both Go Down Together, The Engine Driver, On the Bus Mall, The Mariner’s Revenge Song
“Picaresque” treads down the same path its two predecessors – “Castaways and Cutouts” and “Her Majesty” – explored with great success: it presents, through consistent songwriting, The Decemberists’ unique mixture of British folk with usually modern song structures and particular instrumentations. However, it feels like a nice little step forward, as it does away with the key – and fair – criticism that was occasionally aimed towards the group: the often monochromatic low-key acoustic execution of their material.
That issue is tackled right on the album’s first track, “The Infanta”. Relating the oligarchic parade of characters that surrounds the coronation of a young Spanish monarch, the song – like a good Pixies tune – uses its quiet segments as a trampoline for gigantic and chaotic moments powered by loud thumping drums whose size matches the importance of the occasion described in the number. That strategy is also employed on “The Bagman’s Gambit”, a treason-ridden love story between a Russian spy and an employee of the American government which pairs unplugged guitar-and-voice verses with an explosive multi-phased chorus and a gorgeous coda.
Meanwhile, “The Sporting Life” and “Sixteen Military Wives” display – respectively – a knack for humor and irony that Colin Meloy had only hinted at on previous records. The former is the tale of a lovable loser that falls face-first onto the ground during a sporting event where all his loved ones are present; and the latter is an anti-war statement whose cheery mood contrasts with its bleak subject. That same goofiness, only with far darker undertones, is present on the nine-minute “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, a Dylan-like storytelling effort that is an endless sequence of verses backed up by pirate instrumentation.
Yet, “Picaresque” is not devoid of sadly beautiful numbers; in fact, those are its finest moments. The violin-led depiction of forbidden love of “We Both Go Down Together”, which replaces the Romeo and Juliet poison for jumping off a cliff; the overwhelming misery of “Eli, the Barrow Boy”; the sorrowful chanty sang by a woman whose lover is lost at sea, “From My Own True Love”; the tear-jerking accordion of “The Engine Driver”, a thought-provoking commentary on how to balance making concessions to a partner with keeping one’s individuality; “On the Bus Mall”, which tells the story of two youngsters that run away to live their love and end up making a living on prostitution; and “Of Angels and Angles”, the only song on the album to feature only Meloy’s voice and a lonely guitar. However, it is thanks to its looser louder tracks that the album feels like a more complete and colorful work than those that came before it.
Released: April 21st, 1997
Highlights: In It For the Money, Richard III, Late in the Day, Sun Hits the Sky
The wild untamed energy of youth was the fuel that drove Supergrass’ first album, “I Should Coco”, to the top of the charts and critical success. Released two years after the debut, and with the band’s main songwriter – Gaz Coombes – recording it at the tender age of twenty, it was not unexpected that “In It For the Money” would be powered by that very same source. This is Britpop at its roughest and most straightforward form, drawing more from punk than from other classic British groups, and Supergrass delivers it with incredible confidence.
For a young adult, however, two years are quite a lot of time, and so “In It For the Money” displays – much to its benefit – flashes of musical maturity that were much more low-key on “I Should Coco”. It is not a record that completely abandons silliness, though, for that is still very much present on “Going Out”, which attempts to reach the repetitive catchy nature of “Alright”; the amazing musical party that is “Tonight”, a song that gets as close to sheer rock and roll as a group of young Brits can; “Richard III” and its menacing dirty immediate riff; “You Can See Me” and the pleasantly awkward melodies of its chorus; and “Sometimes I Make You Sad”, whose looping grunting noises replacing the drums make it come off as an intended joke.
Everywhere else, “In It For the Money” is a considerable leap forward that never strands the group’s youthfulness. The titular track kicks things off with a quiet and hypnotic guitar-and-voice combination before launching into an epic chorus; “Late in the Day” is an impeccably fascinating ballad equipped with a relatively complex structure and a stellar solo; “Sun Hits the Sky” has a punch and an aura of invincibility powerful enough to send listeners to the stratosphere; and “Cheapskate” alternates a groovy verse with jazz influences, a surprising undertone that is also blatant on “Hollow Little Reign”, with a shout-out-loud sing-along chorus.
Even if “In It For the Money” does not feature the musical or lyrical ambition that some of its contemporaries sported, it is – without a drop of doubt – one of the most incredible efforts the Britpop movement ended up producing and a work that comfortably sits among the best records of the 90s. On the following years, Supergrass would continue to grow and deliver impressive material, but it is arguable they would never quite reach these heights again.
Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Released: June 6th, 2011
Highlights: She’s Thunderstorms, Black Treacle, Reckless Serenade, That’s Where You’re Wrong
Following a trip to the Californian desert during which, with the guidance of Josh Homme – the leading brain behind Queens of the Stone Age, the band recorded their dark and heavy third album, “Humbug”, Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys seemingly came to the conclusion that they had done enough with straight-up hard rock. “Suck It and See” still presents many of the staples of the band’s sound: Turner’s fast-paced vocals, the witty lyrics that are delivered with effective nonchalance, and the prominent use of the rhythmic section during verses – something that, when the guitars kick in, brings great dynamism to a record that is mixed too loud, a tradition for the band.
Yet, “Suck It and See” separates itself from – and arguably tops – its predecessors thanks to its far poppier elements. The once face-melting distortion of the guitars, which caused parts of the other albums to feel a bit too monochromatic and claustrophobic, bows out and opens the way to a far more colorful palette of tunes. As if channeling the trifecta of gifts from The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, Jamie Cook and Alex Turner achieve a gorgeous jingle-jangle chiming guitar sound that is beautifully evident on “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala”, “Reckless Serenade”, “Piledriver Waltz”, “Love is a Laserquest”, “Suck It and See”, and the closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” – the fact those are some of the album’s finest moments is not coincidental.
Turner wisely capitalizes on that bubblegum layer of sounds by turning in some of his most remarkable melodies ever. Instead of stretching the line between talking and singing as far as possible, he opts to – especially during the choruses – unleash an amazing arsenal of hooks and reveal a good deal of vulnerability. That instrumental and vocal match-up creates a unique brand of music that walks on a tightrope between heavy rock, pop, and light psychedelia – the latter of which is achieved via a spacious production that allows the colorful guitars to come off as gigantic.
Despite the softening up of the distortions, the Arctic Monkeys do not lose their edge and swagger. The middle sequence of “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”, “Library Pictures”, and “All My Own Stunts” – not to mention the opener “She’s Thunderstorms”, work as a cool detour from the catchy demeanor of the rest of the record, and some of those tunes feature the darkness and heaviness the band had tackled on “Humbug”. Still, in the end, “Suck It and See” is ruled by pop, and by aiming towards brighter grounds the band unearthed a clever and unique work that stands tall in their marvelous discography.
Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd
Released: April 14th, 1974
Highlights: Sweet Home Alabama, Workin’ for MCA, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, The Needle and the Spoon
With “Second Helping”, Lynyrd Skynyrd continued to write the book on how to merge the impressively rich deck of musical rhythms from the American South with loud – always catchy and melodic – hard rock. Here, the humble simplicity of country, blues, and boogie meet a full-blown band with three guitar players and a keyboardist, creating a massive layer of beautiful distortion and ambiance that turns the styles born around the southern bayous into something utterly irresistible and energetic without ever losing sight of those genres’ palette of themes.
As the group’s second effort, the album feels tighter and more focused than its masterful prequel. Fortunately, though, in spite of a visible musical growth, Ronnie Van Zant has not lost his humor, which he employs to good effects on “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”, a song driven by a memorable riff and that has Ronnie telling businessmen and family members alike to give him some space when he arrives home from touring; and the aggressive “Workin’ for MCA”, a fun little storytelling about playing a gig and not getting paid all the due money. That same loose nature is also pleasantly present on “Call Me the Breeze”, a brilliantly executed J.J. Cale cover that turns the original 12-bar blues into an epic electric rock and roll tune with a bundle of flashy solos.
The beauty of Skynyrd, however, lies in the pairing of those wild tongue-in-cheek numbers with more constrained efforts that play like homages to the brilliant unknown musicians of the south, and “Second Helping” has plenty of those. The widely popular “Sweet Home Alabama”, that pairs an infectious riff with a gospel choir, answers to Neil Young’s critical “Alabama” by celebrating the good fruits of southern culture while claiming not all of those who live in the region share the petty philosophy of their leaders and ancestors; the funky “Swamp Music” is filled with images of the region; and the gorgeous “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” is, through the creation of a fictional character, a nod to all spectacular unknown black musicians that inhabited the Mississippi River area and were vital to the development of the blues.
Although it does not feature a ballad as spectacularly poignant as “Simple Man” and “Free Bird” – “I Need You” is a great song, but it does not quite rise to the level of those two masterpieces; “Second Helping” feels like a step forward and features the same impressively solid songwriting of their debut. Its hard rock power gives the band a remarkable edge, as it becomes evident on the drug-addled cautionary tale of “The Needle and the Spoon”; and its southern influences are pure and true.