Artist: Of Monsters and Men
Released: September 20th, 2011
Highlights: Dirty Paws, King and Lionheart, Mountain Sound, Little Talks
Out of the jubilant forge where Arcade Fire’s alternative-rock-tinged brand of indie music meets Mumford & Sons’ anthemic folk, the Icelandic sextet Of Monsters and Men rises. Similarly to any stellar debut, albums whose generally lengthy composition periods tend to give bands plenty of room to produce hoards of material and test them out on the road, “My Head Is an Animal” often feels like a greatest hits collection: save for one exception (the forced hymn “Six Weeks”), all of its cuts are positively strong and fully developed. It is an album mostly devoid of weak links and dull moments, more than justifying the dedicated fandom that rose around the group, and that offers a precise balance between the band’s contemplative folk aspirations and their love for dreamy explosive choruses.
Although the themes upon which it touches are varied – and occasionally bleak, a sense of child-like wonder permeates the whole record. That table is set by the opener “Dirty Paws”. Featuring a folky pulsating verse that travels through a crescendo and culminates on a musical outburst, it depicts a forest war where bees and birds – these aided by the titular unnamed four-legged creatures – fight for the sky; the possible human-related allegory is certainly not unintentional. That kind of fantastic imagery reappears often, and the band crafts music whose power matches the size of its lyrical ambitions.
In the gorgeous bittersweet “King and Lionheart”, elements like mountains, ships, ghosts, and towns are combined in a tale of two people whose mutual love and support carry them through hardships even when they are distant; in the delightfully catchy “Mountain Sound”, the attempt to escape from one’s past leads to a journey through natural landscapes; in “From Finner” – whose instrumentation and eventual shanty-like melodies recall the ocean, a trip on the back of a large whale is filled with adventurous happiness and homesickness; and in the folk dirge “Your Bones”, the survival of a tribe going through a harsh winter hinges on both the spiritual remembrance of its deceased members and on their mortal remains. It could all come off either as phony or downright pretentious – negative labels attached to much of the indie scene, but it absolutely does not.
A lot of that is achieved through Nanna’s singing. There is a genuine starry-eyed quality to it, an honest brand of naiveté that lends the songs credence and levity; and so they soar. When frailty is required, she also steps up, showing – respectively – a delicate broken aura from which strength surfaces in the midst of harsh adversity (the purest and most powerful kind of strength, after all), and a mature self-analysis of a one-way-street relationship in the ballads “Slow and Steady” and “Love Love Love”. Her duets with Ragnar also gain weight due to the contrast of their interpretation, with the latter often playing a comforting role that clashes with her insecurity, as it happens in the hit “Little Talks”, the mostly acoustic “Sloom”, the anthemic “Lakehouse”, and the closing dark number “Yellow Light”. “My Head Is an Animal” is, then, able to explore a large emotional palette in a cohesive way that transmits a great deal of bona fide authenticity and songwriting wisdom, for it appeals to current indie sensitivities without getting suck in any of its many traps.
Artist: The Dead Weather
Released: July 14th, 2009
Highlights: 60 Feet Tall, I Cut Like a Buffalo, So Far from Your Weapon, Will There Be Enough Water?
Although The White Stripes did their fair share of navigation on the blues-drenched Mississippi waters, they never quite rewrote the genre. Their drums-and-guitar configuration was far too simple, and their self-imposed limitations far too narrow, to allow anything other than a ragged and garage-sounding reinterpretation of that music. With The Dead Weather, though, Jack White – who here manages the drums while taking a backseat to other members both songwriting and performance-wise – is joined by Queens of the Stone Age’s Dean Fertita, his The Raconteurs’ partner Jack Lawrence, and The Kills’ Alison Mosshart (the group’s de facto leader) to, once more, tackle the genre; this time, however, with a full-fledged and flexible band that – more than infusing it with tense energy – takes the blues to different grounds.
The tone here is generally ominous; as if a treatening monster were lurking in the shadows emitted by most songs. “60 Feet Tall”, the record’s sensible opener, is a perfect template for what is to come. Much like PJ Harvey’s classic “To Bring You My Love”, it is a blues number that channels the darkness of Robert Johnson’s bleakest works via a female vocal that is, at the same time, fragile, distant, and disturbingly powerful; guitars that constantly insinuate that a violent emotional outburst could be just around the corner; and smart alternations between silence and music. Other highlights, such as “So Far From Your Weapon”, “Rocking Horse” – where Jack shares the vocals with Alison, “No Hassle Night”, and the amazing apocalyptic closer “Will There Be Enough Water?” follow that incredible pattern.
Like any album featuring Jack White, “Horehound” is not devoid of quirkiness, which occasionally rises from within the darkness. “I Cut Like a Buffalo”, the sole track fully written by Jack, lunges forward like a reggae song carried by a great organ groove provided by Fertita and features what might be the record’s only blatant hook. “Treat Me Like Your Mother”, co-written by the entire band, ends with Jack rhyming, over Fertita’s synthesizer, like a rapper. Finally, to complete all the wackiness, The Dead Weather choose to cover one of Bob Dylan’s most maligned songs: “New Pony” from “Street Legal”. Although the tune’s use of the name “Lucifer” is aligned with the sinister vibe of “Horehound”, it remains as a very weird choice, albeit one whose performance outdoes that of Dylan – which, in this case, does not say much.
Due to its general lack of immediate hooks, “Horehound” – differently from most works involving White – is a slow grower; its unique and abrasive sound, which must be greatly credited both to Alison’s astonishing vocal performances to Fertita’s organs and synthesizers, also points towards that same direction. Still, in the end, it is a balanced and well-done modern take on the blues that takes the bleakness of the soul broadcasted by the genre’s pioneering artists and turns it into layers of sinister sound.
Artist: Gram Parsons
Released: January 1st, 1974
Highlights: Return of the Grievous Angel, Hearts on Fire, Brass Buttons, In My Hour of Darkness
Following two attempts to express his love for country music through bands, Gram Parsons decided to fly solo. Although those two previous experiments winded up yielding a couple of classic records that stand high on the country rock pantheon in The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “The Gilded Palace of Sin”, they also ended with Parsons being expelled from the two groups. “Grievous Angel” is his second, and final, solo effort and it is also – arguably – the strongest link in the pair, for it shows Gram at the height of his songwriting power and the full maturing of his singing duet with Emmylou Harris.
True to his vision of “Cosmic American Music” – a junction between roots American genres, “Grievous Angel”, albeit by all means a country-focused record, occasionally takes a break to venture into more agitated territory with the rock-infused covers “I Can’t Dance” and “Ooh Las Vegas”. However, those are mere detours along the road, because “Grievous Angel” is undeniably at its peak when the sad and contemplative Gram steps up to the microphone, for those moments reveal he was born to sing affective country numbers.
The original material here is spectacular. “Return of the Grievous Angel” is a wordy tale of a man who travels through many roads but that ends up coming back to his lover, because he cannot find true happiness anywhere else; “Brass Buttons” is a ballad guided by a low-key acoustic guitar and an impressive pedal steel that deals with the memories triggered by the objects left behind by a departed partner; “$1000 Wedding” tells of a man left at the altar by a girl who chose the world instead of him; and “In My Hour of Darkness”, written alongside Harris, closes the record dealing with three men that left big voids, to different numbers of people, following their deaths.
From the ever-present, with the exception of “Brass Buttons”, vocals provided by Emmylou Harris, which serve as an incredibly gorgeous complement to Gram’s fantastic voice, to the sensible instrumentation that carries every tune to an elevated realm of beauty, “Grievous Angel” is a treat to country music lovers and the final piece of the work of a man that loved the genre’s imagery, sound, and concepts like no other ever has.
Artist: Jane’s Addiction
Released: August 21st, 1990
Highlights: Stop, Been Caught Stealing, Three Days, Classic Girl
As its cover may indicate to an attentive observer, there is nothing habitual about the second studio album – and the third overall of original material – by the Californians of Jane’s Addiction. However, the fact that a record titled “Ritual de lo Habitual” is fronted by an image of a diorama that depicts, with bare naked dolls, a three-way affair, is rather telling of both the content within and the men who put it together. The unusualness starts with the sound: categorized, via the level of distortion in the guitars and the loudness exerted by the songs, as a metal band, Jane’s Addiction never pounds hard like a group of the genre. Instead, thanks to the band’s fondness for jazz and funk, they swing and sway, never going straight for the listener’s neck.
Four of the record’s first five songs are clear displays of those influences and capture the band at the peak of their signature fast-paced sound. “Stop”, “No One’s Leaving”, “Ain’t No Right”, and “Been Caught Stealing” feature groovy guitar rhythms laid over syncopated bass lines and constantly swinging drum beats. On the album’s second half, though, the focus changes drastically, as Jane’s Addiction steer their alternative metal dreadnaught into experimental waters. And so “Ritual de lo Habitual” unveils its second unconventional element: its bold song-sequencing.
The work, which opens up with a chain of tunes that gravitate around the four-minute range, suddenly becomes a string of long-winded epics that pull through their indulgence and succeed mightily. “Three Days”, the song that approaches the love triangle of the album’s cover – with religious imagery thrown in as a twisted bonus, is a ten-minute effort whose many phases – a lengthy solo that coils like a snake, melodic quiet verses, sweeping choruses, and a funky bridge – would be right at home in a progressive album; “Then She Did…”, which touches on the suicide of Perry Farrell’s mother, is an eight-minute dream-like marathon with resonant strings; and “Of Course” is the seven-minute violin-led meeting between a traveling circus and an Arabian caravan that were journeying through the desert.
Before wrapping it all up, “Ritual de lo Habitual” finds the time to revisit the balladry that made “Jane Says” such an iconic song and closes the deal with “Classic Girl”. A beautiful and honest love letter that ends this early 90s masterpiece on a sweet note, it is a final statement on the group’s musicianship and courage, for only a band this magnificent and flexible could find a way to – through over a little more than fifty minutes – cover so much ground. During that span, Jane’s Addiction departs from the quick, dirty, and wild; goes through the daring and experimental; and lands on the straightforward and vulnerable. Thanks to always having a foot on the unorthodox, everything clicks in place.