Album: A Moon Shaped Pool
Released: May 8th, 2016
Highlights: Burn the Witch, Glass Eyes, Present Tense, True Love Waits
One of the rock world’s most frequently repeated analogies is the one that compares Radiohead to that clichéd box of chocolates, the one that is so full of surprises that it is hard to know what one will get when unwrapping the package. The comparison, albeit not very creative, is true. After all, this is the band that ditched Britpop after producing one of the subgenre’s masterpieces, “The Bends”, then went on to give birth to a historic breakthrough in the merging between electronic and guitar music, “OK Computer”, and finally immersed itself so deeply in the Electronica movement with “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” many wondered if the band still knew how to actually play conventional instruments.
Given that background, “A Moon Shaped Pool” is safe, even if in a very loose sense. Like all albums following “The Bends”, it is rather oblique, unusual, and challenging; unlike them, though, it really does not add any shades to the established Radiohead palette. Its closer brother is certainly “The King of Limbs”, as both gravitate around electronic beats that are tinged by hints of organic instrumentation, especially Jonny Greenwood’s guitar arpeggios and Yorke’s piano. However, while its predecessor often deteriorated into tuneless cacophony, “A Moon Shaped Pool” is far more solid melodically. It features lines that, while far from the stunning and hard-to-replicate quality reached by “In Rainbows”, give each of its eleven songs far more substance and muscle than the numbers presented by “The King of Limbs”, with the ones that guide “Glass Eyes”, “Present Tense”, and “True Love Waits” – which is probably the group’s most emotionally moving piece, being truly noteworthy.
Despite a nearly unshakable feeling of familiarity, “A Moon Shaped Pool” does have its share of defining traits. Firstly, there is the lush and beautiful orchestration by the London Contemporary Orchestra, which appears prominently in “Burn the Witch”, the closest track the album has to an earworm; “Daydreaming”, which closes its six-minute length by replacing a simple piano-and-voice arrangement with layers of electronics and strings; “Glass Eyes”, a haunting piano ballad; “The Numbers”, an acoustic tune with a great melody that culminates when the huge-sounding orchestra comes into play; and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”, probably the weakest track on the record due to its uninspired instrumentation. Secondly, there is the fact that “A Moon Shaped Pool” is likely the band’s darkest effort.
The crew from Oxfordshire is no stranger to emanating a depressive atmosphere, especially because Yorke’s singing style in recent years has been constantly focused on a suffering tone that is hard to surpass, but because of its strong lean towards sparse soundscapes that support slow-to-mid-tempo songs, “A Moon Shaped Pool” seems to take the gloominess to a whole new level. Although there are moments that break away from that rhythm, as the entirety of “Burn the Witch” or the coda of “Ful Stop”, the sorrow of the lyrics – which discuss a resigned, lonely, and despairing kind of heartbreak, and the somberness of the music are certainly the two elements that lead the record. “A Moon Shaped Pool” ends up being solid, an album mostly composed of tunes that are good-to-great, but the fact that it revisits many of the vocal, instrumental, and thematic mannerism the band has already exhibited in many of its albums is hard to overlook, indicating that it might be the time for this usually inventive group to shift its gear and go back to being that box of chocolates that while clichéd in its unpredictable nature, remains surprising nonetheless.
Album: The Getaway
Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Released: June 17th, 2016
Highlights: Dark Necessities, The Longest Wave, Go Robot, Encore
It is news to absolutely nobody that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are no longer the shirtless band of wacky jumping musicians that stormed MTV many years ago. Even if the shirtless part of the deal mostly still remains, such a pigeonholed image was promptly left behind when “Scar Tissue”, the leading single of “Californication”, hit the airwaves. Therefore, it is equally unsurprising that “The Getaway” presents the California quartet in a rather moody and introspective light, one they had already basked under in their two turn-of-the-century masterpieces: “Californication” and “By the Way”. Creatively triggered by Anthony Kiedis’ breakup, though, “The Getaway” navigates some broken-hearted and personal waters the group had yet to approach, and even if such a feeling does not permeate the work in its entirety, it ends up – due to its uniqueness within the band’s discography – being the record’s defining feature.
Despite such a shift and the album’s focus on mid-tempo ballads with intricate layers, which are undoubtedly the result of their collaboration with Danger Mouse, who replaces Rick Rubin after twenty-five years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers do not fully abandon their funk roots. Flea’s bass playing is still firmly grounded on the genre, and Kiedis’ vocals – especially during the verses – follow suit, namely in tunes such as “Dark Necessities”, “We Turn Red”, “Go Robot”’, and “Detroit”. The fantastic soothing choruses, which in the previous release – the uninspired “I’m With You” – seemed to have abandoned the band completely when John Frusciante walked out the door, are back in full force, and their excellent quality might as well be the factor that ties all tracks of “The Getaway” together.
Although not quite good enough to rank alongside the albums that sit on the upper echelon of the band’s releases, “The Getaway” should come as a delightful release to most fans – at least the ones who appreciate the group’s mellower side – and that’s because of how it injects new life into a career that looked like it could be running in fumes. Aside from the replacement of the man behind the console, which ends up building a strong bridge between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a whole lot of textures the band had yet to get to know, guitarist Josh Klinghoffer seems to have finally fully jelled into the band’s fabric, toying with licks that comfortably sit within the group’s palette but also imprinting his own style into the thirteen cuts that form “The Getaway”.
The integration of those two pieces allows “The Getaway” to present some curious experiments, which while not entirely successful do add a pleasant degree of variety to the work. “Sick Love”, for instance, is a pleasant – and great – jab at reggae; the awkward “This Ticonderoga”, meanwhile, is one of the heaviest tracks the band has ever recorded, with blistering guitars, a climatic chorus, and a light-hearted – maybe somewhat cringe-worthy – funk section; and the atmospheric record closer, “Dreams of a Samurai”, is certainly the most experimental tune in their discography. Still, after the kaleidoscopic duo “Californication” and “By the Way”, and the ambitious “Stadium Arcadium”, “The Getaway” comes off as focused and cohesive; the work of a band that went into the studio knowing what to aim for. The new elements do not stop it from carrying the group’s many mannerisms, both for the good (their knack for writing catchy melodies) and for the bad (Kiedis’ tendency to spill occasionally embarrassing nonsense), but they allow the good “The Getaway” to revitalize the entity that is the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a whole and keep the world curious to see what is next.
Album: Fallen Angels
Artist: Bob Dylan
Released: May 20th, 2016
Highlights: Young at Heart, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Skylark, All or Nothing at All
In the grand scheme of the world’s music tree, Bob Dylan has always been far more closely associated with the old-school troubadours and bluesmen that wrote their own songs than with the singers of standards. In fact, one could argue that the model that he created in “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” is the total opposite of the one mastered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, as while Dylan found a way to perform his own tunes despite his vocal limitations; Frank received, on his doorstep, well-shaped tunes written by composers that were eager to see their songs soar thanks to Sinatra’s invariably masterful interpretations. Yet, as he reached his mid-seventies, Dylan found himself enamored enough of that record-producing mold to create two albums that mirror Sinatra’s approach so well that besides being musically similar to what Ol’ Blue Eyes did, also almost exclusively feature songs he recorded.
“Fallen Angels”, following 2015’s “Shadows in the Night”, is the second product of that unexpected detour on Dylan’s late-career arch, and where “Shadows in the Night” was bleak and moody, “Fallen Angels” is far looser, as if it consists of tunes that – albeit great – were left out of “Shadows in the Night” due to their failure to fit the general dark ambiance of that album. Surely, “Fallen Angels” still carries much of the mournful romanticism that dominated its predecessor, as the violin in the beautiful “Maybe You’ll Be There” or the desperate declaration in “Come Rain or Come Shine” are quick to force listeners to take notice. However, the record is led by its fun-loving cuts, the ones where Dylan bridges Sinatra’s sentimentality with his own witty energy and humor, which were at full display in his recent masterpieces “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times”, and in the excellent “Tempest” as well.
That vibe emerges on slower numbers, like “Young at Heart” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, where guitars playfully replicate the melody of the songs’ core hook; the amusingly romantic “Skylark”, the only tune here that was never recorded by Frank Sinatra; “Melancholy Mood”, where the singer – instead of falling victim to his sadness – analyzes it with cleverness; and the likable and lazy “On a Little Street in Singapore”. Moreover, it makes its presence blatantly felt when Dylan and his tight band tackle the swing jazz of “That Old Black Magic”, by far the fastest, most energetic, and most fun track recorded during the sessions for both “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”.
Like its predecessor, “Fallen Angels” is far from being a major work by Bob Dylan; his strength, after all, has always been in his writing, and some fans might be disappointed to see him – once more – tackle an album packed with traditional songs that have already been taken for a spin too many times by numerous other artists, even if such interpretations occurred a long time ago. However, “Fallen Angels” has a considerable assortment of undeniable qualities: the arrangements are great, merging an old-school aura with delicate touches of rock; Dylan is clearly having a blast performing these tunes; and his voice, which sounded cracked beyond any hope of recovery in “Tempest”, is actually quite pleasantly captured, possibly due to the more soothing and unaggressive nature of the songs here when compared to the material he usually pens. “Fallen Angels” is neither flooring nor revelatory, but it is pleasant and charming, and it might end up working as a necessary stop for inspiration before Dylan goes back to coining original songs.
Artist: Neil Young and Promise of the Real
Released: June 17th, 2016
Highlights: My Country Home, Vampire Blues, After the Gold Rush, Big Box
Neil Young has always been an environmentalist. Starting in 1970, with the title song of the classic “After the Gold Rush”, the songwriter has punctuated his career with various songs centered around the theme, either trying to warn the world of the bleak future we are headed for if we do not change or simply attacking the big corporations that do much of the damage to nature. With old age, however, his passion towards the theme has seemingly grown, perhaps as a consequence of the fact he is aware he is running out of time to spread his message. Therefore, not only have his environmental anthems become more frequent, they have also dominated some of his late-career albums: 2009’s “Fork in the Road” is a criticism towards fossil fuels; 2015’s “The Monsanto Years” is a vicious attack on agribusiness; and 2016’s “Earth” encompasses all those subjects under the umbrella of a live album that captures performances from his most recent tour.
Among all of those works, “Earth” might as well be the most powerful one, for besides bringing to the forefront the raw furious energy that Neil Young has injected into his performances by having the young Promise of the Real as his backing band, replacing the iconic charming sludge of Crazy Horse, it also works as a collection of his nature-related protest songs. Out of “The Monsanto Years”, he pulls four strong cuts: the slow and heavy title song; the ballad “Wolf Moon”; the acid “People Want to Hear About Love”; and “Big Box”, whose blistering live performance confirms the song as a late Neil Young classic. Meanwhile, the remarkable “Ragged Glory”, recorded alongside Crazy Horse in Young’s barn, is also well represented as “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” fittingly opens the album; the glorious harmonies and solos of “My Country Home” mark one of the record’s peaks; and “Love & Only Love” wraps up the affair, presented here in a 28-minute version filled with Young’s traditional loud guitar feedback, messy improvisation, and fantastic melodies.
The remaining six tunes are a pleasant mix of surprises and staples. “Seed Justice”, the work’s only original song, is a product of Young’s creative phase beside his new band, as it is short, heavy, dirty, angry, and undeniably catchy. The beautiful ballads “Western Hero”, from “Sleeping With Angels”; “Human Highway”, which carries all the country tendencies of “Comes a Time”; and the piano apocalypse of “After the Gold Rush” add good variety to an album that is often loud and packed with heavily distorted guitars. Finally, there are the forgotten cuts of “Vampire Blues”, from the classic “On the Beach”, which attacks the oil industry through an irresistible bluesy groove; and “Hippie Dream”, from the maligned “Landing on Water”, which replaces the dull synthesizers of the studio version with guitars and gains a lot from that change.
As it is almost invariably the case with Neil Young’s latest works, there is always a quirk, and in the case of “Earth” it comes in two forms: female vocals added in the studio, and animal noises that appear prominently between songs, alongside the audience’s applause, and sometimes during the numbers themselves. The former come off as not well-mixed with the songs, making them quite distracting at first, but thankfully their presence is reduced to just a couple of tracks. The latter, meanwhile, transit between appropriate – such as the roosters in the beginning of “Country Home” – and cheesy, in some rare occasions when the noises are integrated into the rhythm. Those elements, however, help “Earth” drive its point home: the vocals allow Young to label his record as “Containing Modified Material” a clear jab at the genetically modified crops he often bashes; and the animals remind us of what he is fighting for. In the end, “Earth” is a stellar live documentary with a message, one that shows the world that, as he turns 70, Young still has enough energy to deliver spectacular concerts and go after what he feels is right.