Artist: Death Cab For Cutie
Released: October 7th, 2003
Highlights: Title And Registration, Expo ’86, Transatlanticism, We Looked Like Giants
Following three albums in which Death Cab For Cutie’s brand of indie pop alternated between unremarkable moments and close brushes with greatness, “Transatlanticism” is the beacon that indicates the point when their songwriting and production came together to form a work of undeniable quality. It is easy to label “Transatlanticism” as the mandatory mature album that seems to always appear somewhere in the life-cycle of all bands that stick around for long enough to actually get there, but more important than neatly qualifying it is recognizing it as one of the genre’s finest products and as an album that preceded the onslaught of indie bands that would hit the market during the next few years. “Transatlanticism”, then, emerges as the finest kind of excellent record: the one that is made not because of its context, but despite it.
Here, the group takes their inclination towards mid-tempo pop-rock and slows it down a notch, and in the serenity of that pace they happen to encounter a whole lot of beauty. Before it gets there, though, “Transatlanticism” can be deceiving, for it opens up with its most by-the-books song, “The New Year”, an archetypal indie number of the mid 2000s. From that point onwards, though, the record gently grabs its listeners and pulls them into a melancholic yet beautiful soundscape guided by jangling guitars that would make Johnny Marr, Peter Buck, and Roger McGuinn proud, not letting go until its final track, the acoustic folk ballad “A Lack of Color”, ends.
Given its songs bear obvious similarities in both instrumentation and tone, “Transatlanticism” is one of those albums that often run the risk of coming off as overly monochromatic. However, the band keeps that from happening altogether. Firstly, there is the fact Ben Gibbard has come up with strong melodies for all of the tunes; secondly, there is the smart song sequencing, which ends up forming mini-suites composed of slower and moodier tunes (“Lightness” and “Title And Registration”; and “Tiny Vessels”, “Transatlanticism”, and “Passenger Seat”) and breaks them apart with opposing sets of songs that pack more energy (“Expo ’86” and “The Sound Of Settling”; and “Death of an Interior Decorator” and “We Looked Like Giants”), constructing a record that is rather dynamic inside the scope in which it operates. The outcome, therefore, is that “Transatlanticism” is musically cohesive in a very impressive way.
Such close-knit nature is not reserved to its sound, though, as its lyrics – despite showcasing some irregularity here and there – also come together to form one closely related package. Appropriately, no other tune defines the album’s theme as well as its title track, an eight-minute hauntingly gorgeous and sad masterpiece that has echoes of Blur’s “Sing” and “1992”, which pictures the creation of the Atlantic Ocean as the result of a brutal downpour, leaving the narrator stranded from his love as he comes to realize that “The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row / It seems farther than ever before”. “Transatlanticism” is an amazing introspective study on distance, both physical and emotional, and inside our human confines there is nothing quite as scary and significant as the separation caused by an immense water body.
Album: The Big Black and Blue
Artist: First Aid Kit
Released: January 25th, 2010
Highlights: Hard Believer, Sailor Song, Ghost Town, I Met Up With The King
The fact that Sweden is a rather fertile land for music is no secret. For example, any heavy metal fan is fully aware of the country’s knack for producing great groups of the sort, which means that it is not exactly surprising to see a band from that portion of the globe break geographic borders and spread their music around the planet. First Aid Kit, formed by sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, then, is far from being shocking in its nationality, as the act comes from the land of The Cardigans, Roxette, ABBA, and The Hives. The biggest surprise the group holds, instead, is related to the music sources from which the young girls drink: the old-school country of Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and many others. In their debut – “The Big Black and Blue”, not only do they show that they have the musical gift to match those legends of the past, they also display they are well capable of bringing that type of country music back to the mainstream air waves, where the genre has been stripped from its soul and degenerated into an unrecognizable animal.
The album’s opener, “In the Morning”, is quick to show the sisters’ greatest prowess. A mostly a cappella cut with a few acoustic guitar strums, the song is carried by tight, gorgeous, and angelical harmonies Klara and Johanna pull off, with the former singing the lead and the latter harmonizing with impeccable precision. From that point onwards, the pair proceeds to tackle the genre’s entire musical palette always guided by basic yet delightful instrumentation centered around Klara’s guitar and with occasional appearances of Johanna’s keyboard. There is the pop-tinged country with blatant hooks of “Hard Believer”, the joyful tongue-in-cheek aura of “Sailor Song”, the reflective ballad with an impressive fluid melody “Waltz for Richard”, the vocal tour-de-force of “Heavy Storm”, the sorrowful and deeply moving “Ghost Town”, the standard country melody of “Josefin”, the waltz-time beauty of “A Window Opens”, the despairing “Winter Is All Over You”, the folk fantasy of “I Met Up With The King”, and the thoughtful “Wills Of The River”.
Written by two young girls who had yet to reach their twenties, most of the tunes contained inside “The Big Black and Blue” stun in their insight whether one considers the ages of Klara and Johanna or not. The lyrics show a level of maturity and craft that many bands that are now considered staple, or even classic, acts did not come close to displaying in their early teen-years albums. Lines such as “You’ve got to go on and get moving / I can’t do that for you”, “Don’t come preach about morality / That’s just human sense to me”, and “If you’ve got visions of the past / Let them follow you down / They’ll come back to you some day” are examples of thoughtful and evocative songwriting that is not achieved without an impressive deal of talent and effort.
For all of its qualities and pure beauty, which point towards a very bright horizon for First Aid Kit, “The Big Black and Blue” is not immune to the deficiencies that tend to appear in the debut works of artists that start creating at a very young age. Klara and Johanna’s channeling of country traditions through their gorgeous harmonies and their fantastic lyrics often hide the fact that a few tracks either come off as not fully developed or as songs that were not ripe enough for reaping, a fact that becomes quite evident on the album’s tail end, which drags slightly. Still, anyone with a love for acoustic balladry, folk music, country, or even just catchy pop hooks that lean to a sorrowful side will not be able to go through “The Big Black and Blue” without feeling overwhelmed by beauty and touched by emotion. Klara and Johanna got off to quite a start, one that would make the country stars of the past they so profoundly admire immensely proud.
Album: Little Joy
Artist: Little Joy
Released: November 4th, 2008
Highlights: Brand New Start, Keep Me in Mind, How to Hang a Warhol, Don’t Watch Me Dancing
Little Joy is the side-project of Fabrizio Moretti, the drummer of The Strokes; Rodrigo Amarante, one of the leaders of the Brazilian band Los Hermanos; and Bikini Shapiro. As its name, which is also the title of its only album up to this day, may imply, the group’s music is light, unpretentious, and delightfully charming. The brief thirty-minute running time of the record is almost uniformly made up of short catchy tunes that display the band’s numerous influences, which range from bossa nova – not an entirely unexpected turn of events given the band’s two core songwriters are Brazilian; to The Strokes and their musical New York City forefathers of The Velvet Underground. Put those elements in a cauldron and mix them up while adding some clever pop hooks and what comes out is Little Joy’s brand of music, which gains laid-back and relaxed contours thanks to Amarante’s soothing yet rough singing approach.
The warm, sunny, and breezy aura that permeates the whole record – even when it veers into introspective territory, makes itself visible right from the start, as “The Next Time Around” launches with a strumming ukulele before immersing itself in a surf rock rhythm that is ingeniously backed up by harmonies that are reminiscent of the vocal pop groups of the 1950s, lending the whole tune an incredible old-school soul. That joyful vibe keeps going strong through “Brand New Start”, the album’s most immediate cut and a tune that would be right at home alongside The Beatles’ early soft bubblegum rock material; and “Play the Part”, which marks the first time the album blatantly bumps into bossa nova. Given Amarante’s Brazilian band, Los Hermanos, is often lauded for bridging bossa nova and rock, it is not surprising that other detours into the genre, “Shoulder to Shoulder” and “Evaporar”, happen during the record.
When Little Joy decide to rock, they do so with guitar lines that would make Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, the two men responsible for that department in The Strokes, nod in recognition. That is true in “No One’s Better Sake”, a slightly messy, yet interesting, tune that packs three somewhat disjoint segments into less than three minutes; “Keep Me in Mind, which might as well be a lost track that from “Is This It” or “Room on Fire”; and the awesome “How to Hang a Warhol”, whose twin guitars almost replicate The Strokes’ classic “Last Nite”. Speaking of the New York pop artist, the band he temporarily managed – The Velvet Underground – also makes its presence felt both indirectly and directly. Indirectly because The Strokes drank heavily from that source, and directly on “Don’t Watch Me Dancing”, where Shapiro delivers gorgeous female vocals over music that has pop ambitions that are drowned by a lo-fi approach, a strategy that worked wonderfully in a couple of tracks from the ultimate classic “The Velvet Underground and Nico”.
With compositions shared between Rodrigo Amarante and Fabrizio Moretti, both cooperatively and also individually, “Little Joy” works as an output for the duo’s creativity away from their original projects and the expectations that accompany them, and – in the case of Moretti – it is a great opportunity for him to show his compositional skills, as in The Strokes much of the writing work is done by Casablancas, Valensi, and Hammond Jr. The results don’t fall far from the trees under which they have built their musical careers, but they are – nevertheless – interesting and unique, giving birth to a record that is certainly worth a listen.
Artist: The Heartbreakers
Released: October 3rd, 1977
Highlights: Born Too Loose, Chinese Rocks, One Track Mind, Let Go
Rock and roll and punk rock are not strangers to one another. Even though The Clash famously dissed three of the former genre’s most important pillars in their song “1977”, as the group enthusiastically exclaimed “No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones”, hence looking at them as museum pieces whose relevancy had been lost in the years following their respective peaks, punk often leaned towards the rock and roll source for inspiration. The Stooges did it in their wild energy; the Ramones showed it in their simplicity; and both the MC5, especially in the band’s late-period records, and the New York Dolls went for it in the rhythms they explored. It is not surprising, then, that The Heartbreakers – formed by the New York Dolls’ guitarist, the legendary Johnny Thunders, a couple of years after that band’s breakup – is one of the flagships of that love-and-hate relationship, and such link is in full-blown display in their one and only record: “L.A.M.F.”.
“L.A.M.F.” is not simply a proof that, somewhere deep down, rock and roll and punk rock were intrinsically connected; it might as well be the point in which the two musical styles came the closest to merging into one creature. From the get go, the enthralling “Born Too Loose”, The Heartbreakers show their weapons and approach: riffs and grooves that seem to have been stripped straight from a Chuck Berry record, with solos that would have undoubtedly sent Chuck himself into a signature duck walk, all played with the recklessness prominent in the attitude of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Like those groups, The Heartbreakers do not have a member who can sing, at least according to a puritanical definition of the term, which gives their sound the same “anyone can do it” vibe that led a wide-eyed youth to flock to the punk rock groups. Unlike them, though, The Heartbreakers sure can play.
Surely, Thunders, Lure, Rath, and Nolan are unable to deliver the technical fireworks summoned by the MC5 – their compositions never call for those, anyway – but they show a level of skill that is nevertheless impressive, one that is reached without losing the wildness and roughness punk rock usually calls for. The Heartbreakers’ most impressive prowess, however, is how – not unlike the Ramones – the band has a knack for great pop melodic hooks, and barely does a tune go by without a chorus or segment that sticks to one’s mind. Sometimes, those hooks are rooted in punk, as it happens on “All By Myself”, “Chinese Rocks” – which would later be recorded by the Ramones, “Pirate Love”, “I Love You”, and “Goin’ Steady”. Most of the time, though, they feature an irresistible hint of rockabilly and rock and roll, making it seem as if Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis could have recorded tunes like “One Track Mind” and “Let Go”, or at least certain portions of those.
Guided by an impressively talented but unstable frontman, The Heartbreakers experiment would not last enough to leave a big and strong enough mark to make them be put side-by-side with some of punk rock’s giants. Not only that, but the fact that their debut came in the late days of 1977 also meant they arrived a little bit too late to the party’s kick off. However, “L.A.M.F.” still stands up as a remarkable record that is as easy to get into as any of the material put out by the Ramones and almost as inspired as the best albums produced by the punk movement.