Album: Day & Age
Artist: The Killers
Released: November 18th, 2008
Highlights: Losing Touch, Spaceman, This Is Your Life, The World We Live In
As a man who craves for attention but that is ultimately too insecure to deal with it comfortably, Brandon Flowers – and The Killers – have always thrived in bombast. Introspection and swimming down towards the bottom-end of the human soul were never in their roadmap, and maybe never will. “Hot Fuss”, their popular debut, made that characteristic pretty blatant, as it dealt with a shiny sort of decadency wrapped in repelling brutal honesty and walls of synthesizers that turned their rock anthems into tunes that were more than ready to conquer the dance floor, features that tried to take the audience’s focus off the people on stage and their nature. “Sam’s Town”, its sequel, delved into the same explosive waters, albeit in a far more experimental and varied way, but it failed to find a center or a constant inspirational flow.
That is why, in retrospect, the quality of “Day & Age” makes “Sam’s Town” come off as the charming, but undoubtedly flawed, transition record so many bands tackle early in their career. “Day & Age” does not abandon the bombast, as it is packed with fabulous extravagance and pompous flash; and it does not scale down on the experimentation that undermined “Sam’s Town”. However, it takes those two elements – one that is inherent to the group and the other that is a pleasant attempt to get away from the monochromatic aura of “Hot Fuss” – and makes a better use of them, as The Killers seem to have grasped how to firmly integrate more flexible rhythms into their sound. Not only that, but “Day & Age” also seems controlled, at least as far as The Killers can sound restrained, because in its relatively brief ten songs the album does not pull any punches; it delivers sweeping and quirky pop hooks with incredible consistency.
To those that love The Killers’ more straightforward sound, “Day & Age” does offer a few cuts that qualify as such: there is “Spaceman”, which explodes into a stunning chorus where guitars and synthesizers form a uniform wave of sound that is bound to leave anyone starry eyed as they watch it go off like a firework; and “The World We Live In”, which could be the soundtrack to a party as long as nobody is paying too much attention to the somewhat dark lyrics. Everywhere else, The Killers are toying with various styles, and succeeding, without abandoning their defining characteristics. “Human” has guitars that could have been played by U2’s The Edge, which – alongside the overwhelming synths – make it sound like a great tune from the band’s “Achtung Baby” era; “Joy Ride” stands between disco and funk; the crescent “A Dustland Fairytale” could be a glam rock masterpiece if approached differently; “This Is Your Life” has echoes of the Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere”; “I Can’t Say” is borderline Caribbean; and “Goodnight, Travel Well” could be a track on The Cure’s “Faith” due to its ominous seven-minute exercise in darkness.
“Day & Age” may not be revered as the band’s greatest record, since “Hot Fuss” usually captures all of the attention due to its remarkable hit singles and its arrival as the wave of of alternative rock was hitting its early-century peak. However, “Day & Age” is far more constant in its delivery of great songs and is considerably more colorful, managing to do so unpretentiously and yielding a result that is thoroughly engaging even if it takes some time to get a handle on its stylistically erratic nature.
Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Released: November 4th, 1991
Highlights: To Here Knows When, When You Sleep, Sometimes, What You Want
Taming noise rock is no easy task. There is a point in which music, after being severely modified to accommodate the experimental noise, simply degenerates into a tuneless and endless drudgery. The Velvet Underground, usually considered the fathers of every piece of rock music that is bold and unexpected enough to be qualified as avant-garde, mastered the right dosage of that mixture in their first two records, the latter of which – the weird “White Light/White Heat” – arguably dared to get as close to the limit between total noise and distorted music as sonically possible. Twenty-three years later, though, Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine decided to dare to take that experiment one step further, performing a musical double-check to verify if what Lou Reed and company had done was indeed the limit or if the barrier lied somewhere beyond that point. “Loveless” is what they found a couple of light-years past that apparent final frontier.
“Loveless” is one of those albums, like The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main St.”, whose reputation walks hand-in-hand with the legend surrounding its production. According to records, it took the band a whopping two years, filled with many sessions that were done in as many as nineteen studios, to give the album its final shape, an adventure whose costs nearly bankrupted the band’s label. Regardless of the level of exaggeration that those tales may carry, though, one thing is for sure: “Loveless” is so unique and challenging, which in itself is a rare feat for songs that are bound by the restrictions of guitar-based music, that listening to it is wondering how the mind of a musician could possibly envision such a soundscape. The guitars are so heavily drenched in weird tunings, distortion, and feedback that an unaware listener would think all of the sounds the band pulls off were made by electronic instruments; and the vocals are mixed so deeply into the rest of the music that most of the lyrics are completely indiscernible, making all of the album come off as an instrumental work where the voice is just another piece of the cacophonous symphony.
The eleven songs that make up “Loveless” feel, therefore, with the exception of the brief instrumental “Touched”, like uniform overwhelming sound waves rather than cuts that were built by the joining of different instrumental tracks and a vocal line. As if they were born as a whole entity, they cannot possibly be split. Many of them – like “Loomer” (the weirdest song on the record), “To Here Knows When”, and “Blown a Wish” are peacefully ethereal and borderline abstract, as if they were captured by a powerful microphone that was pointed to outer space, capturing the soothing noisy sounds of the universe. Others, meanwhile, have firmer structures and come off as more defined numbers, as it is the case with “When You Sleep”, “Sometimes”, and “What You Want”.
Amidst all that extreme, and yet seemingly calculated, experimentation, the gift of “Loveless” is how it never loses sight of the importance of a good hook, which is probably the feature that stops it from being completely impenetrable. The melodies of the vocal lines, despite their unintelligible nature, are frequently beautiful; some of them are actually remarkable enough that if they hadn’t been so buried in odd production and instrumentation they could have served as the trampolines for hits. Meanwhile, the quirky guitars themselves also provide a great deal of immediate hooks that bring a degree of accessibility to a rather bold product. It is that balance between adventurous creation and pop sensibilities that made My Bloody Valentine succeed in coming up with a noise rock masterpiece. “Loveless”, though, is far more than a highlight within its niche genre; it is a landmark of guitar music and a statement on how one can produce challenging art without making it completely devoid of enjoyment.
Album: The Strypes
Artist: Little Victories
Released: July 15th, 2015
Highlights: Eighty-Four, Queen of the Half Crown, Three Streets and a Village Green, Cruel Brunette
In their debut, the solid “Snapshot” from 2013, The Strypes – a band composed of four Irish boys that back then aged between sixteen and eighteen – drank shamelessly from the sources they deeply admired: famous bluesmen and some of their notorious British musical offspring from the 60s, such as The Yardbirds and The Animals. The Strypes’ channeling of those styles was quick to grab the attention of many – including Noel Gallagher, Jeff Beck, and Roger Daltrey – for not only was it incredibly well-done, with plenty of nonchalant attitude and heavy guitars, but it was also relatively original in a world where up-and-coming indie bands lean towards a myriad of other influences. As good as “Snapshot” was, though, it was undeniably derivative; the work of a band that knew very well what their starting point was going to be but that had yet to figure out where to go from there. A transition could be clearly seen looming over the horizon, and it did come with “Little Victories”.
The problem is that if “Snapshot” flew too close to the gravitational pull of The Animals and The Yardbirds – as it even borrowed the signature rave-ups from the latter, “Little Victories” also does the same, but this time around it replaces the British giants of yesteryears with contemporary big acts. More specifically, they come off sounding a whole lot like the Arctic Monkeys did on their first two records, with the biggest difference being that vocalist Ross Farrelly does not sing quite as fast as Alex Turner and the lyrics coined by guitarist Josh McClorey are not as wordy as those written by the Arctic Monkeys’ creative leader, even if they do tend to be centered on the same subject: clever comments on the dating and relationship dynamic. Sure, The Strypes’ grit, attitude, and rough garage sound are still present, but, stripped from the blues swing they originally embraced, the boys sound too bland.
With that being said, “Little Victories” is not exactly a bad or average album. For starters, the group creates their very first ballad, “(I Wanna Be Your) Everyday”, and it is an excellent one, extending to almost six minutes and featuring a beautiful solo. Additionally, their closest brush with the Arctic Monkeys, the riff and beat of “Eighty-Four”, which is very reminiscent of the band’s “Brianstorm” and “Balaclava”, yields the album’s best tune. Great melodies that front the layers of pounding guitars emerge from every corner, with the ones from “Queen of the Half Crown” and “Three Streets and a Village Green” being thrilling highlights, and the chorus from “Cruel Brunette” sounding like something The Beatles could have composed back in their days due to its light-hearted and fun nature. Moreover, the group’s love for blues is still present – albeit far more discreetly – as it can be noticed on the guitar licks of “Now She’s Gone” and on the rhythm and harmonica work of “Status Update”.
Given their young age and the fact that they are still clearly a band trying to grasp an identity of their own, it is not a surprise that The Strypes’ “Little Victories” could be qualified as another instance of the famous sophomore slump that seems to plague so many bands. Yet, “Little Victories” does have a good share of qualities even if none of them are truly remarkable. If all past examples of the sophomore slump had been able to stay afloat as well as The Strypes do with “Little Victories”, the history of rock music would have been spared of a good number of bad records.
Album: Celebrity Skin
Released: September 8th, 1998
Highlights: Celebrity Skin, Awful, Malibu, Petals
In Hole’s first two records, a battle between the group’s pop inclinations and punk attitude was constantly waged. In both cases, the second side came out on top. “Pretty on the Inside” saw the victory of Courtney Love’s subversive tendencies by a wide distance, as while the melodies and hooks were there, they were far too buried in screams, blisteringly loud guitars, and abrupt Pixies-like transitions from whispering to shouting to rise to the surface. In “Live Through This”, that margin began to thaw; Hole was still way too rough and vicious to make it big, but catchy choruses and flowing melodic lines started to appear in places where noise used to be present. Coming out as a natural progression of that process, “Celebrity Skin” marks the point in time when the tide turned; it completed the band’s transition from a quartet that deconstructed Californian rock into one that surfed on top of its waves without losing much of its embedded edge. Consequently, “Celebrity Skin” is an unquestionable landmark of the years that followed the explosion of the grunge movement.
Seventeen seconds. That’s precisely how long it takes for the album to unleash its first magnificent chorus. However, the announcement of Hole as a fully matured group actually comes before that: at the three-second mark, when the signature riff of the title track, a guitar line that carries the right degree of punk aggression and pop seasoning, lands for the first time. What follows is a fantastic succession of great tunes, some of which are stunningly immediate and sail on the breeze of Californian pop rock (“Awful”, “Malibu”, “Boys On The Radio”, “Heaven Tonight”) and others that have direct ties to the music produced by Hole during its “Pretty on the Inside” and “Live Through This” period, such as “Reasons To Be Beautiful”, which is so violent it touches on Nirvana’s most aggressive moments; “Dying”, with its slow-paced agonizing lethargy; and “Use Once And Destroy”, which musically taps into the anger and confusion felt by those that fall victim to drug usage.
Although most of the greatness of “Celebrity Skin”, and the stylistic leap it represents, must be undoubtedly credited to Courtney Love’s growth as a songwriter and the energy her voice lends to the tunes, the album is a greatly collaborative effort. Firstly, there is the fact that many of its songs had considerable input from The Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan, who not only co-wrote numerous tracks but also helped Love polish her already visible talent as a composer. Secondly, there is the sleek, layered, and clear production of Michael Beinhorn and Eric Erlandson, the band’s guitarist. Finally, Melissa Auf der Maur’s introduction as Hole’s bassist does wonders for the group not only in terms of her fantastic playing, but also due to the gorgeous backing vocals she uses to complement Courtney’s usually rough voice and her contribution as a co-writer in some of the tracks.
“Celebrity Skin” winds up being one of those records that capture lightning in a bottle. It is the product of numerous remarkable talents working at their very peak and coming together to craft an album that is varied – with moods ranging from pop and folk to punk and grunge, packed with potential hits that achieve their catchy nature without compromising the band’s artistic values, and that drinks from its musical context without totally succumbing to its pressures. The result is one of the best rock records of a decade in which the genre was quite prolific in its production of impressive gems.