Album Reviews – 35th Edition

head_carrierAlbum: Head Carrier

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 10th, 2016

Highlights: Head Carrier, Talent, Tenement Song, Um Chagga Lagga

In 2014, after a hiatus of thirteen years, the Pixies released their first album since 1991’s “Trompe Le Monde”. As a band whose flawless legacy of four excellent records and one legendary EP grew to unforeseen heights after their breakup, “Indie Cindy” was – in a way – destined to be looked down on as an effort that did not live up to the greatness of that original run. The fact that the album was merely good, with decent to great tunes that failed to capture the group’s essence, certainly helped that cause. Two years later, “Head Carrier” emerges as proof that the Pixies, minus the departed bassist Kim Deal who is replaced by Paz Lenchantin, are pretty serious about their return to being productive musicians. It indicates that, just like fans are still wrapping their minds around the idea of receiving new tunes by the band, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and Dave Lovering are relearning how to write and perform like the Pixies, for “Head Carrier” is much closer to the idiosyncrasy that turned them into alternative symbols than its predecessor.

Truthfully, “Head Carrier”, like “Indie Cindy”, presents something the early albums never did: unapologetic straightforward pop-rock songs. However, not only does it tackle that spectrum with far more success, turning in a good range of great tunes like the sweet soft ballad “Might as Well Be Gone” and the catchy rocker “Classic Masher”, the album also features an element that was mostly absent from “Indie Cindy”: a wild punk edge. The Pixies were masters in disguising excellent immediate hooks with all manners of curve-balls, such as mad screaming, unexpected guitar explosions, surrealistic lyrics that drank from obscure references to art and the Bible, changes of tempo, weird singing, and more. The disguises are by all means back, save for the use of Spanish words, but this time around they are not so thick, causing the band to sound somewhat more conventional – even if they are still quite unique – and making the pop inclinations of the tracks rise more prominently to the surface.

The title song kicks things off with an evil heavy guitar crunch previously unseen in the group’s discography and counters that power with a blissful melodic chorus, a reversal of the quiet-and-loud dynamic they coined. In “Baal’s Back”, Francis plays the role of the titular Biblical demon and shouts maniacally throughout the song, which has echoes of “Rock Music” from “Bossanova”. The sequence of “Talent”, “Tenement Song”, and “Bel Esprit” forms the album’s pop-rock core that is united by great catchy melodies: the first being about Jack Palance, or at least a dude that looks like him; the second balancing soft verses with a hard-rocking chorus; and the last offering an exquisite alien guitar texture that only Joey Santiago could execute. Meanwhile, “Um Chagga Lagga”, which depicts a frantic chase in lyrics and music, could be a lost heavier cut from “Come On Pilgrim”, featuring weird voices by Black Francis, a fast menacing pace, and an unusual melody.

“Head Carrier” shows the Pixies coming back into touch with much of what made them fantastic, even if it is slightly more sugar-coated than their early material. Even the mellow female backing vocals that contrapose Black Francis make a return; in fact, never have they been so frequent. Paz Lenchantin does incredible work, and she even gets to lead a song by herself (ironically, the letter to Kim Deal “All I Think About Now”, which has a loud ringing guitar backing an acoustic strum similar to that of “Where Is My Mind?”), and share vocals with Black Francis in “All the Saints”, which closes the album in much the same fashion as “Brick Is Red” from “Surfer Rosa”, by putting together a brief tune that is divided into an instrumental section preceding a short sung segment. Still, they are not merely reconnecting with the past here: they are writing and performing great songs that are worthy of their name and fame.

ash_iceAlbum: Ash & Ice

Artist: The Kills

Released: June 3rd, 2016

Highlights: Doing It To Death, Days of Why and How, Siberian Nights, Echo Home

The Kills built their career around exploring the darkest and most minimalistic spectrum of modern garage blues; one where post-punk gloominess, albeit done with much less emotional strain and drama than the norm, leaked into the straightforward guitar tunes. With Jamie Hince’s brief guitar riffs, which often consisted of a single strum that was punctually repeated; and Alison Mosshart’s voice and demeanor, flawless vehicles for the transmission of feelings such as lethargic desperation and bitter subdued pain, the band traveled to places that were far more obscure than those that served as the destination for other contemporary blues duos, such as The White Stripes and The Black Keys, and for the pioneers of the genre as well. As a group that did not change much with each record, choosing to – instead – merely attack the different tonalities that exist under their umbrella of menacing and blindingly cool garage blues, “Ash & Ice” – their fifth work – keeps that tradition intact.

The tonality of “Ash & Ice” is, for the band’s standards, clean. Jamie and Allison still sound utterly basic, as if every song is the result of a contest to see how many elements and sounds could be removed from it without making the track crumble under its own weight. However, “Ash & Ice” has the sleekness of an album recorded in a well-furnished studio rather than in a big empty garage. For a couple of musicians that have always relied so heavily on careless slow-to-mid tempo rawness, such a move could strip them from their most defining traits, but, as it turns out, Jamie and Allison are too down-to-earth to get caught up in a more polished sound. They still come off as a genuine pair that does whatever comes to mind without much regard for external perception – they, for example, like The Jesus and Mary Chain, use a drum machine and probably could not care less about comments on its mechanical nature or on how they lack dynamic due to it. They thrive on that nonchalance, and in “Ash & Ice” that feeling is broadcast through melodies that are better than ever.

“Doing It To Death” features one of Jamie’s greatest guitar lines and Allison matches that quality with a chorus that is equally fantastic. “Heart of a Dog” abandons that traditional structure in favor of a flatter composition in which, under Allison’s misery, Jamie’s riff slowly builds up from a two-note call-and-response setup into a whopping four-note call-and-response setup, which might as well be progressive rock for The Kills’ standards. In “Hard Habit to Break”, “Bitter Fruit”, and “Let It Drop” the band explores a slightly poppier vain without leaving behind its inherent mean side, while “Impossible Tracks” and “Whirling Eye” offer fans a glimpse of what the group would sound like in a more full-bodied approach, as their guitar lines are thicker and their aura more aggressive than those present in the other tracks of the album.

The most remarkable moments of “Ash & Ice”, however, appear when The Kills find a way to stretch themselves inside the constraints in which they work, and stumble upon unexpected gems. “Hum For Your Buzz” is borderline gospel, thanks to the rare sight of Allison’ powerful outward singing; “Siberian Nights”, which changes in tone so much it could be considered multi-phased, has a bridge that is beautifully breezy; “That Love” is a sad piano ballad that would be vulnerable if Allison did not use an expletive to qualify the broken relationship of the couples she seems to be addressing and remind listeners that this is a The Kills song; and “Echo Home”, with its echoing guitar and electronic beats, is genuinely gorgeous. In the end, although it does not represent a considerable stylistic shift or a huge breakthrough, “Ash & Ice” is quite simply, on the heels of strong songwriting, The Kills’ best work. It is a suitable discrete peak for a band that is basic and low-key.

deja_vuAlbum: Déjà Vu

Artist: CSNY

Released: March 11th, 1970

Highlights: Carry On, Teach Your Children, Almost Cut My Hair, Helpless

CSNY – the super-group consisting of David Crosby, of The Byrds; Stephen Stills, of Buffalo Springfield; Graham Nash, of The Hollies; and Neil Young, also of Buffalo Springfield – is one of those ensembles that seems destined to fail. Each of those four men, after all, was quick to abandon the groups that launched their respective careers, for a myriad of turmoils, in order to embark on solo endeavors that would allow them to have fruitful lives writing and performing music on their own. “Déjà Vu”, then, is a special record not solely because of its quality as a folk rock work that showed the relevance of the genre five years after The Byrds had coined it, it is also highly treasured because, even though the super-group would go on to release a few other albums, this is the record that captures this boiling cauldron of egos and personalities at its most balanced moment; where music, not internal politics and conflicts, was standing in the spotlight.

However, although “Déjà Vu” is labeled as a group effort, the fact the band housed four somewhat individualistic songwriters means that each of its mostly excellent tracks is the product of one brain. Stephen Stills contributes with “Carry On”, a song packed with angelic harmonies that are always accompanied by his signature magnificent swirling guitar, and “4 + 20”, a simple honest guitar-and-voice ballad. David Crosby brings in “Almost Cut My Hair”, which despite its silly lyrics emerges as the record’s most rousing moment thanks to the energy of David’s singing and the electricity of its instrumental parts, and “Déjà Vu”, a failed experiment in psychedelia not unlike many of the baffling tracks Crosby would create and push for inclusion in The Byrds’ classic records. Graham Nash pens two of the album’s best numbers in the country of “Teach Your Children” and the folk ode to a peaceful domestic life “Our House”. And Neil Young is responsible for the timeless classic “Helpless” and the catchy mini-suite “Country Girl”, two songs that display the uncanny ease with which he unearths memorable melodies.

The two remaining tracks are “Everybody I Love You”, co-written by both Young and Stills, and that – not coincidentally – is a straightforward, slightly silly, rock and roll number reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield; and a historic cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”. The latter is particularly noteworthy, for besides reportedly being the only tune that was performed by the four members in the same session, it also drastically transforms the Joni Mitchell original, taking her stripped-down approach centered around an electric piano, and turning it into a rock number. The classic line “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden”, then, just like the rest of the track, abandons its contemplative sorrowful beauty and embraces a highly celebratory tone.

Despite the individualistic nature of its creation process, “Déjà Vu” still manages to come off as a solid cohesive artistic work, which might as well be its most improbable and pure victory. Its introspective moments are simple and honest; its more energetic tunes are injected with the naiveté of the departing 60s; and the album is nicely punctuated by the instrumental prowesses and quirks of its members, and the incredible harmonies that rise from the junction of their vocals. Its historical relevance and the timely nature of its release, marking the end of a glorious musical and cultural era, might inflate its greatness to some degree, but it is nevertheless a strong work by a great quartet of musicians.

grindermanAlbum: Grinderman

Artist: Grinderman

Released: March 5th, 2007

Highlights: Get It On, No Pussy Blues, (I Don’t Need You To) Set Me Free, Man in the Moon

By 2006, Nick and the Bad Seeds were at a place where none of those who had followed the band since its early years could have possibly foreseen they would reach. The group whose music hanged on the verge of chaos during the early 80s, toying with components of avant-garde rock and walking through the most self-destructive brand of punk rock, had slowly transitioned into an act that drenched gospel, balladry, and hard rock in blood, exploring the darkest and most despairing corners of the human mind. After a handful of albums in which they tackled all possible variations of that unique combination, it seemed Nick Cave was desperately missing making music like he had done in the dawn of his career: wild, untamed, violent, brutal, and free of ambition. In Grinderman, which he formed alongside three members of the Bad Seeds – Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, and Jim Sclavunos – he found the outlet for that animal urge.

“Grinderman”, then, is a record that somewhat aims to recapture the aura that was present in the work of The Birthday Party – the band that would later become Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the raw songwriting and out-of-control performances of the first few Bad Seeds’ albums: “From Her to Eternity” and “The Firstborn Is Dead”. This is mean unfiltered rage and primal instinct in the form of tunes carried by frantic drum beats; unorthodox instrumentation, which is highlighted by mad distorted guitar playing and deafening organs that seem to have come out of The Velvet Underground’s proto-punk classic “Sister Ray”; and Nick Cave’s flat melodies, standing on a rope between talking and declamation. The album is not thoroughly consistent in terms of quality, as some of its tunes come and go without leaving much of a mark; however, as far as energy and raw power go, it is relentless like a bulldozer with a rocket for a an engine.

Appropriately, Nick Cave, sounding like a preacher of mad rock and roll, starts “Grinderman” with a brief speech in which he claims “I had to get up to get down to start all over again / Head on down to the basement and shout / Kick those white mice and black dogs out / Kick those white mice and baboons out”. Following it, the band kicks into overdrive in “Get It On”, a tense song that threatens to explode at any minute – with no drums and a muffled guitar – but that never quite does it, exhaling a messy angry soul in the process. Amidst all the insanity of electricity-charged tunes like “No Pussy Blues”, “Depth Charge Ethel”, and “Honey Bee” – in which Nick Cave humorously attempts to reproduce the sounds of the titular animal during the instrumental breaks, the band finds the time for some lighter material, such as “Go Tell The Women” (a tongue-in-cheek cry of independence where Nick Cave announces he is no longer going to be ruled by women), and “Man In The Moon”, a surprising brief ballad.

All in all, “Grinderman” is a pleasant listen that shows an artist that is daring by nature work away from the confines and expectations that surround his main band. Rather than break into new territory, though, it looks back towards the past and approaches, with a modern perspective, a kind of sound that had been long gone. Such regression, however, is by no means negative; it is simply a time Nick Cave wanted to revisit, and instead of taking the Bad Seeds back to that place, he formed a new ensemble to take the trip. The result is mostly very good.


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