Album: I See You
Artist: The XX
Released: January 13th, 2017
Highlights: Say Something Loving, Performance, I Dare You
Progression is key to all kinds of good music; after all, artists who get stuck in the same place for way too long end up metamorphosing into caricatures of themselves: people who try to recapture a moment that is long gone in the past and that end up sounding like bad cover versions of their initial material. If there is something that can be said about the first three albums of The XX is that there is a good deal of progression to them; better yet, it is a kind of evolution that is cohesive. Their debut record was filled with lyrics that portrayed the tension and excitement of young love; meanwhile, their sophomore effort carried feelings of loss. Hopefulness was gone, and so was love. And in their place all that was left were ashes, scattered pieces awaiting to be picked up, and disappointed broken hearts. Given such context, it is only natural “I See You” is the step that comes after that: the search for new love; one that is done in the attempt to balance lessons learned from hurtful experiences with joyful new hope.
Whether the smoothness with which the band has traveled through that arch is part of an artistic plan or merely a reflection of their own lives is up in the air. However, one thing is for sure: Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim nailed it both in terms of writing and performance, for in “I See You” they sound like two people who are trying to move on but that have punctual trouble escaping the vines of the past that are holding them back, and freeing their hearts to love again. Nowhere is that idea best encapsulated than in “Say Something Loving”, in which Oliver sings “I just don’t remember the thrill of affection” and “I do myself a disservice / To feel this weak, to be this nervous”. It is intimate; it is vulnerable; and it aligns itself perfectly not only with the subdued singing of the duo but also with the band’s sound, which in “I See You” moves forward without losing its core identity: minimalism.
What the group does here is move its minimalism between scenes: if the two predecessors of “I See You” were rooted in the post-punk of Joy Division – albeit a brand of post-punk that adorns its beats and bass with electronic trickery; “I See You” runs full speed towards the indie electronic landscape. Consequently, the record almost completely does away with the organic sounds of Romy’s guitar and Oliver’s bass, and tips heavily towards the synths and the turntable of Jamie Smith. Beats and samples, then, tower over all other elements, turning “I See You” into a delicate electronic work that knows how to use silence and introspection in its favor, which are the two main characteristics that connect it with everything else the band has done.
“I See You”, however, falls short in the hard task of matching its precursors. Given the limited area and emotional scope in which they operate, The XX had always sounded like a band that ran the risk of producing an album that is a little too monochromatic for its own good. And “I See You” seems to have been the one to have fallen into that trap. The duets of Romy and Oliver (whether they are singing simultaneously and through each other, or tackling different lines of the same song) remain as overwhelming as ever. Yet, the fact the band digs itself into a mostly electronic corner here makes the tracks, with the exception of the anthemic “I Dare You”, almost merge into one another. Still, “I See You” is a touching and beautiful album with a large degree of cohesion both within itself and inside the band’s oeuvre, and that is an impressive feat.
Album: The Birthday Party
Artist: The Birthday Party
Released: November 1st, 1980
Highlights: Mr. Clarinet, Riddle House, Happy Birthday
Transitional. It is a term that gets thrown around too frequently when it comes to records as a whole, but it also happens to be an adjective that perfectly describes The Birthday Party’s self-titled debut. Using such a word to qualify a group’s first effort may seem weird, but it is understandable once it is taken into account that The Birthday Party is nothing but the renamed incarnation of The Boys Next Door, the Australian post-punk band that was the launching pad for the career of one of the world’s greatest songwriters – Nick Cave, and an incredibly gifted multi-instrumentalist – Mick Harvey, who would go on to become one of the major cogs in the juggernaut of alternative rock Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In that sense, “The Birthday Party” is the second of the four records that would be released by The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party and, for that reason, it stands in a weird middle ground between the blatant inexperience of former and the boundless experimentation the latter would go on to tackle.
The musical parable that describes the four-piece oeuvre of the group is one in which things get progressively wilder. The Birthday Party was, from the get go, driven by a maniac spirit and it seems that, the older they grew, the more confident they were in letting themselves be carried by their most savage instincts. Therefore, there is nothing controlled or restrained about “The Birthday Party”: it is post-punk at its rawest most visceral state. However, it is not the apex of the insanity; it is a compromise between a ravaged soul that came out of the ashes of punk rock and a desire to write palpable tunes. Rarely is the guitar the leading instrument of the tunes. Such a role is given to the bass of Tracy Pew and the drums of Phill Calvert, which create threatening rhythms that awaken some sort of tribal fire in the hearts of the guitarists – Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard – and of the poet of the damned who wields the microphone, Nick Cave.
Harvey and Rowland play their instruments as if possessed by a spirit of chaos and destruction: the guitars do occasionally ring like the bible of post-punk calls for; but, mostly, they are scratched to an inch of their death, punctually decorating the rhythmical core of the songs with vicious sounds. Over that borderline cacophonous symphony, Nick Cave half-sings and half-pleads like a demented preacher who, instead of urging his followers to strive for salvation, paints horrifying pictures to force them to face life at its most brutal. The result is music that is somewhat jubilant, hence more than justifying The Birthday Party’s aptly chosen name; however, it is a celebration that is happening inside one dark asylum, where the most dangerous patients have crawled out of their cells and killed everyone who has a drop of sanity running in their bloodstream.
“The Birthday Party” is a record that is more interesting than good. There are a great deal of things that make it appealing and amusing; after all, it is rare to see a band so shamelessly – or perhaps naturally – be as lunatic as possible, and then proceed to take that madness through a spectrum that goes from frightening (“The Hair Shirt”) to hilarious (“Hats on Wrong”). However, it does not have enough songwriting quality for most of its tunes to rise above the status of curious amusing items. Nevertheless, it is worth a listen, as a whole lot of its artistic aura explains where elements of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came from.
Album: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Artist: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Released: November 9th, 1976
Highlights: Breakdown, Hometown Blues, Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, American Girl
One of the greatest qualities of rock and roll is the fact it is so adaptable. The rhythm originally propelled towards the stratosphere by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley has grown and mutated through the years either by borrowing from other genres it has no relation to or by shifting its focus in the direction of one of the many styles whose mixture started all the hip-shaking and guitar-breaking. And, by 1976, it had already lived long enough to be made poppier by The Beatles; blown up to new proportions by psychedelic progressive bands; deconstructed by the punk movement; turned into soothing music by folk and country rockers; and much more. Given this never-ending inflow of different ornamentations and arrangements, the playing of basic and straightforward rock and roll becomes – in its simplicity – utterly remarkable, and that is precisely where Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers come in.
There is absolutely nothing new about the set of ten songs that make up the now-legendary group’s self-titled debut, nor is there anything shockingly inventive about the numerous records that would follow. However, that is the beauty of it; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers never aspire to be more than they are, which is a fantastic rock and roll ensemble, and Petty works hard with a guitar, a notebook, and a pen to give his musical machine the material that will serve as fuel for the combustion that is The Heartbreakers’ brand of rock and roll.
In “Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers”, just like he embraces the rhythmic characteristics of the genre, he also throws himself into the pool of the style’s usual themes: girls and partying, be it separated or joined together in the same song. In the infectious and positively danceable “Hometown Blues”, there are girls who leave town to chase their dreams of becoming rock stars; in the ballad “The Wild One, Forever”, there is the girl who is an impossible catch and the one that – naturally – the singer desperately pines for; in “American Girl”, by a wide margin the album’s strongest cut, there is the girl who strives for a new life away from the constraints and heartbreaks that surround her; and in the brief opener “Rockin’ Around (With You)”, there is the girl who cures the composer of his pain by accepting to be with him whether for a couple of dances or for a while longer than that. Petty, however, finds the time to take some thematic detours during the atmospheric “Strangered in the Night” and “Luna”, which take advantage of Benmont Tench’s keyboards to approach a sinister and almost supernatural story – in the case of the former; and an unexpected introspective take on loneliness – in the case of the latter.
Although Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers would go on to produce better records, their self-titled debut stands as one of the strongest points of their output because of its humility, sincerity, and – of course – its songwriting. Petty was never a Dylan, nor was he ever a Springsteen; and in knowing that he sought not to replicate their grandeur, but to aim for a different market and goal. As one of the album’s most energetic cuts says, “Anything that’s rock and roll’s fine”, and Tom Petty knows how to conjure that feeling better than everyone else.
Artist: Bob Dylan
Released: March 31st, 2017
Highlights: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan, I Could Have Told You, Once Upon a Time, The Best Is Yet to Come, Day In Day Out
Bob Dylan has never been shy to do the exact opposite of what the expectations around him look forward to. He did it in 1965, when he shunned his folk followers – and angered them deeply – by picking up an electric guitar; he did it in 1969, when he chose to become a country crooner even though his voice had always been a point of contention among his critics; and he also did it in 1978, when he released the first of what would be a trilogy of albums containing originally penned Christian music. Fast forward through four decades, and here we are again, sitting – possibly – in the end of yet another trilogy in which Dylan did not give one drop of attention to what his fans wanted and proceeded to do whatever it is he wished to, which – in this case – was singing covers of classic American songs that were once done by Frank Sinatra.
It is unquestionable such free will and disregard for outside opinions have been key in making Dylan the artist he is – one that recently earned the Nobel Prize in Literature via his songwriting. And in “Triplicate” he multiplies – and flaunts – the liberty he has by putting together a whopping three records – containing ten songs each – in which he squeezes most of the juice that was left in the American songbook. Aggregated with “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, then, “Triplicate” – if it indeed turns out to be Dylan’s last effort in the field – is the final brick in the construction of his statue as one of the most important interpreters of the genre; someone who has dared to bring these old treasures into the modern music world. Although such journey was neither as well-documented nor as resounding as it would have been had it happened decades ago, it is still a pretty remarkable achievement to fall alongside his medals of folk bard and rock and roll legend.
“Shadows in the Night” was nocturnal and moody. “Fallen Angels” was more energetic in its balance between ballads and numbers with faster tempos. Given “Triplicate” carries thirty tunes, one would expect it to be one of those traditional lengthy albums that carry a little bit of everything. That, however, is not the case. “Triplicate”, save for rare exceptions that never quite reach the swinging pace of the most exciting moments of “Fallen Angels”, is uniformly built of slow songs. And in such a massive set, that is quite a problem, because anyone who is not familiar with these tracks will have an awfully hard time telling them apart. Through most of its ninety-five-minute running time, then, “Triplicate” is not about emoting its listeners to high degrees, but luring them into the web of its atmosphere, and it does a great job in that regard.
It all works because even though “Triplicate”, like its two predecessors, is a homage to a time that is the antithesis of the singer-songwriter model that Dylan himself – along others – made popular, it is clear Bob and his band are having a blast playing these tunes. The arrangements are true to those of the originals, but they are masterfully executed; and over this musical bed Dylan captures the heart of these songs with his scruffy voice and an endearing delivery that tries to reach notes it knows it cannot get to. Due to the size of its content, “Triplicate” is not as immediate, likable, and easy to get into as “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels”, and a greater variety of tempos would have done it a big favor. Nevertheless, it is a finely produced music set.