Album Reviews – 42nd Edition

damage_joyAlbum: Damage and Joy

Artist: The Jesus and Mary Chain

Released: March 24th, 2017

Highlights: All Things Pass, The Two of Us, Mood Rider, Can’t Stop the Rock

To most bands, two decades is a long period; there are enough days in twenty years for a musician to change his style and way of thinking a half dozen times. That truth, however, does not seem to hold for The Jesus and Mary Chain, as “Damage and Joy” proves. Maybe it is the fact brothers Jim and William spent a good portion of that period away from one another (as the band was inactive between 1999 and 2007), or maybe it is the fact they have always been cold-faced rebels (and true rebels, as it is known, never change their ways); but one thing is for sure, “Damage and Joy” – their first album since 1998 – does not feel like a record made by two guys halfway into their fifties. It comes off, instead, as a continuation of its distant predecessor, “Munki”; it is an album that does not push any envelopes that have never been pushed before, and therein lies the reason it is reasonable to either like it or dismiss it.

It is important to remember that The Jesus and Mary Chain have never been rock and roll chameleons. Their debut, the noisy and violent “Psychocandy”, hit the world hard due to its audacity in the merging of The Velvet Underground’s feedback with The Beach Boys’ melodies. It was a daring move that yielded great results, and the group was so fascinated by it that they went on to produce another five albums with that very same mixture, in which the only variation came in how some of them were noisier while others were poppier. “Damage and Joy”, therefore, roams inside that clearly delimited spectrum, and given the number of stoned ballads it holds, it is fair to say it leans more heavily towards the pop. In fact, it seems to be so enamored with the band’s knack for producing soothing melodies that it is almost too soft for its own good (and soft is not exactly an adjective that one wants to use when referring to the work of a band whose shows produced violent riots in its heydays).

Certainly inspired by “Sometimes Always”, the gem in 1994’s “Stoned & Dethroned” that centered around a duet between Jim and Hope Sandoval, “Damage and Joy” features a whopping five tracks in which vocals are shared with a female singer; a number that speaks volumes in relation to how the band seems to be retreading rather than moving forward. Meanwhile, “Amputation”, the opening track, has the synthetic beats that marked much of “Automatic”; “Black and Blues” seems to look back on the catchiest moments of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s poppiest record, the noise rock masterpiece that is “Darklands”; and “Simian Split”, in which Jim proclaims he was the one who killed Kurt Cobain, recalls the mentions to Jesus Christ and JFK made in 1992’s “Reverence”.

That is how all of “Damage and Joy” is constructed: its bricks are references to the past. They, however, are mostly good, because if there is something these twenty years have not been able to change – besides the group’s approach to songwriting – is William’s ability to produce excellent riffs and Jim’s nose for good melodies. “Damage and Joy” may be hurt by a sound that is too clean (which is a shame given a dash of repugnance has always been key in making the group sound dangerous and subversive rather than plain and accessible); lyrics that are occasionally too dumb for their own good; and by Jim’s forced vocal delivery (as he clearly has to stress his voice to sound like he did in the past), but it is a fun listen. Even if it is a bit too neat for the band’s standards.

humanzAlbum: Humanz

Artist: Gorillaz

Released: April 28th, 2017

Highlights: Saturnz Barz, Andromeda, Busted and Blue, Let Me Out

A party taking place right before the end of the world, in an alternative reality in which Donald Trump had become president. It is the instruction Damon Albarn, the leader of Gorillaz and the singer of Blur, gave to the sixteen collaborators that would give birth to “Humanz”, the fifth album by the virtual band and the first since the 2010 pair of “Plastic Beach” and “The Fall”. Back when handing out those instructions, little did Albarn know the parallel dimension he envisioned would materialize; and, given the world’s political state signals the apocalypse is indeed right around the corner, “Humanz” could have come off as the work of a visionary, an album that captures the atmosphere of the context in which it was released, like some self-shaping sponge. Sadly, that does not happen, for while “Humanz” delivers the party – as it consists of fourteen dancy tunes (discounting all interludes and the intro) of electropop and hip-hop – it fails to conjure the apocalypse.

The album’s concept, therefore, was left shattered on the ground somewhere in between its planning and execution, and it is relatively easy to see why: it is just too hard to pull off any kind of coherence when all tracks feature at least one collaborator both in writing and performing. Albarn’s experimental soul, and his wish to work alongside others, yielded excellent results in “Demon Days” and “Plastic Beach”, so it is not that the Gorillaz formula is inherently bad; it is just that something did not quite click this time around. That is why “Humanz” ends up being a record in which great tunes like “Ascension” and “Strobelite” (which do represent Albarn’s original concept – the former by pleading a love interest to give in to desire because the sky is falling and the latter by posing questions about the frailty of existence over a pulsating beat) share space with “She’s My Collar”, a song about relationship angsts in the digital era.

If the inconsistency of “Humanz” existed in thematic terms only, it would be rather negligible; after all, numerous are the great albums that do not gravitate around the same subjects. Likewise, the same could be said about the fact “Humanz” feels more like a compilation by various artists than a work by musicians working together, as the unifying elements of the Gorillaz sound (such as 2D’s voice) are more absent than present. The problem here, though, is that such irregularity leaks into the quality of the tracks. “Saturnz Barz”, in its alternation of Popcaan’s rapping and 2D’s nonchalant singing, has the makings of a Gorillaz hit; and the dreamy electropop duo of “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue” is equally brilliant. Sadly, “Humanz” has just way too many tracks that are either downright terrible or unremarkable.

“Momentz”, with its grating beat and high-pitched vocals, is a disappointment given the previous collaboration with De La Soul had birthed the classic “Feel Good Inc.”; “Charger” is devoid of lyrical meaning and musical purpose; “Sex Murder Party” and “Carnival” meander without going anywhere; “Hallelujah Money” has powerful lyrics but, with its lack of melody, is too close to pretentiousness for comfort; and “We Got the Power”, the long-awaited product of the partnership between two Britpop geniuses (Albarn himself and Noel Gallagher) is a cheesy conclusion with an empowering message that could have been penned by someone in primary school. In the end, even if it has moments that will go down as some of the finest by the band, “Humanz” is too fragmented to rate as anything higher than an average and disjointed apocalyptic party.

audioslaveAlbum: Audioslave

Artist: Audioslave

Released: November 19th, 2002

Highlights: Cochise, Show Me How to Live, Like a Stone, I Am the Highway

How do you replace a singer whose voice had been compared to a weapon? It seems like an impossible task, especially when one considers such voice was responsible for uttering – with the utmost fury and anger – leftist ideas supporting a revolution and a total dismantling of the system. Yet, it was that very same challenge the instrumentalists of Rage Against the Machine had to face when Zack de la Rocha left the band. Morello, Commerford, and Wilk found the new voice to their music in Chris Cornell – the former vocalist, guitarist, and main songwriter of the grunge group Soundgarden. And through his impressive use of the belting technique, which makes his screams come off as the sound high-pressurized air makes when it finds a breach through which it can escape into a rarefied environment, he lent them anger and anguish to match the pounding sound of their playing.

Qualifying Audioslave as Rage Against the Machine with a different singer is, at the same time, accurate and misguided. The precision of that statement rises via the fact a lot of the songs on their debut feature the blueprint that guided Rage Against the Machine through their three records of original material: in other words, many tunes are carried by rhythmic riffs that land somewhere in between Black Sabbath and AC/DC and that culminate in explosive choruses in which the singer lets his voice loose. The mistake of seeing Audioslave as a mere renaming, though, is ignoring that even though the dynamics of numerous songs are certainly grounded on what Rage Against the Machine did (perhaps a reality that stems from how the four members had yet to gel as a unity here), Chris Cornell is not Zack de la Rocha: neither does he rap nor is he politically engaged enough to use his lyrics to express his ideas.

That means “Audioslave” is a record that replaces social matters with existential ones. And although Cornell’s lyrics are not exactly brilliant, they approach those subjects in a more mature way than in which they were treated inside the grunge movement. Moreover, the fact that he puts melody and singing – rather than rhythm and rapping – over Morello’s fantastic riffs means Audioslave is more hard rock than alternative rock; they sound like a heavy metal band from the 70s would have sounded if they had come to be after the turn of the century. The final dimension Cornell adds to the group comes in the form of balladry: where Rage Against the Machine only worked in one gear (the most vicious one available), Audioslave knows how to mix up guitar attacks with introspective moments, and the record’s quietest tunes (“Like a Stone”, “I Am the Highway”, “Getaway Car”, and “The Last Remaining Light”) are uniformly moving.

“Audioslave”, though, has flaws that go a little bit beyond irregular lyrics and being the product of a group that had yet to come together. Like many albums released during the early 2000s, it tries to fill up the length of a CD when it clearly does not have enough material to do so. With fourteen tracks that produce sixty-five minutes of music, the record falters at some points either because there are certain tunes that are simply lackluster (namely, the entire sequence of “Exploder”, “Hypnotize”, and “Bring Em Back Alive”) or due to not having enough stylistic flexibility to justify such a length. Nevertheless when it clicks, and it does so more often than it stumbles, “Audioslave” is an immensely enjoyable fix of adrenaline punctuated by powerful beauty. Unlike what Rage Against the Machine produced, it does not aim to change the world; it, instead, alternates the wish to set it on fire with the sinking into its dark depths.

make_yourselfAlbum: Make Yourself

Artist: Incubus

Released: October 26th, 1999

Highlights: Stellar, Drive, I Miss You, Pardon Me

Good music must be written with a purpose; it needs to be fueled by genuine intentions and, most importantly, it requires a clear target. Songs that are composed for everyone usually end up striking no one in particular, standing on a weird middle ground that separates universal adoration from total indifference. In “Make Yourself”, Incubus seems to be stuck on that island: there is little to nothing about the album – save for few tracks – that is truly remarkable; likewise, almost none of it – with the exception of occasionally embarrassing lyrics and “Battlestar Scralatchtica”, a four-minute instrumental starring turntables – is downright awful. Its strongest songs (which include the notable ballads “Drive”, whose acoustic setup was a first for the band; and “I Miss You”, with its swirling delicate guitar and a brief touching chorus on which the title is sung with heart) will still move those who grew up listening to them; however, save for that understandable nostalgic beauty, the record falters under a contemporary light.

And that is because “Make Yourself” does not seem to be willing to make the effort to get to the place where it wants to go to. It is quite obvious what Incubus wanted to do here: the band was bent on surfing the radio-friendly nu metal waves of the turn of the century. It is quite unmissable, though, that the group did not make it, for “Make Yourself” is still stuck on the funk rock wackiness of the two records that preceded it, and trying to pair up the extravagance and tongue-in-cheek humor of that genre with mainstream aspirations – which are evidenced in the album’s clean production and blatant hit singles – can only be done when one has the flexibility of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” era, and there are not many groups that can make that claim.

Despite the fact it is walking on a tightrope between the Red Hot Chili Peppers (sans the self-awareness), Jane’s Addiction (minus the delightful debauchery), and ensembles from the nu metal scene (with a prominent DJ included), without the bravery to jump straight into any of those pools, “Make Yourself” manages to hold some good moments in addition to the pair of calmer tunes that propelled it to stardom. “Stellar”, for instance, is a great exercise in dynamics, with a quiet verse that explodes into a chorus backed up by a wall of guitars Linkin Park would ride to the top of the charts one year later; “The Warmth”, meanwhile, has a chorus that – melodically – might be the album’s finest hour, and – as a bonus – it has a perfect merge between turntable effects and distorted guitars; and the title track sends a message of self-reliance and independence with a vocabulary that is aggressive enough to justify the tune’s loudness.

Three records into their career, Incubus attempted to grow out of their funk rock beginnings; and, while such a move was definitely commendable, its conduction was definitely a bit misguided, because “Make Yourself” lacks purpose and audacity, trying to move to new grounds and simultaneously making sure its roots are still attached to the place it has just left from. Thankfully, though, such a period was not in vain, for it was a change that – down the line – would yield positive results in the shape of “Morning View” and “A Crow Left of the Murder”. That, however, does not save the album from being, at best, average and inoffensive.


4 thoughts on “Album Reviews – 42nd Edition

  1. I can’t believe Chris Cornell is gone; I was shocked when I saw the headline. I was really young when Kurt Cobain died, so I didn’t know about it then, but I can’t help but wonder if this is how music fans felt back in 1994. He will be missed, but his music shall live on. May he rest in peace.

    1. I was 3 when Cobain was gone, so I don’t know how it felt either. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as rock music back then.

      Cornell will be missed indeed. He was a huge talent; we have lost an amazing voice and I feel terrible for his family. I pray they will find a way to overcome all of this.

      As a sad twist of fate, I had Audioslave sitting on my to-listen list for a while, and I decided to start listening to them a mere week before Cornell passed away. In fact, I wrote the whole “review” for their debut before it happened (I was listening to their second album when I got the news), and that’s why there is not a reference to his death in there.

  2. I haven’t bought Damage & Joy yet, I’ve picked it up twice and then put it back down – you might have just inspired me to go through with it now.

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