Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Released: August 25th, 2017
Highlights: The Way You Used to Do, Fortress, Un-Reborn Again, The Evil Has Landed
Hips. “Villains” has hips, and they shake, swivel, bop, bounce, and hop. That swaying quality is not exactly news for Queens of the Stone Age. Ever since their self-titled debut, their songs lived in the beautiful dichotomy of pounding listeners into the floor with heavy riffs that landed mightily and mercilessly, but also giving fans the irresistible desire to move and dance to the rhythm of guitars and drums that would, if used by any other band, generate some serious head-banging. It is as if Josh Homme, in his writing and performing, channeled the sexually free spirits of the prehistorical female royalty his band is named after and combined them with the hip-shaking of Elvis Presley. As such, perhaps it is not all that surprising that “Villains” makes people sway as well as it makes walls rattle; it is, nevertheless, the Queens of the Stone Age album that – so far – wears that quality most blatantly on its sleeve.
In fact, there is a party-like vibe that runs through the record, somehow recalling the loose reckless aura of Josh Homme’s side-project: Eagles of Death Metal. However, links between “Villains” and the fun-loving garage rock duo stop there, because the celebration “Villains” throws is a dark one; and the songs that are its soundtrack seem to always be striving to be epic, either in length (as the nearly seven-minute-long “Un-Reborn Again” indicates); in reflective sorrow (as the closing ballad “Villains of Circumstance” does); or in careless abandon (as “Head Like a Haunted House”, the album’s fastest and wildest track, which is so hyperactive its shape is hard to identify amidst the blur of its passage, reveals). “Villains” is the sound of band that has written two decades of history and that has been, through a great portion of that period, one of the world’s most respected and critically acclaimed hard rock acts.
Here, Queens of the Stone Age come off as a group that is fully aware of their status within the musical landscape, and they pour that unshakable swagger into the tracks: most of the songs in “Villains” are excellent, and the band knows it. “Feet Don’t Fail Me” gets the show underway as Homme declares, full of confidence, that he and his gang – moving with urgency between agony and pleasure – have come to bust listeners loose. And that is precisely what they do: they boast, and they deliver, as the following track (“The Way You Used to Do”, written to his wife) is the poppiest and most danceable piece of music the band has ever produced, and they reach for accessibility without losing an inch of their violent, daring, and sexual edge. As a more mature musician, though, Homme is not afraid to show vulnerability (as he had already done in “Like Clockwork”), and in “Villains” that frail side appears in both “Fortress” (a gorgeous ballad dedicated to his young daughter, which explores the hardships she will have to face on her own and how he will always be there for her) and “Villains of Circumstance” (which concerns the weight of being distant from home and family).
However, at its heaviest moments, which comprise most of the album, “Villains” is a lot like the devil on its cover: it is mean and lean. It jumps around incessantly, with evil speed, and just when listeners think they have captured it, it makes such a sudden unexpected motion that it turns the table: it is the audience that ends up being caught. Resting easy on its slick sinister grooves is asking to be surprised and taken down by a quick guitar outburst, a sexual lick that comes out of nowhere, or a cunning change of tone and tempo (as the one that happens towards the end of the multi-phased “The Evil Has Landed”). With the aid of producer Mark Ronson, a daring choice by the band since he had previously worked with pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars, Queens of the Stone Age bring the danceable aspect of their sound to the forefront. Still, the production of Ronson, and his synthesizers (which are nicely integrated into the mix and add special flavor to both heavier tunes and lighter ones), never take over or act against the band’s evil punch. Instead, they reveal an incredible variation on the always remarkable theme of the sound of Queens of the Stone Age.
Album: Sleep Well Beast
Artist: The National
Released: September 8th, 2017
Highlights: Day I Die, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, Carin at the Liquor Store, Dark Side of the Gym
Matt Berninger, the singer and lyricist of The National, is – in theory – not a man one would expect to be affected by a mid-life crisis. As he gets closer to the end of his fifth decade on this planet, not only is he happily married, but he also leads a pretty solid career fronting one of the United States’ most important modern rock bands. Yet, by listening carefully to his lyrics, whether they are from “Sleep Well Beast” or from most of the group’s previous six records, it is easy to conclude he must be quite miserable. Rarely does The National dabble into happiness, and moments like the roaring and jubilant “Mr. November”, from the classic record “Alligator”, are rare. Maybe it is just that the music the Dressner brothers compose for the band has the type of moodiness that makes gloomy feelings come to mind, or perhaps Berninger simply finds his artistic groove when he takes himself to some dark contemplative places. Regardless of the reason behind the unshakable sadness, in “Sleep Well Beast”, The National continue to explore misery and decadence, and – as it has been the norm – they do so very well.
Where “High Violet” and “Trouble Will Find Me”, the two direct predecessors of “Sleep Well Beast”, sometimes failed or took to long to gain traction, this latest work comes off as more direct and immediate. The hooks are more apparent and omnipresent, and with the exception of the title song, which closes the album by revisiting the beat from “I’ll Still Destroy You” and placing a nearly spoken vocal over it, not a single track goes by without a remarkable melodic moment. Armed with his unmistakable baritone, Berninger sings about relationships that have either failed or are in the painful process of falling apart. “Sleep Well Beast” nods to couples who have grown distant (“Empire Line”), partners who cannot seem to bring themselves to break up with one another even though that is obviously the right course of action (“Nobody Else Will Be There”), and marriages in which one part feels inferior to the other (“Born to Beg”).
Those issues, however, are not the sole focus of Berninger in “Sleep Well Beast”. The National has never shied away from politics, and the group has been an active voice in all of the American presidential elections that have taken place ever since they rose to prominence. As a consequence, the album – in more than one track – reacts negatively, and with precise subtlety, to Donald Trump’s victory. In fact, the combination of relationship troubles with worldwide social and political turbulence (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”) leads characters to substance abuse and self-medication to alleviate the psychological pain (“Walk It Back” and “I’ll Still Destroy You”). The future envisioned by Matt Berninger, yet, is not entirely bleak; there is a glimmer of hope, and that light lies on the up-and-coming youth (the beast of the album’s title), which is hibernating, waiting for the moment to wake up and give life to their incubated dreams.
Musically, The National immerses itself on those themes anchored in electronic beats and a lush soundscape (perhaps a courtesy of Bryce Dessner’s orchestral work) that permeate the whole record. Sometimes, those elements guide the songs on their own, with the standard rock instruments serving as precise ornaments; in many of the album’s most beautiful tracks, though, a huge-sounding piano leads the way, smartly highlighting the stunning melodies Berninger comes up with. The exception to that rule is “Turtleneck”, a wild rough barn-burner that could have been written by Nick Cave during his “Henry’s Dream” and “Let Love In” era. Independently of the approach, though, “Sleep Well Beast” shows The National firing on all cylinders and producing their best work since the stellar duo of “Alligator” and “Boxer”.
Album: Spitting Image
Artist: The Strypes
Released: June 16th, 2017
Highlights: Behind Closed Doors, Grin And Bear It, Great Expectations, A Different Kind of Tension
Initially, The Strypes caught the eyes of the likes of Elton John, Dave Ghrol, and Noel Gallagher not only for being a group of four lads that paid homage to the pub and blues rock of Dr. Feelgood and The Yardbirds by bringing it to the 21st century, but also for being able to do so pretty well. Sure, there was nothing particularly original about neither their songs nor their first two records, but among a crowd of pop musicians that dominate the charts and indie rockers that rule over the rock subculture, they stood out for looking back onto an era that is often ignored by teenagers of the 2000s. With two complete albums and a strong set of songs that gravitate around blues behind them, the time had come to either move on or run the risk of being stuck in the same subgenre for a good portion of a decade, and “Spitting Image” makes it very clear right on its cover that the boys found new music to be infatuated with and proceeded to write tunes with new influences in mind.
Bands that approach blues rock have grit; and that is not an adjective that is suiting for the colors and clothes “Spitting Image” features on its art, and it takes about three seconds into “Behind Closed Doors” for listeners to realize the change is not merely aesthetic: it is musical. What connects “Spitting Image” to its predecessors is that it is not modern; it is absolutely old-school. The difference is that instead of looking up to Jimmy Page, they pray at the altar of Elvis Costello. “Spitting Image” comes straight from the late 1970s, with all the love for strong melodies, light guitar riffs, and clean production that existed during those days. And, surprisingly, what The Strypes uncover with the move from the pub to the concert hall (a path that British music itself followed during that decade) is their best record up-to-date.
“Spitting Image” is fun, unpretentious, and loose. Despite his young age, Ross Farrelly delivers his lines with the utter confidence of someone who has a handle on life and that just knows better than everyone else. And with that air, he smartly talks about characters whose lives have taken a turn for the worse: there is the father who lost his family due to alcoholic vices (“Behind Closed Doors”); the couple that loses a part of their youth because of an early and unexpected pregnancy (“Grin and Bear It”); and the aimless youngsters that alternate between enjoying life to the fullest and wondering if what they are doing is right (“Black Shades Over Red Eyes”). The fact the grim nature of those situations and others that pop up along the album gives birth to tunes that are jovial speaks volumes about the kind of energy with which The Strypes wrote and performed these tracks. It feels like they are either too smart to be caught up in those binds or too self-assured to fret over those problems.
The true reason behind such cool smoothness, though, probably lies in how the songs of “Spitting Image” are just overloaded with sugary hooks; The Strypes unabashedly abandon a ship that was mean and rough, and out of that confinement they find acoustic strums, jangly guitars, and replace technical flair for infectious simplicity. “Spitting Image” does have space for some of the aggressiveness of previous albums, which surfaces in the form of a few strong tracks where a punk aura shines through (“A Different Kind of Tension” and “Turnin’ My Back”), a fact that bodes very well for a rock record – where a certain edge is essential. But, as a whole, “Spitting Image” is a delightful pop rock work that shows the lads will find success away from the nest of pub rock into which they were born.
Artist: Tame Impala
Released: May 21st, 2010
Highlights: It Is Not Meant To Be, Lucidity, Expectation, I Don’t Really Mind
Given the absolute peak of psychedelic rock came about in 1967, when the waves of the Summer of Love were powerful enough to sweep through the United States and have its outermost ripples reach far beyond the country, it is only natural that every single release inside the genre be compared to the legendary masterworks that were being produced in that era. And since the happy vibes of psychedelia were quick to succumb to the harshness of reality and to the heavy drug abuse of its musical leaders, works that attempt to recapture the magic of that era run the serious risk of either sounding like caricatures of the past or playful oddities that have arrived out of time. With those pitfalls in mind, it is a gorgeous miracle “Innerspeaker”, the first album by Tame Impala, does not end up being a bloody victim of the circumstances that surround it, especially when one considers how much it borrows from the inescapable pillars of acid rock.
Firstly, there is how Kevin Parker – the man responsible for writing, singing, and playing pretty much all of the material contained within the record – sounds a whole lot like George Harrison. However, instead of singing of mind-altering experiences over a plucked sitar, as Harrison did on some of the most experimental tracks by the Fab Four, Parker does so over a lush soundscape that has soothing waves of effect-laden guitars that wash over listeners in the same way as the ones from Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love”, while not overlooking the whimsical hooks of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, and the daring yet approachable experimentation of the whole of Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” or of the most welcoming moments of Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.
With all of those influences in his mind, Parker strives to create psychedelic songs that he can call his own. And although there is nothing revelatory about the record, “Innerspeaker” is certainly good enough to be loudly praised and worthy of the foundations on which it is sitting. Its verses are often quiet and contemplative, as if listeners are invited to look into a natural setting – as the one depicted on its cover – to ponder upon decisions, relationships, and habits. Its choruses, meanwhile, are the moment of transcendence, when enlightenment is unlocked and Parker is sucked into a colorful vortex of wisdom. And “Innerspeaker” brings that concept together in both music and lyrics. In terms of the former, there is a frequent repetition of melodic patterns that seem to be stuck in search of a getaway, and the path out of that vicious circle comes in sweet explosions of effects. As for the latter, Parker employs conflicted and indecisive inner dialogues that find relief and direction when the pop choruses come around.
Even if it does not abandon that neat musical architecture for a second, save for in the instrumental “Jeremy’s Storm”, “Innerspeaker” never comes off as an album that is treading on the same ground aimlessly, because under every somewhat similar stone that he upturns, Parker finds a track that is noteworthy and distinguished. When his melodies are not utterly gripping, they are – like the mind of a classical romantic poet – wandering amidst nature in search of a great discovery, and they are invariably able to locate and expose the coveted treasure. “Innerspeaker”, therefore, uses its pieces to form one cohesive piece that is tightly constructed under a defined conceptual umbrella. The Summer of Love may be long gone, and psychedelic rock may be no longer a cultural phenomenon, but their children and grandchildren are still holding tightly to their message and spreading it through excellent music.