Album Reviews – 47th Edition

concrete_goldAlbum: Concrete and Gold

Artist: Foo Fighters

Released: September 15th, 2017

Highlights: Run, The Sky Is a Neighborhood, Arrows, The Line

It is hard not to be affected by the uncontrollable enthusiasm of Dave Grohl. The bandleader of Foo Fighters has, perhaps more than any other musician of his generation, emerged as a lone mainstream musketeer of pure rock and roll. He has become a musical entity that is not only omnipresent, but also invariably sporting the highest amount of energy a human being seems to be able to carry. Sure, some may interpret his endless displays of excitement as non-genuine, because no living creature can – in theory – be so thrilled with such an astounding frequency. But if actions do speak louder than words and perception, the fact he has spent the biggest portion of the last two decades captaining a major and productive rock act, and contributing with his excellent drum-playing to the albums of seemingly everyone he happens to be friends with should say volumes about his work ethic and passion for what he does.

As such, the most unbiased opinion one can have of Grohl is that, maybe, he simply knows how lucky he has been, and – for that reason – he cannot help feeling good about it and trying to give back to his fans and colleagues alike. Therefore, perhaps he just wants to make people happy, and he tries to achieve that by making them like him and by giving them what he understands he does best: friendly and catchy hard rock. In a way, that completely hypothetical analysis of Dave’s psyche may explain why the Foo Fighters have not made any bold artistic moves during their lengthy career: those shifts may cause fans to be alienated by a new musical direction, which invariably leads them to turn on the artist. Given negative feelings do not seem to exist in the world of Dave Ghrol, his band has stood as reliable a safety net; going into a Foo Fighters record is getting precisely what one expects of it, and “Concrete and Gold” is not different.

If an effort has to be made to differentiate “Concrete and Gold” from its predecessors, one could – as the band’s drummer, Taylor Hawkins, did – call it the weird record. The opener, “T-Shirt”, for instance, begins with punctual acoustic strums accompanied by Dave’s quiet singing before exploding into a gigantic Queen-like operatic catharsis (and it does all of that in less than ninety seconds). Nothing else in “Concrete and Gold” comes close to such oddity, but most of the other tracks show little delightful quirks. “Run”, which alternates a great deal of screaming with a more melodic chorus and bridge, has a very peculiar song structure; “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” dresses the hooks of its catchy chorus with choir-like backing vocals; “Dirty Water” is half acoustic contemplation and half borderline drone riffing in the vein of Queens of the Stone Age; the sweet “Happy Ever After” has soothing harmonies that nod to The Beach Boys; “Sunday Ray”, sung by Hawkins, is a slow-stomp rocker; and the closing title track is heavy and lethargic to a point that it is almost psychedelic.

As far as late-career victories go, “Concrete and Gold” is not as brilliant as “Wasting Light”; still, it is a more solid and engaging album than the aimless “Sonic Highways”. At this point, expecting the Foo Fighters to deliver a grand artistic statement is setting oneself for disappointment. Like the Ramones and AC/DC, they know what they do well and they are aware of what their fanbase desires; they will not stray away from that. “Concrete and Gold” adds melodic and harmonic flavors to the group’s sound. It wiggles inside the spectrum of the Foo Fighters’ area of operation. In doing so, it finds a set of good songs and some highlights that would have not appeared anywhere else in their discography. It is not an evolution; it is an adjustment of perspective, a look at the same themes from another view. With it, the hard rock safety net is still standing, and the worldwide ambassador of rock music can keep on fighting the good fight.

wonderful_wonderfulAlbum: Wonderful Wonderful

Artist: The Killers

Released: September 22th, 2017

Highlights: Run for Cover, Tyson vs. Douglas, Some Kind of Love, The Calling

It seems that, on the roadmap of many bands where one more prominent figure stands out from the rest of the group, there lies a record that will be labeled by critics and fans alike as a solo effort disguised, by superficial branding, as a collective creative product. In a way, The Killers could have been immune to that recurring theme; after all, numerous of the band’s songwriting credits have been historically shared between Brandon Flowers and some of the other guys. On the other hand, the fact not-so-devoted The Killers’ fans would be hard-pressed to name the band’s instrumentalists says a lot about Flowers’ towering presence and dominance. After four records, though, the scales seem to have tipped and the time has finally come for the album that feels a whole lot like the result of a solitary endeavor: “Wonderful Wonderful”.

Truth be told, the names of Keuning, Stoermer, and Vannucci – the first one to a lesser degree – do appear attached to the record’s tracks. However, the guitarist, bassist, and drummer of The Killers rarely make themselves be heard; without exception, their performances are not the anchoring point of any of the tunes: when they do show up, they merely complement the musical landscape that surrounds Flowers’ lyrics. As a consequence, “Wonderful Wonderful” feels like a sequel to Flower’s solo incursions into synthpop territory rather than a continuation of The Killers’ last record, “Battle Born”. That statement, on its own, is not detrimental to the record. In fact, running through “Wonderful Wonderful”, there is a powerful introspective and personal lyrical tendency that is not present anywhere else in The Killers’ discography, and most of the tunes do pack good melodies that rest on top of layered keyboards that are usually used in the construction of powerful ballads, with the cheery disco leading single “The Man” being an upbeat exception to the norm.

What is telling about “Wonderful Wonderful”, though, is that its best cuts emerge when The Killers are operating in their bread-and-butter territory. “Run for Cover” and “Tyson vs. Douglas” do feature prominent keyboards that are integrated into the music’s fabric nicely, but they employ those elements to fuel The Killers’ usual mixture of tense verses and extravagant sweeping choruses, and it works wonderfully well; “The Calling”, meanwhile, achieves greatness by taking a bluesy groove and guitar licks and adapting them to the band’s sound. Everywhere else, Brandon Flowers is treading too close to anthemic stadium-sized U2 ambitions for comfort; sure, sounding huge and being unfamiliar with the word constraint has always been The Killers’ defining trait, but those two pieces used to be employed in the building of songs with a distinctive character instead of tracks that seem to have been manufactured so that a tasteful The Edge guitar solo is inserted in the chorus and bridge.

With that being said, “Wonderful Wonderful” is not a bad album. Following Dave Keuning’s announcement he will not be touring with The Killers in support of the record, one could assume the old adage of creative differences between band members could be the reason why it lacks a distinctive flavor. Regardless of empty and futile suspicions, though, “Wonderful Wonderful” rarely fails despite the generic soul of many of its tracks. It is clearly a work into which Flowers – armed with a pen, his voice, and his keyboards – poured his heart and soul, and it shows. Hopefully, however, it will serve The Killers as a brief pit-stop on the way to a new sound rather than a place where a prolonged stay will take place.

dance_hallAlbum: Dance Hall at Louse Point

Artist: PJ Harvey and John Parish

Released: September 23th, 1996

Highlights: Rope Bridge Crossing, That Was My Veil, Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool, Civil War Correspondent

By the time “Dace Hall at Louse Point” came out, PJ Harvey had already published three full-length records in which she had, masterfully, explored different flavors of blues-influenced garage rock. Despite her rightfully earned critical acclaim, therefore, she had yet to mutate into the musical chameleon that would go on to put together stylistically unique albums of genres such as contemporary rock (“Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea”), haunting piano balladry (“White Chalk”), and English folk music (“Let England Shake”). As such, “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, her collaborative effort with her band’s guitar player and friend, John Parish, marks the first time PJ Harvey showed signs of the multifaceted artist that lay within the rough, sexual, and violent image she had held up to that point.

Truthfully, much – or perhaps all – of the experimentation that exists within “Dance Hall at Louse Point” stems from Parish, not Harvey; after all, with the exception of one cover (“Is That All There Is?”) and two brief instrumentals (“Girl” and the title song), all tracks have their music penned by Parish, while it was left for her to focus on the lyrics. Still, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” gave listeners a first view of Harvey out of the confines in which she was musically born. The album does not completely abandon blues and rock: those are still the cornerstones on top of which the songs are constructed. However, Parish’s approach to those genres is far more unusual than Harvey’s. In common with her songwriting, Parish’s is in equal parts rough and discomforting, but while Harvey uses those characteristics to build fully formed tunes that lure listeners into their claws, Parish does not smooth the rough edges of his compositions.

Such a quality means that “Dance Hall at Louse Point” sometimes feels too unstructured or unfocused for its own good, as if it is the work of two friends who were more concerned with pushing one another to new places than with using that methodology to create music that is uniformly enjoyable. As a consequence, there are instances in which the experiments work; and there are times when the resulting pieces of music fail to be engaging. Parish’s adventurous song structures never take Harvey out of her comfort zone when it comes to lyrical themes: she is still usually penning and singing quite powerful takes on women who are either broken by a former partner or anguished over the mixed signals sent by a new potential lover. What his music does, though, is challenge her to lay down melodies over rather abrasive surfaces.

Therefore, when Harvey succeeds in doing so, the album clicks in place, as it happens in the acoustic blues of “Rope Bridge Crossing”; the folk “That Was My Veil”; or in “Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool”, which is quietly aggressive and violently explosive like Harvey’s usual brand of garage rock. On the other hand, when the melodies and music fail to stick together, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” is left meandering throughout a barren musical landscape in search of melodic centers of gravity that are just not there. As a result, PJ Harvey and John Parish join forces to produce a record that is rather irregular and that does not yield much that is truly remarkable aside from a few songs. The most important outcome of “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, though, is not the tracks contained within, but the experimental and stylistic push that it provided to PJ Harvey so that she felt willing and confident to tackle new and bold musical grounds with her future works. History has already proven such jump-start to have been quite valuable.

heartwormsAlbum: Heartworms

Artist: The Shins

Released: March 10th, 2017

Highlights: Name for You, Mildenhall, Half a Million, Heartworms

Through internal ups and down, the firing of band members, and one hiatus from which it seemed like the group would never emerge, The Shins have always stood as a comfortable and safe net for the indie movement. Unlike acts that – purposely or inadvertently – eventually find a way to break into the mainstream, which is viewed by more extremist listeners as some sort of unforgivable act regardless of whether it is done with artistic integrity or not, The Shins have remained right below the line separating the two clashing musical universes. In a way, such a fact may as well be seen as miraculous, for not only does the band’s debut date from 2001 (the year in which indie was propelled into the stratosphere by The Strokes), but James Mercer – The Shins’ leader and songwriter – has more than a few times written tunes featuring hooks that were powerful enough to drill through the wall guarding the market’s mainstream.

It is hard to know exactly why the breakthrough never came; as Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo proves, quirkiness and awkwardness can win out when dressed up with genuine anger or irresistible pop sensibilities, and the wacky Mercer has a lot of the latter. Independently of the whys, though, and safely stuck in indie haven, where an eager audience will always be waiting for his next move, Mercer and The Shins get to their fifth record in “Heartworms”. By now, the world (or at least the small portion of the population that is listening) knows what to expect out of the band, and that is exactly what they get: light pop rock songs that lean towards the sweetest spectrum of folk music and that are decorated with Mercer’s seemingly endless stash of catchy melodies and lyrics that are smart without taking themselves too seriously.

What is different about “Heartworms” is how the folk rock elements are overtaken by modern electronic elements. These are not exactly new to The Shins: through their discography, sometimes to a lesser degree and other times to a much stronger level, synthetic sounds have always been present. “Heartworms”, however, pushes the boundaries to new heights. Although in some tracks they seem to be missing in action (“Painting a Hole”), Mercer’s acoustic strum and pleasant riffs can still be heard: they are in the entirety of “Name for You”; they guide “Mildenhall” and “The Fear”, the album’s purest folk tracks; and they make faint but key appearances in “Rubber Ballz”, “Half a Million”, “Dead Alive”, and “Heartworms”, where they are buried below keyboards. “Heartworms”, however, is undoubtedly characterized as a record where most of the musical hooks are not in the guitar, but in the colorful sounds that come from elsewhere.

The best aspect of “Heartworms” is that despite the shift in instrumentation, the album still sounds like a work by The Shins; the band’s soul – Mercer’s soul, that is – was not lost in translation. It is a far more psychedelic take on The Shins’ music, one that makes it seem like Mercer spent the time between “Port of Morrow” and “Heartworms” listening to a whole lot of acid-influenced rock like The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Axis: Bold as Love” or Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and then proceeded to spit out his own contemporary and less technically prolific version of that music. It works well, and even though there are a few moments when it sounds like some songs will succumb to their electronic excesses, Mercer always manages to rescue the tracks via his signature melodic sorcery.

4 thoughts on “Album Reviews – 47th Edition

  1. Some good choices there Matt – I’m very fond of the Louse Point one. Much as I like Dave Grohl I’ve long given up on the Foos – I need something a bit rawer from them.

    I love the Shins LP cover – I’m quite tempted by that one.

    1. That cover is gorgeous indeed!

      I am glad you like Louse Point. It left me sort of cold. I wish I had liked it more than I did.

      Have you listened to Wasting Light by the Foo Fighters? I feel like that one is pretty raw.

  2. Nice list!

    I really enjoyed Heartworms. It’s actually the only album I’ve listened to by The Shins. I discovered it while flying home from a holiday because it was on the flight’s music list. Ended up listening to the album on repeat for hours as I drifted in and out of sleep – kind of enhanced the psychedelic moments haha!

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