Album: Resistance Is Futile
Artist: Manic Street Preachers
Released: April 13th, 2018
Highlights: International Blue, Distant Colours, Dylan & Caitlin, A Song for the Sadness
“Resistance Is Futile” has defiance. Otherwise, of course, it would barely be able to qualify as a true Manic Street Preachers album. In the record’s two heaviest songs, “Sequels of Forgotten Wars” and “Broken Algorithms”, the trio rides guitar riffs that tread the line between hard rock and heavy metal while exposing a great deal of good old-fashioned anger towards, respectively, humanity’s ancient habit of repeating mistakes of the past and starting armed conflicts over futile matters by using failed means, and the brand new industry of fake information. They are, effectively, songs that could have easily fit into either “Generation Terrorists” or “The Holy Bible”: albums from a time when a much younger group of guys from Wales, under the same moniker, wielded microphones and rock instruments like weapons of insurgence. Time, however, has passed, and in “Resistance Is Futile” it is easy to see that the band that once aspired to launch a revolution via rock music has let the harshness of the world erode their energetic edge, turning sharp defiance into dull and painful resignation.
Nonetheless, the Manic Street Preachers of “Resistance Is Futile” are not defeated. The lethargic yet moving “The Left Behind”, which closes the album, may wrap this particular journey on a pessimistic note, as Nicky Wire, a rare vocalist, sings he is waiting for the end of time. And, indeed, with thirteen records on their backs, the Manic Street Preachers are closer to their finish line than to their ground zero. Through most of the course of “Resistance Is Futile”, though, there is a thread of hope, because by straying away from the political environment, one that causes a considerable amount of wear and tear to those who dare to swim against the current and stand up to what they feel is wrong, the Manic Street Preachers run to the arms of what makes all fights worth fighting: art and love. It is hard to tell whether Nicky Wire, the group’s lyricist, executed such a thematic shift in order to remind himself of why those harsh battles need to be tackled or if he chose to do it as a way to send a letter to the next generations of engaged and conscious humans. Regardless of the goal, though, the message rings true and powerful. “Resistance Is Futile”, therefore, abounds with references to what is important to members of the group.
In the spectrum of art, the record centers songs around French artist Yves Klein (“International Blue”); American photographer Vivian Maier (“Vivian”), who was virtually unknown until her death revealed an astounding collection of 150,000 photos; David Bowie (“In Eternity”); and an assortment of musical idols (“A Song for the Sadness”). Meanwhile, in the spectrum of love, the band travels to times and places that were valuable to them, like their youth in Wales (“Distant Colours”) and a special stay in Liverpool (“Liverpool Revisited”); sends touching messages to their loved ones (“Hold Me Like a Heaven”); and merge art and love in the duet “Dylan & Caitlin”, which thematically bridges the album together by approaching the stormy relationship between Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin Macnamara. One may be disappointed that while in “Futurology”, the predecessor to “Resistance Is Futile”, the Manic Street Preachers were clearly searching for a new identity by making electronic explorations, here the band has reverted to the land of straight pop rock, with anthemic choruses, occasional sweeping orchestration, lush production, and acoustic moments that punctually get way too close to being mundane. Still, it is undeniable that James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore have given Wire’s lyrics plenty of hooks, either melodic or riff-centered, to lie upon. And although the band is clearly not pushing any envelopes, the songs are mostly enjoyable, with the record’s highlights, especially “International Blue”, certainly ranking among the group’s best works.
Where, in their youth, Richie and Nicky used their rich cultural background, which revealed itself through abundant references to the seven arts, as an incandescent light that threatened to start a revolution while also exposing the worms that eat away the rotten fabric of our world; in his adulthood, Nicky, the sole remaining member of the pair, has grown to employ his fondness for those elements in a rather distinct way. They do not fuel anger, aggression, or incendiary words, but serve as a precious shelter from the storm of our times; they are a beautiful dome under which we can all rest and appreciate the beauty of what, in the end, makes life worth living. Perhaps a younger version of the Manic Street Preachers would have attacked such attitude as alienation; a more mature group, though, knows that all endless wars require one to take a break in between the numerous battles so they can go back out again and keep fighting the good fight with an augmented awareness of what there is to be defended and protected. Otherwise, it is surprisingly easy to lose sight of everything that is beautiful, give in, and let the enemy achieve victory. That is why whether it comes as a final message or as pleasant stop in the midst of a three-decade journey, “Resistance Is Futile” is absolutely necessary, for it carries words that had to be broadcast backed by music that is, at least, pleasant to listen too, even if for some it may come off as too safe or edgeless.
Album: Boarding House Reach
Artist: Jack White
Released: March 23rd, 2018
Highlights: Connected by Love, Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Respect Commander
Ever since his artistic breakthrough in the late 90s, when he fronted The White Stripes, weirdness has been an integral part of Jack White’s curriculum. It has existed in how a scrawny white kid with a strident voice from Detroit attempted to emulate the tough black bluesmen that inspired him; in how his deliberately noisy and harsh guitar playing challenged the limits of listeners’ ears as well as the physical capabilities of the old-school equipment he liked to employ; and in how he embraced the simplicity of the garage sound so thoroughly that he opted to put together a two-piece band that shunned otherwise essential elements, such as a bass and a professional-sounding production. Up until “Boarding House Reach”, though, that weirdness had been somewhat low-key; surely, one could hear it and feel it in everything The White Stripes did (even in their most accessible moments) and in the two solo records Jack White recorded after leaving the group. However, it was always hard to put a finger on exactly what caused the sensation that Jack, either alone or alongside Meg, operated on a distinct wavelength from the rest of the human population.
“Boarding House Reach” not just exposes the weirdness, it lives and breathes in it. The wackiness is so thick and blatant that it cannot be cut via mundane means; perhaps only a cannonball would suffice to break through it. Backed up by an assortment of musicians that is big enough to form an orchestra, Jack has produced twelve tracks that – for the most part – have no connection whatsoever with one another save for the recurring theme of musical absurdity. It is obvious – from the blues of “Over and Over and Over” (which could have been a The White Stripes tune), from the sudden loud and mad guitar outbursts that punctuate some of the tunes, and from the gospel of “Connected by Love” – that Jack still has plenty of love for the traditional branches of American music he so often explored. Yet, even these two songs, which are clearly meant to serve as the album’s islands of familiarity, are overridden by sheer insanity. “Connected by Love” has low synthesized hums that would make Hans Zimmer grin, and both tracks feature a choir of backing vocalists whose planned awkward delivery makes it awfully hard to decide whether the achieved effect is daring and positive, or simply grating.
Through the biggest part of “Boarding House Reach”, though, White is certainly not too concerned with American roots rhythms. Particularly, funk, rap, and electronica play major roles in defining the album, as elements of these genres are rather constant, coming together to form the instrumental fabric of “Corporation”, “Hypermisophoniac”, “Ice Station Zebra”, and “Get in the Mind Shaft”. Furthermore, tracks such as these show a version of Jack White that is not only fearless and restless (two characteristics that have always been pretty evident in his works), but also desperate to move away from his comfort zone. He raps often; he approaches many of the album’s compositions with a focus on the organic development of the songs via some good jamming rather than on standard pop structures; he puts together long instrumental passages (like the three-minute funky groove that kicks off “Corporation”); he comes up with arrangements that border on utterly chaotic, as the evidenced by the rave-up that serves as the culmination of the buildup of “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”; he throws in a couple of spoken tracks backed up, respectively, by a theatrical violin and piano duo and by sweet acoustic guitar picking (“Abulia and Akrasia” and “Ezmerelda Steals the Show”); and he engineers tunes that, within five minutes, present more phases than a twenty-minute progressive rock piece.
Jack White wraps “Boarding House Reach” up with two ballads, “What’s Done Is Done” and “Humoresque”, that are so strangely conventional when compared to the rest of the record that their choice as the album’s closers speaks, intentionally or not, volumes about the work’s unfocused and inconsistent nature. The truth, in the end, is that the artistic uproar of “Boarding House Reach” is more intriguing than great. There is a lot of value to what Jack White has accomplished here, and it is rather wise of him to acknowledge, with so much experimentation, that his next truly excellent musical production is more likely located somewhere other than in the garage blues which he tackled with The White Stripes or in the alternative rock inside which his solo career began. “Boarding House Reach” makes up for quite a fun listen, for it showcases a musician having a total artistic freak-out with no regard whatsoever for public evaluation, and it is obvious Jack White had the time of his life in recording whatever it was he and his armada of musicians came up with. Still, to qualify as more than an interesting work, a little more focus would have been in order. Perhaps, now that his musical palette has been expanded to the full length of his quirky taste, Jack can go on to do just about that.
Album: Led Zeppelin III
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Released: October 5th, 1970
Highlights: Immigrant Song, Celebration Day, Since I’ve Been Loving You, Gallows Pole
By the time “Led Zeppelin III” came around, Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham had spent the entire length of their first two records building their reputation as a blues rock band. From the black men who had roamed towns around the Mississippi river with nothing but old guitars strapped to their backs, the band had done plenty of borrowing, stealing, and reconstructing in order to bring blues to a new audience, who had never – in many cases – heard of names such as Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Willie Dixon. Led Zeppelin had built tunes that stomped around like mighty elephants, they had explored male sexuality to such an extreme height that the term cock rock had to be coined in order to better identify the brand of hard rock they were unleashing upon the world, and they represented the loudest and heaviest spectrum of rock music at a time Black Sabbath’s arrival on the scene still lay in the future. That’s why it was so utterly surprising (to the point that the rock press, unable to comprehend what they were witnessing, slammed the album) that when the final months of 1970 came around, Led Zeppelin pulled out their acoustic instruments and went folk.
Going folk may, in fact, be an exaggeration and an oversimplified qualification of “Led Zeppelin III”. However, to a band that had only dabbled in unplugged balladry a handful of times, a record in which most of the songs are guided by acoustic strums feels almost like a revolution. That is not to say “Led Zeppelin III” is soft. “Immigrant Song”, led by the legendary Valkyrie cry of Robert Plant, sails forward with such unstoppable fearlessness and might that it recalls the viking armada its lyrics refer to; “Celebration Day” is a rocket that, after warming up its engines, is launched into the atmosphere around the twenty-five second mark, when Bonham’s drums come in; the quiet “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is the sexiest, tensest, and greatest blues rock song ever penned, thanks to how Page insinuates sexual tension with an orgasmic guitar performance and Plant personifies love-related psychological weariness over a thick groove laid down by Jones and Bonham; and “Out on the Tiles” carries a riff that repeatedly rises high before using the acquired altitude to smack down hard on listeners’ brains.
Sill, even though Led Zeppelin remains capable of rocking hard and despite the heavyweights the record presents, which are all nicely packed into its first side, “Led Zeppelin III” is undeniably defined by its six folk tracks. In these, Plant and Page touch upon candid innocence and sweetness; two qualities not very closely associated with the group up to that point. Punctual acoustic tunes had existed in previous Led Zeppelin works, but they had been either unfulfilling (“Thank You”) or grounded on bitterness (“Your Time Is Gonna Come”). Here, however, not only are they mostly very well-written from a musical and lyrical perspective, but they also break new thematic ground due to vulnerabilities on display. Moreover, these are acoustic tracks that come in a myriad of flavors: “Friends” achieves grandeur thanks to Jones’ orchestration work, “Gallows Pole” is the rearrangement of a traditional folk song that begins with one gentle guitar and slowly builds up in speed and instrumental layers until it reaches a frantic ending, “Tangerine” uses a majestic almost medieval melody and a twelve-string guitar to talk about a childhood love, the simple pastoral strum of “That’s the Way” is reproduced by an army of string instruments (including a dulcimer and a mandolin), and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” recreates a joyful walk through the countryside as it is propelled by a steady drum beat and cheery hand claps.
The sole dud that comes out of “Led Zeppelin III”, and the sole reason it cannot be considered a perfect album, comes in the shape of its most experimental take on folk music: the infamous closer “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. Although it is the acoustic cut most closely associated with blues, a genre with which the band was well familiar, its irregular structure, made of parts that do not belong together, and the weird, almost psychedelic, effects applied to Plant’s vocals and Page’s slide guitar amount to a lackluster song. With or without that minor stumble, “Led Zeppelin III” is the sound a band that refused to dig itself into a deceivingly comfortable corner that would have ended up serving as an inescapable trap in the long run. It is the opening of new sonic spaces and the expansion of a deck of tricks that would yield future artistic achievements such as “Led Zeppelin IV” and “Physical Graffiti”. Though not entirely understood at the time of its release, “Led Zeppelin III” was a major turning point for the group, and one that happened for the better.
Album: Chelsea Girl
Released: October 1st, 1967
Highlights: The Fairest of the Seasons, These Days, I’ll Keep It With Mine, Somewhere There’s a Feather
Nico’s career as a singer easily ranks as one of those idiosyncratic ideas that could only come out of a restless and highly creative mind such as that of Andy Warhol. The American artist, who had built – from his New York studio, The Factory – an empire encompassing nearly all kinds of artistic expressions, had already, earlier in 1967, played a major role in bringing to the market one of the boldest, most important, and best records in rock history, “The Velvet Underground & Nico”. As its title implies, Warhol – through a lot of persuasion – had convinced the now legendary band to feature Nico, then a model and an actress, as the lead singer of three of the songs of their debut record. Her thick German accent, generally cold delivery, unusually deep voice, and clear inability to comfortably hit some notes added to the dark and intriguing mystique of the album, and fit like a glove in a soundscape filled with unforeseen avant-garde musical choices, such as Reed’s odd guitar tunings and Cale’s viola drones. However, as fascinated as one may have been about the presence of the mysterious German amidst a sea of noise and abrasion, it is unlikely one would expect, and maybe even hope, that Nico would gain an extra push, in the form of a solo album, for her to further explore her musical aspirations.
“Chelsea Girl” is the first of six full-length works Nico would release during the length of a surprisingly fruitful and interesting career and, perhaps due to an innocent lack of musical leanings, it is also her sole record in which none of the tunes have been penned by her. For such a humble debut, though, and much thanks to Nico and Warhol’s connections within the music world, “Chelsea Girl” holds ten tracks surprisingly composed by names that, when put together, could pass for an all-star lineup for the American rock of the late 60s and early 70s. Five of the tunes come from her former bandmates of The Velvet Underground; three songs were built by the then very young hands of a still unknown Jackson Browne; and the set is completed by Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and Tim Hardin’s “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce”. Despite the renowned brains behind the creative process of “Chelsea Girl”, the record is far from being perfect. Its irregularity exists not only in the songwriting itself, as some of its tracks are certainly not among the best works of its stellar composers, but also in production and performance.
With neither bass nor drums, putting its focus – instead – on a simple instrumentation consisted of one guitar and orchestral overdubs, a choice that famously irritated Nico, “Chelsea Girl” is chamber folk music constructed with songs that were most likely not composed with that genre in mind. Moreover, the delicate nature of the instruments employed places a dangerous focus on Nico’s voice, which is – by no means – as flexible as the material contained within requires it to be. Still, when all of those pieces come together nicely, “Chelsea Girl” reveals pop gems that are lightning in a bottle. In particular, Jackson Browne’s songs (“The Fairest of the Seasons”, “These Days”, and “Somewhere There’s a Feather”) gain a heavenly and touching aura when its astoundingly deep and beautiful lyrics are given an extra contemplative touch via the inborn distance present in Nico’s voice and the moving strings and guitars arrangements. The same positive effect, albeit to a smaller degree, is felt on Cale and Reed’s shockingly straightforward “Little Sister”, the medieval “Winter Song”, and Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, even if the latter suffers slightly due to lyrics that are too intentionally meaningless for their own sake.
The problems surface when Nico, and the arrangements chosen for the album, are taken out of the realm of simple pop songs. “It Was a Pleasure Then” and “Chelsea Girls”, both of which surpass the seven-minute mark, may have clicked if played by The Velvet Underground, which would have probably performed dirty instrumental tricks to keep these experimental tracks interesting during their length; here, though, when they are left to be carried by sparse orchestration and Nico’s voice, which is stretched far beyond its limit, they sink. A similar fate is reserved for “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” and “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce”, tunes that – despite being well-written and pleasant – do not have melodic bones that are strong enough to make them excellent in a chamber folk setting. Even with those glaring issues, though, “Chelsea Girl” is a relatively obscure treasure from the musically gifted year of 1967. Nico’s voice may be something of an acquired taste, and a couple of the album’s cuts may be tough to get through, but it is nigh impossible not to be taken to verge of tears when she is singing about the poetic end of a relationship (“The Fairest of the Seasons”) or the fear of taking risks when one has been frequently hurt in the past (“These Days”) as strings swell and dance around her.