Day 7 – Perfectly opens an album

Arcade Fire – Tunnels

Purify the colour

Purify my mind

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Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

How much can you read into an opening line? The Suburbs opens with “In the suburbs I learn to drive”. What does this mean? Is it setting up a bildungsroman, the adolescent learning to do manly, responsible things? Is it speaking of the character’s yearn to escape, spending his life in the suburbs trying desperately to leave it?

Personally, I like to read it as a statement from the band themselves. On Funeral’s final track, Regine Chassagne mournfully weeps “I’ve been learning to drive, my whole life” using a car as a metaphor for a family, the youngsters graduating from the backseat to the drivers as they become head of the herd. In my mind, what is being said here is “Hey, remember Neon Bible? That album where we tried too hard to be grandiose and came off alienating people? Where we tried to save the world and forgot to save the people in it? Let’s pretend that didn’t happen. This is the real sequel to Funeral”.

And it is. It really is. Everything you loved about Funeral is here, with the added assistance of repeated phrases and explicitly mentioned themes. Maybe it’s lacking in outright riffs that will stay with you for years (go on, humm the intros to Tunnels or Wake Up, I know you can), but the blend of instruments is perhaps more impressive when there isn’t a strong single phrase to fall back on. It is reminiscent initially of The Decemberists’ The Hazards Of Love, being as it is a theatrical and dense concept album complete with handy reminders of what has come before. Some might get bored with the number of times they hear the words “modern”, “kids” or “suburbs” (as we speak I’m developing a drinking game which involves taking a shot every time one of these three words is mentioned, and is guaranteed to hospitalise even the hardiest of drinkers by about track 8), but it certainly succeeds in making the album seem to be a singular vision.

The songs are not consumed by strings or keyboards, and guitars are a constant fixture, Arcade Fire seem closer to The White Stripes or The Strokes than many of their fans might care to admit. Of course, the inventiveness, complexity and lyricism is ten-fold that of most garage rock bands, but when the album does delve into that sort of territory, it comes up with Month Of May, which, quite simply, rocks, and I will fight anyone to the death who claims it has no place on this album. Its irregularity is it’s advantage, the juxtaposition between it and its predecessor on the album, the lilting but a tad dull Suburban War, is one of the highlights of the album, heightened gloriously by a callous cry of “1, 2, 3, 4” by Win Butler, whose voice sounds as beautiful and anthemic (although maybe not as pained or delicate) as it ever has. It is superb that the track came from the same people that made the classically-infused, death-obsessed Funeral, and yet somehow, when you listen to it, the progression makes sense. And finally, a touch of humour from Arcade Fire. How often have they played with urgency and momentum to crowds full of “kids all standing with their arms folded tight”? Month Of May is a hell of a rebuttal to that culture, regardless of it being the one that hails them as Gods.

The opening two tracks, make a fine introduction into what Arcade Fire are trying to do with this album, although after that there is something of a letdown. Rococo is almost cringe-worthy in its patronising lyricism, “lets go down and talk to the modern kids, they will eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don’t understand” and definitely seems like a dud. It’s followed up by Empty Room, which is akin to a piece of fluff, seeming to take up less space than it actually does. Is it really a whole 3 minutes? It seems to come and go with barely a whisper, possibly due to the use of Regine instead of Win on vocals. City With No Children picks it back up, built around a single riff in a way that does not quite suit the rest of the album, but along with the hand claps and fist-punching vocals it grants the album a real sense of occasion after something of a purple patch.

The two Half Lights are too meandering to be classics but are definitely progressive enough to maintain interest. The tempo is a little slow and at this point of the album you begin to wonder how it will sustain 16 tracks and over it an hour. In all honesty, it can’t, tracks 3-5 could go without losing much of the album’s drive or purpose, if anything it would help it, and have TWO Half Lights seems excessive, even if they do separate jobs. If I were being picky, I would give Half Light I the chop due to how weak Regine’s vocals sound and how resistant it is to any change of style over its 4 minutes. I was waiting for a sudden Wake Up-esque breakdown to lighten the tone, but it never came.

Suburban War is pleasant enough, a mid-album track that is enough of a placeholder to not disrupt the album, but it doesn’t seem to warrant its own existence, as a singular piece, much like a few of the previously mentioned tracks. And this point it all felt that Arcade Fire were building up to something that wasn’t happening. When Month Of May hit, I realised they were just taking their sweet time about it. And then the rest of the album happened, and I was gob-smacked.

Perhaps the intention was to make a bottom-heavy album, which is slightly strange but this is Arcade Fire after all, but, for me at least, every track from Month Of May to the end is astonishing (accepting the fact that The Suburbs (Continued) is something of an epilogue), each one a powerful and detailed individual track that adds to the surrounding tracks as well as being plain brilliant in their own right. Wasted Hours spins a perfect tale of being a youth in a boring town, wanting to get out and see the world, and then looking back on these days of yearning with fond nostalgia. Deep Blue is another track I have heard people talk ill of because of it seeming out of place (re: Month Of May) but this unpredictability underpins what makes the second half of this album so special. The lyrics are intriguing in their strangeness but are addictive, as is the more upbeat nature of the instruments.

We Used To Wait is a masterpiece that many will fail to understand due to it being so self-referential. Again, Arcade Fire pull out a little comedy as they recall a time where patience was a virtue, where waiting days to hear via letter about an old friend was a worthy wait. The tension built up in the minute-long outro as the words “wait for it” are chanted intermittently in the background is an equal to the tension of that letter. Wait for an envelope to drop, wait for a chorus to drop. But, as in this case, “sometimes in never came”. A masterpiece in bringing the listener into the story and a gorgeous exercise in restraint.

Sprawl is a good word to use for many things, the concept of a suburban area, the album format as a whole with a sprawl of songs making it up, even Arcade Fire themselves, anyone whose seen them play live would agree that a sprawl of multi-instrumentalists is exactly what they are. We hear the two very distinct sides of Arcade Fire in the two Sprawl tracks, from a doom-laden, potently gothic tale of despair to a synth-drenched track I’d have to describe as Regine’s best ever, and suiting her relatively limited talents as a vocalist superbly. It is the longest on the album, but it does not outstay its welcome, and it shows quite how capable this band are at throwing everything into the mix and making it gel together and work. Even though the album is an hour old by this stage, a point at which bands would normally be accepting the need for two-minute filler to get the album done, the extravagance is not unwelcome.

And then, all of a sudden, the album is over, returning to where it begun, merging with the first track to create a perfect circle. If there’s one thing, one little lesson to learn from this album, Win Butler urges that it is to move past the feeling. Maybe we can all go there together, band, listener, the sprawling suburbs that are craved and yet disposed of so easily. All of us, moving past the feeling.

(Rating: 18/20)

2010: A Year In Music Awesomeness: Update 2

There have been a number of events that have prevented me from posting recently. On top of the work leading to more work leading to exams, there’s been a number of personal troubles put to rest, and events attended. It’s important to note that this blog occurs because I want to be productive in times when I have nothing else to do. The lack of writing in the past 4 months is simply a sign that I have forced myself into doing more with my life, both social and educational, which has led to large cuts in my available time for musical writing. This is a good thing. Now that the academic year is over, however, I can turn my attentions to some of the things I enjoy doing in my spare time, and writing about music is one of them.

I’ve missed out something important. There’s another, more relevant, reason why I have not been writing about music recently. It’s because I’ve been too busy listening to the stuff. My God, this year has been good. In early February I was already pretty impressed with the year’s output, but since then it’s just kept coming. The volume of excellent albums grows by the week, both by established artists like The National and Joanna Newsom but also left-field, unanticipated acts such as The Tallest Man On Earth and Broken Bells. As with previous 2010 updates, I’ll try to keep this to a simple list of albums that have come out, with short reviews of each, followed by news on future album releases.

The National – High Violet

I would never be able to overstate my expectations for this album. Coming off the back of “Alligator” and “Boxer”, and with the likes of a QTV performance of “Runaway” and a Jimmy Fallon appearance (where they played opening track “Terrible Love”) to whet the appetite, it seemed The National could not fail.

And, of course, they didn’t. Another solemn set of indie-rock gems, Matt Berninger’s obliquely mesmerizing lyrics, (who else could mumble “I had a hole in the middle where the lightning went through, I told my friends not to worry” with such purpose?) and the reassuring pace provided by Bryan Devendorf’s drums are more than enough to carry this album into best of the year territory.

High Violet contains enough variety to keep interest throughout, unlike, some may argue, its predecessor Boxer, and it is also more consistent than Alligator, despite a noticeably weaker opening third. Where the album really hits its stride is in a run of songs from “Terrible Love” to the aforementioned “Runaway”, where The National open themselves up, delicately showcasing the emotions that connect them to their fanatic audience. Paranoia blending into fright as financial doom approaches (“I still owe money to the money to the money I owe”) almost as often as romantic troubles. Although don’t for a second think that Berninger has forgotten about the so-called Dirty Lovers, self-loathing was never expressed quite so effectively as on “Conversation 16”, again, you begin to wonder who else could get away with lines such as “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, because I’m evil”?

In all, a worthy addition to The National’s back catalogue, consistently powerful rock with overflowing with smarts. Essentially, everything you want from a new record by The National.

The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt

News that Justin Vernon will probably step out of the solo game and return to playing as part of a proper band mean that a solo guitarist with harsh tales of love and mournfully unique vocals need to take his place in the hearts of nu-folksters. Kristian Matsson, who goes under the name “The Tallest Man On Earth” despite being of merely average height, stakes a claim to be that person on this, his second album.

A fantastically consistent folk album, almost solely Matsson and his guitar, The Wild Hunt has a feel of classic Dylan, but also bares comparison to contemporaries such as Sam Beam and Devendra Banhart. There is a definite vigour to his strumming, he attacks the chords and the words he cries equally, and it’s hard not to align with his passion. Especially on the fearsome “King of Spain” and “Love is All”, which features lovelorn wails that not many folk singers would dare to put to record.

Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

On first listen, I was worried that 20 year old folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling had become too hung up on all the allusions made to her age after the success of her debut release. It seemed that the result of that was an album desperately trying to sound mature, lost in a middle-aged malaise that did not fit well with a voice as youthful as this. No doubt the songs are good, the title track, which also closed the album, features a vicious self-assessment (“never rode my bike down to the sea, never figured out what I believed”) and a haunting piano to accompany the normal guitar, whist Hope In The Air is another bleak piece of cleverly-worded down-tempo folk. However it seemed that the enjoyment was missing, an attempt at maturity had sacrificed some of the charm and informality of Marling’s first record.

Luckily, repeat listens revealed that it was still there, downplayed but nevertheless available on tracks such as the catchy Darkness Descends. It’s a consistent album, that offers a new side to the singer, which is welcome, but I still prefer Alas I Cannot Swim, a record which offered a better balance between playful and ennui.

Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

It’s hard to write a mini-review about Have One On Me. It’s hard to do a mini-anything on this 3 disc, 120 minute goliath. Despite the length, it is less dense than previous Joanna Newsom work, and it is even possible to dip into single tracks, a thing that would have you accused of blasphemy and burned at the stake were you to try it with Ys.

The best way to summarise this album would be to say it contains a number of pop/folk songs, except seven minutes long, containing no discernible verses or choruses, and with harp being prominent. And with a skilled yet unique classical vocalist. So nothing like pop/folk, really.

Maybe the most important thing to take from this is that this album contains one of most unique love songs of recent years in Good Intentions Paving Company, and has been helpfully split into three separate discs that will not have to be listened to all in one go to be enjoyed. Other than that, all that can be said is listen to the damn thing. Only then will you understand why it’s so difficult to talk about.

Massive Attack – Heligoland

It’s tempting on parts of Massive Attack’s new album to ignore the music and play a game of “Which Special Guest Vocalist Is This?” This is as much a testament to the quality of vocalists on board for this album, Guy Garvey, Damon Albarn and Tunde Adebimpe, as well as repeat-offender Martina Topley-Bird, as it is to the music, which is something of an archetype of Massive Attack. What do you think of when you think of this band? More likely than not, what you have just thought is almost exactly what Heligoland sounds like. Not a bad thing, of course, but it does feel like the band are in third gear, churning out good songs that fit in with what is expected of them but without offering anything special to put this record in the leagues of Blue Lines and Mezzanine.

The only real exceptions are the Egyptian-mythology inspired “Psyche”, Martina Topley-Bird lullabying tales of an “old teal sea” as “the sun set a bigger me, and I was set to fall in” amongst competing guitars, and the closer “Atlas Air”, which is a conundrum, as it represents everything right and wrong about this album. Wrong in the sense that it is nothing we have not heard before from Massive Attack, all deep vocals and bass-heavy attack, but right in the sense that it is just so good.

I must reiterate at this point that there have been simply too many albums released to be contained in a single blog. I just wanted to make this note of all my favourite albums thus far (taking out Owen Pallett’s Heartland and Beach House’s Teen Dream for a second, I’d call those five albums my top five of 2010), and an Update 3 will be arriving post-haste offering my particular brand of bias on a number of other releases that did not hold my attention in quite the way that those listed above did.

News:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (August 2)

A couple of weeks ago, amongst much fanfare, Arcade Fire announced the follow-up to Neon Bible, entitled The Suburbs (a play on the Neighbourhood theme that adorned funeral, perhaps?). They were even so kind as to offer snippets of two tracks from it. Eight second snippets, admittedly, but eight seconds that launched a thousand internet discussions.

Thankfully, Arcade Fire have filled us in a little more on their third record since then, tracks “The Suburbs” and “Month of May” were given a vinyl release, and two further tracks entitled “Ready To Start” and “We Used To Wait” were played by Zane Lowe just a couple of days ago. They have been warmly received, showing a refreshing variety and addictiveness lacking on Neon Bible, although at the moment few are expecting a classic in the mould of Funeral.

Wolf Parade – Expo 86 (June 28)

Not long until this is released, although a couple of months ago it seemed to be hearsay that it existed at all. Mount Zoomer was a step away from the universally lauded debut Apologies To The Queen Mary, in terms of both style and critical reception, and it is hoped that Spencer Krug will keep the theatrics to one side (ie Krug’s side-project Sunset Rubdown) on Wolf Parade’s third album, and return to writing the kind of emotional indie rock that personified their first release.

So hopefully this is the start of my return to writing about music. I certainly enjoy it, and this year’s albums seem to warrant it. If I can’t enjoy music in this golden period, when can I? Anyway, expect my return to the Wednesday Countdown fold this evening, as well as a 2010 in Music third update to contemplate albums from the likes of Broken Bells, Frightened Rabbit, Johnny Flynn, LCD Soundsystem and Broken Social Scene.

The Video Bin 5

LCD Soundsystem – North American Scum

James Murphy seems to be a fan of this sort of stomping rock, which subtly sets about infecting you with its dance vibes even as you keep repeating “No way, man, this is a rock track”. After this and “Daft Punk Is Playing In My House”, I’m hoping that the third, and rumoured last, LCD Soundsystem album will feature a few more of Murphy’s epic blends of guitar and electro when it is released later this year.

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Massive Attack – Inertia Creeps

Listen to Heligoland. OK, it’s not up with their best, but it has been over a decade since their best. So just enjoy the good album instead of pointing out where they’ve “gone wrong”.

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The Good, The Bad And The Queen – Kingdom Of Doom

Oh, Damon Albarn what projects won’t you join?

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Arcade Fire & David Bowie – Wake Up

Sure, this collaboration has been around for ages. Doesn’t make it any less perfect. Anyone who has seen Where The Wild Things Are (or at least seen its trailer) is going to have the song stuck in their heart for a while, unless they dont have one of course. And throwing David Bowie into the mix, well, it just convinces everyone that an indie covers album a la Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back must be round the corner soon.

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Beach House – Silver Soul

The essence of Teen Dream is very well represnted by the video, while the band themself just go about crafting their moodiest, most addictive and just downright most awesome track ever. Victoria Legrend’s forlornly wails “it is happening again” amidst a strangely calming storm.

2010: A Year In Music Awesomeness

I’m going to admit it straight away, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at the decade that has just passed. I’ve pulled up lists of my favourite songs and albums of the decade, and hunted through the indie scenes’ most loved bands of the 00s for my inspiration. I think I may be beginning to feel the effects of noughties-overdose so, as a remedy to this malignant condition, I bring you a look into the future. Some of the following albums are confirmed, others merely rumoured, but if they do all pop up during the earliest 10% of the brave new decade we are about to encounter, then be thankful. Because it will mean 2010 will surely be an awesome time for good music.

Release Date Confirmed:

Vampire Weekend – Contra (January 12)

The self-titled debut goes down as a guilty pleasure for me. I had a bit of a garage-rock phase, Kings Of Leon and The Strokes and The White Stripes, which I like to think I have sort of got over. The elitist in me scoffs at my youthful folly, but I can’t help but enjoy Vampire Weekend’s energy and hooks, which makes their second album of particular interest to me. By the sounds of the first couple of released tracks, “Horchata” and “Cousins”, Contra will be more of the same, slight but memorable guitar-rock, but whether it will contain a hit the size of “A-Punk” is another matter.

Anticipation Factor: 7/10

Yeasayer – Odd Blood (February 9)

Though I wasn’t the biggest fan of Yeasayer’s debut, All Hour Cymbals, there were one or two tracks that successfully combined the catchiness of pop with eccentric instruments and surreal moods. It is with a mixture of hope and trepidation that I listened to their new offering, Ambling Alp, and it seems that the signs are good for the new album. Provided that Odd Blood shows some consistency, this second record could show Yeasayer step up a league in quality.

Anticipation Factor: 6/10

Massive Attack – Heligoland (February 9)

I should try and stop my brain from considering this to be Massive Attack’s Third. There are similarities, the long gap between albums, the cinematic side-projects, but unlike Portishead, Massive Attack have not had a particularly good pre-release build-up. Splitting The Atom EP was lethargic and mediocre, but the fact is it’s an EP and the material on it was clearly not considered good enough for the album. The odds are high that Massive Attack have a large amount of material stashed away, some of it is bound to be quality. And the cameo list alone (Damon Albarn, Tunde Adebimpe, Martina Topley-Bird, Guy Garvey) is worthy of note.

Anticipation Factor: 7/10

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter Of Mixed Drinks (March 1)

The step up from Sing The Greys to The Midnight Organ Fight was notable, if they could pull off another such leap this could be one of the biggest albums of the year. I’m expecting something on a par with Organ Fight myself, a few more basic bittersweet odes which seem to be their comfort zone. It is interesting to note that the band have hired a fifth member, whose purpose is to provide “various instruments”, which hints at a fuller, more layered sound. This is also backed up by a single, “Swim until You Can’t See Land”, which is a soft, slightly ethereal affair, driven by the sly couplet “are you a man or are you a bag of sand?”

Anticipation Factor: 8/10

Release Date TBA:

The National – Untitled

In an interview with Pitchfork, Bryce Dessner stated that “The album will definitely come out in 2010. It could be early. It’ll be some time between January and May, I think”. If they stick to that then we’re a maximum six months away from a new album by The National. Now I prefer Alligator to Boxer, so in terms of career trajectory they’re actually on a downward slope at the moment in my mind (only by a miniscule amount, of course), but still, if this is on a par with their back catalogue thus far, I would still happily shell out a stupid amount of money to get it the first day. A couple of videos of new tracks being played have surfaced around YouTube (search QTV Runaway for one particularly spellbinding track), and the material seems as strong as ever, although nothing that screams “first single”, which is the sort of track they need if they’re going to get the exposure they deserve. Either way, this is still the album that raises my pulse more than any other pencilled in for 2010.

Anticipation Factor: 10/10

LCD Soundsystem – Untitled

A recent release of “Bye Bye Bayou”, a cover of an Alan Vega track, did little to whet the general appetite for new LCD Soundsystem records, but leaving sensationally understated messages such as “back in nyc. in the studio. making record” on his (legitimate) Facebook page certainly did. No idea which direction it will be going in, what the tracks will sound like, or whether it’ll be more than just 50 minutes of silence. Still, there won’t be long to wait, as it is scheduled for sometime in March, but until then James Murphy will be keeping his filthy electro-rock cards close to his chest.

Anticipation factor: 9/10

Broken Social Scene – Untitled

BSS were in the studio back in May, and as a full band too, rather than the many side projects and split ends that seem to occupy most of Kevin Drew and co’s time. Even they have said it is too early to define the direction of their sound, or whether it is in fact staying in the same place, but the chance are this will be out before May. Not a lot of details on this, and not much new live material to go on, as the band members have been busy being other bands’ band members. Still, this album is worthy of note as Broken Social Scene are finally once again coming together as one entity to record.

Anticipation Factor: 8/10

Rumoured Releases:

Radiohead, Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, Portishead, Wolf Parade, The Strokes

That is a hell of a list. A whole lot of music-lovers would give away prized possessions to see those bands pull out an album from the top of their creative drawers this year. Most of these bands have confirmed that they’re working on new albums, and are aiming for 2010 releases, so we could be seeing these albums popping up around a year from now.

Radiohead are, of course, a law unto themselves, so any attempt to predict their movements seems as futile as predicting the outcome of the LHC. What was “These Are My Twisted Words” anyway, a sign? A red herring? An experiment? A whole new branch of cryptography could be opened up trying to determine Thom Yorke’s methods of madness. In that particular field, I am but an amateur.

Arcade Fire have spent the time since making Neon Bible fairly wisely, writing part of the score for Richard Kelly’s “The Box”, indulging in side-projects and touring, which I hope means they will be able to pull out something less mediocre and tiresome come album three. A return to delicacy over fist-pumping politicking would be a good place to start. Nothing confirmed on album status, but rumour has it they have just spent three weeks recording in the Magic Shop studio. Which is news indeed.

Portishead have confirmed that they plan to release their new album in 2010, although this is of course open to delay, unfortunately. No new material has been released, and it is more likely that the album will not reach us until 2011, but I’d happily wait another 11 years if the end product is as good as Third. If they can build on the darkness and lush agony displayed on their last release then the new album may well be my early contender for best album of the decade 2010s, though.

News on the other three bands there seems to involve less strong words and more hushed whispers. A new My Bloody Valentine record would certainly be an event to make any critic and audiophile alike take a sharp intake of breath. A third Wolf Parade album would hopefully right the wrongs that Second Album Syndrome caused “Mount Zoomer”, and The Strokes IV (as hysterical NME kids dubbed it) would give Casablancas and co.  the opportunity to prove they can go beyond one-trick pony status.

All in all, and even ignoring the inevitable debut stunners of the ilk of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, 2010 will be amazing. There will be failures and successes amongst these albums, but the failures will at least be interesting ones, while we, the listeners, will watch over the evolution of some of the current decades best bands into the new decade with perhaps more anticipation than ever before.

EDIT:

How could I have missed out the new Laura Marling album? No title yet, but the new tracks are great live, she seems to have matured lyrically and the full band is being used more effectively than ever. The rumoured February release is not official, but it will surely be out in the first quarter of 2010. A lot of second albums are rushed out due to demands after successful debuts, but a bit of patience never harmed an album, so lets hope theres good reason for the extra few months wait.

Anticipation Factor: Sorry for forgetting you/10

Top 42 Albums Of The Decade (5 – 1)

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5.

Radiohead – Hail To The Thief

Radiohead - Hail To The Thief

Length: 56 minutes

Key Tracks: There There, A Wolf At The Door, Backdrifts

Lyrical Quality: 4.6 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.7 / 5

Track Quality: 4.9 / 5

Album Quality: 4.2 / 5

Total: 18.4 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Muse – Origin Of Symmetry

Elbow – Asleep In The Back

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4.

Arcade Fire – Funeral

Arcade Fire - Funeral

Length: 47 minutes

Key Tracks: Tunnels, Wake Up, Rebellion/Lies

Lyrical Quality: 4.7 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.8 / 5

Track Quality: 4.6 / 5

Album Quality: 4.6 / 5

Total: 18.7 / 20

Recommended Albums:

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

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3.

The National – Alligator

The National - Alligator

Length: 47 minutes

Key Tracks: All The Wine, Friend Of Mine, Mr November

Lyrical Quality: 4.9 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.5 / 5

Track Quality: 4.9 / 5

Album Quality: 4.7 / 5

Total: 19.0 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

Various Artists – Dark Was The Night

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2.

Radiohead – Kid A

Radiohead - Kid A

Length: 49 minutes

Key Tracks – How To Disappear Completely, The National Anthem, Idioteque

Lyrical Quality: 4.8 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.9 / 5

Track Quality: 4.8 / 5

Album Quality: 4.9 / 5

Total: 19.4 / 20

Recommended Albums:

The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

Beck – Sea Change

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1.

Portishead – Third

Portishead - Third

Length: 49 minutes

Key Tracks – Threads, Machine Gun, We Carry On, Hunter, Plastic

Lyrical Quality: 4.8 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.9 / 5

Track Quality: 4.9 / 5

Album Quality: 5.0 / 5

Total: 19.6 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Massive Attack – Mezzanine

My Brightest Diamond – Bring Me The Workhorse

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(Somewhere on the south coast a man has just spat out his coffee in disgust).

So there you have it, Third is my favourite album of the decade.

What is it about Third? Its the bleak mood, coupled with Gibbons’ harrowing voice. The way every track is essential, even Small. The way it doesn’t seem to matter that it just went from a light ukelele interlude to abrasive electronic drums. Threads. The darkness. The beautiful sound of despair. We Carry On, the official war song of the robot armies when The Revolution comes. The turn of phrase, words that sound so wounded, vocals that sound so naked.

One day I will write a proper review of this masterpiece, and I shall properly put forward all the ways that I love Third. It is Portishead’s finest achievement. And my most loved album released this decade.

Second Album Syndrome

After producing my ‘disappointing albums’ post, I decided that I should study a common yet strange music phonomena, the Difficult 2nd Album. I think a lot of weight is put on bands who have produced impressive debuts to repeat the success over and over again. Debuts are often made up of years of material, tested through demos and EPs, so for it to be repeated so quickly is often difficult, especially for a new band who may not be used to working under the sort of pressure that will no doubt be put on them after an impressive debut. But nevertheless, talent endures, surely? Why would a band not be capable of a second quality record, if they had the skill to create the first? Popular examples of artists that suffered, according to popular opinion, come Round 2 are The Stone Roses, Guns N’ Roses (what is it about them damn perrenial flower shrubs?) and The Strokes.

I decided to take a few of the artists I feel most comfortable talking about (ie none of the ones mentioned above) and compare the opening two albums of their careers, paying attention to change in quality and their general standing in the critical and public eye. Hopefully that will help put some perspective onto the so-called “sophomore slump”. Or, more likely, it’s just an excuse for me to review eight albums.

Radiohead:

Pablo Honey —> The Bends

Coming off the back of roots more in tune with Pixies-style punk than traditional rock, “Pablo Honey” marched defiantly into the mainstream in 1993, but was rightly rebuked for containing too much anger and too little substance. “Creep” became a mild hit, before morphing over the years into a 90s teenage anthem. The album was inconsistent, with a few signs that the band knew their way around a riff (“Blow Out”) and knew how to structure songs (“Anyone Can Play Guitar”). Overly naive but with some skill amongst the angst. It was thought that Radiohead would soon disappear back into the post-grunge mire they had leapt out of. What wasn’t thought was that their next album would be recognised by some as one of the greatest albums of the 90s.

“The Bends”, released two years later, produced a series of tracks that again showcased Radiohead’s ability with guitars (“My Iron Lung”), but this time it had purpose, it had bittersweet darkness in place of punk shouting (“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”), and when the mood took them, the rock was passionate, contagious and accomplished, most notably on “Just”. It went down a storm, critics raving that this was the height of Britrock. The intelligence of the album, and the expected audience, clashed with the boozy Oasis and Blur who were both at their swaggering peaks at the time, but there was no dobut that Radiohead had made an outstanding record, far overshadowing its predecessor.

Bloc Party:

Silent Alarm —> A Weekend In The City

With the sound of angry Helicopter gunfire Bloc Party announced their arrival, wanting on “Silent Alarm” to give current British Rock a history lesson. They pulled a lot of tricks from the past and updated them, the lovelorn “This Modern Love” and the prettily paranoid “Banquet” not necessarily aything new, instead choosing to put old rock ideas under a 00’s microscope. The album was well-received, but the band really exploded in stature when the summer festivals of 2005 hit, and Bloc Party proved they could put on an epic rock show. The album was nominated for the Mercury Award and, though it does weaken near the end of the album, the first half of it contains enough addictive rock to keep the album afloat, and the themes and politics are welcome and never seem out of place.

Bloc Party next released “A Weekend In The City”. The leading single, “The Prayer” showed that their sound had become more expansive with a taste of the elctronic, whilst retaining their skill at structure and melody. Though the album does contain a couple of good tracks, such as “Hunting For Witches” where the sort of social vitriol seen on “Helicopter” is re-summoned, the album is mostly made up of overlong moodiness that is unsure of what statement it is making, the instrumentation on the more electronic, layered tracks meandering without purpose. The single releases meant the album was commercially about equal with the debut, but on the whole critics derided the lack of focus and enjoyable tracks.

The National:

The National —> Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

These two albums were not widely recognised by critics, given that they were released on a minor label whilst the band were still working full-time jobs (seriously, how the HELL did they make these albums and work 40 hour a week jobs? It’s incredible). To compare these two I’ll only be able to look at how I feel about them, given that most reviews of them are only made after listening to their more popular later albums.

The debut self-titled album is packed with slow-burning middle-American songs, often spinning a yarn of dull entrapment at an office job, using caustic lyrics to sum up their dead-end predicament. Clever and flowing, the album has a few too many average tracks, and not enough that stand out, but the band were clearly very good at what they did, slightly miserablist indie-rock.

“Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers” on the other hand, well, you should already know how much I love it, my account name is based on it. It does exactly what is says on the tin, it delivers songs of dirty, angry, confusing romance. There is anger for when things go wrong, solemn anger on “Lucky You” and “Cardinal Song”, but also venomous anger on “Available”. Throught there is a sense of unrequited love, a mood often visited by the more pessimistic of rock bands. And yet the lyrics are so original, the attitude so captivating, particularly on “Murder Me Rachael”, it seem as though they are visiting unexplored territory. The tales of parental woe on “Slipping Husband” give sides to love that are rarely portrayed in music, but are just as important as fleeting love-at-first-sights. The album covers everything, nearly always successfully. It captures a variety of emotions and the sonorous baritone cry of Matt Berninger is coupled impeccably with some of the best turns of phrase I’ve heard this side of Morrissey. The album is irresistible, and though the debut has highlights, it doesn’t match up to this triumph.

Arcade Fire:

Funeral —> Neon Bible

Arcade Fire’s debut had quite the gestation period. It was formed over many months in a variety of Canadian cabins, the backdrop being the deaths of several relatives of the assorted band members. What did this produce? A stunningly beautiful album, simultaneously wracked with pain and anguish, but filled with hope, promise that bad things happen, but they can be overcome. There are tales of passion in troubled lands, mythology seems to be called upon as fantasy worlds are drawn up in the listeners mind each time Win Butler croaking Canadian vocals breach the baroque, layered instrumentation. “Tunnels” opens with a blast, an epic riff evoking the sonic introduction to “Airbag”, and the song sweeps around jubilant piano riffs as Butler cries to an nknown lover “purify the colours, purify my mind”. The rest of the album cannot possibly live up to this grand opening, but it gives it a damn good go on the choir-led “Wake Up” and the sweeping “Rebellion (Lies)”. It took a while for the album to get noticed but when it did in 2005 it certainly was noticed. Watch the end-of-decade album lists, this will crop up in a lot of top 1os. Many people have it as favourite for Pitchfork’s coveted album of the decade title.

So how could it be followed? With a subtle change in direction, “Neon Bible” being released in 2007 to indie fanfare. It was dark in much the same way that “Funeral” was, but the subtle difference was that Arcade Fire forgot to write in the uplifting bits that make up for it. Somehow, it could not be enjoyed nearly as much, because this time the problems were being put forward, but we were not reminded that everything would be OK. It was bleak, which worked for a little while, but this attitude was drawn out through the entirety of the album. It was fairly well-reviewed, and of course, living up to the debut would never be an easy task, but it was still a disappointment to hear sagging, bloated tracks such as  “Ocean Of Noise” and “My Body Is A Cage”. Highlights were there, “Intervention” is clever and swooning as it encompasses church organ and anti-war crooning. “Antichrist Television Blues” is an oustanding, shimmering star of a song, hurriedly forced out by an increasingly angered Butler, the song rising with the mood gorgeously to a vengeful climactic cry of “tell me Lord, am I the Antichrist?”. These highlights cannot make up for a lot of stretched material, however.

So what have we learnt from these four artists profiles?

Well I’ve learnt a little bit about how to structure album comparisons and how to explain the evolution of a band through time. I hope my learning shows in the writing above.

But what of the 2nd album syndrome? I have reached a conclusion that could easily have been reached without this blog but, well, I like writing, and posting. So I’m going ahead and writing all this anyway. The point is, for now I will reach the much-delayed point, that the more impressive or critically acclaimed a debut seems to be, the more likely that the second album will fail to live up to it. 2nd album syndrome is only apparant in those that have set themselves a high bar, or have had undue expectations and pressure placed on them by a record company eager to cash in on the latest hot band.

Artists may want to take a new direction after people demand a carbon copy of their first album. It seems best to say that in the long run, an artist should evolve slowly, possibly with EP or demo releases to gain peoples atteniton, rather than make immediate impact. It allows them years to find a style to suit them, or to find what range of styles they can fit into. An impressive debut leads only to a band being pidgeon-holed, and not finding adequate time to expand their sound for future releases.

I bought Elbow’s “Asleep In The Back” yesterday. First impressions, pretty good, maybe overlong and too reliant on calm, swaying tones. I’m thinking of completing their discography, since I now own that, “The Seldom Seen Kid” and “Leaders Of The Free World”. I shall contemplate it later.

(Pitchfork have placed The National’s Alligator at No. 40. I thank them for their lofty placement, and set about my day, knowledgable that one of my favourite albums is critically appreciated.)