Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Arcade Fire's Reflektor shows creative thinking, a few rough patches

It may not seem like it, but this is the most pivotal moment for Arcade Fire since their inception. After snagging a huge upset win at the Grammys for their previous album, The Suburbs, the Montreal indie rock outfit have earned unprecedented license to do whatever they want in the eyes of many. The question is, after being vaunted so high into the music lexicon, do Arcade Fire continue to remain feisty underdogs, or do they become a part of the establishment themselves? The results on their fourth album, Reflektor, indicate that they remain a very forward thinking band.

It's hard to pigeonhole this album into one category or influence. They pull influence from more than a few places; there's more than  little bit of Beatle influence here and there, but they have melded lots of different techniques together to make something that sounds specifically like no one but them.Yet there are also flaws to be found on this double disc album. The tried and true adage about double albums usually containing a bit of fat may be worn into the ground, but it rings true in this case.

There are plenty of great tracks on Reflektor, and the good news is that nothing (well, almost nothing) feels self-indulgent, but among an obvious run of stellar tracks on Reflektor, there are more than a few that don't rise to the same standard of excellence, and some that just don't work at all. The band has attempted to focus on high minded concepts on this album, as evidenced by the Greek statue that adorns the album's cover. Tales of Greek lovers Eurydice and Orpheus, along with a fist pumping anthem dedicated to Joan of Arc, gives the album a historical, epic feel.

Finally, there's the fact that much of the material is a significant departure for Arcade Fire. You've no doubt heard that former LCD Soundsystem main man James Murphy worked with the band on this album, and his key contributions include injecting a much more danceable, electronic feel to the music, as well as giving it a heavy 80s vibe. The songs here lean much more in the direction of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" than, say, "Ready to Start." The dance pop aesthetic wears off after the first few tracks, yet even after there is a very clear and obvious texture to this album that makes it different from anything else in their catalog.

There are moments where they attempt pure rock and roll, and do it in style. "Normal People" sees frontman Win Butler desperate to avoid going through the motions that lead average citizens to turn out normal and boring. In order to help with this task, he's backed by a high pitched guitar lead that wouldn't sound out of place on a Bends era Radiohead record. "Here Comes the Night Time," meanwhile, dips into exotic, Caribbean themed territory they explored previously on "Haiti" from their debut Funeral, but they take it to new levels here. It lulls you into thinking it's going to make some statement on religion when Butler declares, "If there's no music in heaven, then what's it for?" Yet it ends as an ode to the joy of music, the same kind of lyrical thought process attempted by Pearl Jam on cuts like "Spin the Black Circle" and "Let the Records Play," yet done only in a way Arcade Fire could dream up of.

The tropical, Hawaiian beat combines with a Vampire Weekend inspired piano riff, and closes with some dramatic raging bongo drums. All these various elements pulled together, and pulled off so well gives this piece (as well as a couple others on the album) a feel similar to the Beatles' White Album. Elsewhere, "Flashbulb Eyes" opens with a spacey, ethereal 80s Japanese vibe and might have you thinking it's going to go down the same road The Vapors went on "Turning Japanese," but the tune stays subdued and even takes a sinister turn, as Butler muses on a camera that may have the ability to steal your soul.

As inventive as some of these pieces are musically and thematically, there are also some songs that seem be much quieter and take a backseat, while Butler expounds upon certain issues in quiet delicacy and majesty. "Porno," examines how selfishness and lack of regard damages relationships, and eventually drives people away. Butler makes his point eloquently, but the arrangements are pretty simple and safe, which makes this track a bit of a slog to get through unless you can connect with the theme on a personal level. Honors for the least effective track, however, probably have to go to "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)," which meanders in solemn, acoustic territory far too long, before finally breaking out and sounding like a stoned hippie fest inspired by listening to Side 4 of The Beatles' White Album a little too long.

The main problem is that some of the songs have such inventive arrangements that make you marvel in awe at Arcade Fire's composition skills, that sometimes when you get to a song that's a little bit more simple or straightforward it sticks out like a sore thumb. There's nothing wrong with having variety, but it seems like they weren't able to take their concept and make it work for an entire 85 minute running length.

The opening title track, for example, showcases Arcade Fire's ability to hit that perfect note that sends chills down your spine. Whether it's Régine Chassagne's French vocals, the guitar riff that follows the chorus, the sense of urgency that builds as the song goes on, or the chilling closing piano and horns coda, I defy you to tell me there isn't something in this song that will do it for you. And then it gets followed up by a track like "We Exist," which sounds rather sterile, safe, and vapid in comparison. In general, Reflektor works really well and has enough tracks to be considered a good or even great album, but there are a few rough patches here and there.

Score: 87/100

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs album review 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Folk singer Patty Griffin lights up the Ryman with warm personality

It's been a banner year for folk singer Patty Griffin. In addition to the long anticipated release of her lost third album, Silver Bell, she also released another stunning album, American Kid, in May, and hit Nashville's Ryman Auditorium last Monday. You may be familiar with The Dixie Chicks cover of "Top of the World," which was originally penned by Griffin and was a part of the Silver Bell album. She included that song in her set, but the primary focus of the evening was in Griffin's reflection upon her family, specifically the men in her family. More than a few cuts from American Kid focused on the life and times of her father. Stirring piano ballad "Irish Boy" told the tale of a wild night from her father's youth in one of Boston's town squares, while "Get Ready Marie" was inspired by a photo from her grandparents' wedding.

In the photo, she said her grandmother looks like she'd made the biggest mistake of her life, while her grandpa looked like he couldn't wait to get his hands on her! She displayed an incredible sense of warmth and reliability with a few personal stories throughout the night. She also showed off various nuances of her sound, including the old-timey gospel stomp of "Death's Got a Warrant," the instrumental interplay of "Faithful Son," and the Spanish flair of "Mil Besos." "Flaming Red" and "Please Don't Let Me Die in Florida," meanwhile, gave Griffin and her band a chance to kick up their boots. The latter got a big boost from a bluesy electric lead guitar, which gave the song a kick it didn't have on the studio recording.

Patty Griffin created a sense of nostalgia with stories of her family.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Reunited Nine Inch Nails rip Nashville with explosive dance rock

Something curious occurred while waiting for Nine Inch Nails to go on last night: a giant curtain went up to obscure the view of the set being built. For a tour where anticipations were already sky high, having the set building process be totally secret just fueled the fire even more so.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is one of rock's most passionate frontmen.

The buildup proved to be worth it. Trent Reznor and crew muscled his way through a dynamic, sweat soaked performance when Nine Inch Nails's Tension 2013 tour made its stop at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. Thrashing guitars merged seamlessly with cutting edge dance beats to create an explosive layer of energy that rippled through the building. Yet almost as intriguing was the stage setup crews had worked so busily on behind that curtain. The overhead lighting rig had nine sets of lights with nine bulbs arranged in rows of three apiece. These could be adjusted into various positions around the stage. Sometimes they might be directly over Trent's head, sometimes in a semi-circle position around the back of the stage.

This made possible for plenty of dynamic effects. When Trent wanted to be super illuminated it was possible, when he wanted himself and the rest of the band to be shaded in darker hues that could happen, and when he wanted only himself to be visible this could happen too. But that was only half of it. A metal grate would come down over the front of the stage, directly in front of the band, and onto this grate they would project lights and images. They did this for a series of Hesitation Marks songs, and it worked to great effect.

However, there is much more to being a great live band than pretty lights. You need great energy and fan hallowed songs, and NiN brought it. Their opening five song run, which included recent material such as "Copy of A" and "1,000,000," as well as old school tunes such as "Piggy" and "Terrible Lie" had the crowd raging and screaming along  Meanwhile, "Even Deeper" and "Somewhat Damaged" from The Fragile show off their capability to be a great rock band without a plethora of electronics involved. Even if you don't know the words, it's hard not to get carried away by the undertow.

Joshua Eustis injects some brass sound into the mix.

The material from the new album, Hesitation Marks strikes a dramatic change of pace from the band's well known hits. At times the juxtaposition seems strange, especially when surveying the more subdued Hesitation Marks material against their older, higher energy songs. So it's no surprise that many of those songs are cloistered into their own part of the setlist, taking place during the middle part of the show. To make up for the lack of energy, Reznor and art director Rob Sheridan coordinated a good chunk of the more intricate light shows to coincide with Hesitation Marks material. Its most effective pieces were "Copy of A," which sounded right at home in the opening set of songs, and "Disappointed," which featured Robin Finck going apeshit on a violin while being bathed in dreamy, psychedelic red and blue lights. It's the type of setup that George Harrison could totally respect.

They closed the main set with a devastating run of three high energy songs: "Wish," from their high octane Broken EP, "The Hand that Feeds," and finally "Head Like a Hole," on which Trent just let the crowd sing the chorus all by themselves. That run was the most sweat soaked I have been at a show in a long time. After a ravishing finish to the main set, the band returned with "The Day the World Went Away," the perfect low energy song to recuperate after what came before, but still anthemic and rare enough to be encore worthy. The drug fueled, mellow na na nas at the end come across like the anti-Hey Jude.

Later on during the encore, a dreary forest was projected onto the back screen. The deep blue and green shades set a subdued tone, while backup singers Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson got a chance to show off their own pipes a bit. It all ended with Finck strumming an acoustic guitar while the band closed it out with defining statement piece "Hurt." Projections similar to what had been seen by Godspeed You! Black Emperor flashed across the screen, but the fancy light and technology shows were done for the evening. In closing, Nine Inch Nails demonstrated what all great bands must: the power to captivate you with nothing more than the power of their imagination.

Large scale projections were a big part of NiN's repertoire.
Related posts:

Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks review 
How to Destroy Angels - Welcome Oblivion review 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pearl Jam ponders their mortality on 10th studio album Lightning Bolt

Even when Pearl Jam is down, they're never out.  The former grunge ragers saw their star dimming after a string of middling releases culminating in the early 2000s, but have been the beneficiaries of a full blown renaissance following the release of their 2006 self-titled album. In an age where many bands today rely on heavy helpings of studio trickery, Pearl Jam presents one of the most convincing arguments for pure guitar rock. For the most part, Lightning Bolt sticks to the blueprint established on 2009's Backspacer and the self-titled, but throws minor curveballs here and there.

The lyrical topics sees Vedder keying in on questions of religion vs. science, God, nature, and his own mortality. Ravishing opener "Getaway" tackles these issues head on, with Vedder seemingly turning his back on religion as he declares that you sometimes must put faith in no faith. Jeff Ament's bass often finds itself buried under layers of guitars, but here it gets plenty of breathing room and provides the backbone for one of the album's crunchiest and most melodic rockers. "Mind Your Manners," meanwhile, is a callback to the band's early grunge days with its blistering, grimy guitar and punk rock influence. With speed an intensity rivaling that of "Spin the Black Circle" from 1994's Vitalogy, it's sure to be a favorite with the headbangers.

The concept of self-examination is another of Lightning Bolt's defining themes, and nowhere does this come across greater than on the striking ballad "Sirens." This piece is custom designed to tug on your heartstrings, as Vedder reflects on his own mortality while hearing police sirens blare through the street late at night and ponders the ramifications of leaving his family behind. At times he raises into near falsetto, and sounds as though he's about to get teary eyed himself as he sings of dancing with laughter with the ever after. The theme of death and tombstones crop up more than once on Lightning Bolt, but never is the concept painted in more dynamic brushstrokes than what we see here.

Yet with all this discussion of Vedder, it's easy to get away from the varied instrumentation that makes up Lightning Bolt's colorful patchwork. Guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are once again in fine form. The title track features some of the band's tightest and most focused playing to date, presenting a passionate, stripped down, and immediate approach as waves of churning riffs and solos cascade out of your earbuds. "Mind Your Manners," meanwhile, features a bridge that cuts through the muck and grime to deliver a sky high stanza, before giving way into a methodical and highly calculated solo.

There are also some great moments of experimentation to be found dotting the album's second half. There is an ever so minor southwestern vibe that creeps up here and there, but is most pronounced on "Let the Records Play," a grooving tune packed with smoky blues solos and a beat that could have been ripped directly from a ZZ Top song. It's not tough to imagine this playing at some backwater blues club frequented by the likes of Quentin Tarantino. Elsewhere, "Pendulum" develops at a slow, mellow pace and transfixes the listener's attention with a stunning sense of hypnotism. But it dissipates as quickly as it appeared, leaving you with a feeling of coldness and desolation.

For all intents and purposes, Pearl Jam's 10th studio album is a fine achievement. The biggest drawback is that it often finds the band retreading similar musical territory they've been over numerous times. Once again, the band opens with a high intensity, raging rocker, closes with an acoustic ballad and packs a bevy of mostly familiar tunes and tempos in between.  "Sleeping By Myself" and "Future Days," aren't necessarily complaint worthy, but it sounds like the same type of low energy terrain we've covered before. It's good question as to where the band will go from here, but it's a question they can afford to put off for an album or two. Pearl Jam is still continuing to put out more than a handful of thought provoking hits, and that should be more than enough for fans at the moment.

Score: 76/100

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Queens of the Stone Age rip apart Nashville with rowdy rock and roll

Hard rock band Queens of the Stone Age have not only been the beneficiaries of a major resurgence, but can also lay claim to one of the best stories of the year. After becoming one of the world's most esteemed rock bands following the release of Rated R and Songs for Deaf in the early 2000s, Queens began to lose members and lose steam in the middle part of the decade. After going on hiatus in 2009, it didn't seem they would ever reach their previous heights again. That all changed with the release of their latest album, ...Like Clockwork, in which they further redefined their sound and challenged the parameters they operate within. The latest chapter of that resurgence was penned Monday night at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium, where they turned the arena upside down with a raucous and rollicking rock and roll performance.

One of the most exciting aspects about the current Queens of the Stone Age show is the diversity of material they have to work with, which has grown by leaps and bounds since the band's heyday. Throughout the 2000s, Queens stuck solidly to their hard rock roots and were doing it better than almost anyone else, but they weren't doing much else besides that. The release of ...Like Clockwork and, to a lesser extent, its 2007 predecessor Era Vulgaris, changed that.

Queens of the Stone Age singer Josh Homme breaks out smooth moves.

They got most of their heavy songs and staples out of the way early, giving them plenty of time to focus on the new album. In total, they played nine out of 10 cuts from ...Like Clockwork. Established crowd pleasers "No One Knows" and "Burn the Witch" offered great sing along moments, while "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire" barreled the audience over with sheer intensity. As the set progressed the guys worked in some softer numbers, including a version of "...Like Clockwork," that was much crunchier and guitar driven than the album version, and "Make It Wit Chu," on which singer Josh Homme lit up a cigarette and puffed a few smoke clouds in between verses.

The main crux of what Queens of the Stone Age do is heavily dependent on their rhythm section. Creative, well thought out beats and bass work do a great deal to separate them from your average rock band. Bassist Michael Shuman is a great performer and showman in his own right, and his dexterous playing is a key part of Queen of the Stone Age's sound. The drum and guitar work isn't always the most complex or technical, but the playing possesses a great amount of character. Much of that has to do with super slick frontman Josh Homme, who is equally impressive with his voice and his guitar. His distinctive, upper register singing voice delivers melodic lines that are simple to sing along with but also magnetizing and infectious, and he helps his cause by laying down sweet guitar leads here and there that are every bit as slick. 

London post punk act Savages slayed Nashville's Municipal Auditorium with a steely determination and sharp resolve.

He introduced demented, funky groover Smooth Sailing by declaring, "I want to play you the funk song they play on the way to hell." The performance had the whole joint grooving, while Homme broke out some silly but fun stage moves. "Sick Sick Sick" was the prime headbanger of the night, while "Better Living Through Chemistry" introduced extended jam elements into the set.

But also awesome were opening act Savages, all female post punk revivalists and labelmates to Queens of the Stone Age. In most cases the opener does little more than warm the seat for the main act, but Savages' debut album, Silence Yourself, is legitimately among 2013's best and have done a pinch of headline touring themselves. Their 40 minute set was sharp and tightly focused, boldly seizing the crowd's attention and refusing to let go.

There is always a subtle undercurrent of tension running underneath the music that threatens to burst forth like a tidal wave. Their aesthetic is totally different from Queens of the Stone Age, but one important similarity is that both bands have killer bassists. Ayse Hassan was a fountain of propulsive bass playing on this night, while guitarist Gemma Thompson alternated between subtle melodic leads and jagged, hair raising rock riffs.. Bits of singer Jehnny Beth's act were reminiscent of performance art or even slam poetry, half speaking half singing lines that served as a segue from one song to the next. 

Josh Homme ran through a gamut of different styles, sounds and approaches, alongside bassist Michael Shuman.
Related post:

Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork album review 

Bitter Rivals sees noise/pop duo Sleigh Bells return to fine form

After delivering an attention grabbing opus with their 2010 debut, Treats, Brookyln indie/noise rock duo Sleigh Bells ran into an identity crisis on the followup. Their sophomore release, Reign of Terror, was a hardcore noise rock album that was trying to be a mainstream pop album, and sounded like it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. It got stuck in an awkward gap between noise and pop, without suitably satisfying either side of the aisle. To make matters worse, the band had seemingly lost the edge that had turned so many heads on their debut, not to mention the fact that Krauss's continual cheerleader shouts added an air of superficiality to the whole affair.

Now re-energized for their third go around, Sleigh Bells sound like a band intent on dominating the globe all over again. Bitter Rivals captures the sound of Sleigh Bells not messing around. The first four tracks all hit like laser guided torpedoes, guaranteed to get you fired up. "Sugarcane" hits like a jack knife with Derek Miller's buzzsaw guitar, while Alexis Krauss's lighter than air vocals provide a compelling contrast. The title track, meanwhile, sees Krauss's vocals hitting like a jackhammer in the verses, while still managing to toss in an oh so infectious chorus riff. The song's lyrics are also packed with attitude, as Krauss tells about her victorious confrontation with the town sheriff. Lyrically, the album still tends to be incoherent/scatterbrained in terms of lyrics, but it is clear they are meant to get the listener pumped up even if they tend to lack cohesion.

"Sing Like a Wire" is the hardest hitting track the album has to offer. It sounds like a stadium/arena rock anthem that recalls shades of Treats with its pulsing and pounding electronic work and percussion. The album begins to slow down as it progresses, however. "Young Legends" and "To Hell With You" flash of heavy dose of girlpop vocal melodies, with the latter sounding like it literally could have been a Disney song if not for the loud, crashing guitars. "Tiger Kit" and "You Don't Get Me Twice" showcase the most successful blending of the band's pop and hardcore rock elements. "Tiger Kit" is one of the busiest tracks on disc, tossing in blaring electronics along with what sounds like disc scratching sounds to forge a pure adrenaline stomper.

Softer pieces near the album's close turn to some elements rarely employed by the band. "24" has a high pitched guitar line that noodles and caroms all over the place, sounding not entirely unlike circus music. During the chorus, Miller switches over to some clean strumming that wouldn't sound out of place in an 80s hair metal ballad, but it manages to work when backed by Krauss's exuberant girlpop delivery. Sleigh Bells demonstrate the harder edged numbers are still their forte, but prove they can detour into softer material and pull out fine results most of the time.

Bitter Rivals may not satisfy from start to finish, yet it is still a successful outing for this Brooklyn noise/pop outfit. It's filled with plenty of attitude and a hodgepodge of various far flung elements that seem like they should conflict but mostly don't. It won't overtake Treats as the crown jewel in their catalog, but will give it a good run for its money.

Score: 81/100
Related post:

Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror review 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Thom Yorke supergroup Atoms for Peace throw hypnotic dance party

Radiohead may be one of the most esteemed modern day bands, but their music tends to be fairly deep and progressive. It makes many demands of its listener. So for those who enjoy the Radiohead sound but wish they would just wig out and throw a dance party every now and again, allow me to introduce Atoms for Peace. The highly touted supergroup featuring Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, privileged Nashville by paying a visit to War Memorial Auditorium as a part of their Atoms for Peace tour.

Atoms for Peace singer Thom Yorke forged bold dreamscapes Thursday night.

It could be considered a minor upset that Nashville even got a date on this tour at all, given the fact that is a rare touring act playing a relatively limited run. Most of their dates see them sticking to the obvious large markets. So it was fitting that an upbeat and spirited crowd packed virtually every inch of War Memorial, and the band themselves put all they had into it. They went to work quickly, getting most of the songs from their latest album, Amok, out of the way early. Yorke broke out his trademark dance style, swishing and sashaying to and fro not unlike a narcolepsy patient. Flea, on the other hand, cut a much more imposing and dominating swath, galloping and strutting all across the stage, all the while wielding his bass like it was a sledgehammer or some deadly weapon.

Musically, they present a somewhat unorthodox approach. It's very hypnotic, chilled out dance music but relies on traditional instrumentation much more so than what you see from the majority of electronic artists today. So it's very organic, band based music but it's based almost entirely on percussion and rhythm alone. Nigel Godrich spends his time minding the keys, but there are a pair of percussionists. Joey Waronker serves as the band's traditional drummer, while Mauro Refosco does various odd jobs in terms of percussion, beating on a variety of drum pads and surfaces. Together, they create highly stylized and textured rhythmic patterns which form the backdrop for each song. Sometimes you might have a skittering, relentless barge of various drum sounds, and at other times the drumming might have more of a watery, rain drop type aesthetic to them.

As for Flea, Yorke said in an interview with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart that the main reason he wanted him in the band was because he plays bass like it's a lead instrument, and that's pretty much what you can expect from his performance. At times, it's almost too much to wrap your mind around with everything that's going on up there.

Bassist Flea lunges forward in a burst of awesomeness.
Accordingly, it took a few songs for the crowd to truly embrace what was going on and get into it, but once they did the place was electric. "Ingenue" was an early highlight, with the infectious main melody driven almost entirely by Flea's bass. Yorke, seated at the piano, let out gentle, lilting croons, while the leaky faucet drum style pervaded in the background. By the time they rolled out "Black Swan," every booty in the joint was grooving.

Although the band could pull of a variety of moods, they seemed to be their best when they were most entrancing and hypnotizing. Flea's bass on "Unless" rang out loud with a constant and pervading buzz that engulfed virtually everything in the arena; it felt like that bass was trying to take over the world. As the set wore on the band began to delve into their back catalog, bringing various cuts from Yorke's 2006 solo album The Eraser to life.

The opening of "Harrodown Hill" amped up an already giddy crowd even further, while "The Eraser" and "Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses" featured much heavier use of the guitar, adding some new elements into the band's sound. We also got the rarely played and awesome "What the Eyeballs Did," the B-side to their Default single.

But one of the most jaw dropping moments came at the end of the first encore, when Yorke's crispy, twinkling guitar combined with one of Flea's most assertive basslines and the bright, flashing white lights to forge a dreamy and spaced out rendition of Amok's title track that sent nearly everyone in the vicinity into a haze. One more sleepy rendition of "Atoms for Peace" during the second encore finally finished it off. Atoms for Peace's set was focused and there was little dicking around. They came in and simply laid down their law, and are doing it in a way that is much more inventive and highly stylized than most bands today.
Related post:

Atoms for Peace - Amok album review