Monthly Archives: November 2013

Sound ‘Round: Arcade Fire / Lady Gaga

Loosening up to diminishing returns.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Merge)

arcade fire - reflektor Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s little-big band that could crossed over from the indie-sphere after winning Grammy gold for learning to drive in the suburbs. Though claimed and cherished by the Pitchfork crowd, Butler’s aspiration has always matched the size of his Texas home. “When the family gets too big, you find a bigger house,” he told SPIN in 2010. So much for fear of selling out. Untethered from the trappings of a scene he had little interest in – and with license to do whatever he damn well pleases – Butler calls in retired LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy to produce a double disc centered on dancing. Relying on polyrhythms inspired by Chassagne’s native Haiti and borrowing the aesthetic of Bowie’s arena glam, their influences are apparent, but their intentions are murky. The title track about love in the digital age is onto something – as is the one that ponders what it means to be normal. But they kill the momentum and the good ideas when they begin drawing parallels to Greek mythology on rudderless songs that refuse to budge. If it sounds like a mixed bag it’s because it is. Even Butler admits it. “No shit we’re confused!” Maybe they should move back in with their parents. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Normal Person” /“We Exist” / “You Already Know”

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP (Interscope)

lady gaga - artpopThe eponymous track refers to artistic freedom as a means of self-expression and individuality. Sound familiar? In short, she’s repackaged the ethos of Born This Way along with that record’s penchant for vague excess. On this album, another one intended to be everything to everyone, she declares her ARTPOP could mean anything. Such pseudo-profundity reads well on a bumper sticker, but her ambitions are outworked by her strenuous grasp for cultural crosspollination. Songs about fashion are chic, but raving about Donatella Versace ain’t making anyone move the way the R. Kelly cameo does. The drug anthems are expected, but the Broadway bombast of “Dope” is pleasing only to Meatloaf. Pastiche and compartmentalized, it’s lesser than the sum of its parts. Though flawed and inconsistent, she’s too smart to make a dud. She remains pop’s funniest songwriter, and her ability to craft a worthwhile chorus is undiminished. Disregard the pretense. Just dance – especially to the ones where she equates sex to power. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Do What U Want” / “Swine” / “Venus

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Sound ‘Round: The Who

Teenage wasteland. 

The Who – Tommy (Decca, 1969)

the who - tommyThe first rock opera created, it’s culturally overvalued because it did a dumb thing in a serious way. Released in pre-Woodstock 1969, the album’s tale of a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard finding spiritual redemption reflects an era when rock music regularly transcended its boundaries – and regarded silliness as art. Though time has made much of the story rather pretentious, dated and cartoonish, the album is redeemed by Pete Townshend’s songwriting and Roger Daltrey’s blossoming into one of pop’s great front men. Yes, the arcade anthem is a fluke, but Townshend’s lyrics and Daltrey’s gravitas humanize the surrealism. For all the exposition and the color wheel of characters, the payoff comes in the finale when they get meta. “Listening to you / I hear the music / From you / I get the story.” Words from a pontificating Tommy become a sincere reflection from a band who finally found their audience. Thus, arena rock was born – for better or worse. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Pinball Wizard” / “We’re Not Gonna Take It” / “Christmas

Sound ‘Round: The Blind Boys of Alabama / Brandy Clark

Some pray more than others. 

The Blind Boys of Alabama – I’ll Find A Way (Song Masterworks)

blind boys of alabama - i'll find a way Their decades-long career began in the era of Dust Bowls and the New Deal when they were mere boys at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in Talladega. Age having called four of the original six members to their heavenly home, Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain remain earthbound and determined to sing His praises until fate intervenes. Though fragile in timbre and frail in vocal resolve, special guests from the indie-sphere appear on half the tracks to assist the elderly – Merrill Garbus’ reggae rendition of “I’ve Been Searching” is one I’m particularly fond of. Not every contributor, however, justifies their turn at the pulpit. Justin Vernon’s moodiness on “Every Grain of Sand” sounds like purgatory and dull folkie Sam Amidon is better off reciting Hail Maries than inspiring believers. The best moments are gospel as soul, gospel as blues, gospel as funk, gospel as a pulse so infectious it makes sinners move. “You know what? It sounds pretty good,” they say in the finale. “I’m beginning to feel all right.” Who says they can’t indulge their humanistic tendencies?  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “I’ve Been Searching” / “God Put A Rainbow In the Cloud” / “Jubilee”

Brandy Clark – 12 Stories (Slate Creek Records)

Brandy Clark - 12 StoriesFor a songwriter who has spent nearly a decade penning hits for Music City sluggers like Miranda Lambert, Reba and The Band Perry, this debut is surprisingly Anti-Nashville and refreshingly pro-Country. The approach is similar to Kacey Musgraves’ – a spot-on single cushioned by a bevy of sharp supporting tunes concerned with small towns, complicated love and weed. While Musgraves is prone to recite clichés as inspirational verse, Clark sticks to concise stories brimming with realism, humor, charm and emotional sincerity. Playing the lottery isn’t a vice but the only hope of escaping redneck dystopia.  A hungover husband’s laziness isn’t a burden, but motivation for female independence. The instant keeper and Song of the Year candidate, however,  is “Stripes,” wherein a scorned Clark ditches her womanizing man but spares his life because prison garb isn’t fashionable. Don’t mistake her mercy for weakness. “Hard time (won’t) be that hard on me,” she sings. Luke Bryan would be scared shitless. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Stripes” / “Pray To Jesus” / “Hungover