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By Erik Hage

Downloadable singles have begun to render the “album”—that is, the long, varied yet cohesive musical statement—nearly obsolete. And it’s ironic that such rapid advances in technology have pushed us back to something similar to post-WWII, pre- Beatles teen culture, where the 45 RPM single was all-important and the LP secondary at best. Nonetheless, even artists that are deeply embedded in the pop mainstream still occasionally court the concept of the “important” album.

There was Green Day’s American Idiot, My Chemical Romance’s more recent swipe at epic grandiosity with The Black Parade and Nine Inch Nails’ extremely recent Year Zero, which wrapped cyber-punk, obliquely political statements in the same old clever industrial din. (Trent Reznor’s dark, nihilistic shtick will continue to sell records as long as there are disenfranchised young people who mistake its one-note anger for redemptive power. But, much like the pretend vindication of role-playing games and graphic novels, the “redemption” is ultimately hollow. Did anyone else find something uncomfortably Leni Riefenstahl-meets-Matrix about this album?)

I think the new album concept should simply be this: A CD that has good songs from end to end, and that works somewhat cohesively as an artistic statement. I know I’m describing what an album is already supposed to be, but clearly most current mainstream artists are bucking my concept. But if you’re looking for one that fits the bill, the sure money this month is on Feist.

The Canadian singer-songwriter’s greatest achievement may be that she is able to telegraph to the listener that her music is “alternative” while painting in colors that approach bossa nova and lounge-cool jazz. But The Reminder is not jazz, and Feist never seems like an interloper: Her own sui generis aura consumes things, and her music sounds timeless and downright beautiful. There is also something stark about this album at times—lots of spaces and slow, organically cresting moments.

On this, her second LP (or third, counting a now out-of-print 1999 release), she creates something earthy and poetic, without letting the helium of her pop intentions disperse the songs off into airiness. Feist has found that there is still purchase in the suburbanized land of pop music for subtle reinvention. “My Moon My Man” rocks out while being primarily driven by bouncy bass notes on the piano. She overlaps little piles of sounds in subtle, small ways and is also a deceivingly versatile vocalist, able to play ’60s Euro-pop chanteuse one moment (“So Sorry”) and revert to a sad, hollow, prairie wail the next (“The Park”). Brilliance never shouts “look at me! look at me!” like some people would like it to.

I remember another Canadian, Avril Lavigne, as a petulant child with too much eye makeup singing about stuff that was way too adult and bragging about her songwriting prowess to Rolling Stone even though hired hands did most of the heavy lifting. The Best Damn Thing is more like her debut album in 2002 (“Complicated,” etc.) and lacks the stalled attempts at deepness that were all over her sophomore album. “Girlfriend” is guitar-driven kiddie punk with finger-wagging, screw-you lyrics; “I Can Do Better” is guitar-driven kiddie punk with finger-wagging, screw-you lyrics; and the title track is guitar-driven kiddie punk with finger-wagging, screw-you lyrics. I know I’m not the audience for this, but this time around Lavigne’s angry, in-your-face woman-child brio is guaranteed to annoy even her intended audience.

The similarly young Arctic Monkeys are the sound of British guitar pop circa 2007, enjoying all of the NME endorsements that such a distinction allows. I never quite understood the enthusiasm for their first album, which seemed yet another case of British music-press hype, which always has a wistfully imperial ring to it (that is, the idea that they can occasionally retake the colonies via young lads with guitars and cute haircuts).

But beyond British hyperbole, this group does a nice update on the class of ’77 (Elvis Costello, the Jam, the Clash) on Favourite Worst Nightmare. They are loved in England because they sound so distinctly English; they ape their Anglian forebears and Alex Turner sings in marble-mouthed Sheffield-isms. “Fluorescent Adolescent” is lightly infectious; otherwise, I still find the Arctic Monkeys pretty good, but don’t get the nationalist adoration.

For a while I thought that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were a UK band, but they’re actually from California, except for an English drummer. For 2005’s Howl, the group changed up their noise-pop, shoegazer- influenced approach for Americana (landing them in the pages of No Depression). For Baby 81, they’ve returned to their bracing guitar attack, molding an album that seems equal parts Jesus and Mary Chain and Detroit garage rock. This is tough, gut-punched, brooding rock & roll.

The pounding, searing tribalisms of “666 Conducer”—which holds its mean-ass groove so long it becomes hypnotic—has a whiff of Spaceman 3 about it. Elsewhere, there is uninspired rock-riffery and wordplay (“Lien on Your Dreams,” “Berlin”), but my favorite tracks here, “Not What You Wanted” and “Weapon of Choice,” display a group that is dark, tough and melodic.

Dntel is an electronica artist I’ve followed for a while and have written about a lot. Aka Jimmy Tamborello, he’s perhaps most known for collaborating with head Death Cab for Cutie man Ben Gibbard in the Postal Service. He pioneered bedroom-electronic and uniquely glitch-driven tracks. (Besides the brilliant Boards of Canada, he is the only über-experimental electronica maven I consistently listen to.) In truth, I wish the world discovered Dntel via earlier works, but there are still great moments on Dumb Luck. You needn’t like electronica to get into this stuff. Fitting Tamborello’s pedigree, there are lots of hip indie vocalists (Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis), but Grizzly Bear’s Edward Droste propels the best track, “To a Fault,” whose collision of various organic and manufactured textures and pretty melodies defy my description.

On the rap side of things, Lil’ Flip emerges from the same Houston scene that has produced DJ Screw (great) and that man of the diamond-embedded grill, Paul Wall (not so much). His strangest musical achievement is his most recent: a MySpace single that doesn’t appear on an album and which is a tribute to the Virginia Tech victims. Here, he basically plays (and hardly even samples) Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” rapping well-intentioned, if unfocused, sentiments over it. Musically, it’s an aberration (worked on for all of an hour, at best); in spirit, it’s golden. On his current album proper, I Need Mine, the beats and rhymes seem scattershot and blurry. Thematically, it’s loaded to the gills with N-words, profanities, numerous threats of gun violence against associates and boasts about financial solvency. It is one of the most musically anemic, ethically bankrupt, boorish and stupid albums I have ever heard. I have to wonder if the V.T. tribute song on MySpace was drastic P.R. scrambling. Actually, I don’t wonder.

 

 

 

 

 


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