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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

Arctic Monkeys came rolling out of Sheffield, in the north of England, a few years back with a sound that seemed to have no clear ancestors or influences—dizzying, raw little guitar skirmishes; discordance and beauty dueling for tight space within a song; sharp but seamless shifts of feel; unerring guitar-pop chops. And of course there was the lyricism of Alex Turner, who at a painfully young age seemed to write about affairs of the heart (and pubs) with the blunt poetical precision of Raymond Carver or Martin Amis.

It’s hard to forget the first time I heard the brawling, punchy, and infectious “I’ll Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (2006) or the pummeling and spastic (but razor-sharp) “Brianstorm” (2007). The band seemed to have similar mastery over more accessible moments: the bouncing pop of “Fluorescent Adolescent,” which was spun out in the Monkeys’ skewed but tight manner; the dreamy, timeless pop beauty of “Only Ones Who Know.” Turner subsequently chose to more fully explore the latter kind of moments with the noir-ish, ’60s Euro-balladry of side-project the Last Shadow Puppets.

Now, back in the fold with Humbug, Turner shows that all of the polished edges of the Last Shadow Puppets didn’t dull his incisive meter. “Cornerstone,” one of the better tracks here, possesses this little turn of events: “I thought I saw you in the rusty hook/Huddled up in wicker chair/I wandered up for a closer look/And kissed whoever was sitting there/She was close, and she held me very tightly/Till I asked awfully politely/Please, can I call you her name?”

But though the album is strong in parts, musically and lyrically, it lacks the lightning-in-a-bottle flashes that characterized previous LPs. Producer Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) dragged their pale, scrawny, English asses out into the Mojave Desert to beef up the sound (based on their recent affinity for such fare as Black Sabbath), but while there is more bottom-heaviness here and there—and a slinky ominousness where there was once more cheek and suggestiveness— altogether there is nothing as exciting as on the band’s first two LPs. And what was sort of careening and compelling about the Arctic Monkeys seems more controlled.

Sure, this is a decent album, but in their finest moments the Arctic Monkeys have made Oasis and the Libertines seem leaden and posturing by comparison (and the mighty Blur seem a slightly hunched shadow-shape to the Arctic Monkeys upright evolutionary posture). This album is not representative of their best, but I’ve far from given up on Turner and company. A wonderfully unique and powerful band.

There’s no graceful way to segue into the Whitney Houston album, so forgive me while I audibly grind gears. I have a theory about Whitney—that even when she’s really messed up on drugs and lathered up in a sickly sweat and barely coherent . . . she’s not that bad. I mean, she does what she does; she’s got a golden set of pipes, and the record company throws millions at songwriters and production to make her shine. So this idea of a “comeback” doesn’t really wash for me. I’m glad for her sake and her kids’ sake that she’s healthy, but my attitude toward I Look to You, her first new album in seven years is, “Hey, pretty good . . . again.”

I do get a little nauseous listening to her big comeback whirlpool of a tune, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” because most of us know plenty of people without millions of dollars and fame who have struggled and overcome similar shit. Therefore, her sweeping, epic “meme” is completely lost on me. (I also can’t help but notice that there is an brassy Ethel Merman edge to her once silky pipes at times in the tune; that’s the downside of drug abuse, or aging, or . . . something.) In other places, though, this is a sharp and timeless little soul album, with “Million Dollar Bill” showing a wonderful upbeat side and some nice quiet- storming on “Call You Tonight.” Not bad, Whitney—lots of sappy stuff here, but some high moments too. Glad you’re awake to enjoy it.

I’m going to end this month with what have to be the two sentimental favorites of recent releases. I’ll start with the Black Crowes. The first half of Before the Frost . . .Until the Freeze was recorded live at Levon Helm’s barn studio down in Woodstock. “Good Morning Captain” channels the Americana funk of the Band, while “Apaloosa” takes a page from early-’70s country-rock. At other times, they just sound like the Black Crowes, a sort of Southern-boy funk mixed with Sticky Fingers and Faces (“Kept My Soul,” “A Train Makes a Lonely Sound”). The second half of the album is a mellow acoustic set that you can download once you purchase the disc. (Buying music has become so freaking complicated these days.) That set is a worthy ride too, and the whole album is a strong set of rustic, rootsy music from a band that’s always interesting, at the very least.

The other sentimental favorite is the new Yo La Tengo album. This is one of those bands that, once I latched onto them (1997), I felt like I needed to own every record. (And I do.) And it’s because married couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have managed, in the long career of the band, to explore so much damn intriguing terrain and funnel it through their unique sensibilities. On Popular Songs, they manage to explore countless realms on one album. “Avalon or Someone Similar” is mysterious, pretty, twee-pop at some kind of conjunction between the Velvet Underground and the Byrds, while elsewhere they get downright slow-burning and ambient (“Here to Fall,” “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”). But their perfect guitar-buzzy, hooky pop song—you know they always have one in them—comes in the form of “Nothing to Hide,” which is replete with skronky and wobbly guitar solo, handclaps, and farfisa. Perfect.




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