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Review: Phoenix – Bankrupt!

by DREW MALMUTH

People always say otherwise, but when you hear a fantastic, as-of-yet-unpopular song part of you wants to covet it.  Some are always going to share their hidden gems but others – the relatable, yet loathsome gollums of the fanatical music community – prefer to enjoy their unreleased re-edits in isolation.  I have to admit that only a few songs have turned me into this selfish, hermitic listener; Phoenix’s “Too Young” is the first on the list.  When it was released in 2000 I would play it only for friends that I knew were too snobbish about music to ask me who the artist was.  The sense of exclusivity around the song not only made it sound better, it made me feel cooler for listening to it.

Yet as the song quickly gained traction, scoring spots in the classic films Lost in Translation and Shallow Hal, I somehow enjoyed “Too Young” even more.  It became very clear that it’s a song that only thrives when widely enjoyed.  This incompatibility with isolation is at the core of what has made Phoenix great; they harness the communal gaiety of pop music and spread it like an infectious laugh.  On Bankrupt!, the bands fifth studio release, Phoenix don’t veer from that territory, offering a solid, if predictable, follow up to their breakthrough album.

In the lead up to the albums release, Thomas Mars suggested that Bankrupt! would be their most experimental work yet.  This could have been interpreted in a couple ways.  Either the album would more fully commit to the unpolished, Britt Daniel-indebted sound of It’s Never Been Like That or they would tackle electronic soundscapes, in the vein of “Love Like a Sunset.”  It turns out neither of those were even close.  Bankrupt!, much like its predecessor, is a collection of catchy, synth-heavy songs broken up by a well-crafted interlude.  There may not be the knockout trio of “Listzomania,” “1901,” and “Fences,” but there are still immediate standouts alongside melodies that more slowly creep their way into your head.  Phoenix built their success around songwriting that magnifies the glamor and sex inherent in their sound; Bankrupt! makes every effort to continue that trend.

Trying to set the hook early, the album starts with the energetic single, “Entertainment.”  Twangy, metallic synths give way to a swaying combination of pounding drums and fuzzy piano lines.  As Phoenix songs tend to do, “Entertainment” takes advantage of contrast, splicing raucous breakdowns with the spacious vocal sections.  When Thomas Mars starts singing it always sounds like he is either preparing to or has just finished dancing manically.  This fills their songs with little pockets of anticipation and release.  “S.O.S. In Bel Air” is an unremarkable song up until Mars giddily screams “put my name on your list, S.O.S. in Bel Air” and the melody hits its climax.  Still, some of the tracks succeed simply because they are relentlessly fun to listen to.  “Chloroform” bounces along with the kind of melting dance sound practiced by Toro y Moi.  The snapping, “Dancing in the Dark” drums on “Don’t” set the framework for a persistently catchy blend of high-pitched synths and glitzy vocals.  These pop gems are nothing new for Phoenix, but they are still welcome listening.

While most of the album is good, “Bankrupt!” is one of the only tracks that is unpredictable.  The first part of the song is filled with lush, layered instrumentals, not unlike Prins Thomas or FWY!  After two minutes, swirls of arpeggiated synths start to weave around one another, the varying levels of distortion creating a mixture of serenity and unease.  Then the song’s melody takes hold.  When Mars starts singing the track’s dynamic effortlessly shifts from The Field to Bowie and Pink Floyd.  It is the least energetic song on the album, but the refreshing buffer it creates between the A and B side goes a long way toward making Bankrupt! work as a whole.  On the other hand, songs like “Trying to be Cool” and “Bourgeois” get lost in the swirl of poppy eccentricity.  When the majority of an album aims to operate at peak excitement levels it’s inevitable that the less interesting songs are going to feel deflating.

Bankrupt! doesn’t inspire the covetousness of their early material, but rather it takes its natural place as an album to be consumed en masse by Phoenix’s hefty fan base.  Their songs hinge on a feeling of togetherness and shared emotion.  Thomas Mars said it well when he noted that his lyrics are not necessarily meant to convey a coherent message.  Indeed, he stressed that the songs themselves aren’t logical, but rather ways of trying to get the listener to feel something.  Bankrupt! succeeds in that sense.  It emits the kind of energy and excitement that the band has become synonymous with.  Whether the band will continue at full steam or dive into darker emotional waters is unclear.  Either way, it won’t be boring. [B]

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Review: James Blake – Overgrown

by DREW MALMUTH

When James Blake released his self-titled album in 2011, revealing a sound that simultaneously drew on and abandoned his dubstep roots, there was a tendency to call his record “of the moment.”  The implication was that Blake foresaw the decline of dubstep as an organic, innovative genre and, as a result, decided to explore new sonic territory.  This opportunist take on Blake’s career trajectory was a way of making sense of his rapid switch from grimey, snapping production to vocal compositions that worked with soulful textures, slow-moving rhythms, and pockets of silence.  Yet, after listening to Overgrown, there is a stronger case to be made that Blake simply gets bored easily.  As most artists clamor to establish and protect an identifiable sound, Blake remains more interested in expanding his songwriting, finding new ways for his remarkable aggregate of ideas to play out.  Overgrown is Blake’s most confident embrace of those ideas.  The album draws more heavily on pop and the rhythms branch out from post-dubstep to incorporate hip-hop, house, and various R&B influences.  Blake has said that he “thrive[s] on not knowing what comes next;” Overgrown reinforces that philosophy.

The album opens with the eponymous track and an introduction to the fuller, more encompassing sound that Blake has adopted.  In contrast to “Unluck,” an opener that relied on atmosphere and tone more so than structure for its effect, “Overgrown” slowly builds and unfurls layers of delicate piano, sub-bass, varied synth lines, and vocal repetitions.  These smokey, piano driven tracks are familiar territory for Blake; but by blending his atmospheric tendencies with a more developed understanding of the song he wants to craft, he’s able to write tunes that are as haunting as they are catchy.  “Retrograde” builds itself around a deceptively simple vocal melody.  Blake’s humming lends both a tonal anchor to the song and a pervasive sense of humanity and longing.  It’s an emotional primer that makes its all the more potent when Blake asks someone he loves to “ignore everybody else,” because they are “alone now.”  These compositional strengths continue on “To the Last,” a simple bedroom R&B arrangement that allows Blake’s voice to sprawl out in heart-wrenching fashion.  These songs show Blake’s maturation as a songwriter but much of the rest Overgrown finds him expanding his techniques.

Blake working with Brian Eno and different shades of dance music is not all that surprising; but the inclusion of The RZA and the heavily hip-hop indebted “Life Round Here” is an unexpected, yet satisfying development.  Blake has said that after writing “Take a Fall For Me” he knew that RZA would be the only voice that was appropriate.  Indeed, Diggs’ fierce, commanding tone curls itself around the songs dark and dusty instrumentation.  RZA pioneered the art of making beats that recall dank cement basements and sinister men with hoodies; Blake’s production draws on that approach and builds further dimensions of emotion and romance.  James croons brightly in the background as RZA explains how “sex shapes the body, but truth shapes the mind.”  The previous song, “Life Round Here,” also draws on this combination of grit and vulnerability.  Centered around a drum beat worthy of Organized Noize, the track weaves together synth lines of varying distortion, swelling and collapsing in unpredictable ways.  These hip-hop influences run alongside the dance music tendencies that have consistently informed Blake’s sound.  “Digital Lion,” a collaboration with Brian Eno, employs deep, throbbing bass, a la Andy Stott, and “Every Day I Ran” chops a Big Boi sample into a dizzying blend of snapping drums and heavy reverb.  In general, Overgrown‘s sounds are exploratory, dynamic, and persistently engrossing.

The title of the album comes from the Emily Dickinson poem, “All overgrown by cunning moss.”  It’s a poem about a bird stuck in a cage watching the moss grow higher around it.  The bird then leaves in the winter and never returns to its nest.  Dickinson wrote these words for Charlotte Bronte, a writer that Dickinson loved but had since lost.  The poem is not only about the author’s admiration for Bronte, but it is also about the impermanence of life and the uncertainty as to where exactly one will be when the moss starts to become overgrown.  These sentiments are a part Blake’s album.  Since his last record was released he has fallen in love and began to more fully realize the “uncertainty of the music industry, and the uncertainty of [his] position in it.”  On “Retrograde” he sings “is this the darkness or the dawn?”  Perhaps this lack of clarity about so many elements of his life inspired Blake to craft an album that made complete sense to him in the moment, independent of any other considerations.  Some will deride his collaboration with RZA, but it is this exploration of new territory that has defined and will continue to define Blake’s career.  Overgrown is not the enigma that was his debut, but rather it is a first-rate album from a musician that isn’t all that interested in being enigmatic.  [B+]

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Review: Tyler The Creator – Wolf

by DREW MALMUTH

If you are trying to understand youth culture in a given region over the last three decades, the local rap groups are an informative place to start.  Hip-hop groups, particularly the iconic ones, become uniquely defined by the locales that they hail from.  Whether intentionally or not, these rappers soak up their cultural surroundings like a sponge and then splatter them back out, offering a glimpse into the “scene” of a certain time and place.  Souls of Mischief, N.W.A.,Wu-Tang Clan – these groups were emblematic not only for their music but because they distilled the disparate cultural elements around them into something cohesive.  While they may not belong in the category of icons, Odd Future is a no less potent representation of the area that they spring from.  To put it simply, they are a rap manifestation of a generation of skaters from Southern California that are obnoxious but also magnetic because they are funny, sometimes witty, and always doing stupid shit.  I grew up around this.  I saw it almost everyday.  And so listening to Wolf, the third album from Tyler, The Creator, feels a lot like going back to my high school.  It’s exciting, interesting, a little annoying, and it elicits a strong desire to get baked.

Within the collective personality of Odd Future, Tyler, The Creator has always been the most outlandish, snagging attention with his violent lyrics and general disregard for all things peaceable.  Stemming from either insecurity or apathy (or both), Tyler rapped about chopping girls up in the back of wranglers, always being the loser, watching rape on VHS, and group sex with dinosaurs.  He was like that zany friend calling you in the middle of the day to get drunk – you wanted to dismiss him but you didn’t want to miss out on the spectacle.  Eminem had done the same thing fifteen years ago and now Tyler was tweaking Marshall’s style for the millennial generation (i.e. wearing more Supreme hats and talking about video games).  Bastard and Goblin were dense with mediocrity (and some standouts), yet one got the sense that he would eventually get bored of being a sensationalist and he might have something worthwhile to say.  Or, at least, something to say that wasn’t so idiotic.  Wolf may be the beginning of that transition.

Wolf is Tyler’s is most engrossing and well-crafted release yet.  He balances his obnoxious ego-stroking  and cookie cutter beats with some soulful production and genuinely thoughtful lyricism.  The album’s opening line, “Poppa ain’t call even though he’s seen me on T.V., it’s all good,” establishes the blend of mild introspection and detached emotions that Tyler sports throughout most of his verses.  The eccentric, N.E.R.D. loving Tyler shows up intermittently, but most of Wolf is subdued and oddly meditative.  Indeed, Tyler may have actually been sincere when he said this: “talking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn’t interest my anymore…what interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to.”  He cited jazz fusion group BADBADNOTGOOD as a production influence and tapped Laetitia Sadier, the queen of pot friendly music, as a contributor.  This all culminated in hazier, more melodic production as well as an album that is more contemplative than spastic.  With that being said, it’s still Tyler, The Creator, and the album holds a bounty of absurdities to delve into.

“Knock knock Motherfucks it’s me, Mr. Clusterfuck.”  Tyler opens “Cowboy” with a sinister guitar lick and some trademark self-deprecation.  He may be wealthy now but he wants to make clear that he is “lonely as crackers that supermodels eat.”  Indeed, life for Tyler is still “darker than the closet that nigga Frankie was hiding in.”  This is the depressed posture that Tyler’s flow feels comfortable in but, on Wolf, it starts to clash with his new found lifestyle (trips to Europe and “cats on everything”).  He is embracing his internet fame while still trying to be the broke 18 year old living on his Grandma’s couch.  Consequently, we get songs like “Domo23” amidst “Awkward,” “Answer,” and “Slater.”  “Domo23” is a hyped up anthem, complete with the kind of bombastic production and chant friendly lyrics that will invigorate the pits at Odd Future shows.  The latter group of songs are more cerebral, tackling stories of lust and insecurity over deep, slow-shifting beats.  On “Answer,” Tyler raps about his absent father.  He does so both in ways that you might expect (“Dad isn’t your name, faggot is a little more fitting,” and “You Nigerian fuck, now I’m stuck with this shitty facial hair”), and in some ways that are more exposed (“If I ever had a chance to ask this nigga, and call him, I hope he answer”).  Tyler’s uncertainty about what kind of content to tackle, and how he should tackle it, makes Wolf an expansive listen, bubbling over with alter-egos and irreverent stories.

Wolf‘s smokey basement vibe is punctuated by the songs Tyler claims he doesn’t care about getting played by MTV.  “IFHY” features Pharrel, too many layers of gaudy synths, and the weakest lyrics on the album.  Tyler wants “the black kids to like him” for “Trashwang” but the beat never really goes anywhere, and the incessant yelling/gun shot samples don’t help.  Where those songs go too far, “Rusty” crafts a big sound through a comparatively catchy chorus and the kind of vicious atmosphere that pervaded Goblin.  That atmosphere is quickly flipped on its head by “Treehome95,” as Erykah Badu effortlessly injects the song with a soulful aura.  But then, seemingly in an effort to avoid the critique that all his songs sound the same, Tyler throws in “Tamale,” an indication of what he’d open with he ever went on tour with Erick Rincon.  These bursts of eccentricity within the album are a reminder of Tyler’s short attention span.  And much like the man himself, they are either refreshing or misguided.

“I ain’t ask for this, I did it out of boredom.”  Will Tyler ever stop feigning apathy and commit to the music that he makes?  Wolf has stronger writing than any of his other albums, yet he is still going on Twitter tirades trying to disavow the songs that he might be criticized for.  A few years ago I watched one of my oldest friends jump off a two-story building into a shallow pool; given the chance, he would do this a hundred times before he would open himself up emotionally.  These are the Tylers of the world.  Intelligence and talent wrapped up in insecurity and a penchant for lighting things on fire.  Tyler shouldn’t abandon his absurdity (lines like “hey Tyler can I?…no bitch, don’t you see me trying to buy a fucking churro” will always be worthwhile), but if he isn’t serious about his talent he’ll continue making albums that fall short of their potential.  Wolf is often great, but there is something more lurking in Tyler.  The question is, do we care what that might be?   [B+]

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Review: The Strokes – Comedown Machine

by DREW MALMUTH

Two years ago Albert Hammond Jr. was talking about his experience with The Strokes and he said that he “felt lucky, actually, to have these guys and this thing.”  He continued, saying that he was just glad that he “had it, friendship and music.”  At that point Julian Casablancas asked Albert why he was speaking in the past tense.  Indeed, the band was about to release their fourth album, Angles, and their was no reason to be talking about The Strokes as if they were a historical artifact.  However, as the interviewer noted at the time, there was a sense that The Strokes that released Is This It no longer existed.

Post-First Impressions of Earth the band stopped being an embodiment of the drug-addled, sex-crazed, booze-ravaged, 70′s rock bands that happened to make fantastic music.  The members had matured, had families, and, as they began to write Angles, the songwriting process had become collaborative and cordial.  Some bemoan this shift away from the youthful spontaneity that birthed most of their best songs.  But, seeing as The Strokes could never hope to make an album as good as their debut, I find it helpful to be able to see the band from a new perspective, as their new music becomes further disconnected from the uber-cool aura that radiated from their early work.  The question is, though, is their new music any good?

Comedown Machine, the band’s fifth album, is oddly structured, intermittently off-putting, and, in general, a fun album to listen to.  There are still heavy doses of bright, poppy guitar riffs, playful bass lines, and lyrics that are both emotive and dripping with sarcasm.  Yet, as with all of their albums after Room on Fire, it also goes in some surprising directions, some more successful than others.  The two first singles from the album, “One Way Trigger” and “All the Time,” are indicative of the classic versus  progressive Stroke’s sounds, which the band has attempted to blend ever since they got tired of being compared to Television (that’s just a guess).  “One Way Trigger” sports jumpy synth lines that could’ve been lifted out of a video game and Julian Casablancas’ voice is left unfiltered, with a sound bordering on tender; meanwhile, “All the Time” delivers what made The Strokes irresistible in the first place: driving energy; simple, catchy guitar riffs; and mountains of sassy charisma.  Comedown Machine is a slightly awkward blend of these two approaches.

“Tap Out” opens the album, and, while the chorus is a little slice of pop perfection, the song doesn’t quite spark a fire the way “You Only Live Once” or “Is This It” did.  In the same way, a number of other songs on the record aren’t bad, per se, but they fit oddly alongside other tracks and don’t inspire repeat listens the way The Strokes’ music should.  “80′s Comedown Machine” is the band’s most interesting attempt yet at a slow-burner.  It’s atmospheric, intimate, and surprisingly effective; however, placed next to “50/50,” an overdone attempt at punk revivalism, the song feels cheapened and the atmosphere it created dissipates.  “Slow Animals” and “Chances” recall Blink 182 after they mellowed out and a more understated Coldplay, respectively.  These songs are disappointing not because they are new aural territory for the band or because they betray what some think The Strokes “should” sound like.  Rather, they disappoint because they lack the fundamental, yet explosive songwriting that everyone knows the band is capable of.

The album does hit its stride on a few excellent tracks.  On “Welcome to Japan” the band finally sounds like they are enjoying the music they are playing.  Casablancas sings “I didn’t want to notice/ I didn’t know that God was loaded/ I didn’t really know this/ what kind of asshole drives a Lotus.”  Comedown Machine has too few of these loose, innately enjoyable moments.  “Partners in Crime” gives the latter part of the album a much needed injection of bouncy guitar riffs.  The album’s emphasis on New Wave synths and 80′s aesthetic (probably a holdover from Casablancas’ solo work) is fine at times, but tunes like “Partners In Crime” and “All the Time” are simply more fun.  The Strokes are a rock band from New York; the songs on Comedown Machine that embrace that are the standouts.

The Strokes may have expanded their sound but they are still adept at making tight compositions that are far more intricate than there loose delivery suggests.  Regina Spektor, when asked about the band, said that “the thing that blew [her] mind first hearing The Strokes was that they were the closest [she] had heard rock come to classical.”  I think that’s a little overstated, but it does speak to the unique draw of the band.  Their best songs pack more riffs, eighth notes, energy, spunk, and humor into three minutes than most fit into a whole album.  Comedown Machine doesn’t so much combine those factors as it does spread them out unevenly.  The elements are still there, but they aren’t fused in a way consistent with the hopes of those who foresaw The Strokes being the best rock band of our time.  Everything about the band made sense in 2001 but over a decade later they will have to work hard to prove that they are still worth revering. [B]

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