Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally

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The Front Bottoms – “Rose”

 

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “12 Feet Deep” “Jim Bogart”

Leave it to a band like the Front Bottoms to put a reviewer in a tough spot on whether to call these songs “new” or not. Because these songs are freshly recorded. But they certainly aren’t new. The first five tracks that make up “Rose” – “Flying Model Rockets,” “Lipstick Covered Magnet,” “12 Feet Deep,” “Jim Bogart,” and “Be Nice to Me” – are re-recordings of older songs, with “Awkward Conversations” the only freshly recorded one. The Front Bottoms released three albums before their perfect 2011 ‘debut’ self-titled, “Brothers Can’t Be Friends,” “I Hate My Friends” and “My Grandma vs. Pneumonia,” respectively. But all three are only available in the deepest corners of the internet, so buried that even some of their more adamant friends aren’t even aware of them. They’ve played these songs live, though, and they’ve become staples, so they’re getting a proper release in the first of a set of EP’s named after the duo’s grandmothers.

The song with the most remarkable difference is “12 Feet Deep,” always one of my personal favorite Front Bottoms songs. “Because you are water twelve feet deep / and I am boots made of concrete” proved in c. 2010 to be an emotionally impacting line, reflecting a relationship that isn’t healthy but still committed. But in 2014, a more steady drumline and more inspired vocals transform it into a more optimistic and hopeful relationship, without altering any of the words. All throughout the EP, there’s lyrics about school and parents, which still sound fresh in Brian Sella’s non-aging voice. The poetry of early Front Bottoms is more natural; less forced than some of the corny couplets on last year’s “Talon of the Hawk.”

Musically, the band has it more together now than they did then. That’s another added bonus of re-recording – the only real fault of their early albums is some messy music, when they were still learning what they were doing. It’s more refined on “Rose,” though still a little off the rails, of course. “Jim Bogart” ditches the inside-a-box production, and adds trumpet and and a slick little keyboard rhythm to build up to the drum entrance. In one way, the songs feel stripped down on this EP – more confined and controlled, sometimes fewer instruments, and with a better production. But in another way, they feel even more expanded and in your face than they did before – the benefit of a band that’s since settled into a signature sound.

It was a smart idea for the band to release these older songs, revamped. Relative fame, a constant touring schedule (and a namedrop alongside the National and Daft Punk in this NYT article) have had the unfortunate drawback of their youthful, innocently downtrodden lyrics sounding less believable. A decidedly terrible full-length didn’t help that, either. So although the band is reaching a wider and wider audience, their music is sounding less personable and less impacting. These six songs show how youthful and energetic the Front Bottoms really are, and by re-recording them, they’ve proven that they haven’t really changed at all. It’s sad, it’s fun, it’s poetic and easy to relate to, so it’s all you’ve come to expect from them. The only criticism? It doesn’t include “The Cops.” And that’s really a personal criticism. Maybe on a future EP.

-By Andrew McNally

Pharrell – “G I R L”

(Photo Credit: Hollywood Reporter)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Hunter” “Gust of Wind”

This was a risky time for Pharrell to release a solo album. He’s riding the waves of one of the most successful years someone in music can have. He had guest spots on the two biggest songs of last summer – “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” and he co-wrote and produced two songs on Beyonce’s instant-legend self-titled album. He wore a silly, hip-hop-historical and now famous hat to the Grammy’s, and he released a 24 hour music video for his big hit, “Happy.” Pharrell is, nowadays, now famous for producing and guest spots, hugely overshadowing his solo work and his music with N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes. So if “G I R L” were to be underwhelming, it would likely derail the ever-increasing speed of the train that Pharrell is at the helm of. Luckily, “G I R L” is a sufficient pop release. It isn’t the most memorable of albums, but it strongly benefits from an all-inviting sound, a consistent feminist agenda, and huge name guest spots from Pharrell’s long, long contact list.

Pharrell tried to hit all bases with “G I R L,” and he certainly succeeds. It’s sexy – like the sweaty “Hunter.” It’s classy, with opener “Marilyn Monroe.” And it’s friendly – centered around the smash hit “Happy,” which seems to actually be stylized on the album as “Happy (from Despicable Me 2).” You know, the kids movie. The very next song is “Come Get It Bae,” featuring the not-family-friendly Miley Cyrus. Whatever your fancy is with pop music, “G I R L” likely hits it.

The guest spots, though usually not the focus of a review, are something to marvel at. As mentioned, Miley drops in. And so do Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Kelly Osbourne, a very falsetto-y Justin Timberlake, Timbaland (relegated to beatboxing) and, unpredictably, JoJo. And the strings on the album – arranged by Hans Zimmer. The cast on this album reads like a Wes Anderson movie. And just like an Anderson film – some of the appearances are solely based on “look who I got to be here!,” while some, especially Daft Punk, add a whole level of depth and help separate each track from the next.

And it’s good that each song is distinct enough to stand out – because Pharrell, on his own, isn’t actually all that strong. The rare moments when he raps on the album work, but otherwise, his voice usually just blends into the background. Think about “Happy” – his voice only overpowers the music because the music is minimal during the chorus, and it’s catchy because of how his voice acts as an instrument, not for the lyrics. There are moments where he ups into falsetto, and he really doesn’t hit the notes. There are a couple moments were it resembles watching a Top 12 American Idol giving what you just know is their last performance. It just isn’t quite there, overall. But it’s a boatload of fun, so it’s never an issue.

“G I R L” is all linked together by a distinctly feministic tone. It’s almost possible to see this – and “Get Lucky” and his work on Beyonce’s album – as an apology for the gut-wrechnigly misogynist (and possibly divorce-causing) “Blurred Lines.” Pharrell sometimes skirts the lines of male pop feminism – respecting women’s bodies and sexual desires, etc., and sometimes fully delves into actual feminism. It helps to create a consistent tone, and let’s be real, it’s just nice to hear. Inviting feminist-leaning artists like Daft Punk, Timberlake and the severely misunderstood Miley Cyrus only helps that. The era of patriarchal sex-pop is coming to a close, and Pharrell seems to be the one locking the doors.

So “G I R L” only suffers from Pharrell himself not being the most talented singer. And given that this is his first solo album in eight years, it’s not his specialty. He produced the whole album, and wrote every song, much more his strong suits. The album is not the most memorable, because it all feels familiar. But it’s still enjoyable and every song is unique. It sounds by the books, if every song was taken from a different book than the one previous. “G I R L” is a listen for those of all ages and musical preferences. There’s something for everyone, and his “music for everyone” approach helps to bolster the feminist themes. “G I R L” won’t be one of the albums of the year, but it’s a more than decent pop release, and one that will help Pharrell continue his unstoppable reign.

-By Andrew McNally

Fuck Buttons – “Slow Focus”

(Photo Credit: Electric Banana)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Prince’s Prize,” “Stalker”

The shortest track on this album, the 4:22 of “Prince’s Prize,” is longer than the longest song on the new Hunx & His Punx album, sitting right below this one. This has always been the approach to music for the Buttons. Their songs are long, leaving a lot to dig through. Fuck Buttons, much like their name itself, challenge popularity to accept them. The band is an instrumental, electronic duo that creates long, dense works that are never easy and conventional yet never mean on the ears. There is a secret formula to their music, and it continues on their third album.

With all of the EDM and electronica albums coming out this year already – Daft Punk, Disclosure, James Blake and Zomby have already released great albums – it’s surprising that there is room for the Buttons to fit in. But there is, because they don’t attempt to make music people can dance to. Their music is more complex and tougher to crack. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” is one of the best songs of the year, but any ten seconds of this album has more complexity and depth than the entirety of Daft Punk’s hit. These songs are mesmerizing, switching to and from rough and pretty, and often mixing the two. “Stalker” is the best example of this, a ten minute dissection of a pretty but monotonous rhythm, played over some decidedly noisy bits. The Buttons give a lot to dissect, but don’t give many clues. They do it in a way that makes for a puzzling listen, not a frustrating one. “Slow Focus” plays out like a mystery that doesn’t get answered, with an ending that is totally acceptable anyways.

Through all three albums, Fuck Buttons have been tough to nail down, with their intentionally complicated sound always being on the verge of remix-worthy without ever going there. “Slow Focus” is loud and empty, seemingly devoid of human emotions, through its grandiose and expansive ideas. It always seems like it is about to crack into club music, but will never go there, because the band places value on the depth of it’s music. “Slow Focus” is long and fantastic. Seven tracks and fifty-two minutes of brilliance. It is too tough to crack on one listen, and will confuse most listeners. Hopefully, enough people will give it a few listens without shrugging it off and moving on to dance music. Although with the attitude of this music, the band might just not care if they do.

-By Andrew McNally

Kanye West – “Yeezus”

Photo Credit: E!

Photo Credit: E!

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “I Am a God,” “New Slaves”

(Note: This and a few other of my reviews will be featured weekly on The Filtered Lens)

Kanye might be one to constantly reinvent himself, but “Yeezus” will still be a mark in his discography, the moment where his music truly hit revolutionary ground. “Yeezus” is an eclectic work, resulting in what has to be the first ever industrial rock / hip-hop pairing. This is the result of Daft Punk, Rick Rubin and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon all showing up with writing and producing credits.

Musically, “Yeezus” is a sonic experience. West’s rapping is mixed over blends of house and industrial music, with dramatic tonal shifts at any moment. “I Am a God” switches from rapping to ambient screaming at one point. The music lands anywhere from personal to terrifying, in a way that flows throughout the whole album. It feels minimalistic, too, despite the genre blending and the originality. Rubin was brought in to make a more stripped-down sound. West released no singles for the album, because hearing a track on the radio would diminish its feeling of placement as musically, the album can only be appreciated as a whole.

West’s lyrics lack any sort of flow, providing a surprising disappointment for the album. They are effective on every song, but there is no zeitgeist, no general theme. Songs like “I Am a God” and “New Slaves” aim to make some serious notes on culture, while “I’m In It” is nothing more than a crude song about sex. With no flow, the statement songs are less effective because they sound like rants, even if they’re well-written and well-performed. Each track, individually, has great lyrics, but not the album as a whole. Still, “Yeezus” is a powerhouse of originality, worthy of all the attention it is receiving.

-By Andrew McNally

Disclosure – “Settle”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “When A Fire Starts to Burn,” “F For You”

A debut from a European dance band coming only weeks after Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” burned up the charts might not seem like a good decision. It worked. Perhaps it was unintentional, but Disclosure might be on to something. The British duo – two brothers of ages 21 and 18 – have perfected an album harking back to dance music of the 90’s, not unlike the aforementioned French duo. Americanized house and dance music (the abrasively loud forms of EDM and dubstep I embraced in college) is still very popular, but has a definite expiration date, and that date might be coming soon. As “Get Lucky” climbs the charts, Boards of Canada release a comeback and Disclosure release a well-anticipated debut on the same day, all signaling a potential return to more controlled forms of dance music.

There is really nothing new on this record. It greatly succeeds, however, as an exploration and combination of many different forms of dance and house music. The combined opening tracks of “Intro” and “When A Fire Starts to Burn” present an almost Prodigy-type of heavy, hip-hop influenced type of electronica. This doesn’t stick around, as the album shifts through various volumes and tempos, and with a whole and welcomed line-up of up-and-coming British singers.

“Settle” is, at its core, exactly what it wants to be, and that is an effective dance record. It even flows well as an album, something nearly every dance band seems to struggle with. It might be very long, but if it’s put on at a party, that will no longer be a complaint. The beats are cooled and controlled, with little invention going on. In a world now filled with Skrillexs and Diplos, that might be just what we need.

-By Andrew McNally

Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories”

Daft Punk

Grade: B+

I’m one of those rare people that’s never really been onboard with Daft Punk. I’ve rarely found their music as entrancing and intriguing as most. The robot suits, to me, have seemed like an act more than an output of the music, which I’d already seen (better) in Kraftwerk. And I never cared for the repetitive rhythms and lyrics of their hits, and of club music in general. “One More Time” will grab me every now and then, but I see nothing in it beyond catchiness. “Around the World” has for years been a throwaway song to me, totally pointless and obnoxiously repetitive.

But “Random Access Memories,” admittedly, sucked me in. The first two tracks – “Give Life Back to Music” and “The Game of Love” did little for me, and were perhaps not the most momentous songs to open an album with. But the album’s third and longest track, “Giorgio by Moroder” roped me in more than any other dance song ever has. The song is winding and experimental, incorporating many instruments in a building rhythm. After the epic ends, the album twists into a peak of very danceable songs that never stretch into unnecessary lengths, and feature some great collaborations with Julian Casablancas (The Strokes), Pharrell Williams and legendary songwriter Paul Williams, all of whom contribute to some genuinely funky rhythms.

The album continues to flow in segments, as the last few tracks feature just the duo more prominently, largely devoid of collaborators and focusing more on a stripped-down, electronica sound. “Beyond” is the most traditionally Daft Punk track on the record, with the typical repetitive, faint robot vocals, and is one of the album’s weak points. But the largely instrumental tracks “Motherboard” and “Contact,” the closer, bring the album to a momentous end, and allow the group to experiment with their music and break out of their repetitive habits.

The duo stray further away from EDM and electronica on this record, their fourth. The danceable tracks actually feature funky guitar rhythms over electronica, at points. At moments on this record, Daft Punk sound like more than a duo, incorporating many instruments into their swooping songs. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve already heard the album and have formed an opinion of it. When the band streamed it on Pitchfork, the world went crazy. People are down with whatever Daft Punk has to offer and, on this album, it’s a whole helping of everything. I do believe that I am a converted fan, at least for now.

Key Tracks: “Giorgio by Moroder,” “Contact”

-Andrew McNally