Nine Inch Nails – “Hesitation Marks”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Copy of A,” “Came Back Haunted”

The most immediate thing about “Hesitation Marks” is that Trent Reznor went through some changes in his time off from Nine Inch Nails. There’s no way of knowing what, but forming a band with his wife and winning, of all things, an Academy Award both seem to have livened him up, just a little. “Hesitation Marks” is distinctly a Nine Inch Nails record – lengthy, synth-based tracks with many layers of sound. But there is something gone, and it’s the gloom-and-doom feel. I hesitate to say it’s ‘missing’ because Reznor never really sounds like he’s trying to recapture it. Instead of lyrics about fear of religion and death and mutilation, there’s more inward songs about betrayal and personal responsibility. There may be keyboards and synthesizers abound, but the songs are more structured and sound more accessible than previous Nine Inch Nails records. Reznor did something no one saw coming. He made a rock album.

This isn’t a bad thing, either, because it works for the most part. The album starts off with a 52 second intro, before kicking off with two of the faster songs, “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted.” A majority of the songs hover in the 5-6 minute range and follow typical rock song structures. The songs generally get slower as the album goes on, before ending with a 1:29 instrumental outro. Reznor concocted a typical rock album, just one that lacks in guitar.

“Hesitation Marks” lacks the heaviness that is present on nearly all of his past albums. “The Downward Spiral” was one of the best albums of the 90’s because of it’s wicked and menacing layers of volume. “Ruiner” actually sounded like an empire collapsing, and “March of the Pigs” was a better punk song than most punk bands are capable of writing. The layers are present on “Hesitation Marks,” but the outward anger is gone, both lyrically and musically. Instead, we get a more early-80’s sound, like Reznor opening the door a bit for Depeche Mode. While it’s disappointing on paper, Reznor still pulls it off remarkably. The album drags at points, and it’s less memorable than most NIN records, but it is still its own great thing. This is a different side of Reznor, still angry but at different targets, and flirting with commercialism. And at 61 minutes long, there’s a lot of it to take in.

-By Andrew McNally

White Lies – “Big TV”

(Photo Credit: The Vinyl Scout)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Big TV,” “There Goes Our Love Again”

There’s something inherently interesting about White Lies. On paper, they’re doing nothing original, but their albums are entrancing. There are plenty of bands today doing 80’s throwbacks – the Killers, Muse and Editors jump to mind. But White Lies can add enough depth to their songs to make them their own, and not just rehashed ballads that wouldn’t please Ian Curtis at all. Their third album sees little in the way of ambition, similar to 2010’s “Ritual.” And with an overabundance of ballads, it shouldn’t be an enjoyable record at all. But leave it to White Lies to be able to entice the listener to keep the album on for unexplainable reasons.

The beauty of White Lies’ simplicity is how they don’t simply rebrand 80’s alt-ballads. Every song on this album is synth-driven, to the point where it acts as a running narrative. But they also take the counter-counter-culture 80’s gloom, a la Depeche Mode and non-hair metal bands. The album exists as a blending of two 80’s sounds, many years too late. Still more, they often add guitar crunch and painfully reflecting lyrics to kick it into today’s world. For music that sounds easy and repetitive, there are always a few things going on.

“Death” is easily the most ambitious song from the band. Sadly, it is the first track on their first album. With each album, they’ve relied more and more on this formula. While it still proves successful, the band is starting to drag. There are too many slow songs here. They’re broken up nicely by a few up-tempo songs, and two short instrumental interludes, a first for the band. But the album can’t help but feel a little bloated. While still entirely listenable, it begs the question of how long the band will be able to keep this going without getting too boring. Or too spacey. The album sounds more spacey, like Muse at their peak, before they too got too bloated and boring.

Still, the album is an intriguing listen, because White Lies are one of the few bands today that can pull off an album like “Big TV” and get away with it. It’s inexplicably enjoyable, though very faulted. The ballads come too early and too often, and many are forgettable on their own. As an album, though, each song works, and it results in a nice, somewhat easy listen.

If you like this, try: “Given to the Wild” by the Maccabees (2012), another album of largely down-tempo songs that’s still totally enjoyable.

-By Andrew McNally