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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Titus Andronicus – “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Lonely Boy” “Dimed Out” “More Perfect Union”

One of the things that made Seinfeld so great was a general lack of continuity – you can flip on any episode on TBS at 3pm or am and jump in. Sure, there’s recurring jokes – the person getting washed behind the sheet at the hospital George’s mom is in is my favorite. But each episode is pretty standalone, even for a sitcom. So it’s weird that Titus Andronicus stands by their Seinfeld references, in a way. Their fourth album, “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” is an album that links all three of their previous albums up. It continues the “No Future” trend from “Titus Andronicus” and “The Monitor,” but left off of “Local Business.” One of this album’s best songs, “More Perfect Union,” is a reference to “A More Perfect Union,” from “The Monitor.” And “I’m Going Insane (Finish Him)” is a lyrical cover of their own “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” from “Local Business.” There’s even the Seinfeld reference, a “Hello, Newman” shout on “Lonely Boy.”

Look, I love Titus Andronicus. I’ve long called them “America’s best rock band.” A picture I took of them at the Brooklyn Bowl has been the background on my phone for a few years. I didn’t ‘stand by them’ when they released “Local Business” – it’s one of my very favorite albums, I listen to it in full nearly once a week. So when they announced a 29 song, 93+ minute rock opera, I went into cardiac arrest. And as I was staring at it after it came out, before I listened, I thought – “there’s few bands that could really pull this off, and I’m not sure +@ even can.” “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” isn’t their strongest album, but in terms of ambition and effort, it is indeed unmatched.

The album is separated into five acts, much like Foxygen’s “…And Star Power” last year. The opera follows Our Hero, as he meets his doppelganger and struggles with manic depression, a reflection of Patrick Stickles’ own struggles. Stickles has reflected before – “The Monitor” reflected his depression, where my favorite +@ song “My Eating Disorder” details his selective eating.

There’s a lot to take in on the album, at 29 songs and over an hour and a half long. Given that the band has always centered itself equally on music and lyrics, there’s rarely one more worthy of attention – and that comes through the most on songs that feel like they could’ve been cut. It runs too long, even as an art project, and the average-lengthed songs start to bleed together a bit. There’s also a surprising number of them – although two of the songs are over nine minutes, and thirteen are under two minutes, most of the other tracks are between 3:00 and 4:30, unexpected for a band comfortable in the 5:00-6:30 range. Some songs, like “Dimed Out” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” feel zipped-up and perfectly sliced because of it, but some songs feel underdeveloped in that range.

The album keeps things interesting by engulfing all of Patrick Stickles’ influences, rather than focusing on one. Early on, especially on “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” and “Lonely Boy,” the band directly channels their inner Springsteen. As the album gets more indulging, the band expands influences, from hardcore (“Look Alive”) to the Pogues (“A Pair of Brown Eyes”) to the traditional (an unexpected “Auld Lang Syne”). There’s a lot going on here, and it gets switched up so consistently that it feels like where in the manic itself.

“The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a flawed but strong album. Just when it starts to lag, it winds up again and hits you with another punk blast. And it’s needlessly but joyously self-indulgent, keeping all of the band’s linked narratives going. It’s punk, it’s indie, it’s gospel, it’s anything you’d imagine Titus Andronicus to be. It succeeds just because it has the sheer audacity to demand it so. “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a beast, and with another dense, lengthy concept album under their belt, it’s safe to say we have no idea where +@ are going next. Their next album might equate struggles with body identity to stories of ancient gods, or it might be a Bon Jovi covers album. It’s tough to say, and that’s what makes +@ America’s best rock band.

If you like this, try: self-immolation

-By Andrew McNally

Prince’s “Art Official Age” and 3RDEYEGIRL’s “Plectrumelectrum” – A Review From the Uninitiated

Grades: Art Official Age: B+

Plectrumelectrum: D+

As a music critic, there’s been plenty of times where I’ve faked knowledge of an artist to give some insight into the recording of an album. I’ll admit it, I can’t say I’m on an equal playing field when I talk about both Ariana Grande and Foxygen, I have to look up information on someone like Grande because I’m much more inclined to listen to Foxygen in my own time. But I can’t fake Prince. Not admitting that I don’t know the first thing about Prince’s back catalog and topsy-turvy history would be unfair to him. Prince is a legend; a hero of pop music, and trying to fake my way through a review would not do him any justice. I know that he and Warner Bros. got into a bitter, bitter feud in the ’90’s, partially the reason for him to change his name to a symbol – so Warner would have to find a way to market it. And I know that he’s both feminine and seductive, yet legendary and encompassing enough for the NFL to pick him to play a Super Bowl halftime show (and one of the better ones). What I do know about Prince is that his music has jumped all around, and that’s exactly what his solo album, “Art Official Age,” does. So if you’re not familiar with his music, know that the album is inconsistent but often fun and honest. And if you are familiar, then you probably made up your mind before it even came out. Okay? Okay.

“Art Official Age” starts with a track titled “Art Official Cage,” and it’s a song that would have never existed in the “Purple Rain” years. It couldn’t have. It’s ripped from hip-hop and EDM, with big beats and air horns. It’s fun, and there’s way too much going on, but that’s part of the joy. The album jumps across fun, funky songs and big ballads, all of which are distinctly Prince and neither of which are aligned with any other pop artist. It’s the album’s best and worst quality, that it jumps so frequently and unexpectedly. Luckily, it’s good far more often than it’s bad.

The ballads come early, with the third track “Breakdown.” Prince hits some cringingly high notes, and pulls them off, obviously. “U Know” is a pseudo-ballad two tracks later, but one that has Prince rapping a bit. The hip-hop element is palpable on “U Know,” and is throughout the album. Prince constantly feeds off of genres that fed off him thirty years ago. Ballads aside, the album is a lot of fun, and Prince sounds like he’s truly enjoying it. Late album track “Funknroll” is exactly what it sounds like, a huge disco bash that’s a ton of fun and could easily be thrown on repeat for an hour without getting old. Second track “Clouds” is a strange track, with a strong spoken word that sets up the album’s loose premise of waking up in a world without gender pronouns. And leadoff single “Breakfast Can Wait” is an oddly specific, sexual song that’s exactly what you’d expect from Prince.

“Art Official Age” isn’t all great. The theme of waking up without gender pronouns are neat (and Prince to the max), but it never shows up outside of spoken word bits that are great on “Clouds” and finale “affirmation iii,” but are weak on the other tracks. And Prince seems to be borrowing just a tad too heavily from Daft Punk’s disco playbook – in that he tries lengthy, funky songs, but doesn’t pull them off as well as the duo. There are two tracks, “The Gold Standard,” and “Time,” that are far too long. The former is almost six minutes, the latter almost seven, and there isn’t much of a reason. They just inflate the album’s 53 minute runtime. But it starts strong and it ends strong, and it’s fun in between. People hanging out under rocks like myself should find a lot to groove to on this record, and find a lot of originality in it’s melting of both genres and themes.

On the inverse of that is the debut album from Prince’s backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album, “Plectrumelectrum,” flows through different genres and influences just as “Art Official Age,” but does so in a much more murkier and standard way. The band, who Prince is proudly touting as being all-female, gets off on the wrong foot with the lackluster “Wow,” a song that lacks the energy to be a true leadoff song, but has enough energy to not be a cop-out slow intro. After that, the album is a topsy-turvy ride, hitting high highs and low lows.

A low low is “Boytrouble,” an overlong and inane pop song that’s stylistically similar to far too many songs that have come before. Another low low is that the album appears to start off with a classic rock vibe for the first four or five songs, before slowly diverging into funk and hip-hop, without seeming to have any real reason. It flows well at the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more it becomes a collection of songs instead of a fluid album. The album never seems to come to having any point, other than Prince showing off his (talented) backing band. Likewise, on “Fixurlifeup,” he sings lead, and he sings about misogyny in music and how bands shouldn’t be called “female” bands, yet he prides himself on showcasing his handpicked female backing band, contributing to the problem himself. (Not that he shouldn’t have an all-female band, just that he’s being pretty hypocritical about it).

The album isn’t all bad, though. There’s some great, exploratory songs. The title track (and longest on the album) is an instrumental classic rock jam that shows just how talented the band is. And the follow-up, “Whitecaps,” is a pleasant vocal-based pseudo-ballad. And the album has a better pacing, clocking in at a tighter 42 minutes, with some fat trimmed. The album certainly has it’s moments, it’s just very inconsistent and never has a sense of purpose. Perhaps the thing that summarizes it best is that the album’s final track is a different version of “Funknroll,” from “Art Official Age.” It’s a slightly different version that’s still good, but just not as much.

Not knowing anything about Prince didn’t harm me in listening to 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album is more direct, even if it hits different genres. It isn’t a great album and I give only a reserved recommendation for Prince fans only, but it still has some fun moments. And, they’re talented. they’re extremely talented. Non-Prince people like myself can at least enjoy it just as much (probably more) than Prince fans. As for “Art Official Age,” it’s also inconsistent, but it’s fun and energetic, and it might be a refresher for his fans. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me.

-By Andrew McNally

Foxygen – “…And Star Power”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “How Can You Really” “Cosmic Vibrations” “Can’t Contextualize My Mind”

All day I’ve been trying to come up with outdated words to describe this album. Rad? Killer? Kickin’? Foxygen are a classic rock band for the digital age. They always have been. But their new double album, “…And Star Power,” is so classic rock inspired that it explores it as a concept. The album is split into five parts on four sides, all of which represent some faction of a standard classic rock album. And although at 82+ minutes, it’s way, way too long, it provides for an interesting listen as a 24 track album where each song gets crazier than the last.

Side One of this album is split into two parts – the first half of a classic rock album, with the radio hits, and the second half, where only the band’s real fans keep listening. What this means for Foxygen is a start to a lengthy album with a few midtempo, standard-ish songs. It’s a risky move, trusting your fans to keep listening even though the opener is shaky. But it does provide a few great songs – “How Can You Really” is the most Foxygen-y song ever produced, a song that sounds just like any classic rock standard, except for it’s indescribable sloppiness. It and “Cosmic Vibrations” have provided two singles for Foxygen, on an album that’s otherwise devoid. Part Two of the side is one suite – the four-part Star Power Suite. The four songs, including an opening overture, are all speedy garage-rock bruisers that are a lot of fun. Only one of them stretches over three minutes, so they don’t overstay their welcome.

Side Two is subtitled “The Paranoid Side,” and it’s easily the weakest side of the album. The loose concept of this section is songs that are more psychedelic and free than standard rock settings. “I Don’t Have Anything/The Gate” and “666” are interesting songs, but it’s the longest section from a track number standpoint, and it’s got some of the most forgettable songs. “Flowers” and “Cannibal Holocaust” might sound better on a shorter album, but on one that’s already overly bloated, they just take up time.

Side Three, or Scream: Journey Through Hell takes a sudden detour into songs classic rock bands wish they could’ve pulled off, but couldn’t have at the time. The section is kicked off by the nearly seven minute “Cold Winter/Freedom,” which never has a discernible rhythm but some haunting tempo changes. The section is marked by chaos – screaming, hyper rhythms and drastic volume increases. “Can’t Contextualize My Mind” sounds exactly a Stones song left on the floor because it broke an album’s flow. “Brooklyn Police Station” “Freedom II” and “Talk” are all equally intense, hitting chaotic levels even for Foxygen. The few lyrics the songs have are often unintelligible. It’s jarring and off-putting at first, but they’re tracks that demand a few listens, and the listener is drawn back to them almost immediately.

The final side is just two tracks, sweeter outros which don’t exactly fit, given the predecessors, but they’re decent enough as is. “Everyone Needs Love” is a sweet, lengthy song, and “Hang” is a calmed and fitting finale. Their placement doesn’t really work but there isn’t much to comment on them.

“…And Star Power” sounds like their previous album, “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic” on an immediate level – it’s classic rock inspired lunacy, with brilliant flow, quick switches between melodies and chaos, and a permanent garage feel. But it’s a very different album. (Full disclosure: “21st Century” is one of my two or three favorite albums, so take any analysis with a few grains of salt). “21st Century” is only 36 minutes long, nearly a third the length and fifteen songs fewer. And where “21st Century” prouds itself on dense, bizarre and witty lyrics (“On Blue Mountain/God will save you/Put the pieces back together” shows up in at five of the nine songs), this album centers itself on more conventional lyrics, instead aimed at the flow and the grandiose concept. Much of “…And Star Power”‘s rough transitions, competing ideas, and sheer length come from the band’s inner-fighting, well-documented since their break early last year. This album actually serves to clarify that things aren’t as bad as they seemed to us, but the output still goes to show some issues.

Foxygen have always been a high-concept band. Don’t forget, their first album was a 30 track space opera. So the concept, on the whole, works well on “…And Star Power.” They’re a classic rock band incarnate, evident in Johnathan Rado’s utter devotion to singing like Lou Reed and Mick Jagger. The album’s only fault is that it’s just long – so, so long. Twenty minutes could probably be chopped off and it would have the same effect. On top of multiple songs in each section, there’s interludes that just take up more time. But still, Foxygen are cool as hell. There’s a reason they were able to get members of the Flaming Lips, White Fence and Of Montreal to guest on the album. “…And Star Power” is the album that MGMT wishes they could make – expansive, ambitious not to but past a fault, flowing but inconsistent and downright bonkers. If you have 82 minutes to spare, and you’re into indie-garage bands taking pages from psychedelic classic rock, then “…And Star Power” is by all means worth a listen.

If you like this, try: This one’s easy. Jordaan Mason & Horse Museum’s 2009 album “divorce lawyers i shaved my head,” a concept album about a failed marriage between two people confused about their sexual identities. Each song escalates in it’s disturbing and bizarre qualities, but does so at a slow pace so the listener doesn’t pick up on it at first. It’s a confounding work. Mason does his best Jeff Mangum impression throughout.

-By Andrew McNally