Tag Archives: rock

Bartees Strange – Live Forever

29 Oct

There are some time-worn traditions when it comes to being a music fan. At some point, you realize that you’re older than the hot new popstars, you begin to appreciate some of the music your parents liked (although ABBA is still garbage) and some clever new musician takes your formative music and remakes it for the modern world. I’ve never seen someone take as much of it as Bartees Strange though.

“Stone Meadows” feels like a more cerebral Foo Fighters or like TV On The Radio at their best and Bartees Strange spends most of his time in this space, but then there’s plenty of art-pop and jolts of rap and house. “Kelly Rowland” is more emo-rap than anything else, but with some very intricate threads running through it.

The variety and the scratchiness give this album the feel of a personal mixtape, something compiled mostly from the sounds of the early 00s, but with snatches from other eras as well. For all of that variety though, Strange keeps the album cohesive. It’s a remarkable achievement.

For someone who came to music then, someone ever closer to their thirties, this album is undeniable. It doesn’t feel like nostalgia though, it doesn’t make me feel like I did back then. It is just very good music that speaks to something fundamental in me.

HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III

18 Jul

HAIM’s debut album in 2013, Days Are Gone, instantly made them the most likeable thing in music. It just felt good to see three sisters making really good pop-rock together, like a Jackson 5 without all of the ugliness. Now, with their third album, the novelty is gone, but instead they have a sophistication to their music that wasn’t there before.

The core is still the L.A. pop-rock that they’ve always unabashedly been, but now more experimental than most of their earlier sound. There are excellent screams in “All That Ever Mattered”, for instance, that feel like something they wouldn’t have tried before and which elevate the song now.

The album highlight “3 AM” has a deep funkiness that they have flirted with before, but never fully committed to. It’s a sound that they pull off expertly though. The stuttered cadence is compelling and the groove is undeniable.

None of this pushes them to let up in their more comfortable songs though. “Man from the Magazine” is fairly straightforward guitar rock, but impressively stark, which works very well with the chorus of “I don’t want to hear / it is what it is, it was what it was.” I really like their single “I Know Alone” despite a mild dislike for the music video. It’s both gentle and heartfelt and the electronic twinges are very nice. “Summer Girl” is a standout with a memorable brass lick and clean, understated singing and is matched perfectly by the other bookend “Los Angeles” with its still-funny gratuitous put-down of New York winters.

Women in Music, Pt. III is exactly the album I wanted to see after HAIM’s mild sophomore slump. It’s bold, it’s confident, it’s intelligent and it’s very listenable music.

@murthynikhil

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

12 Jul

It’s a little bit against the spirit of the man, but listening to Bob Dylan in 2020 is reassuring. His voice has just been a part of my life for my whole life, as with practically everyone else with access to American music and born anytime in the past 50 years. Despite the irony, Dylan is an institution.

Rough and Rowdy Ways may not be quite at the standard of his absolute best, but it’s not that far either. It’s alive and accomplished and empathetic and funny all at once.

The opener “I Contain Multitudes” contains the wonderfully bald line “I paint landscapes and I paint nudes / I contain multitudes.” that still makes me laugh. He drops in excellent body-horror in “My Own Version of You” that takes the high concept of the title and makes it an earthy thriller of a carnival.

For all of that though, he can still rock hard as in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and even throws a couple of harmonica licks in there. He follows it up with an equally good treacly ballad in “Mother of Muses” and goes from there to a strong laid-back blues rock track with “Crossing the Rubicon.”

The album ends with the 17 minute “Murder Most Foul” which naturally is quite a ramble, but Dylan has always been at his best when rambling. He has a gift for phrases with exceptional resonance and it’s always enjoyable to just float with him and let thoughts bubble up from the music.

It has been close to 60 years of Dylan now and with Rough and Rowdy Ways, we don’t have Dylan at his most urgent or meaningful, but we do have a wonderful, quiet and very human album to listen to and as I listen to it, there’s nothing more that I could want.

@murthynikhil

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

8 Dec

It’s immediately apparent that this is the album after the death of Nick Cave’s son. The melancholy is beautiful and everywhere. It’s much more of an ambient album than is standard for him and, if anything, benefits from the move outside. It does however also suffer a little from what becomes a slightly unvarying sound as a result though.

However, the grief comes through poignantly throughout. In particular, the retelling of the Buddhist parable of the house that knows no death in “Hollywood” is heart-rending. It’s a touching, beautiful album and one that you will not leave unmoved.

Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe

18 Oct

This is a striking debut album. Nilufer Yanya immediately grabs your attention with her iridescent voice and bold music, both of which are used to great effect in songs like the excellent “Heat Rises.” She has a gift for combining that captivating voice with unexpected music to make very compelling music as in “Paradise” and in “Paralysed.” She keeps you off-balance expertly and does so with such brash strokes as too take your breath away. Additionally, her voice is really just fascinating in itself and she already has the ability to use it well like in “Tears.”

The album has a little too much air to fully recommend and her skits don’t do anything to help, but there’s already so much here to recommend. Miss Universe is both the promise of great things to come and, more surprisingly, the deliverance of those in itself.

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold

26 Aug

It’s not just that Sleater-Kinney are cool, it’s they’ve always been cool. They’ve always been really cool. They’re the kind of band that makes songs that can define who you are for a phase of your life. They’re the kind of songs where you should let them.

Things change though. Times change. Riot grrrl doesn’t mean the same thing now that it meant in the early 2000s. Sleater-Kinney is just too smart not to change too and The Center Won’t Hold is definitely a shift slightly to the side. They’re still super-cool though.

The obvious difference is bringing in St. Vincent, but how much of the change in the music is from her and how much is from the band is impossible to dissect. “LOVE” starts as though it was Devo doing punk, which is new and interesting, but also maybe not quite as good as it would have been as a pure riot grrrl track. Especially with the rawness of a line like “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene / Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen / Fuck,” this could have been done as a harder track, but the backing works well with the sung chorus and the track is unquestionably novel.

However, some of the other tracks don’t do anything new musically despite being separate from the standard Sleater-Kinney songbook. “Restless”, “The Dog / The Body” and especially “Can I Go On” feel like they could have come from much lesser indie rock groups.

“RUINS” feels like modern riot grrrl though. The distortions are very sharp and the song carries so much attitude that you can forgive it being slightly stretched. “Reach Out” is excellent and Janet Weiss’ drumming in it is spectacular. The standout though is “Hurry On Home”, which is easily one of the strongest tracks of the year. It’s frenetic and so much fun and topical and so smart. It’s the reason that you fall for this band in the first place.

The Center Won’t Hold doesn’t quite merit a shrine in the Sleater-Kinney discography, but it is still a strong album and an interesting look at what might come next.

The National – I Am Easy To Find

24 Jul

The National is the band for whom consistency is a curse as much as a blessing. There is no other band in indie rock, and possibly all music, quite as dependable as The National. They are very good at what they do and it’s always worth listening to what they put out, but their albums have a way of blending together, at least until I Am Easy To Find.

The National have clearly defined their space over their time making music. They are the feeling of looking out a grey, rainy day from inside a warm house. There’s melancholy but there’s also enough coziness to let you fully wallow in it. This album has all of the melancholy and intimacy and gentleness that The National have always evoked, but this is also their first album to feature guest vocalists to such a degree.

The guests take away the major fault of The National to date, the self-centeredness. Making it so that Berninger is no longer the only perspective is a massive, fundamental shift to the way the album feels and this jolt is exactly what The National has needed for some time.

“I Am Easy To Find”, for instance, does really well for adding a female vocalist. What would have been a rather typical song about yearning becomes something much stronger by twinning singers. There’s much more depth and subtlety than before, especially when one voice fades in or out. It’s simple and understated in the way that the best songs of The National have always been, but much more mature than their previous work.

It’s the same, but slightly more so for “The Pull of You”, which most completely delivers on the album’s premise. From the start with a few seconds free of vocals before Lisa Hannigan to Matt Berninger allowing power to come into his voice in the chorus to the tautness of “I know I can get attached and then unattached / To my own versions of others / My view of you comes back and drops away,” there’s a lot in this song that works in a way very familiar and yet new and better.

The more skewed “Oblivions” is also a stand-out. Berninger puts down the base of the song, but it is Mina Tindle who does all of the work to elevate it. Berniger’s staging of the song is hugely important, but Tindle is absolutely excellent. As is “Roman Holiday”, which conjures quick image after quick image. However, there is still a lot in the album that never quite breaches the haze that The National so expertly sets up. There’s a lot of music that just fades into the rest.

The National basically started fully formed. Their aesthetic of cinematic, but shot in a soft and quiet black and white, has been there from day one. With I Am Easy To Find though, they’ve pushed it somewhere that feels completely novel and in doing so made one of their best albums to date.

The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

9 Dec

For an institution to survive, it must adapt. IBM doesn’t sell hardware anymore, Sony makes its money through life insurance, and the grand old genre that is Britpop looked like it was heading due The 1975. This album came in with a lot of hype as the next big thing of the once big genre and I’m not sure if it has pulled it off. As an album, it skews good if not great, but some of the songs here are nothing short of magnificent and that may be enough.

Both “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” and “Love It If We Made It” are excellent singles with great music videos that I’m sure have already seen heavy rotation. However, the rest of the album is blameless, lacking both in major defects and in memorable qualities. It’s solid music and has some decent points, but lacks any elevating factor. It’s unfortunately tame.

The singles are very solid though. They skew hard to pop, even for a band that was already on that side of the pop-rock spectrum. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is catchy and infectious and “Love It If We Made It” is anthemic and relevant. Its grab-bag of current events is blazed through at a hectic pace and its recasting of the Trump tweet on Kanye deserves awards.

There’s a few other points here that stick out. I like “Give Yourself A Try” and while I find “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” terrible, it at least fits into the album. It’s dumb and self-important and pretentious but an occasional moment like this was always the price of admission for an album like this. Something like “Surrounded By Heads and Bodies” is pleasant, but lacking in ideas, and the album lets a few too many slower songs like that in near the end. This gets to the point where “I Couldn’t Be More In Love” is bland enough to be an actual misfire.

However, the album has defined a different, more eclectic direction for the genre, even if only off the back of a couple of singles, and that’s noteworthy in itself. Now it’s on everyone else to catch up.

@murthynikhil

U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited

4 Oct

There’s no shortage of bands that mix together pop and rock and jazz and funk, but there are few that manage alchemy as unique as that of U.S. Girls. They’re aggressive to the point of cacophony in parts, and they make that work, and they’re tender in other parts and they make that work too. It’s that kind of album. Everything just works.

I stand by what I said about their sound being unique, but it does still remind me strongly of The Long Blondes, especially on tracks like “M.A.H.” and “Time.”  Like The Long Blondes, U.S. Girls are sharp enough for anyone , both in narrative and in music. “Pearly Gates,” in particular, is a fascinating song with plenty of surprise and some excellent, thought-provoking blasphemy.

The album’s sound, like its message, is layered, complex and full of surprise, right from “Velvet 4 Sale” straight to the end. It’s angry, it’s smart and it’s something you should be listening to.

@murthynikhil

Spoon – Hot Thoughts

12 Dec

Hot thoughts

No band embodies the idea of independent rock better than Spoon. Since 1996, the Austin band has churned out a great album every two to three years (see: Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga).

Every other band with similar discography and enduring success (U2, RHCP) inevitably seems to fall prey to arena rock and millions-strong fan followings. Not Spoon though. They don’t wear leather pants. They don’t talk about their fame in songs. They never moved en masse to LA or NYC; one of them still lives in Austin, where he’s been a key element of the city’s music scene for decades. After all these years, Spoon’s self-worth seems to stem not from the limelight, but from an innate source of cool. And that’s what makes them truly indie rock.

Lead man Britt Daniel doesn’t like the “indie rock” label, though, and it kind of makes sense. In in our present understanding of the term, indie rock often refers to great-sounding upstarts that shot to fame through a combination of luck, marketing and the Internet – but whether their fame endures beyond the debut is a different matter. Spoon grew up in a different world, painstakingly building their sound (and fan base) without sacrificing their passion.

Hot Thoughts, their ninth full-length album, is the latest fruit of this passion. It’s full of the typical Spoon sound – punchy drums, wailing guitars, feverish bass lines and Daniel’s megaphone-via-voicemail singing style – peppered with a certain Spoon-y quirkiness that makes it a unique new album in their discography.

It’s the quirky details that make the songs stick: the first listen may entertain, but the fourth will truly intoxicate. On “Do I Have to Talk You into It”, the swaggering drums over a nervy piano are enough to make a great song, but Daniel’s idiosyncratic renditions of the song title is what stays with you. He shimmies up and down the scale one time; shout-asks in another; fades into the overpowering drums in a third; a magnetic presence on a magnetic track.

One of the verses on “First Caress” talks about a girl who likes to tell Daniel that coconut milk and coconut water are the same thing; it’s such a weird detail, but you somehow end up replaying the song just to hear him say that line. “Pink Up” has a dreamy, atmospheric sound, full of light xylophone touches and folksy maracas, as Daniel exhorts the listener to live life in the moment by taking the train to Marrakesh.

Of course, Spoon isn’t all about the quirk – some of their songs are just pure rock classics. The eponymous song is a good old-fashioned paean to a girl who gives Daniel some sexy ideas, set over fretty licks and Jim Eno’s confident drums. The frenetic energy of the drums and bass on “Shotgun” could and probably will incite a riot at some point, which is fitting because it’s about getting into fisticuffs. “Can I Sit Next to You” thumps along to a funk guitar and dance beats, a strutting theme song to Daniel’s unabashed pick-up line (“Can I sit next to you? Can you sit next to me?”).

Hot Thoughts is a very enjoyable album through and through by the guys who basically invented the genre. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give it a listen.

Best songs: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

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