Check out my piece “Punk Rock Catholicism” that was published by FirstThings.com on January 2.
The National is a band that plays a relentlessly dreary form of indie rock music. Most of their songs seem to come from an overcast climate dominated by cold, drizzly days. If this sounds unappealing, you would be wrong: The National’s music is compulsively listenable.
A growing number of people have been discovering this over the past eight years. The band’s critically acclaimed 2005 album, Alligator, put them on the map, cultivating a loyal following that grew steadily after the release of their 2007 album, Boxer, which was included on a variety of media outlet’s “Best of the Decade” lists. Then came 2010’s High Violet, which debuted at #3 on the charts despite being arguably their darkest album. On May 21st, the band released Trouble Will Find Me, which also debuted at #3.
The National’s addictive sound has been described as “baroque pop” or “art rock,” referring to the band’s fusion of the traditional drums, bass and guitar with classical elements including violin, cello and horns, with a particular emphasis on piano. All this serves as a well-curated template for lead singer and songwriter Matt Berninger, whose vocals are unlike anything else in popular music today. His voice is a low, resonant baritone that delivers lyrics in a methodical, workmanlike manner, virtually free of bluster. Berninger’s style resembles a slight drone or a more melodious version of Lou Reed. “Fake Empire,” the opening track of Boxer, is a fitting example of this as he relates inane trifles such as: “Picking apples, making pies/Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us.” But in between each monotone verse, the chorus extracts itself: “We’re half awake in a fake empire.” It’s a bracing statement, simple yet stealthily potent as it is repeated in couplets.
The next song on Boxer is a showcase of the band at the height of their power. “Mistaken for Strangers” is a deadly serious and haunting track, driven by a propulsive beat by drummer Bryan Devendorf and atmospheric, grinding electric and bass guitars that form the embodiment of Berninger’s deft lyrics that suggest the self-absorbed rigors of keeping up appearances: “Cause you don’t mind seeing yourself in a picture/As long as you look far away/As long as you look removed.” The chorus seems to reflect on the impersonal nature of certain moments in modern life: “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends/When you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights.” And later: “Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.”
In the band’s following album, 2010’s High Violet, Berninger turns more toward self-examination, and the results aren’t pretty. “Sorrow,” the album’s second track, begins with this: “Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” And later: “I live in a city sorrow built/It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk.” Still, the song’s brisk percussion and guitar provide a bristling, quiet energy. A repeated line at the end of the chorus adds a different dimension: “I don’t wanna get over you.” It bestows a sense of aching romance, turning the overall effect into a kind of sorrowful comfort.
“Anyone’s Ghost” finds Berninger grappling with insecurity in an unstable relationship: “Didn’t want to be your ghost/Didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost.” The melody and cadence of the line make it an instantly memorable anthem about the desire to avoid conflict. Elsewhere, on “Lemonworld,” a striving for innocence and authenticity in a corrupt world is evoked. The song begins with a simple thought about how city life can feel like claustrophobic confinement: “So happy I was invited/Give me a reason to get out of the city. . . .Living and dying in New York it means nothing to me.” The joy of finding solace in a different kind of life comes through in the chorus: “You and your sister live in a lemonworld/I want to sit in and die.”
Toward the end of High Violet is “Conversation 16”; it’s a thing of beauty, a slinky groove of a song about the aspects of adulthood that torture Berninger. “I think the kids are in trouble,” he surmises. “Do not know what all the troubles are for.” And later: “I tell you miserable things after you are asleep.” Regret and tension emerge as well: “Meet our friends out for dinner/When I said what I said I didn’t mean anything/We belong in a movie/Try to hold it together ‘til our friends are gone.” Still, there’s hope in a desire to change: “I’ll try to be more romantic/I want to believe in everything you believe.”
The National’s latest record, Trouble Will Find Me, is another brooding collection of songs that combine Berninger’s perceptive confessions with stellar art rock. The opening track observes: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind,” but Berninger sings it in a higher than normal register, making it a moment of epiphany. The next song “Demons” is decidedly less positive, mostly serving as dark comedy: “When I walk into a room I do not light it up.” Elsewhere, on “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” Berninger does some astute self-analysis: “I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion/I can’t get the balance right.”
With “Heavenfaced,” the sixth track on Trouble Will Find Me, the clouds open, even if only for a little while. The dreamlike melody of the piano-synthesizer that drives the song heightens the effect of Berninger’s hopeful aspirations: “Let’s go wait out in the fields with the ones we love.” The song becomes ascendant soon after, as his voice reaches a rare high register to proclaim: “We’ll all arrive in heaven alive.” The album ends on another bright spot. “Hard to Find” is a soothing balm, delving into the nature of past love: “What I feel now about you then, I’m just glad I can’t explain.” There’s a sense of the wisdom in cherishing what one had, but also the peace in letting it go: “Don’t know why we had to lose the ones who took so little space/We’re still waiting for the ease to cover what we can’t erase/I’m not holding out for you, but I’m still watching for the signs/If I tried you’d probably be hard to find.”
The value of music like this can be illustrated by exploring a number of different attributes. Arguably chief among them is its ability to provide catharsis to the listener. “Catharsis” has been defined as a kind of “purification” or “purgation” of the emotions through art. This “purgation” can come about simply by realizing that the artist is wrestling with the same emotions as you are: frustration, insincerity, awkwardness, sorrow, insecurity, confinement, longing, regret; but also romance, innocence, authenticity, joy. It’s an admission that before one can determine how things should be, one must first dig into how things are. This desire is universal; it’s what great art taps into through the lens of personal experience. Great music has the ability to transform these feelings into a sound.
This is what The National does so well. There’s a sense that the band is continually trying to enter more deeply into exploring personal failings as well as mysterious joys. It feels like an honest journey, markedly different from much of pop music’s impulsive tendency toward pure entertainment through sensual overload. The National’s music has the cinematic quality of a character study (rather than a summer blockbuster), where the main character’s journey becomes your own. It’s also rock that should be enjoyed like a fine scotch, powerful yet complex—in moderation, of course.
In a February Rolling Stone interview, Jim James, the lead singer and songwriter of the popular roots rock band My Morning Jacket, had this to say when asked if he was religious: “I call myself a recovering Catholic.”
It’s funny, because ever since discovering My Morning Jacket in 2008, I always suspected as much. Even from a strictly musical perspective, the band has displayed an incredible talent for being “catholic” – able to create songs in a wide range of rock genres. Proof of this is their 2008 album Evil Urges, which mixes psychedelic, Southern, folk, rockabilly, country, blues and even punk elements.
Lyrically, certain phrasings and word choices in James’ songs have jumped out at me over the course of repeated listens, seeming to suggest a familiarity with the sacred. This sacredness is delicately played out in Evil Urges. In the song “Look at You,” his description of a “fine citizen” has the cadence and feel of a hymn: “Look at you / Such a glowing example of peace and glory… glory… glory / Of peace and glory… glory… glory / Let me follow you.” James also has the habit of including theistic references in unexpected places. The object of his love in “Librarian” is described in this way: “It’s not like you’re not trying, with a pencil in your hair / To defy the beauty the good Lord put in there.” Elsewhere, in the song “Remnants,” mystical visions are elicited: “Then I saw a new Heaven / Formed in the bleeding light of dusk / All souls, all faiths / Always we were one.”
The band’s following album, 2011’s Circuital, has a more consistent Southern/roots rock sound. It’s also replete with religious overtones, both subtle and overt. The hypnotic beat of the opening track “Victory Dance” serves as an appropriate template for a hopeful, bird’s-eye view of the world: “Hey there- I’m flying up above / Lookin’ down… on the tired earth / But I can see… I can see potential.” And further on: “Power- hey do you know how it works? / Hey do you know that the meek- they shall inherit the earth?” The album’s title track “Circuital” presents us with spiritual options: “Circuit, connect the earth to the moon / And link our heavenly bodies not a moment too soon / Well you can fling open the windows, or you can board ‘em up / Satan’s jeweled crown or Christ’s humble cup.” The song “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is a simple, gorgeous ode to joy: “With the sun on my shoulders, and the wind at my back / I will never grow older, at least not in my mind / I feel so wonderful, wonderful, wonderful the way I feel.” A striving for the afterlife concludes the song: “I’m going where there ain’t no police, I’m going where there ain’t no disease / I’m going where there ain’t no need to escape from what is / Only spirits at ease.”
There’s even a pair of confessional tunes about the mystery of youthful misdeeds and wayward passions. “Chalk it up to youth but young age I ain’t dissin’ / I guess I just had to get it out of my system / Oh Lord I’d never do it now / I know what I ain’t missin,’” James admits on “Outta My System.” On the next song, “Holdin On to Black Metal,” there’s a sense of the need to grow out of immaturity: “It’s a darkness you can’t deny, but it don’t belong in a grown-up mind / Distortion finds its place in a youngster’s eyes, coming into life you need its grind / But at a certain point you gotta let it go, or it will cross the permanent threshold.”
In February of this year, James released his debut solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God, a collection of intoxicating, atmospheric songs, sometimes filled with strings and brass instrumentation, while at other times a softly plucked guitar is all that backs up James’ echo-tinged vocals. Among the album’s assortment of spiritual tracks is a starkly Christian song, “All Is Forgiven.” It’s a pleading, prayerful elegy to mercy: “Son of Man, was born in Bethlehem, called God / All us plan same old hallway to man / With words from God / Who said that all is forgiven / All is forgiven, oh Lord,” and later: “Oh show me one true path / That really leads to the promised land, oh Lord / I follow all the wrong dreams / Lost in man’s schemes, oh Lord.”
Despite all of this, James says he is a “recovering Catholic.” He went on to say this: “I’m very spiritual, but I don’t subscribe to any god. To me, God is the place that you go when you’re lost outside of your normal thinking self – it’s this beautiful experience when you’re in love or making love or having a great conversation with somebody that you love.”
Having a Christian background has proven to be a source of embarrassment for other current musicians as well. Marcus Mumford, lead singer and songwriter of the explosively popular folk band Mumford & Sons, grew up in an evangelical Christian home where his parents were the founders and leaders of the U.K. branch of the Vineyard, a movement that practices faith healing. It’s plain to see this influence in his lyrics, which have been described as “persistently God-haunted,” and yet, he had this to say when asked if he considered himself a Christian: “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like.”
It’s a fascinating phenomenon, although admittedly not a surprising one, and it deserves some reflection. On the surface, it makes sense that the two spokesmen for My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons, two of the most successful bands currently on the popular music scene, would downplay or simply reject any public association with Christianity. With wide appeal comes the understanding that being linked to a religion or political party could be controversial and cause offense, and should therefore be avoided.
And yet, the lyrics remain. In the art form of popular music, the lyrics in a song are immensely important – some would argue they are the most important element. As proven by James’ lyrics, what comes out of the creative process of songwriting can be surprising, even to the artist themselves (as a songwriter myself, I can attest to this). To communicate through art in a truly honest way, a key disposition for the artist is to be vulnerable to the risk of divine inspiration. Out of this vulnerability, the deepest longings of the heart can come forth. When seen in this light, it makes sense that James (and Mumford) continue to mine religious themes – for them, it’s only natural. This honest, creative process and its fruits are an illustration of the natural inclination in all of us to give our deepest desires the spiritual expression they deserve, in spite of our attempts to present appealing worldly personas.
Thankfully for music lovers, what holds true for us holds true for honest songwriters: despite the strongest protests of our minds, our souls cry out for Him all the more.
When The Killers burst onto the pop culture scene in 2004 with their debut album Hot Fuss, it became clear that something fresh and vibrant was afoot in the world of rock. There was a certain swagger to the music, with an assured grounding in 80′s dance rock that was re-imagined to sound stylishly modern.
And there was something more. The songs on Hot Fuss had an urgent quality that made you want to sit straight up and pay attention. Lead singer Brandon Flowers’ piercingly strong tenor enunciated the lyrics unmistakably, as if to say, “this is serious business.” The emotions of jealousy and heartbreak over a girl run high in “Mr. Brightside”; the pressures of growing up right seem unbearable in “Smile Like You Mean It”; regret, inadequacy and a craving to stay relevant pervade “All These Things That I’ve Done.” At the same time, Hot Fuss could be wickedly fun, with songs like “On Top” and “Midnight Show” encapsulating the euphoria and excitement of being young, trying to impress a girl and dancing late into the night.
With such a consistently great debut album from top to bottom, expectations were high for The Killers’ follow-up. 2006′s Sam’s Town got decidedly mixed reviews from the critics, but I loved it. Where others saw a band trying to do too much and be too earnest, the album struck me as a turn toward exploring life’s big questions as well as self-examination. “When You Were Young” seems to wrestle with the dangers of expectations held too high, and is also the band’s first serious foray into the spiritual, with a reflection on the temptation of sin and a name-check of Jesus. The incredibly great “For Reasons Unknown” explores the mystery of lost passions with an addictive and propulsive guitar and drum attack. Lines like “My lips, they don’t kiss, they don’t kiss the way they used to” and “My eyes don’t recognize you no more” are sung with such energy that it’s impossible not to feel it in your bones. Elsewhere, loud yet brooding guitars and a trudging drumbeat propel “Uncle Johnny,” an ode to the darkness and tragedy of drug addiction. The bluntness of lines like “He’s convinced himself right in his brain / That it helps to take away the pain” is startling, but sound fitting when delivered by Brandon Flowers in stark sincerity.
The exploration of serious themes continues in The Killers’ third album, 2008′s Day & Age. Even the straight-ahead dance rock hit single “Human” speaks of being on one’s knees “looking for the answer.” Lines like “Give my regards to faith and virtue / Give my condolences to good” lead into “My sign is vital / My hands are cold,” as if speaking of the folly of seeking salvation in entertainment. Perhaps this is what makes the ridiculous question in the chorus oddly compelling: “Are we human, or are we dancer?” Towards the end of Day & Age comes “The World We Live In,” an uplifting treatise about living in the moment and staying the course amid an inevitably tumultuous and confusing world.
The Killers went on hiatus in January of 2010 following their supporting tour for Day & Age, but lead singer Brandon Flowers stayed active, releasing the solo album Flamingo in September of 2010. While the album doesn’t stray too far from The Killers’ signature 80′s dance rock sound, Flowers’ spiritual side is revealed much more clearly. “10,000 demons hammer down at every footstep / 10,000 angels rush the wind against my back” he proclaims in “Playing With Fire.” He later professes his faith in the face of adversity: “I’ve got this burnin’ belief in salvation and love / This notion may be naive, but when push comes to shove, I will till this ground.” Elsewhere, the song “Crossfire” paints the world as a spiritual realm in which we are “Caught up in the crossfire of heaven and hell / And we’re searching for shelter.” Later in the track there’s a strong rebuke: “Tell the devil that he can go back from where he came / His fiery arrows drew their blood in vain,” followed by hope: “Our dreams will break the boundaries of our fear.” A triumphant guitar solo immediately follows, as if to hammer the point home amid the comforting lines “Lay your body down.”
For Killers fans like myself, this renewed spirit in their music made anticipation high for the band’s next studio album. Would they continue their ambitious exploration of transcendent themes or perhaps make a Sgt. Pepper’s-style statement and sift the limits of dance rock?
As it turns out, they would do neither. Battle Born, released on September 18, 2012, is an epic disappointment by almost any measure. The opener “Flesh and Bone” has some of the characteristic Killers energy and vocal hooks, but the repeated “flesh and bone” chorus chants sound gimmicky and add to the melodrama of Brandon Flowers wailing “What are you made of!” The album’s first single “Runaways” is the second track, a passable yet underwhelming effort for a band that usually excels at delivering hit singles. Any momentum that these first two tracks are able to muster is quickly ground to a halt with the next two, “The Way It Was” and “Here With Me.” They simply sound like bad lovelorn 80′s ballads, complete with syrup-drenched lyrics and schlocky instrumentation.
The slog continues with songs like “A Matter of Time” and “Miss Atomic Bomb,” which sound like The Killers straining to be hip and retro but instead turn out to be nostalgic and tepid. The eighth track “The Rising Tide” is an attempt to lift the energy, but even the gnarly, fuzzed-out guitar solo towards the back end of the song is given weak support by strangely indifferent drumming. The second to last track “Be Still” is an admirable attempt at an anthem that struggles to be inspiring and heartfelt, with lines like “Rise up like the sun, and labor ’till the work is done.” Although the song is cloying and overwrought at times, the unabashed hope that springs forth from Flowers’ soaring vocal melodies is enough to bring a small glimmer of inspiration to the album’s back end.
The Killers took a year to make Battle Born, and after listening to the album, it sounds as if they spent all that time stuck in the desert of the band’s home state of Nevada with nothing but cheesy 80′s Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams ballads as reference material. It’s an album that sounds mailed in, as if the band ran out of ideas but still had to fulfill a record contract. Perhaps this is the death of The Killers as we know them. Here’s hoping that their next step is rebirth.
The Avett Brothers are a band that exude positivity. They have an unmistakable bounce in their step, as if they can barely contain their joy at being able to make music for a living.
And a nice living at that. Over the last year or so, the Avett Brothers have managed to become genuinely mainstream, with their seventh full-length album The Carpenter (released September 11, 2012) debuting at number four on the charts after the band made a number of appearances on TV, including the Grammy Awards. Along with the phenomenally successful band Mumford & Sons, the Avetts are at the vanguard of an intriguing resurgence in acoustic folk rock driven by reflective lyrics that possess a subtle Christian underpinning.
The Carpenter begins with “The Once and Future Carpenter,” a life-affirming tune that exemplifies the Avett’s signature sound: straightforward folk rock, with vocals and acoustic guitars at the forefront. The song’s message is immediately engaging, relating the reflections of the universal drifter looking for contentment. Still, a sense of trust is what sticks out, particularly in the last line of the chorus: “If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.”
The next two tracks “Live and Die” and “Winter In My Heart” solidify an excellent opening trio of songs to start the album. “Live and Die” is The Carpenter‘s lead single, and for good reason. An ode to romantic longing, the song incorporates banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle, a strong, swinging drum beat and instantly memorable vocal melodies, complete with an awesome banjo solo midway through the track. “Winter In My Heart” follows, signaling a dramatic mood swing. Lilting and mournful, the song wonderfully captures the melancholy that is an inevitable part of life. “It must be winter in my heart / There’s nothing warm in there at all.” What’s appealing about a song like this is that there’s no attempt to explain away or justify the despondency. “The air in there is frigid cold / I don’t know what the reasons are.” There’s a subtle sense of peace in these lines, a faith that in time, this too shall pass.
Unfortunately, The Carpenter starts getting inconsistent beginning with the fourth track “Pretty Girl from Michigan.” It’s an energetic and appealing song, but feel’s slightly forced, with fuzzed electric guitars and a wailing chorus with unimaginative lyrics about being lovelorn. Elsewhere, “I Never Knew You” feels cutesy, like the Avett’s are trying too hard to be funny. (One bright spot is the sixth track “February Seven,” an astute reflection on hardship and renewal.) The album’s back end, including songs like “Down With the Shine” and “A Father’s First Spring” have some nice lyrical moments, but the music is unmemorable and slow, lacking hooks and originality. Then there’s the head-scratching 11th track “Paul Newman vs. the Demons.” It’s a full-blown hard rock song, complete with distorted guitars and feedback, pounding drums and howling vocals. It sounds strangely familiar to an Incubus song from the 90′s, far out of the Avett’s element.
It’s clear that with The Carpenter, the Avett Brothers tried to stretch themselves out and experiment with their sound a bit. For a folk band that is beginning to hit the big time, this is perfectly understandable. The fear of being pigeonholed into a narrow rock genre is something that most bands struggle with at some point in their career. But when a band strays from their true nature, the strain is plain to see. The soul of the Avett Brothers lies in their ability to craft earnest, melodic, straightforward yet modern folk rock, with an uncanny feeling of honesty and humility. As the first three songs on The Carpenter demonstrate, there’s no need to change the recipe when the food is this delicious.
Seemingly by sheer force of will, Bob Dylan keeps putting out records. It’s staggering, really – the man is 71 years old. Starting with 1997′s resurgent Time Out of Mind, he has released six studio albums in the last 15 years, during the part of his career when most legendary musicians would be releasing various “Greatest Hits” iterations, if anything.
Dylan’s latest salvo is Tempest, his 35th studio album (released September 10, 2012). Musically, the album is similar in style to his recent work. It’s a collection of blues, folk and rockabilly tunes that are nicely crafted by his backing band, but tend to lack strong hooks. The band’s main purpose, it seems, is to serve as a template for Dylan’s vocals. With a couple of exceptions, most notably the lively “Pay in Blood” and “Narrow Way”, the band rarely departs from slow to mid-tempo numbers that at times tend to blend in to each other.
Dylan’s voice has always been an acquired taste. Even in his younger days, his vocal style would often lean more toward telling stories than singing songs. In the latter half of his career, this spoken-word style has become his signature, and with age has come ever-increasing rasp. On Tempest, Dylan’s croak is on full display. The uninitiated may find his un-melodious style to be a turn-off, but there’s no denying that he has character to burn, a voice that at times exudes a kind of gruff charm. “Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say,” Dylan says in the fourth track “Long and Wasted Years,” as if through a wry smile. “Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.”
But elsewhere, as on “Pay in Blood,” his voice wears thin in an overly grating way that doesn’t fit the up-tempo groove of the song. Fist-pumping lines like “I’ve sworn to uphold the laws of God / You can put me out in front of a firing squad” sound inappropriately weak, as if Dylan’s aging vocal chords weren’t quite up to the task on that particular day in the recording studio.
Nonetheless, the way his voice sounds on Tempest doesn’t seem to overly concern Dylan. As it has throughout his virtuosic career, the focus remains on the songwriting. Dylan pioneered the use of rock and roll as a showcase for poetic phrasing and sharp storytelling, and this album continues this tradition. In “Soon After Midnight,” Dylan sings “A gal named Honey took my money / She was passing… by.” The feeling of wistful longing is tangible in the way he languidly stretches out the line. Elsewhere on “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan confides “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes / There are secrets in them I can’t disguise.” Religious imagery is also found throughout Tempest. On the opening track “Duquesne Whistle,” he sings “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling / Must be the Mother of our Lord.” What’s interesting about lines like these is that it’s hard to tell if they are autobiographical or if Dylan is singing “in character.” The mystery is part of their charm.
Tempest also includes two signature Dylan ballads. The eighth track “Tin Angel” is a dark tale of a love triangle that ends in bloody violence, complete with a recurring, eerily bent bass note in each verse. The album’s title track follows, a 13-minute Irish waltz-style epic about the Titanic’s last hours. While most of the song is focused on human tragedy and desperation, small rays of redemption poke through in lines like “Jim Baca [exact name uncertain] smiled / He never learned to swim / Saw the little crippled child and he gave his seat to him / He saw the star light shining, streaming from the east / Death was on the rampage, but his heart was now in peace.” Towards the end of the song, after a description of the 1,600 souls that lost their lives, there’s this: “They waited at the landing, and they tried to understand / But there is no understanding for the judgment of God’s hand.”
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Dylan described Tempest as “not the album I wanted to make. I had another one in mind. I wanted to make something more religious.” The album indeed comes across as trying to go in different directions at once, an eclectic mix of introspection, bombast, religious striving, heartbreak, storytelling and tribute (with the final track “Roll On John” in honor of John Lennon). All things considered, Tempest isn’t anything more or anything less than what it is – another Bob Dylan album with no attempt at re-invention. But in today’s popular culture wasteland, it’s a welcome respite.
Wistful dreams are palpable in Bloom, Beach House’s new album (released on May 15, 2012). As if elicited from a Terrence Malick film, the songs imbue a softness that you can almost taste, all at once tranquil, joyful and melancholy.
The musical influences of Beach House are a delightful mixture, most notably 80’s The Cure and 90’s Enya, with a side helping of vintage electronica. The second track “Wild” provides a plentiful dose of echo-y, starkly picked guitar tones that seem to be directly lifted from The Cure’s Disintegration (a good theft). Despite the annoying synth cymbal that pervades the percussion, the song is lifted to mystical heights, as is the entire album, by lead vocalist Victoria Legrand.
Legrand’s voice is remarkable in a number of ways. Perhaps most notably, it sometimes seems androgynous, as the opening track “Myth” reveals. The first lines of the song are sung low, and bring to mind a bit of Janis Joplin’s husk. At other times, Legrand sounds beautifully feminine, as on tracks like “Lazuli” where she channels Enya’s breathy harmonies. Toward the end of the song, Legrand’s voice is multi-tracked with both mid-range and gorgeous high notes that emit a striking beauty.
The fourth track “Other People” slides into an effortless, smooth groove that will suck you in like a vacuum. Legrand’s voice is at its most comforting here, submerged in a soft echo and speaking of a wonderfully simple realization in the chorus: “Never thought that it would mean so much / Other people want to keep in touch.” The second verse speaks of a blissful time: “Somewhere nothing could reach us / These days go by.” At the end, Legrand hazily murmurs underneath the final verse. Is she saying “I love you”? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s pure ecstasy.
Not all of Bloom is euphoric. On “Wishes,” Legrand’s tone becomes a few shades darker. Impressionistic lyrics like “Wished on a wheel / How’s it supposed to feel” are sung in a way that make her feelings known. Later, the music is hushed, serving as a lead-in for Legrand: “One in your life / It happens once and rarely twice.” The aura here is potent, a lesson learned in no uncertain terms.
“On the Sea” is Legrand at her most wistful. Backed only by a piano for much of the song, a reflective melancholy pervades lines like “On the sea, we’d be forgiven / Our bodies stopped, the spirit leading / Wouldn’t you like to know how far you’ve got left to go.” “On the Sea” melds into the final track “Irene,” a slow burner that is paced in a way so as to leave as much room for reflection as possible. The album’s deftest observation is the centerpiece here: “It’s a strange paradise,” Legrand intones in sing-song-y lullaby mode. This refrain is repeated numerous times over the song’s final three and a half minutes, which seems to give the delightful impression of added meaning and nuance each time.
The songs on Bloom are circular in nature, with the verse, chorus and bridge melodies sequenced in neat succession. You won’t find any guitar solos or other improvisations here. What you will find is layer upon layer of reverb-drenched atmosphere. The echo-immersed keyboards, guitars, synth percussion, live drums and vocals are overlayed in such a blissed-out fashion as to leave the listener in a trance. Don’t be surprised if you feel the need to return there again and again.
The Shins’ fourth album Port of Morrow feels relentlessly positive. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with the band’s previous work. The Shins’ brand of indie rock, starting with 2001’s Oh, Inverted World, was marked by an intoxicating blend of wistfulness and melancholy, with a good dose of beguiling lyrics and poppy melodies. The low-fi quality of their recording style added to the gray mood, but also added charm. As The Shins expanded their sound with keyboards and a variety of guitar effects, they also expanded their emotional palette with more upbeat themes over their next two albums, and the recording quality became more defined.
With Port of Morrow (released on March 20, 2012), The Shins sound as crisp as ever, and the results are startling. Songs like “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “Simple Song” surge happily forward with resonant percussion and bass, supplemented by shimmering bursts of guitars and synthesizers. Slower, more mid-tempo tracks like “It’s Only Life” and “September” create a more subtle and reflective mood, but are no less richly recorded. The album indeed sounds more “produced” than the band’s previous outings, but the new sheen suits the songs just fine.
What’s particularly striking about Port of Morrow is that each song seems to be on its own separate mission. Despite the shared feeling of optimism, the musical stylings are remarkably distinct from one track to the next. “Simple Song”‘s exuberant power chord blasts gel perfectly with lead singer James Mercer’s poignant lyrics of finding comfort in the love of a girl. In “No Way Down,” a strong, addictive dance beat creates buoyant energy that by this writer’s recollection is uncharted territory for The Shins. “For A Fool” establishes a lounge-style, vintage 70’s feel with reverb-heavy surf-guitar licks, backed by warm strings. “Fall of ’82” has a distinctly Beatles vibe (particularly in the chorus), complete with a nifty trumpet solo following the bridge.
The epic ninth track “40 Mark Strasse” is a wonder to behold. Beginning with a simple acoustic theme, Mercer relates his reflections on observing a young German prostitute on the streets. A potentially titillating subject turns into a surge of empathetic emotion, particularly in the chorus: “Blown like a broken kite / My girl, you’re giving up the fight / Are you gonna let these Americans put another dent in your life?” Backed by stunningly beautiful vocal harmonies, the chorus lifts the song to spiritual heights rarely encountered in a rock song. The near-perfect unity of melody and subject matter that is evoked in “40 Mark Strasse” elevates it as a singular piece of art, one that is worth the price of the album alone.
Taken collectively, Port of Morrow feels like a treasure trove of The Shins’ greatest hits rather than a cohesively themed album. Each song knows where it’s going and unmistakably arrives at its destination, albeit a little too quickly at times. The album’s 10 songs clock in at just over 40 minutes, which seem to go by in half that time. This can create an impulse to put Port of Morrow on repeat, which may be another indication that The Shins know exactly what they are doing.
One indicator of a classic album is its “timelessness” or “quintessence,” the idea that one can listen to it in almost any situation or mood and instantly and effortlessly be immersed in it.
Radiohead’s 2007 LP In Rainbows achieves this in spades.
The first two tracks “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” combine for an excellent 1-2 punch to start the album. The former’s intricate beat seems to weave both electronic and live drum tones, which begin on their own for a few measures and are then joined with lead singer Thom Yorke’s vocals. It isn’t until after the first verse that the bass and guitar appear—an unexpected but pleasant surprise. “15 Step”’s smooth groove transitions well into “Bodysnatchers,” a fast-paced rocker that features otherworldly tones and vocals.
The heart of In Rainbows starts with the third track “Nude.” Imminently peaceful and calming, the song’s hypnotizing beat, layers of strings, delightful vocal harmonizations and meditative quality continually astonish upon repeated listens. The way Yorke inflects his voice during the chorus both mesmerizes and comforts. “Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone,” he intones calmly. “Now that you feel it, you don’t.” Yorke seems to be in full reflection mode. “You’ve gone off the rails…” His disquieting observation ends up being a soothing thought. The following track “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is similarly calming, but with a faster beat that is seamlessly intertwined with nimble guitar picking. This somehow provides a fitting base for Yorke’s vocals, which ebb and flow from tranquil to urgent.
The album’s midpoint and finest achievement, “All I Need,” is a tour de force of emotional depth. Two ethereal cello-sounding notes are joined by a surprisingly funky beat. Soon, a bass-heavy synthesizer establishes the theme, a haunting number that provides a compelling palette for Yorke’s vocals. His voice here is at its most direct and unwavering as anywhere on the album, with themes of insignificance and longing. The chorus seems to shift the tone: “You’re all I need,” he sings twice. The depth of feeling here is arresting, on the one hand stating a realization, while on the other aching with longing when he continues: “I’m in the middle of your picture, lying in the reeds.”
Yorke is often content to deliver his vocals in falsetto-style with little pronunciation of the lyrics, while at other times a line will pierce through clearly. The effect of this makes In Rainbows a collective projection of emotions and feelings rather than a consistent conveyer of messages. Since Yorke’s voice often acts as an additional instrument, there isn’t an overriding idea that one comes away with. This is especially evident in “Reckoner,” a jangly march-style number that features Yorke’s ghostly falsetto weaving in and out between layers of evocative strings and insistent guitar.
When Yorke does decide to emote clearly, the results can be starkly poignant. “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover,” he softly confides in the opening verse of “House of Cards.” The remainder of the song’s lyrics are less clear, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Shimmering strings and guitar effects bubble under the surface, illustrating Yorke’s desire. The album’s most straight-ahead rocker “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is next, nicely picking up the pace of the LP’s back-end.
From beginning to end, In Rainbows builds an atmosphere that is wonderfully easy to get lost in. There are a multitude of amazingly creative achievements within the rock and roll framework present here, from inventive percussion to ethereally beautiful synthesizers to strings layered to perfection to Thom Yorke’s inimitable voice. The key is that these elements are woven together seamlessly, and nothing feels gimmicky. It’s an essential album, arguably Radiohead’s best to date.
Some great albums take awhile to get into. The initial listen can seem like work rather than recreation; it can sometimes take another two or three spins before the newness of the sound begins to rub itself off, becoming more comfortable and familiar with each successive listen. And then it soon becomes obvious: “This is a great album – why did it take so long to realize it?”
Fleet Foxes’ self-titled 2008 LP is not one of those albums. It’s greatness is apparent upon the first listen. Indeed, the immediacy of the music can be startling, in part because of what was already stated: even great albums are usually discovered gradually. Fleet Foxes, rather, is akin to sitting in the woods on a pleasant fall afternoon and breathing in fresh, organic mountain air – there’s no gradual discovery of how great the experience is, it just is.
A cursory categorization of Fleet Foxes pure, organic sound would be a form of folk-indie rock. But to really get to the heart and soul of the album’s sound, one must start with the lead singer, Robin Pecknold. His voice is an effortless, pure tenor that anchor’s the band’s songs in such a way that recalls vintage 70’s folk. Pecknold’s vocals are recorded with an echo-tinged effect a-la John Denver, and they are similarly free of any pretension whatever. And while their earnestness is plain to hear, there is also a delightful gentleness to them, that at times can seem like they are imparting mountain lullabies for adults.
To pigeonhole Fleet Foxes as nostalgic folk, however, would be a mistake. The album delivers a series of delicious musical surprises throughout, beginning with the opening track “Sun It Rises.” After a brief old-time folk verse intro, lush acoustic guitars fill both speakers, with the theme plucked lightly over them. Keyboards gently fade in in the background, and after the first verse, a banjo joins the peaceful melody. But then, after a harmonized chorus, a fuzz-tinged electric guitar rings out the theme sharply, instantly turning folk into rock. On the next track, a gorgeous vocal harmony-driven song called “White Winter Hymnal,” a surfer-style electric guitar again sneaks its way in between verses, following along with a vocal line. And then there’s the wonderful third track, a flat-out danceable rock song “Ragged Wood” that features a tempo change midway through, done with such a deft hand that the change doesn’t seem at all gimmicky and fits perfectly.
Although the tone of Fleet Foxes could be described as one of furrowed reflection judging by what seem to be intense lyrical themes, the feeling of peace one feels while listening to the album is rarely disturbed. Even when Pecknold speaks of “staggering through premonitions of my death” and “turning myself into a demon” as he does in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” he immediately follows with a gently-sung series of “la-da-da’s” that fade out the song. In “Your Protector,” a beautiful flute opens the song which later contains a starkly orchestrated passage involving the accusatory lines “You run with the devil.” But even this doesn’t hold sway with the reoccurring themes of waiting for a lover to return. Later, in perhaps the most poignant track on the album, “Blue Ridge Mountains,” all concerns seem to be cast aside as Pecknold sings affectionately of a getaway with a brother to the “country side.” In the song’s unforgettable chorus melody, a familial challenge will be taken up, amongst a “quivering forest,” frozen rivers, “moon glow,” and finally “morning light.”
In the album’s final track “Oliver James,” Pecknold sings with considerable vigor about a family caring for the body of a deceased brother. Even with seemingly foreboding hints of “ancient voices ringing soft upon your ear,” there still seems to be peace in the body “washed in the rain no longer.” It is here that Pecknold’s voice ends the album a capella, which at first comes across as abrupt, but is perhaps a fitting conclusion in its austerity. Rarely does an album come across so naturally and so true, from beginning to end.