Midway through 2007, I've already got several serious contenders for my
year-end Top 10 -- from "New Magnetic Wonder" by the Apples in Stereo, "I'll
Sleep When You're Dead" by El-P and "Sound of Silver" by LCD Soundsystem to
"We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank" by Modest Mouse, "Icky Thump" by
the White Stripes and "Over the Counter Culture" by Tim Fite -- and the
flurry of releases in recent weeks has added a few more.
Chief among these is "It's a Bit Complicated," the second album from the
English quintet Art Brut. With its effervescent debut, "Bang Bang Rock and
Roll" (released in the U.K. in 2005 but not issued here until last year),
the band answered the musical question of what the Modern Lovers of
"Roadrunner" would have sounded like if they'd make a second album before
Jonathan Richman shifted gears to become an acoustic troubadour. Meanwhile,
Eddie Argos' lyrics gave more eloquent voice to the idea of a life saved by
rock 'n' roll than anybody since the late critic Lester Bangs or Nick Hornby
in High Fidelity.
Art Brut, "It's a Bit Complicated" (Downtown)
To complain, as many Web zines have, that album No. 2 continues to pursue
this simple formula is to miss the point: The Ramones never varied much from
their one great idea and two simple chords, but they continued to give us
dozens of great songs built on that simple foundation, and so do Argos and
his mates. "Direct Hit" is pretty much what the title promises: an explosion
of exuberant Britpop paired with a heartfelt tale of awkward boys and girls
who can only really let themselves go on the dance floor.
"Jealous Guy" finds Argos dryly complaining that his girlfriend has
rolled over and gone to sleep instead of making love, which prompts a fit of
insecurity ("I'm starting to question / Whether your ex-boyfriends let
you get this much restin'.") But our lovelorn hero can be distracted,
too: In "Pump Up the Volume," he proves himself to be such a music obsessive
that he breaks off a kiss to turn up a pop song, while in the irresistible
"Nag Nag Nag," he sketches a spot-on portrait of every post-adolescent who
still lives and breathes for "teenage" music.
"I'm grown up now but refuse to learn / That those were just
adolescent concerns," Argos croaks in his wry monotone. "A record
collection reduced to a mix tape / Headphones on I made my escape / I'm in a
film with a personal soundtrack / I'm leaving home and I'm never coming
back." I for one am still right there with him.
As it did with Art Brut's debut, the rock underground enthusiastically
embraced "The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree," lauding the Texas
band's 2003 bow as much for the multi-instrumental approach and matching
white robes of the 24 members as for their grand orchestral pop. Reviewers
quickly lost interest, however, under-rating "Together We're Heavy" (2004)
and greeting the Spree's new release, "The Fragile Army," with a lot of
snickering about the new black paramilitary duds. Truth be told, bandleaders
Tim DeLaughter and his spouse Julie Doyle would be better off getting rid of
the visual sideshow since, as with the Flaming Lips' circus antics, they
only detract from the main event -- the music.
The Polyphonic Spree, "The Fragile Army" (TVT)
Lyrically, "The Fragile Army" surveys the dire state of global politics,
yet while apocalypse is on a lot of musicians' minds these days, the
Polyphonic Spree remains uniquely optimistic, maintaining a humanistic faith
in the power of love. The band backs this message by rocking harder than it
has in the past on songs such as "Running Away" and "Younger Yesterday,"
while the epic title track boasts some of the most beautiful, complex and
uplifting music that it's crafted.
Yes, the band occasionally bogs down under the weight of its own
ambitions, especially in the middle of the new disc. But overall, it has
produced another set of memorable songs -- which are much more reason to
care than the novelty aspects -- and it has never sounded better, thanks to
producer John Congleton of punk band the Paper Chase and sessions held in
part at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago.
Speaking of Mr. Albini, Chicago's celebrated "recordist" and erstwhile
guitarist-vocalist has finally torn himself away from the console long
enough to take his place at the other end of the microphone, reuniting with
bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer on "Excellent Italian
Greyhound," Shellac's fourth album and first since first since "1000 Hurts"
(2000). In terms of the basic sonic assault, there are no surprises, but a
new Shellac album is a lot like what a new Blue Note jazz album must have
been half a century ago: an opportunity to marvel at the subtle interactions
of some fantastic musicians while glorying in the way those sublimely
recorded sounds wash over you.
Shellac, "Excellent Italian Greyhound" (Touch and Go)
As with "Prayer to God" on "1000 Hurts," Shellac opens with its most
explosive new tune, "The End of Radio." The complex minimalist arrangement
can be mistaken for an off-the-cuff jam, but there's much more going on
below the surface in terms of the way each instrument forwards a dialogue
with the others, just as Albini's typically sarcastic lyrics both fondly
recall the disappearing lifeline once offered by adventurous
college/community radio and caustically sneer at how the medium has become
just one more way to sell a gullible public ("Can you hear me now?...
That drum roll means we've got a winner... I'd like to thank our sponsors!").
The album is hardly a beginning to end success -- "Kittypants" and
"Boycott" meander pointlessly, and "Genuine Lulabelle" takes nine minutes to
go nowhere particularly interesting. But Albini's guitar sears with the
white-hot ferocity it had with Big Black or Rapeman on standouts such as
"Steady as She Goes" and "Be Prepared"; Trainer is, as always, a force that
cannot be contained, and the self-effacing Weston claims the spotlight by
singing and writing two songs, "Boycott" and "Elephant," that show the
influence of the time he's spent as tape manipulator and producer during
Mission of Burma's phenomenal comeback and second act.
Finally, we have the fifth album in 10 years from stoner-rock heroes the
Queens of the Stone Age who, as fans know, are really just songwriter and
guitarist Josh Homme and whatever co-collaborators he's recruited at the
moment. For diehards, the band hasn't been the same since the first three
albums and Homme's sacking of his one consistent foil, bassist Nick Oliveri,
in favor of an increasing number of pointless celebrity cameos. (On 2005's
disappointing "Lullabies to Paralyze," it was Billy Gibbons and Shirley
Manson; this time, we get Trent Reznor and Julian Casablancas.) But the real
problem is that while that hypnotic yet powerful desert-rock sounds is still
an impressive vehicle, the quality of the songwriting that carries it along
has sharply fallen off.
Queens of the Stone Age, "Era Vulgaris" (Interscope)
Only a handful of tunes stand out, most of them front-loaded at the start
of the disc, including the hard-grooving "Turnin' on the Screw," the furious
"Sick, Sick, Sick" and the sneering, anti-consumerist "I'm Designer." Much
of the rest of the album ("Misfit Love," "Battery Acid") is strictly
Queens-by-numbers -- which is to say you'll still be able to bang your head
in time, you just won't be humming along while doing it, or remember many of
the riffs once the noise has abated.