catch-up: Voxtrot, The Field, Menomena, Travis, The National, Klaxons
Voxtrot, Voxtrot - 2007 probably won't cough up a more underwhelming debut than Voxtrot's first full-length effort. On their stellar Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives EP and Your Biggest Fan CD-S, the Austin blog-buzz band put together stunningly ambitious songs whose complex structures built from unexpected climax to climax: the results weren't just satisfyingly hooky, they were downright cathartic, with all the emotional power people normally (mistakenly) attribute to The Arcade Fire. While their full-length keeps the sophisticated arrangements (they have an undeniable knack for string and brass arrangements that never smother the song), Voxtrot is finally recording with professionals at the board. Big mistake: instead of the lovely, wide-open spaces of their earlier songs, every song here is mixed and mastered to leave no gaps, a suffocating tidiness that leaves every song at the same volume and level of intensity. The songs always seem to be building to a climax that never arrives, and while the album is eminently listenable, it's kind of a drag, never hooking you in. "Firecracker" - one of the would-be fiercest tracks - has the exact same chorus chord changes as Babyshambles' "Fuck Forever" without half of the raw energy; you know things have gone bad when Babyshambles vs. anyone is a victory for Pete Doherty. It's hard not to thrash your head occasionally, but the hooks never stick. The exception is closer "Blood Red Blood," which ups the arrangement ante with a wildly chromatic climactic string-and-saxophone thrust that finally finds the jugular Voxtrot were formerly so good at locating. I'd say that the next time is what we should be looking forward to, but frankly, as far as I'm concerned, they're already firmly in my personal canon, so whatever.
The Field, From Here We Go Sublime -In an effort to provide you with only the best & most-researched in 6-months-late (or more!) music blogging, I'm starting to write this while in an airplane descending over Sweden, listening to The Field's minimalist Swedish techno. OK, I didn't do it on purpose, and the IKEA-esque furnishings aren't helping much to understand this, my annual dip into electronica. Minimalist glitch stuff is better approached on drugs or while driving if my experiences hold true, and while The Field is hooky enough in a way that I can't explain (it gets stuck in my head, but I can't follow the track structures), it fires for me as more than background music only on rare occasions. A weird example is 2nd track "A Paw In My Face," which slices-and-dices a Lionel Richie track I've never even heard, but there's still something compelling about hearing a saccharine '80s guitar tone examined in microscopic perspective, with a sudden release into a full-on sample of typical Richie sleaze at the end. A lot of times I just don't have that kind of in or innate comfort level with the music (although I dig freak-outs that occur on "The Deal" and "Sun & Ice" - the guy mixes the tracks live, which leads to some weird moments of feedback that are the coolest thing here). One for the specialists and not a general-audience-friendly cross-over, no matter what the high Metacritic score suggests.
Menomena, Friend And Foe - I passed on Menomena's first album I Am The Fun Blame Monster for several reasons, which basically boiled down to the fact that both their album title and band name seemed to suggest an annoyingly cutesy sensibility. Preparing for getting the most for my Pitchfork Music Festival money means it's worth at least sampling everything on tap, though, which leads me to the embarrassed conclusion that I almost missed out. Menomena are one of the few bands that can actually be legitimately compared to the Flaming Lips ('90s Lips, before they started sucking on the albums and concentrating solely on spectacle): they've got the same sense of sonic depth that occurs when you pair up extremely deep, treated booming drums with high trebles and don't put anything in-between. Opener "Muscle'n Flo" is as majestic as they come: first a basic bass line and vocals, then a tentative slide guitar that, combined with the lyrics, feels like a morning sun opening on an infinite expanse. By the time an organ kicks in, it's hard not to feel chills down your spine.
Menomena have one of the best back-stories of any band on their recording process: to avoid squabbling over accusations of control, everyone plays/records riffs separately, then they assemble them on a computer. You couldn't compose shifts in instrumentation this dense no matter how you tried: Menomena's songs grind on for a while in fugal fashion, but they never get old, because there's simply too much variation in the cycles. They're not particularly experimental despite all this - these are tight songs, albeit with perhaps slightly more saxophone emendations than most. It's also the rare album that perfectly changes its emotional trajectory from aggression to gorgeous resignation in no time. (And if you want to try to dig into the lyrics, this is not only wildly entertaining but explains a lot about the seemingly left-field religion-concerned motifs. That opening track is like secular gospel.) Thanks Pitchfork! Now I have even fewer original tastes than I did before.
Travis, The Boy With No Name - Explaining why you like Travis to people who, like you, basically code themselves as indie-rock-fucks is always an uphill struggle. Once, some friends assumed that when I said I liked Fountains of Wayne, I must be being ironic, and Travis fall into the same boat - so hopelessly uncool that claiming some affinity for them must have some kind of weird ulterior motive. The answer, basically, is that I was a super-angsty high-schooler, and I thought The Man Who was the best morose music ever, Elliott Smith aside. I've barreled through all their albums after that with varying results: thanks quite a bit to Nigel Godrich's brilliant production, The Invisible Band has some killer tracks. I'm listening to "Side" right now, and the guitar tones sound like they weren't recorded live but were instead played over and over again by some kind of avant-garde weirdo who enjoys finding the exact right tone (I'll stop short of a Sonic Youth comparison, but you get the idea). I honestly believe that some of the best work in Godrich's formidable resume is in making Travis sound so full and carefully assembled. That metronomic, hermetic obsessive regularity was one of Travis's best assets: The Man Who begins with a count-off, and there's not a note on it that couldn't be plotted on a grid (and I love it that they used a banjo, of all things, to keep strict time on some songs). This squareness works well for Travis - Invisible Band and 12 Memories don't work start to finish, but they have definite jangly highlights.
The Boy With No Name is an unexpected, almost disaster: political protest songs couldn't keep Travis from being catchy, but here they're not even that. There's exactly two good songs here - "My Eyes" and the expected hidden track (stop it already). Both stick religiously to Travis's well-established template - rigid arrangements, clean recording, jangly guitars. I love these songs, and I will keep listening to everything they put out; if nothing else, they can't stop themselves completely from producing MOR jangle for fools like me. Apparently, though, the boys thought they should become a "real" band and experiment. Big mistake. Pretty much every review has noticed that the potentially decent "Selfish Jean" inexplicably swipes the drums from "Lust For Life"; they might as well have sampled it, but the effect is anything but exuberant. Travis may have broken through with a single about wanting to rock, but their attempts at balls-out play are nearly always embarrassing, and this is no exception. Elsewhere, "Out In Space" transforms a probably OK maudlin ballad into unlistenable shit by throwing in banged atonal piano chords for no good reason; presumably this is "experimentation." Spare me. Not to mention that all this tomfoolery draws attention away from whatever hooks are in there and to Fran Healy's lyrics, which remain excruciatingly cliched as usual. At one point, we're advised of the necessity of grabbing the bull by the horns, and Healy sounds like he might as well be an inspirational wall poster.
The weird thing? Travis have already written a handful of decent songs that don't depend upon jangle. I'm thinking mostly of the fierce closing track on The Man Who, which depicts an abusive father ("Talk to your father in that tone of voice/there's a belt hanging over the door") and his effects on a household, down to the final arson and murder, without a trace of pity - it's a driving near-rock song that's among the best things they've done, and an unnerving way to close the album. I'm not saying that Travis shouldn't ever deviate from their bland but (to me) super-pleasing jangle-formula at all: they've shown at least that once they can pull it off. This just isn't the way to go about it.
The National, Boxer - Internet consensus on the National has become unnervingly unified since Alligator dropped. At the time, I wrote it off as a skilled, occasionally gorgeous but overly self-dramatizing album; since then, of course, I swallowed my pride and accepted what a good band these guys are, even if they're far too prone to wallowing in lyrics about drinking and depression. Like seemingly everyone else, I concede that the National are the ultimate example of a band that has to grow on you (a Village Voice profile pointed out that the band are fans of album tracks that grow on you and deliberately trash anything instantly catchy as "trying too hard"), and Boxer is even more trying than Alligator in this respect. There's no howling "Mr. November" catharsis here, just understatement and more understatement. It took me three or so listens just to discern different songs, but it was worth it. I say now (I may regret it later) that while Boxer doesn't have the versatility of Alligator, it's a damn fine atmospheric soak that culminates in "Gospel," a song all the more gorgeous for being really the only immediate song here.
Klaxons, Myths Of The Near Future - Enough people have pointed out already that the whole "new rave" tag is bullshit: these are dance-y songs with more emphasis on rhythm than melodic hooks, to be sure, but they're definitely songs you can stand and nod your head to, not people-movers. Some are hookier than others ("Totems on the Timeline" would have a fine shout-along chorus if the words weren't some regurgitated schoolboy bullshit about Julius Caesar), but the high-energy approach carries the whole disk, even if you get the feeling this works better live. Fine work, fun to listen, kind of forgettable (especially in the back half), and infinitely preferable to the Arctic Monkeys.