I’m still not sure what I think of the new Coldplay album.
I’ve given myself the better part of a week, listening to nothing else, and I still don’t have a cast-iron opinion ready to go. I suppose that’s a good sign for the record – previous Coldplay albums had me either excited or bored by the second listen. I’ve heard the new one, portentously titled Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, about 12 times now. Each time is a different experience – one trip through, and the record will click, and I’ll sing its praises. Another, and I’ll stumble over each one of its flaws.
I will say this up front – this is a bold album for Coldplay. They’ve never been known as the most daring band, and I criticized their last effort, 2004’s X&Y, for being too timid. The band stretched out a bit on about half the songs, but played it safe on the others, aiming for the charts. Perhaps, I mused, the band was a bit too concerned with the expectations placed upon them, and the hundreds of suit-and-tie drones who would be affected by a low-selling album.
If they were before, they’re not now. For their fourth outing, Coldplay hired Brian Eno to twiddle the knobs. Eno is perhaps best known as part of the production team behind U2’s biggest albums: The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. He’s also an electronic music pioneer, and a master of reinvention – he produced Paul Simon’s dazzling Surprise in 2006, introducing Simon to trip-hop beats and ambient soundscapes.
Together, Eno and the band deliberately stripped away everything identifiably Coldplay from the new material. Gone are the willowy piano ballads, gone is the majestic mid-tempo pop the band made its name with, and gone is the reliance on Martin’s voice and emotional resonance. I’m sure there are discs and discs full of outtakes that sound like Coldplay, but none of them made it to Viva la Vida. It is a strikingly different, frequently marvelous transformation, but it rarely sounds like the same band that made A Rush of Blood to the Head.
This is good and bad news. There’s little doubt in my mind that Viva la Vida is a transitional work, that Coldplay used the sessions to throw new sounds at the wall and see what stuck. What emerges, though, is a series of homages to other bands. “Lovers in Japan” is so U2 that Bono and company could have grounds for a lawsuit. “42” (a sly Douglas Adams reference, just like their earlier “Don’t Panic”) is their Radiohead pastiche, grafting a Thom Yorke piano melody to a Jonny Greenwood guitar workout. “Lost!” is Us-era Peter Gabriel. “Strawberry Swing” is David Byrne through and through.
The good news, though, is that Coldplay convincingly sells each of these sounds, and occasionally comes up with their own. The album opens with an instrumental, “Life in Technicolor,” that marries a shimmering synth line to some terrific guitar work from Jonny Buckland. That segues into “Cemeteries of London,” a haunting, wonderful piece with an otherworldly “la-la-la” chorus. And “Lost!,” for all its Gabriel tricks – front-and-center organ, hand percussion, etc. – is a great song, with a great first line: “Just because I’m losing doesn’t mean I’m lost…”
This is an album with a sprawling array of sounds, but it’s surprisingly compact – 13 songs in about 45 minutes. Only a few of these songs break four minutes, and those only by a couple of seconds. It’s quite the trick. Viva la Vida is a short trip through a surprising number of different neighborhoods – dig the Middle Eastern string lines on “Yes,” the circular guitars of hidden track “Chinese Sleep Chant,” and the John Lennon-style vocal effects on “Violet Hill.”
The final track, “Death and All His Friends,” is mesmerizing – a low-key piano piece segues into a stunning instrumental explosion, some choral vocals, and a too-quick fade-out. But not to worry – the album actually ends with hidden track “The Escapist,” which brings back the synth shimmers from “Life in Technicolor” and adds some sweet, sad vocals and strings to them. It’s perhaps the most beautiful thing here, and the song that most effectively uses Eno’s penchant for ambient music.
For all that, though, the album isn’t particularly memorable, at least on first listen. The choruses are subtle, the melodies buried, and the soaring arena-pop sound the band worked so hard to cultivate is all but missing. Thank God, then, for “Viva la Vida,” the most Coldplay-esque song here. Over swelling strings, Martin unleashes the best melody on the album, and for once, his voice is right up front. You won’t forget this song once you hear it – it’s simple, effective, and astonishingly well-produced. (For example, the drums never kick in once, and yet, you could dance to this.) This is what I was hoping for from the fourth Coldplay album – a natural, organic growth of their sound, instead of a rejection of it.
But honestly, this album is pretty marvelous. Coldplay has been taking baby steps forward since their first record, but on Viva la Vida, which takes its name from a Frida Kahlo painting and its cover art from a depiction of the French Revolution, they rip up the maps. Listen after listen, I’m continually knocked out by the band’s willingness to experiment – they run the risk of leaving their old fans in the dust with this album, but it’s the first one that really tries to earn them their status among the most important bands in the world. And given a few listens, even those fans who miss the old sound will find much to love here.
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I’m not sure why I’ve given Coldplay such a hard time for swiping other bands’ sounds. Many of my favorite artists do the same thing all the time – hell, it’s a trademark for some of them. Music is a neverending cycle, feeding off its own history. As Todd Rundgren once said, “Louie Louie” is “More Than a Feeling” is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” forever and ever, amen.
The British do it better than anyone. In the 1960s, they took the all-American template for rock ‘n’ roll and perfected it – they gave us the sleazy barroom side with the Rolling Stones and the literate pop-rock side with the Beatles, and we’ve been cribbing from both of them ever since. Americans invented the blues, too, but it’s British white guy Eric Clapton who has arguably had the most success with that art form. And in the 1970s, a little Brit band you may have heard of called Led Zeppelin took the old blues sound, ripped it off completely, and refashioned it as thunderous, godlike, capital-R Rock.
British rock has been feeding off itself for decades. Sure to be in my top 10 list is Join With Us, the second album by the Feeling – they rip off Electric Light Orchestra and 10cc and countless other British pop bands of the last 40 years. And I don’t even need to mention the dozens of bands taking pages from Radiohead’s book, including Coldplay and Travis and Muse and on and on. That’s what pop music is all about – you take the good stuff from your predecessors and try to move it forward.
Which brings us to Supergrass, one of the finest British burglar bands around. I liked their first three records well enough, but their fourth, Life on Other Planets, was a masterpiece. Not only did the quartet, led by brothers Gaz and Rob Coombes, swipe a hundred different styles and puree them together, but each element was produced to sound vintage. If the bass line was taken from the Velvet Underground, well then, it would damn well sound like a VU bassline, even as it supported a Beatles piano sound and a Who guitar figure. For a music history junkie, it was a lot of fun.
2005’s Road to Rouen wasn’t nearly as enjoyable – it felt like a last gasp, in fact. So I’m pleased to report that album number six, the regrettably titled Diamond Hoo Ha, is all kinds of awesome, a grand return to form.
For starters, this one simply rocks. The guitars are dirty, the drums explosive, the electric pianos funky, and Gaz Coombes’ voice wonderfully ragged. After the dark and brief Rouen, Diamond Hoo Ha is a party in a box. Of course, its most blatant rip-off is right up front – “Diamond Hoo Ha Man” steals the guitar riff from Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” grafting on a great chorus. It’s a rock and roll monster, and “Bad Blood” is even better, all flailing drums and thick six-string. This is Supergrass as live band – the energy on this album just bursts out of the speakers.
That energy never flags, either. The first hint of a slowdown is “Ghost of a Friend,” at track eight, but even this acoustic piece, reminiscent of Jay Ferguson’s songs for Sloan, is propelled ever onward by Danny Goffey’s double-time drums. Towards the end, the band gets more experimental – you simply must hear the horns and chanting on the intro to “Whiskey and Green Tea,” before the song explodes into a guitar-and-sax fiesta. But the record never loses steam.
Midway through Diamond Hoo Ha, Gaz Coombes celebrates “the return of inspiration,” and he’s right to. The album is informed by a hundred different rock-pop-funk records, but the result is thoroughly Supergrass, and is their finest album in years.
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The best artists find ways to weave their influences into their own sound. Supergrass are there – the songs on Diamond Hoo Ha don’t usually bring specific antecedents to mind, the title track notwithstanding. The last of our British pop bands this week is not quite there yet – their influences are firmly on their sleeves, and certain songs absolutely take from certain other songs. But that hasn’t stopped them from making one of my favorite bursts of pop-and-roll to come out this year.
The band is the Hoosiers, out of London, not Indiana. Their album The Trick to Life was released in October of last year in the UK, which disqualifies it for this year’s top 10 list, even though it came out a month or so ago on these shores. That’s a shame, because it would probably make it – The Trick to Life is a whirlwind 37-minute synthesis of Jeff Buckley and ELO, cribbing from a million things at once and ending up with a slice of near-perfect pop.
Let’s get the rip-offs out of the way first. Lead track “Worried About Ray” takes the verse melody from “Happy Together” by the Turtles, then shoots it into orbit with a thunderous chorus. Lead singer Irwin Sparkes can hit the high notes like a junior Freddie Mercury, although his most obvious vocal influence is Buckley – you can hear his songwriting style all over “Run Rabbit Run,” among others. “Cops and Robbers” sounds an awful lot like “The Lovecats” by the Cure, and “Goodbye Mr. A” borrows a bunch from ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”
But I dare you to care while you’re listening to this thing. The Trick to Life barrels forward, throwing one awesome melody after another at you – “Worst Case Scenario” is an amazing two minutes, and if you can sit still for the whole thing, you’re probably dead. The aforementioned “Goodbye Mr. A” is fan-bloody-tastic, zipping from one wild melody to the next. At 4:27, it’s the longest song here. Every one of these little pop gems is exactly as long as it needs to be.
If you think head-spinning pop music is all the Hoosiers have to offer, think again. They take a liberal dose of epic rock from Buckley, especially on stunners like “A Sadness Runs Through Him.” It’s on the acoustic-based, slower tunes, like “Clinging On for Life,” that Sparkes stretches out vocally, whipping out a strong falsetto, and the other two band members match him with Queen-worthy harmonies. For the emotional high point, listen to “Everything Goes Dark.” Over a simple acoustic figure, Sparkes gives his best vocal performance here, reaching impossibly high in the verses and stretching the word “dark” into the most memorable melody on the album.
Yeah, the Hoosiers pilfer from more artists than I can count, but I oddly don’t care – the songs, the sound, the overall vibe of The Trick to Life is just so much fun. It’s not as self-consciously important as Coldplay’s record, and it doesn’t integrate its influences as well as Supergrass’ effort, but I find myself returning to the Hoosiers disc more often. When they learn to only take what they need, building their own sound and using their influences as decoration, they’re going to be an amazing band. The seeds are there, they just need to water and grow them.
Next week, Sigur Ros and Fleet Foxes. And the second quarter report.
See you in line Tuesday morning.