So, that was Lost.
I am still processing Sunday night’s extraordinary, moving finale to one of the best television shows of my lifetime, but I can say already that it has stayed with me, made me think, and made me cry. I plan on re-watching the series in the coming months, so I’ll reserve judgment on whether it caps off the six-year journey as well as I think it does. But for now, I can say I liked it a lot, and felt it, on a deep and powerful level.
I’m working on writing up my thoughts on the final episode, and the series as a whole. I hope to have this ready for next week, but with my schedule lately, you never know. Still, I’m going to have to fill it with spoilers, so it’s probably best that I wait a week, and put it behind a separate link, once it’s ready. If you have reactions to the Lost finale in the meantime, I’d love to read them.
Meanwhile, this week, I’ve tackled three new albums that many people (many, many people) have asked me for my thoughts on. Well, wonder no more. Reviews start now.
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The new Black Keys album, Brothers, sports my favorite album cover of the year so far.
It’s white letters on a black background, and they read, “This is an album by the Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.” Flip it over, and you’ll see similar headlines: “These are the names of the songs on this album,” and “These are the guys in the band.” The accompanying poster is even emblazoned with the helpful words “This is a Black Keys poster.” It’s simple, straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get design.
Given that, you may expect that this record heralds a return of the Keys’ down and dirty blues style. You’d be partly right. The Keys have had an interesting few years, first working with Danger Mouse on 2008’s Attack and Release, and then collaborating with various rappers on the Blakroc project. The clean tones and funky beats of these records are a far cry from the days when guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney jammed minimalist riffs in their basement.
And it’s hard to scrub all that studio gloss off. Brothers certainly sees Auerbach and Carney returning to their roots, but there’s a polish to what they do now that wasn’t there before. Danger Mouse stuck around for one track, “Tighten Up,” with its layered guitar and organ lines and trippy beat, but the rest were produced by the band themselves. Given that, I’m surprised how clean much of Brothers sounds.
I’m also surprised by how diverse it is. Songs like “Next Girl” are pure Black Keys, bluesy riffs supporting Auerbach’s earthy wail. But then there’s “Howlin’ for You,” with its Gary Glitter beat and chanted chorus. There’s “Black Mud,” a grimy instrumental that sounds like it was cut live. (That’s a good thing.) “Too Afraid to Love You” is a dark and spectral bass-and-harpsichord lament, and “I’m Not the One” is an absolutely wonderful electric piano minor-key crawl. They even include what I believe is the first reverse-Rickroll: they cover “Never Gonna Give You Up,” but it’s not that “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
With all the different styles on display, you can expect a couple of groaners. “The Only One,” for example, is a two-chord soul dirge, and Auerbach’s fine falsetto is the only thing recommending it. But the good news is that there are 15 short songs on Brothers, and if you don’t like one, another will be along in a minute to do something different. When the Keys are at full power, as on the stunning murder ballad “Ten Cent Pistol,” they’re typically splendid, and by the end of the album, the good far outweighs the mediocre.
Still, I can’t help hoping for a bit more dirt in the gears next time. The Black Keys are definitely expanding their horizons, and so much of Brothers works so well that it would be churlish to suggest otherwise. But I liked ‘em sounding like they’d just crawled up out of the swamp. This album is a return to basics in style and songwriting, but not in attitude, and when these guys crank it up, attitude is often the key ingredient.
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Here’s a quick guide to simulating the Band of Horses experience at Lollapalooza 2009.
First, buy one of their albums. Pick a specific time to start listening to it – say, 7:30 p.m. Then, at exactly that time, start listening to 20 minutes of screeching feedback, just like Lou Reed provided as he ran long on the opposite stage. At about 7:50, hit play on your Band of Horses CD, and relax while taking in their unassuming, pretty guitar rock.
But wait! When your Horses CD is four songs from the end, grab another stereo system and start blasting Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction at the same time, to simulate the moment when the headliners took the opposite stage, and the two bands played over each other. Do that for 20 more minutes. If you really want to be authentic, close all your windows and doors, turn the heat up to 200 degrees, and buy a few sunlamps to add to the discomfort. There! That’s what it was like to listen to Band of Horses at last summer’s festival.
Basically, the Horses got hosed, first by an arrogant and inconsiderate Lou Reed, and then by Perry Farrell, who firmly stuck to the schedule Reed had obliterated. Because of the gracious way they handled it, Ben Bridwell and his group earned my respect. And now, with their charming third album Infinite Arms, they’ve earned it even more.
I’ve always liked Band of Horses. They’re the dictionary definition of unassuming. They play sweet and simple guitar-based rock, steeped in the ‘70s, and they’ve never pretended to do anything else. You won’t find any 10-minute jams or noise experiments or conceptual suites on their records. I like all that stuff, of course, but I can’t help admiring a band like this, who just wants to play nice, melodic music as well as they can. Some have dismissed them as polite, but there are worse things to be. True, delightful little songs like “Blue Beard,” with its lush harmonies, ask for your attention instead of demanding it. But it’s hard not to be swept away by them anyway.
The downside is, there isn’t a lot to say about what they do. Infinite Arms is another 12 pretty, sweet Band of Horses songs. If you’ve ever liked them, you’ll like this. The title track is acoustic, Bridwell’s high and lonesome voice soaring over it, his band harmonizing around him. “Laredo” has a fine melody, and some swirling guitar work. You may be put off by the synthesizers on “Dilly,” but give it a second, and the harmonies will take you somewhere else. Closer “Neighbor” is a wispy campfire song, voices chiming over low organ notes, Bridwell referencing Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers in a plea for togetherness. (Trust me, it works.) The song fires up by the end, and leaves you wanting more.
These tunes are slightly more quiet, slightly more contented, but no less melodic and bright. Nothing here has burrowed its way into my head like “No One’s Gonna Love You,” my favorite BoH song, but the album floats in like a soft breeze, makes you smile for 45 minutes, and floats out again. These are modest ambitions from a modest band, and the result is a simple little album that’s disarmingly easy to like. Infinite Arms may get lost among the sturm und drang of this year’s hectic release schedule, but that would be a shame. It’s a fine little record from a fine little band.
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I’ve never been James Murphy’s biggest fan.
Granted, I was a late boarder on the LCD Soundsystem train. I missed all the singles and the self-titled debut, finally catching up with Sound of Silver in 2007. Murphy’s one-man dance-pop project has made me laugh (“Losing My Edge,” “Sound of Silver”), and made me nearly nod off (“All My Friends,” “On Repeat”). Inconsistency appears to be the order of the day, despite some nice beats and a winning ironic edge to many of Murphy’s lyrics. I just can’t fully commit to Murphy’s thing.
I nearly didn’t even buy This is Happening, his third (and reportedly last) LCD Soundsystem record. The reason was “Drunk Girls,” the absolutely vomit-inducing first single. It sounds very much like something the intoxicated denizens of my freshman dorm would sing along with at three in the morning, a slab of boneheaded obnoxiousness so toxic it ought to come with a surgeon general’s warning. It’s fair to say that I hate this song, and once I put this review to bed, I’ll likely never play it again.
The sad irony, though, is that “Drunk Girls” aside, This is Happening is Murphy’s best record. The remainder of the 65-minute running time is given over to epics, running six to nine minutes in length, almost all sprawling dance tracks. Murphy lets his David Bowie influence come to the fore here, particularly taking from the Brian Eno years, but he brings out some previously-hidden David Byrne worship as well. The combination works, especially on the marvelous closer “Home.”
But the first track is my favorite. “Dance Yrself Clean” starts out whispering its intentions in your ear, Murphy lightly singing over nearly inaudible drums and synth notes. The mayhem doesn’t really start until the three-minute mark, when the criss-crossing keyboard barrages begin, and though it is samey-sounding from there until its ending five minutes later, it’s dark and captivating. “One Touch” continues in the same vein, spiraling synths toppling over an insistent beat while a children’s chorus (really) shouts out the title phrase.
“You Wanted a Hit” is another standout, an eight-minute ‘80s-pop-inflected diatribe against… well, I imagine, the people who don’t want Murphy to make eight-minute diatribes. The venom in this song is somewhat undercut by “Drunk Girls,” which is most definitely the hit, but the slowly-unfolding menace and melody here both work. I’m also a big fan of “Pow Pow,” a Prince-tastic dancehall stomp with Murphy’s patented detached rambling on top of it. This one’s truly funny. (Unlike “Drunk Girls.” All right, I’m done.)
Long story short, if Murphy truly is bringing LCD Soundsystem to a halt, he’s going out with his best foot forward. I still can’t say he’s made music I love, but on This is Happening, he finds a groove and makes it work for him. After this, I may even check out whatever Murphy does next.
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Next week, I will reveal my pick for the best album of the 2000s. Longtime readers probably have figured it out by now, but I’m going to drag out the non-suspense anyway so I can list a few honorable mentions. These are records that missed the list by fractions of a degree, but are still among the very best the decade had to offer. I’m probably still missing a few – it was a good decade – but here are the ones I nearly slotted into the list. In chronological order:
The Cure, Bloodflowers (2000). The graceful end to the trilogy begun with Pornography and Disintegration. Bloodflowers is all about resignation, about accepting the finality of death and the uselessness of life. Cheery stuff all around, but I always like Robert Smith more when he goes off his meds and gives us something dark, something that echoes around the skull for a while. Most of Bloodflowers accomplishes this with ease, and even if it’s not as good as the other two chapters, it’s still wonderful.
Ani Difranco, Revelling/Reckoning (2001). Two hours of one of our most challenging and remarkable songwriters at the top of her game. This was recorded at the height of Difranco’s immersion in jazz chords and horn charts, and the first disc is a rollicking ride. The second, though, contains the album’s heart, a slow and glorious suite of emotional songs full of surprising beauty. Difranco made a lot of records over the last 10 years, but this is my hands-down favorite.
Beck, Sea Change (2002). I think Beck is best when he’s emulating Nick Drake instead of Prince. Sea Change is a grand and gorgeous breakup album, all gauzy acoustics and sad, sweet melodies. It was the first time Beck truly made an emotional statement, and as much as I like when his pop culture blender is on puree, I wish he’d make another one.
Pain of Salvation, BE (2004). Here’s one that started out as a blip on my radar, but slowly grew into one of the most fascinating albums I’ve ever heard. Sweden’s Pain of Salvation tackled nothing short of the nature of God and man on this piece, and while it may seem daunting, particularly with all the song titles in a made-up pseudo-Latin language, it’s a remarkably easy and affecting listen. “Vocari Dei,” in particular, stands out as a jaw-dropper, but the whole album will move you while it makes you think.
The Shins, Wincing the Night Away (2007). The Shins’ best record is pure pop goodness, with melodies Brian Wilson could be proud of, and an appealingly bright sound that mixes in some newfound colors. I hope James Mercer writes another record soon, because the world is a colder place without this splendid band.
The Feeling, Join With Us (2008). These winsome Brits are too often written off as soft-rock, and nothing could be further from the truth. They combine elements of 50 years of British pop in a sound so pristine, so joyous, so bursting with life that it brings a smile to my face whenever I play it. I honestly haven’t heard a pop album this sonically dense and multi-colored since Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk, back in 1994. This album is a forgotten gem.
Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown (2009). I know, you think I’m kidding. But this phenomenal rock opera from the former Dookie boys is truly amazing stuff. It’s a massive and complex work, light years beyond what you’d expect even from American Idiot, its closest ancestor. There have been a lot of rock operas in recent years, but I never thought Green Day would write one this cohesive, this well-planned, and this flat-out good.
Quiet Company, Everyone You Love Will be Happy Soon (2009). And finally, the little band from Texas that introduced songwriter Taylor Muse to the world. This album is his opus, an hour-long examination of faith, love and family, all wrapped up in some of the most memorable and singable melodies you’ll hear anywhere. The 2000s gave us Quiet Company, but the 2010s will make them famous, mark my words. Go here.
Of course, I need to add Brian Wilson’s SMiLE to the list, even though I disqualified it. It’s simply one of the best pieces of pop music I’ve ever heard, full stop.
Next week, the big number one, plus some new music. Don’t know what yet, but I will definitely talk about some new music. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.