Eagle-eyed readers will remember that I promised my review of Arcade Fire’s mammoth Reflektor album this week. And I was all set to deliver it, too. I’d heard the record a couple times, and I was ready to call it a bloated, tuneless disaster. I liked three songs on disc one, and one on disc two, and on a 13-track, 76-minute album, that’s just not a good average. I was prepared to talk about how I couldn’t understand the steep decline between The Suburbs and this, and express my hope for a more subdued, restrained work next time.
But then a strange thing happened. I kept listening to Reflektor – well, I felt compelled to keep listening, really – and it started clicking. By my 10th listen or so, I’d come to realize why the band liked each of these songs, and by my 20th, I started liking at least something in all of them as well. This is not the usual way these things go, but it is the emotional process virtually all of my favorite albums followed – initial hatred, then a strange compulsion to listen further, then grudging respect, then outright love.
I’m not at that final stage yet, and my thoughts on Reflektor remain complicated. But I thought I owed it to the album to keep plugging away, and try to figure out how I actually felt about it before writing my review. So you’re not getting that this week. Thankfully, there is other music – lots and lots of it. So here are three quick reviews of three albums that are not Reflektor. One is brand new, and the other two are older ones I neglected to wax lyrical about. Hopefully this will tide you over. I hope to have the Reflektor column done shortly. Thank you for your kind indulgence.
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It figures. I post a column stating that my year is pretty much over, and there are no new records to get excited about until 2014, and then one of my favorite British bands drops a surprise fourth album on me.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. My CD shelf always has room for a new one from The Feeling, one of the most dazzling pop bands I’ve heard since Jellyfish broke up. Their first two albums, Twelve Stops and Home and the extraordinary Join With Us, celebrated five decades of British pop with a glorious mish-mash of melodies. Not since Spilt Milk had I heard a record as delightfully in love with the possibilities of joyous pop as Join With Us. The Feeling gets a lot of criticism for embracing the more uncool elements of their music – the candy-coated swirl, the naked (and sometimes goopy) emotionalism – but they’ve stuck to their guns.
I’m still not sure what happened that third time out. Together We Were Made is a pretty good record, but not even on the same scale as the first two, relying on grooves and stuffy production that feels flat. The band had a lot to prove on their fourth album, especially considering it’s their first self-produced, self-released effort, but amazingly, they’ve managed to both go back to their roots and reinvent themselves on the wonderful Boy Cried Wolf.
What’s amazing about this album is that it seems to fly in the face of what made The Feeling great. This is not a joyous, silly album at all – it’s chock full of mature, stripped-back pop songs about hurt and loss. Lead singer Dan Sells has clearly gone through some stuff since we last heard from him, and he bares himself on songs like “A Lost Home” and “You’ll See.” There’s no carousel of color here – the album is mostly mid-tempo, often quiet, and almost entirely based around Ciaran Jeremiah’s piano playing.
But what seems like a major shift in sound ends up bringing The Feeling back to what they do best – write terrific songs. For most of this album, they sound like five guys playing live. It’s even more stripped back than their earliest work, yet it sparkles. Every time Sells’ guitar rushes in, every time he pushes his smooth voice out of its range, shouting his pain, the record just feels vital, open, alive. This is the sound of The Feeling rediscovering itself, and the songs are among their best because they obviously mean a lot to them.
Just listen to Sells singing his heart out on “A Lost Home”: “I won’t go back, please don’t look at me like that…” The song is simple by Feeling standards, but it hurts, Sells screaming his throat raw while the guitars and pianos crash behind him. He saves enough to bring the song in for a gentle landing: “I’m all right, I’m not alone, I’m just longing for a lost home…” He brings a measure of that emotion to even the poppiest songs here. The album opens with the catchy “Blue Murder,” which sets the tone with its tinkling pianos and big chorus, and continues with the one-two punch of “Anchor” and “Rescue.” When I say this is what it sounds like when grown-ups write pop singles, I don’t mean to imply that they’re sappy and boring. They’re mature, lovely, deep songs that flow from experience.
The brief interlude “Hides In Your Heart” quickly dives into the truly epic “The Gloves Are Off,” all circular pianos and cascading chords. “You’ll See” may be the gentlest thing here, but it’s also the most cutting: “When someone treats you like you treated me, that’s when you’ll understand, that’s when you’ll see…” That’s followed by a very pretty “oh-oh,” of course, because that’s what The Feeling does. And they end with the bitter taste of hope, a new emotion for them – “I Just Do” is a dark ballad, Sells wishing he could stop loving someone who has walked out of his life. “I wish I didn’t feel the way I do,” he sings with typical openness. “I just do.”
If you’re turned off by that kind of plain language, with little concern for artful poeticism, The Feeling may not be for you. Boy Cried Wolf puts the songs front and center, and they’re more heartfelt songs than ever. But they’re also fantastic, and the band sounds revitalized playing them. That sounds like an odd thing to say about an album of slower, piano-based pop songs, but it’s true. The Feeling has delivered an album that is almost nothing like their best work, and yet stands up proudly next to it. This record is a late-year surprise, but a most welcome one. It’s only available in the UK right now (and probably will never hit these shores), but it’s well worth the import price. Welcome back, gents. Lovely, lovely work.
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In looking back over the year’s releases, I was stunned to see that I had never reviewed Harper Simon’s sophomore effort, Division Street. Let’s rectify that right now.
Harper is Paul Simon’s son, a fact that I feel bad mentioning. While his self-titled album from 2009 traded in his father’s brand of lyrical acoustic wonderment, Division Street is Harper’s gauntlet-throwing attempt to forge his own identity as a songwriter and record maker. And it’s a pretty damn successful one. My guess is that it alienated some of the folks who appreciated the more traditional feel of his debut, but as one of those folks, I have to say that Division Street feels like his true first album.
The first thing you’ll notice, of course, is how loud it is. The record is surrounded by swirls of distorted electric guitar, and songs like “Bonnie Brae” and “Dixie Cleopatra” rock like an avalanche. Simon’s voice is still thin and wispy, but it works surprisingly well with this more aggressive material. The production, by Tom Rothrock and Simon, is full and rich, and more importantly, consistent – Simon’s debut was recorded in pieces, and it sounded like it. This is a fully realized album.
Helping that case is the second thing you’ll notice – Harper Simon has become a pretty great songwriter. These songs go places. “Bonnie Brae” has a wonderful chorus, the title track morphs from a piano-pounding indie-rocker to a delightful pop tune, and “Eternal Questions” is one of the sprightliest things you’ll hear this year, with its cheeseball organ and skipping beat. “Who are you, where have you been, where are you going, eternal questions not worth knowing…”
Every song here is worth hearing. The Mellotron strings on “Chinese Jade” are as haunting as the melody, the constantly building melody of “’99” is a treat, the hook line of “Breathe Out Love” (“I breathe in suffering, I breathe out love”) is awesome, and the minor-key psychedelia of closer “Leaves of Golden Brown” is surprising and perfectly realized. He’s so confident on these songs that his one moment of acoustic folksiness, “Just Like St. Teresa,” is buried at track seven, and though it brings his father to mind, it’s stamped with originality.
Division Street is a mission statement from Harper Simon – he’s his own man, out of the shadow of his famous dad, and his songs stand on their own. It’s a much louder record than you’d expect, but also a much more well-crafted one. I should have reviewed this earlier, because I like it very much – perhaps even more than the debut. I’m more excited than ever to watch Harper’s career unfold.
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And finally, here’s an album I can’t believe I like.
It’s been 10 years since Sting released a collection of original songs. The last one was the risible Sacred Love, easily the worst thing the man had ever foisted on the public. It’s become difficult to remember that Sting is a genius, and I’m not just talking about his days in the venerable Police. I mean he’s a musical giant, a strong songwriter with a thousand influences from around the world, only tripped up by his own pretentiousness. He’s also a really good bass player, though you wouldn’t know it from his more recent output.
In the time since Sacred Love, Sting fell in love with the lute and dove into the music of John Dowland, pausing only to put out a Christmas record and a lousy orchestral effort that reworked old songs to horrid effect. His reputation has suffered tremendously – I just tried Googling “Sting and his fucking lute,” in quotes, and got 110 hits. So I didn’t have high hopes for The Last Ship, an album of songs intended for a Broadway musical Sting will premiere next year. Musicals seem to be the next logical step on the downward path he’s set for himself, so I prepared for the worst.
But magically, The Last Ship is actually quite enjoyable. The story is based around Sting’s childhood home of Newcastle, England, a shipbuilding town hit by hard times. The songs take from English folk music, and Sting effects a working-class accent for his vocals, clearly playing characters. But the songs are obviously personal, in a way his work hasn’t been since The Soul Cages, and that makes all the difference. This is a work about the death of an industry and the death of childhood, but the moments of hope and grace here are well-earned.
In particular, I liked the title song, with its melancholy melody; “Dead Man’s Boots,” a song about a son rejecting his father’s way of life; the lilting “August Winds,” one of the few that can stand alone; and the heartrending “So to Speak,” in which one terminally ill character uses the album-length ship metaphor to plead for death. (“Is it really eternal life we should seek? That ship has already sailed, so to speak…”) I’m also a big fan of “Practical Arrangement,” in which a lonely man asks a less lonely woman to stay with him, and “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance,” a sweet waltz that finds perfect symmetry between boxing and ballroom: “Ye swing to the left, ye swing to the right, keep your eyes on your partner, more or less like a fight… though the strategy’s subtle, retreat and advance, it’s all about attitude, all in your stance…”
This is miles from the pop music Sting is known for, but it’s all the better for it. The songs are complicated and sweet, full of nuance, and performed organically, with guitars, pianos, mandolins, pipes and violins. Though there’s no chance that he’ll regain his superstar status with this work, nor does he seem to want to, it’s the most artistically satisfying thing he’s done in a long, long time. The Last Ship is personal, poignant, and a welcome return to form from a songwriter I’d written off. A most pleasant surprise.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.