I’m the guy who defends Coldplay.
That’s sort of become my role among my friends. I’m the guy who won’t join in on the routine bashing of Britain’s favorite punching bag. I liked them when they were sorta-sappy piano brit-pop, and I’ve really liked the places they’ve gone since, starting with 2008’s Viva la Vida. My standard defense: Coldplay is one of the richest and most successful bands in the world. They don’t have to be as weird as they are apparently determined to be. But their desire to not be Coldplay each time out – and to not be Coldplay in a new way each time – is what I like about them.
Last year, as a case in point, the band released Ghost Stories. It was unapologetically singer Chris Martin’s breakup album with ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow, and as such it was Coldplay’s most hushed, atmospheric and experimental album. The three pre-release singles – the ambient-electro whisper “Midnight,” the simple slow-build “Magic” and the all-out blissful “A Sky Full of Stars” – left no real impression about the direction of the album. In fact, it seemed poised to go ten directions at once, and the fact that it hangs together as a single affecting piece of music is remarkable.
But it is pretty dour stuff, so I wasn’t surprised when the band announced they’d headed back into the studio to record a happier album. Now, just more than 18 months since Ghost Stories, we have A Head Full of Dreams, Coldplay’s seventh long-player, and it certainly lives up to its billing. It’s almost deliriously joyful, when it’s not being wistful, and it very much feels like the mirror image of last year’s mopefest. But I’m having a much harder time defending this one, despite the exuberant tone. For the first time, Coldplay has gone backwards, and this rushed, goopy effort fails to live up to the trajectory they’ve been on.
When I say they’ve gone backwards, what I mean is that A Head Full of Dreams is a second-rate Mylo Xyloto. It’s another big pop record with some big pop guests, and the band only sporadically tries to break new sonic ground for them. I give them credit for the all-inclusive diversity of their guests – not many records I could name would feature Beyonce, Tove Lo, Merry Clayton, Noel Gallagher, poet Coleman Barks and President Barack Obama, the latter singing “Amazing Grace.” That this roster is in service of a record this bland is a real shame.
Dreams peaks early, with its title track and “Birds,” two of the band’s most obvious U2 pastiches. Then Beyonce shows up on “Hymn for the Weekend,” and things start to fall off. “Hymn” is basically “Princess of China” again, a modern radio single with electronic drums and blaring synths. Beyonce’s contributions are surprisingly subtle, but the whole thing feels like a retread. “Everglow” is a piano ballad that pinches the sound of Bruce Hornsby at his cheesiest, and it might be the sappiest thing in Coldplay’s catalog, which is saying something. “Adventure of a Lifetime” pairs a Steve Howe-esque guitar line to a joyous, yet threadbare dance track, in what is simultaneously a) one of the most successful sonic experiments here and b) reminiscent of Maroon 5.
And yet, I like all those songs, at least a little. From there, the record disintegrates, and it becomes clear that the band should have taken more time. “Fun” is nostalgic, yet almost completely unremarkable. “Army of One” is “Lost” again, adding nothing new. “X Marks the Spot” is a hidden track that should have stayed hidden, Martin half-rapping over a hip-hop beat. “Amazing Day” is awful, treacly and boring, while grand finale “Up&Up” builds its Raffi-level chorus (“We’re gonna get it, get it together I know, get it together somehow and fly up and up…”) into a six-minute anthem, Gallagher just shredding away, and it reaches for a catharsis the record hasn’t earned.
Throughout all this, there is Chris Martin, one of the world’s worst lyricists. He is the band’s biggest drawback, and their most commercial decision – without Martin’s good looks and appealing, wavery voice, Coldplay wouldn’t be as popular as they are. So Martin gets to write the words, and they’re unfailingly banal. Most of the time, if the music is interesting – as it has been sporadically their entire career and consistently since Viva la Vida – I don’t care that much. I paid attention on this album, though, and they’re pretty spectacularly awful. (“An angel sent from up above, you know you make my world light up…”)
I respect the decision to make a positive album after Ghost Stories, and I wish I liked it more. But the whole thing feels cloying and fake, aiming for hits and the Super Bowl halftime show rather than honest, earnest expression. I know it may seem silly to some that I’m chiding Coldplay for making a pop album, but they’ve trained me to expect more at this point. I don’t hate A Head Full of Dreams – much of it manages to avoid sounding like Coldplay, and “Birds” and “Adventure of a Lifetime” rise above the mire. But I wish it were more like the work of the band I’ve been defending for the past seven years.
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Not long ago, I gave the Decemberists a huge ration of grief for releasing the also-rans from their latest album as a separate EP. I mention that because Punch Brothers, who made one of the finest albums of 2015, have just shown that it’s possible to compile your leftovers into something worthwhile.
Of course, Chris Thile and his merry band are always worthwhile. The Wireless is a new five-song offering that collects three of the bonus tracks from The Phosphorescent Blues with two other songs from the session. One of those songs, “In Wonder,” is the equal of almost anything on the album proper – it’s an epic piece in 5:46, proving once again that Punch Brothers’ brand of progressive bluegrass pop is unlike any other. The five Brothers harmonize beautifully as the song builds and glides through ever-higher air. It’s splendid, and it could have easily been a highlight on Blues.
The rest of the EP doesn’t reach quite as high, but it’s still a treat. “The Hops of Guldenberg” is an instrumental stomp with a few quieter interludes, and it’s especially compelling when bassist Paul Kowert and fiddle player Gabe Witcher duet with their bows. “Sleek White Baby” is a shuffle that makes room for bizarre spoken interludes by Ed Helms (yes, that Ed Helms), while second instrumental “No More, Yet” is more luxurious. The disc is capped off with a lovely cover of Elliott Smith’s “Clementine,” and it’s so nice to hear Smith’s work respected and reinvented this way.
So yes, The Wireless is a collection of runners-up. But it demonstrates just how good a record The Phosphorescent Blues is, and just how fruitful the sessions that birthed it were. There is still no other band like Punch Brothers, and this concise statement is stronger than it first appears.
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Is there any artist more closely identified with his father than Dweezil Zappa?
To be fair, it would be nearly impossible to step out of Frank Zappa’s shadow. He was one of the most prolific and prodigious composers of the 20th century, smashing genres as if they never existed while creating 100 albums of often-extraordinary work. Frank Zappa also played guitar like no one else ever on the planet, and his sculpting-notes-from-the-air style is as much a signature as his ability to write insanely complex music for five players or 75.
For the past 10 years, Dweezil has been leading a project called Zappa Plays Zappa, dedicated to properly performing Frank’s music around the world. (I say “properly” because this is not easy material to play accurately, and Dweezil has been an absolute stickler for accuracy, God bless him.) I’ve seen the tour three times, most recently when they played all of the great One Size Fits All album, and I give Dweezil enormous amounts of respect for not only learning how to play some of Frank’s most maddeningly difficult music, but for bringing that music to a public that may not otherwise get to experience it.
The most stunning thing about Zappa Plays Zappa has been Dweezil himself, who had to re-learn the guitar to play like his father. Before ZPZ, Dweezil was an Eddie Van Halen acolyte with a bizarre streak, but his lead playing on Frank’s songs was something else entirely. You’d almost think Frank was there, guiding Dweezil’s hand. It was the most exciting musical transformation I’d seen in some time, and I’ve been curious as to how it would affect Dweezil’s own music.
And now we know. Via Zammata’ is Dweezil Zappa’s sixth solo album, and his first since touring his father’s material. It is also easily his best, the album on which he most firmly establishes his own musical identity. Dweezil has never hid from the massive influence of his father’s work on his own, but here he incorporates that influence without relying on it. Opener “Funky 15,” for example, sports a very Frank melody line, darting hither and thither without an immediately apparent grounding. But it also includes some very un-Frank arrangements (wacka-wacka guitar, cellos), and when Dweezil takes the solo, you can hear how he’s tried to blend his style with the one he’s been adapting for a decade.
From there Dweezil shifts between more traditional rock and some of his most out-there material, much like his father did on Weasels Ripped My Flesh. “Rat Race” is a shuffling rocker with a double-time beat and some delightful backing vocals, and it leads into “Dragon Master,” for which Dweezil wrote thunderous metal-tinged music to his father’s unreleased lyrics. Even that won’t prepare you for “Malkovich,” featuring its namesake reading utterly bizarre monologues between choruses of his name. “Malkovich, Malkovich, what the fuck are you talking about…”
Via Zammata’ (the title references a road in Sicily named after Frank Zappa) moves down similar paths for the rest of its running time. Dweezil shows his guitar chops on “Nothing,” tells a jazzy tale of a kid with bad luck on “Hummin” and gets serious on “Truth” with a string quartet. It’s a varied listen, and Dweezil never runs out of ideas. I’m pleased to see that, in the midst of keeping his father’s legacy very much alive, Dweezil Zappa is still finding time to create his own music, especially when the music is this good.
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That legacy is still important, though, and new Zappa albums continue to be released. The latest, the 101st, is a bittersweet affair, but an extraordinary one.
In 1971 Frank Zappa made an absolutely mental and nearly unwatchable film about life on the road called 200 Motels. The parts were played by his band at the time, the Flo and Eddie incarnation of the Mothers, and the visuals were cheap and psychedelic. But the music was amazing. Zappa spent the majority of his budget hiring an orchestra to play the astonishingly complicated pieces he had composed for the film. In a clear example of Zappa’s mix of highbrow and lowbrow, those pieces had titles like “Penis Dimension” and “Shove It Right In,” and featured former Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman singing scatological lyrics atop them.
Zappa’s full orchestral score for 200 Motels had never been performed live until 2013, when Gail Zappa commissioned the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a one-time show. That show is documented on 200 Motels: The Suites, a new two-disc live record, and it’s fantastic. The scores are performed with full cast on stage, with Matt Marks and Zach Villa taking the Volman and Kaylan roles, respectively. The orchestra sounds insanely good. The music has been rearranged into lengthy suites, but is essentially the same as the film score. (Minus the pop songs, like “Magic Fingers” and “Lonesome Cowboy Burt.”) There’s even a guitar solo at one point. It’s great.
It’s bittersweet, though, because not only is this the first Zappa album that Frank was not involved in (besides composing the music), this is the last album Gail Zappa worked on before her death in October of this year. The legacy is fully in the hands of Dweezil and his siblings now, and I have no doubt those are good hands. But this is the end of an era, and as much as an album that includes a song called “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich” can make you sad, this one does for me. Nevertheless, it’s a stunning document of an overlooked period in Frank Zappa’s composing career, and a pretty tremendous listen. So thank you, Gail. May you rest in peace.
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And that was the last new music review of 2015. Next week I’ll hit you with the honorable mentions from the year, and then the top 10 list and Fifty Second Week. Hard to believe the year is almost over. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.