Life is Full of Surprises
And Here's Three More

I know people who hate to be surprised.

To me, that’s a really interesting way to go through life. I’m the exact opposite. I live for each new day to throw something unexpected at me. That’s part of the reason I love my reporting job – I never know what I’ll be covering from day to day, and sometimes from hour to hour. It’s just unpredictable enough to hold my attention. I’ve covered the same city for five years, and it keeps spinning my head around.

I’m the same way with music. I know to some, music is comfort food. They want to hear the same chords played the same way, with the same sentiments sung atop them. There’s nothing wrong with falling back into the familiar, but I love the feeling of the floor dropping away. I live for those moments when an artist does something I didn’t expect, pulls off something I didn’t see coming. Each new CD I buy is the promise of the unknown, and I want surprises. Nothing is more dispiriting to me than hearing a band go through the same old motions again and again.

When I find one of these vertigo-inducing records, I feel the need to tell everyone I know about it. This leads to some interesting conversations, because my favorite musical surprises often come from bands you wouldn’t expect. This week’s biggest shocker is one of those. It was recommended by several people, including the reliable Dr. Tony Shore, but even so, I hesitated. And for the same reason, I expect, my efforts to spread this music around have met with some resistance. (Almost, but not quite, the same level of resistance I got for that Hanson album I love.)

The record is A Thousand Suns, by Linkin Park.

Now look, I know this column hasn’t had a lot of time (okay, any time) for Linkin Park. For three albums, they’ve basically been Limp Bizkit’s more polite cousin, delivering rap-rock with hooks, but little imagination. If you’ve heard the singles (“In the End,” “One Step Closer,” “What I’ve Done,” “Breaking the Habit,” etc.) you’ve heard the best parts of the band’s first three albums. They sell truckloads of records, pack houses wherever they go, and up until now, they’ve done their level best to stay exactly as they are, and rake in the cash.

The fact that A Thousand Suns is the first Linkin Park album I’ve felt compelled to include here should tell you something about it. The six members of the band have all joined hands and leapt off a cliff here, making a record their hardcore fans will probably reject as too arty, too experimental. This is exactly why I like it so much. Over 15 tracks, Linkin Park invade all kinds of new territory, and rarely sound like you think they will.

Being the best Linkin Park album is one thing, but even divorced from expectations, A Thousand Suns is really good. It plays best as a single piece – themes restate themselves, bits of lyrics resurface, and the cumulative effect (particularly on late-game tracks like “Iridescent” and “The Catalyst”) is impressive. Only nine of these tracks are full songs, the rest being segues, interludes and atmospheres, but these little pieces are integral to the flow and power of the record.

A Thousand Suns is an angry thing, certainly, only this time, instead of essentially masturbating with their rage, the band directs it. This is a political work – Mike Shinoda samples J. Robert Oppenheimer and Martin Luther King, and Mario Savio’s famous “put your bodies upon the gears and break the machine” speech – that also manages to be intensely personal. The theme is fairly cliched – change the world by changing yourself – but it works, and by the end, they’ve earned the transcendence this album seeks.

It’s the music that sets this record apart, however. Until you get used to it, you won’t believe you’re listening to Linkin Park. The first half is remarkably atmospheric. “Burning in the Skies” lets Chester Bennington belt out a chorus (one of the few on here that could sound at home in a more typical Linkin Park track), but he does so over subtle electronic drums and piano. “Robot Boy” is all orchestral magnificence, the harmonies adding a Flaming Lips feel to things. Between those is “When They Come For Me,” which finds Shinoda rapping over one of the most fascinating beat complexes I’ve heard in some time. Oh, and then the middle-Eastern-style wordless chorus comes in.

Over and over, the band makes surprising production choices. “Waiting for the End” includes a Jamaican-style chant over a massive beat and some piano-guitar interplay. “Blackout” should be a disaster – it finds Bennington screaming (SCREAMING) over danceable music that just doesn’t call for it – but it really works. It helps that the song takes off halfway through, turning into a sublime anthem.

As far as I’m concerned, they only made two mistakes with this album. The first is “Wretches and Kings,” which sounds the most like bog-standard Linkin Park, all scratches and rapping. Despite having been built around the Savio sample, this song could have been excised, and the album would have been better for it. The second is the closing track, “The Messenger,” a simple acoustic ditty which Bennington over-sings to death. His emo-tastic vocals send this into a nearly comic realm that a more subdued approach would have avoided.

But that’s it. The final third of A Thousand Suns is largely transcendent, starting with the King-sampling “Wisdom, Justice and Love.” King’s words of peace, spoken in 1967 about the Vietnam War, resound over subtle piano chords, and lead into “Iridescent,” a simple yet effective ballad that builds and builds over five minutes. Here is where Bennington shines, delivering these lines beautifully: “Remember all the sadness and frustration, and let it go…” This is nothing new, but coming near the end of this album, it takes on a surprising gravity.

And then comes “The Catalyst.” You may have heard this on the radio, but separating it from the context of the album is like shearing it of all meaning. It is the call to action at the end of a litany of woes – lead-in track “Fallout” even reprises the chorus of “Burning in the Skies,” just to hammer the point home – and as the climax of the record, it’s riveting. The discordant synth line, the chanted chorus, the tricky beat, the delirious melodic breakdown, the piano lines, the song’s transformation into massive anthem, it all works so well for me. It segues nicely into “The Messenger,” which, despite Bennington’s vocals, has a sweet album-ending sentiment: “When life leaves us blind, love keeps us kind.”

I don’t want to overstate things. A Thousand Suns isn’t a masterpiece, and it probably won’t rank among my favorites of 2010. (But it might – I like it more each time I hear it.) It is, however, an enormous leap forward for a band that had given me few reasons to hope for one. Each time this album finishes up, I can scarcely believe it’s Linkin Park I’ve just been listening to. A Thousand Suns is a remarkably well-made, experimental piece that’s full of surprises, and I have to take my hat off to the band for even attempting it. Here’s hoping it does well for them. I’d like to hear them travel farther down this path.

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A couple more surprises from the last couple of weeks:

Serj Tankian is mental. This is not news. As the frontman for Armenian rock band System of a Down, he added a madman’s flair to some of the craziest downtuned metal insanity I’ve heard. System songs flew off on unexpected tangents every couple of seconds, and right at the forefront was Tankian, using his odd, operatic voice to snarl and scream bracingly political lyrics. His solo debut, Elect the Dead, was a similar affair, but Tankian’s experience creating symphonic arrangements for this year’s live album (Elect the Dead Symphony) must have affected him more than anyone could have expected.

Why do I say that? Because here’s Imperfect Harmonies, Tankian’s second solo effort, and it’s… well, astonishing. You won’t find a lot of distorted electric guitars on here, but these songs are LOUD, so much so that my speakers often strained in protest. Every song here has been performed with a full orchestra, but that’s just the set dressing – there are disco-fied electronic drums, jazz-style bass lines, pianos, synths, armies of vocals, flutes, violin solos, and all manner of production craziness. When you’ve credited someone with “additional operatic vocals” in the liner notes, you’ve made a gigantic piece of work.

The songs, however, are all of modest lengths, and contain direct melodies. Tankian’s distinctive voice is front and center in this maelstrom of a mix, guiding us through it. Tankian composed and arranged these orchestral parts himself, and while it takes a minute to get used to the sheer density of Imperfect Harmonies’ sound, it’s never overcooked. Check out “Electron,” a basic stomper of a song – the string lines work perfectly with Tankian’s vocals, and the fascinating breakdown, which includes pianos and whispers, doesn’t distract from the song’s directness.

Lyrically, Tankian is still bringing the politics, raging against war and the machinations that bring it about. “Fear is the cause of separation, backed with illicit conversations, procured by constant condemnations, national blood-painted persuasions,” he spits in “Borders Are…,” and songs with titles like “Yes, It’s Genocide” and “Peace Be Revenged” are what you expect them to be. (The former references the Armenian genocide that began in 1915, and is sung in his native language.) It’s a dark and nearly hopeless album, lyrically speaking, which stands in contrast to the exploding colors of the music.

Tankian’s probably going to alienate a few of his old fans with this one, but hopefully he’ll entice a few of them to follow him down this rabbit hole. By exploring so many different styles and tones on this record, he’s come alive here like he rarely has before. Imperfect Harmonies is a crazy album, for certain, but it’s also daring, riveting stuff. I don’t know who the audience for this is, but Tankian shouldn’t let that stop him.

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Some albums surprise me simply by existing at all.

For example, I never would have thought that in 2010, we’d be hearing the second album from the Vaselines. Their first, Dum Dum, was released 20 years ago. You read that right. 20 years. Two decades. The Scottish duo has made plenty of music in the interim, with other bands and on their own, but they haven’t worked together since 1990. Listening to that second album, Sex With an X, I can only wonder what the hell took them so long.

The Vaselines are Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly, two Scots who share a whimsical, randy sense of humor. They never really achieved any measure of fame on their own, but when Kurt Cobain proclaimed them his favorite songwriters, and covered three of their tunes on Nirvana records, they kind of won the lottery. Too bad by that time they’d already broken up.

But in 2006, bygones were bygones, and Kelly and McKee started jamming again. Sex With an X is the result, a fun and blissful collection of simple, simply rockin’ songs. Their voices sound untouched by the ravages of time, their penchant for basic yet memorable hooks undiminished. If this album had come out in 1991 as the follow-up to Dum Dum, it would have carried on their sound admirably. Sonically, this one’s a little fuller, a little richer. But that’s it. Otherwise, it’s classic Vaselines.

Highlights? I love “The Devil Inside Me,” a dark, almost bluesy track with some great intertwined vocals. “I’ve got the devil in me,” Kelly intones, and McKee responds, “And he won’t let go” in her angelic voice. “Overweight But Over You” is my favorite song title of 2010 so far, its chorus (“Hey fat mama, I’m a fat man”) a shout-along delight. “I Hate the ‘80s” is perfect, a rollicking backhand to a decade that keeps reasserting itself: “What do you know? You weren’t there, it wasn’t all Duran Duran, you want the truth, well this is it, I hate the ‘80s ‘cause the ‘80s were shit…”

“Mouth to Mouth” continues the Vaselines’ dirty-romantic tradition. It’s sung from the point of view of a woman dying – literally, dying – to be kissed. The title track is about ignoring regret, Kelly and McKee joyously singing the refrain: “Feels so good, it must be bad for me, let’s do it, do it again…” These songs are accompanied by jangly, almost cute pop backdrops, so innocent-sounding that you’d never guess their sexual preoccupations.

The album ends with the slow crawl “Exit the Vaselines,” which seems to indicate that this scrappy, fun little record is the last we’ll hear from these two. I hope that’s not the case. Sex With an X was a complete surprise, appearing as if out of nowhere, and it’s 41 minutes of grinning joy. If this is it, I guess I can live with that, but I’d love to see this reunion stick. What do you say, guys? Surprise me.

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Next week, Ben Folds makes an album with novelist Nick Hornby, and John Legend raises the roof with the Roots. Plus the 2010 Third Quarter Report. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.