There’s nothing quite like that first time. Sliding it in, pushing the right buttons to get things rolling, and then lying back and enjoying yourself for half an hour or more…
I am, of course, talking about listening to a new CD. (Why, what were you thinking?) The first time through is crucial – sure, if it’s a good album, you’ll pick more things up as you spin it again, but the songs will never again take you by surprise. That first time through, you’re sailing without a compass, driving without a map. And it can be an amazing experience.
This week, I thought I’d try to share that experience. I’m going to review three new albums by writing down my first impressions of them as they play. I’ll write intro and outro paragraphs, of course, but the bulk of the review will be live-blogged. I’ve chosen three albums that all hover around the 30-minute mark, too, so these reviews shouldn’t get out of control. And anyone cynically suggesting that this method will allow me to wrap up this week’s column in less than two hours wouldn’t be off the mark either. Hey, I have to do something to get back on schedule.
With any luck, this will offer up three more reasons why 2011 is a great year for new music. But I don’t know, since I haven’t heard any of these records yet. Let’s remedy that, right now.
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Sloan turns 20 this year.
That’s kind of an incredible statement, I think. The Nova Scotian quartet began as snarky pseudo-grunge-poppers, issuing their debut EP in 1992. Their first kind-of hit was “Underwhelmed,” a pun-filled college rock ditty covered in distortion and reverb. But by the time they stripped all that grunge away for their second, Twice Removed, they were no longer darlings of the U.S. music scene.
It was a thoroughly different story in their native Canada, where they have endured as one of that country’s most popular bands. These days they sound like killer ‘70s power pop, like they own a time machine and whenever they need a new record, they just pop back 40 years and grab one. They’ve made nine wildly different albums, and all of them are worth hearing. And now they’ve issued the tenth, their 20th anniversary party, called The Double Cross. (Or, XX. You know, as in 20.)
Sloan works in an interesting way – all four members write and sing their own songs, and usually produce them as well. Then they weave those disparate recordings into a seamless album, and I mean seamless – most Sloan albums segue from first tune to last. (That was a particularly fantastic trick on their 2006 effort, the 30-song Never Hear the End of It.) I wasn’t too thrilled with the last Sloan record, 2008’s Parallel Play. Will The Double Cross make up for it? Let’s find out.
Man, do I love this first track. “Follow the Leader” is bassist Chris Murphy’s tune, and it sounds like a long-lost nugget from the ‘60s psychedelic rock days. Crappy-sounding drums, killer acoustic riff, pizzicato organ hits, and a melody to kill for. It’s superb, and hopefully sets the tone. “Leader” does an about-face at the end, and segues (yes!) into “The Answer Was You.” Guitarist Jay Ferguson picks up the melodic baton and runs with it. This song is delightful, and has some nice mellotron. Matthew Sweet would like this one. It sounds more like an album-ender than a second track, but I dig it.
“Unkind” comes in as “Answer” fades out, and the electric guitars chime in with a classic-sounding power pop riff. “Are you ready?” sings guitarist Patrick Pentland, always the meat-and-potatoes rock guy in the band. This song is simple yet effective, landing somewhere between toe-tapping and boring. Great harmonized guitar in the middle eight, though. It ends cold, too, breaking up the segues. But now here’s Murphy’s “Shadow of Love,” and it’s awesome – a ‘60s-style raveup with some jangly guitars. The organ’s back, and it adds immeasurably to the feel. Love this one.
That was fast. Less than two minutes later, we’re in drummer Andrew Scott’s “She’s Slowing Down Again.” Scott is the guy who writes the slower epics, and this one sounds like it fits that mold. Pianos, swirly guitars, harmonies, nice psychedelic melody. Oh, and he lets Murphy take lead in the bridge. Very nice. Another full stop before Ferguson’s delicate “Green Gardens, Cold Montreal.” This is really nice, and the chorus, with its starts and stops, is memorable. In all, though, this record is flying by a little too quickly for me so far.
Bam! “It’s Plain to See” erupts with a Merseybeat bang. This is Scott’s song, I think, and it rocks. This is one thing I love about Sloan – when they want to sound like the ‘60s, they sound like the ‘60s. The tambourines are just right, the guitars have exactly the right tone, the mix is perfectly vintage. You have to hear Murphy’s bass on this one too. It’s great. “Your Daddy Will Do” comes in right after, and is weirder, kind of a ‘70s AM radio thing. The Sloaners are trading off lead vocals, something that rarely happens. It makes me smile, though – makes me feel like they’re going to be around a while longer. Wow, the middle eight on this one is great, very Jeff Lynne.
Four drumstick clicks announces Pentland’s “I’ve Gotta Know,” another one Matthew Sweet would like. Four stomping chords, harmonies, good chorus, in and out like a sudden storm. And the record is three-fourths over. Too fast! I already like “Beverly Terrace,” with its thumping bass drum and piano figure. Ferguson sings this one, and it sounds like Spoon. Some surprising synthesizers in there too. And the harmonies! Love them.
Wow, these songs are over too quickly. We’re already on track 11, “Traces,” which sounds like a cool spy thriller thing, with that Ray Manzarek organ sound. It’s Scott, in Bob Dylan mode, rattling off lyrics like bullets. Good stuff here. “Seems like time’s agin us.” Yes, “agin.” Really smooth chorus, too. This one’s practically an epic at 4:30. And now were in the final track, “Laying So Low,” which opens with soft string sounds, and slides into gingerly-strummed electric guitar. It’s Murphy in heart-on-sleeve mode, crooning a simple mid-tempo benediction that builds up to a fine conclusion They were right to end with this.
Sloan has delivered once again. But man, that was over fast. Thirty-minute albums were perfectly acceptable in the ‘60s, but still get a bit of a head-scratch from me now. But beyond wanting more (and more and more) of this, I really enjoyed The Double Cross. Twenty years in, and Sloan remains one of the best pop bands around. I’ll be humming most of these songs for days.
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I mentioned last week that Fleet Foxes is a band I discovered thanks to my new policy of paying more attention to new acts. The Antlers is another. I bought this New York trio’s label debut, Hospice, expecting the soaring guitars and huge choruses Pitchfork promised me in their review. But what I got was so much better – a full-on concept record about letting the dead move on, and learning to live your life again. It was so good, so powerful that it reduced me to tears.
At the time, I sort of hoped the Antlers would never make another record, because Hospice is such a singular achievement. But they went and did it anyway. The new one is called Burst Apart, and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t have a uniting theme. It does have my favorite cover illustration of the year so far, though. I haven’t heard a note of this album yet, and I’m a little scared to press play. Which I’ve just done, so hang on.
OK, the first thing I need to do is realize that this is not Hospice, and not judge it on that scale. The opening track, “I Don’t Want Love,” starts with a pretty typical guitar and piano progression, and Peter Silberman’s fine falsetto. It’s an all right beginning, but nothing that makes me sit up and take notice yet, even with the ringing guitars in the chorus. Definitely some U2 influence here, and I like the breakdown near the end. Silberman has a truly great voice.
“French Exit” starts off with the electric piano again, and some muted guitar. I like the web this one is weaving. “Every time we speak, you are spitting in my mouth, if I don’t take you somewhere else, I’m gonna pull my teeth right out.” Um, what? This song transforms into something more dramatic partway through, but slides back into the repetitive verse. Not my favorite Antlers song by a long shot. “Parentheses” is already more interesting, its synth noises giving way to a breakbeat and Silberman’s slinky falsetto. The bass line is similarly slinky. “So close up your knees and I’ll close your parentheses.” Great line. Not much of a song here, though.
“No Widows” starts with a programmed beat and some synth blips, but it quickly evolves into a Depeche Mode-esque thing that I quite like. Thing is, this is another one that just doesn’t change. It’s the same few chords again and again, and there’s no chorus. It feels already like this is the kind of album I will have to listen to a few more times to really appreciate. Right now I’m reviewing it the way I would any other album – on immediacy and melody – and it’s coming up short. But it’s long on atmosphere, which helps it.
Now we’re on “Rolled Together,” which starts out just as slowly – little bass lick, droning organ, Silberman’s high voice. This is the song that gives the album its name: “Rolled together but about to burst apart.” It’s a nice shuffling groove, made obvious when the drums kick in, but again, this is a song that doesn’t go anywhere. And that’s half of this underwhelming record. Here now is the oddly-titled “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out.” It has some nice banjo, and I like the drum entrance. This is probably my favorite so far, simple though it is. Did I say I liked the banjo? Because I really like the banjo. And the big buildup to the end is great.
Here is the instrumental “Tiptoe,” a slow-and-low soundscape. I like this one too – the muted trumpet is a very nice touch. Finally, it feels like this thing is going somewhere. “Hounds” starts gently, with that reverbed electric guitar sound I like so much. If Julee Cruise were singing this, it would be perfect for Twin Peaks. I think I am starting to get into the Antlers’ groove – this song isn’t going much of anywhere either, but I’m enjoying it. And the best part of having Silberman on your team is you don’t need to hire a female singer for the high notes. Ah! Again with the trumpet. It really works.
I think what I’m liking about this, if I’m liking anything, is the enveloping mood. “Corsicana” keeps it going with more of that guitar sound, and some sky-high keyboard noises. Again, no chorus, but I’m caring less and less. I think if I were to press play again right now, with my brain used to what the Antlers are doing, I would probably like Burst Apart quite a bit more than I did this first time. In fact, the final track, “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” is really moving me right now. “Prove to me that I’m not gonna die alone…” This one breaks up the atmosphere with some chiming guitar bursts, but it’s still slow and moody. A really nice closer.
So this is a strange thing to say in a column about first impressions, but I think I need to listen to Burst Apart a few more times to truly absorb it. This album casts a spell, but it doesn’t do so immediately – it took me about half the record to start figuring out how to listen to it. It’s not Hospice, and might have benefitted from an overarching story, but it does tread some of the same territory. Once I started getting used to it, I quite liked it. So we’ll see how listen number two (and three and four) goes.
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And finally, we have the Cars.
Yes, there is a new Cars album – their first in 24 years. Yes, the four surviving original members are back. Of all the reunions happening lately, this is the one I can scarcely believe is real. (Well, if Fugazi gets back together, they’ll win.) The album is called Move Like This, it’s 10 songs, and they were all written by Ric Ocasek. This is legit.
So let’s hear how it is.
Right off the bat it sounds like the Cars. “Blue Tip” starts with synthy bass, and then some synthy blips, and an all-around synthy sound. Ric Ocasek sounds the same – he’s doing that stagger-speak-sing thing he did in the ‘80s. The chorus sounds like those 24 years never happened. It’s a strong start. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but with the ‘80s in full revival, this perfect impression of themselves makes sense. And the song is over very quickly, just like old Cars tunes.
Now here’s “Too Late,” and we’re in mid-tempo mode. I don’t know if that sing-speak thing is something Ocasek does on purpose, but it screams Reagan era to me. This one is such a huge step down in quality it’s kind of ridiculous. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and the weakness in Ocasek’s voice – he is 62 now – drags this down. The synth solo is nice, but the song isn’t worth it. Track three is “Keep On Knocking,” and it smacks you with its dirty processed guitars right up front. But maybe I’m just not in the mood for this right now, because this song isn’t doing it for me either.
Things slow down for track four, “Soon,” and slowing down is exactly what this album doesn’t need at this point. Yep, this one’s boring too. Some nice Edge-like guitar stuff, some moody synth beds, but a weak melody, sung weakly. I like the buildup and breakdown in the bridge. I don’t really like anything else here. “Sad Song” is already better, its clap-enhanced beat and keyboard flourishes reminiscent of the band’s glory days. Again, ain’t much to it, though. It’s kind of sad that this is the album’s finest moment so far.
So we’re halfway through Move Like This and I’m not having as much fun as I’d hoped. Track six is called “Free,” and it has that synth bass pulse the Cars used to do all the time. And… oh my, is that a guitar riff? About time. It’s half-hearted, but I like it. And a chorus? Yes! This is the best song on the record so far. I like the bridge too. The record may be picking up.
The guitars stick around for the mid-tempo “Drag On Forever.” Here’s hoping the title’s a misnomer. Can’t say I like the chorus much, and the single-note lead guitar thing is grating. This sounds like a demo, which is fascinating, given how rich Ocasek is, and the fact that they hired Jacknife Lee to co-produce. “Must this drag on forever?” Indeed. Track eight is “Take Another Look,” and it sounds like the quintessential Cars synth ballad, bongos-in-a-box and all. It’s not as well-written as their ‘80s ballads, though. The clean guitar sound is nice, and the harmonies – in short supply on this album – are welcome. But the song is a shrug.
Home stretch. Here’s “It’s Only,” which opens with guitars and keyboards fighting for space. I kind of like the synth figure in this one, but the song isn’t moving me. Yeah, I’ve been saying that all along, but it’s true. These songs aren’t memorable. The best Cars songs are ones you sang all week after hearing them for the first time. “My Best Friend’s Girl.” “Magic.” “Drive.” Even “You Are the Girl.” Nothing of that quality here, alas. Final track is “Hits Me,” and it’s just in the same vein as most of the others. Decent beat, guitars and synthesizers, no great chorus, weak overall everything.
I don’t know what I was expecting from this, but I’m let down. I think I wanted a fun new wave album, and I got a less-than-stellar effort by a band trying to act like their younger selves. Move Like This could have been a good effort – all the pieces are there, except for strong songs. If the Cars make another record, I hope they spend more time on the writing. The sound, Ocasek’s strained singing aside, is in place, and it pushes the right buttons. But the songs… not so much.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.