Pop

Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

Lust for Life is the first Lana Del Rey album I’ve ever really listened to, although I had been generally familiar with her sound and aesthetic ever since “Video Games” made the rounds back in 2011.  Enough ink has been spilled (or more realistically, bytes of storage space allocated) over Lana’s said vintage 70s Los Angeles vibe to warrant me skipping that aspect of her artistry, but I will say that I tend to respect and admire artists that do stick to a well-defined aesthetic vision, and Lana’s latest only ratchets up that process filter Hollywood nostalgia another notch.

Lust for Life is 72 minutes of slow, atmospheric, moody ballads about romanticizing relationships that feel real only in the way old polaroid photos do; they approximate reality, but there’s something too inherently dramatic about the colors and lighting to ever see them as real scenes.  Take “Groupie Love“, one of two A$AP Rocky features (whose verses pair surprisingly well with Lana’s apathetic choral intonation), where Lana’s protagonist ignores the reality of her typically low-stakes groupie relationship and replaces it with something far more loving and intimate – “It’s so sweet, swingin’ to the beat / When I know that you’re doin’ it all for me.”  As the star, Rocky allows himself to be seduced by the fantasy (“you and I, so who do we trust? / You and I ’til the day we die”), and the cinematic strings and reverb effects complete track.  The song perfectly represents the juxtaposition of emotions on Lust for Life; every word on the track is inherently positive, but within the production exists the dreaded truth that relationships framed this way exist only in Lana’s imagination.

The wonderful and gorgeous opener, “Love“, sounds entirely sincere, remarking on the inherent desire to squeeze every last ounce of pleasure and happiness out of youth (“You get ready you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular / Back to work or the coffee shop / It don’t matter because it’s enough to be young and in love”), but the fact that Lana is devoting the better part of her album as an ode to perfectly capturing the feeling before it becomes heartbreaking nostalgia infers the other side of the coin.  The title-track, featuring The Weeknd, follows up with an almost identical sentiment, but magnified down to a single night, and with the threat of death (or worse, adulthood) rearing its head a bit more transparently (“We dance on the H of the Hollywood sign / then we run out of breath, gotta dance til we die // And a lust for life keeps us alive”).  And “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind” sounds very much based in reality, but the inherent extravagance and escapism of the modern day music festival is about as far from real life as one can get within their local metro’s city limits, and Lana seems to realize this as she steps back and observes the scene from an older, more objective place (“What about all these children / and all their children’s children? / And why am I even wondering that today?”).

The record’s excellent front side is rounded out with the stories of relationships breaking apart at the seems (“Cherry”, “In My Feelings”) in overwrought, dramatic fashion (“Is it real love?  It’s like smiling when the firing squad’s against you”), lamenting over a summer fling in which our protagonist is essentially Tired of Sex (“Summer Bummer”, which features a great A$AP Rocky verse), and perhaps the crashing back to earth that spells the death of the relationship with the musician from “Groupie Love” on “White Mustang”.  By the pretty, optimistic, 10th-sequenced swan song “God Bless America – and All the Beauitful Women in It”, the closest thing to a ‘fist pumper’ we could ever expect from a Lana Del Rey album (I can just see the giant projected flag waving behind her at the live show), it feels like Lana has delivered her message and her vibe in a timely, succinct, and effective package.  There are absolute highlights, good features, and a nice push and pull of youthful excitement and world-wearied lamentation.

But the record isn’t 10 songs.  It’s 16 songs, and the final 6 feel both unnecessary and somewhat betraying of the album’s fairly insular perspective.  “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing” is an unnecessary political statement from an artist who works best as a blissed out blinder to my daily newsfeed, and it offers far from an innovative take on the current state of geopolitical affairs (“Is it the end of an era / Is it the end of America?”)  Similarly, “Heroin” feels like an unnecessary foray into the familiar-to-the-point-of-cliche rock song staple subject of using drugs to numb one from the harshness of reality (though to be clear, this song remarks on the tragic usage of another person, and it does feature a pretty intense ‘screaming’ section – “It’s fucking hot! Hot!”).  But to me, most egregious is “Tomorrow Never Came”, a riff on The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Comes” and a duet with John Lennon’s son, Sean Lennon, in which the production, melody and specifically Sean’s attempt to imitate his dad’s vocals so poorly represent The Fab Foursome it verges on parody even before the lyrics take a cringeworthy turn into self-reference- “Lennon and Yoko, we would play all day long / “Isn’t life crazy?”, I said now that I’m singin’ with Sean”.  (Vomits.)

Still, I find myself returning to Lust for Life over and over, thanks in no small part to the fact that because of it’s length I don’t often get past the ninth or tenth track, but also because I really like Lana’s vocal stylings, I really like the production, the album is easy to have on in a variety of scenarios, and the lyrics are almost always good and often filled with interesting takes on the fantasies that are historical relationships.  I don’t think this album is doing anything really original – Lana’s three previous LPs serve of evidence of that- but it completes its mission admirably, and I can forgive the glaring lack of tight editing on the track list (seriously, very, very few albums really need to be 72 minutes or longer).  If you didn’t like Lana Del Rey before, Lust for Life isn’t gonna change your mind.  But if you wanna feel like your drunk on lust and melting on the beach in some instagram-filter world, Lust for Life just might be for you.

Score: 9 / 13

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Lorde – Melodrama

The first time I heard Lorde (outside of “Royals” on the radio in passing) was on a bus headed toward Austin City Limits in October 2013.  I had downloaded her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine and was ready to rip into it for a review for my college newspaper.  But one minute into opener “Tennis Court” I was completely blown away.  The lyrics and production were equally sublime.  The songs were catchy but catered to no pop music standards.  Pure Heroine did something few albums ever can; introduce a new artist with huge crossover hit potential who can also reshape the entire pop landscape.  Suddenly, dark, spacey minimalism was very in.  She wasn’t the first to hone this sound – see xx from 2009 or The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy– but she successfully paired it with accessibility and personality without compromising any artistry.  In the four years since its release, Pure Heroine has only gotten better with age, and the fallout of its wake can still be seen on the charts.

Four years is a long time to spend on the followup to a massive commercial and critical debut, but Lorde isn’t a traditional pop artist, and she was right to think long and hard about what statement she wanted to make on her next LP.  Songs about the trivialities of being bored and sixteen probably won’t play well over two albums, but the classic “Im famous now and I’m still jaded” sophomore trope is played-out and lacks the idiosyncratic detail Lorde puts into her lyrical work.  Instead, for Melodrama, she chose similar themes to Pure Heroine, aged a few years, with renewed emphasis on contemporary party culture underscored by the paradox of the album’s titular expression.

Production- and writing-wise, Lorde turned most prominently to Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Fun (who a few weeks ago released by far the worst album I listened to all year).  His penchant for “bombastic”, “feel-good” choruses burrows its way into opener “Green Light”, the most obvious play for dance-floor ready radio pop (where it seems to have been quite successful) and probably the record’s second weakest track.  Lorde still bites with a practiced cattiness, but the chorused vocals shooting for empowerment lack personality.  The production takes a turn for the better on the second-sequenced “Sober”, which returns to Pure Heroine’s spacious, bass- and reverb- heavy arrangements and antichorus structure (punctuated by sharp horns), and while the sentiment (the emptiness of partying) is classic Lorde, I find the refrain (“But what will we do when we’re sober?”) awkwardly straightforward.  “Homemade Dynamite” is the best of the dancey, “I don’t know how I feel about the banality of millennial club culture” three-song opening, letting a boom-clap beat and understated synths do the heavy lifting under Lorde’s practically whispered too school for cool delivery (“I guess we’re partying”, “Know I think you’re awesome, right?”).  Thus Melodrama‘s opening movement is effective at setting themes and a mood, but its “bangers” hardly bang and it doesn’t follow through lyrically.

“The Louvre” is another semi-successful attempt to make a minimalist anthem, and does feature a couple of nice lyrical turns (“They’ll hang us in the Louvre / down the back but who cares still the Louvre”) which see Lorde turn her attention to love interests, where she has a knack for striking a nerve.  But the refrain of “Broadcast the boom boom boom and make ’em all dance to it” feels like further rehashing of all the record is saying up to this point.  The album’s best song and centerpiece, “Liability”, succeeds by pulling away from all the tricks, featuring only Lorde’s capable voice, a piano, a couple organs and an excellent melody.  The image of Lorde returning home alone find comfort in herself (“So I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love” / “All that a stranger would see is one girl, swaying alone”) is visceral and haunting, the emotion in the song’s lyrics and delivery feeling more real than anything that preceded it.

But the record loses me again on “Hard Feelings / Loveless” – I don’t care if its sarcastic, I just can’t get behind a refrain of “This is what they call hard-feel-ings”.  The production features some of the record’s best turns, again relying on anti choruses and huge harmony sections but bringing in bizarre and unexpected synth noises that give the some an anxious edge.  But Lorde is effectively a singer-songwriter, and so her lyrics and in particular her refrains are of capital importance.  Couplets like “Cause I remember the rush when forever was us / Before all the winds of regret and mistrust” are more than capable, but I struggle to find any more specific interpretation of her plethora relationship woes when they’re all built on the backs of similar poetic couplets evoking only a general wistful nostalgia.

The album’s back half has some of the record’s strongest moments – “Sober II / Melodrama” more successfully conveys the bitterness Lorde was shooting for on “Sober” (“All the glamour and the trauma and the fucking melodrama / All the girl fights and lime lights and the holy sick divine nights”) and “Supercut” makes a strong case for the record’s second best track, capturing a mood with detailed lyricism (“In your car the radio up / We keep trying to talk about us”) an excellent metaphor (“It’s just a super cut of us”) and a truly anthemic bridge into coda.  The song is successful where earlier spots on the record fail because it feels personal; this is one specific relationship, and not a blanket statement about a culture Lorde has surprisingly predictable ideas toward.  And “Liability (Reprise)” pivots successfully to Bon Iver style autotune, rehashing similar sentiments to “Liability” but with renewed cynicism.  And “Writer in the Dark”, despite being somewhat of a zero lyrically, is the only place where Lorde really lets an unexpected hysterical wild side let loose vocally.

But after a strong back half, the record chooses to close with its worst track, “Perfect Places”, which feels exactly like the record’s opening third, full of “big, theatrical” Antonoff choruses crowded by too many harmonies voicing the dopey “Trying to find the perfect places!” kids bop refrain, without any trace of the emotion and personality Lorde has displayed she’s capable of owning.  It’s a huge disappointment but also not atypical of a record as inconsistent as Melodrama.

Overall, I think this album has some excellent lyrical and production moments, but its play for a more generic dance pop sound does not go over well, I really don’t care for Antonoff as a co-writer on a lot of these tracks, and the lyrical themes frequently overlap and fail to stand out on their own.  There are plenty of catchy moments, playful moments and uniquely Lorde moments (I think like three or four songs feature full instrument cut outs so she can saying something clever and sarcastic), but the record utterly fails to capture a specific time and place without any more than an expected amount of nuance.  A lot of people already love this record, probably because they can really relate to that “God fucking damnit partying is so vacuous!” sentiment that shows up on pretty much every chorus here.  And after all, the album is called Melodrama, so cheers to cohesiveness (I also love the cover art).  But seeing how Lorde’s bassy minimalism has since been co-opted, I think that, aside from a few standout tracks, Lorde’s appealing personality and unique vocal stylings are the only things that save this record from being another generic pop album.

Score: 8 / 13

Phoenix – Ti Amo

Hey look it’s another classic indie rock band with a classic album that has gone full disco! (Looking at you, Arcade Fire.)  Although anyone that’s been plotting Phoenix’s trajectory over the last decade or so could see this one coming from a mile away.  After their most guitar heavy album, 2006’s underrated It’s Never Been Like That, the band became the best indie act of 2009 (maybe outside of The xx) on the back of their bonafide masterpiece Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  I’ve written about that album before and will probably do a ‘Rank The Songs’ feature on it as well, so stay tuned.  2013’s Bankrupt! was met with mixed reviews, as most critics simply shrugged and delivered the typical ‘well, it’s not as good as their last album’ response.  Not that they were wrong, but Bankrupt! is another underrated effort by a band that hasn’t ever made a sub-par album.

Which brings us to Ti Amo, a love letter to Giorgio Morodor and schmaltzy 70s Italian disco.  This is the kind of record most people expect to be terrible.  And if you go into this project looking for an indie rock album, you’re going to be disappointed.  But honestly, the 10 songs and 37 minutes Thomas Mars and co. deliver here, while far from their most interesting or intricate work, is consistently catchy and enjoyable, and I think the vintage, sun-drenched summer sound is actually somewhat refreshing given the current climate of dark, frigid, minimalist R&B we find ourselves in.

Opener and first single “J-Boy”, despite the asinine title and a handful of asinine lyrics (“Then inside an alley you’re out of words / Well I thought it was radium at first”) is bristling with layers of colorful keyboard lines all over the channels, and Mars’ smooth, too school for cool, autotune-assisted vocal delivery is right in his wheelhouse.  Spoiler alert – the lyrics on Ti Amo are some of Phoenix’s worst, and this is a band that tends to only sound profound by accident (the language barrier probably doesn’t help in that regard).  But I find that they rarely detract from the listening experience – dance music has never been deep lyrical territory, LCD Soundsystem notwithstanding.  “Tuttifrutti” (it’s painful to even type that) rides the same pulsating 1-2 beat that persists throughout the whole album along with some funky guitar and flute lines before the tropical, slow and grandiose “Fior Di Latte” arrives, a song that somehow works (credit the strong choral melody) despite being part Jimmy Buffet and part 80s power ballad.  Mid-album cuts “Lovelife”, “Goodbye Soleil” and “Fluer De Lys” flow so effortlessly into one another the record can at times imitate a DJ set.

While none of these tracks are bad (although some lyrical moments – “So let me control, regret that I broke our thing”, “You’re numero uno, ready for the win” – are patience testing), few of the tracks stand out as highlights.  My choice for the album’s best cut is actually the final track, “Telefono”, which carries some of that deeply cathartic longing that made Wolfgang such an incredible album.  The chorus and melody are classic mid 2000s Phoenix, re contextualized for the band’s current disco obsession.  The song fades both in and out, like a passing idea from a past age, and that’s sort of all Ti Amo is – a fleeting moment, a passing phase.  But for a band as talented as Phoenix, and for a frontman as charming and confident as Mars, the seemingly effortless project still manages to succeed.  None of these tracks are really anything close to groundbreaking, and few pack novel, interesting ideas, but the record works for what it is, and I think spending some time with it reveals that it’s as solid a piece of unabashedly disco-obsessed pop music as you’re likely to find this year.

Score: 8 / 13

 

Bleachers – Gone Now

I came across this album browsing albumoftheyear.org, aka the best website on the internet.  I didn’t know who Bleachers was, but I assumed it was an indie rock band.  Bleachers is an indie rock band name.  And I actually love the artwork, which I assumed was a photo of someone that was definitely not in the band.  Boy was I in for a surprise!  Turns out Bleachers is Jack Antonoff, formerly of fun. and co-writer / producer of hits with Taylor Swift, Sia and Carly Rae Jepsen.  Gone Now is about as pure a mid 2000s ‘pop’ album as exists anymore.  This is an album full of songs that are one vocal take away from being on a kids bop CD.  I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these songs were supposed to be the single, since they pretty much all follow the same ‘jaunty Bon Jovi piano verses into big, theatrical, over-the top, epic I HAVE SINCERE FEELINGS chorus’ formula.  If this was 2009, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear any of these songs on the radio.

But it’s not 2009, it’s 2017.  One of the best #1 hits on the radio this year was Migos’ “Bad and Boujee”.  Bieber has owned the radio by pivoting from love songs to low-key Drake-washed trop house.  Kendrick Lamar set a streaming record with an album about expectation-fueled depression and conservative politics.  The two pillars of a successful hit in 2017 are Rihanna’s “Work” (repetitive minimalist song about fucking) and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” (trap).  What I’m trying to say is, Antonoff injected a corny, saccharine, over-the-top sentimental tween-friendly pop album into the worst environment he possibly could.  Who the fuck is looking for a fist pumping choral refrain of “You steal the air out of my lungs, you make me feel it / I pray for everything we lost, buy back the secrets!” over 80s shotgun snares sung by Lena Dunham’s boyfriend when “HUMBLE.” hit number one?  Who wants sappy saxophones blaring away while said white dude throws on all the reverb in the world to build through a pre-chorus of “But there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to settle up with Heaven / And today I gotta settle in Heaven”?  Katy Perry’s much more adept songwriting team is floundering in the current environment.  Gaga pivoted to acoustic.  Sheeran is the poster-boy for sincerity and he killed a it this year with a repetitive minimalist song about fucking.  Even the calculated, manufactured Song of the Summer © at least has Chance and Quavo on it.

There is little variety of themes or sonics throughout Gone Now.  The run-times of the first 9 songs differ by less than a minute.  Every chorus on here is ‘bombastic’.  Every bpm is between 90 and 120.  Some moments are worse than others.  On “Goodbye”, there’s a Lena Dunham spoken word passage interjected into Antonoff’s singing that comes off as incredibly heavy-handed and indulgent.  It’s as if it wasn’t enough for Antonoff to beat you over the head with how much being sad sucks on his choruses so he had to prove it by saying “Here, look at this!  This is my GIRLFRIEND!  This is REAL!  This is RAW!”  “All My Heroes” is like the 3rd grade cliff-notes of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends“.  Antonoff actually does two reprises of songs he did earlier on the album, and neither of them are the closer.  There is a song called “Nothing Is U”.

There is one moment on the record that shows signs of potential.  The second track, “Goodmorning”, is plenty corny, rehashing the same “I make mistakes at night and feel ways about them but I’ll persevere!” theme that pretty much every track goes for (“Because I lied to you / I lied to your face in the summer”), but it’s as catchy as anything on here and the production is actually very interesting.  There are plenty of moments were Antonoff isolates his voice completely in one channel, a risky move that leaves it very exposed.  Other times the vocal production is almost Casablancas-fuzzy, and rather than crowd the chorus with a million synthesizers and choir vocal takes, he actually keeps the arrangement spartan and tidy.  If the whole record took these kinds of creative risks, I’d say we might be in business.  Sadly, Antonoff abandons such ideas by track 3 and the rest of the record is fucking wallpaper.

Score: 2 / 13

The Shins – Heartworms

Another day, another early to mid 2000s indie rock band putting out a late career album that pales in comparison to the best acts that replaced them in the 2010s.  This week’s contestants are The Shins, an Albequerque/Portland based band, fronted by and primarily composed of James Mercer (who, in recent years, found briefly himself in Modest Mouse and scored a Grammy nomination for his polarizing work with producer Danger Mouse in Broken Bells).  Depending on how into indie music you are, you may either know the Shins as a band with a run of three straight good-to-great albums from 2001-2007 before slowing down and falling off as Mercer engaged his side projects, or you know them as the guys who sing that amazing song from Garden State.  In either event, throughout their music, Mercer has displayed a knack for writing catchy melodies and pairing them with either sparse, melancholy progressions and arrangements or full, upbeat and happy ones.  Heartworms (the group’s 5th LP) is rooted firmly in the latter style.

Heartworms is a largely traditional indie pop album.  11 songs, 42 minutes, an ebb and flow of higher and lower energy songs.  The album kicks off with one of its catchiest numbers, “Name for You”, a head bopping, upstroking, bass bouncing pop tune featuring Mercer’s trademark lilting and swooping melodies and following a classic verse / chorus structure.  The song serves as an able harbinger of what’s to come on the record, both musically and lyrically.  The song is about aging women trying to get back on the market, the lyrics toeing the line between bitterness and strangely dated misogyny (“You can keep your can up / If you just never eat again”).  That lyric, and others throughout Heartworms, are especially striking given Mercer’s friendly, innocent delivery.

As the record’s name might (or might not) suggest, Mercer’s feelings toward women, both individuals and in general, are a heavy theme on the album.  Third-sequenced “Cherry Hearts” takes an offbeat drum-machined, synth-heavy approach to the wholly original concept of unrequited lust after an intoxicated romantic encounter (“You kissed me once when we were drunk / And now I’m nervous when we meet”).  The setup isn’t far from a certain ubiquitous Sheeran radio smash, but I can’t get over the feeling that this seems childish from a 46-year-old who seemed light years more poetic and mature sixteen years ago when he was singing “And I’d’a danced like the king of the eyesores / And the rest of our lives woulda fared well“.  The sixth-sequenced “Rubber Ballz” is maybe the most lyrically cringe-worthy song The Shins have released (guess at what that song title is a lewd reference to), and includes such apexes of human prose as “And I just can’t get her out of my bed / Wish I’d gone with her sister instead” and “My vices have voted, her ass duly noted / Can’t kick her out of my bed”.  Again, the ironic twist is that melodically this is one of the most sober and beautiful tracks on the record.  By the ninth-sequenced title track, Mercer is back on the losing end of romance – “Now I’m trying to figure out when it was you gave me these heartworms / I feel them wriggling in my blood, you gonna do me harm”.  And again, the melody and production on this track, particularly the chorus harmonies (“What can I do?!”), the tinkling pianos, and the screeching guitars combine to prove Mercer has persisted as a more than capable songwriter.

The brightest moment is likely the centerpiece, “Mildenhall”, which is an origin story of sorts about fifteen-year-old Mercer moving with his family to an air force base in England and overcoming homesickness with the help of kind-heartened, music nerd classmates, inspiring him to start “messing with my dad’s guitar”.  It’s a lighthearted strummer, featuring a few blissful synths and a low, honest delivery, offering a respite from the wailing, girl-crazy Mercer seen throughout the rest of the album.

The production throughout Heartworms has plenty of bells and whistles, with synths, harmonies, guitars and drum machines zigging to and fro on even the lowest-key tracks.  And at their core, these are very Shins-esque songs, their melodies and structures fitting nicely into a later album like Wincing the Night Away.  But that same familiarity solidifies it as a very safe album, as gone are Mercer’s alternating pained, aggressive vocals and thoughtful, melancholy ones, replaced by the more synthetically happy Mercer we’ve seen since Wincing.  Where the songs are aplomb with studio trickery, they are lacking in emotion and resonant, heartfelt sentiment.  The record is fine, and its catchier moments are proof that The Shins perhaps shouldn’t yet be put to death, but I think Mercer is gonna need a brutally honest record about, say, being an aging rocker in a young man’s game to move the needle at this stage in his career.  Sexual angst and puppy love just aren’t doing the trick for music as mellow and low-stakes as this.

Score: 6 / 13

Grandaddy – Last Place

Grandaddy is the project of Jason Lytle, originally based out of Modesto, California.  Vaguely indie rock (with more than a few synths), Grandaddy released four studio albums between 1997 and 2006 before taking a hiatus, and are now returning with their fifth LP after 11 years.  I’ve been listening to the band sporadically since high school, but am really only familiar with their 2000 epic (and best album) The Sophtware Slump.  Where that album immersed itself in a dystopian future where emotions are consumed by technology, Last Place wades much more domestic territory – it’s a middle-aged, suburbia-framed breakup album.  And while Lytle maintains a deft craft for production and arrangement, the center of this album is unfortunately lacking in hooks or emotional payoff.

Lytle’s albums are all thematic and somewhat conceptual, and he certainly knows how to move through a narrative with effective sequencing.  Therefore it comes as no surprise that Last Place makes the right move in kicking off with its two strongest tracks.  Opener “Way We Won’t” is a tight 4/4 rock track with a synth line almost as catchy as perhaps the catchiest synth line ever composed (excluding “Kids“), Lytle’s own “A.M. 180” from Grandaddy’s debut.  The track was a harbinger of a potential return to greatness, a song with a great beat and melody and lyrics concerned with the soul crushing consumerism (“Tropical smells and back to school sales / Why would we ever move”) that vaporwave has since co-opted.  The followup, “Brush with the Wild”, is another catchy, poppy synth-led rock track that makes the album’s intentions clear (“We had a thing whatever it’s called / And you were a dream, and I was a concrete wall”), but also hints at a flaw that will go on to plague much of Last Place – the lyrics.

While the first two songs treat the album’s subject matter with some degree of poetic subtlety, the middle of the album’s mundanity feels like the result of serious writer’s block while its hooks simultaneously fail to stand up to opening tracks’ strong melodies.  After the creepier, opaque and significantly less catchy “Evermore”, we’re treated to “The Boat is in the Barn”, where Lytle compares his temporarily shuttered love as being a, ahem, boat in a barn, while also delivering the album’s most cringeworthy lyric – “You were going through the photos on your phone / getting rid of me is what I figured / delete deletin’ everything that had occurred”.  The two minute fuzz rock gallop “Check Injun” (that’s an intentional misspelling of check engine, mind you) sees Lytle driving down the highway, staring at his dashboard hoping his car can make it to his exit – it’s not compelling.  The next song is titled “I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore” and rides a familiar three chord progression like a train right into Lytle’s overly saccharine delivery of the titular phrase.  The self-pity party continues on with “That’s What You Get for Gettin’ Out of Bed” (“for warming up your heart and clearing out your head”) before we arrive at “This is the Part”, where we’re made aware that this is the part of the breakup “that some call a broken heart”.  The king of cliché-land called, or something.

While these mildly depressing, mostly boring topics don’t necessarily doom the album, they aren’t helped by the pairing of the same old 1-2 drum beats, mid-level tempos, reverb-drenched vocals and chugging piano chords time and time again.  Lytle still shows prowess behind the boards, bringing in strings, guitars and synthesizers from all sides to keep things immersive and well-layered, but all the pro tools in the world can’t save a song that’s lacking a catchy melody or progression.

The album takes a surprising turn for the better on its final three songs.  “Jed the 4th” is a callback to Sophtware Slump‘s series of “Jed” songs and, despite being another slow ballad, turns enough interesting production tricks to make this much needed break from Lytle’s personal literalism into one of the record’s strongest songs.  “A Lost Machine” is the true breakup anthem, taking six minutes to develop around a basic piano and outer-space synth structure into a powerful, grandiose, sad and romantic piece with Lytle singing (still somewhat calmly – the guy never screams) “Everything about us is a lost machine”.  And the album ends with a flashback in the stripped-back acoustic number, “Songbird Son”, that looks wistfully at the relationship’s origins in third person (“And so they made their camp / On a runaway truck ramp / Yeah, they were on the run”) before Lytle brings things back to the present, regretting the harmful things he’s done (“Message better left unsaid / Don’t say nothing”).  It’s a perfect, emotional, full-circle ending to a breakup album.

If only that album were better.  Last Place both begins and ends in great form, but the bulk, from tracks 3-9, are just too painfully banal, repetitive and self-pitying for me to really advocate for this project.  Even the final three tracks, while on point lyrically and thematically, aren’t exactly standouts relative to Grandaddy’s older work.  As much as I wanted to like this album, and truly I did, the gaping hole in the center is as big a disappointment as I’ve encountered all year.

Score: 6/13

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

Los Campesinos! hold a special place in my heart.  Upon my discovery of them in the early months of 2014, I became completely enamored with their 2010 masterpiece, Romance is Boring.   You wanna talk about grandiose, incredibly dense, bursting-at-the-seams indie rock- this record has it all.  I’m aware that the band’s pair of 2008 releases are their most beloved, but Romance is larger in scope, both musically (the arrangements are wild and colorful) and lyrically (lyricist/singer Gareth gets really down deep into his college sex life).  Despite my love of Romance, I never bothered to listen to the group’s next two records, based on exactly two things; a) four members left the band post Romance, including vocalist Aleksandra (whose sweet voice and female perspective so perfectly juxtaposed Gareth’s manic ramblings), and b) I heard like two songs from 2013’s No Blues and immediately thought they had lost their luster.

Following the longest break in the group’s career (3.5 years, when they had previously been an album-a-year group), and the band’s devolving from constantly touring 20-somethings to fully-employed 30-somethings, I approached Sick Scenes with appropriate caution, ever-aware of the fear that one of my favorite bands (and a huge influence on my own music) would be tainted as I inspected their new releasein minute detail.  The first single they dropped, however, “I Broke Up in Amarante“, inspired hope – Gareth was older and more jaded than before, yes, but the energy and personal lyrical imagery were there (including classic LC! soccer (ahem, football) references – “Dreamt I’m anchoring that midfield / Like the anchor in my midriff”), and the song was catchy to boot.  A bit pop-punk and emo (complete with half-tempo breakdown and a chorus that repeats “It seems unfair!”), but a banger none-the-less.

Opener “Renato Dail’Ara” contends with “Amarante” as the best song on record, and once again delivers amped-up energy, soccer references, a great sing-a-long chorus, and a depressed, cathartic message.  Singing “Living off 2008”, Gareth reflects with bitter nostalgia on the early days of his band, when he played FIFA and drank beer all day and the group had time, youth, energy and critical opinion on their side.  The full-band harmonies are there and chief songwriter Tom’s love of noodling guitar scales bristles at every juncture.  Second sequenced “Sad Suppers” is another highlight, though not quite as immediate as “Renato”, and is followed in turn by “Amarante” to kick the album off with a strong trifecta and a sign of a possible return to form.

But the album’s weaknesses begin to rear their head from here on out.  “A Slow, Slow Death” is your classic ‘slower, more atmospheric, moodier’ LC! song, and has a catchy enough chorus, but here Gareth’s singing falls over the fine-line between impassioned and whiny, and despite a nice horn arrangement on the chorus, the track’s melody is a bit annoying.  “The Fall of Home” is one of the gentlest LC! songs on record, and despite a truly beautiful string, glockenspiel and piano arrangement, the sparser parts of the song showcase how bad Gareth’s singing can be when he’s really trying to be sweet and not scathing.  The lyrics, however, detailing coming home after spending years away, are on-point and nearly make up for the singing (“Battery dies on your monthly call / Budget cut at your primary school”).

“5 Flucloxacilin” is an ode to Gareth’s ongoing battle with depression and the myriad pills he takes to deal with it, but he lacks the sharp-tongued wit and sassy delivery from early LC! records, making a line like “31 and depression is a young man’s game” come off as more pitiful than pained.  The second half of the album, while never bad, feels underwritten, lacking the gut-punch and urgency that the first three tracks bristle with.  “Here’s To The Fourth Time!” has a great outro that completely changes pace and features distorted screaming referencing the band’s old tracks, and the penultimate “A Litany/Heart Swells”, with its couplet verses split by an increasingly intense chorus of “I’m shouting out a litany / An echo calls back!” nearly gets there.  But the closer leaves a lot to be desired and much of the rest is underwhelming and forgettable.

One of my biggest gripes with the record, unfortunately, is the production.  Despite being helmed by LC! vet John Goodmanson and arranged by founding member Tom, there is nothing approaching the density of colorful guitar, synth, keyboard and bass riffs that Romance found around every corner.  Missing former vocalist Aleksandra puts Gareth constantly at center-stage, and the group harmonies on the choruses feel phoned in and uninspired, often too low in the mix.  Gareth’s vocals frequently feature a slight fuzz that is too subtle to be cool (ala The Strokes) but just noticeable enough to be distracting.  And the snare drum, which strikes with a hollow, banging tone that I don’t care for, is way too high in the mix and hits almost every insufferable quarter note on the record.

Thematically, Sick Scenes is about Gareth’s problems with being 31.  He’s too young to be wise but too old to be energetic and optimistic.  He’s nostalgic for his youth, fighting the same mental illnes he had then but from within an older, fatter body.  While James Murphy handled these problems with heartbreaking acceptance of emotional decay, Gareth idolizes his glory days (calling out his former Cardiff haunts – “Hirwain, Minny, Twkesbury, or Brook Street / What I’d not give just to have another week”) but still resorts to juvenile alcoholism to deal with his current troubles (“Nursed a two beer buzz four whole weeks / Cause it’s the only way to feel sane”).  As was always the case, the more intimate and detailed he writes, the better, but too frequently, especially on the back half, we’re treated to vague sentiments like “When all is spent and all is lost / When all is said and done”.  Gareth is still one of the best lyricists in the indie rock game, but where once he couldn’t pen a verse that wasn’t as embarrassing as it was genius, he now only strikes gold when it seems like he has a song’s theme and personality focused and locked down.

While Sick Scenes is a pretty enjoyable listen, packed with good melodies and good lyrics, alongside a couple of standout tracks, it doesn’t excite much past its first three or four tracks.  It does show that LC! had the potential to put out something great, but too many of these songs make poor production choices and are underwritten both lyrically and musically, playing it too safe and lacking the huge swinging dynamics and interesting detours the band made a name for themselves on.  It certainly sounds like an older and wiser record, but this was a band that was built on youthful energy, and they’ve neither recaptured it or nor pivoted to some interesting new identity.  I’ve given the album about twenty listens at this point, and I’ll likely be listing “Amarante” and “Renato” among my favorite songs of the year, but I can’t say I’m impressed with the effort.  Still, it manages to succeed to some degree on the back of how well the Los Campesinos! formula works and how talented Tom and Gareth are at their respective crafts.

Score: 8/13