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Albums of the Month: July 2014

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Album: Lazaretto

Artist: Jack White

Released: June 10th, 2014

Highlights: Temporary Ground, Would You Fight For My Love?, Just One Drink, Entitlement

“Lazaretto”, Jack White's second solo record, does not take grand deviations from its predecessor “Blunderbuss”. Jack does not break into any new sonic grounds. He does, however, continue to guide us through the varied hall of influences he has been drinking from since the early point of his career. Where the White Stripes served as an output for his blues love, his solo albums are a mean for him to tackle other sources, and “Lazaretto” is the second step on that journey.

Differently from “Blunderbuss”, here it is harder to find direct links to The White Stripes, which seems to indicate Jack has dived deeper into his country and folk roots. While that record had “Sixteen Saltines”, a riff-centric song that could have been right at home on “Icky Thump”, “Lazaretto” only comes close to that garage vibe on “Three Women”, the album's opener and an inventive Blind Willie McTell cover; "Would You Fight for My Love?", a dynamic quite-and-loud tune; and “High Ball Stepper”, a great quirky instrumental with distorted guitar screams and wacky shifts.

Everywhere else, Jack toys around with a width of instruments and textures that are beyond what he could achieve alongside Meg due to the restrictions the duo imposed upon themselves. The title song and “That Black Bat Licorice”, for example, flirt with funky beats as a mad Jack shouts a quick succession of words over the microphone, while “Just One Drink” drives forward like the Velvet Underground's “I'm Waiting for the Man”.

The album's greatest strengths, though, lie in the incredible melodies White is able to spin, and nowhere do they become more clear than in the acoustic tunes. The unplugged trio of “Temporary Ground”, “Entitlement”, and “Alone in My Home” are among the catchiest songs he has ever written, which goes to show that, aside from being a wonderful entertainer, Jack White remains a stellar and resourceful composer. “Lazaretto” brings that overwhelming prowess to an engaging display.

Album: Turn Blue

Artist: The Black Keys

Released: May 12th 2014

Highlights: Weight of Love, Fever, In Our Prime, Gotta Get Away

Coming on the heels of “Brothers” and “El Camino”, two albums of extreme commercial and critical success, “Turn Blue” marks the fourth straight time on which Danger Mouse takes on the role of producer for The Black Keys. Like it happened on “El Camino”, aside from manning the board he also shares songwriting credits with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney on all of the album's eleven tunes. Yet, despite presenting the same formula as its successful predecessors, the results here are far more mixed.

“Brothers” and “El Camino” worked well for they achieved a perfect balance between the producer's electronic soulful sound and The Black Keys' pop-infused blues. “Turn Blue” shows that equilibrium shifting into a more digital spectrum, leaving the guitar and drums either absent or buried in a mix of keyboards. Consequently, while “Turn Blue” does take the band to new grounds – an achievement that is always remarkable, the land they find here is not completely beneficial to the duo's compositions.

The record does work quite well in some points. Sometimes it is because the combination just clicks, such as on “Weight of Love”, where The Black Keys reach into lush and psychedelic Pink Floyd territory, with Gilmour-like solos included; or “Fever” and “Turn Blue”. In other occasions, it is because the group abandons the bells and whistles for stripped-down efforts, like the energetic album closer “Gotta Get Away”, and “In Our Prime”, a weary bluesy number filled with angst.

It is hard to determine why “Turn Blue” is not completely satisfying, but the group – maybe due to trusting their producer too much – occasionally comes off as comfortable, as if they were resting on past laurels. Nowhere is it more evident than on the sequence of five songs that begins with “Year in Review” and ends with “10 Lovers”, where the group turns on their musical autopilot. In spite of its enjoyable moments, “Turn Blue” shows that the great partnership between the group and Danger Mouse might have run its course.

Album: Indie Cindy

Artist: Pixies

Released: April 28th, 2014

Highlights: What Goes Boom, Greens and Blues, Indie Cindy

For any band, producing a record some twenty-three years after their last work is a daunting challenge. For a group whose original run was a flawless seven-year period that yielded four classic records and one historic EP, it is even harder. If any rock act was to pull off something of the sort with great success, the Pixies would have to be a safe bet. After all, they achieved notoriety by defying conventions with mind-twisting dynamics and lyrics of intricate symbolism. They could sure do it, right?

“Indie Cindy” is a tough work to assess. After two decades, it is natural to expect that Francis, Santiago, and Lovering have greatly changed both as people and musicians, so expecting a straight follow-up to “Trompe le Monde” would be downright wrong. At the same time, it is impossible not to compare it to the ridiculously high bar set by the group between 1986 and 1993. That is why it warrants two distinct evaluations: in a bubble it is a good fun album, while as a Pixies record it falls flat.

It is fun because Francis knows a great rock hook when he sees it, as it is evident on the pleasant poppy “Greens and Blues”, which includes a signature Santiago wizard guitar, the sunny surfer “Another Toe in the Ocean”, and the beautiful chorus of “Ring the Bell”. At the same time, it lacks those fall-out-of-the-chair punk moments that were generally caused by the early tunes' mad progression and the quick swapping of random shouts for blissful quietness.

Truth be told, Francis does achieve – to some level – that kind of flooring magic. The opener “What Goes Boom”, the title song “Indie Cindy”, and the threatening “Magdalena 318" have that unique Pixies edge. But, at the same, the album falls short of the Pixies greatness on good but pedestrian tunes like “Andro Queen” - which would have been great on a Francis solo record, "Blue Eyed Hexe" – an attempt to rewrite the classic “U-Mass”, and “Bagboy” - whose great chorus is wasted on a song with awkward verses.

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