Angles - The Strokes
The New York-based quintet is just four albums into their career and it is clear that they have no idea what sort of band they want to be. Frontman Julian Casablancas' love for electric sheen has seaped into the band's repertoire and they seem to have forgotten how to do what they do best: write memorable choruses and epic, dueling guitar lines. For every awesome track, like "Taken for a Fool," it seems like you get two uninspired ones, like "Call Me Back," a dirge-like piece of business with odd time shifts and horrific vocoder interludes (the world would be a better place if they never recorded a song like this again). Word is Casablancas couldn't even bother showing up for the recording of this album, choosing to record his vocals on a different coast than the band. If they can't come up with better than this next time, perhaps they should all stop showing up for work?
Belong - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
When I first heard this second studio album by the New York City indie pop up-and-comers, I thought it was a breakthrough. The group has eschewed their former lo-fi sound for deeper, richer sonics by producer Flood, who has worked wonders for bands such as PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails. This choice reaps major benefits on 80s-influenced ditties like the title track, "Heart in Your Heartbreak," and album standout "Even In Dreams." A quick look at the tracklist reveals no immediate stinkers, but that just might be one of the problems. While the album is extremely solid, it certainly isn't transcendent, and the lack of anything memorable has rendered it an infrequent play despite its strong choruses and instrumentation.
Born This Way - Lady Gaga
I probably should have devoted an entire post to this album to encourage more hits for the site. It would seem that anything Gaga sells like gangbusters these days. But in order to do that I would have had to listen to the entire album again, and extended exposure would reveal several wonderful club erupters (the undeniable "Born This Way," the Giorgio Moroder-influenced "Marry the Night," the incredibly odd yet addictive plea to the Berlin club scene, "Scheisse"), and some really horrible listening displeasures, such as the Catholic church-baiting "Bloody Mary," something called "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)," and the leader in the clubhouse for worst song of the year, "You and I," which actually finds Gaga taking her turn at country music with hideous results. Another thing that ruins the listen is the fact that everything sounds so forcefully anthemic and manipulative and overly produced. Whether you like "Poker Face" or not, it became a hit because it was a great song with a memorable chorus and a banging beat; it wasn't because every song was written to ensure optimum rotation in your local dancehall (plus, it didn't have a single sax solo, which is always a good thing if you are not listening to jazz).
Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
A very solid album in a genre that I don't usually flock to, the second album by Seattle's Fleet Foxes boasts one secret weapon that would drive me to listen to a full-length described on Wikipedia as "folk music": lead singer Robin Pecknold's voice. The sound emerging from this guy's vocal chords is probably the most beautiful "instrument" on any album you will hear this year. Other real musical apparatus do well to compliment his pipes on this album, such as the hollow piano on "Battery Kinzie," the lonesome fiddle (yes, I said "fiddle") on "Bedouin Dress," and the Wall of Sound drums on the otherwise spare opener, "Montezuma." Still, the unquestioned highlight of the disc is the title track, a five-minute opus that moves from borderline-silent voice and acoustic to a mid-tempo ho-down of sorts to a massive creescendo via spirited electric guitar and pinpoint harmonizing. The album seems to lag in the final four tracks or so, but it's enough for me to promise that I will purchase more "folk music" in the future...as long as it is produced by Fleet Foxes.
Raven in the Grave - The Raveonettes
This Danish fuzz rock duo (vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Sune Rose Wagner and vocalist/bassist Sharin Foo) holds one distinction that they would probably rather not have: they are probably the least known musical entity whose discography I happen to own in its entirety. After seeing them perform in 2000 and whatever with Interpol, I was simply hooked by their brand of Velvet Underground-meets-Phil Spector guitar noise. So excuse me when I say that their latest is their strongest and most complete full-length since the 2002 EP Whip It On (which I'm sure you have never heard nor will you commence running to your website of choice to steal it). Especially terrific is the opening troika of the chugging "Recharge & Revolt," the trance-like "War in Heaven," and the album highlight "Forget That You're Young," a thunder-drum showcase for Foo's fragile Nico-esque vocal performance. The confident performance revealed on this fifth studio album by the obscure Scandinavians ensures that I will continue my completist ways as it pertains to their every-other-year output (assuming that I am not the only person buying their work, and they do end up putting out a follow-up).
Five-Sentence Closing Thought
Of the five discs, Raven in the Grave is probably the best. The worst is most likely Angles, which I can't believe I'm writing. But I'm not sure I am SUPPOSED to like a Lady Gaga joint. I am not exactly the targeted demographic. On the other hand, a Strokes album that I would deem somewhat unlistenable was heretofore unthinkable, so it must be some kind of awful.