The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

John Darnielle can be a frustrating dude. The highs are high: 2005’s “The Sunset Tree”stands tall as a bonafide masterpiece, but the lows are just as low – try the heavy handed 2009’s “The Life of the World to Come” if you’re curious. It seems that every other Mountain Goats record hits a high note. Last year’s “All Eternals Deck” was fine, but it doesn’t come close to the mastery of their latest, “Transcendental Youth”.

In the two distinct eras of this band – the pre-2002 low-fi boombox recordings and the subsequent studio recordings, Darnielle’s catalog is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. There’s a startling emotional undercurrent to his work, and here it clicks perfectly.

Horns are all over the album, from the upbeat ‘Cry for Judas’ to the meditative dirge of ‘White Cedar’. It’s lovely, lush with it’s perfectly timed swells. Followed by the acoustic ‘Until I Am Whole’ it creates a great compliment to the previous track’s delicateness. ‘The Diaz Brothers’ is a propellant number that’s akin to Mountain Goats classics like ‘This Year’ and ‘Dance Music’, and the title track has a horn intro that wouldn’t be out of place in a fifties sitcom.

Unlike some of it’s predecessors, none of the elements of ”Transcendental Youth” are overbearing. That’s plagued some of their previous albums. Every arrangement is carefully chosen. There’s no ‘square peg in a round hole’ effect that comes with some of Darnielle’s songwriting. This album plays like a hits collection from the studio-recorded era of this band.

“Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” advises Darnielle at the beginning of ‘Amy (aka Spent Gladiator 1)’. Those are pretty wise words. Maybe with album after album that’s what he was doing.

This time, he got it right.

The Men – Open Your Heart

The Men – Open Your Heart

There’s something special about a group that entirely shifts their sound from one record to another. Brooklyn-based The Men are one of those bands. With their new record, Open Your Heart, it’s apparent that it’s miles away from 2010’s Immaculada and last year’s Leave Home both in sonics and songcraft.

Tuneage instead of tonnage is the real story here. For the uninitiated, the prior two albums were variants of blue-in-the-face scuzz rock, low on songcraft and high on volume. (Stuff not for the faint at heart, but if you want to try it, “Night Landing” will surely be disorienting.) Their latest is anything but. They have have ditched that formula for something way more basic, and brawnier. There’s no better example than the album’s title track, a Let It Be-era Replacements cataclysm. Strong on hooks, pleading vocals and an earworm of a bass line, there’s no reason it’s not a song-of-the-year candidate. “Turn It Around,” the album opener, is four minutes of fist pumping heroism and an undeniable show-opener. “I wanna…” choruses and wild soloing will ignite crowds everywhere. Then there’s the oddly named “Country Song,” which sounds more like incidental music from Friday Night Lights than it’s namesake. (“Candy,” which comes later on the album would be more aptly named.)

What’s most impressive about this album may not be the songs themselves. It might be the fact that the band that created it was able to turn out a release so confident in a sound that is nothing like they’ve released before. It also leaves those to wonder what’s next for The Men. They’re a band that’s yet to peak, and every record they’ve made is a fine example of that. Open Your Heart isn’t just a clever title. It’s a request.

For Lucero, It’s Not Work

Lucero – Women & Work

Lucero are on a hot streak. While they’ve made dependable records with tracks that absolutely slay, it wasn’t until 2009’s 1372 Overton Park did they create an album that fully combined their rough-hewn songcraft with hooks that last for days. Punctuated by Memphis horns and Ben Nichols signature rasp, the record was nothing short of an instant classic, and this year’s Women & Work expounds on the work the last record started. “Downtown (Intro)” is a great table setter for the pulsating “On My Way Downtown”. Singer/guitarist Ben Nichols showcases his sandy croon on the drowsy balladeering of “When I Was Young”, later followed by the ragtime rave-up “Like Lightning”, this album’s best entry into their already impressive canon.

Unlike many of their roots-punk contemporaries, Lucero has had a half-decade head start in record making. With that, they’ve accomplished something rare in the genre: shaving down the rough edges of their material without actually sounding like it. It’s a tribute to the band’s decade-and-a-half together, showing that after all this time, they’re actually just getting started.

Top 10 Albums of 2011

Top Ten Albums of 2011

1. David Comes to Life – Fucked Up
2. Killing The Darlings – Pearl and the Beard
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
4. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
5. Long Live All Of Us – Glossary
6. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
7. The King is Dead – The Decemberists
8. Civilian – Wye Oak
9. Nine Types of Light – TV on the Radio
10. The Whole Love – Wilco

Kings Without a Crown

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album as  “The Throne” will survive buoyed on the lofty expectations and reputations of the people that made it. Watch The Throne is not a good album. In fact, it’s not a halfway decent album. It’s microwaved hip-hop for an audience that expects something oven-baked. 

Unsurprisingly, the production is real swing-for-the-fences, bombastic stuff. From the triumphant horns of “Lift Off” to the skitter stop beats and violins of “Welcome To The Jungle”, there’s little room for subtlety. There’s an exception or two, notably “No Church In The Wild” It prowls, propelled by the all-star performance by Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean. There’s underlying menace in the hazy synths and fuzzy bass thumps. Yes, the album sounds huge, the performances are not.  Still, it’s remarkable to listen to a record by artists that are renowned for their wordplay, and to find so few that are memorable. So much vanishes into the ether here. There’s not one track that really has a truly great hook. 

There’s no better example than the first single, “Otis”. Kanye’s usually the master of sample re-appropriation. Here, he just abandons it completely. It’s a simple slice-and-dice of “Try A Little Tenderness” with few flourishes, leaving the rapid-fire verses between the two rappers to sound like a mixtape castoff. This off-the-cuff approach works well on rock records, but given the scope of the production on the rest of the record, it’s lazy.  

That’s alarming, considering Kanye’s track record. ‘Kanye the Artist’ is an entirely different person than ‘Kanye the Superstar’. In public, he can come off as angry and self-absorbed. In the studio, no one pays as close attention to detail and nuance as him. His productions are usually thick, densely layered compositions. There’s not that same feeling here with this material. He’s abandoned that approach to placate Jay-Z, who all too often hides behind his braggadocio and expensive beats. He hasn’t been the same rapper since his 2006 return. To ape from the sports metaphors he so often uses, he’s like late-period Griffey. A fine athlete when he’s healthy, but he’s no longer the kid with sweet swing. Given the right track, the right collaborator, and the right frame of mind, the flashes of brilliance spark, reminding listeners that the old man still has game. Not enough to last an entire season, though. 

Make no mistake, Jay-Z and Kanye West are two of the past decade’s most important artists. Jay was untouchable during his initial 1996-2003 run, and that’s before Kanye got rolling with arguably the best five-album streak of any hip-hop artist. West has always been a big picture guy, preferring to make albums over hit singles and a bunch of filler. It’s art. Jay-Z is a guy that values commerce over art. Age has shifted his viewpoint. He’ll always only have one foot in the pool. Ultimately, what Watch The Throne shows two people with major ideological differences attempting to unite with one vision – and failing. 

Somewhere Between The Sleeves

“Horses” is not the best record Patti Smith has ever made. It’s one of rock and roll’s best opening acts, but it’s dwarfed her career with it’s gigantism. That album cover, those opening lines. Great moments, sure, but not everything.

“Radio Ethiopia”, her 1976 follow-up, is almost never mentioned. Where its predecessor bridges the logical gap from artist-as-poet plus rock and roll star, the follow up ditches the first half of that equation and shoots straight for affectation. The result – something way more raucous and virile.

It’s pretty clear from the get-go. The woman that opened her first record with the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” opens the second with the exuberant “Ask the Angels”. Chunky chords, a firm low end and wild guitars are a ways away from the slow-burn intensity of tracks like “Gloria”. But that’s not the only difference.

“Pissing In a River” is frighteningly E-Street, predating future collaborator Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sound two years ahead of time. The hallmarks are there – dramatic piano, penetrating organ and downright cinematic soloing. Smith’s performance, her voice cresting with each wave, only adds to the intensity.

There’s a lot to like here: “Poppies” is a narcotic ballad with some of Smith’s most curious lyrics: “Everything is soakin’ and spread with butter.” The title track is a full ten minute auditory assault where Smith attacks primal drums and a scribbly guitars with imitable swagger. She glides across the mess with conviction, leaving no doubt, it’s a noise rock track, but with the added lyrical curiosities (sample: “When I See Brancusi/His Eyes Searching Out The Infinite Abstract Spaces”), it ends up being a satisfying experiment.

Side two unveils the album’s best moment – the riotous “Pumping (My Heart)”. It’s a masterful three minutes of seventies New York City punk. The keys are carnal, guitars oscillate furiously and Smith is in full howl mode. As the song hurls towards its climax, Smith keeps shouting “Total abandon!” It’s a perfect phrase to encapsulate the entire record. It’s an artist acting on instinct instead of playing to popular sensibilities. It’s wild, ugly and not an easy listen. Perhaps that’s why it’s been forgotten over time. Most people prefer to spare themselves the difficulty.

Patti Smith never cared to begin with.