Thursday, July 19, 2007

Icky Thump by the White Stripes

It's quite funny, really. When the White Stripes released their breakthrough record, White Blood Cells, they were hailed as the saviours of rock, reviving the notion that music, stripped bare, was the real essence of ROCK! Now, of course, with keeping it real de rigeur for any young band (except Muse), The White Stripes have once again defied fashion and currency by making what could most easily be defined as a prog rock record. The opening, and titular, track is exhibit A in this argument. With cacophonic keyboards, grinding metal guitar, and of course Jack White's most infectious riff, all hammering over the top of Meg's Bonham-esque drumming, the song seems to be an anecdote about a strange encounter in a Mexican town, while passing commentary about US immigration policy. Pretty proggy stuff. Perhaps this is why previous records were made in less than a week (this, by contrast, was recorded over 3 weeks in Nashville, a veritable eternity in the White Stripes' universe); to stop Jack going a little mental.
There are certainly more traditionally White-ish tracks on the record, such as 'You Don't Know What Love Is (You Do As You're Told)' and 'Bone Broke', but these seem to be something around the filler level, becuase it's when the band's imagination kicks into overdrive that Icky Thump really hits its straps, most notably on the wonderfully cheeky 'Rag and Bone', where Jack and Meg play thieving (or opportunistic) vagabonds stripping pop culture of its trinkets, ostensibly to put it to better use than it currently is being.
After the release of Get Behind Me Satan in 2005, the White Stripes announced a new look (absent the lollipop outfits), a new sound (more than three separate instruments) and a new approach to music (layers, production and variety), and the music world shivered a little bit. The White Stripes were supposed to be paragons of the new rock, simple, straight up and thumpingly awesome. Suddenly, they were willfully creative and difficult. Of course, there was a backlash, and diehard fans hoped for a return to the old days. It was in vain. The White Stripes, now officially veterans of the scene, have decided to buck any and every trend, and are now pioneering a new scene, a revival of the other Led Zeppelin, zany, overblown and great fun. And if Icky Thump is any indication, there is plenty more where that came from.
4 stars

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Boxer by The National

To look at the cover of The National's new record, Boxer, is to catch a glimpse of both the album's essence, and its antithesis. On one hand, the washed-out black and white, the half-closed eyelid through which we view it and the lack of energy of the image's participants which belies the thorough, restrained enjoyment they're clearly all experiencing could not convey any better the music contained therein. Restraint, of course, being the key word in regards to Boxer. Gone is much of the welling anger that pervaded the previous release, Alligator, which, on occasion, bubbled over the rim into a cathartic explosion of mythic proportions.

That's not to say that Boxer lacks catharsis. In fact, it is the cover's outgoing nature which represents the antithesis of the record, for Boxer is positively agorophobic. An indoors album. Away from crowds of dancing septogenarians. And with track titles like 'Guest Room' and 'Apartment Story', it's little wonder. Singer Paul Beringer's sonorous baritone dominates proceedings here, gently easing out lyrical gems like "Hold ourselves together with our arms around the stereo for hours / While it sings to itself or whatever it does", or 'Standing at the punch table swallowing punch". It is through Beringer's very presence on the record that catharsis still exists, hidden, perhaps, behind Bryan Devendorf's insistent drumming and Bryce Dessner's glorious Spanish guitar, which suffered on Alligator from the more volumnious efforts of his bandmates.

Opening track, the stunning 'Fake Empire' muses ambiguously on either the state of a dying relationship or the state of the US of A "We're half asleep/In a fake empire", building slowly over a jumpy, nervous staccato piano piece, while the urgent drumming and stately bass line gently direct the song towards is gorgeous, understated, horn-driven finale. From there, Boxer barely misses a beat, taking the listener both languidly and apprehensively through to the sweet closer, 'Gospel', where Beringer sounds almost nostalgic for a time when he was comfortable hanging around inside dreaming about spending time with friends who he may or may not have been ambivalent about.

Boxer is the sound of a band on top of its game, a stately, beautiful, if slightly moribund epic which cannot serve but reassure those who were concerned about the likelihood of a repeat after the wonder of Alligator.

4 1/2 stars

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Our Love to Admire by Interpol

Interpol have always been pretty depressing, in a glorious, strangely uplifting way, much like their spiritual antecendants, Joy Division. But now, they're epically, massively, stirringly depressing.

Not to say that Our Love to Admire, the band's third long-player, makes me more or less depressed than either of their previous two outings (actually, Interpol don't really depress me at all, but I am fully aware of the subject matter), but as far as scope and intent go, this is a quantum leap forward, if not so much in structure and influences. Yes, the Interpol of old is here, in spades, droll vocals singing ruthlessly tongue-in-cheek morbidity, aping Joy Division and other suicide-rock outfits of the post-punk era, but there is also a new sensibility, not readily heard at first, but when the ultra-high, ultra-staccato solo kicks in at around 3.10 on the opening track, "Pioneer to the Falls", there is indeed an epic-ness here that is rapidly reaffirmed after everything but vocals drop out shortly thereafter. It's like Chris Martin decided that he GENUINELY WAS miserable about hwo truly awful his life is and suddenly (and simultaneously) decided to devote his powers to good, rather than evil.

And even better, it's subtle. The chiming of a church bell ringing out after the climx of highlight 'Mammoth', the strings (not cheesy or unecessary at all) on 'Wrecking Ball' or the twisted, distorted flamenco and funereal outro on album closer, 'Lighthouse'. This is a band making music custom-built to rock sold-out stadiums without making it look like that's what they're doing, or diluting their worth in any way to achieve it.

Whether this stacks up to the high quality of Interpol's previous two releases is a difficult proposition, all three being very decent records, with subtle changes between each emphasising the band's gradual growth, but this is definitely worth a look, and, one imagines, the place where many new fans will begin their affinity with Interpol.

4 stars

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