Friday, April 1, 2011
Within the last six weeks we've seen the release of albums by four major "alternative" artists: Radiohead, P.J. Harvey, R.E.M. and The Strokes. Such a harmonic convergence is surprising.
So what have they got to say? Are they relevant? Are they any good?
The further away Radiohead gets from 1997's "OK Computer," the more that album is beginning to seem like a fluke (akin to Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream). Since then, Radiohead has released one interesting "experimental" album in "Kid A," one album of outtakes, one live disc and three consecutive albums of boring art rock.
Their 2003 concert at Coors Amphitheatre (or whatever they call it these days) proved that they can rock when necessary so the question becomes why don't they? Both 2007's "In Rainbows" and the new "The King of Limbs" have almost no guitar, no drums and nothing to say. Instead we get lots of shimmering keyboards, synthesizer blips and Thom Yorke's whiny voice (the guy CAN sing if he wants to).
Everyone from Dylan to Neutral Milk Hotel have shown that you can have powerful, intense music with minimal instrumentation. Anyone who stumbled across Radiohead starting with 2003's "Hail to the Thief" would have to wonder what all the fuss was about. Some have excused this as a minimal album rather than a major statement because of its length (35 minutes, 8 songs), but they put it out, I paid for it, and albums such as "Revolver," "Raw Power" and "Coney Island Baby" have shown that 35 minutes is plenty of time if you have something to say.
I love P.J. Harvey. Anyone who's put out albums as great as "Dry" and "Rid of Me" has earned all the adulation she gets. The new "Let England Shake" does present a problem though. This is the first time she has stepped out of the personal and is instead giving us a more detached view of her native England and its early twentieth century military history.
Unfortunately, the detached perspective takes away the most compelling thing about P.J. Harvey: her intensity. Even 2007's primarily acoustic "White Chalk" was carried by the passion of her delivery. On "Let England Shake" she writes as either an observer or a helpless victim. Her vocal approach lacks either the screaming anger available in rock (she's singing about war after all) or the sense of injustice in folk/protest music.
Musically, it's quite good, some nice production touches, saxophones, keyboards. After her 2009 Humphrey's concert with John Parish (one of her main collaborators), I concluded that one thing I don't want is a nice, friendly P.J. Harvey. I expect great things from her. Let's hope she gets upset again soon.
I go back almost to the beginning with R.E.M. I've seen them here at Montezuma Hall, The Del Mar Fair, the Open Air Amphitheatre, the Sports Arena and Street Scene. After a brief falling out after "Fables of the Reconstruction" and its dull second side, I resumed listening to them seriously again starting with "Out of Time" and have followed their output closely ever since (I caught up with the albums in between later).
As most R.E.M. fans will tell you, each new R.E.M. album is a reaction to the previous one. 1994's "Monster" was a reaction (some say an overreaction) to the pastoral, elegiac "Automatic for the People." It also scared away all the casual fans who had jumped on the bandwagon.
Since then, it's mostly been the core audience that has stuck with them through all their recent changes. The new "Collapse Into Now" is a reaction to 2008's "Accelerate" which was, in turn, a reaction to 2004's "Around the Sun". "Around the Sun" was the first real dud in the R.E.M. canon. As a friend said, most of R.E.M.'s lousy songs were the slow ones. "Around the Sun" was full of slow ones. The production tried to emulate "Automatic for the People" but the songs just weren't good enough. "Accelerate" was full of short, noisy rock songs that ultimately came across as more of a genre exercise than anything else.
The real problem with R.E.M. is that they are not a rock band, they're a folk-rock band. Closer to The Byrds than say, The Rolling Stones. They're about texture. Which is why their best albums are "Murmur" and "Automatic for the People." The hope here was that "Collapse Into Now" would combine the production of "Around the Sun" with the energy of "Accelerate." What we get instead is an unsatisfying separation.
It starts off with a couple of good R.E.M. rockers and then soon devolves into singer Michael Stipe's New Age aphorisms. In the early R.E.M. days, Michael Stipe was noted for mumbling his undecipherable lyrics (it wasn't called "Murmur" for nothing). Now instead of lines like "Aluminum tastes like fear" we get stuff like "Oh my heart" and "Every day is yours to win" and "I am flying on a star." The album features choirs, guest vocalists, horns, etc. none of which are noticeable (except for Patti Smith) because of the mix.
And the cover! R.E.M. were noted for their enigmatic covers all the way through 2001's underrated "Reveal." But the last three look like they were designed by a high school graphics student. Come on man! With all the starving artists out there they couldn't come up with a better cover?
After The Strokes' stellar 2006 concert at RImac Arena, it seemed they could go just about anywhere. With two great albums under their belt and their third showing a satisfying expansion of their sound, they instead disappeared.
Since then there have been solo albums, marriages, kids, and the usual maturation process. But no new Strokes.
So ten years after their first album, the question is: can they get their mojo back? The answer is yes and no. The new album "Angles" is a successful attempt at making a Strokes album. But instead of a band making a record, we get a corporation making a product. There were supposedly many difficulties in getting the album done but that's really irrelevant. What we get is a more streamlined, almost pop Strokes. What I was hoping for was a continuation of the bigger sound they had on 2006's "First Impressions of Earth" and longer, denser solos from guitarist Nick Valensi.
"Angles" is decent. It lacks the first song grabber of the previous three albums but does start off well. There is some nice guitar, but they never really crank. Part of the problem may be that singer Julian Casablancas recorded his vocals separate from the band and the intensity is just never there. And another lame cover. Really, honestly, these guys are from New York. They couldn't find someone in New York to design a cool cover?
After all these years of listening, you would think I would be used to artists gradually going downhill. But no, I still expect greatness every time. So the best that can be said about these four releases is that these four artists are still out there, still addressing the form and that all I can hope for is greatness next time.