May 25, 2014 -- intro: This week, Coldplay return with their sixth full-length studio album, “Ghost Stories,” R.E.M. finally release both of their episodes of MTV’s “Unplugged” on CD, the Roots issue their strangest, darkest record to date, “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips delivers another collection of amiable mainstream rock, LCD Soundsystem release their final concert and the Brian Jonestown Massacre release their latest. It’s a busy, highly varied week of music.
quicklist: 1 title: Coldplay’s “Ghost Stories” **1/2 text: I used to be one of the biggest defenders of Coldplay. I often thought they got more bile than they deserved. Then, in 2011, they released “Mylo Xoloto” which in spite of standout tracks like “Major Minus” was a shallow attempt to court pop radio. “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” was a far cry from their peak “Parachutes” and “A Rush Of Blood To The Head” era. Gone was the little indie-rock band-that-could, ushering in a more bombastic shadow of the band that used to exist.
“Ghost Stories” does improve significantly on its predecessor. It is a much more palatable record than “Mylo,” standing as a 9-track mood-piece. “Magic,” the main single, does recall peak moments like “In My Place,” but overall, it seems like the band isn’t delivering anything new or surprising. This is them running in place, with the harder edges that were originally found on “Parachutes” and later resurfaced on “Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends” now firmly sanded away leaving a generic husk. “A Sky Full Of Stars” is nothing more than that standard dance-beat, (a-la Rihanna’s “We Found Love”) masquerading as a song. Sure, there are moments that recall this band’s greatness, but overall, this is a standard and tepid mixture of sounds. While the majority of tracks here are better than just about anything on their last effort, there’s nothing here that announces itself quite like high-points “Amsterdam,” “Shiver” or “Lost.” This is the work of a capable band working on auto-pilot, courting “mainstream success” instead of trusting their guts. They can do better and they’ve reached the level of stature where they can take risks and still get airplay. Somehow this record is attempting to be arty, but in reality, it is really unbelievably safe. This seems like the easiest record they could make at this point.
“Another’s Arms” The biggest hint of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” also provides the album’s best moment. Over a synthy groove, Martin sadly sings, “Late night watching TV/Used to be here beside me. / Used to be your arms around me. / Your body on my body.” It’s a genuine expression of grief and loss. It’s a sweet, genuine bit of writing and a side of Martin that now gets too often obscured in a quest to craft larger anthems. It isn’t one of their forced anthems. This should be a single.
“Magic” This bass-heavy groove sounds like vintage Coldplay, even with its whirly synths and its drum-machine beat. This song quietly packs a punch in the way that much of the rest of the record doesn’t. It is rehashing their past in a very focused way.
“Midnight” I’m usually not a fan of Autotune/vocoder effects, but here Martin and company use it as a decoration and not a crutch. This was actually the first song of the album to surface online, with a mysterious video, and it has an appealing iciness, which is likely to earn the bands comparisons to Imogen Heap and Bon Iver. This track is more mood-based than hook-based and it shows the album’s only true hint of a risk.
quicklist: 2 title: R.E.M.’s “Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions” ****1/2 text: The fact that R.E.M. never released their performances on MTV’s “Unplugged” until now is surprising. They were on the show twice, in 1991 and 2001 respectively. The first time around they were promoting “Out Of Time,” the second, “Reveal” and both performances show them as the kind of band for which the show was intended. They were after-all a band that showed their folk and punk influences side by side.
By the time their 2001 performance came around, drummer Bill Berry had retired from the group (having been replaced by Joey Waronker) and they were messing around with subtle electronics, so hearing stripped down versions of these songs gets especially interesting. There are some real gems here.
It’s amazing to listen to these discs side-by-side. In 1991, they were right at the crux of their peak fan-period and yet on the 2001 disc they sound slightly more assured and confident. Both discs stand as crucial documents (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the band’s greatness. It’s actually too bad that they didn’t appear on the show a third time in 2011 upon the release of their swan-song “Collapse Into Now.” That record topped my year-end list that year, and along with its predecessor, “Accelerate,” brought the band back to peak form.
These “Unplugged” performances fill a void in the R.E.M. discography. This is the third double-disc live album the band has put out and by a hair it is their second best of the three behind 2009’s amazing “Live At The Olympia In Dublin,” but it is vital and classic, nonetheless.
“Perfect Circle” This classic from their 1983 debut full-length, “Murmur” is reinvented during the 1991 performance. The original is piano-based. On the unplugged version, the main line is played on an organ instead, and it is somehow more beautiful than the original studio version.
“I’ve Been High” This is from the 2001 performance. The original from “Reveal” is a shimmery, electronic “Pet Sounds”-meets-Stereolab type of number. Again, backed by an organ and stripped away of all excess, its true beauty shines.
“Country Feedback” This performance is from 2001, which is astonishing considering that this is arguably the best track from 1991’s “Out Of Time.” This is Stipe at his wordy/folky best and the intensity of the studio version remains intact in this live version.
quicklist: 3 title: The Roots’ “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin” ****1/2 text: This is the strangest album the Roots have ever released. At just 11 tracks and 33 minutes, it is a risky record, especially considering three of the album’s tracks aren’t even credited to The Roots. It opens for instance with Nina Simone’s “Theme From Middle Of The Night.” That track ushers in some of the weirdest, darkest artiest music this band has ever produced.
I have to give them credit. Considering the focus and spotlight that now being “The Tonight Show” band has given them, conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that such exposure would make a band go in more of a pop direction. In reality, since becoming Jimmy Fallon’s band, they have actually gone the other direction. It is clear they have no intension of making a commercial record here and they don’t need to.
This is a record with zero pop aspirations. This is meant to be a think-piece. It’s an unapologetic and often harsh meditation on existence with nods to our quests for materialistic gains. Like most hip-hop today, this record (as you can probably guess from its title) is not for the easily offended, but in an age where the lines between hip-hop and pop are becoming increasingly blurred, the Roots have once again put their art first. I wish this record was longer, but it’s an enthralling piece with extensive reach. Be warned, though, even some longtime fans may find this to be an acquired taste. It feels like prolonged funeral march. It is definitely worth repeated listens. You’d be hard-pressed to find another challenging hip-hop release at this musical level. This album is simultaneously mind-blowing, baffling and genre-advancing. In other words, like it or not, this is one for the ages.
“Understand” (Featuring Dice Raw and Greg Porn) Throughout the whole record, there seems to be a lyrical struggle between “God” and “The Devil.” This is an album about religious struggles, life and death. It’s about existential crisis and it is handled in the darkest most macabre way possible. Black Thought’s verse here talks about dead bodies in a grave while Greg Porn raps about religion, saying, “I pray, I pray all doors go to heaven, / Or to a new Hell with a wi-fi-connection, / So I can pay for my sins on PayPal. / Or on a Holy-Ghostin’ Greyhound.” Backed by a bouncy organ, the track is both appealing and macabre.
“Never” (Featuring Patty Crash) Guest Patty Crash’s vocal-line has an eerie child-like nature when paired with this track’s trippy atmospherics. The song plays like a downbeat cousin to their Joanna Newsom-assisted cut, “Right On” from 2010’s “How I Got Over.” With each record, the Roots seem to be getting more orchestral, stretching beyond their expected boundaries. They are growing at such a rate, that it is hard to know what to expect from them. The “Psycho”-esque strings here come as a huge surprise. At the same time, this feels like the kind of track Tricky would’ve put on one of his best records.
“The Unraveling” (Featuring Raheem DeVaughn) There is a classical thread woven throughout this entire set and the sadness of the piano line is typical of the majority of the record as Raheem DeVaughn sings about death and rebirth. It leads to the brighter sound of the album’s closer, “Tomorrow,” also with DeVaughn.
quicklist: 4 title: Phillip Phillips’ “Behind The Light” (Deluxe Edition) *** text: Phillip Phillips won season 11 of “American Idol” and he’s not quite your typical winner from that show. He’s a singer-songwriter with strong stylistic nods to Dave Matthews and Damien Rice. His omnipresent hit “Home” was used just about everywhere a couple years back. On his new album, “Behind The Light,” he continues to walk a line between admirable song-craft and radio-pop potential super-stardom. Yes, the album gleams with compression like most major label pop records these days, often making Phillips sound like he’s singing down a tunnel . While he’s not necessarily the most original performer out there, this is still a reliable set of pop-rock with a nice punch. Phillips has a lot of room to grow. His influences still are painfully obvious, but given the right amount of space, he has the potential to define himself on his own unique terms.
For the most part, this is generic, anthemic radio-ready rock, but it is well-made and it bursts with a bright charge. Phillips is a likable, talented presence. He shines most on the tracks that allow him to begin to distinguish himself apart from the pack.
The deluxe edition is packed with 3 bonus tracks and they add character to the set on the whole.
“Armless Crawler” (Deluxe Edition) In spite of its “Deluxe Edition” status, this track sounds like it should’ve been a hit and a lead single. It also doesn’t sound drowned by production, either, with some effective string-section work, an intricate acoustic guitar-line and a dynamite chorus. Strangely, this is one of the more uniquely distinct tracks on the collection.
“Face” Going away from the anthemic wash, Phillips goes through this European-sounding, walking-bass stroll and it has some effective flavor, aided by a nicely recorded violin. The track has an unexpected cabaret strut.
“Searchlight” This is probably meant to be “Home” 2.0 and it has an effective stomp, even if its motives are remarkably transparent. It has the potential to fulfill its intended promise.
quicklist: 5 Title: LCD Soundsystem’s “The Long Goodbye (Live At Madison Square Garden)” ***1/2 Text: I’ll be honest. During their brief existence, I thought LCD Soundsystem were an over-hyped act, often offering up two or three great songs per record, but never really delivering on the indie-music press hype that they were doing something completely earth-shattering and new. Three years after the outfit disbanded, we have their final live show, a 3-hour, 28-song extravaganza, and maybe it is the distance of time, but looking back, James Murphy and company really did issue quite a lot of great music during their brief existence. Almost their entire discography is played here. The band must’ve been exhausted at the end of this marathon set, especially considering quite a large number of these songs clock in at nine minutes and over. This would probably be a more thrilling experience on DVD or Blu-Ray than it is in its audio form, but with LCD Soundsystem Murphy made mild-mannered dance music for the every-man and he made it in the most immense way possible.
LCD Soundsystem may be ahead of their time. Without the obnoxious push of the indie-rock tastemakers, the band is better than I remember them. (I will stand by my assertion however that “Drunk Girls” is still a dreadful song.)
It might take a decade or two for us to realize Murphy’s true impact, but here we have an epic final statement from this wildly buzzed about band.
“Tribulations” Still my favorite song from their career, this New Order-goes-disco dance-jam gets a nice workout. I always thought this track should’ve been a bigger hit than the much-hyped “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House.”
“Someone Great” On their album “The Sound Of Silver” this is a gorgeous, stretched-out groove and in its live form it still packs quite a punch. This is one of the group’s most laid-back songs, punctuated by strange buzzes and whirrs. The studio version is still superior, but this is still quite worthy.
“Dance Yrself Clean” The opener to their final proper album, “This Is Happening,” also serves as a fitting opening to the actual concert. Murphy’s voice sounds particularly ordinary here, adding weight to the lines, “Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk and living proof that sometimes friends are mean.” Really, Murphy brought a forgotten kind of deadpan humor to the table.
quicklist: 6 title: The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “Revelation” ***1/2 text: Over the last two decades and 14 albums, the Brian Jonestown Massacre have been known for a variety of things. Firstly, for naming themselves after both a deceased member of the Rolling Stones and a mass-murder suicide-cult. Secondly, for their often uneven album output. The band either issues messily strange records or crystal clear ones. Thirdly, for their famous feud and association with the Dandy Warhols. Lastly, for being the band that does the theme to “Boardwalk Empire.” Their excellent, “Nuggets”-style cut, “Straight Up And Down” has fronted that show since season one, giving them the biggest exposure of their career.
Thankfully, “Revelation” is one of the band’s clearest records with front-man Anton Newcombe flexing some fun retro-sixties muscle and mixing in some later, trippier elements. Perhaps the clarity is due to the unlikely presence of Caesars and Teddybears member Joakim Ahlund. One thing is for certain, this album is a far cry and a vast improvement when compared to the dingy electro experiments heard on the band’s 2010 album, “Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?” In fact, in comparison this record sounds downright commercial in places, perhaps in an effort to make the most out of that “Boardwalk Empire” exposure. Don’t get me wrong. There are some weird stretches, especially in the second half, but they still show some restraint, making this a relatively focused and enjoyable set. And if you are reading this and want a good way to catch up on the band’s past glories, I highly recommend the 2004 compilation, “Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective.” It won’t clue you in on the last decade, but it will provide a nice introduction if you aren’t familiar.
“Vad Hande Med Dem?” In Swedish this title means “What Happened To Them?” This entire song is in Swedish, which is quite surprising considering that it sets off the album as its peppiest, most-single-worthy track. But then again, this was the track co-written by Newcombe and Ahlund, who is Swedish. The song shows a similar level of energy to Ahlund’s Caesars work.
“What You Isn’t” A horn-led stomper, this morphs into an appealing rocker with single potential, in a low-key alternative kind of way. Lyrically, it shows Newcombe giving what is essentially a motivational speech, again with a “Nuggets”-era garage-rock undertone.
“Food For Clouds” This band has always had more of a gift for riffs than vocal melody, and this song has a doozy of a riff, aided again by a horn-section, this provides some excellent retro-sixties rock. This track arrives towards the middle of the set, and the track-list is such that the songs with the most clarity populate the first half of the record. This is almost the last hurrah before the slightly more experimental haze of side two commences.
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