Anyone who, in their undergrad years, latched onto Beck as an eccentric pop genius has probably been frustrated growing old with the guy. It can be argued that it’s been half a decade since he’s created an inspired album, and it’s been before the turn of the century since Mutations—his post-Odelay holy grail. Diggin’ him now is like having hipster AIDS, as Dianetics has dulled his senses, fatherhood his lyrical irony, and contrived personas his sense of adventure. He’s the Hollywood boho in Dolce and Gabana.
Mr. Hansen needed Modern Guilt, as much as he needed Dangermouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton) to produce it. Together the duo, at least for the top-loaded first half, crafts a whimsical dystopian synergy gauzed in a chilly chromatic paisley. Burton, though a bit predictable here and there, is responsible for the cut-and-paste psychedelia that backdrops the marble-mouthed, loner folk to which fans have become accustomed. Though “Orphans” could fit anywhere in the Beck oeuvre, it’s bathed in echoed howls, woozy melltron and an ethereal atmosphere that surrounds him with a glowing aura that’s been missing lately. “Chemtrails” is a similar dose of soul-searching, veering out into an expanse of shoegaze and ‘60s chamber pop, finished with an expunging kraut riff-off. Even on the go-go spy themed “Gamma Ray” the hokey scene-setting does little to stifle the imaginative pairing.
There are moments on Modern Guilt, however, that make the collaboration sound a bit pre-fab. “Walls,” the only song credited to Burton, has the quality of B-side Gnarls Barkley, and “Soul of Man” might be leftover on the Black Keys’ thumbdrive. The promise with repeated listens, though, is that these redundancies are at the very least ear candy, diversions to Beck’s recent aural epiphany. That resurrection can be heard in the urgent fever dream of “Profanity Prayers” or the closing ballad “Volcano,” which is the most lucid Beck’s been since Sea Change.
By reinforcing the record with wind-up beats and majestic strings, steely landscapes and colorful waves of organ, Burton has awoken a spirit that has been dormant for years. This is as much his baby, as Odelay was the Dust Brothers’. It is doubtful Beck would dispute such claim. Perhaps not the closest the artist will get towards salvation, but certainly an admonishing first step in checking his head.
Kevin J. Elliott
The cover of the sophomore effort from Albert Hammond, Jr.—rhythm and sometimes lead guitarist for the Strokes—shows an apartment with a white cut-out silhouette of the band, as if to say insert (any) hip act here. And while the album has some good, solid rock tracks, summery pop hooks and well-laid instrumentation, sometimes it feels like the album cover: it’s missing something—a je ne sais quoi, to use another language’s phrase. (Side note: the album’s title should be “¿Como Te Llamas?” but that’s just grammar nerdery from a Spanish minor, I suppose.)
The follow-up to Hammond’s 2006 Yours to Keep—made with bandmates Matt Romano, Marc Eskenazi and Josh Latanzi—starts with the poppy “Bargain of a Century,” featuring Hammond’s great echoed vocals and signature guitar sound. Comparisons to the Strokes are inevitable and the most similar songs are this one and “In My Room,” both marked by Hammond’s stacatto guitar lines. But the music here seems more laidback, and has more of a classic rock feel than that of his other band. Hammond has said ¿Como Te Lllama? was influenced by the Clash, Neil Young and the Kinks; the latter is evident in “The Boss Americana” and the upbeat “G Up.” Some Elvis Costello can be heard at the beginning of “Borrowed Time,” a roughened reggae sound kicking in.
“Victory at Monterey” is a highlight, with its juxtoposition of simple, bare-bones instrumentation, a funky bass intro joined by synthesizers and guitars. The track swells by the chorus before re-simplifying again. Sean Lennon plays on the instrumental “Spooky Couch,” a title that brings to mind scary, third-hand college couches with mysterious stains of unknown origins. But this sofa song is more haunting, intricate melodies spun from Lennon’s keyboard, a string section and Hammond’s six-string. But these better moments do little to stand out aside from the context of the album, making for something unmemorable—its name or otherwise.
During their 24-year existence, the Melvins have been pushing the boundaries of “heavy” music with the force of a bulldozer. This has included forays into electronic experimentation, noise-rock and playing at the pace of a senior citizen on the freeway. Such tinkering has produced a variety of results, some definitely more successful than others, but the Melvins have always remained (and most likely will continue to remain) iconoclastically idiosyncratic.
In recent years, the Melvins have come to merge the many strains of their sound, while at the same time slowing down the frequency with which they put out albums. This was most evident on (A) Senile Animal, 2006’s career highpoint that saw Big Business’ Jared Warren and Coady Willis joining the longtime core of Buzz Osborne (a.k.a. King Buzzo) and Dale Crover. The band’s newly released Nude With Boots takes a similarly encapsulating approach. “Dog Island” is a metallic treat of monolithic riffs and lyrics sung from the darkest corners of some black hole, while “Dies Iraea” reveals a dimly lit din of clanking sounds, completely instrumental. Most successful are “The Smiling Cobra” which matches meaty hooks to pigfuck squeals and powerful vocals, and the title track, which would sound stolen from J. Mascis were it not missing his signature whine. “It Tastes Better Than the Truth” shows a renewed interest in noise, the Melvins’ taking a primal approach like that of Sword Heaven and showing the full power of their dual-drum assault.
Not a letdown by any means, Nude doesn’t gel as perfectly as Senile Animal did and the record meanders and/or drags at times (“Billy Fish”). Nonetheless, the album is still further proof that the Melvins are far from done shaking the earth.
If something is worth doing, you may as well do it twice. But the next time around make it bigger. It’s a page from the George Lucas playbook that has been adopted by seminal L.A. punk band Bad Religion. A year after the original release of New Maps of Hell, the band has re-issued the record with a plethora of extras.
New Maps Of Hell in its original incarnation is a strong addition to the Bad Religion catalog. And they wisely don’t try any funny business with the reissue. No re-sequencing of the tracks or weird remixes featuring Travis Barker’s punk hip-hop drums. What makes the record work so well is that it sticks to Bad Religion’s classic formula of breakneck guitar work with gang background vocals, a.k.a. “oozin’ aahs,” the sometimes over-stuffed lyrical punch of lead singer Greg Graffin and guitarist Bret Gurewitz and hard-charging drums. There are some songs—“52 Seconds,” “Heroes & Martyrs” and “Germs Of Perfection”—that seem slightly off from the rest of the record, but they only occupy four minutes of playing time and are sequenced at the beginning of the record.
New Maps Of Hell truly kicks off with the fourth track “New Dark Ages.” It’s a textbook example of how a Bad Religion song sounds. However instead of seeming like a retread, it shows that the band knows its strengths and can play to them. There are some stylistic shifts, such as “Submission Complete” and its Led Zeppelin-ish, “No Quarter” guitar lines and “Honest Goodbye,” which sounds like an outtake from Stranger Than Fiction with its slightly slower tempo and almost poppy vocal delivery. Well, if pop can include lyrics like “Now get up and give in. I’ll crack your knuckles again. Supplicate and survive this transubstantiation.”
As far as the bonus material, it’s actually strong enough to stand on its own. The second disc, a DVD that features a full 25-song live concert, two music videos, a short film about the making of the Acoustic EP and a commercial for New Maps of Hell, should satisfy the fans that may have been wary about this re-issue. But it’s the extra tracks that shine the brightest. Instead of just digging up some tossed off unreleased songs, the Acoustic EP portion of the record features Graffin and Gurewitz with two guitars performing three new songs, three older songs and one song from New Maps Of Hell. In the context of Bad Religion, acoustic isn’t on the map, but the stripped down versions show that the songs can stand without screaming guitars. “Sorrow” gets a country makeover that works amazingly well and “Skyscraper,” from Recipe For Hate, is cast as a piano driven ballad that tethers between overwrought and touching.
Ratatat will always fall into the inevitable instrumental pigeonhole. Unless they quickly get to scoring future-fantastic oddball films a la Popul Vuh or bumping out that next mixtape with some unknowing rap luminaries, their once unique vision has all but expired. Without context other than their own laurels, the duo of Mike Stroud and Evan Mast make incidental music. Dependent on the mood, LP3 can be a trippy, neon-plated soundscape with tiny surprises speckled throughout or Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack made redux, the twin guitar on stun and as tiresome as ever.
LP3 does branch out in spells: the acoustic led “Mi Viejo” is an obvious nod to Morricone were he privy to skittered beats and “Bruleé” allows their water-logged synths to dry out. Don’t fault them for not trying; “Black Heroes” and “Flynn” find comfortable refuge away from the flashing lights and precision circuit bending, somewhere in tropical climes unhurried and organic. More often than not, though, the album treads a worn path with songs that form void of structure or hooks. The grand electronic layers of “Shempi” and “Falcon Jab” are great for mixtape stop-gaps, if not bubbling over into mindless digital funk. The plasticity of Ratatat’s method continually shadows any human element that might be present in the making of LP3. That’s fine if they were dressing up like robots inhabiting disco pyramids, but they’re just two adroit technophiles getting exhaustingly scientific in the lab. From here the future looks like a total bore.
Kevin J. Elliott