Years of Refusal
Attack/Lost Highway

Morrissey has always been a paradox incarnate. Throughout his career, he has celebrated the meek and misunderstood with one hand while making some grandiose gesture with the other. When with the Smiths, most overlooked the humor between the lines of his persona miserable, instead placing him on a pedestal, piled from Oscar Wilde novels, reels of ‘50s British film stars, and oh so many plucked gladiolas, from which to fall during his solo career. But those who were actually going through doleful adolescences during the Smiths’ heyday may remember that even then he was known to blunder (“Meat Is Murder,” “Vicar in a Tutu”).

Now that Morrissey’s time spent away from the Smiths has far outstretched those five gilded years, it’s easy to see him as more (and less, to a degree) than just some fey spokesmodel. If that wasn’t obvious at this point, peek the rugged babe-in-arms cover shot of his latest, Years of Refusal. As for the dozen songs contained therein—using only 2006’s excellent Ringleader of the Tormentors as a measuring stick—they are lacking, even as the Moz indulges in pomp and circumstance. Lines like “There is no love in modern life” (“Something Is Squeezing My Skull”) stand with Morrissey’s best, but beset with complete sonant crescendo, it’s delivery seems hyberbolic. The mere fact that Jeff Beck plays on a track should be indication enough that there’s something amiss here musically. As such, “When Last I Spoke to Carol” is the record’s anamoly for more than just its horns-punctuated cantina vibe. It encapsulates Morrissey’s anachronistic charms and black humor while sounding as epic as a three-minute pop song can. “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” also stands out, if only because Morrissey actually sounds like he means all the spiteful things he says. But Years’ lack of dynamic more often than not puts Morrissey in a corner, forced to give up subtlety and wit for grander gesture, one step closer to parody and one further away from the duplicity of his character.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Black Lips
200 Million Thousand

It’s fairly difficult to assess the Black Lips without some mention of their extra-curricular antics, so I’ll just list piss, vinegar, swastikas and blood, then be done with it. That they shed those illicit endeavors and leaned towards a more polished, matured pop-bent on 2007’s Good, Bad, Not Evil was a little disheartening. There was a feeling that behind the poses, the mustaches, and the bermuda shorts that even the band was beginning to realize they had become parody, “flower-punk” a brand. Their bite was mostly just bark. It wasn’t a horrible effort; in fact it displayed an evolution in songwriting no one had expected. But compared to the grit and grime of Let it Bloom, our heroes had gone soft-core. So depending on which Black Lips you’d rather appear at the hop will determine the degree to which you will enjoy their fourth album, 200 Million Thousand.

Not sure if they found religion, but there’s an explicit theatrical element to the warped and blatantly bleeped “I Saw God” or the earthy damage of “BBBJOT” that is textured with a shamanistic gospel that oozes shame and redemption. Perhaps it was those dark cathartic exercises that gave way to enlightenment, as the Byrdsian jangle of “Starting Over” and the Buddy Holly prom–balladry of “I’ll Be With You,” no matter how camp the results, sound like the Lips hitting a prismatic stride. 200 Million Thousand pukes out pop hits that could win a legion of new fans were it not for Cole Alexander’s penchant for moaning out scratch vocals. Then again, that’s the charm—that and the drugs. It’s when the band’s pushing too hard and weaving a rainbow of narcotics into the fabric that the record haunts and halleluiahs, particularly on their first stab at hip-hop in “The Drop I Hold.” Very surprising then that the highlight comes with a looped sample from the Dirty South drenched in urchin-blues. Then again the first single, “Short Fuse,” is as advertised, bringing the ‘60s garage ethics full circle in glorious Technicolor. With this record any past foibles are forgiven. It’s just that their claim needs a bit of adjustment: good, bad, and not definitely evil.
Kevin J. Elliott

The Drones

The fourth studio album from Australia’s the Drones maybe isn’t a “traditional” album. Recorded using a diesel-powered mobile studio in the Victorian wilderness home of singer Gareth Liddiard, Havilah’s sound matches the land where it was recorded: vast, sprawling, and dynamic. Throughout the bulk of the record the four-piece band alternates between loud, aggressive rants and hushed, acoustic ventures, all based around Liddiard’s thickly dense lyrics.

At times the album’s dynamic can get a little disorienting, with its numerous peaks and valleys. Havilah tends to wander at points, and the album’s quieter moments seem particularly drawn out. Songs like “The Drifting Housewife,” “Careful As You Go,” and “Penumbra” each follow a similar track: plaintive acoustic musings that perhaps venture a bit too far afield than some might be willing to go. “I Am The Supercargo” and “Cold and Sober” strike out a more controlled middle ground, but the Drones are at their best when they go all-out. “Nail It Down” and “The Minotaur” start the record with an explosion, the former continually gathering steam and sounding at times like a gruffier take on Neil Young’s louder moments, while the latter hits a sinister groove that holds nothing back.

Havilah’s closing song, “Your Acting’s Like The End Of The World,” comes the closest to a pure pop song on the record, breaking out the acoustic guitars once again, but moving along nicely. The Drones have never been afraid to go in new directions, and if this finale is any indication, their fifth record will likely go places as diverse as this one.
Ron Wadlinger

The Prodigy
Invaders Must Die
Take Me To The Hospital/Cooking Vinyl

In ‘97, the Prodigy were tipped to be the “Next Big Thing” for electronic music. With Fat of The Land, they lived up to that promise by selling a boatload of records and selling out shows all around the world. Then things went quiet and there was a seven-year gap before Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned appeared. But things had changed and people barely remembered when they ran around saying “I’m a fiyastarta!”

So 12 years after their commercial breakthrough, the Prodigy is back with Invaders Must Die. And forgetting the deeply stupid and ill-advised “Baby’s Got A Temper” single, it’s the first recording to feature the vocals of Prodigy members Keith Flint and Maxim in just as long. That might be enough to label it a return to form, but Prodigy leader Liam Howlett decided to go one better: he’s made the world’s first retro-rave record.

Going back to the cheap squealing synth sounds of ’92 was a weird choice for Invaders Must Die, but what makes it even odder is that Music for the Jilted Generation, the follow-up to the Prodigy’s ’92 debut, Experience, abandoned that style three years later. So the result of the Prodigy’s nostalgia trip is an album sound that pre-dates most of their own catalog. The oddest part about the record, though, is that Howlett reaches back to his past for inspiration and as a result rips himself off. “Thunder” is an update of Experience’s “Out Of Space.” There are elements of “Everybody In The Place” sprinkled in “Omen,” and it goes on and on. It’s the modern equivalent of when James Brown ran out of inspiration and started to make disco versions of his classics. If you liked the originals, you’re probably going to like something about the updates, but it just feels wrong.

Yet despite the clumsy tribute to past glories, Invaders Must Die isn’t a total disaster. At the end of the day, Howlett can still produce songs that sound like a fistfight in a phone booth. But for a group that managed to move forward with every album, this step back is slightly disappointing.
Dorian S. Ham

Vignetting the Compost

Marcus Eoin, of Boards of Canada, describes Bibio as “the antidote to the modern laptopia of pristine electronic music.” And indeed, it’s hard to miss Stephen Wilkinson’s chase for authenticity on this and his other recordings. Rutty arpeggios scrape over found sounds and field recordings, rarely troubling the mind, always evoking a warm, long lost, autumnal day.

On “Under the Pier,” the noise takes center stage, sounding like a dusty record spinning on the ancient, dirty turntable in your uncle’s basement. Sometimes the sound gets more ethereal, as on “The Clothesline and the Silver Birch,” and sometimes (“Mr. & Mrs. Compost”) it take a backseat to what sounds like a vocal track unearthed by diligent, archaeological vinyl scholars from a time capsule buried in the backyard. “Weekend Wildfire” varies the pattern a bit, containing mostly guitar parts, a little organ, and very little ambient noise at all. The track feels comparatively naturalistic, and would make a fitting soundtrack to an afternoon spent re-reading your favorite passages in Thoreau’s Walden.

As an album, though, Vignetting the Compost is fairly repetitive, especially if you compare this with Bibio’s other releases, which were built on nearly the same foundation and sometimes composed of the same splinters of sound. But nonetheless, these are beautiful, expressive pools of sound, redolent of nothing so much as the contentment of childhood.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Mr. & Mrs. Compost”