Has it really been a month since my last “Pirate Guide”—the newly introduced “Sonic Boom” feature wherein I write short reviews of a host of new records? Why, it seems it has! My, how time flies. And what a month it has been! I mean, you wouldn’t believe the crazy stuff that has gone on in my life. Why just last week…well, let’s save it—because we’ve got records to talk about!
Really, there’s not much disparity between American Idol’s weakest alumni and its strongest: The show is an assembly line, producing second-rate knockoffs of existing mainstream pap. When one of its singers transcends that negligible designation (e.g., Kelly Clarkson, with “Since U Been Gone”), it’s indicative of little more than the law of averages—even a blind squirrel, etc.—and then, the law of gravity—what has Clarkson done since “Since U Been Gone” that renders her better than Pink, Katy Perry…heck, even Allison Iraheta? Adam Lambert is not the show’s first genre buster—remember Blake Lewis?—but he’s the show’s first genre buster with enough singing talent to carry an album and maybe score a few hits. For Your Entertainment, however, does little with Lambert’s freakish abilities: It does, to its credit, pair Lambert with a host of hot songwriters, most of whom bury his voice, personality and general appeal in compression, Autotune and filler-quality material. There are enough home runs to justify the album’s existence, and even its purchase, but four songs out of 14 (and I’m being kinda generous here) is hardly a better ratio than that produced by the Underwoods of the world. [6/10]
One of the best things about this past summer was unearthing all these Real Estate oddities—their excellent 7”s, their essential Atlantic City Expressway CD-R—and catching the New Jersey band live, as they seemed to be playing somewhere in New York City every weekend. The band’s hazy, suburban lo-fi pop was almost synonymous with boardwalks, shorefronts, salty air and aimless, ponderous days. Their full-length debut kind of falls short on two counts: (1) There’s not much new here for those who spent their summer collecting the band’s many random and wonderful MP3s; and (2) while they still sound great, these songs are so perfectly suited to the warmer months that listening to them in late fall feels somehow counterintuitive. Are these criticisms of concern to the uninitiated listener? Nope. The music is fantastic, and with global warming, we’ll be back at the beach in no time, right? [7/10]
What is metal? What isn’t? This is a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately, and it’s all because of Night Is the New Day—a gorgeous, textured, atmospheric record made by a band with a metal legacy and a metal name, released on a metal label. The album opens with a couple crushing bars, and then…drifts into spacey shoegaze for the next 48-plus minutes. Oh, I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I’m not exaggerating by much. Here’s the thing: Night Is the New Day is a nuanced work of great vulnerability and impeccable craftsmanship; it’s catchy and expansive and grand. However, it sounds a lot more like Doves than it does, say, Darkthrone. Which is fine—excellent, even—but how will the non-metal world discover this haunting and subtle record made by a metal band? That’s a marketing question, irrelevant to criticisms of the work, so let’s be clear: This thing is as beautiful, mesmerizing and chilling as a lightning storm, easily one of the best metal albums of the year. Unless it isn’t metal. In which case, it’s just one of the best albums of the year. [8/10]
I dislike empty clichés such as “a band at the peak of its powers,” but I love to hear a band at the peak of its powers: that combination of hunger, confidence, vision, ability and opportunity that manifests itself as constant artistic breakthrough. If any band today is firing on more cylinders than Animal Collective, I’d like to see ’em. AC opened ’09 with one of the best albums of the decade—the magnificent Merriweather Post Pavilion—but even without that behemoth lighting its way, the Fall Be Kind EP would sound like a huge triumph. Still mining the rich vein of swirling rhythms, blissed-out melodies and elaborate constructions of MPP, AC seem to be on a higher plane than their peers. Who else today is creating such generous, inviting, compelling, adventurous work? You wanna tell me Radiohead? I’m not sure I agree, but let’s say that I do: That’s not bad company to be in, is it? [8/10]
Let’s forget all the ancillary elements that make Lady Gaga great—the videos, the live performances, the television appearances, all of which are now approaching the surrealist insanity of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films—and focus on the thing for which she’s ostensibly famous: the music. The Fame Monster is just an extended version of Gaga’s wonderful 2008 record, The Fame, but its additions are substantial—the best songs here (“Bad Romance,” “Dance in the Dark”) rival the best songs on The Fame (“Just Dance,” “Paparazzi”) and even the lesser songs merit a few spins. Stylistically, Gaga is still dealing in fizzy Euro-house, which is part of her appeal: The combination of avant-garde visuals with radio pop has made for a juxtaposition both thrilling and jarring. It would be truly shocking if she stuck to that formula on The Fame’s official follow-up—she’ll surely get considerably weirder on the musical end, too—so even if she’s double-dipping here, she’s forgiven, because she may not be so compelling next time around. And she’ll surely be…different. [6/10]