In the past few weeks, akin to a rock star on a cocaine diet, I have consumed a lot of music. So much so that I have started to forget the sound of silence. A lot of the work I do at my job allows me to multi-task a bit, so on average I get to listen to about 4 to 6 hours a day (during office hours) of music in a quiet office environment, with little to no background noise. The corporate world ain’t so bad!
As always, I’m looking for tracks from the past and not-so-distant past that somehow slipped under my radar, but generally I’m keeping my ears perked up for new releases from artists I’ve been following for a while.
Since I couldn’t decide which one release to focus on, I’ll offer up some snack platters of three of them:
1. The Strokes – Angles
Five years after their last message to the world (2006’s First Impressions Of Earth), a lot has happened in Strokes country. All but one of them worked on solo projects, and attempts to reunite in the studio in 2009 were fractured and shambolic. Despite these diversions, they have returned to us in March 2011 with their fourth output, Angles.
For the first time, The Strokes have recorded an album democratically, allowing all five of them to contribute to the band’s most schizophrenic, experimental and ambitious album, after lead singer Julian Casablancas steered the ship entirely through their breakout successes. Now, like it or not, the band has definitely morphed their sound, grown up but yet still kept much of their identity: beautifully intertwined guitarwork and a moody, iconic frontman, veering between nonchalant, rebellious and enraged without a moment’s notice.
Due to input from all ‘angles’ (where the album gets its name from), it’s often a lucky packet at times, but many of the bolder statements tend to grow on you. Standout tracks have to be the first single ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ (which retains much of the swagger of the Is This It era, but adds backing vocals and a higher singing range for Julian), ‘Two Kinds Of Happiness’ & ‘Taken For A Fool’ (the melodic grandeur of playful, catchy 80’s-style choruses, interesting rhythms and intricate dual-guitarwork) and the skittish defiant confusion and rage that is ‘You’re So Right’
Others, like the shimmering 80’s electropop chill of ‘Games’ (which sounds like an outtake of Julian’s solo album) and the intriguing percussion-less tango of ‘Call Me Back’ definitely need a few listens to get into. But the feel-good vibes of ‘Gratisfaction’ show the band not as the cool, us-against-the-world garage-rock gang of the past, but as a soulful group not scared to be open, have some fun and not take themselves too seriously.
Therefore, as it is with any fledgling democracy, it takes time for things to settle down and move on. And this sums up Angles exactly – give it a chance.
2. Beady Eye – Different Gear, Still Speeding
Recognise the name? I didn’t at first.
In 2009, after years of infighting between rock ‘n roll’s notorious ‘Cain and Abel’ (Noel and Liam Gallagher…respectively, perhaps?), Oasis split up. Or to put it correctly, the principal song-writer and guitarist, Noel, could not take any more fighting with his brother and quit the band. Thank goodness it was after they performed at MyCokeFest in South Africa in April of that year: one of the best concerts I’ve ever had the fortune of attending…
Beady Eye is the result of the same band, with minor line-up changes, continuing in a new direction. As with The Strokes’ Angles, I’m sure you could deduce something of that when looking at the title of the album (the little-girl-riding-an-alligator cover is quite surreal). And wait till you get to the music…
At first listen, Beady Eye shares much the same characteristics of its predecessor: obsession with 60’s rock, especially The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (which co-incidentally the thinly-veiled ‘Beatles And Stones’ is about) and a stadium-sized frenzy of guitars and ‘lads on a night on the town’ attitude. But surprisingly, Liam Gallagher can pen songs and not just sing them with his Lennon-esque swagger.
The album delights with the rollicking album-opener ‘Four Letter Word’, charming ‘The Roller’ & ‘For Anyone’, slide-guitar-infused ‘Millionaire’ and its highlight ‘Bring The Light’ – all 3 minutes 39 seconds of its 50’s style rock ‘n roll piano, a la Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard. Liam’s vocals haven’t sounded this great in years, and he shows a great range in his highly-recognizable voice. The album has a few overblown missteps, like the meandering ‘Wigwam’, but is a solid and undeniably passionate record of something new from something old…or new; it depends on how you look at it. Cast a beady eye over this one if you can.
3. Panic! At The Disco – Vices And Virtues
Take what happened to Oasis (albeit with considerably less physical brawling), subtract another band member from that equation, and place said equation right after the band’s second album, which was drastically different in tone in style to its first.
Most bands in that situation, even after the sudden success that Panic! At The Disco (now with exclamation point back in its rightful place) achieved, would either add new members or disband completely. P!ATD chose neither, and now drummer Spencer Smith and singer (as well as newly-multi-instrumentalist) Brendon Urie form a duo that boldly carries on the band’s confused and fragile legacy in the face of adversity.
What that legacy is is difficult to put your finger on. Their debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was a double-platinum slice of alternative-pop-rock awesomeness with an obscure, dark Vaudevillian twist. Then Pretty. Odd. came around, morphing their sound into something light-hearted, musically-complex and interesting, drawing inspiration from the baroque pop of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Many of their earlier fans left in droves, appalled at the fact that a band could mature so drastically. But for all the maturity gained from their misunderstood second album, it didn’t help establish a sure identity.
My hopes were not too high for Vices & Virtues, especially after I heard that the band became a duo. But they do not disappoint, and succeed in what they set out to achieve: to take the angst and mainstream production of their debut and meld it with the ambition, whimsy and experimentation of their sophomore record. The formula works really well, especially when you hear how damn catchy some of these tracks are.
It really helps that lead singer Brendon has a captivating voice, that at first was derided for its supposed similarities to Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump’s. Many of the songs are carried by his croon, and no more so than on ‘Always’, an acoustic ballad that provides a brief respite from the high-spirited energy of first single ‘The Ballad Of Mona Lisa’ or ‘Memories’. There’s an undeniable sweetness in the sound of his voice juxtaposed with the forlorn attitude of the lyrics in ‘Sarah Smiles’: another pop delight.
Pianos twinkle, strings & synths rise and fall dramatically, and marimbas, xylophones, accordion and even a children’s choir all add to the swing of the show. These arrangements make the ‘pop’ in ‘pop-rock’ cool again, and Vices & Virtues your latest guilty pleasure. Enjoy in many servings.