Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Records In Review: Maximo Park--A Certain Trigger

More fruit from the new wave revivalist tree, courtesy of Newcastle's Maximo Park. A Certain Trigger is the debut lp from The Futureheads' down-the-road neighbours and genre cohabitants. And it is good. Hot damn good.

I almost don't want to analyze the record too closely, 'cos it's such fun to listen to and I don't want to kill the mood; but, I s'pose I owe it to posterity and the kids. This five-piece does have many traits in common with the F-Heads beyond the superficial resemblances to early XTC, but, as usual, it's the differences that are most interesting. There's more of a pop sensibility here courtesy of The Jam and the mod set in general, more sense of flow (despite myriad stylistic references), and a less elephantine sound. They've a full-time keyboard player, and that certainly makes a difference; the sounds used are mostly upper-range chamber organ and buzzy new wave synth, adding some space-age feel--well, what was considered space-age in 1978. Guitarist Duncan Lloyd utilizes lots o' sounds (see "Graffiti"), and the rhythm section is lively and self-assured.

Maximo Park are a band with exceptional musical instincts. All of the material, with very few exceptions, works, even when by rights it shouldn't. Songs come at you with a TON...sorry, TONNE of influences in consecutive sections and don't sound garish even when the contrasts are at their most extreme. I'm thinking here of the appropriately titled "Now, I'm All Over The Shop," which in the course of 60 seconds runs through mid-'70s Queen, Go 2-era XTC and The Housemartins. I think the reason it works is that the approach is consistent (a couple of exceptions, which I'll get to), even when the material isn't. I can't explain it better than to say that the songs are always moving forward with no dithering or wallowing. You'll just have to listen to hear what I mean. Also helping immensely is singer Paul Smith, who performs a skilful balancing act with his slightly wavery crooning, bringing neither too much sweetness nor gruntiness. I'm kind of glad that both Smith and Futurehead Barry Hyde don't try to play the tough guy--which might be tempting with this kind of music--because I have to shamefully admit that Geordie and other Northern accents in pop music often make me laugh; just can't stop thinking about my late grandmother and Dales farmers. The vocals also blend repetitive hook-based lines and looser melodic ones really well. The lyrics usually involve seeing or imagining exes with other dudes.

I have new favourite tracks on ACT every other day, but my current ones are: "Apply Some Pressure," which is fairly hell-for-leather with at least one foot in Futureheads territory; "The Coast Is Changing," one of the gentler numbers with an '80s-style picked bass and very nice and simple vocal melody; "I Want You To Stay"--a jerky, staccato Devo-ish keyboard rhythm gradually evolves into something completely different; and "Once, A Glimpse," which has the most overtly punky chorus, but also a very unexpected Chameleons-like ambient guitar section in the middle. "Going Missing" might move a bit too far in the modern rock direction, but it's far from banal, particularly arrangement-wise. I said that there were one or two exceptions to the band's consistency of approach: the last couple of tracks. "Acrobat" is the one example of atmosphere over energy on the record, reminiscent of The Stranglers' silky, spoken-word "La Folie." Very good, if a bit out of the flow of the album. The closer "Kiss You Better" is the weakest link and far less nervy than it needs to be.

A Certain Trigger vs. The Futureheads is pretty much a toss-up in the battle of fabulousness; it depends on whether you prefer gently bouncing up and down or doing the (theoretical) post-punk spazz dance. Either way, you win. Highly and wholeheartedly recommended.

Records In Review: The Strokes--First Impressions Of Earth

The Strokes' potted history: album number one luvverly, number two more impressive in certain respects but less enjoyable and with less staying power, and now First Impressions Of Earth, which manages to be both better and worse, more and less enjoyable than its predecessors.

I'm not trying to be cryptic or hedge bets here. This is a tough album to get a handle on, largely because it's a tale of two (almost) halves. The first 8 or 9 tracks are as good if not better than anything in the band's ouevre, and the remainder is...not, and sounds strangely detached from the album's main sequence. But more on this anon. FIOE sees Julian C. and the boys in a more relaxed mood. There's still the same disciplined aesthetic, particularly in terms of song structure, but there's been a movement toward--well, I wouldn't call it part-writing exactly, but rather a shift away from the wall-of-sound layering of the first two records. The bass is punched up, with an increased emphasis on surging lines rather than the customary eighth-note monotones, making for a formidable rhythm section in combination with Fab "The Very Loud Human Drum Machine" Moretti's metronomic pounding. Lead guitar steps into the spotlight a lot, with surprising boldness in one or two spots. And you can actually hear Casablancas' vocals! With the fuzzbox dialed back, it's clear that he's no slick crooner, but his voice is really quite characterful, with enough variation in delivery to keep things interesting. He also knows where the line between biting and snarky is drawn, and stays on the good side of it.

The best material on the album makes good use of internal momentum and instrumental counterpoint and contrast. Re the former: one of my principal beefs about The Strokes has been their tendency to fire the bolt in the first thirty seconds, leaving precious little for the chorus and break parts (I'm thinking here of Room On Fire songs like "Between Love And Hate" and "The Way It Is"). "Razorblade" is a great example of getting the balance right. It's really just an alternation between two sections, one loud and broad with a catchy harmonized guitar line, and the verse part with pulsing arpeggiated bass and an upper range guitar melody duking it out rhythmically with the vocal line, but it's exemplary in its use of noise and space--expansive without being overblown. "On The Other Side," another winner, has more of a loping, stop-start feel but uses the same techniques of contrast and space, as does the kick-ass "Juicebox," although it's busier in songwriting terms. A first for the group is "Ask Me Anything," which is nothing but vocals and mellotron-like strings and woodwinds. This one's particularly interesting in the way it contrasts a rigidly metrical new wave keyboard line with a sweeping and very uncharacteristic break part.

Sometimes the sectional contrasts work on FIOE, and sometimes they don't. "Vision Of Division" is my favourite track and one of their best, and it's part traditional Strokes melodic stuff and part hell-for-leather, scream-yourself-coarse quasi-metal, with an astonishing pentatonic-style guitar solo/precision drum freak-out thrown in for good measure. Not much left in the tank after that one! "Ize Of The World," on the other hand, starts out like a '70s cowbell rocker, goes all mellow, then wraps it up with a tribute to Interpol. Appalling. The broody "Fear Of Sleep" isn't terrible by any means, but the movement from A to B to C feels similarly effortful.

Which brings me to those last five songs. A nasty person might call them shite, but a glass half-full guy like me prefers to say that they require a different kind of treatment than this album was capable of giving them. It's almost like they came from a different recording session. I don't mind "Evening Sun," as it's evocative in an unusual way for the group, but "15 Minutes" is extremely ponderous and overwrought--I counted three songs in a row where Julian builds to a climax by screaming like a Rothman's-addicted banshee--and "Red Light," with its hippie-freak harmonized guitar, is just plain bizarre.

First Impressions Of Earth will probably be let loose from its jewel case more often than Room On Fire, but not for end-to-end play. The lesson here is that the perfect Strokes album length is 37 minutes. Half-to-two-thirds highly recommended; the rest...

Records In Review: The Arcade Fire--Funeral

All right, a day late and a dollar short, but hype brings out my contrarian side. And don't worry, I'll keep this short.

(read my review of The AF's first ep here!)

I've tried very hard with this record but I just can't get close to it, and I doubt if I'll ever have reason to listen to it again. I have a certain admiration for its construction, but I'm not sure what the big whoop is. I'd broadly describe Funeral as the offspring of New Order and Modest Mouse, with a little gene replacement therapy courtesy of The Flaming Lips and Neil Young (is that a tautology?). It's broad stroke music with a lot of detail--the former is dominant--mixed in a pot to create a veritable wall of sound, making it a great album to play at volume, that's for sure. It's much more direct and less whimsical than the first ep, and there's more emphasis on the guitar and less empty space in the mix. Singer Win Butler still sounds like a caffeinated whiny-pants, which doesn't do my ears or blood pressure any good. Prejudices about the voice are the hardest to overcome and I'm too old to change now.

I think it's the imbalance in favour of the broad strokes that's a turn-off for me. A number of the songs, like "Wake Up" and "Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)" involve weighty burdens of drama being carried by fairly basic song and chord structures, even if the sonic layering is nice. One interesting aspect of the album is the relationship between the three-piece new wave ching-ching-ching-ching and the wrap-around instrumentation of (variously) mallet percussion, piano, weepy strings and booming guitars and basses; I'm thinking here of "Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)" and "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)," the beat and guitar of which reminds me of a particular crappy New Order song...but these are both good. Also good 'n' pretty is "Une Annee Sans Lumiere," which benefits from being less melodramatic than some of its colleagues. "Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)," a quasi-hymnal reminiscent of "Old Flame" from the previous record, is one of the best and builds at its own pace. I get bored during the second half of the disc. Only the smash-hit "Rebellion (Lies)" piques my interest with its energy and earnestness. "Haiti" reprises the rhythms from "Power Out" in a gentler and less interesting form. "Crown Of Love" sucks donkey balls.

To each his own, I guess, but there isn't a song here that I prefer to "No Cars Go" from the band's rookie disc. I respect Funeral in many ways but I don't particularly like it. Oh well: I'm sure I'll get with the zeitgeist one day.