Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's Hot On The SWSL Stereo May 2006

(aka The Scrawny Little Brother Of The Parallax View Album Review Compendium)

The Strokes - First Impressions Of Earth

First impressions of The Strokes' third LP were good, and it just gets better with every listen (though it's a touch too long to be really effective).

Naturally it was the singles 'Juicebox' (Noo Yawk cool goes metal!) and 'Heart In A Cage' that initially grabbed the attention, and then the track on which they're most obviously pushing in a new direction, 'Ask Me Anything'. For a while, '15 Minutes' promises something different too, until it all speeds up unexpectedly and rather unnecessarily. On each spin a different track catches the ear - 'Fear Of Sleep' with its tremendous chorus, closer 'Red Light', 'Electricityscape' (on which Fab Moretti's drumming is as great as anywhere else on the album). It's as though in the three years since Room On Fire all the media attention and pressure has shifted elsewhere, allowing them to do what they come back reinvigorated.

Not that you'd draw that conclusion from Julian Casablancas's contribution to the album, mind. He spends the early part of the aforementioned '15 Minutes' doing a passable impersonation of Shane McGowan after his third pint of whiskey of the day and singing beyond-paranoid lines like: "They've got it in for me, I know".

Elsewhere it's much the same story: "The world is in your hand / Or it's at your throat". That's from 'Razorblade', which contains perhaps their most gorgeous chorus yet, over which Casablancas declares: "Oh no, my feelings are more important than yours / Oh, drop dead, I don't care, I won't worry". Later he changes his mind - "Sweetheart, your feelings are more important of course" - but the line's not so much dripping with sarcasm as sodden with it.

Not that Casablancas's world-weariness manifests itself only in the form of a loathing for others - there's a fascinatingly honest self-disgust in 'On The Other Side': "I hate them all / I hate them all / I hate myself for hating them / So drink some more / I'll love them all /I'll drink even more / I'll hate them even more than I did before".

So there you have it: not as good as Is This It, but certainly the first Strokes album on which the lyrics have grabbed me as much as the music - all of which makes a mockery of Casablancas's claim on 'Ask Me Anything', "I've got nothing to say".

(The words to 'Ize Of The World' are a bit cringeworthy, though, and the less said about the line "Don't be a coconut" the better...)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

One of those surprises that, in hindsight, we should have seen coming.

Back in 2003 Yeah Yeah Yeahs were an art-rock band you could actually MOVE to, and their debut Fever To Tell was an absolute fucking blast of an album, lead single 'Date For The Night' only one of several songs which made you want to glug wine like it was going out of fashion and thrash around on a dancefloor with no concept of age or shame.

But even in the midst of it all there was 'Maps', the album's stand-out track - and not simply because it struck such a different chord. It was evidently 'Maps' rather than 'Pin' or 'Man' that provided the blueprint for Show Your Bones - it's more sensitive, restrained, ambitious, multi-textured and (yes) mature. All of which means it's less fun. The ceaseless partying obviously took its toll, and at first this sounds like the hangover - not the worst in the world, but a hangover nonetheless.

But that's unfair. The new tracks, though likely to induce you to start fires, are undoubtedly stronger songs than their predecessors, and much more emotionally involving - 'Dudley' is particularly special. What's more, once the initial surprise has worn off, it turns out that there are plenty of moments when Nick Zinner's guitar and Karen O's paint-peeling yelp come together to familiar and superb effect after all - 'Fancy', the jerky genius of 'Phenomena', the climax of 'Mysteries'. One of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' responses to suffering a hangover, it seems, is hair of the dog.

All the same it's revealing that 'Deja Vu', arguably the closest they come to the material on Fever To Tell, is tacked on as a bonus track, the album proper coming to a conclusion with the predominantly acoustic 'Turn Into'. They're evidently intent on moving on rather than standing still - which is laudable in itself, but has led to a sophomore record that, whichever way you look at it, is just less darned exciting.

The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers

(Look, I know this was a 2005 release, but I've just dug it out and decided to include it here as it slipped through the review net last year.)

Excitement is in even shorter supply here, and therein lies The Magic Numbers' greatest problem.

Instinctively you'd imagine that a band's faster more upbeat songs would fare best in the live environment, whereas with Romeo and co it's swooning slowies like 'Hymn To Her' and 'Wheels On Fire' that routinely hold the audience enraptured.

And yet on record, where those same slowies could potentially come into their own even more, they fall a bit flat. Their existence beyond the confines of a darkened tent and when not witnessed as part of a hushed but beaming mass seems somehow wrong. Listening to them is like having a magician show you how to perform a trick that had previously confounded and amazed you.

What don't disappoint, though, are the two transcendent singles 'Forever Lost' and 'Love Me Like You', a pair of power-pop rays of sunshine. It's just a shame that the album overall is light on such moments, instead burdened down by plodding and too-wet-for-their-own-good ballads.

Secret Machines - Ten Silver Drops

Now THIS is a hard one to call.

Loved by David Bowie and former touring partners of Interpol, Secret Machines draw upon both prog and Krautrock - intriguing, you might think, and you'd be right but it's certainly not all good.

'Daddy's In The Doldrums', weighing in at nearly nine minutes, has a bassline that might have come straight from the new Tool album, but even that indicates the extent to which the Texan threesome worship Pink Floyd. Fine to a point, but then I'm wary of anything that old prog-rockers are likely to hold up as heralding the return of "proper" music. You know, the sort of humourless bores who not only failed to see any merit in Scissor Sisters' cover of 'Comfortably Numb' but silently pronounced a fatwa on them too.

Ten Silver Drops is in many ways rather like the Ridley Scott film 'Kingdom Of Heaven', which I saw at the weekend - epic, but forcedly and studiously so, to the extent that more often than not it's ponderous and occasionally tedious with it (thankfully, though, Orlando fucking Bloom doesn't make an appearance). The worst culprit is 'I Want To Know', which comes across by and large as a mid 80s power ballad. It opens with the sound of thunder and rain a la 'November Rain', for fuck's sake - the mark of all that is blustery and pompous.

And yet the following track, album closer '1000 Seconds', gets it as right as 'I Want To Know' is wrong, doing a decent job of approximating The Flaming Lips as it builds to a heady climax. Plus a part of me is actually glad to find a much-hyped band that are so completely at odds with the prevailing trends - scuzzy Arctic Monkeys style indie, disco-punk, the "new emo", "grindie", whatever.

At least for the moment, I keep going back to Ten Silver Drops without quite understanding why, rather like I did with ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's World's Apart. And I'm not really any nearer to knowing what I think of that, over a year on...

* * * * *

Other recent albums I've had difficulty prising off my stereo include Mogwai's Mr Beast, Cat Power's The Greatest and My Latest Novel's Wolves - click on the links for reviews. There have also been a couple of oldies in residence: The Wedding Present's Bizarro (is there a better and more furiously bashed-out song in their canon than 'Crushed'? I doubt it) and REM's Reckoning (ah, so THAT's what Idlewild have been styling themselves on, and quite successfully too).

On top of that there are albums from You & The Atom Bomb and Lovemat for which reviews will hopefully appear over there soon (ie when they're written...), as well as a double A-side single from The Invisible Clock Factory.

Amongst many other albums stacked up by the stereo that I've yet to give a proper hearing are The Flaming Lips' At War With The Mystics, The White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan (yes, yes, I know - Jack White's already onto his side project...) and two old PJ Harvey LPs. With new records from Howling Bells and Giant Drag winging their way to me as I type and Sonic Youth and The Futureheads both about to bless us with new releases, it shouldn't be too long before another What's Hot On The SWSL Stereo feature - but then I'm sure that's what I said last time, back in August...


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