Arctic Monkeys Present Brave New Sound on Sixth Studio Album

     The Arctic Monkey’s have been blues rock darlings since their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which was certified gold and introduced the world to a kind of pure garage rock which had been missing for nearly a decade at that point. Their proceeding three releases in 2007, 2009, and 2011 each charted moderately well, and received platinum certifications in Britain, the band’s home country. However, the groups career trajectory changed forever with the massive success of 2013’s AM.

   The album was a 40 minute masterpiece which seemingly flaunted the band’s powerful sound and technical ability in the faces of anyone who would listen. Drawing on wide-ranging inspirations and utilizing fantastic production techniques, The Arctic Monkeys had created a rock album that truly felt like a classic from the first note. After a five year hiatus, the group is back with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, an album that simply refuses to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, but instead forges a fascinating new path.

   Lead vocalist, Alex Turner, referred to this record, as well as some of his personal favorite projects from other bands, as being “like places you can visit,” and this is certainly true for the majority of the album. Songs like “Star Treatment,” “She Looks Like Fun,” and the title track really do have a palpable energy to them, and instrumentals which listeners can swim in for many repeat listens.

   One important change which rears its head on this albums is the sharp turn away from the noisy nature of the groups earlier garage rock influence. Instead of multiple layers which listeners can slowly unpack through focus and replays, the Monkeys instead aim for a more minimalist style, using repetitive instrumentals to present new lead ideas on a silver platter for every listener. Guitar solos, like that of “One Point Perspective,” or Nick O’Malley’s excellent bass guitar work on tracks like “American Sports” are no longer consigned to the back of the mix, but instead rise to the top clearly.

   This style, of course, doesn’t always work. Namely, the two song run of my personal least favorite track, “Golden Trunks” followed by “Four Out of Five” fail to capture as effectively as the rest of the project because they present nothing of significance. Instead, we are left with two forgettable and repetitive instrumentals which play to unimportant lyrics. The midpoint lull on this record threatens to take the winds from the freshly opened sails, before they are saved by the eerie “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip,” which benefits from some of the best lyrics in the Arctic Monkeys discography.

   Above all else, this album is made by the absolutely fantastic vocal performance and lyricism of Alex Turner. One needs only listen to tracks like “Batphone” and “Science Fiction” to feel the importance of Turner’s presence. He instantly turns relatively uneventful songs into ear-perking hits with nothing but his smokey tone and commitment to the unique feel of the project. There is a clear resemblance and influence from the late, great David Bowie, and this record will almost definitely send listeners directly to revisitations of the legend’s work as well.

   Lyrically, Turner spends almost the entire runtime criticizing the role of social media and technology in our modern society, following the lose conceptual framework of post-apocalyptic human race, before closing the album with my favorite track, “Ultracheese.”

   The song is a swinging, reminiscent ode to what Turner calls, “America in the golden age.” Heavily inspired by the rat-pack, and jazz vocalists like them, it departs a bit from the style we’ve heard thus far, and delivers and effective and emotional send off to an all around fantastic record.

   The 40-ish minute runtime keeps the album from overstaying its welcome, and as Turner’s final, croon is delivered, a cappella, listeners are left wondering what they’ve just heard. This is an album that requires repeat listens and focus, and it would certainly function poorly as an introduction for new fans to this band. This is because unlike the Arctic Monkeys discography up until this point, it doesn’t force you to listen or beg for your attention, but instead offers something. A sobering contemplation of modern society, a minimalistic approach to instrumentation, creative and innovative melodies, and one incredible vocal performance after another await any listener willing to give this album a try, and if you ask me, it is well worth it.

8/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/1jeMiSeSnNS0Oys375qegp

YOUTUBE LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buqIXGleG2I&list=PLTgCbzV-FEabYmih60WIG-ZRBPcsUH08u

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A Perfect Circle Returns

     It’s been twelve years since Maynard James Keenan climbed from his underground wine cellar to feel the sun on his face once again, and give us all the gift of 10,000 Days. On top of this, it’s been fifteen years since the boys of A Perfect Circle, namely MJK and Billy Howeredel, were together in the studio for a project full of original music, instead of covers. But in late 2017, the group dropped “The Doomed” to much acclaim and apparently didn’t see their shadow, and so, here they are with the appropriately titled, Eat The Elephant.

   For those of us who are familiar with APC, much of this record will come as a surprise, and the opening, title track is no exception. The title refers to the old phrase, which goes something to the tune of “You eat an elephant one piece at a time,” which MJK seems to imply rings true for the vast task of identifying the issues of the modern day and addressing them. The sparse instrumentation and simple vocals fly in the face of everything listeners have known about this group, but this doesn’t last long.

   “Disillusioned” was perhaps the most impressive of the pre-release singles, and serves as a high point on the album itself. The band is immediately opting for a more industrial sound, something they’d flirted with on their last studio release, which was entirely covers.

   “The Contrarian,” fits nicely into the niche carved by this first half, and is a welcome addition to an already impressive early lineup.“The Doomed,” by following in the trend of lyric heavy vocals and industrial instrumentation, really makes listeners worry that the old APC may not make an appearance on this project, as they’ve been known for all these years.

   The group returns to form, however, on “Talktalk,” which is highlighted wonderfully by Billy Howerdel’s signature, growling guitar. Maynard’s vocals on this track are characteristically droning and omnipresent, and for a moment, they’re back. While the records second half is certainly the weaker, it isn’t without its highlights.

   Maynard’s vocal presence on “Delicious,” is indescribably welcome to old school Tool and APC fans as he strings together the type of melodic and lyrical combo that only he can. This over the first truly rocking instrumental on the project makes for one of my favorite tracks in the setlist. The album is not without it’s weaknesses, though.

   I was a fan of “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” when the band released it, but I never expected it to actually end up on this project. I had considered it a bit of a joke, and a fun reference to something of a cult classic sci-fi film, but it’s presence on Eat the Elephant is just jarring, and interrupts the rather serious overall tone.

   It is, however, enjoyable on its own, which is more than I can say for “Hourglass,” which is simply annoying and over produced. A massive part of APC’s appeal has always been their organic rock sound, and while a turn to the less accessible sound works on most of this album, it is never so alienating and out of touch as on “Hourglass.” The effects on Maynard’s vocals ruin what may have been a catchy hook, and the instrumental itself never really finds its direction.

   I found myself pleasantly impressed with Howerdel’s ability to utilize the kind of formless, interlude track on “DLB” as that is an often ignored skill which he puts to good use. He’s much less successful, however, on “Get the Lead Out.” An outro track who’s odd, hip-hop drum beats and out of place record scratches do no more to justify it’s nearly seven minute runtime than Maynard’s floundering and pointless lyrics, most of which just repeat the title. If you couldn’t tell, this is my least favorite track on the project.

   The project is more than redeemable, though. MJK’s lyricism may not hit on every track, but when he’s on, he’s on. When “Delicious” opens with “How inconvenient and unexpected and harrowing for you, as consequences tend to be,” I just can’t keep from smiling. He takes on many of his familiar targets, namely religion, selfishness, addiction, and any general bad behavior he sees in the world today, while avoided the pitfalls of overly politicized writing. And his vocals are nearly as impeccable, making up for their apparent lack of edge with experience, and thoughtfully conjunct melodies.

   Howerdel, for his part, is no slouch either. He really takes risks on this project, which were wholly undemanded by a fanbase which was excited even to hear anything new. Most of Billy’s risks paid off, and those that came up empty didn’t miss the mark by all that much.

   Overall, when a mega-popular rock group comes back to the public light after a decade and a half of wine making and whatever Billy Howerdel does in his free time, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of trying to regurgitate the old sound. By contrast, A Perfect Circle challenges us. Howerdel asks us to follow him down musical rabbit holes which are often, totally unpredictable and MJK hits us with lyrics that push on the flaws he sees in everyone’s lives, from our religious hypocrisy, to our sense of numbness to the current state of the world. One can only hope that we will hear a followup to this very respectable project within the decade.

7/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/3Jr1RhAyndBxtyi8rJs3Op

YOUTUBE: https://youtu.be/kBwsRdX_pEA

Jared Leto Returns to Mars, But Can’t Save an Underwhelming Project

     Thirty Seconds To Mars debuted with their self titled record in 2002, before really busting into the mainstream just three years later when 2005’s A Beautiful Lie reminded the world just how exciting a new set of rock anthems could be.

   From there, the three piece, arena rock outfit released a couple more solid projects, with front man Jared Leto finding time between cutting massive amounts of weight and mailing used condoms to coworkers for roles, (Dallas Buyer’s Club and Suicide Squad, respectively) to record a very iconic lead vocal over his brother’s drum work and various other contributions from a relatively small staple of instrumentalists. Their discography is relatively diverse, but their recent release, AMERICA, changes their formula more than ever before.

   A part of me nearly stopped this record in the first ten seconds, as the opener, “Walk on Water” bursts in with heavy synth and overproduced vocal shouts on a hook, but I stuck it out, and for the most part, I’m glad.

   The record consistently toes the line between cheesy, pop-rock on tracks like “Dangerous Night” and genuinely interesting arena rock on tracks like “Hail To The Victor.” A casual listener may face the creeping fear that Mars is going the way of Fall Out Boy, but there is something of worth in much of this project.

   Leto’s vocals, above all, are excellent! Seeing as the band seems to have done away with the more traditional elements of a rock record in favor of heavy synth and canned drums, Leto’s vocal leadership is make or break here, and he makes it work here. He’s easily the highlight of every song, and old school Mars fans have something to enjoy in his performance.

   This does not, however, apply to his lyricism, which boring and platitudinous throughout. Lines like “A thin line, the whole truth. The far right, the left view,” hint at a desire to speak to the current state of American politics, but Leto constantly stops short of saying anything substantive aside from cliched calls for unity. Not everyone needs to write about politics, and in fact, I’d be completely happy to hear a 30 Seconds To Mars project which is devoid of any politics, but instead we get half baked, safe statements, and it really devalues the tracks.

   And that sums this record up in a lot of ways, a safe release that lays claim to more controversy and importance than it truly has. The several interesting album covers which have circulated range from listing rich YouTubers, to lists of popular sex positions, each seeming to make a statement, but each saying nothing in the end.

   Essentially all of Shannon Leto’s drum work is either boring or extremely distracting, and if I hear one more bombastic synthesizer I’ll lose my mind! Features like A$AP Rocky and Halsey fall extremely flat and add little to the overall direction of the project.

   The final few tracks are redeeming, and the acoustic ballad “Remedy,” is by far the best track in the lineup, and “Rider” serves as a depressing reminder of just how good and interesting this album could have been as it abruptly closes out the forty-ish minute runtime. But even these aren’t enough to make up for the relative blandness of this project.

   AMERICA is worth a listen for fans of the group, but it certainly won’t turn you into a fan if you aren’t already. For that, might I suggest any other entry in their now five album discography, as this is by far the weakest link.

3/10

HEAR AMERICA – https://open.spotify.com/album/0XcHdI2ZyNADjfvo5Ubs39

Jack White’s Boarding House Reach; So Close, and Yet So Far Away

     Jack White is an indie darling. He was one of the earliest major players in the recent vinyl revival through his own record company, Third Man Records, he fronted one of the most beloved and influential garage rock groups of the 20th century in The White Stripes, and has recently released his third solo studio album, this being the 14th LP in his colorful discography.

   At the age of 42, White has become a certified rock legend through fantastic talent, a tireless work ethic, and, above all, a keen ability to keep an eye on the future while holding tremendous respect for the past.

   His first solo project, Blunderbuss, is perhaps the best possible example of this. The production is ahead of its time, the stereo imagery is imaginative, and yet each track bleeds with a love of early 20th century blues, early 90’s grunge-rock, and lyrics that glorify early jazz culture. In short, Blunderbuss is the perfect example of a record that looks forward and backwards all at once. Boarding House Reach, however, is not.

   Perhaps the most apparent issue with this project, and what will jump out to any casual listener in the first few minutes is the lack of any substantial “groove” if you will. Each song sounds like a long intro, constantly throwing new ideas without ever settling into any of them. The opener, for example, features strange synth leads and an erratic vocal performance from White on the verses which distract from a really exciting and singable chorus and a mostly enjoyable organ lead, and that’s the real tragedy of this record.

   Boarding House Reach, is not without its bright spots. Far from it, this record features a few of the catchiest hooks in White’s career, just hear the aforementioned opening track, or the lead riff of “Corporation,” and the Hammond organ work throughout is captivating, but these shining lights are diamonds buried in not only the rough of this album, but almost always the rough of the tracks they are a part of.

   The only purely enjoyable song throughout the whole tracklist is probable the short, quiet, and simple “Ezmerelda Steals the Show.” At just under two minutes, its the shortest and simplest track, allowing the goofy spoken word piece to shine, charmingly without being dragged down by decisions which range from bewildering, to aggravating, to seemingly, intentionally ridiculous.

   The production, as expected, is vibrant. White and his team handle the array of unique instrumentation and constant transfer of the lead melody with such skill and intelligence that one wishes they’d had a more focused project to bring to life. A few instruments (I’m looking at you, Tamborine on track 3) are painfully tinny, but the overall sound is impressive from a technical standpoint.

   Finally, I must commend White on his vision, which is perhaps best summed up in the second to last track, “What’s Done Is Done.” In it, Jack White and Esther Rose strike an inviting, albeit simple harmony which plays well against the methodical Hammond organ work, and mostly endures a few irritating synthesizers. The sound that White creates here is oh so reminiscent of Blunderbuss. It’s a modernization of the kinds of church hymns which rose to prominence during the 1970’s Baptist revivals, mixing in cynical lyricism of early garage rock and an interesting drop-out bridge which is lifted straight from the more “new-age” techniques of 21st century pop. This updating of a classic, niche genre which just so happens to be quite near and dear to my heart got me thinking about a film I saw as a kid. A modern American classic known as “Hannah Montana: The Movie.”

   In it (spoiler alert) Hannah’s secret identity is revealed to nearly every citizen of the very small town in which she is performing, a mistake which should cost her her career. But, instead, the kind townspeople agree to let her put her wig back on keep performing, promising to forget it ever happened and tell no-one of what they just saw, and presumably did not take any pictures of. So allow me, on the part of all Jack White fans, offer Mr. White a similar opportunity.

   The concept on this project is fantastic and could make for the most interesting and exciting project in the entire Jack White discography, if executed better. So take the record back, focus it up a bit, remove a lot of the synth elements which plague each song, and make your use of 70’s gospel music a bit more prominent, and I’ll pay twice as much to hear that record! Hell, I’ll buy it on vinyl in a heartbeat! Call it Boarding House Reach 2.0 and, in exchange, we’ll all forget that Boarding House Reach ever happened.

3/10

HEAR THE ALBUM – https://open.spotify.com/album/6btUx9G2BPajQ7P6mpTxId