Here are some records I've been mulling over this past month. Some have been out for a while but I felt like they needed a few more listens for me to digest them fully.
It was only a matter of time before Dallas Green pushed City & Colour’s somber sound past its acoustic leanings and into something new. Little Hell chronicles that process, an 11 song LP that effectively splits the difference between Green’s familiar, stripped down aesthetic and his new love of electric haze. Though Green's familiar fragile vocals are intact, like on the album’s slow-motion opener “We Found Each Other In The Dark,” they're now supplemented with swooning slide guitars and fuller drum kits. “Hope For Now” sports waves of swelling keys and crawling overdrive while “Natural Disaster’s” wistful Americana touches display an artist that’s growing gracefully rather than impatiently. In fact, such flourishes display a musician that exercises and values restraint above all else. The meatier tones Green implements on Little Hell serve to add texture rather than dissonance, but ultimately, the album’s more rewarding songs are the more basic, subdued offerings. From the naked acoustic fumble of “Northern Wind” it’s clear that Green is at his most inviting when unplugged. While Little Hell offers up some interesting sonic detours, it’s clear which road leads Dallas Green home again: The organic one.
Key Cuts: We Found Each Other In The Dark, Northern Wind, Hope For Now
By now it’s clear that In Flames are no longer catering to the metal fans anxious for a return to the group’s so-called “classic” sound. Thank goodness. Sounds Of A Playground Fading fearlessly takes the group’s unique brand of melodic death metal into more anthemic and experimental territory. The album’s most striking quality is its sense of balance as guitarist Björn Gelotte and singer Anders Fridén twist the group’s melodic sensibilities around guttural crunch and spacious production. For every relentless, dual guitar fire-fight like “Deliver Us” or “All Of This,” there is an equally engaging mood piece, like the blues inflected “The Attic” or the pseudo-industrial “Jester’s Door.” While this means more of Fridén’s clean vocals than his harrowing rasp, it also allows for greater sonic diversity. The album’s title track starts with shimmering acoustic tension before bursting into angular thrash, while the fuzzed out staccato of “Where The Dead Ships Dwell” is complimented by buzzing synthesizers and soaring vocals. Much like Metallica’s Load, Sounds Of A Playground Fading concerns itself with atmosphere and weight rather than by-the-numbers aggression. What results is an album that might not be immediately easy to categorize, but ultimately comes across as a more rewarding listen.
Key Cuts: Sounds Of A Playground Fading, Where The Dead Ships Dwell, The Attic
Sonic Youth’s music has always suffered because the band couldn’t decide if they wanted to be underground overlords or stadium art rock heroes. That tension always forced them to compromise dynamics, which in turn caused their songs to meander. Going solo, Thurston Moore is able to escape those pitfalls with the agency and luxury to craft music without such compromises. In fact, Demolished Thoughts comes across as the freshest set of songs Moore’s ever had a hand in creating. Its beauty lies in its simplicity: Demolished Thoughts hangs its hat on spindling acoustic melodies, soft keyboard accents, and sparse bass work, all with just enough reverb to take the place of percussion. It’s a soothing record, and songs like the chamber pop buoyancy of “Benediction” display Moore’s gift for creating sonic intimacy without playing to schmaltzy clichés. Far from a lo-fi recording, producer Beck Hansen adds small studio embellishments throughout Moore’s gentle musical odyssey, whether it’s in adding sloping strings to the pillowy pluck of “Illuminine” or creeping bass to the twitchy twang of “Blood Never Lies.” Yet throughout, Moore and Beck keep things dry and airy. The aesthetic does wonders for record’s overall mood, especially on songs like the wobbly “Space.” Yet in the end, what really makes Demolished Thoughts special is Moore’s voice, which for once, feels free and unencumbered by his surroundings.
Key Cuts: Benediction, Illuminine, Space
To their credit, The Vines are still making sleazy, fist pumping rock & roll, in spite of fickle music critics and Craig Nicholls’ battle with Asperger’s Syndrome. What’s even more remarkable is how they’ve stuck to their guns to do it, well after they’ve lost the bid for the garage rock crown. Future Primitive doesn’t reinvent The Vines’ sonic template (Blend equal parts Nirvana and Kinks worship on HIGH), but it is comforting in the fact that fans know what to expect, and if anything, The Vines are at their best operating in such extremes. The album’s lead single “Gimme Love” provides the snarl with rusty, rubber band guitar work and Nicholls’ nasally bravado while the syrupy harmonies and acoustic strum of “Leave Me In The Dark” offers the sentimentality. So it goes for 13 tracks, alternating between the only two gears The Vines have at their disposal. Without a doubt, Future Primitive caters to the group’s hardcore fan base, one who’s more impressed by their sound than their substance (How many times can you rhyme “Crazy” with “Baby?”); nevertheless, they’ve managed to hide a few surprises to differentiate it from past offerings. The proto-thrash plod of “Black Dragon” is accentuated by dive bomb guitar leads and pulverizing drumming, all to remind listeners that sometimes fun music is just about the attitude. Good thing The Vines have that in spades.
Key Cuts: Gimme Love, Leave Me In The Dark, Black Dragon