Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Bummer

Or,
Why Does Music Suck All of the Sudden?

I hate to admit it, but we’re in a slump. Forget complaints like declining sales, bland radio formats, and the lack of good spirits: I’m scrounging the internets, reading every magazine I can find, taking chances whenever possible (buying random albums, clicking on random links), and struggling to find a breath of fresh air of any type. Promising new artists seem extinct and new releases from established acts have been – almost across the board – disappointing. Every recommendation that comes my way seems mind-boggling; who could rave about the new Mae seriously? Even listeners who are enjoying new releases aren’t touting them as ground-breaking or amazing in any way. At best these albums are acceptable for the time being, but it is doubtful they are destined to become anyone’s favorite album or even end up on any top 10 lists at the end of the year. Whatever happened to the times of blasting Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American” while making a Slurpee run? Listening to “Understand This is a Dream” while ruminating the changes fall will bring to your post-high school relationships? Going on roadtrips where the music was a mix of the latest guilty-pleasure pop songs and Fall Out Boy? Those days seem much further away than they actually are. But fear not, friends, fall is almost upon us, and it looks to fulfill dreams we dared not dream this summer. In the meantime, here's a brief run-down of the latest summer releases:

Cartel, “Cartel”
Among the stronger releases this summer, Cartel still suffer from a severe case of takeourselvestooseriouslyitis. This is evident from the overwrought opener, brief though it may be. “Tonight” really gets the record going, however, and the next few songs are an enjoyable pop-rock set, though the marching-band brilliance of “Wasted” is again dragged down by lyrical missteps. The last few songs seem to have nothing in common with the first, though, and the band struggles through a number of songs before reaching the worst remix ever plastered together. Grade: B

Down to Earth Approach, “Come Back to Me”
One of the summer’s brighter spots, “Come Back to Me” follows almost exactly the same pattern as DTEA’s debut album, “Another Intervention.” And you won’t find me complaining about that. Musically falling between the Get Up Kids and the New Amsterdams (i.e. similar sound but middle-ground intensity), DTEA follow the time-honored tradition of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus, but then again so did Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Diary.” While DTEA pumps out some good tunes, the lyrics lack a certain sing-a-long-a-bility, and are filled with non sequiturs and questionable grammatical choices. Also a bit of a letdown are the two tracks previously released as acoustic songs; their full-band incarnations seem like they’re trying too hard, whereas the acoustic originals were relaxed and easygoing. Grade: B+

Paramore, “RIOT!”
Paramore play to their strengths with their sophomore release, but reveal a striking number of weaknesses as well. Written and performed by mostly high school-aged band members (22-year-old bassist Jeremy Davis being the lone exception), their knack for catchy intros is, unfortunately, not paired with skills at writing the rest of the song. Most songs simply switch back and forth between two themes, never bothering to find a new melody or bridge. All that said, though, the majority of songs won’t drive you crazy, and you’ll probably find yourself humming at least a couple of choruses. Grade: B-

Mae, “Singularity”
What the hell? Mae is the perfect example of a band that has become more popular in an inverse ratio to the quality of their records. Their latest tour finds them supporting Motion City Soundtrack along with Anberlin, and their latest album is a Capitol Records release, engineered by the “great” Howard Benson (P.O.D., Blindside, Daughtry, Hoobastank, Papa Roach, Saosin, Flyleaf). Yet it also is their worst collection of songs yet, marred by uninspired lyrics (“Will you be my rocket?”), unoriginal melodies and poor arrangements. At its best it sounds like Switchfoot, Delirious?, and even Grammatrain at times; at its worst, it sounds like a poor mashup of two indistinguishable pop-emo bands (say, All Time Low and Amber Pacific), but slowed down. They also repeatedly succumb to letting their keyboard player play whenever he damn well pleases. Mae needs to take a cue from Chris Dudley of Underoath: the dude rocks out and, when necessary, has some smooth piano parts, loops, and atmospherics. Mae’s keyboardist Rob Sweitzer doesn’t “rock out” so much as “violently assault the air around him while playing,” which, I’ll grant you, is still entertaining. But worse than that, his musical contributions have now become overbearing and tasteless. The keyboards repeatedly ruin ideas that would be executed much more successfully with just guitars and bass providing the melody. To be honest, “Singularity” feels like a case of “too many Master Chiefs”; while talented musicians, they seem to have not figured out how to turn down any idea that is suggested, to the detriment of many bloated, forgettable songs. Grade: D-

Bright Eyes, “Cassadaga”
Bright Eyes meets Dylan, and everybody sleeps. Excepting “Four Winds,” which is phenomenal, “Cleanse Song” and “No One Would Riot For Less” are the only songs I didn’t find myself skipping through. Those three tracks would make the foundation of an A-grade EP; for the album, C.

Wilco, “Sky Blue Sky”
I just got this album from my brother a couple of days ago, but it is so far pretty damn good. I’ll give an extended review later, but I’ll give it a tentative B+.

The Starting Line, “Direction”
Did you like TSL’s last album, “Based on a True Story”? Then you’re going to love this album. Or maybe not. The thing is, “Direction” is arguably the closest a record has ever come to sounding exactly like the band's previous record. The band and producer proudly use the exact same drum, bass and guitar sounds, and even some of the same riffs (play “21” slowly and you’ve got “Bedroom Talk”). Ironically, then, what it boils down to is which batch of 12 songs the listener prefers. While “Direction” does have some strong moments (“Island,” “Hurry,” “Birds”), on the whole the band appears to be stepping a little too far away from familiar territory, though not erring nearly as egregiously as Mae. Also, expect TSL’s drummer to be replaced within the next year; it's obvious that he has reached the limits of his abilities and imagination. Especially since lead singer Kenny Vasoli has been performing and recording with Aaron Gillespie (all-star drummer of Underoath and the man behind the Almost), you can bet that his rhythmic expectations will continue to increase. Grade: B-

August Burns Red, “Messengers”
“Bone-crushing” is the first word that comes to mind when listening to this album. It’s intense. Almost too intense. And while ABR continue to thrill and excite with their phenomenal rhythm section and fierce vocals, they exhibit shortcomings similar to Paramore's, albeit in a much more terrifying manner. While the guitars have become more technical since their last outing, the band still relies too heavily on metalcore standbys like the jug-juggajugga-jug-jug-juggajuggajugga-jug-jug and the jug-jugjug-jug-jug-jug. You know what I’m talking about. Though they’ve mastered smooth transitions and memorable intros, most songs have interchangeable verses and choruses and run 60-90 seconds too long, each. But who cares? Have you heard their drummer?! Grade: B-

Coming Soon:

Saves the Day, “Under the Boards”
“Stay the Same,” currently streaming on their MySpace, is as intense and catchy as anything on their last release, “Sound the Alarm,” which is fitting, as “Under the Boards” is the second in a trilogy. The live versions of “Get Fucked Up” and “Bye Bye Baby” sound like contenders for Top 5 Songs of the Year lists. Needless to say, anticipation is running feverishly high.

Jimmy Eat World, “Chase This Light”
Having only heard one song in a live setting, I’m withholding judgment and trying not to get my expectations up. But when have Jimmy ever let me down? O.k., true, their post-Futures EP was sub-par, but let’s remember that this is the same band that wrote both “For Me This Is Heaven” and “The Middle,” so you never know what to expect from these guys.

Foo Fighters, “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”
Can you deny first single “The Pretender” rocks? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Returning to the producer that helped make “The Colour and the Shape” such a classic album (Gil Norton, also responsible for the production of Dashboard’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” and Jimmy Eat World’s “Futures”), the Foo give every indication that this will be their best work since at least “There Is Nothing Left to Lose,” if not TCATS itself.

Motion City Soundtrack, “Even if it Kills Me”
MCS have grown on me with each release (I don’t own “I Am the Movie,” and it took me a long time to finally pick up “Commit This To Memory”), and the 3 tracks they’ve released so far are promising. Though not extraordinary, they have a distinct sound and are concise, and there is something to be said for getting rid of the extraneous.

Coheed & Cambria, “Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume II: No World For Tomorrow”
“The Running Free” is more boring than most of Volume I, but it’s also the lead single (and most likely the "most accessible" song on the album); C&C are impossible to predict, so this one will just have to be given the proper full-album treatment upon release.

4 comments:

Lars said...

yep, we definitely don't see eye to eye on music these days.... first off all, i disagree with you about 'direction'; the more i listen, the more distinctions i discover. it's plain ignorance to pass it off as nothing more than a re-hash of BOATS. and i don't know WHAT you see in DTEA.... it's just not there, man. As for the 'slump' we are in, i'd like to name three albums that stand in staunch opposition to that accusation: FOB's 'Infinity on High', Anberlin's 'Cities', and DLD's 'Good Night, Witness Light'. Granted, those all came out in the first few months of 2007, so maybe you're not counting them in your "summer slump" period. I can only hope that is the case....

Lars said...

listening to the mix you gave me reminded me what you said about MCS, so I thought I should add that I'm pleased to see you like them. they've long been a favorite.... also i'm very excited for the new jimmy

Abram & Sarah said...

You got it wrong about Jimmy Eat World--that EP (Stay on My Side Tonight) was WAY better than Futures....

Ek said...

Thanks Eric, I thought I was the only one that liked Futures. Oh, and I'm saying the new FF album lived up to any expectations we could realistically have had.