Album Capsule Reviews: 2011-2013

queens_of_the_stone_age_-_e280a6like_clockworkI had these written from a prior engagement, so I might as well post them, since I’m in a music mood.

Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age

It’s likely that Josh Homme’s motley crew of hard-partying vampire rockers will never top their 2002 monster mash Songs for the Dead, but the (not alternately but simultaneously) vulnerable, sardonic, and hard-charging Like Clockwork is a stiff enough cocktail to make you forget for a minute or two. There are weak-links: the scorched-earth intro “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” never rouses its jagged riff into anything more than a dogged march, and “I Sat by the Ocean” is catchy but neither as venomous nor as lascivious as it should be. (It feels like it washed up on the beach when it should be skulking out of the gutter). But after a negligible intro, the band begins firing on all cylinders. The adenoidal, whiskey-soaked “My God is the Sun” marries the parched throat of ZZ Top to the merciless churn of Black Sabbath, the phallic funk of “Smooth Sailing” boasts a sweaty strut and a libidinal charge, and the nasty underworld of “If I Had a Tail” is pure pelvic gyration that locks into a searing groove like one throbbing aural erogenous zone.

Even better is the heaven-and-hell platter “Kalopsia” which creeps through minimalistic, neon-inflected glam menace before razing the low-level buzz of uncertainty with a merciless guitar ion storm that mows the song to the ground. And I don’t know what crawl-space the closer “I Appear Missing” emerged out of, but it might be Homme’s best song ever, a slurry of ruminative, cheeky, and bruised attitudes building ever-kindling tension for six unflappable minutes, a soul-searching twilight zone trip through the desert after the apocalypse. Individual songs aside though, it’s the overall mood, the vibe, that elevates Like Clockwork. Queens of the Stone Age remains just about the only superstar rock group with a sensibility all their own, synthesizing masculine and feminine principles, melodically creamy and ragged impulses, to create a sound that exists in a permanently liminal space between feelings and sensations. For such a helter-skelter schism of an album, the texture is remarkably balanced. As superficially muscular as they are on the surface, Queens of the Stone Age is mainstream rock’s only current suis generis.

A-

mastodon_thehunterdeluxeThe Hunter, Mastodon

From the graveyard-crunch of “Black Tongue” to the strutting, sassy “Curl of the Burl”, The Hunter is the molten aftershock of Mastodon’s ash-speckled supernova Crack the Skye. After four increasingly proggy albums bursting toward eruption and shooting for the sky, this 2011 work is sweatier, less fragmented, and thicker on the bottom, eschewing the antediluvian, twisted psychedelia of Skye – with its knotty song structures and gonzo concept – for something so down to earth it pummels into the core. The result is simpler, no doubt, but never simplistic; “All the Heavy Lifting” is as viciously antagonistic as anything they’ve ever done and “The Hunter” submerges a ballad in the brine of paranoia.

Obviously compared to Metallica’s mainstream bid The Black Album (a band dishing out crunchier, punchier songs after a decade of increasingly robust experimentation and prog inflections), The Hunter matches those metal gods for thunder but frankly surpasses them for caustic unpredictability and epileptic energy. Even the poppiest song, “Dry Bone Valley”, unleashes the kind of moonshine-fueled, Allman-Bros-set-to-overdrive gallop that could have only been concocted in a bathtub laboratory. And the high-camp Pink Floyd Swamp Thing morass? Cling to it like a brief moment of safety, wreckage in an album that amounts to a hell of a storm.

A

the_black_keys_el_camino_album_coverEl Camino, The Black Keys

While Jack White remains the defiant contrarian carnival barker ricocheting all around the Pandora’s box of classical modern music, The Black Keys have no compunctions about throwing themselves gallantly into the middle of the road. Although first single “Lonely Boy” opens with a trashy, gnarled riff, it’s a harbinger of a snarling evisceration of an album that never comes to pass.  This is a very safe record, essentially. A joy ride of sorts, El Camino is the kind of rock to bring home to your parents. If it dons classic-rock airs, it is hardly the kind of rank smell that could bring Keith Moon or Bon Scott back to life. It’s buoyant and even sometimes buzzy, a facsimile of party rock records from the ‘60s and ‘70s without the filth, the raunch, that special guerilla warfare sense of mulching social disarray into uneasy, scattershot fun that fashioned rock music out of bent and broken parts.

Although tight, the record never feels limned with neck-bolt shocking energy or scruffy punk aggression, as intermittently fun as the highlights can be. “Run Right Back” apparently sees the fruit of a séance for George Harrison on guitar, and “Gold on the Ceiling” is effervescent even if it is less rambunctious than its proponents want you to think. But this is still barbeque music, rock to play in the background of a bowling alley, a slippery slope to John Mayer. Still, although its bringing-back-the-rock credentials are fallacious at best, the grotesquely melodramatic “Little Black Submarines” still swings for the fences and returns with something euphoric in tow. A party sampler, and not a bad one, but it mostly sounds like the Foo Fighters in the middle of one too many drinks.

C+

arctic_monkeys_-_amAM, Arctic Monkeys

Rock  to suck blood to, here is mood music that marshals the talents of a gang of young hooligans maturing not with pacifying assured perfection but unresolved anxiety; the beauty of the album is in the gaps between its martial, lecherous id-impulses – the Sabbath-referencing streetwalker “Arabella” for one – and the despondent melancholia of debating the immanent mortality of those very desires. This is the record to play after everyone’s left El Camino and you’re left with nothing but the thick quaver of your future affronting your momentary joy with a stultifying awareness of its immanent corrosion. Even the lustiest number “R U Mine?” is shot through with predation that turns into paranoia as a snaky ruff bruises Alex Turner’s lyrical questions about the fleeting flickers of momentary rock ‘n’ roll energy and youth being strangled by the shroud of hollowness and onset adulthood.

Other highlights like “Do I Wanna Know?”, another pointed question like the other aforementioned single (also see “Why’d You Only Call me When You’re High?”), are similarly apprehensive. Each song is animated by a tangible, now-or-never, it’ll-slip-away-if-we-don’t-demand-and-declare attitude that sees this alley cat of a band pondering the tenuousness of their own enjoyment, indeed of the rebellious mission of rock music altogether. The ruminative “No 1 Party Animal” is the heartbroken plea, but the whole album cathartically thrives on a tension of opposites – of in-the-moment joy and lingering woe – and its own sleazy imperfection. The music interrogates the haunted nature of its own flirtations, and the slinky fun curdles into something wounded. Prowling riffs creep rather than sparkle, and the pub crawl kindles into barroom brawl and then curdles into malarial after-party existential crisis. This lizard lounge of an album is primarily a desolate amble through personal darkness and dawning awareness of an uncertain future.

A-

220px-psychedelicpillcoverPsychedelic Pill, Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Wistful, faded memories of hippie-era radicalism stomp all over Psychedelic Pill. They disrupt the bourgeois attitude of “clean” music via destabilizing that soundscape’s focus on processed concision and immediate gratification. The remnants of the conventional note highway fade away on monumental closer “Walk Like A Giant”, Young’s best composition in a quarter century. Feeling out the aural space through intuition rather than perfection, the song plunders Young’s past before beginning to fade after numerous stormy minutes. The eventual silence feels like a once-great beast falling, a terrifying concession to the failure of the ‘60s mission statement for radical rebellion as Young ponders once again being able to walk like a giant on the land. But this troubadour, whose weary age is matched only by his youthful bravado, lurches back from the silence into the sonic stratosphere to close the album with a withering blast of leviathan music ready to crush anything in its path. Lumber kindles into onslaught. Neil is still fighting until the end.

Strangling sounds out of his guitar and squealing like the whinny of a horse ready to kick down the establishment that reins it in, Young unmoors his music from concession to pop-music expediency and unravels his wide-screen soundscape over a chilling double-album of caustic, bucking-bronco rhythm and scabrous guitar squelches primed like powder kegs. Gloriously unpredictable and scattershot, Psychedelic Pill’s willingness to favor the slovenly ecstasy of the moment over codified song structures gives way to a sense of urgency and constantly revitalizing newness. Rather than notes building on top of others toward a stable thesis, each new noise is a tremor shooting out in new directions.

Vivid and weathered in equal measure, Young’s music feels the history of lived experience in the craggy topography and the jostled crevices of every note, but the eternal youthfulness of the present is never far from memory. Young’s voice, both his instrumental and vocal one, hold to no predestined path, and thus the music always feels unsettled and ready for something new. His notes skip, delay, hustle, saunter, and pounce through measures. Young’s ambivalent existential concerns extend over timeless eons as the noise refuses to quell itself, but the middle-aged ache of the sound belies the sonic energy of a man whose gnarly scrawl sounds as disreputable and rebellious as ever. With its unflappable forward momentum and sense of constant renewal through destruction, Psychedelic Pill wears its age – like it could have jammed at wild man Theodor Roosevelt’s inauguration – but, like all good garage-spun music, it feels blissfully of its own moment, like it cares about nothing but its own shambolic energy and temporary high.

A-

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