Spin Control

October 8, 2006



    Critic's rating: 1 star The Killers, "Sam's Town" (Interscope)

    It was one thing for the Las Vegas quartet the Killers to shamelessly ape the New Wave mope-pop of '80s heroes the Cure and the Smiths, with a smattering of old-school glam-rock thrown in for good measure. They certainly aren't the only ones doing that of late, and while they're far from the best, plenty of people love 'em: Their 2004 debut "Hot Fuss" sold 5 million copies at a time when what used to be called alternative rock rarely dented the top of the charts. But it's another thing entirely for the group to begin imitating Bruce Springsteen on its eagerly awaited follow-up, especially when they're mimicking his bombastic, silly "Born in the USA."

    Yes, it's hard to imagine a singer combining the very worst traits of the Boss and "Fat Bob" Smith, but Brandon Flowers does it while simultaneously delivering the most grating and cheesy synthesizer sounds since Duran Duran and lyrics that challenge the limitations of the adjective "insipid." (A sample, from the single "When You Were Young": "The devil's water, it ain't so sweet / You don't have to drink right now / But you can dip your feet / Every once in a while.") Add to this a wretchedly florid, glossy and subtle-as-a-bludgeon production by the otherwise distinguished team of Alan Moulder and Flood and the presence of strings, choirs, everything and the kitchen sink on songs such as "The River Is Wild" (you thought I was joking about the Springsteen rips) and "Bling (Confession of a King)" and you have an '80s flashback more painful than anything Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher ever unleashed.


    Critic's rating: 3 and a half stars The Decemberists, "The Crane Wife" (Capitol)

    The most striking track on the major-label debut and fourth album overall from this Portland-based orchestral-pop quintet is a more than 12-minute, four-part suite fancifully titled "The Island, Come and See, the Landlord's Daughter, You'll Not Feel the Drowning." The guitar riff and the structure of the song recall the Wings epic "Band on the Run"; the frantic synthesizer runs and falsetto wail evoke vintage Yes, and the layers of instruments and lyrics that talk of arabesque bayonets, a saber wielded in anger and chests of gold and silver bring to mind Jethro Tull at its most colorful.

    The song is indicative of the wild ambition, intense creativity and, yes, progressive-rock fetishism of the entire album: Nothing sounds quite like it, or at least not on the current rock scene. We're told that the 10 songs form a concept album based on a Japanese folk tale involving a wounded crane, a rare romance and a magical cloth. It all sounds college lit-major pretentious, I'll grant you, and bandleader Colin Meloy's thin, reedy vocals and affected British accent are acquired tastes. But there aren't enough lyricists these days who can rhyme words like "belfry," much less "arabesque," and the Decemberists remind us that the best prog thrived because of strong songwriting as much as instrumental prowess. Other modern practitioners such as Coheed and Cambria and Tool certainly have the latter, but they often lack the former.

    In the end, "The Crane Wife" keeps you listening again and again because of the undeniable strength of Meloy's melodies and the welcome addition of a more rambunctious rhythmic undertow amid the lush violins, layered keyboards and intricately finger-picked acoustic guitars. The combination not only makes this the Decemberists' strongest album, but a peak that the Arcade Fire will have a hard time topping if they want to maintain their rep as the smartest and hardest-rocking ork-pop band.