Listening Pleasure

June 24, 2007


Midway through 2007, I've already got several serious contenders for my year-end Top 10 -- from "New Magnetic Wonder" by the Apples in Stereo, "I'll Sleep When You're Dead" by El-P and "Sound of Silver" by LCD Soundsystem to "We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank" by Modest Mouse, "Icky Thump" by the White Stripes and "Over the Counter Culture" by Tim Fite -- and the flurry of releases in recent weeks has added a few more.


Art Brut, "It's a Bit Complicated" (Downtown) 3 and a half stars
Chief among these is "It's a Bit Complicated," the second album from the English quintet Art Brut. With its effervescent debut, "Bang Bang Rock and Roll" (released in the U.K. in 2005 but not issued here until last year), the band answered the musical question of what the Modern Lovers of "Roadrunner" would have sounded like if they'd make a second album before Jonathan Richman shifted gears to become an acoustic troubadour. Meanwhile, Eddie Argos' lyrics gave more eloquent voice to the idea of a life saved by rock 'n' roll than anybody since the late critic Lester Bangs or Nick Hornby in High Fidelity.

To complain, as many Web zines have, that album No. 2 continues to pursue this simple formula is to miss the point: The Ramones never varied much from their one great idea and two simple chords, but they continued to give us dozens of great songs built on that simple foundation, and so do Argos and his mates. "Direct Hit" is pretty much what the title promises: an explosion of exuberant Britpop paired with a heartfelt tale of awkward boys and girls who can only really let themselves go on the dance floor.

"Jealous Guy" finds Argos dryly complaining that his girlfriend has rolled over and gone to sleep instead of making love, which prompts a fit of insecurity ("I'm starting to question / Whether your ex-boyfriends let you get this much restin'.") But our lovelorn hero can be distracted, too: In "Pump Up the Volume," he proves himself to be such a music obsessive that he breaks off a kiss to turn up a pop song, while in the irresistible "Nag Nag Nag," he sketches a spot-on portrait of every post-adolescent who still lives and breathes for "teenage" music.

"I'm grown up now but refuse to learn / That those were just adolescent concerns," Argos croaks in his wry monotone. "A record collection reduced to a mix tape / Headphones on I made my escape / I'm in a film with a personal soundtrack / I'm leaving home and I'm never coming back." I for one am still right there with him.

The Polyphonic Spree, "The Fragile Army" (TVT) 3 and a half stars
As it did with Art Brut's debut, the rock underground enthusiastically embraced "The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree," lauding the Texas band's 2003 bow as much for the multi-instrumental approach and matching white robes of the 24 members as for their grand orchestral pop. Reviewers quickly lost interest, however, under-rating "Together We're Heavy" (2004) and greeting the Spree's new release, "The Fragile Army," with a lot of snickering about the new black paramilitary duds. Truth be told, bandleaders Tim DeLaughter and his spouse Julie Doyle would be better off getting rid of the visual sideshow since, as with the Flaming Lips' circus antics, they only detract from the main event -- the music.

Lyrically, "The Fragile Army" surveys the dire state of global politics, yet while apocalypse is on a lot of musicians' minds these days, the Polyphonic Spree remains uniquely optimistic, maintaining a humanistic faith in the power of love. The band backs this message by rocking harder than it has in the past on songs such as "Running Away" and "Younger Yesterday," while the epic title track boasts some of the most beautiful, complex and uplifting music that it's crafted.

Yes, the band occasionally bogs down under the weight of its own ambitions, especially in the middle of the new disc. But overall, it has produced another set of memorable songs -- which are much more reason to care than the novelty aspects -- and it has never sounded better, thanks to producer John Congleton of punk band the Paper Chase and sessions held in part at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago.

Shellac, "Excellent Italian Greyhound" (Touch and Go) 3 stars
Speaking of Mr. Albini, Chicago's celebrated "recordist" and erstwhile guitarist-vocalist has finally torn himself away from the console long enough to take his place at the other end of the microphone, reuniting with bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer on "Excellent Italian Greyhound," Shellac's fourth album and first since first since "1000 Hurts" (2000). In terms of the basic sonic assault, there are no surprises, but a new Shellac album is a lot like what a new Blue Note jazz album must have been half a century ago: an opportunity to marvel at the subtle interactions of some fantastic musicians while glorying in the way those sublimely recorded sounds wash over you.

As with "Prayer to God" on "1000 Hurts," Shellac opens with its most explosive new tune, "The End of Radio." The complex minimalist arrangement can be mistaken for an off-the-cuff jam, but there's much more going on below the surface in terms of the way each instrument forwards a dialogue with the others, just as Albini's typically sarcastic lyrics both fondly recall the disappearing lifeline once offered by adventurous college/community radio and caustically sneer at how the medium has become just one more way to sell a gullible public ("Can you hear me now?... That drum roll means we've got a winner... I'd like to thank our sponsors!").

The album is hardly a beginning to end success -- "Kittypants" and "Boycott" meander pointlessly, and "Genuine Lulabelle" takes nine minutes to go nowhere particularly interesting. But Albini's guitar sears with the white-hot ferocity it had with Big Black or Rapeman on standouts such as "Steady as She Goes" and "Be Prepared"; Trainer is, as always, a force that cannot be contained, and the self-effacing Weston claims the spotlight by singing and writing two songs, "Boycott" and "Elephant," that show the influence of the time he's spent as tape manipulator and producer during Mission of Burma's phenomenal comeback and second act.

Queens of the Stone Age, "Era Vulgaris" (Interscope) 2 stars
Finally, we have the fifth album in 10 years from stoner-rock heroes the Queens of the Stone Age who, as fans know, are really just songwriter and guitarist Josh Homme and whatever co-collaborators he's recruited at the moment. For diehards, the band hasn't been the same since the first three albums and Homme's sacking of his one consistent foil, bassist Nick Oliveri, in favor of an increasing number of pointless celebrity cameos. (On 2005's disappointing "Lullabies to Paralyze," it was Billy Gibbons and Shirley Manson; this time, we get Trent Reznor and Julian Casablancas.) But the real problem is that while that hypnotic yet powerful desert-rock sounds is still an impressive vehicle, the quality of the songwriting that carries it along has sharply fallen off.

Only a handful of tunes stand out, most of them front-loaded at the start of the disc, including the hard-grooving "Turnin' on the Screw," the furious "Sick, Sick, Sick" and the sneering, anti-consumerist "I'm Designer." Much of the rest of the album ("Misfit Love," "Battery Acid") is strictly Queens-by-numbers -- which is to say you'll still be able to bang your head in time, you just won't be humming along while doing it, or remember many of the riffs once the noise has abated.