Album Mini Review Round-Up: Death From Above 1979, Maroon 5, Karen O, The Gaslight Anthem, FKA twigs

Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World
Drum and bass rock combo Death From Above 1979 reformed in 2011, and, in true head-down, hardworking DFA1979 fashion, toured first before cutting a new record, this year’s The Physical World. The time bassist Jesse Keeler and drummer/vocalist Sebastein Grainger (do those not just sound like rock & roll names?) more than pays off in The Physical World‘s bone-rattling assault. From the dance punk of opener “Cheap Talk” to the histrionic electronics filtered into the closing barn-burner title track, The Physical World is an unrelentingly rocking and deeply groovy listen. It’s the rarest of rock records these days; an album with massive riffs and the songwriting chops to make the rock that much more potent.

There’s no way to describe something like “Right On, Frankenstein!”, with its tight structure, quick release chorus, and outro jam as anything other than cool, or the strut of lead single “Trainwreck 1979”. Elsewhere, the duo stomps through post-hardcore punk on “Government Trash”, and the blues-rock cockswagger to “Virgins” functions as a three minute admonishment of Jack White and Dan Auerbach for forsaking bass guitar (it also rocks harder than anything off Lazaretto or Turn Blue). Even when DFA1979 gets ambitious on the teenage-runway-heartbreak tale of “White Is Red”, the emotional underpinning comes off as affecting instead of maudlin.

Veteran rock producer Dave Sardy deserves part of the credit for sculpting The Physical World into the monster it is; the muscular production lets the songs’ raw power shine through no matter the volume. And with Grainger’s frantic, explosive drumming and Keeler’s deft and nimble basslines, there’s more oomph here than some bands have in their entire discographies (DFA1979 might also be the only indie rock band alive in 2014 that can howl, “There’s nothing sacred to me/I lost it in the backseat/Where have all the virgins gone?” and have it work). It might not match the classic status of You’re A Woman, I’m a Machine, but damn if The Physical World isn’t a pure distillation of badass rock shit. 4/5

Maroon 5 – V
There’s a popular notion that music artists start work on new albums informed by what they took away from the last album cycle. Paramore learned that they had to expand their horizons eventually, Oasis once learned how much cocaine was too much cocaine, and Britney Spears is probably learning you can’t trust will.i.am. Going off of VOverexposed taught Maroon 5, “Holy shit, we have been trying way too hard.” Plenty of people (including me) ripped into Overexposed for being Maroon 5’s sellout album. We were wrong. Overexposed was Maroon 5 assimilating into the mainstream and seeing how this creative choice could pan out, a process that invited at least some interest on its creators’ behalf.

The same can’t be said for the languidly titled and languidly performed V. When Maroon 5 leaped into dance-pop on Overexposed, there was still some risk involved since the Maroon 5 brand hadn’t been reestablished outside of “Moves Like Jagger”. Now that Adam Levine and company know the hits will come, why try? V plays like Overexposed with all the fun or interesting (relative terms) parts scrubbed away in favor of stiff, hookless, forgettable vaguely soul-y tunes like “Maps” and “In Your Pocket”. There are extra electronic textures from returning keyboardist [Maroon 5 member named Not Adam Levine], but they don’t add much to clunkers like “It Was Always You” or “Leaving California”, songs so monotonous in tone I can’t tell if they’re supposed to be ballads or not.

Even V‘s comparatively bright spots, second single “Animals” and late-coming “Feelings” aren’t good enough or, failing that, exciting enough to revisit. Whenever the album tries to add flavor, the end result is a retread of a failed Katy Perry single (“Sugar”), or a The Voice promo insipid piano ballad with Gwen Stefani (guest coaching this season, Mondays at 8!). I won’t begrudge Levine for a mercenary pop career to keep his celeb status afloat, but he needs to fucking write songs to justify it. 1/5.

Karen O – Crush Songs
There’s no planned sequence to these reviews, but I can’t help but chuckle that Crush Songs proceeds V. For as much as V is a transparent sham of a product, Crush Songs aspires to be intimate and genuine. Multiple songs start with hushed “One, two, three, go…” countoffs, O sings like she’s trying not to disturb someone asleep in the next room, and everything sounds like it was done on a tape recorder. It’s so sincere a project, Linus van Pelt would host a listening party while waiting for The Great Pumpkin.

It’s a little funny to look at Crush Songs and Karen O’s other solo(ish) releases in light of her day job as frontwoman for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one of the 21st century’s most extroverted bands. These songs are stripped of all but the essentials; most are just acoustic guitar and vocals (“Visits” has some bedroom-producer percussion) and ambient noises, and most of the songs finish before the two minute mark. O is a capable enough writer that she’s able to sell the relatively simple sentiments of Crush Songs, from the simple longing of “Ooo” and “NYC Baby” to the rejection of “Body” and the Michael Jackson send-up “King”, and Songs is tuneful enough that each song sounds a little distinct.

The album’s major downfall is that it doesn’t feel like enough. “Comes the Night” sounds like a heartbreaking chorus to something unwritten, while “Other Side” could be brilliantly melancholy with a stronger beat to match its sighing vocals. There are a number of keepers here (“Ooo”, “Rapt”, “NYC Baby”, and “Body” are begging for Fall Playlists the world over), but the album as a whole doesn’t do as much as it could. It’s tempting to call Crush Songs The Moldy Yeah Yeah Yeahs*, but the first thing it reminded me of was Atlas Sounds’s Bedroom Databank collection: a prolific artist putting up their sketchbook. Sometimes there’s understated excellence, sometimes it’s a work in progress. 3/5.

The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt
It takes a certain kind of band to get to five albums. By now, you’re usually (usually) as big as you’re going to get, and past your window of opportunity for guilt-free experimentation. For The Gaslight Anthem, whose fourth album Handwritten was a classic rock faceplant of a crossover attempt, looking at LP #5 from the no man’s land between their distant punk scene roots and whatever mainstream success looks like for a modern rock band was far from promising.

Get Hurt, as it follows, is a fairly conservative record. The band dials back Handwritten‘s obnoxious riffing, and instead sticks to the cathartic, heart-on-the-sleeve delivery that’s always led to the group’s biggest moments (the emotional center of Get Hurt is inspired by frontman Brian Fallon’s divorce). That emotional rawness is what fuels the title track, as well as the somber “Break Your Heart” and closer “Dark Places”, some of the strongest moments on the album. Elsewhere, the band tries slightly more intricate arrangements, like the fleeting riffs of “1000 Years” and “Stray Paper” that mostly work, or the surprise explosion in “Selected Poems”. Rock and roll workout “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” and “Red Violins” fully realize what the band attempted on Handwritten. None of these would be a top ten Gaslight Anthem track, but fit cozily between their stronger material so far.

Unfortunately, Get Hurt comes up short for a “return to form” record. Pacing is a frequent issue, and there are just enough filler cuts here–looking at you “Helter Skeleton” and “Ain’t That a Shame”–to throw off the consistency this band once found effortless (The ’59 Sound and American Slang aren’t considered top-shelf for their towering singles; they’re considered top-shelf for their excellent singles supported by quite good album cuts). What makes Get Hurt a puzzling listen is that replacing the duds with the deluxe edition’s bonus tracks would be enough to redeem it entirely. But, this is a grade for the album we have, not the one I want. Get Hurt isn’t a “return to form”, but “a step in the right direction.” 3/5

FKA twigs – LP1
Arty, smoldering, bedroom “indie R&B” (music with bounce to it and influences from Prince and trip-hop that Pitchfork loves and lends itself to reviews asking chin stroke-y rhetoricals like “What is genre, anyway?”) is dangerously close to its saturation point in 2014. Between The Weeknd’s omnipresence, the rise of Grimes, Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, and that doof How To Dress Well and their influence, we’re staring down a glut of overly tasteful, critic-pleasing, introvert pop that I occasionally like and frequently hate.

This puts me at odds with LP1, because I kind of love it while kind of resenting it for enabling this trend to continue. Lead single “Two Weeks” features all the same stuttering synths and deep bass that you’d associate with this kind of music, but twigs’ persona absolutely drives it home. LP1 is full of pleading, heartbreaking torch songs, and twigs performs the hell out of each one; her voice rising, sighing, and breaking at just the right points. She’s also totally in sync with the ethereal production, too; songs like “Hours” and “Lights On” aren’t just “headphone music” because of their technical prowess, but because they have the comforting isolation of a daydream. It’s good, late night music with just enough variety (“Give Up” wouldn’t sound too weird on the radio) for an engaging listen.

Far and away the album’s best song is “Pendulum”. Produced by Paul Epworth, the song streamlines twigs’ entire canon in five minutes: vocal acrobatics, rise and fall production, and an understated emotional intensity all come together damn near seamlessly. It’s utterly captivating, a must-listen for anyone who’s ever wanted someone. Twigs really sells it, along with everything else here. The album’s an intriguing look at the disorienting zone where insecurity, romance, and raw sexuality come together; and there’s barely a stumble to speak of (it’s on track to be the “Sighing Fuck Me” Album of 2014; in a year with a Lana Del Rey relase, that is impressive). FKA twigs reflects on her time in the background during “Video Girl”, and how she wanted more. LP1 is more than enough argument to say she should have it, 4.5/5.

*”The Moldy Yeah Yeahs” joke by my buddy John. Follow him on Twitter for snark/pop culture references/a first-person account at the existential hell of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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