Good Night Abstraction

Concept: British drummer Seb Rochford’s “post”-jazz group is back with their fourth LP.

Sound: Polar Bear is about as cool by contemporary pop standards as jazz bands get without riding into primetime TV on the coattails of an aging alternative rock star, and they didn’t have to scrap their artistic integrity to do so. Not ostentatiously technical, not necessarily innovative — instead, clever and thoughtful. Most importantly, they have a habit of being oh so catchy, as on their potentially classic sophomore album Held On The Tips Of Fingers. Each album proving distinct, the follow-up went quite an opposite direction for the most part, and with Peepers comes the introduction of a backing guitarist and a revision of their previously explored styles. The band has freed up somewhat. Their poignant melancholy has burst in two, and the result might be compared to being read a bedtime story while the monster under your bed shifts its weight impatiently. The album vacillaties between a sublime dusk and threatening lurches of noise. Of the latter nature, Drunken Pharoah is the strongest piece, a ramshackle stomping sarcophagus with its hands full, dropping parts as it recollects others. Bump and Scream are satisfactory interludes, but nothing more. The piece Peepers itself, while strong in essence and slightly reminiscent of Polar Bear’s beloved early sound, contains some moments in its solos on the album version that are perhaps too awkward, however intentional they may be. The real centerpiece, unique and masterful, is A New Morning Will Come. Rarely is a piece both so hushed and so heavy. It’s as if the band was warming up and never started. They just dove deep into the tenuous glow of that pregnant moment every band knows. Every moment of it is valuable, comforting, and strange.

Lyrics: None, which is a pity, as the band’s past attempts at this have been subtle and moving.

Quick And Dirty: A diamond in the rough, as a whole imperfect but not easily forgotten. Still a band to watch, both live and figuratively. (♦♦♦♦)

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Concept: Practically a MGM hip-hop musical from Damon Albarn’s warped “mainstream” imagination on the curious habit of planned obsolescence.

Sound: The strangest thing about Plastic Beach is that it just seems to keep drifting. Its dainty strings, bossa nova cheese, sci-fi pulp, club pop synthesizing, disco chorus, on and on, without ever once reaching the glaring chart-topper people have come to expect from this most indulgent of supergroups. Although this was made to be their ‘poppiest’ work, its steady, detached tone has better achieved what’s unique about Gorillaz than either Demon Days or the self-titled debut. There’s nothing normal or comfortable about movements like Sweepstakes, where whimsical whistling stacks on top of itself until it succumbs to a kind of weightless collapse. They’ve been trying real hard to make some kind of concept-album hip-hop masterpiece, and it’s only in recline on a plastic beach that it seems to be working. They’ve stopped coming to us, and now we have to come to them. Not that you have to — the sleepy, alien feel of the entire album is bound to be a portal to some, a splotch on the wall to others — but this is a new leaf for Gorillaz, with fewer gimmicks and more risks. Nobody can honestly call this album the work of a boy band.

Lyrics: The very few times that Albarn takes the front, the connection is all too clear between this album and psychedelic rock past. Rhinestone Eyes brings out both the flighty surreal freewheeling of Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s phantasmic fatalism. The funny thing is that he doesn’t seem to quite sympathize with them. Obviously, the game they’re playing is as old as pop itself, but the album’s lyrics are making the right move in gunning for a personal, spiritual focus in spite of the allure of ecstatic fantasy or sociopolitical despair. ‘Oh joys arise/ The sun has come again to hold you/ Sailing out the doldrums of/ the polyphonic prairies/ here, it’s all around you/ It’s all around you, out here/ The falling alcohol empire, is here to hold you/ Ruling out and haunted till it sinks/ Little memories, marching on/ Your little feet, working the machine/ Will it spin, will it soar/ My little dream, working the machine’. The hot bands of the 60’s and 70’s are “dead”, certainly disembodied, and Albarn in trying for a cartoon band might be putting the cart before the horse in the rock god mythos, but I’ll bet he means it when he sings ‘all we are is thoughts‘. What’s more depressing, that he might believe it or that he might wish it were true?

Quick And Dirty: A successful transcendence of their method. It ignores expectations…get it anyway. (♦♦♦♦½)

A Tomorrow Of Kindness

Concept: An opera based on the life of Charles Darwin.

Sound: It’s easy to see this as a soundtrack and not an independent piece. The tracks often develop very, very slowly. Depending on your personal taste in/tolerance for electronic sounds, the throbs and chirps of many of the tracks may infuriate you long before the group begins to orchestrate them. The Knife, in the end, is known if at all for two things: their light shows and their obstinate weirdness. The composition itself is often lackluster, bordering on what some might call “minimalist”, so without knowledge of the performance accompanying the album its value to a listener depends on their individual preference for the selected timbres, as well as their limits in fudging the line between pop and opera.

Lyrics: Some of it sounds like it could have been lifted straight out of Origin of the Species; forgive me if I don’t pull out my copy for a resource check. Other tracks are focused but impressionistic. While several lyrics lack a strong inherent rhythmic quality, the vocal work does seek to imbue them with qualities evocative of their subject, or the subject’s speculated emotional hold upon Darwin. The strategies for this are often silly, but it’s an intuitive move which may at times grab a listener’s attention.

Quick And Dirty: In the huge coin toss this album presents, it snagged my favor. It’s a good thing aesthetically polarizing music is still out there to be made and listened to, which is not to say that any polarizing album is good. Tomorrow, In A Year flirts with the passé and the pretentious, and what it all boils down to is a few questions. Do you like birds? Do you like a little soubrette? Do you like electronic music? If you scored two out of three, give it a go. (♦♦♦½)

Concept: The seventh album from art pop-rockers continues their trend out of freakish oddity, granted there is a long, long way to go.

Sound: Although Xiu Xiu’s sound is very distinct to say the least, I’d say each previous album has had a different instrumental theme. Dear God feels like a polished composite epic. Jamie Stewart’s voice has become more bearable to the first-time listener. The unique samples and effects are more in step with mainstream pop and less inclined to cacophony. The lyrics and melodies recycle once in a while. Thankfully, Stewart is still a terrible singer with an impeccable dramatic sense. His voice wobbles under his rage and bewilderment, and the snippets of strings, static, and alien voices shot in after his own are hair-raising. The biggest difference from old Xiu Xiu is the elaboration of the song structures. Unlike the sound, the structure is diverging from pop, ballads fraught with interludes that make the tunes seem much longer than the three minutes they all conform to. Since The Air Force, Xiu Xiu has become more attracted to their own experiments with acoustic instrumentation, and this has definitely paid off. The grinding cellos that visit from time to time belie a grandeur and thoughtfulness that simply does not come across with a hacked Speak n’ Spell linked to a megaphone. One thing I will say for this album’s sound as an improvement rather than a decline or mere change…anyone could listen to it, and nobody would outright smash their computer and stab themselves in the ears for doing so, and although Stewart’s bizarre sonic menagerie is tamed, it’s still just as vibrant.

Lyrics: Although Xiu Xiu’s lyrics were never that good, they seem to have been infected with the melodrama of the album cover. Xiu Xiu was always ‘extra outrageous’ in their content of molestation, abortion, suicide, HIV, child rape, and child prostitution, as well as their baffling one-liners, but there was often insight, originality, and punch to Stewart’s cutting insults and bleak laments. There is much less of that on Dear God, and more stock darkness: ‘look at what I’ve done/ you can protect nothing/… /there is nothing worse than to be born and live’, and although the emotion in his voice is convincing, his words aren’t. Outside of this, it still takes effort to accept other more absurd lines despite the strange sense they try to make within themselves: ‘when will it end/when will it end/the sopping wet towel of stupidity/… /a cartoon with no friends/yeah yeah yeah’.

Quick And Dirty: I’m willing to divide this between those who are and aren’t familiar with Xiu Xiu. There are maybe five tracks worth investigating for a fan, including the surprising (not necessarily great) cover of the Appalachian folk song ‘Cumberland Gap’. If you’re not a pretentious dweeb, this album is much more likely to appeal to you than the band’s first six albums. The worst thing about it is the title. (♦♦♦½)