Concept: Arcade Fire’s central family reflects on their childhoods in the Canadian suburbs. As one critic eloquently put it, Funeral portrayed the death of a loved one like the end of the world, and Neon Bible was the inverse. The Suburbs hopes to deal with the more common, more pernicious issue of stifled ambition and false hope.

Sound: Before hitting upon the album’s positives, let’s dispel the myth of Arcade Fire’s towering genius and influence. They can’t have a whole lot of influence when all they are doing essentially is “reviving” the sounds and spirit of older bands. They already admitted this album was Depeche Mode meets Neil Young. That’s only half true, because they have foremost been a clone of Springsteen, and they can’t possibly have revived Springsteen, because Springsteen’s still here — why there he is now, standing right next to Win Butler performing an Arcade Fire song better than they can. By the way, Mr. Butler, was that you starting a rhythmic audience clap? Get out. Another chip off the Boss block, The Gaslight Anthem, established themselves on the music scene without riding a raging messianic tide of acclaim. They don’t need it, because unlike Arcade Fire they aren’t busting their asses attempting to be artistic about their shtick, and they aren’t boring. How do you unrepentantly imitate Springsteen and yet manage to so often make it, of all the things good and bad in his work, boring? The answer is that Butler, who must not be taken for a musical fool, has often been content to borrow a single wrinkly old pop rock progression, sometimes adding a clever twist somewhere in the middle, turn the volume down, cut the tempo in half, and then repeat it endlessly as both verse and chorus while melodramatizing it with snowballing layers of instumentation that often don’t even bother to harmonize or do so much as add rhythm. Nearly the only thing that redeemed Neon Bible of this was its brilliant anthemic closing track, My Body Is A Cage, perfectly suited for such an approach.
The good news about The Suburbs is not only has Arcade Fire exhibited some diversification of their tastes, but they’re more exciting of a listen track for track than they’ve ever been. Three of the first four songs are a welcome change for the band: the bleary-eyed ragtime opener; the hitching 9/8 frustration and paper thin optimism of Modern Man; the grand, OK Computer-esque anxiety of Rococo. At either end of a stretch of snoozers are Empty Room and Month Of May, both recalling the blurred dissonance and post-punk savvy of Sonic Youth. With the later tracks Deep Blue, We Used To Wait, and Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), the impression is given that Arcade Fire is making an effort to subsume all the pop subgenres of the mid to late 1980s. The resultant tragically tacky and misguided futurism works out as one of several good ways to close an album of qualms with suburbia, even if the gesture doesn’t quite engage or entertain.

Lyrics: Arcade Fire, while occassionally hitting on an indelible image, doesn’t have the biggest way with words. They shoulder some pretty corny black-and-white ideas and they’re not afraid of proselytizing. The album’s more significant lyrics in a nutshell: you spend your life waiting and then it has passed you by, you don’t recognize your old friends, you want to escape the bright lights of civilization for the freedom of darkness and unknowing, and we’re all still impure, impatient children. The bands’ skill with inflection makes all the difference with many seemingly poor lines.

Quick And Dirty: A step in the right direction, stuffing classic rock sound with baroque pop figures old and new and a sprinkling of dark noise. If you’re an Arcade Fire fan, odds are nothing will ever measure up to Funeral for you, but this surely comes close, and for everyone else it will come off much better. (♦♦♦♦)

Concept: The hipster demigods root their fourth LP in samples of New Age hypnotherapy tapes.

Sound: The Books’ completely distinct sound has its share of great results. Exhibit A, their masterpiece Tokyo. With The Way Out, they move even further from their original sound in the same way they did on the last album — more of vocalist Nick Zammuto, more electric distortion. This is easily their loudest album, which isn’t saying much, but it’s thus the easiest to keep your attention on, for what it’s worth. Of their new sound, I Am Who I Am and The Story Of Hip Hop stand out. There are a few remnants of their more familiar sound with its shades of folk and classical, I Didn’t Know That and Beautiful People being the most accomplished. While some people complain that Zammuto’s voice is too tepid, the biggest obstacle for The Books is a consequence of its essential method of constantly gathering the most obscure material possible for its sound. The sample-heavy tracks are expertly coordinated from moment to moment, but are they actually organized? What are we supposed to hold onto or take from these trains of non-sequitur after non-sequitur? Plenty of people would argue there is a difference between music and a gag reel. While people can become accustomed to just about anything, there remains a point where form begins to detract from function, and The Books spend a lot of their time teetering on that point.

Lyrics: Boldly expanding the boundaries of nonsensicality by reassembling already bizarre therepeutic scam jargon. Have a taste of the final track, Group Autogenics II: “…tuning in now to the feet. You might try lifting them up towards the ears, and when you feel comfortable with it, allowing your eyes to close gently, in your mind’s eye. Your being merges with the garbage, becomes one with it, so that all your energies in this moment are held in awareness by the smells, and remembering that there is no one right way to doing the dishes. And let go completely of the question of time. When this happens, as an experiment, see if you can float on a rubber raft into a big pot of boredom, letting it all cook in your mind’s eye, where it cooks all by itself, stirring it, perhaps, every once and a while. Is that ok with you?/… /You are becoming, beyond any shadow of a doubt, Blue Rose. Blue Rose!”
Well, is that ok with you? How important is uniqueness to your sensibilities? Do you mind it driving you nuts? Maybe that’s The Books’ point. Maybe.

Quick And Dirty: Still sounds like nothing else by sounding like as much else, musical or not, as conceivably possible. If an individual style is your only standard, kneel before your idol. If you have any other expectations, there’s no guarantee whether The Books will satisfy. (♦♦♦½)

Concept: The much hyped and anticipated second album of the Canadian electronic dance group.

Sound: Strangely inconsistent. A lot of the album is quite unspectacular, and then it begrudgingly kicks into full house party mode. Where does the power go in between the tailored smash hits? While composer/producer Ethan Kath must be credited for the fuzzy, delirious drives on the big tracks, Alice Glass’ ferocious voice provides the decisive overkill. If you’re one of those people who was dissapointed by the conspicuous absence of Nick Zinner’s chilling guitar on Yeah Yeah Yeah’s It’s Blitz!, not to mention the general persistence of Karen O O O‘s problem problem problem with chanting chanting chanting, this might be adequate recourse, although Crystal Castles’ live performance is nowhere near as energizing or flamboyant and far less attractive than its recordings. I understand the categorical divides between the two groups, but they clearly reach for much of the same appeal. With that said, Crystal Castles 2, when it’s ready to go, has an ideal blend of eerie gothic edge and midnight rave intensity.

Lyrics: Thankfully inaudible, they range from innocuously vague to childishly morbid to genuinely morbid. Mostly the first two.

Quick And Dirty: Venturing a guess here by memory — six of the album’s fourteen tracks are winners, although possibly more suitable for getting psyched about nothing on a rainy day or straight up losing your mind on the dancefloor than actually dancing. (♦♦♦♦)

Concept: Update from another group of “post”-jazz sweethearts led by a percussionist composer (John Hollenbeck) and welcoming a guest member onto the album (pianist Gary Versace).

Sound: The titular piece (here performed without Versace) is beyond my full comprehension. Not only are there so many goofy syncopations around that I could not determine the initial meter independently, but I find it almost impossible to accept as the above video’s poster claims that its A section is plain old 4/4. I mean, if that thing doesn’t have alternations of 6/4 poking about in it, put me in a straightjacket. Then, before you know it, you’re somehow in 10/4. The Quintet’s members are magicians of transition. They draw the ear away from theme and rhythm, and slide in substitutes part by part. None of the pieces include a self-indulgent collapse, however. There is a co-orientation rather than chaos between them. They are carefully committed to simultaneously straying only so far from each other and no further, as if emulating tensegrity or imitating the reflexivity of improvisation. It’s an elucidation of free jazz, a conversion of free jazz’ supposed explorations to compositional technique. They’re definitely on to something. The downside is that whatever they’re doing and whatever it means can’t really be understood and thereby appreciated by the majority of us listeners just scrounging around in our leisure time, myself included. We can only hope to enjoy this stuff. While The Claudia Quintet’s masterful control and subtle use of dynamic makes their fluid experimentation more palatable, the baths of crunched rapid-fire polyrhythm and syncopation which extend through many of the pieces could be too distracting for anyone unaccustomed to such things. This is probably the best introduction to their work, though, with several uncharacteristically soft pieces that highlight the bands’ intuition over their calculation.

Lyrics: None

Quick And Dirty: As tempered and presentable as technical innovation gets. (♦♦♦♦½)

Concept: The second and third suites of a Metropolis style sci-fi concept arch, during which the android protagonist realizes she’s the One, and prepares to overthrow The Big Brother Matrix Man. Big Boi, Saul Williams, Of Montreal, and Deep Cotton join in.

Sound:  Well, there’s nothing wrong with the album. In sum, it’s a kaleidoscope of pop; Monáe cannot be accused of homogeneity, and her voice morphs tactfully to suit it all. The songs are not weighted by the concept either…they’ll fit right in if shuffled into a playlist. The album nevertheless falls short of being a great one. The songs each remain very much a cameo, none a fully-fledged scene, consistently opting for textural rather than structural flexibility with the scant but formidable exceptions of the classical interludes. While all tantalizing, to hear thirty seconds of a track is pretty comparable to hearing the whole. It could be argued that Stevie Wonder had much the same approach in Songs In the Key of Life, but Monáe’s jams (if you see fit to dub them as such) certainly do not match his for experimentalism or pure melodic imagination. Her aim is admirable and true, and it pretty much had to fall short in the wider scope of musical standards.

Lyrics: While Monáe’s voice is versatile, from smooth crooning to a nimble staccato flow and plenty more, her lyrics are thoroughly tired, and her rhyme schemes could use a lot more work period.

Concept: Seeking to live up to influences such as Wonder, Bowie, and Outkast, Monáe has a lot of work to do. This is a worthy milestone in that effort. (♦♦♦½)

Concept: Oh, what a delightfully obscure reference! Now, Thom Yorke’s coming over, so this is the best thing since Hearing Damage from the Twilight soundtrack or else nothing is sacred anymore, okay?

Sound : It must be emphasized that without good speakers or headphones this album is not half of what it can be. It is literally not a very accessible album. There are certain requirements for physically experiencing the finer touches and picking out the extra sounds that bump this up from just another hip-hop mash. Cosmogramma isn’t just a glut of classy and diverse samples. It’s been recorded and produced to feel like the real thing, if not better, since it gives a sort of parallax experience of all its contents, like you’re onstage walking back and forth among the players. If Flying Lotus had decided to drop a pin, you’d hear it under the bubbling jazz bass, videogame trills, and shuffling percussion. The influences certainly don’t end there. I’m not sure where they end. In this respect, the album’s the real deal, the next big thing for hip-hop. If you’re using your iPod earbuds for this though, as I first did when the album came out, you are likely to be very underwhelmed by many tracks, although some still refuse to have their excellence ignored.

Lyrics: Scatting, crazed laughter, oohs and ahs, whoever Laura Darlington is she rocks you, Thom Yorke needs a hug.

Quick And Dirty: One of the very best hip-hop instrumental/sample albums, right up there with DJ Shadow and The Avalanches. I do feel a good sound system is so integral to the album that I’m putting down two ratings for the two ways to hear it. One way or the other, you know what to do. (♦♦♦♦♦ or ♦♦♦)

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. (♦♦♦♦)

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)