You Can't Stop The ROCK
Call it blues rock, call it psychedelic, call it hard-grooved stoner rock. Call it whatever the hell you want, as long as you just call it ROCK. Iowa-based Radio Moscow's second album, Brain Cycles, crashed onto my horizon a couple of weeks ago and shows no indication of departing any time soon. Discovered by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, their sound bears unquestionable similarities. But whereas The Black Keys play a noisy, stripped-down two-man blues rock, Radio Moscow is something else entirely -- the rebirth of the power trio.
Comprised of singer/songwriter/guitarist Parker Griggs, drummer Corey Berry and bassist Zach Anderson, Radio Moscow plays like Cream on steroids. It's pounding, grooving, blissed-out rock, full of whammy bar and wah-wah. Their sound doesn't call for ass-shaking -- it demands it. What's even better is they're showing signs of evolving. Their first eponymous album was decent, if uneven. Their sophomore effort maintains the dirty, throwback-to-Marshall-Stack sound, but shows polish in their playing and songwriting.
Brain Cycles grabs the listener right from the get-go, with it's brilliant opening track "I Just Don't Know," a squelching, fuzzy guitar riff running through it, full of crescendoing segments that are rock and roll glory. Right around the end of the first minute, there's one of those great pauses, immediately followed by Griggs giving a "WOO!" signaling the song kicking into a higher gear. It's filled with rolling basslines and glorious guitar solos.
It doesn't really let up the gas, either. It's not fast paced rock, but it's undeniably heavy -- the second track, "Broke Down," proves that beautifully. Similarly, "250 Miles" is somewhere a drawn out, instrumental affair that emphasizes what feels like a five-minute guitar solo, replete with crashing cymbals and bass that's good for humping. The eight minute-plus epic, "No Good Woman" is bluesy, stoner rock nirvana, complete with vocal effects, a kickin' drum solo, and a filthy guitar. Think Zeppelin meets Cream meets Mastodon... or something like that.
However you want to spin it, whatever you want to label it, Radio Moscow rocks. No doubt, they're a throwback to another age. But in many they also have a sound that has to appeal to any guitar rock fan of any era. The lyrics are good, but they're merely the dressing. The sound is the near-perfect formula of guitar+bass+drums=rock. Don't let it pass you by.
Actor is something of a critical dilemma. Upon each listen, it alternates between sounding like a solid, if unsure, sophomore effort and a shallow, if occasionally beautiful, disappointment. Since sitting down to write this review, I've changed my opinion several times, and never have I felt a strong conviction one way or the other.
The main reason for this issue is that St. Vincent (real name Annie Clark) seems to be confused just what album she wants to make. Structurally, Actor is almost identical to her debut, Marry Me. 11 songs, each clocking in between three and five minutes. Like her previous album, it begins with more upbeat, electric-based works, including a catchy single, and ends with more classically-focused songs, arranged with strings and woodwinds surrounding Clark's subtly fragile voice. The covers are even similar, Clark's pale face contrasted against a single-toned background color.
Unfortunately for Clark, and for the listener, Actor falls short of the promise of its predecessor.
The fault lies heavily on the shoulders of those early tracks, particularly the album's opener "The Strangers", which is a droning, grating, repetitive mess, four minutes of almost constant clutter and monotony, broken for about thirty seconds by the sudden and welcome arrival of Clark's backing band, only to return to its initial banality. Throughout different points on the album, Clark showcases an unusual and highly unfortunate affinity for electronic sound loops straight out of the 1980s. Take the first single, "Actor Out Of Work". I found myself enjoying the song, when suddenly it was invaded by a bizarre sound, and I found myself taken aback, wondering, "Was that the synthesized screech of a fuzzed-out violin noise or a fuzzed-out horn noise? Either way, it's ridiculous." Effects-laden backup vocal tracks jump down the listener's throat and attack the heart, making you wish Clark would learn when to say when. Any pleasure derived from these early tracks is almost totally erased by over-production.
Thankfully, the album begins to settle down on track five with the more focused "Black Rainbow", which deftly grows from its soft flute beginning to a heavy buildup which grips you and then disappears into the air. From here, it's easy to be lulled into the security of Clark's embracing vocal presence and classical arrangements. But, sadly, such bliss is not to be. Possibly the most insidious and frustrating song on the album, even more so than the opening track, "Marrow" begins sweetly, but slowly, disturbingly, a techno beat troubles the waters. The beat begets a chunky guitar line, scraping away at the base of your skull, and these carry us and throw us into the pit of despair that is the chorus. "H-E-L-P, help me, help me" sings Clark, the dishonesty ringing in her voice like Madonna desperately struggling to remain relevant. The song, if you'll forgive the joke, more than lives up to the album's title by simply being melodramatic and over-the-top.
Despite so many problems, there are still moments of brilliance to be found on this record. The album finishes strong, with four songs of wondrous beauty, particularly the penultimate "Just the Same But Brand New", which moves gracefully through five-and-a-half minutes of growth and death, quiet intimacy building to splashing intensity and fading away to black. And while "The Bed" isn't a lyrical masterpiece, its charm is captivating.
When traditional critical approaches fail to define an opinion, when you waiver back and forth endlessly over an album's merits, the final verdict must be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: St. Vincent's Actor, is neither a good nor entirely bad record. In fact, I have no doubt that there will be several fans and critics who will be quite taken with it, though I suspect that many of those will either have never heard Marry Me or are too devoted to Clark's work to admit how clearly this new album, like an actor falling off the stage, misses the mark.