Doom and Theatre and mmm... Karen O
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | April 22, 2009 |
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | April 22, 2009 |
From the very start of “Zero”, the first track off of It’s Blitz the newest disc from underground punk royalty Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it’s clear that the band has taken their sound in a new direction. The very first sounds heard are those of synthy, charging lick that drives headlong into a disco party jam under singer Karen O’s decidedly toned-down vocal presence. The song is upbeat, but not particularly heavy. The singing is, well, singing; there are no screaming freakouts. The song, while remaining essentially the same volume level throughout, has direction and actually ends. Yes, it’s clear that something has changed since the last time we’ve heard this band.
But it’s only as the album progresses that the new direction becomes startlingly apparent.
Gone are the days of shrieking art-punk noise explosions that fans may remember wistfully from Yeah Yeah Yeahs breakout record, Fever To Tell. Indeed, the new sound has more in common with the song that was (let’s be honest) almost entirely responsible for that breakout, “Maps”, a track which had nothing in common with the rest of the album on which it was included. YYY’s have always been driven in equal measure by Karen O’s brazen energy and audacity, Nick Zinner’s steady riffing, and Brian Chase’s proficient drum work. But on It’s Blitz, keyboards and even strings can be added to that list.
And as the band continues to expand their sound, so too do they expand their emotional range. On their last record, the sadly underappreciated Show Your Bones, YYY’s got trippy and occasionally psychedelic. But on It’s Blitz, the curtain of unusual experimentation is pulled away, and underneath is revealed the beautiful heart of a band that has matured with time. Tracks like “Skeletons”, “Little Shadow”, and “Hysteric” qualify as legitimate ballads, and the fragility of Karen O’s voice adds a dimension of honesty that some naysayers may have found lacking in previous works.“Zero”
Possibly the album’s greatest highlight is “Dull Life”, a brilliantly schizophrenic song that leaps deftly between the two best musical ideas that the band here showcases. It’s starts slowly and softly, and for a moment it seems that sadness has overtaken the party band and the dancing portion of the album is on indefinite hiatus. But in a swift burst, the tragedy turns into a new kind of party, an upbeat and intense disco-rock jam. Then, just as quickly as it came, the life of the party dies down again, and we are carried slowly, with mounting power, through the original slow-jam. Until, of course, the band catches their second wind, and we end with another furious explosion of sound and happiness.
I don’t feel that I can, in good conscience, summarize this sonic transformation that has taken place within Yeah Yeah Yeahs without pointing out its inherent similarities to another female-fronted indie band, Metric. I won’t get sucked into a debate of which band came first, or comment on which is better, but it is undeniable, when placing these songs up against Metric’s new album Fantasies, for example, this combination of instruments, and even attitudes, is extraordinarily similar. I can’t say that I think this is a bad thing, as I quite like both bands (and both albums), and I would stress that each band brings their own swagger and fanbase to their performances. But the comparison brings perspective to the work as it will inevitably stand in history.
It’s Blitz, despite any similarities it may have to other artists or albums, is still extremely difficult to fault. Yeah Yeah Yeahs have mastered their new chosen sound in almost every way. Even the slower songs thrive with power and honesty, and musical ability is anything but lacking. The brilliance displayed is not seen in flashes or moments, but in entire stretches, if not the entire album. Surely it is among the many masterpieces of the art-punk movement, and will stand tall in the band’s catalogue for fans and newcomers alike. Whether it will spark the attention to break them into the mainstream remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the sort to care what anyone else thinks of them.
My relationship with Canadian rock outfit Marianas Trench has been a bit tumultuous. I bought their debut album, Fix Me, in early February after being impressed by “Say Anything,” and was disappointed (probably because I’d already been nut-punched by Thornley on the same day). I was on the verge of forgetting them completely last week when I gave Fix Me another listen, and discovered that it’s pretty good. It’s not great, but Josh Ramsay’s vocals have an earnest grit to them that prop the album up a bit, and there are enough memorable songs to keep the record from sinking. The upshot of this unnecessary exposition is that I was sufficiently reassured to check out their new album, Masterpiece Theatre. And, my, how things have changed.
I don’t want to throw too many superlatives around, here (lest I endanger my supposed objectivity), but Masterpiece Theatre is consistently great and often fucking spectacular. I’m not sure what happened in the two and a half years since Fix Me; something has honed Josh Ramsay’s ragged but effective songcraft to a razor’s edge. Taking cues from Queen and the Beach Boys as well as from modern rock and punk music, Ramsay melds gorgeous vocal harmonies with chunky guitars and magnetic hooks to create a record that’s head and shoulders above those of their pop-punk peers.
The opening track, “Masterpiece Theatre, Pt. 1” is a mini-rock opera in the vein of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even beginning with a similar vocal section. Ramsay’s vocals absolutely soar through the song’s five minutes as the band moves effortlessly between the quiet and the driving, from bouncy four-part a cappella to thumping rhythms and anthemic choruses. The intrepid harmonic flair pulses through the entire album, making songs that might otherwise elicit eye-rolling into surprising highlights. The “oh-way/oh-way/oh-ooooh” that runs through the ballad “Beside You” would never work if the tone wasn’t so crisp; the 90’s-flavored “Perfect” couldn’t possibly hold attention if not for Ramsay’s quick-paced lyrics and falsetto. Even the nostalgic “Acadia” manages to rise above the typical reminiscing-type song by focusing on the tearing down of a childhood home rather than the usual “ooh, pictures, awesome” oeuvre of certain other “rock” bands. (See that “604 Records” up there? Yeah, it’s Chad Kroeger’s label. Again.) The other two iterations of “Masterpiece Theatre,” which split and then close the album, while not nearly as good as Part I, serve to illustrate the diversity of Ramsay’s songwriting ability. Each of the three versions displays a different style, and Part III does end the record in epic fashion, reprising previous songs and even going back to Fix Me for a few lines from “Say Anything.” The only real misstep is “Good To You,” a sappy and fairly bland duet with MySpace artist Kate Voegele, who—despite being from Cleveland—sucks.
While it may be those more adventurous songs that set Marianas Trench apart from their peers, it’s the radio-friendly rock songs that make Masterpiece Theatre impossible to quit. After the soft strings and vocals close out “Masterpiece Theatre, Pt. 1,” the record bursts into the most absurdly infectious rock song I’ve heard in a long while with “All to Myself.” Boasting bright and bouncy power chords, vocals stretching from the top to the bottom of Ramsay’s impressive range, a toe-tapping beat and a perfect pop melody, it’s the kind of song that would make even a lesser album worthwhile.
“All to Myself,” in its capacity to be in one’s head for hours, is rivaled only by the tambourine-shaking groove of “Celebrity Status.” Again, Marianas Trench takes a tired song trope (“fame is hard”) and wraps it in a pretty new package that’s nigh impossible to dislike.
You get two songs in this review, because I can’t bring myself to love either one less.
If Josh Ramsay and Marianas Trench can keep improving this much from album to album, I will look forward to following a long career of killer hooks and—for a few of you, I’m sure — guilty pleasures. It’s a bit of a stretch to consider any pop-punk record a masterpiece, but I’d wager that Masterpiece Theatre is about as close as you’re going to get.
The masked rapper is back, but he’s not called MF Doom anymore. This new album henceforth, you are invited to call him merely DOOM (all capitals, please). Too right, I say! The ‘MF’ nonsense was getting embarrassing. Doom is doom — that bit’s cool. Hey, make it all capitals! Bitchin’. But MF? Seriously, that shit is over.
Whatever the ins and outs of his moniker, DOOM’s new album, Born Like This, is his first in what feels like ages and marks a new sort of game for the man sometimes known as Viktor Vaughn. It’s a mature, dark and complex album with bold, stark production from the likes of Madlib and Jake One, and one that sees DOOM raising his game somewhat. His flow is remarkable on this record, with rhyme upon rhyme cascading through sentences which jump and crackle with invention. DOOM’s articulation also helps him here: his enunciation is as clear as ever, and his voice has a peppery sort of graininess to it, and a lazy kind of cadence as spits his lyrics.
This is a grown-up record, and one on which DOOM is making a bid for the sort of mature style shown in recent years by Ghostface Killah with Fishscale or Common with Be. He marks this intention right from the start, with a crackly intro quickly leading into the really good ‘Gazillion Ear’, which boasts an old-school delivery over J-Dilla beats and a towering Giorgio Moroder sample. His rapping is unbelievably good on this. From here, the record segues into the equally good ‘Ballskin’ (which gets my award for funniest song title of 2009), on which DOOM raps over organ and piano, with subtle licks of funk guitar. His lyrics on this as on ‘Gazillion Ear’ are excellent, but always allusive and elusive rather than speaking directly to their target. You’re always playing catch-up with his references, which veer wildly between high and pop culture.
There are many other highlights in terms of production, and perhaps none more so than the odd and disastrously named ‘Batty Boyz’ — a bizarre disquisition on homosexual superheroes, featuring a marvelously light and niggling synth riff. The song is upsettingly homophobic and funny at once, and I’m sad to say the line ‘It’s like a leotard-fest/And how it got started is any retard’s guess’ made me laugh out loud. DOOM is still funnier and cleverer than nearly anyone out there; read his interview in the recent Village Voice to see how he likes to skirt around the edges of a joke’s taboos.
And there’s a lot of fun to be had here ‘Angelz’, featuring Ghostface himself, is a sassy Charlie’s Angels-style romp, while ‘Supervillainz’ is a sure-footed amalgam of drum machine, reverb and a sibilant bassline. It’s so fresh-sounding, it makes the Fresh Prince look like Hot Hot Heat. ‘Yessir’ has Raekwon guest-appearing, and it fairly roars along on a quick bassbeat and a drum shuffle. For all the lightness of his material, however, DOOM wants you to listen up: ‘Absolutely’ — a highlight — is a dark ballad in which the phrase ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ rings out starkly; ‘Rap Ambush’ spins a metaphor of rap-as-warfare over organ and flute sounds; and ‘Cellz’ quotes from Charles Bukowski’s poem ‘Dinosauria, We’ over a whorl of strings, urgent drums and a threatening synth-line.
Overall, DOOM has some strong material here, and he knows it. His production is tight, his flow slick and his lyrics sharp and ballsy. I feel like this is still too piecemeal and ragged to compare with some of his contemporaries’ best work, and I’m not sure that behind the verbal pyrotechnics DOOM has that much to say. But this is nevertheless very powerful stuff, and a worthwhile use of your time.