14 December 2010

2010 Albums: Against Me!, Alcest, Alejandro Escovedo, Aloe Blacc

Here's the first batch of capsule reviews! Please consult the series introduction for detailed information about whatinthehell is going on.

Against Me!
White Crosses
Released June 4, 2010 (Sire)

Short notes: Accused sell-outs (and victims of Wikipedia vandalism) actually follow a well-worn punk path, with reasonable success.

So, this isn't the old Against Me! (not that it has been for awhile now). And you know what? I'm good with that. Unlike the scene kids, I never had any stake in Against Me! as a movement or a standard-bearer, and this incarnation is a hell of a lot less sanctimonious. This is a band that’s mining the same earnest, not quite punk place as the Gaslight Anthem and Social Distortion, albeit, I'd argue, somewhat less effectively. I've got a huge soft spot for that sort of big, anthemic guitar pop with a kick, so I like this album a fair bit. There's not a lot of variety here--everything soars, everything is remarkably serious (the occasional wry humor of their earlier records is entirely gone, primarily in favor of Robert McNamara references), everything rocks out (except the song about Bob Dylan, which starts with a harmonica and has some of the worst lyrics this side of Ke$ha). It ain't subtle ("Suffocation! Modern life in the Western world..."), but it ain't bad.

That punk music traditionally concerns itself with the tearing down society doesn't mean that it necessarily should. While it's not correct to call this happy or optimistic -- album highlight "Because of the Shame" makes that clear -- White Crosses at least approaches that line from the side of reflection or, occasionally, contentment. It's damning with praise to say that this appeals to my mid-life middle-class ethos, the part of me that gets excited about gardening and and minivans. "I was a teenage anarchist but the politics are too convenient," Tom Gables sings after asking us if we remember when we wanted to set the world on fire. The price of growing up is the recognition of complexity and the knowledge that destruction isn't the answer even if it is easy.

Ecailles de Lune
Released March 29, 2010 (Prophesy Productions)

Short Notes: Dude's name is Snow (not THAT Snow, at least I don’t think so), at least in French.

I don't really have the tools to effectively analyze music like this, but I can tell you a few things. First, it's not exactly metal. There's full-throated screaming and fast, heavy drumming, but there's a lot of shoegazey droning and noodling guitar atmospherics. Pitchfork compared Neige's singing to Jonsi from Sigur Ros, and in places, I think that's a fair comparison (about the only one I'm able to make, as this really doesn't sound like anything else I listen to). I enjoyed listening to it while writing, which is about as strong an endorsement as I'm likely to give mostly instrumental guitar music.

Shoegazer impulses have only ever appealed to me in a metal context, where the power of the music overwhelms the "wallowing in self-misery" feeling that I traditionally find associated with that genre. The best moments on this album are those that more closely approach post-rock, like the penultimate "Solar Song," but it doesn't really satisfy the metal itch and doesn't provide me much more than Explosions in the Sky or Russian Circles or the good parts of Sigur Ros -- but that's just because I'm usually looking for something that forces me to listen. This album is too passive -- too shoegazy? not metal enough? -- for my taste, but good for throwing on while doing other work.

Alejandro Escovedo
Street Songs of Love
Released June 29, 2010 (Fantasy/Concerned Music Group)

Short Notes: A legend continues his long swerve into the middle of the road. But that doesn't mean it's bad.

Guys with back catalogs going all the way back to legit 70s California punk have to change it up pretty frequently to sustain that level of productivity. Since his near-death Hep-C experience in 2003, Ecsovedo's put out 3 "solo" records, which is a decent level of productivity for anybody in trad guitar rock not named Neil Young. And he's still an electrifying live player--a recent appearance on Austin City Limits highlighted his hot and blue guitar and his new band, the Sensitive Boys. But the songs on the new record, for all the great playing and the not bad lyrics ("The first time I saw you, I thought I must of dreamed you up," for instance, could go either way), are uneven. Reviews call it "radio-ready," and there are indeed some hooks here. But there's a bit too many slow ones, or fast ones that reward more with instrumental drive than with lyrical depth. This is, for better or worse, Dad-rock, from a guy with legitimate chops and a bit more nuance than the Claptons and Knophlers of the world.

Working through the back catalogs of popularly established artists who've already started to make alright-but-not-great albums isn't particularly sad since you already know what you're getting into. I got into Escovedo right at the end of his most fruitful period; indeed, it's his "With These Hands" that immediately comes to mind when I read Brandon's intro to this project. Which is to say: my expectations are pretty high for each new release. Escovedo has one of the great voices in music and it has lost little of it's power, polishing up some of the mediocre-by-comparison songwriting and keeping the album from being a legitimate disappointment. Nothing is bad here, but nothing is great either.

Aloe Blacc
Good Things
Released September 28, 2010 (Stone's Throw)

Short notes: Recession zeitgeist-capturing soul single. Yeoman soul in an era of electro-Hip Hop, brought to you by those retro cats at Stones Throw.

Nothing terribly innovative for anyone familiar with the post-neosoul revival template(1999-2006, say). Mayer Hawthorne's exceptional "A Strange Arrangement" album from last year, also on Stones Throw, comes to mind. That said, it's pretty damn solid. Even the ballads and mid-tempo non-burners work here, although the highlight is still the single ("I Need a Dollar"). Beautiful, if not radical production and arrangement with good-to-great songs ("Politician" and "Miss Fortune," especially) with a consistent, mid-70s soul ghetto-observational focus, updated for the Great Recession (he drops a bank bailout reference on "So Hard"). Altogether worth the 50 minutes.

It's not often that a cover -- let alone a cover of such a recognizable song -- saves its album, but that's what Blacc's version of Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" does. It's hard to explain, but it was that point in the album, two-thirds of the way through, where it clicked for me. Before that, the single "I Need a Dollar" and the beat to "Politican" were all I was taking from the album. The album lacks anything revolutionary, giving it the "comfort food" feeling, reminding me of early 70's Philadelphia soul at times. Five good/great tracks ("Hey Brother" and "Miss Fortune" being the other two) and competent filler makes this worth at least a few repeat listens.

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