call the police / american dream, by LCD Soundsystem

99-callthepolice

Released May 5, 2017

14 min

So this is why LCD Soundsystem came back.

I wondered what their plan was when James Murphy first announced – and pre-emptively apologized for – the band’s return early last year. It always seemed to me like Murphy put the band to rest far earlier than he may have needed to, given that the band had just released its best album in 2010, and were at perhaps the peak of their popularity. Maybe that scared him, and he needed to go away for a while and figure out what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life. This doesn’t have any basis in facts or anything like that – I don’t think he’s really talked about why LCD Soundsystem stopped existing for five years.

But they’re back, with a Christmas single being the herald of a new era of the band, released on December 24, 2015, before anyone knew (for sure, anyway) that the band was working on a full return to activity. LCD Soundsystem spent 2016 on the festival circuit, celebrating their return while quietly working on a new record. A band as revered as LCD certainly doesn’t need to record an album to justify their existence, but, as I mentioned earlier, it always felt like James Murphy had far more to give to us than he did during the band’s first run, and now we’re finally seeing that, as two actual singles expected to be from the new album surfaced, in the double A-side of “call the police” and “american dream.”

The dichotomy is interesting, almost like a cohesive primer on the band. “call the police” is a fast-driving rocker, bright and upbeat musically, but with an undercurrent of melancholy throughout the lyrics as Murphy struggles to be heard above the cacophony of instrumentation below him. It reminds me a lot of “All My Friends,” one of LCD Soundsystem’s best songs in their catalogue, and absolutely my favorite. They both barrel forward on instrumentation that threatens to sweep Murphy away before he can say his piece, and he finally gets it all out by shouting above the noise. It’s a very Sound of Silver-era song, I think, and it’s the side of LCD Soundsystem that I’ve always loved the most, even if I think This is Happening is a better album.

By contrast, “american dream” is a synth-driven slow dance, with the signature melody being a haunting, dripping rhythm that feels like you’re being surrounded. The song has a clear narrative, following the protagonist (whose actions are being described by Murphy throughout the song) and describing their feelings of inadequacy as they trudge through their life, those feelings infecting everything they do, describing the experience as a real American dream. It could easily be an autobiographical song, and Murphy is certainly no stranger to writing songs of that nature, but it also feels like a very modern analysis of life in 2017, particularly in the sort of big city where Murphy made his name and his home. He could have easily seen this story any number of times around him.

This is LCD Soundsystem distilled down to its essence – soaring punk/rock, heavy doses of electronica, either standalone or mixed in, and diagnoses of what it’s like to be human today. LCD Soundsystem has never been a band of big ideas and navel-gazing – James Murphy is far more concerned with what he can see in front of him, and sharing those feelings with whoever’s willing to listen. And there are many, many people willing to listen, hanging on every word, anxiously awaiting the day when, for the first time in seven years, they can wake up to the joy of a new LCD Soundsystem album.

Advertisements

California, by blink-182

96-california

Released July 1, 2016

42 min, 36 sec

In the beginning of 2015, Tom DeLonge decided that he’d had enough of the blink-182 reunion, and in a very public spat with bandmates Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker, quit the band for the second time in almost exactly ten years. Rather than fold under the guise of an “indefinite hiatus,” however, Hoppus and Barker stood their ground, content to allow DeLonge to take his ball and head back home to Angels & Airwaves. They berated him and questioned his work ethic in interviews, and brought on Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio to help them fulfill performance commitments. Hoppus and Barker must have seen something in the union, as Skiba was then brought on full-time, to complete the record that DeLonge refused to sing a note for. The end result – after a reboot with a new producer that resulted in the scrapping of that previous album – is California, the first blink-182 album in five years.

Replacing a band’s lead singer – even in a band with two that share vocal duties equally – is no small task. Ask Stone Temple Pilots, who fired Scott Weiland, watched replacement Chester Bennington walk away after being unable to handle fronting two major bands at the same time, and are now scrambling to figure out what to do now that Weiland is dead. Ask Journey, who sat in lead vocalist hell for over a decade until discovering current singer Arnel Pineda on YouTube, of all places. Ask Black Sabbath, who’s had as many vocalists as they’ve had instrumentalists. A band either enjoys a renaissance or dies a slow, embarrassing death when someone new comes in to take over vocals.

blink faced a particularly difficult struggle, already having hit the age where their best songs and most successful record are moving from radio-dominating pop-punk to classic rock of the rapidly aging 1990s. It can be embarrassing to watch a 40-year-old Hoppus sing about how nobody likes him when he’s 23, or belt out ridiculous joke songs that he’d likely written as a teenager, at such prestigious music events as BlizzCon and E3. Not to mention the morning show circuit.

But this isn’t something new to them, as they faced these same problems during their initial reunion in 2009, four years after DeLonge indulged in his most bizarre obsessions and musical inclinations, appearing to permanently mature as a musician with Angels & Airwaves. Hoppus and Barker were left to pick up the pieces, putting out an interesting but relatively uninspired record as +44, promptly abandoned and left to die the moment DeLonge came knocking. This time, +44 remains in the basement – Craig Fairbaugh and Shane Gallagher put down their phones in disappointment when they saw the news, probably.

So, California. If Neighborhoods was an appropriate title for that record’s music-by-committee sound that arose from DeLonge, Hoppus, and Barker all recording separately, then California appropriately represents Hoppus taking the wheel and steering the album himself. The album has it all – loud pop anthems, reflections on the band’s home state, and, of course, two unnecessary joke tracks, because this is Mark Hoppus and this is what Mark Hoppus does. At least they’re funny.

California was recorded as a unit, at a blistering pace, with a brand new producer in John Feldmann, filling the void left by the deceased Jerry Finn, who had produced the band for years before their initial breakup. (blink produced Neighborhoods and Dogs Eating Dogs themselves.) When Feldmann came on board, the band had already produced an album’s worth of tracks. When going over the music, however, they decided that it would be better to simply start from scratch with Feldmann, which resulted in the entirety of California being recorded in the space of three months, from January to March 2016. Neighborhoods, by comparison, took nearly two years to finish.

What Feldmann brought in his production is a more cohesive sound than Neighborhoods, while also encouraging the band to move past their comfort zone, expanding more into quieter, acoustic tracks in the vein of “Boxing Day” from 2013, without reveling in the strangely dark, negative sound of blink-182. Instead, the band embraces a bombastic, anthemic sound in songs like “No Future” and “Bored to Death,” songs of teenage rebellion that still work, sort of – as much as songs of that nature can work coming from middle-aged men. Other tracks reflect the band’s age – songs like “Rabbit Hole” and “San Diego” are world-weary and reflective, with the former’s refrain of “I won’t fall down that fucking rabbit hole” emphasizing the band’s – or, more accurately, Hoppus’s – desire to not fall by the wayside, refusing to succumb to the call of becoming a nostalgia act.

“San Diego,” as a side note, is rather clearly a song about DeLonge, though not nearly as bitter and petty as “No, It Isn’t” was from +44’s We Don’t Need to Whisper in 2006, when the wounds of DeLonge’s first departure were fresh. Instead, it reads as settling the issue – Hoppus is saying “you’re gone, and we don’t want to go back to you, and that’s fine. Have a nice life.”

But California certainly invokes nostalgia, both in its subject matter and its sound. blink-182 still sounds like the perennial pop-punk giant that it was in the 90s and early 2000s, and though their sound has expanded since then, the core, dated as it may be, remains the same. Hoppus still writes from the perspective of his teenage self, and the band tries its hardest to play to an audience twenty years their junior. Their music is aimed at people going to Warped Tour, whether they’re teenagers or people who went to the Warped Tour when blink was headlining over a decade ago.

I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with that. You’re not going to hear political songs from blink-182, or songs about the struggles of parenthood, or the middle class. blink-182 isn’t a band for the working man, even as they continue to look more and more like that class of people. But it still puts them in an uncomfortable position, as the band is, more than ever before, a vehicle for Hoppus to continue to live out his teenage fantasies.

Because this is no longer the Mark, Tom, and Travis Show – now that DeLonge is out of the way, it’s the Mark Show all the way. Barker has always been content to stay in the back and drum his ass off while DeLonge and Hoppus handle the songwriting, and he continues to do so for California. Matt Skiba, then, conveys a sense of just being along for the ride. He certainly contributed to songwriting, but all of the songs are credited to the trio as a unit, with select co-writers for certain tracks. What Skiba brings to the table, besides a stronger command of the guitar than DeLonge’s twinkly, wandering play style after the reunion, is a voice that’s closer in register to Hoppus’s, but with a far sharper edge – similar to DeLonge’s and almost as distinctive, but much lower in pitch. His voice is very well-suited to pop punk, as well as harder punk, which Alkaline Trio engages in. Skiba thus provides a nice change of pace – and, so far, he seems much more interested in staying on pitch and following the flow of the band’s music than DeLonge was after the reunion. Skiba is a net plus, eliminating the band’s previous divisiveness while providing a steady hand and steady voice. It’s not a shake-up or reinvention – it’s getting the band back in the right lane, a steady hand on the wheel, keeping them on the highway instead of taking an exit into new, unfamiliar territory.

That’s probably the best way to describe California – familiar and relatively unchallenging, but comforting in that familiarity. This isn’t a +44 record masquerading as a blink album, which was a real concern of mine when DeLonge left the band in 2015. Instead, it’s unfiltered Hoppus, one of two pop-punk masterminds that helped propel blink-182 to unforseen heights in the 1990s and continues to hit those same veins in 2016. And as it turns out, unfiltered Mark Hoppus sounds a lot like blink-182.

CryoShell 2014, by CryoShell

Released February 23, 2014

By the end of 2013, all hope of seeing a follow-up to CryoShell had dissipated, at least in my mind.  No news, a horribly staggered worldwide release, and the empty promise of a reissue featuring the two songs the band had put out the year before all added up to a band that appeared to no longer exist.

Then, out of nowhere, this.

A new YouTube channel with a single video – a rehearsal of “No More Words,” marked as the fifth rehearsal of that song.  Recorded in late 2013 after Christine Lorentzon’s return to the band, the video was noted to be a sneak peek at a set of rehearsal videos from the same session, with the implied promise that the rest of the videos would be released, and maybe even something more than that.

Instead, it’s been nearly a year since the video’s release, and nothing.  No new music, no more rehearsal videos, nothing.  Back to radio silence.

The performance itself is a nice one.  Quieter and a little more subdued than the studio version, “No More Words” features instrumentation well-suited to the acoustic treatment this rehearsal series reportedly brought to the band’s music.  It’s a nice surprise and a lovely performance, but now it holds little more than another empty promise for a return of CryoShell.

The part that frustrates me the most is that this is a brand new YouTube account, “CryoShell2014,” and they’ve done nothing with it.  One song, one video, and silence.  Not even reuploads of their old videos.  So, here we are, back where we were in mid-2013, months after the last songs the band release, back in 2012 following a two year wait after their debut album.  It’s a shame.

78-cs2014

CryoShell, by CryoShell

76-cryoshell

Released June 7, 2010

40 min, 34 sec

CryoShell likely wasn’t meant to be an endpoint for the band, but that’s what it became. Recorded over the span of a year, the album finally saw a release in June 2010 – exclusively in Scandinavia, consisting of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. This, obviously, was incredibly frustrating for BIONICLE fans, largely based in the U.S., and the band did promise a wider international release fairly soon after the release in their home region. “Fairly soon” ended up being nearly two years, finally seeing a wide release in February 2012; by that time, the band had all but fizzled out, with plans for a tour falling through, and Christine Lorentzon having departed the band on maternity leave.

It’s a shame, too, because this is a very good album. Sitting firmly in the heavier side of the hard rock spectrum, CryoShell is differentiated by its flourishes of heavily synthesized strings, with most of the album’s tracks featuring string riffs of that nature. The band isn’t always hard and heavy, either – tracks like “Falling” and “Murky” take a slower tempo, pulling back a bit to focus more on Lorentzon’s voice. And, of course, album closer “No More Words” completely abandons the band’s usual sound, instead being a slow piano ballad centered entirely around Lorentzon.

Lorentzon’s voice is spectacular. It has an unusual accent, a result of her Danish heritage, and she can go from light and airy to full-throated shouting very easily. Her bandmates, on the other hand, can often feel rather generic, but this is more a consequence of the style the band has chosen to adopt rather than any sort of ineptitude. Kasper Søderlund pounds out some truly great solos and riffs, and is nearly as much of a star as Lorentzon because of it.

I remember being so, so excited for this album. The band posted audio for some song – “Feed” or something like that – and I remember that they posted a free download link for “Feed” and “The Room” in the comments as an apology to their fans outside of Scandinavia for being unable to provide the full album to them. I don’t know why it took them so long – the Creeping in My Soul EP came out at the same time internationally, back in January, with none of the issues that plagued the full album. Perhaps that album had the backing of LEGO while this one didn’t. I’m not really sure. What I do remember, however, is being incredibly excited when it finally did pop up, and I could finally own it legally, rather than relying on secondhand rips from the CD.

I also remember being so, so disappointed that this album didn’t lead the band anywhere. There was talk of a tour, of a follow-up album, and none of it happened. Nothing happened until over two years later, when “Breakout” and “Gravity Hurts” popped up out of nowhere, featuring temporary replacement Tine Midtgaard. After that, silence for another year, until one more song, which we’ll talk about on Monday. To this day, the band still has not indicated that another album is on the way. As much as CryoShell is an arrival, the album is a swan song, full of promise that was never fulfilled.

The CRC Sessions: Live and Deconstructed in Chicago, by Nine Inch Nails

75-crc

Recorded April 27, 2000

35 min, 57 sec

The CRC Sessions represent a strange show in the Nine Inch Nails live circuit. In 2000, during the Fragility 2.0 tour, the band made a stop at the Chicago Recording Company for a special, shortened performance in-studio. What made this show peculiar was that three of the songs played (“Something I Can Never Have,” “The Day the World Went Away,” and “Hurt”) were rearranged completely, performed in a new, stripped-down manner, distinctly different from what the band had been doing up to that point.

These stripped down, acoustic performances are said to for the basis for what would become Still in 2002; indeed, “Something I Can Never Have” is almost exactly like it is on Still here, though with an added acoustic guitar replicating the song’s harmony. “The Day the World Went Away” works in much of the same manner, mirroring the structure used in the Still version, which also happened to be how the song was played in a live setting on the Fragility tours, and is based on the “Quiet” remix of the song from The Day the World Went Away single. “Hurt,” played twice for some reason, in the same arrangement both times, would receive a variety of acoustic-style reinterpretations in successive tours, each a little different from the last. This one in particular is pretty gorgeous, with Robin Finck shifting around within the song’s melodic structure, adding notes where he sees fit to enhance the song.

Aside from the acoustic tracks, the rest of the set is all about promoting The Fragile, with setlist mainstays “Even Deeper,” “The Big Come Down,” and “The Fragile” rounding out the set. Even these tracks, bombastic and aggressive as they are, sound surprisingly intimate in the in-studio setting, each one followed by a smattering of claps once the track ends.

The CRC Sessions exists only on bootleg recordings – the most popular, which I have, is a soundboard recording, the highest quality of the show possible barring an official release. It’s strange that this didn’t see any sort of official release, given its immense unusual nature; perhaps Reznor already had the idea for Still in his mind, and did not want to release early versions of those reinterpretations before the final ones. In any case, it’s an interesting, if short, show for NIN fans to check out, particularly if they are interested in the softer, more acoustic side of Nine Inch Nails.

Covers & Rare, by Audioslave

74-coversandrare

Unofficial compilation

I’ve never really been a fan of unofficial live compilations like this one. I get the intent of them – hey, guys, look, here’s every single song your favorite band has ever played! – but their unofficial nature and the frequently awful quality of the recordings means they’re not really as worthwhile as one might think.

I don’t even remember the other tracks in this compilation – I’m fairly sure that the “Rare” half encompassed the band’s few b-sides in “We Got the Whip,” “Turn to Gold,” and the Funkadelic cover “Super Stupid,” but that’s all I can think of. Maybe some Rage tracks too. Like, Rage tracks covered by Audioslave, not just randomly thrown in there.

In any case, these two covers aren’t bad. The quality of the recordings likely plays this up more, but both feel like a grunge take on the White Stripes and Rush, with Cornell’s raspy, blown out voice complimenting the muddy, murky guitar and bass tones in these tracks. There’s not much in the way of structure changes or added flourishes – for the most part, these are straight covers, leaving little to the imagination. They were probably cool to hear in a live setting, but for a compilation like this, they’re tracks that are best listened to once and then never again.

Counterparts, by Rush

73-counterparts

Released October 19, 1993

54 min, 24 sec

The 1990s were a time of experimentation for Rush. Lyrically, that is – Rush has always been a band that will say “fuck it” at any given moment and completely shift their sound around to whatever they want. One needs to look no further for an example of that than comparing 1989’s Presto to 1991’s Roll the Bones. You know what that is? That’s the sound of the 80s dying in a wave of Alex Lifeson guitar riffs.

Indeed, the shift back to the band’s power trio rock format with Roll the Bones laid the groundwork for Counterparts, which anchored the band even further in alternative rock, moreso than they’d ever been before. No longer were Rush a progressive rock band, or an electronica-tinged act; no, they were back in the world of straight-up rock’n’roll, here to set the record straight.

Lyrically, however, Rush took a weird turn. Counterparts is full of strange lyrical concepts for a band as old, relatively, as Rush was. Many of the songs are about love, of the emotional kind, and of the physical – “Alien Shore” in particular is pretty uncomfortable to listen to. Maybe that’s just me being immature, but I don’t really want to hear Geddy Lee tell me that sex is not a competition for him and his lady.

Most of the other songs are the usual Peart lyrics, writing of abstract concepts and vague metaphors, enhanced and exemplified by Lee’s vocals and the fantastic musicianship the trio always demonstrates. One song in particular, however, stands out.

“Nobody’s Hero” is a strange way of tackling a social issue that had gained significant steam in the 1990s – that of the struggle for equal rights for LGBTQ+ individuals in North America, particularly the U.S. and Canada. Lee sings of attending a party he was invited to by his gay friend, and being struck by the sheer normalness of the party, where he is attending as a “straight minority.” It’s a very, very weird song, looking at a social issue in a moderately progressive manner through the eyes of someone that could, kindly, be called a bit of an old fogey. Then, the man Lee sings of dies of AIDS, and the song takes a different turn, labeling him an unwanted pariah by society, “nobody’s hero,” despite the man’s normalcy in Lee’s eyes.

The song’s second half takes a completely different turn, singing of a girl murdered in Peart’s hometown. The inspiration for this half of the song is rumored to be Kristen French, a teenager tortured and murdered by a serial rapist. It’s another weird tone, stating that she is also “nobody’s hero” in the eyes of society on account of her “averageness.”

I don’t know. It’s a strange song that doesn’t really hit the mark with either verse. But that’s the story of Counterparts overall – it’s an album that takes Rush to a new place in their music, but also has a feeling of wheel-spinning. Rush had been a band for nearly twenty years at this point – eighteen in their current configuration – and it was starting to show. Having come down from their commercial high in the mid-1980s, Rush was a band that appeared to be settling into the role of a legacy act, albeit one that continued to make and promote new music on a regular basis. 1996’s Test for Echo (which we’ll get to, eventually) is more of the alternative rock the band brought on Counterparts, and the band seemed destined to go in that direction for the rest of their career.

In 1998, however, tragedy struck, and the course of Rush’s history was changed forever.