It’s hard to continually raise the bar on a genre that you create for yourself and yet still remain fresh or creative. That said, there’s something missing on Trans-Continental Hustle that was so eye-opening on Gogol Bordello‘s Gypsy Punks, so explosive on Super Taranta! that it’s hard to pinpoint. The energy is here, Hutz is still Hutz, the pace is frenetically balanced between traditional punk, gypsy, and Carnaval atmosphere, with the immigrant-centric worldliness still representing the core of the band. And despite the difficult task of incorporating a more discernible Latin sound tied to punk, there’s still something missing.
Many have noted the now infamous photo of the band wearing matching garb promoting the release of the TCH, a ominous sign of something completely antithetical to the core of GB and punk itself, a band comprised of wildly diverse elements too unrestrained to be coerced into uniformity. It could point to the more polished nature of the album as a whole. For since this album is under the purview of mega-producer Rick Rubin, I suspect that GB’s talents, and perhaps its greatest asset, raw unpredictability, may be sacrificed for family-friendly airplay. Take the songs Uma Memina, Last One Goes The Hope, Rebellious Love and To Rise Above, for example. The backup singers sound distinctly bored with their restrained wailing. Gone is the occasional though necessary explicit lyric, and less prevalent is the evocative gypsy violin from Sergey Ryabtsev in favor of the strumming of acoustic guitar.
That’s not to say there are unworthy tracks here. Rebellious Love, My Companjera, In the Meantime in Pernambuco, and the epically momentum building When Universes Collide are all worthy of addition to the elite GB songs. GB’s songwriting has always been intelligent, fun and belligerent, and it doesn’t deviate much on TCH. In fact, the lyrics are probably as tight as they have been on previous albums; the fever to which they’re musically set simply isn’t as wild or spontaneous.
For the handful of standouts in this album, for me it doesn’t match the intensity of Super Taranta! and Gypsy Punks. I don’t blame the band for going in a more polished direction; it was bound to happen that someone influential with the promise of a big payday would try to latch onto GB. I’m thankful that it didn’t detract too much from Trans-Continental Hustle, and that it happened after two supremely powerful releases. Trans-Continental Hustle is a fine, if perhaps too well-produced album that while not as overwhelmingly definitive, continues Gogol Bordello’s recognition in the realm of worldly punk.
As simultaneously funky and disconcerting as Demon Days was/is, Gorillaz have raised the stakes with Plastic Beach. Thematically, the album is a philosophical musing that we can’t ever really separate ourselves from that which we discard or dismiss. Musically, Plastic Beach is at first glance a stark mismatch of distinct talent scrounged the world over by Damon Albarn, though ultimately fitting together seamlessly. It is a perfect amalgamation of seemingly disparate genres and musicians when listened as a whole, thereby raising the bar for music in this 21st century. It’s an ominous, carefree, thumping, melancholy and affirming mix of something that possesses both humility and gravitas.
Sure, everyone knows the talent that contributed to Plastic Beach, but one of the greatest strengths of the album is that it is a gestalt piece, where everybody contributes to the theme rather than focusing on their own impact. Albarn managed the talent impeccably, especially with relative newcomers like Little Dragon, Kano and Bashy. About the only thing I could have done without was the advert-like effects on Superfast Jellyfish. Other than that, every single track is a well-conceived standout. Plastic Beach is simply immaculate.
It’s hard to take Richard Swift seriously at face value. He looks kinda like Jack Black and has a similar cheekiness in his music. Also like Black, once you hear how adept he is as a musician you’re likely to be surprised. Unlike Black, Swift is a bit more mellow in sound, his voice sounding like an amalgam of Bob Dylan and Frankie Valli. His surround sound bears a combined similarity to what one would hear on a Wilco album and your local oldies station, all mixed under the purview of Gnarles Barkley’s Danger Mouse.
With The Atlantic Ocean, Swift continues his surprisingly catchy oeuvre after the subtle yet very quality Dressed Up For the Letdown. The Atlantic Ocean is a bit more up-tempo, comprised of a weird yet intriguing inclusion of electronica weaving in between an omnipresent piano, lonely horn section, crunchy guitar and banjo ensemble.
For me, the album starts out as any typical alt-rock album would but slowly morphs into a 70ish guitar driven contemplation, to finally an echoing Motown dirge. And Swift, with all his weirdness, pulls it off. Favorite tracks include the immaculate The Original Thought, R.I.P., Bat Coma Motown, The End of an Age, A Song for Milton Feher, and the ultra funky Lady Luck.
The Atlantic Ocean is one of those albums that sticks in your head long after the headset is removed. It may not win many awards, but Swift proves he has a lot of originality to offer. Those taking a chance on Swift will be amply rewarded.
M. Ward’s latest release, Hold Time, continues his trend of revisiting and perhaps reinventing the good-old-time sound of none other than the good-old-times. An ever-present countrified guitar, mixed with his usual lo-fi and low-key raspy voice, and a really well-conceived set of songs makes makes this his most thorough release evah.
A little more rock ‘n roll than his typical folkish sound, Ward keeps a good balance of electric vs. acoustic guitarmanship, with a subtle string section thrown in for good measure. Add an impossibly haunting duet with Lucinda Williams and a beautiful complement of background vocals from Zooey Deschanel, and you’re left with an album that, like the throwback nostalgia Ward encapsulates, will stand on it own for repeated listening.
Among the many, standout tracks include One Hundred Million Years, Blake’s View, Jailbird, Stars of Leo, and Oh Lonesome Me.
Neko Case’s new album Middle Cyclone, is well titled. A force of nature, it’s a commanding collection of songs not only showcasing the beauty and strength of her voice, but it’s also an intelligently conceived expression of a bold though suppressed anger of the overlooked feminine psyche. More overtly, the album is a warning not to overlook the force of mother nature herself; in the closing thirty minutes Case deliberately bends our ears toward the night music of the marsh, the crying of crickets and frogs. But more than that, Case alludes to the theme of the feminine being taken for granted, and the resulting cyclone in wait.
Be forewarned, the first half of the record starts with the “tiniest sparks” and the “tenderest sound”, a lovely beginning to the showcase, as it were. Once the listener reaches “I’m an Animal”, however, the cyclone becomes manifest, a darkening crescendo of turbulence. With all songs are fairly short and predictably impressive, the absolute masterpiece for me is the longer “Prison Girls”; it’s a funeral dirge for those women eternally unimpressed, who’ve “traded more for cigarettes than I’ve managed to express”.
Middle Cyclone is an hugely solid album with incredible accompaniment. The sound is awash with the drums, upright bass, piano, and guitars from eternal alt-country ambassadors Howe Gelb, Calexico, and M. Ward. Case’s own band is impeccable as well, not only highlighting her voice but surrounding it with a fullness that nearly suffocating. As usual, the lyrics are as haunting as in any prior Neko Case release, too. Standing equal with Fox Confessor, Middle Cyclone is yet another jewel in Case’s crown.
Well, not so new, but MUSE definitely has my vote for the best band in the world that nobody’s heard of (nobody in the USA, that is) . They might just be the best band in the world. But that’s up for discussion. What ho, might they have a new release come September?