Friday, May 25, 2007

Post-hype album reviews

The pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman once suggested waiting something like a year to listen to an album, supposedly to avoid any hype and hear it in its "purest" form possible. That's just another shock-value statement from a writer who has to keep shocking to keep a job. (He once suggested that Muhammad Ali invented rap, getting him a piece of ESPN's coverage of an Ali anniversary.) Waiting kills half the point of music: the fun and anticipation of a new album. If my long-distance girlfriend is coming back to town, I'm not going to wait a week after she gets back to see her; I'm going to meet her at the airport.

But I'm also not going to have her set up a Webcam so I can follow every moment of her journey home. It's true that many blogs hype music so hard that bandwagons turn into backlashes before most people even hear the music. And try as we might, hype influences what we think of new music. Or the best songs from a leaked album get posted, leading to letdown when the rest of the album doesn't match up.

With that in mind, here are some post-hype reviews of some of the most buzzed-about albums of the spring season so far, with a playlist of tracks from the albums. I tried to pick tracks to give a sense of the album, not just the best songs on it:

Feist — The Reminder: Reviews ranged from "watching a pitcher throw a no-hitter" to "could make even Dick Cheney weep." It's hard to blame them. For fans of Feist's breakout "Let It Die," just hearing her fragile voice sing new songs is enough to swoon, like seeing a crush who's screwed you over more than once wearing a new dress; you can't help it. But, unlike the New York Times says, this isn't the album that will make her a mainstream star. It starts extremely strong but falters 3 minutes and 55 seconds into track four, "The Park," when Feist pushes her voice one notch too far. It ends strongly, though, with "1234" sounding much more important without its cutsey, Gap-commercial-style dance video. Lines like "1,2,3,4 / tell me that you love me more / sleepless, long nights / that was what my youth was for" are chilling close to Joni Mitchell-worthy.

Scouting report: A solid effort from a talented singer, but not necessarily a step forward, other than that most of the songs are hers and not covers. If you've only HEARD OF her, best to start with "Let It Die" and fall in love with her there.

Lil' Wayne — Da Drought 3: Best rapper alive or only rapper alive? Lil' Wayne is probably both. Everything that's compelling and confounding about this two-disc, free-to-download mixtape only grows with multiple listens. You keep finding nuggets of witty wordplay, like "Am I crazy for being Wayne? / Or is Wayne just crazy? / I've been around, I'm still around / like the Geico cavemen (he makes crazy rhyme with cavemen). But it also frustrating that the rapper who professes to having "money on my mind" won't get into a studio with a top producer and turn these lines into a platinum, career-changing (and maybe rap-game-changing) album.

Scouting report: Worth downloading, and not just because it's free. There's plenty of free music that still isn't worth downloading. It's 5-8 tracks too long, but you can cut out the ones you don't like and make your own mix.

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky: Anyone who wants to see Pitchfork's sway over Indie Nation only has to look at the review of "Sky Blue Sky," which called the album "dad-rock." Suddenly, every blog review and comment on a review was framed by that. Once all of that dissolves away, "Sky Blue Sky" is one of the best albums of the season. It's a win-win situation. If you want to look at it through the lens of their past work, the alt-country "Summerteeth," seminal "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and jam-band freak out "A ghost is Born," then this is a natural progression from a band that refuses to be stagnant. If you want to look at it on its own, "Sky Blue Sky" mixes a number of styles to be a welcoming, compelling modern rock album.

Scouting report: Songs! Unlike their last album of 12-minute guitar-picking solos, there are actual songs on this album!

Panda Bear - Person Pitch: This has been the most-hyped album of the year, and it absolutely shouldn't be hyped. "Person Pitch" is seven sprawling songs, two cracking 12 minutes, that one Baby Heisman reader aptly described as "The Beach Boys underwater." It's not the masterpiece that some blogs have made it out to be, not the best album of the year as some are already calling it. It's a beautiful record that takes time to feel. Some of the songs don't kick in for a couple of minutes. When they do, the hooks are brilliant and the lyrics are worth dissecting.

Scouting report: Worth buying and worth getting to know.

The National — Boxer: The term "slow burner," meaning an album that takes time to love and reveals more with each listen, entered the hipster lexicon thanks to The National's last album, "Alligator." By the time most people realized its brooding brilliance, the band had already passed through their town, building up even more anticipation for the follow-up. "Boxer" burns even slower, without any of the loud, instantly catching tracks like "Alligator's" "Abel" or "Mr. November." But it really does reveal more with each listen, which is amazing considering how simple and straightforward the songs are on first blush. It's not a like a noise-pop album or something like "Person Pitch," where you know something's there and you just have to find it. These songs seem pretty obvious, and when those underlying layers hit you, it's powerful.

Scouting report: If you're just getting into them, better to start with "Alligator." But if you even remotely like it or their earlier albums, this is a winner.

Elliott Smith — New Moon: Who cares if it counts! The collection of Elliott's unreleased music from his best period is the best album of the season so far. At first this two-disc set merely reinforced the beauty of the songs that made it onto "Elliott Smith" and "Either/Or." But after a few listens, the songs come into their own.

Scouting report: Definitely not an album just for the deep fans. It's strong enough to even make an un-initiated listener fall in love with him, and that's something I didn't think on the first couple of listens.


Clyde said...

Amen on the Panda Bear. I mean its unique and no doubt he has some great melodies, but I never find myself wanting to pop it in. It seems like when a few people decide what album is cool everyone hops on board (I am just as guilty as everyone else.)

Rosemary said...

I honestly think this is your best post ever. I love the embedded player, I love the reviews, and the scouting report is totally useful. Thank you.

Maybe see you in Kensington this weekend?