Review - Summer Music Roundup

My media purchasing habits tend to come in phases: in my first year of university I amassed a stack of new DVDs; during my second year it seemed I was purchasing every awesome comic collection I could get my hands on; with the following summer and this past school year I went on a book-buying spree. All three of these crazes have come and gone much to the chagrin of my bank account (as well as the mother who partly finances me). More recently--as in, from the beginning of May onward--I initiated the next iteration, that being music.

Though I adore music to the same degree as any other art medium (which is to say a lot), I tend to be behind the times--and yes, this is coming from a newspaper arts editor. I never listened to Arcade Fire's magnificent 2004 debut, Funeral, until last summer, nearly five years after its release. My intense Tool, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails fandoms began a decade after each band's formation and, at most, a full year before their next release. And of course I'm still consuming David Bowie and Pink Floyd long after both artists were in their respective heydays. As such, my music spree has been somewhat of a catching up game--and, again, at the expense of my savings and my mother's love. Thus, I dedicate the rest of this post to briefly reviewing some of the albums I dropped cash on in the past three months, roughly in order of their purchase.

The Beatles - Abbey Road

Yes, I know, it's horrendously sad but I never listened to Abbey Road in its entirety, or even heard most of its songs, until early June. Crucify me, castrate me, whatever--I'll accept any and all punishments. To tell the truth, I was hitting myself on the head upon my first listen for not having invested in this record at an earlier time. It is the textbook definition of a tight album, with three times the consistency of its followup, Let It Be. Come to think of it, I rather wish the Fab Four ended with Abbey Road rather than Let It Be, if only because it would be a little more aesthetically operatic. And kudos to Paul for writing not one but two ballads that aren't sentimental for sentimentality's sake for once in his career.

Choice tracks: Ringo's jovial and juvenile number "Octopus' Garden" and the cacophonous proto-progrock "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." I played the latter nearly full blast on my dad's home theatre system and the resulting temporary hearing loss was so worth it.

David Bowie - "Heroes"

The second in Bowie's unofficially-titled "Berlin Trilogy," "Heroes" had been waiting for me at the Rideau Centre HMV nearly three months after I had ordered it, yours truly having lacked the funds to purchase it at the time of its arrival (stupid food and toiletries, usin' up all ma moneys). "Heroes" is for the most part less abstract than Low, the first installment in Bowie's trilogy and while it's certainly more rocking from start to finish it lacks the previous record's elegance and relative minimalism. Its arrangements are crowded with instrumentation, the different voices blending together to create a brand new sound, like a barbershop quartet but feeling a little more confusing and Krautrock-y at times. "Joe the Lion" sounds especially compressed, the arrangement unfortunately shrouding the song's rather pleasing chord progression. The end result is a record that, while certainly having its peaks, isn't as listenable from start to finish as Ziggy Stardust or Low.

Choice tracks: of course, the title track "'Heroes'," which stands out as one of my all-time favourite songs and although it's incredibly layered it isn't as dense as "Joe the Lion;" also "Blackout," for knowing how to rock.

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

Despite my unbridled love for Funeral, I waited nearly a year before picking up Arcade Fire's sophomore work--and in the lenticular "hardcover" special edition with flipbooks, no less. Neon Bible is a tighter, more heavily-orchestrated LP than Funeral, with the overall sound a little less rambunctious and a little more hi-fi. And significantly darker. I don't mean to say it's all doom and gloom but there is definitely a sense of something being at stake. The lyrics to pseudo-sister songs "(Antichrist Television Blues)" and "Windowsill" read like an examination of post-9/11 paranoia and contempt for the US, "Intervention" is vaguely condemning of religion (not to mention sounding like a sacred piece, being dominated by a church organ riff), and the closing track "My Body is a Cage" speaks of insecurity and anxiety. So, one might say a general sense of dread abounds, resulting in a more depressing listen than the previous album (an ironic notion, as Funeral was explicitly about death).

But don't let the above get you down. Funeral was a prime example of a band making an unforgettable entrance and it's kind of hard for any band, let alone Arcade Fire, to top that. It has a lot of standout songs and overflows with atmosphere--an excellent record, I'd say.

Choice tracks: the churchlike "Intervention"--which was actually recorded in a desanctified church--is one of Arcade Fire's best tunes, with an adrenaline-pumping and unexpectedly emotional key change 2/3rds of the way through; "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" is seemingly a fusion of two songs and features the vocals of Régine Chassagne, whose tinny voice I've really become endeared to since listening to "In the Backseat" on repeat.

Pink Floyd - The Wall

"So ya thought ya might like to go to the show,
To feel the warm thrill of confusion, that space cadet glow.
Tell me, is something eluding you, Sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you wanna find out what's behind these cold eyes,
You'll just have to claw your way through this disguise!"

So begins The Wall, now in competition with Wish You Were Here as my favourite Pink Floyd album. Listening through it's really more of a Roger Waters solo record featuring the other members of Pink Floyd, as the following album The Final Cut would later be credited. I can't say I had much respect for Waters before picking up The Wall, what with the ego and all, but after listening to the man's magnum opus I suppose I have to give the man some credit for his vision and creativity. Likewise, prior to listening to The Wall from beginning to end I preferred David Gilmour's laid back vocals but I now I appreciate Waters' versatile, if rough, mode of melodic narration. Musically, The Wall stands out among Floyd's Holy Quartet (the other three members being The Dark Side of the Moon, the aforementioned Wish You Were Here and Animals), pushing Richard Wright's keyboards to the background and emphasizing a more tightly-structured hard rock sound.

I confess that while I have listened to my fair share of concept albums I've rarely lent an ear to those with an actual narrative. Bowie's Ziggy Stardust turned me onto the idea, although I enjoy it more for the music than the actual woeful tale of Ziggy Who Played Guitar, and in retrospect NIN's The Downward Spiral has its own self-destructive tale. What surprised me during my initial few listens was the actual depth and cohesiveness of The Wall's story, which I'll have to ramble on about in more detail on a later date, but for the time being I think it has some interesting things to say about coming to terms with a confusing and at times cruel world.

Choice tracks: so, so many, but for brevity's sake I recommend the cautionary introductory number "In the Flesh?" (quoted below the album cover), the epically euphoric "Comfortably Numb" and last but certainly not least, "The Trial," the darkly comic climax in which Water adopts six different character voices.

Karen Elson - The Ghost Who Walks

I discovered Karen Elson and her recently-released debut record The Ghost Who Walks on a late June episode of CBC's Q. She played a pared down version of the album's title track and of all the ways for an artist to capture my attention it was the manner in which she sang the word "hand" in the second verse: briefly faltering and quickly adjusting, imperfect but incredibly beautiful. In the interview she described her sound and songwriting as "Southern Gothic rock," kind of like Emmylou Harris meets The Band with an infusion of Tim Burton. A former supermodel from the UK seems to be the last person one might expect to put out such a sound but Elson hits a home run on her first go, all the while reminding me of a real life Sally the Ragdoll from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

This will sound clichéd but I'm not a fan of country in the slightest--not just the modern Top 40 twangers, mind you, but even Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, blasphemous as that is to say. There's something in the genre's genetic code that instantly turns me off of it and the few country artists to evade my filter originate not from the Southern States but from Southern Ontario, these being Neil Young and The Band (and even they are mostly country rock). Similarly, Karen Elson has slipped past my radar, but this isn't so much due to her idiosyncratic style as it is to her insiduous album structuring. The Ghost Who Walks starts off with Southern Gothic rock but about four tracks in turns into full-blown,Dust Bowl country, and by the time I realized this I was already tapping my foot. Touché, Ms. Elson. Touché.

Choice tracks: Ms. Elson harmonizes with herself for a good portion of the album but her dual voices resonate the most with "Garden;" the closer "Mouths to Feed," apart from potentially fitting well in a Firefly setting, is a solid, desparate conclusion that I've had on repeat a number of times.

David Bowie - Station to Station

Station to Station, aka "The Return of the Thin White Duke," aka "the one Bowie can't remember recording because he was practically eating cocaine at the time." The record starts out on a really high note, that being its sprawling title track and followed by the mostly easygoing "Golden Years," but one that I'm sad to admit quickly fades with the underwhelming "Word on a Wing."

I really don't have much to say about this album, having not listened to it as much as the others reviewed in this post, and also because it's deceptively short: though the record's about the same length as most of Bowie's 70s works its spread out over a mere six tracks, half of which provoke little response. Heck, I'll just say it: it's really the one disappointing record I picked up this summer. Sorry, Coked Out Joker Bowie.

Choice tracks: definitely "Station to Station," spanning a good ten minutes but wonderfully dark and varied and unknowingly predicting the sound of Nine Inch Nails circa 1999; "Stay" is a nice disco/funk tune in the vein of Bowie's earlier "Fame." And, come to think of it, the theme to Shaft.

Next time, on Ash Tree Lane...

I review Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Look for it sometime early next week.

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