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Review: U2, Songs of Experience

The album generally rebalances the scales of U2’s ambitions, resulting in an aesthetically riskier sound.

3.0

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U2, Songs of Experience

Conventional wisdom has it that U2 lost much of their experimental yen around the time of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but accepting that premise would require discounting 2009’s deceptively wooly and mesmerizing No Line on the Horizon, an album with long, multi-part songs that are about as sonically dense and detailed as anything the band recorded during their supposed experimental prime in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The reality is that U2’s longing for critical admiration is still at least as strong as their desire to be stadium-filling superstars—and these two impulses continues to influence their work. That’s a dynamic worth considering when it comes to Songs of Experience, an album that serves as a sequel to 2014’s Danger Mouse-produced Songs of Innocence, one of U2’s more musically conservative releases. The new album generally rebalances the scales of the band’s ambitions, resulting in an aesthetically riskier sound.

The album’s ethereal opener, “Love Is All We Have Left,” seems, in its own understated way, as jarring as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” might have sounded in 1983. The song finds Bono in full crooner mode, his dramatic vocal perilously wending its way through a simmering scrum of strings. It’s a proper overture, cresting ever so slightly with its tuneful chorus—and generous helpings of gurgling Auto-Tune—but withholding a bigger, more direct emotional release.

Formally and textually, “Love Is All We Have Left” provides a spare foundation to build on for the rest of Songs of Experience, an album that tries very hard to turn a musically accessible, lyrically universal set of rock anthems into a decisive political statement. It’s an effort that works best when Bono allows his intended reflexivity the space to breathe: Lead single “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” a pleading paean to a love that transcends self-concern, takes on metaphorical—or at least symbolic—heft through the context of its music video, in which New York City becomes the subject of his adoration.

The epic “The Little Things That Give You Away” likewise benefits from a lack of specificity, which, in pop music—especially U2’s—can lead to a cosmic sense of import. Bono dizzyingly accumulates stray missives (“This freedom might cost you your liberty”) and romantically foreboding imagery (“Saw you on the stairs/You didn’t notice I was there”) over a sprawling slow burn that builds to a cascading eruption of guitar—the one moment U2 indulges its most tried-and-true song structure, and one worthy of its forebears in their catalogue.

The rest of Songs of Experience isn’t nearly as canny. A charging suite of tracks at the beginning of the album attempts to thread a broad moral consideration of the origins of our contemporary political hell, with a spoken-word Kendrick Lamar interlude bridging the reflective “Get Out of Your Own Way” and the militant “American Soul.” The former track lets the polemical dimensions of its lyrics inform a more universal theme of accepting one’s own culpability for misfortune but in the form of the kind of gauzy rock ballad that this band has written hundreds of times before. “American Soul” is far more musically galvanizing, featuring a barrage of fuzzed-out guitar riffs and some dynamic tempo shifts, but Bono’s lyrics give up on any sense of subtlety when he bellows, “Will you be my sanctuary?/Refu-Jesus!”

Ironically, the two songs here that less metaphorically reference refugees fare better. “Summer of Love” considers the migrant crisis from the perspective of rubbernecking tourists bearing witness to mass migration, while “Red Flag Day” is a rousing anthem for the displaced. The latter, with its “baby, lets get in the water” refrain presaging a line about “so many lost in the sea last night,” saunters as close to the line of insipidness as U2 has ever put themselves, but Bono sells it as a commitment to aspirational utopianism.

Nearly all the songs on Songs of Experience have moments that fall back on the kind of hammy, solipsistic autobiographical details that made Songs of Innocence such a self-regarding drag. (“Summer of Love,” for instance, was written by Bono in the south of France, where he and the Edge have houses, as a “letter” to the refugees suffering across the water.) But there’s a genuinely compelling effort here to turn explicitly political songs and themes into personal paeans to love and understanding into pop songs. When it works like Bono and company want it to, it’s a reminder as to why U2’s universalism can feel so aesthetically progressive: Their formal synthesis of pop’s immediacy, sociopolitical consciousness, and moral seriousness always holds the potential to adapt and change with the times.

Label: Interscope Release Date: December 1, 2017 Buy: Amazon

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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Review: Lambchop’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) Doesn’t Say Much

Modern trappings do little to obscure the fact that frontman Kurt Wagner feels more out of time than ever.

3

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Lambchop
Photo: Merge/Steve Gullick

After more than two decades of dealing in musical anachronisms, one might assume that Lambchop’s recent forays into electronics mean that frontman Kurt Wagner has finally gotten with the times. Defined by synths, vocoders, and drum machines, 2016’s FLOTUS and now This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) are daring departures from Wagner’s previous attempts to mine outmoded styles of the past for new truths. But these modern trappings are just misdirection, doing little to obscure the fact that he seems to be feeling more out of time than ever.

Perhaps inevitably, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) isn’t as sprawling or stylistically immersive as FLOTUS. When you put out an album whose lead single is an 18-minute synth dirge, it’s probably a good idea to take a bit of a step back for the follow-up. This album lacks the stitched-together quality of FLOTUS, that certain emphasis on atmosphere, texture, and the unexpected, rather than structure and melody, that makes that album alternately impenetrable and transcendent. This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is 20 minutes shorter, and far less formless. Even its more abstract passages, like the nearly five minutes of roaming piano and wispy horns that close the title track, feel more familiar within Lambchop’s pre-established paradigm of reimaging old genres—in this case, lounge jazz—and as new again than the alien soundscapes of FLOTUS did. The Wagner who spent much of the 2000s trying to turn himself into the world’s strangest, crustiest Vegas lounge singer is recognizable here as well. He’s just singing through a vocoder now.

No one could credibly accuse Lambchop of making conventional pop music, but new collaborator Matt McCaughan, who co-wrote over half the album with Wagner and is responsible for much of its electronic instrumentation, at least steers the band in a less abstract direction. The whining synth motif that pops up in the middle of “The December-ish You” is a sneakily good earworm, and if it weren’t for Wagner’s creaking old-young voice, “Everything for You” might sound like something you would hear at Sephora.

That’s not to say Wagner sounds anything but disaffected by modernity. Just as FLOTUS’s title falsely promised political musings in an election year, the fact that all but one of this album’s eight song titles are written in second person is just a canard—as if anyone wouldn’t notice that the only person Wagner is singing about is himself. A song title like “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” seems to promise a withering indictment of some behind-the-times character, but in reality, it’s just about Wagner sitting in a car and trying to reconcile his own place in the dizzying 2019 cultural landscape. Political references abound throughout This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), but they’re mostly just context-free phrases: “Be it so un-presidential,” “The news was fake, the drugs were real,” “Fell asleep during Vietnam,” and so on.

Rather than grapple with politics, Wagner sounds like he’d much rather revel in daily mundanities: “I’m in a Mexican restaurant bar/Watching surfing and it’s amazing,” he sings on “The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You.” In so doing, Wagner culminates a retreat into himself. Whereas Lambchop once boasted a grand, 12-plus-piece lineup, the band is now smaller and more insular than ever before. But Lambchop has always been whatever Wagner wants it to be, and if he wants “you” to mean “me” this time around, it simply does. “I see your reflection,” he sings at the very end of the gentle, acoustic-based closer “Flowers,” as Nashville legend Charlie McCoy’s honey-sweet harmonica billows behind him, “and I say hello.”

Label: Merge Release Date: March 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Meat Puppets Remain Resilient on the Mellow Dusty Notes

The album marks the band’s first reunion that feels truly consequential.

3.5

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Dusty Notes

The Meat Puppets have gone on hiatus and subsequently reunited at least four times now, rivaling any cash-grabbing classic-rock dinosaurs still out there in their ability to put boomer butts in arena seats. With the possible exception of guitarist Curt Kirkwood’s short-lived, Y2K-era solo project, it’s not as though the post-prime iterations of the Meat Puppets have been especially unwelcome. But their 15th studio album, Dusty Notes, marks the first such reunion that feels truly consequential, thanks to original drummer Derrick Bostrom returning to the fold for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!

Anyone who might want to trace a direct lineage between the new album and alt-rock classics like Meat Puppets II, and who hasn’t kept up with the band since they broke up for the first time, will of course notice the audible effects of the intervening 35 years: Curt and brother Cris’s low, calm voices; the slower tempos; the preponderance of acoustic guitars, often in place of fuzzy electric ones. One might also wonder if the band took the wrong lessons from Meat Puppets II’s acclaim. The idea of three former hardcore punks with acid-blasted brains playing a twisted psychedelic version of country and Americana music was novel and fascinating in 1984 and remained so 10 years later when Kurt Cobain invited them on stage to play during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Remove the acid and hardcore, however, and you just get middle-aged Arizonians playing straightforward country music, like Dusty Notes’s pointlessly faithful cover of the Don Gibson standard “Sea of Heartbreak.”

Fortunately, though an old-school country aesthetic defines the album—the banjo picking on “Nine Pins,” the sweet hillbilly harmonies on “Outflow”—Curt’s irrepressible songwriting quirks make the rest of Dusty Notes anything but formulaic. The post-Bostrom Meat Puppets have often veered much closer to modern alt-country than the hardcore of their early days, and Dusty Notes is no exception; in fact, it might be the mellowest of their albums to date.

With key assistance from keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, Curt turns what are at first blush prototypical country strummers into weird, melodic concoctions. Stabinsky’s contributions—circus organ on “Nine Pins,” Mariachi-like synths on the title track—often leap out immediately from the mix. But it’s Curt’s songwriting that makes those same songs stick in the brain, from the demented polka groove of “Warranty” to the sunny Tex-Mex hooks and characteristic stoner turns of phrase on the title track.

If anything is missing from Dusty Notes, it’s certainly not hard-rock dalliances. Besides, with both Stabinsky and second guitarist Elmo Kirkwood—Curt’s son—abetting the original trio, the album features a fuller, richer sonic character than any of the band’s early albums ever managed. Rather, there’s not enough of Curt’s guitar playing. His inimitable jangle riffs from the ‘80s and fuzzed-out, spacey heroics from later years are both in short supply, which does render Dusty Notes more conventional-sounding than most Meat Puppets albums.

It’s unlikely anyone predicted that a 2019 Meat Puppets album would feature a return to the blown-out arena-metal of 1989’s Monster, but that’s exactly what we get with “Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy,” complete with Dungeon Master-friendly verses like “Your chariot of protons/Slices through the gloom/Drawn by a pharaoh/Risen from the tomb.” It’s fun, but once the novelty and nostalgia wear off, it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as the songs here that don’t quite sound like anything the band has done before, like “Unfrozen Memory,” a dramatic slow-burner that melds distorted guitar with Stabinsky’s expert, baroque-style harpsichord, or “The Great Awakening,” on which silky, entrancing acoustic arpeggios drift into a tough, bluesy chorus and come back again like you’re falling in and out of a dream.

These particular songs exemplify what the Meat Puppets, at their best, have always been about. Not their singing or their playing or their lyrics, which were all often utterly incoherent even at the band’s peak. It’s their ability to evoke emotional states—some precious feeling half-remembered from childhood, or perhaps a really good acid trip—that has allowed their music to remain so resilient for almost 40 years.

Label: Megaforce Release Date: March 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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