What WHAP’s Listening To

August 20, 2008

Despite garnering endorsements from nearly every indie blog out there, the NYC five-piece known as TV On The Radio has never really caught my ear. But the band’s new single, “Golden Age,” leads off next month’s Dear Science with quite a kick. Below is a teaser of the song in all its guttural-guitar-scratch-handclap glory; head to the band’s official website for the whole thing. (And really, do — the Van Dyke orchestrics aren’t worth missing.)


WHAP Reviews: Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III

August 17, 2008

Last fall, Nas attempted to revive a faltering rap career with plans to name his newest album Nigger. The move garnered media attention despite failing to stock a single CD store with a slurred album cover, as the emcee was forced by the economic pressures that be to rename the disc this May. He left it untitled, and the record — a socially conscious, critic-approved study on everything from the presidential race to presidential racism — sold well enough regardless of its inability to send anything near the pop charts.

My reason for bringing up Nas is this: nine albums deep in a career that’s been on the skids since 2000, he still strayed far from bubblegum production on Untitled. A hip-hop has-been he may be, but at least he’s content taking a commercial hit instead of making a commercial hit — so long as he can present some deadly serious subject matter in the meanwhile. On the other hand, emcee-of-the-year Lil Wayne dropped Tha Carter III this June, his supposed masterpiece, and filled it with about as much gravity as the moon — a fitting metaphor given his fetish for convincing the world he’s not from this planet. Weezy’s sixth album and his third of any merit, TCIII is ultimately funnier than it is phenomenal, and it suggests that where other rappers write lyrics, Weezy writes punchlines. But after its 76th minute, one question remains — however antithetical to the posterquote from the biggest summer movie we’ve seen in years: Why so unserious?

The question comes up, of course, because even the most rudimentary detour into Wayne’s backstory suggests deeper, darker lyrical material than on this album. The New Orleans native sports a teardrop tattoo on his face, a watermark notoriously reserved for he who has murdered. His chest wears two scars of near-fatal bullets: one delivered by a fanatical groupie, one accidentally self-inflicted. And Wayne himself can’t be profiled in any magazine article without significant weight given to his weed-‘n-codeine habit, an addiction that addles his brain so he can cook up demented rhymes and addles his voice so he can sound uncomfortably raspy. But not one these things — none of which Weezy could rap without — are rapped about on Carter III, and in their place is an assembly line of well-assembled one-liners. It’s just like Wayne says on “La La”: “Wittier than comedy, nigga write a parody/But I ain’t telling jokes…apparently.”

What’s left apart from humor, then, is an array of this year’s most monumental hip-hop singles, and rightly so: each one suggests Wayne’s coming-of-age as a producer, and the likely correlation that people are listening more to what he says because they no longer have to wade through murky, unlistenable beats like those that litter the rest of his back catalogue. “A Milli,” with its ghost-scary, trunk-rattling, one-note bass line, manages three minutes without a chorus but is catchy enough to come off as one giant chorus. (And for a guy banking on your interest in his, well, banking, the million-strong who bought Carter III in its first week made a nice real-world remix of Wayne’s monetary boasts.) Then comes “Lollipop,” a song about head that’s really what got Weezy ahead, which matches mutant funk with mutated vocals. Better yet are album tracks “Mr. Carter” and “Dr. Carter”: the latter an impossibly funky concept song that alternates between heartfelt verses and mock autopsies for lesser emcees; the former an anthemic, old-school torch-passing between Jay-Z and Wayne. (Take note, Jay: Weezy’s seasonal metaphor alone — “I got summer hating on me cause I’m hotter than the sun/Got Spring hating on me cause I ain’t neva sprung/Winter hating on me ’cause I’m colder than y’all/And I will neva I will neva I will neva fall” — should have sent you back to the drawing board.)

Elsewhere, Wayne’s relative genius from TCIII‘s best tracks casts aspersions on his just-par work. “La La,” a bizarro children’s-song-gone-wrong, rehashes the similar idea of T.I.’s “Rubber Band Man” and Cee-Lo’s “Children’s Play,” not to mention Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.” “Got Money” is just as uninspired, and a throwaway like “Comfortable” (produced by Kanye?…Really??) should have been relegated to mixtape status, if even that. Othertimes entire tracks can be reduced to one awesome line — “You can’t get on my level/You would need a spaceshuttle or a ladder that’s forever” from opener “3Peat” is one such case — or one great motif, like the slippery, alternative guitar on “Tie My Hands.” But for a guy so convinced he’s the best rapper alive that one of his best all-time songs is, umm, “Best Rapper Alive,” you’d expect a greater effort to be consistent.

So here’s the good news from an otherwise bad review: Tha Carter III is 2008’s best rap album. (Take that with a grain of salt, though, as Flo Rida is in the year’s Top 5.) As a musician, Lil Wayne is undoubtedly unique, ambitious, and hard-working enough to let some of his best work fall through the cracks into little-heard internet mixtapes — and that last fact certainly makes this disc a champion of newfangled marketing, perhaps a remixed version of Radiohead’s all-too-talked-about digital release scheme of Fall 2007. But Tha Carter III is not a modern classic; it’s just the most quotable thing we’ve heard in years. Weezy’s insistence on single takes in the studio sure makes his flow superbly enchanting, but he’ll have to take his own self serious before the rest of us can. It’s just like they say in the pizza business: even if you tip for delivery, you’re still paying for the product.

WHAP RATING: 3.3/5.0

Lollapalooza: Day 3

August 8, 2008

If you call Lollapalooza ’08 the best music under the sun, you mean it quite literally: this year’s Chicago-area festival rocked and rolled through three days of over 90 degrees in scenic Grant Park. And with a lineup boasting area faves like Wilco and Kanye alongside modern-day legends like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, some are calling it Lolla’s best year ever. I was there to test that claim — and I end today with coverage of Sunday, the most relaxed day of the weekend.

John Butler Trio
2:15-3:15pm, Bud Light Stage

Hailing from Australia, the John Butler Trio specializes in acoustic jamming with JB’s own rustic vocals atop it all. And while the band was undeniably skilled, their entire set melded into one singular sound: the twang of an acoustic guitar. Little invention was involved in the three-piece’s show, and even a midset drum solo was more beat-keeping than skin-pounding. Fans who think Jack Johnson too simple and Ben Harper too complex, however, would find a safe haven in JBT’s grooves.

The Black Kids
3:15-4:15pm, Citi Stage

Back in the ’70s, David Bowie was notoriously sloppy in concert — but there was something eclectic about his coke-fueled, off-pitch ramblings on stage. Our generation’s closest approximation to that might just be the Black Kids, whose supremely catchy brand of art-rock is hard to deny despite an overall messy presentation. Reggie and Ali Youngblood, who share vocal responsibilities and duel on guitar and keyboard respectively, are quite enigmatic in concert: Reggie sings barely above a whisper at times; Ali, meanwhile, shouts more than sings. The rest of the five-piece ensemble was engagingly loose throughout the set, running through the instrumental hooks on hits like “Look At Me” as if everyone was playing a solo. So maybe that wise-assed Pitchfork review of the Kids’ debut LP was a little harsh; the band just needs to mature a little.

G. Love & Special Sauce
4:15-5:15pm, AT&T Stage

Though he essentially writes the same song over and over again, Philly’s G. Love & Special Sauce was quite a set for bros and babes. The hipster’s sound is pure acoustic funk, tossed around with some Southern blues for good measure — the band’s bassist played an extremely authentic stand-up bass throughout the show. And if there was a thesis to be offered from leadman G, it’s this: dude loves weed. Just check the lyrics from, umm, “Who’s Got the Weed”: “Who’s got the weed?/I got the weed…Legalize it/Decriminalize it/I’ll advertise it.”

Blues Traveler
5:15-6:15pm, MySpace Stage

Plagued by more than a decade of popular irrelevance, Blues Traveler’s John Popper did a smart thing with his setlist for Sunday’s show: instead of drifting too far into the group’s latter-day output, he previewed just three songs from BT’s new disc and used each one as a launch pad for much better-known material. The first anonymous track, for instance, quickly morphed into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” — a thinly-veiled vehicle for Popper’s harmonica skills, as the heavyweight frontman hit the violin solos note-for-note throughout the cover. Next came a hybrid that lead to “Run Around,” which sounded fantastic even fifteen years after its chart debut. Then came an impressive, thirty minute blues jam — the day’s longest if you discount Girl Talk’s unending DJ set — that culminated in Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and the band’s own “Hook,” both of which are quintessential tracks for a beer-drinker’s end-of-summerfest. So I guess Blues Traveler left me dually surprised: firstly because they still tour, secondly because they sound so tight.

Gnarls Barkley
6:15-7:15pm, AT&T Stage

Though Cee Lo’s stage mobility is limited by his weight, the GB frontman’s vocals certainly are not. One of my most chilling Lollapalooza memories, in fact, was walking away from Gnarls’ Sunday set towards the other end of Grant Park — all while Lo’s haunting upper register approximated perfectly the verses from Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” which GB has taken to playing in concert as of late. His voice literally hung high above everything else going on at that moment: Girl Talk’s party set on the Citi Stage, The National’s opening moments on the PS3 Stage, even the streaming waters of Buckingham Fountain. The rest of Gnarls’ show was similarly exotic, from a daunting run through “I’m Going On” to a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Crazy.” (I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than three singing every lyric to the latter.) This was my first Gnarls show, and I have to admit that I was nervous about the band’s ability to translate electronic album tracks into live instrumentation. But the GB outfit, from Danger Mouse (onstage, the dude always looks like a mad scientist) to a duo of schoolgirl back-up singers, proved entirely capable of doing just that.

The National
7:15-8:15pm, PS3 Stage

The National’s Boxer, one of 2007’s best indie albums, has kept the band touring for almost a year now. And I really wish I didn’t miss them open for R.E.M. at Chicago’s United Center, because the dreary pianos and lullaby guitars of their sonic landscape might have sounded nice in an arena. At Lollapalooza, much of the subtle instrumentation was lost in the wind, and frontman Matt Berninger’s sea-deep baritone was drowned out by the bustle of the audience. That said, “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken for Strangers” sounded great — but those two tracks mark the entirety of the National’s repertoire with enough crunch to cater to festival fans.

Kanye West
8:30-10:00pm, AT&T Stage

Having attended Bonnaroo earlier this summer, I’ve already been involved in some festival-related Kantroversy: namely the two-hour wait ‘Ye forced on some 60,000 Manchester music fans without explanation or apology. Back then, he learned the hard way that fest-goers — no matter their drug-addled inability to grasp the concept of time — will notice an extended delay, and that their reaction might be less than enthusiastic. So kudos to Kanye for starting his Lollapalooza set immediately at 8:30, despite the decision to ditch his acclaimed Glow in the Dark Show (and its complicated technics) to do so. Instead, Kanye presented a simpler lights show and switched up the order of his setlist for maximal adrenaline as opposed to maximal euphoria. (“Stronger,” in its jungle-heavy remix form, took the final spot in lieu of “Homecoming” — which was played mid-show.) The show’s highlights, of course, had more to do with Kanye’s band than his swagger: a cover of Young Jeezy’s “Put On” (as in “I put on for my city”) was blissfully electronic; a show-stopping “Good Life,” in spite of Kanye’s incessant reliance on a vocoder, showcased the most syrupy synths this side of sap; and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” during the encore was pitch-perfect and drenched in nostalgia. (I’ll also admit that flashing an image of Chicago’s own Smurfit-Stone Building during “Diamonds” was quite the aesthetic touch.) And hey, what’s a Kanye show without ego? This time around, Mr. West compared himself to Hendrix, James Brown and God many other great performers. But I’ve seen him enough to know that the magic’s in the music, not the mouth.

Lollapalooza: Day 1

August 4, 2008

If you call Lollapalooza ’08 the best music under the sun, you mean it quite literally: this year’s Chicago-area festival rocked and rolled through three days of over 90 degrees in scenic Grant Park. And with a lineup boasting area faves like Wilco and Kanye alongside modern-day legends like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, some are calling it Lolla’s best year ever. I was there to test that claim — and I start today with coverage of Friday, the weekend’s hottest day by far.

The Go! Team
2:15-3:15pm, Bud Light Stage

“I wanna teach you some lyrics, but they’re in Japanese,” said Go! Team vocalist Ninja near the end of her band’s rousing, Red-Bull-in-a-china-shop Friday set. “Do it, do it, alright!” she proceded. The crowd, myself included, mimicked the line until the song’s delayed intro — when Ninja conceded: “Alright, it’s not really Japanese.” But no one stopped singing. Try as it might, even a scene like this can’t capture the full energy, comedy and overall absurdity of The Go! Team’s show; needless to say, the band earned its titular exclamation point. Crowd favorites like “Ladyflash” and “The Power Is On” were hard and hook-filled, while newer stuff like “Grip Like A Vice” proved that the band doesn’t play anything you can’t party to. Ultimately, the engaging mix of live instrumentation and recorded layers of horns made hundreds of instant fans while keeping the old ones as well.

3:15-4:15pm, PS3 Stage

Knowing she’s as close as Lollapalooza gets to a sex symbol, Duffy strolled out for her 3:15 show in a red-and-white collared, short blue dress: a safe choice because it’s meant for the UK but translates in America. Her set focused around her ’08 debut Rockferry, a disc purchased primarily by music fans who also wear white collars. And while that’s a great demographic for CD sales, it’s also one that stays far, far away from festivals like Lollapalooza — so Duffy played only twenty minutes of recognizable music, namely her word-of-mouth smash “Mercy” and a one-off Stones cover. Lesser known were album tracks like “Serious” and “Hanging On Too Long,” which proved much more forgettable than the sixties-era classics they’re derived from. Even more forgettable? Duffy’s nonexistent personality, buffered only by nagging complaints about the weather; those just left the songstress hot, but in the wrong way.

The Black Keys
4:15-5:15pm, Bud Light Stage

It’s quite amazing how loud the Black Keys were for a blues band; more amazing was that their sound eminated from two players. First there’s Dan Auerbach, resident riffer and vocalist, who managed to play guitar solos atop chord progressions without difficulty. Then there’s Pat Carney, a skinsman for the ages, who looked so grungy and nomadic that he must be insured with Geico. (He grinned just once during the set after an extended “The Breaks”; the smile was well-earned.) Together, they rocked through well-synched takes on song after song from their extensive back catalogue — carefully avoiding the majority of this year’s Attack & Release, largely due to the complexity of Danger Mouse’s layered production on that album. But “Strange Times” and “I Got Mine,” both from Attack, were phenomenal. So too were “Your Touch,” “10 A.M. Automatic” and “Stack Shot Billy” — though I can’t help but wonder just how much crowd applause was earned by the Keys and how much was for the setting sun.

Cat Power
5:15-6:15pm, PS3 Stage

Much like Cat Power’s Chan Marshall drifts in and out of reality, I drifted in and out of her set on late Friday afternoon. In retrospect, doing so was one of my bigger mistakes: neither food, water nor bathroom should have kept me from her band’s spot-on impersonation of Big Brother & the Holding Company. Truth be told, though, I wouldn’t have recognized Marshall without a Lollapalooza brochure; my one belated remark during her set was that it sounded “much too happy to be Cat Power.” Indeed it was: Chan played a covers set with the Dirty Delta Blues band, meaning her sound was much less singer-songwriter than normal. I guess if you’re in Chicago, you might as well play the blues.

The Raconteurs
6:15-7:45pm, Bud Light Stage

As soon as the Raconteurs opened their set with a rollicking “Consolers of the Lonely,” Jack White made clear the difference between a good and a great lyricist: the former writes lines, the latter writes stories. In an hour and a half, he rolled through multiple narratives with his three-piece Nashville ensemble — who played so loud that I had to relocate to avoid an echo effect near the first row of speakers. Highlights included the snarling “Top Yourself” and the cautionary “Many Shades of Black,” both from new disc Consolers of the Lonely, and classics like “Steady, As She Goes” held up well over time. White’s classic spirit was on full display during the show: his in-concert call-and-response sections, full-on band breaks and stage antics seemed culled from rock ‘n roll gamesmen of the past, and his blue-ribbon riff during a guitar duel with co-lead-singer Brendan Benson evoked Eddie Van Halen. (Benson, on the other hand, won the night’s vocal battle, as his rich, paternal tones proved pitch-perfect in the wake of Jack’s screeches.) The Raconteur’s defining moment, however, was neither White’s nor Benson’s. Instead, the band’s extended take on Dave Van Ronk’s “Keep It Clean” was the dirtiest, funkiest seven minutes of the day — with White and Benson’s synchronizing shredding a testament to their well-trained collective ear. Behind every great storyteller, evidently, lies an even greater listener.

8:00-10:00pm, AT&T Stage

From afar, Radiohead’s Friday night lights might have seemed a bit perfunctory. The band stopped on a dime at ten o’clock, avoided any brand new or tired material (“Creep,” as per usual) and managed a few rarities (“Dollars and Cents,” “The Gloaming”) before calling it quits. But the airtight set was much, much more than that: it was an exercise in perfect timing from a band whose professionalism is starting to match its creativity. After opener “15 Step” — also the first track from new disc In Rainbows, which was played in full during the show — the band eventually got to “Nude,” and the lyric “Don’t get any big ideas/They’re not gonna happen” took on a new meaning for meandering fans trying to push forward in a crowd of nearly 100,000. Then came an unplanned, half-hour bout of Lake Michigan fireworks in the midst of a bass-heavy “Everything in its Right Place,” and for that moment everything kinda was. Other moments were similarly cosmic: the barrage of beach balls during an oddly exuberant “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”; the shimmering, rhythmic lights changing tempos with a pitch-perfect “Paranoid Android”; even a collision of lights and fire through the singalong chorus of “Fake Plastic Trees.” So minor setlist complaints aside (no “Karma Police,” no “You and Whose Army?”), Radiohead countered Lollapalooza’s hottest day with its coolest night.

The Year’s Best Albums (Thus Far)

July 31, 2008

Like any year, 2008 has seen good and bad moments in music: inevitable highs (R.E.M., Coldplay) and lows (Flo Rida’s, umm, “Low”) started hitting the charts as soon as Radiohead released the year’s to-be best (In Rainbows) on January 3rd. But after filtering out the schmaltz, ’08 is shaping up to be a pretty good year in music — though any record exec, including the ones who still have their jobs, might disagree. Below is my Top Ten from the first half of this year.

10. R.E.M., Accelerate
There was a time not too long ago when critics and fans alike thought that R.E.M. should be put to sleep. The band’s latter-day album catalogue was continually waning, and newer hits like “Everybody Hurts” were just a parody of older, better hits from the band that more or less invented college rock. Then came Accelerate, a great new collection of songs lead off by the instantly hooky “Supernatural Superserious.” The best part? The new disc ain’t that serious. Opener “Living Well is the Best Revenge” is R.E.M. having fun being mean; “Man-Sized Wreath,” on the other hand, is as wacky as its title. Ultimately, the eleven-song set excels at saying “don’t count us out just yet” with a smile.

9. Robyn, Robyn
There’s a smartness to seemless pop music, and Robyn’s R&B IQ might just be a little higher than yours. On Robyn, her long-delayed third album, the Swedish pop princess makes clear that her intentions are to beat your best beat — and she absolutely succeeds in doing so. There’s a song named after a Dave Chappelle skit (“Konichiwa Bitches”), one named after a Madonna track (“Who’s That Girl?”) and even one dedicated to every other actress in Hollywood (“Crash and Burn Girl”). But better yet are Robyn’s personal songs, which paint her as pop’s premier anti-romantic: first there’s “Handle Me” (you can’t), closely followed by “Be Mine” (you never will). Both mix electric beats with somber strings, and both are as danceable as they are depressing. But I guess there’s a certain smartness in sadness too.

8. Coldplay, Viva La Vida (review here)
Coldplay released Viva La Vida — their fourth and best full-length — in the height of summer, and the first line of the first single (“Violet Hill”) is something about a “long and dark December.” Then come lyrics about gun-toting priests, carnivals of idiots and, oh yeah, love. So while it’s not exactly what you expected, it’s still Coldplay — which might as well be the byline of this album. Now well on its way to international platinum status, Viva is somewhat of a tour-de-force as far as blockbuster albums go, packing more invention and ferocity into its first two singles than in the entirety of Coldplay’s back catalogue. Basically, this album is the one that starts Coldplay’s new future — an interesting note given that its lyrics, many of which criticize society and its talking heads, are very much rooted in the past. On the title track, for instance, Chris Martin details the fall of a roaming empire; on proper album closer “Death and All His Friends,” meanwhile, he’s preoccupied with his forlorn fate — the same fate that eventually buries each and every one of us. But that unending everymanism is what underlies Coldplay’s success, and it’s quite interesting to see a band sneak in criticisms of the same masses to which it caters.

7. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular
If you must, take time to scoff at MGMT’s laughably-ridiculous debut album title. Then play the thing and you won’t stop laughing ’til it’s done. After two years of hipster ridicule, Connecticut’s MGMT have transformed themselves from the band you laugh at into the band you laugh with — and the first ten tracks of their career are the source. Opener and lead single “Time to Pretend,” for one, is a rollicking look at rockstar-ism: “Choke on our vomit/That will be the end,” sings the group on the track. “We’re fated to pretend.” The rest of Oracular is a similar mockery of pretension, with danceable electronica and heavy drums making up the majority of the aural aspect. But ultimately, the band proves its mastery of the concept that making fun of other people’s good times is itself a damn good time.

6. Santogold, Santogold
On the fifth track from her debut LP, Brooklyn’s Santogold calls herself a “creator” — but she sounds much more swamp creature than creator on the album. One reason for that might be the disc’s murky production, which melds together reggae, dub, punk, electronica, trance and even a little bit of hip-hop on its twelve songs. Another might be her shaky vibrato, which sounds sinister on lines like “I’m a lady” and sweet on lines like “Shove your hope where it don’t shine.” But most likely to blame is Santo’s general presence on the record, as the up-and-coming songwriter always seems to hover above and beyond the distorted disturbia bleeding from your speakers. Never has a voice so distant been so clearly here to stay.

5. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
If you released a mixtape-per-minute like Lil Wayne, you probably wouldn’t have time to listen to your peers’ output. But as Weezy makes clear on Tha Carter III, today’s best hip-hop draws from the past. Just check the album’s cover, where Wayne’s baby-face alludes to similar images of Nas on Illmatic and Biggie on Ready to Die. The album’s title, meanwhile, evokes the three-part CD series of Jay-Z and Kanye, both of which (arguably) culminated in the third installment. So too does Weezy’s series: TC III is a pitch-perfect rendering of all of Wayne’s idiosyncrasies, from his syrupy alien flow to his lol/omg/wtf?!? lyrics. Like any rap CD, it doesn’t all work; the “Snap Yo Fingers” rehash of “Got Money” is one particular lowlight. But not since Dr. Octagon has funk met finesse like on “Dr. Carter,” and not since beefing with Nas has Jay-Z worked so hard not to be outrapped (listen to “Mr. Carter”). Better yet? Jay is indeed outdone, as there’s a newer, better Carter in town.

4. The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely
“How you gonna top yourself?” purrs Jack White to a former lover on “Top Yourself,” the seventh track from The Raconteurs’ sophomore disc Consolers of the Lonely: “Guess you better get yourself a sugar daddy to help you!” The line is both comic and cruel, not unlike White’s cynicism with the White Stripes, but it cuts deeper because Jack seems constantly involved in his own endgame to, well, top himself. Such is the case with all of Consolers, where he and co-lead-singer Brendan Benson duel to write the best song the Rolling Stones never did. And they come pretty damn close: “Many Shades of Black” swirls from traditional rhythm and blues into a manic, six-eight march; “Hold Up” draws equally from the Bar-Kays and Tom Petty; even first single “Salute Your Solution” closes with a funky, full-band singalong. And unlike with the Stripes, where Jack’s production pallette is basically limited to drums and guitars, this Raconteurs album is chock full of Sixties studio staples: shimmering tambourines, Memphis horns, dirty organs, even saloon piano. The band’s lyrics, meanwhile, are cloaked as ominous threats; even on the delightful alt-country tune “Old Enough,” Benson sings words of warning: “Maybe when you’re old enough/You’ll realize you aren’t so tough/And some days the seas get rough, you’ll see.” Put simply, Consolers is leagues ahead of the Raconteurs’ debut, and it really makes you realize just how much these dudes wish they played during the birth of rock ‘n roll. If only they were old enough.

3. Portishead, Third (review here)
On “Machine Gun,” the first single from Portishead’s third LP, Geoff Barrow establishes parallelism with percussion that sounds like shots being fired. (Talk about a little drummer boy.) But on disc opener “Silence,” the band is found at its absolute noisiest. So here’s my point: try as you might, you can’t figure out the mechanism(s) behind Portishead. Sometimes lead singer Beth Gibbons is lively and hopeful, as on “Deep Water” (“Deep waters won’t scare me tonight”); other times she’s just hopefully alive (“I am nowhere,” from “Plastic”). Her band’s only constant is its mystery, from its ever-elusive melodies to even weirder instrumentation. Third features wobbly percussive loops, tweaky horns, eery synths and battered guitars, all of which mold a sound that matches the creepiness of knowing something’s there even when you can’t see it. Perhaps that’s the comfort of deep waters: never do they leave Portishead unhidden.

2. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
A common misconception among popular DJs is that their primary goal is to get the party started. But Gregg Gillis, the one-man mastermind sporting the mash-up moniker Girl Talk, knows he’s there to keep it from stopping. 2008’s Feed the Animals, another dose of Gillis’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to remixing, is his most expansive set yet — and his most rewarding for baby boomers through baby mommas, as it culls not only from modern rap but also from classic rock. Just listen to opener “Play Your Part (Part 1),” which explodes into a mindmeld of The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” and UGK’s “Int’l Player’s Anthem” in mere seconds. Similarly intoxicating is the entirety of “Still Here,” which goes from Youngbloodz/Procul Harum to “Flashing Lights”/”No Diggity” and manages to incorporate Radiohead, The Band, Yung Joc, Ace of Base and 50 Cent on the way. And that’s one track. In total, the whole mixtape runs for fifty uninterrupted minutes through five consecutive decades — making clear that where other DJs stress drum ‘n bass, Girl Talk stresses cut ‘n paste.

1.5. The Black Keys, Attack & Release (review here)
Omitted from my original list, and for no good reason: the Black Key’s Attack & Release is the group’s best to date. For the first time on record, the band sounds like more than just a duo — thanks no doubt to Danger Mouse’s fill-in-the-blanks production style, on display in full force throughout Attack. It’s he who provides the banjos, pianos, basslines, atmospherics and organs; the Keys respond with a heavy dose of battered, blue-eyed lyricism and Sabbath-serious riffing. (“You see me out your window,” sings leader Dan Auerbach at one point, “Even when you close the blinds”; the line takes on new meaning in the context of Danger Mouse not overproducing the Keys’ signature sound.) But with drum fills that sound like guitar riffs and guitar riffs that sound like drum fills, it’s hard to mistake this disc for anyone but the world’s only Akron-based blues outfit.

1. Radiohead, In Rainbows
Leave it to Radiohead to release 2007 and 2008’s best disc with one swift stroke: In Rainbows, released digitally in October ’07 and physically in January ’08, earned the band a second #1 album and their highest critical marks since the last #1 (2000’s Kid A). The record is a return to form with significant returns, as Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want distribution scheme generated a rumored $10 million in digital sales alone. But more important than the album’s economy is Thom Yorke’s lyrical economy; terse metaphors like “I’m just an animal/Trapped in your hot car” make In Rainbows Radiohead’s sexiest yet, and the instant gratification of the band’s poppiest hooks since ’95’s The Bends confirm the hedonism. “Bodysnatchers” sounds like early Pearl Jam, which is interesting because Radiohead debuted in the heights of grunge. And “All I Need” is ’90s trip hop in the vein of the Primitive Radio God’s “Phone Booth.” But despite those few classic turns, Rainbows is the sound of a band so ahead of their time that they already know we’re all doomed to hell. Just note the simple chorus from the Bush-aimed “House of Cards”: “Denial…denial,” sings Yorke, putting into words a greater criticism than the greatest pundit. His band, at this point in their lofty career, is as easy to like as their lyrical targets are to hate.

WHAP Concert Series: Coldplay

July 24, 2008

When: Wednesday, July 23
Where: The United Center, Chicago

As a concert-minded songwriter, one of Chris Martin’s best moves was to name his biggest hits after colors — or colours, as he might say. Just ask the 11,000 strong at last night’s Coldplay show, who over the course of the night heard hits of a vivid trajectory: the early highlight was “Violet Hill,” sans the thirty seconds of white noise that precedes it on new disc Viva La Vida; the ultimate peak was a singalong version of “Yellow,” the sole concert cut from debut disc Parachutes; and the show ended with an acoustic take on “Green Eyes” from the excellent Rush of Blood to the Head LP. Even if you don’t particularly care for these tunes, they sure make sense in the midst of a lights show — which sure makes sense to do in an arena. Coldplay’s entire set, in fact, could be summed up as songs that made sense.

The four-piece Londoner ensemble, of course, is making more than a few cents off their latest album: Viva has sold 5 million copies in a month, and the accompanying tour is selling so well that bigger cities — Chicago included — are being treated to two nights of performance. I caught Coldplay’s second Windy City set, which Chris Martin promised was better than the first. And after two encores, two album-length takes on new single “Lost!” and two full hours of music, I can’t call him a liar.

Essentially, Coldplay excels at being recognizable. Their concert was the first where I knew every single song, even the deep cuts from the new disc — “Death And All His Friends”; a rollicking, pitch-perfect “42” — and the old ones cloaked in electronica and drum machine reverb — “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face,” from Rush of Blood. Outside of that, two songs tested unfamiliar waters: a traditional folk tune sung by drummer Will Champion and a two-minute take on “The Dubliners,” a new ditty that approximates an Irish drinking tune. The set was otherwise infectious, from a rousing rendition of “In My Place” (with crowd-sung “yeah”s) to a laser-assisted romp through the concert stock of “Clocks” (improvised harmonies included). And the decision to only play singles from X & Y — that’s the wide-eyed balladry of “Fix You” and the contemplative piano pop of “Speed of Sound” — was a wise one, as too much mediocrity would have chipped away the artistic armor of Coldplay’s new material.

That said, two brand new songs provided the night’s lowlights. The first was “Yes,” which was overly-reliant on synchronized stereo strings and plagued by Chris Martin’s ultimately-too-weak lower register. Then came the aforementioned double-take on “Lost!,” whose central organ riff was overwhelmed by an attempt to accurately approximate the song’s jungle-thump beat. (The band played two takes because they’re filming concert footage for the song’s upcoming promo video, but one good rendition in lieu of two formulaic attempts — both dependent on Martin’s anti-rock-god flagellantism — would have been better.)

Blunders aside, however, the show was an exercise in slightly exceeding expectations — which is more than enough from a band who tires of playing their material well after you tire of hearing it. Throughout the set, six giant orbs projected images of the band members high above the stage, and an arching video screen flashed images congruent to their simultaneous song: Bush clips during a soulful and more-relevant-by-the-day “Politik”; Eastern imagery throughout “Lovers in Japan”; even psychadelic fruit displays on “Strawberry Swing.” Then there was Chris, as self-deprecating as ever, who despite fame and fortune seems convinced he could lose it all as quickly as it came. But that’s the science of Coldplay, the science outlined in the lyrics of “Lost!”: “You might be a big fish…[but] along may come a bigger one.” The band’s just big fish for now, but that’ll do for a sea of people on a given night in Chicago.

WHAP Reviews: Beck, Modern Guilt

July 20, 2008

At this point, the one tedious thing about any Beck album is wading through swamps of hype before even hearing a guitar chord. And in the case of Modern Guilt, his tenth full-length and — at 33 minutes — his shortest ever, it’s laid on thick.

First came the announcement that our favorite changeling had hand-selected producer-du-jour Danger Mouse to helm the disc, and that the two of them had spent six months in L.A. trading old records like musical alchemists to prepare. Then came the sonic blueprint for the record — psychadelic sixties pop — and everyone got giddy over the fact that Beck and Danger Mouse, both arguably ahead of their time, were engaged in an effort to sound decidedly behind their time. After that, drop a few names for good measure — like Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) on backing vocals, or Beck’s own father handling the string arrangements — and all of the sudden a routine Beck CD is the Dark Knight of the indie music world. But after numerous spins, the byline on Modern Guilt is neither compliment nor criticism. Instead, it’s more like a blanket statement, and one that comes as no surprise given the mystical aura that’s surrounded Beck ever since he traded samples for Scientology: this record underscores the two great paradoxes of his career.

The first one, of course, is that Beck is the only modern artist who gets brownie points for revisiting his previous work. Normally, there’s a stigma attached to bands that don’t change their sound; this is why Nickelback is critically loathed, why Pink Floyd and Radiohead are seen as visionaries, and even why the Beatles are considered more prolific than the Rolling Stones despite playing together for thirty fewer years. But ever since he made 1996’s groundbreaking Odelay, which fused together everything from James Brown to Big Black, Beck has been tempting critics with claims that he’ll reinvent that very wheel. He never has, mind you, but 2005’s Guero came close enough to earn much higher marks than it deserved — while other records like Mutations and Sea Change strayed so far from the Odelay sessions that some critics were awed while others were put off. I’m in the former camp, so here’s some good news: Modern Guilt is about as far from Odelay as it gets. But there’s bad news too.

The bad comes, I guess, from the second paradox of Beck: his music sounds more like plagiarism when he’s not actually plagiarizing. When I said that Odelay contained elements of James Brown, I wasn’t kidding: Beck sampled the Godfather of Soul on that record, along with so many other songs that not one of Odelay‘s tracks was entirely unassisted by the open gamut of previously recorded music. Even incorporating those hundreds of samples, though, not one song off Odelay sounded copycat. Modern Guilt, by comparison, is written in full by Beck — but it doesn’t escape the pitfalls of being overly familiar, which makes this record feel more like a covers album than an original piece of art. Take the title track, where a staccato bass line is lifted directly from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and choral surf guitars are nicked from Cream. The song is menacingly bouncy, not unlike the Doors at their poppiest, but it ultimately sounds too close to being stolen for its own good.

A similiar problem plagues well over half this disc. “Youthless,” while wise to incorporate alternately ascending and decending keyboards, is a cheap rehashing of Beck songs like “Hell Yes” and “We Dance Alone”: one cool musical motif, in this case guttural guitar funk, with little invention atop it. “Soul of a Man,” meanwhile, veers into a guitar solo at the minute mark that’s suspiciously familiar to a line from the Black Keys’ “Breaks” — which wouldn’t be so bad if Danger Mouse hadn’t worked with the Keys less than three months ago. Even “Profanity Prayers,” marked by some as one of Modern Guilt‘s standouts, is the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” at twice the speed. Never before has Beck been so predictable.

Thankfully, there is a saving grace on this album — but it has nothing to do with its production. Actually, Danger Mouse comes up short on many occasions; when first single “Gamma Ray” breaks into eight bars of twangy guitar solo, for instance, a George Clinton-style bass line could have upped the aural ante by leagues. Similarly, Beck and DM’s reliance on sudden song endings quickly loses its shine: when six of ten songs stop abruptly in the middle of momentous times, the listener thinks less that it’s cool and more that it masks an inability to write actual song conclusions. Certainly a half-hour album could have incorporated a few more minutes of music without testing our patience — and relied much less on a whooping, saloonish snare drum that Danger Mouse peppers almost everywhere.

That saving grace, then, is a bound in maturity in Beck’s lyricism — particularly unexpected from the man who said in interviews that he was primarily concerned with Modern Guilt‘s sound, the same man who admitted to writing scratch lyrics (i.e., lyrics on the spot) for the majority of Odelay. Beck pulls off some gems throughout this disc, including a line from album closer “Volcano” that might as well be directed to his critics: “I’m tired of people who only want to be pleased,” he sings, taking a shot at modern hedonism. “But I still want to please you.” Elsewhere he’s a paranoid poetic, like on the excellent “Walls”: “You know that we’re better than that/But some days we’re worse than you can imagine.” Maybe a third paradox enters the equation here: as Beck focuses on how he sounds, he improves more so with what he says.

Truth be told, the lyrics aren’t the sole highlight on this album. A few tracks work extremely well: “Chemtrails” is tribal, acidic and funky at once; the aforementioned “Walls” uses sweeping synthesizers to accurately mimic the sound of collapsing walls; and “Gamma Ray” (see below) alternates between TV-theme guitar riffing and pudgy piano pop. But the best is far outweighed by the rest on Modern Guilt — and it’s hard to shake the feeling that if great minds like Danger Mouse and Beck do indeed think alike, perhaps they need to be kept apart to do so.

WHAP RATING: 2.8/5.0