Two impressive, ambitious, well-crafted, critic-friendly albums this month, plus two bland slices of relatively mediocre pop product, so guess which two I fell for? The artistically respectable ones! Hey, we all break our own rules sometimes.
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars: Libation
(Cumbancha, 2014) [BUY]
Having met and formed a band in a Guinean camp for refugees fleeing a Sierra Leone ravaged by civil war, these West African fusioneers’ rather precise name captures both their moving backstory and the eagerness of American marketers to capitalize on said backstory. Mixing several third-world genres into one big blend, they epitomize crossover Africana.
The opener, “Chaimra,” is an irresistible bundle of rhythm, in which joyous vocal harmonies announce their presence over shuffling drums, grandly wobbling horns, and a clear, trebly guitar lick that keeps chiming in at the right moments. The rest of the album can’t match that standard, but it does establish a nice groove. Their laid-back, swaying, syncopated beat provides such solid musical continuity that they can alternate between jumpy pop skyrockets and more sententious reggae-style moaners without any loss in momentum, and their bright guitar hooks keep the record upbeat and bouncy. While sometimes a scraping percussion effect or ringing organ melody will integrate itself subtly into the mix, usually the band is quite simple and fairly gentle. If one were feeling generous, it might make sense to categorize their mildness as cheerful politesse of the palm-wine variety, the mood achieved in most West African highlife. More likely it reveals just how generic their synthesis is in the first place.
The band’s exuberance simply to be making music fills this album with positive energy, but the compromises they make for their American audience turn that energy bland. If the lyrics in Krio are as pro forma as the lyrics in English, they should hire a writer.
Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans
(ATO, 2014) [BUY]
It’s been three years since the last Drive-By Truckers album, the longest gap this unbelievably consistent and prolific roots-rock band has ever subjected its fans to, but this album was worth waiting for. With twin lead singers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley obsessively bouncing ideas off each other, the killer riffs and witty observations never let up, cementing their reputation as world-class songwriters.
As lyricists and as heirs to a specific rural-identified rock style in the vein of Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, the Truckers have mastered their own weird take on Southern Gothic, a tradition of narrative song heavy on character sketches, the telling detail, and determined, unflinching class animus. Their rugged music applies boogie piano, sunny pedal steel, and the old-fashioned blues licks of classic country to a noisy grunge/garage core, enriching and complicating a supremely hard-rocking band sound as angry and punkoid as it gets. Nominal frontman Hood sings in a high, pained, piercing wail, equally capable of furious defiance and heartbreaking lyricism, while Cooley is both more conversational and intellectual, subsuming unflappable calm and knowing resignation in a warmly flowing drawl. Because Cooley dominates this album, one might expect it to be more melancholy than their norm, with less storytelling and more rumination. But the true focus is on the scratchy guitar and pounding drums, which bang and rumble with ferocious, mind-numbing intensity.
Compassionate yet unruly, explosive yet welcoming, this is a vivid song cycle. Hard-hitting throughout, it opens with “Shit Shots Count,” possibly Cooley’s biggest existential statement ever: “Put your cigarette out and put your hat back on/Don’t mix up which is which/They don’t pay you enough to work/They don’t pay me enough to bitch.”
The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams
(Razor & Tie, 2014) [BUY]
Craig Finn and Tad Kubler have always packed more punch than your average indie bar band, but this must be their sturdiest album to date, leaning heavier than ever into a straightahead four-four charge. Although it doesn’t quite match the magic of 2005’s Separation Sunday or 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, it’s a true comeback, as they haven’t rocked this hard in six years.
Beyond the two slow ballads, both as striking as anything here, they’ve gotten faster, harsher, sharper. Delivered in the nasally throaty cry that has become his band’s sonic signature, Finn’s rants and lectures and shaggy dog stories remain the focus of a compelling rock & roll style, a roaring blare that keeps hammering down layers of jangle and power chord on top of each other. But gone are the swirling keyboards and keening harmonies of their organ-drenched Franz Nicolay wall of noise, replaced by a crunchy, swaggering twin-guitar attack aimed straight at the arena. Not only are their love songs big and amplified, but they’ve adopted the kind of shamelessly heavy riffage beloved of expressionistic heartland-rockers everywhere, and every corny solo comes through loud and clear. Shot through with vulgar passion, contextualized by Finn’s vivid tales of middle-class disappointment and tortured romance, their new style of grand emotional immediacy crackles and bites.
From its red-blooded blue-collar focus to its tough distorted surface, this is a formalist’s dream of classic rock, expertly evoking the singalong anthems and half-remembered nostalgia of oldies radio. Springsteen was more exciting, of course. Never so traditionalist, so reassuring, so communal — so predictably surefire.
Coldplay: Ghost Stories
(Parlophone, 2014) [BUY]
Enveloping dreamy teenpop balladry and soaring arena hooks in gauzy electronic blush, wrapped in swooning sonic luxury, Coldplay is a genius band in theory, but in practice I’ve never liked any of their albums for more than a few songs at a time. I had my hopes up for this record, allegedly an attempt to cut down on the grand production that marked their previous releases in favor of something more personal and intimate. Unfortunately, that intimacy manifests itself in a set of moony breakup songs, by the same band who thought it cute to dub a song “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”.
Compared to 2011’s richly gorgeous but also meticulously labored Mylo Xyloto, this album’s slower, more contemplative pace comes as something of a relief. It’s relaxed, mild, listenable, giving the songs room to breathe. But never before has their commercial secret been so clear, and that is a very calculated and artful style of affectlessness. Naturally their luscious blend of strummed acoustic guitar, glistening keyboard haze, and tastefully arranged computer bleeps evinces the tender yearning of a practiced heartthrob; naturally their ambiguously metaphysical lyrics mean to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But if you can pin down a single distinct emotion Chris Martin feels over the course of these nine songs, you should become an analyst. For all this music’s achingly evocative texture and vague, wistful aura, it moves mechanically, with every delicate wash of pale, creamy light planned far in advance and every dreamy swoop of Martin’s voice a show of technique. When he starts murmuring verse toward the end about stars, oceans, and the rain, he reaches the limits of his expressive ability.
Although scaling down the atmosphere and writing more directly does realize a certain elegance, it also reveals the shallowness behind their affectations. Just think — all around the world, thousands of sensitive guys are striking similar poses. But that cold dead look in their eyes gives them away.