Album Reviews: Modest Mouse – No One’s First, and You’re Next | Sonic Youth – The Eternal | Son Volt – American Central Dust | Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs | Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
A few big names released albums while I’ve been away the last couple months so here’s a brief recap:
Any time a band as huge as Modest Mouse drops a new album there’s usually plenty of fanfare and press to go around, but this EP came out to relatively little attention. But I suppose it’s easy to be dwarfed by new singles by Radiohead and Jay-Z and Kanye West, and the news of the Beatles remasters to be released on the 40th anniversary of their break-up. No One’s First and You’re Next is definitely worth checking out if you were a fan of the last two productions. Although the EP is made up of songs that didn’t fit on those albums thematically, the sound is consistent and it’s generally easy to see which songs came from which session.
There’s nothing bad on here, in fact the quality of songwriting is very high, with none of the self-indulgent repetition that afflicted this band’s outtakes and studio sessions in their early years. It’s not cohesive from one song to the next, but you shouldn’t expect it to be since it wasn’t recorded with a theme in mind. This eclecticism goes a long way to making the record feel more lightweight than the slightly overwrought Modest Mouse that appeared on the last two albums. It’ll be fun to see whether they can grow without heavy guitars in the same way The Flaming Lips did in their second decade.
This album abandons the delicate post-rock sound they’ve opted for recently and culls a blast of 90s rock. Heavy and loud like they used to be back then, but a bit more nuanced and colorful with a better ear for production. Kim Gordon is revitalized and as sexually charged as she was twenty years ago (although “Anti-Orgasm” seems a bit over the top) and Thurston’s vocals are laid back and mostly playful.
The songs are immediate and bracing and off the cuff in a way Sonic Youth never has been, but also demonstrates a warmth with the clanging chords of “No Way” and the straightforward rhythms and jangly leads in “Sacred Trickster.” The affability of the songs plays to Mark Ibold’s strengths. He anchors them with some lush chordal bass lines and propulsive riffs that bounce more than music this dissonant has any right to. Perhaps the real stunner is that this album entered the Billboard charts at their highest position ever (#16). And why shouldn’t it, when the previous week Grizzly Bear opened at #4?
Son Volt – American Central Dust
This album, released a week after Wilco released their self-titled effort, puts into stark relief the differences between the two bands and shows why Jeff Tweedy become an indie superstar and Son Volt has more or less maintained an audience that enjoyed Uncle Tupelo. Not like it’s been a competition since that band split up fifteen years ago.
It wouldn’t be a fair fight to match Jay Farrar’s broken collection of world-weary observations set to a country-rock backing band with Wilco’s distanced, effortless pop songs. Farrar cares far more about the words he’s singing that Tweedy ever did, a blessing and a curse. The songs make more of a direct impact, but are often cast in an awkward phrasing, forcing lines that don’t match the rhythms of the music, insisting on meanings that require a little more grace when introduced in a three minute rock song. The accompanying music is consistently understated, with occasional keyboard flourishes and electric but not twangy or heavy guitars that are occasionally touched with a flange or chorus pedal. It isn’t bad, but it’s not strikingly profound either.
It wasn’t until 1997′s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One that Yo La Tengo assembled their eclectic and occasionally contradictory influences on one disc. They repeated that trick in 2006 with the awkwardly titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.
Popular Songs continues in this tradition ranging from soul (“If It’s True”) to modern pop pastiches (“Here to Fall”) to epic length post-rock numbers (“More Stars than there Are In Heaven”). Another fantastic album from a band who seems to do no wrong even in their most casual and unpretentious releases. Catch them at the 930 Club on Sept 17th.
I’m really proud of Dinosaur Jr. for sticking to their guns their whole existence. I get the feeling that J Mascis knows exactly how he wants his songs to sound and isn’t going to change them for anyone’s approval other than his own. I actually like this collection better than Beyond for its energy and for containing just enough tricks to keep things interesting. The wah-wah on “Over It” to Lou’s vocal harmonizing on “Your Weather” to Murph’s delicate drumming on “See You”. Actually all three members have learned some new tricks, where Beyond was more a re-affirmation of their strengths. Always the most conscious of his surroundings (of the three), Lou’s began to modernize his songwriting a lot, turning in the most concise and energetic tunes, and Murph has added some bounce and some impressive structure to his drumming. J is more precise than ever in his fretwork, but also in his tasteful use of effects (even is he still hogs the limelight a bit much for my taste) and there are some moments when the guitar parts harmonize beautifully. Also, has no one picked up on how cool the cover art is?
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