Many would agree that a band has its life to date to make its first album and six months for the second. Over time, musicians evolve, changing their sound while constantly building upon it. Similarly, they overcome challenges as they attempt to retain their individuality in constantly changing social scenes. Whatever move they decide to make with the next album they create, be their second or fourth, the move that they make will always alter their career.
A second album can often serve the purpose of breaking away from existing stereotypes. Some are able to make it work having gathered enough practice in the music world to create a masterful piece, but others make us wonder why they ever changed their sound in the first place. For instance, we can turn to MGMT, a band we have not heard much from lately. I remember being introduced to them while watching the opening scene of “21,” a bike ride through Boston set to “Time to Pretend.” From then on, I would relate the song to an open road, always ready to chant “no turning back, no looking back.” The rest of “Oracular Spectacular,” the album that really plunged MGMT into their music career, was also full of upbeat rhythms, music that was particularly easy to listen to. It was still atypical to what was playing on the radio at the time with unlikely lyrics and electronic beats. Fun and exciting it definitely was; however, it didn’t really give them any other image other than some weird guys from Wesleyan University with cool videos and songs that we could listen to over and over again on the radio, at parties, or on iTunes. It was what we wanted and they did it well. They didn’t have to be more than mediocre at the instruments they played, their eccentricity drove them to creating songs that would become a staple in the music lives of teenagers and twenty-somethings. Released in early 2010, MGMT’s second album, “Congratulations” was not as well received as the first. Whether it was a good or bad move given their quick success early on, it was definitely a career changing one. The album is a mix of different sounds ranging from psychedelic beats to ethereal rhythms with a certain atmospheric quality. I can honestly say that “Congratulations” is an album with a longer lifespan than MGMT’s first. Though it may not have been as much of a blow out hit as “Oracular Spectacular” was almost four years ago, it is an album that will have fans turning back to much more often. Not simply a trend, it puts the actual musical talents of the band at the forefront, showing that they can do more than release a popular, but possibly over produced album. The influences of “Oracular Spectacular” are apparent throughout the entire album. For instance, “Flash Delirium,” the single released prior to the album was an indication that the band was not hoping to stray too far from their roots. In addition to having the usual extremely odd music video (which may have received more attention than the song itself), the song seemed to pay homage to parts of the band’s first. However, the rest of the album takes a different direction. The songs were softer, focusing more strongly on cohesive tracks rather than catchy beats. In addition to the sounds, the arrangement of the album was filled with clever and ironic undertones. For instance, the eighth track on the album is an instrumental song titled “Lady Dada’s Nightmare.” While viewing the album for the first time, this title initially struck my eye. It seemed to me that they had created a puzzle to be interpreted using cultural knowledge whether it be pertaining to current trends in pop music or an art historical experience. Similarly, I find it to be the band’s invitation for individual listeners to create their own analysis of the album. Ultimately, I saw the song as a commentary on pop culture. The title allows listeners to look back at Dada, a cultural movement of the 20th century which was a means of poking fun at the meaninglessness of cultural conformity. The title also is an allusion to Lady Gaga and the attention that she receives for her music and state of mind. Whether the title and the song are meant to break away or fall into the traps of 21st century pop culture is up to the listeners to decide. The song itself is also ambiguous, lacking lyrics that would tell an obvious story. Not an obvious hit, it is a song that serves a greater need as it is part of an album with many layers. With its witty compilation of sounds, titles, and lyrics, “Congratulations” is an album that is better viewed as a whole than in individual parts. Both easy to listen to and experimental, it exemplifies the extent that MGMT is ready to go in order to create a musical experience unique to every listener.
As bands release more albums, it often becomes difficult to create something new and unique each time. Some choose to experiment, while others decide to continue doing what has already brought them success. Just as in almost all situations, reaching a happy medium, though difficult, often creates a cohesive album that is both unique and typical in individual ways. With this process, the band grows and achieves longevity. “Angles,” the fourth album by The Strokes, was finally released a few days ago after a long five year break. The album exemplifies how musicians grow, not only individually but also together. Though their sound has obviously changed since the release of “Is This It,” there are still inklings of the old Strokes resounding from within. In addition to a Julian Casablancas more in the shadows, individual songs boast new musical techniques, allowing “Angles” to become a multifaceted and dynamic record. Primarily, the first track, “Machu Picchu” opens with an islandy feel, a vibe that has not been typical to the band. It also exemplifies how the band instigated more of a group dynamic in the making of this record, as it was written by Nick Valensi, the first time he has contributed a track. “Angles” is also an album of interesting intros. Take “Games” for instance; it begins by sounding like background music for a jazzercise video straight out of the Bahamas. Though a bit of that is found in the rest of the song, it certainly lacks that level of immaturity. Relying on dynamic beats, a rhythmic bass, and a drummer that keeps the song on track, “Games” becomes an interesting one to say the least. Julian’s voice, though always (angelic and) wonderful to hear, is not the spotlight of this song or even album. It is as though he is using his voice to allow his listeners to pay further attention to the music the group has created. Rather than draw attention to himself, he is emphasizing what has been created as a whole, allowing “Games” to become a ‘mature’ song, bringing an odd intro while losing some of what used to be typical to the band. “Angles” as a whole allows listeners to have a taste of something new while being reminded of what they love. Just as a good new album should, “Angles” has us turn back to appreciate what has already been done while allowing us to look into the future, wondering what we should expect next.
Whether it be to gain maturity or to break a band stereotype, the band grows with each new album they create. In addition to their own personal gains, they create some level of mystery for their faithful listeners. Somehow, we are always left to wonder to ourselves: “Will there be another?”
In our minds, we group artists into different categories. There are our favorites, the ones we always listen to with the songs we choose to repeat. There are those one hit wonders who we look back to when stumbled upon, the ones we used to like but now seem insignificant, and then there are the ones that we mindlessly skip over. In our music collections, there are certain songs we never bother to experience with an intro we probably never listen to.
Though a favorite of many, Radiohead unfortunately had never really appealed to me, something I often found to be very ironic. Isn’t every Pitchfork reader supposed to worship at the feet of Thom Yorke? Frankly, I’d rather listen to music free of self-depricating lyrics, no matter how profound. However, when I took a second to put my pickiness aside, I allowed myself to judge the band by a little bit more than just their song on Rock Band (way too easy, just btw).
A few months ago, a friend made me several mix CDs, all containing very good music most of which I had not heard. To him, these CDs were just a part of his favorite playlist. To me, it was uncharted territory, mainly because I did not have any of the track listings. Though frustrated at first, this proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because I am cursed with a horrible case of music ADD, it was hard for me not to press skip after hearing the intro of every unfamiliar song. So often do I struggle to open up my mind to absorb the sounds that my ears hear. However, what is worse than simply disregarding a song due to an unfamiliar intro is not giving it a chance at all because I have condemned it music purgatory. Listening to these mix CDs proved that the only true treatment for this “downfall” (other than the patience that I unfortunately do not have) is anonymity. As I slowly went through the three CDs, I was quick to pick out my favorites. One song in particular stuck out among the rest. It was the type of song that overwhelms, takes you in so that it is the only thing that you experience so that you simply cannot imagine thinking about anything else but the syncopated rhythms taking you in and out. I couldn’t help but press repeat as the song continued to take over. It’s as though I was being forced to zoom in and out, to focus on individual beats while still hearing everything else, almost making myself dizzy. The thought of deciding what to listen to or choosing what to hear was out of the question as the sound directed me where to go. It was skipping, but staying in line, speeding and staying in control all at once. So many times would I come back to this song when I wanted to focus, to remain in one place when I really wanted to go every which way. Laying in the dark, it allowed me to stay collected, as everything came back to me at the same time before completely fading away. Even now, a little bit of the frustration fades away as I allow myself to be directed by what inspired the feeling in the first place.
The first time I listened, the song seemed the most beautiful it would ever seem due to the mystery surrounding it. Not knowing its name or the artist by whom it was inspired, I experienced a thrill every time I listened because part of me knew that if I had the original track listing I would have probably been hesitant to listen. However, it was a song unlike any I had ever heard. If I had not primarily forced myself to listen I would not have been so blown away.
The song was “Idioteque,” and I had chosen to listen because it was called Track 08 by Unknown Artist rather than being attributed to Radiohead, a band that I had always disregarded. Granted, this article wasn’t meant to express my distaste for Radiohead (with several exceptions). Rather, it is meant to express a point as well as to explain the by-line of this blog, “don’t be afraid to press shuffle.” So often do I judge a song simply by the name of the band or the album that it belongs to. Though not a bad thing, it does definitely narrow the scope of the music I allow myself to listen to. Similarly, I often fall into the trap of building “the best playlist ever,” which is often a flawed observation. In addition to the primary realization that no playlist is perfect, such a playlist condemns its creator to ignore the rest of the several thousand songs in his or her music library. Rather than learn my lesson the first time around, I constantly fall into the same trap, listening to and skipping the same songs I always do. For this reason, I submit myself to a “cleanse” every so often in order to discover and rediscover certain gems in my collection of music that I am so prone to ignore. Sometimes it just lets me giggle to myself about the music I used to listen to; however, every so often I find myself enjoying a song I would have otherwise not stumbled upon whether it be “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” by Radiohead (“In Rainbows”) or “Black Wave” by the Shins (“Wincing the Night Away”).
With music on shuffle it is often easy to be overwhelmed, as it serves as a distraction from what usually does take over. Sometimes, however, relief sinks in as I allow myself to take the backseat, so that everything around me can become like ambient noise, a quiet insignificant hum.
Everything in its right place.
Waking up in the morning is rarely pleasant as pressing snooze over and over is typical. This being a post in a music blog, it is expected that I write a lengthy paragraph or two on how music cures all and therefore makes every morning vastly more pleasant. Frankly, in many cases it does. However, there are certain songs that no matter how much I enjoy, I simply cannot start my morning to. The song I choose to wake up to is reflective of my mood and does not simply have to be something that will magically jolt some mystical energy into me. Often, it is the same song that I have fallen asleep to, the one I have not been able to get out of my mind. This post and those like it will spotlight the first song that came to mind as I woke up.
Tuesday morning, and the alarm goes off. It’s ten am and I have the same lyrics running through my head. Stephen Malkmus’s voice repeats “Paris is stale and it’s war if we fail.” Just as expected, I am quick to press play and I condemn myself to having “Frontwards” on repeat in my head throughout the day.
Pavement is a band that was introduced to me by a new friend my first semester in college. With “Cut Your Hair” being their only true mainstream hit, it was obvious that that was the first Pavement song that I had in my iTunes library. Slowly my interest in the band increased and eventually “Zurich is Stained” became the most played song in my music library. Though not even playing a song 114 times was able to bore me, I was ready for something new. Reading the wikipedia article for the band, I recently discovered that the band had released a compilation of their music in 2010 titled “Quarantine the Past.” What primarily struck me was the album title; what better way to name the album than with a lyric from “Gold Soundz.” While listening to the mix, I could not help but admire the track listing, leading me to listen to it in full four times over after the first time I pressed play. The biggest surprise was “Frontwards,” a song that I had never heard. I am not sure how I missed it, but it was a pleasant surprise to say the least.
The appeal of the track lies not only in the sounds of the guitar or Malkmus’s lyrics. It lies in the emotions that it brings. I click play not only hoping to hear the music that has been playing in my head, but also to feel what I felt the last time I had listened. It makes my mind race as I try to discern the way I feel. Not truly sure of what’s at hand, I feel like it’s a song that I turn to not only when I want to quote powerful lyrics, but also when I want to remember the moment when I last listened. “Frontwards” makes me miss a particular time I listened and the feeling associated with it. It makes me miss the company I had, the location, and the weather. Similarly, it is able to inspire new thoughts while building upon the former ones. I cannot get bored no matter how many times I listen as it has built a multifaceted story in my head allowing for a different (but still familiar) listening experience each time.
Such feelings, that are often difficult to pinpoint, are the ones I want to profile when writing these posts. Almost a journal, I hope for a better understanding of why automatically turning to a certain track is what I do after I can no longer Snoooooze.
It is only fair that my first blog post showcase the Strokes. As indicated by the album artwork of their first album, they are a band that is not afraid to take risks whether it be in producing a considerably lo-fi record or having frontman, Julian Casablancas, step back in order to inspire initiative in his band mates. As indicated by the various different steps they have taken to produce their 4 LPs, the production process is very important to these New York natives. It has been five years since the band has released an album as their last project, First Impressions of Earth, was often critiqued as having been too similar to prior records. Such buzz led the band to take a much needed break as they worked on side projects, and thought to themselves “what next?”
With five years having passed and side projects put on hold, the boys are ready to go as their newest album, Angles, drops on March 21st in the UK and a day later in the US. After reading numerous interviews with the band, blog posts, articles, and watching the various episodes of “Making of Angles,” it seems to me (as I’m sure it does to many others as well) that it is going to be a good one. Not only does it showcase the talents of every member and brings in various new elements, the record will allow us fans to remember why we’ve been listening to the Strokes for the past ten years. The first single off the album, “Under Cover of Darkness,” was released on February 11th. With catchy beats and melodic rhythms, the song will seemingly become an anthem. It is mainstream enough to appeal to the general public while still giving self-proclaimed pretentious music aficionados something to sing along to. Less than a month after its release, “Under Cover of Darkness” has been purchased on ITunes more frequently than “Last Nite,” the song that often first comes to mind when thinking of the band. Shortly after the release of “Under Cover of Darkness,” came “You’re So Right,” a b-side to “Under Cover of Darkness.” Bringing back faint memories of “First Impressions of Earth,” the track has scintillating rhythms and as Julian himself indicated (in an interview with NME), is “a darker one. It counters some of the happy vibes on the other tracks.”
March 5th marked the night that the Strokes would appear on Saturday Night Live. On stage they looked as they always did in their leather jackets, tight pants, long hair, and cutoff tees. Their attitudes were unchanged as they came together as a group and were ready for their long awaited television performance. Having built up the performance a great deal, it is sad for me to admit as a major admirer of Julian Casablancas that his voice did not sound as ‘angelic’ as it usually did to me during “Under Cover of Darkness.” Though there is more to a band than its lead singer, it is hard to ignore the struggles of such a central figure. The rest of the guys were unfazed by there seemingly mediocre performance, but Julian added a Strokes-like kick to his performance with his outburst of “Fuck it” at the end of the song. As the cameras cut back to the Strokes at the end of the show, we were surprised by an unfamiliar guitar opening. Premiering another single on live television was all the band needed to display that they were back. Titled “Life is Simple in the Moonlight,” the song showcases everything we have loved about the Strokes in their previous records. With a beautifully intricate guitar solo from Nick Valensi, multi-faceted lyrics, and Julian’s wide range of vocals, the track proved to be nothing but simple. After “Under Cover of Darkness,” I was worried that the rest of the album may be disappointing as a five year break often brings about high expectations. However, “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” proved that such fear was unwarranted. The Strokes are back and will kick off their tour this Saturday at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas (playing with Devendra Banhart).
“Angles” will drop in a short thirteen days. Needless to say I can’t wait.