Yeah Yeah Yeahs at First Avenue (Minneapolis, MN)

Video of Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ May 30, 2009 show at First Avenue in Minneapolis, MN features performances of “Heads Will Roll,” “Dull Life,” “Gold Lion,” “Miles Away,” “Pin,” “Zero,” “Cheated Hearts,” and “Date with the Night.”

Phoenix “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” Review

When Phoenix recently performed on Saturday Night Live, there was a general sense of “who are these guys?” and “why are they on SNL?” that wafted out of the uninformed blogosphere (myself included). While the hype surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix certainly had to have helped the band land the spot, there is so much more to it than that. It’s not simply that they’ve been together for over a decade, but that they’ve been a great source of influence and have their roots firmly planted in the same soil that also sprouted some of France’s finest electronic exports. Phoenix first recorded together when backing a remix of Air’s “Kelly Watch The Stars,” and prior to joining the band, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz played in a short-lived group in the mid-’90s, Darlin’, with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. Shortly after disbanding, that duo went on to form Daft Punk. With such a distinct lineage, it’s no wonder that Phoenix’s electronic influence is still apparent to this day, and no more so than on their new album. Aside from “Lisztomania” (which is effortless in its accessibility and will likely stand as one of the songs of the summer for me), a single thought remained throughout when listening to Wolfgang: had U2 released this record they would be lauded as geniuses. Think about it, all throughout Wolfgang Phoenix (subconsciously) nails exactly what U2 has been lacking for years. A balance between synths and guitar without getting all “Mofo”-y on people: check. A guitarist who isn’t recycling riffs, but rather is working WITH his band to make the music sound more cohesive: check. A rhythm section that isn’t left for dead in the background, but rather one that allows the music to expand by coming to the forefront of the album: check. Lastly, a vocalist whose name isn’t Bono: check. The king is dead, long live Phoenix.

Grizzly Beart “Veckatimest” Review

There’s something to be said for following the advice of others… sometimes. Those largely unfamiliar with Grizzly Bear could easily find its latest album achingly dull. Much of Veckatimest sounds as though the band is casually treading through the recording, adding instruments and a quilted padding of sound below each track to magnify their impressiveness. Further inspection uncovers the lackluster lyrics that lay below much of the record’s layered sound. But those layered sounds are some of the most luscious to blossom from a sea of releases that has already propelled 2009 to being one of the best, musically, of the decade. True, the band is unable to match the craftsmanship of the lyrics to the majestic sounds that embrace them, but that’s one of the album’s most alluring characteristics. “Southern Points” takes “Never say it’s the last word/It’s not the last word/I never find any other/I could ever” and twists the words into a heart-pounding conclusion. And the harmonies which the band filters its vocals through are immaculate, as evidenced by the transformation of the chorus of “Two Weeks” from a bunch of lifeless lyrics into a rapturous eruption of sound. But in all fairness, both sides make equally valid claims. Veckatimest is musically blissful and isn’t easily assessed based on a single listen. At times it’s a bit weary, and as background music it fails at explicitly attracting a listener’s attention. But when you take the time to follow each song, tracing its motions to conclusion, any attempt at calling the album dull becomes moot. I’m glad I took the advice of my friends, some of which have equated it to the second-coming, some of which have called it the musical equivalent to dry toast. I just think it sounds really, really good.

Moby “Wait For Me” Review

Last Night, Moby’s last studio release, was an attempt by the musician to return to something comfortable. Quoting the album’s liner notes, “To me this record sounds like a night out in New York with all the sex and the weirdness and the disorientation and the celebration and the compelling chaos.” And the album encapsulated every bit of that; it was a return to a club scene that gave birth to the electronic artist two decades ago. It was less of a decisive stand suggesting that he was recapturing sounds from his past however, and more of a statement that he was living in the moment—the moment in his reality simply being reflected by the club scene at the time. Wait For Me represents something completely different however, rather than taking into account the spirit of his surroundings, the album represents the spirit of influence. In this particular case the source of such influence just happens to be director David Lynch.

As the story goes, “I started working on the album about a year ago, and the creative impetus behind the record was hearing David Lynch Speak at Bafta, in the UK. David was talking about creativity, and to paraphrase, about how creativity in and of itself, and without market pressures, is fine. It seems as if too often an artist’s or musician’s or writer’s creative output is judged by how well it accommodates the marketplace, and how much market share it commands and how much money it generates.”

The album is, in essence, derivative of the idea that returning to creating for the love of creating is what’s most important. Which in and of itself is a fantastic philosophy that points toward the epitome of art, but when you take Moby’s history into account, and his longstanding relationship with commercial outlets and adding dollar amounts to his musical creations, such a direction from the musician comes with as much initial appreciation as it does skepticism.

It should be noted, right from the beginning, that Moby has been a longstanding philanthropist who has performed at and contributed to a lengthy list of benefits and foundations that range from The Humane Society to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function to the support of the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso and human rights in Tibet. The most important in the context of Wait For Me however is his Moby Gratis project, “This portion of, ‘film music’, is for independent and non-profit filmmakers, film students, and anyone in need of free music for their independent, non-profit film, video, or short.” Moby continues, “The music is free as long as it’s being used in a non-commercial or non-profit film, video, or short. If you want to use it in a commercial film or short then you can apply for an easy license, with any money that’s generated being given to the humane society.”

The reason that this is so fundamentally important is because Moby has traditionally been very accommodating of the marketplace in terms of the marketing of his music. His 1999 album Play was the first ever to have each and every one of its tracks licensed for commercial use (movies, television shows or commercials). Furthermore, tracks from both 18 and Last Night have also been licensed for use in movies and television shows (the Bourne trilogy and Cloverfield amongst others). But to say that he composed his music with commercial intent is far different than saying that he first composed his music, after which it was then subject to commercial interest. Either way, it’s an interesting page to turn for a musician who has so deeply been involved in the marketing of art.

Aside from his intent, there are a number of dramatic differences between his past recordings and Wait For Me. The album was recorded in his home studio (which Moby describes as a bedroom in his lower East-side Manhattan apartment) using a small set-up and but a few close (and at this point, largely unidentified) friends to help with the recording—Ken Thomas (Throbbing Gristle, M83, Sigur Rós) helped mix the album and a few female friends of his contributed vocals… that’s about it. Another difference is that the tone is a richly dark one, and is cast consistently throughout the album both lyrically and through much of the record’s deep, dreary sounds.

Wait For Me is such that while its 16 tracks are all somewhat distinct from one another, the album was written and composed as a complete piece—again something not traditionally Moby. The record begins with “Division,” a two-minute long instrumental that glides along with whispering synthetic strings. The following track, “Pale Horses,” continues to set the tone for the record with a female vocalist adding, “Put me on the train, send me back to my home/Couldn’t live without you when I tried to roam/Put me by the window, let me see outside/Looking at the places where all my family died.”

The album’s lead single, while being instrumental, again confronts the ongoing sadness that is evident throughout the record. “Shot in the Back of the Head” reveals an interesting inverted loop that works beneath moaning guitar to lend a picture of moroseness to the music. “Walk with Me” continues by utilizing vocals that sound almost like weeping, a female voice gasping “Take my hand, all along, won’t you take my hand.”

“Mistake” is the album’s first track that Moby contributes vocals to, moaning “You never felt this lost before, and the world is closing doors/I never wanted anything more.” Where Moby has made a habit of tossing in a few outliers on his albums, the relaxed “Mistake” is oddly about as far from the norm as Wait For Me gets musically. The guitar and drum machine that back him on the song are comparative to that on his cover of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” from 1996’s Animal Rights, only “Mistake” is entirely understated—even on the album’s most upbeat sounding song things still sound bleak.

The album continues through similar trends, “JItf” is a beautiful track that blends deliberate piano with melancholic lyrics, “Hope is Gone” is a slow burning ballad, “Ghost” and “Slow Light” deliver gloomy keys and “Isolate” concludes the record with a tone similar to “Shot in the Back of the Head,” if only with a less energy and a single violin playing in the background.

Regardless of history and intent, what Moby has created with Wait For Me is intensely personal. While the tone of the album’s songs are consistently reflective, and strikingly dark, as a whole they represent a piece of music that is the most thorough Moby has created in a decade. At times you hear Play, and at times you hear Everything is Wrong, but at no time can you hear a track that is truly expected. I remember thinking something similar when I first heard Play, before it drove commercials and was splattered on mainstream radio—the music in both situations has been made with integrity. I suppose that if money were to subsequently chase the music, you’d be a fool not to consider your options.

Big Quarters

Four years ago, City Pages ran a cover story on a young, burgeoning hip-hop group by the name of Big Quarters. The article followed Brandon "Allday" Bagaason and his younger brother "Medium" Zach as they traveled through Illinois, documenting performances, ideologies, and personalities. The most remarkable development captured during the trip wasn't the struggle of the young independent artists, nor was it the crowd's reaction to their blossoming talent. Rather, it was their remarkable hustle: Not only would they pick up gigs at a moment's notice wherever they could (regardless of size or whether they'd be paid), but Brandon would rarely leave a performance without handing out a CD of the group's music to everyone he could. And he continues to this day.

"Passing CDs—that's what we've been doing since day one," explains Brandon. "If you see me, and I don't have a CD, I'm slipping. That's my business card."

It's a unique perspective: the thought that your recordings stand as your sales pitch, that the trading a free CD for a new fan is valuable, and that if you're able to entice a new pair of ears, they might come to your shows, buy a T-shirt, or tell a few friends about you. Last year Big Quarters put faith in their fan base, hoping that they would be supportive of a startup venture by the name of BQ Direct. Essentially, it's a monthly download service that gives fans "five songs for five bucks, every month." The immediate response suggested that all those years of doling out free CDs was now paying off.

BQ Direct is exactly as advertised; for a small fee the group offers a subscription service that gives fans the opportunity to download five new songs each month. "We became preoccupied with how we were going to release songs," Brandon says. "Now, we're feeling our creative process is more natural." Zach chimes in, "We've also become self-sufficient—we do it all in-house, then put it out."

As labels continue to defend against shrinking record sales and artist disillusionment, it's refreshing to see a group of independent artists utilize modern resources to stay ahead of the pack. "Twitter is another tool—and I have to use the tools that are going to allow me to navigate this music industry as it evolves," Brandon continues. "Physical flyers and CDs won't be relevant for too long. We used to make beat tapes. We made tapes, then we made CDs, and now we're sending out 320kbps digital singles. But it's still about the music."

The brothers' entrepreneurial spirit was instilled in them at an early age, as their mother nurtured them to create their own music. "Our first songs together were about crate digging, cheap food, girls, and making beats," says Zach. At the dawn of the decade the brothers moved to Minneapolis so Brandon could attend the University of Minnesota and Zach could attend Perpich Center for Arts Education. "Living away from home allowed me to be independent—it was mainly my way of getting to Minneapolis and surrounding myself with artists and musicians," says Zach. "At 14, 15, we started making our own music. And that became all I wanted to do."

Now Twin Cities hip-hop veterans Brandon and Zach find themselves assuming a new role—that of mentor. "Credit goes to people like Rhymesayers, Interlock & UVS," says Brandon. "Those guys gave us shows and took us on the road when we didn't know what we were doing—so I think we are a proponent in the same way, giving upcoming artists opportunities and any words of advice we can offer. And now we're doing some of that through Last of the Record Buyers." Additionally, they both work with youth through Anne Sullivan middle school, the Minneapolis YMCA, and Hope Community, offering writing and recording tutelage.

After taking on new challenges their entire career, the new Big Quarters album, From the Home of Brown Babies & White Mothers, stands as a yet another self-imposed hurdle. "On the new album, we challenged ourselves melodically," Brandon explains. And not to discredit the album, or suggest that it's free of bangers, but Brandon's statement shows. With Brandon and Mux Mool both lending scarce production assistance, Zach's beats cover the bulk of the album's tracks, lending it a smooth sensibility that nurtures the shift in focus. In addition to contributions from Crescent Moon and P.O.S., Mankwe Ndosi and Alissa Paris step in to help guide the album's later tracks, enhancing Brown Babies' harmonies and smooth feel.

Big Quarters are a group of multifaceted entertainers who have strengthened their following by creating a dynamic relationship between themselves, their fans, and their music. Are Big Quarters likely to break through to the mainstream with their combination of innovative self-promotion and suburb craftsmanship? In today's musical environment, the chances of that are unlikely. But are they dedicated enough to last another four years in this ever-evolving musical landscape? Brandon's answer best sums that up: "Big Quarters all day, every day."

[This article was first published by City Pages.]

Sonic Youth “Sacred Trickster”

Where much of The Eternal is a continuation of Sonic Youth’s career-long balancing act, featuring the staggered vocals of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, “Sacred Trickster” gives Gordon sole ownership of the spotlight. In doing so, the song arouses a sense of yesteryear, a sound that is reminiscent of the gritty, driving tracks that Gordon lead throughout the ’80s, all without sounding retro. With 2006’s Rather Ripped, the band largely avoided the grungy droning jams that had taken over much of its previous albums, replacing the bulk of the songs with a whirlwind of crushing guitar. To some degree The Eternal follows that trend, with the exception of the album’s final track, “Massage The History,” which bows out slightly before the 10 minute mark.

When the band focuses on shorter, faster tracks it seems able to thrust itself entirely into the music. “I want you to levitate me/Don’t you love me yet?/Press up against the amp/Turn up the treble, don’t forget.” In any different context, perhaps sung by either Moore or Lee Ranaldo, the same lyrics would shed the meaning they embody when flowing through Gordon. And when combining the rapid pace of the song with her forceful snarl, the final product isn’t something that sounds like the band did 20 years ago, but rather it sounds the way that one might have hoped they would have sounded a few decades after releasing Daydream Nation. Like “Sacred Trickster,” The Eternal sounds refreshing from start to end, and with each release it becomes increasingly amazing to find Moore, Gordon & co. outmatching contemporaries half their age.

“Anvil: The Story of Anvil” Review

Anvil: The Story of Anvil isn’t simply a documentary about a group of balding, gray-haired rockers. The story follows an aging Canadian metal band as they continue to struggle to find success, but the spirit of hope is one that trumps any of the cinematic plot twists. The film documents a story of two friends, the band they made when they were kids, and their ongoing determination to make something of it. Possibly unintentional on the behalf of the director however, it becomes a film that sheds light on the power of the human spirit and how stubborn dedication to something you believe in can help overcome disaster.

The opening sequence of the film sheds light on the history of Anvil, with testimonials coming from the likes of Slash, Lemmy, Scott Ian of Anthrax and Lars Ulrich of Metallica. Anvil was a band that, in the early ’80s, was in line to help elevate the burgeoning thrash genre as it was becoming a popular niche within the metal world. As the band’s contemporaries found success however, poor management left Anvil on the outside looking in. Fast forward some 20 years and the documentary kicks off with lead guitarist and vocalist Steve “Lips” Kudlow working his banal day-job at a catering company.

The bulk of the film follows the band through Europe as they were given an opportunity to latch onto a series of modest gigs throughout the continent, and the subsequent trials and tribulations that followed. Through the darkest points in the tour however, the audience is given insight into how truly positive the band is: Kudlow continually glowing with childlike enthusiasm as the band plays to even the smallest of crowds in the most pitiful of hole-in-the-wall clubs. After the disaster of a tour comes to a close, the band goes back to their jobs in Toronto, and life goes on as normal. Remarking on how the tour fell apart, Kudlow says, “At least there was a tour for it to go wrong on… I’m grateful.” As refreshing as his perspective is, when realizing that it’s coming from someone who has been ignored by the same music industry he’s been dedicated to breaking into since he mid-’70, it is downright astonishing.

In carrying with the theme of the film, the disappointment wears off as the band decides to make one last great record. They reconciled with the producer Chris Tsangarides, who they worked with on one their most successful album, 1982’s Metal on Metal, and took off for the UK with money lent to them by Kudlow’s sister. Despite internal struggles, the band finished the album, This is Thirteen, and headed back overseas to try to sell the mastered record to a label. Again, after the let down of finding no takers in either the U.S. or Canada, the band was again renewed with energy when they were invited to perform at a genuine festival in Japan, where they end up taking the stage in front of their largest audience in decades.

The film closes with Kudlow reminiscing on his career, noting that the most valuable things that he’s taking away from his life are the experiences he’s had—the people he’s met and places he’s been to are more valuable than anything in the world. And therein lies the beauty behind the story: despite the drama and disappointments, life continues to deliver little spurts of hope that act as bait to keep going. It’s simply up to you whether or not you decide to stick it out for that next glimmer of hope. In the case of Kudlow and Reiner, their insistent optimism and effort seems to have finally paid off, and they deserve every bit of success they can make of their new found celebrity.

Green Day “21st Century Breakdown” Review

After selling over 12 million copies of the album, many have certified Green Day’s American Idiot a modern classic. The band’s concept album not only reintroduced the group to the mainstream, but American Idiot quickly became Green Day’s second highest selling album since its major label debut, Dookie, in 1994. With the album, Green Day once again irritated purists by introducing a rebellious aesthetic within the punk-branded rock opera; 21st Century Breakdown, however, should do little to raise the ire of traditionalists. It’s an amalgamation of many varying sounds and influences, while the record’s 18 tracks reflect a continued shift in the band’s direction, one that surprisingly has it sounding less like a group of next-wave pop-punkers and more like a modern-day classic rock band.

Not that Insomniac was a bad album [as a sidenote, I’d like to mention that it’s one of my favorite Green Day records], but to some degree it failed to live up to the mammoth anticipation that followed Dookie (which has now sold roughly 15 million copies worldwide). Likewise, the expectation following American Idiot is immense, and it’s far from an overstatement to suggest that the pressure to deliver another solid album has never been greater for the band. Following one of the greatest comebacks of the past decade, Green Day could have easily relaxed and put out an effortless follow-up to cash in while its popularity is still high. But they didn’t. They enlisted acclaimed producer Butch Vig to help give the album a stout sound and the final product is an album that is likely to solidify Green Day as one of the best mainstream rock bands of this generation.

21st Century Breakdown is divided into three acts, each loosely following a young couple, Christian and Gloria, as they’re confronted with a manipulative, authoritative culture. The first act, “Heroes and Cons,” immediately introduces reactionary lyrics of dissent against a government’s restrictive and oppressive policies. The album’s title track is a veritable opus that addresses homeland security and a burdened working class while the band carries on with one of the better attempts at a Queen song since… well… Queen. “Know Your Enemy” serves as the album’s first single, and the song is equally as approachable and sharp as American Idiot‘s self titled track and serves as a blunt call for dissidence, “Overthrow the effigy, the vast majority, burning down the foreman of control/ Silence is the enemy against your urgency, so rally up the demons of your soul.”

“Viva la Gloria” opens up the narrative surrounding the album’s characters, in particular regarding the female protagonist. The song’s introduction pairs Billy Joel Armstrong and a piano, adding a dusting of strings before the body of the song comes crashing in. “Gloria” introduces a theme that is at the heart of the entire album, and one that remains through to the final song: a cry to grasp onto hope and fight for what you believe in. The next song, “Before the Lobotomy” introduces the Christian character, with Armstrong adding a source for the character’s angst: “The brutality of reality is the freedom that keeps me from dreaming.” The act closes with “Last Night on Earth,” a ballad that adds emotional leverage to the characters’ relationship, fusing them throughout their journey.

The second act, “Charlatans and Saints,” opens with “East Jesus of Nowhere,” a song that grinds musically, attacking religious fundamentalism, which Armstrong cheekily addresses as “the church of wishful thinking,” adding, “The sirens of decay will infiltrate the faith fanatics.” The following track, “Peacemaker,” advances the album’s violent themes, and the song stands as one of the best on the first half of the record—a driving guitar track that offers a quick wink at the Spanish sounding spaghetti westerns. The remainder of the second act sounds of typical Green Day however, largely indistinct songs that unfortunately begin to blend together within the belly of the album.

The final act, “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” kicks off with a song by the same name that might bear the closest resemblance to classic Green Day on Breakdown. The song bursts through the speakers with the opening line, “I’m not fucking around,” before later commanding, “Don’t you fuck me around because I’ll shoot you down/I’m gonna drink, fight and fuck and pushing my luck all the time now.” Even with the GG Allin-like lyrics of the last line, the song reinvigorates the album with a guitar as forceful as its lyrics, once again giving Breakdown a sense of urgency.

The next set of songs retreat into lighter sounding guitar riffs, but remain lyrically diligent, with “The Static Age” launching an attack at the senselessness behind much of modern advertising: “Are what you own that you cannot buy?” “21 Guns” offers a slight change of pace in the act, leaning on a theme of desolation: “When you’re at the end of the road and you lost all sense of control/and your thoughts have taken their toll. When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul/Your faith walks on broken glass and the hangover doesn’t pass/nothing’s ever built to last—you’re in ruins.” Musically, the final act peaks with the following track, “Mass Hysteria,” with the song enhancing the themes of anger and desperation that fuel the final act: “I don’t want to live in the modern world.”

“See the Light,” the album’s last song, serves as the story’s dénouement. It recaps the emotional battles that the characters have overcome, offering one last plea for hope as Breakdown fades out: “I just want to see the light, I don’t want to lose my sight/I just want to see the light, I need to know what’s worth the fight.”

It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to hear detractors condemn the album as preachy. But as the concept of the record revolves around the perceived values of the band as acted out through the story’s characters, it’d be inexcusable if Breakdown didn’t attempt to make a statement. If you’re able to put aside your preconceived notions about how a Green Day album should sound, and you aren’t holding a grudge against the band for not re-creating an album’s worth of “Basket Case” rehashes, you’re likely to hear something that is unique and creative (especially so when contrasted with many of the band’s contemporaries). It’s not the most artistic album of the year, nor is it the most musically sound; but it is the most well balanced, creative piece of work that Green Day has ever released. While the band was attempting to build on the momentum created from one of the decades highest selling albums, it somehow crafted a record that once more leaves the listener wondering “how can they ever top this?” The bar has again been raised.

Eminem “Relapse” Review

The idea of relapsing isn’t one that’s solely aimed at addiction, especially so in the case of Eminem. Coming four and a half years after Encore, Relapse is a wildcard; an album coming from an unpredictable emcee, one of the world’s most popular and recognizable musical figures, and one that has been looming his entire career. Relapse occurs when you fall back into an old pattern or habit, and with Relapse, Marshall Mathers’ alter-ego drifts back into familiar subject matter, the bulk of which is accompanied by the beats produced by his longtime collaborator and mentor Dr. Dre. But over the course of the album, there is an increasingly broad disparity between who Mathers is, what he’s been through, and what people expect from the character he’s developed. And throughout the record, the main struggle isn’t to find a lyrical rhythm or a solid beat; after a failed reconciliation with his ex-wife, multiple bouts with addiction, stints in rehab and the murder of his close friend, the struggle is to find which former self Mathers has now reverted back to.

Relapse opens with “Dr. West,” a skit that captures a meeting between Mathers and a counselor (played by Dominic West, best known as Jimmy McNulty from The Wire) in a treatment facility, with the two discussing a plan for action in an exit interview. Immediately, the counselor guides Mathers toward an alarming resolution; acknowledging that it’s alright if he relapses. And, immediately following the introduction, is “3am,” a thematically violent song that alludes to Silence of the Lambs and a preoccupation with blood and gore. Following that with “My Mom,” an ode to the drug dependency that was passed onto him from his mother, Relapse quickly begins to represent a return to the themes and approach that gained the emcee such notoriety with both The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP.

And for the majority of the album, only a few songs divert from this trend. “Insane” recalls stories of child molestation and suicide, “Hello” focuses on drug abuse, and the abduction skit “Tonya” is followed by the aptly titled “Same Song and Dance” which touches on a mixed bag of the previously mentioned themes. “I guess it’s time for you to hate me again,” taunts Mathers on “Medicine Ball,” as if to say that he’s firmly planted himself in the persona that stood alongside Marilyn Manson as two of the most notorious musical figures of the 1990s.

The song is followed by the skit “Paul,” a phone message from Mathers’ longtime manager and attorney Paul Rosenberg, “You gotta be fucking kidding me. I mean with this Christopher Reeves shit? You know the guy’s dead, right? And then the whole gay stepfather incest rape thing… I don’t have your back on this one, I can’t even fucking handle it—I’m done.” The issue with poking fun at Reeves in “Medicine Ball” isn’t that it’s in poor taste, but rather that it’s desperate. Reviving the comparison, the song compares nicely with Marilyn Manson’s forthcoming album The High End of Low. The album is being touted as his most shocking in years, and the first single is the shock-for-shock’s sake “Arma-goddamn-motherfuckin-geddon.”

Ten years ago, most people were able to see through the shtick. But now that the shock-rocker is far past his prime, the relentless need to impress a wow-factor upon his audience only succeeds in being stale. Likewise, Mathers has long since lost his shock factor. The concluding concept of Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s 2005 documentary, The Aristocrats, best illustrates the relationship with the shift in culture and perception of taboo. The film captures numerous comedians retelling a notoriously filthy joke, and eventually concludes that culture has shifted past the point of shock: nothing’s shocking (but Jane’s Addiction figured that out over 20 years ago). So, when the majority of Relapse continues the approach of earlier Eminem albums while simply going out of the way lyrically to encourage outrage, Mathers comes across just as rudimentary as the stories he’s unfolding.

As the album progresses, however, there is a slow shift in Mathers’ lyrical focus. In particular on the tracks “Déjà Vu” and “Beautiful,” which stand out as honest attempts at offering intimate thoughts. Through “Déjà Vu,” Mathers recalls his own drug dependency and the terrifying memories of his daughter’s reaction to his declining health: “Look at my daughter’s face, mommy something is wrong with dad I think/He’s acting weird again, he’s really beginning to scare me/Won’t shave his beard again and he pretends he doesn’t hear me.” The song continues by following the progression and acceptance of falling back into the same patterns that lead to his situation in the first place: the relapse.

On the other hand is “Beautiful,” a song that is absolutely bizarre given the landscape of the album’s other tracks. Stretched out to six and a half minutes it is the longest song on Relapse, the track revolving around the idea of self-inspiration and becoming comfortable with with one’s self. Following a lament to his children, Mathers concludes: “God gave you the shoes that fit you, so put ‘em on and wear them/Be yourself man, be proud of who you are/Even if it sounds corny, don’t ever let no one tell you that you ain’t beautiful.” But before the song has a moment to settle in however, the album’s lead single, “Crack a Bottle,” comes crashing down, immediately reverting back to the lyrical themes typical of the majority of the album.

If you take Emimen’s words seriously, Relapse is a schizophrenic journey through the thoughts of a mind torn between reality and a twisted sense of intrigue and fascination. If that’s the position you’re taking, the final song, “Underground,” will do nothing but enforce the belief that Marshall Mathers is sick. The song is the most over-the-top culmination of shock on Relapse, flirting with such taboos as violence, sexually explicit lyrics and homophobic rhetoric, “60 sluts, all of em dying from asphyxia, after they shit piss through a Christopher Reeves sippy cup… faggoty faggoty faggoty Raggedy Ann and Andy, no Raggedy Andy and Andy.” But on the flip side of that is a line that cheekily winks at the character people expect of him, “the fucking Antichrist is back.”

Whether or not you digest Eminem’s Relapse as an album built on a foundation of a return to a character, or simply poor taste, it’s startling in its inconsistency. This is the first of two albums Mathers has set for release this year, and it fails to find a balance between reflection and storytelling. To some degree that likely discrepancy might reflect the lengthy recording process, with Dre and Mathers recording over two albums worth of material, and the difficulty in having to sort through the tracks for what songs should be used on which record. But the greater issue here is that there is no firm grip by Mathers on either reality or his character throughout the album. Relapse is a collection of songs that neither tells a story, nor deeply reflects on the life of the man behind the mic. And as such, the feeling that is taken away from the album isn’t that Mathers has relapsed into a former version of himself, but rather that he is now uncertain of who he has become.

St. Vincent "Actor" Review

At times, Actor is exactly what I expected it to be. Conversely, it’s also scattered with tracks that sound nothing like what I had anticipated. The first half of the album adopts an interesting mash of choppy, distorted guitar with Clark playfully breathing life into lyrics that might otherwise come across as desperate or woeful. The chorus of “Save Me From What I Want” repeats the title over and over, while “Paint a black hole blacker,” is continually chanted on “The Strangers,” and “Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood” adds to the morose theme of the record, but all of that is delivered with an odd perkiness to the songs that ring truer to an upbeat pop song. “Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood” particularly sounds as such, with the song delivering a sound parallel to much of what the Bird and the Bee have released, transposing strings with a warped chorus and a friendly pop beat. But following the next song, the crunchy, lighthearted industrial theme “Marrow,” Actor unfortunately drifts into fairly safe territory. While sounding ocean-sized at times, “The Party” slowly flows alongside the last two songs on the album, as Clark’s innocent voice begins to distract the listener from the music beneath it. Clark’s auspicious career has lent her an interesting freedom, one that allows her to tinker with experimental tracks, while also allowing her to fall back on songs that are almost musically beneath her. With Actor she takes advantage of both, and for a casual listener (such as myself), diverting from the predictable is a much welcomed treat.