I haven't weighed in on any of this month's major music releases, but unlike earlier this summer, when I was way behind on this stuff, I have been listening. I just haven't been writing. Now I've finally found some time to get my thoughts down about some of them, so here goes...
M.I.A. Kala (Interscope)
Kala is the most laughably unclassifiable album I've heard in ages, and while it is sure to alienate many listener, it's also all things to all people. You want ambition? The artistic vision Maya Arulpragasam shows here is undeniable. You want something to dissect? Have a field day with her international sound-collage and vague revolutionary politics. You want to dance? Dance, bitch! Each of these 11 songs is an example of artistic creativity pushed to its sprawling, globe-trotting fringes, pumped full of rhythm and rhetoric. But more importantly, most of them are a lot of fun.
Opener "Bamboo Banga," unfortunately, is the weakest track of the bunch. Running too long with a relatively unmemorable hook, it makes a decent appetizer, but the excitement really begins with "Bird Flu" and "Boyz," a one-two punch of squawking, whistling insanity. The Bollywood disco of "Jimmy" keeps up the pace before the lurching mid-section finds even stranger musical twists (stuttering synths, a reappropriation of "Where Is My Mind," a collaboration with Aboriginal child rappers Wilcannia Mob).
"World Town" is a solid banger, and the spare, catchy "The Turn" is a welcome reprieve from all the clatter. But the spazzy synthesizer of "XR2" and the goofy gunshots paired with a kiddie chorus on "Paper Planes" make sure the record ends with a return to chaos. Timbaland-produced bonus track "Come Around" is good, but leaving it off the main album was wise; it's a little too normal to fit in amongst the musical freakouts.
Kala lacks debut Arular's consistency, but the result is a fuller picture of M.I.A. the person and M.I.A. the artist. This album sounds like a world music compilation melted down and splattered Jackson Pollack-style across a sonic canvas. Despite the disparity, the tracks congeal, T-1000-style, into a gaudy, neon portrait of the person that made them—strange, passionate, beautiful and mysterious.
Grade: A- Download: "Boyz," "$20 Dollar," "Paper Planes"
The New Pornographers Challengers (Matador)
Twin Cinema was so awesome because it channeled the New Pornographers' electric romanticism (or was it romantic electricity?) into not just headless-chicken pop rock, but ballads and mid-tempo ditties as well. In related news, Challengers is so bland because it's lacks even a shred of that frantic energy; the band has abandoned what made it stand out in the first place.
Play breakthrough indie hit "Letter From an Occupant" back to back with "Challengers" and discover the sound of settling down. And talk about a waste of Neko Case's pipes! Twin Cinema had plenty of ballads, a welcome respit from the slightly overboard sugar rush of Electric Version, but those downtempo numbers eventually built to ecstatic climaxes ("The Bleeding Heart Show") or at least showed some grasp of dynamics ("These Are the Fables"). They had spunk!
These new songs sound more like Twin Cinema outtakes than the first new Carl Newman output in two years. I've read a lot of comparisons to Newman's solo album, The Slow Wonder, but despite its sizable chunk of low-key compositions, that album also had pop anthem "On the Table," cello rocker "The Town Halo" and "Miracle Drug," a song so energizing that a friend of mine once used it as his alarm clock. Nothing on Challengers is quite so peppy.
Far be it from me to knock a band for evolving past recognition. Who honestly prefers the Radiohead of Pablo Honey to the Radiohead of Kid A? But those cats started out milquetoast and developed a personality, while New Porn seems to be going the other direction. I'm all for Newman taking a left turn, but Challengers is no left turn—it's a slow trudge into mediocrity. So, fine Canadian friends, let me hit you with some Revelation: "Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth."
Grade: C+ Download: "My Rights Versus Yours"
Okkervil River The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)
This folky indie band has a thing for high-minded concept albums. Last time out it was Black Sheep Boy, a dark, loosely defined song cycle about folk musician Tim Hardin. This time it's about how boring and miserable their life as a band is. It sounds like a painfully awful navel-gazing exercise, but it's actually quite entertaining. (No, really!)
The first time I heard opening track "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe," it didn't strike me as anything special, and the rest of the album followed suit. Looser and more classic-rock oriented than its predecessor, The Stage Names seemed to lack Black Sheep Boy's grand drama, like the difference between the rich, stylized Deadwood and the familiar, forgettable, but still weird John From Cincinnati. That proved to be shortsighted; repeated listens have yielded a deep appreciation for the song and those that follow it.
Okkervil has developed into a sort of Spoon-Bright Eyes lovechild that tends heavily toward its more sensitive parent. It's a good thing the more upbeat numbers are here, though. The group's gracefully arranged music lends an epic background for Will Sheff's ruminations, but the album benefits from letting loose on its early tracks; the later melodrama would become overbearing otherwise. Constant references to the rock canon ("No one wants to hear about your 97th tear," the closer's co-opted melody from "Sloop John B") might rub some the wrong way, but to me, they add layers of intrigue to a brilliant spectacle about a less-than-spectacular life.
Grade: A- Download: "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe," "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene"
Caribou Andorra (Merge)
I was in love with Caribou's Up In Flames when it came out in 2003, but without its predecessor's constant drum bombast, 2005's The Milk of Human Kindness required a patience that I wasn't willing to supply at the time. (Upon revisiting the album, turns out it rules, at least in small doses.) With Andorra, Dan Snaith has returned to instant gratification, but he acheives it without all that head-ringing energy that sold me in the first place. Though electronia pulses through each of the nine tracks, at heart this is a psychedelic pop record.
The sleepy, spacey psychedelia is the closest Snaith's music has come to conventional, but it's still distinctly Caribou. Comparisons to Panda Bear's much-heralded Person Pitch are warranted, but Andorra is its own universe. Unfortunately, that world begins to collapse in on itself as the album progresses. Like the last record, Andorra is better taken in bits of pieces even as it seems designed to be consumed as a whole, making it a somewhat frustrating listening experience that keeps drawing you back in nonetheless.
Grade: B Download: "Sandy," "Sundialing"
I meant to review the new Liars and Aesop Rock records too, but I haven't gotten to give them enough time yet. Neither one particularly hit my sweet spot, but I don't want to write them off too soon. Maybe I'll write something after I come back from vacation, if it still seems relevant. (By then, the big Kanye-50 showdown will be upon us, plus Animal Collective, the Black Lips, the Go! Team...)