All posts by Tom Mantzouranis

Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People

Broken Social SceneYou Forgot It In People (Arts & Crafts)

What do Manitoba, Grandaddy, Stephen Malkmus, The White Stripes, Prefuse 73, Ted Leo and the New Pornographers have in common? They’ve all released albums in 2003 that represent an outstanding ability to write, perform, and record music. What else do they have in common?

None of their great ’03 releases even come close to You Forgot It In People.

Broken Social Scene, a blender full of Canada’s finest bands (Do Make Say Think, Treble Charger, etc.), have arrived—very quietly at first—with the album of the year. This beautiful mess of genres that all come together for thirteen tracks of jaw-dropping wonder was released in obscurity and now finds itself immersed in hype. There is a good reason why, too. If you look through some of the criteria that make a good album a great album, you’ll find You Forgot It In People does pretty well for itself:

• Transcending genres. Broken Social Scene pay homage to a wide array of admirable artists: Jeff Buckley (“Lover’s Spit”), Death Cab for Cutie (“Almost Crimes”), Spoon (“Stars and Sons”), Donovan (“I’m Still Your Fag”), and The Ladybug Transistor (“Pacific Theme”).

• Production. David Newfeld manages to rope in the ten different members of Broken Social Scene (and their guests) and keep everything from becoming a mess. There are sounds everywhere, but the production is so big and colorful that you hardly notice how many people play on one song.

• Repeatability. You Forgot it in People is enjoyable at first listen, impresses at the second, and starts to stagger you at the third. After listening to this album for a while (days on end, occasionally), it never tires. And with all of the aforementioned music being played at once, there is something revealed with each listen.

Each piece of each song, each performance, is tiny. But it’s the sum of all the parts, all of the guitars being layered and vocal tracks and other sounds that add up to the big finish.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe this album. You Forgot It In People is the sound the sun would make in a room of mirrors while its rays perpetually bounce back and forth. But the best description of this album is the first thing that runs through my mind when I think about it:

“My God, what a fuckin’ album.”

The Deftones – Deftones

The DeftonesDeftones (Maverick)

For years the Deftones have utilized a combination of Chino Moreno’s sleepy croon and Stephen Carpenter’s unique guitar voicings to remain one of the few bands that aren’t ashamed to be smart and heavy. All the elements came together for 2000’s White Pony, a true standout in modern metal that built on 1997’s Around the Fur with improved songwriting, a knack for soft/loud dynamics, more attention to production and atmosphere and DJ Frank Delgado, who’s ambient touch sent songs like “Knife Party” and “Teenager” over the top. The result was an erotic thriller, an album equal parts sleazy and beautiful.

2003 sees the release of Deftones, the self-titled fourth album from Chino and co., and at first listen the let down is evident. White Pony now seems as if it was a one-off for the band, that all the potential shown in their first two albums was maxed out for their 2000 release.

Deftones finds the group mostly reverting to their old selves, forgoing the nuances that made Pony so great in favor of pounding the listener over the head until unconcious. After realizing how good of a band the Deftones could be, I find myself disappointed with all of the mindless dissonance and screaming.

With a band as good as the Deftones, however, you couldn’t expect the album to be a total failure. “Good Morning Beautiful” is killer; everything that makes the best of the Deftones is found here (off-kilter rhythms, manic guitar progressions coated with dreamy vocals). “Deathblow” is another victorious anthem, staggering drunk through the verses and exploding into a fit of inebriated rage during the chorus. Unfortunately, these moments are balanced by songs like “Lucky You,” which tries for Nine Inch Nails ala The Fragile and comes off instead as pretentious and forced, or “When Girls Telephone Boys,” which steps on the brain past the point of enjoyment and into the territory of really annoying. Luckily, “Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event” arrives, the counterpart of Pony‘s “Teenager,” where Moreno’s voice is utilized to move (as in emotionally, not the standard physically). The album closes with “Moana,” another solid track that can’t be argued with (except, possibly, it’s placement on the album—”Anniversary” would have served much better as a closer).

Deftones is by no means a bad album, and most Deftones fans will enjoy it—yet I can’t ignore the fact that, poised for a big step, the Deftones took one backwards. Dissapointing.

Grandaddy – Sumday

GrandaddySumday (V2)

The Sophtware Slump, Grandaddy’s 2000 release, was extremely well received and is a very good album. They also earned respect for not being afraid to toy with the Beatles’ “Revolution” on the I Am Sam soundtrack. While everyone else was afraid to be the band that ruined a Beatles song, Grandaddy came from nowhere to recreate the Fab Four’s classic and came out with something no one expected.

Sumday, the band’s fourth studio release, finds Grandaddy traversing their back catalogue. No one familiar with the band’s material will be shocked by the sound on Sumday—quirky pop that is distinct, endearing, and fun, using modern synths and samples to accentuate songs rooted in vintage rock. Tracks like “OK with My Decay,” “The Warming Sun,” and first single “Now It’s On” are the best examples.

The bad part for Grandaddy is that there are other bands that are better at this sound: The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Super Furry Animals, etc. Yet it isn’t right that Sumday—originally planned to be a double-album organized into party and post-party wind-down music and then forced into one by the band’s label—is faulted because of another band’s work. The music here is good, very good, and it deserves to be heard.

So while Sumday is not a mind-blowing or revolutionary album, there is nothing wrong with music that is just good, music that doesn’t need adjectives like “important,” “landmark,” or “classic.” I can honestly say I enjoy listening to Sumday, and you will too. In the end, isn’t that the point of music anyway?

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief

RadioheadHail to the Thief (Capitol)

Radiohead hasn’t entirely solidified its legacy in the six years since OK Computer. Kid A was a big statement but didn’t necessarily let us know where the band was headed; and Amnesiac can’t really be considered on its own merit because the tracks from Radiohead’s fifth album were really culled from the Kid A sessions.

So the band had all eyes on them regarding details of their sixth album, Hail to the Thief. Kid A had been a great move from Radiohead; it set a precedent that in the future you should only expect the unexpected. Then, as months went on and Radiohead entered the studio for the Hail to the Thief sessions, they’d pop up every once in a while to remind us that the new album would be something that we’ve never heard from them before. So at first listen, I wonder: what happened to those bold and exciting claims? Thom Yorke has recently been quoted as saying Hail to the Thief is like “OK Computer 2,” and the songs certainly back that statement. Hail to the Thief might be considered revolutionary had it been released by any other band, but for Radiohead it just sounds like retreading old ground. Even the record’s theme—dealing with the bleakness of the future—screams OK Computer.

But with all of the failed expectations of something radical and brilliant from Radiohead, we’ve forgotten the most determinant factor in the quality of a band’s work: the songs. With the exception of a couple of tracks (“Go to Sleep,” “A Punch Up at a Wedding”), the band sounds stronger here then they have in years, certainly stronger then on their last two releases. And as an added bonus, they actually sound like a band again. The songs are more conventional, but where they lack experimentation they have heart, and instead of the detached sound of Kid A and Amnesiac we find palpable human emotion.

The album features a handful of moments that are overwhelming. Two of these appear in each of the first two tracks: in “2+2=5,” Yorke’s pained falsetto gives way to an explosion of guitars, only to be quieted by a now-livid Yorke screaming, “Don’t question my authority / or put me in a box.” The chaotic state which ends “2+2=5” is an instant wakeup to anyone who was ready to write Radiohead off. The second track, “Sit Down. Stand Up,” waltzes along much like OK Computer‘s “Climbing up the Walls,” building until it climaxes with Yorke repeating the same phrase in an almost trance-like state over a breakneck beat. On previous albums Radiohead has flirted with electronic music, but this is the first time they’ve ever approached pure dance ecstasy. Maybe, the last two releases were just a glimpse at the cathartic power Radiohead can harness electronically. If so, it’s well worth the wait.

Yorke’s voice has never sounded fuller, more expressive, better then it does here. Whether left to its own devices on one track or allowed to roam with multi-tracked harmonies (“Sail to the Moon”, “I Will”), it’s evident that Yorke is in a class all of his own. A lot has also been made of Radiohead returning to “guitar rock” and although they find time to really fuck things up (“2+2=5,” “We Suck Young Blood”), Jonny and Ed mostly settle for other-worldly atmospherics and texturing from their six-strings (“Where I End and You Begin”). It’s this route, however, that finds the most success. Even the rhythm section has enough time to shine on another standout, “Myxomatosis,” where Phil and Colin provide a solid wall of drum’n'(distorted)bass for Yorke to stand. The band again finds production duties handled by the sixth, um, Radiohead-head Nigel Godrich; who continues to record the band on seemingly another planet.

Hail to the Thief closes just as well as it opens with two more highlights: “Scatterbrain” and “A Wolf at the Door.” The former finds Radiohead realizing that they can still write a pretty melody—a la “Motion Picture Soundtrack” or “Let Down.” The guitars chime and interact to form melodies positively dreamy while Yorke comes as close as he ever will to replicating the sensitive, endearing sound on some of The Bends‘ finest tracks. “A Wolf at the Door” features Yorke free-flowing poetry in an almost performance-artsy way, and although the idea sounds bad on paper, it actually works. The payoff on “A Wolf” is the chorus, where multiple Yorkes sing above slightly delayed guitars.

Culturally, Hail to the Thief won’t have nearly the impact that OK Computer had, and musically it’s not as revolutionary as Kid A. But I get the feeling that Kid A was a child of necessity, that it was rushed into the world because Radiohead felt they had to change to meet the lofty expectations people now have for them. Inside, the band had one more great rock record they wanted to release and never got the chance to, and while it isn’t as consistent as OK Computer, the best points on Hail to the Thief are transcendent. This isn’t Radiohead changing the musical landscape again—that can wait for the next album judging by Yorke’s recent claim that “Radiohead will be completely unrecognizable in two years.” This is the best band on the planet proving to all the pretenders who’ve emerged since ’97 that to this day no one can do it better.

So what will Radiohead’s legacy become? We still can’t be completely sure. But Hail to the Thief is a step in the right direction, one that ensures that no matter which form Radiohead transforms itself into, they’ll still be the best at what they do. Another fantastic album that puts everything else to shame.

Nada Surf – Let Go

Nada SurfLet Go (Barsuk)

Yes, we may be in the year 2003. But everywhere you look on MTV or modern rock radio, shades of the mid-90s are everywhere haunting us, reminding us the mistake we made by supporting the artists of this now obsolete era in the first place. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between Creed and Candlebox, or Nickelback and Seven Mary Three. Weezer are still hanging around, albeit a shell of their collective former self. Superdrag made a career out of “Who Sucked out the Feeling?” that lasted until the band broke up a couple of months ago, an incredible feat for a one-hit wonder. The same can be said for Nada Surf, who amazingly are back with a second wind and a new album.

The sad part of it all is that there is nothing to be found on Let Go, Nada Surf’s third album, that didn’t die out almost a decade ago. Sure, the band may be on upper-tier indie label Barsuk now, and they might be more akin to texturing their songs with multiple layers of instruments (surely the influence of sharing labels with Death Cab for Cutie), but underneath it all is the same ordinary rock that was once cutting-edge, now relegated to Coors Light commercials (see: “Hi-Speed Soul”).

None of the songs on Let Go pass for even a fraction of memorable—after repeated listens there still aren’t any melodies that stick out. “Blonde on Blonde”, for example, tries to be touching and instead just drags on. “Cats and dogs are coming down / 14th St. is gonna drown / Everyone else rushin’ round / I’ve got Blonde on Blonde on my portable stereo / It’s a lullabye from a giant golden radio.” The lyrics rely on 8th grade symbolism and blatant name-dropping, but in the end they still can’t hide the fact that the song is just boring. Nada Surf must love the loping pace “Blonde on Blonde” walks along, however, because the band alternates between “rockers” and songs that follow the same formula as “Blonde on Blonde” (minus the Bob Dylan references).

I will give credit where it’s due, and “Treading Water” is a diamond in the rough. It’s the only song that attempts energetic and actually finds it. Still, one out of twelve isn’t nearly good enough to warrant giving Let Go a chance, unless you’re actually looking for a mid-90s alterna-lite revival. Otherwise, ignore all of the hype that has come with the band’s drop to the indies and second rise to popularity. Like our faithful leader Dubbya says, “Fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me tw— …can’t get fooled again.”

Manitoba – Up in Flames

ManitobaUp in Flames (Domino)

Dan Snaith must have been keeping a close eye on Doves over the last year or so. The Manchester trio pulled an about-face with last year’s The Last Broadcast, ditching the dark Madchester sound of their debut along with most of the electronic elements and releasing an album of big, spacious, astral pop last summer. It turned a few heads and garnered much praise for the band.

Snaith himself emerged as a card-carrying IDM superstar, thanks to his debut Start Breaking My Heart. And now, a little under a year since Doves released Broadcast, Snaith (under guise Manitoba) releases Up in Flames, an album that seriously pays homage to the blissful, sunny, psychedelic pop of the sixties. Flames is an album that drenches you in layer after layer of positivity, using a broad range of instruments from the smiley-smile arsenal: glockenspiels, Farfisas, saxophones, flutes and a barrage of others.

The interesting twist to Up in Flames though, is that the sound isn’t a total 180 from Snaith’s previous work. There are still moments, such as the breakdown on “Jacknuggeted,” where digital overtakes analog. Most of the songs don’t have lyrics and none follow traditional pop structures. The melodies and instrumentation scream pop and everything else screams IDM. It’s this tug-of-war between the two genres that makes for such a compelling listen.

Not following traditional structures allows Snaith to fill the songs with all of the special moments normal pop songs deliver with a planned attack. The payoff here is that you never have to wait for the big chorus to arrive—the ten songs on Up in Flames have one right after the other, each as special as the last.

The two standout tracks are “Bijoux” and “Skunks,” the former swirling with music boxes and horns and breaking into big percussive phrases, and the latter cycling between a simple guitar melody and frogs and passages with an acoustic drum kit keeping time and dueling horns and flutes each trying to outdo each other for space in the mix.

With Up in Flames, Snaith has unleashed a serious contender for album of the year. Recommended for sunny days, driving with the windows down.

MP3s and streams available on Manitoba’s audio page.

The New Pornographers – Electric Version

The New PornographersElectric Version (Matador)

The Vancouver conglomeration (with Virginian chanteuse Neko Case as an added bonus) The New Pornographers are back with their second album for Matador, Electric Version, the follow up to 2000’s out-of-left-field killer Mass Romantic. The sound here is distinctly similar to what is on their debut, yet certain aspects of their game are even sharper. Forget about a sophomore slump, the Pornographers come out swingin’, and most shots are headed for the fence.

The so-called “supergroup” sounds more like an actual band on this one instead of reeking of collaboration as they did before. The songs are sharper and the melodies tighter, the production is better and the mood a little looser. The root elements from Mass Romantic are intact—Carl Newman still knows not only how to write a hook, but to play it to its max and Case’s voice soars heavenward—but with the improvements in the band, everything that was good on Mass Romantic now sounds even better.

Newman fills as much space with sound as possible—there is always a buzzing guitar, well-placed vocal harmonies or keyboards between all the cracks—yet the atmosphere remains spacious and breezy. To take the road that has been traveled constantly with these Pornographers, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson are the obvious references, but there are also shades of Todd Rundgren, The Kinks and Cheap Trick.

Electric Version features a sound so bright and lush, intelligent yet fun, that I can’t imagine anyone not liking it. Throw away all of your preconceptions about what music you can and can’t like and you’ll find yourself loving every minute here.

From the raucous sing-a-long “From Blown Speakers” to the more sedated “Loose Translation” to “Testament to Youth in Verse,” there isn’t a mistake to be found. Simply put: album of the summer.

You can download mp3s of “The New Face of Zero and One” and “The Laws Have Changed” from Matador.