The Killers – Wonderful Wonderful

The Killers have always come across as a band that see themselves as being more significant than they really are. And I’m not just saying this because Brandon Flowers outright said that he thinks The Killers are the best band to emerge in the past fifteen years back in 2015 – you can feel it in most of their songs. Many of them (‘Human’ is a good example) have a certain level of gravitas to them that suggest what the band have to say is incredibly unique and profound…

In reality, many of the band’s songs have nothing interesting to say. While they do have a handful of great hits under their belt (‘Mr. Brightside’, ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’, ‘When You Were Young’), The Killers seem to specialise in producing songs that are incredibly middling. Not bad, just the sort that are hard to feel any strong emotion towards. This is especially true with most of the tracks on the band’s last two releases, Day & Age and Battleborn, albums that felt like they were destined for the bargain bins as soon as each of them was released.

In this regard, The Killers’ new album is a massive step up. Wonderful Wonderful is by no means an incredible album, but it does feature some of the best songs the band has put out in over ten years.

Lead single ‘The Man’ is a lot of fun, featuring Brandon Flowers at his most self-aware. The song pokes fun at his overblown persona from the Hot Fuss days, featuring plenty of great cheesy lines (‘I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man’). The instrumentation has a certain neon-swagger to it, and there are even a few well-placed champagne cork and cash register ching sound effects in the background. It’s self-aware and silly and that’s what makes it great. Wonderful Wonderful’s other main single ‘Run For Cover’ is equally strong, having a sense of energy to it that few Killers songs seem to have these days. The verses are solid but the chorus is the real highlight, where the song really explodes. It’s just a fantastic track – one of the band’s all-time bests.

The album’s title track is also good, featuring some really gorgeous instrumentation. The echoing vocals, horns and almost tribal drums give it a psychedelic feel… It doesn’t sound like any other Killers track and shows that they’re still able to surprise every once in a while. The song’s lyrics are a little bit hacky, however. Unlike on ‘The Man’, where the lyrics are intentionally silly, the goofy lyrics on ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ are delivered in a way that suggests Flowers is being deadly serious. But it’s hard to take the lyrics seriously when there’s such an abundant use of ‘thou’, ‘thine’ and ‘thee’. (‘Motherless child, does thou believe that thine afflictions have caused us to grieve?’)

Unfortunately, Wonderful Wonderful is filled with moments like this, and on most of these songs the instrumentation isn’t interesting enough to overlook their poor lyrics (like on ‘Wonderful Wonderful’). And because of this, we get a lot of middling sort of tracks like the ones that filled up Day & Age and Battleborn. The worst of these, ironically, are called ‘Rut’ and ‘Have All The Songs Been Written?’. Despite the song’s serious subject-matter, addressing Flowers’ wife Tana’s depression, ‘Rut’ is plagued with bland lyrics and an unmemorable sound (the autotuned vocals are particularly bad). ‘Have All The Songs Been Written?’ has similar problems… And I honestly can’t think of a duller subject for a song than writer’s block.

The album does manage to shine in a few other places beyond the three highlights I’ve already mentioned, but the remainder of Wonderful Wonderful is honestly a mixed bag. ‘Tyson vs Douglas’ is one of the album’s strongest lyrical moments, having a genuinely unique and interesting focus. The Brian Eno inspired ‘Some Kind Of Love’ features a gorgeous dreamy sound that makes it hard not to like, even if it features some lyrics that border on laughably bad: ‘You got the soul of a truck on a long distance haul’. ‘Out Of My Mind’, even if it namedrops a few too many artists, also gets a pass due to its great chorus hook. Finally, ‘Life To Come’ and ‘The Calling’ fall into the forgettable Killers song group along with ‘Rut’ and ‘Have All The Songs Been Written?’.

Wonderful Wonderful isn’t as great as I’d hoped it would be – despite my criticisms, I feel like The Killers have a consistently good album in them somewhere – but there are definitely enough bright spots to make it worth recommending. Its weak moments are worth sticking out for its strong ones.

Best Tracks: ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, ‘The Man’, ‘Run for Cover’

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Name Change

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while and decided it’s probably best to get it done as soon as possible… I’m changing the blog’s name. I kind of feel like it’s outgrown the name Incoherent Clarity, seeing as though (let’s be honest) it’s pretty much just a music blog now. So I’ve decided to go with Sound Mind, which I think is a pretty solid pun. (There are a few blogs out there with the same name, but none focus on the same thing/seem to be that active these days…)

I still might chuck out the occasional book review on this blog – or something literature-y – but music is definitely going to be the main focus. In terms of personal stuff, like my creative writing and all that, I may choose to start up a second blog further down the line. (As I promised a travel blog to a few people as well.) But for now – SOUND MIND. Let’s see how this goes…

Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold

How does a band keep things fresh after nine albums? For Foo Fighters, it’s been production gimmicks; In Your Honour was a half-electric/half-acoustic double album, Wasting Light was a back-to-basics album recorded in Dave Grohl’s garage and each of Sonic Highways’ tracks was recorded in a different American city… So, what’s the twist with the new album? There isn’t one. And to be honest, at this stage that almost feels a gimmick in itself.

On Concrete and Gold, Foo Fighters play things straight and that’s a good thing. It’s a focused set of ten rock songs (plus a one-minute intro track) and features some of the band’s best song-writing in a while. It’s also the heaviest album the band have put out in a while too – demonstrated pretty clearly by lead single ‘Run’. Structurally, the track is Foo-by-the-numbers, using the same quiet then loud structure as many of their biggest hits (see: ‘The Pretender’ and ‘All My Life’). It’s also straightforward lyrically, with Dave Grohl calling for the listener to start living their life the way they want to. It’s not the most original song as far as Foo Fighters go, but it’s still good. It doesn’t try to be anything more than a great rock song and it definitely succeeds at being that.

The first half of the album is filled with heavy tracks like ‘Run’, with Grohl busting out some screaming vocals on pretty much every song up until the more laid-back ‘Dirty Water’. Both ‘Make It Right’ and ‘La Dee Da’ are solid, with the former having a particular classic rock swagger to it, but ‘The Sky Is A Neighborhood’ is the real highlight from Concrete and Gold’s first half. The lyrics are pretty goofy – the way that Dave Grohl’s often are – but they’re endearingly goofy. I especially love the image of the song’s protagonist ‘banging on the ceiling’ telling Heaven to ‘keep it down’. Sung by pretty much anyone else, I doubt the song would work, but Grohl really sells it.

Another album highlight is ‘Happy Ever After (Zero Hours)’. The song is a complete opposite to ‘Run’, both in terms of sound and lyrics. It’s filled with soft acoustic instrumentation – including a low-key bit of harmonica and violin – and shows that the band are just as good at the quiet moments as they are the loud ones. While ‘Run’ felt like a call to action (‘Run for your life’), ‘Happy Ever After’ feels incredibly defeatist, focusing on someone who’s stuck in a rut in their life, passing their time ‘counting shadows on the wall’ waiting for zero hour. The band also refrain from a big heavy finish – like the one on the album’s other quiet track, ‘Dirty Water’ – which I’m thankful for.

The two songs that follow on from it, unfortunately, are easily Concrete and Gold’s weakest tracks. ‘Sunday Rain’ is bland, with the lyrics sounding like they were thrown together in a few minutes. The only interesting thing the track has going for it is the fact that Paul McCartney is playing the drums (though it’s not something you’d exactly notice when listening to it…) ‘The Line’ suffers from sounding like just about every other Foo Fighters song out there, having very little to make it stand out. It’s not outright bad – nothing on Concrete and Gold is – but it’s just so incredibly middling.

After ‘The Line’, the album abruptly transitions into its closing title track, which might just be its best moment. For a band that doesn’t bother with experimentation too much, ‘Concrete and Gold’ doesn’t sound like any other track that Foo Fighters have put out, having a clear Pink Floyd influence. The combination of the hazy reverb-drenched guitars and the choir-like backing vocals on the chorus really give it a unique edge. My only issue with the track is that it could have easily been a few minutes longer. In the end, it does a great job of rounding off another solid outing from Foo Fighters. Concrete and Gold proves that the band don’t need production gimmicks to make a good album, just good songs.

Best Tracks: ‘The Sky Is A Neighborhood’, ‘Happy Ever After (Zero Hours)’, ‘Concrete and Gold’

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

Josh Homme is a man that doesn’t give a shit. And it’s because of this that his project Queens of the Stone Age has been so consistently good. Each of its albums has followed his vision, with him making decisions that might seem questionable on paper but always seem to work out… Evidence of this isn’t too hard to find – the band’s first hit, fittingly titled ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’, comprised of Homme chanting the names of different drugs over and over again.

When it was announced that Villains would take Queens of the Stone Age’s sound in a more danceable direction, I will admit that I was slightly nervous. (Especially considering that the album was following up …Like Clockwork, a particularly dark and moody release.) But, as always, Josh Homme knows what’s best. Villains isn’t just danceable – at times, at least – but it’s also incredibly creative and as emotionally open as QOTSA has ever been.

Despite having only nine tracks, the album is almost 50 minutes long – with many of the songs ditching traditional structures in favour of surprising twists and turns. It’s on these tracks – like ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ and ‘Domesticated Animals’ – that Villains is at its best. ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ opens the album with a slow, indulgent build up. Chanting vocals dominate the first minute before the drums kick in and the song springs to life. The song shifts and changes in tone frequently, somehow managing to come across as dance-y while maintaining the band’s desert rock roots. There’s an almost improvised feel to Homme’s lyrics – a lot of them don’t really connect together – that suggests he’s following his feet rather than his head.

The lyrics on ‘Domesticated Animals’ equally feel confused, but it doesn’t stop the track from being impressive. As its title suggests, it has a wild, almost feral feel to it (Homme even lets off a woof in the track’s opening). Like ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’, the song takes its time, chugging along steadily before abruptly exploding halfway through. The track’s sound ties in well with the lyrics’ central theme of tame animals breaking free; there’s an underlying fierceness to the song even its quieter moments, with its ‘wild’ side breaking out only in places. ‘The Evil Has Landed’ is another track that benefits from its long length, taking a number of great instrumental detours. Similarly to ‘Domesticated Animals’, it’s a lot of fun – Homme sounds like he’s having a ball singing on this one – refusing to go anywhere predictable.

Villains’ less heavy songs are no less impressive though, with ‘Fortress’ perhaps being the most moving song that Queens of the Stone Age have ever put out. The central metaphor, about how we all build emotional fortresses (hiding our true feelings), is a great one and the vocals really sell it. Knowing that Homme wrote the song for his daughter just makes the song tug at my heartstrings even more – it’s a truly gorgeous ballad. And while I wouldn’t have expected synths to fit in with QOTSA’s sound well at all, they really add something to the track. ‘Villains of Circumstance’, the album’s closer, is another great slow number. It matches ‘Fortress’ for emotional intensity, featuring some of the band’s most unabashedly romantic lyrics: ‘Forever mine, I’ll be forever yours’.

A few of the album’s other songs do feel comparatively weak to these high points, but nothing comes close to being outright bad or even mediocre. Lead single ‘The Way You Used To Do’ is as poppy as the band have ever been – you can really feel Mark Ronson’s production on it – but it still feels distinctively Queens of the Stone Age with its abrasive guitars. Its main problem is that it feels a little bit conventional and uninteresting compared to the rest of the album. ‘Un-Reborn Again’ and ‘Hideaway’ are both solid, though do get lost in the album a bit. They’re just not quite as memorable as some of the album’s other cuts.

As a whole, Villains is an incredibly balanced and focused effort from Queens of the Stone Age; there’s a lot less filler than some of the band’s previous releases and even the weaker moments are hard not to love. (‘The Way You Used To Do’ is still going on just about every party playlist I make this year…) More than anything, it shows that even seven albums in Josh Homme knows how to keep things exciting and unpredictable. I can’t think of a more consistent rock band around today.

Best Tracks: ‘Domesticated Animals’, ‘Fortress’, ‘The Evil Has Landed’

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

American Dream has a lot of pressure on it. Not only is it LCD Soundsystem’s first album in seven years (during which they prolifically broke up and then reunited) but with the band’s existing albums being so beloved it can’t really get away with being just okay. It needs to be good enough to justify the band getting back together.

Thankfully, to cut to the chase, American Dream is great. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the band’s best work but it’s a reunion album that definitely delivers. It pushes LCD Soundsystem into some new territory, having a more melancholy and personal tone than their previous albums, while still sounding very distinctively like them. There are no out-and-out fun tracks here like ‘Daft Punk Is Playing At My House’ or ‘Drunk Girls’, with there being a more heavy focus on dark and introspective ones.

‘Oh Baby’ sets up the mood of the album well. It’s the melancholiest opener an LCD Soundsystem album has ever had with its neon-tinged synths and almost somber vocals. It has a wistful feel to it, like many of the band’s best tracks yearning towards the past. (Both through the lyrics and the very 80s feel to the instrumentation.) The song somehow manages to succeed at sounding unlike any of the band’s other songs and yet, at the same time, sounding as though it’s always existed.

Many of American Dream’s best songs are the slower and sadder ones, just like ‘Oh Baby’. On the title track, James Murphy sings about a middle-aged man who wakes up from a one-night stand filled with self-loathing. It’s a song about unrealised dreams and knowing that the only person holding you back is yourself. (‘Look what happened when you were dreaming, then punch yourself in the face’.) The descending synths in the background compliment the song’s depressing lyrics well, adding power to the story being told.

‘Black Screen’, Murphy’s tribute to David Bowie, is another highlight. It’s another slow track, starting off with a minimalist electronic beat before slowly transitioning into a gorgeous piano solo. Like ‘American Dream’, the lyrics on the song feel personal, though to a much more heartbreaking extent. Murphy reflects on his relationship with Bowie – ‘You fell between a friend and father’ – trying to come to terms with his death. Especially moving is the revelation of what the titular ‘black screen’ actually is.

Many of the album’s more up-tempo moments are strong as well, such as lead single ‘Call the Police’, which is perhaps the most anthemic song LCD Soundsystem has put out since ‘All My Friends’. It’s not all too original thematically (calling for people to fight against those in power) but the band execute it incredibly well. ‘Emotional Haircut’, another of the album’s more energetic moments, is a lot less successful. Despite reaching a satisfying climax, much of the song comes across as grating. (The band’s repeated chanting on the song’s title in particular feels forced and slightly obnoxious.)

The majority of American Dream’s other songs feel very much like spiritual successors to older LCD Soundsystem songs – succeeding in varying degrees. ‘Other Voices’ features the same rambling, stumbling tone as This Is Happening’s ‘Pow Pow’, but doesn’t quite match up to it. (Though Nancy Whang’s verse does save the song a bit.) ‘How Do You Sleep?’ – which has a lot in common with ‘Dance Yrslf Clean’ – fares better. The song starts off with a particularly ominous drumbeat, building slowly before reaching an incredible drop halfway through. The personal lyrics, in which Murphy reflects on a fractured relationship with a former friend, give the song even more power and stop it from feeling like a carbon copy of ‘Dance Yrslf Clean’. The track reconfirms how fantastic LCD Soundsystem are at making a nine-minute song feel like three minutes.

‘Tonite’, a song that hearkens back to the band’s very first single ‘I’m Losing My Edge’, is equally great. It’s pretty much just James Murphy ranting over a synth beat… but his ranting is just really good. What starts off as an observation about how every song seems to be about the same thing – there’s only ‘tonight’ – leads to a number of great tangents about getting older and feeling out of touch. It’s not exactly fresh territory for the band, but the song has a lot of great lines, easily being the album’s most quotable track. (‘Life is finite, but shit, it feels like forever).

With so many great songs, American Dream more than justifies LCD Soundsystem’s reunion. If you’re a fan of the band’s older work, you’re sure to enjoy it. Tracks like ‘Black Screen’ show Murphy at his most personal and vulnerable, while others like ‘Tonite’ show that the band still know how to put together a great electronic beat. It’s a perfect blend of old sounds and new ones.

Best Tracks: ‘How Do You Sleep?’, ‘Tonite’, ‘American Dream’

 

Oh Sees – Orc

Oh Sees don’t do things like other bands. Not only do they release albums at a breakneck pace – twenty in the last fifteen years isn’t too shabby – but they also haven’t really suffered any significant decline in quality (like you’d expect from a band so old.) If anything, Oh Sees are getting better with each release and their twentieth album Orc shows them at the top of their game.

Opener ‘The Static God’ sets things off well; it’s classic Jon Dwyer. The song is a force of energy, barrelling out of the gates with one of the jerkiest guitar riffs you’ve ever heard before settling into a propulsive groove. The bass, the guitar, the (two!) drummers, Dwyer’s creepy crooning vocals… Everything’s on top form here. The track hits you like a slap in the face, just like Oh Sees’ most energetic songs do. ‘Animated Violence’ is similarly powerful, featuring some heavy guitars and a vocal performance that wouldn’t feel out of place on a metal album. Oh Sees have pretty much perfected producing psych rock jams like these two at this stage. Both tracks show the band’s ability to strike the listener while, at the same time, delivering what they’ve come to expect.

Though the album features plenty of hard-hitting tracks like these two, I’d say Orc is at its most interesting when the band decide to experiment. There are a number of songs on the album which demonstrate Oh Sees’ willingness to play with its listeners’ expectations. ‘Nite Expo’ sounds like no other Oh Sees song with its squelchy synth lines, ‘Jettisoned’ shows the band going in an almost jazzy direction with its loose feeling drums and ‘Cadaver Dog’ feels outright gothic with a moaning organ lingering at the back of the song.

Oh Sees’ experimental side shines through most clearly on the track ‘Keys to the Castle’ though. It starts off fairly typically for an Oh Sees song – Dwyer describes an assault on a castle in between his characteristic woops – before abruptly shifting pace two minutes in. What follows is a lush and dream-like cello solo that fills out the track’s last six minutes. It’s a bold change of pace from the band’s usual in-your-face riff-laden songs and shows that Oh Sees’ quieter moments are no less powerful.

As Orc moves into its second half, Dwyer’s vocals take the backseat as the band indulge in even more experimentation. ‘Paranoise’ is as unnerving as its title suggests. The song is about as minimalistic as Oh Sees get, featuring a driving bassline washed over with the sound of static. The song builds slowly and almost hesitantly over four minutes before abruptly cutting off with the sound of a gunshot. ‘Raw Optics’ also succeeds in being strangely captivating. Like ‘Keys to the Castle’, it starts off fairly standardly, before a few minutes in a lengthy drum solo kicks in. For any other band, it’s a move that probably wouldn’t work, but for Oh Sees it feels like the perfect way to close out the album.

With the band releasing so many albums at such a quick pace (Jon Dwyer has already announced Orc’s follow-up) it almost feels unfair that they’re so good. Orc is pretty much as good as modern psych rock gets, demonstrating that Oh Sees really are masters of their craft.

Best Tracks: ‘Animated Violence’, ‘Keys to the Castle’, ‘Raw Optics’

Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

Grizzly Bear albums always take a while to get into. They’re never immediate. Veckatimest, for example, I felt indifferent to on my first listen, but now – many listens later – it’s one of my favourite albums.

While I don’t like Painted Ruins quite as much, my experience with it has been similar. It’s a great comeback album (the band’s last release was a long six years ago), featuring the same unique style that made them so bold and colourful in the first place. The barbershop quartet-like vocals, the wide and eclectic range of instruments used, the poetic songwriting style… The album does little to change-up Grizzly Bear’s core formula except add a few electronic instruments into the mix. And, surprisingly, the synths and drum machines sit incredibly well amongst the organs, flutes, cellos and saxophones.

If the band don’t push their sound forward much on the album, they at least deliver some strong songs. The best tracks on Painted Ruins are the longer ones – the ones that evolve as they go along and head down interesting instrumental pathways. Grizzly Bear are fantastic at creating a beautiful, almost woozy atmosphere in their music unlike any other band I know. ‘Three Rings’ shows this well. The song builds slowly from a rigid drumbeat, growing as more instruments are piled on until it reaches a wall-of-sound climax. Ed Droste’s vocals are also fantastic; his pleading delivery of the song’s hook – ‘Don’t you know that I can make it better?’ – might just be my favourite moment on the whole album.

‘Four Cypresses’ is another highlight. The beeping synth and sparse drumming, paired with the poetic lyrics – in which Rossen compares a depressed friend to a pile of collapsed trees – creates an unnerving atmosphere. I also loved ‘Losing All Sense’, another track that shifts and changes as it goes long. It starts with a fun, almost jaunty beat before shifting in a more dream-like direction towards its end. The gentle guitar-work brings a shimmering feel to the song, creating the sense that the band are almost losing themselves in the music. It’s just plain gorgeous, basically.

‘Sky Took Hold’ is another song that shows the band’s knack for good instrument choices. The track juxtaposes some particularly ominous percussion and wind with a sharply distorted guitar, reflecting the unsettling tone of the lyrics. For a band so great at creating lush sound, it’s an almost ugly track – but it definitely adds a sense of urgency and power to the album’s end.

I wouldn’t say any of the songs on Painted Ruins are outright bad, but some moments are weaker than others. ‘Wasted Acres’ and ‘Systole’ feature some interesting ideas on them – I really like the psychedelic feel that the latter track has – but are way too short. They seem to end just as they get going. ‘Mourning Sound’ suffers from the opposite problem. It feels too long, taking too much time to go anywhere. The chorus on the track is lovely, but unfortunately you have to last through the album’s dullest and most repetitive drumbeat to get there.

Painted Ruins is Grizzly Bear being Grizzly Bear. In many ways it feels like the most quintessential of their albums, not offering anything unique that you can’t find on their other releases but nonetheless featuring some fantastic songs. As long as the band continue to put out music as great as this, I’ll keep listening to them.

Best Tracks: ‘Three Rings’, ‘Losing All Sense’, ‘Sky Took Hold’