Thursday, April 11, 2013

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: B

That’s Why God Made the Radio 

From a collective that hasn’t seriously tried since 1985, this album is hardly a washout.  But it could’ve been stronger.  Joe Thomas, who oversaw some of Brian Wilson’s lamer ’90s music, has co-written almost everything, and, well, Van Dyke Parks he ain’t.  “Spring vacation, good vibration, / summer weather, we’re back together,” “We’ll find the place in the sun / where everyone can have fun, fun, fun”--heck, Thomas might not even be Eugene Landy.  There are, however, pleasant surprises:  Mike Love’s “Daybreak over the Ocean,” Brian’s reality-TV commentary “The Private Life of Bill and Sue,” and the concluding three-song suite, in which Brian finally admits “Summer’s Gone.”  Of course, the harmonies are pleasant too, especially with sideman Jeffrey Foskett keepin’ the high notes alive.  But they’re no surprise.

Future This 

Don’t let the band’s name fool you.  This spacey, studio-belabored, mid-tempo pop couldn’t have less to do with Robbie Robertson or The Basement Tapes if it had been arranged by Lawrence Welk.  And don’t let the album title fool you either.  The “future”?  This?  British combos have been working variations on these aural templates since Margaret Thatcher.  Milo Cordell has implied that he and his partner Robbie Furze enlisted the producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Foster the People) in part because they like the Now That’s What I Call Music! series as much as anything officially hip.  But a producer seldom makes or breaks an album.  Words and hooks--better ones than the Big Pink is currently coming up with--help too.  Suggested title for the followup: Past That.

El Camino 

The best way to play devil’s advocate with Black Keys fans used to be to ask them whether Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney would’ve discovered the nobly savage possibilities of the electric, two-man band format if Local H and the White Stripes hadn’t discovered them first.  If fans answered that one convincingly in the affirmative, the next step was to ask them whether Auerbach and Carney would’ve discovered the liberations of basslessness if it hadn’t been for Alien Sex Fiend, Jucifer, and the Jelly Roll Kings.

But thanks to El Camino there’s now a better question, namely, whether Auerbach spent the previous six albums preferring riffs to melodies because he knew that 1) melodies would require him to sing, 2) when he’d sing he’d tend to sound like Bono, and 3) when he and Carney would play melodies as opposed to riffs they’d tend to sound like either Bono’s band or the Clash.   

If the answer is “yes,” then kudos to Auerbach for finally surrendering to his inner U.K. rocker (perhaps at the behest of this album’s producer, Danger Mouse) and going with a flow that was probably the only way for the Black Keys to escape the rut into which they’d pounded themselves.  “Lonely Boy” is a better followup to “Vertigo” than U2 has managed so far, and “Dead and Gone” is a better followup to “London Calling” than the Clash will ever manage again.

Unlike Bono, Joe Strummer, and Mick Jones, however, Auerbach has yet to get the hang of writing lyrics worth anyone’s attention.  “Hey my my she’s gonna take ya / Way down down she’s bound to break ya” (“Money Maker”), “Like being cooled by the rain / in the eye of the storm” (“Stop Stop”), and the many other similar El Camino lyrics are functional enough (i.e., they scan), but they won’t stick in the head, get scrawled on restroom walls, or start fights.  They will, in short, age badly.

What might age better is “Little Black Submarines.”  In fact, as a melodic and stylistic fraternal twin of “Stairway to Heaven” (right down to its meditative acoustic first half and frenzied electric second half) it has done much of its aging already.  And even if as a Led Zeppelin re-write it’s therefore as anachronistic and derivative as many another Black Keys song, at least it’s anachronistic and derivative in a new way.


Using fourteen credited singers to make most of this album’s substantial vocal noise renders this Aussie rocker vulnerable to comparisons with the Polyphonic Spree.  Pounding most of this album’s songs home with a percussion ensemble that may as well be the Royal Drummers Of Burundi renders him vulnerable to comparisons with Adam and the Ants.  Sounding like a Polyphonic Spree/Adam and the Ants hybrid renders him capable of passing his lyrics off as one more aurally impressionistic brick in his wall of sound.  Good thing too.  Were his music ever to go into heavy rotation, a refrain such as “This crap tastes good ’cause they play it, / now you’re sayin’ what they’re sayin’” (“Dread Is This Place”) might strike those singing along to it on the radio as awkward.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2012: C-F

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