Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Spring Album Round-Up: The National, The Dead Weather, The Black Keys, LCD Soundsystem

National I’ll skip the seasonal analogies and cut to the chase: it’s mid-May, and the shelves just got slammed with incredible music.

Granted, my tastes and obsessions vary week to week, but these albums fall comfortably within my year-round preferences – skuzzy white-boy blues; melancholic post-punk; twitchy, trendy electronica. Does this sound like you? Find out with this quick, easy yes/no test!

A.) Are you broke? B.) Do you have any connection, however tenuous, with the state of Ohio? (subquestion: are you a graduate of Kenyon College or some similarly overpriced, Midwestern liberal arts college?) C.) Have you ever contemplated murdering a public figure to prove your love to Allison Mosshart? D.) Have you ever danced yourself clean?

If you answered yes to any of the above, hit the jump for review of Brothers by The Black Keys, High Violet by The National, Sea of Cowards by The Dead Weather and This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem.

The National

High Violet

the-national-high-violet-front-cover-art The National made it with The Boxer, a 2007 epic which, despite its sad-bastard trappings, crackled with life. Listening to “Fake Empire,” you get a sense of what The National are all about – doomed determination. High Violet has lighter moments, but robes itself tightly in black, Midwestern fatalism.

Frontman Matt Berninger’s signature voice most immediately recalls the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division. But where Curtis’ energy was nervous, Berninger’s baritone has something warm at its core. He can seem weightless one track and doomed the next. Take single “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” an anthem of entrapment. He croons with lighthearted resignation, carried by Aaron Dessner’s guitar and Bryan Devendorf’s perfect drumming:“I still owe money/ to the money, to the money I owe / the floors are falling out from everybody I know.” Hear that, Kenyon grads?

Runaway” is less cheery about the impossibility of escape. “I won’t be no runaway / ‘cause I won’t run,” he sings, before his voice breaks: “What makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood?”

I usually facepalm whenever bands try to cram in an epic penultimate track. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that The National gave us “England,” which is not merely good enough to make us feel vaguely (and contextually absurdly) patriotic for our former benefactors; it’s one of their best songs ever, and a fitting conclusion for an incredibly sophisticated album.

The Dead Weather

Sea of Cowards

TDW_SeaOfCowards_cover I’ve never been simultaneously attracted to and terrified by anyone quite like Allison Mosshart. Formerly of The Kills, an unstrung, punkish duo, Mosshart teamed up with Jack White (The White Stripes), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs) to form The Dead Weather, a skuzzy, southern-fried rock outfit that possibly wants to drink your blood.

Last year’s Horehound strutted and snarled onto the scene like a feral cat. Really, Mosshart did the snarling, White did the strutting (employing all two or three tricks he knows on the set) and Lawrence and Fertita laid down nasty, bass-heavy blues riffs straight out of somebody’s backyard swamp. On Sea of Cowards, they take the gleeful insanity of Horehound and kick it up a notch. Don’t let the seeming restraint of “Hustle and Cuss” fool you – the band gets just plain weird on closer “Old Mary.”

While louder and nastier, a greater sense of musicianship presides over Sea of Cowards. Lithe, snappy tracks like “Gasoline” sound more put together than Horehound’s “Hang You From the Heavens,” while the slow, drunken slink of “I Can’t Hear You” shows how well the band uses carefully-contained chaos. You can cram a lot of crazy inside a boilerplate blues lick, turns out.

The Black Keys


black-keys-brothers Speaking of blues – Jack White isn’t the only (ahem) white boy to develop a bluesy guitar. The Black Keys, a duo from Akron, Ohio, give us Brothers, which proves that a basement band can ascend to major-label status with soul intact.

And Brothers has soul in spades. Attack and Release, the pair’s 2008 debut with Nonesuch, felt almost too slickly-produced in places (I once heard “I Got Mine” during a Monday Night Football sponsor break). They didn’t sell out, really – they just lost the raw edge that made 2003’s Thickfreakness such a dirty pleasure.

Brothers is weirder, smarter and better than Attack and Release in every conceivable way. Its predecessor was a good introduction, but far too well-behaved to channel the early-day scuzz of “Thickfreakness.” In songs like the slow, jaunty “Next Girl,” you hear a band that’s not only recaptured their early sound, but evolved into something more sophisticated. The Black Keys haven’t matured– when a band gets mature, they get mom-friendly, boring, begging for an Old Yeller mercy kill behind the shed – they’ve just gotten better.

LCD Soundsystem

This Is Happening

lcd-soundsystem-this-is-happening James Murphy, the man behind LCD Soundsystem, comes off as a pious hipster – you know, the jittery, taciturn kid in the back of the room who just stores up withering take-downs and simmers, and smolders, until he bursts into insane, ecstatic electro-pop?

Anyone who’s heard 2007’s incredible Sound of Silver isn’t ready for This Is Happening. The name itself sounds like the final, terrified dispatch from a nuclear reactor on the verge of melting down, and LCD’s latest explodes with nervous energy. Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” starts off quiet, almost coy. Then it blows up into synth-blurts and Murphy’s wail: “This basement has a cold glow/though it’s better than a bunch of others.”

Sound of Silver feels controlled and cool in comparison to This Is Happening. Where the former was locked-down and sleek – see “All My Friends” – the latter has songs like the drunken, nearly-obnoxious “Somebody’s Calling Me.” It’s tracks like “All I Want,” though, that remind us that even a blatant, unapologetic Bowie tribute can be gold in the right hands.