And now, part three of our continuing saga of wonderful but not-quite-perfect albums from 2011…
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
They first caught my attention with The Stage Names in 2007, and followed it up with a fraternal twin of an album, The Stand Ins, in 2008. Okkervil River has a knack for literate, yet accessible, indie rock; they can simultaneously make you groove and make you think. I had high expectations for I Am Very Far, and it mostly delivers. “The Valley” is a great lead-off track; full of insistent beats and nervous energy rarely seen since David Byrne put away his comically oversized suits. “Rider” sounds like a lost Springsteen song, flavoured with crispy percussion and Wilco’s sense of dynamics. The awkward but catchy rhythms continue on “Wake and Be Fine”, where herky-jerky verses tumble into twisted chorus waltzes. “Your Past Life as a Blast” tries on some new electronic textures, and they fit like a glove. But elsewhere on the album, the new directions that Okkervil River explore tend to be more misses than hits. An uneven record, but still very enjoyable.
White Denim – D
I picked up this album because of the critical acclaim it received, and because they are opening for Wilco on their upcoming tour. It’s really hard to explain what D sounds like – imagine the Allman Brothers making a prog rock record with a seamless rhythm section à la Stone Roses and you’re getting close. “Drug” is a fantastic single, a boogie-rock anthem for the indie rock generation. Elsewhere, D is a fury of activity – definitely busy, but highly structured and never cluttered. White Denim seem to be very good at getting out of their own way and putting the song first. Like a lot of their progressive forebears, this album will likely take a long time to fully get into. That said, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how it comes across live in Vancouver next month. Sometimes seeing songs in the flesh is the key to unlocking something great.
Wye Oak – Civilian
Baltimore’s Wye Oak make intimate records of pared-down, indie-rock melancholy. Sounds like the game plan of a million crappy rock bands, you might say, but Wye Oak are very good at it. “Holy Holy” resolves the unsettling guitars and rhythms of its verses with hushed introspective choruses, turning the quiet/loud dynamic inside out. Sonically, “Dogs Eyes” rams a melody not far removed from Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” or Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (no, seriously) headlong into a mid-70s Neil Young & Crazy Horse rock-out and somehow crawls out of the carnage alive. Civilian’s title track is one of the best songs released in 2011. It starts off with the simple stomp of a kick drum and jangling minor-key guitars, but part way through the song explodes into life, as though the pool of gasoline gathering at their feet suddenly caught fire. A few more songs like “Civilian” and Wye Oak could be massive.
R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
This year R.E.M. decided to call it a career, but not before releasing one last solid, rewarding, late-period album. The last track (“Blue”) starts off like an update to R.E.M.’s classic “Country Feedback” before devolving into a coda that reprises the first track (“Discoverer”), giving the album of a sense of closure and circularity. “Überlin” is a pretty 21st century ballad; the arpeggio acoustic guitar lines are contrasted by a distorted electric guitar interlude in fine R.E.M. tradition. “It Happened Today” adopts the tone of their New Adventures in Hi-Fi album and augments it with Eddie Vedder’s unmistakable backing vocals. “Oh My Heart” and “Walk it Back” revisit the lilting, acoustic motifs of Out of Time and Automatic For The People. Meanwhile Michael Stipe turns the alliterations up to 11 while Peter Buck and Mike Mills rock out in the style of Accelerate on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”.
One can’t help imagining that the band foresaw their demise before entering the studio to cut Collapse Into Now. Maybe that’s why R.E.M. seem to focus their energy on borrowing sounds from their own career highlights, instead of pushing through to something brave and new. But if this album is indeed their Abbey Road, then they have managed to go out with heads held high.
Radiohead – The King of Limbs
TKOL is a tough album to wrap your head around, which was very likely the band’s intention. The more accessible songs are relegated to the back half of the album, while the first half is more experimental.
“Bloom” kicks things off in unsettling fashion, echoing the way the songs on Kid A blended clicks and beats with claustrophobic melodies. “Morning Mr. Magpie” is the most digestible song on Side ‘A’, featuring the now-familiar kinetic Radiohead rhythm tracks and a relatively uncluttered, unprocessed Thom Yorke vocal.
“Lotus Flower” kicks off Side ‘B’ with another master class in Radiohead’s stock in trade – grooving, clipped rhythms, acres of mood, and a deceptively catchy melody. “Codex” is gorgeous in its simplicity, taking a long stroll in the same woods that gave us “Pyramid Song” from Amnesiac. The band rides a velvety groove into the sunset on “Separator”, finally returning to songwriting with a quasi-traditional verse/chorus structure.
But it’s somewhat telling that in recent years we’ve spent more time talking about Radiohead’s unusual business practices than their musical fearlessness. The ‘tip jar’ approach used for selling In Rainbows, and the guerrilla-marketing campaign that unleashed TKOL mere days after announcing its existence, are very progressive ideas. But we originally fell in love with Radiohead because of their music, not their gimmicks. They should take a page from Wilco’s playbook and come back next time with recordings that try to move the modern rock goal posts. Instead of merely ‘sounding like Radiohead’, we expect Radiohead to make records that blow our minds all over our faces.