The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “It’s Blitz!” (Interscope) (rating: 8)
Ripping off New Order? Stealing from the B-52s? Reveling in synth-washes and disco beats? The Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally give in and made their “pop” album — but on their own terms. Lead single “Zero” makes this abundantly clear: rapid guitar stutters meet thumbing backbeats and, at the song’s half-way point, a killer buzzsaw synth riff emerges that makes you want to give in to O’s plea for “getting your leather on” without a moment’s hesitation. No Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ song has ever been as disposable, replayable, or just outright fun as “Zero,” and therein lies the joy: though the band has always flirted with mainstream songwriting before, this is the album where they flat-out “embrace” their pop instincts, and — in the oddest twist of all — never have they sounded more at home.
The first four songs on “It’s Blitz!” might as well be the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most consistent track-by-track winning streak since their debut EP. The secret? Each song quietly upsets our expectations. “Heads Will Roll” is easy to dismiss as nothing more than a synth-heavy, guilty-pleasure dancefloor number, but when you actually sit down to listen, you realize the bassline is ripped straight out of New Order’s “Blue Monday.”
Such blatant plagiarism, though unsettling at first, actually makes perfect sense: New Order always wound up sneaking subversive lyrics into their made-for-radio club tracks, so why can’t the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
No, “It’s Blitz!” is not the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ masterstroke, but, in all honesty, it doesn’t need to be. None of their full-lengths can really be considered “classic,” but the band has admirably overhauled its sound each and every time, and though some fans may inevitably get lost in the shuffle, it’s hard not to get excited by a group that wants to sonically challenge itself with every go-round. – Evan Sawdey
Peter Bjorn and John: “Living Thing” (Almost Gold) (rating: 7)
The Swedish indie trio, now in its tenth year, only really became internationally known a few years ago, when its last album spat out a massive and uncharacteristically straightforward hit (“Young Folks”). The intervening years saw a humble, ambience-driven instrumental album (“Seaside Rock”) but have otherwise been relatively quiet for the band.
Even in this creative context, “Living Thing” is different. The album has a sparse, echo-y feel that’s completely of itself, completely unified and quite different from the group’s previous work. And in this, Peter Bjorn and John may have hit on a new type of pop music. “Living Thing” may grow to become known as Peter Bjorn and John’s pirate album, a rattling, jangly near-hour of music that’s completely in step with itself.
Though there’s much that clatters and snaps on “Living Thing,” in its quiet moments Peter Bjorn and John return to a momentary wistful intimacy. “Just the Past,” for example, has a Jens Lekman-esque romanticism, though it soon twists away from the toy piano of the opening to a soft-focus chorus and slapped percussion. That Peter Bjorn and John’s promise of straightforward songwriting is continually subverted is what makes this group interesting, and why we should continue to enjoy their singles without further thought and invest the time in the subtler rewards of the rest of their work. – Dan Raper
Leonard Cohen: “Live in London” (Columbia) (rating: 8)
When 2008 rolled around, it had been 15 years since the Canadian legend last toured, but with the help of a brilliant nine-piece supporting band, he headed back on the road with gusto, playing more than 60 dates in Eastern Canada, the UK and Europe. By the time Cohen and band played to a huge crowd of 20,000 at London’s O2 Arena on July 17th, they were well-oiled, two months into the big comeback tour, and with recording and film crews there to capture the event, they went on to deliver a spellbinding, seductive, pristine, near-three-hour set that spanned the man’s 40-year musical career. And now nine months later, in addition to being a fine teaser for Cohen’s extensive North American tour this spring, that London performance has yielded one of the finest live albums to come our way in a long while.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on the stage in London,” Cohen muses at one point between songs, adding with his typical droll humor, “It was about 14 or 15 years ago, I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream… I’ve studied deeply in philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.” And from the opening salvos of the gorgeous, cabaret-tinged “Dance Me to the End of Love,” it’s clear he has not lost a step whatsoever, his resonant, cigarette-deepened baritone voice enveloping us, brilliantly interweaving with the dulcet tones of his trademark trio of background singers.
Led by bassist/musical director Roscoe Beck, the rest of the band is tremendous, leaping easily from the low-key folk of Cohen’s 1960s material to the more new wave-ish sounds of his 1980s catalog. Neil Larson adds some Hammond B3 to “Bird on the Wire,” adding an elegiac, Garth Hudson-like touch to the performance, while Dino Soldo, so eloquently described by Cohen as the “master of breath, on the instrument of wind,” adds some unabashedly smooth saxophone solos on “Ain’t No Cure for Love.” For all the superb performances, the key addition to the band is multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas, whose expressive bandurria, laud, archilaud, and guitar fills are central, adding a mysterious, gypsy-like feel to nearly every song. -Adrien Begrand
Gomez: “A New Tide” (ATO) (rating: 8)
A term as limited as “blues-rock” falls woefully short of expressing the subtle impact of Gomez’s music. The problem is finding a term that does. Gomez valiantly defies terminology. This tends to lead to an unfortunate preponderance of synonyms for “mix” in reviews of their albums, since any artist that doesn’t seem to fit into a single genre must be mixing them.
If they wanted to discourage this, they could find better ways to do it than beginning their latest release on ATO, “A New Tide,” with a song called “Mix.” That it’s a remarkable sonic melange that sums up Gomez’s aesthetic beautifully helps: opening with a haunting folk-strum and Ian Ball’s inimitable warble, it picks up Olly Peacock’s adamant snare-beat and some wah-inflected cow-funk guitar as it progresses before bursting out into a grungy rave-out.
Ball has long been a vital point in Gomez’s three-pronged songwriter attack, but on “A New Tide,” he and Ben Ottewell (of the famously mossy growl) blow by jaunty pop-purveyor Tom Gray from the opening gun. Album-closer “Sunset Gates” gives Ottewell the final word, one he shares with promenading stand-up bass, pulsing guitar counterpoints, and a climactic jam crescendo driven by Peacock’s eternal fills and blaring horns that sputter like wounded hawks plunging from the hardscrabble sky. And so ends another Gomez album, a very fine one, and how can one describe it, ultimately? The best way to approach is to take a stab at describing the beautiful sound they make and then stand back; someone just might decide to listen. But if a term must be settled upon, leave aside the jam-band cliches and make it a unique one. Maybe they’ve forged a new genre: Gomez-rock. – Ross Langager
KMFDM: “Blitz” (Metropolis) (rating: 5)
A year and a half or so ago with the release of “Tohuvabohu,” I came to terms with the fact that KMFDM’s sound hasn’t changed at all in the last ten years or so, and may well never change again. In the absence of artistic development, I concluded then, we need to take the examples that employ the formula particularly well, place them up against the examples that do a lousy job with the same formula, and make those standouts on both sides of the quality line play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots against each other until we can come up with something approaching a coherent evaluation.
What I didn’t prepare for was a total lack of such examples, which is exactly what can be found on KMFDM’s 15th full-length album “Blitz.” The songs on “Blitz” are almost to a T exactly what we have come to expect from KMFDM, with little to no allowance for standouts one way or another.
Our Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em ring is empty. Now what? The answer is easy, really: We get an album that is unabashedly and perhaps even intentionally “average.” There seems to be a concerted effort to be as profane as possible throughout most of “Blitz,” actually. With no clear separation from past albums and no true standouts, then, why does “Blitz” even exist? Maybe KMFDM just needs a few new songs to keep from getting bored during their performances. Still, you’d think they’d try to offer us the same courtesy. – Mike Schiller

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