Archive for the ‘ Pop ’ Category

The Vaccines – Come of Age (Music Review)

Vaccines - Come of Age cover

The Vaccines – Come of Age

Don’t be fooled by the title of The Vaccines’ sophomore album, Come of Age. As the opening song explains, “When you’re young and bored and twenty-four and don’t know who you are no more, there’s no hope and it’s hard to come of age”. In fact, expect to hear sentiments like that frequently throughout the album. The band’s consistent message is that they’re confused, aimless, and are going to let you down.

Despite that, the songs actually sound too self-aware to be written by their callow narrator. The Vaccines sing about being young and stupid, rather than from the experience of being young and stupid. It’s a comfortable topic, and the songs flow by mostly inoffensively. The one exception is “I Wish I Was A Girl”, which definitely seems to come from an oblivious boy’s perception of what a girl’s life must be like. Depending on your perspective, it is either offensively ignorant of real people’s problems, or an accurate slice-of-life from their age group. For me, it splits the difference and ends up being an easily-forgettable track near the end.

Not much of the album is forgettable, though. This is Brit-pop at its catchiest. The band smoothed out the extremes of the last album, with none of the Ramones impersonations and much less of the slow “youth-soul”. In their place are much more consistent British guitar anthems. None of it is as startling or refreshing as the band’s initial hits, but it’s too slick and hook-filled to complain about.

I finished my review of that first album by worrying that their youthful burst of energy was going to burn out before they could put together a follow-up work. By that standard, Come of Age is a relief even if it doesn’t hit the same highs. The slick performance and winking lyrics of this new album feel a bit more smooth and calculated than what we had before, but they also give us some excellent pop anthems. The real test will be in what their next release sounds like. I could craft a narrative in which this is a natural progression of the band’s style, or one in which this is a cynical retreat to safe, test-marketed music. I’m not worrying about that too much at the moment, though; I just plan to enjoy Come of Age until the next album comes out.

Grade: B

 

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues (Music Review)

 Kill My Blues cover

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues

The Corin Tucker Band’s debut established themselves as a distinct entity from Sleater-Kinney, but unfortunately that was the best thing that could be said about it. They returned this year with Kill My Blues, which apparently tries to correct course by front-loading all the energetic songs for maximum Sleater-Kinney nostalgia. It even seems intended as an introduction for people who missed the last album, with Tucker explaining at the start that she’s been gone a while but is returned. Despite all that, the band still hasn’t found itself.

That Sleater-Kinney nostalgia is a powerful force, of course. “Neskowin” and “I Don’t Wanna Go”, especially, build up a lot of goodwill. Energetic and letting Tucker’s voice go all-out, these could practically be outtakes from her old band. They cover difficult territory, with the former about discovering herself as a teen and the latter about a loved one’s illness. They may not provide many details, but it’s easy to ignore that for a time.

The songs are consistently vague, though. It’s usually good for an album to offer one or two like “Joey” and “None Like You”, containing a personal message that the listeners will not fully follow. Those help to flesh out the band’s overall personality by giving a glimpse into the full life that they live. Maybe the problem here is that almost all of those songs are like that: These are personal messages not aimed at the listener, and if you’re not part of Tucker’s life, there just isn’t enough here to make the rest of us feel invested in it.

Worse, the few times the songs get a little more specific, they feel generic. “Blood, Bones. and Sand” is all about the feeling of having a child, but it doesn’t find anything original to say about the subject. The first track, “Groundhog Day”, asks if we’re all still trying to move society forward and admits to some guilt over dropping out of the public eye for a few years instead of continuing the fight. It’s appropriate to that song that she doesn’t find a resolution, but it still feels like another incomplete idea because the rest of the album never tries to engage in those themes at all. That first song allows basically no excuse for ignoring those fights, but then she just sings about loved ones and writes borderline-nonsense lines like “You can rent me a burro we’ll live off of churros/Let’s freak like we’re pharaohs/I’ll be your sparrow tonight”.

The band still offers a variety of styles to back up Tucker. However, the faster songs actually make the band feel a bit less varied than they were before. Their technique on those tracks is generally a fast, unvaried beat with competent indie rock riffs echoing it closely.

Corin Tucker will always be a star to some of us. Even so, her new band can’t achieve more than intermittently interesting songs. Two albums in, they haven’t figured out how to make their style work.

Grade: C

 

Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (Music Review)

What We Saw From the Cheap Seats cover

Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats

Regina Spektor has a strange position in the indie pop scene. Wildly experimental, but also seriously sentimental and unironic, these two sides sometimes collide unexpectedly. When she tried to promote her previous album with “Laughing With”, for example, fans expecting a clever deconstruction of life reacted like it was an especially bad email forward from their mothers. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats doesn’t have anything that extreme, but Spektor continues to flit happily around the whole spectrum. There’s no sign that she sees a difference between the straightforward ballad of “How” (a heart-on-her-sleeve elegy for a relationship) and the flights of fancy in “All the Rowboats” (anthropomorphizing items in a museum). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl of experimental pop, she seems to find meaning in a creative worldview that others see as a strict contradiction.

In Cheap Seats, Spektor seems more settled in to her role than ever. No longer trying the chaotic variety of tricks she used in Soviet Kitsch, but also without the pop stardom attempts of Begin To Hope, she just sings the songs she wants. Her music is becoming consistently good, but I miss the misfires that used to go along with her biggest successes. Hopefully something pushes her out of her comfort zone soon.

In the meantime, it’s hard to complain about the work she’s delivering, A couple songs err on the overly-sincere side (“Ballad of a Politician” has nothing new to say about its subject matter), and there are just a couple flights of experimentation: “Oh Marcello” is full of quick-spoken lines about a woman whose fortune teller warned her that her son would grow up to be a killer, but with a slow, heartfelt chorus lifted directly from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. With Biblical references and a little beatboxing mixed in, it creates an unexpectedly beautiful patchwork.

Almost all the songs fall solidly between those, though: Piano-based with electronic accompaniment and clear production, they rely mainly on Spektor’s classical background and beautiful voice to communicate her worldview in quirky ways. She sings about “the pain of knowing that true love exists” and muses on a piano’s suitability as firewood during a song about mortality. Not for the first time, one of the album’s strongest tracks (“Ne Me Quitte Pas” in this case) is a reworking of one of her songs from her early days.

The open-eyed sentimentality and unique styles make Spektor as fascinating as she is divisive. I’m one of the people who likes her, so much so that I expect to keep enjoying her albums even if she continues her slow movement away from the styles I like the most.

Grade: B

 

Three Poet-Songwriters (Music Review)

2012 saw new albums by three of the Twentieth Century’s leading poet-songwriters. None were bad, though their quality did vary. Here are the reviews.


Old Ideas cover

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen’s output has been uneven: He predominantly writes poems and relies on others to make them work as songs. (He’s also the artist I’m least familiar with in this article. His only other album that I know well is Songs, and even his fans tell me not to bother with many of the others.) Fortunately, Old Ideas is one of the good ones. The music perfectly fits the plainspoken art of the lyrics, with understated backup singers and a gentle, introspective rhythm. It would be easy to give Cohen’s music a pretentious choral flair to recognize his status, or the stripped-down plucking of a starving artist busking on a corner. By splitting the difference between the two, Old Ideas’ music emphasizes the ways both apply to him while avoiding the pitfalls of either extreme.

Cohen always had an old soul, but as an old man still has some youthful restlessness. The “old ideas” of the album title are sex, love, pain, and death, and the songs feel like they could have come from any point in his lifetime. Cohen’s lyrics are direct and grounded in reality, creating evocative images with straightforward language. For example, a troubled relationship puts its members “on different sides of a line nobody drew”. Even when he moves away from literal reality, it’s not very far: The “broken banjo bobbing on the dark infested sea” is one of a couple tracks which treat “darkness” as a literal force that can invade us. The only literary conceit is in the standout opening track, when the muse speaks directly to us to explain how it forces Cohen to deliver these poems.

I listened to this album repeatedly, sure that I was missing out on the true depth of the songs. Eventually, I realized that their surface appearance was the extent of it. Old Ideas features no more and no less than songs distilled down to their beautiful essence. It’s not everything that some people claim this master can deliver, but it’s very good.

Grade: B


Tempest cover

Bob Dylan – Tempest

Bob Dylan: Tempest

The modern era of Bob Dylan began with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and seemed like it would be a brief final phase for him. But after fifteen years and five albums, it is obvious that this is one of the most powerful eras of his long career. This man never sounded like he had anything to prove, but he is more confident than ever.

Don’t expect the wordplay or verbal gymnastics of the young Dylan. He has embraced the old-time sounds from before he was even born, and plays it fairly straight. The genius of most of these songs is not his unique fingerprint, but the feeling that you’re finally hearing the best songs of the early 20th century. (There are catchy lines, like “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own” and “if I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday”, but he’s not trying to reveal the human condition here.) The band provides bluesy folk with an energetic bounce, and Dylan’s voice is fuller than ever before.

Dylan’s an old man now, and his songs embrace it, but he isn’t quietly facing the end of life. As the title implies, nearly all songs involve tempests of some sort or another. From brawls to romantic tiffs, Dylan’s persona is that deeply passionate old man as likely to pick a fight over his “flat-chested junkie whore” as he is to sacrifice everything for his loved ones.

The classic song topics are all here, from trains to love to murder, and they often capture those archetypes perfectly. Consider “Tin Angel”, based on the trope of a king tracking down the wife who ran off for love. The title track is his take on the sinking of the Titanic, a forgotten topic that used to be as common as dance songs are today. Much has been made of the fact that this song is fourteen minutes long, but what I haven’t heard anyone point out is that it feels like it flows by in five. It’s as if Dylan is trying to personally make up for the loss of Titanic songs in our culture, and accomplishes it in a single track. (With verses ranging from serious to comedic, this is also the closest Dylan comes to exploring greater meaning. The songs about the Titanic were fundamentally about making sense of tragedy.)

Tempest stands among the best of Dylan’s long, accomplished career. If you like Dylan or traditional music, this is a must-have. If you don’t, consider this your gateway.

Grade: A


Banga cover

Patti Smith – Banga

Patti Smith: Banga

Though known as the preeminent “punk poet”, Patti Smith has spent the better part of her career as a folk-pop poet. She doesn’t often hit the highs of her youth, but this hasn’t been a bad move for her: Smith has a good singing voice, and it conveys her fervent passions as well as her punk songs did. Banga, her first album of new music in eight years, has only a few hints of rock. This may disappoint anyone who knows Smith mainly from her 1970’s work, but it could be her most consistently pretty album ever.

However, it also feels like one of her less meaningful albums. Smith always has a lot to convey, and if it’s easy to call her an idealistic hippie, she does find creative and honest ways to express those ideals. None of the songs in Banga directly touched me, though, and the meanings to many are obscured. (Where they are obvious, they are less impressive than past works. The discovery of the Americas comes up a few times, with a focus on the peaceful “Eden” that it offered. I am uncomfortable with the patronizing “noble savage” attitude that some people take towards Native Americans.)

What really makes this album worthwhile is the CD booklet. (Hopefully you didn’t already buy it digitally…) Featuring a six-page essay, plus photos, it helps to put the album in context. While the other two albums I’m reviewing here feel disconnected from the modern world, her inspirations ranged from old friends to Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov to The Hunger Games. Some explanations help a lot (such as knowing that “This Is The Girl” eulogizes Amy Winehouse), while others don’t at all (I’m not familiar with most of the works that inspired Smith, and while “Nine” was written as a birthday present for Johnny Depp, I don’t hear any of that in the song). Even so, Smith’s writing and photography are always a pleasure.

Smith’s plans aren’t always well-executed (“Constantine’s Dream” is an improvised speech about Constantine’s conversion, Christopher Columbus, and Smith’s research into artists they inspired, but it doesn’t really go anywhere in its ten minutes), but her conviction and songwriting remain strong. The album’s main weakness is the ever-more obscure reference points Smith has, even when she draws from pop culture. Fans will find plenty of meaning to unpack. To others, this is a collection of beautiful-sounding songs, but they will feel surprisingly slight.

Grade: B-

 

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth (Music Review)

Trancendental Youth cover

The Mountain Goats – Trancendental Youth

As a new father myself, I have a lot of respect for The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Transcendental Youth is his first release since the birth of his son, but he didn’t suddenly become soft and sentimental. Instead, this is a collection of honest songs about the difficulties of life, with the chance for happiness found at the end of a gauntlet. As a lesson for his child, it’s honest and refreshing, with the bit of hope it holds out being completely believable.

These songs are the most grounded in reality since The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, and while the songs aren’t all obviously about youth, the songs make sense if you imagine confused teens narrating each one. From a drug addict to a schizophrenic runaway, Darnielle narrates these without any implied judgment: These are their stories, and they don’t need some adult songwriter inserting his own judgment. And to the extent that Darnielle does have an opinion about this, his repeated theme is that everyone needs to figure out their own path: “Spent Gladiator 2″, the one song that strays slightly outside modern realism, is about bloodied gladiators and besieged villagers just trying to survive, with the obvious implication that childhood is equally epic and dangerous. (Its lyrics are echoed in the advice of “Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator 1)”, with lines such as “play with matches if you think you need to play with matches… just stay alive”.)

Musically, this is what you’d expect from a modern Mountain Goats album. Post-anti-folk, if there is such a thing, Darnielle’s voice mixes a poet’s confidence with a human’s frailty. The music is simple, but emphasizes the emotions in the songs, especially the tension and desperation. This album adds a horn section to many of the songs, which add an effective flourish when singing about the triumph of living through another day.

Transcendental Youth doesn’t have as many standout hits as recent Mountain Goats albums Heretic Pride or All Eternals Deck, but it has a clarity of vision that those ones lack. Darnielle’s son didn’t change his art, but it helped him hone the worldview he’s been describing for years. Youth is a painful struggle, but it’s worth surviving. This album captures that.

Grade: B+

 

Two New Releases from Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Music Review)

Psychedelic Pill cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Neil Young and Crazy Horse got back together this year for their first joint album in a decade. The result, Psychedelic Pill, is long enough for two CDs despite having only nine tracks total. It’s the kind of sprawling mess we’d expect from the band, for good or for ill. In this case, it’s somewhat disappointing. The music is still excellent, with carefully-sloppy jams that have aged much better than the grunge scene they inspired, but they can’t find anything to sing about.

The twenty-seven minute opener, “Driftin’ Back”, epitomizes the album. Young opens with “Hey now now hey now now, I’m driftin’ back”, an explicit callback to past hits. It’s the only good lyrical choice in the song, which otherwise has awkward statements like “I used to dig Picasso, then a big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper”. Those would be difficult lines to sing in any song, but Young spits them out like he’s not even trying. Fortunately, the singing is sparse during this half hour, and most of it is taken up by a pleasant, if forgettable, groove.

The other long, winding songs are a little more successful lyrically, though still not up to the hits of the past. There are also several short, punchier songs to add variety: The reverb heavy title track is fun, but the extra alternate mix is unnecessary. “Twisted Road” may be the only unqualified success on the album, though admittedly that’s because of its limited vision: That song is a quick, heartfelt ode to the past yet again, this time referring to Dylan and the Grateful Dead as his “old-time music”.

Americana cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana

It’s kind of funny that they used that term, because Neil Young and Crazy Horse also released an album with their renditions of actual “old-time music”. Called Americana, it’s obviously a warm-up exercise for a band, with in-studio discussion between songs and a variety of approaches. Though a few attempts aren’t successful, the results are frequently excellent. That shouldn’t be a surprise: If Psychedelic Pill provides a great performance of mediocre songs, then of course they could apply themselves well to time-tested classics.

Crazy Horse’s meandering style doesn’t always work well with these more direct folk songs. “Clementine”, for example, is actually a simple joke (I bet you didn’t know that!), but in their hands it becomes more of a drawn-out shaggy dog story, and while their version of “Tom Dula” has an excellent build-up, the tension they create actually gets dropped a couple times over its eight-minute length. But in  “Gallows Pole” and “Travel On”, the band finds the perfect mix of their style with the songs’ needs. They travel outside their comfort zone on “Get A Job” with an energetic vocal arrangement that has more in common with barbershop quartets than grunge rock. And while it’s difficult to take “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” seriously today, they perform “Jesus’ Chariot” with a fervor fit for a revival service. I find “This Land Is Your Land” and “High Flyin’ Bird” to be pretty bland, but the only true misstep is “God Save the Queen”, which they merge with “America the Beautiful” in a way that honors neither song.

Most people I’ve talked to were disappointed with Americana, but I don’t agree at all. I think that a lot of people have trouble seeing through the clichés that these songs have become, but fortunately Young was able to do so. It may be uneven, but the successes easily justify the whole project. Neil Young and Crazy Horse did release an album worth buying this year, but it’s not the one that you might expect.

Psychedelic Pill: C+

Americana: B

 

Catch-Up Capsule Reviews: Pop

Finishing up my quick reviews of older albums, here are the “pop” ones. For me, that term still usually refers to stuff fairly outside the mainstream. If it can’t be described as rock or country, but it does fit into modern American expectations of music styles, it counts as pop. (The only possible exception would be rap/hip-hop. That hasn’t become an issue yet, because I don’t buy much of it. I will have to deal with that categorization before long, though.)

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Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions (Music Review)

Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions cover

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

With digital music the new standard, CDs and their packaging have gone sharply downhill in quality over the past few years. Unless something makes it “special”, such as collectors’ editions or vinyl, physical media is an afterthought. But as the new reissue of Mermaid Avenue shows, even the deluxe releases may be trending downhill.

Mermaid Avenue certainly deserves an upscale release, especially as part of this year’s celebrations of Woody Guthrie’s centennial. Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded these unfinished songs of Guthrie’s only fifteen years ago, but they have already become a central part of the man’s legend: Playful and serious, sexual and political, Guthrie comes across as a much more well-rounded person than anyone ever knew, and his lyrics still feel fresh in today’s folk scene. The project seemed to bring out the best in all participants, especially Bragg, whose solo work rarely lives up to his potential. The first album was the strongest of the project, but the second is still a minor classic on its own.

The main selling point of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions is that it contains a new third album. While not quite as strong as the first two, it’s worthy of release on its own. The problem, though, is that there’s no way to get it on its own. All three must be bought together at a $40 MSRP, even though you probably own at least one of the others already. That “deluxe packaging” is simply a fold-out cardboard case whose promised “booklet” is an introductory letter and the lyrics to all the songs. It also comes with The Man In The Sand, a (previously released) documentary on the making of the original album. This is worth watching once: The people and music are interesting enough to carry the piece through, despite its fluffy marketing nature. But there’s little depth or conflict to make it worth returning to. (A part near the end covers conflicts about which songs and mixes to put on the album, but it both starts and ends suddenly, leaving the viewer with no more knowledge than what the musicians were willing to say to the camera.)

That mainly leaves album number three to justify this. And it does, more or less. So many good songs were still available that it doesn’t feel like scraps from the cutting room floor. There may be a few more filler songs on it, and it feels a little less like a complete album, but it could just be that I’m comparing something new to comfortable old classics. There are several great new songs, including the rousing folk-punk “My Thirty Thousand” and the Occupy-relevant “The Jolly Banker”. If there’s a complaint, it’s that many of the best songs have already been released as promos or in the She Came Along To Me EP years ago. It feels like a blatant money-grab that you can only get this as part of a larger set.

And that’s where the recommendation lies. Packaged like a simple “triple-length album”, but priced as if you’re buying three separate ones, this is neither the deluxe edition the project deserved nor the sale that might have made sense for music from the 1990s. If you have neither Mermaid Avenue volume yet, then buying this set is a no-brainer. But if you already have some of the music, this just isn’t worth it.

Grade: B-

 

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Mirror Traffic (Music Review)

Mirror Traffic cover

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

Every few years, Stephen Malkmus comes out of hiding to remind you that he’s still cooler than you will ever be. His albums with The Jicks, like that high school friend you desperately looked up to, remain as effortless and confident as ever. But after staying unchanged for years, you eventually start to understand that that friend could stand to mature a little.

Mirror Traffic comments on Malkmus’ persona like no other album he’s made. “No One Is (As I Are Be)” pokes fun at himself with lyrics like, “I cannot even do one sit-up. Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie. I’m busy hanging out and spending your money.” A couple breakup songs treat the subject matter with a casual disregard for commitment. Specifically, “All Over Gently” can be seen as either fun or cruel, depending on whether the other party agrees with his opinion that it’s time for her to leave with no hard feelings. And though the political satire of “Senator” is arguably new territory for Malkmus, it’s really an experiment in what how slacker lifestyle would fit in with corrupt politicians.

In fact, Jicks albums can now be described entirely in terms of what has come before. Mirror Traffic is as poppy as their debut album, but with the full sound and varied instrumentation of Face the Truth. The experimentation of Pig Lib is almost nonexistent now, though the meandering jams of Real Emotional Trash have remained even in the shorter pop songs.

It is, honestly, one of the band’s stronger efforts. The Jicks are honing one sound rather than looking for new ones, and there is a perfectionist streak hidden behind their casual front. The production and performances are near-perfect, and they keep building on the tricks that worked best in the past. I do complain that the albums have started to feel similar, but I have to admit that no song directly copies a previous one.

Mirror Traffic is something of a milestone, in that Malkmus has now released as many albums with The Jicks as he did with Pavement. But while it was a sign of stagnation when Pavement’s releases started sounding similar, it seems that The Jicks will be content to play with their sound forever. There is good and bad in that, but they get away with it because new albums only appear every few years. That friend who hasn’t changed since youth might not be a good person to have around every day, but if he can only show up as rarely as this band does, you’ll keep looking forward to the next time.

Grade: B

 

New Albums from Tennis and Islands

Not only have a been a little slow about reviewing music lately, but the albums I have been reviewing are still all from 2011 or earlier. I ended the year with a huge backlist that I’m still working through, and the first time that I went to buy new music this year wasn’t until Record Store Day. Even then, it took me a little over a month before I was ready to review the first two albums I bought. Both of them needed a lot of time before my opinion settled.


Young & Old cover

Tennis – Young & Old

Tennis’ album Young & Old took me some time to evaluate because it comes across as such light, forgettable pop that I didn’t believe it had much substance at first. But at this time, I can say that it stays interesting. I’ve tried putting it aside for over a week, and when I listen to it again, it’s familiar and welcome, not at all like an album that wears out its welcome.

Alaina Moore’s vocals are gentle and innocent, and the music supports a vision of the wide-eyed naivety of 60’s pop. Her lyrics have a cynical bite, though. Songs like “Dreaming” sound like odes to youthful love, but the refrain of “I’m dreaming I can still believe in you” make the narrator seem foolish and willfully blind. Maybe the happiest-sounding, most memorable hook of the album is Moore’s apparently-joyful announcement that “paradise is all around, but happiness is never found.”

The band never seems to be intentionally satirizing the optimistic songs that they mimic. See “Traveling,” for example: The song doesn’t shy from the fears and dangers of initially falling in love, but paint them sympathetically. The impression is that Moore is exploring these themes because they are personally relevant. When she opens one song with “a sensitive heart, you’re doomed from the start,” she could easily be talking to herself.

If you only buy one collection of light, upbeat songs about love this year (and really, would you need to buy more?), Young & Old is your best bet.

Grade: B


A Sleep & A Forgetting cover

Islands – A Sleep & A Forgetting (Yes, the album art is hard to see)

There was a very different reason for why I waited so long before reviewing the new album from Islands. I love the band’s old work, especially their 2008 masterpiece Arm’s Way, and it’s hard to accept that their glory days may be over. Oh, A Sleep & A Forgetting is still a good album, but it never escapes the shadow of their best work.

In the past few years, the band has replaced youthful impishness with staid indie pop. It’s solid and enjoyable, but doesn’t highlight the interests that make their vocals so unique: Death, disaster, and the mechanics of the physical body are obsessions for the band, though they’re examined with macabre humor and clever wordplay.

The extremes of old are gone along with the catchier music. Instead of post-apocalyptic tribes looking for shelter or tiny gnomes devouring people, this album opens with several songs questioning reality: “In a Dream (it Seemed Real)” ties this theme to the album title, and the ideas of “This is Not a Song” carry forward to the next track, whose opening line is “this is not a band”.

It’s an appropriate concept for an Islands album, though it rarely rises above the basic ideas to come up with anything truly insightful or funny. They need more concepts like “No Crying”, an investigation into whether there’s something wrong with the narrator for not feeling bad when listening to sad songs. Even silly little ideas like “Can’t Feel My Face” (which suggests that the feeling leaves for “a better place”) would help. That line may not have their modern sophistication, but it provides a catchy lyrical hook to an album that feels a little dry most of the time.

A Sleep is a solid album, with plenty of decent songs and an unusual take on the lyrics. If this were my first Islands album, I’d probably be intrigued. As it is, though, I already know what the band is capable of, so I don’t need to see hints of it. It’s difficult to imagine that someone would regret this purchase, but that’s partly because it doesn’t make a very strong impression at all. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the forgettable pop album that I worried Tennis would deliver.

Grade: C+

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