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.)

Hysterical cover

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical

While it’s normal for many breakthrough indie bands to lose a little of their uniqueness when they “mature” on their second album, this pattern didn’t work well for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at all. Some Loud Thunder seemed to disappoint everyone, and Alec Ounsworth’s fairly innovative solo album was met with a collective yawn. Too late, the band is trying to correct this with Hysterical, a somewhat return to form. While I’m usually in favor of artists moving forward, in this case there is still a lot more potential in the band’s distinctive sound. This is probably the best direction for them to move in.

Had this been Clap Your Hands’ sophomore album, it probably would have been enough to keep interest alive. It’s comparatively muted, with even its wildest songs (“Maniac” and “Ketamine And Ecstacy”) lacking in the inventive instrumentation. They are growing as evocative, off-kilter lyricists (“My Ophelia does not drown, she just barely hangs on”), but few tracks seem to reward close study.

Hysterical is a pretty good album that can’t help but remind the listener of what could have been.

Grade: C+

Breaks In The Armor cover

Crooked Fingers – Breaks In The Armor

Crooked Fingers – Breaks In The Armor

If Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is trying to recapture some of their original magic, Crooked Fingers are going in the opposite direction. After several albums of Neil-Diamond-for-the-cynical-hipster-set, crooner Eric Bachman (the only constant member of the band) has gone in a more stripped-down direction. It wouldn’t be right to call this music “experimental”, though it does feel like the first Crooked Fingers album to have any trace of Bachman’s old band, Archers of Loaf.

The lyrics are dark and poignant: From the fortune teller of “Bad Blood” (“she says you’ll probably get the cancer/says you’ll surely die alone”) to the creeping ennui of “Heavy Hours” (which may very well be the “after” to the cancer prediction in “Bad Blood”), Bachman finds a freedom to express thoughts that would have been difficult in his previous releases. They just aren’t as attention-grabbing, though. The hesitant music and restrained singing make the songs difficult to pay much attention to, and some (especially “The Hatchet”) feel more like fragments than complete works.

I appreciate what he is trying to do here, but Bachman’s talents worked best with the lush sound of their past albums. I feel like this is a transitional work, with him trying out new tools that aren’t completely figured out yet. A couple songs, like “Your Apocalypse”, hint that he’ll find a way to combine this expression with the power of his old recordings. As long as there is a chance of that, I’m very excited about what they’ll come up with next.

Grade: C+

Martial Arts Weekend cover

The Extra Glenns – Martial Arts Weekend

The Extra Glenns – Martial Arts Weekend

The occasional collaborations between John Darnielle and Franklin Bruno sound very much like Darnielle’s Mountain Goats, but with more complex arrangements. For one album in 2001, they called themselves “The Extra Glenns”. (The two would return for another one in 2010 as “The Extra Lens“.)

Of course, Mountain Goats have changed dramatically in the past decade. When The Extra Glenns released Martial Arts Weekend, Darnielle was still known for his low-fidelity boombox recordings. This album sounds elaborate and un-Mountain-Goats-like for the time, but like a simple Mountain Goats album by today’s standards. And yes, these would almost all work as Mountain Goats songs. The topics range from monster invasions to deep personal observations, and three songs even follow the “Going to <place>” naming convention that Darnielle used frequently. The only one that really wouldn’t work on a Mountain Goats album is “Memories”, an amusing piano ballad that both undermines and honors Prom songs.)

These are solid songs, and it’s actually really nice to hear the Mountain Goats of that era stripped of their abrasive edge. That band’s must-have releases are all more recent, but if you’re going to buy one vintage John Darnielle work, this side project might actually be the best choice.

Grade: B

The Wild Hunt cover

The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt

The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt

Though his voice is like a higher, more acrobatic version of Dylan’s “sand and glue”, The Tallest Man On Earth sings lighter, poppier fare. The Wild Hunt features a simple musical backing, rarely more than a single acoustic guitar, but the focus is entirely on that voice. It dances around fluidly even when the music drops, leaving an impression of a much richer band.

It’s a good sound, especially on the single-ready “King Of Spain”. While catchy and comforting, there’s an angstful edge running through the lyrics that makes it seem more artistic than commercial. Still, this is definitely friendly, unchallenging music for the indie crowd. He has an air of both deep thinking and sincere emotions that could probably attract more attention with a bigger budget and studio band.

I find myself enjoying this album quite a bit, but it doesn’t offer a lot of variety or hint at artistic progression. As good as it is, it leaves me with no curiosity about The Tallest Man On Earth’s other albums. My recommendation is to check this out if you don’t have anything by the artist yet, but to think of it as pretty non-essential if you do.

Grade: B

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