Review

Assorted Albums Almanac – September

I guess this is semi-regular now then. Emphasis on the ‘semi’.

This time I’m rattling through a whole bunch of stuff that came out absolutely ages ago but that I either didn’t care enough about (Wavves – Afraid of Heights, The Icarus Line – Slave Vows) or was intimidated by the prospect of reviewing (Grant Hart – The Argument).

Enjoy the words.

Wavves – Afraid of Heights

I forgot Wavves released an album this year –it took their recent announcement as radio hosts on GTAV for me to remember Afraid of Heights – and I also forgot to properly listen to it. No subsequent listens have ever quite managed to evoke the same excitement I felt when I first heard To The Dregs, and now, with this their 4th release, I’d started to lose faith they ever would.

Their surf/noise rock sound should be right up my street, but for some reason it never quite clicks. The whiny, distorted vocals of frontman Nathan Williams irritate more often than they impress, the guitar hooks become repetitive and fuzzed out into oblivion, and the drumming, well, actually the drumming is generally pretty solid.

The vocals in particular are a long-standing gripe I can’t see being resolved.  That nasal San Diego whine as they wail about how ‘None of you will ever understand me’ on Lunge Forward is a truly unpleasant sound. I think the problem is that Williams is trying to sing when he blatantly can’t. To The Dregs worked because it was all monotone spoken-word apathy. When he says ‘You see me, I don’t care’, it’s not only less pretentious and pointedly ‘outsider’ than Lunge Forward, it also sounds sincere when combined with his could not give a shit ‘singing’. For much of Afraid of Heights Williams just sounds like a worse version of a sound you’ve heard a thousand times.

To their credit, the title track has some of that apathetic vibe and some of the ghostly harmonies that made them stand out, but it comes at the cost of momentum. The track is heavy, and in a trudging way, and the lyrics are once again unoriginal whimpering about being alone. Tame Impala suffer from a similar affliction but at least they’re less heavy-handed and whiny about it.

Right at the end though, and right as they bring a hitherto unimpressive first half to a close, it slows down even more and, somehow, becomes kind of amazing. It all turns woozy and slightly shoegaze-y, like someone just injected their guitars with some kind of anaesthetic and their vocals with some psychedelics.

That a moment of woozy airy-ness is an album highlight is all the more surprising since one thing that has always stood Wavves in good stead for me is their tightness. Everything is very defined, very to the point. The songs are brief enough to retain their punch throughout, which is vital for a band like Wavves who seem to rely almost entirely on explosive impact.

But on the second half of Afraid of Heights something weird has happened. Wavves, the surf rock San Diegans, somehow merge with Animal Collective or something and make Everything Is My Fault happen. It’s amazing, but where the hell did that come from?

It’s like a totally different band emerges for the second half of the album. Pretty much from the last minute of the title track onwards they simultaneously slow it down and kick it up a notch. It’s like they were saving every last drop of their creativity for that second half, but at the expense of a pretty bland opening.

Lush, expansive, trippy and drowning in atmosphere and style, it’s almost depressing how good it is – okay, Gimme A Knife is a bit shit, but still, on that second half Wavves finally bloom into a band I want to hear, even if it isn’t in the way I expected.

B

Listen to: Beat Me Up, I Can’t Dream, Everything is My Fault

The Icarus Line//Slave Vows

On the surface all thunderous bass, crunching guitar and dark atmospherics, The Icarus Line are actually a surprisingly funky band beneath all the gloom. Somehow combining stoner rock, post-rock and the 70s strut of a band like The Doors, they manage to stand out in the increasingly cluttered field of psychedelic stoner rock.

Much like True Widow, their real achievement lies in their impeccable sense of balance and time. The songs frequently push the 5 or 6 minute mark but are well constructed enough to be repetitious without being dull. Unlike their contemporaries however, they also aren’t afraid to change a song up and engage a more straight up rock sensibility and go hell to leather for a few minutes. In that respect they’re actually more similar to Queen’s of the Stone Age – particularly on their more latest, more reserved, release – but just lacking that killer sound.

With so many points of reference already, it’s clear that The Icarus Line don’t stand out that much, but they shake things up enough to not really be faulted for it. Songs like the Suicide-esque No Money Music show just how far out there they can go and demonstrate that even after five albums the band still have a few tricks up their sleeve.

It’s also hard to fault them for touching on so many sounds because, well, they really do. The core is generally the same but it’s approached with invention and ingenuity on each track. It’s varied, but without sacrificing too much in the way of cohesion.

But still, somehow, they remain frustratingly undefined. All those bands I’ve compared them too have had a distinct, identifiable sound. Their music had an identity; Slave Vows doesn’t. They flit between styles with consistent class, but at the end you’re no closer to pinning down what sort of band The Icarus Line are.  I hate to use such a vague term,  but they really are missing an X Factor. That stamp of authority that says ‘We are The Icarus Line, and this is what we do’. After five albums you feel that should be there.

Musically excellent, structurally cohesive and consistently good from start to finish; Slave Vows is nonetheless strangely unsatisfying. It is an excellent album, but a forgettable one. The diversity of sounds that help The Icarus Line stand out is also the very thing that leaves it feeling so hollow and soulless.

B

Listen to: Dark Circles, Rat Ass, Marathon Man

Grant Hart//The Argument

An album that I’ve put off reviewing for a quite a while, Grant Hart’s The Argument is a brilliant album once you can get over the hurdle of approaching a double-album concept album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost and chronicling the Fall of Man.  Say what you will about the music, but you can’t fault Hart for his ambition.

If anything it’s Hart’s lack of musical ambition that saves the album from descending into an overwrought pile of crap. Regarded as the ‘melodic’ one of post-punk band Husker Du (a statement that essentially means he occasionally thought some of their noises should contain melodies and maybe a hint of production values), Hart brings his years of craft to lend the album sonic simplicity and accessibility.

Founded on simple, solid melodies, the tracks work as well on their own as they do when part of the larger whole; there’s nothing fancy about what Hart does, though the album is certainly capable of sounding lush and layered, but it all just works. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not mind-blowing, but it is quietly brilliant in its own understated way.

In many ways it’s similar to David Bowie’s recent release, The Next Day. Both are founded on simple rock aesthetics but pull them off with the kind of stylish aplomb that attests to their years of experience. At times Hart, rough of voice and fleetingly in tune, even sounds uncannily like latter-day Bowie. His voice, by no means conventionally good, nonetheless, just like everything else, works in a strange way.

Perhaps most crucially Hart’s voice has lost none of its power to convey. Especially important when attempting nothing less than translating a classic of epic poetry into a three and a half minute song, Hart just about succeeds in pulling off the narrative.

His style may be too simplistic to render some of the scale and beauty of Milton’s work, but Hart clearly knows that the real cut and thrust lies in the characters. Songs like Sin capture the seductive charm of Lucifer, earlier tracks such as Awake, Arise! succeed in portraying his anger and defiance, and Is The Sky The Limit pulls off the greatest achievement of them all by even injecting some pathos into proceedings.

That all this is wrapped up in immaculately constructed songs that rock out in the vintage, rock n roll, sense of the word speaks volumes about Hart’s skill as a songwriter. These are songs that, even without the context of being adaptations of classic literature, would still be almost uniformly great songs on an undeniably great album.

Complaints about length feel moot when considering the scale of Hart’s ambition but they must be voiced anyway.  Very, very few are the double albums that manage to sustain momentum throughout their entire duration – a fact that makes me disinclined towards by default – and The Argument inevitably falls victim to late-album lull. Still, that kind of risk comes with this kind of ambition and Hart must be applauded for his album fighting off that slackening so fiercely.

A

Listen to: Awake, Arise, Is The Sky The Limit?, Golden Chain

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