Modern Guilt is easily the best Beck album since 2002's Sea Change. That album found the eclectic artist reigning in his weirdo tendencies to create a handful of the most devastating break-up songs ever written. His 2005 follow-up, Guero, was an appropriately upbeat palette-cleanser that showcased the musician collaborating with a slew of producers and musicians to create a dense, albeit erratic, party record. Then, in 2006, he quickly recorded The Information, a stale companion to Guero that played like a bloated collection of uninspired B-sides.
It felt like he was starting to coast--both Guero and The Information lacked heart and honesty, although the former at least succeeded as an escapist confection.
Like Sea Change, Modern Guilt is a concept album about deterioration. But where Sea Change was focused on the intensely personal (the break-down of the artist's marriage), Guilt's focus is far more external. Man's destruction of the earth, his neighbor and himself is the subject of nearly every song. Tracks like "Gamma Rays," "Orphans" and "Walls" paint ugly portraits of a world on the brink of apocalypse. Global Warming, terrorism, war, and the media are just a few of the subjects under Beck's microscope this time around, and although this kind of existential brooding is by no means unique or even appealing, there's a restraint, an understatement to its execution that makes the heaviness far easier to digest. He's not screaming from the rooftops, he's quietly commenting to himself and anyone who happens to hear.
Coordinating the proceedings is producer Danger Mouse, on a roll after the latest Black Keys and Gnarls Barkley records. Under his direction, complex percussion and unobtrusive electronica form a framework that nicely complements Beck's familiar songwriting to create what amounts to an encouraging step forward.
So far, 2008 seems to be a year of reinvention for many artists, and while Beck doesn't receive a total makeover, he benefits greatly from an openness to new ideas. --Josh Kline
I'm still trying to wrap my mind around Ratatat. I know I like it, I'm just trying to figure out what "it" is. As a non-musician, I have a harder time with music that defies convention--the further it gets away from the pop format, traditional instrumentation and vocal melodies, the harder it is for me to articulate what it is that I like or dislike about it.
Ratatat is a band that is instrumental, with both organic and electronic elements that meld to create tunes that at times feel like what kids who listen to quirky Canadian rock must dance to on the weekends. It's guitar heavy, but the guitars are processed and played to sound like synthesizers. Elements of jazz, funk, hip-hop and indie rock create a uniformly unique sound that's instantly recognizable but hard to describe.
On LP3, the band sounds a lot like... Ratatat. The by-now signature tones, melodies and production all point the way to their previous album, Classics, and that's not a bad thing. It's upbeat mood music that that's whimsical without being annoying, the work of technical virtuosos who sound like they're having a lot of fun. Thankfully, it's just as fun for us to listen to. --J.K.
So Over the Emo
My Chemical Romance
The Black Parade is Dead!
My Chemical Romance is one of those bands that found success in catering to mopester teenage boys and star-struck rebel girls by playing vaguely dark, operatic emo that somehow struck enough of a chord with the mainstream critical establishment to result in cover stories for the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin, among numerous others. Supposedly, what sets them apart is accomplished showmanship and musical influences more respectable than the average mallrat screamo act (Queen as opposed to Thursday). At the end of the day though, Romance doesn't really elevate pop-core--rather, they add lots of lights, speakers, production value and goth kitsch. Showmen? Yes. Accomplished musicians? Not so much.
The Black Parade is Dead! Is their premature live album--a commemoration of their financial success and imagined significance. Each track is punctuated with intrusive and frequent high-pitched crowd cheers (the mind boggles at how many black-clad 16 year-old goth nymphs are screaming at once). The audio performance is surprisingly dull; bland punk chord progressions and Gerard Way's obnoxiously imposing wail bleed in and out of track after track. It's all depressingly mediocre.
What's most depressing about My Chemical Romance is that they've managed to garner enough power and pull to land the laughably superior Brit-metal gods Muse as one of their opening acts. Anyone who's heard Muse's own recent live release, H.A.A.R.P., should attest to the bass-ackwards logic of this pairing. But I digress. --J.K.
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