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Album mini-rambles: October


I have no intention to make these mini-rambles a reoccuring thing but the sheer amount of recent releases combined with generally being busy means these are a great way to round up all the latest newcomers. Not to mention that any deeper articles on any of the possible top 10 candidates would lead me to repeat my words a lot. So, onward ho, for new opinions on new albums by Bat for Lashes, Peter BuckDelay Trees, Ben Gibbard, Jason Lytle and Muse.


The winter album of 2012/early 2013. I’m calling it now even though it’s still autumn. The Haunted Man’s sparse beauty and delicate textures breathe with the essence of winter: it’s the sort of music that perfectly soundtracks those days when the world outside is filled with mounds of white snow, all of which glistens in sunlight. Natasha Khan strips her music away from all the countless layers on her third album but keeps the sound lush – the elements are sparser but they’re all far more important and used in a befitting fashion. Gentle and minimal electronic beats, string sections and keyboards fill the air around Khan’s always-gorgeous voice and it’s all so pretty, so gorgeous. Despite its name and somewhat melancholy cover, The Haunted Man is a positive, light album filled with life and joy: the moment in “Lilies” when the orchestra explodes around Khan as she exclaims “thank god I’m alive!” is an already iconic one, one that not only makes for one hell of a climax for an opening track but which also nails down the album excellently. A couple of weaker tracks are slight bumps along the way but they’re not enough to really damage an album that’s surely going to find its way into among the year’s biggest highlights.


Moment of truth. We all know Michael Stipe’s musical tendencies very well. Mike Mills has had so many solo spots over the years we can easily predict what his future solo album will be like. But Peter Buck? The mysterious, ever-quiet Peter Buck? I don’t think anyone expected him to be the first R.E.M. member to pull out a solo release, but you could say it’s also the most interesting one simply because we never really got a clue about how Peter would handle being the main attraction during R.E.M.’s run. Based on the debut self-titled, the reason why this is out is clear: he’s having fun. Buck’s solo album runs through an eclectic mix of gruff garage rockers, country, bar rock and bizarre stylistic oddities as well as a number of guest vocalists, but the one thing common with all of its songs is a sense of fun. It sounds like an album that exists solely because of how much fun Peter and his friends had jamming together. The songs probably aren’t the best stuff Buck’s got to offer in terms of art but gosh, they’re just so fun to listen to. You can imagine Buck playing this stuff with a smile on his face and it’s infectious. It’s never going to win any album of the year awards but it’s surprisingly fun to listen to and I’ve been enjoying it way more than I expected to. Now if only Peter didn’t hate humanity and actually made his album available in some sort of sensible format rather than insanely limited vinyl, so we could enjoy this guilt-free.


Delay Trees’ debut is still a charmer because of how it combines hazey, dreamy atmospheres to some really well written hooks and excellent melodies. On the band’s second album, the Great Stylistic Evolution sees the band focus far more on the former than the latter: Doze is all about ambience, sustained atmosphere, slow builds and steadily paced soundscapes. To the point that it actually acts to the band’s detriment – as pleasant and lovely as Doze can sound, there’s little substance underneath its pretty moods. Endulging in atmosphere can produce amazing results when done well (plenty of great examples in the realms of ambient and post-rock), but Doze ends up more unsatisfying than atmospheric. The main exception is the album’s best track, the fantastic “HML”, which marries those golden melodies and wonderful moods together in the best way this band can; in fact, it could have easily slotted anywhere within the self-titled debut album. Most of the rest of Doze floats by rather unnoticeably and while I’m all for bands evolving, this time the direction feels slightly amiss. If Delay Trees’ recipe is made out of two ingredients, taking out one and leaving the other as-is rather than growing it further to fill the hole isn’t the right way to deal with things.


Death Cab for Cutie frontman’s solo album sounds exactly like what it is. Former Lives isn’t an artistic statement as such, but more a ragtag compilation of odds and ends that Gibbard had written but felt like they couldn’t fit the Death Cab discography stylistically. Former Lives bounces around from mariachi horns to upbeat power pop, with Gibbard’s voice and a general relaxed feel tying all the parts together. It’s not a particularly revelatory or even an essential album for Death Cab fans: it doesn’t really show any new sides of Gibbard beyond his music taste and the songs themselves aren’t a particularly impressive bunch. It is however a surprisingly pleasant album, there’s a handful of enjoyable tunes and if you like Gibbard’s voice there’s plenty more of that here. You kinda get the impression that these songs have found themselves here not because of stylistic boundaries but because they weren’t strong enough to make it to Death Cab albums, but they make for an alright listen that’s pleasant enough to have hanging around the background and which is hard to really say genuinely negative things about. S’alright, in other words.


Jason Lytle does what Jason Lytle does. He’s built himself a signature style and while his solo albums have a more loose, relaxed tone to them compared to the Grandaddy albums, Lytle’s still offering exactly what he’s always done. Indie rock with a humble attitude, fuzzy synths, weary vocals and a sense of bittersweetness everywhere. I don’t think the man even desires to really break out from his formula and, to his credit, his comfortability with that decision adds a positive feel to the music. And so, unsurprisingly, Dept. of Disappearance offers more of Lytle’s usual ways. It’s not among Lytle’s very best albums but the quality stays consistently good throughout, there’s a handful of really excellent songs and the only actual complaint I have is that I’m worried whether all of Lytle’s solo albums are going to contain a 2-minute rocker with inane, minimal lyrics (this time it’s “Get Up and Go” and its ‘everything’s gonna be ok’ cheers). The closer “Gimme Click Gimme Grid” hints at some directions but largely Dept. of Disappearance follows the tried and tested Lytle formula. Personally, I’m happy with this – it’s not a mindblower of a record but Lytle is one of those musicians who’s always nice to have around and who never genuinely disappoints.


Here’s where I’m coming from: I prefer latter-day Muse to the early stuff. I love the fact that they’ve become a band who indulge in creative madness and freely enjoy the possibility of trying out every single idea they get, no matter how insane or ambitious. There are no boundaries and no limits to Muse, no matter how ridiculous the ideas they get can be, and I really love that, especially knowing how huge they are which means they’ve got the budget for every whim they get. It’s so fun. I like Origin of Symmetry and all but give me bombastic, insane Muse any time. The 2nd Law underlines all that: it’s more or less a showcase for Muse’s creative insanity. Synth-driven ballads, slap bass funk, dubstep, prog lullabies, imaginary Bond themes, dance, giving the bassist a turn on the lead vocals (twice!)… by this point, anything goes for Muse. The great thing is, it works so, so well. Bizarre ideas meet a band with an impeccable talent to pull them off and the result is a collection of great songs that highlight just how great Muse can be. There’s absolutely no cohesiveness to it and in particular the last four tracks seem like a dumping ground for all the songs they couldn’t sequence anywhere else, but it sounds so good. It doesn’t run flawlessly – the Olympic theme “Survival” continues to be cringy and “Liquid State” isn’t too exciting either, plus the sequencing is pants – but it still ends up ranking fairly high among the band’s albums. They even make dubstep sound interesting, which is a feat of its own. Where they’re going to go from here, god knows, but I’m definitely enjoying the ride.

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