Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
We should've known from the unusual intimacy and placid between-song banter of Jeff Tweedy's solo show here in January that he had something up his sleeve. Gone was the charged defensiveness we'd grown accustomed to hearing in his voice, replaced by intonations that felt warmer, more direct. Even his guitar, as it reverberated within the Bijou's grand walls, seemed to have dropped its guttural edge for a silkier, more responsive sound.
So it comes as no surprise that Wilco's latest album, Sky Blue Sky , follows suit, steering the band's seminal alt-country sound away from the push-the-envelope periphery where it's been lingering for so many years and back toward a place of centeredness, if not calm. Not that Sky Blue Sky isn't experimentalâ"there are stretches of song within its expanses that sonically contort themselves, by way of inventive chord changes and asymmetrical melodies, into shapes that will surprise even the most open-minded listeners. And the lyrics, while less ambiguous than they've appeared on previous albums, still manage to achieve a kind of surrealist transcendence at times, with image-driven stream-of-consciousness poetry that shows rather than tells.
Yet, those moments are the exception rather than the rule. Simplicity of theme, language and texture prevails, and for aficionados of Sky Blue Sky 's more sophisticated predecessors, it might be something of an acquired taste. Our advice: Before you write the album off as complacent, dulled-down fare, listen between the lines for scraps of brilliance, unobstructed by complexity's disguise. â" Leslie Wylie
Nine Inch Nails
Year Zero (Nothing/Interscope)
When you listen to music, do you enjoy the melding of notes into harmonies? The fold and flux of intermingling instruments that can sooth and uplift the soul? If so, Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails will hurt. It might make your ears bleed. In the good way.
Since 1989, NIN's Trent Reznor connected the violent machine noise and clanging soundscapes that define the industrial genre to a popular audience. Reznor's convergence of melody and dissonance distinguished NIN from heavier acts, while abrasive undertones made them appear non-mainstream.
Unfortunately, Reznor carved too specific a niche. The Fragile was deemed aimless by fans because of tangential structures. With Teeth met audience expectations too perfectly and felt uninspired. The irony in the titles is not lost.
Year Zero is different. From the driving beat of â“Hyperpowerâ” and noise solo of â“The Beginningâ” through the catchy beats of singles â“Survivalismâ” and â“Capital G,â” the album is distinctive and driven, the latter containing perhaps Reznor's most innovative vocal melody to date. In addition, tracks like â“Me, I'm notâ” and â“God Givenâ” shift abruptly in tempo and tenor, while aggression and melody in â“Meet Your Masterâ” and â“The Great Destroyerâ” are inseparable.
Lastly, like The Downward Spiral, this thematic album does not revel in the violence of its subject matter. Rather, the volume crescendos early on track 13, allowing the remainder to collapse inward toward the introspective â“Zero Sum,â” reflecting the yielding of hope into regret, and closing in a way that lingers well after the album has faded to static. â" Andrew Najberg
Kings of Leon
Because of the Times (Hand Me Down)
If an album fails, frontman Caleb Followill explains, it's because of the times. If it does well, it's because of the times. For Kings of Leon, their album couldn't have come at a better time. It was the end of March, and Angela Hacker had just been voted the 2007 champion of the televised singing competition, Nashville Star . Music Row seemed a little drab, a vast, empty, sonically boring place. Big and Rich were boozing around the recording studio. Then we sobered up, and Gretchen Wilson just didn't look so hot when she released her latest, One of the Boys .
Thank God for Mt. Juliet, a township barely sitting outside of Nashville, the last exit before the interstate becomes two lanes once again. Because of the Times is at times raw, electrified blues-inflected rock, as Caleb's vox comes out fuzzboxed on â“My Party.â” The distortion is harrowing, the squiggling guitarwork is enchantingâ"and the lyrics, still deeply fried in a Southern religious tradition, are at once triumphant and gritty. The stories these songs tell have all the simple charm of a country song, like anything else you'd find in Nashville, but Caleb's delivery is filled with throaty anger, each word is like shattered glass, cutting deep. Add some guitars, with lots of power chords and dextral fretwork.
The albums opener, â“Knocked Up,â” is a seven-minute odyssey, beginning as a whisper and ending in shrieking crescendo. I don't care what nobody says/ I'm gonna be her lover! It's all melodrama, of course, but it's played with just enough murk to keep things interesting, steered by loud thunderclaps, courtesy of Nathan Followill. Kings of Leon keep getting better, never falling into roots rock limbo. Never afraid to sacrifice the purity of their southern-fried-blues rock, so long as it captures that raw, wretched pathos.
Did we already say thank god for Mt. Juliet? â" Kevin Crowe
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