Monthly Archives: March 2011

James Blake/Bright Eyes

31-year-old Conor Oberst used to be where 22-year-old James Blake is now: atop a wave of boy-wonder hype. Retiring the Bright Eyes name once promotion for this one is done, Oberst says he’s after a fresh start, and he sounds like he could use it. Blake, meanwhile, is off to a start almost as promising as you might have heard.
James Blake: James Blake
Overrated as some kind of breakthrough for electronica with feelings, this British dubstep sensation’s debut is, true enough, electronica with feelings. Just hold off on the breakthrough. Blake’s neatest trick is the way he synthesizes and processes his own voice to make it sound like another one of his gizmos, then comes at you straight, voice pure and pained, accompanied by nothing but a drifting piano. It’s all very evocative, but I’m not convinced it’s meant to signify anything in particular about British dubsteb or the singer-songwriter form or our digital existence. The words, which are spare and sad and resemble Zen koans, shouldn’t be taken separately from the music, and they work just fine as a part of it. But if you come in looking for anything besides mood music, you might be disappointed. As mood music, though, it’s awfully effective; Blake already has that innate and rare ability to make you feel lonely and assure you that you aren’t alone in it. B+
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Bright Eyes: The People’s Key
Conor Oberst identifies the problem with the latest – and purportedly last – Bright Eyes album right at the top: “Feeling close, but keeping my distance.” Come closer, please. And speak up. If you listen long and hard enough – the music, a glossed up relative of the noise-pop from 2005’s Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, is neither noisy nor poppy enough to open many doors for you – his ideas about a humankind greater than the sum of its parts begin to resonate. Or they do half the time, anyway. The other half, it’s hard to know what, exactly, he’s talking about. We are jejune stars? If you say so. Oberst is at his most galvanizing when shouting a command as simple and inclusive as “everyone on the count of three!” Still, it says something about him that he doesn’t actually count to three for us. B
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Radiohead/PJ Harvey

I’ve swooned as hard for these great UK artists as anyone, so don’t call me a hater. Radiohead, you’ve pissed me off before. Polly, I thought I knew you.
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Radiohead: The King of Limbs
“You stole all my magic/took my melody.” Thanks for my lead, Mr. Yorke. To be fair, some of these jittery half-songs do sink in over time, though listening on headphones didn’t help as much as it was supposed to, thankyouverymuch. The precedent is Thom Yorke’s 2006 electro solo thing The Eraser. There are more grooves here, to be sure, but if there’s evidence the other four members of the band heard these tracks, let alone played on them, I can’t hear it. In Rainbows’ ballyhooed pay-what-you-will retail model, while admirable, is by now secondary to the fact that the record was terrific. Lots of magic, lots of melody. This sounds like a collection of demos – eight of them, sold directly to fans for nine bucks as MP3’s or, if you’re a collector, as something called a “Newspaper Album,” which, at $53, just drives home the fact that there is no other band on Earth with so much power to abuse. Memo to Yorke: I hate to come across as a boor, but, next time, would it kill you to let the drummer play on one damn song? B-
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PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
My love for Polly Jean Harvey is deep, so I’m as willing to bear with her autoharp dalliances as I am that high, breathy voice she favors now, even if I do think guitars and moans suit her better. And when she cites T.S. Eliot and the Gallipoli campaign as influences for this album about a national conflict as personal as it is political, I believe her. The problem is that when she tries to adopt the voices of soldiers who – she claims – could just as easily be fighting in Kabul as Turkish Thrace, she never gets deeper than language, and it’s lousy language at that. Something of a tragedy when you consider this is an artist who once seemed capable of inhabiting any feeling you could throw her way. The frantic mother in “C’Mon Billy”? That was desperation she could taste. The triumph and terror of “Big Exit”? Lived them both – or, crucially, made us believe she had. But historical fiction suits her far worse than autoharp; it’s hard now to tell what, if anything, she feels about those soldiers who “fall like lumps of meat” in “The Words That Maketh Murder” (maketh, for Christ’s sake!), and when she says the songs about her relationship with her native England could just as easily be about any person in any place, I’m left to take her at her word. B-
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