Phoenix’s “Bankrupt!”

Being one of the most popular bands in music currently must be a daunting experience. Especially if one of those bands were to win the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, produce two #1 smash hits, venture on four world tours, and recently headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. In this case, that band would be French-based quartet Phoenix. Since their inception as a band, Phoenix has released five albums, including this year’s Bankrupt!. However, much like other famous indie-rock groups, they began with almost zero recognition. Their 2000 retro-funk debut United and 2004’s nonchalant follow-up Alphabetical played small parts in defining the early age of indie rock music, though it had little effect on the American radio charts. Luckily, two years later, the release of their indie breakout It’s Never Been Like That intrigued music listeners and critics alike. Even though Phoenix had somewhat found a place in the music industry, their obscurity hindered them from becoming the alt-rock, synth-pop outfit they are known as today. Fortunately, they got the huge breakthrough they deserved in 2009 with the release of their brilliant fourth record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Combining the elements of alternative lo-fi and electro-rock, Wolfgang was not only an unexpected commercial and critical success, but a Grammy-winning musical masterpiece. Their two awesome mega-hits, “Lisztomania” and “1901,” became the paradigms of Phoenix’s defining attributes as a rock band, which led them to perform both tunes on Saturday Night Live, as well as in commercials and many other venues. Four years later, the Versailles outfit releases Bankrupt!, another exceptional record but far different from its predecessor.

On Wolfgang, Phoenix sounds relaxed, fluid, and incredibly catchy. On Bankrupt!, Phoenix sounds much more ecstatic, but equally discordant and strained. It’s as though they are aware of their success and popularity, which, in this case, can be overwhelming, thus resulting in a tense and anxious (albeit appealing) record. Bankrupt! is heavy on synths and hooks and light on lyrics and introspection, which says something about Phoenix’s central focus on the album’s sound. Although Phoenix incorporates a diverse set of K-pop fusion, acoustic guitar riffs, and ethereal synthesizers, the result is slightly unsettling and manic, unlike Wolfgang‘s calm and composed rhythms.

Bankrupt! begins with the epic, heavily promoted crowd-pleaser “Entertainment,” which is one of Phoenix’s most mainstream songs to date. Despite “Entertainment”‘s lively Japanese-infused production, memorable resonance, and diverse remixes from Dinosaur Jr., Blood Orange, and Dirty Projectors, it contradicts itself with the self-conscious lyricism: The uplifting chorus builds up with grandeur, but ends with lead singer Thomas Mars’ confusing proclamation, “I’d rather be alone.” The fact that “Entertainment” sounds like a riveting live performance rebutes Mars’ solidarity, making the song an arguably adequate Bankrupt! tune, in terms of both lyrics and sound. Despite this semi-setback, the rest of Bankrupt!‘s first half encompasses the album’s best tracks — “The Real Thing,” “SOS In Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool” — and an overall enjoyable tone. “The Real Thing” and “SOS In Bel Air” share a simliar uptempo cadence, but each track contains some of Phoenix’s finest moments as musicians. “Trying to Be Cool” opens with a gentle guitar riff, followed by handclaps, electronic twirls, and mid-90s art pop. The themes of Bankrupt! — loneliness, anxiety, glamour, materialism, fashion, romanticism, and the cult of celebrity — are seen within these three standout tracks, as well in some of the second half of Bankrupt!.

Right smack in the middle of Phoenix’s fifth record is the 7-minute title track, which marks the endpoint of Bankrupt!‘s steady pacing. The title track, similar in length and ambition to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix‘s vivacious “Love Like a Sunset,” and It’s Never Been Like That‘s “North,” bears the most diverse moments in Phoenix’s career, as well as their most unnerving. Beginning with a quiet, double-speed guitar riff and ambient electro noises, the title track stops short of 2 minutes with an echoing piano, followed by what seems like an undeclared “bass drop” and a cacophony of harpsichords, twinkly keyboard harmonies, and stuttering, strobe-light synthesizers. This moment in Bankrupt! isn’t their worst, but perhaps their most confusing, considering that Phoenix deviates from using heavy electronic in the majority of their songs. However, the chaotic beat stops suddenly again and fortunately turns into an enchanting, acoustic-filled dreamscape of elation, accompanied with Mars’ dreamy voice.

However, like the exclamation point in the album’s title, Bankrupt!‘s second half tends to overemphasize the utilization of synth-pop. But, it nevertheless maintains Phoenix’s sincerity and authenticity as a close-knit rock group. Following the title track is the sleazy sonic jive “Drakkar Noir,” which transitions gradually into the washed out, slow jam “Chloroform.” Both songs signify Phoenix’s French influence with a mix of seductiveness and electro lo-fi. Ostensibly, “Chloroform” sounds a little like a slowed-down version of “1901,” which makes sense, since both songs were paired together during Phoenix’s Coachella performance with R. Kelly’s famous hits “Ignition” and “I’m a Flirt.” “Don’t” is another exceptional Bankrupt! tune, but the tedious chorus makes the song seem a lot longer than it already sounds. Phoenix successfully attempts to use 60s-influenced rock and “sha-la-la-las” with late 80s-influenced shoegaze on the dazzling “Bourgeois.” Bankrupt! closer “Oblique City” is unfortunately the album’s weakest track. Unlike most of Phoenix’s epic album closers, such as Wolfgang’s spill-chilling “Armistice,” “Oblique City” deceptively reverberates recycled Phoenix material into a mediocre conclusion.

Though Bankrupt! may not be as stellar as Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it still proves that Phoenix can make great sound and audiences dance at live performances. Phoenix’s outstanding members, which include the aforementioned Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz, and guitarist Christian Mazzalai, are more determined than ever with Bankrupt!, though their ambition might have gotten caught up with the distress and apprehension over their recent success. In some cases, that kind of superstardom usually gets deep into the head of the band and ultimately steers them into the wrong direction. With Phoenix, superstardom has neither steered them into the wrong nor the right direction, but into a place of excited and anxious contemplation.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Entertainment,” “The Real Thing,” “SOS in Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool”

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Major Lazer’s “Free the Universe”

Like fellow producer Flying Lotus, Los Angeles-based DJ Diplo has developed two split music identities. As a solo producer, he is known for his acclaimed collaborative album with Brit-Indian rapper M.I.A. and as the mastermind behind Usher’s oozy hit “Climax.” As the co-producer behind the side project Major Lazer, he and former partner Switch have obtained much more unique and diverse music stylings, which helped create their jubilant 2009 debut Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do. Major Lazer’s sound incorporates Diplo’s repertoire of electronic house music with Jamaican dancehall and roots-reggage. Now a popular recording artist, Diplo has gained recognition from both his solo career and with Major Lazer. However, since his separation with Switch, Diplo has enlisted producers Jillionaire and Walshy Fire to co-produce Major Lazer songs and live performances. This year, the release of Major Lazer’s follow-up, Free The Universe, was highly anticipated, but incredibly delayed, which is unfortunate since it shows the discordance and disorganization of the electronic now-trio. What was essential for Free the Universe was not just the anticipation, but for it to be worthwhile.

Every song off of Free the Universe has at least more than three featured guests. They range from cohesive reggage artists and electro hip-hop singer Santigold to eye-rolling rappers and musicians, such as Bruno Mars, Tyga, and Ezra Koneig of Vampire Weekend. Though collaboration never hurt anyone, Major Lazer’s Free the Universe looks more desperate than promising to fill each song with diverse albeit random artists. Another disappointment is that there aren’t any real standout tracks, unlike the radio friendly “Pon De Floor,” the chaotic Spaghetti Western-themed “Hold the Line,” and the club friendly jam “Keep It Goin’ Louder” from Guns Don’t Kill People. The closest thing that comes to a standout track on Free the Universe is “Get Free,” a passionate, calypso-styled tune with a likable beat and Amber Coffman’s shrieking and bellowing vocals. It’s probably one of the only most “listenable” songs off of Free the Universe, considering that other tracks are predominantly underwhelming, such as the obnoxious “Bubble Butt,” the equally unpleasant “Jet Blue Jet,” and the mediocre “Reach for the Stars.” Another track with indifferent qualities is the Flux Pavilion collab “Jah No Partial,” which precariously blends heavy bass and dubstep with reggage and electro house to a mixed result.

The songs that come closest to the “standout track,” “Get Free,” are satisfactory but aren’t Guns Don’t Kill People material: The funky, Santigold-featured opener “You’re No Good,” has the potential to be as bewitching its Guns Don’t Kill People counterpart “Hold the Line,” but is missing the compelling musical and lyrical aspect; “Sweat,” Free the Universe‘s grooviest track, consists of funky key chinks, echoes of incomprehensible reggage singers, and a rapidly changing rhythm; and “Watch Out for This” is incredibly catchy, but again feeling like it’s missing the spark and silliness that made hits like “Pon De Floor.”

It’s hard to imagine the dismay Major Lazer fans must have felt, including me, when purchasing Free the Universe only to wish they had just listened to it on Spotify. Despite Major Lazer’s underwhelming second record, their recent ecstatic performance at Coachella might still bring hope for music listeners. But otherwise, Diplo has a lot of work to do before Major Lazer crashes and burns, leaving him wishing he hadn’t parted with Switch.

Grade: C
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “You’re No Good,” “Get Free,” “Watch Out for This,” “Sweat”

         

Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Mosquito”

The late-90s and early 2000s was a period where post-punk, garage-rock music was revived. Novelty music groups, such as The Strokes, Bloc Party, The Rapture, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, developed and invigorated East Coast clubs. Lo-fi and alternative rock were enhanced and adopted by many up-and-coming bands. One of these bands, the aforementioned Yeah Yeah Yeahs, have especially evolved over the course of a decade with three records (2003’s Fever to Tell, 2006’s Show Your Bones, and 2009’s It’s Blitz!). The New-York based trio have also performed in front of young audiences and recently played at SXSW and Coachella. This year, the YYYs have returned with a somewhat fresh new look (lead singer Karen O’s dyed blonde hair, perhaps) and a brand new record, Mosquito.

In recent interviews, Karen O and her bandmates, Nick Zinner and Brain Chase, have discussed their ideas and thought processes on the production of Mosquito and the general notions on their idiosyncratic sound as a band. Despite their sincerity and innovative spirit, Mosquito surprisingly falls flat. Compared to their excellent, dance-pop LP It’s Blitz! and their punk-rock debut Fever to Tell, Mosquito suffers from tonal inconsistencies, bizarre artwork, an ambiguous theme, and a confusing message. Sometimes, though, you could understand why Mosquito has this unpredictable aura, since the YYYs are always unpredictable. However, Mosquito is more sporadically shambolic than brilliantly, unintentionally clever.

Fortunately, Mosquito is not without its highlights: Early into the album is “Sacrilege,” a jittery pop-rock song, with some semi-religious undertones and a message about sexual irreverence and its result of overwhelming guilt. Most of it is mysterious, until it ends with a passionate gospel choir shouting “Sacrilege!,” as if the message they were conveying turned from insightful to exaggerated and delirious. Neverthless, it’s an original and highly diverse track off Mosquito. “Subway” and “Wedding Song” are quiet, alt-rock ballads about romance, which may sound cheap and banal. But with Karen O’s breathy vocals, Nick Zinner’s gentle guitar licks, and Brian Chase’s nice-and-easy drumming, both tunes are worthy of something off of the clumsy Mosquito. The electro-rock jams “Always” and “Despair” aren’t as powerful or as addictive as “Sacrilege,” but they’re nice to listen to.

Unfortunately, Mosquito deteriorates into utter mediocrity with head-scratching tracks like “Under the Earth,” “Slave,” and “Area 52,” possibly the YYYs weirdest and worst song. Why sing about aliens? What happened to singing about defiance in electro-dance power ballads like “Heads Will Roll?” I understand that Karen O’s outlandish persona and errratic voice make the YYYs different from other alt-rock outfits, but making the kind of songs from Mosquito, such as the queasy “Buried Alive” and the noisy title track, is artistically going in the wrong direction. When Karen O emphatically and brashly yells on “Mosquito,” “We’ll suck your blood! We’ll suck your blood! We’ll suck your blood!,” it becomes too edgy and unconvincing and strongly stresses the topic at hand — not abrasiveness, not feminine dignity, but mosquitos.

For the most part, Mosquito is full of blaring, absurd rock songs that should be eradicated and used for other mediocre alt-rock bands. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs can do a lot better, since they’re already equipped with evocative songwriting, head-banging music, and dignified ethos. Mosquito is a confusing, underwhelming, and incredulous result of the YYYs. But despite this setback, the YYYs have already come so far in the music world, it hardly matters. Though it sounds corny, it’s all about the production, the artistic genuinity, and Karen O boisterously singing her heart out at concerts, even if it concerns the evils of parasites.

Grade: C
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Sacrilege,” “Subway,” “Always,” “Despair,” “Wedding Song”    

The Knife’s “Shaking the Habitual”

Swedish electro synth-pop duo The Knife are very, very, very odd. Their eccentric, bird-masked outfits, mesmerizing yet pelicular music, and passionate social commentary has surprisingly gotten them praise from critics. Ever since the release of their 2003 sophomore record Deep Cuts and its funky viral hit, “Heartbeats,” The Knife has gotten recognition in both America and their homeland, Stockholm. Three years later, the brother-sister duo garnered even more praise with the audacious Silent Shout. Even with all their touring and growing awareness, The Knife went into hiatus for seven years. Now, with their fourth record Shaking the Habitual out, the Swedish band is back on track with touring and critical success.

Shaking the Habitual is The Knife’s longest, strangest, and most perplexing record and sometimes it feels somewhat overemphatic. ButThe Knife successfully combines dark, ambient synth-pop with experimental techno. In addition, Shaking the Habitual also incorporates a psychedelic atmosphere, as the songs range from 30-second interludes to 19-minute anthems. The Knife’s new record is also their most political, as some songs encompass Swedish politics with razor-edged passion and delirium. Take the drum-clattering, calypso opener, “A Tooth for an Eye,” where lead vocalist Karin Andersson sings, with a woozy voice, “Border lies the idea of what’s mine a strange desire/Drawing lines with a ruler/Bring the fuel to the fire.” Paired with a cheerful yet disorienting beat, “A Tooth for an Eye” is an enchanting hymn about power struggle and chaotic disfunction. Afterwards, the album turns the tides, with the 9-minute jam “Full of Fire,” which feels like something of a troubling nightmare. It’s filled with hoarse voice-samples, wooshing noises, and endlessly pounding electro-snare drums. If you’re not looking forward to a freaky, acid trip with your buddies, maybe skip “Full of Fire” when listening to Shaking the Habitual. The rest of the unconventional album contains dream-pop mixed with African-styled trances (“Without You My Life Would Be Boring”), alt-rock jams (“Wrap Your Arms Around Me”), epic soft songs (“A Cherry on Top,” “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized”), and croaky electro-pop tunes (“Networking”). 


Sometimes, it’s hard to listen to Shaking the Habitual, given the 94-minute length, the consistent oddness of its elaborate sound, and The Knife’s vibrant eccentricity. But I highly suggest to listen to other previous Knife albums, such as their 2003 breakthrough Deep Cuts or 2006’s lauded Silent Shout. Even for me, as a listener of eclectic and diverse music, listening to Shaking the Habitual is uneasy. But it’s good to see The Knife in action again, even if it means confusing fans, delighting fans, or driving away fans.

Grade: B
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “ATooth for an Eye,” “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” “Networking”                     

Kurt Vile’s “Wakin On a Pretty Daze”

There is, unfortunately, a dearth of modern alt-pop, folk-rock singer-songwriters that are omnipresent in mainstream music today. The enchanting tunes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and The Doobie Brothers will forever have a profound and lasting effect on music lovers, but nowadays, it’s much harder to perserve folk-rock music, with Euro-pop and EDM taking over. Only a few acts, such as Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Local Natives, and The Men, have cultivated rock music as both an aesthetic expression and have kept an indie/mainstream status. One particular rocker, Kurt Vile, contains all these qualities as well, but his artistic integrity, ingenious songwriting, and deft production is something to be reckoned with.

After creating the indie rock The War on Drugs in 2008 and simultaneously releasing two solo albums, Kurt Vile was still an unknown, unprecedented artist. That is, until 2011, when his third record, Smoke Ring for My Halo, achieved critical praise and significantly increased recognition. Much like some lo-fi bands, such as The Strokes, and acoustic soloists, such as Father John Misty, Kurt Vile has attained an intriguing, nonchalant sound that only few modern rockers have today. This year, Vile has continued to impress critics and fans with Walkin on a Pretty Daze, a hypnotic and ambitious album that blends psychedelic lo-fi with folk-rock, indie rock, and alt-pop effortlessly.

Compared to the laid-back Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile’s fourth record is more dream-like, as well as much longer in length and more emotional in depth. The 9-minute and 30-second title track opener flows perfectly with Vile’s hazy tenor, trippy guitar licks, and refined drums. Daze continues with Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque rock ballads (“KV Crimes,” “Too Hard,” “Shame Chamber”), late 80s art pop jams (“Was All Talk,” “Snowflakes are Dancing”), and dramatic, acoustic-driven jives (“Girl Called Alex,” “Goldtone”). Most Daze tracks are retro and stylish, but the album also maintains a modern resonance, with dizzying tracks like “Never Run Away.” The best thing about Daze, and Vile in general, is that no matter the subject, Vile likes to keep it on the bright side. His lyrics and themes in both Halo and Daze focus on optimism, happiness, love, and peace. These may sound like the quintessential aspects of a flower-power, stoner-hippie, but it works well for Vile.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Walkin on a Pretty Day,” “KV Crimes,” “Girl Named Alex,” “Never Run Away,”  “Shame Chamber”