Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

The Strokes -- Room On Fire
RCA Records; 2003

I'm really sorry.

You see, the first time I attempted to review this album, I tried to make this grand analogy about The Strokes that somehow involved the "American Gladiators" television show. I tried to make the band out to be these heroes that battled against the press industry (Gladiators), but it just wasn't right.

The Strokes have had their fair share of false labels bestowed upon them in their relatively short time together. They've been called the salvation of rock, fashion-obsessed posers, a secretive hipster collective, corporate sell-outs and just "those gay men." (Thanks, Courtney Love!) Instead of spouting off another lofty ambition/characterization, I'd rather focus on what we know for sure: they're a rock and roll band that wants to make rock and roll music. With their second full-length album, Room on Fire, The Strokes do a damn good job of reassuring us of those facts.

The bar is set high with "What Ever Happened?" the voracious opener of "Room on Fire." Everything about the song screams catchy, from guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.'s relentless strumming, to vocalist Julian Casablancas' beautifully bending pitch, to drummer Fabrizio Moretti's steady pulse-keeping. "Reptilia" is just as hook-laden, propelled by Casablancas' spitfire delivery and the gnashing interplay of Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi's guitar parts.

In fact, it's the tag team of Hammond Jr.'s slashing strum and Valensi's finger picking that form many of Room on Fire's standout tracks. "Automatic Stop" is carved into a breezy summer song by Hammond Jr.'s backbeat cadence and Valensi's buzzing mock-keyboard tone. Borrowing guitar jangles and drum rhythms from Help!-era Beatles songs, "Between Love and Hate" mixes them with Casablancas' high school-themed lyrics to form a bittersweet retrospective of teenage angst.

The Strokes' only musical disappointment is found in their solid-yet-sleepy rhythm section. The majority of Room on Fire sees Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture and plodding away on support parts, never really stepping to the forefront of the song. Fraiture's basswork especially lumbers around (albeit somewhat nimbly on a few tracks) like it's bored and ready for a nap. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if the rest of the band wasn't already playing the hell out of their instruments.

In general, Room on Fire comes off as more refined and road-weary, but never lazy. The band's more deliberate songwriting approach yields such gems as doo-wop rocker "Under Control" and the crunchy break up hymn "You Talk Way Too Much." The most impressive maturation comes from Julian Casablancas, who has finally learned when to coo and when to roar (as evinced on "What Ever Happened?" and "The End Has No End").

One major speculation that rock pundits made about Room on Fire was that it would be a rehashing of their debut -- Is This It (Part Deux), if you will. On a few songs The Strokes are guilty of regressing to their past formula of success, as "The Way It Is" and "I Can't Win" sound like echoes of Is This It tracks.

However, the majority of Room on Fire is incredibly diverse, sounding fresh and varied. The boys even bring a new type of sound to their repertoire, one startlingly akin to the new wave hits from The Cars. Both new single "12:51" and "The End Has No End" are lit by Valensi's neon glow guitar tone; giving them a bounce that further proves their detractors wrong.

While it may seem like The Strokes greatest talent is picking up silly titles ("the coolest band on Earth" -- sheesh), "Room on Fire" shows their true skill lies in playing rock and roll. The Strokes put to rest any claims of a sophomore slump by recording a remarkably energetic and confident second album. It's only rock and roll, but I like it.

The Rapture -- Echoes
Universal/Strummer; 2003

As children, we were told to share what we had. It was with great reluctance that we would give up our favorite toys, watching with considerable envy as our grade-school chums had all the fun.

The same sort of story can be told of the independent music world, we're willing to share our artists, but only after they're pried from our grubby little paws. The latest group we're grudgingly giving the mainstream is The Rapture, a dance-punk four-piece bursting from the New York scene.

Their much-anticipated album Echoes reaches their largest audience to date. Sharing -- especially with this many people -- will never be the same.

Echoes opens with the gooey synthesizers and pulse-setting kick drum of "Olio," an open invitation for listeners to shake their assets. Vocalist Luke Jenner howls in pain about a romantic separation, singing, "Through the pain, I was watching as the sound hit my ears / We don't fit any more / We don't fit any more," like a stressed-out Robert Smith. The backbeat rhythm of the piano and click-clack beats of the high hat brings the song to its climax, with the potential to work the listeners into a sweaty frenzy.

Without any warning, the album shifts into the beginning of "Heaven," in which the band creates a striking vocal harmony while belting out nursery-rhyme lyrics. The singing is cut short by two snare hits and is replaced by piercing guitar slides and dizzying basswork. The song's bridge is carved down to solo drums while the guitar and bass take an abbreviated break, returning with a startling fierceness.

Even after two amazing dance numbers, The Rapture shows no signs of letting up. "I Need Your Love," is a playful synthetic romp across a disco-beat dance floor, aided by the skronk of Gabriel Andruzzi's saxophone and the DFA production crew's squiggly keyboard lines. The jittery guitar sound of the album's title track exudes nervous energy, the only consistent factor in the song being Matt Safer's basswork.

An insect-like drum cadence starts the buildup of Echoes' sassiest song, "Killing." Jenner's sneering vocals are superimposed on a cocky, DFA-programmed drum machine beat, giving the song a great deal of immediacy.

Despite the greatness of the other tracks, it's on "House of Jealous Lovers" and "Sister Savior" that The Rapture proves its superiority over a burgeoning dance-punk scene. "House of Jealous Lovers," the album's first single, has all the tension of a bomb squad tossing around explosives in a game of hot potato. The guitar and bass battle for sonic dominance; Jenner, the consummate cheerleader, eggs both challengers on with his yelp of "Shakedown!" Drummer Vito Roccoforte injects cowbell and handclaps into his percussion regimen, pleasing his post-punk audience.

"Sister Savior" is easily The Rapture's most accessible song, the progeny of the group's teamwork with DFA on the drum programming and Safer's engaging vocals. The programming smacks of nostalgia, borrowing deeply from the sound of '80s synthpop heroes Duran Duran and Depeche Mode. Over a throbbing keyboard metronome, Safer sweetly expresses his desire for "one last late night" with his "sister savior" -- a sentiment strong enough to make the lovers on the dance floor hold each other just a little closer.

Echoes is as strong a sophomore outing as The Rapture could have hoped for -- a feel-good dance album without a hint of pretension. Echoes presents a great deal of intra-album diversity, offering both digital dance-punk and whiplash funk without any hesitations. If every album released were as good as Echoes, perhaps the underground music scene would be more generous in its sharing habits.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- Take Them On, On Your Own
Virgin Records; 2003

Dear LiveJournal,

I know it's been a long time since I've written here and I'm soooo sorry. I SWEAR that wasn't looking into getting a blog -- they're so like, 2002.

Things have been going pretty well with school and I'm keeping busy by being a DJ at our radio station (yay!!) and, you know, homework *lol*. The coolest thing about the radio station is that I get to listen to all this awesome new music, and I even found my new favorite band: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (B.R.M.C. for short). They recently put out their sophomore album, Take Them On, On Your Own, and boy does it ever rock!

From the second I turned it on, I was pulled into "Stop," the album's opener; a tune tightly packed with layers of affected guitar and a thomping bassline. Vocalist Robert Turner's reverb-laden voice fits in nicely, closely matching the guitar tone.

The album continues with "Six Barrel Shotgun," a decidedly more aggressive track that attacks with snarling guitar from the get go. The driving bass and percussion make me want to hop in my Civic and just cruise into the sunset like a wicked car commercial. Do you think I write stuff like that on my Fender Squire? The song's bridge further accentuates how heavy the verses are by stripping down to whirring feedback, careless vocals and drummer Nick Jago's head-bopping drumbeats.

The fuzzy guitar lines and their complimentary bass parts don't let up from there. The choppy verses of "In Like the Rose" cause the tension to rise while the bass mockingly follows the vocals. "Ha Ha High Babe,"a song that would otherwise be as much a throw-away as my English 101 class (yuck!), is salvaged by turning the overdrive to 11 and droning away in a shoegaze fashion. I'm not sure what kind of shoes they wear, but my brand new Converse All-Stars rule.

Surprisingly, the two strongest songs off of Take Them On, On Your Own aren't even the liveliest. "And I'm Aching" delivers a true sense of emotion; a stark contrast from the brash attitude found on the rest of the album. Both Turner and bassist Peter Hayes contribute echo chamber vocals over a lightly strummed acoustic guitar to create an ethereal sound.

"Suddenly" is a slowburning number that capitalizes on the deliberate tempo by taking time to construct a haunting atmosphere for Turner's voice, in all its reverb-soaked glory. The guitar fuses with the bass as it worms its way under the whole mess, with angelic synths as the cherry on top.

However, it's only on these two tracks that B.R.M.C. shows their ability to break form. As enjoyable as it is to hear the sweet riffs they create, they become a bit tiresome after 12 tracks that are rarely under four minutes long.

My only other gripe with the album is its lyrics, which range from nonsensical to plain awkward. Don't get me wrong, they sound great when being sung, but don't convey much of a message or theme. "US Government," a tune that has opportunity to be a great social critique, gets tripped up in clumsy metaphors that read like my magnetic poetry.

Take Them On, On Your Own overall is an incredibly solid second album, defeating the much dreaded sophomore slump by a landslide. Utilizing powerful distorted licks, crafty basswork, and detached vocals, B.R.M.C. update the garage/shoegaze sound without sounding "retro;" a daunting task at times. With a bit of refinement of their lyrical skills, B.R.M.C. is poised to be a powerful player in the future of rock music.

Oh shoot, we're about to start our milk chugging competition. Later, Journal!

Daughters -- Canada Songs
Robotic Empire; 2003

"Hello, operator?"

"Yes, how may I direct your call?"

"Oh my god, oh my god, someone's in the house!!"

"Ma'am, are you okay? Would you like me to call the police?"

"I can hear footsteps, oh god! You have to help me! I thought I was alone, but-"

The phone goes dead and the operator curses into a dial tone.

The TV station goes to commercial and the viewer is left speechless, mortified that they might be the killer's next victim. Canada Songs, the first "full-length" effort from technical grind band Daughters, is the perfect supplement to this terror.

Canada Songs is a 10 track cacophony that presents a great deal of talent. The guitarists show their skills with guitar lines wound so tight they could sever body parts. Their sound ranges from ear-splitting chromatic jangles to chugging riffs that demolish. The drummer also shows off his chops by pummeling the listener with double bass and blastbeats at breakneck speeds. The bassist even gets a moment to shine, sneaking in elastic basslines that slither around the guitar stabs. Topping off the mix are vocabulary-stretching lyrics sung with a schizophrenic twist -- shifting from larynx-piercing screams to apathetic mumbling.

Although the songs of Canada Songs suffer from homogeny, the terse nature of the album prevents it from becoming tedious. In its brief running time of 10 blistering minutes, Canada Songs blinds the listener with a chaotic fury, leaving them in a state of disbelief: they were horrified, but they actually liked it.

The Neptunes -- Clones
Arista Records; 2003

What do you do when you've already taken over the world of music? Why, put out your own compilation, of course!

Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes have conquered the hip-hop genre, producing the hottest hits that have been bumped in cars and club everywhere. Providing artists such as Ludacris, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg with idiot-proof beats, the Neptunes have proven themselves to be masters of production. The question then arises: wouldn't a collection of their latest and greatest be the ultimate party soundtrack? The answer can be found on Clones, a compilation of Neptunes joints that shows a great deal of potential.

The Neptunes boys pull no punches in the line-up they assemble to grace Clones, calling in favors from their heavy-hitter friends. Busta Rhymes opens the album with his patented rapid fire flow on "Light Your Ass on Fire," spitting verses over an electric jungle rhythm made from 80s synths and ominous drum patterns. Snoop Dogg drops by for "It Blows My Mind," an ode to his favorite vice. Gigantic bass drum hits form a pounding pulse, while wind-chimes pepper the track with melody. Dirt McGirt (Ol' Dirty Bastard) risks violating parole to lay down a track that finds him a little rusty, but relevant enough to make the track a hilarious success.

Clones also shows off the strength of the artists from the Neptunes' own label imprint, Star Trak. Flagship group N.E.R.D. swing for the bleachers on "Loser" and hit the car outside the park. The upbeat song about not letting people down jives all over the place, and makes great use of infectious synths and happy-go-lucky handclaps. Clipse drop their two strongest songs to date, with rhymes slinking around the brassy horn stabs and twanging bassline of "Blaze of Glory." Their success is reprised on "Hot Damn," a decadent piece that utilizes Pharrell's soulful wails and a gospel piano loop.

Star Trak shows the diversity in their imprint by releasing two rock and roll tracks from Spymob and The High Speed Scene. Spymob contributes "Half-Steering...," a highly technical pop-rock track that recalls 80s rockers Boston and Rush. The High Speed Scene supply the most hilarious track, filled with pop punk guitar parts and ridiculous lyrics. The songs' brevity (clocking in at 1:27) keeps the song from becoming irritating while remaining humorous.

Despite the many impressive tracks, Clones encounters the same pitfall that almost every compilation does: you can't please them all. A surprise disappointment is the Ludacris song, which is plainly annoying with a sound like a convulsive marching band. Pharrell drops the lead single of the album with "Frontin'", an unimpressive R&B jaunt that offers very little musically. Jay-Z even delivers a banal verse with only the admission that he's "...too old to be frontin'" standing out. Vanessa Marquez's "Good Girl" is startlingly out of place on this compilation, despite a percussion section that would be well suited for a rap song.

The Neptunes didn't have to do much to reassure audiences that they were still the kings of hip-hop production, so Clones appears to be both a victory and the raucous party afterwards. The regal production stands as the key buying point, with high profile vocalists accentuating the power of the music. Clones also keeps the Neptunes on their toes by having to present all their artists, not just the ones guaranteed to get them recognition. Overall, Clones is a success and testament to just how much the Neptunes own today's hip-hop.

Kings of Leon -- Youth & Young Manhood
RCA Records; 2003

The members of the Followill family have all the classic training to put a revival on right. While touring with their evangelist father, the boys of Kings of Leon (brothers Caleb, Nathan, and Jared, and cousin Matt) developed showman's tricks they could use again when putting on their own revival: that of Southern-born rock and roll. With their Skynyrd and Neil Young albums under their arms and bottles of Jack in their hands, Kings of Leon create Youth & Young Manhood, their first proper album.

Kings of Leon waste no time in conjuring up the vigor of Southern rockers from eras past. "Red Morning Light" throws down gritty guitar lines like drinking challenges and percussion that beckons you to get up and boogie. "Happy Alone" starts with a reserved energy and breaks out during the chorus in raucous celebration of silliness. The song regains its balance just long enough to be pummeled with a few more choruses and horny yelps.

Youth & Young Manhood continues along its drunken path, attempting to pay homage to the bands that gave the Kings of Leon a style to revive. Matthew Followill sets the scene with his Rolling Stones-derived licks, though the influences of his touted Southern rock forefathers Lynrd Skynrd are inexplicably absent. Their bassist Nathan's work is unoriginal, much like that of other bassists who have been relegated to simply creating a thicker sound for the music. However, he still proves redeemable when he saves the song "Joe's Head" with a popping bassline that walks all over Matthew's effect-laden fingerpicking.

Rather off-putting and one of the major downfalls of Youth & Young Manhood is Caleb's lack of interest in his own songs. Often slurring lyrics beyond recognition and stumbling over correct pitch, he gives the impression that his rockstar attitude has gotten in the way of creating something heartfelt. While his three other band-mates/family members play the hell out their parts, Caleb takes a lackadaisical approach that detracts from the overall zest of the album. He proves that he could perform at a higher level on songs like "Red Morning Light" with a sound like a rushed come-on -- sloppy and invigorating. The desperation that Caleb conveys with his coarse and throaty voice on "Holy Roller Novocaine" sends the tune home and gets the feet tapping. These small bursts of glory only serve to drastically highlight how uninspired (and subsequently uninspiring) the vocals really are.

Kings of Leon set out to make Youth & Young Manhood a revival that would bring the flock back to the big tent of Southern rock. Despite their earnest efforts, their bravado couldn't save them from lackluster attempts at vocals. What they ended up with was a bunch of fun summer hymns that make it clear that although they know what to revive; they're not quite ready to make the South rise again.

[Thanks to Joseph Wilk for his brilliance in editing.]

Nick Drake -- Pink Moon
Hannibal Records, 1972; Island Records; 2003

I'll admit that I've received some pretty screwed up phone calls from friends. "Steve? I think Peter is going to kill himself." It's one of those things that you hope won't ever have to deal with; it seems too much like something that would happen in a movie. Pink Moon is the closest thing to that sort of phone call that I've ever heard. Peculiarly beautiful and gloomy, Nick Drake reached out for help on what would be his last album, only to find none.

Pink Moon is a startling departure from Drake's previous albums. Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter were both filled with ballads of loneliness like Pink Moon, but both were enriched by either a folk rock backing or brisk orchestral arrangement. Instead, Pink Moon is stripped to the bare bones of Drake as a singer/songwriter: acoustic guitar and vocals. This singularity is a more than coincidental expression of Drake's melancholy; pushing away musical help in hopes to find emotional solace.

From the beginning of the album, it's clear that Drake's decision to play the album by himself was not a mistake. With only himself in the spotlight, Drake's guitar playing truly shines. His nimble fingerpicking weaves a blanket of sound in each song without a single misstep. Drake crafted the musical landscape for sorrow-filled lyrics with the guitar, forming quiet countrysides where his bittersweet voice could ring out. Songs like "Place to Be", "Road", and "Things Behind the Sun" create moods so telling that Drake's lyrics dont need much to convey their message. In fact, the instrumental "Horn" puts all Drake's emotions into note form -- so bleak, so beautiful, so needy.

Not one to create a half-perfect album, Drake's voice and lyrics are what take this album from classic to crucial. Vocally, Drake is no giant, as his velvet voice is more suited for soothing children. Without delving deep into metaphors to express his despair, each lyric delivers an emotional blow. Knowing how his story ends, it's hard not to find the lyrics "And I was strong, strong in the sun / I thought I'd see when day was done / Now I'm weaker than the palest blue / Oh, I'm so weak in this need for you" from "Place to Be" to be heart-wrenching. The harrowing delivery of "Know" makes me well up with tears as he croons "Know that I love you / Know that I don't care / Know that I see you / Know that I'm not there." This resignation of hope is like Drake's acceptance of what will end up as his fate.

Although both Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter are both quality albums, I believe that it's on Pink Moon that Drake proves he one of the most influential and important singer/songwriters of all time. His influence can be seen in both the folk rock and singer/songwriter genres, with Elliot Smith, Belle & Sebastian, Will Oldham, and Iron & Wine all paying homage in their songwriting. With the recent reissue of Pink Moon, a whole new generation of music listeners will have the chance to answer the call that Drake made so many years ago and prove that his suffering was not in vain.

Mars Volta -- De-Loused in the Comatorium
Universal Records; 2003

It's been said that from destruction comes creation. On De-Loused in the Comatorium, Mars Volta puts this phrase into practice. Born from the loins of the late At the Drive-In, Mars Volta created a huge buzz based solely on one EP and their live shows. If there is a time to believe the hype, it's now, as De-Loused encapsulates all the fury and creativity Mars Volta can offer in album form. The record runs the gamut of musical genres in order to narrate the story of a friend in a coma. The album offers 10 songs of frantic avante-rock, bombastic Latin rhythms, sprawling ambience and programming that could make lap-toppers jealous.

Vocalist Cedric Bixler provides his most astounding vocal performance to date with a delivery that varies from crooning to plain shouting in your face. His raging falsetto gives his cryptic and strangely poetic lyrics like "exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed" the punch they need to be convincing. Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez lands blazing guitar lines that are equal parts classic rock riffing ("Roulette Dares [The Haunt of]") and punk rock pummeling ("Drunkship of Lanterns"). The outrageous rhythm section comprised of recruited-bassist Flea and skin-beater Jon Theodore ensures that hips will shake and heads will nod. Not be forgotten is the late sound manipulator James Ward, who put his singular twist on each song to create a curiously epic feel.

De-Loused in the Comatorium feels like one ambitious voyage the whole way through -- each song contains several movements (of sorts) that lobby strongly for listeners' interest. The epic feel noted supra is aided by the smooth transitions between songs. With tracks that can run upwards of 12-minutes, it's impressive how Mars Volta keep its sound fresh and repetition to a minimum. De-Loused in the Comatorium is a musical gem that captures the soul of Mars Volta in a way that soundly delivers on the hype.

Nada Surf -- Let Go
Barsuk Records; 2003

Let Go, Nada Surf's latest offering, is a desperate appeal to be taken seriously. After their hit single "Popular" left the charts, so did the band from the minds of music listeners. Now they're faced with the challenge to prove that they have left their high school days behind. This doesn't mean they've abandoned their pop roots completely in a pile of notes from girls and gym socks. Their time out of the public eye gave them time to attempt crafting their song writing skills to include not only poppy hooks, but also a sense of emotion not conveyed in the past. Their success was rather marginal.

The album starts off with the gorgeous song of longing, "Blizzard of '77", in which acoustic guitar blends with heartfelt vocal harmonies. The lyrics "I miss you more than I knew" stand out thanks to the relative sparseness of the song. It's a surprising choice for first song on the album, but a good one none the less.

The first appearance of the full band on "Happy Kid" is startlingly different to those who can only remember Nada Surf's most famous moment. The song uses simple guitar and bass parts that bring Death Cab for Cutie to mind, but utilizes slide guitar during the bridge to help flesh it out, and is definitely a welcome addition.

Let Go contains a few tracks that seem to be direct reinterpretations of whatever was on the band's turntable at the time. "Inside of Love" is guitarist/vocalist Matthew Caws' Coldplay moment, with guitar parts that are stunningly similar to "Yellow" but without the bite. The vocals soar like the song's inspiring hook, with the addition of soft backing vocals. "The Way You Wear Your Head" not so subtly plunders the lyrics "I want to want you / I need to need you / I love to love you" from the Cheap Trick classic. Using songs for inspiration is good and well, but when a band blatantly takes lyrics, it doesn't say much for their originality.

In fact, the relatively childish and often pointless lyrics are at the heart of Let Go's flaws. Caws delivers of some of the worst lyrics I've heard on a serious album, and does so without irony. "See the creatures all do their dances / back and forth / you get restless and then you join them / on the floor." They may not be re-writing their first album, but this shows little progression in Caws' lyrical abilities (which makes his previous theft more understandable). It's unfortunate, but the beautiful lyrics in "The Blizzard of '77" are overshadowed by the insipid drivel of the rest of the album.

Although it may appear that Nada Surf has matured since their first flirtation with the limelight, it seems that they've just changed the style of pop that they brought to the table. Unfortunately, that can't mask the often ridiculous lyrics that will most likely keep Nada Surf from having another shot at what they want to be: Popular.

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