Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chicago's "lost album" and something about the Arctic Monkeys

Review: Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus

Chicago fans will note that the title track sounds awfully familiar. It's been "out" for about fifteen years, in stages of dubiously varying legality. It was actually released about five years ago, on Chicago's "The Box", which contains five CDs of their very best and well-known music. Apparently there was an album attached to the orphaned Stone of Sisyphus, one that had been hanging around since 1993, and only now is it getting released. Drama with record companies ensues.

It, along with Chicago XXX, mark a weird fourth era in Chicago's music. First, we had the brilliance of Chicago's first two or three albums, characterized by some sort of brassy edge and influenced by the Windy City itself. Sometime in the 70s, you could almost hear the band saying "okay, let's take the edge off, and start playing power ballads." ("After all, it's the 70s, and that's what all the cool kids are doing. It's either that, or we subject you to a decade of disco." Whatever they think of the power ballad era, the fans thank you for picking the former.)

Inevitably, the musical graveyard of the 80s had to roll around, and bring us Poison and Whitesnake. (Tangent: if you're this guy, how are you supposed to take yourself seriously? It's two thousand freaking seven, and you're joining Whitesnake. You're their seventh drummer.) By that time, Chicago moved to stage 3, when Chicago changed their tune (so to speak) to "all right, now we play adult contemporary." That label's vague enough, but like alternative rock and pornography, you know it when you see it.

XXX and now Stone of Sisyphus are the fourth era, which basically translates into some weird amalgamation of the first three. Power ballad... power ballad... brass chorus! Or brass intro, giving way to some soft rock later in the song. Or any combination of the three. As I always say when I'm talking about this band, I'm inherently biased toward the more brass-heavy songs, mostly because I'm a trumpet player. "Stone of Sisyphus" is probably the band's strongest track because of that. I also like "Plaid", which has a sort of "Kalimba Story"-era Earth Wind and Fire inspiration to it. That makes sense, given the bands' collaboration over the past several years.

Ironically, or perhaps completely expectedly, the album is at its strongest when it does draw from its past three eras of music. And it's at its weakest when it starts screwing around. The funk of "Mah-Jong" is interesting, but I have no idea what the song is talking about. And the chorus is repeated far too much. As for "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed"... let's just say that Chicago should never, ever, ever rap. On a whole, "Middle of the Bed" seems an apt metaphor for this album. It's far from Chicago's best work, but then they've been far from their best work since 1973. And it's by no means the worst. For a Chicago fan who's been starved for new material for the last who-knows-how-many years, it's better than nothing. But, on the other hand, a Chicago fan who's been waiting that long has probably been spoiled off the first five or six albums.

General discussion and semi-review: Arctic Monkeys
My friend Melody recommended the Arctic Monkeys to me when I had the good fortune to hear "Phantom Limb" by the Shins when we were having lunch. "Wait a second!" you're saying. "What does a Shins song have to do with the Arctic Monkeys?" Nothing, except for the fact that it got us talking about good music. Blindly, I downloaded Your Favourite Worst Nightmare [sic on the "u" in "favourite"--they're British] and gave it a listen. I'm not sure if I like it yet. I don't know what I expected, but it was a lot faster and louder and more dissonant than I thought it might be. Very Franz Ferdinand, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Again on Melody's advice, I downloaded their less recent Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. I listened to it, and I'm not sure it's necessarily any better. The most salient quality the band has is that all its music sounds approximately the same. Sure, it has some variation to it. At best, the music is energetic and driven. At worst, it's frenetic and jumbled, disorganized. Of course, I think that fans of the band would probably find that another strength, a reason to listen. The dissonance is not local to Your Favourite Worst Nightmare, there are perplexing and inexplicable changes of key and mode more or less without warning.

The influences on this band are unambiguous and uncompromising: unlike the American indie and alternative scenes, Arctic Monkeys take more than a few pages from British punk. One disturbing trend that's shown up from across the pond, though, is the practice of muffling and muddying vocals, seemingly intentionally. It almost seems in vogue to sing too close to a bad microphone, then feed the result through some manner of filter that degrades the sound quality even further. I don't ever think it's a good thing to make your music sound worse deliberately, but then again I like my classical music tonal too.

Bottom line, Arctic Monkeys aren't a bad band, I don't think. But I don't see me suddenly renouncing Shinsism and converting. If you don't need all of your songs to sound any different from each other, then you're not going to have a problem with the Arctic Monkeys. If you like your songs fast and loud and under three minutes on average, then you'll like them a lot. And if you wish the early-2000s "pop-punk" movement did more to honor the "1980s London" half of its roots, then you might just have a new favorite band.

Coming up, a couple of indie reviews that aren't at all "mainstream indie".

Currently listening: "Hungarian Dance No. 5 in D minor", Brahms

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