A Weekend in the City
In 2007, in the wake of Bloc Party's massive success and worldwide touring, Kele Okereke has returned home to find East London a "vampire [that] sucks the joy right out" of him. Here then are the central characters and conflicts of the cohesive-not-conceptual album's self-referential narratives: Okereke is the conflicted reveler-hero in an age of faded empire, decadent but empty as "all around [him] history sinks." The titular city is a seductive, soul-sucking jerk full of nightclubs, racial violence, dancing, cocaine, loveless sex, "heavy night[s]," and strung-out Sunday mornings. Weekend is an explicitly personal album, with Okereke referencing his own stutter, drug use, experiences of British racism, and (recently outed) sexual identity.
Some of the band's conceptual gestures are clumsy or alienating. "Hunting for Witches," a song about the psychology of homeland insecurity, begins and ends with schizophrenic radio microsamples and a creeping, cold guitar arpeggio in what feels like a lazy, shorthand mood setting. And the privileged ennui of "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)" ("I order the foie gras and eat it with complete disdain") probably won't strike a chord with anyone but the fellow partiers at the song's "magazine launch party." But the band are at least being brutally honest—it would be ridiculous for them to strike the same hungry pose as on previous singles—they're a young, world-famous band and this is what their world looks like now.
They've also largely abandoned the insistent, nervous guitar hooks and shouts that made Silent Alarm (and the Banquet EP that preceded it) so immediately catchy. Instead, they bank heavily on mild, midtempo songs and soaring, anthemic choruses and string arrangements (courtesy of U2/Snow Patrol producer Jackknife Lee). Occasionally, this leaves their verses coasting between rave-ups, such as on the awkwardly stuttering stomp-and-clap of "The Prayer." But when it works—when the winter blast of a chorus obliterates the delicate verse of "Waiting for the 7.18," or when "On" builds for minutes to a single, blinding crescendo—Bloc Party become transcendent. The latter is the album's strongest single, a coldly searing tribute to the desperate exhilaration of a Friday-night coke binge—its juxtaposition of sickly sweet strings and drug-fueled braggadocio makes for a knowingly sentimental confession, and its vocal melody is the catchiest thing anywhere on Weekend.
An album this intensely personal fails or succeeds based on the universality of its subject matter, and for all their introverted precision, Okereke's numb impressions of postmillennial decline are deeply resonant. Weekend is perhaps less stacked with explosive singles than Bloc Party's previous work—where Silent Alarm grabbed the listener outright, Weekend takes its time to build—but it's more solidly whole, and ultimately it's a better record. ERIC GRANDY
In Advance of the Broken Arm
(Kill Rock Stars)
Straight outta Manhattan's hardscrabble Upper East Side (representin' Woody Allen's old hood, yo) comes Marnie Stern. Her debut album is a bitch-slap upside the heads of all who underestimate female guitarists (that's what, 98 percent of the population?). Inspired by the fret-tapping technique she witnessed on a Don Caballero video as well as by underground rock stalwarts Sleater-Kinney, Melt-Banana, and Boredoms, this 23-year-old takes bold strides into the pantheon of shredding.
Regardless of gender, there aren't many ax-slingers doing what Stern does on In Advance of the Broken Arm: She achieves a piercing, alarm-clock urgency via fleet fretboard tickling and OCD-like riffing. Which isn't to say Stern and company (drummer/producer Zach Hill of Hella and bassist/keyboardist John Reed Thompson) get stuck in ruts; far from it. These 13 songs possess helter-skelter dynamics and screw-tightening intensity that will separate the women from the girls—and fry all their hair with impunity. Hill unsurprisingly contributes scattershot tom-tom/kick-drum tumbles and slap-happy snares familiar from his Hella releases, complementing Stern's mercurial prog-punk guitar sorties. Vocally, Stern frantically ascends to Satomi Matsuzaki's cute-harpy style, which lends a sweet, quasi-pop contrast to this uproariously chaotic music. With that, a guitar heroine is born. Isn't she clamorous? DAVE SEGAL
Marnie Stern plays an all-ages show with the Dead Science and Parenthetical Girls at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, March 9, at Atlas Clothing.
"Judas!" Andy Dixon, Vancouver, BC's darling laptop producer/label boss/graphic designer, goes and does the unthinkable: unplugging the machines to record an all-acoustic "electronic" album. "No synthesizers, drum machines, or any other nonorganic or electrified instruments were used in the creation of this album," read the liner notes, and indeed, with the exception of the editing/composing done on Dixon's trusty laptop, everything on this record was played live in the traditional sense and recorded as actual acoustic sound. But to what end? After the sounds go through Secret Mommy's well-worn digital audio meat grinders, what's left is often more of the same bits and squiggles that dominate his other experiments—stretched and restitched vocals, glitchy microtones, and elusive rhythms. But it's in the moments that the source material breaks through that Plays really shines, both as an innovation for Dixon and as an impressive album in its own right.
The hesitant opening track, "String Lake," sounds like a lost Joan of Arc recording, its dexterous acoustic guitar plucking only slightly more erratic for Dixon's software interventions. Loping baritone sax surfaces amid ambient laughter and vocal tics in "Grand About the Mouth," lending the song memorable melody. On "Kool Aid River" and "Plays," Dixon gets back to his roots, indulging in some strained screamo vocals, which are oddly anthemic for how out of place they are. "Out of place" begins to describe guest Adam Mills's pitched-up, twitchy rapping on "I Can't Get Down," but again it works, the computer-enhanced hypernasality playing on indie-hop expectations.
Plays further cements Secret Mommy's ability to twist nearly any source material—root canals, rec-center field recordings—into his own brand of goofy, jaunty glitch. But this may be his first record where the music lives up to the promise of the concept, where Dixon's self-imposed constraints actually elevate his art rather than merely contextualize it. ERIC GRANDY
Now is the time for Trans Am, and Sex Change is the album. The Maryland trio have been staying ahead of the curve and wooing the underground for over a decade, channeling eight-bit alt-rock and proto-electroclash crunk before any of those descriptors meant anything to anyone. With the blog-driven popularity of second-gen spawn like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem and Krautrocking buzz bands like 120 Days, Trans Am arrive at an opportune intersection. The concentrated fan base and critical acclaim have (almost) always been there, but the band has eschewed popularity by morphing their sound and their politics. Sex Change is a willful step toward their destiny, and Trans Am have no reason to look back.
The fittingly titled "First Words" is an undeniably eloquent introduction: a funky, droning cascade of bubbling keyboards and radiant guitars. Anyone who's never heard Trans Am or their occasionally anarchic thrashing would be forgiven for thinking them a groove-driven synth-pop band, albeit a damn sexy, brainy one. "North East Rising Sun" follows suit, adding clear-eyed vocals to the mix, and the DFA swagger of "Obscene Strategies" ups the robo-funk factor. From there, the band rise into unpredictability without losing the beat. Shit gets scrambled, no doubt—metal guitars tear into 808 bass lines and digitized vocals—but even amid the noise there's order, balance, even bittersweet melody. Instrumentals "4,738 Regrets" and "Reprieve" are accessible in a way Trans Am haven't previously been: maracas and acoustic guitar offering a human touch swept up in electric dreams. Epic, arena-rocking heaviosity closes out the record—cyborg anthems for a generation that lifts up cell phones instead of lighters. JONATHAN ZWICKEL