Decemberists – Hazards Of Love

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

The Decemberists will never sound totally current. Colin Meloy’s antiquated poetry, coupled with the Portland, Ore. five-piece’s intricate story-song structures, grandiose arrangements, and maudlin, medieval subject matter place the band’s poppy, orchestrated folk-rock in a bygone era. To listen to a Decemberists album is to submit to the past, to a period in history as much as a series of songs.

The band’s fifth LP, The Hazards of Love, with a loose concept following its protagonist Margaret through various travails-“Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga),” “The Abduction Of Margaret”-is, as expected, not a straightforward rock record. Its intricacies and shifting narratives demand attention and patience, as do most concept albums. And Hazards’ faults are the same ones that afflict most concept albums: the listener wants the song, not necessarily the story.

To that end, “The Hazards of Love (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone), and “Isn’t It A Lovely Night,” and, of course “Prelude” and “An Interlude” function more as set pieces than stand-alone songs. That Meloy had planned The Hazards of Love as a musical is not a surprise; often, the songs feel as if they are supporting a set change, preparing for a grand entrance.

But when those entrances occur, as on “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid,” “The Rake’s Song,” “A Bower Scene,” the band shows a refreshing and previously unheard muscle and conviction. “The Wanting” is the album’s cornerstone, a blues stomp with a huge De Stijl-era White Stripes riff. The indignation and force of the lyrics, sung by My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, is explosive. “Won’t Want For Love” again squares Worden’s vocals over a simple and effective heavy-blues riff. The simplicity pays off.

“Bower Scene” and “The Abduction Of Margaret” highlight the successes of The Hazards of Love. The songs share the exact same melody-a concept-cohesion tactic employed throughout the album. Yet it’s the simple, unaffected propulsion of the music, and not the tale being told or the witty lyrical wordplay that has the greatest impact. The band is still stuck in the past, but by flexing its muscles and eschewing its grandiose tendencies, it has kept itself a present musical presence.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/thedecemberists_therakessong.mp3]

Download: The Decemberists – The Rake’s Song [MP3]

Soundtrack Of Our Lives – Communion

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

The 24 songs that make up Communion, the sixth LP (a double album) by stalwart Swedish throwback rockers The Soundtrack Of Our Lives (TSOOL), clock in at more than an hour-and-a-half. In theory, (and given the immediacy of modern acquiring and listening habits), the very notion of the double album is not only outdated, but a pompous statement of intent.

While there seems no discernible concept running through Communion that facilitates its length, it’s no small feat that the album coalesces as a whole. More than that, its songs offer enough surprises – and subtlety – to not just invite the listener, but warrant repeated exploration.

Splitting the difference between raucous Who-style garage jams (“Universal Stalker,” “Distorted Child”), and melodic Kinks and Sgt. Peppers-influenced songs (“Thrill Me,” “Pictures of Youth,” “Flipside”), Communion manages to maintain an identity of its own without too egregiously displaying its influences. At times TSOOL can sound a little too close to current bands mining the same rock history territory, (“Babel On” and “RA 88” are dead ringers for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and the nod to their friends in Oasis – or The Bees (adept in their own right at delving fully into the past – is evident on “Flipside.”

But despite its pomp, and the debts it owes, the distortion-soaked “Saturation,” and the delicate “Pineal Gland Hotel” and “Without Warning,” among others, show moments of clear, singular beauty. With an album this long there are bound to be throwaways, but rather than focusing on the occasional missteps, Communion is a rare treat: an album that warrants a start-to-finish listen, no matter how long the trip.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/the-soundtrack-of-our-lives-flipside.mp3]

Download: The Soundtrack of Our Lives – Flipside [MP3]

Kings of Leon – Only by the Night

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Kings of Leon’s trajectory has been a strange and relatively quick one. Following 2003’s Youth & Young Manhood, they took the sexual swagger out of the garage for the next year’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, which proved that they were in fact more than the “Southern Strokes,” (though both not so secretly harbored arena-rock intentions). Heartbreak, especially songs like “King of the Rodeo” and “Razz,” saw Kings adding nuance and precision to their sound; they became a garage rock band with a an impeccable sense of melody and no pretensions. How could you not like them?

Then something happened. Last April’s Because of the Times saw the band sharpening even tighter their sound, and in the process supplementing their straight-ahead rockers with some out-of-left-field creative rhythms (“McFearless,”) and true-to-form stadium singles like “Black Thumbnail,” (a perfect show opener, which it was for years).  So they were toeing the line, experimenting and staying true, but toeing it well, growing and taking fans along for the journey.

But they seem to have hit a wall on Only By The Night. Rather than coalesce their forward-thinking intentions with four-on-the-floor burners like Aha Shake’s “Four Kicks,” and “The Bucket,” Kings of Leon have fully embraced a sort-of mechanized hybrid of rock: the rhythms are constantly creative thanks to drummer Nathan Followill, but the soul, the danger, the mess – they’ve all been stripped away.

Songs like “Be Somebody,” “17,” and “Revelry” lack any semblance of the tenacity and passion of much simpler, direct songs like “Razz,” or Youth’s “Molly’s Chambers.” On “Be Somebody,” singer Caleb Followill’s optimistic chorus sounds pallid and forced. (Even on Aha Shake’s “Soft,” when he was signing about erectile dysfunction, at least it was heartfelt. At least he was into it, so to speak).

Gone also are the rave-ups like “Spiral Staircase” “Velvet Snow,” “Taper Jean Girl,” “Pistol of Fire,” and “Wasted Time”; taken their place are songs like “Manhattan” and “I Want You” – essentially worn-down Because of the Times sequels (note that rhythmic similarities between “Manhattan” and Times’ “Fans”), and the paint-by-numbers slow-blues exercises of “Cold Desert” and “I Want You,” which, despite its title, has little heart besides a true desire to do something different in the studio.

There are a few wonderful moments on the album, included entirely in the first three songs. Synthesizer-led opener “Closer,” makes a strong case for their pursuit of the ambient, non-traditional rock song, and “Crawl,” despite the somewhat nonsensical lyrics – is it fair to even dissect them? – pounds with the distorted intensity of the Secret Machines song “Sad and Lonely.” Even “Sex on Fire,” retains some of the bounce of Times’ standouts “Ragoo” and “Fans.”

But with the dirt wiped clean and the gears on display, Only By The Night shines in an uncomfortable, affectless way. There is no build, no climax, no sweat, no come down. There’s only the intricate and precise instrumentation of an incredibly well recorded sound that, like their singer’s trademark indiscernible screech/wail, says very little.

The Stills – Oceans Will Rise

Rating: ★★½ · ·

Following their 2003 full-length debut, Logic Will Break Your Heart, The Stills received critical praise on par with their Montreal counterparts, and in the following years toured with Interpol, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Kings of Leon (with whom they’ll tour again next month). Yet on their third album, Oceans Will Rise, they have produced an overblown, overreaching record that attempts, to an overwhelming effect, to make itself heard.

As evidenced by its title, and songs like “Snakecharming the Masses,” “Panic,” “Hands on Fire,” and “Dinosaurs” Oceans Will Rise is full of grandiose proclamations. On “Snow in California,” singer Tim Fletcher sings “Oh the world is changing / So rally up your friends.” “Snakecharming the Masses” includes the line “Bodies full of rattling bones / Fall into a pitch black hole.” Hamelin sings, “There’s blood on the lines / Of every page I turn / When the ones you love / Are the ones you burn,” on “Being Here.”

Lyrics like these – amorphous, vague, far-reaching but directed to nobody – reveal a band trying far too hard to evoke a response in the listener (see: Coldplay). The music tends to follow suit: mid-tempo, droning, gradually building in intensity, still aping the precision of Interpol, but ultimately forgettable. Credit should be given to drummer Julien Blais for breaking up the monotony and attempting to light a creative spark on “Don’t Talk Down,” and the otherwise outrageous “Snakecharming the Masses.”

At their best, which they are on “Everything I Build,” The Stills, while still lyrically ambiguous, trade in their musical posturing for a slow, muted approach that serves them – until an unfortunately out-of-place bridge – much better than their failed attempts at catharsis via grand chorus. A compliment, if slightly backhanded: The album’s strongest song is “Eastern Europe,” where the melody is so immediately memorable and catchy that it doesn’t matter what the band’s singing about.

The Boxing Lesson – Wild Streaks & Windy Days

Rating: ★½ · · ·

For influences, local Austin band The Boxing Lesson could do much worse: the songs off Wild Streaks & Windy Days reveal an appreciation for the hypnotic swirl of The Secret Machines (“Lower,” “Muerta,”), the pop-prog-trips of MuteMath (“Timing,” “Dance with Meow,) and the grandiosity of Muse (“Dark Side of the Moog,” “Scoundrel”). And like these bands, and Minus the Bear, another group with nonsensical song titles, The Boxing Lesson attempt to synthesize these influences into something greater and original.

What The Boxing Lesson is lacking is not simply talent, restraint, or any lyrical insight at all – although throwaway songs like “Hopscotch & Sodapop” and “Freedom” would suggest they’re missing those too.  Their most notable problem is they have no direction. With songs like “Scoundrel” and the title track lasting nearly seven minutes but offering no payoff, no climactic build, The Boxing Lesson aren’t giving us more, they’re making us wait longer for less.

Encompassing Pink Floyd synth washes provide pleasing backdrops for clean guitar lines on nearly every song, but when it takes more than two-and-a-half minutes to get to the opening verse of the title track, only to have it rip off the music and lyrics from the title track of The Secret Machines’ “The Road Leads Where It’s Lead” – albeit slower and with less passion and intent – you can’t help but feel cheated. The Boxing Lesson seem to have their hearts and ears in the right place, but singer Paul Waclawsky’s lyrics go nowhere, and without something to set his voice apart – aggression, passion, any feeling – the album ends up getting carried away, lost in the large-scale but rootless sweeping effect they created.

Read more about The Boxing Lesson and hear songs from the new album on the bands myspace page.