album reviews: Rock’s NOT back, you just forgot it in your record crates

Sea Change

The latest release by California collage-rocker Beck Hansen is available with four different covers. Each cover is the same photo of Beck, along with a few small computer generated alterations. Upon first listen, the songs on Sea Change seem to operate on the same principal. From an artist whose back catalogue of only four major releases-a perfect example of fast-paced sonic evolution-this new offering seems to be a bit monotonous at first. On one side of any of his previous works, Beck takes the listener through more styles and tempos than most artists tackle throughout their career. On Sea Change he chooses to stick to one sound and basically one tempo. Beck abandons the tongue-in-cheek mish-mash of words and phrases that permeated his lyrics even on the honest and exciting Mutations. He has put 12 songs down on tape that finally show perhaps what Beck is really like when he’s chillin’ by the pool, or out with his old lady. They are bare-boned works that open up a great deal of space for the players on the record.
If the sessions had included less talented musicians, the new songs would probably fail to impress. Luckily, the usual crew of contributors, who have appeared on Beck’s tours as well as on Mutations, and Midnite Vultures are back in the studio. With the brilliant production of Nigel Godrich, who also plays on most of the tracks, comes the key element that keeps this album interesting after multiple listens: Godrich fills all the empty space in the song structure and restrained playing with just the right amount of post-production effects. From the earnest “Lost Cause,” to the groove-heavy “Paper Tiger,” Sea Change is a beautiful and honest folk record.

Day Sleeper [EP]

With their fifth release after being together for three years, New York City’s latest offering to the “return of rock,” Longwave, do little to shake things up. They’ve released a set of four songs you might as well have heard by some other group years ago. The opening title track is an instrumental that sounds like any other generic indie-rock band. When vocalist Steve Schiltz opens up his mouth on “Everywhere You Turn,” one might be startled to check the CD cover and notice they’re not listening to Eve 6. The group has toured with the Strokes and have a very accessible sound so they’re likely to become the next batch of faces plastered on every magazine in Europe. Hear Longwave pay homage to good ole 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll! Listen to them space out their sound with trippy analog effects! Hold their aesthetically pleasing bio photo close to your heart! (laughs) Longwave aren’t bad, but they’re certainly not great.

Sigur Ros
( )

Like the soft sweater you’ve worn since you were a kid, Sigur Ros’ latest offering, ( ), has the capacity to bring you to a comfortable, clear-headed place, where little of your thought is directed towards the daily schedule. You will be too overwhelmed to worry, and for this reason alone this album is well worth your spending money. ( ) is overwhelming in a far different way from Sigur Ros’ previous record agaetis byrjun (A Good Beginning). There is little in the way of the bombastic wall of sound that was their last CD. Instead, the band have grown up in the past two years of touring, playing these new songs live since agaetis was released. With such a long time to be constantly honing the eight songs that appear on ( ), it’s no surprise that each piece of music is concise, cohesive and restrained in a way that is surprising for rock music.
The disc opens with a series of keyboards and piano provided by Kjarri Sveinsson and frontman Junsi Birgisson singing much lower than we’re used to hearing. Soon several samples of vocal lines with the analog quality of a Casio SK1 are interwoven with the melody. When track two arrives, drummer Orri Pall Dyrason and bassist Goggi Holm are added to the mix, and the slow climax of the first section of the record begins. With the untitled fourth track (featured at the end of the film Vanilla Sky), the band hits their creative peak. It leaves one with little desire to find words to describe it, but it is, simply put, the finest thing they’ve recorded thus far.
After a 30 second gap of silence, Sigur Ros use the next four songs to show how well they can play live, with a much more rock oriented set. By the record’s end, it is fairly obvious that this young group from Iceland has been drastically evolving over the course of eight years and three long players. Rather than genre jumping or overloading their sound with laboratorial experimentation, Sigur Ros musically improve in leaps and bounds. They have gained a powerful strength for dynamics and now resemble a small orchestra-a quartet of players that constantly rehearses to get every element in the composition right. Then, when the time comes, they can deconstruct the plan with feeling. ( ) is a loose cannon, controlled by an expert in war.

Sonic Youth
Murray Street

After hints of a more laid-back and less aggressive-sounding Sonic Youth were filtered through many tracks on 2000’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers, the band have made their most universally acceptable album in years. That’s not to say that Murray Street, Sonic Youth’s 14th album, is all that great. Named after the street where the group’s studio is located in New York City, it’s full of brilliant moments, but is also very lacking at times. The first batch of songs, all sung by guitarist Thurston, show off a tight woven group of musicians with a great ability to stretch out their songs without becoming monotonous. Parts of “The Empty Page” and “Disconnection Notice” remind one of that other great New York City underground guitar band, Television. The group concludes “Karen Revisited” with some of the avant-garde noise that was present on 1999’s tribute to modern composers like John Cage, Goodbye 20th Century. When Kim Gordon takes the vocals on the last two tracks, the record dwindles, with little being contributed that we haven’t already heard done better before. This is a terrible way to end an album, and combined with new bassist/producer Jim O’ Rourke’s humble approach to mixing his own instrument on the record, you might wonder if Sonic Youth is going en route where countless other musicians with renewed priorities have gone.

Michael John Hancock can be reached at