Though 2012 was a bit slow initially, I have tried to pick up on my new music purchases in recent months. The month of May alone saw three releases by three of my favorite gals (or gal fronted groups) in the biz, and so I was quick to snatch those up as soon as they were available.
Unfortunately, 2012 seems to be the year of the formula, as all three of these talented artists have put out pleasant but predictable albums, which stand up nicely against the rest of their catalog, but do little to broaden their artistic scope. For most fans that’s just fine. As I’ve said often in the past, you can’t reinvent the wheel every time, and yet in the realm of “alternative” music, one does tend to expect a bit of progression from the artists they follow. And I don’t say that with judgment, condemnation or even disappointment, because all of these are enjoyable releases, they’re just not a release to knock your socks off and, again, that’s completely understandable, acceptable and marketable.
So let’s dive in…
Best Coast – The Only Place: Of the three, this was the one I anticipated the most, and as a result has been my biggest let down. And I’m not going to blame my anticipation so much as I am Bethany Cosentino’s lyrics, which to put it evenly, are stupid. Yes, they were simplistic bordering childish on Crazy for You, but coupled with the lo-fi-retro fuzz that covered much of that album, and the youthful exuberance in the performance of the songs, it was mostly endearing, sometimes touching (and yeah, sometimes just dumb). But on The Only Place, with indie-wunderkind Jon Brion on production, the musical upgrade, sounding more professional (for better and worse), sounding more mature (ditto), begs for the same in the lyrics department. I mean Jon, ultimately you’re in charge, so what the heck, man? It’s like George Lucas trying to cover up bad acting with eye-popping special FX. Wrong again. Anyway, through much of The Only Place, Cosentino seems to be whining about this and that, from boys (of course) to her newfound popularity to life in general. And again, two years ago that was awesome, but now it’s simply played, something for the last record and, as I said above, independent music begs a bit of progression with each release. And musically that’s certainly the case. The fuzz is harnessed and corralled for more aesthetic appeal, the jangle is enhanced and brought to the forefront, the bass and drums are crisp, the vocals are pristine and lovely – it’s just too bad they don’t have anything worth saying. And ultimately, that’s not a deal breaker for The Only Place, because melodies are easy to hum, but it is a disappointing distraction.
Beach House – Bloom: Saying “to have one Beach House album is to have them all” may be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s not completely without validation. From their 2006 debut to the recent Bloom, low key, dreamy music and rich, wistful vocals have been a signature sound that came out of the gate fully formed and has only been improved upon as songwriting skills have developed. This means that any one of their four albums could easily be “the one” depending on which set of songs you consider the strongest. At this point in the game, for my money, that batch came with 2010’s Teen Dream, but Bloom is nothing to sneeze at, and repeat listens (per always with these guys) will unveil more hidden beauty that wasn’t obvious at the last spin. In truth, Bloom is a bit of a grower, and it’s the similarity that hampers the immediacy; which isn’t to say that this is Teen Dream 2.0, because it isn’t, as Bloom stands on its own with enough flourishes here and there to prove that this record is of another time, but the formulaic feel cannot be denied. So if you’re a fan listen to it, and if it doesn’t grab you, put it down for a bit, and pick it up again – you’ll be blown away, because Bloom is another shimmering masterpiece, with everything to love that Beach House has brought us before.
Regina Spektor – What We Saw from the Cheap Seats: Four or five years ago, I’d have eaten glass for Regina. And that means I can refer to her on a first name basis. I of course came on board with most of the rest of the world with 2006’s Begin to Hope, and while I don’t love every bit of that album, the songs I do love make up for my more indifference to the rest, and were enough to make me explore her previous output and, at one point, become a bit borderline obsessive. As an artist, Regina has certainly developed in terms of production quality and accessibility of material, whereas 2004’s Soviet Kitsch was nothing short of piano punk, 2009’s Far found her dabbling not only in more full-band outings, but in electronic sounds and dead up pop posturing. What was never lost in this transition was her ability to put every day, or more accurately, dirty, starkly realistic, even disturbing life situations, to beautiful, though playfully quirky music. What We Saw from the Cheap Seats maintains that level of “this really is reality,” and Best Coast’s Cosentino could learn a thing or two from Regina about how to tell your tale in an authentic yet poetic way. Musically, Cheap Seats is a bit of a step back, and I don’t mean melody or performance-wise, but a bit more minimalist, while still retaining elements of the progressions she made on the past two albums. So there are full-band arrangements, electronic noodling and studio manipulations that make this an album difficult to reproduce in a live setting (unlike most all of her early output). The problem, if one can consider it that, is that Regina falls back to a few past tricks that longtime fans will find familiar, perhaps endearing. Her vocal drum fills are certainly fun and the guttural manipulations (that’s really the best term I can come up with) on songs like Open have become a bit of her trademark, but at the end of the record, there are no memorable moments. Every song is lovely, every song is perfectly written, every song is moving and touches you somewhere on an emotional level. But none of them bowl you over, rip your heart out and kiss you full on the mouth at the same time like on previous efforts. And ok, another Samson would be trite, I get it, but one can’t help but want to be assaulted in that way again (though Far’s Laughing With came super close), and while Cheap Seats does deliver some wonderful moments, none of them go to bed with you. Perhaps another listen at another time will reveal what I’m hoping for, but for now, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats maintains Regina’s status as an excellent pianist, vocalist and songwriter, but she didn’t break my heart in the process.