Atlas Sound | Let the Blind Lead Those Who Cannot Feel | Kranky
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Even for a record that owes its genesis to bedroom four-tracking, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel needs no introduction. Go to Losanjealous.com's announcement of the upcoming Atlas Sound show — “that one dude from that one band.” Obviously, it's a remark about erstwhile Deerhunter lead singer Bradford Cox's status as one of indie's most divisive front men, a result of him being not so much media savvy as media accessible. Which is just as effective, I suppose. In a sprawling interview with Pitchfork that would have David Foster Wallace crying uncle, Cox gushed volumes about the meaning behind every one of the album's 14 tracks without really being asked for it. It's worth seeking out, if only for the fact that Cox does a better job of selling Let the Blind by talking about it than he does performing it.
In the spirit of Billy Corgan and Conor Oberst, Cox starts opener “A Ghost Story” with a recorded sample “intended” to be expository, but it's likely talking about himself (“He scared everyone away … so he moved to a different house”). It sets the scene for the sonically spacy textures that rarely stray outside of Cox's noggin. Though a familiarity with Deerhunter is in no way a necessary entry point for Atlas Sound, “Recent Bedroom” is built on the elements of Cryptograms' stronger tracks, working a rickety guitar pattern and an endlessly incanted finale (“I don't know why” following in the tradition of “There was no sound,” “So long,” “Was not seen again”). “River Card,” based on a Narcissus-like folk tale, has the most striking arrangement and the most soluble lyrical stance; if it really is an open-ended, homoerotic love letter to Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt (as Cox suggests), this is the only time where it sort of makes sense. You can hear the untethered pleasure of being drunk in blinding sunlight while “Quarantined” chimes buoyantly, but oh yeah — it's about kids with AIDS or something.
At this point, Cox has himself a pretty nifty EP, but as with most things about him, he doesn't know when to quit. The meat of Let the Blind certainly sounds intriguing, its grainy approximation of psyched-out bliss never sounding less than handcrafted. But most of the time, it's swimming upstream, based on endlessly looping, rudimentary building blocks lacking in melodic and lyrical detail. In any given interview, you're liable to find Cox aligning with Brooklyn's finest, and while you can pick out individual elements of Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective and Liars (“Ativan” could've fit on their self-titled) at times, mostly you get a Vaseline smear of all three at once. I mean, would it kill him to at least acknowledge latter-day Chino Moreno as the father of his elongated, melodically wavering style? At the very least, Moreno's own trip-hoppy side project had better beats, if not a bigger expense account for pizza and cocaine. Cox is restless enough that he'll likely make an album that convinces the hater brigade to evaluate him as a musician as opposed to a phenomenon (Cryptograms will work just fine if you approach it with an open mind), but despite being more consistent and surface-level palatable than his work with Deerhunter, Let the Blind is more likely to breed skeptics than converts. —Ian Cohen
Chris Walla | Field Manual | Barsuk
Dear Chris … “So this is the New Year, and I don't feel any different …” although your new solo album may change that. Let's be honest, our relationship in Death Cab has always been more your Marr to my Morrissey than a Lennon-McCartney partnership. I don't mean to be harsh, but after listening to Field Manual, it's clear why I'm the singer and you're the guitar player. When you lay down thick, multitracked vocals on the opening song, “Two Fifty,” it doesn't sound half bad. But while I suspect that you've stolen a glimpse at my emo-drenched lyric book, I'd say singing is your Achilles heel. Fortunately, you have a serious knack for crafting catchy power-pop guitar hooks. You wouldn't believe the vocal melodies I made up for songs like “Sing Again” and “Archer vs. Light.” Just think how your record would sound with my sensitive ruminations about love and life instead of your mediocre crooning. Look, this was clearly a labor of love; you played every instrument except drums here. But let's get back to writing the next Death Cab record and the roles we're most comfortable in: you as producer/guitar player, me as precious, indie-rock front man. Love, Ben Gibbard.
The Clipse | We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 3 mixtape | no label
The Clipse are the Derek Zoolander of rap: Every single song is the same look. If you don't believe me, analyze the lyrics of the approximately 75 cuts they've released in the aftermath of their best and most commercially successful album, 2002's Lord Willin'. Ninety-nine percent of them revolve around the Virginia duo's efficacy at dealing cocaine and the attendant spoils of slanging. Infrequent attempts at introspection involve some variation on this theme, e.g. Hell Hath No Fury's “Mama I'm Sorry …” which dealt with Pusha-T and Malice's contrition about being such brazen dope men, and We Got It 4 Cheap, Volume 3's tellingly titled “Emotionless,” which involves Clipse's sorrows at their lack of commercial success, which they palliate by … wait for it … dealing more cocaine.
Of course, Clipse are aware of this monomania, even including a skit “20 K Intro” mocking a “tree-hugging-ass bitch” who wonders why they only write songs about coke. Yet defensive self-awareness doesn't excuse one-dimensionality. Even so, only rapping about coke isn't in and of itself damning. Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made, and rarely does the subject matter drift from the white lines. But whereas that classic has a clear narrative, intricate storytelling and a cinematic arc, the Clipse's approach feels shallow: You hear of the paranoia but never feel the footsteps; you hear extravagant boasts about Louis Vuitton slippers and their vast jewelry collection but never hear the story about the junkies left ruined in the drug's wake. It's all show, no tell.
Of course, few artists can stand toe-to-toe with Rae and Ghost's opus, but the Clipse (and their fawning critical admirers) actively invite the comparison. On We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 3, both Pusha-T and Malice labor to tell the listener how seriously they take their writing, openly taking pride in their critical acclaim and comparing themselves to immortal artists like Mozart, Shakespeare. Not to mention the fact that the Re-Up Gang (the Clipse + weed carriers Ab-Liva and Sandman) attempt a tepid posse cut over the instrumental for “Rainy Dayz,” which falls painfully flat in contrast to the Wu's Cuban chronicle.
The reviews for Hell Hath No Fury compared Clipse to canonized groups like EPMD and Outkast, and the early ones that have trickled in for Vol. 3 are similarly panegyric. And sure, on a purely technical level, Clipse can be spoken of in the same rarefied breath as the aforementioned groups; few rappers are capable of ever projecting the sneering self-assurance and adrenaline-pumping swagger of “20 K Money Making Brothers on the Corner,” the tape's stand-out track. But while they're very good rappers, the Clipse remain very poor artists, ones incapable of any sort of evolution or growth. But who knows, maybe one of these days, the Clipse will finally drop Magnum on us and it really will blow all of our minds. Or at the very least they could learn to turn left.