Coldplay|Viva La Vida|Capitol/EMI
2003: Chuck Klosterman opens his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs with a screed detailing how the romance portrayed in films like When Harry Met Sally and Sixteen Candles has severely compromised his ability to date college-educated white women. Tellingly, by the end, he places Coldplay’s “Yellow” in that lineage. 2005: The 40-Year-Old Virgin memorably likens Coldplay fanship to homosexuality. 2007: Chris Martin somehow becomes hip-hop’s most bizarre must-have luxury item.
Point being: Even as each successive record has elevated Coldplay’s profile to the point where they’re one of the world’s biggest rock bands, what’s clear is that people more often talk about what it means to like Coldplay rather than discuss four people with occasionally interesting musical ideas. And into this gaping maw of critical indifference arrives Viva La Vida, which begs the question: If these guys made an artistic tour de force, would anyone be able to see it as such?
Just to make things perfectly clear, Viva La Vida exists somewhere between “two steps forward” and “quantum leap,” mostly depending on what you’re willing to make of it — which is why their tabula rasa rep is somewhat deserved. But those who’ve ridden with Coldplay from day one will find plenty of surface changes to at least offer some sort of mea culpa. They’re just that, though — surface. While paring down the excess of X&Y (this band was not meant to be enjoyed 65 minutes at a time) and readjusting its ruinous pacing, these songs still move like colossuses. You can’t pick off little riffs like the piano part from “Clocks” or the unison bend from “Yellow,” save for the prickly melody from “Strawberry Swing” (the one song everyone can probably admit to liking). In their stead come knottier, more compositionally complex numbers, like “Violet Hill” and “Lost!” — which sound more like the monolithic work of Ezrin-era Pink Floyd (The Wall) than Eno-era U2.
Aside from universality, Coldplay’s greatest strength is arguably also a liability — the fact that you can immediately tell it’s them, due to Chris Martin’s tone and lyrics. Thankfully, he’s able to get vaguely political and in character on the title track without embarrassing himself, but as “Cemeteries of London” proves, he’s still in need of a rhyming dictionary — “dead/head,” “fell/spell.” But that isn’t really news, and if the early returns are any indication, even if Coldplay aren’t deified yet, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that we could do a lot worse.
Gas|Nah und Fern|Kompakt
My lone instance of attending a European rave entailed walking through a midnight forest on the outskirts of town to arrive at the secret location. I’ll never quite shake that commingling of anticipation and dread while weaving amid the trees in the blackness, an incessant throb of bass seemingly emanating from the mist-shrouded forest itself. It’s an uncanny sensation that feels similar to the ambient music created in the late 20th century by Gas, the nom de plume of Cologne prime mover Wolfgang Voigt. Voigt, who stood at the forefront of German techno throughout the ’90s by releasing hundreds of 12-inches under dozens of aliases (most famously, Mike Ink), is now better known as the co-founder of the Kompakt dance label. But before dissipating in 2000, Voigt’s work as Gas remained unparalleled. If ambient forefather Brian Eno created another green world and its attendant imaginary landscapes, then Voigt’s equivalent dreamscapes are the sound of the forest. His four releases (Gas, Zauberberg, Königsforst and Pop, collected here as a box set) are unequivocal masterworks, each album subsuming shards of Wagner, Schönberg, 4/4 techno, dub, German schlager (a tooth-rotting pop form) and glam rock into something beyond terrestrial descriptors. At once haunted, beatific, shimmering and turbid, Gas alchemically turned electronica into a will-o’-the wisp.
The Modey Lemon|Season of Sweets|Birdman
After three uneven, overly silly recordings, Pittsburgh trio the Modey Lemon finally made an album that captures half of what their sweat-drenched, drum-filled, Kraut-meets-chaos live shows let us know they have in them. From the barnstorming opener “The Bear Comes Back Down the Mtn” on, it’s heavy between bassist Jason Kirker’s full-frontal bass melodies and the subtle pummels of Paul Quattrone’s kit. Guitarist Phil Boyd brings jagged washes over all in the truest of T. Moore traditions, and this, like his smartly low-mixed and increasingly pop-friendly vocals, is a vast improvement over the whiny, faux noise rock present in their 2005 Curious City. The Lemon’s current penchant for Oneida-like Teutonic lo-fi precision and drone keys only varies for “Ice Fields,” a funk romp pointing to their blues-explosion past. Like most everything on this album, it works because Quattrone and Kirker have the sound and nerve to do it seriously.
The Notwist|The Devil, You + Me|Domino
You don’t listen to the Notwist for the lyrics; otherwise you may need a mouthful of salt to counteract a line like “I won’t sing your alphabet.” Nope, the key to this German electro-indie quartet lies in the way that organic and acoustic snippets entwine to form deeply affecting melodies. The Notwist’s first album in six years, The Devil, You + Me reveals a band that hasn’t lost its knack for writing a minor-key hook that sounds great while you’re making out with a lit major, or watching Grey’s Anatomy. On “Boneless,” an inauspicious intro of a staid 4/4 and three-note piano soon gives way to a big, gorgeous gel of quavering tones and acoustic strums. At times, as in the risibly titled “Gloomy Planets,” the vibe is even moodier than on 2002’s brooding Neon Golden — but luckily, never enough to plunge face first into bathos. Salt not included.