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Phoenix – Bankrupt! – WBH Declares it Rich

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It’s FINALLY here – Phoenix’s Bankrupt! – the most anticipated album of 2013 (except maayyybe for that Daft Punk thing coming out in 4 weeks…), the long awaited follow-up to 2009’s utter masterpiece Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. So how is it? (rating at the end)

If any of you Phoenix fans are fans of MGMT, then you might remember the anticipation, hype, and disappointment that Congratulations was to its brilliant predecessor Oracular Spectacular. Effortless, electronically-tinged, catchy pop, followed by bizarre experimentation and a rejection of everything that made MGMT good. The good news for Bankrupt! is that it’s not like that! It is, like its comparator, a bit more experimental, less immediately catchy. A bit more deliberate feeling, as opposed to WAP‘s effortlessness. But the hooks, synths, brevity,  and sense of cool that made Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix such a work of art are still there.

In Phoenix’s feature-of-the-month, cover story interview with Spin , they mention that the success of WAP means you’ll probably give the new one 3 listen-throughs by virtue of the hype and expectations. There’s some truth to that – when they released it streaming over iTunes, I listened to it at least that many times, and with each time grew fonder and fonder. Indeed, the same thing happened with Wolfgang. Although Bankrupt’s tracks aren’t as effervescently poppy as its predecessors, I didn’t really think that about the last album until a few listens through. What Bankrupt really portrays is diverse musical texture and layers (lots of new sounds and key changes), and a more grown up, at times even psychedelic sound. Don’t worry, by the way, the vocals make just as little sense as they did on Wolfgang, but singer Thomas Mars delivers again.

Enough generalizing! Track-by-track review:

1. “Entertainment”, the big first single, huge synths, Chinese-sounding main melody, oddly has echoes of “Armistice”, the fantastic closer of WAP. One of the catchier tracks, also the most upbeat by a significant bit. I suspect this will get a lot of airtime this spring and summer.

2. “The Real Thing” takes the drums straight out of Prince’s epic “When Doves Cry”. Synth pads, soft vocals, and a sick chorus chord progression. Good music to chill to in the afternoon on a warm day.

3. “S.O.S. in Bel Air” – Very Wolfgang-y upbeat verse, ethereal, dreamlike chorus, overall great song.

4. “Trying to be Cool” – Reminds me a bit of In Ghost Colors era Cut Copy, or Empire of the Sun. Medium-tempo jam, with detectable guitars beside the synth pads. More banger chord progressions in the chorus and a huge, effective key change towards the end.

5. “Bankrupt!” – Let’s be upfront, this is this album’s “Love Like a Sunset” (the epic 7:39 mostly instrumental synth epic from Wolfgang). The comparisons are just too easy, at nearly 7 minutes, with synth chirps and warbles, a slowly building beat that suddently shifts to a quick piano line, then into nearly Baroque-sounding square-wave synthesized arpeggiated goodness. Mars and guitars return at the end, much like “Love…”, but in an achingly beautiful minor key minor key that may be the vocal highlight of the album. Excellent.

6. “Drakkar Noir” – sounds like it could have been a hit in an alternate universe mid-80s, if only the 80s had the Phoenix touch. Strong track, typical Phoenixy synths, typical Mars vocals riding atop the Phoenix beat. This shows a very strong link to WAP, and wouldn’t have been out of place if it were released in 2009 – dare I say it has elements of “Lisztomania?”

7. “Chloroform” – again a bit 80s sounding. The critics seem to love this song, but apart from the occasional beautiful blooms of synths, the highlight of the song is the last minute, where the instrumentation changes (softer sounding synth pads and melodies, synth bass, and another key change) and Mars shines again.

8. “Don’t” – An upbeat rocker, more classic tried-and-true Phoenix sound, though without any guitars – More Wolfgang-esque material but with arpeggiators. This song gets better with each listen. Another of the catchier tracks, this one is another highlight, and I can easily see it released as the next single, and it has great live potential.

9. “Bourgeois” – a brilliant repeated synthesized harpsichord motif opens, then the rest of the band comes in before a scratchy acoustic guitars and Mars perform a quiet duet,,before everyone else comes back in and the song really kicks off. It’s not especially catchy, but the melody certainly beguiling and captivating, and it has the most balanced instrumentation on the albums, mixing guitars, real drums and bass with their synthesized counterparts beautifully. A beautiful, under-the-radar track.

10. “Oblique City” – forget what I said about Baroque sounding earlier, the opening keyboard line to this one is straight up Bach. But that ends quickly, transforming quickly into an upbeat rocker, with some pretty crucial instrumental/key/time changes. The acoustic guitar ending is especially pretty. Another one that I’m sure sounds great live.

So, it should be clear that I generally like Bankrupt! As I said, none of the tracks jump out the way nearly EVERY song on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix did, but if Phoenix managed to pull that off, they would be superhuman (or they’d be robots…like…well you know). Standout tracks include “Entertainment”, “S.O.S. in Bel Air”, “Bankrupt”, and “Don’t”, with “Drakkar Noir”, Bourgeois, and “Oblique City” coming right behind them. So that’s 7 of 10 songs as either very good or really quite good. The remaining three, while not my favorites on the album, have their own redeeming features, mostly in the form of tempo, key, and instrumental changes that highlight Phoenix’s self-declared “experimentation” on this album. This is really the first full album review on We Ball Harder (not counting my mini review of the Raveonettes), so there’s my attempt at methodology. I’d say Bankrupt! warrants an 8/10. Very creditable, more mature, more diverse musically, and pretty solid tunes. It’s no Wolfgang, but it’s no disappointment.  Well done, Phoenix! Allleeeezzz!!!

PS – yes, I bought another CD, just like I did with Observator by the Raveonettes. These things are hard to track down these days!

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Song of the Day – “Re-Make/Re-Model” by Roxy Music

Remember the first music post on We Ball Harder? About T Rex and the birth of glam rock? We come back full circle to some of Marc Bolan’s contemporaries: Roxy Music, one of the pioneers of glam rock, if not the very first – with an artier, more eccentric edge, at least while synthesizer bad boy/future production genius Brian Eno was with them, looking like a feathered, glammed up Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Remake/Remodel” is the first song from their first album, and hands down my favorite. It has everything: a driving beat from drummer Paul Thompson and bassist Graham Simpson, scorching guitar from Phil Manzanera, off the wall sax playing by Andy Mackay, Brian Eno’s bizarre synthesized squelches (all of which get solo time), and of course frontman Bryan Ferry’s signature wail and killer opening piano chords. Recorded in 1972, this song is a mashup before mashups existed, and it fuckin’ rocks!

Studio version first, then live version (which is great cos you can see everyone freaking out onstage)


Song of the Day: Death from Above 1979 – “Little Girl”

As a nod to the great nation of Canada, responsible for one the best breeds of dog in the world* and home to both my favorite city and brewery in North America**, today’s choon is from my favorite band from the Great White North, Death from Above 1979***.  The best two-person band in history [eat it, White Stripes] – Jesse F Keeler (later of MSTRKRFT) on the most distorted, aggressive, riffy bass, and Sebastian Grainger on pounding drums and punky vocals. Formed in 2001, broke up in 2006, and only one killer full length album – but what an album – joyful, earsplitting noise in the best possible way. The band has reunited and is working on a new album, and I can’t wait. This one’s one of my favorites from the old days:

album version

live in the pre-breakup days

the MSTRKRFT edition, a brilliant remix from Jesse’s next outfit.

*the Labrador retriever, based upon the St John’s water dog, from Newfoundland. I had a great one before, and just got a puppy today:

she’s spent most of today sleeping…

**Montreal. Really. Go if you haven’t been, it’s starting to thaw out. Also, Unibroue.

*** Or, just Death from Above, their original name. James Murphy, the overrated fuckwit behind LCD Soundsystem and manager of Death From Above Records engaged them in a legal dispute, and they chose to add “1979”, because, to quote Grainger, “1979 is the year of my birth, 1979 is the year of Off the Wall, 1979 is the year of The Pleasure Principle, 1979 is the last year of the last cool decade, 1979 is scratched into my arm, 1979 is scratched into my arm, 1979 is scratched into my fucking arm.” DFA’s reaction to James Murphy and his label also was the only thing on the band’s website for a while, and here it is, verbatim:

“FUCK DFA RECORDS FUCK JAMES MURPHY WE DECLARE JIHAD ON THEM HOLY WAR ENDING IN THIER [sic] DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT… james murphy is a selfish piece of fuck that will burn in the flames of a specially dedicated rock and roll jihad. if i had the resources i would fly a plane into his skull.”

Rock on brother Jesse and brother Sebastian!


It Was Fifty Years Ago Today*: Why the Beatles Still Matter

*give or take a few weeks…

October 1962. The Beatles, then a relatively unknown band from Liverpool, have just released their first major label single, “Love Me Do,” recorded at Abbey Road Studios, and later make their first TV appearance. History would never be the same.

But wait, isn’t this We Ball Harder, the home of the cutting-edge, underground, and hip? Yes it fucking well is. It’s not all Light Cycles, Madeon, and desert rock round here – anything hard-balling is saluted, and musically and culturally, nobody had a bigger, harder-balling, longer-lasting impact than the Beatles.

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Observator – The Raveonettes’ New Album Out Today (And it Rocks!)

I actually bought a CD today, a physical compact disc.  What could prompt such ludditery?  Well, the dark Danish duo have done it again and released another quality album (their sixth, or in my count, seventh) shortly on the heels of the last one.  Observator, released today, showcases the mature Raveonettes in a more emotional, stripped down mood.  Recorded in a week in LA, after an apparent down period in Venice Beach for Sune Rose Wagner, the album and its title translate his many reflections into music.  In his own words:

“This album rose from such a dark place but ended up illuminating the gloominess and restlessness in a way I never thought possible. I honestly never thought this album would see the light of day, all the turmoil, all the craziness, all the sleepless night but in a single burst of spontaneous madness it came to be. I’m so thrilled for people to hear this new album in its entirety, it’s quite a dark ride.” (quote from NME interview)

That said, when have any of the last several Raveonettes albums not had a dark side? Well, quite.

Musically, Observator has a back-to-basics sound, with the same lush melodies and some noise, as always. It opens with pure, melancholic vocal harmony, and ends with a wall of sound. Familiar territory? Sort of, but it’s by far the cleanest, purest, warmest Raveonettes album, with fairly unaltered guitars, simple beats, and some monstrously heavy piano, especially on “Observations,”  the first and best single from the album.

Some of the other songs sound like distilled versions of classics from their last three albums, and they work very well (“Sinking with the Sun”, “She Owns the Streets”, and “You Hit Me (I’m Down)”.)

Others have a more original sound that makes for an interesting deviation. We end with “Till the End,” possibly the best wall of sound, harmonic noise-epic the Raveonettes have ever done – a song that could sum up their entire career. Tight melodies, punchy beats, chimey guitars, and waves of noise.  It’s the Raveonettes at their best, and for me the best track on the album.

It’s hard to believe that Sune and Sharin could put out yet another quality album just a year after releasing the achingly beautiful Raven in the Grave, but then they’ve never gone more than two years without an album. I don’t know how they do it, but they so deserve the Great Ballers status I accorded them with earlier.  Observator keeps the ball rolling.

Bonus: listen to Observator in its entirety streaming at Rolling Stone

Bonus part 2: The Raveonettes are coming to DC on October 6, playing the Black Cat as they always do. If you live in the area, go!


NEW MUSE SONG – MADNESS – Released Today

One of the greatest currently active bands, Muse, those West Country wizards, have released a new single from their forthcoming album, 2nd Law, due October 2. It’s called “Madness” and it’s an entirely new sound for the band…almost like a 21st century minimal electro classic George Michael vibe, in a very good way. Sparse beats and an even sparser guitar solo for lead singer/guitarist/pianist Matt Bellamy, with some cool atmospheric synths and electronic melodies thrown in. Give it a listen:


London 2012 Olympics Music Balls Harder

A proper WBH recap of the marvelous London Olympics is forthcoming, but before that, I want to address something that some may have overlooked: the FANTASTIC music of the Games, from the opening ceremony to the events straight through to the closing ceremony. Of course the opening and closing ceremonies featured the Best of British Music for the Last Fifty Years, and for the most part, did a pretty good job, with tons of classic rock from the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and more. Hell, British electronic legends Underworld were chosen as musical directors of the OC. But the choonage wasn’t limited to the start and finish: if you listened at quiet moments in the various stadiums, arenas, and other venues, there was a pretty banging soundtrack there too. Also, the official song of the olympics was a sick choice: “Survival” by Muse, currently the most talented and biggest band in Britain, and a song officially released the day it was chosen as the official song, not even a month before the Games opened:

For other great songs featured in the Games, follow the jump

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