So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. I don’t like shit-talking on this blog; don’t really see the point of it. So I’m not going to talk about albums I didn’t like that I wasn’t expecting to like. These are the albums I bought excitedly and listened to for a fifth time even though the previous four had been total washes, thinking “no, it has to get better.” Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t. Ladies and Gents, the most disappointing album of 2012.
Laetitia Sadier- Silencio
What was so amazing about The Trip, Laetitia Sadier’s first post-Stereolab album, was how confident and non-pulsed it was. Stereolab were one of the most consistently excellent and idiosyncratic indie bands of the 90s and early 00s, but The Trip, a highly personal album about the death of Sadier’s sister, would have been a successful first record, sophomore release, reunion album. It’s a great album entirely divorced of any context. The Trip is an album where Sadier works through death, oscillates through memories, distracts herself with fantasies about her sister going on a space voyage (really!) and on the album’s sparse, brief final track, “Summertime” ultimately is able to the exact thing mourning forbids- say goodbye. Stereolab could have never existed and The Trip would be a powerful album. Silencio, on the other hand, sounds stilted and hesitant. It feels like the album that cynics would have expected Sadier to make after Stereolab’s dissolution. It tries its hand at politics, but Sadier’s choppy english leads to stumbles like “There’s a Price to Pay for Freedom (And it isn’t Security)” and, when she’s not failing at political righteousness, she’s failing to say anything over music which fails to distract you from her lack of message (“Lightning Thunderbolt.”) Laetitia Sadier is a genius. Sometimes genius drops the ball.
“There’s a Price to Pay for Freedom (And it isn’t Security)” is from Laetitia Sadier’s album Silencio.
The Gaslight Anthem- Handwritten
So here’s what I’ve realized after teaching undergraduate poetry workshops for all of 3 months; you’ve got to strike a balance between sympathy and drill-instructor discipline. Some students came to the class having written poetry all their life, while others just needed to fulfill a gen ed requirement and have never written a poem before. What I tried to discern in every assignment was if the student had tried. If they clearly put in effort, that was enough for me. I would challenge or push them, but a poem I didn’t like, full of inane ideas or obvious rhymes could still get an “A” if it showed that amorphous quality I qualified as “efffort” or “heart” or “a valliant attempt” or something like that.
Which is why I am so torn about including Handwritten on my most disappointing albums list. More than most album I listened to this year, hell, more than some of the albums that will end up on my best of this year, it is clear The Gaslight Anthem put everything they had into this album. It is an album which was clearly made under considerable pressure (first major label album, last album was only so-so), and I don’t think anyone will say the band isn’t trying new things here. Unfortunately, almost none of the new things work, and almost all of the old things sounds pretty stale. Frontman Brian Fallon sounds like Meatloaf in “Too Much Blood”, the whole band sounds like (early 2000s) The Heartbreakers in the terribly cliche “Mullholland Drive”, and the vibe of “Biloxi Parish” is one part Bon Jovi to two parts Axe Body Spray commercial. The rigid gender roles which made me queasy years ago when I talked about the band’s far superior album The ’59 Sound, have only solidified and gotten more boring, typical, and harder to justify. ”Desire” begins asking “What makes a man do the things that a man does?” And, yeah, the man does manly things to woo the woman he desires (really stretched themselves with that song title) and the woman sits there, voiceless, an object to be won. The album is supposed to be uplifting, I can tell, but it really just bums me out.
The Gaslight Anthem are trying so hard here, and they are so close to failing entirely (“Mae” is a downbeat, subtle song, which, in spite of the band’s continued fetishism of 50s pop culture, is actually quite stirring). Handwritten is the law of diminishing returns. What is ok for sophomore students in a poetry class isn’t true for popular rock bands from New Jersey. You’ve got to do more than just show me you tried.
Why?- Mumps, etc.
The last time I may have driven over the legal limit was when something terrible happened and I got in a car and drove I-94 5 hours east to Southeast Michigan to be around people I needed to be around at that moment. I mention this story because I listened to Alopecia and Eskimo Snow on repeat for the entire drive, but also because, prior to now, this is exactly the kind of wrenching, embarrassing, destructive, stupid, possibly deadly thing which filled your average Why? song. Why? songs had stalkers, vomit, people snorting crushed bones, syphilis, stillborn pennies, jacking off ’till your dick hurts, and at least one of the most unhinged, honest meltdowns ever released on a purchasable album. Why? albums were a fucking mess, but they were messy entirely because group mastermind Yoni Wolf wanted them that way. Despite their surreality and drool and portraits of love ones made out of semen, there was something honestly very likeable about Why? songs. They were extreme, but never repellant.
Mumps, etc. is so boring, hazy, and half baked that it is repellant. That title is entirely telling- Wolf would have never stopped at “etc” before now. He would have told you it all. This album is not shocking, nor interesting. It is thin sounding, melodically flat, lyrically tame, and emotionally removed. Wolf recycles images left and right (seriously, you now have two songs that reference Whole Foods?), and one of the closest things to a musically interesting track, “Strawberries” is ruined by the obvious and obvious and self-deflating chorus “No, I am not OK, boys.” ”Kevin’s Cancer” feels, I’m sorry, exploitative- a song about a kid with cancer, stock images of hair falling out and questioning faith. And Yoni’s limits as a rapper have never been more obvious, maybe because his backing track consists of boring beats and piano lines that sounds sampled out of hip hop songs which sampled them out of trip hop songs which sampled them out of warped records. There’s nothing holding this album together except the track listing on the back.
Japandroids- Celebration Rock
If this is what passes for sincere, earnest rock music, then sincerity has gotten mean and cynical and very scared of deviating from the script. If this is what passes for life-affirming, then there will be a hell of a lot more indie-kid suicides next year. Excuse me while I go wash the chemical scum out of my ears.
Next up, best musical discoveries of 2012 and then, hopefully before the descending object descends on NYE, my favorite albums of this year.