Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

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In 2013, it was damn near impossible to escape “Do I Wanna Know.” The guitar riff infiltrated every commercial and sports arena that year, making the Arctic Monkeys the generic rock sound every brand needed to sell rum. The English rock group had maintained massive popularity in the U.K. since their 2005 debut, but with their record AM they achieved mainstream American success. After attaining such heights, the group did what any sensible band should and disappeared for five years, coming back now to release a concept album.

Arctic Monkeys. 2018. (L-R: Matt Helders, Alex Turner, Nick O’Malley, Jamie Cook.)

Except Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is not a concept album. At least it’s not a concept album in the way that The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall is. Alex Turner and the rest of the Arctic Monkeys latest record revolves around a thematic element, but it doesn’t get into theatrics like those other two albums. On its surface it’s an album that puts Alex Turner in the role of a washed up rocker, working as a lounge singer at a Hotel & Casino on the moon in a future dystopian world. But that’s not the point.

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino uses a futuristic dystopian setting to point out the issues with technology. Though the first track, “Star Treatment,” does create the setting, it’s more of a reflection of Alex Turner coming to terms with his success as a rocker. The Arctic Monkeys have been a relevant rock group for 13 years, yet every critic is ready to call him washed up. On tracks like “American Sports” and “The World’s First Monster Truck Front Flip,” Turner believes humanity’s obsession over technology is headed down a dark path, and he feels more comfortable saying it from his hotel room on the moon. Within the sometimes dense lyricism of the album, Turner touches on everything that matters: fake news, virtual reality, dating apps, online reviews, and the accessibility of information.

Turner is able to see the potential thoughts that listeners and critics will have on this new Arctic Monkeys album and addresses them within it. Of course, playing the character of a washed up lounge singer, he knows that critics will say he’s actually washed up. Considering he starts the album off with the lyric, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” Turner knows what he’s doing. In the song “Science Fiction,” he essentially lets listeners know that he is using science fiction references throughout to comment on the current state of our lives. The final track, “The Ultracheese,” features lyrics that point right back at him. Turner realizes he may be trying too hard to be high concept and his real thoughts may never come across through the music. It’s a funny, slightly self-deprecating look at the album as it’s concluding.

The most noticeable point about Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the lack of guitar-driven songs. Ditching the heavy guitars and the sound of the previous album shows range, growth, and a strict focus on the album’s theme. Off the bat on “Star Treatment,” the band is in favor of a piano driven melody. This lounge-y song features a more prominent bass line, setting up the sound for the rest of the track. Throughout the album, the group dedicates themselves to flourishing many tracks with sounds that can only be described as “science fiction” sounds. Tactile beeps and boops, heavy whirring, and anything else you’d expect to hear in 2001: A Space Odyssey pop in and out of songs like the aptly named “Science Fiction” and the title track, weaving the album together.

The two most important instruments on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino are the keys and Alex Turner’s voice. From the first track where Turner’s voice dances over the big piano to the last track, “The Ultracheese,” where he croons his heart out, Turner continues to manipulate the voice and keys to fit his narrative. On “American Sports,” he twists his voice into a darker, sinister one in order to touch on the dystopia of Earth. Sometimes he uses background harmony, like on “Golden Trunks” and “Four Out of Five,” to strengthen his voice. Turner shows off his real range as a musician on “The World’s First Monster Truck Front Flip.” The track is sonically reminiscent of a Smile-era Brian Wilson, but brought up to date with Alex Turner’s bravado in the vocals, pouncing keys, and subtle guitar lines.

Those that expected a straight up rock album from a band known to deliver great rock ‘n’ roll will likely be disappointed and uninterested. There a few moments were the band actually gives in to a more “rock” sound. On “She Looks Like Fun”, there’s a nostalgic guitar solo and an easy, repetitive chorus that doesn’t seem to be entirely based on some sci-fi world. For the most part though, Turner and the band stay focused on the central theme and remain in-character.

However, if those who are only familiar with the Arctic Monkeys for 2013’s AM are open to it, they will find Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino to be an incredibly interesting and complex work of science fiction that bends the genre of alternative rock. What Alex Turner and the rest of the Arctic Monkeys have done here is pulled themselves out of their expected mid-’00s British rock box, demanding the attention and importance of a Father John Misty or Tom Waits.

Grateful Dead – Built to Last (1989)

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After achieving great mainstream success with In the Dark, the Grateful Dead toured to greater and greater audiences. This newfound success also came with pressure to release a new album. In February of 1989, the Grateful Dead decided to get back into the studio to work on their 13th album. With In the Dark, the Dead spent seven years on the road perfecting the songs for the new album. For this new album, the band stepped into the studio with no prior work on the new songs. What resulted was Built to Last, a nine song album written and recorded in only eight months.

19890901_0922.originalUnfortunately, Built to Last is a disjointed album from start to finish. The final album in the Grateful Dead studio discography is one with high highs and very low lows. The album is an absolute group effort, featuring four songs by Brent Mydland, three by Jerry Garcia, and two by Bob Weir.

The track list contains some real gems, most notably Brent Mydland’s “Blow Away” which would become a legendary live song. Some of the other tracks that still contain that Grateful Dead vibe are “Built to Last” and “Foolish Heart”, both Garcia and Robert Hunter collaborations. Though his voice sounds raggedy and failing, Garcia still manages to save the album when his voice is on the track. His finest moment on the album comes on the track, “Standing on the Moon.” Co-written by Robert Hunter, the track is beautiful and full of retrospection. The lyrics “A lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you” are a perfect description of Garcia’s life at that moment, health failing but dedicated to playing the music for his fans.

Built to Last also features some real disappointing tracks. With the exception of “Blow Away”, the rest of Mydlands contributions come off as boring soft rock. Even the final song on the album  “I Will Take You Home” is a bizarre lullaby and doesn’t sound like it should be the last song ever released on a Grateful Dead studio album. However it wasn’t just Mydland who disappoints, but Bob Weir’s contributions all fall flat. “Victim or the Crime” is not catchy, his vocal performance is flat, and it seems like he was trying to capture the spirit of the In the Dark’s “Hell in a Bucket.” Though his other contribution, “Picasso Moon,” is a rocker in the vein of ‘80s Rolling Stones, it comes up short in the greater Weir/Barlow discography. However the track is saved by Garcia’s guitar on the track, resulting in one of the few moments in the album where Garcia plays with his all.

Built to Last is a sad send off for the group. After 13 studio albums and over 24 years together, the band finally feels like they should just “play the hits.” The group retreated back to a life of touring. Even though the group had wildly successful tours, drug abuse continued to get worse for some members. In 1990, less than a year after the release of Built to Last, keyboardist Brent Mydland died from an overdose of cocaine and morphine. Mydland’s death would rock the group and Jerry Garcia in particular.

Following Built to Last and Mydland’s death, the band would enter their final lineup adding Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby on keys. The Grateful Dead would spend the next five years touring and never released another studio work.

From the Author: In two weeks, I will begin on reviewing the live albums. Every other week I will post a new review of a live album picked at random. The style of the reviews will change a bit, but each time I will focus on the show and highlight songs we’ve never covered. The first album we will start with is Europe ’72: Vol. 16.

Cut Worms – Hollow Ground


In a time where clean, computer generated electronic music tops the charts, having an obsession with building lush ballads that fit into a long gone era is not the worst thing for budding musicians. This obsession is clear in Max Clarke, who writes and produces music under the moniker Cut Worms. On his debut album Hollow Ground, Clarke delivers 10 tracks that invoke mid-’60s nostalgia and marry it with modern indie-pop.

Cut Worms (Max Clarke)

Clarke is able to create diverse sounding tracks that can all be described as 60’s pop without feeling too repetitive. Off the rip, Clarke uses clean, plucky guitars on “How It Can Be” to set up the nostalgia that will pervade the project. Immediately he shows off his prowess on “Coward’s Confidence”, building a lush instrumental that could be an outtake from a Pet Sounds era Brian Wilson. The tactile keys and muted horns drive the thick melody that is tinged with mid-60s nostalgia. In addition to guitar, Clarke provides bass and keys to the each of his tracks. But his standout musical performance across the project is on the lap steel. Playing the lap steel on “It Won’t Be Too Long,” “Think I Might Be In Love,” and “Hanging Your Picture Up To Dry” give each track a distinct folky, country twang to separate them from the other tracks. On the last track, “Mad About You,” Clarke uses piano to create a carnival-like song. Though not necessarily a track that would be considered a hit indie-rock song, he still gets his intentions across. The bizarre feeling of this off kilter carnival song draws attention to his lyrics and story. It breaks down in the bridge into a beautiful, dream-like trance before returning to madness.

If Clarke’s 60’s influence wasn’t clear in the production or songwriting, he makes it known in his vocal performance. He moves between influences fitting his unique voice into each mold. Early on he channels a Rubber Soul era John Lennon on “Cowards Confidence”, crooning at a high pitch and echoing that feeling of teenage longing. He’s able to turn the crooning on and off, innocently darting along the verses of “It Wont Be Too Long” like a young Harry Nilsson. The Midwestern-born, Brooklynite proves he has a little country twang in him on the song, “Hanging Your Picture Up To Dry.” Clarke brings his voice down a touch, doing his best Gram Parsons impression, giving the love-struck sadness it needs. On top of that, he strengthens each vocal performance by singing back up for himself.

Clarke’s lyricism manages to ride the fine line between catchy and simplistic lyrics and storytelling that is deeply impressive. On “Don’t Want to Say Good-bye”, Clarke effectively makes his point. The subject matter may lack originality but he finds a balance between bygone era lyricism and modern appeal. His comfort zone lyrically is clearly in channeling the feelings of teenage love. On “Think I Might Be In Love,” he asks “did you feel that too?” touching on the bittersweet angst of love. However on “Mad About You,” he uses vignettes of reality distorting itself to prove how insane he is about this person. Juxtaposing his madness in the verses with the chorus, “Wouldn’t it be nice to see you/Wouldn’t it be grand to know/You’re mad about me,” Clarke manages to distance himself from the angst of young love that permeates most of the track.

In a way, Hollow Ground is an album where Clarke grows up. Though on the surface it is ‘60s nostalgia and teenage love, Clarke proves himself to be more than just that. The real Max Clarke feels represented in this work and his realness deserves to be appreciated.

Cut Worm’s Hollow Ground is available May 4th, 2018 via Jagjaguwar.

Grateful Dead – In the Dark (1987)

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After the release of the 1980 album Go to Heaven, the Grateful Dead had fulfilled their contract stipulations with Arista Records. This allowed the band to get out of the studio and focus on their real interests, touring arenas and releasing live albums. The Grateful Dead would spend the next six years of their career doing just that. However as the band continued to exist in their bubble, the music industry around them began to change. By the time the band got back into the studio in 1986, the industry was almost entirely different.

In 1980, the best selling album of the year was Pink Floyd’s The Wall. However by 1986, the popular rock music genre had transitioned into hair metal and the best selling album of that year was Whitney Houston’s eponymous debut album. One of the biggest changes in the music industry had come just a year after the release of Go to Heaven, when Viacom launched a television channel devoted to showing music videos. This channel, MTV, became the most influential way of reaching a new generation of music fans. The radio single became second fiddle to the music video and by 1986, VJ’s were the tastemakers and the music video was king.



A Grateful Dead promo image from 1987. 

All the while the Grateful Dead’s fanbase was growing show by show, but performing for ever growing crowds had come with its own issues. By 1983 the toll of long tours, heavy cigarette smoking, unhealthy eating, and opiate addiction was manifesting in Jerry Garcia. His performance on stage lost its life, with all his energy going towards playing his guitar. In 1985 the band held an unsuccessful intervention due of his heroin use and soon after he was arrested in Golden Gate Park for possession. Garcia spent a considerable amount of 1986 clean before relapsing. This time he fell into a diabetic coma for five days, coming out with a new lease on life. Within a few months Garcia had rehabilitated and was back to playing on stage.

The Grateful Dead decided to re-enter the studio to produce an album of new songs they had been playing for the last few years. They tried a new approach this time, recording all together in a dark theater to recreate the feeling of hearing the songs live. This approach, in conjunction with songs that had years of perfecting, would lead to an album of seven solid tracks. The album, In the Dark, would become the band’s best selling studio album, as well as, their highest charting.

The first side of In the Dark immediately starts off with the band’s hit single, “Touch of Grey.” The Garcia/Hunter track enjoyed mainstream success thanks in part to a frequently played music video on MTV. The track is a welcoming one for the new album, inviting new listeners. Garcia’s voice now sounds deeper and his aging and declining health is taking a sonic toll. However, the song still has great percussion from Mickey Hart and nice harmonies from the group of middle-aged rockers. The album transitions into “Hell in a Bucket,” another single which featured MTV play. The track penned by John Perry Barlow with music by Bob Weir and Brent Mydland is a heavy rocker. Weir delivers some powerful vocals tinged with comedy. The lyrics are about a guy who’s aware of his eventual demise, but is going to enjoy the long way down. The song drums up images of bikers and circuses and includes the sound effects for it in the background.

The band then slows things down on the track, “When Push Comes to Shove.” The slowed down blues rock song features Hunter using the famous idiom in a catchy way. The real standout on the track is keyboardist Brent Mydland, whose piano playing pulls the emotion out of the track. Side one winds down with another Garcia/Hunter track, “West LA Fadeaway.” The melody is right out of the Garcia playbook, but brought up to date with some synth playing from Mydland. These synths, along with the pitched up background vocals and rattle effects, feel incredibly dated compared to modern music.

The other side of the record starts off with the Brent Mydland track, “Tons of Steel.” Mydland’s only lead vocal on the album is strong, utilizing his emotional and gruff voice. The lyrics, which compare a woman and a train, are fairly cheesy, but feel much more meaningful because of Mydland’s vocal prowess. Again though, Mydland plays with a overly-’80s synthesizer which only dates the song. The next track, “Throwing Stones,” is a Barlow/Weir composition that sounds pulled out of the group’s ‘70s discography. With an opening riff that sounds similar to “Terrapin Station” and an “Althea”-like progression, Garcia gives the song and instant Dead quality. Barlow’s political lyricism echoes the maturity, which in tandem with the nursery rhyme “Ashes to Ashes” in the chorus, make the tune smart and entertaining.

The group wrap up the album on “Black Muddy River.” The nostalgic folk song feels like “Ripple” or “Brokedown Palace”. The track’s lyrics ring with the maturity of a middle-aged man realizing they are halfway through their life. The track is a perfect ender for the album, and is especially fitting that it was the second to last song played at the Dead’s final concert. On the tape release of In the Dark, there was one more song, “My Brother Esau”, which appeared after “Black Muddy River.” This Barlow/Weir composition was ultimately omitted from the Vinyl and CD releases, as well as, the digital edition to this day.

In the Dark is the natural progression of the Grateful Dead after over twenty years together. They never get too into the jams and produce a short album with all radiolength songs. The experience of studio hiatus, newfound energy, and a fresh approach in the studio was the perfect synergy to create an album that would find success. In the Dark’s success can be attributed to many factors, but timing might be the ultimate reason. Looking back at 1986-1989 many artists who came to fame in the 60’s had regained success, Paul Simon with “You Can Call Me Al,” The Beach Boys with “Kokomo,” George Harrison with “Got My Mind Set On You,” and Steve Winwood with “Roll With It,” just to name a few. All these artists had well over twenty years in the industry under the belts and were still charting in the Top Ten.

With a music video on MTV, “Touch of Grey” became a huge hit. This hit song led to In the Dark peaking on the Billboard chart at #6 best selling album of the week. After 22 years of existing in the counterculture the band was finally mainstream in their middle age. The success of In the Dark also gave birth to a new generation of fans dubbed Touchheads. These new Deadheads began to flood the live shows for the band. The Grateful Dead were now attracting more people to their concerts that could fit in the arenas and soon had more people outside of the venue than in. The Dead were bigger and more mainstream than ever, but the band had now become the group they never strived to be.

New Music: Father John Misty Releases Two Singles from Upcoming Album

Image Courtesy of the Artist

Last year Father John Misty (real name Josh Tillman), dropped Pure Comedy. The album was one of the year’s finest, with Tillman touching on subjects like technology, fame, aging, and humanity. This week he announced his follow-up, God’s Favorite Customer. The upcoming project is already looking to be a departure from the last, with both tracks he released alongside the announcement being more upbeat than a majority of his last work. However the two new singles, “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” and “Just Dumb Enough To Try,” continue to ooze with Tillman’s sardonic and intelligent lyricism.

The first single “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” is a folk-pop anthem with tinges of psychedelia in the guitars and vocals. Tillman hits the high notes over the short chorus. The track’s ultimate message that people shouldn’t act like every relationship is some perfect romance movie is terse and simple. His usage of metaphor during the verses, comparing love to off putting things such as oil spills and eye twitches, is classic Father John Misty.

Tillman also released a second single, the piano-led “Just Dumb Enough To Try”. The track features fantastic crooning by Tillman as expected, but shakes things up with a breakdown featuring fuzzy guitars and synths. The instrumentation creates a dense sonicscape for Tillman’s lyrics to occupy. Once more Tillman reflects on love, this time his lack of knowledge on the subject. He looks at his own abilities as a musician and intellectual, realizing he shouldn’t write about love, but doing it anyway.

The first two singles, along with the previously released track “Mr.Tillman,” will be a part of the upcoming 10 track record for Father John Misty. God’s Favorite Customer is out June 1st and looks to be a piece of self reflection for the self-proclaimed future “Oldest Man in Folk Rock.”