Jens Lekman I Know What Love Isn’t

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Frankly I’m glad this review is now almost six months late. Had I written a review upon its September 3rd release, I probably wouldn’t have been so receptive to the Swede’s third long-player. Largely absent from this effort are the unusual samples that made so many of Jens Lekman’s songs so memorable–and that’s not to say that the 10 songs that comprise I Know What Love Isn’t aren’t memorable, it’s just that they’re of a different breed.

Rarely does cover art so accurately reflect the music contained within; for the casual fan, a lot of I Know What Love Isn’t may seem flat and unfinished, almost forgettable compared to the bright and vivid colors used to paint his previous efforts Night Falls Over Kortedala and Oh You’re So Silent Jens. But like so many brilliant artists, Jens is a victim of his oeuvre. Compared to his previous albums, I Know What Love Isn’t is intentionally and comparatively bland, evoking the earthy and dull UPS-brown that dominates the cover art.

It’s been five years since we last caught up with our Swedish hero and 2012 finds him struggling to mend a broken heart. Jen’s strained heartache is strongly reminiscent of Beck’s Sea Change; both share similar themes, both are minimalistic albums from artists who are known to be extremely bright and expressive, both are departures from sample-heavy discographies, and both are brilliant despite their flaws. What makes Jen’s heart-ache so special is his ability to dissect ordinary moments that may seem inconsequential at the time but are later revealed to be signs of impending doom . Lyrics like “‘Baby, what’s wrong?’ You say ‘Nothing. It’s nothing.'” seem so ordinary in print, but as part of the chorus to “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”, become utterly devastating.

What becomes clear early on is that Jens has done a lot of the suffering on his own already. Lyrically many of the songs suggest that, yes, hearts may be broken, but they may be mended as well. Jens reminds us that you don’t ever recover from a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully, and while the world moves on whether or not you’re OK, you can take comfort in the fact that there’s someone out there somewhere just as brokenhearted as you.

Grade: A-

Japandroids, Celebration Rock

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The new Japandroids album is loud.  That is the first, and most inescapable, fact about the album.  With drums insistently pushing the pace and thrusting every other part of the sound louder and louder, if Celebration Rock fails, it’s certainly not for lack of energy.  The next obvious fact is that it’s clear these guys have done their homework on guitar layering and delays, and are not afraid to point that out in every song.  It works, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Finally, just to compete with the massive sonic landscape and propulsive drumming, singer Brian King is yelling in every song, as if turning up the mic was not the answer he was looking for.

This all adds up to a cathartic rush of sounds and adrenaline.  Celebration Rock is an ode to the type of youth we all hope to have, but few ever do.  It’s an ongoing rush.  It’s driving music.  It’s live music.  It’s been done before.  The difference here is that the songs are more about holding onto the liveliness of youth as it fades away, rather than being in the thick of it.  These songs, particularly “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “The House that Heaven Built”, lay this vibe on thick and to perfection.  The music evokes a desperate grasp to maintain youth.   While there is a sense of melancholia throughout, there is also inspiration in the drive towards this goal, even if success is only fleeting.

All of this may sound heavy-handed, but the album is, as all truly great albums are, more than the sum of its parts.  Although some may have an issue with the lack of dynamics in the song (translation: every song is loud and rocking; no ballads here), the Japandroids were very judicious in their editing, keeping the album at just about 35 minutes with no filler.  This keeps the thrill and energy consistent for the listener throughout, without bogging down.

Although not exactly an innovative or classic album, for what Celebration Rock is going for, it succeeds unquestionably.  The only desire I have now is to hear this music live, where it was clearly meant to be all along.

Grade: A –

Bob Dylan, Tempest

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With every new Bob Dylan album comes a rearrangement of his oeuvre in order from greatest to worst. Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and eleventh-hour classics like “Love and Theft” and Time Out of Mind rank high on any half-assed best of list and so the question must be asked: where does Dylan’s latest opus rank among his highly-venerated past?

The answer is sorta tricky. Tempest is his late-period Desire–a would-be contender held back by a few missteps. There are a lot of great moments on Tempest; at its best it’s a slightly more focused iteration of Modern Times, however, at its worst it’s Dylan on auto-pilot trudging through tired cliches while occasionally delivering the classic one-line zinger hipster-neophytes and old-timers alike adore.

Dylan’s greatest late-period album may be Time Out of Mind–and oddly enough Tempest makes a strong case for it. Produced by Daniel Lanois, Time Out of Mind featured a word-weary grittiness that perfectly meshed with Dylan’s scowl and bitter odes to love gone wrong, and while every album after Time Out of Mind has found Dylan rummaging through the same old-timey, washed-out, blues-tinged song cycles, they simply haven’t matched Time Out of Mind’s gloriously triumphant sad-bastard sonic landscapes.

There’s a certain Phil Spector-esque sheen that has pervaded Dylan’s work ever since 2001’s “Love and Theft”; the end result sounds a little too clean; a little too polished. The late-night-dive-bar murkiness that defined much of Time Out of Mind has long since been eradicated in favor of a cleaner, brighter, sometimes hard-rocking, but ultimately suffocating sound that sounds more like a static template for Dylan to ramble on about topics ranging from crazy women to John Lennon to–of all things–the Titanic.

Tempest is at its best when Dylan puts on his best Dirty Harry impersonation and calls for bloodshed–but not his own. The rocking numbers (basically every odd-numbered song on the album) are truly great; it’s the ballads that drag. The album’s even-numbered tracks fail to reach the seemingly impossible heights of classics like “Not Dark Yet” and “When the Deal Goes Down” while the “Desolation Row”-esque title track falls short of its 14-minute plus ambitions.

While the first half provides a few memorable numbers, Tempest remains a curiously innocuous album that finds Dylan further settling in to his late-period formula of vintage old-timey sound, trading rockers with ballads through a 10-song cycle largely devoted to the same themes he’s been harping about since 1997. Dylan’s raspy, angry vocals are as raspy and angry as ever; it’s just a shame the songs themselves lack any sort of bite.

Grade: B –