Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, The Hold Steady

The summer music season arrives today with the release of a slew of new albums from big-name pop acts competing for your download or disc dollar. With all that new music on the way, I thought I’d change things up a little bit and do three shorter reviews in place of my usual single bimonthly review.

You’re welcome.

Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record

I really wanted to like this album. I did. Broken Social Scene’s previous record, their self-titled 2005 effort, is something I still listen to now.

This album, I probably won’t be listening to even next week.

As I was spinning through it for this review and taking notes, I couldn’t even think of very much to write down about it. For a couple of the tracks, all I could manage was an “eh.” A few others got an “OK.” I wrote down “pretty” to describe certain sections of some songs. But none of it really grabbed me. Where was the energy of this huge collective’s last two records? It seemed to have been sapped away.

I don’t know what this says, but my favorite parts of this record are the ones where nobody’s singing. The only really worthwhile, energetic track, “Meet Me In The Basement,” is an instrumental. “Ungrateful Little Father” ends with a nice instrumental bit, too.

The only other tracks worth mentioning are “Water In Hell,” which sees BSS again channeling indie rock heroes Pavement, and “Me and My Hand,” a stripped-down, tongue-in-cheek ditty about just what it looks like.

If only the rest of the album had shared that inventiveness.

You think: It’s worth streaming once, but not much more than that.

The New Pornographers, Together

The New Pornographers are one of my favorite groups of the last decade, and I’d hold up their first two records to just about anything else you could throw at me, so it was a bit of a disappointment when their last record, Challengers,wasn’t quite up to their standards, despite a couple of effortlessly catchy tracks.

But now I see that that record was merely a step along the way to this one, the group’s full realization of their evolution from power-pop jangle makers to full-on anthemists.

The powerful sound the NPs put on display here, especially in tracks such as “Crash Years” (one of my nominees for track of the year so far), “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” and “Daughters of Sorrow,” is one chief songwriter Carl Newman has been crafting for a while on his solo albums, but the contributions of Neko Case, Dan Bejar and the rest of the band really flesh out that kernel here.

That said, the album does include a couple misfires — notably “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” which veers away from pop bombast in favor of a bluegrass sound that doesn’t really agree with the band, and “Silver Jenny Dollar,” one of Bejar’s songs, which sounds a little too much like his other contributions to previous albums. (Though another of his tracks, “If You Can’t See My Mirrors,” is a definite step in the right direction.)

Even so, this record stands to shoot the NPs into the echelon that Case has moved into with her own solo work, and they deserve to be there.

You think: It’ll probably slip into your top five this year.

The Hold Steady: Heaven is Whenever

Generally, when I think about The Hold Steady, I tend to think of them as a fun band. You know, hanging around in bars, slinging around beers, laughing a lot and singing songs. When I saw them live a couple years ago at a festival, they were just so happy to be there. It was infectious. Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay and the rest were just having such a great time up there, you couldn’t help but feel the same way.

Now, Franz has left the band, and, as much as I hate to say this, it just doesn’t seem as fun anymore. Their other albums felt like a party. This felt like a slog.

The very first track, “Sweet Part of the City,” comes out of the gate sounding like a Led Zeppelin rip-off, which is not exactly what you want to hear from your favorite neighborhood bar band, and subsequent tracks alternate between a sound something like mid-80s Van Halen, Motley Crue and, weirdly enough, early-00s pop punk, with some lyrics about some kids who want to have fun, kinda maybe, thrown in.

The pop-punkiest track of the bunch, “Hurricane J,” actually does pick up near the end, and the band manages to sound a bit like their old “Boys and Girls in America”-style selves, but it doesn’t last. By the next-to-last track, “Our Whole Lives,” The Hold Steady’s sounding a bit like an impression of themselves.

Much like Broken Social Scene’s effort, THS doesn’t seem to have much interest in trying anything fresh until the last track, here titled “Slight Discomfort.” Finn’s voice here takes on a creepy, ominous vibe with some well-used repetition and the guitar sound is really dark and haunting. It’s not exactly fun either, but it puts on no pretensions that it should be. It’s maybe the most adult song the band has made, and in a good way. Let’s hope the next album sounds more like that.

You think: It’s worth streaming once, but not much more than that.

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