The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Vivascene rating 2.5 out of 5 stars
Colin Meloy and his band of Portlanders are seen as the most “intelligent” folk-rock group – and the branding is intentional. The Decemberists are unabashedly nerds, and they make music for likeminded geeks: this is the music of theatre people, pirate cosplayers, and people who prefer medieval fantasy to everyday drudgery.
However, even people that prefer fantasy to despair have their limits. On 2006’s The Crane Wife the band explored Japanese folklore and on 2009’s The Hazards of Love they finally went full-on rock opera. Both these albums yielded some successes, but were ultimately indulgent and hard to swallow. The Decemberists returned in 2011 with The King is Dead, perhaps their greatest achievement, if not a brilliant, concise slice of American folk revivalism.
Four years is a lifetime between albums, suggesting that the band were hard at work finding a new, similarly amazing sound for the next album. Instead of turning outwards, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World focuses inwards, examining where the band has already been and perhaps finally settling on an identity we can all be comfortable with. But who wants comfort? “We know, we know, we belong to ya” Meloy sings on meta album opener, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, a song that recognizes the audience and appreciates how they’ve always stuck by. Ultimately the music on this one is too under-ambitious, too generic to really fall in love with. Yes, songs like “Make You Better” show how the band can still kick out a memorable anthem, but it’s doubtful they’ll ever write a better set of songs than The King Is Dead.
Björk – Vulnicura
Vivascene rating 4.5 out of 5 stars
On “Stonemilker”, the opening track from Björk’s ninth studio album, Vulnicura, the opulent musician exclaims: “Moments of clarity are so rare/I better document this”. The lyric can be seen as a setup for the rest of the album, which is the Icelandic artist’s most succinct and accomplished work in over a decade. Combining elements of orchestral world music, glitchy electronica, and avant-garde singing, Vulnicura certainly expresses a moment of clarity for the singer. It is perhaps her most cohesive, fully-formed album; every influence and genre experiment interconnects and melds with Björk’s specific brand of eccentricity and vocal prowess.
The beatmaker and producer, Arca, shares production credits on several of the album’s tracks and Vulnicura sounds current and modern, while still being forward thinking. The album’s daring centrepiece is the 10-minute long “Black Lake”, an epic number of separation and spiritual self-destruction. The album was conceived in the midst of Björk’s separation from artist Matthew Barney, and Vulnicura explores her emotional and spiritual transformation during the process; when the relationship began and its unfortunate demise. In the final verse of “Black Lake” Björk suggests kind-of moving forward, while still acknowledging how she’s forever changed: “I am a glowing shiny rocket/Returning home/As I enter the atmosphere/I burn off layer by layer”.
Vulnicura frames its experimentalism in the classic trope of the break-up album, but what’s truly special is the album’s sonic mastery. Like the recent Black Messiah LP from D’Angelo, Vulnicura is one of those rare records that surpass normal classifications of music: an album of total mastery and control over its individual elements, and a musical vision that is equal parts modern and unclassifiable.
Wilco – Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014
Vivascene rating 3 out of 5 stars
Few contemporary bands are better suited to receiving the rarities box set treatment as Wilco. From Jeff Tweedy’s post-Uncle Tupelo days, to the experimental sheen of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, up to their current iteration as elder statesmen of rock – there’s no doubt a horde of unexplored gems from throughout the band’s career ready to be unearthed.
Luckily, Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 does a good job of gathering this material together. All the goodies are here: live tracks, rare and unreleased songs, and, most interestingly, alternative versions of well-known classics. For longtime fans of the band, it’s infinitely wonderful to see how a noise rock jam like “Camera” (on the box set’s third-disc) became the sunny, deconstructed pop song “Kamera” from Yankee. Likewise, unreleased tracks from the Yankee and Ghost sessions, such as “A Magazine Called Sunset” and “More Like The Moon”, are fantastic numbers that add great depth to an already fascinating period in the band’s history. The live tracks from the Being There-era are also top notch, as are the performances from Ghost and Sky Blue Sky – proof that the band is one of the most eclectic live acts still performing. It’s true that almost all the tracks on this four-disc collection have been available online or as bootlegs for quite some time, but putting them altogether in one package is essential, demonstrating the longevity and evolution of a band that shows no signs of stopping.