Monday, November 2, 2015

album review: 'return to the moon' by EL VY

You ever have those albums that the first time you hear about the idea, you wonder why on earth nobody has ever thought of it before?

Yes, I know, I've used that tagline before when I've talked about Casualties of Cool and FFS and Algiers, but when I heard about the team-up of frontman of The National Matt Berninger with former Menomena member and current Ramona Falls frontman Brett Knopf... well, the thought didn't come immediately. The National might be one of the most stable and acclaimed groups in modern indie rock - for good reason, they're awesome - but Menomena was something different altogether, an experimental group specializing in looped progressions and an oddly democratic and programmed composition process that sparked enough curiosity for me to dig into their early albums. And holy God, I'm glad I did, because while it was experimental in an oddly regimented way, this group had a knack for fantastic melodic loops and progressions that if married to the crescendos and intricate lyricism that had made The National a favourite of mine, we could have something special. And just for curiosity - and to check to see if Menomena hadn't been an amazing fluke - I also checked out Ramona Falls, and while they're a looser act, the great melodies are still here along with a slightly more eclectic and theatrical presentation that also happens to be pretty damn awesome. 

So, okay, two great tastes coming together to make an album that Berninger described as his most personal and inspired by a blend of the musical Grease and the punk band Minutemen - and you should know them because they're awesome and Double Nickels On The Dime is a goddamn classic... look, this was bound to be interesting at least. Was I right?

I'm of two minds when it comes to this record - because on the first four or five listens, I was so sucked into the instrumentation and melodic grooves and great production and Matt Berninger's dulcet tones that I found it hard to dislike anything I was hearing. And I figured that if Berninger was going back to the pseudo-nonsensical lyrics, I shouldn't care all that much about deconstructing what he was doing, right? So I figured one deeper read through would be enough... and six more listens later, I'm convinced that the story this record is trying to tell is where this record treads into complicated territory. Because at its core, if Return To The Moon by EL VY is inspired by Grease, it's about the absolute worst elements of Danny and Sandy facing the inevitable sour consequences. And the twisted part is that the album completely knows it and is playing it by way of Father John Misty crossed with The Black Keys' Turn Blue - not as good as the former, definitely better than the latter, and all with one of the weirdest emotional cores I've heard in a while.

So let's start with the simplest part of this conversation: the instrumentation and production. And really I find extremely hard to complain about anything here, because while it is genre-bending - grabbing chunks of grimier garage rock with even hints of Beck-inspired funk or Black Keys-esque blues, more spacious and rubbery modern indie rock, or even vintage pop - Brett Knopf still has an incredible knack for structuring ridiculously catchy melodic hooks and grooves. The guitar rollicks can be quirky, like the title track or the bounciness of 'Paul Is Alive' against that dark muted beat, or the more frenetic progressions anchored in the keys of 'Need A Friend' or the snarled sparking menace of 'Sad Case' that eventually pays off its transitions into the killer and most Minutemen-esque track on the album 'Happiness, Missouri', but the striking thing is that there is still an underlying basic cohesion through the backing vocals, the prominent bass, the crisp drumwork, and pretty damn solid grooves accented by melodies either acoustic or driven by liquid spikes of electric guitar or rubbery synth/piano lines. And while there are a few songs that end abruptly, for the most part the instrumentation on these tracks just work incredibly well for me - the balance between acoustic and spacey tones all across this record, the xylophone flourishes on 'I'm The Man To Be', the organ and synth interplay on 'Need A Friend', the smoky noir of 'Silent Ivy Hotel', that flute and groove on 'Sleeping Light', and especially that organ and key change on 'No Time To Crank The Sun'. I'm honestly having a hard time finding flaws or problems with the composition - some of the synth tones can be a little weird or not as much to my taste, like the warble on 'It's A Game', or the tinny organ stings on 'Silent Ivy Hotel', but really, those are minor.

And it's a similar case with Matt Berninger's vocals. I've liked his liquid baritone in The National for years, but pairing him with more eclectic instrumentation places him out of his element almost immediately. Now Knopf does his best to smooth over the edges with filters and plenty of backing vocals both male and female, but Berninger's consistent stability and weary delivery lends an anchor point to these tracks that's just self-aware enough to colour his heartfelt delivery. And while there are a few points he pushes towards his upper register which are a bit questionable, for the most part he plays the perennially depressed sadsack just enough to win our sympathy, but not quite enough for us to ignore the fact that across most of this album, he's being a raging asshole. And just like Father John Misty ahead of him, not only does he blunt the sting with humour, he also frames the situation as the furthest thing from glorification.

This takes us to lyrics, and remember when I referenced Turn Blue by The Black Keys, a record about a relationship between two terrible people for all the wrong reasons? Yeah, Return To The Moon plays in a similar vein, albeit with a splash of The Weeknd's blunt honesty owning his melancholy and Beck's willfully perverse sense of humour that we really don't see enough of these days from him. It helps immediately that the record has a thin narrative between the characters of Michael and Didi - very loosely tied to Mike Watt and D. Boon of Minutemen, flipping the gender with the latter - which adds the distance to temper the autobiography. And that's definitely a good thing because if Michael is Berninger's closest avatar, he's not likeable: a guy who falls into rock stardom he doesn't feel he deserves or fits comfortably, who can behave like a strutting, drunken ass on stage but is still practicing auto-erotic asphyxiation and wearing a collared shirt with the words 'Fuck Me' emblazoned on the front - the green one, he adds, if only to highlight how little he's different from the rest of the meat-headed dicks who wear them. Hell, when it traces back to his past it only highlights how his childhood wasn't bad, his angst is paltry, and how especially in his case there's no point going back to the past to complain, instead owning the truth of who he is now. This is where he meets Didi, treats her with a blend of whining and casual disregard, and it'd be a lot more funny if she didn't just take it and hook up with him. Then the narrative shifts, as 'No Time To Crank The Sun' shows Michael the morning after trying to justify his departure... but his fake composure is cracking. It's becoming less of a game as real emotions are creeping in along with his loneliness and how he tries to extend a hand to win her back. And then comes Didi's response on 'Sad Case', and the key revelations: for one, Didi's just as damaged and messed up as he is - which is why the hookup happened in the first place - and trying to force happiness in either of them together is a disaster waiting to happen. For another, for as much as Michael references his past and his hometown Cincinnati, neither of them will ultimately be remembered - you're not as special as you think you are, which might as well be the secondary theme of this record. And then the final irony: for as much as Michael was emphasizing how he'd never change from his wandering rock star lifestyle when trying to leave Didi behind, the arc of the album shows him finally trying to accept change to love her... and yet it's unclear if she's going to take him back. 

Now here's the thing: I can see why some might find this record a little insufferable, because neither of these characters are all that likeable and the ending isn't exactly a happy one - sort of analogous to HBO's Girls and its relationship dynamics. And if this record was framing any of this as glorification or like romance, it'd be pushing it - hell, Berninger's delivery is just likeable enough that it pushes it right to the line, because he's not supposed to be entirely sympathetic. But I'd argue the underlying message carries through and it focuses on knowing one's self and accepting the consequences for it. And in this case, I like the lack of explicit more judgement on either part: if Michael wants to live the lie and be the swaggering rock star asshole and leave Didi behind, do it and be willing to accept that she wants nothing more to do with you should you come back - mostly because at that point they're just like each other. Otherwise... well, it's not clear whether or not the more honest melancholy would have worked, and I like that it's left ambiguous and leaning towards the negative - even if you're willing to make a change, it's not guaranteed to work, you're not guaranteed that happy ending. That shows the maturity that's always underscored Berninger's writing, and it's probably the smartest way he could have ended this.

In short... look, this is going to be a polarizing album, almost like Girls is a polarizing TV series. And just like Girls I don't exactly find it incredibly funny, but there's a core to the central relationship I can't help but find very potent. And for as sleazy, ugly, and filled with insufferable white boy angst as this album is, it's smart enough to be right along with you scoffing at it... even if deep down there's the uncomfortable realization it's not as far removed as you'd like to think. But when you pair it with some of the most catchy, quirky, and melodic indie rock I've heard this year... the album hit me pretty hard and works really damn well. Granted, I'm going to rate this highly - as in it's getting a light 9/10 from me - but it's a highly qualified recommendation. Again, this album will be polarizing, and I can see if you're not a fan of The National or Menomena or lyrical arcs like this, you won't like this album. But when the melodic grooves are this potent and the writing is this emotive and intelligent... yeah, folks, this definitely works for me.

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