Monday, June 5, 2017

album review: 'relaxer' by alt-j

Oh, I'm not going to make any fans with this review. Mostly because there is very much a reason I've avoided talking about alt-j, a breakthrough UK indie pop group that I've found a fair bit more frustrating than actually likable, not helped by comparisons to Radiohead I never thought we deserved.

See, I've listened to An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours, and to some extent I see the appeal - they can take some obtuse methods of hitting melody, they have a liquid approach to guitar grooves that I'd normally like, they have a frontman with a distinct voice and writing that on the surface seems somewhat approachable, they dabble in other subgenres adjacent to rock... yeah, note the word 'dabble', because every listen to alt-J gives me the impression there is nothing all that striking or compelling beneath all the 'weird' indie pop pivots. The biggest consistent criticism with their first two records are that they're overstuffed messes, but that can be redeemed if they add up to something with an edge or something to say, whereas every listen I've given to alt-j just finds it all the more hollow to me. I can tolerate weirdness for its own sake, but frankly, this doesn't feel alien or imposing or challenging, just obtuse and sterile and sexless, the music marketers think the lowest common denominator of hipsters like. Sure, there are a few pretty vocal harmonies, especially on This Is All Yours, but that doesn't disguise the fact the records are dreary slogs that think they are a lot more interesting than they actually are. And it's not helped by the fact that I find Joe Newman a particularly unengaging and unlikable frontman, especially when you dig into the lyrics - it's one of the reasons I've never found the Radiohead comparison made any sense, because even though I'm not really a fan, Yorke's writing and intensity was far more compelling than this, and he certainly aims higher.

But hey, you guys wanted me to talk about Relaxer thanks to Patreon, so maybe three records in alt-j will have found something workable?

Well, no, not really at all. And before you all lose your minds here, that's not saying that this record is precisely bad - although its low points really do stand out, at least to me - because that would imply there's something here that's actually worth hating. In reality, maybe alt-j just isn't for me and Relaxer proves it, but I think the more glaring question is who the hell this is actually for, because the thematic and instrumental muddle on this project really can test my patience.

And I think the place we need to start with this is the production and instrumentation - and again, I'm failing to see what's so experimental and challenging about this project. For one, it starts off on '3WW' with an lingering sandy bass progression with slight off-rhythm snaps that kind of remind me of the opening bars of Garth Brooks' 'The River' but with way less interesting melody, at least until Gus-Unger Hamilton and Joe Newman start crooning and we get flutters of piano and arranged instrumentation and I'm left feeling this is way less romantic or sexy than it's trying to be, especially when the buzzy blocks of synth muddle the mix, not helped by Ellie Rowsell's seeming disinterest in her bridge. And yet that feeling of this record's tone and sound being a lot less sensual or raw is pretty consistent across the project, from the noisy drums and cowbell behind 'Hit Me Like That Snare' that tries to go for psychedelic blues snarl in the guitar and rubbery organ, and yet forgets any actual bassline - which also happens on the cleaner, brassier 'In Cold Blood' tat might have had some weight and swagger with a low end that could match that snare and guitar rattle. It's an analogous issue to the panting and deep thrums that run through 'Deadcrush' - which is about exactly what its title implies - complete with an awful squawking delivery from from our frontman and extended choppy chipmunk fragments - it sounds less creepy or unsettling and more like the unwanted soundtrack to college guys jerking off to bad erotica written a hundred years ago. That's the weird and awkward thing about this album: I'd like to hope that alt-j has some self-awareness about how clumsily creepy some of these tracks feel - 'Adeline' is a song that cribs from Hans Zimmer's score of Terrance Mallick's The Thin Red Line, which is a film about the Pacific theater in WWII, and yet alt-j interpolate it to this melancholic track where, according to them, a Tasmanian devil spys on the titular girl and I think it's going for some form of melancholy but the mood is a total mess, and that's before you get the distorted 'yahs' for this surging outro that doesn't click at all!

Now that's not saying all these hooks are precisely bad - 'In Cold Blood' desperately needs some nervy tension in the low end to really connect but the horns sounded fine enough, and I'll give points to the vocal arrangement of 'Pleader' once the song finally gets going after over two minutes of instrumental buildup - between the organ and strings and in between the jangling discordance and flutes, there's some potent swell there, especially for the final segment. But it gets to be a little hilarious when you realize that the running phrase 'how green was my valley' was originally quoted from the book of the same name after the protagonist's first sexual encounter - and not only does alt-J seem to know this context, they're playing it entirely earnestly in context, reflecting the same awkward implied 'was it good for you' that ran through '3WW'. And once you place this record in any sort of extended thematic context, the whole 'unrequited sexual awakening' highlights this record's incompetence, overcompensation, and unintentional hilarity. Critics have already laughed at the line from '3WW' 'Well, that smell of sex / good like burning wood', but 'Pleader' offers a bounty of riches, from the green valley references to all the mentions of softness and the Queen on the final segment, played without a hint of irony! Now that's merely hilarious, and I already highlighted the creepy on 'Deadcrush' and bizarrely-sincere-when-it-shouldn't-be on 'Adeline' - then you have incompetence on 'Hit Me Like That Snare', which with its brothel and its sex swings and its Japanese dominatrices and fisting is trying to be so edgy... and then you get the third verse referencing Harry Potter with bad puns of all things and a floor of 'happy wizards scissoring' and it completely yanks me out of the track. This isn't sexy or raw or intense - certainly isn't dangerous or reckless, which combined with the instrumentation just leaves it in a dead zone where I've read and written fanfiction with more punch than this, both literary and otherwise! 

Of course, then we get the other cases which are a little less excusable, with the absolute worst case being the extended, tortured, and utterly insulting "cover" of 'House Of The Rising Sun', most popularized by The Animals in 1964. And I'll be blunt: this is easily the worst cover or 'interpretation' of this song, worse than the Five Finger Death Punch cover, not just because of the shifts in the vocal melody to more major keys or that it's somehow a full minute longer than the original and has nowhere close to the groove or muscle as the watery scratch of the guitars never really goes anywhere or because Joe Newman sings with the fortitude of a dead cat - pretty common across this project - but also because they opt to shift the lyrics in order to refocus on the father figure's alcoholism instead of the main character following in his father's footsteps to ruins. What this also serves to do is pull away any sense of responsibility that might fall on our protagonist's appetites, which is later echoed on the extended ballad 'Last Year', which casts a slow depression and suicide in the midst of callbacks across the album that has this protagonist's partner sing at his funeral. And I really do loathe the framing of this, because from the dismissive female vocals at the beginning to Marika Hackman at the conclusion, it rings as a guilt trip that's only alleviated on 'Pleader' by him finally getting laid and yet still asking the girl how green his valley was! It's such a fundamentally adolescent worldview, not helped by the usage of the guest singers in a very Chainsmokers-esque validation exercise, and yet with the horns and elaborate arranged pieces and extended runtime and 'reinterpretation' of classic songs, it's trying for dramatic bombast it cannot remotely back up with anything close to soul or presence or a frontman who can actually command a stage.

But again, that's been consistent about alt-j, a band where awkward references passes for wit, none of the instrumentation is tight enough to match their ambitions, and there's nothing clever or self-aware enough to pass for ironic - again, this is a band passing off as sincere romantic sentiment the line 'I just want to love you in my own language'. To be fair there are moments where the vocal arrangements can connect, but there's a pompous sexless pretentiousness that reeks across 'Relaxer', embodied by every five minute plus track that should have been cut in half. I'm thinking a strong 4/10 and only a recommendation for fans, if that, but considering I've heard smarter and punchier indie folk, indie pop, and even blues rock this year, I don't see myself having any use for this - pass.

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