April 23, 2018

A Perfect Circle - Eat The Elephant Review


Almost a decade and a half has passed since the last release of a full-length proper studio album by A Perfect Circle, not counting their anti-war cover album eMotive, released in late 2004. One might ask themselves then, if too much time has transpired to give reason for releasing a third studio album, given A Perfect Circle's short timetable in the first place. It's this and other concerns which give Eat The Elephant a lukewarm return for the band, for it functions as a welcome back album that covers time-tested familiar ground, but also chooses to deviate, sometimes heavily, into newer, uncertain waters.

As far as the artwork is concerned, this is the first album to feature the faces of its main songwriters on its cover, a departure from their abstract covers before, and they don't hesitate to show us a pair of unsettling images of Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel for fans to feast their eyes on. Both members are split and conjoined together in a hunched over pose and offering what can only be described as a red and blue octopus. Assuming they're making a political statement in artwork and title, it comes off rather grotesque, which might have been their intention.

The title track, which happens to be the opener of the album, might actually be the explanation for the entire album in the first place, as the band's frontman Maynard James Keenan sings, "where to begin eludes me", displaying a vulnerability often felt for many artists during the creative process, and more generally, the feeling for anyone who has a great undertaking. Therefore, Keenan concludes to "take the step, take the bite", and eat the elephant. This may be a very telling view of Keenan when working with his bands A Perfect Circle and Tool, waiting for projects to transpire for many years, which was the precise reason why he invented Puscifer, to stay involved in making music from yet again another perspective creatively. It's not exactly the strongest track, but keeping it the album's title does explain the great obstacle the band faced in making a comeback album, and it serves to taper our expectations for the subsequent singles that follow it.

Their first couple singles, "Disillusioned" and "The Doomed" are slow burners, with multiple movements and changes in rhythm as Keenan sings about disconnectedness and apocalyptic anxiety. Both tracks follow virtually the same construct, and it seems like they could have settled on picking just one of the two to be the album's single, as they both share the same successful, yet redundant, formula: compelling instrumentation paired with strong messages and vocals from Keenan.

Directly following such a brooding and heavy single such as "The Doomed", one of the most confounding creative decisions of the album appears to have been to shoehorn in the most optimistic and joyous track A Perfect Circle have ever recorded, creating an undoubtedly jarring tonal shift in "So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish". The album would possibly have benefitted from the exclusion of this track for future release as a B-side, as it stands out as the band's attempt at stadium rock, with themes already covered in "Disillusioned", only this time executed with what might seem uninspired or goofy lyrics. The overall effect might turn many longtime fans away, and just be a track skipped over to get to the real meat of the album, but it still has the ability to brighten any listener's day with a perfectly captured mood.

It's not until nearly halfway through the album, on the 6th and 7th tracks, that personally I hear a stroke of genius, and the A Perfect Circle that I grew up falling in love with. The songwriting of "TalkTalk" and "By and Down the River" illustrate the best examples of A Perfect Circle's tender, yet intense juxtaposition, the closest they've come to the music they produced in their second album Thirteenth Step just under 15 years prior. "By and Down the River" has Keenan unleashing a vocal performance of unmatched brilliance when compared to his other recent release under his Puscifer moniker or even if you compare him to any other contemporary artists in alternative rock and metal. Keenan's voice has and always will be a major draw in anything he chooses to do musically. This single, furthermore, is probably the strongest track on Eat The Elephant simply because of the amount of time the song has been gestating with the band, appearing only as a non album single many years before in an earlier form. The rest of newer material presented on ETE may struggle to find a home, both in the ears of new listeners and longtime fans. There are newer ideas presented here, and still there are songs with traditional APC familiarity, such as "Delicious", which contains some Mer de Noms vibes with its slight dissonance and eastern musical scales and shows off another exciting Keenan performance as he plays around with his musical range and sounds cautiously optimistic, a feeling more fit for APC than the straightforward, hollow chanting of "hip-hip-hooray" in "So Long..." There's always more details and depths to dive into as a listener in tracks like "Delicious" and "The Contrarion", early on in the album, when compared to the weaker ones I've mentioned before.

"DLB", the one instrumental, stands out from the rest of the album because it's the shortest track on the album, and also that it mostly seems like a half baked idea in the studio that was never fully developed. Maybe fatigued from writing the rest of the album, the band simply settled on stopping short of a fully formed song and left it undone. Even considering it as a transitional track, it doesn't really work since The following song abruptly starts without notice. Ultimately, it's another expendable song, which probably should have been excluded in the spirit of creating a tighter, more focused album.

The final trio of songs all offer something different from one another. "Hourglass" utilizes a robotic vocal effect and a heavy rock sound for a novel experience, and "Feathers" casts a dramatic and emotional epic that doesn't seem to go anywhere, but it's the final closing track which continually leaves me perplexed and with a mixed response. "Get the Lead Out" starts off strong enough, giving the nostalgic feeling of just hearing a great band's comeback, when it shifts gears and breaks into a hip-hop beat, with heavy drums and violin plucks. Upon hearing this for the first time, I found myself agreeing at first with the catchiness of the melody and slowed down vocals, however, I soon began to question the artistic decision of A Perfect Circle to go this route. I found myself wondering if bands which have been so established in their respective styles should start incorporating hip-hop as a genre into their music, and how often this is heard in contemporary music makes APC's decision seem stale and unimaginative in my opinion. There are instances where this blending of genres works though, such as the funky, jazzy, hybrid album just released by Jack White, which was in my previous review, or bands like Portugal. The Man's 2017 release Woodstock, which was a welcome addition to their catalog since they're already the masters of catchy instrumentation and pop hooks. A Perfect Circle though, seems to be going an all too common route for their music with "Get the Lead Out" and it seems like they wanted to try to test this final track as a possibility for what they want to do in the future. It is admittedly a catchy and decent closer, but too much a diversion in the style longtime fans have come to appreciate and expect from them.

Overall, Eat The Elephant is a well crafted, but mixed bag in terms of what fans want, and where the band wants to go. There are plenty of moments of genius and signature APC moments layered throughout, but there is also almost an equal number of missed opportunities and the desire of wanting more than they've delivered. With a sometimes uneven flow, the album would have received significantly higher praise from me if they were to cut the tracks that I mentioned earlier. It has something to love for hardcore fans, but not quite enough to satisfy the high expectations set by their previous releases. Approach with an open mind and you will enjoy it.

Eat The Elephant - 7/10


April 22, 2018

Jack White - Boarding House Reach Review


For someone as prolific and steeped in as rich a musical history as is Jack White, expectations were sky high for the follow-up to his much acclaimed sophomore solo outing, Lazaretto. Already bending the rules in genres such as garage rock, blues rock, and country, there seemed to be a bar set almost too high by White after proving he could have a solo career that is just as, if not more, successful than his time spent fronting The White Stripes. That's why it came as such a surprise when 4 years later, White came out of the studio with an album that surely tops Lazaretto with even more experimentation and a vision that is inclusive to all genres of music: Boarding House Reach. To classify this album is to describe it as a garage-blues-country-funk-electronic-jazz hybrid with sprinklings of hip-hop and stream-of-conscience absurdity, something which I never expected to see combined all in one record by Jack White. There was however, a hint dropped early before BHR's announcement that signaled White's departure from traditional blues and garage rock anthems toward a more experimental and jam rock approach in the release of his non-album single "Battle Cry", in 2017. This single builds into White's traditional heavy, fuzzed-out guitar riffs from the tribal chanting and clapping, and it sounds like it's a next step in evolution from his instrumental wild card, "High Ball Stepper", in Lazaretto. When looking at "Battle Cry" as a bridge for listeners to take to Boarding House Reach, this new record should feel like just the right follow-up from someone who has never stopped growing musically.

The album's warm opener, "Connected by Love", is one of the more familiar anthems which White is known for, and allows listeners to strap in while they listen to White's captivating words. The gospel-infused chorus and message makes this one of the strongest openers on any of White's albums and infuses a sense of universality and human condition which can speak to anyone in any walk of life. "Why Walk A Dog" follows with a slow hip-hop-like beat and dark blues angst, and one of the many fascinating guitar lines in the album. What's amazing about White is his ability to always keep things interesting with his guitar, and it never ceases to amaze me the amount of musical ideas and solos that are displayed in this album. "Corporation" is the first all out funk number from White, with serious festival and jazz vibes, and the first chance the listener gets to hear White's assembled band of sessions musicians feeling their own groove on this track. White calls out that he feels like starting a corporation and repeatedly asks the listeners "Who's with me" between insane screams, high-pitched squeals, and guitar riffs, and it's this high energy in "Corporation" which makes his invitation all the more compelling to want to tune into his musical movement and sync your body to grooviness of it all. Other tracks, like "Ice Station Zebra" and "Respect Commander" show White's desire for funky, bluesy experimentation, while "Over and Over and Over" gives listeners another accessible yet incredible hard rock anthem with White's signature garage rock flair. There are several spoken word compositions nestled in between the main body of tracks which are somewhat hit-and-miss, but they have an air of tongue-in-cheekiness that reveals a rare side of White. For some, this might be too drastic of a tonal shift, but for others it can be refreshing to hear a humorous, not-to-be-taken-seriously aside on the album, but ultimately it comes down to personal taste. Personally, I think that it can be a strength to reveal that one doesn't take themselves too seriously during the creative process, as if channeling Frank Zappa in terms of experimentation and absurdity. "Humoresque", the albums closer, sounds like a a songwriting session with Paul McCartney as it takes Boarding House Reach in for a soft landing.

Boarding House Reach is nearly perfect, with exception for the spoken word pieces, which are up to interpretation for each listener. The genre bending, in addition to the thought provoking artwork featuring Jack White's face, gender-ambiguous in a cloud of blue, a repeated color throughout each of his solo albums and music videos, makes for an accurate reflection of current times, as everything becomes more obscured with gender rules and everything, even in music, is borrowing and mixing and coexisting as a futurist blend of culture. Boarding House Reach will remain a compelling listen for many years to come, and come to be known as a defining album and one of the strongest to date of Jack White's solo career.

Boarding House Reach - 8.5/10