Listening Log 08: Drive-By Truckers, Los Campesinos, Vampire Weekend

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Getting a belated start to 2010 albums with some theoretical comfort food —┬ánew albums from three bands who each produced one of my favorite albums of the past couple of years. None repeat the trick here, but one comes pretty close, and one falls off hard.

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The Big To-Do — The Drive-By Truckers (ATO): As tends to be the case on lesser Drive-By Truckers albums, bandleader Patterson Hood's grand proclamations — about a faltering economy, a dying music scene, and a couple of domesticated circus performers — fall a little flat here. But he redeems himself with sidelong glances at a couple of mysterious crimes (the unstated details of one will be familiar to most Memphians) and a tough alcoholic's testimonial. As is the case with all Drive-By Truckers albums, less prolific sidekick Mike Cooley comes through some priceless low-rent character sketches (especially the nagging wife's rant "Get Downtown"). And this time out, newish third wheel Shonna Tucker's starkly written contributions provide a more useful tonal contrast. A merely good record from a great band. ("Get Downtown," "The Fourth Night of My Drinking," "Drag the Lake Charlie," "Birthday Boy")
Grade: A-

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Romance is Boring — Los Campesinos (Arts & Crafts): As thrilling as this jumble of a band's formative stretch was — a handful of ecstatic early singles and EPs culminating in the brilliant, breathless 2008 debut Hold On Now, Youngster — Los Campesinos never felt like something built to last. The band sounded like a dorm-room lark magically morphing into something more, and the hormonal chaos and sense of delight in their own precocious verbosity that animated the band's music wasn't meant for full-fledged adulthood. But even with that in mind, this is a pretty hard fall. Recorded while on an American tour, this overstuffed, exhausted record is a mess. Earlier, the tormented snark of frontman Gareth was grounded by the counterpoint of brainy nice girl Aleksandra. Here, the since-departed Aleks is a minimal presence, with Gareth run amok, the occasional memorable one-liner ("Every girl I ever kissed I was thinking of a pro footballer," "I think we need more post-coital and less post-rock") poking out from the deluge. And the musical problem mirrors the lyrical/vocal one. Where the early records sounded like a collection of competing hooks bouncing around on a trampoline, here that inherent business has been flattened into hookless muck. Oh, Los Campesinos — we'll always have 2008. ("Romance is Boring," "Plan B").
Grade: B-

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Contra — Vampire Weekend (XL): With the rest of their New York-based indie scene having a (not inherently) unfortunate psych/prog moment, Vampire Weekend are the young hotshots sticking most closely to the Chuck Berry Principle: Smart, witty lyrics hooked to catchy music that motorvates. That the band's sonic foundation is rooted in an Afropop-for-starters/new-wave hybrid more brisk and nimble than even the Talking Heads could manage rather than the traditional blues/country mix only makes their version of rock-and-roll culture-clash fresher. This sophomore album lacks the conceptual cohesion of the band's eponymous debut, which was dominated by evocations of collegiate lust. The songs here — mostly, it seems, travelogue observations and generous snapshots of a doomed relationship — are thornier and tougher to crack, though telling details abound. But the band's musicality — which extends to Ezra Koenig's unabashedly pretty vocals — is both heroic in its expansiveness and also grounded in a welcoming simplicity. And their overstated privilege remains richly examined. ("Cousins," "Giving Up the Gun," "Taxi Cab," "Holiday")
Grade: A-

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