While Chris Martin has never been the most inspired songwriter, his sentiments were easy enough to ignore on Coldplay's first two albums, thanks to his honeyed falsetto and the band's ability to squeeze tension and heartbreak out of only a few repeated notes and rhythms. Lyrics and vocals were only two balanced elements among many, but on the band's third album, X&Y, Martin hogs the spotlight, and his lyrics and vocals edge out the rest of the band. Gone are the churning chord repetitions and John Buckland's graceful guitar lines. In their place is a less elemental, more synthesized sound - courtesy of producer Danton Supple (who is famous for his work with the Cure and Morrissey) - that clearly favors Martin over the band.
Martin's songwriting, however, can't bear much scrutiny: With their fondness for clichés and obvious rhymes, his lyrics sound particularly cloying and preachy and use an absurdly simplistic rhyme scheme. "Swallowed in the Sea" is an egregious offender: "You cut me down a tree/And brought it back to me," Martin sings, "And that's what made me see/Where I was coming from." In similar fashion, he rhymes "shelf," "yourself," and "myself" on the next verse.
When Buckland does chime in, too often he plays off the vocals: On "Talk," his guitar line creates a call-and-response with Martin's vocals mimicking the melody he sings. It should be no surprise, then, that the album's most memorable track is also its most instrumental: "Fix You" begins simply and quietly, then builds gradually before breaking into a (relatively) thundering finale. Against Will Champion's rumbling drums, the guitars don't have to answer to Martin, and as a result, Coldplay sound as tight and as unified as ever. - Stephen Deusner
(In the Red)
There's only one reason that indie singer-songwriter Cass McCombs' Prefection should be grouped with Celebration Castle, the new album from garage-rock faves the Ponys. The two acts are audibly disparate on the surface, but on their respective sophomore full-lengths, both deploy the same jumping-off point: such subtle, obscure, usually British, early indie-rock bands as the Mighty Mighty Lemon Drops, the Ocean Blue, and the Kitchens of Distinction.
On his debut, 2003's Best Of ..., McCombs didn't hide his affection (or affectation) for Gram Parsons' vocal style and a general Flying Burrito Bros./Byrds way of putting together a song. Nothing about Prefection resembles this approach. In fact, McCombs tries his hand at several velocities and jangle-pop moods with great success. "Subtraction," "Sacred Heart," and "She's Still Suffering" are so accomplished as genuinely beautiful pop songs that they surpass any of the above-mentioned introspective underground pop.
Where McCombs is a singer-songwriter at the core, the Ponys are a rock band. (And one with roots in Memphis musician Alijca Trout's Contaminated Records label, which released the band's first three-song single.) After releasing Celebration Castle, their second full-length, it's a little baffling that the band remains embraced by the garage set, as this record is about as pasty-boy Anglo as they come.
The Ponys are commonly compared to New York post-punks Televison, but it's a comparison that holds less and less relevance. What remains on Celebration Castle is Jered Gummere's unapologetic mimicking of Television singer Tom Verlaine's staccato vocals layered with a faux English accent. The songs are more straightforward, with no dual guitar workouts, and if we stayed in the late '80s, but went to the other side of the world, New Zealand's pop superpowers the Chills and the Verlaines, can be heard as heavy influences. As with McCombs, the Ponys are no slouches when it comes to songwriting, and, as such, transcend the trappings that weigh down more pedestrian outfits drawing heavily from another era. n - Andrew Earles
Grades (both records): A-