By: Alex Gomory
Sometimes I wonder how many times music reviewers listen to an album. Certain albums sound great during the first listen, much like that slightly dumb boy or girl you took home after a night of heavy drinking, but much like that person the more time you spend with the album the more you realize how empty it truly is. On the other hand, certain albums need many listens to truly appreciate, like the person you want to marry one day, you don’t fall in love during the first outing; it takes time to truly nurture the relationship.
Yea, it seems pretty weird to compare an album to a relationship, but is it really? Music lovers fall in love with albums all the time. Sometimes this love is fleeting, and sometimes it’s eternal. I recall some of my early loves, The Black Album (Metallica…not the insanely superior Jay-Z album), Mechanical Animals, Life is Peachy, and Chamber Music. I have broken up with all these albums at some point in my life as I have grown and changed. The fleeting love for them was based on an emphasis for something that I no longer seek. Like the 25 year old 6 year business degree seeking man whose one important characteristic for his girlfriend is whether her tits are large or not, I too fell out of favor of the shock and gimmickry of these albums. I don’t mean to say that they are bad albums (well…yea the Black Album is really shitty), but I no longer favor what they can provide.
At the same time it is the challenge of an album reviewer to be objective about an album. Just because I think an album is awful (See Episode 2’s Japandroids rant) does not mean I can not recommend it to other listeners. Yea, I may not think Cindy is right for me, but she isn’t a bad person, we just don’t match in that way. As a music critic I strive to give an objective answer to the question of “should you buy this album?” at the end of a long subjective diatribe. Part of this objective view point does require many listens of an album. I never go into a Riff ‘N Ralk episode without at least 2 straight plays of an album, meaning uninterrupted listens. Not only do I want to know if the album is any good, but also if its sum is also leading to a greater whole. At this early point in my music reviewing career (although I think career means you get paid….please send donations to firstname.lastname@example.org) these are the standards that I have placed on myself in order to provide you the listener with both consumer advice and entertainment.
When Ryan and I agreed to create this project I went through countless album review websites to get ideas for how the process happens, and frankly I did not see any mention of the process. You may say that it is obvious what the process is, they listened to the album, but there is more to that and you can hear that in how Ryan and I operate. We take notes, we discuss the content on air (and off air too), and we make a dialogue about the album (I feel that in some way we are inspired by the best movie review duo ever of Siskel and Ebert, although I would be hard pressed to imagine we will ever be as successful or eloquent with our words.). When I read some album reviews I would be astounded by the observations of the reviewer, did they even listen to the album? Did they even discuss their thoughts with their colleagues, friends or family? Did they just have it on the background while they did laundry? In brief, I feel most music reviewers do a lousy job of album reviews, either by being lazy, clueless, or trying to be overly pretentious about something that does not need to be.
There are a few album reviews that stick out in my mind as especially overwrought with sloppy reviewing, but one that has been thrown at me is an infamous review of Frances The Mute by eclectic rock n rollers The Mars Volta from indie music lovers Pitchfork. In the review, the reviewer spends more time talking about how unimpressed he was with Deloused In the Comatorium than he does pissing and moaning about how he hated the album he was actually reviewing. This does seem to be a tendency in the world of Pitchfork, a world that I sometimes wonder if it is just filled with English major dropouts with gauge piercings and a record player they stole from their parents attic because they are totally into “the vinyl sound” (with a record collection consisting of six albums and one is always Pet Sounds). And while pretentious wannabe artophiles and a successphobes are a valuable part of the musical dialogue (is this alt-freakfolk or psych-freakfolk?) they have a tendency to hate something for the sake of not wanting to be impressed by a big idea, or something grandiose. To them, Handel’s Messiah would be “Pompous and overblown” while Phillip Glass smashing his head on a keyboard would be “Sincere and personal”. I respect difference in opinion, but the insane double standard applied here allows for a piece of work that was pieced together in a coffee shop one afternoon to always be more loved and revered than an effort that took months of effort to compile. In short, the reviewer had no clue what he was on about, and it seemed apparent he wanted to hate the album from the get go. He hated drinking PBRs and listening to people talk about how awesome Deloused was. He probably secretly loved Deloused, but he denied it in his psyche for two long years. He probably never gave a flying fuck about At The Drive-In either, but damn he now had a complaining point. In short, Sam Ubl, stop lying to yourself, and please god call your mom and tell her you love her without asking for rent money.
Frances The Mute is easily one of the best albums I have ever heard. Perhaps this should have been the way to open this review and not 1,000 words in, but you have made it this far so I commend you for it. It is a bold statement too. An album that is somewhere between 77 and 92 minutes (depending on how much of a Voltaphile you are) rarely succeeds in not tripping over its own grandiose and general silliness (I’m looking at you The Wall), but Frances succeeds. Whether you are starting at the self-titled track or Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus you are in for a genuine treat of expertly crafted musical composition.
Songwriter Omar Rodriguez-Lopez seems to have a tendency to stumble onto great compositions rather than genuinely develop them, but I think here was one of those times where he really nailed it down and there are a lot of explanations for this. Think of it, during the albums creation he was only a year out from the death of one of his dearest friends, a death caused by the drug he had just given up after years of sweet and pleasant abuse, heroin. So here we have a young man who is really just coming in tune to the emotions he had numbed for years and years, forcing him to cope with sobriety and the death of a loved one. If there is anything that can put a bigger emotional fire in your belly let me know. A listener should take this album as a eulogy to the late Jeremy Michael Ward, as the albums somewhat impossible to follow story revolves around a diary Jeremy found while working as a repo-man. While not directly about Jeremy the album plays as a tribute to an item he brought to Omar and Cedric Bixler-Zala’s lives, an item that eerily shared similarities to Jeremy’s life. Omar is a musician about emotion rather than finesse or technique. Yes, the Volta’s die hard fans love to bust a nut over what was his once 80 foot tall pedal board, but Omar is more about how he conveys a message and a sound through the his endless effects rather than the technical oohs and ahs.
This emotion carries over through the entire album, an album that crashes through the ceiling of aggressive “prog” stylings and then slips under the cracks of electronic nuances. Upon the first listen…two listens….maybe even three the contrasts are jarring to say the least. Hearing Cygnus explode into a fiery tempo only to 2 minutes later fall into an electronic drone with field recordings is a tough pill to swallow, a pill so tough that it has spawned listener friendly fan edits, and caused many a people to call the album “pretentious bullshit”. Yea, it is not a 3 minute cut, but there is a reason for it. Again, the music is conveying a feeling, one of dread and hopelessness, so when reviewers can say that the drone of The Terror can convey those feelings but Frances The Mute can’t you tell me who is being fair. A story is not an endless face pounding onslaught (Unless written by Michael Bay), but has swells, ebbs and flows. This album captures that perfectly as we see the threads of hope of our characters drowned by a sea of status quo.
Again, it does not really make sense on the first go around. Hell after the first listen you might feel a little dirty and wonder “What the fuck just happened to my ears!?” but stay committed and you will see how this work blossoms into something truly wonderful and rewording and each go around rewards you with a new nuance. Each time I give it a listen I still find new sounds in the background. For an album that is eight years old that is quite a feat. To be engaged in album that shifts from rock outs that sound like a late 70s King Crimson outtake, to ballads, to salsa jams, back to ballads, then to more general insanity is not going to make sense the first time around, and for our good friend Sam Ubl it seemed easier to just disengage and go “this is boring and overblown” than actually get engaged with the music. The composition is brilliant, the mix is sublime, and the musicians sound as crisp and perfect as something out of a Frank Zappa record.
At the end of the day though, I am left with the challenge of if I should recommend this album to you if you have avoided it for eight long years. This is the challenge here. I subjectively love music like this (Even though I too hated Frances on the first go), and I think objectively it is a wonderful outpouring of emotion from both the music and the lyrics (not just words, but the way they sound too). Still, it is a tough album to get into, and it will not appeal to most pop-music lovers. At 77 minutes and only five tracks long you can easily do the math and see it is not a standard affair, longer still if you add the excluded original first track. While the safe bet would be to recommend this only to the lovers of Crimson, Floyd, Yes, and the other cape wearing proggers of the 70s I am forced to say that it should be everyone’s duty to listen to this album. People should openly challenge themselves to this kind of music. In the same way I challenge my sanity by listening to Justin Bieber I challenge you to give your ears a workout with Frances The Mute. Even if you do end up hating it, and I know plenty who do, it still elicits a strong feeling from them, something about it really pissed them off, and if there is any greater sign of a great album than I don’t what that is. This is one album I am committing to for a long time. Perhaps I shall go ring shopping.