This Week in Music, March 26, 2013: Welcome to the “Machines” of the Strokes and Depeche Mode

The Strokes: Comedown Machine

New release (RCA)
Photo courtesy of RCA

I had pretty much given up on the Strokes some time ago. The band’s early, early promise just wasn’t bearing fruit anymore. But here we have Comedown Machineand waddayaknow, things would seem to be looking up.

The title track is actually specified as “80’s Comedown Machine,” and the rhythms of the more dance-leaning wing of New Wave are quite prevalent on this album, agreeably so. Yet the most post-disco track, “Tap Out,” is best heard not in a club but on a good pair of headphones, so you can really appreciate the staccato guitars and devilishly good, burbling bass line. Meanwhile, damn if “One Way Trigger” doesn’t sound like a punchier version of A-ha’s “Take On Me” (and yes, that’s a compliment — a big one).

On the ’80s flip side, “All the Time” is the kind of hook-filled, flat-out-rocking, undeniably enjoyable single that has eluded this band for too long, and guitars also rule on “50/50.” Elsewhere, both the rock and the dance are paired up for giddy tracks like “Welcome to Japan,” “Slow Animals,” and “Partners in Crime.”

Whither the Strokes? This is the fifth and final album on their current RCA contract, and they conclude with two suggestive tracks: “Happy Ending” and, 12 years after their debut on Is This It“Call It Fate, Call It Karma.” One thing’s certain: As of this posting, the band has no plans to tour or otherwise support Comedown Machine. But if the Strokes go on hiatus, retreat, or what have you, it’s nice to know that they went out with a fine blast, if not a big bang.

Depeche Mode: Delta Machine

New release (Columbia; tour dates)

According to primary composer Martin Gore, “Writing this album was incredibly daunting.” One one hand, “I wanted the sound to be very modern.” On the other hand, “I want people to feel good about listening to this record, to get some kind of peace.”

Depeche Mode pulls that off right from the start. The opening “Welcome to My World,” with its threatening deep-bass synth, could be the latest sonic birth/burst from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but it builds to a gratifyingly mellifluous chorus. “Angel,” which begins even more severely, rises to even more splendor, perfectly setting up the meditative “Heaven.” It’s an approach that’s clearly stated in the title of “Soft Touch/Raw Nerve,” which itself is a synth strut that nevertheless has a deft gait.

Other highlights: the “Slow” blues, the sad ballad of “The Child Inside,” the anthemic “Soothe My Soul.” Throughout, producer Ben Hillier and mixer Flood help keep things interesting. If not every track is a beauty, then none is a bore.

Note to the 5.1 faithful: Although Depeche Mode is one of the few bands to release surround versions of nearly its entire catalog, apparently there are no such plans for Delta Machine. There’s a Deluxe Edition of the album, but its extras are limited to four bonus tracks and a 28-page hardcover book with photos by Anton Corbijn.

The Waterboys: An Appointment with Mr. Yeats

New release in U.S. (Proper American)
Photo of Mike Scott by Paul MacManus

This is indeed a rendezvous with W. B. Yeats: Words from his poems and plays become the lyrics for music that’s almost exclusively written and arranged by the Waterboys’ Mike Scott. Yes, Scott has done this before, notably with “The Stolen Child” on 1988’s Fishermans Blues. But here, he keeps the appointment for an entire album, and the resulting song cycle is a heady, wide-ranging adventure. Celtic gallop, bittersweet ballad, Kurt Weill cabaret, midtempo electric-guitar riff rock, breezy pop tune: That’s just the first five tracks of this 14-song affair, which, clocking in at 56 minutes, keeps things moving and always intriguing.

Scott draws on a healthy host of mostly new Waterboys and girls. Yet he also treasures intimacy, as in his duet with the lovely Katie Kim on “Before the World Was Made,” backed only by keyboards and effects. Similarly, by scaling down “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” he directs our attention to a thoughtful solo on cor anglais by Kate St. John. (Remember the Dream Academy?) In the big numbers, Scott the singer still tends to over-emote, as if acting in a silent movie. (Or maybe he, too, is “Mad as the Mist and Snow.”) Yet we love him for it, and when the album ends with “The Faery’s Last Song” — fading to the sounds of the wind and Kim’s fare-thee-well vocals — you get the sense that Scott was always meant to be a composer for Yeats. Available overseas since late 2011, this album is only now being released in the U.S. So if you haven’t heard it, pounce.

Dido: Girl Who Got Away

New release (RCA)
Photo by Guy Aroch

Although Dido says this fourth album was the easiest to make, it had a stop/start creation owing to the birth of her son in July 2011. The entirety of Girl Who Got Away was written before November 2010, much of it was recorded while she was pregnant, and it wasn’t finished until late 2012, following a year off for Dido to just be a mother. The result is an album that has some trouble hanging together.

Thankfully, theres a lot to love. “No Freedom” delights with its solo-acoustic-guitar structure and simple drum-machine percussion. “Blackbird” and “Go Dreaming” each ride a deft groove. And the ambient/dance rhythm of the title track is subtly appealing; I just wish it had remained a suggestion instead of, later in the song, coming further to the fore. I also wish Kendrick Lamar had stayed away from “Let Us Move On.” His rap here does nothing for me; in fact, it pretty much ruins the atmosphere. Alas, such is the supposed necessity of keeping an artist “current” and “relevant,” but Dido and her brother/co-writer/co-producer Rollo Armstrong shouldn’t have to resort to such tactics, what with a voice as pure as hers — demonstrated, for example, on the gorgeous “Sitting on the Roof of the World.” Alas again, that supposed necessity can lead to “Love to Blame,” which despite a nice percolation is ultimately just a trifle, and “Loveless Hearts,” which can’t escape the awkwardness of its stuttery backing.

That said, the two best tracks are out-of-the-park winners: a “Happy New Year” that is anything but, with its consistent tone of dejection, and “Day Before We Went to War,” with a hypnotic rising synth figure that has the hallmark of co-writer Brian Eno. Dido, Rollo, and Eno: Now therestrio, and on songs like these two, the 41-year-old still-new mama proves that the girl hasn’t gotten away entirely.

Wire: Change Becomes Us

New release (Pinkflag; tour dates)
Photo by Phil Sharp

Here’s what hasn’t changed about Wire, ever since the band’s landmark debut, Pink Flag, was released in 1977: the power of their music to shake up your world. What’s more, vocalist/guitarist Colin Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, and drummer Robert Grey are all still here (with recent touring guitarist Matthew Simms now a full-time member). Another link to the past: Many of the tracks are based on “the rudimentary blueprints of songs that had never made it beyond a few live performances in 1979 and 1980.”

This is where the titular change comes in. Most often, Wire has used those blueprints to build something entirely different from what was originally envisioned. So what was once the confrontational “Piano Tuner (Keep Strumming Those Guitars)” is now the peppy/poppy “Love Bends.” Indicative of the band’s more recent, multilayered work are tracks like “Keep Exhaling,” “B/W Silence,” “Time Lock Fog,” “As We Go,” and especially the closing pair of “& Much Besides” (a languid 6-minute affair) and “Attractive Space” (which builds steadily to controlled chaos). Other tracks retain more of the character of that earlier time, including the staccato “Magic Bullet,” the punk “Stealth of a Stork,” and “Eels Sang,” which would fit right at home on 1979’s Entertainment! by Wire’s old contemporaries Gang of Four.

“Re-invent Your Second Wheel,” says a song title here. Whether or not the band does that on every track, it sure keeps strumming those guitars. And there isn’t much in rock today that’s as stimulating as these (drums and) wires.

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