This Week in Music, September 3, 2013: Nine Inch Nails, with fewer teeth

Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks

New release (Columbia; tour dates)
Photo of Trent Reznor by Baldur Bragson

Trent Reznor already came back haunted in March with the release of Welcome oblivion by How to destroy angels. That side project with Atticus Ross and (Reznor’s wife) Mariqueen Maandig took post-industrial/ambient music and made it sound fresh. By contrast, Hesitation Marks, Reznor’s first album in five years under the Nine Inch Nails moniker, seems beset by run-of-the-mill electronica. Ross and another veteran collaborator, Alan Moulder, return as co-producers with Reznor, but together they’re often just busy little techno-bees buzzing around Reznor’s generally average material.

According to a story in Rolling Stone, Reznor “thought hard about what was exciting him musically: ‘Is it rock bands and guitars, is it noise, is it dance beats and electronics?’ ” The answer is obvious when you consider the chilling fact that Reznor created the foundation for this album by “working mostly on a laptop attached to a ‘drum-machine type of compositional tool.’ ” As Charlie Brown sighs in dejected amazement after Linus knocks on a metallic Christmas tree: “fantastic.”

It doesn’t help to bring in guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and then underuse or undermix him on his three guest spots. Fellow inventive axman Adrian Belew, a past NIN hired hand, is more in tune with Reznor’s sonics and is thus allowed more room. But overall, the machines trump the humans, such that “Came Back Haunted” and “Running” are constantly at war with their percolating tracks.

Occasionally and thankfully, the music — the actual concept of musicality — triumphs. “Copy of a” has effective vocal hooks in both the verses and the choruses. “All Time Low” has a distinctly identifiable Belew blending well with the mechanical setting. “Everything” may lead to token guitar blasts, but it’s interesting how it gets there, with lean rock and some natural vocal harmonies. Similarly, “Various Methods of Escape” might be the best track here, partly because it not only sports a catchy guitar riff but also allows it to remain under relative control, even during its final, loudest turns.

Otherwise, there isn’t much that matches the fascinating atmospherics of Welcome oblivion’s “Ice age,” “The loop closes,” and “Hallowed ground.” For all the percussive technology on display here, the most intriguing sound comes from a saxophone.

And really, after lo these many years, it’s getting less and less effective for Reznor to build and build and build nearly every one of his songs until it reaches a climax that’s cut off like this.

Neko More final

Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

New release (Anti-; tour dates)
Photo by Emily Shur

The bass-rich rock of “City Swans,” the long-distance harmonies of “Night Still Comes,” the submarine sonics at the beginning of “Where Did I Leave That Fire”: Your audio system will love this album. The plucked acoustic strings atop the deep undercurrents of “Wild Creatures,” the garden wall of sound of “Man” and “Bracing for Sunday”: Your system will adore it.

As will you. For some time now, but especially on this album, Neko Case has been approaching the brilliance of Kite, the multilayered masterpiece by the late Kirsty MacColl. Case, of course, shares the same kind of magical, bell-clear voice, which is customarily sweet and bright throughout these dozen songs. And as with Kirsty, you can marvel at the scope of Neko’s songs while appreciating the honesty of her lyrics — such as these, delivered at first in a seemingly angelic a cappella:

Hey, little kid that I saw at the bus stop one day
It was nearly midnight in Honolulu
We were waiting for the shuttle to take us to the aeroplane
When your mother said, your mother said
Like I couldn’t hear her, she said
“Get the f--- away from me
Why don’t you ever shut up?
Get the f--- away from me.”

I won’t reveal the rest of that story, which, remarkably, is even more affecting. But I’ll say this: From the pathos of “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” to the softly swinging melody of “Local Girl,” this album has surprises at every turn.