Tom Waits – Closing Time

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The sound of this album isn’t as surprising as how good it is, and what it actually is. You’ve heard it before. Before Waits was an ashtray given a singing voice, before he unleashed an Industrial-Blues masterpiece that was more horrifying than any Death Metal album cover he made Closing Time. In a way, this is the antithesis of his later career, with zero wild theatrics. Before Waits was the bizarro man reporting from the bizarro world, he was too ordinary to do anything but sing about heartbreak.

Even if Waits never made Bone Machine, this record would still be spectacular. I’m amazed this was even made and praised. As we know, males are supposed to be tough in society. No one goes out with a failure. The only time men are allowed to cry on stage is if they turn their wounds into theater of noise and anger. The whole rock’n’roll thing, especially in the depressed 90’s was about that.

So Reznor and that dude from Alice in Chains still sounded like tough males, somewhat. Nothing against them – Nine Inch Nails are my favorite band after all. It’s just that male vulnerability is so interesting, feels so hidden in real life yet here it is in music. The final song here lets go of words.

If the whole album is a concept album about singing in a bar hoping that it might attract that girl on the corner to like you, then the final instrumental is defeat. “Ol’ 55” opens with some happiness, the sound of you going to the bar hoping there’ll be a good show. “I Hope” comes right after when you spot the girl, and after that it’s constant swinging from one extreme to the next. On “Ice Cream Man”, you have confidence and you’re sure it’s going to work. “Lonely” is when it feels like a death sentence, you’ll never have the girl and nothing else ever. Eventually, there’s no point in singing – it’s closing time, the band plays a few more chords and melodies and you’re back home alone.

It’s such a lonely record. “Martha” is heartbreaking, a song I still find it difficult to hear. Although Waits mentions he got a lover, possibly a wife, it’s not convincing that he’s okay with it. Defeat is in his tone when he sings of poetry and prose, singing with the knowledge that no relationship will ever be that good. “Martha” is painful not because it’s about meeting with someone you used to be deeply in love with. All over it is the realization that nothing will ever be like this again, that all love afterwards is just an attempt to re-capture it. There’s a sense of doom there that’s just sad.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” is the second big highlight there. There are a lot of songs about love and heartbreak, but not enough about disliking being in love. Finally we have a song that admits it, falling in love is no fun and sometimes it’s just better not to experience the whole thing. This song sets the stage and gives everything here the context. On this album, Waits isn’t someone who goes through the pain and joy of heartbreak. Love is, overall, bad for Waits. Few songs here are actually about being in the relationship – perhaps only “Little Trip” and by the time it arrives it sounds more like fantasy. Remember that “Ice Cream Man” is courting, not love actually working out. Although “Lonely” isn’t the best song here, it eventually becomes its centerpiece. It’s an album of loneliness, of heartbreak with no way out. In this album heartbreak isn’t something you go through but a state you’re trapped in – either hoping it won’t happen, to clinging to a girl, to being stuck in your memories and eventually admitting to yourself how lonely you are.

“Martha” and “I Hope” are the highlights, with most things providing good transition to flesh out the concept idea. While everything here is pretty good, these songs are knock-outs and everything else mostly sounds good in context. It’s an album you reach out to when you’re in a specific mood, but when the night is dark, long and lonely everything here is great. Outside this context, these songs can lack personality. “Rosie” is pretty good, but I doubt anyone would remember it outside the album. Bring the aforementioned context again and the song becomes essential. This is an album to hear in one sitting when heartbreak makes it feel like nothing good will ever happen. I’m sure there are many albums like it, but Waits is so specific in how he captures this hopeless loneliness. It’s unique because of how well it understands its genre and that’s why it remains a shocking record. Even if Waits never became the morbid blues man, this record would remain just as great.

3.5 empty bottles out of 5

Coldplay – X&Y

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This must have been a disappointed to people to who loved Rush of Blood. They must be disappointed by a lot of records, because failures like Rush of Blood aren’t that common. If I first heard of Coldplay through that album, I’d be really surprised. They didn’t pull a Minutes to Midnight – that’s another predictable step. They just made an album that doesn’t hint how huge you are. I guess that explains why it took me a long time to understand why this little soft rock band sells out stadiums.

X&Y discards the previous album’s experimental approach. Instead, it tries to fix Coldplay’s biggest flaw – their weak songwriting. Even the decent Parachutes relied more on sound and atmosphere rather than melodies. This might make the album sound tame and ‘uninspired’, but it’s a wise decision by a band who’s awful at pushing limits. In fact, making a tame album is exactly what this Piano Rock genre thing is all about. Why would you want to hear these supposedly gentle songs over Def Leppard production values?

They didn’t completely get rid of this production style. This album is clearly made by a band with a huge audience and enough money to make a rap song about it. “Square One” and “A Message” got walls of guitar noise that Reznor loved using in The Fragile (Only not that aggressive). The difference is that this production is pushed to the back. The huge sounds in “A Message” are there to lift the melody a little, but Chris Martin and what he’s singing are always at the center.

Speaking of the devil, Martin’s approach also changed. Since melody is now what drives the song, he puts a lot of effort on not ruining the songs. He uses the falsetto a lot less often. His normal voice isn’t exceptional, but it suits the music much better. It’s slightly muscular, but not completely. It becomes a perfect fit for music which uses a lot of guitar noise but has no aggression.

Maybe “White Shadows” and “Talk” would have been better with the production of Parachutes. There’s an attempt here at making something intimate and warm. Martin sings calmly about trying to talk to someone. That wall of guitars in “Talk” is out of place, and removes some of the emotional punch the song could have had. Still, when the album’s at its best it offers some of Coldplay’s best hooks in “White Shadows”, “Swallowed in the Sea”, “A Message” and “Talk”. There’s nothing here that deserves to be a global hit – only “Talk” does, and I’m completley fine with borrowing the melody from Kraftwerk – but it’s all good enough.

It’s bad less often than their previous album, but when it’s bad it’s the worse. “What If?” can be tossed aside. It’s cliched, insincere and the falsetto is very unconvincing. It’s no match for “Fix You” though. At least “What If?” has some humility. “Fix You” is a terrible song that should appear in every discussion of bad music. Martin sings it all in falsetto, and what better way to convince us you really feel what you’re singing by showing off how much you practiced? The lyrics are nonsense. Somehow, ignition of the bones is supposed to be uplifting. Then it ends with another Reznor-esque wall of guitars fit for a stadium. It was supposed to be a ballad. This loss of control can only means it’s a B-Side from Rush of Blood.

X&Y is perhaps the best album Coldplay will ever make. They’re a big band, and every album they will make will be a grand statement. X&Y sees them just kicking good melodies and not more than that. Even at that they’re not great. Only “Talk” rises above, but if you need an hour of soft rock it’s a nice option. There must be better options. Keane had 3 brilliant singles in Under the Iron Sea, and all Coldplay could come up with is a great song with a melody they haven’t written.

post script: The sequel to this is pretty fantastic. It turned out they can make a huge album.

 

3 x’s out of 5 y’s

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5

Coldplay – Parachutes

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“Yellow” has plenty of loud, crunchy guitars. There’s no Coldplay song that rocks this hard. Its existence is puzzling.

The two things that first come to mind about Parachutes are both misleading. Parachutes can sound like just the beginning of a band who became the biggest. It also can also sound like someone erased the subtitle Songs Inspired By Radiohead’s the Bends. Both of these views are misleading, and miss the point of what Parachutes is trying achieve.

It has the same sound as The Bends on the surface, including flirting with Space Rock on “Yellow” and “High Speed”. The atmosphere and the emotional core though, are different. Radiohead, as soft as they are, belong more with Nine Inch Nails and Industrial music in terms of emotions. The music is always cold, scared and paranoid. The difference between Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails is that Radiohead is the sound of not even trying to fight. In Radiohead’s world, there’s an antagonist. There’s no such thing in Coldplay’s Parachutes.

Parachutes is warm. It’s all about achieving an emotional intimacy with the listener. It turns down the distortion and hard drumming because this isn’t music to performed in a stadium. It’s meant to be listened late at night when you’re not sure if you’re feeling that bad. That’s where you get the slow bass in “Sparks” or the twinkling guitars in “Shiver”. The guitar playing also owes more to Midwest Emo than Radiohead. It creates twinkling sounds that engulfe the listener to create warmth. They’re not trying to create a texture as cold as modern life.

That’s why viewing this as a small debut album is doing it an injustice. It reveals exactly why Coldplay failed often after this. They’re not suited for making big music for big stadiums. The minimalism is not because of a lack of ideas, or because of fear of trying. Coldplay had a clear idea what Parachutes is. If they broke up after making this, it’d make sense.

It’s an album that gets its idea for most of its length. “Sparks” is the best example of the sound, with a bassline that makes the whole song. “Yellow”, despite being the loudest thing the band has ever done, has a Space Rock edge to it that brings it back to the concept. Warm Space Rock sounds impossible after “Planet Caravan”, but it exists. “Shiver” is the obvious highlight. It does sound a bit like Jeff Buckley, but it’s good in the same way Jeff Buckley was good.

It does sound like a classic in those great moments, especially in “Sparks” and “Shiver”. The problem is, while the band is excellent, Chris Martin brings everything down. He’s less the problem than what he sings. Plenty of times, he’s just given good enough when melodies. “We Never Change”, “Trouble” and “Spies” are all beautiful in instrumental department, but the melody Martin sings has none of the inspiration the band has. Remove the vocals, and it’s brilliant. Add them, and you’re getting a lot of noise preventing you from enjoying the song.

Chris Martin is also a fan of the falsetto, which is a problem. I’m sure the falsetto is hard to achieve, but it’s not a good defense of the technique. In fact, it makes it seem worse. Singing in this kind of album needs to sound natural, no matter how hard you practiced for it. Coldplay are trying to get an intimate atmosphere, after all. You can’t achieve that by making yourself seem different. Whenever Martin breaks into the falsetto, all it does is tells us Martin spent some time practicing. That’s great, but it sucks the emotions out the songs. Just listen to “High Speed” or “Shiver” and how well the choruses work without the falsetto.

Trying to understand why Coldplay are now the biggest band is fruitless. The band just appealed to a lot of people. They don’t have anything unique in them, and that’s okay. Parachutes is successful at what it does most of the time, even if the falsetto is too much sometimes. It doesn’t to seem to be going anywhere, so we’ll make do with what we have. “High Speed”, “Shiver” and “Sparks” are all very good songs anyway. Be prepared to be let down by the next installment.

3 Parachutes out of 5