Video Review: Ted Leo and The Pharmacists' "Bottled In Cork"

"Bottled In Cork" is one of the best tracks on Ted Leo and The Pharmacists phenomenal new album The Brutalist Bricks. It ties together the potent combination of solid hooks and sincere lyrics to create a sound that can really best be classified as "Classic Ted Leo." In my review of The Brutalist Bricks earlier this year, I lauded the band on its return to form and the directness that made previous so infectious and enjoyable. Now, Ted Leo, et al. has released a stellar and hilarious video mocking the Green Day American Idiot musical. You can check the video out below, where Leo dances through multiple costume changes and choreography lessons and discovers the terrible secret that once a punk becomes a rock star, he is destined to die. This is the funniest video for a genuinely excellent song that I've ever had the luck to see. Which is just about what you'd expect from the folks at Funny Or Die. This is exactly the kind of brilliant work I have grown to expect from Ted Leo, taking a tongue-in-cheek approach at his work, even when so much of his music is politically serious and thought provoking. Now, watch, enjoy and watch again!

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Mystery Jets - Serotonin

Mystery Jets may still be trying to revisit the success of 2006's Making Dens by writing well-hooked pop songs, but on Serotonin they've created what feels like two EPs thrown together in some sort of unholy sandwich. Every song on the record has a phenomenal electro-synth-punk hook, but many of these tracks feel like they are alive because of a pacemaker, rather than a real, beating, surging heart. And the lyrical composition varies greatly, from strong work on the opener "Alice Springs" to atrocious schmaltz in "The Girl is Gone." Aside from the opener, the album lulls, contradicting its title greatly, into a wallowing sort of pseudo-punk music that whines about love and doubt while covering it with grinding guitar and rambunctious drumming.

But, it would be unfair to pin a negative tag on the whole album based on a weak beginning. Mystery Jets accomplish something by sticking to formula. On tracks like "Flash a Hungry Smile" and "Serotonin," Blaine Harrison's vocals carry fairly conventional, but extremely enjoyable songs. The music here is bouncy, hopeful and empowered rock, that leads well into the album's debut single "Dreaming Of Another World." It represents a well-crafted and thorough pop song, and one of the highlights of the album. From that mid-point out, Mystery Jets present more conventional songs with great hooks. And another lyrical failure with "Waiting on a Miracle" refraining with "a miracle will come if you wait." The sentiment sadly sums up a lot of the album, that somehow by waiting Serotonin would turn into a great album, or at least "Waiting on a Miracle" would be a good song.

The closing tracks, "Melt" and "Lorna Doone" are both solid enough, "Melt" being the winner of the album's second half. Mystery Jets doesn't fail completely here, and in fact, they're main crime may be trying to be ambitious. Great hooks make for songs that trick the listener into liking them, but beneath those the album is fractured and unsure of itself. This could have easily been a solid EP, but it feels stretched beyond its capacity. But that said, the band deserves accolades for a great, if dated, Phoebe Cates reference. The album could easily have been great, but at most this foray is only good.

Score: 6/10
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Video Review: Yeasayer's "Madder Red"

First off, Kristen Bell was great in Veronica Mars, a show that was killed by the same studio bullshit that kills all great television. After that, she was funny in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but pretty weak in Heroes (not her fault necessarily) and then she was in that shitty reworking of Three Coins in the Fountain. Now, though she stars in a primarily non-speaking role in Yeasayer's incredible video for the song "Madder Red." The song itself is the sweetest and most sentimentally beautiful song for Yeasayer in recent memory, but the story that the video tells portrays a deeper kind of love that may also be a bit of a joke.

The story goes that Bell has a pet/companion in the form of a grotesque fleshy blob with an arm above sticking out of its head that she loves very much. The opening is loaded with honest love, a demonstration of maternal compassion mixed with storybook romance. Then sadly, there's a sign that Bell's precious mass of flesh is coughing up blood. But, an actress has to work, so Bell goes out for an audition, leaving her mother to watch over her pet. And the pet begins to ooze greenish-yellow goo from its head, and the end times are clear. Cut to the vet, where the creature dies, despite a hearty attempt at CPR. Then Bell leaves the office with the creature in a box, her face streaming with tears and heartbreak. Followed by a pan up, and a Lion King invoking image of the blob smiling down at her from the clouds.

In summary, it sounds like a lot of terrible melodrama, but in contrast to Yeasayer's lyrics, and with the help of Bell's genuine acting it comes off real. The Lion King nod, though, is a sort of humorous saving grace that indicates it may be a joke. It's as good an ending as something like this might ask for, piling sincerity onto pathos. And that sincerity-meets-pathos just happens to be the core of the song's lyrics. "Madder Red" is a song about having wronged a love, having turned away too many times while trying to juggle compassion and self-centered motivation. Really, the song is like a letter of qualification saying, "I'm not going to love you like you want, and if that's not gonna work for you, break up with me. But, I'm really sorry about that." It's a lyrical dance of bullshit, all excuses, and placations. It's about not knowing what to say when you have to say something. And the ending refrain, "Please don't ask me why" is a kick in the teeth. Pleading for complications to go away without question, wanting water to flow under the bridge without understanding the path of the river. That the video can be read from both perspectives; the creature singing to Bell because of its imminent death, or Bell singing to the creature because she must go out for work and can't be home like she used to, is what makes the whole experience full, and a little more genius than joke.

You can watch the video via the Guardian.
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Janelle Monae - Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)

When I wrote my review of the phenomenal, incomparable new Janelle Monae album The ArchAndroid, I was sure to note that I wasn't familiar with the original EP that kicks off Monae's Metropolis world and mythos. One excitingly fortuitous trip to the record store later, and I'm aware and ready to talk about the way this whole project begins and how the first suite fits together with the subsequent two. On Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), Monae sets the scene of a world populated by humans and androids. It's a world that is far from egalitarian. Instead, androids are, as they are in so many sci-fi dystopias, subjugated and replaceable. In the opening track, Monae takes on the voice of a public address announcer, letting us know that one such android has fallen in love with a human man. That won't do in Metropolis, so the android, Monae's character through whom we experience all of the story within these albums, is sentenced to be disassembled. (And now the requisite Short Circuit comment, "No disassemble!" And scene.) From that point of exposition, Monae's exceptional voice takes over for four more tracks that guide us through her character's fugitive journey. It's the same amazing blend of pop, hip hop, R&B, soul and big band. The horns are bright, even if our heroine's future seems bleak.

Metropolis is a strong showcase of what Monae can do, but it doesn't bear the same layers of complexity on the full-length follow-up. Space and time, of course, are major constraints on an EP. It's hard enough to demonstrate artistic value in five songs, let alone to set up a tale of this magnitude. In that respect, Monae succeeds through sticking to her vocals and the brilliant arrangements that guide each song from one sub-genre to another. With the narrower scope, she's safe to let the story play out without attempting anything hugely diverse. Metropolis ends up being a satisfying collection, with four amazing tracks. "Violet Stars Happy Hunting!" is fun, raucous and strong. "Many Moons" is pure genius, winding Monae's vocal range among stellar beats and beautiful music. And "Cybertronic Purgatory" and "Sincerely, Jane" both set the stage for the symphonic sprawling work to come on The ArchAndroid.

And then there are two bonus tracks, on the special edition version I have. Both "Mr. President" and "Smile" are beautiful songs. The former a protest/call for assistance in education and healthcare, in plain terms. Monae wears her politics on her sleeve here, and it's well done, but it definitely doesn't fit with the Metropolis theme. It can, in its own way, play as a piece to the puzzle, but it's construction is so different from the preceding tracks and those that follow on The ArchAndroid to throw it freely into the canon. "Smile" is much the same way, a sweet, mellow ballad of sorts, it just doesn't fit the world it has been arbitrarily attached to. Still, Metropolis opens the Monae saga brilliantly, and locks us into the vibes and ideas that will drive such songs as "Tightrope," "Oh, Maker" and "Come Alive."

Score: 8.5/10
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Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

For The Suburbs Arcade Fire has managed to sneak the album title into the lyrics of almost every song, but it's not just a gimmick. The band manages to capture a broad scope of lamentations about life outside the city, what it means, and how living in sprawl effects the directions we take in growing up. Throughout the incredibly even-keel and primarily dour album, Win Butler and the band tell stories about moving to the suburbs and wanting kids, losing sleep living in the city and having to trade life in the city for something more docile. It's as much about growing up being a constant process of trial and error as it is about doing what American society, and largely now much of modern society, was built upon. The Suburbs is about age, and family, and not wanting to miss the big moments that grace home movies, by living too long in the city. In fact, Arcade Fire seems to think that despite the city's glamor, it's an insincere, fake place. In "Rococo" the lyrics deride the ignominious blathering of greater-than-thou city kids. The song is an attack on the hipster douchebag types who have nothing to say, but churn out big words regardless.

The Suburbs also deals heavily with identity. Living in the city, or in the suburbs are identifying marks on each of us. We perceive, mostly due to years of indoctrination, that people in the city are fast-paced, aggressive, intellectual and artsy, while suburb-dwellers are well-off and disconnected. But, the way that Arcade Fire's lyrical stories, and minor-keyed musical arrangements portray the suburbs as a place for being an adult, calling oneself a "Modern Man" and for building a home. The city is a temporary place in The Suburbs, a stop along the way, but the suburbs aren't any safer, they just look that way. "The Suburbs" opens with the lines "In the suburbs I, I learned to drive/And you told me we'd never survive/Grab your mother's keys we're leaving," drawing attention to how feeling safe can mean feeling trapped. And "Half Light II (No Celebration)" opens with "Now that San Francisco's gone/I guess I'll just pack it in/Wanna wash away my sins/In the presence of my friend," pulling the listener emotionally the other direction. The city isn't safe either, and it's not a solution to the suburban-boredom problem. If anything, Arcade Fire seems ready to assert that it's never where we are, but who we are that matters. You can't escape unhappiness by feeling the 'burbs for the city, or hustling out of the city to the sprawl. Wherever we go, we're eventually set to confront ourselves.

As an album that is as thoughtful as this one, The Suburbs doesn't bombard the listener with the ornate constructions and complex melodies found on Funeral and Neon Bible. Arcade Fire is decidedly more reserved, presenting stories that touch everyone who has grown up thinking the grass is always greener, dreaming of big things in bigger places, and quiet times in smaller ones. To claim The Suburbs as a concept album is to do it a disservice. This is a musical essay, or more so, a music short-story collection. Each tale runs back to the heart of the issue: we define ourselves by where we are, when we should really define ourselves by who we are.

Score: 9/10
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My Sick Uncle - (500) Days of Weezy

We're in an age where quality mashup albums are just as artistically appreciated as something built entirely from scratch. My Sick Uncle has produced just such an achievement. (500) Days of Weezy is a mixed between Lil Wayne's work and the soundtrack for the 2009 film (500) Days of Summer. And the beauty of this newish genre is that any listener can find something that's familiar to cling to while at the same time challenging everything that's familiar about those songs. The album includes mixes with Feist's "Mushaboom" retitled "Mushababy," Regina Spektor's "Us" reworked as "Us (Me and Mrs. Officer)," among notable music by Simon & Garfunkel and The Smiths. The biggest treat features interview excerpts with Lil Wayne and Katie Couric titled "Let's Get High (With Katie Couric)."

My Sick Uncle does his mashing subtly and adeptly. It's an interesting homage to the rapper's life and music, but also a critique of his excess. (500) Days of Summer is a film about true love existing, finding it, and holding onto it, and that sentiment is reflected in the musical choices on the film's soundtrack. Lil Wayne, though, just isn't the sentimental type. His lyrics focus on getting high, and getting laid, often subjecting women to subjective/submissive roles. He's not about love, and yet, these two sets of material find their way together. My Sick Uncle seems to understand the irony of the pairing, the way that these opposing philosophies clash, and yet he succeeds in his creation because the beats are there, and really, the lesson in any mashup, but perhaps especially this one, is that music is beats and notes. The sweetest song, and the most detestable one are so closely related that they really just flow together like two tributaries of a vast river, and then that river goes out to the ocean, and all the music mixes as one.

You can stream for free or download (500) Days of Weezy at 500daysofweezy.com.

Score: 7.5/10
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