Thursday, October 1, 2009

#91. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz (Interscope, 2009) / Santogold - Santogold (Downtown, 2008)

This pairing makes more sense the more I think about it, even if at first I wouldn't have ever though that these two shared anything beyond their New York pedigree. Of course a few years ago if you'd told me I would have a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album or a full bore pop album in consideration for my top 100 albums of the decade I'd have probably laughed at you, so there's that too I guess. At any rate, the major reason I'm grouping them together is that they represent two distinct and multifaceted takes on pop music and give lie to the idea that pop is a singles genre first and foremost. Sure, both albums spawned some absolutely mind-shittingly great singles, but they also work just as well as full albums, which is rare in the realm of pop music. It's not just their variety - and really that's just the case with Santogold on any large scale level - but their full understanding of what makes for an album as opposed to a collection of songs.

The album thing has generally been the downfall of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Until It's Blitz I would have comfortably labeled them as a band who's only worthwhile releases were their EPs, anything longer seemed to fall apart due to horrible sequencing or a lack of good material, or in the case of their debut Fever to Tell a combination of both. They always pulled out a great single or two in the end, but as far as full releases go it seemed that the longer they were the less they had to offer. The fact that It's Blitz is actually pretty much front-to-back awesome isn't the only surprising thing though, there's also the part where they decided to turn into an early 80s dance punk group without so much as a warning shot. I was a huge fan of the preceding Is Is EP's unrestrained darkness, and was secretly hoping they'd go more in that direction, but the complete 180 they actually did is infinitely more rewarding. The fact that the band sounds like they're having the most fun they've ever had making this album is downright infectious and gives the album the sort of center that their previous releases sorely lacked.

It also helps that it kicks itself off with what might be the best one-two punch of any album released this year. Between "Zero"'s reveling in the joys of being an unknown quantity and "Heads Will Roll"'s smirking dance floor nihilism the band built up enough goodwill to tide over all manner of potential blunders. The great thing is that those blunders never happen. The album doesn't maintain the energy of those two, but the moodier moments pack just as much of a punch. "Hysteric" and "Skeleton" especially are touching in a way the band hasn't been since "Maps" completely obliterated me back in 2003, and hearing them in the context of an album that isn't bogged down by as much unnecessary crap as previous YYYs outings adds to their emotional punch. It needs to be said that Karen O is absolutely on fire here. Her voice had been getting more assured with each passing release, but it's a huge leap forward for her that she can carry stuff like "Hysteric" and "Runaway" with the sort of poise and strength she does here. The latter also features some great work from the rest of the band, crafting the perfect build up to match O's fairly devastating lyric and give the song the sort of cinematic fell I'd have never associated with them even a year ago. Then they go into disco and sound just as great and the album makes sense: the balance between the personal and the frivolous all handled lightly and arranged for maximum impact. The shock of how good it is has worn off, but it's still the sort of 'finally!' moment I was waiting for to make the YYYs more than a one or two song wonder.

It feels a bit odd that it's led off by "Zero", but given that the YYYs are defined so heavily by what they've done before that the joy they find within the confines of being a theoretical 'zero' is totally plausible. Santogold, however, is the sound of someone living out that joy for real, not encumbered by any sort of expectation at all. Unless you were paying attention to GZA's Beneath the Surface album or are an aficionado of the deep cuts on Mark Ronson's Version Santi White was pretty much an unknown quantity when her album dropped, and it seems to revel in the lack of preconceptions the listener will have about it. White genre-hops with reckless abandon, covering everything from futuristic electro ("Creator") to some of the best Interpol songs they never recorded ("L.E.S. Artistes" and "Lights Out") to punkier blasts ("You'll Find a Way") and all manner of more urban sounds (classic ska on "Shove It" and "Unstoppable," light R 'n' B on "Starstruck"). It makes the album hard to pin down but incredibly fun to listen to. None of the shifts are head-snappingly abrupt so there's a sense of albumness underneath all the variety. It also helps that the best moments are spread out pretty evenly throughout the album's length, and that the non-singles are often just as good if not better than their more widely known album-mates.

The major difference between these two albums is that Santogold takes itself much more seriously. It's Blitz sounds like an established band taking a bit of a lark into light territory, and it's a great little lark if so, but Santogold has something to say, dammit. White's a good eough songwriter to not let things get heavy handed, but there's definitely an underlying message on a lot of the songs (coincidentally it's the better ones that have this quality...make of that what you will) from "L.E.S. Artistes"' stand against the hipster dilettantes in the NY scene or the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps anthem that "You'll Find a Way" comes off as. Like I said though, White never lets the topics get in the way of the hooks, and Christ are there hook on here. The upside of it is that it feels substantial as an album; it's definitely not the lightweight fluff you'd expect from something under the pop umbrella.

Coming up tomorrow: The first of two sides of the weirdest MC ever.

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