Sounds of silence

The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute
I had heard a lot about this band and really wanted to like them even before I had ever heard them. For some reason I thought they were going to be hard-rockin,’ Detroit-type stuff. But the only thing they have in common with the MC5 is Rob Tyner’s afro.

The whole album is full of really cool, spacey, psychedelic interludes that get cut short by irritating progressive-funk ballads. If you could somehow have all the parts without the indie-whiner voice and the prog nonsense that goes with it, you would have some pretty decent space rock. Instead what you get is an album custom-made for the KNRK set. When they trip out, they’re far out; when they rock out, they’re a Tool knock-off. -Tage Savage

Again, Tage, I’m going to have to interject. What you call "progressive-funk ballads" is some of the best non-sludge heaviness I’ve heard in a long time. The album shamelessly jumps genres, languages and chord progressions until it reaches a fevered, manic climax. Fuck punk rock! Give me 13-minute songs! Give me Spanish ballads and spooky, tumbleweed vocals. Mars Volta is the band Cave In kept promising to be. Metal had to evolve, and Francis The Mute is that evolution. Like dying in a locked car at a rest stop in Arizona, only more accessible. -Choncy Jones

Nine Inch Nails, The Hand That Feeds (single)
I only listened to 30 seconds of this song. Need I say more? Isn’t Rez supposed to be some intense artist guy? Was he ever in the first place? -Tage Savage

Queens of the Stone Age, Lullabies to Paralyze
I thought the cover of this album and the booklet were kind of silly. They gave me the idea that the album was supposed to be some evil "Charlotte’s Web" type of concept album. Man, farm animals aren’t scary!

I thought I was in for some real heavy stoner rock in the vein of Sleep or St. Vitus, which the album is not. In actuality this is a good thing because you can only milk Sabbath for so long. This record unfortunately just sounds like the Foo Fighters trying to be tough, which is kind of like your fat, bespectacled, asthmatic kid brother deciding that he’s going to join a gang. This album also makes the mistake of trying to be heavy and danceable at the same time. This works on the band’s one and only good song, "Burn the Witch," which almost sounds like ’60s beat group the Sorrows. But others, like "Broken Box" and "You Got a Killer … ," utterly fail at melding a dance beat with distorted Sabbath riffs. The latter actually has that annoying walkie-talkie vocal effect that I thought had died out in the ’90s. Quit trying to be cool, fuckheads! Get back to the doom! -Tage Savage

The Decemberists, Picaresque
On the back cover of this new Decemberists album, all five members (including recently departed drummer Rachel Blumberg) are taking their curtain call, dressed as characters from five different songs on the album. The implicit message is: We don’t just write songs, we write dramas. And though the last two Decemberists albums had their story songs, Picaresque has the group diving into the role of storytellers, their songs coming closer and closer to the sort of detail-driven, narrative-fueled songs you’d find in a Broadway musical. The only problem with this philosophy is that perfectly decent songs pale in comparison to songs full of vivid characters and dramatic plots. And that’s what ends up happening to some of the lesser efforts on Picaresque, their small charms overshadowed by the more ambitious songs.

As far as the story songs on this album, the Decemberists are at the top of their game, some of the

tracks achieving an almost cinematic scope. In "On the Bus Mall," frontman Colin Meloy tells the tale of two gay hustlers on Portland’s bus mall who, in their close friendship, "fuse like a family." Painting pictures of tricks turned on the waterfront and pool games played in Old Town bars, Meloy finally sets a story in his adopted hometown. And while the song can be said to romanticize prostitution, there is a hard edge to the song as the narrator warns his friend that "I will not mourn for you." Though I doubt Meloy is all that familiar with the actual lives of gay street kids, his song hints at the kind of perspective needed to survive on the streets. The characters in "On the Bus Mall" share a tough romanticism that, in its fatalism, refuses to sentimentalize life on the streets.

The album’s third track, "Eli, the Barrow Boy," is the story of a poor barrow boy who can’t afford to buy robes of "gold and silk Arabian thread" for his love. But strangely enough, the barrow boy’s lament is belated; his lover is already dead. And when in the next verse we find the barrow boy dead in the river, our narrator sings of still pushing his barrow from beyond the grave. The song’s arrangement resembles an old British murder ballad, full of minor chords and disembodied harmonies. Producer Chris Walla achieves the slightly hollow sound familiar to fans of traditional folk music, lending each instrument the sort of warmth you hear on old vinyl.

On "The Bagman’s Gambit," an unnamed narrator tells the story of being an accomplice to the crimes of her spy lover. As usual, frontman Colin Meloy packs his verses full of detail and information: Lines like "in a bathroom stall off the national mall, how we kissed so sweetly" manage to establish a sense of place while also moving the narrative forward. And as a poet, Meloy uses specificity to bring alive his subjects, while keeping us in the dark about exactly what the hell is going on. The narrator’s bad-news beau is "purloined in Petrograd," handed "documents and microfilm" and kills a "plainclothes cop at 10 o’clock." And while each of these details hints at some sort of spying operation, the beans never really get spilled. The song’s main drama is the love story between the two main characters, the triumphant chorus the defiant cry of the spy, "No, they’ll never catch me now!" "The Bagman’s Gambit" is one of the best Decemberists songs ever written because it manages to both be intimate regarding the details of a romantic relationship and epic in its tale of backroom torture, stolen documents and international intrigue.

Which leaves us with the not-so-great songs.

While both "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)" and "Of Angels and Angles" might have fit perfectly on their two previous releases, on Picaresque they just seem like throwaways. "From My Own True Love" has a chorus of "Mr. Postman, do you have letter for me?" referencing the Marvelletes’ "Please Mr. Postman," a far superior song of lost love.

And "Of Angels and Angles," with the line, "There are angels in your angles," feels like a poor choice to end such an ambitious album.

But it’s hard to quibble with Picaresque, its flaws being so few and far between. Part of the enjoyment that comes from listening to an album straight through is that the lesser songs can be breathers between the better songs, whetting your appetite for what’s to come. When a band releases an album like this one, rich with detail and nuance, it’s owed the sort of patience and goodwill you’d give a difficult book or movie. -Daniel Krow

Beck, Guero
Guero fails because it could have been great. The concept of Beck’s new album is alluring, a return to the po-mo production of the Dust Brothers while retaining the emotional intimacy of 2002’s Sea Change, but the result is less than amazing. This isn’t a bad album, or even as boring as hipster audiophiles will be whining about over the next few months, but it’s not going to stay in anybody’s most-played list for very long.

Beck’s knack for offbeat pop hooks and his ability to fuse disparate influences, from James Brown to Sonic Youth, haven’t faded, and the Dust Brothers, who act more like collaborators than producers on this release, continue to prove themselves as two of music’s most creative and skillful artists behind the soundboard.

But Beck seems to confuse intimacy with the low, droning vocal style of Sea Change. Accompanying a live band and country-infused atmospheric songs of heartbreak, Beck’s meandering voice is sublime, but against the funkiness of the Dust Brothers’ production it feels half-assed. Odelay and Midnight Vultures were party albums; they could be cranked up to get the room bouncing. Guero is more suited for a few friends drinking wine and waxing nostalgic.

The bossa nova rhythms and lackadaisical hooks of songs like "Missing" and "Earthquake Weather" almost find their mark, but it’s hard not to feel like the album would have been better if Beck just drank some Red Bull. In fact, many of the songs might prove to find their groove in front of the pulsing energy of a live crowd.

The album itself is nostalgic – the ironic rap and schizophrenic pop of Odelay is back – but ten years later it feels out of touch, even derivative of the disciples of Beck’s own earlier work. It feels more like Beck is working hard to replicate the elements that made his previous albums successful than tapping into his own stores of eccentric creativity. The early ’90s California rap, female backup singers and vocodered chorus of "Hell Yes" isn’t funny or interesting anymore, and the "la la la" loop that wraps up "Rental Car" is clunky and hackneyed, evoking "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." But most of Guero isn’t aurally offensive; it just collapses under the weight of its own potential. -Leathan Graves-Highsmith

Bloc Party, Silent Alarm
Every few years, some insanely derivative UK band gets touted as the savior of guitar pop, and it’s always an absurd claim. This year it’s South London’s Bloc Party. Silent Alarm, the band’s first LP, is destined to find a sizable audience of indie kids, and it should – it’s a solid pop album that’s fun and energetic and will appeal to fans of the best Cure and Joy Division redux bands like Interpol and Franz Ferdinand.

Silent Alarm is far from perfect. Trite lyrics abound and Matt Tong, Bloc Party’s man behind the skins, is perpetually on the verge of breaking into an adolescent drum solo. "Like Eating Glass," the album opener, would be at home on Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, and "Helicopter" takes its intro almost note-for-note from the Jam’s "Set the House Ablaze." But Bloc Party’s flaws and derivative aesthetic are easily forgivable from a band that is more interested in getting hipsters to bop more than their heads than making a mark in music history. -Leathan Graves-Highsmith