LipsTerror.jpgTHE FLAMING LIPS: The Terror
Warner Bros., 55 minutes
Rating: 4/5

Flaming Lips’ music expresses the ecstatic joy or sheer dread of being alive and very little in between. If the title of their 13th album didn’t make clear enough which side of that existential coin they were currently exploring, frontman Wayne Coyne explains: “The Terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on ... we just go on… there is no mercy killing."

Yikes. But don’t let that ominous thesis statement scare you away. The Terror may look some heavy shit straight in the eye, but it’s among the most beautiful albums the band has made. Within it, it has soothing vibrations (“Try to Explain”) and hypnotic jams (“You Lust”), songs that shine (“Look ... the Sun is Rising”) and radiate (“The Terror,” “Butterfly”). Even without an abundance of hooks, it is surprisingly accessible.

That doesn’t entirely relieve the anxiety of its subject matter, which I guess is par for the course; no matter how beautiful Flaming Lips songs have gotten, they’ve never ignored the brutal truths of life. The Terror is more single-minded in that regard than previous albums, but never too bleak. I don’t plan on revisiting it every day, but I feel richer for having done so at least a few times.

BlakeOvergrown.pngJAMES BLAKE: Overgrown
Republic, 39 minutes
Rating: 3/5

James Blake’s self-titled debut album got a lot of mileage out of seeing how far pop melodies could be bent without breaking. It was a bold album for a photogenic 24-year-old musician, who could easily earn a wider audience by making less challenging material.

Overgrown will prove or disprove that possibility. It feels very much like a record Blake could have made before his debut, in some alternate timeline: more polite, less adventurous, and perpetually low key. At times, it comes dangerously close to narcolepsy; “I Am Sold” gains a slight pulse halfway in, but remains subdued.

If the young Blake is reaching for a more accessible sound and more general, less overtly critical audience (for the latter at least, who could blame him) at least he’s doing so on his own terms. Overgrown is mostly light, piano-driven material but with Blake’s singularly powerful singing voice and some fellow pop-revisionists (Brian Eno, RZA) on hand, his output still shiner far bright than, say, whatever Jamie Lidell dropped this year.  

knifecover.jpgTHE KNIFE: Shaking the Habitual
Rabid, 97 minutes
Rating: 4/5

While its influence is starting to be heard in progressive pop acts like Kate Boy, Chvrches and AlunaGeorge, The Knife’s Silent Shout (2006) remains one of the most singular albums of its time. Explaining why to those who’ve never heard it would take all day, suffice it to say, to a particular sub-section of music fans its proper follow-up Shaking the Habitual is the most anticipated album of the year.

Many of those fans will be disappointed. Habitual is long, challenging and absent of much of what earned the Swedish duo such a devoted following. A good third of its 97 minutes are instrumental (“Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” alone is 20 minutes of eerie ambience) and of its “songs”, only “Ready to Lose” replicates Silent Shout’s gothic electro-pop aesthetic — and it doesn’t arrive until the final five minutes.

Elsewhere, the Knife goes tribal (“A Tooth for An Eye”), industrial (“Full of Fire”) and neo-classical (“A Cherry On Top,” “Fracking Fluid Injection”). “Stay Out Here” is a multi-part workout jam for broken androids.

Despite its extremely mixed reception the band’s collaborative opera piece Tomorrow, in a Year (2010) is a far greater influence on Habitual than anything else they’ve done; several tracks here could have fit nicely into its perplexing miasma of sound.

But expectation isn’t everything. Despite not being precisely the album Knife fans have waited seven years for, Shaking the Habitual is by no means a failure of vision. While its pro-humanism, anti-wealth themes were better illustrated by the album’s press releases and this disturbing comic strip than its mostly unintelligible lyrics and confrontational tone, it feels at every moment like a statement — a challenge to a specific way of thinking. Whether your takeaway from that challenge is “Society should reconsider its leniency to the rich” or “The new Knife album is weird and annoying,” it’s yours to keep.

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