Review roundup: New albums by Converge, The Flaming Lips, The Clientele, The Raveonettes, Thao

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The Flaming Lips Embryonic (Warner Bros.)

It would be easy to overrate Embryonic by focusing too much on context. It's certainly a sharp left turn for the Flaming Lips after the cartoonish crowd-pleasers on At War With the Mystics. But despite great temptation to the contrary, shock value shouldn't factor significantly into an artistic assessment. Radiohead's Kid A continues to top best-of lists nine years later because its incredible musicianship and heart-rending songwriting have held up long after the surprise of hearing Thom Yorke's voice through a vocoder wore off.

That said, while this new double-platter from Wayne Coyne and the fearless freaks is no Kid A, it's still pretty good. A textural marvel, the album trips through a dark, demented landscape built on a diabolical rhythm section, freaky shrieks, hazy keyboard jabs and a swirling mass of vocals that sound several dimensions removed from reality. The dystopian dreamworld makes a fine filter for moments of psych-pop bliss like "Silver Trembling Hands," "The Impulse" and "Worm Mountain," a throwback to the choral chaos of "The Gash" from The Soft Bulletin. But it also lends itself to lots of drawn-out instrumental passages and detached vocal performances that seem pretty melodically unsatisfying when piled up one after the other.

When you're in the right mood, cycling through these tracks can be a thrill. But Embryonic sometimes seems like more a piece to be studied than enjoyed. They've built an impressive world to explore; it's just not always that much fun.

Read on for reviews of new albums by Converge, The Clientele, The Raveonettes and Thao with the Get Down Stay Down...

Converge Axe to Fall (Epitaph)

Fast, furious and effing awesome, Converge's latest seems like a fine entree into the harsh world of metal/hardcore for an outsider like myself. It's got all the monster riffs, rhythmic bombast and melodic underpinnings to sound exactly like I want a hardcore album to sound like. Maybe, as with last year's F---ed Up album The Chemistry of Common Life, that means it will be a letdown for longtime fans. But where that record sometimes seemed to dabble in artsy window dressing for its own sake, Converge never veers from its agenda of absolute decimation. I can imagine returning to Axe to Fall for years whenever I'm looking for a kick in the ass — or inspiration to deliver an ass-kicking of my own.

The Raveonettes In and Out of Control (Vice)

There was a time when the Raveonettes' retro sensibilities and glossy plastic aesthetics turned me off. I thought of them as skeezy Eurotrash putting an unwelcome touch of glam into the already tiresome garage rock revival of the early oughts. But my changing tastes and the band's ever-evolving songwriting prowess left me loving last year's Lust Lust Lust. This latest offering, In & Out of Control, is musically poppier and lyrically darker than anything they've done before, save for the record's brutal, beautiful climax "Break Up Girls." Perhaps its best selling point, though, is its diversity; it stays within the Raveonettes' post-JAMC sound but never stagnates in the sameyness that was the last record's Achilles heel. The end result is one of the most entertaining albums I've heard this year. What self-respecting rock 'n' roller wouldn't want to get down to candy-coated tunes called "Suicide," "D.R.U.G.S." and "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)"?

The Clientele Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)

My first experience with The Clientele came several albums into their career with 2007's God Save the Clientele. Trusted friends with a longer Clientele history report the band was in decline on that record, a mere shadow of their past greatness. I thought God Save was swell, but with this set of songs I'm starting to see where those weary listeners were coming from. As ever, this music is sleek, metropolitan, understated and very, very British. But nothing sticks out like the lovestruck fantasy of "Isn't Life Strange" or the lilting sway of "Here Comes the Phantom." It feels like all artifice, no songs, which is a sure letdown for a songwriter as talented as Alisdair Maclean. Bonfires makes me all the more eager to dig into their past masterpieces in search of more satisfying fare, and when that's the best thing you can say about an album, you've got a real snoozer on your hands.

Thao with the Get Down Stay Down Know Better Learn Faster (Kill Rock Stars)

Thao Nguyen's guitar work is snappy, her lyrics taut. "I need you to be better than me/ And you need me to do better than you," she sings on the title track. More inverse verse: "I disarm you in the morning/ But I was up in arms all night." The clever wordplay enriches songs already imbued with plenty of smarts. Nguyen's playing wraps around her ace rhythm section to build some of the best post-Talking Heads pop I've heard in years. It's jittery but never jumbled and always guided by the needs of the song. The occasional overdubs (strings!) are deployed artfully and out of necessity, not indulgence. This Thao gal knows what she's doing.