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Album Reviews: The Black Keys, The Tallest Man On ...

Album Reviews: The Black Keys, The Tallest Man On Earth, Thom Yorke

Every week we guide you through the biggest albums, to help you decide what you should be streaming. This week: The Black Keys rock politely, classic Americana from Sweden, and Radiohead’s frontman scores a Netflix film…

For a band who released their first eight album in just twelve years, a half-decade wait for the new Black Keys record sits like a pothole in their career to date. Both the title, “Let’s Rock” and electric chair front cover (inspired by the final words of a death row inmate executed in 2018, hence the quotation marks) suggest that time away might have re-energised the pair.

Such imagery suggests AC/DC which is an apt comparison: The Black Keys are another old school rock band that create electrifying singles but find themselves making the same album over and over again—much like the legendary Aussies. Anyone expecting a quantum leap into unknown territory will come out of “Let’s Rock” disappointed; T Rex grooves and Keith Richards riffs are still the order of the day.

Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. ‘Walk Across Water’ and ‘Under the Sun’ in particular recall Exile-era Rolling Stones, but a squeaky clean production takes away half the fun. Better is the glam stomp of ‘Eagle Birds’, bringing back joyous memories of ‘Tiger Feet’ by Mud thanks to its bouncy rhythm. As suggested, it’s the singles that ride highest here. ‘Go’ is the closest they’ve come to the rollercoaster thrills that blasted ‘Lonely Boy’ into orbit, while ‘Lo/Hi’, with its subtle gospel backing on the chorus makes for one of the most infectious guitar songs of the year.

According to the band, “Let’s Rock” was made with very little in terms of pre-planning to give the record a more spontaneous feel, and it certainly shows when the album barrels through its runtime. But the trade-off is a lack of depth. ‘Every Little Thing’ and ‘Get Yourself Together’ keep threatening to break into a Led Zeppelin groove reminiscent of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, but neither stick around long enough to really dig in to where it could take them. Lyrically, too, a few bitter hints in the writing (decomposing bodies and “the faces you used to know” on opener ‘Shine a Little Light’) are also abandoned too quickly.

Kristian Matsson, the alter-ego of Swedish folk singer The Tallest Man on Earth, isn’t afraid to plough his particular furrow either. He returns with his most stripped back album to date, I Love You, It’s a Fever Dream, released physically for the first time this week.

Unlike The Black Keys however, there are clear signs of development on this new record; having previously recreated the straightforward American folk of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, combining it with the dreamier elements of The War on Drugs, here he records every instrument himself and produces to really get down to the bare bones. By stripping production back, however, Matsson has produced something closer to (fellow Seeger acolyte) Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska, with songs often feeling more like demoes than a full blooded studio recordings, complete with seat creaks that open ‘Hotel Bar’, and harmonica drifting in and out of view on the likes of ‘There’s a Girl’ and ‘Waiting For My Ghost’.

The off-grid approach really suits his cracked vocal style, once again coming across like a more tuneful Bob Dylan with a canyon full of emotion behind him. Sometimes sadness overwhelms tracks like ‘I’ll Be A Sky’, but his songwriting works best when sorrow breaks through the cracks on the title track and the mandolin-assisted ‘I’m a Stranger Now’. There’s real longing here (envy of a neighbouring couple’s love on ‘The Running Styles of New York’, getting lost in “some kind of fog” on ‘Waiting for My Ghost’) and you hope he finds happiness somewhere, but his search is compelling for us in the meantime.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has never been a man afraid of production by comparison and, having asked Paul Thomas Anderson to direct the music video for his band’s track ‘Daydreaming’ in 2016, here he returns the favour by not only starring but also scoring his new short film Anima.

The resultant album of the same name is significantly longer than the 15-minute piece (available now on Netflix), making this feels more like a solo record than Yorke’s soundtrack for the 2018 Suspiria remake. This bears out in the music here too, something of an improved sequel to Yorke’s Kid A-isms of his 2014 album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. It’s a joy to find, then, that after struggling with stiff beats and uncompromising self-satisfaction with his previous electronic projects, Anima is his most successful foray into this arena since 2006’s The Eraser.

Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich have taken influence from Flying Lotus’ use of improvised loops to create a more immediate, more humane sound than the singer has used before. Much like OK Computer, that emotional connection comes from a place of anger and confusion at the modern world. ‘Traffic’ and ‘The Axe’ are frighteningly dense, and ‘Last Thing I Heard’ talks of being “swallowed up” by the city. ‘Dawn Chrorus’, meanwhile, finds Yorke at his most resigned and fed up: “Come on, do you worst,” he pleads, the electronic wash closing in behind him.

All very oppressive and Orwellian, but it ends on a note of hope with ‘Runwayaway’, slipping in some blues guitar that adds a dash of beauty in the mix as a final sigh of relief. Overall, it’s as challenging and dense as anything else Yorke has produced outside of his day job, but Anima is also his most accessible solo work in a very long time.

“Let’s Rock” by The Black Keys: 3/5

I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream by The Tallest Man on Earth: 4/5

Anima by Thom Yorke: 4/5

Black Keys Let's Rock album cover
thom yorke anima album cover

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