Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Kele's "Rise" and "Walk Tall"
When Bloc Party's debut LP, Silent Alarm, stormed US shores in 2005, I greeted our new British overlords with open arms. In fact, I greeted them with arms open, pupils dilated, jaws agape, stomach stirring, and some other anatomical reactions not suitable for sharing with you cheapskates who haven't signed up for OYL's Adults Only club (http://ohyoungbutnotyoungerthan21lions.blogspot.com). Matt Tong's opening drum salvo in "Like Eating Glass" is still one of my favorite musical moments of the decade, and I may have pounded out its rhythm on my steering wheel more often than any other track in the 2000's (always to the adoration of nubile women staring into my passenger window from their open-air Jeep, their hands moving quickly to their hearts as I meet their gaze for a fleeting moment, winking knowingly before gunning the engine of my 1998 Buick Century Custom and taking off at a crisp 12 mph to get to California Pizza Kitchen in time enough to pick up my Black Bean Tostito Taquito Pizza Ball -- yeah, I was that guy you saw). Catching the band on tour -- their first in the US -- for that album solidified my love, a bonding of nations not seen since Tony Blair's sleepovers with George W (S'mores in the Lincoln Bedroom, thanks Laura!).
This was not an uncommon reaction. People like that album! What's strange is that I may have liked its follow-up, 2007's A Weekend in the City, even more. People did not like that album! Too enamored of itself, the music too sweeping, Kele Okereke's lyrics too sentimental and his voice too thin to sound them convincingly, the guitars too Edge, man. I, on the other hand, am a sucker for the grand gesture. Weekend sounded to me like the work of a band suddenly faced with popularity beyond any level it had previously considered attainable, and a band who, seeing the heights they'd reached, was no longer satisfied to plumb the pleasant-but-shallow depths of "dancepunk" or Gang of Four-revivalism. Rather, Kele and co. made a Big Album, one trying for political commentary, for reflections on life in the 21st century urbis, all alienation and xenophobia and ennui. True, when you're looking to do anything with a word like urbis, lyrics like, "There was a sense of disappointment / when we left the mall" probably won't engender you much support among, you know, smart discerning people. Still, the urgency of the music, the band's ineffable sense of dynamism and melody managed to convince me that they had something to say. Yeah, wait a minute guys, the mall sucks!!
What's more, so do your racist neighbors and the easiness of drug-induced happiness vs. life-induced happiness and the difficulty of having to figure out your sexuality ever earlier in life just to keep pace. Bloc Party touches on all of those themes in Weekend, and when they do it with expertly timed snare hits and guitar solos and four-part harmonies, I'm in -- minimalist they are not, but sometimes you need some feelings painted out for you in broad, dripping strokes.
A lot of people just thought it was shitty, though.
2008's rush-released Intimacy fared even worse with the critics, almost universally dismissed as a blebby of ill-advised electro-experimentation. I'm mostly with them on that (save for killer b -sides [b-sides?!] "Your Visits Are Getting Shorter" and "Letter to My Son"). Much of the blame for that failure was laid at the feet of head-yelper Kele Okereke, whose heart-on-sleeve ambition and sentimentalism seemed to finally swallow him whole. Seeing the band on tour behind Intimacy (I'm nothing if not dedicated) was a sad show, Okereke posing on the monitors in rock star glory rather than jumping around unselfconsciously or grinning meekly behind his microphone. I left feeling sweaty and cheap, just like after that party your boyfriend threw last Friday in the Phi Kappa house to celebrate finishing his eleventh semester (the one where they played all those awesome songs from Silent Alarm, actually). Why, Kele! Why!
Hey, now he's putting out a solo album! It's called The Boxer, it's coming out June 22nd on Glassnote Records, it does not feature his last name, and it probably doesn't have any cameos from Matt Berninger. Also, it is terrible.
The tracks Kele's released on his blog are, anyway. You may have heard lead single, "Tenderoni" (also a favorite flavor of mine at CPK), at the gym. Here we have two more tracks, "Rise" and "Walk Tall". Both show the influence of producer XXXChange (something to do with Spank Rock), which is to say that both show the influence of someone who didn't tell Kele to curb the block rockin' beats and dust off his guitar.
I'm fine with Kele trying to sing (Weekend!) but without Tong's floor-tom or the rest of his band's angular (duh) guitars in the way, there's nothing to detract from the plain fact that he's not a crooner. That also means that Kele's lyrics are taking center stage and, well, shucks. I defy you to listen to the opening of "Rise," with its breathy inhalations and invocations to "come into the light... / raise those arms that once were broken," and not feel yourself blush and look around to make sure no one else heard that. I won't even get into the Katy Perry sound-a-like who crops up around the two-and-a-half minute mark. "Walk Tall" kicks off with some Bloc Party call-and-response vocalplay, before quickly deteriorating into Jock Jams-keyboard sludge.
It is, in short, a shame.
There's nothing to be done for lyrics like, "you are stronger / than you think." The reason why similarly rote lyrics worked on Weekend -- "let's drive to Brighton / on the weekend" -- was due to the band's earnestness and energy. The music raised the stakes into the stratosphere, so Kele's voice and words didn't have to. Here, without his band, the singer seems embarrassingly naked (though you might not think that's such a bad thing, judging from those press photos), gaudily off-key in nearly every sense of the word. Here's to hoping he's gotten it all of out his system.