ALBUMS: August 2022 In Review
New LPs by Julia Jacklin, Panic! At The Disco and The Mountain Goats are in order for late summer
The August release schedule gained momentum with some strong releases in the last couple weeks.
There were some good ones scattered throughout, including Cheat Codes from Black Thought and Danger Mouse, which Ron Hart shared his thoughts on last week.
There were also a couple of albums released at the very end of July too late for that month’s In Review. But Beyoncé’s Renaissance, an exploration of dance music past, and Amanda Shires’ emotional Take It Like a Man are both worth checking out.
For the August In Review, we’re looking at Julie Jacklin’s follow-up to 2019’s terrific Crushing. Panic! At the Disco steps away from synth pop and R&B to crate dive headlong into a love for rock-and-roll. The ever-prolific John Darnielle is back with the Mountain Goats’ sixth album over the last three years with another concept album, this time driven by action movies.
The inspiration and promotion of Crushing were things Jacklin wasn’t eager to repeat.
It’s completely understandable after an emotional breakup album (along with its declarations of autonomy) to want to do something different. And while it wasn’t as if Jacklin didn’t appreciate receptive audiences when she took it on the road, when it came time to do the follow-up, she wanted to leave the guitar down for a bit.
Artist: Julia Jacklin
Album: PRE PLEASURE
Label: Polyvinyl Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
She wrote much of third album PRE PLEASURE on keyboards and a drum machine, a new method of writing free of expectations that she felt confident in exploring.
The title, Jacklin told Consequence of Sound, is “a term that I put to the feeling of trying to do all this emotional work in order to then have a pleasurable life. But also realizing that that doesn’t really exist. In some ways it does, but you actually have to make the pleasure in your life. You have to enjoy what you have when you have it and keep working on things, but also make sure that you’re stopping to appreciate and enjoy wherever you are at that point.”
PRE PLEASURE isn’t all happy happy, joy joy, but Jacklin definitely has tempered her approach to keep things from being Crushing 2.0.
Take the wit of “Moviegoer”, in which neither the viewer nor the maker get the deeper meaning they think they’re getting from the experience (“Moviegoer’s forty dollars down/Nobody from work invites them ’round for dinner/Movie director is going down too/Forty million dollars, still nobody loves you”).
Whether first- or second-hand, the rocker “I Was Neon” carries hints of the Velvet Underground musically while lyrically pondering how temporal moments of joy are (“Am I gonna lose myself again?/I quite like the person that I am”).
Opener “Lydia Wears a Cross” is a nod to part of Jacklin’s childhood and how religious indoctrination can have an impact even in a not particularly religious household where one parent’s indifferent and the other is an avowed atheist.
Love appears throughout PRE PLEASURE — the spare loveliness of the romantic caring in “Love, Try Not to Let Go”, the more guitar-driven concern of “Be Careful With Yourself” (with its echoes of the likes of Juliana Hatfield) and the understated, toe-tapping optimism of “Magic.”
Jacklin doesn’t shy away from heavier material, turning her keen eye on unhealthy sexual relationships (and how the mindset that accept them is built) in “Ignore Tenderness” or the breakup of another kind in “End of a Friendship”, given the obvious title after Crushing’s “You Were Right” was misunderstood as being about a romantic breakup. Most heartbreaking is “Less of a Stranger”, which is instantly relatable to anyone estranged from a parent.
Three albums in, Jacklin’s still capable of a lyric that makes you take notice without being overly showy about it. Her warm voice, aided here by Marcus Paquin’s production, brings out the empathy, intelligence and wit. The songs are varied enough in style to keep things moving.
PRE PLEASURE is another winner in Jacklin’s discography, enough to have one already looking forward to album No. 4 in 2025 (if she keeps her usual pace).
VIDEO: Julia Jacklin “Love, Try Not to Let Go”
At this point, there’s an inclination to want to just take Brendon Urie aside and say, “Dude. Just go ahead and write that rock musical for Broadway that you know you want to.”
Get it done so we can get the movie version, preferably so we can get the worst of Rock of Ages out of our head (Think Tom Cruise singing “I Want to Know What Love Is” directly into Malin Akerman’s butt).
It’s hard not to think Urie is part way there with Viva Los Vengeance, an album he calls in a press release “a look back at who I was 17 years ago and who I am now with the fondness I didn’t have before.”
Artist:Panic! At The Disco
Album: Liva Las Vengeance
Label: Fueled By Ramen/Atlantic Records
★★★★1/4 (4.25/5 stars)
There’s definitely some Spot Brendon’s Record Collection going on — the verse phrasing in “Star Spangled Banger” echoing Phil Lynott, the ooh-ah backing vocals in “God Killed Rock and Roll” recalling Marc Bolan and even the “come on, come on, come on” bit in “Sugar Soaker” leading one to expect Urie to have thoughts on pretending we’re dead.
And Queen. Find someone who will love you as much as Brendon Urie loves Queen (see “Sad Clown” with all its theatrical flourishes for just one of many examples).
Here’s the thing, though, as derivative as it is, and it definitely is, the whole thing winds up being pretty irresistible, packed with its share of hooks.
The echoes of rock past extend to its recording, as Urie, who’d picked up an analog tape machine during the pandemic, decided not to record digitally. He also, with co-writer, bassist and guitarist Jake Sinclair, picked up another weapon in writer/co-producer/musician Mike Viola, who’s had a knack for catchiness since his days in the Candy Butchers, not to mention the theme song to That Thing You Do.
Jam sessions with Urie on drums, Sinclair on bass and Viola on guitar fueled the start of Viva Las Vengeance, even if there wasn’t a clear direction. Urie scaled back from his idea of doing a rock opera, but not so far back that he wouldn’t still be over-the-top on the high wire without a trace of self-consciousness.
If Urie had followed through on the rock opera, it’s not hard to see it as at least somewhat inspired by a fictionalized version of himself growing up in Las Vegas. “Local God”, which echoes ’90s power pop, proving that either bringing Viola into the mix was a good choice, Urie had an album collection with deeper cuts than one would expect or both.
Start with the opening title track, which features lines like “I don’t wanna be anonymous/But I don’t wanna be you/In a city full of promises/Nothing rings true.” It also name-checks T. Rex, because of course it does. You wouldn’t expect him to reference Mud, would you?
The musical reference points are obvious even when they aren’t specific. The single “Don’t Let the Light Go Out” offers lovely harmonies and a hint of ’60s melodrama.
“Star Spangled Banger”, a title I’m surprised hasn’t popped up before, may echo Thin Lizzy elsewhere, but its chorus is pure jukebox musical.
Speaking of which, “God Killed Rock and Roll” seems set to place at the end of the first act, feeling like three songs in its four minutes, including one that more likely nods towards Kiss’ “God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You II” than Argent’s original.
“All By Yourself” comes equipped with a chorus ready for waving a cellphone back-and-forth at live shows. It’s about the outcast with heroic jukebox dreams, complete with a hat tip to the better Wings-era McCartney past the halfway point.
“Something About Maggie” is catchy breakup affirmation that somehow, I have no idea why, is missing the assertive horn section on the chorus from the get-go that jaunty British-style pop like this pretty much screams for.
By the time it all wraps up with “Do It To Death”, one’s left waiting for the curtain call to have a drink near the theater in Times Square.
If one’s going to pay this much homage, you need to have your ducks in order. There’s enough craft and affection for the sources of inspiration to pull it off, especially when Panic! At the Disco are clearly having a blast doing it, more fun than the original lineup did seemed to with the more Beatles-centric Pretty.Odd 14 years ago.
And if Urie, who did star in Kinky Boots on Broadway for a few months in 2017, ever writes that rock musical, we can only hope that the moviemakers have learned their lesson and we don’t get Leonardo De Caprio singing “Don’t Let the Light Go Out” into Elizabeth Debicki’s butt.
John Darnielle, now in his mid 50s, remains a busy man. A solo nom de plume that developed into a full-fledged band over time, the Mountain Goats are now at 21 albums and counting.
In recent years, Darnielle released three straight concept albums about niche subjects that informed part of his childhood — Beat the Champ (pro wrestling, especially lucha libre), In League With Dragons (tabletop roleplaying gaming) and Goth. He followed them with Songs for Pierre Chuvin, in which pandemic reality necessitated throwback to his early one-man band days. That was followed by the more wide-ranging Getting into Knives and Dark In Here, recorded before the pandemic and released in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Artist: The Mountain Goats
Album: Bleed Out
Label: Merge Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
And that’s when he’s not writing acclaimed novels like 2018’s Devil House, spending time at home as husband and father and hosting a TV show called America’s Next Top Metal.
Okay, the latter hasn’t happened Darnielle is a man with a lot on his plate. All the while, he’s shown a willingness to follow his muse to where it suits him like a Neil Young with more band stability. If he’s going to eschew guitars, as he did on Goths or be more emphatically rock-oriented, as he is on Bleed Out, he doesn’t need to put one band on hold and switch to a different one.
Bleed Out is a return to concept album territory, this time looking at action films over the years, not just an appreciation for them, but a commentary on what they represent, especially depending on the country they come from.
As with the earlier trilogy, it didn’t spring from a set plan, but from the realization a couple songs in that since already had a head start, he might as well keep exploring. He’d started watching action movies as a way to unwind while taking in the kind of fare that would keep him awake enough during the time window he had to do it.
Bleed Out starts with the intense “Training Montage”, so he’s obviously not opening the album with strict action movie structure, as actual montages come along later. It finishes with the wearily fatalistic “Bleed Out”, which would be perfectly suited to play over the closing credits if the lyrics didn’t read like they were quoting third act dialogue verbatim.
“Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome” is the punkish manifesto of the action antihero, Darnielle knowingly realizing the shallow futility of said manifesto. The track allows drummer Jon Wurster to flex the type of chops normally reserved for his work with Superchunk and Bob Mould.
Indeed, it’s not just Darnielle who sounds terrific here. Matt Douglas (guitar, keys and sax), Peter Hughes (bass and guitars) and Wurster flesh out the ideas really well. The Weapon X of the whole affair is producer Alicia Bognanno (from Bully), who also added guitars and keyboards.
“First Blood” addresses the myth of the antihero (“Paul Kersey never left his apartment/John Rambo never went to Vietnam”). “Mark On You” turns violent threat into a catchy slogan, as does “Make You Suffer”
Darnielle’s knack for sharp character sketches doesn’t show up as often with all the tropey plot beats to hit, but isn’t completely absent. “Extraction Point” could have been called “Exposition Point”, but the mindset driving the protagonist comes through.
“We’re Gonna Need More Bandages” gives musical urgency to what would be a throwaway quip in an American action flick.
“Hostages” is the epic centerpiece, its length suggesting the infinite possibilities for cannon fodder in the action movie (“We may run out of bullets/We’re never going to run out of hostages”), all set to a jam that makes it seem destined to be a live staple.
For all its talk of blood, one wishes Bleed Out cut a bit deeper, as it feels more concerned with details of plot than of characters. That in itself would be seen as a commentary on no shortage of action farse.
And it’s hard not to think that in a country where dedicated followers of fascism are out there larping as “patriots” and thinking action films like Red Dawn are documentaries, there’s an album with deeper commentary to be made.
But that’s not what Bleed Out set out to be. For the most part, Darnielle & Co. succeed in what they did. The music and performances are catchily effective and Darnielle’s appreciation for the subjects of his observations comes through.
If Bleed Out isn’t quite essential Mountain Goats, it’s another solid album in an amazingly consistent 30-plus year career.
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