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The Thermals/DOOM/Passion Pit (or "is 2009 living up to my expectations?")

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Here's a three part review I posted in another forum...

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Just the other day, I was looking back to how much I was looking forward to 2009. So these three reviews are the three albums I was most looking forward to this year*. They are actually less like album reviews and more like analyses of whether or not they lived up to my expectations. Included are 09 releases by DOOM, The Thermals, and Passion Pit.

*It should be noted that "Merriweather Post Pavilion" was actually my most anticipated album of 2009, but so much has been said about it that I decided there was no reason to write a review of it. I instead chose albums that I feel have been less talked about. Here's a quick summary of my feelings on MPP: It is totally awesome but I still prefer Strawberry Jam. Best album of the year regardless.

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The Thermals – “Now We Can Seeâ€

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Maybe it’s because I’ve been known to have a semi-untrustworthy level of hometown pride, but Portland’s best pop-punk band, The Thermals, is one of my very favorite bands. The band’s raw energy and extremely catchy melodies never seem to let me down. So when I heard they were coming out with an album in 2009 that would just be a typical pop album filled with love songs instead of a political concept album, I was thrilled. It’s not like I don’t like their politics, and even if I disagreed with them I doubt they’d bother me, but I just thought that since the Bush era was over anyways, a fourth album blasting conservative politics would be tired.

When I heard the first single, which was the title track, my level of excitement got even higher. The sing-along chorus of “oh-ay-oh-oh†was just as catchy as anything they’d written on “The Body, The Blood, The Machine,†and the lyrics were refreshingly optimistic compared to their political stuff. But when I heard the rest of the album, I found myself not wanting to listen to it more than once. I had to force myself to listen to it a 2nd and 3rd time, because I could not figure why I didn’t love this new album from one of my favorite bands. I hadn’t grown tired of the Thermals, had I? I re-listened to “The Body, The Blood, The Machine†and realized that the thing I thought I would miss the least was possibly the most important aspect of the Thermals: angry politics.

The Thermals songwriting has always been an awesome combination of anger and joy, the anger coming from the subject matter, and the joy coming from the hooks. But when the Thermals took the anger out of the music, a lot of the energy was lost with it. When the Thermals have nothing going for them but catchiness, they really don’t have a lot to set them apart from the rest of modern indie rock. Once the hooks aren’t stuck in your head anymore, you have no reason to come back to the album. The Thermals are boring when Hutch Harris is singing about how things are probably going to be OK. Hutch didn’t write “Here’s Your Future†with equal parts anger and joy, he wrote it with a joy inspired by anger. And when you take the anger out of the equation, “Now We Can See†isn’t just left with joy, it is left with nothing. I now fear that the only way I can hope for another classic Thermals album is by voting for Sarah Palin in 2012.

The band has defended and promoted this album by calling it more mature than their previous efforts. Maybe it’s because I’m still just a kid, but to me there is a major difference between “growing up†and “growing old.†Unfortunately, the Thermals new album is an example of the latter, in my opinion.

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DOOM – “Born Like Thisâ€

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This was possibly the album I was most looking forward to this year. MF DOOM is my favorite rapper. His hilariously clever wordplay and well-crafted beats from the most obscurely creepy samples pretty much always result in A+ albums. But when I first heard “Born Like This,†I was slightly let down. I didn’t think it was a bad album, but I was expecting something a bit more epic after a three year hiatus. DOOM barely hyped this album up at all, promoting it with shows featuring an imposter DOOM instead of the real deal. Most rappers would promote such a well-anticipated album with excellent shows and a cocky amount of self-created hype. But “Born Like This†is a reminder that DOOM is not like most rappers. After all, the thing he seems to hate most in this world is rappers, and he would like to be thought of as a comic book villain instead of a rapper.

Putting aside enormous expectations that DOOM tried his best not to create, the album is pretty good, and basically features everything I like about earlier DOOM albums: clever wordplay, funny lyrics, creepy beats from unrecognizable samples. But it’s also a reminder that DOOM is too good to last forever. Sure the wordplay is there, but it is just a bit less clever than his earlier stuff. Maybe it’s just because I don’t smoke weed anymore, but the wordplay in “Born Like This†too often doesn’t seem to mean anything. He’ll often say a line that sounds witty, but upon further thought doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the lyrics. And the rhymes are still creative and amusing, but you get a feeling that his old songs are so jam-packed with internal rhymes that he’s starting to run out of words that rhyme. It’s almost as if he has said every word that has ever rhymed.

But as I said earlier, this album is still pretty good. It does have everything we all love about MF DOOM, just to a slightly lesser degree. However, due to the nature of this album’s flaws, I fear that “Born Like This†is not just a hiccup in a career that will continue to be amazing for years to come. This album could be compared to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,†in that it was a pretty good album compared to its contemporaries, but it was Michael’s first imperfect album and a sign of the future decline of one of the greatest artists in his genre. I doubt DOOM will crash and burn as badly as Michael did, but “Born Like This†at least made me feel like DOOM will never top “Madvillainy.â€

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Passion Pit - "Manners"

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Passion Pit was one of those unlucky bands that had to live up to high expectations before they had even released a full LP. "Chunk of Change" gained a lot of popularity last year, mostly because of the insanely catchy "Sleepyhead," a track that many considered to be one of the best of 2008. But in my opinion, “Manners†exceeded expectations in a way that will probably be unappreciated by those who loved the EP.

The change in their sound is probably due to their change in audience. Everyone who heard the EP probably knows by now that it was just meant to be a Valentine’s Day present to his then-girlfriend. Fans of the EP (myself included) often use this story to prove the sincerity behind the music and defend would-be sappy lines such as “can you see me cry tears like diamonds?†With the full LP, Passion Pit knew it was playing to a (relatively) huge audience and tried to make its music more universal. So basically, it’s easier to connect to “Manners†than “Chunk of Change,†unless you are Michael Angelakos’ ex-girlfriend.

The best side effect of this increase in audience size is what seems like the massive increase in effort Passion Pit put forth to make “Manners.†Most of the songs feature a plethora of synthesizers, and none of them sound unimportant. When Passion Pit evolved from a one-man project to a full band, the influx of instruments was not just a way to make the music fuller. Assuming the Angelakos is the main songwriter and composer, he puts together every single blip and toot with such perfection that I’m almost positive he has OCD. And these little details are what make “Manners†an album that you can keep coming back to. To use their best song as an example, the first time you hear “Little Secrets†you are likely to love the catchy hooks, the funky beat, and the cutesy children’s choir. But after a few listens you start to notice the sweet guitar licks near the end of the song, the infinitely dubbed choir of Angelakos in the background of the 2nd bridge to the chorus, and the way the bass wobbles during the lyrics of the verses. And all of these details are absolutely perfect. None of them sound like they were just thrown in there to create an atmosphere. Everything was extremely well thought out and executed. Basically, Passion Pit just tried really hard. And it’s nice to hear a band try really hard in an electro-pop scene where what’s considered cool is a detached “I don’t give a shit†vibe.

With “Manners,†Passion Pit has gone from sounding like an insecure guy spilling his heart out onto his laptop to a band sounding like they’re having the most awesome time, even while singing lyrics like “now I pray that somebody will quickly come and kidnap me†with the most confident wail you’ve ever heard. And the reason this album is loveable and fun is because it was not made for a girlfriend, it was made for you.

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You know, this year has had a lot of good albums, but nothing great. By March last year alone, we already had Black Mountain, Flogging Molly, Stephen Malkmus, Vampire Weekend, and REM - all of whom released albums that I found great. Probably my favorite albums this year have been Middle Cyclone by Neko Case, Crack the Skye by Mastodon, and The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, which are all good albums, but not particularly spectacular.

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yeah I agree. AC and PP are the only albums this year that I really think are great.

so far probably the worst year of the decade for music. And I had such high hopes. Hopefully it improves but I don't know of anything coming out this fall that'll probably be amazing. I'm really looking forward to the Blueprint 3 but I'm not expecting it to be amazing.

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Sorry to say but I'm not terribly excited about the new Arctic Monkeys album. I listened to their sophomore album and it had pretty much everything I liked about the first one and nothing extra, so I just kept listening to the old one.

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