Counterbalance: Arctic Monkeys' 'AM'

This week's Counterbalance got some interstellar-gator skin boots and a helter skelter 'round her little finger and I ride it endlessly. Take a dip in the Arctic Monkeys' daydreams with their latest release.

Arctic Monkeys


US Release: 2013-09-10
UK Release: 2013-09-09
Label: Domino

Mendelsohn: Buzz bands come and buzz bands go. I’ve seen my fair share, I’m sure you have as well. They typically explode onto the scene, suck up as much media hype, adoration, and money as they can before fading rather quickly back into the oblivion of normalcy whence they came. I thought that would have been the case in 2006 when the Arctic Monkeys, fueled by the Internet and anointed as one of the first blog buzz bands, hit with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The hype was justified, as the Monkeys, led by Alex Turner, racked up critical acclaim and record sales in England before slowly winning over the United States.

Their first album was great, Klinger. A frenetic re-envisioning of the post-punk indie rock revival that had grown a little stale. In the intervening years, I tried to keep track of the Arctic Monkeys as they released three more albums and a side project. I heard good things but never really got around to listening to any of it. Seven years later, the Arctic Monkeys are still making music and still racking up the critical acclaim with 2013’s AM, which, according to the curators of the Great List, ranked at number eight for the year.

I knew going in that the 2013 version of the Arctic Monkeys would be vastly different from the 2006 version. None of us live in a vacuum and the music was bound to change. But I couldn’t get into AM. The record still sort of sounded like the Arctic Monkeys, but the frenetic energy and high speed guitar licks had mutated into a darker, spaced-out, bass-driven slice of rock 'n' roll. I wasn’t so sure I liked it.

Klinger: But then you realized that AM is actually a terrific record, and a natural move from the youthful exuberance of their debut, right? This is what I'm hoping to hear here, Mendelsohn. I was a bit skeptical at first, too, but AM won me over completely somewhere about the third time through. This is a smart album made by a group that has fully internalized a lot of history in their young years, and there's a terrific attention to detail that keeps me actively listening. How many albums can you really say that about?

At first, I was thinking that there was a sameishness to a lot of the songs, especially right at the beginning. But after a while I realized that they were purposefully reintroducing little riffs and bitty-bits from the previous song into the next, leading up to the very impressive new single "Arabella", at which point I laughed out loud as the song dropped out completely and drummer Matt Helders began quoting Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" on the hi-hat. Who am I to resist something like that?

Mendelsohn: I must have listened to this album at least ten times before it finally sunk its claws into my grey matter. Around the fifth time through it I was tempted to call for a mulligan and skip this album altogether. Then one morning I woke up with “One for the Road” stuck in my head and that was it. Now I’m wondering why it took me so long. Seriously. This record is damn near perfect. As you noted, there is an amazing amount of detail in this record. In little under 45 minutes, the Arctic Monkeys manage to quote nearly the entirety of classic rock, pay homage to Josh Homme’s signature brand of desert rock (plus enlist his help for backing ooo’s and ahh’s), recreate hip-hop beats and riffs that would make Timbaland proud, and make John Cooper Clarke’s punk poetry sound poetic. “Arabella” contains nearly all of those elements. The first half might have well been an Aaliyah track, the next bit is nothing but Black Sabbath and then it slides right back — seamlessly. It’s audacious, Klinger. Who does that?

The entire album is like that. And then you hit “No. 1 Party Anthem”, a little ditty that David Bowie might have released in the mid-'70s, and you get hit with the full brunt of Turner's acerbic social observations. When you are rocking through songs like “R U Mine?” or “I Want It All”, it is easy to forget that Turner might be one of the best lyricists of his generation. His stream-of-consciousness lyrics always came rapid-fire but now he’s stretched them out, leaving space for some falsetto and backing oohh-oohhs. I’m kicking myself for not paying more attention to this band as they matured from talented upstarts to self-assured purveyors of high-caliber rock.

Klinger: See now, that's what I was hoping you'd say. On the other hand I was hoping you wouldn't say that because I've been itching for an argument lately. But you mention their general genre quotifying throughout the album, and that's something that I got to thinking about as I've been listening to AM. Arctic Monkeys are like a lot of the bands I've found myself drawn to over the past decade or so (the Hold Steady, Art Brut, Drive-By Truckers) — they're so completely in love with the idea of rock 'n' roll that they can't help but drop in a (usually) well-placed reference, slipping in a snippet of lyric or an album title that conveys the mood as a form of shorthand.

Just a cursory listen through AM brought up nods to Lee Hazelwood, Big Joe Turner, the Modern Lovers, the aforementioned Sabbath, the Stones' "2000 Light Years from Home"... and double points for linking the Ronettes "Be My Baby" to the beginning of Scorsese's Mean Streets.

While I'm a complete sucker for it, I can't help wondering if it's part of some overall trend that's making rock an increasingly niche market, something that's made by rock nerds for rock nerds. As a rock nerd in good standing, I'm OK with that, but is that closing the doors for outsiders?

Mendelsohn: It’s not just rock -- music in general has become a niche market thanks to the democratization of the industry brought about by the Internet. Music is no longer the shared experience it once was. As a result, bands can now explore, create, and produce pieces as they see fit — catering to the needs of the consumer as opposed to the one-size-fits-all mentality of the record labels of yesterday. Is it a bad thing? I guess that depends on how you look at it.

I certainly don’t think the Arctic Monkeys are closing any doors — if anything, they are opening as many doors as possible, inviting just about everyone in for the party. You can cite a list of classic rock influences working their way through this record and I can put together a list of hip-hop production references that nod to Timbaland’s work that made its way across the pop landscape as well as Dr. Dre’s brand of smooth West Coast gangsta rap (see “Do I Wanna Know?”, “One for the Road”, “Arabella”, and “Why’d You Only Cal Me When You’re High?” — loop the first eight bars and what do you get?). The band even goes so far to employ a drum machine on the remake of John Cooper Clarke’s “I Wanna Be Yours”. Not that out of the ordinary, but it doesn't seem like a rock band making music strictly for rock nerds.

Klinger: Well, that's a relief. I was afraid that it must be somehow geeky because I understood it. But I think it's Turner and company's awareness of pop (as in music) culture that's driven at least some of their appeal among the critics. Like you, I was aware of Whatever People Say I'm Not, That's What I Am and then sort of lost touch over the years. The main reason they popped up on my radar as often as they did is because I, like most rock nerds, am a devoted Mojo reader, and they've always treated Alex Turner in particular like a cool nephew, nurturing his natural pop geek tendencies and (deservedly) applauding his referential and reverential propensities.

You mentioned "No. 1 Party Anthem" (which I think sounds more Lennonian than Bowiesque, but to each his own), and for me the little run from that song into "Mad Sounds" is where the album really reveals itself. The former track turns the cliches of music on their heads by melding them to a doleful, dreamy melody, while the latter sounds (to me) for all the world like a latter-day Nick Lowe — just the stuff to melt the heart of an old curmudgeon like me. Hearing that shift in tone from the floor-shakers that had come prior made me sit up and take notice, but then so did that nifty little bit about Mean Streets, which uses hip-hop cadences with hardly a trace of self-consciousness. And that ability to use those sounds comfortably and naturally seems to be something that this new generation of rock musicians can bring to the table, which I find fascinating and ultimately quite heartening. Like you, I missed out on Arctic Monkeys' evolution, but I'm looking forward to catching up, as well as seeing where they go next.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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