It’s kind of amazing how much Portishead has affected modern music. Their landscape-altering output only consisted of two LPs and a live album, but much of the downtempo, trip-hop electronica going on today can directly trace its roots back to the Bristol threesome (or Massive Attack, but I like Portishead more, so I name-check them more often). Kings & Queens is no exception to the downtempo family tree, and Jet in Carina owes much to its British forefathers.
But this is no mere tribute. Although Kings & Queens’ oversaturated emotions and massive beats are common to both artists, the direction of the tunes is entirely different. Portishead made/makes (if you count their new album as part of their groundbreaking work) paeans to solitude, disenchantment and discomfort musically and lyrically; they use emotions as a weapon to get points across. Kings & Queens does no such thing. Instead of making hollowed-out, icy-cold tracks, the members of K&Q layer on the sounds, coming to a sound that often evokes the morose glee of The Arcade Fire.
The permanently buzzing guitar, pulsing bass, vibrant keys and precise drumming propel the sound forward, not leaving any space to lag behind. Songwriter Rich Good makes sure that the tracks all have some element that the listener can hang on to, whether it be a line of lyrics, a hummable vocal fragment, or a distinctive instrumental moment. Even with the energy devoted to making these songs unique, the whole album flows in an incredibly satisfying way. Other than occasionally weird guitar work on opener “Who’s Thinking,” this is a chilled out, cerebral, deeply grooving album that commands attention and does not let go. When played in a room, the songs have the ability to change the whole atmosphere of a situation (and did several times while I was listening to review this).
Any song can be picked at random and extolled as a highlight. For example, “Signs” has a propulsive bass line that is contrasted by a heavily reverb-laden guitar line, creating a fascinating mood and tension. “Hold Your Fire” ratchets up in intensity from nothing until it sounds like the aforementioned Arcade Fire’s sweeping rock. “Origins of Things” has an incredibly tight interplay between bass and drums that excites like a lost Bloc Party song, circa Silent Alarm. Closer “Examples” turns a consistent four-on-the-floor bass drum beat into an eerie tune, which is harder to do than it sounds.
In terms of mood control, Kings & Queens Jet in Carina is one of the most engrossing records I’ve heard this year. The sound that the band crafted doesn’t just reside on CD; it gets into your head and into your mood. It’s gorgeous at times, heart-pounding at others, and morose at still other times, but throughout it all, a consistent mood is retained. If all trip-hop sounded like this, I’d be way more interested in the genre beyond Portishead. Highly recommended to fans of electronic music, downtempo, or soundtracks.
Muttonhead by Constant Velocity is a little difficult to describe, mostly because their style varies from song to song. Part post-rock, part lo-fi, with bits of punk and general alt-rock thrown in, these guys have created a sound that is immediately likeable, yet hard to put your finger on. It’s like The Mountain Goats decided to make babies with mewithoutYou, then asked Massive Attack to be the godfather for the offspring. Anyway, Muttonhead grabs you as soon as you start listening, and doesn’t let go. I’m currently on my fifth straight-through playback of the album, and it’s still interesting and fresh.
I feel as though I can’t even go into discussing individual songs without talking about their sound a bit more. The recordings of the songs on the album aren’t perfect – far from it, in fact. Every so often, you hear something that sounds like it might have been a small mistake, the vocalist’s voice wavers a bit, or something along those lines. That’s part of the charm of this album – it isn’t a glossy, airbrushed album full of studio-adjusted separate tracking for each instrument and extra little effects that can only be done with computer software. This stuff is as real as it gets, and I’m guessing Constant Velocity sounds almost exactly like this in concert, which is pretty wicked considering how good it already is.
Muttonhead opens with “From the McLean Co. Lockup,” a gorgeous bit of rock that evoked my comparison to The Mountain Goats. The song is simplistic in its composition, yet manages to come off as epic in scope as something from Explosions In The Sky or This Will Destroy You. The lyrics are great, with stuff like, “Allow me to pontificate / Whilst I inebriate my liver and kidneys and brain” being the rule and not the exception. This song alternates from soft and thoughtful to loud and bombastic, then back again.
“Kelly” presents an entirely different flavor. It opens with something of a western twang, a musical irony when compared with the lyrics “Kelly don’t like country / Kelly like the city / Kelly I’d like to show her / I’d like to show her I’m not a failure / Kelly, come back to my trailer / Please.” It’s hilarious, frankly. You just don’t see lyrics like that very often. When combined with a raucous, rolling tempo and borderline-country music flavor, the song becomes absolutely irresistible.
Later on in the album, the band delivers a little punk with the song “Truculent.” It’s heavier on the bass, with a really fun sound, a little like Primus blended with the afore-mentioned mewithoutYou. The lyrics open with “Nice truck, asshole.” It’s literary genius, if you ask me. Instead of singing the stuff, the vocalist delivers his message rapid-fire in a style that’s borderline spoken word. This stuff rocks, really. “Truculent” is witty and relentless, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Constant Velocity’s other songs continued to throw me for a loop, each one a little different from the rest, yet with an overarching sound that is undeniably their own. “Time” is pulsating and reminiscent of Massive Attack (they perform the intro song on House, if that helps). “Lucky Double Nines” reminded me of Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia.” Perhaps appropriately after so much great music, “In Memoriam” closes out the album with the lyrics, “And you’ve earned it old man / So why don’t you rest.”
This album is long enough to make me love Constant Velocity’s sound, and short enough to leave me drooling for more. Fingers crossed that they crank out more, ASAP.