After the Disco
What happens “After the Disco”? The next morning arrives, naturally, bringing with it, more often than not, a certain modicum of regret. And quite, possibly, a hangover.
Broken Bells – the duo formed by uber-producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and Shins leader James Mercer – captures this morning-after air of existential dread in an often stunning manner throughout its second album. But it does so with a twist – Danger Mouse (who has produced and/or performed with Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, U2, and many more) is after all a master when it comes to manipulating beats and grooves, and dance music runs through his veins. With Mercer’s eminently tuneful form of mild depression tossed into the mix, “After the Disco” offers a cocktail that liberally mixes stimulants with depressants. The result is disconcerting – at times euphoric and then seconds later ruminative, celebratory at one turn and mournful around the next bend. Half of the time, you, the listener, don’t know if you’re coming or going, moving up or falling down, thrilled to bits or crumbling chirpy synths to pieces. Which makes it an awful lot like life.
“Holding on For Life” offers a soul-stirring case in point, as Burton’s mix summons a sly disco groove replete with whirring synths, atop which Mercer throws a lilting acoustic guitar strum and plaintive vocal. The narrator sounds like he went out clubbing for the evening against his better judgment, and yet, the chorus erupts into a blatant “Saturday Night Fever”-era Bee Gees falsetto, as if the night life is attempting to lull the narrator from his state of world-weariness. This is a masterful marriage of lyrical imagery, narrative thrust and a sonic surrounding that both mirrors and propels both. It’s Daft Punk for the thinking man.
Interestingly, “After the Disco” embraces the modern tendency to treat the creation of an album as a “project” – something that doesn’t need a room full of musicians and a recording studio, but rather, requires only a laptop, a musician who can multitask, and a producer. More often than not, this new low-budget approach yields albums that, ironically, sound overproduced, plastic and disposable. Mercer and Burton rather subversively employ the same model to create something warm, organic and eminently soulful. The songs are well-developed, with bridges that provide emotional and harmonic counterpoint when it is needed, and instrumentation that bears the prints of human fingers, not cut-and-pasted files and mouse clicks. This might seem like a quibble, but in fact, it makes all the difference here.
“After the Disco” is not likely to become the commercial behemoth that Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” did, but that doesn’t seem to have been the point Burton and Mercer were trying to make anyway. Instead, they’ve crafted a party record with a major difference – it’s populated by characters who have lived long enough to know that the morning after is inevitable, that there is always a price to be paid for those boozy nights of laughter and forgetting.
– Jeff Miers
Pat Metheny Unity Group
“This incredible lineup of musicians” is how Pat Metheny refers to his Unity Band. Considering that this is a man who once toured with a band that featured Dewey Redman, Michael Brecker, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, he can be trusted as a man who knows a thing or two about “incredible” musical lineups.
It isn’t hype, then. Or salesmanship of any sort. It’s an inarguable description of a quintet that consists of Metheny, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Antonio Sanchez and now Giulio Carmassi who is listed on the disc as playing piano, trumpet, trombone, French horn, cello, vibes, clarinet and flute. (What, no, glass harmonica or bass saxophone?)
Metheny performed more than 100 concerts with the core quartet (i.e., sans Carmassi) which, he now says, on record “was a thoughtful, black-and-white documentary of four musicians in a recording studio playing” while “this record is more like the Technicolor IMAX version of what a band like this could be – but with that hard-core thing still sitting right in the middle of it all.”
And that “hard-core thing” is Potter and Metheny’s majestic soloing and ensemble precision over the phenomenal rhythmic foundation provided by drummer Sanchez along with Metheny’s own overdub rhythm guitar (listen to “Rise Up,” a kind of ecstatic ritual for a species with superhuman energy).
Metheny comparing this disc to IMAX isn’t quite as overstated you might think. There are a lot of king size cuts on the disc. Its first track, for instance, “On Day One” is more than 15 minutes long.
The combination of things that have made him so beloved for decades – the anthemlike middle-American diatonic consonance of his tunes, the liquid sound of his guitar playing – is in enormous evidence here, but the key member of the group, he would probably be happy to admit, is Potter, an all-stops out player whether he’s soloing on tenor or soprano.
The band performs March 19 in the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts.
– Jeff Simon
3 and 1/2 stars
I loved this wacky, wonderful, elegant collection of “encore pieces” – short, evocative pieces that an artist might play while taking a curtain call. Many of these may sound familiar, though you might feel frustrated trying to place them. Faure’s bel canto-like “Romance sans paroles” would puzzle you. It’s not exactly Chopin, but … who? You might think the same thing about a brooding Nocturne by Tchaikovsky.
Edvard Grieg’s springy “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” is an unmitigated delight. Just as much fun, but more obscure, is “Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Meillotins” for harpsichord by Francois Couperin. What an ingenious, exhilarating little piece this is, hopping this way and that. (I looked it up and “Les Meillotins” refers to a famous family of tightrope dancers.) Alexandre Tharaud, playing crisply, gets the piano to mimic the harpsichord. It’s my favorite on the disc.
Francis Poulenc’s “Melancolie” is, in contrast, rich and romantic. Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 3 is just as simple and guileless as it should be. In short, this is like a candy box, all kind of treats, with different tastes and textures, all good. It includes a few classics of the genre – Rachmaninoff’s famous C Sharp Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” – and ends with Tharaud’s own transcription of a Bach transcription of Vivaldi. Tharaud has been in the movies, by the way. He appeared in the 2012 art film “Amour,” about two old piano teachers, playing the former student of one of the teachers. His playing has romance and clarity. Surely those teachers were proud.
– Mary Kunz Goldman