Feb 10 2022

Album Review: Spoon – Girls Can Tell (#MWE)

With Girls Can Tell, the Austin band Spoon found their winning formula of minimal, structurally simple, and effortlessly cool rock’n’roll, a style they’ve only improved upon since. Cleaner, more polished, and more rehearsed than their previous effort A Series of Sneaks, the album finds the group perfecting a sound influenced by oldies and general, casual swagger. Where previous efforts were filled with feedback and scrambling, tense songwriting, Spoon swings for the fences by acting like they don’t care, and it fucking worked. Considering how well they’ve been able to build upon this sound to international stardom, that last sentence feels like the understatement of the century.

Before Girls Can Tell, Spoon were almost done. Elektra had dropped them after two underperforming albums, and the last project before they began this album was a single with a couple of tracks shitting on their old A&R guy. The band sounded bitter and, almost, coming to the realization that they might be moving on from making music. The fact that they gave everything one last try, honed their sound, and put out something as marvelous as Girls Can Tell, is all the more remarkable within that context.

A variety of instruments used on the album weren’t really common to hear on indie rock records, particularly in 2001 – alongside chugging guitars and Brit Daniel’s expressive-yet-somehow-kinda-deadpan delivery, we are treated to mellotron, cello, harpsichord and viola. The band trades in Pixies abrasiveness for Elvis Costello nonchalance (and songcraft directly inspired by the classics). Once Spoon decided to focus their sound more on the 70s and less on the more-recent 90s, the evoked a confidence not found on their music previously.

Girls Can Tell is a quick 36-minute listen, but it packs a punch of brilliant melody, diversity in structure, and a consistent theme of cooler-than-you indie rock attitude. Just as the genre was starting to get the shine it was due, Spoon were one of the marquee acts, all thanks to this home run of a third album.

Score: 8/10

Feb 9 2022

Album Review: R.E.M. – Murmur (#MWE)

R.E.M. is a band whose discography I’ve always wanted to tackle, and now that I’m writing more, it’s something I’ve resolved to complete this year. But now that I’ve officially started, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to top their debut. Murmur is marvelous, melodic, and moving – a historically important album that deserves all the accolades, then and now, for pushing forward a burgeoning new genre just outside of the zeitgeist.

The world’s first taste of R.E.M. was “Radio Free Europe,” what is regarded today as a classic in the world of so-called college rock and one of the touchstones of the sound that morphed into alternative rock and then indie rock. It’s a punchy, highly danceable track; the more midtempo, melodic “Pilgrimage” follows. By this point, two songs into the Athens band’s debut album, we are grabbing ahold of the formula that would make them so important to rock music. Peter Buck’s guitar jangles alongside Michael Stipe’s puzzling, mysterious lyrics, and these are a one-two punch of distinctiveness. But the backbone of Murmur is the soaring melodies provided by bass player Mike Mills, as well as the steady in-the-pocket rhythms of Bill Berry. Backup harmonies from Mills and Berry also give Stipe’s slightly-buried croon a major shine, which didn’t sound as confident as it would become over the next decade.

We hear Mills grab hold of the spotlight in “Laughing” with a strolling Rickenbacker bass line reminiscent of more goth-focused bands of the time like Bauhaus and New Order, before a plucking acoustic guitar takes us back into R.E.M.’s more pastoral territory. “Talk About the Passion” has such an introspective, wistful melody, it sounds like the band is wise beyond their years. Those paramount backup melodies show up again on the hook for “Moral Kiosk,” including some militaristic chanting in the pre-chorus. The band dives into a more contemplative mood on the simple, pretty, piano-based “Perfect Circle.” Later on, things get almost jovial with the skipping “We Walk,” followed by “West of the Fields,” a driving upbeat track that closes the album.

The unsung heroes here are producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, who reportedly let the band roam free over the tracks. Easter almost didn’t get to work with the band on Murmur; however, after botched sessions with Stephen Hague, who resorted to adding keyboard parts to songs without the band’s knowledge, a change was made. The listener will immediately notice a lack of synths, computer enhancements, or self-indulgent guitar solos. R.E.M.’s recording decisions, then considered stubborn, actually lift the album out of the decade it was made. This attitude prevailed throughout the band’s career and explains why their music has aged so impeccably.

What better place to start than at the beginning? I gotta say, I’m thrilled to dive deep into the rest of R.E.M’s output. Apparently the band only improved their sound over time, but it sounds like a complete statement on their debut Murmur, a pivotal record in the moody, introverted sound of alternative rock.

Score: 9/10

Feb 8 2022

Album Review: Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly (#MWE)

“Welcome y’all, to the Timbaland and Missy Hit Factory…. A lot of people try to sneak in and get the ingredients…. But I am the man behind the ingredients…. So please, come to me with the recipe baby.”

Timbaland’s resume is pretty impressive; he’s built beats for some of the most important names in hip-hop, R&B, and pop. Anyone who has casually followed popular music for the past 25 years knows this. But no matter what he does, he will forever be linked to the work he did with Missy Elliott, the most dominant, the most influential, and probably the most talented, female MC of… all time? Together, on Missy’s debut Supa Dupa Fly and elsewhere, they constructed a blueprint of collaboration that few have been able to rival. And it seemed fully formed when it arrived, via this album, in 1997.

Missy, for her part, is a chameleonic force on each track, able to bend and mold her voice, whether singing or rapping, to fit the style Timbaland’s futuristic, slippery, and downright funky production required. While Elliott was well on her way to inspiring generations of MCs with her laid-back flow and iconic presentation, Timbaland was gradually crafting a signature sound by making the studio a chemistry lab for eccentricity.

The unmistakable Busta Rhymes opens the proceedings with a classic verse structured around propulsive ad-libs. From there, the next voice we hear is Lil Kim; Missy is building anticipation for her intro with an impressive duo of opening acts. The first time we hear her voice on “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee,” she isn’t rapping, but singing, already showing off her dexterity on her debut album, alongside a funky slap-bass sample. The big-beat 90s hip-hop anthem “Sock It 2 Me” is next, in all its horn-hook and plinking piano glory.

The album is a cornucopia of who’s who in mid-90s rap, with features from Da Brat, 702, Ginuwine, Aaliyah and more. The most prominent guest star, of course, is emerging producer Timbaland, who lends his vocals to a few tracks in addition to innovating work behind the boards.

Timbaland was only dipping his toes into the trademark idiosyncratic sonic choices he’s now famous for, but you can hear glimmers on album highlight “The Rain.” The track also acts as our first listen of a rapping Missy, whose laconic flow pairs well with Timbaland’s echo-y ad-libs, bouncing liquid bass, creeping beat, and foundational Ann Peebles single. The song sounds deceptively minimal compared to what Timbaland would create in the future; there’s actually a lot going on behind MIssy’s bars.

We get another futuristic, albeit busier taste, of what Timbaland brings to the album on “Beep Me 911.” Missy’s croon confidently slides around an energetic wave of funky sounds, unfazed by the extraterrestrial madness around her. Popping percussion and gibberish bars are the standouts on “They Don’t Wanna Fuck With Me,” while “Pass Da Blunt” playfully interpolates Musical Youth while Timbaland beat boxes. The duo then brings in Ginuwine for a vocoder-heavy slow jam in “Friendly Skies.”

The pair are perfectly in sync throughout; when Timbaland pivots to soul, Missy leans in with a dynamite singing verse. When he goes off-kilter with skittering beats, Missy brings surreal, humorous bars to fit the vibe. Though sometimes dropping free association verses, the lyrical theme is consistent – Elliott delivers memorable statements on modern womanhood, relationships, and respect.

With Supa Dupa Fly, Missy and Tim concocted a recipe indeed – one that would be attempted several times over. But decades later, there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Score: 8/10

Feb 7 2022

Album Review: ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (#MWE)

To modern ears, at least initially, Tres Hombres probably just sounds like a standard Southern rock album, an eager effort to capitalize on the success of the genre that was beginning to be all the rage in the early 70s. To an extent that’s true – ZZ Top’s third album grabbed hold of the public in a way that their previous efforts did not. But listen closer and you’ll hear something peculiar. Something maybe you can’t put your finger on. That thing is the ZZ Top Of It All, the idiosyncratic tales from Billy Gibbons, the unpolished sound, the supremely fun delivery. It’s a twist on a familiar sound that the trio all but perfected on Tres Hombres.

The lean, half hour album opens with a straight shot of boogie blues on “Waitin’ For the Bus,” which seamlessly segues into another blues rock jam; by this point you might be worried the whole album is going to sound like this, but Gibbons’ raw guitar tone on “Jesus Just Left Chicago” will keep you intrigued. From there, we are driven along a Texas highway via the band’s trademark chugging road trip rhythms on “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.” Later on, things slow down and switch up for the love song “Hot Blue and Righteous.”

There’s a lot of lore among ZZ Top fans (my dad’s favorite band, btw.) Speculation endures regarding whether, in lieu of a pick, Gibbons got his unique, Texas-sized guitar tone from playing with a Mexican peso. Southern rock gives a nod to a lot of things, depending on what band you’ve got on the turntable: Dixieland pride, the joy of making music in the middle of nowhere, the lost desperation of living in the middle of nowhere. ZZ Top were all about mystique and elusiveness; their version of the sound is undeniably Texan, at once boastful, mysterious, rooted in history, familiar yet otherworldly. And like Texans, It can’t be bothered with the other Southern notions; ZZ Top were doing their own thing.

“La Grange,” arguably the band’s signature song, is the best example of this distinct sound, a perfect stew of bouncy blues, erratic drum fills, and barely decipherable lyrics. This song, this style, is paramount to the band’s immortal success; they are a foundational group that dodges pesky things like the passing of time and the rise and fall of surrounding trends. It is why a band so indebted to the blues of B.B. King could influence someone on the other side of the rock spectrum, Steve Albini.

That is the ZZ Top Effect. And it all started with Tres Hombres, a one-two punch of blues, ghost stories, and that trademark Texas charm.

Score: 9/10

Feb 6 2022

Album Review: Neneh Cherry – Raw Like Sushi (#MWE)

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce… the hi-hat.”

The opening track, lead single, and main event of Raw Like Sushi is “Buffalo Stance,” which is a perfect song. The track is a funky mash of glossy 80s pop and underground hip-hop, an endlessly fun clapback at shady gigolos, and something of a mission statement for Neneh Cherry, a Swedish-born artist who was raised by other artists (and is the half-sister of 90s hitmaker Eagle Eye Cherry). Notably, the album cover features Cherry showing an example of the “buffalo stance,” a mean-mugging pose that, according to her, represented the attitude needed for survival in inner cities.

I intend to give “Buffalo Stance” its own devoted post at some point, so for now I’ll just say I love the song so much I demanded it be played at my wedding. I’ll also say that the song is a hard act to follow, but Cherry is more than ready for the challenge. Raw Like Sushi serves as a voice to marginalized women of color and their male-dominated communities, a refreshing perspective for 80s pop, or any era of pop, really. It’s also an absolute thrill – a head rush of styles and sounds from the world of pop, rap, New Jack Swing, jazz, and other stuff I probably didn’t even catch.

Another excellent single, “Kisses On the Wind” tells the coming-of-age story of a confident woman who learns to control her fate with the men in her life, featuring spoken-word Spanish dialogue throughout and a heavy hip-hop break halfway through. “Inna City Mama,” meanwhile, is deceptively upbeat, with shuffling percussion and hammering piano solos surrounding a treatise on the despair of urban life.

Cherry is dominant and clever in her raps, but also maternal and compassionate; famously, she recorded and promoted the album while pregnant. Alongside dance-heavy bass hits and horn samples, she delivers a message of advice to young women in “The Next Generation.” The carbon-dated 80s production surrounding Cherry may have aged considerably, but the message remains an important one.

“Hearts” shows up a little over halfway thru, a full-on New Jack Swing banger with a schoolyard taunt rap bridge and skittering samples that you won’t find on a Bel Biv Devoe single. Things slow down a bit for the synth-heavy “Phoney Ladies” before kicking back into gear on the Paula Abdul-esque “Outre Risque Locomotive” and the poised closing track “So Here I Come.”

Raw Like Sushi was forward-thinking in 1989 with its melding of genres, and it remains optimistic in its message of female empowerment and assertive display of streetwise swagger. Even in the 21st century, it’s a fun and hopeful body of work. The lyrical realities are vital, but the vibe is club-ready buoyancy. Neneh told you at the beginning: it’s sweetness that she’s thinking of.

Score: 7/10

Feb 5 2022

Album Review: Peter Gabriel – So (#MWE)

It has taken all of my life, but I have finally managed to make time to hear So, the acclaimed 1986 art pop album from former Genesis mastermind-turned worldly solo troubadour Pater Gabriel. The album has always intrigued me, mainly because I love “Sledgehammer,” which was #1 the week I was born and which soundtracks inarguably one of the best music videos of all time. The song is a ton of fun with its horn stabs, bamboo flute intro, and Gabriel’s not-so-cryptic innuendo. The surrounding album itself is immaculately textured, immersed in world music instrumentation and highbrow pop composition, with production by Daniel Lanois. The atmosphere is rich throughout, and there isn’t a skippable song in the bunch.

“Red Rain” features some nice hi-hat work from Stewart Copeland and Gabriel delivering an impassioned statement on the destructive state of our world in a more grisly, gravely register, a particular delivery Dave Matthews would imitate in the next decade. The album smoothly transitions to “Don’t Give Up,” a somber take on rising unemployment featuring guest vocals from fellow audio auteur Kate Bush, who delivers the optimistic rebuttal to Gabriel’s dismay. The song fades with an incredible bass line, then we are rocketed into African rhythms and professional 80s pop sheen courtesy of “That Voice Again.”

Gabriel and Lanois capture a haunting soundscape in “Mercy Street,” perfect for a tribute to the confessional American poet Anne Sexton. The abrupt change in mood to “Big Time” is quite jarring initially, but the single is too fun of a moment to stay in that headspace for long. We’re treated to a satire on yuppies alongside a funk-heavy, bass-led arrangement fit for the topical message. He hit the nail on the head, but many of Gabriel’s quips on consumerism in “Big Time” could easily be applied to the culture of 2022 as well.

“We Do What We’re Told,” meanwhile, serves as a dystopian mantra of sorts that has traces of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, before giving way to Gabriel’s elaboration on the song’s theme of blind obedience. The daring “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” was composed with help from avant-garde visionary Laurie Anderson and features a captivating rhythm that would fit well on the front half of Remain In Light. The album (n its streamable version, at least) closes with Gabriel’s most beautiful work, the massive hit “In Your Eyes,” a flawless realization of the artist’s vision and the album’s focus. The song is a spellbinding mixture of Brazilian rhythm and technologically advanced (for 1986, anyway) Fairlight DMI synths.

With So, Gabriel reached the peak of his commercial and artistic journey – the experimentation and gradual shift to pop songcraft produced what is still regarded as one of the best albums of its era, and Peter Gabriel compromised almost none of his vision to create it. Almost forty years later, it remains an intriguing and rewarding listen.

Score: 8/10

Feb 5 2022

Album Review: Animal Collective – Time Skiffs

I was worried we had almost given up on Animal Collective.

After their magnum opus Merriwhether Post Pavilion, which brilliantly melded avant pop (and Panda Bear’s Brian Wilson dalliances) with the experimental side of the band’s previous work, they created a slight misstep: the sharp left turn into inaccessibility, Centipede Hz. After the underrated, but still somewhat underwhelming Painting With, Panda Bear retreated, leaving the remaining members on their own to produce a self-indulgent visual album about coral reefs (Tangerine Reef). They followed this with the inessential film score Crestone. Overall the 2010s were a prolonged journey into the weirder side of their sound. But while that side produced interesting albums earlier in their career, unfortunately in the following decade it had begun to sound like AnCo had lost their way.

I’m happy to report that Time Skiffs reunites the full group for one of the strongest albums of their career, and by far their best since 2009. Animal Collective sound completely rejuvenated and have a more mature, firmer grasp on their strengths individually and as a whole.

Opener “Dragon Slayer” locks the Collective back in step, featuring oddball rhythms, chimes, and sun-soaked harmonies. Those harmonies are even louder and more prominent on “Car Keys,” while lead single “Prester John” is a spaced-out trip in line with the band’s best work. The oddest song on the album, “Strung With Everything,” is a more subdued, toe-tapping approach to the experimental freak-folk tendencies we heard the group perfect in the mid-00s with albums like Feels and Strawberry Jam.

The band’s homage (though not really a musical one) to Scott Walker, aptly titled “Walker” is the album’s most pop-leaning moment, not unlike the band’s most known song, the blissful “My Girls” from Merriwhether Post Pavilion. This is the one that’s gonna make you dance; skittering percussion and a loping bassline accompany energetic xylophone hits and the group’s trademark layers of sunny vocals.

Things get almost outright jazzy on “Cherokee” before transforming into a wave of soaring synths and layered, echo-coated singing. The song is over seven minutes long, but contains none of the noodling that plagued much of Animal Collective’s previous work over the past several years. Things get more melodic and hypnotic on the slow-tempo tune “Passer-by,” while “We Go Back” is a swaying track destined to be a favorite at the band’s live shows.

Time Skiffs is everything longtime, patient AnCo fans were waiting for. The album is never boring, every song is distinct, the forays into ambiance don’t overstay their welcome. Animal Collective do here what they’ve always done best; they strike the right balance between atmosphere and melody, between the challenging and the beautiful. The group has taken a songs-first approach to Time Skiffs, and the result is nothing short of impressive. Who knew Animal Collective still had it in them?

Score: 8/10

Feb 4 2022

Album Review: The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (#MWE)

Bizarre Ride kicks off with a jazz interlude, which segues, via record scratching, into the rowdy opener “Oh Shit.” All at once we are introduced to The Pharcyde – a playful, satirical, humorous, rap collective from South Central LA. In the age of gangsta rap, these guys were lowbrow clowns by comparison. But time has treated their debut well – Bizarre Ride and its maximalist melodic layers, lush samples from producer J-Swift, and straight-up funny rhymes sound as fresh as the day the album dropped in the fall of 1992.

Punchlines ensue throughout the album, but let’s be clear: The Pharcyde had something to say. The skit “It’s Jiggaboo Time” is a satirical comment on black caricature, delivered in a fashion only the rambunctious, clever group could bring. “4 Better Or 4 Worse” features big beats and echoing piano lines that remind me of East Coasters A Tribe Called Quest. But the colorful, self-deprecating, and over-the-top lyrics reveal these guys weren’t just copycats from LA. The lyrical dexterity was there, but the Pharcyde went into character in lieu of standing on a soapbox. It was more cartoon than conscious, more Shock G than Q-Tip.

The banter and casual back-and-forth of The Pharcyde is immediately recognizable to younger listeners. Because of my age, they immediately remind me of Jurassic 5, a crew that emerged a few years later (so much so that Jurassic 5 seem shamelessly derivative by comparison). “I’m That Type of Nigga” is a party anthem with carefree charm akin to Slick Rick and Beastie Boys. Fatlip, Slimkid3, Bootie Brown, and Imani trade bars like the Wu Tang without delving into the New York collective’s penchant for street raps. The Pharcyde still have a thesis to convey, but the presentation was more lighthearted than their peers, which was probably why Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde was only a modest success.

Throughout the album, a sly balancing act between socially conscious rhymes and humorous wordplay is consistent. “Soul Flower” is infectious, from the horn line to a deftly-placed repetitive sample of a woman humming. “On the DL” features incessant record scratching, pleasant piano lines, and background vocals that are reminiscent of vocal R&B groups of the time, like Shai. “Officer” deals with racial profiling by police, and interpolates the style of Public Enemy, from Flava Flav’s hypeman intro to the screeching sound effects. The end result, however, is 100% Pharcyde. Lead single “Ya Mama,” meanwhile is pure comedy, a whole gimmicky song based on, you guessed it, “yo mama” one-liners.

Better, and more successful, is the follow-up single “Passin’ Me By” an immediately recognizable track for even the most casual hip-hop listener. The song deals with each MC commiserating about schoolboy heartbreak. My millennial mind just kept hearing Joe’s “Stutter” the whole time, which heavily interpolated the song years later. Near the end of the album, the full goofy side of The Pharcyde come out in the “Quinton’s On His Way” interlude and the spaced-out weed anthem “Pack the Pipe.” Alternative rap has a tendency to reflect on the past (much like other rigid “alternatives” like alt-country) and the Pharcyde lean toward this on the closer “Return of the B-Boy,” paying homage to the origins of hip-hop and giving notice to “sucker MCs.”

Gangsta rap, at its peak, was about telling sobering tales, evoking masculinity and keeping it real. The Pharcyde, by contrast, were about telling far-fetched stories and keeping it interesting. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, which was not common of rappers in their era. They were a refreshing alternative to the onslaught of mostly humorless G-Funk lyricists.

The Pharcyde never reached the dexterous heights they conjured in their debut. Critical and commercial interest waned with each subsequent release, and slowly the group became a revolving door for members and producers. But when they had their moment, it was a pretty significant one. In the age of The Chronic and Illmatic, The Pharcyde probably sounded pretty… bizarre. But for those who were growing tired of the mean-mugging in rap music, they were likely a breath of fresh air. After the dust had settled, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde stands out as one of the best in its lane.

Score: 9/10

Feb 3 2022

Album Review: Big Star – #1 Record (#MWE)

Context is everything. When you’re listening to a landmark album, you have to know the background.

Sure, Big Star’s #1 Record emulates the Byrds and the Beatles. They are kindred spirits with their peers Badfinger. And you can hear faint traces of what they influenced: The Replacements, REM, Tom Petty. The key thing, at least for most people, myself included, is that you’ve already heard all those things before #1 Record. Your brain hears what you heard first. And sometimes it’s hard to parse just exactly how an album influenced others when you heard the later stuff before the classic stuff. It might make you think, “What’s so special? What’s the big deal? This sounds pretty ordinary.”

But the context (which, remember, context is everything) is that nothing else in 1972 sounded like Big Star. They were simultaneously retro and forward-thinking. Power-pop was still in its infancy when #1 Record landed in precious few record stores. While rock was either taking a trip to Laurel Canyon or going full bombastic proto-prog, a group of guys from Memphis were making simple pop with bright melodies and singalong choruses. And the result? Every song shines through as a singular statement, and the album is diverse enough to never lose your attention.

I was surprised, even though I’d never heard the album in full, how I basically knew every song individually at some point in my life. Everything was instantly familiar, either from Big Star themselves or a cover I had heard (example: Cheap Trick’s version of “In the Street” for That 70s Show). The best popular music can evoke that feeling of familiarity, even when it may not be true. Great music can trick your brain.

So many songs on #1 Record do this. “Feel” is a polished, upbeat rocker, while “The Ballad of El Goodo” has an oft-repeated refrain that is sticky enough to rival “Hey Jude.” Speaking of Paul McCartney, his presence is felt on the flawless “Thirteen.”

“Don’t Lie To Me” would fit immaculately in the arena-rock industrial complex that was to come later in the decade, a feel-good, nostalgia-driven, beer-swiggin, shout-along number that reminds me of Free’s “All Right Now,” which, unlike anything Big Star recorded, actually received radio play. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” has a similar feel; it’s like the band conjured up the blueprint for the next decade of rock’n’roll when no one was looking. In one short album, the duo of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton proved they had the goods to rival the songwriting chops of Lennon and McCartney. Chilton brought the best songs, and Bell had the natural knack for sharp production and pristine harmonies.

Even though we’ve heard the influences first, I can’t imagine how a modern listener would be bored with #1 Record. It is a perfect piece of power-pop. Every bit fits, every guitar strum seems obviously placed to maximize the potential for perfection. They make it all sound so simple. But as we know from Big Star’s story, that certainly wasn’t the case, before or after #1 Record.

Actually, maybe context isn’t everything. Because you know a good record when you hear it. It doesn’t matter when it was made. It really doesn’t matter who it influenced. In the moment, when you drop the needle and put on your headphones, all that matters is what you’re hearing. Big Star created 37 minutes of rock’n’roll bliss in 1972. That’s all the background needed to enjoy it, even in the 21st century. #1 Record is ageless.

Score: 10/10

Feb 2 2022

Album Review: Jimmy Eat World – Clarity (#MWE)

Like the majority of music fans, I am more familiar with Bleed American, Jimmy Eat World’s breakthrough album from 2001. Their previous effort Clarity, however, is considered very influential, and many claim it was commercially overlooked upon its release in 1999. Having finally heard the effort all the way through, I can attest to the praise: Clarity is a sharp, consistent album with a heavy replay factor.

Before we go any further, I must express my deep-seated bias for energetic pop-punk over the softer emocore. I have dabbled with The Hotelier and Modern Baseball, but I’m a Blue Album guy more than a Pinkerton guy. It’s just in my blood, y’all! But despite my penchant for fast-paced rhythms and chugging power chords, I can appreciate the impact of Clarity, a foundational album that lays the groundwork for an entire subgenre so effectively its imitators have all but rendered its most ingenious elements a cliche.

The album opens with the mellow, introspective “Table For Glasses,” followed by the now-classic single “Lucky Denver Mint.” These two openers set the tone for the rest of Clarity, and Jim Adkins’ and Tom Linton’s vocal harmonies are signature to the unmistakable sound of Jimmy Eat World.

The variety of instrumentation is startling, but not overbearing; this is not a typical guitar-and-drums listen by any stretch. Zach Lind’s electronic percussion programming, particularly on the aforementioned “Mint,” is akin to something a maturing Blink 182 would lift several years later. Lind’s bells and chimes layered throughout bolster the album’s pensive framework, a perfect setting for the existential, sometimes somber lyrics to shine through.

At times, we can hear what was to come: “Your New Aesthetic” features a chugging guitar intro reminiscent of the band’s future blockbuster hit “The Middle.” Unlike that Bleed American single, however, the song isn’t upbeat or optimistic, but rather insular and shoegaze-influenced. But Jimmy Eat World have always been able to tug at the heartstrings, as is clear on the Weezer-esque “Believe What You Want,” sporting screeching guitars and an anthemic chorus. Meanwhile, “A Sunday” is wistful and pensive with just a tinge of outward emotion and melancholy, a style Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional would adopt.

While the arrangements keep us guessing, the mood rarely changes. This hampers the project slightly, as filler starts to creep in near the middle. Thankfully, things pick up near the end with highlight “Just Watch the Fireworks,” featuring violins and other warm instrumentation. The album closes with a series of Clarity’s strongest tracks: fan favorite “For Me This Is Heaven,” the welcome change of pace “Blister,” the riff-heavy title track, and the epic 16-minute “Goodbye Sky Harbor.”

The heart-on-sleeve influence of Clarity cannot be ignored, but the band refined their style and made a better album a couple of years later, one that arrived just in time for them to receive the accolades they deserved. Clarity is Bleed American’s introverted older brother. The latter may have been more outgoing and more popular, but it owes a lot to what came before. In fact, so does all of modern emo.

Score: 7/10