Album Review: “Currents” by Tame Impala

Currents
Released: July 17th, 2015
Reviewed by Thomas Johnstone
Rating: 4/5

“I heard about a whirlwind that’s coming ’round / It’s gonna carry off all that isn’t bound,” Kevin Parker announces on “Let It Happen,” opening track of Australian act Tame Impala‘s new record Currents. The lyric forecasts the album’s theme of personal change, from its distant rumblings to its disaffecting aftermath, and given the apocalyptic imagery, we’d hardly expect the changes to be slight.

Fittingly Currents delivers by departing from the act’s previous work in big, surprising ways, given the expectations we might have following two acclaimed albums which comfortably wear the label “psychedelic rock.” Despite possessing a keen sense of melody and lyrical maturity, Kevin Parker—the sole recording and producing musician of Tame Impala (he mixes this time around, as well)—has always seemed less of a songwriter than a clever studio craftsman. A typical track obscured his Lennon-like vocals behind snaking bass lines and 70’s guitar riffs, forming mantra-like jams awash in bombastic drums and reverb. The closing track of 2012’s Lonerism, “Sun’s Coming Up,” seemed to lay the Tame Impala formula bare. A sad carnival waltz for voice and piano, shockingly bare and traditional given everything it follows, eventually turns to full-blown noise collage à la “Revolution 9.” With this self-deconstruction Parker seemed to be both copping to his Beatles influence in the most blatant way, and acknowledging his art’s competing elements: the traditional song, and the abstract, chaotic sound world of an expanded mind.

With Currents, the song finally gets its day in the sun. This is largely an album of pop songs, and Tame Impala’s familiar elliptical jams are kept to a minimum. The main exception is “Let It Happen,” which tries several styles on for size over the course of its nearly eight minute fantasia: dance pop with vocoder, gnarly guitar riffs and even a diversion into synth-orchestra territory that recalls Mercury Rev. It’s like Parker preempted the DJs by remixing the track himself.

As the album progresses it’s clear such meandering is the exception rather than the rule, perhaps by design, as this opening track eases the transition to more traditional territory. Traditional, at least, in the abundance of well-structured songs like “The Moment.” It’s a testament to Parker’s songwriting chops (a few clunky rhymes aside, it feels like he’s been doing this all along) that a listener is more likely to fixate on the newly electronic texture. Keyboards dominate, with guitars mostly relegated to short, funky riffs as on “The Less I Know the Better,” a smirking love song which could easily fit on Daft Punk‘s Random Access Memories. Drums are more danceable and reigned-in (you won’t even hear a crash cymbal until track 5) and vocals no longer feel like an afterthought; Parker’s sweet tenor sits front and center, his double-tracked Lennon pretensions of the past nowhere in sight. Not that he’s entirely abandoned psychedelia, evidenced by a dramatic vocal delay in “Reality In Motion” or the blurry pads of studio scrap “Nangs,” but the effects enhance as much as they obscure. Parker balances the rhythms and textures of his electronic soundscape with surprising ease, resembling Caribou much more than the Beatles. In fact, he slips so comfortably into his new skin it feels like splitting hairs to complain that the album feels merely expert, rather than groundbreaking.

Assured as Parker’s technical skills may be, the heart of the album is a narrative arc shining a light on individual growth. “The Moment” confronts a now-or-never fork in the road, while “Yes I’m Changing” reconciles the choice to move ahead with the pain of what’s left behind. Closing track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” contemplates change as illusory and temporary, skeptically suggesting Currents‘ arc is not a timeline, but a closed loop: skip back to “Let It Happen” and repeat, ad infinitum.

Currents answers Tame Impala’s rising profile with a daring change of direction, and that move has already earned comparisons to Kid A and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Excellent as the record is, the comparison is a bit generous—Currents doesn’t reach the heights of those seminal albums, and Parker’s boldness is of a safer variety. Whereas Radiohead and Wilco showed a willingness to lean into abstraction that bordered on perverse, Tame Impala does the opposite by embracing pop songwriting, and comes out all the more listenable for it.

“They say people never change, but that’s bullshit,” Parker confides on “Yes I’m Changing,” and Currents gives every reason to agree. Parker embraces change so successfully, we might assume he isn’t finished—Currents may be a mere pit stop on the way to Tame Impala‘s yet-to-come masterpiece, but it’s a trip well worth enjoying on its own.

Radiohead: A Career Defying Expectations


Pablo Honey
Radiohead, an English rock band from Oxfordshire, has made a career out of defying expectations. Over eight studio albums, the band—which consists of Thom Yorke, Johnny and Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien—has constantly re-invented their sound, and managed to rack up 18 Grammy nominations and over 30 million in record sales along the way.

The five men met as boys in 1985, and quickly formed a band called “On A Friday.” Yet they didn’t hit their first break until 1991, when they happened upon a representative from EMI. After requesting that the five-piece change their name, the band signed a six-record deal as the newly named “Radiohead.”

RadioheThe Bendsad released their first record, Pablo Honey, in 1993. Largely influenced by the recent grunge and alternative rock movements, Pablo Honey sold relatively well and spawned the hit “Creep”; it also spawned the band’s first nickname, “Nirvana Lite.” Yorke and company quickly grew tired of being lazily lumped in with their peers, so for their next record, The Bends, they worked with producer Nigel Godrich in an attempt to shift their focus. What resulted was critical success and a cemented status as one of the top Brit-rock bands around.

OK ComputerYet again, Radiohead quickly grew tired of being set side by side with the other Britpop bands of the ‘90s. They responded in 1997 with the illustrious OK Computer, an album chock full of guitars and Thom Yorke’s now-legendary falsetto. Lyrically, OK Computer harks on the pitfalls of consumerism and the isolation experienced in the modern age; instrumentally, it’s all over the map: there are ballads (“Karma Police”), rockers (“Electioneering”), and songs that hit every mark in between (“Paranoid Android”). OK Computer was both a critical and commercial blockbuster, instantly landing the number one spot on the U.K. charts and eventually winding up at the 162nd spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

ExpectationKid As to deliver a hit record vastly increased after OK Computer, and again, Radiohead responded by shifting into new sonic territory. In 2000, they unleashed Kid A onto the world. Or should I say, the Internet did; Kid A was one of the first albums to ever leak on file sharing programs, and, with its heavy reliance on electronic samples and digital effects, it was an eerie fit. Even though Radiohead’s trademark guitar-driven sound is nearly absent on Kid A, it’s arguably their best. Heck, forget Radiohead: Kid A—which went on to win a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album and was subsequently ranked the number one album of the 2000s by both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork Media—is arguably one of the greatest albums of all time.

AmnesiacRumor had it that the Kid A sessions had fostered enough music to span two discs, and, lo and behold, Radiohead released Amnesiac the following year. Amnesiac explores the same digital world as Kid A, (they both feature “Morning Bell”) but their respective perspectives are quite distinct. Amnesiac marked the fifth time the band had worked with Nigel Godrich, and it was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2001.

Hail to the Thief Radiohead returned to their rock roots in 2003 with the release of Hail to the Thief, their most overtly political statement to date. Hail to the Thief is also the band’s most musically sporadic work, due to the way it was quickly recorded and loosely assembled. It was their fifth straight album to be nominated for the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.

In RainbowsAfter Hail to the Thief, Radiohead was no longer under contract with EMI. So for their next album, In Rainbows, the band opted out of signing any new contracts. Instead, they released it themselves in a pay-what-you-want format that many independent bands have adopted for use today. At the time, I thought they broke music. Now, I see that the marketing strategy was tremendously successful, though it doesn’t hurt that In Rainbows is a blend of nearly every version of Radiohead imaginable. In Rainbows is also arguably the band’s most accessible album besides OK Computer, which was, perhaps coincidentally, released exactly ten years earlier.

In 2011The King of Limbs, Radiohead released their most recent album, King of Limbs. Again working with Nigel Godrich, King of Limbs found the band focusing less on typical song structures and more on looping techniques. On one hand, the album is clearly distinct from the rest of their catalogue; on the other, its differences are what makes it wholly a Radiohead record.

As of 2014, Radiohead is on a well-deserved break. In the mean time, us fans are anxiously awaiting their next pitch. I hope it’s another curveball.


Andrew Brandt
@andrewtbrandt

Andrew is a communications intern at Murfie. When he’s not blogging here, you can probably find him blogging at a handful of other music sites. And when he’s not blogging at all, you can probably find him curled up with a good beer and a great book.



Staff Picks: Ally’s Picks

As a Murfie newbie in an office populated by seasoned music lovers and audiophiles, I thought there was no better way to make my introduction to Murfie’s blogosphere than to make my own musical statement. Now, it’s worth noting that though I may be young, I don’t tend to be the Murfian digging up the next big thing. I’m a believer in my own tried and true—the bands that have continued to narrate my life by never failing to make music that just sounds right.  I’m the kid you went to elementary school with who just wouldn’t ditch his blankie: when something’s right, I never want to let go.

6334-largeKid A by Radiohead

As a die-hard Radiohead worshipper, it’s rare to find a Radiohead album I don’t like. Kid A, however, occupies its own musical universe. It’s music that gets under your skin, a paradoxical listening experience that’s quiet and cacophonous at the same time. Thom Yorke’s famous alien-esque vocals lend an ethereal feel to the album, giving you 48 minutes of a complicated, slightly unsettling dream. At the end of those 48 minutes and after tracks like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Idioteque”, you’re left amazed that this album was created in a studio. What makes Radiohead the greatest band on earth is exactly that: every track sounds like the product of some unearthly time and space—and leaves you longing to learn more.

5710-largeWhite Blood Cells by The White Stripes

This album is not only at the top of my most played albums list; it so far exceeds the second place finisher that it feels like a natural, if not inevitable, fit on my staff picks. Without a single dud of a song, White Blood Cells has become as natural a part of my day as breathing (and certainly more natural than waking up in the morning). The White Stripes don’t have much instrumental variety—they love their guitar and drums—but there’s something about the way they handle them that takes this album to another level. It’s rock and it’s blues and it’s gritty and hard, but it also has the variety and sentiment to make you feel each song right along with them. And feel you do—tracks like “The Union Forever” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” illustrate Jack and Meg White’s mastery of imparting endless meaning into succinct songs. Their endlessly interesting take on rock keeps me pressing “play” over and over again.