Monday, 6 September 2010
Genre Alternative pop-rock
Label Island, Vertigo
Producer Stuart Price, Daniel Lanois, Brendan O'Brien, Brandon Flowers
Release Date September 6th (UK), September 14th (US)
When the Killers announced in 2009 that they were going to take a well earned break after nearly six solid years of touring and recording, there was one person who was not ready to slow down just yet. Making music is what frontman Brandon Flowers lives for, and in the absence of his bandmates he is going solo with his debut LP Flamingo.
I'd like to begin by dispelling a few go-to clichés that lazy journalists are using to describe this album: 1) that this album is basically a new Killers album and sounds exactly the same, and 2) that this album is an "adventurous" and "experimental" body work from the notoriously audacious Flowers, who frequently laments the creative restraints his band places upon him.
Thematically Flamingo harkens back to the days of Sam's Town, The Killers' loving ode to their home town of Las Vegas. The lyrics here are awash with gambling terminology and old fashioned Americana, and musically speaking the Springsteen influences return along with a much more overt country music overtone; honestly there were times when this album sounded more like Conway Twitty than The Killers.
For sure there are one or two songs on this album that sound reminiscent of the Killers, which would be hard to avoid given Flowers' distinctive vocals, but in the end this album is just not as tight as a Killers album, it lacks the disciplined composition and production. It is sometimes suggested that the reason the Killers achieve such success is this dynamic where the band helps to restrain and focus Flowers' creative gifts, and this album is perhaps the ultimate proof of that. In the same way one could argue that this album is much more personal and introspective than anything the Killers have ever produced.
This is also a darker affair than what we're used to from The Killers and Flowers, and often guilty of taking itself far too seriously. Songs are inundated with religious imagery and overblown talk of redemption, while the music is often overproduced (or sometimes just badly produced) which I suppose is inevitable when you bring in so many different producers to pool their ideas into one album. Arguably, Flowers' best moments tend to come when he's being playful as with Hot Fuzz or Day & Age, and one has to wonder why he chose to go back to the same melodrama that earned Sam's Town such mixed reviews.
It is a testament to Brandon Flowers' considerable musical and vocal talents then that this album is not at all bad. I'll have to be honest and say that the first time I listened to the album I had difficulty picking out anything that was particularly noteworthy, but then I had a similar initial impression of the album's first single Crossfire, which later grew on me. So this time I made sure to listen to the album a few times over before forming a conclusion and it also grew on me a great deal. More so perhaps than with any other album I've listened to, this is a grower.
Once again, Flowers takes us on a tour of his hometown Las Vegas, with each song serving as a standalone memoir of life in and around Sin City.
The album opens in a typically bombastic fashion with Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas. This song wastes no time in getting its American Mythic intentions out the door with swooning country guitars and Mojave-fried lyrics, while building up to the pomp and grandeur of the glittering lights of Las Vegas in increasingly sardonic tones.
The second track Only the Young is perhaps one of the best on the album, and really could have been a classic if not for some niggling annoyances with the production. Flowers piles layer upon layer of unnecessary vocal effects at every opportunity, and frankly the chorus can't help but sound slightly contrived. But beyond these issues lie haunting synths and one of Flowers' best vocal showings yet with some lovingly nuanced verses.
Hard Enough follows, a duet with Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and the most sentimental track on the album. Spirited enough musically, but even longtime fans are likely to find the lyrics a little too saccharine. It's not a bad song, with pleasant verses and Lewis bringing something a little bit different to the mix, but ultimately this is one of the more forgettable songs on the album.
Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts marks a return to Flowers' Springsteen tinged rock and arguably pulls it off better than any of his attempts on Sam's Town. Catchy verses and energetic chorus surge through dazzling city lights and casinos in the escapist frenzy of a broken hearted man. The drive and energy level marks this as a standout on an album which mostly aims for a less upbeat style.
Next we take things down a notch with Playing with Fire. A down tempo lounge beat and santana-esque guitars bring to mind images of a smokey bar in Vegas whilst religiously infused lyrics grow increasingly contemptuous in the face of sleaze and corruption.
Was it Something I said? Is one of the strangest songs on the album, with Flowers moving into full on Elvis-infused rockabilly. The result is something that sounds like a modern twist on Grease the musical. I suppose it's up to you whether that's a good thing or not.
The album takes a welcome turn into 80s style synth-pop with Magdalena, opening with a lush intro reminiscent of OMD which soon makes way for latin themed journey of redemption complete with castanets. Once again this lyrics of this song appear to be heavy in religion and morality. By this point I'm sure I'm not the only one who wishes Brandon would lay on his beliefs a little less thick and stick to ambiguous classics like "are we human or are we dancer". Can't fault the song musically though, similar in latin style to Happy Birthday Guadaloupe, but much much better.
Crossfire is a song that most people have probably heard by now, the first single released from this album a few months ago. A strange choice for the first single of Flowers' solo career as it's certainly not the strongest song on the album, but it's a fine number nonetheless with epic, ethereal piano and a rare sighting of guitar on this mostly synth album.
The penultimate track On the Floor is something of a misstep, moving into pure country music territory. The lyrics are the most heavily religious on the album, complete with gospel choir. I've seen a few reviewers identify this song as a highlight, but it's certainly not my cup of tea.
The album finishes on it's most playful note with Swallow It and the change in mood is most welcome. A serviceable if not particularly memorable pop song with fairly catchy verses.
Then of course there's the four bonus songs. The Clock Was Tickin' is pure country music once again, not something I really expected or wanted from this album.
Jacksonville is another victim of unfortunate editing, with a melody and vocals that could have made a great song if not for an annoyingly emphasised electronic bass on the chorus that drowns out and distracts from the prettier melody in the background. In general this song just sounds rough around the edges, effectively drowning in all the OTT sound effects that have been piled on. The song strangely morphs at the end of the second chorus, ditching all the droning effects and bringing in acoustic guitar, and frankly it sounds great. Another missed opportunity.
I Came Here to Get Over You is a decent rock song that really could have been included on the album, if only to break up the dreariness of much of what has been left. David Bowie influences aplenty, this song takes a few listens to grow on you, but it's definitely worth a listen.
Strangely, the final bonus song Right Behind You is probably the most interesting song on the album and one of its finest moments. This is more the kind of fresh, original idea we've come to expect from Flowers with a distinct vocoded chorus and another very hummable tune. Really this is a song that sets Flowers apart as a solo artist from the Killers and I find it very odd that it was left off the album.
Without a doubt Flamingo is a fine collection of "good" songs as one would expect, but I can't say there's anything on here that's actually "great". In terms of quality these songs hold their own against your average track from the Killers, but the album is definitely lacking that knockout blow from a Mr. Brightside or a Human. Without that, the album can't help but feel somewhat bland. Once these songs have been given time to sink in you'll fine that there is much to like about this album, but perhaps not much to love.
Only the Young (30 sec preview)
Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts
Right Behind You