Some you can leave behind

Is the new U2 record worth buying -- or should you just download two or three tracks? Plus, new free songs: The Unicorns, Scout Niblett and a Pixies classic.


Thomas Bartlett
November 25, 2004 3:05AM (UTC)

The release of U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" is an event in a way that is rare in today's music business, where even the biggest records by the biggest artists usually take a few weeks, or even months, to build up a full head of steam. It's an event record in the way that "Spider-Man 2" (or, to pick a film with a more appropriately overpowering sense of its own bigness, "Titanic") was an event movie. How that happened is something of a mystery, though there's been an extraordinarily pervasive TV ad campaign, thanks to the tie-in with the official U2 MP3 player, the iPod.

But even the biggest ad campaigns rarely work this well. The song that all these ads feature, "Vertigo," is awesome but almost certainly not destined to be a hit; after two months, it's only made it up to No. 31 on the Billboard chart. And yet, through some perfect combination of marketing savvy and a lucky alignment of the stars -- like few other recent releases from big acts, Eminem's "Encore" the exception -- this is the record everyone is talking about.

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The mania may be particularly intense here in New York, after Monday's high-visibility stunt with U2 performing on the back of a flatbed truck winding its way through Manhattan before heading over to Brooklyn, where the band played a free show for thousands of fans. Apparently many of those fans sang along with all the new songs, a reminder that the record had been leaked months ago to file-sharing networks -- which makes Interscope Records' petty stinginess in releasing advance copies for reviewers all the more mystifying. Still, rather than stick it to Interscope and download it for free, I went to Tower Records at 10 a.m. Tuesday to stand in a long line of people, every one of whom, as far as I could make out, was there for the same reason: to buy a copy of "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb."

So what does this "event record" sound like?

Well first off, "Vertigo" is a misleading first single, a blast of casual post-punk energy that never returns on the rest of the tracks. Beyond that, this record sounds exactly as you'd expect it to. There's some of the atmospherics of "The Unforgettable Fire," the sweep and grandeur of "The Joshua Tree," the bite of "Achtung Baby." It's the most predictable record they could have made. That's not necessarily a criticism, though its predictability makes for something of a quandary: It's the record that everybody wants to know about, but there's really very little to say about it.

Ultimately, despite some stellar production (from just about every great producer they've ever worked with: Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, Flood, Chris Thomas), there's one crucial thing this record lacks: a "With or Without You," a "Pride," a "One." Or even a "Beautiful Day," if it comes to that, because for all the basic unadventurousness of "All That You Can't Leave Behind," that song could move mountains. Every truly great U2 record has had at least a couple of songs with a chorus so undeniable, so surging with adrenaline, that even skeptics would be carried away by it. "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" is a good record, but if you don't want to like it, you won't.

On the flip side, if you want to be carried away, this record has a plenty fast current to get swept up in. One of the most absurd and appealing things about this band is that they play every song as if it could move mountains. Redemptive melodies or not, this record is so full of its own bigness, so determined to push every song to a moment of transcendental power, that it's just as easy to be moved as it is to be indifferent. So far, the two tracks that have really picked me up and taken me high are "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" and "City of Blinding Lights." If you don't feel like buying the whole record, it's certainly worth a few dollars to download those two. And, of course, the terrific "Vertigo."

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Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill, from "The Lonesome Touch"
Martin Hayes plays traditional Irish music. That information is probably enough to send many of you right on to the next track -- but wait. Hayes' music tends to confound expectations. I've watched crotchety, close-minded classical virtuosos listen in stunned silence to what this man can do -- and diehard Irish-music fans turn away in disgust from his extravagantly bent notes, his unseemly emotional intensity. Still, Hayes' credibility within the Irish-music world is impeccable: Six-time winner of the All Ireland fiddle competition, son of PJ Hayes, nephew of Paddy Canny, widely respected teacher of the sweet, simple style of his native County Clare.

But the experience of hearing Hayes and his longtime collaborator, guitarist Dennis Cahill, play is fundamentally different from what you'll get from any other Irish music. There are a number of reasons for this, the first being that they play with an extreme minimalism, a focus and a tight aesthetic discipline unusual in any genre of music. Writing in the New York Times, Ann Powers likened their music to Steve Reich's Quartets, and to Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain." While I don't agree with the specifics of her comparisons -- I hear more connections to the similarly delicate, perfectly balanced music on Abdullah Ibrahim's "Cape Town Flowers" and Bill Frisell's "Good Dog, Happy Man" -- I do agree that their music belongs in such rarified company.

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Irish instrumental music is generally emotionally monochromatic, the excitement coming from rhythmic drive or lilt, from melodic invention. But Hayes digs deep into these traditional melodies, performs an emotional excavation, and draws out astonishing and moving narratives. Recently Hayes' label, Green Linnet, has started adding music to the iTunes store, and so for the first time his music is available for download. I'm thrilled that they've offered Salon an exclusive free download of an amazing, 12-minute-long medley from the 1997 record "The Lonesome Touch," a slow building track that gives some sense of the range of Hayes' music.

If you like it, I encourage you to download the entire album, which is nearly perfect, or to buy the thrilling "Live in Seattle" (which would be nearly perfect if it weren't for the absurd and unnecessary crowd-pleaser "P Joe's Pecurious Pachelbel Special," an unfortunate staple of Hayes' otherwise enthralling live show). Salon Exclusive Free Download: Paul Ha'penny / The Garden of Butterflies / The Broken Pledge / The Mother and Child Reel / Toss the Feathers

"Way of the Sun," Archer Prewitt, from "wilderness"
Archer Prewitt's music (and onstage persona) are just like his name: debonair, dapper and a mite bit unusual. Even in the pastel-colored post-rock indie-pop circuit that he frequents, most famously as a member of the Sea and Cake, Prewitt stands out as especially twee, dashingly sophisticated and -- let's be frank -- a little wimpy. His music is something of a '70s soft-rock fantasia, glossy and overtly cheesy, but full of surprise tempo changes and complex arrangements that reflect Prewitt's hyperactive intellect. It can all be a little stilted, a little overworked, but at its best, it's blissful. His upcoming "wilderness" isn't quite as effervescently delightful as 2002's "Three," but it's still a pleasure of a record, particularly the opening track, "Way of the Sun." Salon Exclusive Free Download: "Way of the Sun"

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"Uptown Top Ranking," Scout Niblett, from "Uptown Top Ranking" EP I've described singers as a cross between PJ Harvey and Cat Power so often (and, admittedly, sometimes misguidedly) that my friends like to tease me about it. Take this for what it's worth, knowing that it's a personal cliché: British songstress Scout Niblett sounds like a cross between PJ Harvey and Cat Power.

The comparison is especially obvious here, since her cover of Althia & Donna's 1978 hit "Uptown Top Ranking" is pure Cat Power, taking a party song and stripping it of fun, revealing an unexpected inner core of pure loneliness and pathos. It's the opening track of her new three-song, eight-minute EP of the same name, all of which is marvelous. I especially like "In the Sine Wave," with Niblett singing a melody by Elizabethan composer John Dowland, accompanied only by her own drumming, and ... a single sine wave. Free Download: "Uptown Top Ranking"

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"The Unicorns 2014," The Unicorns, from "2014" EP
The Unicorns of Montreal were one of last year's premier hipster fetish bands, but their "2014" EP, released earlier this year, was largely ignored, and when it was reviewed at all, it was reviewed poorly. I haven't heard the whole EP, but the title track, recently made available for free download, is excellent. Like most of the songs on their debut record it evolves in fits and starts, and with a good deal of ingenuity, hitting plenty of sweet spots but never settling into a discernible verse-chorus structure. Free Download: "The Unicorns 2014"

"Debaser," The Pixies, from "Doolittle"
Volumes have been written about the Pixies since they re-formed earlier this year. I have little to add except that when a free MP3 of one of their classic songs becomes available you should stop what you're doing, download it, and have an impromptu dance party. Free Download: "Debaser"

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Have an opinion about this week's downloads? Check out the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.


Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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