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Friday, January 07, 2011

Arkeology: Day Five

Day Five:

In Full Regalia (2010)

What is to be the Ark's last studio album (until the eventual reunion, fingers crossed) certainly sounds like it. This has an air of finality to it. It's the group's most grown-up work, but also stands far apart from their other releases. The sound is retro 70's glam rock, but not in the same way that listeners were used to hearing from the band. The production's fuzzier, the vocals are rougher, and all in all it's a harder album to love than the past four, and the only release that didn't reach the top spot in the charts. At the same time, it's an essential part of the Ark story.

Stats:
Debuted at #2
15 weeks in the top 60

Superstar by theark
Stay With Me (Single Version) by theark

NOTE: I reviewed this album just last April but haven't looked back at that review in preparation for this one. I think it's interesting to see how views change after you've lived with an album for awhile.

1. Take A Shine To Me
An odd mix of Abba and Sweet, this doesn't work quite as well as that would make it sound. It's one of the lightest tracks on the album and one of the best. More a continuation of the last album's glam sound than anything, but not as captivating. 8/10
2. Superstar
Single #1
Chart Peak: 33
Weeks on Chart: 1

This will probably go down as my least-favorite Ark single. It's not that it's not catchy, and it's not that I didn't like it at first, but the production irks me (a problem I have with the entire album, actually). The key seems to high and the melody, while nice, is just too repetitive. 8/10
3. Stay With Me
Single #2
Chart Peak: n/a
Weeks on Chart: n/a

The second and last single from the album, I really like the first two thirds of the song but, like with the last track, the vocal histrionics of the last part just aren't very well produced. What does work, though, is the lyrics. And I've actually grown to like this more than I did on first listen. 8/10
4. Singing 'Bout The City
One of the absolute highlights of the album, though it sounds very little like material we'd expect from the band. An odd amalgamation of hippy rock, country, disco and Broadway musical, this functions, lyrically, as a fitting finale to the Ark song. It brings Ola full circle, from his childhood in the countryside to his career with the band in the city and back again. 10/10
5. Have You Ever Heard A Song
My favorite ballad on the album, though it borders on over-sentimentality. Still, it's a dramatically delicate gospel-infused ballad that, again, sounds very much like a swan song for the band. Should have been the last track on the album. 9/10
6. Publicity Seeking Rockers
The production could certainly be cleaner, but this is one of the better tracks here and kicks off the second half, glammier portion of the album. There's a classic glitter rock sound at work here that could have been amazing. It's a very near-miss. 8/10
7. I'll Have My Way With You, Frankie This is a big departure into a harder sound for the band and it actually works. It's not necessarily the band I fell in love with, but I think this is a late-career standout. 9/10
8. All Those Days I really don't like this song. I've tried, but I just can't get into it. It's easily the dullest track on any Ark album (excluding their pre-album EP) and seems to go nowhere. 6/10
9. Hygiene Squad
A weird, twist-and-shout novelty sound dominates this truly ponderous track. I like it, but it's definitely nothing I would expect from the band. It's been nearly a year and I still don't quite know what to think of this. 8/10
10. The Red Cap
The purest Ark-sounding song on the album, even though the lyrics are a bit strange. Still, the production's better than most of the previous tracks and there's even a hint of the old bombast present. This might be my favorite on the album, which really says something because it's certainly not single-material. 10/10
ALBUM: 8.4

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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Arkeology: Day Four

Day Four:

Prayer For The Weekend (2007)

Released just before the band represented Sweden in 2007's Eurovision Song Contest, this was the album that introduced the Ark to an international audience. It was also the first release for the band as an official six-piece (welcoming keyboardist Jens Andersson) and their first with a new record label. Of all the albums, Prayer can be described best as a distillation of all of their earlier sounds up to this point. It's the most varied musically, and also the poppiest and produced. It also has the distinction of being the Ark album with the most weeks spent at number one (4 straight weeks).

Stats:
Debuted at #1
24 weeks in the top 60

Prayer For The Weekend by theark

1. Prayer For The Weekend
Single #3
Chart Peak: 15
Weeks on Chart: 9
Kicking off the band's most scattered release was this propulsive, percussion-fueled single. It was a bit of a departure in sound and is probably one of the more forgettable singles they've released. Still heads and shoulders above most stuff (including their more recent material), but the melody doesn't quite get there for me. 9/10
2. The Worrying Kind
Single #2
Chart Peak: 1
Weeks on Chart: 20
Their Melodifestivalen and Eurovision entry, and the best charting single of their career. It's pure and utter bubblegum glam. But unlike most Eurovision fodder, Ola's psycho-analytical lyrics offer this radio track the necessary pathos that elevates it to a completely different level. Good party track, too. 10/10
3. Absolutely No Decorum
Single #1
Chart Peak: 26
Weeks on Chart: 7
Probably my favorite track from the album. This is pure, classic Ark. It perfectly mixes the sounds of their last two albums to create a bombastic stadium anthem. And with lyrics about "bug free zone(s)" and a-bombs in hearts, it's another huge rallying cry for the Ark troops. Unfortunately, this was more of a buzz single than anything, without an accompanying video or much of an official release. That video would've been epic, too. 10/10
4. Little Dysfunk You
Single #4
Chart Peak: 58
Weeks on Chart: 1
A soaring 80's new wave pastiche with foreboding, Depeche Mode-type verses and an explosive, melodic chorus. This one hit me on first listen and is still one of my highlights. The lyrics are delightfully strange, at times winking, smutty and celebratory. 10/10
5. New Pollution
A rousing glam rocker paying tribute to "amazing leotards" and hairspray and all that good stuff. Paying tribute to the Ark, in other words. There's also a bit of melody and lyric borrowed from The Who's Tommy, an album the band previously paid tribute to in the Father Of A Son video and an obvious influence in their work. 10/10
6. Thorazine Corazon One of the few Ark songs I just don't get. It's got a weird electro-bossa-nova vibe to it that is quite different than any of the band's other work. Add to that a sleepy, forgettable melody and this is possibly my least-favorite album track up to this point. 7/10
7. I Pathologize
An old school 70's glam rocker. It's definitely filler, but with its glittery hook and fun lyrics, it's a welcome addition to the album. 9/10
8. Death To The Martyrs
One of the best, most cutting album tracks the band's recorded. A glamrock story-song about a self-proclaimed martyr, Ola takes the opportunity to tear the guy down verse by verse, leading into a searing singalong chorus, sung by a boy's choir, no less. It's brilliantly funny and sweeping in its drama. And if you've ever wanted to hear little kids sing "you sorry ass," this is the song for you. 10/10
9. All I Want Is You
A frantic piano-driven glam rock track that's reminiscent of some of Abba's first recordings. It's dated on purpose, but doesn't work nearly as well as songs like The Worrying Kind. 8/10
10. Gimme Love To Give
A handclap, gospel stomper. It's a very interesting sound for the band, especially given Ola's history with the church. It's also another example of how diverse and scatter-brained this album is. 9/10
11. Uriel
An old Ark song, recorded finally for this album. It hearkens back to the soft ballads of their first album. The provocative lyrics paint a very interesting picture, but it's not one of my favorite of the band's ballads. 8/10
ALBUM: 9.1

B-sides:

Any Operator Will Do (B-side to Little Dysfunk You)
Like The Worrying Kind, this is a direct nod back to the glam era of years past. As Ark songs go, it's a relatively forgettable piece of fluff. Pleasant, but unnecessary. And I always cringe a bit at those chorus lyrics. 7/10

Any Operator Will Do by theark

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Arkeology: Day Three

Day Three:

State Of The Ark (2004/05)

Jettisoning some of the bombast of In Lust We Trust, the band went for a more streamlined, electronic edge with their third album. It was a sonic revelation. This is the band's party album, but this is the Ark we're talking about, so lyrical depth and experimentation was in no short supply. Even with an added focus on beat (including some African influences), the band managed their second straight masterpiece. It was also the first time I had the pleasure of seeing them live (in Gothenburg the spring of 2006).


Stats:
Debuted at #12 (after less than a week of sales, climbed to #1 the following week)
25 weeks in the top 60

State Of The Ark by theark

1. This Piece Of Poetry Is Meant To Do Harm
Opens the album with an electronic, T-Rex-style glam thomp and some orchestral flourishes thrown in for good measure. This is an incredibly clever, funny track with one of the most addictive melodies on the album. 10/10
2. Rock City Wankers
Ola rails against self-obsessed and self-destructive rockers, a theme he would later revisit on the band's fifth album. This track's got some of my favorite lyrics on the album, but beyond that, the funky-beyond-belief guitar riff makes this a career standout. 10/10
3. Clamour For Glamour
Single #2
Chart Peak: 10
Weeks on Chart: 23

The band had made clear their adoration of glam rock prior to this, but if there was any doubt, this propulsive, call-to-arms party track makes their ambitions very clear. It was a long-lasting hit in Sweden, and rightfully so. It's immediately catchy and simple to the point of being silly. But that's the fun of it. 10/10
4. One Of Us Is Gonna Die Young
Single #1
Chart Peak: 4
Weeks on Chart: 18

The best "carpe diem" song ever written. At turns raucous, inspiring and bittersweet, this may not be the flashiest song in the band's catalog, but it's one of their very best (if not the best). The drum work alone gives me chills. But it's the lyrics and Ola's delivery that seal the deal. It's a guaranteed pick-me-up, grappling with death in the most uplifting way possible. (note: the band also released a subtly remixed version--basically, more drums on the chorus--for the U.S. market, along with a new video) 10/10
5. Let Me Down Gently
A dramatic 80's synth rock ballad, the the surging nature of the production (especially in the chorus) has more in common with a dance track than the slower, more pensive ballads of the band's past. Would've made a great single. 10/10
6. Hey Kwanongoma!
When I very first heard this track about six years ago, I wasn't crazy about it Over the years, I've come full-circle. I love the African influences (and wish the band would have played around with this style even more) and the lyrics, fictional or not, certainly hark back to Ola's much-documented, delightfully oddball childhood. 10/10
7. The Others
Another of the band's many olive branches to counterculture. This encompasses a lot, and acts as a rallying cry to anyone who's ever felt different. Whereas It Takes A Fool... (from 2000) took a gentler, more poignant track, this is in-your-face and loud, painting a picture of a sort of sexual revolution (part two, I suppose). It's a nice counterpoint, and a great show of confidence from the band. 10/10
8. Girl You're Gonna Get 'Em (Real Soon)
Riffing on the Knack's My Sharona, the band augments the punchy groove and builds a thrilling dance rock song around it. It's one of my favorites on the second part of the album and truly a lost single. A simple, straightforward pop song done to perfection. 10/10
9. Deliver Us From Free Will
An inventive blend of disco, rock and musical theater, this is the only non-single that will be included on their greatest hits collection, and for good reason. It's such a huge pop song. The fact that the band can afford to put something this amazing towards the end of an album shows just how consistently brilliant they are. 10/10
10. No End
A gentle, falsetto-led ballad with some really sweet, romanticized lyrics. It works perfectly as an (almost) album closer. Not nearly as flashy as the rest of the tracks here, but attention-grabbing in its own way. 10/10
11. Trust Is Shareware
Single #3
Chart Peak: n/a
Weeks on Chart: n/a

A last-minute digital single in a slightly remixed (and in this case, better) form, this is a solid album track and an intriguingly odd (but apt) metaphor for trust, but it baffled me then and baffles me now as a single choice. It's still getting perfect marks, but there were so many better potential singles on this album. 10/10
ALBUM: 10/10

B-sides:

Get It Right (B-side to One Of Us...)
Like Hey Kwanongoma, this was the band taking cue from African music and creating something very special. It wouldn't quite have fit in with the album, but on its own its a real achievement. A spare, haunting melody's built around a huge, repetitive chant. I can't think of many artists that craft music like this, but if they're out there I would love to hear them because this sort of hybrid is really special. 10/10

Get It Right by theark

Stay Real / Look Sweet (b-side to Clamour For Glamour)
The band's most Scissor Sisters-esque moment. This flirts with the dance side of their dance rock more than any other track they've recorded. It's an interesting record, and well-worth its b-side status, but it doesn't feel as inventive as most of their stuff. 9/10

Stay Real Looks Sweat by theark

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Arkeology: Day Two

Day Two:

In Lust We Trust (2002)

This was the band's "us" album, a selection of songs that tackled social issues with a wider, at times political, perspective than their debut. Lyrically, it's the band's strongest release and includes their best ever run of singles. The overall sound is bigger and rockier, and more consistent than the first album. It was also the release that cemented the group as one of Sweden's biggest bands, and an undisputed masterpiece of an album.


Stats:
Debuted at #1
21 weeks in the top 60

In Lust We Trust by theark

1. Beauty Is The Beast
A straight-up rocker about the "idea of ideal beauty" and the social problems it creates. It's the first case of many on the album where Ola spotlights social issues in a clever way. The key to this album's success, though, is that it never lets the message get in the way of a big chorus. 10/10
2. Father Of A Son
Single #2
Chart Peak: 5
Weeks on Chart: 8

This is actually the first song I ever heard by the band, and what an introduction it was. This is one of the Ark's very best singles -- a blistering, funny, and ultimately poignant glam-fueled hissy fit against those who would outlaw gay adoption. It was their most bombastic moment up to this point and another classic rallying cry. Flawless. 10/10
3. Tell Me This Night Is Over
Single #3
Chart Peak: 28
Weeks on Chart: 9

A heartbreaking hymn on loneliness and its psychological effects. Ola's lyrics, as ever, are incredibly sharp and provocative (can you believe English is not this guy's first language?), and the chorus is one of the band's best. It also features my all-time favorite use of a gospel choir towards the end. Massive. 10/10
4. Calleth You, Cometh I
Single #1
Chart Peak: 2
Weeks on Chart: 18

In recent months, I think this has become my favorite Ark song. It's tough, because it's competing with a few others for the honor, but to me this encapsulates everything I love about the band. It's dramatic, ebullient, and larger than life. Those last few minutes is what I'd imagine an ascent to heaven would sound like. You can just lose yourself in the music. Honestly, it's gotten the best of me several times when I've had the pleasure of seeing it performed live. It still gives me chills. It's also one of the band's most successful singles, voted among the best of the millennium by the Swedish public. 10/10
5. A Virgin Like You
They slow things down a little bit here, with a ballad about the loss of innocence and the yearning to get it back. The growth in production and song craft from the first album to this one is immediately apparent here, as the tone of the track is spot-on. 10/10
6. Interlude
A brief instrumental, notable for the fact that, when played backward, there are apparently whispered voices (most likely extolling the meaning of life, right?). Judge for yourself. They're hard to hear.
7. Tired Of Being An Object?
We're in Rocky Horror territory now, with a fun, smutty rocker. It's as campy as the album gets, and a welcome dose of fun amongst all the serious themes. It's a great melody, but the lyrics, which turn common conceptions about prostitution and sex work on their head, are pure Ola. 10/10
8. Disease
Single #4
Chart Peak: n/a
Weeks on Chart: n/a

A gentle, electronic-influenced track that seems to be about AIDs, though Ola's stated that it's not really that specific. It's one of the most touching and unusual moments on the album. The lyrics really paint an interesting picture, at turns romantic and pessimistic. 10/10
9. Vendelay
A curio in the Ark catalog, though a wonderful one. This middle-eastern sounding track is like nothing else on the album, and could have been a disaster. But the sitar-laced melody is addictive, as are the strange, romantic (?) lyrics. 10/10
10. 2000 Light Years Of Darkness
An eight-minute epic that acts as a sort of compliment to Tell Me This Night Is Over. Both deal with loneliness and isolation, though in this track the narrator seems to revel in it, at least initially. The song has a 70's rock feel to it, with some of the most rousing instrumentation on the album. 10/10
11. The Most Radical Thing To Do
A manifesto if there ever was one. The album ends in anthemic fashion, with a call to love the one you love, end of. Punky, punchy verses collide with an enormous, melodic chorus in a truly jaw-dropping conclusion to a gutsy, extremely alive album. 10/10
ALBUM: 10/10

B-sides:

Power To Change (B-side to Calleth You, Cometh I)
This strummy rocker is an ode to the comedown after the dazzling rock heights of their stadium-filling album tracks. Lyrically, it's one of the most interesting song in their catalog. The shout-along chorus is incredibly cathartic. 10/10

Power To Change by theark

The Glad Yeah (b-side to Father Of A Son)
The song title inspired another young Swedish glam band that became a sort of tribute act to the Ark. The song itself is similar in sound to Power To Change, starting out slow and building to something quite cathartic. Ola pulls a Dr. Frank-n-Furter two thirds of the way through with a really fun vocal performance. 9/10

The Glad Yeah by theark

Opera (b-side to Disease)
Completely over-the-top and theatrical, this was perhaps too lightweight for the album, but functions brilliantly as a b-side. One of their best, actually. This is pure Ark, and nobody can do it better. Another example of the band at their creative peak. 10/10

Opera by theark

Kolla Kolla (Part of the National Sånger compilation)
Recorded as a tribute to the prog band Nationalteatern, the Ark imbue this Swedish track with enough energy to fuel a hundred house parties. To English-speaking listeners, it's probably one of the band's strangest recordings, but it's also one of their best. There is no way you can sit still to this one. 10/10

Kolla Kolla by theark

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Monday, January 03, 2011

Arkeology: Day One

So as you may or may not know, 2011 will be the last year for my favorite band, The Ark. They are one of the biggest reasons I started this blog in the first place, so it's only fitting that I see them off with a tribute of sorts, all leading up to their release of greatest hits single Breaking Up With God a week from today (and from the sample I've heard, it sounds like it's going to be a return to form).

5 albums, 5 days. Every track and b-side reviewed. This will be the ultimate guide to the band!

Day One:

We Are The Ark (2000)

Airbrushed to look plastic on the album cover, this was the band's huge leap into the mainstream and a reinvention from their lo-fi, grungy beginnings. Their overall look was probably the most extreme it's ever been, with Ola sporting many different colors of hair and more than one glam leotard/bodysuit. As Ola's said before, it was the band's "me" album -- more a statement of intent than anything. It wouldn't be until the next release that they widened their perspective and focused more heavily on social issues.

Stats:
Debuted at #1
46 weeks in the top 60

We Are The Ark by theark

1. Hey Modern Days
One of my favorite album tracks, this was the bombastic introduction to the new Ark sound. Opening with squiggly electronics, the track soon bursts into an irresistable, sing-along chorus. It's the sound of pure, unadulterated joy. It's also a load of nonsense, which I love. 10/10
2. Echo Chamber
Single #3
Chart Peak: 42
Weeks on Chart: 13

A pomp-rock classic, this is all power chords and over-the-top vocals. The lyrics, about those who won't listen to anyone but themselves, are delightfully in your face. The song's got more swagger than most bands can dream of. 10/10
3. Joy Surrender
Single #4
Chart Peak: 23
Weeks on Chart: 6

A slow-burn glam track which sees some incredibly low vocals from Ola and some excellent guitar work in the epic chorus. I still think it's an odd choice for a single since it's not the catchiest song on the album, but this is classic Ark. 10/10
4. It Takes A Fool To Remain Sane
Single #2
Chart Peak: 7
Weeks on Chart: 22

Speaking of classic, I'm not even sure what I can say about this one. It's probably the band's most well-known song and the one that broke them into the mainstream (it spent a whopping four months in the top ten!). It was also recently voted the fourth best song of the millennium by the Swedish public. Quite simply, this epic ballad is one of the greatest anthems ever written. It means too much to me to encapsulate in a small review like this. 10/10
5. Ain't Too Proud To Bow
Continuing with the self-pride theme, this punchy uptempo track has always suffered a bit from immediately following It Takes A Fool. The lyrics are very clever, but the song as a whole is certainly lighter than the band's best material. The fire alarm bells in the chorus has always annoyed me, as well. 8/10
6. Bottleneck Barbiturate
This is very much a template for the classic, old-school Ark ballad. It's dramatic without being overpowering. It starts out a little hesitant, but once the instrumentation kicks in, it becomes a full-power, Queen-like ballad. 9/10
7. Let Your Body Decide
Single #1
Chart Peak: 59
Weeks on Chart: 1

The band's first single, later re-released after they found success with It Takes A Fool. It's more electronic than most of the material on this first album, and an excellent example of the reoccurring gender politics that dominate much of Ola's lyrics. It's as catchy as catchy gets. 10/10
8. Patchouli
For some reason, this has always reminded me of Billy Joel. It's a straight-ahead piano rocker with some excellent hand-claps and choral vocals. Definitely filler, but excellent filler. 9/10
9. This Sad Bouquet
Another very slow ballad. It's incredibly pretty and delicate, but I'm glad that the band opted for bigger sounds in the future. I would've preferred this as a b-side, as I've always thought that it cut the energy of the album. 8/10
10. Angelheads
Now we're back to the classic stuff. "Angelheads" has become the name given to Ark fans, so this song deserves recognition simply for that. It's a pretty straightforward rocker, but the excellent lyrics and performance by Ola make it stand out. 10/10
11. Laurel Wreath
The guitar riff in this track is monumental. It's such a funky departure for the band, and functions best played at full volume. It's probably the hardest rocker on the entire album. 10/10
12. You, Who Stole My Solitude
This is such an epic way to close the album. It's got an electronic, 80's feel to it -- a little bit Depeche Mode, maybe. The melody is fantastic, but the male choir at the end pushes this into different territory altogether. It's enough to give you goosebumps. 10/10
ALBUM: 9.5/10


EPS & B-sides:

The Ark EP (1996)

The Ark EP by theark

1. Racing With The Rabbits
Far from the sound most people have come to love from the Ark, this debut EP (released four years prior to their mainstream debut), is a grungier affair. It has a lo-fi, demo quality to it, though you can hear glimpses of what was to come. The seesaw melody and religious allusions form a bridge between their initial, unreleased recordings like The Lamb (6/10) and Flower King (4/10), from the mid nineties, and their newer stuff. This, though, sounds much more like a rough draft on the way to something better. 5/10

2. I Laid It Down
Similar sound, less engaging melody. I like the jangly sound of the guitars and the hint of a majestic backdrop coming through, but this, again, is just a very different band. 5/10

3. Cracked Messiah
There's a definite Bowie influence in the vocals here, though the religious antics and the plodding guitar crunch of the chorus is actually reminiscent of Marilyn Manson. One of my least favorite Ark songs. 4/10

4. Od Slatrom Ekil
Easily the band's longest song at just under ten minutes, you get the feeling from the puffed up length to the backwards title ("Like Mortals Do"), that this is the band at their peak of youthful pretension. Again, their are small hints of what's to come, especially in the bombast of the melodic chorus. But the song's way too long. I rarely make it through the whole thing before switching to something else! 5/10

Siamese Centerfold (Demo) (B-side to Let Your Body Decide)
A downtempo, funky piece of electro-glam. It definitely sounds more unfinished than the other b-sides from the album. I'd love to hear a full, fleshed out version. As it stands, this is a strong, if somewhat uneventful entry in their catalog. 8/10

Siamese Centerfold (demo) by theark

The Homecomer (b-side to It Takes A Fool...)
A delicate ballad in the vein of This Sad Bouquet or Bottleneck Barbiturate from the album. I'm glad it was left off the album, as I feel it would drag down the energy, but on its own terms it's a provocative story-song with a nice melody and great performance from Ola. 8/10

The Homecomer by theark

Topsy Kaiser (b-side to Joy Surrender)
One of the band's absolute best b-sides, and also a strong indication of where the next album would be going in both sound and lyrical content. Built on a powerful, sneering guitar riff, this punky rocker is a bombastic call to arms that easily could have been a single. 10/10

Topsy Kaiser by theark

Cygnet To Cygnet (b-side to Joy Surrender)
Another track that's single-quality, even though it's been relegated to b-side status. It's a more flamboyant, theatrical piece of glam rock with some incredible vocals and mysterious lyrics. 10/10

Cygnet To Cygnet by theark

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