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Purity Ring and Noel Gallagher Suffer the Sophomore Slump

03/10/2015 06:32 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Another Eternity - Purity Ring

"If it's not broke, don't fix it": so the saying goes. This seems to have been the guiding principle behind Another Eternity, the second studio album from Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring. Formed in 2010, the group consists of Megan James and Corin Roddick. In 2012, the pair released their debut album, Shrines: a sparkling elegiac demonstration of Purity Ring's versatility. Since then, James and Roddick have defined their aesthetic as "future pop," and "witch house." Critics have often grouped them into the rather ill-defined genre of chillwave. Categories aside, the point is that Purity Ring always seemed defined by their potential for reach and diversity. With so many titles to choose from, one might have expected Roddick and James to have in their pockets an equal number of sounds.

If they do, Another Eternity (stylized as "another eternity") is not the album on which they're using them. Rather, this sophomore record is the sibling of Shrines in nearly every way, to the point where they seem like they just may be twins. Despite the promise of more personal songwriting, Purity Ring's music is once more pretty and general, leaving Another Eternity as a competent and enjoyable, if largely disappointing collection of songs.

Because anyone who has heard Shrines knows that resembling that record is not necessarily a bad thing, it's hard to get too down on Roddick and James. Another Eternity presents listeners with a perfectly pleasant, at times, enchanting experience. Tracks such as "Bodyache" and "Push Pull" are glimmering and artful -- the former artfully transitioning between its shimmering ethereal verses and its insistent danceable chorus -- but while there are really no bad songs, there are many unremarkable ones. Aside from the singles that debuted before the album (the two aforementioned songs and the sultry mournful "Begin Again") few tracks really distinguish themselves, or really seem interested in doing so at all. Lyrics trade in well-crafted but vague suggestions of longing -- "I wanna stare at the tears/How they watered your years" -- and on many songs James' voice sounds surprisingly thin. It's perhaps possible to argue that Purity Ring is more interested in atmosphere than lyrical content, but that too falls flat. Shrines felt lush, seeming to unfold track by track. There, Purity Ring's sound had nooks and crannies to explore, layers to peel away. On Another Eternity, the elements are all there but they feel flat: a painstaking diorama of a brilliant landscape. There are moments to admire, but none to grab on to.

None of this to say that Purity Ring wasn't as good as we thought. Often the sophomore slump is turned into an opportunity to retroactively discredit anything good that came before it, and that's simply not fair. Another Eternity is rife with technical ability, but no adventurousness. It's not that Purity Ring isn't as good as people thought, just that they haven't fully figured out how to figure how to be good in new and interesting ways. There are plenty of bands that stick to a distinct aesthetic -- my own favorite band, The National is often accused of this -- but those bands who still succeed find new ways to deepen or twist their sound. They locate some kernel of weirdness and exploit it, if only momentarily. A good example might be Beach House, whose most recent album, Bloom some criticized as a rehash of Teen Dream, their 2010 stroke of genius. Certainly on first listen the two records might appear to cover similar ground, but on deeper inspection it's not that simple. Shadings and focuses are different. Frames of reference have been canted. It's possible that Another Eternity will reveal itself to contain some of this with time, but it's more likely that that's a skill they've yet to employ than one they've hidden imperceptibly deep in their album. Another Eternity isn't bad. It would be a fantastic album were it by a Purity Ring cover band.

Chasing Yesterday - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds

In the leadup to new albums, the Gallagher brothers -- best known from their work with 90s standby and professional guild of Beatles imitators Oasis -- don't go on press tours. They go on warpaths. Over the course of the last two months of so, Noel Gallagher -- who just released the second album with his solo project Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday -- has made it his mission to attack as many modern musicians as possible, taking breaks only to offer backhanded praise and presumably Google new artists to berate. While the Gallaghers (Noel's younger brother Liam provided vocals for Oasis and any number of ugly insults) have never exactly made a point of being polite or even tolerable, the whole thing felt especially grotesque this time around. Maybe it's because the self-titled debut from Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds wasn't half bad. Or maybe it just feels increasingly desperate as time goes by.

If there was anxiety about irrelevance brewing beneath Gallagher's attacks this time around, it certainly hasn't been channeled into any sort of vulnerability, though something like it seems to haunt Chasing Yesterday. The title of the record, of course, conjures nostalgia, but not one of the ten tracks really goes from anything like contemplation of that. No, this Chasing Yesterday feels like some Ahab-esque quest to recapture what Gallagher has often called true rock and roll: essentially old white guys on guitar, many of whom are British.

Perhaps this all feels a little mean-spirited. Chasing Yesterday is not without merit, and to pretend it is would be deceitful. Like its predecessor, the record captures some of the lightheaded momentum of Oasis' better work, making better use of lyrics like "she heard me jingle-jangling" than seems possible. Still, the whole thing feels stunted and trapped by its creator. Any of these tracks could be slipped into the playlist of some 90s hits station and no one would bat an eye. Opening track, "Riverman" transitions awkwardly between what sounds like an Oasis homage, to a Pearl Jam homage, to a strange saxophone solo that never really gets to gain any traction before the song comes to a close. It's one of the few moments of daring on the entire record and it feels snuffed out, as though Noel realized mid-recording that the sound was outside of his comfort zone, and shut the session down right then and there.

As much as Gallagher seems to be reaching for the sound of his old band, Oasis wasn't even the first group I thought of while listening to Chasing Yesterday. Moment to moment, the record sounds like a Wallflowers album, coasting on such vague moment-specific sounds and hopes of name recognition. Now Noel Gallagher isn't Jakob Dylan, but both seem to carry the assumption of musical talent. Jakob reached for the greatness of his father, while Noel seems determined to reconcile with the Noel of twenty years ago. The result is an odd dissonance: a battle between small moments of invention and overwhelming conservatism, where the latter nearly always wins. In an early February interview, Gallagher lamented modern rock and its "stars" calling them boring. He lamented the approaching deaths of genre icons like Iggy Pop and Paul McCartney, all but promising that their passings would signal the death of an entire sector of music. Considering what sort of work Gallagher is doing on Chasing Yesterday, it seems more than a bit inappropriate for him to call anyone dull. And, frankly, if Gallagher considers himself a member of that fading old guard, I'll be more than happy to see him throw in the towel and curse his way off stage once and for all.