Album: Light Grenades
In Brief: As the title suggests, Light Grenades is a brilliant and sometimes violent explosion of ideas. And most of them are excellent ones.
Incubus strikes me as one of those bands who follows an on-again, off-again pattern in terms of the quality of their recorded output. Once a funky, semi-heavy rock band as heard on S.C.I.E.N.C.E., they proceeded to annoy some of their oldest fans by going “mainstream” with 1999’s album Make Yourself, which featured a few radio hits that caused me to take belated notice of them in early 2001. Despite having more of a streamlined sound with power chords and an acoustic track or love song here and there, their approach didn’t strike me as totally orthodox, and I still found the balance of “my” first Incubus album to be extremely awkward, outside of the 3 or 4 songs that I really fell in love with. Late 2001 brought along Morning View, which I was hesitant to approach due to samples of it seeming even more awkward than Make Yourself‘s weirder moments, along with complaints from fans that they had mellowed. But that turned out to be the album that really gave me cause to praise Incubus for their unique approach to writing catchy modern rock tracks, and it remains one of my all-time favorite “mainstream” rock albums to date. The pendulum swung back with 2004’s A Crow Left of the Murder, which I anticipated with baited breath and gave a positive review to, but found myself going back to less and less due to the inconsistency of some of its musical experiments and the overall jaded, harsh tone of it. Call me crazy, but I prefer the side of Incubus that explores the power of my fellow human being to make me a bolder individual, and challenges me not to waste the life I’ve been given, instead of the side that rants angrily about f*cking yourself and f*cking Elvises.
Well, along came Light Grenades in 2006, and it seems that my preferred side of Incubus is back. I’m not going as bonkers over this one as I did over the diverse, addictive Morning View – though it does manage to cover a lot of aural ground and not sound like the band is just repeating past ideas. Contrary to guitarist Mike Einziger‘s statement that the album sounds like “13 songs played by 13 different bands”, it’s a remarkably cohesive piece of work aside from one or two pedestrian tracks that feel slightly out of place (not nearly as bad as the ping-ponging between styles that frustrated me in Crow‘s back half). Some fans might still be stymied by the presence of mellower, “feel-good” songs, but this album’s rockers are numerous and they’re almost uniformly powerful once you get used to them, so I’m not going to complain about having a well-timed breather here and there. Really, anyone who thinks the band has gotten too mellow should have probably bailed after Morning View anyway. Here, the band takes a little bit of that album’s lush dynamics and mixes it with the slam-bang theatrics that made Crow‘s best tracks work. It all fits together snugly because Brandon Boyd is the kind of singer who can take raspy shouts, sinister muttering, and lovey-dovey crooning, and make them all work – sometimes even within the same song, and because his band frequently thrills the ears with a well-timed dose of energy. There might not be a lot of funk-inspired basslines these days (that influence seems to have passed on when Dirk Lance left the band), so sorry S.C.I.E.N.C.E. fans, but I think there’s a little something for those who have enjoyed any or all of the discs that Incubus has put out since then.
I can’t help but be a little nostalgic when I listen to Light Grenades, and a lot of that’s due to the lyrics, which reflect a sense of longing and self-confidence that inspires the same emotions I felt when listening to Morning View, which was pretty much the soundtrack of my life in 2002. At the time, I was learning to forgive past offenses and let the wounds heal from an old relationship gone sour, while pursuing a new and exciting, but also frightening long-distance relationship with an unpredictable outcome. That album spoke well to that situation, and now I’m in a different place, married to that girl I once pined for from so far away, and seeing her as a reminder not to get too cynical about life, not to assume that the world is unchangeable and I shouldn’t bother trying. This is largely what Light Grenades deals with – the ability of one human to affect change in another. It’s a common theme for Incubus, actually – on Morning View and Crow, the focus seemed to be on the negative impact one person’s ego or malicious intent could have on another, but here, the balance is more positive. Sometimes Brandon wishes for a companion to invest in him and challenge him to become a better person, sometimes he is admitting how difficult it is to be in love when it demands radical change, and sometimes he’s expressing a desire to be let go from a relationship that’s holding him back from the changed man he really wants to be. Other tracks not specifically related to those kinds of relationships deal with a harsh, uncaring world, and serve as the “tough love” you might get from a friend who cares deeply about you but is brave enough to kick your butt and remind you not to be a lazy, selfish punk who just expects good things to fall into your lap without taking any risks.
This would all sound extremely sappy without Mike Einziger’s quick and sometimes devastating guitar trickery, Ben Kenney‘s sweet basslines, DJ Kilmore‘s keyboards and ambient sound effect, and especially Jose Pasillas‘s slamming drums. Drums play the major supporting role on this disc, and in a few cases other band members are adding to the percussive frenzy – they may have detached themselves from the funk-inspired sound, but they’ve still got an uncanny knack for a captivating rhythm. It’s hard to find a tight band who also manages to say something thoughtful in the process, and that’s the reason why Incubus slipped in at the very end of the year and claimed a spot in my annual Top 10 list.
This is about as weird of an album opener as I can imagine Incubus coming up with. Soft, warm electronic keyboards and mellow, spacey DJ sounds start things off, and a rhythm which seems basic keeps falling behind by one measure, giving the song an irregular, alien feel much like Radiohead‘s “Everything in Its Right Place”. Brandon’s voice sounds very detached at first, which fits his cryptic lyrics, and things start to make a little more sense when the drums and guitar kick in partway through. Here Brandon proclaims his thesis that romance is kind of a box of chocolates, in that you never know what you’re gonna get: “Some people fall in love and touch the sky; some people fall in love and find quicksand.” He expresses difficulty with indecision, and it’s a conflict that resounds throughout the album. Is it better to be single and pining for companionship, or with someone and uneasy about the prospects of a decent future together? The song dissipates, barely two minutes long, before it can further elaborate, with its electronic buzzes and squelches melting into a sea of stringed instruments.
2. A Kiss to Send Us Off
The strings transition us into a bit of a drawn-out intro before this song’s introductory guitar riff shows up at about 45 seconds in. It’s reminiscent of the long fade-ins at the beginning of both “Megalomaniac” and “Nice to Know You”, and it sort of hints that this may have originally been intended as the album opener until the band decided to buck tradition and stick an odd intro track in front of it. I’d have been OK with that guitar riff, which leads into a heavier, more urgent and slamming musical mood, as the first thing on the album, but maybe that’s a little closed-minded of me. In any event, this song is kind of the new album’s version of a “Nice to Know You”, because it seems to celebrate a single moment of celestial alignment where all is well between two lovers even though they know they’re about to say goodbye. Brandon is emphasizing bold affection over fear here, shouting for “A kiss to send us off!” instead of getting hung up on the worries about whether they’ll ever reunite. There’s a good balance here, between the melodic and fairly easygoing verses, the bursts of energy leading into the chorus as Brandon draws out each word to time them along with the loud swells in the music, so it’s something like, “(guitar riff)… ONE! (guitar riff)… MORE! (guitar riff)… TIME!” The repeated title of the song is alternately shouted and sung, which leads a brilliant ending where all hints of melody drop away, and save for one angry little burst from the guitar, those last few measures are all shouts and drums.
This song may as well be the new “Wish You Were Here”, since it has a similarly “starry” sound provided by the guitars, and it expresses a similar sentiment about the joy of having a trusted lover close by. Now, it might be a bit early in the album for a mellower song like this, since there’s really no point where the guitars get amped up and distorted. However, it’s one of my favorite songs on the album, so I’ll let the slight error in its placement slide. Word has it that this one started out as an R&B song, and I can hear that a teeny bit in the bumping of the drums and bass and Brandon’s more seductive tone (complete with these cute little whispers of “ah ah!” during the verses), but due to the rock more instrumentation, it comes out as a superb pop confection where the two genres meet in the middle, so it’s not unlike something that Maroon5 might have come up with in one of their less horny moods. While having a romantic tone, the song really seems to be about iron sharpening iron, so to speak – Brandon is singing the praises of a friend who has the power to act as a “clever medicine” whenever he gets too big of an ego. The word “dig” has a double meaning in this song, talking both about how the couple “digs” each other (cheesy, I know), and how one of them is able to dig the other out when they get too buried in selfishness. It’s a flawlessly performed song with a stellar lead vocal and some great instrumental touches that show how versatile this band can be, which is one of the things I’ve always loved about Incubus.
The album’s lead single – and far and away one of my favorite Incubus songs of all time – kicks off with a nervous, stuttering guitar riff and some fast-paced bell-like sounds that ring out on top of it. This is a song that does a lot of wiggling around while maintaining a fast, relentless drum beat – it’s aggressive but highly melodic, and Jose Pasillas sets the frantic mood quite well with his numerous drum rolls. The musical mood is highly reminiscent of “Sick Sad Little World”, minus the drawn-out instrumentals, though there is a pretty slick guitar solo in the middle of the song. Brandon’s mood here is much lighter than it was in “Sick Sad Little World”, since this is a song of longing for companionship, for that special woman he has pictured in his mind’s eye and who seems to be really difficult to find in reality. He describes her as an “anomaly” in the song’s chorus, and ho-ho, what a God-awful pun that song title turned out to be, but if you ignore that, the song turns out to be quite well-written, and very personal but also highly relatable. It seems like the song did well at radio, though with a title like that, they were kind of asking for it to crash and burn, because really, who wants to call a radio station and request a song with such a dumb title? Anyway, this one rocketed straight to the upper echelons of my personal list of 2006’s great singles, simply because I haven’t heard such an excellent “looking for the right one” type of song in about ten years.
5. Love Hurts
This one strikes me as one of those more “ordinary” Incubus ballads like “11 A.M.” due to the more laid-back and less-technical approach of the guitar and the mid-tempo rhythm. Simply put, it’s an OK song. A bit too early for love ballad #2, and you can pretty much tell where this one’s going from the title (“Love hurts, but sometimes it’s a good hurt, and I feel like I’m alive” is how the chorus puts it), but it’s not as terrible of a song as some people have claimed it to be. I enjoy the sentiment that love is supposed to hurt and that in and of itself doesn’t mean that a relationship is doomed. I just think it’s stated in simplistic terms, which is frustrating since I know that Incubus has a larger arsenal of intelligent words with which to describe things. There’s an ever-so-slight soulful ness here that makes the song work, but ask me about that again if it ever becomes a single, because it might become really easy to get sick of it at that point.
6. Light Grenades
I don’t think I’ve ever heard Incubus compact such a massive burst of energy into such a small space before. Sure, Incubus have had fast and furious songs that threatened to get totally out of control in the past (“Make Yourself” is one example, though I personally preferred “Pistola” and “Priceless” from the Crow album), but none of those songs were as dense as this punked-up track, which flies by at warp speed and wraps itself up in just a little over two minutes. You’ll barely be able to understand a word that’s being sung or shouted on first listen just because of the sheer density of the thing, but there’s more than enough haphazard riffing and atonal palm muting to entertain the eardrums, and on future listens, you’ll start to pick out interesting bits of lyrics. Basically, it’s the message of “Warning” on fast-forward, because Brandon rants a bit here about how we were “given a garden, we gave back a parking lot”, and are otherwise recklessly destroying the world that we call home due to our hatred of one another, which is what leads to the frantic question, “Will we survive ourselves?” in the chorus. If “Warning” was the ominous sound of a rumbling in the distance, then “Light Grenades” is the sound of a 10.0 earthquake in progress. Even so, there’s a bit of hope offered here, since the title “light grenades” refers to ideas being thrown at problems rather than weapons – the band hopes that these loud shouts, these urgent cries for a cease-fire, will lead to more productive results than just dropping bombs on one’s enemies.
7. Earth to Bella (Part 1)
Another brief track shows up here, though one gets the impression that it was really a longer song that got split into two halves due to different ideas about what to do with its refrain. This, the first iteration of the song, is characterized by soft, acoustic verses where Brandon gently tries to get a naïve friend to wise up a bit, which leads very suddenly into a big, ridiculously noisy instrumental break complete with crashing cymbals and what sounds like an electronically chewed-up-and-spit-out guitar riff. Something about the chaotic slamming (which keeps time with the slow rhythm of the song) is highly addictive, and it’s as if this person named Bella is being forced to face the unpredictable parts of life that she’s been scared of and attempting to avoid. Rather than trying to scare her, Brandon seems to be trying to encourage her that a lot of growth can be found in the willingness to take a risk, which is what I believe he means when he tells her that he’s “OK to sink” repeatedly at the end, before the final crash-bang fades out and we’re left with a faint acoustic coda that we’ll get back to when the second half shows up later on.
8. Oil and Water
Right smack in the middle of the album are two relationship songs, seemingly opposite sides of the same coin, that I find to be a bit lacking. This first one eventually develops into a pulsating rocker which pleads for a mercy kill due to a relationship that’s gone sour, but it gets off to a really agonizing start due the awkward pacing of Brandon’s verses, where he draws out words like “trying” and “dying” three times in a row, which makes me want to tell him to just get on with it and let the lyrics flow more naturally. Lyrically it’s pretty solid, since he accurately captures the concerns of a man trapped in a dead-end relationship, a guy who has been afraid to speak up for himself due to worries about what it’ll be like to be a lone again, but who eventually gets so fed up that he has to cry out, “Let’s just call it what it is!” The analogy that they’re like “oil and water” is a good one, because neither of those are bad things; they just don’t mix well no matter how much you try to force them to. As the song builds momentum, the drums are doing one of those triple-pulse things that we’re used to hearing from Coldplay, and Brandon’s delivery gets more impassioned, it turns out to be worthwhile, but the way the song drags its feet at the beginning often tempts me to hit “skip”.
9. Diamonds and Coal
I seem to recall Incubus mentioning this song at one point when they were talking about trying new things on this album and they said that they had actually tried to make themselves sound a little more “normal” and easygoing on this particular track. I’m not sure why a rather unique band would do that, because I think this is a song that suffers from being fairly pedestrian and not really having much of a “swell” to it. The slightly more organic approach is a nice change of pace – there’s a more natural-sounding piano tone to the keyboards here, and the bass does a simple but slightly ominous “bum-bum-bum” along with the main melody of the song, reminding me of a guy walking down the street, looking like he’s just minding his own business, but in the back of his mind he really knows he’s up to no good. The song just never becomes much more than the sum of these little interesting bits, and the chorus doesn’t deviate from the verse enough to really register as something memorable. Here Brandon is asking for a girl to stick with him for a little longer, to give him another chance despite some rough patches that they’re already gone through, and he claims that “In spite of this, we’re doing just fine, even diamonds start as coal.” It’s almost like he’s trying on the perspective of both sides in a relationship where there’s a lot of bickering and one person wants to call it quits because that person thinks they’re “oil and water”, but the other one draws this comparison instead. I appreciate the attempt to see both sides, but this song is really hampered by silly lines like “If it’s good to instigate, we’re a fast horse bet on us. I’m not calling you an animal, I just think we fight too much.” Not his most poetic observation, eh?
This song is a highly energetic one that’s taken a while to register with me for some reason – it’s not bad at all, but maybe it’s another case where the lyrics kind of fly by and I’ve really had to listen carefully to get the gist of it. If you’ve previously enjoyed “jerky” Incubus songs that contain a lot of manic energy, such as “Have You Ever” or “Out from Under”, then this one’ll probably work well for you. Brandon gets to do some of his loudest and most piercing sing-shouting during the verses here, and his lyrics are rather enigmatic, paying tribute to “Rogues and Evolution” and chastising people like me for not paying attention (whoops, sorry Incubus!) He can go from a mutter to a piercing shout almost effortlessly, which is part of what I love about him, and Mike Einziger does some similar jumping around on his guitar, as evidenced by the kamikaze-styled riffs that he has to keep repeating throughout the song.
11. Paper Shoes
Well, this is a new approach for Incubus. This briskly-paced acoustic number feels at first like one of the band’s deftly performed “unplugged” takes on a song that is normally very electric, but nope, this is the actual studio version of the song. They’ve done acoustic tunes in the past such as “Drive”, “Mexico”, and the exotic “Aqueous Transmission”, but never something that moved the way that this song does – it’s a skilled, quick-fingered latticework that reminds me of “Echo” even though “Echo” was electric. One of the guys (I don’t know if it’s Mike or Brandon, since an electric guitar joins in later for a rather schizophrenic, distorted solo) picks out a descending riff on the acoustic that’s interrupted by a little “tap, tap” from Jose’s drums after every four measures, bringing the overall count from what would have been an even 16 to a very uneven 18. A few of the guys actually put mikes on their own bodies for this one, and they help to provide percussion by beating very quickly on their chests, which gives the track an amusing, fluttering quality. The lyrics turn out to be about a friend’s reliability (or lack thereof), since they’re accused of being about as useless as “paper shoes in bad weather”, and once again, Brandon’s tired of lying about it and he’s worked up the courage to end a toxic relationship. There actually aren’t a lot of lyrics to this one, but it’s because of the quick, dazzling movement of the guitar and other instruments that I don’t get bored with the drawn-out verses that honestly say very little before returning us to the same chorus.
12. Pendulous Threads
An atonal, metallic guitar jam, complete with clattering drums, fills the first minute of this song – it’s a lot of fun but it could probably also induce headaches in fans who preferred the more melodic approach. Here we’ve got about as excellent of a combination of musical quality and atonal weirdness as I could ask for on an Incubus album, with Brandon hurriedly going on about a “careless thread gone askew” as some strange whispers/shouts that I can only barely understand fill the space in between each line. It almost feels like a more electrified version of “Paper Shoes”, minus the weird rhythm, just due to how exciteable the entire band seems to be and how up-tempo the constant percussion is (they might be throwing in some handclaps to make things more lively during the shouting sections; it’s hard to tell). The song stretches out to a leisurely but chaotic five minutes, and the only remotely good guess I can make at a meaning is to say that they seem to be addressing risk once again, and the joy of just letting those loose threads unravel and not being so anal retentive about everything. The song eventually fades out on the very same distorted jam session that it opened with, and it almost feels like it should have been the concluding track on the album, but much like how a weird opening track got tacked on seemingly as an afterthought, they’ve got a similar closing track to bookend things coming up.
13. Earth to Bella (Part 2)
The second half of this open letter to a paranoid friend plays out much like the first, without the slam-bang dissonance of Part 1. In its place are a gentle “Ooh” from Brandon and a descending melody played by keyboards, though the track does eventually build into a drum and guitar jam that become noisier until finally falling off into dead silence. I don’t know how this would have all worked if both parts had been morphed together into a single track, but it also seems like something’s not quite right when they’re presented as two separate tracks, because both pieces feel incomplete. It’s certainly a better ending than “Leech”, which left a bad taste in my mouth at the end of Crow, and I wouldn’t dare ask for another ending as sublime as “Aqueous Transmission”, but it still feels like there’s a sense of incompleteness when this track grinds to a halt, so I’ll stick with my belief that “Pendulous Threads” (which, ironically, seems to be about loose ends not getting tied up) would have made a better final thought.
Dissonance and density collide with memorable melodies and a sense of hope on this album, and a wonderful sense of tension between those things is maintained throughout most of it. That’s the thing which makes Light Grenades such an addictive album for this listener. I feel like there’s more to understand each time I listen to it, and often little nuggets will pop up in the words or the sounds of even my least favorite tracks, as opposed to some of the fouler moments on Crow or Make Yourself that I have little desire to revisit. The band’s done some of their best work here, playing to their strengths while trying a lot of different things, and it’s because this balance is so hard to pull off that I’ve decided to give them high marks for it. It probably got released too late in the year 2006 to have its chance at a lot of critics’ Top 10 lists, so I’ll say go back and give this one a chance if you missed it, and I think you’ll see that it’s a solid, unique modern rock album in an era where such things are becoming harder to find.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
A Kiss to Send Us Off $1.50
Love Hurts $.50
Light Grenades $2
Earth to Bella (Part 1) $1.50
Oil and Water $1
Diamonds and Coal $.50
Paper Shoes $1.50
Pendulous Threads $1.50
Earth to Bella (Part 2) $.50
Brandon Boyd: Lead vocals, percussion
Mike Einzinger: Guitars
DJ Kilmore: Turntables
Ben Kenney: Bass
Jose Pasillas II: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: