March 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazines, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

-Ne-Yo (Motown/Universal)
Black Messiah
-D’Angelo and the Vanguard (RCA/Sony)
The title of Ne-Yo’s sixth album is a dodge. In the “Intro” he explains that the subject matter is “fictional” but derived from “experiences” sent to him by “real people.” These are “true stories” he made up, and a lot of them have to do with sex, presented in a vernacular that’s more graphic than anything the dapper R&B star was previously associated with. The overall impression is one of an artist testing the waters, trying to figure out if the carefully groomed image that helped him achieve superstardom needs to be restyled for a more cynical market. But if the tailored suits and gallant attitude seemed special in a world where R. Kelly and T-Pain were just as popular, the real reason people loved Ne-Yo was his songs, which were gems of craft. For all its sexual reticence, The Year of the Gentleman remains one of the most pleasurable records of the last 20 years, and as Non-Fiction proves, he’s still a consummate album-maker. There’s a wholeness to the production that compels the listener to the next cut. The lyrics are another story. Despite the shade of play-acting, Ne-Yo’s classic concerns are in tact: the need to find true love outside the trappings of celebrity, understanding that the party is about companionship. When he threatens physical violence in “Story Time” you wince, not because violence is repulsive, though it is, but because Ne-Yo doesn’t sound as if he understands that. And whereas in the past ballads and uptempo songs fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, here they sound clumsily juxtaposed, as if they’d been written as antidotes to each other. Ne-Yo still has the chops, but being himself is better than trying to act like someone else. It’s been so long since we last heard from D’Angelo that we may have forgotten who he sounds like, and what’s so startling about his first album in 14 years is that it has no precedent. Though it sounds more like Voodoo than anything else, Black Messiah stands alone as a freak of nature. This is groove music reimagined for a generation that didn’t experience the development of funk firsthand. Though all the classic elements of soul music are here, D’Angelo borrows an attenuated song sense from bebop, letting the melodies percolate out of the rhythmic interplay. The song lengths will challenge those whose faith in black music is rooted in the classics of the past, but in reality they speak the same truths, which is important since, as the artist himself has said, the reason it took so long to produce it is that he had something to say about the state of his people. It’s an album about community, about the worth not only of black lives, but the connections between them. Consequently, the music’s sinuous forward momentum conveys continuity with the future. You dance in one place, but you march ever onward. Continue reading

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March 2015 movies

Here are the reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Few American films of recent memory have set off such a flurry of passionate, crossfire opinions as Clint Eastwood’s account of the life of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. As with many of Eastwood’s myth-generating movies, this one presents a hero who is uncomfortable with his myth. As played by Bradley Cooper, Kyle is beefy and withdrawn, a man who knows what he’s good for and doesn’t derive much satisfaction from compliments. The problem many people have with the movie is the problem they have with the man, who in real life was said to be much more calculating, a dissembler who puffed up his own worth by deflating others’. We see none of that here, and it’s an important distinction since Kyle’s theater of operations is Iraq, where he spent four tours. Eastwood has us believe that Kyle could not function fully unless he was in the thick of battle, his senses fully engaged. Back in Texas, with his beautiful, very understanding wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), he’s an electrical cord waiting to be plugged in. Eastwood chooses which aspects of Kyle’s personality suits his purposes, and the street battle scenes in Iraq are not only some of the best work he’s ever done, they’re some of the best battle scenes ever shot in Hollywood: tense, observant, emotionally connected. But the capability of the direction is a function of the capability of the soldiers, as well as their dedication. The reasons these men are in Iraq killing civilians, who might otherwise kill them, are never interrogated, and if you thrill at the professionalism you have to buy into the myth that Americans were helping, when everything we’ve learned since 2003 proves that was not the case. It’s a lot to put on a film, especially one that is as dramatically rigorous as this one is. Eastwood doesn’t revel in the violence, though he does honor the skills that made Kyle a “legend,” as his colleagues call him. These decisions not only elevate Kyle to broken hero status, but diminish all those who pass through his gun-site. These Iraqis have no purchase on our sympathies, even as they’re being shot up with bullets, anybody’s bullets. It matters nothing to Eastwood that Kyle was a racist (he said as much in his memoir) and thus had no compunction about killing the other, even when they’re women and children. In the movie’s most famous scene, Kyle coolly shoots a mother and her young son who seem to be carrying a bomb. That Eastwood charges it with as much latent tension as he does attests to his filmmaking instincts; that it comes as a relief Kyle is “right” as far as the kill call goes attests to the viewer’s complicity in the lie of the hero. (photo: Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd., Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Feb. 22, 2015

Yoichi Watanabe

Yoichi Watanabe

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the state of Japanese journalism in light of the death of Kenji Goto. One aspect of the story that hasn’t been thoroughly discussed is the nature of freelance reporting in high risk areas. When the Foreign Ministry confiscated Yuichi Sugimoto’s passport to prevent him from going to Syria and doing his job, it received more critical coverage overseas than in Japan, which could be interpreted as evidence of the very problem we are talking about, that Japanese news organizations don’t take themselves seriously enough in the first place. As it stands, with the exception of Asahi Shimbun, major Japanese news outlets depend a great deal on freelancers and stringers since they usually don’t have correspondents in foreign countries, much less in war zones. If the journalist happens to live in the country from where he or she is reporting, it’s less of a problem, but most war correspondents don’t, so they have to handle their travel and other expenses themselves. According to a discussion I saw recently on DemocraTV, the normal procedure is for a news organization to give a war correspondent a fixed amount of money and the reporter has to make do with it. The amount will be determined by how long the reporter plans to be in country and how many reports the organization expects, but since he isn’t an employee of the company they don’t have to pay expenses or, more to the point, benefits. Even NHK, which has a relatively large news budget, doesn’t keep that many correspondents overseas, and if they have anybody covering conflict zones, they usually do so remotely. Of course, American and European news outlets also use freelancers and stringers, but they do send their own people into the thick of battle, as evidenced by the Brian Williams faux pas. The point is that while Sugimoto despaired of losing his livelihood when the government took away his passport, it’s a precarious livelihood at best. No one becomes a war correspondent to become rich. Goto’s reputation was that of a man who deeply cared about the people he covered, but there’s also a romantic, hard-boiled image that appeals to certain types of people and which draws them to this kind of work.

So it was a little disconcerting when Yoichi Watanabe, at one time the most famous war photojournalist in Japan, mentioned that he agreed that reporters should stay away from conflict zones in the Middle East right now. It should be noted that Watanabe’s fame has more to do with his “image” as a war reporter than with the actual reporting. Several years ago he was one of the most in-demand talento on network variety shows, mainly for his eccentric speech patterns, but he did talk about his experiences in places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, and Darfur. Despite Watanabe’s higher profile, it didn’t spark greater interest in what war correspondents are doing overseas. Once his moment in the variety show sun passed, he presumably went back to his old routine, which is going to conflict zones and filing reports that few people see or remember. Though it’s perfectly understanable that these reporters will avoid certain areas for fear they will end up as Goto did, making public pronouncements about their fellow freelancers would seem to go against their own interests, but in the end the public doesn’t care very much, and probably won’t until Japan has more of a presence in the area. One thing’s for sure, if Japan does start sending troops overseas for whatever reason, these reporters will have more work than they’ll know what to do with.

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February 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on January 25.

SleaterKinney_NoCities_Jé  largeWu_Al_cover_NoPA_093624932260[1]No Cities to Love
-Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop/Traffic)
A Better Tomorrow
-Wu-Tang Clan (Warner)
It can’t be said enough that Sleater-Kinney epitomized what was great about indie rock in the 90s better than any other band, namely a belief in the cathartic power of punk but minus the reactionary limitations that punk had been saddled with for 20 years. The trio transcended their chosen style early on without abandoning its fierce immediacy and was still growing creatively when they called it quits in the middle of the last decade. If you hear someone say that their new album sounds as if they never stopped, that’s what they mean, because despite the individual touchstones, which remain the same—Corin Tucker’s knife-like vocals, Carrie Brownstein’s visceral rhythm guitar, Janet Weiss’s improbably melodic drumming—this isn’t like any of their previous records. Though they return to the short song forms of their early days, the writing and arrangements eschew structure for the sake of expressive power, and the overall sound is harsher than it’s ever been. If they deem to do without a standard vocal melody on the title cut, the cross-cutting guitars supply their own tunefulness in juxtaposition, and when Brownstein, who really learned how to sing in the short-lived indie project Wild Flag, joins Tucker as an equal on the chorus of “No Anthems,” you wonder why they never tried harmonies before. Even “Price Tag,” which strikes me as the album’s weakest cut and thus a poor choice to start things off, presents its musical themes in such an unusual way that you know you’re not going to appreciate it until you’ve heard it several more times. The exuberance of the production belies the song titles’ generally negative attitude, or maybe it simply means that the band is heartened by the destruction of things that don’t need to exist any more. Obviously, they once thought that about themselves, and it’s nice to know they only got back together because they had something new to say. Being from Staten Island, where several high-profile racially-charged incidents have occurred in the past year, the ten members of the reunited Wu Tang Clan—including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who is sampled throughout—have plenty of fresh topics to rap about, though some do more of it than others. What was always most thrilling about the group’s approach was the stylistic contrasts and overlaps, especially between Method Man’s heartfelt delivery and Masta Killa’s staccato flow. I wouldn’t mind more Ghostface since in the years since Wu dissolved he’s proven to be the most interesting member, at least lyrically, but the point here is that RZA, after indulging his obsession with Asian pop culture to no compelling end, oversees the proceedings with a reinvigorated musical outlook that keeps things clanging and funky when they aren’t snaking their way into your lower extremities. Dig the marching band motif on the obligatory tag team exercise “We Will Fight.” Nobody does that kind of shit better. Continue reading

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February 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on January 25.

Director John Carney tries to recreate the magic that made Once such an unexpected hit. If it eludes him, it’s mainly because the power of Once was inherent in its unassuming premise. The music was just gravy, though Carney was fortunate that the songs were perfectly calibrated to that premise. Begin Again is more ambitious, a bit flashier, and this sort of broader ambition works against its naturalistic tendencies. It seems phony from the get-go. Again, Carney, who knows the record biz through his work with the Irish rock band The Frames, focuses on a struggling singer-songwriter, Greta (Keira Knightley), a Brit who finds herself stranded in New York City after her boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), a singer himself, hits it big and effectively leaves her. Right away, the script betrays the audience by making Dave’s skyrocketing success the plum plot point, since it’s difficult to believe, a mere convenience. Circumstances further conspire to get Greta into a bar to watch another expat singer (James Corden, currently a hotter property than anyone else in the movie) perform, and he inveigles her into singing one of her own songs, which Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down-at-his-heels record producer who needs a drink and drops into this particular bar for one, observes by dint of coincidence. He is impressed, and in one of the film’s few instances of originality, Carney reveals the way Dan’s mind works as he listens to the song and imagines at the same time how he would arrange and record it. It’s a fleeting moment, and once the movie snaps out of it, it’s back to the turgid exposition: Dan immediately offers Greta his services, which at that moment don’t amount to much. Though Carney gets a certain measure of push-and-pull from this relationship—Greta is a non-commercial realist, Dan an alcoholic bullshit artist—the movie only occasionally feels as if it is set in a world we think could exist. Brainstorming, the pair decide to record Greta’s songs au natural, outdoors with a mike, a laptop, and a mixer in various locations and with accompanying live musicians and, more importantly, ambience. Since Once was all about ambience, this purposeful inclusion of realness is just a gimmick, and though the movie does a pretty good job of treating music-making as an organic process, it has to somehow bring these two characters’ lives to bear on that music, and the romantic and familial subplots don’t register strongly. More signficantly, while the songs by Gregg Alexander are impressively modest, Knightley can’t put across the kind of interior discipline a musician of this sort requires. Conversely, Ruffalo is a little too slimey and arrogant, the ultimate bizzer heel with a hardened heart of gold. (photo: Killifish Productions Inc.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Jan. 18, 2015

photo01Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the media reaction to NHK’s New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen.” Part of the article discusses the Southern All Stars’ surprise appearance and the controversy that followed. I didn’t go into detail about leader Keisuke Kuwata’s apology, but it does bear further scrutiny if only because Kuwata is one of the few mainstream pop stars who has displayed anything like an independent personality over the years. Though his music has become redundant since the band’s strong run of albums in the early 80s, Kuwata tried to retain some of the iconoclasm normally associated with the American rock and R&B he grew up with. Unfortunately, much of that image had to do with lyrics that fixated on what the Japanese refer to as “the bottom half,” and thus just sounded off-putting the older he got, but since his presumed remission from esophogeal cancer he’s come out a little more forthrightly against the powers that be. The apology he released last week was less about the antics described in my column and more about his cavalier treatment of the medal he received from the emperor, an honor that he seemed to be making fun of when he displayed it on stage at one of the group’s recent concerts and jokingly tried to auction it off. I hadn’t known about that before the apology and probably would have been impressed if I had: It sounds like a good joke in that it conveyed the singer’s discomfort at being cited by the authorities as some sort of role model. As trite as it may sound, I still think artists who nominally identify themselves as rock and rollers should be automatically suspicious of positive recognition from the so-called establishment. Strictly speaking, it would have been better had Kuwata politely refused the medal, but I suppose that’s beyond the pale for a Japanese public figure of his standing, so joking about it is the next best thing.

Consequently, apologizing for the joke sounds like a betrayal of the values I thought Kuwata was trying to convey, and since he didn’t specifically retract his criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which he expressed at another concert, I suspect those values still hold. By all appearances he was pressured into writing the apology, likely by his management company, which had been picketed by right wing groups incensed by Kuwata’s actions; and that’s another thing that should be mentioned, because as far as I can tell none of the mainstream media has. Though all the newspapers and TV shows reported Kuwata’s mea culpa in detail, they didn’t say anything about those demonstrations. So while Kuwata’s about-face is disappointing, it fits a narrative about the power of intimidation whose familiarity is even more disappointing.

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Best albums 2014

tumblr_naxgvk3uY31rbwx2xo1_500I think it was a great year for music in general, but since my living circumstances changed radically last February I haven’t been able to listen to new stuff in as dedicated a way as I used to. Much of my more intense listening, in fact, was done on the train while going into Tokyo, which takes about an hour. Since I don’t go in during rush hour and my line isn’t a particularly busy corridor, it’s a relaxing ride and allows me to get into the music without having to worry about whether or not I’m bothering the person next to me. But it is limiting, since I tend to jump from one new release to another without absorbing them as albums, meaning integrated collections that should be heard from start to finish and in order. I know that isn’t the way most people listen to albums any more, but I still believe that most artists who make albums think of them that way when they record and mix them. Consequently, for the past month I’ve been trying to take time to do that for the records I felt partial to, and for the most part my initial feelings were borne out through concentrated attention, except for the first album on my list, which I liked immediately but, since it’s a punk record, I didn’t return to very often, because, well, punk is as generic as a pop genre gets. So it was only when I sat down and listened to Here and Nowhere Else from start to finish, uninterrupted, several times that it made the impression I assume it was supposed to make.

As for the album I listened to the most this year, it’s not on this list, and not because it’s a re-release. As a whole, I don’t think it’s quite as great as a lot of people made it out to be, but it’s still impressive. The Complete Basement Tapes was never something I thought I needed since the original legitimate release was plenty good enough, and I’d always thought that all the other stuff Dylan and the Band did that didn’t get officially released on that album was probably would not be interesting in the long run. What I didn’t really expect was how much of it there was, and how varied it would be. Since it took me close to a month to get through all six discs I only fixed on a handful of previously unfamiliar tracks, which I’ve returned to on occasion, but the rest of it is mostly disposable. Still, I’m glad I have it all, since it came from a time when I was just starting to understand what this kind of music could deliver, and hearing it fresh again after all these years has made me re-evaluate what it was that intrigued me in the first place, namely, the immediacy that Dylan and the Band, separately and together, conveyed in their music; the sense that this is what mattered at that particular moment they were making it. It’s also what I miss about listening to music, the capability of being lost in a song, oblivious to everything else. It’s hard to do at home any more. If only the train ride were longer. Continue reading

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