January 2011 CDs

Here are the CD reviews I wrote for the January 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which comes out today. All the albums were released by local labels in Japan during the month of December 2010.

The Sun Comes Out
-Shakira (Sony)
The Lady Killer
-Cee-Lo Green (Warner)
After three predominantly English-language albums in a row, Colombia’s biggest star releases a predominantly Spanish-language record, though the title (Sale el sol in Spanish) is still rendered in English in some markets, including Japan for some reason. Shakira’s double life as a global sensation, which involves multiple versions of the same album often with completely different songs, has always been put down to commercial imperatives, but except for the title confusion and the gratuitous, entirely utilitarian World Cup ditty, The Sun Comes Out is a fully integrated work, even with the bonus tracks thrown in, thus indicating that she thinks it’s good enough as it is for everyone. What Anglophones miss in terms of her storied “poetic sense” is made up for with a tougher approach. Shakira is basically a rock singer, but while classic elements have always figured on her LPs, this is the first one where they outstrip the Latin and reggaeton touches. She gives as good as she gets with her guests, which include Dizzee Rascal, Pitbull, and Calle 13, but the real singing pyrotechnics flash when she’s challenged by walls of hard rock guitars and pounding pianos. It’s hard to suppress a giggle when the U2 bombast of “Devocion” opens up into an operatic vocal line, but once the song reaches its churning vortex of a climax your hair will be on end. The breathy, kittenish intro to “Tu Boca” is deceptive; by the bridge, with a metal onslaught propping her up, she’s taking your head off. She can do quiet, too, and if Stevie Nicks is still looking for inspiration, she could do worse than check out “Island” and the title cut. In fact, if rock were still the default mode for Top 40 radio, Sun would launch a dozen singles, the same way Rumours did. It’s hardcore ear candy. These days, R&B is the default mode for Top 40, which is the best explanation for the pure soul tack that former Goodie Mob rapper takes on his third solo joint. The Lady Killer has already given up one hit single and made history in the process, but despite a knock-em-dead falsetto break, “Fuck You” (rendered on the Japanese edition in both its original and cleaned up versions, the latter titled “Forget You”) doesn’t outlast its initial novelty appeal, and serves to remind the listener that Cee-Lo never rests until he’s convinced you how clever he is. The opening and closing “Lady Killer Theme” establishes a tongue-in-cheek mood that puts these familiar R&B moves in an almost satirical setting, and most of his originality is spent on track 2, “Bright Lights Bigger City,” which pumps like a piston. With a tune this good and an arrangement this sophisticated, Cee-Lo hardly needs all the pushy sexual innuendo to keep a listener’s attention, but that’s mostly what you get on the rest of the album: warmed over boogie and soul ballads with a hint of snark.

King of the Beach
-Wavves (Fat Possum/Hostess)
Nathan Williams obviously believes in many things, but the title of his third album must be a joke; specifically a joke on the new surf culture that’s somehow crossed over from Jack Johnsonland to doctrinnaire indieville. Since Williams’ particular obsessions–bi-coastal 60s Top 40, 90s pop punk–dovetails conveniently with beach life, he gets more mileage out of the image than he has a right to. Channeling Billy Joe Armstrong and Brian Wilson simultaneously is no mean feat, especially when you’re as self-lacerating as Williams tends to be. “I’d say I’m sorry,” he confesses, “but it wouldn’t mean shit”; and then he repeats the line over and over. By rights this sort of woeful irony should be insufferable, but King of the Beach is pretty groovy. Regardless of his personality problems, Williams understands what people want from surf music, and he’s talented enough to give it to them.

The Long Surrender
-Over the Rhine (Buffalo)
For their 13th album this veteran Midwestern art pop duo receives assistance from Joe Henry, the singer-songwriter who has made more of a name for himself producing blasts from the past than he has for his own music. Henry’s down-tempo, darkly textured aural preferences suit Over the Rhine’s rootsy chamber songwriting. He makes the duet between Karen Bergquist and guest Lucinda Williams on “Undamned” work despite the two singers’ totally different stylistic approaches, and when Bergquist’s Brechtian song-poetry threatens to run away from partner Linford Detweiler’s Weillian melodies he (or someone) manages to rein the lyrics in with some orphan instrumentation. Henry can’t do much to punch up OTR’s obsession with spareness. The group’s cult, not to mention fans of heartfelt heartland folk-rock in general, won’t find a problem with that, but sometimes you wish they’d kick a stool over or something.

Sound Fiction
-FilFla (Headz)
FilFla is the braindchild of graphic designer Keiichii Sugimoto, who “created” all the tracks on his second album. As precious and innocent as the cover art implies, the songs, characterized by trebly guitars and lots of toy-like keyboards, are also rhythmically tough, switching time signatures fluidly without sacrificing momentum. As with Deerhoof, the quirk factor can get intense, and whereas the first album could be described as aural wallpaper for people who can multitask, the followup contains real songs with noticeable dynamic shifts. The tracks on the first album were easy to ignore, these much less so, which is a welcome change since Sugimoto displays considerable pop smarts. Texture and tone are still dominated by acoustic instruments, but the mostly whispered vocals by someone named Moskitoo are less annoying this time around, probably because she has to compete with more interesting stuff and loses.

Sigh No More
-Mumford & Sons (Gentlemen of the Road/Hostess)
It’s easy to see why Mark E. Smith hates this band. With their banjos and sea chantey choruses they stand for all that love-with-the-past crap the famously grumpy Fall frontman finds detestable. More than a year after it went gold in the UK the debut finally arrives in Japan with a live disc appended as an incentive for those who may have thought about buying the import but haven’t yet. Journalistic reponsibility requires me to suggest that this is the sort of band that makes more sense in concert. Their multi-part choruses need the presence a large hall provides (a club? not so sure), the bigger production numbers with horns sound thin on the studio recording, and the sappy lyrics are less sappy on stage. “Love will not betray you, dismay you, or enslave you” could only have been written by someone who has never been in love.

Metallic Spheres
-The Orb featuring David Gilmour (Sony)
Fans of Dr. Alex Patterson won’t be fazed by the tracking on the Orb’s latest release: two cuts, one 28 minutes, the other 20, though there are distinct “sections” within each track. As Patterson has been “accused” in the past of appropriating Pink Floyd for his ambient techno, it’s only natural that David Gilmour would latch on, and while his guitar work is recognizable, the music is so shapeless as to render his contribution incidental. Heads who remember the 70s will pick up on the Meddle connection, but what was thrilling and new when you were young and stoned may seem indulgent in middle age. Metallic Spheres is bouncier, with a deeper bottom, and it eventually rolls over into a version of Graham Nash’s “Chicago” played by Gilmour. Twice, in fact: once as an acoustic guitar break and once with Gilmour’s vocals sampled. Is that enough 70s for you?

(a)fternoon
-mae (Cell/EMI)
The second release in a planned trilogy of EPs whose overarching theme only fans dedicated to this Virginia band’s emo-prog aesthetic will be able to explain clocks in at more than 40 minutes, so it’s an album to me, especially since the eight cuts are carefully linked with musical bridges and found sounds. If Dave Elkins as a vocalist scans a bit too close to the emo ideal of articulate wankerness for comfort, the instrumental attack borrows enough from other, more idiosyncratic schools of rock to solve the problem. The generally hope-filled sentiments, reinforced by major-chord guitar riffs, also places mae outside the general vicinity of emo. If (a)fternoon isn’t as original as it should be, it may have something to do with the structures. Despite the tight playing, the songs tend toward a flabby dissoluteness. Nobody seems to know how to end them.

The Beginning
-The Black Eyed Peas (Interscope/Universal)
Having owned Summer 2009, BEP can certainly afford to take a few years off before dropping another multi-platinum cultural touchstone, so the rush job titled The Beginning is either a function of will.i.am’s workaholic personality, a bid to stretch out the inspiration that produced The E.N.D., or a bald cash-in prior to the group’s Super Bowl appearance next month. It would be hard to top the previous album’s accomplishments, both commercial and aesthetic, and The Beginning doesn’t. More reliant on cheap-sounding synths and Auto Tune, the party this time would probably be more fun if you showed up to it drunk, and Fergie is only used on half the cuts. Though will.i.am hasn’t lost his gift for hooks he doesn’t always know what to do with them. The Beginning plays more like a long mix album of other people’s better club jams thrown together willy-nilly.

Make the Light
-Kate Rusby (Pure/MSI)
Kate Rusby has slowly built a reputation in her native England as the most able practitioner of ye olde British trad among her generation’s singers, though she’s mainly done it with the canon or other people’s songs. This is her first album of all self-penned compositions, and some apparently have been sitting around for a while, which explains their lived-in feel. Rusby sings with her natural voice and doesn’t try for the kind of lung power that’s often associated with BritTrad: She’s more Linda Thompson than Sandy Denny. Consequently, she should be able to add a more personal dimension to her own tunes, but despite some nice lyrical turns the melodies are overly pretty and folk-generic. Without the involvement of a stellar clutch of studio instrumentalists, they’d probably be indistinguishable from one another. Given that she’s covered Ray Davies and other pop masters in the past, she should understand the value of variety.

Okapi Horn
-4 Bonjour’s Parties (and Records)
Boasting seven multi-instrumentalists, this Tokyo-based ensemble has been captivating audiences for a few years now with a subdued orchestral take on indie pop that often veers into the weird and improvisational. Their second album plays it safe by mostly sticking to whole songs, which can run from a mere minute to six-and-a-half. The cuts take full advantage of the fact that the members can cover any conceivable sound, so some have a tendency to wander all over the place in terms of time signatures and chord progressions, and not all the transitions are successful. But what the group lacks in compositional concision it makes up for with performing exuberance. As with their live shows, most of the individual tracks on the album end with a kind of choral eruption, everyone coming together as one body in ecstatic musical expression, only in a polite, controlled way.

Broken Dreams Club
-Girls (Fantasy Trashcan/Yoshimoto)
Presented as a letter of thanks to the group’s fans, this EP by San Francisco’s Girls also shows off exactly how much the duo has learned in the past year. Gone is the haunting, fuzzy sound of the debut. The acoustics are crisp and deep, and if Christopher Owens’ songs still sound like variations on a theme by Goffin-King, he’s learned something about juxtaposition; he doesn’t just built energy by strumming louder and faster. The mournful title cut, with its pedal steel backdrop, will sound great on some Nashville upstart’s debut album someday. Owens hasn’t outgrown his demons, though, which means a song like “Heartbreaker,” despite its newfound friskiness, lives up to the title. But the surest sign of progress is not the horns that pop up on several cuts but rather “Alright,” a rock song with real energy that springs into your living room and dances on the carpet.

The Promise
-Bruce Springsteen (Sony)
Part of the expanded edition of Darkness on the Edge of Town that reveals the story behind that landmark album, The Promise contains the songs that Springsteen recorded after Born to Run but scrapped because he didn’t feel they displayed artistic growth. I may be one of the few people in the world who was disappointed by Darkness when it was first released. It lacked the previous two albums’ purity of purpose and precision of vision, and felt like second-hand emotion in search of importance, bloated and over-determined. The rejected songs on this bonus disc, sold separately, are more like it. Sure, they’re derivative and juvenile, but they’re also organic and closer to the bone. They still would have been a disappointment after Born to Run but I probably would have played them more, and in time I’m sure they would have revealed something vital that Darkness didn’t.

Crazy for You
-Best Coast (Hostess)
Designed for maximum likability, Bethany Consentino’s music presents simplicity and brevity as cardinal pop virtues, but short and sweet doesn’t necessarily cut it without a ringer or two, and Consentino has at least three: an effortlessly pure vocal instrument reminiscent of Neko Case’s, a talent for generating indelible hooks, and lyrics that sum up her feelings in the most vivid and concise way. She is, in a word, the perfect indie guitar band for a moment when surf rock is the preferred flavor, even if she’s essentially a duo (the other half is a guy named Bobb Bruno). Eventually, of course, she will outgrow the affected mono-reverb production values, like her pal Nathan Williams (see above), and stand in the California sun with all her blemishes exposed. We’ll probably like her even more. Pristine is cool for one-night stands, but longer relationships require honesty.

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