Here are the CD reviews I wrote for the October 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Monday.
-Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks (P-Vine)
Though the most emblematic band of the 90s was Nirvana, “alternative” indie rock proved to be a more substantial influence than the generic hard rock that grunge briefly resuscitated; and in that regard Pavement stands as the decade band with the most to offer. The group’s reunion last year enabled a full and shameless reconsideration of the 90s, and it’s to Stephen Malkmus’s credit that he paid no attention to it. Nevertheless, the tour’s effects can be felt on his latest album, which is closer in spirit to the collapsible pop of Pavement than any solo record he’s released since the first one. The songs are for the most part short, the melodies crisp and unfussy, the lyrics dashed off with humor and aplomb. And except for a couple of startling touches like the pedal steel on two songs, producer Beck manages to keep himself out of the equation. Stripped-down no longer can be mistaken for lo-fi, and what was once called slacker rock can now be more accurately described as an intuitive singer-songwriter connecting directly to his inspiration. Even a song as obviously tweaked as “Tigers,” with its plug-in choruses and shambling rhythm, contains little jolts of incomprehension (where did that come from?) and ends at the most unlikely juncture. Granted, a song with the title “Spazz” can’t help but come across as a willful construct of the old Pavement credo, and that guitar interlude in the middle feels more like something injected than inspired. The trajectory of Malkmus’s post-Pavement output has bent toward the instrumental component, so there’s no reason to think he can’t have it all. The reason Pavement was so successful is that Malkmus was able to keep calculation at bay. He truly gets by with doing what he wants, and the only real qualm I have with Mirror Traffic is that Janet Weiss in no longer a Jick. She’s back drumming with Carrie Brownstein, her old bandmate in Sleater-Kinney, another indie rock band that had a lot to do with making the 90s a more interesting decade than the 80s. Their new group, Wild Flag, which also boasts Mary Timony of Helium, owes even more to the spirit of the decade than the Malkmus album does. “Romance,” the opening cut of their debut album, sounds so much like an engineered throwback that it may turn you off. It doesn’t bode well that it was selected as the first single, but the deeper you get into the album, the more formidable the group’s postpunk flourishes become. Except for Weiss no one is a prodigy, but as a unit Wild Flag understands, like Malkmus, the importance of going with your gut. Brownstein’s Patti Smith and Joey Ramone impersonations sound spontaneous, and thus funnier and more affecting. The songs have a wigged-out quality that recalls the driving creative energy of the 70s, a decade that’s more difficult to emulate than the 90s.
Watch the Throne
-Jay-Z & Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella/Universal)
Less a meeting of giants than a strategic reconnoiter between the boss and his most ambitious employee, this album delivers on its considerable promise. The beats, by definition the best money can buy, are clever and infectious; the raps thorny and provocative; the interplay substantial. And since both artists remain at the tops of their respective games on their own, the subtext is nothing less than thrilling. Is there any long-form musical project that compares outside of jazz? The inclusion of Otis Redding, raw, seems to imply that the pair still needs something of a defining nature to push them higher, and they each honor the don of Memphis in their own way: Jay with bug-eyed reverence, ‘Ye with a direct libidinal reaction. The latter got something to prove? He obviously thinks so, but it’s nice to see that those who occupy the throne can still feel hungry.
-Cobra Starship (Fueled By Ramen/Warner)
Few rock stars his age know what they want better than Gabe Saporta, and even fewer have as intuitive a grasp of the current pop scene. Though his band trades in the druthers of crass youth they keep their upper lips stiff. And by getting producers as different in approach as Arthur Baker and Le Tigre to work on their fourth album they prove their post-modern credentials. Of course, irony is so late 20th century, but Saporta, with his uninflected but Auto Tuned vocals and emo-contradicting lyrics, places the emphasis on cliches that everybody has gotten behind since Brian Wilson gave up surfing for songwriting. If the production seems designed to over-compensate when the ideas flag, such are the prerogatives of working for a major label; and it’s impossible to imagine Nightshades being released on an indie. It sounds like a lot of money was wasted on it.
-The Drums (Moshimoshi/Pachinko)
The second album by The Drums is allegedly inspired by Jonathan Pierce’s touch-and-go relationship with religion over the years. That means it’s going to sound more personal than the first record, which pulled together the best of what the band had already been doing for years. The sparer sound places more emphasis on the beat, even if, ironically, there isn’t much of a drum sound to The Drums. Keyboards play more of a role in terms of rhythm, which are so hyper you have to check to make sure the CD isn’t skipping. “I want to buy you something,” Pierce sings like a man literally with ants in his pants, “but I don’t have any money.” This isn’t so much arch as it is painfully literal, and it’s a measure of Pierce’s passion that he can get so excited about matters that most of us take for granted.
-Joss Stone (Surfdog/Victor)
Rebooting her recording career yet again without actually reinventing herself, the formidable English soul diva enlists Dave Stewart to ensure she makes the proper impression. Attending to a voice as brassy as Stone’s and a youthful demeanor that doesn’t know the meaning of restraint, Stewart has his work cut out for him, and his decision to frame her original R&B compositions in mostly acoustic settings makes LP1 even more of a retro item than her debut, recalling the faux gospel West Coast white rock of the 70s. Stone’s instinctive soulfulness can’t quite cover up the blandness of the ballads and the forced funkiness of the upbeat numbers, and her use of words like “bullshit” in strategic locations undermines her sincerity, which is what sold her in the first place. A burner like “Don’t Stop Lying to Me Now” blows its wad by the first chorus. Relax, girl.
-Neon Indian (Static Tongues/Yoshimoto)
Alan Palomo’s musical methodology seems to be: When in doubt, add more. At their core, his songs are light and playful, but by the time he gets finished with them and the voice he uses to carry the melody lines, they’re dark, murky affairs orbited by satellites of fizzy effects. On the resolutely rocking “Hex Girlfriend,” he processes his vocals through what sounds like a paper shredder, presumably because it sounds that much more pleasant when cooing the chorus in relatively unaffected fashion. This sort of thing apparently strikes some as being psychedelic, though one could make an argument that it’s more psychotic, or at least neurotic. Palomo has a genuine talent for writing and arranging, but his restless fiddling turns Era Extrana into the equivalent of spending 75 minutes trapped in the middle of a cacophonous game arcade with no money.
The Rip Tide
Zach Condon’s aim is to be for mid-20th-century Europhilia what Tom Waits is for mid-20th-Century Americana, an interpreter of texture and an exaggerater of form. Unlike Waits, however, he has more than one national music to plunder, and on his third LP he leaves the Balkan melodies of his wonderful debut behind and the more cosmopolitan Parisian forms of his second by the side of the boulevard in favor of something a bit more Mediterranean, if not downright Southwest American (where he grew up). Sounding less like a chanson singer than Rufus Wainwright on a bender, Condon flattens the songs into one continuous swoon, regardless of the full wind arrangements that churn behind him. Though celebrated for his melodic gifts, there isn’t much distinction in that department from one track to another, but this is his least musty collection and certainly his liveliest and most lovingly performed.
I’m With You
-Red Hot Chili Peppers (Warner)
If it totally doesn’t matter that John Frusciante is no longer playing guitar for the Chili Peppers again, then it probably matters even less what the group’s new album tries to accomplish without him. Some may even prefer new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer’s cleaner style, but in the end that leaves Flea alone to shoulder whatever idiosyncrasies the group once represented. Basically, that means this is Anthony Kiedis’s record, which automatically makes it sort of a parody of a RHCP album, since Kiedis has always been most representative of the band’s cartoon adolescent hedonism. Here he doesn’t so much name his appetite as color it in with suggestive lyrics and sounds, like the silly tribal vowels he grunts on “Ethiopia” or the anemic rap on “Look Around.” For a guy fronting one of the most popular funk outfits in the world he sure sounds white.
This Modern Glitch
-The Wombats (14th Floor/Hostess)
Call me prejudiced, but the Wombats don’t sound like a band from Liverpool, which I associate less with the Beatles than with a working class milieu. With their zooming, stentorian keyboards and double-time drumming, not to mention Matthew Murphy’s American diphtongs, the Wombats reproduce the manic West Coast neediness of a whole raft of progressive pop bands, from Sparks to the Shins. There’s never a moment on This Modern Glitch that doesn’t call closer attention to itself, and with lines like “please allow me to be your antidepressant,” the group is either deluded about its effect on listeners or willfully pulling their legs. Self-parody is more difficult that it seems, and at times the earnestness of the presentation overwhelms whatever wry humor the band comes up with, especially with arrangements that are tighter than a gnat’s ass. They should move to L.A. Oh, it seems they already have.
-Wu Tang Clan (Entertainment One/Victor)
Dedicated whatnots will disabuse you of the intelligence that this is a genuine Wu Tang album, saying that it’s basically Ghostface Killah and RZA with a sprinkling of Raekwon, Method Man, and Cappadonna, and absolutely no GZA. In other words, it’s a mixtape; but it’s a damn potent mixtape, even with the cheesy kung fu movie samples tying it all together. Moreover, an instrumental outfit called the Revelations maintains a steady, decidedly Wu-like loping rhythm throughout, propelling the listener ever deeper into the dark, dense raps, which occasionally offer up gems, literally in the case of “Black Diamonds,” one of Ghost’s most incendiary news-of-the-hour eruptions. If this is a throwaway, then I’ll take the whole trash compacter. And RZA, who produced, hasn’t sounded this engaged since the Ghost Dog soundtrack. Even his raps are smoking. I even read the Japanese lyric booklet, which is thicker than the Yellow Pages.
In the Grace of Your Love
-The Rapture (DFA/Pachinko)
When they first emerged in the mid-00s, Brooklyn’s The Rapture lived up to their name through the transport of their heady dance music. On their third album they grow into that other meaning of the word, the one Christians think they own. Though Luke Jenner and Co. are not, as far as I know, evangelicals, the overriding subject of In the Grace of Your Love is the transportation of the spirit to that place where all the world’s pain is erased. And while the music remains rapturous in the dance club style, it’s not as sexually charged. Jenner, who has never been a great singer, effects a hypnotic languor that oftens droops off into tunelessness. The result is closer to classic disco than post-millennial club music but people who really want to dance might find it tame. Unless, of course, your ambition is to dance in church.
Rave On Buddy Holly
Not all of the songs on this tribute to Buddy Holly were written by the late bespectacled Texan, but Holly’s style, congealed from every hillbilly rock idol of the mid-50s into a true teenage virginal mindset, has become so iconic that even the willed “interpretations” by the oldsters (McCartney as Little Richard, Patti Smith as Patti Page, Lou Reed as Laurie Anderson) make their peace with his spirit. The youngsters, perhaps intimidated by the genius of Holly’s simplicity, play the songs straight. One can hear Cee Lo Green discover Holly’s horny center in “Baby, I Don’t Care.” And if Julian Casablancas fails to actually “Rave On,” Karen Elson truly sounds as if she’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” But it’s Jenny O.’s chipper version of “I’m Gonna Love You Too” that makes the album. She does more with one song to recommend Buddy Holly to female vocalists than Linda Ronstadt’s entire output.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost
-Girls (True Panther/Yoshimoto)
Christopher Owens’ growth as a singer-songwriter over the past two years has been matched by an improvement in his group’s recording technique. Thirty years ago such a dual evolution would describe the trajectory of any band worth its mettle, but these days tastes in sound are so perverted that one never can tell. When Girls transits from the AM pop single shrillness of “Honey Bunny” to the deep FM textures of “Alex” the mix alters accordingly and the heart skips a beat. It’s tempting to think that Owens’ storied sensitivity, expressed in his lilting, yearning vocal style, is responsible for the group’s greater aural sophistication, though it could just be a matter of money. And even if you’ve heard these melodies somewhere before, it’s nice to hear them done in a more conscientious way. Admit it: You’d love Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” if it weren’t about cars.