Mar. 2012 albums

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

Le voyage dans la lune
-Air (Virgin/EMI)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
-Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Null/Pachinko)
Pop artists have been doing movie soundtracks for years, but they usually leave the pop at home, since the whole point of a soundtrack is to intensify or otherwise add something to the mood depicted on screen. The French electro-pop duo Air has written a soundtrack for a restored, hand-colored version of Georges Melies’s silent masterpiece A Trip to the Moon. (If you don’t know anything about that film, check out Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—reviewed elsewhere in this issue—for a full description) The playful, experimental nature of Melies’s movie affords Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin leeway in terms of form, and the light touch they’ve demonstrated on their dedicated pop albums is an appropriate fit. The opening two cuts, however, seem very literal-minded; less soundtrack music than soundtrack commentary. Victoria Legrand of Beach House sings, “How long will it take you to reach the stars?”, a remark that sounds unnecessary, and then there’s a guy with a very official-sounding voice counting down to liftoff. From there, it’s one spacey track after another, featuring loose keyboard runs and sci-fi sound effects. Dunckel and Godin have too much experience as entertainers to let the opportunity slip, and for the most part it’s a fun, riff-filled ride, until Au Revoir Simone comes in with a second vocal performance meant to close the proceedings. Clearly, Air conceived of the project as more along the lines of a suite—a record album—than a soundtrack. In that regard, Melies’s film becomes the visual complement to the album, playing behind Air on the backdrop as they perform on stage. But if you buy the deluxe version, which includes a DVD of the movie, you get the complete experience, and Milies, pardon the pun, blows Air away. The opening cut on Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s soundtrack album for David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (also reviewed in this issue), has the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O tearing into Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” but it’s used for a very impressive credit sequence, so who blows who away is difficult to tell. After that, the formula is similar to the one the duo provided for Fincher’s The Social Network, a work that won them an Oscar and revolutionized the art of soundtrack production. Though unobtrusive when accompanying Fincher’s visuals, Reznor/Ross’s treated mood music stands by itself very well, though you have to be a real fan of mood music to sit through this whole album, which clocks in at three hours, or more than 30 minutes longer than the movie itself. Apropos the suspense/mystery subject matter of the movie, the music is mostly ominous in tone and Reznor only occasionally exercises the sort of bombast he’s famous for. Some passages are so tense and unsettling you think to yourself, “I’ve just got to see this movie,” and that’s the measure of a successful soundtrack album.

America Give Up
-Howler (Rough Trade/Hostess)
The latest American guitar band to make a big impression on the English rock press, this Minnesota quintet never oversells the freshness angle, probably because they’re too young to know what that would mean. Not so much derivative of the Strokes as emerging from the same attitude that produced them, Howler makes a virtue out of being naive and aggressive, so a tune like “Beach Sluts,” with its ramshackle structure and unpretty vocals, is earnest and adorable. Singer Jordan Gatesmith, all of 19 when he recorded it, is equally irresistible in his determination to be as macho as the situation demands, but only somebody younger than 19 would believe that the situation really does demand it. None of this subtext would matter if the band didn’t know their stuff as retro-stylists, which is what hooked the Brits. They say “Spector” and NME creams in their pants.

Old Ideas
-Leonard Cohen (Sony)
No one with an ounce of self-esteem would ever admit to mistaking 77-year-old Leonard Cohen for 62-year-old Tom Waits, but they sure sound alike on “Amen,” the second cut on Cohen’s first studio album in eight years. The crafty Canadian’s baritone has been deterioriating for four decades, so he’s simply gotten to where Waits is at through calculation, and when he sings “tell me when I’m clean and sober,” you imagine what Waits went through when he finally did just that. What makes it unmistakably Cohen is the slow, plodding tempos, the sweet female backup, and the crystalline sentiments. Since he’s a Buddhist, the death obsession that characterizes the album has a matter-of-fact quality, making it less scary than that last Johnny Cash record, though it also makes it less indelible. Still, I hope I’m this horny when I’m his age, and as willing to sing about it.

Eighty One
-Yppah (Ninja Tune/Beat)
Joe Corrales Jr., also known as the producer-musician Yppah, has always seemed destined to take over the electrobeat seat vacated by Moby after he decided Play was about as far as he was going to go with the whole song-form thing. Yppah also stirs found vocals into warm, potently danceable concoctions, so it’s a mystery why his records aren’t more widely appreciated—even Pitchfork has neglected to cover him. Four tracks on his latest long-player feature a vocalist named Anomie Belle and veer sharply from the dance floor, though Belle’s voice acts in similar fashion to the keyboard flourishes swirling and darting around it, as a component for manipulation rather than the focus of the song. Since you can’t fully make out what she’s saying, they might as well be found sounds, which could have been Corrales’s plan all along. By temperament he’s a mixer, not a composer.

Born to Die
-Lana Del Rey (Interscope/Universal)
The skinny on Lana Del Rey is that she was pushed too far too fast, but separated from the PR din her debut album sounds as smart and sexy as it was supposed to. She has a full, genuinely female voice, and if she doesn’t always know what to do with it producer Emile Haynie does, wrapping her disaffected songs in layers of reverb that bring out her lazy artifice. Even if she were a bad singer the carefully constrained melodies are worth the price of the album, particularly “Radio,” which swoons winningly, and the mysteriously druggy (as in addictive) “Diet Mountain Dew.” Del Rey turns every indie pop cliche into a torch song moment, and while I doubt I’ll be listening to this in a few months I’ll know I can always return to “Million Dollar Man” when I feel like getting drunk purely on music.

Carnivale Electricos
-Galactic (P-Vine)
Though categorized, often detrimentally, as a jam band, this New Orleans funk outfit rarely stretches out gratuitously, and for good reason. Tightness is their stock-in-trade and any extrapolation on the basic potency tends to dilute the gumbo. Since 2007 they have seasoned their conventional NOLA R&B with hip-hop and increased vocal input. All these added elements come to a head on their latest album, which dials down the horns and revs up the percussion while providing plenty of elbow room for guest singers like Big Chief Juan Pardo and a Neville brother or two. More brittle sounding than their usual greasy kid stuff, Carnivale Electricos manages to pump harder in shorter spurts. Most cuts don’t last longer than 4 minutes and you may find yourself short of breath when they end, it’s such a furious assault. The heavy metal of Big Easy big beat.

Attack on Memory
-Cloud Nothings (Carpark/Hostess)
Wandering in that valley between emo and pop punk, Dylan Baldi has a lot to express but doesn’t know exactly how to put it. The opening track on his second album with Cloud Nothings starts slow and tentative and builds to slow and furious, as if what he really wanted to say didn’t occur to him until the two-minute mark. The second cut is even more confusing: a furious hard rock strum-and-shred that gives way to meditative time-keeping, as if Baldi and band weren’t sure how to proceed between the first chorus and the second. Since this goes on for almost nine minutes you wonder who’s at the controls. Why, it’s Steve Albini! So it’s gotta mean something, and you give it more time than you might have given it otherwise. Rewards ensue in terms of emotional payoff. Next time he’ll know exactly what he wants.

Stage Whisper
-Charlotte Gainsbourg (Elektra/Warner)
Essentially a place holder, this collection of unreleased tracks from past recording sessions and live versions of more familiar stuff reinforces Charlotte Gainsbourg’s newly minted reputation as someone who deserves to be taken seriously as a musician rather than the daughter of France’s most famous pop bad boy—not to mention a prize-winning art house movie star. Being the best of the bunch, the four Beck leftovers from IRM are front-loaded, hedging Mr. Hansen’s Eurodisco bets and bringing out Gainsbourg’s breathiest effusions. The rest of the original material is feathery acoustic pop written by people of no distinction and supplemented with electro touches, catchy but inconsequential. The live tracks rock more than you expect them to and despite the title Gainsbourg asserts herself admirably, except on the very timid version of “Just Like a Woman,” which is credited to “Robert Dylan.” Those French, they’re so respectful.

Ten$ion
-Die Antwoord (Zef/Pachinko)
There’s no way Die Antwoord’s second album could live up to the video for its first single, “I Fink U Freeky,” with its disturbing use of children to sell sex on the dance floor. That may explain why Interscope decided not to release it, though Universal, in the end, still gets paid. The South African rave-rap unit has always been less than the sum of its damaged brain cells and for each cut as startlingly alive as “Freeky” there’s something like “Fok Julle Naaiers,” whose sole reason for being is to convince you brief-sporting Ninja and pint-sized Yo-Landi are simply pulling your chain and laughing all the way to the package store. It’s not enough that Die Antwoord can goose a party into what they coyly refer to as “one big inbred fuckfest,” they also have to make you believe they’re as mentally tetched as they look.

Scars & Stories
-The Fray (Epic/Sony)
Comfortably ensconced in the “modern rock” establishment with a sound as grand as a Big Mac on a ten-year-old’s birthday, this Denver foursome attempts to boost its cred by hiring Brendan O’Brien for its third album. Whatever it is they wanted from O’Brien, subtlety is not what they got. Isaac Slade sings as if a ten-ton boulder were sitting on his chest and he’s loving every minute of it. The Fray approach record-making as if it were a marathon, or maybe a drinking contest—the first one to blink loses. When they hold back the beat on “Run For Your Life” you fear for their blood pressure and wonder how in the world people could ever compare them to the easy-going Coldplay. Must be those keyboard arpeggios, which O’Brien punches up whenever a song needs a meatier sense of melancholy. They want you to know those scars were earned.

Street Halo/Kindred
-Burial (Hyperdub/Beat)
The shadowy dubstep producer Burial hasn’t released an album since the wildly acclaimed Untrue in 2007, but it and its sole eponymous predecessor are finally being given a formal release in Japan this month, accompanied by this double-EP containing six tracks, three of them brand new. Though Burial’s methodology isn’t necessarily original, his music is so distinctive that you immediately know it’s him after only a few seconds: the muffled, squelched beats, the pauses, the processed vocals (mostly female and soft), the strategically positioned hiss and crackle. More importantly, the melodic component is sad without being treacly, hopeful without being in the least bit bright. Burial’s anonymity is built into his art, since it comes from a place so deep in the psyche that it feels organic, not made by man but through some confluence of emotions. It’s for late, moonless nights but isn’t dark itself.

Kisses on the Bottom
-Paul McCartney (Hear/Universal)
Macca’s affection for pre-rock pop was evident on the earliest Beatles albums, but this is the first time he’s indulged that particular jones with musicians bred to the task. Produced by Tommy LiPuma and featuring Dianne Krall, John & Bucky Pizzarelli, Christian McBride and other jazz luminaries, it sounds more like cocktail music than the kind of family singalongs where McCartney first heard some of these songs. And while the spirit is willing, the voice is misbegotten. He’s a crooner, not a jazz singer, and if he steers cute on “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” he sounds hopeless on “Accentuate the Positive” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Paul can still rock but he can’t swing, which isn’t to say he can’t write these sorts of songs, as proved by the one original, “My Valentine,” which is touching despite the bland reading.

Put Your Back N 2 It
-Perfume Genius (Matador/Hostess)
It’s easy to imagine that a concert by Perfume Genius would be an excruciating affair. Mike Hadreas’s fraught, fragile songs are presented with such intimate concentration it might be difficult to actually keep your eyes on him. Though basically a more literal-minded Antony Hegarty without Hegarty’s vocal peculiarities, Hadreas is determined to convey his pain and fear as directly as possible, but even without the words you can understand just what a trial it is for him to exist. Only on the gospelish “Take Me Home” does he raise his voice loud enough to manage a falsetto note, so you can imagine what a song titled “Dirge” will sound like. Downer music has its place, but Hadreas never even lifts his head to the light. He fixes his gaze on the darkness, struggling to make out something he’s too afraid to confront.

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