May 2012 albums

Here are the albums reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Wednesday.

MDNA
-Madonna (Interscope/Universal)
Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
-Nicki Minaj (Cash Money/Universal)
While it’s difficult to get worked up over yet another Madonna album purporting to be yet another reboot of image priorities, the stylistic uniformity that characterizes current chart-toppers provides the perfect environment in which to objectively appreciate any old geezer who endeavors to make a contribution. Madonna certainly qualifies, and she sounds her age, not because her voice has coarsened (it hasn’t) or her melodies have gone limp (they haven’t), but rather because her attempts at sounding edgy no longer provoke. If anything, the rough sentiments on the first two cuts, “Girls Gone Wild” and “Gang Bang,” come across as acting exercises rather than emotional abandon. But even if lines like “Drive bitch! And while you’re at it, die bitch!” are beyond silly, the minimalist disco track that frames them matches the over-heated performance in a way that compensates in full. Since signing her 360 deal with Live Nation, Madonna’s recorded output is now tied directly to her carefully calibrated concerts, and MDNA is as arena-ready as any nominally pop album has a right to be. Granted, there are no classic singles here. Even “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” the song that best mimics the stylistic uniformity mentioned above, doesn’t have the requisite hook, but it’s big and bold and contains multitudes, all of which make it the perfect live centerpiece. The aptly if somewhat anachronistically titled “Turn on the Radio” has a more potent beat and a snugger vocal line, which, in the great tradition of top 40 dance hits, obviates the need for a name singer. If Madonna seems to have shown up for this collection, it doesn’t diminish its infectious pop appeal, but, of course, you know that was her scheme all along. Speaking of schemes, Nicki Minaj, whose cameo on MDNA is worthy of its own Twitter hashtag, is believed to have the best of any pop artist of the moment: hard sexual content in service to a “really sweet girly-girl” aesthetic that allows for butt implants and a sartorial sense even an Akiba otaku would find shocking. Oh, and she’s a good rapper, too, as proven by her second bona fide album, which comes at the listener from two places: the slick dance music formulated on last year’s pretty great Pink Friday, and the loosey-goosey hip-hop of her mind-bending mixtapes. Having preferred the former for its more rigorous presentation, I never found her singing voice a disappointment, though on Roman Reloaded it isn’t given material that shows it off. So I can see what her rap boosters see: that in her peculiar element, she’s as crazy as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and often just as funny, which is why the guests fall by the wayside like so many tin soldiers. “One thing that’s pop is my endorsement,” she yells on the title cut, a profession of her commercial ambitions. Like Madonna she intends to remain a star, and doesn’t mind telling you she’ll do anything.

Port of Morrow
-The Shins (Aural Apothecary/Sony)
Forget Death Cab For Cutie. James Mercer is the model of the Northwest indie-maven(though originally from the Southwest)-turned-major-label-heavyhitter, which continues to dominate mainstream rock. The fact that his band, The Shins, has never sold as many albums as DCFC means nothing; or, at least, it doesn’t with the release of Port of Morrow, basically a Mercer solo joint, which distills the melodic/harmonic qualities that made past Shins singles so addictive and fortifies them over the course of a full album. Gone are the dark overtones of the last Shins record, and while the faithful may fret that the lack of thematic substance is a step back, it hasn’t been followed by a lack of musical substance. Whether it’s the classic Midwestern power pop of “Fall of ’82″ or the soft West Coast rock of “September,” the material is sturdy enough to stand up to its imposing influences.

Rocket Juice and the Moon
(Honest Jon’s/P-Vine)
Though Damon Albarn is the creative nexus of this one-off African-styled funk project, the attraction is the rhythm section of drummer Tony Allen, who used to work for Fela Kuti, and Chili Peppers bassist Flea, not necessarily because they do anything extraordinary, but because no one else does. Albarn, as has been his habit on all the other side gigs he’s tackled since disbanding Blur, does very little in terms of performance. His main task is as facilitator, and so each cut, while utilizing a jazzy, danceable template provided by Allen and Flea, features different combinations of Erykah Badu, Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, Ghanian rapper M.anifest, and others. The cut where Albarn himself sings is, understandably, the most distinctive, a languorous, syncopated ballad that sounds like something he wrote for Blur but never recorded. That says as much about the direction of the album as anything.

First Serve
-De La Soul’s Plug1 & Plug2 (PIAS/Hostess)
The name is simply another way of saying that Posdnuos and Dave are making an album without Mase, using instead the French production team of Chocolate and Khalid for a hip-hop concept album along the lines of Prince of Thieves. The two MCs play two MCs who form a hit group called First Serve before parting ways over artistic differences informed by their conflicting personalities, despite their lifelong friendship. The mood is relaxed and funny, and since the rappers don’t have to worry about the beats the verbal content is rich, though not as intriguing as early De La Soul records. The music is thoroughly in a party vein, and the production ideas are allowed to play out fully. In terms of sheer enjoyment, there hasn’t been a better hip-hop album in the past six months. Let’s hope Dave and Pos retain the spirit when they reunite with Mase.

Noctourniquet
-The Mars Volta (Warner)
Though Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have reassembled At the Drive-In for a tour, they’ve stated that there will be no new material or recordings, and right away put out a new Mars Volta album, their densest, most esoteric release to date. It’s saying a lot since At the Drive-In was difficult, too, but it was difficulty born of a conventional punk instinct. The Mars Volta, despite vocal effusions and instrumental extremities, has always been a more calculated affair. The jerky time signatures and non-linear structures never prevent the pair from freaking out in their own way, and if the melody lines have become more sustained, prog-rock purists will be happy to learn they’re not sustained at the expense of complexity. The five-minute “Aegis” is like ELP fired and glazed in a kiln of red-hot guitars, both acoustic and electric. It ain’t punk, but it ain’t for the faint-hearted, either.

LOL
-Emi Meyer (Plankton)
Including two tracks picked up as BGM for current local TV commercials, this EP is one of those stopgap products thrown together for a pending Japan tour, which for Kyoto-to-Seattle transplant Emi Meyer is this June. Though given to the occasional melismatic outburst in the Sarah McLachlan style, Meyer’s alto delivers her earnest acoustic melodies and sunny sentiments without much in the way of editorial comment. Despite the lack of anything that might be mistaken for spontaneity, Meyer’s music in Japan often ends up on the jazz charts because of her background, but LOL sounds more like Jack Johnson. Though she originally cultivated her local audience with Japanese songs, this is Meyer’s second collection all in English, which may or may not say something about its prerogatives. For sure, these days it’s easier to get CM gigs when you don’t sing in Japanese.

Galaxy Garden
-Lone (R&S/Beat)
Hip-hop’s use of space, as in “outer,” is an unremarked topic, owing to the tendency for hardcore fans to privilege the real and down-to-earth. Manchester’s Matt Cutler used to be one of the few producers who made a point of gearing his hip-hop toward a more sci-fi vibe, but on his new, mostly instrumental album as Lone he seems to have shed his former affectations. Constructed on crackling, layered rhythm tracks, the melodic component is fluid and shape-shifting. Though also pretty and hypnotic—and, at times, quite frantic—his tracks almost resist scrutiny. The carapace of zooming effects and throbbing bass tones doesn’t allow for easy entry, which means the music stays firmly in the background. Cutler can sustain a groove, as on the shimmering “Lying in the Reeds,” but nevertheless feels the need to occasionally interrupt the flow for a message from the farther reaches of the galaxy.

De Vermis Mysteriis
-High On Fire (E1/Victor)
Is High On Fire’s reputation as the planet’s most engaging stoner metal band because of their mystical vision or in spite of it? Space prevents me from elucidating the theme of their latest, whose title means “the mysteries of the worm,” but it’s an alternative Christ story. Having no access to a lyric sheet, I had to learn that on the web because no way are you’re going to get anything out of Matt Pike’s carcinogenic rasp. There isn’t a metal outfit going whose vocal-guitar symbiosis is as perfectly measured as HOF’s, and for the first time in three albums the energy level is kept at peak. The pitch is so intense you may need a shower after the seven-minute second cut, “King of Days,” the only cut I’ve heard in the past decade that actually redefines the term “psychedelia.” Who thought metaphysics could be this bitchin’?

Young & Old
-Tennis (Yoshimoto)
Something interesting, if not totally unexpected, happened to this Colorado dream-pop band on its way to a sophomore recording. It turned into a rock group. Thankfully, the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney was available to help them realize the stylistic transition without stubbing their toes. Part of the improvement has to do with vocalist/frontperson Alaina Moore’s more confident keyboard playing. Even on a song as plaintive as “My Better Self,” the pumping piano chords keep the arrangement’s head above water. Since Moore’s voice doesn’t possess enough character or edge to make it instantly recognizable—if anything, she sounds like a generic British indie-pop singer—the main impetus driving the listener through the album is the beat, which Carney, a drummer, keeps high in the mix, something you rarely hear with this sort of pleasant indie music. Some songs go on a verse too long, but rock tends to do that.

Crown and Treaty
-Sweet Billy Pilgrim (P-Vine)
The self-deprecating, almost preemptive title of this London band’s debut was We Just Did What Happened and No One Came. Certainly, the trio’s intricately arranged, densely produced folk-rock is an acquired taste. Though able instrumentalists, the three members are just as adept with their laptops, and the staying power of their music derives from its constant potential for aural surprise. Tim Eisenburg’s singing is more mournful than soulful—a Thom Yorke who would never resort to falsetto—but that suits the emotional tenor of his characters, who tend to feel beaten down by the natural world, an attribute put into stark relief by applying an urban sensibility to pastoral forms. The gentle, haunting, offbeat “Blakefield Gold” gets more tonal mileage out of a gently plucked banjo than most rock groups get out of a fuzz box. Just don’t expect them to play loud.

All of Me
-Estelle (Atlantic/Warner)
Having made an impression with her Kanye joint, “American Boy,” UK rapper/singer Estelle knows where her bread is buttered. On the opening cut of her second album she name checks New York landmarks and gives shout-outs to Brooklyn. If her reggae inflections and pristine, coherent flow mark her as a quintessential English artist they also don’t cancel her cross-Atlantic ambitions, but they definitely dilute them. All of Me aims straight for the heart of R&B, which means it has more in common, sonically, with Rihanna than Adele, though I’m sure Estelle would be happy with either’s sales figures. Where she and Rihanna part company (other than doing a new duet with Chris Brown) is in the realm of propriety. Estelle would never countenance a suggestion of dirty-mindedness. She takes love so seriously she inserts an interlude with a relationship counselor. She’s more American than she thinks.

Sounds From Nowheresville
-The Ting Tings (Sony)
A great live band who produced a clutch of popular singles, this English duo has accomplished much with little, a notion I formulated while listening to their second album, which provides many of the same elements—strong beats and a fine sense of structure—that made their first one a hit. Neither Katie White nor Jules de Martino offer anything unusual other than well-channeled musical instincts, but here they try to get by on craft. “Silence” is a droning head trip that’s all production effects, and the lack of hooks focuses attention on hapless lyrics (“live like a hermit if you wanna be a king”), which in turn focuses attention on the lack of hooks. The single, “Hang It Up,” gets close to the ideal but falters on a busy verse and a rapping bridge by de Martino, who didn’t let out a peep on the first album, and for good reason.

Hospitality
(Merge/Hostess)
Apropos of someone who graduated from Yale, Amber Papini sings about what she knows: college. To those of us who left that rarefied world many years ago, it’s as compelling a subject for rock songs as hair care products. But it’s obviously compelling to Papini, because she sure can write a tough-minded rock ditty about English literature or that special feeling you get when you slip off campus for the weekend. With her impulsively girlish vocal style and knack for following a punchy verse with an even punchier chorus, she’s frankly irresistible, an attribute that will make her even more avoidable to those who find twee pop insufferable. For sure, “Betty Wang” is aggressively winsome, but it’s also ingeniously arranged and performed with panache to spare. More importantly, Papini knows exactly when the listener has had enough. Those are considerations that can’t be stressed too much.

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