Here are the album reviews I wrote for the July issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Monday.
-Adam Lambert (Sony)
-Scissor Sisters (Polydor/Universal)
Asking Paul Rodgers to fill in on vocal duties was a terrible idea from the surviving members of Queen. By the same token, the group’s recent decision to ask young Adam Lambert to fill Freddie Mercury’s glitter sneakers was genius. Rodgers may be one of rock’s most indelible singers, but he’s not gay. Lambert is. That may sound like a patronizing distinction, but even if Mercury spent his career hiding his homosexuality, his vision of rock’n roll was informed by the same campy regard for flamboyance that characterizes most gay-identified pop culture. It’s what made Queen’s brand of rock unique, and during his American Idol appearances and on his first album Lambert demonstrated the same theatrical flair in his own approach to rock. He’s also a technically better singer than Mercury ever was, so it’s disappointing that his sophomore album leans so heavily on production. Now that he can afford the best knob-twiddlers Sony can buy, Lambert has somehow attracted talent who don’t have much experience in rock and seem to think they aren’t doing their job unless all the rough edges in Lambert’s voice are smoothed over through overdubs and equalization. Even Pharell Williams, who knows a good rock song when he plays it, positions Lambert in front of a bank of synths that could have been shipped over from the last Ke$ha session without being reprogrammed. I like Ke$ha as much as the next pop sycophant, but we don’t really need another major label generic dance pop artist. Thanks to Nile Rodgers’ disco-dipping bar chords and diphthong-dripping backing vocals, “Shady” delivers more of what radio rock fans should expect from Lambert, but it’s such a throwaway performance it could have been an outtake. Much of Trespassing tries to turn Lambert into a funk artist, a vocation he’s not built for. Queen is correct to groom him as Mercury’s successor. After all, Prince is still with us. Pharell also contributes to the Scissor Sisters’ new album, which has a more classic rock feel to it even if the songs are more diverse. Due to his omnivorous love of everything popular in the late 70s leader Jake Shears has as much of a claim on Mercury’s legacy as anyone, but while he can be as flamboyant as Lambert and is more demonstrative about his sexuality he’s part of a group whose members all like to act out. Scissor Sisters have done more than any contemporary act to fuse disco and rock in a way that doesn’t condescend to fans of either, and if Magic Hour fails to reach the giddy glammy heights of their best material it’s due to Shears’ desire to forge an identity all his own. The rock on “Inevitable” is progressively dull in nature, while the Grace Jones disco of “Let’s Have a Kiki” lacks oomph. In between are mostly ballads, a form Mercury made his own, but he would never have countenanced compositions this shapeless.
Canadian Claire Boucher sounds like she has too much fun for someone whose output wouldn’t be possible without a USB cable. Her airy falsetto and natural command of pop structures she has no real use for—as with Picasso and draftsmanship, she’s an obvious musical autodidact who transcends technique—make for tracks that strike first and ask questions later. The martial liquid beats and processed vocals suggest to the faint-hearted robots playing in the club, but why deny robots the same pleasures we humans take for granted? In those instances when Boucher hits a groove, as in the multi-layered jam “Circumambient,” she’s the machine in the ghost; the integrated chip that brings the phantom of dance-pop to sputtering, stainless steel life. She proves that humans can cross over into the digital realm without losing their soul. It would probably be anticlimactic to meet her in the flesh.
-Dr. John (Nonesuch/Warner)
Mac Rebennack simultaneously epitomizes and challenges the traditions of New Orleans R&B, mainly because he embraced rock during its formative years. Lately, his more outre moves are obscured by the good intentions of promoters and labels who would like to reclaim him for the canon, and he’s only too happy to oblige since there’s money in roots music. Who buys CDs any more except boomers? The wonder of Dan Auerbach’s production is not so much that he rekindles the rockist fervor which ignited Dr. John’s classically weird records of the 70s, but that he encourages Rebennack to be weird in new ways, mainly through indiscretion. This is a pot smoker’s concept of how New Orleans music works: greased, sloppy horns, drunken chick choruses, lead vocals with all the phlegm and sardonicism left in. In other words, it’s an album rich in feeling. The solid chops are a given.
-Far East Movement (Interscope/Universal)
Moving more confidently into the lucrative Top 40 electro-pop market will.i.am invented single-handedly, the L.A.-based quartet carves an idiosyncratic niche for themselves on their second album, which takes the hip-hop conception of the titular musical description as a theme. Equating “dirty bass” with the sexual attraction of a nice ass (whether male or female) may sound like a limiting strategy, but FEM is fully capable of exploiting every dance move in its vocabulary. Consequently, the parade of major guest stars, including Justin Bieber, Crystal Kay, and Pitbull, bend to their prerogatives rather than vice versa. Everything and everyone is subordinate to the beat, and the best tracks are those that jettison structure and follow the natural will of the rhythm wherever it leads. In the end, bass is love, a truth James Brown understood but probably never thought necessary to articulate.
-Sigur Ros (Parlophone/EMI)
At this point in their estimable career, Sigur Ros is best described as that Icelandic rock band who is still uncomfortable with drums. Rhythm has always been the group’s least salient trait, which would seem to disqualify them as a rock outfit, even a postrock outfit. Valtari reverses the slow ascent into conventional song form that has characterized their commercial progress, settling back into the oozy ambience that made Agaetis Byrjun the surprise hit of 1999. Tracks don’t begin but creep into view, and then later, just as quietly, slink over the horizon. They don’t climax so much as build inexorably toward a state of sensory overload. What’s remarkable is that they’ve always managed to convey a precise human personality through this amorphous, non-verbal approach. One listens to them as if to a lecture whose content is less compelling than the mellifluous tone of its speaker.
What older rock enthusiasts miss about the music of their youth is the loss of the feeling that accompanied the first flush of aesthetic appreciation. Japandroids has made a cottage industry out of exploring this dynamic, even if they’re too young to know what it’s like to lose it. When Brian King recreates the chorus of “American Girl” during “Evil Sway” it’s not so much a reverent rip as an attempt to inhabit the excitement of Tom Petty’s indelible riff. He doesn’t see the point of rock unless it’s in your face spitting and sweating with the conviction that this is music that should last forever, if only in one’s memory. The pair can get as passionate about young love as Springsteen and yet their attack has the who-gives-a-fuck insouciance of the Replacements. They’d be the perfect band for the new millennium if people weren’t so cynical about rock.
-Bonnie Raitt (Redwing/Victor)
Seven years is a long time between albums, even for Bonnie Raitt, who doesn’t really need to record anyway. Her last record was so underwhelming that one could understand if she felt like sitting on her touring laurels for the rest of her playing days. Obviously, something inspired her. Maybe it was Joe Henry, who produces four cuts here, two late Dylan covers and two of his own songs. They’re good, but not as thrilling as the R&B songs she had written for her by the likes of Randall Bramblett, Al Anderson, and Bonnie Bramlett. The funky effusions of “Used to Rule the World” work to emphasize the song’s wry comment on glories past and nevermore. Paul Brady and Michael O’Keefe’s “Marriage Made in Hollywood” is a sharp reminder of the days when Raitt could make a nominally novelty song sound like a classic. It’s the voice more than the guitar, but the guitar slays.
-Friends (Lucky Number/Pachinko)
This Brooklyn quintet’s accidental origins are reflected in the makeshift quality of the songs, which are about three inches short of completion. Part of the charm is Samantha Urbani, who seems to be learning how to sing as she goes along, gulping her vowels and closing her eyes to hit those high notes as the band chugs away happily behind her. This is urban dance pop of the purest sort, dashed off quickly and allowed to take shape in the crucible of mutual interaction. The appeal works from the ground up, with the rhythm section (or electronics that pass for a rhythm section) doing most of the work. There really isn’t much else, in fact, but the band’s minimalist purposes are borne of necessity rather than calculation. They’re not as sly as the B-52s, but you could imagine them hanging out at the same bar and trading CD-Rs.
In Our Heads
-Hot Chip (Domino/Hostess)
Hot Chip’s strongest suit is their unerring melodic thoroughness, so the emotional undertones that support their buoyant pop songs only make a strong impression on those who listen specifically for them. Alexis Taylor’s vocals, as frail as they are, dominate the tracks and make it clear that the person he’s dancing with is the one he wants to take home, forever. There’s a tenderness to his line readings regardless—or perhaps because—of how trite they sound on first listen. (“Hearts are not for breaking”?) If it weren’t for the disco-ready beats and the stark keyboard arrangements one could imagine Celine Dion making hay with some of these songs, and that’s not a put-down. Romantic abandon is only embarrassing when it lacks conviction and sincerity, and sincerity is the one thing you can’t fake, even in as synthetic a calling as electronic dance music.
The Legendary Demos
-Carole King (Hear/Universal)
Advertised as 13 previously unreleased recordings, this collection contains six songs that would eventually land on Tapestry in very similar forms, as well as piano accompanied versions of older hits for others, like “Take Good Care of My Baby” (Bobby Vee) and “Crying in the Rain” (Everly Brothers). Though the sound is demo quality, the arrangements are smart and evocative, revealing King’s development as a writer from the concise teen pop she wrote with Gerry Goffin to the nascent hippie impressionism that made Tapestry such a huge seller. “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” tethered to a brightly strummed acoustic guitar, turns out to be a sophisticated work of sympathetic imagination rather than the anti-uptightness screed the Monkees turned it into. Even “You’ve Got a Friend” earns a fresh listen and wins. And who recorded “Just Once in My Life”? The Righteous Brothers? If they didn’t, they should have.
Those unfamiliar with Atlanta rapper Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. will be distracted by the high-profile guests spots that are rendered as high-profile guest spots: Morgan Freeman intoning, Taylor Swift bubbling, Nicki Minaj erupting. Simmons doesn’t give you the impression he’s particularly proud of his commercial ability to hire these stars; he doesn’t even interact with them in a meaningful way, probably because by doing so he knows he’d dilute the power of his own contributions, and he’s nothing if not totally caught up in his volcanic flow. There’s a pronounced disconnect between the pop-friendly beats and Simmons’ wildly syncopated syntax, and it’s in those rhythmic interstices where the album’s drama and sense of play reside. When he matches up with a true equal, like Lil Wayne on the title cut, the tension-and-release can stop your pulse. Forget hard and real, B.o.B. is musical.
Sometimes ideas for songs have to suffice when real songs don’t present themselves. Walter De Backer, better known as Gotye, grasps inspiration when it strikes but rather than string fragments together willy-nilly he stretches them out to song length without actually developing them into songs. On his previous album, Like Drawing Blood, the result was perplexing abstraction. Since then he’s learned how to compartmentalize. He’s not yet a real pop songwriter, but he’s turned into a great pop singer and arranger, and sometimes that’s enough—look at George Michael. He drives the riff at the heart of “Easy Way Out” through the center of your brain, oblivious to the song’s lack of a bridge or even a chorus. The hypnotic power of “Smoke and Mirrors” derives from a simple melody line layered from here to the Gold Coast. That one genuine pop tune just sneaks up on you.
-Melody Gardot (Decca/Universal)
Having gotten out into the world thanks to her burgeoning reputation as an original jazz singer-songwriter, Melody Gardot opens up her purview to the exotic styles she happened upon during her travels, and is lucky to have producer Heitro Pereira around to make sure she doesn’t make a fool of herself. What’s impressive is her decision to incorporate what she’s learned about Latin, African, and Mediterranean styles into her songwriting and not just her performance. That said, her singing is still planted resolutely at the bar, and while the arrangements handily evoke Morocco or Buenos Aires, her voice sends you back to the neighborhood, conveying detachment rather than immersion. That, of course, reflects her club jazz leanings, and Pereira often sounds as if he’s trying to nudge her out the door. Originality is still her main claim to your attention, but a little assimilation wouldn’t hurt.