December 2012 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend.

Red
-Taylor Swift (Big Machine/Universal)
R.E.D.
-Ne-Yo (Motown/Universal)
Two years ago we reviewed these two artists’ previous albums together, and at the time Swift’s star was ascending faster than Ne-Yo’s, which was interesting since both emerged as superstars at the same time, albeit in different corners of the pop landscape. Since then Swift has improved, both sales-wise and creatively, while Ne-Yo has struggled to carve out a niche for himself as an artist rather than as merely a very successful R&B singer-songwriter. We’ll assume the striking similarity in album titles (didn’t anyone at Universal mention it to either singer?) is a coinicidence, but as Mitt Romney probably once said, there’s no such thing as coincidence. The difference seems to be their respective ideas of what progress as a modern pop star entails. “State of Grace,” the opening cut of Red, is so far from the country pop of Swift’s previous records as to indicate purposeful movement in a stylistic direction, specifically the strum-pop of the Sundays, a group I wonder if Swift has ever heard, though given that Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody does a duet later on the record it could well be that she has. The rockish multi-tracked guitars that show up frequently make her songs of love sound meatier and, by extension, more mature than a close reading of the lyrics might otherwise lead you to believe. When it comes to pop, usually there’s no difference, but Swift’s confidence, not only in her gifts but in her ability to make sense of a romantic history that most singer-songwriters her age would be fretting over, is all the more impressive, especially since she is now working with the expensive producers and song doctors we feared would eventually show up and confound those gifts. The Joni Mitchell analogies that have dogged Swift since it was rumored she would play Mitchell in a movie are wrong not because Swift is a lesser artist (she isn’t), but because she hasn’t found love to be psychically damaging, at least not yet. There is something to be said about being well-adjusted, as well as articulate about what it means. Ne-Yo, on the other hand, has always been a little pushy about his well-meaningness, mainly because as a modern R&B artist he’s expected to be frank about his sexual proclivities. He managed to balance those proclivities with a genuine show of humility on Year of the Gentleman, which is a more pleasurable record than any Swift has released, but since then he’s felt the need to experiment, for want of a better word, mostly in Euro-techno—here utilized to excellent effect on “Let Me Love You”—but also in album-length themes and meta-nonsense. At the end of the opening cut of R.E.D., he invites you to “enjoy the album,” thus placing a burden on the listener: I have to pay attention? Actually, you’ll probably appreciate it more if you do, but Red doesn’t need any sort of imperative.

Sunken Condos
-Donald Fagen (Reprise/Warner)
It’s worth mentioning that Donald Fagen is currently married to Levon Helm’s former common-law wife and frequently sat in on the late Band drummer’s famous Midnight Rambles. The experience seems to have been channeled into his new album. Not the Americana, mind you—this still follows a stylistic line straight from Gaucho—but rather the rhythmic abandon and sense of fun that comes from playing with other musicians. Though Fagen has always been meticulous about his funk, not to mention his swing, he hasn’t sounded this natural about either since the underrated Royal Scam. And if the bittersweet lyrics, mostly about being older than everyone he meets, aren’t as pointedly witty as they were on The Nightfly, they still make the intended impression, which is as literary as it is journalistic. Personally, I think the world needs more songs about over-the-hill bowling queens.

Piramida
-Efterklang (4AD/Hostess)
This Danish trio reportedly went to the titular Arctic ghost town and made field recordings to incorporate into their new songs, which invariably gives rise to the suspicion that the tail wags the dog on Piramida. For what it’s worth, these sounds, even when they’re apparent, don’t assert themselves, and the music they accompany pays them no mind. More distracting are the odd time signatures and Casper Clausen’s controlled singing, which have the effect of minimizing what should be the album’s strongest suit, its knotty, rich arrangements. Keyboards and strings and even horns float in and out of the mix with an enchanting freedom of movement, as if instruments were continually entering the room at will and then closing the door behind them when they left. Few of these instruments, however, carry the melodic weight the songs need to make them anything more than pretty soundtrack ideas.

Algiers
-Calexico (P-Vine)
The title of Joey Burns’ and John Covertino’s new album does not refer to the North African city but rather to the neighborhood in New Orleans where it was recorded. Those knowledgable about Calexico will immediately wonder how such a change will affect their storied Southwest American hybrid music. Very little, actually, though the distance seems to have sharpened the angles of their Mexican rock, making them sound like a more earnest Los Lobos. The punctuating power of the horns in the road song “Splitter” is clearly derived from mariachi but with a more plaintive appeal. The singing is equally stirring, recalling Chris Isaak at his most emphatic if not necessarily his most purplish. It would be easy to attribute the serious sentiments to the setting—Algiers was particularly hard hit by Katrina—but Calexico always takes a cinematic approach to recording. You can see that desert.

Perfectly Imperfect
-Elle Varner (RCA/Sony)
Because I like Solange and wish others liked her as much, I want to attach the greatness of this debut to Solange’s last joint, but after listening to “Sound Proof Room” for the tenth time I have to admit Elle Varner—as much as she sounds like Solange and, while we’re at it, Janelle Monae—can’t compare to anyone. It’s not just that she comes up with really funny, stingingly appropriate sex metaphors, but that she pitches the attendant effusiveness at a human level. You hear the vocal cracks and hesitations and thus pick up on the emotional confusions that accompany sexual abandon. That’s saying a lot for an R&B singer, most of whom rarely cop to anything but the thrill. And while she gets carried away with the feelings she doesn’t let the songs out of her sight. That sound proof room is tight, and you’re not leaving.

Former Lives
-Benjamin Gibbard (Yoshimoto)
It says something about Ben Gibbard’s brief transition from leader of Death Cab for Cutie, one of the few 90s indie bands that saw success on a major, to barely distinguishable solo artist that on his duet with Aimee Mann it takes a few seconds to tell whose voice is whose. He’s become such a generic example of tasteful adult pop that you wonder what he found interesting about rock in the first place. Besides the painfully enunciated lyrics and those lyrics’ painfully turned syntax (“Lily is a destination/which is where my arms belong”), the tracks sound fussy, as if they’d been written during relaxed times and then slowly distilled into pure product. The more baroque he gets, like on the brief a cappella “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby” and the mini-symphony “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?”, the less he sounds like he’s enjoying himself.

Medicine
-Pop Levi (Counter/Beat)
It’s tempting to imagine Brit trash rocker Pop Levi sitting up late at night with a pack of Gauloises and a fifth of rum scribbling song titles as he listens to old Pussy Galore and Royal Trux 7-inches. His songs are short, sweet, derivative to the point of elemental, so if he coins the title “Motorcycle 666″ you can bet the resulting track references the devil in a cartoon devil’s voice; and if he comes up with the title “Rock Solid” it is sure to have a killer riff that sets up shop right in the middle of your brain. Levi’s fey, suspiciously trebly vocals are a hook unto themselves, and only betray his bourgeois predilections at subdued moments, like the verse to the Eric Carmen tribute “Coming Down.” His is a clear but narrow talent: he’ll perfect that riff even if it kills him.

Calendar Songs + Tokyo Twin Pop Sound Machine
-Cryv (Bluestars)
The Morishita twins write and play conventional Tokyo underground pop, characterized by strained, precious vocals, awkward English pronunciation, a focus on the high end, and as many instruments as they have friends who play them. What they also have that many of their like-minded peers don’t is patience to follow their more interesting ideas to their natural ends, so while most of these songs start out sweet enough, they often finish in a rush of controlled fury. A double album that consists of one disc of (non-sequential) month-identified pop tracks and another of remixes and alternate versions, Calendar Songs has the tendency, like all underground Tokyo pop, to try too hard to make you like it. Since the Morishitas have the good sense to keep their songs single length, they rarely overstay their welcome, even on the shimmering shoegazer “Summer Clock,” which I could listen to all day.

Come Home to Mama
-Martha Wainwright (V2/Pachinko)
Is it only me, or does “home” in the title seem extraneous? Some say Martha Wainwright is all about extraneousness—the vocal theatrics, the hyperbolic sex talk. Aficionados call it “emotional honesty,” but you wonder if she ever shuts it off. Granted, she’s gone through a lot since her last record—marriage, a child born prematurely, the death of her mother—and she addresses these subjects with courage and insight but not necessarily musical sensitivity. Maybe it’s Yuka Honda’s production, but the backup is often as overbearing as the singing, as if the two were vying for the listener’s attention, which is a shame since Wainwright shares with her brother a knack for limpid melodic phrases. You can sense what was lost on “Proserpina,” the last song written by her mother, Kate McGarrigle, and treated here like a hymn. Who needs theatrics when the raw material is so beautiful?

Music From Another Dimension!
-Aerosmith (Sony)
As the years pass and Aerosmith continues to not fade away, the lazy credo that says they’re the American Stones becomes more acceptable if only in terms of stubborn longevity, but then you have to take the analogy seriously. Aerosmith are the Stones as perpetual adolescents; a band that nailed the visceral pleasures but never got past the cartoon sexism and double entendres. And just as Keith Richards kept the Stones viable into its Viagra years, Joe Perry supplies this album with the muscle it requires to keep the brand solvent. Anyone who ever loved Aerosmith will thrill to the boogie riffery that pushes “Out Go the Lights” and “Oh Yeah” into their laps with a big satisfying thud, even if Steven Tyler sounds winded by the second chorus. So my question is: Why the unnecessary Diane Warren and Desmond Child ballads? Are they blackmailing Sony?

Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
-Lupe Fiasco (Atlantic/Warner)
As taking-the-piss titles go, this one can’t be beat, but it doesn’t mean Lupe Fiasco gets a pass for cheekiness. In a career that sometimes seems more about itself than the music, Fiasco has often short-changed his talent as much as others over-hyped it. Opening with a surprisingly potent poem by someone named Ayesha condemning the things male rappers take for granted, the album unfolds with a casual authority, Lupe going light on the duets while methodically constructing a world of clear moral structures. Sometimes the stridency of the rhetoric comes off as stiff didacticism (“it’s called being fiscally responsible”) but when the beats and rhymes dovetail as they do on “Around My Way” he makes his point without much effort. If that doesn’t happen as often as you’d like, it’s probably because his well-intentioned seriousness translates as musical conservatism. There’s nothing to subtract from the message, including humor.

The North
-Stars (P-Vine)
Like Stars, the late classical pianist Glenn Gould was Canadian, which he felt gave him peculiar insight into the “idea of north.” Torquil Campbell, with his effete line readings (he’s also an actor) and romantic world view, gets so much emotional mileage out of the phrase “it’s so cold in this country” you suspect he also feels possessive of a milieu the rest of us would probably take for granted. What’s always been intriguing about Stars’ music, aside from the brilliant interplay between Campbell’s and Amy Millan’s voices, is the almost tactile atmosphere surrounding it. When they work up a head of steam you can feel their vitality on your skin, but The North only occasionally achieves the intensity of their younger, more naive work. It’s chillier to the touch, and the idea of north, according to this record, is that it’s always far away.

Rave Age
-Vitalic (Different/Hostess)
Pseudonymity has advantages. Between the release of his 2001 EP and his first full-length French dance-music maven Pascal Arbez managed to develop a transgressive rep as an Eastern European interloper named Vitalic. His followup, 2005′s OK Cowboy, was as transgressive as a Hello Kitty keitai strap, and more fun. Given the straightforward title, his new long-player should be even more fun, but by “rave” Arbez seems to mean Brit blowhards like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, except minus their sense of the epic. Less meaty than Cowboy, Rave Age is also less distinguished, which, in line with the cover art, could be meant as a joke, but if it is it needs to be funnier. The sound is thin and the rhythmic ideas trite. Nominal excitement is charged to vocalists who act as if they’d just showed up. It’s a side show trying to be a circus.

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