February 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on January 25.

SleaterKinney_NoCities_Jé  largeWu_Al_cover_NoPA_093624932260[1]No Cities to Love
-Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop/Traffic)
A Better Tomorrow
-Wu-Tang Clan (Warner)
It can’t be said enough that Sleater-Kinney epitomized what was great about indie rock in the 90s better than any other band, namely a belief in the cathartic power of punk but minus the reactionary limitations that punk had been saddled with for 20 years. The trio transcended their chosen style early on without abandoning its fierce immediacy and was still growing creatively when they called it quits in the middle of the last decade. If you hear someone say that their new album sounds as if they never stopped, that’s what they mean, because despite the individual touchstones, which remain the same—Corin Tucker’s knife-like vocals, Carrie Brownstein’s visceral rhythm guitar, Janet Weiss’s improbably melodic drumming—this isn’t like any of their previous records. Though they return to the short song forms of their early days, the writing and arrangements eschew structure for the sake of expressive power, and the overall sound is harsher than it’s ever been. If they deem to do without a standard vocal melody on the title cut, the cross-cutting guitars supply their own tunefulness in juxtaposition, and when Brownstein, who really learned how to sing in the short-lived indie project Wild Flag, joins Tucker as an equal on the chorus of “No Anthems,” you wonder why they never tried harmonies before. Even “Price Tag,” which strikes me as the album’s weakest cut and thus a poor choice to start things off, presents its musical themes in such an unusual way that you know you’re not going to appreciate it until you’ve heard it several more times. The exuberance of the production belies the song titles’ generally negative attitude, or maybe it simply means that the band is heartened by the destruction of things that don’t need to exist any more. Obviously, they once thought that about themselves, and it’s nice to know they only got back together because they had something new to say. Being from Staten Island, where several high-profile racially-charged incidents have occurred in the past year, the ten members of the reunited Wu Tang Clan—including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who is sampled throughout—have plenty of fresh topics to rap about, though some do more of it than others. What was always most thrilling about the group’s approach was the stylistic contrasts and overlaps, especially between Method Man’s heartfelt delivery and Masta Killa’s staccato flow. I wouldn’t mind more Ghostface since in the years since Wu dissolved he’s proven to be the most interesting member, at least lyrically, but the point here is that RZA, after indulging his obsession with Asian pop culture to no compelling end, oversees the proceedings with a reinvigorated musical outlook that keeps things clanging and funky when they aren’t snaking their way into your lower extremities. Dig the marching band motif on the obligatory tag team exercise “We Will Fight.” Nobody does that kind of shit better. Continue reading

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February 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on January 25.

Director John Carney tries to recreate the magic that made Once such an unexpected hit. If it eludes him, it’s mainly because the power of Once was inherent in its unassuming premise. The music was just gravy, though Carney was fortunate that the songs were perfectly calibrated to that premise. Begin Again is more ambitious, a bit flashier, and this sort of broader ambition works against its naturalistic tendencies. It seems phony from the get-go. Again, Carney, who knows the record biz through his work with the Irish rock band The Frames, focuses on a struggling singer-songwriter, Greta (Keira Knightley), a Brit who finds herself stranded in New York City after her boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), a singer himself, hits it big and effectively leaves her. Right away, the script betrays the audience by making Dave’s skyrocketing success the plum plot point, since it’s difficult to believe, a mere convenience. Circumstances further conspire to get Greta into a bar to watch another expat singer (James Corden, currently a hotter property than anyone else in the movie) perform, and he inveigles her into singing one of her own songs, which Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down-at-his-heels record producer who needs a drink and drops into this particular bar for one, observes by dint of coincidence. He is impressed, and in one of the film’s few instances of originality, Carney reveals the way Dan’s mind works as he listens to the song and imagines at the same time how he would arrange and record it. It’s a fleeting moment, and once the movie snaps out of it, it’s back to the turgid exposition: Dan immediately offers Greta his services, which at that moment don’t amount to much. Though Carney gets a certain measure of push-and-pull from this relationship—Greta is a non-commercial realist, Dan an alcoholic bullshit artist—the movie only occasionally feels as if it is set in a world we think could exist. Brainstorming, the pair decide to record Greta’s songs au natural, outdoors with a mike, a laptop, and a mixer in various locations and with accompanying live musicians and, more importantly, ambience. Since Once was all about ambience, this purposeful inclusion of realness is just a gimmick, and though the movie does a pretty good job of treating music-making as an organic process, it has to somehow bring these two characters’ lives to bear on that music, and the romantic and familial subplots don’t register strongly. More signficantly, while the songs by Gregg Alexander are impressively modest, Knightley can’t put across the kind of interior discipline a musician of this sort requires. Conversely, Ruffalo is a little too slimey and arrogant, the ultimate bizzer heel with a hardened heart of gold. (photo: Killifish Productions Inc.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Jan. 18, 2015

photo01Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the media reaction to NHK’s New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen.” Part of the article discusses the Southern All Stars’ surprise appearance and the controversy that followed. I didn’t go into detail about leader Keisuke Kuwata’s apology, but it does bear further scrutiny if only because Kuwata is one of the few mainstream pop stars who has displayed anything like an independent personality over the years. Though his music has become redundant since the band’s strong run of albums in the early 80s, Kuwata tried to retain some of the iconoclasm normally associated with the American rock and R&B he grew up with. Unfortunately, much of that image had to do with lyrics that fixated on what the Japanese refer to as “the bottom half,” and thus just sounded off-putting the older he got, but since his presumed remission from esophogeal cancer he’s come out a little more forthrightly against the powers that be. The apology he released last week was less about the antics described in my column and more about his cavalier treatment of the medal he received from the emperor, an honor that he seemed to be making fun of when he displayed it on stage at one of the group’s recent concerts and jokingly tried to auction it off. I hadn’t known about that before the apology and probably would have been impressed if I had: It sounds like a good joke in that it conveyed the singer’s discomfort at being cited by the authorities as some sort of role model. As trite as it may sound, I still think artists who nominally identify themselves as rock and rollers should be automatically suspicious of positive recognition from the so-called establishment. Strictly speaking, it would have been better had Kuwata politely refused the medal, but I suppose that’s beyond the pale for a Japanese public figure of his standing, so joking about it is the next best thing.

Consequently, apologizing for the joke sounds like a betrayal of the values I thought Kuwata was trying to convey, and since he didn’t specifically retract his criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which he expressed at another concert, I suspect those values still hold. By all appearances he was pressured into writing the apology, likely by his management company, which had been picketed by right wing groups incensed by Kuwata’s actions; and that’s another thing that should be mentioned, because as far as I can tell none of the mainstream media has. Though all the newspapers and TV shows reported Kuwata’s mea culpa in detail, they didn’t say anything about those demonstrations. So while Kuwata’s about-face is disappointing, it fits a narrative about the power of intimidation whose familiarity is even more disappointing.

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Best albums 2014

tumblr_naxgvk3uY31rbwx2xo1_500I think it was a great year for music in general, but since my living circumstances changed radically last February I haven’t been able to listen to new stuff in as dedicated a way as I used to. Much of my more intense listening, in fact, was done on the train while going into Tokyo, which takes about an hour. Since I don’t go in during rush hour and my line isn’t a particularly busy corridor, it’s a relaxing ride and allows me to get into the music without having to worry about whether or not I’m bothering the person next to me. But it is limiting, since I tend to jump from one new release to another without absorbing them as albums, meaning integrated collections that should be heard from start to finish and in order. I know that isn’t the way most people listen to albums any more, but I still believe that most artists who make albums think of them that way when they record and mix them. Consequently, for the past month I’ve been trying to take time to do that for the records I felt partial to, and for the most part my initial feelings were borne out through concentrated attention, except for the first album on my list, which I liked immediately but, since it’s a punk record, I didn’t return to very often, because, well, punk is as generic as a pop genre gets. So it was only when I sat down and listened to Here and Nowhere Else from start to finish, uninterrupted, several times that it made the impression I assume it was supposed to make.

As for the album I listened to the most this year, it’s not on this list, and not because it’s a re-release. As a whole, I don’t think it’s quite as great as a lot of people made it out to be, but it’s still impressive. The Complete Basement Tapes was never something I thought I needed since the original legitimate release was plenty good enough, and I’d always thought that all the other stuff Dylan and the Band did that didn’t get officially released on that album was probably would not be interesting in the long run. What I didn’t really expect was how much of it there was, and how varied it would be. Since it took me close to a month to get through all six discs I only fixed on a handful of previously unfamiliar tracks, which I’ve returned to on occasion, but the rest of it is mostly disposable. Still, I’m glad I have it all, since it came from a time when I was just starting to understand what this kind of music could deliver, and hearing it fresh again after all these years has made me re-evaluate what it was that intrigued me in the first place, namely, the immediacy that Dylan and the Band, separately and together, conveyed in their music; the sense that this is what mattered at that particular moment they were making it. It’s also what I miss about listening to music, the capability of being lost in a song, oblivious to everything else. It’s hard to do at home any more. If only the train ride were longer. Continue reading

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January 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.

maryjblige14ACDC_ROCK or BUST_JKThe London Sessions
-Mary J. Blige (Capitol/Universal)
Rock or Bust
-AC/DC (Sony)
Mary J. Blige is one of the more resilient of the superstar R&B singers who emerged in the 90s, and while she’s never sold as many records as Mariah, her career has been more consistent, commercially and creatively. As with many pop artists, her longevity can be explained partly by the story behind the songs. Blige’s image as an emotionally scarred individual who channels her pain through music has never seemed like a stunt. There is something raw about her albums that touches nerves across the board. The music didn’t always justify that love, however, and her last studio album, My Life II, was inert and forced, the kind of self-satisfied collection that signals an artist’s decline, so The London Sessions is a welcome corrective. It’s not just that Mary is getting jiggy with the R&B zeitgeist, but that she’s retooling what makes her special—her personal urgency—in ways that refresh her music. Hot Brit producers like Disclosure add club beats to her songs, but the first three cuts have more to do with traditional pre-80s soul music, something Mary has only referenced in the past. The singing is also different, less elastic by design, more forceful by need; and wittier. She delivers the almost a cappella jazz number “Therapy” with a wink at her own reputation for dramatic self-regard. And the album’s best track, “My Loving,” written by Mary with producers Sam Romans and Rodney Jerkins, revisits her 90s triumphs but with a harder focus on the dance floor. Never a club diva, Mary sounds ready to take her man out for a night on the town, which is proof enough that she’s back in the game. Also back in the game is Australian hard rock dorks AC/DC, whose co-founder Malcolm Young just retired from the group because he’s suffering from dementia. Such news not only points up the absurdity of a band like this still asserting its right to rock, but makes you wonder how much they really want to rock. As it stands, Young’s brother, Angus, is the only original member left, and he’s said publicly he has no intention of stopping now—or ever, for that matter. So you half expect their new album to simply regurgitate the old forms, and it does—winningly. The record’s own resilience has less to do with production or songwriting or playing than it does with the bullet-proof nature of AC/DC’s m.o., which is “play a simple song simply.” It’s the shortest album they’ve ever released, and the concision adds to the power, bringing out the melodies while pushing back on the excess. The only overbearing song, “Dogs of War,” is finished before you know it, and the rest is candy, meaning too much is probably bad for you. Unlike Mary, AC/DC’s longevity has nothing to do with the Angus brothers’ personalities. It’s all about giving the people what they want, and knowing exactly what that is. Continue reading

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Best movies 2014

190rb394ke5pnjpgHere are the ten best movies that I saw and which were released theatrically in Japan during the 2014 calendar year. I would say it was a better than average year, at least compared to the last several, but I also have to say that, due to my circumstances, I wasn’t able to see as many films as I have in the past. I missed at least one, Under the Skin, that might have ended up on this list, considering how positively it was reviewed by critics I admire. As it happens, due to the same circumstances, I purposely avoided films I was almost certain I wouldn’t like unless there was some work-oriented obligation to see them. Since being a critic requires taking the bad with the good, I will admit that this kind of list is diminished by it, but I’ll also assume I saw a lot more first-run movies this year than the average person. I will also admit, yet again, that I didn’t see nearly as many Japanese films as I should, and those that I did see didn’t make a strong impression. I had thought that if I cut down on my Japanese TV viewing, which I did, despite the fact that I make my living watching Japanese TV, I might regain my appreciation for Japanese movies, since one of the reasons I can’t lose myself in Japanese films is because of the ubiquity of the actors, and not just on TV. But I still can’t think of anything I saw that I found worth mentioning.

The best work of drama I saw all year was Breaking Bad, which is hardly remarkable. Everyone thinks Breaking Bad is wonderful, and they thought so well before I did, since I didn’t start watching the series until September when I subscribed to hulu.jp. In form and substance, it was actually only a little better than a good crime thriller. It had many action set pieces that were often less than credible, as well as scenes that seemed shoehorned into the story in order to fulfill certain preordained plot developments. But the characters were unusually vivid and, more to the point, consistent in their behavior and moral trajectories. Moreover, the basic premise of an average guy passing over to the dark side was handled with rare patience and an incredible reserve of imagination. In the end, it was a classical tragedy: a somewhat noble individual falls into a pattern of doom due to a fatal personality flaw, namely pride. The showrunners made sure this theme was maintained at a high level of tension throughout its five seasons and concluded it in a way that was not only highly satisfying (though the shootout was less important than Walter’s final nostalgic stroll through his meth lab) but perfectly calibrated. Granted, filmmakers don’t have the luxury of six years to…wait a minute, Richard Linklater took 12 years to make Boyhood. I guess some of them do have the luxury, if they put their minds to it. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Dec. 28, 2014

The PM talking to NTV anchorman Nobutaka Murao the night of the election

The PM talking to NTV anchorman Nobutaka Murao the night of the election

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the media coverage of the recent general election and the prime minister’s often testy relationship with the press. One aspect of this matter that I didn’t mention in the article is Shinzo Abe’s use of social media and the Internet to his advantage. Though the LDP did a fairly good job of intimidating the traditional media, the web is so free-form and elastic that an organization that powerful can say whatever it wants without worry about being questioned. Of course, people are just as free to criticize Abe on the Internet, but those voices tend to recede into the vastness of cyberspace. On the night of the election, after he had made the rounds of all the TV stations wearing a countenance that was much darker than his huge victory seemed to warrant, Abe appeared on the video site Niconico Douga with a big smile saying that the “voices of Niconico Douga users” had made a big impression on him, and that he would “listen to them” intently. It’s difficult to believe every subscriber to the service approved of Abe’s work and offered helpful advice, but it’s one of the luxuries of the medium that you can pick and choose the remarks you want to hear from it. Abe was also more proactive and positive on his Facebook page than he was on the campaign trail. As one political science professor told Asahi Shimbun after the election, practically speaking there are just as many people complaining about the traditional media’s “sense of entitlement” as there are people who thought Abe is out of touch, and this works to the administration’s advantage, too, since it emboldens the LDP leaders to think that they can ignore the mainstream press. In any case, it’s not exactly a new thing. In 1993, the head of the news department of TV Asahi was summoned to the Diet because the government thought the station had violated the principles of neutrality with regard to a recent general election. Since then there still hasn’t been a serious debate on what makes for effective election coverage. The press and the political world will likely just continue to look at each other with suspicion, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that neither seems to think about what would really benefit the public.

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