October 2014 albums

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

ariana14プリントMy Everything
-Ariana Grande (Republic/Universal)
Unlocked
-Alexandra Stan (Victor)
A lot of people seem to care that former-kid-star-turned-pop-diva-upstart Ariana Grande is now more popular in Japan than Mariah Carey, and I say good for her. Not that I have anything against Mimi, but the kind of mass appeal pop that both women trade in shouldn’t be monopolized by one manufactured artist for such a long time. And in a real sense, Carey moved on from her Top 40 pop-identified persona a long time ago when she embraced hip-hop wholeheartedly. Grande is going about her evolution much more rapidly. Here she is with only her second album and already she’s jettisoned the idol trappings that made her first few singles teen gold and earned her those Mariah comparisons. An absolute professional in that her chops can’t be discounted the way, say, Britney’s were at the same point in her career, Grande was originally tagged as a ballad singer, but My Everything makes a concerted appeal to the dance market, more exactly a dance market made up of adults. Sure, 90s idol-maker Max Martin is here, but so is Zedd and Cashmere Cat, not to mention guest intrusions from the likes of A$AP Ferg, Big Sean, and Childish Gambino. To say that some of the raps sound incidental and forced doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the tracks they appear on. The guest spots are often redundant. Sean’s gambit on “Best Mistake” only highlights the fact that Grande can do very well without him, and the best songs—the sexy, grooving “Hands On Me” and the trifecta confection (Nicki Minaj & Jessie J) “Bang Bang”—are straight-up vocal showcases whose production complements rather than oversees the performances. What makes the album a pleasure from start to finish is Grande’s confidence in both her skills and her ability to get the party going. Idols rarely convey that without sounding as if they’ve got a gun to their head. Romanian dance diva Alexandra Stan manages to hold her own against the production overkill on her third album, but Eurobeat tends to have different priorities, and as a result Stan’s girlish phrasing has a canned quality thanks to all the processing it’s put through. In terms of bangers, Unlocked is more action-packed than Grande’s album. Romania seems to be a hotbed of dance diva production right now, and Stan, who has already scored a chart hit in the US, represents a sort of new vanguard, but the girlish persona and vocal affectations, while distinctive enough, can’t make up for actual engagement, and there’s a sense here of serving the EDM needs of a market that won’t be denied, which is unfortunate. “Cherry Pop” is the kind of pure confection that made 90s idol pop irresistible, but in that regard the calculation can also backfire. Is “Happy” a half-assed attempt to appeal to the Taylor Swift demographic? Nothing wrong with derivative, but divas gotta stand up for themselves. Continue reading

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October 2014 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

abouttimeAbout Time
High concept gets out-of-hand in this romantic comedy, which tries to make time travel work for its own purposes but ends up in thrall to the mechanics. The ability to move backward in time (but not forward) is hereditary, and when dad (Bill Nighy) explains how it works to his lawyer son, Tim (Domnhall Gleeson), you want to back up yourself to make sure you’ve got things straight. Tim gets the hang of it and understands he can change unfortunate outcomes. Director Richard Curtis incorporates this device into a conventional soulmate romance: Tim meets, marries, and raises a family with American Mary (Rachel McAdams), while utilizing his special ability to savor moments he took for granted the first time. However, some events are beyond meddling, and the tragedies seem less momentous for it, even though they are meant to show Tim that pain is an ineluctable part of living. As in many British movies of this type, the secondary characters are more interesting than the principals, so you wonder if it would have been better without the hocus pocus. (photo: Universal Pictures) Continue reading

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September 2014 albums

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

Alvvays pcd20336littledragonAlvvays
(Polyvinyl/P-Vine)
Nabuma Rubberband
-Little Dragon (Because/Warner)
Since pop and, especially, rock don’t exclusively belong to youth any more, the kids have to do something to distinguish their musical sensibilities from that of condescending elders, and over the years the preferred mode of delivery has been a cheaper sound. Some call it lo-fi, but that implies limited resources, and everybody has access to Pro Tools (or whatever the current software is) now. What youth wants to convey is the experience of listening to and playing music under the challenging circumstances of lowered expectations: crappy speakers (or earbuds), the verve of accomplishment set against still developing skills. Alvvays, a group from Toronto via Nova Scotia, embodies this attitude in much the same way that the C86 bands of Britain did when they appropriated early 60s pop as a means of cutting through the sophisticated bullshit offered up by mid-80s synth-pop acts. There’s a directness to their pop that transcends the cloudy sonics. Molly Rankin sports a lazy, care-free vocal style that constrasts with the fuzzy guitar tone in pleasing, humorous ways. Whether she’s undressing a fellow commuter in her mind or insufficiently lamenting the death of a lover there’s real personality: a young person owning up to the limitations of her cohort. The flatness of the musical effect does not make the songs any less catchy or moving; and, in any case, if you turn it up to clubland volumes you get what you need. The longing on “Archie, Marry Me” has less to do with Rankin’s singing than with the soaring lead guitar, which barely breaks out of the surrounding din and feels all the punchier for it. When the band settles down, the production approach simply makes them sound muddy, far away. Youth has a right to be loud, so don’t be shy; which may explain why Yukimi Nagano opens the fourth album by her group Little Dragon with a slow jam. The Swedish indie R&B quartet has had plenty of time to ponder their place in the world and Nabuma Rubberband is what used to be called a “mature work,” meaning thoughtful, insular, oblivious to commercial considerations. The kids in Alvvays might interpret that as being boring, as well, and if Nagano has nothing on Janet Jackson in terms of hooks, she often makes for a much more compelling vocalist. Still, the album reeks of experimentalism: game show interludes, synthesizer freestyles, even the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. In other words, it sounds like the major label debut it tries to be, but without the hits that major labels usually insist on. Nagano’s unique voice has always been the band’s central appeal, but their playful lyricism and left field soul moves gave them an edge over similarly purposed acts from Northern Europe. Nabuma Rubberband is an album made by a band who has been listening to the competition rather than Prince. It’s no fun getting old, but only fogies will blame you for sucking up to your juniors. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Aug. 31, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 7.50.43 AM

Advertisement for Shukan Bunshun rejected by Asahi Shimbun. The headline says, “Asahi Shimbun’s traitorous DNA.”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the media’s reaction to Asahi Shimbun’s retraction of its comfort women reporting in the 1980s and 90s. Though I point out how right-leaning publications have used the retraction to their own advantage and offer some balancing commentary from left-leaning publications, the main point is that the “pile-on,” as my editor so colorfully put it in the header, may have more to do with economics and competition than it does with ideology. But ideology shouldn’t be discounted. One aspect I didn’t explore fully is the gradual drift over the years away from the center, though some commentators think there was never any drift; that Asahi has always been a staunchly left-of-center newspaper and Sankei a much farther right-of-center one. The point is that overt political positions are now seen as a means of cultivating a broader base for the more conservative media with the re-ascendance of the LDP in the past few years. In Masaru Sato’s Flash article, which I reference in the column, he says that newspaper reporters “unconsciously” write articles that fit their respective bosses’ stance in order to gain approval, regardless of their own predelictions. This isn’t to say they are lying or misleading readers, only that they will likely lean right or left in accordance with their employer’s position. This isn’t always true. The Asahi’s reporting on the collective self-defense issue could be seen as contradicting the paper’s editorial position, which is suspicious of the Abe constitutional end run; while the nominally right-wing Yomiuri and Nikkei have come out strictly against politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine, mainly for pragmatic reasons. What Sato wants to say is that when a publication sees an opening, such as the one offered by the Asahi with its retraction, rivals will rush through it recklessly because of the sensationalist points they can score. It’s been well documented that publications that consistently run negative articles about South Korea seem to sell well, which is why so many print such articles. Does that mean the general public is reactionary by nature? Not necessarily, but it seems to be a universal truth that right-leaning forces tend to be louder in the media in pursuit of their ends than left-leaning forces are. Sensationalism is its own reward.

There is one aspect of the criticism that foreign reporters may find problematic beyond its ideological tenor, and that is the way that criticism uses journalistic integrity as its main justification. All these publications characterize Asahi’s irresponsible reporting as a sin of the highest magnitude since the paper resisted the evidence for so long. In a “normal” media environment such a complaint would have weight, but in Japan it comes across as hyperbole because journalistic conventions aren’t held up to the same specific standards. Even among the articles I cited in the column, whether from the left or the right, almost all the sources are anonymous and there is little proof that assertions were corroborated. The template for reporting in Japan is simply vaguer around the margins, so any complaint by one media about another’s journalistic integrity is automatically less convincing. This is especially true when it comes to tabloids and weeklies, who, as Sato implied (writing for a weekly, it should be noted), come up with their conclusions first and then carry out information-gathering to support those conclusions. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination the think that these same publications willfully bend that information to their own needs. If your purpose is to bring down the Asahi, then, as Malcolm X used to say about a very different sort of conflict, you use any means necessary.

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September 2014 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

brokenBroken
Korean crime movies appropriate a cartoonish male brutality that can be tiring, but this thriller by Lee Jung-ho takes advantage of that ugliness to make a truly disturbing point. Factory foreman Sang-hyun (Jeong Jae-yeong) has lost his wife to cancer and now lives alone with his typically contrary teenage daughter. Constantly browbeaten at work by supervisors who are probably browbeaten themselves, he is usually too frazzled to address his daughter’s emotional needs at the end of the day, and one rainy evening, when a work emergency necessitates his staying late, he neglects to pick her up after school. As she walks home she is abducted, raped and killed. Sang-hyun is, of course, devastated, and can’t properly process the questions thrown at him by the gruff, equally put-upon detective, Eok-gwan (Lee Sung-min), who is in charge of the case. So when a teenage boy who had something to do with the crime anonymously texts Sang-hyun the names of the two acquaintances who carried it out, he reacts viscerally. The youth is acting not so much out of conscience but rather payback: He feels slighted by his two so-called friends. Without telling the detective, Sang-hyun goes to confront one of the boys and ends up killing him. It’s one of those scenes that are necessary to push the movie along its predestined path, and Lee is extremely careful not to make it seem gratuitous. Sang-hyun’s violence is desperate, and there’s no escaping the feeling that he means to kill. But the job isn’t complete because the boy’s accomplice is still at large. The title refers to a father’s inability to remain whole through such a tragedy, and Sang-hyun, now a fugitive, acts not out of rage but through a fog of incomprehension at the evil behind his victimhood—and his own irreconcilable emotions. “I can’t live in the same world as someone like you,” he tells the other boy when he finally finds him. It’s less an accusation than a realization of his own uselessness. What gives this theme resonance is Lee’s admirable skills as a thriller director. There is actually very little violence in the film, but what there is flows straight from an emotional core. Sang-hyun’s search takes him to a popular ski resort that has nevertheless been hollowed out by economic troubles. The abandoned restaurants and pensions that he uses as hideouts while the police look for him and he searches for the other boy mirror the emptiness of his soul, but they also offer prime settings for some very suspenseful encounters. Broken isn’t profound, but it has more resonance than most crime thrillers. In Korean. (photo: CJ E&M Corp.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Aug. 24, 2014

Watanabe_knbHere’s this week’s Media Mix about Hirofumi Watanabe, the convicted extortionist who has enjoyed an unusually high degree of exposure thanks to Tsukuru magazine. Though the nature of that exposure has been problematic, it’s also been interesting in the way it reveals Watanabe’s interests and impulses. He’s been reactionary in the most elemental sense in that he has had a public outlet in which he can react to everything written or said about him in other media, either through Tsukuru or editor Hiroyuki Shinoda’s blog. Apparently, you can now even purchase an ebook containing Watanabe’s thoughts, all of which are focused on his situation, which always seems to be changing. As mentioned in the column, he changed his story several times after his arrest, each time shaping his image to something he felt was either more compatible to what he thought would attract readers or just more provocative. At first, his admission that he harbored “homosexual tendencies” sounded like the latter, but in a way it fits with his overall tale. He says that his mother and others always derided his appearance, and as some media have pointed out the comic he targeted, “Kuroko no Basuke,” fits into the “boys love” genre of manga, meaning comics that depict beautiful young men who sometimes manifest homoerotic tendencies. He hasn’t challenged this analysis, as far as I know, but he continues to refine his story in other ways, almost by whim. It’s a luxury few people can afford, if, in fact, it’s something to be desired. But if you think about the business of celebrity, where image manipulation is an ongoing and often difficult chore, Watanabe is in an almost charmed place. Whether or not this image is a “true” one we can’t know, but then, does it really matter?

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August 2014 albums

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

howtodresswell14matthewdavidWhat Is This Heart?
-How To Dress Well (Weird World/Hostess)
In My World
-Matthewdavid (Brainfeeder/Beat)
Though Tom Krell’s evolution as an established in-his-own-head R&B singer-songwriter has taken years, it’s difficult to listen to his latest album and not wonder what he thinks of Frank Ocean. No matter how you look at the genre, Ocean owns this peculiar and peculiarly popular new take on soulful romantic effusion, and even if you hand Krell props for his vocal skills you can’t get Ocean’s voice out of your head as you listen to him. If there’s a distinction that becomes apparent with repeated listenings it’s the way Rodaidh McDonald’s production adds a fuller musical clarity to Krell’s songs, something most conventional R&B, even Ocean’s, doesn’t deliver this consistently. The stuttering rhythms and throbbing undertow of “What You Wanted” adds shape to Krell’s typically melody-free verses. And if What Is This Heart? doesn’t stick in the gut as tenaciously as Channel Orange does, it asserts itself more readily as an album in that its appeal becomes more apparent with each subsequent song. By the time you get to “Precious Love,” a delicate and utterly lovely pop song that lingers tortuously on the edge of falsetto ecstasy, you’ll likely have forgotten all of Krell’s more obvious influences. If Ocean had done this song he would have used more genuine instruments, but Krell is obviously selling this collection on his singing, not his production or even his songwriting, and, pardon the stereotyping, but he sounds mighty fine for a white guy. If this doesn’t boost him into the big time nothing will. Matthew David McQueen, on the other hand, while equally obsessed with the slower-metered funk of Prince as it applies to contemporary sex-you-up singers, doesn’t seem particularly interested in the mainstream. If anything, he means to subvert it with his glitchy beats and slightly sarcastic drawl. His fulsome psychedelic touches make him a more original record-maker than How To Dress Well, though, by the same token, a less appealing one. The title cut of his new album would be a perfect match for original-era Stylistics if it weren’t so jagged and hyper, and elsewhere, as on the slightly near eastern “Artforms,” he dabbles in more caucasian-sounding pop that actually benefits from his spacy ministrations, so if he’s gonna mess with the funk, he should at least leave in what makes the style danceable. The freaky touches demand attention that could be better purposed toward enjoyment, which may sound like philistinism, but the forms he’s altering were developed to bring pleasure, so any revisions should at least take that into consideration. Otherwise, they’re just art projects. In an earlier era, In My World would have been called a “drug album,” a description that would have sold its rewards to the kind of people who could appreciate them best. It’s not at all certain that people who like R&B, even the hipster contingent, will get much entertainment value out of this. Continue reading

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