December 2010 CDs

Here are the CD reviews I wrote for the December 2010 issue of EL Magazine, which came out November 25. All the albums were released by local labels in Japan during the month of November 2010.

Speak Now
-Taylor Swift (Big Machine/Universal)
Libra Scale
-Ne-Yo (Def Jam/Universal)
The week it was released Taylor Swift’s Speak Now was the biggest selling album on the planet. It’s her third LP and her best. It’s also the first one where she wrote all the songs herself. Normally, a singer-songwriter of Swift’s commercial caliber starts out writing hits that gain a following and by the time she’s big has song doctors and producers coming out her ass. Speak Now is slick, but relative to most product coming out of Nashville these days it’s uncluttered and focused on its subject, who does a good job of cluing us in on what it’s like to be Taylor Swift, a middle class white girl who spent her teenage years studying herself under a microscope and letting anyone take a peek. Having transcended any country music stereotype, Swift speaks to a lot of people with her deceptively simple take on adolescent longing. Compositionally, there’s little here that Lady Antebellum or Sugarland can’t do better, and the melodic thrust of her tunes can get redundant when you strip them to their essence. But the narratives have such imaginative drive that you find yourself hitching a ride despite their appeal to the youngest common denominator. On the one hand you have “Mine,” an ecstatic description of first love leading to a rocky but otherwise perfect marriage, and on the other hand, “Mean,” a stiff-upper-lip, sticks-and-stones put-down of a recognizable type of cynic. Both songs are corny and calculated and contain lines that can break your heart, meaning corny and calculated works both ways. “Don’t make her drop you off around the block,” she sings to a girl of 14 on “Never Grow Up,” a girl whose purview shifts from second to first person and back again with such facility that the gimmick is immediately negated. Even more than “Mean,” this song confronts those critics who feel she’s selling a manufactured lie when all she’s doing it trying to make sense of an unusual existence. What is so terrible about being well-adjusted? It’s a question Ne-Yo, another singer-songwriter who first gained attention as a teen and has since topped the charts continually, has obviously pondered. Despite a franker approach to sex than Swift’s, Ne-Yo still presents a self-consciously moral persona on all of his songs. His last album, remember, was titled Year of the Gentleman, and his latest takes that idea almost to the point of self-parody. As Jerome, a member of a triumvirate of superheroes called the Gentlemen, Ne-Yo struggles between the need for love and the desire for fame-money-power, all of which adds up to easy sex. “I’m turned on but scared of you,” he sings on “Beautiful Monster” to a temptress The-Dream would have been in bed with an hour ago. The song is a detour from Ne-Yo’s standard benign grind into faux techno. The attempt at conceptual significance doesn’t compromise Ne-Yo’s melodic gifts, but it also doesn’t rock as tough as Gentlemen. Good manners has its limits.

More reviews after the jump.

Le Noise
-Neil Young (Reprise/Warner)
The wonder of Neil Young’s music is the way the instrumental attack, whether electric or acoustic, complements the thematic purposes. Though words still mean something on his latest, the emphasis on effects realized by Daniel Lanois’s intrusive production and the lack of a band where one is expected makes this Young’s first studio album since Trans where the singer seems secondary to the event, even if he’s the only person performing. It’s difficult to listen to a rock song like “Sign of Love” and not anticipate Crazy Horse crashing in any second; instead the guitar groans and rumbles, oblivious to Young’s emphatic point that love lasts forever. War is eternal, too, which may explain why he does “Love and War” on an acoustic guitar without effects. He does the same on “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” a song about shooting buffalo. Makes you think about the man’s priorities.

The Fool
-Warpaint (Rough Trade/Hostess)
The band ideal of “tightness” has various permutations. For punks it means everyone comes together on the downbeat, wherever it may land and however often it occurs. For the four members of Los Angeles’s Warpaint it means being in one another’s heads at all times. Though the vibe is dreamy and the dynamics rarely drown out the conversation at the bar, the interactions are as intense as the most brutal hardcore. Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman create harmonies with both their guitars and their voices that seem improvised on the spot, a quality that owes a lot to the open-ended compositions and Jenny Lee Lindberg’s bass lines, which are forefronted and give the songs an exoskeletal structure. Less beholden to West Coast psychedelia than to UK shoegazer pop, Warpaint’s music works from the bottom up, but eventually it gets into your head, too.

You Are Not Alone
-Mavis Staples (Anti-/Sony)
A great gospel performance connects the listener to the spirit directly. Various big name producers, including Steve Cropper and Prince, have attempted to translate Mavis Staples’ church soul into the more secular sort and met with considerably less success than her father Pops did in the 70s. Jeff Tweedy’s relationship to gospel is secondhand but his understanding of Staples’ gifts is profound. Most of the songs here are gospel standards the singer has covered before, but Tweedy isn’t afraid to lead her into uncharted waters. The gentle Carribean lilt on “In Christ There Is No East or West” brings out the song’s universalist sentiments without bombast and yet Staples sounds as joyous as she does on the trad shouters. Her covers of Newman and Fogerty are sublime, but the chestnut is the Tweedy original, a lovely song about comfort in times of strife that Staples nails to your heart.

Fluid Moments
-Tim Deluxe (Beat)
Though most of what made producer Tim Deluxe a household name on the club scene in the previous decade were song-based singles featuring vocalists, at heart he’s a DJ and this new Japan-only collection is, as he says in the press kit, all “straight up club bangers” Playful, expansive, and sample-heavy, the cuts are high concept, whether nostalgically revisiting a specific venue where Deluxe cut his teeth or channeling African and black American forms in entirely distinctive ways. Though some of this stuff has been released before, a great deal of effort has been put into making it all flow seamlessly, thus the album title. The banger qualification is an honest one. Regardless of the tone or source material, everything hits the floor dancing and while the break beats don’t bust any unusual moves they show up in all the right places and evince predictably happy reactions.

A Coming of Age
-Lucky Soul (Ruffa Lane/Imperial)
From the coy liner notes to the clap-happy arrangements and Ali Howard’s breathy vocals, Lucky Soul embodies a classic British pop sound that scans just this side of cheesy. They use strings but not extravagantly. They favor big, open-hearted choruses, but stop short of Broadway musical overkill. The phony Northern soul sincerity of “Up in Flames” needs a singer with greater range and better acting skills than Howard provides, and the title ballad wanders prettily about without ever getting anywhere, but leader Andrew Laidlaw’s songs in general stand up fairly well to the Hollies-BeeGees-Dexys test, and productions such as “Ain’t Nothing Like a Shame” point to a future in dance music for TV kids. Reportedly the group’s first album was a left-field hit and it’s taken three years to come up with this followup, which doesn’t sound particularly “lucky.” Teen pop should be more effortless.

Pussycat
-John Phillips (Yellow/MSI)
It’s easy to forget how musically incestuous the 60s were. Everyone in pop knew each other, regardless of how different they were stylistically. After the Mamas and the Papas broke up, leader John Phillips, who died in 2001, launched a sporadically successful solo career that led to his being the first artist signed to the Rolling Stones’ new boutique label. Produced in 1976-77 by Jagger and Richards, and accompanied by both Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood, Pussycat didn’t actually see a release in any form until the late 90s. The Stones’ influence is only discernible on “She’s Just 14” (unfortunate title, given the recent accusations of sexual abuse by daughter Mackenzie), but Phillips’ natural melodic gifts had not left him yet and while many of the tracks are burdened with syrupy strings and incongruous backing vocals the songs have a loose-limbed appeal that transcends their novelty status.

The Age of Adz
-Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty/P-Vine)
Whatever his worth as an artist, Sufjan Stevens deserves attention as the one indie singer-songwriter most dedicated to the album format. Though his songs stand as distinctive units, it’s their position within his larger concepts that offer value. The main problem is that music consumers these days don’t have the attention spans to absorb properly what Stevens is selling. The Age of Adz is even more problematic in this regard than his last album, Illinois, not so much because the subject (a perplexing romantic relationship) is amorphous, but because Stevens has revived the electronic arrangements he began his career with and married them to his well-developed orchestral skills. Even the short songs are dense with detail and tend to overwhelm whatever message Stevens is trying to convey with his characteristically gentle vocals. Like all great things, the album reveals itself in time. I’m about halfway there.

PD
-Jimanica (Headz)
Jimanica is the project of 35-year-old classically trained Tokyo musician who made his living as a freelance drummer in the late 90s in New York and then in 2006 reinvented himself as a laptop artist. His second album is anchored by complex drum patterns, but the dominant musical elements are vocal samples that have been reconfigured and edited to form melodic lines and counterpoint. Though it’s hardly an original idea, Jimanica’s strong rhythmic sense makes it sound newer than it has any right to be, probably because the words being spoken/sung remain in tact even though they’re being forced to occupy spaces defined by the drumming. The result is a curious syntax that blends musical and verbal grammars. It isn’t as obtuse as it sounds. Many of the cuts qualify as dance music, albeit for people with a very open idea of what their feet are capable of.

Lisbon
-The Walkmen (Fat Possum/Hostess)
Masters of a specific kind of urban folk rock whose roots go back to the Velvet Underground, the Walkmen previously marked progress in baby steps, but Lisbon, with its sunnier atmosphere and big drum sound, signals an audacious bid for attention. “There’s no life like the slow life,” Hamilton Leithauser sings on what sounds like the album’s statement of purpose, “While I Shovel the Snow,” but the music, often jangly and impatient, belies the meditative quality of the lyrics, and at times the contrast seems gratuitous. “Follow the Leader,” with its furiously strummed guitar and tom-tom beat coming from the next room, ruins a perfectly good melody for no good reason except that it provides an antic mood. “Blue as Your Blood” is more like it, a propulsive country tune whose sneaky string arrangement buoys Leithauser’s reedy, needy vocal line. No reason to make easy sound so hard.

National Ransom
-Elvis Costello (Hear/Universal)
Too bad EC’s upcoming shows are acoustic solo affairs. The Sugarcanes, who accompanied him on his last, more misbegotten affair with Americana, are turning into the ideal accompanists for his post-mellennial songs. Though country, jazz, and R&B make appearances here, Elvis’s muse has shifted back to rock; or, at least, it has on the strongest cuts. On the raucous title track, Stuart Duncan’s electric violin sounds practically techno; and even if the twangy guitars on “Five Small Words” are meant to evoke the spirit of Duane Eddy, the stuttery beat and the sinister sneer in Elvis’s vocals recall those good ol’ angry young man days. Since the singer’s confidence in the material never flags, some of the more outre tracks sound over-determined, as if the band hadn’t yet caught on to the point of the song. Sometimes, it seems only Elvis knows what he’s getting at.

Ungrateful
-Frankie and the Heartstrings (Yoshimoto)
Frankie Francis of Sunderland, England, has one of those wide, brassy voices that sound custom-made for television, and his backing band is stylistically nimble enough to follow his every dramatic impulse. If there’s more energy than inspiration on this one-off collection of pre-debut album tracks, the energy is definitely contagious, especially in the way the Heartstrings match Frankie’s off-the-cuff effusions with their own backing choruses. The clever juxtaposition of idiomatic signifiers with solid guitar riffs recalls the best of the pub rockers, though Frankie and the boys also display a keen understanding of the rhythmic legacy of the first post-punk wave, in particular the Gang of Four’s. In fact, the titular single, which is included here in two forms, is a slightly misleading representation of the group’s strengths, which lie not in 80s-style dance music but in the theatrical glam pop of industrial heartland rockers like Pulp.

Hurley
-Weezer (Epitaph/Sony)
New label, new outlook on life and art, right? Actually, Rivers Cuomo and company seem to have chosen punk-happy Epitaph in order to reinforce bona fides that no one has thought about since the 90s. And while “punk” was the best label Weezer could qualify for back in the day, the songs on Hurley are stadium fare, which is where the group hangs out these days when they play live. The mix is optimized for small speakers that can play stuff loud: Chunka-chunka guitar and Cuomo’s patented whine playing patty cake against soaring multitracked backing vocals. It’s the kind of rock college guys think girls like, so Hurley could be considered a return to Weezer basics, something fans will welcome and the rest of us who never got them will find perplexing. After fifteen years of trying to improve on auspicious beginnings, Weezer turns into the Offspring?

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