February 2011 albums

Here are the albums I wrote about for the Feb. issue of EL Magazine, which comes out today. Though we continue to use the term “CD” in the magazine, I’ve decided to change the related blog post to “album” since several of these came into my possession over my net connection (legally, mind you; I still beg record companies for samples). Obviously, many of them are already “old” if you consider when they were released outside of Japan. I’d prefer to think of them as more seasoned, and my listening habits more leisurely.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
-Kanye West (Def Jam/Universal)
No Mercy
-T.I. (Atlantic/Warner)
Major label hip-hop isn’t dead, but there was little of it released last year that brought me out of myself. The Drake album was underwhelming, the Rick Ross thing generic to a fault; even The Roots’ How I Got Over felt inconsequential compared to much of their previous work. And then Kanye West stepped up with what has been roundly declared the album of the year, and for good reason. West remains one of the few big money rappers who still runs on inspiration, a commodity that has proved to be in ever-decreasing supply as hip-hop became the de facto pop music of the new millennium, and I include Lil Wayne in that equation. West’s prog-rock obsessions are what supposedly made his last album a near dud, but he’s a musician who understands that obsessions, regardless of how thoroughly they can screw up your judgment in the realm of real life, are capable of giving birth to real art, and West is nothing if not a self-conscious artist. Explicit in the title of his new album, his obsessions bear impressive musical and thematic fruit, whether it’s in the brilliantly utilized samples of everything from King Crimson to Mike Oldfield, the laser-like bead he takes on his own disturbing pecadilloes, or the insistence on incorporating guests who will both upstage him (Nicki Minaj, in particular) and provide startling contrast (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon). In the album’s centerpiece, “Runaway,” West toasts the “douchebags, assholes, scumbags and jerkoffs” who are “gifted at finding what [they] don’t like the most.” Tension emerges from the play between this self-doubt and the arrogance implicit in the rapping tone, and which is ratcheted up with music so confident and immediate it can stand up to one of Gil Scott-Heron’s most caustic rants. Moreover, Fantasy is a real album, a collection of songs that complement and build on one another, just like the classic prog rock records that seem to have inspired West in the first place. T.I.’s latest album is more in the conventional hip-hop style, “inspired” by what is unfortunately a cliche hip-hop situation: incarceration. The Georgia rapper had scheduled a different release to celebrate his own after a year inside on a gun conviction, but then he was collared for a parole violation (drugs) and sent back, and No Mercy is what we get instead. Consequently, some people are interpreting its conciliatory tone as a cave-in to popular opprobrium, having obviously expected something tougher. For sure, the self-pity is often risible (“it’s so empty living behind these castle walls”) but introspection doesn’t automatically disqualify a rapper as Kanye proves, and if this very long CD sounds like it was hastily decked out with tracks from the B-files to achieve its more chart-friendly purposes, well, T.I. is a chart-friendly guy, and while the party cuts may indicate to fans that he’s not as remorseful as the other tracks imply, they’re still party cuts.

Kiss Each Other Clean
-Iron and Wine (4AD/Hostess)
Sam Beam’s evolution from hushed gothic solo singer-songwriter to band leader is probably best explained as access to better resources, but it has nevertheless brought about a lessening of his distinctive voice. There’s nothing on his new record that delivers the chills which were so ample on his first two bare-bones recordings. Seconded by a jazzy sax that sounds as if it wandered over from a mid-70s Paul Simon session, Beam is downright cheerful on “Me and Lazarus,” and the nostalgic reverie, “Tree by the River,” is rendered insipid by a la-la-ing back chorus and amatuerish guitar solo. The flanged vocal effects, electronic percussion, and flute on “Rabbit Will Run” are the antithesis of gothic, though it’s obvious from the lyrics that the song is meant to convey a spooky desperation. If you find it scary, you’re probably intimidated by the Little River Band.

Eggs Are Funny
-Mew (Sony)
Playing music as warm as an igloo, the Danish band Mew has made 21st century prog-rock safe for pure pop people, and though this career-so-far summing-up necessarily leaves out the suite-like track configurations that distinguish their stand-alone albums, it should still pose a rewarding challenge to those unfamiliar with their manic buzz. Mew utilizes the same high-pitched warble (mewling?) that Sigur Ros is famous for, not to mention a similar reliance on symphonic keyboards and cold atmospherics. If their rhythmical mischief and fusoid tendencies offend your rock-purist sensibilities, their climactic structures and honey-dipped melodies should nevertheless stimulate that pleasure center all sentient beings possess but don’t always admit to. Completists should note that the Japan edition contains one song each from the first two albums, which were never released in Japan, as well as two entirely new tunes. But if you’re a completist you already know that.

The King of History
-D.O. Misiani & Shirati Jazz (Sterns/Rice)
A member of the Luo tribe (like Barack Obama’s father) who invented the Kenyan benga style, D.O. Misiani attracted Western attention in the 80s when he cut some albums in Europe, but this compilation, perhaps goosed by the success of Vampire Weekend, who are clearly influenced by Misiani, samples his best work from the 70s. The reason for the “jazz” moniker isn’t clear, but in a world where intricacy was prized for its own sake, this stuff is Byzantine: counterpoint single-note guitar lines and staccato fret work weaving in and out of hyperactive bass and choral vocals so tightly packed and strategically positioned they barely miss getting creamed by the instrumental attack. Frantic doesn’t begin to describe this music, whose impetus is so forceful you may have trouble crossing the room when it’s playing. “To dance is your choice” was Misiani’s stock phrase. No, there is no choice.

Verdugo Hills
-Caroline (and Records)
A full-time member of the ambient pop collective Mice Parade, this baby-voiced electronica artist trades in “miniature symphonies of the soul,” a description that sounds pretentious but is still fairly accurate. The pops and glitches and non-musical effusions are sufficiently subdued so as not to interfere with her conventionally pretty singing and melodic keyboard rumbles, but just intriguing enough to give the music a fullness of texture that it would otherwise lack. The hushed quality of the presentation, from the whispery delivery to the ticking-in-the-next-room percussion, casts an unavoidably somnambulant spell over the listener that some will find monotonous, but since Caroline knows and prefers real songs there’s enough variety from one three-minute track to the next to encourage use of the repeat and shuffle functions. One is reluctant to call Verdugo Hills a keeper, but while it’s in your ear it makes itself at home.

Rolling Blackouts
-The Go! Team (Avex)
The 2006 debut album by The Go! Team, composed and played by one man, almost didn’t get released overseas because of its many uncleared samples. The band that eventually formed around Jamie Bell has, on this their third collection, cohered to the point where samples feel superfluous, and the change is welcome. The Go! Team has always been an energetic live act, but now the energy has been utilized to serve songwriting, which pierces the band’s armor of trebly fuzz and hip-hopping cheerleader sonics. Bell’s affection for American cop-show themes is still evident on the instrumental cuts, but elsewhere the sunny sounds of the late Sarah label enjoy a full renaissance, especially on what will likely be the breakout single, “Buy Nothing Day,” which is the most sweetly infectious piece of Britpop since the demise of the Sundays, who were never this cool in the first place.

-Twin Shadow (4AD/Hostess)
Instantly familiar and thus immediately appealing, the warmed-over New Wave music of one-man bedroom band George Lewis, Jr. is both atmospheric in substance and contradictory in its musings on an idealized childhood (forget what?). Lewis, who sometimes sings like Morrissey before the cynical impulse took hold and at other times in the throaty cadences of Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh, is obviously talented enough as a musician to create solid dance tracks even without the help of producer Chris Taylor (of Grizzly Bear), but Taylor gives his substrates a refreshing astringency. Consistently livelier than most of its influences, Twin Shadow nevertheless lacks definition, which is odd for a one-man band when you think about it. Like another Brooklyn-based 80s-derivative act, Yeasayer, Lewis is a wondrously resourceful interpreter of his past as a music listener but has little to add to it. He’s forgotten nothing, which may be the problem.

-Tinie Tempah (Parlophone/EMI)
The sobriquet “Prince William’s favorite rapper” is a juicier way of saying “the most popular rapper in the UK at this moment.” Though Tinie Tempah has been around since 2007, his star rose this past year on the strength of a sophomore album that managed to reach the kids without the usual Britpress fulminations. Backed by the thin sonics of grimestep, Tinie wields an impressive array of rap styles, from the swaggering flat affect of “Pass Out” to the electro-minimalist restraint of “Wonderman.” Though he isn’t as dramatically gifted as Dizzee Rascal, he’s more flexible and musical; more American-sounding, too, which may explain his popularity in spite of the initial authorized negligence in the press. Though the single, “Written in the Stars,” is so floridly produced it hardly has room for Tinie, it’s the kind of thing that passes for edgy on US radio. Time for infiltration?

A History of Now
-Asian Dub Foundation (Beat)
Endeavoring to get a handle on the zeitgeist, ADF rolls back some of the sonic adventurousness of their recent work, opting for a uniform frontal attack dependent on the pinned out twin vocals of Al Rumjen and Aktarvator. Though the usual dub and Asian elements are fully in evidence, the beats are more resolutely rock, the better to convey a feeling of being in the midst of pounding change that manifests in the click of a mouse. Though hardly fresh stuff, the band has such a sure command of its musical idiom that even the triter expressions (“you can’t download the sun”) make themselves felt. Besides, all you need to get the import of “Where’s All the Money Gone” is the title chorus juxtaposed against a piledriving punk riff. Still one of the prime concert acts on the planet, ADF tends to sing to the choir anyway.

-Rihanna (Def Jam/Universal)
Clearly a means of keeping Rihanna in the public consciousness while her handlers plan her next makeover, Loud isn’t the stopgap its detractors claim. The singer attracts so many high-rent producers and songwriters that all she has to do is record it all and then cut away the lesser results. The opening cut, “S&M,” gets by on an irresistible hook and a slamming beat that receives little input from Rihanna, whose chorus sounds looped. Drake spells her during the expository section of “What’s My Name” and, as on the Kanye cut mentioned above, Nicki Minaj provides her own ballast during a brief appearance on “Raining Men.” When Rihanna does add something of her own, like the husky Caribbean lilt on “Cheers,”or the full-on diva eruption on “Only Girl,” it makes a difference, but those are excellent songs in the first place. That’s the real difference.

Golden Week for the Poco Poco Beat
-The Suzan (Downtown/Hostess)
Having built a solid reputation first in Europe and then in New York, this Japanese quartet betrays a certain fashionista attitude toward pop with its painstaking vocal arrangements and offbeat structures. Musically, the Suzan is proudly derivative, mostly of pre-Beatles American pop, and one of their unusual qualities is how they remain on the edge of an idea. The Zombies-like drive of the album’s best cut, “Rainy Day,” is fully engaged, but what to make of “Come Come,” with its mambo beat and nursery rhyme lyrical cadences? Is “Rondo,” which features more jungle drums and a wordless ascending vocal line, a joke? Practice makes perfect, so the Cab Calloway elements on “Uh Ah” are impressive without being particularly enjoyable. If the record needs anything it’s more guitar. Bjorn Yttling’s production often reduces everything to voices and drums, which is weird. The Suzan don’t strike me as dyed-in-the-wool minimalists.

-Michael Jackson (Sony)
The first leftovers album from the Jacko vault, the inevitably titled Michael, contains ten tracks that were “newly completed,” thus indicating their origins as demos and fragments. In fact, a lot of it sounds like discarded back tracks married to snippets of vocals. The two postmortem duets, “Hold My Hand” with Akon and “Monster” with 50 Cent, owe more to the partners than to Michael. “Hollywood Tonight” would have probably sounded great if Jackson had been encouraged to work on it more. Unsurprisingly, the most sustained cuts are the two oldest songs, “Behind the Mask” and “Much Too Soon,” which reward repeated listenings. The former is a scorching rock number and the latter a sweet string-laden ballad, each representing one extreme of Jackson’s ouevre. Everything else on the album exists in the vague in-between of his career, and though that career was hardly ordinary, they were discarded for a reason.

Sit Down, Man
-Das Racist (Mishka)
Less willfully provocative than lazily free associative, this New York rap duo-plus-beatmaker still gives their stuff away, which is why they can get away with the Jay-Z and Doors samples, the only real provocation a hip-hopper can make these days. Verbally, it’s all about the rhymes and showing off literary smarts if not outright intelligence; the resultant and frequent laughs are just gravy. I’ll admit to the “social commentary” even if I can’t parse it through the density of their wordplay, but in any case the artful locutions, like the circular chorus on “hahahaha jk?”, are enough proof that these jokers are serious about what they do even if they aren’t serious about anything else, including making money from this stuff. What’s really provocative is their proposition that they can have fun doing this rap shit while sponging off of everyone they know, including their mothers and Diplo.

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