Here are the albums I reviewed for the Mar. issue of EL Magazine, which came out last Friday. Also, be sure to check out the new EL website at http://elbuzz.tv.
-Gruff Rhys (Ovni/Hostess)
By rights the Welsh group Super Furry Animals should be as big as Belle and Sebastian, another retro-pop outfit with strong regional ties that influence its creative output. But SFA leader Gruff Rhys is too much of a musical polymath to settle for a single identifiable trademark, and since the birth of the group in 1990 it’s gone through a complex evolution, from proto-techno to indie guitar band to post-millennial psychedelia. The only unifying elements are Rhys’ muffled, languorous vocals and his penchant for 70s-style melodies. Though Hotel Shampoo isn’t his first solo record, it’s certainly his most determined attempt to nail down a characteristic sound, which recalls post-Beatles orchestral pop and R&B centered on thumping piano chords. Referencing the horn vamp from “Get Ready,” the radio-ready “Sensations in the Dark” could be called a prime dance track if Rhys didn’t sound as if he were singing it from inside a closet. Obviously less interested in the visceral properties of a song, Rhys places all his resources in the service of creating the perfectly tooled pop ditty. He knows he doesn’t have the voice for it, but he carefully modulates every trill, falsetto break, and swoon if the song’s emotional dimension calls for it, all the while making sure that the rhythms shift for a reason and the carefully arranged instruments don’t trip all over themselves in the process. Borrowing the Bacharach style without Bacharach’s typical melodic knottiness, “Take a Sentence” would have made the perfect B.J. Thomas ballad even if Rhys himself is incapable of the kind of operatic showiness the song seems to call for. And sometimes, as on “Christopher Columbus,” a song demands cheesy synthesizers and flatulent sax solos, thus indicating that Rhys has little use for highbrow-lowbrow distinctions when it comes to pop: the idea supersedes its effect. If a song demands a cheesy synth, you don’t argue with it. This attitude may be a Welsh thing, if the new side project featuring former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vocalist Euros Childs is any indication. Jonny, a partnership between Childs and Teenage Fanclub‘s Norman Blake, champions an even more distilled form of early 70s pop obsession, the kind of West Coast guitar rock that pub rockers like Brinsley Schwarz retooled for drunken working class blokes. Blake, of course, has already tilled this field, and if Childs adds anything it’s a sense of innocence, as if he’d just discovered his parents’ secret stash of Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds singles in the attic. If Jonny shares anything with Rhys it’s his conviction that what made the 70s Top 40 great was its loopy disregard for thought-provoking lyrics. The catchiness of a song like “Goldmine” is not derived from its charging guitars but rather from the insistent conceit of its choral metaphor: “Goldmine, I’m diggin’ [repeat word six more times] for you!” Jonny proves once again that only really smart people are capable of producing music this mindlessly entertaining.
-Nicki Minaj (Young Money/Universal)
No one has confused her fans more about what’s real about her and what’s not, and that includes Gaga, but the great thing about Nicki Minaj is that she clearly enjoys the subterfuge and won’t tolerate anyone thinking there’s anything more significant about it than the fact that she does enjoy it. She’s show biz but she’s also honest, which means she can literally piss on her detractors while professing solidarity with all the girls who think they’re losers and not come across as fronting. She knows genuineness is a matter of proving certain things, like being able to sing as well as she raps, and showing she can hold her own against Natasha Bedingfield and Eminem alike. It also means being funnier than almost any hip-hop artist around, because that way the best producers want to give you their best beats. “Hard” isn’t enough any more.
-The Death Set (Counter/Beat)
Beau Velasco, half of the expat-Aussie duo The Death Set, which blew up in the Baltimore underground during the last decade, died of an overdose before he and partner Johnny Siera started their second album. Supposedly his spirit infuses Michel Poiccard (the name of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in Breathless), though we have to take Siera’s word for it. Not as chaotic as the first record, Michel still sounds like a drug binge–speed, to be specific. Siera’s “punk spazz” is completely physical, a rush of keening keybs, hyperactive drumming, and singing that, while recorded a little more cleanly this time, is often painful to listen to. The tribute song, “I Miss You Beau Velasco,” only makes concessions to tragedy with minor chords. Otherwise, it races through a narcotic haze. The Death Set doesn’t do anything new here, but they finally live up to their name.
The Cold Still
-The Boxer Rebellion (Yoshimoto)
More expats. This time the migration is double: Yank and Aussie meet in London, form a band, and release an album that garners some attention not only on the continent but in the States. Nevertheless, it’s easier to see their moody, dark music catching on in Britain than in the U.S., and The Cold Still bears the frequent comparisons to early Radiohead and Swervedriver, even if Nathan Nicholson has a prettier voice. One can object to the overuse of echo, though in a live setting it would appear to be indispensable for this sort of music, which sways more than it rocks. As demonstrated in the movie Going the Distance, where BR were the object of Justin Long’s professional attentions, this works quite well as date music. In the privacy of one’s home, it may even qualify as makeout music. On headphones it’s rather monotonous.
A mini-album released on its own and as a bonus to the debut album, Cannibal is in some ways a better record than its predecessor, though “better” is a term that needs to be qualified. Despite the titanium hooks, Ke$ha’s Auto Tune-processed suburban white girl diphthongs are certainly a matter of taste, and highlight the “sleazy” topics she’s so fond of shoving in your face. In what could be considered the record’s statement of purpose, “We R Who We R,” Ke$ha brags about hanging out with her friends at the club and then finishing off other people’s unfinished drinks. The object of derision in “Grow a Pear” [sic?] is a boy who initially gets her all hot but turns out to be less of a man than she can countenance. Not gay, mind you, just…feminine? Sentiments like these, and song titles like “C U Next Tuesday” and “Blow” are clearly meant to provoke, and then you get “The Harold Song” where she frets sentimentally over a lost love. The weird thing is, I can believe all of it.
Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham (Ace/MSI)
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham were staff musicians/writers for the storied Muscle Shoals, Alabama music scene in the 1960s and responsible for a whole raft of Southern soul hits, including Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman.” Though most of their songs are obscure, what’s startling about this collection is that the vast majority were recorded in either 1967 or 1968. The duo’s strong suit was the heart-stirring, gospel-tinged ballad, which vocalists like Solomon Burke and Etta James could really sink their teeth into. And while the album contains classics like Arthur Alexander’s “Cry Like a Baby” (also covered by the Box Tops) and the Sweet Inspirations’ version of the title tune, it also contains three previously unreleased sides by the likes of Jeanne Newman, Irma Thomas, and James Carr. There’s even Dionne Warwick doing “I’m Your Puppet.” And you thought she only did Bacharach.
-Asobi Sekusu (EMI)
Perhaps because of the name and the Japanese lead singer/keyboardist, many have described the music of this New York-based band as “ironic” and derived from J-pop, when all aural evidence points toward British shoegaze and orchestral synthesizer pop, both of which, of course, can be heard in Japan being performed by Japanese groups, but “ironic”? Fluorescene is a louder, tougher album than the group’s previous four, with Yuki Chikudate’s feathery vocals mixed high so as not to be overpowered by the crashing drums and erupting keyboards. Whereas the early recordings has a playful, ethereal character, this is more like a well-oiled music machine built for arenas. The one exception is “My Baby,” a slice of edgy Brill Building pop, which is actually closer in tone and purpose to the Shibuya-kei label that people often apply to Asobi Sekusu. Maybe they’re finally getting the idea.
Coming of Age
-Knesset (& Records)
Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, Knesset is a group of young musicians who tour in the road organizations of other indie artists and whose most noticeable trait is the kind of clear tones one gets from vibraphones, electric pianos, and the harmonics of lightly struck electric guitar strings. Not so much sunny as piercingly bright, the music suggests the poppier side of Sonic Youth without all the six-string gymnastics. The band dynamic rolls rather than rocks, and since they rarely vary tempos the album builds momentum on the strength of its melodic insistence, which isn’t necessarily carried by Evan Fox’s subdued and slightly unfocused vocals. Though they rarely create a racket, sometimes everything comes together in a loud blur, which could be taken as fulfilling the mandate of their name, Hebrew for “gathering” or “assembly.” I mention that because I don’t want you to think it’s anything political.
Doo-Wops and Hooligans
-Bruno Mars (Elektra/Warner)
There’s nothing that distinguishes this talented Hawaiian singer-songwriter from other chart-friendly R&B artists of the moment except maybe that everything that’s good about them is twice as prominent in the music of Bruno Mars. Though well-produced, his debut album dials down the non-instrumental digital components (though not the requisite guest shots from tail-riders B.o.B. and Lupe Fiasco) so as to provide a more direct conduit to the songs themselves. As everybody knows from “Fuck You,” the left-field hit he co-wrote with Cee-Lo, Mars has an eerie ability to hit a familiar hook without actually stealing one that’s copyrighted. Some might call this a limited achievement, but if “The Lazy Song” lives up to its title, “Talking to the Moon” and “Marry You” make up for it with Springsteeen-level fervor, and in the final analysis Mars’ gifts owe more to rock than to R&B or hip-hop.
Red Barked Tree
-Wire (Pink Flag/P-Vine)
No matter how many times they retire and regroup, every new Wire album is a surprise. Whereas the mid-00s run of self-released EPs showed them skirting the edge of techno hardcore, their latest collection is practically a primer on processed power pop. The opening cut, “Please Take” (as in “your knife out of my back”) is so amiably catchy that you can imagine the guys in Gang of Four thinking they’d been blindsided. More significantly, the intensity is undiminished, even when they revert to acoustic instruments. Graham Lewis’s “Bad Worn Thing” proves they haven’t lost their pointed sense of humor, and Colin Newman successfully vents his most caustic frustrations on “Two Minutes,” which takes exactly that long to present them. With GoF and Public Image back in the game, vintage post-punk has never been more available for study, but Wire prefers to add a whole new syllabus.
Darkside of the Sun
-Tokio Hotel (Universal)
Universal’s Japan arm attempts catchup with this special Japan-only compilation of English-language tracks from the German glam rockers’ previous two albums. Though most people hear emo, I hear a group whose absorption of 80s excesses make them the heir apparent to The Cure and Depeche Mode, and if you think that inheritance is ironic in nature, well, more power to you. The clean guitar lines and Bill Kaulitz’s androgynous, uber-California vocal delivery give them enough pop cred to apply for Katy Perry’s hard rock opening slot, but the reason they’re superstars is management, which has found them the best production and songwriting talent (Desmond Child, the Matrix, etc.) money can buy. That isn’t to say selling American pop culture to savvy Euro-kids is a cynical strategy; only that the band knows on which side its bread is buttered, and they’re taking big bites.
-Buke and Gass (Brassland/Hostess)
It sounds sort of disgusting, but the name of this band is taken from two instruments that its two members have invented, both of which utilize strings. Interestingly enough, “guitar” isn’t the word that comes to mind when listening to their experimental rock music. If anything, the drums capture the lion’s share of your attention, while Arone Dyer’s vocals conjure up images of P.J. Harvey with a slightly higher adenoidal shift. The songs are forced through nervous, halting rhythms without sacrificing their harmonic integrity or thematic power. Mostly it’s the confidence of the performance that impresses; whatever these instruments are (and it’s often difficult to tell) they assert themselves with admirable rigor and the promise of even greater delights on repeated play. At the moment, however, I can’t imagine listening to this album through anything less than a pair of good, sturdy speakers.
-Wagon Christ (Ninja Tune/Beat)
Wagon Christ, better known to his friends and family as Luke Vibert, is a funny guy. Most of his humor is best expressed in the titles of his tracks, which are even more straightforwardly descriptive than Orbital’s (“My Lonely Scene,” “Oh, I’m Tired”); but the real laughs are evinced by the vocal samples, which favor vintage R&B asides that mean everything in context (“give it to me!”) but sound sort of ridiculous when isolated and laid on top of a shimmering techno vamp or skittery hip-hop beat. Vibert does a good job of compartmentalizing his musical priorities: No consecutive tracks sound anything alike, thus making it easier for the listener to get all the way through to the end of this long album without spacing out. Of course, some people prefer sample-based music because it doesn’t force them to think. Those people should not buy this record.