April 2011 albums

Here are the album reviews from the April 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo yesterday.

21
-Adele (XL/Hostess)
Seasons of My Soul
-Rumer (Atlantic/Warner)
By now we’re way past the point where new pop artists recycle the music of the 60s-70s because that’s the music they grew up with. If they did grow up with it, it’s because it was their parents’ music. I’m not sure if this is the case with Adele, whose second album, like her first, broadcasts her age in the title. Logically, her parents’ music was probably made in the 1980s, while her first record traded in the pan-British R&B tradition associated with Amy Winehouse. 21 is more personal in that the songwriting is every bit as distinctive as Adele’s gospel vocal style, and gospel is the operative word here, the kind of gospel that inspired singer-songwriters like Judee Sill. Though God doesn’t appear in Adele’s songs, emotions are cast in the kind of cataclysmic-redemptive power you only get in deeply felt church music. And whereas 19 was built around acoustic guitars, the new record takes advantage of Adele’s personal brand of star power with rich, intelligent arrangements. Though the highly charged “Rolling in the Deep” seems to blow the album’s emotional wad right in the very first track, it’s followed by “Rumour Has It” (as in “I’m the one you’re leaving her for”), a shape-shifting demon of a soul ditty. Pianos and strings are used to excellent bombastic effect on the back-to-back ballads “Don’t You Remember” and “Set Fire to the Rain.” Some will say that Adele can get away with this purple melodrama because of her age, but such a canard assumes young people have less intellectual distance from their feelings. When it comes to making music, the shorter the distance the better. Leave the intellectual mediation to producers. Fellow Brit chanteuse Rumer (real name Sarah Joyce) is equally beholden to arrangers (in her case, Steve Brown) to bring out the full potential of her own songwriting, which is also steeped in the music of the 60s and 70s, though it owes less to gritty gospel and R&B than to show tunes and the twisty pop of Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach (who has already given her his approbation). She even includes a totally unironic version of David Gates’ “Goodbye Girl” on her debut. Effecting an MOR-styled velvet fog rather than Adele’s tortured soul singing and keeping the tempos uniformly liesurely, Rumer isn’t in the business of setting hearts on fire, but the honesty of the presentation combined with a worldly outlook that transcends the kind of lyrical frivolousness usually associated with so-called soft rock can still bring a lump to your throat. The tribute to Aretha Franklin is told within the framework of a teenage girl’s reliance on the music of the greatest pop singer of all time to get her through a difficult adolescence. And since she’s already been a denizen of the workaday world, Rumer has more to say about real life than does Adele, who is only worried about love. That’s another prerogative of youth.

Free Wired
-Far East Movement (Interscope/Universal)
Boosted as spearheading a new electrohop wave of Asian-Americans, this L.A.-based quartet certainly owes as much to the pop shamelessness of will.i.am, who had nothing to do with their debut, as they do to the hardened idiosyncratic music of Keri Hilson and Snoop Dogg, who provide prominent guest solos. “Like a G6” is the big hit, but the track’s relative stripped-down quality is not representative of the album’s mostly luxuriant flow and helium-filled beats. And as far as keeping things real for the homies, they wisely sing about what they know: college girls, studying hard, respect for their parents. In fact, one sort of wishes they didn’t rap so much about getting drunk for the sake of getting drunk, but there’s obviously an audience for that out there, as will.i.am knows all too well. At the end of a working day, you need a brew.

Different Gear, Still Speeding
-Beady Eye (Sony)
Such a crappy title is expected of Liam Gallagher now that he lacks the editing input of his brother. As a songwriter he’s just as predictable: No surprise there’s a song here titled “Beatles and Stones.” “I’m going to stand the test of time,” Liam sings, like those two groups, presumably. Well, maybe, but not based on this album, whose strengths are mostly in the mimicry. “The Roller” even steals the melody of “All You Need Is Love.” For those who believe Noel tried too hard to make Oasis distinctive and respectable, Beady Eye will be refreshing: Liam’s unabashed love of all that British rock accomplished in the 60s is laid out with pissy arrogance, and producer Steve Lillywhite knows exactly how to package it. The difference, of course, is that the the 60s classics were made by people with things to prove. Liam’s already a rock star.

Gimme Some
-Peter Bjorn and John (Sub Pop/P-Vine)
In the past, each member of this Swedish threesome wrote and sang his own songs, but this time Peter Moren seems to have done most of the front man work. Though Moren’s sensibility is 90s Amerindie with its single-note attention to melodic detail, the overall feel of Gimme Some is 60s power pop–all that trebly reverb tastefully applied for maximum headphone ecstasy. On “Dig a Little Deeper” and “Second Chance” they borrow a page from Vampire Weekend, making short work of the current indie craze for high life, but a more apt cognate would be Fountains of Wayne, especially in the way they interweave solid-state guitar riffs and vocal lines. If they lack FOW’s pop purity it’s because they aren’t shameless enough. PB&J only get real interesting when they get carried away: “Black Book” is like a Kinks song that’s trying to escape from Ray Davies’ clutches.

I Done a Album
-Beardyman (Sunday Best/Beat)
The prize-winning British beatboxer finally unloads his debut album after making a name for himself in 2010 on the festival circuit. Rather than showcase his extraordinary talents as a beatboxer, which really have to be seen to be believed, he presents his case as a producer, a calling where he’s up against a lot more competition. Since Beardyman’s appeal as a live performer is his gift for spontaneous composition, many of the cuts here lack depth, and a few go on way too long. His sharp sense of humor is demonstrated in the frequent interludes, most of which copy radio tropes and come off as warmed-over Monty Python. (“Here’s Justin Bieber being torn apart by wild dogs”) But because Beardyman’s brief is his ability to mimic any pop music style of the past half-century, the album has a tendency to wander all over the place stylistically.

To Too Two
-Uhnellys (Penguinmarket)
On their third album, Tokyo garage duo Uhnellys gets real liberal with the effects and swirly production. Looped within an inch of its life, multi-instrumentalist Kim’s singing seems at once disembodied and scattered, while drummer Midi locks into a cadence so rigid you’d think her life depended on it. Some might call this crude counterpoint, but the main impression one gets is of two musicians trying very hard to ignore each other. The jazzier cuts are tighter and more focused, even if Kim’s hybrid rap-croon has a way of losing track of the melody line. The hard-boiled blues-rock of “You Kill Time” comes closest to selling the group’s reputation as a kick-ass bar band, but even here Kim won’t use three words where ten will suffice. Uhnellys could be the most exciting band on the local scene if he’d only shut up once in a while.

Dust Bowl
-Joe Bonamassa (Avex)
Given his age, it’s not surprising that American guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s take on the blues is more in line with British rock traditions than American ones. When he’s in full rock regalia his riffs have that epic sweep that could so easily morph into a Jethro Tull or Humble Pie song. Bonamassa’s knack for the dramatic is as much a function of production as is his singular playing style. The title cut gets by on cool, spacey atmospherics, which is just as well since there isn’t much else to it. Even his stab at country boy authenticity, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Tennessee Plates,” sounds over-determined, despite the fact that Hiatt adds a verse-and-chorus himself. But he really reveals his hand on another cover, Paul Rodgers’ “Heartbreaker,” where he sounds at home. It’s the throaty vowels, not the stinging solo, which any hot shot teen axe-slinger can pull off.

Black Grass
-Little Wings (7 e.p.)
Portland-based singer-songwriter Kyle Field is one of those folkies who appropriate old-fashioned religious imagery for purely dramatic purposes. He’s a a droopier Bill Callahan. However, with his fragile, druggy voice and gentle, major-key melodies Field can sound anti-dramatic. He’s childlike, and the spiritual component has an innocent wonder to it. His internal rhymes are hypnotic, focusing attention on the weird logic of his lyrics. If the verses weren’t so dense, the songs on his ninth album would be perfect for singalongs, and despite the built-in drawl, Little Wings seems less informed by country music than by New Christy Minstrels-type pop folk, but minus the phony show biz cheerfulness. And while the instrumental minimalism comes off as an affectation (What, he can’t afford a pedal steel player any more?) it might be better suited to the darker cast of these songs. Is that what he means by “I Grow Too”?

Collapse Into Now
-R.E.M. (Warner)
Touted as a return to form–if you consider their early 90s output as a standard rather than their pre-Warner sides–R.E.M.’s latest is mainly comfort food, which, to tell you the truth, we could use more of these days. The stuttery, acoustic epic “Uberlin” brings out the best in Michael Stipe’s dry bleat, while the bafflingly titled “Mine Smell Like Honey” finds Peter Buck back cooking in that jingle-jangle morning. If “Oh My Heart” is supposed to recreate the warm familiarity of a mid-period ballad, it does so without making much of a lasting impression; something you can’t accuse “Discoverer” of. Here we find the group reaching for the heavy rock thunder of Monster, a record that doesn’t get as much respect as it should but ended up providing great fall-back material for their arena shows. After all, arena bands need arena songs.

Grown Unknown
-Lia Ices (Jagjaguwar/Hostess)
It usually bespeaks critical laziness to attribute a female singer-songwriter’s vocal style to Joni Mitchell, but Lia Ices sounds uncannily like the goddess of Topanga Canyon; or, at least, she does on “Daphne,” the second song on her second album, which also includes vocal input from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. What makes the similarity striking is that Ices’ favored style isn’t the folk-jazz-rock hybrid that Mitchell pioneered but conventional indie art rock, a form I’d imagine Joni would despise. Because the form invites certain affectations, Ices’ songs often border on the precious, more notable for their choice of instrumentation than for their lyrics or melodies. What always comes through is that voice, even on a purposely overblown blast of atmosphere like “Bag of Wind,” a great title that could be used against it if the singing weren’t so supple and emotionally charged.

Musica + Alma + Sexo
-Ricky Martin (Sony)
When George Michael made a similar stylistic move with Faith he was still in the closet, so in a way Ricky Martin’s new album should benefit from his own coming out. As the title indicates, most of the songs are in Spanish, but the music is forthrightly in the Miami dance pop mold, heavy on processed beats and unprocessed bass. Martin’s constricted tenor has more grit than it did when he was gloating about “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” a quality that sells the “sexo” component of the title triad with more assurance. Since “Loca” songwriter Desmond Child is responsible for most of the material contained herein, there are no great surprises, and the ballsy ballads offer Martin the opportunity to bust a lung for love. For all that, there are no breakout singles. Even the duet with Joss Stone–an English version of an earlier Spanish duet with Natalia Jimenez–is Sting on remote.

Several Shades of Why
-J Mascis (Sub Pop/P-Vine)
Like Neil Young, Dinosaur Jr. mastermind J Mascis occasionally takes a break from the guitar squall to pen a collection of acoustic ballads. If the results aren’t quite as striking as the squall they’re generally more notable than the songs that the squall accompanies. Not that Mascis is a particularly compelling lyricist. Apropos his woe-is-me singing style, the words reveal the kind of scared child who asks lots of questions he doesn’t expect answers to (four of the songs are posed as such without punctuation), and while a little of this mopey melodicism goes a long way, the picking and strumming are still pretty stellar and sell the melancholy wholesale. And on “Is It Done” he even doubles on electric for a particularly piercing solo. Reportedly, real Dino fans don’t like this kind of stuff, and I can understand. He is not, after all, Neil Young.

Let England Shake
-PJ Harvey (Island/Universal)
Continuing to grow without creating anything new under the sun, PJ Harvey compiles an album that looks at England through the prism of World War I, an event that most rock artists have little interest in since it’s just so old and boring. Harvey correctly posits it as the source of everything that rocked the 20th century, and so she also thinks it should rock you. Nevertheless, in keeping with the generally subdued tack of White Chalk, she keeps a lid on the wild woman theatrics that characterized her rise in the 90s. Using a higher vocal register and a subdued pallette of sonics, she portrays England in a light her grandparents might understand but which young people today may interpret as overly mannered and arty. Too bad. If you follow the songs in order, they become increasingly horrifying but no less catchy for it. I’m appalled, and thrilled.

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2 Responses to April 2011 albums

  1. Jeffrey says:

    “. . . Adele’s gospel vocal style . . .”?

    Stopped reading after that.

  2. Laura says:

    Adele’s 19 was strong. 21 is simply timeless. In the past two years, Adele has refined and reinvented her unique sound that always puts her aching yet powerful vocals and lyrics at the forefront. These are songs that could have been released in the 60s as easily as 30 years from now. Adele has injected her trademark piano ballads with the best from several different musical genres including Americana roots and country, r&b, blues and gospel. The music is exciting and simply is. It lives, breathes. I played a couple songs for my mom, who at forty years older than I, generally criticizes my music taste, and the first thing she said was “Wow, this girl really knows how to write a story–those songs are beautiful.”

    Laura @

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