May 2011 albums

Here are the album reviews from the May 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed throughout Tokyo today.

Computers and Blues
-The Streets (679/Warner)
-Lupe Fiasco (Atlantic/Warner)
There’s something irresistibly intriguing about an artist who quits at the top of his game, probably because almost nobody ever really does it. Mike Skinner has announced that Computers and Blues will be the last Streets album, which probably means his next project will be released under his own name. Since Skinner is, for all intents and purposes, The Streets, it sounds more like a PR move. Detractors will claim that he hit his creative peak on his second album, but all of his releases have been hits in the literal sense in his native England. As Skinner became more of a cultural presence, the changes in his material circumstances were reflected in his output, from the hard-scrabble public-housing getting-by themes of Original Pirate Material to the disillusioned-with-celebrity tantrums of The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, but what remained constant was Skinner’s uniquely evocative flow, a dialectically challenging conversation with himself that went beyond confessional rapping to storytelling with a deep psychoanalytical purpose. Computers attempts to wrap it all up in a strangely clinical way, as if the self-analysis were a means to a thesis. Skinner’s strength as an MC was his casual tone and personal vocabulary. Here he sounds as if he’s purposely reading from a script. As a stylistic decision it’s impossible to explain except that maybe Skinner wants us to see him as embracing a more general persona, but on a cut like “A Blip on a Screen,” which is about his seeing his baby on an ultrasound monitor, it comes across as generic documentary. This conventional narrative approach clashes with the musical component, which is livelier and louder than his usual dancefloor garbage cleanup. The energy is infectious, which makes the raps seem even more canned. Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco has been around for an even shorter time than Skinner, and for a while at least it was reported that he was quitting the game after two well-received albums. Lasers emphatically declares that he’s around for the long haul. It sounds expensive, as if it were an investment. As with most dance pop these days, the production has priority and the raps are dropped in like CARE packages: something to help them survive. The lines in “Words I Never Said” are hardly an easy fit. The pounding synths throw Lupe around like a ragdoll in a dryer. He sounds as if he never had a chance. The record’s title plays up its arena ambitions, which appear to have little use for Lupe’s thematic eccentricities or his love of left-field indie music. If anything of this new direction is refreshing it’s that it occasionally allows Lupe to try something a bit simpler, like the nursery rhyme cadences of “Till I Get There,” an usually happy tune and one that brings out his childishness. Heavy? Hardly. But if he’s in this rap thing for good he’d better start assuming the right attitude.

The King of Limbs
-Radiohead (Hostess)
In a constant search for a delivery model that matches their musical inspirations, Radiohead has remained fluid and innovative, and their latest qualified release, more accurately described as a bundle of eight tracks, could conceivably be considered the end of the quest. Though coherent and satisfying, it sounds like something distilled on the spot, fragments brought together quickly and turned into songs while the thrill was still hot. One might complain that The King of Limbs is not an album for the ages, but it fills the moment very well indeed, especially given the rhythmic intensity of its first half. Though famous as the band that made textures safe for the radio, Radiohead rocks out more resolutely than they have since OK Computer, which isn’t to say they’re loud. I’m not disappointed that they keep a lid on the potential hysteria, though some certainly will be.

Femme Fatale
-Britney Spears (Sony)
Give songwriter Max Martin his due. If Britney Spears represents the epitome of the manufactured pop idol, he’s the epitome of the pop idol manufacturer. After several albums sampling the competition, Britney brings Martin back for her latest. He co-writes and co-produces half of the album’s 16 tracks. This means at least half the record recreates the bouncy fluff of Britney’s classic period, and while the double entendres no longer signify as strongly (“If I say I want your body/will you hold it against me?”) they remind you how much you missed them when they were replaced by a purer form of sleaze, even if they were stolen. Britney herself also doesn’t signify as strongly, which is just as well. She’s here to be processed, sliced, Auto Tuned, and spelunked, and the results are pretty exciting. Giving up her agency was the best thing she’s ever done for pop.

-Hiromi (Telarc/Universal)
Hiromi Uehara wrote all the songs on her new album, and while they occasionally wander into the muddy terrain of fusion, they avoid the prog-rock hyperbole of her work with Sonic Bloom. More importantly, they retain their melodic distinctiveness even during the improvisational passages. They’re true compositions and take into consideration the muscular accompaniment she receives from bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. Though the melodies avoid cocktail flourishes, they’re populist enough to appeal to people who find Bill Evans too cerebral and Oscar Peterson too busy. Even the solos, which in Hiromi’s hands often run off the rails, are restrained and bluesier than on her other trio albums, or on her one solo album. The capper is a version of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” that sounds like a gimmick but ends the record with a welcome infusion of humor. More than anything, Hiromi wants to have fun.

Mind Bokeh
-Bibio (Warp/Beat)
Stephen Wilkinson isn’t content to construct beautiful sound collages. He wants to be a singer-songwriter, and while the vocals on his sixth LP have been stressed to the point of breaking, they retain their character. What’s different this time is that they serve songs rather than embellish them. Even if “Pretentious” sounds as if it’s been through a Cuisinart, the song’s genesis as a smooth R&B jam is apparent. The poppy guitar anthem “Take Off Your Shirt” sets the frantic abandon of Basement Jaxx against the casual professionalism of Nick Lowe, which means it could use more guitar and less of Wilkinson’s adenoidal bleat. He references the Japanese word “boke” in its photographic sense as meaning “out-of-focus,” though he might have been better off using the more figurative meaning: “silly.” As it turns out, Mind Bokeh is actually too vivid, and not really dumb enough.

The Majestic Silver Strings
-Buddy Miller (New West/MSI)
Thanks to people outside the traditional country community, Buddy Miller has become as sought-after a producer as T-Bone Burnett, and though the cover pegs him as the author of this collection, he’s mainly the skipper. The Majestic Silver Strings is a quartet of guitarists: Miller, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Greg Leisz. Though Miller sings a few tunes, Ribot sings more, and the bulk of the vocals are female, though the famous guests wander outside their normal comfort zones. Emmylou Harris does the Patsy Cline-like number while Patty Griffin takes to the honky tonk. Lee Ann Womack tackles Ribot’s tongue-in-cheek oddity “Meds” with a little too much knowing elan, but it’s Chocolate Genius who earns the interpretive kudos, replacing Roger Miller’s carefree jauntiness with suicidal desperation on Miller’s ode to irresponsibility, “Dang Me.” And you thought this would be a guitar freak out.

-The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland/Yoshimoto)
These days nobody begrudges indie bands the help of a superstar producer the way they used to, so this able-bodied guitar pop quartet only earned props for getting Flood and Alan Moulder to helm their sophomore effort. Though initially boosted as neo-shoegazers, here the group comes off as a progressive power pop outfit; an altered perception that can probably be credited to the cleaner production. That Kip Berman’s girlish whisper pushes to the front of the churning instrumental mix indicates that lo-fi just won’t do any more. The band necessarily loses much of its appealing spunk in the bargain. It’s impossible to listen to these songs and not be reminded of the producers’ past glories, the U2 roar of the title song, the Depeche Modish bounce of “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now.” POBPAH were never that original, but they could fool you into thinking they were.

I Know I’ve Been Changed
-Aaron Neville (EMI)
As a producer Joe Henry gets way too much work from old school soul singers who need a late career goose. Henry’s intentions are always good but his material usually falters. With Aaron Neville that’s not a problem since he’s decided to go down the gospel road on his latest album. With Allen Toussaint on piano and a crackerjack New Orleans church quartet singing backup, Neville burns through a clutch of acoustic gospel favorites from his youth that shade toward country here, blues there. Referencing Sam Cooke as much as possible, his famously angelic voice never sounded so nimble–or happy–than on the chipper “I Done Made Up My Mind”; never as other-worldly as on Odetta’s calypso-inflected “Meetin’ at the Building.” The selections, and the interpretations, are so eclectic you might figure Neville for an ecumenical. Actually, he’s Roman Catholic, and don’t forget, “catholic” means “all-inclusive.”

-Low (Sub Pop/P-Vine)
When Low started moving away from slowcore, a genre they basically invented, more than ten years ago, no one thought the change would amount to much. Slowcore may have been a bogus affiiliation but it made the group distinctive. The albums they subsequently made with producers like Dave Fridmann were lush and inconsequential, but C’mon is lush and significant. It’s also determinedly slow, thus proving that the group had a plan all along. The proof is not so much in Alan Sparhawk’s monumental guitar since it’s always been monumental, but rather in the harmonic vocal interplay between Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker, which holds up to the symphonic arrangements. Since Low were never distinctive as tunesmiths, they always got by on arrangements, but here they sculpt each melody line as if it were made of granite. Whether loud or soft, each track feels important, something to get lost in.

-tUnE-yArDs (4AD/Hostess)
Merrill Garbus’s kitchen recordings using laptop technology and found sounds wouldn’t be any different from others’ kitchen recordings using laptop technology and found sounds except for two things: her amazingly pliant vocal technique and her totally whacked-out sensibility. Her second album isn’t as startlingly fresh as her first one, which was originally distributed for free on her website. Maybe it’s because she’s slaving for a label now, but the song structures are more conventional and the sonics more musical. She even endeavors to sing in accordance with popular taste, as with the reggae howling on “Gangsta.” Some will welcome the integrity, while others will miss the singular patchwork quality of Bird-Brains. For all its fullness of feeling, Whokill lacks the intimacy Garbus conveyed on that record, the sense that she really was recording the bugs outside her bathroom window or the kid sitting on her lap.

The People’s Key
-Bright Eyes (Saddle Creek/Universal)
With Conor Oberst having announced several years ago that Bright Eyes was finished, this brief resurrection can’t help but feel anti-climactic, and compared to the resilient quality of his other output, its tentativeness is difficult to overlook. Apparently, Oberst decided Bright Eyes would provide the perfect break from the Americana he’d been plying since the early 2000s, but the orchestral pop and banged-out rock of The People’s Key has even less to do with the insular singer-songwriter fare of Bright Eyes in its most notorious form. Intermittently crammed with the crackpot musings of Denny Brewer, the record sets itself up as a concept album without actually drawing the listener in to a center. Oberst can throw off melodies and string together pleasant sounding phrases in his sleep, and he sounds at once engaged in the project but detached from the songs. The lock refuses to open.

Gloss Drop
-Battles (Warp/Beat)
Battles is the sort of rock band whose dynamic is so locked-in that it’s difficult to tell where one member’s contribution leaves off and another’s begins, which probably explains why the remaining three didn’t replace Tyondai Braxton when he left prior to finishing their followup to the critical smash Mirrors. As it turns out, Braxton was mainly responsible for the vocals, which, despite their paucity in the Battles’ overall postrock sound, still meant something, so they did what any band with that kind of cred does. They hired guests, including Matias Aguayo, Gary Numan, and Yamataka Eye. That solved, they then had to wonder if the group’s storied density would suffer, but drummer John Stanier is the densest time keeper on the planet, and in any case Braxton didn’t make things dense so much as complicated. Without him, the compositions retain their signature hardness but are lighter, more playful.

Thank You Happy Birthday
-Cage the Elephant (Sony)
It never occurred to me how much Black Francis and Ozzie Osbourne had in common timbre-wise until I heard this Kentucky band with a thing for early 90s alt-rock. Even the flip-off to their assumed fan base, “Indy Kidz,” borrows liberally from both the Pixies’ psychotic beat and Sabbath’s thunderous roar without compromising either. If Cage the Elephant doesn’t make themselves felt as immediately as those two pioneers it’s because they rarely follow anything like a plan through to the end of a cut. “Shake Me Down” careens through several shades of emo before crashing and burning and then picking itself up and dusting itself off; while “Sell Yourself” marries a lyric worthy of Doolittle to a Chili Pepper riff that just won’t sit still long enough for you to get a handle on it. The manic energy is appreciated, but sometimes you just want to hear the song.

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