July 2011 albums

Here are the album reviews from the July 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which was published in Tokyo today.

Born This Way
-Lady Gaga (Interscope/Universal)
Stone Rollin’
-Raphael Saadiq (Sony)
It’s encouraging to note that the biggest artist of this young decade is primarily a songwriter. Whatever her credentials as drama queen, outsider spokesperson, or fashion disaster, Lady Gaga paid her way into the pantheon of pulchritude by penning instantly likable disco-rock singles. Not for nothing is the name of her boutique label Streamline: Efficiency is Gaga’s watchword, not so much in the economy of instrumentation or instantly recognizable sentiments, but rather in the way her variations-on-a-riff style focuses the hooks where they count. That’s actually a better description of good rock than it is of good disco, but the beauty of Gaga’s approach is that she doesn’t distinguish between the two, since they are the pop genres closest to the common folk, and if she seems over-identified with queers and club kids, they’re the kinds of queers and club kids who work for a living. It’s easy to make too much of Gaga’s message, especially when it’s delivered with such theatrical flair, but the real message is in the beats, the slamming sloppiness of “Judas” or the precision lockstep of the title cut, which slices the word “born” into four sixteenth notes. Her vocal agility won’t make Annie Lennox lose any sleep, but she’s learned how to channel her operatic tendencies more effectively. What she owes Madonna isn’t the idea that packaging can make up for technical shortcomings but that spectacle need not be outwardly spectacular. “Americano,” with its faux Mexican accent and faux Spanish musical phrasing is both ridiculous and sublime. Madonna wouldn’t have dared get this camp, but Gaga always acts (and sings) as if she has nothing to lose. Of course, there’s calculation in the hyperbole, but the zeitgeist seems to demand an extravagance of expression. Indie just doesn’t cut it any more when all you want to do is dance, a credo that Raphael Saadiq has come to by the long route. Saadiq led the neo-soul group Tony Toni Tone for years before striking out on his own with an anti-commercial sound that won him little more than a high-minded cult. On his last album, however, he embraced his forebears at Motown with a collection of originals that sounded like an undiscovered cache of Holland-Dozier-Holland tunes. More than being mere mimickry, The Way I See It absorbed the Motown sensibility as being at once sophisticated and fun, and it held up as a unique work of pop. Saadiq sticks to the formula on Stone Rollin’ but gets bluesier in the singing, rockier in the rhythms, which declare their dominance on the opening cut, “Heart Attack.” And if the background vocals still owe too much to the Four Tops and the Jacksons, the touches of synth and the impressionistic drumming bring Saadiq’s aesthetic fully into the 21st century. In interviews, the former Ray Wiggins has complained that Motown comparisons are made by people who “don’t know music.” Maybe, but they’re definitely made by people who know what they like.

-My Morning Jacket (ATO/P-Vine)
Less a “return to form” as some commentators would have it, MMJ’s sixth album sounds more like a deliberate attempt to capture something of the ecelcticism of the band’s legendary live shows in a set of studio originals. Never the jam band their detractors claim them to be, Jim James and company treasure classic song structures for their incipient pleasures. The fact that they’re “southern” only means they have more faith in pure “rock” than in any of its hybrids or offshoots. There’s little of the experimentation that characterized Evil Urges, more bell-ringing guitar, and a lot more of James’ howling. It’s also funnier, as epitomized by the soon-to-be-classic “Holdin on to Black Metal,” which is actually a funk tune, but not overbearingly so. Further afield is “Wonderful,” a quiet country folk song that Olivia Newton John would have no trouble putting over. Mom rock?

-Wild Beasts (Domino/Hostess)
This English foursome works the contrast thing to death. The overt sexuality of their lyrics and Hayden Thorpe’s theatrical singing are complemented by a heady, almost intellectual musical attack, all controlled keyboard patterns and subdued drumming. Like the Afghan Wigs, they explore the male libido with disarming frankness (“I take you in my mouth like the lion takes its game”) but unlike that seminal 90s American band they don’t match the heated wordplay with equally steamy music, and the result is that much creepier. It’s tempting to say this is an English prerogative, but given the current Britpop preference for laddish acting out or Amerindie revivalism, Wild Beasts’ contradictory restraint on their third album stands out, which probably explains their copious appearances in year-end best-of reports and the Mercury Prize shortlist, but that only means they’re easier to admire than to like.

Sun Dance
-Kazuma Fujimoto (NRT/Boundee)
The first solo album by the guitarist for the indie J-pop ensemble Orange Pekoe is a characteristically laid-back affair, and while the credits refer to Fujimoto as composer and not just a guitarist, the compositions are notably loose, coming across as isolated pieces of melodies strung together in an ad hoc fashion. Played exclusively on acoustic instruments, the songs have the intensity of jazz even if the dynamics are muted. The blues are mostly missing from this music (Fujimoto’s father was a blues guitarist-singer-songwriter), but when they do appear it’s usually in the company of percussion, which adds a welcome touch of earthy realism to the otherwise ethereal doings. Though by all reports Fujimoto doesn’t sing, several cuts might have benefited from something verbal if for no other reason than to add melodic substance to his pretty pluckings. Dancing in the sun usually indicates head in the clouds.

Too Cool to Care
-New Boyz (Asylum/Warner)
Given the difference between their minimal-sounding debut and the amped-up production values of this followup, it’s obvious this pop-rap duo cares very much. There’s more framing R&B and rock, and the dick jokes and wacky voices sound more resolute, as if they were the foundation on which all other considerations were built. What they don’t care about is what you think about them. Even while professing they’ve got a “Crush on You,” the sneer turns the declaration cynical and before you know it the other shoe has fallen. The Eurobeat momentum of “I Don’t Care” doesn’t counteract the song’s caustic misogynism, even if it telegraphs the Boyz’ intentions that “it’s all in fun,” something they’re totally capable of, as evidenced by “Meet My Mom.” But the overall tone is masturbatory rather than celebratory. Some twenty-somethings just can’t get over not being 13 any more.

Move Like This
-The Cars (Hear/Universal)
“The world is full of crackers and belly button rings,” sings Ric Ocasek is his familiar compressed vocals on the lead cut of the Cars’ first album in 24 years. Ocasek isn’t showing his age so much as trying to recapture some of the sharpness of his original lyrical effect, but Move Like This does a better job of reviving the New Wave in general than the Cars specifically. “Blue Tip,” “Keep On Knocking,” and “Sad Song” represent riff-rock at its finest and the band hasn’t lost any of its instrumental potency: David Robinson, in particular, offers further proof he was the most underrated drummer of the 70s. Ocasek still has to carry the burden of proof, though, which is probably why he’s put off a comeback for so long, and he stumbles under the weight of the requisite ballads. Those things are bitches to write.

-Emmy the Great (Close Harbour/Yoshimoto)
The irony of this singer-songwriter’s nom de musique is compounded by a tentative singing style that doesn’t always lay on top of the phrasing comfortably. The sensibility is also tentative. “Dinosaur Sex” describes an anxious mindset that can’t see the point of anything (“dinosaur sex led to nothing/maybe I will lead to nothing”), while on the syllable-stuffed “A Woman, a Woman, a Century of Sleep,” the narrator frets that her domestic accomplishments (“now there is rosemary where previously there was no rosemary”) will never bring her lover back. What isn’t tentative is the music, which is bold and arranged with imagination and panache. Just as the dense agglomeration of stringed instruments on “Iris” threatens to overwhelm the singer, the air clears and she emerges, double-tracked and fully formed as both an artist and a person. Emmy’s not great, but she knows what she’s about.

The King is Dead
-The Decemberists (Capitol/EMI)
In all his musical incarnations Colin Meloy has rarely strayed far from the revivalist imperatives of 1960s pop, and his latest record is his clearest tribute to the American rock tradition, which is steeped in blues, country, and gospel. The emphasis here is clearly on the songs rather than on the lyrics and what they stand for; and Meloy sings without the affectations that have lately made him the bete noire of the indie set, which once adored him and his well-used library card. Assisted by Peter Buck, Gillian Welch, and Dave Rawlings, the music is shambling and heartfelt and could singlehandedly revive the passe alt-country genre if Fleet Foxes weren’t already working on that project full-time. Choruses resound and pedal steels play footsie with rustic harmonicas. Meloy sounds as if he’s home for good, or at least until his next trip to the library.

Drums Between the Bells
-Brian Eno & Rick Holland (Warp/Beat)
These sorts of collaborations beg the question: Which came first, the poetry or the music? One assumes the latter did, if only because Rick Holland’s verses have a cold, clinical cast that suggests they were destined for the page, and they are delivered here (by a variety of people, mostly women) without much regard for the sounds that surround the words. Those sounds are what make the record a record, of course, and whether or not Holland’s hollow sentiments proved to be insprational to the seminal art-rocker, Eno’s come up with some of his most potent compositions in a long time. The slamming synths on “Glitch” knock down the walls and the gentle arpeggios supporting the molecular-level lecture on “Pour It Out” are as fluid as music gets. If the dynamics seem as utilitarian as the words, the music is the opposite: warm, melodic, full of human potential.

-Glasvegas (Sony)
This Scottish band’s debut was too good to be true. As befit their corny moniker, they combined big, brash American heart with gritty Glasgow pub rock. The follow-up demonstrates that the impetus behind that breakthrough was mostly intuitive. This sounds belabored, an attempt to nail down what makes them unique. The heart is no longer on the sleeve but pinned to the glass of the sound booth, the songs dominated by organ instead of guitar, channeled through tons of reverb and climaxing in choruses that go on too long. The clever titles sound merely earnest this time, and the two songs about homosexuality feel gratuitous, like suggestions from fans. But nothing better expresses the band’s sense of itself than the closing 11-minute suite of three separate songs followed on the Japan edition by three more songs. Glasvegas is still big, just not as good or true.

Burst Apart
-The Antlers (Transgressive/Pachinko)
Falsetto is the new wah-wah, an aural effect that can be wielded for whatever purpose a musician sees fit. Once the device of soul singers to convey sexual abandon, it’s now just another textural tool, and few in the indie sphere have made is as central to their sound as the Antlers’ Pete Silberman, a bedroom composer who frets over his dreams, his mortality, and whether or not abortion is murder. The falsetto adds the proper measure of unease to music that, while guitar-based, seethes with electronic tension and tends toward melodic monotony. The appeal of Burst Apart probably depends on when and where you listen to it: Late at night in a room with no windows is my suggestion. Headphones might help, too, except for the falsetto, which at a certain volume can’t help but set your teeth on edge. That may be the intention.

One and Ten Very Sad Songs
-Pizzicato One (Universal)
As the original Shibuya-kei group, Pizzicato Five was also one of the first Japanese indie acts to secure a recording contract overseas. Founder Yasuharu Konishi revives the brand (minus four) for this album of “sad” covers sung by various singers, some of whom are quite famous. The songs, mostly from the 60s and 70s, are rightly considered standards, so the charm is supposedly in Konishi’s re-renderings, which amount to less than meets the ear. He subjects “Imagine” to interruptions of strings and percussion while Marlena Shaw imparts to Lennon’s indelible melody a jazz lilt; and gives Wouter Hamel a nightclub atmosphere worthy of Mel Torme on “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” The most successful cuts are those by Japanese vocalists who need more musical leeway to navigate quirky tunes like Nilsson’s “One” and Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang.” Quirk is what Shibuya-kei was all about.

Eye Contact
-Gang Gang Dance (P-Vine)
It takes guts, even for a Brooklyn indie dance band, to open an album with an 11-minute cut, but then Gang Gang Dance was never very interested in songs-as-songs. Their shows tend to be one neverending groove, and even the remaining cuts on Eye Contact blend into one another. (Three “interlude” tracks are indicated with the infinity symbol) In fact, what makes the group unusual is that this flowing approach doesn’t obviate their own need for melodic clarity. “Adult Goth” uses an Indian motif that develops its own verse-chorus structure organically, and the airy, soul-stirring “Chinese High” could conceivably be adapted as a makeout jam for some sultry R&B singer. Supposedly, GGD’s aim is to develop a more spiritual dimension to their music while keeping their feet firmly on the ground, but that’s hard to do when the beat insists they gotta move.

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