August 2011 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo yesterday.

James Blake
Bon Iver
The pendulum swings eternal in pop, bringing old styles back into fashion and replacing certain aural trends with their polar opposites. The preference now among the musical cognoscenti is for quiet and contemplative, after almost two decades of continually loud product. James Blake, a young producer from England, is a nominally bedroom artist whose m.o. is to take soul-inflected melodies and process/reduce them to within an inch of their digital lives, sometimes adding sampled voices on top, more often adding his own heavily processed vocals, which, under the circumstances, sound a lot like Antony Hegarty’s. As far as new things under the sun go, Blake is the real deal. As derivative as his methodology is, the end results are like nothing that which usually emerges from bedrooms these days, English or otherwise. What’s surprising is how resiliently popular his minimalist tracks are, since they contain no insistent rhythms, much less a groove. On the relatively expansive “I Never Learnt to Share,” the synth loops are tightened to the point where they resemble a beat but Blake prefers keeping the listener slightly off-balance, and the tension of “no release” creates its own sort of compulsion. The low volumes focus attention on textures that are all the more synthetic in contrast to the surrounding silence. As if to prove he can do it straight, there’s a cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” that opens with Blake’s voice and piano, but is quickly augmented by a stuttering bass pattern. As a statement of artistic purpose it’s simple and direct and original, but since the song itself isn’t original it begs the question of where Blake goes from here. As beautifully realized as James Blake is it feels necessarily unsubstantial, the work of an artist who is still formulating what he wants to do. It’s an odd position to be in for someone who’s attracted this much attention; almost as much as Justin Vernon attracted with his debut solo album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago. The record was made in a remote, snowbound cabin where he played all the instruments. Vernon fashioned the perfect breakup record that topped more Best-of-year lists than any other album in 2007. His stylistic markers are conventional: Singer-songwriter sentiments of the 1970s, with music to match. The eagerly awaited followup is, like James Blake, a self-titled affair, thus indicating some sort of recalibration, in particular the voice, which, while it isn’t as processed as Blake’s, also mimics Antony’s in its equating of feeling with vibrato and falsetto. With a budget comes more complex sonics and arrangements but less in the way of memorable melodies. Though composed of 10 songs, seven of which have place names for titles, the album works best as one long swoon, a tribute to Vernon’s attention to detail but indicative of his limited breadth. Like Blake, he’s the creator of a quiet, beautiful sound that he’s still figuring out what to do with.

The Big Roar
-The Joy Formidable (Atlantic/Warner)
Now here’s a band who knows how to make–and title–a major label debut. Though riddled with arty touches, The Big Roar showcases this confident Welsh trio’s belief in the arena-filling prerogatives of U2, even if their specific aesthetic seems to channel the Pastels as much as Soundgarden. A basic pop song like “I Don’t Want to See You Like This” is given a fourth dimension by the production, making it sound like it’s coming to you from across the field at the main stage at Glastonbury. In Ritzy Bryan, the band presents the perfect paradox, a guitarist whose huge chords often overpower a voice that’s more conversational than musical; except, of course, when she chooses to make herself heard, as on the pounding, sweeping “A Heavy Abacus,” which is to My Bloody Valentine what Nirvana was to The Melvins, a clarification of beloved particulars.

Black Up
-Shabazz Palaces (Sub Pop/P-Vine)
Hip hop has always been a realm ripe for experimentation, both verbal and sonic, but once you decide that the synth can handle every non-vocal sound that isn’t going to be sampled the rut beckons. Palaceer Lazaro, known to an earlier cohort of hip hop fans as Butterfly of Digable Planets, may be the first producer-rapper who’s actually thought about how the synth can stand up to really compelling rhymes. The long, lower case track titles scan as pretentiousness, and the raps themselves can sometimes distract from the utter inventiveness of the beats, which use children’s choruses, clicks, jazz phrasing, and swerving white noise to play patty-cake with those raps, as if the competition between the two were rigged. But a competition it is, forcing Butterfly to up his game in the face of such intimidating music. And it is music, make no mistake about it.

-Skeletons (Crammed/Contrarede)
Originally a solo electronics artist, Matt Mehlan eventually adapted his nervous, knotty songs for a larger group playing real instruments, and the result was akin to the meaty postrock of Tortoise or Sea and Cake. As the counter-intuitively named Skeletons this collective comes on strong, even if Mehlan’s whiny vocals (singing about whiny things) better suggests the moniker–a bullied kid with a complex. Though it’s obvious that the musicians are responding to Mehlan’s personal reflections, the sound that results seems huge in spite of him; which may be the point, but sometimes the music is so powerful you just want him to either shut up or man up. And since Mehlan and the band follows every impulse to its natural conclusion, the songs tend to be longer than those by similarly-minded indie groups like Dirty Projectors or Akron/Family. It’s a mixed blessing.

To the Death of Fun
-Cashier No. 9 (Bella Union/Pachinko)
Perhaps because of their city’s disputatious history, Belfast artists tend to identify more with America than with England–or Ireland, for that matter. This new band clearly identifies with California in the late 60s, the Beach Boys after acid, Love in time of the Haight, and if they pour the reverb and the trebly piano/acoustic guitars on a bit too liberally they know how to make music sound like sunshine, which is what California was all about in the 60s, especially to people in the British Isles, where sunshine was always at a premium. In fact, David Holmes’ production is so uniformly “bright,” you may be tempted to squint, a reflex that could also result as a reaction to Daniel Todd’s songwriting, which is precious and, on the hypnotically catchy “To Make You Feel Better,” too clever by half. They’re California to the marrow, but natural’s not in it.

Within and Without
-Washed Out (Yoshimoto)
As the current chief proponent of chillwave, Ernest Greene prefers a warmer vibe than what’s normally acceptable; music for lovemaking (the cover sells the album), which means that while it may have been designed for headphones and late-night come-down relaxation, it sounds like something you should share with a significant other. If Greene offers nothing different to chew on he at least provides basic pleasure: basslines that carry the songs along, slinky percussion that keeps the song buoyant, misty vocals that don’t damage the delicate melodies. Since everything is born of keyboards, the textures can get monotonous, and one assumes that the only reason Greene doesn’t throw in a guitar is that he can’t play guitar. This is clearly the work of a one-man band, even if it’s been assisted by an outside producer, but for a change the one man seems to know what he’s about.

-Beyonce (Sony)
Lady Gaga may win more press and Adele may enjoy more pure love, but Beyonce Knowles reigns as our era’s acknowledged diva, and not just because of her amazing chops. On her fourth album she continues to push herself past her previous triumphs into unchartered territory. An album about the challenges and pleasures of marriage, 4 never sounds belabored or searching. In fact, the assurance, a Beyonce hallmark, can sound smug at times. Opening with three down-tempo songs that burn hot, she risks losing casual fans who came for Sasha Fierce, but by and large she’s sticking with what she does best, and her producer-writers, who include The-Dream and Luke Steele, do what they’re told. It’s also difficult to tolerate the trite Babyface contribution, “Best Thing I Ever Had,” and the requisite Diane Warren composition, “I Was Here,” which offer the diva nothing but bombast, a quality Beyonce can’t resist.

You Were a Dick
-Idaho (and records)
The received wisdom about bedroom singer-songwriters is that they burn bright for an album or two before disappearing or morphing into a larger group, usually for touring purposes. Jeff Martin has been making records as Idaho since the 1990s. In fact, his first recognized album was basically a “compilation” of all the stuff he had recorded but not released, which may sound like a tautology but reviewers nevertheless bought it. Quiet, desperate, and more than a bit wry, Martin’s ouevre delivers sleepy-time cynicism in full arrangements that often include more than one piano and more than one stringed instrument playing in counterpoint. Musically ambitious but totally lacking in pretension, Martin never stretches a song past its natural limits–the longest cut here is a little more than three minutes–and if his cracked vocal style is an acquired taste it matches the resigned tenor of his lyrics.

-Peter Murphy (Nettwerk/Imperial)
Peter Murphy has been a solo artist five times longer than he was the lead singer of Bauhaus, and yet he’s still mainly known for Bauhaus. His ninth album won’t change that, but it does avoid the sludgy goth rock that made Bauhaus historically relevant if not particularly lasting. Aided by producer-songwriter David Baron, Murphy fashions a dozen hard rock numbers that justify his Bowie-Iggy aspirations. Other aspirations, such as the weirdo lyrics (“Velocity bird/be yourself/if you wanna be me”) and the artsy-fartsy liner photos, draw too much attention and might make you hear “I Spit Roses” differently, not as a Murphy original but as a failed parody of Bono. Obviously a talented man, Murphy seems to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to be somebody else and once you figure out who that might be (it changes from song to song) he’s lost you.

Watch Me Dance
-Toddla T (Ninja Tune/Beat)
Toddla T started DJing in Sheffield at the age of 14 and more than ten years later has developed a utilitarian production style that rock bands pay for when they want a track on the club charts. Away from such grunt work, Toddla prefers uptempo dance artists to fill out his own albums and here he’s assisted by the likes of Roots Manuva, Shola Ama, and a bunch of MCs and dancehall toasters. He adds little of interest to the hip hop side of the floor, but on straight club cuts demonstrates impeccable instincts, with full, bottomless beats and a density of texture that seems downright old-fashioned. Americans might prefer more shaking-going-on, but this British banging style isn’t as rarefied as it sounds. Michael Jackson surely would have done something interesting with “How Beautiful It Would Be”–after getting rid of the Caribbean influences.

Goodbye Bread
-Ty Segall (Drag City/P-Vine)
In the wild-child guitar-slinger singer-songwriter style of the late Jay Reatard and Kurt Vile, Ty Segall has pitched his tent on property previously occupied by John Lennon and, to a lesser extent, Neil Young: hard rock that’s loose because it’s produced instinctively rather than by design. Less harried than last year’s breakout Melted Segall’s new album is still darker and murkier than it needs to be. “Comfortable Home” is basically a great song, but it’s played with such snarky abandon that you wonder if Segall even bothered teaching it to his sidemen before recording it. But this same methodology works perfectly on the playful, rambunctious “You Make the Sun Fry,” a sing-songy burst of ecstatic rock power that sounds like an outtake from Plastic Ono Band. And since Segall downplays his considerable guitar chops, his hyperbole is all focused on where it counts, the song not the singer.

Wounded Rhymes
-Lykke Li (Atlantic/Warner)
When you listen to the current crop of Scandinavian indie artists, what you hear is a longing for the milieu that gave rise to specific American pop forms. Lykke Li’s second album is informed by the girl group sass of the early 60s in that it sounds like is an extended audition for American Bandstand. Even the album’s cornerstone, the Bo Diddley pumpin’ “Get Some,” with its blatant come-ons (“I’m your prostitute”), has all the earmarks of a teenager looking in the mirror and thinking she’s Ronnie Spector. Li doesn’t sound anything like Ronnie Spector, but she comes from the same place that made Spector want to be a star. The ballads soar, the rockers crackle, the dance numbers roll. As derivative as it sounds, Wounded Rhymes springs from desire for a certain existence, one where music is just one of the requisites, along with love.

Suck It and See
-Arctic Monkeys (Domino/Hostess)
As fundamentally capable as Arctic Monkeys have proven to be as a stadium-filling rock act, they always sounded as if they put more time and effort into song titles. Four albums in, leader Alex Turner has reached that creative juncture where whatever youthful inspirations prompted him to first pick up a guitar have faded. He professes to listening to Johnny Cash and George Jones for ideas, and while those two country greats don’t immediately come to mind while listening to Suck It and See, the tempos and enunciations sound more “American” than anything the Monkeys have done previously. A meat-and-potatoes rocker like “Brick by Brick” recalls nothing less than the Beatles imitating Eddie Cochran, but the revelations here are the slower, more contemplative numbers, a sure sign of maturation, which Turner probably wishes he could put off as long as possible. Let’s see if that sucks.

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