September 2011 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Thursday.

-Tyler, the Creator (XL/Hostess)
-MellowHype (Fat Possum/Hostess)
Though they are American and their rap-rhetoric is tonally reminiscent of gangsta stuff from the early 90s, the teenage hip-hop collective from Los Angeles known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All provides a kind of chilling context to the mayhem that gripped London and other English cities last month. Probably the most common adjective attached to the perpetrators of the riots was “nihilistic,” which has also been used to describe OFWGKTA’s music, in particular that of its most visible member Tyler, the Creator. Goblin is his second album, and though it arrives surrounded by the kind of hype that signals commercial success down the road, it’s an even darker, more cynical record than his first one. Some believe this is a calculated move, instigated so that Tyler can maintain a certain measure of street cred in the face of fame, but there’s so much going on in the album that it’s probably safer to say Tyler is still working out who he is as an artist. And he definitely sees himself as an artist rather than a guy who thinks there’s money in this rap game. In the title cut, he even aims his diatribe at a virtual psychoanalyst, proving less that Tyler is into Freud than that his view of mental instability is informed by TV sitcoms. Wisely, Tyler steers clear of politics–if, in fact, he has any interest–though it would be easy to interpret his profusion of profane put-downs in a political way. In this regard he’s closer to the original English punks than to gangbangers like NWA; meaning someone whose aim is to negate everything the listener takes for granted. And because he’s still a kid, his passions are simple and direct: He likes porn and his grandmother (not together, of course); hates school and collared greens. The confusion of the lyrics is mirrored by the beats, which are dissonant and challenging. But that doesn’t make Goblin a challenging album, only a difficult one to like. Easier on the ears is BlackenedWhite, the debut from another OFWGKTA rap entity called MellowHype. The album was originally released online last October by the OFWGKTA collective, but, hype being anything but mellow, it now reappears as a legit release care of Fat Possum, remastered and rearranged. As a storyteller, Hodgy Beats is every bit as nihilistic as Tyler–guns are the main leitmotif, along with “mobbing”–but he brings some humor to the proceedings. He’s more of a shit-talker than a confessionalist; which makes him less distinctive than Tyler but also more appealing on a purely musical level, owing to the record’s relatively commercial sound. BlackenedWhite is more like what you would expect from a teen artist: derivative and looking to provoke through laughter. That isn’t to say you won’t cringe when Hoagy kills a cop in cold blood, only that you might also chuckle in spite of yourself.

Sky Full of Holes
-Fountains of Wayne (Warner)
Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, the power pop poets laureate of the Tri-State suburban set, resolutely complete the long cycle of maturation that started with their debut in 1996. The characters in Sky Full of Holes are mostly in their 40s, like the two songwriters, and obsessed with a past that looks better in retrospect than it did when it was being lived in real time: The woman who still spends her summers in her parents’ haunted vacation cottage; the put-upon dad who escapes from his responsibilities into a fantasy of superhero-hood (like the kid on the cover of the debut); the dumb duo who can’t make a go of any business enterprise due to their lifelong friendship. Complementing these tales are Collingwood’s more abstract compositions, which describe an existence of longing and disappointment, like the absolutely devastating “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” clearly the summer jam of 2011.

-Mohombi (Island/Universal)
A minor star in Europe, this Swedish-Congolese R&B singer tends to absorb the styles of his high-profile duet partners even as he works with them, and if the performances by Pitbull, Akon, Nicole Scherzinger, and Nelly feel phoned-in, that says more about the prerogatives of cross-cultural marketing than anything about Mohombi’s chops, which are often difficult to judge. For sure, the music retains a higher quotient of Eurobeat than any overt American R&B influences you could point to, complete with vocal processing. Since the target is dance-pop-crazy teens, it’s an understandable strategy but one that might not last another album as indistinct as this one. Regardless of what you might read, you have to dig pretty deep for the African component; unless, of course, by “Africa” they mean every species of dance music since the Jazz Age. If it’s that, then it’s all Africa.

There’s More to Life Than This
-Ben Westbeech (Strictly Rhythm/P-Vine)
As with many British club artists, it’s often difficult to tell where Ben Westbeech’s interest primarily lies. Is it production or singing? Having been called a softer version of Jamiroquai, Westbeech tends toward the monotonous, which club habitues prefer anyway, but his vocals can be surprisingly soulful even when he doesn’t seem to be putting a lot of effort into them. And when he gets hold of a substantial groove, as on “Something for the Weekend,” he betrays an instinctive flair for syncopation that Jay Kay usually has to pull out of himself. More minimalist than his first record, with its borrowings from Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach, There’s More to Life Than This offers a more determined attempt to be a record you dance to in a commercial establishment, rather than something you’d listen to at home. It also works on an iPod while walking down the street.

The Old Magic
-Nick Lowe (MSI)
Few performing artists from the 70s still working full-time seem as obsessed with aging as Nick Lowe, and now that he’s embraced the fact that he’s on the other side of 60 he’s fully succumbed to music which he probably associated with that particular demographic as a kid. Though this collection includes covers of Elvis Costello and Tom T. Hall, the originals recall pre-Presley orchestral pop and country, and just as Lowe demonstrated an unerring ear for Top 40 on his earliest solo records, he shows a similar penchant for sentimental mush, only this time he checks the irony. And if as a singer he’s limited in terms of swing, he makes the most of his soft lisp and rich lower registers. As always, the songwriting and production are first-rate, thus begging the question: Why is he his only client any more?

(Young Turks/Hostess)
The mask and self-abbreviating moniker are meant to somehow remove the persona from the music without actually negating its human input. Nice trick if you can pull it off, and not particularly useful. The mask certainly draws more attention than the guy’s puss would, but in any case Aaron Jerome further distances his personality on his debut by hiring a clutch of singers who are good enough to own the cuts they adorn. Like James Blake, Jerome’s dubstep goes thick on the bass and thin on the melodies, which his vocalists make up for in one way or another. He’s also more rhythmically conventional than Blake. “Sanctuary” borrows heavily from Kraftwerk, right down the double-time breakbeats and soaring choruses. Still, it’s difficult to recognize the remixer of MIA or Underworld, or the darling of the Miami dance scene. Jerome is as English as shepherd’s pie.

Gentle Spirit
-Jonathan Wilson (Bella Union/Pachinko)
Jonathan Wilson was probably the youngest performer at the recent MUSE benefit in California; which wasn’t much of a trick when you’ve got headliners such as Jackson Browne and CSN on the bill. Like those seminal 70s California rockers, North Carolinian Wilson can do soft and sensitive. In fact, that’s really all he does, and on his second album he does if for more than an hour. The average song length here is over five minutes, but unlike with Browne and CSN that’s not five minutes of limpid melody or catchy guitar work. Mainly it’s hazy atmosphere, thus betraying the “let’s jam” origins of the songs in weekly sessions where anyone who happened to be in cell phone reach was invited. One is hopeful that a title like “Can We Really Party Today?” will reveal something along slightly different lines, but it doesn’t.

Planet Pit
-Pitbull (Sony)
At this point in his career, Pitbull can get away with anything, including the eye-rolling celebrity-baiting of “Give Me Everything,” thanks to his firm command of the Miami dance idiom. Though he probably raps less on his new album than ever, leaving most of the heavy lifiting to his capable guest singers, some anonymous, some not (Kelly Rowland, Ne-Yo, Marc Anthony, Chris Brown), he’s efficient to a fault, whether the language is English or Spanish. Taking the Harry Belafonte calypso chestnut, “Shake Senora,” for a bumpy, hilarious ride, he sounds more hands-on than he does on the pure club cuts, which make up the bulk of the album and suggest that his career may be successful because it’s on auto-pilot: However often the comparison is made Pitbull will never be, simply because he isn’t hungry enough. His bark is bigger than his bite, or his appetite.

Famous First Words
-Viva Brother (Geffen/Universal)
The classic rock band that 90s Britpop was most reminiscent of wasn’t the Beatles or the Stones but the Faces in that by Britpop we mean a band that’s self-consciously British. Beatles/Stones were too obsessed with American rock’n roll. This new guitar quartet will be compared to Oasis or Blur or even Menswear, but they’re clearly grandchildren of Ronnies Wood and Lane, what with their sloppy hedonism and laddish good cheer. As a riff-rock concern Viva Brother shows promise, though they have a tendency to blow their wad by the first chorus, after which you wait for the other shoe to drop. In the meantime you put up with their painfully immature wordplay (“it takes a moron to know one”) and attitude for the sake of convention. They’ll obviously believe any hype hoisted upon them, including the line that they’re the future of something.

The Light of the Sun
-Jill Scott (Warner)
Jill Scott insists she’s “blessed” over and over on the opening cut of her new album, counting off the ways in front of a “What’s Going On” groove, sounding happier than anyone not on drugs has a right to be. It’s difficult to put into words how refreshing this sort of positivity sounds in a world of R&B that’s so hung up on drama; which isn’t to say Jill Scott can’t act, only that strivers like Anthony Hamilton and Eve sound like pretenders when they deign to share a track. Is it a new man? (“So in Love”) Is it her baby boy? (Forget about the baby daddy) One thing’s for sure, after hearing the proudly funky, funkily proud “Shame” you’ll finally find a reason to stop listening to that Adele album. “I’m a king on a throne,” she crows. The queen’s spot was already taken.

-Housse de Racket (Kitsune/P-Vine)
Housse de Racket is a pair of Parisian musicians, Victor le Masne and Pierre Leroux, who have done session work with all the big Anglophone French pop acts, including Air and Phoenix (but not, it seems, Tahiti 80). As artists in their own right they follow the formula: light but dense rock sung with open-eyed wonder and filled to the margins with trebly ambiance. As with many French acts who work in the club but dream of the auditorium, HDR write great songs but not enough of them. Alesia features five or six banging pop tunes with five or six pokey, sometimes stentorian synth filler tracks taking up the rear. Given the attention span of today’s pop audience, that may be enough to make the album a keeper, since nobody listens past the fifth track anyway. I know I don’t, unless I’m getting paid to.

-Neon Trees (Mercury/Universal)
This Utah post-punk band’s debut mini-album has been tricked out with three more cuts for the Japanese market, which would seem to indicate Universal Music has high hopes for them on this side of the Pacific. Often compared to The Killers for no other reason than that they got their break opening for the Las Vegas rockers, Neon Trees is closer in musical spirit to the Strokes minus the Strokes’ dissipated demeanor. For one thing, singer Tyler Glenn just can’t seem to get it out of himself fast enough. His whip-fast vocal changeups on the album’s best song, “Animal,” sound like studio trickery, but the guy is the exact opposite of dissipated. He’s up there dancing his ass off, probably with a big ol’ grin on his face. This sort of hyperactive performance style only gums up the thoughtful songs, which are bombastic in the most obvious ways.

-White Denim (Downtown/Hostess)
Originally a punkish power trio on the Fugazi tip, Austin’s White Denim recently added a second guitarist and started recording in a real studio. The results are predictable–greater experimentation and even faster songs. What wasn’t predictable is how much more fun the group’s characteristic psychedelic touches have become. Sometimes sounding like the Dead on meth or Jefferson Airplane in a bottle, the band complements dreamy pop harmonies with a twisty, twin-guitar attack. The songs are so stuffed with ideas that you check the counter at the end of “At the Farm” and are shocked to see only 3:58 has passed. Sixties purists may find White Denim a little too anal, but played loud the album is its own out-of-head experience, in particular the rhythm section, who twenty years hence will be the focus of some sort of anthropological study, mark my words.

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