Here are the albums I reviewed for the Nov. 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
-Ry Cooder (Nonesuch/Warner)
-Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch/Warner)
Ry Cooder came late to composing. During his heyday in the late 60s and 70s he was a prized session guitarist (rumor has it, he was asked by Keith Richard to join the Stones, not once but twice) whose solo records were retro affairs. As far as I know Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is his first album of all self-written material, and the guy obviously learned a lot over the years. Much of the material Cooder used to cover was from the Great Depression, and these songs posit a second Great Depression with specific references to the president, though, to be fair, the POTUS he’s mainly referring to is Bush Jr. since he mentions Crawford, Texas by name. What’s impressive about Cooder’s writing is not so much that these songs sound credibly vintage (his well-weathered, often wacked-out singing voice make it possible) but that they’re brutal. He lets the financial community have it right between the eyes on “No Banker Left Behind,” and two songs about America’s penchant for overseas military adventures show no mercy at all. The thing is, they’re funny, too; in the way that antisocial 60s folksingers like Country Joe McDonald were funny. Cooder’s facility with every stringed instrument under the sun is just gravy, and his percussionist son Joachim provides able rhythmic assistance, especially on the upbeat rock numbers, which are so potent you wish Cooder would just do an entire album of them. (He also does norteno and straight blues here) But if he’s learned things from Woody Guthrie and Lieber & Stoller, on the hilarious “Simple Tools” he almost beats Randy Newman, a former employer, at his own game; well, let’s just say it’s Randy Newman if he decided to parody Jimmy Buffett. Emmylou Harris isn’t the sort of interpretive singer who’s likely to make fun of anybody, but in any case, she didn’t do much songwriting back in the 70s either. On her new album, she pens all the tracks except two, one of which is the title song, a Ron Sexsmith tune. However, Harris’s model is the blues-based singer-songwriters of the first rock era, including Dylan, only without Dylan’s mildly disarming sense of humor. Of course, no one is going to joke about Emmet Till or Katrina-destroyed New Orleans, and while Harris addresses these subjects with poise and passion, they have the effect of sounding like issues in search of a champion, and both, not to mention the more general tragedy of homelessness, another topic she tackles, have plenty of other, more articulate champions. Harris does better with subjects she’s close to, such as her brief time with Gram Parsons (“The Road”), and while the production may be too tasteful owing to the seriousness of her vision, the backing tracks by Jay Joyce and Giles Reaves honor the songs and the singer, who still sounds as composed as Cooder sounds pissed.
-Tony Bennett (Sony)
On his second collection of duets with the pop stars of the day, Tony Bennett is as gracious as ever but tougher on the young’uns in terms of song selection and arrangements. It’s no surprise that Lady Gaga swings as good as she gets on “The Lady is a Tramp”–she is, after all, a trained musician–and that K.D. Lang kills “Blue Velvet” without lifting a finger. Much will be made of Amy Winehouse’s “Body and Soul,” probably the only song in the collection where the partner steals Bennett’s fire. And as good as Aretha Franklin is, she’s too effusive on “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” What you want is somebody to complement Bennett’s interpretive rigor, not merely keep up with him, and in that regard the only singer who makes the grade is a contemporary, Willie Nelson, who’s so relaxed he’s almost crooning.
Tha Carter IV
-Lil Wayne (Cash Money/Universal)
Relaxed is a natural fit for Willie Nelson. It makes no sense for Lil Wayne, an MC who worked very hard so he could make the credible claim that he was the greatest rapper in the world. “I try to slow down and get rear-ended,” he says on his first completely post-jail commercial album, perhaps seeing the inevitable backlash. Since Weezy has always been the most prosaic of rhymers, he’s had to count on the power of his verbiage rather than the imagery, and part of his charm was that incoherency, which somehow made sense. Given what the guy’s gone through, contemplative may be a good mode to explore, but not when it leads to lines like “I’m searching for today, instead I found tomorrow.” Much better is: “If I knew I was going to jail I would’ve fucked my attorney.” Funny beats sensitive every time.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
It’s about time people stopped calling Anthony Gonzalez’s music “ambient.” Though there’s plenty of room on this double-disc album for futzing around with textures and one-minute ideas, it’s the fully formed songs that maintain M83 as a concern worthy of devotion. No way do you call tracks with this sort of drum sound “ambient.” And if there’s such a thing as too much reverb and overdubbed vocal lines, when they’re wielded in the service of melodies that David Gilmour would have killed for back in the day you get the point. Even the coached cute kid telling the frog story on “Raconte-Moi Histoire” is bearable because the bubbly synth loops are even cuter. Moreover, the greater utilization of gently strummed acoustic guitars provides a suitable contrast to the stentorian keyboards-with-singing epics, of which I count seven. Can’t get too much of those, either.
Only in Dreams
-Dum Dum Girls (Sub Pop/P-Vine)
Now that’s just so much better. Dee Dee is such a great singer, it’s difficult to understand why previously she buried her vocals under layers of sludge. Apparently, the idea was to intensify the wall-of-sound effect that characterized the girl group aesthetic she’s trying so hard to update. Producer Richard Gottehrer, who’s worked with Blondie and the Go Gos, strips away the echo and pulls Dee Dee to the fore, revealing in the process what a champ songwriter she is. Perhaps because her mother died last year (she’s the woman on the cover of the debut), love and loss figure prominently in these songs but Dee Dee favors the visceral over the poignant, and whatever feelings she’s packing she’s more likely to express them in a well-turned chord progression or a soaring middle-eight. She gets a lot out of a limited pop concept.
Junk of the Heart
-The Kooks (Virgin/EMI)
The Kooks are often lumped with other British guitar bands whose only point of similarity is that they debuted in the mid-00s and were declared next-big-things. Thanks to Luke Pritchard’s hearfelt tenor, they have little in common with the garagey compulsions of Kaiser Chiefs and Hard-Fi, which may explain why they’ve managed to retain their popularity. On their newest album they augment their sweetness with more elaborate arrangements incorporating strings and effects. A summer album in the best sense, Junk of the Heart still lacks the kind of tonal variety Britpop guarantees. The point of songs like “Rosie” and “Runaway” seem to be nothing more than securing radio play, which is a refreshingly old-fashioned idea but old-fashioned nonetheless. When the group tries for something different it’s usually boring, like the slightly psychedelic “Taking Pictures of You.” These guys need girls to look at, not think about.
The Whole Love
On Wilco (The Album) Jeff Tweedy surrendered to his talent for writing solid American rock songs and for the most part abandoned the wandering experimentations that made all of Wilco’s previous albums since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot interesting without being necessarily enjoyable. The opening salvo of the new record seems like a refutation of all that, with its disconcerting rumblings and detours into dissonance, but The Whole Love eventually rights itself, as if Tweedy were indeed surrendering to common sense after a bout of self-doubt. The one-two punch of the pop-smart “Dawned on Me” and the epic country ballad “Black Moon” challenge anything on his masterpiece, Being There, as the greatest 2-song combo in his catalogue. Even the 12-minute closer sticks resolutely to conventional instrumental ideas without falling for jam band cliches–quite a feat when you think about it. Wilco does conventional like nobody else, and that’s a compliment.
Bjork’s latest is incomplete by design, since it’s only one element in a project that covers a variety of media platforms. Thematically, it erases the boundary between the material and emotional worlds with a scientific inquiry into why we feel the way we do about each other. “Like a virus needs a body,” she sings, “Someday I’ll find you.” It’s not an original metaphor, but since Bjork is original by definition you don’t absorb it in the same way you would had somebody else made the point. Musically challenging as always, the songs tend toward the sombre and use acoustic instruments, in particular the “gravity harp,” sparingly. The notable exception is “Mutual Core,” whose material metaphor is a volcano and which, like a volcano, erupts periodically. One can’t help but wonder why such a mercurial singer like Bjork hadn’t thought of this metaphor before.
Kinshasa One Two
-DRC Music (Warp/Beat)
An album of dual purposes, this latest attempt at non-mediated cross-cultural musical communication by Damon Albarn once again finds common ground between Western pop musicians and more traditional African counterparts. The proceeds go to Oxfam. The makeshift nature of the project is apparent in the sonic unevenness. Kinshasa musicians were invited to participate in songs already partially finished, but there seems to have been little rehearsal involved, so the tracks feel heavily processed and edited, resulting in an overall vibe that’s probably slicker than the one intended. Some of the isolated performances are riveting, and if the record has any value beyond its intrinsic ones it’s that it should redirect any interested listeners to explore some of these guests more completely. I’m already doing a search for Tout Pouissant Mulako, whose “African Space Anthem” would have found a more perfect collaborator in George Clinton.
19 Rupert St.
-Sandy Denny (MSI)
Recorded in the living room of the titular apartment of fellow folk musician Alex Campbell in August 1967, this is not the first-ever recording of Sandy Denny (The Strawbs had already laid down tracks for a Danish record company), though it’s certainly the rawest from a time when she was still developing as a professional singer. The sound quality is understandably dodgy, but the interplay between her and Campbell comes through vividly. They mostly cover old English and Scottish ballads, but they also do some American blues, including “Trouble In Mind” and “The Midnight Special” (which Lonnie Donegan covered). Despite a poorly tuned guitar, the version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is stunning and already preserved in amber; though it’s her rendition of “Milk and Honey,” a song written by her then lover Jackson Frank, that most impresses. You can tell she knows it’s about her.
(In the Name of/Sony)
As boy-girl retro pop duos go, Cults doesn’t have the transgressive cachet of Sleigh Bells or the seasoned attitude of the Kills, but they attracted attention faster than either of those two groups did when they started out, and it’s because they’re catchier without being predigested. The single that made it possible, “Go Outside,” is disposable, and its positioning as the second cut allows the listener to appreciate the more complex but no less catchy “Abducted” first. The distinction is important since it’s obvious Cults want to be taken seriously, but a better showcase for Madeline Follin’s pure alto is the ballad “You Know What I Mean,” which delivers in drama what the Sleigh Bells opt for in texture and the Kills in bombast. The duo’s songwriting savvy is best exemplified by “Walk at Night,” which actually has a melody I’ve never heard before. Is that possible?
The R.E.D. Album
Critically speaking Game has had a rough time of it while making scads of money for Interscope, owing less to the rapper’s appeal as a performer and more to his–or his record company’s–ability to attract guests that manage to do some of their best work on his albums. Executive produced by Pharrell Williams, Game’s first collection in three years shows no growth except maybe the decision to drop the definite article from his moniker. Since name-dropping is the only talent Game demonstrates on this record (Dr. Dre’s name is included on no less than 4 titles), it’s lucky for him that so many big ones decided to drop by. Critics already pointed that out as far back as 2005 when he was kicked out of G-Unit, another aspect of his career that’s to his credit. Something else: He seems to like Harry Potter books.
A Creature I Don’t Know
-Laura Marling (V2/Pachinko)
Less baroque than Fiona Apple but more resourceful than Tori Amos, Laura Marling maximizes her gifts by coming on strong. Much is made of the fact that she’s only 21, but youth is bold and if the wisdom here seems half-cooked the willingness to put it out there, unformed but in full, is impressive. She’s also wittier than either Apple or Amos, both musically and lyrically, and it’s tempting to think it’s because she’s British. Since Marling utilizes a forthrightly acoustic palette to paint songs in country and jazz, she’s more often compared to Sandy Denny or Linda Thompson, but her voice is slyer, less mannered, even when she sticks to trad forms, as on the chilling ballad “Rest in the Bed of My Bones,” whose power is derived from Marling’s doped-up delivery. She’s less effective when she puts on rockish airs, as on “Sophia,” which is just showing off.