December 2011 albums

Here are the albums I reviewed for the Dec. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Crazy Clown Time
-David Lynch (Sunday Best/Beat)
The Less You Know, the Better
-DJ Shadow (Island/Universal)
If you came of age in the 90s you would know of David Lynch as a filmmaker but might think of him as something more due to his selfless promotion of transcendental meditation and advocacy of really good coffee. Whether purposely or not, Lynch is as much of a character as the characters in his films are, which is saying a lot if you’ve seen Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. Though Crazy Clown Time is his first nominal solo record album, music has always been central to his films and he’s been central in the way they’ve been used. However, unlike the classic pop he utilizes to intensify creepy particulars, the music on CCT is forced to stand alone, and while one can be creeped out by the old man voice on “I Know” or the bizarre positivity of “Good Day Today” and “So Glad,” they aren’t resolute enough as songs and thus don’t stick in the imagination as tenaciously as, say, the Roy Orbison renditions in Velvet and Mulholland Drive did. Though not averse to melody, Lynch is overly fond of repetition that renders melody inconsequential, and since his vocals are heavily processed throughout the effect is more curious than inviting. He calls it “modern blues,” a description adhered to by guitarist Dean Hurley but hardly reinforced by Lynch’s lyrics, which are either sunny or schematically descriptive, like the droning essay “Strange and Unproductive Thinking.” The closest the album comes to the signature soundtrack work Lynch did with Angelo Badalamenti is not the Karen O-assisted “Pinky’s Dream,” but the actual blues “The Night Bell With Lightning,” which Lynch describes in the publicity material as inspired by Kafka. The fact that it has no vocal and therefore no physical input from the director has something to do with its unsettling power. Lynch himself isn’t half as disturbing as his thoughts are. DJ Shadow’s thoughts have always been congruent with his musicianship, and if it’s likely he will never top his first album Endtroducing, it has to be said that it’s impossible to top a work of art that is definitively sui generis. On the few albums he’s released since that 1996 monument he’s moved away from sample-heavy constructs toward straight production, and most of the cuts on The Less You Know are, like the cuts on the Lynch album, fully realized songs. The notion that half of them aren’t hip-hop shouldn’t be a problem, but Shadow’s taste in metal, acid jazz, and the sort of old-timey pop that Lynch probably dug first-hand is baffling in that he doesn’t seem to add anything to these tracks. When he invites Talib Kweli and Posdnous in for a rap, his value as a soundmaker comes to the fore; not so much when he teams with Tom Vek for standard 80s new wave album filler. The Little Dragon cut I like, but mainly because I think Yukimi Nagano is an arresting singer. David Lynch should call her.

Komba
-Buraka Som Sistema (Enchufada/Hostess)
The eagerly awaited second album from this Lisbon-based electro-dance quartet dilutes the power of their kuduro club-thumpers. It’s tempting to think that the almost complete changeover from Portuguese to English—obviously carried out to take advantage of the considerable buzz surrounding their 2009 debut, Black Diamond—has somehow blunted their sharp sense of purpose. In any case, there’s less Angola on Komba than…well, any European city you would care to name. Previously they pulled ideas out of the vocal phrasing of their guests and turned them into beats: It was dance music performed at the speed of thought. Here, one can literally hear the process, and the effect is numbing. “Hypnotized” is simply a loop of a guy muttering “I think I’m hypnotized” set to a hiccupy synth pattern. Being put to sleep is not the best suggestion on a dance album.

Bad As Me
-Tom Waits (Anti-/Sony)
The conventional wisdom about Tom Waits is that he’s finally grown into the voice he punished with cigarettes and over-extension back in his 20s. The payoff on his new album of more or less standard love songs is the transition between the gentle ruminative tone of “Pay Me” to the gentle nostalgic tone of “Back in the Crowd.” Amidst the kind of theatrical blues shouting that has become Waits’ stock-in-trade since the mid-80s, these two quiet performances repeatedly draw the listener back, mainly because they’re so different from each other while being in the same reflective vein. The completeness of Waits’ understanding of pre-60s American bar music is apparent in his mastery of forms that, on the surface, sound as if they were cut from the same cloth but, in fact, require distinct sets of emotional and imaginative resources. Waits didn’t learn this shit, he absorbed it whole.

On the Water
-Future Islands (Thrill Jockey/Contrarede)
Like many people, I was initially taken aback by Samuel T. Herring’s voice: pretentious, stentorian, willfully English-accented (he’s from Baltimore). These attributes sell his painfully lovelorn sentiments, but at first they sound out of place in front of a band that should be covering New Order. By the end of “Before the Bridge,” the second song on Future Islands’ new album, the combination makes perfect sense. The rippling sense of pop potential in the interaction between Gerrit Welmers’ keyboards and William Cashion’s guitars push Herring beyond his melancholy self-involvement into a realm that can only be described as pure joy. Herring’s stylized roar is the only logical response to this collaborative epiphany, but as it turns out he can also maintain a soulful conversation, as he does with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, on the languorous “The Great Fire,” without losing his emotional authority. The guy’s real.

Mylo Xyloto
-Coldplay (Parlophone/EMI)
More than any other extant stadium-level rock band, Coldplay makes the kind of music everyone thinks he can make if he had the proper resources. They don’t display much originality but benefit from the strength of their convictions in that whatever they do they do in the biggest way. It’s easy to imagine Brian Eno offering his services with this idea in mind (either that, or he was rejected one too many times by Radiohead). His “sonic landscapes,” as they’ve been called in the past, bring out details that make each song exactly the sum of its parts; all those pretty trees distract you from the fact that the forest is no big deal. The pounding arrangement of “Hurts Like Heaven” is so effective it took me four plays until I heard Chris Martin’s awful lyrics, and I could listen to the soaring chorus of “Paradise” all day long.

How Do You Do
-Mayer Hawthorne (Universal)
Mayer Hawthorne, a nice Jewish boy from Detroit, wasn’t supposed to be this popular, but then his music wasn’t supposed to be this accomplished, either, even in his own estimation. Boyishly straightforward in his love for 70s Motown and Philadelphia International, his mimicry isn’t the issue, since as a vocalist he’s no great shakes. But by keeping the arrangements simple and the tunes on top he picks up where most darker-skinned neo-soul practitioners lose the plot. His falsetto doesn’t put across the Delphonics-inspired “Get to Know You” as much as his sexual self-confidence. And in the middle of the album he pulls off an audacious tripartite tribute to the Temps that will have you grinning despite yourself. If this is a means to revive the fortunes of his home town, as he sings on “A Long Time,” I’m all for it. Civic responsibility never sounded so good.

About Me
-Aoki Laska (and Records)
A singer-songwriter who spent part of her junior high school years in New York and more recently has been hanging around the Tokyo indie pop scene, Aoki Laska doesn’t wield her girlish soprano as breathlessly as a lot of her peers do, but she wields it nonetheless, mostly in the service of sprightly piano music that owes more than a smidgen of quirky effect to Akiko Yano. In the one English language original she sounds almost giddy describing how “you dumped like a trash for shit” and then repeats the word “shit” for good measure. Fortunately, her musical judgement is better than her thematic preferences, and she demonstrates a knack for dramatic development that takes advantage of her slight gifts. The Carpenters-like cover of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” however, points to all sorts of possibilities her original songs sidestep. She should try Burt Bacharach.

Audio, Video, Disco
-Justice (Because/Warner)
As the most forthrightly rock-oriented club act in France, Justice has the right to rummage around in that attic as much as they please, but it seems odd they would dedicate their entire sophomore album to mid-70s progressive rock. The good news is that they’ve distilled the essence of prog to its big beat and melodic tendencies in the form of short tracks that don’t outstay their welcome the way a Rick Wakeman solo could. The less good news is that they don’t grasp the fundamental ridiculousness of the genre in its purest form. And while their debut had a huge aural presence perfect for headbanging, here they seem tentative, as if not entirely sure they can handle prog’s technical demands. Actually, they have it backwards. As Freddie Mercury showed, what you really need to play this sort of music is balls. Without that, it’s all cheese.

Black Rainbows
-Brett Anderson (Imperial)
Having gotten the requisite Suede reunion out of the way, Brett Anderson can resume his solo career in peace. Still, his fourth album is the closest he’s come to the glammy rock of his former band, even if he’s couching the old swagger in the angsty ballads he’s made a second career of. He’s still vocally flexible and the tonal shift seems more a matter of sensibility. Anderson’s intensity is less carnal than demonstrative now; he’s acting out for the sake of making a point. The last three albums dealt with the sort of personal issues that matter to the middle aged—the death of a parent, the loss of essence. “I’m still burning,” he insists on “The Exiles,” as if to reassert his primal urges in the face of extinction. He’s relatively a spring chicken, but lead singers need a bit of drama to keep themselves relevant.

Strange Mercy
-St. Vincent (4AD/Hostess)
As a vocalist, Annie Clark, a former member of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens tour machines, avoids the kind of hushed preciousness her Kate Bush-inspired song creations would seem to warrant, but on her third solo joint she still remains indistinct. On the other hand, her music, which is densely arranged and imaginatively structured, makes an ever stronger impression, especially given that the lyrics are specific to the point of anal retentiveness. Clark will sometimes use fifty words where two would have done fine, but if you want to convey something of the attitude of an obsessed woman—which is what these characters sound like—that’s the way to go. What boosts the album over its predecessors is Clark’s inventive guitar, which approaches axe-slinger sophistication without the attendant showoff attitude. “Gotta make this last if it makes me sick,” she croons gently while ripping her frets to shreds.

Jang Ki-ha & The Faces
(Contrarede)
Making a living from indie rock is even more difficult in Korea than it is in Japan, but in the space of a year Jang Ki-ha has garnered a following on the basis of his music alone, which is saying a lot in the land of K-pop. Listeners with no hang for Hangul or any experience with Korean rock may be hard put to find what’s different about Jang, but the appeal is real and immediate, which may be the point since, like a lot of Japanese indie, K-rock can be incestuously derivative. Using a small combo of funky electric guitar, cheap-sounding keyboards, and imaginatively arranged choruses, Jang offers up sharp, playful R&B that cooks furiously behind his conversational singing. A few ballads betray his debt to piano-based soft rock, the type that dominates movie soundtracks, but in the end it just adds to his eclectic charms.

Cole World: The Sideline Story
-J. Cole (Roc Nation/Sony)
J. Cole hangs outside Jay-Z’s office to hand him a mixtape and gets the cold shoulder, but Jay listens and gives him a chance. What’s refreshing about Cole’s debut is that despite the attention this story has attracted he sounds like he’s got a lot to prove. “Dollar and a Dream III” makes mincemeat of the usual rapper confidence: This is who I am, even if I’m still figuring it out. Since Jay-Z is staking him, the production values are top notch, especially on the duet “Mr. Nice Watch,” a deft desconstruction of the money-mad MC mindset; and if Cole’s motor-mouthed pronouncements don’t compare to Jay’s more mellifluous declamations, elsewhere he does something Jay probably wouldn’t dare. He raps about abortion, the infidelities of Martin Luther King, and why marijuana isn’t as great as his peers think it is. The guy’s as smart as he is talented.

Lulu
-Lou Reed & Metallica (Vertigo/Universal)
At this point the already over-scrutinized collaboration between metal’s most bankable group and the self-appointed rock representative of New York City’s demimonde has more meaning than the album it produced—which was the only reason for the collaboration in the first place. Since Metallica is mainly along for the cred, any judgement is made on Lou Reed’s dime, and it’s easy to understand why these lyrics/stories/poems/whatever, originally composed for a theater production, have sat around unfulfilled for so long. If anything, Metallica’s patented bombast make them not only presentable, but listenable as well, or at least on those songs that don’t reach for art rock certification; though they’d be even more listenable had James Hetfield sang them rather than Reed, whose croak never sounded more out of place. If you find what he’s saying disgusting, you’ve never listened to Kill ‘Em All carefully enough.

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