January 2012 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the Jan. 2012 issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo at the end of last year.

Take Care
-Drake (Cash Money/Universal)
Talk That Talk
-Rihanna (Def Jam/Universal)
For some reason those members of the hip-hop and R&B community who toil for major labels always wait until the end of the year to release albums, confounding lazy critics who want to finish their 10-best lists by Christmas. I didn’t get to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy until January, and with the delay Japanese labels usually add to releases, I didn’t get to Drake’s and Rihanna’s new joints until late November—forget Mary and The Roots. In Drake’s case it’s particularly problematic because his second album is 79 minutes long and dense with the kind of self-regard that often takes weeks to penetrate. Recorded in the same studio where Marvin Gaye did much of his late work—there’s even a track called “Marvins Room” that sounds nothing like the late soul great—Take Care is one long rant against past loves who had the nerve to leave the Canadian rapper for somebody else. Since Drake is markedly wittier than most of his peers, including Weezy, the solipsism is tolerable if not always enlightening, but I myself would prefer less insight into his love life and more into his quotidian affairs. “I’m sure there’s some taxes I’m evading,” he reveals on “The Ride,” “but I blew six million on myself and I feel amazing.” It’s an interesting contrast to his first album, which erred on the side of caution, musically as well as lyrically. Lusher without being enveloping, the production prettifies even the most caustic observations (“brand new titties/stitches still showing”) and makes it all (pardon the expression) go down easy; which is important for a 79-minute album. And if the record says anything about Drake’s work ethic it’s that he obviously takes his sweet time. Rihanna, on the other hand, always seems to be in a rush. Since the restatement of purpose Rated R, the Barbados-born singer has frantically reasserted her position as the world’s #1 R&B diva, releasing stellar singles and mediocre albums to deliver them. Last year’s Loud was generally received as a holding motion, something to keep Rihanna’s name in the public consciouness while she plotted her next move; which hardly seemed necessary when she was appearing on every other major urban artist’s records (she does a duet with Drake on the aforementioned opus). The subtext of Talk That Talk is raunch, a topic that’s as fresh as limburger but one that Rihanna may have thought was outside her comfort zone given her Top 40 rep and that unfortunate incident involving Chris Brown. The Eurobeat single “We Found Love” is probably the most heartfelt, innocent song she’s recorded, carried by a lovely, lilting vocal line. Once that’s out of the way, she unleashes the growl and the suggestive lyrics (“Cockiness”?), but the only convincing sex talk is Jay-Z’s bragging during the title track. As the album progresses the interest level, both hers and ours, flags. Obviously, somebody came too early.

Slave Ambient
-The War on Drugs (Secretly Canadian/Hostess)
“Brothers,” the second song on this Philadelphia band’s second album, is the best Dylan impression of the year. Adam Granduciel doesn’t have to try to hard to reproduce the nasally whine of Highway 61 Revisited, and the rambling instrumental component, brighter and lither than Dylan’s usual backup, propels the copious lyrics lightly down that road, a place where Granduciel obviously feels at home. His America is still gasoline-fueled and asphalt-based, but the music is airy enough to take flight. It’s not as earthbound as the classic rock that inspires him, and thus probably wouldn’t work in large halls the way more blues or country-based music does. On your car stereo, though, it’s perfect, and for once an indie band shows everyone how to do separation for two speakers, especially during the spacey interludes that tie one track to the next. Think of them as psychedelic expressway turnoffs.

-Keren Ann (Delabel/EMI)
French-Israeli singer-songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel’s whispery voice and spare instrumentation isn’t meant to attract attention. Over the course of several albums in French and English she’s given the impression of being a woman who’s seen enough of the world and feels comfortable there as long as she can be alone. So that gun on the cover is a bit disturbing, and while her singing and sentiments are still languid, the arrangements are fuller, the compositions more ambitious as pop. “My Name is Trouble,” with its heart-breaking chorus, Velvets-like guitar licks, and rhythmic asides might have made a nifty college radio hit in the early 80s, and as a theme, this counter-intuitive threat of danger (“Blood on My Hands,” “You Were on Fire,” “Strange Weather”) looms large until the monumental title cut, in which she counts backwards, essentially enumerating the world. Creepy, and sort of fascinating.

El Camino
-The Black Keys (Nonesuch/Warner)
As the sole survivors, not to mention the heirs apparent, of all that rock stood for about ten years ago, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are well past the bare-bones austerity that first characterized the neo-garage movement. They’ve added keyboards and even bass, and this is at least the second collection that receives the production services of Danger Mouse. So the slick 70s feel of the new album isn’t a surprise, until you get to the genuinely soulful “Gold on the Ceiling” and that chick chorus hits your ears. Since the Black Keys never had a strong personality like Jack White or Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, they were thought to be purer in intention, and it would be easy to denigrate the add-ons as a desperate bid for acknowledgement, but the real reason Auerbach and Carney are the last men standing is the songwriting, which is consistently of journeyman quality.

Greatest Hits
-Throbbing Gristle (Industrial/MSI)
Given the music they played, which was considered extreme even during the first punk era, the title of this 1980 collection may sound ironic, but it really is a compilation of singles that, if not exactly “hits,” were at least released with the intention of being sold. And while I’m sure “Hamburger Lady,” basically a low level drone with incomprehensible treated babbling on top, didn’t, the burbling electronica of “Hot on the Heels of Love” and “20 Jazz Funk Greats” (the title song to the group’s best album) could conceivably be described as “catchy.” Less confrontational than TG’s reputation would have you believe, these tracks challenge your notion of “music” without searing your brain, but they’re not as fun as Can, maybe because TG doesn’t make a point of trying to act like musicians. That may be the most transgressive thing about them. Even punks played chords.

Listen to Me: Buddy Holly
The second Buddy Holly tribute compilation in six months, Listen to Me is for a cause (budding songwriters), so it’s more edifying than Rave On, but I prefer the for-profit collection. The artists here hew closer to the originals but the production is too fussy: Jackson Browne saddled with a countrypolitan orchestra on “True Love Ways”; Brian Wilson’s phlegmatic vocals buried under trebly keyboards on the title track; merry-go-round effects rendering Ringo Starr a true senior citizen on “Think It Over.” Each Rave On participant was in charge of his/her respective track, but everything here is the prerogative of Peter Asher, the man who turned his biggest client, Linda Ronstadt, on to Holly (“That’ll Be the Day” is included) in order to goose her sex appeal. Maybe Zooey Deschanel wants the same magic. She’s the only artist to appear on both collections. Didn’t think we’d notice, did you?

Will the Guns Come Out
-Hanni El Khatib (Innovative Leisure/Hostess)
A lot of musicians are also skaters, but this San Francisco-to-Los Angeles transplant actually worked as a creative director at a skateboard fashion label. Born to the life, as it were, his loopy, sick-of-himself vocals and sloppy instrumental style recalls Jon Spencer; that is, if Spencer where more interested in doo-wop than the blues. In the right hands, say the late Willie Deville’s, the latin-tinged “Dead Wrong” could sound tremendous; El Khatib’s slurred delivery makes it at least funny. He turns “Heartbreak Hotel” into an audition for “The Threepenny Opera” and “You Rascal You” into Jack White’s karaoke room. A few of the originals are actually quite low-key, but they don’t demonstrate El Khatib’s subtle, sensitive side so much as prove he’s capable of any currently viable style. As a commercial gambit that seems to work. Two of these songs are already being used in sneaker commercials.

-Russian Red (Sony)
Lourdes Hernandez was born in Spain but sings in English; in fact, she has the clipped cadences of Scots-Irish trad vocalists. On first listen, her shimmering pseudo-folk compositions sound like they could have been recorded for Sarah Records circa 1992; or might be secret KT Tunstall demos. And then you learn that members of Belle and Sebastian played on the sessions in Glasgow. “The Sun, The Trees,” with its army of strummed acoustic guitars and faraway “ba-da-ba-da” chorus is likely the tune that cinched her Sony contract, but the remaining ten tracks (not counting the six bonus cuts on the Japanese edition) veer off in every direction, from 60s folk pop to Feistian piano ballads and the requisite over-arranged music hall ditty. Her priorities are demonstrated by the fact that one song is called “Tarantino” and another “Nick Drake” and neither contains any reference to its titular personage.

-Ao Inoue (Beat)
Ao Inoue, the MC for the dub/reggae outfit Dry & Heavy, has been working on these instrumental tracks since 2004. Most are the products of countless nights DJing for fun rather than profit, so they don’t sound as belabored as you might imagine. Still, one has to concentrate to derive anything Jamaican from the results. The beats have more in common with baile funk and serve a distinctly utilitarian purpose, with electronic percussion pulling most of the weight on the dance floor. Dub elements make themselves felt in the deep basslines, which are more tactile than aural, and for once the titles give a good indication of what to listen for (“Diving,” “Bat Mobile,” “New Buzz”). The only dub attribute that doesn’t help is the airiness—without vocals a track like “Scared Version” sounds even emptier than air. But then, you can’t dance without chilling once in a while.

The Smile Sessions
-The Beach Boys (Capitol/EMI)
Lost in the legend of this most famous failed pop project of the 60s was its theme: the resilience of the American Dream. Though Brian Wilson’s 2004 solo recreation renders this patchwork reconstruction anti-climactic it doesn’t make it redundant, but the difficulties in reception are the same. The spirit of affluence that informed the original undertaking undermines the nostalgia factor, because who wants to remember all that the U.S. has lost since then? On the other hand, if you had no stake in those times (meaning, you were born after 1966) SMiLE is the epitome of adolescent goodwill, a heedless onslaught of sparking melodies, pristine harmonies, and unadulterated joy in the process of creation. In fact, the only problem in this regard is that once you absorb its brilliance you can’t stand the idea of not having been there, and then you’re back where you started.

-G-Side (P-Vine)
Many rappers who hit the big time lose sight of the social conditions that propelled them into the craft in the first place. G-Side, a duo from Alabama, only recently considered themselves “W2 boys,” but even as their star rises they remain working stiffs in spirit. Those with pots of cash are so beyond their ken that whenever the subject of money comes up it’s in reference to “just surviving.” To them “real” is the circumstances of people who have to make the best of a worsening situation. “I’ve been having nightmares of being broke at 30,” says ST on “Gettin’ It.” No boasting, no fake bluster, just honest despair; which isn’t to imply that Island is a downer. If they’re going to earn money with this rap shit, they have to play those clubs, and no one wants limp, miserable beats on Friday night. Working stiffs deserve more.

-Feist (Polydor/Pachinko)
Leslie Feist’s unexpected commercial popularity indicates to many that the public demands more complexity than what they get from Britney Spears, but who’s to say Britney Spears isn’t complex? For all of The Reminder‘s storied emotional nakedness, the tunes were bullet-proof; which brings us to the title of Feist’s third album. Ironically wielded in the sense that the main theme is boundless nature, “metal” nevertheless fits the songs’ immediate appeal, their melodic indestructibility, even when the mood is subdued. The voice remains vulnerable and delicate, but the singer can rely on the song to watch her back. Even on the forthrightly blues-rocking “A Commotion,” with its pushy male chorus, Feist makes do with low decibels. Joni Mitchell accomplished the same thing on her classic trilogy of early 70s albums, but she did it solely on the strength of her lyrics. With Feist, the whole studio has emotional potential.

Smoke Ring For My Halo
-Kurt Vile (Matador/Hostess)
Probably the most conversational of the current batch of twenty-something singer-songwriters, Kurt Vile has the added value of possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of classic American guitar rock. On his earlier solo records Vile used this knowledge to whatever advantage he saw fit, but on his latest he’s sublimated it so effectively that you only notice it in the details, like the way he doubles a vocal melody line on guitar in the Neil Young fashion. Some habits are harder to break. He still favors that fusty reverb, which covers everything like a coating of dust, and no matter how loud he gets it always sounds as if he’s sitting down. When he overcomes these peccadillos, as on the combative “Puppet to the Man,” it’s to the credit of his guitar rather than the songwriting or the singing. The guy’s gut a supple knack for multiple riffing.

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