Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
The Dreamer/The Believer
Freedom of Speech
-Speech Debelle (Big Dada/Beat)
Several times on Common’s new album, the Chicago rapper refers to his parallel career as a movie actor, boosting it as an accomplishment in illustration of the record’s “dreamer” theme. Elsewhere on the album, Common also lays claim to a newly realized vulgarity that, given the tradition of hip-hop hardness, contrasts negatively with the kinds of roles Common plays in movies. If Ice Cube doesn’t have the same problem it’s mainly because his initial gangsta persona was also an act, and a very convincing one. Common has always gotten by on his sincerity and frankness, so is he a hypocrite or a sellout? Such distinctions usually don’t matter in pop, especially for an artist who, despite his lefty underground origins, has had more major label releases than almost any other rapper; and despite a new sense of musical purpose exemplified by the employment of producer No I.D., The Dreamer/The Believer is so tonally disparate that it’s difficult to believe it all came from the same person during the same interlude of his life. Some reviewers see confusion. I see blind confidence. Common’s twin angels of cerebral rap, which have always fought for dominion over his soul, set gritty sociological storytelling against New Age pronouncements of empowerment, but he used to trade these ideas off on alternating albums. Here, they are forced to coexist against their wills through a more aggressive style. Common follows “The Dreamer,” a flighty ode to the starry-eyed kid he once was, complete with a cameo by Maya Angelou, with “Ghetto Dreams,” a qualifying rejoinder that benefits mightily from the cred of guest pontificator Nas. As hackneyed and false as the American Dream has become as a cultural trope, its sentimental power can’t be denied, even in the ostensibly cynical realm of hip-hop. However, the cussin’, derisive attitude of “Sweet” fails to make a similar impression as soon as he declares he is “to hip-hop what Obama is to politics.” Common isn’t that good an actor. Speech Debelle, another MC with a cerebral bent, would like you to believe she doesn’t need to act at all, that she’s the real thing. Debelle’s difficulty as a public figure has more to do with something she has no control over: Britain’s Mercury Prize, which she won two years ago for an album that was personal, jazz-inflected, and incredibly dense. In line with her higher profile since the Mercury win, her new album has a harder musical edge and ventures into more political territory. Whereas the subjects on Speech Therapy were disarmingly specific—how people worked in offices, how impersonal sex can sometimes be great, how absent fathers cast a spell on your life—on Freedom of Speech they’re more generic. The revolutionary rhetoric of “Blaze Up a Fire” is heartfelt but nevertheless all-purpose, and sounds sort of clueless subsequent to last summer’s riots. Debelle’s mission is to get her feelings out there. Cerebral ain’t in it.
A Flash Flood of Colour
-Enter Shikari (Ambush Reality/Hostess)
Multi-media mashers eventually forge something new and unique or settle on one style and stick to it. On their third proper album this Brit quartet shows it has yet to do either. Though the recognizable hardcore elements prevail for all the obvious reasons, lead singer Rou Reynolds spends as much time warbling melodically as he does shredding; and while plenty of metalheads demonstrate the same dichotomy Enter Shikari is nothing if not an excellent student of late 90s Britpop, which doesn’t make them unique, only faithful to their school. As unfashionable as this combo sounds on paper, it works exceedingly well on properly structured freakouts like “Arguing With Thermomenters,” which alternates Slayer-like ferocity with Blurry infusions of braininess. Enter Shikari’s strong suit is its dedication to hardness of any genre; its weak point a belief they can force you into thinking it’s fun.
Back to Love
-Anthony Hamilton (RCA/Sony)
Over three albums that didn’t break new ground or differ much in tone, Anthony Hamilton established a rep as a classic R&B singer who refused to bend to fashion. If this modest mission has paid off it’s in the fact that his collaborators now understand he’s deadly serious. The wonder of Back to Love is the way writers and producers have bent to his fashion. The Babyface track “Woo” is not only the best thing Kenneth Edmonds has done in half a decade, it’s like a whole new start for the producer, and Hamilton rewards the favor with a monumental performance. Though the singer has reportedly said he plans to go easier on “the sad cat” material, the excoriating self-doubt expressed on “Pray for Me” and “Life Has a Way” proves he can still make personal weakness dramatically compelling. He may be back to love, but pain is a constant.
-Florence and the Machine (Universal)
Florence Welch’s debut wasn’t called Lungs for nothing. Blessed not so much with a powerful voice as with the will to wield it, Welch has been known to intimidate concertgoers, a quality kept in check on her second album by the production, which provides that voice with overpowering accompaniment. What’s glossed over in the discussion of Welch’s instrument is that below the bombast is a relatively average voice. Set against the loud percussion and multi-tracked backing vocals, her singing on “Shake It Out” is that of a kid who just wants someone to hear her. Anyone who only saw her sing live may find this artlessness either endearing or disappointing, but it certainly constrasts starkly with the musical purport of the album, which is to blow you away by any means possible. Adele has nothing to worry about, but Freddie Mercury may be fidgeting in his grave.
-The Yardbirds (Easy Action/MSI)
Most non-fans think of the Yardbirds as more of a school than a rock group, the place where guitar gods Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton learned to play with other people. As a stone blues outfit, they sound quaint today, especially their canonical material, which this five-CD compilation doesn’t claim to represent. Promoted as the Yardbirds’ most extensive collection of rarities, Glimpses is ostenibly for the hardcore fan but its entertainment value is as formidable as its educational worth. Most of the cuts showcase the band’s tight ensemble cohesion rather than its individual members’ chops, putting the lie to the received idea that everyone was looking to the future. Critical hindsight has that effect, but the appeal of this collection is the players’ dedication to the here and now, whenever that happened to be. In any case, as blues mavens they make the Stones sound like posers.
For the Good Times
-The Little Willies (EMI)
Basically an outlet for Norah Jones to occasionally exercise her country music muscles, the Little Willies don’t necessarily lose cred for being New York studio hacks more comfortable at the Blue Note than at the Opry, but since all they do is covers of recognizable songs such analyses are unavoidable. The arrangements highlight Jones’ patented low-fire smolder, so chestnuts like “Remember Me” and “For the Good Times” are as melancholic as they should be, and if upbeat numbers like “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” or Johnny Cash’s “Wide Open Road” seem tamer than they could be it’s probably due to Richard Julian’s inability to sound as drunk as the material requires him to be. When the two singers match each other yodel for yodel, as on Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money,” the rivalry makes it work. But “Jolene” as a torch song? Some things are sacred.
-The Big Pink (4AD/Hostess)
This London duo’s new single, “Hit the Ground (Superman),” perfectly encapsulates their conception of “big”: stentorian high-toned vocals, pounding keyboards, and enough echo to launch a Swiss Alp. Come to think of it, that would probably encapsulate anyone’s conception of “big.” Having spent their respective apprenticeships with Alec Empire and recording bands like the Klaxons, Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell know exactly what the kids whom the tastemakers watch want, but that makes the Big Pink canny rather than cool. The group’s rock constructions are more conventional than what you usually get from the iconoclasts at 4AD, but these days the effect is everything (see Florence above), so “big” rules even when the sentiments are small, which, admittedly, they aren’t very often. On “Jump Music” they profess to using “anthems as our armor,” and you have to wonder what they need protection from. Ask those kids.
More and more bands are opting to open albums with extended jams, a gambit once considered suicidal. This Welsh quartet leads its latest with the 9-minute “Libra Man,” not so much a jam but rather distinct song ideas patched together with some clattery drums. It doesn’t bowl you over but it does keep you off balance. Though a bit too fond of shimmery organ, Islet’s textures are brittle and spare: They don’t overdose on effects at the expense of tune. The music is as appropriate for headbanging as it is for swooning, and if their riffs sound pedestrian they know how to position them. After several cuts you realize they don’t have much use for choruses, preferring that each verse lead into another drum-led cataclysm. One can see where the band’s enthusiastic concert rep comes from. The songs are pre-figured to make your skin jump.
T-Pain’s dubious contribution to popular culture isn’t his unabashed identification with Auto Tune but his utilization of hip-hop production strategies in the service of R&B. Such an approach renders the content as arid as the style, so all that’s left is effect and attitude. “Bottlez” is an ode to drinking so single-minded you could get alcohol poisoning just listening to it. The beat and vocal attack are as assertive as the song’s dedication to the party, but it leaves little room for interpretation and even when T-Pain betrays self-doubt he won’t let anyone question his resolve. “If we break up, I can tell you it’s not you, it’s me,” he sings. That “I can tell you” says it all. It’s amusing that he finds space for the likes of Lily Allen on “5 O’Clock,” which is about spontaneous early morning sex. I said amusing, not appealing.
-Zola Jesus (Sacred Bones/P-Vine)
Nika Roza Danilova isn’t the first opera-trained singer to attempt pop, but she may be the only one who used pop to channel the anxiety that comes with learning such a rigid art form. That kind of PR pronouncement could be a front (is that her real name?) but the music she makes with Zola Jesus puts across some heavy stuff, and if the landscape seems more geological than psychological it only proves she’s now a member of a band. In fact, the swirling momentum of the music often seems to be at odds with Danilova’s stolid alto, as if she were standing firm in a wide open, windswept meadow. Vulnerable seems to be her natural state, and she even lets a few off-key notes remain in the appropriately titled “Hikikomori.” Though more accessible than her earlier records, Conatus doesn’t completely cross over into pop territory. The monotony is stultifying, not addictive.
Originally Bjork’s keyboardist and live mixer, Leila has made a niche for herself as a solo artist on the UK’s electronica scene. Her solo records are production showcases, with friends and family lending vocals to flesh out her ambitious sonic ideas. Musically, she taps a wide range of influences and styles, and the tracks are childlike in their sense of play, sophisticated in their technical agility. On her fourth album she uncharacteristically relies on one collaborator, in particular, the like-minded techno producer Mt. Sims, mainly as a vocalist. Since his singing is purposely robotic, the cuts where he appears form a subset within the larger realm of the album, thus making sense of the title. The production notes say it was pretty easy to make, and it sounds it. Apparently, Leila watched TV while Mt. Sims recorded tracks. The perfect partnership, if you ask me.
-Cloud Control (Infectious/Hostess)
The current indie-identified revival of fuzzy-headed folk rock finds its natural psychedelic complement in Australia’s Cloud Control, who do fuzzy-headedness one better with lyrics that really sound as if they were written under the influence of LSD. When Alister Wright compares his head to a pool of water on the opening cut you have no idea what he means but allow him the metaphor because of how great the guitar sound is, and then he starts intoning “Why oh why” over and over until it becomes a mantra of madness. The battiness reaches epic dimensions on “Gold Canary,” which segues from a tribal chorale to a shrill Farfisa solo. But it takes genuine guts to name a song that sounds like a drug-fueled Mamas & Papas outtake “The Rolling Stones” without revealing what the title means. And then there’s the ode to the Hindu water god.
-Oneohtrix Point Never (Software/Pachinko)
Though I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way, Daniel Lopatin makes his electronic music much easier to like by limiting the length of the tracks to under five minutes. Of the ten cuts on his new collection, only two exceed that mark, so his mostly melody-less constructions get their points across quickly and efficiently. Vocals are looped for effects other than verbal, and percussion is rhythmic without being propulsive, but this is nevertheless very emotional material, and not as dark as some might have you believe. The soothing hum of “Remember” is occasionally threatened by a stray sound but reaches its destiny unharmed. And while the gulping noise that anchors “Nassau” has ominous undertones, they’re overriden by a sunny keyboard vamp. By the time you arrive at the last track, “Explain,” you’re acclimated to Lopatin’s methodology, and the seven minutes float by like cool, clear water.
Break the Spell
Where was Chris Daughtry when Kenny Loggins was the golden boy of soundtrack rock? Most likely he was nothing more than a twinkle in his mama’s eye, but the same penchant for sugary hard rock and disregard for the integrity of the diphthong that characterized Loggins’ mid-80s success is more likable in Daughtry’s more macho presentation. Those who hoped he’d supplant Nickelback in the hearts of heartland rock fans when he emerged a star from “American Idol” know that if it hasn’t happened by now it ain’t ever gonna. His third album could be taken as a reassertion of priorities after the muddled meaningfulness of Leave This Town. The guitars are cleaner, the vocals more adaptable, the songs poppier. If the record could use a measure of humor, understand that Daughtry probably wouldn’t get the joke, but like Kenny Loggins he knows exactly what’s expected of him.