April 2012 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April 2012 issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend.

Wrecking Ball
-Bruce Springsteen (Sony)
Voice of Ages
-The Chieftains (Hear/Universal)
That Bruce Springsteen would make his latest claim for immortality with an album of songs addressing the current social atmosphere of gross economic inequality and cultural chauvinism seems hardly a reason for so many to pay such niggling close attention to the message on Wrecking Ball. We’ve been here many times before, and one could make a solid case that his entire reputation post-Born to Run has been built on his defense of the working-man ethic and ethos. What has changed over the past decade is Springsteen’s musical approach, which has moved away from the urban stylings of the radio pop he grew up on—let’s call it the Italian side of his heritage—toward the folkier stylings of the artists who had a more profound effect on his development as a political animal—let’s call it the Irish side of his heritage. So much of the material here has more in common with the boisterous instrumental power of The Seeger Sessions than anything he’s done with the E Street Band. Flogging Molly could cover “Easy Money” or “Death to My Hometown” without having to cut down on the beer. It fits the intellectual and emotional tenor of the songs, too, which splits the difference between hopelessness and an attitude that says you party til you drop, regardless of why you’re partying. Maybe this is an Irish stereotype, but Springsteen’s never been averse to using truisms or cliches to get his admirable points across. It’s what makes him both approachable and sturdy as an artist, if not as a superstar. Still, as powerful as these songs are sonically we’ve heard them before, even by others. We’ve also heard most of the songs on The Chieftains’ new material before, but that’s sort of their mission in life. As the most famous trad Irish group in the world, Paddy Moloney and Co. get away with rerecording a repertoire that’s been canonized to the point of religious piety because in many ways they’re the reason most non-Irish people know these songs at all. As with many of their albums, Voice of Ages is mostly the Cheiftains backing up a roster of well-known acts, which in this case represents the alternative indie crowd: Bon Iver, Pistol Annies, The Low Anthem, The Civil Wars. And while most of these artists avail themselves of the usual Irish airs and ballads, a few take the opportunity to stretch the theme. The Decemberists tackle Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” and the Carolina Chocolate Drops allow the Chieftains to enter their stylistic sanctum on “Pretty Little Girl.” The result is even more dilute than the usual Chieftains production, since they don’t sound like themselves on the non-Irish tunes and sound familiarly safe on the Irish ones. You have to wait until the closing 10-minute-plus “Chieftains Reunion” for their patented pub freakout. The only question is: Why didn’t Bruce get a shot at “The Banks of the Quay”?

Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites
-Skrillex (Warner)
Since he first made his name in show biz as the frontman of a metal band, Sonny Moore can easily deflect derisive comments directed toward the brand of dance music he now champions, and on this 2010 EP, finally getting a formal release in Japan, he samples some bonehead claiming that you can’t call yourself a rock musician “if you don’t play the guitar.” So the better argument about Skrillex’s herky-jerky brand of dubstep is whether it qualifies as rock. Certainly in terms of immediacy it offers all the same pleasures: dynamic variation, irreverence, non-stop action. The proof is in the puddingy samples, which come fast and furious in all sorts of configurations. The sheer volume of different textures and sources may not attest to Moore’s musicality, but they surely say something about the range of his tastes not to mention the breadth of his Google searches.

Folk Squat
(and Records)
On their fifth album, and their first self-titled one, the respected Japanese dream-pop duo enlist the assistance of vocalist Lindsay Anderson of the like-minded Chicago group L’Altra. Since Taiji Hiramatsu and Katsuyuki Tahara produce such a crisp, bright sound with only guitar and bass, Hiramatsu’s nondescript English-language singing has the effect of muffling any emotional attributes the compositions might offer. The group’s formalism was always its selling point, the way the songs build on counterpoint and repetition without sounding tired, but Hiramatsu has always sounded tired, and Anderson, on at least two songs, seem similarly on the verge of waking up. (The cover of one L’Altra album depicts an unmade bed in an open field) As if by design “Seabed” seems custom made to lie down in, and since the lyrics rarely describe events they fade into the ether as soon as they leave the speakers.

-Sharon Van Etten (Jagjaguwar/Hostess)
Celebrated as a songwriter of rare personal investment, Sharon Van Etten comes across as a reluctant solo artist, someone who enjoys the outlet of musical composition but who would prefer to perform without anyone listening. Tramp isn’t her first album but it’s the first one that feels purposeful, even if the purposes aren’t fully fleshed out. With her languorous delivery and static melodies, the songs make themselves understood right away and end before the other shoe drops. The full-on rock attack of “Serpents” forces her to sing outside her comfort zone and the effort shows in the lack of conviction. “I thought you’d take me seriously,” she says and needs that guitar to prove it. She’s better suited to the 6/8 lope of “Kevin’s,” where the sound of her own voice hypnotizes her into a mantra. There’s no point in being explicit. Sometimes unknowable is more appealing.

Toward the Low Sun
-Dirty Three (P-Vine)
Out of action for seven years as violinist/leader Warren Ellis reconnected with Nick Cave full-time, Dirty Three reappear with a dissipated collection of instrumentals that uncharacteristically highlight guitarist Mick Turner as a keyboardist. The usually dense arrangements are even knottier than they were in the past but also less harmonically distinctive. The trio acts as if it were trying to find a groove that is always a step or two out of sight, and rather than the sort of organic tension they’re famous for the songs offer up a constant state of becoming that’s never achieved. Ellis’s playing remains as beautiful as ever but usually seems adrift, as if inspiration were being doled out one instrument at a time. The blast of feedback that opens “That Was Was” comes as a welcome corrective, pulling ideas into place. Only when they play loud do they sound like they’re in the same room.

Old School
-Nils Lofgren (Vision/MSI)
As a member of the E Street Band, Nils Lofgren has a guaranteed income until social security kicks in, which, by the sound of his voice on his new album, should be any minute now. “60 is the new 18” he avers while spinning riffs that would have made his 18-year-old self bug-eyed in amazement. He’s always had a lot to prove, but since disbanding Grin he’s never proven it as thoroughly as a songwriter. This is dad rock of the most obvious sort, obsessed rather than nostalgic, stubborn rather than loose. The funkiest cut also has the most eye-rolling title (“Ain’t Too Many of Us Left”), suggesting that even when he stops trying too hard he can’t let go of what he believes he represents, namely the tradition of white kids who learned everything before they made their move. It’s a tough tradition to unlearn.

Got It If You Want It
-22-20s (Yoshimoto)
Like any British R&B band worth its weight in Howling Wolf covers, 22-20s move beyond the traditional boogie beat on their third album toward something more distinctive and original. And like most British blues bands worth their weight in Yardbirds comparisons, the attempt is more admirable than satisfying. The band’s secret weapon is a rhythm section that can really swing, especially on the opener “Bring It Home,” a hard rock statement of purpose with lots of air between the kick drum beats. The band proudly eschews the atmospheric resources most post-millennial blues bands utilize for the sake of freshness and Martin Trimble sings without alteration in a high, clear voice. As a result the songs are punchier and hookier than those on their last record, but if you need a push the Japan edition comes with a bonus disc, some of which was recorded at Fuji Rock 2010.

Rock Symphonies
-David Garrett (Decca/Universal)
Since this album came out overseas in 2010, it’s re-release here (new cover, scads of bonus tracks) with full PR fanfare could only be explained by the sudden success of other classical crossover acts like 2Cellos, whose m.o. is exactly the same. In fact, a few of the tunes are exactly the same. Garrett plays it safer by hiring a full orchestra AND a full rock ensemble to back him as he saws away at “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “November Rain” and “Master of Puppets.” Novelty points are earned by mashing Vivaldi and U2, Albeniz and Led Zep. Beethoven was obviously rock’n roll enough as he was since he gets an exclusive over on “The 5th.” The mystery here is which side is supposed to crossover, the classical or the rock crowd? In any event, I’ll never use the term “classic rock” again.

Tomahawk Technique
-Sean Paul (Atlantic/Warner)
As a pop genre dancehall is something of an accident, an outcrop of reggae seeded by club culture, so if Sean Paul’s new album owes more to Houston than to Kingston, he’s simply following the money. On the two lead singles, he allows his voice to do that upward lilt thing that’s become required technique for young female dance-pop singers, be they white, black, or brown. If the album as a whole is light on toasting, it showcases Paul as more of a real singer, which is compelling up to a point. He achieves some velocity on “Body” but it sounds like a stunt he no longer has a lot of use for. It’s understandable that an artist of Sean Paul’s earning power might feel he had won the right to stretch his capabilities, but Rihanna has this particular bailiwick covered. It doesn’t need a male cognate.

Reign of Terror
-Sleigh Bells (Sony)
For a duo who call themselves Sleigh Bells, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller sure are literal-minded about the sound of post-millennial rock music. “True Shred Guitar” captures the emotional edginess as well as the rush of its titular sonic description, while “Crush” covers all the definitions of the word you could possibly come up with. Less obsessed with distortion than they were on their debut, Krauss and Miller nevertheless still believe crunchy texture has as much of a place in the arena as anthemic singalongs and—gasp!—feedback solos. The songs don’t just roll, they bounce back with a resilience that honors their Brill Building pedigree and justifies the pair’s refusal to let humans take over from their trusty machines. Krauss’s sweet-robot vocal style speaks for itself and I assume by now they can afford a full-time drummer, but some affectations you just can’t let go of.

Ryo Hamamoto & the Wetland
(and Records)
Ryo Hamamoto is the guitarist for J-underground standard bearers moools, and if his debut solo album indicates anything it’s that all those years opening for northwest Pacific bands like Wolf Parade, Quasi, and Modest Mouse have paid off. Hamamoto, who sings in English as well as Japanese, has a high, nasal tone that plays off his boyish sentiments and two-fisted prog-folk electric guitar style, though at this point he sounds more like Bettie Serveert channeling Neil Young than Neil Young. He plays quiet pop and punk as if it were a professional obligation, and one can imagine a better performer making more effective use of the songs he writes. It’s nothing a more aggressive producer and another year polishing this material on the road couldn’t fix, though I assume he has other obligations to fulfill, such as opening for Owen on his current tour. Life is one big guitar lesson.

The Slideshow Effect
-Memoryhouse (Sub Pop/P-Vine)
Denise Nouvion makes an art form out of diphthongs. Trained as a visual artist, she came late to singing, so her vocal distinctions could be credited to artlessness—or perhaps to the fact she’s Canadian—but I propose it has more to do with a calculated effort to reproduce the slightly awkward diction of childhood. The lyrics she writes against partner Evan Abeele’s soaring dream pop resemble memories put to paper—the quality of sunlight through an open window, the color of a lake at dawn—and whenever she breaks “I” into three syllables you either shiver or sigh. The overall effect is more narcotic than endearing, owing mainly to her refusal to pick up the tempo following the album’s only burner, “The Kids Were Wrong,” which happens to be the second cut. Pretty is as pretty gets, and Nouvion has made a major study of it.

Between the Times and the Tides
-Lee Ranaldo (Hostess)
Though Lee Ranaldo never played second fiddle—or guitar—to anyone in Sonic Youth, he didn’t carry the burden of the band’s image the way Thurston Moore did. If SY is on the outs, Between the Times and the Tides is the first post-group salvo, and it’s a bombshell. Tapping every psychedelic impulse at his disposal, Ranaldo returns to whatever roots nourished his fledgling talents as a guitarist. The songs are conventional hard rock of the kind that R.E.M. sanctified as an institution just before they signed to a major. It’s as if Ranaldo had secretly kept a stash of meaty, arena-appropriate riffs for a rainy day and in one fell swoop unleashed them on the world. Thanks to important friends who owe him (John Medeski, Jim O’Rourke, Nels Cline), the ensemble sound has as much integrity as the songwriting. It’s a definite career-starter.

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