June 2012 albums

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

-Jack White (Third Man/Sony)
Boys & Girls
-Alabama Shakes (Rough Trade/Hostess)
Jack White is the premier rock star of our age, and though he’s a slippery personality by design he more or less acknowledged the honor when he appeared in the documentary It Might Get Loud with two certified rock stars of earlier eras, Jimmy Page and The Edge. The main difference is that both of those rockers are guitarists who don’t sing, while White is a singer-songwriter who happens to play fierce guitar. His first genuine solo album not only includes a cover of a U2 song (as a bonus track) but generally sounds more like a Led Zeppelin LP than any White Stripes record did. It’s mostly there in the vocals, which resemble Robert Plant’s in timber and attitude. It all goes to show that some models are eternal: rock stars still adhere to a certain type of image, which is probably why White is so cagey about his history and opinions. Befitting his talent and outsize imagination Blunderbuss ranges far and wide stylistically and the emotions never settle for less than full exegesis. The teenage rant “Sixteen Saltines” is like an attempt to recapture the first flush of sexual ardor, while the cover of Little Willie John’s feverish “I’m Shakin’,” complete with a female chorus egging him on, sounds as if it were squeezed out through a pinhole. A lot of the lyrics express a desire for physical pain, though it’s not always clear to what end. Unlike his idol Bob Dylan, White isn’t capable of indirection: everything comes straight from his soul and seems to end up back there as well. As rock goes this is the genuine article, meaning its familiarity is part of its immediate appeal, and while I suspect much of the record is calibrated to make you feel before you think, he makes you feel it real good. The hot young band Alabama Shakes makes you feel it, too, on their debut album, which impressed White enough that he asked them to open for him. AS’s classic rock sound is more delineated by Southern soul and within that bailiwick manages to sound less derivative than you’d imagine. Guitarist-songwriter Brittany Howard sings in a raw blues style that has become the band’s most celebrated element, and her equally raw playing is complementary enough to make the impression stick. The desperation that informs love songs like “Be Mine” and “Heartbreaker” is more genuine-sounding than anything on Blunderbuss, but that may be due to Howard’s relative youth. You get the idea she’s more in love with her feelings than with the actual object of her attentions. The band’s two-guitar configuration and affection for conventional song structures, complete with solo instrumental bridges, clarifies their classic rock constitution so their inexperience in terms of delivery and production is more pronounced. Reports claim they’re dynamite live, but despite the genuine talent on display the record is uniformly even-tempered. Maybe Jack will give them some pointers.

Radio Music Society
-Esperanza Spalding (Universal)
Apropos her rep as the hottest thing in jazz at the moment, the young bassist-vocalist’s fourth album has so many high-rent guest stars that accommodating them all makes for a collection top-heavy with impressive moments but lacking in consistently engaging music. Spalding’s writing trends toward the 70s fusion ideals of Weather Report and the Crusaders, and Q-Tip’s production prioritizes the beat. However, the focus is on the singing, and Spalding’s complex melody lines often run at cross-purposes to the instrumentalists, who don’t seem to be doing their job if they aren’t playing a solo every two minutes. This aspect is put into relief by the one cover, Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” which utilizes the same M.O. as the rest of the album but sounds organic rather than forced into being. Spalding needs to learn how to say no to all those new friends.

-Skrillex (Warner)
This year’s electro-dance pick to click is scheduled to release a full-fledged album pretty soon, so until then he keeps interest high by releasing his fourth EP, which apparently has done the trick since it’s his first one to chart in the Top 40. Haters will say he’s compromised his transgressive cachet for mainstream acceptance, and though there’s nothing here as provocative as “Kill Everybody” on his last EP, it’s more action-packed, which is provocation enough. A master of syncopation, Sonny Moore can actually turn a Doors riff into a booty-trembling dancefloor assault. In a way, Moore may be best suited to the EP since he exhausts so many ideas in so short a time that an LP would simply sound redundant, maybe overbearing. Bangarang may not be the most original dubstep record, but it’s efficient to a fault. And then you just play it again.

Da Doo Ron Ron: More From the Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry Songbook (Ace/MSI)
Of the three great Brill Building husband-wife songwriting teams, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were the most successful in their day, enjoying a direct conduit to the hit-making machine of Phil Spector. Except for the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You,” their most famous compositions were included on a previous compilation. This second collection is mostly minor hits by major stars (Monkees, Connie Francis, Jay & the Americans) through the auspices of other producers, including Spector protege Sonny Bono and the Leiber-Stoller machine. What’s striking about the Greenwich-Barry partnership is that it was effectively over by 1966 when they divorced and yet the couple had already written so much quality material the hits continued for the rest of the decade even if, unlike Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill (who are still married), they never had the chance to develop beyond their doo-wop origins. In their limited way, they were perfect.

-Beach House (Bella Union/Pachinko)
As they grow into their shimmery melancholic summer sound, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand have become much more confident in their ability to fashion songs that can stand on their own, and on their fourth album they hold back ever so slightly on the effects and rhythm machines, allowing Legrand’s puff of a voice to come through with all its granular textures evident. Though the tempos remain fixed in a steady-as-you-go rut, Bloom delivers more surprises than its well-received predecessor, Teen Dream: verses that change key, guitar lines that dominate, and more hooks than their languid methodology would seem capable of producing. “The Hours,” with its full-throated chorus, is practically arena-ready, which points up the next natural stage in Beach House’s evolution: a band? Because despite their developing musical sophistication the duo still sounds confined to that little beach house. Time to open the windows and turn up the volume.

Born Villain
-Marilyn Manson (Victor)
Marilyn Manson was the most enjoyable industrial metal band of the 90s, an accomplishment inseparable from their leader’s need for attention. Having outstayed their major label residence by the mid-00s they attempt the inevitable late course correction. The band is nothing if not professional, and the album’s designated keeper, “No Reflection,” reduces everything you always liked about them to the essentials: carcinogenic growling over a phat pounding beat leading into an explosively violent chorus. If Born Villain fails to build on that formula it’s not for want of trying. “Pistol Whipped” gets crunky on a processed guitar line, while “The Gardener” adds more oily funk to the bass and a spoken-word intro. Since MM has outgrown their childish attachment to shock for shock’s sake, provocation falters on the side of maturity (“Murderers Are Getting Prettier Every Day”). The only thing shocking here is the cover of “You’re So Vain.”

Little Broken Hears
-Norah Jones (Blue Note/EMI)
Given her Texas upbringing and jazz background, Norah Jones has more cred as a roots artist than her formidable popularity allows. By dint of album sales she’s a genre unto herself, and the startling thing about her new album is how uncategorizable it is. Though the melodies are as wan as always, the vitriol behind the languor is evident—this is a breakup album—because producer Danger Mouse makes up for the lack of grit and smolder with a surface tension that brings out the soul in her delivery. The latent resentment of “Take It Back” comes through in its rock anthem arrangement, while the Lynchian blues “4 Broken Hearts” drops Jones’s torchy vocal into a kaleidoscope of twang and tom-tom, stressing the song’s sense of heartbroken confusion. The track is over before you register the depth of her pain. When did Norah Jones turn into Cat Power?

Mr. Impossible
-Black Dice (Ribbon/Hostess)
By far the funniest of the indie smart groups formed in Brooklyn at the turn of the century, Black Dice tend to fade from people’s minds mere months after a release, probably because they’re an instrumental band who doesn’t seem particularly interested in individual instruments, thus making their music not only difficult to describe but impossible to pin down; which may offer a clue as to the title of their latest album. Though “Pinball Wizard” pokes fun at the Who original by trying to sound like an actual pinball machine, it’s definitely a song, with a beginning, middle, and end. Such structural rigor makes for some funky stuff, like the squishy guitar-synth interplay on “The Jacker.” Elsewhere it can descend into a neurotic’s notion of jamming. The processed ball of groan that carries the “theme” of “Pigs” is arguably improvisational, but what goes on around it unarguably tuneful.

The One
-Eric Benet (Warner)
One of the original nu soul singers who emerged in the late 90s to reclaim R&B from melismatics and terminally mellow lover-men, Eric Benet was able to maintain a steady stream of hits, probably because he eventually grew beyond whatever it was that made him special. In 2010 he released his biggest album in years, Lost in Time, a tribute to the 70s that seemed to indicate Benet was going back to his nu soul beginnings. What made the album more than just a timekeeper was that all the material was original. Apparently, it was a fluke, because contrary to the distinction implied by the titular numeral, The One could be any generic R&B album released in the last fifteen years. Even the exception to the rule, the Weezy-fortified, Stevie-inspired cooker “Redbone Girl,” sounds more like a sop than a romp.

-Squarepusher (Warp/Beat)
In the already rarefied world of electronic dance music, Tom Jenkinson is notorious for his experimental bent, so his last few albums of truly experimental music (formless funk; a collection of solo bass compositions) struck many fans as indulgences. As if to compensate Ufabulum charges out of the gates with an aggressive hunk of dance music designed for an arena, after which Jenkinson gets back to the usual business of playing with listeners’ ears in novel, exciting ways. “Unreal Square” is a veritable symphony of processed sounds arranged as a march into the abyss, while “Stadium Ice” pretends to be a conventional fusion concoction but only if you ignore its habit of hiccuping during the choruses. In fact, it isn’t until the penultimate cut, “303 Scopem Hard,” that Jenkinson delivers the trademark Squarepusher recipe: screaming synths playing dodgeball with hyper-active beats. My head’s still spinning.

Out of the Game
-Rufus Wainwright (Decca/Universal)
“Does your mama know what you’re doing?” Rufus asks enthusiastically on his first all-pop album since who knows when, as a chick chorus repeats the line behind him. It’s a big moment for a singer-songwriter whose touchstones never came within spitting distance of the black traditions of the 60s/70s. The fact that he sounds as if he’s come home indicates the style was kept in reserve while he addressed more serious matters, like opera and art song. Old habits die hard, as shown by the lugubrious “Montauk,” but even if “Jericho” lacks the gospel fervor implied in its title, it kicks sufficient ass to make it a concert highlight. In between, Wainwright tempers his florid tendencies with production values borrowed from the Jeff Lynn-10cc axis of ironic rock, all funneling down to the 8-minute closer “Candles,” a pretty ballad that satisfies his insatiable need to be romantic.

The OF Tape Vol. 2
-Odd Future (Sony)
Sony is boosting this album as the SoCal hip-hop group’s “debut,” which would indicate they’re discounting the album Odd Future self-released in 2010. It sounds patronizing, but OF’s public image is of particles flying off in every direction. Even if Tyler, the Creator dominates, when the other rappers and DJs do what they do, they command attention for as long as their participation lasts. There is little real collaboration involved, at least on the surface. The presence of everybody acts as an editing function. Tyler’s material is more concise, more musical than his solo joint Goblin, and the other three rappers aren’t allowed to overstay their welcome on any one cut. A little bit of Odd Future goes a long way, as anyone who’s seen their chaotic live shows knows. If the appeal of the group is its utter disregard for anyone’s sensibility, then the less collective abrasiveness the better.

A Different Ship
-Here We Go Magic (Secretly Canadian/Hostess)
There’s no use arguing against the anodyne pleasures of soft rock, and while Luke Temple’s fans might be offended by the appelation, his carefully constructed pop songs seem to have been passed through some kind of attenuation device: All extraneous emotions and dynamic surprises are filtered out. Some credit should go to producer Nigel Godrich, but Temple is the kind of musician who makes the most of his experience, and he’d never commit the same mistake twice. When every song is a ballad or a near ballad, patience can be strained, but despite the dry exactitude of the playing and the fuzziness of the sentiments, the music is always compelling if only because you’re never quite sure where Temple’s train of thought will arrive, so even when it ends up somewhere familiar, it feels nice. And these days you take nice wherever you can get it.

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