Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
Cancer 4 Cure
-El-P (Fat Possum/Hostess)
-DJ Kentaro (Ninja Tune/Beat)
As long as there’s been a style of music called hip-hop there have been MCs who merged the political with the personal, but DJs? For sure there were, but it wasn’t until the late 80s that beats were recognized as having a thematic life of their own separate from whatever was being rapped over them. El-P, the producer who sometimes rapped and helped found the most diehard “underground” hip-hop label of the 90s, Def Jux, seemed to emerge fully formed from some left-field political science program for hyperactive teens. Though outing the military-industrial complex was hardly novel in 1999, El-P was perhaps the first hip-hop artist to advance it as his rationale for beat-making. His artists benefited in that they got the most potent tracks imaginable, even if the context wasn’t always clear. Then El-P released his solo joint I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead in 2007, and the personal-political dynamic took on the trappings of pure paranoia. Having placed Def Jux on indefinite hiatus two years ago, El-P, who still provides beats for other people, seems determined to make his opinions heard, and Cancer 4 Cure is like a declaration of war against war, an album populated by born killers and suffused with PTSD. Its worldview isn’t defiant but desperate, so much so that narrators can’t choose which side their hearts will lean, the abuser or the abused, the exploiter or the exploited. El-P’s own raps are augmented by the likes of Killer Mike, Danny Brown, and eXquire, MCs whose iconoclastic rep is touched by hints of madness. Having been associated with the intellectual side of hip-hop through his work with Cannibal Ox and other Def Jux alumni, El-P seems determined to make matters more visceral, because he can’t intellectualize pure terror and cruelty. But in a way his music can. This is dystopian rock of the most irresistible sort, sounds you don’t escape into but absorb with the need to engage the thing you fear and hate. Japan’s finest hip-hop production son, DJ Kentaro, doesn’t appear to have the same psychic concerns, but his new album purports to contrast the “positive” with the “negative,” qualities that seem to apply to the music rather than the words, of which there are relatively few. It wouldn’t be off the mark to equate “negative” musically with minor keys and more bass. However, being an old-school turntablist, Kentaro’s distinctions as a producer are mostly rhythmical, so the contrast isn’t easy to delineate. He has a habit of whipping the beat to and fro, as if reversing a platter in mid-phrase, creating tension in the usual clubland way, though he insists on a through melody line, either sung or played on crude-sounding synthesizers. Foreign Beggars provide the requisite hard style, mostly on the subject of hip-hop itself, and MC Zulu allows Kentaro to show off his dancehall chops, which pays the bills in Japan. Too bad there isn’t a DJ event at the Olympics.
The ultimate love-em-or-hate-em prog rock outfit releases its first album of all-original material in five years, though it’s still the 1970s classics that beg for comparison. Having taken the hint and jettisoned the falsetto, Geddy Lee offers less to the ear, which naturally focuses on the tunes and arrangements rather than the sci-fi story by Neil Peart (soon to be a novel!). Despite guitarist Alex Lifeson’s huge complement of riffs, there’s little that calls the ear back. It may have something to do with Nick Raskulinecz’s production, which flattens the highs and places Lee’s intricate bass parts front and center. There’s the usual cross-cutting phrases and staccato attack, but also the occasionally relaxed jazzy jam to take the edge off things. Though accomplished and often exciting, Clockwork Angels proves that Rush can no longer be considered inadvertent weirdos, which was always their prime appeal.
Looking 4 Myself
The track that convincingly moves Usher Raymond IV from bedroom R&B to Euro-styled electro dance pop is the one produced by Max Martin, not the one produced by Diplo. Martin’s pop bona fides have been irreproachable for years, but “Scream” could have easily landed on the last Robyn album, while Diplo’s “Climax” (the next cut, thus rendering comparisons inevitable) would have made Usher’s last album a lot more interesting. In fact, that may be point. With Frank Ocean about to drop the R&B album of the year if not the decade, Usher needs to up his game sonically, and on the first half of his new album he really does seem to be looking for something. Even the conventional funk cut, produced and co-written by Pharrell, sounds exploratory, less concerned with making you dance than with making you think differently about dancing. About time he got out of bed.
-Smashing Pumpkins (Martha’s Music/EMI)
The understanding that this is the first Smashing Pumpkins album without any original member save Billy Corgan should have no effect on your appreciation of it. What should have an effect is Billy Corgan’s ability to maintain his command of guitar stylings that, even in 1991, inhabited a very narrow range. The towering metal doodle that dominates the opening cut, “Quasar,” couldn’t be mistaken for anything except a Corgan creation, even before his whiny vocals intrude, and yet it doesn’t immediately sound like anything he’s done before. However insufferable Corgan’s disregard for what might work better for him he approaches each new day as if it’s his last and each new album as if it’s his first. Filled with laughably abstract imagery—chimera, pale horses, violet rays—the songs are nevertheless designed to be your favorite thing right now. If you’re an old customer, it’s satisfaction guaranteed. Comparison shoppers beware.
-Tarachine (and records)
Six musicians who manage to sound like five, playing electric instruments that suggest acoustic ones, Tarachine would be a slight addition to the local underground pop scene if they weren’t so good at what they do. I can take or leave Okihiro Kuwahara’s earnestly throaty vocals, but the intuitive-sounding arrangements indicate more than compatibility. It’s’ been something like six years since their debut, which gave them a lot of time to think about what they want to say and how to say it. Granted, sometimes they say it insipidly, as on the oppressively coy “Ureshii,” but Genki Shibayama’s fierce guitar lines and Hiroshi Nakada’s playful synth runs prove they can play on their feet. But just because they can be convincingly intense doesn’t mean they want to be. This is a band whose one claim to commercial relevance was performing “My Grandfather’s Clock” for a TV ad.
LIke all phenomena rock bands succumb to entropy, the separate facets of their sound gradually congealing into a uniform familiarity. Liars confound entropy, by altering not only their approach from album to album, but also their physical circumstances. The band has moved three times in ten years, and not just around the block. Having settled on an exclusively electronic mode of operation for WIXIW (pronounced “wish you”), they would seem to be rejecting their rock basics. The album is less caustic than the ones that featured guitars, but not necessarily more melodic. Vocalist Angus Andrews assumes a melancholy mein throughout, and the result is inner directed but by no means unreachable. Like Kraftwerk they let the beat do the work for them on “A Ring on Every Finger,” a subtle shuffle of juvenile keyboards and disaffected moaning. You won’t realize it’s done the job until it’s over.
-Cassandra Wilson (E-one/Victor)
The term “jazz vocalist” has never done justice to Cassandra Wilson’s talent and ambition. She’s an interpretive singer on steroids, and on her ninth album she deigns to also become a singer-songwriter. Except for the Italian chestnut “O Sole Mio,” presented as an acoustic ballad, all the non-instrumental songs were written by her or in collaboration with guitarist Fabrizio Sotti. Because Sotti produces and dominates the sound with his Latinate stylings, the cuts have a uniformity of tone that doesn’t give up much in the way of character, and for once Wilson seems daunted, as if protecting her compositions from her own hyperbolic tendencies. For the most part the songs are folky rather than jazzy, the lyrics impressionistic, and the performances rarely break free of their structures, except for “Almost Twelve,” a fleet-footed Brazilian throwaway that showcases Wilson’s flair for becoming one with her accompaniment.
-Karyn White (P-Vine)
“I think I’m ready to come back and do this again,” Karyn White mutters at the beginning of “Dance Floor.” It’s been 18 years since her last album, and the title of this once implies she’s been waiting to seize the moment, but that moment still seems to be embedded in 1990. Though her voice is deeper it’s still lithe enough to handle the mid-phrase gymnastics that made her for a time the most deserving heir to Michael Jackson, male or female. Except for the sappy opener (and single), “Sista Sista,” she sticks with mid-tempo and upbeat numbers, and if none make you forget “Romantic” they still scratch whatever New Jack itch you’ve got. There are no epic ballads that wrench the heart like “Superwoman” did, though “Unbreakable” is undeniably pretty. Back in the day, she commanded the best tunes money could buy. Major labels do have their place.
A Matter of Life…
-Penguin Cafe (Plankton)
Simon Jeffes’ Brian Eno-approved Penguin Cafe Orchestra, formed in 1972, was an acquired taste, an instrumental ensemble made up partly with classical musicians who plied a repetitive style of chamber pop hallmarked by an inventively playful attitude. Some found them unbearably precious, but they were extremely popular, especially in Japan. Jeffes died in 1997 and the group folded, but now his son Arthur has revived the name partially and the sound fully. That Jeffes fils nails that uniquely catchy quality is convincing proof that ideas can be claimed genetically, though the New Age tendencies Jeffes pere only flirted with are more completely realized in his son’s hands. And where the Orchestra made its case with counterpoint, the new group works for ear-worm appeal, often allowing one instrument to dominate a cut. It’s still catchy, but the means of catchiness, it turns out, make all the difference in the world.
Expanding to a five-piece on their third album, self-produced by the core pair of Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell in Berlin, the San Diego-based Crocodiles don’t reinvent the wheel but they have perfected their scuzzy guitar pop by essentially dropping the pretense of not knowing what they’re doing. Endless Flowers demonstrates a singularity of purpose that most indie guitar bands would never own up to. Though sonically beholden to the 60s girl group approach of Welchez’s wife’s band, Dum Dum Girls, the songs here are so assured in their grip on melody and intent that you get the songs immediately—and immediately are impressed with the group’s thematic rigor. The song titles alone convey the music’s skillful blend of beauty and dread—”My Surfing Lucifer,” “Bubblegum Trash,” “Hung Up on a Flower”—but it’s Welchez’s singing that holds the imagination, a voice that damns the fuzz surrounding it.
Return to Paradise
-Sam Sparro (Virgin/EMI)
Sounding more authentically 80s than any white guy playing funky R&B has a right to sound, this Australian polymath gets away with nonsense like “we are the paradise people/we are the moon and the stars/we are the church and the steeple” through sheer cheek, not to mention native ability. Though Prince obviously has his claws in Sparro, the more obvious influence is early 80s turncoats like Ray Parker Jr., who switched from jazz to disco in order to make a lot of easy money. There’s not a single original idea to be found on Return to Paradise, which makes Sparro the ideal tossed-off pleasure partner, and though he supposedly learned his craft in Los Angeles his productions, not to mention the songwriting, have a distinctly second-hand quality. The crack cocaine and child-out-of-wedlock references on “Yellow Orange Rays” sound like something cribbed from a National Enquirer article.
-Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Reprise/Warner)
Just as Neil Young is not your average over-the-hill dad rocker, Americana is not your average covers album. First there’s Crazy Horse, who thud and stomp as gloriously as they ever have. Second, there are the songs, traditional Americana in the most literal sense, tunes we learned in kindergarten, though not in this particular form. And it ain’t just the grungey guitars. Young sets “Oh Susannah” to Shocking Blue’s “Venus,” conjuring up all sorts of base associations (including Young’s short-lived 80s rockabilly band, the Shocking Pinks). If “Get a Job” represents a more relatable pop tradition, Young’s treatment is no less arresting in its ability to redefine its relevance, but the real ear-opener is “This Land is Your Land,” which points out the obvious: no it isn’t. Some will say Young is simply pulling your chain. I say that’s bull. Not with a grungey guitar sound like that.
A Joyful Noise
Except for the copious keyboards, there’s little that British producer Xenomania adds to the Portland dance punk group’s signature sound, so why does it feel so different from anything they’ve done before? Maybe it’s Beth Ditto’s adoption of conventional R&B vocal strategies. The melismatic eruptions on the first single “Perfect World” prove she can do that, too. In fact, because she’s a natural showman it sounds better than those people who’ve done it all along. Original fans of the band may despair there’s no more punk, but it was never Ditto’s aim to be Kathleen Hanna, as proved by “Get a Job,” which could have been written for “Bad Girls” era Donna Summer. It’s going to be difficult to recreate these songs in concert with only three people, but having seen Ditto hold an audience in the palm of her hand I can’t wait to see them try.