Here are the album reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend.
-Fun. (Fueled By Ramen/Warner)
Time Capsules II
You drop your guard for only a minute and look up to discover that popular music is suddenly overrun with positivity. Is it a compensating reaction to widespread pain and despair or simply another fad? If we take the orchestral pop trio Fun. as the vanguard act in this movement it would seem to be the latter, though there’s no escaping the feeling that lead singer Nate Ruess is sincere on every level. Even the Auto-Tune that dominates the centerpiece statement of purpose, “It Gets Better,” seems totally redundant in trying to brighten up Ruess’s emo-inflected effusions, because by this point we don’t need convincing. The copious Queen analogies that have followed the band since their debut, Aim and Ignite, were proferred because of the aggressive vocal harmonies, but Ruess mainly honors Freddie Mercury by constantly staying on top of the dense, hyperactive arrangements, some of which can be credited to his busy colleagues, guitarist Jack Antonoff and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost, but is chiefly the work of producer Jeff Bhasker, who was famous for giving Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy its alluring sheen. For that reason, a lot of people hear hip-hop here, but I don’t, not even on the Janelle Monae joint, “We Are Young.” In any case, Fun. realizes their self-appointed purpose best on grandly imagined rock songs like “Why Am I the One,” which sticks to a normal verse-chorus structure that allows them to wield their most potent weapon: a flair for the climactic melodic hook, like Bread with a taste for bombast. They should leave the complexity to their former fellow travelers in indie-land, like Brad Oberhofer, a nominally bedroom singer-songwriter who is as comfortable with baroque arrangements as he is with frilly pop fluff. For his debut album he snagged Steve Lilywhite as producer, a man who knows his bombast (U2, Rolling Stones), though usually in the service of rock that’s more conventional than Oberhofer’s. First there’s the voice, which, while capable of staying in key, can still elicit derisive grins and even outright giggles. Is he kidding with that posh tone on the merry-go-round-ready “Landline”? Apparently, a lot of people think so, because much of negative criticism the album elicits centers on the singing. I don’t see how you could appreciate Ruess’s exaggerated enunciations and not fall equally for Oberhofer’s nerdy grandiloquence. There’s something unique about the way he wags his tongue in “Away Frm U,” and if Lillywhite seems to pile on the keyboards as a means of counteracting the childish impulses and wayward humor, he underestimates Oberhofer’s confidence, which is earned. Whatever you want to say about his need to be in your face with his style, the guy can write ’em. And while the song subjects don’t necessarily bespeak bliss, they convey Oberhofer’s irrepressible youthfulness with bracing directness. Of course, the young have more of a right to be positive than anyone. It’s just nice to see them admit it.
The Other Side of Tomorrow
-The Slakadeliqs (Do Right/P-Vine)
A self-professed 70s music obsessive, Toronto producer Slakah the Beatchild trades in what used to be called organic hip-hop—heavily processed grooves built around acoustic soft rock and jazz-like passages. Though he sings on his solo debut as the Slakadeliqs, he also exercises his producerly prerogative by accepting the assistance of local guest artists, most of whom bring their own tunes. Prominent among these is singer-songwriter Justin Nozuka, whose two cuts stand out in terms of melodic originality. All Slakah really has to do is build a temple to those melodies with break beats and a soft filter that places Nozuka’s vocal in stark contrast to the song’s overall atmosphere, the better to showcase its hookiness. Slakah himself says he was going for a “universal sound” that would distinguish him as a solo artist. It’s an appealing record, but isn’t “distinctive universality” a contradiction in terms?
-The Hives (Sony)
One doesn’t necessarily want The Hives to change. Though their brand of garage rock is both generic and cartoonish, it’s a reliably effective formula thanks to the unabashed showmanship of lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist. But 20 years and five original albums into their career the band has to try especially hard not to repeat itself. In the case of Lex Hives, they’re mainly repeating others, most obviously Joan Jett, Slade, and AC/DC. When they muster the courage to just be fools, as they do on the 60-second opener “Come On!”, which is basically the title directive repeated over and over in front of a bitchin’ riff and canned audience response, you smile in spite of yourself. When they hunker down and try to write something truly original, like “1000 Answers,” the seams show. In the Hives’ world, riffs should be more sacred than songs.
Express Yourself EP
-Diplo (Mad Decent/Pachinko)
Whatever his strengths as a producer, the coolest thing about Diplo is his refusal to spread himself thin. Though he’s recently been tied to some great records by the likes of Usher and Scissor Sisters, for the most part his fame derives from his ability to show up at parties and get everyone slamming. And since his solo product is slight, one has to assume he makes it up as he goes along. The eagerly awaited Express Yourself EP boils this rationale down to 6 mixes that have no place outside of a sweaty, packed club of totally drunk people. Since collaboration is his metier, each cut features a rapper and/or singer, but they barely survive Diplo’s slice-and-dice aesthetic intact, which makes sense if the whole idea is to provoke the mechanical impulse that takes over when a lot of horny folk get together in a tight space.
-Jerry Douglas (eOne/Victor)
When session mavens release solo records, they try to demonstrate their chops in fields they usually aren’t associated with but have an affection for. As the world’s undisputed master of the dobro, Jerry Douglas naturally would like to occasionally play something other than bluegrass, and on Traveler he does, though he doesn’t stray that far stylistically. Thanks to heavyweight guests like Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Alison Krauss, Mumford & Sons, and Keb’ Mo’ he can sound as authentic as he wants to be in blues, country, folk rock, and R&B modes, even when he sings. What he can’t do is make the album anything more than the sum of its indulgences, and the cuts you keep returning to are the instrumentals, in particular the prog rock smoker “So Here We Are” and the bluegrass jam “King Silkie” with guitarist Dan Tyminski and banjo player Charlie Cushman.
-Priscilla Paris (Ace/MSI)
The Paris Sisters were an anomaly in the 60s, a throwback to the kind of girl groups that were popular right after the war but retooled for boomer kids, mainly by Phil Spector, who produced their one big hit. Though they toured constantly and maintained cred among the cognoscenti, they folded in 1967 after releasing their only LP. The youngest, Priscilla, then released two solo albums, both of which are assembled in this collection. On the first, she wrote all her own songs, which are filled with dark, dreamy sentiments and sung with a purity of emotional intent usually missing from Top 40 orchestral pop. The other album was a tribute to Billy Holiday, and a very effective one considering it didn’t contain a drop of jazz. Neither sold much but you can hear their influence on the works of Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, and Jimmy Webb.
Life Is Good
-Nas (Def Jam/Universal)
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that personal strife can result in compelling art, which is why Nas’s new album is receiving such positive press. Starting with his divorce from Kelis, the rapper’s life has been anything but Cristal and blunts lately, and he taps the self-doubt and disappointment to good effect thanks to producer No I.D., who provides him with the winningest beats money can buy. Associated structurally to the biggest men in corporate hip-hop, No I.D. isn’t going to work on something that isn’t going to be profitable, so Nas is lucky he’s now on Def Jam. And it’s the beats that capture your attention, since Nas’s flow has become so thick with self-reflection that the work required to understand him collapses before the mighty music. But that’s OK. You can tell he’s been humbled by his experiences.
Open Your Heart
-The Men (Sacred Bones/Hostess)
Indie rock stories like the one behind Brooklyn’s The Men are the most gratifying kind: Band sticks it out for years and not only sees enough success to quit the day jobs, but does so because they actually got better. Though it’s their second long-player, Open Your Heart feels like a ripping good debut by a punk band still in the grip of amateur over-confidence, except that it’s accomplished. And that’s saying a lot for a record which is at least half instrumentals. Like Cloud Nothings, they take the idea of the extended guitar coda as a hallowed fixture of rock. “Oscillation,” in fact, is nothing but coda, an accelerating cheetah of a track that feels like pure adrenalin. The caterwauling consistency of the title song and the gentler country lilt of “Candy” come from the same place, where the will to thrill claims dominion.
The Idler Wheel…
-Fiona Apple (Sony)
Maybe as a reaction to the reaction to her last album, Fiona Apple’s newest is both more ornate lyrically and less complicated instrumentally. For most of the time, there’s little else except her piano and her voice, but as if to make up for the loss of the potential clutter she goes all out with the singing, and the greatest measure of care has been applied to making sure the words come through the paroxysms of passion, which extend over the full spectrum, from rage to infatuation. I can’t say a lot of the words are that good—comparing her ex-lover’s pronouncements to “hot piss” is simply gross—but Apple is the whole package and you only “get” her when you accept the constituent pecadilloes as a gestalt. Grooveless and mostly amelodic, the ten songs here nevertheless hit their mark as flights of feeling. Bulls-eye again.
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
-The Flaming Lips (Warner)
For any other major label rock band, an album of all collaborations would be a novelty. For The Flaming Lips it’s business as usual. Anyone who could bend Ke$ha to their twisted will by not only getting her to quell her party animal personality but place it on the same plane as Biz Markie’s has some serious negotiation skills. Granted, much of this material was put together over the internet, so it’s likely the participants didn’t know what they were getting into, but I think Bon Iver’s tentative tenor improves greatly when filtered through Wayne Coyne’s playful psychedelia. Of the 13 cuts only the one with Edward Sharpe sounds like a typical Coyne composition. If anything, I’d like to think that some of these stars agreed because of the song titles. Who wouldn’t want to play on something called “I’m Working at NASA on Acid”?
School of Architecture
On the cover of their self-titled debut and their website, the faces of the three members of Holland’s School of Architecture are whited out, which is appropriate, albeit in a perverse way. The group’s rhythmic pop takes off from 70s soft rock and lover-man soul, but with all associated affectations removed. The vocals are barely there and even the instrumental elements avoid anything that might betray an original stray thought. The funkiest they get is on a synchronized arpeggio phrase during the chorus for “Moviestar,” which is over before you even have a chance to smile. And smiling is the obvious desired response to this music, which is so inoffensive and safe that you can be sure the people who make it are the nicest guys in the world. In that regard, it’s probably just as well that you have no idea what they look like.
This Brooklyn art band’s 2007 debut was the Middle Eastern cognate to Vampire Weekend’s college town highlife. Success seems to mean never having to say you’re global, because their third album is cleaner, poppier, and only multicultural if you listen really, really hard. Which isn’t to say Yeasayer have abandoned their experimental predilections. Some of the sonic ideas are unnecessarily wonky, but the songs are pure dance pop and the singing by Chris Keating and Anand Wilder is winningly exuberant and often quite soulful. If this is a comedown from 2010’s Odd Blood, it’s mostly in the compositions, which aren’t as memorable. The tribal tattoo of “Longevity” or the disco dedication of “Reagan’s Skeleton” make temporary impressions without the kind of connections earlier songs forged by means of their striking musicality. Inevitably, every able band is forced to get by on sheer craft.
Swing Lo Magellan
-Dirty Projectors (Domino/Hostess)
One of those singer-songwriters who work inch-by-inch, assembling songs from isolated ideas and riffs, Dave Longstreth has enjoyed critical success because he knows that such a methodology is nothing without a dedicated band who understands exactly what he’s doing. The weird textures and structures that people associate with Dirty Projectors are blamed or credited to Longstreth and his impossibly elastic voice, but they’re really the product of a group consciousness that can keep up with the switchbacks and dovetails that characterize Longstreth’s creative drive. And now that (some) people are used to it, the group releases its (relatively) most approachable album, a collection of songs with (comparably) conventional arrangements, (mostly) discernible melodies that travel in one (general) direction, and lyrics about things we can all identify with (up to a point). If this is the result of having worked with Bjork, then everyone should work with Bjork (maybe).