October 2012 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo earlier this week.

Channel Orange
-Frank Ocean (Def Jam/Universal)
I Know What Love Isn’t
-Jens Lekman (Secretly Canadian/Hostess)
Do free downloads exacerbate cognitive dissonance or dissipate it? It’s a relevant question when pondering the critical success of Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, which scored high on many 2011 Top Ten lists, including ours. The fact that you don’t pay for it may color your attitude toward an album, but now we have Ocean’s official major label debut, the most hotly anticipated of the year, and the first reaction is that it’s a lesser work. Ocean’s brand of R&B is hardly original, but it is fresh, owing principally to its auteurist character. He avoids samples, relying heavily on studio musicians, but the menagerie of producers and co-writers aren’t nearly as conspicuous as they are on other R&B records. Though Ocean’s passions are real enough, he rarely translates his raptures into speedier tempos, meatier arrangements, or greater volume. In fact, his already storied gift for melody is a function of his less-is-more approach. The songs are lyrical because Ocean is lyrical. Even his lyrics are lyrical, and while many have focused on his typically R&B-based obsession with the good life and the demimonde, his only subject is love. Even on the delightfully dry and trenchant “Super Rich Kids,” the singer eventually gets around to his main concern. “I’m searching for a real love,” he says with the only true feeling the song contains. And while sex has its place on the album, it tends to be observational rather than participatory. The album’s emotional and musical centerpiece, “Bad Religion,” makes perfect sense of Ocean’s musical lassitude: “This unrequited love to me is nothing but a one-man cult,” the idea of loving someone “who could never love you.” It’s not just what Channel Orange is about. It’s what Frank Ocean is about. It’s also what Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman is about, though he’s usually more cavalier about the ones that get away. The somewhat cynical-sounding title of his third album indicates negative experience in the ways of amour, but it’s always difficult to get worked up over Lekman’s detailed stories of heartbreak and loss since he doesn’t get worked up himself. As a pop songsmith and arranger he hangs loose, recalling the stoned afternoon insouciance of Chris Rea; as a singer he rarely lifts his voice in either ecstasy or enmity. And yet I Know What Love Isn’t, despite its melancholy subject and occasional outbursts of misanthropy, seems designed to raise smiles all around, as if he were trying to lift his own spirits after the breakup that so obviously inspired all ten songs. “Baby what’s wrong?” his lover asks on “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder,” and he replies, over and over again, “it’s nothing,” as if desperately trying to change his outlook. Championed as a singles mensch, Lekman here seems determined to channel his disappointments into an album-length statement, but some habits are difficult to break. It’s too much fun to take that seriously.

Banga
-Patti Smith (Sony)
One is loath to underestimate an artist as earnest as Patti Smith, even at those times when earnestness is all there is. After a decade of records that took advantage of her position as the mother of all late 20th century creative endeavor, she produces this effortless collection of pop-rock with themes as freighted and hoary as any she’s tackled. She sings with more varied nuance though less muscle than she has since Easter, and if the poetry doesn’t leap out at you the way “Horses” or “Land” did, it doesn’t test your patience either. The fact that she can address Amerigo Vespucci as a compadre and write about Amy Winehouse in the vernacular of doo-wop shows that for all her ethereal fascinations she lives with the rest of us on earth. Even her ode to Mr. Fuji keeps its sentiments rooted in ground full of rock.

Elysium
-Pet Shop Boys (EMI)
Irony has been unhip for years, so we’ll chalk up the relatively subdued energy level of the latest PSB opus to the kind of fatigue that accompanies middle age. Still, the backhanded compliment of “Your Early Stuff” and the forced self-promotion of “Winner” demands repeat listenings just to get at those suspect subtexts, and then you discover how insinuating the music is. The irresistibly aerodynamic “Leaving” almost has the opposite effect: a pop song so smooth and easy you initially overlook what’s being pointed out in the chorus: “Our love is dead.” The more overtly sexual “Face Like That” compounds its come-on with a jungle beat that could conceivably go on forever, and if you insist on disco then “Requiem in Denim and Leather” will have to do. My guess is that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have no appetite for clubs anymore, but that’s OK. Neither do I.

Election Special
-Ry Cooder (Nonesuch/Warner)
Purposely timed to self-destruct on November 6, Election Special furthers the guitarist/roots revivalist’s new rep as a searing social satirist. On the evidence of “Mutt Romney’s Blues” alone, a song about the Republican candidate’s unfortunate dog, it’s obvious Cooder isn’t a red stater, but if “Guantanamo” is any indication, he has reservations about the current POTUS as well. There’s more pure blues here than on his last opus, which is appropriate when you’re fretting over the sad state of political discourse and the even sadder state of the union, and he finds plenty of opportunity to rock the vote, so to speak, though based on “The Wall Street Part of Town” he would appear to advocate a livelier form of activism. Is the blackface delivery of “Cold, Cold Feeling” inappropriate? As the man says, “If you’ve never been president, you don’t know how it feels.”

Symbolyst
-Lymbyc Systym (and Records)
As ambient instrumentalists go, the Bell brothers of Arizona are able to pull up any number of familar rock patterns from their combined memory banks, and even if those aren’t real drums pushing the tunes forward they get the job done. The melodies and tempos hew too close to the conventional to qualify as postrock—in many ways, this is classic rock—and one could easily imagine a human voice singing actual words being substituted for the main synth and guitar lines that seem so carefully configured. Since guitars sound like keyboards sound like samplers, it’s useless to grouse about the artificial quality of the production, but at least it appears to be human-generated, even when, as in “Falling Together,” the musical character of the song is dictated by rhythmic structure rather than melody and harmony. It’s a joyful noise that bears no distinction whatsoever.

Sun
-Cat Power (Matador/Hostess)
Six years is a long time, but temporality has no truck with pure sound, and disregarding that covers record the line from the Memphis funk of The Greatest to the prog-rock synths of Sun is a crooked one indeed. Even the sentiments seem skewed, the heart more difficult to pin down, which is odd for an artist so famous for wearing hers on her sleeve. “Sitting on our ruin/what are we doin'” she sings as if on a loop in multi-track against a peppy piano tattoo and processed guitar. It’s entirely infectious and completely incomprehensible, which could be the point. Chan Marshall’s contrary impulses are infamous, and this is the sound of a woman giving herself over to the beat, freeing her soul, wanting to get lost in that rock’n roll. The words aren’t so much secondary as dictated by the music she still has a primal connection to.

Shields
-Grizzly Bear (Warp/Beat)
Because of Grizzly Bear’s reputation as brainy musicians, it’s always a bit of a shock to put on their albums and rediscover how playful they can be. By no means postrock fussbudgets, they nevertheless pay such painstaking attention to texture and aural constrasts that sometimes the appeal of their pop smarts gets lost in the details. It’s strange that the most accessible song on their latest album is also its longest; though that’s no reason to bury “A Simple Answer” in the latter half. Whatever cliches have formed around the album form since its inception, the tendency to front-load your catchiest tunes is one that no group should be ashamed of. The lead track, “Sleeping Ute,” with its off-kilter time signature, brittle sound quality, and unresolved development, doesn’t make the best first impression. And I’m still not sure if the strings add anything that’s necessary.

Beacon
-Two Door Cinema Club (Kitsune/Traffic)
With its crisp dynamics and insistent beat, this Northern Ireland rock group has become one of the planet’s premiere live acts, so if their recorded output doesn’t properly convey the excitement they stir up on stage you can’t blame it on the songs…or can you? The group has obviously learned something since its debut. Beacon is punchier and more to the pop point than Tourist History, featuring arrangements that take full advantage of Sam Halliday’s versatile, swinging guitar style. And while producer Jacknife Lee can’t really do anything about Alex Trimble’s wimpy warble, the band’s main obstacle to total ecstatic involvement seems to be the material. There’s a nagging sameness to the melodies, a feeling that whatever thrill the band is expressing flows from the musical interaction rather than the music itself. Such interaction is more readily enjoyed in concert, where the audience is part of the equation.

Cut the World
-Antony and the Johnsons (P-Vine)
It’s disarming to listen to Antony Hegarty’s eight-minute monologue, “Future Feminism,” so early on his new live album, recorded last year in Copenhagen. Wryly locating the “homosexual question” in his mystical view of the world, Antony speaks in a unique blend of American vernacular and British propriety. As the second track, it has a profound effect on the listener’s appreciation of the remaining songs, which are mostly taken from his last two albums and feature some amazing arrangements played by the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. The strings cosset Antony’s distinctly florid vocals in velvet and lace, attenuating some of the emotional directness, but what the songs lose in dramatic tension they gain in pure beauty. The soaring proclivities of “Cripple and the Starfish” are fully realized here, and the empathy inherent in the confessional “You Are My Sister” bypasses the torrid histrionics of the studio version.

Nocturne
-Wild Nothing (Yoshimoto)
People never tire of this hazy, reverby pop. Jack Tatum is boosted as being above his shoegaze production predilections, a songwriter first and maker of tracks second, but that sound is so recognizable as belonging to a particular discipline of commercial rock (once categorized under the general rubric “indie” but no longer) that it’s difficult to listen past it. The tunes are appealing and the guitar arrangements—two parts arpeggio riffing to one part floating single-note lines—so capably executed that the album never wears thin, even over the course of 20 cuts and 75 minutes. But I’d really like to hear a mid-tempo charmer like “Only Heather” minus the burr on the vocal and with a cleaner drum sound and the organ pushed deeper into the mix. Then I might appreciate Tatum as a songwriter. As it is I can’t even tell if he’s a decent singer.

Havoc and Bright Lights
-Alanis Morissette (Universal)
Alanis Morissette’s musical instincts have always been a match, if not a foil, for her formidable psychosexual analytics, and she has had good luck in finding collaborators who know how to tap them. Producer and co-writer Guy Sigsworth survives her transition from one major label to another, a move that coincided with a more stable domestic arrangement for the singer that’s reflected in the generally upbeat tone of the music and the brash confidence of the lyrical pronouncements. Though still a sharp scold when she wants to be, Alanis no longer feels it necessary to interrogate her more objectionable shortcomings. “Celebrity” could be a dig at the kind of young woman who deigns to achieve a conventional pop career trajectory, while “Havoc” practically makes fun of the very psychosexual analytics that used to pay the bills. It’s all about aging, or the usual pop career trajectory.

Gossamer
-Passion Pit (Sony)
Whatever Michael Angelakos’s emotional problems and however those problems are addressed in his music, that music adheres resolutely to “pop’s pleasure principle,” to quote Pitchfork. Moreover, Angelakos seems incapable of pretension, and his need for release is as liberating for his listeners as it is for him. Due to preconceived notions of what this sort of electronic music is supposed to achieve, it’s easy to think of Passion Pit as an indie band, but the ambition of the songwriting and the chops to make good on that ambition render the group an arena act. Gossamer owes more than a few of its tricks to contemporary R&B even if bubblegum is what pumps up the radio hits, so for every two shirt-tearing bounce machines like “Carried Away” there’s one nodding, falsetto-fueled place-keeper like “Constant Conversations.” That’s not a bad ratio for an hour-long album, but it didn’t have to be an hour.

Coexist
-The xx (Young Turks/Hostess)
The lie about punk was that it felt more real because its practitioners had yet to be spoiled by technique. The best punks knew their instruments, they just didn’t see the need to prove it. This young group from Southwest London sing softly and carry a fairly light stick, and while they don’t demonstrate anything in the way of chops they have things to say and say it in a totally appropriate way. The vocals have a restrained soulfulness that bespeaks uncertainty about the big questions: What is love? Are you my friend? Is this truth? When you’re 20, you may feel it helps your cause if you pretend to know all the answers, but you probably don’t, and xx’s minimalism strikes me as being more honest in this regard than any heartfelt profession from the emo crowd. They certainly make prettier music.

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