November 2012 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo a week ago.

The Truth About Love
-P!nk (RCA/Sony)
-Carly Rae Jepsen (Interscope/Universal)
For all her self-professed independence, Alecia Moore thrives on collaboration, which just goes to show that some of the things you learn as a teen idol are valuable. Though she’s acted her age ever since Missundaztood gave the world Linda Perry as super-producer, her reliance on co-writers and song doctors has always been attentive to the point of co-dependence. The Truth About Love delivers on its promise of maturity even before it lands in your CD changer, arriving as it does with a back story any former idol would kill for: P!nk’s reconciliation with her husband, Carey Hart (whose estrangement was chronicled on her last record), and the birth of their baby. But don’t look for particulars of these private matters in the songs, which benefit less from any attendant emotional insight than from the chaotic feelings that such a roller coaster life is bound to deliver. The opening party anthem “Are We All We Are” trains a magnifying glass on the Ke$ha credo while exhorting the club kids to do a little better with their respective futures, while the single “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” keeps its options open even as it rejects the unsatisfying lover. Gambits as slick and catchy as these are standard issue for big label pop albums as well-financed as P!nk’s, but rarely do big label pop albums even better financed than this one keep getting better as this one does, from the heartbreaking melodrama of “Try” to the piercing duets with Nate Ruess and Lilly Rose Cooper (nee Allen) and the absolutely hilarious—and non-accusatory—”Slut Like You.” I count 21 collaborators here, with a few, like Greg Kurstin and Billy Mann, making repeat performances. Each one has something specific to add to P!nk’s musical sensibility and always to its benefit. I don’t know if the girl really knows the truth about love, but she really knows how to make a fine pop record. Carly Rae Jepsen is still too green to merit as much credit for the success of her second album, Kiss, even if at 27 she’s six years older than P!nk was when she made Missundaztood. Still under the thumb of that Bieber manager munchkin she has yet to assert any personality that doesn’t fit snugly into the dance-pop compositions designed for her. It’s impossible to identify anything that Jepsen brings to the sickly addictive hit “Call Me Maybe” that makes it hers except maybe the willingness to give herself over completely to the song’s obvious charms, which are micro-managed down to the Auto-tuned lilt on her vocals at the end of each phrase. There are just as many collaborators here as on the P!nk album though you wouldn’t know it. Even the duet with Owl City sounds as if it’s been filtered through a gate-keeping synthesizer, but then so do all his songs. State of the art? The idol-making machine sure has gotten economical since P!nk was an ingenue.

Love This Giant
-David Byrne & St. Vincent (4AD/Hostess)
However much press this collaboration has generated, the end product does more for David Byrne’s C.V. than it does for Annie Clark’s. Two of the most willfully idiosyncratic musicians around, Byrne and Clark don’t so much combine their peculiar talents as allow them to coexist, and Clark, as the kohai half, seems content to fill in the blanks and interstices. And while I would prefer more of her knotty guitar work, I like the end result since it seems to have inspired Byrne to heights of silliness he hasn’t endeavored to reach for in more than a decade. The opener, “Who?”, has him asking the title interrogative in the curious fashion that made Little Creatures such a childish treasure. Even on obvious jokes like “I Am an Ape,” he revels in contrary ideas whose dynamic friction produces music that’s enjoyable for more than a season.

Nothin But Love
-Robert Cray Band (Provogue/Victor)
As a blues singer and guitarist, Robert Cray has never been a purist. Over the course of 30 years and half as many albums he’s fashioned himself as a rock musician whose subject matter takes its cues from classic blues story-telling. His latest album is a grab bag, and when he does settle on pure blues, as on “I’ll Always Remember You,” he does so in a big way, with a full-on horn section and a loose arrangement that allows room for noodling. The steady-rockin’ “Side Dish” showcases his strengths as a bandleader and songwriter who knows how to tease out a riff without belaboring it. It’s a talent he doesn’t exercise as conscientiously elsewhere, particularly on the slow blues “I’m Done Cryin'”, which relies on strings to distinguish its 9-minute length from the next guy’s 9-minute slow blues about losing one’s dignity as a man.

The Spirit Indestructible
-Nelly Furtado (Interscope/Universal)
The cover and title of Nelly Furtado’s first album in six years seems to belie the frivolous image imparted by the last one she made, the worldwide hit Loose. The hippie couture and self-esteem-verifying sentiments hearken back to Folklore, but what to make of that first single, “Big Hoops,” which is more frivolous that anything she’s ever released, even if its hip-hop stylings are tempered by a refusal to actually bust out. The song sort of drones along until Furtado declaims “I can go fast” and the machine-generated beat doubles. That’s a weird way of asserting your priorities as an artist and a human, and may be a sop to the record company, which has to put up with positivity statements—albeit positivity statements steeped in dance pop—like “The Most Beautiful Thing” and “Believers,” an ode to the Arab Spring. The spirit isn’t so much indestructible as serendipitous.

-Mumford & Sons (Coop/Pachinko)
Still don’t see the Americana influence. This quartet of acoustic guitar strummers sounds as English as their album art looks, but that may be a PR bid to make them as appealing to Yanks as they already are to their fellow Brits. And it seems to have worked since this album sits atop the album chart as I write. The appeal is obvious if not particularly lasting. Each track opens bold and brash, with Marcus Mumford’s raspy, seasoned voice storming the ramparts of your soul, but don’t worry. It doesn’t take much to ward off the attack if only because the seige is so uncoordinated. The rousing single “I Will Wait,” with its manic banjo-mandolin pattern and big-hearted chorus, is touching in its earnestness but inevitably off-putting for the same reason once you’ve listened to it more than once. Ease up, guys. It’s only folk music.

-Aimee Mann (Superego/Sony)
Having long ago fallen into the singer-songwriter rut of worrying the same pet themes and reconfiguring hooks that once sounded fresh Aimee Mann is reduced to crooning to the choir on her eighth album. As a paid-in-full member of that choir I like this better than anything she’s done since Bachelor No. 2; and for the record I think she benefited from Jon Brion’s complex production gymnastics, but am also mature enough to understand she’ll never be able to make a one-off masterpiece like I’m With Stupid again. Producer Paul Ryan steers his charge toward the pop middle—mid-tempos, sturdy melodies, choruses that cling—and she sounds more comfortable there than she has in years, despite the characteristic sourness of the sentiments. She’s always worn her grouchiness like a birthright, so it’s nice to hear her loosen up on her duet with James Mercer. He sounds looser, too.

-The Gaslamp Killer (Brainfeeder/Beat)
Horror-film hip-hop of the type that Gaslamp Killer assembles is so reminiscent of early gangsta beats that you almost expect one of the Ices to roll in and take charge. Actually, the L.A. producer doesn’t leave much room for rapping, which may reveal my innocence with regard to this particular species of “bass music,” but it’s difficult to listen to this kind of heavy weather stuff and not expect a lyrical payoff down the road. Since the drumming is for the most part live, the distraction can be acute, but he never lets a track run long enough—the average length is about 3 minutes—to let the distraction turn into discomfort, the way it would on, say, an El-P track. Because of his Turkish background, the dread is sometimes interrupted or tempered by exotica, which scans as psychedelia, albeit psychedelia for people with short attention spans.

Home Again
-Michael Kiwanuka (Polydor/Universal)
The British roots juggernaut steams on and one hopes it doesn’t run over this talented singer-songwriter, whose debt to acoustic soul veterans like the late Terry Callier and Bill Withers is paid in full on his debut, meticulously produced by Paul Butler for maximum “what is that a ripoff of?” disorientation, which is closer in style to Top 40 white boys like the Rascals. The flutes and horns on “I’ll Get Along” provide Kiwanuka’s tenor with enough flotation to lighten the leaden melody, and if “Rest” sounds like a weak attempt at the soul balladry of Otis Redding, the strings are pretty enough to make the attempt at least honorable. At this point Kiwanuka offers more potential than product, so the effort to pass him off as the the Great Black Hope of native English soul feels misinformed. Besides, isn’t Adele the Great Black Hope of native English soul?

Cedar + Gold
-Tristan Prettyman (Capitol/EMI)
Unlike P!nk (see above), Tristan Prettyman’s reunification with the lover (fellow singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, thanks for asking) who inspired her previous breakup album didn’t last, and so here we have a second breakup album, which leads off with the very obvious “Second Chance,” as in “you’ve had yours.” Perhaps emboldened by the split, Prettyman jettisons the mostly acoustic surfer sound she made her name with in favor of more electronics and dance beats, not to mention a vocal style with more grit and heat. If that means no one will mistake her for Colbi Caillat anymore, so much the better, but she also isn’t going to be mistaken for KT Tunstall. Her forced introspection tends to overwhelm whatever casual charms her songs relay, and her particular skills set doesn’t include “rock chick appeal,” as if it were something to aspire to in the first place.

Total Loss
-How To Dress Well (Weird World/Hostess)
Thanks to Frank Ocean, 2012 is turning into the year of the R&B confessional. Though folks like R. Kelly have used the genre as a vehicle for personal investigation, Ocean and a few younger artists have fashioned their experiences to the specific cultural associations of R&B. Tom Krell is more open-ended with his resources, but the falsetto vocals and strong rhythms, not to mention the name checks on his debut, indicate he’s gained more from Shai and Bobby Brown than from Antony. What makes Krell’s songs different is the way they directly address grief and despair, two realms of feeling R&B rarely gets to. Even the relatively swinging “& It Was U” details the destruction left by a failed relationship. And whereas R&B has always been a resolutely collaborative pop form, Krell’s music is insular, private. You adhere to its sticky surfaces, prisoner in a dark world of one.

Sassafras & Moonshine: The Songs of Laura Nyro
Laura Nyro was one of those 60s singer-songwriters who made more money selling her songs to others than she did selling her own records. Everyone knows her stuff but few have heard her sing it, which is a shame since the adolescent girl passions she conveyed so perfectly were best enjoyed in the form of her own adolescent girl’s voice. This collection has only one Top 40 hit—the Fifth Dimension’s “Sweet Blindness”—but the wide range of artists covering songs both famous and obscure honors her own omnivorous appetities—doo-wop, R&B, jazz, show tunes, folk. Her gospel influence is given its due by the African-American artists represented, from Thelma Houston’s big-boned “Save the Country” to the Staples’ greasy “Stoned Soul Picnic.” But the revelation is the heartfelt renderings of her more impressionistic songs. Melba Moore’s ultra-poppy “Captain St. Lucifer” is like a brand new hallucinogenic.

-Bob Dylan (Sony)
At this point it’s all about the voice and, to a lesser extent, the reliability of a band that’s been with him longer than any he’s ever assembled. The songs? Oddly enough the long Titanic tale has gotten under my skin, mainly for its hook, which doesn’t flag over the course of 14 minutes. Even the long ode to John Lennon gets by with a blues phrase that I’m sure he stole from somewhere. The poetry only makes sense in that phlegmy croak and if I had just this album to go by there’s no way he’d get my vote for a Nobel Prize. But after 50 years it’s all about gestalt, so here we have it: 70 years old, still contrary after all this time, rocking as hard as ever, and justifying his right to go even further backward into styles that informed him as a music fan.

Battle Born
-The Killers (Island/Universal)
The secret to the Killers’ success is the way they convey the wide open feel of the American desert, a trope familiar to anyone who came of age in the 80s when it was the setting of choice for countless music videos. Though U2 is often invoked in the sweep of their songs, Brandon Flowers’ singing has more in common with Jackson Browne: grand ideas presented in the shape of a heart. “Runaways” is a stadium anthem not because of its drum sound and soaring vocals but because of its generic lets-hit-the-road-baby theme. I hear it once and get a lump in my throat. I hear it twice and curse the day Bruce Springsteen was born. There are only two ways to listen to these songs: in an arena with 20,000 other people, or in a car driving through Nevada alone. Context is everything.

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