January 2013 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the Jan. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.

deftones12soundgarden12Koi No Yokan
-Deftones (Reprise/Warner)
King Animal
-Soundgarden (Vertigo/Universal)
Sacramento’s Deftones occupy an interesting position in the hard rock spectrum: a heavy metal outfit that eschews flashy technique and purposely avoids the trappings of image-making. Fans who have been with the band from the start and seen them grow into one of the most popular rock groups on the planet understand their aims better than the rest of us, who always hear something intriguing with every new release but lack the patience to figure out what it is. Koi no Yokan (Premonition of Love) finds the group as mysteriously appealing as ever, with replacement bassist Sergio Vega having learned how to lock in with drummer Abe Cunningham for one of the most distinctive rhythm sounds in rock, a kind of swirling piledriver effect. Moreover, vocalist Chino Moreno has refined his tonal range—Billy Corgan without the annoying affectations—and provides the relatively subdued “Entombed” with its own loud-soft dynamic, alternating the dreamy with the nightmarish, sometimes in the space of a single verse. In fact, “dreamy” says more about the songs’ effect on the listener than either “heavy” or “metal.” Whereas most metal is meant to be provocative or stimulating, Deftones’ is transporting. Stephen Carpenter’s guitar arrangements are prone to drone—a steady buzz of harmonic atmosphere against the rhythm section’s definition—and the tracks are designed to bleed into each other in emotional rather than visceral ways. Though I have trouble isolating Frank Delgado’s keyboard contributions, it may be he who provides the ineffable melodic undertone that gives the music its narcotic pull. This is as organic as hard rock gets, and almost the opposite of Soundgarden, who sound like four guys who have just walked into a room and started playing. When grunge was the thing, they were the seasoned pros of the genre, a band whose primary debt to metal was the music’s practiced tightness. Had drummer Matt Cameron been more capable of swinging they could have played funk. As it was, they seemed more determined to be a very sophisticated punk band. On their first album in 16 years, the group tries to recapture the psychedelic majesty of their best album, Superunknown. Even the slower, more contemplative songs are played at full volume with a hard attack, all the effort as conspicuous as a full moon in a cloudless sky. If it’s better than one expects it to be that says more about Chris Cornell’s star-crossed career as a solo artist than anything inherent in the record’s production or writing. Cornell’s voice has lost its youthful fullness, and when he raises it above Kim Thayil’s ripping guitar patterns the passage of years is obvious: Ozzy Osbourne on the mend, Eddie Vedder saving his tonsils. But if hardness and heaviness no longer translate as the brutal product Soundgarden’s early records delivered, it’s sufficiently provocative and stimulating, just much less interesting than Koi no Yokan.

alicia12Girl On Fire
-Alicia Keys (RCA/Sony)
Contemporary pop demands narratives for the sake of identification, so we have Rihanna’s self-esteem issues and Taylor Swift’s parade of broken hearts. Alicia Keys is just as much a star despite the absence of anything dramatic in her public-private life. Nevertheless, drama is what she endeavors to supply on her tellingly titled new album. She clues us in on her feelings right away with “Brand New Me,” and if the break-up scenario enacted on “When It’s All Over” makes you fear for her marriage to producer Swizz Beatz, you’ll be relieved to hear the gurgly sounds of a child at the end. The 70s still predominate musically, but the acting chops are strictly pre-method, as shown by her fumbling doo-wop duet with Bruno Mars. And whose idea was it to hook her up with Nicki Minaj on the title cut? Her husband’s? I’d divorce his ass tomorrow.

cover_roughIn Focus?
-Shugo Tokumaru (P-Vine)
Musical autodidact Shugo Tokumaru’s cultish stardom guarantees his concerts sell out even if all he does is show up with a Jew’s harp. His precious songs are the perfect stuff for TV commercials, which is probably where most of his fans heard him for the first time. In larger doses, the material tends toward the slight. In Focus?, however, is a fully realized album consisting of 15 solid pop tunes stuffed into an economical 44 minutes that fly by like the proverbial wind. Making full use of his talents on a wide variety of instruments, some of which sound exotic, he doesn’t waste a millisecond. Even the pauses between tracks have something to offer in the way of an introduction or a coda. And while I can take or leave his wisp of a voice, he really knows how to multitrack it to amusing effect.

-Tame Impala (Modular/Pachinko)
The difficulty artists have when trying to mimic the sound of the psychedelic 60s is the matter of newness. When the Beatles or Pink Floyd released a song, it sounded revolutionary at the time, but even if you recreate the sound exactly, the here-and-now won’t allow for freshness. To a lot of critics Kevin Parker has solved this problem: His second record as Tame Impala was named album of the year by NME, a magazine that knows its influences. The songs reach their intended destination by driving over the guitars and revving the keyboards/vocals. The tone is shrill because Parker understands what a bass sounded like when it was coming through a small speaker, but for me the flanging and trebly EQ get old really fast and make it difficult to appreciate his storied flair for melody. I’d probably like it more if it didn’t sound so genuine.

seegerA More Perfect Union
-Pete Seeger & Lorre Wyatt (Appleseed/MSI)
Pete Seeger needs no introduction, but Lorre Wyatt may, even though he’s a folk legend in New York’s Hudson Valley, where Seeger lives. In 1996, Wyatt suffered a serious stroke and it wasn’t until two years ago that he decided to start writing and singing again. He sought Seeger’s help, which is asking a lot of a 91-year-old. The result is this eclectic collection of Wyatt-Seeger compositions that range from vintage-sounding anti-war ballads to African folk songs to Carribean-flavored pop, and since Wyatt still wasn’t able to use his full voice, Seeger got some of his newer friends to lend theirs, including Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Tom Morello, and Dar Williams. It’s an understandably subdued record that occasionally gets mired in corn (“Howling for Our Supper”) but is never less than sincere in its mood of spirited engagement. As Kief always says, it’s just nice to be anywhere.

peoplePeople Get Ready
One of the nice things about the fin de siecle New York indie scene was the absence of pedigree: everyone was from somewhere else and had to work up from zero. That’s no longer true as evidenced by People Get Ready, an ambitious chamber pop band whose two principal members have played with David Byrne and Yeasayer, though the Brooklyn group they sound the most like is Dirty Projectors, especially the vocals. PGR is about the arrangements. In fact they hired a professional arranger to produce their debut, which is micromanaged down to breath control and the damping on the guitar strings, though most of the time there’s so much going on you can’t hear the detail and lose track of the melody. Some of the songs were designed to accompany live dance performances but they’re lively enough to satisfy the audience’s need to move, too.

untitledPsychedelic Pill
-Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Warner)
When it rains it pours, and mere months after Neil Young unretired Crazy Horse for the old weird Americana, they release this double-disc collection of eight songs, defining the Crazy Horse credo as no other album in their combined career ever has: play it loud, loose, and long. Given how taken the Horse is with distortion, it’s something of a joke that Young is obsessed with pure sound forever, but the half-hour opener, “Driftin’ Back,” allows the listener plenty of time to appreciate every bent note and tom-tom fill along with his daily dose of nostalgia, which is better served on the much shorter disc 2 opener, “Twisted Road,” with its citations of Dylan and the Dead. Were it as funny as the “psychedelic” effects on the title track or the whistling on the closer “Walk Like a Giant,” the album would be more consistently entertaining.

-Crystal Castles (Polydor/Universal)
Less abrasive and more accessible than Crystal Castles’ first two records, (III) benefits from a greater attention to technical detail, thanks to a handful of name production mavens like Jacknife Lee. And with Alice Glass’s singing buried deeper in the murk, she comes across as less menacing (as long as you don’t read the lyric sheet). Of course, Crytal Castles without the dread would just be Sleigh Bells without the fun, but Ethan Kath’s carefully wrought techno compositions have always been the group’s main selling point. The creepiness was just a bonus of feeling, which can turn on a dime at Kath’s fingers, as on the warm, moving “Transgender,” a dance song that makes you feel really good at the end because it makes you feel like crap at the beginning. And since the album is short, the recovery time is quick, too.

BettyeLavette12Thankful n’ Thoughtful
-Bettye LaVette (Anti-/Sony)
In interviews, Bettye LaVette has claimed that she is less interested in singing than in living, an understandably bitter reaction to being “discovered” in late middle age after a life of professional neglect. But it ain’t cynicism if the singing is living. Once again she’s presented with a collection of classic roots tunes mostly written by white boomers—Dylan, Young, Waits, Pogues—that she interprets as the blues to their advantage, using a band that easily cops to her Southern soul stylings. If the mood tends toward the dire and the desperate, she lends her most passionate performance to the optimistic title cut, a Sly Stone song that interprets living itself as the best religion there is. LaVette doesn’t adopt this as her philosophy. It’s more like a cautionary gambit. After all, Sly didn’t suffer any professional neglect, and look how he turned out.

-Green Day (Warner)
Billy Joe Armstrong’s 2012 recording trifecta wouldn’t have been possible if Green Day were still the little punk band that could, but as PR stunt it shows a world that couldn’t care less that the band still has a talent for basic craft. As this is being written the third entry has just been released, but we prefer this second installment, which seems to collect all the short, efficient party tunes Armstrong has written in the past five years but otherwise neglected to release probably because he had more ambitious things to do. Very little of it qualifies as punk. An Everly-like acoustic number opens the album and morphs into “Fuck Time,” a splash of cold water that one-ups the kind of cock rock celebrated in the musical Rock of Ages. The rest of the record follows suit and sounds great. Dumb but great.

-Rihanna (Def Jam/Universal)
On her fourth November release in as many years Rihanna has steamlined a successful formula without really perfecting it: an equal mix of dance pop and florid ballads designed to showcase sexual confidence. It’s natural to stake it all on that well-publicized beating she received four albums ago, and the fact that the man responsible for the violence does a duet here called “Nobody’s Busines” might indicate it’s a matter she’s still working out. That it’s one of the best songs on the album, taking advantage of Rihanna’s most appealing talent—her ability to turn a simple disco tune into something that immediately commands attention— also might indicate the conflict keeps her skills sharp. Everybody will continue to read too much into lines like “I pray that love don’t strike twice,” but there’s something to be said for the desire to be provocative, whatever its source.

codyLanding on a Hundred
-Cody ChesnuTT (P-Vine)
This neo-soul upstart was hailed as the freshest thing in 2002. Though his long-awaited second album doesn’t differ much stylistically, ChesnuTT has definitely grown in other ways. There are no bitter sexual put-downs here. The opening cut, a swirling, string-propelled ode to a higher power called “‘Til I Met Thee,” proposes that the singer has left everything behind now that he’s a father and can better appreciate the gifts of God. He gets specific on the problems of his previous attitude on “Don’t Follow Me” and then pinpoints the source of his rebirth on “Love Is More Than a Wedding Day.” All this self-actualization can be a bit too much, especially when he starts singing the praises of particular African countries, but at least the backup, a potent reconfiguration of the orchestral R&B made famous by Curtis Mayfield, supports the uplifting sentiments with appropriately stirring music.

-Christina Aguilera (Sony)
If the forced experimental touches of Bionic and the underwhelming cinematic vehicle Burlesque diminished Xtina’s star lustre then it only goes to show how high expectations are for her, since neither seemed risky or unusual for someone of her pop culture station. Lotus may be a reboot of what she does best, but it’s also equally self-indulgent, opening with a tuneless, robotic ode to higher consciousness that follows a direct pedigree back in time to the kind of hippie mantras the Monkees made fun of. But for every stab at “concept” there’s a full-throated blast of modern disco like “Army of Me” or the seriously funky and irresistibly playful “Red Hot Kinda Love.” “Let me hear that future sound,” Cee-Lo chorines on “Make the World Move,” while Aguilera’s formidable old-school soul diva vocal throws the request back in his face. Nothing new here, just terrific radio music.

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