February 2013 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo yesterday.

-Ke$ha (RCA/Sony)
Unorthodox Jukebox
-Bruno Mars (Atlantic/Warner)
P!nk opens her latest record with “R We All We R,” an obvious response to fellow pop punctuation diva Ke$ha’s hit of 2011, “We R Who We R,” which was a statement of purpose if ever there was one. Ke$ha’s identification with club-crashing white trash is complete and unabashed, and P!nk, who’s been there and done that, would like to point out the downside of the 24-hour debauch, especially for females, and while some will consider the gesture (which kicks ass, BTW) patronizing, Ke$ha on her second album seems to have gotten the message, from P!nk and others who find her philistinism distressing if not downright phoney. With all that major label pop weight behind her, there was no way the follow-up to Animal was going to be anything less than a steamroller, and the title cut is a manifesto that equates partying with revolution, so take that, Andrew W.K. Rather than simply characterize the drinking and dancing and non-stop snogging as the prerogatives of overburdened youth, she posits them as some sort of social statement: free your libidos and your mind will follow. And if the debut’s melodic template was the rock anthem, she’s added a martial component that makes the pleasure more assertive. “I hear your heart beat to the beat of the drums,” she declares somewhat redundantly on “Die Young,” and it sounds like marching orders. With her exaggerated diphthongs and Auto Tune the cartoon quality of Ke$ha’s singing becomes even more pronounced, especially since every song has that up-down rhythmic thrust: Get in line or die (young). When she introduces Iggy Pop on “Dirty Love” you expect something grittier, more mortal, but despite topical references to Afghanistan and Rick Santorum, Iggy sounds even more like an animated character. Once you’ve entered Ke$ha’s realm, everything’s different; still fun, but as far from real life as commercial porn. Bruno Mars is too much of a pop traditionalist to cop to the porny predilections that most singers bring to the kind of R&B he plies, but his own sophomore effort implies that such a stylistic decision may have been forced upon him. Or maybe he just thinks, like Ke$ha, that decadence and aggression sell better. Whether despairing over the temptations of jail bait, pondering those women who only care about his money, or getting rough in bed with his current paramour, Mars sees the sexual transaction as fraught with hazard to both person and pocketbook, which is very different from the sentimental grind of “Just the Way You Are,” even if the music is equally catchy. In fact, the catchiness reminds you that Mars was initially lauded for his tunesmithing, which while not particularly fresh was certainly accomplished. Unorthodox Jukebox is a step forward since it takes the content for granted and boosts Mars as a bold star worthy of tabloid attention. I wouldn’t call that unorthodox, just smart.

-Yo La Tengo (Matador/Hostess)
Like the bushy tree that graces the cover of their 13th album, Yo La Tengo’s sound is easy to take in but difficult to detail. The distance Ira Kaplan travels between gentle pop and distorto rock isn’t far, and what makes the first cut, “Ohm,” so appealing isn’t the dense percussion and psychedelic eruptions but the even-handed choral singing. Producer John McEntire’s orchestral touches have a similarly calming effect on the repetitive rock tunes, though one could argue that “Is That Enough” is cornier as a result. As a long-player, Fade contains more distinct pop songs than YLT usually offers up, and if it feels short on ideas it never flags in terms of energy, even if Kaplan sounds as sleepy as ever at the mike and the volume dips as the album progresses—but not before ending with a flourish. Some traditions are sacred.

HDB069_coverTruant/Rough Sleeper
-Burial (Hyperdub/Beat)
Burial has only released one bona fide album so far, and that was in 2007. Since then he’s kept his brand alive with collaborations, one-offs, and two EPs, each of which contain only two cuts; but those cuts are long. On his latest, they clock in at 11:45 and 13:37, for a combined length that barely tests the album form but considering how he structures the two cuts they could qualify. “Truant” is built around two heavily processed vocal tracks that are presented as theme-and-variation suites, with actual silences separating one segment from the next. Less melodically inclined than on his previous EP, the producer’s patented mood of anxiety is developed more through rhythmic distortion. “Rough Sleeper” disintegrates, gradually losing its human quality to the surrounding chaos in stages. Getting there is more unsettling than the actual destination.

jakebuggJake Bugg
Given the heavyweight endorsements (Noel Gallagher, Stone Roses), expectations for this teen prodigy’s debut are high and for once the expectations are met. Iain Archer’s production lets the simple charms of Jake Bugg’s songwriting and singing speak for themselves. Whether Bugg is channeling Dylan or Buddy Holly, the sound remains uniformly crisp, the instrumentation unshowy: 14 strong songs in less than 40 minutes. If there’s any precociousness on display its in the ambition of his range. The uptempo folk rockers display his talent for musical invention, while the ballads demonstrate a keen understanding of his surroundings and the people who inhabit them. And when he talks of love, he wisely keeps it generic rather than specific. Even when drugs enter the picture he makes it feel like part of the landscape rather than something he knows about firsthand. If he’s the genuine article, it’s because he sounds genuine.

Not a collaboration between what’s left of the Wu-Tang Clan and the LOX, only a summit meeting of their two leaders, Ghostface Killah and Sheek Louch, with cameos thrown in for spice. It exploits everyone’s fond memories of 1990s pusher-gangster rap, though more syllables are utilized to describe laying around than busting ass. As always, Ghost’s impatient whine and inventive rhymes dominate the proceedings, and his imagery has never been sharper, though you wish his jokes (“Hood yoga: I pull muscles counting money”) were as good as Sleek’s (“my chain is lower than your GPA”). Running beats that had their genesis when Reggie Jackson was still a cultural touchstone, the album is musically tame, reinforcing the feeling that it’s one big excuse for everyone to hang out and watch the Knicks. But even if the confrontations are mild, the skills are second nature. It’s a decent showoff record.

godspeed13Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
-Godspeed You! Black Emperor (P-Vine)
Two of the four cuts on the first GYBE album in a decade have been part of the band’s live show for years, though I’m not sure how you could tell. I’ll believe you if you say Mogwai did it first, but GYBE popularized—if that’s the right verb—the postrock habit of long droning crescendos and equally long decays, an idea that makes more sense in concert than on record. “Mladic,” the opening epic, intensifies its comedown by configuring the guitars into a modal monolith that ebbs and flows to remarkable dramatic effect, like a beast refusing to die, culminating in an arpeggiated coda that boosts the song’s soaring dynamic before dissolving in a clatter of pots and pans. What follows is mere arranging, but for one glorious 20-minute burst of feeling, GYBE lives up to its ridiculously bombastic titles.

buddy&jimBuddy & Jim
-Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale (New West/MSI)
Miller and Lauderdale have been fixtures in Nashville and its environs for several decades as sidemen, producers, songwriters, and solo artists. Earthier and folkier in their musical leanings when recording on their own, the pair nevertheless understands what sort of expectations their partnership will evince and the resulting album is a relatively straightforward country affair, with Miller foregoing gospel and Lauderdale checking his swampy R&B at the studio door. Love songs of every emotional shape and contour dominate the selection of originals and covers, and if the two friends’ vocal styles tend to be too indistinguishable to make much of a difference to the average listener the guitar playing keeps things lively, especially on Jimmy McCracklin’s rocking “The Wobble” and Joe Tex’s soulful “I Want to Do Everything for You.” The stuff written especially for the record could have been written for anyone, and probably was.

-Christopher Owens (Turnstile/Yoshimoto)
Mere months after announcing the breakup of Girls, Christopher Owens releases his first solo record, which retains the fragile romanticism of his signature style while completely abandoning the astringent quality that made Girls’ music so convincingly desperate and touching. Constructed as a song cycle about a fleeting affair, Lysandre utilizes sophisticated production, knotty folk music arrangements, flutes, and reeds. The effect is at once more intimate and less compelling. The rockish centerpiece “New York City” has more to do with a manic sax line than Owens’ winsome vocals, and the two instruments end up working at cross purposes. The title song trades in the kind of adolescent sentiments that Owens is known for but in a more conventionally sentimental setting than we’re used to hearing when that voice is involved. It sounds precious, even wimpy. Love does strange and mysterious things to people.

dropkickSigned and Sealed in Blood
-Dropkick Murphys (Born & Bred/Pachinko)
The Murphys’ Celtic punk has more to offer a Fenway Park full of raucous Red Sox fans than a pubful of drunken stevedores, but on their eighth studio album you’d think they’d just fallen off the boat. With anthems like “The Boys Are Back” and “Jimmy Collins’ Wake” they seem determined to reconstitute every stereotype that plagued their forebears. The ferocious punk element puts across the notion that you mess with them at your own peril, and the whole point of a Murphys set is that you’ll be sweating buckets at the end and not remembering a thing the next morning. Though electric guitars don’t factor heavily into every song, they play their mandolins and pipes at enough of a fever pitch to render electricity unnecessary. But it’s the massed choruses and lightning tempos that make them a match for any hardcore power trio you throw at them.

orangepekoeTribute to Elis Regina
-Orange Pekoe (Playwright)
Bossa nova is always covered reverently, resulting in non-confrontational tempos and understated performances. Vocalist Tomoko Nagashima and guitarist Kazuma Fujimoto honor the spirit of the late, great Elis Regina by proving how exciting they found her music. Assisted by a crack ensemble of local jazzbos, they tear through a collection of Regina standards as if on speed. There’s nothing polite about the furious rhythms and Keiko Suzuki’s swirling Rhodes on “Se Voce Pensa,” and even when Nagashima calms down long enough to tackle the classic maze structure of “Aguas de Marco,” the band keeps goosing the tempo, keeping her hilariously off balance. The whiplash salsa flourishes of “Upa Neguinho” make up for the somnolent sylvan tones of “Basta de Clamares Inocencia,” and the rhythm section of Sho Kudo and Ryo Saito bring the funk to “Zazueira.” Bossa nova. It’s not just for lounges any more.

-Twenty One Pilots (Fueled By Ramen/Warner)
Emo by inclination if not by nomenclature, this Midwestern duo doesn’t stay stylistically still long enough to provide a point of entry for the casual listener, who may grow frustrated with Tyler Joseph’s schizy vocal shifts from pure-hearted pop to nerdy rapping. But just as you grow accustomed to their unique vibe they fall into conventional song forms and you wait in vain for another eruption of weirdness. The first three songs on their major label debut are the ones you’re likely to return to. Then again, the syncopated, singsongy texture of “Car Radio” might fool you into thinking it’s deep but it’s just annoyingly candid—the very definition of emo. It takes a fiercer imagination than the one these guys utilize to analogize hopelessness with the theft of an automobile sound system, but that doesn’t mean they can’t produce music that expresses hopelessness more forcefully.

AIR_coverAnything In Return
-Toro Y Moi (Carpark/Hostess)
Chaz Bundick drifts further from his chilly compadres in the bedroom art-rock community with his third album, a playful, almost aggressively funky comment on contempo R&B that satisfies on more than just a head-nodding level. Letting ideas find their own natural ends, he expands basic house and hip-hop beats into spacier realms that allow plenty of room to contemplate any subject that enters his ken: food, sex, the politics of phone calls. He has yet to find a voice that can match the expressiveness of his music, but Stereolab, who wanted the same thing he wants, didn’t need a gospel wail to make their pointed political views felt. Bundick’s instincts are more finely attuned. The melody line he stumbles across in “Say That” is as pure and simple as a rose petal, and the bass line in “High Living” is sublime.

darkstarNews From Nowhere
-Darkstar (Warp/Beat)
Vocals can often seem tertiary on synth-pop records, as if they were a requirement. It wasn’t always that way. Darkstar remembers the aptly named Human League and what they meant to a generation of kids who thought guitars were so old. James Buttery, apropos his own wonderful name, spreads himself lightly over the organic soundscapes James Young and Aiden Whalley construct, but he gains a footing at the front of your consciousness with a voice that sounds like an average person’s. Multitracked on “Amplified Ease,” he and his various selves weave in and out of the ringtones and thumping bass, turning racket into music through the force of his humility. But when his presence is transformed into a stuttering loop on “You Don’t Need a Weatherman” as a counterpoint to lapping waves of sound, it simply turns into another fixture of the landscape: a fence to keep you out.

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