Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Monday.
-A$AP Rocky (RCA/Sony)
Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head
A$AP Rocky’s fledgling career is a rubber-band throwback to the days when big labels made a difference. After securing a $3 million contract based on nothing but a mixtape he delayed release of a proper debut album not once, not twice, but three times. Media as well-informed as Pitchfork speculated that he would be dropped by Sony, but here’s the album at last and all is forgiven. He may have Kendrick Lamar to thank for that. Timing is everything and it’s difficult to imagine that six months ago this sort of personal, idiosyncratic rap would have attracted the same attention it now does in the wake of the left-field success of good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Granted, input from the likes of Skrillex, Florence Welch, and Lamar himself can’t help but raise eyebrows, but unlike the usual guest gambits these are positioned for their novelty effect. Nothing interferes with Rocky’s solipsistic naturalism. Though he focuses on the usual lifestyle perks—”PMW,” which stands for “pussy, money, weed,” is a statement of purpose—he thinks deeply about matters that most rappers toss off, which begs the question we’ve been asking since Biggie made huge gold chains a statement: Is materialism worth rapping about? Though Ma$e appropriated the symbol of mammon first (sorry Ke$ha), Rocky actually ponders its implications. That $3 million makes more than one appearance on these tracks, not to mention what it’s already bought. When he talks about his roach-infested childhood on “Suddenly,” it makes an impression, especially as he rattles off, in the course of only two lines, a litany of death and exile and betrayal. Maybe Jay-Z and Nas told the same tales with more force and greater humor, but that was almost two decades ago and in the meantime money has become the be-all-end-all of major league rap. Even 50 Cent won’t cop to anything except the challenge. Besides, Rocky’s beats, regardless of where they come from, complement his street smarts with the sort of pop universalism that justifies the advance and gives it meaning. Long live free enterprise, an ethos T.I. could theoretically take issue with, considering how much jail time it’s bought him. At one time the standard bearer for the moneybags hip-hop movement, the Atlanta rapper has struggled to reclaim the banner since his incarceration for weapons possession. One problem is his attempt to exploit his criminal past by recreating some of the incidents that got him arrested. Is the use of Marvin Gaye’s original theme song for a blaxploitation flick and that huge gun on the movie-poster cover part of a big joke? It wouldn’t matter as much if the music were consistently compelling, but the production jumps from arena rock to squiggly minimalism with little concern for T.I.’s ability to adjust. As a result the many guests, which include Rocky, overshadow him. It’s good to know he has lots of new capitalist endeavors unrelated to rapping.
The Afterman: Descension
-Coheed and Cambria (V2/Universal)
No one takes narrative prog-rock as seriously as this NYC quartet, whose fantasy novel albums are so lovingly plotted they make Mastodon look like undergrads. The second part of their Afterman epic is about nothing less than the discovery of a cosmic energy source, and if the “sonic cliffhanger” that constituted Part 1 fails to make sense to you, don’t worry. There’s a coffee table book that explains everything in the simplest terms. The music on the records, however, is anything but simple. Having decided that every characterization and description deserves its own distinct style, the band shifts confidently from metal to emo to stadium belters and even straight-up pop without any thought given to tonal consistency, though vocalist Claudio Sanchez’s theatrical bellow offers continuity. All the fans need to know is that they handle these various elements with top-notch technical assurance. Rejoice, ye over-achievers.
Regions of Light and Sound of God
-Jim James (ATO/P-Vine)
In line with the tradition of the self-produced and self-performed solo album, Jim James’ first sojourn away from the safety and comfort of his regular gig, My Morning Jacket, is more reliant on technology by reason of necessity, though he attempts to defuse that very expectation on the opening cut, “State of the Art,” a rambling meditation on the devices he insists “ain’t usin’ me.” We’ll take his word for it, though there’s surprisingly little of his signature electric guitar. Utilizing his Lennon croon rather than his usual Dylan whine, he centers everything on the vocals, the better to address his position in relation to God and mortality, but not necessarily spirituality. James doesn’t insist his belief in the afterlife is anything but wishful thinking, as he professes in jaunty doo-wop fashion on “A New Life.” But remember: You can’t take your Pro Tools with you.
A Long Way to Fall
-Ulrich Schnauss (Scripted Realities/Hostess)
It’s been six years since this German producer released his last album as a lone operator. Since then he’s worked with other producers on joint projects that had little use for the fuzzy guitar that prompted comparisons to My Bloody Valentine or the Cocteau Twins. His new album continues in this vein, at least for the opening tracks, which layers multiple keyboards with spoken-word snippets processed into something that resembles singing. The effect is more new age than club, but the music has a cumulative power that suddenly gives way to genuine song structures using identifiable rhythms, chord progressions, and melody lines, but no singing in the conventional sense. Often you expect some reedy new waver to start right in, particularly during the breaks on the sci-fi-lite “Weight of Darkening Skies,” a 1980s era idea of what cruising music would sound like in 2010. It never happened.
My True Story
-Aaron Neville (Blue Note/EMI)
Following up his wonderful classic gospel album, Aaron Neville compounds the nostalgia with a collection of classic doo-wop. Though there are no surprises here in terms of selection, the decision to keep the sessions loose and spontaneous makes it a much less intense record than I Know I’ve Been Changed. The uniformity of the instrumental arrangements, grounded in co-producer Keith Richards’ reverent but anachronistic guitar parts, subtracts from the authenticity, as do the capable but nondescript backing vocals. The point seems to be to allow Neville as much of the spotlight as possible, but doo-wop was by definition a collective art. Neville’s plantive, angelic voice reconfigures the mystery of “Gypsy Woman,” reasserts the swagger of “Ting a Ling,” reinhabits the sexual innuendo of “Work With Me Annie,” reromanticizes the longing of “Be My Baby.” It’s the Saturday night party music to which gospel is the antidote.
-Ocean Colour Scene (Cooking Vinyl/Traffic)
Workaday doesn’t begin to describe Ocean Colour Scene, which has released ten studio albums since 1992, each one much like the last except that the group’s late 60s/early 70s command of everything having to do with English rock allows them a wider range of styles and a deeper understanding of how to put them across. Working his best Roger Daltrey bray, Simon Fowler keeps the energy artificially high in front of songs that sound worried to the ground, picked over and prodded to extract whatever scintilla of originalty they might contain. So you get a ripping singalong chorus on the title cut, a big beat hook on “Doodle Book,” an explosive break beat on the otherwise folkish “If God Made Everyone” that Pete Townshend probably thinks he wrote. As with their concerts, Painting contains dozens of exciting, precious moments surrounded by polished but pretentious professionalism.
Just as Jamie Lidell progressed resolutely from high-powered electronic dance music producer to high-energy R&B singer-songwriter, he now moves on from his Michael Jackson crush to a Prince hard-on. Though the songs never reach the ecstatic highs the Purple One can achieve, they demonstrate a relentless need to show how diligently he’s working at it. No single cut breaks the 5-minute mark, but they all start in full-on mode, thus making them sound practically interminable. Lidell has the voice and the intellectual tools, and his rhythmic composure is unassailable. “Do Yourself a Favor” grooves on an oiled beat that slips effortlessly beneath his faltering falsetto, while the syncopation that elevates “You Naked” on piles of pillowy synths is more subconsciously inferred than heard. If the songs themselves make less of an impression, it’s probably because Lidell understands his limitations and knows Prince doesn’t have any.
-Michael Des Barres (Gonzo/MSI)
Michael Des Barres is a good-looking character actor who over the years has managed to make a little money fronting short-lived bands that often included more famous people than him (Clem Burke, Steve Jones) or taking over singing chores from famous people in already established bands (Robert Palmer, The Power Station). This solo effort of self-penned material is the first extended musical project he’s undertaken since the late 80s, and as the title suggests it attempts to recapture the fizz of swinging London when Des Barres was just breaking into the business. Though it’s no great shakes it does make up for those rock albums Rod Stewart didn’t record while fronting as a sex symbol. Des Barres claims this isn’t a nostalgia trip but songs of the here-and-now; they just happen to be about that “particular time of my life.” And Rod’s your uncle.
Originally formed around the kernel of a guitar rock band, this dance outfit has established its rep not with break beats or killer synth hooks but with old-fashioned pop vocals, sometimes even harmonies. The secret is in the delivery, which is boyish and impassioned and may explain why they opened their second album with the anthemic track “Of the Young,” a song that’s over before you get suspicious of their intentions. Though Delphic is championed as a sublime live act, the recording is produced to within an inch of its life and has a trebly quality that lacks the heft you normally want in dance music. More ambitious and accomplished than Hot Chip, another band that makes a similar tradeoff between rock and dance, they don’t always convey their human element as successfully. Those voices are great, but they only get you so far.
Blak and Blu
-Gary Clark, Jr. (Warner)
Covering all his bets without spreading himself thin, this canny singer-guitarist expands outward from the blues rock of his four indie albums for his major label debut. It’s strange, and slightly perverse, that Clark’s ecumenical vision of rock is considered pastiche while the Black Keys are deemed forward-looking, but that’s music criticism for you. Maybe it’s the record’s unabashed focus on playing, which isn’t revolutionary but nevertheless satisfying in the way it’s integrated into Clark’s songwriting and meaty arrangements. The only sop to the market is the rap on “The Life” and the “urban” touches on the title track. The rest of the time Clark picks and chooses what he needs from the canon—Stones, Memphis, the Kings (though I don’t hear as much Hendrix as some do, even on the Hendrix cover)—and adapts it inventively, if not always as forcefully as you might like.
(One Little Indian/P-Vine)
Not sure which of the two blokes who make up this London downtempo act do the singing on their debut, but I assume it’s Luca Santucci, since the bio says he enjoyed a “lengthy” solo career before teaming up with Ben Fitzgerald. Santucci’s vocals are fey and soulful, carrying the melodies that seep out of their solid steel arrangements like crankcase oil; and since the tracks are short the tunes register more readily than they would for likeminded artists who usually hire outside vocalists. In fact, the nagging throb that ballasts “Two Times a Maybe” is itself enough of a hook to hang the mournful vocal on that you wish it lasted more than just three minutes. The loungey elements of “It’s Not That Easy” are sexy in a sleepy, late night way, despite the shimmering shiny surfaces. It’s a stubborn heart that beats below a metallic shell.
-Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Jagjaguwar/Hostess)
Like most guitarists who conquer technique before developing their art, Ruban Nielson writes songs that take full advantage of the music scale he’s working in. “Swim and Sleep,” off his band’s sophomore effort, contains a riff so knotty it tortures the rhythms out of shape, but rather than untie it Nielson works around it. Songs that call attention to their structure usually don’t hold up under repeated listenings, but this one keeps its integrity with each spin; as does the next track, “So Good at Being in Trouble,” which teases a funky Stax/Volt pattern by augmenting the theme several times before resolving itself. Nielson locks in the appeal by keeping these songs brief, which isn’t the case with other, more conventional cuts. That’s where he shows off the guitar technique, which I fully dug when I recently saw the band in concert. Not so much on record, though.
-Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Universal)
Quentin Tarantino’s regard for second-tier pop is as reverential as his regard for B-movies, and since his latest film is a spaghetti western, he spices the soundtrack with bits of cheese centered around Ennio Moriconne, whose signature style is appropriated by artists whom QT commissioned for the first original songs he’s ever included in one of his films. Rick Ross, John Legend, and Swizz Beatz have fun with these elements without leaving their cribs, but they aren’t as entertaining as Edda Dell’orso’s “His Name is King” or Luis Bacalov’s title theme song, both of which were recorded when this sort of thing sounded fresher if no less corny than it does now. The Jim Croce song just sounds weird, and “Freedom” is not the Richie Havens original used in the movie, but a new song by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton. You mean to say QT couldn’t afford the licensing?