Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Monday.
-Atoms For Peace (Hostess)
-John Foxx and The Maths (MSI)
However one interprets the work of Thom Yorke, as either a member of Radiohead or a solitary creative unit, his choice of electronic music over the more conventional electro-acoustical forms deserves more scrutiny since he’s probably done more to promote what is still disparagingly called “electronica” to the masses than any Warp artist or major label hip-hop producer. Though Yorke is ostensibly fronting a band on this project, the listener will likely not register individual performances since one of the hallmarks of electronica is its ironically organic gestalt. No matter how many “players” are participating it sounds programmatic by design; which isn’t to say it sounds artificial, only that it’s more difficult to distinguish the personal affectations that usually constitute collective pursuits. Yorke writes and sings everything here, and if the compositions are more free-form than his Radiohead work, they also lack the intramural tensions that makes Radiohead’s music so compelling, even if AFP’s propulsive rhythms qualify it as more of a dance outfit. As bassist, Flea sports the most recognizable musical mannerisms and provides more melodic distraction than Yorke might be comfortable with, but he isn’t half as funky as he gets with the Chili Peppers, even when exercising his Afrobeat druthers on “Before Your Very Eyes.” The percussion is even less notable for its power than for its textures, suggesting that Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco knew they weren’t hired primarily to keep the beat. What we’re left with is Yorke’s vocals, which despite the uniform wistfulness never fail to engage. It’s not just the flesh-and-blood contrast with the surrounding machine, it’s the effort to break free of the machine, which is the greatest irony of all for an artist who named his solo project after a phrase that attempted to soften the image of the most destructive technology ever invented. Or maybe it isn’t. John Foxx, formerly of Ultravox, is a pioneer of electronic pop, and his new outfit the Maths is more forthrightly analog-sounding than Atoms For Peace, which doesn’t make it any less mechanical, but that was always the point of synth-pop anyway, right? The pioneer of this sort of ghost-in-the-machine style was Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, and if Foxx’s similarly processed diction sounds pretentious it’s also accomplished. The vocals are certainly more impressive than Yorke’s if only because so much care has gone into the multi-tracking. Sometimes it can get ridiculous—the Boris Karloff inflections on the Matthew Dear-assisted “Talk,” for instance—but Foxx starts from a more familar place, the dark recesses of the psyche that so much electronica endeavors to plumb. His methodology is more melodramatic than Yorke’s, indicating a classical approach to art rock. That’s the weird thing about old electronic pop: despite the label it made no claims to pleasure. It was totally caught up in meaning. Blame it on David Bowie if you want to, but when such music succeeds in its aims, it can be thrilling.
By the time 2013 dawned, this mongrel lover man had pulled even with Frank Ocean as the year’s breakout R&B talent, even though Kaleidoscope Dream is his second major label effort. His first was more Prince than R. Kelly, but this one isn’t easy to peg on anyone’s influence, which is why it’s superior, and if it still falls short of Channel Orange it mostly has to do with a lack of lyrical distinction. I don’t mind the pumped up pickup lines, but when the most interesting verses are stolen from the Zombies you have to wonder how hard he tries. He certainly puts more effort in the tracks, which contain so many contrasting sounds and melodies he doesn’t need guests. The album’s most exciting song, “Use Me,” features the artist in a developing vocalese contretemps with himself, as if challenging his own ability to make an impression.
The latest by Rob Brown and Sean Booth wouldn’t qualify as a double album during the LP era. It wouldn’t even qualify as a double album during the early CD era. At more than two hours, the duo’s patented schematic sound constructions test the listener’s fortitude in getting through the whole thing. The industrial textures and inverted rhythms are pleasing in small doses, but some of these tracks go on and on, as if Autechre were struggling to get a bead on their hard disk full of tricks. Once you understand their methodology, which is to throw ideas at each other in real time and see the reaction, the album makes sense intellectually, but sonically it’s a slog that might have benefited by a bit less thickener. Shorter tracks? That would probably make sense. Some musical forms lend themselves better to sprints than to marathons.
-Ellie Goulding (Interscope/Universal)
Though this British singer-songwriter made her initial splash three years ago with a cover of Elton John’s sappiest ballad, her own material more closely resembles Captain Fantastic’s bombastic mid-70s pop singles in terms of tone and effect. Goulding would be nothing without her synthesizers, but her songs of love and longing are classic piano-pounders-with-strings, starting bold and just getting even more dramatic. Since her voice is high and purposefully girlish, cognitive dissonance kicks in on mature-sounding compositions like “My Blood” and the practically stentorian title track. Half of the electronic effects are her processed vocals, so Goulding gives the impression of being totally in charge if not completely in your face. She’d be overbearing if her songs weren’t so undeniably catchy, but that sort of dynamic has always delineated the fine line between success and laughingstock. Goulding obviously means to be around forever.
-The Virgins (Cult/Magniph)
Old story. Good-looking kid raised in the maw of the NYC demimonde gets scouted by modeling agency, forms band with ambitious punks, grabs attention at loft party, scores network TV exposure and major label contract, goes nowhere. This sophomore album, released on a boutique label founded by a member of The Strokes, is where all that easily won experience pays off. The Strokes are the obvious influence, but few groups with the good fortune of The Virgins have made that influence mean as much. Donald Cumming’s hushed singing style, two parts Lou Reed insouciance to one part Chris Isaak throb, leads rather than follows the tasty instrumental backing. Like Robert Quine, Wade Roberts’ knotty guitar adds tension when the energy level flags. The stinging leads on “Flashbacks, Memories, and Dreams” work against the song’s melancholy grain. Nothing startling here, just solid craft in the service of spiky attitude.
Forward/Return + Torey’s Distraction
-The Album Leaf (P-Vine)
This locally compiled double album of two 2012 releases bear no distinction from the sort of ambient pop instrumentals that characterize Jimmy LaValle’s dedicated albums. One is a 30-minute EP, the other a soundtrack to a little-seen 2009 documentary. In fact, the latter’s bite-size song structures and spare instrumentation give a better idea of LaValle’s special gift for the haunting musical phrase, which under normal circumstances is usually stretched out past its point of interest. Working with isolated images, LaValle plucks out a guitar arpeggio or pumps a simple organ pattern to get at the emotional kernel of whatever is to be shown on the screen. In concert, The Album Leaf usually plays to background films and videos, which make up for the lack of lyrics in music that begs for a voice to fill it with meaning. The soundtrack also lacks the canned percussion AL is famous for.
On their third album, the ambitious Oxford quintet goes full out with the funk that was only hinted at on their previous post-punk-inspired releases. The feeding frenzy feeling of the record’s best track, “Inhaler,” won’t do much to advance the group’s introspective rep among eggheads but it could convince a booking agent or two to take a chance on an arena, which they can easily fill up with their multivalent sound, and if the keyboards make short work of the guitars Yannis Philippakis’s singing has finally come out of heaven’s pantry to address the mortal fans on their own ground. Confidence borne of actual accomplishment is no small thing in pop, or even rock for that matter, and Foals deserve their promotion to full-fledged major label status. The only fear I have is that someone mistakes them for Muse and the comparison goes to their heads.
What’s with this sudden fascination for quiet storm? As a subset of late 70s/80s R&B it was hugely popular among a demographic that has nothing in common with the young white producers who are now digging into it for their own indie cred strategems. Admittedly, the Brothers Aged trick it out with heavy weather atmospherics that should be flattering to their new label, which was famous back in the day for making pop sound important, but the breathy vocals and uniformly druggy tempos betray their almost scholarly command of an idiom that was perfected by Peabo Bryson and resurrected as art song by D’Angelo. That’s an imposing legacy to honor. And while the Ageds get the inflections right, they can’t get worked up enough to raise their voices above a murmur. Storm isn’t in it. More like a drizzle set to drum machines.
-Ron Sexsmith (Cooking Vinyl/Imperial)
It seems inauspicious that the first two songs on Ron Sexsmith’s 12th album contain the word “nowhere.” To say that Sexsmith’s career hasn’t fulfilled the potential suggested by his songwriting gifts is saying nothing, of course. After all, he’s made it to 12 albums, all of which feature professional production and arranging. Besides his clever turn of phrase, his greatest strength has been his talent for tune, a Simon-ish ability to avoid repeating melody lines too often. As to the charge that he was born too late, well what did being a boomer do for John Prine? Fortunately, the punningly revelatory title isn’t the best thing about his new album. It’s the mix of jaunty and melancholy, the way Mitchell Froom’s production complements rather than overwhelms the singer’s modest performance style, the refusal to accept aging as a losing proposition. He’s still got somewhere to go.
-Rita Ora (Sony)
Newbie R&B divas laying seige to the citadel of Rihanna would do well to come at the opponent from an oblique angle. Rita Ora was born in Kosovo, raised in London, and bred as a singer in the crucible where every music style has equal value. Though her presentation is as tough as necessary and the diction sufficiently Caribbean to appeal to trans-pond skeptics, there’s a refreshing wit that gives Ora an edge. “I wanna party and bullshit,” she says repeatedly on “How We Do,” a confession of humility in a genre obsessed with sexual candor. The offhanded way she delivers the ex-GF-dissing “R.I.P.” implies a more honest approach to the commonplaces of songwriting-by-committee (the track boasts eight authors), which is to say that Ora tends to be better than her material, drawing out the pop appeal that the producers apparently aren’t being paid enough to provide.
Carving out an identifiable niche as dance pop producer may be easier than carving out an identifiable niche as a dance pop performer. Anton Zaxlavski’s marquee cred as a remixer was made on material that had already made lots of money: songs by Justin Bieber, Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga. He even redid a Skrillex track, which is like gilding the lily. On his debut as a name artist he smartly intensifies these identifications by keeping the tracks short and the melodies simple and up front. He didn’t name it Clarity for nothing. Since he doesn’t sing and his songwriting calls for components that do, he makes use of people whose star power is enough to attract attention without eclipsing his own. But dance music will always have its way, and most of the cuts here are basically synth noodles in thrall to the god of break beats.
Push the Sky Away
-Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (Hostess)
Having never taken to Nick Cave’s dark, literary folk-rock I didn’t awaken to his charms until the uncharacteristically hard-rocking Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! After getting all that out of his system with his Grinderman project, Cave returns with the kind of brooding art rock that made me yawn in the past, but I’m now more appreciative of his resources as a writer and actor, not to mention the Bad Seeds’ ability to make him sound as important as he thinks he is. The poetry doesn’t always connect, but the haunting sea metaphors of “Mermaids” and “Waters Edge” at least make sense thematically and, connected to the very human sounding music, invite deeper study. If I initially thought “Higgs Boson Blues” was the album’s requisite light moment, waiting for the other shoe to drop proved to be a more harrowing experience than I was prepared for. Touche, Mr. Cave.
-Alice Russell (Tru Thoughts/Beat)
The positioning of “A to Z” as the lead cut on Alice Russell’s newest album might indicate to the faint-hearted that she’s on Adele’s case. Either it’s such a shameless ripoff of “Rumour Has It” or that song has become so ubiquitous that it’s become familiar in every post-millennial soul pastiche. Cognescenti who know Russell’s been singing this sort of stuff since when Adele was a single integer know her debt to classic R&B has been paid in full for a while now. Mostly eschewing ballads and burners, not to mention melisma, she keeps the focus on the loins. The pumping Prince/Chaka mash of “Hard and Strong” is a new avenue of exploration and as such stands as the album’s highlight, while the title track utilizes the sparest instrumental elements to underline a call-and-response gimmick you wish would go on forever. Russell isn’t just involved, she’s instigated.