Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Thursday.
-Eric Clapton (Bushbranch/Universal)
-Richard Thompson (Proper/P-Vine)
Though he’s still God to some boomers, Eric Clapton hasn’t tried very hard to maintain his edge as a rock artist or even a blue guitarist since…well, he quit heroin. Few popular musicians will ever be able to claim responsibility for something like Layla, the greatest rock guitar album ever made, and this collection of covers, mostly done in a relaxed reggae style, appears to represent what Clapton appreciates as he nears his eighth decade and moves away from the stresses of pleasing a major label. Even those of us who would still pay money to see him play the blues live have a hard time understanding what he gets out of sit-down acoustic versions of Gershwin and Kern, or sappy duets with that other nostalgia-beater, Sir Paul. The sunny sleeve photo and smiley vocals offer answers: the comfort of retirement. Even “Angel,” a dark song by a writer, J.J. Cale, whom Clapton has a close affinity for, is breezier than Montego Bay at sunset. Tempos never accelerate past a trot, and the reggae breaks and backing vocals keep a lid on the energy level. He even adds a children’s chorus to “Every Little Thing,” one of only two originals on the record. However, the other one, “Gotta Get Over,” is a loping blues, and if the vocal growl doesn’t sound lived in enough, the guitar work retains the magic touch that still makes him peerless as an instinctive stylist; and his tribute to Gary Moore, a slow burner done in a cocktail jazz groove, proves that whatever he’s lost in youthful fervor he makes up for with ingrained facility. No one has to try so little to deliver so much. Richard Thompson, another singer-guitarist entering his twilight, has the reputation of trying too much, though as conscientious as he is as both an instrumentalist (he still practices two hours a day) and a songwriter (no one conveys misanthropy with as much verve and variety) he has tread water creatively since his strong run of solo albums in the early 90s. After a decade of mostly acoustic records necessitated by a touring regimen that can’t afford a band, Thompson jumps back in with an album that wears its rock pedigree on its cover. Recorded in Buddy Miller’s Nashville studio, Electric is effusive and brisk, though it doesn’t have the presence of his last album, an original set recorded in front of an audience. That record was mostly electric even if the songs themselves didn’t always lend themselves to the added voltage. The new songs have been designed for maximum volume and rhythmic concision, resulting in a few numbers that nag as incessantly as a Carly Rae Jepsen couplet; and the playing is as knottily compelling as ever. Only time will tell if this collection keeps longer than the last few. The problem with being a serial over-achiever is that no one expects less from you.
The 20/20 Experience
-Justin Timberlake (Sony)
Justin Timberlake can do anything he wants even if he’s made his reputation doing exactly what people want him to do, so it must have taken nerve to release ten new songs averaging six minutes each. The 20/20 Experience contains radio-ready melodies galore, but there’s no single cut a profit-motivated FM station would play if it were by anyone but JT. The added lengths incorporate clever intros and codas that flip the purviews into new territories—a greasier tempo change for “Pusher Love Girl,” a Philadelphia International prelude for “Suit & Tie.” And while sex is always in the air, JT eschews come-ons for playful turn-ons; the atmosphere is personable without losing that pumping propulsion R&B hardbodies insist upon. If JT’s oft-wielded falsetto seems to be covering up a lack of vocal originality, he uses it rhythmically rather than texturally. It’s pop that really pops.
The Invisible Way
-Low (Sub Pop/Traffic)
A Midwestern band more famous for their subdued sound than their songs, Low has finally hired a producer sympathetic to the cause, Jeff Tweedy, whose sullen Americana tendencies elevate rather than reduce Alan Sparhawk’s spare miserablism. Some listeners will find the prospect daunting, but Tweedy has had enough experience translating his own depression into inviting music to understand that Sparhawk’s uniqueness as a performer can’t be boiled down to words and chords. The reverbed piano on “So Blue” poses the possibility of redemption, pushing the twinned vocals of Sparhawk and Mimi Paker into the domain of hope so at odds with the lyrics. Even the gentler numbers benefit from the artificial crispness, which clarifies whatever feelings are on display. “Feeds my passion for transcendance,” sings Parker on the truly transcendant “Holy Ghost,” a song so charged with the need to express that you forget it’s about despair.
When future historians argue over when Britpop formally began, not a few will stump for Suede’s 1993 debut, though the band’s subsequent output saw them losing ground to more consistent groups. Ten years after their last original album and several records into leader Brett Anderson’s contemplative solo career they release this surprisingly vital reunion effort, thus handing their critical contingent something with which to press their case. Though the dripping dissipation in the lyrics indicates a desperate attempt to recapture past glories, the music gains from guitarist Richard Oakes’ sabbatical from trying to come up with the kind of soaring melodies Suede was famous for. Consequently, there are more of them, and I myself will advocate they’re sturdier than any they’ve played since that first album. Maybe it’s too late to come out from under Bernard Butler’s shadow, but it’s never too late to shore up your legacy.
Mata Ashita Ne
-Biidoro (& Records)
Since 2000 this indie power trio has released four albums of delicately rendered emo rock, a resume that doesn’t prepare you for the thundering confidence of “Kujira no Hankaiten,” the six-minute opener on their latest record. Behind Takashi Aoyagi’s searing guitar and clipped, ridiculous vocals is a rhythm section to rival Crazy Horse, not to mention the kind of choral input few Japanese bands ever attempt. The cut is such a startling artifact you immediately play it again to make sure you weren’t hallucinating. The rest of the record follows the band’s usual m.o.—meandering melodies and jokey, stream-of-consciousness poetry—but when Aoyagi gets hold of a particularly emotive idea he lets the guitar talk, often with violent results. The effort to maintain a measure of idiosyncratic cred can undermine the songs’ melodic integrity, but the struggle between immediacy and calculation makes it all worth exploring.
Shaking the Habitual
-The Knife (Brille/Pachinko)
The title of the formidable Swedish sister-brother act’s fourth album provides more information than we need to know. At 78 minutes (98, if you buy the 2-disc deluxe edition), Shaking the Habitual comes across as a long self-exorcism, and in the effort to stay outside their established electronic comfort zone the duo strains against what some would call their better musical impulses. But by eliminating anything deemed conventional they are left with a mad tribal urgency and Karin Dreijer’s animalistic vocal affectations. Though not as accessible as their previous best-seller, this one is actually more addictive and, to put it plainly, better suited to dancing. The monumental “Full of Fire” contains a full album’s worth of interesting ideas, and just because they throw them in your face without regard for development it doesn’t make them any less appealing. Primitivism, it would seem, abhors a habit.
-Kate Nash (Hostess)
After a debut that earned her favorable comparisons to Lily Allen and a second record that earned nothing of the kind, this clever Brit chucks the studied irreverence for the hardcore type, with a collection of ravers that prove when in doubt just bang out some power chords. Since Nash is still clever she understands her ability to speak truth to male entitlement need not be diminished. “I made a deal with death,” she purrs on the Ronettes-meets-Bikini Kill centerpiece smoker as a means of explaining how the fearless rush to oblivion that is youth’s prerogative can still apply to someone as canny as her. If she tries on too many outre getups (“Rap for Rejection,” “Lullaby for an Insomniac”) it only goes to show she still has the wherewithal to be a positive force in popular music. Let’s hope she doesn’t get married before that happens.
A Love Surreal
Though the reclusive Bilal identifies with the current R&B crowd, his methodologies and sensibility recall classic-era Prince. It’s not just the funky undercurrents that flow through all his songs, but the conscious effort to mold and carve his voice into shapes it wouldn’t normally take on; and songcraft that uses the studio as its main instrumental ingredient. A Love Surreal is so insularly produced it doesn’t even feature guests, though given how often he appears on other people’s records he certainly has friends in high places. Maybe it’s because the vibe is jazzier than R&B mavens would feel comfortable with—hip-hop is notably absent. If surreal love is the theme, he still takes an occasional peak out of his window. The nervous, off-tempo “Back to Love” takes in the entire workaday world as a rationale to get away from it. That’s not surreal, it’s downright radical.
Wing Beat Elastic
-Mike Keneally (Exowax/MSI)
A former member of his childhood hero Frank Zappa’s last band and something of a legend among serious rock musicians in Southern California, Mike Keneally teamed with XTC’s Andy Partridge last year for Wing Beat Fantastic, a one-off album of quirky pop highlighted by Keneally’s formidable instrumental capabilities and recording studio acumen. Though Partridge’s sturdy melodies were immediately recognizable, he didn’t play or sing on the album. This follow-up of remixes and alternate takes would seem to appeal only to true fans of either man, but with such painstaking musicians often the process can be just as interesting as the results, and the pop-psychedelic predelictions of the original material assume headier proportions. Guitar solos seep out of the cracks and vocal overdubs overwhelm their masters. I’m not sure the anal retentive Zappa would approve of all this indulgence, but Todd Rundgren surely would be inspired.
(Fueled By Ramen/Warner)
The plain cover and eponymous title indicate that America’s most popular emo band is starting over after the contentious departure of Josh and Zac Farro, and while some claim this is the best thing Paramore has ever done it doesn’t change the fact that Hayley Williams is still the undeniable focus—which is what pissed the Farros off in the first place. It might be unfair to co-songwriter Taylor York to describe Paramore as Williams’s solo debut, but it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the album’s success has as much to do with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen. Keyboards take on the bulk of the labor and that gospel choir on the winning “Ain’t It Fun” probably wasn’t Williams’ idea. This is not to take anything away from the band or the album; but I wonder how faithfully the former will be able to reproduce the latter on stage.
Here’s Willy Moon
-Willy Moon (Universal)
The retro couture and “big label presents” intentions of the packaging are enough to attract attention to this kiwi singer-producer even before you recognize “Yeah Yeah” as that iPod CM song, but it doesn’t accurately represent Moon’s prevailing style, which is 50s R&B stirred up with hip-hop production values. It’s surprising that Jack White looked past those values when he invited him to open his UK tour since White is such a purist, but maybe Moon is more stripped down in concert. The sonic processing compensates for songs that are wholly derivative, but not by much—it says something that by the time you get to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” it sounds more original than any of the true originals that came before it. And does Moon think we’re fooled by titles like “I Wanna Be Your Man”? We weren’t born yesterday.
-The Strokes (RCA/Sony)
We never bought the received opinion that said the Strokes were the second coming of the 70s NYC demimonde, and we get the feeling they didn’t either, regardless of what they were trying to accomplish on their first album. They deserve credit for constantly trying to not repeat themselves, but “try” is the operative word here. The disco beats and electronic touches that dominate their new record make the group sound less dissolute than they did on their last two, but with a singer like Julian Casablancas you can never be too peppy. Having tasted solo stardom his arty ambitions here work at cross-purposes to those of his bandmates, waxing laconic while Albert Hammond lays down a staccato funk riff. So while the range of styles is impressive, the execution of each isn’t. They make it sound really hard to be a modern rock band in the ’10s.
Bye Bye 17
-Har Mar Superstar (Cult/Magniph)
Sean Tillman was a minor scandal in the indie rock community about ten years ago after writing several successful songs for the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears and then snagging a record deal with Warners. The Pitchfork crowd called bullshit on his chubby-white-guy-sex-machine shtick and he eventually faded back into the woodwork, releasing only two albums in the interim. Bye Bye 17 proves he’s still got a knack for soul hooks and the voice to deliver them, and maybe it’s his irrepressible need to provoke but the overburdening production doesn’t do him any favors, burying his charms beneath liquid waves of distortion-laden horns and a persistent electric piano. Sometimes, it works, in a mid-60s, car AM radio sort of way, as with the Motown-catchy “Restless Leg” or the Otis-channeling ballad “Rhythm Bruises.” What’s the guy got against being a real star rather than an ironic one?