June 2013 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend.

-Little Boots (On Repeat/Hostess)
Girl Who Got Away
-Dido (RCA/Sony)
As the pop music cycle goes round and round it sucks in sub-genres and attitudes that on the surface would seem to be anathema to pop, or, at least, the kind of pop we think about when we think about listening to the radio. Four years ago Victoria Hesketh made a splash in her native UK with a synth-based sound that browsed Europop and Eurobeat for ideas without losing sight of the fundamentals—songs no longer than three minutes with catchy choruses and lyrics that make immediate sense. Because she wrote her own tunes, sometimes with the help of a producer or two, she was hailed as a revolutionary, as if Lily Allen were chopped liver. Since then dance music has become the de facto pop music of the moment; in other words, the sound of young people enjoying themselves, which is what radio was until about twenty years ago. Having been thrown to the wolves by Warner in the meantime Hesketh offers up a darker but no less catchy selection of songs on her self-released second album. Nocturnes is a fitting title since it sounds like a party that didn’t get started until 1 a.m., but the sentiments are still cheap and easy to digest. The track lengths are also longer—most clock in at over five minutes, implying the longer attention spans of adults even if the themes are simple enough for adolescents. So if the aim of the debut was instant gratification, here she means to draw you in more slowly until there’s no escape. “Broken Record” is ostensibly about the difficulty of letting go of love, but it’s also a statement of musical purpose. The soporific vocal style doesn’t eschew sex, it just puts the gratification off until later. In that regard, Little Boots could learn something from Dido, whose new album sounds like the sort of thing Hesketh is trying to accomplish: dusky, sinuous, with just enough personality to make it worth returning to. Dido is more of a songwriter though not much more of a singer. She’s also confident enough to let her collaborators do whatever they want with her tracks, and the beauty of Girl Who Got Away is how easily it plays on the dance floor without compromising Dido’s radio-ready appeal. She also has a story to tell, unlike Hesketh who only has fleeting emotions and half-baked ideas to convey. When Kendrick Lamar suddenly shows up on “Let Us Move On” the story gains traction, a witness to the romantic pangs Dido is feeling but can’t quite articulate because of the limitations of her instrument. Her talent for melody is all she’s got, that and a brother who’s one of the hottest producers in the UK, which is enough to attract high-powered collaborators like Greg Kurstin and Brian Eno. Dido may not be as distinctive as Little Boots, but she takes better advantage of her gifts.

flamingThe Terror
-The Flaming Lips (Warner)
Because of his outsized stage personality, Wayne Coyne has always been more a bandleader than a front man, a distinction that vanishes on the Flaming Lips’ new album. It’s not as if the band is allowed to assert itself but rather that everyone, Coyne included, is subsumed in the record’s ominous Gestalt. Though tracks are delineated, the lack of repetitive melodies and conventional structures makes for music that can’t be anticipated or recalled. Each moment arrives and then departs, even when it’s riding on a Coyne vocal, though more often it simply bubbles up from the seething mass of keyboards. Not so much scary as impossible to predict, the music keeps you off balance, even when it forges ahead in a major key, as on the bonus track “Sun Blows Up Today.” It’s the soundtrack for the quiet apocalypse, when that sun becomes something to dread.

she&himVolume 3
-She & Him (Merge/P-Vine)
“Everybody’s clever these days,” Zooey Deschanel sings on her third musical collaboration with guitarist-producer M. Ward, and it’s the cleverness that makes you pause the CD and take a break from all the studied retro-pop fidelity. With her smokey alto and actorly regard for accents, Deschanel knows what made Jackie DeShannon and Patsy Cline stand out, and she can write songs that make you wonder what those singers might have done with a broader outlook and access to the Internet. But sometimes you want a hint of authenticity, and it doesn’t help that Ward bathes the strings and drums in reverb, adding irony to the singer’s already pointed commentary on a time when music really meant something, to borrow a boomer cliche. You welcome a genuinely sincere love song like the Barry-Greenwich chestnut “Baby,” because it’s not clever. It’s just good, thus inadvertently proving Deschanel’s point.

UICU1234_JB_130319.inddI Am Not a Human Being II
-Lil Wayne (Republic/Universal)
On the title cut of this return to form Weezy convinces us he no longer exists as a sentient life form but instead has been reduced to the impulses of his penis. Set to a florid solo piano track, the hardcore descriptions could be a joke but there’s something disturbingly intense about them, as if he were not merely determined to have sex, but worried that it won’t mean something. And while slamming is still the subject of “Love Me,” he cops to the knowledge that it’s an unequal exchange. “As soon as I come I come to my senses,” he observes using that inimitable Weezy syntax. Nobody expects monogamy from Lil Wayne, but there’s a sharp sense of mortality in these lyrics, and in the music, too, which has such a yearning, searching quality that you barely notice how fluidly he switches from rapping to singing.

pigeonWe Met At Sea
-The Pigeon Detectives (Cooking Vinyl/Imperial)
Defying the odds, this spirited UK quintet has not only survived the gradual demise of its once mighty genre, but done so with all its original members in tact. Which isn’t to say they haven’t acquired some scars over the years. After experimenting with a more urban dance vibe on their previous album, they celebrate their move to Cooking Vinyl with a return to their loud, sloppy roots, for all the good that’s going to do them in this market. With Matt Bowman having perfected a style of shout-singing that puts the generic drinking lyrics across, the songs have a rambunctiousness that should appeal to people who still equate feverish but precise guitar riffing with Saturday night. So while it’s difficult not to admire the craft of a pure pop tune like “Light Me Up” there’s no urgent desire to ever hear it again.

-Snoop Lion (RCA/Sony)
Since Snoop is such a star his sudden evolution from goofball rapper to serious son of Jah has been over-documented. This debut as Snoop Lion accompanies a documentary about his religious conversion. The production, mostly by the Major Lazer crew, is full-bodied and wide-ranging without sacrificing the deep pleasure of reggae beat-making. Since Snoop needs help navigating this new realm, the guests are many and hands-on, so much so that sometimes you don’t register Snoop at all. Movado and Popcan so dominate the big single, “Lighters Up,” that you probably wouldn’t even notice him if you hadn’t seen the accompanying video. The same goes for veteran Angela Hunte, who co-wrote a good many of these songs, but every cut has someone to lean on. Miley Cyrus sings about that “buzz,” which Snoop is so busy acquiring he can’t be bothered to contribute more than a line.

Sketch 4Thr!!!er
-!!! (Warp/Beat)
Less interested in indie polemics than in locating the musical G-spot that would make couples forget about their term papers, Nic Offer and his excitable California-to-Brooklyn migrant musicians were the most reliable disco band of the early 00s and their live shows are deservedly legendary. If their albums became increasingly less vital as the decade wore on it’s because they watched their dance punk compatriots succumb to ennui and loss of imagination and felt obliged to be inventive. But who needs hip-hop and metal moves when you’ve got the funk? The songwriting here is no great shakes but it reprioritizes the basics that made them fall in love with disco in the first place and the only thing preventing the album from turning into an aural hard-on is the curious dedication to song form. Get rid of the track breaks and you’ve got a dance music masterpiece.

vampire-album13Modern Vampires of the City
-Vampire Weekend (XL/Hostess)
For a band like Vampire Weekend, who seemed to emerge fully formed and with their own loyal audience, constancy is both a challenge and a curse, so you have to admire their attempt to tone things down on their third album. Modern Vampires isn’t so much low-key as thoughtful, so even the slower songs have an intensity that makes up for the loss of studied exuberance. Sounding even more like the young Paul Simon, Ezra Koenig enunciates without sacrificing his languorous abandon, and if the group’s third world musical touchstones are more subdued the melodic variance and exacting arrangements are distinctive enough to make everything feel timeless, like an old Billy Joel album you pretend you never liked but warm to when a friend puts it on. Billy Joel, however, would never write a song as quirkily political as “Ya Hey,” though Simon might.

majorlazer13Free the Universe
-Major Lazer (Traffic)
Diplo’s collaborators on the first Major Lazer album have since departed, so what’s the difference between this and his nominally “solo” work? Probably the guests. They’re practically crawling out of the woodwork, ranging from Santigold to Dirty Projectors to Bruno Mars. Carribean/Latin break beats are still forefronted, the mood remains playful to the point of childishness, and vocalists provide more rhythmic utility than thematic weight, but the slam factor is notably diminished. For all its frantic energy the minimalist “Jet Blue,” which layers snippets of pungent raps, never builds a head of steam, and the ballads are real ballads, albeit minus the narrative pull that makes you want to listen to ballads. The music leans more heavily on reggae and dancehall (see Snoop Lion above) but not enough to make you wish there was more. It’s as if Diplo had been hired to produce his own album.

-Phoenix (Atlantic/Warner)
As sudden arena-level superstars after ten years toiling in the Euro power pop trenches Phoenix must somehow keep a grip on its slender thread of indie appeal. Though their tunes hold up in large spaces, their peculiarly thin sound was developed in French dance clubs, where they were considered a novelty. Thomas Mars’ American diphthongs and Supertramp effusions needn’t be taken seriously. In fact, if you believe him to be facetious it is easier to appreciate them. Bankrupt! keeps the dream alive through sheer force of will and a belief in the power of swirling keyboards and arpeggios. Lacking anything purposefully fresh to break the mood of Scandinavian-style pop showmanship the album keeps the lights up high to white-out the realization that there’s not much going on. “Jingle, jungle,” Mars sings on “Drakkar Noir, “Jingle junkie jumble.” Now try getting an arena to sing along with that.

-Tyler, the Creator (OF/Sony)
Odd Future’s most visible rapper is a crash course in cognitive dissonance. You expect the casual misanthropy and sexual profanities, but the variety of voices is always disarming. If the moniker seems cheekily pretentious, it does describe Tyler’s m.o. He acts and writes and pulls together personae from everything he’s experienced, and manages to make it all coherent, even the misanthropy and the profanity. Wolf represents musical progress over Goblin, which was too self-conscious for its own good. By stepping away from his own public image he’s able to gain perspective about the things that confuse him, like drugs, women, fame, and set his imagination to catchier beats. He’s already demonstrated a knack for pop viability with his comedy show and his TV commercials, and tracks like “Slater” and “Domo23” break free of the adolescent-with-Pro-Tools paradigm. The Neptunes aren’t here because they need cred.

goatWorld Music
-Goat (P-Vine)
This Swedish rock collective has been around for a decade and if the title of its long-awaited debut seems overly ambitious, the group’s psychedelic imperative does seem to contain multitudes. There’s something at once naggingly traditional and forward-looking in their tribal approach, as if Jefferson Airplane had been reincarnated as a Portuguese prog unit and suddenly smitten with Afrobeat. With their chanted choral vocals and rolling cascades of percussion, the songs act less on the psyche as individuated creations than as the most exciting portions of selected jams. The sense of humor is all the more potent for its will to distract. “Disco Fever” is a song about the titular infirmity and not a funk workout, but it gets the blood pumping no less effortlessly. “Let It Bleed” isn’t the Stones song, but a glorious Fela freakout, only shorter. Goat is the beauty of power chords refined to its essence.

-will.i.am (Interscope/Universal)
The Black Eyed Peas’ leader endeavors to preempt criticism six cuts into his second solo album with “Gettin’ Dumb,” a party anthem as mindless as the billion-seller “Let’s Get Retarded” that has the added curiosity ingredient of vocal input from K-pop group 2NE1. But just because will acknowledges the frivolity of his mission doesn’t mean you have to grant him a pass. BEP is succcessful because of the inspiration/perspiration balance. They’re a hard-working band who knows they’re nothing without hooks that are dearly acquired. Most of the inspiration on #willpower arrived as the engineers were setting up the microphones. Though work was required to make the Britney joint “Scream & Shout” presentable, was it worth it? And if the social concern injected into “The World is Crazy” were any less considered it would be a bumper sticker. The beats are jumping, but you’ve heard them before in more intelligent company.

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