Here are the album reviews I wrote for the July issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Random Access Memories
-Daft Punk (Sony)
-Boards of Canada (Warp/Beat)
Given their influence on current dance music, it seems odd that Random Access Memories is only Daft Punk’s fourth studio album since its two members, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, first acquired their moniker in 1994, but then dance music has always downplayed creative endeavors in favor of making the moment intense, a credo Daft Punk has followed to the letter. RAM is, in fact, exactly the kind of creative endeavor the pair has avoided, a collection of original music mostly played on real instruments, presumably live in the studio. Moreover, it’s pure old-school disco, meaning the kind of music they sampled for their previous concoctions. So as not to give the impression they’re trying to fool anyone they even include a song called “Giorgio by Moroder” that features the titular Europop producer reciting a short autobiography. What follows is Moroder music in its purest form: repetitive, catchy, jazzy, unchallenging. Is the album’s regressive aim a joke or an acknowledgement of Daft Punk’s limitations? Actually, it’s both, because mediocrity is central to its charm. The real question, and one that’s informed by the idea of not making records as a matter of principle, is why Daft Punk took five years and a whole lot of money to produce this 75-minute opus. And the only answer is that they could. They are the biggest techno act in the world and have to do something to indicate they are growing as artists. (I doubt their record company insisted they make such an album, though I’m sure it’s delighted they did) They could also afford a wide range of big name guests, from Nile Rodgers to Pharrell to Omar Rakim—even Paul Williams, whose 70s soft rock hits, written for others, have more to do with Daft Punk’s melodic component than the disco songs that were their contemporaries. So rejoice, Daft Punk fans. They’ve gotten their pop album out of the way and can return to what they do better. The Scottish techno duo Boards of Canada have also made a living with less, but since they are not considered a club act the justification for the slight output is curious. Nevertheless, they seem to have gotten more out of it in that their distinctively moody synth-based sound has been cited as the prime influence for chillwave. On their first album in eight years, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin don’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but they move forward at a brisker pace than Daft Punk ever did, despite the time lag. Though darker than anything else they’ve done, Tomorrow’s Harvest is also more absorbing, inviting even. If the basic appeal of non-vocal ambient music is its hypnotic hold, the album is the genre’s Sgt. Pepper, irresistible in its power to draw the listener in, delightful in its range of textures and harmonic ideas. It does for the mind what RAM purportedly does for the booty, but the booty can be overrated sometimes.
Trouble Will Find Me
-The National (4AD/Hostess)
The success of The National prompts a chicken-and-egg meditation: did Matt Beringer’s deep baritone inform the band’s lush delivery or was his vocal style a response to the music? There’s nothing like it in indie unless you think Nick Cave willed the Bad Seeds into being. Since Trouble Will Find Me is the group’s most accessible album the question is certainly academic at this point, but one of the reasons it’s so pleasurable is the ease with which they have internalized Beringer’s dark world view, as well as his black humor. Even when the time signature chomps at the bit of Beringer’s phrasing, the music is integrated, almost instinctually so. The quietest, most desperate moments achieve a heartfelt grandeur that stays with the listener, each track building on the last one, every element a reaction to its surroundings. The National isn’t a band, it’s a fully formed thought.
Thank God for guest shots. It’s hard to understand why one of the most gifted rappers of the new millennium has only released one album since 2002. Is it because Eve’s bitchy MC persona fell out of favor? She delivers a few humdingers here, but it’s mostly to build her brand up rather than to knock someone else’s down, and while I appreciate the magnanimity I appreciate even more rap’s good humored put-down tradition, and Eve was one of the best. Going whole hog with the electrobeats rather than the Ruff Ryder distortion that used to carry her, she’s bent on having fun at no one’s expense, certainly not the guests returning favors. When she spars with Missy on “Wanna Be” you get the feeling they aren’t so much targeting each other as competing to see who can better put down their mutual object of derision. Eve wins by a lip.
-Todd Rundgren (Warner)
Mercurial in the traditional sense, Todd Rundgren has made contrary expectations his stock in trade for four decades, so by this point you either accept his perversity or reject it outright. State is one of his DIY projects and sounds thin as a result, especially compared to the equally perverse but hugely satisfying big rock sound of his last joint, Arena. Though not entirely dedicated to electronic expressionism, the record’s artificial surfaces contrast with the human character of the vocals, which often spout nonsense that should be funnier—and probably is in concert. The joke of “Serious” is that it’s completely computerized, the sound of a man confounded by his tools and making art out of it; which could end up as nothing more than mindless indulgence but Rundgren hasn’t lost his pop sense and many of these songs offer strong melodies that crack through his carapace of industry.
-Is Tropical (Kitsune/Traffic)
Fans of this British group’s bubbly synth pop will probably be taken aback by the fuzzed-out guitar attack of the opening cut on their second album, which recalls nothing so much as those Farfisa-punctuated raveups that were the specialty of early New Wave groups. But even if the intent (grabbing attention) is obvious, the song, “Lover’s Cave,” is also the weakest of the bunch, and once the bouncy synths reassert on the second track you forget it ever happened. Which isn’t to say the group plays it all sweet and easy. That guitar works its dirty magic throughout the record but usually as part of the overall band sound, which includes artless, heartfelt male wailing and artful, heartfelt female cooing. As a dance band Is Tropical earns its fee, though they obviously want you to think of them as mood-setters, romantic-minded youngsters who channel your hopes and dreams.
-Lady Antebellum (Capitol/Universal)
This scrubbed, earnest trio represents Nashville at the moment, even more than Taylor Swift, who belongs to the world. It doesn’t matter that there’s little which scans as pure country, since the band’s sunny disposition identifies more with generic American suburbia than with the South. The fact that they’re getting a proper release in Japan may indicate a Swiftian corporate scheme to conquer the globe but if the past twenty years of country takes more from the Eagles than from George Jones it means nobody outside the U.S. and the U.K. is going to be spooked by the country label. As singers, neither Hillary Scott nor Charles Kelley risk individuality in the pursuit of monopolizing shopping mall public address systems, though they include a song that namechecks Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Just because they make music you may like doesn’t mean they live in the same universe.
-Star Slinger (Yoshimoto)
Beatmaker/remixer Darren Williams has been exciting the indie cognoscenti for almost three years now with his reconfigurations of top-line Brit R&B tracks and as we wait for his first real album of self-branded material, a local Japanese label formally releases the 2010 download-only mixtape that first brought him notoriety. As pure aural product it’s pretty irresistible, especially the first half dozen cuts, which reimagine hardcore 70s soul singles as ultra-tough club bangers while maintaining their integrity as 45s (average time: two-and-a-half minutes). Further into the record, which is a deep 21 tracks long, he mellows out before unleashing a barrage of headnodders at the end. In fact, the album describes the development of a party, with the brightest songs in the beginning and the sexiest ones near the close, because that’s where you want to end up at the end of the night, right?
-Sigur Ros (XL/Hostess)
Few arena-level bands make as much distinction between their recorded output and their concert programs as Sigur Ros. The band’s last three albums experimented in the opposite direction of their normal creative tack by covering conventional pop forms and even going in for what could only be called soft rock. Meanwhile, their live shows remained huge lumbering symphonic beasts, as shape-shifting and instinctively played as the wooliest Moody Blues jam except that nobody actually jams. Kveikur is the most Sigur Ros-sounding album they’ve released since 2005’s Takk, nine fully formed songs of between five and six minutes each filled with swirling keyboards, clanging, non-rhythmic percussion, and Jonsi’s keening vocal constructions. More significantly, the drama is pitched toward the rafters at a consistently high volume, pausing only briefly for quiet dynamic contrasts. It’s like all the crescendos from your favorite Sigur Ros songs press-ganged into immediate service.
L’ami du peuple
-Owen (Polyvinyl/& records)
Denser and more instrumentally inventive than his past six albums under the Owen moniker, Mike Kinsella’s latest compromises its musical ambition with an even more modest performance attitude than we’re used to. Maybe it’s age. Singing about being a Dad on “Where Do I Begin?”, his tentative tenor betrays the loss of youth that once signified the naive simplicity that made him distinctive. It’s hard to sound innocent on a song like “Blues to Black,” with its shifting time signature and full-on postrock attack. The striking counterpoint guitar arpeggios on “Love Is Not Enough” may distract you from Kinsella’s boyish self-regard but maybe that’s the point. He’s not callow enough to pull of a line like “I’m fat and I’m drunk and you love me” any more, but irony goes a long way when you can play and arrange this well. Owen’s a journeyman now, by jove.
-Tyga (Cash Money/Universal)
Everybody knows there’s no money in alt-rapping, so it makes sense that Tyga took the offer from the big leagues and, along with it, assumed the pimp-gangsta persona he thinks applies. Though it’s not an ill fit he doesn’t have much to say about sex and bling and rival MCs that would warrant close attention. He decorates the percolating tracks in much the same way the furs decorate his person on the CD cover—awkwardly (mink in California?) and ostentatiously. “I’m dope man, you’re so plain,” he slangs on “Drive Fast, Stay Young,” a song that implies positivity but takes cheap shots for the sake of empty cred. If you’re looking for contrasts with that other Hotel California, there’s some cool, intricate guitar work on “Diss Song,” which squanders the chance to blast the Eagles for what they did to Frank Ocean. Tyga has other, less compelling priorities.
Music From the Motion Picture
-10,000 Maniacs (ORG Music/MSI)
Not so much an institution as a vague fond memory, this revolving folk rock act should have imploded after the departure of Natalie Merchant, and it says something about replacement vocalist Mary Ramsey’s instrument that the band could continue without alienating core fans. But this is the first collection of new material in 14 years, during which Ramsey and John Lombardo quit and another founding member died. Obviously, the band couldn’t have done it without Ramsey’s return, and her dreamy alto lifts the pedestrian arrangements out of the doldrums where they tend to drift aimlessly. The blur of coffee house sentiments is interrupted by a reggae rhythm here and a thumping bass drum there, but what the record really needs is the kind of effusive spontaneity that Merchant delivered so affectingly. Good taste is appreciated, but even the mellowest pop is capable of an occasional hard-on.
-Queens of the Stone Age (Matador/Hostess)
Josh Homme’s hard rock prerogatives are direct manifestations of his persona. Prog is his oxygen, which is why he rarely goes all the way, at least on record. The rhythms on Like Clockwork are snakier, the melodies more pliant, and the bump-and-grind pleasures of “I Sat By the Ocean” constitute exceptions to the rule of being sinister for the sake of being sinister. But that doesn’t mean Homme has lost his sense of fun, only his capacity for expressing it in a way that doesn’t compromise his aesthetics. The guests, including Alex Turner, Jake Shears, and Elton John (Dave Grohl is a member of the band, and an essential one) have much to make up for without actually showing up their host. Hard rock epics haven’t been this carefully constructed since Houses of the Holy and if you’ve got the patience, you’re in for a delayed, but potent, thrill.
-Rod Stewart (Capitol/Universal)
The only thing you can say about Rod Stewart’s decision to write songs again after a quarter of a century of doing no such thing is that he didn’t have to. Time is a true vanity project, a means of getting dirty with the past so as to come clean about the present. Rod knows he’s the luckiest sod on earth, so he writes songs about how tough it was in the beginning, how much he owes his wife, and what a jerk he has been. Then there’s a cover of a Tom Waits song to break the monotony of schmaltz. The rough folk-rock of his great early days is smoothed over by a lifetime of quality musicianship, and if the voice can still send a chill up your neck the uses it’s put to makes you think once again that Ronnie Lane died too young.