August 2013 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on July 25.

j.cole13kanye13Born Sinner
-J. Cole (Roc Nation/Sony)
-Kanye West (Def Jam/Universal)
All rappers release mix tapes, but former Sean Carter acolyte J. Cole has turned the practice into a constructive pastime. The two short free download collections that preceded his bona fide second long-player don’t contain anything that ended up on the commercial release. In fact, they don’t sound very much like it, but they are obviously the work of the same person. There’s the same suspicion that love is the answer, the same conviction that fame and money won’t solve his problems, the same need to justify his existence as a person rather than a personality. The difference is the music. You won’t find a choir like the one that dominates “Trouble” on the mixtapes, and if the guests and interludes point up Cole’s obsession with the conventions of soul and gospel, they also emphasize his determination to give the listener his money’s worth. Commercial calculation drives hip-hop even more than soul and gospel, and as Cole races through his narratives as if sprinting for the toilet, emptying his mind of all the painful impulses that make him a sinner, the production acts as a balm, a calming breeze after the violent storm. Given the harder, colder textures that have come to dominate hip-hop lately, Cole’s organic formulations effectively sell his redemptive raps, even when they’re incoherent and borderline offensive. When he ponders how deeply his woman understands his screwed up ways he sounds positively confused, a dramatic mode that is as rare in hip-hop as oboe arpeggios. And since he produces himself, there’s a continuity to both the music and the themes that keeps you intrigued. You really do worry about his spirit, and where it’s headed in the long run. Released on the same day, Kanye West’s Yeezus aims for something similar but approaches it from the opposite direction. Harsh and discordant, the album interprets Kanye’s usual self-loathing as caustic misanthropy. The industrial rock mode of “Black Skinhead” appropriates a party-hearty vibe to deliver a dis against the reactionary elements of hip-hop, of which Kanye always seemed like a card-carrying member. The God-like tendencies are taken for granted, which is why he needs to sound like a metal kid. It’s the only pop music form that projects supernatural power automatically, so when he makes demands for his massage and his croissants and his instant sex you take them as threats instead of what they really are—the petulant effusions of an egocentric adolescent; and I imagine that’s the point, since Kanye’s whole career has been a response to needs he knows aren’t nice. But if he had Cole’s presence of mind, he’d also understand how to make his confessions mean something more than just acceptable carriers for rote provocations. There’s nothing wrong with being provocative, but it’s the default mode for hip-hop and sometimes you just want a rapper to explain himself. Enough with the armor of insult.

-Skillet (Atlantic/Warner)
The pull of Christian pop is its potential for spiritual uplift, so the emo-metal trappings of veteran CCR quartet Skillet are something of a dodge, a show of defiance in the face of…unhappiness? “Rise in revolution,” John Cooper shrieks, raging against the machine of secular indifference. “Are you sick of it?” he asks, referring to something powerful enough to reject but not distinct enough to name. The album’s charting of an average adolescent existence into adulthood offers the promise of redemption, but only if you follow the songs in order and all the way to the end. And while Cooper isn’t as doctrinnaire in his dogma as the song titles might indicate (the “religion” in “My Religion” is “you”) his prescriptive approach to entertainment is merely didactic and robs the hard-edged music of its naturally transgressive appeal. You can’t have it both ways.

Zomby.WithLoveWith Love
-Zomby (4AD/Hostess)
Zomby belongs to that coterie of one-man electronic music units who pointedly avoid anything that smacks of narrative. His spare sound collages are theoretical exercises in minimalist meaning; like those early abstract expressionists who strived for “flatness” in an effort to avoid anything that was painterly. Zomby removes as much structure as possible from his very brief tracks without actually losing the melody. “I Will,” the fourth of 33 cuts on his latest album, contains a looped vocal that doubles back on itself in an attempt to force the past into the future. Once a manipulator of R&B and hip-hop, he’s become quite adept at isolating rhythms and jamming them up against one another in pleasingly abrasive ways. Though you can appreciate each snippet on its own, they have enough in common to survive a savage shuffle. It’s music that’s custom made for iPod logic.

d-Lynch13The Big Dream
-David Lynch (Sunday Best/Beat)
Thanks to the unique soundtracks he commissions for his unique films, it’s easy to understand what sort of music David Lynch likes: languorous, melancholy, romantic. Traveling deeper into late night electronica on his second album, but retaining that aerodynamic guitar for the occasional ominous accent, Lynch tries for a more abstract effect even as the lyrics become more literal. His corny Midwestern inflections are processed into the mix until they turn into their own special effect, but you always understand what he’s sing-talking about. When he covers Dylan’s already chilling “Ballad of Hollis Brown” he gives it that perverse twist he gives to his cinematic tales of nominally average people compelled to confront their worst impulses. One dreads to see what sort of video he’d come up with for the song, though the visual for the space travel fantasy “And Light Shines” could be something else.

-Deap Vally (Island/Universal)
All the swamp-bluesy elements are in place on this debut by guitarist-vocalist Lindsey Troy and drummer Julie Edwards, and Lars Stalfors’ production keeps the snarl crisp and the fuzz tone immediate. If the Black Keys and White Stripes analogies feel forced it’s because you really do notice that there are only two people. The Kills is more like it, and not just because they feature a female singer. Deap Vally wants to get by on raw energy but their limitations as musicians and writers are formidable; you want the choruses to come out fuller. Why not multitrack? When songs with this much attitude refuse to resolve themselves they just sound incomplete. The plan seems to be to stand directly in front of the listener and wear down his defenses. I can see that working in concert, but this is the age of abbreviated attention spans.

-Disclosure (Cherrytree/Pachinko)
The young Lawrence brothers are dance music remixers by temperament, and their debut contains a combination of sampled productions and original “songs” for which the duo hired well-known vocalists, though older brother Howard contributes a wonderfully laconic turn on the infectious “F for You.” Like the recent Daft Punk bestseller, Settle plays it safe on the dance floor, avoiding long-winded explorations of texture and tone in favor of carefully circumscribed R&B melody lines that last only as long as they need to. The beats rarely accelerate past a steady mid-tempo trot, and are elastic enough so that they don’t sound like a stuck metronome. One wishes there were more idiosyncratic cuts like the opening looped sermon, “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” which is redundant in the best sense, hypnotic with verbal possibilities. You listen to understand, and not just because the drugs are starting to kick in.

BOY JK2Mutual Friends
-Boy (Gronland/Victor)
Youth is awkward and wonderful on this German duo’s debut, which is as it should be but usually callow bittersweet confessions are the worst kind when couched in folky pop. What makes Boy’s songs tolerable if not downright irresistible is their ability to translate everyday experience into music that conveys specific modes of feeling: the thrill of moving out (“This Is the Beginning”), the constrictions of a first job (“Waitress”), and, of course, the nervous stirrings of love (“Little Numbers”). Though not as inventive as Joni Mitchell’s tortured phrasing, the pair’s songcraft has a precision that hearkens back to a time with the amount of melody in the universe seemed limitless. You sense the development of an appealing identity on these twelve tracks (plus 3 bonus cuts) that you rarely get with singer-songwriters this young. Maybe it’s because there are two of them? And they’re German?

-The Japanese Popstars (Bedrock/Traffic)
The title of the new album by Northern Ireland’s most popular dance music act describes the trio’s m.o. Purveyors of big beat, they stop and start several times during a track, cultivating anticipation that’s reinforced by the minor key harmonics and dully declaimed vocal intrusions. “It’s just a matter of time/In the summertime/You’ll be mine/All mine,” goes one repetitive deadpan verse, a parody of the fluffiness of most dance music lyrics. Only it isn’t fluffy. As the rhythms break and lines are relayed off to guests Green Velvet the song takes on a manic/ominous cast. A track titled “No Music” promises even less comforting noise, but in the middle of an oppressively busy pattern the sea parts briefly on a glimpse of anodyne paradise—only to swallow up the image a little while later. The Japanese Popstars keep you on your toes.

-Rhye (Polydor/Universal)
Time will tell if this collaboration between Denmark’s Robin Hannibal and Canada’s Milosh is something more than a well-received one-off. Though the bedroom soul of Woman has attracted attention outside the pair’s rarefied production bailiwick, each has enough cred inside that bailiwick to sustain them over the long haul without having to worry about pop backlash. And while Milosh’s soothing, yearning alto is easy to appreciate, a little of it goes a long way. This is not music designed to get the blood moving. If anything, it’s the chill antidote to the nervous dance music that has become the pop standard of the moment. Rhye’s use of real strings and horns rather than their electronically generated equivalents lends the album a warm presence, and by pushing the rhythmic elements to the back of the mix they make the songs more intimate. It’s perfect for bedtime—meaning sleep, not sex.

-3Oh!3 (Atlantic/Warner)
Having met and formed this electronic pop outfit in college, Sean Foreman and Nathaniel Motte made their notoriety with a species of irreverence that usually doesn’t survive into one’s late 20s. On their third album they try to offset their party-fueled putdowns with material of a more insightful sort. Though the duo’s brand of clangy, electronic pop is described as “infectious” it’s also purposely annoying, so boasts like “yeah, bitch, kick it like karate/do it blindfolded, call me Mr. Miyagi” come across as doubly puerile. All in good fun, Ke$ha (who guests on a bonus cut) would likely say, but 3Oh!3’s juvenile humor is shallow by definition, which means after a few listens it just grates. When they turn the hose on themselves, as on the regret-it-in-the-morning “Hungover,” you react with derision rather than sympathy. “Two Girlfriends,” in which both leave the loser narrator, is more like it.

-Chvrches (Hostess)
This Japanese edition of the instantly famous Glasgow electronic pop trio’s debut EP contains four originals and two remixes, and does a better than usual job of highlighting the group’s special appeal. Each member had previously toiled in that city’s fertile indie underground, but with guitar-based bands. Retaining the broad melodic sense of that scene, as well as the darker humor contingent on a lifestyle that never promises much in the way of material satisfaction unless you happen to be in Snow Patrol, Chvrches’ songs are more magisterial than you’d expect. “Now Is the Time” alternates between guarded optimism and open-faced joy thanks to Lauren Mayberry’s artless full-throated vocals and the willingness to throw every instrumental resource at the group’s disposal into the chorus. “Recover” is even more insistent, though somehow I prefer the skeletal Cid Rim remix, which sells the song’s basic charms more slyly.

-Thundercat (Brainfeeder/Beat)
Much has been made of Stephen Bruner’s instrumental facility and musical knowledge, but what really distinguishes his new album is his voice, which updates Donny Hathaway’s high-pitched soul stylings for a post-instrumental era. The zooming synths of “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” move in and out of the breathy spaces in his vocal line and pillow the “oohs” and “ahhs” in the coda. Because the production is atmospheric rather than musical, the vocal melodies tend to have a disembodied quality that extends the emotional distance between him and the listener, and sometimes the effects just get in the way, like the reverb on “Special Stage.” When Bruner actually gets down, as on “Oh Sheit It’s X,” the effort to sound groovy shows. Like his co-producer Flying Lotus, he seems most comfortable in a lounge with a tall, cool drink and a soft pillow. Leave the disco to the real cats.

-Bastille (Virgin/Universal)
Like America’s Owl City, Britain’s Bastille (Dan Smith) flaunts an introverted nature, which may sound contradictory, but how a bedroom artist comes across in his lyrics and how he presents those lyrics can be different things. Though he’s obsessed with noirish movies, Smith’s synth pop productions soar as if they were framed for Cinemascope. The film allusions seem gratuitous at best. It’s been years since I last watched Twin Peaks, so maybe I’m missing the thematic elements of “Laura Palmer” that connect the words to the TV show, but without the title it would be just another vaguely sinister love song. And “Things We Lost In the Fire” is a great title that’s already been used for a mediocre movie. Smith gets no points by appropriating it for a song that’s even less noteworthy. Between the bedroom and the movie theater there’s a lot to explore.

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