Here are the album reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Sunday.
The Blessed Unrest
-Sara Bareilles (Epic/Sony)
-Gabrielle Aplin (Parlophone/Warner)
It’s easy to make the assessment that Sara Bareilles’ success after her last album, Kaleidoscope Heart, was of the old-fashioned kind: singer-songwriter plugs away for six years and three well-received but modestly sold albums before hitting it big commercially on her own terms. But Bareilles’ original appeal was always centered on her potential. Though a gifted tunesmith and a bold performer, she impressed the same sort of people who thought Vanessa Carlton would one day outgrow her adolescent longings (and never did). Bareilles was not going to turn into Fiona Apple, as proven by her willingness to host a network singing show after she rose to number one. What’s surprising about The Blessed Unrest is the deliberateness of its mood. Bareilles’ penchant for histrionic arrangements and symphonic feelings are detoured into darker, more introspective territory, as if all the recording were done at night. As adult contemporary music goes, it is better than its purplish poetry would have you believe if all you did was read the lyrics in the CD booklet, but that’s true of Apple, too. When she boosts the energy level, as on the soaring opener “Brave” and the witty and catchy “Little Black Dress,” Bareilles proves that moodiness doesn’t mean depressiveness or self-dramatization. It simply means that some topics deserve to be taken seriously, though the seriousness always follows a certain hackneyed pattern. Every song features a chorus custom made for the ending credits of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. If she demonstrated more of a sense of humor she’d be one of the prime pop singer-songwriters on the planet, but some artistic priorities are non-negotiable. Being a newcomer, British songbird Gabrielle Aplin has yet to sort out her own priorities, but since she garnered a hit right off the blocks her handlers may already have sorted them out for her. Unfortunately, that hit, a version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love,” isn’t characteristic of her quieter English folk sound, which, as with her contemporaries in Mumford & Sons, can tend toward bombast when given the chance, and her producers provide plenty of chances. Unlike Bareilles, Aplin doesn’t have the brassy vocal cords to handle the big arrangements that are built up around her and she often sounds buried beneath the architecture. Like Bareilles, she has a gift for melody that comes through on her second single, “Panic Cord,” and the subtly effective “Please Don’t Say You Love Me.” Given that she attracted her initial fan base through her own YouTube channel with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and her sunny disposition, it seems like a lost opportunity, but when you bypass the indie middle ground as Bareilles and Aplin do what often happens is you end up sacrificing the heartful character of your music without even knowing it. Fiona Apple managed to avoid that right from the start, but Mumford & Sons didn’t. They have a lot to answer for.
Pura Vida Conspiracy
-Gogol Bordello (ATO/Hostess)
The new Latin infusion does wonderful things to Eugene Hutz’s singular “gypsy punk,” though I can’t tell if what he’s singing is Spanish or Portuguese (I assume the latter since he recently decamped from Brooklyn to Rio). But then, partial incomprehension was always central to GB’s appeal, and not just in verbal terms. The multi-culti collective split the difference between their eastern European musical roots and their third world-sympathetic social outlook, with the result being music that was at once defiant and joyous. More to the point, Hutz learned on the group’s previous, less distinctive album that confessions can be boring, and he’s tempered his pointed nostalgia here with a stronger dedication to melody and dynamic, understanding his newly configured group ain’t nothing without that kick in the ass that makes their live shows so intoxicating. It’s a conspiracy to make you dance…and think.
The generic name of this Australian shoegaze outfit reveals its modest ambitions, and reports say they never aspired to anything more than a weekly jam session. Rhythmically concise but harmonically messy, Beaches’ songs come at you in big waves, a metaphor I offer them free-of-charge. Not as noisy as the band’s press and association with krautrock God Michael Rother might have you believe, the music is still dense and layered, and the distortion reined in. Compositionally, most of the cuts feel like unfinished ideas, but ideas that were good enough to begin with and which the members didn’t feel the need to elaborate. The lazy, Sonic Youth structure of “Dune” swirls around on its own momentum, while “Send Them Away” recalls The Feelies at their most innocent but ends on a magisterial note. Beaches really knows what it means to be a guitar band.
-Robin Thicke (Interscope/Universal)
It’s Pharrell’s summer, though technically he’s a footnote to the two biggest hits of the season: Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Thicke, of course, is the main beneficiary of Pharrell’s Midas touch. Though a good singer, Thicke can mainly thank his long-time friendship with the Neptunes producer for his very successful career. Blurred Lines the album doesn’t sound that much different from previous Thicke joints except for the relative absence of slow grinders. This is a man who whenever he makes an artistic decision first thinks, “What would Marvin do?”, and in that regard “Ooo La La” comes closest to the sort of falsetto-intense effect that Thicke has always aimed for, regardless of Pharrell’s disco-funk minimalist ministrations. In fact, “Get In My Way” could have been an outtake from that Daft Punk album, it’s so inconsequentially catchy. Marvin was sexy just standing there.
Nothing Can Hurt Me
-Big Star (Ominivore/MSI)
There is no better “story” in the annals of rock than that of Big Star, the legendary Memphis power pop quartet that bridged the sixties and the seventies with aggression and smarts. That story has been ably told in the heartbreaking documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, and this soundtrack album collects outtakes and alternate mixes of the band’s greatest hits from their three albums. If Alex Chilton’s thin, needy vocals are the record’s emotional focus, it’s Chilton’s interplay with the reclusive, sexually confused genius Chris Bell that make these songs feel at once immediate and timeless. According to the story, they were amateurs who learned their craft in the studio, and what this album has over the three finished products is a closer affinity to the joys of rock’n roll. Classics like “Thirteen” and “In the Street” throb and glisten with teenage excitement. They finally earn those Beatles comparisons.
-Kendra Morris (Wax Poetics/Beat)
It takes nerve for a singer-songwriter to follow up a critically lauded debut with a collection of covers. Though the familiar songs that Kendra Morris has chosen retain their shape and emotional tone, she and guitarist Jeremy Page locate what’s unique about each one and attempt to bring it out further. Thus Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” take on the soulfulness of the blues; the Stones’ “Miss You” becomes pure Stax/Volt; Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is a power ballad. Given how assured Morris’s vocals are, it’s obvious these aren’t thrown-off versions. She sounds as if she’s been singing them this way for years. The difference is when she does a cover of a cover. The album indicates the original artist of “Walk On By” to be Isaac Hayes, though it sounds like Dionne Warwick’s as produced by the Zombies.
-No Age (Sub Pop/Traffic)
Dean Spunt and Randy Randall have always treated punk as an art form, but on their new album they treat it as an art object, more precisely an objet d’art. Returning to their lo-fi roots, the pair opts for a buzzy, under-the-radar sound that gives the whole project a unified form, whether a cut has a discernible melody or not. There doesn’t even seem to be a rhythmic component. Supposedly an experimental work that reveals the “process” of making a recording through its “textures,” An Object is DIY taken to its ultimate ends, which makes its effects on the listener paradoxical. You admire it for not sounding like any other punk album while also missing what it is that attracted you to punk in the first place. If that was the intention, then they succeeded. But one listen is enough.
-Washed Out (Yoshimoto)
It’s been said that Ernest Greene occupies an entire musical niche of his own, though no one can clearly describe this niche in terms that mean something without hearing his music as an illustration; which is not to say it’s unique, only that the lack of definition defies explication. The gentle reverb that washes over everything he plays and sings (thus the name of his act) is as close to a statement of purpose as he gets, and the Jesus and Mary Chain own the patent for that gimmick. Pleasure is a given since Greene makes no attempt to provoke or challenge. This is the sweetest makeout music this side of the Turtles, only without the sense of humor and potential for ironic detachment. And when he attempts genuine R&B on “Great Escape” you realize exactly where his limitations lie.
Silence Is Ghost
-Unfamiliar Friends Party (Selective)
This Taiwanese dance pop quartet sings in the sort of English that should appeal to Japanese club kids: repetitive, familiar, easy to mimic—like the music, which pumps without exerting too much pressure. And while the bulk of the album adheres to the party imperative proposed by their name, the better tracks are those that attempt to establish a mood and ride it to the center of your brain. Without forsaking a beat, “Swallow” works more on your synapses than it does on your booty or backbone, and all without offering a melody you can grab on to. The longest cut, “Disco Co Co,” is offered up as three additional remixes and provides an m.o. for their art, but the instrumental mix is too thin for disco, which requires a bottom more substantial than what UFP creates. The party they entertain had better be a small one.
-Camera Obscura (4AD/Hostess)
With their fifth album, Camera Obscura basically fulfills the promise of fellow Glaswegians Belle & Sebastian, who abandoned their cool self-regard for a more baroque pop sensibility a long time ago. The secret, of course, is Tracyanne Campbell, whose steady, undramatic singing anchors the band’s stainless steel melodies and precise arrangements in the listener’s consciousness. Those who despair of never hearing another new Smiths album will find solace in most of the tunes here, especially “Troublemaker” with its stilted harmonies and subtle chord changes. Tucker Martine’s production goes light on the effects, using strategically placed keyboard fills to bring out a color here and a lyrical nuance there. Since most of the songs are about heartache, a melancholy tone is maintained without effort, though it’s heartache of a more philosophical type, as if it happened in the distant past, a scar to be admired not picked at: Beautiful losers losing beautifully.
Back in 2004, Ciara emerged with a hard R&B style that Rihannon eventually took to her unnumbered bank account in the Seychelles. After several underwhelming attempts to claim what is rightly hers, she now re-emerges with a self-titled album that indicates she’s reassessed her priorities. Actually, no, but it’s her best effort and probably better than anything Rihannon has released outside of her singles (which are all that matter). Does that mean anything? The problem with contemporary R&B is that it’s become impossible to identify the pleasure one derives from a specific track with the artist’s name on the label. Nicki Minaj isn’t half the singer Ciara is, but on their joint, “I’m Out,” you remember her few lines more readily than Ciara’s. And when she tries for something softer and sexier on “Body Party” the virtuousity of the performance can’t penetrate the production’s plate glass perfection.
I Hate Music
The title of their tenth album makes sense for Mac McCaughan’s veteran guitar band, an organization that not only ushered in a genre all on its own (underground power pop) but also a label that came to delineate the ethical and aesthetic conditions of indie rock (Merge). The fact that I Hate Music doesn’t sound substantially different from the group’s 1989 debut illustrates why McCaughan very well might hate music: What can you do with it except play it the same way you always have? If it still sounds fresh, it’s not because Superchunk has only put out two albums in the last decade, but rather that McCaughan, a man who knows music enough to hate it, won’t ever release something he considers undeserving of attention. The songs are played and sung in a passionate pop vernacular that’s never gone out of style, only out of practice.
Having not heard the raft of singles that this dance-pop duo has already released in the UK and which make up a large portion of their debut, it took me a while to get into their sweet, cold sound. Aluna Francis’s breathy, childish voice takes its diction cues from Lily Allen, but without Allen’s sardonic tone it comes across as overly tidy and uninvolved. George Reid’s production and arrangements are clever and efficient but nothing really grabs you by the neck until the fifth cut, “Kaleidoscope Love,” which is Top 40 pop of the most involving kind—slinky, terse, direct. The fact that they do what they do so well gives the album a dead end quality: you’re almost sick of its effectiveness halfway through, and there’s no escaping Aluna’s kittenish ice and George’s purely artificial beats. Sometimes you’ve got to get out of that body.