Here are the album reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo yesterday.
-Nine Inch Nails (Polydor/Universal)
Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action
-Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Hostess)
There’s not much to say about Trent Reznor’s reviving the NIN brand after a four-year hiatus since he tended to average five years between releases anyway. But the fact is, he hasn’t released a real NIN album since 2005’s With Teeth. Whatever Reznor has done in the meantime has been qualified by either new marketing schemes or the kind of ambient experimentation that won him an Academy Award. So Hesitation Marks not only returns him to a major label, it also revives the industrial clank and angst of his classic period, though at a somewhat lower pitch. If the various labels (Columbia in the U.S., Universal elsewhere) feel they got their money’s worth, it’s probably because this is the most pop-friendly collection of songs Reznor has ever composed, even as he provokes the media with his usual contrarian sentiments. That means he’s paying closer attention to his funk inclinations, and if any 80s artist seems dominant on the record it isn’t the usual suspects like Depeche Mode, but rather someone like Prince, whose minimal approach to hard rhythm Reznor takes to heart. “I am just a copy of a copy,” he sings on the opening track, daring you to find something wrong with that. Songs like “Satellite” and the lead single, “Came Back Haunted,” drive the point musically rather than verbally, and for once Reznor’s rote misanthropy doesn’t distract you from the visceral excitement, mainly because it’s not what commands your attention. Even when he dials it down he maintains the parameters of a song. Consquently, Hesitation Marks affects you like a real album, one that dips and peaks not in terms of quality but in terms of emotional response. If that sounds more like commercial calculation than artistic growth, shoot me for liking pop for what it is; which is why Franz Ferdinand’s return to old forms is less satisfying. Their style and outlook was always closer to the pop norm. Lead track “Right Action” hits you where you live immediately with its disco strum and arch lyric—the exact same combination that made FF stand out from their nu-Britpop rivals ten years ago. Now that the competition has all but vanished by rights FF can leverage their still potent popularity to monopolize the somewhat moribund field of dance rock, and while there’s plenty here to dance to there isn’t much that’s engaging on any other level. Producers Bjorn Yttling and Todd Terje brighten the sound to the point of tinniness and make Alex Kapranos sound disembodied from the rest of the band, whose workmanlike cohesion is reduced to only what’s necessary. On ballads like “Fresh Strawberries” and “The Universe Expands” the players sounds superfluous since the electronics make more of a racket. It’s strange that as FF tries to recapture their primal effect, their producers point them the other way. Sometimes, you need a major label to steer you right.
Love in the Future
-John Legend (Sony)
Given how many people participated on John Legend’s fourth album, you might expect a wider range of styles and moods, but Love in the Future is so deliberately paced that any distinctions are flattened into the mix. “Who Do We Think We Are?”, a duet with Rick Ross, has 12 songwriting credits, including Marvin Gaye and Kanye West, whose influence is only recognizable in that these days Gaye’s is legion and West’s unavoidable. Legend has developed a mellifluous singing style that fits his piano playing and the addition of glitchy electronica touches throughout the record gives the impression that all those people crowding in the control booth needed something to do. Never has a nominally soul album sounded as if was more trouble to produce than it was to perform, and while Legend’s native talents shine through you wonder why they needed to go through so much.
Sequel to the Prequel
Though Pete Doherty released a solo album during breaks between arrests and canceled live dates with his ostensible group, it’s hard to take Babyshambles seriously as a band. Only bassist Drew McConnell has been there since the beginning, and most of these cuts sound like Doherty strumming a tune with a rhythm section dubbed in afterwards. Nevertheless, it’s a stronger set of tunes than any he’s released since Down in Albion, with a folkier, more heartfelt presentation that earns those Lennon mentions his peers bat around when they wonder how the guy has survived this long—commercially, that is. Physically and psychologically, his survival is a mystery, and if it adds to his mystique then he at least has that much over Amy Winehouse (so far). “Can we go someplace where they don’t know my face?” he sings longingly. Now why would you want that?
-Jackson and His Computerband (Warp/Beat)
French IDM artist Jackson Fourgeaud doesn’t make it easy for the listener to enjoy his frantic synth pop. Though the melodies are there and the structures honor them, he can’t leave a vocal or keyboard line alone. It’s always got to be sent through a gauntlet of processes that strip and score off anything pretty or familiar. Even the basic 4/4 dance-oriented time signatures that anchor everything he does barely survive his ministrations. Sometimes this sort of mischief can be fun, as on “G.I. Jane,” with its comically deflated bass tone and fake Miami vocal swagger, but for the most part Fourgeaud wants to intimidate you, make you believe he’s doing something unique, or, at least, isn’t trying to be Justice or Air. I wouldn’t mistake him for either of those acts if only because they stress the “dance” in IDM rather than the “intelligent.”
The World Is Real
-Lake (K Records/7 e.p.)
If the vocals were more assertive, Lake could be touted as the new millennial heirs to fussy 70s rock groups like Steely Dan or Little Feat, which isn’t to say they’re master musicians struggling to satisfy jazz impulses in a pop setting, only that they have a refined talent for arranging commonplace songs into knotty things of beauty. The sexy R&B sensibility that grounds their sound belies their reputation as Pacific Northwest indie kids—I mean, they record for K fucking Records. And while I’ll grant other critics their McCartney and Wilson analogies, Lake’s slippery rhythm component makes even their quieter songs feel monumental. And as they prove on the appropriately titled “Perfect Fit,” they can get down with the best of them. Consumer note: If you buy the Japanese edition, you get another full album, the nearly as delightful Circular Doorway, at no extra charge.
-His Electro Blue Voice (Kitsune/Traffic)
Intriguing without being particularly exciting, this Italian trio’s hard rock never quite resolves itself into either the punk their vocalist, Francesco Mariani, channels or the industrial metal their jagged intensity implicates. Though they’re capable of a groove, you get the feeling they would only agree to fall into one at gunpoint. There’s a certain monstrous beauty to “Sea Bug,” but at two-and-a-half minutes it hardly has the space to reach its full potential. In fact, at seven tracks and 33 minutes, the whole album feels strangely cautious, even for a debut. It’s for people who like their roller coaster rides short and their slasher movies drained of as much plot as possible. What’s missing is not rage so much as engagement with the kind of dark forces that Euro metal is famous for. Italy, of course, is sunnier than Scandinavia, even if the gonads are more aggressive.
Yes, It’s True
-The Polyphonic Spree (P-Vine)
Crowdsourcing makes perfect sense for Tim DeLaughter’s indie pop choir. For one thing, they’re the ultimate post-millennial cult band, and for another their structure demands a certain level of investment to produce anything worthy of their ambitions. So while the expansive production isn’t a surprise, the content is. Sunny by decree, the group generates a heavier vibe and a less positive attitude. “You Don’t Know Me” isn’t bitter, but it does ask the listener to not take the singer for granted, while the wry “Popular By Design” actually pokes fun at that sunny disposition; yet the music still marches forward in its gospel effusiveness and DeLaughter’s songwriting has become tighter and more focused. Though the album was paid for by fans, if any Polyphonic Spree record could break through to a general audience it’s this one. It should at least provide plenty of fodder for drum and bugle corps.
This Song Is For You
-Ronald Isley (eOne/Victor)
Though the mood is urban contemporary fashioned for the bedroom, Ronald Isley’s new solo album betrays his age by offering the apple of his eye “Dinner and a Movie” and following it up with a confession that the only social media he works is the telephone. He’s still “The Boss” when his baby comes home from work, and while he’s there with the lingerie at “Bed Time,” he also claims he would prefer to “Make Love to Your Soul.” If one senses some reluctance on Isley’s part to indulge in the humpy prerogatives of most contemporary R&B, he’s capable of slipping effortlessly into any groove writer-producer Troy Taylor lays for him, even if he rarely leaves his comfort zone, i.e., that signature falsetto. Thus the guest appearances by Kem and Trey Songz are welcome. You need a change of pace from all that earnest lovin’.
6 Feet Beneath the Moon
-King Krule (XL/Hostess)
Usually with teen prodigies it’s the immediacy that hits first. Think of Jake Bugg and his in-bred Dylanisms. In contrast, 19-year-old Londoner Archy Marshall has deep reserves of taste, mostly in the area of jazz guitar, and combined with his frazzled-nerve lyrics and explosive vocal delivery, his music is too shockingly complex to pass as merely instinctual. The mix of impulsiveness and calculation sometimes results in songs like “Has This Hit?”, a twisted carcass of overlapping guitar lines that probably only makes sense in Marshall’s head, but mostly it comes straight at you, carried by violent images (“I’m gonna tear you apart from the inside to the out”) and savage strumming that nevertheless nimbly telegraphs the anxiety behind the rough surfaces. 6 Feet Beneath the Moon is formally muddled and simplistically produced—all that pointless reverb—but it showcases a sensibility that transcends native talent.
F*** Me I’m Famous
-Cathy & David Guetta (Warner)
This is like the tenth annual mix album based on David Guetta’s summer parties at Ibiza, which he presents with his socialite/night club owner wife Cathy. Since Guetta is no spring chicken and has never pretended to be in the music business for any reason other than fun, these sorts of collections come off as self-perpetuating, but even on his formal “solo albums” it’s often difficult to pinpoint just what it is Guetta does that’s different from other Eurobeat house DJs. Here he applies his synth-heavy arrangements and break beat-centered philosophy to existing tracks by Calvin Harris, Ne-Yo, Florence Welch, Porter Robinson, and a whole raft of people I would imagine are unknown outside of Ibiza. The common thread is sentimental pop of the One Republic kind, which Guetta likes to pump up dramatically until it explodes in a shower of schmaltz. Famous people f*** to boring songs.
-John Mayer (Sony)
John Mayer’s affinity with Eric Clapton goes beyond his expressive blues guitar style. Like Clapton, he desperately wants to evoke the singer-songwriters he admires but his own compositions rarely get below the surface, and so the guitar ends up being the more evocative component. Paradise Valley continues his close survey of Americana forms, particularly country, and he goes light on the solos, relying more on his rougher-hewn vocals (a result of those throat granulomas?) to put across his doubts and regrets, which are treated more as singer-songwriter tropes than emotions that he actually feels. But if “Paper Doll” is meant as a corrective to Taylor Swift’s “Dear John” its simple pop rigor supports its thesis better than the lyric or the performance. Similarly, the J.J. Cale chestnut “Call Me the Breeze” lets Mayer off the confessional leash, and he’s more entertaining that way.
A Hero’s Lie
-Grey Reverend (Motion Audio/Beat)
Though he entered music through jazz guitar, L.D. Brown has fashioned a solo career as a folk musician along the lines of Tom Paxton or John Fahey, apparently due to a motor disability that makes soloing more difficult than it’s worth. His music and playing still retain a jazzy undercurrent, especially in his singular chord progressions, but his laconic singing voice is so gently affecting that you’re drawn first to the lyrics, which evince longing and loss in the simplest terms. And then there are the subtle arrangements by, of all people, Jason Swinscoe of the Cinematic Orchestra, which utilize electronics sparingly to give definition to Brown’s emotional shadows. The payoff of this collaboration is especially satisfying on “Only One,” supposedly inspired by Elliott Smith, the poet laureate of quiet despair. Brown’s chorus will break your heart, but so will that tricky vibraphone part.
Lou Barlow is reliving his whole career, albeit at a lesser pitch, and while we can assume it’s due to age it more likely has something to do with the reduced expectations age brings. His long marriage over and the hard indie rock of his youth distilled to impotent nostalgia, he revives Sebadoh after a 14-year hiatus during which he also helped revive his more famous, earlier band, Dinosaur Jr. Though the tunes are still there and Barlow’s aching tenor as distinctive as ever, the songs lack the ramshackle intensity that informed Sebadoh’s records when Barlow didn’t give a shit about the market. And while Jason Lowenstein is still on board, he offers little input, which means everything’s on Barlow’s shoulders and he doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to carry the project through any more. It’s raucous not spirited, caustic not provocative. More important, it isn’t funny.