November 2013 albums

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

bodyheadcoverimagehighresLee Ranaldo-Last Night On EarthComing Apart
-Body/Head (Matador/Hostess)
Last Night On Earth
-Lee Ranaldo and the Dust (Matador/Hostess)
Sonic Youth was the last great original American band in the sense that no other rock group since then has forged a sensibility with such a sweeping effect on all that came after. When they broke up early last year the shock was palpable, not just because it seemed as if they’d been around forever, but because it really did feel like the end of something monumental, namely an approach to music that never got stale. Bassist Kim Gordon’s first recording since the split is a project with guiltarist Bill Nace whose name describes obliquely the SY dialectic, or at least the way the band successfully split the difference between the heady rush of art noise and the visceral allure of hard rock. But there’s actually little “rock” here. The 77-minute album is made up of ten tracks that are improvised on two guitars, with Gordon’s prosaic, mostly declaimed vocals prominent throughout. Lyrically, the material is more notable for its mantra-like insistence than for any messages the words might convey, though everything has a cumulative effect. Three songs in succession have titles that reference female cognates—”Murdress,” “Last Mistress,” “Actress”—words that extend the opening song’s plaint that “I can’t hold you in the abstract.” Since the music is notable for its shifting textures—clear tones give way to fuzzy miasmas of noise and staccato bursts of fake melodies—it’s impossible to get an emotional purchase on the words’ meanings, though Gordon often sounds so wrapped up in the process you wonder what she’s on. There’s very little body to Body/Head, though Gordon seems to be “coming apart.” The second solo album since the breakup by her former bandmate Lee Ranaldo shares with Coming Apart a fondness for long song forms, but that’s all. Prior to the split, Ranaldo’s solo work was the most impressionistic, but since then he seems bent on carrying on the work of R.E.M. Last Night On Earth is positioned as more of a band effort, but the differences with his last album, Between the Times and Tides, are trivial. With Steve Shelley on drums, one would expect more of the kind of searing stuff that SY perfected, but this is standard 70s West Coast rock, melodically safe for extended jamming. Much has been made of Ranaldo’s championing of vintage Grateful Dead live recordings lately, and one of the things SY accomplished during its own long strange trip was interpolating the conventional jam band dynamic of buildup-vs-stasis into purely sonic terms: growth-vs-decay. On songs like “Blackt Out” and “The Rising Tide” Ranaldo honors this tradition only half-heartedly, but in any case its those guitar freakouts the occur in the middle of songs that make the album its own long strange trip, or, more precisely, a series of them. It’s a shame the songs themselves aren’t up to the standard he maintained on the last record. Sonic Youth would have insisted on it.

JanelleMonáe_ElectricLady_coverThe Electric Lady
-Janelle Monae (Warner)
Though The Archandroid was a wonderful and wonderfully peculiar album, Janelle Monae seems to be pushing her luck by retaining the sic-fi robot theme on her sophomore effort, which is even more control-freakish in terms of useful entertainment. She dives right into the disco-soul she swears by and for the first four cuts never comes up for air, even exhausting Prince with her sheer abandon. Miguel doesn’t know what hit him when Monae shoves him aside on their duet “Primetime” and trills, “I wanna scream and dream and throw a love parade.” It’s all the more effective when she tries to calm down and sing a straight ballad, but you know she’ll be up on her feet and dancing before the end of the song. Whatever you want to say about her lukewarm melodies or her drawbacks as a bandleader, you have to give it up for those batteries.

eltonjohn13The Diving Board
-Elton John (Capitol/Universal)
By trying to recapture the pop muse that inspired their 70s work at the behest of producer T-Bone Burnett, Elton John and Bernie Taupin set the trap too far from the house. These are some of the best tunes Elton has written in a long time and Taupin’s lyrics are given a more prosaic polish, but in the end the passage of time wins. Elton will never revive the rush of youthful extravagance that made Honky Chateau such an ear-worm, and The Diving Board comes across as a collection of art songs for aging rockers. The mood is consistently reflective and mostly melancholy, and the best thing you can say is, thank God Paul Buckmaster isn’t around to make it even more maudlin with his lachrymose arrangements. Even when Elton gets antsy on “Mexican Vacation” you sense he’s keeping one eye on that couch in the corner of the studio.

CRITTER20LP Scott & Charlene's Wedding LP SLEEVE FINALAny Port In a Storm
-Scott & Charlene’s Wedding (Fire/P-Vine)
An Aussie living and making music in Brooklyn, Craig Dermody revels in the cultural dispensation that comes with being an expat. No Flight of the Concords cock-ups for him. He comes to his 70s punk-new wave homage style with a clear concept of who he is and what he wants to say, whether it’s about American wives or the mysterious National Basketball Association or the singular geography of New York City. “This town wants to eat me up,” he sings. “It better have an appetite.” Unlike Jonathan Richman, whose vocal timbre he has partly appropriated, Dermody doesn’t look to rock’n roll for salvation, but he does expect it to make his life more interesting than it would be without it, and his sloppy delivery is packed full of fascination and curiosity. Sometimes you need a foreign point-of-view to make you see your surroundings the way they really are.

oneohtrix13R Plus Seven
-Oneohtrix Point Never (Warp/Beat)
Though I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way, Daniel Lopatin makes his electronic music much easier to like by limiting the length of most of his tracks to under five minutes. Of the eleven cuts on his new collection, only four exceed that mark, so his mostly melody-less constructions get their points across quickly and efficiently. Vocals are looped for effects other than verbal, and percussion is rhythmic without being propulsive, but this is nevertheless emotional material, and not as dark as his past work. The ubiquitous organ-like sounds are probably not produced by an organ, but the result is a nostalgic pull towards older electronica, the kind that Germans produced to make fun of prog kids. The difference is that on a song like “Boring Angel,” Lopatin luxuriates in the big enveloping sound. It’s truly tactile music in that it doesn’t touch your heart but gets under your skin.

bethorton13Sugaring Season
-Beth Orton (Anti-/Sony)
Beth Orton’s success as a singer-songwriter defies her ambivalent attitude. Though her voice is uniquely expressive and her turn-of-phrase engaging, like Nick Drake she doesn’t demonstrate a compulsive need to connect, so the listener has to make the effort, something that was easier and expected back in the heyday of the vinyl LP. Since Orton rode to fame on the backs of William Orbit and the Chemicals, she had help making connections, but on her sixth album she’s called on a different sort of assistance, genuine studio mavens like Marc Ribot and Brian Blade. And the result is striking in how well they prod Orton out of her shell. She pushes her feelings forward on “State of Grace” and sounds almost aggressive on “Candles.” Orton is now dedicated to the song rather than the collaborator, and these collaborators know what to do, because that’s what they’re paid to do.

lowe13Quality Street
-Nick Lowe (Proper/MSI)
Though Nick Lowe was never a cynic, his 70s output showed a sardonic streak, so I wondered about his agreeing to do a Christmas album. Apparently, his becoming a father in 2005 made him more amenable to the request, but with one condition: no sleigh bells. And though there are a few public domain songs, there’s nothing you’ll recognize right away. In fact, most of the songs are original, written either by Lowe or some of his famous pals—Ron Sexsmith, Ry Cooder—especially for the record, ranging from the quietly hymnlike to the rockabillyish. There’s even a ska take on Wizzard’s glam hit “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” but the best songs extend from Lowe’s late-in-life appreciation of 50s orchestral pop, conversational in style, contemplative in effect. It might actually get you in the mood for the holidays.

IconaPop_ThisIs..._CoverArt_WhiteThis Is…Icona Pop
-Icona Pop (Big Beat/Warner)
You say ABBA, I say Robyn. Let’s call the whole thing off. I get this Swedish pop duo and think they’re better at singing their songs than they are at writing them. Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo aren’t afraid to let their voices out of the production box, even if neither is bold enough to sing on her own, but the disco thump that powers their ready-made hits barrels through the album like a subway train to Ke$ha’s front door, making the catchy tunes difficult to appreciate and easy to make fun of, so don’t read the titles if you have a low threshhold for snark. Fun is where you find it, but you wonder how much fun is enough and then they drop a power ballad like “Just Another Night” and you wish Robyn or even ABBA were around to take that sour taste away.

haimDays Are Gone
-Haim (Polydor/Universal)
The three Haim sisters have done more to make conventional L.A. pop-rock respectable than any group since Fleetwood Mac, which is why the two groups are so often compared, but the sound isn’t as similar as some believe. Haim is less intuitive than Lindsey Buckingham at his best, closer in appoach to precise indie rock-popsters like Spoon or Local Natives, closer in vocal density to Tegan and Sara. Keep in mind that none of them has produced a song as instantly likable as “Falling” or “If I Could Change Your Mind” (well, maybe T&S), and I think Paul Simon would kill for a tune like “Honey & I” if he knew he could get away with it. Over-produced? But this is L.A., where one guy’s over-production is another’s Tuesday squash match. Say what you will about the calculation, you’ll be listening to this non-stop come end-of-year-list-making time.

factory floorFactory Floor
Don’t knock minimalism as a means of getting that booty shaking. Dance music is participatory by definition, so the trick is how to get people to become the music they’re listening to. This London trio remains suitably anonymous behind the cold, crisp beats and processed vocal interruptions, but the tracks’ lack of personality doesn’t detract from the very human pull they have on your attention. The first long cut on the album makes its valid point with little more than a steady tom beat, a nervous synth line, and a piercing high-hat shimmer, so when a full drum kit enters on cut 2, the body is ready for rocking, even if the m.o. doesn’t change. With all that air around the rhythm and the voices slipping in and out of the room almost unnoticed, the listener’s brain fills in its own melodies. You and the group are one.

-Moby (Beat)
Though he’s still known to kick up his heels in concert, Moby’s albums continue to creep away from the dance music that originally made him famous. Innocents is another collection of beautiful, meticulously rendered ambient tracks interspersed with actual songs that the composer-producer has assigned to a disparate group of guest vocalists who have even less to do with dance music. Wayne Coyne is uncharacteristically serious on “The Perfect Life,” crooning in front of an ebullient gospel choir, while Mark Lanegan lends his weathered presence to a sad, Tom Waits-like midnight shuffle. When Moby slips in one of those old blues samples you recall how effective is still is more than a decade after his masterpiece Play, but at the same time you understand why he only does it occasionally now. He’s got to keep something in reserve for old age.

grouploveSpreading Rumours
-Grouplove (Atlantic/Warner)
The hippie aesthetic has been thoroughly trashed in popular culture, but in professional music circles it’s always persisted despite occasional grumblings from the hardcore punk camp. As indicated by the spelling of the title of their sophomore album, L.A.’s Grouplove diverts their own tie-dyed predilections via London rather than, say, San Francisco (the drummer is the son of Yes’s Trevor Rabin), with a stronger emphasis on pop-rock than country blues-rock; and if the vibe is invariably happy it’s also borderline demented, thanks mainly to vocalist Christian Zucconi’s tendency to yelp at the end of every phrase. The value of such an approach is that the listener is repeatedly surprised in pleasant and wondrous ways. The manically intense “Borderline and Aliens” shifts position almost measure-by-measure, never ending up anywhere recognizable but, as the hippies used to say, the ride beats the destination, man.

weekndKiss Land
-The Weeknd (Republic/Universal)
Abel Tesfaye has taken so long to get to his major label debut that it’s difficult to remember why everyone was so excited about him a year ago, when he released three highly anticipated mix tapes in a row for free on the Net. As good as those albums were in the over-crowded world of post-millennial R&B, Kiss Land erases their memory due to music biz exigencies. The fact that it’s received a proper release in Japan is proof of that, even if Universal hasn’t exactly promoted it. Granted, they’d have their work cut out for them since there isn’t much to promote except the Weeknd’s legend. Tesfaye’s production is more interesting than his singing, which is on the wimpy side even if his lyrics go straight for the groin; unlike the music itself, which is too self-involved to party, much less get it up.

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