Here are the album reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo yesterday.
-Lady Gaga (Interscope/Universal)
The title implies that the biggest pop star on the planet wants her cake and eat it, too. It’s not enough that everything she’s ever done has an effect on the way popular music is produced and heard, Gaga wants to be acknowledged as an artist, an old argument that has never held much water. Art is where you find it and what you make of it, and there are people who always assumed her stuff is art. Gaga’s problem is that they may not be the “right” people, but if there’s any discernible difference between Artpop and her first two albums it’s mostly a matter of attitude. Artists, she seems to think, are people who are confident about the creative process, which sounds more like a description of a pop star; and while she’s been assertive in the past, it’s usually been in service to an inclusive philosophy, the cultivation of her “little monsters.” Here, she comments on the same themes but with an agency bordering on arrogance. Most of the songs are about sex, but there isn’t a lot of joy, especially when she tells R. Kelly, of all people, to “do what you want.” She plays the top in “G.U.Y.” as if it were payback. And while she’s always been good for a laugh when trolling fashionistas, here she’s just mean. I have no special affection of Donatella Versace, but could any target be easier? Throughout, Gaga’s sonic attack is brittle and bombastic, its pleasures visceral without being exhilirating, which is too bad because her singing remains her most underappreciated facet. Unlike all the other female pop stars her age she uses her lungs and understands that emotions get through when they’re projected with all the oxygen at your disposal. I just wish the emotions were worth it. Avril Lavigne may not seem like one of those pop stars, since her entrance into the pantheon was mainly through the back door (punk), but her new self-titled album definitely feels more zeitgeisty than her past work. The influence isn’t Gaga so much as Ke$ha, whose head tones are easier to pull off anyway, but it’s those exaggerated diphtongs that give the game away. Avril isn’t the only singer who’s appropriated Ke$ha’s style, so it’s no surprise in and of itself, but it is in light of the fact that her new husband, Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, is all over this album, and he’s the last person I would think might countenance the kind of party animal persona Ke$ha represents. Then again, Kroeger co-wrote the creepiest song on the album, “Bad Girl,” in which Avril gives birth to Marilyn Manson’s baby, so he’s obviously more magnanimous than his own power-play rock would indicate. If Avril herself sounds scrappier, more invested in the classic rock hooks than she has since her debut, credit it to the afterglow of the honeymoon. There are worse reasons for making a record.
-Katy Perry (Capitol/Universal)
Katy Perry has her own Ke$ha moment near the beginning of “Roar,” the lead single from her new album, but it only lasts long enough to make the point that Katy is not going to follow any more. Prism is her stab at relevance, not as “art” but as an expression of “maturity.” Even if she’s no longer leading with her come-hither adorability, Perry’s self-actualization sounds assumed, and how can it not when every cut boasts five writers? P!nk did the same thing and managed to sound like no one else, but Perry has no demons to banish—unless you think her years as a Christian pop star are starting to haunt her. And the confectionery consistency of the music, which is accomplished without being memorable, makes a song like “This Is How We Do” sound patronizing. We’ll be sure to have a good time. We don’t need instruction.
-Miley Cyrus (RCA/Sony)
We can thank Miley Cyrus for some of the more stimulating conversations in the pop music universe this year. Her transition from tween idol to sex-me-up adult belter was too much for some, but if all they have to go on is that MTV Awards spectacle the conversation is limited. “Adore You,” the first cut on her new album, is a silky ballad that works on several levels having nothing to do with her newly minted (and seemingly self-promoted) image as a slag. If it doesn’t prove she’s a pop singer on the level of her model, Rihanna, it shows she has taste. And for every rote party anthem like “We Can’t Stop” there’s something you won’t expect, like the glitchy dance number “Someone Else” or the bouncy country-pop ditty “4X4,” which doesn’t so much reprise her old image as rough it up a bit.
Still Within the Sound of My Voice
-Jimmy Webb (eOne/Victor)
Though Jimmy Webb did himself some singin’ back when he gave Burt Bacharach a run for his money in the race for Great American Songwriter Of The Late 60s, no one paid attention. Three years ago he released Just Across the River, a collection of duets on some of his best-known compositions, and if he held his own it was because he was better suited to his songbook than some of the guests. Billy Joel for “Wichita Lineman”? Would you ask Garth Brooks to do “New York State of Mind”? This second collection suffers from the same problem, but is redeemed by two songs. “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” soars on the gruff effusions of Joe Cocker, who did the best version of it back in the day, anyway; and Brian Wilson’s backing harmonies on “Macarthur Park” make that weirdest of Top 40 epics actually epic.
-Omar Souleyman (Domino/Hostess)
One of those working singers—a wedding singer, to be exact—whose reputation flew out into the wider pop world through no effort on his part, this Syrian dabke artist can’t really be separated musically from his accompanist Rizad Sa’id, who has been playing behind him for years now with nothing except electronics, replicating with synths and programmed percussion the local analog instruments that normally perform this music. The beauty of Kieran Hebden’s production on what amounts to Souleyman’s formal debut is that he doesn’t fill out the sound with anything “authentic.” Souleyman chants, grunts, implores, and mostly just keens away, inspired by these so-called artificial sounds, and it makes his dedication all the more inspiring, not to mention thrilling. Club kids dig it because it’s fast and intense. The rest of us dig it because it’s as human as James Brown.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar
-Of Montreal (Polyvinyl/P-Vine)
For most of the past decade Kevin Barnes has gotten by on his melodic gifts, not to mention a live show that everyone thinks they have to see at least once. As interesting as his albums are, they’ve rarely rewarded close listening. The density of the ideas and the frequency of gear-shifting is too much to deal with, a function of his one-man band methodology. For his new album he availed himself of a studio band and recorded his compositions live. The songs are more structurally conventional, but since Barnes is the antithesis of a conventional music-maker the results not only reward close listening, they make you smile. The West Coast folk rock style that dominates most of the record is evenly interrupted by a good Bowie impersonation, an even better interpolation of hippie spiritualism, and several purposeful eruptions that recall the loose effusiveness of Blonde on Blonde.
-DJ Rashad (Hyperdub/Beat)
It’s satisfying that a dance music veteran like Rashad Harden, who has been toiling in the trenches as a club DJ for more than 20 years, can finally achieve a level of stardom with a genre most of us had never heard of a month ago. Footwork is a clearly delineated musical form, fast and relatively complex, that isn’t widely popular because it takes a certain rarefied sensibility (not to mention practiced dance moves) to be appreciated properly, and what’s great about Rashad’s music is that it doesn’t make demands. Its rhythmic and harmonic components are produced and engineered for maximum moment-to-moment pleasure. Most of the cuts on Double Cup are less than four minutes, which gives you enough time to absorb the themes but not enough to make you push the advance button: Dance music for shorter attention spans, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
-James Blunt (Atlantic/Warner)
Formula has been James Blunt’s greatest asset, even as he strains against the strictures of the ballad form that made him a star. With his high tenor and naturally plaintive tone he can’t hope to be a rock star, so when the guitars make their zooming entrance on the opening cut of his new album he meekly bows out and doesn’t return until they’re finished. On a peppy tune like “Satellites” he has no choice but to render the chorus in wordless cries of “ooh-oh-oh,” and the allegro tempo of “Heart to Heart” winds him after just a single verse. Regardless of what you think of his limited style, it’s perfectly suited to the purple prose of love songs, and while I think lines like “your love is a revolver/firing bullets in the sky” are hokey, they make sense rendered in his quietly impassioned delivery.
-Juana Molina (Hostess)
A live performer who really earns the trite adjective “hypnotic,” this Argentinian singer-songwriter tends to produce music that’s notable for its cleverness, when in concert it’s her presence that makes such a big impression. Her first album in five years still keeps her slightly at a distance, but the combination of witty compositional ideas and electronic sound collage have become even more appealingly direct. Like Merrill Garbus, Molina works best in brevity, even if she doesn’t have the benefit of Garbus’s unique vocal mannerisms. Singing in Spanish without a lot of color or dynamic changes, she often fades into the background on record, but there’s more texture to her songs, more melodic points of purchase. The counterpuntal details of “Lo Decidi Yo” tickle your senses, like a friendly cat that won’t leave you alone. You just want to grab the music and smother your face in it.
Nothing Was the Same
Drake has a lot on his mind, and with his newly crowned status as the only major label rapper who matters he’s got plenty of opportunity to vent. Eighty minutes of CD time isn’t enough, so except for a contractual nod to the boss, there are no guests. Mostly, Drake is pissed, and not just at the women he’s slept with. There’s his family, regressing into black hole solitude, and the people in his neighborhood, “who never loved us.” Less an expression of paranoia than a study of forced loneliness, the album sounds so hermetically sealed it could have been recorded in a closet. The production is stripped to the bone—high-hat for rhythm, thin synth line for color—all the better to allow Drake’s sore ego room to stretch. “My life’s a completed checklist,” he says, and he’s gonna make sure we tick off every item.
There’s nothing weird or untoward about an 80s synth pop group doing a Christmas album, though it isn’t until the fifth cut that something familiar in the holiday vein pops up here, and “Silent Night” is fully reverential to the religious cast of the song, Andy Bell’s blemish-less vocals immensely suited to the task at hand. Even “The Christmas Song,” despite its calliope synth accompaniment, exudes toasty warmth. But the ringers are really ringers, and come off more as orphaned outtakes, which makes Snow Globe less of a Christmas album than a odd-and-ends collection with a larger share of holiday songs. Still, Erasure’s usually theatrical m.o. cloaks everything under a wintry pall, and some of the cuts, like the Latinate single “Gaudete,” sound as if they could make it as Christmas songs if given the proper promotional push. Who do we call about that? The U.N.?
-Sleigh Bells (Lucky Number/Hostess)
It was inevitable that Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller would strive for greater range as their career progressed, especially since their initial sound, though wholly theirs, was so circumscribed. There’s more sonic diversity on Bitter Rivals, more dynamic and instrumental choices, but for the most part the aggression that made Treats so irrepressible and Reign of Terror so…terrifying remains in force. And on cuts like “Minnie” the sound becomes downright painful, as in causing physical discomfort. But they’ve abandoned the roller rink enthusiasms that made the distortion fun. If anything, it’s the more restrained songs that stand out in a good way since you can actually hear the melodies rather than make them out from a distance. Sleigh Bells understands the value of simple repetitive riffs, which they provide with assurance, but sometimes people need to see that you’re working for their attention.
-Arcade Fire (Universal)
Spanning two CDs and opening with a “hidden track” that sounds as if it were cadged from bits of stray tape littering the editing room floor—a cut-and-paste overture, so to speak—the new Arcade Fire opus is as pretentious as big label releases get, even if, in the U.S. at least, the group still sticks by its indie imprint. In a way, that’s the problem—no editorial hand, even though James Murphy oversaw the production. Though there’s much to enjoy here in the characteristic AC anthemic style, it tends to be buried under layers of indulgence that compromise the group’s better attributes. The best cut, “We Exist,” clocks in at a reasonable 5:44 but is stuffed with so many redundant overdubs it feels monumental and featureless at the same time. And since jubilation is AC’s normal mode of expression the energy level seems over-determined.