Here are the album reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Wednesday.
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
-Neko Case (Anti-/Sony)
-Billie Joe + Norah (Reprise/Warner)
Though she has slowly moved away from the alt-country sound that first defined her as indie’s most distinctive vocalist, Neko Case still scans as Americana in the better sense of the term. She is steeped in a tradition she has outgrown, and while the melodies and arrangements on her latest, most confessional album defy categorization, they fit snugly into a continuum that leads back to her days with her country band the Boyfriends. She’s also lost her jokey feistiness, but her sense of humor is in tact, now tempered by bitter experience. “You never held me at the right angle,” she croons in “Wild Creatures,” an indirect way of saying something Dylan used to say quite often and with more bile. There’s a swooning quality to the music, as if the effort of trying to address her mortality and the way it impacts her romantic life keeps her constantly off-balance. The songs never rock the way her country songs did, but they do swing, and when the horns make their entrance on the closer “Ragtime” you swoon, too, because there’s something abrupt and final about them. Case understands that a guitar means parties and a horn section funerals, even when they’re blasting away. It’s a New Orleans thing, and New Orleans is the homeland of Americana, the place where music was born, and where it goes to die. Case is only 42, but she can see the horizon and means to sing as much as she can before it gets too close. That sort of fatalistic melancholy is all over the Everly Brothers tribute album, Foreverly, a one-off collaboration between Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones. The Everlys were the first pop vocal ensemble to suggest that teenagers had complicated inner lives. Their place in the Americana canon is as secure as Johnny Cash’s or Willie Nelson’s, and because of their innocence their songs are more emotionally affecting than either of those two men’s material, despite the demons they so famously battled. What’s interesting about Armstong and Jones’ tribute is that it focuses on one specific album, the Everlys’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, which was released less than a year after their debut. The Everlys didn’t write their own material, but this collection was even more removed since it consisted of traditional folk and country songs. It was, in effect, a roots album released at a time when the concept didn’t exist. Armstrong and Jones approach this material the same way the Everlys did, as formative texts, and though they are looser with the rhythms and less reverent of the classic arrangements, they faithfully recreate the supple harmonies, which is what the Everlys were all about in the first place. The revelation is Armstrong, who hasn’t been this emotionally invested in singing since his indie punk days. The album is slight overall, but as an introduction to the darker side of country music it will do fine.
Coming out almost a full year after it was originally set for release thanks to record company jitters, Maya’s fourth album could be called anti-climactic. Though it ditches the more confrontational musical approach of her last record, Matangi still seems unsettling to fans who think Kala was the shit. As the utilization of the Weeknd shows, she’s more overtly into American R&B, but that doesn’t mean she’s thrown over her need to be provocative, either thematically or aurally. “Bring the Noize” and “Only 1 U” immediately register as dance floor anthems even if the melodies are buried below layers of business, and “YALA” makes up for its bargain basement spirituality (“Where I come from we keep being born again and again”) with some of the shiniest beats in her catalogue. She demonstrates a resolute desire to perform, and that dedication makes this her most straightforward pop effort.
-The Dismemberment Plan (Partisan/P-Vine)
When the Plan broke up ten years ago they were the last of a breed of indie guitar band whose love of soul music was at least as heartfelt as their capacity to shred. The music had a complexity that bordered on fusion but was iterated to make people dance, and Travis Morrison was one of the best dancers on the DC hardcore scene. The songs on this reunion effort don’t sound as if they were composed with the stage in mind. They have that clunky quality you get when you write the words first and then try to fashion music around them, and since a lot of these words are meant to be funny the songs are distracting for all the wrong reasons. What was once angular and startling feels safe for the sake of clarity, but the ideas, mostly about domesticity, don’t warrant this much jokey attention.
Join the Dots
This London quintet masks its ambitions with a lackadaisical attitude that recalls the Velvets at their most dissolute, but the relaxed vibe occasionally gives way to an intensity of feeling, mostly through the instrumental interplay. The long opening cut, “Conductor,” is like a locomotive moving through outer space on its own inertia. It’s such a smooth, comfortable ride you could almost think the next cut, “You Won’t Be the Same,” a stately rock song set to ringing rhythm guitars, was by a different group altogether. These two modes of presentation alternate throughout Join the Dots, which is probably why people think of Toy as being a psychedelic band. The Velvets were psychedelic, too, it’s just that they weren’t hippies about it. When Toy blends the two forms, as they do on the title track, they’re not nearly as interesting. Sometimes tension is overrated.
-Robert Randolph & the Family Band (Blue Note/Universal)
Sacred steel player Robert Randolph’s spirited blend of gospel and blues has lost none of its urgency on his Blue Note debut, which ranges farther afield in terms of style. Randolph always tries to stuff as many bent notes as he can fit into those spaces between vocal lines, a method that sometimes renders the songs themselves meaningless, but the extra vocalists and guest instrumentalists, including Carlos Santana on two tracks, anticipate his excitable nature and compensate accordingly. Santana even came prepared with his best B.B. King impersonation, a talent that delights Randolph even as he tries to compete with it. And the stronger New Orleans feel secularizes the music without making it seem tawdry, though it must be said that Randolph never met a party he didn’t like. His version of the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” is downright sinful.
Tales of Us
Because Alison Goldfrapp & Co. change direction with each album, it’s easy for someone with only a passing familiarity with their music to get the idea they’re a dance act. Tales of Us, which is closer in mood and texture to their earlier albums, is a set of melancholy love songs mostly sung against acoustic guitar. Still, the dance act misconception nags due to the lack of tonal variety. Goldfrapp’s dramatic line readings, combined with the simplicity of the instrumentation and the gorgeous string arrangements, overstates the emotional import of the songs, as if they were written as poems and then set to music as an afterthought. It’s this theatrical quality and the narrative structures of the lyrics that have prompted some to call this their English folk album, but it’s really heavy weather music; not oppressive, just the opposite of “light.”
-Matt Pryor (& Records)
The former Get Up Kids and New Amsterdams leader dampens none of his emo-fueled excitability when he picks up an acoustic guitar for his solo albums, but his latest is a mostly electric affair, even if the strumming gets out of hand at times. In that regard it’s not much different from a Get Up Kids album in terms of energy and outlook. As the title suggests, Pryor means to open some veins, an enterprise fraught with pretension when you’re talking about emo, but the music is chipper and hooky enough to make you overlook the over-determined emotional brinksmanship. There’s no denying Pryor’s immersion in these feelings or his talent for channeling them into compelling guitar rock, which is why the song with the banjo and the cello is such a non sequitur, as if he couldn’t leave well enough alone.
-Britney Spears (RCA/Sony)
By trading Dr. Luke and Max Martin for will.i.am and David Guetta to help her with what she calls her most personal record, Britney invites derision. How personal can you get on a Eurobeat album? It’s difficult to parse any “message” from the mechanical “Work It Bitch” or even the faintly heartfelt ballad “Perfume.” Britney was never an artist who put much of herself in the music handed to her, so if you don’t like will.i.am and Guetta in principle you should avoid Britney Jean regardless of your thoughts about the woman herself. Things improve when she has something nominally human to bounce ideas off of, even if it’s an Autotuned will.i.am. When kid sister Jamie Lynn spells her on “Chillin’ With You” she sounds like a flesh-and-blood singer. Hired hands are always a risk, but family will never let you down.
-Jake Bugg (Virgin/Universal)
Critics have decided that it was too soon to compare this estimable young British singer-songwriter to Bob Dylan, and his second album, produced by Rick Rubin, deepens the distance between Bugg and Bobby by being a guitar showcase, which isn’t to say his nasally vocals and wordplay are downplayed, only that the guitar—clear, sparkly, and often electric—is what hits your pleasure center first. The songs display a more deliberate familiarity with country blues, or just plain country in the case of “Slumville Sunrise,” the liveliest song here, though it’s mainly thanks to drummer Pete Thomas, who grounds Bugg’s naturally frenetic playing and makes it sound disciplined. Of course, there’s still the nasally vocals to contend with and Rubin probably thinks he’s doing the kid a favor by pushing them back in the mix. And maybe he is, since you also don’t notice the lyrics as much.
-Tinie Tempah (Parlophone/Warner)
In England, where rap is more of a club music form than it is in the U.S., Tinie Tempah found success by refusing to give an inch either way, which explains the lukewarm response in the States. On his long-gestating sophomore joint he again refuses to compromise, but given that American rap over the past three years has incorporated EDM maybe the mountain has come to Mohammed. 2 Chainz certainly did. His cameo on “Trampoline” sounds so starkly Yank next to Tinie’s fey, sardonic tone you could base an entire Modes of Modern Hip-hop curriculum on the song. And if he isn’t as gymnastically fast and flexible as compatriot Dizzee Rascal (who guests on the deceptively spare “Mosh Pit”), he conveys more character. But just in case, he keeps the high-end contributions coming: Big Sean, Laura Mvula, Emeli Sande—if they’re big in the UK now, they’re here.
-The Autumn Defense (Yep Roc/P-Vine)
Sunnier than their name might imply, Wilco’s John Stirratt and man-about-indie Pat Sansone seem to reserve this side project for times when they want to lighten up, which explains the group’s resilience. Their fifth album is their most resolutely California-sounding effort, a collection of softly sung strum pop with touches of Love-life guitar and a penchant for slight, pretty melodies. The more contemplative side of the Beach Boys is appropriated almost fully for “I Want You Back,” though you wonder why they didn’t multi-track a few more harmonies, especially since Stirratt is not the most forceful singer in the world. Of course, low gear is the default for the group, so expectations would be low, too. And while the instruments are all played and arranged by the pair, there’s something pre-programmed about their structures, as if the songs had been produced on a spreadsheet.
-Little Barrie (Hostess)
Though Little Barrie isn’t burning up the charts in their native England, the band’s leader, Barrie Cadogan, has been credited with making contemporary rock safe for guitarslingers again. When he isn’t playing with his eponymous power trio he tours with the likes of Morrissey and Primal Scream. The group’s fourth album, however, plays down the guitar flash while ramping up the sort of bluesy vibe that most rock fans associate with guitar flash. “Fuzz Bomb,” a potent funk workout, is mainly predicated on wah-wah riffs and nothing that could be mistaken for a solo. Less reliant on soul this time, Cadogan’s vocals plug into that British affection for snarl regardless of song subject, and actually sound more natural for it. Though Shadow doesn’t betray originality, it takes a stand as a real rock record, with all the requisite elements in their proper places.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2
The conventional wisdom about Eminem’s career is that it’s been a matter of living down the success of his first two albums, which isn’t to say the subsequent records were bad—spotty, yes, bad, no—only that the push-pull dynamic with his audience was set in motion by the regrets those two albums sparked in his well-charted psyche. His newest record attempts to reclaim the inspiration that gave birth to his best one, and if it’s his most involving album in a decade it’s also the easiest to turn off, not because of ugly sentiments, but because the music isn’t as good as the raps. Despite Eminem’s undiminished talent for rhyming, he needs great beats to get his points across. Even with Nate Ruess providing succor on the penultimate “Headlights,” you’re sent back to “Cleaning Out My Closet” to get a real sense of what he can do.