Here are the album reviews I wrote for the Feb. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Jan. 25.
Wig Out at Jagbags
-Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks (Matador/P-Vine)
-Dum Dum Girls (Sub Pop/Traffic)
A hallmark of the 90s indie rock movement was a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that implied an aversion to music careerism—or careers in general. This attitude mostly translated as humor at the expense of other musicians who were serious about making it, commercially and culturally. Most prominent among these goofballs was Pavement, since they actually produced a body of work that justified a career, meaning they could afford to be goofballs because they were artistically consistent. Since going solo leader Stephen Malkmus has maintained that integrity, though the landscape has changed. Indie means little any more in terms of real attitude, and as it turns out Malkmus was never anti-career. That was just a misconception of the music media. On his sixth album he sounds more like Pavement than he has in a long time, jettisoning some of the jammy tendencies of his last few records, where he indulged his early love of the Grateful Dead. The tongue-in-cheek jokiness is back in full, telegraphed by the nonsenical album title and a willingness to trade in short, unserious songs. What made Pavement great was the fact that Malkmus did not release anything that felt even slightly below par, a determination that relaxed after he disbanded the group. But sometimes pecadillos become habit, and even when the songs here sound light in execution, like the easygoing “The Janitor Revealed” or the self-consciously derivative “Lariat,” they connect immediately in that old Pavement way, noodling their way into your pleasure center while also, pardon the mixed metaphor, tickling your funny bone. I’m not entirely sure that the line “the 80s were the best decade for music evah” is meant to be a gag, but I have the right to think so. Speaking of careerism, Dee Dee, of the West Coast guitar pop project Dum Dum Girls, seems poised for stardom, and that’s a subjective observation, not an objective one. Her third full album is so far from the lo-fi murk of her 60s girl-group-obsessed debut that it qualifies as a different band, in my opinion, but, of course, there never was a “band” in the first place, just Dee Dee’s ambitions, which started simple through mimickry and pastiche. Too True is not only handsomely produced and proficiently sung, it takes in a broad range of modern rock styles, from the lush romanticism of Stevie Nicks to the monumental prog hooks of Florence + the Machine. Though the reverb that covered up her flaws on past records is still in evidence, it’s applied mainly to the ringing Edge-like guitars that tumble into place throughout the album. As the cover makes explicit, Dee Dee is positioning herself as a rock femme fatale in the classic sense, with all the appropriate vocal posturings that go with the role. Playing the part of the sultry rocker is a sure sign of careerist intentions, and if that means more music at this level of quality, I say go for it.
-Mogwai (Rock Action/Hostess)
Mogwai always has funny album titles, reference-wise, at least. Hardcore Will Never Die? Mogwai’s music may be loud and occasionally abrasive, but it’s never been hardcore. Rave Tapes? They’d be booed off a rave stage within five minutes. Obviously, the Scottish instrumental band wants to take the piss, probably in a bid to confound any sort of attempt to label their music. I’ll call them postrock just for convenience sake, but mostly they’re outside of rock; pretty enough in spots, but so doctrinairally opposed to progressive melodies and structures that you expect each album to come with a mission statement. There’s more electronics and keyboards here than in the past, thus making the group’s proper albums less distinctive in tone from their lucrative soundtrack work, meaning it’s even-tempered and evocative—not abrasive at all. And Mogwai without the abrasion is a different band.
-R. Kelly (RCA/Sony)
It’s hard to believe R. Kelly is 46 years old, not because he doesn’t sound like a middle aged man. But has he really been around that long? Though not the first R&B singer to recognize the commercial potential of explicit sexuality in quiet storm, he was the boldest, and as with anyone who takes that kind of chance, backlash was inevitable. We won’t discuss his legal-moral problems, but they can’t be separated from his music. Black Panties returns him to a cold modern sound after two albums of trad soul, where his more lascivious tendencies were tempered by formalistic concerns. Here he presents an entire song comparing cunnilingus to eating Oreo cookies. (No trademark infringement there?) In a sick sort of way it’s nice to have him back, since he’s more engaged, but there’s nothing startlingly new or enlightening on the order of “Trapped in the Closet.”
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
-Original Soundtrack (Republic/Universal)
The first Hunger Games collection was a weather vane for idiosyncratic borderline mainstream rock two years ago, but the lucky stiffs chosen for the second entry in the franchise would hardly seem to need any help at this point. Coldplay and Christina Aguilera don’t even belong here, and it’s not just because they’re platinum-grade artists. Imagine Dragons is exactly the kind of band that used to be featured on this sort of teen-marketed S/T but their ubiquity at the moment brings the level of the brand way down. And Lorde’s enervated version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is the sort of novelty S/T compilers ask for from already established performers. In fact, the only two cuts that have any thematic truck with the film are Patti Smith’s “Capitol Letters” and Santigold’s “Shooting Arrows at the Sky,” and they close out the record.
Though there’s no mistaking William Bevan’s characteristic production sound, his latest release cranks up all those elements that make techno a visceral experience, whether it’s designed for the dance floor or headphones. The eleven-minute title cut gets down to business almost immediately with a throbbing eighth-note bass pattern busting through a curtain of hiss and compressed keening vocals. This doesn’t last forever. In fact, it doesn’t last long at all. After the track drops off the edge of the earth, it returns as if trying to scramble up a sheer rock face in panic. It’s not until the end that Burial’s more familiar aural textures come into play as a kind of quiet hymn to pain and suffering. Only 30 minutes in length, Rival Dealer contains enough disparate ideas to last a lifetime, including genuine hip-hop. It’s almost a waste to put them all on one EP.
Though not emo, this sibling pop quartet might be mistaken for the dreaded spawn of punk thanks to Sydney Sierota’s breathy vocal delivery. You give her a pass since she’s only 16, but the beatastic music that swirls around her is catchy like the best California rock of the past four decades, and while Haim has taken that idea further, this will do in a pinch. How much of their appeal they owe to producer Mike Elizondo and song doctor Jeffery David, only their road manager knows for sure, and I’ll lay odds they wrote all their own lyrics. No one except a teen could write a song as, well, cool as “Cool Kids,” though I credit the adults with the song’s effortless swing. In fact, there are so many irresistible minor touches on the album that you wonder if the resistible major ones are your fault.
Red Hot Rocking Blues
-Wilko Johnson (Jungle/MSI)
When it was first released in 2005, this collection of covers was the first album of new material the former Dr. Feelgood guitarist had released in seven years, and now that Wilko is looking at the end sooner rather than later, this will probably be his last one. As a sampler of his blues-rock style it’s not as frantic as his live shows and since he is fundamentally a rhythm guitarist who plays lead fills you don’t come to him for blistering virtuosity. What grabs you is that reedy, desperate voice, which, whether covering Dylan or the usual complement of 50s Delta roadrunners, conveys the wildness in his soul. A more latent element, and more insidious as well, is the rhythm. Combined with the simple, steady syncopation of bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Monti, Wilko’s minimal scratch always hits that sweet spot. Long may he strum.
They hail from Los Angeles, but like a lot of recent bands from that city on the coast Warpaint takes its stylistic cues from London, in their case the dubbier aspects of post-punk. The group’s second, self-titled album is even spacier than their debut, while at the same time being less energetic. It’s sometimes difficult to separate the songs in your mind since the instrumental components are blended so completely, leaving Emily Kokal’s vocals the only distinctive aspect of the music, and even her presence feels tentative. The segue from the trippy languor of “Hi” to the repetitive back beat of “Biggy” is mostly a matter of plugging the drummer in since, otherwise, the songs would sound exactly the same. Most of the tracks clock in at over five minutes, which means they have a tendency to outstay whatever hooks they bring with them.
To All the Girls…
-Willie Nelson (Sony)
Willie has always been a standards man, having written a few of them himself, so no one begrduges him his late-life string of all-covers albums, though he’s enough of a show biz hand to understand you have to give the public something. He’s done records with younger bands (Asleep at the Wheel), the requisite duets collection (Let’s Face the Music and Dance), and now this second duets compilation of mostly country songs with female country singers. Normally, these affairs are entertaining as far as it goes. With the striking exception of Willie’s own rambunctious “Bloody Mary Morning” with a rootin’-tootin’ Wynonna Judd, almost everything is a ballad, and the younger women, especially Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and the amazing Melonie Cannon, drive the old crooner near to tears. Since Willie avoids genuine country duets—the ones where the partners feign passion—he also avoids looking like a perv.
The most notable thing about this new pop band from Sheffield is that five of the six members studied music at university, and you can hear it. Layered and multi-valent, Screaming Maldini’s songs come at you from every direction and while you can hear each unit of sound clearly enough to appreciate the work that went into the compositions and the arrangements, you may sometimes wish they’d just calm down a bit. Unlike Los Campesinos, another young English group with an orchestral approach to indie pop, SM isn’t satisfied with being merely catchy. They have to be overpowering. You want five-part harmonies? Switchback key and time signature changes? Epic themes? Well, sorry, but you’re gonna get them anyway, performed loudly and with matching youthful abandon. No mono for these kids, whose most up-front song is titled “Life in Glorious Stereo.” Good for testing your equipment, though.
-Actress (Ninja Tune/Beat)
If you’re an electronic artist who made his name with dance music, the conventional way of moving on is to release stuff with a beat that sounds ugly. Actress’s 2008 album Hazyville, finally out in Japan this month, is the best example of this strategy, a collection of deliriously beaty tracks that have been left out in the rain overnight. Darren Cunningham has come a ways since then and garnered praise from the serious music press, but others may wonder what the appeal is. Unlike Burial (see above) he doesn’t effect warmth, and unlike Oneohtrix Point Never he isn’t playful. He’s literally industrial: the textures are metallic and the methodology schematic. But like the great Russian Constructivists, he builds monumental structures. His new album, Ghettoville, is jaw-dropping in the way it maintains its rhythmic integrity in the midst of sonic air raids.
In a Tidal Wave of Mystery
-Capital Cities (Capitol/Universal)
The two principal members of this pop unit, Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian, were working as jingle writers in LA when they met through Craigslist. Combining their individuals gifts for hooks with an offbeat approach to electronic instrumentation, they dashed off a ditty, “Safe and Sound,” that went viral and allowed them to solicit and then hire full-time musicians, which bespeaks either confidence or brassy arrogance, but by tooling in the already lucrative dance pop genre they earned opening slots for established bands looking to broaden their appeal among a younger coterie. These are sturdy, conventional radio hits that manage to avoid narrow categorization, and as a result they’ve moved on to headliner status with the success of a single album, which sounds like a greatest hits package. It will be interesting to see if they have enough ideas for a second.
Too Much Information
-Maximo Park (Daylighting/Hostess)
Probably because their operative mood is frenetic, this English band has always sounded less funny than they should, and with each subsequent album of conscientious Britpop they come across as being desperate for something—not love or material satisfaction, but maybe a musical style they can call their own. Paul Smith is at least as talented a singer-songwriter as Art Brut’s Eddie Argos, but Argos doesn’t take himself seriously and that makes all the difference. The music is hard and brittle but built on a rubbery foundation of bass synths and electronic percussion. You always feel as if Smith is breathing down your neck, which might be fun if he were amusing company, but he’s become such a mope. When the music brightens on “Lydia, the Ink Will Never Dry” you don’t mind the sour sentiments so much. Sometimes it pays to be contrary and sometimes it doesn’t.