Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Feb. 25.
As is often the case when a Japanese record company holds back on releasing an album by a foreign artist that is already a hit overseas, Universal opted to put out Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, with a shot of the New Zealand sensation on the cover rather than the bespoke monochrome design of the original, which was obviously chosen to herald the launch of a major singer-songwriter whose work was more important than her looks. The Japanese aren’t so much trusting more to appearances as they are taking advantage of their own prerogatives, but in any case Ella Yelich O’Connor was only 16 when she recorded the record and 17 when she won a Grammy for the hit single “Royals,” aspects of her story that Universal International surely wants to stress. Lorde’s sudden fame has been compared to the calculating stardom of Lana Del Rey, but musically the two are more different than they are alike. If anything, Del Rey is the more original sounding, but if Lorde seems to channel the Adele/Amy Winehouse drawl vocally and Sara Bareilles’ poetic angst thematically, her collaboration with producer-writer Joel Little borrows heavily from contempo R&B, which should put her over with a wider cross section of music lovers, including those in her own age group, which is the key. Though I find her tendency to slam syllables together unappealing, the meandering means she utilizes to find her way to the heart of a hooky chorus is impressive and mysterious, her most obvious talent and one that Little exploits to full advantage with his luxurious vocal overdubs and minimal electronic back tracks. Much has been made of Lorde’s theatrical lyrics, which follow a straight stylistic line back to Laura Nyro and are wittier than a lot of people have given her credit for. If this is the future of world pop, I’m all for it, though I hope Lorde eventually acknowledges that pop can be enjoyable for reasons that aren’t noble, either. Brit Jasmine van der Bogaerde, better known as Birdy, is a year older than Lorde, and Fire Within is her second album, though her first of all-original material. Leaning more toward rock in the British tradition and a poet of more flowery substance, Birdy would seem to attract a narrower fan base, one who appreciates her emotive powers and will overlook her annoying vocal mannerisms. Birdy’s songs tend to swell and recede on full arrangements, including strings and fulsome percussion, where Lorde’s build melodically, and the difference is vital in that Fire Within isn’t going to yield any hit singles, yet it could point to a more sustained career among eternally romantic unhip adolescent girls, of which there is never a shortage. Lorde will be expected to remain pretty and a star, while Birdy will get by with being evocative, and that, in the long run, is a more realistic ambition.
-Young Fathers (Anticon/P-Vine)
Two black residents of Edinburgh and a white one. Besides coming up with the best name for a rap group in recent memory, the trio has revolutionized English hip-hop, except that it really isn’t hip-hop, though R&B doesn’t properly describe what it is, either. The beats are forthright and the sentiments forthrightly desperate, but the lo-fi production values convey a milieu rather than a recording prerogative, a place where harshness is the place you start from, where revolution is a personal statement. Apropos their city, the sound is cold and wet, the melodies engineered for cheap speakers and even cheaper party vibes, but as their themes get darker they refuse to get harder, or more complicated (the songs linger around the 3-minute mark). They want God’s grace and they want you to feel them. You’d have to be made of granite not to.
The first thing you notice about the new Beck album is how lovely it is. Opening with a soaring passage that segues into a perfect approximation of Meddle-era Pink Floyd dream pop, the music is like a big, inviting pillow that you can’t get up from. He multi-tracks his voice into a cloud of benevolence on “Heart Is a Drum,” with acoustic guitars and pianos tinkling over the margins. “Keeping time with everyone,” goes the song’s clearly articulated metaphor, and it feels so comfortable that you barely register the line “beating me down/day after day.” Repeated listenings, however, reveal the middle aged anxiety at the core of this post-millennial hippie suite, as if Beck were making up for his father’s generation’s avoidance of the inevitable. He means to face death head on, perhaps prematurely, but with plenty of sonic padding to cushion the blow.
-Tegan and Sara (Vapor/Warner)
Our favorite album of 2013 finally rates a Japanese release, which would hardly matter to us except that it includes two bonus tracks to justify the effort and the cost. Though the estimable Canadian twins have never been hit material here (or there, for that matter), this experiment in 80s synth-pop, assisted by producer Greg Kurstin, proves the sisters are, if nothing else, master builders of songs that could be hits for anyone, except that then you’d miss their peerless vocal interchanges, which are not so much harmonically adept as conceptually unique, a matter of placing “oohs” and “ahhs” in places where they wouldn’t normally belong. Maybe it’s because they’re both lesbians but the sexual component of these love songs isn’t delivered in the usual manner. They’re insistent, carried by melodies that bring the sentiments even before the words show up, and earthy rather than pithy, but earthiness doesn’t mean coarse.
-Bruce Springsteen (Sony)
The Boss isn’t above releasing an odds-and-sods collection, but he still understands what’s at stake with regard to his reputation. Some of these songs are covers, others are originals he never bothered to release, but they’ve all been recorded expressly for this album, and that means a uniformity of style that justifies it as product. The E Street Band isn’t credited, but we still didn’t expect such a bright, brittle sound, something engineered for earbuds rather than stadium P.A. systems. You gauge the concept behind the songs by what he does to “American Skin” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” two compositions that are familiar from earlier versions. Both are as overblown as an Yngwie Malmsteen solo—it’s almost as much Tom Morello’s album as it is Springsteen’s. It’s good he wants to spread the responsibility, but he could have picked someone more discerning.
-Death Vessel (Sub Pop/Traffic)
The name suggests portentousness and darkness, but not the kind of falsetto Joel Thibodeau wields throughout these eight mid-tempo songs, buoyed by floating keyboards and deep sea sound effects that give the album just enough edge for it to appeal to people who don’t countenance purely acoustic music. It’s a satisfying style that takes some getting used to in order to make out the lyrics, which, given the falsetto, may lead neophytes to believe they’ve stumbled on some stray Sigur Ros tracks. Thibodeau’s music is wholly Americana when you strip away the decoration, though he isn’t as plainspoken and moving as Iron and Wine nor as perversely provocative as Will Oldham. If it weren’t for the icy effect of his voice it might be difficult to muster up enthusiasm for Island Intervals, but there’s always something to be said for the human element.
Vamps et vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg
Though it sounds like a concept—a compilation of Serge Gainsgourg songs performed by female artists—it beggars the question: Did Gainsbourg ever write for men? “Beauties and the Beast” might have been a better title but Vamps et vampire is pretty good, and however familiar these tunes are it’s great to have them all in one place. What’s surprising given the usual aridity of French pop is the variety, from Brigitte Bardot’s minimalist, almost punk ditty “Harley Davidson” to Francoise Hardy’s epigrammatically pop “Comment te dire adieu,” a song by Americans Arnold Goland and Jack Gold that Hardy asked Gainsbourg to write a French lyric for. The fact that it sounds nothing like an American pop song is a testament to Gainsbourg’s power of transformation—and Mike Vickers’ sympathetic arrangement. The real gold may be the two songs by Juliette Greco, a singer Gainsbourg actually felt inferior to.
Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
-Suzanne Vega (Cooking Vinyl/Beat)
Having gotten everything out of her system with four volumes of her rerecorded collected works, Vega releases her first collection of new songs in seven years, and if it doesn’t sound exactly like a new leaf—or new card, given the tarot concept of the title—it certainly sounds refreshed. The sound is fuller than it’s been since the late 90s. There’s even background female vocalists, as if Vega were trying to recede further back to the 70s singer-songwriter model critics mistakenly tied her to back in the 80s. Some of the songs, like the catchy “I Never Wear White,” come on a bit too strong given Vega’s lightweight vocal style, which isn’t desperate enough for some of these lyrics. And while she made her name with piercing observations, she makes her best impression with a folky ethnic style that favors the ethereal.
This is not what I expected—nu soul singer Aloe Blacc fronting a frantically strummed acoustic guitar in a fit of gospel fervor. Swedish producer Tim Bergling, Avicii to his fans, tacks on a pumping keyboard that has nothing to do with the the song but accomplishes its mission, which is to move a mass of bodies in the same direction. Avicii’s aesthetic is familiar enough, but by fore-fronting acoustic instruments that carry as much weight as the synths and drum machines he accomplishes what conventional producers do with conventional singers and brings out the best of a song rather than its boogie potential. “Hey Brother” features country standby Dan Tyminski and Adam Lambert lends his glam bombast to the Nile Rodgers-assisted “Lay Me Down,” but don’t think the album has something for everyone. The CD booklet eschews credits, citing only Bergling’s career milestones. It really is all about the producer.
Give the People What They Want
-Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (Daptone/P-Vine)
As the standard bearer of classic 60s soul in the new millennium Sharon Jones, who is old enough to remember firsthand the music she adores, has to contend with the revivalist label even if she approaches her music as fresh and up-to-the-minute. It mostly has to do with the moment soul inhabited back in the day, and the way it morphed into so many different forms of R&B. Give the People… doesn’t reinvent the wheel, which is both its pleasure and its predicament. More beholden to Philly than to the Southern sound of past Dap-Kings records, the urban vibe cuts closer to Jones’ foreceful personality and politically minded intentions. You give the people what they want because “People Don’t Get What They Deserve.” Me, I deserve great, greasy soul music when I demand it, and I’m glad Jones has survived long enough to make it new again.
Inside Llewyn Davis
-Original Soundtrack (Warner)
Though some of these songs from the Coen Brothers’ reimagined version of the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene are traditional and some were written by actual habitues of that scene, they come across as reinventions, songs from a parallel folk scene, so to speak. Assisted by producer T-Bone Burnett and modern folkies like Marcus Mumford and Justin Timberlake (!), star Oscar Isaac brings a sly actor’s calculation to the mordant drama of a different era. And when the songs are expressly written as sendups to that scene, like the Coen Brothers-penned “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with its premature comment on space travel, you know everyone involved means to take the piss out of a hallowed convention. More irreverent than the O Brother soundtrack, this one isn’t going to win any Grammys, but it’s more fun than anything this side of a Phil Ochs bootleg.
That tour with David Byrne did a number on Annie Clark. Her hair is now as white as his. Trauma is the theme of the opener, the honking music like traffic that’s backed up into your living room. Clark’s songs have always trod a fine line between the ecstatic and the resigned, but she’s never sounded this confidently sure of the end. On “Huey Newton,” a Steely Dan pastiche set to a martial beat, Clark attempts to investigate her loneliness and comes up with reasons not to be cheerful, even as the music soars and coalesces in a starburst of abandon. Clark’s meticulous arrangements are the center of her appeal, but here she revels in pure sensation regardless of the various instruments’ proximity to one another. As controlling as she’s ever been, she has learned how to make it sound spontaneous. It’s worth the gray hair.
Speak a Little Louder
-Diane Birch (S-Curve/Warner)
Kate Bush’s influence over the female singer-songwriters who emerged in the 90s was subtle but obvious, evidenced mainly in the density of ideas and the daringness of the arrangements. Diane Birch’s debt to Bush is more primal. Her voice has that same wandering-the-moors wildness, her sentiments bordering on the unhinged, but deep down she’s as committed to the conventional pop-rock song as Stevie Nicks. Her complex call-and-response on the almost stentorian “Lighthouse” from her sophomore effort obviates the song’s lack of a real hook, though she tries desperately to locate one. And when all else fails, there always 70s soul tropes to fall back on, as in the Betty Wright-assisted “Pretty in Pain,” and Birch’s reliance on producer Homer Steinweiss to make the songs as big in effect as Birch’s feelings are in singing them is honored with the best reverb money can buy.