Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on March 25.
-Real Estate (Domino/Hostess)
The promises made by independent rock labels since the 80s have shifted subtly but continuously. In the beginning the pledge was obvious: honesty and clarity of intent, or whatever it was you couldn’t expect from major labels. Punk’s candor eventually loosened its grip, and though indie rock as a genre means less than it used to, it still stands for something, and Real Estate, a guitar band from New Jersey, represents that “something” as faithfully as any other artist at the moment. Open-hearted but emotionally cautious, the group’s sound is bright, relaxing, finely structured, and simple without being reductionist. The crisp, late summer mood of “Had to Hear” from their newest album is welcoming even without the lyrics, which describes the “landscape” where singer Martin Courtney “comes from.” Given that it’s New Jersey you might think he’s being chauvinistic, or deluded, but a sense of place always accompanies music that’s warm on the ears, and with thosee major-7th chords, Mat Mondanile’s shimmering leads, and the steady, relaxed tempos, the first response is to search the vicinity for a grassy backyard and a chaise lounge. Much of the credit should go to producer Tom Schick who does away with the reverb that made past Real Estate albums sound cold and mannered. The band seems to be in closer proximity on songs like “Crime” and “Navigator,” and the melancholy that was always present in their music is more affecting. Call it the certainty of uncertainty, the conviction that life holds surprises, not all of them pleasant ones. If Real Estate were punks, they’d rail against the darkness, but they’re not. They’d just as soon sit back and see what happens. San Cisco, a quartet from Australia, is making their debut on Sony, so the indie credo wouldn’t seem to apply, but that’s only because Sony owns RCA, which has a deal with Fat Possum. And there’s something similarly cautious about their garage pop, even if San Cisco’s musical m.o. is much livelier than Real Estate’s. Chalk it up to youth, since SC is barely out of high school, even if their outlook is spryer and more sophisticated than most bands their age. Since almost every new white indie outfit right now sounds like either Vampire Weekend or Arctic Monkeys, you’ll be combing your memory for the sources of their hooks, but they come tumbling out in such profusion you won’t have time. Every member, even the drummer, apparently, doubles on keyboards, so there’s more to play with here than Real Estate’s stately configuration, an element that can push the artifice too far, as on the opener “Beach,” which has a canned quality to it. And while Jordi Davieson may sing about “common misconceptions” and “failed missions” he’s got the sort of mellifluous tenor that betrays confidence in all his abilities. It’s the promise of further accomplishments, the kind that major labels expect and, in fact, depend on.
Since last we heard from the estimable Taureg guitar collective, their native Mali was almost overrun by militant Islamists who would have effectively banned the kind of music Tinariwen plays. It matters little that the band was in exile, but in any case Emmaar was recorded in a different desert than the Sahara: the Mojave. The change of venue doesn’t alter their approach or overall sound. The songs retain that swirling momentum, but there are more of them this time and they last a bit longer, as if the relative freedom of the American recording studio allowed them to explore every notion that pops into their heads. There are surprises, and not just those supplied by guests Saul Williams, Matt Sweeney, or Josh Klinghoffer. Percussionist Ag Ayad pushes the guitars ceaselessly, adding real propulsion to music that previously stayed in one place.
Love, Marriage & Divorce
-Toni Braxton & Babyface (Motown/Universal)
The D-word rarely comes up in pop music, though God knows enough singers know the experience first-hand, including Toni Braxton and Babyface, who have been musical partners since the early 90s, though, as far as I know, not romantic ones. The heartbreak they explore together on this odd concept album was experienced separately, and the contrasts in attitudes are striking. Babyface is contrite and resigned, professing that while his lover may no longer be his, she will “own my heart, forever and ever and ever.” Braxton, on the other hand, isn’t having any of it. “Just because your money’s strong don’t mean you can do the things you do.” Narratively, the album is too diffuse, as if these two were separating because they didn’t listen to each other. Musically, it’s of a piece, quiet storm craftsmanship of the very best sort. At least they agree on one thing.
It takes gall to title your debut after the most celebrated island on the planet, even if it’s your home. Per their name, these four young New Yorkers assay caustic cool, and if their classic rock pretensions seem distressingly close to the Strokes’, they make good on their pastiche with a fresh melodic twist on demimonde life. However, if you open a song with “here come the cops” you better follow it up with something other than trite observations about cab drivers and condo-dwellers. They even incorporate actual street sounds that only succeed in making points better than the ones they try to put across in song. Despite the overuse of synthesizers the music is fun and punky, but the sentiments are lazy, predicated on the belief that New Yorkers will always have more exciting lives than you could ever imagine; in other words, songs for losers.
Lou Adler: A Musical History
Though he was more influential as a manager of people like the Mamas & the Papas, Jan & Dean, and Carole King, Lou Adler’s public rep was as the producer of these artists, and given his background as a songwriter (“Only Sixteen”) he knew a hit single when he heard it. He also understood where the 60s music scene was headed and invested wisely, discovering Scott McKenzie and then staging and recording the Monterey Pop Festival for posterity. Naturally, this collection of Adler productions favors the artists he represented, but most of the filler proves that Adler was less interested in innovation that in pursuing hits that were better suited for somebody else (“Alley Oop,” Merry Clayton’s own version of “Gimme Shelter”). Also, no-brainers like “Eve of Destruction” show that he knew how to turn a total turkey into a million seller.
Having never settled on a characteristic sound or style, the funky throb of “Mask Maker,” which opens Liars’ newest album, seems like yet another left turn on a musical journey that has all the milestones of experimental exploration. Having abandoned guitars by this point, the overriding sense of Mess is a band that absorbed just enough Krautrock during its sojourn in Berlin to make them BMOCs back in Los Angeles, which may be why Angus Andrew sounds so much like Jim Morrison these days. Though the tracks are programmed to form one continuous listening experience, they stand alone as distinctive entities within which the group shows off what it’s learned all these years: catchy industrial dance music on “Vox Tuned D.E.D.,” brain-frying New Wave on “Mess on a Mission.” The point is, you can like it without having any opinion about their career. How refreshing.
Here and Nowhere Else
-Cloud Nothings (Carpark/Hostess)
On previous Cloud Nothings albums, Dylan Baldi had a lot to express but didn’t know how to do it, circumscribing his lyrical ideas with music that only approximated how he felt. There is nothing tentative about Here and Nowhere Else. Every song breaks out of the gate at a frantic clip and just gets faster. There are no epic guitar workouts, no cautious weighing of dynamic effects. Even the one song that goes past the four-and-a-half minute mark, “Pattern Walks,” has something definite in mind; or seems to. Whatever effect Baldi’s new purposefulness has had on his musical attack, it’s rendered his singing nearly incomprehensible, which may be the point. The purpose is sheer sensation, and if the impression is of something that Baldi needed to get out of his system, it’s probably something you need to get out of yours, as well.
War Room Stories
One of the prime conceits of so-called indie attitude is that a “band” is an ideal entity that doesn’t stress one member at the expense of another, though anyone who listens to music with any discernment will know this is impossible to pull off. Still, Breton, from London, comes pretty close. Though the vocals have a distinctive working-class British quality, they’re still chorally recorded, and the music itself favors arranging and production over composition and playing. The collective approach comes across most appealingly on “Envy,” which exploits hip-hop conventions only to break through them. Rhythmically rich, the group’s songs defy dance floor acceptance by constantly leaning in and out of the beat, but do so without sacrificing hooks and emotion, both of which the anonymous members supply with abandon—and individually. The secret to being in a good indie group is enjoying your own special role.
-The Fray (Epic/Sony)
Comfortably embedded in the modern rock establishment with a sound as grand as a Big Mac on a ten-year-old’s birthday, this Denver foursome boosted its cred on its last album by hiring Brendan O’Brien. This time they go even bolder with Stuart Price, who made The Killers even more slamming than they already were. Isaac Slade sings as if a ten-ton boulder were sitting on his chest and he’s loving every minute of it, and the group itself approaches music-making as if it were a marathon, or maybe a drinking contest. When they hold back the beat on “Hold My Hand” you fear for their blood pressure and wonder how people could ever compare them to the easy-going Coldplay. Must be those keyboard arpeggios, which Price punches up whenever a song needs a meatier sense of melancholy. The Fray wants you to know those scars were earned.
-Sean Paul (Atlantic/Warner)
As a pop genre dancehall is something of an accident, an outcrop of reggae seeded by club culture, so if Sean Paul always sounds in exile from Kingston, he’s simply following the money. On his latest he drifts closer to home, cooling it on the EDM that characterized his last record, and while he is more inspired by the dirty mouth of guest 2 Chainz than the beatastic reggae of guest Damian Marley, he still sounds like a dancehall king. He achieves a measure of velocity on “Pornstar,” but it sounds like a stunt he no longer has a lot of interest in, and leaves the heavy lifting to vocalist Nyla. It’s understandable that an artist of Sean Paul’s earning power might feel he had won the right to fall back on his talents, but if it weren’t for the reggae touches you might mistake this for an Avicii collection recorded in Jamaica.
-Ariana Grande (Republic/Universal)
With the exception of Miley Cyrus’s latest album, Ariana Grande’s long-awaited debut knocks every other young white pop diva’s recent work out of the water, and it should considering how much time and resources went into it. Grande has been a Nickolodeon star for several years now and her handlers slowly accrued a roster of R&B producers and writers, including Babyface, Brenda Russell, and Mika, to give her the send-off she and her impressively trained voice deserve. If the overall product lacks distinction it has to do with the fact that all these people seem to be working for a construct rather than an artist. The bright-eyed pep of “Baby I” and the top ten hit “The Way” are inseparable from their generic videos, which sell Grande as a natural who still isn’t corrupted by fame. I’m a sucker for well-made pop, but that’s hard to buy
-Wild Beasts (Domino/Hostess)
As this well-regarded UK electro-R&B group has become lusher they’ve lost much of the nervous tension that made their debut so startling. Though Hayden Thorpe still wields a desperately passionate falsetto, Tom Flemming sports a deep baritone that Waylon Jennings wouldn’t have scoffed at, giving the record a more grounded masculinity that plays off the slinky instrumental sensuality in interesting ways. Less interesting are the monotonous tempos and lack of dynamic variety. It’s as if the pursuit of beauty focused their capabilities on a single aesthetic they can never quite achieve, so they just keep trying. The album basically hits its peak on track #2, “Nature Boy,” which provides the template of multiple synth washes and syncopations that dominate the rest of the record. Thorpe and Flemming can still craft piercingly affecting melodies, but their mysterious midnight lover act is getting tedious.
-Katy B (Sony)
Katy Brien is the missing link between UK club culture and the pure-pop-for-now-kids epitomized by New Direction, which will only sound like a backhanded compliment to anyone who hasn’t listened to New Direction. Her second album is more expansive that current pop tends to get, even if it adheres to the thumping principles of house music, which undergirds everything dance-oriented in England. There’s no mistaking this is adult music, and while that has always had a chilling effect on mainstream pop acceptance as far back as the Coasters, Katy still comes across as the diva, especially with those synth patterns soaring around her. Most listeners will equate “adult” with the surfeit of ballads on Little Red, but it has more to do with attitude. When you talk down to your fan base and that fan base is still mostly teenage, you can’t sound like anything else.