Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
This Is What I Do
-Boy George (Very Me/Sony)
Kiss Me Once
-Kylie Minogue (Parlophone/Warner)
It’s a given that the older a pop star becomes the greater his or her desire to make music of substance, even if that simply means more substantial fluff. Both Boy George and Kylie Minogue have been around long enough to fall into this category, and the descent of that fall may be deeper for them owing to well-publicized personal challenges over the years. George Alan O’Dowd spent the better part of the last two decades not producing music but rather headlines due to his intemperate drug use and even more intemperate (and sometimes very true) public statements. This Is What I Do is one of those warts-and-all summings-up that doubles as a commercial comeback, and if a lot of people buy it as such it’s because they had something emotionally invested in the singer when he was setting soul music on its ear as the leader of Culture Club. As it stands, the voice is rougher but not unrecognizable, and the affection for 80s club styles and, especially, reggae is undiminished. More to the point, George’s uncompromising nature is advanced as the leitmotif, obvious in the song titles alone: “King of Everything,” “Bigger Than War,” “Live Your Life,” “My God.” The redemption theme is covered in gloriosity by a strident born-again approach that both derides fundamental Christians for daring to question his faith and asking the rest of us why we don’t believe in Him in the first place. His anti-war and pro-environmental stands are welcome if a bit simplistic, but that may just be a function of the music, which is bombastic in an unsettling way, as if George had decided to make up for the tight ensemble sound of his old band with the more flamboyant sonics characteristic of 80s Top 40. But there’s only one Elton John. Kylie’s problems were not of her own making—she’s a cancer survivor—but they were equally obsessed over by the media, and her new album splits the difference between the kind of light, effective dance pop that made her name and big-boned declarations of personal growth and worth. For those of us who always appreciated Kylie’s pop smarts without thinking the contrived cuteness was a necessary component, the show of maturity is welcome though contrived in its own way. The exception is Pharrell Williams’ “I Was Gonna Cancel,” a life-affirming song that, since it was written especially for her, takes into consideration her situation and was clearly composed by a fan who wants the best for her. In other words, it’s catchy and to the point, and a better song than “Get Lucky,” for what that’s worth. The dance numbers are more attractive than the ballads, but still rely on the robotic rhythms and processed vocals that have never hurt Kylie’s reputation as a diva. Craft was never her strong point, so why bother asserting talents she never possessed? Surviving has its own special appeal.
Since I’m not a fan of Bon Iver, his public approval of this Norwegian dream pop group means little to me, and I’m not sure if fans of his solipsistic folk music will find much to like here, but there are cognates in the aural approach, which is all-enveloping, like a thick blanket on a chilly autumn night. Ingrid Havik’s clipped English diction seems meant to draw attention to itself since it’s recorded so starkly against the echoey instrumental component, dominated by shrill keyboards and stentorian drum patterns. Filled with music designed to impress rather than enlighten, Silent Treatment‘s boldness should be off-putting, but it’s so rife with inventive ideas that you dig deeper, below the pretentious themes—there’s a song called “Hiroshima” and one called “Iran”—and the unjudicious production to the tunes themselves, which sound as if they’ve wandered in from a lost Flying Burritto Brothers record.
Bob Dylan in the 80s
Though derided as Dylan’s “wilderness” period, the 1980s were a dry spell for a lot of people who emerged fully formed earlier (or later—those Seattle hard rock groups), and much of Dylan’s worth has always been found in his ubiquity as a writer of other people’s better songs. This collection is populated by current indie darlings, most of whom traffic in roots rock as a matter of faith, so their versions are truer than they ought to be and often more revealing than the originals. If Dylan didn’t distinguish himself in the 80s, it had more to do with the performances than the songs. Hindsight gives Bonnie “Prince” Billy the wherewithal to make “Dark Eyes” truly moving, and “Sweetheart Like You” a real standard in the hands of Craig Finn. Not sure if anyone could do anything with “Wiggle Wiggle,” but Aaron Freeman’s version is definitely funnier.
If Ashanti’s trudge out of the major label zone proves anything, it’s that the rewards of self-direction are not what you expect. After a drippy intro that elaborates on her journey of self-actualization the once-and-future R&B diva offers one of her strongest melodies and most fully realized performances on “Nowhere,” which is almost nostalgic in its determination to revive the kind of pop soul prevalent when Ashanti was a toddler. It’s a one-off that fades as the album progressess from one over-produced slow grind to the next, as if Irv Gotti never left. Guests like Rick Ross and French Montana give votes of confidence to a style we didn’t campaign for when it mucked up her last major label album. This is better, more musically satisfying in the short run, less redundant in the long, but you wonder if she learned anything from her slow commercial decline. “Nowhere” is where it’s at.
-Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia (Plankton)
Adrian Raso is a Canadian guitarist who plays what is popularly known as “gypsy music,” while Fanfare Ciocarlia is a brass ensemble from Romania whose pedigree is beside the point because gypsy is the music they grew up playing. It’s a collaboration fraught with peril, because how could an acoustic jazz guitarist steeped in the legacy of Django hope to compete with a large group of manic wedding party honkers (you’d know what I mean if you’ve ever seen FC’s deliriously bonkers concerts)? Thanks to a few other non sequitur guests—side guitarists John Jorgensen and Rodrigo (of Rodrigo & Gabriela), and Extreme (!) drummer Kevin Figueiredo—as well as sympathetic production from an unnamed Toronto recording studio, FC is at their jolliest without stepping on anybody’s toes or sensibilities. The music swings as resolutely as big band jazz but retains the irreverence of a Roma party in the woods.
Ride or Die
Basically Sleigh Bells with a more specific self-image, Leyla Safai and Ben Pollock get tagged as confrontationalists because of the brittleness of their pinned-out synth-based sound, but Safai’s J-pop idol vocals betray the pair’s real ambition, which is to set transgressive teenage hearts aflame. And if they came up with more songs like the pogo-perfect “Kishi Kasei” they would be the saviors of all that’s cute in punk rock, but there’s only so much crunchy groan and trebly roller disco a music lover can take over the course of a half hour, and, like its title, Ride or Die is overly determined to get you to notice its childish pecadilloes. Even the inordinate song lengths aren’t a real problem, but let’s face it, some of us, no matter how much we appreciate a good bubblegum phrase, just can’t stand the color pink.
-Havana Brown (Island/Universal)
A well-employed DJ who has decided to double the fun by stepping out in front of the decks with her own gold-plated mic, this Aussie phenom has no special vocal skills to boast of, and if she eschews the kind of harsh processing that characterizes Kesha’s dance pop she also lacks Kesha’s forceful personality, if that means anything any more. Trading in the same club-commandeering themes, she calls herself a “warrior” and, at Pitbull’s urging, claims to “run the night.” The bragging is as generic as the canned rhythms and if she seems more in charge of her sound just because she also sings it only goes to show how lazy major labels have become in trying to distinguish one global dance act from the next. Which isn’t to say the tracks don’t rock, only that they seem lost in space when removed from the disco.
As much as I resent the Pixies for doing whatever it was that caused Kim Deal to quit again, she seems happier on her own, and that’s what’s really important, right? Combining several already coolly received EPs, the long-awaited comeback LP sounds surprisingly spry, not so much a return to form but definitely a concerted effort to regain the special brand of energy the band brought to indie rock back in the day. Black Francis, or whatever handle he’s using these days, doesn’t sing with quite the same demented passion, but he hasn’t lost his gift for left-field hooks. What he has lost is the spontaneous urge that made every cackle and dynamic shift sound like the devil’s music. The title track is one of those half-spoken diatribes against hipness, but it doesn’t play as deliciously as “Subbacultcha.” That may just be the years tugging at my sleeve.
-Ruth Koleva (P-Vine)
Bulgarian by birth, bohemian by temperament and record collection, Burbank by training (the Hollywood Pop Academy—is there really such a place?), Ruth Koleva makes soul the contemporary northern European way, with flutes, off-kilter bass notes, choral verses that focus on the musical material rather than the package it comes in. Like a lot of similar-minded artists—Jose James, Flying Lotus—the results can often seem flavorless. “Freak and Fly” never settles into a satisfying groove but instead asserts its rhythmic unconventionality by sacrificing Koleva’s multi-tracked vocals to the beat. “Turn This Around” swirls more than it pulses. It’s a head trip that refuses to make contact with the ground. The wonder of great soul music is the way it connects a singer’s innermost feelings directly to the listener, but there’s an unknowable element to Koleva’s artistry. She never quite comes into focus.
If Chicago’s party trio Krewella has anything over Havana Brown (see above) it’s that their shtick offers more room for idiosyncrasies, something EDM isn’t famous for, or any club music, for that matter. Though they trade in the same rhetoric that drives this kind of pop (“Live For the Night,” “Enjoy the Ride,” “Killin’ It”) they at least try to convey a human element that isn’t derived from purely selfish urges. They can even get moody, as on the collaboration with Patrick Stump and Travis Barker, which is obviously meant to earn them props outside their comfort zone. Of course, the purpose is to generate as many club singles as possible, and if the radio picks any up that’s just gravy, so I shouldn’t underestimate Krewella’s knack for the celebratory phrase or their ability to sound relatively fresh over the course of 70 minutes. That counts as an accomplishment.
Lost In the Dream
-The War On Drugs (Secretly Canadian/Hostess)
There’s a part of me that wants to believe that Adam Granduciel’s entire motivation for being a musician is to imagine what Bob Dylan would sound like if he had chucked the trappings of roots rock without changing his essential writing methodology. That’s a cheap reductionist analysis, I know, but his voice sounds like nothing else, and if Granduciel’s own roots rock vision is clouded by cosmic dust it nevertheless strives for the same homespun honesty, which trusts in the verities of the heart and the promise of the open road. The main difference lies in the approach to performance. Regardless of production technique, Dylan will always fill his epics with words, whereas Granduciel prefers more abstract expressionism—the swirl of an organ or the relentless tattoo of a bass drum. Naturally, they end up in different places, but that’s what being an American artist is all about.
-Skrillex (Big Beat/Warner)
Sonny Moore’s timing couldn’t have been better—or worse, depending on what you think makes for a successful career in pop. He became the most viable producer/performer in dubstep just as the genre flowed into the mainstream, which was inevitable, though it’s impossible to say if Moore timed his defection from metal to coincide. His rising star has had to contend with everyone who has boarded this particular spaceship, which may explain why it’s taken him so long to produce a full-length debut, and now that it’s here you can’t help but wonder why he needs one. Dance music thrives on singles and occasional EPs match the attendant attention spans. Recess is an attempt to move beyond the demands of the club, but the extended length only points up what we know in our hearts, that dubstep is limited and fans’ expectations must be met.
-The Baseball Project (Yep Roc)
Though nobody asked, The Baseball Project, a kind of supergroup containing members of the Minus Five, Dream Syndicate, and R.E.M., makes the case for baseball as being the most rock’n’roll of sports. A power pop outfit in the manner of Big Star, the band couches its pointed tales of giants of the diamond in big, loud arrangements that would stand up as singalongs in a stadium. But the band’s real mission is to propound legends, the foundation of baseball as a cultural pursuit, and it addresses the likes of Lenny Dykstra, Dock Ellis, Luis Tiant, and Dale Murphy with a historian’s attention to detail and an obsessive’s claim to editorial passion. In other words, these guys are invested in these songs not just because they like to rock out, but because the baseball mythos dominates their lives as social participants.