June 2014 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend.

-Lily Allen (Parlophone/Warner)
You envy Lily Allen at your own peril. She’s one of the most interesting pop artists of the new millennium and her record sales match her talent and intelligence. However, these factors have also made her a target of people who dump on pop stars as a matter of course, and since she made her mark on the Internet she is forced to accept this unfortunate aspect as part of the price she pays for fame, which has become her leitmotif. Sheezus is only her third album, and her first since the brilliantly caustic, self-effacing It’s Not Me, It’s You. It isn’t half as self-effacing, but sounds preemptively defensive, both a comment on the emptiness of current pop culture and a kind of smart-alecky attempt to place herself in that context. The fact that the title sounds like the one Kanye gave to his last album will invite comparisons, thus adding another unnecessary burden to the album’s thematic load. If the opening, title track were as catchy as the rest of the collection, its strained overview of what divas have to put up with might resonate further than it does, but it feels more like an obligation than an observation. And while the domestic-life-is-bliss material can be hackneyed and predictable, it’s also charming and lively. Lily’s blessing-and-curse is her inability to step outside herself: there’s nothing here that’s not about her, and while her candor can be refreshing and witty, it can also scan as default solipsism, which gets exhausting over the course of a 70-minute album (the CD version has 5 bonus tracks and the Japanese version 2 more). Greg Kurstin’s co-writing credit guarantees pop rigor, but Lily’s incorporation of R&B forms would seem to indicate she feels she has to keep up with all those other divas. The peril is you don’t take Lily without the personality. You have to put up with it. Colombian hip-shaker Shakira has had a lot of time and experience to figure out her own place in the scheme of things, and while her new self-titled album seems like a reboot, it mainly substantializes a lot of the elements that have succeeded on her most recent English-language records, particularly a strong identification with classic rock. Even her duet with Rihanna, one of the artists Lily disses, has less to do with that singer’s patented style and more to do with Pink’s. And while another co-conspirator, Blake Shelton, is a country star, like most Nashville pretty boys these days “Medicine” shows that he worshipped at the alter of Eagles/Clapton. Even when Shakira offers up something acoustic, it has the hard-driving ring and shimmer of an MTV Unplugged segment with, say, R.E.M. The confidence is in the performance, in the snarl and Latin bite of her delivery. She sings what she means and means what she sings. If only Lily were this naturally confident in her abilities.

-Ben Frost (Mute/Traffic)
It takes dedication for a musician to move from his native land to a strange place simply for the sake of his art, but it’s easy to understand why this Australian electronic composer relocated to Iceland in 2005. Though dense and busy, his noisy compositions have a chilly effect that conjures up empty landscapes of stone and ice. Aurora confounds this feeling to a certain extent with a greater focus on percussion, the result of a long sojourn in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Frost scored an art installation having to do with the deadly conflict in that country, and while the sound of Aurora is more chaotic, the relative brevity of the cuts give the overall recording a structure that draws you in the way a real album normally does. It’s chaos in a closed system, drums struggling to get out of an igloo.

71MU1zJJwPL._AA1400_Diploid Love
-Brody Dalle (Hostess)
Though it might be considered sexist to tie Brody Dalle’s success as a rocker to her male associations, she likely wouldn’t have been noticed as an artist if not for first husband Tim Armstrong, even if she owed more sytlistically to Courtney Love and Joan Jett. All the songs on her first-ever solo record were co-written by second husband Josh Homme, whose Queens of the Stone Age made hard rock as safe for poptimists as any group since Cheap Trick. Consequently, Dalle doesn’t have to temper her growl to sell a horn-driven burner like “Underworld” or a mid-tempo piano-driven ballad like “Carry On.” And if a title like “Meet the Foetus” would seem to indicate her hardcore priorities are in tact, the sub-title, “Oh the Joy” covers the requisite need to vent on the pleasures of motherhood. Who says a rock chick can’t have it all?

71efRsSJsIL._AA1417_In My Soul
-The Robert Cray Band (Provogue/Victor)
As the title indicates, the estimable blues-rocker’s latest exerts a more intense focus on Memphis-identified soul music, front-loading covers by Otis and Isaac Hayes, but offering a full complement of originals that scrape up the greasy rhythms and plaintive fills that made the Stax/Volt sound so rich. Relying resolutely on a new rhythm section hired just for the job, the test is in the vocals, and while Cray has never failed the empathy test he doesn’t have the depth of tone necessary to pull off a sufferer like “Nobody’s Fault Like Mine.” He gets better results on the ballads, where his reedy, smooth tenor benefits from subtle guitar work that weaves effortlessly in and out of his vocal lines. As always, Cray’s groove is faultless. “I Guess I’ll Never Know” could have been sent here from Willie Green’s Hi studios circa 1972 via time machine.

91w1mMI-dZL._AA1401_All I Ever Wanted: The Anthology
-Kirsty MacColl (Salvo/MSI)
Though this isn’t the first collection of the late British singer-songwriter’s work that has been released since her death in 2000, it’s perhaps the first one curated with an ear to her strengths as a singer. Though much of MacColl’s storied wit was in her lyrics, it was the crisp, girlish, and very English cast of her voice that made her records instantly recognizable and wholly distinctive. The voice also explains how she could move from style to style, genre to genre with such facility and never sound out of her depth. Eschewing the B-sides and live cuts that usually offer fans a reason to buy these things, this set concentrates on her main albums but doesn’t obsess over her hits and novelties. It was obviously put together by someone who listened to it all over and over, because every cut compels you to the next one.

-Kelis (Ninja Tune/Beat)
“This is the real thing,” Kelis Rogers croons on the brass-heavy opening track, a reference to a new love but also a comment on what’s at stake when you leave the comforts of major labels for the uncertain vicissitudes of indies. The sessions, which took place at the home of producer David Sitek, were reportedly open-ended affairs, but the record is precise, clearly aimed at the pleasure center. Kelis’s characteristic hoarse vocals sound suited to this kind of funk, which is poppier and, despite the usual purview of Ninja Tune, less synthetic than what she got with the Neptunes. It helps when you have a full-time arranger like Todd Simon on hand to not only handle the horns but co-write the songs. And while I don’t think the culinary theme that runs through the album is meant to be taken literally, the metaphor is apt. This is pretty nourishing for R&B.

-Fennesz (Editions Mego/P-Vine)
Austrian electronic musician Christian Fennesz has the reputation of being an easy listen in a scene famous for uneasy listening. The fact that his compositions contain recognizable melodic elements is enough to make him something of an outcast, and yet he’s embraced fully by his glitch-and-fuzz brethren. It’s not as if he’s the exception that proves the rule, either. His latest record is a return to the sunny sonics of 2001’s Endless Summer, whose titular identification with the Beach Boys’ classic was no accident. Even the non-musical effects are bright and shiny, and the swirly center of the record is filled with major key harmonics that rely on organs and acoustic guitars even when the processing on the surface keeps a lid on full-bore pop effusion. That isn’t to say that these are songs in the conventional sense, but it isn’t difficult to hum along.

-The Royal Concept (Republic/Universal)
The sort of manic, trebly rock that these excitable Swedes play should theoretically sound great on the radio, though it must be pointed out that radio ain’t what it used to be. In the real world, what used to mean “good on the radio” now translates as “popular in Japan,” and it’s telling that their debut was released here first (outside of Sweden, that is), even though one of their songs was already covered on Glee. Though the synths propel the songs over the edge and David Larson’s heavily accented English adds the requisite cute component, the album gains substance with repeated listenings. There’s heft to the melodies and a surplus of rhythmic inventiveness in their dance tunes, so it’s not just one thing after another, which is usually the case with big-in-Japan groups from Europe. In other words, you’re guaranteed to like it today.

-Pharrell Williams (Sony)
While the divas fight among themselves, guys of all sexual proclivities have ceded the industry to Pharrell, who at this point doesn’t need a surname, since he appears on every record in the Top 20 of whatever chart you happen to choose. A solo album is thus not so much an event as it is a redundant gesture, and if “Marilyn Monroe” and “Happy” tickle your ear more effectively than “Blurred Lines” or “Get Lucky” it simply proves the resilience of the formula: a dedicated disco bounce, relaxed vocals goosed on occasion by a burst of falsetto, and enough guests to justify it as product. Anyone wanting the stylized rock weirdness of his N.E.R.D. material is advised to look elsewhere. Pharrell is on a pop R&B roll and no one, not even Justin Timberlake’s harem of past conquests, is going to slow him down.

51Eifg91j9LThe Moon Rang Like a Bell
-Hundred Waters (OWSLA/Traffic)
Yet another American group who seems to have swallowed Sigur Ros’s catalogue whole, Hundred Waters gained more attention than their music probably warranted when they were the first act signed to Skrillex’s new label, and while there’s enough effects on their OWSLA debut (their second album overall) to make them qualify as electronica, the fundamental m.o. is that of a rock group—separate, distinct parts—albeit one that avoids the traps of “personality.” With their floating female vocals and structures that stop-and-go at odd junctures, the songs have a dreamy, fragmentary quality that makes it difficult to follow them internally, and even harder to get an over-arching musical sense. Supposedly, each member contributes what he or she wants without much input for the other three, which sounds right. You get the feeling they have no concept of what an audience is.

61Jqhp0OfGL._AA1425_Everyday Robots
-Damon Albarn (Parlophone/Warner)
Americans never cottoned to Blur because Damon Albarn seemed like a stick-in-the-mud, what will all those grand themes undermining the urge to rock out. It was an unfair assessment, but on his first bona fide solo album, Albarn sounds so deep in his head that you wonder if the music is necessary at all. The instrumental component is sparse, the vocals hushed, the songwriting merely utilitarian. The fact that almost all the cuts are downcast ballads isn’t as much of a turn-off as the dominance of textures. Taking the tongue-in-cheek title of Blur’s 1993 album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, at face value, Albarn mourns an idealized past that the listener can’t picture; which is odd considering how dependent he is on digital technology to get those blasted textures. It’s an album for self-styled depressives, the kind of people who think Bon Iver should remain celibate for his art.

61zNdQqZZdLNikki Nack
-tUnE-yArDs (4AD/Hostess)
Considering how extroverted Merrill Garbus’s approach is, it’s strange that she initially conceived of her music as something for her own amusement. It was only on her second album, the monumentally original and extremely enjoyable whokill, that she incorporated outside musicians, and on her new one she gives more power to her producers. The result is both more conventional and less mannered, but the songs are no less compelling musically, only more subdued. Her unique identification with all things childlike—the initial impulse behind her debut was to entertain a kid she was babysitting—remains in play but it’s become more calculated. Consequently, I miss that ukelele and the spontaneous vocal eruptions that only a person who doesn’t think anyone is listening could produce. Nevertheless, Nikki Nack is still one of the most enjoyable records of 2014, which may say more about the competition than it does about Garbus herself.

-Shonen Knife (P-Vine)
Osaka’s finest shouldn’t be expected to change a thing about their music, especially when you consider the group’s technical limitations. But Naoko Yamano, the only remaining member of the original trio, can do anything she wants at this point. It’s not as if she’s going to scare off possible converts. So why not delve more deeply into classic hard rock and metal, even if it’s the kind that was popular in the mid-70s? The answer is that punk forgives technical limitations and Deep Purple pastiche doesn’t. Hired acolytes Ritsuko Taneda and Emi Morimoto whip up a proper racket, but Yamano’s chops on guitar are generic at best. Moreover, she’s writing the same sort of chipper songs about life’s simple pleasures, which don’t always lend themselves to doomy, minor key power chords. There are odes to cats, green tea, ramen. Even the “robot from hell” sounds adorable.

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