Here are the album reviews I wrote for the July issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
-Jack White (Third Man/Sony)
-The Black Keys (Nonesuch/Warner)
It’s safe to say that classic guitar rock—blues-based, loudly melodic, often distorted—has survived the various challenges to its hegemony over the past three decades and is now more prevalent and vital than ever. If you want to credit Jack White with that development you won’t get an argument from me, though as with all pop music classifications guitar rock tends to withstand artistic pigeonholing. Since dissolving the White Stripes White has become more than a musical force. He’s a cultural lightning rod, the man who says what he means and has the talent and vision to make his pronouncements worthy of attention, regardless of how prickly or narrow-minded thay sound. His second solo album isn’t much different from his first one, only weirder, which makes it all the more interesting since blues rock exhausted most of its potential to surprise by the time Led Zeppelin recorded their fourth album. In fact, the record Lazaretto most resembles, as least tonally and thematically, is Zep’s third. The earnest folk touches are highlights rather than distracting filigree, and when things get bombastic the contrast is all the more thrilling. It’s also unabashedly accomplished. The chops on display revive the once derided image of the blues guitarist as virtuoso, but White makes sure that he’s showing off for a reason. The playful interaction between riffs and lyrics on “The Black Bat Licorice” is hilarious and scintillating. The complaint that the album is over-produced, with lots of incidental aural touches that White wouldn’t have countenanced on a White Stripes record, is off-base, since the whole point of White’s solo career is ambition, another hallmark of classic guitar rock and one everyone seems to have forgotten. But not the Black Keys. In fact, the main problem with the duo’s hotly anticipated followup to the best-selling El Camino is that Dan Auerbach seems to have run out of ideas on which to pin his ambition. This aspect of the group’s public image only serves to highlight their workmanlike approach to rock. Auerbach is no less talented than White, and may be a better singer, but his conception of blues rock sounds more like pastiche than White’s does, and while it was unfair of White to dis the Black Keys publicly for what he saw as them ripping off his style—Jimmy Page is too nice a guy to say the same about White—Auerbach does sound as if he’s still trying to get at something the White Stripes did ten years ago, which was to create an original voice in one of pop’s most overly exploited genres. The Keys do little more here than broaden their sound (“Weight of Love”) and goose their hooks (“Fever”). Auerbach also regresses into meathead male desperation. His obsessions about bad women are a leitmotif, and one that could be mistaken for editorializing rather than a tribute to the blues and soul shouters who once made such obsessions compelling.
Are We There
-Sharon Van Etten (Jagjaguwar/Hostess)
There are several moments on Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album where she tilts precariously above the abyss of overkill. “Trying to remember those turns of events,” she cries swooningly on the cavernously dramatic “Your Love Is Killing Me,” “being led by our own fantasies.” It’s a highly personal statement and impossible to penetrate, but all the musical elements, the towering guitar, the drums looming darkly, the windy rush of keyboards, conspire to drive the emotional truth home. Only PJ Harvey gets away with such a naked show of romantic tension, and Van Etten isn’t half as histrionic. If anything, her folk-rock tunes and hushed singing style hide more than they reveal, but by producing herself for the first time she seems to have hit on a style that matches the color of her unusual ardor. And when she lightens up, she shines like the morning sun.
…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
-The Roots (Def Jam/Universal)
Though probably the most conventionally talented outfit in hip-hop, the Roots have often seemed limited by their own conscientiousness. Questlove’s stated desire to bring rap back to its truth-to-power origins is nowhere more apparent than on the group’s 11th album (the title is derived from a KRS-One line), which also explains its lack of immediate appeal. Jazz, rock, and new R&B mix together comfortably without having to accommodate the kind of hooks that gangstas take for granted. Black Thought has never sounded more engaged or grittier, and his take on other rappers’ signature lines is witty and daring, but there’s a sameness to the tempos and instrumentation that works against the intelligence, as if the musicians weren’t paying close enough attention. It would be too much to call this the first boring Roots album, but it’s certainly the least involving one, musically speaking.
Back to the Shore
This English indie rock group’s appearance at the 2006 Fuji Rock Festival was legendary. A band that had yet to release an album totally captivated a curious crowd and whipped it into a frenzy. Obviously impatient for something to satisfy that impromptu cult, a local record company has fitted out a digital-only set of songs from the group with an old EP and some bonus tracks, but the result is a real album that lives up to the summery promise of the title: eleven tracks of giddy, Farfisa-fueled English pop. Niall Buckler’s adenoidal vocals can do batshit as believably as heartbreak, and the lyrics are appropriately adolescent-yearning (“if you’re in Technicolor/then I’m in black-and-white”), but the group’s secret weapon is keyboardist Tommy B., who is described as being the band’s “touring member,” which would seem to mean he isn’t permanent. Get that guy on contract before it’s too late.
It wouldn’t be obtuse to claim that hip-hop was the savior of so-called intelligent dance music (IDM). The genre, which emerged in the 90s, was mostly moribund by the middle of the 00s until people like Outkast and Kanye cherry picked samples from it for their music. As far as I know, few rappers have utilized Plaid, whose glitchy tracks always held more potential with their accessible melodies and relatively conventional arrangements. Their latest album tries so hard to be accessible that it almost qualifies as supermarket BGM, which is not meant to be derisive. Though there’s little here that’s challenging in the IDM sense, there’s much that is forward-looking. The ability of Andy Turner and Ed Handley to turn pulsing electronic riffs into full-fledged musical narratives has always been impressive, and there’s more here to work with, though I can’t imagine Kanye being able to do much with it.
-clipping. (Sub Pop/Traffic)
Though Death Grips currently holds the reins for avant-garde, provocative hip-hop, this L.A. trio aims to be serious contenders. Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson conjure up some harsh sonics that nevertheless stick to the inner ear, but while rapper Daveed Diggs is game he isn’t always able. He needs to be at least as weird as the production, but instead sounds studied, almost poised. HIs commentary is too prosaic. And since rhythm isn’t a big priority for these guys the rapping lacks meter and flow, which leaves you with the words, none of which are original enough to claim your lasting attention. The odd samples are the most interesting component because of what Snipes and Hutson do to them, but too much of that sort of thing comes across as gimmicky, especially when there’s no dynamic contrasts involved. clipping is great in theory.
-Michael Jackson (Sony)
Michael Jackson’s second posthumous album of unreleased material is shorter than his first, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how good it is. Though it’s obvious these tracks were extensively filled out with production, the basic songs are strong enough to hold up to repeated play, even the one titled “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” which is exactly about what it sounds like it’s about, so no eye-rolling, please. Michael without the earnest attempts at relevance would have simply been Justin Timberlake, who, by the way, does a duet here on the Paul Anka tune “Love Never Felt So Good” that is far from bad. The point is that there’s nothing here that would have advanced Michael’s reputation as the King of Pop but every cut is a worthy addition to the catalogue, which could use some fresh blood. There’s life in the old zombie yet.
Given the way major artists look at their careers, it makes sense stylistically that Coldplay’s latest is more subdued than their last two. The theatrical rock of Viva La Vida and the experimental pop of Mylo Xyloto may have exhausted the band’s capacity for bombast, but in any case it was time to dial things down, which explains the surfeit of impressionistic keyboards and the dreamy production, even on the cut produced by dance maven Avicii. Chris Martin’s tendency to prettify everything thus seems even more artificial–gloss for gloss’s sake. Though songs like “Ink” and the single, “Magic,” have that classic Coldplay list and tug, they don’t make the kind of impression they might if the tempo were nudged up a notch or a few most electric guitars were keyed in. Sometimes the simple things matter more than you know, but Coldplay exists to defy simple.
West Grand Boulevard
-Third Coast Kings (Record Kicks/P-Vine)
There are as many phyla of funk as there are of hip-hop or even soul, and they are mostly identified with region. Though these pros make a point of musically paying homage to Memphis and New Orleans, they mostly show off their Motor City breeding, which favors a clipped, rolling rhythmic component that works more on the shoulders and the feet than on the booty. It’s all in the play between the horns and the guitar. If the album doesn’t provide quite enough in the way of melodic variety, it has dynamic rigor that builds from track to track, and, thanks to the vocals of Sean Ike, genuine personality. Ike’s high-toned, comically credulous delivery spotlights the canned quality of the lyrics, which are either about dancing or getting sex on the sly; two sides of the same coin, so to speak, and common to funk of all species.
Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse
-Mariah Carey (Def Jam/Universal)
As canny as she is talented, Mariah Carey has not lasted this long at the top by underestimating the advantages of the past. Though she has been one of the most forward-looking Top 40 star of the past two decades, she knows when it pays to reconnoiter, and her 13th album splits the difference between the kind of glitchy R&B that’s currently de rigueur and the full-throated gospel pop that made her a star back in the day. Fashioned as the kind of summing up that usually signals the end of a career, the album uses its personal touches, including drawings Carey made as a child and super-personal liner notes, to draw the listener in to places that normally might feel closed off. And she’s sure to get the hubby and the kids involved, too. Nostalgia never sounded so calculated, which is probably as it should be.
Days of Abandon
-The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Octave)
Kip Berman knows how to sell heartache. It isn’t with hushed, halting singing or a mournful keyboard line. It’s with adenoidal gusto and guitars turned up to ten. On the first two Pains albums this strategy came across as lo-fi earnestness, which worked as well as it could, but now everything is crystal clear, the melodic touches as well as the sentiments. Seeking help from like-minded indie blood-pumpers such as Beirut’s Kelly Pratt and A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s Jen Goma, Berman broadens his spectrum of sound while making the songs more conventionally accessible. The pop purity of “Coral and Gold” and “Life After Life” convey their sweet intentions with a bracing toughness, which means you’ll swoon all the more but might still need earplugs. It’s the kind of music that draws you closer. You turn it up because nothing feels better than somebody else’s heartache.
-Eddi Reader (Sony)
Few pop vocalists sound as relaxed as Eddi Reader, even in those rare instances where she shows off her amazing vibrato. People who don’t know her peg her as a trad singer, and while she’s done her fair share of Scots-Irish-Anglo balladry (including a whole album of Robert Burns), she’s always sounded more comfortable with the kind of jazz and folk-rock that demands subtle shadings of color. Musically, Vagabond is all over the map, and Reader’s voice is the only common point of reference, if you don’t count the minimalist, hushed acoustic instrumentation. Sometimes, like on the title cut, the languor can get syrupy. It’s as much a function of the impressionistic lyrics as it is of Reader’s dreamy delivery, but this is sort of album you sing perched on a stool with a glass of white wine at your elbow. Please don’t get too excited.
-Fucked Up (Matador/Hostess)
Any punk band that includes a lyric sheet is probably too full of itself to be considered sufficiently punk, but Fucked Up has never been shy about its desire to push beyond the genre’s self-limiting formalism. The element that signals the Canadian band’s mounting seriousness, however, is lead singer Damian Abraham’s decision to drop the caustic moniker Pink Eye. He still sings in that guttural hardcore rant (thus the lyric sheet), but there’s more emotional nuance to his effusive croak, and while there are no ten-minute epics as on previous albums, the songs are more anthemic and would probably sound better in an arena than in a basement club. “Touch Stone” wouldn’t make a bad U2 song, in fact. As far as what those lyrics say, they seem to have something to do with integrity in the face of success, which is actually pretty punk.