Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
What Is This Heart?
-How To Dress Well (Weird World/Hostess)
In My World
Though Tom Krell’s evolution as an established in-his-own-head R&B singer-songwriter has taken years, it’s difficult to listen to his latest album and not wonder what he thinks of Frank Ocean. No matter how you look at the genre, Ocean owns this peculiar and peculiarly popular new take on soulful romantic effusion, and even if you hand Krell props for his vocal skills you can’t get Ocean’s voice out of your head as you listen to him. If there’s a distinction that becomes apparent with repeated listenings it’s the way Rodaidh McDonald’s production adds a fuller musical clarity to Krell’s songs, something most conventional R&B, even Ocean’s, doesn’t deliver this consistently. The stuttering rhythms and throbbing undertow of “What You Wanted” adds shape to Krell’s typically melody-free verses. And if What Is This Heart? doesn’t stick in the gut as tenaciously as Channel Orange does, it asserts itself more readily as an album in that its appeal becomes more apparent with each subsequent song. By the time you get to “Precious Love,” a delicate and utterly lovely pop song that lingers tortuously on the edge of falsetto ecstasy, you’ll likely have forgotten all of Krell’s more obvious influences. If Ocean had done this song he would have used more genuine instruments, but Krell is obviously selling this collection on his singing, not his production or even his songwriting, and, pardon the stereotyping, but he sounds mighty fine for a white guy. If this doesn’t boost him into the big time nothing will. Matthew David McQueen, on the other hand, while equally obsessed with the slower-metered funk of Prince as it applies to contemporary sex-you-up singers, doesn’t seem particularly interested in the mainstream. If anything, he means to subvert it with his glitchy beats and slightly sarcastic drawl. His fulsome psychedelic touches make him a more original record-maker than How To Dress Well, though, by the same token, a less appealing one. The title cut of his new album would be a perfect match for original-era Stylistics if it weren’t so jagged and hyper, and elsewhere, as on the slightly near eastern “Artforms,” he dabbles in more caucasian-sounding pop that actually benefits from his spacy ministrations, so if he’s gonna mess with the funk, he should at least leave in what makes the style danceable. The freaky touches demand attention that could be better purposed toward enjoyment, which may sound like philistinism, but the forms he’s altering were developed to bring pleasure, so any revisions should at least take that into consideration. Otherwise, they’re just art projects. In an earlier era, In My World would have been called a “drug album,” a description that would have sold its rewards to the kind of people who could appreciate them best. It’s not at all certain that people who like R&B, even the hipster contingent, will get much entertainment value out of this.
-First Aid Kit (Sony)
It’s not surprising that a pair of very young sisters from Sweden whose chosen style is 70s folk-rock would lean on cliches—without experience you often have to rely on others’—but Johanna and Klara Soderberg have been professionals since they were in middle school, and their music is as canny as anything out of Scandinavia. What makes the biggest impression is not so much the “keep on keeping ons” but the almost corny delivery. The sisters’ Midwestern hippie dialect sounds like something old and borrowed, but it’s wholly original, a put-on that slyly proves their sincerity. The effect is polished further by Mike Mogis’s production, which has enough clear references to fill an entire Jimmy Webb seminar, or maybe an advanced course in acoustic guitar fills. It isn’t just as if you’ve heard it all before, but as if you adored it in a previous life.
Once More ‘Round the Sun
This Atlanta foursome was hardly the first metal outfit to structure their output on mystical narrative themes, but they were the best, at least in the early 00s. Of course, their stories of monster whales and wizards destroying worlds would have meant little to nothing without their estimable riffage talents, but now that they’re making albums the conventional way they stand or fall on the songs, which are good but not as good as those riffs, between which vocalist Troy Sanders struggles to come up with something memorable and guitarist Brent Hinds simply shows off his knowledge of 70s-80s hard rock lore. Though the sound is as big as ever, it lacks the monumental purposefulness of the band’s material when it was about things that actually were bigger than them, regardless of how silly it seemed on paper. They were the last metal band you’d expect to explain to you how hard they rock.
-Candi Staton (P-Vine)
Like many first generation southern soul stars Candi Staton was already a successful gospel vocalist when she started singing about cheating men and impure thoughts, and when you think of the original sound that came out of Muscle Shoals you’re really thinking of her. Since the mid-80s, however, she’s returned to full-on gospel, and not just as a musical choice. (She and her husband have their own ministry) This mostly secular collection retains the Fame Studio funk instrumental simplicity in service to personable love songs with a touch of social observation. Staton stands by her man, not just because he’s a fine person, but because the world is such a confusing place that she needs a rock to keep her on the ground. But if Staton’s commitment to the music and her love is unimpeachable, her passions seem muted, as if comfort came with its own contradictions.
Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions
-Jaco Pastorius (Omnivore/MSI)
Jaco Pastorius’s eponymous solo debut is considered a jazz classic more for its timbre than its playing. Pastorius’s ringing bass tone wasn’t widely appreciated at first despite his amazing technique, and eventually it would come to dominate certain kinds of serious pop in the 70s—middle period Joni Mitchell was practically in thrall to it. This collection of demos, recorded two years before the debut, mostly shows Jaco without that ringing tone. It’s a collection of show-offy spectacles, and while he receives sterling accompaniment by the likes of drummer Bob Economou and pianist Alex Darqui, they are mainly present to provide Jaco with ideas. These are definitely works in progress, improvisational exercises that often fly off the handle, but they also show Jaco’s technique at its rawest and least compromised by style. It’s probably the purest jazz record he ever made, even if he didn’t actually “make” it.
Way To Be
-Amanda Brecker (Area Azzurra/Universal)
As the daughter of superstar session trumpeter Randy Brecker and Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias, Amanda Brecker’s music comes with its own set of preconceptions: jazzy, soft-bodied, abstract in feeling, and very Southern Californian despite its nods to bossa nova. That said, she isn’t a female Michael Franks, and not just because she isn’t as insufferably jokey. There’s momentum to her soft rock songs and while I’m not a big fan of Jesse Harris, his tasteful production pushes her to the edge of her limited vocal abilities. “Free” starts out wan and ends up on the frontier of rock, a spirited ode to the laid back charms of Chris Rea. Even on the dreamy Portuguese numbers, her profile is sharper than you’d expect, leading the beat to unexpected places. With her pedigree you expect her musicianship to be accomplished, and even if she doesn’t do anything rash with it she draws you in.
-Shabazz Palaces (Sub Pop/Traffic)
Few albums revivified hip-hop as much as Palaeer Lazaro’s and Tendai Maraire’s 2011 sleeper Black Up, a chilling but not chill document from a deep place whose mesmerizing sonics were as compelling as the pointed poetry. The followup is even more unsettling, even as it eschews commentary for verbal playfulness, profound beats for ethereal harmonies. Lazaro’s reedy raps return to the conversational mode he favored back in the 90s when he was in Digable Planets, but he can turn theatrical when the need arises, as he does on the circular “They Come in Gold,” where he picks words for their sounds and makes up his own definitions. Since the first album, Maraire has been outed as being more than the Palaces’ percussionist, and his tracks are miniatures of layered, overlapping melodies that allow plenty of room for Lazaro’s roaming imagination. Hip-hop never sounded so patient, or intense.
-Ed Sheeran (Atlantic/Warner)
The conventional wisdom about sensitive accoustic singer-songwriters like Jason Mraz and Ed Sheeran is that their occasional awkward stabs at rapping make them and their material more interesting because it makes them sound so earnest, but since Sheeran gains the assistance of Pharrell on two cuts on his second album the hip-hop elements have become fully integrated. And Sheeran’s hesitant, halting tenor is as calculated as a Callas aria. He opens not with a bang, but with a literal whimper on “One,” the kind of kick-me-when-I’m-down lament that makes the girls a little teary-eyed, so by the time we get to the rocking, dance-along single, “Sing,” three songs in, we’ve been swept up by his shaggy sensitivity and marvel at how slick and natural he is with an R&B tune. If he didn’t rap at this point you’d wonder what was wrong with him.
Brian Eno is often mistaken for a minimalist, probably because more people knew about his famous 1970s ambient series than actually heard it. That the former Roxy Music keyboardist was making background music struck many as a pretentious art move. But when Eno sang on his excellent series of solo albums from the same era, he was maximalist to a fault, a complex songwriter and producer of careful textures. This collaboration with Underworld’s Karl Hyde (their second) isn’t a return to that sort of complexity, but it does have singing that’s rich and satisfying, and while the ideas aren’t laid out like conventional songs, their pleasures are the same you’d get from good songs: catchy African-derived hooks that make you want to hear them again. Even the 9-minute droning opener compounds its appeal with layered, harmonic vocal overdubs that sound as easy as a Neil Diamond chorus.
-Parquet Courts (Rough Trade/Hostess)
For these Texas-to-Brooklyn transplants, impatience is a virtue, both stylistically and schematically. Having released two very busy albums and one brain-numbing EP in the course of a little over 12 months, it’s obvious that Parquet Courts means to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, and while the Pavement comparisons are apt they don’t do justice to the group’s clever use of spontaneity, the way Andrew Savage’s lazy vocal patterns reveal more than the witty lyrics do, and how the changeable rhythms keep you guessing at their preferred mode of operation. Even when they do straightforward punk you get the feeling it’s because they’re anxious to explore the next idea that even as they play is gestating in their collective consciousness. The hooks are so disposable you fear they’ll run out by the end of the 45-minute album, but they don’t.They just get more irresistible.
Now + 4Eva
-Architecture in Helsinki (Casual Workout/P-Vine)
This formidable Australian indie pop collective, reduced over the years by attrition from eight to five members, tries out a more discofied approach on their latest album, risking comparisons to compatriot Kylie Minogue that they can’t possibly win. By front-loading Jackie DeShannon’s classic “When You Walk In the Room” as a synth-propelled club track they broadcast their limitations, since the song loses all its native charm when cut to the angular contours of the dance floor. The original material is similarly hampered by structural limitations that don’t always make sense: the constricted pitch control, the automatic beats, the vocals processed for minimal human relatedness. When the writing dovetails with the concept, as on the mirror-ball jam “I Might Survive,” they deliver on whatever promise you think they’ve made, but as the tentativeness of the title indicates, maybe they aren’t sure they can pull it off either. But thanks for trying.
-Manic Street Preachers (Sony)
Enduring by sheer dint of perseverance in a musical field—Britrock—that always feels overcrowded with has-beens, the Manics have managed to stay relevant to their fans by never taking them for granted. The new album’s turn toward European groove and krautrock should alienate most any rock aficionado who cares about the group’s dedication to the huge guitar anthem, but since Nicky Wire is nothing if not obsessive, even when he tries out disco it’s the kind of throbbing, insistent dance music that you would expect had Joy Division, another band who lost its human focus early on, survived into middle age. Except that Wire doesn’t moan. He rages as he always has, the Manics’ only stylistic constant over a career of sudden right and left turns. It’s nice to have an arena rock band who understands the obligations of the form, no matter what type of music they play.
-Lana Del Rey (Polydor/Universal)
If you want to believe that the self-created pop star Lana Del Rey sees herself as a creature out of sync with her times, you assume that she’s been sent forward from the 70s…or maybe the 60s. Actually, that synth sound is more like the 80s, right? Obviously, it’s a chump’s game, made even chumpier on her second album by producer Dan Auerbach, whose own relationship to pre-CD pop music is often just as artificial, but at least there’s consistency to Del Rey’s feigned nostalgia. Most of the material is pitched at a ballad tempo, which suits her languorous affect more pleasingly than some of the singles from her first album, so if you need a reference point for a throwback, think Roy Orbison minus the opera. Some people find her totally original, but in her day Patsy Cline, a much better conceptualist, could be seen as downright transgressive in a certain light.