Here are the album reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
-Little Dragon (Because/Warner)
Since pop and, especially, rock don’t exclusively belong to youth any more, the kids have to do something to distinguish their musical sensibilities from that of condescending elders, and over the years the preferred mode of delivery has been a cheaper sound. Some call it lo-fi, but that implies limited resources, and everybody has access to Pro Tools (or whatever the current software is) now. What youth wants to convey is the experience of listening to and playing music under the challenging circumstances of lowered expectations: crappy speakers (or earbuds), the verve of accomplishment set against still developing skills. Alvvays, a group from Toronto via Nova Scotia, embodies this attitude in much the same way that the C86 bands of Britain did when they appropriated early 60s pop as a means of cutting through the sophisticated bullshit offered up by mid-80s synth-pop acts. There’s a directness to their pop that transcends the cloudy sonics. Molly Rankin sports a lazy, care-free vocal style that constrasts with the fuzzy guitar tone in pleasing, humorous ways. Whether she’s undressing a fellow commuter in her mind or insufficiently lamenting the death of a lover there’s real personality: a young person owning up to the limitations of her cohort. The flatness of the musical effect does not make the songs any less catchy or moving; and, in any case, if you turn it up to clubland volumes you get what you need. The longing on “Archie, Marry Me” has less to do with Rankin’s singing than with the soaring lead guitar, which barely breaks out of the surrounding din and feels all the punchier for it. When the band settles down, the production approach simply makes them sound muddy, far away. Youth has a right to be loud, so don’t be shy; which may explain why Yukimi Nagano opens the fourth album by her group Little Dragon with a slow jam. The Swedish indie R&B quartet has had plenty of time to ponder their place in the world and Nabuma Rubberband is what used to be called a “mature work,” meaning thoughtful, insular, oblivious to commercial considerations. The kids in Alvvays might interpret that as being boring, as well, and if Nagano has nothing on Janet Jackson in terms of hooks, she often makes for a much more compelling vocalist. Still, the album reeks of experimentalism: game show interludes, synthesizer freestyles, even the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. In other words, it sounds like the major label debut it tries to be, but without the hits that major labels usually insist on. Nagano’s unique voice has always been the band’s central appeal, but their playful lyricism and left field soul moves gave them an edge over similarly purposed acts from Northern Europe. Nabuma Rubberband is an album made by a band who has been listening to the competition rather than Prince. It’s no fun getting old, but only fogies will blame you for sucking up to your juniors.
No Fools, No Fun
-Puss N Boots (Blue Note/Universal)
Norah Jones seems to be making more one-off albums with pseudo-country acts than records of her own. For sure, this is more of a collaborative effort than Little Willies, but it doesn’t sound that much different: Americana for lapsed jazzbos. Since the vibe is relaxed and indulgent (half the songs are well-known covers), no one will mistake this for something important, but a good portion was also recorded live, which makes you think it was rushed into production. The laid-back feeling extends to the performances, which barely get a rhythm going and cruise on the quality of the three-part harmonies. The version of “Down By the River” is hardly threatening, though their take on Uncle Tupelo’s “Jesus, Etc.” is funnier than the original. What comes through is a trio of professionals showing what professionalism is all about, and that’s enjoyable only up to a point.
Redeemer of Souls
-Judas Priest (Sony)
Though fans bemoan the loss of founding guitarist K.K. Downing and likely find his replacement, Richie Faulkner, weak brew, the change seems to have revivified the august metal band’s approach to songwriting and production. The tracks are leaner, Rob Halford’s vocals get to the point, and none of the playing upstages the hooks themselves. Whether or not you consider this a return to basics will depend on how steeped in classic metal cliches you think Priest was back in the day. I always considered tham a decent British hard rock band, more in the tradition of Purple than Zeppelin. The sop to hellfire spirituality in the lyrics and visual imagery scan as headbanger bait, but for the most part the music is meat-and-potatoes virtuoso guitar rock with a bit more attention paid to stentorian effects. Besides, metal doesn’t try to be punchy if it doesn’t have to.
-Grant Nicholas (Popping Candy/Victor)
It’s not surprising that on his first ever solo album the Feeder front man abandons the grungey tendencies of his main gig. Nicholas’s songs have always betrayed a poppy, soft-hearted demeanor, mainly in the sweetness of their melodies, and by keeping most of the arrangements on Yorktown Heights acoustic he reveals his sentimental hand outright. Everything strums along melancholically, with Nicholas’s smooth, processed vocals trading in sensitive but mostly meaningless bromides (“it’s worn you out/so hold your head high/above the waves”) that focus the plaintiveness of the titles (“Isolation,” “Time Stood Still,” “Hitori”). Feeder songs always sounded like would-be anthems, and these have the same bouyant quality except that their effect is more of a balm than a stimulant. You might find your mind wandering as the third or fourth gently agreeable tune washes over you, rolling down the hill and disappearing into the sea.
-FKA Twigs (Young Turks/Hostess)
The deliberate unreal quality of this London-based singer may prompt unprepared listeners to overlook her gift for a well-turned chorus and a subtle facility with the kind of breathy effusions most artists of her ilk only resort to when desperate. For Twigs, it’s all about that ecstatic catch in her voice, the moment when feeling overcomes sexual reluctance. But it’s a slight device on which to hang a musical identity, and Twigs is fortunate in that her production team knows when she needs help and when she can stand on her own. The force of their trip-hop beats is never overwhelming but nevertheless substantial, and she turns the four-minute moan-a-thon, “Two Weeks,” into something approaching a hit single with hooks that keep on grabbing. But while it’s something that gains your attention in isolation, a whole album may be asking too much. I promise not to call it R&B.
Tied to a Star
-J Mascis (Sub Pop/Traffic)
As the constipated voice of Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis sounded intimidated by his own loud guitar effusions, and the feeling doesn’t change when he switches to acoustic instruments. The ringing tones that result when you strum up a storm can just as easily produce distortion in the mix, and that pinched drawl seems even more pained in contrast. It may explain why the vocals are kept so low beneath the guitars on his new album. The lyrical Neil Young quality of his electric lead guitar lines exude a pleasing delicacy when played acoustically, even on “Wide Awake,” which is quiet and yet played at a breakneck tempo, as if he couldn’t help himself. Mascis relegates the electric rhythm guitar on “Stumble” to a background buzz, as if he were accompanying a noisy neighbor through his apartment building walls. Maybe he doesn’t expect anyone to hear this stuff.
-Tre Mission (Ninja Tune/Beat)
Born in Toronto to a Trinidadian mother and Jamaican father, Tre Mission’s approach to rap was necessarily informed by English styles rather than American ones, though his diction is forthrightly Canadian. Spitting so fiercely he can barely articulate his consonants, Tre obviously worships at the altar of Dizzee Rascal, and his thoughts scatter like so many spilled marbles as he makes his way through a verse. You’re thankful when the chorus arrives and the sampled female vocalist spells him for a bit. Though his tracks are short they contain multitudes, and it’s sometimes difficult to board a train of thought, but he definitely resents people who aren’t straight with him, especially people of the opposite sex who aren’t straight with him, like a woman named Jessica, who obviously made a mess of his head that has yet to be straightened out. Come to think of it, real life is not very coherent.
-The Orwells (Atlantic/Warner)
The irreverence this Chicago garage rock quintet parades like a banner throughout their major label debut seems calculated to impress hipsters who wouldn’t normally countenance youngsters who make it so big so soon. There’s a sour flavor for every taste, so to speak: anti-rock star farce, insufferable suburban cretinism, macho sexism a la mode, all scored to crunchy dual guitars and a back beat you can’t lose it. Mario Cuomo’s bluesy caterwauling on “The Righteous One” makes him a contender in the Dan Auerbach legatee sweepstakes, but the two lead singles feel mired in a mistaken regard for late 60s hard rock: Blue Cheer as a model of decorum. The sound is so thoughtfully messy you wonder why they needed three big name producers, but that’s the sort of thing people mistrust about major label debuts. Sometimes hipsters are right.
-The Acid (Infectious/Hostess)
The name of this electronica-DJ-producer supergroup suggests psychedelia but owes more to basic chemistry. The music that Adam Freeland, Steve Nalepa, and Ry Cuming make actively tries your patience with what could be best described as in-your-face quiet dread, like someone whispering really loud directly into your ears. Cuming’s druggy vocals reference Thom Yorke at his most removed, which isn’t to say they’re not moving. If the music seems to seep out of some black abyss, it also pulls you back into it, and the record, with its one-word descriptive titles, is as immersive as Yorke’s even if it isn’t half as pleasurable. The lack of overt rhythms and a stubborn refusal to match recognizable lyrical feelings with music that actually expresses feeling will make this a chore for most listeners, which probably makes it a success from The Acid’s point of view.
-Wunder Wunder (Dovecote/P-Vine)
Australians relocated to Los Angeles, Aaron Shanahan and Benjamin Plant know their sunshine, and like eskimos with snow they seem to have a limitless aural vocabulary to describe the sentiments of summertime. If too many of these terms were coined in the 60s, that should at least gain them attention in their adopted land. The vocals are sweetly nondescript and the stuffed arrangements reliant on keyboards rather than guitars, so the 60s line only goes so far. It’s basically Elephant 6 without the acerbic sense of the absurd. It also doesn’t sound like a band, but like two guys messing around in a studio, which isn’t to say it’s not accomplished and catchy, only that it lacks the depth it strives for. If this stuff really had been released in the 60s, it wouldn’t have survived into the 21st century.
It’s fortuitous that Pixie Lott’s third album is self-titled, since it’s the first one formally released in Japan. Though signed to Virgin in the UK and to Interscope in the US, originally she was supposed to drop her Japan debut on Sony, but I never saw it. Consequently, she comes more than fully formed to an audience that usually likes their female pop stars as girlish as her name implies, but there’s a brassy soul-centered power to her hip-hoppy songs that may very well carry them over the heads of her intended audience. The opening cut, “Nasty,” is a short, almost brutally efficient slice of dance pop, and she doesn’t collapse under the weight of its heavy beats. Even the Cypress Hill semi-cover, “Kill a Man,” comes across as more Motowny than jiggy and she pulls it off with spirit and wit.
-Jenny Lewis (Warner)
Since taking a breather from the great American rock band Rilo Kiley, former child actor Jenny Lewis has kept her air of stolid professionalism even as she looks around for a style to call her own. Steering left of RK’s MOR West Coast rock she seemed stuck in the Neko Case rut of not trying to sound as alt-country as her circumstances would indicate. In that regard, 2008’s Acid Tongue remains highly listenable if somewhat tentative in execution. The Voyager also announces itself as a study in musical half-measures, but dramatically it’s the most assured thing Lewis has done on her own, a function not so much of musicianship but rather the singer-songwriter’s more confident command on her personal story. Lewis has always been an appealing performer with a great sense of what her audience is looking for, but now they have a piece of her.
In this so-called post-racial age, no one is going to point out the irony of Jack White “passing on the torch” for post-millennial blues, as Allmusic.com put it, to a young black singer-guitarist from Florida, especially one who sounds more like Anthony Followill than Robert Cray. Nervous and rootsy in execution, his debut’s thin sonics could be mistaken for something more primal than what we’ve come to expect from all these white garage blues duos, and often the songs sound like sketches, fleeting remembrances of swampy tunes Booker might have heard as a child. Touches like the smokey organ on the pumping “Chippewa” actually make more of an aesthetic impression than Booker’s knotty, distorted leads, which turn redundant over the course of 45 minutes. Maybe because White had something to prove, he understood better than Booker does now how to exploit limits. Oh, to be young and impulsive again.