Here are the album reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on September 25.
-Ariana Grande (Republic/Universal)
-Alexandra Stan (Victor)
A lot of people seem to care that former-kid-star-turned-pop-diva-upstart Ariana Grande is now more popular in Japan than Mariah Carey, and I say good for her. Not that I have anything against Mimi, but the kind of mass appeal pop that both women trade in shouldn’t be monopolized by one manufactured artist for such a long time. And in a real sense, Carey moved on from her Top 40 pop-identified persona a long time ago when she embraced hip-hop wholeheartedly. Grande is going about her evolution much more rapidly. Here she is with only her second album and already she’s jettisoned the idol trappings that made her first few singles teen gold and earned her those Mariah comparisons. An absolute professional in that her chops can’t be discounted the way, say, Britney’s were at the same point in her career, Grande was originally tagged as a ballad singer, but My Everything makes a concerted appeal to the dance market, more exactly a dance market made up of adults. Sure, 90s idol-maker Max Martin is here, but so is Zedd and Cashmere Cat, not to mention guest intrusions from the likes of A$AP Ferg, Big Sean, and Childish Gambino. To say that some of the raps sound incidental and forced doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the tracks they appear on. The guest spots are often redundant. Sean’s gambit on “Best Mistake” only highlights the fact that Grande can do very well without him, and the best songs—the sexy, grooving “Hands On Me” and the trifecta confection (Nicki Minaj & Jessie J) “Bang Bang”—are straight-up vocal showcases whose production complements rather than oversees the performances. What makes the album a pleasure from start to finish is Grande’s confidence in both her skills and her ability to get the party going. Idols rarely convey that without sounding as if they’ve got a gun to their head. Romanian dance diva Alexandra Stan manages to hold her own against the production overkill on her third album, but Eurobeat tends to have different priorities, and as a result Stan’s girlish phrasing has a canned quality thanks to all the processing it’s put through. In terms of bangers, Unlocked is more action-packed than Grande’s album. Romania seems to be a hotbed of dance diva production right now, and Stan, who has already scored a chart hit in the US, represents a sort of new vanguard, but the girlish persona and vocal affectations, while distinctive enough, can’t make up for actual engagement, and there’s a sense here of serving the EDM needs of a market that won’t be denied, which is unfortunate. “Cherry Pop” is the kind of pure confection that made 90s idol pop irresistible, but in that regard the calculation can also backfire. Is “Happy” a half-assed attempt to appeal to the Taylor Swift demographic? Nothing wrong with derivative, but divas gotta stand up for themselves.
-The Drums (Tugboat)
Florida-to-Brooklyn transplants The Drums were one of those buzz bands of the late 00s whose sputtering fame arc seemed to signal a short lifespan, so it’s perhaps no surprise that their third album—and first in three years—sounds nothing like their last one. While the songs maintain the group’s dedication to classic pop song form, they alternate wildly between nervous volatility and lush languor. The effect is less experimental than willfully provocative, since the listener has to readjust with each song. Going from the tender, well-measured “I Hope Time Doesn’t Change Him” to the time signature-twisting “Kiss Me Again” can do a number on your auditory synapses, but patience is rewarded in the long run because the group (now reduced to a duo) makes sure each track has a hook to call its own. They know enough not to spread themselves thin.
-Wiz Khalifa (Atlantic/Warner)
Wiz Khalifa isn’t the first rapper who’s prioritized getting high over sex and making money, but he’s definitely reduced the concept to its essence. Almost all the songs on his third album reference his personal stash and the ways he obtains, rolls, and smokes it. Bottle service and booty are mentioned on the lead single, “We Dem Boyz,” but only as sensory addenda to the spectacle of Wiz losing his equilibrium and chanting in a goofball way. Getting stoned is its own reward and everything else, like making music, is attendant. Since the guy has real skills, as evidenced by the story-telling genius of “House in the Hills,” the sense of lost opportunity is acutely felt whenever the rolling papers come out for the zillionth time. The woozy vibe extends to the beats, which nod along agreeably without working up an appetite. Doesn’t he ever get the munchies?
At Best Cuckold
-Avi Buffalo (Sub Pop/Traffic)
Rock from California will always summon up images of side-parted hairstyles, striped polo shirts, and younger-than-you people strumming guitars on the beach. Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg seems more beholden to this image than most of his contemporary SoCal indie peers, and reports have it that he rarely plays outside the region, as if he were afraid foreigners could never appreciate exactly what it is he is feeling. And it’s “feeling” that characterizes At Best Cuckold, a pretty, tune-tastic collection of heartfelt, mid-tempo rockers sung in the airiest of tenors. In classic Brian Wilson style, Zahner-Isenberg writes almost exclusively about loneliness and need—albeit with more sexual directness—since those melancholy themes go best with his heart-on-the-sleeve expressionism. If the music occasionally turns too far inward, well, that’s the price you pay for having emotions. “These birds seem so fucking free,” he sings tenderly, jealously, dreaming of the Pacific.
Dance pop in the UK has taken a different tack than its continental and American cognates, as proven by the way this singular singer-songwriter’s florid material has been appropriated by club producers. Even before Louisa Rose Allen released her debut album she was featured in any number of EDM hits, most prominently “Clarity” with the German producer Zedd, and even saw her own remix collection. Though her voice doesn’t make much of an impression, her songwriting ably stands up to comparison with similarly symphonic melody-makers like Bat For Lashes or Natasha Bedingfield, even while it gets pushed up against banks of synthesized beats. With her back to this wall, she sounds even more desperate in her longing, but that may be a function of her youth. There’s a palpable effort to hold on to her innocence, which is a tough thing to do in dance pop these days.
Wind on the Water
-Crosby & Nash (Troubadour/MSI)
No boomer-identified band has been more vilified by their juniors than Crosby, Stills, Nash & (to a lesser extent) Young, mainly for their smug idealism and condescending virtuosity. As with all such generational pronouncements, that one has lately been revised, especially in the wake of the recent release of live recordings from the individual members’ most fruitful and emblematic period. This 1975 duo effort came out in the wake of those concerts and may exemplify the group’s familiar sound better than anything since Deja Vu. With an ace team of studio wizards and famous guests who don’t get in the way, the usually arrogant David Crosby and the typically wimpy Graham Nash offer up material that suits their combined strengths as harmony vocalists while canceling out each other’s worst lyrical tendencies. Even the hippy-dippy closing title cut makes its point without also making you gag.
-Perfume Genius (Matador/Hostess)
It’s easy to imagine that a concert by Perfume Genius would be an excruciating affair. Mike Hadreas’s fraught, fragile songs are presented with such intimate concentration it might be difficult to actually keep your eyes on him. Though basically a more literal-minded Antony Hegarty without Hegarty’s vocal peculiarities, Hadreas is determined to convey his pain and fear as directly as possible, but even without the words you can understand just what a trial it is for him to exist. His third album rocks a little more resolutely than previous efforts, and amidst the throbbing bass tones and noodling keybs he sounds like Marc Bolin without the snarl. The arrangements are so skeletal you can hear the wind blowing through them, and the songs sound as if they could collapse at any moment, but don’t worry. Hadreas is only a danger to himself.
-Maroon 5 (Interscope/Universal)
At this point, Maroon 5 seems less like an integrated pop-rock ensemble and more like a production nexus for disparate genre-hoppers. Without a doubt Adam Levine has the pipes to cross-over into whatever musical frontier he wants to explore, but on their actual recordings it’s the guests who make the trip, not him. Thankfully, Wiz Khalifa has not made a return trip this time, but we have uber-producer Max Martin not only lending a hand but acting as executive producer, while Ryan Tedder has co-written the album’s lead single, “Maps.” Though soul remains Levine’s touch point, he’s become so mannered with all this fussy attention that he sounds more like Sting in the throes of an MOR epiphany. The group’s main appeal was always its ability to hit and maintain a groove, but they’ve become such a reliable conduit for other people’s ideas that they barely register as a group.
Year of the Caprese
Disco as a pop form never survived its drubbing at the hands of rockists in the 70s. Though it was defended at the time by responsible critics and has since been validated as a vital genre in and of itself, there’s still something of the ridiculous about it, as if it were born not to be taken seriously. Of all the new retro-electronic acts to emerge in the wake of Daft Punk’s world domination, this Tennessee duo takes disco’s silliness as a given, amply illustrated by titles like “Disco Shit,” “Freaky You, Freaky Me,” and “Strip to This.” Satire this pointed has to be backed up with impeccable music, but Cherub doesn’t seem to know which direction it’s headed. Though the backbeat and electronic veneer place them in the club, the rockish bent of arrangements would get them banned from the DJ booth. Interesting but not potent.
-Cymbals Eat Guitars (Barsuk/P-Vine)
Though the personal project of a guy named Joseph D’Agostino, Cymbals Eat Guitars sounds like a real band, meaning a bunch of individuals who sit around in the rehearsal room and actually contribute ideas and together build a song from the ground up. D’Agostino’s compositions recall the heady days of mid-90s indie rock, when anything was possible and people had the luxury to run with those possibilities. The rhythms are meaty and full, and the melodies dominate arrangements that are often clever and unexpected. Suburban sprawl is the operative theme most of the time, but there’s also a kind of rural soulful aspect to the playing and singing reminiscent of The Wrens, a band that D’Agostino once called his Beatles (both are from New Jersey). For once pastiche wins, since the emotions overcome the urge to name that tune. It’s as original as it gets these days.
Forever for Now
One of those bizzers who was rich with experience and cash before she even released her first major label album, Laura Pergolizzi has been responsible for a number of huge hits for the likes of Rihanna and Christina Aguilera, but her debut sounds nothing like those artists. LP’s willed eccentricities place her on a wide continuum that includes Feist as easily as Patti Smith, but her material is pure pop for sorta now people. Because most of the songs here are collaborations with other top-shelf names there’s a built-in slickness that producer Rob Cavallo buffs to a blinding sheen. LP’s inherent love of drama on big-boned cuts like “Tokyo Sunrise” and “Salvation” proves she’s up to the task of being a full-fledged pop star, but the more intimate material betrays a feeling that she’s probably more comfortable in the shadows. It’s always good to maintain a margin of mystery.
The Violet Flame
Godfathers of the current trend in dance music, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell deserve more than the footnotes they garner in their acolytes’ reviews, though it must be said that they haven’t replicated the sense of abandon that characterized their early 90s run on the British Top Ten. The Violet Flame is the duo’s most propulsive attempt to recapture that spirit, but Clarke is too much of a dilettante to admit as much, and seems more involved in the ballads here. But simplicity is the key, even if the lyrics suffer as a result (“We will walk to the end of time”), and it’s a lot easier to get into this music than that Christmas album they released last year. Bell’s vocals convey the kind of optimism that can get corny fast, but no one goes to the club asking to be brought down.
-The Kooks (Universal)
The Kooks aren’t the first Brit guitar band to look to hip-hop to freshen things up, but considering where they’re coming from in the first place it’s more of stretch. The result of hooking up with producer Inflo is less beholden to rap and R&B than to classic early 80s New Wave in that disco is referenced liberally and creatively. In doing so they recall some of the hedonistic joy that made them contenders to Franz Ferdinand’s dance-rock throne. It also gooses classic guitar rock tracks like “It Was London,” which isn’t as hooky as their best tracks but nevertheless sounds good on a set of small speakers. The Kooks are the masters of the treble beat, a distinction that doesn’t mean as much until it’s actually gone, and when it returns, sometimes you come to the conclusion that you can’t get enough of it.