Here are the album reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on October 25.
-Aphex Twin (Warp/Beat)
The Physical World
-Death From Above 1979 (Last Gang/Victor)
Richard James may be the most emblematic musician in the history of techno. His reputation for innovation has as much to do with his crafty sense of self-image as it does with his technique, whether musical or electronic. Since his 90s heyday as Aphex Twin, he’s resurfaced occasionally, usually under a new moniker, to throw out something completely unexpected and not always comprehensible, a gambit that seemed to have more to do with keeping followers off-balance than anything else. It’s thus surprising that his first collection of actually new material under the AT name in more than a decade-and-a-half sounds very much like his best-loved stuff, only better, because rather than split the difference between bonkers pop parodies and neo-classical stumpers he presents 12 tracks of finely calibrated music that, while not exactly qualifying as songs, have enough structure and melodic sense to appeal directly to the heart. Given that the titles are elaborate techno-inspired nonsense, it’s obvious James didn’t want to give too much of the game away, but when you get down to it this is what techno always promised but rarely delivered. Since James was never much of a club maven, there’s little here that will appeal to the IDM crowd, but its “intelligence” is undeniable. Using equipment that sounds more 90s than 00s, he limits his palette to familiar forms and creates textures through juxtaposition and isolation. It’s an album that is definitely arranged in that all the note placements feel deliberate in relationship to one another. The result is a collection of cuts each of which entertain on their own while coalescing into an integrated whole. And even when the music becomes “difficult” it rarely strains the imagination. As the saying goes, it’s hard to make it all seem so easy. Toronto’s Death From Above 1979 hasn’t taken as long to release their latest album—their previous one, which happened to be their debut, came out in 2004—but since they don’t have the cachet James enjoys it feels like forever. Made up of drummer-vocalist Sebastian Grainger and bassist/keyboardist Jesse F. Keeler, the duo broke up for a number of years before reforming in 2011. The band’s touch point, as heralded by the title of their debut, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, was the uncontrollable id, a theme made aural with a harsh, ear-splitting combination of metal sentiment and industrial noise, but melodic all the same, which is why they were, for a brief period, the hottest live act on the underground circuit. The Physical World doesn’t so much take up where the previous album left off as repeat the formula with a little more humility. There’s a greater effort to be conventionally enjoyable while maintaining the caustic volume levels. The riffs are as muscular as they’ve ever been but the pair don’t resort to as many spontaneous bursts of discomfort as they once did. As with James, maturity has made them more amenable to entertaining.
Give My Love to London
-Marianne Faithfull (P-Vine)
It’s interesting that the title song to Marianne Faithfull’s new album was co-written by Steve Earle, an American country rock singer-songwriter who now happens to live in London. Earle is an ex-pat writing about his adopted home, while Faithfull is writing about a place she once fled. The mood is fatalistic in a comical Brechtian way, what with its reference to “Pirate Jenny,” a song she once made her own. With her nicotine-scarred voice and air of European dissipation Faithfull has become a unique pop symbol whose image often outstrips her performance, but not here. Whether the material is original or someone else’s, the melancholy is fraught with anger and disappointment, not just at London’s expense but at the way the world, which promised so much when she was a budding chanteuse, has ended up. These are real art songs: Drama dressed up for the end.
Plowing Into the Field of Love
When this Danish punk band released its first album their average age was 18-and-a-half, which is the perfect time for a punk group, since it indicates the players have not yet given in to allure of “art” and just want to get on with the hard-fast-loud. But they were no Ramones, or even Buzzcocks. All their songs sounded like good ideas snatched on the fly and nailed on the run. On their third album they’ve finally entered their art phase and found their groove. The amazingly assured “Stay” opens in 3/4 time and quickly accelerates into something passionate and mysterious, but no less punk. Adding pianos, horns, even mandolin to the mix, and, more significantly, extending the lengths of their songs to more than three minutes, they retain the spirit of punk but make something new of it. They’ve actually figured out what they’re doing.
Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Generally considered the greatest hookmeister of the 90s, albeit on the strength of one-and-a-half albums, Rivers Cuomo has maintained a superstar career on as much bad will over his failure to rescale his highest peaks as good will for a handful of iconic guitar rock songs. The curdled bitterness that spices Weezer’s ninth album is an expression of both reactions. Lyrics continually reference past moments in the band’s checkered life while the music is some of the catchiest that Cuomo’s written since the dawn of the millennium, which makes Everything as weird an animal as the one that stalks the cover. Weezer hasn’t evolved a microsecond, and Cuomo’s refusal to leave the past behind is conspicuous, especially to those of us who appreciated the “blue” album without actually liking it a whole lot. The difference now is that he can’t claim he’s naive any more.
-Gerard Way (Reprise/Warner)
My Chemical Romance’s demise was a big surprise to everyone, and not just the band’s fans. Though it was once common for rock groups at the height of their popularity to call it quits, these days you take your chances. Leader Gerard Way doesn’t waste time in launching his solo career, and with his first album seems intent on distinguishing himself from his former group’s prog-emo bluster. As an American, he’s always demonstrated a penchant for arch British rock in the Bowie vein, and on songs like “Get the Gang Together” and “Millions” evokes the swagger of 90s Britpop with just enough individuality to confuse the matter of whether he’s ripping off Stone Roses or Blur. Since neither of those bands was as huge Stateside as they were in their native land, Way gets props for freshness. Or maybe he’ll end up selling records for somebody else.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has earned to right to indulge his whims, and some will certainly call this concept double album, a collaboration with his teenage son, Spencer, that addresses a serious illness suffered by a member of their family, a whim. But for those only casually acquainted with Wilco’s widely varied output, this will likely feel intensely personal and wholly involving. Though the elder Tweedy writes all the songs, it’s Spencer who makes the bigger impression performance-wise, since he handles all the percussion with an aggressive style that gives his father’s classic rock formulas a deeper rhythmic edge. Despite the subject matter, the mood is sunnier than anything Jeff has done since Summerteeth, which may be the point. Always an emotional singer, Jeff seems determined not to fall into maudlin platitudes about the human spirit. Occasionally the songs are tedious, but they’re never self-consciously sad.
-The Bilinda Butchers (Fastcut)
Since it’s based on the diary of a woman who drowned herself in the Sumida River in 1864, listeners will expect Japanese allusions, either lyrical or musical, on this San Francisco dream pop band’s first full-length album, but the purely Japanese elements—bits of the diary narrated by one of the band’s Japanese friends in English—have an incidental quality that doesn’t feel necessarily Japanese, which is fine. Whatever inspiration the band got from the diary feels at one with their layered, drifting sound, which can either be light (“Tanka”) or incredibly dense (“Shadow Beat”), though either way the singing tends to be muted and respectful of the group’s namesake. In other words, it’s literal-minded dream pop, deliberate in execution, hazy in effect, and designed to be played very loud. It’s also a bit contradictory. The peppiest cut is called “The Lovers’ Suicide.”
-Scott Walker + Sunn O))) (4AD/Hostess)
No matter how many times you hear his records, nothing quite prepares you for the opening of a new Scott Walker track, and “Brando,” the first song on his not particularly hotly anticipated collaboration with art metal monsters Sunn O))), is no exception. Walker’s semi-operatic tenor is literally in your face from the first note, and for what it’s worth the band seems uniquely attuned to his weirdness, matching with equal menace and a potent drone every flight of fantasy Walker comes up with. If the doominess becomes wearing over the course of the album it has less to do with the group’s patented oppressiveness than with Walker’s penchant for long-form art song. There are only five cuts, and despite the startling intro “Brando,” the shortest at 8:44, doesn’t actually go anywhere, instead repeating the same three structural ideas over its entire length. Interminable.
Though the British haven’t been remiss in providing their own contributions to the dirty-drums-and-guitar genre that has been surprisingly resilient for the past decade-plus, those contributions didn’t cleave as resolutely to the blues as their American counterparts. Royal Blood, two kids from Brighton championed by the Arctic Monkeys, filled that need more than amply and were rewarded not only with a number one debut album but a Mercury Prize nomination. Granted, lead singer Mike Kerr plays bass, not guitar, making him a better matchup with Lightning Bolt, but he’s nothing without his array of effects pedals and so any Jack White comparisons can be entertained. And the pair produce an exciting, grinding rock sound that nevertheless shows up their lack of world experience and, more significantly, meager store of song ideas. Obviously, the market for this sort of thing in the UK is more desperate than you’d think.
Jack Antonoff gets his kicks as a member of the anthemic pop group fun., though he probably makes even more money writing songs for Sara Bareilles and Taylor Swift. In this semi-solo project, he teams up with members of a band he used to front back in his salad days and indulges an obsession with 80s new wave pop, not to mention settle the kind of personal scores that seem to have been bugging him since high school. Antonoff is too much of a professional not to see the pitfalls in this plan and he sucessfully realizes a full collection of pop songs that’s even more fun than the band that gave him a purpose in life. Shifting deftly from slow jams to rollicking R&B to choral-electro freestyles (with vocal help from Grimes, no less), the record never stumbles over its ambitions as it satisfyingly scratches that nostalgic itch.
-OK Go (Victor)
This frivolous indie funk outfit tends to attract more attention for things that have less to do with actual music-making. The new video for their single, “I Won’t Let You Down,” shot here in Japan, expands their reputation as one of the most inventive visualizers in pop, thus, once again, distracting the listener from the song itself, which is catchy enough without challenging anyone to actually run out on the dance floor (though it might make you want to grab an umbrella and twirl it). The band’s light touch should be an advantage, but it tends to highlight the lack of any original thoughts, other than those supplied by their inventive producer Dave Fridmann, who understands that group who lives and dies by the pop hook better have enought of them to sustain a full album. So while the enjoyment isn’t an illusion, it’s more hard won than it needs to be.
Talk to Strangers
-Fiona Bevan (P-Vine)
Multi-instrumentalist Fiona Bevan is another singer-songwriter who entered the fray via the latter half of her hyphenate title, being most famous for a tune she wrote for One Direction. Unlike Bleachers, mentioned above, however, Bevan’s solo debut sounds nothing like the stuff she penned for others. Highly literate and jazzy, her songs make the most of a quirky vocal style that tends to get compared to Erykah Badu and Joanna Newsom by people who can’t really tell the difference, though she can handle the funk (“The Machine”) as ably as the former and the opaque mystery (“Slo Mo Tiger Glo”) as weirdly as the latter. Since the instrumentation is spare and the arrangements built for maximum portability, the tracks practically float by on their own cushion of rarefied air. The songs administer a cumulative shot of intelligence with each sharp hook.
Art Official Age
Many people think it’s ironic that Prince is back on Warners after so many years of publicly spewing bile toward his old label. The market has a way of setting you straight, and after two decades of releasing underperforming records through other labels and on his own, he returns to the fold, and with his old catalogue to boot. If he sounds as rejuvenated as a man in his mid-fifties could sound, it has to be said that Prince has been recycling himself for so long that it’s easy to mistake dedicated craft for freshness. And while the crankiness of middle age has obviously settled into his bones, he seems to be having more fun with the idea than he’s had with any other idea since the early 90s. Getting down, literally and figuratively, to make a serious work of entertainment seems to suit him more than ever.