Here are the album reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
-Taylor Swift (Big Machine/Universal)
Girls With Guitars
As Taylor Swift’s career arc has bent toward pop the requisite show of confidence on her part has manifested as an aggressive sense of entitlement, which is perfectly expressed in the opening cut of her self-proclaimed first “official” pop album. “Welcome to New York” releases her from Nashville’s grip, but unlike other top shelf artists who have practically registered to vote in the Big Apple by dint of song, Swift makes it plain she’s already arrived: the “welcome” is not for herself, but for her listeners. “The lights are so bright,” she exclaims to what sounds to me like a West Coast beat, “but they never blind me.” In other words, she understands everything, and the titular conceit of trying to make this album sound like something that was released the year she was born lends it more conceptual cachet than it warrants, since Max Martin produced most of the album and co-wrote half the cuts, so the concept is basically the state of pop 2014 and, considering the number of units 1989 has shifted in the past month, it’s a concept you can count on. It’s Taylor’s world. We just live in it, and whatever your opinion of her country songs, which to me were as informed by emo as by bluegrass, they conveyed a distinct sensibility, albeit one best appreciated by 16-year-old girls. The dance pop of “Shake It Off” and “How You Get the Girl” speak to a wider base, but even before the album was released Taylor had the widest base of any singer in the world. And while locating Taylor amidst the pummeling beats and towering, glassy arrangements isn’t hard, she doesn’t exert as much presence as she once did, and I’m not sure if her aim in turning into the biggest pop star in the world was to become one with the aural zeitgeist. Nevertheless, she’s nothing if not her own person, and one wonders how much she could have accomplished with her talent in an earlier, less enlightened age. The anthology Girls With Guitars takes an historical anomaly, all-female pop bands who emerged during the great group rush of the 60s, and tries to make it a thesis. It doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t—these women deserve better than to be thought of as novelties—but it sure makes for stimulating listening. In truth, very few of these acts qualify as “girls with guitars.” Most are vocal groups whose (male) managers picked their songs and supervised the recordings, but in the spirit of the time they were encouraged to rock out and the results are good enough to make you wish they had shown more initiative on their own; like the 2 of Clubs, a Cincinnati duo who had a minor regional hit in 1966 with a song by Petula Clark that they modified into what could be called the prototype of Midwestern punk. You heard it here first.
-Johnny Marr (Warner)
Few guitarists are as immediately identifiable with a certain popular sound as the ex-Smiths axe man is with the glammy jangle that characterized Britpop in the late 80s and 90s, and Marr’s entire post-Smiths career has been an effort to try and reclaim that sound from all the people who commandeered it. On his newest solo album, he seems to have given up. Though the style of the playing and the songwriting is definitely his, the feeling is wholly generic, like someone who just happened to stumble on the Smiths’ sound by chance. Less beholden sonically to his old idols Joy Division (despite two songs that copy JD titles) than to the Cribs, a younger, scrappier outfit he joined for one tour and album, Playland splits so many differences that it can’t gain any traction on the listener’s faculties. It’s not uninspired, just pleasantly forgettable.
-T.I. (Grand Hustle/Sony)
Clifford Harris has spent the better part of the last decade struggling to keep up in a rap game he once owned. It’s a common enough dilemma for any veteran pop artist, but especially mortifying for MCs. Having moved his imprint from Warner to Sony, he seems revivified, and for the first time in years gives as good as he gets with his roster of high-profile guests. Pharrell continues to assert his position as the most important person in pop with four production jobs that provide T.I. with his best beats since King, especially on “G Shit,” an actual song in which T.I. gets to show off his Snoop impersonation to excellent comic effect, thus pointing up another welcome change. Ever since he abandoned gangsta out of necessity, he’s found a way of making fun of past life decisions without disavowing them.
Michael A Grammar
Named after a Broadcast song, this new shoegaze outfit from Brighton via Manchester distinguishes itself with vocals more than instrumentation, which is dominated by ringing guitar arpeggios and lots of elaborate cymbal work. The singing alternates between gruff, masculine assertiveness and dreamy incomprehensibility, which makes for an interesting and unusual tension, especially for a shoegaze group as single-mindedly into mid-tempos as this one is. Built for swaying rather than stepping, the songs work their way into your spinal cord without resorting to the kind of prettified gambits that most like-minded bands feel is an obligation when you make your guitar playing as much about effects as anything else. “All Night, Afloat” advances their mission statement with an almost belligerent resilience, defying the “gorgeous” cliche. So I’m not sure what to make of the funk workout, “Suzanna”: non sequitur or willful provocation?
Having absorbed techno as a teen the way 70s youths absorbed R&B or soul, Chris Clark at 35 has already established a career as a producer of prodigiously populist electronic music, and it warrants mentioning that he saved his own name as an album title for this, his seventh. The record makes a more concerted play for your attention than any of the previous six, with dry, contrasty textures and a mix of trebly keyboards and crackly percussion. And while there are no distinct melodies to make a case for song structure, the tracks are catchy despite their somewhat ominous tone. Clark is clearly a fan of the dramatic school of electronica, in which all elements, while not necessarily telling a story, try to put the listener in a very specific state of mind. In my situation, it was unease confounded by a sense of excited anticipation.
-Les Sins (Company/Hostess)
Most people consider Chaz Bundick’s main gig, Toro y Moi, a dance act, but he apparently doesn’t, since this “side project” is being put forward as a more rhythmically straightforward endeavor. The real difference is in the voices. Bundick’s singing here is highly processed, and elsewhere he avails himself of rapped or sung samples. But if Les Sins works more readily as club music, it still retains an air of contrived intellectual fussiness. “Toy” alternates groans and sighs with drifting atmospherics that defy the redundant beats usually required when dancing. And since it also lacks the melodic rigor of his TYM work, it feels more like an art project; which isn’t to say it’s indulgent or amateurish, only not as arresting. The exception is “Why,” a disco tune featuring singer Nate Salman. You really sit up when it pops out of the speakers.
…Honor Is All We Know
By far the most reliably doctrinnaire of the third-wave American punk bands, Rancid long ago reached a point where success compromised their radical dialectic, and yet they showed they could still deliver the transgressive goods with power and humor (Indestructible). Their newest delivers the power and humor in good measure, but it also sounds like a rush job, the product of a sudden realization that they hadn’t put out an album in more than five years. The anthemic appeal of songs like “Raise Your Fist” and “Collision Course” are compromised by sentiments that betray a lack of new ideas, and while the old ideas are good enough, as demonstrated by “Evil’s My Friend,” they don’t seem to be as inspiring as they used to be. The band’s hardcore fans will certainly want to see these songs in concert, but otherwise they feel like something that simply needed to be done.
The producer-artist—meaning pros that MCs and R&B singers hire to realize their musical thoughts but who also release thoughts of their own—is expected to create a signature sound. This Venezuelan has worked on a number of heavyweight projects lately, and his debut solo joint doesn’t sound like any of them. In fact, it’s difficult to discern a pattern from one cut to the next, except maybe a penchant for unruly rhythms. His tone is mostly brittle and harsh, trebly to the edge of annoying, but there is a musical cohesion at work. During the title track the melody lines stumble, fall, and then pick themselves up, only to stumble and fall again. It’s an odd, contradictory methodology, and it holds throughout the album. Whether or not it makes for compelling listening depends on your capacity to readjust expectations on the fly.
“Good girls do bad things sometimes,” sings LA singer-songwriter Meiko on her third album in her typically narcotized vocal style, the kind of singing that teeters on the edge of incoherence and thus has to be brought up significantly in the mix. Meiko’s confessional self-deprecations and intimacies of possible romantic misdemeanors don’t square with her sly, smiley attitude, but that can be a turn-on for certain listeners. Producer Jimmy Messer manages to confound the potential appeal with a continuous onrush of electronic effects in an attempt to darken the proceedings, but the music and sentiments rarely live up to the intrigue promised in the titles (“Deep Sweat,” “Go to Hell”), and when Meiko builds up a head of steam she reveals a serious inability to swing. She was made for piano arpeggios and guitar plucks, not clattering drum machines and processors.
The Inevitable End
-Royksopp (Dog Triumph/Beat)
The Norwegian production duo of Torbjorn Brundtland and Svein Berge are supposedly getting out of the long-player game with this release, which probably says more about the music business than it does about their personal format predilections. Albums are only for critics and boomers (who are often one and the same), and Royksopp’s metier has always been the dance single, anyway, which explains why their last job was a collaboration with Swedish club maven Robyn, a release that sounded long even for an EP, which would seem to indicate Royksopp is right to stick to tracks. Some have already compared The Inevitable End to Daft Punk, a group who, despite their enormous success, seems to be going in the opposite direction, toward grander statements. Though the cuts here chug and gallop winningly, they don’t pull you in over the long haul. It’s an album of equally interchangeable experiences.
Born, raised, and schooled on the American West Coast, this singer-songwriter in the Donny Hathaway mold has attracted more attention in the UK, where his debut album was released first. Though Lawson’s chops as a singer, pianist, and tunesmith are formidable, this sort of jazz-inflected R&B reached its real flowering in the 90s during the acid jazz boom, which never took off stateside despite the fact that it was directly influenced by urban 70s soul music. Like Hathaway, Lawson sings around his melodies, but unlike Hathaway those melodies are barely noticeable in the first place, and each song ends up being mostly a strenuous exercise in conveying feeling. And since Lawson lacks the gospel edge that his heroes had, those feelings don’t go as deep as they might. Live, he’s supposed to be a whirlwind, which is easy to understand. Hathaway’s best album was the one he recorded in concert.
Different Every Time
-Robert Wyatt (Domino/Hostess)
Singing drummers are the oxymorons of pop: They don’t make sense but several are superstars (Phil Collins) and a few considered sublime (Levon Helm). As a member of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt proved an exception to several stereotypes, probably because that’s what self-styled art rockers are supposed to do, and his subsequent solo career, summed up in curious form on this 2-disc set, was a constant endeavor to keep listeners guessing. One disc surveys Wyatt’s work as dedicated artist, while the other looks at his guest stints. What’s weird about the collection is that it doesn’t do justice to Wyatt’s reputation as a pop polymath, a singer-songwriter who could create left-field tunes that worked as earworms. Instead it focuses on Wyatt’s eclecticism, his facility with a variety of forms, including jazz, and his sense of drama and humor, which has always been generous.
-Leonard Cohen (Sony)
Though not as prolific as Neil Young, who, after all, is a decade younger, Leonard Cohen has proven to be a dedicated workhorse in old age, ostensibly out of necessity—he was cheated out of his life savings about 15 years ago—but that doesn’t explain the brio in the product. Too old to care about genres, he allows the country corn that lingered beneath the surface of his art songs to float to the top, and the decision makes for a lightness that combines winningly with his usual wry pronouncements on love and life. And as long as the record company is paying for it, he’ll hire those extraneous musicians and backup singers, anything to make his croak of a baritone more appealing, which is all the more important for a man who isn’t afraid to sing about his mortality. Moreover, he dares you to sing along.