Here are the album reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.
The London Sessions
-Mary J. Blige (Capitol/Universal)
Rock or Bust
Mary J. Blige is one of the more resilient of the superstar R&B singers who emerged in the 90s, and while she’s never sold as many records as Mariah, her career has been more consistent, commercially and creatively. As with many pop artists, her longevity can be explained partly by the story behind the songs. Blige’s image as an emotionally scarred individual who channels her pain through music has never seemed like a stunt. There is something raw about her albums that touches nerves across the board. The music didn’t always justify that love, however, and her last studio album, My Life II, was inert and forced, the kind of self-satisfied collection that signals an artist’s decline, so The London Sessions is a welcome corrective. It’s not just that Mary is getting jiggy with the R&B zeitgeist, but that she’s retooling what makes her special—her personal urgency—in ways that refresh her music. Hot Brit producers like Disclosure add club beats to her songs, but the first three cuts have more to do with traditional pre-80s soul music, something Mary has only referenced in the past. The singing is also different, less elastic by design, more forceful by need; and wittier. She delivers the almost a cappella jazz number “Therapy” with a wink at her own reputation for dramatic self-regard. And the album’s best track, “My Loving,” written by Mary with producers Sam Romans and Rodney Jerkins, revisits her 90s triumphs but with a harder focus on the dance floor. Never a club diva, Mary sounds ready to take her man out for a night on the town, which is proof enough that she’s back in the game. Also back in the game is Australian hard rock dorks AC/DC, whose co-founder Malcolm Young just retired from the group because he’s suffering from dementia. Such news not only points up the absurdity of a band like this still asserting its right to rock, but makes you wonder how much they really want to rock. As it stands, Young’s brother, Angus, is the only original member left, and he’s said publicly he has no intention of stopping now—or ever, for that matter. So you half expect their new album to simply regurgitate the old forms, and it does—winningly. The record’s own resilience has less to do with production or songwriting or playing than it does with the bullet-proof nature of AC/DC’s m.o., which is “play a simple song simply.” It’s the shortest album they’ve ever released, and the concision adds to the power, bringing out the melodies while pushing back on the excess. The only overbearing song, “Dogs of War,” is finished before you know it, and the rest is candy, meaning too much is probably bad for you. Unlike Mary, AC/DC’s longevity has nothing to do with the Angus brothers’ personalities. It’s all about giving the people what they want, and knowing exactly what that is.
My Favourite Faded Fantasy
-Damien Rice (Atlantic/Warner)
For a singer-songwriter as elemental as Irishman Damien Rice, his albums seem unusually verbose. It’s been eight years since his last record, and the new one offers up a measly eight songs, each of which is stretched out beyond the five-minute mark and whatever initial meaning it is designed to impart. Rice’s emotional territory is uncertainty—over love, esteem, identity— and the expansiveness only works to make him seem even less sure of himself, and not necessarily in revealing ways. Producer Rick Rubin does his best to make the songwriter’s characteristic slow burn into something musically compelling with lots of synths and strings, but the overall effect is to bury Rice’s singularly plaintive vocals. And since he only remarks on what’s going on in his mind and not on his environment, his personality become oppressive. In the beginning Rice got by on basics. Now he’s drowning in aural excess.
-Hailu Mergia & the Walias (P-Vine)
Organist Hailu Mergia was for years one of the few Ethiopian musicians anyone knew about, based on a few recordings by his band the Walias that came out on compilations. Last year, a solo recording by Mergia, recorded after he moved to the U.S., became an underground hit and now someone has dug out a full album of Walias material. Released in 1977, Tche Belew was the best of Mergia’s records, featuring a band he’d been working with since the early 70s at night clubs and hotels. It’s even rumored he had a relationship with the Derg regime and played at the palace—until he left in the early 80s to tour abroad and never went back. The style is jazz with a pronounced funky edge in the Maceo Parker style, and while there is no singing on these original compositions, Mergia’s organ is lyrical enough.
-Morgan Fisher (Hayabusa Landings)
Currently Japan-resident British keyboardist Morgan Fisher edited this curiously appealing audio document in 1981 from 51 60-second compositions contributed by a wide array of personalities, both musical and non-, including Andy Partridge, Robert Wyatt, Quentin Crisp, and R.D. Laing. The effect is mostly humorous, but it does qualify as music and some of it is extremely catchy, so much so that you almost wish a few of these people had broken the stated time limit. But that would have spoiled the integrity of the project, because, taken together, these snippets assume a wholeness that is entirely distinct from its component parts—a parade of creative versatility. To make matters more interesting, and even more difficult, the new CD edition comes with a copy of the original liner notes/poster that describes each piece, thus providing hours of fun for the purchaser who owns a decent magnifying glass.
-Ariel Pink (4AD/Hostess)
Ariel Rosenberg has made his indie musical career as much about non-musical self-invention as about songs. As someone who willingly gets on interviewers’ and “decent” people’s bad sides, he invites everyone to approach his material with suspicion, so he must be doing something right to earn such unvarnished praise from the cognoscenti. There are plenty of assholes who make great music and anyone with a good opinion of himself can distinguish what he likes without worrying about ethics. Ariel Pink’s fuzzy AM pop, however, is easily resistible because it feels so insincere. Though Pink is definitely talented, he stretches his ideas so thin they become transparently derivative—the David Bowie track, the Beverly Hills suck-up parody, the dirty Disney jingle. Gimmicks are great as long as they stand up to repeated listenings, but you get Pink’s jokes right away and there’s little reason to hear them again.
A quartet of students who met in the late 2000s in Kyoto, My Letter is well practiced at the art of melodic seduction. Taking cues from East Coast guitar bands like the Feelies and the Wrens, they layer alternately plucked and strummed melody lines over rapid repetitive drum patterns and the occasional wash of keyboards. The effect is instantly propulsive and the extra jolt of distortion lends their tunes an urgency that might be redundant if the songs themselves weren’t so carefully arranged and lead singer Kinugasa didn’t sound so sarcastic all the time. The buzz is that they’re quickly attracting a fan base for their live shows, which, based on said propulsiveness, should be a lot of fun and more thrilling than many like-minded Japanese indie bands, who tend to sacrifice immediacy for compositional cleverness. My Letter isn’t that desperate to be liked.
-Knife Party (Warner)
The two founding members of Perth’s premiere drum’n’bass act, Pendulum, call this EDM throwaway a “side project,” but given that its debut is on a major global label and available in Japan, one can assume they’re in on it full time. I mean, the best cut on Abandon Ship is a five-minute barn burner titled “EDM Trend Machine,” which most experts would never identify as EDM. Otherwise, the m.o. is fairly standard: pumping synth patterns occasionally interrupted by break beats and pseudo-ironic spoken word samples. Knife Party is much more interesting when they slow the beats down a bit and fatten the bass, as on “Boss Mode,” which also contains a pleasingly silly Middle Eastern phrase that tickles the funny bone. It beats the thinner sound that characterizes their conventional disco tracks, which rely on boy singers who fail to convey much in the way of charisma.
Beware any band that NME names the best of the year, especially when that distinction was made in 2011 for a group that wouldn’t release its debut album until 2014. At the time, this Bristol guitar outfit anticipated with a batch of singles the coming revival of Britpop, a genre that was invented by NME in the first place. Towns has all the essentials in the ear of the hallowed Brit music rag: the muddy shoegaze mix, the sublimation of melody in favor of immediacy, and the sneering, actorly vocals. But if their revivalist chops are sharper than most, the intervening three years has dulled their effect. Temples may have been late to the game, but their debut hit earlier and harder, and, compared to this mostly shapeless collection, their debut feels more distinctive. Another caveat by way of hindsight: Beware nostalgists whose point of reference is Shaun Ryder.
-Iggy Azalea (Def Jam/Universal)
If you missed the Iggy juggernaut earlier this year, you’re probably the prime target for this reboot, which reproduces The New Classic but replaces five cuts with five new ones that are not simply remixes of those replaced cuts. So, yeah, it is a ripoff for people who bought the original record and dig Iggy enough to want to hear more, but the difference for those who didn’t isn’t that great, with the idea being that this is more of what the Australian rapper and her dirty south producers had in mind. As for the recent dustup between Iggy and that other, better rapper with the similar name: Iggy gets no points for being pugnacious and she’s wrong to be so defensive, but her “appropriation” isn’t half bad as far as her skills go, and by all accounts her upbringing was as fraught with heartache as Eminem’s.
Don’t Say That
Since we’re still on the Britpop kick and the original movement was at least partly propelled by the made-up rivalry between Oasis and Blur, this Birmingham quartet represents the Blur side of the current revival, what with its affection for more traditional British pop forms and imaginative, hi-fidelity arrangements. Leader Dom Ganderton, apparently, already had a certain amount of experience with this sort of thing, having produced demos for friends before forming his own band. The album is impressively mature in terms of musical ideas, but its main strength is its rambunctious sense of fun, perfectly embodied by a leitmotif suggested in the band’s name. Ganderton comments on everything from dinner to TV to pub crawls with a sly, discerning wit that carries the music and vice versa. In other words, it’s not just habit-forming, it’s good for you, too.
The cover of the phenomenally successful Miami rapper’s newest album better indicates the thrust of the product than does the title. Though Pitbull wants you to think that his music is the sound that makes the world go round, that tuxedo says he knows exactly how to pull the world’s chain. And while his patented blend of dirty south beats and reggaeton fire is deployed with assurance, it’s sparing. The album as a whole sounds as if it were put together by a UN culture conference on booty-shaking. The generic radio dance single, “Fun,” is Chris Brown’s song; Pitbull is just the bouncer who makes sure you enjoy it or else. There’s also a song from the Penguins of Madagascar soundtrack and yet another official FIFA World Cup anthem. The melting pot shtick is noble but it diminishes Pitbull’s appeal as an entertainer—an emcee rather than an MC.
-Morgan Fisher (Hayabusa Landings)
British keyboardist Morgan Fisher (see elsewhere in this column) released this record in the late 70s under the guise of a compilation album of obscure bands covering pop chestnuts and other works that may not be covers but nevertheless sounded familiar, but in styles they weren’t originally associated with. In actuality, Fisher performed and recorded all these tracks himself, and the range in imagination is what made it sound less like an in-joke and more like a pithy comment on the possibilities of pop in the post-punk era. So whereas the ska treatment of “Macarthur Park” comes off as a brilliant piece of cross-genre pollination, the closing, ambient take on the melody to “All the Young Dudes,” a song made popular by the band for which Fisher toiled, sounds almost a-historical, the ur-pop song. And the helium-voiced Punky and Porky’s version of two Sex Pistols songs literally casts pearls before swine.
Emotional compensation is rarely remarked upon in popular music, but it seems unavoidable in the case of this British singer-songwriter with the 70s soft rock melodic bent and the publicly known emotional problems. The even-handedness of her approach is invariably interpreted as being therapeutic, and on many of these songs her Karen Carpenter delivery is even more relaxed than the silky smooth arrangements, an effect that undercuts the more poignant moments, such as “Butterfly,” supposedly about her miscarriage, and while addressing such pain directly may be too much for her to bear, the allegorical stretches make for a song that’s merely pretty and only resonant within a context the song can’t deliver. Even the disco pumper, “Dangerous,” is so lightweight that it bounces out of her reach. Within her limited jurisdiction, Rumer’s gifts are formidable, but Into Colour lacks the edge that occasionally makes her music transcend its anodyne influences.