Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on January 25.
No Cities to Love
-Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop/Traffic)
A Better Tomorrow
-Wu-Tang Clan (Warner)
It can’t be said enough that Sleater-Kinney epitomized what was great about indie rock in the 90s better than any other band, namely a belief in the cathartic power of punk but minus the reactionary limitations that punk had been saddled with for 20 years. The trio transcended their chosen style early on without abandoning its fierce immediacy and was still growing creatively when they called it quits in the middle of the last decade. If you hear someone say that their new album sounds as if they never stopped, that’s what they mean, because despite the individual touchstones, which remain the same—Corin Tucker’s knife-like vocals, Carrie Brownstein’s visceral rhythm guitar, Janet Weiss’s improbably melodic drumming—this isn’t like any of their previous records. Though they return to the short song forms of their early days, the writing and arrangements eschew structure for the sake of expressive power, and the overall sound is harsher than it’s ever been. If they deem to do without a standard vocal melody on the title cut, the cross-cutting guitars supply their own tunefulness in juxtaposition, and when Brownstein, who really learned how to sing in the short-lived indie project Wild Flag, joins Tucker as an equal on the chorus of “No Anthems,” you wonder why they never tried harmonies before. Even “Price Tag,” which strikes me as the album’s weakest cut and thus a poor choice to start things off, presents its musical themes in such an unusual way that you know you’re not going to appreciate it until you’ve heard it several more times. The exuberance of the production belies the song titles’ generally negative attitude, or maybe it simply means that the band is heartened by the destruction of things that don’t need to exist any more. Obviously, they once thought that about themselves, and it’s nice to know they only got back together because they had something new to say. Being from Staten Island, where several high-profile racially-charged incidents have occurred in the past year, the ten members of the reunited Wu Tang Clan—including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who is sampled throughout—have plenty of fresh topics to rap about, though some do more of it than others. What was always most thrilling about the group’s approach was the stylistic contrasts and overlaps, especially between Method Man’s heartfelt delivery and Masta Killa’s staccato flow. I wouldn’t mind more Ghostface since in the years since Wu dissolved he’s proven to be the most interesting member, at least lyrically, but the point here is that RZA, after indulging his obsession with Asian pop culture to no compelling end, oversees the proceedings with a reinvigorated musical outlook that keeps things clanging and funky when they aren’t snaking their way into your lower extremities. Dig the marching band motif on the obligatory tag team exercise “We Will Fight.” Nobody does that kind of shit better.
-Kitty, Daisy & Lewis (Sunday Best/Beat)
Three siblings who have come to represent the generational continuum of the post-punk era—their mother is Raincoat Ingrid Weiss, their father a noted recording engineer—it’s interesting to note that the Durhams have opted for no-frills roots R&B as their preferred mode of expression. There’s no subversion of form, unless you consider boomer artists like Dan Hicks or Commander Cody strictly novelty acts. With the Clash’s Mick Jones producing, the sound is rounded and pure, the rhythms clean and precise, and while I can’t rightly tell the difference between Kitty and Daisy, they both enunciate their lines with a charming abundance of sass. By the same token, while I can understand why Jones adds compression to Lewis’s jump-blues reading of “Good Looking Woman,” the effect detracts somewhat from his delightfully droll phrasing. I mean, he’s too young to be that sexually wanton.
Selected Solo Works
-Hideki Yoshimura (7 e.p.)
Hideki Yoshimura, the guitarist and vocalist for Bloodthirsty Butchers, died in May 2013 of cardiac failure at the age of 46. Though the band was successful in its own limited way, both in Japan and abroad, Yoshimura was a restless musician who played with other indie acts and indulged his more lyrical side in solo works that have been collected on this posthumously released album. Most of the 7 tracks are instrumentals in which Yoshimura layers processed guitar over simple organ lines, building volume through multi-tracking rather than simply playing louder over time. Though it’s an overused methodology, he could isolate riffs in a cloud of sound, a talent clarified in “Ready Steady Go,” which takes a banal folk-rock acoustic guitar pattern and slowly doubles it on distorted electric guitar. It’s also clarified in paradox by “Story,” the one cut where he sings, failing to find a melody.
-Clap! Clap! (P-Vine)
Fashioned as an ethnic document, Tayi Bebba takes its listener on a musical journey of a fictional island and its ambient sounds. Using rhythms and forms familiar from hip-hop and house, Clap! Clap! (Cristiano Crisci, which may also be an alias) mixes sped-up African samples with synthesized bass tracks and canned drums. The effect is something like dub on steroids: you can dance to it if you try, but you might want to ask the producer to take his foot off the accelerator sometimes and stick to a plan for more than a minute or two. Most of the 17 cuts are no longer than 3 minutes, but this is the kind of expansive music that gains with repetition, and Crisci is either too impatient to keep it up or hyperactive to the point of distraction. A great idea that hasn’t been worked out enough.
-Nicki Minaj (Republic/Universal)
Minaj’s casual fans will be disappointed that the flamboyant rapper does so many ballads on her latest album. Reportedly, the thoughtful stance was occasioned by her breakup with a long-standing BF, and once you know that the slower material becomes more interesting, because Minaj is interesting in the first place. It’s just that we thought she was interesting because she was such a firecracker. She’s also a mother, a fact that wasn’t a secret but I didn’t expect her to sing about it as affectingly as she does on “All Things Go” and “Win Again.” Of course, the firecracker is set off elsewhere, especially on the Ariana Grande duet “Get On Your Knees,” thus proving that she’s the moment’s most versatile pop star. If I like Azealia Banks better it’s because she’s wittier, but Minaj’s confidence in her abilities, even when she’s uncertain of life, is irresistible.
-Bryan Ferry (BMG/Sony)
Bryan Ferry’s post-Roxy Music solo career has been meticulous, alternating original material with highly conceptual covers albums. His latest falls mainly into the former category, but the sound is willfully derivative of the late Roxy albums centered on Avalon, which explains the title. At this stage, it’s the Roxy record most people remember, even if it wasn’t their best or even most characteristic. It has come to embody a certain style of adult contemporary music that still sells, and sounding like no one but himself Ferry pulls it off shamelessly, even if the dapperness sounds forced and the romanticism phoned in. And when the 80s become too much to resist (Johnny Marr’s participation is fundamental in this regard) you remember what it was you hated about that decade: a version of “Send in the Clowns” that sounds like it was rejected by the Human League.
Down to Earth
-Flight Facilities (Future Classic/Hostess)
Beware dance music mavens who wear suits to work. Australians Hugo Gruzman and James Lyell tend toward the sultry side of the Ibiza scene, though their music is song-based and relies more on vocals for its appeal than they would probably want to let on. Their debut is full of clever touches that don’t always work—the conceit of the album being played on an airliner’s sound system is corny—but there’s a definite intelligence involved in the sculpting of aural information, and the lyrics are emotionally arresting, which in turn makes the music more emotionally resonant. Even when the songs are nominally about happy subjects, like sunshine and the beauty of waking to another day, they avoid the cloying artifice you usually get with dance music designed to make you smile on your feet. In fact, as dance music goes, Flight Facilities’ is refreshingly unassertive.
-Nolan Porter (Porterville/MSI)
Nolan Porter was a self-styled R&B singer-songwriter who had one foot in the late 60s/early 70s L.A. rock scene. His music had a solid pop pedigree that later influenced the British Northern Soul movement. Victim to a sloppy studio system rather than neglect, Porter’s official releases were well-received but misidentified because he recorded under so many names. Most of that material is collected in this reissue, which splits the difference gratuitously between one bona fide release and demos that were supposed to be released but never were. Nolan’s strong point is a clear, forceful tenor and a driving sense of rhythm and melody, showcased on his singles, none of which had much of an impact at the time but which later became collectors items in Europe. He’s still popular on the continent and tours occasionally, which is encouraging. This stuff is too good to go to waste.
-Computer Magic (Tugboat/P-Vine)
A graphic designer-cum-fashion blogger-cum-DJ, Danielle Johnson doesn’t convey enough personality on her debut to qualify as an electronica “artist,” though she definitely has an ear for a hook, as demonstrated by “Running,” which was picked up for a Lexus commercial. Her vocals are flat, and it’s difficult tell if it’s a function of processing or a conscious effort to sound as mechanical as the beats. Even on “I’m the Pro,” where she attempts an effusive mien, you get the feeling she’s putting you on. Her saving graces are brevity and concision: She rarely belabors a good idea and the childish simplicity of the arrangements and the playing work to the songs’ advantage, though only up to a point. It would be interesting to see what a real band would do with her ideas. The magic of a computer will only get you so far.
-Neil Young (Reprise/Warner)
Though Neil Young’s contrary nature has always been central to his appeal—the hippie who stumped for Reagan, the child of Mother Nature who’s into old gas guzzlers—it’s become less attractive the older he gets. Storytone wears its contraryness in context, by presenting the same ten songs in two presentations, once with a full orchestra, and a second time in typically solo Young fashion. Like Dylan’s new album of standards, the orchestral cuts give off the moldy scent of curdled nostalgia, even if all the compositions are new originals. The solo versions sound more coherent in their aim to convey something achingly personal, whether it be about the love of driving, or the love of a new (obviously much younger) woman. Though Young has always been about feelings, he’s usually not this literal. The grumpy old man I can take; the swooning romantic is a bit much.
To paraphrase anryone, Swans ain’t for everybody, but this Japan-only EP, built around one cut from their latest album, To Be Kind, may find more appreciation if only because it has some oomph. The sludgey psychedelic vibe of the veteran band’s classic material is pushed aside for some No Wave monkey business that nevertheless stays true to leader Michael Gira’s idiosyncratically dire view of existence. The song pulses and throbs to Gira’s arhythmic howlings before settling into a trebly air raid pattern that just won’t quit. The fine folks at Mute have provided the original album cut as well as a personal “edit” by founder Daniel Miller, a live version of the song performed in Spain, an “early” version, and even an acoustic rendering. Unlike most such indulgences, they’re all unique and great, and then they tack on a non-album cut, “She Loves Us,” at the end, just to make sure we’re awake.
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
-Belle and Sebastian (Matador/Hostess)
Stuart Murdoch always seemed to be one step away from giving away the game; the whole sensitive indie shtick was so calculated you could imagine him cracking up at the notion of people taking it seriously. As it turns out, it was a feint but not a dodge. If anything, B&S’s soft show nostalgia for rainy day English pop was a means of keeping the harsh world at bay, and on their latest album they actually deign to be a genuine pop group, one that means to entertain. They even think they can make you dance, though, for sure, the funk that dares speak its name on “The Party Line” would have raised alarms of fright back in the day. If anything, Girls is more up front about its nostalgia by playing it relatively straight, and seems especially enamored of that peculiarly British genre knowns as Northern Soul.
-Meghan Trainor (Sony)
As far as pre-packaged pop stars go, this Massachusetts native has it over the competition in terms of smarts. A multi-instrumentalist who not only knows music theory and composition but graduated from the Berklee School of Music before she was out of her teens, Trainor was already making Taylor Swift-level income as a songwriter before releasing her smash hit, “All About That Bass,” a racy booty-shaker that belies her full-figured, blonde, girl-next-door image; but image, it turns out, is what her debut album is all about. The crafty mix of girly pop and hip-hop doesn’t deliver much in the way of thrills outside that single and the Motown-derived follow-up, “Lips Are Moving.” The non-stop bubbly vibe is more grating than ingratiating, like a bulldozer driven by Andrew Lloyd Weber. It says something about her choices that you wonder if these songs wouldn’t sound better sung by Britney Spears.