Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazines, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
-D’Angelo and the Vanguard (RCA/Sony)
The title of Ne-Yo’s sixth album is a dodge. In the “Intro” he explains that the subject matter is “fictional” but derived from “experiences” sent to him by “real people.” These are “true stories” he made up, and a lot of them have to do with sex, presented in a vernacular that’s more graphic than anything the dapper R&B star was previously associated with. The overall impression is one of an artist testing the waters, trying to figure out if the carefully groomed image that helped him achieve superstardom needs to be restyled for a more cynical market. But if the tailored suits and gallant attitude seemed special in a world where R. Kelly and T-Pain were just as popular, the real reason people loved Ne-Yo was his songs, which were gems of craft. For all its sexual reticence, The Year of the Gentleman remains one of the most pleasurable records of the last 20 years, and as Non-Fiction proves, he’s still a consummate album-maker. There’s a wholeness to the production that compels the listener to the next cut. The lyrics are another story. Despite the shade of play-acting, Ne-Yo’s classic concerns are in tact: the need to find true love outside the trappings of celebrity, understanding that the party is about companionship. When he threatens physical violence in “Story Time” you wince, not because violence is repulsive, though it is, but because Ne-Yo doesn’t sound as if he understands that. And whereas in the past ballads and uptempo songs fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, here they sound clumsily juxtaposed, as if they’d been written as antidotes to each other. Ne-Yo still has the chops, but being himself is better than trying to act like someone else. It’s been so long since we last heard from D’Angelo that we may have forgotten who he sounds like, and what’s so startling about his first album in 14 years is that it has no precedent. Though it sounds more like Voodoo than anything else, Black Messiah stands alone as a freak of nature. This is groove music reimagined for a generation that didn’t experience the development of funk firsthand. Though all the classic elements of soul music are here, D’Angelo borrows an attenuated song sense from bebop, letting the melodies percolate out of the rhythmic interplay. The song lengths will challenge those whose faith in black music is rooted in the classics of the past, but in reality they speak the same truths, which is important since, as the artist himself has said, the reason it took so long to produce it is that he had something to say about the state of his people. It’s an album about community, about the worth not only of black lives, but the connections between them. Consequently, the music’s sinuous forward momentum conveys continuity with the future. You dance in one place, but you march ever onward.
The Pale Emperor
-Marilyn Manson (Victor)
Marilyn Manson was the most enjoyable industrial pop metal band of the 90s, a position inseparable from its eponymous leader’s need for attention. Having outstayed their major label residence by the mid-00s they successfully navigated an indie late-course correction on 2012’s Born Villain, which was bluesier in a conventional hard rock style. The chunkier, funkier vibe of “Third Day of a Seven-Day Binge” points to even better things that don’t necessarily materialize as the album progresses, and while Manson and songwriting partner Tyler Bates have outgrown the desire to shock for shock’s sake, their earnest attempts at social observation are trite, exacerbated by licks that were trademarked in the mid-70s when Foghat was still considered edgy. The band recaptures some of its danger cachet on “Cupid Carries a Gun,” which hardly suffers for its air of cartoon menace. Go with your strengths, by all means.
It’s the Girls!
-Bette Midler (Warner)
Though it’s been done before—and better by Laura Nyro back in 1972—covering the hits of the great girl groups of the 20th century is such a natural idea for Bette Midler you wonder why she waited this long to make a whole album of them. Bette is by definition a champion of lowbrow tastes in a highbrow milieu, so she keeps the arrangements simple, emphasizing the tunes, which for many are inseparable from the song’s girl-positive image. And while most of the originals hail from the era that informed Bette as a budding songstress, she also covers the Boswell and Andrews Sisters from an earlier time, and TLC from a later one. The continuum from Tin Pan Alley to Brill Building to Motown and beyond is, by implication, neverending. Girls just want to have fun, and all you boys can eat your hearts out.
-James Blackshaw (Important/P-Vine)
Known as an acoustic guitarist who moved cautiously between folk blues and classical material, Englishman James Blackshaw has lately been gravitating toward more accessible pop, but on his new album he falls fully into the mainstream by deciding to sing on almost every track. Seemingly soft-spoken by nature, his tone is frank and guileless, and sometimes you have to listen carefully to make out the words. Set off by his much more aggressive finger-picking style, the songs have the gentle power of early Garfunkel-era Paul Simon, though without the pretensions to poetry. He’s also opened himself up to broader instrumentation: flutes, percussion, strings. There are duets with Japanese songwriter Kaoru Noda and the daughter of Harry Nilsson, whose influence would seem to be as far from Blackshaw’s ken as Marilyn Manson’s. An interesting exploration of possibilities, if not yet a fully satisfying one.
Twin 19-year-old sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz are the daughters of Anga Diaz, percussionist for the Buena Vista Social Club. After he died, the girls went to Yoruba to study folk singing, and have since relocated to France. “Ibeyi” is Yoruban for “twins,” but they sing in flawless English. Though their debut benefits from the production techniques associated with their label, a reliance on atmospheric electronics that is not an over-reliance, their songs are not the dusty Afro-Cuban constructs you’d expect. There’s a punky assertiveness that bespeaks an urban temperament. “I will come to your river,” they sing, and the effect is more Southern gospel than African spiritual, which isn’t to say they’ve absorbed the African-American experience, only that the experience is rooted in ineluctable racial memory. The twins know not what they sing of. They just sing, allowing the particulars to work themselves out in time.
Vestiges & Claws
-Jose Gonzalez (Mute/Traffic)
Jose Gonzalez is another Swedish folksinger (his parents immigrated from Argentina) who cut his musical teeth in hardcore bands. The cognitive dissonance generated by that image while listening to his hushed acoustic songs could be disorienting, but the abstract themes that Scandinavian hard rock often trades in is central to his aethetic, which centers on seasonal changes informed by mystical forces. His latest, like Bjork’s Biophilia, focuses on the natural world as a realm divorced from the logical concerns of thinking humans. Musically, the songs illustrate their descriptions of tides and change with a pulsing insistence, but Gonzalez’s melodic sense is always in full evidence. The fleeting nature of the lyrics never overcomes the natural tunefulness of his performance style, even when his singing barely registers above a whisper. On “Let It Carry You,” he gets a groove going. Even brainy people operate with a heartbeat.
-Lindsey Stirling (Island/Universal)
This new age violinist has generated thousands of fans through a YouTube channel showcasing her mix of classical chops and gaelic dance moves. Her second album is being pushed in Japan with a cover of virtual idol Hatsune Miku’s “Senbonzakura,” though to appreciate Stirling’s peculiar talents you need to see her saw and clog away at the same time. What might put the record over is her clever use of dubstep and glitch, which, melded with her stainless steel instrumental melodies, could draw a more dedicated dance crowd, meaning the kind whose members move themselves rather than watch others do it. The playing is too hyperactive to qualify as BGM but, except for two cuts where she hires the services of outside vocalists, the lack of lyrical content could weaken her appeal to younger music fans who might naturally be attracted to her pixie-ish charms.
Shadows in the Night
-Bob Dylan (Sony)
It’s been conventional wisdom for years that Bob Dylan is never going to be understood to an extent justified by his fame and influence. That speech he gave at the Musicares event has been shared more times than a coke spoon at a Playboy mansion party and almost no one got the purport of his meaning 100%. This straightforward and almost painfully earnest exercise in nostalgia still has people scratching their heads: Is it a joke? Though the ten pre-rock pop standards he covers were marginally associated with Frank Sinatra, Dylan treats them strictly as the romantic ballads they are without a trace of swing—or irony, for that matter. If anything, he handles the diction and the sentiments so reverently you wonder if he actually needs instrumental accompaniment, but what his band delivers is tastefully appropriate. For once, can’t we all just take his word for it?
All We Are
This Liverpool-resident band is made up of people from various non-UK countries who met at university. There’s a seamless quality to their slick indie R&B that people who usually like slick indie R&B might find overly polite, but for better or worse it’s what defines the band, since little else they do makes a distinctive impression, including the perfectly modulated falsetto vocals. The trio’s attack, however, appears to be a function of their professionalism, the praise-worthy harmonies and attention to instrumental detail indicating a professionalism you rarely see in bands this young; but by the same token bands this young usually don’t demonstrate such purposefully emotional detachment unless they’re trying to make a point about the kind of music they’re playing. Even Steely Dan at the height of their anal-compulsive period let their freak flag fly, at least lyrically. The self-control of All We Are is almost touching.
The cover of the French singer’s latest album does a good job of selling its peculiar charms, though at first you wonder why an artist as indiosyncratic as Zaz would agree to tackle a collection of moldy standards about her adopted city of residence. Obviously, the purpose was to subvert them in her own punky, gypsy-hearted way, but since she came from jazz and many of these tunes identify as jazz the match isn’t as radical as it sounds, and Paris as a mindset has always been friendlier to Bohemian entreaties than to those of the perfumed sophisticate. Despite Quincy Jones’s participation, the album maintains a basement bistro simplicity, highlighting Zaz’s rhythmical gifts. Though “Paris sera toujours Paris” is played at supersonic speed, she keeps it swinging and relaxed. And if “Champs Elysee” is a bit too jaunty, Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” honors her love of Ella Fitzgerald honorably.
In the Lonely Hour
-Sam Smith (Universal)
As is often the case with new musical talent in the UK these days, Sam Smith’s debut album was preceded by a hodgepodge of appearances on other people’s records as a vocalist interpreting the production priorities of someone else. The main difference is that Smith, in addition to being an arresting soul singer, is a fine songwriter whose input made a real difference in those singles. What’s more surprising is that his debut, while including those songs, doesn’t extend from their mostly chart-friendly pop appeal. Smith is at heart a ballad singer who prefers simple acoustic arrangements to the club accoutrements his collaborations demanded. And it’s interesting that he reserves the final slot for the album’s biggest hit, the tortuously romantic “Lay Me Down,” as if anticipation were the key to musical enjoyment. Along the way, however, you may tire of the sameness of Smith’s vocal attack.
You Are the Waves
-Maia Vidal (P-Vine)
A classically trained American singer-songwriter who cut her professional teeth playing punk before relocating to Europe, Maia Vidal sounds eerily similar to any number of young indie-identified women with a flair for transforming everyday romantic experience into dreamy pop songs, and this Japan-only collection sells her as a doe-eyed student of cutting edge pop. Though she tends to get lost in the reverb-heavy synth arrangements, Vidal extracts as much drama as her wafer-thin voice can supply, mainly by milking her extremely tuneful choruses. You wish some of her old punk influences reared their scruffy heads on occasion, since the overall mood is milk-tea soothing, something commissioned for the atrium of a large, airy modern art museum; or demos for singers who need something peppy. The sing-song quality of “Mama (Told Me So)” is custom-made for barroom singalongs, though Vidal would be the last drunk person in the room.
2014 Forest Hills Drive
-J. Cole (Roc Nation/Sony)
J. Cole has always come across as a rapper with a lot to prove, an attitude that can give his flow an over-earnest quality, especially when set against the pro production values that have characterized his records since the beginning, the result of mentors (Jay-Z, to be honest) in high places. Some critics short-change his output because of this “workmanlike” aesthetic, but since he keeps his head in the real world, there’s a refreshing honesty to his lyrics that most MCs lose after their first brush with success. When he talks about sex on “Wet Dreamz,” he includes all the awkward, desperate moves; and while he’s gaining enough confidence to push his rep—he acts as if this is the shit—he holds back on the retrobate swagger, preferring to take a little more time to survey his bailiwick. Take all the time you need.