Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
What Happens Next
-Gang of Four (Victor)
-The Pop Group (Freaks R Us/Victor)
Though not an integrated musical style in the sense that all those who labored under the label followed the same forms, the British post-punk movement united various disparate creative types with the urge to destroy those pop verities that had held sway for so long by the late 70s. Gang of Four was perhaps the most strident, musically and politically, brandishing a razor-sharp funk attack at the service of a jaundiced view of economic exigencies. Almost 40 years after the fact only guitarist Andy Gill remains, and on his latest album under the Go4 banner he makes do with an arsenal of guest vocalists who sound nothing like original bleater Jon King, who quit the band to pursue a career in, of all things, advertising. Gill still knows how to cut a rug, and his guitar work is impressive without making your hair stand on end the way it did back in the day. More to the point, the songs range far and wide in terms of mood and groove, the only constant being the call-and-response dynamic that Go4 was once known for. The Kills’ Alison Mosshart drops in for two tracks that list toward disco, while the German vocalist Herbert Gronemeyer sings a bona fide ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Top Gun soundtrack. At this late date one can hardly expect any veteran rock band to sound as they did in 1979, but then why stick to the Gang of Four brand except to extend the line? In any case, the lyrics still have some of the old anti-establishment bite, though not as much as the songs on Citizen Zombie, the first album of new material by fellow post-punk provocateurs The Pop Group since 1980. Less musically doctrinaire than Go4 but equally bent on taking on the status quo, the band doesn’t have as much to live up to style-wise, so they’re free to reinvent themselves for a new millennium. Nevertheless, they seem to think they can take up exactly where they left off, and what’s missing is that spirit of spontaneous destruction that accompanies youthful disaffection. Leader Mark Stewart seems content to shout slogans over and over in an attempt to turn them into catch phrases—the title song, “The Immaculate Deception,” etc. And if you miss the anti-consumerist purport of classic Go4, then you’ll get more than you need here. As on What Happens Next the songs are not as lean as they once were, as if the intervening years had taught the members what their amateurism was missing other than a need to show off. Though the production by Paul Epworth is strong, it doesn’t speak to The Pop Group’s special qualities. The thing to remember about post-punk was that minimalism carried the day. It was all they could afford and so they made the best of it. When you’re older you naturally get fatter.
Tetsuo & Youth
-Lupe Fiasco (Atlantic/Warner)
If the story behind Lupe Fiasco’s reportedly final major label collection—that its release was forced on the company by outsiders—is more interesting than the album itself, it says something about the artist’s relationship to his muse. Unlike other comparably respected MCs, Lupe has never tried to second guess his fans or cater to an acceptable model of what’s commercially cool. When he hits, it seems like a pleasant accident, and thus his body of work is all the more compelling for the occasional unexpected payday. The Japanese-referenced title and the self-painted abstract cover art indicate nothing more than Lupe’s imagination getting caught on a thought, which is how his raps work—free-flowing and susceptible to distractions. The music doesn’t knock you out but it does carry you along and before you know it you can’t get back to shore, and probably don’t want to.
Teenagers when they made their eponymous debut album in two days and teenagers still, this Barcelona quartet balance their simplistic guitar grunge with overly dramatic words and delivery, making for theatrical rock that, were they older, might be dismissed as over-zealous. As self-conscious class nerd-intellectuals, the group has yet to meet a major chord it feels comfortable with, and Carla Perez Fas’s and Jazz Rodriguez Bueno’s vocals seem to be purposely off-key, as if precision would be a mark of insincerity. But if the band is all purposeful pose it doesn’t mean the music suffers for it. The songs are punk-short and to the point, and the album has a momentum that’s irrepressible, something like the Gang of Four’s debut, which it often resembles sonically. Another thing teenagers are good at are hooks, because they rarely have to go out of their way to seek inspiration.
Shadow of the Sun
-Moon Duo (Sacred Bones/Hostess)
Repetition is the soul of both psychedelia and club music, two forms that count on immersion in melody and rhythm to succeed, rather than on intellectual engagement of any type. Though Moon Duo’s thin sonic palette doesn’t provide much of a purchase and Ripley Johnson’s buried vocals add little more than a vague human ingredient to the texture, Johnson knows how to play a guitar, or at least knows enough notes to make Sanae Yamada’s repetitive keyboard patterns work in the context for which they’re designed. If it sounds as if Moon Duo works better in concert than on record, there is that problem with Shadow of the Sun, which doesn’t let any one track work up enough steam to get at that pleasure spot in the brain where psychedelic works its magic. Of course, drugs would help, but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?
A Soldier’s Sad Story: Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1966-73
War has always had a relationship to popular music, but as the Vietnam conflict slogged on artists took their brief as upsetters of the accepted order to heart. This collection of soul and R&B singles is mostly presented from the standpoint of soldiers, since African-Americans had fewer recourses to avoid conscription, thus protest gives way to unease and melancholy. William Bell’s “Marching Off to War” has a martial imperative that’s scary in its implications, and the disenfranchisement implicit in Mel & Tim’s “Mail Call Time” speaks to a black man’s feeling of helplessness in the face of implacable authority. Of course, sometimes a gun is just a gun, as on Big Amos Patton’s blues boogie “Going to Vietnam,” where Southeast Asia is just another place for a poor soul to hang his hat, er, helmet. Women are missed, obligations kept, and, as this excellent compilation nears its end, truths addressed.
Alone For the First Time
-Ryan Hemsworth (Last Gang/Beat)
As a producer who’s been more directly influenced by video game soundtracks than most of his peers, Ryan Hemsworth was prefectly positioned to take on beat-making chores for the run of rappers who emerged after 2010 and needed cheap back-tracks. Though he’s moved up since then, he still prefers the floating mix: pure electronic sounds moving along on a cloud of drums. Since he gets to call the shots on an album bearing his name, it’s not surprising that he hires vocalists who don’t assert themselves. Lontalius mumbles through the pillowy soft “Walk Me Home,” and Dawn Golden’s druggy effusions are cushioned in appropriately chilly beats for a cut called “Snow in Newark.” It’s contempo R&B for the post-party chill out, and while it doesn’t disavow sex, if the music prods someone into bed it’s because they’re ready for a nap. Alone is how we sleep.
-Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (Sony)
To hear the once and perhaps future Oasis mastermind tell it, his second foray with the High Flying Birds is exactly what he wanted and therefore its greatness is a foregone conclusion. For Gallagher, purity of intention is half the game, and while critics have pointed out that his real intentions are to rip off as many of his idols as possible, the album has an integrity that most artists of Gallagher’s station take for granted (Oh, hi, Dave Grohl). “Riverman” borrows shamelessly from Nick Drake and Pink Floyd, but the sum of those parts is appealing on its own merits. Gallagher’s singing has improved so his lyrics are less annoying, but what makes the album hype-worthy is production that doesn’t skint on the hooks. It’s not a rare talent, but given all the hot air that comes with it it’s one he has a right to own.
What goes around comes around, so one wonders why it took Madonna so long to get her Kesha on after everyone else in the universe had already moved past it, including Kesha herself. By the same token, isn’t it a bit late to be analyzing her divorce? Well, these things take time, and you don’t rush a Madonna album, which, since the mid-90s, have tended to lag the pop zeitgeist whereas previously they had heralded it. “Living for Love” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” are as good as any EDM radio-ready singles that have come down the chute in the last year, and the producers, including Diplo and Ariel Rechtshaid, seem supernaturally attuned to the diva’s whims. It’s the most fun she’s had since Ray of Light, and if she seems over-determined to explain her situation on “Joan of Arc,” you allow her to make a fool of herself.
A Flourish and a Spoil
-The Districts (Fat Possum/Hostess)
So-called heartland rock never really caught on with millennials, probably because its source of inspiration is anchored in a specific economic era. This band of teens from rural Pennsylvania would have probably channeled Tom Petty if they’d been born ten years sooner, but their raucous blues-rock cuts a more sardonic shape. The Districts are a group who have no use for their hometown and long for the shock of the city, a place that produced The Strokes, the last band that mattered—at least to millennials. On “Suburban Smell,” leader Rob Grote enumerates the things he hates about high school social life, but since that’s all he knows about social life, the hatred doesn’t seem earned, even if the music makes his case for him. The Districts are too young to know what they want, but they understand how to make it sound as if they do.
-Charli XCX (Atlantic/Warner)
Though she doesn’t hide her English accent, Charli XCX hasn’t lost any love by appropriating the snarky diction of classic female hard rock a la the Runaways, which makes her mainstream dance pop more transgressive than anything Kesha ever attempted, even if the topics—getting wrecked, dancing, cutting school—are pretty much the same. Perceptive critics have called her a punk act. The songs are short and to the point, but what they’re referring to is the sharpness of her melodies and the directness of her rhythms, which, while electronic in origin, are wielded with the swagger of a guitar shredder, a style most pronounced on the new wavey “London Queen,” with its fake Farfisa and staccato bass, though the effect is compromised somewhat by its story of a teenage pop star making it big in Hollywood. I mean, how punk is that?
This anonymous Swedish rock collective says they are influenced by ethnic musics filtered through the process of European diaspora, but when the fuzzy guitar sound of North Africa is interpreted by white kids with access to better equipment and drugs, it ends up sounding a lot like late 60s psychedelia. It’s impossible to listen to the tribal scream-vocals on songs like “Talk to God” and “Gathering of Ancient Tribes” and not conjure up images of acid tests in dimly lit, low-ceilinged public halls. Whether or not you accept their claim that this is not what they’re after, it still sounds fresh, basically jam band music without the jams, and if that sounds contradictory, what all good jam bands have in common is the ability to work organically on a minute-to-minute basis, thus the album title. It’s repetitive and ocasionally sophomoric, but it’s also sinuously addictive.
Strangers to Ourselves
-Modest Mouse (Epic/Sony)
There are few indie bands who have made as much of their success in the majors as Modest Mouse, and even fewer who’ve actually gotten weirder in the process. Then again, what is one to make of the group’s slovenly work ethic? This is their first album in eight years, and if it doesn’t sound markedly different from the last one, it at least evidences no loss in ambition. Isaac Brock’s vocals are still frantic and anxious, his songwriting knotty and compelling, the arrangements expansive. What’s missing is the rock excitement. “Pistol” is overworked to the point of incomprehension, and while “The Best Room” has a sweet pop core the song fails to bring it fully to the surface. The band, which has gone through personnel changes in recent years, doesn’t feel integrated any more. It’s basically professionalism covering up a lack of sustained ideas.
Though this Nashville resident proves herself an expressive singer and an assured songwriter on her debut, it’s the band that makes a bigger impression. Reportedly, all the musicians record regularly for the Richmond, Virginia, indie label Spacebomb, and they display the kind of cohesion that made studios like Stax and Fame legendary. They even have a full string section, which Prass exploits to excellent advantage on some of her more subdued numbers. It’s difficult to imagine the chorus of “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” being half as catchy without the full orchestra lifting it up. While Prass’s soft soprano sometimes gets buried beneath the beauty, her tunes hold up and the lyrics that make their way over the top indicate an understanding of romantic love that belies her tender years. You come to Natalie Prass for the ensemble and stay for…Natalie Prass.