Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
-Courtney Barnett (Milk!/Traffic)
-Ron Sexsmith (Cooking Vinyl/Imperial)
Courtney Barnett, a young Australian singer-songwriter whose lack of guile has made her an indie darling among the cognoscenti, is the kind of lyricist who doesn’t sound as if she gets her own jokes. Her songs are all definitely about something, but her free-associative methodology reels in off-kilter references and non sequiturs that have a way of cracking you up even when you can’t quite locate the irony. She’s not as pointedly sarcastic as Loudon Wainwright III or John Prine, but she often ends up with the same results. Like Wainwright, she’s even written a swimming song, though the purpose seems to be to debunk the older musician’s notion that it’s a profound pastime. “I had goggles on,” she sings, “they were getting foggy/I much prefer swimming to jogging.” And she’s not a folkie. Though Barnett rarely works up a head of steam, she bangs her tunes out to jerry-built garage rock arangements that call attention to her non-melodic vocal style, which is delivered in an accent whose natural offhandedness gives the songs more relevance than she probably intends. She’s obviously not someone who means to tell you about herself, but she wants you to know where she’s from, geographically and emotionally. When she does sad, as on the haunting “Depreston” and the quirky “Boxing Day Blues,” you actually want to know more. For some reason, I doubt she even realizes she reveals as much as she does, even in her clever song titles, the best of which is “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” I know exactly what she’s talking about. Usually I know what Ron Sexsmith is talking about, too, since he’s one of the most reliably transparent songwriters ever to wield a guitar, and this time the guitar is as often electric as not. His 14th LP is essentially more of the same, meaning it’s never content to pass the time. The melodies are sure, the rhymes natural, the themes comprehensible and compelling. What makes it a little better than usual is the attention to detail. For the first time in a number of years he’s assisted by a host of excellent studio hands, and the production, by Jim Scott, is attentive and on the nail, allowing Sexsmith to vary the tone and style widely from song to song without losing touch with his muse. There’s more buoyant pop in this collection, testifying to a resurgent interest in the creative process and maybe even in life itself. It’s much closer in mood and texture to his early albums, which were made when he was still a blessed discovery his label was willing to spend money on. It didn’t work out the way they hoped it would, but it worked out the way those of us who appreciate Sexsmith’s witty turn-of-phrase and self-deprecating demeanor wanted. He’s still around making great, meaningful music, which is more than you can say for Ryan Adams.
-Lightning Bolt (Thrill Jockey/P-Vine)
It’s hard to believe the Brians Chippendale and Gibson have been making their peculiar brand of chaotic hard rock for two decades, and even harder to believe that they’re still as popular as ever, albeit within their rarefied pop world. The duo’s m.o.—a constant, rhythmically precise racket played as counterpoint to monster theme-and-variation riffs—always made more sense in concert than on record, and yet their albums have been consistently intriguing, this one even more so since it’s genuinely coherent. For once, the band has been recorded in a bona fide studio, the main advantage of which is better vocal quality. Rather than howls and grunts, Chippendale’s effusions actually have shape and meaning, the better to sell his humanity when he isn’t gamely aspiring to some measure of immortality. It’s what gives LB an edge over metal bands. They dig being alive.
-Chilly Gonzales (Gentle Threat/Beat)
One of those keyboard players whose contributions to others’ recordings have received more attention than his own body of solo work, Chilli Gonzales has carved an exceptionally narrow niche for himself in the world of ambient music. That he mainly plays acoustic piano and composes pieces that flirt with classical forms makes his staying power remarkable. Chambers will strike listeners as even more precious than his usual albums—Satie rather than Schubert, and free of the dissonance and tonal complexities that epitomize modern music. Gonzales made his reputation playing for pop artists and he obviously still sees his audience as coming from that side of the tracks. A few cuts, like the bouncy “Switchcraft,” would make killer hip-hop samples, and that could be the commercial hook, in fact. It’s difficult to imagine many people sitting in a concert hall and being inspired by this.
-Toro y Moi (Carpark/Hostess)
Chaz Bundick tends to be associated with indie dance pop, but a close look at his development shows that the bulk of his output varies widely, and his new album is nothing like his last one or his side project, Les Sins, which is really a bedroom disco outfit. He tones down the guitars and dials up the electronics, creating collages that never quite cohere into distinctive songs, though they’re more “rock” than a lot of his previous work. The drums present a driving 4/4 that rarely lets up, and there are moments, as in the giddy “Run Baby Run,” where you can imagine a knot of fans nodding their heads in unison. If Bundick sounds distracted most of the time, it’s probably because he seems to have run out of things to say. “What is it you want to do?” he asks at one point, as if bored.
The Day Is My Enemy
-The Prodigy (Victor)
This is only Liam Howlett’s sixth album in 25 years, during which he has never veered from his antagonistic approach to dance techno. But the rave culture that incubated Howlett’s baby was already on its way out by the time the kid was born, so what is he doing plying the same clangorous breakbeats at the same supersonic tempos? Does it matter that he single-handedly sold “electronica” to Americans who couldn’t countenance a dance track without a guitar fill? Apparently, it does, since the dominant vibe here is Yankee-style aggression, and while nothing is as patently offensive as “Smack My Bitch Up,” the record maintains a macho presence that recalls the cock rock swagger of Van Halen minus their sense of humor. And like Van Halen, there is plenty of pleasure to be had as long as no thoughts enter into the mix and the lyrics remain incomprehensible.
Empire Concert Club, Cleveland, OH, Jan. 5, 1992
-Warren Zevon (Echoes/MSI)
This radio broadcast of a full concert by the excitable Californian took place during what the liner notes characterize as a renaissance period for Zevon following an extended stint in rehab and rediscovery by a host of high-profile musicians, including REM and Neil Young. Backed by a Canadian group called the Odds, the performances are woolier and less slick than those on Stand In the Fire, and closer in spirit to cowpunk than to grunge if you need a contemporary referent. The newer material sounds much better than it does on record, but the real revelations are the covers, which range from Leonard Cohen’s faux-sophisticated “First We Take Manhattan” to Van Morrison’s signature “Into the Mystic.” They give the singer chances to come down from his typically manic concert high. He knows he has to apply himself to others’ material. He would expect nothing less if they did his songs.
-Death Cab For Cutie (Atlantic/Warner)
Now that Chris Walla has left, Death Cab For Cutie is Ben Gibbard’s own, which most people have assumed for years, but his affect on the indie Zeitgeist can be evaluated anew. I never got DCFC’s appeal, and not because I think Gibbard’s songwriting is too personal, but rather because his melodic gifts are so scattershot. In order to understand his popularity you also have to understand the cultural climate for young American males in the late 90s—not just music, but TV. This makes sense, since Gibbard’s close miking and recessive instrumentation emphasize narrative, but are DCFC fans really that desperate for stories, especially ones that trade in opaque metaphors (“The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”) at the expense of visceral pleasure? As for the Japanese themes indicated by the album title, you have to settle for cliches—cherry blosssoms, Shibuya, the usual tourist stuff.
Inspired or incensed by the recent split from her husband, fellow self-serious artist Matthew Barney, Bjork’s latest offering belongs to that subset of concept albums called the breakup record. Given our oversexed age and the Icelandic sprite’s predilection for wound-opening candor, the spewing of angst is voluminous and disturbing, and while the music, tempered by the attentions of Bjork’s current producer-in-residence, Arca, is tasteful to a fault, that vocal instrument can’t be denied. If anything, Vulnicura is her most vital “performance” in years, but the intimacy defeats the purposes that the music is supposed to achieve. On “History of Touches” she chronicles the most tactile aspects of her shattered relationship, but the music and the singing pull us back so that we feel like voyeurs. It may sound petty to chide an artist for being too personal, but Bjork always started from that position. Anything closer feels like biology.
Strangely, glam rock has never made a concerted comeback in the pop imagination, and, yes, I am considering Panic At the Disco in that assessment. Citizens!, a London quartet who once quit the biz due to popular indifference, have since persevered and made a go of glammy dance music. Singer Tom Burke has that chirpy androgynous timber that makes the connection immediately, though the band’s lack of variety in terms of arrangements—everything at the same tempo, driven by resolute piano chords—seems to indicate they have little range beyond their chosen genre. In their promo materials, they claim this is their ode to American soul music, though a more accurate description would be new wave disco. For sure, mirror ball visuals would greatly enhance the excitement intended for “Waiting For Your Lover,” which bobs and weaves uncontrollably. Despite their surface tightness, Citizens! doesn’t evoke much discipline.
White Men Are Black Men Too
-Young Fathers (Big Dada/Beat)
Since labels are important, this vital Scottish trio tends to be described as hip-hop, though the way they drift in and out of classic song structures and melodic signifiers complicates the branding game. The confusion is built into their delivery and their lyrics, which dwell on the difficulties they have with self-identity (their name comes across as ironic except when it doesn’t), even as they gain confidence in the music they’re making. “Shame,” with its paradoxical chorus (“It ain’t right/What you do to feel good”), is nevertheless straightforward in its pop intentions, and “Dare Me” is a syrupy ballad that contains almost nothing that would qualify as “rap.” But it is definitely urban in its multivalent point of view. If the album title’s purpose is to provoke, it also emphasizes this confusion with identity and labels. Can’t we all get along? At least in the studio?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist, John Frusciante, can afford to get out there on his occasional solo gambits, but as Trickfinger he goes so far out that he neglects to bring his guitar. Preciously indulgent, the album makes an attempt to rejigger the experimental side of acid house using nothing but electronics, and he proves to be a formidable student of the style. Though never completely abandoning his melodic tendencies, Frusciante stresses texture and rhythmic originality. The tracks immediately engage the ear with sticky patterns that never get cloying or stiff, though over the course of 45 minutes the lack in tonal variation can become monotonous. With this kind of music the artist usually aims for emotional empathy, and Fruciante interprets this aim in terms of color—more bass notes here, a little more mid-range there. He’s still learning, though. It sounds like a hobby.
The Scene Between
-The Go! Team (Memphis Industries/Octave)
The best thing about Ian Parton’s frantic pop project was that it always came across as a real band, with real band dynamics, rather than the notion of one creative fellow. Especially on stage, the Go! Team acted as if everyone were in on the process, though, apparently, Parton, who wrote all the music and played almost all the instruments on record, kept a tight ship. On his fourth album he seems done with that conceit. It’s basically him and a complement of guest vocalists, and while Parton’s gift for tunes and his sharp ear for arrangements that bring out their best qualities is in full force, The Scene Between lacks the cohesive force of his debut, which was like a party that crashed your house and refused to leave until they were finished. Here, you’re well aware of the wizard behind the curtain.
The Great Pretenders
-Mini Mansions (Fiction/Hostess)
Michael Shuman’s other band is Queens of the Stone Age, so it’s not surprising that Mini Mansions’ first bona fide long-player sounds as polished as it does. It isn’t even surprising that he conveys old-fashioned rock power without actually resorting to the cliches of hard rock—which is essentially QOTSA’s entire m.o. What is surprising is how deep the music runs over repeated listenings. Though the songcraft borrows ideas from mid-70s wiseguy stalwarts like Cheap Trick and ELO, there’s an undercurrent of dread running through all the songs that keep them connected to a central, ineffable musical theme that’s the opposite of hopeful. The glammy sheen of “Honey, I’m Home” and “Creeps” blinds you to the songs’ basic cynical regard for their respective subject matters, and you bop along at your own risk. By the end, you’ll wonder what hit you.