June 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

blur15palmaThe Magic Whip
-Blur (Parlophone/Warner)
Danger in the Club
-Palma Violets (Rough Trade/Hostess)
You have to hand it to Damon Albarn. For all his fuss-budget musical machinations, he rarely is unserious about the work he does, and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. Beneath—and often on top of—his catchy melodies and deliberate arrangements are ideas that bear close scrutiny, and not just about amorphous generalizations like love and life; but about class struggle and the quest for individuality in a world increasingly flattened by technology. The Magic Whip is the first collection of new Blur material since 2003, and none of the many interesting things that Albarn has done since seems half as consequential as the songs here, and it’s not just because the band that knows him best is on board again. Reportedly, the songs were created and developed during a short spell of downtime two years ago when the band found themselves stuck in Hong Kong. The album isn’t so much Asian as it is cosmopolitan the way a seasoned traveler is cosmopolitan. Some critics have noticed that this record was put together at about the same time as Albarn’s bona fide solo debut, Everyday Robots, and if you take that tack it’s a clear corrective in comparison: broad where Robots was restricted, extroverted where the former was contemplative. “Ong Ong” and the emboldening “Lonesome Street” reconsiders the rock song afresh, as if Albarn and co. hadn’t played any rock for years and suddenly felt the urge to revisit the old school. And while I still consider Albarn’s Brit inflectives an acquired taste I haven’t acquired, his jaunty Weltschmertz fits this material well. And ironically it sounds fresher than the new album by the Palma Violets who are some twenty years younger than Albarn. One of the myriad indie rock bands to be labeled the next big thing by the Brit music press, PV have preempted any potential backlash by downplaying their skills and native appeal in interviews. Tongue in cheek by design, the band has fallen back on what it calls “pre-punk” rock, meaning the kind of R&B that Dr. Feelgood reheated for pub-goers in the 70s, and it’s as unstimulating as it sounds; the energy that pub rock was supposed to deliver undercut by sour attitudes and willful sloppiness. Some will say this sort of contempt for proper form is in a grand tradition. Look at what it did for the Replacements, or, closer to home, the Libertines. The difference is that Pete Doherty was at least inspired by his screw-ups, whereas PV is only inspired by the need to keep moving forward. Their topics are personal without being insightful—girls are always disappointing, it seems, a worthy theme for someone willing to doubt his qualities as a lover but not for someone who couldn’t care less in the first place. Yes, it’s better to burn out than it is to fade away, but this isn’t burning. It’s fizzling.

-Nosaj Thing (Innovative Leisure/Beat)
Only one cut on Jason Chung’s third album lasts longer than 3 minutes, and most of the tracks are actually less than 2. As a melodic electronic hip-hop producer, Chung knows he’s only as good as his core ideas, and he doesn’t stretch his point past its natural end when he gets one. Maybe that’s why he takes two years between albums, which are short to begin with. He could be taking minimalism too far, but the point of production work is to capture a feeling that the rapper can channel immediately through his own words. If it doesn’t make a big impression in the long run, maybe the purpose of the album is to sell Chung’s wares. It’s never assertive, and I can imagine MCs rapping over these beats, it’s just that I can’t imagine a lot of rappers doing it.

CalexicoEdge of the Sun
-Calexico (P-Vine)
At this point in their long, strange career, Joey Burns and Jon Convertino have accumulated a phone book’s worth of professional contacts and an enviable reputation for producing outlander rock that manages to please everyone without actually making them a lot of money. They could probably make more if they spent more time lending out their services to bigger stars, but they keep making albums, which tend to improve over time. Having not listened carefully to the last few Calexico LPs, I was surprised at how little they lean on their patented Mexican border blues, though I shouldn’t be. Except for the rollicking “Cumbia de Donde,” there isn’t much that appropriates exotic forms, a practice that used to be their m.o. And the folk rock they fell back on as a default is wielded sparingly. There’s horns and soaring choruses and an exultant spirit of creation, a pop album any way you slice it.

-Metz (Sub Pop/Traffic)
It’s hard to make anything of hardcore that’s different from what it is essentially, i.e., caustic noise circumscribed by rhythm and a mostly implied sense of song. Some hardcore groups have crisper tempos, and others turn the vocals up in the mix, but if you’re going to label yourself as such you have to meet certain expectations. The Toronto trio Metz leavens its harsh attack with a lower end that turns the beat around and keeps things interesting. This is dark music, but not punk. It’s what Nirvana was trying to do on its first album before Cobain found his Beatlesque muse. What it doesn’t have is drama, a sense that there’s something at stake other than the audience’s ear drums. The songs are uniformly aggressive and thus uniformly on point, as if the aim was to make the same song over and over until they got it perfect.

drake15If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
-Drake (Cash Money/Universal)
Dubbed a mixtape that nonetheless has been released on the artist’s contracted label, Drake’s newest is also his freest, which means free not only with the inspired verses but also with the insults to anyone and everyone he’s ever had a problem with. The album title is basically a warning, and while the boasting and put-downs can get tiring after a while, the somber quality of the music makes it seem less flip than it would have sounded had Drake actually wanted to hurt people. The rhythm passages vary in accordance with Drake’s lyrical whims. In fact, there’s more vocal-musical interaction than there usually is on Drake’s more commercial releases. That said, he is enough of a talent that his reputation can absorb the fan consternation that comes with a product this abruptly assembled and released, but no one probably expected it would be this good.

fuller-kazCraig Fuller/Eric Kaz
(Real Gone/MSI)
Craig Fuller and Eric Kaz were mainstays of the heady SoCal folk-rock scene of the mid-70s. Both belonged to semi-successful rock bands—Pure Prairie League and the Blues Magoos, respectively—before joining forces in the short-lived American Flyer with BS&T’s Steve Katz and the Velvets’ Doug Yule. But separately they made a good living writing for other artists. Included on this one-off collaboration is Fuller’s version of Kaz’s classic “Cry Like a Rainstorm,” which was recorded by both Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt, and for what it’s worth, Raitt’s is the best of the three, which says something about these two guys as interpreters. Neither man is a strong, distinctive singer, and since the songs have a tendency toward melodic familiarity based on gospel and folk, not to mention a hackneyed lyrical approach to romantic love, the collection never builds up a head of steam.

-Passion Pit (Sony)
Musically hyperactive, Michael Angelakos is a pop natural, a guy who knows exactly what a song should sound like before he writes it. One of the most influential indie artists of the last fifteen years, he has single-handedly made EDM safe for any other genre. Though his latest album doesn’t alter his formula, it does serve a higher purpose, which is to explore his faith and love of family. If the listener feels cut off from the process and, thus, the music, that may be unavoidable. But when your aims are not to please, sometimes you come up with more direct music. He’s become more adept with the simpler confessional mode, and the few times he pumps up the energy he loses touch with the song’s appeal, covering it up with production flourishes. Some will prefer this more outsized approach, but maybe it’s time to move on.

-Tyondai Braxton (Beat)
More discerning indie music fans will find little distinction between Tyondai Braxton’s work with his former band Battles and his solo product. In terms of general effect there are definite similarities, but in form they’re quite different. Almost everything he does on his own is notated, and while one hesitates to call it “classical,” the system of commissions and collaborations at Braxton’s disposal sure doesn’t make it pop. His latest was written to accompany a multimedia “architectural installation” at the Guggenheim Museum with percussion and electronic instruments. Removed from its live setting, the music is intriguing in spots, and since Braxton is at heart a drummer, the rhythmic component is the only one that feels essential. The electronics occasionally approach chord-like unison, but mostly sound like random effusions, and the tracks go on too long. They don’t call it multimedia for nothing.

azealiaBroke With Expensive Taste
-Azealia Banks (Prospect Park/Hostess)
Interscope’s loss is our gain, but it’s easy to understand how a corporate entity would not know how to work with an artist like Azealia Banks, who seemed to mature at the speed of sound and, as a result, kept changing her musical m.o. over the 3 years it took to record her debut. There is so much more to Broke With Expensive Taste than the perfect dance single “212,” and most of it has to do with her willingness to provoke a reaction, and the ease in doing so. Her material is far more complicated and nuanced than her occasional reckless public pronouncements, but that goes without saying with someone who’s complicated and nuanced. And, of course, it’s also funnier than a lot of people will give it credit for. Who else would include songs entitled “JFK” and “Wallace” on the same album?

God Speed YouAsunder, Sweet and Other Distress
-Godspeed You! Black Emperor (P-Vine)
This Montreal art collective took drone rock to new places in the latter part of the 90s, honing their characteristic sonic attack—three parts orchestral guitar riffs to one part found sounds and one part white noise—over hundreds of live performances in which they played darkened venues in front of carefully selected film clips. When we think of “drone” we usually think of metal and its discontents (Mogwai, for instance), but Godspeed acted more like a sputtering engine than a well-oiled machine. Their latest collection doesn’t alter the formula so much as reconfigure it for your stereo. Rather than separate “works” that can be recreated live, this seems like an organic recording, the track “listings” merely a conceit. The stentorian quality of their compositions remain their sales point and here are designed for a full record; meaning you’ll only appreciate it if you have the patience.

fatherjohnmistyI Love You, Honeybear
-Father John Misty (Sub Pop/Traffic)
A former member of Fleet Foxes who seems determined to take the piss out of that earnest 70s-worshipping folk-rock group, Josh Tillman is hard to take seriously, even as a prankster. His insufferable middle class loser act is couched in the kind of pop attitudes that used to color covers of Jimmy Webb songs back in the day. And while this works perfectly well when it’s his own pecadilloes he’s lancing, they sound bitter to a fault when he’s picking apart his lover’s sexual behavior. He’s also peculiarly fond of the “f” word, as in using it to make dramatic points rather than verbal ones. The sarcasm tends to curdle into misanthropy that is only intensified by the ironic strings and floating Brian Wilson production values. He’s a provocateur, all right, and an effective one. I just wish he sounded more like one.

Flowers15The Desired Effect
-Brandon Flowers (Island/Universal)
A Killers album by any other name, the second solo joint by Brandon Flowers is another ode to his home town rendered as a George Stevens epic. Though Springsteen was the reference when this aspect of Flowers’ art came up, the operatic sweep of The Desired Effect, aided in by Ariel Rechtshaid’s production, hews closer to Queen and David Bowie. If you love Vegas as much as Flowers does you have to buy into the city’s surface–all glitz and no substance–which describes Queen’s songs better than the Boss’s. “They’ll turn you into something whether you are it or not,” he sings awkwardly, struggling to make his syntax fit the music, and you lose the train of thought, which was actually going somewhere. Sin City is such an artificial place to begin with that it defies Flowers’ attempts to make it real to the listener. The desired effect is hard to achieve.

FNM_frontSol Invictus
-Faith No More (Ipecac/Hostess)
It’s been almost 20 years since Faith No More released an album of new material, and considering how often the band shifted shape over its career—sometimes even with the scope of a single recording—fans of the Bay Area group didn’t know what to expect when it was announced they were reforming. And while it’s nice to have the original gang back together, it’s Mike Patton that everyone cares about, even though he was a late addition. What made the band special under Patton’s tutelage was his darker urges, which as often were interpolated as glammy punk as they were the doomy speed metal that was FNM’s original calling card. Though Patton’s tirades can be trite (“get back in your cage, leader of men”) he knows how to shape a song for appropriate aural trauma, and the group is as furiously precise as ever. Some things deserve to be recycled.

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