Here are the album reviews I wrote for the July issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
-Jamie xx (Young Turks/Hostess)
-Young Juvenile Youth (Beat)
Though Jamie xx’s solo album has been anticipated for almost five years now—ever since he remixed Gil-Scott Heron’s last album We’re New Here into something quite different from the original—the record is still startling, if only because of how dissimilar it is to the work of his group The xx. In some ways this is a good thing. The xx’s second album was much less interesting than its debut, and it’s easy to surmise that Jamie, the producer, was already outgrowing the song-based predilections of his mates by the time Coexist was recorded. Removing the need to write original tunes with conventional meaning—no matter how abstract they tried to make it—obviously freed Jamie to explore what he could only do on his own, i.e., sample sounds and music that meant more to him than any personal verbal expression. Significantly, the casting off of normal structure has made his work more musical. The songs on In Colour still have that melancholy cast that made The xx’s tunes so indelible, but at the service of a wider range of fundamental emotions, which is probably what the album title is all about. Jamie is not going to tell his audience how to feel, but he will insist that there’s more than one feeling to feel here. His use of old doo-wop and ragga rhythms never seems gratuitous, and he’s careful to loop beats and melody snippets for maximum tension-and-release. You can almost hear the intent coming at you. Since this is unabashedly club music, made to be played (and danced to) in the presence of many people, it’s by definition more limiting in style than whatever it was The xx was trying to accomplish, but within those parameters it takes advantage of more resources than The xx ever did. It’s the most democratic dance music imaginable. Producer Jemapur (Toshiaki Ooi) has less pressing concerns in his new project with pop vocalist Yuki Matsuda. He surrounds her breathy, languorous vocals, in both English and Japanese, with the kind of spare beats that highlight those vocals rather than compete with or even complement them. His pop mission statement is more forthright than Jamie xx’s, but Jamie’s songs are closer in effect to what we enjoy about pop—its immediacy, its lack of guile. In interviews, Matsuda implies that there is no longer an “underground” market, and thus her vision of pop music cuts across all lines of taste and style. She obviously sees Young Juvenile Youth’s music as being more of a challenge to local consumers, which is probably why she sings mostly in English. Apparently, it was she who went to Jemapur and not the other way around, and she seems to control the message. That may explain why YJY sounds less like an organic partnership than two people struggling to find common ground, which is fine. Struggle can be entertaining, too.
-Jim O’Rourke (P-Vine)
Having lived in Tokyo for the past decade and doing little professionally elsewhere, the once-and-future conscience of indie quality has dug a neat niche for himself that, while not disavowing his past work as musician and producer, leaves it behind. His first solo album in many years uses a small group of Tokyo musicians and sounds like the kind of semi-acoustic underground pop that you hear around Shibuya these days, but this being Jim O’Rourke the tunes, the lyrics, and mostly the production is more ambitious. That it works as well as it does can be credited to two things: better singing ability and, per the title, a focus on actual songs, the kind you would have likely heard coming out of Los Angeles in the mid-70s. Aware that it’s easy for this kind of thing to sound like pastiche, O’Rourke arranges to beat the band—literally.
Everything Is 4
-Jason Derulo (Warner)
Few pop singers right now have benefited as much as Jason Derulo has from over-compensation. His songwriting and production are not just packed, they’re bursting at the seams, a gambit that’s meant to emphasize his bigger-than-life feelings, whether it’s about sex, love, or sex. His cleverly titled fourth album is all about hooks and as such is the purest form of tribute to Michael Jackson any current pop artist has offered, not that they haven’t tried. This gives Derulo a leg up on his rivals, who tend to be more loyal to R&B cliches than pop ones. The formulaic intensity of “Try Me,” with its Jennifer Lopez guest spot, is what makes it charming and not just irresistible. A lot of effort has gone into making Everything Is 4 appealing, and it pays off, even when he spoils things with unnecessary hip-hop moves.
-Lesley Gore (Ace/MSI)
After her death last year, Lesley Gore’s career has received the usual post-mortem reevaluation, and this album, originally released in 1967, contained her last big hit, the title cut, which was and still is considered atypical of her output; hardly startling, since Gore, despite her obvious talent and pluck, was always at the service of producers and writers, in this case Bob Crewe, with whom she had never worked before. There are a few songs, like “Off and Running,” a bigger hit for the Mindbenders, that sound both atypical and compelling, but generally Gore didn’t take well to the California sound, which stressed guitars over orchestration. Still, this new deluxe edition contains 15 bonus tracks cherry picked from lesser albums, and for what it’s worth, they do a better job of highlighting her peculiar strengths, which boiled down to a focus on lyrical detail that demanded attention.
No Place In Heaven
His name is really Michael Penniman, but don’t expect Little Richard’s long-lost grandson. Besides being white, Mika grew up in Beirut, Paris, and London, and his musical education includes the classics and voice training. His pop taste is all over the map, but it’s peculiarly British in that he seems to go out of his way to make sure no two songs sound alike. Suffice it to say that the Scissor Sisters beat him to this particular game by about a year, but Mika is less a thief than he’s been described. If his fifth album sounds less manic, chalk it up to ambition of Freddie Mercury proportions. The songs are less cluttered, more melodically focused. When he flips out, it’s within the confines of an arrangement that keeps him skipping in a tight circle. If you let him out, prepare to pay the consequences.
-A$AP Rocky (RCA/Sony)
Since his major label debut was considered more or less a holding pattern, considering how long its release was delayed, A$AP Rocky’s second LP is where he supposedly shows his mettle, even if he often seems more interested in promoting his brand than making music. In the meantime his mentor has died and the world has seemingly lost interest in him as a character. So it’s gratifying that he would tackle subjects like bogus religions, gentrification, and drugs other than marijuana and alcohol. If his flow weren’t so thick and his diction so regional-specific, you might mistake him for some reincarnated hippie. After all, instead of the usual suspects, the album’s show pieces owe more to Danger Mouse, Mark Ronson, and Rod Stewart, whose sampled croak makes “Everyday” indelible. As long as he keeps surprising us like this, he’ll be a force to reckon with.
Wire remains the most potent artistic force among the post-punk English groups who still make records, which may not be saying much when you take into consideration recent albums by Gang of 4 and the Pop Group. Nevertheless, casual fans of Wire won’t necessarily recognize later work without a scorecard, and this, the first self-titled LP in their catalogue, could be considered a fresh start, except that every album feels like that. What fans and non-fans want to know is whether or not it’s “accessible,” meaing that it pleases as readily as Pink Flag did. The answer is a solid “perhaps.” It’s as tuneful as any Wire album, and certainly as witty, but it’s also more restrained, less interested in rocking. The zeitgeisty songs, like “Blogging,” verge on the polemical, but they have spirit. Without an adversarial approach to social norms, Wire is nothing.
-Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Jagjaguwar/Hostess)
Like most guitarists who conquer technique before developing their art, Ruban Nielson writes songs that take full advantage of the scale he’s working in. “Puzzles,” the final song on his band’s third effort, contains a riff so knotty it tortures the rhythms out of shape, but rather than untie it Nielson works around it. Songs that call attention to their structure usually don’t hold up under repeated listenings, but this one keeps its integrity each time; as does “Ur Life One Night,” which teases a funky Motown pattern by augmenting the theme several times before resolving itself. Nielson knows well enough to keep these songs briefer than they might be, and does so mostly by sparing us demonstrations of his guitar technique, which I fully dug the last time I saw the band in concert. He’s good at prioritizing.
The earnest British prog-rockers have earned their right to be half-assedly political on their seventh album, though the topic of “dehumanized modern warfare” carries with it the danger of being misunderstood, even with a title as obvious as Drones. But Muse is never less than obvious, and their anger is easily translated into churning, bell-like guitars that sound a hundred feet tall. Some of the narrative elements have been ripped off wholesale from The Wall, another high concept record that people bought because they wanted to be prepared when they saw it performed live. At this point, Muse sounds like everyone and like no one. The Radiohead analogies have given way to Rush-like effusions of pure emotion in sound. In the end, the topic is beside the point. Drones is about a superstar band straining to hear itself above the din of disaffection.
-Jaga Jazzist (Ninja Tune/Beat)
Lars Horntveth, the leader of this electronica-stoked jazz ensemble from Norway, recently moved to Los Angeles and, apparently, what impressed him the most was the way “views of stars” change the more you travel the globe, though how he can even see them in smoggy L.A. is beyond me. Nevertheless the first Jaga Jazzist album in a number of years consists of five songs and one Todd Terje remix that were supposedly inspired by constellations. As with Horntveth’s earlier albums, he seems more beholden to 70s fusion than to either hardcore techno or classic jazz, be it conventional or bebop. And while there are occasionally horn sounds and the drums are really drums, the most prominent instrument is a synthesizer that grinds away in odd time signatures toward epiphanic climaxes. In other words, the postrock crowd will find more to love here than jazz freaks or techno heads.
-Holly Herndon (4AD/Hostess)
This Bay Area computer musician considers herself the kind of artist who is probably more comfortable in a museum than a club, which isn’t to say her music doesn’t belong in a club. There’s a potent rhythmic component to her tracks that immediately bypass the intellect, and her singing, while often amelodic, is grounded in the kind of vocal exactitude that jazz and classical musicians require before they face the public. Sampling found sounds with the dedication of a true anthropologist, Herndon transforms the quotidian into more rarefied atmospheres. To say there’s nothing like it is to perhaps shortchange its aim, since it’s supposed to have a physical effect on the listener as well. Though sometimes compared to Oneohtrix Point Never’s, Herndon’s music doesn’t feel like it all came from the same aural template. It’s as if she starts over with each new track. She contains multitudes.
-Leon Bridges (Sony)
Retro-soul is the thing right now, and I’m not talking about “nu soul,” which was old soul retrofitted with a newer, less stringent sensibility. Retro soul is meant to sound like the stuff we listened to in the 60s and early 70s, with production compressed to make it sound like AM radio. Leon Bridges is too young to have listened to AM radio in its prime, but he knows what he’s doing and his Sam Cooke impersonation is damn good. So is his songwriting, which builds effortlessly on the Southern gospel canon without taking unfair advantage of it. The title track is a masterpiece of spiritual longing conflated with a need to find a place in this world. It’s the kind of song you can build a career on and makes the other material sound like able pastiche. He knows he’s good. He’s just got to try harder to prove it.
-Carly Rae Jepsen (Interscope/Universal)
The pensive look on Carly Rae Jepson’s face on the cover could be interpreted two ways: How do I get people to forget “Call Me Maybe” and take me seriously, or, How do I repeat the success of “Call Me Maybe”? The answer to both is to go with your strengths, push the bubble gum aspects of your sound even if you’ve outgrown it. The centerpiece is “I Really Like You,” whose titular chorus is more like “I really, really, really, really, really like you,” sung over a descending note phrase that falls right into the center of your brain. In the title song emotions are things you feel, so no use in dwelling on them. If the production seems over-determined in contrast to “Call Me Maybe,” it’s not as if the songs don’t warrant the attention or that Carly can’t hold her own against them.