Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
Perpetual Motion People
-Ezra Furman (Bella Union/Hostess)
The Life and Times of Drewford Alabama
-Drewford Alabama (P-Vine)
Few millennial purveyors of pure rock’n roll go about their mission with as much purpose and instinctual passion as Ezra Furman, a Jewish gender-bender from Chicago. The fact that he plays harmonica along with his guitar is mostly gravy, but it aligns appropriately with his street-level sociopolitical outlook, which he doesn’t indulge as forthrightly here as he has on previous albums. Though his themes mostly revolve around his struggles with mental illness and suicide, he isn’t so inner-directed that he can’t disassociate his feelings from his thoughts and relate them to the larger world, and he often steps out of the persona he assumes for a particular song and comments on the moment, as when he professes to being “sick of this record already.” If fear of ennui qualifies as a psychological disorder, than Furman is ready for serious therapy, but rock therapy is obviously just what the doctor ordered in Furman’s case, and the rest of us benefit as well, since the energy level rarely flags. Per the title, the kinetic power of Furman’s music feels pre-ordained, organic, a natural phenomenon. And while the R&B and folk forms get worked on relentlessly, there’s nothing reverent about the way Furman wields them. In other words, he has no use for the 60s—or the 90s, for that matter. He’s the busker with nothing to lose, the guy on the audition tape who doesn’t give a damn who’s listening but hopes whoever it is can keep up with him. Jamie Morrison used to be in a band, the Noisettes, that was famous for its own peculiar brand of energy, and as a drummer Morrison even moonlighted with the Stereophonics. Neither band qualifies as Americana, but Morrison’s new project, Drewford Alabama, does in a sort of piss-takey way. Still, don’t expect Father John Misty. Reportedly, several years ago Morrison found a notebook filled with hundreds of lyrics written in the middle of the last century by a guy named Drewford Alabama. He claims to have seen the light, but since he fields the singing chores out to friends and acquaintances, the project has an ad hoc vibe to it, as if the spirit of Drewford Alabama were simply hovering above. The songs have a pleasingly dusty ambience but they don’t deliver the piquant wierdness that great folk music does when it’s being made by a true original. Since Morrison says he was inspired by Alabama’s lyrics (he even taught himself the guitar just so that he could sing them), the listener wants to be inspired as well, but there’s often so much going on in the song that whatever it was about the words that drew Morrison to them is buried under a lot of disparate business. And that’s the difference between a force of nature like Furman and a man who “plays” music like Morrison. One doesn’t need inspiration because the music is already there. All others have to search it out.
-High on Fire (eOne/Victor)
Few metal gods practice what they preach as forthrightly as Matt Pike. The leader of veteran thrash act High on Fire sings about extraterrestrials stealing his mind and the government abetting them. It’s a comic book mindset fit for a comic book genre, and in interviews Pike reinforces the image while at the same time assuring people that he’s crazy. It’s the crazies that make good music, and what’s always made HOF’s songs more exciting than their peers’ is the group’s dedication to every aspect of the sound and arrangement. They aren’t scared of looking silly because Pike can follow up every vision of falcons and flying saucers with a riff that makes you want to believe, not to mention solos that actually add something to the songs. Also, the trio swings where similar-minded bands usually plod, adding momentum to the overall album experience. Aliens got game.
Once you’ve made your mark in the EDM field, you’ve got it made. Christian Karlsson of the group Miike Snow and Linus Eklow of Style of Eye join forces for this more casual attempt at big beat pop and due to their already formidable selling power landed a big beat international distribution contract with Warners. If the music doesn’t distinguish itself from the likes of Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx, it also isn’t quite as good, but when you’re dancing with a thousand other bodies such differences matter less than they used to. What’s notable is that neither man brings the idiosyncrasies that marked their main gigs to this project. It’s all professionalism with a purpose, and some critics find this attitude refreshingly frank, since the pair dumbs themselves down in order to reach a larger constituency, which wants what it heard last week.
-Dayme Arocena (Brownswood/Beat)
Discovered by producer Gilles Peterson when he made a record in Cuba with locals, Dayme Arocena quickly captured the attention of every musician she came into contact with. Though her metier is the chant-and-response patterns of African prayer songs, she can handle everything from Latin melodrama to club syncopations. Moreover, at 22 she is experienced as an arranger and choir director, having graduated from Cuba’s formidable music education system. But despite Peterson’s imprimatur and Arocena’s strong spiritual suit, Nueva Era is best approached as a jazz record, since it is Arocena’s ability to sing around complicated arrangements incorporatig improvisatory elements that make the album so deeply satisfying. Reportedly, she started her own all-female jazz group some years ago because she never saw one in Cuba, and she leads with the confidence of someone whose familiarity with the form is equal to her passion for it.
Welcome Back to Milk
-Du Blonde (Mute/Traffic)
Beth Jean Houghton’s debut was a typically slight “nu folk” compendium of stringed instruments and fluttery sentiments. Having struggled in the meantime, like all good indie artists should, her sophomore effort, under a new moniker, is harder, leaner, and less tentative about its subject matter. Dealing forthrightly with the quotidian aspects of her life and loves, Houghton assumes a cold, dramatic persona to match the music’s classic rock formalism. Even in a fairly laid-back song like “Raw Honey” the guitar stings and the rhythm section errs on the side of power. When she goes delicate, as on the ballad “After the Show,” there’s a steely presence to her careful enunciation, a gambit meant to intimidate her romantic interlocutor but one that will surely give certain listeners the creeps. “It hits like a dart,” she sings on “If You’re Legal,” a good description of her effect: sharp and swift.
-Linda Hoyle (Angel Air/MSI)
Originally the vocalist for the British jazz rock group Affinity, Linda Hoyle made one well-regarded solo album in 1971 and prompltly quit music. This long anticipated followup suffers perhaps from the intermittent change in popular sensibility. Hoyle’s impeccable craft and vocal style sound a bit precious against a shifting musical background that scans English folk, fusion, and a bit of prog rock to match the motif of her album cover art. But it’s the new agey lyrics, filled with howling winds and non sequiturs (“rode my pony past the abbatoir”), that pin the songs to a certain point in time and leave them hanging there. If this were a Michael Franks album, no one would blink because it’s where we expect him to end up. Hoyle is right to stick to her aesthetic guns, but as Jackson Browne once sang, most of us “passed that point long ago.”
-Tame Impala (Caroline/Hostess)
Like its album art, the music on Kevin Parker’s third album traces straight lines to your brain until Parker decides to mess with them by filtering the drums or sending a phrase into endless repeat. Much has been made of Parker’s penchant for experimentation, and now that he’s done away with guitars, he can indulge that tendency more openly. But the opening long cut, “Let It Happen,” prepares the listener for an experience he may be reluctant to buy into. As proven on his previous records, Parker is a tunesmith of considerable resource, and while there’s nothing here to suggest he’s lost that gift, he seems determined to challenge our appreciation of it. The songs no longer come across as psychedelic, but rather as patently manipulated for no good reason. Before he allowed us the liberty of interpreting his weirdness. Now we’re forced to accept it as it is.
The Original High
-Adam Lambert (Warner)
Reunited with Max Martin and Shellback, the team that gave him his first hit, Adam Lambert moves slightly away from the EDM that characterized his last few records on Sony, though contrary to what you may have heard he hasn’t returned full force to the glam-rock style that made him an American Idol finalist, despite Brian May’s participation on one song and the occasional obvious Bowie reference. The title cut is a potent disco number that allows Lambert plenty of flexibility to show off his R&B falsetto and canny rhythmic sense, and points in a direction you wish he’d explore more fully. Even the ballads pay tribute to the zeitgeist, more Usher than Depeche Mode, but Lambert’s big brassy voice works better with grand instrumentation, and one misses the heavy rock guitar that pushed him to the fore on his first album. One Brian May cut isn’t enough.
Moonbuilding 2703 AD
-The Orb (Kompakt/Beat)
Dr. Alex Patterson is famous for taking his time. His tracks are fronted by long introductory passages, and once his techno tunes get going they can loop forever—and this is on record, never mind in concert. Having dipped into the ambient ocean more often of late, Patterson and his partner, Thomas Fehlmann, are often accused of slackness by the hardcore techno community, which has mostly dismissed their post-millennial work. I think it will be difficult to dismiss their latest album, though, which does everything a good techno album should do but which most of us have forgotten because few actually do it any more. The opening 15-minute cut builds on a mid-tempo pattern of bells and percussion toward something truly cosmic and if you don’t have the patience to find out what that is, you don’t deserve to listen in the first place.
-Richard Thompson (P-Vine)
Richard Thompson stopped having to prove himself a long time ago, and while the quality of his recorded output has wavered, the attention to craft he brings to his writing, his playing, and even his singing never has. Consquently, he’s easy to take for granted unless there’s something a little different. What’s notable about Still is producer Jeff Tweedy, who knows well enough to let Thompson’s skills speak for themselves. His contributions are mainly in the realm of recruiting complementary musicians and staying out of the way. For what it’s worth, Still highlights the playing more than the writing, whose themes are so familiar to Thompson diehards—romantic friction, innocence betrayed—they probably feel he still lives liked this. There’s a certainl complacency in the sentiment you wish he’s get beyond, but there’s no complacency in the guitar work, which is beyond sublime.
-Four Tet (Text/Hostess)
Kieran Hebden’s newest album consists of two 20-minute tracks, one titled “Morning Side,” the other “Evening Side.” Besides mimicking the structure of an LP, the titles are meant to characterize a certain mood based on temporality, though his extensive use of Indian musical motifs would seem to indicate a temporality alien to Western listeners. Hebden’s signature style, of reprocessing found sounds into music, is so well suited to this concept that you wonder why he bothered with song-like tracks in the past. The long form allows him to work out ideas in what seems like real time, which begs the question: Is this recreatable in concert? At the very least, the Indian sounds could broaden his appeal to those who only think of him as an experimental artist. Of course, there’s no rule that says experimental music can’t be pleasurable, which is definitely the goal of Morning/Evening.
Born in the Echoes
-Chemical Brothers (Universal)
The current 90s indie rock revival only goes to show how short-lived and redundant that movement was in the first place. The real 90s survivors are acts like the Chemical Brothers, whose big beat electronica had more to do with shaping our current pop scene than anything else that was successful 20 years ago. They can still headline festivals and shift a decent number of units, but it’s too much to ask that they make music that defines or at least upholds the zeitgeist. Born in the Echoes is prime Chemicals in that it offers something for everyone: arena anthems, club poppers, and extended jams that come across as psychedelia for shorter attention spans. Because the pair doesn’t have anything to prove, they can relax and let others do the work, like Q-Tip on the best cut here, or St. Vincent adding a guitar that’s a welcome relief from the synth barrage.
Live at the Fillmore East
-Sly and the Family Stone (Sony)
Recorded in the fall of 1968, this thorough documentation of a two night, four show stand in New York was recorded by Sly and the Family Stone after they’d peaked and faded. It wouldn’t be until next summer’s appearance at Woodstock and the mesmerizing medley featured in the movie that they would become permanent canon fodder. As such, the exhaustiveness of the presentation here seems geared toward academics and purists. In any event, unedited it captures what was often charming but also frustrating about so many cutting edge acts at the time: a tendency to expand needlessly. If everything here sounds like a precursor to “I Want to Take You Higher,” it’s because Sly was still working on melding funk with hippie effusion, and hadn’t quite got there yet. It’s fascinating to hear him work it out, but you’ll have more fun with Greatest Hits.