Here are the album reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
Into the Deep
Choose Your Weapon
-Hiatus Kaiyote (Sony)
It says something about the territory Galactic covers musically that their recent Field of Heaven headlining stint at Fuji Rock hardly touched their new album. Though regularly touted as a funk/jam band, the New Orleans collective not only runs the entire R&B spectrum, but also soul music north and south and a respectable corner of the jazz realm. Though Into the Deep isn’t significantly different from past albums in that it samples the group’s tastes liberally and takes advantage of their biz connections with a large and wide variety of guest vocalists, there’s something more intense about it. The opening Mardi Gras raveup, “Sugar Doosie,” lays out their myriad skills in a compact 4 minutes: tight horn harmonies and a greasy rhythmic undercarriage that buoys the beat. What’s especially thrilling is the way the group pulls the old verities into the 21st century. JJ Grey’s frantic reading of “Higher and Higher” hardens its Stax/Volt vibe with crisper keyboards and a fuzz bass that gives it an edge. Macy Gray complements the Band-like country funk of the title song with a vocal that’s alternatingly meditative and desperate. And while Mavis Staples doesn’t sound like the right match for the Caribbean-flavored “Does It Really Make a Difference,” the old girl proved a long time ago she can sing pretty much anything short of Wagner and give you what for, and as the song builds you lose track of the elements and fall right into the toughest groove on the album. “Chicken in the Corn,” a collaboration with Brushy One String, brings the orchestral funk of Isaac Hayes into the computer age. But the record really comes into its own on the instrumentals, which reference New Orleans without being overly reverent to the city’s sonic traditions. They’re not merely the heirs to a legacy any more. They’re one of the most forward-looking bands in America. One might say the same about Hiatus Kaiyote in relation to their native Australia. Smaller and more experimental than Galactic, the quartet is steeped in the kind of avant-funk that George Clinton perfected, but seem less determined to get listeners dancing than questioning their understanding of what funk entails, which, for the most part, means linear structures that work on the booty. Much of the group’s appeal, not to mention its uniqueness, is built around guitarist-vocalist Nai Palm’s personal engagement with the songwriting, which takes in everything from family tragedy to essays on the supernatural. Like Galactic, Hiatus is capable of a wide range of styles, though often they demonstrate this talent in the course of one song. This is a long album, too, 18 tracks and full of so many ideas that it might take years to process them all. I find it kind of daunting, which doesn’t mean it won’t show up on my best-of-year list in January. I just need to give it the attention it deserves.
-The Strypes (Virgin/Universal)
The classic blues-rock that this very young Irish band plies is exactly the sort of thing that inspired the first crop of English Invasion bands, even if they were onto something else by the time they were invading. It thus seems odd they haven’t made a dent in America. Their second album is predictably slicker and more compositionally assured while being no less derivative. Vocalist Ross Farrelly sounds more confident of his snarling and crooning and his harmonica playing doesn’t feel as anachronistic as it did on the debut. If the group has yet to escape the thematic trap of laddish insouciance, they actually aren’t old enough to drink yet. As accomplished as they seem, most of the appeal is conditional—on the production, on the choice of covers, on the way they dress. You can understand how they’d be a killer live band. Everything else is still in development.
-Omar Souleyman (Monkeytown/Hostess)
As the leading proponent of the Middle Eastern pop form called dabke, Omar Souleyman would seem to be burdened with responsibility. He emerged fully formed from a mountain of self-released tapes and partnered with Keiran Hebden for his first “legitimate” album, thus making a name for himself. This sophomore effort is closer in spirit to his older stuff even if he now has the wherewithal to hire a slew of producers to help him find that spirit. As always, Souleyman’s secret weapon is his sole musical accompanist, Rizan Said, but the music isn’t as consistently lively this time. According to the English translations, these are love songs, and slightly dire in tone, which isn’t to say they don’t rock out, only that rocking out doesn’t seem to be the main purpose. Since Souleyman’s vocals are uniformly ecstatic, you may feel confused by the contrasts. Or you may feel like dancing.
The Monsanto Years
-Neil Young + the Promise of the Real (Reprise/Warner)
Neil Young’s literal-mindedness wasn’t always so caustic. Though he’s famous for speaking his mind, in his classic period he was capable of subtle, lovely abstract thoughts. Now he seems determined to turn himself into a cable news network. Though he targets one multinational by name in the title of his latest provocation, the album’s theme is more general, a lament for the lost sanctity of the family farm for the benefit of not only Monsanto, but Wal-Mart and even Starbucks. As is increasingly the case with Young’s op-ed songs, the tunes lose out to the sentiment, and while his backing band (Willie Nelson’s sons) is willing and able, the songs are so broadly written that they fail to find that spot in your heart where great Neil Young songs live forever. Even if you agree wholeheartedly with his polemics, you’ll require some dispensation to derive anything but passing pleasure from the music.
The Complete Duo Recordings
-Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham (Proper/MSI)
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham were staff musicians and writers for the storied Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio, Fame, in the 1960s, and responsible for a whole raft of Southern soul hits, including Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman” and the ubiquitous “Dark End of the Street.” Over the years, the pair has occasionally played their hits as a duo in concert, and this collection combines all the ones recorded on videotape, mostly in Ireland and the UK. The mood is reflective rather than raunchy or maudlin, and while neither musician shows up the artists they wrote for, in these settings, which include one Catholic church, the gospel foundation of their art comes through in startling ways. More importantly, all collected in one place, their ouevre becomes a kind of gospel in and of itself, the culmination of “sweet inspiration” at its most poignant.
Ones and Sixes
-Low (Sub Pop/Traffic)
The original American slowcore group has been hanging out with Wilco lately, which could merely indicate a regional solidarity thing. Jeff Tweedy produced Low’s last album, and guitarist Glenn Kotche guests on the new one. But while guitars figure prominently in the mix, the mood is dominated by effects and processing. Both Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sing through filters that keep them out of reach, as if they were on the other side of a sheet of cellophane, and on the opening cut, “Gentle,” the last verse is flanged, making it sound as if the speaker were moving in and out of range. These aural issues fit right in with Low’s m.o., which has less to do with slowness than the intensity of slow moving things. The strategy works to excellent effect on “No Comprende,” a densely packed dirge that sounds loud even when you turn it down.
Body and the Sun
The international club music scene is so uniformly structured that it takes a real aficionado to tell one dance diva from another. Elena Alexandra Apostoleanu, better known as Inna, is a star in her native Romania, and known elsewhere in Europe but probably not by name. That her latest album has received a major label release in Japan and not many other places could make for an interesting music industry think piece, but the lay person will listen and wonder why he didn’t know Shakira had a new record out. Which isn’t to say Inna is anywhere near Shakira in terms of originality, only that her Latin dance grooves have a similar effect on the brain and spine. There’s the strategically strummed acoustic guitar, the sunny melodies, and more pep than an Astin Martin on high test. You’ll like it as long as it lasts.
-Kazumi Nikaido (P-Vine)
Possessed of one of the frailest voices in the Japanese underground, singer-songwriter Kazumi Nikaido came into her own as a headliner about five years ago, a testament to the uniqueness of her performance style, which doesn’t fit anybody’s pre-conceived notion of J-pop. Ambitious to a fault, her latest album is being released only on vinyl, and this CD single consists of four versions of one song written as a promo for a public service message for the city of Hiroshima, though it sounds more like something that was written for a Korean romantic drama, the kind where the boy and the girl meet cute at the zoo: piano and strings playing footsie behind that sweet voice, the lyrics as anodyne as green tea from a bottle, which, in actuality, one of her songs also sold in a TV commercial. Some things just go together naturally.
Marks to Prove It
-The Maccabees (Fiction/Hostess)
For UK bands who emerged in the mid-00s during the postpunk revival, there really is no second act, since the first act was, for all intents and purposes, a second act, even if they weren’t old enough to appreciate the actual first act. The Maccabees have fared less well than the Arctic Monkeys or Foals, but they’ve also refused to be kicked to the curb, and after the lackluster and directionless Given to the Wild, they return with something that, while not particularly original sounding does feel as if work went into it. The main difference between punk and postpunk is that the former is supposed to sound effortless, and while earnestness tends to be the enemy of inspiration, the songs here are sung, played, and arranged for maximum expression, whether it’s the soaring, romantic pull of “Ribbon Road” or the shuffling choral uplift of “Something Like Happiness.”
1 Hopeful Rd.
-Vintage Trouble (Blue Note/Universal)
From the name to the tight black suits, there’s something that seems annoyingly calculated about this quartet from L.A., and at first the dedication to classic soul and R&B seems over-determined, a triumph of chops over style. But with Don Was producing, the group’s second album manages to make up in pure pleasure what it lacks in originality. Ty Taylor will never make you forget Wilson Pickett—or even Dion Dimucci, for that matter—but he manages the genre-shifting material with more ease than you expect, and the band rocks as hard as the Stones when it’s inspired. This is obviously a group that worked its songs through in front of people before laying them down in the studio, and Was is careful to get as much immediacy as he can out of each take. Not as vintage as they wanna be, but no trouble getting into them at all.
Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied
-The Fratellis (Cooking Vinyl/Octave)
Over the course of three albums, this earnestly facetious English band has ranged fairly far from their initial position as subversively tongue-in-cheek anthem shouters. Their new record feels like an attempt to recapture what made them appealing in the first place, but once you’ve tasted Americana, it seems, it’s difficult to settle for Britpop again, and the album as a whole doesn’t cohere despite some impressive songwriting. The basically bouncy “Dogtown” and the mid-tempo smoothie “Impostors” are weighed down by over-production that keeps them from lifting off, and the uncharacteristically sincere “Slow” fails to make the intended impression because of its trebly slickness. It might be easy to blame producer Tony Hoffer for the sound, but he also produced the group’s delightfully raucous debut. The band’s reputation as a live powerhouse will certainly be challenged by the material, but maybe that’s the point.
Stuff Like That There
-Yo La Tengo (Matador/Hostess)
Much has been made of the fact that this is the first covers album YLT has released since Fakebook, but the appeal of a covers albums is that the listener is usually already familiar with the songs, and I only know two of these. This aspect may point up YLT’s broad and deep familiarity with pop, but it’s not as if they’re showing off. Georgia Hubley does at least as much of the singing as Ira Kaplan, and her quiet, unfussy phrasing is better suited to the low-key tenor of the material. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is not going to break your heart. And why should it, when it’s played and sung with this kind of attention to what makes the song special, its melody and structure? I do miss Ira’s freakouts, but there’s something to be said for acting your age. Fakebook was 25 years ago.
Rock N Roll
Bonded by tattoos and an almost anachronistic love of trashy, PC-defying glam rock, singer Josh Todd and guitarist Keith Nelson are the only two members of Buckcherry to survive since the band formed in the mid-90s, and one could assume that the title of their latest album points to a return to fundamentals. Actually, it’s no different from most Buckcherry albums: Todd still sounds preternaturally psyched and the lyrics are primed to make you roll your eyes in either disgust or envy. But it’s definitely got more riffs per minute than any previous Buckcherry album or maybe any hard rock album you’d care to mention this year, including the Darkness’s. Better yet, the songs are short and to the point, which means the riffs are the dominant elements, and so in that sense “fundamental” is not an empty boast and the term “rock n roll” not used in vain.