Here are the album reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on September 25.
We Were Here
-Tamaryn (Mexican Summer/P-Vine)
What was really lost when the album format became too unwieldy for the iTunes generation wasn’t so much the format itself, since by and large it’s still the way pop music is chiefly marketed, but rather the tendency for labels to cultivate artists with an eye for the long haul. Bruce Springsteen wouldn’t have made it in today’s market because his first two albums, as good as they were, tanked. We Were Here is only the second long-player by the German duo Boy, but the progress they display over their debut is formidable in both style and scope. Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass used folky melodies and simple instrumentations to describe the sexual awakening of young women in a world that didn’t take them seriously, and while it was touching its tentative nature didn’t make a huge impression. Just the title track on their new album demonstrates a startling maturity of outlook. A song about death that is many years away, it nevertheless homes in on that feeling of the present, the only thing that separates a thinking person from existential despair. In a quiet but strong voice that recalls Regina Spektor, Steiner sings of how “we need no photographs/the past’s not only past,” with warmth and assurance. The music matches this elevated confidence, using more electronic production that is never heavy-handed but brings out the poppier elements of the pair’s songs. “Fear” addresses its titular emotion not with ominous synths and minor chords, but with buoyant drums and a rollicking chorus that banishes the night sweats and “shuts its hungry mouth.” We Were Here is a celebration of self that isn’t self-conscious from young women who revel in youth without rubbing it in your face. It’s enough to make you feel like a boy again. New Zealand Indie diva Tamaryn is too jaded to wear her heart on her sleeve, but her new album also shows a considerable amount of growth, away from the shoegazey muddle that characterized her previous work and more toward the dreamy pop you would expect from a 4AD artist. Though still overly reliant on reverb and orgasmic vocal gimmicks (found sounds from porn sites litter the proceedings, not to mention a line from Paris, Texas) that seem to substitute for substance, Tamaryn at least is writing complete songs now rather than recording extended snippets of ideas. Jorge Elbrecht’s production can sometimes bog down in atmospherics but as long as Tamaryn is singing the tracks retain enough sharp angles to get their hooks in you. The skinny is that Tamaryn now lives in New York, a city where you pretty much need to state what you’re all about if anyone is going to take you seriously, and despite her image as an erotic sylph, she comes across here as someone you could actually talk to, which means when she sings you believe it’s a real human being.
La Di Da Di
Battles is the sort of rock band whose dynamic is so locked-in that it’s difficult to tell where one member’s contribution leaves off and another’s begins. When founding member Tyondai Braxton left after the first album, the band mistakenly tried to replace him with a posse of guest vocalists, when, in actuality, their strength has always been totally instrumental: even Braxton’s vocals were textural in nature, not verbal. La Di Da Di is indeed the “monolith of repetition” its makers have called it in press statements, and thanks to John Stanier’s monster beats its ideas get lodged deeper in your mind. Stanier makes sure the group’s storied density remains in tact, even if his signature hardness is more playful. Moreover Ian Williams and Don Caballero’s counterpoint melody lines are more comprehensible. You’re not likely to hear a more satisfying rock album this year.
The World from the Side of the Moon
-Phillip Phillips (Interscope/Universal)
One might assume that, given his penchant for acoustic melodies and a sweet tooth for jam band theatrics, this Georgia native’s victory during the 11th season of “American Idol” pointed to that show’s emergence from the pop-R&B wasteland, but Phillips’ soulful vocal attack and unfortunate situation (he suffers from chronic kidney disease) make him more of a story than a musician, which isn’t to say he lacks talent. For some reason, it has taken Universal Music Japan three years to release his debut album, which, true to the artist’s own self-professed idolization of Dave Matthews, is a rambling, unfocused affair. Phillips not only nails Matthews’ patented earnest croon, but also his wayward melodic sense. Fortunately, he’s no match for Dave instrumentally so we’re spared the idiosyncratic guitar touches. This is a straightforward acoustic pop album that sinks or swims on the strength of songs and vocal chops.
-Beach House (Bella Union/Hostess)
What tends to attract a certain kind of rock fan to the music of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally is its tactile element, the way the melodies interlock into structures you can practically touch with your hands. If the duo bristles at the generic term “dream pop,” it’s because their songs exist very definitely in the real world, where sunlight is life and human interactions are something you can count on to be disappointing. Their fourth album, despite its title, is more uplifting than the sort of things they’re known for, owing to greater clarity of sound and less rhythmic dragging of feet. As a result, the repetitiveness that makes their songs irresistible on the first listen gains even more purchase on your psyche. Personally, I’ve never trusted a group who tries to be sad, but Beach House is practiced enough to pull it off.
-The Arcs (Nonesuch/Warner)
Though he often overdubs himself on bass on Black Keys albums and availed himself of outside musicians on his solo joint, this one-off group sounds like an excuse for Dan Auerbach to be part of a real rock group. Comprised of tour bassist Richard Swift and members of the Daptones, the Arcs travel the same sort of soul-blues path as the Keys but allow Auerbach more room to exercise his production skills, and the album ranges all over the place sonically. Without Patrick Carney’s kickass rockisms, it’s also more rhythmically flavorful, a groove record rather than a rock record, but one that doesn’t have the songs to make it anything more than that. Keyboard atmospherics overwhelm the urban soul ditty “Outta My Mind” and the country blues stomper, “The Arc,” has so much guitar flange you can’t find a downbeat to tap your foot to.
This pretty Afro-Hispanic R&B heartthrob from Los Angeles tends to make people uncomfortable, and not just because his sex-positive songs are graphic to the point of pornography. In a world where R&B singers are expected to leaven their skank with either religious or domestic imagery, Miguel’s full-throttled ambition to be a superhuman pop superstar with all the nasty perks involved positions him closer to Justin Bieber in terms of celebrityhood, but there’s also something more down-to-earth about those ambitions. His songs are more immediately pleasurable than Jason Derulo’s and certainly more musically accomplished than T-Pain’s or Akon’s. If he doesn’t demonstrate D’Angelo’s idiosyncratic knack for speaking truth to corporate power, well, he doesn’t have the luxury of D’Angelo’s long dues-paying existence in the business. He will eventually get around to paying his dues, and if he dies along the way, well, that’s the danger of celebrityhood.
-The Spandettes (P-Vine)
A horn driven vocal trio whose m.o. is dance music for white urbanites, the Spandettes don’t benefit from PR that pegs them as a disco group. If anything, the plucky insistence of their rhythm section and the smoothness of the production scans closer to the fusoid R&B of singers like Patti Austin and Randy Crawford, and if the three vocalists don’t have the stuff for real jazz they’re fluid and flexible enough to give Manhattan Transfer a run for their money. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what they’re after. What might sound like a reggae tune (“Little Late”) quickly turns on a dime into a sugary pop anthem, but what’s frustrating is that for all the obvious talent on display the material all sounds pretty much the same, and when you sing as earnestly as these women do you lose the confidence of your audience to be able to tell the difference.
B’lieve I’m Goin Down…
-Kurt Vile (Matador/Hostess)
This young Philadelphia singer-songwriter has become the Woody Allen of indie rock, cranking out fully realized albums at a rapid clip since he was a teenager and actually getting better with each release. Many critics didn’t think he could top the inventiveness of 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze, but his new blues-based and mostly acoustic record is the most ambitious thing he’s done, even if it’s stylistically of a piece. Over some frantic but skillful picking, Vile sings with more assurance than he’s usually capable of about whatever enters his mind, and while a young’un like him shouldn’t be so preoccupied with death, it comes with the territory and he understands if you’re going to play this sort of music with any integrity, you’ve got to address the themes it was created for. As this rate, I’d hate to meet him when he really is Woody Allen’s age.
-Bon Jovi (Mercury/Universal)
Reportedly, this “fan album” is a means of getting Bon Joviites prepared for a band without Richie Sambora, and in that regard it’s sort of genius. Laden with the kind of power ballads that made Jon Bon Jovi’s name more than Sambora’s, the record produces enough emotionally full moments to satisfy the fans’ desire to be catered to. The rest of us might believe, however, that Sambora has taken whatever melodic gifts the band was blessed with, but a closer look at the liner notes indicate that many of these tracks are leftovers from previous albums or live tryouts that never merited studio attention. Then again, some of the lyrics might indicate that while Richie is saying goodbye to Jon, Jon is saying goodbye to his label. Since there aren’t very many of those around, where does he think he’s going? The world will end when Bon Jovi self-releases an album.
I Cry When I Laugh
-Jess Glynne (Atlantic/Warner)
This Londoner’s debut hit the top of the UK charts, and it’s easy to think that people over there are just itching for the new Adele album, which drops in November. Glynne’s timbre and delivery are eerily similar, but whereas Adele prides herself on her rootsy approach, Glynne is thoroughly modern. As befits a vocalist who adds class to dedicated house cuts, she’s bombastic and self-effacing at the same time, and the risk she runs on I Cry When I Laugh is ceding too much control to her producers, who often upstage her with their arrangements. Glynne’s gospelly fervor enlivens bangers like “No Rights No Wrongs” and “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself,” but sound hackneyed when she’s trying to be earnestly helpful. She’s a rare bird, a party girl who wants what’s best for you, but sometimes you want party girls to be party girls.
The Expanding Flower Planet
One of those sidepersons who pop up on important indie albums, Angel Deradoorian’s debut is not so much derivative of the artists she’s worked with as encompassing of everything she’s ever heard. Though she focuses on her singing, the writing and arrangements exert a cosmopolitan urge to include every sort of influence she’s absorbed. It’s a record that sounds like a notebook. The musical touchstones are embedded in everything from Balian instrumentation (“Komodo”) to Eastern European dance music (“A Beautiful Woman”). Nominally, she’s singing about California, and one can discern the wide-open-spaces of the state’s central region in her open-ended arrangements, but the predilection for exotic arrangements and chanted choruses clearly points to a musical wanderlust that can’t be denied. Such determination can prove to be pretentious, but Deradoorian knows that a good melody can see her through and manages to locate them in the mess of signifiers she explores.
Originally your typical Japanese noise band, this power trio has lately opted for a more minimalist sound that nevertheless continues to eschew structures, though one would be hard put to call them improvisational. Still, their latest album was not so much produced by English dubmeister Adrian Sherwood as live mixed while they improvised atmospherics in the studio. If one listens for it, the dub elements are definitely there, but what’s more distinctive is the way Sherwood exposes interplay that may not have been readily noticeable without his input. Guitarist Masako Takada weaves her scratchy rhythms in and out of drummer Sayaka Himeno’s relentlessly regular quarter note patterns while bassist Yuri Zaikawa throbs aimlessly in the background. Newcomers to the band won’t get much of an idea of their base appeal, though fans of Sherwood will find much to enjoy. Fans of minimalism, too.
Savage Hills Ballroom
-Youth Lagoon (Fat Possum/Hostess)
Trevor Powers’ modest rise in popularity over the course of two albums has obviously forced him to confront exposure in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable to him. Gone are the mucky effects that buried his vocals and the constricted quality of his production. These ten songs’ offer up their attractions with admirable concision and clarity, and reveal Powers’ talent as an arranger and composer. As a performer, he still sounds underformed, his little-kid singing mismatched to the orchestral rigor on display. More significanly, it makes his presentation, which often has a social component, sound petulant rather than thoughtful. If this is on purpose—even the appearance of innocence can be appealing—then he needs to be a little more subtle with his pronouncements (“the clones always said to stay in line”), otherwise he just sounds naive or, worse, ill informed. Growing up is hard to do.