Here are the album reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Oct. 25.
-New Order (Mute/Traffic)
-Lana Del Rey (Interscope/Universal)
Though Peter Hook was a founding member of New Order and a valuable holdover when the group changed its name from Joy Division along with its style, bass players need to do a lot in order to maintain as much of a license on a group’s sound as vocalists or soloists do. Hook’s long-anticipated departure from the group worried some of their fans, but the new album, New Order’s first set of all original songs since 2005, may actually be their strongest in more than two decades, and while those strengths mostly mimic what made the band popular in the first place—danceable rhythms in the service of songs that still retained the fetching dark melodies of JD—they don’t sound warmed over. For one thing, Bernard Sumner, never a great singer, is big enough to request assistance from like-minded artists such as Brandon Flowers, La Roux’s Elly Jackson, and Iggy Pop, but generally what makes Music Complete compelling is the return of that dynamic swoon that made their early material thrilling. It shows up within the first minute of the lead single, “Restless,” which, while constructed around a dull lyric, soars on the wings of returned keyboardist Gillian Gilbert’s sparkling synth lines. And when New Order actually endeavors to make a dedicated dance track, like the irresistible “Plastic,” they don’t skimp. For seven minutes you understand how Sumner felt after the death of Ian Curtis when the band seemed doomed: it’s time to get up and get down. You won’t miss the guitars at all, though you may miss them on Lana Del Rey’s new album. In fact, you may miss most of the trappings of modern-day pop music since there are few. By far the young singer’s most creatively ambitious record, Honeymoon exaggerates Del Rey’s torchier proclivities with full-on string arrangements and murky keyboards. It’s also, on average, much slower than her previous two records, thus focusing the listener’s attention on her narcotized vocal style, which reaches—sometimes over-reaches—for full dramatic intensity. When she says “I like you a lot” during the creepy-funny “Music To Watch Boys To” she makes it sound like the most painful admission in the world, especially as she follows it with the line, “so I do what you want.” Thematically, the songs are all about love—sex is implied, more bitterly this time—but they’re also simultaneously, though not necessarily concurrently, about Los Angeles; not the physical city, but that mythical place of eternal sun and celluloid dreams, and if you need a pop culture signifier, think David Lynch’s romantic longing spiked with Billy Wilder’s cynicism. The one cover, “Don’t Let Me Be Understood,” is Nina Simone’s version, not the Animals’. To say this is not for everyone implies that her first two albums were popular, but they were more talked about than listened to. This seems purposely challenging and rewards close attention, though you may want to take a shower afterwards.
Didn’t It Rain
-Amy Helm (eOne/Victor)
Though she’s the daughter of Levon Helm and dutifully follows in his roots rock footsteps, Amy Helm’s preferences as a stylist lean more toward her mother Libby Titus’s slicker rock’n soul. Also like her mother, Helm works best in collaboration, and it’s the way she interacts with her ensemble that make her songs crackle with the kind of excitement that Bonnie Raitt’s early albums delivered. Most of the covers are gospel songs delivered in an earnest, stripped-down form, thus lending the record the kind of “authenticity” expected of post-millennial Americana, but it’s the more rustic cuts, like Helm’s own “Deep Water,” recalling the 1970s L.A. scene where her mother flourished and her father languished, that prove her musical mettle. She’s got a strong, muscular voice that was obviously seasoned by all those Rambles in her father’s barn, but it’s his love of R&B that comes through.
Threat to Survival
Shinedown’s two-fisted delivery has always alleviated some of the squirm provoked by the emo flavorings of its hard rock, and “Asking For It,” the opening song on their fifth album, hits the body where it counts. However, modern recording prerogatives being what they are this stab at radio viability (or whichever medium is now its equivalent) utilizes compression to the disadvantage of the remaining songs. Even the furious roar of a track like “Oblivion” seems tempered when played on actual loudspeakers, making it difficult to appreciate the violence implied. Playing to the mainstream isn’t as much of a problem as playing to everyone imaginable, and whatever the band’s intentions they don’t have the pop chops of the Killers. Brent Smith has admirably taken the best vocal cues from Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace, but his exertions feel overdetermined before the diminished onslaught. More cowbell, perhaps?
-Janet Jackson (Sony)
It’s been so long since Janet Jackson released an album of all new songs that for a moment we forgot that this is her first release since her brother died, and while Janet was always the sibling whose music scanned closest to Michael’s in terms of sophistication and pure enjoyment, Unbreakable, from it’s title to its curious use of vocal processing, sounds like nothing less than a blast from the afterworld. Janet’s voice has deepened into a smooth alto, and thankfully there’s little of the faux cutie-pie that made some of the cuts on her later records sound uncomfortably juvenile. And since she’s no longer with Jermaine Dupri, either professionally or romantically, she can cherry pick from contemporary styles with the discretion of a true diva. The songs are demure, but musically penetrating.
Having lost their dedicated vocalist, James Buttery, the duo of Aiden Whalley and James Young supplement their own sparse singing attempts with a lot more spoken word snippets, mostly taken from interviews with people from their home base of Huddersfield. These conversational bits give the album a pleasing simplicity of purpose. The music is dreamy R&B punctuated by often disconcerting electronic percussion that might freak out people who happen to be on drugs, and the calm comments by common folk have a chilling effect that complements rather than contradicts the songs. Though not as danceable as News From Nowhere, Foam Island avoids the accoutrements of ambience and is actually lighter on its feet. The trippy “Stoke the Fire,” with its African syncopation and liquid beats, may be the happiest IDM track of the year. And the ultra-clean production makes you feel as if they’re playing right there on your desk.
-Fever the Ghost (Heavenly/Hostess)
In the promo photo for the L.A. band Fever the Ghost, one member is wearing a clown’s mask, which to me is pushing the obvious. The group’s music has been compared to (and endorsed by) the Flaming Lips, but on a purely sonic level they sound more like Supertramp as interpreted by Animal Collective. The echoey production gives their kiddie tunes a sinister cast, while the weird chord progressions imply a Zappa-like impulse to keep the listener off-balance at all times. In other words, when they are on you are compelled to listen, and likely your opinion of the group’s approach to art rock will be determined immediately. If it’s a playful rock song like “Long Tall Stranger,” you may decide FTG is worth further attention. If it’s “Sun Moth,” basically an ABBA song without a melody, you may find that attention wandering.
Outskirts of Love
-Shemekia Copeland (Alligator/P-Vine)
Blues singer Shemekiah Copeland is hardly a novice, but her last two albums were on Telarc, a label whose priorities are jazzier than what we normally would expect from a Southern blues singer, and returning to the more doctrinnaire Alligator she wisely hooks up with producer-writer Oliver Wood, who provides her with songs that shade just this side of country in both sound and theme. Copeland’s clear, powerful voice is just the thing for conveying the anger and pain of a woman wronged. Moreover, the musicians, which include Robert Randolph, Will Kimbrough, and Billy Gibbons, maintain a groove rather than a stomp, and the album as a whole really moves, even on the John Fogerty and Jesse Winchester ballads. The highlight is probably ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” where Gibbons has his work cut out for him even though he wrote it.
The Wilde Flowers
Considered the wellspring of the so-called Canterbury sound, the Wilde Flowers existed for a number of years in the mid-60s and at one time or another contained Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, and Hugh Hopper, who would go on to form Soft Machine, as well as Pye Hastings, David Sinclair, Richeard Sinclair, and Richard Coughlan, before they founded Caravan. Most were more into jazz than pop or folk. They never released a proper album during their time together, though in the 90s a collection of their recordings finally hit the stores. This double album includes that collection, remastered, and a bonus disc of mostly redundant material. It’s rarefied stuff, but what might interest the average listener is the group’s sense of whimsy, which is close in spirit to what Wyatt has done as a solo artist. It’s ambitious in an adolescent way, but charming for the same reason, and grows on you accordingly.
One of the few acts on either the dance or pop scene who, thanks to the phenomenal success of their debut, can pretty much do whatever they want and get paid handily for it, the brothers Lawrence approached their sophomore effort with confidence and a surfeit of new ideas. Having grown tired of the R&B-dance synthesis they pioneered on Settle, they attempt something more expansive and abstract. There are few bangers here. The mood is slower and groovier, and while anyone who’s anyone in the high-profile dance world makes a guest appearance—Sam Smith, the Weeknd, Lorde, Miguel—the Lawrences are still the stars, which may explain why the album never takes off. There’s nothing distinctive from one cut to the next despite the variety of talent involved. Everything is tasteful and pleasant, not in a club way but in an arty way. I don’t even understand the title.
Light Up the Dark
-Gabrielle Aplin (Parlophone/Warner)
It’s time we either retired the singer-songwriter appellation or redefined it for the post-millennial music age. Gabrielle Aplin is always referred to as such, but she first became famous covering other people’s songs (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Katy Perry), albeit in the kind of folky style that reminds people of singer-songwriters. But she really does write songs, and several on her debut, English Rain, were good and adhered to the stereotypical style we associate with the label: acoustic guitars, probing lyrics about the singer’s life and loves. Her new album is completely self-written, but, as is the norm with most new singer-songwriters, with someone else, mainly the people who produce the tracks, which are rhythmically punchy and full of pop luster, thus setting apart Aplin’s wispy vocals. Though a lot of the songs are good, there’s nothing distinctive, at least musically. How about singer-lyricswriter?
-We Are Match (P-Vine)
French bands who sing in English tend to stick to the conventional pop-rock formula as a matter of principle: though synths and other dance paraphernalia figure decisively in their sound, they make do with guitars and trap sets to give them a sense of authenticity. This Normandy quintet, to its credit, sounds like a pop vocal group fronting a bank of synths and a drummer, even though two members play guitar. Like the trippy illustration on the cover of their debut, it’s difficult to tell where one instrument leaves off and another begins. The result is pop that’s more pulsating than rhythmic. On “Old Chimneys” the syncopated drum part forces the verse into weird angles against the melody, and the hip-hoppy elements sound more natural than they do when Phoenix attempts hip-hop; which isn’t to say it’s great, only that Phoenix shouldn’t attempt hip-hop.
One of the many great things about !!! as a live act is that they flaunt their white-boys-shamelessly-exploiting-black-culture shtick in ways that earn actual pretenders opprobrium. The reasons they get away with it has less to do with chops than with lack of guile—they dress like white guys and talk like dudes and carry on as if this a job they know they won’t have the day after tomorrow. They’ve always held the disco freak flag high, and on their new album they seem to have given up on trying to carve a distinctive niche for themselves, either in indie or mainstream disco, and the party vibe is more pronounced without sacrificing the band’s unique goofball charm. Some fans will mourn the relative lack of political consciousness, but what’s really missing in that regard is shows of support for certain agenda. They definitely support their party.
Have You In My Wilderness
-Julia Holter (Domino/Hostess)
Being a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles, Julia Holter would be expected to follow her Laurel Canyon forebears, but actually she trends more toward another entertainment fixture of SoCal: the movies; not so much in terms of subject matter, but in form. There’s a cinematic scope to her stories that make them visual as well as aural. Holter herself has called her newest record her most accessible, which is taken to mean more pop-oriented, but she still references French art songs and Stephen Sondheim to good effect. What’s more evident is her effort to shape her songs for a conventional instrumental component. Every song has upright bass and plain percussion, and the production touches are lighter, less intrusive than on past work. What benefits most is not so much the songs but the singing. For once, you get a sense of just how expressive a vocalist she can be.