December 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Nov. 25.

-Justin Bieber (Def Jam/Universal)
Made in the A.M.
-One Direction (Sony)
Whatever your opinion of Justin Bieber, his career arc has been instructive for anyone interested in post-millennial commercial pop culture. His 2013 fall from grace, which was both self-inflicted and historically inevitable, was marked creatively by a collection of ballads that even his handlers didn’t take seriously and which prompted a year-long sabbatical that ended when Bieber himself gave hot dance music producer-DJs Skrillex and Diplo a piano ballad that they promptly turned into a banger, thus attracting attention to Bieber from a theretofore unexpected quarter: critics and dance music mavens. What’s most intriguing about Purpose is that this song, “Where Are U Now,” which became a hit, is not the centerpiece of the album, and, for that matter, neither are “What Do You Mean?” nor “Sorry,” two other subsequent Top Ten singles. The point is that not only is Bieber connecting to his audience as an artist rather than as a manufactured idol, but that he’s doing so with work that is of a piece artistically. Though it would be too much to say he’s responsible for the overall tone and thrust of the record, he definitely sounds engaged in ways he didn’t before. And he isn’t just leading with the upbeat numbers. Much of the material is still the kind of thing that made him a teen heartthrob in the first place: ballads, but ballads that make him sound as if he really cares, and now more people may actually believe it. Partly that’s because he owns up to the mistakes he’s made in the recent past, not directly, mind you, but even if they’re metaphors, you get the point. The nature of pop stardom being fleeting, it’s hardly a guarantee that this newfound maturity will be enough to keep even his hardcore fans “beliebing,” but it’s a halfway enjoyable album and not a novelty. British boy band One Direction hasn’t had as hard a time as Bieber did, but they did recently lose one member to stardom burnout attrition, and Made in the A.M. is their first record since the departure of Zayn Malik. Unsurprisingly, the album makes no concessions to anything and gets by with the formula that turned One Direction into the world’s top-grossing pop act. There’s the handful of radio-ready hits, the complement of towering power ballads, and some mid-tempo ear candy to fill time in between. What has tended to make One Direction more tolerable than their like-minded predecessors is their preference for rock. They’re not afraid to mimic Def Leppard or Fleetwood Mac when a song presents those kinds of references, and they’re talented enough to get away with it. Consequently, when they’re having fun they really sound as if they’re having fun, probably because they wrote these songs and thus have more of an emotional investment in them. Boy bands will be boy bands, but if you let them take charge they might be something more.

-Joanna Newsom (P-Vine)
Since her first, fiercely original album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom has turned a deceptively abstract style of music-making into a purposefully abstract style of music-making. Her initial songs sounded free-form but they eventually betrayed strict structures and ideas. Most of the ideas she’s presented on subsequent albums are all in the lyrics. The music is impressionistic in the most intimate ways, and thus impenetrable. Divers is more listener-friendly if only because the arrangements are more conventional. The melodies still refuse to cohere around lyrics that have become actually less abstract. In fact, her verbal expression has a clarity of meaning she’s never seemed comfortable with, indicating she really wants to communicate on an intimate level. In this regard, she’s the closest thing America has to a Bjork. I still like her, but I don’t think I’ll ever know her.

-Floating Points (Pluto/Beat)
Few dedicated electronic artists split the difference between pure synthesized sounds and musical structures, since, by definition, anything that “sounds” musical is structure. Sam Shepherd, in the guise of the clever moniker Floating Points, makes an effort to ground his electronica in real music, or, at least, in real musical instruments. Moreover, he adheres to time signatures, albeit not consistent ones, and while more impressionistic electronic artists trade rhythm for pulse, Shepherd uses both, often at the same time, for an effect that references both nature and intelligent design, to use a term that usually means something else. He also avoids studio frippery—no loops or samples. In other words, he turns music into electronica, which may sound like a step backwards, and maybe it is. These days you have to put on a classical record to get the kind of whisper-to-scream dynamic range that Shepherd pulls off here.

Here We Go Magic / Be SmallBe Small
-Here We Go Magic (Secretly Canadian/Hostess)
The duo of Luke Temple and Michael Bloch dial everything back on their fourth album as Here We Go Magic, recording at home with themselves on most instruments. Consequently, the dreamy pull of their last album, produced by the usually dreamy Nigel Godrich, is less in evidence, which means you can here the songwriting gears working if you listen carefully enough. You can also hear the melodies more clearly, not to mention the lyrics, which turn out to be more of a kick than you might expect. The pair’s penchant for mixing metaphors (“spread out legs of restlessness to grab our piece of pie”) is endearing, especially when set against music this sincere in its determination to remain upbeat in the face of uncertainty. The references to 70s musical styles, from funk to soft rock, would have sounded like over-calculation on Godrich’s album, but here it comes across as earnest fun.

LOSLOBOS15Gates of Gold
-Los Lobos (429/Victor)
Forty years into a career that saw them starting out as a neighborhood dance band, Los Lobos have earned the right to cruise on their laurels, and their 17th album sorts through the same selection of roots rock, Latin soul, blues boogie, and Laurel Canyon sincerity they’ve always sampled. But as they’ve occasionally shown on albums like Kiko (or in their Latin Playboys side project), they’ve never shied away from experimentation, and Gates of Gold is bold in its jazz assertions (“When We Were Free”), unexpected use of sound (“There I Go”), and the kind of cosmic vision that their mentors, the Grateful Dead, once championed. Taken as an encapsulation of their musical ambition and sensibility, the album makes a case for Los Lobos as the great American rock band; or, more to the point, the great North American rock band. Why limit their range to one country?

rudimental We the Generation
-Rudimental (Big Beat/Warner)
This UK group mixes the usual dance styles into a lively amalgam that sounds suspiciously like R&B from a short distance, attracting everybody with a voice and a savvy agent, in this case Ed Sheeran, Lianne La Havas, and the late Bobby Womack. That’s a wide range of styles, but the music on Rudimental’s second album relies a great deal on big beat electronics tethered to hackneyed hooks, and even when the voice is recognizable the songs have a generic, faceless quality that doesn’t make an impression outside of a concert hall, where this kind of music has a chance of being identified with real human beings on a stage. This is often the problem when songs are written by six or seven people. Even the jazzy title cut, with a vocal by Mahalia Burkmar, gets by on a syncopated horn line that covers up the lack of an earworm.

-Arca (Mute/Traffic)
With electronic music it’s helpful when an artist explains the meaning of his work, but sometimes such explanations just add to the confusion. Producer Arca has said that his latest album, Mutant, is “about sensuality and impulsiveness as escape routes out of rigidity; softness as a weapon when the mind attacks itself.” Generally speaking, electronic music is more rigid than non-electronic music by reason of sonic limitations, and the texture of the tracks here is brittle in the Arca fashion, not to mention trebly, echoey, and angular. What he probably means is that it sounds more improvisational than his debut or the work he’s done for people like Kanye West and Bjork. Though the seven-minute title track has a sense of grandeur, the rest of the album is mostly made up of fragments teased out to the length of a 45-rpm record. Singles for mutants.

Though Australia is half a world away from the UK, it isn’t quarantined from the latter’s music press snark. This Sydney three-piece has made a racket at home peddling unadulterated Britpop (tempted to write “90s Britpop” but that would go without saying, right?), thus inviting unflattering comparisons to the less lucky bands that struggled under that label back in the day. No need to repeat their names. And no need to point out that the guitar songs on this debut EP are anthemic by design and that lead singer Tommy O’Dell sounds like Liam Gallagher, except on the ballad “Delete,” where he could be covering Ed Sheeran, so it’s not as if the band hasn’t heard anything released after 1997. Their excuse is that Brits aren’t playing Britpop any more, but that position implies that there’s an unexpressed demand for new Britpop. Obviously, they haven’t toured the U.S. yet.

-Roots Manuva (Big Dada/Beat)
Fifteen years after his debut Roots Manuva (Rodney Smith) is by default the godfather of British rap, even if he tends to be associated more with ragga and native trip-hop. His latest album brings the darkness with a measured degree of calculation, and the opening cut, “Hard Bastards,” with its soaring chorus and bottomless bass, sounds less angry than resigned. “Crying,” which goes overboard on the weepy samples, resembles RZA in its subterranean sonics and halting rhythms, rendering the rapper’s supreme self-disgust almost beside the point. Things improve mightily on “Don’t Breathe Out,” maybe because the words aren’t that clear but the brighter sentiments are. Though there are undoubtedly good reasons for Roots Manuva’s bitterness, it doesn’t always translate into something that makes a connection with the listener. Maybe it’s just too hard for a rapper to imagine any other attitude might be relevant.

trim and spreadEmperors of Medieval Japan
-Lisa Ronson (Maniac Squat)
Though raised in New York, singer Lisa Ronson performs music with a notable British rock accent thanks to her pedigree—her late father was guitarist Mick Ronson. The arrangements are full of dramatic guitar lines and billowing synthesizers, though Ronson herself rarely gets carried away. Her reading of the title cut is almost anthropological in tone, even if her interpretation of history leans more toward fantasy than reportage, and the delightfully off-handed vocals on “Shopping and Fucking” are delivered in front of a wildly throbbing rhythm section. Her enervated new wave version of Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” belies the excitability implied by the title but manages to be exciting in its own way. In fact, Ronson’s calmness of demeanor is the album’s sole unifying element, since the music covers a wide range in terms of attack and sensibility. It’s an oddly restrained, but nonetheless accomplished debut.

5secondsSounds Good Feels Good
-5 Seconds of Summer (Capitol/Universal)
Continuing with this month’s focus on teen idols, this Australian boy band is literally a boy band—four kids who play Green Day-ish punk and who’ve garnered a global fanbase of girls who probably won’t admit to liking One Direction more. Of course, 5SOS don’t have much use for the cheekiness that characterized 90s punk, even if they understood it, but their sophomore album still brings the noise to better effect than you might expect, though it has nothing to do with the seeming dispensation provided by guests Good Charlotte and All Time Low. The closest the lads get to “offensive” might be the slightly salacious “She’s Kinda Hot,” but it’s that “kinda” that gives the game away. The songs are built for dancing rather than pogoing, anyway, and producer John Feldmann ramps up the feeling on the requisite ballads. Those girl fans have priorities.

pcd93902_Low Leaf_inLevon Vincent
A New York-born techno artist working out of Berlin, Levon Vincent comes across as more of a curator than a musician, helping other artists release tracks and often giving away his own for reasons that aren’t always entertainment-oriented. But his cuts are still entertaining. It’s real dance music that betrays a sly sense of humor, even when the mood gets dark. The fact that he doesn’t seem interested in drum kits only means that he has no use for the usual facile argument about rhythms; beats are what you make of them, and he manages to make a lot with very little. The dub-variant “Anti-Corporate Music” is practically subliminal with its provocative rhythm sense, and the more orchestral “Launch Ramp to the Sky” is techno’s answer to prog rock, but prog rock you can wiggle to. There are even melodies for those who insist on such things.

Dylan15The Cutting Edge
-Bob Dylan (Sony)
Decades from now, The Bootleg Series may be considered the most important album series in the history of recorded music, which sounds strange since the ostensible purpose is to supplement a catalogue that has already been established as the most important in popular music. Maybe it’s due to the temporal distance, but the Bootlegs stand alone as great music, and while this collection of alternate takes to the tracks that eventually made up the three albums Dylan released in 1965-66 don’t overshadow those albums, they are so distinct that they qualify not as footnotes but as basic texts. On the surface you can appreciate the work that Dylan put into finding the right arrangements (and Columbia’s tolerance of same), but in the end you just marvel at the inventiveness. Three iterations: a 2-disc sampler, a 6-disc standard collection, and an 18-disc completist’s wet dream.

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