Here are the album reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.
-Years & Years (Interscope/Universal)
Pop music continues to evolve despite isolated gripes about how it’s all the same forms only rejiggered from a technological aspect. If you compare what’s different between chart hits that came before the turn of the century and after you do notice a marked change in vocal styles and sonic textures, and both definitely have something to do with technology but only in that new equipment and software make them possible. Someone still had to have the idea to use them to these ends. Sophie, the pop music art project of British producer Samuel Long, substantializes this theory. The title of Long’s first mini-album, a collection of singles already released, refers frankly to one obvious use of pop music, and, reportedly, he’s already sold some of these tracks to companies like McDonald’s, which may or may not support the idea that this is “future” pop music but definitely indicates that it has a place in commerce. What’s typical about Long’s music is its circumscribed qualities. As with most electro-pop nowadays, percussion is merely suggested, and while there are occasionally vocal-led melodies for the most part the pleasure these tracks evoke is abstract. Long purposely makes his textures as electronic-sounding as possible, and even the singing, often delivered via a highly processed female avatar made to sound very juvenile, smacks of artificiality. This remains the old-fashioned view of the future, but even if Sophie sounds extreme as pop it carries with it feelings that are recognizable. What it mainly lacks is the potential for something more. Even the closing track, “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye,” clearly the most memorable pop song on the album, feels constrained by its idea. You know it will never break out of its delineated set of sounds. Who would have thought that the future of pop would be to collapse in on itself? Years & Years, a more conventional post-millennial electro-pop group, trades in the same constricted sonics, which are produced by two guys, Mark Ralph and Two-Inch Punch. The singing, however, is done by actor Olly Alexander, who copies the high melisma of fellow Brits like Sam Smith, a style that owes a lot to Jeff Buckley except that Jeff Buckley would have never allowed his vocals to be tweaked this much. Communion, the trio’s debut album, opens with a slow number, as if to establish Alexander’s seriousness as an artist, and only later offers up dance tracks that nevertheless only go so far as club bangers. This is pop music with a mission to tease your brain, though the melodies lack that visceral appeal we want from pop, and therein may lie the difference. Y&Y understands that the most basic quality of pop is repetition, which is necessary to create earworms, and electro-pop succeeds or fails on the strength of its hooks. Pop music without hooks sounds like a contradiction in terms. Welcome to the new world.
-Angie Stone (Shanachie/P-Vine)
Though R&B is as vital as it’s ever been, those who practice a more traditional take on the genre can have a tough time maintaining interest. Angie Stone first made her mark in the late 90s, and has lately been forced to supplement her music career with TV and movie gigs. Her latest record isn’t as lush as the stuff she’s famous for, but the simplicity of the production brings out her strengths, one of which is her knack for creating tunes on the spot, something more popular R&B artists tend to lack these days. The smaller ensemble accompaniment also focuses the groove. “Dollar Bill” is one of the most potent soul songs she’s ever recorded, and her duets with people like Dave Hollister and Candice Nelson whip up their own sense of symphonic fullness. Doing more with less never sounded so significant.
Still Got That Hunger
-The Zombies (Victor)
The reconstitution of one of the British Invasion’s most unusual groups, or, at least, the revived partnership between keyboardist Rod Argent and vocalist Colin Blunstone, hasn’t attracted as much notice as you might expect. And while the jazzy touches that made their 60s singles unique are still in evidence, the writing doesn’t quite match the quality of the playing and singing. If no one begrudges them the opportunity to redo an old chestnut, the version here of “I Want You Back Again” feels pale next to the 1965 original. But even back in the day, the Zombies were the ultimate geek band, and Argent’s playful noodling and Blunstone’s uncanny ability to create distinct personalities out of thin air remain impressive, and the musicians who are along for the ride provide dexterous support. Still, you have to wonder about a song entitled “And We Were Young Again.”
Dark Sky Island
Few world-class artists divide the music intelligentsia as much as Enya. Older critics tend to see her as little more than a New Age deviant, a maker of pleasant, weightless songs of no importance; while younger critics view her as a progenitor of the electro-pop movement and thus someone who deserves respect, though you get the feeling they would never listen to her at their leisure. This split is even more pronounced in relation to her latest album, which follows her longest period of inactivity. Enya’s “consistency” is what makes this supposedly a great album in the latter’s opinion. All the elements remain in place—the multiplied vocal melodies, the halting rhythms, the churning heavy weather synthesizer arrangements. And while the strings and pianos may throw some of her detractors for a loop, they produce the same emotional effect in that camp: Indifference to her swooning romanticism.
-Destroyer (Dead Oceans/Hostess)
Few respected indie music makers are as contemptuous of the zeitgeist as Dan Bejar, which is why his participation in the power pop supergroup New Pornographers has always been suspect. Though he’s capable of tossing off a delicious hook when he feels like it, most of the time he belabors his musical points. A great, unusual singer who knows how to take advantage of his voice, he’s never satisfied with just delivering a song. He has to draw out every musical ramification. His latest album is his lushest and most carefully arranged. It’s also his least typical in that he freely shifts forms even within songs. I still think of him as a rock performer in the heartland style, but he explores funk on “Midnight Meets the Rain,” and “Bangkok” could qualify as a 70s soft rock single if it weren’t so long and complicated. Bread would be baffled.
On the Move
-Slim Chance (MSI)
Though Slim Chance would seem to be irrelevant without its founder and inspiration Ronnie Lane, the band has seen fit to continue on without him. This album of all newly recorded material contains five originals and three Lane compositions, not to mention a handful of covers by the likes of Leadbelly. The first impression you get is that it was fun to make, and that you wish you were having as much fun listening to it. What made Lane’s music special was that hint of pain behind the jaunty let’s-live-for-today sentiment, and the band, acting like a band, lacks a distinctive personality to put across such nuance. With guests like Geraint Watkins on board the musicianship is always flawless, but the group’s reputation as a traveling circus gets ahead of itself. If anything, there’s not enough chaos to their ramshackle trad English blues-rock.
-R. Kelly (Sony)
Why does R. Kelly think he has to use metaphors any more? To convey some sort of artistic wherewithal? His latest lascivious long-player uses food as a substitute for all things sexual, and while it’s hardly a novel approach it also hardly bears scrutiny. Supplementing the lyrical grossouts (“eat the booty like groceries”) with long-form slurping and mastication sounds, Kelly seems determined to challenge our tolerance of his open bedroom policy. One doesn’t have to be averse to Kelly’s public scandals to find all this off-putting, because unlike past, similarly toned missteps The Buffet doesn’t have much in the way of hummable tunes. At least on Black Panties you got some songs to groove to as you were going down on your significant other. This is the equivalent of pigging out on tasteless fast food. I’m already full, and not satisfied at all.
In the august tradition of Sade, this British boy-girl vocal duo concocts slinky, jazz-inflected soul music, the kind that people with money but little in the way of operable romantic experience think is perfect makeout music. And in the new post-millennial tradition as outlined in the essay above it has a tendency to coast on its surfaces. With little in the way of drums to mark time, there’s nothing to break the spell, and it’s easy to fall into the rapture of the singing, though singing can only get you so far with this kind of stuff. And as also mentioned earlier, it comes across as limiting, whereas Sade’s songs, as facile as they often were, at least sounded as if they could turn into real jazz songs at any moment. Oh Wonder’s material is just a few shades brighter than ambient wallpaper, which does have its uses.
Hello I Feel the Same
-The Innocence Mission (Korda/P-Vine)
The introspective songs of Don and Karen Peris are an acquired taste, even if their gentle presentation is so anodyne as to be affectless. It mainly has to do with Karen’s preciously inoffensive voice and the limited scope of their themes. It is always autumn in the world of the Perises, and while that usually means winter (and death) is right around the corner, the couple seems to have the power to stop time in its tracks, so calling their music “nostalgic,” as many do, misses the point. Even “Fred Rogers,” a song about a dream where Karen meets the late, great children’s TV host, seems to take place in an eternal present where childhood has no beginning or end. The acoustic tunes and simple arrangements are, as always, charming and seductive, but once you realize you’re stuck in 6th grade forever you may get depressed.
A Head Full of Dreams
The recent announcement that Coldplay will perform the halftime show at the next Super Bowl caps an auspicious year for the group; or, at least, that’s what the media think. The fact is, Coldplay has never gone away or lost much in the way of sales, despite the melancholy news that Chris was divorcing Gwyneth and their last album, Ghost Stories, was considered a relative downer, “relative” being the operative word here. By some sort of admixture of chemicals in the group’s interactive makeup, Coldplay cannot possibly make music that sounds scared or uncertain, which is why the Radiohead comparisons—even the Radiohead Lite dig—never made sense. Their new album will probably sound really great on a football field because it’s driving and peppy and preternaturally optimistic, using more metaphors for flight than you can shake a feather at. It’s what they do.
The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam
Given that Thundercat is one of the most innovative and in-demand bass players on the L.A. hip-hop and R&B scene, one expects his solo work to focus on rhythm and bottom, but this 7-track EP is so much more owing to the artist’s willingness to express some very tricky emotions in complex ways. And while ninja/warrior images dominate the cover art and song titles, the themes are closer to home and in many ways political. Death is not the honor-bound result of being a responsible being, but a grim reality even when it’s couched in pop mysticism. The music is so rich and comforting that you may be lulled into thinking he’s romanticizing oblivion, but apparently he’s had enough of it and this brief treatise on coping is a means of release. What’s nobler than chops in the service of self-medication?
I like the Carly Rae Jepsen album, but after listening to fellow Canadian Claire Boucher’s new record I’ve concluded that coming to “indie” from a pure pop position is harder than navigating a course in the opposite direction. Though her girlish soprano has always pegged her as pop, her ambitions as a musician, not to mention as a public personality, place her out of the mainstream. The J- and K-pop influences are obvious on “California” and “Flesh Without Blood,” and they aren’t there to provide hip cred. The purity of Boucher’s intentions is what make them so compelling, because Carly or Salena or even Taylor might kill for a hook as good as the one that anchors “Belly of the Beat.” And it’s worth mentioning that she wrote and produced all this amazing stuff by herself, because what is pure pop these days if not a supremely collaborative effort?
-Rhum For Pauline (P-Vine)
The skinny on this five-piece from Nantes, France, is that they’ve been putting off their debut album despite intense local popularity. Each member has other things to do musically, it seems, and this diffusion of purpose is reflected in the wide-ranging styles of the material, from shuffling, airy R&B to revved-up road rock fueled by an organ that gets a lot of gas mileage. In other words, they’re not Phoenix or Tahiti 80, though they’re definitely Continental in the way they lay on the atmosphere like chocolate syrup. Maybe it’s the mix, but the production lends the rock songs a brittleness that flattens the dynamics, taking the edge off songs that are obviously meant to be edgy; which probably explains why the group’s home base is so gaga over them. I can imagine in full velocity mode, these songs would run you over in concert. Get back to Florida, I say.