Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March-April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo Feb. 25.
-Tortoise (Thrill Jockey/P-Vine)
Songs For Our Mothers
-Fat White Family (Without Consent/Hostess)
It’s become a thing to label any musical style you can’t describe easily as being postrock, a situation that, in and of itself, goes a long way toward explaining how the term “rock” doesn’t make much sense any more unless preceded by a qualifying adjective or prefix. Chicago’s Tortoise has always been the default standard bearer for the genre if only because they’ve never rejected it. More to the point, their heady mix of prog and ambient refutes the visceral pleasures associated with “rock music” while mostly retaining rock’s instrumental and rhythmic touchstones. On their first album in 7 years, the group seems stumped for a way forward and so moves slightly backwards—anti-prog, as it were, and it’s not just the lead-footed version of David Essex’s 1973 off-center hit single “Rock On” that makes this case. Though Tortoise has always relied on the kindness of studio engineers to make their point, they never shorted the listener on chops, but The Catastrophist is notably lean on guitar or keyboard showcases. It’s an album of layered compositions, ideas that sound as if they were formulated while fiddling with knobs or patching together orphan fragments of abandoned songs. One exception is “Shake Hands With Danger,” which is built around a Bolero-like hard rock guitar pattern and propelled by metallic synth sounds that mimic those of a steel drum. It’s the closest thing on the album to what might be termed the Tortoise sound: lockstep instrumental activity that builds to something monumental without making your heart leap. The Catastrophist is too tasteful by half, an attitude that refutes the “rock” label even more. One would hate to see what would happen if they ever met Mogwai in a dark alley. “Tasteful” is the last word you’d use to describe the UK band Fat White Family. Obsessed with drugs, sex, and death, the band plays in an enervated style that recalls the narcotic thrum of Suicide or mid-period solo Tom Verlaine. And while the group pointedly doesn’t display much craft, they do stretch the boundaries of the bailiwick in ways that Tortoise might appreciate. Though “Satisfied” is little more than a two-chord rant pushed to the edge of discombobulation, it shapeshifts in interesting ways, as if the energy expended to drive it were producing more energy, like a hybrid gasoline engine. Some of the songs are abstract to the point of perversion: “Duce” is like somebody’s joke reply to Krautrock, six minutes of sludgy, beatless grunts and muffled choruses whose appeal is completely dynamic. Even when they attempt a conventional pop song, it either has to be slightly out-of-key (“Lebensraum”) or stripped of all of its pleasure signifiers except melody (“Hits Hits Hits”). It’s impossible to determine if this sort of rock is progressive or regressive. Tortoise moved back to get out of a rut. Fat White Family see no point in trying to budge out of theirs.
-The Corrs (EastWest/Warner)
In the context of their native Ireland, the Corrs teeter somewhere between the pinched indie pop of The Cranberries and any boy band with an uncle in County Cork, which isn’t to say the old country can’t be discerned in their music but you have to listen really hard. A decade out of the game, the siblings’ return sweeps away any developments in pop that made a difference during their absence, and their characteristic soaring harmonies and positive vibes seem even more canned than they were in the 90s. “Bring on the Night,” featuring Andrea’s latest interpretation of something Sarah McLaughlin had abandoned by her third album, is so generically purposed the hook is probably in the public domain. “Ellis Island” is a heartfelt slice of historical observance and “Gerry’s Reel” does the same for the musical equivalent, but white is the light that shines on everything, washing all the color away.
Though she gives Lorde a run for her money, timing is everything in pop these days, and Ashley Frangipane’s long-player arrives a little too late to grab deserved attention from the New Zealand Grammy winner. She’ll have to do that with sex appeal, apparently, and while I say more power to her any salacious reaction might overlook the inventiveness of her melodies and the adventurous nature of her beats. She’s darker than most electropop mavens not because she sings of dark things but because she imparts a sinister attitude divorced from the lyrical component, unless you consider lines like “I should probably keep my pretty mouth shut” threatening. Because she’s American she has a larger cultural canvas to cover, and despite her youth appears to have used her time wisely observing and absorbing. It beats me why nobody ever thought to rhyme “marijuana” with “Nirvana” before.
Emergency of Love
-Andrew Cresswell-Davis (Angel Air/MSI)
As the leader of such sturdy English bands as Stackridge and the Korgis, Andy Davis built a career that will see him through old age with songwriting royalties. Both gigs were known for their indiosyncratic approach to pop, and his new solo album strives for eclecticism within a narrower tonal range. With his hoarse voice and mid-tempos, Davis seems to be cruising, and if the tongue-in-cheek ambitions that made the Korgis such a vital addition to the new wave canon are missed, there’s no shortage of great tunes and clever lines. Blues and trad are the preferred modes of presentation, but Davis’s pop instincts make sure the songs are concise and the arrangements serviceable. It’s what used to be referred to as a “journeyman’s record,” one whose merits are difficult to repeat, except that Davis has been repeating them his entire professional life.
The Jack Moves
There’s no shortage of successful music acts who started out as skaters, though Zee Desmondes and Teddy Powell are rare in that they’ve made it as real soul artists, rather than folk-rock singer-songwriters with merely soulful voices. Desmondes’ falsetto is striking in that usually the gimmick is used to hide a lack of vocal facility, but more impressive in the long run is the way the pair use their imagination to pursue obvious, even hackneyed ideas to their ultimate ends and make something thrilling to dance to. Powell’s beats are definitely more hip-hop than Memphis, but his horn charts split the difference between the two in a way that give the group’s tracks a solider foothold in funk. The songs themselves never quite transcend their influences, but like Mayer Hawthorne the Jack Moves at least knows which 70s artists deserve to be ripped off.
All I Need
Since her first album, British dance pop sensation Louisa Rose Allen has picked up a bunch of fans in the critical establishment, and it’s difficult to tell who got the “indie” cred first, she or Carly Rae Jepsen. The difference is that Allen, as Foxes, was the center of a huge international EDM hit (Zedd’s “Clarity”), while CRJ is still just a pop star, but in any case, as with the Canadian, the Brit’s sophomore release is more focused on her as a singer-instigator than as a production instrument. The usual suspects handle the writing and production chores, but you can’t tell where they end and Foxes begins. The fact that Allen is a good singer matters little since this type of seamless pop doesn’t lend itself to expressions of self-actualization. Even decent chartbusters like “Better Love” feel anonymous when the center of attention doesn’t seem to know what she’s there for.
Life of Pause
-Wild Nothing (Captured Tracks/Octave)
Jack Tatum has at last moved past his hazy production predilections, privileging songwriting over track-making, which means you can finally appreciate the songwriting, not to mention the vocals, which, stripped of their electronic affectations, turn out to be crisp and fluid. The tunes are appealing and the guitar arrangements—two parts arpeggio riffing to one part floating single-note lines—so capably executed that Life of Pause never wears thin over the course of 11 cuts comprising 50 minutes. But he still seems uncomfortable with succinctness, and during seemingly surefire crackers like “Lady Blue” often sounds as if he doesn’t know what to do with himself, darting off on gratuitous musical tangents. There are so many noodling keyboards on “A Woman’s Wisdom” it sounds like tape bleed. It’s as if: I’ve got all this expensive equipment, it would be a shame not to use it all.
Live in Paris
The chilling-thrilling subtext of this remarkable live document is that it was recorded at the Bataclan, the old theater in the most cosmopolitan area of Paris that was attacked last November by Islamic terrorists who objected to the very idea of live music for entertainment purposes. Tinariwen, the Taureg guitar band, is, of course, Muslim in faith, and they prove their worldliness not only with the effusion of their music-making, but also their inclusion here of Lalla Badi on the tinde, a drum that is only played by women. She also sings on the album, in a raw voice that really does a spiritual number on your head. The music is frantic and not as solemn as Tinariwen’s studio albums, but more to the point, this is tribal music—intimate but not exclusive, repetitive but not monotonous—that’s for everyone in the room, even non-believers who just want to groove.
A marked improvement over their critically acclaimed debut, Savages’ sophomore effort actually sounds like the postpunk UK bands everyone cited when Silence Yourself dropped, in particular the angular, caustic Au Pairs. Much of what’s better has to do with the production and the playing—less atmospherics, more punch behind the vocals and the rhythm section. But the real difference is in the approach to the material. Singer Jehnny Beth was so intent on sounding like no one else that she didn’t sound like anyone in particular, not even herself. On “Sad Person” she pivots between an even-tempered explication of her state-of-mind and a furious denial that she’s unhappy, the excitable guitar work tracking her every shift in feeling. There’s a violence to these songs and their presentation that is impossible to deny and which by no means advocates violence. Great art is built on top of such paradoxes.
-Rihanna (Roc Nation/Universal)
Rihanna is one of those pop stars whose image as a pop star is indivisible from her impact as an artist. It’s impossible to judge the value of her work apart from her public persona, since both feed off each other. Anti deals with this dynamic in an honest but nonetheless obvious way. It says something about the tone of the album that the most intimate track, “Work,” is also the most characteristic of Rihanna’s past hits, and somehow feels lesser because of it. The usual dancehall vibe isn’t so much diminished by the attention to real life events as contradicted by them. And yet, Rihanna remains as aloof as ever, even on the sexually explicit “Yeah, I Said It,” where the command to “homicide it” feels almost extra-terrestrial. I’ll have whatever it is she’s against, but I really wonder if her heart’s in it.
This Is Acting
As a late starter Sia Furler had nothing to overcome, and her bred-in-the-bone iconoclasm serves her better as a performer than it did as a writer of hit songs. Having made a sizable mark with 1000 Forms of Fear, she goes for broke on her new album, which is more about her voice than her writing and producing. Though she’s noted for her desire to be anonymous, her voice is immediately recognizable even if it follows the post-millennial pop pattern of bombast for the sake of effect. What gives the game away is that she seems to be writing for the voice, and too many of her songs are about reaching potential and being oneself, themes that Pink nailed years ago and with more sincerity. Sia rightly thinks that rock is the best way to approach her feelings, but her production decisions are predictable.
-Sunflower Bean (Fat Possum/Hostess)
It’s easy to understand where this very young Brooklyn power trio gets its ideas: 90s bands who were raised on their parents’ record collections from the 70s. And while such a legacy might have a twice-removed vibe to it, in a sense Sunflower Bean is more beholden to the 70s than Smashing Pumpkins were, since they don’t have the obligation of sounding original. Consequently, the pop-to-metal transference at the heart of their sensibility is disarmingly fresh, if a tad artless in its delivery. Kids are excitable by definition, and much of the enjoyment of their punky elan is in the understanding that they can’t help themselves. Even when they sing of the dangers of drugs you guess it’s out of obligation. They probably still love drugs, and know they’re parents did, too, at their age. They still need time to develop a distinctive sound, but attitude can get them there.
We Are King
It isn’t difficult to stand apart from the R&B mainstream. Few pop genres are as unmalleable as whatever passes for urban music. This female vocal trio scans as contempo R&B, but the hazy production and jazzy atmospherics, while harkening back to early Sade, have more to do with indie pop than big label soul or hip-hop. And if the themes have more to do with ethereal love than physical sex, it only points up the group’s commitment to the spiritual, a factor emphasized through reduction: there’s almost no soloing or grandstanding. For the most part Paris, Amber, and Anita stick to smooth, seamless harmonies and while the tempos rarely break a sweat, they sit snugly in a groove that never quits. In a way it’s strange that while the album feels up in the clouds, the singers feel realer than the moaners and wailers that populate the charts right now.