Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on April 25.
This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
-Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Warner)
Man About Town
-Mayer Hawthorne (Victor)
Reportedly, when Macklemore won the best hip-hop album Grammy in 2014, he felt guilty since he’s a white guy plying an African-American art form, and other, presumably more deserving, albums by black rappers were overlooked. Two years on he releases an album that awkwardly addresses this conundrum, and some people will wonder why he bothered. Eminem, after all, never felt the need to justify his fame and success, so why does Macklemore? In an age when “White Privilege” is still a problem, perhaps he thinks he has to address these matters forthrightly in song. In any case, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made covers a number of social issues, including addiction and body image, and it all sounds obligatory rather than inspired. Producer Ryan Lewis backgrounds Macklemore’s sermon-like raps with a lot of instruments and voices, which is why some people refer to his music as “gospel rap,” and to that extent he’s fashioned a unique sound that may or may not qualify as hip-hop but retains the catchy breeziness of good 80s radio pop. He earns more than enough props with “Downtown” by featuring rap godfathers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz, who nevertheless manage to show up Macklemore’s somewhat lackluster lyrics even though all they do is chant in unison. Of course, the point is that Macklemore knows his history, but more variety in this vein would be welcome. As it stands, he’s versatile enough to be called a real entertainer, but he might do better with a word collaborator. For sure, when he tries to explain himself, as on the aforementioned “Privilege,” he digs a hole that even Lewis’s scruffy beats can’t pull him out of. It’s good to see Macklemore working out these matters for himself, but an internationally released album may not be the best place to do it. Mayer Hawthorne is another nerdy white guy who has staked his career on black music, and his acceptance by the general music-loving public has nothing to do with paying dues to the source, except in the sense that he pays dues by getting everyone’s booty shaking. As a solo act he’s done as much to revive old school urban soul music as Leon Bridges, and as a member of Tuxedo made white disco safe for hipsters. On his fourth album he leavens the R&B with 70s soft rock and a bit of Steely Dan jazz. Though not as tasty as his 2011 joint, How Do You Do?, the grooves are more resilient and the singing less self-conscious. Since Hawthorne’s lyrics are generic in the romantic make-out mode, there’s not a whole lot of depth to the record, but he applies his melodic gifts liberally to slower cuts like “Cosmic Love” and “Breakfast in Bed,” making them more than just enjoyable pastiche. In this light, it’s difficult not to think that Macklemore wouldn’t have to worry about privilege if he just had more talent.
-Eddi Front (P-Vine)
Though not always quiet, Eddi Front’s songs have a certain stillness that reminds you of cocktail jazz even if her chosen mode of expression is piano rock. Most of the time it’s only her and a keyboard, but her smokey soprano has more character than the songs themselves, which mostly plumb the depths of romantic despair. “Gigantic” analyzes the aftermath of a divorce in the first person (“I’ll crawl out of this hole soon enough”), and if the sentiments feel old-hat the creepiness of the delivery makes you worry for her ex-significant other, who might want to avoid dark alleys for a while. Front’s affection for the repetitive musical phrase serves her well throughout the album, turning dissonance into a description of whatever emotion she’s studying. Catchy in her case is an over-rated concept. Grab ’em by the throat and don’t let go.
Amen & Goodbye
Chris Keating and his band straddle that fine line that separates indie earnestness and major label accomplishment. Their songs are like already shiny balls that they just keep polishing. Their newest album gamely marches into prog rock territory, and wielding a deeper singing voice Keating seems determined to make you believe he’s serious. So you get lots of songs about environmental destruction that hardly need justification, but if Pink Floyd had written the same song back in the day they would have been called pretentious. The folky elements that first made Yeasayer famous can still be heard on cuts like the straightforward rocker “Gerson’s Whistle,” but they don’t make the same impression. If anything, they sound like ideas left over from old songs that someone forgot to edit out. If the album title reinforces the group’s self-proclaimed spiritual purity, it also dismisses that purity. The joke’s on them.
Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello
-Cheap Trick (Big Machine/Universal)
This late in the game, any Cheap Trick album released after a long break from the studio will be greeted with cheers of “comeback,” and for once the claim holds water. Despite the awful title, this debut for the label that made Taylor Swift a star shows that Rick Nielsen still has some tunes in him. The problem with Cheap Trick was always that their poppin’ metal was an inch from the kind of stoopid hard rock of Midwestern compatriots like Brownsville Station. It wasn’t just the sense of the ridiculous that saved them. It was Nielsen’s stainless steel melodies. Unfortunately, producer Julian Raymond thinks like a big machine and the slickness of the stainless steel is practically slimy. Also, Nielsen’s son, Daxx, taking over from Bun E. Carlos on drums, lacks Carlos’s combination of power and swing, which made the 70s albums such keepers.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
-John Grant (Bella Union/Hostess)
Late of the art rock band the Czars, John Grant positions himself as a kind of jester of bad faith, addressing death and other unpleasantries with a mixture of gallows humor and effervescent glee. I, however, did not expect him to ever be funky, and while not every cut on his third solo album inspires the boogaloo, there’s enough grease on the pole to give the impression that Grant might have missed his calling. A lot of the humor is overdetermined, but when the jokes are melded to the kind of syncopations he pulls off on “Snug Slacks” they sound funnier than they read. And unlike most art rock, the songs on Grey Tickles pull you along, like a motorboat pulls a water skier. Eash surprise builds on the last and before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the record and want more. No Roxy Music album ever did that for me.
Love Hit Me!
A survey of British female acts on the Decca label between 1962 and 1970, this 24-track comp doesn’t deliver the raw excitement of that 60s girl garage band comp Ace released last year, but there are enough surprises to make it worthwhile. Most of these artists were still in school when they were discovered. In sharp contrast to the London bohemian types—Marianne Faithfull, Louise Cordet—the acts from the north, like the Satin Bells and Elkie Brooks, ably belted the American soul material Decca bought for them. Many were signed for their looks, but you don’t get that with the album. Like those girl garage bands, all these people were produced and handled by men, and some of the songs are baldly exploitative. The Lulu who sings “I’ll Come Running Over” sounds nothing like the girl who did “To Sir With Love,” which, unfortunately, isn’t included.
As far as singles go, this New Jersey native owned hip-hop radio last year, and there are four songs on his self-titled debut that broke the Top Ten. In fact, at one point all four were in the Top Ten at the same time, which gives you an idea of what the album sounds like. It’s essentially “Trap Queen,” the song that broke first, multiplied by 17 (plus 3 bonus cuts). Though such single-mindedness might kill the album in its tracks, so to speak, Fetty’s party vibe, married to a positivity that isn’t saccharine or fake, raises the stakes. Even the Auto Tune benefits. Fetty is one of the few full-time rappers who can sing, which means the ballads are as beautiful as the bangers are banging, and he isn’t embarrassed to hold monogamy above all else. Which isn’t to say Fetty’s not into money. Everything in its proper place.
-The Lumineers (Universal)
What made this Americana trio’s 2012 debut so inescapable was its hearty good-time vibe as characterized by the redoubtable “Ho Hey,” which, as with many a left-field hit, was, in fact, uncharacteristic of the hitmaker’s material in general. The band’s long-awaited sophomore effort is almost stark in comparison: moody, dour, though not necessarily in a thoughtful way. There’s nothing remotely cheerful on the album, and except for the second track, “Ophelia,” hardly anything that sticks in the memory. But even if the dark atmosphere is effectively rendered, the arrangements, sparse by necessity due to the lineup, sound thin and undernourished. It’s probably not what their millions of fans wanted, but it might actually gain them a different set of fans if the kind of people who like this sort of thing get the opportunity to hear it. I get the feeling they probably won’t, though.
Tales from the Magic Sun
-Louis Lake (P-Vine)
Yet another Anglophone rock band from France exploring past masters, Louis Lake takes as its model the kind of mellow R&B-influenced West Coast sound of the mid-to-late 70s often produced by white boys and girls who grew up with 60s soul music. There’s the rock solid mid-tempo, the electric piano, the occasional blare of a saxophone, and vocals that don’t always break a murmur, though in this case they come with a noticeable French accent. It says a lot that this album as physical product is only available in Japan, which loves it some Randy Crawford, the go-to girl for this kind of music, even though Crawford is black and the singer here obviously a white fellow. Suffice to say that it’s the kind of anodyne stuff FM radio was created for. No static at all, as the man used to say.
Barbara, Barbara, We Face a Shining Future
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have spent more time apart than together for the past decade, which may sound odd considering how often they tour, but this is the first album of new Underworld material in five years, and Beaucoup Fish was released in the last millennium. What’s surprising about their new dance music is that it sounds as if they’ve not only been working hard on this project for years, but that they’ve absorbed everything current along the way. Whether that means they were ahead of their time back in the day is hard to say, but as sure as the moon shines at night this is an aptly mature work for a mature pair of musicians: rhapsodic without abandoning the clubby sense of humor they’re known for. As they get older, they fit more comfortably into the arenas they fill, and it somehow sounds better.
Love Letter for Fire
-Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop (Sub Pop/Traffic)
Thanks mainly to Bonnie Prince Billy and his previous incarnations as Palace Whatever, Americana in the 90s took a detour down into the mouth of hell. Sam Beam, a literature professor from Florida who, as Iron and Wine, made for himself a career as a latter-day folk troubadour, brought the genre part ways back to the light and a lot of people were grateful for it. This collaboration with UK-resident American singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop is more impressive as an exercise in craft and style—gorgeous harmonies, interesting instrumentations, rich production—than it is as a collection of songs, mainly because the two musicians split the difference between dark tales of woe and light-hearted domestic fluff, and for what it’s worth, the fluff is more immediately appealing though probably less satisfying in the long run. Musically, they’re of a piece, but thematically they remain on either side of the bed.
The Hope Six Demolition Project
-PJ Harvey (Island/Hostess)
Despite her native talents PJ Harvey always sounds as if she has to try harder than anyone else to prove she deserves attention. This seriousness of purpose often comes across as stiff pretentiousness, but when it’s married to real feeling it can be thrilling. On her ninth album she hitches her art to journalism—a musical portrait of a crumbling neighborhood of Washington D.C., and as with the great TV series, The Wire, The Hope Six Demolition Project pulls no punches in its depiction of urban rot. She sings it as she sees it, the addiction, the homelessness, the despair, and if the subjects of her gaze confuse her frankness for reckless artistic license, then they don’t understand rock. Sure, she sounds mean, but with meanness comes the full range of her vocal capabilities and the sexual abandon of her early records. Some sax, too.
-Shonen Knife (P-Vine)
In a recent interview Naoko Yamano admitted that “fixating on anniversaries” isn’t very rock’n’roll, but it’s worth noting that her estimable Osaka power trio is now 35 years old, and with sister Atsuko back on bass their 20th album could be considered a return to old times. The pop-punk fluidity of their delivery remains both in tact and fresh, while the obsession with food and things that children will appreciate continues unabated. However, a few albums back Yamano fell under the spell of the kind of 70s hard rock that punk was supposed to deny, and she goes further here with heady but tongue-in-cheek explorations of heavy metal, which may be the “adventure” the title refers to. And the ability is there, even if the spirit sounds compromised. You get the feeling the band can’t quite hit their power chords and flash the devil sign at the same time.