Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on May 25.
-Anohni (Rough Trade/Hostess)
In her past pop incarnation as Antony Hegarty, Anohni sang about love in all its variations, and the most indescribable aspect of her voice was the way it conflated ecstasy with despair. Both feelings were somehow recognizably distinct while occurring at the same time. That quality remains in tact on her first album in six years, despite the fact that love, or at least the romantic kind, is less in evidence. One might say that love is everywhere, even in the stories of terror she concocts about the American effect on the planet and its peoples, because she can only engage the victims she describes with love. She has nothing else to offer them. Another change that isn’t as much of a change as it seems is the music: trading the generally acoustic chamber instrumentation for dance-oriented electronic production courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni seems more out into the world. Even when she was on stage, singing in front of hundreds of people, she felt alone in her craft, but despite the title of her album she reaches out, presumably to listeners who might have avoided her art songs before. Which isn’t to say you’ll hear something like “Drone Bomb Me” in a disco anytime soon, but the booming synths and skittering percussion make tactile what was once only spiritual. The aim is obviously to meet the world on its own terms, because that’s the only way you’re going to change it. And it’s clear Anohni means to provoke disgust and dismay at the way her country looks upon “others.” There’s no more cutting musical commentary on the disappointments of the current administration than “Obama,” and the scalding resentment toward the gender that Anohni once reluctantly called home is perfectly realized in “Violent Men.” More significantly, her despair at the despoilment of the earth is expressed as both a personal insult and a cosmic affront. And there’s more, but Anohni never spreads herself thin, because while emotion may come easy to her, she understands its expression has to be justified. The British singer Birdy (Jasmine van der Bogaerde) doesn’t carry the same sort of weight in her own songs of disappointment, and though it would be easy to pin it on her relative youth, it has more to do with finding easy solutions to musical problems every pop singer her age has to address. Like Lana Del Rey and Lorde, Birdy equates high expression with volume and density, so as her feelings intensify so does the accompaniment. On radio, in isolation, this kind of thing works well, but over the course of a long-player it dissipates any energy that might have accrued had the songs been more varied in style and tone, despite her fondness for simple piano ballads. Kate Bush would probably advise her to lighten up a bit, and she should know.
-Trashcan Sinatras (Victor)
The eternal pop music cycle of album-tour-tour-album-tour-tour ad infinitum has never been the most salubrious career trajectory, though for many artists it’s the only option. This venerable Britpop band from the 90s has never been terribly popular and their modest cult, like all modest cults, probably prefers it that way, so it may come as some surprise to hear that their latest album, only their sixth in 26 years, showcases the band’s full, undiminished inertia. The group’s summery guitar pop never sounded so…youthful, an advantage attributable to their attention to arrangements, which shimmer even before they pile on the reverb. Propulsive foot-tappers like “Best Days on Earth” and “Let Me In” bear down on the listener like a fleet of ice cream trucks on a sweaty July afternoon: sweet, persuasive, and sincere in their aim to please. Lick it up.
-Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg/Universal)
The title is a front, implying this is product rushed out to take advantage of the Grammys and the worldwide affection showered on To Pimp a Butterfly, but calling the album a collection of demos diminishes its importance in relation to the last one. As he says on the first cut, Kendrick put everything he had into Butterfly and was chuffed that it was received exactly as intended. It’s only right, therefore, to offer those same listeners a chance to sample the process that brought it into being. If it were any other rapper, including Kanye, that would sound like an indulgence (which is what The Life of Pablo basically is), but what made Butterfly so affecting was its intensity of purpose, and while these rougher tracks ebb and flow in that regard, overall they hit you where it counts. They’re also fun in the way they explore urban music genres with a sense of humor.
-Brian Eno (Warp/Beat)
Brian Eno epitomizes the musician-composer as a product of his time, a concept which in his case is fluid. He’s never stood still in any one style. At the same time, he’s never really pioneered one, though the fact that he can serve up something extraordinary like The Ship, a four-track suite of ambient textures, without sounding as if he’s repeating himself or mimicking someone else, calls attention to his discipline. In that regard, the listener requires discipline, as well. The title cut is 21 minutes of listless, rolling waves of melody, interrupted only by Eno’s sotto voce readings. “Fickle Sun” is slightly livelier thanks to a continuing bass part but retains the previous cut’s suggestion of a vast expanse of liquid sameness. He then appends two pop tunes, as if to reward you for your attention. Never has a musician been so presumptively appreciative.
Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing
Fans of the short-lived post punk band WU LYF will be happy to learn that vocalist Ellery James Roberts’ new project adheres to the same arena rock principles as his previous band’s material, though his vocal resemblance to a certain New Jersey boomer idol could make them wonder if he’s got his priorities straight. Passion is the operative theme as well as the chief delivery mode, and you might fret for Roberts’ and partner Ebony Hoorn’s respective souls lest they mortgage them a second time to the devil in order to get even more feeling out of their studio setup. In temperament, they sound like an early new wave dance group but without the industrial attention to beat. Even a hard rock song like “Lost Under Heaven” refuses to settle into a groove, which the pair seems to equate with complacency. Love means always staggering forward into somebody’s arms.
Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky
-Allen Toussaint (Charly/MSI)
Few record producers have had the industry-wide impact that Allen Toussaint enjoyed in the 60s. As the main architect of New Orleans R&B, he wasn’t just the man who gave the world Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, and Aaron Neville. He was also the guy who wrote “Mother in Law,” “Ruler of My Heart,” “Working in a Coal Mine,” and “Over You,” and they’re all here on this invaluable compilation that stops well before the 70s, when Toussaint came into his own as a performer and national treasure. In fact, what’s most fascinating about this two-disk set is its focus on Toussaint as a local singer and pianist with his own following, a man whose singles, while not very well known outside of the Big Easy, nonetheless influenced everyone from The Band to Johnny Rivers. Even more remarkable is that, according to experts, this isn’t even considered “exhaustive.”
Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth is the second Amerindie star to produce an album by this respected Taureg guitarist, after Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Though it’s nice to see righteous musicians take the time to boost the profile of artists who wouldn’t normally attract the attention of those musicians’ own fans, I wonder what exactly Auerbach and Longstreth bring to Bombino’s music except invitations to good studios. Most of Bombino’s value is technical, combining the jazz-blues flash of Carlos Santana with the lyrical intensity characteristic of West African lute music. Compared to the guys in Tinariwen, he’s even more generic as a “desert blues” player, but he’s also more economical. And he’s a better singer—gentler and emotionally varied. I doubt if Longstreth had any effect on those qualities, but I’d like to think that’s what attracted him to the music in the first place.
An interesting thing happened to metalcore band Pvris on their way to a major label: they lost the metal. In fact, the pop electronica of their Warner debut seems aimed like a laser at the dance crowd. (It’s no accident that they wield that “v” in their name like a vowel, just like Chvrches) Singer Lynn Gunn favors melody over effect, the better to stress her confrontational lyrics, which convey frustration, anger, and a sneering disregard for intolerance on any level (“Holy”). Occasionally this desperation scans as the usual emo bombast, but without the punk trappings it doesn sound quite so pretentious. “Mirrors,” in fact, indicates the trio could have a future in dance noise, though I doubt if they’ll ever turn the heads of Sleigh Bells fans. It’s the kind of calculation that obviously got them signed to a major. They sound deserving of something.
Heavy on the bass and cavalier with the vocals, this hard’n’heavy English garage band’s jagged delivery is designed to annoy. They toss decent melodies into the dustbin as they careen off the road and over a cliff. When they hit a groove, as on “Hungry,” they’re like Lightning Bolt’s secret Jack White project, which makes sense since they released an EP on White’s label. Guitar riffs fly out of the woodwork and they aren’t so proud that they won’t goose the rhythm with some Jerry Lee piano when it’s called for. The sloppy delivery and truncated compositions may fool you into thinking they don’t have the dedication to make a living, but of the 13 songs on their debut, only one, the countryish “Roll Another,” feels like a joke. Most of the time they seem so carried away with making music you wonder if they’ll get to the end of the song.
-Beth Orton (Anti-/Sony)
The original folktronica star returns to her techno roots after a brief flirtation with acoustic purity, and the results are more progressive than you might expect. Produced by Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons, Kidsticks intertwines Orton’s deceptively subtle melodies into knots of pure emotion that yield up riches, though not without some effort on the part of the listener. With her vocals multiplied to the point of indistinction, there’s a strange lack of ego on hand, which seems an odd tack since Orton was one of the most self-effacing singer-songwriters of the 00s to begin with. The exception, “Moon,” proves the point with a cool rhythmic pulse provided by jazz musicians Guillermo Brown and Bram Inscore. You can dance to it, which means Orton’s profile as a club kid overshadows her appeal as a lyricist. There’s virtually no narrative component to these songs. It’s all pretty wallpaper.
Good Luck and Do Your Best
-Gold Panda (P-Vine)
As musical inspiration, Japan does better in terms of mood than in terms of local forms and structures. The English producer, Gold Panda, traveled the archipelago last year in the company of a documentary filmmaker, and has released this soundtrack separately. It’s a warm and fuzzy record, devoid of excitement and closely attuned to the laid-back vibe you feel even in a bustling place like Tokyo. Sometimes the titles don’t make sense. “I Am a Punk” is quiet and ruminative while “Song for a Dead Friend,” the only upbeat track on the album, might be more appropriate for a raucous Irish wake. The closest it comes to Japanese music per se is in the repetitive use of plucked stringed instruments, which are looped and sampled to provide an aural through-theme. This is the electronica cognate of travel writing: an attempt to convey memories of a place one never visited before. It’s designed to sound different.
-Ariana Grande (Republic//Universal)
Whatever her demerits as an interpreter, this 22-year-old singer has earned her place in the pop canon—essentially supplanting Mariah Carey in the hearts of Japanese idol worshippers—through sheer force of talent. She can sing anything, and any frustration one had with her previous album, My Everything, sprung from her producers’ narrow use of those talents. Despite the title, there’s nothing on her new record that challenges her image as a solid professional uninterested in image-building, but she does occasionally wander outside her comfort zone, which means chucking the melisma for actually feeling. On the title cut and a few other songs, she asserts her right to love whom she wants without sounding as if some song doctor is hovering over every syllable, and while guest appearances by the likes of Lil Wayne and Macy Gray say more about the record company’s prerogatives than Grande’s, she holds her own without trying to match their skills.
-Parquet Courts (Rough Trade/Hostess)
With the exception of the equally earnest Car Seat Headrest, Parquet Courts has done more than anyone to maintain the influence of the Modern Lovers on post-millennial indie rock, which, to me, is enough of an accomplishment to make them major artists. Their third proper album proves they’re after much more, with a compositional ambition that outstrips the usual hard-fast requirements of punk. More consciously witty than Car Seat Headrest, singers Andrew Savage and Austin Brown turn mundane matters into apocalyptic desperation, as on the anything-but-simple “Dust,” which is literally about sweeping up. More to the point, they aren’t afraid to leaven their hardcore with disparate instruments and found sounds, which are used more as tribute to their adopted Brooklyn than for any tonal or textural reasons. Like Jonathan Richman, Savage sees any topic as worthy of rock’s gleeful attention, and the band responds in kind: Joy at making music as long as it’s great.