Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo July 25.
-The Avalanches (Universal)
-Aphex Twin (Warp/Beat)
The Avalanches’ first and, until last week, only album has become a legendary recording not so much because of its quality or popularity but because it perfectly encapsulates an era in music that no longer seems relevant. Made up of hundreds of samples that were lovingly assembled into “tracks” that could pass as distinct songs but were best appreciated as one long DJ session, Since I Left You was certainly a bear to create, which probably explains why it took the group sixteen years to produce a followup—in addition to finding and editing the tracks they also had to get permission to use them. Some people complain that you can’t rightfully call the Avalanches musicians because they didn’t play any music, which is a fair charge but beside the point, because if you listen and enjoy, it’s simply a direct extension of the Avalanches’ own experience with these song fragments. They just decided to do something creative with that experience. Wildflower has something more, though: numerous guest vocalists who sing above the samples, as well as added orchestrations, thus giving the album an extra layer of originality. Unlike real DJ sets, the Avalanches aren’t overly concerned with the dance floor—there’s little in the way of break beats or tension-and-release. For the most part they’re into summery pop, and while the tempos change from time to time, there’s not much that could be called dramatic. The hip-hop component, though not overwhelming, is more apparent, and the group seems to have placed special emphasis on contrasting indie pop with rap. As collage music goes it isn’t as adventurous as Since I Left You simply because it’s impossible to be that adventurous when everyone can do this sort of thing without spending a lot of money. So half the enjoyment of Wildflower is in the impression you get: These guys work hard. Richard D. James is one of those DJ/techno artists who tries to make it all seem like not much work; meaning if you like what he does you chalk it up to talent. But having spent more than a decade away from the Aphex Twin moniker and its attendant art-dance music, he seems to have retreated to zero. His latest is a long EP that explores beats and melody in a fairly straightforward way without spoiling the danceability of the tracks. In fact, rather than improvise harmonically, he fiddles with the tempos in small ways to vary their swing and propulsive force. As usual, his track titles are completely functional. Several include the word “Cheetah,” which reportedly is a kind of electronic instrument manufactured in the 80s and 90s and we will assume was used in the making of the album. One could almost call the EP a kind of test record for tech freaks, and PR material includes a lot of jargon. We’ll take their word for it, because simplicity like this can be addicting.
Teens of Denial
-Car Seat Headrest (Matador/Hostess)
Despite his whining demeanor and reported struggles with depression, Will Toledo is one headstrong rock artist. He’s proud to sound naturally like Jonathan Richman, and for those of us who secretly regret how the Modern Lovers went acoustic so fast, Toledo is like the dream deferred; except that Richman would never be as ambitious as to write something as formally complex as “Fill in the Blank,” though you can envision him appreciating the sentiment behind “Destroyed by Hippie Powers.” Also, Toledo understands that good production values are his friends. But what really comes through is not just Toledo’s winning melodic ways and turns of phrase, but that he has the confidence in his talent to take a song where he thinks it should go, even if means a meandering guitar pattern and breaking the 11-minute mark on the epic “Ballad of the Costa Concordia.” I’ll follow him anywhere.
-Con Brio (P-Vine)
Funk is making a big comeback right now, and though it’s never really gone away, the newest practitioners tend to highlight chops over groove, with many coming to the form from jazz rather than R&B. This San Francisco collective is after the big sound of Sly and the Family Stone but with sharper edges and more focused playing. Vocalist Ziek McCarter has the soulman voice to carry above the big sound though not necessarily the soulman range. He often sounds like an extra element rather than the central one, which in most cases is the rhythm section of bassist Jonathan Kirchner and drummer Andrew Laubacher, who stress precision and time-keeping. As with most jazz-based funk bands, Con Brio often takes its time, which means songs go on longer than you expect them to and end long after you’ve had your fill. Call it free-form if you insist.
Joe Mount, the British musician who records as Metronomy, has had a pretty charmed career for someone who doesn’t tour much, and while more exposure of the bod, as it were, might break him mainstream, that doesn’t seem to be something he worries about. Though Mount seems perfectly capable of writing catchy pop songs, he is more interested in seeing how far his command of drum machines and synths will take him, and as it turns out it’s pretty far. The title of his latest references the season where he broke big—or as big as someone of his artistic temperament can break. It’s a party album that suggests partying is best remembered cold, with potent beats often petering out into an ambient haze. I know the feeling, even if I’ve never been to one of those clubs. It’s Daft Punk without the pretend joy, which means it might as well be pop.
Where You Are Going To
-Robin Trower (V12/MSI)
As with any guitarist who emerged in the 60s, Robin Trower is grounded in the blues, even if his reputation scans as a progressive rocker thanks to his stint with Procol Harum. Unlike Jeff Beck, who’s more technically adept, Trower does his own singing, and while it’s confident, it feels secondary to the guitar work, which no longer begs comparisons to Hendrix but sounds swampier than usual here. The solos easily command your attention at the expense of the songs themselves, which hold a steady course down the middle of the road. “The Fruits of Your Desire” might have broken through as a big statement on loneliness (Trower recently lost his wife), but he can’t seem to get to the end of an emotion without translating it into the blues, which is fine and good for a guitarist of his ability, but there’s only so much he can do with 3 chords.
Maxwell’s status in the neo-soul pantheon has always been assured even if he tends to come across as a cooler head than D’Angelo or even Musiq Soulchild. His latest isn’t going to change that opinion, but it’s so much more enjoyable than anything he’s done before that you really have to listen carefully to figure out where he went right. Though vulnerability has always been his selling point, here he owns his sexuality with more agency and the songs feel more real as a result. More significantly, the music has lost that vague sense of purpose, the melodies are stronger and more direct, the rhythms punch rather than sway. Maxwell’s productions were never this polished, probably because polish was what everyone else was doing, but now he at least sounds as excited as he says he is. It’s as if he’s opened a door to a musty room and let the air in.
The Glowing Man
-Swans (Young God/Traffic)
According to Swans mastermind Michael Gira, this is the last album by the “current” lineup of his group, and you have to wonder how much of Swans’s distinctively overwhelming sound isn’t Gira’s doing. Time, apparently, will tell, but for what it’s worth, The Glowing Man is slightly more subdued than the albums released under the group’s name since they reemerged in 2010. Tracks are still almost punishingly long—”Cloud of Unknowing” clocks in at over 25 minutes—but they’re not as abrasive; more likely to become denser rather than louder. Consequently, it’s easier to appreciate the various members’ respective skills, especially multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin, whose keyboard essays are nothing less than pretty. Okkyung Lee’s cello is the standout improvisational touch. Gira, as usual, doesn’t so much sing as impart fear and comfort in alternating measures. You can get to the end of this double-CD in one piece.
-Julianna Barwick (Dead Oceans/Hostess)
On her last album, Julianna Barwick ventured out of her solitude to collaborate with several well-known parties, an experience that obviously didn’t make as big an impression as others thought it did because Will is the starkest thing she’s every recorded. And Barwick is stark to begin with. Her voice is the chief instrument, though words are less important than timbre, and the added echo erases any residue meaning. A piano and a synthesizer are the only other discernible instruments on the album. The airy quality of the music makes it easier to figure out what Barwick is doing, though why she’s doing it is anyone’s guess, since she really isn’t singing about anything. It’s more like she’s creating an environment. When the synth and the voice become one, you comprehend the universe she’s created for herself and where she is the only inhabitant.
-Stephen Steinbrink (P-Vine)
The kind of shiny, intricate indie pop that 27-year-old traveling troubadour Stephen Steinbrink plays seems unfashionable today. Prodigiously gifted and resourceful to a fault, he can conjure up fully arranged and played single-ready tunes with the appeal of classic 60s Top 40, though the sadness at the core of his being is always apparent. Despite the lively piano and bass interplay on “Impossible Hand,” you can discern the singer’s despair at a love that’s died. And on “Shine a Light on Him,” jaunty finger-picked guitar accompanies what could be the story of a near-death experience. As if to contradict any expectations we might bring to his music, Steinbrink even throws in a few feedback-heavy, formless instrumentals for the sake of variety. Obviously, the everyday is not for him, even when he sings about it. The guy may be too much into music for his own good.
We’re All Somebody From Somewhere
-Steven Tyler (Big Machine/Universal)
Though it’s being classified as a country album, the Aerosmith vocalist’s first bona fide solo LP trades more in the kind of power balladry that sustained his main gig throughout the 80s and 90s, and in that regard it’s proper that he’s releasing it through the company that steered Taylor Swift’s career, except that Tyler comes at this music from the other end of the pop telescope. There’s little here that qualifies as blues-rock and the tempos are uniformly middling. But just as a lot of Aerosmith material was tongue-in-cheek lascivious, the corny Americana on display here is just itching to be called out. Tyler never did anything halfway, and you can take that for what it’s worth: highly likable schmaltz without a single redeeming value. He even closes the album with two old songs reimagined for whatever style this is supposed to represent.
-Biffy Clyro (Warner)
It’s easy to dismiss this Scottish power trio as the proper prog answer to punk, but given that Biffy Clyro were playing arenas almost as soon as their second album was recorded “punk” tends to fall to the wayside. A problem this presents for Ellipsis is that the guitars, in the modern prog/hard rock style, are compressed to the point of no return, thus leaving Simon Neil’s voice as the only element that provides a place to hang your attention. The pummeling sameness of the group’s sound flattens the distinction of their inventive songwriting, a gambit that I assume is carried out in order to make them appealing to the same blokes who dig Muse (the producer of their latest, Rich Costey, has worked with Muse). This probably makes more sense in concert, but in order to appreciate it there, you first have to absorb it here.
-Clams Casino (Sony)
Hip-hop producers have been steering the pop music conversation for two decades now, and the man of the moment is Clams Casino, who rightly makes his debut as an LP artist on a major label with an album that comes right out of the chute in two configurations. CC’s m.o. is moody and murky, almost the total opposite of the sprung beats that were popular during the Neptunes era. And while it hardly sounds original, he’s managed to produce hits for rappers like Lil B who probaby wouldn’t have had hits otherwise. What makes the album worth checking out, though, are the purely pop tunes with minor singers like Sam Drew and Mikky Ekko, all of which highlight CC’s skills as a songwriter, or, at least, an A-grade tunesmith. Rappers can’t dig that because melodies are the competition, but I see more work with straightforward divas.
Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
-Dinosaur Jr. (Jagjaguwar/Hostess)
The fact that this is the fourth Dinosaur Jr. album to see the light of day since the original trio reunited in 2005 is probably more relevant than my opinion that it’s a very good record, since no one expected J Mascis and Lou Barlow to be able to stay in the same state much less the same studio for more than a few minutes. The contrast between Mascis’s poppy grunge and Barlow’s strummier, downbeat form of indie rock gives the overall work a tension that makes it more thrilling than it has a right to be. “Tiny,” the Mascis song that hits the hardest, proves that the guitarist still hasn’t lost his punk edge. Nothing particularly revolutionary, but it isn’t just place-saving, either. It’s obvious the group aims to make sense to themselves before they attempt to make sense to their audience.