October 2016 albums

Here are the album reviews for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo at the end of September.

Group Love - November detail 1 008bastille-wild-worldBig Mess
-Grouplove (Atlantic/Warner)
Wild World
-Bastille (Virgin/Universal)
The title of Grouplove’s third album neatly sums up their appeal, though it’s surprising the record still doesn’t include the song, even as a bonus track, they wrote for the Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman, which characterizes their sound almost better than anything else they’ve done: fragile, hazy, just short of hysterical. Big Mess isn’t really that messy. The production is the cleanest and brightest it’s ever been and the songs are distinguished by their breezy pop skills. Married vocalists Christian Zucconi and Hannah Hooper make an attempt to complement each other, whereas in the past they squawked and hooted without much concern about what was happening around them. A little of that sort of thing went a long way, and this new attention to rigor is probably the most disarmingly positive thing about the album. The craziness is reined in just enough to make it comprehensible. In particular, big, booming songs like “Do You Love Someone” and “Good Morning” qualify as dance rock of the highest quality in that they’re designed to get everyone off, not just those who happen to be on the same narrow wavelength as Zucconi and Hooper. Twenty years ago you’d categorize this as indie pop, but Grouplove has never released an LP on an indie label, and one of their members (also their producer) is the son of a member of Yes. What was once indie is now mainstream in a big way, and what’s charming about Grouplove is how natural they sound playing outside the sandbox. They’re the most unmediated rock group recording for a major label. “Unmediated” is the last word you’d use to describe the product of the London-based synth-rock group Bastille, whose second album is already a certified global smash. They’re as calculated as you would imagine for a band whose touchstones are 80s stadium rock, but they do have something in common with the L.A. group reviewed above: hooks up the wazoo. Hooks are always a good thing, but in a year when Beatlemania is again a commercial imperative, it’s getting harder to find any you haven’t heard before. Three years ago, when Bastille had a hit with “Pompeii,” you could almost feel the oxygen get sucked out of the pop charts. No one could touch that chorus for pure appeal except Carly Rae Jepsen, though she existed on an entirely different demographic plane. Wild World doesn’t contain anything so entrancing, but it does open the group’s sonic folder without giving up the big gestures. As far as mediation goes, it seems obvious that slow numbers like “Two Evils” were encouraged by bizzer types because that’s how bizzer types envision albums, but the group doesn’t sound like their hearts are in it, or, at least, not as into it as they are into expanding on the promise of Coldplay. Yeah, not much of an ambition, but once you’ve sucked the oxygen out of the room, you have to refill it with something.

lisa-hannigan-%ef%bc%8f-at-swim-jake-syahse-3618At Swim
-Lisa Hannigan (PIAS/Hostess)
Like a lot of Irish singer-songwriters, Lisa Hannigan has a natural affect for American country music, but the countrypolitan lilt of “Prayer for the Dying” from her new album takes that affect to new frontiers. Though it’s not the high point, it’s nevertheless the standout, since the rest of the material adheres to the mid-tempo, rolling folk-rock that’s been continually evolving in the British isles ever since Kate Bush decided to roam the moors in black wool leggings. Producer Aaron Dessner restrains his sunnier American impulses and creates a heavy weather tone that’s strong on tension, weak on clarifying feelings. Hannigan’s voice is often subsumed under murky bass and percussion, and her evocative lyrics are sometimes difficult to make out. Her voice, however, retains its Irish love of witchy wisdom, and even a snoozer like “Undertow” has its bone-chilling moments. Swimming is pleasant, and dangerous.

-Snoop Dogg (eOne/Victor)
Obviously bored with disco and reality checking his conversion to reggae, Snoop returns to basics with a very long album that sounds as if it were recorded lying down. Though Snoop is more engaged than he was on his last dedicated rap record, The Masterpiece, it’s pretty much Swizz Beatz’s project, since he’s looking at the future, whereas Snoop is simply trying to figure out how to make sentiments he’s expressed a million times sound halfway fresh. Under such circumstances, the parade of guests who march through the studio are expected to bring their best game in contrast, but one thing you have to say about Snoop—his distinction as a vocalist is so primary that these other dogs sound as if they’re just dropping in to pick up their checks. Even Wiz Khalifa, who gets two duets here, seems hard up to keep up. In Snoop’s presence, you gotta relax.

pcd21028_THE OLDIANS_outAmbessa’s Dream
-Roman Andren (P-Vine)
Roman Andren has been a force on the Swedish club scene since the late 90s, plying a potent form of spacey Brazilian jazz. He’s had several successful albums released in Japan, so local label P-Vine has decided to rerelease his 2004 debut, Ambessa’s Dream, which sounds like nothing less than a long lost Deodato album. Though the hip vibe, overt African references, and copious use of flutes tend toward the loungey end of the jazz spectrum, unlike most Swedish productions irony is kept to a minimum, probably because most of the personnel are genuine jazz musicians rather than slumming club kids or rock mavens looking for cred. After a handful of Caravanserai-like mood tracks, the record settles into a soulful groove that obviates its initial pastiche motivations. You enjoy it for its own merits, which, while not particularly original, are definitely sincere.

rockpile16Live at Rockplast
-Rockpile (MSI)
A strong argument can be made for Rockpile as being the best rock band of the 70s: one of the decade’s cleverest producer-songwriters (Nick Lowe), by far the best roots rocking producer-singers (Dave Edmunds), a witty lead axe man (Billy Bremner), and the second best English drummer of all time (Terry Williams). More to the point, they had an attitude toward performing second only to the Beatles in terms of making the most of their time on stage. This CD/DVD combo from a 1980 broadcast of the venerable German TV show came right before the release of their only studio album released under the Rockpile name, Seconds of Pleasure, so it mostly derives from Lowe’s and Edmunds’ solo records. As always, the quartet starts at 60 mph and just keeps accelerating. They took the punk ethos to its natural performative ends, but with more humor and craft.

-Britney Spears (RCA/Sony)
Whatever you want to say about Britney’s lack of agency on her records, she has a knack for attracting the best material from the usual pop suspects, which makes me wonder if she has more agency than most people give her credit for. Much has already been written about her robotic approach to sex on her new album, but sex on record is almost by definition robotic unless it’s about bad sex. Even the gymnastics on “Clumsy” are described in a tongue-in-cheek manner that makes you think she isn’t consciously channeling someone else’s desires. In any case, she rarely sounds like banging, though the snuggling songs are good enough for me since they glide along on melodies that honor her restraint. Robots are restrained on purpose, but you can hear how Britney recalibrates her excitement for every dynamic shift. Whoever was in charge, they obviously had their hands full.

lasalamiDancing With Bad Grammar: The Director’s Cut
-L.A. Salami (Sunday Best/Beat)
With a name like Lookman Adekunie Salami, a singer-songwriter has his work cut out for him, but this acoustic bluesman is from England, where these days the genre has less to do with Bob Dylan (his personal hero) than Ed Sheeran, even if he isn’t consciously taking on influences. It also has less to do with the lyrics and the musical touchstones than with emotional outcomes. Salami’s detailed observations and storytelling smarts are most reminiscent of Elliott Smith, but his eagerness to please as a singer and player owes a lot to KT Tunstall, even if he rarely resorts to electric instruments. Though he can whip up a head of steam, he doesn’t rock, but he always reaches for emotional epiphanies in the Sheeran way. It’s ruminative music for large, airy auditoriums where feelings have to be shared in order to be rightly appreciated.

-Japanese Breakfast (Dead Oceans/Hostess)
Japanese Breakfast is the brainchild of Michelle Zauner, an experienced indie rocker who had to leave her main gig, Philadelphia’s Little Big League, in order to be with her dying mother in Oregon. Rather than return to her old band she formed a new one, and while the vibe isn’t much different—sloppy, sun-kissed guitar pop—the sentiments have greater weight and resonance. Most of the songs are about love and marriage, which doesn’t make them autobiographical. They retain a third person distance that makes the cutting remarks (“he loves her like a slot machine”) more suited to the jangly, effervescent arrangements. When she addresses her mother’s illness (“Heft”), she curses and frets like a woman released from prison into a new, more self-made hell. Zauner isn’t the first singer-songwriter to contrast bright tunes with dire subject matter, but at the moment she’s the most interesting.

bankssteelzAnything But Words
-Banks & Steelz (Warner)
Though Interpol and Wu-Tang-Clan are still operational as groups, they aren’t what they were, and that faded dynamic informs this partnership between the former’s Paul Banks and the latter’s RZA. For all intents and purposes this is a hip-hop album, which means Banks, a writer of songs with dark impulses, gives himself over to the banging club aesthetic, while RZA, who entertained his own dark impulses with and without his crew, treats the project as something of a lark. The result is collaborative but compartmentalized: RZA handles the verses while Banks comes in on the choruses. And while repetition is the soul of pop, this tends toward the monotonous, despite the roster of heavy-hitting guests: Florence Welch, Ghostface Killah, Method Man. Monotony shouldn’t be confused with consistency, because even within the same song you get the feeling the two partners aren’t paying attention to each other.

-M.I.A. (Interscope/Universal)
Though it’s a dynamic I usually avoid discussing, I find it interesting that as Maya’s international penetration gradually increases her critical cred goes down. Like many pop stars with opinions, she often shoots from the hip in the waking world, but in the studio, where her ideas have more time to develop, she’s adept at showing what the world’s really made of. Her bona fides as a refugee (twice over) have never been put to better use, but more to the point, they’re in service to music that is closer to the bone in terms of multinational style, and which hew to the upbeat because who says you can’t dance to meaningful issue-engagement? If you think her diction is too simple given her themes, it only means you aren’t taking those themes seriously enough. And anyone who says this doesn’t rock needs their head examined and their ears cleaned.

-John Cunningham (P-Vine)
One of those Brit singer-songwriters who’ve wandered on the margins for decades (he lives in France) while being compared to everyone from Nick Drake to Cole Porter, John Cunningham makes his semi-decade emergence from hibernation with an album that goes longer on pop than his previous work. The trad songwriting and boisterous arrangements on Fell recall Ray Davies during his Village Green Preservation period. Given that Cunningham is closer in age to the spirit of that sort of music hall style than Davies was when he indulged it makes the songs more credible in intent. There’s little irony in the longing for a simpler world and the melodies sound more original, though you can probably come up with precedents if you think hard enough. As a singer, Cunningham can seem precious, like Al Stewart, and that’s the kind of thing that keeps you on the margins.

Pixies_NewPackShotHead Carrier
-Pixies (PIAS/Hostess)
As the cover art would have it, Pixies mean to recapture some of the magic of their classic period, and while it’s boring in such instances to reference Thomas Wolfe, there is definitely a difference in attitude that makes redoing “Here Comes Your Man” as a middle aged pro something of a chump’s game. Though livelier and more challenging than Indie Cindy, the new album, which fully incorporates new bassist Paz Lenchantin, overreaches for that old Pixies’ menace, making songs like “Baals Back” seem merely weird. Black Francis tempers his patented apocaplytic wail with a more studied melisma, which suits his maturity as both a musician and a human being, but only to shock you with the contrast, it would seem. Of course, we’re way beyond the point of being shocked in our own development as music appreciators, and the Pixies had a lot to do with it.

HyperFocal: 0Signs of Light
-The Head and the Heart (Warner)
On their third album, and first for a major label, Seattle’s The Head and the Heart move slightly beyond the folkish revival pop spearheaded by the Lumineers; which isn’t to say they’re still in the same bailiwick as fellow northwestern indie darlings Fleet Foxes. The production by country maven Jay Joyce is shiny and new, and takes the rustic edge off their characteristically contemplative tunes with lots of keyboards and—gasp!—samples. Predictably, the sleek surfaces hide the soul of the band’s music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing given that the group’s songwriting was always more earnest than arresting. What remains on the plus side is their pristine harmonies and a knack for catchy choruses that even Fleet Foxes should envy. But now that they’re finally ready for their radio moment, there aren’t any radios around to play their kind of music.

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