Here are the album reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last month.
Warm on a Cold Night
Blood Orange deserves all the accolades he’s received for making sexy music safe for electronica, and it should be remarked that it took the world something like half a decade to fully reach that conclusion. Honne, a white British duo, is thus spared the heavy lifting with their debut album, which isn’t half as good but actually gets to where it’s going in half the time. This is the sound of the slow jam taken to its natural end as a construction fully purposed for making out. As locals will immediately note, the duo’s name is Japanese for “true feelings,” and the tracks are nothing if not earnest attempts to find the appropriate musical equivalent for gushing. Though the two members, who go by their first names, James and Andy, cite Al Green and Bill Withers as influences, there’s nothing here that recalls those two pioneers’ funky sides. And while “warm” is the operative adjective, the heat very rarely rises above room temperature. Because everything is electronically derived, including the percussion, the beats don’t always penetrate to the spine. What you’re left with is hooks and vocals that lack distinction as far as soul music goes but do the job with regard to those feelings they’re so intent on conveying. The Izzy Bizu Collaboration, “Someone That Loves You” (sorry, shouldn’t that be “who”?), stands out for its bright sheen, which may simply be a function of the guest’s brighter, more traditional vocal style. The gospel intonations on “It Ain’t Wrong Loving You” also bring the album out of its cave, while the closer, “FHKD,” could pass as a dance track and may point the way to Honne’s future. This sultry stuff is all well and good, but eventually they have to play it live in front of people who may not want to remain seated for a whole set. Eric Benet is one of those so-called nu soul artists who rejiggered the slow jam for the new millennium, and he had a nice run with the concept while it lasted. His latest, for an indie, is self-titled, thus indicating a fresh start, and the first thing you notice is how he seems determined to jettison the “nu” from his soul music. He even brings in a big band, complete with horns, on the seriously funky “Cold Trigger.” And while I’ve never held Benet and Prince in the same thought, the late purple god is the first person I think of when I hear “Insane,” with its hell-bent falsetto. Of course, there are plenty of ballads, which have always been Benet’s calling card, but they convey a more lascivious state of mind than his past lover-man work. In a way, it’s as if Benet, after years of struggling to make sense of a style he had obviously outgrown, returned to the music he liked as a child but had never really explored as an artist, and it fits him like a tailored suit.
-The Lemon Twigs (4AD/Hostess)
Singer-songwriters who play all their instruments and do all their recording are no longer special, but the demise of that coterie with the rise of the bedroom artist deserves to be mourned, and the debut by the D’Addario brothers attempts to bring it back to life. Writing like Sparks and acting like Todd Rundgren, the Lemon Twigs revive a style of out-there pop that can’t be pinned down. Over the course of ten songs, this kind of thing can get annoying, like a hyper-active puppy pissing and shitting all over the living room, but it’s never less than thrilling. Sometimes they’re in danger of blowing their wad in a single song, such as the kitchen-sink epic “As Long As We’re Together,” which sounds like one of those Paul McCartney cuts where he throws together all the snippets of tunes he couldn’t develop into fully realized songs. No introspection here.
Abstract Figures in the Dark
The story goes that grunge died a quicker death than expected, but actually it simply moved from the Pacific Northwest to the UK. Tigercub’s vocalist Jamie Hall is often compared to Kurt Cobain, but there’s more to his baritone than an enervated growl, and while the three piece’s musical attack is redolently blues-based, they have more in common with Ash than with Royal Blood. The hooks take unexpected detours into minor chords and psychedelic backroads without losing their integrity as hooks. And if the titles and lyrics (“I’ll be your sycophant”) suggest literary moxie, the rocking prerogatives of their arrangements make it difficult to appreciate whatever sentiments they’re trying to convey. As veterans from the sticks (Brighton) the band feels it has to stand out, and sometimes ambition trumps feeling, as on the pointlessly distored “Migraine,” which is like lesser At the Drive In. Know thy limitations.
57th & 9th
If Sting’s much-heralded return to normal rock music doesn’t actually herald very much at all, it’s probably because those of us who didn’t appreciate The Police back in the day have never taken him seriously as a rock artist, at least not in the way we look upon contemporaries like Elvis Costello, another restless stylist. With studio mavens like Josh Freese and Lyle Workman providing solid backup, these songs do occasionally work into a comfortable rock groove but they never actually rock out, and the album doesn’t reach any sort of consistency until the ballads kick in around its mid-point. It’s typical singer-songwriter fare, heavy on generic navel-gazing, which is what fans want from Sting in the first place but doesn’t always sound comfortable lodged in songs with big guitar hooks and booming drums. Rock really isn’t about “care.” It was always about the moment.
-Nicolas Jaar (Beat)
The Chilean-American electronica artist Nicolas Jaar, who is only 26, has often explained his complete about-turn from lively dance music producer to serious electronic composer by saying that he used to be into music for the fun, which implies he isn’t any more, and yet this haunting album, which has lyrics—and very good ones, too—is memorable for how good it makes you feel by the end. The rhythms are propulsive and often upbeat, even when the subjects are not. One track, “The Governor,” is almost pure rock, and affects the body the way a good rock song does, by impelling the listener toward joy regardless of the message being sent. Sometimes, as on the album’s centerpiece, “No,” that message is purposely pointed (it’s mostly in Spanish, anyway). The music respects the listener’s need to know, as well as his desire to know more.
94 East Featuring Prince
Recorded between 1975 and ’79, these tracks by 94 East are considered the bedrock of the so-called Minneapolis sound, as well as Prince’s first appearance as a recording artist. Prince would go on to refine and define that sound, but it’s interesting to hear how his teenage work as a sideman evolved it. At the time, the Minneapolis scene, like most regional music scenes, was characterized by garage rock, and Pepe Willie, the vocalist behind 94 East, saw a soul hole and filled it. Though the bulk of these songs aim for Top 40 R&B status, you can hear, especially in Prince’s guitar work, shades of the psychedelic funk that would become his trademark. Only five of the 13 cuts were ever released, so the bulk of the album has never been heard before. The overall feel is that of a party record, but a party that was very well planned.
The Serenity of Suffering
Jonathan Davis’s particular creative bailiwick is expressing vulnerability while dishing out brutal sonics. Given that Korn’s heyday was during the rise of emo, Davis can hardly claim that bailiwick as his own, but in the realm of nu metal it meant a lot more than it does now. Their latest is an attempt to reclaim the brutality part, especially as it’s manifested in Davis’s vocals, which are less rap metal than scat metal, but the twin guitar attack sounds more melodically inclined than it has for years. Corey Taylor of Slipknot, the group that took Korn’s gig further, makes up for the steals by showing up on the hardcore cut “A Different World,” providing surprisingly able counterpoint to Davis’s screamadelica. The album is at least as good as Issues, their last great record, but in the world of metal-whatever progress isn’t measured with how well you recall your best years.
Light Upon the Lake
-Whitney (Secretly Canadian/Hostess)
Whitney is made up of Max Kakacek, guitarist of Smith Westerns, and Julien Ehrlich, drummer of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Though there are only two full-time members, their debut album is lush and full-bodied, ten songs that don’t have to try too hard to get under your skin, but in a nice way, despite Ehrlich’s habit of singing as if in a storm sewer. Using classic song structures and almost hackneyed flourishes—guitar solos, brass raves, choruses that beg to be played again—Light Upon the Lake sounds familiar even before you listen to it. “I wanna drive all around with you with the windows down,” goes the refrain from “No Matter Where We Go,” a sentiment that perfectly captures the album’s sense of freedom on the move. Not since Nillsson’s prime has a pop artist sounded this sublime just expressing happy thoughts. Let’s hope it’s a trend.
Honeymoon on Mars
-The Pop Group (Victor)
On their second album since returning from a 25-year hiatus, the UK’s most straightforwardly Marxist postpunk band avail themselves of the production assistance of dub master Dennis Bovell, who worked on some of their early records. However, they also recorded three songs with Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy, a group whose overt political stance closely complements PG’s, even if the two groups’ respective musical styles don’t, despite PG’s faithful funk fury. Honeymoon on Mars is a more atmospheric record than its predecessor, Citizen Zombie, with a harsh, aggressive sound that conveys a character all its own. Mark Stewart’s cultural comments are made all the more caustic by the musical delivery system, which sometimes threatens to overpower his typically strident bellow. It’s almost as if the Pop Group decided to resurrect themselves in order to address a new generation of social evils. Come to think of it…
Long Live the Angels
-Emeli Sande (Virgin/Universal)
In the world of British soul, Emeli Sande occupies a position of prominence owing to her apprenticeship as a backstage toiler. Though she’s always been a singer, until she catapulted to stardom at the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics her main gig was as a songwriter. What’s interesting is that her debut album was identified mainly with the various species of dance music that command the European pop charts now. This sophomore effort is said to be closer to her heart with its use of gospel choruses and symphonic pop sweep. Apropos that Olympic job, she’s the kind of artist who coceptualizes on a grand scale, and everything on Long Live the Angels is fashioned for the cheap seats. The cattle-driving push of “Hurts” overwhelms in its emotional insistence, representing for Sande’s claim to the title of queen of the power balled, an oddly limiting aspiration for someone with such talent.
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
-Hamliton Leithauser + Rostam (Glassnote/Hostess)
It’s interesting that the former Walkmen vocalist uses his full name on this collaborative project while the other half, Vampire Weekend jack-of-all-trades Rostam Batmanglij, uses only his first, like a real pop superstar would. But there’s something right about the equation. This is mainly a solo album by Leithauser, a pop tunesmith of the old school and a romantic at heart, but it would mean less than it does without Batmanglij’s production ideas, which perfectly match whatever idiosyncrasies Leithauser’s songwriting contains. Whether the singer-songwriter is channeling Dylan (“You Ain’t That Young Kid”), 90s indie rock (“Sick as a Dog”), or doo-wop (pretty much everything else), Rostam knows exactly how to present it without taking anything away from Leithauser’s performance or themes. The results are at once irresistably catchy and weird, a cornucopia of styles that never shade into pastiche. It actually sounds pretty expensive.
A Seat at the Table
Whatever else you want to call 2016, it’s been the Year of the Knowles Family. Beyonce’s Lemonaid will dominate the Top Ten lists of most critics, but sister Solange’s late-breaking release is more of a keeper. Having released two excellent though overlooked albums since 2008, Solange makes her major label breakthrough with her most indie-sounding record ever. Steeped in minimalist, bedroom funk and shot through with a clear social conscience, A Seat at the Table rivals Black Messiah as the soundtrack for the new civil rights movement. Recorded in Louisiana, the songs are rooted in a black idiom that take spirituality and sexuality on equal terms, and with Raphael Saadiq on hand as producer, the music never fails to engage fully. But it’s the hard-won sentiment that pulls you in, a personal assessment of her culture’s gains and losses.
Anything on the neo-soul label Daptone is usually worth buying song unheard since its fundamental criterion for choosing music is groove. The late singer Sharon Jones epitomized the label for its authenticity, but the real meat of the matter is in the instrumental rigor the company demands. This debut by an instrumental ensemble assembled by pianist Toby Pazner stresses a kind of ad hoc literacy in all the various forms of post-50s R&B, and at times it comes across more as an encyclopedia than a record album. The difference between the Olympians and their labelmates, the Dap-Kings, is the former’s jazzier predelictions and a predominance of soloing. It’s a sensibility that favors chops but doesn’t find room for much else. There are few memorable riffs, and melody is an after-thought. But when groove is the be-all and end-all, you can’t help but be moved.