Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last month.
-The Flaming Lips (Warner)
-Arto Lindsay (P-Vine)
Though the Flaming Lips are deservedly famous for their visually resplendent live shows, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, regardless of which songs they play—the balloons, the tacky yet extravagant makeup, the stuffed animals. I would call it gimmicky, but it’s such a successful mold that they’ve never been tempted to break it, which is why I’ve always resisted their reputation as avant-pop tricksters. I already thought they were dated by Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. However, their new album, a loosely constructed rock opera about people who sleep for extended periods of time and dream about unicorns, is such a conventional record in terms of what it presumably channels that you wonder if they aren’t trying to pull one over on an audience that takes them for granted. Wayne Coyne still sings in that lazy, high-pitched voice—Neil Young on poppers—but it’s the only musical component that certifies this as a Flaming Lips production. For the most part the instrumentation is built around hard-core electronica, which should immediately indicate we are out of the group’s psychedelic comfort zone. Spacey, yes, but without guitars and a jammy center, the space is only between your ears. Listening to Oczy Mlody on speakers is a thin experience. And while the Lips’ characteristic melodicism is still in evidence, especially in that song about the unicorns, the tunes have less import than the presentation, all echoey muddle and bassy punctuation marks. If the 60-minute recording does anything to carry on the psych tradition it’s in its dedication to the integrity of the album concept. The songs build on one another until the climax, “We a Family,” which is certainly the best cut here. For post-millennial normals who have been conditioned to judge music one track at a time, Oczy Mlody could pose a significant challenge. Arto Lindsay’s association with psychedelia is mostly circumstantial, more a matter of like-mindedness than genre identification. As a leader of New York’s no wave movement in the late 70s he showed an instant affinity for the avant-garde that didn’t dim as he delved deeper into his cultural heritage and explored samba and bossa nova. His first original album in 13 years, released in Japan before anywhere else and titled after a 1970 Brazilian comedy about maids killing their mistresses, contains most of the Arto hallmarks—jazzy playing, fey, lilting vocals, lots of playful sex, and sonic stuff that purposely counters the purely relaxed Latin pop that holds everything together. Rhythmically, the music is more propulsive than that on his last several albums. There’s a funky edge to songs like “Ilha dos prazeres,” despite their off-kilter time signatures and tricky chord structures. The mellowness that Arto is famous for is constantly under attack, as if outside musical forces were determined to get his goat. That space between his ears remains a fascinating and stimulating place.
Awaken, My Love!
-Childish Gambino (Glassnote/Hostess)
It’s been a great year for Donald Glover, and a new album by his musical alter ego Chldish Gambino should be a slam-dunk, though his fans may think of it as a curve ball, since he’s abandoned clever raps for clever R&B pastiche, and it’s easy feel that he’s taking the piss. The first thing you note is the lavish production, which is Barry White-grade grandiose. When he talks about recognizably personal matters, like the birth of his son on “Baby Boy,” the big feelings are understandable, but the love songs suggest someone who thinks he needs to be Barry White to get laid. This is a function of his main trade: acting. But he created a more credible persona as a rapper. The lover man R&B thing is already a parody, and taking it to another level only makes it more obvious, not more interesting.
He’s Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands
-Joan of Arc (7 e.p.)
Tim Kinsella has the kind of silly voice that makes perfect sense for his silly lyrics. The title of his new album as Joan of Arc says most of what he wants to express about his approach to entertainment, though it’s the first video from the album, “This Must Be the Placenta” that better nails his state of mind, conflating the idea of “hanging out” with an afterbirth and then with actually hanging yourself with a noose. Set against woozy guitars and keyboards and tom-tom heavy fills, the effect can be more disturbing than just reading the lyrics on the page, especially when he starts cracking up after the line, “cunnilingus gives me heartburn.” It might be difficult to stand if it also weren’t so calculatedly catchy. Even when the arrangements counter the appeal of a song, they don’t confound it, and isn’t that what entertainment’s all about?
-Brian Eno (Warp/Beat)
Though a lot of musicians nowadays labor under the ambient marquee, Brian Eno, who practically invented the genre as a genre, seems to be the only one whose faith in its ostensible use as background music is solid enough to release an album that contains just one long track. As the cover art conveys, Eno understands that obscurity is the soul of ambience, that once the music intrudes on your space it loses its purpose, but the beauty of Reflection is that it rewards closer listening even if it doesn’t invite it. There’s no discernible development over its 54 minutes, but there are moments when musical ideas congeal into something almost narrative in nature, because Eno knows this is still music. He isn’t just shifting wavelengths and oscillating tones. He’s noodling, and I’ll take an album of Eno noodles over almost any other producer’s “art” any day.
-The Weeknd (Republic/Universal)
I heard from a label executive that Universal has tried to sell Abel Tesfaye to the Japanese public and failed, because Tesfaye, as the R&B monolith The Weeknd, isn’t into self-promotion. That makes sense. Tesfaye didn’t emerge as a superstar fully formed. He bubbled up from the DIY underground. Starboy is his third major label effort but his first since his coronation and it suffers from the kinds of things that tend to plague artists still looking for their sound. With fame comes money and with money—at least with major labels—comes interference in the form of songwriting committees. So while the melodies are crisper and the beats more direct, there’s none of the shade that made his previous work so distinct and repeatedly explorable. Even the Daft Punk collabs have that generic trebly quality that seems to have infected pop like a virus.
The Neon Demon (Original Soundtrack)
-Cliff Martinez (Milan/Warner)
A noted soundtrack composer for close to 20 years, former Red Hot Chili Peppers member Cliff Martinez in many ways made movies safe for electronic music, though he just as often works with orchestras. His score for the Nicolas Winding Refn shocker The Neon Demon is even more atypical in that it plays like a series of distinct, circumspect ideas divorced not only from one another but from the film; which is why it works so well as an album. What’s striking is how varied and insistent the tempos are. Martinez’s synth work liberally scans disco and deep house, adding tensions to scenes that are tense to begin with. Since the movie is about the fashion industry, his shiny surfaces sex everything up even more, and as he’s shown with his work on the cable series The Knick, he doesn’t sound anachronistic even when the setting is a hundred years ago.
-Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers (P-Vine)
Michigan native Joe Hertler has been working in and around the Midwestern indie scene since the middle of the last decade, mainly on his own as a folk-rock singer-songwriter. Thanks to local encouragement he formed this largish band, whose accompaniment has turned his agreeably conflicted songs into the kind of soaring pop that people look to Mumford and Sons for sustenance. Though the band ventures into soul and even a bit of funk on occasion, the interaction is so tight that nothing wobbles out of place. The Rainbow Seekers are an oiled machine, but one stoked to respond to Hertler’s hopeful bleat and optimistic lyrics. Everything in Hertler’s world is going to get better, and it’s difficult not to extend such sentiments to the music itself. Someday, Joe Hertler will be a star, but maybe not yours or mine.
11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory
-Dropkick Murphys (Born & Bred/Hostess)
As a subdivision of hard rock, Irish immigrant punk is anthemic by definition, because Irish immigrants are nothing if not vocal about their peculiar situation. As survivors do, Boston’s Dropkick Murphys are consistent about their boozing prerogatives and mindless defense of working class mores, but they’re also cognizant of their place in the scheme of things musically. As raucous as it sounds, 11 Short Stories is relatively subdued compared to past work, and especially compared to their live shows—more Springsteen than Rancid at this point, though one has to keep in mind that they pioneered the kind of Celtic rock that the Boss has embraced in recent years. Likewise their unabashed sentimental side, exemplified by their ode to the victims of the Boston marathon bombing, “4-15-13,” is at once tearjerking and uplifting. At last, a pop album fully lives up to its melodramatic title.
I See You
-The xx (Young Turks/Beat)
Having never fully appreciated the impressionistic, beat-derived R&B of the 90s, I approached the xx’s first two albums with reservations: it sounded like British R&B further watered down by dark melodies and atmospheric effects. Jamie xx’s solo productions and remixes were more interesting only because they were obviously built for fun rather than meaning. The band’s third album, though, opens their sound up, effectively moving the goal posts back to a time when dance music was about meaning and fun. More to the point, the singing is more generally emotive—it’s not just about sulking in your basement and wondering when the drugs will arrive. It’s tempting to imagine that success has brought the group up into the light, where they’ve found happiness and love on their own terms. That supposition is enough in itself to celebrate I See You, but that’s the power of positive music.
-Pete Doherty (Warner)
More appealing than Doherty’s first solo album and definitely more thrilling than the Libertines’ reunion LP, Hamburg Demonstrations, as its title suggests, sounds like a fairly makeshift affair. Conceived as a kind of Beatles homage, the album makes do with first takes but is not simplistic at all. The music often changes course mid-song in charming and unexpected ways, as when “A Spy in the House of Love” playfully borrows an early 60s movie theme for a couple of measures. Usually characterized as a ragged singer and knockabout songwriter, the performances here are intimate though not always revealing. There’s also a folkie’s love of the provocative sentiment delivered in the most direct way possible. It would be easy to think Doherty is saving the raucous tunes for the next Libertines record, but this is quite satisfactory for a collection of demos.
Change Is Gonna Come
-Various Artists (MSI)
This collection of black music with a social bent from the period 1964-73 mostly covers songs that were slightly off the radar of pop music listeners at the time. Except for Gil Scott-Heron’s still corruscating “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black,” which end the album, the tracks are by artists who didn’t crossover from the R&B charts, or, at least, not with these songs. It’s also interesting that some of these songs, like “Only in America” and “George Jackson,” were written by white people. The Dylan song, in particular, is probably the hardest hitting one here. The general mood is not defiant or protesting, but wistful and accommodating, advocating change through love and understanding. “Black” as a positive adjective was, in a way, introduced to the wider public through songs like these, but only those listeners who were around in the day will understand how revolutionary the concept was.
AFI (The Blood Album)
The venerable hard rock band’s return has been welcomed with open arms by the music press and fans, though this album doesn’t sound very much like their classic work. Realistically speaking, they’ve never really been very good at repeating themselves. This is almost pop in a punky sort of way, and whie the guitar parts are as inventive as ever, they play down their capabilities in order to concentrate on atmosphere and dynamics, and when they break into something that sounds hardcore it’s startling in a good way. What’s missing is the party feeling that could make even their most lumbering songs instantly memorable, and the self-conscious 80s vibe is distracting at times, as if the band were going out of its way to prove their Cure bona fides. Don’t get me wrong, I think more guitar bands should listen to new wave music, but AFI already seemed beyond that.
Given how few foreign rock groups get the full release treatment on a major in Japan these days, one approaches the debut album by UK group Blossoms with a certain nervous anticipation. It’s immediately apparent why Universal has confidence in the band: the hooks are impressive and numerous, and the psychedelic touches are pretty much up-to-minute. And it doesn’t hurt in Japan to be constantly compared to the Stone Roses, though my first impression is that they’d rather be channeling Suede. Like most young Brit guitar bands, they play up the cool factor a little too much. There’s less grit than there should be, and while the album never drags it never quite reaches cruising speed either. Probably because all these songs are produced as if they would be radio hits, it’s mainstream appeal keeps it from being memorable, but that’s probably what attracted Universal, too.