Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last month.
The question posed by Kehlani Parrish is, How could someone so young sound so experienced? Though SweetSexySavage is her major label debut and, as such, considered the point from which we will take her seriously, she’s been around the block a number of times and on each revolution learned something new and valuable. Her reportedly bitter experience on “America’s Got Talent” gave her some idea of how the business works. The subsequent mixtape and indie album gave her a chance to explore her sound on record and learn how to write. Though the new album has its slickness issues and occasionally veers toward the trite side of female-empowered R&B, the voice is amazing. Conversational and musical at the same time, youthful in timbre but mature in tone, Kehlani’s instrument is one of the biggest stories in pop music at the moment, though it wouldn’t mean as much if what came out of her mouth weren’t so penetrating. What made the classic soul singers great was their ability to channel feelings directly, but modern R&B takes that ability and turns it around: it’s the calculation that first strikes you. Kehlani turns it back around. Hooks abound, but the deep appeal of the album is the way it conveys specific emotional situations. “Are you down to be a distraction?” she asks, and then wonders what she might think of the guy years down the road. The production holds back just enough to give her room, and she controls everything—the rhythm of the song, the temperature of the arrangement—just with her singing. Not since Mary J. Blige has a new R&B vocalist seemed so on top of her material. Emel Mathlouthi has been on top of her material for more than a decade, which is essential since she’s from Tunisia, where women aren’t often allowed to be on top of anything. Probably by necessity she’s known as a protest singer, and her songs were banned on the radio until 2010. During the Arab Spring, her work took on new meaning, and she was asked to sing at a ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last year. Working with Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurosson, she finally breaks the international market with Ensen, a canny mix of native tropes and towering beats, but like Kehlani it’s that distinctive voice, soft but insistent, that makes the music so immediately arresting. Her Wikipedia page lists a dozen or so Western influences, from Baez to Zeppelin to Fuck Buttons, and, actually, you can hear them all on this album, which refigures the natural propulsion of North African music for a rock audience. Sigurosson separates the native instruments and stresses their distinctive qualities in contrast to one another, vivifying the drama inherent in the music and the vocals. Though it might lose the tribal element so vital to Middle Eastern music, it works as both pop and polemic.
Run the Jewels 3
-Run the Jewels (Traffic)
The most potent duo in indie rap, Killer Mike and ELP have developed into political and commercial contenders with their third album. Having supported Bernie and lost doubly with the ascension of Hillary and then Trump, the pair come out blazing with verses that tell ’em as they see ’em. Whereas previously RTJ was content to play with the concept of protest music, here it’s an entire reason for existing, with everything they’ve got invested in awareness. No one gets out alive, be it the powers that be, the media, even other hip-hoppers. The precision of their aim is sometimes breathtaking (“Choose the lesser of the evil people/the devil still goin’ to win”), but it’s the production—in-your-face and packed with hooks—that carries the message. This is the most fun anyone could ever have dissing their “masters,” and stands as the musical manifesto for the next four years.
Not Even Happiness
-Julie Byrne (Tugboat/P-Vine)
Music expressly designed to relax the listener doesn’t get much love from hipsters, but despite her decidedly New Age approach to indie folk, singer-songwriter Julie Byrne has carved an enviable niche for herself in America’s cooler coffee houses. Quiet of voice but forceful of acoustic guitar picking, Byrne puts across a survival narrative that speaks of close observation and unwavering attention to details most of us miss. The template is the meditative love song, which couches in nature metaphors feelings too amorphous to describe literally. The title of “Natural Blue” is a reference to the sky, which figures in most of these tracks and represents everything to which Byrne endeavors. The crystalline quality of her sound isn’t brittle like ice on a pond, but warm like the sun’s invisible rays. She glows not brightly, but nonetheless constantly, always moving forward “in service of my dreams.”
-Brinsley Schwarz (MSI)
Having been the lead guitarist and namesake of probably the most revered band in the pub rock field, Brinsley Schwarz may have never felt the need to parade his ego with a solo album, but here it finally is, complete with vocals and songs all written by the man himself. He even plays almost all of the instruments on some cuts. Reportedly influenced by Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, another album that saw a 70s institution come out of retirement, Unexpected nevertheless revives the R&B that was Schwarz’s metier with the Brinsleys and, later, the Rumour. Vocally and tune-wise, he has more in common with Ian Gomm than Nick Lowe, a lightness of tone and a penchant for easy pop hooks. Probably due to logistics and finances, there’s little of the interactive fireworks that made his old bands so exciting, and hardly any solos. Unexpected, though not necessarily disappointing.
-Why? (7 e.p.)
Sometimes referred to as a hip-hop outfit, Yoni Wolf’s long-running project has enough in common with fellow Chicagoans’ postrock curriculum to qualify as whatever passes for progressive rock these days, and the most striking thing about this return to the limelight is its musical complexity. There are just lots of instruments, or, at least, lots of instrumental sounds that fit comfortably into the dense arrangements. The only thing that seems “inorganic” is the drums, which are obviously programmed and do sound like the kind of thing you’d hear on a Common track. Verbose and slightly depressive, Wolf has a lot on his mind, but not enough to distract him from mining great melodies, as on the Top 40ish ballad “George Washington.” Elsewhere, there are notes of tentativeness in both the music and the lyrics, as if he had never quite worked out the theme of the record.
-Depeche Mode (Sony)
It was funny when that white supremacist guy said Depeche Mode was the official band of the alt-right, even if it was a joke. Few new wave combos not associated with the post-punk movement were as self-consciously leftist, and on their newest Martin Gore goes out of his way to declare that the revolution is overdue. That oppressive bass and those minor key melodies still has the effect of preparing the listener for the worst, but per the title there is a measure of hope. Even a song like “Scum,” which brings down our corporate overlords and actually advocates the use of violence does so in the service of a pleasant groove. There’s even redemption for anyone looking for it in “Cover Me.” Produced by James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, the album doesn’t reinvent synth-pop but it does make the 80s sound less stale than it has lately.
People with only a passing knowledge of the music of Stephen Bruner probably think of him as a producer first and a bassist second, but he’s also one of the finest songwriters working in any pop genre right now, and that’s saying a lot since he doesn’t limit himself to one genre. His music sits as comfortably next to primal 60s psychedelia as it does next to post-millennial electronic minimalism. Drunk even finds as much room for Kenny Loggins as it does for Kendrick Lamar. As the title suggests, the theme of these 23 tracks is late night lassitude—alcohol as the balm for heartbreak. If that sounds like an old story, it’s still a potent one, open as much to humor as to desperation. From an overextended credit card at the club to a run-in with the law, it’s a real movie, but with funk-fusion attitude.
Terrible Human Beings
-The Orwells (Atlantic/Warner)
The garage rock of this Chicago quintet has been road tested on late night TV and in second-billed slots at major festivals, which means they no longer need the jerry-rigged amateurish brand image to give them cred in a crowded field. That image tries to make them out as assholes, a boast that, in the time of Trump, hardly seems transgressive, much less appealing. With Jim Abbiss of Arctic Monkeys fame producing, they make a nice, full, clean radio-ready sound that only points up their calculated attempts to be the next white punks on dope. No one’s asking for relevance from a garage band, but by the same token no one’s asking them to try to be something that they’re not. The Orwells obviously have talent and youth is still on their side, so there’s time for them to find a voice that isn’t adenoidal by design.
Field of Love
-Mozart’s Sister (Tugboat/P-Vine)
Unlike fellow Montreal-based synth-pop chanteuse Grimes, Caila Thompson-Hannant isn’t comfortable with big gestures. Sporting a childlike soprano that resorts to quirk rather than power to get its points across, she deals in song fragments that span a wide range of dynamic expression. At times relying too much on spacey, non-musical sounds to fill in the empty spaces between the notes of her spare melodies, she can still get her dance on and shape-shift impressively, though she doesn’t have the patience or the fortitude to keep a song going long enough to get punters out on the floor. Nevertheless, Field of Love will likely sound more at home in the club than it will in your home—or on your iPod where those spaces will become a little too obvious. Her weak point is R&B (“Angel”), which in her hands is drama without the conviction.
-Alison Krauss (Capitol/Universal)
Alison Krauss made her name as a child bluegrass prodigy but the general public mainly thinks of her as a singer. This collection of countrypolitan songs is her first solo vocal album since 1999 and while the quiet command of her singing remains in tact, she inadvertently proves how difficult real country music is to sing. In fact, if you consider her greatest songs as a vocalist, they’re mostly blues or pop or rock or even jazz. (In terms of effect, her closest peer is Norah Jones, another instrumentalist who came by singing sideways) Also, the selection here is almost painfully tasteful, from the John Hartford hippie-Okie “Gentle on My Mind” to whitewashed honky-tonk of “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You.” The one Roger Miller song she does was written for a Broadway musical. All these songs require someone with a more studious approach to singing.
-Laura Marling (Traffic)
The title is Latin for “always a woman,” and the songs reference relationships between and among women. Sometimes the relationships are entirely theoretical, such as that between the singer an Mother Earth in the song “Next Time.” Much of the time, the listener is on her own, however, since Marling’s characteristic tangential approach to lyrics leaves more out than it includes. Though the music is quiet and the arrangements carefully spare, the richness of Marling’s voice carries more meaning, an attribute that has always made it difficult for me to call her a folk singer, which is what she is to many people. Having emerged from the London art scene fully formed in her ideals and purposes, she doesn’t have much use for normal musical or romantic platitudes. She knows her mind, and often makes sure you know it, too, even if you can’t explain it.
Having broken up with romantic and musical partner Amber Coffman, Dave Longstreth now commandeers their band’s name for his solo project, which, on first outing, is, appropriately enough, a concept album about their breakup. It’s also much more conventional than anything Longstreth has done up til now, a canny amalgam of modern R&B and 70s-flavored pop—Solange even gets a songwriting credit. What I always liked about the Dirty Projectors was the way their experimental bent never got in the way of a good tune, but that quality was more prominent in their live shows. Here, Longstreth makes it his mission statement. Despite the busy arrangements, there’s a directness to the melodies, which, in turn, delivers the heartbreak he so desperately wants to convey, often in ways that aren’t flattering. The guy never could let well enough alone, but he seems pumped by suffering.
-Ed Sheeran (Asylum/Warner)
We no longer need to be told that Ed Sheeran is the world’s most unlikely pop star. Sheeran’s everydog image is integral to his songwriting. It’s calculated, and forced earnestness gives aspirational will power a bad name. Could anybody this successful be that innocent? This is his third album with a mathematical symbol as the title, a conceit that has no meaning except as a conceit, and yet fans think of him as a sincere artist. The songs, which are tuneful and propulsive, are the main thing, but there’s a sameness to those tunes and an anal dedication to acoustic guitar velocity, so you hang on the words, which are self-regarding. Considering his fame, love is something he obviously knows, but he always puts it across in the most generic terms. And just so you know he’s human, he can be nasty, but in a cute way.