Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
-At the Drive In (Rise/Hostess)
It probably says more about At the Drive In’s place in post-millennial music that no one really compares them to the follow-up band the two main members—vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez—dissolved in 2013. Of course, Mars Volta was a progressive rock band whereas ATDI was closer to punk, but they had much more in common than people gave them credit for, in particular a manic, deliberate energy that felt unique. Thirteen years after their last album, ADTI might appear to be taking up exactly where they left off, but only if you ignore Mars Volta, which, for all their operatic excess, really were progressive. In-ter a-li-a isn’t. It revives the gymnastic excitement of the group’s peerless interactivity but sounds even more dated than 90s pop punk: That train left the station for the last time. It’s also very much Bixler-Zavala’s album whereas their masterpiece, Relationship of Command, was a thoroughly group effort. The lyrics, which reference up-to-the-minute issues such as the Korean standoff and that Oklahoma police officer who raped all those women, are meant to mean something and as such are more distracting than enlightening, because whatever talents Bixler-Zavala has demonstrated as a performer he’s famous for his incoherence. It’s what made ADTI exciting in their day. For sure, the guitars still sound like God is tuning them, and the funky undercurrents pulse like crazy, but there’s a feeling of playing it safe, as if this is what’s expected of them and they’re now older, wiser, and more receptive to what their fans want. Which is sort of a shame, because I was finally getting to like what Mars Volta was trying to do. The British shoegaze band, Slowdive, has taken even longer to follow up their last album—22 years—and their self-titled return to recording actually sounds as if they’ve been spending all that time wondering how to approach it. Like In-ter a-li-a, Slowdive sounds methodical, calculated, but for a band that is mostly about textures and dynamic subtleties that’s the way it should be. Shoegaze is by definition not very spontaneous. It’s thoughtful. It’s also pop by any other name, and I would like to think that, unlike Kevin Shields, who also spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with a successor to Loveless, the members of Slowdive spent their long summer vacation working on tunes, because that’s what immediately grabs you, not the textures or the dynamics. The guitar work, especially on the single, “Star Roving,” is riff rock at its most potent in 2017, meaning music made by adults who knew what they liked when they were younger and are still able to recall those feelings and translate them into affecting music. What’s surprising is that they’ve been able to keep the polish without losing the personality. At the Drive In would have benefited from such restraint, though it’s so contrary to their form.
50 Song Memoir
-The Magnetic Fields (Nonesuch/Warner)
Stephin Merritt works best within structural and/or thematic boundaries. His best album was composed of 69 love songs equally divided among three disks. All the titles on his 2004 release i started with that letter. Here he goes whole hog: 5 disks of ten songs each chronicling Merritt’s 50 years of existence. With something that clautrophobically personal, a band only gets in the way, and reportedly Merritt played almost every instrument on the album. The references are specific to a fault—to beloved musical acts, undecipherable anecdotes, mercury-like relationships—but over 2-and-a-half hours they do coalesce into a life as well as an integrated musical work. Pared down into something more narratively succinct, this could make a great stage musical, but I doubt if Merritt would allow anyone else near his Tin Pan Alley rock. He owns his drawbacks as a singer. He probably wouldn’t countenance them in others.
-Pond (Marathon Artists/Traffic)
Kevin Parker, who once drummed for this psychedelic band from Down Under, is more famous for his newer project, Tame Impala, but apparently the two projects still have some overlap and share a love of big rock gestures. If Pond has yet to receive the attention TI has, it’s probably because their reach has always been longer than their grasp. Melodically, they scan 80s chart pop with facility but these days you run the risk of being seen as parodists when you sound too much like Rush (that falsetto!). The band alternates sweetness and grimness with amazing alacrity, which makes you wonder what they could accomplish if they actually had a central guiding spirit like Parker holding everything down thematically. These guys can really play, and they know how to shape a song for maximum dynamic effect. You just wish they’d hit on an idea and stick with it.
Strength of a Woman
-Mary J. Blige (Capitol/Universal)
Not to sound flip, but what would a great Mary J. Blige album be without personal turmoil? After a run in the earlier part of the decade that showed her settling down, she’s back on the defensive, having split from her husband-manager and ready to tell us all about it. As indulgent as she gets in these moods, she also, better than anyone in R&B and maybe better than anyone in pop since Joni Mitchell, knows how to channel regret and resentment into powerful music. Though many songs on Strength of a Woman trade in trite self-actualization, when she gets into the gory details, as on “Telling the Truth” and the Missy collab “Glow Up,” she turns revenge into ace club music, and while I would never wish anyone to be in Mary’s sights, you have to appreciate her ex for providing her with material that brings out the best in her musically. Yeah, that’s cold.
-Charly Bliss (P-Vine)
Though Paramore gets more love and has the major label to prove it, I prefer the pop-indie stylings of this NYC group, whose antecedents are the same: 90s bands like Veruca Salt and Letters to Cleo. In other words, female fronted guitar ensembles who valued the hook above all else. Guppy, the band’s first bona fide album, is super-efficient in that regard, with songs clocking in at under three minutes, just one delectable riff after another. Even better, Eva Hendricks’ lyrics convey a poetic understanding of how punk syntax revolutionized pop in the 90s, reducing genuine sentiments into literal sound bites. And since Hendricks has no other life to relate but her own, she grounds her universal truths in personal experience that everyone can identify with. Some references may be too specific (Dairy Queen, the “Westermarck effect”?), but with music this irresistible you can’t help but get caught up in Charly Bliss’s world.
Just Give In/Never Going Home
-Hazel English (Tugboat)
These two EPs originally released on Polyvinyl in the states by an Australian currently residing in Northern California add up to a nice album unified by what can only be called sonic necessity. Hazel English is a singer-songwriter by inclination rather than compulsion. She came to the Bay Area to study literature and stayed to translate her poetry into song, and with the help of Jackson Phillips made music that relies on basic guitar patterns, synths, and machine rhythms. The end result can initially sound like aural wallpaper, but English has a pop heart and as long as things are kept simple, she’s able to get her point across through the appeal of her melodies and the quiet authority of her singing. Interestingly, the Japanese edition does not include the bonus track on the overseas version that sounds like something for the European dance market. Let’s hope it’s an outlier and not a preview.
For Crying Out Loud
This British electro-rock outfit has succeeded the old-fashioned way, by avoiding intellectualizing their craft and trusting gut instincts. In practice, this philosophy works better in concert than on record, which explains how their mediocre output can sound so great when played live. On their latest album, they reduce this methodology to the bone. Leader Serge Pizzorno reportedly wrote the whole thing in a few weeks, a claim borne out by the simple-mindedness of the lyrics (“summer is here once again…, etc.”). However, rather than straight dance-rock, the band takes a chance and goes in for straight disco punctuated by huge choruses that sound familiar and probably are if you have the wherewithal to search out their sources. Call-and-response is also liberally utilized, indicating once again that the end game for Kasabian is getting bodies to boogie at their stadium shows—a rock band who accepts today’s show biz priorities without reserve.
Forever of Never
-Lake (7 e.p.)
After six albums of resolutely relaxed rural rock, Lake isn’t likely to alter a formula that has kept them marginal but nonetheless solvent as an ongoing professional enterprise. If Forever or Never offers any surprises or changeups, it’s mostly with regard to the almost glacial progressivism in style that any band of this length of endurance undergoes over time. The usual comforting gorgeousness of their harmonies and rich instrumental interaction is in tact, but occasionally they go for straight pop immediacy, as on the ballad “Trouble,” and will throw in a mildly disconcerting electric guitar squall, as on “Gone Against the Wind”; which is to say Lake, despite some early critical encouragement to the contrary, are never going to be a big, popular musical act. Likely, this will appeal to their base only, of which I count myself a member, but it’s easy to be distracted.
-Sheryl Crow (Warner)
Sheryl Crow’s makeover-to-get-over would seem to be overdue, and while Be Myself is being touted as such, it’s also being promoted as a return to basics, meaning, presumably, a hit generator along the lines of The Globe Sessions. It’s really neither, but these days any time you can get a major label to actually spend money on publicity you’re going to get a reaction that’s expected. Working once again with producers Jeff Trott and Tchad Blake, Crow doesn’t completely jettison the country stylings that dominated her last few records, but she does try for the more straightforward guitar rock feel that used to be her default comfort zone. And if she seems overly cautious about her songwriting, at least it means her lyrics are less likely to induce wincing in more discerning listeners. You came to Crow for the hooks but often you left laughing at the indadvertent humor.
Shake the Shudder
The last band standing from the dance punk scene that rattled Brooklyn before the turn of the millennium, !!! has never stood on ceremony. Their funk-disco purity was the most appealing thing about them, even if they never made an album that stood the test of time the way the Rapture’s debut has. In concert, however, they are selfless, which may explain why Nic Offer cedes so much lead vocal time to guests in this latest batch. Lea Lea tones things down on “The One 2” with a recognizable R&B groove. Molly Schnick, who used to be in the !!! offshoot Out Hud, serves up sizable lung power on “Throttle Service.” Offer transforms his occasional falsetto into a bona fide character on “Dancing is the Best Revenge.” If Shake the Shudder is the band’s most conceptualized album, it’s not at the expense of the funk or the acidic social criticism. Some things just can’t change.
-PWR BTTM (P-Vine)
Until only a few weeks ago, this duo was being celebrated as the most important act in queercore pop-punk, a genre that sounds overdetermined and may, in fact, be useless as a label. In any event, just before their second album was set for release, someone accused lead singer Ben Hopkins of sexual assault and they were dropped by both their label and their tour management. Consequently, Pageant is one of those odd releases that no one wants to touch. Listening to these offhandedly witty and melodic pop songs in the light of those allegations, you wonder how much of Hopkins’ neediness is pathological. “When you’re queer you’re always 19,” he laughs on “LOL,” and the sentiment now sounds like an excuse. What’s particularly distressing about the album is that the lyrics are so incisively self-deprecating, as if he knew what he was capable of. Creepy…and compelling.
-Nadia Reid (Tugboat)
This young folk singer from New Zealand knows how to frame and depict isolation. It’s there in her spare, deft acoustic guitar lines and the dusky purity of her quiet vocal style, but it’s mostly apparent in the way she ends a phrase before its natural conclusion, thus confounding expectations generated by years of listening to young singer-songwriters trying to be as idiosyncratic as Joni Mitchell. Reid’s appeal is that she’s fairly straightforward without having to fall back on country or the blues. If anything, her lilting melodies conjure up the coastal pop of Stevie Nicks, and one can only wonder what she’d achieve with a bigger budget. She makes drama without being dramatic, by leaving out the sentiments and musical touchstones that are shortcuts to emotional revelations for other artists. You get where she’s coming from with surprising ease.
World Be Gone
What a perfect time to be Andy Bell and Vince Clarke. The dance pop duo has always been at their best when the sociopolitical scene has been at its most tawdry, and almost every cut here is informed by bitterness and highlighted with wry denunciations of what the world has become. However, it’s also a bit of a drag beatwise. The opening track, “Love You to the Sky,” is the only thing that grooves unreservedly, and is, in fact, a straightforward love song. When the pair gets down to “Oh What a World” or “Lousy Sum of Nothing,” the gratuitous seriousness of intent means they don’t actually get down at all. In “Still It’s Not Over” they even do away with drums altogether. It would mean more if the cricitism were more than just pointed platitudes, but too much of the lyrical content feels over-literal.