August 2017 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on July 25.

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie
(Rhino/Warner)
Something to Tell You
-Haim (Universal)
The Southern California sound is sunny, expressed in major keys, with white-sounding harmonies. It’s the Beach Boys, whose doo-wop was twice removed from its African-American progenitors, first by Phil Spector, then by surfing culture. This attribute remained ascendant until Fleetwood Mac hired Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to remake them as a pop band. The two singer-songwriters, both originally from Northern California, synthesized SoCal rock—Brian Wilson, the Laurel Canyon aesthetic, the superior studio skills associated with the Wrecking Crew—and personalized it, mainly on Rumours, which kept the style safe from punk and new wave. Now that this sound is ascendant again, Buckingham and the third singer-songwriter from the last iteration of FM, Christine McVie, release what is basically an FM album. The absence of Nicks is palpable but, given how little of herself she lent to recent FM recordings, not surprising, especially since Buckingham seems charged up by the project, even if his face on the cover betrays reservations. But Mick Fleetwood and John McVie provide the rhythm section, so there’s little to complain about. FM were first and foremost a beat machine, even when they were a blues group, adding bounce to choruses so that they’d sound great on any radio. Buckingham relies on John and Mick to make something of his songs that they aren’t on paper—pop hits with hooks. You can hear the difference between his infectious opener, “Sleeping Around the Corner,” and his excitement-free solo turn, “In My World,” which could almost be a demo. McVie goes with her strengths throughout, namely her facility with melodies that don’t crowd her limited vocal capabilities, and in terms of consistency her material is better than Buckingham’s. That said, both performers are more engaged than they have been for a long time, and with time these tunes will probably turn out to be more resilient than anything they’ve done in the past 20 years. The Haim sisters, of course, are the most obvious heirs to the FM SoCal sound, and, reportedly, received advice from Nicks herself for the recording of their second album. The sisters’ strong suit is their harmonizing, which one rock star characterized as being “gospel.” Though that would hardly have been an original compliment back in the day Haim references, it means something today. But what they really learned from FM is, again, that sense of propulsion which makes good hooks and choruses even more irresistible. The sisters, it should be noted, aren’t kids any more, despite their PR (the oldest is over 30), and Something to Tell You is an assuredly mature work in both sound and theme. There’s even a touch of new wave experimentalism on “Nothing’s Wrong” that sounds practically British, and “You Never Knew” appropriates disco unapolgetically. Lyrically, the confessional mode seems more or less obligatory, since there isn’t much conviction among the rote romantic entreaties, but the music will stand—or dance, whichever the case may be.

Resistance
-Songhoy Blues (Transgressive/Hostess)
Though it probably shouldn’t make a difference, it’s interesting that the members of this Malian guitar band met at university, which implies a middle class background. In fact, they were refugees within their own country, forced to flee the embattled north. But the academic cachet may have had something to do with their quick adoption of a French manager and contact with like-minded rock artists like Nick Zinner and Damon Albarn. Their new album was recorded in London and features Iggy Pop on one number, but such attributes tend to distract from the central groove that lumbers through their music so purposefully. The funk that’s inherent in their attack may be African in origin, but it feels designed to appeal to a regular rock audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that, since the conflation of rhythm and instrumental power sets them apart from most African crossover acts.

Home
-Illa J (P-Vine)
Illa J is the younger brother of hip-hop legend J Dilla, who died in 2006. Though not in the game at the time of his brother’s death, Illa became a rapper in order to maintain his brother’s legacy, which hardly needed it, but he was successful nevertheless. On his latest album, Illa gets out from under Dilla’s shadow with a set of odes to his hometown of Detroit. Thanks to producer Calvin Valentine, Home is as much a soul album as it is a rap record, and Illa sounds like no one as much as Eddie Kendricks when he gets into a real pop mood. If the samples don’t always stand up to the singing and the rapping, it’s probably because the thematic ambition outstripped the recording capabilities. “Sam Cook” and “Detroit Bad Boys” call for real studio players to give the soulful entreaties the organic foundation they need.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets
-Los Straitjackets (MSI)
This guitar group from Nashville plays surf music and wears Mexican wrestling masks, so it’s safe to say they’re on the parody side of the entertainment spectrum. I’d like to think it was that aspect that appealed to Nick Lowe when he hired Los Straitjackets as his backing band on a recent tour, given that a good deal of Lowe’s songs during his prime 70s run were pop parodies. Here, the group gives back by covering 13 compositions from that era, and while they are strictly instrumentals, the wit shines through. Some of the arrangements, like making the title hit into a folk rock number, show the group’s own creative bent, but for the most part LS sticks to basics, and if the collection has anything to teach Lowe fans it’s with the versions of more obscure gems, like “Checkout Time” and “I Read a Lot.” The guy could write some wicked chord changes.

Youth Is Only Fun In Retrospect
-Sundara Karma (Sony)
As the title of their debut suggests, this UK band is cautious about their throwback sound, which uses shimmering shoegaze guitars to augment strong, charismatic vocal performances. The songs are anthemic without being brassy, Springsteen in temperament but The Edge in execution. Most likely, songs such as the cataclysmic “Be Nobody” and the catchy “Olympia” were inspired by bands like Arcade Fire or the Killers, who dominated intelligent rock conversations when the members of this band were entering their adolescence. In a sense, Sundara Karma are almost too representative of their generation of rock musicians: original in their minds but susceptible to the machinations of record companies who know their potential audience better than the musicians do. In other words, there’s not much here that’s distinctive, though it’s all capably played and will certainly be exciting in concert. Once the ambition is sated, who knows what they might do.

“Abysmal Thoughts”
-The Drums (Tugboat)
Jonny Pierce is one of the few Amerindie success stories who admits that his main source of inspiration was the Factory singles that came out of the British heartland in the 80s. Though he’s speaking about the bright, elemental guitar sound, his songs also trade in the lugubrious emotional texture of those records, as reflected in the oddly bequoted title of his fourth album as The Drums. In fact, those inverted commas point up how lighter Pierce’s outlook has become in recent years. He even finds humor in his hangovers now. This feeling of common sense maturity filters over into the music, which bangs around with disco but never quite succumbs to outright hedonism, and that’s actually a positive thing, an acknowledgment that life has more to offer than partying. The truth will set you free, even if it’s an abysmal truth.

TLC
(852 Musiq/Warner)
Touted as the last TLC album 15 years after their previous one, which was released only months after the death of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the surviving duo’s self-titled work was actually crowd-funded, a move that may have had more to do with connecting with fans than with money. In any case, T-Boz and Chilli worked here with people they like rather than people who would get them attention, and the project is intimate and flattering, covering a wide range of urban styles. And while the good taste that was always prominent during their 90s run of hits is the main attribute, there’s a noticeable diminishment of energy, as if the pair were determined to make a PG-rated record that pre-teens could listen to without upsetting their parents, even if those parents had grown up with TLC. It’s a youthful pop album, and apparently that’s how they want to go out.

Love Fantasy Tears Reality
-First Hate (P-Vine)
This Japan-only release augments the Danish duo’s debut album, A Prayer for the Unemployed, with various stray tracks. Despite the disagreeable moniker, they aren’t punk like their compatriots Iceage, but are suitably honest about life as most people live it. In that sense, their Eurobeat tendencies scan as the Pet Shop Boys without a protective layer of urbanity. Anton Falck Gansted and Joakim Norgaard are also proudly DIY and not afraid to color their insoucience with trebly lo-fi. In the clubs where they probably feel at home, the feeling is all that matters. Even when the songs veer into sentimentality, as on the big-hearted “The One,” there’s a surly edge of defiance, as if Gansted were defending lowest-common-denominator pop from the Philistines. So even if the group conveys a kind of brittle grandeur, it’s at the service of people who dance all night, and probably work all day to pay for it.

Something’s Changing
-Lucy Rose (Communion/Hostess)
Singer-songwriters who trade in whispery contemplation rather than forceful declaration have to be careful about the people they play with. Suzanne Vega would never have been the star she became if it weren’t for producers like Mitchel Froom, who understood how to frame her conversational vocals. For her third album, Lucy Rose dials back the instrumentation so that all the intimate details of her feathery soprano come through. As a result, she demonstrates a range of feeling that wasn’t apparent on her first two albums, but which nonetheless garnered her enough fans to allow her to tour the world, even if it was only with her guitar. That experience was obviously valuable, because even when bass and drums kick in, as on the sublime “Second Chance,” they don’t crowd her delivery, which is natural and affecting, the better to put her romantic points across.

4:44
-Jay-Z (Def Jam/Universal)
It was inevitable that Shawn Carter would use the album format to explore his own personal shortcomings. Part of his image as a technically peerless rapper was his uncompromising confidence in his own abilities, and not just as a performer. Having entered middle age with a closely scrutinized marriage and three kids, Jay-Z finally opens up, so to speak, about his infidelities and disillusionment with the trappings of being rich, not to mention those conventions that made him rich. But let’s talk about the music, specifically No I.D.’s amazing productions, certainly the best that have graced a Jay-Z album in 15 years. His choice of samples—Nina Simone, Hannah Williams, Donny Hathaway—reinforce Carter’s reverence for old school soul but also shore up the tracks’ rhythmic intent with steel. The music draws you in to Carter’s uncomfortable self-regard, the better to understand it.

Ego
-RAC (Counter/Beat)
Andre Allen Anjos aspires to electronic music production the old-fashioned way, by treating all work as an extended mix. Though his second album is made up of 14 tracks, it’s really just one long DJ show, despite individual input from people like Rostam Batmanglij and Rivers Cuomo. Opening with fairly laidback, human-sounding music, he gradually works the record up into a danceable mess, aided by various vocalists whose distinctions aren’t really addressed, maybe because they’re also processed to a certain extent. By the midpoint, the music is almost completely machine-driven, even when it uses acoustic instruments. The album’s cool sheen, a function of its tropical sounding rhythms and crisp pop melodies, is itself a kind of mechanical process. Nothing here, in other words, is a happy accident. It’s all very properly laid out and executed with exacting detail. Whose ego is that supposed to satisfy?

Hydrograd
-Stone Sour (Road Runner/Warner)
The longevity of metal acts is a function of the market rather than group dynamics. Except for hip-hop, no other genre has the international reach of metal. A group whose star has faded locally can always play anywhere in the world. Just look at all those second-tier metal acts who play Japan every year. Stone Sour lost their founding guitarist two years ago, and his replacement has steered the band toward a more atmospheric style that’s less song-based, meaning less adherent to metal conventions. There’s almost a progressive rock feel to the band’s sixth album, with each cut extending past its natural saturation point, but without the reliance of spark-shooting solos, which is usually metal’s dominion. Stone Sour’s reputation as anthem-builders remains in tact on a handful of cuts, particularly the poppy “Rose Red Violent Blue,” but this is super heavy wallpaper, and there’s got to be a market for that.

Soft Sounds from Another Planet
-Japanese Breakfast (Dead Oceans/Hostess)
Michelle Zauner has literally telescoped out on her second album as Japanese Breakfast. Whereas her debut was painfully personal, Soft Sounds… is strikingly general and in very ambitious ways. The music, especially, is bold and big-bodied, founded on brassy acoustic guitars and meaty choruses, reminiscent of 90s British bands like the Sundays but with a slightly more iconoclastic Pacific Northwest attitude. Every surefire melody ends in a detour, but still gets to the satisfying place. As the title suggests, Zauner’s preoccupations are extraterrestrial, and her subjects eschew the everyday, but they’re also universal in that they address feelings in non-abstract ways, just as the arrangements address the music as to clarify its immediate appeal. In interviews, Zauner calls the album a “science fiction musical,” or, at least, a sketch of one. Structure can be a comforting thing, and the straightest means to creative success.

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