Here are the albums I reviewed for the October issue of EL magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on September 25.
The Nordic Mellow
-Siv Jakobsen (P-Vine)
-Anna of the North (Different/Hostess)
When we think of Scandinavian pop, Sweden first comes to mind, mainly because of ABBA, but also because of indie artists characterized by The Cardigans chamber Top 40 and Robyn’s dance music. If you say Norway, music fans will probably think of death metal, so Norwegian singer-songwriter Siv Jakobsen naming her second record The Nordic Mellow seems to have a special meaning. It is not, in fact, mellow, though Jakobsen’s voice has a hushed quality to it. A lot of the songs are bombastic. “Shallow Digger,” the pick to click, places the singer in the midst of some crashing drums and seriously strummed guitar. It’s a sort of environmental song, an angry environmental song to be precise. She’s mad at everyone, including herself, for not taking care of the world. We are all just too selfish, but she sounds as if she doesn’t think there’s anything we can do about it. In interviews Jakobsen has said The Nordic Mellow was written out of frustration after her debut EP set some sort of streaming record in her home country. The frustration, however, has less to do with other people than with her own difficulties in communicating with other people. She seems to be able to do that better in songs, which are more measured in their attitudes and assessments. As the album develops it eases in and out of extreme emotions—desperation giving way to resignation and then back to desperation—and while the instrumentation, supplied by her and her producer Matt Ingram (who has also produced Laura Marling, another singer-songwriter with a wide emotional range), is spare, it matches in dynamic power what Jakobsen seems to be going through in her lyrics. Which is what she is going through in life. Anna Lotterud, who is careful to make everyone aware that she’s from a Nordic country with her stage name, Anna of the North, is also from Norway, but her music is more conventionally accessible than Jakobsen’s, more Swedish, you might say. Her debut, Lovers, is a collection of songs she’s released in various forms over the past two years, and their electropop provenance has made it easy for people like the Chainsmokers to remix them for various purposes. And it’s definitely worth mentioning that she appears twice on Tyler, the Creator’s new album. Also worth mentioning is that, technically, Anna of the North is a duo, the other half being Australian Brady Daniell-Smith, who doesn’t sing but mostly shapes the songs into radio-ready 3-minute slices. As meditations on love and loss, the songs aren’t as heavy as Jakobsen’s. They’re airier, prettier, more likely to slip through your fingers if you don’t hold them tight enough. They’re also danceable if you’re so inclined. What Lotterud and Jakobsen do have in common is the lack of something that tends to be associated with the North: coldness. These are two of the warmest records of the year. When it’s dark and bitter outside, that makes sense.
-Neil Young (Reprise/Warner)
Most of the songs on Young’s newest album, recorded one night in 1976, have appeared in different forms on other albums, so it’s easy to get the feeling that Hitchhiker is a collection of demos. However, given Young’s enormous status in popular culture, the fact that he made these recordings during what was probably his most creatively fertile period is enough to warrant closer attention. The most revealing is “Campaigner,” which would later pop up on Decade and whose imagery is practicaly sprawling in contrast to the other, sparer songs. “Powderfinger,” one of his greatest compositions and certainly his greatest melody, sounds perfect even without the monumental guitar riff that highlights the version on Rust Never Sleeps. Apropos an album that was recorded under the influence of several substances, these songs get under your skin and into your brain. Performance-wise, they have a nagging insistence that never disappoints.
Love What Survives
-Mount Kimbie (Warp/Beat)
Though they’re stars in their own right, Dominic Maker and Kai Campos are probably better known as the guys who provide sounds for a lot of today’s most provocative hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper. On their latest album as Mount Kimbie, the pair concoct fully formed songs that often veer into rock, even punk, though when they hire a singer—King Krule, Micachu, and James Blake show up on Love What Survives—they serve the vocals, and don’t insist on the opposite. What characterizes the album as a whole is its tactile quality, the idea that the sounds, for all their musicality, are really being produced by real hands. They pop and pour and drip out of your speakers, which is why you should listen to the record in a room and not on headphones. It’s a big album filled with big moments.
Party of One
-Nick Lowe (MSI)
Nick Lowe’s albums from the 80s have all just been remastered and rereleased. Conventional wisdom has it that the decade wasn’t kind to him. Having shot his compositional wad in the 70s, he mostly tried to maintain his devil-may-care musical persona and consistently came up short in terms of compelling songs. Party of One closed out the decade by reuniting Lowe with his old Rockpile partner, Dave Edmunds, who produced, and he did what he was hired to do. The record is punchier and sharper than anything Lowe had recorded since Labour of Lust, and some of the songs, like “All Men Are Liars,” “What’s Shakin’ On the Hill,” and “You Got the Look I Like” should have become hits…for other people. Lowe still thought like a kid, but he no longer had the conviction to pull it off, which is why he wisely switched in the 90s to countrypolitan.
Liars is no longer a group. Even in retrospect it makes more sense to gauge its output based on the notion that it was the project of Angus Andrew, who changed styles with every release, often drastically. Appropriate for a work that even Andrew admits is a “solo album,” TFCF (which stands for “Theme From Crying Fountain”) is about loneliness and heartbreak, but the breakup was not from a romantic partner but from his musical partner Aaron Hemphill. Still, this is a Liars album, so you don’t get tastefully strummed guitars and bleating vocals. You get the same nervous energy that propelled all Andrew’s work. The electronics are often harsh and reductive, the melodies worthy of pop punk diehards. The scattershot approach of the production sometimes does a disservice to the songs themselves, but that seems to be the purpose. What’s the point of breaking up if you can’t actually break something.
-Greg Allman (Rounder/Universal)
Though he fronted one of the rowdiest bands ever to take a stage, Greg Allman always gave the impression of being a reserved man. His last album was recorded while he was dying of cancer, and has that reckoning tone, and not just in the performances, but in the song selection as well. Though there are some requisite blues, the core is 70s singer-songwriter fare, the kind of songs that revealed their composers as men (always men) of sensitivity: Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was,” Jackson Browne’s “Song for Adam.” Recorded at Muscle Shoals by Don Was, the album may be too slick for its own good, a reflection of the professionalism that Allman always represented even if he didn’t always live it that way. It’s a very moving album, and the subtext has a lot to do with it. Allman didn’t avoid it, so you shouldn’t either.
Nowadays known more for their highly sexualized stage show than their ability to craft stellar pop songs, Fifth Harmony seems to have lost a lot when Camila Cabello bailed last year, reducing the girl group to a quartet. Since they emerged from The X Factor in 2012, it was perhaps inevitable that they’d lose their mojo once the TV people stopped being involved, which is why the group’s members get more attention on their SNS accounts than they do for their music. Though the performances are hot and steamy, the songs are mostly constructs of synth riffs that barely qualify as such. The listener is forced to fill in information that should have been supplied musically. Like TLC’s latest album, this is clearly an attempt to please an audience that doesn’t demand a lot except access, which says more about Fifth Harmony’s fans than it does about the group, but that’s no excuse.
There’s an abundance of wit in indie pop these days, and I would estimate about 30 percent of this year’s supply is resident on this Toronto group’s second album. The title is certainly the best one I’ve seen, and as on their debut the melodies here are winners right out of the gate. More to the point, the sludgy sound that seemed like an aesthetic choice on their debut is completely gone. And while synths still rule the roost in the Alvvays attic, there’s more instrumental texture, which focuses your attention on the sheer beauty of the songwriting. Singer Molly Rankin still sounds girlish and naive, but there’s greater heft to her tone. She learned something when the band went from dodgy clubs to a stage at Glastonbuy, and it wasn’t how to generate a mosh pit. They’ve also got great taste in covers. The Kirsty MacColl song really hits the spot.
-Rat Boy (Parlophone/Warner)
The name and the album cover will prompt the ignorant to peg this British group as punk, but that would be ignoring their obvious youth. What Rat Boy, or, more to the point, leader Jordan Cardy, is into is the kind of hip-hoppy swagger of the Streets, though the attitude is definitely punk. And Yanks should also remember that this kind of challenging music is often hugely popular in the U.K., meaning everyone listens to it, so there’s a populist edge to the beats and the lyrics. The fact that both Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon also play on the album shows another influence that many may not countenance, and the Britpop fantasies of songs like “Move” and “Everyday” are less interesting than the punk abandon of “Fake ID.” The guys in Blur are probably old enough to be Cardy’s fathers, but that’s middle aged crises for you.
Dedicated to Bobby Jameson
-Ariel Pink (Mexican Summer/Magniph)
The enigmatic and often caustic indie singer-songwriter makes common cause with an early 60s pop wannabe who failed at the cost of his own mental stability, spending the rest of his life (Bobby Jameson died in 2015) trying to recover from that failure. The unmentioned subtheme of Ariel Pink’s veiled tribute to Jameson is that, had the latter lived in an age where he could actually be appreciated for his commercial drawbacks, he might have been at least an artistic success—kind of like Ariel Pink himself. As such, and without the Haunted Grafitti qualifier, Pink’s new album is more studied, less baroque, and, in a real sense, easier to get in the classic pop sense. The style ranges narrowly from schmaltzy MOR to classic rock but without the winking touches that telegraphed much of his music as a novelty. As such, the hooks are meatier, the message more on point.
-Lee Ranaldo (Mute/Traffic)
The first thing that distinguishes the former Sonic Youth guitarist’s third solo LP from his previous two is the participation of novelist Jonathan Lethem as co-lyricist, but as with all those literary types who partnered with Warren Zevon, no one who listens to Electric Trim is going to notice the difference without reading the liner notes. But if you did read them you’d also notice that Sharon Van Etten, Nels Cline, and Kid Millions participate, and they make more of an immediate impression, one that builds on Ranaldo’s work with SY rather than merely extend it as with the first two records. For one thing, there’s more than just guitar here, and the arrangements are often Beatlesque in their ambition. Amongst the musical mayhem are lyrics that you listen to carefully, and, yes, with their conflation of poetic nonsense and everyday humor, they provide narrative ballast, something to pull you down.
Sleep Well Beast
-The National (4AD/Beat)
Matt Berninger was always destined to become the indie superstar that Greg Dulli was supposed to be. Though Dulli is ostensibly a soul man and Berninger is not, they both make hay from plumbing the dynamic between still thoughfulness and wild man terror, usually all in the name of love. It’s why you value their performance but would never want to know them personally. On the National’s 7th album, Berninger is even more volatile than usual. His sedative moments have a more dangerous edge to them, and the songs where he freaks out are themselves freak-outs. It’s as if the band had been infected by his bipolar musical character and, despite themselves, were ready to rumble—but only when the moment’s right. In that regard there’s something almost disturbingly tight about the songs, as if Berninger were conducting the unease. Don’t be scared of the squares.
24-7 Rock Star Shit
-The Cribs (Sonic Blew/Hostess)
This Steve Albini-produced album sounds like an attempt to get the Jarman brothers back to the garage-rock basics that made them the darlings of the industry 10 years ago. Allegedly, they recorded four of these songs in Chicago with Albini in 2011, and instead of releasing them held on and then went back to Chicago last year to record six more in the course of three days. The idea seems to be to get something more immediate, which is the Albini m.o. in a nutshell, but whereas most groups who turn to the producer for that sort of thing start out from a different place, the Cribs are immediate by default, and their instinctive hookfulness is finally unleashed in ways that are both satisfying and enlightening. Moreover, Albini unleashes the lads’ untapped hardcore tendencies in melodic thrashers like “Rainbow Ridge” and “Year of Hate.” They’re practically a new band.