Here are the album reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on November 25.
Meaning of Life
-Kelly Clarkson (Atlantic/Warner)
In our mind there is no better mainstream pop album released in this century than The Truth About Love, which came out in 2012, but it’s not as if P!nk has been in this situation before. Her second album, Missundaztood, released in 2001, was another epoch-making record, and while she only took two years to provide the followup, the thud that the seriously rocking Try This made when it hit the market was notable only because too much was expected of it and P!nk was in the unavoidable process of maturing as an artist. She’s a grown-ass woman now, happily married with a kid and a fulfilling life that she deserves, so if Beautiful Trauma doesn’t quite hit the spot the way Truth did, chalk it up to personal calculation rather than the commercial kind. There’s a seriousness here with regards to both the material and the delivery that indicates a desire to settle into a mode of musical expression she can occupy for life. She still snarls and spits at life’s unfairness, but generally she stays in her head, reliving past dramas that distance has made less immediate, and thus less compelling for the listener. Even the funky fun of “Revenge,” complete with an almost (but not quite) unrecognizable contribution from Eminem, seems excitable only by default. For the most part, she alternates between throat-catching ballads and midtempo diva diversions, and thanks to co-writer Jack Antonoff, the songs are solid and solidly generic. P!nk has earned her sense of peace, and that knowledge is probably the most satisfying aspect of the album. Kelly Clarkson is much farther along in her career than P!nk was in 2001, but her eighth album feels like some sort of breakthrough, and a very entertaining one. Does it mean anything that her last seven were recorded for the same record company P!nk serves and Meaning of Life is her debut for a new one? In any case, she mostly leaves behind the contempo adult style that was her metier (and which P!nk has drifted into) and barrels head first into full-tilt soul and R&B that ratchets up the old school gospel component. Flitting confidently from Motown bounce (“Love So Soft”) to Memphis smolder (“Move You”), she covers her chosen territory like the seasoned pro she is and aims to please rather than to express. And while producer Greg Kurstin can usually be expected to follow the same kind of conventions that Antonoff does, he’s also proven with people like Lana Del Ray and Tegan & Sara that he knows how to make his charges sound distinctive, and the modern touches here never seem trite. For sure, Clarkson doesn’t do anything innovative on Meaning of Life, but she understands how good these songs are and wants to do right by them. Sometimes a certain kind of commercial calculation is exactly what you need to get the juices flowing again.
I Love You Like a Brother
-Alex Lahey (Dead Oceans/Hostess)
Regardless of the lyrical content, there’s nothing as blissfully happy as a pop punk song, and this Australian singer-songwriter’s personal explorations are set to one of the most infectious phylum of blitzkrieg bop to come down the pike since the early 90s. It may actually have something to do with the fact that she majored in music at college (but didn’t complete her degree). Though that sounds counterintuitive, Lahey is first and foremost a composition hound, a songwriter who knows when to drop the key a half step and how to set a rhythmic course that jibes with the pulse. And she’s just as thoughtful with her themes, which are mostly about getting through youth in one piece. She makes breakups sound kinda sad and drunken benders sound sorta fun. She’s not into interrogating her experiences, but rather reliving them in the plainest, and usually funniest, ways.
Melbourne seems to be the home of the world’s most happening music scene these days (Alex Lahey, above, is from there), and one of the characteristic Melbourne groups of the moment is 30/70, a funky 11-member collective led by soul singer Allysha Joy. Referencing the kind of thick, atmospheric R&B that D’Angelo practically invented, the group fords its musical rivers with a meticulous sharpness, especially with regard to their horn arrangements, while Joy’s husky attack adds the jazz element the listener invariably anticipates. The hip-hopless spoken track, “Slangin’,” proves 30/70 can generate a serious groove, while the slower numbers show that the members have listened carefully to all the neo-soul greats. If they never quite stake their own claim to this kind of music, it probably has more to do with the environment in which they toil. Melbourne isn’t a backwater, but it ain’t Detroit, either.
-King Krule (XL/Beat)
King Krule straddles that odd divide which exists only in British club music. Though he thinks like a singer-songwriter, his performative personality takes a backseat to production: What he says doesn’t break through immediately, though eventually it makes the intended impression. His second album for a label, The OOZ is dark club music the way Sleaford Mods’ songs are dark underground hip-hop. In the singer-songwriter tradition, Krule explores the realm of loneliness, though his glottal croak gives the impression he prefers no company. When he does wander into the world, with the music getting brighter, the light hurts his eyes and the visions—his mother stumbling across “open ground, back to broken homes”—are not worth seeing. And yet there’s a lushness to the saxophones and muffled drums, anxious hope in the restless strum of his guitar, indicating a fascination with this damned life and the music it produces.
The Thrill of It All
-Sam Smith (Capitol/Universal)
The dominant emotional modes in R&B for the past decade have been strength and confidence, two traits Sam Smith eschewed on his best-selling debut album, In the Lonely Hour. Smith’s beautiful voice was designed for soft self-deprecation, and he’s made pity acceptable again in pop music. Smith doesn’t alter this approach substantially on his second album. There are a few uncharacteristically upbeat dance songs on the album, but saying they exude self-possession would be a stretch. The thing about that voice is, it doesn’t lie, but what exactly is it that Smith has to be unhappy about? A clue is offered in “One Last Kiss,” which is apparently about splitting with the man who inspired the debut, but too many of the cuts are about the post-breakup blues. Can somebody find Sam a new boyfriend so we can get a sunnier version of what he does so well?
-Bully (Sub Pop/Octave)
Alicia Bognanno is currently indie’s most reliable conduit to the 90s, a musician who started out as an engineer under the tutelage of Steve Albini. She didn’t launch her band Bully until long after the 90s were through, but you can hear her constantly reassessing the music of that decade on her new album, which gets the good parts right and leaves out all the overblown bits. Punk by any other name, the songs still have the meaty guitars that characterized grunge, and Bognanno takes Courtney Love’s rough screech and turns it into a distinctive sound that’s integral to Bully’s appeal. On the album’s most thrilling track, “Seeing It,” she marshals the interaction of instruments and phrasing like a seasoned NFL quarterback. If it’s punk, it’s the kind you would learn about in a vocational school that offered a course in punk, and I mean that in a good way.
-New Order (Mute/Traffic)
This is like the third official live album New Order has released in the last five years, and probably the best, maybe because they’re playing at the Brixton Academy, the kind of place where the audience is going to be made up of diehard fans. It’s a long set—maybe two longs sets—from November 2015, spread over two disks. The first half is mainly midtempo strum-rockers from their most recent albums, and the last half is given over to disco and pure dance songs that get the audience fired up. Though Bernard Sumner is no firebreather, for once he ably makes up for the loss of Peter Hook and seems genuinely stoked to be in London in front of these people, tossing off jokes and commenting on things that only locals would understand. I want to hear it again, something I never would have thought I’d say about a New Order live record.
Acts of Love
-Maylee Todd (Do Right Music)
Toronto is not known as a center of R&B, though Maylee Todd, a seminal figure in the city’s arts scene, could very well change that. She dials down the heat on her third album, at least rhythm-wise, throwing out her bossa nova tendencies for a more free-form jazz style that conjures up images of Sade during her more progrressive middle period. Though there are songs here that might sound good on the radio, especially the self-consciously pop electronica of “Homegurl,” Todd’s breathy voice doesn’t carry the assertion that radio demands these days from R&B singers, and there aren’t enough melodic hooks to make up for it. The heavy reliance on synthesizers also detracts from the warmth of the production and the delivery, as if she were just trying to save money. It’s difficult to get a feel for the writing. Imagination can only take you so far.
Motorhead: 40TH Anniversary Edition
Some people think it’s strange that Lemmy got his start in the space rock band Hawkwind, though what he basically did was take the monotony that band was famous for and make it more fun. Oddly, not many people heard it like that. Motorhead’s debut was recorded during the peak of punk, but they were somehow misunderstood as metal outcasts, and it would take several tries before a record company released it. In the meantime, the band actually went through a few important personnel changes, so by the time Motorhead was released, it was 1979 and Lemmy’s dream was on track. Not as potent as his subsequent output, the debut, here augmented with 4 EP tracks and seven alternative takes of familiar Motorhead songs, nevertheless sounds like both the future and the past, and not a bit like metal. It’s difficult to know what those A&R guys thought they were hearing.
-Jamila Woods (Closed Sessions/Hostess)
An associate of Chicago’s most interesting hip-hop philosopher, Chance the Rapper, Jamila Woods plies a similar kind of musical vibe—inviting, carefree, but thoughtful in the kind of way that great protest music is thoughtful. Her light instrumental touch and airy, fluid vocalese is a more refreshing take on the aggressive new style of R&B, which won’t hide behind melodies if they obscure the message, whether it be sexual or social in nature. When Woods sings about a “young black girl who scares the government,” it’s a hopeful thing, especially since elsewhere she confronts the hopelessness of many young African-Americans in terms that are unmistakable. Chance drops in and matches the mood with smiley verses that nevertheless shoot down the culture of violence and even the spikiness of Spike Lee. Jamila knows she’s beautiful, but not for reasons you might think. Lose those taboos.
Scream Above the Sounds
The hackneyed title of their tenth album is a good indication of how bereft of ideas Kelly Jones and co. are 25 years into a career that’s been extraordinary for reasons I don’t understand. Though the band has always been a solid live attraction in a pub rocky sort of way, the recent foray into electronics has done little more than suggest a fascination with thin new wave that’s probably an illusion. A song like “Caught By the Wind,” with its surround sound guitar, tries to make up with bombastic sonics what it lacks in emotional engagement, and, as trite as it sounds, that’s the definition of an act that’s unsure of what it’s doing any more. The solution would be to get back to basics, but I’m sure they’ve done that at least once. After a while you get into a cycle of regression and reinvention. Familiarity breeds boredom.
-For Tracy Hyde (P-Vine)
People outside Great Britain and Japan probably don’t know Tracy Hyde, a teen model who was hot stuff in England in 1971 when she appeared in the Mark Lester film Melody, which became a bigger smash in Japan. The J-pop band who has taken her name to heart, however, is more interested in late 80s, early 90s Britpop of the Sarah Records pedigree. Lead vocalist Eureka sings in those self-consciously sweet registers proven to melt the resolve of any red-blooded young Japanese man and which can get really old for the rest of us, but the band itself has a knack for the throat-clutching chorus and catchy arrangements. Occasionally, these two factors work at cross-purposes. “After Dark” opens with a propulsive, slightly ominous drum-and-synth track that quickly devolves into saccharine repetition once Eureka adds her two cents. There’s something here worth developing, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s the band or the producer.
Relatives In Descent
In rock—especially that amorphous genre known as post-punk—the literary mode often takes on leftist political shades. This Detroit quartet avoids all political indicators, even when they reference Josef Stalin, preferring a wry cataloguing of trivia and grad school footnotes that may frustrate the lesser informed since their music, while often lively, tends to demand close scrutiny before it gives up its appeal. Apropos the band’s provenance, singer Joe Casey often assumes the dramatic cadences of gritty soul singers, and the jokey stream-of-consciousness lyrics simply add to the confusion. It’s Levi Stubbs crossed with Claude Levi-Strauss, except that the sinuous guitars often steal Casey’s thunder. The epic “My Children” is, musically speaking, the best Brit post-punk ditty to come down the pike since Wire added a keyboard, maybe because there isn’t any. The best cuts are those under 4 minutes, probably the only post-punk prerogative that holds.