Here are the album reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last month.
Beach House 3
-Ty Dolla $ign (Atlantic/Warner)
Though he’s been a fixture on the West Coast music scene since 2012 and garnered a few radio-level hits in the meantime, Ty Dolla $ign has maintained a relatively low profile. Some might even say he’s been overly cautious in his approach to the kind of stardom that is his for the taking and which he has yet to actually take. There’s something to this theory in the first song off his new album, in which he contemplates what makes or breaks a star in the business he’s in, and in the most unironic way he explains it simply: hard work. But he doesn’t want you to confuse intensity of purpose with thematic ambition. The songs on Beach House 3 are instantly relatable and only personal in the sense that Ty feels them. He’s more interested in craft than message, but that doesn’t mean the message lacks heft, only that it doesn’t presume drama. Hooks are the overriding consideration and the main appeal of the album, but his particular brand of R&B is built on stories that hold up under scrutiny. Sex for Ty is not something to fret over. He always seems to have nice things to say about his exes, and the loping rhythms and major key melodies convey a relaxed, who-needs-to-be-uptight kind of vibe. Even his naturally coarse timbre feels pleasantly sanded down, probably because he’s often juxtaposed with rappers—Future, Wiz Khalifa, YG—whose sound is even rougher. The cover says it all: jams that leave the bedroom for the beach, where everybody can enjoy themselves without having to worry about intimacy. SZA, a more self-regarding R&B star, has also been leery of the limelight, and Ctrl is actually her major label debut after a string of self-releases that were promising but mytsifying. SZA is entirely self-created, a bedroom R&B producer who sings well and writes even better. Reportedly, it took her so long to release Ctrl because she wanted to get all the personal, dramatic details right. This was going to be an album about romantic reckonings, and for once the lofty ambitions have been achieved in a bigger than expected way. The feeling is even more acute in Japan, since the album is only being released here now, six months after it came out in the U.S. So in a year when it was difficult to listen to any music without wondering how the guys treated the girls and the girls put up with the guys, the album is distinctive in its brand of R&B candor. Focused less on sexual transgression than on emotional insufficiency, she schools her lovers in no uncertain terms, all the while testing her own resolve as both an artist and a human being. Her slithery beats pull you into her embattled imagination, a place where honesty of feeling struggles with the demand to make her intentions clear.
-Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Vagrant/Hostess)
For what it’s worth, BRMC may be the most atypical big-name rock band to ever emerge from the San Francisco club scene. With their a priori black leather image and fuzzy guitar sound, they embody a concept of big time rock that hasn’t been ascendant for more than 20 years. And yet their new album still manages to sound fresh, probably because the Strokes buried this kind of music more than ten years ago. If the well-publicized tragedy of singer Robert Levon Been’s father’s death (he was the band’s engineer, as well as the Call’s leader) following the release of their previous album informs the music on this one, as many people believe, it’s difficult to tell. The songs are less purposely weighty, and the guitar sound has a more classically raunchy appeal. There are even solos, which actually are a San Francisco tradition.
-Cid Rim (LuckyMe/Beat)
Cid Rim is the pop-electronica project of Viennese free jazz drummer Clemens Bacher, whose main claim to your attention has been doing remixes for a wide variety of top-tier club acts, including CHVRCHES. The work on this debut album is intriguingly eclectic, ranging from glitchy ambient tracks to quick-stepping jazz-funk and even things that sound like keyboard exercises. However, it’s all steeped in a positive, pop-friendly idiom that doesn’t require a great deal of concentration or adjustment to appreciate viscerally. He enlists a few vocalists as well. Samantha Urbani handles the surprisingly compelling lyrics on “Repeat,” a song whose propulsive arrangement is so frantically fizzy that you may not notice it’s about the dead-end nature of a relationship. Overall, the album cements Bacher’s reputation as a pop savant even if it doesn’t deliver anything definitive for the club scene. He seems to be trying to please no one but himself.
-Mamas Gun (P-Vine)
This London-based five-piece is one of those foreign bands who have found a niche in Japan that should see them extending their life as a band a few years longer than they might otherwise enjoy without it, and it’s easy to see why. The band is made up of a selection of studio instrumental pros who play a mixture of gritty R&B and 70s soft rock. Their new album, which seems to be getting a bigger push in Japan than in their native UK, goes deeper into Philadelphia soul and Memphis-style funk and is more derivative than their past rock-oriented work. The generic nature of Andy Platts’ vocals recalls early Daryl Hall, a notion that’s hard to shake after hearing the anodyne melodies of “You Make My Life a Better Place.” As with much UK soul, the songs always pick up considerably when the horns come in, but bomp may not be why their fans love them.
Get With the Times
Bekon is the musical pseudonum of Daniel Tannenbaum, who for the past year has been the buzz in L.A. because of his production work for Kendrick Lamar, SZA (see above), and other cutting edge R&B/hip-hop artists. Predictably, his solo debut, while it does purport to have a picture of him on the cover, is a kind of masquerade. Bekon sings in a highly processed, very white-sounding voice in front of souped-up electronic pop that borrows heavily from 70s bedroom soul and 80s quiet storm. There’s definitely a tongue-in-cheek element to the music that fans other than millennials are probably already sick of, and the album title is clearly meant to be ironic. The Beach Boys harmonies on songs like “Oxygen” are delightfully distracting, but that’s only because the arrangements and tempos are so redundant. Pick any song at random and it’s bound to be your favorite.
-The Go! Team (Memphis Industries/Octave)
At this point, it’s no secret that Ian Parton is the Go! Team and that he builds his band’s raucous party-hearty sound by piling as many disparate elements as possible into the mix. According to reports, he assembled Semicircle by picking up stray human elements on his tour through the American Midwest, and, as with almost all his releases, it comes across as both very familiar and very new. Whereas in the past, the energy was that of a cheer squad, here it’s that of a marching band. There’s a deeper and louder rhythmic quality to the music, especially on “Semicircle Song,” which sets steel drums against the vocals of the Detroit Youth Choir. The larger sound is reminiscent of school assemblies and huge sporting events. Almost twenty years into his project, Parton may have made the most youthful-sounding album of his career.
Play Nicely and Share
-Graham Gouldman (MSI)
Probably one of the most successful British songwriters of the 60s—he wrote hits for the Yardbirds and the Hollies—Graham Gouldman is mainly remembered as the main scribe for 10cc. In the 80s he returned to songwriting for others and made a living penning soft rock hits for the likes of Andrew Gold. Play Nicely and Share is a 6-song EP that comes across as more or less something to sell at concerts, since Gouldman still tours, either on his own or with some reunited configuration of 10cc. The songs are tender and open, based on acoustic guitar figures, brushed drums, and two-part harmonies that sound as if they’ve been auto-tuned. Still, Gouldman’s voice remains surprisingly supple and youthful even if his sentiments are hackneyed in a Brill Building sort of way. He probably won’t make any money off this, but he still owns “I’m Not In Love.”
Songs of Praise
-Shame (Dead Oceans/Hostess)
This new South London band proves definitively how pointless the postpunk label has become. Though they channel the wit and fury of Gang of Four better than almost anyone who’s come up since, there’s a richness to their instrumental palette and a springiness to their groove that belies the minimalist thrust of the postpunk moment as it’s mostly remembered by critics who witnessed it firsthand. What you’re left with is politically charged songs that shade into arty prog-rock, and while the lyrics themselves can get trite (“Do you know the difference between right and wrong?”) in Charlie Steen’s voice they’re nothing less than compelling, probably because he embraces that one quality the postpunks abhorred—the will to stardom. But that’s why U2 was never rightly thought of as a postpunk band. It’s time to kill those idols off once and for all.
-Gucci Mane (Atlantic/Warner)
Few ex-cons have been as successfully rehabilitated in the public’s eyes as Gucci Mane, a makeover that, at first, seemed to bother his original fan base, since it highlighted image (better clothes, nicer smile) over substance. But the rapper’s music was never as substantial as his fans thought, as evidenced by the notion that he was more interesting as a guest on other people’s albums than he was on his own. Mr. Davis is his full-on attempt to become a major commercial artist, and it works by dint of its thorough calculation. You want a Weeknd production, there’s “Curve.” You want a battle with Chris Brown, check “Tone It Down.” He gets to show up Big Sean on “Changed” with rhymes that finally prove what his boosters always said: the guy makes it sound so easy. So if old fans are disappointed, they have to understand. He plans to conquer us all.
-Fall Out Boy (Island/Universal)
Though originally tagged as emo, Fall Out Boy has never seemed comfortable sticking to the parameters of any particular genre, and while they aren’t doctrinnaire enough for punk, their AOR particulars have always been suspect. More power to them, I say, since it makes their albums always interesting, especially on first listen, but a recent flirting with EDM has apparently made them a bit skittish about wandering too far from the wheelhouse, and Mania wobbles widely between melodically banged-out hard rock and some sort of synth shit. The production, by Butch Walker and others, is assuredly loud but given the lack of compositional focus it just comes off as noisy and cluttered. I never thought I’d miss Fall Out Boy’s sort of big label pop punk precision, but maybe it’s time to dust off my old copy of Folie Deux.
The Time Is Now
-Craig David (Sony)
It’s hard to believe that Craig David has been banging around in the business for 18 years, and maybe even harder to imagine that the garage sound he represented has been supplanted by other, more vital UK dance genres in the meantime. Having already plumbed the oldies depths, David is looking for something to retain his relevance, and his new album, which is getting quite a push from Sony, touches enough bases to make you wonder who’s really in charge. For the most part, the overarching blend of poppy R&B and Southern (US) rap styles take full advantage of David’s rough sophistication, though when he slams Instagram and other easy targets in the lyrics he’s asking more than if he were simply wooing some pretty lady, a strategy which, at this point, would seem to be a safer route back to relevance.
The street hype for this hot L.A. rock band tends to reference the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones, and usually goes on to say that they’re the natural heirs to that kind of tough guitar sound, which would seem to disregard a million other worthier bands that did something similar in between. Lead singer Arrow de Wilde, who is not yet 20, has a childish preoccupation with blood and violence, but vocally she’s as adept at this kind of mood-settling hard rock as Karen O. The sexual and cultural cliches pile up like discarded pizza boxes, but at 28 minutes the album makes its case quickly and efficiently, and it isn’t all hard-and-fast. “Chicken Woman” is almost leisurely in a New Orleans sort of way, and the psychedelic guitar touches prove they’ve got a notion of craft. Truth be told, genuine riff rock like this is sadly in short supply.
-Alessia Cara (Def Jam/Universal)
Japan gets around to formally releasing the debut album by Canadian teen Alessia Cara, and just in time for her big win at the Grammys. If Asia seems behind the curve here, one has to consider the avalanche of female R&B talent that’s come tumbling down the mountain in the last few years. Cara is in no way the equal of SZA or Kelela, if we’re talking major label artists, but she’s more idiosyncratic than heavy hitters like Carly Rae and Ariana, and her songwriting has a personal attribute that carries her music farther. The songs, which in the spirit of the age are conference-called to the point of no return, often take melody for granted and mistake cheap pleasure for depth of feeling, but Cara’s vocal style is arresting, to say the least, if not particularly distinctive. It will be interesting to see how she develops once she outgrows her idiosyncrasies.