Here are the album reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on March 25.
Both Sides of the Sky
-Jimi Hendrix (Legacy/Sony)
Stone Cold Soul: The Complete Capitol Recordings
-Jackie DeShannon (MSI)
Jimi Hendrix’s legacy as a musician transcends his specific skills as a guitarist and singer. He was forward-thinking without necessarily trying to make something new. His approach to the blues, to contemporary rock, to folk, even to pop was reverent of whatever source material he covered, but in the spirit of the time he endeavored to make it his own, and because he was so prolific the high points were geniunely progressive. Nobody sounded like that at the time and no one would build on that sound for years to come. Since then the Experience Hendrix enterprise has released scads of studio ephemera and concert tapes, and while there is little in this mountain of material that adds significantly to the man’s legend, nothing detracts from it either. This latest collection has been hailed as perhaps the first integrated “album” released since the Rainbow Bridge recordings, mainly because some of the tracks were intended for an album that was jettisoned. But just as the idea that the genius of his official ouevre can be partly credited to what was left out, Both Sides of the Sky should be judged by the fact that it was abandoned. For the most part, the blues cuts—a funky “Mannish Boy,” a jumping “Things I Used to Do” with Johnny Winter—stand up surprisingly well, while the two Stephen Stills collaborations, including one of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” seem to feature Hendrix hardly at all. There’s a Lonnie Youngblood vocal that feels like a curiosity and a few cuts that are obviously edits of things that were never finished. The best thing here, a song that shows Hendrix stretching stylistically, is “Stepping Stone,” and the notes say it was destined to be a single but withdrawn at the last minute. Otherwise, the album sounds like an artifact of its time, which isn’t a bad thing, but it ain’t the future. A new collection by Jackie DeShannon, originally recorded around 1970-71, is also very much a product of its time. DeShannon, who wrote some of the best pop songs of the 60s, was scooped up by Capitol Records in 1970 and sent to Memphis, where she recorded with Chips Moman (Elvis, Dusty Springfield). The idea was for Jackie to reconnect with her Southern roots and it’s obvious Capitol was looking for something as authentic as what The Band was giving them at the time, but for some reason they never released the recordings. Instead they hauled her back to Los Angeles and had her cut R&B versions of Dylan, Van Morrison, Hoyt Axton, and some of her own songs. The album didn’t sell so they let her go. Now everything she recorded for Capitol has been released as Stone Cold Soul, and while it doesn’t rewrite the book on her career, it does make the case that Jackie was a better soul artist than people thought. It’s not the future, but it’s really good.
Indie stalwart Connor Hanwick produced this debut long-player for fellow Brooklynites Gingerlys, and it has much the same sort of fizzy vibe as his old group, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The operative concept is velocity: ideas as well as tempos zip by as if propelled from a slingshot, with a pre-adolescent sensibility to match. Despite titles like “See You Cry,” the mood is sunny and hopeful, the arrangements clever and even surprisingly intricate at times, given the rather simplistic instrumentation. The purpose is to keep listeners constantly on their toes by never dropping the tempos below a gallop—few new indie pop bands use drums as imaginatively—and resolving each and every melody line. Vocally, it’s a bit of a dodge, even though they employ a full-time lead vocalist who doesn’t have to play, but that might be the intention. Work ethic trumps chops.
137 Avenue Kanlama
-Baloji (Bella Union/Hostess)
This Francophone Congolese rapper moved to Belgium as a youth, and in an attempt to escape from a life of petty crime he took up music, working with various hip-hop groups before being picked up by Damon Albarn’s Africa Express. On his second solo album the beats usually start out in high-life territory with bright, upbeat vocal lines before dropping Baloji’s glottal hardness into the mix. The vibe is conversational rather than musical or poetic, but it’s also made for dancing, the guitars pluckily insistent, the percussion simple and propulsive. If Baloji sometimes sounds like a guest on his own album, it’s probably because his flow isn’t as distinctive as the production or the backdrop melodies, though he does have an intriguing habit of counterpointing his raps against the dominant rhythm. And whoever does that growling thing deserves a pay raise.
After the Fall
-Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette (ECM/Universal)
Recorded in Newark in 1998, this double live album recalls one of Keith Jarrett’s most difficult times as a musician. It was his first concert following a two-year break due to illness, and given the pianist’s penchant for marathon workouts, some people weren’t too sure if he was up for it. Thankfully, he was backed by his trusty trio, who push him to epiphany after epiphany on a wide-ranging selection of standards that are treated neither reverently nor cavalierly. From the hard bop swing of Magidson-Wrubel’s “The Masquerade Is Over” to the solemn introspection of Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves,” the tone is sure, the melody lines continually inventive, and the joy palpable. Even the flip version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”—quite a surprise for the notoriously haughty Jarrett—keeps its holiday integrity while flying way out into left field for more than 7 minutes.
-Young Fathers (Ninja Tune/Beat)
With their compressed sonics and minimal R&B, this adventurous Scottish hip-hop trio often gets mistaken for a lo-fi act, and while all the usual trappings are in place on their new album it’s a fuller, more confident affair than what they’ve pulled off in the past. For one thing, they’ve grown as singers rather than rappers, and romantic ones at that. The casual sentiments sometimes clash with the grittiness of the beats, especially on the ominous “Fee Fi,” but maybe it’s because we don’t expect Young Fathers to have a sense of humor. Since winning the Mercury Prize they’ve obviously lightened up, but the milieu that informed their earlier, more desperate material hasn’t gone away even if they might have moved out of it. In a sense, they’ve replaced their motivation to explain themselves with something more creatively oriented. They’ve arrived, and on the way learned how to make great music.
Chemistry Lessons Vol. 1
-Chris Carter (Mute/Traffic)
Chris Carter was a founding member of Throbbing Gristle, and while that doesn’t make him a godfather of electronic music, given that he’s been interested in the field since before many EDM superstars were even born counts for something. Chemistry Lessons is Carter’s first collection in 17 years, though it looks backward instead of forward. The music here has much in common with English folk, at least in terms of received melodies, and if many of the 25 tracks sound as if they were ideas waiting to be sketched out for a sci-fi movie soundtrack, it’s the kind of sci-fi movie that challenges your brain rather than your senses. The vocals sound completely synthesized but still retain an emotional component. TG fans will be pleased to know that it’s not all sweetness and light. The band’s dissonant sense of fun runs through almost all of the cuts.
-Mount Eerie (P.W. Elverum & Sun/7 e.p.)
A year on from his previous album, the haunting, powerful A Crow Looked At Me, Phil Elverum continues to mourn his late wife, Genevieve Castree. Loss has become part of the furniture, as unavoidable as the sun in the morning, and Now Only addresses what to do from now on. In structure, it’s different. Crow’s songs were brief and to the point, as if each were too painful to linger over. The new album has only six tracks, each quite long. Again, Elverum’s hushed, unadorned vocals are accompanied only by his guitar and some marginal electronics. On “Distortion” he dares to get loud, as if picking up where he left off when Castree was diagnosed. The lyrics are more philosophical, less focused on the starkness of existence without her, though her spirit is in every refrain. “I don’t see you anywhere,” he sings at the end, and you wonder if it’s for the best.
Recently transplanted to NYC from Savannah, Georgia, this indie R&B duo is self-consciously into “atmosphere,” though it doesn’t seem to adversely affect their quest for the perfect groovy melody. Mostly, what it means is that all the components of their sound—sex-you-up vocals, analog synths, tinny drums—are calibrated to evoke a kind of bargain basement black bohemianism, even if neither member is African-American. The evoked environment is everything, and so quiet storm tempos are the norm, the better to relax the listener and make them think about smoking weed in wee hours in someone’s basement pad. And though sex is suggested in the lyrics and through the implied musical influences, the music itself isn’t really sexy. It’s mood music for non-serious moments, the kind of record you listen to when you want to unwind and avoid excitement. It has its uses, even if they’re limited.
Great Big Blue
-Geowulf (37 Adventures/Hostess)
The term “dream pop” didn’t really mean much until Lana Del Ray started singing about death and violence like an enervated Connie Francis. That combination of crisp melodies, hazy production, and edgy song subjects is inherent in this Australian duo’s second album, which is considerably upbeat compared to Del Ray’s material. Star Kendrick sings with more force and the drums figure higher in the mix, but for the most part there’s a fleeting mortal quality to the music and the lyrics, which fixate on things like the dimming of the day and romantic entanglements that end as soon as they begin. “Come to the ocean,” she sings in the irresistibly sunny “Saltwater,” “even when you’re broken.” In fact, water is the most commonly used image on the album, a metaphor for drift and change. If you’re not immediately carried away by their songs, it just means you’re already dead.
Boarding House Reach
-Jack White (Third Man/Sony)
Jack White would be a laughstock if he weren’t so gifted. His peculiar penchant for problematic PR seems hardly justifiable when his musical output reveals a sensibility that understands what it means to be a rock star in the 21st century. Critics act as if his latest album is a case of dropping the other shoe, and while the pseudo-rap of “Ice Station Zebra” is patently ridiculous, the humor that’s so abundant elsewhere on this creatively audacious album takes the piss from the appropriate receptables of respectability. Though White broke out of his rootsy blues prison when he disbanded the White Stripes, his awkwardness as a pop star was always too apparent. Here, he lets loose with a willingness to stretch out on instruments he’s not comfortable with and styles he probably thinks he has no right attempting. I don’t think it’s all good, but he kept me listening intently for the full stretch.
Hip-hop’s resilience as the pop genre of the millenium has come at the expense of rapping. Production has become so dominant that flow feels secondary. This Atlanta trio reminded everyone how good it can be. Frustratingly, the group’s viruosity is still evident on their followup to last year’s biggest record, but now it’s the material that’s secondary. One reason it’s less than the sum of its parts is that there are so many parts. It’s almost two hours in length, a decision that seems prompted by commercial consderations more than anything, and I dare anyone who sits through the whole thing to attempt it again within a month’s time. There’s a prog-rock mentality at work that says everything might work if we explore it, but the music is watery and characterless. All that stands out is the rapping, but it’s like actors on a bare stage, and they’re not that good.
Though the revered English 80s indie pop band have reportedly done this sort of thing before, it seems highly indulgent for any artist these days to recreate an album that was released only a year before with different instruments and arrangements. World Beyond is basically Andy Bell’s and Vince Clarke’s last album, World Be Gone, but with orchestral backing rather than the usual guitars and keyboards and studio filigree. This sort of thing works up to a point—the arrangement of percussion instruments is surprisingly effective at mimicking guitar plucks and such—but attracts too much attention to itself, thus muting the songs’ anti-establishment message and blunting its appeal as dance music. More significantly, the tasteful arrangements act as a corrective to the band’s reputation as electronic artists without changing their basic sound: It’s analog as imitation digital, a gimmick you can get away with only once.
-Soccer Mommy (Fat Possum/Hostess)
It’s easy to get caught up in Sophie Allison’s emotional obsessions. She’s only 20 and retains the privilege of singing melodramatically about youthful infatuation. Older people will remember the feeling but will require more than commitment to buy sentiments since they themselves have, as Jackson Browne once put it, “passed that point long ago.” What makes her songs and, in tandem, her personality so appealing is the immediacy of music that doesn’t have to try hard to sell itself. She grabs hold of the melodic center of each cut and hangs on for dear life. Allison has expressed her love of early Taylor Swift, and while her methodology is sloppier, she demonstrates the same gift for juxtaposing cutting declarations with just the right measure of sweetness. By the end of this short and very efficiently managed album, you can only wonder: Has any 20-year-old ever had her heart broken so many times?