Yearly Archives: 2002

First, let’s get the positive reinforcement out of the way: Shakira’s Laundry Service is a nicely-written, well-recorded pop album.

Shakira hits all the right notes, paints within all the proper pop music lines, delivers a good by-the-book hitmaker.

On the surface, tracks such as “Whenever, Wherever”, “Rules” and “Ready for the Good Times” contain ear-grabbing choruses and arse-shaking beats.

Scratch beneath the surface, and Laundry Service reveals itself to be a slump.

Although Shakira’s last album, Donde estan los ladrones?, was heavy on the ballads, the album had a rock ‘n’ roll swagger that translated into a riveting performance.

Non-Spanish speakers didn’t need to know what Shakira was singing to feel her music.

Laundry Service, on the other hand, has washed away some of that rawness, leaving behind a chart-topping-ready sheen that lacks any real passion.

Beatles-esque ballads such as “Underneath Your Clothes” and “The One” feel way too predictable. “Inevitable”, they are not.

“Fool” comes close to replicate the alt-rock vibe of “Donde estan los ladrones?” but not quite, while “Poem to a Horse” is passable but not remarkable.

As for Shakira’s ability to navigate the English language, she definitely deserves high marks. Unlike most of the foreign (read: Japanese) singers worshipped on this very site, Shakira’s diction shows few flaws.

And yet, the way Shakira scrapes her notes and alternates between throaty growls and demure whispers just doesn’t seem to fit English very well.

Tune out “Whenever, Wherever”, and there are moments when a listener’s ear would rather force Shakira’s delivery into Spanish rather than English.

Shakira includes a few Spanish-language tracks toward the end of the album, but it’s not enough to save Laundry Service.

Next time, Shakira should borrow a page from the Chris Perez Band/Pizzicato Five playbook: record a mostly-native-language album with the singles entirely in English and everything else either in the native tongue or with some English choruses.

Contrary to what American audiences believe, rock music not sung in English is no less good.

Beautiful overdrive

It’s probably easiest to read a review of mono’s Hey You E.P. first. There’s a lot of description about mono’s basic aesthetic there that would be redundant if repeated here.

Go on. Click on the link. You can do it. Come back here when you’re done. We’ll be waiting.

<!-- Waiting while you read -->

Done? Good.

Under the Pipal Tree, mono’s full-length debut album, offers pretty much the same thing. In fact, two tracks from Hey You E.P. — a re-recording of “Karelia” and “L’America” — appear on the album.

After the kinetic opening of “Karelia (Opus 2)”, Under the Pipal Tree venture into some pretty ambient territory.

“The Kidnapper Bell” contains much of the same echo-y, U2-Edge-like foundation of “Karelia” but with a slower tempo and a more organic build. “Jackie Says” hinges on a four-measure hook that undergoes a slow metamorphasis but never loses its identity.

mono allows listeners a few repreives from its larger dramatic gestures by keeping “OP Beach”, “Holy” and “L’America” under wraps.

And when the band concludes the album with “Human Highway”, they reach their peak quickly, then fade out over a three-minute stretch.

mono takes a single harmonic rhythm, sometimes no more than four chords, and builds miniature epic works not too distantly related to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero in its sense of dynamics and layering.

As a result, the 63-minutes occupied by Under the Pipal Tree feels much shorter. mono do such a tremendous job creating drama from minimal source material, it makes minimalism, the high-minded compositional technique, feel totally accessible.

Philip Glass and Steve Reich ought to write pieces of this Japanese quartet. Or perhaps, mono ought to show Glass and Reich a few pointers.

Under the Pipal Tree expands on the beauty forged by Hey You E.P. into a dramatic work as gorgeous and introspective as it is aggressive and grotesque.

Here’s an instrumental band that makes overdrive a thing of beauty.

Uncomfortably obtuse

A year after releasing the appropriately titled Kibakuzai (“detonator” in Japanese), Bleach returns with an even more obtuse album.

On Kibakuzai, the Okinawa-trio stuck to straight-forward hardcore — lightning fast power riffs accompanied by hyper-aggressive screams.

Bleach liberally painted outside the lines on occassion, but at its core, Kibakuzai was a polished work.

Hadaka no Jyoou, however, revels in dissonance and noise.

After a seemingly normal metallic introduction with “Kemuri Kemuri Kemuri (Jiko 0 Shipoo 101)”, Bleach tears into “Furueru Hana”, a monstrously ugly hulk of a song that obeys no tonal center.

“Yawa” bounces along like the soundtrack to a nightmarish clown parade. Arrange this track for string quartet, and Kronos Quartet could include it on a program of works by Kryzystov Penderecki.

“Ikenie” is the album’s token mellow track, but even the minimalist arrangement of the song is no comfort. Kanna delivers an awkwardly-phrased melody while she strums ominous chords to Sayuri’s taiko-like drumming.

Even when they’re holding back, Bleach still manages to disturb.

“Bakuon Dashitai A-77” sports the most impassioned vocal performance by Yasuke, while Kanna jack-hammers even more dischordant riffs.

The title track concludes the album with a rumbling bass line and the oddest seventh-chord to be layered over a funk beat.

In other words, Bleach sets out to make listeners uncomfortable. Hadaka no Jyoou is aggression boiled down to its barest essence.

Like Kibakuzai, Hadaka no Jyoou clocks in at under half an hour. It’s a smart move on the band’s part — music this brash is best digested in small doses. Anything more might make listeners’ brains explode, let alone make them deaf.

Once again, Bleach produces a challenging work that dares to push the expectations of how far rock ‘n’ roll can go.

Easy access

Don’t shy away from this album if:

  • You’re not big on hip-hop collaborations.
  • You don’t know heads or tails of the whole club music thing.

Allow me to disclose fully my own inability to channel club music as a listening experience.

I like drum ‘n’ bass and techno and what-not while I’m checking out bare-chested dancers in a gay bar, but I wouldn’t put any of that music in my stereo.

Zen, however, works outside of a club context, thanks largely to DJ Krush’s inate talent to impose a song structure to music that usually doesn’t call for any.

DJ Krush has usually been filed under “trip-hop”, a label imprecise for the kind of music Krush produces.

His collaboration with ACO and Twigy on the non-album single “Tragicomic” brought together dark, ethereal melodies, growling bass lines and two incredibly distinct vocal talents — ACO’s pouty singing, and Twigy’s Ebonic-inflected Japanese.

Zen follows that basic aesthetic, backing off a bit to be less intrusive, more atmospheric.

The music backing Black Thought on “Zen Approach” feels almost transparent. “Day’s End” fully integrates Kodama Kazufumi’s muted trumpet in a tapestry of restrained beats, classical guitars and glassy synthetic timbres.

Even the more aggressive tracks don’t feel heavy-handed.

“Vision of Art” does a fine job of housing Company Flow’s gauntlet-throwing raps in a lush arrangement that isn’t at all pushy. “Duck Chase” humorously sputters from abrupt start and stops but never loses a sense of proportion.

DJ Krush’s music works best when it draws inward. N’dea Davenport delivers a beautiful performance on “With Grace”. Boss Da MC infuses “Candle Chant” with a quick-paced momentum totally fitting with the track’s mellow vibe.

By squeezing his ambient textures into a more-or-less traditional verse-chorus-verse pattern, DJ Krush makes Zen accessible to listeners unfamiliar or intimidated by both hip-hop and electronica.

You don’t need to step into a dance club to figure out Zen is a remarkable work.

Blonde ambition

Nope. Nothing special here.

No new songs or rare outtakes. No interactive CD elements. No provacative pictures.

Just Madonna thinking she’s posing for the cover of Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album.

But this second volume of hits shows just how far Madonna has come in terms of her musicianship.

Madonna has always been disected as a pop culture icon but never seriously critiqued as a musician. Her songs always seemed to be periphery to her image — something to play in the background of her videos.

The Erotica-era songs certainly served this purpose. Despite catchy choruses and elaborate studio wizardry, tracks such as “Deeper and Deeper” and “Erotica” helped hammer the final nail in Madonna’s sexually frank gimmickry.

After that, Madonna literally zigged and zagged, trying to find ways to remain relevant without overtly pandering to youth fashion.

She attempted to draft Björk into writing an entire album for her. (Only one track, “Bedtime Story”, resulted.) She played the title role in a movie adaption of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. Finally, she became a mother.

After all that exploration, the hits on GHV2 feel more cohesive than the ones on The Immaculate Collection.

The cool, scaled-back R&B production of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories work doesn’t seem all that much removed from the ambient-techno sessions of Ray of Light.

Even her fragile rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” doesn’t sound out of place (although Madonna will never be Patti LuPone).

The helium, nasal squeal that propelled “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” to the top of the charts has given way to a sultry voice that can soar as well as it can whisper.

Madonna’s lyrics may not give Natalie Merchant any sleepless nights, but songs such as “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” and “Frozen” reveal Ms. Ciccone’s blonde ambition isn’t too misplaced.

In other words, GHV2 feels like the work of an artist. The maturity Madonna shows in these hits leaves the bubblegum exuberence of her early work stranded in the middle of a desert.

So even if there aren’t any bells and whistles to attract fans who already own her albums, GHV2 is still a good document of a modern icon.

Devotion or reliability?

I am thinking of an artist whose name begins with the letters “En” and who has managed to record the same album four times.

Who is this artist? Give up?

It’s Enya!

But since this a review for Enigma, the same thing can apply.

Like Enya, Engima creator Michael Cretu doesn’t paint far outside the lines of his well-established aesthetic — lots of a ethereal, reverb-drenched synthesizers, breathy, come-hither female vocals, an occasional robotic singer, restrained but thundering beats.

The homogenous nature of Cretu’s work makes itself apparent on Love, Sensuality, Devotion, a greatest hits collection.

Even though the tracks on the collection span four albums, they have been mixed to blend one into the other, just like all his albums. As a result, Cretu has managed to make his entire discography obsolete.

Don’t waste time sitting through fillers on each of those albums — the best has been spliced together into a seamless whole, thereby maintaining a typical Enigma listening experience.

Long-time fans can probably discern tracks of one album from another, but folks who own only one Enigma album couldn’t tell the difference.

The track listing for Love, Sensuality, Devotion also skews heavily toward his second through fourth albums.

Starting with The Cross of Changes, Cretu significantly upgraded his music gear and convinced himself his singing was an integral part of Enigma’s sound. (It isn’t.)

His first Enigma project, MCMXC a.D., probably his most popular on the count of “Sadness (Part I)”, gets only minimal representation.

That’s because MCMXC a.D. possesses a bit of a rough edge Cretu subsequently washed out of his work.

The comparatively sparse arrangements of “Principles of Lust” and “Mea Culpa” feel at odds with the lushness of Enigma’s more recent work. It definitely undercuts the whole homogenous vibe.

Love, Sensuality, Devotion contains few surprises, but then again, listeners don’t head for Engima to be surprised. Enigma is a reliable project, focused on beauty and melody. Michael Cretu can get away with being repetitive.

Just like Enya.