Yearly Archives: 2002

Familiarity breeds warmth

New York City’s music scene blah, blah, blah. The Strokes blah, blah, blah. Joy Division blah, blah, blah.

Pretty much every review of Interpol’s debut album, Turn on the bright lights, makes some mention about the band’s locale (current “it”-town NYC), which necessitates mentioning the Strokes, which necessitates mentioning Interpol sound more like Joy Division than Television. would not like to indulge in the more lemming tendencies of the mainstream music press — how can so much ink be spilled about Sweden’s hot garage rock scene, then turn and pan every single album made by said bands? — but in this case, it can’t help it.

Interpol really does sound like Joy Division. At the very least, there’s an early ’80s patina to Interpol’s reverb-soaked, deadpan-delivered music.

The bass work calls to mind Peter Hook, the guitars Johnny Marr, and Paul Banks’ singing Ian Curtis.

For anyone who came of age when the States miraculously sprang from the economic depression of the Carter era, Interpol is comfort food for the ears, new music in the guise of Modern English.

Which means, hell if I know how this album sounds to other people. (I like it.)

Such evokation of easily citeable source material may give the impression Interpol is a quartet of hacks, Turn on the bright lights has some decent writing.

There’s something hypnotic in the way the band’s guitarists chug away at those chords. Banks’ monotone voice gives way to a few leaps and jumps that are singable but not entirely predictable.

“Say Hello to Angels” gets downright danceable. The dirge-like “NYC” hints at a sliver of sunlight when Banks intones, “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights”.

On “Leif Erickson”, Interpol sounds closer to the Doors, Banks doing an eerie impression of Jim Morrison.

Familiarity may breed distress, but in the case of Turn on the bright lights, it provides warmth.

Maybe the comparrisons with the Strokes isn’t too far off. Julian Casablancas and company don’t do much different from Tom Verlaine and company, and somehow, they’ve managed to inject vitality into a tried-and-true form of music.

Interpol is as familiar as your old vinyl record collection, and it’s not. And that’s all right.

To thine own self be true could very well take everything it said the last time about India.Arie and apply it to her new album.

The holistically-minded, acoustic guitar-strumming R&B singer has deviated little from the hit-making template she forged on 2001’s Acoustic Soul.

In creativespeak, lack of movement is just as dangerous as misstepping, but somehow, Miss Arie has managed to cross that chasm without losing footing.

Voyage to India pretty much deals with the same kinds of themes Arie dealt with a year ago — be comfortable in your own skin, to thine own self be true.

“Get It Together” is a thematic cousin to “Video”, but Arie shift the focus from media idealization to ageism. Or as she simple states, “You’ll never be whole if you don’t see the beauty of growing old.”

On “Talk to Her”, Arie lectures men about treating women right and takes the high road by not using the words “bitch” or “ho”.

The demands of success definitely weigh on Arie’s mind this time around, with such tracks as “Little Things” and “Slow Down” telling folks on a fast track not to lose focus on the things that make them unique.

On paper, these sentiments can seem downright treacly, and on a few tracks, Arie does get too sacchrine.

Is the man Arie describes on “Complicated Melody” gay? Almost sounds like it, but given my own dating record, gay men wouldn’t even give Arnold Schoenberg inspiration.

Surprisingly, Arie is most convincing where other artists get downright preachy. On “God Is Real”, Arie makes her case for a capital-letter God not with blind, patronizing devotion but with a simple, direct observation. The world’s beauty, Arie argues, is proof enough for her.

Because of its musical similarity to Acoustic Soul, Voyage to India doesn’t stand out as either a progression or regression for Arie. It’s a comfort zone, one that feels great — especially given all the bad metal out there right now — but one that could get too quaint, too easily.

In the end, Arie will do what she does, and if it means heading in the same direction as before, the conviction of her performance will no doubt make that last paragraph sound downright foolish.

Let’s hope she’s right.

Almost there

When a band moves from the indies to the majors, a bigger budget usually means a better recording.

It’s not much different for Nananine. The Fukuoka City quartet’s indie EPs sported great songs that deserved stronger mixes and higher fidelity.

While Nananine’s Warner Bros. debut, 12e12, does indeed feature a more polished sound, something got lost on the way to the big leagues.

The higher fidelity reveals Kawaseki Hiroshi’s limitations as a singer. The quiet intro to “Hummingbird” shines a harsh light on Kawaseki’s raspy voice. Somehow, his singing lacks the gut-anchored honesty of his indie performances.

Even though it sounds like he’s emoting on “Oorii”, Kawaseki gets lost in the mix, the full force of his voice undercut instead of enhanced.

The bigger studio budget doesn’t dampen the rest of the band’s spirited performances, but at the same time, it doesn’t capture the power of its live performances either.

“Flange” is a decent enough alt-rock song on recording, but performed live, it sounded far more impressive.

Half way through 12e12, Nananine trots out its strongest material. “Stroke” is the band’s masterpiece to date, a solid four-on-the-floor beat anchoring the song’s attractive hooks.

“Swing Hawk” alternates between a noisy compound meter and a straight-forward backbeat. “Minnie” finishes the album on an acoustic note, intimate and rough-hewned.

Although 12e12 is a decent debut, it’s still short of capturing Nananine at its most powerful. The higher fidelity is a nice touch, but now it’s a matter of getting the band in its best element.

Bizarre sound triangle

There’s no denying Boom Boom Satellites makes some of the hardest, freaked-out electronica anywhere.

Between stuttering backbeats, buzzing guitars and dissonant improvisation, the Japanese duo’s music is a distinct collage, uncomfortable as it is fascinating.

But with all that activity, sometimes hooks just can’t fit.

On the band’s debut album, Out Loud, a single-minded concentration on texture translated into a loss of momentum by the end of the disc.

Boom Boom Satellites made up for those errors with Umbra, an album that maintained the duo’s triple threat while making room for some melody.

With the band’s third album, Photon, the hooks are once again squeezed out but not completely.

Rather than let the backdrop be the star, Boom Boom Satellites invites spoken word vocalists and improvisers to provide some interesting foregrounds to their busy work.

“Light My Fire” is packed full of repeated motifs, special effects and even a guitar solo, but a female guest vocalist delivers some arresting lyrics in a breathy, seductive voice.

“I can make money by selling my organs,” she tells us, non-chalantly.

On “Beluga”, trumpeter Igarashi Issei provides layers of haunting improv, while Bryan Wrightsom fades in and out with a few couplets of his own. It’s not the most hummable improv, but it certainly keeps a listener’s attention.

There’s an almost fright-fest kind of feel throughout Photon, a sense of menacing behind the band’s fractured beats and guitar bursts.

At first, “Piper” sports little more than a creepy organ and a spoken word lyric that advises, “Get yourself some real help to wake up from the nightmare.” Then the drums kick in, and the mood turns manic.

And just when all the bizarre textures starts getting overripe, Boom Boom Satellites brings everything back down to earth with “Let It Lift” a straight-forward rock song with a rock beat and simple guitar hook. It’s the most normal-sounding song in the band’s entire catalog.

It would also make for a damn fine single.

Photon doesn’t quite match the appeal of Umbra, but it’s a definite progression for the band. They have their jazz-rock-electronica aesthetic down pat; now, it’s just a matter of finding collaborators to bring something new to the mix.

Funky, funky music

When the hell did rock music lose its sense of fun?

Sit through a block of nü metal music videos on MTV, and it’s gets pretty damn suffocating hearing how much the world doesn’t understand all these guitar-wiedling, nipple-pierced growlers.

They seriously ought to take the Zoobombs advice: “You need to get mo’ funky”.

And Zoobombs are nothing if not funky.

Put on the band’s newest album in two years, Love Is Funky, and try not to shake your rump during “Funky Movin'”. Impossible, plain impossible.

The last time Zoobombs made a peep in the States — with a pair of albums on the Emperor Jones label — the band’s brand of party funk-rock was appealing, if not a bit burnished.

Then the band signed to major label Toshiba-EMI in Japan, which shut them out of the U.S. since 1999. And that’s a shame.

Love Is Funky shows the band has made a definite leap since its indie days only a scant three years ago. The writing is tighter, the performances more confident, the party vibe so infectous, this disc won’t stop spinning in your player for days.

Even re-recordings of indie staples “Jumbo” and “Mo’ Funky” improve on their originals.

A decent studio budget certainly goes a long way in pumping up Zoobombs’ sound. A distorted, booming bass anchors the communal chants on “Mama, Gimme Ya Hot Hand”. A deeper kick drum on “Jumbo (#2)” gives that song some real guts.

When it’s just the band playing their collective ass off, the results are no less magical. “Love Bomb” and “Use Me” capture an incredibly energetic live feel.

Zoobombs aren’t any less effective when they slow things down. “Modern Creation” and “Like Into the Air (angel, bomb, universe)” are positively gorgeous. (Also check out “Pleasure Drop” from Let It Bomb.)

If Love Is Funky were a movie, reviewers would most likely tag it “the feel-good album of the year”. It’s tough not to listen to Zoobombs, and think life is great.

And it’s not anything lead singers Don or Matta say that rams this point home. “So big, it must be jumbo,” isn’t exactly a life-inspiring line.

No — Zoobombs have such a joy for making music, listeners can feel it in their bones. These four Japanese and two Australian musicians don’t need to rehash metal riffs nor middle class angst.

They just want you to get mo’ funky.

Best intentions

When Hatakeyama Miyuki covered “Dream a Little Dream of Me” on her debut solo album, she established her credibility as an interpreter.

The idea of an entire cover album by her sounded like a great idea. Releasing that album barely six months after said solo debut wasn’t.

Thanks once again to Japan’s frenzied work pace, what could have been a solid collection of interpretations instead sounds half-baked. That’s not to say Fragile, Hatakayama’s cover album, isn’t all bad.

In fact, Hatakeyama makes an admirable effort to zero in on the heart of her choices, stripping away a lot of the original arrangements down to a bare minimum.

The original version of Colin Verncomb’s “Wonderful Life” started out as a typical over-produced 80s jazz pop song, but Hatakeyama reveals a sturdy, beautiful tune through a Carole King-like piano accompaniment and her wonderful voice.

“Every Breath You Take” is a karaoke staple, but Little Creatures, who back Hatakayama on this track, preserves Sting’s distinctive bass work. When Miyuki sings the bridge of the song — “Since your gone, I’ve been lost without a trace” — it’s as great as a listener might expect.

The inclusion of current it-girl Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” may appear to be calculated, but arranger Aoyagi Takuji does a better job of highlighting Jones’ country tinge than Jones does herself.

Hatakeyama doesn’t have the greatest English diction, but the burnished quality of her voice charges her performances with real emotion. It’s easy to overlook her pronunciation when she makes these songs her own.

Still, the best moments on Fragile are when Hatakeyama sings in her own language. “Ame no Gai wo” and “Natsu no Omoide” aren’t even typical J-pop fare — they sound much more Japanese than Hatakeyama’s own original songs.

Unfortunately, the missteps on Fragile cancel out its achievements.

Hatakeyama’s overly breathy interpretation of “The Shadow of Your Smile” meanders. The same goes for “I Love You, Porgy”.

The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” is an incredibly easy song to mess up — see Guns N’ Roses’ version on the soundtrack to Interview With a Vampire — and the bossa nova guitar work on Hatakeyama’s version doesn’t plain work.

(The drum ‘n’ bass beat in the middle of the song, though, hints at an interpretation that could have worked.)

The reverb on “The Water Is Wide” could have been cut back a bit, but Hatakeayama’s a capella performance calls to mind Sinéad O’Connor at her best.

It would have also been nice if Hatakeyama included more Japanese-language tracks on Fragile. Her performance of “Every Breath You Take” is still great, but Sting doesn’t really need the extra income — it could have made room for something homemade.

Hatakeyama’s choice of covers is nonetheless a diverse, interesting batch, but the weak spots on the album don’t do that diversity justice. If she spent a few more months refining these interpretations, Fragile would have left a better impression.

Comfortably at odds

UA has never let herself rest in a comfort zone.

When she recorded three albums of mellow jazz pop, UA approached each project with an international perspective, peppering her songs with influences from Latin America, the Caribbean and Hawaiʻi.

In 2001, she unveiled AJICO, a rock supergroup formed with Blankey Jet City’s Asai Kenichi. The band’s studio album Fukamidori fits well within UA’s haunting repertoire, but AJICO rocked the songs out on tour, as evidenced on the live album AJICO Show.

UA is back to her solo work, and her fourth album, Doroboo, is her most challenging yet.

Doroboo revels in contradictory aesthetics. The songs on the album are some of UA’s longest, but most of them are stripped down to the barest instrumentation. UA’s voice is still drawn to clear melodies, but her backing band conjures up some strangely beautiful accompaniment.

On “Buenos Aires”, a string instrument — could be a violin, could not be — drones on long, single notes, calling to mind the sound of crickets on a summer evening.

“Door” ambles along on a shuffle rhythm slowed down to a snail’s pace. With so much space between beats, UA’s band liberally fills them in with rough slides on the guitar neck and abrupt interjections from a string quartet.

The album’s dramatic centerpiece is “Shukan”, a three-part piece which begins with a spoken word section, transforms into a lullaby, then concludes on a swing beat. It’s the most structurally ambitious song on the album but still manages to maintain a sense of minimalism.

Even though UA sounds comfortable stretching her creative boundaries, she also knows when to anchor them.

“Sekai” follows “Shukan”, and it’s the closest thing to a single on the entire album. Strangely enough, it’s not yet slated to be released as such.

“Senkoo”, which was released as a single, gets a total overhaul for the album. Tablas, guitars and zithers replace Rei Harakami’s slick electronica beats.

“Kanata” concludes the album, keeping with the quiet instrumentation throughout the album but offering beautiful melodies as well.

Doroboo manages to balance many goals seemingly at odds with each other. It’s an epic, dramatic album but also quiet and intense. It’s a sparse work but also jam-packed with ideas.

UA’s husky alto threads everything together, and Doroboo never falls apart. Perhaps the most admirable contradiction is how UA makes all this work seem easy.

Light vs. dark

For anyone who loved the hulking bravado of fra-foa’s debut album Chuu no Fuchi, this next bit of news may come as a disappointment.

fra-foa has softened its edges.

The Japanese quartet’s second album, 13 Leaves, foregoes the megaloud, superslow sound of its predecessor for something more majestic and midtempo.

It’s a 180-degree creative turn for the band — something fans blown away by the devastatingly emotional performance of bandleader Mikami Chisako may find hard to accept.

But just because the overall tone has changed doesn’t mean it’s affected the quality of the songwriting.

13 Leaves is an entirely different album from Chuu no Fuchi, but both don’t wear thin with repeated playing. In fact, once a listener embraces fra-foa’s softer sound, 13 Leaves becomes highly addictive.

“Light of Sorrow” and “Green Day” have the trappings of ballads without ever losing their hard rock muscle. “Lily” harkens to the compound meter of “Mahiru no Himitsu”.

“Edge of Life” could have been an outtake during Smashing Pumpkins’ sessions for Gish, while “Blind Star” features Mikami stretching the upper regions of her beautiful falsetto.

Instead of infusing fra-foa with the grunge-y sheen he gave Cocco, producer Takamune Negishi applies the more approachable sound he used on Shiratori Maika’s Hanazono — lots of acoustic guitars in the background, with reverb effects supplantaing straight-forward distortion.

For this set of songs, it was the right choice.

Mikami’s writing has allowed much more light into her songs, as evidenced by such sweet tracks as “Perfect Life” and “Kienai Yoru ni”. A menacing wall of guitars just wouldn’t have worked here.

fra-foa took the risky dare not to replicate its first album, and it’s succeeded in delivering an album totally different but equally engaging.

Listener friendly

Yup. The 80s are definitely back.

Idlewild, the Scottish band that reminded crusty listeners (namely, me) post-punk music wasn’t all about grunge, is really sounding like the Smiths now.

Roddy Woomble’s warble (say that five times fast) inherently possesses shades of Morrisey, but on the band’s fourth album, The Remote Part, so do the melodies.

“Living in a Hiding Place” is a prime example. It’s far too easy to hear Morrisey’s slurred delivery on the song’s chorus. “Tell Me Ten Words” channels its fair share of Green– and Document-era R.E.M. Although “You Held the World in Your Arms” blares with some hard guitar playing, the strings in the background scream “new wave”.

Hints of Idlewild’s charged-up tuneful punk show up now and again — “A Modern Way of Letting Go”, “I Am What I Am Not”, “Out of Routine”.

But for the most part,

The Remote Part has softer edges, friendlier songs (especially for radio), more craft — and less spunk.

That’s not to say the album isn’t enjoyable. “American English” is downright gorgeous, a wonderfully majestic tune. “The Remote Part/Scottish Fiction” makes for a tender conclusion.

But if you’re looking for the immediacy of 100 broken windows, The Remote Part might feel like a let down.

Or it might feel like a success.

Make no mistake — Idlewild does indeed stretch its songwriting chops on this album, and the band does succeed in delivering a taut album with no fillers.

After a period of adjustment, The Remote Part turns out to be just as listenable as 100 broken windows — just different. The loss of an edge hasn’t meant a descent into creative bankruptcy.

And while that spunkier Idlewild may be missed, the more crafted Idlewild is certainly welcome.

Angels with dirty faces, indeed

When Sugababes released its debut One Touch in the States in 2001, nothing happened.

The teenage trio from England didn’t storm the US charts, didn’t knock Destiny’s Child or TLC off their mantle, didn’t horn in on Britney’s market share.

Back home, though, it was another story. Sugababes scored a minor hit with “Overload”. One of its members ditched the group in the middle of a tour in Japan. They were dropped by their label. They covered a Gary Numan bootleg and scored a hit, followed by another No. 1 single.

In the end, Sugababes became bigger than anyone expected. The trio’s new album, Angels with Dirty Faces, shows it.

Previously dubbed as an unpolished version of their aforementioned American R&B counterparts (see second paragraph), Sugababes have left that all behind. Angels with Dirty Faces is darker, funkier, dirtier.

Keisha, Mutya and new member Heidi still have fresh-scrubbed voices with a rough-edged hewn, but this time around, the music matches their harmonies.

“Freak Like Me” buzzes with fuzzy guitars and a huge rock sound. “Blue” slithers along a fractured drum ‘n’ bass beat. “Stronger” and “Just Don’t Need This” has already drawn comparrisons to Tricky and Massive Attack, and rightly so.

“Supernatural” and “Virgin Sexy” bump and grind, while “Round and Round” recalls “Overload”‘s hook-filled immediacy.

Something about Sting’s “The Shape of My Heart” inspires R&B artists — Sugababes follows Utada Hikaru’s lead by laying beats behind Gordon Sumner’s recognizable guitar hook.

(Utada’s “Never Let Go”, though, does a better job of grafting new music on Sting’s foundation.)

“Mature” has always been an adjective bantered about when describing Sugababes, but on Angels with Dirty Faces, the word is almost an understatement.

Although now in their late teens, Sugababes perform well beyond their age. Their voices sound young, but their music definitely isn’t. Alicia Keys, nothing — here’s a group that gives R&B the kind of grit it seldom ever possesses.

Angels with Dirty Faces is available in the UK. No US release date has been set.