Lately pop music might best be enjoyed as an all-at-once phenomenon.
Forget about what’s happening now: Why not pick up the complete works of Harry Nilsson and Paul Simon for something of a song, all in preparation for the Q4 gift-giving season? How about new box sets profiling Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, Van Morrison’s Moondance, or the Band’s Rock Of Ages, all in expanded form?
And then there’s that pesky new stuff!
It is indeed a conundrum. As good as the new Nine Inch Nails album might be, one suspects it—and Trent Reznor’s entire back catalog—will soon be available in similar boxed-set form within the next two years, likely a financial bargain, as the record industry continues its inimitable plunge to zero!
Thus I suggest today’s youngest and brightest contemporary music fans simply stop buying new records, and instead catch up with all you’ve missed since 1955—at budget prices, while you can!—and simply buy some fine liquor, sit back, and listen!
There’ll be plenty of time those Rihanna and Miley Cyrus box sets in 15 years!
Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks (Columbia) One of the advantages of being a certain age and never being fully convinced of Trent Reznor’s alleged massive talent—if you lived in LA and read the pop press out here, and were perhaps younger and gullible, you would be—means that one can approach the first new Nine Inch Nails album in five years with minimal expectations, wondering if he’ll sound as silly as you might expect, or in fact has gotten better. And he actually has. The new album is surprisingly strong; no two songs really sound alike, the sophomoric “going for the shock effect” that plagued much of his earlier work has seemed to evaporate, and the inclusion of odd guest artists such as Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and King Crimson’s Adrian Belew seems a musical rather that publicity-generating move, which is nice. I’m still not entirely captivated by his lyrical stance, which again dwells more in the teen-angst/existential/despair mode than befits someone of his now-advanced age—he’s 48—but sonically, he’s either gotten better or things have gotten appreciably worse in the past five years. I’m opting for the latter! Still, he’s an Academy Award winner and Spin once called him “the most vital artist in music,” so he’s probably better than everyone but Vangelis and Michael Kamen! Plus: better hair!
Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (ANTI-) The first album in four years from singer Neko Case is, at first listen, impressive stuff—even for those who liked what they’ve heard in the past but never quite bought into her real-goodness. Everything’s accessible, and almost poppy—and this is good. Tracks like “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”—with its jarring tale of a verbally abusive mother—stand out, unusual in their lyrical message and Case’s emotionally detached delivery. She unexpectedly covers the “original” Nico’s “Afraid”—from the 1970 Desertshore album—which in itself is no small thing. Still, there’s no real sense of a consistent art statement here; as individual tracks, much of this works very well, but taken as an album—a suite of songs—I’m not hearing the major BZZZZ that signifies a major—really major—artist at work. But better than usual.
John Legend: Love In The Future (Columbia) As always an enormously skilled singer and musician, John Legend is to be commended for his high level of quality control—he’s yet to release a less than fine record—and his ability to draw from the best R&B tradition and make it all sound smooth, sweet and contemporary. His fourth album—his first in five years—is especially strong. Thematically based on love and commitment—the dude’s getting married any day now—the album essentially offers up a 21st century take of the “quiet storm” mode pioneered by Smokey Robinson almost 40 years ago, nods to the likes of Bobby Caldwell and Anita Baker, and without dabbling in corn constructs a near perfect, uncompromising blend of R&B and pop that oozes with both professionalism and emotion. He is slick, but never a studio construct or a producer’s flunky, and in the field of present-day R&B, John Legend continues to set the bar very high indeed.
Bastille: Bad Blood (Virgin) On the receiving end of a very loud chorus of raves, the debut album by Brit quartet Bastille is strong and not the least bit tentative: Very rarely does a band this fully-formed arrived in such a powerful fashion. Very big in their homeland—the album reached #1 there—the band has power, strength, melody, accessibility, and a notable direct line to their fans, who don’t just like them but really like them. “Basically, I cannot stand to not listen to this it is so amazing,” says Fan A on Amazon; “Best album of the year, no doubt” adds Fan B! Excess aside, there’s a certain feel on display here—a band feel—that’s refreshing and, in a world filled with pop-by-numbers penned by anonymous producers, enormously welcome. A major introduction by a band we’ll be hearing much more from.
Rod Stewart: Rarities (Mercury) Longtime pop observers perhaps perceive Rod Stewart’s career stretch as being cool with Jeff Beck (‘60s), better on his own and with the Faces (‘70’s), questionable in the ‘80s (post-the “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” video), and snoozy in his 21st century Great American Songbook mode. Well, OK. But his most recent album Time was, for him, stunningly strong, mostly because it evoked his golden early ‘70s years in a manner few thought still possible. Which is exactly what this new 2-CD of Stewart rarities does–justifiably, as it contains demos, live tracks and alternative versions of much of his prime material, including “Maggie May,” “You Wear It Well,” and his singular takes on “Country Comforts” and “It’s All Over Now.” His best work has not aged a day—and this, unexpectedly, is a nice new batch of it.
The 1975: The 1975 (Vagrant/Interscope) Who would have suspected that the hot new trend in mid-2013 would be actually very good rock ‘n’ roll bands from England? Not me! That was a long time ago! But along with Bastille, these dudes—from Manchester and likewise blessed with a name certain to enthrall search engines worldwide—have created a unique, substantial sound that isn’t entirely derivative, is plenty hook-filled, and likely to enthrall millennials-through-oldsters worldwide! Good, good stuff with depth, substance, sophistication, and subtlety. And by definition years ahead of their time!
Dave Holland: Prism (Dare2 Records) Brit-born jazz bassist Dave Holland spent the ‘60s playing with many of his illustrious countrymen but was perhaps most widely noticed for hooking up with Miles Davis toward that decade’s end. Since then, he moved Stateside, crafted one of the finest jazz albums ever with 1972’s Conference Of The Birds, and continued making superlative albums for the ECM label. Now recording for his own Dare2 imprint, Holland returns with an exceptional quartet—featuring pianist Craig Taborn, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, and drummer Eric Holland—and an album that is deliberately punchier and less airy than, say, his prior ECM material, and all the more impressive for it. Illuminating and inspired as Holland’s best albums have always been, Prism is a powerful reminder that our best musicians are still out there playing at top form.
Ariana Grande: Yours Truly (Universal Republic) In a world where every possible Disney-fied teen female can make an album, become a pop star, and reach her career peak on the VMAs, how refreshing that young teens from that other network—and that would be Nickelodeon—can actually make albums that sound like albums, not product, and can sing without the help of a choir of studio consoles. Born in 1993 and apparently known for playing the character Cat Valentine on the show Victorious, Grande already has a hit with “The Way” and is likely to have many more; this isn’t the beginning of the sort of career-by-numbers Selena Gomez currently enjoys, but something bordering on the quite legit. Strong, youthful pop, which, when it works well, there’s really nothing like.
Adam Franklin & Bolts Of Melody: Black Horses (Goodnight) I’m later to this than I’d like to be—it came out in mid-July—but I can’t stop playing this new set by Franklin, once of UK band Swervedriver, and you really ought to hear it. Severely underheard, Franklin’s been making superlative records since the Swervedriver days, and this latest—unified by the recurring theme of the track “I Used To Live For Music”—is perhaps his best yet. While thoroughly contemporary, there’s a sonic touch here that recalls his earlier work, and maybe that of, say, Eugenius and the Vaselines, that may make pop fans of a certain ilk and era warm and fuzzy all over. Excellent and much worth your while, Black Horses is available here and in the usual places.
Asia Argento: Total Entropy (Nuun) One of the most fascinating figures in contemporary entertainment and also, uh, kind of hot, Ms. Argento has had a successful career in film—both acting and directing—and, perhaps unexpectedly, having played with music in the past, emerges with a strikingly strong album that can’t be dismissed as the work of a simple dabbler. Arty, subtle, atmospheric, personal–maybe what you might expect, but probably significantly better. In short: Impressive and fun to look at!