Category: Recent Releases

Duran Duran: A Diamond in the Mind

Duran Duran: A Diamond in the MindI can’t say I was all that thrilled when Duran Duran released Arena in 1984. It was a live album, which meant it sounded nothing like the meticulously-crafted studio albums that I put on repeat on the family turntable.

Back then, I hadn’t yet gone to any concerts, so the idea of live album-as-souvenir didn’t really resonate with me. I just knew I preferred the studio version of “Is There Something I Should Know?” over the one that opens Arena.

I’ve since gone to a number of Duran Duran shows, and I have a better appreciation of Arena now. But the album was recorded so early in the band’s career that it really doesn’t tell the whole story — just that part known to most people.

A Diamond in the Mind rectifies this gap and makes the incredible leap of sounding so polished, it could pass itself off as a studio album.

The Manchester show recorded for the album in December 2011 followed a fraught-filled summer when Simon Le Bon lost his voice and the band didn’t know if he’d get it back. The worldwide tour set to begin then was hastily rearranged to give Le Bon time to recuperate.

And did he ever.

He sounds better on A Diamond in the Mind than he does on the band’s most recent studio album, All You Need Is Now. He’s got some really power behind his pipes now, and his tone is clearer than ever.

Duran Duran have been touring for three decades, so the show comes off flawless. But that probably has as much to do with advances in mobile recording technology as it does the band’s natural showmanship. Every part of the band can be heard, and with Nick Rhodes armed with software samples, he can fill out all the missing parts that wouldn’t travel well.

In a way, A Diamond in the Mind is a bit too perfect. Arena had a lot of raw energy that made many of the songs sound coke-fueled (which they probably were.) Even the band’s SXSW showcase had a few flubs that came off as charming than ill-prepared.

The cleverest moment on the album comes at the end of “The Wild Boys”, where it segues into a brief quotation of “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. More of this, please.

Most importantly, A Diamond in the Mind fills the gap missing since the release of Arena. Now we have a(n official) live album that includes “Notorious”, “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone”. The picture is more complete.


Gossip: A Joyful Noise

Gossip: A Joyful NoiseBy comparison, Gossip’s second album for major label Sony Music, A Joyful Noise, is a less rocking album than their debut Music for Men.

The synths get a heavier hand this time around, and the guitar work of Brace Paine is more embellishment than driving force. The production is slicker, perhaps even watered down, and Beth Ditto’s usually fiery performance turns darker.

But it’s the album I like more.

Part of my resistence to Music for Men was the stark contrast to Standing in the Way of Control. Gossip was already transforming from a garage band trio to the current incarnation of dance band, and Standing in the Way of Control was the pivot, an album that dipped more than a foot into the new sound while retaining most of the old.

With A Joyful Noise, the transformation is complete, and it bears little or no resemblance to what came before. And that makes it easier to evaluate on its own terms.

And the songs on A Joyful Noise are far catchier.

“Move in the Right Direction” is as much an affirmation of the band’s creative direction as it is a dance floor anthem. Gay bars would do well to jump on remixes of this track.

“Get a Job” stakes the same lyrical terrain as Björk’s “Army of Me” with a bit more funk.

Gossip really knows how to hit a chorus, as evidenced on “Casualties of War”, “Involved” and “Get Lost”

For a dose of the old band, “Love in a Foreign Place” recalls the fire of the pre-major label days without indulging in nostalgia.

Folks who liked the rock sound of Music for Men will probably be disappointed by the full embrace of dance on A Joyful Noise. But listen beyond the surface, and the these tunes sink in easily.


Tokyo Jihen: Shinyawaku

Tokyo Jihen: ShinyawakuThe dissolution of Tokyo Jihen in February 2012 spurred EMI Japan to flood store shelves with Tokyo Jihen releases. In addition to a 6-track EP (color bars), the label released a live compilation (Tokyo Collection) and a b-sides collection (Shinyawaku). In February 2013, a comprehensive boxed set is scheduled.

If taken as an album in its own regard, Shinyawaku could stand along side Sports and Otona as the best Tokyo Jihen had to offer. The album had a diverse range of material, from disco and dirty funk to covers of Rodgers and Hart and Brenda Lee.

In particular, the band’s take on the obscure Ned Doheny track “Get It Up for Love” — translated as “Koi wa Maboroshi” — injects a shot of energy into the too-mellow original. “Pinocchio” could have been an incredibly lush track if Shiina Ringo recorded it for her own solo work.

“Gaman” and “Kaban no Nakami” offer the straight-ahead rock at which Tokyo Jihen excels but at times went missing on the albums proper.

Like Sports and Otona, Shinyawaku has little in the way of filler, which is odd considering the fact these tracks served no other purpose than to fill out single releases.

Which then brings up the point: how did these tracks not end up on the album?

Tokyo Jihen’s weakest album, Goraku, could have been strengthened with the inclusion of “B.B.Queen” or “Pinocchio”.

“Kao”, a coupling track from the single “Gunjou Biyori”, is a lot more interesting than some of the tracks that made it onto the band’s debut, Kyoiku.

As tight a collection Shinyawaku may be, it’s also a document of Tokyo Jihen’s missteps. A lot of this material is just too good to have been stashed away on individual singles, and their compilation onto a single release shouldn’t overshadow the main canon.



ZAZEN BOYS: StoriesHere’s a startling statistic: ZAZEN BOYS has lasted longer than NUMBER GIRL.

Mukai Shuutoku’s watershed band lasted 7 years, whereas ZAZEN BOYS will be turning 10 in 2013.

There’s no mistaking ZAZEN BOYS as anything other than Mukai’s personal sonic canvas. NUMBER GIRL didn’t survive one member leaving. ZAZEN BOYS has survived two line-up changes. Despite the longevity, it doesn’t seem Mukai really zeroed in on the band’s core sound until recently.

I’ll admit I was nervous about the release of Stories. It’s been more than a half decade since ZAZEN BOYS III, an album of pointless noise-making that made me question Mukai’s creative direction. 2008’s ZAZEN BOYS 4 provided a course correction, with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann easing Mukai into the world of synthesizers.

Would Mukai be able to reign in his freak outs without the guiding hand of an outside producer? Stories provides the answer, and all signs point to yes.

One good thing did come out ZAZEN BOYS III — it established a benchmark for how weird ZAZEN BOYS can get. Stories doesn’t reach that far, but it’s still a fairly avant-garde work.

Instead of working with the concept of melody, chords or harmonic rhythm, Mukai fashions long strings of melodic ideas — most of them only vaguely tonal — into a punctured texture. Very few tracks on Stories have a steady beat, and most of them don’t have anything resembling a hook.

“Potato Salad” has the shifting rhythms Mukai explored in “Himitsu Girl’s Top Secret.” “Kigatsukeba Midnight” is some strange form of be-bop where the stated melody never turns into an improvisation. “Sandpaper Zarazara” could almost be considered minimalist if Philip Glass decided to sound more like Thurston Moore.

At the same time, Stories has some of the most melodic material Mukai has written in a long time. “Heartbreak” has a bona fide guitar hook, and Mukai sings a real melody. The album’s title track could have been a lost work from Mukai’s collaboration with pop singer Leo IMAI. The synth-heavy track is almost danceable.

Even the concluding track “Tengu”, a clash of keyboards, guitars and drums, is threaded together by Mukai’s mouthy but coherent vocals.

It’s taken a decade, but Mukai seems to have found how far he can push his boundaries. Stories doesn’t alienate, but it stays true to its avant-garde core.

… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Lost Songs

... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Lost Songs… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead loves them some prog rock, and at times, that influence has bogged down their albums. 2011’s Tao of the Dead was split into two parts, the second a 16-minute, single track epic. I can’t say the album left much of an impression with me.

Lost Songs, by contrast, scales back those bigger gesture to offer perhaps the most straight-forward — and fastest — … Trail of Dead album in their discography.

“Open Doors” opens with the band’s usual typhoon of guitars, but it’s on the second track, “Pinhole Cameras”, where the album takes off.

If anything, the tracks from that point onward have one tempo marking — fast as fuck. It’s not till half way through the album does the pace gets ratcheted down.

“Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” have all the familiar … Trail of Dead tricks — breaks in the middle of song, Conrad Keely and Jason Reece doing their best to bust the heads of the vocal mics, and guitars. Lots and lots of guitars.

This time, the mid-song breaks aren’t the vast, meandering detours of the past and in fact, provide a nice reprieve from all the intensity.

The songwriting on Lost Songs is some of the focused the band has produced since Madonna or Source Code and Tags. I’d probably go as far to say the DNA of “Mistakes and Regrets” found its way into every track on the album.

I do have to confess that I don’t have much of a connection to prog rock itself, so when … Trail of Dead reign in those tendencies, I find myself enjoying their albums a lot more. And I enjoyed Lost Songs quite a lot.


Scissor Sisters: Magic Hour

Scissor Sisters: Magic HourI don’t mind Jake Shears. In fact, I rather like him when he’s wearing as few clothes as possible. But I wouldn’t want him to serenade me.

Shears’ voice is an acquired taste, something a lot of listeners seem to have acquired faster than I have. And I’ll admit the band’s party rock is out of sorts among the headbanging rock and tortured chamber music that make up most of my collection.

But I follow Scissor Sisters because they’re big figures in gay circles, and they’ve made a success out of their queerness.

Given this sense of ambivalence, it was quite surprising to see Magic Hour end up on the year-end favorite list. This album is perhaps my first step toward becoming a Scissor Sisters convert.

Simply put, I enjoyed this album far more than I did Night Work. The vibe is a lot more fun. The tunes are much more memorable. If the point of a Scissor Sisters album is to make you get up and move, Magic Hour succeeds where its predecessor did not. And I don’t dance.

“Let’s Have a Kiki” was the first track to seep into my consciousness. It’s hard not to fall in love with Ana Matronic’s sassy phone message intro.

“Only the Horses” came next with that gorgeous chorus. When he’s not trying to be a Gibb brother or Prince, Shears can really deliver. “The Secret Life of Letters” is another track where Shears, stripped of all affect, sounds remarkable.

The vaguely Latin rhythms and acoustic guitar of “San Luis Obispo” is the kind of stretching I’d like to see the band do more of. As for the rest of the album, there’s hardly a misstep. “Somewhere,” in particular, concludes the album with another winner of a chorus.

At some point, I may explore the band’s first two albums, but for now I’ll consider Magic Hour the album to recommend for Scissor Sister skeptics such as myself.


Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean: channel ORANGEI have no business reviewing Frank Ocean.

R&B is not a coverage area for I can no more describe the mertis (or demerits) of Kanye West, Cody ChesnuTT or Chris Brown than a writer from Vibe can weigh in on the Utada Hikaru vs. Hamasaki Ayumi debate.

But somehow Frank Ocean ended up on my year-end favorite list.

Here’s what I know.

Frank Ocean posted a notice on Tumblr describing the first person he fell in love with was a man. Gay bloggers picked up on the news. I read about Ocean’s coming out on Towleroad. I listened to channel ORANGE. I liked it. I bought it.

Was this purchase a vote for equality, a gesture of solidarity? Yes, partly.

I would also like to think it was vote of confidence for Ocean’s understated style. His tracks have a lot of room to breathe, and his voice isn’t a flashy display of TV competition histrionics.

“Pilot Jones,” for example, is little more than a beat, a smattering of effects and Ocean’s falsetto. He nearly crosses into the minimalist territory of James Blake on this track. “Sweet Life” starts with a piano and a jumpy bass, slowly adding a beat and eventually horns.

Even when Ocean goes for the dramatic, it’s never overhanded. The 10-minute epic “Pyramids” goes balls out on the first half but draws in for the second.

The crux of the album is “Bad Religion”, an astute observation of unrequited love: “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.” It’s hard not to hear shades of “Purple Rain” in the organ intro, but Ocean’s raw delivery makes the track his own. “Bad Religion” is also a familiar refrain for anyone in love with the unattainable, especially when it’s nature conspiring with societal bullshit to create the barrier.

Since making his announcement, Ocean hasn’t made a definitive statement about his orientation. I hope he doesn’t. The political baggage would take away from the emotion of a track like “Bad Religion.” It’s nice to have that subtext, but it needn’t define the man nor his music.


Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven

Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven

Ah, the étude — finger exercises disguising themselves as piano pieces, or piano pieces incorporating finger exercises.

Students of the piano cannot avoid exercise books from Pischna, Hanon, Czerny or Bürgmuller, but should they progress far enough into their studies, they might tackle études from Chopin and Debussy.

And if they’re really good, they might try a hand at the études of Györgi Ligeti.

Ligeti’s exercises may be less études than instruments of torture. More likely, it’s a composer known for his sense of humor punking the hell out of his students.

These études are not only a bear to listen to, they’re a bear to perform.

For his major label debut on Nonesuch Records, Jeremy Denk pairs Ligeti’s études with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, the last of the composer’s sonatas. The resulting disc is dryly titled Ligeti/Beethoven.

But it’s a head-scratching juxtaposition. On one end is a towering figure of classical music with a mastery for melody, and on the other, a composer with a challenging sense of harmony. That’s double-speak for “dissonant”, the bugaboo adjective of classical music audiences.

But Beethoven’s late works sometimes possess a prescience for the harmonic chaos that came to typify the Twentieth Century. Alfred Schnittke more than demonstrated that by quoting the Grosse Fuge in his String Quartet No. 3. The second movement of the Sonata No. 32, with portions that Denk himself describes as “proto-jazz”, don’t feel entirely rooted in the Eighteenth Century.

(And anyone who’s watched Looney Toons will not doubt picture a Halloween scene with Bugs Bunny when the main theme of the first movement appears.)

Somehow, the pairing works. At a point where the Ligeti études seem ready to collapse on themselves, Beethoven emerges from the haze to recalibrate the listener.

Denk’s performance is athletic. He stabs at the opening “Désordre” with an aggression that makes the piece snarl. “Fém”, which the Bad Plus arranged marvelously for jazz trio, solidly pulsates, while the cascading lines of “Vertige” make Denk sound superhuman.

Ligeti’s pieces can get pretty intense, but hearing Denk tackle them is not so different from watching a gymnast nab that perfect 10. It seems impossible that anyone can navigate through all the shifting meters and clashing lines until someone like Denk shows you he can.



ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION: LandmarkWhenever I proclaim how much of a fan of ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION I’m not, someone somewhere is probably quoting Hamlet, Act III, Scene II: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Fine. After much ambivalence, I can consider myself an ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION fan, in the same way I was a reluctant Rufus Wainwright fan.

It’s tough to rag on a band with such an upbeat aesthetic, especially since said band provides some of the best workout music to bring to the gym.

But like their post-rock cohorts in MONO, ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION seldom strays outside the borders of their particular sound. It’s unlikely ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION will pivot and turn itself into an ’80s cover band.

That reliability is comforting, but it pretty much limits the creative range of their albums.

So what would an ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION album need to make a person eschew the Evil Sharing Networks and drop $30+ for a physical copy? For an answer, listen to World World World. On that album, ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION aimed for the grandeur of a concept album and came up with a winner.

When the band really concentrates on making their melodies the catchiest they can be — with arrangements that bleed out just enough from those strict creative borders — they make awesome work.

And Landmark is pretty awesome.

Chatmonchy’s Hashimoto Eriko complements singer Goto Masafumi wonderfully on the album opener “All right part 2”. The chorus, in particular, is a tough ear worm against which to defend.

“A to Z” builds up to a pretty majestic chorus, with a cavernous reverb that really opens the song up. “1980” has an easy swagger that makes it danceable, while “Sore Dewa, Mata Ashita” and “Taiyou Kourou” serve up the upbeat melodicism typical of an ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION release. “Anemone no Saku Haru ni” wraps the album up nicely with acoustic guitars and rising chords.

Unlike World World World, a concept doesn’t run through Landmark, but it doesn’t stop the album from being one of the band’s most coherent works. It’s tough to find filler here.

It’s easy to criticize ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION for recording the same album multiple times — really, what band doesn’t? — but when they hit their target, the results are completely satisfying.


Santigold: Master of My Make-Believe

Santigold: Master of My Make Believe

Santigold’s self-titled debut was a late discovery for me — by the time I got around to listening to it, two years had passed since its release. I can just imagine the anticipation of a fan who had been waiting four years for a follow-up.

But the sophomore album is a treacherous thing. The conventional wisdom in music circles is that it takes 5 years to write and to record a stellar debut, and only 2 years to match that success. It wasn’t heartening to hear Santigold’s label was pushing back on the material she was auditioning for what would become Master of My Make-Believe.

On first blush, Master of My Make-Believe doesn’t hit the listener over the head the way the self-titled debut did. It’s a reviewer’s death knell to use the phrase, “After a few listens …” In this case, the album eschews a direct attack for something far more subtle.

Those few listens allow the songs to burrow themselves in the subconscious in such a way that the the spit-fire verses of “Look at These Hos” play on repeat. In your head. Damn, this woman is tricky.

The robotic opening of “Freak Like Me” becomes an ear worm. “God from the Machine” reveals itself to be an infectious tune beneath a cover of Cocteau Twins ambiance. Catchy choruses on “The Riot’s Gone” and “The Keeper” anchor listeners as Santigold tosses dub, military marches and rock ‘n’ roll into an effortless brew. “Disparate Youth”, of course, serves as the reliable radio single, but even its tunefulness can’t temper Santigold’s mad scientist tinkering.

“Big Mouth” was the unlikely first single from the album, and when it appears at the end, the big picture snaps into place. Santigold is every bit of the creator she was the first time out, and while Master of My Make-Believe may not be as brash as its predecesor, it’s every bit as bold and tuneful.

No. Not a sophomore slump at all.