13 April 2008

AMG review round-up, volume II

just a (hopefully) handy dumping ground/teaser sampler/link collection for the writing i've done at the wonderful all music guide. since 1) nobody who's interested would ever be able to track down my pieces otherwise, 2) it's a lot easier for me to access them this way, should i ever need to, and 3) just perhaps you'll take some interest in the insights and recommendations conveyed in this writing (if so, please do click through to read the full reviews!)

these are most of the artists and albums about which i wrote this january. the first installment (covering november and december) is here.

Sugababes: Three and Taller in More Ways reviews

"Sugababes' straightforwardly titled third release may have lacked a single quite as striking as "Freak Like Me," the tremendous electro-clash/mash-up cash-in smash from their breakthrough sophomore set Angels with Dirty Faces, but otherwise it improves on that album in many respects. Following the same essential template -- tuneful, R&B-inflected dance-pop with fresh-sounding but accessible productions, along with a healthy smattering of big droopy ballads -- with an expanded stylistic range...

[...] It may seem incongruous for such unabashed sentimentality and frankly conventional arrangements to coexist with electronic dance-pop so thoroughly modern in sound and sensibility -- and indeed it's easy to imagine listeners attracted by one aspect of Sugababes' pop-craft being turned off by the other. But ultimately they are two sides of a coin -- timeless if sudsy ballads and flashy novelty dance tunes -- both very much in keeping with the great interpretive pop tradition, of which Sugababes are among our most consummate and sophisticated modern exponents."

Linda Sundblad: bio and Oh My God review

"Oh My God sounds like a bit of a throwaway as an album title, but it works perfectly to reflect the handful of recurring lyrical topics (religion, sexuality, and teenagerhood) and to allude to the '80s influence that pervades the album -- the most obvious touchstones being early Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, both of whom Sundblad bears a substantial resemblance to vocally as well as visually. "We're the babies/Born in the '80s," she sings in "Pretty Rebels" -- Sundblad was born in 1981, which means she was eight when Like a Prayer was released, and 26 at the time of this recording. Even if the generational math doesn't quite add up, there's a compelling sense of nostalgic juvenilia that informs both the music and lyrics, most of which deal with love and relationships. It's standard pop subject matter, of course, but Sundblad approaches it with a uniquely teenaged sensibility, alternating between enthusiasm and desperation..."

Aberfeldy: Do Whatever Turns You On review

"In 2007 they landed the distinctly '00s-style promotional coup of having one of their songs (the infectious "Summer's Gone") featured in a widely seen commercial (in keeping with a time-honored rock & roll tradition, it was an ad for Coke), but even as like-minded Europeans such as Peter Bjorn and John and I'm from Barcelona were racking up stateside accolades, Aberfeldy's 2006 sophomore album still failed to see a U.S. release. And it's a crying shame, because Do Whatever Turns You On is, if anything, more immediate than its predecessor: it's bigger, bolder and shinier, without sacrificing a single ounce of charm -- a larger recording budget meant they weren't limited to a single microphone this time out, but it still sounds wonderfully intimate and welcoming -- and most crucially, without losing their penchant for endlessly hummable indie pop melodies."

Sally Shapiro: bio and Disco Romance review

"The cover photo for the North American edition of Sally Shapiro's Disco Romance depicts the Swedish singer in winter, her cheeks rosy, her blond hair and eyebrows dusted with snowflakes, smiling to herself in spite of the chill. It's a fitting image for this undeniably wintry album, conjuring not just the glacial sweep and frosty twinkle of producer Johan Agebjörn's synthesizer fantasias, but also the faint but glowing presence in the heart of the blizzard: Shapiro's soft, fragile voice, which is so thin and devoid of inflection that it ought to be impenetrably icy, but is somehow instead as warm and enticing as a cozy fire in the dead of February. A closer examination of that cover image reveals that what look like snowflakes are in fact tiny stars, computer-generated pentagrams (though they almost look hand-drawn) that could be read as a subtle reminder that the intimacy and poignant sincerity of these songs came about, in a sense, only through layers of artifice."

R. Kelly: Double Up review

"Yes, Kelly's familiar, almost cartoonishly overstated brand of sex-obsessed misogyny is as rampant here as his increasingly eccentric humor -- more so than ever, on both counts. So if you're not of a disposition to stomach the 40-year-old (whose still-pending child pornography trial was set to commence several months after the album's release, before being delayed yet again) boasting about his plot to seduce a pair of "freaky" first cousins for a ménage à trois (in the title track), or warning listeners to steer their girlfriends clear of his restlessly prowling libido (in "Flirt": "the moral of this story is 'cuff your chick'"), this could be a painfully long and humorless listen, or worse. But cut the man a little slack, at least on record -- or allow him the indulgence of his already comically blatant perversity (at least he doesn't present himself as someone who expects to be taken very seriously) and it's either an absurd explosion of standard R&B tropes (nightclub bangers, baby-makin' slow jams, overwrought breakup songs) or simply a treasure trove of questionable-taste comedy gold."

Lucky Soul: bio and The Great Unwanted review

"Pitched somewhere in between the Pipettes' campy, winking co-optation of 1960s girl group pop and soul and Camera Obscura's more understated, less mannered evocation of same, Greenwich sextet Lucky Soul's debut album represents an exemplary model for retro revivalism in the context of modern indie pop. It hardly shies away from its readily apparent stylistic touchstones -- the timeless, immaculate popcraft of Phil Spector and Motown; the Anglified sophistication of Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw -- but neither is it slavishly imitative. Crucially, the style never overwhelms the substance, which is to say that as extravagant as the lush, period-appropriate orchestrations get -- and they're pretty extravagant, with all the horns, handclaps, strings, and auxiliary percussion (bongos, tambourines, cowbells, castanets) one could hope for -- it's all in the service of some top-notch songwriting."

Candie Payne: I Wish I Could Have Loved You More review

"In a year when everything 1960s was hip again -- at least when it came to female-fronted semi-indie pop music -- from Amy Winehouse's stylized, Motown-appropriating crossover R&B to Lucky Soul and the Pipettes' peppy girl group revivalism to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' pedigreed retro soul, Liverpudlian singer Candie Payne emerged with a debut album that drew from an under-plundered side of that golden decade's pop landscape: the arch sophistication of British soulsters Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark and the cinematic decadence of Nancy Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. [...] Curiously, just as the scrupulously clean production approach nevertheless yields a beguilingly murky atmosphere, the profusion of '60s signifiers -- never obtrusive but always apparent -- winds up sounding unexpectedly modern, a potent cocktail of classic sounds with contemporary indie rock and electronica flourishes: the strangely familiar and the familiar made strange. For the most part, the songs themselves, while pleasant enough, don't quite hold up to the intriguing potential of their constituents, making this something of a victory of style over substance; an album that still sounds great with repeated listens, but doesn't necessarily grow much deeper."

Billie the Vision and the Dancers: bio and Where the Ocean Meets My Hand review

"Yes, the cutesy index is predictably high -- it's not irretrievably cloying (it doesn't quite reach I'm from Barcelona levels, for instance), but it's certainly pervasive enough to dissuade most anyone with a weak stomach for twee (you know who you are). Unless they're particularly good at ignoring lyrics: much of the cutesiness comes through in lead singer/songwriter Lars Lindquist's [(not Billie, though he is unmistakably a vision: a statuesque transvestite with blue eyes and shocking, fiery red-gold hair)] story-songs, most of which revolve around real or imagined encounters with fellow musicians -- the Pipettes, Erlend Øye, the Ark's Ola Salo, Jeff Buckley -- or possibly invented characters named Pablo and Lilly."

Nôze: bio and How to Dance review

"Parisian techno knuckleheads Nôze serve up a barrage of outlandish but propulsive dancefloor workouts on their second long-player.... How to Dance...offers at best a somewhat unconventional outlook on its titular concern. Its herky-jerky, mechanistic grooves -- slightly demented strains of what might broadly be termed minimal electro and microhouse, though they seem unlikely to concern themselves with subgenre niceties -- are just nervously funky enough for the floor, but they're unlikely to assuage the tentative.

...the gruff, muppet-like sprechtstimme of "Tulip Schnaps" and "Kitchen" is in a class unto itself, though in the latter case the goofy kitchen-seduction narrative and inane refrain are merely the jumping-off point for some psychotic overdriven synth and inside-the-piano mayhem."

The Ark: We Are The Ark, In Lust We Trust, State of the Ark, Prayer for the Weekend and Racing with the Rabbits reviews

"Like Scissor Sisters and the Darkness (both of whom the Ark predated by several years), they took considerable inspiration from the theatricality of '70s glam rock, especially in terms of visual styling, but musically too, with their gleaming guitar leads, frequent falsetto vocals, and liberal use of choral and orchestral accompaniment. [...] Sure, it all smacks of the ridiculous, and usually more than faintly. Salo acknowledges as much in "It Takes a Fool": "If you think I'm corny then it will not make me sorry; it's your right to laugh at me." In a sense, the Ark's willingness (and ability) to embrace that silliness, without sacrificing either their consummate musical artistry or their profoundly personal content -- their insistence on having it both ways -- is what makes their work so daring and so effective."

"Lyrically, In Lust We Trust moves beyond We Are the Ark's somewhat introspective focus on self-exploration and assertiveness for a more outward-looking but no less personal approach that effectively amounts to -- as the title suggests -- a political manifesto on sexual and romantic themes. As with Canada's similarly oriented Hidden Cameras (it's no coincidence both groups were featured on the soundtrack to John Cameron Mitchell's polysexual, controversy-mongering Shortbus), the sexual-personal is the socio-political for these guys, and even if they're not quite as graphic about it, they're certainly just as enthusiastic. Sometimes it's topical: "Father of a Son" is doubtless the highest-charting -- and most ebulliently self-vindicating -- song ever written about homosexual adoption rights, and if the gorgeous, unabashedly romantic "Disease" is truly not about AIDS (as Ola Salo, the band's openly bisexual lead singer and songwriter, has claimed), it sure sounds like it. [...] But as the spirited summing-up of the album's concluding track reminds us, even these commonplace romantic pursuits can take on a political significance: "The Most Radical Thing to Do," Salo croons, "is to love someone who loves you." If that's a sentiment you can get behind, and as long as you're amenable to hyper-meticulous, hyper-melodic post-ironic pomp-pop of a somewhat histrionic persuasion, it would be practically treasonous not to fall for this album."

"State of the Ark is a tour de force from start to finish, and one of the most perfectly-crafted pop or rock albums, Swedish or otherwise, to appear in the 2000s."

[also: "one of the finest pop albums of 2004, 2005, or 2006 -- depending on where you live and how closely you follow glitzy, chart-topping Scandinavian dance-rock"]

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