29 March 2010

AMG review round-up, volume XVI: the very best of 2009

skipping the genre-specific entries for a more all-encompassing approach to finally posting the massive backlog of reviews i've been building up. this might require a few installments: all remaining 2009 album reviews (and a handful of other writings), starting with my favorites, in the order they appeared on my best of '09 albums list:

{#1} The Very Best: Warm Heart of Africa

At the very least, this is some of the most joyous, life-affirming music out there. The Very Best's debut album finds Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and London-based production duo Radioclit (Etienne Tron and Johan Karlberg) more than making good on the promise of the internet mixtape that introduced their partnership to the world. That tape, one of 2008's most celebrated (and celebratory) releases, displayed a truly boundary-defying yet immediately cohesive and recognizable sound: a euphoric global mélange of pop, dance, hip-hop, world-folk, sunny indie rock, electronica, cinematic new age lushness, and the African sounds of marabi, highlife, and kwaito, all highlighted by Mwamwaya's deliriously infectious Chichewa crooning. This time out, without the launch pad of familiar source material that sometimes made the mixtape's slew of remixes, interpolations, and covers feel slightly like a cheeky arithmetic mashing-up of reference points, the threesome have crafted something even more distinctive and organic, dissolving together their panoply of influences into a set of songs (not merely "tracks") that feel blissfully free of formulas and forerunners.

To be sure, the Very Best's sound is essentially an extension of the globalism already increasingly prevalent in 21st century indie and dance music; a connection reaffirmed by a pair of delightful guest appearances from two of that trend's most visible exponents. Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, whose "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" was marvelously reworked on the mixtape, returns the favor here by duetting with Mwamwaya on the album's irresistibly effervescent title track. The other big guest shot, naturally enough, is from M.I.A., reigning monarch and mascot of globetrotting beat excursions, who can't help but inspire some smiles on the silly, spunky "Rain Dance." But Mwamwaya hardly requires a famous foil to be utterly captivating. His voice, which is often multi-tracked into toothsome harmonies, is equally capable of conveying majesty, urgency, and exuberance; sometimes -- as on the giddily anthemic "Julia" (which borrows a bit of "Paper Planes"' lazily loping swagger) -- all three at once. But if that voice is undeniably essential to the group's sound, Radioclit's contributions shouldn't be understated either: Karlberg and Tron have outdone themselves with a kaleidoscopic array of Afro-leaning grooves to complement Mwamwaya's contagious melodicism, relying remarkably little on their typically gritty, muscular "ghetto-pop" style. While there are some traces of more straightforward club-derived rhythms - the percussive "Nsokoto" and glittery "Mfumu" both gesture toward disco's 4/4 thump, while the string-laced "Kada Manja," in an amped-up variation on the mixtape's "classical" version, flirts with the hard-hitting sound of kuduro - most of the album is eminently danceable without slotting neatly into any specific idea of "dance music."

But as vivacious and energetic as it is, there's something even more fundamentally potent and potentially profound going on here (not to suggest that dancing isn't profound -- indeed, that might be precisely the point). Take "Chalo," an unabashedly uplifting barrage of Enya-esque synth stabs which was reportedly (amazingly) recorded on the same night that the group's three members first met, and whose lyrics they've described as about "using love to stop the world's problems." This is the sort of thing that helps explain why the Very Best can sport such a ticklish moniker with such evident aplomb: somehow, with these guys, it comes off not so much as a boast (albeit an improbably credible one) but as an encapsulation of the boundless optimism and idealism reflected in their songs and in their sound -- a fervent, infectious belief in music's power to bring out the very best in the world and in the human spirit.

{#2} Jonathan Johansson: En Hand I Himelen [+ bio]

It seems strange to recommend a songwriter of Jonathan Johansson's caliber on the strength of a cover version, but non-Swedish-speaking audiences may find the most immediate point of entry into his second album (which, given its stylistic differences from his first, his change of moniker, and increased exposure, feels effectively like a debut) to be "Alla Vill Ha Hela Världen." It's an essentially faithful rendition of a familiar song -- Tears for Fears' 1985 hit "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," rendered in Swedish as "everybody wants the whole world" -- but it provides a good indication of the album's approach: rich, gleaming layers of keyboards and guitars; distinctive but not overpowering midtempo rhythms that land somewhere between danceable and drivingly triumphant, and effortlessly buoyant melodies, delivered in Johansson's gorgeously understated octave-doubled vocals. That he can pull off a welcome reworking of a brilliant pop classic without changing it all that much (save for the translation and a slightly synthier sheen), and then make it fit by filling the rest of the album with originals that feel just as enduring and elemental, is quite a feat. But En Hand I Himlen is not a showy album; if anything, it's relentlessly smooth, gliding from the insistent, Arcade Fire-ish pulse of the title track to the breezy, almost Caribbean lilt of "Innan vi Faller," which flows seamlessly into the loping sweetness of "Högsta Take, Högsta Våningen," and so on from there. One highlight after another, without a single subpar track -- Johansson's solemn, hymn-like choral pieces ("Du Sa" and "Psalm Noll Noll") are just as alluring as his scintillating, pointillist wide-screen electro-pop ("Aldrig Ensam," "Sent för Oss.") Indeed, any of these songs could be a forgotten 20-year-old smash single -- or a worthy candidate for an English-language revisiting two decades hence. Even the album's timely 1980s-era referentiality, as prominent as it is, slathered in gauzily synthetic textures, is ultimately secondary to the timeless majesty of its melodies. Highly recommended.

{#3} Mayer Hawthorne: A Strange Arrangement

i still haven't written anything about mayer for publication, but i've probably been more excited about him than any other artist in the last twelve months... if i made this list now, this would be {#1} easy. and he's just as great in concert...

{#4} JJ: JJ Nº 2 [+ bio]
Call them the Tender Alliance. The stark, iconically "edgy" cover of JJ's tersely titled N° 2, with its splatter of blood and grayscale cannabis leaf, seems almost comically incongruous when contrasted with the wispy, blissful sweetness of the music contained inside, which offers nary a tough edge. True, the album does feature one blatant drug track, with a hip-hop sample to boot -- the slow-rolling, reverb-drenched "Ecstasy," which lifts the drippy keyboard line and swaggering stutter-step cadence of Lil Wayne's "Lollipop" -- but the effect is more sluggish (or, to go by the lyrics, huggish) than thuggish. Elsewhere, the pervading haze is not so much psychotropic as simply tropic, with steel pans, timbales, and talking drums flitting up through the burbling electronic undercurrents which, along with singer Elin's bewitchingly languorous alto, transform songs like "Things Will Never Be the Same Again" and "My Love" from perfectly lovely gentle indie pop tunes into something quite a bit more special and intriguing. Even at their most stripped-down, as on closer "Me and Dean," which consists of little more than some lazy acoustic strumming, a bit of background chatter, and a repeated refrain half-borrowed from Taylor Dayne's 1987 hit "Tell It to My Heart," JJ can be entirely endearing; their finest moments -- the intricate instrumental "Intermezzo," whose chintzily Baroque, chiming synth motif floats atop a bed of tabla, beatbox bossa nova, and woozy sound fragments, and especially the gloriously lush, groove-infused "From Africa to Malaga," which features some arrestingly lovely self-harmonizing -- are nothing short of intoxicating. The whole affair lasts less than 27 minutes, but it feels satisfyingly complete as an album, with a balmy, carefree ambience and a level of sonic detail that both invite and richly reward repeated listens.

{#5} Adiam Dymott: Adiam Dymott [+ bio]

A far cry from your typical twenty-something Scandinavian songstress -- among her Razzia labelmates, she has as much in common with guitar-heavy (male) rock acts like I Are Droid and Dundertåget/Thunder Express as with the gentler, more girlish likes of Firefox AK, Maia Hirasawa, and Hello Saferide -- Stockholm's Adiam Dymott distinguishes herself on this succinct and immensely likable debut with a fresh and impressively assured take on classic rock/pop songcraft. The opening cut may be named for John Denver (it's about freewheeling down country roads with a certain unspecified song of his playing on the radio), but a better clue to her affinities is her choice to cover Neil Young's "Too Far Gone" (which provides this album's sweetest, sparest moment). Like Young, Tom Petty, and even Bruce Springsteen, her songs convey a certain literate but unpretentious populism, filtered through a raggedly rootsy, vaguely punkish musical sensibility: good old American rock & roll, albeit from the perspective of an African-descended Swede. Add to that a rich and throaty singing voice reminiscent of P!nk and Liz Phair, inflected with pop and soul in equal measure, and you've got the makings of a refreshing and distinctive new talent. The uptempo rockers here are a total blast -- especially the handclappy singalong single "Miss You" and the driving anti-mainstream youth anthem "Pizza" (which features the delicious call-and-response chorus "My generation's fucked/You left a pile of garbage/Way too big to clean up") -- but there are some real gems among the slower, quirkier numbers as well, like the mellow-grooving "Mrs. Dymott," which muses on the difficulties of having a strange name. The song's chorus spells her name out for listeners (and even offers an etymology) -- pay attention; it's one worth remembering.

{#6} Buraka Som Sistema: Black Diamond [AMG review]
{#7} Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career [CP live review]
{#8} La Roux [CP track review]

One Track Mind: "Bulletproof"

La Roux sure do lead a thrilling, treacherous life. Well, so the titles of their singles would have you believe: the well-coiffed dance-pop duo debuted with "Quicksand" and assailed the UK charts with the ferocious "In For The Kill." Even if it's all metaphorical (yeah, they're pretty much just love songs), there's enough real menace and fierceness in their tracks for the violent conceits to hit home. Nowhere is that more true than on "Bulletproof," their finest achievement and the most urgent, insistent, and utterly invincible sliver of synth-pop from a decade of unabashed retro-wonkery. Call it an '80s-retread if you must; you can’t shoot it down. Ben Langmaid's gritty keyboards pierce like tiny neon shards, and Elly Jackson's spitfire vocal delivery (she of the Tilda Swinton-esque androgyny and opinionated, dubiously-reasoned public statements) offer nothing but glisteningly sharp edges. That is, until the song's gleaming chorus – the sort that's simply one line repeated four times, because that's all it needs to be. "This time I'll be bulletproof," Jackson wails, betraying the slightest hint of vulnerability. More likely, we're the ones who need protection.

{#9} Darren Hayman: Pram Town [AMG review]
{#10} The Boy Least Likely To: The Law of the Playground [CP track review]

One Track Mind: "When Life Gives Me Lemons I Make Lemonade"

Even by the sugary standards of twee-sters The Boy Least Likely To's addictive, adorable sophomore record, The Law of The Playground (+1 records), this cut's Pollyanna-meets-MacGyver premise is saccharine to say the least. But the fizzy clatter of handclaps and vibraslaps, banjos and fiddles, electronic twitters and piano glisses surrounding our pragmatically positivist protagonist (who also uses raindrops to make rainbows), and a chunky, cheery groove that falls somewhere between the vaudeville-hoedown stomp of Fozzie and Kermit's "Movin' Right Along" and a kiddie-disco version of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out," help give it just the right touch of tart-n-tangy freshness.

{#11} Birdie Busch: Pattern of Saturn

Birdie Busch's third album -- her first to be self-released following two records for Bar/None -- is another fine helping of cozy, abundantly warm-spirited folk-pop. Not too much has changed for the West Philadelphia songstress this time around: she's still working with more or less the same affably rootsy band that backed up her up on Penny Arcade (a title that she coincidentally recycles for this album's opening cut), still seeking simplicity (and searching for love) while pondering the complexities of a life lived somewhere in between the tangible and the ineffable. Pattern of Saturn is a modest offering -- a mere nine songs (and two brief instrumentals) lasting a short, sweet 33 minutes -- but it's easily her best collection yet. Every one of these tunes is an absolute charmer, brimming with soul, tunefulness, and a compellingly youthful wisdom. Ranging from the spirited romantic antics of "Roll It" (a sidelong glance at a saucy suitor), the gee-whiz clip-clop of "Tenderoni," and the rollicking album standout "Bordertown" (a love song for immigrant kitchen workers, with a chorus for the ages) to more contemplative cuts like "Passwords" (a rumination on the oddly intimate aspects of Internet security) and the subdued "Lampshade" (a bluesy ballad of resignation that contains the quietly devastating line "I tried not to write this song"), the whole affair is relaxed, heartfelt, and tremendously inviting. This is truly one to cherish.

{#13} Sissy Wish: Beauties Never Die

Among the legions of Norwegian and Scandinavian pop artists, Sissy Wish (real-life alias Siri Wålberg) is not one of those whose Platonic ideal of pop is derived from Orange Juice and the Field Mice, on the one hand, nor from Madonna and Kylie Minogue on the other. If anything, she seems to take her cues more from the Beatles and Phil Spector, which, in a sense, places her in the same lineage as ABBA. It certainly aligns her with the likes of her countrymen Sondre Lerche, Marit Larsen, and Bertine Zetlitz -- all versatile artists and top-notch writers with a sharp pop sense and a distinctly modern sensibility, rooted in a clear affinity for the classic pop of the past -- though she's hardly a classicist, per se, and she may just be the most musically omnivorous of the bunch. Beauties Never Die, Wålberg's third full-length and her first to see U.S. release (a full two years after it was issued in Norway), is both more adventurous and more distinctive than its predecessor, 2005's Tuning In, trading that album's rootsy, overtly '60s-influenced rock stylings for a vibrantly eclectic musical smörgåsbord. Rather than abandoning the guitars, Wålberg and producer Jorgen Traen (who's worked with Lerche, but has also generated his share of mirthful electronic mayhem as Sir Dupermann and as one-half of the whimsical Toy) simply layer them in along with everything else: plenty of synths and electronics, but also strings, trumpets, organs, pianos, steel drums, stacked backing vocals, and an expansive array of percussion including castanets, a tap-dance solo, and a squeaky sound that might be somebody rubbing a balloon. It's an impressive and often exhilarating Wall of Sound approach, mashing together rock crunch, electro sparkle, kitchen-sink pop playfulness, and moments of unexpected beauty (with just a smidgen of punkish grit), but somehow managing never to feel overstuffed. All that instrumental pizzazz wouldn't necessarily amount to much, though, if not for the songs, which are consistently strong and intriguingly crafted: harmonically intricate, lyrically rich, melodically inventive but always memorable, particularly as delivered in Wålberg's powerful, distinctive voice (it's a hard one to place, but comparisons to Chrissie Hynde, Karen O, or Regina Spektor wouldn't be entirely invalid.) The standout is probably the lilting title track, a dreamy, girl group-flavored charmer which offers the indelible insight that "it takes a lifetime to find out someone's happy to see you every day," but other highlights abound, including the fiery electro-rock of "DWTS" (whose hook is the persistent yell "do what they say!"), the tender, curious "Music on the Radio," and the bouncy, goofily Beatles-ish closer "Book." Consistently enjoyable and wonderfully captivating, if not quite outright dazzling, Beauties Never Die is nevertheless one of those albums which leaves the impression that its creator is capable of just about anything.

{#14} Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard: 'Em Are I [AMG review]
{#15} The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future [live review]

{#16} Tiga: Ciao!
In the wryly cheeky interview video "Ciao! Means Forever," created to correspond with the release of his second artist album, the preposterously pseudo-pompous Tiga Sontag affects a perfectly deadpan disdain to describe his aversion to touching musical instruments, explaining how he's "forced to use his voice" as his only means of musical expression. The impish Montrealer is in fact credited with co-production on each of Ciao!'s tracks (and, in one case, 808 "live programming," whatever that means) which probably gives the lie to that particular bit of eccentric-artiste whimsy, but in any case he's enlisted some highly qualified operators to handle much of the menial knob-twiddling here, mostly longtime collaborators and friends who just happen to include several leading lights of 2000s electro-house: the Belgian Dewaele brothers (better known as Soulwax and/or 2 Many DJs), Finnish producer Jori Hulkkonen (aka Zyntherius), Sweden's Jesper Dahlbäck, fellow Canadian Jason "Gonzales" Beck, and James Murphy of DFA and LCD Soundsystem renown. Tiga acknowledges their contributions in the liners with his allegedly well-known "false humility," admitting that without them he'd be "just another extremely funny guy who is amazing at football" — but in all seriousness their generous and readily discernible input helps to make Ciao! one of the most assured and enjoyable electronic pop/dance albums, front to back, in recent memory. Of course, "seriousness" is hardly the point here: Tiga's lyrical and vocal approach (which is indeed quite expressive, a definite step up from his sometimes undercooked past efforts) makes sure of that, with a slew of tongue-in-cheek tracks playing on his self-obsessed, hyper-glamorous persona — "What You Need," "Sex O'Clock," "Overtime," "Luxury" ("this is my reality but for you it's just a dream") and the quasi-novelty self-duet "Shoes," which plays like the missing link between the Kelly (Liam Kyle Sullivan) YouTube sensation of the same title and the Black Leotard Front's eccentric-erotic "Casual Friday" — all with club-ready, bassline-driven funky electro grooves and squelchy acid-laced synths to match. The covers that dominated his earlier output are absent here, happily enough, though there are a few notable musical "borrowings," particularly on the album's more subdued and genuinely sensitive latter half: slow jam "Gentle Giant" (co-written with Murphy, and sung with Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears) cribs its hook (wittingly or not) from the Beta Band's "Dry the Rain," while the touching, lilting "Turn the Night On" compounds its '80s homage with a groove lifted directly from Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out," and a melody (and lyrical sentiment) that recalls Bowie's "Modern Love." But calling out Tiga's influences and sources (something that his covers have obviously done throughout his career) should in no way be seen to diminish what he, and his estimable crew of machine manipulators, have accomplished here: Ciao! is at once a tremendously enjoyable piece of dancefloor fluff and an impressively unified statement from a master synthesist of electronic pop pleasures.

{#18} Memory Tapes: Seek Magic
Former Hail Social frontman Davye Hawk traffics in a voguish synthesis of dappled electronic beats, gauzy tropical textures, and amiable indie pop melodicism (with a hint of burnished post-punk), a variegated style that he unveiled across a series of EPs and Internet tracks released under several guises in 2008 and 2009. Seek Magic, his first full-length effort as a solo concern, works as an excellent summation of that particularly elusive, endlessly summery late-decade Zeitgeist, splitting the difference between the gossamer dream pop he makes as Memory Cassette and the more up-front, dancy electro of his Weird Tapes guise (hence, presumably, the conflated moniker). By any name, Hawk emerges here as a chameleonic sound sculptor of considerable range and finesse, able to render guitar-laced pop nuggets, ambient instrumental excursions, and straight-up dance jams all with a consistent, shimmering hazy warmth, and with an engaging looseness that belies his equally conspicuous, nuanced craftsmanship. It's as though he holds at his disposal all the tools of electronica and indie rock, deploying them liberally, but judiciously, with his focus attuned not so much to style or form as to the particular qualities of the sounds themselves. Broadly speaking, the more indie rock-derived elements (which is to say, the guitars) can be found toward the front and back ends of the album -- the languorous, heavily reverbed figure that opens "Swimming Field"; the needly lines that underpin "Green Knight"; the woozy strumming that forms the core of the synth-kissed "Plain Material"; and the gnarled fuzz that eventually subsumes the blissy finale, "Run Out" -- while the midsection contains more purely electronic material: the gorgeous, rippling, faux-Asian mod-exotica of "Pink Stones" and the dancefloor-ready electro-pop of "Stop Talking" and "Graphics" (although the former does admittedly climax with an immense, intoxicating, and very guitar-heavy coda). As it plays, though, the album forms a remarkably fluid whole, stylistically as well as sonically, and what jumps out is not the songs themselves so much as the diverse array of sounds and countless individual moments that stand testament to Hawk's pervasive attention to detail. In many ways, Seek Magic calls to mind Cut Copy's spectacular In Ghost Colours, another gloriously sound-stuffed album that offered a similarly organic-feeling blend of dance, pop, rock, and haze, but while that Australian outfit's work boasts somewhat stronger songwriting and more immediately overt dance appeal, this album may well trump it in terms of atmosphere. One potential sticking point for some listeners is Hawk's voice -- not that it's bad or even particularly unpleasant (and in any case it's rarely the most prominent feature in any given track), but it is somewhat rough and reedy, and not all that well suited to this type of lushly melodious material.

{#19} Kitty Diasy and Lewis: Kitty Daisy and Lewis [CP live review]

{#20} Mungolian Jet Set: We Gave It All Away...Now We Are Taking It Back [+ bio]

What makes the Mungolian Jet Set's decadently overstuffed productions so sublimely engrossing -- whether encountered individually, as they initially appeared, in piecemeal fashion, on 12"s and compilations over the past several years, or taken as a fluid whole on this gloriously epic trawl through their remix work to date -- is not simply their bent for inspired, unmitigated lunacy, but the surprisingly artful way they manage to fold their far-reaching, campy, perversely unexpected, and downright goofy musical ideas into cogent and highly nuanced (albeit undeniably maximalist) compositional structures. Restraint might seem like a foreign concept to these guys -- you can get a decent inkling of their comedic sensibilities by scanning the track list for grandiose remix titles and nutty monikers ("Pizzy Yelliott," the "16th Rebels of Mung") -- but at least they know how to take their time. With a luxurious two hours to fill and track lengths hovering around and sometimes well beyond eight minutes, they've got plenty of it. So it's a good thing they pace themselves, always making sure to establish a sturdy groove (generally midtempo, disco-derived 4/4, with generous percussion layering) before heading off on their interstellar flights of fancy, and sometimes venturing through silky, synth-flecked space for minutes before introducing any overt oddness, frequently in the form of (nearly inevitable, but never predictable) vocals, which range from cartoonish to ethereal. There's even a stretch on the first disc which could plausibly be described as subdued, at least in relative terms, what with the dubby downtempo of "Big Smack and Flies," the darkly stirring ethno-lounge of "It Ain't Necessarily Evil," and a (somewhat failed, but still glorious) stab at minimal techno (infused with snatches of contemporary classical) on "Madre (Epics Part 2)." Of course, that's only after the tone-setting ritual incantation of mumbo-jumbo, the slow-building bewilderment of "Creepy" (the lone new, non-remix inclusion here, featuring both soothingly lush female harmonies and spooky, quivering, PiL-ish shrieking), and the utterly demented Bob Marley cover "Could You Be Loved" (notably this collection's briefest and looniest proper track, shoe-horning electro-funk, patois-pastiche hip-hop, acid house, and more into less than five minutes) -- and before the dizzying cosmic heights of their back-to-back Lindstrøm tag teams.

Disc two may open with the blissfully beachy "Ocean 0304," but it wanders soon enough into stranger, dancier territory, highlighted by the delightfully absurd "Milano Model," which melds orchestral bombast, accordion gypsy stomp, "Drop It Like It's Hot"-style vocal percussion, and a deliciously wigged-out disco-funk climax. So yes, there's zaniness aplenty to be found here, but there's uncommon beauty as well, perhaps no more so than on the two closing cuts: the relatively straightforward Shortwave Set rework "Glitches 'n Bugs," which in this context feels refreshingly unambitious, marinated in sub-tropical exotica but with the original's pleasantly pedestrian pop choruses left largely untouched, and "Moon Song," a glittery take on the like-minded space-prog outfit They Came from the Stars I Saw Them which serves as one final epic, starry-eyed but resolutely earthbound. These more song-centered offerings, while still a decent distance from conventional, come across as loose, relaxed, and (impossibly) almost normal after the unbridled sonic extravagance that's come before, making for a fitting homecoming and come-down after an exhilarating, exhaustive, and expertly paced extraterrestrial journey. "Mungolia", wherever it may be (good money says it's somewhere in the vicinity of the KLF's Muu-Muu), is a fantastically fascinating spot, a can't-miss destination for all electro/eclecto-phile thrill seekers out there -- and this sumptuous set has got everything you'll need to make the trip.

{#23} A Camp: Colonia [CP concert preview]

Nina Persson was at the forefront of the Swedish Invasion back in 1996 with the Cardigans' world-conquering (and still irresistible) "Lovefool," a crystalline pure-pop smash powered by her personable voice and slyly cynical outlook. These days she's got a different sort of conquest on her mind: Colonia, the intriguing new album from her intermittent side project A Camp, is inspired by themes of colonialism and empire, blending savage and majestic imagery and kicking off with a surreally terrifying joint coronation/decapitation. Initially a nominal solo effort, A Camp has solidified into a supergroup of sorts, with Nathan Larson of art-punkers Shudder to Think (also Persson's husband) and Niclas Frisk of Swede-rock stalwarts Atomic Swing. The sound is rootsy, warm and mellow, verging on lush, nodding to classic pop and Americana of decades gone by — but don't get too comfortable. Persson may have shed much of her blond ambition, but she hasn't lost any of that candy-coated cynicism, as Colonia's biggest hook will attest: "Don't you know love can kill anyone?"

{#24} Amadou & Mariam: Welcome to Mali [CP concert preview]

{#25} Little Boots: Hands
A good year on from catching ears and sparking potentially damaging levels of next-big-thing hype with her first single, "Stuck on Repeat" -- a sleek, buzzy, self-fulfilling prophecy of "metaphor pop" with obvious debts to Kylie Minogue and Giorgio Moroder, and a writing/production assist from Hot Chip's Joe Goddard -- Little Boots (aka U.K. popstress Victoria Hesketh) finally showed her Hands. When it arrived, her full-length debut amply justified the hype even while slightly disappointing some of her faithful. It's true that only a handful of Hands' cuts can stack up against the stunning "Stuck" in terms of sonic distinctiveness and sheer hooky inevitability, and realistically, despite some clear mainstream potential, it's unlikely to achieve the sort of massive crossover success that some may have envisioned -- certainly not in America, where the album's street date was pushed back considerably beyond its June 2009 U.K. release. Frankly, Little Boots isn't doing anything especially musically innovative -- as she well knows -- and Hands fails to add any buzz-stoking specifics or publicity hooks to her persona beyond the already established basics: her savvy pop-positive hipster cred and playfully retro videogenic appeal, neither of which give her a leg up on the more quirkily personable likes of Robyn, Lily Allen, or Lady Gaga. But that's perfectly fine, because what Hesketh and her highly pedigreed collaborators have accomplished here is nevertheless a surprisingly rare, deceptively difficult achievement: a practically flawless and entirely enjoyable album of pure electronic pop: "pure" in the sense that, apart from the tacked-on (and unlisted) solo piano title track, there are no sounds on this record other than synthesizers (including synthesized drums) and vocals. Also in that, while the synths are often distorted, filtered, and otherwise electronically muddled, Hesketh's voice is to a large extent tonally pure, and generally devoid of specific inflections, coming across not as blank or chilly so much as just slightly anonymous (in contrast to the undeniably distinctive pipes of her oft-compared compatriot, La Roux's Elly Jackson.)

Although the album, in typical 21st century pop fashion, features a plethora of producers -- including Goddard, chart champion (and Gaga accomplice) RedOne, the increasingly omnipresent Greg Kurstin (Allen, Minogue), and Bertine Zetlitz collaborator Fred Ball -- and a corresponding variety of musical moods -- the brash and buzzy strut of "New in Town," the decidedly Hot Chip-y clank'n'chug of "Meddle," the darkly glossy trip-pop of "Hearts Collide" -- they seem to have condensed on a consistent, elegantly simple synth pop vibe that sets up a sonically unified, satisfyingly streamlined listen. The directness and consistency of the album's production, vocals, and stylistic approach leave a great deal of the focus on the songs themselves, which is good, because songs are arguably Hands greatest asset: a solid batch with several standouts (mostly the singles, including the stomping, club-ready "Remedy" and the absolutely massive-sounding "New in Town," along with the indomitable "Stuck on Repeat") but no space-filling duds or truly weak links. The songs, too, have a distinct conceptual purity, marrying effortless melodic mastery to a kind of lyrical facelessness, often eschewing any kind of personal specificity for general-purpose love/relationship commentary delivered in extended metaphorical conceits about driving ("No Brakes"), broadcasting ("Tune into My Heart"), medicine ("Remedy" -- which is technically, and fittingly, about dancing, not love), and math (not only the bouncy "Mathematics," a treasure trove of senseless arithmetic and algebra jokes ("your x is equal to my y"), but also "Symmetry," a duet with Human League's Phil Oakley that takes on geometry and the general concept of opposition). As restrained and mild-mannered as she may be, Hesketh at her best manages to make even these obvious generic abstractions feel truly affecting: a neat feat she pulled off on "Stuck on Repeat," finding the spark of aching humanity inside the manifestly mechanical (both lyrically and musically), and one she repeats here on the sweetly soaring "No Brakes," a gorgeous, paradoxically calm testament to the delirious uncontrollability of love. Such is the power of great pop, a power that rests firmly within Little Boots' very capable Hands.

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