I’ve gone through many phases with this album, Earthling. I rather liked it at first, but then later on it felt dated and I couldn’t stand it. Giving it another go during a period of revisiting some Bowie recordings, it seems like one of his better late-career efforts. It’s clear he’s trying, though sometimes he’s trying too hard to seem “with it”. He jumped aboard the electronica bandwagon, deploying industrial drum ‘n bass, or whatever they were calling the microgenre that month. The whole affair seems a bit uneven, and it’s hard to do anything with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” but cringe. Yet there are a fair number of high points, the highest being “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a song that can rub shoulders with any of Bowie’s best songs from any era. Sure, I was probably right when I though this would sound a little dated, but Bowie seems to be legitimately enjoying making this music most of the time (even if “Looking for Satellites,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Seven Years in Tibet” reveal him to be getting lyrical inspiration from watching movies and satellite TV). It shows most in his vocals, which have both an energy and nuance that he hadn’t mustered in while. One last note: isn’t it odd that Bowie’s better work has come during the periods when he’s been married?
Uneven and ultimately not very satisfying. Part adult contemporary dad-rock, part down-tempo electronic, and part jazzy new age, Bowie isn’t taking many chances. This soundtrack album has a few charms (a high level of craftsmanship in the production helps), and glides by amicably enough. But hindsight makes this seem dated.
LP1 is basically music in the style of new electro R&B, like The Weeknd, which makes some overtures to various electronic pop genres mostly originating from the UK. But there is something else going on here. Experiments and outsider music are being co-opted in pursuit of conformist commercial success in the usual channels. The lyrics of this album evidence a sort of low self-esteem protagonist degrading herself for external validation. That at least is what it tries to be. There is a strong sense that this is very contrived music. It resembles the sort of “feminism” that — idiotically — declares adherence to stereotypical gender roles to be revolutionary, like “shopping as identity”. This is immanently self-defeating more than anything. Although perhaps this appropriates some interesting bits from other sources, the conclusion remains: fail.
What to make of Bobby Womack’s comeback album The Bravest Man in the Universe? It’s really two albums in one. There’s the focus-grouped, calculated part, with guest spots from the likes of flash-in-the-pan indie bimbo Lana Del Rey and overbearing electronic beats by Damon Albarn–oh there’s no chance whatsoever that you’ll think Womack can’t be set against “modern” electronics. Then there’s the other part, with compelling, funny, charming, mature ruminations on religion, life and relationships, presented matter-of-factly, and as intimately as any Womack recording of old. These disparate albums meet at times, but also seem to inhabit separate worlds at others.
Parts of the album are best viewed in context. The electronic soul of The Bravest Man in the Universe seems most directly inspired by Gil Scott-Heron‘s surprise indie hit of 2010 I’m New Here. That’s made clear on Heron’s fittingly hilarious appearance on “Stupid Introlude.” But the specifics of the beats lie somewhere else, attired in calm orchestration and stately piano and bolstered by monotone newscaster-style spoken word bits, at times even coming across as reminiscent of the glitchy ambient electronics of David Sylvian from almost a decade ago. When switching gears to more traditional gospel soul (“Deep River”), Womack reveals something akin to when Sly Stone seemed to drop the act and reveal the weary puppet-master on “Sylvester” from Ain’t But the One Way.
This was a modest hit. The problem is that the electronics are too superficial for the music. They are like the new, corporatized Time Square: flashy but fundamentally incapable of soulful resonance. Womack’s voice powers through most of the time. But, really, why should it have to? Trimming a lot of that back, to just a few of the best of the dance-oriented cuts, and adding in a few more smoldering acoustic cuts that leave more space around Womack’s voice might have made this a bit more lasting. As it stands, this suffers from the same faddish production choices that held our man back in the 1980s (The Poet). Womack really needs a Rick Rubin, or maybe to pay more attention to how Jamie Lidell‘s career has evolved.
In general, I don’t listen to much electronica. There are just so many reasons to hate it. For one, the fans are often as annoying as metalheads, but not nearly as funny or endearing. They take the stuff so seriously, and often seem to believe that it has (rightly) displaced all other forms of music. Among those annoying qualities, the fans seem to have a knack for promulgating at least a dozen new microgenres seemingly every week. Every tempo, every selection of instrumentation — everything — gets its own genre. This acts as a barrier to entry, that the “true believers” understand this coding, and others do not. Second, the mentalitiy of the electronica scene is, to put it one way, cultish. There are social codes and they are to be obeyed. In fact, listening to a random piece of electronic music and it is more likely than not an exercise in how well it reproduces and adheres to the cultural norms. The more it seems to obey the rules and sound like other things in its prescribed microgenre, the “better” it is. Aside from all this there is the DJ culture of live club sets, in which Villalobos is really considered a star, but that’s another story.
Ricardo Villalobos isn’t like a lot of run-of-the-mill electronica artists, because he appears to have a genuine desire to do what he wants. He seems to continually start from “inside” the culture and work his way “out” by finding different ways to break the rules. On Dependent and Happy, it’s mostly a matter of avoiding some predictable elements, paring things back to a minimalist core. He’s also known as having a more liberal sense of rhythm than most dancefloor-focused artists in his chosen arena (“Ferenc” here provides such an example). If Villalobos has a redeeming quality, it is that he seeks to dive into a genre that often is lacking in ideas and tries to rescue the kernels worth saving and building upon. His efforts on this album are another step along that path. I return to this album from time to time and always enjoy it.
I liked this, but not too much. The music is sampled from the catalog of ECM Records, home of chamber jazz, minimalist composers and new age artists. The album started off reminiscent of Max Richter‘s The Blue Notebooks, while at times its jazzier moments resembled Bill Laswell‘s Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974. Of course, it’s all very minimal and a little glitchy. But by the time the second disc rolls around I found it hard for this to keep my attention, as it seemed more like an ambient whitewash of sound that just drifts into the background.
Cherry’s first solo album in more than a decade has her inhabiting a completely different space. Keiran Hebden (AKA Four Tet) produces. This is largely a spare, cerebral IDM-style electronic album. For the most part, Cherry sings against minimalist backing. It is hardly more than a percussive backdrop at times (“Across the Water”). There is a minor-key quality to much of it. The songs are moody and despondent. The tendency is towards drama, particularly from a perspective of trying to “get by” unscathed in a contemporary, affluent yet alienating urban environment. This suits her voice, which is a little coarser and breathy than before. It is also about testament. The songs are a patchwork of little statements attesting to efforts to hold things together. The best stuff is mostly in the first half of the album. But the last half still holds some surprises. “Everything” has droning keyboards against highly synthetic drums and a pulsing sound almost like a squeaky shaft of some industrial machine or an indistinct alarm or siren. Cherry sings rhythmically, almost like a rapper. Moments like those demonstrate her greatest strength: pulling together bits of lots of different genres. She creates an aesthetic that welcomes them all.