Music Reviews: May 2014 (III)

Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots
As one would expect from someone who’s spent the bulk of his career fronting loud and extroverted bands, Damon Albarn’s first solo record, Everyday Robots, is just the opposite: an intimate and restrained step away. The textures he conjures (especially on the album’s second half) are post-apocalyptic - mechanistic, but also spare and forlorn. Albarn plays bard amidst the nuclear fallout, addressing questions of cosmic proportion and spitting out cryptically satisfying answers. At times his gloominess overwhelms, and torpid downers like “You & Me” and “The History Of A Cheating Heart” nearly grind the album to a halt without much material to redeem hope or resuscitate tempo (with the exception of “Mr. Tembo”, a cheery tune written for an elephant he encountered vacationing in Tanzania). Nonetheless, Albarn is a deep thinker and competent melodist, two things to be cherished in an increasingly vapid musical milieu. 
Grade: A-
Highlights: “Hostiles”, “Mr. Tembo”, “Hollow Ponds"

Lykke Li, I Never Learn
The lyrics of I Never Learn are so self-pitying and generic, they sound as if they could have been plucked from the diary of a prepubescent girl jilted on Valentine’s Day. Luckily, Lykke Li drowns the music in so much reverb that it’s often difficult to discern their mind-numbing lyrical content in the first place. I’m sure her post-break up pain and anxiety are quite real, but the manner in which she articulates her troubles – a sonic wash laden with cues the ear recognizes are supposed to represent sadness but don’t actually convey the emotion - sounds superficial and anesthetized. Lykke Li has called this record a series of “power ballads for the broken” but it comes off more as a collection of broken power ballads, musically inchoate and emotionally immature. 
Grade: D
Highlights: “Silver Line”, “Gunshot”, “Heart of Steel”

tUnE-yArDs, nikki nack
nikki nack channels the art-pop of the early 80s - combining the buoyant polyrhythms of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with the driveling lyrical sensibility of The B-52s - but never sounds derivative or retro. Merrill Garbus, the singer/songwriter/producer behind tUnE-yArDs, is a musical maximalist working with minimal means - basic drum loops, a bass guitar, and her sweet, but substantial voice. “Rocking Chair” is exemplary in this regard, beginning with an elegantly simple vocal phrase that, through a series of clever loops, she mutates into an intricate polyphonic organism. This is strange music and Garbus occasionally overindulges her absurdist inclinations (look no further than the asinine “Interlude: Why Do We Dine On The Tots?”), but that’s exactly what makes this album sound so fresh, percussive, and progressive.
Grade: A
Highlights: “Water Fountain”, “Real Thing”, “Hey Life”

The Black Keys, Turn Blue
If fish and visitors stink after three days, producers certainly do after three albums. Danger Mouse’s malodorous pseudo-psychedelic influence is palpable before the music even starts, with the hackneyed optical illusion that serves as cover art, and permeates when it does, on tracks like “Year In Review” (abusing our ears with a sample that sounds derived from an old European porn flick) and “Fever” (the album’s flaccid lead single). The commercial success of their previous collaborations, El Camino especially, has ensconced the The Black Keys and Danger Mouse in the musical mainstream and on Turn Blue they seem reluctant to take any major artistic risks. Sure, the trio is going for a different sound here, a mellow blend of psych-pop and blues, but their partnership is simply not visionary, adroit, or committed enough to pull off much more than this album offers. Dan Auerbach has never given us much to work with lyrically, but the pointless abstraction and garden-variety sexism that marks tracks like “Weight of Love” and “Bullet In The Brain” comes off more haphazard and hacked-together than usual. They would do well to click their ruby slippers and return to the little garage in Akron where it all started, ditching Danger Mouse along the way. 
Grade: C
Highlights: “Turn Blue”, “10 Lovers”, “Gotta Get Away”