Albums of the week | New records from Alabama Shakes, Amadou & Miriam, M. Ward
Personal Space: Electric Soul 1974–1984
None of the records from new acts this week thrill me, so I'm starting with a great reissue. Put together for Chocolate Industries by local wax historian Dante Carfagna and the Numero Group's Rob Sevier, Personal Space explores the fetal electronic phase of soul, when singers started replicating the protodisco of Timmy Thomas with limited resources. (Thomas's Why Can't We Live Together from 1972 is one of those obscurities music geeks continually rediscover.) Hissing synths and rudimentary drum machines drive these grooves, ranging from sleazy funk (Guitar Red's "Disco from a Space Show") to shit-can blues (Key & Cleary's "I'm A Man") and blown-out arcade funk (Jerry Green's "I Finally Found the Love I Need"). Yeah, the aesthetics are totally chillwave chic, but there's a key ingredient here that all the Neon Indian records in the world can't muster—honest to god soul. The busted robotics and vocal power keep this music real, human.
Alabama Shakes Boys & Girls
When I first wrote about the Shakes, they had only four songs on a Bandcamp page and a Zales commercial to their name. The thrill of discovery counted for a lot, that rush of stumbling upon precocious talent on a social networking site without publicity pushing you there. Those same songs appear unchanged here on the Southerners' debut. Yet the filler padded around them never quite recaptures the emotional highs of "You Ain't Alone" and "Hold On." Brittany Howard belts it out with a charming lisp you worry she'll outgrow. It's a spot-on facsimile of yore, but the adolescents are too content to just mimic. The best thing about the record is that it proves that kids can still give a shit about guitars, tape, oldies, etc. Hopefully they learn that heroes like Janet Joplin and the Stones did more than re-do the blues.
Amadou & Miriam Folila
After two adored albums steered by Manu Chao and Damon Albarn, the Malian couple has gotten carried away with the whole we'll-let-Westerners-produce-and-share-the-spotlight shtick. Part of the problem here is that there are too many collaborators. (Eight.) Part is the quality of these partners. (Theophilus London is not Damon Albarn.) The rest is incompatibility. (The Scissor Sisters? Really?) Santigold adds her eerie cool to a cut, while Tunde and Kip of TV on the Radio continue their quest to be on every West African crossover record of note. I expect them to be sporting tagelmusts soon. The overly Anglicized Afropop never hangs together and sells short the appeal of Amadou & Miriam alone. Leftist French rocker Bertrand Cantat fares the best as helmsman, getting organic results. He should have driven the entire trip.
M. Ward A Wasteland Companion
Let's blame Zooey Deschanel. She has been like an irony eraser to Him. The doe-eyed Deschanel pops up early here, twice, and hangs a pink Disney cloud over Ward's retro Technicolor cowboy pop. He smells like an actor now, especially on "Crawl After You." His voice melts in the warm echo and fake patina. He might be aiming for Fleetwood Mac. He's getting Fleetwood Cheese.
Monica New Life
I love that Monica doggedly sticks to slow jams on New Life. The album title thankfully speaks of an emotional turning point, not a veteran diva forcefully electroshocking her career with club beatz. The biggest curveball—and it's a slow pitch—is the reggae glide of "Man Who Has Everything." Otherwise, the 31-year-old demonstrates nine ways to slice a ballad, from Polow da Don's syrup-drunk "Without You" to the gated snare thunderclaps of Missy Elliott's "Until It's Gone" to Jermaine Dupri living The-Dream on "Amazing." Gooey.
Black Dice Mr. Impossible
For an improbable fifteen years, the RISD noiseniks in Black Dice have been trying to teach computer chips to fart. By God, they've done it. Here is an Impossible 46 minutes of "Brunswick Sludge," like a dyspeptic Angry Bird trying to play brain-damaged Ween.