Point, Cornelius (Matador)
By giving his fourth album the name of the smallest, least-reducible element of geometry, Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada) seems to be telegraphing a radical, stylistic shift to minimalism. The Tokyo-based auteur even toys with the listener before he begins his elaborate sonic safari by bookending Point with singular, resonating piano notes. This move references minimalist forefather Gyorgy Ligeti and, in turn, conjures up the stark, filmic mechanics of fellow obsessive-compulsive Stanley Kubrick (who utilized Ligeti extensively on the soundtracks of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut). Cornelius' songs are essentially aural dioramas -- overwhelmed by artificiality and composed of notes as deliberately placed as props on Kubrick's Pinewood soundstage.
His previous album, the breakout success Fantasma, was a Rube Goldberg gumball dispenser, an elaborate confectionary overdose. And while it could at times seem cloying and insincere, it was ultimately made irresistible by Cornelius' omnivorous love of the undifferentiated sphere of international pop culture. Point may be Fantasma slimmed down to fighting weight, but in no way could it be classified as anything approaching true minimalism.
This purposeful genre-shifting is a perfect embodiment of the skittering hypertextuality of the digital age. Cornelius makes transitions from the penthouse nocturne of "Point of View Point" to the futuristic luau of "Tone Twilight Zone." And right when he slips from the smooth, vocoder cover of "Brazil" to the metal-damaged imposition of "I Hate Hate" (which, by the way, beats the hell out of "Mean People Suck" for bumper-sticker pacifism), the musical influences and reference points begin to pile up. Your brain is unconsciously triggered into a proper-noun logorrhea -- Brian Wilson, Xavier Cugat, Phil Spector, Carl Stalling, Santo and Johnny, Yngwie Malmsteen and suddenly you're singing the lost verse of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"!
Despite Cornelius' reliance on studio wizardry and academic concepts, his wit and contagious glee always result in very organic, accessible records. After achieving moderate success four years ago with a national tour (where he and his band blew fellow tourmates Sebadoh, Flaming Lips, and Robyn Hitchcock off the stage and into the cutout bin) and a riveting appearance on HBO's Reverb, we can only hope that Point helps him achieve the Ichiro-like status here that he has back home. At that point, his complete and total immersion into the glittery realm of pop music would be achieved and he would be forced to release the inevitable Double Live at Budokan record. And we already know that's an arena he can fill.
-- David Dunlap
Is a Woman, Lambchop (Merge Records)
Is a Woman is a volte-face. Lambchop's previous album, 2000's career-making Nixon, was luxurious in sound; it took advantage of the Nashville-based orchestra's size -- more than triple the number of members in your typical indie outfit -- to create lush, multilayered sonics that fit well with singer Kurt Wagner's idiosyncratic songwriting.
As a follow-up, Is a Woman takes the opposite tack, using the many musicians to create a moody record with barebones arrangements. The idea here seems to be that much less is much more. Built on Tony Crow's simple, elegant piano, these 11 songs feature only one or two instruments at a time. There are occasional musical flourishes, such as Deanna Veragona's funky baritone sax on "The New Cobweb Summer" and Paul Burch's eerie vibes on "Caterpillar," but usually all the instruments coalesce into an understated, atmospheric sound.
For the most part, Lambchop fare well within the confines of this stripped-down approach. "Caterpillar," for example, is musically as fragile as its lyrics are violent: "I know you heard me calling out a name that I never used for you, till then," Wagner sings in the chorus, and the contrast between this scene of domestic upheaval and hushed music is quietly devastating.
Other songs, like "My Blue Wave" and "I Can Hardly Spell My Name," strike a fine balance as precarious as the relationships they portray. It feels like these gentle songs would collapse under the weight of even one more instrument. Only one or two tracks here feel unduly bare. The few instruments on "D. Scott Parsley" can't maintain the groove riff it's based on, so the song feels underorchestrated and sluggish.
If the sound is stripped down, Wagner's songwriting is just as sharp and original as it always has been. Conveying complex ideas in as few words as possible, he creates startling imagery and makes effortlessly keen observations about the rifts between the sexes. The effect is almost literary. "I guess it's right," he sings on "The Daily Growl," "to love the girls who fight off our manly acts of desperation." Is a Woman is rich with lines like this, which seem more akin to short stories than indie-rock songs.
Ambiguously titled and effortlessly intimate, Is a Woman is a beautifully restrained album -- spare, relaxed, and spontaneous but always purposeful and deliberate. It may not be Lambchop's most accessible album, but it's as compelling as anything the collective has recorded. --Stephen Deusner