No Age, An Object (Sub Pop)
Of course this latest dispatch from L.A.’s finest art-punks is “about art” - it’s art-punk, that’s what art-punk is always about. But it’s also about how setting oneself adrift on memory bliss remains an unconscionable reactionary capitulation to the hoi polloi, at least among a certain subset of radicals. If clipped and even muted noise bum-rushed into subservience to vaguely poppish compositions doesn’t seem all that radical, you can hone in on something else this album is about: the ways in which semipop culture informs a common language, which is why the song about indie touring explicitly references Smokey Robinson, or why the one called “I Want To Be Your Generator” sounds like quaalude-addled Ramones majestically soaring through “Teenage Riot,” if that’s something you can imagine. And what keeps it all from proving too fussy and self-referential? The Farfisa-from-hell (or maybe it’s a guitar) solo on “C’mon, Stimmung,” the oceanic yawp of album-closer “Commerce, Comment, Commence,” bozo declarations rising out of the buzz like “birds fly in different directions” or “show me some decency”. Kind-hearted aesthetes, then, of the specific California type which has confounded art-punks since Flipper basked in the wrong tempos amidst the hardcore set. Which is to say maybe it really is “about art” after all.
Pet Shop Boys, Electric (x2 / Kobalt)
Although Elysium was hardly the bummer rockcrit made it out to be, it’s easy to see why most are hailing this as a return to form - Giorgio Moroder fans stomping across nine extended tracks as if the almost-sexagenarians are putting their feet up inside some Ibiza resort. Perversely making us wait six long minutes to hear Neil Tennant’s familiar timbre, his patented detachment eventually finding itself perfectly ensconced amid Chris Lowe and Stuart Price’s acid house / Italo-disco beat factory, they drag each cut past the logical breaking point like Thursday bleeding into Sunday. “Every track has a vocal,” Tennant notes with glazed wonder; “Bolshy bolshy bolshy,” he swoons elsewhere. And they can be magical. Leave it to Tennant to find within Bruce Springsteen’s John Kerry appropriation the buoyant pop song to serve as fitting coda to his own “Being Boring”. And behold “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct,” in which our man winningly inhabits the soul of a fickle capitalist so burned in love he flips through Marx while muttering over blatant fallacies.
Ciara, Ciara (Epic)
No matter how well-crafted her raunch (and this stuff positively drips - “Read My Lips” is a cunnilingus anthem for the ages), the one-time First Lady Of Crunk & B can’t shake her inherent anonymity, from each state-of-the-art synth flourish to competent vocals signifying nothing beyond hitting the right notes. In the context of one of the least personal song cycles ever attached to a self-titled non-debut, boasts like “I’m on another level” seem cruelly ironic - no matter how slippery her beats, she’s a cipher so detached from lyrical content that a threat to pop some meddling sister like a molly sounds as if it rolled off a cue card. But she (almost) holds her own against the heavily-featured Nicki Minaj, and winningly samples “My Boo” amid ridiculous keyboard squiggles and vocal groans on the sublimely absurd “Body Party”. Besides, sometimes you need a little anonymity to properly deliver nonsense: “so soft / my skin / so soft / my booty / so soft / my bed”.
Sebadoh, Defend Yourself (Joyful Noise)
Lou Barlow’s shtick (c’mon, that’s what it is) has long proved polarizing for those who loved the way his guitar projects lurched and stung. But the recent collapse of his twenty-five year marriage means the laments habituating this reunion-of-sorts (no sign of Eric Gaffney) aren’t shtick at all - they’re the blues. So how tragic that for once neither band dynamics nor Barlow’s own compositions seem adequate for the heartache. From the throwaway instrumental to the puttin’-in-the-time Jason Loewenstein numbers to the hayseed embarrassment that is “Inquiries,” this takes far too long to define itself, if define itself it ever does. Yet the old spark lurks. Both “Oxygen” (“a phone call / might have stopped this song”) and “State Of Mine” chime like Beatles For Sale country-rock, the latter a vehicle for one of Barlow’s saddest lines in a career full of them: “To let the children go / is the hardest thing I’ve ever done / and I haven’t even done it yet”.
Willis Earl Beal, Nobody Knows (XL Recordings)
Problem isn’t that Beal the “noise-rock black gospel postmodern bluesman” has left the lo-fi grime of his debut behind, although fans of rock weirdos have certainly noted the “slick” (!) production with clucking tongues. The problem is a scattershot blowhard writing beyond his means whenever he’s not penning sluggish odes to ramblin’ and excoriating “fools”. “I am nothing / and I think it’s everything,” he writhes; “Morality and virtue / can easily hurt you” he thunders; “I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong / so honey lift up your dress and help me sing this song,” he moans. Son House he’s not - for one thing, Son House strummed, not plucked.
Bruce Gilbert and BAW, Diluvial (Touch)
This Wire enthusiast will listen to just about anything remotely associated with their orbit, including a 70+ minute sound installation piece from Bruce Gilbert, now nearly one decade removed from Wire proper, and David Crawforth / Naomi Siderfin of the Beaconsfield Art Works (BAW). A “compositional collaboration in three iterations,” sez here, “i-Phone field research” plus pulseless electronic drone that “imagines the world before, during and after the next great flood,” all to the, uh, tune of such song titles as “The Void,” “The Expanse,” and “Dry Land”. “The Expanse” certainly does drip on and on.