Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (pt. 14)


PICKS

Miles Davis Quintet, Live In Europe 1967 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 1)

With the seven-disc Complete Live At The Plugged Nickle documenting the exact same lineup (and some tunes, too) circa late 1965 still on the market, one might be forgiven for wondering how much this three disc/one dvd set adds to our understanding of Miles Davis’ greatest band. Except you couldn’t be forgiven if you knew how fast things changed in Davis World, or how undocumented this collective was outside of the studio. With 22-year-old genius Tony Williams goading them on, Hancock, Shorter, and Carter use each casually-announced standard and moldy oldie as an excuse to muscle their way into a high modernism that has rarely been equaled. Other contemporary groups may have taken wilder flights, but few if any free jazz artists ever pursued abstraction to such logical ends. And while there’s no hint of the literal electricity that would soon jolt the jazz system courtesy of this group’s remnants, the path forward shines clear, with themes jettisoned in favor of unceasing pulse and circular, self-sustaining improvisation. They remain the most sophisticated outfit in modern jazz.

Das Racist, Relax

As proud emissaries of the Indian Subcontinent and Afro-Cuban diaspora, these Wesleyan grads hail from regions as far outside the cultural roots of hip-hop as the “white devils” they reference a few times too many, however jokingly. But that outsider status lends extra venom to their barbs – when they embrace Michael Jackson in not-just-a-free-download single “Michael Jackson,” they aren’t ignoring the fact that MJ turned his back on African-American culture as long as it suited him, they’re celebrating him as moneyed cultural force while mocking him as pure product gone crazy. And the key to their often arch, consistently funny, word-drunk worldview is this simultaneous love/hate with nearly everything they come across, like the way they take the piss out of pop-rap while creating a bona-fide pop-rap anthem (“Girl”). Maybe they watch a bit too much junk TV, and who knows how well their up-to-the-second references will age over five, ten, twenty years. But this is postmodern hip-hop in fact and substance, not just sound, from master theorists dead set on engaging their society. The beats gain muscle even as they move beyond sampling Billy Joel into noisier territory. And dig that flow. 

NEAR PICKS

St. Vincent, Strange Mercy

Perhaps the key to understanding Annie Clark’s St. Vincent persona lies in her revision of Eric Rohmer’s meditation on erotic moral reasoning into a noisy burst of fragmentary logic with such s&m allusions as “horsehead whip / feel your floor”. Or maybe there’s no logical reason the opener’s entitled “Chloe In the Afternoon” – maybe she just liked how the words flowed. Only such tackiness would fly in the face of the bulk of this material, which bespeaks a smart curiosity that is at least savvy if not always intelligent. Yes, there are additional groaners, like the one where she eats flowers, buys “neutered fruit,” and begs the bunny to run away. But Clark’s got an eye for everyday details (“I tell the mailman, ‘never you mind / I’ll sift through the piles’”) and occasionally plumbs emotional depths (“If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up / No, I don’t know what”). Plus a woozy melodicism backed by her own distorto guitar, which is the best we could expect from somebody who apprenticed with both Sufjan Stevens and Glenn Branca.

Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls

Another lightweight, charming guitar outfit nearly undone by the clueless rhapsodizing of smitten fans and hungry critics, who oversell the mild delights offered by one more in a seemingly endless line of Scottish boy-girl groups. Folks seem pretty confounded describing their sound, too - “noise pop” is wishful thinking, “shoegaze” totally wrong, “beach reverb” just gross. Jangle and strum, twee at times, hint of garage rock, knows The Pastels inside out –get the idea? Go into the album without expecting too much, and you just might wind up being impressed. Or merely charmed.

BOMBS

SuperHeavy, SuperHeavy

Mick Jagger’s purported supergroup is really ex-Eurthymics Dave Stewart’s supergroup, and while the intentions behind this global fusion project were no doubt honorable, Jagger’s game warbling (and brief rap plus Sanskrit) can’t overcome the glossy production and second-rate songwriting . Not a complete disaster – nice to see Jagger shaking loose after a year dominated by his bandmate. Damian Marley handles himself well, especially on “Miracle Worker,” the best song by a country mile. But I have no idea what Joss Stone is doing here. And far too often, this seems both bereft of life and point. Whatever you may think of, say, Bill Laswell’s three decades of exploration in the pan-cultural gumbo field, his brand of true fusion is obviously more difficult to achieve than he lets on. 

The Drums, Portamento

Their first album was too cute by half, nothing more than a blend of Martin Hannett-era Factory Records with an imaginary 1950s melody bank. Still bouncy as ever, I hear very little evidence of the sonic experimentation noted in some positive (hopeful?) reviews. There’s plenty of evidence, however, that this group will never have anything to say outside of their self-serving press interviews. If the original Factory artists drew at least some of their inspiration from housing projects and industrial alienation, The Drums wring their ennui from dropped text messages. “You’re hard to love!” wails Jonathan Pierce repeatedly before gliding into “I Don’t Know How To Love”. We’ve all been in love, of course. We also expect artists (or even mere entertainers) to move beyond acknowledging love’s existence and offer some thoughts on the matter.