Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What (Hear Music)
During opener “Getting Ready For Christmas Day,” the elder statesman drops a line remarkable for its economy and insight. “I got a nephew in Iraq / It’s his third time back,” deployed against bouncing rhythm and encouragement from a sampled Rev. J. M. Gates, manages in thirteen syllables to portray our decade-long tragedy while reminding us that our wartime burdens have largely bypassed the daily lives of most Americans, unless you’d argue “a nephew” hits home the same way “my son” would. When Simon promises his nephew a turkey dinner in Pakistan, he’s not buying into the blinkered optimism that has forced so many nephews to spend so many holidays overseas. He’s just hopeful for safe returns, just as he’s hopeful for his own chances at salvation, and if wanting to believe in an afterlife complete with angels makes him a fool, he’ll embrace foolishness. In an album filled with both gentle and serious thoughts on a mortality no longer abstract, Simon’s lack of cynicism – long derided as a career shortcoming – reveals itself as a worthy cause. Subtlety also contributes, as when he assumes the voice of a weary God, shrugging, “Most folks / They don’t get when I’m joking,” or just drifting along to a musical accompaniment that’s rarely intrusive yet never merely pleasant. So add this to his previous triumphs, 1972’s New York-proud Paul Simon and 1986’s world citizen celebration Graceland. In a just world, Art Garfunkle would be relegated to the status of Pete Best – an early and peripheral collaborator who missed out on the big time. Never too late to help spread the word.
The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck (Merge)
On his fourteenth or twentieth studio album, John Darnielle’s inspiration may have finally lost out against his indefatigable work ethic. Or so suggest casual fans wary of clearing more shelf space and boombox fetishists howling sellout from the blogosphere. I note his eye for detail remains steady, encompassing the Olduvai gorge and deco cuff links, Pomona malls and “some guy in an Impala,” while his poetic instincts repay line-by-line parsing – “let the truth spring free” he declaims in “Birth of Serpents,” before referencing such spring-controlled mechanisms as a jack in the box and cuckoo clocks. But I would also note a significant decline in first-person narrative, replaced by vague encomiums to faith, empathy, ghosts, and emotional strength. “I save my own skin but I live to fight,” “Soldier on,” “It’s okay to find the faith to saunter forward” – stripped of context, these might be motivational speaker bullet points, or mawkish heavy metal choruses. Yet anyone slightly familiar with Darnielle’s life struggles against abuse and addiction knows he’s earned the right to talk up such vagaries as hope and redemption. And while the ground level vignettes of old are missed, they haven’t been abandoned. “Estate Sale Sign” provides a coda to his famed Alpha Couple, “For Charles Bronson” marvels at every line of Ehrenfield, PA, carved into the strongman’s face, and the audacious “Soudoire Valley Song” tackles nothing less weighty than the emergence of man, making a case for Neanderthal socialism in under four minutes. Even if you reject Liza Minnelli as a tragic heroine, our guide will ask you to consider whether her Golden State experience might be more complex than the coke fatigue that is “Hotel California”. If you’re going to slag Hollywood, Darnielle says, at least come up with a new metaphor. Lost inspiration nothing – he could keep this up until his privatized Medicare checks stop rolling in.
Lady Gaga, Born This Way (Streamline)
The futility of denying this force of nature became clear somewhere around the time L.A. authorities requested Gaga’s aid announcing closures on the 405. How to deny such an overachiever, especially one as smart and ironic as the former Stefani Germanotta? Yet several caveats remain. For one, the good-hearted gay anthem “Born This Way” oversimplifies gender identity and sexual orientation the way all anthems do, with her proud hoisting of the freak flag confusing bohemian choice with innate sexuality. That is, in this year of New York marriage equality, it may well prove reductive to play into the hands of the supposed standard bearers of normality, hetero or otherwise, leaving gay executives and bi-curious suburbanites uninvited to the “little monster” festivities. Only that’s where the futility comes in, because in the face of Gaga’s relentless moxie and steely-eyed bonhomie, such concerns seem like so much stuffy moralizing. So while I may roll my eyes at the shampoo commercial inanity of “Hair”, I chortle heartily at the Rosemary-Clooney-in-Ibiza nonsense of “Americano”. Armed with more than her fair share of memorable tunes, and capable of outsinging any number of American Idol-anointed challengers, after careful consideration the worst that can be said about this hour of music is that unending club anthems in a Pat Benatar / Bonnie Tyler vein eventually prove wearying. So embrace this as a singles collection rather than thematic statement, and allow Our Lady her Madonna comparisons – comparisons she’s earned not because of melodic similarities, but because here stands a superstar savvy enough to glance sideways at the cultural supremacy she so clearly desires. Ms. Gaga is currently the most famous person on earth, and it could be so much worse.
Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times & Nigerian Boogie Badness, 1979-1983 (Comb & Razor Sound)
The five years under consideration by compiler Uchenna Ikonne represent the brief burst of democracy that was Nigeria’s Second Republic, high times which saw oil reserves boost the naira twice that beyond the dollar and ending twenty-three years of dictatorship and civil war. Cash-flush visionaries and hacks alike sprang for studio time at new facilities, including those of Phonodisc Records, a Nigerian-owned company Ikonne highlights. These recordings have never surfaced stateside, and even Afro-pop aficionados might struggle to identify any “Nigerian boogie” superstar. But with nary a trace of afrobeat or juju herein, skeptics might well negatively compare these performances with any late ‘70s r&b Yankee product. Not that this boogie is straight-up disco - tempos are slightly more sluggish than Studio 54 might sanction, and most tracks display a notable aversion to straight 4/4. Yet note Kris Okotie’s Stevie Wonder growl, Dizzy K’s. Michael Jackson falsetto, Chris Mba’s Grandmaster Flash-heisted synths, and opener Mixed Grill’s mining of Sly Stone. Adequately deployed, such pan-global hommages might be charming, but nearly all suffer from the modest vocals one would expect from a Cat Stevens fan like Okotie. Sure, Joe Moks’ “Boys and Girls” is delightfully cheesy (somebody sample that gurgling keyboard riff), Segun Robert’s “Big Race” glances at hip-hop, and the aforementioned Dizzy K. eventually moves into keyboard-dominated overdrive. But much of this is dreadfully pedestrian stuff, merely adequate soul clones rubbing shoulders against talentless pretty face Oby Onyioha, opera diva Martha Ulaeto, and some high roller named Amel Addmore, who managed to put both name and face on an official release while only contributing “handclaps”. Can’t say enough about the massive accompanying booklet, which includes vintage Nigerian ads for Maggi Sauce and Cussons Imperial Leather soap. But didn’t John Ashberry once refer to a thing as being both rare and uninteresting?
Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact (4AD)
Minus the vocal exercises Liz Bougatsos brings to the gig, this non-dance dance outfit would be just one more in a long line of Downtown noisenicks exploring the porous border between funky rhythms and the avant-garde. Only if this unit is as smart as their print interviews suggest, why pick such a dumb concept for their 4AD move? What ultimately distinguishes this from the warped pop moves of 2008’s Saint Dympha or the harder-edged atmospherics of 2005’s God’s Money is a retreat from the heavy beats that once propelled them beyond their more masturbatory tendencies. In place of steady drum loops comes synthesizer twaddle as smooth and gauzy as any conjured up in the bad old days of MIDI-addicted late prog. Did I say prog? Too grimy – think Mannheim Steamroller, Isao Tomita, post-Jaco Weather Report. This new direction may have something to do with losing their drummer. Or it may provide the answer to a dubious aesthetic argument – namely, buried deep beneath the glop of many an overproduced disaster from the recorded past lie artistic impulses honest and true. Unable to rescue these dated artifacts from oblivion, our heroes may at least display solidarity by drenching their own offerings in cheese. Doing battle against the march of time with only synthesized machines as weapons, they struggle valiantly. But the machines win. The machines always win.
The Antlers, Burst Apart (Frenchkiss Records)
Peter Silberman may have moved beyond terminally ill patients and hospice workers on this latest offering from his Brooklyn chamber-pop outfit, but that doesn’t mean he’s cheered up or learned how to tell any jokes. In fact, unless two distinct references to teeth falling out are some sort of pop-Freudian drollery that went over my head, this music is so unrelentingly humorless one suspects Silberman took Nietzsche’s dictum of laughter equaling dead feelings to heart when he came across it back in junior high. Seems like a pretty mirthless band, too, all sluggish tempos and anonymous chime, plus humming, echoes, and a trumpet lowered from above. All the better to allow ample breathing room for the singer to pirouette in therapeutic freedom, fists clenched and baying at the moon. The low points are many, from the ghastly flamenco-dusted “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” to the soaked-handkerchief ineptitude of “Corsicana”. And then consider the 1950’s torch song about a euthanized pet dog. As curtain closer, it’s pure karaoke disaster. But as a summation of their overall thematic obsessions, it approaches perfection. Not one to shy away from spelling out intentions, it’s helpfully entitled “Putting The Dog To Sleep”. It’s enough to stir nostalgia for the days when cheap irony reigned supreme within pop culture.