The Magnetic Fields, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea (Merge)
“All songs should be short,” Stephin Merritt insisted in a recent Guardian interview, and there’s undoubtedly a touch of defensiveness in that sentiment, since the two longest songs here are just shy of 2.40. But the lengthiest track on 2008’s Distortion was a mere 3.08, so if this album seems as slight to you as it has to any number of scribes, take care you’re not declaring brevity and inspiration mutually exclusive. And if the outrageously crude and corny synthesizer arrangements set your teeth on edge, ask yourself a) if Merritt the purposeful contrarian might not have planned it that way, and b) where your copy of The Charm Of The Highway Strip wound up. My biggest complaint centers on the Gary Numan/Human League pastiche “Infatuation (With Your Gyration),” and I’d also note that the reference to one’s derriere stuck within “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre,” cute as it is, can’t hold a candle to the timeless “faux folks sans derriere”. And having noted this most minor of repetitions, why not bask in the wordplay of a master? Spinning a ladies man into a mama’s boy mid-verse, burying characters alive in crystal meth, stepping back to allow muse Shirley Simms to savor the phrase “let Laramie/ take care of me/ ‘till they bury me,” and going out on a melodramatic “Tennessee Waltz” update that advocates hiring Saatchi & Saatchi to advertise one’s trouser bulge, the easy jokes and broad humor help lessen the blows of a love that is almost always unrequited, a situation the author describes as autobiographical. So I dare anybody to categorize “Andrew In Drag” as cheap irony. Gloriously queer, perhaps, with no effort to dodge that most obvious and problematic “drag” rhyme, “fag”. He gets it out of the way fast, distanced as always yet savoring the joke, as well as the rhyme.
Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio (Blue Note)
While Glasper remains a jazz pianist/keyboardist, this is hardly the jazz/hip-hop hybrid it’s billed as - more like jazzy r&b with solid chops, and none the worse for that. Glasper’s played keyboards for Q-Tip, Maxwell, Terence Blanchard, and Christian McBride, so he knows a little something about outsourcing. And does he assemble a solid lineup, scoring Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Mos Def (aka, yasiin bey), among others, although these storied names don’t so much offer guest spots as highlight individual tracks that prove all of a piece. Unafraid of gimmicks (just dig that Casey Benjamin electric saxophone solo on Lalah Hathaway’s Sade track) and slightly over-infatuated with slow tempos, the biggest misstep here comes on the defiantly-included studio chatter in which supposed elders grouse about the perfidy of contemporary music fans; “I don’t think people know what’s good and what’s not……People don’t really think anymore, not much”. Such pontificating undercuts Glasper’s major accomplishment, which is a calm insistence that jazz re-engage with soul in all its permutations, neo- and otherwise. And Glasper’s “experiment” becomes most manifest on the final two tracks, as the ensemble reconfigures two rock classics. Bilal’s stylized take on David Bowie’s “Letter To Hermione” offers the leader room to stretch out on piano even as the flute arrangement centers the song, while “Smells Like Teen Spirit” gets recast as vocoder lament. Undeniably, the Mongo Santamaria cover is more seamless. But kudos to Glasper for taking a chance.
BBU, bell hooks (Mad Decent / Mischka download)
A Chicago crew determined to single-handedly refute the charge that nobody makes great political hip-hop anymore, and like many a prophet, they do come on a bit strong. Not sure the defining legacy of named heroes such as Audre Lorde, Gil Scott-Heron, or James Baldwin was that they “put them whiteys in their place,” and cutting down on epithets like “crackers” might help boost their higher consciousness ratio. But small missteps are what you sign on for when provocation is your raison d’être, and plenty often they get things right while swinging hard over old-school grooves. Rhyming “Bernie Madoff” with “half the country gettin’ laid off,” they call out Jan Brewer while praising Shirley Sherrod, refuse to stand for the Star Spangled Banner, think “Obama’s the answer to a fucked-up question,” and wonder how fast Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck would adjust their stance on well-regulated militias if armed African-Americans began crashing Tea Party rallies. Sure, they do like to repeat their choruses an awful lot for an outfit that proudly claims not to give a fuck about (your) airplay. But how much airplay is a band coyly named Bin Ladin Blowin’ Up that splices Nirvana’s “Polly” into a dance track going to get, anyway?
Ahmad Jamal, Blue Moon: The New York Session (ACM / Jazzbook)
At 81 years old, Jamal still seems rather young for somebody who played a prominent role influencing Miles Davis, even if Davis’ effusive praise for the pianist back in the day never translated to critical respect. Charges of bombast and gimmickry dogged Jamal for much of the 1960s, even while his cultivation of space and dynamics were seized upon by fellow jazz musicians. Mosaic’s generous 9-cd The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956–62 makes the case for the trio’s accomplishments, while Jamal’s own inexhaustible appetite for live performance continues to re-center his place in history. And with this studio album, Jamal manages to turn what seems at first glance an uninspiring catalogue of familiar chestnuts (“Laura,” “Blue Moon,” “Invitation”) into an opportunity to display a style now far more extroverted and dramatic than that of his glory days. He still risks the lounge - my wife at one point asked what was up with the “sleazy” jazz. In Jamal’s defense, it was the drums and percussion she was reacting to, and yes, I could have done without the fucking wind chimes, too. But transforming “Blue Moon” into a repetitive groove that only teases out the melody seven minutes in sure doesn’t seem like playing to any crowd to me. Neither does disguising “Woody ‘N You” as a Latin rhythm workout. And hovering around the vamp of “Someday My Prince Will Come” throughout “I Remember Italy” seems a fond nod towards his greatest booster. Unlike so many, he’s grown less soft and more playful with age, so why not let him go all 4/4 on “This Is The Life”?
Busdriver, Beaus$Eros (Fake Four)
If you can stomach the pure sleazefuck synthesizer backing utilized here - a setting that fully embraces the indie/electronica this L.A. rapper has explored since 2007 - there’s a handful of enjoyable lines on display. But there’s also less of the loopy humor that once partially defined an over-the-top rapper who named one of his albums Fear Of A Black Tangent (rhyming “Matt Lauer” with “clam chowder” is an early I-guess-you-could-call-it highlight). And while a track like “NoBlacksNoJewsNoAsians” sort of balances out the overripe vocal exercises of “You Ain’t OG” or “Kiss Me Back To Life,” the fact remains that here we have a rapper in love with the sound of his own singing voice harboring aspirations to crafting some kind of Baroque / Broadway nonsense. And Broadway is the correct comparison, because he’s clearly not interested in getting listeners out of their seats - not with an overwrought anti-club screed that goes “ass to mouth/ ass to mouth/ ass to mouth/ ass to mouth”.
Dinowalrus, Best Behavior (Old Flame)
Unsure what to expect from a band named Dinowalrus - to say nothing of a band that supposedly has something to do with No Wave and stars the touring guitarist for Titus Andronicus - my expectations involved more in the way of proggy guitars and less in the way of pulsing synthesizers. Guess I should have predicted the fake British accents. And those proggy guitars do eventually show up, just in time to sync with the surging math-rock drums. No Wave, huh? Postmodern theorists - so concerned with defining terms they miss the point.