THEESatisfaction, awE naturalE (Sub Pop)
It’s entirely possible I’m overrating this soul duo in the face of any number of tangible drawbacks, from brief running time and a discernible lack of humor, to words embracing an uneasy mixture of spiritual goop and pragmatism (“energy,” “needs,” “gardens of the galaxies,” “what are the ideals holding you back?”). And musically, these brief blasts of funk, dope though they may be, are beholden to a specific era of black r&b - a gloss appealing primarily to the cultural subset equally devoted to the welcoming underground vibe of their friends Shabazz Palaces. Yet these two outfits have more in common than the hip (and notably non-r&b) label they currently share. While Stas and Cat embrace the sweet sounds of soul less ambivalently than Ishmael Butler (“Sweat” makes no effort to hide its glorious appropriation of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Turn It Into Something Good”), there’s an ongoing desire to craft a new kind of head music that sacrifices nothing in the way of texture, groove, bounce, swing. Perhaps most impressive is how seamlessly the boundaries between hip-hop and soul are blurred, thanks partly to a few drop-ins from Butler himself, but thanks mostly to Stas rapping alongside Cat’s wry never-a-diva vocals. And with feminist ideals never in question, they shake things up by making room for a male cameo on the womyn anthem “Enchantruss” and proudly stating “I am the bitch on the side,” even if “turn off your swag / and check your bag” best sums up their laconic philosophy.
Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (Universal Republic)
Comparing this once-in-a-generation talent to Lil Wayne undersells Minaj’s gifts, since her killer flow and peerless sense of rhythm are mere jumping-off points for her pop smarts, loopy sense of sex-crazed humor, and fashion bravura. A better point of reference might be Ray Charles - she really can do it all. And just like Charles’ admirable efforts blowing passable sax or teaming up with Milt Jackson, Minaj’s excursions into euro club anthems are never embarrassing and rarely interesting. Because even if you wisely ignore the protestations of pop haters who claim any sideways glance at Rihannaville an unforgivable selling-out, the eight song stretch between “Starships” and “Gun Shot” simply don’t play to her strengths. What’s missing on each and every one of these perfectly acceptable all-out pop nuggets is the profane and irrepressible personality that earlier dropped “O Come All Ye Faithful” into her ludicrous Cockney spiel, rhymed Hulk Hogan with Hoboken, reclaimed “bitches ain’t shit” as a note of womanly pride, made Cam’ron and Rick Ross sound like she slipped them NyQuil, shoved a much-noted dick into your face, and crafted weirdo genius singles like “Beez In The Trap” and “Stupid Hoe.” And yet. The pop hooks from that supposedly arid mid-album stretch do unapologetically sink in over time. Lop off a few of the slower numbers from your playlist (and yes yes yes, avoid the deluxe edition), even while hanging on to the much-derided and better-than-reported woe-is-me travail “Marilyn Monroe,” the infectious “na na na na na na na na na na me go” setting up the literal whip crack of “Whip It,” and even the silly raunch of the mostly Minaj-free “Sex In The Lounge”. In other words, back off, and let this pop professional indulge her every craving. I still find the boast “I’m a brand, bitch / I’m a brand” emblematic of a larger problem. But she certainly worked harder for that distinction than some schmuck driving around with an eHarmony ad stuck to their car.
Withered Hand, Heart Heart EP (Fence Records)
Those lucky few already clinging to this Edinburghian’s every word will find these three songs in nine minutes a slight departure from earlier full-length Good News, especially on those numbers in which Dan Willson kicks up his tempos. Clattering along and leading what sounds like a sizable backing vocal contingent in singalong chants, his three-note guitar lick brings “My Struggle” to a conclusion that rocks as sloppily as anything this avowed wimp has put forth. But lyrically, Willson remains admirably on point - he can hear his body dying, he wonders where “the genie with the beenie” is when you need her, and offers such clear-eyed observations as “I went on the Atkins diet / I was sick as a dog”. As that missing genie suggests, he still desires god in any available form, which helps explain why his “to everything there is a season” quote is from Ecclesiastes, not the Byrds, and why he closes on a precious melody entitled “Gethsemane.”
Bola, Volume 7 (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
For those completists already boasting sizable Afro-pop collections, the offerings made freely available at Awesome Tapes From Africa’s notable mp3 blog have been a godsend, and the site’s recent expansion into physical format will only help solidify the site’s role as the ambassadors of localized cassette offerings from across the continent. This Ghanian performer layers cheap-ass drum machines and periodic keyboard barks atop furiously strummed kologo while passionately emoting in his native Frafra. While the sonic palette on display here is not wide, and the corniness of the technology sometimes undercuts his better efforts, there’s a blending of tradition with contemporaneity that makes sense given Bola’s habit of releasing multiple albums per year in magnetic tape format. Nothing prettified or genteel here, NPR listeners - this is straight outta Bolgatanga.
Colleen Green, Milo Goes To Compton (Art Fag)
With indie slogging through another lengthy moribund phase, it’s unsurprising that a mediocre thirty-minute self-released cassette from last year - eight songs, and only three of them covers - got picked up for ballyhooed cd reissue by Art Fag. And perhaps an element of mystery was lost in the transition from tape hiss to disc. Or maybe this is what it is - a drum machine, tastefully overdriven guitars, candy-corn melodies, and vocals choked with distance, or is that indifference? Sometimes this kind of deliberately archaic back-to-basics approach is fun, with “Goldmine” and “Always On My Mind” suggesting she may yet stumble across pop-punk gold. But at other times, it feels like she’s just another fresh face in indie nation pitching 2-minute anti-anthems of detachment about “summer”. And I wonder if Green thinks the mild kinks outlined on the Ramones rip “I Wanna Be Degraded” are truly degrading. Since she’s hardly suited to wield irony as a thematic weapon, your guess is as good as mine.
Jesus Music Anthology: The 70s (Maranatha Music)
These perfectly enunciated, closely miked, cautiously soulful tunes from a cast of unknowns (Erick Nelson! Bob Bennett! Kelly Willard! Mustard Seed Faith!) do at least accurately sum up the MOR blandness typifying the cultural outreach of our Fourth Great Awakening, now well into its fortieth year and as undeniable a presence in contemporary American life as any secular countercurrent. Looking to the placid shores of soft pop for inspiration, these light glosses on Pure Prairie League and America favor pedal steel, unfunky drums, and tight harmonies, from the CB lingo of Daniel Amos’ “Shotgun Angel” to Bethlehem’s labored desert imagery. Lyrically, of course, these paeans traffic in banalities - not for such earnest average joes the thrillingly angry god of Jonathan Edwards or the realpolitik of Reinhold Niebuhr, although they obviously took to heart John Calvin’s adoration of Scripture’s “unpolished simplicity”. But the real object of interest here is not cloying melodies, simplistic homiletics, or even the casual slinging around of “lord” as if the creator in question was a trusted drinking buddy. Rather, it’s through the easeful reclaiming of worldly detritus to help spread the good news that this compilation helps predict future trends. With country rock safely worked into the fold, contemporary evangelicalism would go on to embrace metal in the 1980s and arena country and hip-hop in the 90s. No doubt if dubstep hangs on as a cultural outlier long enough, future Rebecca St. James’s and Michael W. Smiths will subsume that form, too.