Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 55)


PICKS

Neil Young With Crazy Horse, Americana     (Reprise)

With a forty year track record available for consultation, it’s fair to conclude Young’s conceptual projects succeed in direct correlation to how tossed-off they are in both concept and realization. Which is not the same thing as being half-assed, no matter what Crazy Horse detractors or Neil Young skeptics are telling themselves - spend a few minutes with the detailed liner notes and the sophisticated awareness of Young’s alternate history becomes undeniable. For all the attention given over to unfamiliar melodies attached to semi-familiar couplets and refrains, this project’s citation of such redoubtable original sources as Burl Ives and Odetta seems less than radical. Besides, like the informed folkie he was and is, Young knows full well that while lyrical scraps tend to claim some sort of historical consistency, melodies have long been treated as the flexible suggestions they are, a minor detail that perhaps threw traditionalists anticipating reverential banjo and dulcimer recitations. But just as startling is how Young and company sidestep the gothic fantasies of lovers turning into swans or roses growing round the briar in favor of populist verisimilitude: capital punishment, accidental death, unemployment, migration, labor rights, religious fundamentalism, the bequeathment of capital, and governance. So maybe it’s the false starts and sloppy endings that so offend sensibilities. Maybe it’s the fudged bass vocal on The Silhouette’s “Get A Job”. Or maybe it’s the inclusion of just such a non-canonical number amid all those trad.arrs. that spooks armchair ethno-musicologists. Personally, I think including that 1957 classic opens up tantalizing possibilities (how about Ernie-K-Doe’s “Mother In Law” and The Coasters’ “What About Us”?). All this against the backdrop of the plodding garage rock Crazy Horse and Young have been perfecting since the Johnson Administration, delivering that rare work of iconoclasm still comfortably nestled within the tradition. How just like a Canadian to good-naturedly remind his adopted nation of both its crimes and glory in one ragged corrective action.

Serengeti, C.A.R.     (Anticon)

Just 30 minutes of social realism from an observant and empathetic creative type who doesn’t skimp on hooks and beats, so laid back you might mistake him for a slacker until the painstaking details of his rhymes reveal themselves. It’s not like other rappers don’t create recognizable milieus for their mouthpieces. But few others play with such delicacy around the day-to-day realities of decent bohemian types. “Forget the cable, man,” somebody observes from the couch, then offers praise to the Spice Network; another notes “there’s many things to be happy for / like living in Los Angeles with an unlocked door”. Cutting their deferred dreams with humor, his creations dream of winning the lotto or milking cobras, escaping the bad shit for a city college chef gig, cranking Papa Roach and “Bahn EYE-verr” in close rotation, catching amnesia and starting over in Quito or Lagos. These good jokes get balanced out by the shattered emotions of the overworked and disenfranchised - not so much the creepy yoga stalker on “Peekaboo” as the unnamed sap of “Go Dancin’” offering his love interest a stream of cliches and dead promises before flying into an unrequited rage. Or “Uncle Traum,” an hallucinatory hospital tale told over acoustic blues shiver, in which Propofol  and fraternal betrayal combine in one heady stream of confusion. Somebody’s been shot, “wide awake, waiting for the morning news,” only it’s Sunday and it’s 7 AM and it’s some movie.

NEAR PICKS

Azealia Banks, Fantasea     (self-released)

Her shtick may yet betray her - not so much the mermaid imagery and “witch-hop” claims than a bravado reclamation of male curse words “bitch” and “cunt,” which she’s plenty willing to use against herself and other women when the situation calls. But even if hating equally on brothers and sisters may portend some kind of breakthrough, a better breakthrough is brewing in this Harlemite’s easy conversance with contemporary house music and a hardly overtly-stated assumption that everybody skews bi-curious at least. As one might expect from a 19-track free mixtape, not every cut smokes. But there’s few complaints with her production choices, which hit hard (“Fantasea”), drop killer hooks (“Neptune”), go back to fundamentals (“Fuck Up The Fun” and “L8R”), dial it back old-school (“Esta Noche”), and fold steel drums into bounce anthems (“Jumanji”). And her expert blending of just-ragged-enough club pop with street lyrics and nearly unmatched flow might yet show up obvious competitor Nicki Minaj. When she’s feeling polite, her idea of a come-on line is “can I wet you up all night?” When less so, it’s “open your face / and let a bitch squat”. Cross her, and she’d hate to “have to blow your little wig all back”. Step up and she’ll burn you, boil you, and grill you like a Nathan’s frankfurter before spreading you “like mustard”. And since she’s far more fun when detailing her nether regions than talking up her designer-crammed closet, it’s the epic glorying over nothing more nor less than her body on “Runnin’” that best shows off her gift of gab: “he know I got that juicy / that juicy booty / that fruity / that fruity tootie / that natural beauty”. 

Ivory Coast Soul 2: Afrofunk in Abidjan 1976-1981     (Hot Casa Records)

With the music of this West African nation less immediately identifiable to global enthusiasts than, say, Nigeria, one approaches yet another goddam afrofunk compilation with something like trepidation. The leadoff track by Pierre Antoine is twelve churning minutes of afrobeat, complete with screechy Fela saxophone, but immediately thereafter wah-wah pedals, tinny horn ensembles, and fat(tish) backbeats take over. And since fat(tish) backbeats deliver primal satisfaction even when they’re second rate, much of the material collected here by Djamel Hammadi is enjoyable - somebody rescue Houn Pierre’s insistent disco drive “Mansou Djouwi” for some other comp. But then there’s the grandiloquent synthesizer mush clogging up Nguenang’s “Wouck” midway through, the aimless drifting of Docteur Appia Morroh, shambolic organ and spooky laughter atop leaden beats courtesy of Stanley Murphy, the basement-quality sonics that sink works of inoffensive anonymity like “Onguido” or “Ameniwa”. Funk funk funk, soul soul soul. With over sixty different ethnic groups occupying a space the size of Arizona, and rhythms and styles like gbégbé, ziglibithy, laba laba, polihet, zobalzo, zouglou, and Coupé-Décalé competing for space within the culture of the Côte d’Ivoire, it seems positively perverse to continue fetishizing one small part of the equation. Or was the humidity-damaged and out-of-tune slog “Wanossa” chosen for some reason other than its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it breakbeat at 3.58?

BOMBS

Manuel Galbán, Blue Cha Cha     (Concord)

He won a Grammy with Ry Cooder back in 2003 for Mambu Sinuendo, and although that hallowed hall boasts a track record of incompetence that should give any music fan pause, in this case the experts were right. Not so much for the award, but the category - Best Pop Instrumental Album, which nails the aesthetic accomplishment realized by this Cuban guitarist ten years ago. On his final outing, the late Galbán gamely welcomes Eric Bibb to croon a few banal r&b lines, dubs schmaltzy strings and the sounds of gentle surf onto the easy-listening sheen of “No Te Importe Saber,” and agrees to a semi-incoherent dialogue with Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko on a well-let’s-call-it-the-diaspora fusion experiment. Pop Instrumental is right - in the great tradition of Paul Mauriat and Mason Williams, although maybe not Floyd Cramer or The Ventures.

Ponderosa, Pool Party     (New West)

Digressionary, vague, and even sorta pretty, these Atlantans found a sympathetic producer in Dave Friedman - he of Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips - yet all I can hear amid these echoing tracks are the keening desires of My Morning Jacket fans hoping inspiration lies just beyond the hurdle of that next effects-laden chorus. “We almost wrote the whole thing in the studio,” singer Kalen Nash boasted or admitted, and, well, that can work for certain bands. As for this offering being “less Southern” than 2010’s Moonlight Revival, regionalism was never a primary concern with this crew. Turning their gaze towards the desert southwest on a catchily bombastic “Navajo,” they neglect to ponder The Long Walk, Enemy Way ceremonies, or the tragedy of Fort Defiance, instead raising fists high: “We drink the blood from their hearts”. That imagery is at least grounded in some sort of well-meaning romantic reality. When they move on to northeastern Africa, things get slightly more indefinite: “The Nile!The Nile! The Nile! The Nile! The Nile! The Nile!”