Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
The opening moments of this much-touted “album of songs” were so hideous, so smothered in precocity and vocal swoops and close miked hand-claps, it seemed fair enough to conclude that, Bitte Orca aside, David Longstreth was kidding himself about his band’s point of departure from the likes of Yes. Only an odd thing happened one disinterested spin later - not only did proceedings noticeably chill out as the album progressed, melodies began to reveal themselves as the tricky-not-impossible pleasures they were. Despite a production so bone-dry it seems a stunt, there’s no ignoring the fussy chamber-pop musicianship or every tenderly detailed backing vocal, and claims for the album’s transportive qualities overstate the literary power of suns rising and setting. But the subject matter at hand is hardly esoteric, ranging from the backward logic of family trees to socialites lying just beyond boundaries made of both class and glass. There’s even a folk ballad of sorts about occupational fatality, in which a dying Chevron employee imagines his figurative ashes scattered across the nation’s highways in the form of dirty fuel. But Langstreth and female compatriots Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle croon mostly of love, mocking their own pretensions in peanut gallery asides even as they gallop towards the next circuitous chorus. So grant Longstreth his Gentle Giant disavowals, because a prog technician would never realize the ’68 Lennon/McCartney bass swoops of “Gun Has No Trigger,” the easy singer-songwriter swing of “Impregnable Question,” the John Wesley Harding vibe of the lovingly spartan title track. Eventually, even those ridiculous hand-claps begin to seem spontaneous, sweet, homespun.
JJ DOOM, Key To The Kuffs (Lex Records)
Ever since Elektra dropped KMD back in 1993, Daniel Dumile’s discography has become a collector’s dream, with shifting personas MF DOOM, Madvillian, Danger DOOM and Viktor Vaughn helming nine studio albums (plus ten herb-drenched instrumental discs and a few live albums in which the maestro sometimes even took the stage). The JJ in question is Jneiro Jarel, aka Dr. Who Dat?, a producer with solid inroads to the alternative world, which might explain the brief appearances made by Beth Gibbons and Damon Albarn. But as too many forget, DOOM hailed originally from England, so the inclusion of London/Bristol compatriots may serve to flesh out a UK pop culture sub-theme so subtle it manifests itself mostly through allusions to Cockney rhyming slang. JJ proves a worthy foil, having an ear for twitchy beats, caustic textures, hidden melodies (the shifting lines of instrumental “Viberian Sun Part II” beats chillwave practitioners at their own game), and spoken word samples so bizarre and wise they rival those of prime DJ Shadow - crack conspiracy lecture interrupted by audience member under duress, calls to establish a rapport with one’s melanin, good old boy drawling “we do not have anything to do with any ‘rap’ group”. Meanwhile, DOOM rides these rough tracks with characteristic aplomb, finding a rhyme for Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull a mere four verses in and warning that his laser will graze you “more worse than Occam’s razor”. He predicts the earth’s magnetic poles will shift shortly before the half-hearted lament “why I gotta be OCD” sets up the hygienic cautionary tale “Wash Your Hands” (“the real enemy is microscopic”) and a warning to avoid supposedly blood-drenched pasteurized milk. A bit of a crank, our DOOM. But he did warn at the outset that “things could get uncomfortable and sticky”.
Theo Bleckmann, Hello Earth! The Music Of Kate Bush (Winter & Winter)
Much like Steely Dan, Kate Bush’s chordal and harmonic tendencies run a tad sophisticated for the rock/pop faithful, meaning outside the jazz/easy listening spectrum, their songs largely remain their own. And given Bush’s own avoidance of the touring circuit minus one exhausting 1979 extravaganza, her fans are plenty eager for alternate versions of songs they know by heart. So along comes this German-born Manhattanite, theoretically of the jazz world although beholden to Weimar-era cabaret and various downtown scenes, sporting an oddly unadorned hyper-enunciated baritone variant on cool. No doubt Bleckmann’s gay identity helps him traverse the male-singing-female-verse switcheroo with greater ease than many another vocalist. Keeping lyrical tenses and gender pronouns in place, he also manages to render irrelevant the soprano surreality too many admirers fetishize at the expense of Bush’s comedic and literary gifts. And while the original versions of these songs deserve credit for pioneering synthesizers in the pop realm, Bleckmann’s spare touch and austere settings may yet age more gracefully. Rock fans with a weakness for burlesque will have plenty to chew over - “Cloudbursting” winking at Laurie Anderson, “Violin” thrashing along like early Dead Kennedys, “Army Dreamers” flat-out hilarious. Jazz enthusiasts will eat up a swaggering “Saxophone Song”. Ballads such as “All The Love” and “Hello Earth” are simply lovely. Not necessarily an easy sell. But if the excessive theatricality of the project turns you off, as it well might, just examine the source material.
Nguzunguzu, Warm Pulse (Hippos In Tanks)
An “official debut” following the usual remixes, download-only one-offs, DJ sessions, and vinyl singles from two Los Angelenos by way of Chicago, and bass music is what it is. Non-Miami Beach variety, although informed by that stubbornly persisting sub-genre - call it Global Bass, with several tracks on this EP betraying an easy facility with emerging African and South American dance trends. Vocals diced and accelerated, weird synth fragments embedded as hooks, police sirens fighting it out with a tweaked gloss on the theme from X-Files, and glistening piano lines of pure cheese atop programmed reggaeton. Standout track: “Smoke Alarm,” in which the skittering beats take off and the wordless vocals get punched and prodded.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Mature Themes (4AD)
Lyrical obscurantism wedded to pop hooks, the latter of which are undeniably expert and undoubtedly appeal to followers convinced of their man’s populism thanks to his familiarity with a storied 1970s hit parade. So scrape away all that grime and listen hard. “Backlit jacuzziwad will fondle yer ass,” giggles the master satirist before spending 4.35 ambling around inside “Schnitzel Boogie”. Since he’s clearly a pop historian of sorts, it’s worth pointing out The Descendents managed to close down “Weiner Schnitzel” in 10 seconds flat. Not nearly funny enough to justify his indulgences. Better vocals than Edison Lighthouse, though.
Yeasayer, Fragrant World (Secretly Canadian)
Ambitious, unique, committed, and utterly unengaging, these Brooklynites clump towards an empty dancefloor with the misunderstood lessons of r&b cradled in their arms, driven in their quest to resurrect or at least preserve “uncool music,” and perhaps they succeed. With melody and song structure dismissed as eccentricities, tracks are mere excuses for synthesized chordal clusters, approximations of white-boy soul some generous folks have compared to Prince, and lyrical whimsy touching upon vague regrets and the inexorable march of time. I say pay attention when Chris Keating hoots “I don’t believe in much” - fun as it is to ponder dancing atop Ronald’s bones, nothing about club-hopeful “Reagan’s Skeleton” suggests this crew has the capacity to apply what they’ve learned of the outside world to their art. But perhaps it’s best they avoid specifics, as witness this plea for action: “we’re doomed / consumed by all the truck fumes”.