Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t (Secretly Canadian)
If melodies were all this affable Swede offered, he’d still be worth a few careful spins, because melody unadorned with or hampered by noise, scruff, distance, or tomfoolery is a rare enough commodity in today’s pop market. Yet he’s also a committed craftsman and an able arranger, enhancing the gorgeously upbeat “Become Someone Else’s” with “Queen Jane Approximately” piano trills while finding room for not-bad saxophone solos within any number of these jazz-inflected story-songs. If at times the music drifts towards schmaltz - all those nylon-string guitar runs and rising strings - well, these tales of gently lost love were never going to be hard-hitting exposes of the agonized soul, anyway. But neither are they mushy in theme or construction. As deft with a turn of phrase as he is comfortable doling out perfectly rendered details, steadfastly uninterested in self-pity or -delusion, when he asks somebody to buy him a drink, it’s so he can refuse to toast his own loneliness, since he’s perhaps witnessed too many bathetic barroom tributes to nothing, as indeed we all have. Likewise, when connecting his own broken heart with Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, the idea is to flesh out a state of mind, not make idle comparisons, although the world does indeed shrug its shoulders at all degrees of tragedy. If such sentiments risk banality, there’s often a cheerful realpolitik undercutting his most wide-eyed pronouncements, like a title tune making the pitch to marry for the citizenship papers before wisely concluding “a relationship doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit”. And I’ll admit finding some solace during our season of misanthropy from these defiantly uncynical lines: “I was in Washington, DC / for the election / and when they announced the results / I left the procession / content in the world’s direction”.
Pussy Riot, Kill The Sexist! (free download)
Obviously, Western cultural observers find these balaclava-clad punk rock women more immediately comprehensible than such Chinese contemporaries as Ai Weiwei or Liu Xiaobo, the latter of whom could teach the RNC something about the efficacy of using empty chairs for political statements. But this collective’s tiny output of material signifies as more than radical rhetoric. It’s funny, furious, nasty, playful, and unrepentantly retrograde, which should surprise nobody with a working knowledge of Russian Federation history and the slow exchange of commercial capital. Riot grrrl isn’t the proper comparison, anyway - interviews make clear the primary musical influence of such Oi! pioneers as the Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects, an ethos more resolutely anti-fascist than its eventual National Front-compromised reputation might suggest. The Rejects literally supply the brightest riff on this 6-song, ten-minute, not-for-sale free download (easily supplemented with separately-downloadable and relatively-higher-quality new single “Putin Lights Up The Fires”), in which a clumsily-sampled “I’m Not A Fool” serves as the bedrock over which calls to “Kill The Sexist” are lobbed. Yet the creepily dissonant “Kropotkin Vodka” is hardly a throwback, muffled no wave guitars surging alongside what sounds like electronic drums for 1.35. And while you might not need a lyric sheet to get how that song references a 19th century anarcho-communist, you’d need one anyway to catch such lines as “the Egyptian air is good for the lungs / let’s do a Tahrir on the Red Square,” or a list of grievances including “feminists sent home on maternity leave”. In an ostensibly European capital city that has banned Pride parades and gunned down Anna Politkovskaya, these dissidents would be inspirational even if they weren’t serving out prison sentences for speaking truth to Putin’s power.
Ken Silverman, Visionaries (SoundSeer)
Sure, Anthony Braxton’s For Alto tributes to John Cage, Murray dePillars and “My Friend Kenny McKenny” were cryptic, too, but they did at least screech and burn from time to time. Here, a downtown performer adds his own oud, charango, and synthesizer to guitars both acoustic and electric for nine slow-moving and backhanded compliments to musical greats - warm-up exercises, for better or worse. Bolivian legend Ernesto Cavour survives his encounter, but an appropriately whimsical keyboard figure for Syd Barrett turns in circles for six endless minutes. No doubt Silverman’s admiration for T-Bone Walker is authentic. Yet he only wishes he wielded such single-string authority. And if Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grave isn’t exactly desecrated, it’s certainly not kept clean.