Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 60)


Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits     (Merge)

Indie’s relationship with r&b remains problematic even if plenty of tangible evidence suggests the kids finally get it - no longer would Greg Dulli stick out like a sore thumb amidst the grunge hordes. But the funk/soul edge on display within this Handsome Furs/Spoon side project shares space with an 80s synthpop pastiche far more propulsive than the real thing, a propulsion owing much to keyboards conceived as both percussive device and six-string substitute. Guitars make their case for visitation rights near the end of “Shivers,” and “Civilian Stripes” serves as a welcome acoustic respite midway through. Yet a keyboard soul joint is what this is, in part thanks to Canadian Dan Boeckner and Texan Britt Daniels, tastefully emoting over arrangements the absolute antithesis of fussy. What those voices are saying aren’t always the main attraction, not with a band keeping the groove front and center even while somebody claims to look out over the Salton Sea (from where, exactly — Bombay Beach?) in an American-dream-down-the-toilet denouement. Far preferable to such forced set pieces are three reasonable queries: “Can’t you see me waving?”, “Would that not be nice?”, “Is it really good, the quiet life?”

Branford Marsalis Quartet, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes     (Marsalis Music)

Even if Marsalis himself remains too comfortably ensconced within a specifically identified zone to startle (in the studio, at least - in concert is another story), this new band benefits from what may be dubbed The Tony Williams Effect, in which a young drummer forces his elders to rise to the occasion. Here that effect is instituted by Justin Faulkner, still one year distant from drinking legally amid three pros pushing fifty. His drums cook on an “Endymion” that opens up for equally inspired runs courtesy of Joey Calderazzo’s piano and the leader’s tenor sax, even as Faulkner and Marsalis make blatant their debt to Thelonious Monk on a version of “Teo” finding the pianist just as steadfastly avoiding direct quotes. Yet as always, mid-60s Miles remains the obvious inspiration, from Calderazzo laying out for most of “Whiplash” while the rhythm section does its thing with atmospheric ballads “As Summer Into Autumn Slips” and “Maestra,” both of which showcase Marsalis’ exceptionally full-toned soprano. And they close with a hardly old-fashioned backward glance at the 1930s standard “My Ideal,” a smoky nocturne that’s as much a tribute to the bravura tone of Sonny Rollins as it is to the composition itself.


Bob Dylan, Tempest     (Columbia)

At the risk of offending true believers, would it be impolitic to question how many admirers claiming these ten songs represent an artistic high water mark listened straight through to the end before reaching their conclusions? Because while the inflicted wounds aren’t fatal, the final three songs/thirty minutes lurch listlessly away from the nimble swing of a house band and the jocular borrowings of cultural detritus high and low that color the first seven songs/thirty-eight minutes. A lengthy examination of the Titanic’s final moments gains strength from the repetition of its primeval melody, even if the emotional distancing on display staggers the narrative somewhat. But “Tin Angel” is a slog, and if the concluding John Lennon tribute claims a higher quality than all those 1977 Elvis elegies, did Ronnie McDowell’s “The King Is Gone” lean heavily on a line (nay, refrain) as substandard as “shine your light / you burned so bright”? Even taking into consideration the power of a ‘60s nostalgia that may appeal as much to Dylan as anybody, such vagaries are beneath him, especially given the gut-punch of earlier observations: “I ain’t seen my family in twenty years / that ain’t easy to understand / they may be dead by now / I lost track of them after they lost their land”. And while death is clearly on his mind, he only wallows in morbidity near album’s end. Long before that final act, The Bard makes clear he hasn’t yet renounced amorous activities nor an interest in contemporary politics, as see the promise to bury his head amid a lady’s bosom and a Muddy Waters/Bo Diddley hate letter to the 1%. No doubt Dylanologists will have fun parsing the references to Blake and Spenser. But the lyric I’m still pondering comes from deep within lovely opener “Duquesne Whistle”: “I can hear a sweet voice steadily calling / must be the mother of our lord”.

The xx, Coexist     (XL / Young Turks)

Proceeding directly from the not-illogical thesis that follow-ups should strip away the most immediately approachable aspects of successful debuts, this enigmatic duo+sonic overseer retain much of the formula (or shtick, if you’re unkind) helping distinguish 2009’s fairly amazing The xx - murmured boy/girl vocals, guitar as echoed blip on the radar screen, minimal electronic thump. But if that debut utilized these tendencies to prop up relationship lyrics whose gloom was always tempered by calm detail, here the love laments seem less connected to any concrete specificity. “We used to be closer than this,” “did I see you see me in a new light,” “I saw you again,” “we act like we had never met,” “are we all we could be,” “tell me how did this come to be,” “why do I refuse you,” and many other variations on this-isn’t-working-out summations drift by. In one sense, such shortcomings of craft shouldn’t matter much - the debut always suggested warm-hearted aesthetes at work, not songwriters. But when you remix your own album down to a minimalist tract in which melody plays an ever-smaller role, details would help.


Cat Power, Sun     (Matador)

Boy, have the appraisers outdone themselves with the historical/aesthetic comparisons to this modest offering from the indie Natalie Merchant - a quick glance among positive reviews finds Shirley Ellis, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Pussy Riot, Al Green, Leo Tolstoy and FutureSex/LoveSounds-era Justin Timberlake cited approvingly. Yet all I hear is the same old Chan Marshall, defined as always by her unexceptional exceptionalism along with a vaguely “dance” production apotheosized by the jive swagger of “3, 6, 9,” a paean to or lament for somebody else’s alcohol abuse, complete with Auto-Tune. If you’ve hung on her every sigh and swoon since the early days, little touches like quoting noted lyricist George Harrison or sampling the cry of a red-tailed hawk may induce chills. But best of luck with an eleven-minute anti-bullying ballad wielding both a fake ending and Iggy Pop at his most exasperatingly lounge.

tobyMac, Eye On It     (ForeFront)

It’s not as if this CCM superstar’s earlier incarnation as theoretical hip-hop emissary to suburban worshippers produced much in the way of lasting art, either. But even if debuting on Billboard’s 200 at number one no longer carries the weight it once did, this is dreadfully pedestrian hackwork. And just as believers once fooled themselves re: DC Talk’s relationship with the rap mainstream, so now are acolytes kidding each other about toby’s comprehension of a “dubstep” that I’m sure he’s read about and may even have streamed once or twice. As for the Christian subtext, it’s subtle, but not so subtle as to avoid lines like “now you can go and play it like you’re all rock and roll/ But guilt does a job on each and every man’s soul”.