LV, Sebenza (Hyperdub)
If last year’s spoken word glitchfest Routes suffered in direct proportion to the power these three South London producers granted guest speaker Joshua Idehen, this follow up thrives thanks to the free reign given a trio of South African kwaito contemporaries, and broadening horizons beyond Bromley and Croydon have done these fellows a world of good. With grime and UK funky rubbing up against Soweto’s latest musical export, the flitting beats and synth clusters are uncommonly addictive for both latter-day house and electro-pop, to name two genres these songs both suggest and move beyond. But it’s clear the dance tracks exist for the Xhosa/English rhymes of their guests. Cape Town duo Ruffset are awarded the memorable hooks, with both “Hustla” and bonus track “Uthando Lwaka” anchored by keyboard licks seemingly shuttled over from some old Kashif joint. Relative big name Spoek Mathambo makes the most of his six minutes, floating over the creepy downtempo “Work” and riding the beat hard on a brief “Limb”. But the revelation is Johannesburg vocalist Okmalumkoolkat, who graces 8 of 14 tracks with teasing braggadocio and the fragmentary logic of a dub toaster, so enthused by the possibilities of a social media finally permeating his society that he twice references his blog, assumes Macintosh as a surname, and promises to skype whilst cycling. His boasts include an IP address and a Zulu-derived work ethic, his threats concern spitting cobras and the Ebola virus - just like him, it’s “highly contagious”.
Elle Varner, Perfectly Imperfect (RCA)
Varner’s deliberate avoidance of contemporary r&b technique could be construed as an act of conservatism from this daughter of Los Angeles industry pros. But there’s hardly a reliance upon neo-soul tropes, either - big guitars bolstering the bigger pop hooks of her midday romp in “Sound Proof Room,” sawing fiddle lodged throughout the I-need-it-one-more-time plea “Refill,” coffeehouse-friendly acoustic strums on a just-friends lament. Yet the production’s hardly the main attraction, not with Varner’s fetching gravel timbre lending itself well to narratives balancing the direct requests of the sexually confident with the second guessing of the self-aware, no less sexy for playing the neurotic naif when it suits her purposes. Sometimes these self-criticisms are delivered with a grin (“I’ve never had game / no, never”), sometimes with self-pity (“I’ve got a beautiful soul / but only four people know”), sometimes self-defensively (“If you’re looking for me / I’m the stupid girl”), sometimes all three, as on pep talk “So Fly”. “I can’t help being depressed / when I look down at my chest,” she avers, chiding herself for being “governed by material things”. Yet her requests remain reasonable, her dreams earthbound - consumer durables and a suburban lawn, lovers who keep their appointments, a fellow clubgoer to hail a cab when she wouldn’t dream of risking a DUI.
Lee Konitz / Bill Frisell / Gary Peacock / Joey Baron, Enfants Terribles: Live At The Blue Note (Half Note Records)
One glance at a set list awash in familiarity (“Stella By Starlight,” huh?) might dampen interest in this all-star quartet concert recording, and word has it one label exec tried to nix Konitz’s offerings in favor of something a bit less timeworn. But even jazz adepts might have difficulty identifying some of the tunes featured on this lonesome stroll through popular standards, so completely have familiar heads been subdued. “Body And Soul” opens with a Joey Baron drum solo heavy on brushes before an instantly-recognizable Bill Frisell initiates conversation with the eighty-five year old alto sax “leader,” that duty placed inside scare quotes as there would seem to be no preconceived set list, arrangements, or delegation - in fact, since Konitz has trouble naming his bandmates at record’s end, perhaps a briefing on who was sharing the bandstand wasn’t part of the group plan, either. Still, this is open-ended group music that willingly forsakes energy for the quiet wisdom that comes from knowing such songs inside and out. Konitz sounds about as ragged as he did on last year’s magisterial “Live At Birdland,” which is to say his tone sometimes shows his age. But Frisell always has his back, and rattles off plenty of jokes, too, from the Link Wray chord at the end of his “I Remember You” solo to the hoedown chicken pickin’ softly closing the aforementioned “Stella By Starlight,” an unlikely development that nevertheless makes perfect sense in context.
Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth (Merge)
One dozen dispatches from society’s cast-offs, this time centered in a vaguely delineated Pacific Northwest whose inhabitants suffer more outwardly than any of Raymond Carver’s alcoholic emotional wrecks. But even if John Darnielle were to contest obvious comparisons to that Washington state ascetic, I say this is where Darnielle’s Weltschmerz finally falls victim to the “vague encomiums” noted amid first person details on last year’s All Eternals Deck. It’s not that he’s lost his lyrical dexterity, not with pagan deity Baphomet appearing within a tale of Christian duplicity or the ode to paranoia in which a feckless narrator smears shoplifted sunscreen across his face. It’s that sentiments which might once have been cut with a bit of irony are now delivered with gravitas - “perfect howl of emptiness,” “I am just a broken machine,” “no one screams ‘cuz it’s just me / locked up in myself / never gonna be free” - and that an ode to fishing alone amid the urban bustle ends with an act of self-mutilation that lays on the bathos a bit thick. Back when Darnielle was exploring ennui in Tallahassee, he might have turned his gaze to the tawdry world of contemporary underground fighting if a gladiator metaphor happened to catch his ear. These days, we watch as bronzed fighters roam the coliseum, spitting blood into the dust.
Wild Nothing, Nocturne (Captured Tracks)
At first, you think here’s finally a millennial who understands that what defined the zeitgeist of 80s semipopular pop wasn’t gadgets and effects but songwriting. But maybe you start to notice very little in the way of spontaneity, from each perfectly-coifed and -unfurled guitar line to the expert pulse of a, gosh, human drummer talked up plenty in the press releases. Then you wonder if even Ian McCulloch ever got as awkward as “it’s cold in your bed / and those flowers have long been dead”. Finally, you wonder why Jack Tatum didn’t embrace his own slightness by keeping these songs under four minutes, to say nothing of five minutes, which is probably when you’ll also start to notice all the gadgets and effects.
Swans, The Seer (Young God)
Yeah, yeah, they exemplify the tenacity and integrity of a noise underground capable of sustaining itself over several decades of growth and change. Sure, sure, they’ve managed to stay true to their origins while drifting closer to a rangy Americana both symphonic and brutal. And ok, ok, at least Michael Gira’s dusky fantasies seem set in a world recognizable as our own, not some goth Albion or cyberpunk arena. But this is very silly stuff from an artist nearing sixty - cowled monk chants opening “Lunacy,” the title track’s thirty-two minutes of ebb-and-pound, poetic statements like “the sun fucks the dawn”. At times, one expects to hear Jim Morrison croaking out “the west is the best” amidst all the grandiose monotony. At other times, this stuff brings to mind Robinson Jeffers, an admirable figure once feted for his realism whose poetic capacity now seems inextricably linked to his worldly indifference.