Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 64)


PICKS

Pink, The Truth About Love     (RCA)

Roughly half of these songs prominently feature the glossy foofaraw that defines contemporary pop production, a sound as intrinsic to our era as slap bass or the TR-808 was to others. For better or worse, it’s the way superstars speak to the world, and lucky for us that a superstar as acute as Pink uses it as merely one cudgel in her considerable arsenal. Because in her unclassifiable way, she’s managed to pump out the most easily enjoyable rock album in a year noticeably lagging in guitar anthems - if one can’t discern within her expert choruses a clear affinity with top-tier classic rock, you have to ask what exactly people loved about guitar acts to begin with. Since she’s got a mouth on her and because she refuses to dumb down her thought patterns for an audience she obviously respects, casual admirers overstate her spunkiness and cursing at the expense of her humor and generosity. Besides, all pop stars these days have filthy mouths. What’s rather unique is her ability to showcase the more humdrum realities of being married-with-children against a fantasy life that maintains a healthy sexual autonomy, like the kiss-off to a hapless ex who’ll come crawling back the moment his new squeeze gets carded for beer, the brazen pride manifest in a walk of shame she seems nostalgic for, and the alpha female glee with which she out-sluts the first pretty boy to catch her eye one bored and horny night. Only the alpha female thing is no fantasy, not when this master thief steals Blur’s best hook right out from under them on the slut anthem, nor when she lays claim to The Black Keys on the blues-rock stomp “How Come You’re Not Here” before kicking their scrawny asses all the way back to Akron. And if her nyah-nyah-nyah’s on opener “Are We All We Are” double as a call to political action, that’s just one more way she wonders aloud why she can’t have everything both ways.

Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream     (RCA)

At issue remains a personality deficit rather de rigueur for a school of r&b driven far more by production/beats than exposition/narrative, and if Miguel’s lifted hooks were as blatant as Coldplay or Siouxsie Sioux samples, indie trendspotters might not be so late to the appreciatory game playing out in the music press. But those Frank Ocean and The Weeknd comparisons don’t compute, not with a decidedly casual sex life celebrated unreservedly behind the oversized eyewear that remains his most distinguishing characteristic. Since words are more than secondary to sounds, his kinks and prejudices hardly startle - much as he might dig that colossal ass, he’s upfront about how that ass’s owner is a waste of time if he’s not pounding it by song’s end, and while insecurities arise throughout the defensive pep-talk “Pussy Is Mine,” it’s unclear if we’re meant to snicker when the male narrator marvels at how he “always come[s]” during lovemaking sessions. But he sure sounds like he’s having more fun in the bedroom than his many neurotic contemporaries. And speaking of fun, does this guy know how to ride the studio, from the spooky new wave charge of “Arch & Point,” the Chi-Lites sunshine vibe of “Do You…” or the Beatle sighs of the Labi Siffre-quoting title track, the bass/drums loop grounding “Where’s The Fun In Forever,” and always those magnetic vocals gliding over the beat. Perhaps the relevance-straining pomposities of the concluding track highlight his deficiencies. But at least those hazy thoughts suggest an inquisitive mind aware there’s more to life than digging booty out like it’s a fossil. 

NEAR PICKS

Paul Dunmall / Tony Bianco, Thank You To John Coltrane    (Slam Productions)

Maybe the world doesn’t need another Coltrane tribute album, and twenty-eight uninterrupted minutes of “Expression” would be a hard sell even if the great man himself was playing on it. But this British multi-saxophonist is chameleonic enough to have put in time with both Alice Coltrane and Johnny “Guitar” Watson stateside before returning home to carve out his impressive and uncompromising path through improvisatory music, and while evidence of his debt to the subject matter may be evinced on any number of earlier sessions, it is here that Dunmall achieves an eerie simulacrum of the impermeable world of late-era Coltrane, with London-based drummer/percussionist Tony Bianco an expert foil. Avoiding the harshest extremes of the over-blowing and multiphonics that partially defined the final years of their honoree, the duo still manage to rage through the canon with spiritual propulsion and unflagging energy.   And while things rarely let up, the stroke of genius was recasting 1959’s “Giant Steps” as a forgotten track from 1967‘s Interstellar Space, with Bianco ably assuming the role of Rashied Ali as Dunmall morphs the familiar melody into the realm of the transcendent. 

Jessie Ware, Devotion     (Universal Island)

The great danger when r&b chanteuses and mack daddies assume propriety in order to float above the fray - above the sweaty horizontal activities of which they speak, above the editing techniques of able-if-gauche producers - is the risk of actively courting disengagement instead of merely suggesting its possibilities. Put another way, when an r&b chanteuse assumes propriety, she has nobody but herself to blame when even sympathetic observers start grumbling about Sade. And the comparisons are apt - vocals pleasing yet hardly distinct, grooves stubbornly midtempo, hooks present if not insistent, musical settings too, too smooth. A nice little piece like the skipping-along “110%” suggests where she might take herself when mining the adult contemporary fields of the very Sadean “Running” begins to lose its charm. Unfortunately, “Running” was the lead single.

BOMBS

Taken By Trees, Other Worlds     (Secretly Canadian)

Swedish/Hawaiian dub is what Victoria Bergsman and her able henchman claim within these forty-one minutes, and they’re not wrong. Pedal steel indeed echoes atop skanky rhythms, sampled bird calls do jostle for space alongside crashing waves, vocals of serene detachment certainly murmur along. If one remembers fondly the cultural slumming likes of Trader Vic’s, by all means program these inoffensive and inexpert melanges into your daily routine. But remember the wisdom of Dr. Johnson - one should be surprised to find Swedish/Hawaiian dub done at all.   

Matt & Kim, Lightning     (FADER Label)

Kim’s the “drummer,” Matt’s the hyper-enunciatory dork, and together two class presidents offer tangible proof of indie rock’s ongoing descent. If standards counted for anything within the Brooklyn bubble, such empty anthems would be consigned to the realm of Target ads, although savvy consumers might still reject the ingratiating sales pitches out of hand. Inspirational Verse, sung in breathless joy: “I know that things aren’t perfect / socks with holes, no one noticed / sneakers off, laces still tied / sometimes truth sounds just like lies.”