Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos (Reprise)
This pussyhound has been worrying over gravity’s impact on his tail-chasing activities for decades, most notoriously on 1980’s “Hey Nineteen,” in which a teenager’s physical charms couldn’t overcome her cultural ignorance. But these days Fagen might welcome such relatively narrow generational chasms - at least that nineteen year old didn’t look at him and think “he’s ready for Jurassic Park,” to highlight one of several references to cold-blooded creeping things tossed about these nine jazz-pop portraits, including the straightest blues number ever set down by any permutation of Steely Dan. Called “Weather In My Head,” that number makes room for the clueless narcissism of a narrator convinced the “ocean of misery floodin’ my heart” counts as “my own Katrina,” singling out Al Gore for failing to halt climate change as it pertains to his inner temperature. This articulate asshole gets winningly contrasted with the clueless boomer aping what he imagines to be the language of the young on “I’m Not The Same Without You,” gushing that things are “awesome,” “really astounding,” and “way cooler” since he got dumped. So let Steely Dan experts compare the Ziegfeld canaries and squirting metal of the jive-talking crime tale “Good Stuff” to 1972’s altogether more existential “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again,” or file the somewhere-between-nineteen-and-thirty-eight-year-old D’Rhonda alongside Rikki and the Pearl of the Quarter. Fun as such exercises may be, I don’t mind Fagen’s gentle turn away from the cryptic, not when he still fools listeners into underestimating him. How else to explain the fact that most observers call out his Isaac Hayes cover as the ultimate White Negro raspberry even as the klezmer noises ground his claim that the ghetto he’s thinking about is Ashkenazi? Or that the memorabilia number explicitly references Castle Bravo and the fallout poisoning of Micronesia, complete with “a photo of laughing Navy types”? Still unable to leave the 1950s behind, those “souvenirs of perfect doom” ensure Fagen’s nostalgia is powered by the unhealthy glow of radiation. Pretty sunsets, though.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
Forget Music For 18 Musicians, forget Music In 12 Parts, forget Shaker Loops, forget The Well-Tuned Piano, maybe even forget In C - the greatest extended work of American minimalism remains Miles Davis’ 1974 tribute to Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly,” thirty-two droning minutes of beautiful unease defined by the leader’s electric organ and an ever-present pulse. By comparison, this long-running Canadian collective resembles the cymbal player in a pretentious high school marching band, always waiting for that big crescendo so they can hammer the point home. After ten years in the wilderness, GY!BE remain addicted as ever to grafting indie rock textures atop classical pomposities, “classical” as always defined by excessive track length and defiantly non-swinging tempos, which means they brandish an artistic vision only slightly less craven than that of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So don’t mistake these two long and two short sound constructions for major statements. Don’t confuse their flailing about for the music of the cosmos. But feel free to enjoy the noise, because it does get loud.
Tamaryn, Tender New Signs (Mexican Summer)
Claims that young people have no sense of history are as tiresome as they are wrong. Not only are “young people” often far more savvily aware of what’s preceded them than supposed elders and betters, the effort required to fully acquaint oneself with events not of one’s time is a tougher chore than merely living through things on the first go-around. Where bright young things screw up is when they neglect to weigh all historical forces at play in their pursuit of the past’s imagined glory, seeking out perfect trajectories through piecemeal assemblage. And so it goes with a New Zealand-born vocalist possessing working knowledge of every shoegaze outfit that preceded her yet an inability to grapple with the complex reasons so few first-generation shoegaze artists crafted compelling art. Third-generation shoegaze failures, on the other hand, are far more easily explained. It has something to do with Tamaryn never once indulging in the kind of skullfuckery that briefly made this oft-romanticized sub-genre worth turning up, if only to remind oneself what electric guitars were put on this earth for. It also has to do with fetishizing a vocal style that originally emerged by default. It has a lot to do with that fetishization, actually.