[in these final two weeks of the year, gonna play catch up with notable 2012 albums that either passed me by or simply never made their way into one of the columns]
Death Grips, The Money Store (Epic)
It wasn’t until the calendar year lodged yet another blood-drenched example of our nation’s disastrous fealty to a single amendment that I began to sort out the words that make this chaotic blast of damaged “hip-hop” something more than just chaos. Not that the music hadn’t made its expertly-assembled point - stuffed full with rhythmic complexity, resolutely unpleasant, yet given to unexpected bursts of melodic sweetening and more hooks than first seemed possible, these thirteen mostly-brief tracks offered something genuinely new to the pop/rock voice even as the grimey keyboard riff throughout “I’ve Seen Footage” helped ground vocal cadences beholden to no less an old-school anthem than “It’s Tricky”. But what makes this album the most unlikely major label offering since David S. Ware signed to Columbia are the indefatigable lyrical rounds of aggression, despair, violence, lunacy, and odes to conduct disorder that help paint a portrait of an end-stage capitalist society losing its grip on the social order. Sometimes they think the situation is funny: “make your water break in the Apple store,” “havin’ conversations with your car alarm,” “punks livin’ soft while I ride that bomb,” “fuck a job / might have to rob”. Sometimes they don’t: “it’s such a long way down,” “shed my skin / leave it for the homeless to sleep in,” “born with a ski mask on my face”. Other times they seek relief the only way they know how: “drilled a hole in my head / pierced the bone and felt the breeze”. And when they confront the sickness of a carnage-obsessed spectator culture manifesting itself most obviously on YouTube (“hand held dream / shot in hell”), they make clear one can only rail against the military-industrial complex for so long before accepting some personal culpability in our long slide down.
Iris DeMent, Sing The Delta (FlariElla Records)
True, sixteen long years after The Way I Should, her voice no longer runs quite as pure and clear as a mountain stream. Yet the relative darkening and/or thickening of her timbre only deepens these tales of a remembered Pentecostal Arkansas childhood, years she remembers with the clarity and obfuscation worthy of an artist as self-consciously southern as Robert Penn Warren or Flannery O’Connor. Admirably devoted to the art of plainspeak for a writer boasting such literary smarts, had she kicked just a few more of these tales of the Alluvial Plain into slightly brisker tempos, her achievement might rank alongside that of her mid-90s career summation. As it is, sensible tributes to mother and father sit alongside three explicit denials of faith as persuasive and moving as 1992’s “Let The Mystery Be”. There’s the insistence that secular love saves one as surely as faith (“There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven”), a gentle yet firm dismissal of the rapture’s false promises (“The Kingdom Has Already Come”), and the outwardly calm “The Night I Learned How Not To Pray”. Her very own A Death In The Family, it’s a tale of family tragedy told with the clear-eyed passion of Loretta Lynn or Merle Haggard. God allows her brother to bleed to death, and she’s been rejecting his tyranny ever since.
Death Grips, No Love Deep Web (self-released)
Neatly concluding a sonically distinct triptych encompassing the avant-rock splattershit of Exmilitary and the not-totally-averse-to-songcraft aggro of The Money Store, here’s where MC Ride, Zach Hill and Andy Morin indulge themselves in a low end industrial zone that gets more polarizing as it nears cohesion. What saves their efforts from being consigned to a noise underground that swells mightily under the weight of failed experiments is the way they always pull up just as they edge towards the grotesque - hurl any number of epithets their way, but perverse won’t stick, even (or especially) when they’re trafficking in gleefully offensive absurdities like “I’m the coat hanger in your man’s vagina” or that throbbing member enshrined on the cover as it inches toward the ceiling. That sort of black humor works wonders, even as elsewhere the collective slides into despair, ie, “fuck this world / fuck this body”. I can’t quite share their nihilism. But sometimes I do know what they mean.
Santigold, Master Of My Make Believe (Atlantic)
This globally rhythmic indie pop is super-catchy and fetchingly produced, with plenty of winsome electronic flourishes and vocals so relaxed and charming they obscure the fact that the entire project has taken four years to realize. But Santi White never seems comfortable embracing the shallow pleasures which remain her major gift, as made clear in her public statement that this album’s conceptual purpose is celebrating “creating your own reality”. And here I thought it was a hummable collection of self-esteem vagaries, as witness “another roadblock in our way / but if we go, we go together”. Or “you can make it alone if you try / they’ll never see your fire till you make it out”. And “what happens when you get stuck? / get to the bottom of the illusion that you’re in”. Do you want more?
Grizzly Bear, Shields (Warp)
One really doesn’t wish to crush another’s dreams. It’s obvious these fellows invested quite a bit of time arranging everything and tracking down interesting percussive devices and performing group calisthenics in preparation for executing all those tricky time signatures. Why, the stunningly tasteful rippling acoustic breakdown midway through opener “Sleeping Ute” alone likely required hours of finger strengthening exercises. And who knows, if they’d winged it, we might all have been denied that perfectly deployed guitar pedal or filter or whatever it is permeating “Yet Again,” or thrilled to the way these master thieves inserted a melodic lift from The Hollies’ “Bus Stop” into the chorus of “gun-shy”. For all the pretty touches, though, they still sound pretty dumb even when they’re not cooing and humming - when Daniel Rossen laments “if I could be still as that gray hill / but I can’t help myself,” most of us will reflect upon how we’ve never once been struck by Rossen’s manic energy. And while easily impressed chamber-pop enthusiasts might need to fumble for their earplugs as this ursine collective wiggle slightly away from their inhibitions on “Speak In Rounds” in order to “rock” “out”, it still sounds awfully rehearsed.
Scott Walker, Bish Bosch (4AD)
Far more interesting to me than the clattering artsong our exiled chansonnier reigns over are the highbrow signifiers employed by critics wishing to make clear how much homework their reviews required. Of all the many references to cultural figures you’d never once see cited in a Katy Perry piece, the Jacques Brel comparisons at least make a historical/stylistic sense, just as talk of Schoenberg is accurate in a let’s-name-an-expressionist-composer-that-some-people-have-heard-of kind of way. After that, the floodgates open - Adorno, Cassavetes, Mahler, Beckett, Xenakis, Celan, Pound, Joyce. Not that this sprawling examination of dying empire and distant nebulae is humorless, what with a winking title and encounters with a “Roman who’s proof that Greeks fucked bears”. But Joyce’s idioglossia signified as more than just semantic deconstruction. Brel was known to sing from time to time, as opposed to Walker’s hour-long recitativo (an ironic commentary on post-Wagnerian preferences for through-composition? why is nobody else asking these questions?). And if the guy from Interpol belted out a line like “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face,” we’d collapse in helpless laughter, wouldn’t we? Well, wouldn’t we?