Joe Lovano, Cross Culture (Blue Note)
At first, the music doesn’t quite seem to jibe with the title, not in the way 1993’s Universal Language world-beat acknowledging compositions did. But in addition to Lovano’s steady tenor and G-mezzo soprano (which often get switched up midway through numbers), the leader tries his hand at such varied reed and percussive devices as the Hungarian tárogató, Belgian aulochrome, Israeli paddle drum, and Nigerian oborom, and on this twenty-second album for a supportive Blue Note, his assembled Us Five quintet unshowily contribute their own cross-cultural gifts. Breakout star Esperanza Spalding trades off with Peter Slavov on double-bass, pianist James Weidman shares space with standout Beninese electric guitarist Lionel Loueke, and the Cuba / New Jersey rhythm team of Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III guide a dual-drummer thrust (just like the Allman Brothers!) remarkable for how intuitively their competing discussions cohere. Aside from an Ellington/Strayhorn standard given a lovingly discursive reading, these Lovano originals rarely conform to head-solos-head arrangements. At times atmospheric (a quirkily waltzing title track or the empty spaces of a little instruments-enhanced “Golden Chant”), at other times swinging fully in the tradition (the like-Sonny bop of “Royal Roost”), Lovano’s never more engaging than on the three short numbers in which guitar and drums do their funky thing over the leader’s blasts - the Ornette thrash of “In A Spin,” the talking rhythms of “Drum Chant,” the punky “Well You Needn’t” deconstruction that is “Modern Man”. And the quintet plus one emotionally go out on a multi-structured closing elegy to departed friend Paul Motian, in which two riding cymbals pay tribute to “PM”’s unerring sense of time.
A$AP Rocky, LONG.LIVE.A$AP (A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)
This opens slow, literally - beats and chopped-and-screwed vocals stumbling lugubriously, with Rocky’s patented slo-mo “uhh” transposed into groans akin to creaking oaken doors, a dumb trick all the more appalling given its fealty to lyrics snickering about “blonde dykes” and “R. Kelly hoes gettin’ pissed on all night”. Make no mistake, Rocky’s rhymes rarely rise to the level of wordplay, and his endless boasts largely fall flat, whether the fashion maven is oafishly comparing himself to Martin Luther King or telling some bitch he’s got a tissue for her issues. But he sure knows how to tap producers, getting Skrillex to unleash mad-dog synth on “Wild For The Night” and submerging himself in the gauzy beats of homeboy Clams Casino on “LVL” and a Santigold-assisted “Hell”. And he’s got talented friends in the trenches, who he leans on to enliven the undeniable “Fuckin’ Problems” and who help fill out all six minutes of posse cut “1 Train,” the latter ultimately inconclusive the way most posse cuts are, even if the opportunity to hear Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, YelaWolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T. trade verses under one roof should whet the appetite of any “Scenario” enthusiast. And surprisingly enough, this hardly representative New Yorker winds up having a few things to say, and not just about a fashion world he knows well enough to have a bit of fun with (both “Pain” and love song “Fashion Killa” quickly muscle beyond standard bearers Dolce & Gabbana to name drop such luminaries as Jil Sanders, Lanvin, Raf Simons, and Jeremy Scott). He can’t forget those days of empty Christmases, sleeping “three to a bed / sheets, no covers,” how all the fondly remembered “cookouts and dirt bikes / and dice games and fist fights” rub up unavoidably against the shootouts that “left three dead”. All swanky heroics aside, he’s “only got one vision,” and that’s to “stay the fuck out of prison,” and one needn’t dig much deeper than that to explain away the ache underlying all his braggadocio about college girls writing his name on their toes.
Harmonia, Live 1974 (Groenland)
Re-pressed after several years of semi-availability, this concert recording memorializes the moment Michael Rother (of Neu!), Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Dieter Moebius (of Cluster) explored the simple rhythmic improvisatory possibilities only hinted at in Harmonia’s studio incarnation, a primal chug indebted to the unique capabilities of an electronic drum box steadfastly propelling each number here save for the shortest (the very Cluster-like tone poem “Arabesque”). Rother’s guitar calmly graces three tracks with the sweet glissando wail he patented on Neu! 1 and 2. The vintage analog synthesizers methodically construct psuedo-melodies of music box repetition. Two tracks extend beyond fifteen minutes. Techno in its infancy, with pulse front, center, and unvaried, no matter how many odd sounds coalesce around it.
Tracks: “Veteranissimo,” “Holta-Polta”
Lee Gamble, Dutch Tvashar Plumes (PAN)
Abstract techno, and plenty abstract at that, even if the experts claim this London-based ex-jungle fan is far less theoretical than the likes of Autechre. What helps keep these brief dispatches of bubble and squeak from signifying as mere computer music is an ever-present audio vérité hiss suggestive of such contemporaries as The Caretaker. But what also helps these tracks fight off the whiff of the academy are the snatches of sing-song melody and the woozily transparent 4/4 beats fluttering in and out of reach, too “scuzzy and fucked” for the dance floors Gamble’s suspicious of without committing wholeheartedly to an experimental scene he’s equally uncomfortable with. If it’s sing-song melody you seek, sample “Tvash Kwawar,” three quick minutes of bouncy synth balafon. For woozy beats, try the six minute synth wash that is “Coma Skank”. Other tracks get slightly more pedantic.
Tracks: “Tvash Kwawar,” “Coma Skank [BinocConverge Mix]”
St. Deluxe, Born Into Flame (Dream Machine)
For the Teenage Fanclub devotee in your life who wished Bandwagonesque had upped the anthemic quotient come Scottish lads who’ve thought hard about indie guitar to no particular avail. Major sticking point: Jamie Cameron’s gross Julian Casablancas-inspired vocals, which manage to sneer and simper all at once. The guitars are less problematic, with the mercifully brief “Your Blood” decent superfuzz bigmuff crunch. But then Cameron plods on for six slow minutes assuring somebody he knows how they feel, skids about on blood and slime while losing himself in Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead,” and spits out some cliches at “Jennifer,” who seems to have committed no crime more serious than entertaining “big ideas”. Did I mention those gross vocals?
Jason Castro, Only A Mountain (Word)
Only elitists insist no good music has come out of American Idol - even setting aside overachievers Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, one could easily compile a decent run of singles from any number of winners and also-rans. But when people say they despise what Simons Fuller and Cowell hath wrought, maybe they mean this guy, a “Hallelujah”-warbling fourth-place finalist who parlayed his relative fame into a ukelele version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” before worming his wide-eyed way onto Atlantic for a twenty-eight minute album that no doubt taxed his available resources. Three long years later, he’s gone Christian Contemporary on a small label, the better to bring his love for Maroon 5 and Jesus to whatever subset of the masses are interested. Gerard Manley Hopkins he’s not - on the “inspirational” title track, he oddly assumes the vocal cadences of Don Henley while preaching “this is only a mountain / you don’t have to find your way around it / tell it to move, it’ll move”.