Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 92)


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PICKS

Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City    (XL)

There are legitimate reasons to despise this band, like if you reject melody on principle or insist upon confusing middle class benefits with leisure class privilege. But the charms of their self-titled debut and Contra now seem of a piece - stripped-down guitar pop aware of a big wide world beyond alt prototypes wedded to unabashedly literate lyrics, two qualities that remain no-no’s among certain indie consumers because even bohemians downplay their intellect. These twelve brief-yet-sprawling numbers are something different, a sustained argument in favor of studio overkill as a means of highlighting melodic songcraft, so hands-on and fussy the first few casual listens reveal little more than overburdened merriment. Yet immerse yourself in the shock tactics of Ezra Koenig’s electronically modified vocals on Buddy-Holly-meets-drum-kit-avalanche mashup “Diane Young”. Willingly accept piano codas, reggae organ, uilleann pipes, and Grover Washington in place of guitar lines. Cede this multicultural crew their right to sample “Keep Cool Babylon” and swipe lyrics from Junior Reid. Celebrate Koenig’s erudite yet earnest grapples over an agnosticism he can’t stop worrying about (“born to live without You”). And finally acknowledge how rare it is for a supposedly overburdened studio concoction to transmit such simple pleasures as the east coast/west coast divide of “Hannah Hunt” (“I miss those freezing beaches”) or complex meditations like “Hudson,” which thinks aloud about place-naming, real estate as act of genocide, and melting pot agony/ecstasies, amid an ironic embrace of flag and country softly echoing ee cummings’ song of Olaf. All this plus tunes. Baroque and roll! 

Daft Punk, Random Access Memories     (Columbia)

After all the hype and the billboards and the soft launch and the promotional rollouts and the breathless interviews and the helmets, questions remain - why construct such a temple of inconsequence? Why meticulously labor over crystalline analog sound if only to showcase paranoid androids and wise eurozone narrators and camouflaged hipsters? Why devote a reported 250 tracks to a Dixieland-flecked Paul Williams soft-shoe routine? One possible answer: people asked the same outraged questions about disco’s bad taste back in rockist days of yore. Perhaps Thomas and Guy are just continental elites guiding stateside yobs through a history tour the robot duo assumes our educational system can’t/won’t supply. Or maybe this is more like Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock - undeniable intellect wedded to a specifically Gallic warmth. Finding a use for the guy from Panda Bear, letting Pharrell Williams and Todd Edwards do their funky/soft rock thing, anointing the click track as Big Beat, insisting first wave disco was the height of electronica, they adore Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder and want you to, too. As for monster hit “Get Lucky,” it’s a welcome reminder that ubiquity still counts for something, goddammit. 

 

 

NEAR PICKS

Homeboy Sandman, Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent    (Stones Throw)

This at first seems a bit trifling, just twenty-seven minutes of well-sampled rock/funk grooves, studded with empty space to perhaps impart that old-school vibe alluded to in the tributary title. But the samples are pretty good, from brassy closer to afro-funk (“Oh, The Horror”) to the sun-dappled Francophone psychedelia on “Eleanor Rigby”-nodding “Lonely People”. And as always, the guy’s been thinking and he has some things to say - about black-on-black crime (“that’s your pocket you robbing”), about things he wishes you wouldn’t assume (like “I left school,” “pack tools,” “left school” or “hate[s] homosexuals,”) about kangaroos and possums (“big up to marsupials / carrying fam”). And in between the tossed-away references to Nerfertiti and Tut, his gentle afrocentrism (fertile crescent, yes?) takes a good long look at history: “a conquest extends upon realms, never charted / where young flesh with color like tar be the target / for centuries, before the Red Sea was ever parted”. 

The Black Dog, Tranklements   (Dust Science Limited) 

Ah, Sheffield - home to Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, Heaven 17 and ABC and Human League, and also this long-running project, quietly dedicated over the past twenty years to making a sustained argument in favor of techno as an art of permanence. As is nearly always the case with good techno vs. run-of-the-mill techno, details matter. So while crisp beats and throbbing/thudding dynamics make their noteworthy contributions, it’s the light touches and mild effects carrying the day, so consistently varied they seem improvised even if there’s no possible way they weren’t painstakingly programmed. If it’s danceability you seek in electronica, consult the two “Pray Crash” tracks. But if you’re willing to wander a bit farther afield, consider “Cult Mentality” (Basic Channel forward momentum plus melody) or album-concluding “Spatchka,” a charming, chiming Cluster-worthy exercise which accomplishes in seven minutes what took The Knife seventeen minutes  - ambient bliss.

The Pastels, Slow Summits     (Domino Recording Co.)

Shuffling along to their own patented (il)logic, a band quietly amassing no more than a handful of albums since their 1982 genesis sheepishly coughs up one more. As always, the tunes fall a bit short - if only others tiptoed up to the quality of charming boy/girl bounce “Check My Heart”. I blame producer John McEntire for the twin trumpets straight outta Bacharachville, the hushed strings, the flute solos, the fact that the longest song by far is one of two sluggish instrumentals. But the nice thing about being inconsequential is how you can get away with being a bit half-assed. And this continues Glasgow’s hallowed tradition of imparting lustful observations over rain-drenched tracks: “I could touch you through your clothes,” Stephen Pastel remembers with a grin on the steamily dripping “Summer Rain”. Then the flute solo takes over. 

 

BOMB

Lady Antebellum, Golden   (Capitol Nashville)

In a great year for country music, Lady Antebellum would like to introduce you to some of their favorite country artists: Don Henley, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Hornsby. Also, hey hey, Stevie Nicks, although “Golden” is absolutely no “Landslide” no matter what the ever-politic Ms. Nicks is telling the press. Devoid of poetic imagery, over-explaining every emotion and basic human interaction, this trio produces music as lazily received as their ickily nostalgic name. Ground-breaking, in their own way, as the artists themselves helpfully notate in a concluding hubristic howler: “If I was a preacher, I’d wanna be Dr. King/ Oh, I know he’s up there smiling down cause we all still have a dream/ Hey, what can I say? / I hope they talk about us that way /There ain’t no place I’d rather be / Than right here making history”.