A Downloader's Diary's Diary


A DOWNLOADER’S DIARY (35): DECEMBER 2013

by Michael Tatum

A somewhat abbreviated month, at least by my usual standards — blame those hectic holidays. But don’t worry, I’m forsaking my usual habits and planning to continue sorting out 2013 in January and February of the new year. I haven’t heard the Childish Gambino yet (or Beyoncé, or for that matter Katy Perry). Until then, below you’ll find two of the best records of the year — disparaged by many others, but completely beloved by me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m exiting stage left to celebrate six years of marriage with Lady Gaga’s biggest fan.

The Dismemberment Plan: Uncanney Valley (Partisan) Travis Morrison’s concept album about maturity (which he dubs “the afterparty for the afterparty for the afterparty”) has been roundly dismissed by brash critics who might also dismiss parenthood as “overrated,” but luckily, Morrison has already anticipated their petty snickers. He refers to his forty-something self as a “fat nun on drugs/drowning in hugs” before that pop culture geek lollygagging in his parents’ basement can beat him to it, then goes out on a Vegas-style high note after rationalizing to a hapless blind date why he stood her up. Meanwhile, as an upstanding representative of Corporate America, he keeps his thing in his pants on a breathless tour of America’s Reston Parkways, and though I think we can all agree that Quantico, Dulles, and Ashburn are hardly loci for quality tail, we can admire his restraint regardless. Those primo yuks are all on the terrific first half. But the astonishing second half begins with two of what I can only describe as “standards,” whatever that antiquated term might mean in the Max Martin age. The extraordinary “Lookin’” celebrates a lifemate long after her aura of mystery has dissipated: “Just as a painter returns to his muse/With his hands more slow and sure/Once he wanted to paint her naked/Now he only wants to paint her.” And the poignant “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” eulogizes the things parents sacrifice for their children, then celebrates what they get in the bargain. Compare those two major statements to the emotional high point on 1999’s much-loved Emergency and I, a lumbering power ballad about romantic confusion — by comparison, kid stuff. And that same record’s sentimental “You Are Invited,” about a hypothetical invitation to an imaginary party, doesn’t have anything on this record’s carousing blowout closer: “When I say ‘cluster,’ you say ‘fuck’/Cluster-(fuck!)/Cluster-(fuck!)” See kids, maturity can be fun — even when it isn’t. A

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (Aftermath) I’m not especially worried Em is joining Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige in the sequel-to-a-landmark ploy, nor am I fazed by the commercial caution of the first single, which pays lame homage to Em’s supposed roots in Def Jam-era Beastie Boys — roots that no real fan of his actually believes exists anywhere other than in the abstract. I’m more concerned about a labyrinthine opener in which Stan’s little brother Mitchell plays the avenging angel for “all the bullies you hate/that you became/with every faggot you slaughtered/coming back on you/every women you insult.” We don’t need to be told Mathers has a double standard when it comes to his daughters, and one more layer of irony won’t convert those who didn’t get the point in 2000 — they won’t bother trying now. We who love the artiste but might decline to send him a dinner invitation prefer the asshole, the one who boasts “there’s no rhyme or reason” for all the shitty things he does, mainly because watching him catalog his psychic damage attests to the contrary. Nevertheless the first half, from making the most of adolescent misery to insulting everyone with a vagina in range, reclaims old turf with renewed wit and verve. And the second half is something new. “Stronger than I Was,” which finally gives long-suffering ex-wife twice-over Kim her say, is actually a self-loathing exercise in disguise, and considering a November 31st anniversary couldn’t possibly exist, might be one more cruel lie regardless. The brave “Headlights” humbly apologizes to his mother after years of vindictive backbiting. And “Evil Twin” fuses past personas so the man behind the the multiple masks can finally step forward to accept responsibility for his shit. Who knew he would take his twelve steps off the edge of a precipice? A

The Handsome Family: Wilderness (Carrot Top) I don’t relate to doleful types like Brett Sparks too much — like many people with bipolar disorder, my lows can be just as frighteningly energetic as my highs, so when I go that awful place I’d just as soon hear something like Nirvana’s cathartic In Utero , or perhaps this duo’s 2002 Live at Schuba’s Tavern , which leavens their greatest dirges with plenty of jokey patter. But that merely reminds me that this band’s cult really revolves around Brett’s better half, his lyric-writing wife Rennie, a nature-walker whose e-book Wilderness not only occasioned this companion piece, but for those of us not privy to Rennie’s vast knowledge of morbid 20th century Americana, also provides plenty of pertinent (or at least entertaining) context. In the chapter on woodpeckers for example, Sparks digresses with a brief account of Mary Sweeney, “the Wisconsin Window-Smasher,” who under the frequent influence of cocaine roamed the state hurling her satchel through plate glass windows, often getting arrested before she finished the job — a story which worms its way into the record proper’s “Woodpecker” (sadly, Sparks’ tangential discussion of the “rare” but apparently documented incidence of spontaneous human combustion in “elderly, sedentary women” gets banished to the cutting room floor — these are three-minute songs, after all). Which should give you a taste of what to expect: more songs about log cabins, mud puddles, and death, with almost every track devoted to man going up against nature and losing, beginning the one about flies feasting on Custer, Wal-Marts swallowing up the forests, and embattled army ants winning wars in silence. A–

Jon Hopkins: Immunity (Domino) A child prodigy in his native Australia, a Ravel/Stravinsky/Depeche Mode/Pet Shop Boys fan whose last two solo albums — including the one under discussion — were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize despite it usually being awarded to UK denizens, electronica maestro Hopkins certainly qualifies as a subject for further research. The currently-reissued 2001 debut Opalescent, well-regarded by his fans, radiates a Pink Floyd at the day spa kind of aura — fine if you’re into such things — but this year’s model is ambient in my kind of way: background music not for airports or hotels but for a middle-aged man on a forty-five minute Sprinter ride west from San Marcos, CA to Oceanside: silver dollars tinkling in a coin slot, the wheeze of an elevator pushing itself upward, the gasp of brakes as the light rail train comes to a stop, doors grudgingly shutting open and closed, the imagined sound of city sights whisking by silently, daydreams breaking the surface of your watery subconscious, then submerging again when someone apologizes for accidentally kicking your leg. If that’s too pretentious and/or conceptual for you, I’ll add that what gets this vehicle from point A to point B, especially on the urban-not-pastoral first half, is beats, my favorite being the oscillating bass line on the well-named “Open Eye Signal.” And for the night ride home we have the second half, leading with the stoic piano chords and impressionistic swells of the evocative “Abandon Window” and ending with the gorgeous title track, which combines the sensibilities of both halves: the unadorned arrangements of the second and the simulated “found” sounds of the first — so seductive I nearly missed my stop. A–

Lady Gaga: Artpop (Streamline/Interscope) Word scrawled onto a bathroom stall in red sharpie, early December: ARTPOP. One week later, marked out in black, accompanied by a request and a smiley-face turned ninety degrees: FUCK YOU. So it turns out everyone really is a critic, and a good thing the Gaga fan in my household encouraged me to tune them all out. Abandoning rock dreams for sexxx dreams, which for her means IDM and trap beats and black guests more alive (sorry) than Clarence Clemons, this is where Gaga delivers the pure pleasure machine her previous records only promised. Justifying the pooped-out “your anus/Uranus” pun with a boast about her own derriere, rolling around with the other swine in the mud and muck, and giving her girlfriend a “manicure” that doesn’t involve an emery board (unless, of course, that’s what she’s into), there’s enough sex here to make the uptight squeamish, which you can bet is one reason why those who turned up their noses at Erotica are doing the same here. Yet despite the PG-13 mien, I’d argue that monogamy is what’s made her comfortable enough about her “body parts” to sing about a hundred ways to stimulate them, the reason why the gender-fuck classic “G.U.Y.” claims power about being the girl-under-you rather than the girl-on-top. It’s also why R. Kelly acts like a pure gentleman on the addictive “Do What U Want” even after Gaga gives him the red light to indulge his nastiest fantasies. She doesn’t just deserve that applause, she deserves a standing ovation. Or kneeling ovation. Or squatting, straddling, hovering. Whatever you’re into. One hour of this and I’m up for anything. A

Pusha T: My Name Is My Name (Def Jam) Terrence Thornton’s admittance into the House of Kanye comes at almost precisely the right moment in his current benefactor’s history: when West applied the cinematic prog-rock of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Pusha’s poesy for 2011’s slightly overblown Fear of God II: Let us Pray , the aesthetic effect suggested the Michaels Bay and Mann, but the more pared-down production here, of a piece with Yeezus , returns Pusha to the nitty-gritty where he belongs. But though I don’t necessarily demand that my cocaine rap come with a conscience, this doesn’t nearly boast the depth or literary accomplishment of 2006’s Hell Hath No Fury , his best record with brother Gene for the Clipse, either in terms of complex rhyme or meaty content. Applauding his born-again brother for taking “the better path” is only to be expected, confessing he never outgrew being the spoiled younger child is no surprise, and bragging he would have used that forty acres to grow poppy seeds his only shocking moment (which leads me to wonder — has Kelly Rowland fallen so out of commercial favor she’s ready to be his mule?). Granted, the simultaneously crude yet sophisticated music doesn’t flag for a second, and this is the leanest and meanest Thornton has been in years. But Kendrick Lamar’s tongue-twisting cameo shows up the man’s more prosaic raps for the two-dimensional commercials for the “good life” they’ve become. And only Rick Ross’ penetrating verse on “Hold On” offers any reflection: “Chasing my paper, couldn’t fathom my wealth/Built a school in Ethiopia, should enroll myself.” Reflection — from Rick Ross. What has this world come to? A–

Honorable Mentions

R. Kelly: Black Panties (RCA) Begins with two great cunnilingus boasts, leads to two very good marriage lies, ends with several reprehensible evasions (“Cookie,” “Legs Shakin’”) ***

Red Hot + Fela (Knitting Factory) Second volume of Kuti covers too conceptual or not conceptual enough (Tuneyards, ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo, Akua Nara: “Lady”; Spoek Mathambo, Zaki Ibrahim: “Yellow Fever”) **

Swearin’: Surfing Strange (Salinas) Meet the lesser Crutchfield twin and her lesser half (“Parts of Speech,” “Dust in the Gold Sack”) **

Trash


Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp) I have this childish fantasy that never will come true, but you can’t blame me for dreaming. It’s based on something I saw on television, in which one snobby New York socialite sneakily tricks her nemesis into blind test-tasting the latter’s own brand of Pinot Grigio and asks for her “honest” opinion, which of course, she completely disparages — to her later embarrassment. In my version, I’ve invited people much cooler than myself to my private listening party, in which I promise to give them a sneak preview of the new Boards of Canada record, but instead, I put on an old Tangerine Dream from 1977. “Their most cinematic and vast-sounding album yet!” cries out The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey. “Suggestive of barren plains and burning skies, wonder and dread, watching and being watched!” “There is joy in these grooves!” swoons The Independent’s Laurence Phelan. “The attentive care of studio perfectionists, and the warm embrace of an old friend!” Then I give up my sneaky subterfuge and reveal my clever switcheroo, humiliating everyone, and put on Skrillex, after which everyone angrily leaves. And you know why that scenario wouldn’t play out like that? Because you know damn well all those Britcrits, much like American hipsters, drink up Tangerine Dream like they might a 2005 Domaine Stirn Cuvée Prestige Sigolsheim. Meet the new harvest, same as the old harvest. C

Britney Spears: Britney Jean (RCA) Having fallen for her mechanical sex doll bit on 2011’s Femme Fatale, I’ve now woken up the next morning to discover said doll has real feelings, often conveyed in (ulp!) lyrics of her own devising (albeit not sung in her “real” voice). A handful of major will.i.am beats almost redeem the enterprise (if not sister Jamie Lynn’s vacuous guest shot “Chillin’ With You”), but I’m not bothered by the possibility BJ thinks EDM stands for “entelligent dance music” as much as I am by two flat-out annoyances. Musically, “Work Bitch” is damn near epochal, but the empty philosophy of the lyric is Horatio Alger filtered through Andy Cohen: you don’t really have to work that hard to create a lifestyle in which you spend all day sipping Martinis, driving a Lamborghini, and rocking a hot bikini (bet all the Real Trophy-Housewives think they “work hard”), and few wannabe ingénues will ever become Britney Spears no matter how hard they put their bobbed noses to the grindstone. I mean, why not brag about something truly difficult but within the realm of tangible possibility — say, getting into Harvard Law (wait — let me guess)? Meanwhile, the metaphorically repulsive, territorially-pissed “Perfume” begs for a video in which BJ squats over her boyfriend’s new Armani jacket and squirts her initials onto the sleeve. Graded leniently for putting the banality about her newborn baby on the deluxe edition. B-

The Chills: Somewhere Beautiful (Fire) There are no bad seats at a Chills concert — unless, of course, you’re the hapless sound man, twiddling knobs several blocks away. B

Neil Young: Live at the Cellar Door (Reprise) “I caught you playin’ at the Cellar Door/I love these songs, but your set is a bore.” B-

Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience Vol. 2  (RCA) Wait a minute — doesn’t the dull bachelor party come before the boring wedding? C+

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domino) Solange Knowles’ producer-collaborator shows he can do it with his own starpower, or lack thereof. C+

Laura Marling: When I Was An Eagle (Ribbon) The Pentangle with one point: modal drones are really neat. C

9/6/13

Recently updated list:

  1. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
  2. Rachid Taha: Zoom (Wrasse)
  3. Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam)
  4. Lady Gaga: Artpop (Streamline/Interscope)
  5. Deerhunter: Monomania (4AD)
  6. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here)
  7. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual (Mute)
  8. Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (Aftermath)
  9. The Dismemberment Plan: Uncanney Valley (Partisan)
  10. The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band: Hey Hey It’s . . . the Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band
  11. Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Merge)
  12. Gogol Bordello: Pura Vida Conspiracy (ATO)
  13. The Uncluded: Hokey Fright (Rhymesayers)
  14. Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals (Mom + Pop)
  15. Rilo Kiley: Rkives (Little Record Company)
  16. Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)
  17. They Might Be Giants: Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce)
  18. Jon Hopkins: Immunity (Domino)
  19. Dieuf-Dieul de Thies: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1 (Teranga Beat)
  20. Kate Nash: Girl Talk (Deluxe Edition) (Ingrooves)
  21. Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (self-released, EP)
  22. Kool and Kass: Peaceful Solutions (free download)
  23. Elizabeth Morris: Optimism (self-released, EP)
  24. Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap (free download)
  25. Parquet Courts: Light up Gold (What’s Your Rupture)
  26. Rokia Traore: Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch)
  27. Omar Souleyman: Wenu Wenu (Ribbon)
  28. No Age: An Object (Sub Pop)
  29. Clay Harper: Old Airport Road (Terminus)
  30. Britney Spears: The Essential Britney Spears (Jive/Legacy)
  31. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
  32. The Handsome Family: Wilderness (Carrot Top)

  33. Deer Tick: Negativity (Partisan)
  34. Four Tet: Beautiful Rewind (Text/Temporary Residence)
  35. Young Fathers: Tape Two (Anticon)
  36. Daniel Romano: Come Cry With Me (Normaltown/New West)
  37. The Rough Guide to African Disco (World Music Network)
  38. Bombino: Nomad (Nonesuch)
  39. Tamikrest: Chatma (Glitterbeat)
  40. Best Coast: Fade Away (Mexican Summer, EP)
  41. Tricky: False Idols (!K7)
  42. Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion)
  43. Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
  44. Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven (Warp)
  45. Superchunk: I Hate Music (Merge)
  46. Ceramic Dog: Your Turn (Northern Spy)
  47. Tal National: Kaani (Fat Cat)
  48. Chicha Libre: Cuatro Tigres (Barbès)
  49. Wussy: Duo (Shake It)
  50. Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador)
  51. Babyshambles: Sequel to the Prequel (EMI
  52. Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses): The Low Highway (New West)
  53. Pusha T: My Name Is My Name (Def Jam)
  54. Future Bible Heroes: Partygoing (Merge)
  55. Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China (Sublime Frequencies)
  56. Orchestra Super Mazembe: Mazembe @ 45 RPM (Sterns Africa)
  57. Serengeti: Saal (Graveface)
  58. David Greenberger/Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound: They Like Me Around Here (Pel Pel)
  59. Cakes da Killa: The Eulogy (Mishka download)
  60. Salva: Odd Furniture (Friends of Friends, EP)
  61. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
  62. Rainbow Arabia: F.M. Sushi (Kompakt)
  63. The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network)
  64. The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network)
  65. My Bloody Valentine: mbv (Pickpocket)
  66. Skrillex: Leaving (OWSLA, EP)

6/27/13

My 2013 list, revised as of the above date.
  1. Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam)
  2. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
  3. Rachid Taha: Zoom (Wrasse)
  4. Deerhunter: Monomania (4AD)
  5. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here)
  6. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual (Mute)
  7. Rokia Traore: Beautiful Africa (Out Here)
  8. The Uncluded: Hokey Fright (Rhymesayers)
  9. Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)
  10. Rilo Kiley: Rkives (Little Record Company)
  11. They Might Be Giants: Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce)
  12. Tricky: False Idols (!K7)
  13. Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion)
  14. Dieuf-Dieul de Thies: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1 (Teranga Beat)
  15. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
  16. The Rough Guide to African Disco (World Music Network)
  17. Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses): The Low Highway (New West)
  18. Kate Nash: Girl Talk (Deluxe Edition) (Ingrooves)
  19. Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (self-released, EP)
  20. Bombino: Nomad (Nonesuch)
  21. Parquet Courts: Light up Gold (What’s Your Rupture)
  22. Rainbow Arabia: F.M. Sushi (Kompakt)
  23. Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
  24. Chicha Libre: Cuatro Tigres (Barbès)
  25. Wussy: Duo (Shake It)
  26. Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador)
  27. Future Bible Heroes: Partygoing (Merge)
  28. Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China (Sublime Frequencies)
  29. Orchestra Super Mazembe: Mazembe @ 45 RPM (Sterns Africa)
  30. Serengeti: Saal (Graveface)
  31. David Greenberger/Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound: They Like Me Around Here (Pel Pel)
  32. Cakes da Killa: The Eulogy (Mishka download)
  33. Salva: Odd Furniture (Friends of Friends, EP)
  34. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
  35. The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network)
  36. The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network)
  37. My Bloody Valentine: mbv (Pickpocket)
  38. Skrillex: Leaving (OWSLA, EP)

5/29/13

My 2013 list, revised as of the above date.
  1. Rachid Taha: Zoom (Wrasse)
  2. Deerhunter: Monomania (4AD)
  3. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here)
  4. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual (Mute)
  5. Rokia Traore: Beautiful Africa (Out Here)
  6. Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)
  7. Rilo Kiley: Rkives (Little Record Company)
  8. They Might Be Giants: Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce)
  9. Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion)
  10. Dieuf-Dieul de Thies: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1 (Teranga Beat)
  11. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
  12. The Rough Guide to African Disco (World Music Network)
  13. Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses): The Low Highway (New West)
  14. Kate Nash: Girl Talk (Deluxe Edition) (Ingrooves)
  15. Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (self-released, EP)
  16. Bombino: Nomad (Nonesuch)
  17. Parquet Courts: Light up Gold (What’s Your Rupture)
  18. Rainbow Arabia: F.M. Sushi (Kompakt)
  19. Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
  20. Chicha Libre: Cuatro Tigres (Barbès)
  21. Wussy: Duo (Shake It)
  22. Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador)
  23. Orchestra Super Mazembe: Mazembe @ 45 RPM (Sterns Africa)
  24. Serengeti: Saal (Graveface)
  25. David Greenberger/Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound: They Like Me Around Here (Pel Pel)
  26. Cakes da Killa: The Eulogy (Mishka download)
  27. Salva: Odd Furniture (Friends of Friends, EP)
  28. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
  29. The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network)
  30. The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network)
  31. My Bloody Valentine: mbv (Pickpocket)
  32. Skrillex: Leaving (OWSLA, EP)

4/27/13

My 2013 list, revised as of the above date.
  1. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here)
  2. Rokia Traore: Beautiful Africa (Out Here)
  3. Rilo Kiley: Rkives (Little Record Company)
  4. Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)
  5. They Might Be Giants: Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce)
  6. Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion)
  7. Dieuf-Dieul de Thies: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1 (Teranga Beat)
  8. Kate Nash: Girl Talk (Deluxe Edition) (Ingrooves)
  9. Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (self-released, EP)
  10. Orchestra Super Mazembe: Mazembe @ 45 RPM (Sterns Africa)
  11. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury nashville)
  12. Parquet Courts: Light up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
  13. Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
  14. Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador)
  15. Serengeti: Saal (Graveface)
  16. David Greenberger/Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound: They Like Me Around Here (Pel Pel)
  17. Cakes da Killa: The Eulogy (Mishka download)
  18. Salva: Odd Furniture (Friends of Friends, EP)
  19. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
  20. The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network)
  21. The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network)
  22. My Bloody Valentine: mbv (Pickpocket)
  23. Skrillex: Leaving (OWSLA, EP)

3/25/13

My 2013 list, revised as of the above date:
  1. They Might Be Giants: Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce)
  2. Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion)
  3. Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
  4. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury nashville)
  5. Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (self-released, EP)
  6. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
  7. Cakes da Killa: The Eulogy (Mishka download)
  8. Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador)
  9. Parquet Courts: Light up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
  10. Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)
  11. Serengeti: Saal (Graveface)
  12. David Greenberger/Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound: They Like Me Around Here (Pel Pel)
  13. Salva: Odd Furniture (Friends of Friends, EP)
  14. The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network)
  15. The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network)
  16. My Bloody Valentine: mbv (Pickpocket)
  17. Skrillex: Leaving (OWSLA, EP)

2/20/13

image

Two years ago, in the July 2011 Downloader’s Diary, I wrote a review of a record by Iceage called New Brigade.  I’ll reprint the review here:

While I’d be the first admit that I play the punk card in front of my ex-hippie parents as a means to set myself apart from them spiritually, in truth I reject most of the lo-fi, no-wave bands that come my way as unlistenable, tuneless caterwaul. The tuneless caterwaul proffered by this Danish quartet however, not a one of them out of their teens, is something special. Damned if I could tell you quite why — usually when a band like this breaks out of the no-wave pack, their success is attributable to a talent for burying melodies in noise, or a penchant for foregrounding memorably clever lyrics delivered as football chants. You know — songwriting. The strategy here is more like marshaling cohesion from chaos, and making it compel. Though the lyrics are reputedly in English, I can only understand a few snatches here and there, and Elias Bender Ronnenfelt’s thuggish baritone isn’t exactly what you’d call an instrument of great range, emotion, or feeling. But from the tribal thumping of Dan Kjaer Nielsen to the efficient thrashing of Ronnenfelt and second guitarist Johan Surballe Wieth, these upstarts showcase in twelve “songs” in twenty-four minutes their version of post-punk slash and burn, which essentially boils down to napalming the cornfield while they celebrate its destruction by joyously ransacking the farmhouse. Fierce, unrelenting, and startlingly vital from start to finish, you won’t be quite sure what’s hit you when it’s all through. After which you’ll have no problem shuttling yourself through their maelstrom one more time. A

Two things leap out reading this review.  The first is that I’m upfront that songwriting isn’t this band’s strong suit.  The second is that I’m also upfront about not understanding the lyrics, a state of affairs that did not necessarily improve about buying the record a week later and parsing the lyric sheet.  (I’d also like to say that this was the last review I wrote that month — usually the one I end up regretting.)

Shortly after I posted this review, I ran across a piece from a blogger styling himself “Magic Muscle,” titled Chic Racism elevates hardcore band Iceage to hipster fame.  I’ve obviously linked the article, but let me summarize: the author is pissed off by the band’s hipster cred (that’s complaint number one), but more importantly, the band’s courting of what he dubs “fascist imagery,” from hooded figures, Iron Crosses, switchblades pointing “business end toward Islamists.”  (Only Fox News says “Islamists,” but never mind.)  I’ll reproduce these images, which the author has taken from a band member’s blog page.

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Disturbing, yes.  But let me direct you to the angry responses Mr. Magic Muscle elicited for his little public service (edited for misspellings and punctuation):

I´m impressed by how naive you are…Do you know that the drummer is Jewish???

[Being] very close to the band I can assure [you] that they are not fascist in any way. They are – in an attempt to decipher Iceage’s music – young Danes that are worried about the increased political right wing tendencies [in] Denmark.

It´s so not cool that a mum of an Iceage musician speaks up, but in DK, for the past 12 years we´ve had a rightwing/liberal government that have only been in power because they have been supported by a minor anti-immigrant, racist “Dansk Folkeparti” [Danish People’s Party — MT].  They are Nazis wrapped in the idyllic Danish red and white flag…Iceage band members from when they were 12, 13 years of age have been teargassed and beaten by the police while defending the “Youth Cultural House” – and that battle included young people of all colors.

Wow, you’ve done an amazing job of attracting to your blog, every retarded racist white douche bag (and one Mexican) that still listens to hardcore. Basically, none of this even needs to be said. Anyone with half a brain can understand that this band is bunch of disgusting loosers [sic — had to keep that one in, MT].

I honestly don’t know what to make of all of this.  I love the defense of Iceage from Johan Surballe Wieth’s mother (quote three) but I’ve also seen a defense of the band (once again, hidden in blog comments) from someone who not only claims to be a parent to one of the members, but a professor of two others.  Yet the troubling imagery continues to be unexplained, or even contextualized (“Just something I saw on TV,” says Ronnenfelt) — I think what disturbs people about this band isn’t their violence, but their intent.  God knows they’ve said very little about politics, and it seems to me some alliance with sanity demands to be put on the table.  Instead we get their championing of Absurd, an infamous German national socialist death metal group.

The band’s new record, You’re Nothing is less of the same, repeating their debut’s basic approach with fewer dividends.  I haven’t quite wrapped my head on it yet, but I’m planning a major disavowal of the group.  The music is ascetic, unforgiving, hard to approach.  They have no joy in what they do.  That seems to me to be a bigger mistake than anything.


2/15/13

I’m ashamed to say that over the past few years of doing this column I haven’t been especially careful about compiling year-end lists, something that’s been to my detriment every December, when Pazz and Jop time finds me somewhat scrambling.  Putting this up here in a public forum I’m hoping will encourage me to tend to it like a garden.  Not counting the Box Tops compilation, this is how I would rate the nine records in this month’s column (to be published fairly soon) which happens to be the beginning of my 2013 list:
  1. Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion)
  2. Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (self-released, EP)
  3. Cakes da Killa: The Eulogy (Mishka download)
  4. Parquet Courts: Light up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
  5. The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network)
  6. Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador)
  7. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
  8. My Bloody Valentine: mbv (Pickpocket)
  9. Skrillex: Leaving (OWSLA, EP)


Tom Hull and Jason Gubbels also tend to make lists for B+ and everything below, which I’m not going to bother with.  I listened to that Solange EP enough, and that’s at the top of this month’s honorable mentions.


On to next month — or whenever, I guess.  Such a great feeling finally being done.

2/12/13

Peter Stampfel is one of those guys you always want to root for — who wouldn’t want to root for a guy who sings like a “chicken who’s just won the lottery?” (in the Spin Record Guide's deathless phrase).  Nevertheless, I'm distressed to say that that his new record, credited to him and the “Ether Frolic Mob,” doesn't quite do it for me (especially since this is one of those rare times I hunted down the publicist for an item) (Gasp! Where are my principles?).  The problem is the ad hoc nature of the recording.  Stampfel always records “on the run,” but his records with Mark Bingham are much more thought out arrangement-wise, where this one just kind of chugs on anonymously.  Compare his version of “Memphis Breakdown” to the original by the Memphis Jug Band: in the MJB’s version, the percussion is carefully timed, like a comedy routine.  The arrangement here dispenses with that, concerning itself solely with getting from point A to to point B and then getting on with the next song (when a cell phone goes off at the end of “Jawbone” and everyone laughs, you figure one more take would mean a hundred dollars more of studio time).  Also, the record is too damn communal for its own good: Stampfel the more-or-less-producer often buries Stampfel-the-singer in the mix, whereas on the Bingham records, he’s the star.  Even Have Moicy!, supposedly the apotheosis of the hippie democracy on record, the respective lead singers shine on their own songs.  In short, not the place to get to know him.  

Worth anthologizing: “Drunken Banjo Waltz,” which gets by mostly on the lyric.  Also, “I Will Survive,” which is almost as good as Gloria Gaynor — maybe even Dylan Thomas.  

2/10/13

There’s a hoary cliché in today’s rockcrit — actually, there are many, but for the purposes of today’s discussion we’re only going to talk about one — and it goes like this: “This is less like a [artist] album and more like someone’s idea of what an [artist] album should sound like.”  (I’m not sure who invented this line, but I’m fairly certain it at least was popularized with Pitchfork’s review of The Boy With the Arab Strap,. but I can’t find evidence of that online.)  Now, I personally would have shorthanded that with the word “self-parody” — less wordy, makes no pretense to being “witty.”  But I mention this not because I want to say something about that bastion of indie sanctity (yet) but because I was reminded of this line when listening to the long-aborning new record by My Bloody Valentine.  It isn’t self-parody by any means — in fact, it’s actually quite good.  But it’s the formalist joke to end all formalist jokes — if you were to play these records side by side to a Martian and ask him/her/it which one took twenty years to make and which one took two, that Martian would be scratching its equivalent of its head, because they both sound exactly the same. Yet everyone is falling over themselves with the superlatives, including Pitchfork, who must have to justify years and years of Kevin Shields updates.  What gives?  The thing is definitely pretty, loud, murmuring, distorted, all the things you’d expect.  But what justifies the wait?  Years and years of knob-twiddling?  One more guitar overdub?  Getting the barely existent vocals “perfect?”  Or did Kevin have a bet going with Axl Rose that Rose lost when he released Chinese Democracy?  

I’m seriously thinking about A minus-ing this one and keeping the review short, like this: “It’s pretty good.”  Why explain yourself any further?  

2/8/13

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I was all set to hate Tim McGraw’s Two Lanes of Freedom, mostly because the title itself set me to expect all sorts of jingoistic hoohaw.  In fact, the really offensive thing about this record is how bland it is — completely country music by the numbers.  Even the politely neo-trad arrangements don’t veer too far into the usual arena rock cliches so beloved of the current country crowd.  Since this is McGraw’s first record since splitting from the odious Curb records, maybe this is the “freedom” he’s talking about — but freedom from what?  He still doesn’t write his own songs, and the songs he’s picking aren’t that distinguishable from anything else you might hear on country stations — everything here fits neatly into some archetype you’ve heard a million times:  ”One of those Nights” (the kind you’ll remember forever), “Southern Girl” (Pistol Annies’ “Boys from the South” lowered a few IQ points), “Nashville Without You” (a lazy “list” song in the vein of Brad Paisley’s “This is Country Music”), “Friend of a Friend” (think Garth’s “What She’s Doing Now”), the mawkish “Book of John” (a scrapbook remembering a late father).  Knee-slapping puns include “Truck yeah” and “Mexicoma.”  Also, let me just say that most drunk drivers, even ones guilty of manslaughter, usually don’t get the fifteen years the convict “Number 3745” gets, even south of the Mason-Dixon line — the stats on Mother Against Drunk Driving’s website doesn’t convince me the penalties are nearly as strong as they could be, especially when you factor in how many inmates are let free early for good behavior.  And then there’s Taylor Swift’s cameo — she’s the major artist on Big Machine, his new label, and her first hit single was actually called “Tim McGraw.”  The chorus of that song goes: “When you think Tim McGraw/I hope you think of my favorite song.”  Guess who I think of when I think Tim McGraw?  Taylor Swift.          

2/6/13

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Notes on Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob:

Embarrassing admission: I’d heard very little of this duo before two weeks ago, so I can’t be among the throngs who’re claiming they’re “selling out.”  Selling out from where and into what?  My gut instinct is to prefer their spikier sounding 2009 record to their new one, but truthfully, their new one improved dramatically after listening to the old one.  And perusing the more generalized lyrics (nothing as startling as “I’ve got grounds for divorce”) leads me to believe they’re aiming this toward their “core” audience — not just the LGBT crowd, but more importantly the indie rock crowd, both of whom can get cranky when one of theirs goes mainstream (c.f. Ani Difranco in the case of the former, as for the latter, uh, take your fucking pick).  Must be tough for them to make this kind of record when everyone wants them to make something else.  

I’ll go through this one song by song.

Closer: A great deal more clever than my first impression.  ”It’s not just all physical/I’m the type who will get oh so critical/So let’s make things physical/I won’t treat you like you’re oh so typical” is a pretty good rationalization for a new lover or listener.  I also was taken by the open-ended sexuality of “All you think of lately is getting underneath me/All I’m dreaming lately is how to get you underneath me,” which can, as they say, go so many ways.  Woman on top of woman, woman on top of man, both pretty brazen.

Goodbye, Goodbye: A farewell to their old audience. They have an older, unreleased song called “Goodbye” that goes: “I’m in the army of/Sell out, shut up, go home/Make your money/When you’re dead and gone.”  The key line in this song is “You never really knew me, never ever/Never ever saw me, saw me like they did.”  

Fool For Love: “If you’re worried that I might’ve changed/Left behind all of my foolish ways/You best be looking for somebody else.”  Great melody here.

I’m Not Your Hero: The theme gets explicit: “I’m not their hero/But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t brave/I never walked the party line/Doesn’t mean that I was never afraid/I’m not your hero/But that doesn’t mean we’re not one and the same.”

Drive Me Wild: Great song.  The lyrics on this record often strike me as too generalized, but this line is bliss: “Your arms outstretched, your hair cut shorter than it’d been.”  That’s a woman’s hair she’s talking about, but not so that she’s being obvious about it.  Wonderful little detail.

How Come You Don’t Want me Now: “One day soon/I will be the one to insult you.”   

I Couldn’t be Your Friend: “…even if I tried again.”

Love They Say: “This love will make us worthy.”

Shock to your System: “What you are is lonely.”

2/5/13

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Solange Knowles (her first name is pronounced so that it rhymes with mélangewith two syllables) is obviously the younger sister of Beyoncé Knowles.  Like big sister, she’s an R&B thrush, and that’s where the similarities end.  In fact, maybe “R&B” goes a little too far — she completely ignores current radio trends for a retro 80s feel: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Prince side projects, that kind of thing.  I get the feeling she completely abjures star power — although she’s quite attractive, her visage doesn’t beckon come hither on her record cover, opting instead for a red field on which the title appears very subtly, lightly tinted, at the bottom.  

Something about this modus operandi strikes me as very purposeful.  On good records and bad, her big sister always goes for the jugular — big beats, big guitar, big hooks, big voice, Superbowl Sunday, national anthem.  By contrast, nothing on Solange’s record is as obvious as “Single Ladies” or “Bootylicious.”  ”Losing You,” the first track, is constructed like a hymn, even-keeled, moving along with a complicated rhythm track that moves the song forward without breaking out.  The next song, “Nothing Ever Seems to Fucking Work,” strikes me as missed opportunity, especially compared to a coup like Robyn’s “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” — equally as subtle as “Losing You,” its prime draw is Solange’s phrasing, which is her main strength.  

Everyone seems to love this record, and I can’t deny its quality.  But the whole thing is far too affected, calculated.  Of course, Beyoncé’s shit is calculated too, but in an entirely different way — everything is amped, charged with the artist’s charisma.  Solange unquestionably has her own charisma, but nothing here challenges the throne, let alone tops “When the Night Falls,” her cameo on the last Chromeo record.  Taking the high road, taking the low road — isn’t there a middle ground?  I’m going *** on this one.  

2/4/13

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I’m not the kind of person who comes to a record with “high expectations” — or maybe I do, but I don’t let a record’s failure to meet those high expectations bother me that much.  Nevertheless, I was little bummed today when I my initial excitement over the History of Apple Pie’s Out of View (currently available as an import, on the UK imprint Marshall Teller) cooled after reading the lyrics.  Comprised mostly of monosyllabic words, they recall some Japanese pop I’ve heard — often those songs will be peppered with random English phrases, usually out of the middle of nowhere, and almost always insanely banal.  I didn’t want to use that as a joke in the column proper, because vocalist Stephanie Min is of Asian descent and is presumably at least second-generation English (I chanced upon her Linkedin page — in her other life she’s a professional business type, I guess).  Nevertheless, the temptation was strong.  This is the first verse and chorus of “You’re So Cool” : 

I woke up and everything’s alright
So I go back to turn off the bedroom light
And you’re there - fast asleep
Remember the great day that we shared
And the flower you gave me to put in my hair
You’re so sweet (oh so sweet)

I’m in love
Yeah, so in love with you
We’re having so much fun
In the light of the sun
You’re so cool

And this was apparently a hit single in Britain!  The stronger cuts on the record (the first three: “Tug,” “See You,” and “Mallory”) all suffer from a similar cutesy-wootsy approach, but you don’t care so much because Jerome Watson’s guitar is so goddamn anthemic.  

My final analysis: “Sonic Youth plays your junior prom.” At least I got a good joke out of it.  Hope that will sum them up for the curious.  

By a strange coincidence, the band the Apple Pie gang emulate (and here’s another band with an inane moniker), My Bloody Valentine, dropped a record yesterday that  I still haven’t heard.  Guess I’ll pop that on before I go to bed.  Wendy has the flu, and this Joseph Smith bio (the famous Fawn Brodie one) has me fucking riveted.  

2/1/13

The wit and wisdom of Parquet Courts:

"Thread count - high/Commissions - high/Hourly rates - high/A minute of your time? Forget about it."

"You should see the wall of ambivalence I’m building."

"Socrates died in the fucking gutter.”

"As for Texas: Donuts only (you cannot find bagels here)."

"And I’ll reserve my highest Hosannas for the communion song that’s served with light beer, and a chorus that inspires the score played in my myth-steeped years."

"Time was measured in balls of lint, laundry claim tags, and number of cents it takes to drown your brain into a just-dowsed former fire."

"There are no more summer lifeguard jobs/There are no more art museums to guard/The lab is out of white lab coats/Cause there are no more slides and microscopes/But there are still careers in combat, my son."

"Sifting like miner in the conscience debris, hunched down, gleaning embers from a burning field trying to find something warm and real."

On “North Dakota”: “Cigarette advertisement country—wild and perfect, but lacking something.”

"In Manitoba they called it boring, at night we hum to Canada’s snoring."

"Former slave quarters tucked by the alley/Serf population too high to tally."

"I was debating Swedish Fish, roasted peanuts or licorice/I was so stoned and starving."

On an unrequited love for “Renée” (spelled incorrectly on the Bandcamp page): “I went to a shrink and he found my brain and I have/no ideas is what he found.” (Note the deliberately quirky separation of lines — this is a frequent tact of theirs.)

"Gazing out into the river Styx she said, “It’s no river at all. It’s a tidal estuary."

"They called it the pyrex age, the glass dawn of our thought process."

"You’ve been getting lots of similes but I want your disease."  (Actually she gets metaphors not similes, but the latter scans better.)

At a funeral: “Snacker’s conference at the buffet table/Double dips in the goose paté mold.”

"Frozen mid-sentenced smile, you were the picture of health. (No prognosis implied)."

1/31/13

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Notes on Christopher Owens’ Lysandre.

This has to be one of the worst records I’ve heard by a major artist.  That was what I originally thought anyway.  Then I asked myself why I regarded Owens as a “major” artist.  The awful sub-“Greensleeves” theme — and I mean it’s awful, technically and aesthetically — is featured on two instrumentals, then gets repeated on flute, sax, electric piano, electric guitar.  When the chord switches from minor to major at the end of the figure it’s less like resolution and more like fingernails on a blackboard.

Notes on the lyrics:

Here We Go: “And if your heart is broken/You will find fellowship with me/And if your ears are open/You will hear honesty from me, tonight” — honesty and sincerity is a recurring theme, and in his case, a completely misplaced virtue.  To write the totally banal “Hair on my head, tongue in my mouth/I have got it all figured out” if only to turn it around in the next line for sexual purposes is totally stupid.

New York City: “I remember learning how to make a quick hundred bucks/Sleeping in the back of a pickup truck/I remember looking through the barrel of a loaded gun/Texas cops and cooking drugs.”  Now imagine it with Owens’ wisp of a voice and the shittiest saxophone side commentary possible.  

A Broken Heart: Although the grammatically incorrect “you and I” rankles (doesn’t serve any rhyme scheme to not use “me,” but still) this is one of the more tolerable songs, but once again, the kill-myself-over-love theme is really insufferable.  

Here We Go Again: Not into love, but into drugs: “I’m not sorry/Gonna keep on usin,” though I imagine it’s a metaphor, if a really sick one. This is where we run into the infamous “Don’t try to harsh my mellow.”

Love is in the Ear of the Listener: The key song on the record. “What if everybody just thinks I’m a phony/What if nobody ever gets it/Well, some people never get anything/And I shouldn’t care what people think” proves he values content over quality, thinks sincerity is the key when it’s really the maturity level inherent in what he saying.  Which leads me to…

Lysandre: “You can run away and hide/But I’m not gonna worry, I’m not in a hurry/You will come around to me in time” is creepier a sentiment than usual here, but in a stalker type way, just the usual codependency. Then there’s the annoyingly cloying a-prefixing of “kissing and a-huggin.”  Bleachhh.

Everything You Knew: Actually somewhat interesting.  Constructed like a standard love song, but ends: “I knew that even if my plane went down/I’d be just fine if I was thinking about/falling in love with you/On the first tour with my band.”  The first three lines make me wince, but the last one is such a bizarre afterthought.  

Part of Me: I think you know where this is going.

I’m thinking a C, maybe a C-.  Unlistenable, makes me wince, lots of really embarrassing moments, I don’t really love one tune here, totally half-assed.  Time: 28 minutes, about as long as the Solange EP. 

 

 

1/30/13

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Notes on The Rough Guide to Senegal:

General: far more cohesive than I expected from a country with a lot of musical styles.  In fact, track by track, this is excellent.

Problem: If there’s a general theme here, it’s world music crossover.  As such, “Thiely” doesn’t fit.  Also, when the record goes acoustic toward the end, the quality dips.  I’ll elaborate on that in a minute.

Mitigating factor: Introducing Daby Balde, the bonus disc, is that rarest of beats, an goddamn actual bonus — a fine 2005 record that shows up the tail end of the proper record for its own mediocrity, Balde being an excellent example of good folkloric Afropop.  (Pay attention to the beats, but also the telling musical details.  Christgau notes that Balkan is an influence, via — get this! — Belgium.  What a great world we live in!)

Let’s take a look at this track by track:

Jamm/Cheikh Lo: Great opener.  Moody, hypnotic.  Influenced by soukous as well as mbalax, though I’d say there’s more of the former than latter.  Nice caesura on the refrain, insinuating trumpet line.  Also, it’s worth noting that we have acoustic guitars and electric bass here. From the 2011 album of the same name.  

Ami Kita Bay/Orchestra Baobab: Of the two songs I know on this record, this one sets the tone of this compilation: extroverted, cosmopolitan, eager to please.  Baobab make explicit in their music Senegal’s great debt to the Cuban music that they — by which I mean Senegalese and Baobab especially — improved upon.  Great guitar solo from B. Atisso, as usual.  I once shook his hand and thanked him for temporarily giving up his law practice so he could make music again.  I wonder if he remembers that — or even understood me?

Ndiatigue/Mansour Seck: This is Senegal in griot mode, or at least what I have come to understand as such.  The acoustic numbers are a problem on this record, but not on this track: the theme is hypnotic, the beats take you somewhere, and the electric bass syncopates like good reggae.  

Amy Jotna/Sister Fa: One hip hop track is enough for this compilation, and in fact this song is one of the highlights.  It’s said that Afropop hip hop doesn’t translate very well to English speakers (maybe the Spanish speakers in Calle 13 softened me up?) but this one has a great balance: compelling beat, memorable chorus, with the rap itself working the verses.  Also, really nice use of a looped sample — actually, I didn’t even notice this song boasted a sample until the very end, when the music makes the appropriation explicit.

Bayil/Nuru Kane: singer-songwriter, bass player.  I say “singer-songwriter” because a great deal of thought is given to the chord progression here, which is more complex than is usual in Afropop.  Fortunately, he’s also a bass player, which you can’t really say about American singer-songwriters — a real good one, actually.  The guitar break here is just awesome — really incisive.  A winner from an artist I didn’t know — this is what compilations like this are for.

Weex Bet/Fallou Dieng: another strong track, this one in dance mode.  That breakdown at the end really gets this mother airborne.  

Thiely/Etoile de Dakar: One of the most epochal Afropop songs ever.  It’s on every Etoile comp worth owning, and sets the tone for the titanic Music in My Head comp.  But what’s it doing here?  It’s far too grungy for this company, like a pickpocket wending through a clump of German tourists.  Regardless: let’s take a moment to take in this fucking awesome track.  That climax, where the drums bang in unison with the lead vocalists, is definitely one of those give-me-your-money-now-motherfucker moments.  And that sonic orgy at the end!  In short, the main reason I give more of a shit about this kind of music than, say, Tegan and Sara.

Baydikacce/Baaba Maal: This is exactly what I mean about the Etoile song not belonging.  This is a masterful track, from the horn/flute lines to those intertwining guitars and Maal’s moaning vocal, but the opening synth drum figure, following Etoile’s barbaric congas, doesn’t jibe.  Usually I find Maal a little on the uptight side, but this track is righteous.  Also dig that loosey-goosey breakdown where the bass takes over, then segues to what could very well be a bonus song around the 4:30 mark.  

Sey/Africando All Stars: A key track, acknowledging explicitly Senegal’s debt to Cuba — granted, this is via one of those all-star crossover projects that often doesn’t work, but I’ll note this is the only track on the record that you can hear one of those Disco Fuentes piano lines.  Of the two pianists credited on this record, one of them is “Oscar Hernandez,” who Allmusic.com tells us was born in 1891, died in 1967, was a member of Kid Creole and the Coconuts (who recorded in the ’80s) and participated on this record, which was released a few years ago.  A son of a son of son, perhaps?  All I know is, this would never have happened on Thom Yorke’s page.

Soukabe Leydam/Ousmane Hamady Diop & Mansour Seck: This is actually from a Mansour record, regardless of the billing.  Diop is the guest vocalist here, but is actually secondary to the fluttery guitar.  Much inferior I think to the first Seck track, and if you were going to repeat an artist, why not Maal or N’Dour?

Diamono/Amadou Diagne: Although I’m of the mind that this record takes a dive as of the previous song, this is probably one of the strongest of the final four predominantly acoustic numbers, mostly on the basis of the urgent vocal, doubled at the octave. Apparently won some sort of “battle of the bands” contest that led to his debut, last year’s Introducing (this was that record’s third track).  I’m assuming his debut will be packaged in The Rough Guide to Senegal Music (Fifth Edition) sometime in 2019.  

Senegal-Mali/Diabel Cissokho: Didn’t notice this track before.  Dig that gallumping beat.  This song comes from an album from last year which translates to “Don’t Run  From Your Ethnicity.”  Great vocal arrangement here.  It occurred to me that despite what I thought originally (electric-acoustic dichotomy) the last few tracks are actually new-guard Senegal, whereas the record opens up with the classics.

Talibe/Ismael Lo: I don’t know what I was thinking, but this closer hits hard.  Vocal with guitar and harmonica, barebones, actually the perfect way to close a record full of music with all kinds of American influence.

I would say this is a very strong A-.

Later: it looks like “Thiely” didn’t appear on the Rough Guide N’Dour compilation, but did appear on the first Etoile comp on Sterns way back when.

1/26/13

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In December’s column I described producer Greg Kurstin as a tabula rasa: “pretentious with Rufus Wainwright, uptight with the Shins.”  Because he was such a proven hitmaker with Lily Allen — with whom I think he did his best work — others think he can duplicate that magic.  But in fact, what made his work with Allen so special was that his attention to ironic musical detail complemented her way with ironic narrative detail, something he couldn’t give to Rufus Wainwright or James Mercer, because ironic narrative detail isn’t what they have to offer.  Maybe I mean to say is Kurstin gave to Wainwright and James Mercer of the Shins exactly what he gave to them, and rather than a tabula rasa, he’s really more akin to a mirror, which is why his work on Pink’s The Truth Above Love is as forthright and outgoing as she is.  One tipoff about the way his mind works occurs in the song “True Love,” a song on the Pink record that features Lily Allen herself.  When Allen comes in on the bridge, the drums pull back and keyboards are foregrounded, thus creating a perfect setting for Allen’s fluttery soprano — in fact, you could almost mistake that bridge for a moment off her own It’s Not Me, It’s You.  Then when Pink re-enters for the chorus, the drums/handclaps return, the music reestablishes the anthemic tone.  

I got to thinking about this because Kurstin was brought in for Tegan and Sara’s new record Heartthrob, which I heard for the first time on the train yesterday.  I was a little shocked.  My exposure to this duo is scant, but I do know a little about them.  Identical twins, they came up through folk coffeehouses and have never been shy about their lesbianism.  Over the years, their music has changed to accompany more electronic orientation, veering more toward what we used to call “new wave” rather than the current hit parade.  But along comes Kurstin, and what they sound like is just that, music to rival Britney and Kesha.  This wouldn’t be bad, but even Britney and especially Kesha put their personal stamp on what they do — nothing on the new record (at least on first listen) jumped out lyrically or musically; in fact, you wouldn’t even know the principals were talking about same-sex relationships unless you knew about it beforehand.  It seems to me this isn’t the way a sellout record should work.  There needs to be something subversive you’re getting across underneath the surface glitz, like the Liz Phair/Matrix record, but nothing like that occurs here.  I would think the prime motivation of being an artist would be a freedom to your personal details, your vision.  Nothing like that happens on this record — this record could be anybody’s.  More on that later, when I wrap my head more around this.   

1/25/13

I should be writing something concrete – you know, an actual graf – but I find myself putting away a few Honorable Mentions and Duds.  One song that actually impressed me on the West of Memphis soundtrack (mostly comprised of covers) was Natalie Maines’ “Mother,” which was so startling that I didn’t realize until toward the end that she was covering the Pink Floyd song from The Wall.  She actually made the song sound humane.  Imagine that.  Otherwise, Lucinda Williams takes away my joy, Johnny Depp rides into town with Mumford & Sons, plus filler, filler, and more filler.  Damien Echols, often referred to by journalists as the most “charismatic” of the West Memphis Three (do death row inmates have publicists?) reads two of his letters over Nick Cave piano-noodling.  Makes me wonder about his recently-released book Life After Death, which we’re selling at the bookstore.

The craziest thing just happened to me: I realized that “Imagine” is John Lennon’s answer song to “Let it Be.”  McCartney’s philosophy is to accept things how they are while hoping things change, while Lennon’s is to “imagine” a better world into action.  Both are also “hymns,” faux-spirituals, in the key of C.  That can’t be a coincidence.

1/24/13

Figured out what’s wrong with the Camper van Beethoven record – it’s boring, which explains why David Lowery sounds so disinterested.  The trash dismissal should be a joke along the lines of “take the skinheads sailing,” or yachting.  (“Skinflints?”  I’m thinking of Lowery hating on downloaders, though for sure I’d recommend those inclined to rip “Come down the Coast” rather than shell out fifteen dollars for the record.)

Later: “Golfing” scans better.  Also, Dawn Richard is of Haitian-Creole descent, so the pronunciation of her last name isn’t pretentious at all, just New Ah-lins.  (Saw that episode of Chopped night with contestants from that city and was touched, reminded by how wonderful the south can sometimes – sometimes – be.)