Wednesday, May 2, 2018

You said there's broken links in your brain and I said it's okay, mine's exactly the same: April 2018 music diary

This post is slightly earlier that it would normally be (I typically aim for the first Friday of the month), and the next one will be about a week late, because I'll be traveling for most of the second half of May as well as the first few days of June; the fallout from my absence will correct itself soon enough.

Lots of first person stuff in this post. My editor, me, is going to kill me.


Sunflower Bean: Twentytwo in Blue (Lucky Number) [r]
Barely-twentysomething duo from Brooklyn shows off the evergreen agelessness of the tight pop hook on their smooth, sweepingly pretty second album; they're young enough to mention Tame Impala and the New Pornographers (see "Puppet Strings") in the same breath as Fleetwood Mac and the Byrds, and there's something so satisfying about that. But let's not condescend here; "Memoria" is a full-sized fine lyric and a great country number, and the melodies on songs like "Only a Moment" and "Oh No, Bye Bye" are genuinely lovely and pleasing and meld in beautifully with power pop tradition while sounding new. The male-female dynamic on the vocals also brings pleasing memories of the recently departed Pity Sex. The only drawback to all this is that it's a little too airy and slick, but you'll probably have little trouble seeing past that.

Jeff Rosenstock: POST- (Polyvinyl) [c]
Everyone my age is having kids now. I'm not. Suddenly I find that a couple of my best friends are nine to twelve years younger than me, still in their early twenties. Jeff Rosenstock, ska punk singer, is a year older than me and is making music that sounds like an aged-out Brian Wilson dabbling in the emo field. Sunflower Bean were all born when I was in middle school and was already radio-fixated eight to twelve hours a day. I think I kind of understand where the kids are coming from. I don't understand where my peers are coming from. I wonder how this will all play out in the decades to come.

MAST: Thelonious Sphere Monk (World Galaxy) [r]
L.A. producer concocts immersive electrified interpolations of the Monk catalog, having performed similar work with late-period Coltrane in past years. It's long and is sometimes a Ready Player One of jazz -- oh, I know that! I remember that melody! I recognize that part! -- but elastic and vivid enough to be loose and fun.

Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour (MCA)
Checking her phone, looking for a way out of the lonely weekend, rolling her eyes at manspaining John Waynes, she's setting the whole world aflame with her subtly cutting songs and singing, but the firmly Nashville arranging and producing is still just too slick and formal to me and I can't hear under it. Sorry.

Frankie Cosmos: Vessel (Sub Pop) [r]
On one of my runs through this I accidentally left Spotify on shuffle and completely failed to notice till it was nearly over; you might be tempted to think that meant that it's a bit too uniform -- and it certainly is similar to Next Thing, the same clunky klutzy rhythms, Beat Happening-like disaffected vocals and entire songs that sound like studio false starts -- but it actually won me over where I'd been on the fence, because it shows how durable Greta Kline's writing is despite the chaotic put-ons in the way she chooses to present it. Would a more considered atmosphere, a greater commitment to sound and songs make this stronger and more universal the way similar interventions did for the Replacements or the Mountain Goats, or would it erode the music's homespun charm? I can't answer; "Duet" and "Cafeteria" (my favorite, and the second-longest song at 2:56) suggests she could ace at pure pop, "I'm Fried" suggests she's right where she should be. I guess it will be fun to find out.

Amen Dunes: Freedom (Sacred Bones)
So Sacred Bones signed David Gray, huh?

Hop Along: Bark Your Head Off, Dog (Saddle Creek)
Same impressions as the last time out -- it's not the songs that leave me bored, it's the sound -- though I notice that Frances Quinlan now takes on a bit of a Hank Williams yodel at times. With much more emphasis on that and less on wanting to sound like a period in rock radio history that isn't that fun to relive, maybe something here?

Wye Oak: The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs (Merge) [hr]
It used to seem like Wye Oak's conventional live instrumentation was interfering with the dream-pop they were really driving at, but now -- and, maybe not coincidentally, a couple of years past the lush, emotionally staggering indie trip hop / grownup synthpop album from Jenn Wasner's solo project Flock of Dimes -- keyboards and electro-soundscapes fill out the frame, there's churning, addictive rhythm and blessed economy, but just as crucially, Wasner's singing is more confident and beautiful than ever, suggestive of Annie Lennox, specifically the Lennox of unguarded moments like "Walking on Broken Glass" rather than the one forced to defend her own status as an outlier within the rock landscape. The songs are dizzying and tough, sonically towering, a carving out of personal space within familiar territory; you're conscious of the feelings being wrung from memory, of records or radio or just the past itself, but Wasner (and presumably Andy Stack as well, as a writer and player) makes a point of searching inward for the expansive mood she seeks. In other words, no matter how big this sounds (I could name almost any of the songs but take specific note of the suite running from "Lifer" to "Symmetry"), it never stops sounding like a personal quest into a dark night, which is the key to all good stadium-sized rock, whereby thousands or millions can feel as if their own private brood or triumph is being secretly validated; not that Wye Oak play stadiums, but at this point they're good enough to be that revered. The record sparkles, but brush it off and all you keep finding is further sophistication and strength. I'm now crushed that I missed their last two albums somehow (seriously, how did that happen?) and will be working to correct the gaffe.

Goat Girl (Rough Trade)
Decent post-punk outta London; the punks get younger and younger, the post-punks always seem to know more about the world and less about fun, and don't you evah forget that one without the other is an incomplete story.

Daniel Avery: Song for Alpha (Mute) [hr]
You've surely discerned that my default position on what constitutes good electronic music is "this sounds nice while I'm reading or cooking," which means both that I'm a square and that there's a reason I'm not a paid critic, but once in a while you hear something that just leaps out; this English DJ's fourth album and first for the venerable Mute doesn't just tease and titilate with its club atmospherics, it absolutely grooves and in fact makes for a breathless, frenzied close listen all the way through, but especially during a four-track run in the middle ("Projector" -> "TBW17" -> "Sensation" -> "Citizen//Nowhere") serving up some of the most ecstatic dance music I've come across in a while. As my DNB loving friends from the Soapbox would put it, this record is disgusting.

Jean Grae x Quelle Chris: Everything's Fine (Mello Music) [hr]
The hilarious cover art and the guest shots from Hannibal Buress and Nick Offerman (I love them both but get real) might fool you into thinking this is going to be some inconsequential Handsome Boy Modeling School-style novelty act, but nah, go back further to another record with an equally silly game show framing device: De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, one of the greatest masterpieces in hip hop history. Grae and Chris certainly do make use of sharpened, cynical satire to make their basic points about the paranoia and dread of life in the late 2010s, but a lot more of what you hear on this wonderfully vibrant album is a sense of restlessness and invention that might sometimes seem alien to the music world we now inhabit. As bleak as the record's outlook may be, it's genuinely playful, and the flows and beats (produced by the now-engaged pair themselves) are bouncy, eclectic and endlessly entertaining. It's a record, just like Rising, full of intricacies and buried jokes you could spend the whole summer to come parsing out, and it could very well help you survive said summer. I'll leave it to others to figure out whether my feeling that this and Yo La Tengo's There's a Riot Going On (rather than anyone who's more direct and artless about the threats at hand) are The Sound of Trump Year Two is the result of my own cloistered middle class-ness, or if 2018 just hasn't found its Joey Bada$$ or Nadine Shah yet; in either case, it's easy to forget sometimes how good it feels when a new album arrives precisely when it's needed.

Laura Veirs: The Lookout (Raven Marching Band)
Veirs was more than solid when I saw her band open for the Decemberists in 2009; if anything, her performance was probably more relaxed and musical than the headliners', who were at the peak of their Hazards-era chaos. She also offered, curiously, the most memorable songs by far on her rather excessively relaxed collaborative album with Neko Case and kd lang. But her own studio albums are oddly sterile in a fashion similar to Rhiannon Giddens. It's lifestyle music for the NPR crowd, which doesn't mean you doubt its sincerity.

Tinashe: Joyride (RCA) [r]
Theoretically it should be thrilling that Tinashe's incessantly-delayed second album is as short as it is, and it's a consistently fun listen, well produced and brilliantly performed... and yet nothing sticks, apart from the squeaky bed on "Ooh La La." While it's on it's quite grand, and if anything far more agreeable than its exaggerated reputation as a complete bunt. You're left with the impression that it's so brief because it's been stripped of the individualism and ambitiousness that lifted her marvelous debut Aquarius above the PBR&B fray in 2014. There's no mistaking that it's still her, and that she still brings it, but this simply spent too much time in the oven; it's not even that it's lacking in any serious manner, it just doesn't go where it could.

Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (Atlantic) [r]
A part of me feels like I'm simply too old to appreciate this the way it deserves, especially since Cardi B's two favorite subjects -- sex and social security -- are pretty serious business to my mind. And there are a lot of miraculous tunes in these brisk 48 minutes, including the first use of Migos I've ever managed to come away admiring ("Drip"), the breakthrough single of the last twelve months ("Bodak Yellow," which loses a bit of its luster when placed on an album with the nearly identical "Money Bag"), two masterful jams on the first half ("Be Careful" and "I Like It") and two hysterical novelties on the second ("She Bad," which is about that ass, and "Thru Your Phone," in which she goes there). As for her rapping, she's effervescent and unyielding and a lot of fun, especially when her various producers don't bury her in the mix. But this is the kind of record so ubiquitous, and whose audience is so built-in, that a coherent opinion about it when you're very much an outsider from its Moment feels pretty much superfluous. It's very good but it's surprisingly lacking in surprise, and yet again, maybe it doesn't need that, and maybe the world doesn't need my take on it.

Kali Uchis: Isolation (Virgin) [r]
Instant star-making debut full-length from this Colombian-American singer is pure, carefully processed pop music beholden to a broad pallette of genres while making its mark in very few of them; her performances are winning and the songs are more than solid, but one is reminded of albums like most of Charlotte Gainsbourg's whereby the artist herself is mostly a sideline rather than the main attraction. Ergo, "In My Dreams" (written by Uchis and Damon Albarn) is the third-best Gorillaz song to date, while BadBadNotGood, Tyler the Creator and Thundercat can't sell a hook the way the artist does on her own on the closing three-minute morsel "Killer." Regardless of any grousing, it's an extremely fun record, more fun than almost anything that attains its level of (possibly overexcited) hype these days.

Saba: CARE FOR ME (Saba Pivot) [r]
Would call up memories of good kid, m.A.A.d. city because of its sharply confessional lyrics even if Saba didn't often sound uncannily like Kendrick Lamar, adopting some of the same tics and seemingly some of the same personas while using these as a vehicle to make his own mark, the culmination of his early collaborations with Chance the Rapper. Self-released, purely underground despite the artist's pedigree, and simultaneously witty and disarmingly sincere, it's a bruising, compassionate chronicle of violence and loss with consistently striking, jazzy production, and lets us bear witness to the emergence of a potentially remarkable storyteller.

Old Crow Medicine Show: Volunteer (Columbia Nashville)
This is what Patrick Stickles' "communal" material would sound like if he sincerely believed he could be the seed of a bros' night out rather than the terrifying cell of dread and paranoia that follows him around; to put it another way, this is Normie Music trying very gingerly to approximate interesting work it very vaguely remembers. I had no idea it was possible for something to sound both undercooked and unbearably clean and processed, but here we are. Maybe it's my long-gone alt-country alter ego talking (I couldn't get enough of the stuff for around eighteen months between 2007 and 2009) but I still think their songs are mostly decent, and can imagine enjoying this if it were recorded differently. There was a time when the decisive move away from bluegrass and toward .38 Special electricity here would've made serious waves, but are the same people paying attention now anyway?

Ibibio Sound Machine: Eyio (Merge EP) [r]
Would've missed this if not for a PR email as it doesn't seem anyone I read has covered it, and maybe that's because it's pretty insubstantial even by EP standards; all four songs, one a bopping instrumental, are leftovers from Uyai including the LP's (very nice) erstwhile title track, and you get why they were left on the floor, which doesn't mean they're not fine as hell. The longest and best cut, "A Forest," is extremely Bernie Worrell-era Talking Heads stuff.


* The Low Anthem: The Salt Doll Went to Measure the Depth of the Sea (Joyful Noise) [Providence abstract weirdos and onetime Lucinda Williams openers, a strangely ideal combination, with ghostly airless ambient folk; "Give My Body Back"/"Cy Twombly by Campfire"/"To Get Over Only One Side"]
* Screaming Females: All at Once (Don Giovanni) [the perverse joy and release of restraint and frustration, mundane adult annoyances as rock & roll; "Glass House"/"Dirt"/"Bird in Space"]
* Camp Cope: How to Socialise & Make Friends (Run for Cover) [for the first time ever, I'll use this blog to impart life advice: do everything in your power to open your heart enough to live as completely inside your emotions as Maq McDonald does on the best parts of this devastating deep-dive of an album; her voice -- meaning her actual voice as well as her lyrics -- could cut you down until you can't get up again, or it could sustain you through unfathomable tragedy, though the songs that hit hardest really stick out; "I've Got You"/"The Face of God"/"The Omen"]
* Seun Kuti & Egypt 80: Black Times (Strut) [Fela's youngest dances on your face; any cut is tremendous out of context but the record as a whole extrapolates a little too long and politely]
* Tracey Thorn: Record (Merge) [I'm too old for Cardi B, and now too young for one of my heroes; I find some (not all) of the lyrics too on-the-nose or bare ("Face" should sould like 1977 David Byrne interpreting social networks but instead sounds like 2018 David Byrne doing the same, and "Babies," well, I've always loved Thorn's often brutal honesty and I suspect the problem is me here; for the record, I find the words to "Sister" absolutely impeccable), even though I love the music and that's more than I can say for Pet Shop Boys' Elysium, which is another case in which I get the strange feeling that someday I'll understand, and props to her for never doubting the importance of her directness; "Dancefloor"/"Air"/"Sister"]
* Phonte: No News Is Good News (Foreign Exchange) ["Euphorium (Back to the Light)"]
- Go-Kart Mozart: Mozart's Mini-Mart (West Midlands) [tin can Stranglers]
- Sarah Blasko: Depth of Field (Universal) [whispered and dramatic, deadpan and perfectly controlled, tense and beautiful]
- Hailu Mergia: Lala Belu (Awesome Tapes from Africa) [delightful noodling and jamming that seems to emanate from multiple tuned-in radios but coalesces perfectly]
- Joan Baez: Whistle Down the Wind (Proper) [making one last claim on a world gone wrong in various ways she warned us about]

Dedekind Cut: Tahoe (Kranky) ["MMXIX"]
George Fitzgerald: All That Must Be (Double Six)
Essaie Pas: New Path (DFA)

* Baloji: 137 Avenue Kanlama
* Orquesta Akokan
* Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is a Reptile
* Novelist: Novelist Guy
* Alexis Taylor: Beautiful Thing
Black Milk: Fever
Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed
Czarface/MF Doom: Czarface Meets Metal Face
The Vaccines: Combat Sports
Chris Carter: Chemistry Lessons Volume 1
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers: Years
Hinds: I Don't Run
Rival Consoles: Persona
Mouse on Mars: Dimensional People
The Nels Cline 4: Currents, Constellations
Ashley Monroe: Sparrow
Drinks: Hippo Lite

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams [NYIM]
David Byrne: American Utopia
Meshell Ndegeocello: Ventriloquism [NYIM]
PRhyme: 2
Preoccupations: New Material
Courtney Marie Andrews: May Your Kindness Remain
Guided by Voices: Space Gun [NYIM]
Jack White: Boarding House Reach
Trembling Bells: Dungeness [NYIM]
Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Sex & Food
Eels: The Deconstruction
Wreckless Eric: Construction Time & Demolition [NYIM]
King Tuff: The Other
John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness
The Damned: Evil Spirits
Manic Street Preachers: Resistance Is Futile

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats "Tearing at the Seams" [Tearing at the Seams]
Meshell Ndegeocello "Waterfalls" {TLC cover} [Ventriloquism]
PRhyme ft. Dave East "Era" [2]

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Beatles: Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany (1962)

(Lingasong 1977; numerous others, 1977-98 or so)


Picture yourself as a penniless rock & roll musician, at a time when the glamor that later came to accompany such a status was unheard-of, arriving in a strange city, inexperienced with anything beyond your home country in the first place, in the middle of a summer night in 1960, together with four bandmates -- one of whom, the drummer, you've hardly even played with yet. The club in which you're to play, under a punishing schedule, to German sleazebags and gangsters and eccentrics with a thirst for American-influenced rock & roll, is closed and you sleep in the lobby, soon finding that your regular nightly conditions are to be even worse: cramped in a room behind a nearby movie theater screen, stuck using urinal water to (barely) bathe in. This doesn't sound like the auspicious beginning of a brilliant career, but in fact it marks the turning point for the band that would eventually manage a domino effect on popular music that continues its ramifications -- across every sort of cultural line -- to this day. For this reason the night the Beatles arrive at the Indra is possibly my favorite episode in their history: the breathless excitement of knowing, in retrospect, that they stood on the precipice of immortality: "Their Name Liveth for Ever More."

It was in Hamburg -- even with a bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, who couldn't really play; and a drummer, Pete Best, who barely could -- that the Beatles became the Beatles, playing for hours a night, learning an endless repertoire of hardened, greasy rock & roll (versions of "What'd I Say" that went on for half an hour or longer were immortalized in various memories but sadly fail to survive for us to hear), and -- responding to pressure from their demanding, often violent audiences -- becoming adept, even phenomenal, at a kind of showmanship that was born of necessity but gave them an incomparable charisma and -- according to many of those who were there and later talked about it -- an avant garde uniqueness: the next step into the void that Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis had opened a few years earlier, before all of the original rockers got too close to the sun.

The Beatles took five trips to Hamburg in the years leading to, and just after, the point when they signed a recording contract with Parlophone. Behind-the-scenes intrigue and disaster plagued the end of the first one, at the Indra and then another club called the Kaiserkeller, but on that trip they also befriended the "Exis" (short for "existentials," German kids mortified by their country's recent past and looking inward with art and rock & roll), Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann, two close confidantes who would have far-reaching effects on the band's future fame: among other things, Kirchherr ushered the "Beatle haircut" into existence and generally defined the band's "look," and Voormann would one day draw the cover of Revolver and play bass on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. At any rate, the enthusiastic support of these new friends was the first of many kicks directly into the future for the band. When the Beatles returned home and played their first Liverpool gig in months on December 27, 1960, they were a new band, their chops suddenly beyond criticism, having worked themselves to the bone until they became great... and on this night, arguably, the first kernels of Beatlemania were born. When they returned to Hamburg the following spring, still under the aegis of their first manager Allan Williams, they made their first professional recordings as a backing band to Tony Sheridan, all while performing in a two-month residency at the Top Ten Club.

A great deal happened between the exit from the Top Ten on July 1, 1961 and the beginning of the first of three Star-Club residencies on the following April 13, and much of it is covered elsewhere much more extensively, but in short: the Tony Sheridan single "My Bonnie" was released and drummed up a tiny bit of excitement among the band's increasingly fevered fan base in Liverpool, which led directly to NEMS entrepreneur Brian Epstein discovering and meeting the group and setting up a management deal with them; they performed a lengthy recording test for Decca Records, who then turned them down; they played for the BBC for the first time; and most jarringly, Stuart Sutcliffe -- who'd left the band at the end of the Top Ten period, choosing to remain in Hamburg with Astrid, now his girlfriend -- died of a brain hemorrhage. The other Beatles were unaware of this until they arrived in Germany for their third round of gigs. A pall was cast over the month and a half that followed, highlighted strictly by a coveted and dangerous spot opening for the wildly unpredictable, gun-wielding rockabilly master Gene Vincent.

Thanks to Epstein, and to Epstein's insistence that they streamline their image for the benefit of the old-world showbiz people they'd soon be rubbing shoulders with (the crashing of this boundary would in fact be one of the most lasting effects of the Beatles' stardom; ironically, their Hamburg performances before Epstein began to wield his influence resemble modern rock concerts more than the enormous, brief, carefully predictable sets they'd end up playing at the height of their fame), the Beatles' last two visits to the Star-Club paid well and were victory laps in theory, but really felt like a retreat: pivotal as it had been, Hamburg was old news by this time, with clearly bigger things on the horizon. The November trip, lasting two weeks, was a major annoyance: by now they at last had the drummer they wanted, Ringo Starr, and had recorded three pivotal sessions at EMI for George Martin, which would form the basis of the band's first single. On October 5, that single, "Love Me Do" -- backed with "P.S. I Love You" -- was released and became a top-twenty hit, in part on the strength of hometown loyalty, but also because (as its later success in America would demonstrate) it was an infectious song that sounded weird and new. And not only were the Beatles a charting band on a major label by the time they were back in Hamburg in November, which felt like reliving the past, on the 12th of October they'd opened for Little fookin' Richard -- and Richard had been floored by them.

And if the Star-Club was already an afterthought in November, it must have seemed like a complete joke a month later. The Beatles spent Christmas and New Year's Eve in the final throes of their relationship with the city in which John had once said he felt he had grown up. Hamburg, at one time, had been everything to their development and continued existence as a powerful band and to their hope for a professional career. (Post-Epstein especially, they made enough money at this that they could have lived off it.) Now it was like placing everything on hold to pay dues. In fact, between these last two residencies, there was one more earth-shattering event: the Beatles recorded "Please Please Me," the record that would make everything explode, on November 26th. On the 18th of December, they were back at the Star-Club.

We're extremely lucky that any recordings of the Beatles from their days as a hard-rocking, beer-swigging club band exist at all, taped (possibly covertly) over what apparently were several evenings by the leader of another Star-Club band, King-Size Taylor and the Dominoes. Despite the obvious flaws of the recording, and despite the fact that this was the tail end of this phase of their career (exact dates are not agreed upon but the current best guess is that the tapes were made on Christmas and over the course of the few days after; the long-held belief that they were a posterity capturing of the band's very last day in the city, December 31st, was apparently baseless), what comes through is an astonishing excitement, which is a dot that can be connected directly to the Beatles' future vitality; but also a looseness, which isn't so much. (Imagine, therefore, what the 1960 and '61 Hamburg sound must have been if this is still so raw and ruthless at its best.) One of the most intriguing facets of Brian Epstein's plan for the group is that he intended to -- and succeeded at -- selling them as performers of their own original material, when their original innate appeal, the very thing that enchanted a pissed-off Voormann sufficiently to compel him to bring his girlfriend Kirchherr along to check them out, had little to do with this particular element of their mystique. (It's known that the Beatles were toying fairly regularly with originals in 1960, but the will and inspiration both seem to have dried up for some time in the following two years.) In fact, even the covers on the tape -- as Mark Lewisohn points out in Tune In -- are mostly relics of Beatles setlists from a year or two prior: evergreen rock & roll numbers and oddities and very few of the then-prevalent Liverpool showstoppers like "Some Other Guy," fewer still of the Lennon-McCartney numbers that had landed them the record deal that would upend their lives. "Ask Me Why," freshly recorded for Parlophone, and "I Saw Her Standing There," a masterful new song of Paul's that was still being perfected (it had been recorded in a rehearsal session at the Cavern in October in a more embryonic state, with prominent harmonica), both show up and are played well, but they are the lone non-covers.

The rest is a time capsule in its song selection, which doesn't stop the band from threatening to tear the songs apart with sheer urgent will. There are a few songs that would later become part of the Beatles' Parlophone canon: Little Richard's version of "Kansas City" and his own "Long Tall Sally," Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," Lenny Welch's "A Taste of Honey" (heard three times from separate gigs, once with John laconically changing his backing vocal to "a waste of money," another with Tony Sheridan amiably guesting on backing vocals), Carl Perkins' "Matchbox" (sung here by John) and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," Peggy Lee's "Till There Was You" (also played at the Decca audition on January 1, 1962, seemingly an eternity ago now), the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" (ever the dependable showstopper), and Dr. Feelgood and the Interns' obscure, Lennon-beloved "Mr. Moonlight." Reproduction quality dictates that almost no one would prefer any of these to the studio versions, especially if vocals are important to you and you don't necessarily need every strum of John's guitar rammed into your skull, but if you can listen through the muck you can tell that when they play "Kansas City" here, even if they hated being in Germany, even if the conditions are worse than on the earlier Cavern runthrough of the same song, they're so much hungrier than they would be two years later on Beatles for Sale... and it's not as if that recording isn't perfectly fine in the first place! All three front-line Beatles sing masterfully throughout the set, Paul completely redeeming his hushed awkwardness from the Decca tape, and even loosening up enough on all three versions of "A Taste of Honey," not to mention "Till There Was You," that you can actually sense why they worked on the Hamburg stage (the amusingly disorganized version of the Marlene Dietrich signature "Falling in Love Again" has the same feature, a kind of Gene Vincent balladeering lilt, a very rock & roll sort of sensitive-bastard schlock), absent of their reputation as conservative copouts on the LPs.

The rest, well, it's all the purest most reverent kind of rock & roll, hard to hear or not, Christmas or no Christmas. We cut in on Star-Club employees Horscht Fascher and his brother Fredi playfully offering vocals on Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and Ray Charles' (via Eddie Cochran) "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," the last ride for two passionate rock obsessives who touched eternity in their random associations with the Beatles. Then, the tantalizing version of Ronnie Hawkins' "Red Hot" that cuts out after a minute but is ferocious for all its valuable surviving seconds. George takes on Tommy Roe's "Sheila" with a bit of trepidation but walks away credibly. The Olympics' song "Shimmy Like Kate" -- their biggest hit "Hully Gully" was notorious for starting riots and doesn't show up -- gets a sour, jokey treatment; and the intrigue slows down a little with "Reminiscing" (Buddy Holly) and "Red Sails in the Sunset" (Ray Sharpe).

But when John steps to the mike for his first solo lead vocal on the presumptive running order of the tape, curtly announcing the name of the song and -- after a quick introductory lick -- launching into "Sweet Little Sixteen," something happens. It's something that only happens when John Lennon sings; it happens on the studio version of "Twist and Shout," it happens on the bizarrely abandoned Beatles for Sale outtake "Leave My Kitten Alone," it even threatens to happen on that 1957 tape -- underneath layers of age and mud -- when he ploughs through "Puttin' on the Style" with an implied middle-finger and what you can picture as a gum-chewing mouth half agape. It's an abandon, a complete rejection of order and peace (whatever he may have later preached to us), an act of absolute destruction and threat directed at anyone listening: it's frightening because he hangs onto nothing, holds nothing dear that will stop him from going off the handle, except for the song -- his love for the song is what inspires this manic possession and what keeps him from losing his grip. You can listen to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" every day for the rest of your life; you could be like Brian Wilson obsessing over the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," playing it incessantly on a turntable situated next to a bed you never leave, and you can love it in a bottomless, unearthly fashion... but it is actually impossible for you or anyone else among the living to love and occupy "Sweet Little Sixteen" in the way that John does in this moment, on a performance that essentially defines him as a human and the base impulses at the core of all of his art.

That includes the late Eddie Cochran, upon whose wild, untamed version of the song the Beatles based their arrangement. But Cochran and his band were tight and controlled. The Beatles, especially John and Ringo, sound like they are coming apart at the seams with every bar. First there's the rhythm guitar line that marches in abruptly after "they're really rockin' in Boston," the relentless loudness of which keeps us from feeling relief when it temporarily goes away during each line of the verses, because we know what the weight of those silences means. Next there is the moment in the first verse when Lennon wrings every bit of life he can out of the line "all over St. Louis." Why does this line merit such worrying and joy? Why is it so important to John? Why does it sound as if he has mined each moment of Berry's (magnificent) record and determined some way to explore the truth and depth of each moment hidden behind the geographic platiudes, and maximize these things so that no one hearing -- in the room at the time, and all these decades later when he couldn't have known his voice would still echo off your walls or mine -- can ignore them, or him, or the band. In the first place, Chuck Berry's song is pointedly not about lust, contrary to the drive-by interpretation to which it's often treated; it's about the act of being a fan, and in so completely pouring himself into it, John's committing the ultimate act of fandom, the ultimate statement of his allegiance to the music he so dearly loves that it has long since overwhelmed all else in his life. The peak comes when he reaches the couplet "Oh Daddy Daddy, I beg of you / whisper to Mommy, it's all right with you" and changes "Mommy" to "Mimi" -- thereby turning Berry's story of a teenybopper music nut into the story of himself, defying all sense of gender, racial, national, psychological boundary in the process. Another performance of "Sweet Little Sixteen" exists in the Beatles' vault (two, if you count a skeletal, mostly Lennon-only rendition from the Get Back sessions), from their BBC sessions (officially released on a band-sanctioned CD, in fact), but this cannot compare to the balls-out gloriousness of these heart-pounding two minutes, one of the best performances by the band ever recorded.

There are other delightful oddities here, like the Fats Waller screwball "Your Feet's Too Big" (dedicated to John's BBW gal pal Bettina in the audience) and the completely inexplicable Frank Ifield cover "I Remember You" (Vee Jay Records hilariously conflated the Beatles with the fellow exotic-accented British-Australian nightclub yodeler on a cash-in LP in 1964 called Jolly What!); and there are bastard missteps either in recording or performance terms. One of the two "Roll Over Beethoven" covers seems to be a victim of a tape fraying at the end, and Paul's voice gets completely lost in the blitz of Berry's "Little Queenie" (a real drag, as this is the only recording of a complete performance of that one by the Beatles) and it's of course a pity how many other cuts are incomplete, but one cannot conjure up many excuses for the maddeningly slapdash versions of Bo Diddley's "Road Runner," and the arrangement of "Besame Mucho" just depends too much on "being there" for the humor to work and for the recording therefore to be tolerable, apart from some very nice guitar work. For the most part, though, the band is remarkably good on the tape, and consistent. There are songs here -- George's engagingly innocent lead on "Nothin' Shakin'," the splendidly haunting arrangement of Phil Spector's first hit "To Know Him Is To Love Him" (switched to "Her"), Paul and John's stunning Everly-like harmonizing on the Carl Perkins number "Lend Me Your Comb" and raucous back-and-forth on Elvis' "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)," plus two versions of Chuck Berry's great Beatles prototype number "I'm Talking About You" -- that one could argue are better served on the cleaner BBC performances, though then again those performances made within the confines of professional studios tend never to be nearly as fresh and unadulterated. The same goes for something like "Twist and Shout"; the band's EMI recording is nearly perfect, and Lennon doesn't demolish the universe and snarl in your face here in the same way, but you can imagine some punk rocker somewhere having a revelation about the Beatles based on this unhinged and messy version.

This brings us to the generalized problem of Star-Club as a listening experience. Unless you're a huge advocate of amateur live recordings who's used to the attendant sound problems and/or a true Beatles obessive, this can be difficult to sit down and enjoy; that said, this is an even more crucial recording, to my mind, than the more conventional The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, largely because the performances are so much less reined-in. It's really the only chance to hear the Beatles without the rest of the world also listening in, the Beatles as a fully formed rock band that hadn't quite conquered the world and become jaded with the problems of fame yet. Of course those Beatles would retreat into the darkness and let records slip out into the world that were possessed of brilliance that was and remains almost incomparable within the pop idiom, certainly in such quantity. But in their heart of hearts, these men -- John Lennon particularly, but also George, and also the others close behind -- came to life on stage as rock & roll performers in the club days more than at any other point since, with the possible exception of Lennon during the Plastic Ono Band sessions, and would never quite recapture that energy. (It's true that the Beatlemania-era live recordings can be extremely exciting, but that's certainly in part because of the crowd response, which would sadly eventually overwhelm any possibility of the band operating well as a unit on stage.)

And again, it must be said that given what a revelation this record is, if you're attuned to its specific needs, it's hard to imagine how astounding a surviving tape from the Kaiserkeller or the Top-Ten Club might have been. And even if you can get with the historical importance of this and love it for what it is, and I strongly advocate trying, you still -- at least on most editions that now circulate -- have the extremely long gaps between the songs to contend with. The Beatles were never the Ramones, with one song stacked atop another with barely the chance to take a breath, and at this point they were closer to Television -- with endless noodling, chatting and tuning between songs. Obsessives will want to listen closely to hear John Lennon picking fights with bar patrons, slipping in and out of bad German and making bad jokes, while Paul tries a little harder to engage sincerely. All of these caveats make it hard to name this as being a live record that exists completely on its own terms, away from the bootleg stigma (despite being a "legal" release, at least initially), the way I would with Television's The Blow-Up or the Velvet Underground's Live at Max's Kansas City... yet those are two examples of bands who came into being as an indirect result of the Beatles and their utterly bonkers early history, of cutting their teeth on those late nights and inventing the idea of the rock band as we know it, carrying forth from the pioneers before them a story they'd experienced and had been in the grips of from the very beginning.

Lastly, we must consider what a mess has been made of these tapes over the years, ever since the flawed initial double-LP release by Lingasong that prompted lawsuits spanning two full decades, ending with the tape in the hands of the Beatles' Apple Records, who've never done anything with it. For a time the recordings were considered all but public domain, like the Decca audition, and so the market on LP, cassette and CD was flooded with various releases, most of them truncating the 37-song tracklist and even mistakenly filling the time out with songs by other bands (King Size Taylor and the Dominoes; Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers). There were speed problems, the order of the tape was endlessly fucked with, and bad edits abounded. The length of the tape was such that you could make multiple "albums" from it without repeating songs, and many enterprising people did. Sometime in the 2000s a full source tape leaked onto the Net, and the definitive version -- the one I'm reviewing here -- is available online under the Purple Chick "label," though I like many others came to know this music, or a large chunk of it, from one of the shitty K-TEL releases of bits and pieces of it way back when. This adds ambiguity of sound quality and tracklist to an already flawed piece of material.

But given all that, there are still some transcendent moments that overcome every kind of doubt and apology you'd ever have to make for Live at the Star-Club, and it's quite incredible that the Beatles didn't make use of any of them for Anthology 1. One is the aforementioned "Sweet Little Sixteen." Another is Paul's roaring take on Chan Romero's "The Hippy Hippy Shake," the best available version of one of the Beatles' favorite covers. And lastly is "Where Have You Been (All My Life)," a wistful miracle: it's John singing a tremendously lovely b-side (backing "Soldier of Love," another Beatles favorite) from one of his most beloved singers, the great Arthur Alexander. (Alexander was the original artist of "Anna (Go to Him)" and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues," Beatles studio and BBC chestnuts respectively.) Alexander's original version starts out as a plead and grows into a towering triumph as the emotion builds. The Beatles take a different tack, letting Ringo lead and pound his way through the room while Lennon rises above it, the unpredictable clown and dangerous buffoon to end them all pulling his shit together to profess a love it sounds like he fully means. He hated being here in this moment and there he is, giving his full heart to this, even as the rest of the band files behind him (a fine imitation of the record's piano line from George, who also fucking hated being here again) and throws this tender ballad into rocker overdrive, like they're trying to form a room full of psychopaths and criminals and music-crazy kids and whoever else into a small army... doing in this comparatively tiny room what they would, in a matter of months, be doing to an entire country; then to an entire planet; then to the future of music itself.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Vampire Weekend: Contra (2010)



At the dawn of this decade, Vampire Weekend's second album hit #1, which could be interpreted in some unadjusted-for-inflation paradigm as a sign that Pitchfork-era indie had "made it," in a way the famous wave of New York alt-rock bands a decade earlier had not. What it really meant was probably just that the bar for chart placement had been lowered, but apart from that, there's no question that this exceptionally gregarious, accessible group's music sounds like it would easily have been a mainstream artifact in another era, in that it's the kind of material many of us would have to somehow strain ourselves not to like. Then, so does lots of "semi-popular music" from Big Star to Camera Obscura, but the great triumph of Contra (much more so than the debut) is how it melts resistance, not by force but by sheer charm.

It starts within a matter of seconds, with "Horchata" -- now a grocery store song, but at the time a total shock: the actual sound of world-opening joy embraced fully in the supposedly detached, irony-addicted context of indie rock. Funeral, one supposes, ran with similar open keenness, but Vampire Weekend exploit the same sort of immediacy without dispensing with precision, economy, archness. In an interview two years before this, Ezra Koenig said "Having grown up and been a kid in the grunge era, I automatically like stuff that isn't distorted"; what's interesting about this statement is that it qualifies verbally as well as musically. They make it sound easy to be right there in a moment without wringing one's hands over it, and so of course they quickly attracted resentment, even if as of the first time one hears "Horchata" and its immediate sequel, the Graceland-evocative but still sweet and singular "White Sky," it no longer becomes possible to render the band's name as a punchline.

There was controversy, of course. The cover photo of a vintage polo shirt-wearer started strange discussions about imagery and self-ownership, both inherently and because of a legal kerfuffle that grew from it. (The covers of this and the debut album both do the band few favors in fighting their reputation as yuppies wanking on about vacation homes.) The appropriation talk reared its head, as usual, though Ezra Koenig, Orchestra Baobob fan and collector of Kenyan psych 45s, inarguably knows more about African music than the great majority of his detractors; the accusation that Vampire Weekend conflated the music of squalor with the celebration of privilege (an element that does exist, though far more so on their first record) assumes that this juxtaposition is inherently problematic rather than potentially compelling, but regardless of that, what Vampire Weekend does is demonstrate the excitement of being a musical omnivore. It seems more than a little short-sighted to openly wish that indie rock would reduce, rather than broaden, its scope of influence, and this band's digestion of multiple sources has healthy analogues all across the history of guitar music, continuing a give-and-take tradition for which we owe nearly everything compelling about the music that enriches our lives. (Fanta Sylla's piece wrestling with this is worth a read.)

And enrich this does: the band's giddily light touch, their audience-friendliness and the wit and subtlety and cornucopia of ideas in Koenig's lyrics allow this nearly definitive summertime record to remain compelling across seasons, years, (so far) lifetimes; eight years past its trendiest of moments, it sounds as fresh as ever, and seemingly smarter and smarter. A slight willful weirdness, not so much in evidence on the first album and possibly the result of keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij's love of left-field consternation that still communicates bliss (listen to his solo cut "Bike Dream"), also increases the depth of songs like "California English" (now-amusingly fretted over at the time due to its use of Autotune) and "Cousins" that used to seem like annoying throwbacks and now reveal an accumulation of counterpoints and surprises that never did spring forth from "A-Punk."

Mostly, though, it's all pop, and splendid: indisputably modern and forward but classically pleasing, and its leanness (ten songs, less than forty minutes) permits each of its songs to forge a relationship without any of them growing indulgent or anonymous. It's paced so that its most purely exciting song, "Run," shows up roughly halfway in, and when its romantic abandon peaks with its so-very-Rostam worldbeat bridge, the timelessness and vitality of the moment is genuinely hard to shake; for someone who held this band at arm's length until that moment, it's powerful to feel them almost magically becoming an entity that you relate to, presumably because something you have in common is that you are moved by the conceit of surrendering to a song like they do here. It doesn't have to be that specific song; once something gets you, you hear the shading everywhere, and the off-kilter, unpredictable beauty of the record (and the artists) keeps showing itself. The cutesiness of "White Sky" and "Taxi Cab" drain until only their craft and emotion sing on; and the Bow Wow Wow-like pounding novelty and frat-like atmosphere of "Giving Up the Gun" give way to its sense of loss, while soon enough all that's left in the more sprawling "Diplomat's Son" is both its sing-song hop and its irreducible gorgeousness as both a melody and a production that feels totally still despite its persistent beat.

"Diplomat's Son" is probably the most "Africana" of these ten recordings, though it also betrays a direct reggae influence; elsewhere, while there's no doubt a push for the indescribably open feeling of King Sunny Ade and the like (little evidence here of the harder, more challenging corners of Afrobeat), you could argue easily enough that African music plays no larger a role here than rockabilly or surf music, but of course neither of those ideas emerged wholly formed in an American vacuum either; Dick Dale, who's all over "Cousins," was no less aware of regurgitating what he heard in his youth than these boys are, as witness his signature recording of "Misirlou." And "Holiday," though it's a bit slight compared to the other songs (and readymade for commercial usage), cements Koenig as a clear-as-day Buddy Holly acolyte; once you hear it, Paul Simon seems next to irrelevant to the conversation (and he would explore the resemblance in aesthetic and affect much more comprehensively on Modern Vampires of the City, which features a song that might as well be a Holly cover).

Koenig shouldn't really dominate the conversation here as much as he does; he doesn't seek to overwhelm his bandmates, and Batmanglij and the others are the reason we care enough to try to discern meaning from his words, but his singing -- leaps and bounds above where it was in 2008 already -- and writing are so perfectly suited to the band's chosen sound that it's difficult to imagine their work functioning remotely so well with even an extremely similar voice. Contra beckons back to the Clash's Sandinista! in numerous ways that invite deeper, more meditative analysis than can be emulated in simple verbal discussion, but the words that really stick out across the album -- "Taxi Cab," "Giving Up the Gun," "Diplomat's Son" -- share a wistful resignation about the passage of time. Indeed, in subject-matter terms, this album almost seems a more mature, refined effort than the explosively enthusiastic, comparatively bouncy Modern Vampires of the City; Contra explores the worlds beyond the island, the mornings after, the years to come and the loves lost. It's true that "Run" sounds like a bolt out of prison, but how much life is left in its traveling pair? The allusions to financial safety and nerves in that song and "Taxi Cab," also about a fracturing young relationship, betray an unresolved yearning to escape that has the curious air of being reported by someone who feels it's too late to really do it.

And if "Giving Up the Gun" -- a song that predates nearly every other Vampire Weekend track and appropriately enough speaks about technology and culture passing by a veteran soldier or rocker, another conflation shared with the Clash -- wanders through the end result of the very stasis Cut Copy would movingly sing about a year later on "Take Me Over," it also provides the optimist's way out if only through soul enrichment. Batmanglij contributed to the lyrics of "Diplomat's Son," which adds sexual subtext to an admiring fable of fellow redeemed coddled kid Joe Strummer; there's a moment on the bridge when Rostam takes over the vocal for the first time on a Vampire Weekend track, singing about falling for another man, and the words abruptly become clipped, confused but enraptured, a microcosm of the transformations happening across the record, including to the listener... and another source of mild optimism, but then again "it was '81." The obvious Bob Dylan quote springs to mind; maybe in all the freedom surrounding these guys as of Contra there's a sort of insurmountable limitation? Certainly the recognition of the pettiness of these painstakingly detailed interpersonal issues in the context of a world of Spanish bombs and drug-stabbing asks a kind of question about modern life that the band doesn't seem to seek to answer here.

Koenig and Batmanglij are the ideas men, but Vampire Weekend would be someone's indulgent side project without the rhythm section that makes them: bassist Chris Baio is unwavering throughout the record and drummer Chris Tomson is something of an unheralded treasure; how much of the sense of propulsion and grace on "Run" is down to his interplay with Rostam's keyboards and production? What would "Giving Up the Gun" be worth without him? (The end of "Giving Up the Gun," by the way, possesses some of the most beautiful writing, singing, playing of any modern rock song.) Vampire Weekend's a band, not a theory, and that beating heart is why this is such a pleasure, such a surprisingly uncomplicated pleasure, to listen to. And damn, I even like the last song now.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

It's a real big war that they've got in store for us: March 2018 music diary

Only... three days late!?

Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy (Matador) [c]
Another feature-length diatribe -- this one a rerecording of a lo-fi album he put out on Bandcamp back in who cares -- from this perpetual adolescent with an obsessive cult following, this like all of Will Toldeo's music starts out tolerably generic (he sounds like Mark Oliver Everett, kind of, but gets taken much more seriously) but its smugness reaches critical mass somewhere around the twenty-minute mark when you're still on track two or three. The theme is, of course, John Hughes-like youthful longing with a shot of poetic pseudo-intellectualism, expressing sentiments that will seem trite except in the limited window of time when you need to hear (or remember) them. There's a certain subset of people that likes it when someone has little asides in their songs like "Is it the chorus yet? No, it's just the building of the verse, so when the chorus does come it'll be more rewarding." I am not, to put it very mildly, in that subset. You tread a line when examining this kind of music as an outsider -- it's demonstrable, from a glance online, that it means as much to some people as the Kinks or Neil Young or Lady Lamb or the Mountain Goats mean to me, and it's not my role to impart judgments on the meaningfulness of those relationships. What I can sense, though, is that Toldeo's sense of his own importance appears to exist in a realm far beyond most artists whose bodies of work have endured, which makes it stranger yet that he gains so much press for passing off old music as new, with very little widespread indication that he's doing so. Maybe for some people the sixteen-minute crescendos of simple repeated phrases and chords are big emotive climaxes. Maybe I'm wrong to laugh at "I won't become a nervous wreck / like the people I know who are nervous wrecks" and "I remember you, you had a body / you had hands and arms and legs etc."; but what I can say is that this album is indulgent and I hate it, and I hate listening to it, and choosing someone like this as some kind of Great White Hope of rock & roll feels as homogenizing and dull a notion of modernity and progression as any whitewashing or garbage-shilling any major label or ClearChannel station has committed. There's nothing here to discover, except that this walking bouffant thinks the world of himself. (And if I have to read one more headline about this boring fuck reviewing a movie or getting a cup of coffee or tweeting I will tear this place down.)

Ought: Room Inside the World (Merge)
Less emo than before, more Tears for Fears, still just as wordy; they rock when they can. Somewhat atypically, the song I respond to most -- and I'm not convinced my response is the right one -- is the longest, the five-minute "Desire." Things do make sense if a rocker with a touch of egotism like Tim Beeler can take on a cult, and it seems a little easier to take his lyrics and melodrama than those of than Samuel Herring, not that this band is interesting enough to be as jarring as Future Islands. They do blend in, but never seem unwelcome.

Lucy Dacus: Historian (Matador) [r]
It's very much against the policy of this blog to speculate on anyone's personal life, so let me be clear that I'm making the following judgment on their music alone: I'm pretty well convinced that if you scratch the chrome-plated surface of Car Seat Headrest you don't find as interesting a person as Dacus clearly is, even if there's little chance her music will ever attract the same fervor as her labelmate's. Her own compassion and interest in the world and in other people comes through in every lyric she writes even if the music, reminiscent of the most sophisticated of the '70s singer-songwriters, doesn't necessarily keep up. (There are exceptions; "Nonbeliever" is cunning, "Yours & Mine" and "Timefighter" terrific rock songs that reach beyond Dacus' usual scope of influences.) Dacus has a versatile voice that she seems reluctant to fully employ, which may be deliberate, as it makes the occasional twist or sudden scream much more startling. The point is that even if this doesn't reach for the jugular or the savage gut-punch, the deeper you go into it, the more you find; whether you have the time to invest or not, that's far more commendable than just grousing about an old breakup.

The Breeders: All Nerve (4AD)
Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly's alt-rock phenom of our youths with their first album in ten years; a little pedestrian and familiar, but it sure beats new Pixies. "Spacewoman" sounds more like Built to Spill than the Breeders!

Anna von Hausswolff: Dead Magic (City Slang) [r]
Peacefully apocalyptic sound-immersion from this Norwegian pianist-organist-writer-singer, who finds an ideal audience with those just starting to understand why their parents or older siblings once swore by Pure Moods. This also has shades of metal, and for music that's so bold and monochromatic in its heft and might, it has a surprising stoned-love lilt that can nicely fill up a room. Five songs totalling 47 minutes but you won't get bored, especially during her Yoko-like warbles which are enchanting.

Titus Andronicus: A Productive Cough (Merge) [hr]
Nuts to the idea that this isn't punk; was London Calling, which also explored sensitive balladry and classic rock, a rejection of punk values? Is the bar band wheeze of "Honky Tonk Women" really so far off anyway? The sensation of doubt, anger, perseverance Patrick Stickles can instill in the gut across his best work, "To Old Friends and New" as well as "The Battle of Hampton Roads" and even "My Eating Disorder," has never just been tied to screaming and loudness, and these seven performances -- one a raucous cover of "Like a Rolling Stone" with altered lyrics -- all achieve anthemic transcendence, all feature moments when your impulse is to pump your fists or pogo: anything to keep up with him and make you feel you're living in your emotions as fully as his rock band personage is. The theme is passion: finding it, holding it, shouting it out despite everything, and every track manages to discover a worthy channel for it. In contrast to the elastic band's overblown Merge debut, a 90-minute rock opera I could never get my arms around, this is closer to Local Business (or, for that matter, untitled unmastered.), and is destined to be equally underrated. Maybe it's me, because songs are what it's about and I don't need them to hang together, but somehow the presence of only seven songs, some that sprawl and some that quit before they have the chance, feels like an expectation-defying artistic stunt itself. More importantly, all seven are obnoxious and vibrant and powerful in one way or another, with big hard chords and big dumb growls and the usual impeccable lyrics mapping out the paths to a good-hearted thirtysomething white guy's best way forward in the world, tinged with doubt and challenges to his past self and fears to weigh down the present and future. Paranoia and insecurity are mocked on most of the cuts, but also entertained as an enemy to be surmounted. If the horror-movie throwaway "Home Alone" is too straightforwad for your pensiveness, try the city blues of "Above the Bodega," but mostly just try giving yourself over to all this and let its sheer sincerity win you over. The Dylan cover probably only works in context but it's a bloody, terrific, self-lacerating climax (another sign this is more than a set of throwaways), but any time is the right time to hear the dramatic buildups on "Number One (In New York)" and the country chant "Real Talk" fully commit to justifying their own size, and "Crass Tattoo," the anarchic song that Megg Farrell sings about the band tattoo on Stickles' right arm, is so lovely I hardly want to hear anything else at the moment.

Gwenno: Le Kov (Heavenly) [r]
Curiously, the last time Gwenno came up in conversation here it was also just below a review of a Titus Andronicus album; some sort of conspiracy, no doubt. Her second record is much better, or maybe it finds me in a more fitting spirit, but at times its psychedelic easy-listening tones call up memories of mid-'70s Yoko Ono, and the more upbeat antics touch joyously on free jazz at its most inviting. She continues to sing exclusively in Cornish, which is some kind of a choice, but the music is catchy and colorful enough that the rewards don't require rational comprehension.

SOB X RBE: Gangin (Empire) [r]
With Rae Sremmurd topping charts, Migos a household name despite my letters to the editor, and me begging you to listen to the Underachievers, have we entered the new age of the Hip Hop Collective? If so, this timelessly appealing four-piece is the one to put money on; after a coveted spot on the Black Panther OST they've made a lot of waves with this charmingly frantic and disorganized release with delivery that often gets out in front of itself, in the manner of Lil B but more technically competent by a lot. I'm just glad to hear some rap that isn't totally drowned out by production tomfoolery, and I really love "Anti Social": not really a banger like most of the others, but a song for "us" even though it's mostly about how fly they are -- "I don't wanna shake your hand." Elsewhere they go carpooling, talk lifestyle and brag about being a "bad dad." The lyrics are generally dark and amoral, which makes the hedonism their delivery communicates both more brazen, and a lot guiltier.

A.A.L. (Against All Logic): 2012-2017 (Other People) [r]
It would seem that this Nicolas Jaar project, which calls to mind early '90s hi-NRG club music as well as Jamie xx and (sporadically) the thin range of time when Moby wasn't annoying, is where he's funneled all his hedonistic impulses over the past decade. I bring up Moby because the sampling is soulful and sharp and foregoes gimmickry or self-consciousness, helpfully subsuming to feel as opposed to somebody like Fatboy Slim (who I hate) or even the Avalanches (who I love). As a whole it's an undeniable and even sublime party record, though it doesn't play to what seem Jaar's major strengths; then again, neither does Darkside. Quite honestly, what makes Jaar so remarkable is that every release he's had his hands on sounds like a separate project built for its own moniker, which nearly all of them now have.

Soccer Mommy: Clean (Fat Possum)
The petty jealousies of post-millennium radio pop rethought as bedroom anxiety by this Nashville singer-songwriter-guitarist. "Your Dog" bursts out of the speakers; the rest settles for a generic calm that's not really talking to me.

Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune) [hr]
It's become harder to classify this Scottish trio's music with each album, which is surely the point, even as their work has become more refined. The upshot is that this staggeringly addictive collection of tricky, thrilling, immersive noises feels like less a sideways experiment than a full-on recasting of the current indie rock moment (that is, if as many people hear it as heard the last couple). Apart from noticing that "See How" and "Wow" sound uncannily like TV on the Radio and that the jittery, rubbery production throughout the record does as much work as the lyrics at mere storytelling, the takeaway here is the group's willingness to go for a feel instead of formally structuring themselves; the songs here are indeed radically disparate. It's the big small sound of a terribly catchy apocalypse, with the occasional hellish Atari 2600 bassline ("Border Girl") and evidence of a band that refuses to the very end ("Holy Ghost") to surrender to any pigeonholing except that even at their least accessible, the music they make is some kind of beautiful.

Yo La Tengo: There's a Riot Going On (Matador) [hr]
On the surface what's happening here is simple enough: two separate worlds within the same band collide: the hypnotic conditions wrought by their long instrumental demos and film scores, which have more and more become a focal point for me as an aging fan who started listening at 15, and the bubble of transcendent quiet in which their new songs from Fade onward have operated. Want precedent? Try "Weather Shy," a 2001 song commissioned for a forgotten film called The Invisible Circus, or the long drone at the center of "Night Falls on Hoboken," or "Stupid Things" from Fade; at any rate, the methodology of cutting and pasting rehearsal material lends itself to the forming after-the-fact of pop songs that determinedly hold onto the vibe of time passing with a domestic roar drowning out anxiety and pensive dread. In other words, it's the most profound (and, if you like, privileged) kind of protest music: that which seeks to shut the riot out and hide inside love, even if it subtly shares the hard-won pessimism of Sly & the Family Stone's album of almost the same title (which already inspired what may be the greatest record of the decade, D'Angelo's Black Messiah). Less immediately clear is that underneath the murk, the songs on this thankfully sprawling album are honest-to-god songs, by and large resembling golden-era Byrds reimagined as an ambient pop unit, but more truly singular and lilting in a way that resists any kind of reduction (but will invite it anyway, as it always does with this band), in a way that is exclusively the domain of Yo La Tengo. I was uncertain initially -- it felt hazy, insubstantial, though not unappealing -- but now it seems as if I can't name a moment that doesn't lift me in the air as much as anything they've ever released, and I would without question name it as my favorite work of theirs in more than a decade. There's no denying that if there's any modern band this blog perceives unwittingly as beyond fair critique, it's this one, but I'm unable to think of any angle from which to approach "For You Too," "Above the Sound," "Out of the Pool," "What Chance Have I Got," "Shades of Blue," "Let's Do It Wrong," "Ashes," onward and onward, in which they don't come across as slices of well-considered heaven from a band that fully knows the power they wield, but defiantly resists the very concept of wielding power. It's an album that wants you to come to it, not as an act of snotty audience-screwing but as an open-armed gesture toward the listener that needs this escape into the void. That's to say nothing of the jams, which encourage us to space out beautifully into everything we already know, and invite us to hold on to what we can, while we can. I trust no other band as much as this one, but they've never failed to uphold that trust, and this unfathomably beautiful album feels like it exists because they needed it to; maybe their needs are yours too. They're certainly mine.

The Decemberists: I'll Be Your Girl (Capitol)
There's at least a touch of graceful self-awareness here, suggesting Colin Meloy isn't quite as tone-deaf as What a Terrible World... made him seem; the injection of synths is sporadically intriguing. It's a pity; Meloy's a great, distinctive frontman, backlash be damned, and the Decemberists are capable of being a strong and fun group -- you can hear traces of it in the single "Severed," the charm of the like-a-decade-hasn't-passed "Cutting Stone," and hell, I even got begrudgingly won over during the latter-day Shins-like opening power ballad "Once in My Life," though I'm guessing that's because of the entire closing verse Meloy borrows from Yo La Tengo's "Barnaby, Hardly Working." In the end their attraction to dull sing-song simplicity does them in once again; pretension is something they once could use like a paintbrush, sparring with the subtlety on a masterful song like "Shiny" or throughout the cheeky operatics on Picaresque and The Crane Wife. If "Severed" were more indicative of the risks taken in the album as a whole, we'd be in business; instead this is the awkward sound of a band being pulled in too many directions, attempting to please every possible audience and finally satisfying no one. The lazy pessimism and vague political diatribes gel poorly with the usual elaborate romanticism and feigned childlike innocence; it's not a disaster, which is welcome to a longtime fan, but you just know they could do better.

Mount Eerie: Now Only (PW Elverium & Sun) [NO]
Abstain. I just don't understand and never will -- I guess it's handy as a barometer of my tastes that every second of this, musically and lyrically, is like nails digging into my flesh -- so please don't ask me again.

Dean McPhee: Four Stones (Hood Faire) [hr]
Yorkshire electric guitar player joins Kaki King, William Tyler and Nels Cline as one of the finest modern architects of sound with his single instrument, and this soothing yet unpredictable cave of forlorn, beautiful noise could calm you down or could hypnotize you; it falls away into the crevaces of your life when you need it to, it's a thrill a minute when you want to stare right at it. Along with Yo La Tengo's record, it makes a strong case for mood music as the stunned-glare-into-the-void-horizon sound of the moment.


Cindy Wilson: Change (Kill Rock Stars) [an unexpected gem from the full-throated B-52: something pretty, airy, low-key, subtle, intriguingly dark and strange; "Things I'd Like to Say"/"Sunrise"/"People Are Asking"]
Sidney Gish: No Dogs Allowed (s/r) [personable and plucky singer-songwriter chuckles, stabs, has fun and means it; "Not But for You, Bunny"/"Sin Triangle"]
First Aid Kit: Ruins (Columbia) ["Postcard"/"It's a Shame"]
Khruangbin: Con Todo El Mundo (Night Time Stories) [psycho-soul semi-ambient outer space madness; "Evan Finds the Third Room"]
Shannon and the Clams: Onion (Easy Eye Sound) [punk girl group rockabilly from Oakland (because where else?) re-rendered for outre youth, like a more lovelorn B-52's for the 2010s because they could be ancient but also they couldn't be; "Onion" / "The Boy"]
QTY (Dirty Hit) [a New York garage band that sounds like British new wave; solid songs, even better lyrics]
Jim James: Tribute to 2 (ATO) [My Morning Jacket frontman drops by with a song cycle of ghostly covers better than anything I've ever heard out of his day-job band]
Robert Finley: Goin' Platinum! (Easy Eye) [unfortunately we can probably credit the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach for the fact that this cult-beloved Louisiana singer's big revival soul move is so much weirder and niftier than it seems at first]
L'Orange: The Ordinary Man (Mello Music) [trip hop for swingin' lovers]
G-Eazy: The Beautiful & Damned (RCA) [fun-woke but still tripping: "the government mix politics and religiousness / so a man's body more free than a woman's is," right on, but also "she fell in love off three fucks, like goddamn that's pitiful" so IDK; "Mama Always Told Me"/"That's a Lot"/"Love Is Gone"]
Shopping: The Official Body (Fat Cat)
Xylouris White: Mother (Bella Union)
Calexico: The Thread That Keeps Us (Epitaph) [proposal: remake of The Wrong Man with Joey Burns and Jeff Tweedy]
Stick in the Wheel: Follow Them True (From Here) [gorgoeus folk music]
Red River Dialect: Broken Stay Open Sky (Paradise of Bachelors) [gorgeous folk music]
Curtis Harding: Face Your Fear (Anti-) [smoked out funk, continually surprises with its cheery subversion of retro; "Till the End"/"Need Your Love"/"Welcome to My World"
Maylee Todd: Acts of Love (Do Right!) [ain't nothing like the real thing, but it'll work; "Disco Dicks 5000"/"From This Moment"/"Eye to Eye"]
N.E.R.D.: No One Ever Really Dies (Columbia) [the opening Rihanna guest shot "Lemon" is so head-explodingly brilliant -- if already a bit of a throwback -- it's hard to judge the rest, which is by turns annoying and sublime in its freewheeling restlessness, regularly sabotaging itself as only pop can; "Lemon"/"Rollinem 7s"/"Kites"]
Stef Chura: Messes (Urinal Cake) [grunge guitar sans perpetual neediness; "You"/"Faded Heart"]

Andrew Bird: Echoloations: River (Wegawam) [incomparably lovely meanderings]
James Holden & the Animal Spirits: The Animal Spirits (Border Community) ["Each Moment Like the First"]
Call Super: Arpo (Houndstooth)

* Seun Kuti & Egypt 80: Black Times
* Tracey Thorn: Record
* Phonte: No News Is Good News
Go-Kart Mozart: Mozart's Mini-Mart
Sarah Blasko: Depth of Field
The Low Anthem: The Salt Doll Went to Measure the Depth of the Sea
Dedkind Cut: Tahoe
Screaming Females: All at Once
Hailu Mergia: Lala Belu
Camp Cope: How to Socialise & Make Friends
Joan Baez: Whistle Down the Wind
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams
George Fitzgerald: All That Must Be
David Byrne: American Utopia
Meshell Ndegeocello: Ventriloquism
Essaie Pas: New Path
PRhyme: 2

Lankum: Between the Earth & the Sky [NYIM]
Daphne: Joli Mai [NYIM]
Courtney Pine: Black Notes from the Deep
Lost Horizons: Ojala
Bibio: Phantom Brickworks
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds: Who Built the Moon?
Nabihah Iqbal: Weighing of the Heart [NYIM]
Miguel: War & Leisure [NYIM]
Belle & Sebastian: How to Solve Our Human Problems
Dream Wife [NYIM]
Poppy Ackroyd: Resolve
Rae Morris: Someone Out There
Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell
The Orielles: Silver Dollar Moment
Mint Field: Pasar de las Luces
Frigs: Basic Behavior [NYIM]
Insecure Men
Public Access TV: Street Safari
Grant-Lee Phillips: Widdershins
Rolo Tomassi: Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
Andrew WK: You're Not Alone
Jonathan Wilson: Rare Birds
Moby: Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt
Richard Youngs: Belief
Judas Priest: Firepower [looooooool]
Nap Eyes: I'm Bad Now
Hot Snakes: Jericho Sirens [NYIM]
Creep Show: Mr. Dynamite

Lankum "What Will We Do When We Have No Money?" [Between the Earth & the Sky]
Nabihah Iqbal "Zone 1 to 6000" [Weighing of the Heart]
Miguel "Pineapple Skies" [War & Leisure]
Dream Wife "Kids" [s/t]

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Beatles: the Decca audition tape (1962)

(various labels, 1982 and later)

1962 ended with the Beatles on the cusp of success and renown they could not have imagined; by the time they played the last show at their Top Ten Club residency on New Year's Eve, they were well on the road to destiny. But the year had begun very differently, on a freezing-cold morning in London with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best in the awkward position of attempting to sell themselves as recording artists in a setting totally unfamiliar to them: in the Decca studios under the supervision of a young A&R man named Mike Smith. "Audition" was a kind of misnomer, as Mike had already seen the band live and determined that they were good enough to be signed to the label (a decision ultimately overturned by his superior Dick Rowe), so this was really a "recording test" presumably to determine the contents of what might have been the group's first commercial release. The supposedly in-the-bag nature of the gig may explain why they ended up recording fifteen numbers at the session: with the band based in faraway Liverpool, it would potentially allow Decca to program several follow-ups and perhaps an LP.

For the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, the Decca date was the culmination of a fevered two months of work since November 9, 1961, when he had met the band after being captivated by one of their legendary afternoon performances at the Cavern. Epstein knew the band was extraordinarily good, and as John put it, that they "had something." It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that the discussions and recordings with Decca would end in a long-term contract for the band, and it must have been a source of considerable heartbreak to all involved when Rowe heard the tape and rejected them (choosing instead to sign the Tremeloes). While hindsight makes it easy to ridicule Decca's decision, we now have the luxury of being able to hear what Rowe heard, and quite frankly his hesitation is more than understandable, assuming one doesn't allow some leeway for the first-time jitters of recording in a real studio. (The Beatles had done a professional recording session before, but they were backing someone else and were playing in a high school auditorium.) Considering how many waves the Beatles had made in 1960 and 1961 in Liverpool and Hamburg, and how deeply Epstein believed in them, it's a major disappointment that this is the earliest "proper," well-recorded example we have of the group playing together. Even the most hardcore fan and apologist is bound to find the majority of these performances curiously lifeless.

Not all of the contributing factors were the band's fault, though many were, and many will sound to someone unfamiliar with their history and context like excuses, one of the earliest instances of the Beatles' raw rock & roll sensibility clashing with the old-world entertainment business. It was too early in the morning (on New Year's Day even, with all hangovers thus implied) to play rock & roll. It was too freezing cold, the coldest January 1st in London in more than a half century. Because of equipment problems -- an issue that would repeat when they went to EMI later in the year -- they couldn't use their own amps, and were unaccustomed to the way they sounded in a closed-off room rather than a rowdy club. Smith, who had just been promoted and was still young and rather inexperienced, didn't really communicate heavily with the band, who were left floundering without the kind of give-and-take they expected. The three originals they played, probably at Brian Epstein's behest, were relatively new to their set and they didn't fully know their way around them. The set was scant on harmony vocals, thus de-emphasizing one of the most striking elements of their skill set. Mostly, however, there's no telling why they were so lackluster on this morning; they leaned heavily on songs they certainly knew backwards and forwards, and it should have been a simple enough task to play an extract of their Cavern repertoire in front of some microphones. But their playing is tentative and unremarkable, their vocals alternately robotic and embarrassingly amateurish, and they simply don't sound like a band that's about to hit the big time. The biggest problem is obviously Pete Best, whose rudimentary drum style and inability to keep time jut out badly, and keep the others off center; there's no source better than the Decca tape for determining why he'd be out of the band just over seven months later.

The order in which the songs were recorded on this date is unknown. The session proceeded in two chunks with a standard break in between. Each song had at least one rehearsal or runthrough before being laid down; no outtakes or false starts are known to survive. Because it's impossible to know the correct running order of the tunes, it's easiest to approach them with the divisions Lewisohn assigns to them in Tune In. First there are the songs that were passionate rock & roll favorites, staples of their stage act for years by this point: Barrett Strong's "Money," the Teddy Bears' "To Know Her Is to Love Her" (written by Phil Spector, with pronouns switched), Chuck Berry's "Memphis," Carl Perkins' "Sure to Fall" and Buddy Holly's "Crying, Waiting, Hoping." All five are sublime songs, and there are in fact fine versions of all of them by the Beatles, including of course their thundering rendition of "Money" at EMI for With the Beatles. However, none of them come off in this scenario. "Money" boasts some frantic drumming but John's ragged singing (his voice was underused on this day but this makes one wish for even less of him) and the extremely artificial-sounding enunciation on the backing vocals do it in. The band's dependably slick arrangement of "To Know Her" is fine, and John relaxes a bit on it, but everyone still sounds timid, afraid to hurt the tape. Pete's irksome rumbling on "Memphis" slightly offsets the sense that the band is so tight and cold and stiff they could break at any moment, and after a bridge in which they swing badly out of tune, the song ends so weakly it seems like it alone could justify someone from Decca asking them to move on. Pete again sucks the life out of "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," a reliable cover for the band that's just dead this morning. The Carl Perkins song comes off best, with nice harmonies despite a bit of an affected country & western accent on everyone and Paul overdoing his part badly; but George's solo is an OK Perkins imitation and there's a bit more kick to the tempo.

Next there are the renditions of current chart hits, presumably meant to demonstrate the group's malleability to Decca, though these were all songs they already knew how to play and had worked up at shows. "Till There Was You," from The Music Man, had become a pop hit via Peggy Lee; a later recording would be one of the odder choices for official release on a Beatles album, but it has the distinction of boasting the worst vocal performance of the Decca tape by one Paul McCartney, whose falsetto somehow seems to invent new and increasingly grating audio frequencies for your listening pleasure. Pete and George both botch it as well, with a nightmarish solo and Pete constantly forgetting changes and completely unable to maintain tempo. Poor Paul tries to redeem himself with the Beatles' rock arrangement of "September in the Rain," a standard and a then-recent success for Dinah Washington, but the intro on which he's trying so hard for some sort of spontaneous swing is so sad that it's hard to listen to, and all the forced spirit seems to make him lose his way on the bass, making the already chaotic band behind him more lost yet; at bottom, however, it's just a poor choice of cover for them. A skeletal arrangement of Bobby Vee's "Take Good Care of My Baby," one of the Beatles' few acknowledgements of the early '60s teen idol period, does offer a good chance for George to impress vocally, but they play it too fast.

The Beatles were known for the comic elements of their stage act, especially in Hamburg and pre-Epstein when there really were no holds barred, and this seems to have been something they wanted to emphasize at Decca, though it's natural to imagine the four "comedy" numbers they played as perhaps generating the most befuddlement on the part of Smith and his engineers. Two of the three (!) Coasters covers make sense; "Searchin'" is the big Leiber-Stoller classic taken on with gusto and a nice arrangement (but bad guitar solo), despite Pete's constant misplaced fills and rolls, that showcases Paul's "rock" voice better than anything else on the tape. "Three Cool Cats," also a Leiber-Stoller number, is more of an obscurity and gets a loose and fun performance out of the Beatles, complete with misterioso guitar hook by George. "Besame Mucho," however, is another weird choice that fails to play to the Beatles' strengths; its levity, as well as that of their humorous take on "The Sheik of Araby," which badly misses the mark, just falls flat without the context of audience participation and the energy of a live performance.

Of greatest interest to casual fans are the three Lennon-McCartney songs tackled with great trepidation here, none of which were ever re-recorded for the band's actual canon at EMI, though all three became at least minor hits for others after the Beatles made it big. The best by far is "Hello Little Girl," usually cited as the first complete song John ever wrote; it's both a surprisingly lovely song given that it's the work of a young teenager (inspired by an unknown old music-hall number he heard his mother singing) and actually a tight, good rendition, possibly their best performance at Decca. Apart from the band blending together nicely with a certain pleasing scrappiness (exactly the combination of spontaneity and precision -- which part is illusory? -- that was the core of the Beatles' appeal and was missing from their overly mannered sessions with Bert Kaempfert), offering ample evidence of what they could really do with a ballad, what separates the song is the genuine emotion and longing in John's vocal performance, and Paul's interplay with it -- listen to the way John sings "long lonely time" or to the surprising, unforced easiness in his repeated "mmhmm." It's the only time on this tape that any of the Beatles seems to surrender to a song, and it's entirely possible that it was purely coincidence that it was a number one of them wrote -- but just as likely that it was a signal pointed toward the future. (One other full Beatles recording of this song exists, from one of the 1960 home tapes, reviewed here as part of the bootleg Strong Before Our Birth.)

Paul's two songs are less appealing but both have major points of interest. "Love of the Loved" struggles with terrible lyrics but is an interesting composition, and it's something of a pity that the only way we can hear the Beatles play it is with Pete's mess of pounding and nonsense; Paul sounds enthusiastic but still terrified, littering his vocals with those telltale hard-Ks of his, while the rest of the band comes off as listless. (Note that they were still reluctant to play their own songs at this point outside of intimate circles; they generally only came out publicly at the Cavern residency. Brian saw their skills as composers as a selling point for them, so it's probable that he wanted them trotted out for this session.) "Like Dreamers Do" is an extremely tentative performance and Paul's so nervous he can't put across its romance convincingly, but, if you can listen underneath that, you can hear how surprisingly inventive and catchy the song itself is. Luckily, someone at Aardmore & Beechwood did just that -- after Decca passed on the Beatles, Brian took the tape to various record labels and was getting desperate when he caught an ear at EMI; "Like Dreamers Do" is the song that led the record company's publishing arm to lock Parlophone into signing the Beatles, which is especially ironic since the band never recorded it themselves again. It's reasonable to say, however, that without this specific song none of us would know who the Beatles were, and things would be very very different.

The Decca recordings began to show up in low quality on bootlegs during the late '70s (note that John Lennon thought he had found it on the bootleg market at one point and sent it to Paul, but in fact the tape he'd located consisted of BBC performances from some time later, so it's no wonder he was so surprised by how good it was), but copyright ambiguity permitted better releases of the tracks in various configurations on numerous labels beginning in 1982. Almost none of these are complete, routinely omitting the three Beatles originals. To my knowledge there isn't really a definitive release of these songs commercially available, and the Beatles now own the tape so it's no longer likely that one will ever exist. (A third of the audition is included on Anthology 1, though "Searchin'" is crossfaded from a McCartney interview; the other inclusions are "Three Cool Cats," "Like Dreamers Do," "Hello Little Girl" and -- weirdly -- "The Sheik of Araby.") But it's extremely easy to track down all of the songs online, and Purple Chick's bootleg I Hope We Passed the Audition features the whole shebang in excellent quality. This ultimately is a breeze to listen to, and every Beatles fan should make their way through it once, but it's one of the very few scraps of Beatles lore that features almost nothing worth savoring outside of its historical context.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Kanye West: Graduation (2007)

(Def Jam)


There are people out there who'd prefer if Kanye West just remade Graduation for the rest of his life, and at the worst of times -- for us and for Kanye -- many of us can at least understand the sentiment, not so much because West hasn't outdone himself many times over since 2007 but because the allure of the moment in which the record existed, and the vacuum it managed to fill, is so strong. We're drawn to it because just a decade later it already seems impossible, like it didn't really happen: Kanye West couldn't just put out a victory lap like this, a cap on his initial trilogy of commercial LPs, and sort of leave it at that. (Music rags already couldn't -- remember the extremely silly Blur vs. Oasis-style "battle" with the already waning 50 Cent over first-week album sales? -- but this was notably the last album cycle in which West, still relatively gracious in many of his interviews despite his swelling head, had a relationship with the entertainment press that wasn't entirely adversarial.) A huge record company couldn't generate a multi-platinum event just from a CD that really comes off in retrospect as a final exercise in the style West had established on The College Dropout and Late Registration, never achieving their consistency and only occasionally duplicating their heights. It's not as if the dregs of Iraq and the Bush years that it only addressed in passing were such a bright time, but when you hear this album, doesn't it seem like an entirely different world? Or maybe I'm just older. Kanye certainly is.

The title, Graduation, reflects a ripening and coming of age, and its September 2007 release also handily marks the turning point when West became a bona fide mainstream celebrity rather than an unexpectedly successful producer-turned-rapper taking the "alternative" nerd-wing of hip hop to the masses for the first time in over a decade. He'd pretty much always remain an outcast, often seemingly by choice, but he'd never again be anything less than a household name. It's also his last record that seems at all dedicated to Giving the People What They Want, meaning both his own established audience and the kind of people he tried and often failed to win over while on tour opening for Usher (2004), U2 (2005-06) and most improbably the Rolling Stones (2006). Additionally, it's the first and only of his albums whose primary concern is such crowd-pleasing, with hardly a difficult moment of confrontation to be found all across it; that nice boy Chris Martin (interviewed a couple years before this for XXL gesticulating wildly about his love of hip hop, sounding like the "I love pineapple" kid in The Virgin Suicides) even sings on one cut. West's turn away from any sort of pure commercialism -- every record he's issued since has openly courted alienation -- may have something to do with his own feeling that he'd already tried that route in '07, but it probably has a lot more to do with the death of his mother Donda before the year was out, which every armchair psychoanalyst plus the man himself has cited as generating a complete upheaval in his life and output, quite understandably.

For now, though, the difference between "Gold Digger" and "Drunk and Hot Girls" is a lot like the difference between "Dead End Street" and "Low Budget": both are pleasing and enticing, but one (the older, in both cases) actually probes, challenges with wit and thorniness and leaves you no less giddy for it. Years later West would, with wild but not inaccurate egotism, compare his body of work to gourmet food in a world of drive-thru while talking to Dorian Lynskey: "I challenge people with sonic beauty. For a society that's been greyed out by mediocrity, it’s like eating a whole bunch of McDonald's and then you get some real food. What's actually good is challenging when you've been served bullshit so much." Graduation sticks out, then, as the one Happy Meal in the man's catalog, but the thing about McDonald's is it tastes fucking good, it's a drug designed to keep you in its holding pattern, and I'd rather listen to "Big Brother" while wolfing down a snack wrap than make another attempt to comprehend The Life of Pablo.

The obvious deficiencies with Graduation in comparison to its predecessors aren't altogether new problems, they're just more blatant, maybe a bit more careless, which in turn could make them a more honest reflection of the artist's personality. West's flow is extremely goofy throughout; sometimes he's actually funny and self-deprecating, sometimes he's reaching for rhymes and catchphrases that just aren't there, and here he finds a new and inexplicable attachment to some highly suspicious faux-inspirational showboating. I mean, "tha-tha-that that don't kill me can only make me stronger"? Martin's presence semi-derails the sincerity of the Chicago song "Homecoming," revised from an early mixtape track. "Big Brother" is sentimental but not totally charmless pap about West's rocky relationship with pal, collaborator, boss Jay-Z. And while it makes sense in context, the presence of the line "man, killing's some wack shit" in "Everything I Am" could give a detractor enough ammunition for several weeks of Buzzfeed hit pieces. All that said, West bridges the gap as always with ingenious, incredibly malleable production. If Graduation has proven less influential than any of West's other records save Pablo (and who's to say about that one yet), it's most likely a sign that West achieved what he meant to rather than the opposite.

That's because his chief inspiration -- again, going back to his strange opening slots for various megastars who are now arguably no more famous than he is -- was arena rock at its broadest: he wanted these to be big, dumb anthems, and wanted them to fill sonic needs for the people they'd reach. He interjects at one point: "Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion / I wish her heart still was in rhymin' / 'Cause who the kids gon' listen to, huh? / I guess me if it isn't you." Constructing music as a language with very base appeal for maximum impact isn't ignoble by default -- isn't that what Bob Marley spent his career doing? -- but citing Keane and the Killers as influences is certainly a unique way of thinking of such outreach. If we're talking big and dumb, it can't get much bigger and dumber than "Drunk and Hot Girls," yet the song was -- let's see -- coproduced by then-indie royalty Jon Brion, superficially inspired by Can, features a guest verse from Mos Def, and despite that pedigree still manages to be almost defiantly insubstantial, its best line the immortal "'ahhhdadadaya' / that's how the fuck you sound." "Barry Bonds," meanwhile, was so instantly outdated despite a Lil Wayne verse that it may as well have been a track from summer 1996 dissing Richard Jewell. And as much as you and I love "Good Time," critics would've been all the hell over Nicki Minaj if she dared to release something so fluffy and frivolous in the "Starships" era.

If you're cynical, you say in 2007 that it's the sound of an individual getting absorbed in the system; but no one did, at least almost no one, maybe because already then no one was willing to doubt West's own control over his work, or maybe because -- unbelievably -- the source of actual controversy at the time was West's heavy use of synthesizers, which led to pre-leak rumors that he was going to make a Vince Clarke record or something. Every West record is seemingly led by whispers that it's the one on which he goes Too Far, and usually it's true for at least some of his heretofore dependable cult (which now includes too large a proportion of the population to be called a cult), but anyone who turned away from West because Graduation had a lot of keyboards was some kind of shortsighted boob.

But getting back to the cynical perspective: Graduation itself answers the suspicion, and it does it by sheer force of the mastery West knows he has that he probably doesn't even know how to properly modulate. The thing about "Stronger" -- incidentally, the song that turned me personally into a fan after several years of skepticism (I'd only heard the singles, and if I understood why I didn't hear them as brilliant at the time -- prompting me to avoid both albums despite repeated insistence from one particular friend that I would love them -- I'd explain it to you) -- wow, sorry. The thing about "Stronger" is that it qualifies as every bad thing you could rattle off about the album: those synths are as cheesy as something from a Journey record, the Daft Punk hook is obvious and never really expands upon the original track or takes it anywhere, and the lyrics and delivery are simplified and robbed of much of West's usual texture and nuance... plus it sounds, yes, like music meant to fill all the crannies and crevices of a stadium, like a performance for the wings (or, uh, a performance by Wings). But "Stronger" doesn't score (and didn't hit #1) because West is lowering himself, but because it's a discovery of his new and almost frightening capacity for selling its drama in full-on widescreen. The song is oversized and outrageous, and West meets it at every point, sonically and in his verses, and in a chorus that overwhelms the potential for corn with conviction there's simply no room left to doubt. And there's a reason it was a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon, a lot of it verbal; even if you think the chorus is flat and dopey despite its mounting energy, "you should be honored by my lateness / that I would even show up to this fake shit" makes you fall in love with the dude all over again, and "let's get lost tonight, you can be my black Kate Moss tonight" is an opening salvo almost worthy of Prince.

The Grammy-earning "Good Life" similarly operates by maximizing itself, making its relative thinness impossible to sense because it feels so deep and so high. And the triumph of the anthemic approach is probably "Can't Tell Me Nothing," an immediate classic that harnesses the theoretical primordial appeal of blues-rock, held together with a beautifully layered vocal sample by Connie Mitchell and the confidently menacing contributions of Young Jeezy, to generate a working-class anthem of sorts despite focusing almost exclusively in the verses on West's own experiences with fame. (His consternation about TV appearances is prophetic, with the worst yet to come, though the one he seems to spend the most time regretting -- challenging George W. Bush over the Katrina response live on the air -- is one he absolutely shouldn't.) Like the music and production, the lyrical approach is a sort of backwards way of stumbling upon populism: he courts his largest audience to date of mainstream hip hop fans by drawing from basically unrelated genres, and celebrates the lure of financial freedom by focusing yet again on his own success. The song probably works in large part because of West's sense of humor, an aspect of his work that's never been studied enough, lost under the flood of boasts and a childish tendency never to forget a slight that he shares with lots of other brilliant people.

Certain songs do exist on an obvious continuum from The College Dropout and Late Registration, coming across as agreeable leftovers from that era. "Champion" demonstrates what sounds like an impatience with West's traditional soul-lifting methodology, its repetitiveness calling forward to stranger experiments on Yeezus; and you could be forgiven for mixing "Good Morning" up with one of several of his earlier songs, even though it's a delight. (The lack of skits, a first here, is an even bigger delight.) And there's the more than respectable "Everything I Am," and the Laura Nyro-sampling "The Glory," which covers a lot of the same lyrical ground as "Can't Tell Me Nothing" but seems to create an intentional musical counterpoint to West's words, fleeting moments of a staring out into the void that call almost eerily ahead to the sharp turn he was about to take in his career.

The most prophetic song here as well as the best, and perhaps the most complete and singular creation in Kanye West's catalog, has some of the same musical properties. "Flashing Lights" is a masterpiece, a prolonged glare into the unknown and a time-stopper that brilliantly harnesses the controversial synthesizers to turn their own roller-rink sound into a feeling, at the hook, of the coldness of infinity; on Yeezus this would all mark dread, on 808's and Heartbreak loss, on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy it would be in service of a warts-and-all introspection, but here these glimpses of something darker have a glorious, druggy weightlessness about them, like something that's been discovered without full knowledge of its utility. The strings and synthesizers create a complete atmosphere that West chooses not to bring down to earth the way he does on the sometimes equally barren and disturbing "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; instead, he wanders on despite it, like someone ranting to themselves as some horrible David Lynch scenario plays out around them, and the chorus, sung by Dwele acting as a Kanye surrogate, serves to complement and affix itself to the soundstage. The entire song starts to seem as if it's floating above the listener, increasingly out of reach. This is the sound of a party whose attendees are growing antsier and more paranoid as the seconds pass like years. It already couldn't be clearer that West's ambitions go beyond hip hop; that's not to say hip hop isn't plenty huge an umbrella, just that any such label or limitation would seem trite to him, and his restlessness on this song gives the lie to much of Graduation, which then ends up sounding like what it turned out to be: a goodbye, of sorts.

Hearing Graduation today is a more jarring experience, for whatever reason, than hearing any of the rest of Kanye West's first six records. The other five all harnessed and foretold so much about the cutting edge of modern music that it seems they could each be simultaneously released today by five different artists. Graduation, on the other hand, sounds like a time capsule -- or, to paraphrase Greil Marcus' description of Sgt. Pepper, a tombstone for its time. In 2007 people mostly talked about how pervasive West's fixation on himself was becoming, and how little skill he seemed to really have for the kind of philosophical introspection that would justify his narcissism. In 2018, we know so much more about him than he does as of Graduation, and his own impulses covering the record now seem to be largely beside the point; what Graduation is finally about is not him, but us, especially because his stated intent here is to pass along pleasure to his increasingly vast audience. At your arm-waving frenzy as "Good Life" plays for the millionth time, the camera turns on you; and maybe, on "Flashing Lights," the camera catches the moment when you fall backward, horrified, and wake up now.