Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sepalcure (2011)


(Hotflush)

RECOMMENDED

Who is this doing this synthetic type of alpha beta psychedelic funkin.

It's practically winter, it's been a long month, I'm DONE with 2011 albums.

Crystal Stilts: Radiant Door EP (2011)


(Sacred Bones)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my CRANK review at Metro Times.

The Antlers: (together) EP (2011)


(Frenchkiss)

THE BEATLES: (tmrw_nvr_knws) EP
01 I Want to Tell You [the Tom Wilson deconstruction] [5:36]
02 Doctor Robert [Jamie xx remix] [7:24]
03 Rain [3:00]
04 Doctor Robert [Paul's truck stop variation] [6:11]
05 I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) [Electric Prunes cover] [12:11]
06 Tomorrow Never Knows [featuring Dean Torrence & Screaming Lord Sutch] [17:27]
07 Good Day Sunshine [featuring David Crosby] [31:01]
08 Doctor Robert [Jamie xx club version] [14:38]

The remixes are pleasant enough -- I mean, I never thought I'd want to hear a house beat attached to "Doctor Robert" but it's not the most disagreeable situation I've found myself in lately. And I appreciate the way Jamie xx and Tom Wilson filter John Lennon and George Harrison's voices through analog robotricks and watery voice compression thingos and all that, it's something different. I'm confused, though, about why we're subjected to twelve full minutes of David Crosby and Ringo Starr arguing about the location of a "rake," not to mention Ringo's piano solo that occupies all but the first two minutes of the Electric Prunes cover. It's nice to hear the Beatles' songs approached from other angles so we're reminded how lovely they really are, but the theremin breaks and "comedy routines"... Look, I love these guys, but is all this really necessary? Also, LSD etc.

[SEE ALSO:]
Burst Apart (2011)

Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow (2011)


(Anti-)

We all love NPR but did you ever think what would happen if the radio dial in your car got stuck on it? You couldn't change the channel or even turn it off.

I think I like Kate Bush. I'm pretty sure she's up my alley. But I've somehow never been able to be certain about it. I couldn't even estimate how much modern idols of mine like Merrill Garbus, Sufjan Stevens, and Joanna Newsom owe to her. I can hear wisps of that here, like in the opening minute and a half of "Wild Man," but everything just seems overloaded and too much -- like the record is so obsessively determined of its own emotional substance and carefully structured that it forgets to have any kick or liveliness or sense of unpracticed beauty. It's all so arranged, so formal. But look, this is an extreme minority opinion, so much so that I'm suspicious of it myself -- and I keep going back to make sure it's not my mood.

Sometimes I just don't hear what everyone else hears, but maybe I've just been overtired and overly pensive every time I've listened to this. I can't fall under its spell and I don't really like the operatic voice Bush affects in certain places, nor am I riveted by the drama she draws from the quieter moments. The average length of a song on this LP is about 9:20. And the song about having a fling with a snowman and oh geez. I'm just... I'm sorry.

Darkside: s/t EP (2011)


(Clown & Sunset)

RECOMMENDED

Read my CRANK review at Metro Times.

Nicolas Jaar is shaping up to really be something. Dig this collab with guitarist Dave Harrington. Hope to hear more from them.

The Bats: Free All the Monsters (2011)


(Flying Nun)

RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times Blogs (scroll down)

Times New Viking: Dancer Equired (2011)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

Read my Metro Times review (from April)

Catching up with the indie-fuzz stalwarts...

Wye Oak: Civilian (2011)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

Read my Metro Times review (from March)

Colleen Green: Cujo EP (2011)


(Art Fag)

RECOMMENDED

Read my CRANK review at Metro Times.

Lady with a drum machine and some anthemic punk rock. Nothing better.

Curren$y: Return to the Winner's Circle (2011)


(Datpiff)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Said it before, but: this guy is bonkers. When this tape dropped on the first of January, I was still drowning in Curren$y's two Pilot Talk albums from 2010 and bigger releases from hip hop's most diligent worker have distracted me ever since: a legit album on Warner Bros., an EP with Alchemist, and the Verde Terrace collaboration with DJ Drama. So it's only now that I come to this unbelievably raw, sick stopgap issued just a month and a half after Pilot Talk II.

Winner's Circle is a mixtape in the real sense, in that it features little beyond Curren$y rapping (usually nonchalantly as ever) over preexisting tracks, including samples of Rick Ross, OutKast, Raekwon, and Big K.R.I.T., among others. But this is some of the wildest and most adventurous work issued under his name so far, and one reason seems to be the absence of attendant expectations. He raps and tosses this stuff off like he's just breathing, and the result is his finest release of the year and a ballsy firecracker of a tape.

Because the thing blazes by at just over half an hour, you tend not to have much time to digest the ideas as they run by. Starting with the slow '90s burn of "Daze of Thunder," Circle shifts to left field with the eccentric six-minute opus "Rain Delay" marked by its sound effects and strange dialogue samples. But "Trophy Case" is where things really get started; a sample of a plane flying overhead (jet life, etc.) takes us into Curren$y's strange, jazzy, smooth laboratory with bouncy Dame Dash and Cam'ron samples; the momentum and organic energy are in a league with his brilliant Ski Beatz collaborations.

From there, the thing doesn't let up -- "Empire Monopoly" is on about "square footage" over an ominous Max B loop, "Record Deal" scores on sarcastic music-biz wisdom and outrageous minimalism both, while "Frost" inaugurates the second half with Curren$y's most breathless, rapid-fire flow on record to date. He's still talking about the same shit as ever, maybe a little more about cars and fame now but eight miles high like before, but his wordplay ("lemonade bottles" / "role models" / "bitches and Impalas") is more infuriating and delightful than ever. Indeed, "Role Model" and "Paydays" stand with "Frost" as offering the most purely impressive moments we've been given of Curren$y's sheer skill and showmanship -- he's a thrill to listen to, but it's just as telling to hear him give the floor away to others. The riotous "Moon & Stars Remix" takes on a Big K.R.I.T. track and wrings new life out of an already killer cut -- but even better, "Jets at Ya Neck" snakes along and flows body-slam irresistibly with the help of Jet Life crew members Trademark, Whizz, and Roddy, all in top form.

In fact, Return to the Winner's Circle is so good -- such fresh, smart party music with clever lyrics and phenomenal, no-nonsense rapping -- you wonder why nothing else Curren$y did in 2011 quite stands up to it. But who gives a fuck? In the last year and a half, the guy's released more music than most rappers put out in half a decade. Can't wait to see what the hell he gets up to next year.

[SEE ALSO:]
Pilot Talk (2010)
Pilot Talk II (2010)
Weekend at Burnie's (2011)
Verde Terrace (2011)
with The Alchemist: Covert Coup (2011)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Chemical Brothers: Hanna OST (2011)


(Back Lot)

RECOMMENDED

Read my Metro Times review (from April)

A few things I reviewed in print earlier this year and haven't addressed in this space warrant mention, so those will be appearing over the next few days. I liked this soundtrack much more than the Chems' 2010 effort Further, reviewed below.

[SEE ALSO:]
Further (2010)

Brian Eno & Rick Holland: Drums Between the Bells (2011)


(Warp)

!! CAUTION !!

feather
houses
detergent
Burt Lancaster
shoes
pills
PILLS
pills
the fever is
THE DREAM
!!>!>!>!>!???!?!?!??!
PILLS
bleach
the middle
the middle
the middle
the middle
brainwashed
torn.

old
people
we
used
to
love
are
putting
us
on.

Atlas Sound: Parallax (2011)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

There isn't much background to Bradford Cox's creation of his third solo album under the Atlas Sound name that can really link itself to the way it finally falls upon you. You read stories about a nervous breakdown, about his lonesome lack of a social life and much of anything to excite him outside of his music, and all the same when the "Karma Police"-like breakdown of "Amplifiers" and the apocalyptic ending of "Terra Incognita" wash over with their white noise and feedback, it's not a feeling of arid alienation that visits; it's a love of that noise, and even directly, Cox must interrupt the aural-sex malfunction with either the lovable broken-toyshop trills of "Te Amo" or the hissing acoustic sadness of "Flagstaff." Either way, something warm and sweet and strange.

It's hard to get your arms around Parallax when it's not playing because it's like grappling for wisps of some lovely dream. Cox attained something akin to this sense of gravity and loveliness on last year's Halcyon Digest by his band Deerhunter, an introspective and deeply conflicted valentine to the past and to our interpretations and ideas of it. Honestly though, as cradled as we may have felt by the revelatory distance and maturity on that record, Atlas Sound goes so very much farther here -- it's like witnessing a gifted younger sibling who can draw well suddenly grow into a master painter in just over a year. Halcyon Digest might be precedent to this in some thematic way, but it can more accurately be described as a stepping stone.

To be frank, if Deerhunter's most recent record was like witnessing some telling series of lovely or haunting details out of the corner of your eye, Parallax is like viewing it through a veil of tears. It's just as fixated on memory, but as an emotional tool rather than a theme; here lies its triumph. After just one listen, its melodies and riffs and chords linger as if they've always existed; heard again, they seem iconic and relentlessly pretty and, above all, familiar. Witness the instantly iconic opening riff of "My Angel Is Broken," which you can hardly believe isn't some Pixies or Jesus & Mary Chain classic you've momentarily forgotten. The grand contradiction of Cox's new music is shared with no less grand a legend than the Beach Boys -- a bold, gentle romanticism clashing with the pure celebration of solitude. Cox loves being alone, creating and remembering, but he also condemns it and longs for something to fill in the distance between himself and the rest of the world; you can hear that longing in even the celebratory moments, even in the bellowing, watery slowdance of "Amplifiers."

That track, early on the album, toys and teases subtly much like Deerhunter -- its major clues to the Parallax modus operandi are its more broadly playful and sensual elements. Cox's growth as a musician here can be measured largely by his directness. It seems hardly imaginable that he ever before would have permitted the adorably kitschy "Te Amo," the open-armed unstrained beauty of "Mona Lisa," both as blissful and unpretentious as modern pop gets, completely unfettered by any of the art-prog leanings that once characterized his day-job band. He previously made a name as a stylist, but all of that is shed in favor of something remarkably cathartic and personal even as it allows by far his most accessible, selfless material thus far. Even if "Lightsworks" puts on the sharp doo wop guise and "Terra Incognita" blows through a ba ba ba ba ba '60s routine, both routunes are in service of something wistful, stark, and peaceful.

Cox's use of his own uneven psychology to produce divinely assured, heavenly popcraft has of course plenty of precedent, but part of the appeal of Parallax is what feels like an absence of grand design -- it seems an honest and clear-headed capturing of an incredibly fertile mood, following the artist through the ups and downs of a long night. You can only vaguely hear the hard work that must have produced it, the momentum and determination clearest on opener "The Shakes." The one thing that isn't really surprising about the project is that the most all-around startling creations may be those in which Cox wallows in the death and darkness that seems to consume him these days, a wunderkind entering adulthood -- the neon drunkenness of "Modern Aquatic Nightsongs" is as strikingly real as it is breathtakingly sad, and the cavernous delicacy of "Doldrums" is the most appealingly emotive shapeless confection of the year.

But you can't shoehorn a thesis statement into this -- it's too achingly real, and too passionate. Above all else, this is underlined by the vocals, which are eerily grand despite the bedroom compression, distortion and glitchy editing that deliberately challenges their reign over the music. Cox's voice reaches moments of cascading perfection that recall the best moments of John Lennon's final year of recording ("Mona Lisa") or a warped Tom Verlaine as his most smitten and frantic ("My Angel Is Broken"). Cox so perfectly captures a lost, blissful loneliness on the title track that you can't help hearing some doubt beind his impassioned "I'll pretend you were the only one" on "Te Amo," sung like an announcement from on high, like he's a titan with nothing to lose in his own weird world.

These songs are remarkable on their own, but in truth they only function at their fullest when heard together, an increasing rarity in the indieverse that renders Parallax one of the small handful of LPs that justify the album as a genuine artform. Yes, you can marvel at how "Parallax" itself wrings so much nervous energy out of its glorious hook, and the otherworldly beauty of "Doldrums" or the Luna-like open-hearted sweet pop of "Mona Lisa" can leap out at you unexpectedly regardless, but the album as a complete piece casts a hypnotic spell that renders all of the above maximally pleasurable, even masterful.

But if you have to pare this grand romance and deeply felt confessional to a microcosm, make it "Praying Man," Bradford Cox in a wonderful nutshell -- the uncivilized simplicity, the guitar relentlessness, the unexpected harmonica, and above all, the sha la la la la la. You could make a convincing argument that sha la la la la la la is what we've been missing in rock & roll, in indie music, in our lives. Here it is, and plenty of it.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A$AP Rocky: LiveLoveA$AP (2011)


(RCA)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Those demanding to know why RCA paid $3 million to sign this guy are asking the question in the wrong way. Properly, it is: does A$AP Rocky use the opportunity of this coyly released free mixtape to prove exactly why he was worth that paycheck? The answer is yeah, absolutely and unequivocally. Rocky's debut tape is the most convincing act of self-proof by a young man since The College Dropout seven years ago. More than just promising, it's the most immediately striking and appealing mixtape to surface in many, many years.

One key is length; at just fifty-four minutes, you're actually left itching to spend a little more time with Rocky and the various well-chosen guests and members of his A$AP crew that come out for these sessions. The headliner's personality -- melodramatic, promiscuous, preening, but utterly young and charming -- is consistently appealing, through his various guises of swagger and sorrow all well-presented by his easy, silky flow. Which itself is deceptively simple; at the drop of a hat, on "Trilla" and "Peso" and "Out of This World," he can pull out the stops and go rapid fire full-force on us, suggesting he is keeping a lot of his tricks to himself as of yet.

But Rocky's endlessly smooth, eclectic taste in beats and producers is overall the element that puts LiveLoveA$AP on a level with the best hip hop records of the last few years. You get a full and mixed serving of hooks and strangeness here; not one song fails to stand out memorably from the rest in some fashion. The vibe of a carefree party with an undercurrent of sharp, steely-eyed conviction is brilliantly held up by the broad array of production ideas, from almost unbearably tight driving Southern funk on the magnificent "Trilla" to street jazz on Spaceghost Purrp's immediately succeeding "Keep It G" to clever, popcrafty syncopation on "Kissin' Pink" (and that's three songs in a row right in the middle!) to the urbane, carefully mounted menace and minimalism of Clams Casino's five cuts.

The impression we get, whether from the naked shout-outs to Naughty by Nature or the unveiled emotional pleas and storytelling of "Demons," "Houston Old Head" and "Leaf" or even the unabashed but clever weed rap of "Roll One Up" and the Slum Village throwback "Get Lit," is that all of this matters like hell to A$AP Rocky, which makes sense for a Harlem boy who decided to go full-bore on a rap career after his brother was killed in his neighborhood. ("He would make me feel secure," Rocky told the Fader recently, "and if it wasn't for him being able to get that confidence out of me, I wouldn't have had the balls to discover I had a talent.") Even when he's just talking about the joys of laying women and smoking up and being "pretty," a not at all insignificant choice of self-qualifier in the age of "no homo," his passion for his work is consistently audible. It's this dedication that seems to have made LiveLoveA$AP feel like so much more than a mixtape, feel like something that actively should not be available to us for free, and that makes me all the more excited for A$AP Rocky's future.

Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica (2011)


(Software)

RECOMMENDED

People used to call Eno's stuff "dinner music." On this Thanksgiving day, I'm greatly entertained by the vision of disorganization fetishist and Eno/Fripp disciple Daniel Lopatin soundtracking some dysfunctional family's holiday dinner. It wouldn't be a Fanny and Alexander thing with all the bad feelings under the surface and a lot of kinship and pleasantry, it would be people trying desperately not to explode in anger at one another so as to make the afternoon awkward for everyone else.

I picture it like this: Violet's estranged sister Patty has moved back to Arkansas after fifteen years away. After a lot of discussion with her husband, Violet has tentatively decided that it will make sense to do the gracious thing and invite Patty over for turkey and like that. She doesn't really expect Patty to show up or even to pay much attention to the mailed invite, computer printed on brown card stock. Years ago, Patty damaged her relationship with the rest of the family by committing a series of botched robberies while hard up for cash and attempting to use the living rooms of her siblings and parents as hiding places during the long but not long enough wait for the police to track her down. Not coincidentally, this was less than a year after Violet's current husband ceased to be Patty's lover of five years, Patty herself having cribbed the affections of Henry from another friend of hers in college.

Violet is expecting to keep her favorite holiday music going on the computer speakers, mounted just outside the kitchen, during the early food preparation but when Patty shows up, she appears to be mildly drugged up (so typical of her) and exchanges in a series of stilted, awkward conversations with everyone except Violet. No small-talk, no "thank you for inviting me to dinner," nothing! Patty, it turns out, is a big fan of the harder ambient shit like Tim Hecker and also frontier glitchy R&B act How to Dress Well. She's also brought the acclaimed new Oneohtrix Point Never album on her iPod Touch and attempts to engage teenage guests Roger and Alex in conversation about it, but they are into stuff like Arcade Fire and don't know what she's talking about. She responds to this grave injustice by unplugging Violet's computer speakers from her laptop and replacing it with her iPod Touch and letting Replica play in its entirety, while insisting to everyone with an increasingly crazed expression that this music is "disgusting" and "sleazy." When she excuses herself to smoke a cigarette, young niece Regina quietly adjusts the volume downward.

During track seven, "Submersible," dinner is served. Patty almost knocks over the chair she's elected to sit in, the one of course beside Henry. She asks Henry an awful lot of questions about how he's doing, and her enthusiasm in this activity only seems to increase when Violet lays down the turkey centerpiece and takes her position at the head of the table. Everyone says grace but the whole time, Patty and Violet gaze steely-eyed at one another, a laser glare you could put a knife through, their mutual disdain made finally explicit. No one else sees this and it's never mentioned. But it escapes the notice of no one that the after-dinner conversations, usually so languid and humorous and appreciative at Violet's all-encompassing Thanksgiving dinners, are cold and detached that night with long stretches of dead air. It's so unpleasant that someone other than Patty -- Violet, actually -- hits "repeat" on the iPod Touch when Replica finishes.

"The music is... interesting, isn't it?" she'd say, shaking her glass of scotch.

"Interesting?" Patty would wrinkle her nose. "It's not 'interesting,' sis. It's good. It's serious."

"Serious. Hmm. Yeah, I like it okay. I mean, I don't like it as well as the Christmas music but I guess it's kind of early for Christmas music."

"It is. Way too early."

"Yes."

"Mm."

"Doesn't really get you into the spirit though, does it?"

"The spirit?"

"The holiday spirit."

"Oh. No."

"No."

"Oh, well."

The sisters take little notice of the fact that this discussion has, if nothing else, gotten them to speak to one another.

The guests file out in silence eventually, the night ending as oddly and memorably as it began. Violet wonders if she can get away with not inviting Patty next year. The last song that plays is "Up," cut off somewhere in the middle just while it's getting really chaotic.

I'm sorry, it's late.

Nicolas Jaar: Don't Break My Love EP (2011)


(Clown & Sunset)

Mysterious Chilean producer Jaar's extraordinary record Space Is Only Noise was one of 2011's biggest game-changers, an instantly influential turning upside-down of lounge and techno with elements of organic African jazz and musique concrète; full of misleading tricks and audaciously sensual hooks, the album is a must for anyone who missed it, regardless of how you generally feel about electronic music. I continue to feel, as I did in the spring, that its far-reaching effects on the sound of our era of ambient and otherworldly dance music will last longer than those of James Blake's more celebrated debut LP.

This brief digital-only followup EP, just two songs across eleven minutes, is more meandering and vague than anything on the full-length, chopped-up shimmer and snatches of vocals that work well enough as ambience but fail to reward apt attention the way Space did. The title cut is a tense slow burn that slowly gives way to a semblance of the lushness Jaar's earlier music explored; the b-side "Why Don't You Save Me" is less methodical but still oddly unmoving, veering close to annoyance in its glitchy insistence.

If I may spoil a future review, I am enjoying Jaar's guitar-addled side project Darkside much more than this, which feels to me like a half-formed stopgap. But if you liked Space Is Only Noise as much as I did, this does make a peaceful enough supplement.

[SEE ALSO:]
Space Is Only Noise (2011)

Drake: Take Care (2011)


(Cash Money)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

I try not to rag on whatever's currently popular (#1 album in the country right this second), because chances are I'm just not in the target bracket and I'm not built to fully understand, but seriously FUCK YOU if you honestly think this is 1/10 as good as 808's and Heartbreak. Do you really believe a word this generic Degrassi motherfucker says? Really? Really?? The best cut is just a straight lift of a remix of Gil Scott-Heron's cover of the Bobby "Blue" Bland chestnut "I'll Take Care of You" from last year; buy Scott-Heron's last album or Jamie xx's remix album of same instead of this shit and you won't miss a goddamn thing. Not real hip hop.

Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)


(Capitol)

RECOMMENDED

There've been harsh words in this space recently toward stalwarts Paul Simon and R.E.M.; it's not an intentional motif, but what does it take for an aging, past-peak band to win me over? Well, the quickest possible way is probably to rhyme "Excedrin" with "Tippi Hedren," as the Beastie Boys do on their deliriously fun eighth album (counting The Mix-Up). I'm not even what you would call a Beastie Boys fan, really; they show up on my lists of crucial artists primarily because of Paul's Boutique and, I suppose, a smattering of their hit singles. Paul's stands far enough above the rest of their output that I confess I don't really listen to the rest of their albums often at all.

One of the issues I have with the Beasties is that I've never been fully convinced of the validity to any of their incarnations -- as a hardcore band, I think they're laughable. As rappers, I think they're engaging but scarcely deserving of the mantle of hip hop luminaries that seems to have been elevated for them. And going further back to the machismo-spoofing joke that was their original motif, well, I'll get in trouble here but while I am fully convinced it was a joke, I'm not entirely sure the group and Rick Rubin particularly wanted their massive growing throngs of fans at the time to realize it was. The Dust Brothers were the outside force that transformed such commercial calculation into something human and head-spinning, and it must be said that even Paul's Boutique, brilliant as it is, isn't on a level with 3 Feet High and Rising or the first two Tribe albums -- and yet it curiously seems to be mentioned far more often. Couldn't possibly have anything to do with gasp race, could it?

But something's happened to this band over the years that's led me to admire, if not their music, certainly their integrity and compassion. No one who saw the 1998 Video Music Awards in which the Beasties were given some silly lifetime achievement trophy will forget the moment when MCA, apropos of nothing about the group's "career" or "videos," threw a passionate plea against stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists across the MTV airwaves. Upon winning an award for "Intergalactic" a year later, Ad-Rock took to the podium to thrash his peers for the look-the-other-way attitude toward the sexual assaults that had taken place at Woodstock earlier that summer.

You don't necessarily hear things like this in their music. It's still silly and aloof, for the most part; only the 1998 record Hello Nasty really suggested much deep-down emotion or activism. On Hot Sauce Committee, however, one thing you do hear is cancer. MCA was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in one of his salivary glands in 2009, the chief reason this record wasn't finished or issued two years ago. He beat it fairly easily, as far as the public knows, and maybe it's my imagination, but I feel I can hear a beautiful weakening in his husky voice on this album -- a defiance and determination against mortality that makes all of his verses strangely affecting. That alone would make Hot Sauce Committee enough of a curiosity to be worth hearing.

But luckily, the thing don't stop -- it's lighthearted, goofy dance music that's both well-produced and impressively ill in its oldschool persuasions. The crunchy, scratch-funk sonics suit the group well and are appreciably quaint. Even if no one else in the mainstream seems to be aspiring to the traditional Grandmaster Flash sound these days, that music is as relevant as ever and the Beasties are willing to mine it with their ample skill, even if they continue to suffer from limited imagination. So there's nothing new here but if you really object to insistent earworms like "Nonstop Disco Powerpack," the towering "Crazy Ass Shit," and the convincingly pop radio-friendly "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win," you think too damn much, man.

The whole album is consistent, fun from beginning to end, without any pacing lags or slow moments like those that have marred nearly all of the Beastie Boys' LPs since Check Your Head or so. It contains no breakout pop skull-smashing moments -- even the deathly boring To the 5 Boroughs had the delightful "Ch-Check It Out" -- so I can't really call it their best work since Paul's Boutique, but it's certainly their first record in twenty-odd years that doesn't feel padded out, coming in at a delightfully conservative forty-four minutes. It's enough of a party that you might even turn the record over and start over when it's done.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Real Estate: Days (2011)


(Domino)

RECOMMENDED

This ceaselessly friendly, backward looking '80s-styled New Jersey band crafts music that is as instantly appealing as it is impenetrably slight. Credit where credit's due, though: this is certainly one of the slickest guitar albums in recent memory, and Real Estate stands alongside bands like Local Natives and the Morning Benders in the crafting of almost supernaturally pleasant pop that's laconic and relaxing but never obnoxiously so. Days takes you back to the days when "chilled out" was an uncomplicated virtue.

As songwriters, Martin Courtney and his bandmates don't craft much that bubbles to the surface of their frothy jangle-pop basics. But while it's on, the stuff is undeniable, largely because of Courtney's hypnotically dreamy vocals. There is just as much filler on Days as on the band's 2009 debut, meandering instrumentals and aloof soft-rock shoegaze both, but everything's so flawlessly pretty it's hard to care too much while it's on. The issue is that nothing here leaves enough of an impression to merit an addiction, the same exact problem that kept me from completely embracing the band the first time around. But there's a case to be made that you don't always need memorable songcraft to warrant dogged devotion to a band. I, for one, used to fall asleep watching The Alternative on VH1 Classic when it dawned on me that college rock had its own pale formulas just like everything else. If irresistibly chiming guitars are enough to keep you coming back, this might be the album you've been waiting for; if you need something more, this will likely pass quickly but enjoyably through your digestive tract.

Still, as "Green Aisles" shows, there is something to Real Estate that they haven't quite yet figured out how to tap into: this ethereal and ghostly R.E.M. imitation conjures up such appealingly hazy, emotional imagery and nearly approaches the room-spinning perfection of a lot of the best '80s jangle pop. Repeat listens really get this one under your skin, and the subtly gorgeous underpinnings of material like "Younger Than Yesterday" slowly come into view, calling to mind the acoustic-vocal sorcery of Great Lake Swimmers or Smiley Smile. With time, this young band may prove to be in the noblest of traditions. As it is, they are masters of dreamlike atmosphere if nothing else.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

M83: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (2011)


(Mute)

!! CAUTION !!

Read my CRANK review at Metro Times.

Most overrated album of the year. "Midnight City" is a great great great song, though.

Friday, November 18, 2011

R.E.M.: Collapse into Now (2011)


(Warner Bros.)

Believing in R.E.M. has always been a seductive practice. A band can fuck up repeatedly for a decade and a half and when they spent the sixteen years beforehand making so much of their integrity and quality control, you can lull yourself into a kind of destructive trust, particularly when the band is always so insistent (as they must be!) that whatever they've done recently is their artistic peak. This must be good, you think, I just don't understand it yet. When R.E.M. disbanded in September, the temptation was obvious; all the people who'd dismissed, ignored, or damned with faint praise their six-month-old fifteenth and final LP were almost predisposed to go scrambling back to hear the songs that would most assuredly be entirely different in shape and tone with this new revelation, that not only did it turn out to be the legendary college rock founders' swansong, it was always designed that way -- an unusual situation, to say the least.

Some of us gave Collapse into Now a less than fair shot in March, especially those of us who thought 2008's Accelerate, touted by the band and some members of the press as a great comeback, was a disaster and a deal-breaker. There is no denying that Collapse is an improvement, a step in the right direction, and it's easy to see how the new narrative thrust gives it a bit more emotional weight than it had before. But the best moment to end R.E.M.'s career, as agreeable as Up and Reveal and even parts of Around the Sun were, was plainly Michael Stipe's coy "I'm outta here" at the end of New Adventures in Hi-Fi in 1996, the last album before drummer and musical backbone Bill Berry's departure from the group.

Such as it is, Collapse into Now suffers from the same bizarre contradiction as all of the post-Berry material: it simultaneously tries too hard and is far too casual. As a performing unit, the band's never faltered; as songwriters, they lost their touch somewhere in the mid-2000s; and as studio maestros, they never recovered from the end of their partnership with Scott Litt, which curiously corresponded precisely with the exit of Berry, which even more curiously happened to coincide neatly with the acrimonious departure of former manager and confidante Jefferson Holt, which just as intriguingly corresponded with the band's infamous $80 million contract renewal with Warner Bros., back in the days when the record label was still under the same umbrella as the movie studio. Can it be that R.E.M. suffered from a Torn Curtain-style disillusion, just one that took over a decade to finally eclipse their energetic stubbornness?

Michael Stipe's vocal melodies and performances have routinely dropped in variance, mystery, and emotion since New Adventures; by this point, his work seems almost rote. His lyrics, much ado about tick tock and click clock, are a shadow of both the head-spinning free association of his '80s work and the sober straightforwardness of Automatic for the People. Even without these hurdles, the songs feel strained; "Discoverer" so desperate for an uplifting chorus it dissolves all pretense that would justify it; "All the Best" a somewhat cloying farewell song, the musical equivalent of Stipe's wave goodbye on the cover; the much-praised "Mine Smell Like Honey" a slice of calculated FM radio that has nothing really to do with R.E.M.; truthfully, I'm unconvinced by most everything except the winningly melancholy "Überlin" and portions of the Frankensteinian "Country Feedback"-"E-Bow the Letter" hybrid "Blue." I don't really mind "It Happened Today" either, though it sounds like it was designed for a band like Pearl Jam to cover, which conveniently enough is what happened.

Still, Collapse into Now is a better finale for R.E.M. than Accelerate by a longshot. At the very least, everything on it is pleasant and offers nostalgic echoes of the band's past triumphs, even if songs like "Every Day Is Yours to Win" and "That Someone Is You" (!!!) are no better than their titles. No matter how much affection you have for this band, and most of us probably have a hell of a lot, the feeling is inescapable that we're not really saying goodbye to a friend anymore, we're paying our respects to someone we once knew very well and haven't felt close to in a long time. In the press, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe have said a lot about the permanence of the band's friendship, how they will walk away with no issues simply because they want to. And maybe people just want to see drama. But these three men have felt so distant from their material for such a good while now, no slur on them, that it almost seems merely ceremonial to call this the end. Truthfully, it doesn't feel like we've been privy to much that's been deep inside them since their glory days -- and maybe that's the reason those were the glory days. But to this wonderful, maverick band I still say: goodbye and best of luck.

[SEE ALSO:]
Eponymous (1981-85)
Chronic Town EP (1982)

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What (2011)


(Hear Music)

Paul Simon deserves the benefit of the doubt. His first solo album alone earned him a lifetime of goodwill as a shining star of intelligent pop music, so it's hard not to want to follow what he's getting at with all the spiritual imagery on his most recent album, but it's equally hard to get very much out of lyrics like "Check out the radio, pop music station / That don't sound like my music to me / Talk show host, what's that boy's name? / Politics is ugly"; that's from one of the God songs, entitled "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light." Does one have to be a Baby Boomer to understand this? Or just religious?

Simon hits the right note with opener "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," a low-key but subtly fiery state-of-the-union anthem with an almost soul-crushing sense of sadness and loss. His confrontational impressions here of class, mortality, and desperate melancholy are as effective as anything he's written. He sinks the knife all the way in twice: "I got a nephew in Iraq, it's his third time back / But it's ending up the way it began / With the luck of a beginner he'll be eating turkey dinner / On some mountain top in Pakistan" and again, at the end: "If I could tell my Mom and Dad that the things we never had / Never mattered; we were always okay / Getting ready for Christmas Day." Musically, the song contains the album's riskiest strokes, before Simon slips as expected into his comfort zone of middle-of-the-road, slightly Africa-informed Dad-rock. His singing isn't what it used to be, reaching for something unattainably playful on "Rewrite" and striving hard for a direction that eludes him on the deadweight ballad "Love and Hard Times."

Simon's God lyrics come across as a bit maudlin and silly, and sometimes irksome -- none of his acclaimed witticisms on "The Afterlife" really seem especially new or inspired. But when he pulls it together, with something subtly moving like "Dazzling Blue" ("The CAT scan's eye sees what the heart's concealing / Nowadays when everything is known") or the knowing, shattering death song "Love and Blessings" ("Maple trees just a little bit duller than the memory of the year before"), he can choke you up with no warning whatsoever. As he pushes 70, he's as capable of stirring insight and emotional impact as ever. It's the weird smugness (jokes about Jay-Z, most of the omniscient-being and afterlife stuff) I could do without... but maybe I'm just not ready and the pessimism will come with time. I honestly think that "playing games with time and love" is what it's all about, and feel no great conflict about the beauty in science. Simon's been a bit too serious for me for quite some time. The scary thing is that in a year marked by two major deaths in my family, he's starting to make a lot of sense in certain moments.

PAPA: A Good Woman Is Hard to Find EP (2011)


(Hit City USA)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my Metro Times review.

This too came and went with virtually no notice a couple of months ago. Do yourself a solid and check it out. Few songs have meant more to me these last few months than "I Am the Lion King," and despite its eyebrow-lifting title, "Let's Make You Pregnant" is just as affecting.

Twin Sister: In Heaven (2011)


(Domino)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times Blogs.

Another excellent album I must come out and rally behind late in the year, as it's been forgotten in favor of Cults' (admittedly great) debut and St. Vincent's (good but not as good as this) Strange Mercy. This is the most solid and eclectic female-led pop confection around at the moment, with a full breadth of disparate influences, Nico to the Supremes to dream pop to Middle Eastern mystery. So much of the great music released in 2011 has been dreary, fatalist, beaten; how nice to hear a great fun record again. Just try not to be won over by "Gene Ciampi."

Curren$y: Verde Terrace (2011)


(Datpiff)

By my count, Curren$y's put out five records in the last year -- two actual studio albums (Pilot Talk II and Weekend at Burnie's), and at least three mixtapes. Even for the obsessive fan, it's a lot to keep up with, and given how uninspired and redundant this DJ Drama tape is, it's tempting to scream something or other about OVERSATURATION. There is such a thing, you know.

But then you hear something like "Hennessy Beach," a glorious chillout that audaciously samples John Coltrane's "Naima" and is maybe the peak of Curren$y's recorded output so far. I think "Naima" is the all-time greatest piece of recorded music. So am I offended that it's now overlaid by lyrics about weed and precum? Fuck no. It's a thrill, really, and so is Curren$y's rapid-fire rant on "Smoke Sumn," his wind through the undeniably grand "Music to Ride To," and the sheer ridiculousness of "My Life Is a Movie." ("My life is a movie / So people be watchin' / Just to see if I still can get shit poppin'.")

I wish more of Verde Terrace had that kind of chutzpah and ambition. Curren$y remains an unfailingly good rapper; his jokes are tricky, his weed talk is amusing, and he seems to always be on point even at his laziest. When an artist is a machine like that, they live or die by the quality of the beats and sounds that surround their performances. This doesn't crackle and pop like Ski Beatz did, frankly. I can't help but feel that the best material from this and Curren$y's other 2011 releases could've made one killer LP along the lines of last year's brilliant Pilot Talk, still his best work thus far. As it is, rooting through his catalog to find the gems really feels like too much work at the moment.

(I also must register a complaint about the abysmal sound quality of Verde Terrace, but that's unfortunately a risk we run with free mixtapes. If not in musical quality, we certainly do get what we pay for at times. I hope we someday get a cleaner version of "Music to Ride To," at least.)

[SEE ALSO:]
Pilot Talk (2010)
Pilot Talk II (2010)
Weekend at Burnie's (2011)
with The Alchemist: Covert Coup (2011)

Youth Lagoon: The Year of Hibernation (2011)


(Fat Possum)

RECOMMENDED

Basically: thirty minutes of some guy from Idaho intoning softly into a microphone with serviceable bedroom pop noise around him. It's not nearly as bad as it sounds. The melodies are imaginative enough, and if the moony atmosphere is enough to put you to sleep, it's possibly by design. No one should begrudge something so simple as pretty music when it's recorded as responsibly and effectively as it is by Trevor Powers.

Much of the value of Year of Hiberation is strictly musical -- the warmth and open-air sunniness of the guitars and hazy, barely-there production offset the anxiety in Powers' gentle falsetto. Simple, ethereal, and calming, this music is ideal for a mood lift -- or a good sulk, really; the atmosphere never falters. The Muzakification of indie rock never sounded so agreeable.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Das Racist: Relax (2011)


(Greedhead)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my Metro Times review.

Please support these guys. They are the new heat. And don't give any credence to people who say that the mixtapes were better. Relax is not merely a giant step forward for Das Racist, it's the best hip hop album out this year. And if not for pesky tUnE-yArDs, I'd also say it's the best album, period. I guess I'll reluctantly concede it isn't for all tastes, but what worth obsessing over is?

[SEE ALSO:]
Sit Down, Man (2010)

The Decemberists: iTunes Session EP / Long Live the King EP (2011)




(Capitol)

RECOMMENDED

I personally thought the Decemberists' 2011 album The King Is Dead was their best in several years -- certainly since Crane Wife, maybe since 2005's Picaresque. Given the album's broad commercial success, it seems most folks were as pleased with it as I was. Still, common criticism came from the expected quarters; a lot of it I couldn't relate to, especially from Britcrits who claimed that the sacrifice of the "expansive" (some would say convoluted and silly) Complexity of The Hazards of Love made the record feel like a compromise. But I do have some sympathy for the perspective that the album marked a move in a too-slick direction, with some fans mildly miffed at the countrified R.E.M. direction, missing the rough edges of the band's gawkier, geekier early work.

Those fans are likely to be pleased one way or another by the group's two short-form releases out this year. The first, iTunes Session, is quite simply a live-in-studio session from L.A. featuring stripped down takes on King, Crane, 5 Songs and Hazards deep cuts as well as covers of the Fruit Bats' "When U Love Somebody" and Leonard Cohen's "Hey! That's No Way to Say Goodbye." Some of the remakes are scarcely distinguishable from their standard LP counterparts ("Calamity Song" above all); some are interesting but not especially revealing ("This Is Why We Fight"); some are great lilting fun ("The Hazards of Love 4: The Drowned"). It's interesting to hear the older songs, "Shankill Butchers" and "Shiny," recast by Colin Meloy's newly expanded vocal range. The shock of the group, though, is the Cohen cover, which amazingly surpasses the original; the band reimagines one of Cohen's lesser early songs, a stark folk chord-picker, as steely country AM gold.

The second offering, Capitol's full-fledged widely promoted EP entitled (of course) Long Live the King, corresponds roughly to past supplemental releases in the band's oeuvre like the Always the Bridesmaid 7" set and the bonus disc Picaresqueties. The six included songs are audibly leftovers from the King Is Dead sessions, but certain fans are likely to be more charmed by them than they were by the often extremely polished, mainstream-friendly tunes on the record. To be sure, I personally think the twangy adult contemporary sound suits the Decemberists infinitely more than the desperately silly prog rock they spent a few years toying with, and to be even surer, not one of these selections can compete in terms of songcraft with even the lamest of the ten album tracks. The excesses of Hazards reappear, too; I don't agree with the complaints that Meloy is overly morbid, but I admit he loses my patience when harping on joyfully maudlin shit like the inexcusably drab "Burying Davy."

But what will keep you returning to the EP is its frayed edges; the slight lost feeling of the arrangements, the ragged edge in the twang that edges the Dead sound closer still to charming Appalachia (see especially "Foregone" and the priceless Grateful Dead cover "Row Jimmy"). Meloy could be a bluegrass singer; his feel for the open expanse of southern music doesn't feel like an affectation. It's genuine, never superficial. On The King Is Dead, his voice was so slick it seemed occasionally to be reaching for a silky Garth Brooks texture, an unexpected detour amid apocalyptic visions like "Calamity Song"; here, he is audibly straining, including into a sweetly flawed falsetto on closer "Sonnet," and in some ways it's a relief. For an EP of unabashed leftovers, it's a rather ingratiating band session, a handy reminder of just how complex and emotive the Decemberists, and Meloy in particular, can be. Word is that this is the last we will be hearing from the band for a good while, so enjoy.

[SEE ALSO:]
The King Is Dead (2011)

Sam Cooke: The Man Who Invented Soul (1957-63)


(RCA)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The boxed set conundrum applies here, as it always must -- however much this four-disc set positions itself as the definitive portrait of (or introduction to) the most innovative of all soul singers, it falls short in a number of quite striking ways. Cooke began his career recording gospel sides for Specialty; this was the groundwork of his career, and it's ignored on this set. Also absent is his crucial work from the last months of his life. The box has no "A Change Is Gonna Come," no "Another Saturday Night," no "Good Times," and maybe nobody but me will care about this but also no "Tennessee Waltz."

But the man or woman who purchases this collection does receive something special, and that is the opportunity to spend more than four hours reveling in one of the sultriest, most sophisticated and passionate voices in rock & roll. The detail and feeling in Cooke's cadences recall Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan as much as any of his successors in R&B, Redding or Gaye or Green or even Prince. All these years later, the emotional immediacy he manages in those wordless ta-ta-tas or just in the way he'll break and shout just a little shines through the bulk of popular music like some perfectly preserved gem amidst the sand. Any of the classics here -- "You Send Me," "Sad Mood," "Wonderful World," "Bring It on Home to Me," "Chain Gang," and oh Lord, "Cupid" -- have such a colossal romance and articulate agony about them it's nearly impossible not to be affected. The sometimes erratic collection surrounds these songs with lesser singles, standard reprises both great and ill-advised, and some rote and unimaginative arrangements, but always The Voice is there to keep us glued, attentive, and seduced. Nothing about Cooke as a performer or composer was unremarkable. Indeed, despite the wildly varied merit of the filler, the songs Cooke wrote or cowrote himself -- hits or not -- are consistently breahtaking in their unorthodox, inventive structures and simply adorable subservience to feeling, all calculated to give the singer the perfect spots to ta-ta-ta off into oblivion.

The Man Who Invented Soul is not the best introduction to Cooke, but it may be the finest document of his work for the general pop music scholar. Especially useful is the fourth disc, which encompasses a truly superlative, magical live performance ("Don't fight it, we gon' feel it!" he announces at the outset) and the classic 1963 album Night Beat. That LP stands apart from the remainder of his work with its stark production and vague sense of urban paranoia, lit up by an absolutely electric vocal performance that is often left nearly augmented. Even on a heavily arranged piece like the excellent cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," Cooke seems incalculably louder than his band; the galvanizing "Lost and Lookin'" lets him go it alone, evocative of all the same longing nights and wet city streets as the lushest of his hits. Invented may do a weak job of selling Cooke as the innovator and great engineer of pop music that he was -- but as a performer, it gets him right like nothing else has. After you pick up a good exhaustive greatest-hits, feel free to dive in to this. How amusing that some felt the title was an exaggeration; if anything, it seems quaintly obvious.

[Note: I'm again well behind where I should be on new releases and must be well on the way to completing my survey of the year by November 27, so for the next few weeks there will be no archival reviews posted. 2011 releases only until further notice!]

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Surfer Blood: Tarot Classics EP (2011)


(Kanine)

RECOMMENDED

Read my Metro Times review.

Important to note, I think, that the review copy I received didn't contain the suffocating series of remixes that bloat this out to an intolerable length. The disc works much better without the chuffa, unsurprisingly. Dig tracks 1-4, program out the rest.

Al Martino: The Ultimate Al Martino (1952-79)


(EMI)

Martino's face used to gaze out at me from the inner sleeve of one of my Beatles albums. "I LOVE YOU BECAUSE," the advertisement for one of his Capitol albums said. Many years later, I acquired this collection of Italian-leaning croons during a brief fascination with 1950s wedding music that also included an obsessive line by line reading of Patti Page's "Doggie in the Window."

One reason for pulling it out is to apologize to anyone I may have offended with my claim yesterday that Girls' primary audience is the champagne-swilling City Fathers who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards, etc. I'm sorry. This, of course, is the music of venture capitalists who watch The Godfather (in which Martino performs!) in their spare time. The CD has material like "Born Free" and "The Man from Laramie" as well as a smattering of Martino's big '50s chart successes. And it briefly makes me want to drink from a nice glass and invest in real estate somewhere. But the operatic croon in Martino's voice starts to make me cringe after a moment; I think I'll file this away for future DJing opportunities at weddings or high school reunions.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (2011)


(Matador)

Geez, I really don't know what to think at this point about this increasingly well-loved San Francisco band. Their previous release, the EP Broken Dreams Club, featured one of my favorite songs of the last several years, the astonishing, aching Roy Orbison / Television pastiche "The Oh So Protected One" and was generally a strong, well-crafted group of pop compositions.

With this even more celebrated new album I feel like I'm listening to leftovers from latter-day Rolling Stones albums. And by latter-day I don't mean It's Only Rock 'n' Roll and Goats Head Soup, which would be one thing; I mean Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge. The psychedelia in Girls' soupy blend of punky attitude and pseudo-classy Fleetwood Mac homages is that forced, that insincere, that tiresome. It sounds like the music that the guy who wrote The Playboy Adviser in the '80s probably listened to while he recommended billiard tables and mahogany wine racks to readers.

Few of the songs are really insufferable, but most of them spiral out of control at some point. A somewhat agreeable but uncomfortably Dire Straits-like pop confection like "Magic" can only go so far in redeeming the coked-up meandering of effectively atmospheric but fatally overlong "Vomit" and the sheer ugliness of wank like "Forgiveness." Even the solid AM equivalent to the band's best prior work has a really gross Tom Pettyness about it -- "Saying I Love You" is audaciously fun but starts to give you the feeling of spending too much time at the mall after the third or fourth listen.

Girls seem like a compelling band, but I can't abide by this album at all. It's sickeningly overblown and suffers from the same mysterious leaning on long-expired soft rock clichés as countless other wildly overpraised albums out this year. The difference that seems to be garnering so much enthusiasm sounds to me like nothing beyond the tossing in of some early '70s muddiness and angsty whining. If this is the best we can do for badass rock stars in 2011, we're in for a lot of dross in the coming years.

[SEE ALSO:]
Broken Dreams Club EP (2010)

[Thanks to Amber Morris for the help with the wine rack joke.]

Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (1973)


(Tamla)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

In the most widely heard and remembered live version of Marvin Gaye's classic "Distant Lover," he speaks over the introduction with the following monologue: "You know, when you're in... [heavy intake of breath] love... [painfully protracted pause]... and your lover leaves you... [long pause, letting the agony fall over everybody]... And you've got nobody, the lonely hours over here. Sittin' home and thinkin', you say..." and then a pregnant, wordless moment of sensual longing leading into the body of the song itself. The song is about something millions of other songs are about -- the uncomfortable number of miles separating the singer from his or her partner. But Gaye's anguished live preamble, the strangely haunting detail in the starkly soulful song itself, and his repetition of the phrase "distant lover" elsewhere on the corresponding album, Let's Get It On, says a lot about this particular singer. He's not merely felt all this, as most of us have. He's thought about it -- a lot. Through and through, from every angle, almost disturbingly obsessive. He knows longing and shame. He knows need. And he isn't afraid to tell us about it.

A less specific murkiness of sex and psychology -- half chipper cuckolding ("Ain't That Peculiar"; "Can I Get a Witness") and half blissful romance ("It Takes Two"; "How Sweet It Is") -- ran through Gaye's career prior to 1971 but with What's Going On, his well-deserved and articulate hand-wringing about human nature took hold. It's still here in a significant undercurrent; "We're all sensitive people with so much to give," Gaye announces in the title track, and to be sure talking about fucking in such explicit terms was for whatever reason a political act in 1973 (even though the Dominoes were doing it twenty years earlier with "60 Minute Man"). But Let's Get It On is a man trying to breathe finally after feeling the world tightening around him, and discovering that even in a utopia of consensual penetrative ecstasy, darkness exists just beyond the surface. And that's when his lover isn't distant.

He has to be defensive; there are so many reasons to be protective of one's impulses. "There's nothing wrong with me loving you," he insists, and such rejection of the puritanical and the cold-hearted illogic of an angry world is both haunting in its tentative stroking and, of course, liberating. The title track, which features among other things the greatest reading of the words "I love you" ever heard on a pop record, is an unfettered act of defiance. It's not the most lyrically explicit song on an LP full of music designed for foreplay, but it is the most frankly joyful. Its sentiment is anything but simple (what about sex is, really?) but it has the basic humanism to provide us with a universal recognition of its thrust. And underneath it all, Gaye is railing against his father, the strict frowning overlord who abused him and forbade all expression of sin, hence his constant and eloquent, but somewhat troubling, spiritual defense of sex as an adult. There's nothing wrong, indeed. In large part as a result of the trauma of growing up with Marvin Gay, Sr., who in eleven years would murder him, Gaye spent some of his adulthood as an impotent man, haunted and troubled by the very things that he spends Let's Get It On embracing. In addition to laying down an impossibly sexy record, he gives a nearly flawless psychological case study of a man aware of his hangups and tragic fears and attempting, valiantly, to move past them in a very public stage. It's here that Gaye's fearlessness, suggested throughout the '60s, comes to the surface; it's for this reason that Let's Get It On manages to thoroughly eclipse its worthy predecessor.

The popular use of Let's Get It On as a lovemaking soundtrack doesn't fail to give room for its harsher points. The palpable, choking sense of vague fear is in the text of "If I Should Die Tonight," and in a real sense its rebellion against such impulses is all the more triumphant by disregarding the dread in favor of its velvety vocal and lush evocation of So Many Nights. The vocal break on one of the "how many hearts" performances can underline either extreme.

Along with such emotional zigzags, it's useful to consider how little Let's Get It On musically shares with Gaye's prior work. Smooth R&B was a young concept in 1973 and Gaye's work here likely vaulted it to a mainstream concern, but unlike many of the performers heavily influenced by this album, he edges closer to funk by integrating a sense of body-squashing rhythm and a pronounced, left-field doo wop influence akin to the Funkadelic records of the period. "Come Get to This" is miraculous, life-embracing, and of course a peak of the album's thematic strength and sonics, but it is most remarkable because it is simultaneously so backward looking and so singularly original. Gaye had clearly developed an understanding of how to craft an LP with completion and momentum: As on What's Going On, the bed of sound allows even the more conventional or dubious ideas to work: the sumptuous closer "Just to Keep You Satisfied" is interesting precisely because it's at odds with the three more ribald bumpers on Side Two, and the direct title-track reprise "Keep Gettin' It On" might be the best sequel song in history, doing little with "Let's Get It On" except extending its fade and adding back in some of the vague political overtones of a previous draft. Gaye's biggest lesson from the funk bands might be brevity and minimalism -- barely half an hour with just eight songs, Let's Get It On leaves your head spinning and wanting more.

The more you listen, though, the more the pain comes out. And more remarkably, the more the sensuality in even that pain is revealed. The second track, "Please Stay," is as far from "Let's Get It On" as can be imagined, a direct rebuttal to its uncomplicated, self-affirming bliss -- it is still sexy, but it's desperate. All of the album's songs feel to some extent like a comment on the anxiety of separation (directly referring to Gaye's wife, Anna Gordy, sister of Berry); "Distant Lover" is the all-time treatise, a record as convincingly pained as James Brown's "Please, Please, Please."

Gaye's legacy for me will always be the lack of a filter that allowed him to play out these dramas in public. His best and strangest album, 1978's Here, My Dear, is essentially a divorce proceeding set to music that finds him unflinchingly casting himself in a largely negative light. Even in the '60s, when he sang other people's songs, it seemed he found himself in every word, and he wanted to wring the most humiliating, telling personal details out of songs like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"; how could anyone not hear his vocal on that magical single and believe he was laying himself bare?

But what I and so many others fail to credit Gaye with is the creation, really for the first time, of some conception of pop music designed for adults. And not to put too fine a point on it, but specifically for black adults. Not that Gaye's work isn't universal, not that Let's Get It On isn't universal, but the audience to whom he is speaking seems to me a generation of people entering the working class, maybe young marrieds or maybe going dancing on the weekends, who might have some sense of what it's like to find love and/or sex and/or both in a complex, angry, often uncaring world. Even Stevie Wonder was never quite so direct, save perhaps on "Boogie On Reggae Woman." But race and class notwithstanding, the big-time sensuality here is not a teenybopper currency; it is the work of an identifiably mature adult writing for other mature adults. "You Sure Love to Ball" isn't meant to inspire shock or laughter; it's meant to be recognized as a celebration, as a clear-eyed and not at all juvenile evocation of how good it feels to fuck someone, talk dirty to them, take off your clothes and work up a sweat with them. Forget all the God metaphors writers attribute to this album. I don't in my heart of hearts believe Gaye would have wanted us to mistake this music for anything less than a placing of sex on a pedestal above all the stupid shit that can run counter to it. I believe that the generations of people who've gotten in the mood with this on are doing exactly what he wanted them to do, and I believe Gaye himself verifies this in the liner notes:

"I can't see anything wrong with sex between consenting anybodies. I think we make far too much of it. After all, one's genitals are just one important part of the magnificent human body ... I contend that SEX IS SEX and LOVE IS LOVE. When combined, they work well together, if two people are of about the same mind. But they are really two discrete needs and should be treated as such. Time and space will not permit me to expound further, especially in the area of the psyche. I don't believe in overly moralistic philosophies. Have your sex, it can be exciting, if you're lucky. I hope the music that I present here makes you lucky."

[SEE ALSO:]
What's Going On (1971)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Field: Looping State of Mind (2011)


(Kompakt)

RECOMMENDED

The popular Swedish ambient-techno act Axel Willner, under his stage moniker the Field, lit the hype machine aflame with From Here We Go Sublime back in 2007; he's returned with this subtle, stuttering but highly listenable collection of loops and delicacies -- if you're unfamiliar, think a slightly melodramatic variation on Four Tet. Looping State of Mind is an ideal record for zoning out or concentrating on paperwork, but it's also perversely fun, full of tricky and meandering percussion loops and piano trills that gradually open into expansive, often propulsive soundscapes. The songs are both pretty and confoundingly hypnotic, all passing seven minutes without wearing out their welcome (save the insufferable closer "Sweet Slow Baby").

Willner is adept at semi-conventional club music like "It's Up There" without betraying the ambition audible on African-infected beats such as "Burned Out" and the title track, or knob-twiddling indulgences like "Then It's White"; the eclecticism allows him to strike a sometimes lovely balance between the spiritual and mundane. Do you like music that takes its time to make its point but consistently makes the journey worthwhile? Get hold of this.

The Saints: Eternally Yours (1978)


(Sire)

RECOMMENDED

This is a bit of a disappointment compared to the Saints' debut album, (I'm) Stranded, until you consider that none of the major punk bands really got it right the second time out. Some overreached, like the Clash with Give 'Em Enough Rope, and a few like the Sex Pistols didn't even try... but it was more frequent that the sophomore slump in the first wave of punk was just more of the same.

So it is with the Saints' second time around the block, a far more conscious punk rock effort than its predecessor. That doesn't mean that minor classics like "Know Your Product" and "This Perfect Day" don't offer plenty of fun and pleasure, just that they can't really stand up to the aggressive numbers on the first LP, the title track above all. The ballds fare better, "A Minor Aversion" a nearly worthy successor to "Messin' with the Kid," but they too tend to seem a bit like retreads, even if you'd never care if you hadn't heard the earlier material.

Part of the problem lies in the hardened, conventional hard rock production -- an ailment that also consumed Give 'Em Enough Rope. The Saints may be, as I recently argued, hardly a straightforward punk band... but the stark, stripped-down style of the great punk records suits them quite well and was really the primary context for good straight ahead rock & roll in the late '70s, assuming that you weren't aiming for a pub rock revival. Occasionally the songs seem to have a mild feel of evolution about them, in particular the coy "No, Your Product" and surprisingly emotive "Untitled." Overall, though, if you dug the Saints' first album or one of their compilations, this is a good addition to the collection, but it's not essential for a newcomer. Exactly the same as with the Clash's second album, only with sadly no "Stay Free" to tempt you ("Memories Are Made of This" is closest).

[SEE ALSO:]
(I'm) Stranded (1977)

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (2011)


(4AD)

RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times Blogs. (scroll down)

Better background than foreground music but still quite good.

Alexi Murdoch: Time without Consequence (2006)


(Zero Summer)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

What is it about Alexi Murdoch that's so inspiring? In the abstract, he's a bit of a Nick Drake knockoff in aesthetic style if not thematic attitude. It comes down to pop, maybe; what Murdoch's work consistently is, fast or slow and reflective or melancholic, is appealing at base level. Perhaps no current singer-songwriter so deserves the irrational adoration he inspires; there is no way to define just why and how his breathtakingly beautiful music connects so flawlessly, and who knows if there's some level of mania that makes those of us under his spell so subservient. But the truth is that the songs on this debut album and, perhaps even more so, on the earlier EP 4 Songs constantly -- despite their pervasive sadness -- teem with life and suggest a coalescence with the listener. It's subjective rather than manipulative, a key difference between Murdoch and the '70s legends that founded the singer-songwriter genre.

Emotionally, Murdoch's work bears closer resemblance to R.E.M.; compare, for instance, the ethereal family-strewn "Orange Sky" (miles better on the EP than here, I'm afraid, this version too fast-paced and Mrazian) to Automatic for the People's "Sweetness Follows." The same estrangement lament, the same pall of death, the same cloudy redemption. Better yet, how "All My Days" plays out as such a lovable piece of Americana despite Murdoch's fundamental Britishness -- the travelogue, the lost-world personal journey feel of it all; and how the sadness of "Blue Mind" seems steeped in a kind of resignation that can only signify the shedding of a long depression. But one feels it isn't so personal for the singer himself. He's a showman. All of the bloody injections of life and love experience are brought in by the listener. It's the Thalbergian variation on folk music; what you get out of Murdoch's music is what you bring to it.

What I'm getting at is that this is immensely comforting music, in a time of loss or just a certain mood or whenever, and Murdoch arrives at this in such a selfless (cynics would say commercially viable) way. The purity of this romance and loss, recorded so effortlessly, is note-perfect in its lonesome undercurrent. But does Alexi Murdoch suffer for his art like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith or some other solo iconoclast? Likely not, though who can say for sure? The music is too giving, too lacking in idiosyncracy and telling detail. But that doesn't mean it isn't sophisticated. The key is that we bring the sophistication -- we bring the suffering. Yeah, I don't know how he does it -- and he's still doing it -- but this is a force apart from convention or scenestering; it's just bloody gorgeous. It's Hollywood desperation that works, never superficial, always moving, always perfect for Those Times. And to his credit, Murdoch has scarcely harnessed the power all this gives him, refusing the many aveues of entrance to the L.A. scene he was offered. He remains content to stand strumming and let us flock to him. One suspects he won't have any trouble for a good long while.

The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (2011)


(Secretly Canadian)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Read my CRANK review at Metro Times.

The question of which is more horrendously boring, Kurt Vile or his former bandmates in War on Drugs, is one that frequently crosses my mzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Ray Charles: Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961)


(Impulse!)

All my life I've heard "Look, I know seeing the words 'Ray Charles' and 'jazz' on an album cover sounds really really appealing, but the album is famous chiefly because so many people bought it with that thought and it's actually really boring and copies of it flood the used marketplace." But did I listen? No, because if it says "Ray Charles" and "jazz" it has to be something fucking amazing.

It's not, but in fact the album is decent enough, if enormously disappointing by mere virtue of being incredibly generic, with only two Ray vocals and a lot of Ray organ, and one stone classic in the form of "One Mint Julep." But listening to a bunch of Count Basie Band performances is never a hassle or a bore, it's just not the reason most of us turn to Ray Charles. In many ways this is a more relevant monument in Quincy Jones' career than in Charles'. Still, nothing I can possibly say will deter you from satisfying your curiosity; I'm proof of that. The album is unceasingly pleasant, and even worth having, but it isn't remotely as fine as its title suggests.

[SEE ALSO:]
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962)

Radiohead: TKOL RMX 1234567 (2011)


(TBD)

Read my CRANK! review at Metro Times.

Instead of this or any of the 12" remix singles, I say you should pick up the recent 12" "Supercollider"/"The Butcher" with two excellent new non-LP Radiohead tracks.

Edit: Also checked out the subsequent TKOL 8 EP. Despite the hype for certain high-profile contributions, it's really more of the same.

[SEE ALSO:]
In Rainbows (2007)
The King of Limbs (2011)