Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bob Dylan: Tempest (2012)


(Columbia)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

A corpse dragged through the mud, a ship and a planet hurtling toward bleak demise, a singer shot in the back, and a love more destructive than warm -- Bob Dylan's never been, it seems, in a darker state of mind than on his most striking left turn since Time Out of Mind returned him to the highest tier of American songwriting. Conversely, however, if he's on a rant it's one that finds renewed energy in the casual background C&W and fragmented folk of Modern Times and Together Through Life, because this is far more devotedly serious than either but also more defiant and devilish in its macabre humor. You detect unmistakable evidence in the 71 year-old's voice on even a gentle, dramatic sprawl like "Scarlet Town" that he is having, well, fun. A kind of fun, anyway, that which springs from a snapping into focus of creative energy; the last Dylan record that felt this vital was Love and Theft, and before that I couldn't even tell you.

Love and Theft saw release on September 11, 2001 and this album was issued eleven years later to the day; it could be an accident, but probably not. For all the well-oiled Dylan band's archaic textures, picking up impressively stripped snatches of traditional folk forms and cobbling them around their leader's vague musical and lyrical ideas, this is music that somehow captures, with surprising potency, the muted inner and outward chaos of its time. And does so as proficiently as any younger mainstream rocker or indie popper has this year or last. Its mythical romances and slightly abstract murder ballads don't just lie there in insular pleasure and wander off into the night; like some radio ghost he can prattle onward here for ten or fifteen minutes and hold you under a spell, beholden by a distance of wisdom and assurance but also incredulity. The album and the songs don't even seem to begin or end; they just come into existence and vanish.

To say this is a more focused variant on the messy Together Through Life is reductive but not actually inaccurate; that clean "classic rock" sound gets newly filtered here through better and more comfortably varied tunes. And Dylan's learning to own the fraying of his voice, at home in the studio if not on stage, and he manages to even put a Louis Armstrong spin of sorts on the weird ragtime country opener "Duquesne Whistle," and no amount of aged weariness and vocal cracking can bring down the persuasive (undoubtedly interpolated) melody of the title cut. That, by the way, is one of the big fifteen-minute showpieces here, something about the Titanic and what it revealed about how different people react to a disaster -- but try as I might, I can't seem to fixate on the lyric well enough to concentrate on its implications because the music itself, and the singing, are so hypnotic, casting a dusty, hazy magic with their moving roominess and sufficiently illustrative of their setting to render the words as a mere elevation.

Dylan enters Leonard Cohen territory with the love triangle sea chanty "Tin Angel," a bass-heavy menace with a hint of East Asian traditional music, or at least a westernized interpretation of same -- Dylan will never be Cohen or vice versa, and "Sing Another Song Boys" this isn't, with Dylan struggling to find a heartthrob bone in his body, but there is a yearning to this slow burn that's gradually acquired and cumulatively striking. The same goes for "Long and Wasted Years," which is like something from Empire Burlesque with vastly less intrusive production, and finds Dylan in his most sincere mode, a treat when it's surrounded by the robust, throaty sharpness of "Narrow Way" and the Van Morrison-like raveup "Pay in Blood," one of Dylan's most bruising songs in years. The manner in which these new songs contrast and play against one another is one of the two major elements to its success, the other being the sense of total immersion in its mystery, its haunted rambling.

A reliable band like Dylan's can generate beauty in the mundane, even in workhorse mode -- Dylan goes intimate and old-world on the soft doo wop of "Soon After Midnight" and Sexton, Hidalgo, Garnier et al. fall behind him as smoothly as can be imagined. They can make something vital out of a swaggering Muddy Waters lift, or make the distorted, deliberately backward Lennon tribute that closes the record feel as stuck in time as it should. All the while, Dylan never wavers from his own sense of purpose, renewed once again. Grab hold of the storytelling and the introspection if you want, but when he pitches in with a snarling "Even death has washed its hands of you," well, that's my Dylan.

[SEE ALSO:]
Together Through Life (2009)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tame Impala: Lonerism (2012)


(Modular)

RECOMMENDED

Second verse, same as the first pretty much, although this time the emphasis is on Psychedelic Soundz rather than Songz, and architect Kevin Parker is all the more a one-man outfit than before, producing and writing and noodling and generally providing the sort of red-light makeout music that wallpapers the room well and probably does the job even better with good drugs.

Without knowing too much about Parker's process but having had some vague context delivered back in 2010, I get the impression that this is a low-rent operation that's become vastly more well-budgeted in time for a sophomore effort, and yeah, they still sound just as much like the Beatles as Oasis ever did, except no precision and not as many complete tunes -- nothing here's anything like "Lucidity" or "Why Don't You Make Up Your Mind?" -- but just a distinctive noise, and that can be okay. Parker does a good job of sounding really affected and gone all the time, and it's a good prompting to chill out, but all the real creativity was maybe expended on the song titles? They sound like HAL 9000 on a fun LSD rant: "Be Above It, Mind Mischief. Why Won't They Talk to Me? Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards." So it's fun, and I bet they're something to see live, but I can't concentrate on it -- it's featherweight and floaty and goodbye.

[SEE ALSO:]
Innerspeaker (2010)

One-sentence reviews #3

The Avett Brothers
The Carpenter
(2012)
(Republic)

It might be their fault and it might be mine, but this falls over like shapeless mush, a pretty bald (if understandable) nod to the adult contemporary crowds they've attracted.

***

Purity Ring
Shrines
(2012)
(4AD)

Bubbly electro-goth synthery has less to set it apart than Crystal Castles or even Grimes, but it's probably a more agreeable party album than either could give us; the concentration on songwriting seems futile since the songs aren't very memorable.

***

Old Crow Medicine Show
Carry Me Back
(2012)
(Decca)

!! CAUTION !! - Not only is band discoverer Doc Watson gone but so is its singer, lead guitarist, and shining light Willie Watson and the band's rootsiness just doesn't seem as purely interesting, nor the songs so impassioned, as they once did, but again, is it me?

***

Swans
The Seer
(2012)
(Young God)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!! - Given the kind of stuff I listen to, I feel like this should make me swoon, but it comes from a corner of yelpy metallic repetitive post-punk so proggy I find it almost unbearable -- it'd be too much for me at a quarter the length.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pet Shop Boys: Elysium (2012)


(astralwerks)

!! CAUTION !!

Yeouch, that hurts. This is one of my favorite bands ever -- it depresses me to say a bad word about anything they've done. So we'll get it over with quickly. This is a bit of an embarrassment and a huge misstep for Tennant and Lowe after the exquisite Yes; slow-paced, dirgey, undistinguished in composition and performance, poorly and unenthusiastically sung, and far too enamored of its own cute cleverness -- mocking other artists' feckless reachings for the past but guilty of the same exact thing itself. "Ego Music" is a bit like a poor man's "Yesterday, When I Was Mad," which was already a slight dilution of "How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?" which had evolved from "Hit Music"; one suspects it made the album because the duo still regrets leaving the similarly themed but vastly superior "Shameless" off Very.

It otherwise doesn't sink that low; not quite, but close -- the incomprehensible Handel nod "Hold On" would be a b-side at best in non-lean PSB years. The large problem is not so much that Elysium is over the top and bad as that it's just barely even there and surprisingly dull. PSB once revolutionized the idea of adult contemporary pop on their all-time peak, Behavior; now they attempt to enliven a watered-down dreamy krautrock and end up with subterranean atmospherics that make Fleet Foxes sound positively lively.

The record begins and closes competently; "Leaving" sounds about exactly how you'd expect Pet Shop Boys to sound in 2012, which is sort-of a compliment, and closer "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" livens things up with its ambitiously moody lounge-beat, sounding sort of like something you'd hear in The Limited, which is also sort-of a compliment. The entire remainder of the first half snoozes ineffectively save the slightly danceable "A Face Like That," which makes up the difference with a good injection of pop-stupid. The more upbeat second half is harder to ignore in its overreach, though you can detect some of the latent charm in "Give It a Go," and the dumbness of "Memory of the Future" at least sounds like a less lazy put-on. But what on earth is the story with Tennant's weird monosyllabic pronunciation throughout the LP, especially on "Everything Means Something"? This over-enunciation was Michael Stipe's great experiment roundabout 1998, and we all know how that turned out.

I dunno. I'm inarticulate about this. Few things get me more wound up than the announcement of new Pet Shop Boys, especially because it tends to be a blindsiding surprise I discover some months after the fact, given that the group has few fans Stateside. Every time I write them off (as I did after Fundamental, and to a lesser extent Nightlife), they come back swinging. I hope this is no exception. And please don't let a stupid review like this turn you away from them. I just didn't like this particular goround of theirs; I'll cheer up soon enough.

[SEE ALSO:]
Yes (2009)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Passion Pit: Gossamer (2012)


(Columbia)

The best this self-consciously intricate, tightly composed pop record gets is on its enormously timely opening cut, "Take a Walk," which shows actual grit in its anthemic treatment of popularly familiar class-oriented money troubles and growing up in a shadow of self-hatred -- a truly alive flaunting of demons. It's a stark, sad celebration of something troubled. But these graduates are more interested in the piling on of bravura sound-and-sludge stunts, most blatant on the extremely annoying "I'll Be Alright" but manifesting all through the wafer-thin, top-of-lungs power pop of the remainder. It's not disagreeable, really, but it's a lot of work to get through it -- and it's all the same after a while, coming off more as a social experiment than a loose and fun record.

Michael Angelakos probably wants people to be happy, to enjoy themselves, but the Brian Wilson soul-cracking needed to provide such smooth, straight-line soullessness of the body of the record is audible in every calculated second. Pick any one of the songs past track one to take with you and you get the whole idea, everything Passion Pit has to offer you right now. I choose "Carried Away," I like its hook and respond to its emotional heft, but even it isn't a spot on "Take a Walk," the wisdom and high fever of which shows much potential -- so of course it's the one they licensed out to a taco commercial.

The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth (2012)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

It's not altogether surprising that some are finding this new Mountain Goats album to be John Darnielle's most connected, startling work in years while others are blasé and underwhelmed. What are the lessons of Darnielle's career, after all, if not that even a cult artist can reach his disciples for a myriad variety of reasons. At its best, for me Transcendental Youth is a flamboyantly emotive record, an ironic but felt celebration of the desperation it carefully documents by long-suffering outcasts and lost causes. Bugger the notion that his work relies wholly on his alternately literate, revealing, and wide-eyed lyrics -- if you didn't already get the message from All Eternals Deck that this has become a real and full-fledged band, you will now.

What does make the difference between a good and great Mountain Goats album is the strength of the vocals, which invariably say a good deal about Darnielle's engagement with the subject matter (spoiler: he's consistently very attached and compassionate toward the people and actions he sings about). Still, if you're not on board with a song about offscreen Scarface characters ("The Diaz Brothers"), distantly poetic though it may be, nothing's likely to wake you up to fully appreciate it, not even that high-octane piano playing.

It's all still music, first and foremost, to me, and musically I don't find this sunnier treatment of unsavory-as-ever matters to be more engaging than the variably brooding and impassioned Eternals, which I still believe was one of the best collections of songs Darnielle has put together, and without the safety net of a unified theme. If there's a theme here, granted, it's a vague one, but it takes very little searching to find the common chords between a tune inspired by the death of Amy Winehouse ("do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive") against insistently anthemic drums and guitar, and one about Frankie Lymon's pounding drive into permanent oblivion. The Winehouse song is destined to join the pantheon of shouted-with-gusto concert staples; the Lymon one boasts Darnielle's most durable hook possibly ever. And in no sense does lyric writing get much better in anyone's canon than "the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you're never going to see again," though I doubt one can convey the impact of that line in writing.

The table was set for this LP's adventures in pop writing and unexpectedly intricate arrangements way back on 2009's The Life of the World to Come, which at the time was hailed as something new and elaborate musically and conceptually. Everything Darnielle has issued since then, including the two Goats albums and his collaboration with Franklin Bruno as the Extra Lens, has come across as a sort of loosening of that record's tight conceptual reins, in service of ever more agreeably sung and expressed missives from the same diverse characters and forbidden-thought pits as ever. It's for this reason that I feel my ideal Mountain Goats are those of 2011, a loosening but also a furious but never hard focus upon eclecticism. Darnielle's a new father now, and we now have new horns, new brightness, a new elasticity to match.

So a good number of the songs here whoosh by -- undeniably pleasurable and with a not infrequent effect of rendering one agape at the three-piece's virtuosity -- despite better melodies than ever, more affected, nightmarishly detailed production that occasionally puts the spotlight on Darnielle's metal fascination ("Until I Am Whole") as well as a long-untapped love of melodrama, but it's a short walk from spare, haunted chiming there to the self-consciously drab "Night Light." The songs in this problematic midsection will undoubtedly mean the world to some; I've little doubt that "Counterfeit Florida Plates" is the best song about schizophrenia and stealing sunscreen from CVS that's ever been written, or that the "perfect howl of emptiness" on "In Memory of Satan" will strike someone as being just for them. It's all quite intensely hunkered-down and hard-hitting, but not really up my alley. Nothing here, frankly, gets to me like "Age of Kings" or "High Hawk Season" or "Estate Sale Sign." What I'm getting at is: the playfulness in Darnielle's voice seems to be driven to a sense of obligation here rather than the exploratory or heart-wrenched rumblings on his best work. But I'm probably just deaf to things I want to hear but can't.

Don't take complaints about this undeniably slick, verbose mood music to be a referendum on the horns, Darnielle's big new discovery here courtesy arranger Matthew White, which liven up what could be a bleak affair. They enter first on the staggering "Cry for Judas" ("I am just a broken machine and I do things that I don't really mean"), tempering its hopelessness; and peak on the closing title track, one of the most ingratiating pop pieces this man's ever performed. It's big band splendor and could almost be a Lovin' Spoonful song -- a musical break from the often harrowing mental-health breakdowns chronicled elsewhere here. But mental health breakdowns are a big reason we're all here. There's none better than on the best cut on Youth, the one on which all of Darnielle's conflicted impulses hang together flawlessly -- "Lakeside View Apartments Suite" finds us in another screened-in, bleak drug hovel; the cloudy, volatile, intense atmosphere is notable for its keenly observed sense of place and the nearly unbearable heartbreak lurking behind it. If those troubling internal casualties and impulses are something that connect to you, you probably need to hear this album in full. If you're sort of tormented by it in a manner that you weren't even by "No Children," go ahead and listen, but keep the lights on and your loved ones near, for heaven's sake.

[SEE ALSO:]
The Life of the World to Come (2009)
All Eternals Deck (2011)
All Survivors Pack (2011)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Nas: Life Is Good (2012)


(Def Jam)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Purely musically, there's no doubt this is Nas' best album in well over a decade. With varied, capable production handled in bulk by No I.D. and Salaam Remi (on separate tracks), it employs a robust R&B sound that seems deliberately backward, yet fresh in its playful applications. It's in his lyrical themes, however, that Life Is Good comes across as the most consistent (and least self-conscious) LP the great rapper has put together since It Was Written in 1996. That's not to say that Nas has reined in his more unsavory mannerisms; there's sexism, bitterness, and bare anger that's all unbecoming years after the fadeout of Illmatic's goodwill. What's striking is the messiness; Nas keeps comparing this to Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, and he's right in many respects. The rants and raves that occupy Life Is Good -- an ironic title, of course -- are meant to piss you off, to make you shake your head and try to psychoanalyze the dude. But there's just enough of an abstraction here to make this a successful examination of a broken human both living in and trying to escape the past.

Like Gaye, Nas has recently (at the beginning of this decade) gone through a divorce, his from high-profile recording artist Kelis, hence the "I hate you so much right now" jab. But Gaye's divorce album was uncomfortable and difficult by design, and its devastating emotional effect will never come easily to a lesser artist, and putting yourself in the shadow of an artist like Gaye, even if you were once potentially one of your generation's greatest MCs, doesn't make for a great starting position. Thus, it's handy that this isn't strictly a lovelorn song cycle. It's more of a snapshot of an inner world at a specific moment in time. What's clearest of all is how much Nas cares about this music; there are some artists, like Alex Chilton, whose boredom produces immaculate beauty. Nas has never been such a figure; his material lives or dies by his engagement with it, and while he's never released an embarrassing album, his work has been reliably hit and miss for, now, most of his career.

There are shades of that apathetic version of Nas here. An obnoxious singalong like "Summer on Smash" just doesn't really belong on the same slab of wax as most of this material. And the clumsy half-heartedness of the family-man shit "Daughters" creepily recalls his most faux-inspirational material from the early 2000s, all diluted and radio-safe. Commercial aspirations are, of course, the pleasure and undoing of Life Is Good at its extremes, but unlike Here, My Dear, it achieves populism without sacrificing the anguish at its core. The intelligence and craft within the grandiose "A Queens Story," high drama with a hint of Gene Kelly sentimentality, is hard to fault artistically or commercially. The furious rhyming over these perfect melodramatic hooks with all their towering, revolving strings and piano are as rousing as the resignation of already-legendary closing breakup manifesto "Bye Baby" is wounding. Meanwhile, he's fun again; listen to the tricky Rufus Thomas analogue-thorny beat on "Loco-Motive" -- there's liveliness here.

Such a rediscovery of energy may not warrant the overjoyed reception that this has been afforded, but how many other rappers have even tried to cope with middle age so head-on and nakedly? The memories of Biggie and arena-rock mannerisms of "No Introduction" might paint Nas as a figure from another era, but you can't say he sounds out of touch. Indeed, the new adaptability he shows is impressive -- Heavy D's weird, over-the-top Kanye-styled club production on "The Don" is approached with delicious nonchalance on Nas' part, as though he walks in, looks around approvingly, says a few words, drops the mic and leaves.

In the past, many of us have come away disappointed at such moments. After all, Nas is at his best when exploiting the percussive potential in his tonguetwisting verbal assaults; at the peak of each of his major albums, and during the bulk of Illmatic there are these moments wherein he goes off in rapid-fire mode and you simply must throw your head back and get thoroughly swayed back and forth, as though there were something cosmic or religious about it. It's been a while since that happened, so when it does, on "You Wouldn't Understand" -- an astoundingly smooth late-'80s R&B groove that fades much too quickly -- and "World's an Addiction," it justifies the leaner, subtler moments. The latter cut is particularly interesting as it initially seems to stop the record in its tracks with its plodding urban-sprawl soul and Anthony Hamilton's initial stark, wheezy shouting. But get to the verse that begins with the attention-grabbing character study "Doctor busy operating on a lady who's sedated / He can barely concentrate cause he’s newly separated" and witness the most passion Nas has spewed out since Illmatic on his brief but well-told tale of a man coming apart.

Of course, it's a short trip from that story's punchline about premeditated murder to a conclusion that we're hearing the musical meltdown of a certifiable asshole, and many of Nas' public behaviors, those having to do with Kelis and otherwise, may bear this out. But at least the album's honest and blatant in its raw self-examination, malicious as it may sometimes be (check album cover for guest appearance by Kelis' wedding dress). That again harks back to the moral conflicts of Here, My Dear, as befitting the classicist soul influences throughout this album. The high-energy disco moves on "Reach Out" are more Midnight Love or "Got to Give It Up" than anything, though, and handily illustrate a damaged soul's willingness to change. Such unhesitant dance music -- pop, even -- is a stretch for Nas. That's undoubtedly the point.

That vitality is the needed context for the revelations Nas offers when he's back in a world he understands. "Accident Murderers" makes so much more sense in said context than it did as a single earlier in the year because it's a reasonable, well-paced outlier; even its Rick Ross guest spot is engaging. The compressed lite-jazz sound of "Stay" and surprisingly killer Amy Winehouse sample on "Cherry Wine" are suggestive of heavy, deep dreams of something transformative. In this respect, Life Is Good fails -- but it's a remarkable, artistically exuberant failure of rare dimension. Nas will never be as tight as he once was, none of us will be, but there's a new appeal to his looseness and untidiness here. It works just like that strange Motown / cued-up old-school fusion on "Back When": it's a reflection, a pause to ponder in the wake of a change and in the grip of an uncertain future. Don't they call that the blues?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Mature Themes (2012)


(4AD)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Ariel Pink was just another bedroom-pop cult figure knocking out lo-fi projects consistent in their sleepy-eyed disaffection until 2010's dazzling Before Today, a tour of alternative rock history that tapped into the joy of discovery, of vinyl plundering and expressionistic elaboration on the results, peaking with the shimmering melodic opus "Round and Round."

Such pleasures are only fleetingly recalled on the disappointing Mature Themes, in the skeletal but catchy Byrds-alike "Only in My Dreams" and the almost convincingly soulful "Baby." Otherwise, this is a frustrating regression into Pink's deadpan whining of yore; at worst ("Driftwood," "Schnitzel Boogie"), he resembles Arthur Lee on an end-of-the-road drug bender. Gone is the spark and restlessness, replaced by the Haunted Graffiti's new fixation on softcore-porn Muzak. There was a time, of course, when not giving a fuck was renowned as some sort of punk virtue, but if you're looking to surround yourself with apathy for an hour, better Stephin Merritt's actual popcraft than the fanatical flatness of this joyless New Wave; it comes across as a joke, and we're not in on it.

[Submitted to MT but unpublished.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Worn Copy (2005)
Before Today (2010)

Cat Power: Sun (2012)


(Matador)

RECOMMENDED

There's always been a strain of the catholic and the populist running through Chan Marshall's work, something that periodically made it easy for outsiders to brand her as the sort of quintessential singer-songwriter for the latte circuit during the decade we recently wrapped. Those with faith in her remain as dogged as Leonard Cohen and John Darnielle's acolytes because theirs was the privileged knowledge that the music on Marshall's albums as Cat Power was, however bold and interesting, incidental to her treatment of it. If her work is sparse and cold or if it's strange Tahitian rollerdisco, the spotlight remains on the drama inherent to her own writing and singing, much as Cohen can record nightclub music or Darnielle can work with metalheads and no one worries for a tenth of a second about the appeal of either being subverted.

Nevertheless, there's a disconcerting eagerness at the center of the first Cat Power album in a whopping six years, since the brilliant The Greatest. No question about it, Marshall makes a few eyebrow-raising decisions here and occasionally gives evidence that she felt little interest in decisions at all, resulting in an awkward kitchen-sink atmosphere and what sounds like, well, radio -- filtered through the sensibilities of a post-radio world. Sun might or might not be a deeply personal record for Marshall but its musical ambitions and quirks are front and center, and it's a Frankenstein creation that feels very much of its time. To a degree, this translates to a kind of breezy nostalgia: try divorcing yourself from listening for FM static when you hear the opening riff of "Peace and Love," a virtual replica of the meaty sonics in mid-1990s "modern rock"; try ignoring the corporate rock-ready artificial blues that persist through "Silent Machine"; and try ignoring how "3, 6, 9" lays its foundation upon the architecture of Hits, Hits from any era. Its stark rock-soul formula, complete with an Annie Lennox vibrancy in the singing, is note-perfect.

It's also one of many songs here that no one seems to have known how to conclude. Sun isn't all that long, but it is long-winded, and Marshall buries herself enough that one can speculate freely on motives. Did a lack of confidence create this? Or just guardedness? There's still challenging, torn-apart emotional fire here, but we must search it out. "Always on My Own" might well have been a Moon Pix chestnut if not for the sense that we're hearing it from a considerable distance, like something blared from the megaphone at a closed service station. Marshall wraps around its heavy drama, but it doesn't go much of anywhere -- you're really there to hear what she's doing, and there are roadblocks. Conversely, "Real Life" contains her most energetic, revealing, and broken vocals on the album, yet its production comes across as some freakish sort of riot grrl revision of Mr. Mister. In sum total, Sun means to be a forward-looking and modern record with a revealing new direction, but as much as it succeeds as a collection of fine and fine enough songs, stacked together it's more like a bare grasp at things to find something that works. That creates a sense of general sleepiness, and it's hard for strong material like "Human Being" -- spooky guitar, building drums, sultry lead and a trickily elevating, shifting backdrop -- to shine in the pile.

Marshall doesn't know where to hang her hat, and Sun is best when it cops to this problem. The first three songs are grab-bag pop that summarize everything to follow without becoming too overloaded. The piano that rolls crazily in from the left channel on opener "Cherokee" gives an edge to an oceanic intensity shaped and recast by Marshall, whose vocal is all cold focus and assurance -- she's back, as an instrument and accompaniment to herself. It's new and great, and it's weird, but not as weird as the title cut, a bizarre but endearing match of video-game jock jam with plodding funeral march -- it's here that the hard rock texture of Marshall's vocals, explored to good effect on past records, comes in handiest, and it's here that her exoticism is best applied to a quick and painlessly intriguing coda. The revolution? Well, something akin to joy on "Ruin," a pulse-pounder offset by Marshall's sly "bitchin' and "complainin'," delivered with pomp and tossed-off brilliance like she's just giving you directions.

Then she hits upon what could make a good record a great one: she strips away all the stylized business, and leaves us with sadness that towers on "Manhattan," which is one of the best songs she's ever written. Its unadorned loneliness, a pure sense of loss, is beautifully expressed ("All the friends that we used to know ain't coming back") and complemented by an arrangement that wheezes with a worn-down prettiness while keeping the clipped, quickened pace of the rest of Sun -- thus accidentally pointing up the major problems with the other songs. Marshall's directness here makes all the difference; as on past records, there's the feeling that we're sharing secrets here, an understanding of sorts, as though it's just her and the listener.

One more cut like that could have made the big difference and made this another major album in an illustrious career. What we get instead is the ten-minute "Nothin' But Time," a glamorously gloomy Iggy Pop joke the world didn't particularly need. It's an inexplicable lapse into a kind of self-parody that brings to mind nothing so much as the way the Rolling Stones used to close out their albums with singalong atrocities about "the hard-working people" and getting "what you need." Those were fine songs, in fact, but they were born of a different time whose separation from us is severely underlined by the unconvincing nature of this seemingly endless dirge, which Marshall is equipped neither to present nor to rescue.

But what of it? Is there any point in fanboy carping about a great singer-songwriter who continues to deserve our support? No, I doubt it; it's been so long since The Greatest that I feel fortunate that Cat Power is back and still bringing us new music, especially music as strong as "Manhattan" and "Ruin." If I confess that I could recommend this unreservedly without "Nothin' But Time," I hope it doesn't seem that I'm being a spoilsport. But in their two extremes, "Manhattan" and oh, sweet "Nothin'" illustrate the same basic problem with Sun: its musical venturing outward is oddly affected and insincere, something that wouldn't matter if there were evidence that Marshall was using it as a springboard rather than a filter. But the strange fixation with conventional rock histrionics that "Nothin'" toys with seems like proof that we caught Cat Power in a strange mood. Really, you know, maybe that's a privilege for us we should embrace.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan (2012)


(Domino)

Read my Metro Times review.

Twin Shadow: Confess (2012)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Two years ago, I wrote this about Twin Shadow's debut album Forget:

Twin Shadow has the potential to be a giant if he just lets himself go a little bit. He has a powerful, sensual voice with ample emotional capability. I firmly believe he has some brilliant music in him and that we'll be hearing a lot about him in the next few years. And I'm willing to bet that'll be because he lets go of some of his attachment to the admittedly wonderful music he and I both listened to and loved growing up and strips this material down to its core.

I wasn't quite right. It's true that George Lewis, Jr. has now recorded one of the few great albums of 2012. But he does this not by stripping away his pop aspirations to find the wispy core underneath, but by amping up his mastery of hooks and taking on the swagger and confidence of a true star. It helps that he's shed the indie-rock pretensions and handled production himself, thus delivering on the vague promise of "Shooting Holes at the Moon" by bolting forth with something of universal and nearly automatic appeal. On the cover, which looks like something Belmondo would have stared longingly at in Breathless, he sneers at us from black leather and a garish blue backdrop; that photo somehow tells the same story as the record itself. Inspired by a new awareness of mortality, he's made a series of ten or eleven songs -- all of them brilliant and single-worthy, if we still lived in that time -- that provoke the heart, gut and loins with complex layers of accusation, the romantic pain of stale relations, the pining for redemption. And underneath it all is what? Is it soul music? Pop? Synth wankery? All of the above, conjuring up a time when there was little point to such stylistic separations and doing so with immediacy and irreverence. What can you say about its charged and emotional road-movie relationship chronicle semi-narratives set to popcraft of the highest order? Except: they're genuinely breathtaking.

Lewis puts on a cocky dreamcoat that's frequently resisted nowadays, like some highly introspective version of not Morris Day but Morris Day's licentious character in Purple Rain. "I don't give a damn about your dreams," he announces on "You Call Me On," and his dismissive eyerolls cast toward the women in his life are only a few steps removed from George Harrison's abusive-husband rant "You Like Me Too Much." Yet Lewis' brash ways mask an obvious, abstract artfulness, and the lyricism of these bad feelings is somehow enchanting in its complexity and lack of specifics -- a conversation joined midstream -- giving his lyrics an open-ended and mysterious edge that comes indisputably from a murky place, documenting forbidden thoughts with the relentless force of a documentarian. It helps, of course, that the music is uncommonly sexy, full of desire and bitingly delivered illicit intent.

"Golden Light" opens with a lonely echo, the sound of an empty tall-ceilinged mall or church, but that's the only point except the gaps between songs in which one isn't meant to be throttled back. That first cut is an dead ringer for Arcade Fire until you notice how much more Lewis' voice stretches and bends than Win Butler's. Tightly controlled and confident throughout, the singing voice that was already haunting on Forget achieves transcendence now. It's also impressively elastic without ever losing its specific character -- his croon can evoke Morrissey on "The One," Roland Gift on "Five Seconds," a pained and expressive Marvin Gaye on "When the Movie's Over." His self-production makes a world of difference; after sounding almost disembodied and completely separate from the music on the previous record, only on the hidden track "Mirror in the Dark" here does he emphasize such sonic messiness, and here to emphasize the alienation that sits like a specter at the end of the LP ("I've tried pleasure, I've tried pain"). Otherwise, he's the swooning balladeer and the steely-eyed dream operator.

Free of ironic trappings, Lewis marries his songs to an affected urgency familiar to anyone who listened to FM radio in the 1980s or has heard many soundtracks from the period -- but unlike so many of his peers, he appropriates only what he needs from this. This is no straight-ahead nostalgia trip, it's a recasting of old sounds in a refreshed and original context. It's backward-looking, in other words, without wallowing -- the abstract guitar bliss early on "You Call Me On" is just the bedrock of a gradually transformative track, and the night driving L.A. shit on "Five Seconds" doesn't strive for any touchstone in its tricky stop-start format and chilly "I'm not trying to make you cry" sentiment. But try not to feel like you're clubbing in some distant, freeflowing moment when that thing pares it down starkly to drums and vocals then builds back up. It's not just a throwback, it riddles something in us.

And okay, influences do abound. I even hear a little Midnight Oil on the nocturnal-to-sunrise "Run My Heart," and it would take a less fervent fanboy than me not to reach for the Depeche Mode comparisons on the gigantic tower of pounding snare programs in "Patient," which lays down its cards in a killer-powerful horn-filled chorus. And those Human League and/or Eurythmics synth trills straight from 1984 on the scarily hook-filled "When the Movie's Over" are confidently spun into now by vocals, sludge and melody, a good microcosm for the way the record works so instinctively and brilliantly.

Given all this, it seems a tad ironic that the centerpiece of Confess should be the song that sounds most like it could've come out of earlier Twin Shadow sessions. "I Don't Care" controls its demonic aural urges just long enough demonstrate how his songwriting has advanced since 2010 -- it's a brutal ballad about sexual pasts and mutual destruction, swirling around an alarming bridge with "Lookin' to get it 'cause your daddy's not home, so I came to you in the night" belted out like Lewis is losing his grip but gracefully, but reliant equally upon the burn-through-the-bullshit refrain about being danced "around the room while you lie to me." It's a long courtroom exchange of, yeah, confessions and finger-pointing but rendered as though it's the last of the romantic battles to be conquered. It feels like such a climactic and weighty revelation that the nearly perfect "Be Mine Tonight" can only serve here as its coda: a murky intonation from deep within that suddenly lurches into action halfway through. But its emotions are far less ambiguous, a mildly menacing lover's ballad and come-on about where to go if you can't go home, and the fact we notice that on first pass is a credit to how much of a master Lewis already is at communicating both musically and lyrically, and the extent to which we're completely his guests in this domain. Already.

For me, this assured cycle of addiction, loss, and decadence (pure horrorshow sleaze on "Beg for the Night," by the way) cuts to shreds something like M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming because it shows no human detachment from its pure showmanship. Every ounce of Lewis is in every second of this record; you can periodically hear the desperation thus warranted in his sultry voice... but only when he wants you to. It's really the kind of pop music you dream about; for all its archaic fixations on Vince Clarke synths and Minneapolis R&B gurgling, it lives so much in our moment and delivers such a sense of strength and fearlessness that, yeah, if you love music, any kind of pop music, you should probably hear it. Slide into these biting odes to dishonesty and regret, every one of which sounds more than a little like a future classic, and find out what all those disparate noises really amount to: "a sanctuary for your troubles and doubts."

[SEE ALSO:]
Forget (2010)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012)


(Heavenly)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Words and Music bites off a lot more than most latter-day albums by major pop groups -- it intends to be a catch-all "this is your story" for obsessive music people, especially Anglophiles, the world over, all rendered with a spirit of personal and direct communication. To put it bluntly, it's about life; looking backward, looking forward, celebrating hedonism, looking for more, remembering dancing and making out and distant hazy things, and wondering how the years got away, how to regain the urgency. Its sentimentality for its own form, for the utility of dance music and rock & roll, is unabashed, but it knows its audience. There's a broad contingent of people who won't know quite what Sarah Cracknell's on about when she broods about holing up in her bedroom reading Smash Hits and memorizing the charts, biding her time and waiting for a freedom that she may or may not know what to do with. For those who do know, who know this obsession and passion exactly, hers may be the all-time definitive statement about it. Hence, this record is like the sonic Best Years of Our Lives; once you've spent time with it, so much as thinking about it can make you misty-eyed.

The sweet-natured, deeply moving spoken-word piece about budding as both an adult and a genuine fervent advocate of scenes, labels, bands, songs is "Over the Border," which opens this unspeakably beautiful album. It hits close to home because of its simultaneous attachment to the local and to the universal, something literal here (though there is, of course, a street map of imaginary pop-related place names on the cover) that translates to an embodiment of the band and Cracknell's own experience to incorporate the bare fact of coming of age as as certain sort of person. With its references to Factory Records, to Genesis, to lying in and listening to the radio like there's nothing else in the world, it immediately gives the rest of the material a lot to live up to, and the defining moment of Words and Music is likely what happens when this remarkable piece bleeds into the triumphant, explosive "I've Got Your Music," an open-hearted confection whose pound is of the heartbeat.

Listening to a backward-looking synth and beat-heavy creation like this, you can find yourself getting caught up in the past loves it evokes; Pet Shop Boys are everywhere (the florid string-heavy arrangements keep threatening to segue into "It's Alright") and the streets of early-'80s postpunk London seem to pulsate from the speakers. But if Saint Etienne have a message here, even if this is a sort of psychological regrouping and retrospective, it's to appreciate the moment, the everchanging now. Few albums can so easily make you feel as if you haven't done enough with your life, your youth... inflicting an appreciation and/or lament of the progression of years, the daytime relations and nighttime escapes as they accumulate -- seconds and minutes passing by faster than you can grab and savor them. And maybe you can't. Perversely, something like "Last Days of Disco" finds an affection for hardbound pop history in complement to its demand for a nostalgia-free, totally loose and free oblivion, the pure joy of new adulthood tinged with intimacy and propulsion: "Let's dance," goes the towering chorus, "got our act together." It's as suggestive as a novel -- you can see the flashing lights, smell the alcohol, feel the coldness and give of the floor as you shuffle and skip your way across the room.

Saint Etienne's timing for this couldn't really be better; as records by the likes of Pink and Ellie Goulding and even Usher ("Scream") suggest, the sound of Eurodisco and New Romantic is now a modern-day fixation that has lost many of its throwback associations. "Popular" sounds uncannily like something thoroughly modern and energetic that could be on your top 40 station now, and quite effortlessly so, but of course this veteran trio who've rendered dance music a romantic goldmine for more than two decades bring wisdom and the coloration of hard-won artistic progression to their music -- which it makes it more interesting still, and more moving, that they firmly place themselves in solidarity with a defiantly youthful and unfussily populist sound. The music is meant to be everyone's.

Another layer of this, of course, is a wistful glance backward at youth -- and much of this music aches with nostalgia and regret. The build of melody, sweetness, and beat on the remarkably detailed "Heading for the Fair" is steady and consistent enough to hide some of its melancholy, but the acknowledgement of mortality on "Twenty Five Years" is something altogether more sobering, and the relationship funeral "I Threw It All Away" is a stark reminder of the impossibility of going back. On these songs, Cracknell strongly evokes her peer Tracey Thorn in her witty and urbane treatment of depression and regret, infused with the most delicate kind of personal detail. "I Threw It All Away" in particular is almost a difficult listen, for it so straightforwardly confronts the fears that are kept at bay for most of the album, the carefree youth slipping away forever. You will never be the comfortable kid in the back seat again, the sulking teenager in the bedroom; it's on you now. That will never not be terrifying.

It would be easy for an aging band to look down upon their descendants and the revolving, some would say elastic, nature of bigtime pop careerdom, but they don't. Cracknell, Peter Wiggs and Bob Stanley are themselves half a generation removed from the idols they memorialize so sincerely on "Over the Border," and their loving missive doesn't mean to limit or exclude anything. There's an awareness, however, that the complete devotion to music as an entire world will only make sense to a certain breed of people. That in itself is a hard lesson of adulthood -- the difficulty of finding "your own," so to speak. When you step out of this little world you make for yourself, it's like, who else will understand?

That's why the scene described in "Tonight," the masterful centerpiece of the album's first half, is so touching -- it describes a late-night gig, the music taking off, and being surrounded by the like-minded. The excitement generates an absolute giddiness that will be familiar to most of us: "This could be my life / This could save my life." And most importantly, there is this key revelation: "There's a part of me only they can see." That could, in some context, be an annoyingly trite line, and some would never let it pass their lips (Thorn, for one, a master lyricist, would probably scratch it out)... but the thing is that when you hear it in this song, you get it. It's a risk, a huge risk, because it's always a risk being as emotionally naked as not only Cracknell but the entire group is on these cuts, and the fearlessness and, again, openness of the result is startling. "Tonight" is matched by two other emotional peaks, back to back on side two: "DJ" and "When I Was Seventeen," the latter as much a heartfelt magnum opus as its title coyly suggests. If all three of these songs were together, heads might explode -- the tradeoff from "DJ" to "Seventeen" is that intense and rousing after the second or third time through.

With its undercurrent of rueful sadness unflinching, "When I Was Seventeen" generates the most complex feelings a dance song possibly can, its relentless beat underscoring its gorgeous melody and conceit, which means to capture everything about the importance of "those times" and does just that, while quietly beckoning to an uncertain future without ever filtering it through condescension. Really, this and "DJ" are dual celebrations, both vibrantly infectious and provocatively yearning -- for the band to have put them together in this masterfully paced program makes for bliss of the highest order. If the album as a whole didn't already have this effect, it's here that you'll feel compelled to turn the lights out and deal with the involuntary flashbacks or maybe just dreams. If they are merely dreams, they seem like more, like a burst of real life in a suffocating tide of nothing. That's exactly the way music feels to you when you're a teenager -- which is, no shit, the point. It can't be overstated, though, that this music is alive, it's beautiful, and its openness and warmth could make you cry. Close your eyes, fade away, etc.

DIIV: Oshin (2012)


(Captured Tracks)

When this Beach Fossils offshoot changed their name to DIIV (instead of Dive), the most apt response was from critic Chris Weingarten: "Who gives a SHIIT?" Indeed, this is the lowest, most limited-appeal depth of a certain breed of indie pop -- a curious hybrid of surf music and dream-pop that's become the specific parlance of Captured Tracks but has also infected more visible acts like the Drums and Surfer Blood. All this is more or less derived from both Flying Nun groups like the Bats and the long-forgotten throwback beach boys the Barracudas, whose records are practically a blueprint. This particular group's long-festering debut Oshin, though, deserves credit for its modesty. It neither claims to nor achieves any significant level of pop transcendence; it's easy to criticize it for washing over us ineffectively, but I'm not sure it completely intends to do anything else. It's a lazy record for lazy times.

That said, the hook is a severe one; the walls of jangly guitar on "(Druun)" and "Past Lives" stir something deep in us nostalgic types, and makes it hard to accept that this a record almost wholly free of complete songs. What we get is more fragmentary. When an actual voice finally asserts itself on the third cut, "Human," it's a bit of an off-putting shock. Said vocals are in the Kevin Shields camp, ebbing and flowing casually over and under the music and never putting across anything distinct lyrically or melodically. Throughout the record, they appear as an instrument at various intervals and can come across as alternately ghostly and vaguely emotive, but even at the rare points (like "How Long Have You Known?") that they're provided with an actual hook, it's endlessly repeated as though it wasn't considered worthwhile to complete the idea. That vagueness of spirit is nice in theory, but you know, even My Bloody Valentine had compositions. For better or worse, this feels like jamming and noodling that happens to be quite pretty but has little final value beyond ambiance.

Again, though, DIIV show an admirable restraint that both helps and hurts. It will take no leap of faith whatsoever to picture any of the tunes here as the evocative and winning score to the '80s throwback teen film of your dreams; they have just the right level of earnest wistfulness to back up less abstractly expressed emotions. On their own, it's like listening to, well, a film score... but one thing that separates this from the zillion other records like it is that only once does it cop to any kind of giddy retro-throwback trip, on the awful Miami Vice pastiche "Doused." In small doses, this stuff is great to zone or even to write to, but its squandered potential is depressing -- there's plenty of talent and a great sound here, and you wish they'd take it somewhere instead of grinding down into the ground with their ringing guitars until sundown.

The Antlers: Undersea EP (2012)


(Anti-)

RECOMMENDED

The Antlers' breakthrough Hospice was a bleak, drab affair; the follow-up Burst Apart an immersive tower of beautiful sound -- and this is somewhere in between, skewing toward the latter. There was a lot of press about it being some sort of highly ambitious project and/or exercise in defiant difficulty, but none of that comes across. It's mood music, something to change the color of a room for the moment, and it's splendid in that regard.

Just don't come looking for songs -- there's not a hook to be found across these four cuts, just a pervasive plodding along that's audibly the outgrowth of one-eye-open jamming. The music itself is competent enough but not beautiful; it's made such by (who else?) singer Peter Silberman's lilting, hypnotic vocals, always the lifeblood of the group. He holds your hand through lengthy dirges like "Endless Ladder" and provides a framework through which to appreciate this music's heavy, transformative but subtle charm. It's also not a bad introduction to the band; if you dig the vaguely despairing tiredness of it all, go pick up Hospice. If you like the singing and the music's ability to sustain a complex mood (for almost half an hour!) and wouldn't mind the injection of a little energy, try Burst Apart. Meanwhile, this is more than worthwhile to file in with your discreet-music collection.

[SEE ALSO:]
Hospice (2009)
Burst Apart (2011)
(together) EP (2011)

Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (2012)


(Def Jam)

RECOMMENDED

Gonna lose a few friends with this statement: this album isn't that good. I spent most of the year attempting to change that opinion; didn't work. It has sparks of brilliance that cannot be fucking denied, for sure, and there's no way around it: in those moments, it's like you're listening to Stevie Wonder in the late '60s, except with a modernist (for good and for ill) slant. And like Stevie Wonder in the '60s, Frank Ocean is a great, great talent -- the sole cultural benefit of the Odd Future phenomenon -- who's not yet come to full fruition. At least, not LP-length fruition. Not meaning to second guess the opinions of other folks who know far more about music than I do, I feel like we're treating My Cherie Amour like it's Innervisions here. There's nothing wrong per se with recognizing the latent pop genius within Channel Orange, but it seems to me that there's some overcompensation here for the fact that major labels no longer take the time to develop artists. And in and outside of the big business circuit, there's a kind of responsibility -- a sort of NYSE gambling -- to assure the future of those who are promising grand returns down the line but couldn't otherwise merit the necessary support to get there.

Here's what's wrong with this: when Ocean releases his follow-up to Channel Orange it will be leagues better than this; and the follow-up to the follow-up could well be a masterpiece. There's little doubt that he has it in him. But what will rockcrits say? Chances are they will respond with a wild mixture of thoughts nothing like the uniformity that greeted this record, giving the subsequent ones a few years of unfair devaluing and thus rendering the same growth they're pulling for stymied before the fact. This is yet another reason why the music business these days is lose-lose, but as I.A.L. Diamond said, why should I depress you? Let's celebrate what works about Frank Ocean's debut.

Listening to the album in sequence, the jolt to end all jolts is "Thinkin Bout You," somewhat conveniently issued as the first single, which opens as an almost reverent bit of '90s slow-jamming before Ocean unleashes the kind of loverboy falsetto that lengthy after-dark, uh, conversations are built upon -- it's an "Adore" voice, if you read me. The song's assured and gorgeous enough to immediately and unhesitantly put attempted soulfuck maestros like the Weeknd in their place, as nothing he's issued has the warmth and weight of this in writing or performance terms. Of the album's four other peaks, three are singles (or are soon to be): you already know "Pyramids" if you've been within earshot of any music blog or news source this year -- it's an idea-filled throwback mess, and could easily be ponderous, but Ocean's winning performance and enthusiasm keep it on the rails and poke subtly, tantalizingly at a cathartic peak that never comes... which is all the better, actually.

"Sweet Life" marks the coalescence of Ocean's pure grandness as a singer with producer Pharrell Williams' finely tuned way around a classicist, smoothly funky R&B ballad -- its moodily passive mid-'70s sound renders the lyric about wasted lives an almost Pet Sounds-esque example of irony, the blissed-out music hiding the paranoia. It's this track that most easily conjures up Stevie Wonder comparisons, as Ocean's method-acting for the luminary is uncanny, and he doesn't merely imitate, he fleshes out and twists the sound being referenced. Even that isn't a pure lift or imitation, for Ocean is well aware of the very 2010s tinge of fear and dread he's adding to a fluffy, familiar base; it's as perpetual and unnerving as the undertones of horrific propaganda injected into traditional girl-group pop by Cults' debut album last year.

And then there's "Lost," one of the half-dozen or so best songs (to my knowledge) of the year -- both a heartbreaking ballad about a relationship broken by drug use and a hauntingly intense midnight anthem that surges, bursts with momentum. It begins with a simple enough synthesized trill, backgrounded by traditional electro-pop that gradually builds, the arcade of adulthood, and comes to suggest both entrapment and escape on the immediately striking, cold-chill chorus with its ingeniously evocative but threadbare lyric: "Miami, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Spain / Lost." As if that weren't enough, Ocean spreads out to tightly controlled, lilting vocal interaction on the bridge that (let's add to the list of giants, shall we?) suggests both Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison -- the song sings him, as Greil Marcus would put it, and not just in a single moment but across layers of overdubs, bettered again by the supercharged, emotionally drained singing on the coda. At bottom of all this, we're looking at something so straightforward but immediate as a song whose music simply conjures up its intended emotions magnificently, a piece of storytelling told almost entirely by melody, voice, beat, production. I doubt Channel Orange is a masterpiece, but not that this song is. It's heading to radio in December and I expect we'll be hearing a lot of it.

Another cut that soars in far less explicit fashion is the Earl Sweatshirt cameo "Super Rich Kids," a five-minute marathon of great wordplay and greater, less organized than usual vocal playfulness that's taken on an incongruous darkness by the end, a suggestion of what Ocean was going for artistically for the entire record but couldn't seem to completely clutch. "Super Rich Kids" sounds like a throwaway that accidentally became good, but therein lies the problem -- the record is stuffed with irrelevant pieces that aren't so lucky, surreal cinematic skits and half-formed ideas like "Fertilizer" and "White" (an excruciatingly self-serious John Mayer guitar showpiece) that are unable to rise above their own frivolity. It makes the big songs stand out, easy to latch on to, but the record as a whole is made so disorganized and diluted it's hard to separate its greatness from its doldrums.

Some will argue that this very shapelessness of form is what makes the record great. I sympathize with this argument; the White Album's my favorite Beatles record! It's just that the wading through material may be worth it when your reward is a "Lost" or a "Pyramids," but when it's merely a half-decent cut like "Pink Matter" (with an excellent Andre 3000 spot, it should be mentioned) you feel that, yes, it's Playlist time. And if you're like me, when you separate the songs you want to hear every time here, you get about seven or eight -- which is why this is a good album, because any album with that may good songs is good, but any album that subverts all that with tiresome directionless pieces of "business" can't be truly great.

That said, it's disingenuous to pretend that Ocean's own skill isn't the very culprit of my disappointment -- when you hear "Lost" or "Sweet Life," it's hard not to want an album full of those, and it's almost a certainty that he could give us one. He chooses not to. Fine. But he also does this within songs, and if anything that's more irritating. I'm irked every time by "Crack Rock" and its matching of a delightfully clever lyric and brooding, contaied melody (along the lines of "Ballad of Dorothy Parker") with nearly the stupidest, least interesting two-syllable chorus imaginable ("Crack rock crack rock / crack rock crack rock" = instant skip). And why waste a perfectly serviceable keyboard creation like "Forrest Gump" and its sympathetically presented framing of a childhood crush on an allusion to a cultural artifact of far less imagination that even the lesser moments of Channel Orange, one that doesn't deserve the reverence he gives it here? The sublime and the stupid, all together, and don't forget that Wonder had that horrendous "Superwoman" track on Music of My Mind.

It's inevitable now that Channel Orange will top a large number of year-end polls, and I don't think that's a bad thing -- it's an imaginative and identifiably new record, yet one with a sense of history, maybe one of the first pop or soul records that truly knows how to deal with the baggage and deep past of its form. The individual songs have been presented with the analysis and investigation that's ordinarily reserved for long-acknowledged classics. And again, there's nothing about that that isn't good for new music in general and R&B in particular. But yes, Ocean will make far, far more consistent and stirring albums in the future, albums that will rush through you with abandon and leave you as breathless as the best songs on this one leave you now. For now, enjoy this, and don't let your eyes off this kid.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Advance Base: A Shut-In's Prayer (2012)


(Orindal)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my review at Metro Times.

Your opinion of this is likely tied exclusively to how you felt about CFTPA, but if they're in your wheelhouse, it's hard to imagine a lovelier slice of unbridled melancholy for your holiday season (there's even a Christmas song!) than this low-key, truly beautiful half hour. What I love most about it is that as dire and dark and sometimes emotionally raw as the songs are (especially "My Sister's Birthday," which just... oof), they are also consistently so playful and witty in ways both large and small.

Additionally, when I reviewed this earlier this year I communicated directly with Owen Ashworth and he was by some margin the nicest person I dealt with in the course of freelancing. Not that all this should influence your opinion of the music or anything, but for heaven's sake buy this thing; it's great and he truly deserves your support.

Suckers: Candy Salad (2012)


(Frenchkiss)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Read my CRANK review at Metro Times.

It's not garnered a lot of momentum, but this is a fine pop record somewhat in the vein of MGMT's Congratulations with touches of the Shins and (why not?) the Beatles, and generally very strong songwriting and full-bodied singing. I don't know if it's anything truly great and artistically significant, but I get more pure joy out of it ("Turn on the Sunshine" and "Bricks to the Bones" give me a profound singing-in-the-car urge) than I have from most new music I've heard this year. Hideous album cover, though; I've taken to hiding the LP behind a bunch of others.

One-sentence reviews #2

Mount Eerie
Clear Moon
(2012)
(P.W. Elverum & Sun)

The unmistakable and harrowing(ly pur-tee) sound of hitting a rock-bottom depression with droning, uh, "soundscapes"; this is the sharp cheddar to Bon Iver's velveeta.

***

Japandroids
Celebration Rock
(2012)
(Polyvinyl)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!! - I'm not going to condescend to your tastes if you can put up with this grating crap but as with Fang Island, if you tout this record even nostalgically but still sneer at Saves the Day and Fall Out Boy and the like, you are one of the world's Problems.

***

Ty Segall
Slaughterhouse
(2012)
(In the Red)

More interesting than it initially seems, this (in some circles) big tentpole is just Nuggets-infected throatiness with a strong, shambolic hard rock edge -- the main obstacle for me -- and if such pureness of theory strikes your fancy, I'd advise giving this a spin.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Miles Davis: Walkin' (1954)


(Prestige)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Though it's not commonly recognized as a breakthrough or landmark, this key collection from Miles Davis and his monstrous mid-'50s rhythm section (Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, plus Horace Silver on piano) marks a turning point in his rapid maturation during his first decade of performing and recording. Walkin' is anything but the casual stride suggested by its title -- it's an intense, assured, and dramatic set of sides stabbing forth, commanding attention. As with the majority of Davis' Quintet recordings of this period, many will argue this cut-up assortment isn't the best way to hear these sessions, and maybe they're right, but these five cuts present such a flawless argument for Davis as a nearly peerless progenitor of bop that I can't see questioning the resultant package.

The thirteen-minute "Walkin'" itself is one of Davis' earliest true classics, even as it refines and rambles atop a standard blues structure, and it goes a long way toward persuading the novice about his own command over a gifted band. Alto sax player Dave Schildkraut, something of an unknown apart from these and a few other sessions, holds his own, as does a particularly playful Silver whose interpolations are quite delightful, but everyone marches in step according to Davis' own whims, as his dictatorship over the arrangement is such that his trumpet blares come across like announcements from on high. Yet everything is subservient to the curiosity and joy in the entire band's performance; the periodic explosion of that opening fanfare, followed by the sliding triumph of J.J. Johnson trombone fury that launched a thousand spy movie themes. This shares space with swing, introspection, soft and subtle grooving; the recording is everything, a mountain of possibilities.

Johnson reappears on "Blue 'n' Boogie," the yang to the yin of "Walkin'," and enjoys a splendidly complex interplay with Davis, who allows himself to be overtaken a bit by his peers because it's best for the driving, jumping number itself. On the three shorter performances orbiting these two, Davis in turn explores a democratic possibility, sustaining mood and exhibiting a freedom to explore and experiment with wildly divergent solos and tangents -- "Solar" is a conventional piece but its starkness points a subtle way forward, while the pure style evident in Davis' own work on "Love Me or Leave Me" (not on the original release, added in 1957) renders it the forgotten showpiece here. But I return most frequently to the calmly tricky and gloriously romantic "You Don't Know What Love Is," an instance of the sort of classicist yearning that proves as much as Coltrane's Ballads that a true innovator's command of traditional themes and techniques can be as seductive and stirring as his most cutting-edge material.

Within my limited knowledge of jazz, I find myself still attached to some of the recordings I first fell for, and Miles Davis' Prestige albums are paramount among these, which may or may not reflect a bias since it just so happened they were available to me at a crucial point. But I truly believe Walkin' itself is, not counting the undeniable but technically revisionist Birth of the cool, Davis' first great record, a work of art immediate enough to convince a universal swath of people while softly suggesting the sort of subversions and eccentricities that would quickly transform him. There's such an innate magic to these five sides, I have a hard time imagining a better introduction to Davis as a player and bandleader. But is there such a thing as a "bad" introduction to Miles Davis?

[SEE ALSO:]
Birth of the Cool (1950)
Relaxin' (1958)

[This is the last catalog review for a month or so while we participate in highly intensive catchup on the music of 2012, already in progress, with the first examples likely to show up Sunday evening, maybe earlier. Old records will make a return to the blog along with a new, more leisurely but more consistent posting schedule in December.]