Monday, October 27, 2014

Tonight is the first night -- August 2014 albums

You're correct in thinking that no, it is not currently August. Only I can explain the strange patterns and methodless madness of this blog. And I choose not to, so you're stuck with me. I don't even know if I'll have a best of 2014 post up before the end of 2014! And maybe that's okay. Inside this post are the opinions I made, can you dig it!?

Perfect Pussy
Say Yes to Love (2014)

(Captured Tracks)

Sonic Youth: not "dead" the way you know it. This noisy set of impossible-to-tell-apart shouted rants is what it is -- a shot straight into the heart of the audience that needs to hear it, incomprehensible to all others, sort of like a No Age album. (An exception is "Interference Fits," which comes on like Yoko's commentary on "Revolution" Take 20.) Even for this avowed fan of punk anger and spirit, it's somewhat ineffectual despite its speed and volume but at least it won't take more than half an hour of your time -- considerably less in fact, if you disregard the live bonuses.

Parliament
Chocolate City (1975)

(Casablanca)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * And talking of revolution, George Clinton (who released this, Mothership Connection and Funkadelic's masterful Let's Take It to the Stage in the same calendar year -- smoke that one) extends the mass black migration to Washington D.C. to a righteous fantasy of a black president and cabinet (all consisting of America's greatest artistic credits: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Richard Pryor, onward) pushing back against the vanilla suburbs. The rest of the album steps away from any such direct politics because Clinton has by now so successfully defined just how inherently funk itself makes a radical stand. The delightful, well-defined groove runs across every cut loud and fast or soft and hard. The keyboards, bass-heaviness, vamping vocals and weird romance on "Ride On" and "Together" spiral out with the same beauty found on the oddball ballads that populate side two. The piano on "Let Me Be" backgrounds the doo wop crooning at the roots of Clinton's musical legacy, and we could spend all day speculating on whether or not "I Misjudged You" is a joke. Take "Let Us Lay Some Funk" as one of the highlights in a long line of chanted anthems and come away from this wonderfully eccentric groove album with the same overwhelming impression one gets from Funkadelic's near-simultaneous classic: the hooks are backed up by musicianship, and the thing rocks like nobody's business.

Mac DeMarco
Salad Days (2014)

(Captured Tracks)

!! CAUTION !! * Harsh, mayhap, but I get mad just looking at his mug on the freaking cover, which looks like some frat dude's bad Facebook parody of Rubber Soul. Guess what doubles as a great description of this extremely annoying album?? The songwriting, starting with the busy "lalala"ing on track number one, is as tossed off and bland as the performances, with the boredom of material like "Let My Baby Stay" not even sustaining DeMarco's interest enough to make it sound like he could really be bothered to show up. He's the Ariel Pink who'd have a beer with you. Whatever movement he's a part of with that slick slippy slidy guitar sound and the smug laziness that undercuts his inborn inoffensive nature, it's better illustrated nowhere than "Passing Out Pieces" and "Chamber of Reflection," which borrow good ideas from The Beach Boys Love You and R&B in general respectively then falter because he's too pedestrian to know what to do with them. The big joke writes itself with such song titles as "Goodbye Weekend" (oh, indeed) and such lyrics as "You're no better off livin' your life than dreamin' at night / This much is true, but it's still up to you." You can almost hear bro-rock lapping itself.

Pet Shop Boys
Please (1986)

(EMI America)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Like a lot of '80s blockbusters, it's a stacking together of big hit singles when you look at it very simply. "West End Girls" into "Opportunities" into "Love Comes Quickly" into "Suburbia" is such a parade of mastery it warrants an encore in a reprise of one of them, but it's the second half that not only provides the conceptual string that makes it all signify something but indicates very early on that this pair of critical darlings would end up recording one of pop music's most magical discographies. The dance floor is only a bit of the story, and they'd delve into that with more assurance later and elsewhere, and the long-running debate over which half of what Neil Tennant says is what he actually means is the source of some of the intellectual appeal for sure. But listen closely to the words on the startlingly romantic "Tonight Is Forever," on the equally potent fantasy of cutting and running "Two Divided by Zero," on the desperately deal-making "Opportunities," on the monstrously nasty (interpolating "God Only Knows" into "I may not always love you / you may not care," ouch; and try listening side by side with Bob Marley's "Is This Love?") "Why Don't We Live Together" and you discover the first pangs of insecurity in a world just as subtly marked by the apartheid protests in the background of the "West End Girls" video or in the fragility of Tennant's vocal and Chris Lowe's piano on the incongruous "Later Tonight." The economic anxiety of the Reagan-Thatcher years imbues and darkens the living and loving of the casual and businesslike young professionals that populate these songs. There's a song about violence breeding violence, too, but more important are the songs about thinking of ways to get rich, about neglecting the bills to go out and dance with the love of your life while ignoring the future, about kicking it downtown with nowhere much to go, about living together more because it makes financial sense than because you love somebody, and about loving somebody so much you'd break the law and run away with them. All these uncertain futures, not least the band's one guesses, and while it's no news that Tennant and Lowe would become experts at juggling their conceptual distance with emotional honesty, it's something to witness it all falling into place so long ago, on music that remains remarkably and depressingly timely. Living for tonight -- it's forever, it's later, and I don't want another drink or fight I want a lover then -- still isn't bad advice, either.

Todd Terje
It's Album Time (2014)

(Olsen)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * No idea where this came from except Norway, but it's the weird lounge record you've dreamed about that you never thought anyone would dare produce. The timing probably doesn't work out but it fulfills a lot of the promise of Daft Punk's last record -- fearlessly interpolating Herb Alpert, Vince Clarke ("Swing Star 1"), Roxy Music, the Tornados' "Telstar," Bert Kaempfert and Les Baxter all with four on the floor playfulness and those wistful memories of disco bliss. And it has more propulsion than Random Access Memories but is just as layered and endlessly fun, drowning us in keyboard trills and bass lines that come from nowhere and sound so right. Highlights are constant and range from bossa nova to unstoppable night-driving time capsules to a freaking Robert Palmer cover sung by Bryan Ferry??!? It's like a compilation of theme songs from the best cool kitschy jet-set teevee shows you've never seen. You don't have to watch them to have an attitude; you just have to fake it.

At the Drive-In
This Station Is Non-Operational (1997-2000)

(Fearless)

!! CAUTION !! * I remembered this band primarily for an incident in high school during the Napster era, wherein a George Bush-adoring classmate in my Computer Applications class begged me to burn this song he'd heard on the radio to a CD. He claimed the chrous was "run away / run away." Unable to source this, I sought clarification and learned that his revised theory had it as "get away / get away." Well, no, in the end "One Armed Scissor" actually contains the words "cut away / cut away," which as the smartass Nader kid next to us pointed out, is pretty obvious given the title. I also remembered this band as a terrible rap-rock-ish outfit with one interesting and terrifying video ("Invalid Litter Dept."); they've become sort of a small legend in the years since "get away / get away" filled our happy headphones. I decided to take an extra listen to see if I'd missed something, blinded by my loathing and lack of synchronicity with the radio circa 2000. At the Drive-In's little moment was an odd one, but no, they're not for me. They sound turgid and whiny beyond belief to me, in fact, and I wish this came prepackaged with snark in the liner notes like Depeche Mode's The Singles 81>85, which is the kind of thing I was listening to in 2000. Epilogue: Bush won the election.

Curren$y
The Drive-In Theatre (2014)

(Datpiff)

Speaking of drive-ins. It's not hard -- read any of the last 17 reviews of Curren$y albums and you get the concept. I don't mean to be flippant, but I really am paying the price for highly-recommending an album this guy did four years ago. Behind the scenes that means I force myself through any full-length an artist releases for the next ten years and while nothing Curren$y puts out is bad -- the guy's nothing if not dependable, honest to goodness -- I don't think it's an insult to him if I say that his prolific nature exhausts me, especially when releases like this require a download rather than a simple stream. Actually I have fun listening to his new stuff but the part where I have to write something about it in response is painful. All I can think of to say is that I listened to this while I fed my mom's chickens... and that doesn't seem like it belongs here?

Camera Obscura
Let's Get Out of This Country (2006)

(Merge)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * It feels like Tracyanne Campbell's triumph if no one else's; not that her band (and producer Jari Haapalainen) doesn't do plenty of the work to make this the finest of Camera Obscura's fine albums, but the toughness and yearning that seem to weave stories untold from every line she sings are a good proportion of what puts this in the top tier of indelible, emotionally devastating records made in the last ten years or so. That's an achievment for a band whose mission is clearly to evoke memories of baroque records from long ago, Phil Spector singles and sad dancing-alone Northern soul moments from prior to Campbell's birth, much less memory or adolescence. Anyway, this is not an exaggeration: her singing throughout this record is absolutely flawless... it is one of those performances you wish you could see happening. It's so good that the songs themselves sometimes seem vaguely unworthy of her (and to be honest, nothing here will break you apart and put you back together like "Books Written for Girls" or "Teenager" but plenty will come damn close). Nevertheless, it's still the kind of record that makes other records seem extremely inadequate in proximity. "Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken" could be cute throwback without that break 38 seconds in or the relief Campbell draws from the chorus; what would "Tears for Affairs" be without its lyrical wit and lilt? "No, you never stay"; "I love you, Dory Previn"; "what does this city have to offer me / everyone else thinks that it's the bee's knees"; the whole of the infectious, Peanuts-quoting "I Need All the Friends I Can Get." She's Dusty Springfield, Ray Davies, Tammy Wynette. Despite the glorious arrangements, especially those horns on "Razzle Dazzle Doze," they're nothing without her. And that's just fine.

Elbow
The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014)

(Concord)

Since we're doing a lot of Personal History this evening, my history with Elbow is that they were once included on a mix CD given to me by a guy that my then-girlfriend was sleeping with. I think the CD was a peace offering, I'm not sure. And I can't think of a band that screams "peace offering" more than Elbow -- you gotta hand it to 'em, this is damn functional music, like ten hours of Peter Gabriel covering U2's "Bad" or some group of the songs that used to have music videos included at the end of VHS rentals of romantic dramas or whatever. I mean, it's all dumb, but it has some keen flourishes. It's hard to imagine anybody mustering up passion about this unless they're like me and just love to pretend "Fly Boy Blue" is being sung by zombies. Or the Steve Miller Band.

***

Among the things I'm now sure I won't get to before the year's out: Love's Forever Changes (revised from my deeply ignorant 2007 first impression), Devo's first album, the Avalanches' Since I Left You, Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness' First Finale (spoiler: as good as anything he ever released), Beatles for Sale. Am I telling you this so you'll be upset and/or angry? Yes! And also, because you now know what will probably happen in 2015, and can look at a list of every record ever made and use process of elimination to determine what I will review in the remainder of the year. Two more mixed posts, four or five more full reviews, then a rush of new releases that will run god knows how long, but don't worry, I've already listened to and formed opinions on lots of stuff. We'll have fun, I promise!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)


(Atlantic)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The way to hear this album is either on vinyl or from (warning: illegal advice ahead) a high-bitrate needledrop. The official digital versions that exist simply don't, maybe can't capture the intensity of the drums or the intimacy of Aretha Franklin's voice at its upper register. This is the greatest singer in rock & roll at her unquestionable peak, and it deserves the full range of sound and unfaked warmth that simply can't be fully appreciated from a digital signal. I used to think such things were woo-woo nonsense, and still believe that a good mastering engineer could make I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, this landmark of soul and pop music, this most emotionally powerful of all great albums, into a divine-sounding compact disc or MP3 album. But for now, take my word for it -- the hype over vinyl exists because of cases like this one. You won't regret seeking out this experience for yourself.

Never Loved was recorded over a span of just over a month in the first quarter of 1967 in New York, released barely a dozen days after it was completed. The Muscle Shoals band backing Franklin on these cuts, led by King Curtis on tenor sax, is illustrious and untouchable, but Franklin herself bears nearly all of the responsibility for their grace and majesty. Her simple but stunningly beautiful piano playing, bursting at the seams as it challenges the boundaries of the secular and sacred, is bested in its impact only by the singing voice that feels too large and important to have been emitted from a mere human. You know "Respect" damn well, and well you should, but as the first cut of a truly phenomenal album it sings out like a new song, fierce and unkempt, eclipsing Otis Redding's original and -- in retrospect -- eclipsing much of what the hell else was going on in 1967. This contained, exuberant, brilliant arrangement wraps around a nearly formless vocal that's just a pure expression of romantic frustration, anger, and -- this is rock & roll -- sly attitude.

Franklin explores those three vital implications of her vocal range throughout this series of frequently despairing love songs, at least as much as they wander into the more soul-traditional evocation of bottomless sorrow. That efficiency and eclecticism, that range, is why she stands apart from other rock and soul performers, why this is one of the top soul records of the '60s in a realm with Otis Blue and Night Beat. With that said, even in the moments of conventional heartbreak, Franklin defies the box that outsiders might place her in. There is nothing remotely ordinary in her version of the Ray Charles classic (penned by Henry Glover) "Drown in My Own Tears" -- it may as well just be viewed as a series of climaxes, a concept more typically seen in power pop or the baroque productions of Phil Spector, whereby all lines point to a dramatic peak. The exhilaration within this record's first three cuts is an act of incredible consistency despite each song standing out as an entirely separate entity, with its own aims and internal crises; the value in the album comes from how every cut presents another side of Franklin's angst and, perversely but perfectly, her utter confidence in her expression of same.

Atlantic Records was a creative hotbed in those days, and it could conceivably be argued that Never Loved was just another day in the life; it is, after all, mostly a covers record. Franklin's sole contributions as co-composer are the anguished but playful "Save Me," the sensual "Dr. Feelgood," the stirringly expressive (at her highest vocal register) "Baby Baby Baby," and "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream." All are outliers here, though one ignores the jazz-like, tense and plaintative "Don't Let Me Lose" at one's own risk. But does anyone argue that "Respect" ultimately belongs to anyone but Franklin? Would anyone in a thousand years ever be able to loosen her grasp upon the melody of Luther Dixon's "Soul Serenade"? The absolute heaven of the title cut and its b-side, the absolutely perfect (and audibly wounded) "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," two of the best recordings of the century?

There is no letup in all this drama or closeness, to the extent that the LP single-handedly gives the lie to any equation of authenticity with self-composition. In every sense except the most strictly and meaninglessly technical, this is a singer-songwriter album. With the sole exception of the two very respectable Sam Cooke covers, these songs belong to Aretha Franklin and hence always they shall; this story, this cycle, this expression of pleasure and pain is all exclusively hers, and we should count our fortunes that we are able to witness it continually. It remains as fresh, powerful, invigorating, overwhelming as ever, nearly five decades on.