The rare month in which something old I discovered -- the Art Blakey album -- eclipsed everything new or kind of new that came to my attention.
My Krazy Life (2014)
RECOMMENDED * The chief takeaway here is how incredibly influential Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city already is, just two years after its release -- this is a considerably lighter take on the same basic idea, of a reformed young petty criminal autobiography framed as a cautionary tale and apology, replete with Mom as a framing device. But Y.G., while quite talented, is way way waaay more impressed with himself than Lamar is, and the record lingers a lot more on the fun, just-wanna-party aspects of the "before" picture rather than the one-song-and-change of the redemption. It's a whole record of "Backseat Freestyle"s. And you know, that's really fine, especially if you're nostalgic for a time when hip hop could be this full of guilt-free boy problems and bravado; parts go farther back than even gkmc, with old-fashioned scratching and vocoders and what-have-you. The sad-gangsta finale "Sorry Momma" borrows from the Nas playbook quite well, and there are some good bangers ("Left Right" is the best) and a kinda funky home invasion narration ("Meet the Flockers") to counteract Lamar's harrowing one. But it's telling that the record's most impressive moment by a longshot is Kendrick L.'s own jaw-dropping verse on "Really Be." Skip that song if you intend to actually listen to My Krazy Life and not just pause it and go pull out gkmc.
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Archetypal hard bop reaches six titanic heights under the intelligent leadership of Blakey, who in addition to his steady pulse will change an outsider's mind about how much there can be to a drum solo. The breathtaking moment to write about among many is probably Lee Morgan's trumpet solo in the title cut, which is over just a couple of minutes after you lay down the needle on side one, but everything else is priceless. Personal favorite full selection is "Are You Real": what a song, what a performance, like a romantic chase scene. Blakey's great talent was in letting good but underused soloists explore their voices. Morgan, saxophonist Benny Golson, pianist Bobby Timmons -- their names might mean little to you, but their sounds won't once you've heard this.
RECOMMENDED * Without going into specifics, I know firsthand that this is a band that has really, really paid their dues and I'm quite excited for them that they've started to reach their current level of success and attention. They're basically a synth-drenched revision of grandiose pop in the vein of the Alarm, U2 and OMD, and they write some lovely songs ("Spirit"; "A Dream of You and Me") but there's a but. (For many, it won't be a but.) Singer Samuel Herring has a, well, very unique vocal style, like if Peter Gabriel, Peter Murphy and Peter Garrett were all the same Peter. Pairing that eccentric, lower-register croak with this sort of expansive music is a textbook example of "not for all tastes," but it'll inspire endless passion in certain quarters. I dig it, personally, but I can only take so much at a time before I have to listen to somebody who will calm the hell down. Herring sends songs in directions that seem to have nothing to do with what his band is doing -- "A Song for Our Grandfathers" defines this dichotomy. Maybe it works. Maybe they will eclipse Sandra Bullock as the most famous ECU alumni.
Better Living Through Chemistry (1996)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!! * My late-'90s instinct to stay away from this gimmicky, crude charlatan was correct -- this is a guy who thinks you need drugs to truly enjoy music, and with his own work this repetitive and pandering it's no wonder he'd consider that a prerequisite. All of these songs sound like the generic instrumentals and bad jokes they play behind morning DJ patter. Worse than Jock Jams; if you don't believe me, try all six minutes of "First Down."
Under Color of Official Right (2014)
Generic indie rockin' that sounds like a post-punk band trying it all again straight outta 2004. Nice work if you can get it; sorry you missed 120 Minutes. "It was somethin' that I read in a book," yeah, What Color Is Your Parachute? amirite?
The Future's Void (2014)
RECOMMENDED * Erika Anderson's third album and follow-up to blogosphere smash Past Life Martyred Saints is even more raw and complex, if ultimately a bit generic in its "the '90s live again!" conceit -- "So Blonde" really, really sounds like something from Live Through This or Bricks Are Heavy, and that's just one among many. It's also more substantive than a lot of other singer-songwriter records, including Martyred, and a lot of Clinton administration throwbacks like Speedy Ortiz and Yuck. Anderson reads Lovecraft apparently, and on a semi-related note builds a hook on "my Lucifer, my Lucifer" which some will find a welcome antidote to another current act with similar taste's "my nightingale, my nightingale." When I listen to "When She Comes" I feel like I'm hearing a great cover of a Velvet Underground song I somehow didn't know. When I listen to "100 Years" I feel like taking a nap. Anderson holds back a lot under cover of coy abstraction, like St. Vincent and Spoon, which makes her easy to digest, a little hard to enjoy, and very much an artiste.
At Last Alone EP (2001)
RECOMMENDED * Fourteen years and counting since their now-legendary album was released, this odd stopgap has now gained more attention than it's meant to carry. Five remixes of songs that don't really make proper sense outside their original context. One masterpiece of a flawless, unbelievably euphoric dance song in the form of "Everyday" -- if you love Since I Left You and haven't heard it, get thee to Youtube or whatever. All else in its shadow: the three other songs reprise it and/or undercut it and/or noodle, though "Undersea Community" is a mildly amusing fragment. But if it's the only way you can get to "Everyday"...
With Light and With Love (2014)
RECOMMENDED * "You call it sleep but it feels like dead." Well, I dunno. First of all, one of those is a noun and one isn't. Second, I hear the Byrds more than the Dead, though I guess some of the guitar solos do wander off. Have you heard Woods before? Then you know what you're getting -- respectable, nostalgic folk rock with one kinda ludicrous, kinda fun interpolation of "My Sweet Lord." Tune in, turn on, etc.
A Hundred Miles Off (2006)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * It's never made sense to me personally that this wasn't a widely loved record. The Walkmen were the only new rock band I really listened to much in the mid-2000s, a time when I was thoroughly concerned with movies, '50s rock & roll and Yo La Tengo. I greeted this album with enthusiasm and wasn't even aware until years later that it was seen as a disappointment. Admittedly, it's a transition -- it can now be heard as the tipping point between the Walkmen's more aggressive early work that produced their immortal Bows + Arrows and the later, possibly even more effective gentle riffage upon Van Morrison, Sun Records and doo wop. The band is always a solid foundation, with Hamilton Leithauser loud but seldom asserting himself as the center of attention, and in a way maybe this is the ideal introduction to them -- old-fashioned, straight ahead rock & roll with sensitivity, propulsion and charm. Two admissions: though no cut is noticeably weak, there are really only three songs that rise above everything and assert themselves, and all three look ahead to You and Me and Lisbon: the horn-drenched road song "Louisiana," the bitter but strangely romantic road song "Lost in Boston" and the elegiac "Another One Goes By," one of their very best. Second caveat is that I do indeed listen to this less often than the other five, but checking in again I am not entirely sure why. I continue to miss the Walkmen -- they went on "hiatus" just after I realized they were probably the most consistent young-ish band of the last decade.
Tarpaper Sky (2014)
Stripped down to nothing compared to most mainstream country, which is why it gets positive attention, but Crowell retains a generic Texas twang that covers up the virtues of his writing. He does sound a lot younger and newer than he is.
Cooke's Tour (1960)
Cooke's dual personalities are interesting: the old-fashioned crooner recording "theme" albums for RCA and coming on like Dean Martin or Nat King Cole versus the sweated-out R&B singer whose hit ballads carried an undercurrent of sensuality even when they were going on and on about Cupid. His voice was, of course, undeniable -- but this phony travelogue (a lot of coffee in Brazil, all that shit) is tedious beyond comprehension. This is Disc One in a box of this true luminary's RCA albums. I hope I'm wrong and that my curiosity about his more obscure work is justified, but this doesn't bode well for his consistency as a sustainer of thirty-minute pop records. Which is really not a surprise or even a particularly fair critique, except that of course you wanted it to be different.
The Both (2014)
Album of drinking songs from a sort of cross-generational collaboration: Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. (There's only ten years' age difference between them but 'Til Tuesday and the Pharmacists are at least two decades apart in their cultural moments.) Run the Jewels it's not, but Mann's blandness seems to be offset by the sprightlier efforts of Leo, though there's really no trick to having more presence than Michael Penn. One's response to this is very strongly dependent on one's fondness for what A&R types call "adult alternative." Not my thing, but good luck to all.
Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005)
RECOMMENDED * Funny, smarmy, whatever. Blunt. Just like their name! Power riffs! Garage rock that doesn't serve any redeeming social purpose -- the punk of pettiness. "Look at us, we formed a band." "Every girl that I've seen since looks just like you when I squint." It's all so smug and dumb it's almost funnier when it tries to get subtle. Credit "18,000 Lira" for defining a sound in less than two minutes like we did in the old days, "Fight" for making fun of alpha males.
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett (2014)
!! CAUTION !! * It sounds like E, who hasn't had an easy time of it, is working on his demons while wailing out his latest tunes as he wanders off into that good night. So what else is new. Only problem is, unless you're some kind of an auteurist, there's just no really compelling reason to listen to him doing so.
Earl Bostic Blows a Fuse (1946-58)
RECOMMENDED * According to Art Blakey, who knew his shit, alto sax player Earl Bostic was a primary influence upon Coltrane, something that you can't necessarily detect from this well-mastered hodgepodge of R&B-tinged jazz and novelty pop. But it is tremendously fun to listen to anyway; his version of the standards "Night Train" and "Harlem Nocturne" are among the best and punchiest I've heard, and no one can grow up in the Carolinas without some affection for "Flamingo," as much a signature beach music touchstone as Maurice Williams' "Stay," My personal favorite Bostic single is the wickedly funny "Who Snuck the Wine in the Gravy?", a probing mystery with a twist ending. Bostic's playing is joyous and inspired throughout the collection, which is available digitally from Amazon -- but the material is uneven. I have a feeling there's a more convincing introduction out there somewhere. If you're a jazz freak and don't know Bostic, try the great, ahead-of-its-time (1948) party record "That's the Groovy Thing" on for size, followed up with the terrific, manic soloing on "Don't You Do It."
RECOMMENDED * Half of a terrific album -- stylish beyond your expectations, and delightful to anybody reared on raspy-voiced Mary Wells, Stax/Volt, A Tribe Called Quest and Sesame Street. Main caveat is that while Kelis has excellent taste and cultivates ideas well from disparate sources, she doesn't have much skill at curating them, so as is sometimes the case with Erykah Badu's earlier albums and most of Beck's, it's genius with no filter. This manifests partially in the record just being a bit too long, but more specifically on misjudgments like the godawful Blueshammer-like "Friday Fish Fry." Almost everything on the first two thirds is good to great; being too easily seduced by concept doesn't change the fact an album with weird food metaphors sure beats one that strings together creaky standards that happen to have names of cities in their titles (see Mr. Cooke above); and opener "Breakfast" is the best Jackson 5 rip since Bibio's "K Is for Kelson." Despite the problems, don't miss.
The October post is a short one, which should be ready around the sixth of next month, and then a huge rush of new releases, mostly capsules with a few longer pieces interspersed. Right now we seem on track to have a Best of 2014 post before the calendar year actually ends, but don't hold me to that please! Try to pretend it's true despite the overload. (Ahem. Two big A+ titans getting their due here first anyway.)