Sunday, December 14, 2014

In between the concrete and the mist: October 2014 albums

Jesse Boykins III
Love Apparatus (2014)

(Empire)

RECOMMENDED * Boykins is a good, jazzy neo-soul singer in the D'Angelo and Maxwell tradition, thankfully free of the careful distance that's become a calling card of peripheral R&B artists like the Weeknd and How to Dress Well. His third album is heavy on riffed-upon, extended grooves and good band interplay, but it just goes on too long without much variance -- and without any songs that really seize upon his clearly immense talent. Still, it's excellent, sensual post-midnight comedown music.

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1949-52)

(Document)

Crudup's importance to rock & roll history is well established despite not many people really remembering him as an exceptionally good blues musician. Like the previously reviewed second volume in this series, this compilation shows his chops and shows (for much longer) his limits. Though these sides are never less than competent, it's hard to receive them with much beyond politeness, especially with so many of them being rewrites of his signature. It's well-compiled and notated, there just isn't much to reveal.

Lake Street Dive
Bad Self Portraits (2014)

(Signature Sounds)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Well, "I bought this camera to take pictures of my love / Now that he's gone I don't have anybody to take pictures of" may sound better than it reads, but it still sounds incredible. Some people make fun of this sort of thing because it's seen as reinforcing a certain bourgeois NPR folk-rock stereotype, but this band's stunning level of enthusiasm and musicianship is a reminder that such shorthand really leads us nowhere. Besides, singer Rachael Price, younger than I am but displaying a wisdom and maturity I almost can't comprehend (maybe in part because of her volatile family history), has a soulful voice with irreducible depth. She has a knack for elevating lyrics that may seem trite on paper (there are exceptions: "I could have been a painter or a president / But after 25 years, I should be good at something"; "If I didn't know all the things that you'd done I'd swear that I need you"; "Looking at you right next to me, the stillness feels like emotion") into profoundity, all with loneliness, sophistication and warmth to match the band behind her. But groups with this sort of disparate yet reverent influences -- jazz, soul, country, etc. -- that can play well are a dime a dozen in local bars across the nation. Difference here is that the songs are complete creations, and their craft consistently surprises and pleasures for all across every cut here (totaling an economical 38 minutes). When the song is fast -- like the title cut, "Stop Your Crying," "You Go Down Smooth" (I didn't know you could still write a song like that without it being Ironic) and "What About Me" -- the band builds, then builds some more, and peak follows peak with highs and lows in Price's vocals to match. When it's slow, like on the girl group-infected "Use Me Up," the sexually charged "Just Ask" and the utterly magic, vulnerable, grudgingly honest "Better Than" (which could almost pass for an American Camera Obscura), Price is allowed to be much of the show, and a listener with an ability to resist her exorcism and grace has more willpower than the vast majority of people who will hear this wonderful album. Unlike nearly every other artist Lake Stret Dive will be compared to that subsists in part on self-effacing charm, they are never once cloying, and that toughness of spirit is what makes them.

Lyla Foy
Mirrors the Sky (2014)

(Sub Pop)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Foy used to record hushed bedroom pop under the name WALL; despite adding a full band for her debut album, her mission remains admirably minimalistic and classicist -- she's a singer-songwriter who writes catchy, transportive, addictive music, all sparse introspection and intimacy, and sings it gorgeously. There isn't much else to report about Mirrors the Sky except that it's magnificent. Foy and her band have soul and subtlety to spare, the arrangements and melodies always persuasive, but a lot of the album's excellence comes down to Foy's impressively diverse production and mixing. Though the record sustains its mood strongly, every song is explorative in a different sense: the underwater flourishes of "Honeymoon," sad dance music on "I Only," the stripped-down Spectorisms of "No Secrets." It's as likely for one to hear this as woozy, unresolved and immersive (the dreamy "Rumour") as it is to get a hint to the driving, hard and strong personality at its center. Foy's recorded a quiet record that invites getting lost. Partially recorded on mobile recording equipment in the English countryside and sounding like it, it's the best pastoral album I'm aware of since Iron & Wine's Shepherd's Dog. Extra credit for that moment in "Bitter Tongue" when it all drops out except Foy's voice and percussion for a minute.

La Bouche
Sweet Dreams (1996)

(Arista)

After Milli Vanilli's (somewhat injust) implosion at the dawn of the '90s, the two dancers who supposedly comprised the group, Rob Piltus and Fab Morvan, were left to languish in the eternal nothing by their "creator," Frank Farian. They were never to be heard from again, but Farian's success went uninterrupted. His next most famous project was this hi-NRG concoction from the peak of the Eurodance period. La Bouche consisted of a person who actually sang, Melanie Thornton, and someone named Lane McCray who sort of rapped. They released some great singles, including the title cut and the rapid-fire stuttering-rhythm signature "Be My Lover." They're dated in their naive interpolation of hip hop, an issue common to big club records in this period, but at least disco was trying to be inclusive. The group only recorded two albums and only this one enjoyed any kind of success; it comes equipped with a few other middling club tracks and one other sizable hit, a cover of the easy listening hit "Fallin' in Love" (most interesting now for being Playboy Records' only major success). This isn't groundbreaking music but it does have, thanks to Thornton, a few moments of exhilarating transcendence; the two choruses for which La Bouche became a known quantity are genuine tentpole pop fragments that deserve to live on in places besides ads for early '90s dance music compilations. "Sweet Dreams" in particular is the kind of song a smart DJ builds toward; everything about it feels like the peak of a sweated-out, beautiful late night. But like everything here, it now comes with a hint of melancholy that may help or hurt its impact. In 2001, Thornton boarded a plane in Berlin on her way to a promotional appearance and never made it there; she was only 34.

Ought
More Than Any Other Day (2014)

(Constellation)

There's a universe in which this politically charged Montreal-based band's semi-emo, overly wordy take on Talking Heads and Fugazi probably works. It rambles appealingly on occasion, but the band's awareness of its own identity seems limited, as if they don't yet know how to say what they want to say. Singer Tim Beeler is like a fusion of Conor Oberst and a motivational speaker, and one's interest in this will live and die by their ability to deal with his mixture of overwrought irony and fist-pumping emotion. It's punk rock for today, I reckon, and will hit its targets.

Artful Dodger
It's All About the Stragglers (2000)

(London)

RECOMMENDED * More Eurodance, from the UK garage era -- this is the album that ostensibly launched Craig David (on the hit "Re-rewind" and two other cuts). It's also rather wonderful, a portfolio of previously issued and uniformly good productions by Mark Hill. Hill was Artful Dodger at the time; they've since devolved, along with the garage scene itself, and Hill has long since split. Stragglers amounts to a good, soulful mixtape with a good deal more depth, groove and sensuality than a lot of British dance and techno from the period; because of the disparate times and featured performers represented, it serves as a solid and enjoyable introduction to garage, which unfortunately never got noticed much Stateside.

Ratking
So It Goes (2014)

(XL)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * It's hard to imagine Ratking -- a tough, raw underground trio from Harlem -- recording this just a few years ago, but in the post-Shabazz Palaces, post-Yeezus era, hip hop is more expansive than ever before, and "alternative" no longer is a codeword for "safe." So It Goes, Ratking's grimy, Vonnegut-quoting, NYPD arrest-sampling debut is as far as can be imagined from traditions of New York hip hop but it captures the city itself with almost freakish aural accuracy. Hak and Wiki are both good-to-excellent MCs whose politically tuned-in rhymes don't shy from aggression ("Bug Fights"), but the star of So It Goes is third member and producer Sporting Life, whose twists and turns and hip hop dreams seem deceptively simple but wrap us up in a sense of journey and groove that lend weight and complexity to already resonant tracks like "So Sick Stories," not just another inner city river bliss. Ratking are unafraid of being confrontational not just lyrically but musically -- "Protein" seeks to annoy, but in a great way -- and in their delvings on black mortality, protest-police clashes and gentification (including a timely freestyle by a passenger recorded on the subway) they recall no one less fearless than the Fugees. Want a taste? Try "Snow Beach," which opens atonal and hard and becomes ("every year another court date / every winter need a North Face for warmth's sake on long days") the best hook-filled classic jam you'll hear this season.

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