Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I may be young but I'm ready: December 2014 albums

Fatigued from the year-end rush which I was already late on, I took a long break from music writing but was still plunged into my usual investigations. In this curiosity-driven post we'll be exploring prior releases by some established artists who unexpectedly enchanted us in the last few years, plus some older materials.

Beyoncé
4 (2011)

(Columbia)

RECOMMENDED * The title officially represents that this is her fourth solo record -- the one where she supposedly courted the alt-rock press with songs that sounded like St. Vincent ("Countdown" and "End of Time") -- but it could just as well refer to the four juggernaut, masterful singles it encompasses: "Love on Top" is throwback spiritual awakening with gymnastic key changes to die for; the glorious "Party" is our own time, our own anthem, our own confident assertion of a generation's sexuality; "Dance for You" is gratitude and romance in the context of a sensual Prince-like lapdance; and "Countdown" is just tremendously strange, wonderful and radio-perfect. Bey is in amazing, full-bodied voice on all of the above. There's at least one other cut that nearly stands on a platform with those: try "Schoolin' Life" on your next joyous drive downtown, freak all day and wish to be 21 so you can get you a drink. Hell, try the entire album, made for placidly exuberant life on a Saturday afternoon, but be warned that it's very front-loaded. Nothing is bad -- lots of Something to Remember-style ballads with subtle hooks and engaging production, but nothing throttles you like the synthy, deliriously engaging hits. I love the lyrics to "Best Thing I Never Had" so much I wish the song was better; I like the hook on "Rather Die Young" so much I wish its lyrics weren't so disturbing. So it goes.

Ciara
Basic Instinct (2010)

(LaFace)

RECOMMENDED * Her voice and attitude get shut out of the driver's seat on even the best of the singles. A shame because it's a hell of a voice, even if the material is inconsistent. Solid pop work, at least for the first two thirds, undermined by backward production and label foolishness that led to her departure from LaFace to create her outstanding debut on Epic three years later.

Camouflage
Rewind: Best Of (1987-95)

(Polydor)

RECOMMENDED * Cute OMD ripoff with a couple of major, fiery singles, in particular the immortal goth-club banger "The Great Commandment" -- numerous priceless remixes not included here. Also not included is my favorite performance by this German collective: their cover of Depeche Mode's early Martin Gore classic "Tora! Tora! Tora!", worth seeking out. What's here is fun anyway.

Daft Punk
Human After All (2005)

(Virgin)

Robovoiced minimalism, ineffective against skeptics -- mostly magnifies the worst tendencies of Discovery without nearly so much evidence of popcraft.

***

Arthur Lee
Vindicator (1972)

(A&M)

!! CAUTION !! * Aside from what's included on the Rhino compilation Love Story, I haven't investigated much of Love's post-Forever Changes output; after that album they essentially became a vehicle for Lee's impulsive fits and starts. That set included one solo single of his, "Everybody's Gotta Live," which I quite enjoyed. But the full album is dreadful classic rock wank, appalling coming from this source. You almost can't even recognize Lee in it, though the most trifling little joke-skits are arguably the one thing that identifies it as being from the same mind that once wrote "Live and Let Live." Song titles make it sound like a Seeds LP.

Danny Brown
XXX (2011)

(Fool's Gold)

RECOMMENDED * Already a fully formed personality with great rhymes and a bumpy, worrisome vibe. Brown's established, hyperactive, even squeaky voice will potentially drive you nuts; it did me at first. But he's lower-key even on this first album than I remembered, and a more careful listen than I afforded it before reveals thornier beats, more harrowing drama, lots of oral sex. (Listen to how he modulates his personalities against terrifying dystopia on "I Will.") A worthy companion to Old.

Lou Reed (1972)
(RCA)

RECOMMENDED * Nearly all these songs were recorded at one point or another by the Velvet Underground and, while unreleased officially for decades, the results are all arguably better-known and superior to what's here. It's still surprisingly interesting to hear Reed take on these songs with then-stylish overproduction and semi-glam methodology, and no one can argue these aren't terrific numbers. "Lisa Says" and "Ride into the Sun" are a lot of fun and everything has spirit, even if it lacks the warmth and charm of the VU.

The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele (2009)
(Paw Tracks)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * I was admittedly and perhaps undeservedly infatuated with this album back in '09, and I stand by my original feeling that May is a hell of a writer and an engaging, amusing entertainer ("Oh Paris!", "Howard" and "Love Song 2009" remain highlights) but of course this isn't as cute as it once seemed. I've changed a little and, to be honest, knowing how limited and somewhat banal May's gifts would turn out to be has tempered my enthusiasm. Also the fact that my life has now led me to conclude that the mocking song about alcoholism is damned offensive. But I'm reluctant to change the high grade because it's still the best ukulele-driven party record of all time, especially if you tack on his utterly transcendent b-side cover of Prince's "When You Were Mine." Prince did all the work of making that one of the most durable songs in the pop repertoire, but May still sings it gorgeously.

Dale Hawkins
Oh! Suzy-Q (1957-61)

(Chess)

RECOMMENDED * Hawkins sang and played rockabilly but he was signed to the blues-centric Chess Records at a time when it embodied the music of black America. He's credited with inventing "swamp rock," a label that makes little sense until you take a long listen to his signature single and greatest achievement "Susie-Q." Forerunning "Shakin' All Over," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," CCR and Screamin' Jay, it sounds like it was recorded from across a dank pond full of danger and secrets. Despite such an alluring sound, Hawkins' primary subject was the usual: lust, cars and his own prowess as a musician and a man. This compilation gathers the entirety of his debut album, notable mostly for its great distorted rhythm guitar sound, and includes some great rock & roll: the youthful verve of "Tornado" and "Baby Baby," the latter brilliantly covered by Mike Waggoner and Bops, and some great rollicking takes on standards -- "Liza Jane" and the relaxed, soulful variant on Willie Dixon's "My Babe." The most engaging of the more obscure material is "Don't Treat Me This Way," as swampy as the hit. Hawkins has less personality than the other rockabilly giants; he's wimpier, more tentative, but his guitar technique is extremely evocative of later heroes like Duane Eddy. This is a valuable historical collection that makes for pleasurable listening.

Destroyer
Trouble in Dreams (2008)

(Merge)

!! CAUTION !! * Dan Bejar's work with the New Pornographers is usually fun. I thought Kaputt was brilliant. But without the novelty of its throwback production eccentricities, I just can't deal with more than a couple of minutes of this... even though his wordplay remains fascinating, his voice admirably weird. It's too dense and proggy.

Autechre
Tri Repetae (1995)

(Warp)

An influential ambient record but one that fades in and out of my consciousness without its innovations ever becoming really audible.

***

eels
Hombre Lobo (2009)

(Vagrant)

RECOMMENDED * Perfectly serviceable mope-rock, reminding us that he wasn't always so self-indulgent; his classicist vibe remains engaging even this late, even if the songs have mostly left him.

Fantasia
Back to Me (2010)

(J)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * A hodgepodge from the American Idol winner suffers from mediocre production, only fitfully worthwhile writing. And the miracle is -- none of that matters even a little bit. A pedestrian single like "Bittersweet" or the adult-contemporary hop "I'm Doin' Me" is so enthusiastically and thrillingly performed by Barrino that we can truly say she delivers the goods on this entire, economical, exuberant album all by herself. Produced and written by committee, maybe, but the appeal is all hers and the result is kind of a stunner; with solid throwback material and a showpiece stage persona, she exudes confidence and charm.

Fatboy Slim
You've Come a Long Way, Baby (1998)

(astralwerks)

I don't think this is much stronger than its predecessor, which I loathe, but it has gradually gained the added benefit of immediately calling to mind exactly what life felt like in 1999 -- hooks that blared nonstop and unaccompanied off the radio back then now bring a bit of a tear to the eye. The hard times and the good, indeed.

Fiona Apple
Extraordinary Machine (2005)

(Epic)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * We won't be talking about this album's troubled history here; it's well-trodden ground, the so-called "Jon Brion version" (a work in progress that got leaked) having prompted a probably unnecessary campaign to facilitate the release by Sony of Fiona Apple's third record from limbo-prison. Yeah, the released version loses a little bit of rawness and bite, but it gains plenty besides. The emotive qualities of her writing and voice make a noticeable leap here from 1999, and it's not like she was any slouch then; your breath can get taken by how high and low she gets in both senses, and every moment of every song that results has character. The elaborate arrangements and production were decried as distractions by some, but the theatrical setting is perfect for someone who's good at being uncomfortable, better at spreading herself around, and really better than most of us at processing the emotional dilemmas and labyrinthine navigations of Being an Adult. Best moments are "Red Red Red" and "O Sailor" -- the former a string-laden conversation that doesn't just express alienation but embodies it, the latter a drunken barroom singalong of self-sabotage with the mission statement: "everything good I deem too good to be true, everything else is just a bore." But we could go on: the delicate, witty title cut; the bottom-heavy, threatening murder ballad of revenge and self-criticism "Get Him Back," the tricky, playful, wicked-nuts "Tymps," the stop-start drama "Not About Love." Taking it all in shows you one of the most empowered, definitive relationship song cycles, but you don't even have to do that to comprehend the depth, character, beauty in her modulation and sense of timing. What she wrings out of a line like "every man I see reminds me of the one that disappointed me"? I don't just hear Joni Mitchell, I hear Billie Holiday. Oh and incidentally, I start to doubt my expertise in regard to this silly stupid pasttime of mine when I wonder why the fuck I was listening to anything besides this back in 2005. (I did hear it, I just didn't hear it.) Possible new #1 favorite of that year.

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