Sunday, August 2, 2015

What to do for pleasure: March 2015 albums

Gaz Coombes: Matador (Caroline)
Coombes is formerly leader of the Oxford hellions Supergrass. I only faintly remember some of Supergrass' hits from the '90s -- their radio presence was lesser over here -- but what I do know implies fans won't be displeased with his second solo record. He seems keen to attract new fans with his clash of '90s melodicism and very un-'90s punkish sincerity. It's pleasant in that delicate Britpop manner and sounds designed to please a broad contingent but will still probably only connect strongly with his cult.

Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros. 1979) [A+]
The towering crown jewel of tortuous, cathartic college rock and post-punk; the legendary, influential (largely in bad ways), surly Leeds quartet fused political cynicism and rhythmic, funked-out thudding with a cunning wit and abstraction less obvious and immediate than their predecessors. Wire came close but lacked the provocative interpolations of black music; Mission of Burma had the thematics and the headbanging but couldn't be nearly so engagingly cold and harsh. Entertainment! is questionably the Gang's best -- hard, dark, twisted, metallic (indeed, redefining what metal means in a musical context), yet it's body music -- confrontational yet exuberant. And like all the best British albums of the late '70s, it's halfway to a greatest-hits: the hypnotic "Anthrax," joyfully vile "Natural's Not in It," the insistently teasing "At Home He's a Tourist." This echoes forever afterward in alternative rock, and its hard-won sneer remains timeless, even faintly scary in its absence of compromise. This kind of clipped, tight, elegant ruthlessness blesses us only rarely.

Natalie Prass (Columbia) [r]
Wispy major-label singer-songwriter from Virginia's debut has picked up considerable buzz since its release this winter. Strongly informed by the Joni Mitchell - Van Morrison school of aural theater, it features wondrous orchestrations but doesn't ever quite match the emotional power of its sadly brassy opening cut "My Baby Don't Understand Me" or the Dusty in Memphis desperation of "Your Fool". And Prass' vocals unfortunately lack personality, though that will probably change with time. At worst, the harshest thing you can say about her is she's a bit precious ("Christi" and "Is It You") but the intimacy makes up for it, even if the delicacy and theatricality do seem like a bit much over the half-hour span.

Jessica Pratt: On Your Own Love Again (Drag City)
L.A. folkie likes Tim Buckley, CSNY, etc. The perfect Mother's or Father's Day gift probably, sorry we're late.

Buddy Holly: Down the Line: Rarities (Universal 1949-59) [hr]
As comprehensive an official release of Holly's vault material as we're ever likely to get; the first major mark in its favor is that it's well-mastered and conquers the incessant overdubbing and doctoring a lot of this music has suffered over the years. It also assumes the listener is already a Holly fan, which is to its credit and detriment since the last half -- incorporating the legendary, unadorned, unbelievably beautiful apartment tapes -- contains some of the best work he ever laid down buried in all the hardcore-friendly stuff. This is probably the easiest and best way to hear those demos, which include such future classics as "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," "Love's Made a Fool of You" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" that he'd never properly record as well as first-hand evidence of his taste for innovation via his radical, slowed-down, filthy reintrepretation of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'." And on some days I prefer his "Smoky Joe's Cafe" to the Coasters'. The rest of the material is good but only bigtime enthusiasts are likely to quiver at things like a three-minute conversation between Holly and his wife Maria Elena captured on tape (I did), early recordings of Holly led by Bob Montgomery, and a few barely-distinctive alternate takes. On the other hand, shivers go down the spine at Holly covering Hank Snow at age 13 before his voice has even changed, and it's wonderful to hear stuff like "Think It Over" and "Fool's Paradise" without the schmaltzy accompaniment. Holly is just about the most restless and gifted white artist in rock & roll, and he was cut down in his prime; this combined with the concurrent Memorial Collection will set you up as a lifelong acolyte, though if you're like me you'll want more. It's out there -- ten discs' worth of material that make these two seem measly, but that's also dependent on your taste for repetitive alternates, false starts and mistakes. But any two hours in Holly's light is time well spent.

Björk: Vulnicura (Megaforce) [r]
As the Buckinghams put it, kind of a drag, and she's been listening to Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow; it's the soundtrack of the gutted, but it does seem to have cleared out some of her unfocused-ness -- for sure it's her least cluttered album since Medulla. I don't care for the orchestrations and miss her less formal -brutality, but it doesn't mean I don't admire this.

The B-52's: Mesopotamia EP (Warner Bros. 1982) [r]
Quite the curio: at the height of his fame, David Byrne produces the B-52's for a hypothetical album that never happened, with middling results. As usual, when the Georgians fully engage with their own warm absurdity, they're at their best and the self-conscious artiness (they go for an Eno/Heads thing on "Deep Sleep"; it's swampy and unappealing) falters. Full of modern rock riffage and then-innovative beats, the record is sometimes an off-putting fusion of duelling sensibilities. The B-52's were meant to be flamboyantly funny and off-kilter, so the top moments are on "Cake," wherein Kate and Cindy have a Shangri-Las spoken word routine suggestively discussing what kind of dessert they want to make; or when Fred rants respectively about ancient history and how Byrne's trickery is making him "apprehensive" on the title cut and "Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can." (The latter seems like a nod to Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song," more or less an answer to people who find stuff like "Rock Lobster" annoying.) Even at their most ordinary, you can't say their chops are inefficient (Kate Pierson's full-throated vocal on "Loveland" is breathtaking) but the outsider influence -- and pile-on of session players -- seems superfluous, which makes it ever stranger that they'd end up taking the same route later in the decade via Nile Rodgers and Don Was.

Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Columbia) [c]
Dylan was always funny in kind of a stupid way (there's that "I Shall Be Free" clutter that completely derails Another Side, for one thing) but this inexplicable joke LP of Sinatra covers is too much of an exercise in tiresome irony to become ha-ha funny, it's more like sad-funny.

Alexi Murdoch: Towards the Sun (Zero Summer 2009) [r]
Murdoch has a specific niche and he sticks to it, but the results are a wonderful listen. Breezier and obviously less sophisticated than Nick Drake, he makes mood music... but it's the sort of thing that hits the perfect medium of emotional catharsis and relaxed longing, frankly just what's required of certain mornings. The romantic intimacy of "At Your Door" and the lovely, Appalachian-tinged spiritualism of "Some Day Soon" render semi-moot the songs that wander off into dirge territory later.

Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)
Honeybear, is it!? Musically this project from former drummer of icky folk-rock outfit Fleet Foxes is kinda like Joe Cocker I guess, vocally it's Ringo or Cale? Same pseudo-soul backdrop and weird ornamentations only there's like a Death of a Ladies Man-style romantic fatalism; Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III and other such benchmarks seemed more honestly pathetic in their desperations. Misty's got a little bit of swagger but the lyrics are fucking awful and the sleaze is annoying when it's ironic, soppy when it's sincere, overall indulgent and repugnant in that classic white boy singer-songwriter manner. So yeah, the '70s are back.

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