Monday, December 14, 2015

The room was empty, but...: Autumn 2015 music diary (part 1 of 2)

Designed to be the September post, but calling it that would seem silly at this point. Boo. I swear I'm doing my best to catch up.

ALBUM REVIEWS
Due to a pair of unforseen, praiseworthy records springing up from the evals, you get 22 this time!

Young Thug: Barter 6 (Atlantic)
Enunciate, dude!

Great Lake Swimmers: A Forest of Arms (Nettwerk) [NO]
Stop enunciating, dude! A tragic slide into MOR awfulness continues, and it'd be inoffensive enough if their first couple of records hadn't been so brilliant. Like Iron & Wine, this group -- a coincidental discovery I was once so proud of making for myself -- is an object lesson in why not to give your heart to folkies: sooner or later they'll stomp on it. Every song sounds like a Lowenbrau ad.

Speedy Ortiz: Foil Deer (Carpark) [c]
Same as before, so much done-to-death modern rock from the days when that was a profitable radio format. I get why this is a nostalgia trip for some folks but I didn't even like this kind of stuff in the '90s.

Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color (Rough Trade) [hr]
A straightforward, if adventurous and incredibly tight, rock band channeling the White Stripes, David Bowie and Al Green in equal measure? And they're (deservedly) popular? Escaping from the roots rock formalism of their previous work, this red-hot album boasts well-written, brilliantly performed, eclectic songs that get bolted into oblivion with dynamic guitarist and singer Brittany Howard at the helm. Howard's showstopper is the wild "Gimme All Your Love" but the band is best when demonstrating full synergy on cuts like the overjoyed road-movie "Shoegaze," the instant nostalgia creator "Don't Wanna Fight" and the pure glammed-out punk of "The Greatest". On the slow ones, they evoke the sensation of plumbing the depths of a box of old unknown eccentric 45s more than any of the groups ostensibly designed to do the same thing. What a joy this is to hear; it's perhaps slightly overlong but I'm not gonna complain.

Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld: Never Were the Way She Was (Constellation) [r]
This collaboration between popular bass saxophonist Stetson -- who does a lot of session work with hype bands -- and Arcade Fire violinist Neufeld functions as a solid atmosphere for zoning or working or dinner or whatever. Then you find out it was done without a single loop or overdub and suddenly your impulse is to start the whole thing over and listen intently from beginning to end, as you'd swear it was essentially an electronic record.

Blur: The Magic Whip (Warner Bros.) [r]
During the twelve-year gap from Think Tank to now, this became an Important Band... In a way it's comforting that they don't sound like one here. It's a slapdash record, which is a good thing, and sounds even more than usual like a group of outtakes from the Jam. Its charm and modesty are the ideal response to a post-breakup surge in popularity, but it does still manage to go a bit too far in the direction of trying to please multiple contingents. There's no sense of growth. Maybe that's all right.

Ciara: Jackie (Epic)
It didn't get as much attention as it deserved, but Ciara's last record was one of the leanest and most intensely fun R&B albums of the decade. This breakup album, inspired by her relationship with Future and her becoming a new mother, is distressingly bland by comparison, though her voice remains a juggernaut. The economy and hooks are both absent; what we do get goes for the painfully obvious, sounding like a slate of third-tier radio songs. She has every right to proclaim herself a bad motherfucker, write a love song for her kid and put the ex in his place, but it's all so undercooked.

Hop Along: Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Philadelphia indie rock band boasts great lyrics and fairly ordinary songcraft & singing, albeit with some Mary Wells-like stretching of range courtesy of leader Frances Quinlan. There is a decently robust sound here, so your taste for Quinlan's vocals could easily make this major for you.

Kamasi Washington: The Epic (Brainfeeder)
The backdrop of this fair to middlin' three-disc collection from the L.A.-bred tenor saxophonist sounds like the ambient music in Tomorrowland or something; the completely ridiculous lyrics on the finale could fit right in at the Carousel of Progress.

Hiatus Kaiyote: Choose Your Weapon (Flying Buddha) [c]
Smooooooooooooooooooooooooth generic ass lite-AM shit. (See, I don't have a pro-Aussie bias!)

Prurient: Frozen Niagara Falls (Profound Lore) [c]
2 CDs of sludge and tink and buzz.

Jim O'Rourke: Simple Songs (Drag City) [r]
The ordinary, shrouded in mystery, on O'Rourke's first conventional album in a decade and a half. O'Rourke obviously is better known for his work with other artists, but this is a surprisingly appealing record. Anyone fond of the grim, self-deprecating output of the best '70s singer-songwriters should get a kick out of this well-sung, intimate, immaculately recorded cycle of wit and despair.

Surfer Blood: 1000 Palms (Joyful Noise) [r]
Dollar signs were visible over Warners executives' heads when they signed this ruthlessly hardworking, now unceasingly troubled band five years ago; after a domestic violence scandal involving singer John Paul Pitts left their public standing deservedly shaken, the weak Gil Norton-produced sophomore album Pythons was barely promoted when it finally appeared from the Sire imprint. Now the band's meteoric major label rise and fall rivals Interpol's as the indie era's fastest self-correction, and they are back on a shoestring. And then comes news that guitarist Thomas Fekete -- single-handed architect of their shimmering, pointed sound -- is struggling with a rare form of cancer. In between all the bad news and bad acts is a album that's actually solid; they sound pretty depressed these days, which has improved their sound immeasurably after the misguided Cars move that was Pythons. It's too long -- could lose at least three cuts -- but all the songs eventually feature some striking hook or another; it's not always unpleasant to dig through the mess to find them, as on a song like "Saber-Tooth & Bone" that begins as a slog and grows increasingly pleasurable. The record in general most clearly resembles their obscure EP cut "Drinking Problem," the direction they really should have started taking years ago. There are still bits and pieces of "surf" music -- basically, Weezer meets the Barracudas meets Built to Spill, in this band's definition -- in songs like "Feast / Famine" and "Island" (virtually a clone of various songs on their first album, though better recorded) but Astro Coast was at its best when it diverged into a surprising taste for the driving power of a well-amplified lick. A good example is the inspired transition on "Grand Inqusitor"; even if both divisions of the song are a tad labored, it's riveting the way they collide. Similarly, "I Can't Explain" begins as the saddest song they've ever done, then hits upon that heavenly chorus. But Pitts sounds tired (check out "Dorian") and the only signs of real evolution are on "Point of No Return," which sounds a bit like... U2!? At any rate, a fun album that's actually better than the sum of its parts, and a step in the right direction for them.

The Tallest Man on Earth: Dark Bird Is Home (Dead Oceans)
It's the eternal folkie problem: what does "evolving" sound like? A half century after Bob Dylan came up with the best answer thus far for that question, singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, compared so often to Dylan at the beginning of his career despite bearing only a superficial resemblance, attempts to fill out a set of songs about his divorce with a full band and elaborate producing and engineering for the first time. To say the least, it's a jarring transition. Three albums of stark, solo strumming and singing made this conclusion almost inevitable, but one wishes he had taken on less safe points of reference. Bruce Springsteen seems like the overriding informant, with second track "Darkness of the Dream" rife with Born to Run Bossisms, but the inflix of an almost Celtic influence -- the first time Matsson's really allowed himself to "sound" European -- on songs like "A Slow Dance," "Beginners" and particularly "Sagres" give uncomfortable memories of Sting's post-Police Muzak. For someone whose music has been so appealingly intimate, a bid for the lush and epic is probably logical enough and the songs do come through eventually (the only outright bad one is a piano balled called "Little Nowhere Towns" that's as obvious and spineless as it sounds): "Singers" is pleasing in its slight complementing of his traditional sound, and the gradual, disarming buildup on the title cut -- which closes the record -- marks the first time that the integration of the fuller sound seems to properly fit with the material as written. The electric guitar that rang out on Matsson's 2010 cut "The Dreamer" was surprising and enriching in a much more striking manner than this, but maybe a second record in this format will allow him to smooth out the rough edges in the bad clashing of material and arrangement.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Xango) [r]
Absent of both the cutting, raw anger of the near-masterpiece Jama Ko (2013) and the immediate crossover appeal of I Speak Fula (2010), this album remains worthwhile just for the opportunity to sit and listen to one of the world's finest bands chill out and engage in their often riveting interplay of vocals, percussion and ngoni. Kouyate's wife Amy Sacko sings more than on the last two albums and in fact her voice dominates, as does more elaborate production that's not always as complementary as it should be. Likely the biggest reason for the reduction in urgency is that Jama Ko was recorded in the midst of an Islamist military coup, the same one documented in this year's acclaimed film Timbuktu; in that sense, the moments of calmness are a relief. But this is a matter of degrees -- for anyone who loved the previous records, this will be a delight, and it's as fine an introduction as any; you'll come away wanting more.

The Wave Pictures: Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon (Moshi Moshi) [hr]
This trio from Leicestershire was somehow unknown to me despite having formed almost twenty years ago and having collaborated with the Mountain Goats; they already have a rich, exhaustive discography -- this is their fourteenth album. But this is an immediately striking, invigorating introduction. Behind classic rock riffage (there are even two CCR covers!) and hook-filled anthems, lead singer David Tattersall has Tom Verlaine and Jonathan Richman in his blood, and the main attraction here is in fact his coy, evocative, frequently sublime lyrics (mainly written in tandem with renegade art school refugee Billy Childish). The music is danceable and catchy and every great thing you want from the best rock & roll, but what keeps you coming back is the thrill of listening to Tattersall bouncing around spinning everything into blissful, detailed, intricate image: the telephone three floors above, the neighbors not screaming at each other for once, that first cigarette, curling up like hedgehogs, being at "the Pattersons" (Paul McCartney once said about "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!": "the Hendersons -- you couldn't make that up"), frogs singing loudly in the distance, a room that's empty but the iron's still burning and a goldfish is circling, and everyone at the station dressed in black except for you. These feel like real spaces, real people, real moments, and it's a joy to live in them. That guitar music can still be sublime should give us all hope.

Ghostface Killah & BadBadNotGood: Sour Soul (Lex) [hr]
Ghostface is probably well past his prime at this point and the Canadian jazz-dance unit BadBadNotGood's work is often pedestrian, but the two are somehow an unexpectedly perfect combination in 2015, even when Ghostface slips into overly trodden "pimpin' ain't EZ" territory. The band's work and production are magnificent, even if it backgrounds the star attraction; if you have to have it delivered as mood music, it's worth it to experience the sheets of weird aural bliss and under-the-skin grooves (and, sure, the occasional spy movie theme song) reached thanks to the collision of a great MC's perfect delivery with a dynamic, adventurous band with a bottomless well of influences to draw from. It's not quite Astral Weeks -- jarring appearances from the likes of Danny Brown on the menacing "Six Degress" prevent a full-on Beautiful Music onset occasionally threatened by the instrumentals -- but Ghostface and the band manage to intensity one another's work, giving us what's probably his most inspired work in the better part of a decade and their strongest ever. More, please.

Holly Herndon: Platform (4AD)
San Franciscan DJ and sound-collage artist indulges in ear-tickling futurism; this sort of like a Oneohtrix album with shades of singer-songwriterism. It feels slapped together and doesn't hang, but it's still promising. The track that consists of audio from a RedTube clip is kind of out of place, though.

Hot Chip: Why Make Sense? (Domino) [r]
The worst Hot Chip album is better than James Murphy's best, but they do seem to be following trends now; their unabashed EDM record comes a full two years after Cut Copy's equally ignored and much more successful stab. Always listenable and danceable, they've passed into the same murk that started to plague New Order in the late '80s. I maintain that a long break after the tremendous One Life Stand would've helped, but I understand why it probably wasn't possible.

Nao: February 15 EP (Little Tokyo)
Pretty, pleasant, well-produced R&B; just a taste. Highly derivative, including of artists -- FKA twigs, for instance -- I can't stand, but more palatable because it's more anonymous, oddly. (Like Stone Temple Pilots versus most other grunge bands; RIP.)

Chastity Belt: Time to Go Home (Hardly Art) [hr]
Wondrous, minor-key post-punk schlock from the Pacific northwest lets the melodies right out in front while arming them with sheets of powerful, ringing guitars. There's an anti-slutshaming anthem and a smart, bleak relationship song called "Trapped" ("Why are we so concerned with endings? / we can be happy for a while / now when I close my eyes I envy anyone who feels all right"), and the generational critique "Joke," which finally goes further on the accusations made in Pavement's "Here." But the one that haunts the most is the fierce opener "Drone," mournful and melodic and sludgy but somehow utterly distinct and sharp, and built on a sneering, powerful chorus that deserves to go down in some kind of history: "He was just another man trying to teach me something." It's not all in the delivery but the delivery is something, and like the record as a whole it digs into a dedicated mood while never losing a sense of profound urgency. A slow-burning stunner.

Built to Spill: Untethered Moon (Warner Bros.) [hr]
If you went to college (or were supposed to be in college but didn't go, not that I'd know anything about that) in the early 2000s this was one of your favorite bands. Not that you remember, but their four seminal albums remain terrific in a fashion rare for the staples of their era. Since 2001, Doug Martsch and his band have gone on quietly, churning out plenty of respectable music but few of the moments of passion that infused records like Keep It Like a Secret. That's what happens, even to good or great musicians, and there are few out there greater in more understated a fashion. This, then, comes as a complete shock: Built to Spill's best, clearest, most incisive collection of songs in well over a decade. The strangest thing is that the record comes, conquers and leaves as casually as if power and fire underneath their best work had never gone away at all -- this is the sound of a band for whom the drone, the awe-inspiring riffs, the perfectly accented and extended hooks come naturally. Of course nostalgia factors into this; "Living Zoo" sounds like it just stepped off a time machine, and when you get lost in the perfect construction and meaty distortion of "Another Day," it's like... y'know, Alternative Is Alive. The band's lineup is more unstable than ever, though maybe the chemistry's improved this time around, but Martsch's obvious dedication has probably never been so evident, even if his lyrics still have the twinges of the sophomoric that always wavered between charm and irritation. He's as distinct and brilliant a guitarist as ever, though, and he's only improved as a singer over the years, to the point that album climax "When I'm Blind" could pass for mid-'70s Neil Young. When that song comes back for that last, unexpected chorus, well, who knew an aging guitar band could still providde such holy-shit moments?

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
Albums I heard in part that warrant further consideration; capsule reviews, short summaries or rejections will follow. I err on the side of caution here, allowing for mood etc., so a lot of these are probably not good. The ones at the top with stars next to them are the ones that really stood out to me and I may not have even been able to turn them off. They are almost guaranteed to become recommendations.

* Leon Bridges: Coming Home
* Four Tet: Morning/Evening
* Ducktails: St. Catherine
* Field Music: Music for Drifters
* Carly Ray Jepsen: E-MO-TION
* Blackalicious: Imani, Vol. 1
* Robert Forster: Songs to Play
- Wolf Alice: My Love Is Cool
- Nils Frahm: Victoria
- The Internet: Ego Death
- LA Priest: Inji
- Matrixxman: Homesick
- EZTV: Calling Out
- Rachel Sermanni: Tied to the Moon
- Ghostface Killah: Twelve Reasons to Die II
- Julio Bashmore: Knockin' Boots
- White Reaper: White Reaper Does It Again
- The Chemical Brothers: Born in the Echoes
- Stacy Barthe: Becoming
- Omar Souleyman: Bahdeni Nami
- Lianne La Havas: Blood
- Golden Rules: Golden Ticket
- Public Enemy: Man Plans, God Laughs
- Gunplay: Living Legend
- yuk: a n a k
- Night Beds: Ivywild
- AFX: Orphaned Deejay Selek EP
- The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness
- Max Richter: (From) Sleep
- Helen: The Original Faces
- Widowspeak: All Yours
- Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon


***

REJECTS:
Dismissed from consideration. NYIM = "it's not you, it's me." The rest seemed pretty bad to me, but remember I don't listen to these start to finish (except those that were listed under "further investigation" last month).

The Monochrome Set: Spaces Everywhere [NYIM]
Allison Moorer: Down to Believing
[NYIM]
The Go! Team: The Scene Between
Follkazoid: III
Pokey LaFarge: Something in the Water
Colleen: Captain of None
Toro Y Moi: What For?
This Is the Kit: Bashed Out
Stornoway: Bonxie
Polar Bear: Same as You
[NYIM]
STS x RJD2
Rhett Miller: The Traveler
Georgia Anne Muldrow: Thoughtiverse Unmarred
[NYIM]
Indigo Girls: One Lost Day
SOAK: Before We Forgot How to Dream
Girlpool: Before the World Was Big
Leftfield: Alternative Light Source
Prinzhorn Dance School: Home Economics
[NYIM]
No Joy: More Faithful
[NYIM]
Desaparecidos: Payola
Helm: Olympic Mess
RP Boo: Fingers, Blank Pads and Shoe Prints
[NYIM]
Trembling Bells: The Sovereign Self
Meek Mill: Dreams Worth More Than Money
Failure: The Heart Is a Monster
Refused: Freedom
Stevie Stone: Malta Band
Best Friends: Hot. Reckless. Totally Insane.
Veruca Salt: Ghost Notes
Samatha Crain: Under Branch & Thorn & Tree
Ratatat: Magnifique
Flo Morrissey: Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful
Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell: Sing into My Mouth
Flying Saucer Attack: Instrumentals 2015
[NYIM]
Warren Haynes: Ashes and Dust
[NYIM]
Jill Scott: Woman
Watkins Family Hour
Kasey Chambers: Bittersweet
[NYIM]
Liberez: All Tense Now Lax
Seven Davis Jr.: Universes
M.E.S.H.: Piteous Gate
Daniel Romano: If I've Only One Time Askin'
[NYIM]
Red River Dialect: Tender Gold & Gentle Blue
The Maccabees: Marks to Prove It
Haiku Salut: Etch and Etch Deep
Deaf Wish: Pain
Iris DeMent: Trackless Woods
[NYIM]
La Luz: Weirdo Shrine
The Phoenix Foundation: Give Up Your Dreams
Georgia
Ultimate Painting: Green Lanes
Mac DeMarco: Another One
Dr. Dre: Compton
Teedra Moses: Congnac & Conversation
[NYIM]
Teri Lynne Carrington: The Mosaic Project: Love & Soul
HEALTH: Death Magic
Slime: Company
Neck Deep: Life's Not Out to Get You
Palehound: Dry Food
[NYIM]
Sweet Baboo: The Boombox Ballads
Barrence Whitfield & the Savages: Under the Savage Sky
Ghost B.C.: Meliora
Mick Jenkins: Wave(s) EP
Deradoorian: The Expanding Flower Planet
DRINKS: Hermits on Holiday
The Telescopes: Hidden Fields
Finale: Odds & Ends
Defeater: Abandoned
Maddie & Tae: Start Here
Hooton Tennis Club: Highest Point in Cliff Town
Frog Eyes: Pickpocket's Locket
Willis Earl Beal: Nocturnes
[NYIM]
Foals: What Went Down
The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
Ane Brun: When I'm Free
k-os: Can't Fly Without Gravity
Blank Realm: Illegals in Heaven
The Wonder Years: No Closer to Heaven
Lou Barlow: Brace the Wave
Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats: The Night Creeper
FIDLAR: Too
Dam-Funk: Invite the Light
Public Image Ltd: What the World Needs Now
Travis Scott: Rodeo
Andra Day: Cheers to the Fall
[NYIM]
Petite Noir: La Vie Est Belle
King Midas Sound: Edition 1
Rosie McDowall: Cut with the Cake Knife
Ought: Sun Coming Down


***

SONGS IN HEAVY ROTATION
The Go! Team ft. Samira Winter "What D'You Say?" [The Scene Between]
Polar Bear "We Feel the Echoes" [Same as You]
STS x RJD2 "Doin' It Right" [s/t]
/
Chastity Belt "Drone" [Time to Go Home]
Alabama Shakes "Don't Wanna Fight" [Sound & Color]
Built to Spill "When I'm Blind" [Untethered Moon]
The Wave Pictures "The Goldfish" [Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon]
Yo La Tengo "Butchie's Tune" {Lovin' Spoonful cover} [Stuff Like That There]
Björk "Unison" [Vespertine (2001)]
Twerps "Shoulders" [Range Anxiety]
Pavement "Major Leagues" [Terror Twilight (1999)]
Van Morrison "And It Stoned Me" [Moondance (1970)]
Surfer Blood "I Can't Explain" [1000 Palms]
Ghostface & BadBadNotGood ft. Elzhi "Gunshowers" [Sour Soul]
Bob Dylan "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" [Highway 61 Revisited (1965)]
The Decemberists "Shiny" [5 Songs EP (2001)]
Stone Temple Pilots "Interstate Love Song" [Purple (1994)]

******

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