Sunday, January 31, 2016

I got a pretty solid routine these days: 2015 New Release Rush (part 1 of 2)

I'm running low on time, so I broke one of my crucial tenets -- I have heard some of these albums less than four times, though no less than two under any circumstance, even after the point when I was surely going to tear off my hair if I heard Dan Bejar sing another stupid line. These reviews are also very unpolished and casual, but if you don't expect too much from me you might not be let down.

After I got this post ready I noticed that basically every review below is either an impatient pan or an ecstatic celebration. "Real" critics hopefully aren't this beholden to their moodiness.

Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free (Southeastern)
A former member of the Drive-By Truckers, this singer-songwriter delivers pretty much what you'd expect from that pedigree. Not being a fan of the band in question I can't say how pleased acolytes would be but to neutral ears the opening cut "If It Takes a Lifetime" suffers from less of the self-seriousness and generic production that plagues the rest, which is largely morose tear-in-beer shit, albeit with some lyrical whoppers like "I thought everyone like me was dead" and a stanza about how God is "a pipe bomb."

Tame Impala: Currents (Interscope) [hr]
Kevin Parker's most delightful album to date finds his absurd mixture of sensibilities reaching its zenith with the fusion of pot-stoked old-fashioned LP listening (there are even two songs on which the record seems to be skipping) and, uh, gay disco and early '80s synthpop. The homoerotic "Cause I'm a Man" rubs up with the catchy purity of "The Moment" and with bass-driven raunch & roll on "The Less I Know the Better". Yet it all hangs together and becomes impressively seductive thanks to Parker's far-out snotty-yet-wistful vocals, crooning out gems like "they say people don't change but that's bullshit / they do" and an entire mumbled psychedelic rant about running into an ex downtown. The center of it all is "Eventually," an act of pop bliss through sheer hypnosis; it makes me dizzy even sober. Since it begins with its craziest tune -- a loping, lumbering epic called "Let It Happen" drenched in synths that fumbles through drugged-out repetition in multiple parts, the world's laziest rock opera -- you learn quickly if this is for you, but if it isn't I gotta wonder what kinda fun you're having out there.

Ashley Monroe: The Blade (Warner Bros.)
Acceptable, mostly melancholy country, well sung with a few biting moments lyrically ("if the devil don't want me, where the hell do I go?" could've been the mantra of Leslie Van Houten or similar). Likely less forgettable for fans of the genre than it is for me.

Eleventh Dream Day: Works for Tomorrow (Thrill Jockey)
Chicago alterna-rock dinosaurs apparently have remained a working unit all these years, which I didn't know; they were only ever on my radar as the support act or headliner for bands I was interested in, and though I barely remember the songs that led me to form my faint opinion of them, nothing here makes me think I've missed much. I admire the integrity of bands who plug away at this very basic guitar-and-propulsion style for decades on end without (seemingly) much financial reward; I'm glad they're enjoying themselves, but not a thing about the lo-fi recording style, the listlessly delivered vocals and yelps or the generally lackluster songs appeals to me. I don't even have the energy to determine if the target is deeply sincere rockers or irony-addicted former slackers but if you fall into either category, Check It Out.

Titus Andronicus: The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge) [c]
Ain't nobody got time for this. Ninety-minute, 29-track collection of proggy punkish shouting resembles Fucked Up's David Comes to Life and is equally insufferable, with almost no variance between songs and an exhausting attempt at a "storyline," which nine times out of ten is bad bad news for an album. The second half is slightly more listenable than the first just because it has a few jarring -- if still fairly insipid -- moments of Celtic pop, blessed silence and general dicking around and isn't all one thing... but as a formerly huge fan of this band, I can't think of a more disheartening record I've heard lately. I could not wait to eject it from my life.

Gwenno: Y Dydd Olaf (Heavenly)
Inoffensive Welsh language solo debut for former Pipettes member is Björk-lite, pretty much. It isn't exactly good but it's passable.

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss (Sargent House)
Noisy, metallic goth wailing run through with some electronic teases here and there; this is music with a very specific audience that I am not in, but it's less awful than a lot of loud droning that comes across the desk.

Future: DS2 (Epic)
Accomplished but irritating, druggy, slightly apocalyptic third album from the increasingly celebrated Atlantan, one of the grittiest rappers to become a bona fide star in recent years. Musically, it's alarmingly spare and confrontational -- taking cues from the sound of latter-day trap but using that aggression to build a sound so paranoid and pained it becomes more disorienting than perhaps any other album of its stature. Future also deserves commendation for his use of Autotune not to bury the seams of his voice a la T-Pain but to emphasize his unworldly paranoia. This is a pretty great idea for an album, but it's an absolute failure in practice because of a combination of poor writing, repetition and the limitations of Future's eye-rollingly infantile persona. If you can look past lyrics about the codeine in his piss, his thumb in her butt, his contractor building him a pool and the day he spent at the laundromat, you still have to get past the unmitigated (and weirdly mismatched) sense of drunken, spaced-out dread pouring from every second of each song. One can easily hear the art and craft in this but it's not a pleasant zone to spend time in.

Royal Headache: High (What's Your Rupture?) [hr]
The sort of thing you didn't know you needed -- a 28-minute slab of tuneful punk rock from Sydney. It reminds me of a Terry Malts a bit, which is to say like a thrashier version of the Jam. In the best tradition of their countrymen the Saints, the band breaks it up brilliantly midway through with the impeccable, soulful Byrdsian ballad "Wouldn't You Know"; it gets under your skin right away. The Replacements-like love song "Carolina" is also a nice outlier. But the fast ones are solid too, all distorted pop with great hooks and sing-song choruses, favorites being "Another World" and the triumphantly big "Love Her If I Tried". Apparently the entire album tracks a broken love affair, a sort of wonderful irony for music this infectious and full of joy; what better way to heal, really?

Beach House: Depression Cherry (Sub Pop) [hr]
At times, Beach House can uncomfortably straddle a line between shoegaze and the humdrum mooniness of new age; by removing the amplified live drums and the more conventional pop songwriting of Bloom, this might seem in theory like a step backward. Indeed, I've listened to this dozens of times now and still can't remember which song is which, but what's more telling is that I've listened to it dozens of times and it hasn't yet become remotely tired. The songs might be incomplete in the abstract but they do boast towering melodies and an immersive sound behind their mild sensation of automation. As on Bloom, every sound in the duo's canon is magnified, enchantingly so. In the end even "Sparks," the return to Teen Deam-like discordance, soars rather than digging in its heals. No one who comes to Beach House for more-of-the-same can be dissatisfied with this, but the hints of evolution that reveal themselves with time are surprisingly reassuring, and a lot of them are tied not to the music itself but to Victoria Legrand's singing. Take, for instance, her badass, profoundly beautiful vocal on "10:37," her best ever. Take "PPP," which has her mumbling along in a "Revolution 9"-like trance before she blindsides with a full-throated tune to rival them all. Beyond just being a perfect zoning-out record, this achieves even more than Bloom an out-of-time, floating sensation that seems to freeze the world around it. It's like being stoned in a planetarium, and every song sounds like a grand finale... although it will take them some time to best the mixture of aching beauty and bottom-heavy rollicking on the brilliant "Bluebird," unseating "Norway" (or "New Year" on some nights) as their finest song to date.

The Foreign Exchange: Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey (s/r) [r]
This long-running duo's latest crazed electronica/hip hop slumber party only really works as a nostalgia trip, but what a trip! Genre-hopping cloud of delectable decadence brings us squarely back into the heat of a clubbing night in the hi-NRG days. It's corny, but it's unbelievably sexual and invigorating. It has nothing unique to offer. You won't care.

Advance Base: Nephew in the Wild (Orindal) [r]
Maybe it took a second album to make a guess at the difference between CFTPA and Advance Base, at least one less superficial than the kind of synthesizers and recording devices in use: Owen Ashworth does not seem very concerned with "evolving" any more. In most respects this is practically a twin of A Shut-In's Prayer; the tempo is consistent, the melancholy maybe a tiny bit draggier, the instrumentation and melodies sometimes minute variations on prior songs. That said, no one with a taste for Ashworth's marvelously peculiar sensibility will complain if you put this on at a party, although the other partygoers might give you a tough time. Above everything else he sounds comfortable, which is what allows him to unashamedly put out something called "My Love for You Is Like a Puppy Underfoot," with a vocal by Jody Weinmann that offers no concessions to those who think being adorable and twee is now an unforgivable hipster move. "The Only Other Girl from Back Home" is the strongest cut on offer here, with Ashworth demonstrating his literary penchant for occupying the shoes and hearts of others as eloquently as on Vs. Children. The rest is a little morose and familiar, but also -- in his usual fashion -- extremely lovable.

Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There (Matador) [hr]
The warmest band in rock music is telling two stories here. Thirty-one years after their formation, they provide a sequel to their 1990 acoustic album Fakebook, a jangly folk-rock moment in time that shed every trace of inside-baseball indiedom and provided a long exploration of its authors' personalities that was then unprecedented in its intimacy and grace. They've evolved a lot since then, but the Fakebook concept itself is so singularly appealing that it's somewhat incredible they've not returned to the well all these years. It's indeed true that for the hypothetical person who only ever fell hard for Fakebook and otherwise cares little for Yo La Tengo, this is another exception; the album returns to the quartet format of the old release (with long-gone Dave Schramm taking over lead guitar, James McNew replacing long-gone Al Geller on bass) and also closely matches its mixture of covers (the lion's share), acoustic renditions of old Yo La Tengo songs, and a few new originals. Crucially, however, the album also continues down the path laid out by 2013's Fade, especially on the new songs like "Rickety", as the once wildly unpredictable unit continues to attain a hushed, ethereal beauty that increasingly feels like their gorgeous response to a contented aging process. As such, it's a more melancholy and calm affair than Fakebook, but in the end hardly less of a pleasure, especially after you spend some time living inside Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley's lovelier-than-ever vocals (Hubley's in particular). Best new song: "Rickety," with the three full-timers echoing in perfect harmony, Kaplan crooning out in front. Best old song: though it's nice to hear the words to "Deeper into Movies" clearly (and nice to have confirmation that nothing could turn "All Your Secrets" into much more than a trifle), the heretofore neglected "The Ballad of Red Buckets," revealing textures as haunting and complex in its stripped-down variation as those on any of the band's old-fashioned raveups. Best famous cover: Hubley wringing new regrets out of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" just barely trumps the fragile, unforced feeling she lends to "Friday I'm in Love." Best obscure cover: Sun Ra and pre-funk George Clinton have their moments of glory but somehow the part that gets a lump in my throat every time is the version of "Butchie's Tune" by the Lovin' Spoonful. That's a band I love but I've never heard that song, and now that Hubley's revision and the band's shattering arrangement has taken up permanent residence in my heart I'm not sure I ever want to.

Destroyer: Poison Season (Merge) [c]
Dan Bejar's follow-up to Kaputt seems to prove my suspicion that I can only put up with him in the context of either that album or the New Pornographers. This is fussy and irritating, without any of the pop smarts and throwback imagination of the vintage dreamscapes of last time out. The preoccupations of a deeply pretentious soul like Bejar's only function outside the blessed privacy of his own home and cult-filled concerts when there is some sort of music for them to rub against.

The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily (Nonesuch)
This straightforward rawk is not surprisingly the work of Dan Auerbach, on vacation from the Black Keys, and notably less offensive than his work with that band (which isn't difficult). Like most side projects it's cluttered and suffers from an serious deficit of identity, but at a time when "roots rock" doesn't seem as automatically bad as it once did, this doesn't warrant too much sniping.

Empress Of: Me (XL) [c]
The most pretentious, overly formalist brand of NYC singer-songwriter meandering; it doesn't become more palatable because it has dance beats and is classified as "indie elctronica." Empress Of's recycled chillwave and "EDM" are one thing but the songs have the same wispy unfinished quality of FKA twigs', only less ambitiously weird. So would you rather be sideswiped by a pickup truck or hit head-on by a car?

Dungen: Allas Sak (Mexican Summer)
Started to mellow out on progressive rock a few years ago, not that it's something I enjoy in the classic sense, but I see how its basic principles aren't so different from some of the trickier art rockers I dearly love, such as Radiohead and Joanna Newsom (though Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear still test every ounce of my patience; it's in my genes probably). There's also the fact that a very different kind of stuffy, snobbish formalism more beholden to the stuff I did like growing up has taken over the indieverse in the last twenty years. That said, while this long-established long-on-hiatus Swedish band seems perfectly polite, they call to mind a lot of what I naturally dislike about prog as a genre, flutes and eternal wanky guitar solos and cerebral compositions, overly mannered vocals and shapeless flaunting of dull musical virtuosity. I don't hate it, I just can't listen to it without fidgeting and/or giggling.

The Underachievers: Evermore: The Art of Duality (Brainfeeder) [r]
Part of the base appeal of the Underachievers' weedy east coast revival thing is the obvious counterintuitive contradiction between their woozy psychedelic lyrics and the banging throwback music and delivery: PM Dawn and Leaders of the New School talked a lot of the same sort of mystical guff but hardly ever bounced like these two. Brilliant later artists like Talib Kweli and Mos Def infused their lyrical consciousness with welcome brashness and an eye on the floor, but Killer Mike is the only other rapper I can think of who's so successfully melded rock & roll aggression with KRS-One style preaching, engaging even when it's silly or wrongheaded. This effect is somewhat tempered on Evermore because the group has taken care to split the record into two halves. The first has all the weird stuff, the edutainment, the late-night philosophical smoking; you can get hung up on how flighty and repetitive it all is but they're still great MCs and there's plenty of variance between tracks. Then on the back half, the pair goes on a "Backseat Freestyle"-like rampage of dredging up every hedonistic trope in the rulebook, either for satirical purposes or just to get it out of their system. This is probably the more fun half to listen to but it's kind of a shame to hear them compartmentalize themselves, and not nearly as provocatively as Danny Brown did on Old. Still, it's all in the delivery; you won't find stuff like the uncommonly fierce lite-jazz-plus-Nas masterstroke "The Dualist" or the grinning "Generation Z" on an X-Clan album. Plus AK's a far better critic of hip hop status quo than I am: "My lyrics above gimmicks, my music like drugs / when I listen to yours, I don't even get a buzz."

John Grant: Gray Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union) [c]
Right Said Fred meets wispy indie bro shit and Queens of the Stone Age rawk nonsense. Not even Tracey Thorn can redeem this.

Neon Indian: VEGA INTL. Night School (Mom + Pop) [c]
Please please please please please just shut up. This kind of bonkers sensory-overload stuff is bad enough without the elements of various played-out and reappropriated dance music subgenres. A sound collage of good times filtered through the impossible misery of memories xeroxed so many hundreds of times they've faded to a sickly gray.

***

As of this moment I'm about two months behind where I should be on 2015 stuff. To head off a similar catastrophe next year, I'm going to be starting 2016 stuff simultaneously with wrapup on last year's reviews and supplemental stuff. The timeframe I'm expecting will be something like this:
- 2015 New Release Rush part 2: around Feb. 7th
- 2015 Also Recommended: around Feb. 10th
- 2015 Top 10 List & Honorable Mentions: around Feb. 17th
- 2015 List of Lists: around Feb. 25th
- February 2016 music diary: on track for March 1st.
However, if I ultimately run behind on something, it will be the year-end stuff from last year, not new music; it'll be Done When It Gets Done. That should fix the scheduling problem and get me back into a workable routine.

See you along the way!

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