Sunday, March 6, 2016

Name one genius that ain't crazy: February 2016 music diary

Jeremih: Late Nights - The Album (Def Jam 2015) [r]
Jeremih hasn't been heard from at this length in some time; his last big hit "Down on Me" was released six years ago, and it's already been the better part of a decade since his first and last full-fledged cultural juggernaut, "Birthday Sex", still available as a ringtone at your nearest Verizon store. For some reason -- the lapse of time? general incompetence? Megaforce-like stubbornness? -- Def Jam could barely be bothered to promote this, which is slowly making them look more out of touch than ever as its singles make waves. It's a long drawn-out druggy one-night stand, very solidly music of the moment, but it has its scattered good points. For one thing, Jeremih's descriptions of nasty sex delivered like street corner doo wop manage to seem like an amusing novelty even half a century after "Sixty Minute Man", even if some of his fixations don't seem terribly imaginative -- "two girls they kiss at the same time"; wow, at the same time!?!? -- and there's a fair bit of meandering and filler until the very end, when the whole thing snaps into place on the YG-guesting "Don't Tell 'Em", the best hook here in a major walk; after that we get "Woosah", potentially the best sex anthem yet to mention ass-eating, and a striking closing lament -- the peak of the album -- all about the morning after and coping with whatever the hell went on last night. It's supposedly about life being great but is so full of fear it could stand up next to the Velvet Underground's similarly themed "Sunday Morning".

Archy Marshall: A New Place 2 Drown (Matador 2015) [r]
This is very engaging, considering it's background with no foreground; a trip hop ambient darkwave whatever else rumble, immersive but intense, from the British writer and producer whose previous album was issued under the name King Krule. His vocal delivery is stoned out of the galaxy, which fits with its relaxed tone and paranoia. The album calls Tricky to mind, slightly, but is really unclassifiable.

David Bowie: Blackstar (Columbia) [hr]
Like Charles Schulz's last Peanuts strip, the timing here is eerily fortuitous -- one last victory lap for one of the true maverick creative forces of rock & roll, and what makes it so spectacular is that, like The Next Day only even more so, it's so unassuming: just a goddamn artist plugging away with integrity and restlessness to the end, and not a trace of strain or "comeback" woe. The album is impressively, strikingly brief so it leaves a deep impression and, like so few recordings by aging luminaries, Leonard Cohen and Yoko Ono and sometimes Bob Dylan but that's just about it, it has the unceremonious enthusiasm and thirst of youth. The entire record functions as slow, detailed drone, inventive and playful in all its turgid bleakness; "Lazarus" is the best of its many sleepwalking nightmares, though the obvious florid attraction is the opener. Though he seems to have intended it as a strong goodbye, Bowie does not sound like a man who's finished because, one assumes, he never really resigned himself to that; he's funny, mordant, alive, and so he shall remain.

Anderson .Paak: Malibu (EMPIRE) [r]
We touched on this a bit in our year-end essay earlier this week, but there's something to be said for how rampantly against the grain of the edgiest, most bleakly druggy hip hop this is: though there's plenty of weed floating around, it's rap with a pleasant, go-getter attitude, for the NOW people! So it's rather cheesy -- not Macklemore or Will Smith cheesy, mind, more like, hmm, PM Dawn? -- but also very danceable and charming, and at the back end certainly manages a good number of crucial jams. Though it's not something that seems immediately obvious, this is really a disco album, and wouldn't be out of place on a triple bill with Kwabs and the Foreign Exchange. This seems especially ironic since Paak rose to prominence after collaborating with Dr. Dre; numerous guest stars and great producers flock to make this a pretty relentlessly cheery party. It's basically stoner disco, and Paak makes it all credible and theatrical without overwhelming its basic visceral pleasures.

Tindersticks: The Waiting Room (City Slang) [c]
Long-running oh-sorry-you-just-missed-them stalwarts of the first wave of Britpop fits in with indie rock trends of roughly four years ago, maybe the last time indie rock even had trends. Without the history and pedigree it's dreadful yuppie chillwave, like "If You Wear That Velvet Dress"-era Bono fronting the xx.

Eleanor Friedberger: New View (Frenchkiss) [r]
The female half of the Fiery Furnaces seems to have had an extremely stable and reliable solo career, though this is the first of her albums I've heard from start to finish. And it's a good one -- she has a splendid voice, the lyrics are top-caliber and the performances are great when the folkish and modest but driving arrangements are. Certain songs -- opener "He Didn't Mention His Mother" and "Two Versions of Tomorrow" -- are particularly memorable and there's a hard-won, gritty directness to Friedberger's songs and singing. It does prattle on a bit but if you're intrigued by the first moments, this will grow on you.

John Cale: M:FANS (Double Six) [hr]
Bowie gets a lot of credit for sounding unfailingly contemporary up to the twilight of his career -- even some of this once-bemoaned trendy '80s hits now sound forward-looking -- and he deserves those accolades. But what of Cale? We need to appreciate him while he still walks among us. This has a bit of a handicap in comparison to Blackstar because it's not a set of new songs; rather it finds Cale taking a new approach to the songs of his experimental 1982 record Music for a new Society, which had him improvising over live orchestrations. I vastly prefer this new version which finds Cale in an industrial-tinged, bitter and adventurous mood -- its world is canned and limited, dirgey at times and full of rhythm at others, but miraculously evocative. It feels damned good to listen to something this effortlessly artful and cool, full of wit and drama and musical surprises. Thanks perhaps to his avant leanings, Cale boasts a level of integrity all but unique among surviving '60s rockers, and this like Bowie's album stands with his very best work -- a triumphant do-over.

Savages: Adore Life (Matador) [hr]
Silence Yourself, the first album by this sternly foreboding London foursome, was a noisy throwback, ideal for broodful dancing and celebrating pain; it was wonderfully adolescent and snide but was also one-dimensional by design. The follow-up is harsher, meaner, louder, funnier and moves along at a nice clip; it's the rock & roll of jilted love and all-consuming desire, and in that respect it's much more focused and human while the music has gained a pleasing variance that's less beholden to the post-punk road map. It sounds incredibly good on big speakers and the tension is sustained beautifully, always building to release at the right moments. You'll be pleased if you loved the first one but this is clearly a progression.

Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow (Sub Pop)
Proggy offshoot of Okkervil River, a band you probably forgot about, does their thing and what can you say? It beats Muse.

MONEY: Suicide Songs (Bella Union) [c]
Manchester band sound like they're still troubled about Richey Edwards' disappearance and bring us draggy, orchestrated folk-rock. It's not really far apart from Shearwater above, or Coldplay with harder drugs.

Junior Boys: Big Black Coat (City Slang) [r]
There are probably people out there who could be bored to tears by this, and even I would say it needs me to be in the mood to forgive how much music that's exactly like it there is that I've listened to ad nauseam in my life. However, if you like synthpop with shades of harder techno and solid if emotionally distant pop songs played by non-threateningly polite-looking dudes, this is a whole lot of fun. The songwriting is middling but the arrangements and production are fine and if you're into the sound, that's what will matter.

Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20)
Another extended, mournful album to follow the last one, this time with vocals sounding more tired and irritable than usual, and some superlative guitar work. There are grooves here and there, and lyrics that resonate, but this is a hopeless mood that won't often strike most of us, least of all for eighty-plus minutes. Those it targets, however, will not only respond to but need its monochromatic, dreary tones.

Kevin Gates: Islah (Atlantic) [r]
On his mixtapes and singles the Louisiana rapper Gates has become known for being personable -- not that he comes across as Casey Kasem friendly exactly but he's pretty fearless about rolling around in his personal failings and fantasies without a lot of embellishment. He branches out production-wise and there are some good cuts here, and an impressive total absence of guests (quite a contrast to what, well, virtually every major star is doing right now). There's lots of sex, lots of sucking on tits, two phones, and some ugly and charged drama. For the most part these elements recede; it's an easygoing, Rick Ross-like sex album and a promising proper debut.

King: We Are King (King Creative) [r]
Prince-sanctioned, smooth-as-hell En Vogue and Sade-style vocal group is a big pleasure; the album's so easy and lush it's almost ambient. This has been brewing for a long time and the trio's guested on tracks by Erykah Badu and the Foreign Exchange, but for most everyone it will be all new and, perversely, a big nostalgia trip for those of us who remember when stuff like this was on the radio constantly.

Porches: Pool (Domino)
........ Well, they're not paying me for ad space. Pretty boring stuff from a slightly beat-driven bedroom pop Manhattanite.

Ed Motta: Perpetual Gateways (Must Have Jazz)
Silly lite jazz from the Brazilian jazz/R&B arranger will find an audience with those seeking de-stressed pop. Patrice Rushen appears on keyboards. Listen while you peel wallpaper.

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (Def Jam) [r]
This is getting weird. Sliding into a world in which headlines include "Kanye gets email on stage at Madison Square Garden," "Kanye asks Deadmau5 if his wife will wear a Minnie Mouse head," "Kanye orders chipotle chicken wrap from Tropical Smoothie Cafe," etc., this album frankly feels too modest for itself. From its slapdash cover art to its weirdly disorganized, mixtape-like vibe to the eerie sense you get that the primary artist's mind is elsewhere for the entire duration, this is the sound of someone completely unsure of what direction he wants to take. He does join Dave Matthews and Ben Folds in the exclusive club of rock stars so apathetic they literally answer their cell phones while recording, then leave it on the record. One thing for sure: you have to give the guy credit for managing to turn every insignificant damn feeling he has into a major moment of emotional extremism. That's been true almost from the beginning but it's only become more of a naked flaw, or virtue, or whatever it is; you could compare some of his other incredibly petty rants to great accidentally brilliant petty rants in history like the Clash's "Complete Control", but bleached assholes and fantasies about fucking Taylor Swift? You can't figure out if he's gotten wrapped up in giving people what they want and expect or if he's completely lost touch and interest in same. Across the first half here he seems like little more than a guest on his own album; he doesn't even want to talk about it. There is a positive god dream to open, then Stevie Wonder keybs and melody, half-assed hi-NRG, egomaniacal chanting, thinkpiece-ready a cappella self-love, a (pretty good) song that's actually called "Real Friends", neo-old soul, some weird beats and economic anxiety, a lot of noodling with playful samples, and it's a frightening trip inside a guy's too-short attention span. We're not here to question West's mental health or his opinion of Bill Cosby. We're here to find the scattered gems: the towering sound of "Famous", the weird, sinister, bubbling "FML" with its strung-out robotic scary conclusion, the great and menacing pop of "30 Hours", the obligatory 2001 soul throwback "Facts", and the apocalyptic "No More Parties in L.A." As on Yeezus, the focus and steely-eyed vision of which we miss already, dread wins out; everything else seems trite, especially in the face of the music he's already released. There's boredom ("Highlights"), garbage ("Freestyle 4"), and a voicemail rant that has absolutely no reason to be here. This is a fascinating record but it's also unforgivably messy and poorly judged.

Lake Street Dive: Side Pony (Nonesuch) [r]
This splendid coffeeshop band's biggest asset is their awe-inspiring lead singer Rachael Price, and if all you want from their major label bow is the opportunity to hear her full-throated, smart and passionate paeans to emotional distress that elevate her group's potentially middlebrow roots-rockisms, you're in for a treat. She sounds better than ever; she demolishes a song like "Close to Me" (written by the band's drummer) until she seems to stand alone with the darkest edges of lovelorn obsession. In fact, the band sounds pretty great too; their chops are steadily improving -- the arrangements remain enthusiastic and exciting -- but the songwriting really isn't. There are wonderful hooks on some cuts like "Call Off Your Dogs" and the disco dream "Can't Stop", but some of this really suggests the compromise of being on a new label making whatever modern demand is the equivalent of "WRITE a HIT!" -- witness "Hell Yeah", a really flat example of misguided NPR populism gone terribly awry. On the other hand, closer "Saving All My Sinning" boasts the lyric to beat this year: "I've been a good girl for so long, I deserve to do something wrong." To that you say, well, hell yeah.

Pinkshinyultrablast: Grandfeathered (Club AC30) [hr]
Not substantially distinct from the Russian band's intriguing, hard-edged dream-pop debut Everything Else Matters from a year ago, but that fine record's promising, wispy mystery is replaced with new confidence: they go for broke with blissful, infectious, even louder and even more propulsive shoegaze. It is certainly a sequel more than a follow-up, but with music this completely reliant on mood and sonics, there's no way to deny that if you loved the first one you'll love the new one, and vice versa. Guitars and drums are a bit more prominent than the electronic influence this time out, but there's still an impressive range of influences being absorbed here and a commitment to full aural absorption for anyone in need. Have already co-opted this as my morning commute music.

School of Seven Bells: SVIIB (Vagrant)
What's left of this fractured unit finishes up some demos left behind that were recorded with co-leader Benjamin Curtis four years back. Sonically it's pretty much business as usual: twee, boring, okay, superficially reminiscent to the '90s band Garbage, comforting if you like middling synthy dance stuff.

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FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Lizzo: Big GRRRL Small World
* Rihanna: Anti-
* Basia Bulat: Good Advice
- Rick Ross: Black Market
- Pusha T: King Push
- Saul Williams: MartyrLoserKing
- Venice Dawn/Adrian Younge: Something About April II
- Sidestepper: Supernatural Love
- Field Music: Commontime
- Rokia Traore: Ne So
- Mavis Staples: Livin' on a High Note
- Cavern of Anti-Matter: Void Beats/Invocation Trex

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REJECTS:
Babyface: Return of the Tender Lover
G-Eazy: When It's Dark Out
Cage the Elephant: Tell Me I'm Pretty
Cass McCombs: A Folk Set Apart
Hinds: Leave Me Alone
Mystery Jets: Curve of the Earth
Yorkston: Everything Sacred
Daughter: Not to Disappear
Milk Teeth: Vile Child
Dream Theater: The Astonishing
Your Friend: Gumption
Cross Record: Wabi Sabi
Turin Brakes: Lost Property
Night Beats: Who Sold My Generation
The James Hunter Six: Hold On! [NYIM]
Freakwater: Scheherazade
Josephine Foster: No More Lamps in the Morning
Nonkeen: The Gamble
Nap Eyes: Thought Rock Fish Scale
Elton John: Wonderful Crazy Night
DIIV: Is the Is Are [NYIM]
Sunflower Bean: Human Ceremony
Vince Gill: Down to My Last Bad Habit [NYIM]
Peter Astor: Spilt Milk
Pinegrove: Cardinal [NYIM]
Radiation City: Synesthetica
Motorpsycho: Here Be Monsters
Prins Thomas: Principe del Norte
Brood Ma: Daze
Matmos: Ultimate Care II
Rangda: The Heretic's Bargain [NYIM]
So Pitted: Neo
Marlon Williams
Animal Collective: Painting With
Wild Nothing: Life of Pause
Africaine 808: Basar [NYIM]
TEEN: Love Yes
BJ the Chicago Kid: In My Mind [warning: contains abstinence anthem]
El Guincho: Hiperasia

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Quick note: It's not on the docket till next month's post, but recent darlings of this blog the Wave Pictures have issued a new all-acoustic vinyl-only album called A Season in Hull; since it's limited edition, I want to tell you that you'll love this album, and you should grab it if you're at all interested before it disappears. Actual review next time.

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