Sunday, April 10, 2016

Badfinger: Very Best Of (1969-74)


(Apple)

THE ESSENTIALS
[highly recommended]


Like film noir, power pop is a genre created after the fact by necessity, describing things that only seemed in retrospect to belong together. Tied strongly to an affection for British rock bands of the '60s -- the Beatles, the Who and the Zombies perhaps most of all, with the acidic wit of the Kinks and the pure grit of the Stones falling somewhat by the wayside -- that seems all but entirely divorced from the music that gave birth to and was directly impacted by what those bands were doing, it often seems a curiously sterile and fatally limited branch of post-'60s guitar music. Its emphasis on pop songs almost overstuffed with carefully written and performed hooks does tie it pretty directly to the Beatles' work in the latter half of the '60s. Having worked hard to become a dynamic, versatile live band by 1962, the Beatles were essentially forced to abandon all semblance of spontaneity in their live act when they became famous, and the astoundingly inventive recordings they laid down in subsequent years were the result of endless hours of rehearsal, fine-tuning and four-track trickery. Such behavior was a luxury of the biggest band in the world; it was harder to translate to a working, touring unit.

The pursuit of the starry-eyed power pop bands that sprung up from the '70s to the '90s was often noble and touchingly earnest. There's already a certain enviable naivete and artistic dignity to the idea of picking up a guitar and showing 'em all, taking a tiny group of cronies out in a tinier van (if you were lucky) and playing your heart out to the faithful few who'd distinguished you from hundreds of others competing for their attention. To devote the same level of energy to the mere crafting and reproduction of pop songs? In a perverse way it's like reforming the old boring life of the traditional songwriter -- the guy in suit and tie reciting his latest lyrics to a room of restless coworkers in The Broadway Melody -- to be some fight-to-the-death starving artist pursuit. Like the term "power pop" itself, though, maybe this only seems obvious in retrospect and strictly because of the fate that befell at least two of the subgenre's most crucial groups.

The music itself, typically inordinately complex in production terms but never florid, was designed to stroke the pleasure centers; another sense in which power pop feels like an entirely insular cocoction, besides the breathless behavior of its cultists sweeping through bins of long-unremembered LPs, is the degree to which its methodology and stylistic tone is informed entirely by the archiecture of the radio hit. The records are supposed to sound clean, sharp, trebly, melodic, catchy, young (and, almost invariably, male), a hit parade rendered as microcosm. And more specifically than that, the hit parade of a certain time: not the whole of the '60s, certainly not the last couple of years or the depths of the Spector and teen idol explosion, but most conveniently the three or four years running from the mainstreaming of Mersey Beat (that's the British Invasion for you colonial types) to the Summer of Love. If you wanted, you could pare it all down to the three B's: Byrds, Beatles, Beach Boys. (It's maybe not a coincidence that the two retroactively elected leading lights of power pop share the B shelf.) It's also, ironically, important to exclude R&B from this equation. For one reason or another, power pop ties itself almost purely to Anglophilia, with a touch of Haight-Ashbury; the sense in which all genres of youthful popular music were intermingling and affecting one another in those years feels absent from much of the output of the power pop bands.

Along with the usual subject matter -- guys singing in sulky tones about women being mean to them, with little of the honesty, humor or toughness that made it interesting when blues or doo wop singers did the same thing -- this cordoned-off atmosphere makes it sometimes easy to classify power pop as an inevitably adolescent, even juvenile concoction. And very often it is. Power pop would eventually have its day in the mainstream sun, first with Eric Carmen's Raspberries then with Todd Rundgren's key '70s albums and later, abetted by the aggressive minimalism of the punk movement, the Cars, who were just weird enough to escape many artistic pratfalls of their antecedents and had a sufficient push from smart A&R people that they didn't suffer the same commercial fate either. Later, in the wake of renewed interest in all this, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish, among others, would gain dedicated followings just outside the mainstream. But the amply dominant dark side is epitomized by groups like the Knack, a thoroughly cynical creation harnessing the immediacy of power pop co-opted with boorish pandering, casual sexism and remarkable egotism. There were a zillion albums like the Knack's in the bins, similarly poor and disdainful, but they were the happy accidental recipients of good circumstances. In "My Sharona" or in the Romantics' dismal hit "What I Like About You", it was difficult to hear the passion and ambition you could sense in a masterpiece like Big Star's "September Gurls", the Records' "Starry Eyes" or Badfinger's "Baby Blue". All three bands had been working hard and devotedly courting success for their entire careers, and all three crashed and burned for nearly inexplicable reasons beyond their control, while in the years to follow executives learned just how to commodify their work.

What we're getting at is that the two leading lights of power pop, the bands that synthesized the genre as we think of it, offered the best examples of its virtues and potential on record and did the best job of making the art universal, personal and serious (the Records, a very good band, are sadly not exempt from the misogyny problem, and their work was sometimes listless), both would have gladly accepted the temporary superstardom of the Knack or, better yet, the longer-term reliability and omnipresence of the Cars. They wouldn't have had to sell their souls to achieve this; there was no shortage of talent that in another life would've made them unstoppable. That Big Star was and is a cult band remains nearly incomprehensible; looked at in a certain way, their story is depressing as hell, with three of four members now deceased and none of them ever having seen much reward for what they accomplished. But by most accounts, Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel lived out their years with relative peace (Chilton was a very happy man in his final decade). The Badfinger story is more troubling -- in fact, devastating.

Probably no rock band ever enjoyed such a boost in its infancy. They were not just a Beatles-influenced unit; they were discovered by the Beatles' beloved roadie Mal Evans and were the first outside group signed to their new label, Apple. They alone could claim status as direct proteges of the Beatles, which might already have doomed them to Klaatu-like laughter and obscurity without material to back themselves up as a mere surrogate band, an officially sanctioned ripoff, a road-company version of the world's biggest act that no longer toured. Their initial release under their original name, the Iveys, isn't exactly auspicious; sounding more like the Zombies in "Brief Candles" mode with a touch of John Sebastian than any Beatles single, "Maybe Tomorrow" is a garish, awkward pop nugget that sounds about three years older than it is (1968). It's both written and sung by guitarist and secondary leading light Tom Evans. He could do better, and he did.

A name change followed, inspired by the working title of "With a Little Help from My Friends", in turn inspired (like so many things) by a mildly painful injury that was annoying John Lennon as he struck the keys of his piano. Neither this bit of trivia nor the choice of first Badfinger single helped dispel the notion that Badfinger were, at long last, a fake Beatles actively sponsored by the Beatles. "Come and Get It" was a clever, endearingly wicked song about capitalism Paul McCartney had written and elaborately demoed for the extremely strange film The Magic Christian; when Badfinger became earmarked as primary composers for the feature, McCartney had them rerecord the song and they generated a virtually note for note copy of McCartney's recording. It's a good, striking recording, but the writing and production credit for McCartney all over the label likely prevented most anyone from taking Badfinger seriously as their own entity.

An important aspect of the constant comparisons to the Beatles that were endured by Badfinger was that the band's four members, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys and few others, all were capable of leading the band. All four wrote. All four sang. Tom Evans and Pete Ham, typically regarded as the strongest composer of the group, were authors of their most assured singles, and issuing what amounted to a Beatles cover as a debut only served to deemphasize the depth of these talents in the same sort of way the Beatles themselves didn't permit in 1962 when George Martin wanted to put "How Do You Do It" on the airwaves. Magic Christian Music, the semi-soundtrack record issued in the wake of the film and the hit, provides solidevidence of the band's considerable potential when they worked with their own stuff. "Rock of All Ages" is bubblegum hard rock, but its purity and organization make it infectious. Even better is "Carry On Till Tomorrow", a striking harmonized ballad that cops a riff from the Kinks but makes even more than usual like the Zombies at their gently probing best. Neither song sounds all that much like the Beatles, but the band's fate in that regard seems to have already been sealed. If the green apple adorning the labels on their 45s didn't do it, if the cross-pollination of Beatles on Badfinger records and Badfinger on (solo) Beatles records didn't, then "Come and Get It" single-handedly put in public consciousness the idea that this was a way for the irreverent mop-tops to live on.

I remember hearing Badfinger songs on the radio as a kid, aged eight or nine, when I was becoming an increasingly intense Beatles fan; my dad always told me about how they were seen at the time as a Beatles soundalike, and in his memory (the timing was slightly off, but not my much) they'd appeared just after the Beatles' official breakup in 1970. My dad was far from a pop music historian, so it's easy enough to sense that Badfinger's image as cardboard cutout Beatles reigned all across the globe. Speaking generally, Badfinger's recorded output is less complex, precise and idiosyncratic than the Beatles'; it consistently possesses a more obvious eagerness to please (which isn't necessarily meant as a criticism). At the time I heard what Dad meant. Now I'm not quite as sure about it.

The song we were probably hearing at that time was "No Matter What", the first proper Badfinger hit, the first of a trio of stunning Pete Ham compositions to become wildly popular, and a #8 smash in the closing months of 1970. Record label aside, the only Beatles connection was that the production was credited to Mal Evans. In a superficial way, it sounds like the Beatles circa 1965 -- tight harmonies and a fetching melody, structured around winning hooks -- fused with the more generalized sound of guitar bands on the radio in the period. Of course it lacks the "heaviness" so popular at the time, one reason Badfinger in general would blend more seamlessly with the AM pop later in the decade, but marketing an AM group in an FM market wasn't impossible yet. In the context of later power pop, the Beatles comparison seems superfluous; it sounds like the Beatles the way every power pop song sounds like the Beatles, the way every Monkees song sounded like the Beatles. It's much more a matter of heavy influence than simple aping, and with its crisp, detailed sound and powerful sense of urgency, it's an excellent, evocative single.

The album from which "No Matter What" was taken, No Dice, was greeted very warmly and is typically remembered as Badfinger's real debut, though the Iveys album and the soundtrack presaged it. With production duties handled mostly by legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the record remained a family affair and the press took note, critics regarding it as an alternate-universe version of the Beatles who hadn't discovered sitars and were in essence locked in stasis just before the rushed, transformative Rubber Soul sessions. Again, this seems silly now because the Beatles' influence has since permeated much more strongly, and wider audiences are more familiar with things like late '60s Kinks albums that recast the Beatles' "sound" as a more widespread formula than was then assumed; without the contemporary media response, Badfinger wouldn't come to mind as atypically Beatles-inflected, at least not before Oasis or Elliott Smith.

The ratio of good material to filler on No Dice didn't mark a major progression from Magic Christian Music; forgettable pleasantries like "Midnight Caller" rounded it out, and like so many songs from "Yesterday" to "Hallelujah" that are almost wholly defined by the number of covers they've inspired, the key Ham-Evans collaboration "Without You" is oddly unmoving in its original rendition. The song would be taken to ubiquitous pop culture heights by Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey; Badfinger conceive it as a plodding power ballad inadequately served by their straining voices. That makes it no less disheartening that "Without You" would turn out to be a ticket out of standing in place that was then squandered utterly by other powers; there would always be maddening irony in the knowledge that a band who'd entered the charts with someone else's song would then have their longest life there with other people singing the melody. In the context of this release, though, it's striking how much more effortless Ham's "We're for the Dark" seems. With its massive, straightforward, immediate sound, you can imagine it being huge; the opportunity, inevitably, never came.

After the initial rush of interest in Apple Records, the label's roster dwindled; by mid-1973 no one besides the four solo Beatles, Yoko Ono and Badfinger would be actually releasing any further albums on Apple, and even prior to that the highest-profile titles were things like David Peel's The Pope Smokes Dope, the El Topo soundtrack and a nightmarishly packaged rerelease of A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. If this made Badfinger the Beatles' pet rock band, it manifested nicely with George Harrison's contribution of production work and lead guitar to their biggest-ever single, the haunting but stoic ballad "Day After Day". By the same token, Badfinger being the sole benefactors of a precarious situation must have seemed ominous, because it was.

The second real Badfinger album Straight Up -- with its unforgettably of-the-time cover image of the four band members in all hairy seriousness and snazzy coats gazing out vacantly at the crowd -- includes the lion's share of their best songs. The mournful but extremely addictive "Day After Day", with all the emotional splendor of "Without You" and far less of the syrup, would never be covered as famously as the torch song but would spend several lifetimes being ripped off, most notably by Joe Jackson. This along with "Baby Blue" was Pete Ham's magnum opus, a pair of songs that would live forever on radio as small slices of sterling pop mastery. The faster-tempoed but still emotive "Baby Blue", set alight by Todd Rundgren's production and Joey Molland's simple but lyrical guitar lines, is indeed Badfinger's best song of all, the peak of their yearning radio dream, and a masterpiece of well-contained, blustery romance in guitar-band context.

Impressively, though, a number of other cuts from Straight Up hold their own against the two established classics. Collected here is Molland's phenomenal "I'd Die Babe", which despite George Harrison's production and guitars doesn't suggest the Beatles so much as Wings (who didn't yet exist at time of recording) with its funneling of minimal ideas into maximalist radio-friendly production, its gritty but polished vocal and propulsive hook. Evans' closer "It's Over" might be the most Beatlesque tune to make a canonical Badfinger album, calling Abbey Road to mind in particular. Ham's "Name of the Game" is likely the most famous of Badfinger's non-hit songs aside from "Without You", a staple of classic rock radio that begins simply and builds to a huge crescendo at its chorus. This unapologetic melodrama makes the song innately appealing and, like "Baby Blue", is a perfect expression of Badfinger's basic strength: the tying of a recording studio's nooks and crannies to the emotional shortcomings and pratfalls of a person's heart and mind. It's the opposite of just slathering heartachey vocals over a meaty hook.

Almost immediately after Straight Up made it to the marketplace, Badfinger's situation took a dire turn. Touring was largely a bust for them; audiences for their particular bland of vulnerable sentimentality fused with tough, crunchy guitars didn't come to rock concerts as often as followers of the bigger FM bands did, and when Badfinger did play live they often reverted to generic endless-boogiedom, their hits being studio-bred and too ornately complicated to recreate coherently (especially true of the likes of "Day After Day" in arrangement terms, and the perfectly realized vocals on all their songs required fragmented patience that could scarcely be approached in real time).

Things were going sour at Apple by now too; the company had already veered dangerously close to bankruptcy before Badfinger even released their first record, and in the wake of Allen Klein's crooked streamlining and the Beatles' disintegration, the long-term monetary rewards for Badfinger's success to date would long be tied up in legal red tape. They signed another bad business deal with another opportunist, Stan Polley, who got them a slavishly slanted contract with Warner Bros. and were expected to commence recording new material immediately. In the meantime their last Apple album, Ass, appropriately adorned by a painting of a donkey standing underneath a large dangling carrot, was delayed repeatedly until finally seeing release almost simultaneously with the first of their Warner records.

Produced by George Martin's former assistant Chris Thomas, Ass is informed by the disillusionment of the band's relationship with their now far-flung former idols. (Does any mere record label have more songs with shade thrown at it than Apple? Death Row, maybe.) Thomas also handled the rapidly written and recorded Warner Bros. debut simply called Badfinger; misfortune hadn't managed to entirely wreck the band's spirits. "Lonely You" is a splendid example of both Ham's almost bottomless expertise with pop melody and the band's fine-tuned temperament, laying on schmaltz in a way that seems vital and personal. But Badfinger did poorly both critically and commercially; before suspicion over Polley's business dealings nixed their relationship with the band, Warners put out one more above-board Badfinger album, Wish You Were Here. It's somewhat remarkable that after so much, they could still come on with effortlessly grand guitar rock like "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch"; the eternal optimism they'd begun with seemed like something they couldn't shed, or maybe they were too afraid of what music they would generate if they did so. "Dennis" is a bit of a cop to AOR trends with slight pretension and a touch of "heavy," but it too sounds like a band that hasn't spent the last several years running into constant roadblocks.

The roadblocks would worsen yet. Polley got Badfinger dropped from Warner Bros. because of his shadiness, and soon the band members were living all but penniless despite massive amounts of money owed to them by both Apple -- all tied up in lawsuits -- and Polley, who'd run off with their advance and was no longer taking phone calls. Pete Ham, morbidly depressed with a baby on the way, was despondent over money and hanged himself in 1975 -- not even half a decade after No Dice and "No Matter What". Neither the Beatles nor their company could be bothered to issue any sort of a statement on his death. The cruelty didn't end; Tom Evans, never completely free of the demons that rose from Ham's suicide and never having recovered financially or in his career despite a couple of comeback albums on Elektra with Joey Molland, died in exactly the same manner eight years later. These two men had cowritten "Without You", a song that would still be getting taken to the charts by ever younger singers thirty years after they recorded it; they'd been the leader and second-in-command of the Beatles' handpicked successors. No justice had been forthcoming to them; alcohol and depression did their tricks, but they were unmistakably abetted by the maddening false promises and failed dealings of "the biz." It lured them and it ruined them.

Neither Apple nor Warner Bros. were ever able to capitalize on the momentum built by Badfinger's string of hits, Apple in particular bungling at the very moment when it might have shepherded a superstar band, and this compilation from 2000 -- put out by Apple, licensing a few songs from the Warner era -- demonstrates that the missed opportunity was obviously not due to a lack of excellent material. The disc is packed with gems and is surprisingly well-paced given that it places all of the best-known Badfinger singles at the very front. (It also, somewhat upsettingly, places the 1971 outtake "I'll Be the One" toward the end, so amidst the sound of Ham and Evans' maturing voices and the knowlege of their wearying mental states you have them joyously reenacting the Byrds or the Lovin' Spoonful when the world still seemed to be in their grasp.) You can carp about a few exclusions -- there's nothing from Ass, and distinctive moments like "Suitcase" are missing -- but an all-cylinders hits set like this is really the definitive fulfillment of Badfinger's potential and legacy, and a depressing reminder of how badly they were let down. You can point to a given album as a lost gem and win some converts, but by stacking almost twenty instantly recognizable and invigorating hits and should-have-been-hits together, you're both dazzled and led to wonder what kind of shitty unfair pop world can destroy guys like Ham and Evans.

A crash and burn like this band's stands an unfortunate chance of being romanticized; it's the old story of misery making beautiful, immaculate, uncorrupted music for your radio speakers; Doug Hopkins, troubled guitarist and writer for Gin Blossoms and author of a couple of indelible smashes for which he never received proper recognition, looked upon Pete Ham and the retroactive perception of his uncompromised commitment to eternal life in perfectly engineered pop song as the ultimate ideal, then drank himself out of a career and took his own life. It's all such garbage, such a waste. In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney seems to get temporarily lost, a rare hole in that infallible exterior, when telling the story of Apple's beginnings and explaning how the Iveys became Badfinger. For a moment, it's as if the years have melted away and what he's giving us is the scoop on a great rock & roll fairy tale about to come to pass. Then he remembers, and seems stuck in momentarily disbelief as he recalls that Ham is dead; he can still almost see him standing right there.

McCartney and the other Beatles aren't wholly responsible for what happened to Badfinger; that story requires many moving parts to click in a perfect order to turn into such an infuriating clusterfuck, but the pipe dream that was Apple played more than its role in their demise. Had McCartney and John Lennon not set out to throw together this insane idea for a record label and business venture, Badfinger might easily not be known to us; they might never have reached the tantalizing heights they briefly knew, or almost knew. But it's also not impossible to consider that Pete Ham and Tom Evans might still be alive, maybe with a few dusty albums lurking in goodwill shops around the UK or some faithful pirate needledropping their scattered work discreetly on Zippyshare, the harmonies addled with pops and digital compression but accompanied by the magic of discovery. That's the story of so many other power pop units. Being consigned to the cutout bin might suck, but an eventual quiet rediscovery of a cult band is a happier eventuality than the story of the band who had untold fortune and fame swung around in their faces only to have it swept criminally away along with their souls, hearts and lives. Badfinger never got what they deserved, and now it's too late.

***

[FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME (albums that will be reviewed or capsuled here eventually): No Dice; Straight Up; Ass.]

[Blog Announcement:] The Essentials

The Essentials is the possibly too-lofty name I'm giving to my latest project at TOE, which will finally bring back my reviews of catalog releases. Only thing is, this series will be dedicated exclusively to recordings that are beloved to me. With very few exceptions (namely, reviews I wrote long ago before my current system that I still want to revise here), these will all be "highly recommended" or "A+" releases. Might sound like an anti-critical exercise when you put it that way, but the model here is in fact the writing I've done on the likes of Archie Bell and the "5" Royales, as well as the Beatles and Talking Heads and such at my old grounds; in other words these aren't meant as simple consumer reviews so much as serious, heartfelt delves into the heart and soul of some of my favorite music of the past century. They will tend to be longer, more detailed and involved than the usual reviews and essays in this space. Hard to say for sure but I would imagine they'd read better if you already are fond of the music they describe. It's that kind of material. I've wanted a chance to write about a lot of this for years and this gives me an ideal format to do so without any sort of time constraint.

Going into the future, the Essentials essays will eventually be accompanied in many cases by dedicated "artist pages" for major acts like the Beach Boys and Bjork, and the discographies of those bands will later be filled out by capsule or essay-length pieces on releases by those performers that are, well, not so essential. Others, like the one that will begin the series in just a moment, will tackle careers wholecloth in the context of a single release (though nothing says a given band won't eventually receive a more thorough investigation, especially if I become attached to more material). Some Essentials essays will be even be expansions of my capsule reviews, more thoughtful than my long reviews of new albums used to be since they'll always have the benefit of hindsight. This series is broadly designed to get away from the fast-paced drive-by opinioneering of the music chatter that tends to ring out online. Which isn't to say I don't love some things about the grind -- I choose to participate in my small way, after all -- and I can promise that the regular monthly new albums post will be unaffected by this project.

You'll be seeing Essentials pieces pop up usually about a week after the monthly music diary. This month I only have one for you, but there will be more some months, less in others, occasionally none at all (which will generally mean I'm hard at work on an especially involved one, not that I've neglected the cause). The posts will blend in with the regular stuff in the index and such but will be marked with an "essentials" tag below the cover. I hope you enjoy all this; I'm very psyched to have finally prepared an outlet for this sort of thing again.

To add an extra touch of perversion, the Essentials releases will be posted in alphabetical order (which means, as you've probably guessed, that I've pretty much said my piece about "A" bands). No band that matters will be left behind, though.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Watch me walk up out it: March 2016 music diary

Bonnie Raitt: Dig in Deep (Redwing Music)
Raitt deserves recognition for her continued presence as one of the most reliably unchanged voices in American popular music; her latest album is typically low on surprises and risky strokes but you're guaranteed a good time if you're already fond of her, and she easily sounds as passionate and professional now as she ever did, as though surrounded by a force field that melts all outside interference. I quite enjoy her cover of INXS's "Need You Tonight", and the guitar playing is of course consistently exquisite.

Emma Pollock: In Search of Harperfield (Chemikal Underground)
Scottish singer-songwriter Pollock has been in several indie rock bands of mostly nondescript variety, but like anyone who's dabbled to such an extent she's garnered a cult. Her voice resembles Leslie Feist's at its best, but it more often strikes me as pedestrian and disaffected; this is likely amplified by the mostly listless songs. (The performances are polished, if not terribly engaging, throughout the record.) It's hard to imagine drawing inspiration from this, but undoubtedly there's a Nashville assembly line quality to it that takes talent. The only time I perk up is on the slightly beat-driven "Parks and Recreation"; some interestingly ghostly production aside, there's just not much else here that speaks to me.

Esperanza Spalding: Emily's D+Evolution (EMI) [r]
Credible -- if demanding -- R&B / jazz fusion record sounds like Joni Mitchell fronting a '70s art-rock outfit, which fits given Tony Visconti's involvement; Spalding's voice is strong enough to wrap around the verbose lyrics most of the time, though the highlight may be the cover of Veruca Salt's show-stopping "I Want It Now" number from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

The Coral: Distance Inbetween (Ignition) [c]
Fully dreadful Brit-indie veterans return with insufferable lite-metal sludge for comic book dorks. I can't with this.

Poliça: United Crushers (Mom + Pop) [r]
Extremely enjoyable survey of the political landscape from terrified young marrieds -- from "it's all shit" to "I cannot fuck you enough," it all seems pretty fair and accurate to this newlywed who loves his comfortable life and is in a state of paralyzed fear for the world -- musically sounds like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs out in front of Chromatics or the xx, yet it also feels like something you could go to the mall and buy at Tape World. It's a tad too long and repetitive, but also immersive and ideal for a pulsating late night of dancing-despite-everything.

M. Ward: More Rain (Merge) [c]
Begins well enough but descends into a peculiar incompetence even less impressive than the wholly frivolous Wasteland Companion. The guy should already know better than to cover a great Beach Boys song he's incapable of singing well. The originals are atmospheric noodling, and it only takes a few minutes for it to wear you down. Once a master of ethereal playfulness, Ward desperately needs a change of pace; he's begun to sound like an insular mess.

The Wave Pictures: A Season in Hull (s/r) [hr]
In some contexts, an album whose name is a pun on a Rimbaud prose poem might be a red flag, but this particular band knocked us out last year with the warm, punkish, rowdy, funny Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon and another collection of their thoughtful and exuberant songs would be welcome regardless of cultural context or particular quirk. As it turns out, this is quite an oddity -- recorded acoustically with a single microphone and no overdubs, then issued strictly on limited edition vinyl. That means no downloads, no streaming except a couple of samples on Soundcloud, nada. We normally don't advocate jumping through hoops to hear something, but there's a very good reason to make an exception this time: the record is brilliant -- passionate, quiet, intricate folk rock that sparkles in its lack of adornment and just sounds cozy and correct in every way, like something you'll instinctively reach for to put on the turntable for a long time to come. Thirteen songs with titles like "Thin Lizzy Live and Dangerous" and "David in a Field of Pumpkins" mark this as playful, and it is, but the operative feeling is intimacy. The words are devotedly beautiful and literate, but as seems to be the norm for this band, the attraction is as much in the precise, indelibly mysterious playing and singing as in leader David Tattersall's affable wit. It's a bit like being in a room with a friendly, unwinding version of Television with nothing to prove. It's spooky sometimes, it's full-on country at others. But it hangs together, as haunting as the moonlight when it wants ("Remains"; "The Coaster in Santa Cruz"), or circular and obtuse ("Slick Black River from the Rain"), or delicately melodic ("Don't Worry My Friend, Don't Worry at All"), or just as engagingly lively and silly as waking up in a pumpkin patch. This feels almost eerily timeless, but still original and distinctive; I want to share it with everyone I know. This includes you. Not to be a total consumerist, but buy this while you can.

Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered. (Interscope) [hr]
Someday in psych class there will be a personality test making some outlandish conclusion about you based on whether you prefer the conceptually rich and heavy To Pimp a Butterfly or this abruptly released set of eight stragglers from the same sessions, including such odds and ends as a track that was written for an appearance on The Colbert Report and a tacked-on session of acoustic noodling. Mere organization and commitment to well-honed craft is almost beside the point, though, if the sound of the professional yet unpolished moves you or, better yet, if you appreciate each of these songs as a complete idea and production unto itself rather than an inextricable part of a weighty whole, which was what made Pimp an endurance test for me. No slur on Lamar's other work but so long as you ditch the last few minutes of "untitled 07", these songs each take their grooves home, around in circles and back again. The pure seriousness of spirit that makes Lamar such a treasure and oddity isn't absent; these are anything but the puerile scraps of something like Amnesiac or even the naked runs-for-cover of a Tattoo You. From the mumbled Gil Scott-Heron come-on that raises the curtain to the last throes of the most apt song about economic disenfranchisement to surface in this awful year, this is still a journey -- it's just a modest one, which will make it more powerful than anything else he's done for some people, myself included. The live jazz nods of Butterfly are foregrounded here often (as on the bare, fragmented "untitled 03", which feels like stems of a D'Angelo song eerily spread out and mutated), and each cut seems more intricate and complex than the last. And oh, there are hooks, meatier and fiercer than ever; you can't carp with the commercial accessibility of the soft, warm "06" -- best use of Cee-Lo in years -- or the gorgeously demanding "08" when Lamar neither expects them to land or filters out the creeping fear and doubt that seems to be overtaking him as his fame accumulates. His fixations remain pronounced and righteous: a white culture chewing up individualistic art and spitting it out, the eternal guilt for his own accomplishments / broken promises ("I just got a raise, I spent it all on me" is as close to sincere boasting as he gets), the carefully listed inadequacies of drugs, love and money to redeem a tormented life. All this is sharper than ever because Lamar's voice is unprocessed, front-and-center, totally uninhibited, shouting out his best verses ever outside of the Flying Lotus cut "Never Catch Me". Damn the guy for not naming these songs; as already demonstrated by that Mountain Goats album with all the cuts named for Bible verses, I'll never in a gazillion years remember which one is which. But I'll also never forget this: "Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God / Now I'm thinkin' to myself, hollow tips is all I got / Now I'm drinkin' by myself, at the intersection, parked." Stripping Lamar's music of concept only serves to demonstrate that whole of his persona and actual self is the concept, a provocative destiny for someone with so many important things to say.

Anna Meredith: Varmints (Moshi Moshi)
Cerebral, prickly electronica from this British composer has received semi-questionable accolades from quarters that know more about this genre than I seem to, but it all washes over me as purely generic.

Lizzo: Big GRRL Small World (s/r) [hr]
The second solo record by this extraordinary rapper from Minneapolis is all sorts of magic -- a three-pronged, fresh, funny, sick, head-spinning attack on body image tyranny, white entitlement, bad politics and bad sex that ebbs and flows majestically even as it dismantles the room and puts it back together. Lizzo's filth and fury come fast and hard, conscious but fun as hell, and even though this slamming party doesn't ever top its brilliant, biting opener "Ain't I," pretty much everything here is windows-down glorious. The production is mostly divided evenly between BJ Burton and Boink Taylor, both of whom play to Lizzo's effervescent voice and give her lots of room while backing her with an appealingly paced mixture of hypnotic subterranean beds of sound and hard rap hard trap made for the mall rap, usually a fair bit of both on each cut. Even the slightly overwrought slow ones that don't bend toward such unpredictability are forgivable because Lizzo herself is so damned engaging as a rapper, a singer, a cult of personality, a motivational speaker. If you don't think the empowering anthem "BGSW" advising big girls they can take over the world is important -- and fuck you, it is -- there's plenty of acid ruthlessness too: "There should be a support group for men without Lizzo / meet once a week and deal with all your issues / then Google me and jack off in a tissue." What a talent, deservedly in love with herself -- and since she released this, Atlantic has snapped her up, so expect more soon.

Rihanna: ANTI (Universal) [hr]
This superstar's been releasing great singles for over a decade now, but her latest album is so consistent it could easily match any greatest-hits set you might conjure. There's no doubt she's courting crossover, with a Tame Impala cover (which is left-field and sublime, making you wish she could sing along to all of Currents), plenty of enjoyably profane asides and even a jazzy weed song, but the subliminal base appeal here retains that of all her best music: it's that goddamn voice, completely self-possessed and confident but also three-dimensional at every pitch. Most every song on this 44-minute album works, several of them phenomenally -- "Love on the Brain" is probably the most successful bid anyone's made in decades to revive doo wop not as a throwback but as a viable genre with radio potential, "Never Ending" borrows half a melody from a very good Dido song but takes it to another planet, and as for the instant classic "Work"... all you can say is, it takes someone with serious chops to wring so much depth and joy out of the simple act of singing that word five times fast.

Beauty Pill Describes Things They Are (Butterscotch 2015)
Washingtonian Chad Clark, famously a Dischord veteran, comes back from the dead all but literally after several open heart surgeries; like Donuts, it's music that could almost have been crafted from someone's bed, using evocative loops on top of slightly proggy guitar-based structures. Even with my prejudice against that sort of thing, I sorely wish this was instrumental; Clark's voice unfortunately bothers me even though his lyrics are beautifully parsed and affecting. Primarily for cultists but probably worth at least a look for everyone else.

Pusha T: King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude (Def Jam 2015) [hr]
Pusha's debut album My Name Is My Name slipped by me uneventfully, and I was similarly apathetic about the EP Fear of God II, but in my frankly vague memories of them I can't recall them being remotely as unified as this one that's positioned as a "prelude" to his upcoming third album, which I hope isn't the only reason it's such an impeccably brash, fast-paced half hour of music. There's no denying that it's a throwback, with hard beats and almost uninterrupted flow plus production from -- get this -- Puff Daddy, Timbaland, Q-Tip and Kanye West (who demonstrates here once and for all that he is consciouslychoosing to do whatever off-the-wall shit is happening over on his own records, for better or for worse). And it must be said, these are acclamed masters of the craft for a reason; it's hard to name a recent rap record with so many instantly unforgettable beats (the hooks tend to be slightly less strong but are still passable, with one supreme moment thanks to Jill Scott): the Atari sound cutting through lush surroundings on "Crutches Crosses Caskets", the trademark Timbaland weirdness on "Got 'Em Covered" and (more familiarly) "Retribution", the classic Blueprint-era Kanye West of "Sunshine", but best of all the mournful "Blame Game"-like backing of "MPA" and Q-Tip's astounding, propulsive "FIFA", coming on like "Buggin' Out" re-rendered as Big Beat. At first glance I thought the exceptional production was why I found this so endearing, since I've always felt there are limits to Pusha's coke-dealer narrative; he's not over it, with only one song here not returning to that well, but the menace and threat of the music melds perfectly with his emptily boastful reflections and intricate stories of the easy-come-easy-go vicious cycle. He compares himself to Biggie and Dilla (and despite the pointed lack of innovation here he's skilled enough that it isn't laughable), but comes off more haunted and desperate than either. The probing self-awareness of Pusha insisting "I'm the L. Ron Hubbard of the cupboard" -- who's bringing him the cash and why, and are they as deceived and victimized as Hubbard's followers? -- implies as easily as the violent underground debt warning on "FIFA" that Pusha's fixation is on leaping through the fire and betraying whatever's necessary to save yourself. This extends to his peers who are being stiffed by labels and big business, with the message that rap money is less trustworthy than crack money: "Niggas talking it, but ain’t living it / Two years later admitting it, all them niggas is renting shit / They ask why I’m still talking dope, why not? / The biggest rappers in the game broke, voilà." So there's a lot going on here even without mentioning the murderer's row of guests: The-Dream doing dancehall, Kanye West and A$AP Rocky droning atonally on a hook, and Beanie Sigel blowing everybody out of the room and making us wonder where he's been. A triumph that would have made my 2015 list had it been out sooner.

Underworld: Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future (Caroline) [r]
Underworld transitioned from part of the crowded field of British synthpop in the late '80s to a respected electro outfit heavily indebted to house and d'n'b. The key to appreciating their return after a six-year hiatus is to treat it as one long upward slope to a gobsmacking climax; your feelings about the first five cuts will depend on how readily you can tolerate the Karl Hyde Bot's detached vocals, which come off these days like a sexless Alan Vega or a goofier Colin Newman. (A good litmus test is "Santiago Cuatro", which cribs the melody from Robyn's "Fembot", a nice bit of irony.) Enabled perhaps by the florid, luxuriously slow-pacedstructure favored by the likes of James Murphy, the record uses the cinematic maneuver of saving its least facile songs till the very end. If the whole album were like "Ova Nova" and "Nylon Strung", a pair of breathtaking, time-stopping, delicately beautiful and immersive glow-in-the-dark club songs, it would be a masterpiece. When he ditches the smugness and becomes subservient to Rick Smith's lovely production, Hyde sheds the years and couldn't be more appealing.

Sheer Mag: III (s/r EP) [hr]
Go to Bandcamp immediately and hear a 7" worth of tight, blissful, hooky hard rock from these Philadelphian Marxists. What the hell else do you need to know? Lyrics are provided so you can fully appreciate the feminist rallying cry of "Can't Stop Fighting". (Personal note: please please please restock the vinyl, guys.)

The Range: Potential (Domino) [r]
I'm 100% in favor of a trip hop revival and this moody electro is at least part of the way there, but it's a throwback in several other significant ways -- the Brooklynite artiste samples Youtube clips as liberally as J. Dilla trawled through boxes of 45s and ends up making the most instantly appealing the-obscure-past-is-the-public-future dance record since such things were deeply in vogue in the early 2000s. The suggestion of the infinite possibilities of the door opening to the long-uninvestigated, as provided by the internet, perversely provides one of the few optimistic visions of a more inclusive and rhythmic future in a notoriously apocalyptic genre. It's a bit like the troubled joy of Sterling Void's "It's Alright" -- a rejection of paranoia by a realist, rendered as hedonistic abstraction. So while it's outwardly modest and its songcraft sticks to the cautionary obvious most of the time, there's sublime relief in this album's grooves.

Bob Mould: Patch the Sky (Merge)
Twelve albums into a quiet solo career, Mould remains in a holding pattern sound-wise that does little to dispel either a sense of repetitiveness for any non-cultist or the immense admiration that comes from knowing just how much impact he's had on nearly every guitar band to emerge since the '80s.

Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith: A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM)
Two giants of piano and trumpet respectively collaborate and the results have been earmarked as having major crossover appeal from sites that -- like this blog -- don't generally take note of very much jazz. I personally find it pleasant but don't hear much besides Iyer giving it up for lots of long, slow solos by Smith and generally bare-minimum structure and production. Among the few modern jazz albums I tend to hear, it just seems ordinary, but others equally broken from today's version of the genre seem to be hearing more in it.

Kamaiyah: A Good Night in the Ghetto (s/r) [r]
Energetic twenty year-old neo-diva takes phone calls, blows smoke at you and occasionally finds time to lay down a track on this cushy mixtape; she makes use largely of 1980s-infected, audaciously funky oldschool beats laced now with wonderfully profane jolts, gags and insults. A cheery roll through the psyche of a person with unlimited potential who knows this world is gonna be hers and is pretty damn relaxed about it.

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FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Lapsley: Long Way Home
* Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive
* Meilyr Jones: 2013
- Andrew Weatherall: Convenanza
- Robert Pollard: Of Course You Are
- Loretta Lynn: Full Circle
- Clark: The Last Panthers
- Grant Lee Phillips: The Narrows
- Iggy Pop: Post Pop Depression
- Glenn Jones: Fleeting
- Fatima Al Qadiri: Brute

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REJECTS:
Rick Ross: Black Market
Saul Williams: MartyrLoserKing
Cavern of Anti-Matter: Void Beats/Invocation Trex [NYIM]
Bullion: Loop the Loop [NYIM]
Waco Brothers: Going Down in History
Mothers: When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired
Mount Moriah: How to Dance [NYIM]
The 1975: I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
Quilt: Plaza [NYIM]
Steve Mason: Meet the Humans
Santigold: 99 Cents [NYIM]
Barry Adamson: Know Where to Run
Ray LaMontagne: Ouroboros
Matthew Bourne: Moogmemory [NYIM]
Wussy: Forever Sounds
Heron Oblivion [NYIM]
Aurora: All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend
Mmoths: Luneworks
Brian Fallon: Painkillers
Emmy the Great: Second Love
Into It. Over It.: Standards
Treetop Flyers: Palomino [NYIM]
Damien Jurado: Visions of Us on the Land
Richard Fontaine: You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing to Go Back To [NYIM]

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