Wednesday, May 4, 2016

I find the scene of the crime, I take my body back: April 2016 music diary

Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing (Bayonet) [r]
Young New York songwriter -- daughter of Hollywood royalty, but you'd never guess it -- Greta Kline stands out because of her individualistic modesty, with songs that celebrate the humor and humanity in doing your best to disappear within a crowd. Like a kind-hearted, probingly anxious Pink Flag crossed with Modern Lovers, this breakneck succession of fifteen songs in twenty-eight minutes is subtler, more teasing than the typical jolt to the punk jugular. At its best, the songs that often fail to pass the minute mark leave you yearning to revel in their hooks more and longer, which is the ideal response to music like this that mystifes, teases, leaves a scar. But just as much of it passes by like an unnoticed breeze, and the performances -- despite her charmingly mild voice -- are sometimes sterile and dispassionate, not always matching up to the obvious inventiveness in her hooky, intense, lyrically astute compositions.

Explosions in the Sky: The Wilderness (Temporary Residence) [r]
When this proggy Texan post-rock unit first surfaced with their bombastic, florid instrumentals I resented them; the reasons now seem a bit obscure, especially since -- in keeping with the way they've made much of their living in the last decade and a half -- I look at records like this as a minor godsend for my quest to provide ambient, distinctive but unobtrusive and tasteful accompaniment to the silent films I watch, since I all but invariably hate the modern scores DVD producers provide for such films. I can't vouch for the veracity of this as a creation unto itself, but it sounded great when scoring G.W. Pabst's Joyless Street early this past month, and as a shuffled addition to my big Spotify playlist of silent film-friendly music since then. Heard in sequence, it achieves a trance-like calm after a while; it's wholly possible I underrated their older work.

Charles Bradley: Changes (Daptone)
Throwback soul singer Bradley sounds great; what else is there to say, really? Unfortunately the stylistic costuming of the Daptone crew has never stopped striking me as arbitrary and limited, at least on record. Bradley deserves less self-consciously backward-looking material, like that given to Leon Bridges. Bet Bradley is incredible live, anyway.

Andrew Bird: Are You Serious (Loma Vista) [r]
The weird thing about Bird for the past ten years is that the less prepared he is, the more interesting his music seems to be. His latest series of small non-anthems with occasional bursts of stringed energy -- newly on something akin to a major label -- starts out tremendously and occasionally shows off genuine invention, like on the ominously catchy "Roma Fade" and the magnificent Fiona Apple duet "Left Handed Kisses," but he's never as much fun here as he was on the off-the-cuff, unambitious Hands of Glory. Sometimes being very practiced and dedicated can derail you a bit, though the obvious joy and craft here can't really be denied. Perhaps if Bird got more credit for the musical restlessness he constantly conveys he would feel free to loosen up more often, but oh well; enjoy Mac DeMarco or whoever.

Pet Shop Boys: Super (x2) [hr]
One of a number of cult acts that went global thanks to a weird trick of timing and on the strength of a group of songs that have almost nothing to do with their usual tastes, Pet Shop Boys have never seemed comfortable with any status as a global act, at least beyond the safe and understanding confines of the disco floor. Their liberation from their UK label, and therefore the end of their long game of ping-pong between American licensees (in order, since 1996: Atlantic, Sire, Sanctuary, Rhino, astralwerks, only one of which issued more than one of their albums), probably had a hand in their follow-up to the revelatory Electric being their best fusion of club ferocity and lyrical pop in twenty years. It feels like the first time in forever that they've been allowed to release an album that doesn't have a single defined sound: there are stupid dance songs, clever dance songs, nostalgia pieces, pained ballads, and otherworldly sonic stretches into oblivion. Producer Stuart Price is still on board from last time and remains a match made in heaven for them. When music this good, expressive and entertaining sounds this effortless, like they could pump it out with eyes half shut, you know you're hearing a couple of guys at peak, but have they ever really not been?

Mogwai: Atomic (Temporary Residence) [r]
One of the more musically agreeable of the post-rock bands whose big moment was the mid to late-'90s. This was conceived as scoring for a Mark Cousins project so, as with Explosions in the Sky above, I've happily co-opted it for my own cinematic purposes. It's a stirringly dynamic recording, even if I can't personally imagine making much use of it outside of this context.

Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories (Bloodshot)
Chicago-based Fulks has been recording for three decades and he's recorded on and off for Bloodshot for nearly the entire time, fairly reliably issuing a record every three years or so; his work can descend into novelty, particularly during the period (roughly 2008-11) when alt-country and bluegrass briefly became a bourgeois fixation and he got a bit of attention for a record of Michael Jackson covers. A touch nastier than the usual Americana, this is a musically gentle, lyrically incisive and vocally rough-hewn cycle that goes down easy if you're not paying attention, but never fully shakes itself out of a droning lull. Recommended if that sounds like your kind of confessional.

Tim Hecker: Love Streams (4AD)
Eighth album from cult electronic hero Hecker is more accessible than usual for him, feeling much of the time like a somewhat conventional gathering of ambient music; but his impulses as a producer have always bewildered me, chiefly because I don't seem to have the ears to appreciate his sensibility. There's still too much murk and obsessive difficulty here, drowning out the music as well as anything that might be endearing about the experimentation.

Parquet Courts: Human Performance (Rough Trade) [c]
With respected critics hailing this as perhaps the key rock band of the current decade, I feel more and more out of touch. Parquet Courts co-opt the sound of early Pavement almost to the letter, though here they allow a bit more interference from one of that band's major influences, the drone and strung-out lyrical ambivalence of John Cale-era Velvet Underground. These are obviously good tentpoles to have, but what made Pavement's music interesting, especially if you contasted it with the Paisley Underground, post-punk and power pop bands that courted almost exactly the same audience and certainly claimed the same cultural context, was that theirs was a new sound that had never been recorded in such a fashion. You could point to the Replacements as sort of a forerunner but only because they in their fashion were equally singular, equally good, and also stood out from the frustrating dross of alternative rock in those times. I fail to hear what Parquet Courts are adding to the conversation, but more to the point, they are just so fucking annoying; I think we can do better than this, and I think we already have. Rally around Ezra Furman or someone for your backward-looking forward-thinking, just please not this.

dvsn: Sept. 5th (Warner Bros.) [r]
Into the endless stream of loverboy nostalgia R&B comes this atmospheric forty-five minutes of throwback heaven, scaling back on the drugginess of the Weeknd but also the profane complications of Jeremih. Instead, this is for the most part so straightforward you could listen to it with your family at a barbecue, especially if they remember Maxwell and Brian McKnight too. It's all too familiar, yeah, but you know how little that matters if you're in the mood; in fact, it might be a benefit. Key sentiment, delivered with belted-out sensual agony: "I could make it better / if I could have sex with you."

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive (Ribbon Music) [hr]
If your ears perk up when mine do, first you notice this sounds like current nominee for Best Band in the World tUnE-yArDs, for the comically simple reason that Merrill Garbus produced it, following her work with Thao Nguyen on her collaborative album with Mirah. Garbus is a tight fit for these songs -- a logical match on the order of Stuart Price and PSB above -- because they are unrelenting body music, liberated from confinement but also traditionally structured and infectious, which is where Nguyen's power as a songwriter comes in. This sincerely extraordinary album melds a heartbreaking story about adolescence and adulthood after becoming a child of divorce with snatches of earth-shaking rhythmic power and the simple beauty of tremendous pop hooks, over and over and over again, with enough variance to encompass the chant-like "Slash/Burn" as easily as the bittersweet "Hand to God," the wounded and angry "Endless Love." Not since the Shins' Wincing the Night Away or perhaps even Beulah's untouchable The Coast Is Never Clear has a gathering of expertly written, passionately delivered alterna-pop earwormed its way into the subconscious so amiably. Moreover, the lyrics retain surrealism and mystery so that they never become clunky or simplistic. So yes, as a person who would currently follow Garbus approximately anywhere, there's a sort of bias involved in addressing this album, but the rousing sing-song exuberance and precision of it all is down to Nguyen and her impeccably tight partners. Garbus' own confidence, it seems, increases enough when overseeing someone else to deliver some of the most indelible, thrillingly dry vocal and instrumental sounds on any recent rock record; it feels as though you are in the middle of the band, surrounded by their delightful cacophony. And it was Garbus, author of her own personal gut-splitter "Wait for a Minute," who persuaded Nguyen that the beautiful, anguished "Millionaire" had to make the LP when Nguyen lost confidence in it. Thank goodness for that impulse -- it's the finest, smartest, saddest song I've heard this year.

PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project (Vagant) [hr]
Five years (already!) after her World War I concept record Let England Shake, Harvey returns with another moody formal experiment, heavily inspired by poverty she saw firsthand in Afghanistan, Kosovo and especially Washington DC, that's driving some of her longtime acolytes positively bonkers. To be perfectly frank, I'm mystified by the relatively cool reception this engagingly atmospheric, desperately sad but still playful song cycle has faced. I guess some of the lyrics are pedestrian and clumsy and a few songs wander -- "all near the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln" repeated twelve or thirteen times -- but the accusations of concern trolling that greeted the release of the single "The Community of Hope," a kind of despairing reversal of "Penny Lane," seem rooted in affluent consternation at the very existence of poverty. You don't want to think people who actually know and care about music could be similarly aloof, but one reviewer's implication that Harvey's documentation of disenfranchisement without "proposing solutions" is tantamount to siding with uncaring politicians is so patently absurd and disappointing that it's best to pretend it didn't happen. In a strange way, this is the opposite of England because it's completely a record of its time: exposing much like the current election a fissure in so-called liberal thinking by mere virtue of not pretending that war and economic distress don't have real live victims. Should you want an escape from this brutal planet, at least the music here has your back, with perversely catchy melodies, perfect vocals and -- as on the last album -- phenomenal stormy arrangements, defined by wheezing brass and ghostly backing vocals. And yeah, the moral consciousness is reassuring.

Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor's Guide to Earth (Atlantic) [c]
Morose country from a 37 year-old man straining to sound at least twenty years older, though his songs edge closer to novelty than outlaw, and his tiresome child-of-the-'90s PBR nudge-nudge reaches its awful peak with a cover of "In Bloom." I hate that song and even I'm offended by the change he made to the lyrics. It all just demonstrates: all you gotta do to get on a major these days is ensure that everyone can picture your entire career path within ten seconds of track number one.

Kevin Morby: Singing Saw (Dead Oceans)
To state the obvious, this guy was in Woods; his florid and excessive folk rock is now untempered, apparently, by band politics. The results are more listenable than, say, Father John Misty because while there's an equal dose of retro costume-jewelry insincerity, at least the self-consciousness isn't quite so damn smarmy. It's sort of like hearing Tom Petty cover a dozen of the least impressive songs Bob Dylan ever wrote.

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Tacocat: Lost Time
- Loretta Lynn: Full Circle
- Grant Lee Phillips: The Narrows
- Laura Gibson: Empire Builder
- Bombino: Azel
- Lucy Dacus: No Burden
- M83: Junk
- Samiyam: Animals Have Feelings
- A$AP Ferg: Always Strive and Prosper
- Wire: Nocturnal Koreans

REJECTS:
Meilyr Jones: 2013
Andrew Weatherall: Convenanza [NYIM]
Robert Pollard: Of Course You Are
Clark: The Last Panthers
Iggy Pop: Post Pop Depression
Fatima Al Qadiri: Brute
Eric Bachmann
Parker Millsap: The Very Last Day [NYIM]
The Thermals: We Disappear
Open Mike Eagle: Hella Personal Film Festival
White Denim: Stiff
Kiran Leonard: Grapefruit
Margo Price: Midwest Farmer's Daughter [NYIM]
Three Trapped Tigers: Silent Earthling
Black Stone Cherry: Kentucky
Autolux: Pussy's Dead
Teen Suicide: It's the Big Joyous Celebration, Let's Stir the Honeypot
The Field: The Follower
Bibio: A Mineral Love
Black Mountain: IV
Weezer: (White Album)
Moderat: III
Colin Stetson: Red Flag [NYIM]
Future of the Left: The Peace & Truce of Future of the Left
Teleman: Brilliant Sanity [NYIM]
Woods: City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Frightened Rabbit: Painting of a Panic Attack
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros: PersonA
Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop: Love Letter for Fire
Cate Le Bon: Crab Day [NYIM]
Ash Koosha: I AKA I
Xiu Xiu: Plays the Music of Twin Peaks [NYIM]
Andy Stott: Too Many Voices [NYIM]
Greys: Outer Heaven
Carlos Nino: Flutes, Echoes, It's All Happening! [NYIM]

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