Tuesday, June 14, 2016

HOLD UP: May 2016 music diary

Sorry this is so late this month! Blame Radiohead. A quick housekeeping note: I'm thrilled at the reception my Bangles "Essentials" posts got last month; after seeing how long they took me to research and write I've decided to make one slight change to my plans for the Essentials series, dealing strictly with the order in which artists will be approached. I was going strict alphabetical but I don't really fancy waiting till I'm 50 to write at length about, like, Yo La Tengo (and yes, I do plan to keep writing this blog in my fifties and after, thankyouverymuch), so I'm actually going to prioritize the handful of favorites with the largest amount of material I want to cover, then we'll go on from there in descending order with the big guns coming up first. Not necessarily my absolute favorite bands -- Chuck Berry and Little Richard, to name two that spring to mind, are a bit more important to me than some of the first few Essentials artists but the parts of their catalogs I care most about aren't quite as exhaustive -- but the ones who've released so many classic and rewarding albums and compilations and such that they tend to dominate my shelves, playlists and brain. I very seriously doubt you'll be surprised by the first three performers we address; after that, well, stay tuned.

***

Beyoncé: Lemonade (Columbia) [hr]
There's more here than on the more musically adventurous Beyoncé that feels superficial; engaging as it all may be, a country song about gun-toting Daddy and a proclamation of master-capitalistic "black Bill Gates"-dom are oddly tone-deaf coming from this corner in 2016. Treating it as the relationship concept record it really is, though, it's both surprisingly explicit in its pain and genuinely moving. The eccentricity of the previous album pokes its head out here and there in production terms, but this is mostly about songcraft, storytelling, a exorcism with millions' eyes pointed toward it. That doesn't mean the trapped-feeling emotional emptiness on "Pray You Catch Me," the tearful anger of "Don't Hurt Yourself" and the open-armed redemption of "All Night" haven't been carefully tweaked and calculated by the world's biggest popular artist to become something universal. In this element, though, we find not insincerity but the uncanny ability to render private castastrophe into public catharsis not directed at -- this isn't a brooding song cycle -- but meant to be shared with a mass audience. Almost everyone has most assuredly been through infidelity in some form, usually on both sides of it; almost everyone can feel the pain, hate and anger that emanate here and that thereby erase the multitudes of wealth separating Beyoncé's (and Jay-Z's) life experience from our own. There's a lot of powerful, familiar stuff in that acerbic, wounded first half, but the conditional making up in "All Night" showcases an ability to funnel complicated emotional evolution and adult depth into pop song form worthy of Smokey Robinson. I'm sure you could read "Nothing real can be threatened / true love breathes salvation back into me" as trite, but not if you've ever lived through it, and certainly not the way she sings it.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: Nonagon Infinity (Heavenly) [NO]
I have security measures in place to prevent myself from ever having to hear music like this, but I guess I need to reevaluate them.

Kaytranada: 99.9% (XL) [r]
A carousel of joy from the trip hop revival DJ; it sounds great on a night drive. Having wanted something like this to happen on this scale for years, I only wish it went harder and further in the full-on 1997 direction. Credit to Kaytranada, though, for starting an international conversation about the woeful absence of trip hop from all of our lives in the 2010s. I know that you'll feel better when you send us in a comment and tell us the name of your favorite deep-cut trip hop gems.

Anohni: Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian) [r]
A surprisingly literal series of rants and raves -- about war and politics as often as anything more intimate -- from the former Antony peaks on "4 Degrees," which sounds like some lost mid-'80s Kate Bush cut and is truly exhilarating. Anohni's always had one of the best voices in modern recorded music and she absolutely soars here, though the most culturally significant moment on offer might be the cut on which she gives the current president a serious ticking off. Her grievances are of course sound -- drone bombs, no protection for whistle-blowers, assassination programs -- and if you're remotely conscious of left-wing politics you're aware of them, but the way "Obama" renders them is genuinely unsettling, quite horrible in its commanding, confrontational surrealism. "The hope drained from your face" is a hell of a symbol and a striking wake-up from the fantasy of 2008. I skipped the song the first couple of times because I just couldn't handle the vocal gurgling, but it does pin you to your seat. Other such heights are sporadic here, but not absent.

White Lung: Paradise (Domino)
'70s-derived, metallic hard rock flies in and out with an eye toward the arena as much as the club. The hooks aren't absent but Sheer Mag's come faster and crunchier. Still, this is solid and won't have / hasn't had any trouble finding its ideal cult. Ch ch ch ch cherry bomb.

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool (s/r) [r]
This musically dense, cloudy-day breakup album is a semi-return to the florid Radiohead of the early-to-mid-2000s. Thom Yorke has never sung more beautifully or with more urgent passion, and the album routinely flirts with the ethereal beauty of the likes of "Pyramid Song" or "Street Spirit" without the existential fatalism; its specific miseries are far more pragmatic. Extending on that premise, though, its best moments call back all but explicitly to Radiohead Greatest Hits -- "The Numbers" is "Optimistic" part deux, "Identikit" a veritable "Idioteque" for the '10s and "True Love Waits" was of course written more than twenty years ago and has been a fan favorite for almost the entire time. There are surely conceptual reasons for all this nostalgia, namely that one of the relationships that probably helped make In Rainbows one of the most unabashedly romantic albums ever issued by a mainstream rock band has dissolved after two decades, now the subject of mournful epitaphs like "Daydreaming" and "Glass Eyes," and so the two similarly gorgeous, melodically restless recordings present two sides of an upsetting coin. The result is an hour of mood music, retaining the relaxed modesty of their last two wonderful records but without the openness of In Rainbows and the beat-driven sensuality of The King of Limbs, or the economy of either. It has spoken to many and will continue to, but its songs wither and float away from these ears the same way Hail to the Thief did, only I never once want to turn this off while it's playing. All a roundabout way of saying that I like this but I either can't hum its tunes or don't wanna. I love this band, one of the only childhood obsessions that's still with me, and I think they're fully committed to these morose laments, and I hope they feel better soon.

Modern Baseball: Holy Ghost (Run for Cover)
This is emo. Not "emo" in the mall-rock Hot Topic sense but the real-ass thing; it might actually not be an accident that this Philadelphia band's name is two or three inches away from American Football. Vocals and guitar chords and the general depressive mood of it all take me right back to fall of freshman year '98. I didn't listen to this kinda thing but it was swirling around. Brendan Lukens sounds a hell of a lot like John Samson from the late lamented Weakerthans. It's all very serious stuff -- I'm not really in the audience anymore but I'm not supposed to be, and taking this in the context of what it is and all expectations thereby implied, it's quite good.

Jessy Lanza: Oh No (Hyperdub) [r]
Ontario singer's sophomore album confines all its best tricks to the first three songs: twinkly toy-store pop, the absurdly fun "VV Violence" with lively chanting and a sound like c. 1985 R&B, and "Never Enough," which is like someone decided to cover Depeche Mode's "Lie to Me" while committing the verboten atrocity of enjoying it. The rest is increasingly pedestrian dance music, some of it Grimesy, some of it just boring, but it's hard not to at least mildly like a record with such a strong opening sequence.

James Blake: The Colour in Anything (Universal) [NO]
Here's a dude whose fame makes less and less sense as the decade rolls on. His second real LP, all costume-jewelry R&B and pathetically self-absorbed Bon Iver-like balladry, starts to get annoying after barely fifty seconds, but I held out -- more than once, even -- in tireless service to you, the reader. It is morose, whiny, butt-stupid and instantly dated, and it's the only album a Certain Type of Person is going to listen to this year. Blake is the cautionary tale of what happens if Dad doesn't tell your brother to stop trying to rearrange Elton John songs on his tinkly-ass Yamaha keyboard at the kitchen table. Total length: 76:13.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (Matador)
More Titus Andronicus than Ric Ocasek, this elaborately constructed, mildly psychedelic adolescent macho hellscape has a sort of swaggering integrity about it but that doesn't really save it from being fatally overextended and familiar. Virginia native Will Toledo was a lo-fi architect but has moved on to using the studio as an instrument for echo chamber teen angst; one more bedroom pop enthusiast becomes one more overly processed and AOR-derived indie rock band. That's "indie rock" in the sense that olds are always whining it really isn't anymore, like the people who still think reading Chunklet is edgy af. I guess there's some novelty in this day and age to this sort of muscular traditionalist exercise, but it doesn't hold my interest for even half of its length -- which is, in total: 70:07.

Bob Dylan: Fallen Angels (Columbia)
Enough with the trolling. The most fanatical Dylan acolyte -- and increasingly I consider myself one -- is not interested in hearing him take on the greatest hits of the crooners and the heavy hitters from the Great American Songbook, yet here we are for some unfathomable reason. His vocal performance is somewhat more relaxed, and therefore more appealing, than on Shadows in the Night, and he imbues his interpretations with obvious reverence for the material; the album has an admirably still, laid-back ambiance. But you can't sincerely take it as anything except some act of resignation and a misguided cop to Dylan's increasingly AARP audience; it has so little to do with anything that makes him a cultural force worth knowing in the first place that it's hard to know what to make of it, or to think of it as anything except a hardcore fans-only diversion. He simply doesn't put enough of emotional consequence across in his versions to give you even the first reason to listen to his ragged singing in lieu of bloody Sinatra's. (Jesus, at least cover somebody who's remotely in your range.)

Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book (s/r) [r]
I thought Chance's older stuff was annoyingly flighty and, in that weird shruggy "lol wtf!" manner of so much so-called "hipster rap," very much up its own ass. This is very different; it's still as long-winded as mixtapes usually are, but its effervescence really does firmly place him as a singular artist, or at least a singular puller-together of hooks, pop and talent. If anything it's the closest analogue out this year to the purely joyful, archetypal early '80s R&B record -- in which regard it's more convincing than Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, the Foreign Exchange, or Kwabs, and almost equal to even somebody as brilliant and crafty as Kelis -- but it's also too relaxed to come across as ambitious, which works both for and against it. It's as committed to vibe as any R&B, pop or hip hop record in recent memory -- it's quite a ride to take, soaring and plodding with great rhythm and pacing, not to mention well-injected charm -- without falling into the inevitably limited stoner-jam stereotype. An odd, unexpected pleasure.

Zo!: Skybreak (Foreign Exchange) [r]
Speaking of... While people keep giving dullard non-entity acts like Porches a bunch of copy space, at least the likes of the Foreign Exchange and Zo! find ways to appropriate the sort of bland "adult-targeted" music that is actually occasionally fun to listen to. A delightfully outdated, easygoing dance record with a touch of lite jazz and very little memorable material but some wicked Stevie Wonder-ish keyb flourishes here and there, this is kind of like throwing some DeBarge in with those UltraLounge compilations. Queue it up in your space-age bachelor pad on your next hot date.

Samiyam: Animals Have Feelings (Stones Throw) [hr]
A gritty cycle of obscure and troubling but consistently engaging samples constructed into a long Donuts-style cycle of weird, tense sonics by this L.A. hip hop production vet. There are tons of beats here that shouldn't flow or scan naturally but hardly any cut, idea or tangent wears out its welcome, and the sporadic guest shots from the likes of Action Bronson and Earl Sweatshirt are well-placed even if you don't care much for the performers themselves. This is also an impressively malleable record, working readily as background, jittery dance, or intensely pored-over headphone music, expertly mounted and ingeniously fused together whatever the case. It's often not just the material itself but the way it's filtered, manipulated, fucked up by Samiyam that gives the record such an intriguing moodiness. Speaking as someone who got sick of junk-culture sample albums a long time ago, this is the real deal, a beat-heavy answer of sorts to Flying Lotus' last LP.

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Imarhan
* The Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust
* Pity Sex: White Hot Moon
* Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
- Konono No. 1: Meets Batida
- Kacy & Clayton: Strange Country
- Nothing: Tired of Tomorrow
- Yak: Alas Salvation
- Mark Pritchard: Under the Sun
- Oddisee: The Odd Tape
- Andy Shauf: The Party
- Pantha du Prince: The Triad

REJECTS
Grant Lee Phillips: The Narrows [NYIM]
M83: Junk
Wire: Nocturnal Koreans
John Doe: The Westerner [NYIM]
Brian Eno: The Ship
The Bo-Keys: Heartaches by the Number
Freeway: Free Will
Gregory Porter: Take Me to the Alley [NYIM]
Julianna Barwick: Will
LUH: Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing
Dan Michaelson & the Coastguards: Memory
Pierce the Veil: Misadventures
Jameszoo: Fool
Karl Blau: Introducing
Twin Peaks: Down in Heaven
Eagulls: Ullages
Corinne Bailey Rae: The Heart Speaks in Whispers
The So So Glos: Kamikaze
Mudcrutch: 2 [NYIM]
Saosin: Along the Shadow
Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman
Marissa Nadler: Strangers

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Expanding the diary format slightly to include these, rather than have one huge post collecting them at the end of the year. These are good albums I didn't have time to listen to more than once or twice but still feel comfortable recommending and commenting on briefly. Here's everything from the first five months of 2016 and the last couple of 2015.

Basia Bulat: Good Advice (Secret City) [Canadian pop autoharpist erupts with not-always-perfectly-mounted hooks; "Long Goodbye" / "La La Lie"]
Venice Dawn/Adrian Younge: Something About April II (Linear Labs) [psychedelic soul-Muzak with a Peaches & Herb/Free Design '70s sheen; catnip for me of course]
Sidestepper: Supernatural Love (Society of Sound) [at first you're thinking agh South American music rendered all too EZ for US ears, but then its easy vibe gets under your skin; "Lover"]
Field Music: Commontime (Memphis Industries) [tricky OMDisms, solid sythery]
Rokia Traore: Ne So (Nonesuch) [excessively polite, but great voice]
Mavis Staples: Livin' on a High Note (Anti-) [brilliantly ragged performance, stunning guitar work; "Action" / "MLK Song" / "Jesus Lay Down Beside Me"]
Lapsley: Long Way Home (XL) [R&B trip hop / skater rink dreams at first, then it gets pretty nasty, though she always plays it cool as a cucumber; "Hurt Me" / "Operator (He Doesn't Call Me)"]
Glenn Jones: Fleeting (Thrill Jockey) [bunny strums idly]
Tacocat: Lost Time (Hardly Art) [pop-punk that won't make you spew, with lyrics that tickle; "Talk" / "Night Swimming"]
Loretta Lynn: Full Circle (Columbia) [that voice, an inexhaustible instrument]
Bombino: Azel (Partisan) [as they (we) say during library storytime, get your wiggles out]
Laura Gibson: Empire Builder (Barsuk) [always pleasant, sometimes probing singer-songwriter; "Damn Sure" / "Two Kids" / "The Last One"]
Lucy Dacus: No Burden (EggHunt) [a voice that cuts you down as soon as you're lulled into complacency]
A$AP Ferg: Always Strive and Prosper (RCA) [portrait of a modern rock star: cuts loose and goes apeshit then feels guilty about it; "Strive" / "Let You Go"]

ORPHAN TUNES:
Sideline to the above, songs I liked on albums I didn't (badly reviewed or rejected from consideration), or other tracks I picked up on other places.

Brian Eno "I'm Set Free" {Velvet Underground cover} [The Ship]
Iggy Pop "Sunday" [Post Pop Depression]
Robert Pollard "My Daughter Yes She Knows" [Of Course You Are]

******

The next Essentials installment should be ready by sometime next week. There may or may not be something else cool showing up between that and the June post, too. Thanks all!