Monday, November 28, 2016

At the mercy of men's fevered dreams: August 2016 music diary

What can I do except admit openly that I've failed miserably in my attempt to stay on schedule here and to get multiple new features of this blog going, despite putting as many hours in as ever, and that I probably won't have a year-end post ready by December 31, for the third year in a row? It's the New Normal -- I'd already more or less decided that after the great experiment of Keeping Up for a Decade ended in another three years, I was going to scale back on trolling multiple reviewing outlets and aggregators each and every week and would move toward a system in which I'd check in more sporadically and rely on others' year-end lists, similar to what I already have to do at my movie blog. There's just not enough time for one person to do this with any thoroughness while working full time -- unless we completely abandon writing about the older music that's my real passion, and I don't want to do that; it's half the reason I started this thing. Then again, it was putting the extra time in that led me to so much spectacular music in the last several years from Kate Tempest to the Wave Pictures to (below) Anthony Joseph, none of whom showed up in most of the usual places, and they're hardly alone. There's also the fact that I may have miscalculated when writing my Beach Boys discography about how hard it would be to juggle it with other stuff -- I didn't even try, which might have been a mistake. When I start working on the Beatles in a couple of months we'll see if I can get my act together. But I am sorry everything's been delayed so much; I do care, and I will #DoBetter.

In this godawful year (which, perversely, has been a pretty lovely one in my personal life) we've lost yet another hero, Leonard Cohen, just about my favorite performer active and at a creative zenith during my own consciousness. The idea of losing Cohen, Prince and David Bowie in a single year would seem ridiculous if Criswell or someone predicted it, but here we are. I wrote a long thing about Cohen at my other blog. I did not write about the election. I can't write or think about it right now, but I can't ignore it either. Give money (Planned Parenthood, ACLU, SPLC, local immigrant assistance associations, independent journalists, local causes you believe in), give time, march if you can, pay attention on a local level, help the people you know, help strangers, fight this fucking thing, and keep doing the things that keep you sane. What else can you do? If you know, tell me.

Nao: For All We Know (RCA) [r]
To begin with, I must own up to my skepticism about this London R&B singer-songwriter-producer upon the release of her February 15 EP last year; once again, I completely miscalculated and she's pretty fucking amazing. At its best her debut album carries forward funk as a living organism, a feverish missive into the known world from someplace far more perfect. It's very front-loaded and flags badly around two thirds in, but the confidence and excitement on the peaks "Adore You" and "Get to Know Ya" is well balanced by propulsive and sensual moments throughout the first half, and there aren't really any outright weak songs, it just all blends together and wanders off, feeling longer than its 53 minutes. But Nao's multifaceted talent -- she's not just good but great at everything she tries here -- is a rare thing; despite the collaborations and outside producers, she's capable of being wholly self-contained and I expect she'll move in that direction. Up to around "Bad Blood," this is a contender for the year's best R&B album -- which in a year with A Seat at the Table is saying a great deal.

Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World (Mais Um Discos) [r]
Vitality and open weirdness to spare in this lean collection by 79 year-old Brazilian singer Soares. This is the sound of an unwillingness to submit: vulgar, creatively restless, insatiable. It isn't hugely accessible but the right people will get it.

Jamila Woods: HEAVN (Closed Sessions) [r]
A poet and academic from Chicago, Woods' lovely voice has shown up on high-profile tracks by Chance the Rapper and, uh, Macklemore; her own debut, available for free on Soundcloud, shows her confident and often adventurous on songs that bat playfully at familiar hooks, lines and ideas while spinning them all into something distinctive. The production is rather generic at times, and the album like so many others of recent vintage tends toward clutter, but it's consistently good and worth hearing. Props for the Feist interpolation.

Fantasia: The Definition Of... (RCA) [r]
I'm a sucker for Fantasia Barrino's voice; cred or no, I think she sings better and more effortlessly than almost anybody else out there right now, and her albums tend to be uncluttered and solid. This is no exception but I have to admit that it sounds wonderful while it's on -- do not underestimate the power of economy -- then fades off forgotten, especially compared to other R&B albums I've been listening to at the same time, which are more difficult and frayed but unmistakably more creative. Probably she needs better hooks, better writers, better producers, whatever; this is still a blast, I don't care.

Thee Oh Sees: A Weird Exits (Castle Face) [r]
Pure rock & roll that doubles down on the art of the wandering, aimless dirge that Carl Perkins couldn't fit on a 45 and wouldn't have wanted to if he could. Still, this is almost nostalgic in its flexing of fantastic guitar muscle. It came out in the summer but its indulgent gifts seem like the music of this moment to me, the sound of zoning out but not being able to forget.

Ryley Walker: Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)
Walker's folksy Grateful Dead-isms weren't my bag in the first place, but good is good and his immersive, evocative Primrose Green was an album I carried with me everywhere last year. For certain folks this leaner (if you don't count a 38-minute live cut at the end, and please don't) follow-up might work equally well, but taking Walker's generally weak lyrics ("played footsie with Jesus") to the center stage isn't a great choice. And while the atmosphere remains haunting and towering, the songs themselves don't beckon me in the same way and the instrumental passages that wander off into noodling are just too much, but I can cheerfully chalk some of this up to my own biases about this sort of meandering and suggest you at least check in if you liked his other stuff.

Lydia Loveless: Real (Bloodshot) [hr]
Somewhere Else struggled to come out from under its ordinary Nashville sheen, but Loveless was always the real thing and she proves it once and for all with this collection of shatteringly personal songs that comprise the best conventional country album I've heard this decade. Its pace doesn't hold up for the full duration and it's still slicker than I'd like, but that doesn't do a thing to dissipate the magnetic power of Loveless' writing and singing, the utterly persuasive sound of eternal youth stymied by pensive fear and lack of opportunity. This is true Americana, a landscape of frozen Walmart*s and hospital bills, and the smoking, cursing act of existing anyway. She's refined her methods somewhat and this is a lot subtler than her older stuff; the melodies taunt and tease in their freewheeling despair even when they're backing up lyrics about lust ("Out on Love," "Heaven") and the tapestry is rich and novelistic, the claims people are always making for various singer-songwriter albums that can never live up to them.

Frank Ocean: Blonde (s/r) [r]
I'm sorry to report that in the four years since Channel Orange (four years magnified by a legion of abruptly gathered obsessives who've apparently never had to wait for anything in their lives, not to sound like a neocon) Ocean's not become anything he wasn't already: a hugely talented and creative performer with no ability to edit himself, and no one else around to do it either. By far the superior of the two records he put out (only bother with the other one if you're already a full convert), Blonde has better singing and stronger production and an obviously renewed sense of confidence, and why not, since he released one of the most universally praised albums of the decade? But the overexcitement over that album has led him down this strange path whereby he's released two more terribly cluttered records full of half-baked ideas, not one of which is as strongly developed as the three or four signature songs on Orange. In fairness, the clutter problem has affected the overwhelming majority of high-profile R&B albums in the last couple of years, but that was prompted surely in part by Ocean's own contributions. Maybe it's grouchy of me to demand this of someone more gifted in his sleep than I am on five Excedrin, but focus, man.

Anthony Joseph: Caribbean Roots (Heavenly Sweetness) [hr]
Well, this is everything: fifty year-old British avant garde poet (with a Ph.D. in creative writing!) Joseph has apparently been nailing down this exuberant meld of spoken word, worldbeat and funk all the way back to the '90s and he seems to attract mostly cafe-jazz cultists -- and there are indeed strokes of NPR liteness here and there, as on "Brother Davis," easily excused -- but look beyond the smoke and you'll find the most relentless and provocative dance record of the year, channelling Fela Kuti and Stevie Wonder in music that sounds utterly timeless and incredibly inviting but also fearless, incisive. As a poet he has the passion and fury of an angry young organizer with an eye to justice, but he carries along with him the philosophical distance and wisdom of a Leonard Cohen or Gil Scott-Heron. His songs and stories mark this as folk music with the weight of history behind it, but the energy takes it elsewhere: so if you want to hear them as such, there's pure pop frenzy in instantly infectious tunes like "Neckbone" and probing moments of unbridled funk in many others such as "Jimmy, Upon That Bridge." Taken as a whole, it's all kaleidoscopic and life-affirming but incredibly bleak, proud but unwilling to provide escape. Joseph can lay out the conundrums of a vile white supremacist planet with moral cleanliness: "How come all the monuments... were built by those that colonize and enslave me?" As it is for so many writers faced with times like these, the answer is only an abstract one: "there was something in that light," and any relief is as fleeting as the bliss of this brilliant music. The album takes its time, running over an hour, but every protracted moment of tense drama is well worth it. Please don't miss.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
- Shura: Nothing's Real (Polydor) - trip-hop adult contemporary to restore the feelings of being in the world twenty years ago, and how seductive and meaningful that innocent abandon really was ["Touch" / "Nothing's Real" / "White Light"]
- BadBadNotGood: IV (Beat)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Phonte / Eric Robertson: Tigallero
* Haley Bonar: Impossible Dream
Viola Beach
Owen: The King of Whys
Rival Consoles: Night Melody
Nels Cline: Lovers
Blossoms
Hieroglyphic Being: The Disco's of Imhotep
Marconi Union: Ghost Stations
Rae Sremmurd: SremmLife 2
Slow Club: One Day All of This Won't Matter Any More
Factory Floor: 25 25

REJECTS:
Ian William Craig: Centres
Gucci Mane: Everybody Looking
Rhyton: Redshift
Floating Points: Kuiper EP
Descendents: Hypercaffium Spazzinate [NYIM]
Wye Oak: Tween [NYIM]
65daysofstatic: No Man's Sky
Wild Beasts: Boy King
Dinosaur Jr.: Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
Nonkeen: Oddments of the Gamble
Horseback: Dead Ringers
The Moles: Tonight's Music
Young the Giant: Home of the Strange
Katie Dey: Flood Network
Black Foxxes: I'm Not Well
John Paul White: Beulah [NYIM]
Lisa Hannigan: At Swim [NYIM]
Sam Coomes: Bugger Me
Thadia Zedek: Eve [NYIM]
Ed Harcourt: Furnaces
Frank Ocean: Endless [NYIM]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS WEEK:
David Bowie (1967) [-]

***

Stay with me, I will continue to plug away and try vainly to make sense of the recent past. Xoxo.

Friday, November 4, 2016

I want something to eat: July 2016 music diary

Won't be able to log reviews of them for a few weeks yet but I strongly advise you to listen to nothing but Danny Brown and Kate Tempest's albums for the rest of the year -- they've rendered everything else all but irrelevant for me -- with perhaps a side of Nicolas Jaar and Leonard Cohen. On another topic: please please please please read my Beach Boys stuff.

***

The Avett Brothers: True Sadness (Island) [r]
These guys got a deal with a major so they could turn into Counting Crows. Honestly though, I really liked Counting Crows in the '90s and against my better judgment I like this too. I don't remember how many albums it's been since I and Love and You, which is a lovely, mature record right on the precipice of expanding a sound for a bigger audience without completely violating their rootsy, honest, open writing, but like so many alt-country units (as I've mentioned before, I strongly dispute the "alt" label for this band; yes, they cater to the same crowd, but their work is much purer and almost entirely foregoes the "outlaw" imagery so beloved of their elders and peers) it's felt to me like they were continually bowing to the more-of-the-same demands from cultists. I know those people and pleasing them is not a good way to make interesting music. Fortunately, this blander, sleeker folk-rock record feels as frank and direct as Emotionalism and the like, even if it's on a far lower tier musically. I can't defend this strongly but it's very hard to dislike, and there's still the same poetic paranoia in the lyrics if you listen for it.

Deerhoof: The Magic (Polyvinyl)
As eclectic and disorganized as ever; Deerhoof is the White Album rendered as an entire career, though in their schlockier moments they flirt with the worst sort of easy, adolescent cynicism. They're easy to admire and hard to love, maybe because they're no great shakes as songwriters and their best work is "written" in the sound of studio tomfoolery. This new record has a few good moments, usually when it sounds like Dave Grohl covering tUnE-yArDs. Honestly, Deerhoof is the poster child of bands for whom the fragmentation of music culture has been to obvious and highly visible benefit, and they've been around long enough to know it -- their followers' love for them is hopefully mutual.

Blood Orange: Freetown Sound (Domino) [r]
It was already proven on Cupid Deluxe if not earlier still that Dev Hynes has the masquerade game down, a cornucopia of decades' worth of R&B processed through the tripped-out glitz and distance of Great Britain. In other words, the multi-instrumentalist's aesthetics are flawless, and as with Frank Ocean's Blonde, snip this record down to its first half and you might not believe the stuff you're thinking: that he loves not just the music I love but the things about it that I love. Like so many lengthy new albums, it loses the plot, gets sleepy and belabors itself in a way that starts to seem almost grotesque, and it's again a triumph of style over depth despite its streak of freak-flag individualism, but there's so much here to treasure. On "Augustine," Maxwell meets Moby meets Enya; the nocturnal hooks of "Best to You" top anything I've heard on the radio this year; "E.V.P." is blessed with a beat and keyboard histrionics that feel like Bernie Worrell rising from the grave; and "But You" is the sort of gentle, freeing ballad that still bumps in the best "The Lady in My Life" tradition. There are more moments that sound like fallen fragments of hits and classics we've yet to know on "Hands Up" and "Hadron Collider." At its best this is brilliant, and utterly persuasive as a step forward for its author -- but less would be so much more.

G.L.O.S.S.: Trans Day of Revenge (Total Negativity EP)
Busy with other stuff earlier in the year, I missed the whole story here which started with this showing up immediately after the awful Orlando nightclub shooting -- if you can parse out its message, it advocates against pacifism on the part of LGBTQ victims of prejudice -- and ended with the band imploding by the end of the summer, relative anonymity not having been enough to retain a feeling of safety, especially after Pitchfork broadly expanded their stage. This will probably be important years from now as an artifact of the most awful aspects of our time; taken strictly as a piece of music, it's too screamy for this guy and I can't review it cogently.

The Avalanches: Wildflower (astralwerks)
And speaking of less would be more: one of the most eagerly and justifiably awaited records of the century is... not boring exactly, but exhausting. The public conception by the Avalanches' account is of a walk through a busy downtown area a la Touch of Evil, leading to an LSD trip that lifts us all off the ground. Thus we spend the first third with some exciting, if disappointly conventional, festivals of hooks and samples like the klezmer-infected "Frankie Sinatra" (boasting a terrific Danny Brown interlude) and "Because I'm Me." You can carp about how surprisingly familiar and even obvious some of the sample choices are (the Honey Cone's disco masterpiece "Want Ads" and the Bar-Kays' mined-to-death "Sang and Dance" make appearances, as does a chorus of kids singing "Come Together"; I'm half-surprised they didn't throw in "Genius of Love") but the intoxicating grit and exuberance of those first several tracks suggests a level of restlessness right in line with the perfectly infallible Since I Left You. But roundabout the time the drugs kick in the whole thing collapses into an interminable collection of Beautiful Music cues by way of the Free Design or worse, Spanky & Our Gang. How is it possible that a high-tech 2016 conception of drugginess can be so vastly less interesting or edgy than "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Eight Miles High"? This might be a fun, brief avenue in the record, but it completely swallows it. You think it's almost over and there's nine or ten songs left, the only breaks in the monotony being the fun but formulaic "Frontier Psychiatrist" sequel "The Noisy Eater" and an irresistibly beautiful finale called "Saturday Night Inside Out." This seems like a classic case of overthinking, if anything, which results in a record that hammers its thin point incessantly. Against the odds, the Avalanches were upstaged on the year's best cut and paste job by Samiyam.

The Julie Ruin: Hit Reset (Hardly Art) [r]
Coming off one of the most engaging guitar albums of the last few years, Run Fast, Kathleen Hanna and her cohorts double down on that record's moderate abrasiveness. She has no problem annoying you, driving the '80s garage hooks on songs like "Mr. So and So" and "Planet You" right under your nails. Those hooks do stay in place though, no matter how much the band tries to demolish them -- by the second time through you'll be humming or yelling along with "I Decide," "Rather Not" and "Let Me Go" at the very least. I miss the feeling of easy triumph I got from "Oh Come On," "Just My Kind" and "Run Fast," but given how many times Hanna's been derailed by health problems, her defiance is inescapably admirable, and standing your ground might be just as respectable a maneuver as towering.

Michael Kiwanuka: Love & Hate (Interscope) [r]
29 year-old British R&B singer Kiwanuka has a breadth of influence spanning the entire history of rock and soul music; his work goes down smoothly but at times shows off complex, adventurous arrangements and left-field songs that coax and tease without resolving, like "One More Night" and "Love & Hate," which devolves into a simple chant that grows increasingly distorted, the kind of weird stunt you'd never anticipate in this context. Indeed, what makes this record valuable despite how easy it is to enjoy is the ample tension in it, much of it coming -- in the age-old story -- from being "a black man in a white world."

Maxwell: blackSUMMER'Snight (Columbia) [r]
One of the bigger surprises of 2016, with the former superstar neo-soul singer-songwriter-producer who was ubiquitous on radio twenty years ago issuing his first record this decade, one of the subtlest and most provocative mainstream LPs of recent vintage. It's not quite on the same level as Black Messiah -- much of Maxwell's attention is still focused on low-lit bedrooms, which is not necessarily a less noble cause than the fear, sex and dread in D'Angelo's sprawling magnum opus, but Maxwell seems so much healthier and less dysfunctional that even interpersonal stress doesn't seem to shake him into a paranoid state -- but musically at least, it shows the same willingness to withhold relief in favor of the subtle drama of calamitous, intricate groove. It gets repetitive in the last third, but "Fingers Crossed," "Hostage" and "Gods" are impressively haunting, precarious constructions.

ScHoolboy Q: Blank Face LP (Interscope)
Never found this guy exceptionally trustworthy. Rap operas about The Life are already a hard sell at this point, but especially when you get the weird feeling so much of what you're hearing is a put-on, and so much of the rest of it is just weak ("THat Part," complete with one of the worst verses in Kanye West's recorded career). There is some decent, varied production but in a year with so much great hip hop, ScHoolboy neither innovates nor coasts confidently. And once again, I get why people are annoyed by this criticism, but this album is so fucking long. Since I already find him irritating, though, you might well hear something else in this.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED
William Tyler: Modern Country (Merge) - unassuming guitar vibes with the occasional heroic move, definitely one for the silent scoring file; Tyler is excellent live, if you have the opportunity
William Bell: This Is Where I Live (Stax) - at 77, still full of energy; a set of laid-back, ingratiating takes, only a lukewarm cover of "Born Under a Bad Sign" really failing... at its best, like a great drink in a dive bar
Beth Orton: Kidsticks (Anti-) - nothing that will surprise you, but engrossing and smart
Allen Toussaint: American Tunes (Nonesuch) - on his final recording, the usual peacetime piano with a haunting dimension of present past

ORPHAN TUNES:
Kate Jackson "The End of Reason" [British Road Movies]

***

REJECTS:
Tony Joe White: Rain Crow [NYIM]
Flue: Skin
The Hotelier: Goodness [NYIM]
Big Thief: Masterpiece
Daniel Romano: Mosey
The Monkees: Good Times! [NYIM]
Kate Jackson: British Road Movies
Cat's Eyes: Treasure House
Mick Harvey: Delirium Tremens
Fennesz: It's Hard for Me to Say I'm Sorry [NYIM]
GØGGS
Beyond the Wizards Sleeve: The Soft Bounce
Metronomy: Summer 08
Martha: Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
Bat for Lashes: The Bride
Billy Clyro: Ellipsis
Roisin Murphy: Take Her Up to Monto [NYIM]
Clams Casino: 32 Levels [NYIM]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Shura: Nothing's Real
Anthony Joseph: Caribbean Roots
Ian William Craig: Centres
BadBadNotGood: IV

******