Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best Albums of 2017

Cut Copy redeems 2017 at the Music Farm in Charleston, early this month. Photo by meee.

I've had a lot of conversations about "narratives" this year. In short, I'm sick of them. In the age we're living in politically, what's even the point? 2017 isn't a straight line from 2008; we thought 2008 was positively nuts. I won't sit here and tell you that great music doesn't reflect the current moment; god, my two favorites last year -- the albums that completely defined the final month of election season and the immediate aftermath for me, in fact -- were Danny Brown's Atrocity Exhibition and Kate Tempest's Let Them Eat Chaos, both of which were about nothing if not the anguish of right-now. Looking over my 2017 list and remembering my experience with each of these records, weighed with how they come across to me now, there certainly is music that's about how it feels to live, endure or deny our collective bout of insanity. Jlin, Laurel Halo and Iglooghost amplify the idea of sensory overload until it overtakes your brain to such an extent that other music and life itself sound quaint for a time.

But life isn't quaint, it's volatile and unpredictable and harrowing in ways art can't predict. 2017 has been the year in which we functioned in the shadow of "It." I'm not just talking about what you think I'm talking about, and when I say "we" I literally mean "we," myself and my family; you can include yourself if you want. I watched an immediate family member die this year, and everything I heard or did or consumed in 2017 is in that shadow; that was our "It." The United States took decisive steps -- by no means its first -- toward fascism; it feels palpably like the first act of the fiery end of humanity more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. That was my "It," too; that was everyone's "It." One's dealings with "It" automatically generate narrative. To borrow an analogy my teenage self would deeply appreciate, the lighting crash of last November is like the moment on The Downward Spiral when there's that sudden bang and one of the two channels stays distorted for the rest of the album. That's right, the whole world became less a disaster movie than a silly concept album. Nonetheless I'm not convinced that being steeped into every detail of our own reactions to "It" is the right way to cope, to go on (not to go on as if nothing happened but simply to go on, as a character puts it in Renoir's The River) or quite frankly to make art that genuinely lasts. (Mount Eerie disagrees with me.)

There are some records with traces of activism and anxiety that of course I can hear resonating strongly across eras; after all, think of how much still-beloved music of the Nixon era is protest music. Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. -- a much more interesting and engrossing record than it initially looks to be -- chronicles a feeling of ennui in the aftermath of "It" while also sorting out internal dramas and devoting itself to just thrilling the largest possible audience. Joey Bada$$, as wide-eyed and earnest in his way as John Lennon circa Some Time in New York City while saying a great deal that both hurts to hear and needs to be vocalized, is less hesitant in his full-fledged attack on "It" and its implications; he interestingly left the supposed bangers -- which aren't nearly as good, bold or inspiring -- off the full-length and issued them as singles. Depeche Mode's strongest album in over a decade gains its vitality -- and reasserts that band's solid reliability -- through a disgust they correctly surmise is nearly universal among, we'd hope, the kind of people who think fondly of Depeche Mode.

But this is also the era in which an endlessly punchable Neo-Nazi proclaimed Mode the music of their movement -- so a band that, despite sustained popularity across decades, hasn't been in a "zeitgeist" for twenty-plus years, if ever, suddenly became headline news briefly. Dave Gahan shutting down the assertion with enjoyable nonchalance didn't change the fact that narrative was having its way. Depeche Mode was never theirs, they were ours -- and those were elastic terms, of course. "They" might be the normal kids in your high school (at mine, it meant the homophobes), or rock critics in the '80s who understood neither the band's love of Shadow Morton-sized melodrama nor their humor (which continues right through Martin Gore's soulful intonation of "oh, we're fucked" on Spirit) but one asshole says one thing and the most dependably minding-their-own-business of all megapopular bands has to react. And as an extrapolation, an opinion of Spirit was no longer just an opinion but a political statement.

On sitting down to write this essay, I realized that talking about the mood of this time and talking about the best music I heard during it were two markedly different things; as implied above, it isn't a strict distinction at all, but I would be lying if I told you that I thought our collective, constant horror at "It" and what "It" means and what "It" did to our lives and the lives of our loved ones was the essence of the full-length records I've come to truly love recently. It was hard for me to locate albums this year with a real throughline of the kind of soulfulness and consistency that keeps me yearning to return to a record again and again, to consider it as a full piece, to dissect and fall in love with it. There was so much terrific music released this year, all the same, and much of it did cope with this specific reality; but I find myself more interested in what would resonate equally across any situation, better or worse. Kendrick Lamar and Sheer Mag, to name but two, locate the universal in specifics; Nadine Shah, whose Holiday Destination is the most slept-on and vital-to-this-moment of my four A-grade records this year, delves into the personal within the political, and vice versa in a manner that exudes compassion and critical self-examination. Chastity Belt is more of the former, less of the latter, with a sometimes devastating bleakness and honesty mixed in. The thing is, not only do we need these voices now, I firmly believe we'll continue to need them. As with Depeche Mode, that's as likely to be "we" in a private sense, alone in our rooms with headphones on, as in the social, "important," buzz-clip sense; that does matter, and maybe I should be forcing it to matter more.

But immersing oneself in Slowdive, a twenty-year dormant act come back from the dead better than ever? Delighting and swooning at the most well-crafted and elaborately performed Mountain Goats record to date? (As long as I breathe I'll never forget the first time I heard the bridge kick in during "Shelved" and thought holy fuck he's committing to this.) Putting the windows down to Vince Staples at just the time of day when you know it will annoy your neighbors the most? Thrilling to the family-homemade qualities of Loyle Carner's record, being able to hear how much it means to him to be able to make it? Wanting to hug Valerie June and London O'Connor for entirely different reasons? Exploring, studying, poring over the words Sarah Cracknell sings on Saint Etienne's record and then forgetting what you've learned and just luxuriating in the longing in her voice? If none of these feelings are as timeless as the feeling of dropping the needle on Joanna Newsom's Divers or D'Angelo's Black Messiah, they're as close as we can get with so much tension in the air and so much trauma surrounding seemingly everybody in some volume. I'm not saying it doesn't matter when these things happened. I'm not saying these people don't have great stories that brought them to this point. What I'm saying is that these were musical moments I loved and they seem less alien than anything about "It," or anything surrounding "It," and they're important and good for that reason. But that doesn't make for a catchy essay about what. it. all. means.

One of my favorite bands who've been good for a long, long time recorded my favorite album of the year, which is about a semi-dead movement I mostly only know about third-hand, but its empathy and detail strike me as both intensely touching and mordantly witty -- variants on a theme that it transforms into high drama, every song remarking upon the others like on The Village Green Preservation Society. Number four was by a rapper who'd previously not done much for me, but his adoption of beats and brevity made the difference. We saw Kate Tempest, Cut Copy and the Mountain Goats play live, surrounded by others like us, all simultaneous catharsis about and respite from "It." These were my favorite albums in 2017 -- mostly concise and hard-hitting, with a lot of variance within and collectively -- and that's all there is to say, ultimately, beyond discussing and comparing our choices and swapping recommendations. Music isn't just some recreational distraction here, it's why we cope with the other shit, and what helps that coping. But does "this helped me cope" generate clicks? And can we keep doing what we do, honestly and passionately, if it doesn't?

***

Boring Statistics: Reviewed/rated 208 albums in 2017, up from 173 last year. Sampled and rejected an additional 205; total 413, down from 427 in 2016.

About the list: Highly recommended albums are bolded, and my top ten is enlarged with capsule reviews linked; anything else in the top fifty probably warrants a closer look if you have the right ears. I keep rankings throughout the year and then re-listen to everything with an A- or A grade (highly recommended) for this post, so those upper numbers are meticulously decided upon. The rankings are a lot less precise from #27 down to the hundreds, and there are some albums in the lower reaches that I only heard in full once or twice. I know that isn't ideal but I've only got so much time, and I don't think I'll steer you wrong here, as everything I put in the monthly posts is quite carefully considered. This was a good year for good albums (and great songs), not so much for excellent or great albums; but my top four could stand up in just about any year. Most years it pains me to decide which two or three favorites will have to be squeezed out of the top ten; this year it was much harder to decide what really deserved to make the cut the most. But on exploring all this material again, I'm quite happy with the final rank and I hope you enjoy perusing it.

***

50. Nicole Atkins: Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock)
49. Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop)
48. Youmi Zoumi: Willowbank (Cascine)
47. Antibalas: Where the Gods Are in Peace (Daptone)
46. The Horrors: V (Caroline)
45. (Sandy) Alex G: Rocket (Domino)
44. Surfer Blood: Snowdonia (Joyful Noise)
43. Lee Fields & the Expressions: Special Night (Big Crown)
42. William Basinski: A Shadow in Time (2062)
41. Blue Hawaii: Tenderness (Arbutus)
40. EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring (City Slang)
39. Juana Molino: Halo (Crammed Discs)
38. Angelino de Augustine: Swim Inside the Moon (Asthmatic Kitty)
37. Ben Frost: The Centre Cannot Hold (Mute)
36. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Soul of a Woman (Daptone)
35. Broken Social Scene: Hug of Thunder (Arts & Crafts)
34. Wolf Parade: Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop)
33. Diet Cig: Swear I'm Good at This (Frenchkiss)
32. Jay Som: Everybody Works (Polyvinyl)
31. Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines (Sub Pop)
30. Amber Coffman: City of No Reply (Columbia)
29. Peter Perrett: How the West Was Won (Domino)
28. Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)
27. Run the Jewels 3 (Mass Appeal)
26. The Flaming Lips: Oczy Mlody (Warner Bros.)
25. Depeche Mode: Spirit (Columbia)
24. Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star (Sub Pop)
23. The Underachievers: Renaissance (RPM)
22. Kelela: Take Me Apart (Warp)
21. Valerie June: The Order of Time (Concord)
20. London O'Connor: O∆ (s/r)
19. Saint Etienne: Home Counties (Heavenly)
18. Charly Bliss: Guppy (Barsuk)
17. Loyle Carner: Yesterday's Gone (Virgin)
16. Joey Bada$$: All-Amerikkkan Badass (Cinematic)
15. Wolf Alice: Visions of a Life (RCA)
14. Iglooghost: Neo Wax Bloom (Brainfeeder)
13. Laurel Halo: Dust (Hyperdub)
12. Songhoy Blues: Resistance (Fat Possum)
11. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (Interscope)


10. Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love
(Revolver) | A- | review

9. Cut Copy: Haiku from Zero
(astralwerks) | A- | review

8. Jlin: Black Origami
(Planet Mu) | A- | review

7. Chastity Belt: I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone
(Hardly Art) | A- | review

6. Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai
(Merge) | A- | review

5. The National: Sleep Well Beast
(4AD) | A- | review

4. Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory
(Def Jam) | A | review

3. Slowdive
(Dead Oceans) | A | review

2. Nadine Shah: Holiday Destination
(1965 Records) | A | review

1. The Mountain Goats: Goths
(Merge) | A | review

***

THE NEXT FIFTY
51. Tyler, the Creator: Flower Boy (Columbia)
52. Don Bryant: Don't Give Up on Love (Fat Possum)
53. Paramore: After Laughter (Atlantic)
54. Bicep (Ninja Tune)
55. Dalek: Endangered Philosophies (Ipecac)
56. Steve Hauschildt: Strands (Kranky)
57. Ryuichi Sakamoto: async (Milan)
58. Dawn Richard: Redemption (Local Action)
59. American Wrestlers: Goodbye Terrible Youth (Fat Possum)
60. Benjamin Clementine: I Tell a Fly (Virgin)
61. L.A. Witch (Suicide Squeeze)
62. Thurston Moore: Rock N Roll Consciousness (Caroline)
63. IFE: IIII + IIII (Discos Ifa)
64. Sylvan Esso: What Now (Loma Vista)
65. The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Concord)
66. Brian Eno: Reflection (Warp)
67. Waxahatchee: Out in the Storm (Merge)
68. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid (Western Vinyl)
69. Kelly Lee Owens (Smalltown Supersound)
70. Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)
71. Jesca Hoop: Memories Are Now (Sub Pop)
72. Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar (Virgin)
73. Bjork: Utopia (One Little Indian)
74. Feist: Pleasure (Interscope)
75. Rostam: Half-Light (Nonesuch)
76. Teen Daze: Themes for Dying Earth (Flora)
77. Visible Cloaks: Reassemblage (Rvng Intl.)
78. Trombone Shorty: Parking Lot Symphony (Blue Note)
79. Moire: No Future (Ghostly)
80. Living Colour: Shade (Megaforce)
81. Lee Gamble: Mnestic Pressure (Hyperdub)
82. Saltland: A Common Truth (Constellation)
83. Madness: Can't Touch Us Now (Universal)
84. Karriem Riggins: Headnod Suite (Stones Throw)
85. Deer Tick: Vol. 2 (Partisan)
86. Jupiter & Okwess: Kin Sonic (Glitterbeat)
87. Vagabon: Infinite Worlds (Father/Daughter)
88. Tinariwen: Elwan (Anti-)
89. The Clientele: Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge)
90. Zara McFarland: Arise (Brownswood)
91. Spoon: Hot Thoughts (Matador)
92. Blondie: Pollinator (BMG)
93. Denzel Curry: Imperial (Loma Vista)
94. Romare: Love Songs, Pt. 2 (Ninja Tune)
95. Portico Quartet: Art in the Age of Automation (Gondwana)
96. Gas: Narkopop (Kompakt)
97. This Is the Kit: Moonshine Freeze (Rough Trade)
98. Bonobo: Migration (Ninja Tune)
99. Mogwai: Every Country's Son (Temporary Residence)
100. FaltyDL Heaven Is for Quitters (Beat)

ALSO RECOMMENDED IN 2017
Floating Points: Reflections - Mojave Desert (Pluto)
Loscil: Monument Builders (Kranky)
Oddisee: The Iceberg (Mello Music)
The xx: I See You (Young Turks)
The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch)
Lupe Fiasco: Drogas Light (Thirty Tigers)
SOHN: Rennen (4AD)
Ibeyi: Ash (XL)
The Heliocentrics: A World of Masks (Soundway)
Goldfrapp: Silver Eye (Mute)
Lindstrom: It's Alright Between Us as It Is (Smalltown Supersound)
Dizzee Rascal: Raskit (Universal)
Hauschka: What If (Temporary Residence)
Crystal Fairy (Ipecac)
Simian Mobile Disco: Welcome to Sideways (Delicacies)
Chuck Berry: Chuck (Dualtone)
Golden Retriever: Rotations (Thrill Jockey)
Freddie Gibbs: You Only Live 2wice (ESGN)
Sherwood & Pinch: Man vs. Sofa (On-U)
Jacques Green: Feel Infinite (LuckyMe)
PVT: New Spirit (felte)
Blanck Mass: World Eater (Sacred Bones)
TOPS: Sugar at the Gate (Arbutus)
Orchestra Baobob: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit)
Allison Crutchfield: Tourist in This Town (Merge)
Destroyer: ken (Merge)
Molly Burch: Please Be Mine (Captured Tracks)
Beach Fossils: Somersault (Bayonet)
Actress: AZD (Ninja Tune)
Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion (Because)
Do Make Say Think: Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)
Sufjan Stevens/Bryce Dessner/Nico Muhly/James McAlister: Planetarium (4AD)
Samiyam: Pizza Party (Stones Throw)
Ty Segall (Drag City)
Les Amazones D'Afrique: Republique Amazone (Real World)
Forest Swords: Compassion (Ninja Tune)
Spiral Stairs: Doris & the Daggers (Domino)
Alison Moyet: Other (Cooking Vinyl)
Curren$y: The Fo20 Massacre (s/r)
The Shins: Heartworms (Sony)
Big Thief: Capacity (Saddle Creek)
Pond: The Weather (Marathon Artists)

***

EPs THAT SHOULD BE IN THE TOP TEN ALBUMS LIST
Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La (Customs)
Jlin: Dark Lotus (Planet Mu) [only two tracks, the second on Black Origami, but it was here first]
Holy Fuck: Bird Brains (Innovative Leisure)

OTHER EPs RECOMMENDED IN 2017
Rolling Blackouts C.F.: Talk Tight (Sub Pop 2016)
Kamasi Washington: Harmony of Difference (Young Turks)
The Mountain Goats: Marsh Witch Visions (s/r)
Anohni: Paradise (Secretly Canadian)

******

Sometime in the next week, we reflect with the List of Lists. In January, we reflect with a new series; later this year, the Essentials return. And at the end of 2018, it will be time already to start thinking about taking stock of this entire stupid fucking decade. Godspeed.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Best Songs of 2017

Nadine Shah; photo from Wikimedia.

Here's the first of your two annual end-of-year lists corresponding to absolutely nothing except my own personal taste and the whims of the moment -- or really, the whims of the year overall. For the first time ever (as far as I can recall) I committed to re-listening to every single track on this list and quite a few besides over the past few days to try and make this the best collection of shots and chasers I could; basically the top ten are instant classics I'm already sure I'll keep with me forever, the top fifty or so are probably also all-timers and I bet time will be good to them. The rest are just songs I really really like.

I don't know if there's much point to an introduction here about the "tone" of the year or whatever; a thread I noticed when going back over the songs I'd marked throughout the year is a feeling of warmth, first of all. I found myself moving songs by Martha Wainwright, Laura Marling and Sylvan Esso ever farther up in the ranks each time I heard them again because they felt full of such pangs of instant nostalgia, something I always find incredibly powerful, something that music alone seems able to achieve; they joined Jay Som's "The Bus Song," Slowdive's "No Longer Making Time" and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever's "Tender Is the Neck" (technically from 2016, don't tell anyone) as the songs currently most likely to reduce me to an inexplicable emotional wreck. The other overarching theme this year is that we're really all hung over from the traumas last year, despite the tragedies large and small that have taken over our attentions, one atop the other since January. In fact maybe that's why we haven't been able to process 2016, and maybe it will be a long time before we can, but the paranoia and dread in Nadine Shah, Vince Staples, Chastity Belt and even the National feel like a megaphoned voice of what we're all thinking. In tying itself so explicitly to the moment, "2016" -- which could really be tied with "Big Fish" for #1 -- in fact promises a transcendence that will likely evoke the first year of Trump fifty years from now as much as D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop evokes 1967, but Shah's empathy and clearheadedness don't have an analogue from the '60s, at least none that I know of, and certainly not from anyone who sounds the way she does or offers the perspective she can.

Still, we need relief. Thank god for Sheer Mag and Beth Ditto.

As usual, one song per album only, and I have indeed agonized appropriately over which song I would use to represent several of these records. Also as usual, I have prepared a Spotify playlist with my top tier of songs from this year sequenced coherently for your listening pleasure. This year I decided to let it run to fifty songs; if that's too much, talk to my manager.

***

1. Vince Staples "Big Fish" [Big Fish Theory]
2. Nadine Shah "2016" [Holiday Destination]
3. Jay Som "The Bus Song" [Everybody Works]
4. Rolling Blackouts C.F. "Tender Is the Neck" [Talk Tight EP]
5. Sheer Mag "Pure Desire" [Need to Feel Your Love]
6. Kendrick Lamar "LUST." [DAMN.]
7. Slowdive "No Longer Making Time" [s/t]
8. Beth Ditto "In and Out" [Fake Sugar]
9. The Mountain Goats "Shelved" [Goths]
10. Valerie June "Long Lonely Road" [The Order of Time]
11. Paramore "Hard Times" [After Laughter]
12. Chastity Belt "Complain" [I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone]
13. Swet Shop Boys "Zombie" [Sufi La EP]
14. The National "Carin at the Liquor Store" [Sleep Well Beast]
15. Ibibio Sound Machine "Give Me a Reason" [Uyai]
16. Cut Copy "Stars Last Me a Lifetime" [Haiku from Zero]
17. Zara McFarlane "Fussin' and Fightin'" [Arise]
18. Laura Marling "Always This Way" [Semper Femina]
19. Joey Bada$$ "Temptation" [All-Amerikkkan Badass]
20. Sparks "I Wish You Were Fun" [Hippopotamus]
21. Amber Coffman "All to Myself" [City of No Reply]
22. Sylvan Esso "Die Young" [What Now]
23. (Sandy) Alex G "Bobby" [Rocket]
24. Songhoy Blues "Voter" [Resistance]
25. Kelela "Blue Light" [Take Me Apart]
26. Jlin feat. Avril Stormy Unger "The Escape of the Blvck Rxbbit" [Dark Lotus EP]
27. London O'Connor "GUTS" [O∆]
28. Ibeyi "Away Away" [Ash]
29. American Wrestlers "Real People" [Goodbye Terrible Youth]
30. Surfer Blood "Carrier Pigeon" [Snowdonia]
31. Martha Wainwright "Take the Reins" [Goodnight City]
32. Loyle Carner ft. Rebel Kleff "NO CD" [Yesterday's Gone]
33. Shabazz Palaces ft. Darrius "Moon Whip Quaz" [Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star]
34. Wolf Alice "Yuk Foo" [Visions of a Life]
35. EMA "Down and Out" [Exile in the Outer Ring]
36. Saint Etienne "Dive" [Home Counties]
37. Diet Cig "Bite Back" [Swear I'm Good at This]
38. Laurel Halo "Moontalk" [Dust]
39. Run the Jewels ft. Danny Brown "Hey Kids" [Run the Jewels 3]
40. The xx "I Dare You" [I See You]
41. Iron & Wine "Right for Sky" [Beast Epic]
42. Tyler, the Creator "I Ain't Got Time!" [Flower Boy]
43. Ibibio Sound Machine "Color in Your Cheeks" {Mountain Goats cover} [I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast]
44. Charly Bliss "Percolator" [Guppy]
45. This Is the Kit "Two Pence Piece" [Moonshine Freeze]
46. Superfood "Where's the Bass Amp?" [Bambino]
47. SOHN "Rennen" [Rennen]
48. Khalid "8TEEN" [American Teen]
49. Iglooghost ft. Mr. Yote "Teal Yomi/Olivine" [Neo Wax Bloom]
50. Antibalas "Gold Rush" [Where the Gods Are in Peace]
51. Depeche Mode "So Much Love" [Spirit]
52. Shabazz Palaces ft. the Shotgun Shot "Julian's Dream (ode to a bad)" [Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines]
53. The Underachievers "Crescendo" [Renaissance]
54. Wolf Parade "Incantation" [Cry Cry Cry]
55. Lee Fields & the Expressions "Never Be Another You" [Special Night]
56. Feist "I'm Not Running Away" [Pleasure]
57. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith "I Am Learning" [The Kid]
58. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile "Peepin' Tom" [Lotta Sea Lice]
59. Denzel Curry ft. Joey Bada$$ "Zenith" [Imperial]
60. Rostam "Bike Dream" [Half-Light]
61. Bicep "Glue" [s/t]
62. The Horrors "World Below" [V]
63. Mura Masa ft. Bonzai "Nuggets" [Mura Masa]
64. David Rawlings "Midnight Train" [Poor David's Almanack]
65. Lana Del Rey "Love" [Lust for Life]
66. The Magnetic Fields "'83: Foxx and I" [50 Song Memoir]
67. Dawn Richard "Voices" [Redemption]
68. The New Pornographers "Whiteout Conditions" [Whiteout Conditions]
69. Austra "Future Politics" [Future Politics]
70. Hercules & Love Affair ft. Faris Badwan "Controller" [Omnion]
71. Goldfrapp "Systemagic" [Silver Eye]
72. IFE "Yumavision" [IIII + IIII]
73. Yumi Zouma "Ostra" [Willowbank]
74. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings "Girl! (You Got to Forgive Him)" [Soul of a Woman]
75. Peter Perrett "C Voyeurger" [How the West Was Won]
76. The Flaming Lips "The Castle" [Oczy Mlody]
77. Mavis Staples "Build a Bridge" [If All I Was Was Black]
78. PVT "Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend" [PVT]
79. Sean Price "Resident Evil" [Imperius Rex]
80. Terry Malts "Off My Back" [split EP with Kids on a Crime Spree]
81. Chuck Berry "Big Boys" [Chuck]
82. Hauschka "We Live a Thousand Years" [What If]
83. Deer Tick "Jumpstarting" [Vol. 2]
84. Alex Lahey "I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself" [I Love You Like a Brother]
85. Tinashe "Light the Night Up" [Thursday Night Football]
86. Lupe Fiasco ft. Gizzle "Jump" [Drogas Light]
87. Nicole Atkins "Darkness Falls So Quiet" [Goodnight Rhonda Lee]
88. Thurston Moore "Smoke of Dreams" [Rock N Roll Consciousness]
89. Whitney "Gonna Hurry (As Slow as I Can)" [non-LP single]
90. Destroyer "In the Morning" [ken]
91. Kamasi Washington "Truth" [Harmony of Difference EP]
92. Benjamin Clementine "Phantom of Aleppoville" [I Tell a Fly]
93. Blue Hawaii "No One Like You" [Tenderness]
94. clipping. "The Deep" [non-LP single]
95. Robyn Hitchcock "1970 in Aspic" [s/t]
96. Liane Carroll "Lately" {Stevie Wonder cover} [The Right to Love]

I will be preparing the albums post over the next few days and intend to have it up late on the 28th. Until then, happy holidays and thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The world finna end: 2017 new release rush

Hi! Songs list up in a couple of days, albums list next week, some cool new things in January.

Julien Baker: Turn Out the Lights (Matador)
22 year-old folkie from Memphis with a wide vocal range has every right to try and enlist us as her therapists but after the year I've had I don't feel up to the task. Repetitive and, if you're not in its audience, difficult not to hear as painfully indulgent. Inspirational sentiment: "You can't even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes how I think almost all the time."

Converge: The Dusk in Us (Epitaph) [c]
A metal album that got through my filters somehow (probably because they are also listed in some places as hardcore punk, which is still in my wheelhouse but just barely), and I never know how to review this stuff. "Universal critical acclaim" and all that. It's sludge. It's screamy and boring. I'm glad you guys like it.

Fever Ray: Plunge (Mute)
A.K.A. Karin Dreijer, half of the sporadically active, hipster-beloved Swedish electro group the Knife, who seemed content to disappear a few years ago; one previous solo album from 2009 that I apparently purchased (!?) but only dimly remember. The follow-up is certainly aesthetically cheerier than anything from the Knife's records, but the purportedly varied and miraculous sound relies heavily on shrill synths and on the library of processes to which Dreijer submits her thin, abrasive but intriguing voice. The challenging politics of the Knife's last record are there but make themselves deliberately inscrutable, which is somewhat irksome, except when the subject is sex -- "this country makes it hard to fuck," indeed. The explicit lyrics on "To the Moon and Back" are less radical than their hilarious matchup with what sounds like someone demonstrating computer speakers with a MIDI file of Depeche Mode's "Nothing to Fear." And in this abbreviation-heavy, emoji-filled hell of a year I can sort of get with the sensibility of "IDK About You," but is this all youthfulness and speed as affectation? It's just more noisy art project than music, just like -- whoa -- the Knife.

Charlotte Gainsbourg: Rest (Because)
Like Gainsbourg's other records, this is solid pop, only without the consistent identity brought to the music by Beck; Gainsbourg cowrote these songs with producer SebastiAn -- apart from one Paul McCartney contribution, which is quite worthwhile and futher demonstrates that McCartney is better at quietly staying relevant in his seventies than he was at loudly doing the same in his thirties -- and they seem designed to demonstrate her vocal chops, which means they meander a bit between polite chamber pop and equally polite dance music. Hers is an endearing persona, even behind the layers of costuming; spinning between languages, enlisting Owen Pallett for some arranging, attaining some Feist-like sinister balladry, it all feels just as crystalline and untouchable as it possibly could.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Soul of a Woman (Daptone) [r]
Jones, a gregarious and gifted singer, died late last year -- a major loss for music past and future -- but this feels like a missive for the Trump era she didn't live to see. I've long admired Jones despite feeling that her band often treated soul as too much of an affectation; this holds on the platitudes that cover the first few cuts, but what's surprising about this record is how much Jones, holding onto every second, falls completely and convincingly into the engaging weirdness of many of these cuts, which get slower and less beholden to the record-collector fetish at the back end. "Girl! (You Got to Forgive Him)" is the least mannered music the band has ever made (in the studio, that is); "Pass Me By" is perhaps Jones' finest vocal on record, made more astounding given that she was probably in the final stages of her disease when it was recorded; and her own composition "Call on God" is the most beautiful moment in her sadly brief career. This didn't have to be such an engaging and singular record, and the fact that it does not attempt to summarize or eulogize its singer will ironically allow it to last far longer as a tribute to her talents and legacy.

Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-) [r]
78 year-old Staples, singing since 1950, collaborates once again with Jeff Tweedy for an album of rootsy, spiritual protest music; Tweedy wrote or cowrote all of these songs, with a few contributed by the singer, and it's clear he worked harder on this than on the last two Wilco records. The variance in the contributions on Staples' Livin' on a High Note by the likes of Nick Cave, Case-Lang-Viers, M. Ward, Valerie June and Merrill Garbus isn't missed as much as you'd expect, strictly because the mood Tweedy and Staples establish here is so earnest and infectious in its political idealism and simplicity. "Build a Bridge" hits hardest, "All Over Again" sinks deepest. Staples' adapts easily to her surroundings, a pro who's known how to do that since long before Tweedy was born, but her ferocity is undiminished and -- if anything -- validated by the changing world she occupies, by the accumulation of the changes she's tracked since she rubbed shoulders with Sam Cooke in Chicago.

Björk: Utopia (One Little Indian) [r]
Björk talks about this being an ego-free dream collaboration between herself and Arca, but perhaps because Arca's work tends to annoy me so much, it certainly sounds to me far more like a record dominated by his bubbly trickery than Vulnicura did. As on that record, Björk seems determined to surrender the idea of obscurity: her voice is mixed so that every harrowing or triumphant word is relatively easy to pick up, and the brew of sex, advice and hard-won optimism can reach out directly to a world full of waiting ears. Despite the upbeat tone it's as much of a slog as Vulnicura, running long and failing to transcend its mood and craft any melodies or beats that you could imagine reeling you back in out of context, apart from the agreeably oddball "Claimstaker." Björk's in a difficult position because musically, it's increasingly hard for her to reach the sense of radicalism that made her best work so endearing, so she has attempted to cover for it thematically with mixed results, but the record -- if somewhat overpraised -- is endearing and smart and rewards attention, though Arca again makes it slightly tough to really ever enjoy the experience even when Björk seems insistent that you must.

Iglooghost: Neō Wax Bloom (Brainfeeder) [hr]
Melodramatic press notes about how this Irish producer almost killed himself making this record full of what '90s ravers called "hellish beats" notwithstanding, this really is the wax to beat if you like electronic music that feels like it's crawling into your ear and battering around in your brain. For a moment after hearing it, normal music seems woefully lacking in detail. Along with Jlin, this proves that abrasive dance music doesn't have to be tiresome in the manner of Arca, can in fact generate bodily responses and pleasure you wouldn't merit possible considering the cerebral origins of the music. The record has a giddiness, coming fast and hard and demanding that you keep yourself surrounded by its weird, indescribable grooves, that doesn't subside for its full forty minutes -- which is just long enough to avoid any real fatigue, as well. Modern and forward-thinking and a product of our times maybe, but its chaotic texture is pure hi-BPM rock & roll.

***

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
This is the annual terse check-in of the Wikipedia, Allmusic and Spotify pages of bands we praised highly at some point in the last ten years who nevertheless had releases, small or large scale, this year that somehow escaped our attention.

Ásgeir: Afterglow (Columbia)
Pretty but bland, overly clean euro-R&B from the Icelandic architect of In the Silence, a much more charming album.

Curren$y: The Fo20 Massacre (s/r) [r]
Curren$y: The Champagne Files (s/r) [c]
The latest two mixtapes, both audible on Youtube and I assume you can download them somewhere. Fo20 is relaxed and casual and effortlessly good, feels like an old shirt or something, and I found myself wondering why I was going through my life without constantly checking for the latest Curren$y tape to carry around with me. Then I listened to The Champagne Files and remembered; it's an uninspired drawl through approximately 50,000 repetitions of the title and no strong production or verses to speak of, though the cover art is extremely good.

Holy Fuck: Bird Brains (Innovative Leisure EP) [hr]
Holy Fuck's small-scale redefinition of the fantasy ideal of what a rock band can be, using organic bodies as machines, analogue as digital simulation, is in a strange way as radical and shattering as something like Wire at their best, and it seems more obvious in a small, beat-heavy bite like this than on their LPs, ingratiating as they can be. This is a recording that can sound like it has a wholly different character depending on where and how you listen to it, but a consistency is that its adventurous instrumentation and commitment to prolonged explosiveness are inspiring and addictive.

Jlin: Dark Lotus (Planet Mu EP) [hr]
In the '90s they used to talk a lot about "junk culture"; without saying anything broad about it, artists like Beck and Radiohead seemed to be communicating something about all human artistic and commercial creation being simultaneously available, condensed, commodified, and the effect of feeling overwhelmed and numbed by both the possibility and limitation of trying to process it all and wondering how the future would look. Jlin's music is the sound of culture actually collapsing on itself, with -- to invoke Johnny Rotten -- no future at all; a sample from the movie The Birds is made both cute and foreboding on the first track, an upside-down Double D & Steinski beat places you in alien territory on the second. It's like being in a sensory deprivation tank with nothing but vague memories of what has been seen and felt in the distant past to comfort you. Jlin would expand and refine this sensibility on her album Black Origami, but here she has to say it all in just two tracks totalling eight minutes, and the effect is thrilling and intense in a manner specifically evocative of the Beatles' visions of the world ending in "Revolution 9"... only you can dance, if you want, but will you? The third or fourth time in a row I listened to this an ambulance passed through the intersection in front of me, and I could have sworn its siren was a part of the music.

The Mountain Goats: Selected Goths in Ambient (Merge EP)
Included as a bonus with certain purchases of the analogous album, this isn't really any less in character than Goths itself but obviously has less replay value... unless you're studying or something. Still, it's mighty convincing, and doesn't slide into parody like the (otherwise more convincing) Devo E-Z Listening Disc, meaning that if John Darnielle really went in on this corner of his versatility it would probably be something.

The Mountain Goats: Marsh Witch Visions (s/r EP) [r]
Bandcamp-only release follows the usual procedure of Darnielle finding some way to get rid of leftovers from his latest record, and to satiate the fans who only ever want to hear him alone with a guitar and some recording equipment. Outside of the extremely interesting demo of "Rain in Soho," the best of the outtakes is easily "No More Tears," the only one that could possibly have stood up with what made the album, though barring a radical rearrangement it would have been its most conventional song by far. All of them have the usual terrific lyrics that further explore the scope of Goths without really expanding it.

Samiyam: Pizza Party (Stones Throw) [r]
Calmer, less jittery and sample-filled than Animals Have Feelings, but still a restless joy after a fashion.

Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La (Customs EP) [hr]
As fabulous as their debut album Cashmere was, this stopgap release is looser, wilder, and goes harder -- Heems and Riz MC have achieved a full synthesis that emphasizes their differing approaches while casting them firmly as a unit, and note that this is the first time since probably Nehru Jackets or thereabouts that Heems has felt comfortable enough to release a song as wonderfully dumb as "Birding" -- "you know I'm birding, baby / where my binoculars at? / I'm with the trees / I'm looking for birds" -- which is an excellent track because it's an unembarrassed exploration of the group's humor and personality, and does not bow to the fear of causing them to be unfairly dismissed as "joke rap," an issue that's followed Heems around for his entire career even though his work has always been as thoughtful and multifaceted as any in the game. The entire EP furthers both rappers and Heems in particular as the masters of the fake low-effort verse, because in fact of course everything here is really impressive and witty, and only a complete fool could disregard the ominous message of "Zombie" or the windows-rolled-down relentlessness of "Anthem." Goddamn, guys.

The Underachievers: Renaissance (RPM) [hr]
The few people who pay attention to this group seem to be upset that their lyrics are no longer completely upholding the anti-gangsta, pro-drug, vaguely New Age philosophy of numbers one and two, and while I guess I can detect a little of that here and there -- but also an injection of real-time politics, which in this terrible world would be inexcusable by its absence -- I'm continually distracted by the fact that Issa Gold and AK have the best, most unstoppable flow of possibly any rappers working right now, and almost certainly of any duo (they come harder and faster than Mike and El-P even if their content is less polished). This takes me back to how much I loved their first album, and I can admit some of this is a bit superficial: what I love is just the experience of hearing them murder the mic, more than anything about the bars or the beats. It just sounds perfect, and I don't think their message has become wholly diluted, but they're now approaching veteran status without getting the recognition they deserve, and you can't blame them for trying to push some buttons here. Try "Phoenix Feathers" and "Cresendo."

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
- Yumi Zouma: Willowbank (Cascine) - fuck me, i'm already nostalgic for chillwave ["Ostra"/"Persephone"]
- Lindstrom: It's Alright Between Us as It is (Smalltown Supersound) - demands to be heard in sequence; the parts are what they are but they blend gloriously
- Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion (Because) - a little too E-Z listening at times but some mega grooves
- Zara McFarlane: Arise (Brownswood) - lite, heavy, pleasing, probing and one of the most infectious hooks of the year ["Fussin' and Fightin'"]
- Blue Hawaii: Tenderness (Arbutus) - DJ Shadow-era fridge buzz, capable of being exhilarating ["No One Like You"/"Belong to Myself"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Ben Frost: The Centre Cannot Hold (Mute)
- Lee Gamble: Mnestic Pressure (Hyperdub)


REJECTS:
Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps
Hiss Golden Messenger: Hallelujah Anyhow
Alex Lahey: I Love You Like a Brother [NYIM]
Liam Gallagher: As You Were
Beck: Colors
KLLO: Backwater [NYIM]
Margo Price: All American Made [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES:
Alex Lahey "I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself" [I Love You Like a Brother]
clipping. "The Deep" [non-LP single]
Terry Malts "Off My Back" [split EP with Kids on a Crime Spree]
Tinashe "Light the Night Up" [Thursday Night Football]
Whitney "Gonna Hurry (As Slow as I Can)" [non-LP single]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
George Harrison: Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison (Apple 1970-2001/2009) [hr]
Sade: Best Of (Epic 1984-93/1994) [hr]

Sunday, December 10, 2017

You think too much: October 2017 music diary

Saw two great gigs this past week: Cut Copy in Charleston, SC and the Mountain Goats in Durham, NC, each superb and enormous in its own way, each still at the top of their game, both outstanding live. I'd seen the Goats twice before, and I assume most people are either converts or know why they're not, but if you've hesitated pulling the trigger on a Cut Copy gig in your town, I really suggest you try to make it out next time. Dan Whitford's jubilant stage gestures are the life you're missing. They may not have the full muscle of the gatekeepers of sanctioned cool behind them anymore but if you champion the integration of synthpop and dance with guitar music at all, they really are one of the best things going. Speaking of which...

Cut Copy: Haiku from Zero (astralwerks) [hr]
Considering how much their day-to-day procedure has changed with each of their releases -- from bedroom pop to a rock band that dabbled in electronics to synthpop experts to disco revivalists, and remember when they put out an ambient tape? -- you have to hand it to any band as beholden to their influences as these Australian masters that still manages to forge such a distinct sound, unmistakable for anyone else. (No, at this point, not even Hot Chip, who they've now left in the dust for the better part of a decade.) Is the secret their music's thematic coherence (theme here is information overload, filtered through the usual, surprisingly casual passion) and personable qualities? Maybe it's just that they follow their insticts without apology. The point is this is an absolute nonstop pleasure, just like Free Your Mind was... and because it is a former guitar band making another dance record (the sound here brighter but also more organic than on its predecessor, thanks presumably to the presence of an outside producer), it's destined never to get full credit for being as unpretentious and engaging as it is; whatever, it has nothing but bangers, beholden now to classic funk in the sense that they're bangers that take their time to explore their grooves and fully work them out without exhausting them. (Just nine songs, and short enough to fit on one record this time.) It's never just about propulsion, nor is it just about hooks and melody, or just about enthusiasm, but Cut Copy's excellence in all these areas has made them one of the world's most reliable units. And this hasn't a single momentum-killer or remotely weak entry, which wasn't even true of Zonoscope; the single "Airborne" may be the best by a hair, or maybe it's the gorgeous "Stars Last Me a Lifetime" or the splendidly unorthodox closer "Tied to the Weather," or maybe it's any of them. May they go on forever at this rate.

The Clientele: Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge) [r]
Beloved British indie veterans, active now for over two decades, return with their first new record since 2010. As others have pointed out, the songcraft is solid but the zeal seems absent, perhaps an inevitability -- there's the sense that this softly pretty psychedelic folk rock is something they can do with one eye shut, but conversely there's also no reason anyone who doesn't love their older work won't enjoy it. For my part, I like but don't adore some of their older records, and after some apprehension on the first pass I've come to rather enjoy this one, I suspect at least partially for the same reason I feel the same way about Broken Social Scene's new record -- the sound, seemingly untouched by time's ravages, reminds me of when certain things, at least culturally, seemed a lot simpler.

The Horrors: V (Caroline) [r]
And speaking of nostalgia: if this doesn't do anything for you, you definitely grew up with different stimuli than I did. The Horrors are more eclectic than their latest album implies, having made a journey from filthy garage to krautrock and there and back again, but here they're vamping on '80s arena rock and alternative, the stuff that the bands memorialized on the Mountain Goats' Goths would have looked upon with disdain, but while the first couple of tracks lean on Muse-Killers territory more than is legally advisable, the seductive shuffling and New Romantic sleaze of "Point of No Reply," "Gathering," "World Below" and "Something to Remember Me By" are as indefensible and pleasurable as the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's unashamed riffing on the Smashing Pumpkins. Not the best way to spend your music-dedicated time, or even really a good one, but one of the most purely fun.

Protomartyr: Relatives in Descent (Domino)
This band's always been an acquired taste, and their latest, proggiest record is somehow more so; my aversion to their music is similar to what I experienced with Scott Miller's work; the songs seem constructed around verbiage and, as smart as it is, it isn't musical enough to these ears to appeal, even though many of the band's avowed influences, especially Pere Ubu, have historically meant a good deal to me. I spent enough time with this to hear it unfurling and revealing itself slightly, but not enough to make me personally feel it was a good focus for my energy. Your response to this record almost certainly depends on how you felt about their prior work, and I doubt even the band itself would position it as a good introduction, but say this for it: it cannot be described as a parade of generic Fall-isms, which was sometimes the case with their older material.

Wolf Alice: Visions of a Life (RCA) [hr]
So effortlessly wide-ranging and versatile it recalls Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid more than any recent alt-rock record, this is the rare example of a young rock band delivering hugely on their initial promise on their second album -- if the glide from the uncorked frenzy of "Yuk Foo" to dance music ("Don't Delete the Kisses") to baroque pop ("After the Zero Hour") doesn't convince you on its own, listen to how the melodies refuse to go strictly where expected or where genre and convention dictate -- these are songs, not just costumes -- and more than anything listen to how dedicated singer and multi-instrumentalist Ellie Rowsell is to finding the soul of every cut, whatever it demands of her, and how her exploration of these songs reflects both intense control and unguarded, open-hearted feeling. When My Love Is Cool came out, I liked it and dubbed it "Pretty Good Rock Music"; well, this is Rock & Roll, no more and no less, unapologetic and glorious.

Kamasi Washington: Harmony of Difference (Young Turks EP) [r]
Washington is the sort of jazz musician that has an easier time crossing over -- as this record's broad success indicates -- than convincing the actual dwindling faithful audience jazz continues to transfix generally. I enjoy it less because I love jazz and more because of my misplaced, ill-advised adoration of the long-dead Beautiful Music format; much of this EP -- especially the thirteen-minute closer "Truth" -- sounds like a Reader's Digest cassette, which to me is actually a compliment.

Moses Sumney: Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
L.A. singer-songwriter works with the kind of wispy, strained romance, like Sade without hooks, that's lately gone into surprising vogue and has in fact swept indie R&B as a whole; think Sampha, for instance, or take a hike all the way back to the onetime bloghype How to Dress Well. Whatever, it's a little samey but it's not awful, but you're not allowed to complain about Spotify turning everything into Muzak with a uniform, lifestyle-oriented sheen if you willingly listen to this.

Cults: Offering (Omnian)
Everyone knows that Cults was ideally a one-album concept except, it seems, the two members of Cults, who've left or been kicked off Columbia Records and are on the merry-go-round for a third time with their blandest music to date. The only remotely memorable cut is "Right Words," which sounds like mediocre radio pop from 1987; this might have moved a few copies if CDs were still popular thanks to a few people who'd have looked at the cover and mistaken it for a Spoon album.

Kelela: Take Me Apart (Warp) [hr]
It's been years since I hyped up a debut album before I heard it, but Kelela's long-awaited entrance into the LP market has been on my radar for years now, and admittedly it was not the immediate shot to the senses I expected. Because it's following up the best extended-play of the century, it may have been a victim of unfair expectations. After several listens, it asserts itself as a subtler experience that's nevertheless joyous and undaunted by such baggage in its exploration of love and sex. In an era full of progress and renewal for the R&B album, this is truly classicist, and you can already sense its grace and staying power. If you want Kelela to knock you out, put on Hallucinogen, but if you want to slide up and get to know her, sink into "Blue Light," "LMK," "Waitin," "Enough," "Altadena" or the title cut, all of which are standouts within a satisfying whole. I'm really not opposed to an album that takes its time, I was just surprised -- and not unpleasantly -- that it came from this source.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid (Western Vinyl) [r]
Electro-folkie makes a surprisingly ethereal, appealing record exercising her considerable gifts as composer, singer and producer. She's better known for her electronic, ambient, instrumental work but tracks like "I Am Learning" assert themselves and reward closer attention. The record does get a little repetitive but its mood is agreeable and engrossing.

Wolf Parade: Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop) [r]
It's easy to forget what a good, dependable band this is, especially if you still miss Sunset Rubdown; at worst this is solid mood-music rock, at best it's truly good pop music. For proof, slap on "Am I an Alien Here," or move toward "Incantation" and "Baby Blue" for the slow-burn goods, giving Built to Spill serious competition as the best sprawling elder-statesmen guitar gods of indie rock.

Benjamin Clementine: I Tell a Fly (Virgin) [r]
Storied, eclectic poet and performance artist belongs to the modern British multimedia class exemplified by Kate Tempest, Loyle Carner and the longer established Anthony Joseph; of all these, Clementine is the most difficult to pin down, his music the most uncompromised and surreal. His second album is admirably weird, like walking in on a film in progress, peaking with the ghostly and unpredictable "Phantom of Aleppoville"; his words are confessional, overwhelmingly intelligent, his music probing even at its most conventional ("Jupiter"), chilling and absorbing at its most dramatic ("One Awkward Fish"), full of atypical rhythms and dramatic choral interludes that feel both traditional and confrontational. Few will have enough time to devote sufficient attention to this record's many undercurrents and subtleties, but one suspects that Clementine will make a lifelong acolyte of anyone who does.

Ibeyi: Ash (XL) [r]
Cuban-French twins with an agreeable mishmash of musical influences share a label with Vampire Weekend, and their best work's freewheeling and instantaneously appealing ride through its reference points feels initially like a miracle. Things are going fine -- engrossing, slick, gorgeous, hypnotic -- until an awkward, half-assed campaign reel unworthy of the rest or of the feminist philosophies it generically promotes ("No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms") and the album never seems to quite recover, but "Away Away" and the Kamasi Washington cameo "Deathless" are towering.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (Matador) [c]
One of my favorite new artists (Barnett) collaborates with one of my most hated (Vile), and the results are as disjointed as that summary implies. Both parties are technically solid indie-rock guitarists, but unfortunately Barnett's enthusiasm and quick-on-the-feet range, as well as her way with a screaming rock song, are drowned out by Vile's vaguely countrified anonymity. Just as unfortunately, they both sing -- and their voices mesh poorly, to say the least. Barnett uses her drawling "Kim's Caravan" voice for the duration, and though the lyrics make a sort of play at being witty and exuberant, Vile can't crack Barnett's bubblier style and Barnett's enthusiasm can't overcome the monotony Vile brings to everything he touches. The best song, "Peepin' Tom," is unsurprisingly the one that sounds like it could have been on a Barnett LP. When the duties are split more equally, it all sinks like a stone. A pity because "Untogether," for instance, sounds like a terrific song underneath all this and I hope she rerecords it on her own.

St. Vincent: Masseduction (Loma Vista)
I've enjoyed St. Vincent's previous work somewhat passively but was never sold on her as a provocateur of any kind, not least because she seemed to feel just as distant from her material as I did; while crafty at times, her music is simply too stuffy and workmanlike to break through the machinations of the PR machine that built it up in the first place. This exceedingly calculated forty-minute stab at indie sensationalism ends up accidentally articulating the flaws that have existed in all of her output. Its lip-biting formalism, the outbursts and flights of fancy at carefully sanctioned intervals, and even its deliberately alienating artwork serve really just to underline how predictable the St. Vincent business finally is, how perfectly streamlined the process behind it, how thoroughly unsurprising and deeply controlled it is down to its very core. The tortured correct-ness of it all recalls Dirty Projectors and (don't murder me please) the Who, a band that seemed to be play-acting even when they smashed their instruments; the strained wackiness of the lyrics feels as studied as Joydrop singing about how they wish they were beautiful like you, or hell, Jim Morrison explaining the benefits and flaws of breaking on through to the other side. Annie Clark is a gifted artist, sure, and knowing what your audience wants is no crime... but how about even the slightest indication that what you're doing with your life means a damn thing to you? Is that, I dunno, passé?

Robert Plant: Carry Fire (Nonesuch)
Not being a Led Zeppelin fan I don't feel especially qualified to review this, but two things bear mentioning: 1) In 2017 Robert Plant sounds like... Win Butler!? 2) This has a cover of "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," which was also covered by the Beach Boys; this prompted me to listen to the original track by rockabilly obscurity Ersel Hickey, which runs less than a minute and a half. The Beach Boys' version is more than twice that long, and Plant's is two minutes longer than the Beach Boys'. Just letting you know.

King Krule: The Ooz (XL)
Or, Archy Marshall's Haunted Graffiti; this is self-indulgent, fussy musical wallpaper that's far too long, and too adaptable to generic moodiness, but the guy at Pitchfork sure seemed excited about it.

Destroyer: ken (Merge) [r]
I wrote Kaputt off as a one-off; I've liked nothing else that came out of Dan Bejar's mouth slash brain before or since apart from his numbers with the New Pornographers, from whom he seems to have momentarily disassociated, which caused that band's latest record to suffer noticeably, while Destroyer's newest is actually a mild success. There are pleasant echoes of Kaputt in the production (his first love's New Order) and flashes of the same playful songwriting as opposed to his usual ponderousness. I assume "In the Morning" and "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood" are the ones he would've sent to A.C. Newman, but the whole record is an outlier for Destroyer in the sense that it doesn't make you want to throw the speakers and yourself out a 21st story window.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
* Angelo de Augustine: Swim Inside the Moon (Asthmatic Kitty) - acoustic-based L.A. singer-songwriter and presumptive Sufjan associate records hauntingly minimal old-world folk in the vein of Sam Amidon or Horse Feathers; twenty-odd minutes of that could really make or break your Sunday
* EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring (City Slang) ["Down and Out" / "Aryan Nation"]
* Antibalas: Where the Gods Are in Peace (Daptone) ["Gold Rush"]
- Dalek: Endangered Philosophies (Ipecac) - muddy, vague underground rap intrigues, seems like a back catalog well worth exploring for those of us that missed out
- L.A. Witch (Suicide Squeeze) - muddy, vague underground girl band; pin your hopes on guitars
- Living Colour: Shade (Megaforce) - hell yeah son; the only metal band I really like reminds me why with Vernon Reid still a hero, Corey Glover still singing his ass off
- Deer Tick: Vol. 2 (Partisan) - acceptable twang-rock ["Jumpstarting"]
- Rostam: Half-Light (Nonesuch) - that voice is such an addiction -- and how will VW exist without it, or the keys? -- but this meanders and goes on forever; still, I can't help wanting to keep it around ["Bike Dream"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Portico Quartet: Art in the Age of Automation (Gondwana)
- Bicep (Ninja Tune) ["Glue"]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Ben Frost: The Centre Cannot Hold
* Yumi Zouma: Willowbank
* Lindstrom: It's Alright Between Us as It is
Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion
Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps
Hiss Golden Messenger: Hallelujah Anyhow
Iglooghost: Neo Wax Bloom
Zara McFarlane: Arise
Alex Lahey: I Love You Like a Brother
Blue Hawaii: Tenderness
Liam Gallagher: As You Were
Beck: Colors
KLLO: Backwater
Lee Gamble: Mnestic Pressure
Margo Price: All American Made

REJECTS:
Superfood: Bambino
Sean Price: Imperius Rex [NYIM]
Chad VanGaalen: Light Information [finally someone's Make a Band with Wikipedia came true]
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Memphis... Yes, I'm Ready [NYIM]
The Bronx: BRVNX (V)
Enter Shikari: The Spark
Wand: Plum [NYIM]
Chelsea Wolfe: Hiss Spun
The Killers: Wonderful Wonderful
METZ: Strange Peace
Van Morrison: Roll with the Punches
Macklemore: Gemini
David Crosby: Sky Trails
Torres: Three Futures [NYIM]
Marry Waterson & David A. Jaycock: Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love [NYIM]
Marilyn Manson: Heaven Upside Down
Whitney Rose: Rule 62 [NYIM]
The Weather Station
Citizen: As You Please
The Barr Brothers: Queens of the Breakers [NYIM]
William Patrick Corgan: Ogilala
Melkbelly: Nothing Valley [NYIM]
Squeeze: The Knowledge
Circuit des Yeux: Reaching for Indigo [NYIM]
Bill MacKay: SpiderBeetleBee [NYIM]
Michael Head & the Red Elastic Band: Adios Senor Pussycat [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES:
Ibibio Sound Machine "Color in Your Cheeks" {Mountain Goats cover} [I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast]
Superfood "Where's the Bass Amp?" [Bambino]
Sean Price "Resident Evil" [Imperius Rex]
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile "Peepin' Tom" [Lotta Sea Lice]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Since turning thirty I have become so damn broody: September 2017 music diary

After a lot of internal debate, I decided that Neil Young's Hitchhiker -- a collection of recordings from a single day in 1976 only just released this year -- doesn't qualify as a studio album but an archival release, and therefore isn't going to be reviewed in a regular monthly post or eligible for any year-end retrospective. However, it is lovely beyond belief.

***

Nadine Shah: Holiday Destination (1965 Records) [hr]
The third album from this British singer-songwriter of Pakistani descent is a revelation; with striking lyrics that delve with maturity and intensity into immigration, mental health and personal fallout from the last few chaotic years, it's incredibly comforting in its passion and precision... and in fact exhilarating, when these qualities are combined with her room-filling, Annie Lennox-like voice and the tricky, hook-filled post punk arrangements of these consistently ingratiating songs. The ironic brood of "Jolly Sailor" to the cheerful anger of "Evil" to the bitingly anti-GOP "Yes Men" stand out, but so would everything here in some context, with only the good but repetitive title cut slightly wearing itself out. (Several of the songs could lose a minute or two.) My favorite, though, is "2016" -- if you've been left cold by most attempts in pop to process the election and aftermath, this one will be a balm to your soul, and that really extends to the whole LP.

Queens of the Stone Age: Villains (Matador)
Not my thing but solid for what it is, and probably really good after a few hard drinks. Lots of superficial Bowie imitations, for not the last time in this month's post.

Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop) [r]
Sam Beam's return to Sub Pop isn't great, but it's quite good and on-brand, and that's a surprisingly huge relief. Beam's songwriting has never really faltered even as his aesthetic choices became more workmanlike, and here the performances and production again seem to match his modest ambitions. As a result this is at times a great comfort and joy to hear, just an excellent musician riding into town with some better-than-decent new songs. The convincers for me were "About a Bruise" and "Right for Sky"; neither is transcendent but both come to a pleasing simmer.

LCD Soundsystem: american dream (Columbia) [c]
Surprised to find that I've never written about LCD here; I've always thought they were a wildly overpraised tribute band with a few very good songs ("All My Friends" and "I Can Change" being the best), that they did not belong in the same breath with the other early '00s New York groups or the later '00s synthpop derivations, and that James Murphy is a buffoonish forgery of a rock star who physically resembles a healthier Steve Bannon. It turns out that this fan-service comeback, after a very artificial breakup and reunion, just bears down on all the issues that existed on all three previous records: belabored half-hooks spread thin on the ground across interminably long songs, infuriating speak-singing that shoots for David Byrne but comes off more like Murray Head, lyrics so insipid they inspire actual rage apparently in the name of elevated irony, and the few somewhat OK ideas (the hook on the opener "oh baby" is all right, but of course it goes nowhere) stretched out like a condom being used as a balloon. Again, though, this half-assery is what they've always done, so if it's what you came here for, have at it; points for expanding the aesthetic pallette from Information Society's "Walking Away" to Peter Gabriel's "Biko," I suppose.

Mogwai: Every Country's Sun (Temporary Residence) [r]
Must say, it is very high-quality trolling to put a goofy fuzzed-out pop song as track 2 on more of Mogwai's usual ambient head rushes, sans original guitarist. Exquisite zoning out as usual.

Brand New: Science Fiction (Procrastinatei)
I've not kept up over the years with this upper New York emo/pop-punk group -- that stuff was after my time, really, as by the time it was on the radio I was obsessed with synthpop, and hated what I did manage to hear -- so I'm surprised that, on their first record in nearly a decade (speculated to be their last), they now sound like the National being produced by Mutt Lange. They also still sound pretty upset. This sounds like a nod to cultists the way some of R.E.M.'s Warner albums were; it's also super long. I imagine it will be a major release for those who love Brand New. Or Staind.

Lil B: Black Ken (Basedworld)
Lil B, the pioneering Youtube rapper out of Berkeley who follows you on Twitter, has spewed up about two hours' worth of songs about "rare art," Hawaii and his position as the "rawest rapper alive." If you're accustomed to what he does -- a fusion of pure improvisation and old-school chanting that can sound downright inept to an outsider -- this is only surprising in terms of sheer volume, though at this length it's hard to miss the way some of his lyrics suffer from an oddly conservative, chauvinistic bent, while some are just half-assed. (He does best when he rants openly about being poor, a populist angle sorely missing from most rap.) B's music has a charmingly homespun quality -- like handmade items from a crafting shop -- that, to be frank, is easiest to appreciate if you're stoned out of your fucking mind.

Hamell on Trial: Tackle Box (New West) [NO]
Raffi for "adults."

Mount Kimbie: Love What Survives (Warp)
London electronica group -- and, oh dear, collaborators/enablers of the dreaded James Balke -- who offer the sledgehammer whimsy of Gorillaz without the entertainment value.

The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD) [hr]
No offense to anyone who's tried hard with the National and still thinks they're boring, but does the constant stream of dad-rock allegations weighed against this terrifically consistent outfit strike anyone else as pathetically lazy? Even dad rock that I like -- Wilco, or Lake Street Dive -- doesn't hold this much restrained intensity, nor does it hide whatever it has to show us in so many layers that bloom out more with each listen, seemingly on into infinity. This is their New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a record simultaneously conventional and expected, yet remarkably eccentric and adventurous when you really listen to it. It begins with two songs that could fit on High Violet -- which means they're wonderful -- then probes out in new directions, a few unsuccessful (the repetitive guitar trill that interferes with the otherwise triumphant "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness," the strained guitar heroics and compromised thrash of "Turtleneck"), most quite the opposite (the electronic bed underneath "I'll Still Destroy You," the almost avant garde texture of the title cut, and the willingness on "Walk It Back" to bear down on a vague idea endlessly without a hint of restlessness). Like Trouble Will Find Me, it sneaks up on you even if it's not as heart-stoppingly beautiful as much of that record, but at its best -- the closing three songs, or the opening three, take your pick -- it's just as enveloping, a full embrace of both darkness and comfort whose details, piano lines, unexpected vocal seductions, and hooks both classic and thorny come back to trip you up when you least expect.

Sparks: Hippopotamus (BMG)
Sparks are an obvious influence on some of my favorite musicians, like Neil Tennant and Stephin Merritt and Vince Clarke, but so are Queen and ABBA and I'm conclusively destined never to understand Queen and I'm starting to doubt my ability to get there with ABBA; this is, it's shameful but necessary to admit, the first time I've heard all of a Sparks LP, and I think I would admire or even enjoy it in much, much smaller doses than this overwhelming 55:10 of tweeness and preening. Russell Mael, who has comprised the band with his brother Ron for most of its existence (dating to the early 1970s), is a technically masterful singer whose agelessness is undeniably impressive. But the jokes aren't funny enough to sustain the belaboring the songs force upon them, and conversely the melodrama doesn't land because it's so self-aware. (Pet Shop Boys and the Magnetic Fields work best when their wit feels hard-won, or like a veneer through which emotion must travel, rather than the opposite; I concede, though, that they don't always escape the same problem I'm hearing on Hippopotamus... but I also miss the deadpan, frankly.) This will not be my last encounter, though, especially because I can't get those glorious little minor key interjections on the lovely, unabashedly joyous "I Wish You Were Fun" out of my head.

Zola Jesus: Okovi (Sacred Bones)
Enya for "young professionals" who own subwoofers.

Ariel Pink: Dedicated to Bobby Jameson (Mexican Summer) [c]
Beck for assholes.

Rolling Blackouts C.F.: Talk Tight (Sub Pop EP 2016) [r]
Sucker that I am for Australian jangle pop with deadpan vocals, this Melbourne band struck me right away, especially during the first half of this brief collection, peaking with the deliriously great "Heard You're Moving" and the even greater, Saints-like "Tender Is the Neck," and the guitars are of course shimmering and sublime, but faced with so many bands that crib sound and ideas from the Go-Betweens, this is the kind of situation in which we can only ever know enough to celebrate as soon as they do. (The rest of their output so far sounds identical to this.) So stay tuned, but also keep in mind that bands that imitate the Go-Betweens are automatically cooler than bands that imitate almost anyone else.

***

ORPHAN TUNES:
Sparks "I Wish You Were Fun" [Hippopotamus]
David Rawlings "Midnight Train" [Poor David's Almanack]
Liane Carroll "Lately" {Stevie Wonder cover} [The Right to Love]
Hercules & Love Affair ft. Faris Badwan "Controller" [Omnion]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring
* Angelo de Augustine: Swim Inside the Moon
* Antibalas: Where the Gods Are in Peace
* Superfood: Bambino
Sean Price: Imperius Rex
Portico Quartet: Art in the Age of Automation
Bicep
Dalek: Endangered Philosophies
L.A. Witch
Living Colour: Shade
Chad VanGaalen: Light Information
Deer Tick: Vol. 2
Rostam: Half-Light
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Memphis... Yes, I'm Ready

REJECTS:
Girl Ray: Earl Grey
David Rawlings: Poor David's Almanack [NYIM]
Liane Carroll: The Right to Love [NYIM]
Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band: Dreaming in the Non-Dream
A Giant Dog: Toy
Action Bronson: Blue Chips 7000
Susanne Sundfor: Music for People in Trouble
Vijay Iyer: Far from Over [NYIM]
PVRIS: All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell
Filthy Friends: Invitation
Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics II [NYIM]
Oh Sees: Orc
Mary Epworth: Elytral
Hercules & Love Affair: Omnion
Ted Leo: The Hanged Man
Gregg Allman: Southern Blood
Tori Amos: Native Invader
Alvvays: Antisocialites
Micah P. Hinson: The Holy Strangers [NYIM]
Deerhoof: Mountain Moves
Foo Fighters: Concrete and Gold
Slotface: Try Not to Freak Out
Michael McDonald: Wide Open [NYIM]
Son Little: New Magic

***

If you read and enjoy this blog, I think you are going to like what I have planned in the next few months. Do stick with me, and have a great Thanksgiving if you do that.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

You and me we got chemistry chemistry baby you and me you and me we got chemistry chemistry baby you and me you and me we got chemistry chemistry baby y: August 2017 music diary

This is a rather dire selection of albums, and apart from the two by artists I've highly praised in the increasingly distant past, they aren't the kind of thing I'm going to choose to review once I reform my procedure here (2020, unless I just can't take it anymore before that). I'm sorry it's such a weak and insubstantial post.

Non-new music news: I read Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Phillips and so should you; it's a vivid portrait of a man whose importance I'd appreciated but never properly understood.

***

Manchester Orchestra: A Black Mile to the Surface (Loma Vista) [c]
Why does any band from Atlanta sound this much like David Gray fronting Elbow?

Arcade Fire: Everything Now (Columbia) [NO]
It's a fact of life that bands sometimes take a wrong step, especially on an occasion like the movement from an indie to a major label, but it's difficult to remember the last time a deservedly celebrated artist on this scale allowed music this thunderously awful to make it to the marketplace; even Interpol's famously clumsy Capitol album Our Love to Admire didn't significantly depart from an established sound so much as all too clearly demonstrate its limitations. Under the guise of disco and dance music-derived experimentation, though, Arcade Fire -- an admirably focused and compassionate unit up to this point, even if The Suburbs was a little too long and Reflektor a little too thin -- has gone down a road of irony, or lack thereof, so wrongheaded that one's temptation is to treat it as a joke... or to assume that they have completely fooled themselves into thinking that this music is somehow bracing rather than embarrassing in its directness. With pandering, condescending phony-inspirational lyrics recalling '90s Everclear and music that alternately echoes a diluted variant on Ace of Base and a radio constantly tuned to Weird Al parodies of the songs "Vogue" by Madonna and "The Magnificent Seven" by the Clash on an endless loop, the record's series of seemingly endless half-assed compositions meets no hook that cannot be run obnoxiously into the ground. The lyrics, banal as they are, aren't any worse than the generic-sounding pop factory music, but they do deserve special mention for almost thoroughly wiping out the goodwill the band earned from crafting several of the finest anthems in the history of alternative rock; the astoundingly repetitive "Chemistry" runs less than four minutes but feels twice as long because of its insistence on belaboring its simple, worn-out chorus until you're ready to hurl your phone out into the street. I've been thinking carefully about this and I think it's fair to call it the worst song ever put out by a good rock band that isn't the Beach Boys. ("Happy Endings" still holds the all-time title.) The dunderheaded wordplay of the, uh, suite "Infinite Content" and "Infinite_Content," basically a rant against sheeple and their phones or something like that, is remarkable in its brain-melting obviousness, but it takes Win Butler's horrendous vocal performance on "Good God Damn" to signal just how bad things have gotten -- is this all a big bring-it-down-from-the-inside protest against capitalism or something? Lyrics about fans considering suicide to the tune of Funeral? A song called "We Don't Deserve Love" that goes on so long without presenting anything of consequence that it would take a saint not to agree with its thesis? To release a string of sub b-side material and to sing it badly on top of that feels like trolling, but the remainder of the material does this theory in since it settles for just being incredibly boring; the title track is tolerable but quickly wears out its welcome at five full minutes plus a three-minute preview and coda. Not even Régine Chassagne's contributions or Owen Pallett's string arrangements can unsink this ship. It's not only the worst album Arcade Fire has released by far, and one of the most disappointing hat tricks of the decade, it's actively difficult to imagine anything they could have released being much worse. The only optimistic conclusion you can draw from this is that they just don't realize how bad it is, but the ugly corollary to that is: will they ever? Perhaps not, but I bet Sony will.

Randy Newman: Dark Matter (Nonesuch)
A day will come when I will finally "get it" when it comes to Randy Newman, when I will hear what the rest of you hear in his work. Today is not that day, and this is not the record that will do it; during my Beach Boys project last year I spent some time with Sail Away, which my parents played a bit when I was a kid, because of how highly Brian Wilson spoke of it... and if that didn't convert me, an eight-minute pop operatic piece about the evolution debate definitely won't.

Kesha: Rainbow (RCA)
In the unenviable position of being forced to basically record music within a hostage situation, pop star Kesha files a record under some illusion of ambition and individuality. If she is happy with it, then it's a triumph, but to these ears it's a weak and anonymous pop album with too many hands in it for the first half, and one that suffers from canned humor and enthusiasm in the second. During her grossly unfair legal battle -- I know this is the world women have lived in for years and I sound like I just fell off the turnip truck, but how does sexual harassment not constitute a breach of contract? -- it used to seem like Kesha felt compromised by the image foisted upon her, and the way her enthusiasm in her singing shoots upward during the surprisingly credible country numbers ("Hunt You Down" and the Dolly Parton duet "Old Flames") heavily implies that she's no more comfortable today with the artificial teenage grooviness of something like "Boogie Feet" (which gets an inexplicable assist from Eagles of Death Metal). Miley Cyrus sounded comfortable with such phoniness because she was and is a born phony. Available evidence suggests Kesha is a lot better than the music she releases implies, and you end up wondering how safe she really is being herself. The only solo compositions are the angry one that opens the piece and the one that's "influenced by Pet Sounds"; that one's produced by none other than Ben Folds. It's not my place to give advice but I just hope she's really, really careful about getting swarmed upon by another unnecessary and dubious self-appointed mentor.

Dent May: Across the Multiverse (Carpark) [c]
While trying to convey to my wife how annoying and depressing this album is I played her cuts from May's first two albums, and it surprised even me how much more vital Do Things was than this lethargic mess of recycled power pop hooks, flattened wholly by the sterile tin can production of which he's grown increasingly fond. He's never been a bad songwriter and he still isn't, and his voice is nothing if not appealingly unusual, but he keeps getting caught up in this same dumb morass of directionless sugar.

Grizzly Bear: Painted Ruins (RCA)
This will be a retread of my recent Fleet Foxes writeup. We've reached the outer limits of what I can say about this kind of music. If you like Grizzly Bear, it sounds like you would like it; it has expansive production and seems to subtly expand their palette of instrumentation. Meanwhile I hate them, but I harbor them no ill will, and it doesn't do the world any good for me to go beyond that.

***

ALSO (OR RATHER, SOLELY) RECOMMENDED:
- This Is the Kit: Moonshine Freeze (Rough Trade) - pleasant and shimmery, a rainy night AM blissout ["Two Pence Piece"]
- Dizzee Rascal: Raskit (Universal) - both impressive and terrifying how little the years seem to have mellowed him out; lovely '90s MTV feeling here though
- Jupiter & Okwess: Kin Sonic (Glitterbeat) - the Congo's past linked to a universal present
- Nicole Atkins: Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock) - car wheels on a gravel road ["Darkness Falls So Quiet"]

RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Floating Points: Reflections - Mojave Desert (Pluto)
- Golden Retriever: Rotations (Thrill Jockey)

ORPHAN TUNES:
Mura Masa ft. Bonzai "Nuggets" [Mura Masa]
Lana Del Rey "Love" [Lust for Life]

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
Girl Ray: Earl Grey
David Rawlings: Poor David's Almanack
Liane Carroll: The Right to Love

REJECTS
[Due to a Notepad-related disaster, I lost my notes for the last several of these, so some of them probably should have Not You It's Me tags. Sorry.]
Bedouine [NYIM]
James Elkington: Wintres Woma [NYIM]
Public Service Broadcasting: Every Valley
Mura Masa
Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Barefoot in the Head
Stanton Moore: With You in Mind [NYIM]
Alice Cooper: Paranormal
Nick Heyward: Woodland Echoes [NYIM]
The Districts: Popular Manipulations
Paul Kelly: Life Is Fine
Oneohtrix Point Never: Good Time OST [no one alive has done enough drugs to listen to this]
Frankie Rose: Cage Tropical
Downtown Boys: Cost of Living
Rat Boy: Scum
So Much Light: Oh, Yuck
Judy Dyble: Summer Dancing
Shelby Lynne: Not Dark Yet
Ghostpoet: Dark Days + Canapes
Steven Wilson: To the Bone

***

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The future of ratkind: July 2017 music diary

Laurel Halo: Dust (Hyperdub) [hr]
Squeaking and tweaking and bubbling like a higher-tech tUnE-yArDs, Halo is an electronic producer operating from Berlin via Ann Arbor; this is her third album, and its mood is already infectious before she starts delivering immediate, maddening earworms like "Moontalk" and "Do U Ever Happen." Like Jlin's record from a few months ago, it's the sound of addictive unrest -- all the experimentation of Arca or Oneohtrix but sliding ever so subtly into pop form, which in turn brings you back, which in turn makes the itch come back harder. Not since Crystal Castles broke through has such superficially annoying music become so lifestyle-indispensable so quickly.

Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory (Def Jam) [hr]
Minority opinion, but I've long felt like Staples was a talent being held back by something -- restraint? heart? formalism? a preference for midtempo? who knows -- and outside of some explosive tracks, and some I eventually warmed to when they became popular, I felt distant from his material. His second album doesn't just redeem anything ordinary in his back catalog, it sets fire to nearly everything else out right now, within and outside of the hip hop frame. With production dominated by Zack Sekoff but easing freely through tracks from GTA, Sophie and others, the record's beats are a showcase for cutting edge electronic and avant garde, as forward-looking and alien-sounding in its fashion as Yeezus or Atrocity Exhibition despite cues from Burial and classic house. You don't really need to know or recognize any of this to notice that nothing else sounds like this right now, and also that Staples harnesses this energy to deliver magnetic, overwhelming hooks and too many engaging moments of outright pop brilliance to count. Top-dollar guests are everywhere, many of them bigger stars than Staples, one of them inexplicably Damon Albarn, but the drama and the quickness all come from the leader himself. The absolutely infectious "Big Fish" should be the biggest song in the country, but then "BagBak" shoulda been too, with its outstanding closing fuck-off to the one percent, the government and the president, and for its lyrical synthesis of Staples' Afrofuturism: "Prison system broken, racial war commotion / Until the president get ashy, Vincent won't be votin' / We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office / Obama ain't enough for me, we only getting started," and maybe especially for the clear-as-a-bell, thrown off verse line "clap your hands if the police ever profiled," and the hint -- however Utopian -- of economic revenge, so much more profound than Jay-Z's because it's so much less polite and has the ring of underground organization. But every one of these mean creations is terrific; at 36 minutes, there's never time for a letup and it's hard to even breathlessly point out highlights, though "745" and the magical tin can "Yeah Right" will stick in your head first. All the while Staples lays down the gauntlet on race, America, class, suicide and sex in 2017, his sharpness and wickedness here fully matched by equally fearless musical choices.

Algiers: The Underside of Power (Matador) [c]
Atlanta "psychedelic soul" band claims to be post-punk but sounds more like Queens of the Stone Age, only more tired yet.

Peter Perrett: How the West Was Won (Domino) [r]
Probably my most anticipated album of the year save Kelela's, and despite the rating, better than I honestly expected. As leader of one of the most wonderful British bands of the '70s and '80s, the Only Ones, Perrett laid down an irresistibly erudite, sensitive vocal and lyrical style that made you feel he was one of the few songwriters with an actual empathy for, and feel for the problems of, human beings; whether his subject was a lost cat or the frenzied mania of real love, his songs rivaled the cleverness and humor of Ray Davies and Paul Westerberg with what sometimes seemed like an even stronger literary approach to genuine emotion. Seldom was a word wasted, and his vocal inflections and melodies operated in close conjunction, the songs never struggling to fit the words or vice versa; the thing is, he never ever got credit for any of this, his band getting buried in narratives about punk and new wave, has apparently spent the last thirty-odd years getting high on self-destruction with his wife, "flirting with death" in perpetuity. 2017 brings his first proper solo record, and you notice two things immediately: his voice is undimmed, and you can't even believe it's not 1979 when he starts singing. Secondly, the first song is pretty horrendous, like one of Loudon Wainwright's extended treatises on Viagra or whatnot. It gradually improves from there, though (even the polyamory song isn't that bad, not least because Perrett could breathe from ashtrays for the rest of his life and never be as disgusting as David Crosby), and Perrett's guitar playing is better than ever, almost Tom Verlaine-like at its best (listen to "Something in My Brain"). And there are at least two songs, "Sweet Endeavour" and "C Voyeurger," that are good enough to be on an Only Ones record, and that's honestly enough for me to count this an unexpected success.

MIKE: May God Bless Your Hustle (s/r)
NYC rapper with a somewhat repetitive verse style that drowns out whatever stunning lyrics others are hearing (though I am partial to the sentiment "I got this fuckin' headache / and it fuckin' hurt"), but he gets a nod for discussing mental health straightforwardly, and the genuinely oddball production choices and strange sonic interludes, on top of conventional soul samples, keep things from getting too tired. The juxtaposition sometimes calls up memories of Cities Aviv.

Jay-Z: 4:44 (Roc Nation) [c]
Self-absorption can generate art, but it has its limits and Kanye West has already fully explored them in this era and genre. Meanwhile, Jay's own personal Downfall of Western Civilization continues with his completely unnecessary "answer record" to Beyoncé's Lemonade, presumably recorded between board meetings, with producer No ID all too willingly enabling the onetime titan's clinging to the past of lush Blueprint-lite soul samples and to a generally desperate rotten-to-the-core nostalgia for a long-outmoded cultural dominance. Well, we're all getting older, but "y'all think small, I think Biggie" is a reach, and "I would say I'm the realest nigga rappin', but that ain't even a statement, that's like sayin' I'm the tallest midget -- wait, that ain't politically correct" is a dumb joke unworthy of a skit on a Big Boi release, made dumber yet because it's completely sincere. And enough about renewed energy, check out these hot rhymes: "I bought some artwork for one million / Two years later, that shit worth two million" or "Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian / had to pretend so long that she's a thespian" (which, okay, I get that it's a crucial gesture for him personally, but the expiration date on that particular couplet was probably 1985). It's not all embarrassing, but a lot of it is, like the worst part of the otherwise far more inspired Lemonade -- the "Black Bill Gates" capitalist fantasyland -- expanded into a worldview, with sentimental odes to friendships with superstars predicated on who gets the streaming rights to their catalogs, and the record's careful exposure rolled out in listening parties at Sprint stores, and an entire song about who gets what part of the corporate holdings in Jay's will. It's telling that the record's best moment by far is Jay's tail-between-legs confessional title cut, as if marital woes are his only remembered connection to reality. I truly do hope those two millionaires work it out.

Broken Social Scene: Hug of Thunder (Arts & Crafts) [r]
The legend goes that only a few people (who weren't in media) bought Broken Social Scene records at their height but every one of them is now in middle management. I can't tell you how tempting it is to rate this higher than it probably deserves. Unlike the good but sluggish Forgiveness Rock Record, this brings back the classic sound of Kevin Drew and his large cohort, and if you've not listened in a while you may have forgotten how much their expansive, detailed sound predicted the Arcade Fire phenomenon, for example. But unlike fellow Canadian supergroup the New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene's sound has become quaint, tied completely with nostalgia for a college rock culture that rescinded its domination quite quickly; and hey, it's not like Arcade Fire is doing a whole lot better lately. Still, if you want to pretend it's 2003-05 and so much still lay ahead, a time when I and everyone else with a taste for this kind of whatever this is played You Forgot It in People and its followup until we memorized every cranny and nuance, this is a bargain in terms of expanding a tiny catalog with more-of-the-wonderfully-same. It couldn't sound more correct or glorious while it's on, but its biggest cultural contribution to the world is letting Leslie Feist sing a few times. I'm not saying the music is irrelevant, I'm saying you'll only understand why it's so beautiful if you knew it way back when.

Japanese Breakfast: Soft Sounds from Another Planet (Dead Oceans)
Pseudonym of Oregonian multi-instrumentalist lo-fi popster Michelle Zauner, whose work boasts a broadly theatrical sound bordering on dreampop. It sounds nice and means well, but it's an odd choice to hype up and you can get your fix for this in many places, this just as well as any. Sounds like the back end of a Chromatics album at its best.

Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love (Revolver) [hr]
Riff-heavy, musically omnivorous power pop quintet came screaming out of Philly in 2016 with a set of three scarring, relentless EPs comprised of some of the filthiest and best American rock & roll in years, led unforgettably by the booming-voiced, unstoppable Tina Halladay and with lead guitarist Kyle Seely joining Max Kakacek to bring back that tasty Elliot Easton-Alex Chilton shit with plenty of Led Zeppelin and Boston and other dinosaur bands in tow, without the sneering machismo or self-indulgence. Their debut full-length takes a surprisingly nuanced approach compared to the punch-to-the-gut of the seven-inches, but after a time this ends up serving not to dilute their sound but to demonstrate an expanded, eclectic range of capabilities. With their revolutionary rhetoric and solid mixture of stubbornness and elasticity in their commercial aspirations, they could be the rare band that comes out swinging and doesn't immediately start to stagnate, especially since the record reveals few limitations to their sound, fewer yet to Halladay's once-in-a-lifetime presence and versatility. A band whose absorption of classic rock/AOR, glam, new wave, punk and even traces of metal already offered a nearly utopian synthesis on III proves equally capable of interpreting funk, disco, power balladry ("Milk and Honey" is Saints-worthy); even if the timely protest celebration "Meet Me in the Street" and political admonition "Expect the Bayonet" make the grandest possible statements, the shocking directness and fearless vulnerability of the title cut, the interlocking groove and infectious midtempo stomp of "Suffer Me," and the undeniable pop bliss of "Pure Desire" -- goddamn, that chorus! -- keep you running back to this irresistible broken-speaker sound, and you remember what felt so fleetingly good about hanging around in those seedy bars way back whenever or late last night.

Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines (Sub Pop) [r]
Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star (Sub Pop) [hr]
Ishmael Butler bombards us with two new records simultaneously, and the first -- engaging though it is -- is something of a retread, more sci-fi tomfoolery in a concept record about an alien exploring the ghost in the machine, observing the haters, getting mad about narcissism, etc., and Butler really does sound pretty pissed off in places when the poetry slam absurdity of it, not to mention a beatless gloom that's altogether new, doesn't totally drown him out. The second record is another story; intended as a set of bonus tracks it grew out into its own full-fledged experience and, like Kendrick Lamar's set of To Pimp a Butterfly leftovers untitled unmastered., it sounds rawer, looser, more engaged than the sessions that birthed the idea. The malfunctioning Atari sounds of "Julian's Dream" and the scathing culture critique "30 Clip Extension" on the first album give the best clues to what's going on during the second, which allows Butler to come out from behind concept and really spit: the unsettling rhythms and chants of "Eel Dreams" and "Fine Ass Hairdresser" have all the spontaneity missing when the impulse toward plot overtakes songs, "Shine a Light" is a sample-heavy production and performance to die for, possibly the best synthesis of the Shabazz ethos thus far, and "Moon Whip Quaz" is just irresistible... while the second record's ambient interludes and hooks both linger to a greater degree than anything since Black Up. It feels like the two albums would have greater impact if they were fused, but Butler so clearly knows what he's doing musically it's no fun to try to question his artistic or business acumen.

Waxahatchee: Out in the Storn (Merge) [r]
Same as it ever was, a flawless soundtrack to eternal adolescence, or at least hazy memories of same.

Tyler, the Creator: Flower Boy (Columbia) [r]
(Pretending you don't already know this:) Tyler's part of the Odd Future alt-hip hop collective of essentially teenagers who hit the big time as bloghypes and then a mainstream phenomenon starting around 2011, at which time their attempt at an Insane Close Posse-style cultish fanbase with a DIY ethos and alternately absurdist, misogynist and just plain stupid humor reached its brief zenith, meaning there was a lot of talk about "the zeitgeist" and a lot of people getting (understandably, for the most part) offended. This already feels like ancient history, and already had begun to by the time the collective's first real breakout superstar Frank Ocean started getting fawned over by normies the world over in '12 -- when he started his balladeering move, the guilt-by-association evidently faded. One of the decisive moments in Ocean's public life was when he came out as bisexual, and some years later Tyler -- author of most of the more divisive and troubling lyrics that got Odd Future so much attention in the first place, many of them homophobic -- has done the same in album form with this confessional charmer that rides on the back of Chance the Rapper's last few releases with its Yellow Submarine-PM Dawn graphics and vibes. Truthfully, its ambitions don't seem far removed from Tyler's initial plan post-Goblin -- "Talking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn't interest me anymore... what interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to." hmm, okay -- but it's getting loads of goodwill now that Chance has made its brand of introspection somewhat fashionable, and it no-shit remains extremely impressive that Tyler produces all of his own material; when you hear the variance of sound on this release, that's mind-blowing, though if I'm being honest this is also the first time I've been able to make it all the way through one of his records, which I thought in 2011 and still think today is partially generational -- go ask the Needle Drop asshole what he thinks I guess* -- and partially resentment that Odd Future received a level of attention that the vastly more provocative and witty Das Racist never did (if DR was the Sex Pistols, Odd Future is the damn Knack). I do like this; Tyler's an engaging and versatile rapper, the lyrics are fair enough, and the three-track run from "Boredom" to "911" is a mood-swinging blast, and a return to the groove-based sound of early Kanye West is more immediately appealing to me (except when No ID is trying it) than the perhaps artistically riskier exploration of gospel and pop tones on Coloring Book, but as with that record I have to tell you that I find the positivity at least a little hollow, and maybe in this case even a tiny bit self-serving, considering how much the attention paid to Tyler has fallen off with each successive record until now. "November" and "Glitter" are sweet, good-hearted songs, and they're also almost tooth-decayingly corny, painting him as a passive-aggressive reactionary in reverse. But if someone finds empowerment here, they fully deserve it, and I know young people need space to figure shit out and cynicism isn't helpful here... but can you really 100% tell which Tyler is the trustworthy confessor and which the pandering crook?

* = oops, the Needle Drop guy is only two years younger than me, oh well, throwing myself into the ditch now

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
- Beach Fossils: Somersault (Bayonet)- jangling into a dark night, and with a streak of genre-bending riskiness to boot; too bad the singing is almost wholly colorless
- Chuck Berry: Chuck (Dualtone) - more an odds and ends gathering than a proper return, overrun with novelty like most of his studio albums, but his first stab at new material in almost thirty years is more charming than not, and his refusal to accept he had nothing left to prove rings out hard and true ["Big Boys" / "Wonderful Woman"]
- The Heliocentrics: A World of Masks (Soundway) - starts slow but gets hypnotic, the less singing the better
- Sufjan Stevens/Bryce Dessner/Nico Muhly/James McAlister: Planetarium (4AD) - like Sufjan? you'll like this, but you'll listen to it start to finish maybe twice in your life
- Alison Moyet: Other (Cooking Vinyl) - no standout songs but Moyet's voice is an earth-shattering thrill, now as always
- Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar (Virgin) - all-timer indie rock diva discovers the joy of florid full arrangements, retains her infallible voice on some terrific throwback stuff ["In and Out" / "Do You Want Me To"]
- TOPS: Sugar at the Gate (Arbutus) - lilting soft rock with a '90s trip hop edge like Flock of Dimes, though not nearly as good
- Amber Coffman: City of No Reply (Columbia) - soulful, melodic, well-produced pop from -- of all people -- the former ex-Dirty Projectors guitarist; starts out truly brilliantly with three of the best songs of the year ["All to Myself" / "Dark Night" / "Nobody Knows"]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* This Is the Kit: Moonshine Freeze
* Dizzee Rascal: Raskit
Bedouine
Floating Points: Reflections - Mojave Desert
James Elkington: Wintres Woma
Jupiter & Okwess: Kin Sonic
Public Service Broadcasting: Every Valley
Mura Masa
Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Barefoot in the Head
Nicole Atkins: Goodnight Rhonda Lee
Stanton Moore: With You in Mind
Golden Retriever: Rotations

REJECTS:
House and Land [NYIM]
Phoenix: Ti Amo
Big Boi: Boomiverse
Rozwell Kid: Precious Art
Denai Moore: We Used to Bloom [NYIM]
Jeff Tweedy: Together at Last
Lapalux: Rulnism
Washed Out: Mister Mellow
HAIM: Something to Tell You
Boris: Dear
Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts
Declan McKenna: What Do You Think About the Car?
Daphni: Fabriclive 93 [NYIM]
Childhood: Universal High
Pete Fij: We Are Millionaires [NYIM]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
B.B. King: Live in Cook County Jail (ABC 1970/1971) [r]
various artists: At Home with the Groovebox (Grand Royal 2000) [-] {the Pavement song is magnificent}