Sunday, January 1, 2017

Well, I don't think that anymore: September 2016 music diary

Happy new year. The new year started yesterday in Australia, and here at this blog it's still September. Time won't give me time.

RIP George Michael; I wasn't a hardcore fan -- never minded him, just wasn't on my radar as much as he maybe could've been -- but "Freedom '90" is one of the best songs of the last several decades even if you ignore the iconic music video.

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Cass McCombs: Mangy Love (Epitaph)
"What are you in for?" "Atmosphere." No lie, this complements falling rain pretty well if you miss Loudon Wainwright or wish Sam Beam swung his dick around a bit more, with some catchy if familiar tunes and a great sense of desolation, but the lyrics are routinely and consistently a distracting fright, like Raffi joining the resistance. Inspirational sentiment: "I'm a shoe / and so are you."

Young Thug: JEFFERY (Atlantic) [r]
Forty-odd breezy minutes of Young Thug's endlessly inventive grunts, growls, squeaks and chirps will ride completely on your own personal tolerance for same; I'm learning to love it myself -- at first he seemed like a nonentity to me, now I'm coming around to seeing him as a true original. And with its magnificently oblique, probing song titles and lyrics that often read like someone making a career out of poking fun at the Weeknd (and/or Future), it may be the most dadaist mainstream hip hop record since early Outkast. Would "Wyclef Jean" and "Kanye West ft. Wyclef Jean" seem nearly as funny and poignant without their song titles? Not sure but even taken as pure sensory envelopment, this is terrific summer music; given how fast careers like this tend to move, don't pain yourself by forgetting that next June.

Angel Olsen: My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
Stuffy formalism still gets some people off. Drama still gets me off, so I like some parts of this and would possibly like them more if I liked the singing more. But Olsen's per-fect mod-u-la-tions are as artificial and boring to me in their way as anything on the radio, as emotionally distant in their friendliness as Spoon or Wilco or St. Vincent or, for that matter, Cass McCombs, Mac Demarco, Kurt Vile, etc. Perhaps my idea of what emotion "sounds like" is too limited, or perhaps my attachment to weird voices (see above) has finally taken over my brain.

Okkervil River: Away (ATO)
There might be nothing weirder than the realization that at the moment when my life was most turbulent, many years ago, I fell hard for a band that generated (or was destined to generate; haven't listened to the old stuff in a number of years) such a mournful and self-indulgent brand of dad rock male angst as this, which sounds like it's geared to people who are stuck at home on Friday night eating canned ham and watching To Tell the Truth reruns on GSN. Will Sheff's less filtered than ever before, singing his way through what sounds like a morbid mindset of Edgar Allan Poe-like proportions (the opening track is called "Okkervil River RIP" and there are heaps of lyrics about the breakthrough of learning to blame yourself for shit, no kidding); the band works hard to be sympathetic and for the most part they succeed, but subjecting yourself to this feels quite frankly like work. I caught part of an Okkervil show before I knew much about them and they struck me as lively and delightfully mad; I can't imagine how the band I saw is working with this material on stage.

Wilco: Schmilco (Anti-)
There might be noting weirder than the realization that we listened to this band en masse in our fucking twenties and now they're doing this stuff which makes your local classic rock station sound youthful and vibrant. Wilco responded to increasingly loud critiques of their blatantly flowery house style circa 2005-11 by scaling back to, again, a Spoon-like spareness and songwriting more workhorse and doubled-down on "maturity" than ever. Most of their fans seem to prefer this approach; unfortunately it does nothing for me and I think everyone who liked Star Wars more than The Whole Love is crazy. Schmilco isn't really any worse than Star Wars even though I'm rating it lower here, it's just that while this is never unpleasant the way the Okkervil River album is, listening to it makes me feel older than I want to. Jeff Tweedy's taking cues from his peers/mentors/sometime opening act Yo La Tengo in the use of incongrous humor (the album cover by brilliantly morbid cartoonist Joan Cornella is the best thing about the record) and the keep-your-head-down intensity of plugging away at songs without any commitment toward innovation or the courting of a broad audience. Schmilco is more than happy to talk to a very small group of people, thanks very much. The discrepancy stems from the fact that Wilco will never and could never, in a thousand years, demonstrate anything approaching YLT's emotional resonance and creative restlesness; the best Yo La Tengo music has joy and warmth in it, both elements wholly absent from the listless product to which Wilco is now unerringly devoted to selling.

clipping.: Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop) [r]
CLPPNG was one of my favorite left-field records of the decade and I was initially unmoved by this proggier follow-up, which doubles down on science fiction and concept record reference points, falling short on the variance and groove layered into its predecessor. Prompted by Ryan Nichols' praise of it, though, I listened more closely and there's really a lot happening in here, with fragmented hooks not dissimilar to what labelmates Shabazz Palaces have been getting at. It certainly is a credibly chilling, ice-cold atmosphere that clipping. generates, steeped in production that evokes Dickian dystopia and Lovecraftian horror but made immediate by Broadway-fresh Daveed Diggs' constantly breathtaking delivery. It's not something I can imagine anyone wanting to listen to on a regular basis but if its peculiar moodiness strikes you, it's basically a unique experience.

Preoccupations (Jagjaguwar) [c]
This band used to be Viet Cong -- their name changed after a lot of pearl-clutching outrage over the fact that the Viet Cong was an instrument of death, as if the United fucking States is not -- and they sound like a really bad Future Islands, or like Interpol if they had let Carlos D write all the songs. The least painful songs take advantage of their mildly entertaining hooks by repeating them so incessantly you'll want to take a gun to the speaker. Only redeeming facet of this sonically is it occasionally sounds like Depeche Mode in the period when Flood was producing their stuff. But never for long enough.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.) [hr]
I'm writing this just after another rash of headline-grabbing celebrity deaths -- Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, George Michael -- and slightly less than a month ahead of wealthy dickhead granddad Donald Trump ascending to the presidency, but even with all this in mind I'm not sure I'm wholly convinced of the conventional wisdom that 2016 has been an unusually dark year. Maybe its misery is just a bit more plainly visible than usual; as my personal life has gotten better and more fulfilling during the last eight years, I've never shaken a creeping sense of what terror and despair exists just beyond my bubble, something I was conscious of when I was younger but it bothered me a lot less. Maybe I had less to lose. Whether deliberately or not, as a result of the loss of one of his children in a freak accident, Nick Cave's new album is about grief, and loss, and the mindbendingly nonsensical and accidental nature of how tragedy chooses its victims. Cave had everything to lose, and he lost a whole lot of it in one sickening moment. The record was mostly finished already, but the very act of completing it comes to signify a lot. There's an accompanying film, meant to deflect any questions about the relationship between the work and the miserable turn of events in Cave and his family's private world. There's another accompanying film too, this one only relevant by a trick of timing: Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, whose lead character ends up making a thin and vacant lifestyle of his inability to cope, acquainting himself with the numbness of guilt, whether misplaced or not, and the discovery that however low he takes himself there's always lower. Cave is not a conflicted or ambiguous victim like Casey Affleck's character in the film, nor is he some self-isolating Raskolnikov; this is human pain we can't imagine. But somehow out of it has grown a record that may prove immensely important to a lot of people in the years to come. Its gently ominous melodies, the haunting spareness in its production and the sense of an almost oppressive surrender to demonic fate all have a feeling of impeccable grace and judgment that lets this music attain a universalism in modernist blues familiar from the best moments of R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. In other words, Cave's honest expression of and partial response to loss -- though the record was commenced before the accident, it's unmistakably colored by it -- has become somehow a paean to both a dark time and to the corners of our hearts that often hurt to traverse, but that sooner or later must be relit.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani: Frkways Vol. 13: Sunergy (RVNG) [r]
The Frkwys series allows electronic artists to work with their most formidable influences; here, New Age pioneer Ciani presents Pacific Ocean-inspired beds of sound with the Buchla synthesizer, which Ciani is here reunited with after several decades. The human collaborator here is Smith, a younger composer infatuated with the same sound. The result is a thoroughly enveloping three-track (one is labeled a bonus, but that's presumably just because it couldn't fit on the vinyl), 53-minute ambient journey into out-of-time naturalism. The line between innovation and populist comfort has been blurred unrecognizably since the '70s, and so much the better.

Nels Cline: Lovers (Blue Note) [hr]
"Beautiful Music," the genre of kitschy easy-listening lifestyle music popular among a certain sector of suburban middling types in the '60s and '70s, has long been a sort of obsession of mine; it's such a peculiar example of the intersection between pure commercialism and almost accidental eccentricity. Guitarist Nels Cline's new record imagines a variation on Beautiful Music that's actually, for lack of a better word, good; assuming we're not counting the leagues of good ambient records inspired by the concept, this is perhaps the only easy-listening album I can recommend on a non-ironic basis (there are some 101 Strings and Bert Kaempfert tracks I think achieve some small transcendence, but if you're not a complete weirdo, they're an acquired taste obviously). Cline designs this music to assert its melodicism but also to recede into the background when necessary. At ninety minutes, it's a bit too long to reward dedicated listening, yet when you dip into it, you often find sublime takes on familiar material and some surprising picks: the most purely successful cut might be a gorgeous cover of Sonic Youth's "Snare, Girl." As many reviewers have noted, the Cline originals are generally good but pale in comparison to the standards, which are highlighted by "Secret Love" and a Django Reinhardt-evoking romantic mounting of the Sweet Adeline tune "Why Was I Born?". Obviously Cline is speaking to a niche here, but he's doing it impeccably, and elevator music could use such a conscientious champion.


ALSO RECOMMENDED
- Phonte / Eric Robertson: Tigallero (Foreign Exchange) - this is some friendly
- Rival Consoles: Night Melody (Erased Tapes)- more acceptable, unobtrusive ambiance just off-kilter enough to be slightly distinctive, but only necessary if you like/need something like this
- Hieroglyphic Being: The Disco's of Imhotep (Ninja Tune) - jerkin' back-n-forth
- Factory Floor: 25 25 (DFA)- like if Oneohtrix Point Never suddenly wanted to please a very large room
- Rae Sremmurd: SremmLife 2 (Interscope) - there's no "reining in" in this duo; total indulgence and bad ideas are only met with egging on, but "Black Beatles" is an absolute monster and it ain't alone

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
- De La Soul: And the Anonymous Nobody
- Robert Glasper Experiment: ArtScience
- Bobby Rush: Porcupine Meat

REJECTS:
Viola Beach
Owen: The King of Whys
Blossoms
Marconi Union: Ghost Stations
Slow Club: One Day All of This Won't Matter Any More
Butch Walker: Stay Gold
Glass Animals: How to Be a Human Being
The Veils: Total Depravity
The Parrots: Los Ninos Sin Miedo
Morgan Delt: Phase Zero
The Wedding Present: Going, Going...
Jamie T.: Trick
Anthony David: The Powerful Now
Banks & Stelz: Anything But Words
Drugdealer: The End of Comedy
Bastille: Wild World
Twin Atlantic: GLA
Teenage Fanclub: Here
Gaby Moreno: Ilusion
Dave Hollister: The MANuscript
Wrekmeister Harmonies: Light Falls
Usher: Hard II Love
Touche Amore: Stage Four
Cymbals Eat Guitars: Pretty Years
Tim Presley: The Wink [NYIM]
The Handsome Family: Unseen
Matt Berry: The Small Hours
Grumbling Fur: FurFour
Against Me!: Shape Shift with Me [NYIM]
Deap Vally: Femejism [NYIM]
Ian Hunter: Fingers Crossed
Haley Bonar: Impossible Dream [NYIM]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Island 2006) [r]
The Apples in Stereo: Tone Soul Evolution (Sire 1997) [-]

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The October post is a big one, unfortunately probably not ready for 14-15 days; to be honest, I'm starting to like the distance away from the rush of end-of-year lists my falling behind has gotten me, because it's given me a chance to add some things that friends have mentioned for my last post to appear soon thereafter. Nonetheless, I do want to get back to my other promised projects here as soon as I can, so I'll be plugging away as always here. Good luck to all.