One hell of a month. Goodbye to one of the mavericks, hello again to three people with more talent in an eyebrow and more capacity to fearlessly expose themselves than you and I will ever muster. Plus old friends and new. It's beautiful.
Didn't want to put this in the review so it's up here: When Old Ideas came out I said in Metro Times that I wished it was angrier, a diagnosis I later regretted; he of course never read that and wouldn't have cared if he had, but the chiding sneer of the very title and chorus of "You Want It Darker" feels like a rebuke and I'm going to pretend it's my hero yelling at me and I fully accept it.
Beach Slang: A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (Polyvinyl) [c]
The rating is just honest and firmly biased. Hard to get much pleasure out of listening to this, but it's also simple enough to understand why it's necessary -- so much less than the classicist rock & roll expression of freedom, this aggressive, dramatic combination of Future Islands and Cloud Nothings is the music of comfort to a person raised in a certain timeframe. It suggests long nights drinking with the friends you've been playing Sega with since midle school. It sounds like a closed-down Kmart, music more dead than alive, but maybe that's just because you're not privy to the intricacies in the conversation it backgrounds.
Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine (Glassnote) [hr]
In my world the Walkmen are deeply missed, and with keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij newly gone from Vampire Weekend, I fear I'm destined to feel similarly about them. Somehow it's appropriate that the Walkmen's leader follows up his decent grower of a solo debut with a richly inviting, lovingly textured collaboration with Batmanglij that sounds exactly the way you'd expect and is as a result an immediate and sumptuous pleasure. The Walkmen during their You and Me and Lisbon period had come ever closer to a full-on emulation of unadorned Sun Records and country blues roots-rock, and the pair's new songs are a cornucopia of late 1950s and early 1960s rock & roll tinged with the probing, friendly intensity of Batmanglij's simple but impeccable soundscapes on Contra and Modern Vampires of the City. It's a happy match, to say the least, and often exhilarating; "Sick as a Dog" is pure Walkmen reincarnated, "Rough Going" the second best doo wop song of the year after Rihanna's, "In a Black Out" a Leonard Cohen interpolation with a driving primal beat, "When the Truth Is..." a New Orleans soul pastiche, and "You Ain't That Young Kid" is nothing more than an "Oh Yoko!" rewrite, but what the world needs now is more "Oh Yoko!" rewrites.
M.I.A.: AIM (Interscope) [r]
Slight compared to M.I.A.'s best work but still cutting and surprisingly fun; politics and abrasiveness take sort of a rear-seat priority to catchiness but it wouldn't seem nice to complain much when this music's vitality still makes it stick out in an overcrowded marketplace. "Birdsong" and "Fly Pirate" are the songs that wander the least from their focus, and their frenetic energy is bracing, but "Borders" and "Go Off" could be recast by a matter of degrees into timeless radio songs. It's maybe to Maya Arulpragasam's credit that she resists taking the easy route to pleasure.
Nicolas Jaar: Sirens (Other People) [hr]
Five years after the enchanting and truly original Space Is Only Noise, with interim work on the collaborative ambient unit Darkside, the eccentric and intimidatingly gifted Jaar returns with one of the great sonic thrills of recent years. Sirens is much more driven by songs than its predecessor, but if the irresistibly weird, guttural hooks on "Space Is Only Noise" and "Problems with the Sun" gave you a start, wait till you get a load of the towering Eddie Cochran-as-DJ Shadow monster "The Governor," to say nothing of the bubbling rhythmic trickery and sensual, expansive moments at the core of "No" and "History Lesson" (incongrouous '80s sax break and all), always anchored by Jaar's surprisingly swaggering vocals. There's also plenty of noise and hauntingly strange captured ambiance, and virtually every second is inspired and addictive, moving teasingly on to each new frontier at the perfect moment. The sort of album that demands to be played as loudly as possible; James Blake wishes.
Drive-By Truckers: American Band (ATO)
Long-running Athens, GA band is beloved in many quarters, including the alt-country circles I ran around devotedly within about ten years ago. I've tried time and time again to hear what others do in them, never harder than with this profane, politically charged, strangely listless and bland new album. There are occasional hooks that call up favorable thoughts of the Jayhawks, but the songcraft by and large is undistinguished, and the lyrics can't compensate when they tend toward either obscurity or the childlike embarrassment of "Sun Don't Shine"... with the notable exception of "What It Means," an impassioned ode to the Black Lives Matter movement that means probably more as a political gesture in alt-country's tradition of prejudice rejected than Chatham County Line's "Birmingham Jail" because it stands up directly to current events. For someone living in a Trump state, the demonstration that compassion does exist in the South is welcome in this terrible age.
Bon Iver: 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar) [c]
I recoiled so violently at this at first -- its hilariously pretentious song titles probably putting me immediately on the offensive, admittedly -- that it made me question the entire future of this blog. Namely: does the world need me to announce what I think of Bon Iver? Come 2020, probably not -- my decade-long experiment will be complete and I'll probably stick to reviewing only stuff that strikes my fancy after a few tracks. For now, though, I'm obligated to listen more carefully than comes natural to me, and my conclusion is that the music is less cringeworthy than it initially seems. There's dimension and depth and texture to the arrangements if not the ponderous, melodramatic songs themselves and certainly not the strained hyperseriousness of Justin Vernon's tinker-tron vocals, a bad soundtrack to a bad science fiction opus. You can sense, though, how the music's attachment to pure, smoothed-down, static beauty might move somebody without the inclination to hear it as toothless. In civilian life, though, I get to just tell you that I don't want to understand Bon Iver, and I get to also tell you that the treacly, dippy, comically overblown "29 #Strafford APTS" is the worst fucking song I've heard in months.
Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones) [r]
A body horror narrative from this Norwegian experimental musician, much ado about menstrual blood, vampires and Italian giallo films. Hval's kitchen sink conceptual approach distracts a bit but at its best this is genuinely beguiling and unnerving. Closest comparison I can think of is some of Yoko Ono's work, though I hesitate to think Ono would have married herself so passionately to so limited a narrative conceit. Hval, like Ono, has a genuinely seductive pop sensibility that many will ignore. I can't see myself listening to this often but it is an impressive and enjoyably restless creation.
Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Warp) [hr]
Not that long ago, Detroit's auteur of discomfort was thought of as a novelty rapper, all high-pitched chirp and stoned nonsequiturs. If the terrific Old didn't persuade everyone of his depth and alarming creative antsiness, his truly extraordinary third album should put the old image to bed forever. Old was about failing to come to terms with one's identity, borrowing themes from Arthur Lee. Atrocity Exhibition, taking musical cues from Brian Eno's worth with Talking Heads (listen to the trippy, wilding "Dance in the Water" or the bubbling, swampy "Rolling Stone"), is the sound of a bleaker kind of confusion and despair. It even opens with the disorienting sound of Brown caving in, a world falling apart... but then again, the other thing the record is about is Brown demonstrating an absolute brilliance, consistency and generosity that manages to make most other tentpole hip hop records of the past few years appear weak and thin. Longtime collaborator Black Milk produces most of the tracks, and virtually all of them are worlds unto themselves. The instant classic "Really Doe," with its jingling minimalism and inescapably catchy Kendrick Lamar hook, would be far and away the highlight of a lesser album. Here, I'm not sure it's even close. "Tell Me What I Don't Know" invites its own essay with its stark synth, shuffling beat and despairing rhymes about living in hell. Brown shifts personalites with jack-in-the-box relentlessness but his paranoia is a constant, and how can it not be when he watches TV, puts on the news? This may not have the conceptual soundness of Lamar or Kanye West's albums but it outruns either in its unique and singular sound, its fevered intensity, its city night drive clusterfuck, and frankly the forward-looking caliber of its guests, with both Petite Noir and Kelela putting in significant time. You don't hear music this exciting in its madness very often.
Solange: A Seat at the Table (Columbia) [hr]
Solange Knowles turned thirty in 2016, which is staggering when you consider the maturity and sense of history involved in her brilliant, politically direct third album, which at times amounts to a sound collage about black identity. Being part of a famous family and a celebrity unto herself, Solange has approached her career carefully, with much deliberation over each successive movement, and it's all led up to this, a moment that's completely earned its fanfare. It means to speak specifically and without dilution to a black millennial audience and stakes its claim as giving voice to a broad base of people far afield of the life experience of not just many of its listeners but Solange herself. It might be protest music but it's meditative protest music. It's also powerfully performed, instantly and warmly addictive, varied and seductive. It's of a piece with the chain of landmark R&B LPs since Beyoncé's black album in 2013, and with the spoken passages, the hooks passed along and discarded, the well-maintained intimacy and sprawl, it's the most successful synthesis of its commercial ideas to date while also managing to be nothing more or less than a singer-songwriter's album, moments like "Cranes in the Sky" even calling to mind '70s anthems of the Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye variety. That personable sensibility is maintained even on a bumping dance song like "Mad" (with Lil Wayne's best interlude in years), but never more elegantly than on the opening salvo "Rise," which shakes you to the core in under two minutes. The album's slightly front-loaded, its best moments all in the first half apart from "Scales" (when is the Kelela revolution underway again?) but taken together it just has the most incredibly lively feeling about it.
Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos (Fiction) [hr]
Tempest's first album Everybody Down comprised in its irresistible beats and rhymes a witty, intricate story about London dirtbags getting swept up in minor intrigue; it had such detail and charm she turned it into a novel. Her second record is a warning signal -- about a group of strangers bound together by an unexpected event in a single minute of their lives. She takes flight from this strange moment to examine more disparate lives, but now with a touch of dread and resentment in her voice as she watches society fall apart; it's a sort of leftist Magnolia without the bourgeois sensibility, but so vastly better than that makes it sound. "Europe is lost. America -- lost," Tempest announces near the beginning. It's something you probably already knew, but you've never heard it expressed with the breathless passion and desperation brought to it by this astonishing artist. There are still jokes, still touches of unmistakable reality, and still there are exhilarating performative moments of Tempest soaring at the microphone, still exquisite beats and tour de force slaps to fall into. But she can't keep her distance anymore. Her narrative positions her as the opposite of the God imagined by Ray Davies in "Big Sky" back in 1968, the last year in which the world seemed to face quite so much insurmountable uncertainty. She can't hide her hopelessness, but nor can she hide how absolutely much she loves the people stuck in this fucked up situation of being alive. On the last song, "Tunnel Vision," she lays it out. Read the words online if it's the only way I can persuade you to listen to this fucking album, but you really don't hear her message until you hear the way her voice breaks when she says it and when she begs us to act... not even by protesting, though that would be nice, but by connecting. You might never look at your neighbors the same way, and maybe you'll even speak to them tomorrow. Whatever the case, Tempest is one of the most extraordinarily talented people currently recording music in the entire world.
Yossou N'Dour: Senegaal Rekk (Prince Arts EP) [r]
Only learned this existed via Christgau's review. All but automatically recommended because it's Yossou N'Dour and he and his band are among the best and tightest musicians in the entire world; they and Bassekou Kouyate's band are the closest we all get to a modern day James Brown and the Famous Flames, language barrier notwithstanding. Recommended, not highly, also by default because the difficulty of finding it (it's on Youtube in rather dismal quality, which doesn't count it) is hard to justify when you can so much more easily track down more and better work from this artist.
Lizzo: Coconut Oil (Atlantic EP) [r]
Best left to some expert in "the industry" to explain why an EP is seen as the best option for a promising, self-sustaining artist just signed to a major. Apart from that I just hope that the smoothed edges of this perfectly fun, charming twenty-minute set aren't a harbinger of things to come. Big GRRL Small World had some soppy ballads, but it also slammed -- the only truly nasty and unconventional moment here is the irresistibly bratty "Phone," which does have Lizzo's most supernaturally infectious hook to date. Nevertheless, everything here is good, and maybe it serves as a smoother way in... but I hope her full-length Atlantic debut is a lot meaner and messier, as I'm not ready for this voice to get sucked into the machine yet.
The Radio Dept.: Running Out of Love (Labrador) [r]
My records indicate that I enjoyed this band's 2010 album Clinging to a Scheme but it's retroactively blended in with the glut of terrific music released that year, so I was genuinely surprised by how effective this set of atmospheric synthpop is, sung with surprisingly touching disaffection by Johan Duncanson. The scope of influences has narrowed a bit, moving away from shoegaze and Cocteaus toward O.M.D. and Orange Juice. For anybody who loves those bands and likes a touch of dream pop, this will be something like heaven, though the sound very frequently outruns the songs (not necessarily a bad thing if it's the mood you're seeking). There are significant exceptions, though, stacked mostly toward the beginning -- "Swedish Guns" and "We Got Game" are two of the catchiest and best-produced throwbacks this side of Cut Copy's "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution" or Egyptian Hip Hop's stunning "SYH" -- and on "Committed to the Cause," the group shows conscientious attention toward something alien to so many of their peers: groove.
Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia) [hr]
Difficult not to take this as a personal missive meant for each of us individually, like the last message from one's teacher or mentor. Hearing it before he died it seemed strong, brief and distant, a good downward shift in mood and tone from Popular Problems and Old Ideas; hearing it afterward it became different, as he undoubtedly knew and intended, more deliberate in its thorniness. First of all it isn't a decisive or resolved farewell. It's unsettling, troubling, challenging, leaving an upset confusion in its wake. The move away from tin can noises and toward something more naturally lush -- his most modern-sounding album since The Future, his least arid or awkward in production terms since New Skin for the Old Ceremony -- is used not to make music that sounds more inviting but music that sounds more infused with inevitability and dread despite its evident timelessness, appropriate for a shadowy exit in the world's final act. The credits indicate that two of the best songs are cowrites: the forcefully pretty "On the Level" (with one of the best, most soulful vocal performances of his career; genuinely upsetting he'll never get to play it live); and the instantly legendary title cut, which makes a promise that the remainder more than delivers on in its chilling gospel tones and evocative spiritual gloom. But then there's "Steer Your Way," a desperate minor key groove growling off into eternity that's all the Leonard we love to speak with, through and through. And of course, so is this: "I don't need a lover / the wretched beast is tame / I don't need a lover / so blow out the flame." What will we do without Cohen's mysteries to solve? Small consolation is that I'll be long dead myself by the time we decipher them all. RIP, master. I'll never forgive myself for missing Durham '09.
NxWorries: Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw)
This R&B duo (pronounced "No Worries" but it's so much more fun if you treat it phonetically) includes Anderson .Paak of Anderson .Paak fame and producer Knxledge, both of whom released very good albums this year that are more focused and appealing than their collaboration... which nevertheless has some great moments of under-the-skin banging and levity, the best of both worlds being the delightful lost-FM throwback "Scared Money," like a misplaced Bill Withers song revitalized with a couple of enthusiastic geeks feeling every word.
Weyes Blood: Front Row Seat to Earth (Mexican Summer) [r]
It drags at times, but the third album from the Californian (and how very) singer-songwriter Natalie Mering is a lovely, ethereal, melodramatic, slightly tongue-in-cheek tour of florid chamber pop -- it's going straight into the Rabbit-Friendly Music playlist.
De La Soul: And the Anonymous Nobody (AOI) - in marked contrast to other elder-statesmen hip hop, you want to spend more time with the chillingly good production and beats than with the rapping
Bobby Rush: Porcupine Meat (Rounder) - a crazed, monumental blues performance, every bit of 82 years but still fuming
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* Flock of Dimes: If You See Me, Say Yes
Public Access TV: Never Enough
Itasca: Open to Chance
Xylouris White: Black Peak
Swet Shop Boys: Cashmere
D.R.A.M.: Big Baby D.R.A.M.
John K. Samson: Winter Wheat [mostly out of obligation; I wasn't feeling it much but I loved the Weakerthans dearly back in the day]
Robert Glasper Experiment: ArtScience
LVL UP: Return to Love [NYIM]
Merchandise: A Corpse Wired for Sound
How to Dress Well: Care
Warpaint: Heads Up
Devendra Banhart: Ape in Pink Marble
Skylar Grey: Natural Causes [NYIM]
Banks: The Altar [NYIM]
S U R V I V E: RR7349 [NYIM]
The Wytches: All Your Happy Life [NYIM]
Van Morrison: Keep Me Singing
Van der Graaf Generator: Do Not Disturb
Ultimate Painting: Dusk [NYIM]
NOFX: First Ditch Effort
Norah Jones: Day Breaks
Joyce Manor: Cody
Julia Jacklin: Don't Let the Kids Win [NYIM]
Luke Haines: Smash the System
Hiss Golden Messenger: Heart Like a Levee
Green Day: Revolution Radio
Shovels & Rope: Little Seeds
Katie Gately: Color
Jamie Lidell: Building a Beginning
The Orb: COW / Chill Out, World! [NYIM]
Lemon Twigs: Do Hollywood
The Early Years: II
C Duncan: The Midnight Sun [NYIM]
D.D. Dumbo: Utopia Defeated [NYIM]
Conor Oberst: Ruminations
Donny McCaslin: Beyond Now
Kero Kero Bonito: Bonito Generation
Tanya Tagaq: Retribution
Jimmy Eat World: Integrity Blues
Syd Arthur: Apricity
David Crosby: Lighthouse
Agnes Obel: Citizen of Glass
OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
The Apples in Stereo: Her Wallpaper Reverie (SpinART 1999) [r]
The Apples in Stereo: Let's Go (SpinART 2001 EP) [c]
Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul (Atlantic 1968) [r]
Aretha Franklin: Soul '69 (Atlantic 1969) [r]
Next post is likely to be fairly short. I posted a preliminary list of my top 2016 albums on Twitter but I felt kind of crappy about it so I won't duplicate it here. Not likely to write very much about my final choices, maybe a pargraph or two, because I'm very anxious to move on and try again at the "keeping up" thing...