Saturday, June 24, 2017

You did all you could: April 2017 music diary

Before we return to the current century, some thoughts related to the last one: I've now read both Brian Wilson and Mike Love's new autobiographies -- Wilson's is unexpectedly delightful, Love's predictably dire but not without interest -- and my brief thoughts have been added to the Beach Boys overview page. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I did indeed listen to all of the newly issued Sgt. Pepper material; you'll be hearing more about it when I get my Beatles project off the ground in the next few months, but for now, the remix is decent apart from a few curious choices, and the outtakes are fun to hear once (nothing truly revelatory) except for the "Strawberry Fields Forever" material, most of which has been booted but almost all of which is sublime. I have another announcement I thought I'd be ready to make but I'm not, so instead here's another post that was supposed to be ready in two weeks but took three and a half. I'm so good at this.

Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked at Me (PW Elverum & Sun) [c]
If there's a delicate way of saying this, I can't think of it: I don't think that this album should exist, at least not for you and me to hear. Last July Geneviève Castrée did of pancreatic cancer. She was the wife of musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, and his widely acclaimed new album (even Danny Brown tweeted about being moved to tears by it) is a song cycle -- in his usual hushed acoustic style, only more so -- about his grief and attempts to cope with the aftermath of his loss. Being deeply in love with someone for more than eight years myself, I cannot fathom the pain he is enduring at this moment, no matter how intimately he chooses to document it here, and my heart sincerely goes out to him. But when I listen to this I can't escape the sensation that it's something I have no business hearing... moreover, something that has no business being fawned over, celebrated, analyzed, as it simply is not built for such treatment. Nick Cave's album Skeleton Tree that still ached with the loss of his teenage son had a complicated genesis and was filtered through a sense of abstraction, duty, distraction. Elverum confronts the agony head-on, which is something that often must be done, but for anyone but him and his family, friends or therapists to engage with these highly specific and personal non-songs -- they are absolutely not songs, just strummed chords with Mark Kozelek-like diary entries floating above them -- feels exploitative, and frankly I'm suspicious of any audience member fetishizing it in the same way I'm suspicious of the mythology drawn around, say, Brian and Dennis Wilson's coked-out piano tapes. The artist's therapy or the artist's lowest ebb or most human, vulnerable moment shouldn't be in the world for us to look at it, to judge as a constructed artistic work. He says it himself at the outset: "death is real, someone's there and then they're not / it's not for singing about, it's not for making into art." He's right, and this isn't art, it's the selling -- perhaps by outside pressure, who's to say? -- of private bereavement, and it's a terrible experience: how does the publication, for Pitchfork and Spotify's benefit, of a verse about his wife's final bloody tissues benefit his well-being? And I must admit that in a selfish sense, I also find it gauche: how do you judge this on its own merit without sounding like an asshole? You can't, and that's the problem.

Bob Dylan: Triplicate (Columbia) [c]
Once and for all: your voice becomes beloved, an addiction, a passion, because of the words that you sing (the ones that you just accepted a Nobel Prize for) and the idiosyncrasies it adds to them. It has nothing to add to standards made famous by technically stronger voices. We hear past or through the voice to hear the words, your words, but that gives no compelling reason to hear you slathering it -- more weakly and less in tune than ever -- over the songs of others, apart from an extremely misguided brand of nostalgia. This was true in the early 1990s. It is true now. And a triple-record set of it is more than a joke, which is what your last two albums (and that Christmas nonsense, for that matter) were; it's obscenely unnecessary. I would honestly prefer it if you and Brian both just left pop standards, blues standards, jazz standards, Gershwin standards, Disney standards, showtunes, whatever alone and went gently, quietly into the night until you had something interesting to say. Said with love but also with genuine irritation, because you don't seem to realize that those of us who think your work is important enough to belong in a canon have to actually listen to this shit.

Aimee Mann: Mental Illness (Superego)
Mann in the 2010s is remarkably similar to Mann in the 1980s and 1990s: sings well, is a competent strummer, is totally boring but impossible to find offensive.

Arca (XL) [c]
Number of seconds it takes for each track on this album to become intolerably annoying (please note that this is not a measurement of when each cut's first annoying thing happens, merely a judgment of when the steady accumulation of irritation pushes one over the edge): 1) 50. 2) 20. 3) 7. 4) 43. 5) 8. 6) 12. 7) 19. 8) 28. 9) 0 -- or 23, if we're being very generous. 10) 62 (nice job!). 11) 14. 12) 16. 13) 17. Average: 25, meaning that the ideal Arca experience would be those faded-out samples they used to post on CDNow.

Diet Cig: Swear I'm Good at This (Frenchkiss) [r]
Alex Luciano's voice is a soft but demanding whine, her guitar playing a helicopter propeller that defies the tentative insecurity she writes about; but the attraction on this delightful New York punk duo's first album is really the way those lilting, nagging, slightly grating (in a way that she knows, expertly, how to use) vocals meld with lyrics that some may find trite, that others -- like me -- will find disarmingly honest and probing. For instance, "it's hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt" sounds like a charming but empty motivational poster except that Luciano melds it into a desperate confession and rallying cry -- and precedes it, crucially, with "my stomach hurts." And there are other narratives of post-adolescent misery that you may pretend are the mutterings of the Entitled Millennial personified, but the great fact of being part of this generation is the loneliness that sometimes feels inherited; mixed in with observational tales of fucking a guy with the same name and wanting to go back to being a kid with cake and ice cream on one's birthday, there's "Bite Back," wherein "I'm so lonely in this big city / and everybody's so damn busy" is repeated until it becomes funny, repeated until it becomes powerful, repeated until it becomes an act of protest, repeated until it becomes radical self-preservation.

The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Concord) [r]
Unless you count the surplus of low-energy ballads on Challengers, the New Pornographers' seventh album is their first major break away from the formula that's generated all of their previous output (it's also their first album as labelmates to Paul McCartney). That's because Dan Bejar is gone -- maybe permanently, who can say? -- and the sound has fully surrendered to a flaunting of Carl Newman's record-collector credentials. There's initially intrigue in the way the title track smudges its pursuit of pleasure, but its fusion of Newman's usual stilted XTC-like writing fused with widescreen Arcade Fire theatrics -- though with complex, unpredictable chords and notes that never ring out with the winning simplicity of real pop or arena rock, for better or worse -- sets the stage for everything that follows. In other words, it's every previous New Pornographers album but more so, and as preoccupied with its indulgent definitions of pleasure as Newman's solo records. It never soars like their best work, no matter how Neko Case's full-throated vocal on "This Is the World of the Theater" may try to get there, and the absence of Bejar's tension-cutting contributions makes the record feel as much like an out-of-control roller coaster as a Cars greatest-hits album. Newman's no creative force to dismiss -- he has never sung with more confidence and infectious enthusiasm, even if his lyrics remain minefields of repetitive nonsense as always -- but (apart from the nicely economical "Clockwise") these songs manage to feel too long even with none of them far exceeding four and a half minutes. Bejar's worse off on his own as Destroyer, running toward accidental self-mockery when unchecked; but so is Newman, whose songs eventually feel computer-generated.

Father John Misty: Pure Comedy (Sub Pop) [NO]
Like Mount Eerie, Josh Tillman is a songwriter who doesn't write music, whose post-Fleet Foxes career (ugh, imagine that as the sad defining line in your resumé, no wonder he's such a miserable sack of shit) implies he neither knows nor cares what that means, and if you challenge him on it he can always pretend he's no longer Josh or Joshua or J. but Father John Misty, the persona he pretends to adopt when he sings his alternately deplorable and laughably preachy polemics hummed and barked over skeletal chords and schlocky mid-'70s AM radio arrangements. His favored use for the Misty name is to proudly wave his own self-indulgence like a flag while beating himself with it, presumably in the interest of gaining credit for honesty... while still hiding behind the risk-free cruel detachment of an internet dirtbag living in the post-apocalyptic universe of Fahrenheit 451 or The Lobster. He's Conor Oberst with slower music except he thinks his unfiltered thought processes make him a rock star megagod, a maddeningly boring version of a hair metal guy who loathes his audience, a fucking Tim Heidecker character. It doesn't scare him to lay anything bare because none of this matters to him except that he's being told his hot shit, or as he puts it, "I've got the world by the balls, am I supposed to behave?" (and if you think Tillman has earned Kendrick Lamar's right to tell everyone else to sit down, compare the sales figures of this album and DAMN.). In short, this is just like the last record, which included a song about choking a woman in bed because he hated her "soulful affectation," except it now includes a Very Important Public Service Announcement about religion, and I'm so glad he's chosen to grace us with his insights: "They get terribly upset / when you question their sacred texts / written by woman-hating epileptics [...] and how's this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs!" Basically Misty is the stereotype of every smug, entitled white male personified; he's the most obnoxious musician alive in America today, bar none.

Khalid: American Teen (RCA)
Teens! We love 'em, right? This 19 year-old Texan -- he sounds it too, introducing a rural drawl into his anthemic R&B -- senses something universal in stories of trying to get the weed smell out of his car, but his songs are catchy and deeply uninteresting runs through a world that seems to be explored in shorthand. In fact, it often feels like post-adolescent life defined by writers, producers, executives old enough to remember the month in which Khalid was born, because that's what it is. The kid's trying -- I like "8TEEN" -- but he's drowned out by synergy.

Gas: Narkopop (Kompakt) [r]
Wolfgang Voigt's acid-stoked ambient goes back decades now, and he's something of an expert at filling up a quiet, tense room -- his lengthy return (78:39) feels far shorter than it is. It's a little scary sometimes and never either wholly sumptuous or repellent.

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (Interscope) [hr]
A three-year gap ensued after the near-masterpiece good kid, m.A.A.d city, but DAMN. in turn marks three consecutive years with a major new project from Lamar, probably at the moment the most beloved male performer of popular music in the country, and the rock star upon whom all eyes and ears are most universally cast right now. DAMN. is a more erratic collection in terms of its consistency than the supposed throwaway LP untitled unmastered., and its rundown of post-fame pratfalls, doubts and modest boasts and self-assessment with shades of Biblical apocalypse doesn't have the conceptual death of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it's his first album since Section.80 that, for all its consternation about stardom and the maddening state of the country, is equally concerned with delivering the goods for his increasingly huge audience. It's yet another gathering of incredibly evocative performances, hooks, features and ideas -- inventively produced too. All the tracks are immediate, coming faster and lingering longer than any previous apart from "King Kunta." It's easier to pick out the moments you want to hold permanently at your side than it was on his other records, and this time they are mostly not moments but songs -- the two trap singles produced by Mike Will, the Marvin Gaye-like BadBadNotGood collaboration "LUST." and the glorious Alchemist production "FEAR." -- with the exception of the moment-defining finale of "BLOOD.," a ghostly "The Gift"-like narrative about an unprompted murder, when a sample of two FNC pundits decrying the lyrics of the BLM anthem "Alright" dissolves into Lamar's undaunted freak-flag intro to "DNA." The only misstep is an exceedingly ordinary love song (entitled "LOVE.") with a guest vocal from the anonymous Zacari Pacaldo. There's something uncommonly comforting about an artist as trusted and righteous as Lamar serving commentary about the last few months in our lives -- "We all woke up, tryin' to tune to the daily news / looking for confirmation hoping election wasn't true / all of us worried, all of us buried and the feeling's deep / none of us married to his proposal, makes us feel cheap / still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor about it / bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly / time passing, things change / revertin' back to our daily programs, stick in our ways" -- mirroring Kate Tempest's prediction of this narrative in "Tunnel Vision," but because of said daily programs, the words that sing out with the most power are those in which Lamar tries to process everything that's happened to him personally and gives conflicted perspective: "I feel like the whole world want me to pray for 'em / But who the fuck prayin' for me?"

Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc) [r]
It's almost never acknowledged what a versatile singer Hitchcock is; from Underwater Moonlight right up to this third album for Yep Roc, he can fill in almost any of your blanks from the scope of new wave, British Invasion and power pop influences that define him. Here he's John Cale, here Tom Petty, here Ray Davies, and always with a wit and a sweet lilt whose irresistibility defies his reputation as an off-center quack. There's no song here to match "The Ghost in You" from 2014, his strongest composition in decades, but it's more consistently appealing than The Man Upstairs and the stirring lullaby "1970 in Aspic" will remind you why you care what he's up to.

Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai (Merge) [hr]
Props to Merge, newly down an Arcade Fire and several Spoons, for replacing them with a Nigerian-by-way-of-London musical collective whose output is all but unclassifiable; cathartic opener "Give Me a Reason" is as beholden to techno and funk as it is to West African polyrhythms, and this cornucopia of influences, beautifully redefining the narrative of what comprises folk music from the ground up, continues throughout to make this an engaging modern example of traditionalism shot through with pleasure and paranoia, a welcome return to worldbeat aspirations without the soul-crushing commercial imperative. Singer Eno Williams, her voice ice and fire, is a master storyteller and raconteur, and a disco superstar (see "The Pot Is on Fire"). An undeniable thrill, the party record of 2017.

Valerie June: The Order of Time (Concord) [hr]
Why did you first come to love Americana, or alt-country or alt-folk or whatever the vogue term is, when you came across it? Presumably because it was music that could sound both sophisticated and comfortably effortless; folk embraces the strange individual quirk in its mainstream while other genres place it on the fringes. But like country music itself, this world is now dominated by what Thom Yorke called "fridge buzz," a deadening obligation for a certain sound and feeling above all else that has gradually rendered several careers, frankly, pointless -- listen to Great Lake Swimmers' catalog, album by album, for a depressing example. So far, however, Memphis singer-songwriter Valerie June has pushed against the coffee bar NPR morass (though no doubt they are more than happy to embrace her) to write and produce material that feels entirely divorced from time (its central preoccupation) and from outside motivations. This succeeds beautifully; it's unspeakably moving, lovely music that will make you want to shut out and forget everything else. June's stunning, unique vocals are a Daniel Johnston-style attack on radio dross with their Billie Holiday-Joanna Newsom cadences, and the songs are ethereal, immediate, monochromatic, relaxed and warm without a trace of constraint to their lovely spareness. The first two cuts will convince you -- they seem, lyrically and musically, far older than June's 35 years -- and while "Shakedown" and "Got Soul" need their complete context to achieve their proper roles as climactic triumphs, you won't need any setup to fall into the quiet bliss of "Two Hearts" and "Slip Slide on By."

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Karriem Riggins: Headnod Suite (Stones Throw): nearly thirty breakdowns from Detroit-born jazz/hip hop drummer-producer, not Donuts but fun
Oddisee: The Iceberg (Mello Music): twelve good and true moments-in-time of consciousness
Anohni: Paradise (Secretly Canadian EP): I didn't write in for track seven but maybe I should

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES: (in addition to Gas' Narkopop above)
Sherwood & Pinch: Man vs. Sofa (On-U)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Freddie Gibbs: You Only Live 2wice
* Charly Bliss: Guppy
Jacques Greene: Feel Infinite
Kelly Lee Owens
Spiral Stairs: Doris & the Daggers
Hauschka: What If
Saltland: A Common Truth
Lydia Ainsworth: Darling of the Afterglow
Orchestra Baobob: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng
Goldfrapp: Silver Eye
Les Amazones D'Afrique: Republique Amazone
Rodney Crowell: Close Ties
IFE: IIII + IIII
Joey Bada$$: All-Amerikkkan Bada$$
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan: Neuk Wight Delhi All Stars
Actress: AZD

REJECTS:
Stormzy: Gang Signs & Prayer [NYIM]
Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Navigator [NYIM]
Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble: Find Me Finding You [NYIM]
Creeper: Eternity, in Your Arms
Craig Finn: We All Want the Same Things
The Moonlandingz: Interplanetary Class Classics
The Jesus and Mary Chain: Damage and Joy
Jake Xerxes Fussell: What in the Natural World
British Sea Power: Let the Dancers Inherit the Party
Pharmakon: Contact [NYIM]
Mastodon: Emperor of Sand
Pile: A Hairshirt of Purpose
Leela James: Did It for Love [NYIM]
Happyness: Write In
Ulver: The Assassination of Julius Caesar
Andrew Combs: Canyons of My Mind
Timber Timbre: Sincerely, Future Pollution
Wire: Silver/Lead
Future Islands: The Far Field
Jeb Loy Nichols: Country Hustle
Fionn Regan: The Meetings of the Waters
Part Chimp: Iv
Woods: Love Is Love
Ron Sexsmith: The Last Rider
Tara Jane O'Neil [NYIM]
Joe Goddard: Electric Lines
Angaleena Presley: Wrangled
Ray Davies: Americana

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH:
The Avett Brothers: Mignonette (Ramseur 2004) [-]