My stepdad, who I loved very much, died on August 27th. For some time thereafter I put all the energy I had into being with and helping my mom (with my wife by my side at every turn), and with planning and speaking at his memorial service a week later. It was an experience I won't get over for a long time. Meanwhile I don't much want to talk about it, but I've found it therapeutic these past few days to go back to writing, preferably about anything petty and frivolous, album reviews for instance. The first two reviews below were written before he passed; you'll probably notice that I sound more impatient after a certain point, and I do apologize, and yet also I don't, because so what. I can't promise I put my heart and soul into this but it did help to focus on something else, and on stuff that does mean a lot to me, but perspective like this does make you wonder what the point is of writing about music that was never gonna speak to you in the first place. Maybe I had some anger to get out too. I dunno. Thank you for your patience.
Incidentally, Mom tasked me with choosing the music for Chris' funeral and she had some mandatory selections; I added stuff I knew he loved -- Prince, the Stones, the Animals, Chuck Berry (he's the one who gave me Berry's autobiography, which I read and greatly enjoyed recently), B.B. King, Johnny Cash singing "Amazing Grace" and "Oh What a Dream," "Man on the Moon" by R.E.M. -- and she only vetoed one of my choices, "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters, which probably was too naughty anyway. But I editorialized with one song and one song only, "Louisiana" by the Walkmen. So far as I know Chris never heard the Walkmen and he had no special ties to Louisiana -- he and Mom went there and loved it, but nothing beyond that -- but I got some strange urge to hear it and everything about the music, Hamilton Leithauser's vocal, and the lyrics seemed to me improbably, almost superstitiously perfect, especially the bridge just before the horns come in. I can't hear those words without picturing him working on the land he'd bought that he enjoyed so much, invariably followed by cats, goats, chickens and roosters, and sometimes us. I never knew anyone who was interested in so much, and filled his time so well, and on top of all the times he bailed me out of various jams, he was a boundless inspiration to me. My wife and my mom and I will all miss him terribly, but I kind of love that "Louisiana," the song, will now always be about him for me.
Chastity Belt: I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone (Hardly Art) [hr]
For a band whose best song is called "Drone," Chastity Belt's music historically hasn't exactly been a dour affair; from that song's priceless chorus of "he was just another man tryin' to teach me something" to the same album's anthems about jokes and sluttiness, their work was marked by equal parts defiance and good humor. You might expect their first post-Trump release to double down, but this instead is the sound of defeat, regret, even resignation. Julia Shapiro's lyrics are now about anxiety and isolation, but what's more telling is that in varying their music only by a matter of degrees -- it's still a beautiful wall of jangling post-punk guitars, tempered by lilting, unpredictable melodies and subtle propulsion -- they generate a sophisticated portrait of malaise and dread that feels both like an exorcism and a source of comfort. More songs break out of the pattern than before; several of these are essentially pop ballads as driven by non-buried vocals as by guitars, but it's the guitars that seem to jab at the gut the hardest, the muffled riff on "It's Obvious" articulating the track's bottom-heavy despair, and the floating ballad "What the Hell" capturing the album's lethargic mood perfectly in its beautiful licks. And the maturity on "Caught in a Lie," which asks what good truth brings and, in its towering chorus, "Is this what you want?" defines the album's mixture of sonic bliss with personal agony perfectly. This kind of lateral movement and emotional expansion is what separates a long-lived band from the pack, and it's thrilling how much this builds on its predecessor Time to Go Home, while taking completely unexpected avenues to do so. I just hope we all survive this, but in the meantime, it's quite moving to hear someone openly proclaim with full-throated intensity that they're not OK.
Saint Etienne: Home Counties (Heavenly) [hr]
Almost no band could follow up an album as wonderful and singular as Words and Music without delivering disappointment on some level, but when you view Home Counties as an enhancement of that record's concept, approaching the past and future through the cultural touchstones and personal histories we define for ourselves, it becomes equally moving in its modest fashion, and musically its warmth and variance are in character and unfailingly inviting. This is a chronicle of suburban life outside London -- its speed, its grace, its radio -- but one needs little familiarity with the area to appreciate its mixture of nostalgia and lament. In contrast to the sharp dance floor tones of the prior record, Sarah Cracknell et al. approach each of the proper songs here differently, from orchestral modern-ish pop-rock to bouncing synthpop ("Magpie Eyes") to disco ("Dive," demonstrating how adept Cracknell is at full costume) to pure hook-filled bliss ("Out of My Mind") to cultural manifestos ("Truck Drivers in Eyeliner"). And on the ballad "Take It All In" and sprightly "Underneath the Apple Tree," you can almost hear the music bouncing off the walls of some recommissioned warehouse for an impromptu Northern Soul sock hop circa whenever. It's a long album with a lot to say -- eloquently, as ever -- and a lot of short ambient pieces and side roads, but it also has much to reveal, nearly all of it rewarding. Mostly this is the sort of group, like Pet Shop Boys or Yo La Tengo, with whom it's just an unerring pleasure to spend an hour.
Big Thief: Capacity (Saddle Creek) [r]
Brooklyn band, led by Adrianne Lenker, has hushed and hypnotic, still and distant songs that are almost too sweet and candy coated, but a feeling of peace doesn't seem like a bad thing right now.
Lorde: Melodrama (Republic)
When Auckland's Lorde hit the big time with Pure Heroine in 2013 I was polite and didn't say anything, and luckily the album slipped through my various filters for one reason or another, but I'll tell you now that I didn't get it. I still don't. She seems fine but the hype for "Royals" baffled me and nothing on here has a shred of personality I can detect beyond the usual trend-mongering that bizarrely impresses the poptimist set. Good for her for making the Forbes young turks list or whatever, but generally speaking everyone who makes this kind of music except maybe Tegan & Sara and Carly Rae Jepsen sounds like a cop to me.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (Thirty Tigers)
I'm enough of a square that when I got into alt-country the first thing I bought was an Old 97's greatest hits CD, not any of the albums, and I have to say that the fact that the liner notes included a form to donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center made me like them even more; thereafter, Old Crow Medicine Show and Chatham County Line and (years hence) Drive-By Truckers issuing songs explicitly honoring the Civil Rights Movement meant a lot to me as a southern leftist, which may sound sentimental, empty and stupid, but if you're not around here -- even in a relatively diverse, well-integrated area like mine -- you don't realize how much of a comfort it is when white redneck types explicitly reject our racist heritage. Still, those bands mostly sang about the same stuff Hank Williams sang about, which is what set them apart and gave them the "alt" tag; until alt-country itself became a trend, they didn't seem particularly beholden to the Flavor of the Month sheen and anonymity that drives most actual Nashville records today. Meanwhile, Isbell and his crew's songs all seem like emphatically PC, overly choreographed anthems of white male guilt, and while it's a good thing he isn't defensive like Ben Folds, eventually that earnestness wears thin and grows terribly dull, not least because if being one of the Good Dudes is all you ever sing about, it seems... well... suspicious. Points for a song about depression that doesn't gloss over its ravages and randomness at all, though, but even that is cold comfort in the month that gave us Chastity Belt's "Complain."
Songhoy Blues: Resistance (Fat Possum) [hr]
Like a lot of African music that manages to get ink in the U.S., this terrific Malian band's work could be labeled as "westernized" -- and their associations with Blur and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs likely don't help, though a blood relation to Ali Farka Touré is more telling -- but that would be missing the point as surely as accusing Talking Heads or Vampire Weekend or tUnE-yArDs of appropriation is. Fuck it, this quartet's "desert blues" is rock & roll -- guitars that scream, words that jumble delightfully, body-music beats that leap out and wound -- and as long as this record's on, your sense of history just ceases and you're faced with the complete border-crossing timelessness of music like this. They cite American R&B, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as influences, but they sound like a revolution. They further the image of post-jihadist Mali as one of the world's greatest hotbeds of musical invention. They won't be ignored.
Kevin Morby: City Music (Dead Oceans)
It's a depressed Mac DeMarco -- slightly less smarmy and a bit prettier but still. If you were friends with him or something you'd probably think he was a genius. You can copy/paste my review of the last album, only that time I complained about Father John Misty instead, but I figured you'd like a change of pace.
Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up (Nonesuch) [c]
One of the many late 2000s indie prog bands that caught fire and acclaim for a brief moment (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, etc.) before rapidly becoming a quaint symbol of a dead movement, which -- for me at least -- has made it harder to be mad at them, except when their music is offensively bad like the Projectors'. So yeah, this is insipid crap that takes all of its Brian Wilson cues from the most annoying music he made in his prime years, and it sounds like Art Garfunkel decided to take acid and join the Moody Blues, but it's not worth the trouble of really hating it. Its biggest departure from earlier Fleet Foxes material is the near-total absence of hooks, and it's obviously a bit better when Robin Pecknold puts a bit of muscle behind his singing, or when the production and compositions aren't quite so soppy or fussy (see "Third of May" for an example). I know that in the streaming era we're supposed to just let the fans of this kind of overblown pretension review it on their own personal curve and I should just shut up, and soon I won't bother with this sort of thing, but for now: yeah, this sucks.
SZA: CTRL (RCA)
Lest you forget that popular radio is pretty dismal these days, the pampered debut of Solána Imani Rowe -- heretofore best known as writer of several tracks for Rihanna and Beyoncé -- is a chillwave and neo-soul blender, full of sound and fury and all of it bland, finding time for a whole album's worth of half-baked pop hooks and the worst Kendrick Lamar verse in the history of the world. Could alt-R&B be wearing out its welcome this quickly? For me at least, the empty empowerment anthem-emitting and excessively groomed stature of even a talented artist like this feels hollow and wasteful; that might be generational. It might be me feeling sick to death of poptimism. It might just be my love of the weird overtaking me after thinking for just a little while in this decade that the stuff teens like or that's on the radio might be OK. I don't want to be condescending here, but I'd love to understand how one gets excited about this or Lorde; it's nice when someone breaks through the sausage fest that now overwhelms the pop charts, but that alone just isn't fucking enough for me.
- Sylvan Esso: What Now (Loma Vista) ["Die Young" / "Radio"]
- Paramore: After Laughter (Atlantic): once adored Tennessean alt-rockers' initial ebullience here, such a miracle you squint, is finally weighed down, but hey, there's a poiuyt on the front! ["Hard Times" / "Rose-Colored Boy"]
- Trombone Shorty: Parking Lot Symphony (Blue Note): lifestyle music and idgaf, it sounds fantastic played loud
- Blondie: Pollinator (BMG): a deepened snarl and some of Debbie Harry's most expressive singing, the writing from an array of guests impressively sharp and dark even at its most layered
- Don Bryant: Don't Give Up on Love (Fat Possum): wrote songs for the "5" Royales, Ann Peebles and Al Green, and a whole history of good times and hard dues spills out of his delightful voice on this Tapestry-like excavation of beach music past, living the high life at 75 like the generations haven't passed onward
- Juana Molino: Halo (Crammed Discs): Argentine experimenter unsettles with her ambitious clash of warmth, avant and electro; I honestly wish the new xx sounded like this
ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Ryuichi Sakamoto: async (Milan)
- Forest Swords: Compassion (Ninja Tune)
- Do Make Say Think: Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Beach Fossils: Somersault
* Chuck Berry: Chuck
* House and Land
The Heliocentrics: A World of Masks
TOPS: Sugar at the Gate
Amber Coffman: City of No Reply
Sufjan Stevens et al.: Planetarium
Phoenix: Ti Amo
Alison Moyet: Other
Big Boi: Boomiverse
Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar
Wilsen: I Go Missing in My Sleep [NYIM]
Mary J. Blige: Strength of a Woman [NYIM]
Jane Weaver: Modern Kosmology [NYIM]
Chastity Brown: Silhouette of Sirens [NYIM]
The Unthanks: Diversions Vol. 4
The Charlatans UK: Different Days [NYIM]
Justin Townes Earle: Kids in the Street
Pixx: The Age of Anxiety
Richard Dawson: Peasant [holy goddamn shit]
Dan Auerbach: Waiting on a Song
Roger Waters: Is This the Life We Really Want?
Thea Gilmore: The Counterweight
Marika Hackman: I'm Not Your Man
Anathema: The Optimist
Cigarettes After Sex [NYIM]
The Drums: Abysmal Thoughts
Steve Earle & the Dukes: So You Wannabe an Outlaw
Ride: Weather Diaries
Believe it or not, I actually got this post done very quickly; the delay is because for about two weeks, I wasn't working on anything, and also because I felt guilty about the Lorde and SZA reviews and kept putting them off. As alluded to above, I'm having a constant internal debate on giving up the reviewing of records that don't particularly interest me just because they pass a certain threshold of widespread attention -- I'm only doing it for me anyway, I realize, and why force it? -- but for now my stubbornness is requiring me to stick to the current plan through 2019. I may change my mind though.