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}

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