This is a rather dire selection of albums, and apart from the two by artists I've highly praised in the increasingly distant past, they aren't the kind of thing I'm going to choose to review once I reform my procedure here (2020, unless I just can't take it anymore before that). I'm sorry it's such a weak and insubstantial post.
Non-new music news: I read Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Phillips and so should you; it's a vivid portrait of a man whose importance I'd appreciated but never properly understood.
Manchester Orchestra: A Black Mile to the Surface (Loma Vista) [c]
Why does any band from Atlanta sound this much like David Gray fronting Elbow?
Arcade Fire: Everything Now (Columbia) [NO]
It's a fact of life that bands sometimes take a wrong step, especially on an occasion like the movement from an indie to a major label, but it's difficult to remember the last time a deservedly celebrated artist on this scale allowed music this thunderously awful to make it to the marketplace; even Interpol's famously clumsy Capitol album Our Love to Admire didn't significantly depart from an established sound so much as all too clearly demonstrate its limitations. Under the guise of disco and dance music-derived experimentation, though, Arcade Fire -- an admirably focused and compassionate unit up to this point, even if The Suburbs was a little too long and Reflektor a little too thin -- has gone down a road of irony, or lack thereof, so wrongheaded that one's temptation is to treat it as a joke... or to assume that they have completely fooled themselves into thinking that this music is somehow bracing rather than embarrassing in its directness. With pandering, condescending phony-inspirational lyrics recalling '90s Everclear and music that alternately echoes a diluted variant on Ace of Base and a radio constantly tuned to Weird Al parodies of the songs "Vogue" by Madonna and "The Magnificent Seven" by the Clash on an endless loop, the record's series of seemingly endless half-assed compositions meets no hook that cannot be run obnoxiously into the ground. The lyrics, banal as they are, aren't any worse than the generic-sounding pop factory music, but they do deserve special mention for almost thoroughly wiping out the goodwill the band earned from crafting several of the finest anthems in the history of alternative rock; the astoundingly repetitive "Chemistry" runs less than four minutes but feels twice as long because of its insistence on belaboring its simple, worn-out chorus until you're ready to hurl your phone out into the street. I've been thinking carefully about this and I think it's fair to call it the worst song ever put out by a good rock band that isn't the Beach Boys. ("Happy Endings" still holds the all-time title.) The dunderheaded wordplay of the, uh, suite "Infinite Content" and "Infinite_Content," basically a rant against sheeple and their phones or something like that, is remarkable in its brain-melting obviousness, but it takes Win Butler's horrendous vocal performance on "Good God Damn" to signal just how bad things have gotten -- is this all a big bring-it-down-from-the-inside protest against capitalism or something? Lyrics about fans considering suicide to the tune of Funeral? A song called "We Don't Deserve Love" that goes on so long without presenting anything of consequence that it would take a saint not to agree with its thesis? To release a string of sub b-side material and to sing it badly on top of that feels like trolling, but the remainder of the material does this theory in since it settles for just being incredibly boring; the title track is tolerable but quickly wears out its welcome at five full minutes plus a three-minute preview and coda. Not even Régine Chassagne's contributions or Owen Pallett's string arrangements can unsink this ship. It's not only the worst album Arcade Fire has released by far, and one of the most disappointing hat tricks of the decade, it's actively difficult to imagine anything they could have released being much worse. The only optimistic conclusion you can draw from this is that they just don't realize how bad it is, but the ugly corollary to that is: will they ever? Perhaps not, but I bet Sony will.
Randy Newman: Dark Matter (Nonesuch)
A day will come when I will finally "get it" when it comes to Randy Newman, when I will hear what the rest of you hear in his work. Today is not that day, and this is not the record that will do it; during my Beach Boys project last year I spent some time with Sail Away, which my parents played a bit when I was a kid, because of how highly Brian Wilson spoke of it... and if that didn't convert me, an eight-minute pop operatic piece about the evolution debate definitely won't.
Kesha: Rainbow (RCA)
In the unenviable position of being forced to basically record music within a hostage situation, pop star Kesha files a record under some illusion of ambition and individuality. If she is happy with it, then it's a triumph, but to these ears it's a weak and anonymous pop album with too many hands in it for the first half, and one that suffers from canned humor and enthusiasm in the second. During her grossly unfair legal battle -- I know this is the world women have lived in for years and I sound like I just fell off the turnip truck, but how does sexual harassment not constitute a breach of contract? -- it used to seem like Kesha felt compromised by the image foisted upon her, and the way her enthusiasm in her singing shoots upward during the surprisingly credible country numbers ("Hunt You Down" and the Dolly Parton duet "Old Flames") heavily implies that she's no more comfortable today with the artificial teenage grooviness of something like "Boogie Feet" (which gets an inexplicable assist from Eagles of Death Metal). Miley Cyrus sounded comfortable with such phoniness because she was and is a born phony. Available evidence suggests Kesha is a lot better than the music she releases implies, and you end up wondering how safe she really is being herself. The only solo compositions are the angry one that opens the piece and the one that's "influenced by Pet Sounds"; that one's produced by none other than Ben Folds. It's not my place to give advice but I just hope she's really, really careful about getting swarmed upon by another unnecessary and dubious self-appointed mentor.
Dent May: Across the Multiverse (Carpark) [c]
While trying to convey to my wife how annoying and depressing this album is I played her cuts from May's first two albums, and it surprised even me how much more vital Do Things was than this lethargic mess of recycled power pop hooks, flattened wholly by the sterile tin can production of which he's grown increasingly fond. He's never been a bad songwriter and he still isn't, and his voice is nothing if not appealingly unusual, but he keeps getting caught up in this same dumb morass of directionless sugar.
Grizzly Bear: Painted Ruins (RCA)
This will be a retread of my recent Fleet Foxes writeup. We've reached the outer limits of what I can say about this kind of music. If you like Grizzly Bear, it sounds like you would like it; it has expansive production and seems to subtly expand their palette of instrumentation. Meanwhile I hate them, but I harbor them no ill will, and it doesn't do the world any good for me to go beyond that.
ALSO (OR RATHER, SOLELY) RECOMMENDED:
- This Is the Kit: Moonshine Freeze (Rough Trade) - pleasant and shimmery, a rainy night AM blissout ["Two Pence Piece"]
- Dizzee Rascal: Raskit (Universal) - both impressive and terrifying how little the years seem to have mellowed him out; lovely '90s MTV feeling here though
- Jupiter & Okwess: Kin Sonic (Glitterbeat) - the Congo's past linked to a universal present
- Nicole Atkins: Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock) - car wheels on a gravel road ["Darkness Falls So Quiet"]
RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Floating Points: Reflections - Mojave Desert (Pluto)
- Golden Retriever: Rotations (Thrill Jockey)
Mura Masa ft. Bonzai "Nuggets" [Mura Masa]
Lana Del Rey "Love" [Lust for Life]
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
Girl Ray: Earl Grey
David Rawlings: Poor David's Almanack
Liane Carroll: The Right to Love
[Due to a Notepad-related disaster, I lost my notes for the last several of these, so some of them probably should have Not You It's Me tags. Sorry.]
James Elkington: Wintres Woma [NYIM]
Public Service Broadcasting: Every Valley
Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Barefoot in the Head
Stanton Moore: With You in Mind [NYIM]
Alice Cooper: Paranormal
Nick Heyward: Woodland Echoes [NYIM]
The Districts: Popular Manipulations
Paul Kelly: Life Is Fine
Oneohtrix Point Never: Good Time OST [no one alive has done enough drugs to listen to this]
Frankie Rose: Cage Tropical
Downtown Boys: Cost of Living
Rat Boy: Scum
So Much Light: Oh, Yuck
Judy Dyble: Summer Dancing
Shelby Lynne: Not Dark Yet
Ghostpoet: Dark Days + Canapes
Steven Wilson: To the Bone