Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Since turning thirty I have become so damn broody: September 2017 music diary

After a lot of internal debate, I decided that Neil Young's Hitchhiker -- a collection of recordings from a single day in 1976 only just released this year -- doesn't qualify as a studio album but an archival release, and therefore isn't going to be reviewed in a regular monthly post or eligible for any year-end retrospective. However, it is lovely beyond belief.

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Nadine Shah: Holiday Destination (1965 Records) [hr]
The third album from this British singer-songwriter of Pakistani descent is a revelation; with striking lyrics that delve with maturity and intensity into immigration, mental health and personal fallout from the last few chaotic years, it's incredibly comforting in its passion and precision... and in fact exhilarating, when these qualities are combined with her room-filling, Annie Lennox-like voice and the tricky, hook-filled post punk arrangements of these consistently ingratiating songs. The ironic brood of "Jolly Sailor" to the cheerful anger of "Evil" to the bitingly anti-GOP "Yes Men" stand out, but so would everything here in some context, with only the good but repetitive title cut slightly wearing itself out. (Several of the songs could lose a minute or two.) My favorite, though, is "2016" -- if you've been left cold by most attempts in pop to process the election and aftermath, this one will be a balm to your soul, and that really extends to the whole LP.

Queens of the Stone Age: Villains (Matador)
Not my thing but solid for what it is, and probably really good after a few hard drinks. Lots of superficial Bowie imitations, for not the last time in this month's post.

Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop) [r]
Sam Beam's return to Sub Pop isn't great, but it's quite good and on-brand, and that's a surprisingly huge relief. Beam's songwriting has never really faltered even as his aesthetic choices became more workmanlike, and here the performances and production again seem to match his modest ambitions. As a result this is at times a great comfort and joy to hear, just an excellent musician riding into town with some better-than-decent new songs. The convincers for me were "About a Bruise" and "Right for Sky"; neither is transcendent but both come to a pleasing simmer.

LCD Soundsystem: american dream (Columbia) [c]
Surprised to find that I've never written about LCD here; I've always thought they were a wildly overpraised tribute band with a few very good songs ("All My Friends" and "I Can Change" being the best), that they did not belong in the same breath with the other early '00s New York groups or the later '00s synthpop derivations, and that James Murphy is a buffoonish forgery of a rock star who physically resembles a healthier Steve Bannon. It turns out that this fan-service comeback, after a very artificial breakup and reunion, just bears down on all the issues that existed on all three previous records: belabored half-hooks spread thin on the ground across interminably long songs, infuriating speak-singing that shoots for David Byrne but comes off more like Murray Head, lyrics so insipid they inspire actual rage apparently in the name of elevated irony, and the few somewhat OK ideas (the hook on the opener "oh baby" is all right, but of course it goes nowhere) stretched out like a condom being used as a balloon. Again, though, this half-assery is what they've always done, so if it's what you came here for, have at it; points for expanding the aesthetic pallette from Information Society's "Walking Away" to Peter Gabriel's "Biko," I suppose.

Mogwai: Every Country's Sun (Temporary Residence) [r]
Must say, it is very high-quality trolling to put a goofy fuzzed-out pop song as track 2 on more of Mogwai's usual ambient head rushes, sans original guitarist. Exquisite zoning out as usual.

Brand New: Science Fiction (Procrastinatei)
I've not kept up over the years with this upper New York emo/pop-punk group -- that stuff was after my time, really, as by the time it was on the radio I was obsessed with synthpop, and hated what I did manage to hear -- so I'm surprised that, on their first record in nearly a decade (speculated to be their last), they now sound like the National being produced by Mutt Lange. They also still sound pretty upset. This sounds like a nod to cultists the way some of R.E.M.'s Warner albums were; it's also super long. I imagine it will be a major release for those who love Brand New. Or Staind.

Lil B: Black Ken (Basedworld)
Lil B, the pioneering Youtube rapper out of Berkeley who follows you on Twitter, has spewed up about two hours' worth of songs about "rare art," Hawaii and his position as the "rawest rapper alive." If you're accustomed to what he does -- a fusion of pure improvisation and old-school chanting that can sound downright inept to an outsider -- this is only surprising in terms of sheer volume, though at this length it's hard to miss the way some of his lyrics suffer from an oddly conservative, chauvinistic bent, while some are just half-assed. (He does best when he rants openly about being poor, a populist angle sorely missing from most rap.) B's music has a charmingly homespun quality -- like handmade items from a crafting shop -- that, to be frank, is easiest to appreciate if you're stoned out of your fucking mind.

Hamell on Trial: Tackle Box (New West) [NO]
Raffi for "adults."

Mount Kimbie: Love What Survives (Warp)
London electronica group -- and, oh dear, collaborators/enablers of the dreaded James Balke -- who offer the sledgehammer whimsy of Gorillaz without the entertainment value.

The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD) [hr]
No offense to anyone who's tried hard with the National and still thinks they're boring, but does the constant stream of dad-rock allegations weighed against this terrifically consistent outfit strike anyone else as pathetically lazy? Even dad rock that I like -- Wilco, or Lake Street Dive -- doesn't hold this much restrained intensity, nor does it hide whatever it has to show us in so many layers that bloom out more with each listen, seemingly on into infinity. This is their New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a record simultaneously conventional and expected, yet remarkably eccentric and adventurous when you really listen to it. It begins with two songs that could fit on High Violet -- which means they're wonderful -- then probes out in new directions, a few unsuccessful (the repetitive guitar trill that interferes with the otherwise triumphant "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness," the strained guitar heroics and compromised thrash of "Turtleneck"), most quite the opposite (the electronic bed underneath "I'll Still Destroy You," the almost avant garde texture of the title cut, and the willingness on "Walk It Back" to bear down on a vague idea endlessly without a hint of restlessness). Like Trouble Will Find Me, it sneaks up on you even if it's not as heart-stoppingly beautiful as much of that record, but at its best -- the closing three songs, or the opening three, take your pick -- it's just as enveloping, a full embrace of both darkness and comfort whose details, piano lines, unexpected vocal seductions, and hooks both classic and thorny come back to trip you up when you least expect.

Sparks: Hippopotamus (BMG)
Sparks are an obvious influence on some of my favorite musicians, like Neil Tennant and Stephin Merritt and Vince Clarke, but so are Queen and ABBA and I'm conclusively destined never to understand Queen and I'm starting to doubt my ability to get there with ABBA; this is, it's shameful but necessary to admit, the first time I've heard all of a Sparks LP, and I think I would admire or even enjoy it in much, much smaller doses than this overwhelming 55:10 of tweeness and preening. Russell Mael, who has comprised the band with his brother Ron for most of its existence (dating to the early 1970s), is a technically masterful singer whose agelessness is undeniably impressive. But the jokes aren't funny enough to sustain the belaboring the songs force upon them, and conversely the melodrama doesn't land because it's so self-aware. (Pet Shop Boys and the Magnetic Fields work best when their wit feels hard-won, or like a veneer through which emotion must travel, rather than the opposite; I concede, though, that they don't always escape the same problem I'm hearing on Hippopotamus... but I also miss the deadpan, frankly.) This will not be my last encounter, though, especially because I can't get those glorious little minor key interjections on the lovely, unabashedly joyous "I Wish You Were Fun" out of my head.

Zola Jesus: Okovi (Sacred Bones)
Enya for "young professionals" who own subwoofers.

Ariel Pink: Dedicated to Bobby Jameson (Mexican Summer) [c]
Beck for assholes.

Rolling Blackouts C.F.: Talk Tight (Sub Pop EP 2016) [r]
Sucker that I am for Australian jangle pop with deadpan vocals, this Melbourne band struck me right away, especially during the first half of this brief collection, peaking with the deliriously great "Heard You're Moving" and the even greater, Saints-like "Tender Is the Neck," and the guitars are of course shimmering and sublime, but faced with so many bands that crib sound and ideas from the Go-Betweens, this is the kind of situation in which we can only ever know enough to celebrate as soon as they do. (The rest of their output so far sounds identical to this.) So stay tuned, but also keep in mind that bands that imitate the Go-Betweens are automatically cooler than bands that imitate almost anyone else.

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ORPHAN TUNES:
Sparks "I Wish You Were Fun" [Hippopotamus]
David Rawlings "Midnight Train" [Poor David's Almanack]
Liane Carroll "Lately" {Stevie Wonder cover} [The Right to Love]
Hercules & Love Affair ft. Faris Badwan "Controller" [Omnion]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring
* Angelo de Augustine: Swim Inside the Moon
* Antibalas: Where the Gods Are in Peace
* Superfood: Bambino
Sean Price: Imperius Rex
Portico Quartet: Art in the Age of Automation
Bicep
Dalek: Endangered Philosophies
L.A. Witch
Living Colour: Shade
Chad VanGaalen: Light Information
Deer Tick: Vol. 2
Rostam: Half-Light
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Memphis... Yes, I'm Ready

REJECTS:
Girl Ray: Earl Grey
David Rawlings: Poor David's Almanack [NYIM]
Liane Carroll: The Right to Love [NYIM]
Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band: Dreaming in the Non-Dream
A Giant Dog: Toy
Action Bronson: Blue Chips 7000
Susanne Sundfor: Music for People in Trouble
Vijay Iyer: Far from Over [NYIM]
PVRIS: All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell
Filthy Friends: Invitation
Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics II [NYIM]
Oh Sees: Orc
Mary Epworth: Elytral
Hercules & Love Affair: Omnion
Ted Leo: The Hanged Man
Gregg Allman: Southern Blood
Tori Amos: Native Invader
Alvvays: Antisocialites
Micah P. Hinson: The Holy Strangers [NYIM]
Deerhoof: Mountain Moves
Foo Fighters: Concrete and Gold
Slotface: Try Not to Freak Out
Michael McDonald: Wide Open [NYIM]
Son Little: New Magic

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If you read and enjoy this blog, I think you are going to like what I have planned in the next few months. Do stick with me, and have a great Thanksgiving if you do that.