Sunday, December 10, 2017

You think too much: October 2017 music diary

Saw two great gigs this past week: Cut Copy in Charleston, SC and the Mountain Goats in Durham, NC, each superb and enormous in its own way, each still at the top of their game, both outstanding live. I'd seen the Goats twice before, and I assume most people are either converts or know why they're not, but if you've hesitated pulling the trigger on a Cut Copy gig in your town, I really suggest you try to make it out next time. Dan Whitford's jubilant stage gestures are the life you're missing. They may not have the full muscle of the gatekeepers of sanctioned cool behind them anymore but if you champion the integration of synthpop and dance with guitar music at all, they really are one of the best things going. Speaking of which...

Cut Copy: Haiku from Zero (astralwerks) [hr]
Considering how much their day-to-day procedure has changed with each of their releases -- from bedroom pop to a rock band that dabbled in electronics to synthpop experts to disco revivalists, and remember when they put out an ambient tape? -- you have to hand it to any band as beholden to their influences as these Australian masters that still manages to forge such a distinct sound, unmistakable for anyone else. (No, at this point, not even Hot Chip, who they've now left in the dust for the better part of a decade.) Is the secret their music's thematic coherence (theme here is information overload, filtered through the usual, surprisingly casual passion) and personable qualities? Maybe it's just that they follow their insticts without apology. The point is this is an absolute nonstop pleasure, just like Free Your Mind was... and because it is a former guitar band making another dance record (the sound here brighter but also more organic than on its predecessor, thanks presumably to the presence of an outside producer), it's destined never to get full credit for being as unpretentious and engaging as it is; whatever, it has nothing but bangers, beholden now to classic funk in the sense that they're bangers that take their time to explore their grooves and fully work them out without exhausting them. (Just nine songs, and short enough to fit on one record this time.) It's never just about propulsion, nor is it just about hooks and melody, or just about enthusiasm, but Cut Copy's excellence in all these areas has made them one of the world's most reliable units. And this hasn't a single momentum-killer or remotely weak entry, which wasn't even true of Zonoscope; the single "Airborne" may be the best by a hair, or maybe it's the gorgeous "Stars Last Me a Lifetime" or the splendidly unorthodox closer "Tied to the Weather," or maybe it's any of them. May they go on forever at this rate.

The Clientele: Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge) [r]
Beloved British indie veterans, active now for over two decades, return with their first new record since 2010. As others have pointed out, the songcraft is solid but the zeal seems absent, perhaps an inevitability -- there's the sense that this softly pretty psychedelic folk rock is something they can do with one eye shut, but conversely there's also no reason anyone who doesn't love their older work won't enjoy it. For my part, I like but don't adore some of their older records, and after some apprehension on the first pass I've come to rather enjoy this one, I suspect at least partially for the same reason I feel the same way about Broken Social Scene's new record -- the sound, seemingly untouched by time's ravages, reminds me of when certain things, at least culturally, seemed a lot simpler.

The Horrors: V (Caroline) [r]
And speaking of nostalgia: if this doesn't do anything for you, you definitely grew up with different stimuli than I did. The Horrors are more eclectic than their latest album implies, having made a journey from filthy garage to krautrock and there and back again, but here they're vamping on '80s arena rock and alternative, the stuff that the bands memorialized on the Mountain Goats' Goths would have looked upon with disdain, but while the first couple of tracks lean on Muse-Killers territory more than is legally advisable, the seductive shuffling and New Romantic sleaze of "Point of No Reply," "Gathering," "World Below" and "Something to Remember Me By" are as indefensible and pleasurable as the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's unashamed riffing on the Smashing Pumpkins. Not the best way to spend your music-dedicated time, or even really a good one, but one of the most purely fun.

Protomartyr: Relatives in Descent (Domino)
This band's always been an acquired taste, and their latest, proggiest record is somehow more so; my aversion to their music is similar to what I experienced with Scott Miller's work; the songs seem constructed around verbiage and, as smart as it is, it isn't musical enough to these ears to appeal, even though many of the band's avowed influences, especially Pere Ubu, have historically meant a good deal to me. I spent enough time with this to hear it unfurling and revealing itself slightly, but not enough to make me personally feel it was a good focus for my energy. Your response to this record almost certainly depends on how you felt about their prior work, and I doubt even the band itself would position it as a good introduction, but say this for it: it cannot be described as a parade of generic Fall-isms, which was sometimes the case with their older material.

Wolf Alice: Visions of a Life (RCA) [hr]
So effortlessly wide-ranging and versatile it recalls Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid more than any recent alt-rock record, this is the rare example of a young rock band delivering hugely on their initial promise on their second album -- if the glide from the uncorked frenzy of "Yuk Foo" to dance music ("Don't Delete the Kisses") to baroque pop ("After the Zero Hour") doesn't convince you on its own, listen to how the melodies refuse to go strictly where expected or where genre and convention dictate -- these are songs, not just costumes -- and more than anything listen to how dedicated singer and multi-instrumentalist Ellie Rowsell is to finding the soul of every cut, whatever it demands of her, and how her exploration of these songs reflects both intense control and unguarded, open-hearted feeling. When My Love Is Cool came out, I liked it and dubbed it "Pretty Good Rock Music"; well, this is Rock & Roll, no more and no less, unapologetic and glorious.

Kamasi Washington: Harmony of Difference (Young Turks EP) [r]
Washington is the sort of jazz musician that has an easier time crossing over -- as this record's broad success indicates -- than convincing the actual dwindling faithful audience jazz continues to transfix generally. I enjoy it less because I love jazz and more because of my misplaced, ill-advised adoration of the long-dead Beautiful Music format; much of this EP -- especially the thirteen-minute closer "Truth" -- sounds like a Reader's Digest cassette, which to me is actually a compliment.

Moses Sumney: Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
L.A. singer-songwriter works with the kind of wispy, strained romance, like Sade without hooks, that's lately gone into surprising vogue and has in fact swept indie R&B as a whole; think Sampha, for instance, or take a hike all the way back to the onetime bloghype How to Dress Well. Whatever, it's a little samey but it's not awful, but you're not allowed to complain about Spotify turning everything into Muzak with a uniform, lifestyle-oriented sheen if you willingly listen to this.

Cults: Offering (Omnian)
Everyone knows that Cults was ideally a one-album concept except, it seems, the two members of Cults, who've left or been kicked off Columbia Records and are on the merry-go-round for a third time with their blandest music to date. The only remotely memorable cut is "Right Words," which sounds like mediocre radio pop from 1987; this might have moved a few copies if CDs were still popular thanks to a few people who'd have looked at the cover and mistaken it for a Spoon album.

Kelela: Take Me Apart (Warp) [hr]
It's been years since I hyped up a debut album before I heard it, but Kelela's long-awaited entrance into the LP market has been on my radar for years now, and admittedly it was not the immediate shot to the senses I expected. Because it's following up the best extended-play of the century, it may have been a victim of unfair expectations. After several listens, it asserts itself as a subtler experience that's nevertheless joyous and undaunted by such baggage in its exploration of love and sex. In an era full of progress and renewal for the R&B album, this is truly classicist, and you can already sense its grace and staying power. If you want Kelela to knock you out, put on Hallucinogen, but if you want to slide up and get to know her, sink into "Blue Light," "LMK," "Waitin," "Enough," "Altadena" or the title cut, all of which are standouts within a satisfying whole. I'm really not opposed to an album that takes its time, I was just surprised -- and not unpleasantly -- that it came from this source.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid (Western Vinyl) [r]
Electro-folkie makes a surprisingly ethereal, appealing record exercising her considerable gifts as composer, singer and producer. She's better known for her electronic, ambient, instrumental work but tracks like "I Am Learning" assert themselves and reward closer attention. The record does get a little repetitive but its mood is agreeable and engrossing.

Wolf Parade: Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop) [r]
It's easy to forget what a good, dependable band this is, especially if you still miss Sunset Rubdown; at worst this is solid mood-music rock, at best it's truly good pop music. For proof, slap on "Am I an Alien Here," or move toward "Incantation" and "Baby Blue" for the slow-burn goods, giving Built to Spill serious competition as the best sprawling elder-statesmen guitar gods of indie rock.

Benjamin Clementine: I Tell a Fly (Virgin) [r]
Storied, eclectic poet and performance artist belongs to the modern British multimedia class exemplified by Kate Tempest, Loyle Carner and the longer established Anthony Joseph; of all these, Clementine is the most difficult to pin down, his music the most uncompromised and surreal. His second album is admirably weird, like walking in on a film in progress, peaking with the ghostly and unpredictable "Phantom of Aleppoville"; his words are confessional, overwhelmingly intelligent, his music probing even at its most conventional ("Jupiter"), chilling and absorbing at its most dramatic ("One Awkward Fish"), full of atypical rhythms and dramatic choral interludes that feel both traditional and confrontational. Few will have enough time to devote sufficient attention to this record's many undercurrents and subtleties, but one suspects that Clementine will make a lifelong acolyte of anyone who does.

Ibeyi: Ash (XL) [r]
Cuban-French twins with an agreeable mishmash of musical influences share a label with Vampire Weekend, and their best work's freewheeling and instantaneously appealing ride through its reference points feels initially like a miracle. Things are going fine -- engrossing, slick, gorgeous, hypnotic -- until an awkward, half-assed campaign reel unworthy of the rest or of the feminist philosophies it generically promotes ("No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms") and the album never seems to quite recover, but "Away Away" and the Kamasi Washington cameo "Deathless" are towering.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (Matador) [c]
One of my favorite new artists (Barnett) collaborates with one of my most hated (Vile), and the results are as disjointed as that summary implies. Both parties are technically solid indie-rock guitarists, but unfortunately Barnett's enthusiasm and quick-on-the-feet range, as well as her way with a screaming rock song, are drowned out by Vile's vaguely countrified anonymity. Just as unfortunately, they both sing -- and their voices mesh poorly, to say the least. Barnett uses her drawling "Kim's Caravan" voice for the duration, and though the lyrics make a sort of play at being witty and exuberant, Vile can't crack Barnett's bubblier style and Barnett's enthusiasm can't overcome the monotony Vile brings to everything he touches. The best song, "Peepin' Tom," is unsurprisingly the one that sounds like it could have been on a Barnett LP. When the duties are split more equally, it all sinks like a stone. A pity because "Untogether," for instance, sounds like a terrific song underneath all this and I hope she rerecords it on her own.

St. Vincent: Masseduction (Loma Vista)
I've enjoyed St. Vincent's previous work somewhat passively but was never sold on her as a provocateur of any kind, not least because she seemed to feel just as distant from her material as I did; while crafty at times, her music is simply too stuffy and workmanlike to break through the machinations of the PR machine that built it up in the first place. This exceedingly calculated forty-minute stab at indie sensationalism ends up accidentally articulating the flaws that have existed in all of her output. Its lip-biting formalism, the outbursts and flights of fancy at carefully sanctioned intervals, and even its deliberately alienating artwork serve really just to underline how predictable the St. Vincent business finally is, how perfectly streamlined the process behind it, how thoroughly unsurprising and deeply controlled it is down to its very core. The tortured correct-ness of it all recalls Dirty Projectors and (don't murder me please) the Who, a band that seemed to be play-acting even when they smashed their instruments; the strained wackiness of the lyrics feels as studied as Joydrop singing about how they wish they were beautiful like you, or hell, Jim Morrison explaining the benefits and flaws of breaking on through to the other side. Annie Clark is a gifted artist, sure, and knowing what your audience wants is no crime... but how about even the slightest indication that what you're doing with your life means a damn thing to you? Is that, I dunno, passé?

Robert Plant: Carry Fire (Nonesuch)
Not being a Led Zeppelin fan I don't feel especially qualified to review this, but two things bear mentioning: 1) In 2017 Robert Plant sounds like... Win Butler!? 2) This has a cover of "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," which was also covered by the Beach Boys; this prompted me to listen to the original track by rockabilly obscurity Ersel Hickey, which runs less than a minute and a half. The Beach Boys' version is more than twice that long, and Plant's is two minutes longer than the Beach Boys'. Just letting you know.

King Krule: The Ooz (XL)
Or, Archy Marshall's Haunted Graffiti; this is self-indulgent, fussy musical wallpaper that's far too long, and too adaptable to generic moodiness, but the guy at Pitchfork sure seemed excited about it.

Destroyer: ken (Merge) [r]
I wrote Kaputt off as a one-off; I've liked nothing else that came out of Dan Bejar's mouth slash brain before or since apart from his numbers with the New Pornographers, from whom he seems to have momentarily disassociated, which caused that band's latest record to suffer noticeably, while Destroyer's newest is actually a mild success. There are pleasant echoes of Kaputt in the production (his first love's New Order) and flashes of the same playful songwriting as opposed to his usual ponderousness. I assume "In the Morning" and "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood" are the ones he would've sent to A.C. Newman, but the whole record is an outlier for Destroyer in the sense that it doesn't make you want to throw the speakers and yourself out a 21st story window.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
* Angelo de Augustine: Swim Inside the Moon (Asthmatic Kitty) - acoustic-based L.A. singer-songwriter and presumptive Sufjan associate records hauntingly minimal old-world folk in the vein of Sam Amidon or Horse Feathers; twenty-odd minutes of that could really make or break your Sunday
* EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring (City Slang) ["Down and Out" / "Aryan Nation"]
* Antibalas: Where the Gods Are in Peace (Daptone) ["Gold Rush"]
- Dalek: Endangered Philosophies (Ipecac) - muddy, vague underground rap intrigues, seems like a back catalog well worth exploring for those of us that missed out
- L.A. Witch (Suicide Squeeze) - muddy, vague underground girl band; pin your hopes on guitars
- Living Colour: Shade (Megaforce) - hell yeah son; the only metal band I really like reminds me why with Vernon Reid still a hero, Corey Glover still singing his ass off
- Deer Tick: Vol. 2 (Partisan) - acceptable twang-rock ["Jumpstarting"]
- Rostam: Half-Light (Nonesuch) - that voice is such an addiction -- and how will VW exist without it, or the keys? -- but this meanders and goes on forever; still, I can't help wanting to keep it around ["Bike Dream"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Portico Quartet: Art in the Age of Automation (Gondwana)
- Bicep (Ninja Tune) ["Glue"]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Ben Frost: The Centre Cannot Hold
* Yumi Zouma: Willowbank
* Lindstrom: It's Alright Between Us as It is
Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion
Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps
Hiss Golden Messenger: Hallelujah Anyhow
Iglooghost: Neo Wax Bloom
Zara McFarlane: Arise
Alex Lahey: I Love You Like a Brother
Blue Hawaii: Tenderness
Liam Gallagher: As You Were
Beck: Colors
KLLO: Backwater
Lee Gamble: Mnestic Pressure
Margo Price: All American Made

REJECTS:
Superfood: Bambino
Sean Price: Imperius Rex [NYIM]
Chad VanGaalen: Light Information [finally someone's Make a Band with Wikipedia came true]
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Memphis... Yes, I'm Ready [NYIM]
The Bronx: BRVNX (V)
Enter Shikari: The Spark
Wand: Plum [NYIM]
Chelsea Wolfe: Hiss Spun
The Killers: Wonderful Wonderful
METZ: Strange Peace
Van Morrison: Roll with the Punches
Macklemore: Gemini
David Crosby: Sky Trails
Torres: Three Futures [NYIM]
Marry Waterson & David A. Jaycock: Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love [NYIM]
Marilyn Manson: Heaven Upside Down
Whitney Rose: Rule 62 [NYIM]
The Weather Station
Citizen: As You Please
The Barr Brothers: Queens of the Breakers [NYIM]
William Patrick Corgan: Ogilala
Melkbelly: Nothing Valley [NYIM]
Squeeze: The Knowledge
Circuit des Yeux: Reaching for Indigo [NYIM]
Bill MacKay: SpiderBeetleBee [NYIM]
Michael Head & the Red Elastic Band: Adios Senor Pussycat [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES:
Ibibio Sound Machine "Color in Your Cheeks" {Mountain Goats cover} [I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast]
Superfood "Where's the Bass Amp?" [Bambino]
Sean Price "Resident Evil" [Imperius Rex]
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile "Peepin' Tom" [Lotta Sea Lice]

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