Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Beatles: Let It Be (1970)


(Apple)

RECOMMENDED

Phil Spector did not ruin Let It Be. Sure, he ruined "The Long and Winding Road." But if anything ruined this album, this multimedia project, it was the Beatles' ambivalence with it and the discomfort of four intensely (and increasingly) private people dealing with having their every move filmed and recorded. Embarking on this odd journey barely two months after wrapping up the White Album and emptying a huge backlog of songs could not have helped morale. In fact, we know it didn't -- because again, all of this, including every fucking embarrassing moment of insider bickering, was captured on tape and often on film throughout these January 1969 sessions at the Twickenham film studio and then the newly constructed (and botched) Apple Studios,. Everything the Beatles had recorded at this point was on its way to becoming, in some large or small way, iconic; now their petty arguments would enjoy or suffer the same fate.

The album was originally called Get Back, with Glyn Johns on the dials, and was correspondingly touted as the Beatles' "back-to-roots" project. The problem with this logic is that the Beatles had already redeemed any psychedelic overindulgence they'd suffered via the White Album, which had some back-to-roots material but didn't totally abandon studio wizardry, thereby giving a full and unforced picture of the Beatles in 1968, not one diluted through some sort of preconceived notion of what type of music they should release. The band's own lack of enthusiasm for the results of the Get Back project is borne out by the full year-and-change it took to actually see any kind of release (singles aside), both in cinemas and on disc, by which time two versions of the record had been counterfeited and the group had given the mass of tapes to star producer Spector to attempt a remix and "reconstruction" for a coherent LP. It was an unenviable task, and it may not have been possible to do much better than he did, though in comparison to the spontaneity of many of the performances of these same tracks later preserved on Anthology 3, the record often seems flat and charmless. It was thrown out on the market almost as an afterthought a month after the band's official breakup, with its new and newly loaded title.

That said, anyone who's a sucker for basic rock & roll was bound to be somewhat lured in by the hype, and the songs that aren't labored or studied or boring here are pretty good; moreover, the distinctively raw sound of the undoctored tapes, not to mention the immortal Billy Preston's frequent presence on piano and organ, helps quite a bit. (Preston had toured with and befriended the Beatles when they opened for him as part of Little Richard's touring band in 1962; George Harrison is said to have brought him into these sessions to try and break some of the considerable studio tension. He also contributed to two songs on Abbey Road.) No other Beatles material sounds like this, presumably because of Johns' methodology as an engineer being so different from George Martin's (Martin was still present as an advisor, and by some accounts including his own, coproduced the sessions, though his role was never clearly defined, nor was Johns'); it's the only chance we really have to hear the band properly interpreted by anybody else. And make no mistake: after the tortured genesis of all this, the sound of the group running through several songs on top of the Apple building in London -- following the cancellation of lofty plans for a proper live show -- is indeed a moment of full-on triumph, even without the iconic visuals; if only Spector had seen fit to include more of that performance.

"I've Got a Feeling" and "Two of Us," two John-Paul duets, are beautiful in every sense and are among the Beatles' most moving, straightforward recordings since Revolver along with "Don't Let Me Down." McCartney would never again match the direct power of "Two of Us," a gorgeous paean to simple true love dedicated to his new partner, soon-to-be wife Linda Eastman; nor would he come close to the anthemic glory of "Let It Be," as much an ode to private introspection as the Beach Boys' "In My Room," as much an ode to the pain of solitude as "Eleanor Rigby," as much a love song -- to his mother rather than a partner -- as "Two of Us." The single version feels thin next to Spector's powerful remix, which allows the guitar solo to almost violently cut the song in half, to provide a cathartic peak to its emotional exorcism. It's a song that sounds like neither the Beatles nor any other mortal could have created it, save perhaps Aretha Franklin (if she qualifies as a mere mortal), who simultaneously released a brilliant cover version and took the song to unfathomable heights on stage.

Paul also brings us the deliberately low-key rocker "Get Back," one of the most unorthodox of the Beatles' hits, lifted up greatly by Preston's stellar work and on the LP, John's famous closing joke and career summary ("I hope we passed the audition") to an audience of wives and intimates. America also ate up Paul's "The Long and Winding Road," released here as a single and buried by Spector in strangling string and choral overdubs that render it unlistenably, infamously sugary. In its original incarnation, reproduced later on various releases and in the film at the time, it's one of the most chilling things the man's ever written -- a breakup ballad as mournful and powerful in its fashion as "For No One," but less distant, less ideological, more sparse and fragile and yearning. Improbably, Spector transforms one of Paul's finest, barest compositions ever into one of the Beatles' absolute worst studio masters. Paul himself was disgusted by the result, and probably bewildered by the reaction in the U.S. (it wasn't a single in England), the always-good-for-a-laugh country where more people bought More of the Monkees than Something Else by the Kinks.

That's the key to the album's problem; call it mission creep or confusion (the band's relative lack of interest was fatal), or just material and producer running at inexplicable cross-purposes. It's not that I mind string overdubs, it's just that they seem like a bad idea on these songs for which part of the point is their stripped-down nature, a point underscored by Spector's interpolation of between-take chatter and dicking around (dominated by John with non-sequiturs like "queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members"). And of all the songs to augment, "The Long and Winding Road" simply doesn't need the help of Spector or anyone else to be grand.

Although I presume he was saving all his good stuff for his first solo album, still the greatest post-1969 work by any Beatle and actually superior to several classic Beatles albums, I still wonder where John Lennon is throughout this record. His contributions (his best song of the era, "Don't Let Me Down," didn't make the cut) are lazy and fun but seem like supreme b-side material, nothing of great longevity or significance. The fifty-second "Dig It" (composed by the whole band but led by John; it was supposed to be a six-minute jam) and the even shorter take on the traditional "Maggie Mae" speak for themselves, while although "Dig a Pony" may have its moments, the song drags with the lumbering sound of late-'60s British blues-rock nonsense, just what John had recently mocked on "Yer Blues" with a great deal more energy.

Lennon also provides, with Paul, the fine rocker "One After 909," given a splendidly manic performance during the rooftop show, but that was written before Beatlemania existed. Then there's "Across the Universe," which he'd been trying to get on a Beatles record for about three years by this point. It had been thrown onto a charity collection with awful choir and wildlife overdubs. Spector's schmaltzy B-movie strings (the man's "wall of sound" simply is not made for stereo speakers) aren't a big improvement, but they are an improvement, and the song wouldn't get respectable treatment on disc until 1996.

George offers the bizarre "I Me Mine," subject of the very last (Lennon-less) Beatles session in January 1970, which seems to go on forever despite its scant length -- Spector looped a whole verse to make it more substantial -- though in the film John and Yoko's concurrent and just as odd dance sequence is one of the few highlights; and "For You Blue," probably his best upbeat song ("Old Brown Shoe" is the only runner-up). It's a bouncing blues number with John on ruthless slide guitar, and it's joyous and sexual enough that it could be reimagined as the soundtrack to a hardcore porn flick. No reason not to like it, then.

Much like Michael Lindsay-Hogg's messy film Let It Be, a currently lost artifact that's far more of a slog than the mythology that's grown around its unavailability would imply (again, apart from the rooftop scene, when the Beatles take to the London skyline to deliver a missive to an unsuspecting public, a moment of high-stakes harmony and glory, and brilliant music, theater and filmmaking), the album is just too erratic to make much of an impression, too muddled and incomplete, which is significant because nearly everything else in the band's catalog is nothing if not decisive and precise. The Beatles were dissatisfied enough to shelve it and record another LP, Abbey Road, but once they ceased to exist the music couldn't stay unreleased for long.. Spector's work, the third attempt at a final sequence and mix after two of Glyn Johns' were rejected by Apple, has endured decades of criticism, much of it deserved, but despite the beautiful idea behind these sessions, the underlying problem here is just that despite certain expected highlights, the wealth of material was shapeless and uninspiring. The Beatles were worn out and the dream, as John later said, was over.

***

[Fleshed out from a 2003 review of the album.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Best Albums of 2018

you are here


I don't really have much to say this year; here's the music I dug in 2018, blah blah. Instead I want to take some time out to level some accusations at every actual publication's list that I happened to see: you can't hide your apathy anymore. Nothing is being promoted on the basis of the fact that it's interesting or probing or fun. The people charging that rock/pop criticism has been overcome by "IDpol" or whatever are obviously full of shit and have ulterior motives, and the reactionary attitude they exhibit is a big source of the problem. But if it was really about demographics then it wouldn't come down to the fact that there are the "right" artists to praise, and the "wrong" ones -- or if not the wrong ones, then at least the ones without the "right" degree of publicity muscle behind them. I have some pretty dark suspicions about the actual reasons behind all this, and you can probably read them into that last sentence. Almost forty years ago David Byrne sang "someone controls electric guitar." Someone still controls it, and now that control is minutely targeted with eerie precision, steeping us in an echo chamber of doom for eternity. Yet I don't get the impression that the writers and editors who still have an important role to fill, who still have power even if it's diminished, are doing anything to stem this tide. The terror of clinging to survival has persuaded the rags to play along, and I think it's bullshit. There is nothing wrong with universal praise for a record; indeed, several in my top ten were heavily plugged throughout the year by a lot of mainstream and semi-mainstream outlets. What scares me is the lack of idiosyncrasy, and the degree to which artists that completely ignore the idea of an outside narrative being imposed on them are shunned and cast off.

Then again, perhaps it was ever thus, and I only notice now that I'm keeping an eye on things.

I could waste time asking why this is the case or naming specific points of reference, why this and not this etc., but my intention is not to cast doubt on people who really truly love and want to champion music I find befuddling. What I can tell you, though, is that I had the time of my life putting A Productive Cough on and doing something akin to "rocking out" to its liberating, dumb performances; and whether I can justify that on objective critical grounds or not, whether I can connect it to some nebulous zeitgeist or not, it betrays the lack of a theme to all this. This is not a list of the most generous PR firms or a list measured to balanced perfection, it's a list of what a real actual human being listened to and loved the most throughout this year.

Albums reviewed in 2018: 242, up from 208 in 2017. Additional albums sampled and rejected: 207. Total: 449, up from 413 in 2017.

On another note: in the late '80s, Chuck D called hip hop the CNN of black America. Not to co-opt such a powerful concept, but I remembered that quote when I realized that as of the second half of the year, music is now my only connection with the present, at least apart from my career that often leaves my head in its own kind of busy bubble -- in the library field, helping and being engaged in the world is a process, not an "act." Privately, I'm falling away from the broader life around me. My free time is spent reading old news, watching old films, steeping myself in events and art of the increasingly distant past, absorbing myself in it and applying my own slower rhythms to it. Whether this will change I don't know; I've only just gotten past asking if it's responsible and healthy (with the help of a physician and a therapist). In the new music I hear, though, the story goes on like quick shots of happiness and misery seen through the window of a subway car as it speeds up or slows down. My whole life I've felt like an outside observer and regardless of the heaviness of my involvement, this sensation never seems to change. But the world happens on subway trains too. My #2 record rides with me, rolls it eyes along with me. My #1 record invades the quiet car -- my face is the front of shop -- and screams in my face, gleefully until I pay attention, like the dancers at Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable. And only after it shuts up do I realize how much I needed it. Yet the wheels stop turning and I don't get out. Did I mention I don't even live in a city?

A NOTE ABOUT HOOKWORMS
Some months after Hookworms' Microshift received effusive praise from these quarters and many others, their leader MJ was revealed to be a creep; the group's statement on the matter is here. Believe it or not, this was the first time I've really dealt with something like this with a currently operational "list candidate" on any big scale, and given that we are known to praise the works of Jerry Lee Lewis and Michael Jackson here it would have seemed cheap and hypocritical to just ignore the record at year's end. But in my view, celebrating an artist whose historical place sits firmly in a very different (and worse) time is quite different from promoting one who stands in any small way to gain from your attention. (When Surfer Blood's major label bid Pythons was released, I mentioned here being kind of relieved that it sucked.) There's also the fact that, in revisiting the album to make this list, while I still liked it a greal deal, I can't deny that its placement probably reflected some new discomfort. To be honest, I would have considered omitting it altogether if the rest of the band had not made the wise and commendable decision to disband and suspend all operations immediately, which makes me feel much less guilty about including the record here, though whether time will be kind to the album or to any attention once afforded it, I obviously can't say.

***

50. Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (Atlantic)
49. Skee Mask: Compro (Ilian Tape)
48. Jlin: Autobiography (Planet Mu)
47. Jorja Smith: Lost & Found (Famm)
46. MGMT: Little Dark Age (Columbia)
45. Screaming Females: All at Once (Don Giovanni)
44. Mouse on Mars: Dimensional People (Thrill Jockey)
43. Lonnie Holley: MITH (Jagjaguwar)
42. Buddy: Harlan & Alondra (RCA)
41. Maylee Todd: Acts of Love (Do Right!)
40. Cindy Wilson: Change (Kill Rock Stars)
39. Cities Aviv: Raised for a Better View (s/r)
38. RP Boo: I'll Tell You What! (Planet Mu)
37. Swearin': Fall into the Sun (Merge)
36. Odetta Hartman: Old Rockhounds Never Die (Memphis Industries)
35. Georgia Ann Muldrow: Overload (Brainfeeder)
34. Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!)
33. Camp Cope: How to Socialise & Make Friends (Run for Cover)
32. Hookworms: Microshift (Domino)
31. Dean McPhee: Four Stones (Hood Faire)
30. Nas: Nasir (Def Jam)
29. Beyoncé & Jay-Z: Everything Is Love (Roc Nation)
28. Daniel Avery: Song for Alpha (Mute)
27. Colter Wall: Songs of the Plains (Thirty Tigers)
26. The Wave Pictures: Brushes with Happiness (Moshi Moshi)
25. Rhye: Blood (Loma Vista)
24. Lotic: Power (Tri Angle)
23. Pinkshinyultrablast: Miserable Miracles (Club AC30)
22. Kids See Ghosts (Def Jam)
21. Vince Staples: FM! (Def Jam)
20. The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is (Studio Rockers)
19. Maria Muldaur: Don't You Feel My Leg (Last)
18. Helena Hauff: Qualm (Ninja Tune)
17. Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune)
16. U.S. Girls: In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)
15. Titus Andronicus: A Productive Cough (Merge)
14. Pusha T: DAYTONA (Def Jam)
13. Angelique Kidjo: Remain in Light (Kravenworks)
12. Noname: Room 25 (s/r)
11. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs (Sub Pop)

10. Wye Oak: The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs

(Merge) | A- | review

9. Tierra Whack: Whack World
(s/r) | A- | review

8. Jean Grae x Quelle Chris: Everything's Fine
(Mello Music) | A- | review

7. Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel
(Mom + Pop) | A | review

6. Yo La Tengo: There's a Riot Going On
(Matador) | A | review

5. Tirzah: Devotion
(Domino) | A | review

4. The Wave Pictures: Look Inside Your Heart
(Moshi Moshi) | A | review

3. Robyn: Honey
(Interscope) | A | review

2. Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer
(Bad Boy) | A | review

1. SOPHIE: Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides
(Future Classic) | A+ (upgrade) | review

***

THE NEXT FIFTY
51. Matthew Dear: Bunny (Ghostly)
52. Adult.: This Behavior (Dais)
53. Nao: Saturn (RCA)
54. Ryley Walker: Deafman Glance (Dead Oceans)
55. Kanye West: ye (Def Jam)
56. Tracyanne & Danny (Merge)
57. DJ Koze: Knock Knock (Pampa)
58. Orquesta Akokan (Daptone)
59. Teyana Taylor: KTSE (Def Jam)
60. Yoko Ono: Warzone (Chimera)
61. Thom Yorke: Suspiria OST (XL)
62. The Low Anthem: The Salt Doll Went to Measure the Depth of the Sea (Joyful Noise)
63. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80: Black Times (Strut)
64. Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (Verve)
65. Fatoumata Diawara: Fenfo (Shanachie)
66. G-Eazy: The Beautiful & Damned (RCA)
67. Anthony Joseph: People of the Sun (Heavenly Sweetness)
68. A.A.L. (Against All Logic): 2012-2017 (Other People)
69. Andrew Bird: Echoloations: River (Wegawam)
70. Shannon and the Clams: Onion (Easy Eye Sound)
71. Miss Red: K.O. (Pressure)
72. Czarface/MF Doom: Czarface Meets Metal Face (Silver Age)
73. Kali Uchis: Isolation (Virgin)
74. Idles: Joy as an Act of Resistance (Partisan)
75. Leon Vynehall: Nothing Is Still (Ninja Tune)
76. Curtis Harding: Face Your Fear (Anti-)
77. Phonte: No News Is Good News (Foreign Exchange)
78. Sidney Gish: No Dogs Allowed (s/r)
79. Neko Case: Hell-On (Epitaph)
80. The Nels Cline 4: Currents, Constellations (Blue Note)
81. Neneh Cherry: Broken Politics (Smalltown Supersound)
82. Ezra Furman: Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union)
83. Saba: CARE FOR ME (Saba Pivot)
84. Tracey Thorn: Record (Merge)
85. Khruangbin: Con Todo El Mundo (Night Time Stories)
86. CupcakKe: Ephorize (s/r)
87. LUMP (Dead Oceans)
88. Frankie Cosmos: Vessel (Sub Pop)
89. Sunflower Bean: Twentytwo in Blue (Lucky Number)
90. Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville (Easy Eye)
91. Anna von Hausswolff: Dead Magic (City Slang)
92. Princess Nokia: 1992 Deluxe (Rough Trade)
93. N.E.R.D.: No One Ever Really Dies (Columbia)
94. Richard Thompson: 13 Rivers (New West)
95. Earl Sweatshirt: Some Rap Songs (Columbia)
96. Tangents: New Bodies (Temporary Residence)
97. Simian Mobile Disco: Murmurations (Wichita Recordings)
98. Hailu Mergia: Lala Belu (Awesome Tapes from Africa)
99. Natalie Prass: The Future and the Past (Caroline)
100. St. Vincent: MassEducation (Loma Vista)

ALSO RECOMMENDED IN 2018
Jeff Tweedy: Warm (dBpm)
Advance Base: Animal Companionship (Run for Cover)
Go-Kart Mozart: Mozart's Mini-Mart (West Midlands)
James Holden & the Animal Spirits: The Animal Spirits (Border Community)
Pram: Across the Meridian (Domino)
Virginia Wing: Ecstatic Arrow (Fire)
Beach House: 7 (Sub Pop)
Black Milk: Fever (Mass Appeal)
Cut Worms: Hollow Ground (Jagjaguwar)
Blawan: Wet Will Always Dry (Ternesc)
Lykke Li: so sad so sexy (RCA)
Stuck in the Wheel: Follow Them True (From Here)
Sarah Blasko: Depth of Field (Universal)
Dedekind Cut: Tahoe (Kranky)
Oneohtrix Point Never: Age Of (Warp)
The Field: Infinite Moment (Kompakt)
The Essex Green: Hardly Electronic (Merge)
Laurel Halo: Raw Silk Uncut Wood (Latency)
Paul McCartney: Egypt Station (Capitol)
Jon Hopkins: Singularity (Domino)
Proc Fiskal: Insula (Hyperdub)
Israel Nash: Lifted (Desert Folklore)
Kandace Springs: Indigo (Blue Note)
Arp: ZEBRA (Mexican Summer)
QTY (Dirty Hit)
SOB X RBE: Gangin (Empire)
Fucked Up: Dose Your Dreams (Merge)
Robert Finley: Goin' Platinum! (Easy Eye)
Stef Chura: Messes (Urinal Cake)
First Aid Kit: Ruins (Columbia)
Novelist: Novelist Guy (Mmmyeh)
White Denim: Performance (City Slang)
Cat Power: Wanderer (Domino)
Tinashe: Joyride (RCA)
Marlon Williams: Make Way for Love (Dead Oceans)
Empress Of: Us (XL)
Ital Tek: Bodied (Planet Mu)
Nils Frahm: All Melody (Erased Tapes)
Rival Consoles: Persona (Erased Tapes)
Haiku Salut: There Is No Elsewhere (Prah)
The Goon Sax: We're Not Talking (Wichita)
Modern Studies: Welcome Strangers (Fire)
Low: Double Negative (Sub Pop)
Parquet Courts: Wide Awake! (Rough Trade)
Sauna Youth: Deaths (Upset the Rhythm)
George Fitzgerald: All That Must Be (Double Six)
Xylouris White: Mother (Bella Union)
Exploded View: Obey (Sacred Bones)
Anna Calvi: Hunter (Domino)
Joan Baez: Whistle Down the Wind (Proper)
Mr. Twin Sister: Salt (s/r)
Red River Dialect: Broken Stay Open Sky (Paradise of Bachelors)
Shame: Songs of Praise (Dead Oceans)
Tim Hecker: Konoyo (Kranky)
Mary Lattimore: Hundreds of Days (Ghostly)
Daniel Bachman: The Morning Star (Three Lobed Recordings)
MAST: Thelonious Sphere Monk (World Galaxy)
Pariah: Here from Where We Are (Houndstooth)
L'Orange: The Ordinary Man (Mello Music)
Joey Purp: QUARTERTHING (s/r)
Lucy Dacus: Historian (Matador)
Sarah Davachi: Gave in Rest (Ba Da Bing!)
Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois (Planet Mu)
Calexico: The Thread That Keeps Us (Epitaph)
Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano III (Gentle Threat)
Gwenno: Le Kov (Heavenly)
Jim James: Tribute to 2 (ATO)
Charli XCX: Pop 2 (Atlantic)
Graham Parker: Cloud Symbols (100%)
Shopping: The Official Body (Fat Cat)
Tunng: Songs You Make at Night (Full Time Hobby)
Chris Carter: Chemistry Lessons Volume 1 (Mute)
R+R=NOW: Collagically Speaking (Blue Note)
Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic)
Oliver Coates: Shelly's on Zenn-La (RVNG Intl.)
Essaie Pas: New Path (DFA)
Gas: Rausch (Kompakt)
Denzel Curry: TA13OO (Loma Vista)
Field Music: Open Here (Memphis Industries)
Interpol: Marauder (Matador)
Call Super: Arpo (Houndstooth)
Vessel: Queen of Golden Dogs (Tri Angle)

***

EP GOOD ENOUGH TO BE IN THE TOP ALBUMS LIST
Black Thought: Streams of Thought Vol. 1 (Human Re Sources)

OTHER EPs RECOMMENDED IN 2018
Jenny Hval: The Long Sleep (Sacred Bones)
Iglooghost: Steel Mogu (s/r)
Iglooghost: Clear Tamei (s/r)
Ibibio Sound Machine: Eyio (Merge)
Aphex Twin: Collapse (Warp)
Wussy: Getting Better (Shake It)
The Mountain Goats: Aquarium Drunkard's Lagniappe Session (Merge)
Daniel Avery: Diminuendo (Phantasy Sound)

******

Our Beatles project continues throughout 2019. An expanded List of Lists on its usual date. The last year of the full-on new release grind opens up in February; you can expect a first-draft decade retrospective in the summer, as I will be starting work on it over the break. And to all a good night.


here you are

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Best Songs of 2018


While not noticeably above average in terms of album releases, 2018 was totally overwhelming when it came time to rank and present a list of songs; this is as huge a list as the longest of the archival ones I've made for "classic" years. There is so much infectious and exciting material -- emotional popcraft and probing experimentation alike -- here to choose from, it was hard to know where to even cut off my annual playlist since I felt like I was overdoing it last year at a mere fifty. I even considered expanding to two playlists, a part one and a part two in the style of those great James Brown singles too locked in a groove not to bleed onto the other side. In the end I kept it to fifty -- the top 40 plus ten from further down that I thought fit very well -- but it actually hurt... which is very unusual for a project like this! Anyway, you can listen to the results here and I hope you enjoy.

1. Janelle Monae "Make Me Feel" [Dirty Computer]
2. N.E.R.D. ft. Rihanna "Lemon" [No One Ever Really Dies]
3. Camp Cope "I've Got You" [How to Socialise & Make Friends]
4. Shannon and the Clams "The Boy" [Onion]
5. Tierra Whack "Cable Guy" [Whack World]
6. DJ Koze "Pick Up" [Knock Knock]
7. Ezra Furman "Love You So Bad" [Transangelic Exodus]
8. Charli XCX feat. MØ "Porsche" [Pop 2]
9. SOPHIE "Immaterial" [Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides]
10. Yoko Ono "Imagine" {John Lennon cover} [Warzone]
11. Courtney Barnett "Sunday Roast" [Tell Me How You Really Feel]
12. Joey Purp ft. Queen Key "Fessional/Diamonds Dancing" [QUARTERTHING]
13. The Wave Pictures "Hazey Moon" [Look Inside Your Heart]
14. Robyn "Between the Lines" [Honey]
15. Angelique Kidjo "Crosseyed and Painless" {Talking Heads cover} [Remain in Light]
16. Titus Andronicus "Crass Tattoo" [A Productive Cough]
17. Lykke Li "Deep End" [so sad so sexy]
18. The Last Poets "Rain of Terror" [Understand What Black Is]
19. Courtney Barnett "Houses" {Elyse Weinberg cover} [Spotify Singles series]
20. Czarface/MF Doom "Bomb Thrown" [Czarface Meets Metal Face]
21. Let's Eat Grandma "Hot Pink" [I'm All Ears]
22. Jon Hopkins "Emerald Rush" [Singularity]
23. Novelist "Better Way" [Novelist Guy]
24. Soccer Mommy "Your Dog" [Clean]
25. Tirzah "Holding On" [Devotion]
26. Buddy "Real Life Shit" [Harlan & Alondra]
27. Maylee Todd "From This Moment" [Acts of Love]
28. Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj "The Light Is Coming" [Sweetener]
29. Odetta Hartman "You You" [Old Rockhounds Never Die]
30. Miguel "Pineapple Skies" [War & Leisure]
31. U.S. Girls "Pearly Gates" [In a Poem Unlimited]
32. Jean Grae x Quelle Chris ft. Your Old Droog "Scoop of Dirt" [Everything's Fine]
33. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever "Talking Straight" [Hope Downs]
34. Wye Oak "It Was Not Natural" [The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs]
35. Princess Nokia ft. Wiki "Saggy Denim" [1992 Deluxe]
36. Jamie Isaac "Maybe" [(4:30) Idler]
37. Jorja Smith "Blue Lights" [Lost & Found]
38. Meshell Ndegeocello "Waterfalls" {TLC cover} [Ventriloquism]
39. Beach House "Black Car" [7]
40. Yo La Tengo "For You Too" [There's a Riot Going On]
41. Miss Red "Dagga" [K.O.]
42. Tracey Thorn ft. Corinne Bailey Rae "Sister" [Record]
43. Kali Uchis "Killer" [Isolation]
44. Joan as Police Woman "Warning Bell" [Damned Devotion]
45. Haiku Salut "Occupy" [There Is No Elsewhere]
46. Cardi B "I Like It" [Invasion of Privacy]
47. Jenny Hval "Spells" [The Long Sleep EP]
48. Young Fathers "Border Girl" [Cocoa Sugar]
49. The Wave Pictures "The Little Window" [Brushes with Happiness]
50. Black Thought "9th vs. Thought" [Streams of Thought Vol. 1 EP]
51. Rhye "Please" [Blood]
52. Stef Chura "You" [Messes]
53. Sunflower Bean "Memoria" [Twentytwo in Blue]
54. Ben Howard "Towing the Line" [Noonday Dream]
55. First Aid Kit "Postcard" [Ruins]
56. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats "Tearing at the Seams" [Tearing at the Seams]
57. Mr. Twin Sister "Power of Two" [non-LP single]
58. Kids See Ghosts "4th Dimension" [s/t]
59. Sons of Kemet "My Queen Is Angela Davis" [Your Queen Is a Reptile]
60. Parquet Courts "Tenderness" [Wide Awake!]
61. Sidney Gish "Not But for You, Bunny" [No Dogs Allowed]
62. Nas ft. Kanye West "White Label" [Nasir]
63. Lucy Dacus "Timefighter" [Historian]
64. Marlon Williams "Beautiful Dress" [Make Way for Love]
65. Richard Thompson "The Storm Won't Come" [13 Rivers]
66. Dream Wife "Kids" [s/t]
67. Charles Watson "You've Got Your Way of Leaving" [Now That I'm a River]
68. Pinkshinyultrablast "Dance AM" [Miserable Miracles]
69. Neko Case "Bad Luck" [Hell-On]
70. Cut Worms "Coward's Confidence" [Hollow Ground]
71. Troye Sivan "Lucky Strike" [Bloom]
72. Phonte "Euphorium (Back to the Light)" [No News Is Good News]
73. Virginia Wing "Relativity" [Ecstatic Arrow]
74. Mouse on Mars ft. Amanda Blank & Zach Condon "Foul Mouth" [Dimensional People]
75. Daniel Bachman "Sycamore City" [The Morning Star]
76. Colter Wall "Calgary Round-Up" [Songs of the Plains]
77. Teyana Taylor "Gonna Love Me" [KTSE]
78. MGMT "Me and Michael" [Little Dark Age]
79. Maribou State ft. Holly Walker "Nervous Tics" [Kingdoms in Color]
80. Pusha T "The Games We Play" [DAYTONA]
81. Lankum "What Will We Do When We Have No Money?" [Between the Earth & the Sky]
82. CupcakKe "Spoiled Milk Titties" [Ephorize]
83. Simian Mobile Disco ft. the Deep Throat Choir "Hey Sister" [Murmurations]
84. Kanye West "Ghost Town" [ye] ALSO: "No Mistakes"
85. Natalie Prass "Short Court Style" [The Future and the Past]
86. Shame "Angie" [Songs of Praise]
87. Matthew Dear ft. Tegan & Sara "Bad Ones" [Bunny]
88. Beyonce & Jay-Z "Summer" [Everything Is Love]
89. Hinds "Soberland" [I Don't Run]
90. Swearin' "Dogpile" [Fall into the Sun]
91. The Goon Sax "Sleep EZ" [We're Not Talking]
92. Black Milk "True Lies" [Fever]
93. Adult. "Violent Shakes" [This Behavior]
94. Cindy Wilson "Things I'd Like to Say" [Change]
95. Georgia Ann Muldrow "Play It Up" [Overload]
96. Andrew Bird "Distant Stations" {Mountain Goats cover} [I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats]
97. Noname ft. Smino & Saba "Ace" [Room 25]
98. Tracyanne & Danny "Alabama" [Tracyanne & Danny]
99. Frankie Cosmos "Duet" [Vessel]
100. G-Eazy ft. Madison Lowe "Love Is Gone" [The Beautiful & Damned]
101. The Mountain Goats "Song for Ted Sallis" [Hex of Infinite Binding EP]
102. Shannon Shaw "Goodbye Summer" [Shannon in Nashville]
103. J Balvin "Mi Gente" [Vibras]
104. Modern Studies "Mud and Flame" [Welcome Strangers]
105. Earl Sweatshirt "Veins" [Some Rap Songs]
106. Advance Base "Dolores & Kimberly" [Animal Companionship]
107. The Midnight Hour ft. Cee-Lo "Questions" [s/t]
108. Vince Staples "Get the Fuck Off My Dick" [non-LP single]
109. Wussy "Nomenclature" [Getting Better EP]
110. Khruangbin "Evan Finds the Third Room" [Con Todo El Mundo]
111. Fatoumata Diawara "Negue Negue" [Fenfo]
112. Lotic "Nerve" [Power]
113. Gabe Gurnsey "Heavy Rubber" [Physical]
114. SOB X RBE "Anti-Social" [Gangin]
115. Nao ft. Kwabs "Saturn" [Saturn]
116. Jeff Tweedy "How Will I Find You" [Warm]
117. Helena Hauff "It Was All Fields Around Here When I Was a Kid" [Qualm]
118. Kendrick Lamar ft. SZA "All the Stars" [Black Panther OST]
119. Nabihah Iqbal "Zone 1 to 6000" [Weighing of the Heart]
120. Screaming Females "Glass House" [All at Once]
121. Hookworms "Each Time We Pass" [Microshift]
122. Denzel Curry ft. JID "SIRENS | Z1RENZ" [TA13OO]
123. The Low Anthem "Give My Body Back" [The Salt Doll Went to Measure the Depth of the Sea]
124. PRhyme ft. Dave East "Era" [2]
125. Thom Yorke "Unmade" [Suspiria OST]
126. Anthony Joseph "He Was Trying" [People of the Sun]
127. Curtis Harding "Till the End" [Face Your Fear]
128. Our Girl "I Wish It Was Sunday" [Stranger Today]
129. Yo La Tengo "Time Fades Away" {Neil Young cover} [Spotify Singles series]
130. Skee Mask "Rev8617" [Compro]
131. Vince Staples "Run the Bands" [FM!]
132. Kandace Springs ft. Roy Hargrove "Piece of Me" [Indigo]
133. Cat Power "In Your Face" [Wanderer]
134. Rhye "Summer Days" [b-side]
135. R+R=NOW ft. Omari Hardwick "Needed You Still" [Collagically Speaking]
136. Ibibio Sound Machine "A Forest" [Eyio EP]
137. LUMP "Curse of the Contemporary" [s/t]
138. Luluc "Spring" [Sculptor]
139. Cities Aviv "Age" [Raised for a Better View]
140. RP Boo "Back from the Future" [I'll Tell You What!]
141. The Essex Green "Waikiki" [Hardly Electronic]
142. Dedekind Cut "MMXIX" [Tahoe]
143. Mitski "Old Friend" [Be the Cowboy]
144. The Mountain Goats "Song for Sasha Banks" [non-LP single]
145. Chvrches "Get Out" [Love Is Dead]
146. James Holden & the Animal Spirits "Each Moment Like the First" [The Animal Spirits]
147. Empress Of "Love for Me" [Us]
148. Fucked Up ft. Alice Hansen "How to Die Happy" [Dose Your Dreams]
149. Field Music "Share a Pillow" [Open Here]
150. The Decemberists "Cutting Stone" [I'll Be Your Girl]
Tune-Yards "Who Are You" [I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life]
White Denim "It Might Get Dark" [Performance]
Cut Copy "Ocean Blue" [non-LP single]
Daniel Avery "Sensation" [Song for Alpha]
Ciara ft. Tekno "Freak Me" [non-LP single]
Graham Parker "Girl in Need" [Cloud Symbols]
Israel Nash "Rolling On" [Lifted]
The Mountain Goats "Blood Bank" {Bon Iver cover} [Aquarium Drunkard's Lagniappe session]
Blood Orange ft. A$AP Rocky & Project Pat "Chewing Gum" [Negro Swan]
Paul McCartney "Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link" [Egypt Station]
Alexis Taylor "Oh Baby" [Beautiful Thing]
Pram "Shadow in Twilight" [Across the Meridian]
Ty Segall "Every 1's a Winner" {Hot Chocolate cover} [Freedom's Goblin]
Azealia Banks "Treasure Island" [non-LP single]
Oneohtrix Point Never "Toys 2" [Age Of]
No Age "Squashed" [Snares Like a Haircut]
Phosphorescent "New Birth in New England" [C'est la vie]
Low "Disarray" [Double Negative]

***

Albums list will follow as soon as possible, probably sometime in the middle of the week!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

In the middle of the middle of the night: 2018 new release rush

Slightly behind schedule with this, which may mean midweek rather than this coming Sunday for my year-end albums list, which at this writing I have not even started. You can expect songs to be up over the weekend. I was knocked out of whack slightly when Capitol abruptly regaled us with about 70 unissued Beach Boys tracks last Friday, with a live collection expected to follow; when I can carve out some extra time, likely over Christmas break, I'll add reviews of those to the BB archives. In other, more personal news, we saw the Mountain Goats at the tucked-away Haw River Ballroom last week, and for once, it may be an experience I'd like to keep to ourselves... at least my impressions of it (there is, of course, a recording of it circulating). But I may change my mind.

Thom Yorke: Suspiria OST (XL) [r]
The first Yorke solo material that's felt as inspired in places as his work with Radiohead (there were some decent songs on The Eraser) was a commissioned project, the score for Luca Guadagnino's remake of Suspiria. It contains a few slow, beautiful pop songs that feature Yorke singing as gorgeously as ever, and the balance of it is comprised of ambient, occasionally unnerving instrumental pieces that deliberately place menace up against immersive loveliness. At various times one thinks of the "found" scores for Stanley Kubrick's films, and at one point of the Police obscurity "A Kind of Loving," a horrifying rock instrumental for the soundtrack to Brimstone & Treacle overlaid with the sounds of a woman's bloodcurdling screams -- perhaps the only way the Police will ever sound like they "got there first" over a member of Radiohead. The second half is a bit tangential and repetitive, but the entire two-disc collection is a deep-dive pleasure. The highlights among the conventional tracks are "Suspirium" (driven by a lovely piano trill that sounds very un-horror movie), "Has Ended" (menacing, slinky slow rock) and "Unmade" (a hell of a melody and Yorke's finest vocal in years); my favorite instrumentals are the abstractly beautiful "The Jumps," and "Volk," which sounds like a rejected theme tune from Tales from the Crypt. It's just like Yorke to throw us off with both the creepy-crawlies and a warm blanket on the same release.

Robyn: Honey (Interscope) [hr]
It's twenty years since "Show Me Love," the all-ages generosity of which was hard to hear at the time with the international shift toward radio pop, but that same generosity backgrounds her eight-years-coming follow-up to Body Talk, a record that indulged in personal catharsis, irony, and ruthless individualism. Not that those things are absent here, but on top of its keenness to sideswipe you and run away at just forty-odd minutes (Body Talk was 61), it feels like a record built for comfort without compromise; hiding behind no facade but also never denying the basic mechanics of the commercial bliss it seeks. The easiest comparison is to listen to "Fembot," and follow it with "Human Being," which adopts the same sort of conceptual notion but runs an emotional gamut that once might have occupied three different (perfectly good) tunes in the old days. Her voice is pained, but not in pain; you don't see strength only in rising above it all anymore ("Call Your Girlfriend," the still-unbeatable "Dancing on My Own"), you just weep while dancing. Honesty is the record's kink, and honesty is at the core of the best sex, the best romance, and the best pop. Ergo, there's a lot more groove than hook here -- the kind of songs on which you wait eagerly for the verse as often as the chorus, when they're even structured that conventionally to start with -- which is why "Missing U" towers even in its unfulfilled tension. And why "Honey" is improbably glorious even though it sounds like it's coming from across the street, at the place you wish you were. Even at her most playful, she seeks an unorthodox route to what finally is unvarnished life happening, like the conversational lyrics that scan magically on "Send to Robin Immediately" and "Beach 2k20," or the addictive monotone that drives the throwback Euro "Between the Lines" right into its incongrous vocal hook and the insanely, wonderfully off-key club synth, right into the realm of what the Olympics called "an awful disease" forty years before "Show Me Love." The whole second half of the record is like a damn drug, building to a finale that's such a classic Robyn anthem you wonder if you dreamed all this, but you didn't. You were there, across the street. Because it's in the music.

Nao: Saturn (RCA) [r]
An artist who continues to get better and better, singing splendidly and wrapping around the winding melodies throughout this record, and really crossing over into the realm of true unfiltered communication thrice, once (on the title cut) with the help of Kwabs during a song that sounds like Kwabs which means it sounds like a '90s slowjam crossed with hi-NRG, once (on "Gabriel") with pounding, whizzing production that sounds like a state-of-the-art mass transit system in operation, and once (on "Yellow of the Sun") with bass and with the strangely erotic turn of phrase "paradise-ice-ice."

Julia Holter: Aviary (Domino)
Inspired in part by Alice Coltrane and Mary Carruthers, this is essentially a ninety-minute experimental prog installation that is going to insist upon your full attention in its sub-narrative treatise on memory, pain and bird sounds. Everything you can lob against it is likely intentional: that the performances meander, that it seems too dense to get hold of, that it's sprawling and stark in a way that's frequently off-putting. Then there are personal issues, like I don't really care for Holter's voice, but that's on me rather than her. You might like hypnotic music, but "Everyday Is an Emergency" might be overboard for you; you might like PJ Harvey's recent music or even Kate Bush's or Scott Walker's or Bjork's and "Underneath the Moon" might still be beyond the pale as far as military dirges applied to pop music. You might like Danny Elfman's film scores but "In Gardens' Mutants" might still be a little too much hot-air orchestration that never leads anyplace. Or it might not. To this listener, it grows monotonous and when it does come back to life sort of ("Les Jeux to You," which has a beat) it's in a decidely cerebral, "adult art class" manner. Still, maybe it won't cross these lines for most, and while it all just seems like too much, it remains an impressive creation.

Vince Staples: FM! (Def Jam) [hr]
Vince Staples doesn't give a fuck except about his craft, and you can hear this in the way he melds his defiant sarcasm (the hilarious "Get the Fuck Off My Dick" didn't make it to the LP) with the imparting of sheer classic hip hop pleasure via his impeccable, broad-minded taste in hooks, beats, grooves. His twisted, stern flow is still formidable and harsh, yet this is a record about ground-level culture and populist communication, a celebration of a city (Long Beach) and of the very thing white critics wrote off more than a decade ago: radio. Yet radio is still capable of being a unifying force when it escapes corporate clutches, and this record nods to its place in individual lives, soundtracking and lifting up day-to-day life. The songs strive toward a certain mid-2000s hood anthem quality, built around minimalist chants ("Outside!") and instantly addictive choruses ("Run the Bends") and, when he allows it, a big dumb beat ("No Bleedin'"). Still plenty of irony, though -- "Feels Like Summer" seems mostly to be at a loss to convince itself that the sun and the sweltering heat provide any kind of an escape at all, and "Don't Get Chipped" actually glances toward Staples' straight-edge beliefs on a chorus by Jay Rock, hardly ordinary subject matter for a rap record. Through and through, he's brutal with distance and finesse and no great need to convey any sort of all-knowing swagger, and he still won't fuck with fame: "white man wanna take from me, hey / white fans at the Coachella, hey." By the way: Van Morrison, Val Lewton, Vanessa Redgrave, Verna Fields, Vera Miles, Valerie Bertinelli, and...

Boygenius (Matador EP)
A supergroup comprised of Lucy Dacus (sweet!), Phoebe Bridgers (can take or leave) and Julien Baker (ehhhhhhh) does pretty much what you'd expect, with Dacus pulling down hardest on the singing and Baker's outrageously bleak lyrics still tainting everything including your formerly nice afternoon. It's pleasant, because all three are good singers and players and at least OK writers (Dacus is an excellent writer but I don't hear a lot of that coming through here), but will probably only work for those who are actual fans of at least two of them; naturally they're not saving their best material for a stopgap project like this.

Maria Muldaur: Don't You Feel My Leg (Last) [hr]
The horniest album out this year and that includes Rhye and CupcakKe. 75 year-old Muldaur is an eclectic folksinger known for her work with the Grateful Dead who's won awards for her forays into trad blues, but this is a jazz record comprised of hot cover versions of relatively obscure New Orleans blues lifer Blue Lu Barker, whose peak recordings (and the majority of those included here) date from the 1930s and '40s. Both names are new to me, and it's hard to imagine a lovelier introduction. Muldaur's exposure of this music's timelessness also amounts to a harnessing of the other great insurmountable universal truth, something about flesh and desire. So from the raunch of "Georgia Grind" to coy remarks about trading husbands ("he can love us both, it's all right with me") to the Big Sleep-worthy metaphors about the bow-legged daddy riding his horse all day to sisterly advice of not letting others know how good your man is in bed ("if he's got good rhythm always say he's wrong") to the delightful groping rebuke of the title cut, these are songs whose blood flows with sex and undiminished thirst, and as such they become an affirmation. The skeletal arrangements build on the blues without overwhelming it, and while the filthy barroom backing vocals are just distant and vital enough to make every kind of age and distance irrelevant, to invite us in as participants ("she can do the apple jack" -- "oh no she can't" -- "oh yes she can," goes the call-and-response), the real star is Muldaur, whose response to aging is not to ignore it but to revel in the inevitability of decay, and to promise that she just like her pal Barker will be there in the coffin, "joint at my head and a roach at my feet," fucking and full of malarkey right up to the sunset, celebrating her man who's got "the greatest rhythm stick in town."

Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers: Brought to Rot (Bloodshot)
Grace is best known as the leader of Against Me!, for whom contentment is not just a difficult proposition but an unmarketable one, but when traveling under her own name she tracks no less angst, even if her particular targets here seem more specific, her scorn both scarier and more poignant with age. If the intent was to "walk away from the hate I carry," it doesn't seem to have worked, especially on a rant about Chicago that pretends to be a joke and then slashes at a city and an ex so viciously it becomes disturbing, though it also suggests what Car Seat Headrest might sound like if fronted by an adult. "Airplane Song" -- one of many noun songs comprising this suite -- probably goes deepest inside, with a diatribe about marrying an actor just to be the bigger person when they have to snog other actors for the sake of cinema. Unlike on Against Me!'s engaging but samey punk rock, there's more range here than you initially hear -- "The Friendship Song" is almost rockabilly, and/or a 1950s dance novelty -- but I find myself preferring the cover provided by the noisy band, though more power to anyone this comfortable exposing their neuroses. And while Grace's vocals seem to lag behind her lyrics at times, her guitar playing is consistently very good; "Valeria" could be a lost Walkmen riff.

The Wave Pictures: Look Inside Your Heart (Moshi Moshi) [hr]
Don't take this as a complaint because it isn't, but this maddeningly pretty, winning, warm and open-hearted record marks the first time that Dave Tattersall's lyrics were almost entirely drowned out for me by the Wave Pictures' music; not that both elements aren't working at their primal best, but this time around the songs are so giddily beautiful that it seems unnecessary even to look past the glorious sing-song choruses (even one about Spider-Man, kind of) long enough to locate the animals (alligators on "Close Your Eyes Mike"), observations and expressions of undying, spiritually enriched love in the words. There's no use pretending to objectivity when it comes to this band anymore; I love them so incredibly much and would give a hell of a lot to be able to see them perform. The specific concept of their two albums this year was derived slightly from the limited-edition A Season of Hull of a few years back: written and recorded very simply and informally in very little time, at what sounds like a delightfully disorganized session among good friends ("doo wop spinning on the turntable / everybody I love is here") with perhaps a few supplementary substances involved -- certainly a lot of laughter, at any rate, but maybe just the energy of the moment was the drug. The song about getting out and cutting loose, "Dodge City Blues," is as goofy as it gets, but it also points at the true singular depth of all this: that these people dicking around are capable of producing so much of what the average dicking around cannot; it's as though music, sweet sweet music, is seeping in from the walls around them. The thing is you wish you were there. Brushes with Happiness captured a bleary-eyed late night with captivating accuracy, but this rowdier companion sets out fully to embrace the world with upbeat rock & roll and irresistible pop. There are ballads, and convicted and meaty odes to losing someone ("Brian" is heartbreaking) and damage to be undone, but generally the mood is sprightly even when the world threatens to intervene, and that's what makes the whole exercise worth performing.

Okay, maybe you're only going to "get" this if you're seduced by the stripped-back, intimate aesthetic and unashamedly classic (but eclectic!) base of influences that color all of their work -- they occupy a niche, and do it masterfully -- but I'm only saying that because I'm officially supposed to, when really I think songs like the magnificent L'Atalante-like "Hazey Moon" with its joyous refrain and the delicate, lite Africana of "Sugar" could save the world if you let them. Like guitar solos? Fine, "Roosevelt Sykes" hits outta the gate with a gorgeous one. Like unkempt, raw rock & roll? "House by the Beach" has you covered. Believe in the grand truth of simple "Sweet Jane" chords, a great hook and saucy barroom backing vocals? Try "Shelley," and then try the title cut, and if you don't think it could have been popping eagerly out of a long-ago AM radio ready to hold you till kingdom come, we're just on different wavelengths.

Rosalia: El Mal Querer (Sony)
Serious-minded stuff from the young revisionist Flamenco singer who hails from Catalonia; this second full-length, four songs on which have gone top ten in Spain, has acquired international attention and doesn't sound at all compromised to me, borne out by its apparent debt to 14th century Occitan literature. Yet I also can't hear the innovation in it, and grow tired of it more quickly than I should at just half an hour. The usual caveats about language and genre barriers apply, but regardless of that I need something to resonate with me as music first, and this doesn't.

Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel (RCA) [c]
Nor does this. I worry these reviews are a broken record when it comes to contemporary country (which I don't uniformly dislike; First Aid Kit, Colter Wall, Lydia Loveless all move me to various degrees) -- the issue here for me is that there's not a single moment on this album, the return from a long hiatus for the supergroup that contains Miranda Lambert among others, that surprises me even a little -- and I've gone pretty deep with it, enough to have the simplistic, worn-out "Sugar Daddy" pretty well memorized, and same for the melancholic empowerment anthem "When I Was His Wife" and the cheerful one, "Got My Name Changed Back," their narratives coyly coinciding with tabloid fodder. There's no use in me telling you that the voices come off as hollow to me or that the songs feel uninspired when the issue clearly is that the jolt of the unexpected and inventive is something I passionately seek in new music, and that nothing about this lyrically or musically goes anywhere that I wouldn't expect from you telling me "here is a new album by Pistol Annies." Interstate Gospel is such a great title, and the idea of bitter divorce music sounds enticing; but nothing intriguing or even particularly tolerable is done with these conceits in this space. While we're ranting: the celebrated subject of "This Too Shall Pass" sounds like one shitty relationship.

The 1975: A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships (Polydor) [c]
Any random five-song sample could give you a totally different impression than any other, but any way you slice it, this British quartet is so proud of their crossover appeal as "mature" progenitors of forward-thinking pop that they seem utterly convinced it exuses their anonymity as writers and performers. There are some decent ballads, some totally lame ones, and some that sound like Peter Cetera. There's dumb vocoder shit, dumb spoken word shit, slightly less dumb trip hop shit; it's overwhelming when taken together, built on the illusion of having something to say that nevertheless aligns it with pure populism, but in the end it's all hot air even at its best. It likely sounds prescient and fearless on the radio, but that just tells you how awful the radio is.

Jeff Tweedy: Warm (dBpm) [r]
The sound of a hero trying hard, harder than he has in at least seven years, and confidently flailing. He sings well, the record is stylistically indistinguishable from post-2002 Wilco, and the main progression on their last few slapdash albums is that its mood is more consistent. It does seem like he saved the "adult" impulses that longtime fans whined about during the Whole Love campaign for this project so that the babies could have their lazy rock songs; stocking up all the ballads without a break, though, does them few favors. It's a sleepy, indulgent affair all told, but it touches brilliance here and there. A ghost is born on the finale, "How Will I Find You," which conjures up Tonight's the Night and White Album memories; speaking of which, "Let's Go Rain" could be the finest Paul McCartney busk since "Goodbye" or maybe, generously, "Jenny Wren." And maybe this is too personal, but somehow -- and Tweedy has done this to me before -- "we all think about dying, don't let it kill you" was something I needed to hear today.

Earl Sweatshirt: Some Rap Songs (Columbia) [r]
Yeah yeah, Kanye West's irrelevant now, no one cares, moment's passed, and yet! Mr. Sweatshirt begs to differ with his twenty-minute collection of "Bound 2"-style, slightly J Dilla-influenced fuck up beats that transform tinkling pianos into the most ominous, threatening sound in the aural lexicon. Maybe it's a coincidence, who knows. ES, or at least his rhyming persona, has always come across to me as an unstable pessimist; he doesn't compromise his tone here, but he doesn't go quite as deep into his own psyche as was once the norm, and it seems a healthy change. Still, like all of us, he's stuck in Trump land, and there's a hint of trouble when he talks about the minute since he heard applause. "The Mint" is surprisingly pretty, "December 24" is humble and harsh, and "Veins" is probably the best, but if the incomplete-by-design vibe of so many recent hip hop records didn't suit you, this won't either. It's tough but withholding, and we're not necessarily being given the full story.

The Mountain Goats: Aquarium Drunkard's Lagniappe Session (Merge EP) [r]
The Goats' second stopgap EP this year, this one consisting of three covers that John Darnielle makes totally his own -- the best comes from Bon Iver, of all people, while Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower also figures; Darnielle never gets any easier to pin down -- while continuing the stretching of his vocals that began to take hold on Goths (barely sounding anymore like the impassioned, thin-voiced cassette junkie who, like Tom Verlaine, seemed almost overcome by his own words), and makes us more excited yet for the new material he promised us at the show to be forthcoming. This band is now best, it seems, when they find ways to escape the baggage wrought by their cult -- and for sheer unpredictability, their work over the last two years has been a huge new step. I just hope he doesn't pull a Dylan and start delving full-time into other people's songs, even though he's already better at it than Dylan.

Colter Wall: Songs of the Plains (Thirty Tigers) [hr]
It's always tricky to sing the praises of something whose entire aesthetic cries throwback, nostalgia, particularly nostalgia for an un-lived time. Leon Bridges' first record was more baked in the past than his second, but the songs were strong enough that it all clearly went deeper than the gimmick. Ditto with Colter Wall, a gravel-voiced 23 year-old from Saskatchewan whose mode of country is bare and lonely by necessity; it's simply the best way for his unforgettable singing to stretch itself, and for him to exorcise his insular demons. The record sounds uncannily classic without being pastiche or burlesque, but there's no reason to believe it comes about this purposefully rather than by necessity -- stripped of every kind of embellishment, his songs feed off the empty space with an irresistible mixture of absolute confidence and unchecked vulnerability. "Plain to See Plainsman" could be a traditional folk song, or it could be a future standard; the lonely cowboy song "Calgary Round-Up" features yodeling and still manages to sound timeless rather than old-fashioned; and with its working class hero riff, "Manitoba Man" suggests chops and a base of influences that go beyond his most obvious model, Johnny Cash -- though, again, the uncanny resemblance to Cash is so organic on something like the painful slow burn "Wild Dogs" you practically believe it could just be a coincidence, like an accident of the spirits, even though of course we know that's impossible but it sure is amusing to think about (and you can apply it to his apparently huge audience, too). Plus how great it is to listen to somebody who isn't even fully aware of what he can do yet? It's really fun to hear Wall taking stock of his voice's outer limits on "Thinkin' on a Woman." The reason all this succeeds, in the end, is that these intellectual measurements of Wall's artistic abilities melt away as soon as the record is put back on -- it works for the moment, almost any moment, and its darkness and monochromatic pleasure are fully credible all on their own.

***

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The annual check-in with works I missed from throughout the year by artists I love, or whose new output I highly praised at some point from 2008 to now.

Anthony Joseph: People of the Sun (Heavenly Sweetness) [r]
Missed this because, in my usual fashion, I got hooked on an artist that American pubs basically refuse to cover, considering him "spoken word" if they consider him at all. Unfortunately this is less resonant for me than Joseph's last two releases -- less musically exciting and pure than Caribbean Roots, and a bit less poetic and discursive than Time; but Joseph's eloquence and delivery are as striking as ever, and it's a thrill to hear him perform. The major issue is that in a very Roots-like gesture he spends much of this record abdicating the stage in favor of a few less compelling artists, so our time with him is precious here, and it's no coincidence that the best and loosest cut, "He Was Trying," leaves us swirling around the man himself, alone with a sparse bass-heavy arrangement, talking and singing with romantic urgency through a story about emotional burdens, broken love and cycles of violence and neglect. As on all of his best work, it's as if you feel the course of history -- not history of war and strife and violence but history of the personal relations and small-time betrayals between people, the timeless version of history -- picking you up and tossing you around. Regardless of its stand within his discography, you should hear this record -- it will move you.

Cities Aviv: Raised for a Better View (s/r) [r]
Fascinating to hear in light of how experimental music and hip hop have sorta-kinda caught up with what Cities Aviv was doing in 2014, but at the same time you could just as easily put on Come to Life and get the same effect. Gavin Mays is still as adventurous a spirit as rappers or producers ten years younger than he is, and he doesn't suffer here for artists like London O'Connor picking up the same unpredictable underground beat. The album is a marathon of strange loops that at its best seems to form the four walls of the night, like the most atmospheric dance music, or like what knob-turners like AraabMuzik spend whole careers trying to pull off. The stormy and foreboding "Age" tells the full story; Mays sounds amazing and high and low, getting feeling out of chaotic tones that don't seem to imply anything, his mumbles and shouts running a gamut of the mournful and beautiful like a whole narrative unto itself, especially when he repeats "it's a goddamn shame" and hopes you'll figure it out. Drugs or none, it's music that feels infinite, and some of the rest carries through with that promise -- "Weight" is like being caught in a spin cycle, lifted off the ground out of control, and then there's a bunch of numbers and "woke up with a heartache." "Turn to Smoke" has that weird Quiet Storm Captain EO sound only the tape is about to snap in two. "Turn to Smoke" is catchy but there's nothing to catch, it's just half-formed. "White people tryna hit me with some baggage." "Blurred" sounds like he's sinking and so am I. Spanish (?) guitar in right channel. "Series of Exits" has a cryptic but warm voicemail just like Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city or Yo La Tengo's "Here You Are," and owes a debt to John Coltrane's "Naima." It doesn't go further than Come to Life but nor have I. This is part of a body of work. Listening to Cities Aviv is like finding an old VHS tape and you don't have the remote control anymore so you can't adjust the tracking, and then the VCR breaks.

Curren$y: Air Freshna (s/r EP)
[opens window] Keep it down out there! [closes window]

Daniel Avery: Slow Fade (Phantasy Sound EP)
Aside from the album cut (this presaged Avery's excellent Song for Alpha), this set of leftovers fails to burrow into a proper groove except the long "Radius," and even it only gets there at the end.

Iglooghost: Steel Mogu (s/r EP) [r]
Iglooghost: Clear Tamei (s/r EP) [r]
Pretty much just like the LP, which means they're delightful, and maybe easier for some folks to take at less obnoxious length.

The Jayhawks: Back Roads and Abandoned Motels (Legacy)
What drew me to this band even in the middle of their late-career slump was the surprising quality of the songs, though I feel like Peter Buck's production might also have made a difference; on this follow-up to the one that got me, the songs just aren't there. Nobody's fault, it happens, though the irritating, schmaltzy obviousness of the album title suggests they're haunted by the same temptation for the Rote that plagues almost every other branch of country music, including the alt variety.

Titus Andronicus: Home Alone on Halloween (Merge EP)
Seems like a pretty thin excuse for Patrick Stickles to lay claim to Merge catalog number 666. Not only is the cover a joking revision of the album artwork for A Productive Cough, the title cut is just that record's "Home Alone" with ominous sound effects added. There's also an extra Dylan cover (of his unreleased Gaslight-era "Only a Hobo," no less, passionately but badly sung by Stickles), and a bona fide sixteen-minute outtake called "A Letter Home" whose Halloween connection is tenuous at best. This just points up what a blessing it is that Stickles reined in his long-windedness for the album this time.

Mr. Twin Sister: Salt (s/r) [r]
Trippy, erotic, casual, lounge; still feels like amiable wheel-spinning, though one of their recent 12" singles (see below) is perhaps their best recording to date.

Vessel: Queen of Golden Dogs (Tri Angle) [r]
Spent a lot of time trying to get friends into avant shit to listen to the remarkable Punish, Honey and was excited to discover there was a new release. The problem is that this is too conventional, moving away from the abrasive minimalism that made him intriguing, but for sheer listenability and gutsiness it's still a cut above most experimental material that gets press.

ALSO RECOMMENDED
Cat Power: Wanderer (Domino) [relieving to hear this voice again; the stripping back of her arrangements is the right move, too; "In Your Face"/"Wanderer/Exit"]
St. Vincent: MassEducation (Loma Vista) [what's going on when the minimalist revisions of songs are less claustrophobic?]
Graham Parker: Cloud Symbols (100%) [I must've been sleeping when Parker turned into the fat-and-happy Nawlins songman; "Girl in Need"/"Every Saturday Nite"/"Ancient Past"]
Empress Of: Us (XL) [a full 180-degree for me, with better beats and -- more importantly -- real live hooks; "Love for Me"/"Everything to Me"/"I've Got Love"]
Exploded View: Obey (Sacred Bones) [new score for Metropolis coming soon]
Swearin': Fall into the Sun (Merge) [wow, emo lives, often transcendently; "Dogpile"/"Smoke or Steam"/"Anyway"]
Matthew Dear: Bunny (Ghostly) [pulsating, glitchy hedonistic rave that's eventually a party you're ready to leave -- thanks largely to Dear's fun but tiresome vocals that feel like Nicolas Jaar and Owen Ashworth rolled into one weirdo -- until Tegan & Sara show up to bail you out; "Bad Ones"/"Echo"/"Can You Rush Them"]
Georgia Ann Muldrow: Overload (Brainfeeder) [so formidable and well-contained in its weirdness it feels like you need a degree to listen; the singing is the whole journey but the barren rhythms tell us more, as do the completely left-field nods to Mancini and Bacharach; "Play It Up"/"Vital Transformation"/"Bobbie's Ditty"]

REJECTS:
Kristin Hersh: Possible Dust Clouds
Mudhoney: Digital Garbage
Cut Copy: Haiku from Zero Remixes EP
The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is Remixes EP

ORPHAN TUNES:
Andrew Bird "Distant Stations" {Mountain Goats cover} [I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats]
Azealia Banks "Treasure Island" [non-LP single]
Ciara ft. Tekno "Freak Me" [non-LP single]
Courtney Barnett "Houses" {Elyse Weinberg cover} [Spotify Singles series]
Cut Copy "Ocean Blue" [non-LP single]
Kendrick Lamar ft. SZA "All the Stars" [Black Panther OST]
The Mountain Goats "Song for Sasha Banks" [non-LP single]
Rhye "Summer Days" [b-side]
Mr. Twin Sister "Power of Two" [non-LP single]
Vince Staples "Get the Fuck Off My Dick" [non-LP single]
Yo La Tengo "Time Fades Away" {Neil Young cover} [Spotify Singles series]

OLD ALBUMS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH:
Nina Simone: Wild Is the Wind (Philips 1966) [hr]
Kaki King: Glow (Velour 2012) [r]
Kaki King: The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body (s/r 2015) [r]

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Abbey Road (1969-96)


(bootleg [3CD])

RECOMMENDED

The most entertaining and purely listenable of all the PC deluxe online-only bootleg editions of the Beatles' canon albums is the one constructed for Abbey Road, less because of any unusual quantity of material that's slipped out from those sessions than because what does exist is so interesting, often to an extent that overwhelms dreadful sound quality, and because the material is less repetitive than usual. It's also a comparatively quick runthrough; since Abbey Road was only ever mixed in stereo, there's no need for multiple versions of the album, and there are few alternate mixes to speak of since the Beatles' status by 1969 ensured their releases worldwide were essentially uniform. (The only difference between my U.S. and UK editions of the vinyl album is that the former lists the 23-second final track, "Her Majesty," on the back cover.) This also goes for the contemporary single, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" b/w "Old Brown Shoe."

Abbey Road's legend precedes it: it's the final triumph of the Beatles, recorded after the Get Back debacle, reuniting them with the titular studio (Get Back was recorded at Twickenham Film Studios and at the new Apple studio on Saville Row) and with the control room fully commandeered by George Martin, with whom relations are said to be strained in the later stretches of the White Album sessions; Glyn Johns had engineered Get Back (though Martin was also present and working). The suggestion is of a harmonious final victory lap, with all bittersweetness thus implied; it's also the most professional-sounding Beatles album, recorded on eight-track with synthesizer and string flourishes and an unusual degree of studio-concocted sweetness -- detail, too, with the band's almost flawless rhythm section never more out-in-front. It's a big crowd-pleaser, and a big totem for the final days of the group; hell, you can even clearly hear Ringo's voice in the four-way chorus of "Carry That Weight."

PC's mission here also encompasses the two "new" Beatles songs released in 1995, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love." As explained in our reviews of the Anthology releases, these were built around old home demo tapes by the late John Lennon, filled out and elaborated upon by the remaining Beatles and producer Jeff Lynne. PC offers John's incomplete recordings and several steps in the process and well as variants on the finished singles. Without question, excluding Lennon's magnificent solo piano rendition of "Real Love" which was already available elsewhere, this is the least interesting part of the set -- while these must dutifully be counted as Beatles songs and aren't without their charm, they don't feel properly like a piece of the "canon."

Much of the rest is fascinating. Stripped-back mixes of performances issued on Anthology 3 (George's solo demos of "Old Brown Shoe" and "All Things Must Pass"; Paul's of "Come and Get It") are intriguing, although most will understandably prefer the properly mixed released versions. Meanwhile, the early solo George "Something" gets the opposite treatment, with rather corny overdubs not heard on the official disc, to its considerable benefit. George's soulful vocal on this acoustic take on the song has always struck me as more spontaneous and striking than on the actual release, which was also true of his initial recording of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

There's some marginal stuff dedicated to "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (mixing out most of the instruments leaving what amounts to an acoustic take), "Oh! Darling" (an entire long, meandering vocal overdub session that will be catnip to Paul fans) and "Octopus's Garden" (a few slight variants missing certain overdubs, which may improve the track for some). We get to the good stuff with "You Never Give Me Your Money," an outtake of which boasts a beautiful vocal from Paul and devolves into an interesting jam with lots of organ and uncharaceristic bouncing around. It's fun to hear "Carry That Weight" without guitar, overdubs and finished vocals; more fun yet to hear a very loose take on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

However, take 37 of "Something" is more representative of what little we know about the mood of these sessions, in which steely focus and a kind of brooding inevitability seem to have been omnipresent -- it's the master, unmixed with prominent organ and piano, but it devolves into a remarkably dour jam session that's drab but oddly appealing and casts a bit of doubt on the marital bliss of the preceding song then cuts out very abruptly, not unlike "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" but perhaps not by design. These versions of "Come Together" (with the great loud, funky Lennon vocal and a rather stultifying blues-rock coda) and "Ain't She Sweet" (depressing and wonderful) were included on Anthology 3; it's surprising that the full "Something" was not. ("Because" and "The End" offer further duplications of the official release.)

The centerpiece of Abbey Road is of course the medley, which is also the centerpiece of this bootleg insofar as it prompts some of the most intriguing "new" material for fans; we get a complete rough monitor mix, in very poor quality but full of tweaks and unfinished elements that are very much audible. It's not unlike the Peter Sellers tape of the White Album sessions, with countless deviations from released material that will endlessly hypnotize hardcore fans but aren't necessarily obvious or easy to lay out. There are additional backing vocals on "You Never Give Me Your Money," a stark organ used as transition to "Sun King," more Lennon ranting in "Polythene Pam," no strings yet and what seems to be a different lead vocal on "Golden Slumbers," and no vocals at all on "The End." And in another rough mix herein included that may in fact be fake but let's just believe for the moment that it's genuine, the short Paul dick-around "Her Majesty" is restored to its original placement between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam," smoothly enough explaining where that supposed missing note went.

The third and final disc is mostly academic, just alternate mixes and documentary clips and heavily processed Anthology versions; most of it is comprised of material already well represented on the previous CD, with the exception of the '90s material, none of which will entice much -- it doesn't have any fly-on-the-wall tidbit of the actual sessions, though if you wondered how Kevin Godley of 10cc would sound when singing "Real Love," it's your lucky day. It's important to remember that, while this collects some of the most fun unissued Beatles ephemera, the Purple Chick compilations are still intended as archives and not as cohesive listening experiences. The last studio session with no missing Beatles was on August 20th, 1969, working on "I Want You"; their last photo session was a few days later, after which it's unknown if they all were ever in the same place again at all. Various configurations would gather at the studio in the next few months, but after the final Beatles session in early 1970 (for "I Me Mine"), the story proper came to an end, Abbey Road standing as the impetus for their last happy if uncomfortable hours as a real band. It's likely that within a few years we'll get to learn a lot more about what was going on in these final days of all four Beatles playing together, but for now, this glimpse at the last hurrah of 1969 gives us plenty to chew on.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)


(Apple)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

There are a lot of things you can argue with about Abbey Road, the Beatles' penultimate studio album and the last one they recorded; but in this case even more than Sgt. Pepper, laying out and identifying the flaws paints you as a petty and joyless individual. From a cynical standpoint, the record sounds like high-and-mighty rock stars casting their celestial powers with immunity, but the great paradox of the Beatles is that they thought they were incredible ("the best fucking group in the goddamned world," as John Lennon put it), and they were correct. Hence, more fun to listen to than any other Beatles album, this singalong amusement park ride is guarded and calculated, but never claustrophobic. Its faults do not become clear until after it has faded; and strangely, even if its songs and music are settled and closed-ended in a way that the White Album and Get Back never were, its magic never fades, perhaps because it is the most populist creation in the group's discography -- keyed to the pleasure of the broadest possible audience.

And it is magic -- a career summary of sorts that makes clear the Beatles' awareness that their story was finished, or more appropriately, complete; if only other guiding lights of the '60s had reached similar conclusions around this time. (One reason for the Beatles' prolonged reign as the most popular band in rock past or present is that they knew when and how to leave their audience in a permanent state of yearning.) After being semi-estranged from the group during the Get Back project, George Martin was brought back into the fold and with his help, the Beatles cast it all as a nostalgia trip, a sort of clip show of everything the band (and their producer) had accomplished and were still capable of doing. You get the straight-up rock & roll, though maybe too little of it, the wicked humor, some friendly experimentation, and lots of tracks that segue and slide in and out of attention at will, sending hearts back to the mind-expanding summer of '67 when a world had opened up that already seemed to be fading after just two years. There are probably traces of every other Beatles album somewhere in this one.

Side One offers most of the conventional songs -- two of John's, two of Paul's, one each from Ringo and George. Side Two, aside from Harrison's breezy and moving "Here Comes the Sun" and Lennon's gorgeous but overly precious "Because," belongs to Paul almost fully, if not in terms of the makeup of its compositions or performances then certainly in its overall thrust. Here is the famous "Abbey Road medley," with its eight-song rollercoaster of unfinished ideas and minor puff pieces -- the emptying out of their notebooks another signal that they were packing it in -- built into a stunning crescendo for the band's entire career. Lennon's songs are funny but fluffy with conviction, the best being the energetic "Polythene Pam," initially -- like "Mean Mr. Mustard" -- written in India and demoed for the White Album but never finished; the medley concept made such an act superfluous. McCartney's portions are either bizarrely endearing ("You Never Give Me Your Money," "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window") or unabashedly schlocky (the beautiful melodrama "Golden Slumbers")... and yet, somehow, the whole thing not only comes off, but comes off beautifully.

"You Never Give Me Your Money" in particular, despite fragmentation that calls the scourge of the "rock opera" to mind at one end and the glories of the more languid and perverse "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" at the other, occasions what may be the most purely emotional moment in the band's catalog, certainly in Paul's career, which is impressive in a song whose overall meaning amounts to nothing much: this is when Paul adopts his bluesy Elvis voice to announce with wistful but unflappable assurance that "soon we'll be away from here / step on the gas and wipe that tear away / one sweet dream came true today," and for just a moment, the direct connection of all this to the bleak slide from the '60s on into the '70s, from the Beatles to Watergate and Vietnam and arena rock, ceases to matter and Paul seems to be communicating completely out of time, talking to any of us and all of us, assuring us that we can go on, which -- as the prospective fan grows older -- becomes increasingly important. To return to this moment is to access a hopefulness and charge that we are sometimes lulled into thinking is only accessible in our youth. Like the Beach Boys at their best, the song dares to look ahead by looking backward, and does so with unfaded defiance. Fine music was in Paul's future, but never a moment of such unforced and ageless romance, never one that swells the heart and forces it open like this. There are similar moments of odd transcendence in "Bathroom Window," all of them in the performance itself; Paul's ability to tap into his reserves of feeling in a singing voice that can sometimes seem all too calculated enlivened the already brilliant "Penny Lane" and the otherwise goofy "Lovely Rita," and it reappears here when he comes across as sounding absolutely free of himself, free of any baggage, when singing utter nonsense like "though she thought I knew the answer / well, I knew but I could not say."

The b-movie director Edward D. Wood Jr., or at least the biopic about him directed by Tim Burton, had an unconscious point about the worst ideas being the best ones if they're presented with the right enthusiasm. The Beatles, of all people, have the dubious honor of making that clear by stacking drunken inanities like "Sun King," "Carry That Weight" (which occasions a clever reprise of "You Never Give Me Your Money") and "The End" together until they add up to something. It is strictly a studio triumph, of course, all the tweaking and knob-twisting of Sgt. Pepper perfected at an almost inhumane, overly professional distance, but a hell of a hummable one. And when taken as an elegiac look back at who the Beatles had been and who they became, the entire piece is touching in a way it could never be if divorced from the full context of the band's story. Please Please Me and Sgt. Pepper, in other words, are what make the medley work.

That said, it's now clear that Side One is the more consistent of the two divisions, at least when you break its individual songs out of this context. It offers the album's most substantial composition and greatest performance -- John's wounding "Come Together," a gloriously played Chuck Berry homage that slows down and amps up until it sounds like total sleaze, infectiously so, and fulfills the promise of "The Word" by featuring the writer's best-ever sloganeering (with a side of the sublimely absurd), "Give Peace a Chance" and "All You Need Is Love" be damned -- and throws bones both to the Beatles' sophisticated followers in George's lovely, undeniable (if overproduced) classic "Something" and to the fans of dirty-ass rock & roll with Paul's "Oh! Darling" and John's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Vocally, the former is flawless; musically, the latter is. Both men could write far better songs than this, however, and Abbey Road often seems like a gigantic curtain hiding people who are saving their best ideas for when this gig is finished. (Unfortunately, "Oh! Darling" is one of the last good ideas Paul would have until 1973 or so.) "Something" is a notable exception, and prompted the band's first A-side that wasn't a Lennon-McCartney composition, eventually becoming an actual standard. Like several of George's other songs from this era, it's better stripped down in an acoustic version that was eventually released in the '90s with a much looser, more soulful vocal from George; but it's foolish to deny how effective the master recording is as a grand, deeply felt piece of soft pop. And for once, neither it nor "Here Comes the Sun" (a more appropriate home for the album's atypical gloss) comes equipped with any of George's odd cynicism and scorn toward the women he sings about. The corner he has turned, it seems, is allowing himself to be seduced.

Ringo Starr, curiously but as on Sgt. Pepper, supplies the most human touch of all. His second full-fledged composition "Octopus's Garden," though it's clearly "Yellow Submarine Mark II," is surprisingly magnetic and may have more lasting appeal than anything here aside from "Come Together." That's in part because of the sheer force of enthusiasm, and Martin's litany of sound effects helps elevate it, but it also fits the ecstatic mood of the record in a manner that "Yellow Submarine" didn't, never quite gelling with the druggy paranoia of Revolver. Surprisingly, the lyrics add a great deal to this; a fantasy of "no one there to tell us what to do" is one thing, but longing for people to live in circumstances "knowing they're happy and they're safe" gets at something deeper, a utopian ideal that must have seemed attractive to the sickly boy who'd grown up to be a working class musician and eventually an endlessly mobbed rock star, but resonates even more to anyone in the Beatles' far-flung audience for whom "safety" is an inherently beautiful concept. In the end, it's a childlike dream that matters more than its obvious, more famous antecedent because it's secretly about something obviously more real, and therefore more touching.

I'm even partial to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a music-hall routine backgrounding another of McCartney's long-winded articulate jokes, this one a black comedy that with a few twists could well have turned into his "Lady Godiva's Operation"; it's less a song than a loopy comedy sketch, so it's no wonder Lennon hated it (though his participation certainly sounds enthused enough), but could any band except the Beatles twist what amounts to a murder ballad into a grinning, playful singalong without alienating anyone?

None of the Beatles really appear to be running out of steam, bored as they may have been with the outlet by now; the reason they come across as more buoyant here than on Get Back is perhaps inherent to the flaws of that concept, though it's more likely that the writing was on the wall for them and that Abbey Road was produced, played, written the way it was and in a mood of relative peace because it was known, or at least suspected, that it was a last hurrah for the Beatles as a unit. At any rate, they continue to be wholly devoted to their craft. George Martin's work has evolved yet again, and it's surprising that the Beatles signed off on the record's extremely polished nature due in part to the new eight-track tape machine at the studio; they had rebuked the slick, overly professional sound of the pre-fame records they made with Bert Kaempfert and Tony Sheridan for Polydor in Hamburg, but Abbey Road is no less slick, which does slightly hamper its vitality even as it affords new opportunities like the entrance of surprisingly tasteful Moog overdubs and the most flattering stage George Harrison had for his guitar work on any record up to this point. If some tracks can be sugary and overblown when you listen too closely, the extra space also allows something like the harrowing conclusion to the eight-minute "I Want You" to sound as apocalyptic as "Revolution 9" with only the power of a stack of guitars and white noise in tow. Martin must have been in heaven with the possibilities eight-track offered for his ornate, baroque pop ideas on Side Two, but it's hard to miss that the greater difficulty in crafting Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and their harder, rawer sound, make those records considerably more exciting than this one.

But again, Abbey Road isn't meant to move further down the road. It's a celebration of the road itself. It sounds like it was meant to be "a suitable ending," and it is -- slightly corrupted by the flawed epilogue Let It Be, but thematically flawless in the way it presents itself as a specifically sanctioned finale to the Beatles' story. Paul had asked George Martin if they could make a record "the way they used to," and Martin agreed on condition of basic obedience. Had they not pulled themselves together long enough to make this happen one last time, the Beatles' legacy might have always seemed somehow incomplete. But they did, and it doesn't.

***

[Expanded from a review originally posted in 2003.]

Sunday, November 18, 2018

War is over (if you want it): October 2018 music diary

If you were one of those people who wished it could be (1968 again) and didn't care to look in on new music at all but wanted just to dwell on the past, you'd nevertheless certainly have no shortage of exploring to do this autumn with massive archive dumps from the Kinks, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and of course the Beatles. I'm not even touching the Lennon, Dylan and Kinks stuff yet but lifelong passion couldn't keep me from carving out time for the new collection of White Album outtakes and they are indeed lovely, putting forward a whole new narrative about that era of the band and about what happens to be my favorite of their LPs. It's also wonderful to have perhaps the best Beatles bootleg item of all, the Esher demos, finally out in the world in complete form officially. A full-fledged review of the super deluxe boxed set will have to wait -- it's in the Beatles queue, as it were, and I'm still debating whether I need a physical copy of my own; I skipped the Pepper set except electronically and haven't regretted it yet -- and I haven't even listened to Giles Martin's new remix as of this moment, but you can expect a dissertation on the matter in due time. That long blues-dirge "Helter Skelter," the Elvis cover and the instrumental proto-new wave version of "Me and My Monkey" are giving me all kinds of much-needed life, though. For now, it's back to modern-day obligations, and we seem to be winding down a bit, or maybe I'm the one who's doing that...

Jlin: Autobiography (Planet Mu) [r]
Pretty much a Jlin demo reel, a groovy package embodying her whole bag of tricks to date with the usual immersive sonic challenges and restless, furious sampling and creativity. It doesn't reveal anything new, but there's a reason: rather than a conventional studio album it's a soundtrack of sorts for a Royal Ballet dance suite, so it amounts to something like Jean Vigo's Taris, a great artist working on commission and using it as an opportunity to experiment while delivering for her own brand and portfolio. As such, it's a must for those who loved Black Origami and/or Dark Energy but we'll have to wait a bit longer to learn where she's going to take us next. This does make me want to see the Wayne McGregor piece it's meant to accompany, though.

Tim Hecker: Konoyo (Kranky) [r]
The first Hecker release I've heard that I found more than just tolerable; that may not speak well of my taste in adventure, as it's clearly his least ambitious and most conventional work, with a laid-back and almost soft rock-evocative sound despite its wordless, often unmusical ambiance, as if someone took away all the singing and instrumentation on a Chris Isaak album and left only the vibes.

Phosphorescent: C'est La Vie (Dead Oceans)
I really hate Matthew Houck's appearance (fair game because his damn face is plastered across the front of this), persona, vibe, lazily button-pushing derivative sound, so it frustrates me to the extreme that this is basically competent alterna-mood music with textures that capture the hopeless late night feeling of the stuff that made me feel comforted in my echo chamber of depression as a teen, though specifically it calls to mind the masterfully miserable one-shot with the long title I don't feel like looking up by Primitive Radio Gods. I never heard that album but I was told it was garbage and completely avoided living up to the sound of the radio song. Well, I guess now we get to hear a whole full-length record of it, and divorced from major label marketing to boot, so if this is your scene I'm not going to yell at you about it. "New Birth in New England" is perfectly lovely junk, '70s adult contemporary AM filtered through the Postal Service.

Fucked Up: Dose Your Dreams (Merge) [r]
This sprawling, sonically varied punk rock paean is the easiest time I've had with a Fucked Up release so far, whatever that means. Abraham's vocals continue to grate, but he isn't always the one singing, and when he is it's often the not-entirely-unappealing sound of somebody screaming over Owen Pallett's string arrangements. The mixture of voices helps a lot, not just the MVP backup singing but lead spots like Jennifer Castle's country rock interlude "Came Down Wrong." Like Titus Andronicus (newly labelmates), the group offers as dynamic a sound as we get from punk rock, much less from hardcore; like Titus Andronicus, at their best they are triumphant and defiant in their pain ("Joy Stops Time"). With touches of new wave ("Normal People"), shoegaze (the complicated, beautiful "How to Die Happy") and the occasional Medieval-sounding guitar lick ("Tell Me What You See"), plus a title track that sounds like Hall & Oates reimagined Pretty Hate Machine, there's something here for everyone, which is a good excuse for how ridiculously long it is; the entire album has a cumulative and welcome vibe of rejuvenation. It's never going to be a part of my day to day life, but still, well done.

Twenty One Pilots: Trench (Atlantic)
Won a Grammy before I'd so much as heard of them, and I wasn't alone -- that particular event prompted Ann Powers to tweet about how the number of people making similar remarks were very clearly betraying the absence of young teenagers in their lives. It wasn't any more off-the-wall, in its fashion, than Arcade Fire winning, when a lot of us rejoiced and pointlessly mocked the people who were wholly clueless about what had just happened and why. Twenty One Pilots, meantime, are no more brainless and dunderheaded than the lazier end of what passed for modern rock when I was in high school -- the waning days of mall punk, the very early days of emo -- and there's no point chattering about being "too old" when, in fact, I remember feeling completely baffled when I first walked into a Hot Topic in 2001, at age 17, and had heard of almost nothing being played or peddled. Presumably, if you're older or younger than me and are a music nerd now, you could tell the same basic story. In other words, very little has changed, and this safely bland, fake-socially conscious duo from Columbus are more or less just a stopgap between the craftier pop world and whatever mature interests and eventual nostalgia they will set off themselves in their audience. I listened to this, found the vocals annoying, the music competently catchy, the production antiseptic, and the whole thing devoid of any kind of appeal I'm going to remember, but that's because I'm not who it's trying to capture, and I don't have the basic interest in mainstream rock past or present to warrant any intellectual or emotional attachment like I might have with bubblegum or R&B targeted to kids. My response is the same as it is for Justin Bieber or Backstreet Boys (who had great songs) or Panic! At the Disco or the fucking Archies (who didn't), just thank god it's not whatever mean-spirited dullards are analogous to Limp Bizkit, the Knack, or the Eagles who are capturing the hearts and minds of the young.

Elvis Costello: Look Now (Concord)
I like Costello but I'm not part of his cult; however, I'm part of others and so I understand how this works -- those who worship him at his best will find plenty of note here, while the more casual followers will stick their noses in, recognize that he's still at work and still recognizably Elvis Costello, and move on. From my distance the one thing that sticks out at all is "Suspect My Tears," and that's because it sounds convincingly like bottom-of-the-barrel AM sleaze circa 1978, the ubiquity of which seems to be precisely what "Radio Radio" was decrying.

Daniel Avery: Diminuendo (Phantasy Sound EP) [r]
Not sure how effective the sneak-attack release strategy is when you're not on Beyoncé's level, but this is a nice and immersive supplement release, the second short-form set this year from the prolific DJ; it's scarier, more assaultive than his excellent album Songs for Alpha and clearly aims for a livelier setting despite its often brooding textures. It's '90s rave with 2010s drugs.

Sheck Wes: MUDBOY (Interscope) [c]
This 20 year-old Harlem rapper's debut, riding in on an inept top-ten hit from last year, is aimed specifically enough at naughty high schoolers that it would never have been on my radar if not for an outrageous rave in Pitchfork recently; it's beyond insipid in its rote, amateurish "hard" chanting and the lazy muck of its dank, bleak Soundcloud beats (see "WESPN"), and lacks the wit of fellow acquired-taste weirdos like Young Thug and Lil B. I don't think hip hop is dead or in trouble but people talk about the indulgent, stagnant, circling-the-drain feeling of rap ten years ago and then praise this? Then again I wasn't much for trap in the first place -- never even liked Future, who was nothing if not a nightmarish minimalist whose stuff could have all sorts of sociological claptrap positive and negative read into it -- and who am I to say "Mo Bamba" is a laughable dirge if I'm listening to it while sitting in my office drinking Diet Pepsi with a cat in my lap? Sheck Wes isn't selling this crud for just any setting, he wants to pump you up, and for what it's worth I can't think of any form of rock music designed to pump me up so thoughtlessly and primordially that I don't hate. (Remember Fang Island? Remember "We Will Rock You"?) Fortunately, our guy has a built-in explanation for the monosyllabic pap that's supposed to be a whole lot of nothing, say the defenders, that's occasionally interrupted by the serious self-regarding "commentary" plugged by the other defenders: "Why I say bitch so much? Let me explain it. It's the only word... where I can feel and hear all my anger. It don't got nothin' to do with like bitches. It's just, bitch! Bitch!" Naughty by Nature's etymology digressions at least rhymed, and Ice-T's "bitch" tirade was at least funny. But I'm so old I don't know who 21 Pilots are.

Neneh Cherry: Broken Politics (Smalltown Supersound) [r]
"Broken" is the right word for this shambolic series of wavering vocal rants, weird production choices and half-songs that spin their wheels on invisible chords and often go full minutes without anything resembling a hook. It's daunting and addictive at its best; when she does go pop, like on "Natural Skin Deep," she overruns the track with so many intrusive sound effects (your ride's here) and mocking tricks it seems to dare you to enjoy yourself. It's the opposite of Tierra Whack's album, which gave you so many ideas and refused to run with any of them; this expounds at great length on its most unappealing tangents, punishing instead of just challenging. It's not avant garde exactly -- too exacting in its message, too thrilling in its delight at its execution; too much Sly Stone, baby -- but an artist dismissed in the mainstream as a one-shot going off like this is certainly braver by orders of magnitude than whatever, hmm, Nada Surf is up to (if anything).

Yoko Ono: Warzone (Chimera) [r]
I don't know if this will be Ono's last studio album. I hope it isn't, because the original material on her last two had such vitality that I don't want her to cap off a brilliant musical career spanning six decades with a revision of old music, similar to past remix and cover-oriented projects but in this case with actual re-recordings and rearrangements. Nevertheless, there are far worse ways for her to send us away than with a breathtaking version of her late husband's signature song "Imagine," in a performance of grace and stark hesitation that brings out all of the complications and yearnings that Phil Spector drowns out on the original recording. This track isn't just a bookend to Imagine, John Lennon's 1971 album that was reissued in a lavish deluxe package this fall; nor is it just a bookend to Ono's uncomfortably public entrance into household-name status that began fifty years ago with her whispering into a tape recorder at Abbey Road, as also suggested on a lavish deluxe package out this fall, and capturing the meaningless ire of a racist, misogynist, possessive public that that had already spent five years turning a gifted band into dogs rolling over for them (an almost inevitable consequence of just how gifted) -- I haven't checked online to see who is outraged by this new "Imagine" and how much, but I'm sure it's quite delicious. No, this is a bookend to a united front, a story, a message that goes back even further, back before Ono's experimental films and art and performances and back even beyond the '60s, to Lennon sixty years ago on a stage belting out "Puttin' on the Style" and living-emitting the first traces of a philosophy of performance, liberation and abandon that no lyrics, hackneyed or precise, could ever wholly capture -- no longer alive to impart that message, he implicitly trusts his wife with it, and she carries it on into the darkness, and whatever you think of both of these people, that fucking means something. I don't mean the lyrics, I mean the absolute conviction of what was behind them in the specific moment they were being delivered by first one vessel and now another, and how any great song affords such rich opportunities for true artists like these to surrender, command, and live inside a song; she makes it so much her own, without ever discounting the ghost in the room, she could be some alternate-universe Billie Holiday, or Angelique Kidjo fusing the abstractions of "Crosseyed and Painless" with experience: lost my shape, indeed.

As for the rest, only four tracks are revisions of songs that come from stronger albums: "Now or Never" from Approximately Infinite Universe, "Woman Power" from Feeling the Space, "Why" from Plastic Ono Band and "I'm Alive" from Between My Head and the Sky; these also tend to be the highlights, with the interesting exception of the title track which opens the record in a moment of discord and chaos and was originally recorded for the multimedia New York Rock project. The rest focuses heavily on the mostly forgotten 1985 Reagan protest album Starpeace, and while these versions sympathetically given a skeletal modern twist by Ono (coproducing with Thomas Bartlett, who also contributes piano and progamming) improve on the originals in this case, they're not among her best work, but it's understandable that she focuses on them because of their politics, antiwar messaging and optimism. Like the sloganeering and aforementioned, fearless performance-of-self she initiated with Lennon, it's all inarticulate and messy but it couldn't possibly be more timely to the world we now live in, and because her vocal power is undiminished -- has, if anything, gotten stronger and harder to shake or escape in her eighties -- she is right in front with playfulness and confidence that breathe new life into the songs, even if no moment resonates quite like the new, chillingly urgent meaning the line "I hope someday you'll join us" now has. Because if they don't join us, where does that leave us?

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
- Tunng: Songs You Make at Night (Full Time Hobby) [the beta band]
- Interpol: Marauder (Matador) [the definition of Interpol is "doing the same thing over and over again and wanting the same result"]
- Sauna Youth: Deaths (Upset the Rhythm) [punk is so nice and neighborly these days]
- Paul McCartney: Egypt Station (Capitol) [sings like his life depends on it, writes with imagination but little resonance, but his sheer nonchalant functionality remains a miracle when laid against almost any other '60s rocker, excluding Yoko but including Dylan, whose growl through "Things We Said Today" of a few years back delivers an accidental revelation in this regard; "Hunt You Down-Naked-C Link"/"Happy with You"/"Fuh You"]
- Kandace Springs: Indigo (Blue Note) [these foolish things remind me of you; "Unsophisticated"/"Piece of Me"/"People Make the World Go Round"]
- Lonnie Holley: MITH (Jagjaguwar) [found-art folk artist records weirdest blues album I ever remember hearing, making Willis Earl Beal sound like Ben Vaughn]
- Denzel Curry: TA13OO (Loma Vista) [aggression in search of a target, eventually found but it takes three (brief) discs; "SIRENS | Z1RENZ"]
- Adult.: This Behavior (Dais) [hard house and synthpop melded with aggressive chant-singing, with the occasional twisted and beautiful moment and a song that cops its bassline from Vince Clarke by way of the Kinks -- pure entertainment; "Violent Shakes"/"Silent Exchange"/"This Behavior"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Oliver Coates: Shelly's on Zenn-La (RVNG Intl.)
- Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano III (Gente Threat)
- Ital Tek: Bodied (Planet Mu) [intensify your routine]
- Sarah Davachi: Gave in Rest (Ba Da Bing!) [all gloom all the time]
- The Field: Infinite Moment (Kompakt)
- Haiku Salut: There Is No Elsewhere (Prah) [feel good lost; "Occupy"/"Nettles"]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Kristin Hersh: Possible Dust Clouds
* Cat Power: Wanderer
Exploded View: Obey
Mudhoney: Digital Garbage
Swearin': Fall into the Sun
St. Vincent: MassEducation
Graham Parker: Cloud Symbols
Colter Wall: Songs of the Plains
Matthew Dear: Bunny
Georgia Ann Muldrow: Overload
Empress Of: Us

REJECTS:
Menace Beach: Black Rainbow Sound
Eric Bachmann: No Recover
Cher: Dancing Queen
The Joy Formidable: AAARTH [NYIM]
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs: King of Cowards
Marissa Nadler: For My Crimes [NYIM]
Jose James: Lean on Me
Lady Gaga: A Star Is Born OST
Marie Davidson: Working Class Woman
Molly Burch: First Flower
Eric Church: Desperate Man
Adrianne Lenker: Abysskiss
John Grant: Love Is Magic
Tom Morello: The Atlas Underground
How to Dress Well: The Anteroom
Cloud Nothings: Last Building Burning
MØ: Forever Neverland [NYIM]
Maribou State: Kingdoms in Colour [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES
Maribou State ft. Holly Walker "Nervous Tics" [Kingdoms in Color] {note: this contains a synth sound I recognize from Depeche Mode's "Leave in Silence," thus bias may be in play}