Thursday, June 21, 2018

Lost in the dark is my favorite part: May 2018 music diary

My schedule could sustain a two-week break for a vacation to the west coast, and it could even sustain a personal tragedy that made it too difficult to focus on this project in the week prior to said vacation; but it finally broke down when I came down with a case of some horrendous virus currently ripping its way through our household. I'm finally about 80% better but it's left me pretty consistently exhausted, so this was prepared and written in stolen moments for the most part, and maybe it's a little terser than usual (?). I'm not going to attempt to compensate for so many things I couldn't control by trying to arbitrarily fit into a schedule, so the posts will be appearing in the middle, rather than the beginning, of the month for a good while. But appear they will.

***

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer (Bad Boy) [hr]
This maverick's third full-length album finds her skirting the alter egos and sci-fi thematics of its predecessors (though she's explained that it's the creation of another mythology of sorts rather than the thorough rejection of myth), and has her wondering if it's her or her "disguise" that initially inspired adulation; its kink is the stripping away of the distance wrought by "characterization," and by extension its attendant anonymity. You never minded her wilder Fritz Lang fantasies because you knew she was smart enough to be using them as an extension of herself and her own irresistible weirdness rather than a way of hiding. Now she proves it. By themselves, the directness of the sentiments at the core of "Django Jane" and the scathing "Americans" could come off as treacly; but surrounded by the f-bombs, pop hooks and defiant, naked individuality of everything else here, they spell a whole human being who's not just proving what a monster she is in the studio (which she's already done anyway) but also embracing everything about her own sexuality, her R&B background, and her all-encompassing adoration of rock & roll as sustaining, liberating life force -- and all this is played against, and perhaps made necessary by, the dark passage of history we've entered since Electric Lady; there's a sense in which more android dramatics would constitute a kind of betrayal in lieu of the unapologetic (and unapologetically Prince-derived) sexual fluidity anthem "Make Me Feel" or the utterly miraculous campaign song "Screwed," about how fucking it all back down is the only response to everything getting fucked up. Every giddy moment manages to comfort in some way; supposed vulgarity is seldom so cathartic. It's hard to think of an angle from which this falls short -- as pop or R&B or tribute or lament or celebration; maybe there are a few too many ballads stacked up at the back end, but that's scant distraction against what, for my money, is the most affecting and stubbornly optimistic backdrop rendered to date for this horribly unsettling time.

Okkervil River: In the Rainbow Rain (ATO)
Will Sheff takes restlessness to a comical extreme on his increasingly eccentric band's ninth album (fourth this decade, each hemorrhaging audience members), which opens improbably with a bizarre Wikipedia binge about celebrity tracheotomy procedures, a cross between Sun Kil Moon's obsessively detailed chronicles of disaster and death and the song about Gene Loves Jezebel's intricate personnel history on the last Mountain Goats album. The track ends with a description of Ray Davies' childhood medical ordeal followed by an interpolation of "Waterloo Sunset" that could be accused of being as cheap and desperate as what Tom Servo once called "showing a good movie in your bad movie," but then again, it works and is the most disarming moment of beauty and eloquence on the album. Not everything afterward is as indulgent, thankfully, though some of it (the word-salad "External Actor") is even harder to cope with; "Love Somebody" and "Pulled Up the Ribbon" work interesting magic with hooks recycled from '80s FM, though "Don't Move Back to LA" seems to give the biggest clue to the real pulses of Sheff's heart these days, with its bombastic sleaze in turn calling to mind Walter Egan, "Live and Let Die" and Death of a Ladies Man. Aging is a bitch; even Ray Davies was churning out "Juke Box Music" a mere decade after "Waterloo Sunset."

Twin Shadow: Caer (Warner Bros.)
Not substantially weaker on average than his major label debut, but lacking an eternal-youth hurricane megaclassic like "Old Love / New Love" to forgive its marginal, generic nature; while the pop kowtowing on "Too Many Colors" and the Haim collab "Saturdays" convinces and finds time for more characteristic strangeness than the pleasantly straightforward ballads, the closest we get to a reward for our mining here is the stop-start film noir vocal-filter extravaganza "Little Woman," which I'm not convinced is actually good, but it's at least interesting. Kill me dead if the guy can't still sing his guts out, though.

Lake Street Dive: Free Yourself Up (Nonesuch) [c]
Doubles down on all the stuff that was mildly annoying about Side Pony, a whole LP's worth of "Hell Yeah," with that record's faint remaining glimmers of earned exhilaration totally inaudible; they're now a pretty insipid outfit, unfortunately, and you could get diabetes from listening.

Leon Bridges: Good Thing (Columbia)
Serviceable. (What does "loving and hating are such a fine line" actually mean? Even in the context of a really dumb song about how romantic love is only chugging along properly after a "good fight.")

DJ Koze: Knock Knock (Pampa) [r]
Overlong and repetitive but enjoyably blissed out party set, with unlikely guests (Speech! Kurt Wagner! Sophia Kennedy!) and a few Avalanches-sized grooves; the dry, invigorating hangover "Pick Up" is a particular jewel.

Jon Hopkins: Singularity (Domino) [r]
Soft, strange, glitchy, with a bit too much of the first; "Emerald Rush" is a trip though.

Iceage: Beyondless (Matador) [c]
Somehow post-punk, in 2018, seems like the most gutless and facile response to anything, at least in this harmless guise; Elias Rønnenfelt's vocals are fine for fast-paced sloppiness but fill the pegs too precisely when the band slows down and eases into weak art-rock mode. A chore to listen to, but apparently they're professional now; anyway, I don't even like Protomartyr, so...

Eleanor Friedberger: Rebound (Frenchkiss)
She's often a joy to listen to and the songs are intricate and smart, but the tinker-toy Leonard Cohen backing tracks don't really work here and are a strange contrast to the organic glory of her best music.

Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing (Legacy)
Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son (Fantasy)
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Sparkle Hard (Matador)
Happy Father's Day.

Pinkshinyultrablast: Miserable Miracles (Club AC30) [hr]
The stupid grin on my face as this plays, every time, attests to the indescribable itch scratched by Pinkshinyultrablast, which is extremely specific but also singular; there's no other rock band quite like them. Elements of their sound resemble others, obviously; there's Beach House here and there, and a bit of Human League on "Eray," but the towering vocals and room-filling beauty that makes you believe in sonic heaven is a corner they've really conquered for themselves among their generation, and the exotic textures add a feeling of expanse. The latest album is as good and enveloping as the last two, and if you already love what they've been doing this will appeal just as much; the immediate propulsion and joy on opener "Dance AM" signal the dancier, more New Wave-derived feeling of the rest of the songs, but the basic feeling of racing across the tundra on the best kinds of drugs is carried over from before impeccably.

Beach House: 7 (Sub Pop) [r]
To break into matters of personal bias for a moment, I have yet to fully make sense of what separates "good" Beach House from "bad" Beach House for me or anybody else; Teen Dream seemed soppy and indistinct at the time, Devotion and Thank Your Lucky Stars appealingly raw but also slightly coarse; but Bloom and Depression Cherry, I'm in heaven, a melodic lush drugged-up New Age dream of some sort -- yet put on any song from any of the above on to an untrained non-acolyte and they're unlikely to have the first clue what distinctions you're drawing. 7 works for me sometimes and sometimes doesn't -- not speaking of individual moments or cuts but different contexts in which I've situated it -- and on the whole it seems a little disappointing, despite the Cocteau Twins power ballad atmospheres of its best moments ("Black Car," "Pay No Mind") and the surprising left turns (by this band's standards) you can faintly hear on something like "Drunk in L.A."; all this incremental evolution and the obvious built-in lethargy can plod rather than enchant, can even make you question the whole weird enterprise (if the shockingly boring b-sides collection last year didn't already nudge you in that direction). But as an experiment I put Depression Cherry on and holy shit, everything's there for me just like it was in the first place, yet does someone having the opposite response make sense in some weird way? I suppose, and I even think the tunes on 7 are starting to make their way into my head.

Ryley Walker: Deafman Glance (Dead Oceans) [r]
The depression mining the folk-rock field by default is legendary, but even by those standards Walker's mood here -- in writing if not voice -- comes across as frighteningly despondent. His latest song cycle is an extraordinarily sad, radical departure from Walker's base of rootsy, introspective traditionalism, which is a positive change insofar as it sounded like he'd reached the bottom of that particular well last time out. Musically there's adventurousness and experimentation but the starkness of it all can be a lot to take on a particularly dark night... which, honestly, is a surprising issue to have with a Ryley Walker album, so all credit to him.

Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom + Pop) [hr]
Barnett's first LP was the rare indie rock artifact almost everyone agreed on -- recall that it led to a truly insane, however deserved, Best New Artist nomination at the Grammys (she lost to Mackelomore, or something; I don't know, look it up yourself) -- so this monochromatic, vastly darker and more uneasy sequel stands up as a remarkably bold, Tusk-like follow-up to an attention-grabbing hit. For one thing it eschews obvious catharsis, with a sense even on the 1:50 thrash-scream "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch" that the streams of consciousness are now being more carefully controlled and edited, without sacrificing their revelatory potential; Barnett sounds more ferocious than on any of her previous recordings, but the songs she's writing are far subtler, with textures and hooks that require time and even a degree of patience. A throwback stunner like "Charity" is violently interrupted by incongruous rhythm changes, and the instantly iconic "Nameless, Faceless" is fraught with the fear that for the first time, in her righteous dismissal of anonymous critics and indie-blag misogynists, she's turned her increasingly merciless attention directly to those of us listening. No denying that there has been a change in Barnett's demeanor somewhere: a snapping out of something, or a growth into a kind of blunt familiarity with a huge world and with herself in and outside of it? Great as the Atwood-quoting chorus on "Nameless, Faceless" is, you can hear it most clearly in the undaunted confidence of this portion of the same song: "He said 'I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you'... but you didn't, and you're kidding yourself if you think the world revolves around you." It isn't a contradiction that this coexists with a surprising amount of empathy for the declared enemies in that song (when she says she's sorry for whatever you've been through, it sounds like she means it even as she's aware she can do nothing to help), or with "crippling self-doubt and a general lack of confidence." But the weariness adds a welcome dimension to Barnett's writing and voice; the tempering of even the thrilling moments on "City Looks Pretty" and the biting back against anxiety on "Walkin' on Eggshells" suggests the numbing effect of being tagged as a universal voice when, as she puts it, you're not convinced you really know anything. In fact, she knows more than me or you, more than most anyone who will write about this album (anonymously or not), and for sure more than Father John Misty or Frankie Cosmos or her own hero and collaborator Kurt Vile, because if any of us could write "Sunday Roast" ("I know all your stories but I'll listen to them again," holy shit) we would... but we didn't.

Parquet Courts: Wide Awake! (Rough Trade) [r]
Even though self-satisfaction still radiates off them like the Pixies suddenly became the Faint, it's time to admit that this bunch has some talent, and an admirable interest in attempting lots of things, even if in doing so they hit the mark less often than their swooning congregation suggests, and even if getting this tolerable required a facelift from Danger Mouse. They come up with a tune so catchy and irreverent and joyous they have no choice but to create some ironic distance by calling it "Freebird II," a joke they then underline gratuitously on the record itself. The dance is less convincing than the punk and the dance is more fun, with the finale "Tenderness" barely sounding like a finished recording but still taking up residence in your head as long as you'll let it. The lyrics are wordy and self-aware and excessively cerebral, like the band.

Playboy Carti: Die Lit (Interscope)
Can't avoid that this bland, robotically muttering Atlanta rapper is just an overhyped label shill when the only noteworthy verse on his debut is a probably heavily bribed contribution from Nicki Minaj, though the Four Tet-like minimal beats are sometimes pleasingly distracting.

Skee Mask: Compro (Ilian Tape) [r]
Ghosts of trip hop, trance and Big Beat abound in this lengthy, engaging electronic set that overall throbs with a certain feeling of urban loneliness -- as did the '90s music that influences it, but now with an even greater and more sobering weight of passed time, loss and yearning for future connection. And some of the grooves feel impressively timeless, like the brief but striking "Rev8617."

Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (Verve) [r]
Stay away from her radical interpretation of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and this Dylan covers album stacked mostly with Dylan songs you've either never heard or don't remember, a plunder of duff albums, outtakes and soundtrack selections in an extremely rich catalog (she can't resist throwing on an "It Ain't Me Babe" but she does right by it), is an enjoyable, soulfully delivered diversion that revitalizes the man's emotional and political messages and wins in a walk in any shootout over Dylan's own recent covers of other people's songs.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Orquesta Akokan (Daptone) [there's not a woman alive who can resist a man who knows how]
Black Milk: Fever (Mass Appeal) ["True Lies"/"Drown"]
Czarface/MF Doom: Czarface Meets Metal Face (Silver Age) [cartoon all stars to the rescue; "Bomb Thrown"]
Mouse on Mars: Dimensional People (Thrill Jockey) [wacky and inventive, some of the catchiest strangest ambient slash techno slash hybrid whatever in current rotation; "Foul Mouth"/"Dimensional People Part I"/"Sidney in a Cup"]
Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!) [acerbic anti-monarchy concept record reminds us that we shouldn't fight to take our countries back, but to take them forward, and correctly posits mythical replacement leaders; "My Queen Is Anna Julia Cooper"/"My Queen Is Angela Davis"]
Novelist: Novelist Guy (Mmmyeh) [Jeremy Corbyn's very own Killer Mike, a grime MC so likable it's kind of exhausting; "Dot Dot Dot"/"Start"/"Better Way"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Chris Carter: Chemistry Lessons Volume 1 (Mute) [not the X-Files guy and not the bestselling author and not the guy from Throbbing Gristle -- wait, wait, hold on, yes it is, that last one, that's the guy]
Rival Consoles: Persona (Erased Tapes)
The Nels Cline 4: Currents, Constellations (Blue Note) [I feel mildly annoyed with myself for how much I enjoy this extremely lite little nothing]

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is
Speedy Ortiz: Twerp Verse
Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois
Cut Worms: Hollow Ground
Simian Mobile Disco: Murmurations
Fatoumata Diawara: Fenfo
Charles Watson: Now That I'm a River
Modern Studies: Welcome Strangers
Mary Lattimore: Hundreds of Days
Gas: Rausch

REJECTS:
* Baloji: 137 Avenue Kanlama
* Alexis Taylor: Beautiful Thing
The Vaccines: Combat Sports
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers: Years
Hinds: I Don't Run
Ashley Monroe: Sparrow [NYIM]
Drinks: Hippo Lite
Half Waif: Lavendar
Forth Wanderers
Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco: You're Driving Me Crazy
Grouper: Grid of Points
Lucretia Dalt: Anticlines [NYIM]
Shakey Graves: Can't Wake Up
Frank Turner: Be More Kind
Damien Jurado: The Horizon Just Laughed [NYIM]
Gaz Coombes: World's Strongest Man
Peace: Kindness Is the New Rock and Roll [one of the most heinously awful things I've ever heard]
Brent Cobb: Providence Canyon [NYIM]
La Luz: Floating Features [NYIM]
The Sea and Cake: Any Day
Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Low Cut Connie: Dirty Pictures Pt. 2
Jennifer Castle: Angels of Death [NYIM]
Frog Eyes: Violet Psalms

ORPHAN TUNES:
Alexis Taylor "Oh Baby" [Beautiful Thing]
Hinds "Soberland" [I Don't Run]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH:
Sun Ra: The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (Savoy 1961) [hr]
Ornette Coleman: Free Jazz (Atlantic 1960 [1961]) [A+]
Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! 1963) [A+]
Sonny Rollins: The Bridge (RCA 1962) [r]
My Name Is Albert Ayler (Fantasy 1963 [1964]) [hr]
Ornette Coleman: This Is Our Music (Atlantic 1960 [1961]) [hr]

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