Monday, October 22, 2018

Our midnight world, just me and you: September 2018 music diary

Blood Orange: Negro Swan (Domino)
Massively disappointing, the exact opposite trajectory for this artist from what the last two records would've led you to hope. It's a bland, faceless neo-soul record very occasionally interrupted by a jam (the Miguel-like "Chewing Gum," the droning "Charcoal Baby," plus respectable misses like "Minetta Creek," the sound of R&B faintly heard from across the street), more often interrupted by the most annoying current trend in R&B, the sanctimonious and contrived-sounding recordings of faux-spontaneous, like, "inspirational" chatter from various people, filled with buzzwords that, however helpful they may be in the presnt moment ("spaces" is the one that gets my goat for some reason), will sound as bizarre and cultish as Est in twenty years. Not to sound like a conservative commentator, and I'm sure I will to some of you. This is partly the influence of A Seat at the Table, but those interludes were brilliant, cleverly interpolated and had reason to be on that record. Here they are distracting, pointless, and ill-matched with middle-ground songs about waiting for the headache to go away. You'd almost give anything for the old days of the obnoxious rap skit; those usually sucked but they had a tiny bit more entertainment value if no more re-listenability. The music isn't bad, simultaneously taking cues from quiet storm and the lushest '90s soul, and it all fades into an agreeable busk at the end, but where's the fire? I understand not feeling up to having fun at the moment but this dude doesn't have the chops or the mystery to be goddamn D'Angelo.

White Denim: Performance (City Slang) [r]
Eclectic classic rock jammers, hailing from Austin and industry vets now (they've backed Leon Bridges), seem at first glance too annoying to take seriously with, on this goround, their Ty Segall-like pseudo-blooze and psychedelia, and the often pompous, irritating vocals. The enjoyably showy guitar playing is agreeable enough to distract for a time, indeed just enough time for the songs and production to fully seduce you. Songs like "Double Death," "Moves On" and "It Might Get Dark" (which sounds uncannily like some lost early solo George Harrison cut) are insanely convincing as pastiche, like they're beamed in from alternate-history AOR stations, and there's no denying that they're pretty great pop music on the whole. "Good News" even has a sweet John Sebastian lilt about it. It greatly confuses me how much I enjoy this.

Troye Sivan: Bloom (Capitol) [c]
Youtube star -- the album cover is a very strong "am I supposed to know who this is?" trigger -- based in L.A. (of course), has been on Ellen and Fallon a few times, flirts with late-nite EDM on the two most accomplished songs here (the admittedly infectious "My My My!" and its marginally less adolescent clone "Lucky Strike"), which won't prepare you for the nauseating familiarity of everything else on offer from Sivan's stable of song-factory composers and producers, and his singing is all over the map on top of that. I don't believe the articles about younger generations not having sex but finding out that this is considered erotic music by the poptimism knuckleheads sure makes me wonder.

Anna Calvi: Hunter (Domino) [r]
As brutal as it looks on the outside -- like a non-ironic Andrew WK -- but ever so tightly controlled, the third album by this formal but confrontational British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has virtuoso, starkly recorded guitar and numerous PJ Harvey echoes, plus provocative lyrics delivered nicely by her room-filling, operatic voice and much giddy wrestling with identity, gender, sexuality. From track the first she sings of "walking and talking as a man" and later commands "don't beat the girl out of my boy"; look, we all love Bowie, but not all of us can make something this engaging out of it. The music draws from unexpected sources later on, like disco and jazz, but never loses its addiction to the hypnotic urgency of the clean classic rock that gives Calvi's work its sense of largeness.

Idles: Joy as an Act of Resistance (Partisan) [r]
Second record from unapologetic barroom Bristol punks comes out of the gate sounding as muddy and unfinished as Protomartyr, as rude and indulgent as Sleaford Mods, and singer Joe Talbot sounds occasionally like Paul Weller trying to tap into the hardcore market. It's all very British and very throwback -- fuckin' 'ell it's Fred Titmus and all that. Underneath the stultifying (if sometimes amusing) self-seriousness, though, along with the sense that they're not nearly as young and badass as they want to sound (the contrived finale has Talbot repeatedly chiding "keep going! keep fucking going! smash it! ruin it!" but we're so used to his sarcasm that it just sounds like someone winning at bingo), there are shots of politically sound wit confronting and rejecting the inevitable skinhead contingent. The catchy, thrashy "I'm Scum" offers the instantly immortal "I don't care about the next James Bond / he kills for country, queen and God / We don't need another murderous toff." Only a little less perfect is "whitey wants his country back / fifty-inch screen in his cul-de-sac." "Danny Nedelko" narrates the worldwide refugee crisis less artfully than Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever but no less compassionately, and with relentless bass and a Pavement reference besides. Worldly lads, they cover Solomon Burke -- quite well -- and riff on Hemingway too. They come down hard on toxic masculinity with the one-two punch of "this is why you never see your father cry" and "I kissed a boy and I liked it." So these are responsible punks, sliding sometimes into Cowboy Mouth-like motivational speaking, other times allowing a short enough break from attacking bourgeois complacency, racism and homophobia to give vent to something as funny as "Love Song"; without hearing the way Talbot sings it you can in no way comprehend how funny "look at the card I bought / it says I love you" is. It all gets a bit old and ordinary when you're not completely in the throes of the moment they're making, but it's all respectable and probably necessary, the kind of reclaiming of aggressive but good-hearted maleness we know from Killer Mike, Joe Strummer, etc.

Spiritualized: And Nothing Hurt (Fat Possum) [c]
Is this what audio dorks mean when they talk about "listener fatigue"? No longer "space rock" by any comprehensible measure, Jason Pierce's ragtag unit soldiers on with album the eighth, one with nary an original thought in its goddamned head. It's the Lovin' Spiritualized, for the most part. Actually it's just Wilco. Or maybe, here and there, bad Oasis. The uncharacteristic blast of melodic George Harrison guitar lines on "I'm Your Man" is an outlier against music that's almost uniformly slow and insipid. Pierce's voice has become exhausting in its whiny preciousness. The two least irritating cuts, "On the Sunshine" and "Morning After," are both barely disguised clones of his best latter-day tune "Hey Jane," only adding "European Son" bass and a cool free jazz interlude in the latter case, but every repeat listen reveals that there's even less on these songs, or on the rest of the record, to actually hear. It's all just copies of copies of copies.

Yves Tumor: Safe in the Hands of Love (Warp) [c]
If not for the vocals, this session from a hot Italy-based electronic producer might be nice for a casually urgent Saturday night party in the city, but apart from the not-bad, Panda Bear-derived "Noid," the more the sound of the human voice gets centered here, the less tolerable it all becomes. The tracks resemble '90s trance at best (think Paul Oakenfold or Faithless), rap-rock at worst, but they're almost all pretty dumb and silly, and oddly aggressive, in the end.

Joey Purp: QUARTERTHING (s/r) [r]
Joey Purp sounds angrier than he used to, as is the case for probably all of us. The few times he gives vent to the old mumbling goofiness it's on clones of his best song to date, "Girls @"; and he still sounds beholden to trends that might now be a step ahead of him, even though you have to admire him for the way he pulls for himself. Often the best stuff here is from guests. The '90s excess of "Look at My Wrist" -- he has DVDs, baby! -- boasts an odd, engaging guest verse from Cdot Honcho. And the finest track included, "Fessional/Diamonds Dancing" frontlines both Purp's best and most eccentric rapping here and a great, victorious contribution from Queen Key. "Lebron James" sounds like the Tales from the Crypt theme but delivers on none of the promise of its title. Ultimately it's a grab bag, like a lot of modern rap albums and tapes.

The Mountain Goats: Hex of Infinite Binding (Merge EP)
Insubstantial stopgap release is John Darnielle's only real studio offering for 2018; it's not without merit but definitely exemplifies something other than my favorite variety of Goats material, though it will generate some warmth for marking the return of his guitar after Goths -- the electric picking on the opening cut "Song for Ted Sallis" is excellent. This is followed by the starker "Almost Every Door" with a great hushed vocal and a Chumabwamba reference, but the two songs on the back half are pretty forgettable. (Amber commented that one of them sounded like current-decade Decemberists.) But that's really why we have releases like this, isn't it?

Aphex Twin: Collapse (Warp EP) [r]
I suspect this young man, "Richard James," is primed to go far in his field -- this twenty-minute session is filled to the brim with the sort of delightful tweaks, blips and beats so currently popular with the younger set, and dealers can buy the disc with confidence that it will land high on the popularity charts.

The Goon Sax: We're Not Talking (Wichita) [r]
At a half-awake glance this sounded to me like what I expected Car Seat Headrest was when I'd just heard the name, which is an improvement on the real thing but just as naive. Something about the simultaneous pettiness and honesty of the words, though, kept my attention: "Lookin' at my bank account and I'm feelin' lonely cause I've got no money and my TV's not working and I've got no patience cause I don't speak German and now I'm back home and no one's calling but I'm not pickin' up the phone." (And you thought this blog's sentences ran on.) It's standard Twitter mumbling but captures the attendant angst with unusual directness, and further research turned up the fact that this Brisbane trio is led by Louis Forster, son of Robert; if we're going to have a poet laureate of the social media years, it's hard to imagine a better lineage. Still, these are brand new high school graduates and the shots of beyond-years maturity on "Sleep EZ" and the verging-on-brilliant "We Can't Win" are the exceptions, but that's kind of a relief too... especially when Forster and his bandmates James Harrison and Riley Jones evoke the clean, nervous sound of Buddy Holly and the Crickets updated with sensitive striped-sunlight gentleness as much as their (considerably older) peers like Twerps and Courtney Barnett.

Richard Thompson: 13 Rivers (New West) [r]
Thompson's best work in years doubles down on his familiar eccentricity without apology, while also refusing to simply bask in past glories like so many other veteran performers. He doesn't have the gift for the kind of endless invention exhibited by fellow surviving '60s vets Dylan, Ono or (until recently) Cohen; the songs do mostly sound similar, moodly sea shanties and old-world ballads with sharp guitar lines and debts to European folk. What's undiminished are his natural gifts as a singer and guitarist; if he's not the writer and lyricist he once was -- and sometimes he can still jolt you, like when "I wanna make cupcakes with you" is commissioned as a come-on -- his convictions as a performer are wholly intact, which closes much of the gap. The songs are either foreboding and insistent ("Storm Won't Come") or sweet yet aggressive ("O Cinderella," "Do All These Tears Belong to You?"), and share a commonality: an unwillingness to surrender, which may finally be Thompson's greatest weapon in old age, along with his willingness to try and fail. Appropriately enough, "Trying" is a case in point: a slinky bass and terrific chords set a scene that falls apart in a weak chorus that just incessantly repeats the title. Just as often, a well-turned hook or vocal line redeems something relatively poor like the riff-driven "Tears." On top of the pure enjoyment on offer here, he does manage to conjure up a few new classics. Most engagingly weird is the Shoot Out the Lights-like "You Can't Reach Me," which comes on like John Cale covering .38 Special; and the loveliest Thompson tune in more than a decade, the intricately picked "No Matter," which calls up the hard-won optimism of his Fairport years and even comes with real inspiration on tap: "I'm living on fantasy, real life's too good for me / let me disappear from here, and be no one."

Low: Double Negative (Sub Pop) [r]
Prolific midwestern dream pop trio returns with their twelfth album, sixth on Sub Pop, which has garnered their best, highest-profile reviews of this decade so far. Their sound remains a distinctive blend of sophisticated harmonies and a blown-out, maxed-out feeling akin to shoegaze; with one foot in metallic, garish doom and the other in the ecstatic ether, it's a bit like viewing a gorgeous skyline from a drab office building, but as mood music or ambiance it's truly sublime, especially the highlights that find a groove and double down on it: "Always Up" and "Disarray," the latter of which reminds me a little of the Beach Boys' "Til I Die."

Paul Weller: True Meanings (Warner Bros.)
Weller has been prolific in recent years, this being his sixth LP in just over a decade. Having never warmed at all to the smug and dim complacency of his solo records, I'm quite surprised by the eclecticism on display here, though it's rather baldly something he achieves by sheer costuming. The opener "The Soul Searchers" fuses Leslie Feist with Steely Dan and manages to grow quite haunting, and "Mayfly" is classic needy Weller despite its calm and bluesy vibe. But after that, it's a game of Guess the Veteran Singer-Songwriter Being Imitated -- in order, by my count: Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, probably Paul Weller somewhere or other, and there's a pretty decent song called "Bowie." The production is lazy and slick in typical classic-rocker fashion, sappy Hollywood strings making an unwelcome entrance eventually, but he really does sing on this record, exercising a throaty conviction almost unrecognizable from his punk years -- and if anything, selling the argument from numerous '70s critics that he was never much of a punk in the first place. The same winning melancholy you hear on later records by the lampooned idols permeates here, especially on "Moving On" and "Wild Horses," and the sobering thought you have is that despite the gulf between their ages, defining eras and experiences, these really are all peers now, aren't they?

noname: Room 25 (s/r) [hr]
Highly distinctive Chicago rapper made waves back in 2016 with her mixtape Telefone; her debut album calls back to early Tribe and Digable Planets in its attentiveness toward jazz and mid-1990s soul music, her attack of evocative words mixed low against an inviting pillow of quiet, groove-based R&B and a touch of '70s Beautiful Music. The unbroken conversational feeling of her rapping is like the hip hop equivalent to Ruth Radelet's undaunted, emotional but never showy vocals for Chromatics; in both cases, it feels like something private we're only reluctantly given permission to hear. The narrative is upheaval, and it's also highly personal, humorous and extremely specific to her own experiences, which are strange, sexy, goofy, intense, and I hope the gawking press attention doesn't make her regret opening up so much. "I know you never loved me but I fucked you anyway" is tossed off like a gag but it's weighted down with pain, curiosity, maybe regret and maybe not, and ends up coming off as devastating. "My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism" is witty, surreal, but it's also a political statement, and in these times an incendiary one. The layers of intention and meaning come fast and hard everywhere, always without so much as blinking -- "the secret is I'm actually broken," she announces, before placing her own pain in musical context: "Somebody hit D'Angelo, I think I need him on this one." The intensity of an internal conflict born of actual life lived, it isn't self-indulgent, it sounds hard as fuck to put down and deliver, especially with such unerring eloquence and distance, and all while serving up tracks as delicious as "Window" and "Montego Bay" and (in terms of the verses) the MVP "Part of Me." The moment when you feel the world changing under you, though, on "Ace," is when Noname, Smino and Saba work together to push back on mainstream rap (the charting superstars "sound like they wearin' adult diapers"), ticket prices, Republicans, Morgan Freeman, and, well, just let her tell it: "Globalization's scary and fuckin' is fantastic." To quote a much less interesting and inspired artist, I guess this is growing up.

Christine and the Queens: Chris (Universal)
Garish French pop celebrated for no-nonsense, outre identity. Quite apart from such commendable elements, it sounds pretty watered-down to me. The French-language version is a lot more fun than the English, but either way the songs are forgettable.

Advance Base: Animal Companionship (Run for Cover) [r]
The new moniker isn't really new anymore; CFTPA hasn't recorded in nearly ten years now. And Owen Ashworth has settled into a perfectly reliable, oppressively sad groove with each successive record more meticulously depressive and monochromatic than the last. This is a concept album about pets, but really it's about -- as usual -- relationships, typically broken ones. The songs that tower in their fashion, like "True Love Death Dream," are terribly slow; the melancholia is often unbearable, or cathartic if you need it to be, on the likes of "Dolores & Kimberly," "Christmas in Nightmare City" and the slightly countrified "Rabbits." It all sounds like falling snow, with the same hungover dark-night hopelessness as an old Peanuts special, and the same boundless faith in animals, persuasive enough to have him actually barking. Ashworth's arrangements remain deeply evocative, more so than his lyrics that often seem to dip into a depressive chiding that resists poetry ("you could have a real house if you just left New York"), and his continued pulling of old keyboards out of the woodwork remains an engaging subplot. Is that a Rhodes on "Your Dog" and "Bark Bar" or just a fine simulation? Out of nowhere in the middle of all this, he covers the Magnetic Fields' swimmingly blissful "You and Me and the Moon." It comes off well but is such an immaculately composed song that it does point up the limitations of the rest of this material, though no matter, it's still a fine cycle of tunes even if it leads you down a bit of a spiral.

Lyla Foy: Bigger Brighter (s/r)
Foy's debut from 2014 was one of the most underrated albums of recent years; it was so completely ignored that she seems to have been dropped from the Sub Pop roster and is only now following up. What made her work so much stronger than many of the minimalist and far less interesting singer-songwriters who've found success in the years since Mirrors the Sky was the thrilling craftiness of her writing, songs overflowing with hooks and a powerful pop sensibility despite their hung-back, unadorned recording style and her straightforward but evocative vocals, which made up for any shortage of lyrical ideas. On the second record she's still fixated on pop, with traces of R&B appearing on the piano and beat-driven "Bring Flowers," soft rock on "Ice Bar," but the songs are much weaker, preoccupied with circular melodies and structures that fail to offer sufficient variance from track to track. The title cut, lush and sensual and strangely rushed-sounding, is quintessential; and nothing here is bad, but there's usually some caveat: the rather poor Jonathan Donahue guest vocal on the otherwise propulsive "Far Behind You," or the close similarity of "Try My Heart" to earlier material. Several songs sound like clones of latter-day Feist, perhaps because Foy's voice is similar, but it's worth noting that this is not something I ever noticed when listening to Mirrors. "Ice Bar" is the big winner, though; still less intimate than her best songs to date, but boasting a fine refrain and the moody chill of a midnight winter drive.

ALSO RECOMMENDED
- Daniel Bachman: The Morning Star (Three Lobed Recordings) [stark guitar sound combined with intrusive, guttural, feisty atmospheres; "Sycamore City"]
- Israel Nash: Lifted (Desert Folklore) [oft-lovely Neil Young-style pop-folk suffused with romantic haze; "Looking Glass"/"Rolling On"/"Sweet Springs"]
- Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic) [millennial pop star seeks out an even balance between the commercial weird and the commercial pleasant dominated by Pharrell Williams' writing and production, never wears out her welcome but the most outrageous cut is the only outright victory -- super-disappointing Missy Elliott verse, too; "The Light Is Coming"]
- Odetta Hartman: Old Rockhounds Never Die (Memphis Industries) [you're extremely unlikely to hear a more likable eccentric in Twenty Eighteen; this is a full-voiced folkie and passionate weirdo, and her second record -- rife with banjos and beats -- is both personable and delightfully disorganized, evoking Ray Davies and Gillian Welch and, hell, Captain Beefheart; "You You"/"Misery"/"The Ocean"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES
- Ross from Friends: Family Portrait (Brainfeeder) [and to think my ambient side project under the pseudonym "Schneider from One Day at a Time" never took off]
- Gabe Gurnsey: Physical (PIAS) [tripping in a brightly lit room; "New Kind"/"You Can"/"Heavy Rubber"]
- Felicita: hej! (PC Music)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* Adult.: This Behavior
* Maribou State: Kingdoms in Colour
* Menace Beach: Black Rainbow Sound
Tunng: Songs You Make at Night
Interpol: Marauder
Sauna Youth: Deaths
Oliver Coates: Shelly's on Zenn-La
Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano III
Ital Tek: Bodied
Eric Bachmann: No Recover
Paul McCartney: Egypt Station
Kandace Springs: Indigo
Haiku Salut: There Is No Elsewhere
Sarah Davachi: Gave in Rest
Lonnie Holley: MITH
Denzel Curry: TA13OO
The Field: Infinite Moment

REJECTS
Tony Molina: Kill the Lights
Kathryn Joseph: From When I Wake the Want Is [NYIM]
Gaika: Basic Volume
Our Girl: Stranger Today [NYIM]
Alexander Tucker: Don't Look Away
Nothing: Dance on the Blacktop [NYIM]
The Devil Makes Three: Chains Are Broken
BC Camplight: Deportation Blues
The Lemon Twigs: Go to School
Mark Lanegan: With Animals [NYIM]
Joey Dosik: Inside Voice [*whispers* fuck. off.]
Muncie Girls: Fixed Ideals [NYIM]
Thou: Magus
KEN mode: Loved
The Pineapple Thief: Dissolution
Wild Nothing: Indigo
St. Paul & the Broken Bones: Young Sick Camella [NYIM]
Clutch: Book of Bad Decisions
Mothers: Render Another Ugly Method
Emma Ruth Rundle: On Dark Horses [NYIM]
Guerilla Toss: Twisted Crystal
Wayne Shorter: Emanon [NYIM]
The Dirty Nil: Master Volume
Alejandro Escovedo: The Crossing
Dilly Dally: Heaven [NYIM]
Marc Ribot: Songs of Resistance [NYIM]
Joyce Manor: Million Dollars to Kill Me
Gazelle Twin: Pastoral
Villagers: The Art of Pretending to Swim
Suede: The Blue Hour

ORPHAN TUNES
Our Girl "I Wish It Was Sunday" [Stranger Today]

OLD RECORDS RATED/NOT REVIEWED THIS MONTH
Sun Ra: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One (Fontana 1965) [hr]
Sun Ra: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume Two (ESP-Disk 1965/1966) [hr]
Nina Simone: I Put a Spell on You (Philips 1965) [r]
Nina Simone: Pastel Blues (Philips 1965) [hr]

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