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}

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