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.