Friday, June 21, 2019

The Beatles: On Air - Live at the BBC Vol. 2 (1963-66)


(Apple 2013)

RECOMMENDED

After nearly twenty years, Apple made the decision at last to return to the fruitful well of the Beatles' BBC performances, which had in 1994 provided the basis for the splendid and enormously popular release Live at the BBC. As those who collected bootlegs were aware, the Beatles' BBC archive contained another eight or nine discs' worth of material, if not necessarily in sterling sound quality, so there was much clamoring for a follow-up release or even an official complete collection to fully supersede the bootlegs. What we got was another two-hour "best-of" collection of the band's work at the Beeb, and an extremely fun and listenable one, but one that doesn't quite fill all the gaps it could have and still leaves a number of stones inexplicably unturned.

On this second collection, the tracks alternate much more consistently between actual performances and amusing bits of banter among the band and with their usual host Brian Matthew; there aren't many lengthy chunks of uninterrupted music here, which doesn't really violate the purpose of the compilation but does make it a less cohesive listening experience, especially on repeat visits. The switch to a mostly chronological format is welcome, however, with the entirety of the first disc recorded in 1963, the second venturing into the following year, though nothing from after 1964 is presented apart from a few long "bonus interviews" with the individual group members that feature them in a much more relaxed, candid state than is usual for them in this period; among other things, you get the chance to hear evidence of John Lennon's depressing state of mind as of late 1965, when he is clearly floundering for some sort of meaning and having trouble finding it in his new bougie lifestyle. The rest of the dialogue -- plus a cute "Happy Birthday" rendition dedicated to the Saturday Club program -- is worth hearing once or twice, though most of the funnier bits are on the previous volume; the best moments this time come from George and Ringo, the latter accusing John of being "college pudding" and both of them subtly jabbing their bandmates about their lack of involvement in songwriting.

Because Live at the BBC gathered most of the legendary thirty-odd songs that the Beatles performed on broadcasts and never recorded at EMI, there aren't many absolutely "new" songs for us to hear this time out. The exceptions are a rather insipid version of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" inspired by Tony Orlando's 1962 pop version of the song; and a solid John-led take on Chuck Berry's "I'm Talking About You," the song that directly inspired "I Saw Her Standing There." The only remaining BBC-only Beatles songs in the bootleg archives, not counting additional versions of those that have been issued, are the very early ones with Pete Best still on drums: "Dream Baby" and "A Picture of You." One doubts the likelihood of a future official home for these at this point.

That's far from the only act of housecleaning here; some fans may object to the violation of formerly exclusive deep-cut material and/or the duplication of a generally available track, but in my opinion, On Air quite helpfully gathers up two of the extra BBC cuts from the 1994 Baby It's You EP as well as the stray "Lend Me Your Comb" included on Anthology 1 and brings them here where they belong, though it's somewhat annoying that the EP version of "Devil in Her Heart" is replaced here by a different (better) one, making the old EP still essential. (Some fans have theorized that the slightly flubbed earlier take on "Heart" that made the EP was put there by mistake to begin with, since the On Air version from two months later is clearly stronger.) One of those rescued EP cuts is a revelation and the best track on this set, a stunning "I'll Follow the Sun" that runs circles around the more refined master, more clearly emphasizing John's harmony; it's remarkable that this, one of the oldest Beatles compositions of all, retains enough vitality for them that they're still finding new nuances in it as late as 1964.

The cream of On Air is in the canonical Beatles songs (including covers they recorded at EMI, even if it was some time later) that we didn't hear on Live at the BBC; these are consistently a treat, running out of the gate with a lovely "Words of Love" and through enjoyably unpolished versions of much of the first album ("Do You Want to Know a Secret," "Anna," "Please Please Me," "Misery," "Chains," "Ask Me Why," "P.S. I Love You" and a most welcome "There's a Place"). Perhaps excluding "P.S. I Love You," whose lack of formalism here is a big help, none of these will eclipse the studio versions for anyone, but they really attack all of them and it's a joy to hear them in this different, comparatively obscure context after decades of committing the originals to memory. Signature covers "Please Mr. Postman," "Twist and Shout" and "Money" are passionately tackled here, that last one in particular a good showcase of how excellent they were even stripping down a song that they famously rendered apocalyptic at EMI. Since Live at the BBC tended to roll past most of the early hits, it's a great bit of intrigue to hear how they work in a different environment without either George Martin or the screaming audiences that typically accompany live takes; both sides of their two most enduring early singles are here, and while "She Loves You" can't quite overwhelm the stuffiness of its surroundings, "I'll Get You" is lovely here, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" impressively confident, "This Boy" raw and beautiful (as much self-assurance as he lacked about his voice, you can't deny the wow factor of Lennon singing his way through that bridge). Moving into the era of A Hard Day's Night we get a few more welcome rearrangements, though two of them were stage regulars: "If I Fell," "And I Love Her" (robust but delicate here) and "You Can't Do That," which suffers some but not fatally.

Lastly, Apple also incorporates alternative performances of some of the songs introduced to the Beatles' official repertoire with the first BBC album,: "Lucille" (here with weird guitar solo), "The Hippy Hippy Shake," "Sure to Fall" (this version slightly better than the Vol. 1 rendition), "Glad All Over" and "Memphis" will seem interchangeable with their counterparts on the '94 record to most fans. The surprisingly polished and intriguing "I Got a Woman," a very different performance from the Lennon-centric one that opened Live at the BBC, is another matter, and along with "This Boy" it's probably the most interesting track uncovered for On Air, with an arrangement that seems carefully worked-over and almost country & western, as if the song could have been considered for Beatles for Sale later in the year. Oh, and Ringo is safely in the lead vocal chair for "Honey Don't" here, but the performance is almost identical to the For Sale rendition. The collection closes oddly with the same performance of "I Feel Fine" from Live at the BBC but with a different lead vocal (John overdubbed the one on the previous set); rumor suggests this was a last-minute substitution for a silly performance of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," cut because of the abuse allegations against Rolf Harris in the lead-up to the release.

On Air was a very welcome and happy release for fans like me who treasure the early Beatles; its chief flaws are mostly academic, and taking the entire breadth of the two Apple BBC releases together, you end up with a wonderful representation of the Beatles as a tight, joyously devoted live band, a picture that isn't really available anywhere else. Several songs here have no actual live recordings anywhere in the archives, and even when they do, there's no better way to hear the Beatles interpret their own work in this era, usually raw and without overdubs, and almost always without the intrusion of young loud audience members bleeding their way into the microphones. I also really like the bits and pieces of sweeping history here: the long interviews that capture the Beatles as of the waning days of the Mania period, and the amusing bits of their conversation with Matthew during the first American trip plus the hype about their forthcoming Royal Variety performance a few months before that. But having said all this, I can't unreservedly recommend this collection to casual fans the way I can with Live at the BBC, which was so rich with unique songs and at times was nearly as good in terms of selection and performances as a canonical EMI Beatles album. (I probably like it more than Help! these days, to be totally honest.) The quality of the performances is somewhat lesser overall -- which makes sense, given that the best BBC material was deliberately used on the original collection -- and there's too much incidental filler for it to avoid status as a "fans only" selection.

If the intention, then, was to summarize the Beatles' recorded legacy at the BBC rather than to provide a definitive and complete collection of it, On Air still disappoints, and not just for the very minor issue of the "Devil in Her Heart" fiasco or the exclusion of the historically vital 1962 performances with Pete Best still in tow; it comes extremely close to collecting every canonical Beatles song the band performed at the BBC with Ringo, but irritatingly stops just short, failing to include exactly four that all exist in strong performances, in all but one case with reasonably good sound quality: "I Call Your Name," "I Should Have Known Better," "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You" (all 1964) and "The Night Before" (1965, though this tape is rather poor). Were these held over for a potential third volume? Under that theory, Apple would be getting so close to a complete BBC set -- over halfway -- that the haphazard release methodology would just seem silly. To me, the ideal would have been the two-disc "cream of the crop" set issued in 1994 with maybe a few On Air cuts (certainly "I'll Follow the Sun" and "I'm Talking About You") gathered in lieu of some of the dialogue sequences, followed by a large-scale complete BBC sessions set. In this era of copyright extension sets, super deluxe editions and Bob Dylan's exhaustive bootleg series, it seems increasingly clear to me that such an official release may one day be possible. (Later in 2013, even more early BBC takes made their way out on the iTunes release Bootleg Recordings 1963; see our review of that release for details.) In that case, I'm afraid it's likely to render On Air a bit of a silly curio; but for now, it's another way to hide in the wonderful moment when the Beatles really held the world in their collective palms.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

He's beautiful and I'm annoyed: May 2019 music diary

Based on what I can verify through rudimentary research... median age of Charly Bliss: 25. Median age of Big Thief: 29. Median age of the National: 43. Median age of Ezra Koenig: 35.

The Mountain Goats: In League with Dragons (Merge) [r]
Unless I'm too unschooled on tabletop RPGs to know what I'm talking about, which is quite likely, John Darnielle seems to have given up on making this a concept album about Dungeons & Dragons past the cover and title, with the songs as varied and rich in subject matter as on the relatively concept-free Heretic Pride -- people operating past their prime are a recurring motif, but then, aren't they always. (I thought All Eternals Deck, which this record's title cut would have been at home on, was also an album with no overarching theme and embarrassingly said so in print, but now I believe it's overwhelmingly fixated on death.) They're also slicker and more full-sounding than ever thanks to producer Owen Pallett, who occasionally takes things a little too far; "Sicilian Crest" carries its canned fake triumph all the way to a bad adult contemporary station, while a few cuts, especially piano power ballad "Possum by Night" (which is about exactly that) and the Ozzy Osbourne tribute "Passaic 1975," fall into an uncomfortable blandness that lamentably has become somewhat routine on the Goats' Merge albums. However, for the most part, these are fine distinctions and this is Darnielle being Darnielle -- and, increasingly, Jon Wurster being Jon Wurster ("Done Bleeding" and "Younger" both center him gloriously) -- and the songs uncover themselves effortlessly with time. Darnielle somehow continues to evolve as a singer long after most rockers, especially indie rockers, give that up: the gaming chronicle "Younger" plays with a tone of simultaneous peace and insistence, as befitting someone who is doing something relaxing to them that they're nevertheless extremely competitive about, and the melodic "Clemency for the Wizard King" has him playing intriguingly with a hushed tone that has an entirely different emotional essence than the one he exhibited on Get Lonely; this is followed on with palpable, narratively telling detachment on the verbose, mournful "An Antidote for Strychnine"... but all of these are incremental and faint progressions on things the band has done before. The wildly engaging "Going Invisible 2" sounds actually new thanks to Pallett's spare treatment of what amounts to an assertion and rejection of creative identity in a thrillingly anthemic format, in which Darnielle finds a wavering but explosive strength in his voice we haven't heard in this capacity before.

Pallett's other main utility is emphasizing the full band's rock-steady, increasingly polished arrangements; "Younger" is so full of disparate elements -- piano hook, propulsive guitar, slick backing vocals, saxophone solo -- it becomes amusing how fans once thought "Autoclave" (2008) was as busy and studio-bound as the group was ever going to get. And while subtler, "Done Bleeding" isn't much more direct, with the producer making so much of its simple hook and pleasing buildup. Two jaunty songs, one whose title invokes Waylon Jennings, even bring in pedal steel; and "Doc Godden" boasts Spanish guitar and sounds as lovably out of place as "Shelved" did on Goths. The emphasis on the individual elements and interplay of an unerringly solid band ensures that the record is great fun to listen to even when its songs hang back a bit, though it's still kind of a relief when everything gets stripped away enough to return to the roots of a dark, rollicking, oddly catchy number about something exceptionally unpleasant: a Forensic Files-evocative crime scene functioning as the same sort of oblique simile as weapon-lugging trucks on the border between Greece and Albania, all with the inspirational chorus "Bring in the cadaver sniffing dog." Ladies and gentlemen: the Mountain Goats.

Aldous Harding: Designer (4AD) [r]
New Zealand native's third album will get short shrift in indie-folk world thanks to its release in close proximity with the similarly bare-sounding and pretty Big Thief album (below), but Harding's voice is a bit more upfront and assertive; "Fixture Picture" sets the tone with its faint catchiness and considerable dignity, while the title track brings things around to more versatile territory with its appealingly lush sound and unexpected horns. The guitar playing is frequently exquisite ("The Barrel," which also adds a pleasing low-toned male-female interplay on the vocal a la "Past the Mission") and the songwriting engages for the most part; there's a bit of a Sufjan Stevens melody on the piano-driven "Treasure." It eventually gets a bit repetitive, and her voice doesn't have the same appeal at the range she explores on songs like "Damn," which suffers from a lackluster piano centerpiece but does get redeemed by some lazy New Orleans horns. But it stays transfixing at least through the midpoint.

Kevin Morby: Oh My God (Dead Oceans) [c]
Morby's never been interesting and now that he's doing M. Ward nursery rhymes he's become ridiculous, rhyming "moat" with "boat" and channeling Everclear in a maudlin sound collage of children and women thanking God, and the record feels comically overlong despite coming in under fifty minutes. By track ten or so I'm in disbelief that he's still fucking going, and there's quite a bit left at that point! Respect for setting this to music, though.

The Tallest Man on Earth: I Love You. It's a Fever Dream. (Rivers/Birds)
I heard "Kids on the Run" (2010) a few days ago and suddenly realized, that extreme outlier from Kristian Matsson's second album set the tone for what's now his entire career: soupy balladry and war-torn vocals, and a mostly sidelined or absent guitar. There are enough good songs and performances on his fifth LP to make it an improvement on the Boss-like Dark Bird Is Home, but nearly every time there's a touch of the stark, unadorned mystery of his early work -- usually a little broad and obvious melodically (title track) but occasionally fine even in that department -- something adulterated and disruptive comes in: a damn orchestra, a power chord-flaunting rock band, even the revenge of the "Kids on the Run" piano. So it's all acceptable but anonymous, slowed down too much into placid old age -- he's six months older than me so I guess this is life now? -- and even when he's running through some basically classic folk ("There's a Girl"), the material is still thin and I feel like I'm, I dunno, listening to the radio in the garage. It's Saturday afternoon homeowner rock; "memories of being young," indeed. One exception to all this is "Waiting for My Ghost," on which the integration of harmonica actually sits peaceably with one of his better new songs. Even then, the biggest problem of low-tempo sluggishness never disappears except on "I'm a Stranger Now," which could have easily been a song from one of his first three albums and doesn't get around to fucking it up. I guess it's ominous in a way that I'm already in the position of telling an artist my age that he's past his prime except when he evokes the old stuff. Life goes on...

Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD) [hr]
The least New York-sounding New York band of our time, this folk troupe tapers down their crowd-pleasing impulses and ironically ends up crafting their most distinctive and accessible album yet, marked by the same general hushed intensity as before but accompanied by thrilling spaciousness and detail as well as a vocal sweetness that borders on harsh, confronting where the old records shrank. Adrianne Lenker carves out a presence with a truly eccentric voice that's difficult to grasp in the aural space at first until its language becomes clear and it starts to weave around you seductively, magically. Her and Buck Meek's intertwining guitars ring, chime and grind through a litany of stark riffs while producer Andrew Sario wants to establish a sense of place, and does so as adeptly as a Stax or Sun single, or the Beatles' Please Please Me or Great Lake Swimmers' debut: for all its intimacy, the sound can feel remarkably limitless, or it can be airless and claustrophobic ("Terminal Paradise"). Still, the record forges its identity through melodies that tease and deny (the watery, dreamlike title cut) and its repeated challenges to complacency; opener "Contact" settles into its own calm bleakness before breaking into a series of bloodcurdling screams and intrusively sharp guitars like the Police's "A Kind of Loving." (That's the only real sign of the "rock" half of folk-rock apart from the memorably freaky and circular "Jenni" and the slightly less successful, mood-breaking "Strange.") You can fall over yourself proclaiming vocal comparisons to Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush or Meg Baird but even on the most explicitly Mitchell-like "Orange," Lenker still comes off as an original, her emotional delivery both hauntingly delicate in its affect and unerringly tough in its directness; actually, I'm reminded a bit of Jeff Mangum on the scattered new songs he played on Neutral Milk Hotel's Aeroplane tour. She has that same instinct to strip songs down to their wounded, almost primitive essence ("From") but doesn't shy away from the unpredictable nooks and crannies of something like "Betsy." This enchanting craftiness peaks with the gorgeous and mysterious "Cattails," which almost feels like a lost Carter Family number; you can all but see the Great Lakes scene she takes pains to set in her lyric. The record ends a little abruptly; "Magic Dealer" seems anticlimactic and sputters out into silence, but almost everything before it is so striking and shockingly vivid it doesn't really matter.

Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride (Sony)
What's left of this once-zeitgeisty unit on the occasion of its major label debut, following the departure of musical backbone Rostam Batmanglij, throws the entire kitchen sink at a distant dartboard. It's an assaultive approach to reinvention, a double album (more like albummer, right guys?) that's not so much bloated as... overstimulating. The tone is confused, the attitude is weird, there's sunny-side-up pop but also strangely mournful country, and it may or may not essentially just be Ezra Koenig on the process of growing up, losing your band, getting married, having kids. He talks about shirking lyrical obscurity but the title alone invites almost endless questions about purpose and thematics: is the father of the bride Quincy Jones? Spencer Tracy? Ezra himself (in the James Whale sense)? With the sheer volume of material, there's a lot of difficulty getting a handle on how to even think about this music, aside from one common denominator: it all suffers from too much studio tweaking, on tunes that finally don't feel like much of an evolution or the work of much of a band. Rostam's aural busyness was baked into the songs. The random orch hits, awkward layering of noises, between-verse sounds of puttering around in the studio, and pointless augmentation of Jenny Lewis autotune, for a few examples, communicate a certain wrongheaded desperation to entertain; it makes the simpler songs, particularly the three country duets with Danielle Haim, suffer badly because they end up sounding so slight you grow suspicious of what their skeletal, plaintive lyrics are really getting at. There's a certain freedom Koenig understandably finds when he strips everything away like this, like Paul McCartney crooning away on "The Lovely Linda," but there's also an audible, slavish reverence to domesticated convention and infuriating cutesiness ("We Belong Together," bizarrely cowritten with Batmanglij, on which pots and pans are predestined to make a go of it but alas cannot coexist), like Paul... well, you know.

The thing is, whereas McCartney thumbed his nose at the outside world (ex-bandmates inclusive) upon finding his private bliss and then got lost in the trite, happier-than-thou trappings of trying to communicate it, Koenig's instincts serve him better, and his popcraft hasn't left him either. The ideal modern Vampire Weekend song may indeed be the Wings-like "Bambina," which runs under two minutes but is complicated and memorable; and speaking more generally, his lyrics remain good, grown up, scared and interesting. Even on the swooning opener "Hold You Now," there's something haunting about the story he's telling us: of romance spanning a lifetime but still hitting a wall, of the endless labyrinthine stories we tell of our own lives. And he continues to pile references to references on top of references to try and explain a worldview in progress, this time including references to Vampire Weekend itself which are at least less clumsy than Arcade Fire's invocation of Funeral on "Creature Comfort": he reprises the key line "I don't want to live like this, but I don't want to die" from "Fingerback," a moment that despite myself I almost never could resist belting out along with him, and I'm mildly annoyed that it gets recycled into a celebratory chorus all its own on "Harmony Hall," yet 27 million Spotify plays can't be wrong. Though its upturned guitar sound is sweet, "This Life" struggles with his tendency to make ordinary sentiments sound like they're hiding something, until they collapse under their own emptiness and -- especially -- Ariel Rechtshaid's fussy production, which places too much emphasis on every awkward moment. "How Long" has lots of hooks and goes for imitation Rostam. And those are the sanctioned iconic moments on this thing! Actual progression shows up here and there: the stronger, more unresolved melody on "Unbearably White" is welcome; and while "Sympathy" has the feel of an afterthought, its Latin-derived sound also breaks some of the monotony. "My Mistake" is shapeless but actually enigmatic and, when divorced from context, reveals itself as a standout, and even its closing saxophone break is well-placed. The two Steve Lacy guest shots, "Sunflower" (a rewrite of the Inspector Gadget theme song) and "Flower Moon," use jam bands as their basis and deserve some attention for being actively different and more unabashedly pop, though the former does blather on a bit in its scat-singing interlude. Most of the final quarter, alas, is depressingly forgettable, though they never did really know how to end albums; it's all so Normie even when it's decent, and the filler tracks on the first half -- the slackening "Rich Man" making very clear the band's inability to locate the strength and passion of something like "Taxi Cab" again -- wouldn't be so offensive if one got the sense that there was any credible reason for the band to overload the marketplace with so much stuff. There's something poignant about Koenig trying so hard to keep this beloved brand going, but the degree to which it really is now a (highly bougie) brand, and how they're finally upholding all the accusations leveled against them when they surfaced a dedcade ago, is mildly disturbing.

Charly Bliss: Young Enough (Barsuk) [hr]
This is a joyous occasion even if you were fully sold on them already thanks to the irreverent, addictive Guppy two years ago: it is punk rock growing up in all the right ways. Taking cues from various bands they loved in high school that could never dream of recording anything so delightful in their lives (Fountains of Wayne, Weezer, Panic! at the Disco), they add a lot of texture and moodiness to their raw, bashed-out sound while retaining their basic fast-and-loud dynamism. From the start with the instantly iconic "Blown to Bits," the stage is set by huge riffs, giant hooks, audibly increased confidence on the part of the entire band, who seem at last to be catching up with the unpredictable, well-controlled emotional arcs of singer-guitarist Eva Hendricks, who can't be denied as the spotlight hog of the century here, and I doubt the band would disagree with me that she merits every bit of the attention. To hear her impeccably expressed, universal angst laid against these lovable pop constructions is to feel something like young again, easily as much as Surfer Girl or "Hot Fun in the Summertime." (Jealous, too; all my generation got was, like, Len. And LFO.) As fiercely pleasurable as this music is -- going so far as to evoke the Cars on the smartly syncopated "Chatroom" -- it's also tough-minded and relentless, with compelling stories ("Camera"), elegant simplicity that never stoops to pandering or unintelligence (the circular "Hurt Me"), and unexpected grace notes that can be roaring, dramatic and brief like "Fighting the Dark," or sprawled-out and grown up and hurting like "Young Enough," all cases in which they remain utterly credible and inviting. In an alternate universe, "Hard to Believe" would've been the biggest rock radio hit of the year. In any universe including ours, this wonderful album reasserts that rock & roll will always be a young person's game, and thank heavens for that.

Ciara: Beauty Marks (s/r)
Regular readers know I sincerely love Ciara and tend to enjoy even her mediocre music so it's never great fun to slam it, and this latest record, liberated from WMG, actually contains a genuine hit ("Level Up"), though one that's already a year old. It does sound slicker than she has in a while, and there are a few buoyant pop songs ("Thinkin' Bout You" and the bubbly "Freak Me") and odd evocations of "Tom's Diner" and Depeche Mode's "Dangerous"... but there's also lots of somewhat generic club empowerment, and a Macklemore guest verse (ugggggh) so it's kind of a wash. The material is surprisingly stale given how convicted she was about moving out, but I maintain she's still an infallibly engaging vocalist and I wouldn't kick "Trust Myself" out of bed, bath or motor vehicle.

Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar) [r]
Woods has grown a lot since HEAVN, which was a free Soundcloud release and sounded like it. By contrast, this largely sounds like something that would have played on a very expensive hi-fi fifty or sixty years ago. It's a name game that comes out swinging, stylish and sensitive on "Betty" and "Zora" and drowns out the Kamasi Washington lite-FM style on the credibly hot "Giovanni," then gradually leans into the less beautiful but no less engaging forms of hi-NRG, trip hop ("Octavia")... and eventually more generic dance music, but nothing we hear is ever less than solid. It's Woods' voice that threads through it, and occupies a room you don't particularly want to leave, with subtle Baduizms here and there on "Sonia" and synth textures that add a touch of menace to an often airtight endeavor. The moments of profanity and cutting loose end up feeling like a relief -- so I look forward to more of that in the future.

The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD) [r]
Like Sleep Well Beast, this musically is the pretty-and-bleak-as-ever National sound with bonus electronics and even (on the otherwise draggy "Hey Rosey") a bit of trip hop. Unfortunately, its litany of guest vocals by women, despite lending an interesting relief to the band's normally unbroken sensitive maleness, gives it the feel of being a side project rather than a studio album -- something that might be mitigated if it wasn't so long and overbearing that its occasional loveliness gets drowned out. The best song, "Where Is Her Head," sounds like Arcade Fire; the worst one, "The Pull of You," is cluttered with chitchat -- who are they, Vampire Weekend? -- and the rest are generally fine. "Not in Kansas" lovingly references R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant in a way that feels reverent and genuine, but the Mike Mills serving as producer is not that band's bassist but the writer-director of 20th Century Women, a film everyone reading this should see; as a knob-spinner, though, he's a little too enchanted with John Williams-like choirs for my taste. The lyrics are fine, mostly. The baseline sound remains largely irresistible (see "Oblivions") but with an hour-plus of material it all sounds the same after a while despite the variances in pace and tempo, and you feel like this isn't a band exploring their limits so much as finding them.

Tyler, the Creator: IGOR (Columbia) [hr]
So I won't eat up your evening speculating on whether this is more "mature" or accomplished than Flower Boy, nor will I try and parse out how it sits with an overall career I used to disdainfully ignore, but let's take one look in the mirror and say this: you're an idiot at this point if you don't kneel at the altar of Tyler as a producer if nothing else. "I Think" makes every other futile gesture toward oldschool Kanye soul soundscapes a joke, and it's not Solange that sells that, it's the artist's own totally unassuming matter-of-fact ingenuity, in which he repeatedly -- not just here but across the whole album -- mixes himself into vibrant sonic wallpaper in a way that's both more pointed and more profound that Matt Berninger turning away from his microphone. He sings sometimes, he rambles repetitively other times; he writes pop but not like on the last record. The songs double back on themselves and deny full-on release like all the best jazz and alternative recordings. I don't claim to be an expert on anyone's psyche and won't try to box in what's mostly just a a pleasurable collection of little earthquakes with overbearing hooks, deliberately strained California vibes and smartly judged samples ("Gone, Gone"). At the same time, though, this is about something, and it permeates much more than his lyrics which tend toward sidestepping it anyway. Why the old-fashioned horror movie tropes on the title and cover? Because more than some grunting Screaming Lord Sutch of hip hop, he's a self-lacerating George Romero character whose artistry comes at the price of exposing his own humility and doubt, and it's only by falling back on generosity and examining his own issues and fears, and treating his own sense of self with respect and a distinct lack of bombast, that he's come gradually to be himself: the mild self-criticism and lost voice is baked into who he is right now. And I don't know, maybe it's because I feel like I get that on a personal level, but his snarling, unassuming delivery has become nuanced and deeply engaging and that makes this a head-spinning miniature chronicle of the day to day that it absolutely didn't have to be. But also, just listen to the fucking sounds, to the alarmingly otherworldly and just as alarmingly sensitive "Thank You," or to the delirious irony and idiosyncrasy of "Are We Still Friends?" and you'll find enough that's personal, true and vital to fill plenty of deep thoughts and dark nights.

Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain (s/r)
Northampton rapper with an uneasy, messy debut album, basically par for the course in terms of personal statements but boasts at least one cut, "Doorman," with serious punk momentum, a few that constitute obvious noble failures, and lots of padded out material... especially on the streaming sites where it adds six interminable bonus cuts I didn't know weren't part of the album till I checked Wikipedia; after Tyler's 39 minutes it was making me extremely antsy, and I normally wouldn't mention this but I have to get this risible witticism out of my system: "This one's for the ladies / cause they have our babies / and they drive us crazy." The most representative song on the proper LP is "Missing," which is draggy and aggressive and muddy in a particularly English way while feeling a bit too slick to be full-on grime, more like an early 2000s rap rock band's benignly ominous approximation of same. "Peace of Mind" boasts an iPhone alarm and Sid Vicious, but it's on "Toaster" that Tyron Frampton is on to something, contrasting unhinged powerhouse delivery with a calm lush beat; not a new idea, but laid against his voice when it's that off the rails, it keenly suggests the influence of Kendrick Lamar's various laid-on personas while also breaking the mold that sets across the rest of the album, which as on so many modern albums makes a really palpable difference.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Jayda G: Significant Changes (Ninja Tune) [the whales' average age was nineteen; "Orca's Reprise"/"Leave Room 2 Breathe"/"Renewal"]
Ex Hex: it's real (Merge) [lost slasher movie soundtrack; "Another Dimension"/"Good Times"]
Quelle Chris: Guns (Mello Music) ["step out daddy long legs, Cab Calloway stride / make a rapper freeze up like I was Zack in Bayside"; "Obamacare"/"You, Me & Nobody Else"/"Straight Shot"]
Elva: Winter Sun (Tapete) [some of her songs still sound like back-of-the-notebook music with front-of-the-notebook words, but one big score on Allo Darlin' here is that the songs the dude sings are actually good too; "Athens"/"Tailwind"]
Orville Peck: Pony (Sub Pop) [goth swagger; "Roses Are Falling"]
Avey Tare: Cows on Hourglass Pond (Domino) [columnated cows domino]
Lee Fields & the Expressions: It Rains Love (Big Crown) ["Will I Get Off Easy"]
Priests: The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon) [lumbering post-punk glory; "The Seduction of Kansas"/"Texas Instruments"]
Anderson. Paak: Ventura (Aftermath) [adorable; "Make It Better"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan: New Rain Duets (Three Lobed) [nice way to calm down]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy
* The Cranberries: In the End
* L7: Scatter the Rats
* Rosie Lowe: Yu
* Laurence Pike: Holy Spring
Mdou Moctar: Ilana (The Creator)
Kelsey Lu: Blood
SOAK: Grim Town
P!nk: Hurts 2B Human
Kedr Livanskiy: Your Need
Haelos: Any Random Kindness
Tim Hecker: Anoyo
Carlton Jumel Smith: 1634 Lexington Avenue
Olden Yolk: Living Theatre
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
Megan Thee Stallion: Fever
Injury Reserve

REJECTS:
W.H. Lung: Incidental Music
BTS: Map of the Soul - Persona
Rozi Plain: What a Boost
The Budos Band: V
Bibio: Ribbons
Shovel & Rope: By Blood
Stealing Sheep: Big Wows [NYIM]
Local Natives: Violet Street
Craig Finn: I Need a New War [NYIM]
Tacocat: This Mess Is a Place
Drahla: Useless Coordinates [NYIM]
Bad Religion: Age of Unreason
Rhiannon Giddens: There Is No Other
Paula Temple: Edge of Everything
Caroline Spence: Mint Condition [NYIM]
The Felice Brothers: Undress
A.A. Bondy: Enderness [NYIM]
Alex Lahey: The Best of Luck Club [NYIM]
Rahsaan Patterson: Heroes & Gods [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES:
Stealing Sheep "Girl" [Big Wows]

ARCHIVAL GRADE CHANGES:
Love Is All: Two Thousand and Ten Injuries (Polyvinyl 2010) [hr] -> [A+]

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Beatles capsules: post-1987 compilations & miscellany

I make the "1987" distinction because that's when the catalog was standardized worldwide to reflect the British discography, and when Apple pretty much became the sole proprietor in the Beatle business; everything below was band-sanctioned to whatever extent the band is still a band. Right now there's not much here, with most later comps being significant enough for full reviews or qualifying more accurately for our page of deliberately divergent remixes, but this page will stand for inevitable future collections and marginalia. To put it more bluntly, here's the stuff that I didn't have anywhere else to put.

***

The Beatles: 1 (Apple 1962-70/2000) [r]
Almost twenty years later it seems so quaint: a greatest-hits collection heavily advertised on TV briefly became a pop culture phenomenon, selling 31 million CDs and revising the Beatles' original spirit as a youth culture touchstone (rather than as mere artists) for what will probably remain the last time, though they did manage to get back in our faces a few years ago when the catalog went streaming. It started a trend, too -- also probably the last time the Beatles will pull that off -- with Elvis, Beach Boys, Stones, even Wings following suit. As a fan, it was fun at the time to see the malleability of the Beatles' music confirmed, and it's especially comforting that George Harrison lived to see it happen. But at the center of this grandiose gesture, this is just familiar music in a fancy new dress -- an attractively minimalist package with decent liner notes, nice reproductions of the old Avedon photos and lots of Helvetica. As for the songs, obviously taken without any context they're almost uniformly phenomenal: "From Me to You," "All You Need Is Love," "Hello Goodbye," and "The Long and Winding Road" are the only bummers for me, and if you're a sane fan of pop music you won't have more than a handful either. However, two things give me pause: one is the impossibility of summing up the Beatles in a best-of. There's a reason the previous best attempt spanned four discs. (One earlier stab at summing things up more concisely, 20 Greatest Hits, felt facile and incomplete; if one just wants to define Beatlemania with the quickness, the old British EP The Beatles' Million Sellers gets it across more charmingly.) Virtually every Beatles album is essential for even a casual rock & roll listener, and so this can only serve as a convenient playlist for reliving their radio impact. Conversely, there is the fact that many of these songs weren't originally on albums, which brings me to my second point: defining the Beatles' legacy as a singles band while limiting the scope to the songs that topped the charts gives an impression that's often woefully incomplete. The most glaring examples are the absence of "Please Please Me" (which was a #1 in England, just not on the chart that later became canonical) and "Strawberry Fields Forever," without either of which any Beatles chronicle feels terribly lacking. Not to mention the oft-ignored fact that, since everything here apart from the first three tracks is in stereo, these aren't even the hit versions of these songs. If you think that's irrelevant, check out our Mono Masters review.

Apple's criteria for this release meant that any song that "officially" made #1 in either the UK or the U.S. was to be included, neatly coinciding with the ideal running time of a single compact disc. But this also lets in songs that the Beatles never intended as singles but were marketed that way in America, namely "Eight Days a Week," "Yesterday" and "The Long and Winding Road"; admittedly, "Yesterday" probably belongs on any greatest-hits package since it was massively popular and remains likely the most-covered song of the rock era. (My favorite version is Tammy Wynette's; Ray Charles' is good too. I love the song but never thought the Beatles' version lived up to its promise.) It continues to annoy me that, after more than a half-century, no one's ever just put all of the Beatles' 26 official A-sides in one place, in mono, and released them together; the playlist I've made in this format is revelatory in terms of narrative, and doesn't distract with sidelines and gray-area selections like 1 does. You get part of that same remarkable story of a band's development, peak and decline on this disc, but the portions that are missing really hurt -- like watching your favorite film edited for time. Of course, I understand 1 was meant for new and casual fans and thus stereo mixes and only the truly infallible cuts makes some marketing sense, but how much has the spirit of the '60s totally dried up when marketing is our primary concern here? Anyway, streaming renders a lot of this moot, but if you're still in the physical music market, skip this and just get the albums and Past Masters; this isn't exactly a case in which people crow about the album cuts being lackluster compared with the hits.

The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows (Apple 1964-70/2012) [c]
The Beatles themselves rebuked EMI's procession of "themed" compilations in the late '70s and early '80s, those with names like Rock 'n' Roll Music, Love Songs, Reel Music and Ballads; understandably, they considered it all rather cheap. But a number of decades later, in celebration of the band's new presence on the Apple iTunes store (their long dispute with the computer company over the Apple trademark finally settled), they essentially approved the same idea themselves with this fourteen-track collection of some of their "harder rocking" songs. Existing only as an iTunes playlist and -- briefly -- a promotionally pressed vinyl LP, it's a totally useless creation meant apparently to keep the Beatles' name lively and valid to "new" fans and to suggest a legacy as edgy rockers that isn't accurate or necessary. Fans needn't bother with it, they have all of it except possibly the versions of "I've Got a Feeling" (from Let It Be... Naked) and "The End" (from Anthology 3); in both cases you're better off just springing for those full releases. So why does this exist? Quotes from Dave Grohl, members of several other mainstream bands, and a couple of token indie rockers accompanying the release are apparently intended to serve the same purpose as the testimonials from the likes of Fred Durst at the time of Let It Be... Naked, but does anyone who'd actually buy this feel impressed by such people? Grohl, after all, is himself at this point a "classic rocker," and one doubts that the Beatles are in any particular need to kowtow to "rockers" -- kind of a niche culture now anyway, right? -- to attract a wider crowd. It is just a silly iTunes thing, after all, but just glancing at it ("file under ROCK," the cover proclaims) you can see it was the result of far too many closed-door meetings about demographics and such. It just seems like a weird gesture from a band whose quality control tends to be so strict, but shortly after this, the reins would be loosened in a positive manner.

The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Apple 1964-65/2016) [r]
At last, the Beatles' lone truly official live album came back into print in conjunction with the Ron Howard documentary about their touring years in 2016; Giles Martin remixed Capitol's three-track recordings to present the music and particularly the vocals with greater clarity. As a result, everyone from CD-buying grannies to neo-nostalgic Spotify teens can hear the shrill sounds of Beatlemania preserved in perpetuity, with the band brilliantly attacking "Things We Said Today," "She's a Woman" and others with relentless speed despite every kind of towering obstacle they confront. Rock & roll and forever-young sexuality live, baby. Apart from the horrible cover art, this supersedes the old LP release quite handily (I do not know whether George Martin's charming liner notes -- in which he recalls his daughter asking him if the Beatles are as good as the Bay City Rollers -- are preserved in the new physical issues) but it still feels a little like a missed opportunity. Rather than comprehensively releasing these three professionally recorded gigs, Giles Martin somewhat obsessively sticks to his dad's volleying back and forth between '64 and '65; I'm all for historical accuracy, but to a live album released with the usual caveats of LP length in 1977? Not so much. Instead he fills out the time with four bonus tracks, two from each year, collecting one errant track from the 1996 "Real Love" single ("Baby's in Black") while cutting out part of John's hilariously snippy intro (alleging that the song is "a waltz, for those of you over ten") for some reason; Lennon's above-it-all ranting is part of the Beatles live experience, goddammit. The others -- "You Can't Do That," fine; "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," both a bit weak -- seem randomly selected, since we know the shows held other unusual gems like "If I Fell." Martin's justification is probably that the disc was meant, like the original LP, for a general audience of non-obsessives, but I can't see that putting at least two complete shows here would've really turned anyone off. It's not like they were lengthy. Repetitive, yeah, maybe, but imagine how the Beatles felt!

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Beatles: Mono Masters (1962-70)


(Apple 2009)

!!! A+ COMPILATION !!!

Mono Masters was at first issued exclusively as part of the boxed set The Beatles in Mono; a sister of sorts to the familiar catalog item Past Masters, it gathers every official "canon" mono mix of Beatles music that EMI originally issued in Great Britain in the 1960s that was not part of an LP release. This means it contains 11 of the band's A-sides, 11 b-sides, the contents of the Long Tall Sally EP, the two German-language tracks, and the oddity "Bad Boy." (Like the last two Beatles albums, their singles from "The Ballad of John and Yoko" onward were issued in stereo only apart from the archival b-side "You Know My Name," so they are absent here.) Like Past Masters, it also serves as a de facto greatest hits, if an obviously incomplete one since it doesn't cover the likes of "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!"; it's really the first opportunity ever given, apart from the old EMI boxed sets of singles and EPs, to hear the Beatles' progression in sequence with the original mixes that made these songs popular in the first place, which are often much more different than is now recalled.

In 1988, Past Masters brought once-elusive stereo mixes like those for "This Boy" and "The Inner Light" into general release at long last, sparing hardcore Beatles fans the trouble of tracking down promotional Heineken cassettes and obscure foreign LPs. Mono Masters goes one better; it marks the first official release, film and video aside, of the mono mixes created for three of the four new songs in the Yellow Submarine film ("Only a Nothern Song" is mono-only and is included as such on modern issues of the YS album, though until 2009 it was usually presented in rechannelled stereo) and the charity compilation version of "Across the Universe" -- these had been meant, at one time, for an EP that was fully mastered and ready to go before getting scrapped. Just over forty years later, it's finally here. In addition, of course, this collection -- with its later vinyl release taken into account -- simplifies the process of gathering all of the Beatles' catalog in mono considerably; don't forget that much of this music had been hard to find officially in mono for decades by this point, the upshot being that this album -- like the entire mono boxed set -- really marked a new listening experience for at least a full generation of longtime fans.

All the praise heaped on Past Masters as a listening experience applies here too. There are few better, more concise ways to hear the Beatles' story told than through their singles and supplemental material, far richer than you might anticipate for a band so universally celebrated for defining the album format. The first portion of disc one repeats a few mixes that are also included on the revised Past Masters because no stereo versions exist -- "Love Me Do," "She Loves You" and "I'll Get You" (the original Past Masters CD also utilized mono versions of "From Me to You" and "Thank You Girl") -- but "From Me to You" is the first marker of how different the experience can potentially be; it's obviously complete in a way the stereo mix (not released until 1965) is not, including harmonica overdubs that were excluded in stereo for one reason or another, which is why best-of compilations continue to use the mono mix even now. Oddly, "Thank You Girl" provides the opposite experience; Americans who know the song from The Beatles' Second Album, which used the stereo mix and a fold-down, will probably still be jarred after all these years by the absence of several elements in mono; and it does sound odd, especially without that closing flourish. The introduction of "I Call Your Name" also offers an obvious divergence from the canon stereo mix or either original American mix (the song was released here a few months before the UK got it, and all four versions have slightly different edits). "Matchbox" is one of the few casualties on this set, handicapped by a dreadful guitar solo and some flubbing on the vocal take. Despite George Martin's case to the contrary, there are times when stereo did get more attention and finesse.

For the most part, what makes Mono Masters valuable isn't really specifics like these (or other mixing quirks such as the longer fade on "I'm Down," letting us hear a bit more of the performance), which we could spend all day laying around and listing. More generally, it's about a certain feel and fullness that tends to be sacrificed by the separation of elements in stereo. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Revolution" are the most egregious examples of songs that lose much of their might and intensity in every version save the original mono -- to hear both on this set is to hear them with their muscle and hypnotic power finally restored. Famously (because John complained about the stereo mix), "Revolution" is an unbelievably tough song in mono, played with a distorted abandon that gets compromised in the cleaner mix, but really so is "I Want to Hold Your Hand," robust, sexy and powerful in a sense that you really can imagine, all these years later, being irresistible for those who made it a worldwide pop cultural phenomenon in early 1964. This also goes for the almost subliminally powerful "I Feel Fine," which towers in mono, sounding like the vocals are bouncing off the walls of a cathedral. Mono is almost always more generous to the chaos and cacophony of rock & roll than stereo; it's for this reason that you can find yourself so much more engrossed here in songs like "Long Tall Sally," "I'm Down" and the colossal "Slow Down" that come alive on this collection and, despite the use of only one channel, manage to totally engulf you in their energy.

Fans who aren't fond of mono sometimes accuse it of being a "mush" of sound, but what I tend to hear is a greater emphasis on band interplay. Take "Slow Down" for example, and hear how Paul's bass completely drives it and also seems more distinctive when not shoved off into one channel or another. The same with Ringo's drums on the relatively innocuous "She's a Woman." I don't mind the stereo versions of most of these songs, but as in the case of many other '60s recordings, mono really does have an almost inscrutable magic about it -- it seems to be closer, more dynamic, and to be happening right NOW.

The second disc brings us to songs that are downright stunning in this format. Across the two singles that open it, "Day Tripper" c/w "We Can Work It Out" and "Paperback Writer" b/w "Rain," we have three songs that exhibit all the benefits of the Beatles' and George Martin's considerably increased attention toward mono mixes (plus one dud in the oddly mixed "Work It Out"), and these alone make a strong case of how valuable a complete single-disc compilation of the band's singles in mono might have been. (Note that except for the Sgt. Pepper album, the mono versions of the catalog are still not on streaming platforms.) "Day Tripper" gets right in your face and demands your attention; it's only in mono that you can fully hear how the Beatles still stood out so starkly on the radio in late 1965, well after their influence was becoming palpable everywhere. With "Paperback Writer" they prove themselves adept at every sound and style they deign to attempt; known now to most of us as a good piece of witty rock & roll, it's fuller and more dramatic in mono and turns into some sort of psychedelic monster full of phasing, unexpected assertiveness (the lead guitar), and uncompromising experimentation, and even it is eclipsed by its b-side "Rain," somehow simultaneously the Beatles' best piece of folk-rock and the most fully convincing, pure moment of psychedelia by pretty much anyone aside from "Strawberry Fields Forever" and maybe some of Love's Forever Changes. Again, "Rain" is wonderful in stereo, that's how it became one of my favorite songs, but in mono it seems to place emphasis on and drive forward every suggestive element of it that makes it alluring across two channels, so that the entire song takes you over and refuses to be ignored.

As on Past Masters, we skip over 1967 as a release year entirely and jump to the pre-India period with "Lady Madonna" and "The Inner Light"; you'd think by now the differences would be less pronounced but they're not. Both are practically different experiences in mono; "Lady Madonna" might as well never even be heard in stereo after you become familiar with this, with its bounce, filthiness and utterly convincing nightclub sleaze pronounced and engaging in ways that can't fully be described; you almost wonder if the prevalence of stereo mixes of songs like this is why there are people out there who don't "get" the Beatles. There's no avoiding "getting" this. As for "The Inner Light," it's obviously a lesser song in the catalog, but still very pretty and in mono you can hear the actual original intro which is vastly different from the stereo mix that wasn't widely heard for decades. The difference is less pronounced with "Hey Jude" -- which sounds wonderful either way -- but there's a nice feeling to being aware that you're hearing specifically what was heard at the time, what made it their biggest hit.

The botched Yellow Submarine EP is something of a distraction here; it interrupts the flow a bit with a couple of lackluster songs, and with the disappointment that the full unedited, wild "It's All Too Much" wasn't used, though "Hey Bulldog" sounds terrific here, as strong a piece of throwback rock & roll as "Lady Madonna" in its own acerbic manner. "Across the Universe" would have been preferable in the version that circulates on bootlegs without the wildlife sounds; that problematic song's best Beatles version is on Anthology 2, followed by Let It Be... Naked if one is attached to the original performance the band kept tweaking. And the "Let It Be" b-side "You Know My Name" is an anticlimax -- it always was -- but before that we do get one last bit of rock & soul fury with the stunning "Don't Let Me Down," the b-side of the last mono Beatles single ("Get Back," also here but only a marginally different experience than the familiar one), which only shows slight concrete divergences from the stereo but still benefits from the compression into one channel, achieving its primal grace as a love song even without the extra room to breathe. Billy Preston's piano solo never seemed so much to be playing one's heart and body.

The purpose of Mono Masters is practical, not artistic; but the music it contains, with scattered exceptions, is nearly flawless and encompasses many of the Beatles' signature works. It stands as a monument to the achievements of their career because, for once, their work is treated sonically with the historical reverence it deserves. This is how the Beatles sounded on the radio in the '60s, and the legacy created by that interaction is why they are still so beloved across generations today.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Mountain Goats: Get Lonely (2006)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

John Darnielle can seem invincibly guarded even when he's narrating the traumas of his own past, as on the albums We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree, which are about addiction and abuse respectively. It's not a criticism, it's just what you'd expect from somebody who ended up writing NYT bestselling novels and hosting a podcast in which he almost comically refuses to reveal much of anything significant about his work. Somehow it puts him in a category with a songwriter he strongly dislikes, Ray Davies, whose acerbic treatments of everyday characters' plights didn't deny or escape emotion but did intellectualize it in a way that his legions and now generations of nerdy fans found deeply understandable. The Kinks' records were like an Ealing Studios black comedy -- they attained warmth from their refusal to admit their humanity, and therefore became oddly moving to those of us who are hesitant to flail our arms so wildly that someone might see us. Mountain Goats records, meanwhile, can have the therapeutic distance of an author like William Wharton, whose litany of vividly recalled miseries is approached through a certain comfort of literary abstraction; they are broken but emotionally healthy, the sound of someone who knew when he needed help and got it, but never forgot a moment of what took him there.

Like Davies, Darnielle also delights -- in much of his discography -- in the thrill and shock of something you might term escapist cynicism. Without subsuming himself in a life of rude misanthropy, he nevertheless knows misanthropy's language and delights in its button-pushing capability. His signature song "No Children" is deeply vicious, like Davies' "Sunny Afternoon" or "Nothing to Say," because of the freedom afforded by its distance from his own lived-in reality: the hopeless, relentless anger becomes terrifyingly palpable because there is nothing like true pain and its consequences holding it back. That doesn't make it an intellectual exercise, it only reinforces that the great skill of any artist who practices in concocting sophisticated narratives, which is true of both Davies and Darnielle and not a great many other worthwhile rock songwriters, is his or her ability to funnel actual pain and the resulting experience and emotional intelligence into something superficially distant from their own inner worlds. (Or at least we hope so.)

Get Lonely is unique for Darnielle for a couple of reasons. The first is that almost none of the above applies to it; it is, in fact, an album that sounds very explicitly like a cry from the depths of considerable desperation of a sort difficult to explain or quantify -- in other words, something on the spectrum of clinical depression: causeless, directionless, pointless, cruel. Secondly, its status as an album of drunken solitude and soulless, empty dark-night silence is tied equally to its music and faint, shadowy arrangements as to its lyrics, which at times are as evocative as anything their composer has written. Until a sudden snap into action -- horns! breathing! --on "If You See Light," the record sounds exactly like the things it describes, which is a world away from the sweet delicacy and newly muscular energy of The Sunset Tree or Tallahassee. Its essence is in the space between notes, and the torment of all the awful thoughts that are capable of filling these spaces.

This isn't to argue that Get Lonely is a more accurate reflection of Darnielle's personality than his other records, which we can't really know (no, shut up, we can't), or that it's better or deeper; literary abstraction, after all, is the foundation of a lot of our most affecting art. It does seem significant, however, that a room full of people can sway to The Sunset Tree's "This Year" and have it mean hundreds of thousands of different things despite its clear ties to one man's awful former reality, but "Woke Up New" and "Wild Sage" and "Moon Over Goldsboro" can freeze those same people, lowering their heads and mumbling along, and whether their sentiments are any sharper or less generous or not, you cannot deny that they work far less devotedly to make their angst easily palatable, digestible as defiant anthem, as celebratory sentiment, or as potential redemption. (Can just saying things as they are offer a kind of redemption? It probably depends on your mood.) "This Year" is a great song and there's nothing the matter with harnessing despair as a contrast or avenue to future, imaginative joys, but "Woke Up New" offers no room for arm-waving, and in fact none of the cinematic comforts of a middle or an end. It provides neither a way out of the immaculately described first moments stepping out of the shell of a longtime relationship, nor any evidence that it knows where to look for one, aside from waiting for it; it is only a moment in time, and a brief one, and one so universal but so chillingly specific that it's hard not to weep at its vividness.

On "Woke Up New" as on most of the album, the arrangements are stark and while some sort of a band wavers around Darnielle's vocals and alternating piano and guitar, they never assert themselves enough to feel like anything more than a mysterious creak on a doorstep outside or wind blowing through some cracks in the siding. Darnielle wrote its songs late at night in various hotels while on tour (and around the same time he rented space in a particularly desolate office building near his home, which he once said inspired the album's mood), and they capture the fearsome, devastating feeling of being stuck with oneself, with one's own voice the only accompaniment. The intensity that does arrive, as in the percussive "New Monster Avenue," only reinforces how loud the silence can sometimes get, despite the use of a (very Darnielle) Mary Shelley-James Whale metaphor. But silence itself fills in all of the spaces elsewhere. He would describe the title track as being about "loneliness that incapacitates you," and while there is some faint suggestion of a more detailed back story (the face he sees when he looks at the window), it's almost a completely disembodied document of emotion, and as clear and precise as its words are, it would have none of this effect if not for the incredibly stark, almost forebodingly raw arrangement -- despite the reticent sympathies, eventually, of a string section.

"Moon Over Goldsboro" carries forward with this mood, and yet again it's in his attachment to detail that Darnielle somehow tells a story that's deeply, uncomfortably familiar; and it is also how he conquers any fear of slipping into cliché. The stasis of its uncommunicative limbo of a relationship punctuated by bleary-eyed solo late nights permeates the music and words alike, and it's complicated enough to capture the infuriatingly unknowable, illogical nucleus of depression. The tentative fear of taking any decisive action and the simultaneous fear of standing still inform the aimless midnight gas station trip, as well as the inability to air his numbness and despair to a seemingly oblivious loved one, who is there all of the time but somehow he wakes up alone.

Like all of Darnielle's heroes, these figures of self-imposed confinement know how to do one thing well: they can talk to themselves, and they can transform the most incomprehensible human conditions into rational clarity, if not poetry. "I wished I was someone else, I wished it was warmer" is found art. "Squint your eyes and hope real hard, maybe sprout wings" is folk wisdom; received wisdom, repeated even if not believed. "Some days I don't miss my family and some days I do" is artless but sublime. The very next line, "Some days I think I'd feel better if I tried harder; most days I know it's not true," seems less devastating at first, but on reflection its resignation means more, and provides an entire troubling context for the estranged family. That song, the opener "Wild Sage," nods slightly in its piano and relative sweetness (especially in the falsetto Darnielle employs throughout) to The Sunset Tree, and presents with grave empathy a horrible reversal of that album's premise, sending an isolated, mentally ill anti-hero out into a world he doesn't understand, that has no hope of understanding or forgiving him. For all its consciousness of ethereal beauty, its sound of doors slamming to any hopeful future is nearly palpable -- and it's one of the finest, most crushing songs in a storied career.

"Half Dead" makes mild gestures to the mood of Tallahassee in the same way "Wild Sage" does to Sunset Tree, with perhaps the album's only real guitar hook; but as usual when Darnielle shoots for pop, its immediacy isn't hard-won. It's not even won. The lyrics practically slam the music to the ground and argue with it; an entire verse about cleaning house alone ("try to think like a machine") is bound to conjure up terrible memories for almost anyone, and the only climax on offer is the title -- "can't get you out of my head, lost without you, half dead" -- which is proffered with none of the joyous bitterness of "No Children" or (name your favorite distorted cassette anthem), it's a surrender, a cop to absolute misery. But like real-life cops to absolute misery, there's an oddly inspiring melancholy to these songs -- perhaps the sole great solace of severe depression is that the only result of hitting bottom is finding out you can go even lower -- few of which aspire to the kind of aural balance between trad solo goats and full-band Goats of this one and "Song for Lonely Giants." No other album by the group sounds quite this dark, which has the effect of making the upbeat moments sound more tempered, less graceful, a frantic high rather than a moment of actual triumph.

At the end of everything, Get Lonely's handiest feature is that it actually is comforting -- the same way as Pet Sounds (a record Darnielle also probably hates), because its unique approach to universal emotions erases a lifetime of banality to try to uncover the gritty reality that sits at the very core of these feelings that are, alas, all but inescapable to our existence, and maybe especially our existence as the sorts of people who listen to Mountain Goats records. (If you've been to one of their shows, you're well aware that the lone common denominator is that nearly everyone there appears to have had enough bad days to passionately appreciate a good one.) How would it actually feel to listen to "Woke Up New" while living out one of the moments it describes rather than just remembering it? Maybe it would be cathartic, maybe it would be impossible, and hell, maybe it would seem trite (though I seriously doubt it). "What do I do without you?" has probably been said and sung by civilization more than any other line Darnielle will ever sing, but the pain of making too much coffee, the pain of being cold and putting on a sweater, the pain of wandering through the house: those are experiences and memories, and they along with his voice lend credence to the familiar thesis. Maybe by the time you hear the song, you'll know the answer to its central question, but the experience of remembering how it felt to ask it is as profound and chilling as anything music, or communication, or art, can deliver to us. Sometimes it takes a poet to state the obvious that well.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Beatles: Anthology 3 (1968-70)


(Apple 1996)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The first good news: no new song. That helps a bit, but there's more. This third installment in the series of supposedly bootleg-foiling unissued and obscure Beatles music functions as an actual album, one that forgoes the documentary-like obligations of the last two collections in favor of a subtle storytelling drive. Opening with a George Martin orchestral tidbit called "A Beginning," closing with a mix of "The End" that leaves the faders up and ends with the lost closing chord Anthology 2 left off "A Day in the Life," and dispensing with strict chronology in between, it's conceptually sound, historically engrossing and aurally pleasurable. Plus, almost everything here works on its own terms, because in contrast to Anthology 2, this is a collection dominated by an exceptionally good band actually playing together, experimenting and toying with songs that in some cases were already among their best, in others are herein revealed to be better than we ever thought.

The discs are divided, with atypical neatness, between sessions for the White Album and Get Back slash Let It Be; Abbey Road is represented, with a few exceptions, by the presence of its eventual highlights in demos and runthroughs from either of those two earlier periods. To start things off, there's an astounding series of demos for songs that would later surface on the White Album and Abbey Road; it would be a stretch to say they top the familiar versions, but they add something human to each of them. McCartney's "Junk," later one of the few worthwhile compositions on his solo debut, is better than ever here, warts and all. (The entire demo tape, once probably the best Beatles bootleg of all, was officially released in 2018.)

The remainder of disc one consists of delightful White Album sessions, some of them -- such as "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" -- surprisingly elaborate and far from their master recordings. The long, slow "Helter Skelter" reveals a buried, sensual groove in that song and offers some of the Beatles' most intensely focused playing, showing their credibility as a hard rock outfit maybe even more convincingly than the master take. A rehearsal of "Good Night" reveals it to be sincere and pretty instead of ironic and unsettling. An excellent, quiet demo of George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" makes one wish he'd never met Eric Clapton; his fully mixed outtake "Not Guilty" is also upsetting because it's so much better than his own version recorded a decade later. John Lennon is the big surprise in his enthusiasm both for the record as a whole -- his conversation with Paul after the runthrough of "Julia" is chilling -- and for studio experimentation. He presides over an early mix of "Glass Onion" and the fascinating, nightmarish "What's the New Mary Jane" (weirder and funnier than even "I Am the Walrus" and one of the best unreleased Beatles songs) like a gleefully mad B-movie producer. Yoko Ono's influence is clear, sure (he even sings her name on the "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" demo like a man possessed), but he's having genuine fun with this stuff, which of course would climax on the fabulous "Revolution 9." McCartney, too, is in contrast to his public persona quite laid back on these cuts, leading the band into a riveting jam of his given-away "Step Inside Love" that forecasts the looser moments of the Get Back sessions.

Not everything is significant, of course, though harder core fans will appreciate the small differences. The presence of "Don't Pass Me By" and "Octopus's Garden" is probably a token gesture. "Cry Baby Cry," "Blackbird," "Sexy Sadie," "Mother Nature's Son," "I'm So Tired" and "I Will" are not better or worse than their canonical counterparts in obvious ways, though all are good and fun to hear. "Rocky Raccoon" and "Hey Jude" are presented in rough versions that are more amusing than revealing, coming across very much as fly-on-the-wall moments of the band goofing off. "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" is heard with a much more eclectic vocal from Paul, but was anyone exactly clamoring for an outtake of that one?

Anyone who's seen the film Let It Be or has slogged through the Thirty Days bootleg knows how boring a lot of the Get Back material is, but it's been selected with admirable restraint here and they come up with a lot of good material; topping Glyn Johns' near-canon acetate assembly and the 2003 release Let It Be Naked, Anthology 3 gives us the most respectful treatment of Get Back ever and makes the strongest case that it could have been as good as a "normal" Beatles album. Given room to breathe, "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" is a unique beast in Paul McCartney's songbook. Good as the Abbey Road classic was, this methodical rehearsal is somehow more intriguing; the lyrics remain as mindbending as any of John's faux-Lewis Carrol: "and so I quit the police department." Disc Two's holy grail is the overdub-free "The Long and Winding Road," revealing it to be a far better song that one could imagine given the popular Let It Be recording, and the harder-rocking rooftop version of "Get Back," while all but previously released via the Let It Be film and numerous documentaries, is a strong runner-up. As with the White Album sessions, there are several wonderful performances that aren't terribly different from the masters Phil Spector (and Glyn Johns) chose: "Dig a Pony," "Two of Us" and "Let It Be" above all. The "For You Blue" here is a mess compared to the released track, though charming in its way. Aside from that, the best recordings from January 1969 are the ones that were never issued by the band: a band jam of rock & roll classics is delicious, and kind of fools you into thinking there was infinite material of that caliber from the sessions. Even Paul's "Teddy Boy" is rendered less painful with John Lennon making fun of it the entire time.

As noted, Abbey Road is under-represented, oddly since it has a good number of intriguing supplemental material that circulates. We do get a sharp "Come Together" rendered unusable when John cracks himself up, a ponderous "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," and a vocal-only mix of "Because" that is, admittedly, stunning despite requiring basically no work on the part of the compilers! (It inspired Elliott Smith's cover version a few years hence.) We also get a tidbit of the very last Beatles session, which John Lennon didn't attend, prompting an amusing prologue from George before launching into his relatively lackluster "I Me Mine," wrapped up apparently to help fill out the tracklist of Get Back-Let It Be, though at 1:48 it was singularly unhelpful in this regard, prompting Phil Spector to repeat a verse and stretch it out. There's no compelling reason for this to be here except to just mark the occasion of the Beatles' last moments as a band, and their only real 1970 recording session. (Ringo did attend the string overdub session for "The Long and Winding Road" and witnessed some considerable belligerence from Phil Spector on the occasion.)

The best moment of Disc Two is on a lazily impassioned Saville Row performance of "Oh! Darling," when John announces that Yoko's divorce has gone through so they can marry, and the whole band -- contrary to everything ever written about them -- is thrilled for him. But the best song is... well, it's hard to pick because halfway through they start to come out of the woodwork. The last half of this disc is when the Anthology album series finally becomes consistently great. Unfortunately, it's also the very end, but oh well. This stuff is incredible, and doubly so for those who'll never have the patience to mine all of the A/B Road sets or other bootlegs: a mournful, gorgeous version of Buddy Holly's obscurity "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," a similarly riveting Gene Vincent-like revision of "Ain't She Sweet" from the Abbey Road era that's ten times better than the 1962 chestnut, George's solo demos of "All Things Must Pass" and "Something," by far the best versions of both songs ever released (his solo "Old Brown Shoe" is a different matter, eclipsed by the full Beatles performance), and Paul's belted-out demo of "Come and Get It," superior to Badfinger's hit.

Anthology 3 also presents a philosophical version of the Beatles' breakup, which can feel like a slight copout but is perhaps closer to the truth than most outsiders would admit; the portrait it draws is of the band's fragmentation less of a loss and tragedy and more a natural outgrowth of four twentysomethings who'd grown up together forging their own path, which can clearly be heard in Paul and George's solo demo recordings, and in John's increasing fixation on his projects and relationship with Yoko Ono. "All Things Must Pass" suddenly means more than its smarmy rebuke of a lover, "Let It Be" taken out of chronology finally has the identity fans of 1970 tried to give it -- they make arguments for the inevitability of all this, and celebrate the fact that four men gained independence and fulfillment in their own ways. It's obvious that the Beatles themselves, with the possible exception of Ringo Starr, saw 1970 as the end of the beginning, not as the end, and Anthology 3 probably makes this argument better than any book could.

If one views the entire Anthology series as a multimedia project, it adds up to more than its individual parts -- the documentary has flaws, as do the CDs and book, but taken together they represent a mostly unique occasion of the creators of and participants in a major cultural moment actually talking through it all for us, though obviously with all the whitewashing and necessary glossing thereby implied. In a similar sense, the Anthology album sequence probably plays better if you look at all six discs as a complete entity, though knowledgeable fans will roll their eyes at some of the obvious gaps, which only twenty plus years later are starting to be filled in by Apple on larger-scale sets. (As you can read on the reviews I've written for the Purple Chick bootlegs, I have my own feelings of bewilderment about certain things not being here, though many were planned for inclusion and vetoed by one band member or another, and that's only including stuff that has leaked out over the years; there's surely a lot more that we don't even know about that could've made these collections even more robust, especially in the midsection. Though I will confess I have very little interest in hearing the infamous "Carnival of Light.")

In every sense that individual portions of the discs can be criticized, though -- if you take out all the pointless and insubstantial remixes and redundant material, you could most likely pare it down to four excellent discs instead of six inconsistent ones -- the sheer quantity and commitment to illuminating the story for fans is impressive, and we've gone this far without ever mentioning the outstanding liner notes by Mark Lewisohn, which greatly enhance the listening experience and are keenly written, even when you sense the gritting of his teeth at having to pretend you're listening to anything special (see the dreadful "Lady Madonna" and insubstantial "The End" remixes). (If you only know these compilations from streaming services, I unequivocally recommend seeking out physical copies -- the booklets are easily worth whatever you're likely to pay for the entire package in the waning days of the CD era; these sets sold briskly and I'm sure used copies are everywhere.) Overall, as the Beatles were well aware, the story told on these three albums is infinitely compelling, taking the most gifted rock band of all from the cellars of Liverpool to the rooftops of London in a matter of hours.

[Expanded from a review first posted in 2003.]

Saturday, May 4, 2019

They live inside all that love: April 2019 music diary

Marvin Gaye's You're the Man is one of the lesser "great lost" albums to see release in the current century, but really only because nearly all of its music has already made its way out on various anthologies. It can be seen as a bridge of sorts between two of Gaye's most ubiquitous and long-lived masterpieces, but not a particularly revolutionary one. (That's despite the claims of note writer David Ritz, which isn't surprising, as Ritz strongly champions the unissued record in his biography of Gaye.) Also, a number of its tracks have been newly remixed, so it really qualifies as just a new and highly focused compilation. Gaye's discography will eventually be under the microscope here and at that point I will give the record the full treatment it deserves.

For many of us in our mid-thirties, it's still counterintuitive that times just... change. We remain the passengers in our bodies -- even as they start to let us down -- and we've experienced all of this life on a continuum, so it seems strange to actually start to witness firsthand the passage of What Was into What Is and Will Be. There's sometimes sadness in this development, and sometimes unheard-of possibility, as when a beloved singer-songwriter, currently in what by all logic should be the twilight of his relevance as a performer, turns the camera on the world around him and uncovers depth, beauty and truth, and a voice you've been hearing for almost two decades abruptly becomes a modern-day salve for distinctively modern-day blues. And that's when you say hello.

***

Andrew Bird: My Finest Work Yet (Virgin) [hr]
In which, somehow, a musician whose lyrics have typically been free-association propping up generalized pretty vibes -- and we loved him for it -- springs forth with some serious Thoughts on a dying planet, a struggling society and a climate of hate, and for whatever reason matches it up with his most creatively energized music in at least a decade. Not that he's ever been anything but a hard worker, but you can feel in every bit of carefully filled (and economically-minded) sonic space on this record that at age 45 he's hit upon a moment of genuine, unforced inspiration. The cheeky title is unpretentious because it's a joke, and also because deep down he knows it's true; it's appropriate because, like the content, it's an attack on apathy. But not a call to arms, which would be gauche and empty coming from this source; rather, a spirited questioning and taking of stock. But at any rate, let's talk music, which is gorgeous, confident and "big" out of the gate with "Sisyphus," declaring an aural mission with the heavily echoed pedestal he's willing to place himself on as he whistles and wraps around the first of many instantly ingratiating melodies on offer here. The confidence carries over to the much jazzier, lower-key chide "Bloodless," also perfectly suited to his voice both at the outset and when it builds to its almost McCartney-like sweeping chorus. Across the record but perhaps especially here, on a verbally and emotionally demanding song ("the best lack all conviction / and the worst keep sharpening their claws / they're peddling in their dark fictions / while what's left of us, well, we just hem and we haw"), Bird has never impressed so much as a singer; it never used to be the point, really. When I first heard "Lull" on the radio I thought he was Beck. Beck even at his best never achieved this direct, human collusion of the sly and the sincere, and he certainly never sang any word the way Bird sings "Catalonia."

The surprises continue, the record shockingly generous given its relative brevity: "Fallorun" is an urgent and gorgeous take on New Order's "Ceremony" about society systematically falling apart, the bitingly anti-GOP "Archipelago" beautifully interpolates the Four Tops, and perhaps best of all, the classic, pragmatic Bird-isms ("come on everybody, let's settle down") of "Don the Struggle," vaguely challenging the aged, tone-deaf and ideologically hopeless suddenly give way to a wonderful explosion of sing-song rapid fire excitement that scans so well you suspect it couldn't make half as much sense as it does: "Clinging to the thread of the notion that your fight is a righteous one / the more you have to try to convince yourself / the more you're gonna hear a dissonant sound / but dissonance is energy while the consonance reminds you of your poverty / do you follow me?"... which gives way seamlessly into a fiery j'accuse on complicity disguised as a love ballad, "Bellevue Bridge Club." The careful phrasing and devotion to a theme are nothing new for the singer-songwriter field, but at a stage in his career when he's long established, Bird seems to have unexpectedly turned a corner here, with everything from melodies to arrangements more developed than ever before; and while it's not as if he wasn't "good enough" before, it seems proper to cite and admire this as a surprise, a comforting gift and a challenge worth celebrating, even if it's these "troubled times" that have wrought it.

Ibibio Sound Machine: Doko Mien (Merge) [hr]
Not simply worldbeat, not simply disco, not simply post-punk, this miraculous third album from Nigeria-raised Eno Williams and her crew of ferocious funk magicians is the sort of music that makes you newly aware of the fact of being alive, and not just pleased but thrilled at the revelation, even if you're teetering just on the edge of life and sanity. "I Need You to Be Sweet Like Sugar" matches its top-of-lungs David Byrne-like rant with bristling sensuality, then the horns and itchy Bernie Worrell-isms show up in time for "Wanna Come Down," whose undeniable, grandiose discotheque trickery and incredibly persuasive rhythm taunt in unsion with Williams, back in her family's Ibibio language. For her part, Williams has never had such an opportunity to demonstrate her outrageous eclecticism, bouncing from pure silky soul to hopping chants to Yoko Ono-like cries on "Nyak Mien" to a wild transformation to a musical saw on the powerful, beat-driven title track. Ibibio isn't a throwback band -- everything about the music and performances is present and vital and so very right now; the only similarly lively music I can think of currently being produced today is in the realm of dance-driven electronica -- but this album is full of remarkable moments when you can hear the weight of history and the disappearance of time as a construct; the "what more can I do" hook on "Doko Mien" itself is a great example, and so is the "King's Lead Hat" riff on "Nyak Mien," and the entirety of the unbearably funky "I Know That You're Thinking About Me," on which Williams' command is both so undeniably singular and seems to shoot Grace Jones and Patti LaBelle and Bjork all together into the sky. The stomping "She Work Very Hard" achieves that same impeccable synthesis of classic popcraft and monstrous, indescribable groove. But the bread and butter of ISM remains their vicious rhythms and unpredictable vocals, and the entirety of this wonderful, joyous, dangerous album fulfills every kind of potential they've already displayed even on its slow-burn cuts (the sneaky, mysterious "Kuka" boasts lovely electric guitar and Williams' most sensitive, lilting vocal, and that's just the tip of the iceberg here). This is very much the sound of a grand outlet achieving their zenith; whether it continues past this or not, we're lucky this is recorded and here for us in our time rather than either a distant memory or an unknown, unheard tree falling in the woods.

American Football: LP3 (Polyvinyl) [r]
Real 1998 hours from an Illinois cult band that defined the morose underground emo sound of the pre-mainstream era of that genre; like their older work, this is obviously an acquired taste, but as a mood it's basically beyond critique: detail, intricacy and emotional melancholy baked into its ringing guitars and tentative melodies. It's the kind of record on which "plodding" is a compliment; these are grown adults with 401Ks now but you can't hear "Every Wave to Ever Rise" without reaching back to putting off homework in favor of chatting with girls on ICQ, then turning on the TV and getting depressed. Projecting, maybe. Hey, "Life Support" borrows a Radiohead riff!

Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe (ATO) [r]
Lush debut from British singer who's not trying to be someone makes heavy use of a variety of collaborators but enjoys a soothing consistency informed by the 23 year-old's admiration of radio pop dating from the time of her birth. In other words this is another lush neo-adult contemporary pop album with traces of trip hop and late-'80s pop balladry, and while not nearly as strong as Flock of Dimes' definitive If You See Me, Say Yes (or the all-time touchstone, Pet Shop Boys' Behavior), it provides a welcome injection of youth into this slightly revisionist genre and a fine showcase for Yanya's exquisite singing voice, capable of evoking Annie Lennox (listen to "Paradise," complete with sax) as often as more calm and collected inspirations like Tracey Thorn, whose Mike Leigh-like attraction to naturalism would never permit something as off-kilter as "Heat Rises." Of course it's all a bit square -- less square than Adele or Dido or Ed Sheeran, sure, but still essentially a potential symbol of future inspiration toying with adults' old ideas, like if the first wave punks had just done rockabilly covers -- and I don't think its particular injection of playfulness, a series of skits riffing on phone prompts, is entirely successful, and they make an overlong record bulkier yet. But the music is never less than very good -- the least distinctive songs are still catchy and well-sung -- and at best it's sumptuous and delightful, starting with the stern hooks and heavy guitars of "In Your Head," moving to the slickness and lilt of "Angels" and the unexpected hi-NRG bridge of "Baby Blu." Best of all is "Tears," a vintage groove with an exposive hook and just the slightest bit of bent-note strangeness; when she tries again, if we can expect more of this impatient fumbling toward the edges, it will be welcome.

Jenny Lewis: On the Line (Warner Bros.) [hr]
However much accused sociopath Ryan Adams may have informed the production of this record, the fact remains it sounds absolutely heavenly: vintage compression, the unmistakable crispness of analog tape and drum sounds that batter you so completely you'd swear you were listening to Jim Keltner and/or Ringo Starr. (Don Was plays bass too.) But it's thanks to Lewis herself and her modest but never-more-evident brilliance as a composer that this cycle of Brill Building country-ish pop goes beyond aesthetic pleasures and positively sings (as does she, belting the hell out of "Little White Dove" with seemingly no sonic limit, and channelling Susanna Hoffs' intimidating friendliness on the title cut). Lewis' absolute confidence as a singer provides for an embarrassment of riches in mood, offering untimitaged joy on "Rabbit Hole" but presenting herself as a florid, hard-living superstar on "Hollywood Lawn." It's all very throwback and sentimental, yearning (not unlike She & Him's records) for an AM radio past that those of us too young to have experienced can't help but romanticize, but it transcends the limitations of nostalgia (unlike She & Him's records) and certainly of "classic rock" as a concept, regardless of who plays on it, through the obvious and long-known toughness in Lewis' writing. "Red Bull & Hennessy" is propulsive and old-world, but its closing breakdown suggests a dismal horizon beyond; the piano-driven "Wasted Youth" is lovely, soulful and catchy with as much a power pop sunlight sound as any harking back to girl groups, but there is a new yearning in her words and voice. Even at its most inconsequential, the record at least charms, and its chief export is its mere exuberance, which at a moment like this can feel life-saving, like listening to the radio used to be.

Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Interscope) [r]
An L.A. teenager gets drunk on the possibilities of her idiosyncratic voice while her brother has the time of his life with the new Full-Dimensional stereophonic sound. It's a very pure sort of narrative, and the chord it's struck worldwide is something of a victory for a presumed generation of young weirdos. Once she removes her Invisalign, we're permitted to spend time with Eilish's strange and truly unusual, singular voice, the possibilities of which she spends the entire record exploring through songs she writes with sibling Finneas. The songs are often barely there, she's often barely breathing, and while the production suggests trap, it's really something odd, minimalist and genuinely risky. "Bad Guy" is one of the vaguest songs ever to become so popular (I don't like it when she says "duh" -- seems a copout -- but everyone else does), and the expressions of villainy and drugginess ("Xanny") that follow provide new dimensions in low-toned vocal seduction. Make no mistake: it's real singing, surrounded by flipped-out stoned blown-out production, and it's also truly and wholly Contemporary. It does bear the marks of adolescence a bit, but so did Fiona Apple's first album and Robyn's first several, and besides, "All the Good Girls Go to Hell" might have had the same Jungle Book cartoon playfulness about it if it came from a song factory, but it wouldn't have seemed so genuine and playful, and it certainly couldn't have been delivered with this degree of Prince-scale minimalism. It crashes a bit in the second half; the last better-than-average song is the ukulele-driven "8," when her voice gets treated into otherworldliness, but what follows continues with the engaging intoxication, the slight beats and the anti-relationship ballads buried under synthetic percussion. (Meanwhile, why an Office sample?) Free inspiration for the day: team these two up with SOPHIE and see what happens.

Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising (Sub Pop) [r]
Pleasantly bleak as usual, now with bonus assertiveness!

Fennesz: Agora (Touch) [r]
Now in his late fifties, the Austrian experimental artist returns with more solid, heavy atmospheres of guitar and electronics, maintaining a quiet roar. Exactly what you expect, which is just fine.

Lady Lamb: Even in the Tremor (Ba Da Bing) [r]
Aly Spaltro's in love and we should be happy for her as we should be for any quality human being who finds it, and you can hear the giddiness in her voice throughout this ambitious album (follow-up to one of the decade's best, After), but she's also no more infallible than many others when it's caused her to soften her blows a lot. Ridiculously intelligent as always, her unstoppable barrage of clever and sensitive lyrics and the attendant obsessions with unpredictable rhythms, time signatures and multi-part compositions in the overstuffed, cerebral vein of Scott Miller have suddenly found themselves rubbing up against a rather soppy, florid, almost Diane Warren-like pop sensibility, most audible on the overbaked chorus of the closing adult contemporary tearjerker "Emily," which isn't worthy of Spaltro's own narrative of "crying on the passenger side of America." The songs are less musical, busier, their pleasures more fleeting, and while the trickiness occasionally kills, the new tracks have a hard time ingratiating, though there are contexts in which it all seems perfectly wrought, when the monster chorus of "Deep Love" and its weird closing key change seems touching and adventurous rather than syrupy and careworn. The songs are best when they take pains to evoke just what they're talking about, which is one reason the verses of "Deep Love" resonate when she narrates fixing her lover's hair and chatting with a friendly couple next door ("passing by a pure scene in somebody else's life gives my life meaning," she says, and while it's Agnes Varda she mentions elsewhere on the record, I can't help thinking of Frank Borzage) and also one reason the title track is so convincing in its documenting of anxiety: because it doesn't just have the words ("it takes a conscious effort to hollow out this head / my brain is a constant rain on its own shelter"), it has the feeling. The most epic of the songs, "July Was Mundane," is one of the vaguest lyrically; and the strongest, "Oh My Violence," is the one that has the least trouble scanning its complicated verses into melody.

All that said, this is an artist I want badly to go to bat for -- I'm psyched to be seeing her live later this month -- and I don't think we can just dismiss this record because of words that are mismatched to songs when the words are this good, and in fact tremendous. "It's all that I want to do / to love you, to witness together how clumsy we are / how candied, how calcified, how mesmerized and how small / to share in the cosmic joke, to fall to a thousand floors and laugh / to soar, to take out and soar through the strange things we do." That would still be miraculous if you sang it to the tune of "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da." And I can't hum "Strange Maneuvers" to you after trying to get to know it, but I'll never forget the central passage of its I-need-therapy rock & roll: "I don't wanna be afraid of myself anymore / after wading all day in my kiddie pool brain / my last stitch is a ticket to a matinee / but my attention span is too broke to play / I can't stop replaying my mistakes over and over / and over, and over, and over." And I'll never forget the childhood memory of religion and death on "Young Disciple," in which she concludes she once permitted herself to believe in an afterlife "as an impassioned follower of my beautiful mother," but it's barely anything resembling music. And maybe there's an argument to be made that it needn't be; but if so, Spaltro's previous work seems to contradict it.

The Chemical Brothers: No Geography (astralwerks)
Not a terrible workout tape. Not pretty either, which is the best they can do nowadays, and the samples around which they build these tracks are mostly insipid.

Loyle Carner: Not Waving, But Drowning (Virgin) [hr]
The hard-won confessionals and playful rhymes of Yesterday's Gone gave no suggestion to the troubled, depressive flow on this South London rapper's sophomore record; like Lady Lamb, he's in love, but it's fascinating how unrecognizably different a place it takes him. The rhymes are sharp and quick-witted, clearly taking stock of a long and complicated past, but the mesmerizing thing is how morose and cloudy the record is. Full of ease, yes, but also rife with an unresolved, unsettled feeling that makes it strangely irresistible. Boasting well-placed hooks sung by Jorja Smith and Sampha, the record achieves a lilting, poetic sense of journey across its fifty minutes, and it's quite shocking how much fear, stress and bleakness it manages to encompass given that it climaxes with his mum effectively giving him away (a bit of a repetition of the end of the first record, and not wholly needed here, nor are the samples of footie gatherings or Carner ordering chicken soup, but you know how rappers are). From the fiery Rebel Kleff hook at the center of "You Don't Know" to the equally compelling one he concots himself on "Still" on through to freestyling through "Sail Away" and some thorny contemplation of his racial heritage on "Looking Back," Carner positions himself modestly as one sound among many on a record with the same chilled-out vibe of a lot of classic Roots albums, only here with the oppressive yet all too calming sound of encroaching grief and paralysis. "Loose Ends" ("a lot of love a lot of loose ends / a lot of people that I wish I knew then") and "Ottolenghi" along with the unshakeable piano hook on "Carluccio" are the quintessential moments in which Carner's hip hop bona fides and the musical grace of this remarkable record sing out in an impeccably judged synthesis. Sometimes a record is the right piece of music for everyone's moment; sometimes a record is the right piece of music for you, right now, and this is that for me -- private, specific and empathetic in its treatment of a dark night of the soul, it's what I needed, coming from a source I did not at all expect.

Lizzo: Cuz I Love You (Atlantic)
Lizzo's transition from queen of the filthy Minneapolis indie rap scene to a amiable feel-good R&B singer signed to Atlantic remains weird if not disheartening, not that she isn't still a lot of fun to listen to, but you might as well get most of these songs prepped for their highest purpose as future Drag Race lipsync showdowns, especially the music-hall title track, which for all its charms is essentially a Mad Libs-like exercise in generic platitude-pop, as is the self-love anthem "Soulmate," which has nothing on various prior self-love anthems in her catalog. Most of the record is either dated or derivative -- "Jerome" is well-sung neo-doo wop clearly taking its inspiration from "Love on the Brain," which obviously throws it out the window; "Lingerie" is agreeably dramatic enough to be an Idol show-stopper but bears all the marks of artistic surrender; and "Better in Color" and "Crybaby" shoot for a funk-rock crossover market that no longer exists -- and coasts entirely on Lizzo's engaging star quality, which in fairness is far from nothing and certainly can put something like "Jerome" or the amusing "Heaven Help Me" ever so slightly over the line. The guest shots from Missy Elliott and Gucci Mane are promising and are at least identifiably hip hop but come off, respectively, as badly dated and awkward, the latter through no fault of Gucci's since he turns in a serviceable verse that's saddled with a dreadful hook courtesy Lizzo herself that sounds like a middle school football cheer. The album tries to do too many things and excels at none of them, with no many conflicting forces at the helm, but hey, it got her on the charts.

Angelique Kidjo: Celia (Verve) [r]
Winning and high-energy as always, Kidjo turns her attention to salsa with this tribute to Celia Cruz, the celebrated Cuban singer who Kidjo saw perform in Africa in the mid-1970s. As ever, Kidjo makes the music her own (with bass from Meshell Ndegeocello and several contributions from Sons of Kemet) and even if the transition isn't as mindbending and revelatory as what she did with Talking Heads last year, it's still an inexhaustible delight, particularly "Toro Mata" and "Bemba Colora," which stretch grooves out before ruthlessly puncturing them, always with Kidjo herself leading the onslaught.

Little Simz: Grey Area (Age 101) [hr]
Songs entitled "Pressure" and "Therapy" serve as earmarks for how this eventually turns into a self-confessional comedown, but for the first two thirds, this Islington rapper who spits, mocks and examines with equal speed and confidence is totally ablaze along with producer Inflo. It never again attains the synergy of the breathtaking opener "Offence," but the corrupt video game hook of "101 FM" comes close, and the hooks on "Boss" and "Selfish" demonstrate a commitment to popcraft you wouldn't necessarily expect from someone of Simz's raw, ruthless talent. No wonder, though, that the midstream highlight is "Venom" when she comes out swinging like the Count Five in 1965 with "Life sucks and I never tried suicide / mind's fucked even more than I realize" before revealing not only that she's out for blood but whose and how much. At its best, the hardest hip hop record in a while... but by design, so much more.

Robert Forster: Inferno (Tapete) [hr]
The solitary thoughts and textures of a Go-Between who never stopped loving rock & roll and never stopped looking directly into the present (and the ordinary), regardless of how thoughts lost and lives past may weigh in his mind; it means more than what we get from Peter Perrett or Richard Thompson, both of whom continue to write and perform more strongly than the majority of their aging peers, because in Forster's case the job seems so much more deliberate, but also totally unpretentious. He works slowly and only shows up to share with us when he has something to say, and these subtle, winding melodies and narratives give us plenty to unlock over what will surely be years -- "No Fame" and "Remain" cast his storytelling prowess and Velvet Underground fandom with boundless warmth and only the most mature, knowing kind of resignation, and "One Bird in the Sky" bows to charmingly pure pop, but it's the kind of record on which I'm quite sure my favorites will change each time I listen. He wouldn't bother us with all this if he didn't believe in every bit of it, and it's hard to think of another artist of his generation you can still say that about. This is probably Forster's best collection of songs since his old band's heyday, and for all its calm you can easily put it up against a younger band with similar aspirations like Rolling Blackouts C.F.; if this music is informed by the banality of getting older, may that experience stretch on into beautiful infinity.

ALSO RECOMMENDED
- Yola: Walk Through Fire (Nonesuch) [Civil Rights-era soul transported from Bristol to the Grand Ole Opry; "Love All Night (Work All Day)"/"Faraway Look"/"Shady Grove"]
- The Japanese House: Good at Falling (Dirty Hit) [Amber Bain comes on like Wye Oak turned left at Greenland; "We Talk All the Time"/"Worms"/"Follow My Girl"]
- Adia Victoria: Silences (ATL) [baroque country saddled up with cushy '90s alternative]
- Nick Waterhouse (Innovative Leisure) [as usual with these delightful retro types, we 100% got the sound but not the songs]
- Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian) [righteous indignation -- "my mum's still a punk and you're still shit"]
- Stephen Malkmus: Groove Denied (Matador) [at home with the groovebox (and sounding more like Lou Reed than ever); "Grown Nothing"]
- Feels: Post Earth (Wichita Recordings) [classic vintage brattiness eventually flatlines but wishes it could be like David Watts; "Awful Need"/"Deconstructed"/"Car"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES
- Teeth of the Sea: Wraith (Rocket Recordings) [a bang then a whimper then a whimper then a whimper then a bang then a whimper]
- The Comet Is Coming: Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse!) [gamely auditioning for a ridiculously limited audience of giant ears.. oh, and Kate Tempest shows up; "Birth of Creation"/"Blood of the Past"]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan: New Rain Duets
* Ex Hex: It's real
* Quelle Chris: Guns
* W.H. Lung: Incidental Music
* BTS: Map of the Soul- Persona
* Elva: Winter Sun
Orville Peck: Pony
Avey Tare: Cows on Hourglass Pond
Jayda G: Significant Changes
Lee Fields & the Expressions: It Rains Love
Rozi Plain: What a Boost
Priests: The Seduction of Kansas
The Budos Band: V
Bibio: Ribbons
Shovels & Rope: By Blood
Anderson .Paak: Ventura
Stealing Sheep: Big Wows

REJECTS
Durand Jones & the Indications: American Love Call
The Claypool Lennon Delirium: South of Reality [NYIM]
Nakhane: You Will Not Die [NYIM]
Spelling: Mazy Fly [NYIM]
These New Puritans: Inside the Rose
Lucy Rose: No Words Left
La Dispute: Panorama
Shlohmo: The End
Devin Townsend: Empath
Steve Earle & the Dukes: Guy
Edwyn Collins: Badbea
Garcia Peoples: Natural Facts
Mekons: Deserted [NYIM]
White Denim: Side Effects
Martha: Love Keeps Kicking [NYIM]
Molly Tuttle: When You're Ready [NYIM]
Pup: Morbid Stuff
Bruce Hornsby: Absolute Zero
John Paul White: The Hurting Kind [NYIM]
Fontaines DC: Dogrel
Damien Jurado: In the Shape of a Storm
Martin Frawley: Undone at 31 [yikes]
Wand: Laughing Matter [NYIM]
Fat White Family: Serfs Up!
Cage the Elephant: Social Cues
Drugdealer: Raw Honey [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES
Durand Jones & the Indications "Don't You Know" [American Love Call]
The Claypool Lennon Delirium "Blood and Rockets" [South of Reality]
Nakhane "Clairvoyant" [You Will Not Die]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH:
Sade: Soldier of Love (Epic 2010) [r]

ARCHIVAL GRADE CHANGES: [I've also added notes on these changes to the respective old reviews of these albums, but did not change the reviews themselves. -n]
Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (Warp 2010) [-] -> [r]
Robyn: Body Talk (Konichiwa 2010) [r] -> [hr]
Midnight Juggernauts: The Crystal axis [hr] -> [r]