Friday, July 19, 2019

My body and me, we're just two wild and crazy guys: June 2019 music diary

Things I want to comment on but can't because I'm fucking drowning in stuff (not just music and not just fun) right now: Beyoncé's concert film Homecoming; the massive Radiohead leak of OK Computer sessions followed by the brief official release of same; Prince's Originals, which I've heard bits and pieces of via unauthorized releases like The Work but is of course massively upgraded here; and the expanded repackage of clipping.'s face, which I'll try to take on via Backmasking eventually.

Amyl and the Sniffers (ATO) [r]
Australian throwback punk with touches of ‘70s glam, this is bang on like Sheer Mag down under and boasts shouting, spirited delivery on the part of lead singer Amy Taylor. Gacked on anger, stressed on tick, go fuck yourself. The memorable riffs peak on “Angel,” which is too-brutal melodic pop, and “Monsoon Rock” which is fucking lit; the energy flags later, but not always unenjoyably, with “Got You” credibly frontlining some Deb Harry speak-singing.

Cate Le Bon: Reward (Mexican Summer) [r]
Le Bon, a Welsh singer-songwriter now well established as a leading light of this era of indie folk, is less controlled and therefore, I think, better than oft-named peer St. Vincent — she means to prove less with the phrasing intricacy and smallness of her arrangements. That I don’t especially enjoy her vocal delivery is my affair; these are hypnotic songs that register themselves fully with you even after one exposure. “Daylight Matters,” “Home to You” and the Annie Lennox-ish “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” all are intimate and driving, lovely in their fashion, in a way that seems confident and unaffected, and for all its repetitiveness “Sad Nudes” drives deep into its groove. A record you could probably get lost in if you needed to, and more generous than usual from the modern-day crop of singer-songwriters.

Mavis Staples: We Get By (Anti-)
Ben Harper produces this time and gets a nice pillowy, minimal sound out of the musicians while Staples commands the stage as ably as ever, though only the first few songs (“Change” and “Anytime” especially) are rousing enough to be memorable.

Flying Lotus: Flamagra (Warp) [r]
Certain things about this record are monumentally fun, not least of them being the usual obviousness that FlyLo is having the time of his life screwing around with archival sound, random noises and provocative guest stars. He is on a bit of a mondo-lounge space age Beautiful Music kick, and even more of an 8-bit video game kick, and this sometimes feels like the Avalanches but scarier. It's a tad too much at over an hour of material, though, especially once it passes the tipping point from surreal meditation to outright noodling. Moreover, it's the kind of record whose peaks knock it off-balance; when the melody kicks in through the Anderson .Paak vessel on "More," when Denzel Curry contributes his fury to an Afrofuturistic Mancini soundscape on "Black Balloons," or when George Clinton proves to Lotus he can still find new ways to unnerve a complacent audience after all these years on "Burning Down the House," when "The Climb" evokes Kaki King via Thundercat, it makes harmless goofiness like the Tierra Wack cameo "Yellow Belly" ("condoms, we got a problem") seem trivial. Still, nothing here errs badly, with distorted earworms aplenty and no shortage of invention. And there's even a Smile homage.

Denzel Curry: ZUU (Loma Vista) [hr]
As unapologetically regressive at times as it is boldly confrontational, Curry's fourth album is a radical shifting of gears from the Floridian rapper's previously broad, semi-abstract aggression in favor of a launching into full-on early 2000s party rap, only with his quick and sharp bars intact. The production, dominated by the Australian collective FnZ, frontlines four-on-the-floor bass and beats with filthy grooves that sidle up to Curry's classic flow with tracks and hooks that are often so unapologetically pop it's almost silly, while never coming across as anything less than incredibly hard-hitting. You might hear better hip hop records this year (Little Simz, Tyler, Loyle Carner), but you won't hear any that bring it so ferciously and immediately, and no less than nonstop at 29:02. Every major cut is a pleasure, and even "Yoo" isn't the lamest skit you've heard by a mile. "Wish" is a big T.I. throwback with a saxophone; "Ricky" is bonkers club music; "Birdz" has Rick Ross wild and wailing; "Carolmart" is dumb and good; and "Shake 88" boasts an Ice Cube-cribbing hook so disgusting it actively itches.

Kate Tempest: The Book of Traps and Lessons (Columbia) [c]
Since 2014 I've been complaining about certain outlets that won't be named maliciously excluding Kate Tempest from rundowns of major artists in modern hip hop; there's been a suspicious resistance to naming Tempest as a rapper, which is a characterization no sane person up to and including Chuck D would doubt or question, instead bizarrely labeling her first two, highly beat-driven records as "spoken word" and continually preceding her name with "author" or "poet," which are true but not the whole truth and not of prime interest to a music publication. (Bob Dylan is an author and poet for chrissake.) That she's white and British is neither here nor there, as none of these same gatekeepers have any issue classifying the Streets or Sleaford Mods as rap; that she's a woman and a lesbian, well, that's another column, but let's just say it felt mighty interesting to read a whole summer's worth of handwringing thinkpieces about Pwr Bttm from "most trusted" journalists who refused to so much as acknowledge that Let Them Eat Chaos was a piece of music. Meanwhile, I've also gotten sick and tired of defending the erudite, brilliant wordsmith Tempest from accusations she was an empty didact whose work was preachy and superficial; the criticism seemingly stemmed from a misreading of tracks like "Europe Is Lost," which is the paranoid rant of an unreliable narrator, and "Tunnel Vision," a summing-up of Tempest's own socialist outlook, as wholly representative of her skill set. (In case you're unaware, she wrote a novel called The Bricks That Built the Houses that's full of cutting prose, vivid characterizations and detail and is as achingly moving as any modern fiction I've read.) So look, in advance, I forgive her as I would any gifted person who moves on with their lives from catering to my own wheelhouse, but I have to admit to you it stings a bit that on her major label debut (although: props in the sense that this is by far the least commercial album she's made), with Rick Rubin of all people in tow, she has recorded what is unmistakably a spoken word album that bears no resemblance -- in beats or vocal patterns -- to hip hop or, frankly, to music; and she spends it essentially yelling at us, with a brief break on the audibly personal "Firesmoke," which not coincidentally is the only inclusion worth hearing more than once. She owes me nothing, obviously, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't kinda feel like an idiot.

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City)
You already know my general opinion I'm sure, but since I was flippant last time: Callahan is the 53 year-old icon of home recorded alt-folk who by this point, despite his every word being anxiously awaited in certain quarters, really just coasts on atmosphere and goodwill. His approach to songwriting is remarkably pragmatic: the better and more awake his guitar playing is, the less attention he pays to melody, to singing, or to worthwhile lyrics (which, overall, are the weak point here). While mostly spare, the new record's shapeless and delicate songs occasionally flirt with a more layered and even exotic sound. He writes about how good it is to be writing again. He rhymes "747" with "Heaven." He changes things up a little by inviting backing vocalists into the studio for "Lonesome Valley," which is a welcome distraction that makes it feel like a complete song. Still, taken together the whole thing isn't totally absent of grace and generosity, especially compared to total washouts like Mt. Eerie and Hamell on Trial. Inspirational Sentiment*: "I got married / to my wife."

* r.i.p. Expert Witness/Consumer Guide

Polo G: Die a Legend (Columbia)
Hyped Chicago rapper of the moment is pretty generic I'm afraid, though -- while his flow is awkward and technically lacking, stumbling over the beat on "Dyin Breed" -- he gets points for nonstop speed even as he cops too many tricks and phrases from other MCs. The tracks produced by Ayo are awash in an admirable bleakness while Polo lets it falter into something that ultimately feels surprisingly maudlin, though it's fairly relaxing party music if you keep one eye shut, and with Serious Themes! As a 20 year-old on a major label -- and good for him -- he has reason to feel skeptical of the people who are telling him he's a wunderkind of some sort, and maybe if he outlives their obsequiousness he'll come up with some sort of distinctive identity.

Black Midi: Schlagenheim (Rough Trade) [NO]
Boy this sucks. (I have a foot out the door, can you tell?)

Titus Andronicus: An Obelisk (Merge) [r]
The T-A fan who is a punk purist will be happier with this economical album than with any they've done since the underrated Local Business; but does such a T-A fan exist!? I would think that most of us by this point are fine with Patrick Stickles' attacks of humorous insecurity, best represented here by the dumb and delightful blooze rock parody "My Body and Me." The rest finds him in people pleasing mode, and the results are frequently inspired if just as frequently repetitive or familiar, with both results periodically colliding on single tracks like the power pop "Hey Ma" that throws in a Monitor-style bagpipe solo at the end. There's a run of songs that barely run a minute and have the barren thrash-with-wisdom strength and muscle of Sorry Ma-era Replacements. "Within the Gravitation" is longer only because, like "Pink Flag" or something, it eventually wanders into a sort of sneaky minimal post-punk interlude. But for me this works best at its most off-the-cuff, even if it's a distinctly different (and notably less friendly and weird) kind of off-the-cuff than A Productice Cough, which I still think is one of the most unabashedly "fun" albums of the last ten years -- you could do far worse for your anthemtic punk fix than "Just Like Ringing a Bell," "(I Blame) Society" (which would be "the single" in a different era) and "Tumult Around the World" (which cops a riff from a Supremes hit) -- the latter two of which boast a James Brown-like penchant for catchy sloganeering -- or for heavy filthy riffs than "Troubleman Reunited." It's just, you know, none of it is surprising exactly -- except "The Lion Inside," on which Stickles steps outside himself, sings credibly and feels it, and comes across like what he is: a true original, regardless of what he's doing at any given moment.

Hot Chip: A Bath Full of Ecstasy (Domino) [hr]
In a summer that's found me let down by a distressing number of old favorites who seem to have hit their sell-by dates at last, Hot Chip bring home the Andrew Bird award for completely and utterly blindsiding me with delight long after I begrudgingly wrote them off. With the addition of cutting edge producers Rodaidh McDonald and the late Philippe Zdar (who tragically died in a freak accident on the week this was released), this has a similar shot-in-the-arm feel to Pet Shop Boys' Electric, and quite frankly it often sounds like PSB, only more earnestly romantic than the older institution typically allows. Some of its best songs grew out of a gig working with Katy Perry, and it's perhaps for this reason -- the pressure and excitement of working for an outside artist -- that the record has an energy and playfulness that's been mostly lacking from the now-veteran band's last two records. This is handily their best since One Life Stand and returns to that record's full-fledged danceable kindness, a vibe they generate like no one else within their generation or any. The aptly titled "Melody of Love" immediately makes plain the record's alignment with classic pop, and your chief response is to note how good it feels to hear Alexis Taylor singing to you again, like a burst of fresh air in the midst of dystopia -- well, not even "like" that, pretty much literally that.

The songs take time to settle in but always make wise use of that time, and operate with a consistent nod toward readiness for the floor without disallowing the genuine eclecticism that once marked left-field choices like "Brothers" and "These Chains." A fine example is the Joe Goddard-led "Hungry Child," whose multiple disparate parts seem to magically click together when the beat comes in. "Spell," one of the Katy Perry outtakes, drifts with a ghostly, blissed-out sound familiar from the One Life Stand period but actually boasts more fully developed words and music than most of the very minimalist upbeat songs from that record; the chorus initially seems nondescript, but it's not done yet, and the whole thing takes a neat, vibrant shape whereby there's so much in it yet it never feels busy, which makes Arcade Fire's amateurish stabs at a similar fusion of dance pop with rock & roll redemption sound even dumber in retrospect. The real stunner from the Perry sessions, though, is "Echo," with a seemingly endless wash of hooks behind its PSB-like melody and tricky electronics. Elsewhere, we get the hedonistic nighttime sounds of "Positive," one of the most deeply felt Taylor vocals ever on "Why Does My Mind," a title track that sounds like what Father of the Bride should have sounded like, and broadly a whole lot of music that's consistently pleasing but also bright and modern. That the record closes out with the "I Feel Better" sequel "No God," delivered like a hymn, is some clue to the underlying seriousness of its mission; the record, as the band has pointed out, does not point to the club or to the music itself as an escape but rather as a symbol of coming together -- while making that sound wonderful, progressive and sexy. The world isn't necessarily watching Hot Chip anymore, but Hot Chip are still watching over us, and that makes them a treasure.

The Raconteurs: Help Us Stranger (Third Man) [c]
I really liked the White Stripes back in the 2000s but everything Jack White does now makes me increasingly terrified of what I'll find when I go back and listen to those records again. His other other band's first record in more than a decade runs weakly on classic rock fumes, owning the zeitgeist by sounding like Queen when it's not covering Donovan or shooting more logically for the Rolling Stones -- indeed, the least annoying song here is the Stones-like ballad "Somedays" until its coda when it amps up and turns into the damn Killers, one of the only 2000s radio bands whose hits could be as irritating as "Steady as She Goes." Good thing the lyrics break the monotony with sophisticated character development: "There's a man who lives up the block / and he doesn't even own a clock." Does anybody really know what time it is?

Leif: Loom Dream (Whities) [r]
Never expected this famous onetime teen idol, drunk driver, drug abuser and reality TV host would come back with some wicked minimal ambient soundscapes but, as the Pets.com dog once said, everyone deserves a second chance.

Injury Reserve (Loma Vista) [hr]
Almost comically amiable, extremely online rap trio from Arizona hedge their bets convincingly on fusing the classic sound of an old-fashioned MC crew (Stepa Groggs and Ritchie with a T), who complain about Instagram and can name every file sharing service they've ever used, with adventurous and bizarre production courtesy of third wheel Parker Corey, a certified weirdo whose total lack of deep knowledge of hip hop history is cleverly harnessed by the two rappers in order to render anarchy from wide-eyed cluelessness. It's true that guests like Freddie Gibbs, DRAM and Rico Nasty upstage everyone on the home team handily in technical terms, but that happens even to established legends ("Monster," anyone?), and the front-of-house duo has a good ear for hook-worthy phrases that comes out all over "Jailbreak the Tesla" and "Three Man Weave." Corey's broad, playful impulses would be too much if he were trying to sell them as a creation unto themselves, but they blend enjoyably with the crew's laid-back, sarcastic and occasionally even sentimental ("New Hawaii") style, the album's dichotomies striking enough that it never feels like a mere wavering outsider art version of Jurassic 5 (or "preachy ass niggas out here sounding like a TED talk") even if it has a similar universal agreeability. Indeed, its often inspiring wickedness stems from what feels like a lack of fear and a determination to embrace the stupid ("Gravy 'n' Biscuits," "Rap Song Tutorial," which has nothing on the Roots' rap video manual) and make it addictive. It's not clipping., but that it's far less satisfied with itself may finally be the source of its unusual, unexpected vitality.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Megan Thee Stallion: Fever (300) [ain't no dick alive that could make her lose her mind; "Cash Shit"/"Money Good"/"W.A.B."]
The Cranberries: In the End (BMG) [not as ominous as I feared, it's really nice to hear Dolores O'Riordan's voice one last time, and as usual she renders transcendence from songs that tend to be no more than passable]
L7: Scatter the Rats (Blackheart) [and as for my own '90s heroes, I wish them health and safety, but a lot of this is too on-the-nose and silly for me, while the dreaded vulnerability becomes them; "Stadium West"/"Holding Pattern"]
Kedr Livanskiy: Your Need (2MR) [weird and lovely and completely inscrutable, like a sensitive Prodigy]
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated (Interscope) [slick and exciting, but feels longer than it is]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy (Enter the Jungle) [horns, jazz, vibes and apocalyptic L.A. chase scenes, plus Loyle Carner; "Shakara"/"What Am I to Do?"/"Red Whine"]
Laurence Pike: Holy Spring (The Leaf Label)
Tim Hecker: Anoyo (Kranky)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Peter Perrett: Humanworld
Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford
Sacred Paws: Run Around the Sun
Kevin Richard Martin: Sirens
Dylan LeBlanc: Renegade
Julia Shapiro: Perfect Version
Sarah Davachi: Pale Bloom
Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy

REJECTS:
[I don't know what the scientific explanation can possibly be, but I swear to christ that there is a glut of awful music at the end of every decade.]
Rosie Lowe: Yu
Mdou Moctar: Ilana (The Creator)
Kelsey Lu: Blood [NYIM]
SOAK: Grim Town
Haelos: Any Random Kindness
P!nk: Hurts 2B Human
Carlton Jumel Smith: 1634 Lexington Avenue
Olden Yolk: Living Theatre
Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars [NYIM]
Earth: Fall Upon Her Burning Lips
Black Mountain: Destroyer
Faye Webster: Atlanta Millionaires Club
Hayden Thorpe: Diviner
Duff McKagan: Tenderness
Richard Hawley: Further
Pip Blom: Boat [NYIM]
Stef Chura: Midnight [NYIM]
Palehound: Black Friday
Santana: Africa Speaks
Aurora: Step 2- A Different Kind of Human
Jonas Brothers: Happiness Begins
Jambinai: Onda
Jake Xerxes Fussell: Out of Sight
Plaid: Polymer [NYIM]
The Divine Comedy: Office Politics
Pixx: Small Mercies [NYIM]
Perry Farrell: Kind Heaven [NYIM]
Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real: Turn Off the News, Build a Garden
Psychedelic Porn Crumpets: And Now for the Whatchamacallit
Calexico / Iron & Wine: Years to Burn [NYIM]
Mattiel: Satis Factory [NYIM, but great title]
Madonna: Madame X
Los Coast: Samsara
Bad Breeding: Exiled
Buddy & Julie Miller: Breakdown on 20th Ave South
Fruit Bats: Gold Past Life
Willie Nelson: Ride Me Back Home
Hatchie: Keepsake
Bad Books: III [good grief this is dreadful]
Mark Ronson: Late Night Feelings [NYIM]
Two Door Cinema Club: False Alarm

ORPHAN TUNES
Rosie Lowe ft. Jay Electronica "The Way" [Yu]
Kelsey Lu "Due West" [Blood]
Haelos "Boy/Girl" [Any Random Kindness]

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