Friday, October 18, 2019

Which racist do you want on your bank note?: September 2019 music diary

I was promoted at work this month (thank you, thank you) and now that I am RUNNING A DANG LIBRARY I was unable to file a planned review of the new Beatles Abbey Road set, which I wanted to do fairly quickly in order to stay caught up as I reach the home stretches of that Essentials discography project. I will write it up and post it at some point when there's downtime in the next month or so.

Sheer Mag: A Distant Call (Wilsuns Recording Co.) [hr]
I was initially skeptical -- as this band of working class heroes has vaulted backwards from thrash to punk to power pop and finally to classic rock, spilling hooks and classically tasty guitar licks all the way, it was a concern that the emotional nuance and rebellion was fading away in an onslaught of Cheap Trick and Thin Lizzy-isms; "Steel Sharpens Steel" was undeniable, but it was also placed pointedly at the beginning. The lifeline remained Tina Halladay, whose lyrics and vocals plunder through veneer and vulnerability over personal loss and defiance with wondrous, almost singular (for this specific subgenre of anthemic bar-sleaze) elegance. And as the deeper essence of the record was emerging, I caught them playing most of its songs live and, yes, I was then convinced. There was never any debate that it's a lot of fun, but Matt Seely's powerful lead guitar and the rhythm section really have crafted a series of irresistible rock performances, more focused than before; and if you miss the boundary-stretching of Need to Feel Your Love, which memorably touched on a disco sheen that only the lovely "Silver Line" evidences, the out-of-nowhere post-punk finale "Keep on Ruinnin" should compensate. There were fears all the way back to the EPs that this was inevitably going to be a short career, that this kind of specific vision couldn't properly sustain, but so far this band is proving flexible and inflexible in precisely the right ways.

Jay Som: Anak Ko (Polyvinyl) [hr]
An enormous step forward from the promising but limited Everybody Works, this finds the now in-demand producer Melina Duterte returning to her singer-songwriter well with much more variance and ambition than before while retaining the intimacy (love those White Album double track vocals) that made material like "Bus Song" so infectious. Anak Ko veers to more modernist influences than its predecessor and wears them proudly; it opens with winning, subtle dance music before moving to surprisingly deft Paisley Underground jangle and shoegaze on the new transportation narrative "Superbike," eventually all the way to countrified grunge, of all things, on "Get Well." The Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie-like trip hop sensuality on "Tenderness" and extensive layering on "Devotion" demonstrate why her sonic wisdom is already sought after, matching lovely soft rock guitar with persuasive percussion. The soundscapes being crafted are more than functional, they can be hypnotic (as on the title cut), but everything serves the song, and melodic pop like "Nighttime Drive" and "Crown" would bring the people in even if far less confidently presented. Best of all, there is exactly the right amount of music here -- it's singular and individual but attests loudly to its place in a longer narrative -- and overall is a deeply pleasing, modestly ambitious record.

Kano: Hoodies All Summer (Parlophone)
London grime pioneer's latest is a quintessential example that reminds me why the genre's never really worked for me. The production and beats are all superb, but the jagged MCing, convincingly and righteously angry as it is, feels too musically disconnected and never attains any sense of actual groove, which stops it from communicating as strongly as its far-reaching intentions deserve. Oh well.

Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Interscope) [r]
A catalog of tortured intimacies from a writer who's serious about paring down a complex inner life into language that's almost flippant in its simplicity. It's California through and through, some conception of fantasy laziness that's less about eternal youth than about the fallout from figuring out its limits, 20/20 (or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) more than Surfin' U.S.A.. Still not sure about her vocals, or even some of the lyrics; there's a kind of icily sulking sameiness to the thing (not unique to this artist!) that doesn't really work for me -- but there's a certain weird thrill in hearing someone reclaim Sublime from the stoner bros (do they even deserve it?), and you can sense the intensity of the kind of relationship with audiences the whole thing has cultivated in the last two songs (plus "Mariners Apartment Complex"), which are unquestionably sublime. And despite its placid tempo and the often glacial arrangements, the entire hour-plus is never anywhere close to dull, its vocal distortions and sweeping emotional crescendos well-placed and well-chosen.

Whitney: Forever Turned Around (Secretly Canadian)
You can make a case that this comparatively down-tempo, pretty but superficial country-rock suite is a bold move from a band (a Smith Westerns offshoot) that shot out of the gate with so vibrant a power pop concoction as Light Upon the Lake three years ago. But you can make a stronger one that, like most bands propagating this style historically and now and always, they just gave us every bit of what they had the first time and now the best they can offer as a cop to the past is the nice, nostalgic horn-driven "My Life Alone." And I feel like I'm still too young to cast back fondly on stuff that happened three years ago, but maybe I'm just deluded.

Black Belt Eagle Scout: At the Party with My Brown Friends (Saddle Creek) [hr]
Second album from Portland-based Native American singer-songwriter Katherine Paul eschews lo-fi in favor of sweeping, bottom-heavy, dramatic depth -- sad, strong songs of everyday emotional catharsis that have an often eerie, occasionally almost mystical quality (see opener "At the Party"), just as often capture the open-ended, tense excitement of a night drive ("My Heart Dreams"). Paul's own production and arrangements (listen to the way the drums take over "Run It to Ya") are immersive, her vocals melancholic and brutal, the entire record absorbing even in its less intense moments. The songs often settle into lyrical and musical brooding before bounding unexpectedly in another direction with rattling momentum. "I Said I Wouldn't Write This Song" is the perfect match of riff with melody and sentiment, and "Half Colored Hair" is something Michael Stipe might have called a "gut-splitter" in 1988: deliberate, breathless and obviously deeply felt. A record you can imagine carrying with you for some time.

Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union) [r]
Once again, I prefer the platonic theory of this album to its actual execution, mostly because I think his inward-looking work is stronger than his conceptualizing and activism... and yet it's clearly an act of messy and new bravery to harness this raw, quick, thrashing rock & roll for calls to action of this specific sort, in this specific sociopolitical era. And when the shapeless, loud "Blown" -- sounding like the lowest of lo-fi 7" releases of early, seamy garage punk -- opens with a "trans power" shout, daring anyone to question, object or even wander past with distant bemusement, it is a moment of unalloyed jubilation. An accomplished music historian like Furman knows what he's doing; his reverence for the form is what causes him to know exactly how to use the "Sympathy for the Devil" lick in "Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone" to deny any potentially complacent audience the escapism of distance that's so inviting to, well, music historians -- middle-class, middle-aged, middle-voting listeners who may at best take pains to correct pronouns while recoiling at the idea of actual organization and social progression. As Greil Marcus recently wrote, punk isn't something a specific generation created, it's something each generation finds, and this began even before we had a name for it, even before it was associated with a specific sound and style. "The kids are just getting started," Furman warns, and these "kids" are not the arm-crossing kids of Win Butler's semi-nostalgic memories, they are as engaged and disgusted as the grimy working class punks of the Clash's "Career Opportunities." They look different, they feel different, but they know the same language, and in this respect Twelve Nudes is the perfect rock & roll album, because it establishes why this music more than any other facet of youth culture is so long-lived and so continually vital: because it's so readily mutated.

The writing, unfortunately, wavers; Furman's first three post-Harpoons albums used pop language to exhume demons even if they sometimes lifted their basic forms wholesale from his beloved older records, sources of comfort he's quite ready to recontextualize as needed, but his anxieties and close connection with the work made that phase of his career haunting in its directness and grace. Somehow, as a storyteller or as a news reporter, he seems less infallible, and his energy isn't convincing enough to completely hide the skeletal song ideas populating the record; Furman's understandably ringing alarm bells at this stage -- he does have a personal stake in the state of the world -- and he keeps dropping lyrics that drip with his usual off-kilter genius ("nobody cares if you're dying till you're dead"; "the kind of sex you want is the kind they'd like to make illegal") and finds time to cop a bit of doo wop with the southern-tinged "I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend" and revive the alternative nation with the unabashedly vicious "Rated R Crusaders," but there is no total escape from the crush of pastiche. Perhaps because the mood is so dour, the conviction occasionally feels strained. He's not wrongheaded or misguided about anything -- and yet, it's alarming how empty "what can you do but rock and roll?" can feel as a response to the oppression of our current moment. That isn't his fault; it's the rest of the world that's let him down. It's my fondest hope that this record quickly becomes dated and Furman returns to the raw, painful wit of introspection or even the self-actualizing of something like "Body Was Made," but it seems just as likely that we'll look back on this as prescient and I'll deeply regret this review.

Young Thug: So Much Fun (Atlantic) [r]
Not as funny as he used to be ("I can eat you like hibachi cause you're bad bad bad," o RLYYYY?), but he sounds like he's having a good sleazy time playing Atari and while indistinct, this sounds amazing on good speakers and will make you feel either much older or younger than you actually are.

Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee (Columbia)
53 year-old neo-soul titan from Oakland, one of the architects of the R&B radio sound of the 1990s (and co-vocalist of Tony! Toni! Toné!); his latest record is sweet-natured but dated and excessively friendly, and despite pleasantly jazzy arrangements, the vocals are coming off as oddly rote and strained.

The Highwomen (Low Country Sound)
Knew this was a "supergroup" without looking it up and without knowing who any of these people (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires) are, because you just don't name your band/album "the Highwomen" unless that's where you're going with it. Anyway it's fine, and very long. "I listen to vinyl for the scratches" is a good line.

Jenny Hval: The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones) [hr]
Has the feel of a charming art project, with the exotic intensity of something from Laurie Anderson but with the theatrical orchestrations (and therefore, pop amusements) of John Cale or Kate Bush -- it's less a square peg in a musical hole than Blood Bitch and clearly has more replay value, but doubles down on an equally strange mood, complete with Haxan-like cover art. A telling extract of dialogue focuses on childlessness resulting in a feeling of being an "antagonist" in the human race's narrative but also toys with the language of humanity itself being a "virus," which is my inclination. There is much to uncover, and much intrigue, in this dense half-hour, but there are also immediate joys in the form of the trance beat driving "Ashes to Ashes," the spectacular layering and complexity of arrangement on the transportive finale "Ordinary"... but there is more to hear, more fears and more joys, every time through.

(Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar (Domino) [r]
Alex G's energetic eclecticism calls Beck Hansen to mind less because of his wide range of interest than because it seems like a way to avoid doubling down on the one thing at which he truly excels: magically plodding folk songs hooked on riffs and feelings and violins. This record's "Bobby" sequel is "Southern Shy," which is lovely. Elsewhere, he can toss pleasing guitar and a pretty melody on something called "Cow," evoke Tom Petty on "Sugar House," and waste the gorgeous verses of "Bad Man" on a facile climax. The problem is that so many of these are just sketches; the vibe on "Taking" is very specific but it's half-formed, and you need only to look at how quickly the artist hops from one idea to another to get the sense that you're listening in on classwork or an abstract therapeutic exercise. You'll keep "Hope" and "Gretel" -- loose, vague and phantasmagoric -- with you, but hunting through a short album for these treasures shouldn't feel so much like work... and maybe it won't if you're a Frank Ocean fan.

Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles (Interscope) [r]
There are so many albums that basically sound like this floating around, though this one (debut from pop singer-songwriter who's already found considerable success in England) has more grit than usual, sort of an arena alt-rock corporate fantasy: media-ready, heartless and stable. "The Borders" sounds like the Alarm or something; I always hated the Alarm, but somehow that comes as a respite now. "You're Not the Only One" proves that the sax solo is back in vogue as basic feature of the populist hit-factory sound. I dunno, I just don't really mind it, and it's not boring; if anything, it's a fairly interesting snapshot of where the popsphere stands at the moment, and strongly implies that guitars aren't destined to be extinct from the actual charts, at least in Europe.

Charli XCX: Charli (Atlantic)
Years on the verge of doing something great but the moment is already over and she's boring now. It sounds like a Billie Eilish album, all that watered-down SOPHIE vibe. "I feel so unstable," etc.

Chelsea Wolfe: Birth of Violence (Sargent House) [c]
Monotonous and endless. Nothing else to say.

Gruff Rhys: Pang! (Rough Trade)
One of the more creatively ambitious castaways from the '90s Britpop peak (I mean, compare whatever Liam Gallagher is doing), Rhys coasts through some productions by the young producer Muzi from South Africa and sings his latest batch of songs in Welsh. It's oddly disorienting, but not particularly appealing, but I'm not really a strong fan even of the Furrys, so I'm not really qualified. I do like "Ol Bys / Nodau Clust" a lot.

Chastity Belt (Hardly Art) [hr]
Another record I initially found incomprehensible that eventually came to feel like a warm bath; my reasons for the first response come because this is truly a mood piece, one that barely wavers in its focus -- it could practically be one single song with the occasional mild variance in riffs. The irony is that I associate I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone more than any other album with the muted sadness and loud disappointment of the early Trump days, but it was in fact recorded before his election; this is the band's actual response, and four albums in it's a major change of pace, doubling down on subtlety as though R.E.M. made Fables after Green. The defiant tower of Julia Shapiro's voice, often so soul-stirring and comforting in its boldness on the last two records, has been measured down to a morose whisper. Lydia Lund's guitar, never more committed to groove, is now crunched in with a wall of sound that resists catharsis. But there is a great deal of beauty in this extended lament; you have to listen closely for some of it. The hooks on "Effort," "Rav-4" and "Apart" are eventually striking in their boldness considering how they initially seem to wisp in and out of earshot. And the lyrics -- hmm, I'm prudish enough about bodily functions to have an aversion to the title of "Pissed Pants" but "You can have everything you've always dreamed of / but first you've got to get out of your head" is probably the sentiment I most needed to hear this month... to say nothing of the howl into the night that ends the record, when Shapiro abruptly seems to discover herself again: "Yeah, I saw it coming. I saw it coming and now it's gone."

Brittany Howard: Jaime (ATO) [hr]
Alabama Shakes are a fine band, but there was never any question that the majority of their appeal sprung from the presence of Howard, and the brilliant singer-songwriter and guitarist's highly personal solo debut is genuinely worth the buzz it's getting. Revolving around adolescent memories, the strange phenomenon of hitting thirty and thoughts of a sister who died young, it's quick, varied, remarkably confident and idiosyncratic in both its vocal and emotional ranges. It's also filled to the brim with dirty pop tunes that flirt with convention while upturning it; most striking is the way that Howard has brought a kind of vocalizing -- a raw, forceful feeling and joy -- to the mainstream that's been mostly absent from radio for decades now. But the album isn't backward-looking either, except perhaps the U2-ish "Run to Me" or the keyboard-driven Gil Scott-Heron rant "13th Century Metal," but even those are stretches. The layered, sophisticated production (handled by the artist herself) underscores just how eclectic these songs are, though at its best the record is pure funk: "He Loves Me" is kinky and glorious, "Tomorrow" is transcendently wild and the guitar on "Baby" gives it sufficient ammo to feel like a song you've been waiting to hear for the entirety of your mortal life. Most of all, it can't be stressed enough what an incredible singer Howard is -- if the amount of feeling in "Short and Sweet" doesn't trip you up, I really just don't know what you want. Whether Alabama Shakes will return is anyone's guess, but this glorious exorcism indicates that we'll be blessed as Howard continues her self-exploration, regardless of the avenue.

The Paranoid Style: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life (Bar/None)
I like their Twitter account more than the music. Strongly indicates that Elizabeth Nelson and I like lots of the same music, and the same things about said music. Her lyrics are rock and social criticism in song form, and sometimes I find that notion appealing, but the carefully enunciated delivery here isn't to my taste even though the words usually are ("I smoked because of old fiction / I smoked because of Mojo Nixon") and little things like the surf guitar on "Turpitude" ought to send me swooning. The title track, about the Who's fatal Cincinnati concert in 1979, is perversely beautiful. "They weren't screaming for you, they were just screaming." Fuck.

Sarathy Korwar: More Arriving (The Leaf Label) [hr]
An extraordinary procession of ideas, vibes, grooves and post-Brexit protestations in a jazz-fusion context from this London-based Indian percussionist, who employs an eclectic group of poets, singers and rappers to add often fast and ruthless textures to his hypnotic bed of sound. The magnificent results range from the Kuti-like intensity of "Mumbay" to the ethereal, powerful sound of Mirande's voice on "Good Ol' Vilayati" to the scathing anti-colonialist message of Zia Ahmed's spoken word passage on "Mango." The entire record is intellectually rigorous and emotionally revelatory, and not a moment among either its protracted jams or tight constructions is remotely frivolous. It feels like the rhythm of our years in the very best and most terrifying ways.

ALSO RECOMMENDED
Ride: This Is Not a Safe Place (Wichita Recordings) [no longer innovators but capable of at least upstaging Kevin Shields; "Future Love"]
Shura: Forevher (Secretly Canadian) ["Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands on Me)"/"Forever"/"Skyline, Be Mine"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Nerija: Blume (Domino)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Rapsody: Eve
* Brockhampton: Ginger
* Missy Elliott: Iconology
* Sirom: A Universe That Roasts Blossoms for a Horse
* Frankie Cosmos: Close It Quietly
Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin'
Modern Nature: How to Live
HTRK: Venus in Leo
Pharmakon: Devour
Joan Shelley: Like the River Loves the Sea
MUNA: Saves the World
Tinariwen: Amadjar
Chrissie Hynde: Valve Bone Woe
Bat for Lashes: Lost Girls
Velvet Negroni: Neon Brown
JPEGMAFIA: All My Heroes Are Cornballs
Sampa the Great: The Return
Vivian Girls: Memory

REJECTS:
Taylor Swift: Lover
Redd Kross: Beyond the Door
Tropical Fuck Storm: Braindrops [NYIM]
Shannon Lay: August [NYIM]
Jesse Malin: Sunset Kids [NYIM]
Salami Rose Joe Louis: Zdenka 2080
Sheryl Crow: Threads
The S.L.P.
The Futureheads: Powers
Iggy Pop: Free
Trupa Trupa: Of the Sun
Korn: The Nothing
Mike Patton: Corpse Flower
Alex Cameron: Miami Memory
Metronomy: Metronomy Forever
Devendra Banhart: Ma [NYIM]
Life: A Picture of Good Health
Efterklang: Altid Sammen
Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms of Surrender [NYIM]
Liam Gallagher: Why Me? Why Not.
sir Was: Holding On to a Dream

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (Fantasy 1956) [hr]

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