Decade songs list and November finale delayed but coming soon. 2019 year-end stuff when I can.
Tegan and Sara: Hey, I'm Just Like You (Warner Bros.) [r]
A bout of introspection that's also culminated in an NYT bestseller has sent these 39 year-old vets and lifestyle icons back to the earliest demos they recorded as clearly precociously gifted high schoolers. Think of the Everly Brothers' Roots, with more hooks and, no shit, more attention to the alienation that would've come from being a pair of queer adolescents in the mid to late-1990s; hitting the middle of life can focus the mind in unexpected ways, and this is an act of empathy directed both toward themselves and out into the world. The Nirvana-derived song structures and the arrangements' sympathy to them are charming and require no apology. But I must tell you, I miss the rethought launch into full-fledged dance music from their last two records, which were what finally hooked me on them in the first place. Musically this is much like the earlier work I always filed away as solid but somewhat pedestrian.
- Highlights: "Don't Believe the Things They Tell You (They Lie)"
The New Pornographers: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord) [r]
After about four attempts I started to find my way into parts of this. It needs to be said that it would be nothing without Neko Case except another arch, annoying Carl Newman solo album. His lyrics have become more eccentric, more willfully obtuse and cerebral (the central motif on "Colossus of Rhodes" is "we've had break-ins before / we've had break-ins before," delivered with unwarranted gusto; another song peaks with a loving sing-song collective around "fuck you!"; and I mistook one chorus for a repetition of "chef salad" and was almost surprised when I was wrong), as though Colin Newman (no relation) circa 1988 tried to write songs for a reimagined ABBA. Like Whiteout Conditions, the record continues the trend formerly limited to his solo albums of cluttering up the songs too much until there's no way to hold them all in your head enough to find them pleasurable. That said, eventually there are some catchy, dramatic evidences of past glories, Case and Kathryn Calder, still Newman's good soldiers, redeem several songs by being willing to go all big and silly, and the occasional rollicking ballad is a bit of a relief from the too-muchness of it all. It's probably better than the last one. I still miss Bejar (who cowrote one cut, though you can't really tell), but I don't know if he'd really help much.
- Highlights: "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile"; "Colossus of Rhodes"; "Higher Beams"
Girl Band: The Talkies (Rough Trade) [c]
A particular kind of blast-from-the-past irony informs this Dublin quartet, who start being irritating with their name alone -- all of them are men, and isn't that clever! What will they think of next! It's the old-fashioned late '90s sheen of smug, superior disaffection. I wasn't into it then and it still sucks now. Give me pop, give me emo, give me a hundred things I don't like but hate less than this end-of-history, above-it-all bullshit that takes every single incorrect lesson from Marquee Moon and Pink Flag and even the Fall. I know these are not fresh criticisms, but this isn't fresh music either.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen (s/r) [hr]
A missive from the other side of the mortal line that defined Skeleton Tree; these songs were initiated and completed well after the 2015 death of Cave's son Arthur, whose loss haunted but did not initially trigger the earlier record. The band's 58 year-old keyboardist, Conway Savage, died as these latest sessions got underway. All this upheaval resulted in Cave writing more impulsively than has long been his well-structured procedure, and it's created some of the warmest but also most harrowing music released by any major artist in recent years. It lacks the morbid playfulness of something like David Bowie's Blackstar, but its existentalist wisdom and overwhelming sense of shimmering, pensive beauty give us something else entirely; but like Blackstar, it is an album that cannot be heard in fits and starts -- it demands full attention for the breadth of its considerable running time. But the rewards are bountiful, wrapped up in a mournful, hypnotic opera with unspeakable richness and power.
- Highlight: "Ghosteen Speaks"
DIIV: Deceiver (Captured Tracks) [hr]
Led by troubled pseudo rock-star Zachary Cole Smith, this band is old enough to have been catapulted into the bloghype lo-fi indie pop scene of the early 2010s but young enough to have failed to reap even the perfunctory benefits enjoyed by the likes of Drums, Beach Fossils, Real Estate, Best Coast and Surfer Blood. They seem to have attained an unexpected cult following thanks in part to their melodramatic, mockumentary-like failure to deliver album number two in a prompt manner, and now have -- post-rehab, evidently -- rebranded as a timeless shoegaze unit, feeding themselves an elder-statesman mythos they never exactly earned. Nevertheless, the music is remarkbly good: derivative (Kevin Shields, and who was more derivative in the first place, smiles ghostily upon everything but especially "Between Tides"), breezy, glorious and ceaselessly engaging. You don't have to want to love the shit out of it or even respect it, but like some back-from-the-dead angst-ridden Billy Corgan rampage, if you love American indie rock as a sound above all else, there's very little possibility this will fail to sound extremely lovely to you, and not just in the going-through-the-motions fashion of a nostalgia trip. It's delightful.
- Highlights: "For the Guilty"; "Like Before You Were Born"
Danny Brown: uknowhatimsayin? (Warp) [r]
Brown is still the most singular and multifaceted rapper working today, and arguably just as artistically ambitious as Kendrick Lamar without the frequently audible juggling of audience expectations. His distorted, unfocused and obsessive follow-up to Atrocity Exhibition, dispensing with the conceptual rigours of his last two albums, finds him in an atypically relaxed but still tirelessly creative frame of mind. Hearing him next to a Run the Jewels guest spot on "3 Tearz" makes for a rude shock; no disrespect meant to Mike and El-P, working class heroes for sure, but they sound like antiques when laid up against Brown's constantly mobile intensity as a performer, not to mention his taste in sounds, stories, ideas and outré production ("Combat"). A track like "Savage Nomad" with its cascading of warring beats over verses that are intentionally undercut by Brown's own sense of presentation and irony twists down horrific pathways few other pop musicians could muster up. And as usual, there's no nailing him down as either a manic sleaze merchant or the catchy, wise model of good sense on the title cut; he is so dedicated to avoiding coherence that it's hard to know how to file this record away.
- Highlights: "Combat"; "uknowhatimsayin?"; "Savage Nomad"
Wilco: Ode to Joy (dBpm) [hr]
Their best in more than a decade, and their first truly exceptional release since The Whole Love, a fine record which it significantly betters; you're never sure how fair you're being when you watch a band of this caliber release material that's lackluster by their standards, but all it takes is a bona fide hero move like this to reassert why this now stands as a legendary group. They've never sounded more attuned to one another, Nels Cline as locked into the moment as John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche, Jeff Tweedy operating the usual levers but never showing off or raising his voice, and everyone so committed to capturing this specific mood you could hear a pin drop. So what is the mood? It's gentle and felt, even pretty, but also hardened. It's unapologetically old, and unapologetically current. Some songs are classic Wilco with classic Wilco choruses ("Before Us," "Hold Me Anyway" and "White Wooden Cross"). Some stab and hurt like the corrosive, loving, tough "One and a Half Stars," and others plod and drone but find whole new avenues and dimensions in their doldrums ("Quiet Amplifier"). Tweedy's dour but optimistic, at times preoccupied or hypnotized. Cline, Tweedy and Pat Sansone's guitars shimmer ("Love Is Everywhere"), but the titular joy here is designed to reveal itself gradually, and eventually what sounded like appealing muck for all its clear-eyed intensity becomes a series of cathartic peaks tied to memories the songs themselves willed into existence. It is a performance akin to Tonight's the Night or New Adventures in Hi-Fi or the White Album. That said, if you don't get "Everyone Hides" immediately -- out-of-the-way hotel room music, a complete creation, lovingly sung -- I don't know what you want from rock & roll.
- Highlights: "White Wooden Cross"; "Everyone Hides"; "Quiet Amplifier"
Angel Olsen: All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
She still doesn't do much for me, though repeat listens made it seem less bad and at least admirable in its competence.
Big Thief: Two Hands (4AD) [r]
Their second album this year is much more status quo than U.F.O.F. and feels like a relatively straight-ahead folk-leaning rock album and even sort of a relic of a different stage in indie history. "Regrets" is the only song that could've fit on the last record, though you do get why it wasn't quite on the right scale; still, its gentle, home-fried feeling is pleasing and has the weight of history over it. The other songs are at best when they're basically showcases for Adrianne Lenker's vocals, which are given much more freedom to let loose here; I'm glad U.F.O.F. was so unerring in its precision, because it played more to the band's strengths. However, the poetic and unhinged "Not" is really masterful, "Those Girls" cops a good riff from Radiohead who copped it (unknowingly?) from Yo La Tengo, and "Forgotten Eyes" bursts out with explosive yearning that explores a band dynamic that almost seemed beside the point on the previous record. There's no way this can stand up to one of the most urgent and delicate folk-rock records of the decade but, hey, electric guitars are fun too.
- Highlights: "Not"; "Forgotten Eyes"; "Those Girls"
Fantasia: Sketchbook (Rock Soul) [r]
Don't give a fuck -- she still rules, is one of the classiest singers we've got, and her records are consistently likable. The verbose confidence, wise and tough radio balladry and the occasional tearjerker moment is all expertly crafted and charming. The T-Pain cameo is dreadful, wrecking a solid quiet-storm homage, but you won't catch me with much worse to say here than that.
- Highlights: "Fighting"; "Looking for You"; "History"
Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador) [r]
Maybe it's because I was never more than a casual admirer of Sonic Youth, but both Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's initial solo contributions sound substantially more energized and vital to me than The Eternal. Gordon's record scores big as avant garde in its first half, wears out its welcome a bit when it goes for vibes, but in general is exciting and formidable.
Richard Dawson: 2020 (Weird World) [c]
Newcastle art freak folk. This absolutely sucks.
clipping.: There Existed an Addiction to Blood (Sub Pop) [hr]
If the thousand yard stare in Daveed Diggs' steely, unflinching vocal delivery doesn't do it for you, fine, but for me, whether he's distorted beyond recognition or screaming in your ear, he's still one hell of a compelling performer, especially in tandem with the head-spinning inventiveness of the avant garde, drugged-out textures surrounding him. This is clipping.'s most harrowing, apocalyptic and versatile work to date. It doesn't shoot for the same coherent narrative thread as Splendor & Misery despite its cinematic aspirations, though it does feel at times like the disembodied soundtrack to a giallo picture. The dream interludes suggest Jenny Hval with an even more macabre sense of humor, but what makes clipping. consistently unnverving is that they're so intense you never quite know if they're just having fun or not. And "Run for Your Life" (with a great verse from La Chat) boasts an aural trick I can't say I've ever heard before. But sure, it's all novelty and not real hip hop, fine, whatever.
- Highlights: "Nothing Is Safe"; "Blood of the Fang"; "Run for Your Life"
Vagabon (Nonesuch) [r]
Her major label debut is the most alternative of alterna-R&B I've heard in a while, though it leans less on indie-friendly atmospheres than did her respectable Infinite Worlds. With a couple of exceptions and one unexpectedly relentless beat, this is packed with performances more calmly beautiful than particularly distinctive, although I like Laetitia Tamko's voice a lot -- it's unique and hard to pin down but also almost cosmically reassuring.
- Highlights: "Every Woman"; "Full Moon in Gemini"; "Water Me Down"
Floating Points: Crush (Ninja Tune) [r]
Lovely textures and beats but not much that's really unusual here unless you're super fond of headphones, where the stereophonic mysteries deepen and can be quite engaging. It's pretty much the same deal as last time, which isn't so bad!
JPEGMafia: All My Heroes Are Cornballs (EQT) [hr]
Third album from Baltimore experimental wizard Barrington Hendricks, who proves everything by having nothing to prove, is sort of like if Odelay was as imaginative and breathless as I thought it was when I was 15. It's a flood of jokes and non sequiturs and self-challenges that slides in nicely with recent avant-rap manifestos from Injury Reserve and clipping. but is, honestly, quite a bit humbler and wittier, with a distinctively personal flavor so much alt-rap carefully skirts. The best comparison I know of is the underrated London O'Connor; I hope some of JPEG's thot army gives him a listen.
- Highlights: "BBW"; "Papi I Missed You"; "Free the Frail"
- Rapsody: Eve (Jamla) [my queen is Marlanna Evans from Snow Hill; "Ibtihaj"/"Whoopi"/"Cleo"]
- Brockhampton: Ginger (RCA) [my advice: stop thinking and enjoy]
- Missy Elliott: Iconology (Atlantic EP) [Slum Village memories but more please]
- Joan Shelley: Like River Loves the Sea (No Quarter) [Louisville folkie goes sweet and slow]
- Tinariwen: Amadjar (Epitaph) ["Madjam Mahilkamen"/"Mhadjar Yassouf Idjan"]
- Chrissie Hynde: Valve Bone Woe (BMG) [cheap tactics that work on me; "Caroline, No"/"No Return"]
- Pharmakon: Devour (Sacred Bones) [honestly, respect to one of the realest ones out there]
- Sampa the Great: The Return (Ninja Tune) [Sydney-based Zamibian rapper's material slaps like crazy but the LP goes on twice as long as it should and, really, I don't think you get to mock the "introspecive interlude" trend and then run full-bore into it; "Diamond in the Ruff"/"Heaven"/"Final Form"]
RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Sirom: A Universe That Roasts Blossoms for a Horse (tak:til)
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Bill Orcutt: Odds Against Tomorrow
Chromatics: Closer to Grey
The Menzingers: Hello Exile
Kelsey Waldon: White Noise/White Lines
Penguin Cafe: Handfuls of Night
Lightning Dust: Spectre
Julien Chang: Jules
Garcia Peoples: One Step Behind
Battles: Juice B Crypts
Homeboy Sandman: Dusty
Frankie Cosmos: Close It Quietly
Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin' [NYIM]
Modern Nature: How to Live [NYIM]
HTRK: Venus in Leo [NYIM]
MUNA: Saves the World [NYIM]
Bat for Lashes: Lost Girls
Velvet Negroni: Neon Brown
Vivian Girls: Memory
North Mississippi Allstars: Up and Rolling
Feet: What's Inside Is More Than Just Ham
Empath: Active Listening - Night on Earth [NYIM]
Carla Dal Forno: Look Up Sharp
Kacy & Clayton: Carrying On [NYIM]
Common Holly: When I Say to You Black Lightning [NYIM]
Bodega: Shiny New Model
White Reaper: You Deserve Love
Jacques Green: Dawn Chorus
The Muffs: No Holiday [NYIM]
Refused: War Music
Caroline Polachek: Pang
Jimmy Eat World: Surviving
Foals: Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Pt. 2
Mark Lanegan Band: Somebody's Knocking
MUNA "Number One Fan" [Saves the World]
OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um (Columbia 1959) [hr]