Wednesday, February 19, 2020

New Music Report #1

REPORTS ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF THE POP SCENE FROM THE NATION'S LEADING EXPERT, NATHAN "THE INTIMIDATOR" PHILLIPS

These are all releases from the last quarter of 2019, but I'm tweaking the format on new music posts here a little. The emphasis of this blog is shifting back to giving me an outlet to write about my favorites, largely 20th century stuff, but capsules and very short takes dedicated to new albums will continue on an irregular basis along with annual best-of lists and the other obligations to continuing to check in on and pay attention to current releases, which does remain important to me as your curator. These posts will be numbered, not tied to a specific time period, and will show up every third or fourth time you hear from me. This first post basically continues the format as it used to stand for the monthly dispatches, but after this, I generally won't bother doing complete capsule reviews of records I don't particularly like by artists I don't know. So it will mostly be the regular recommendation gazette, plus the continued regular followings of musical careers that have mattered to us in some capacity over the past decade. (In other words, the only detailed pans will be for performers I actually respect.)

I will continue exclusively to cover studio albums in these posts, although I'll often have a couple of quick notes on other things. In this case: I haven't typed out a review yet but the Beach Boys' annual archive dump this year amounted to just three songs (now available on all your streaming services), one of them the horrifying bootlegged curiosity item "Over the Waves"; I don't quite know how to catalog this -- an EP? a compilation? -- but I will add a brief response to the Beach Boys discography soon after you read this. Also, an enthusiastic recommendation here for Courtney Barnett's MTV Unplugged album, which like so much of her career thus far is inspiring and layered and never takes the easy way out, rearranging several of her best songs and closing out with a perfectly stunning Leonard Cohen cover.

Here are my last album reviews for 2019. The overarching theme is "I give up." Embarrassed to say I had this post basically ready for several weeks and never got around to formatting it; meanwhile Beatles stuff I didn't intend to put up yet got posted automatically because I didn't realize the dates I'd set for them were so close. Fear not, this isn't entirely turning into a Beatles blog. (A Dylan blog? Well, we'll talk. Watch the Netflix doco if you haven't.)

Kanye West: Jesus Is King (Def Jam) [r]
[Long, heavy sigh.] I don't think this is a bad record. I'm not even sure it's not a better record than Slow Train Coming, or The Life of Pablo. At this stage, with Kanye West's public personage never more insufferable, I will go ahead and tell you I don't think he can make a bad record, or maybe more accurately, an uninteresting one. This is respectable, it's honest (if it weren't honest, it wouldn't be so completely fixated on how religion has benefitted West personally as opposed to why it matters beyond his personal borders), it's hooked on minimalism -- though it does feel a lot longer than it is -- and it's brilliantly produced. The touches of apocalypse on "Selah" echo the happier-for-Kanye times of 2004, "Follow God" has more eyes and ears on it than all the Youtube rants it vaguely approximates combined, and the central joke of "Closed on Sunday" is somewhere on the humor level of Joe Biden's stump speech but West repeats it so incessantly it becomes hysterical. There's club stuff later, Atari skating rink shit, sort of Kanye business as usual except no "explicit lyrics" until it comes in for the home stretch and starts unleashing his most unfiltered paranoia yet. "God Is" is almost undeniably an outstanding piece of music -- the sampling, the production, even West's slightly awkward vocals -- and leads into a pair of tunes that evoke Nine Inch Nails and "Night on Bald Mountain." Again, it's slim, it's weird, it's audacious, the Jesus stuff is icky, but this is honestly more effort and distinctiveness than most superstars are serving up after almost two decades in the spotlight.

King Princess: Cheap Queen (Columbia)
Mikaela Straus was born the year teen pop began to reassert its dominance in America, and her music demonstrates the way that the money-grubbing adolescent charms of that music has assimiliated in what is essentially fridge-buzz adult contemporary -- the best, most idiosyncratic song on her debut album is the one that runs under a minute and a half -- spotty, grown up, vaguely alt-leaning, decent, but also homogenized. We've reached the point when a singer-songwriter can sound like her work was written and vetted by a committee, and can you blame her? It's in the blood now, the water, whatever. Anyway, this has some nice sounds and grooves; "Hit the Back" is kind of Shura-esque.

Miranda Lambert: Wildcard (Sony)
Never sure what to say about these country albums; thankfully this is probably the last time I'll have to try to review one. This seems perfectly fine to me, and while it rarely asserts itself to these ears, I appreciate the hard-won life advice of "It All Comes Out in the Wash," the anticarceral feminism of "Way Too Pretty for Prison" and the new wave influence of "Track Record." But I'm so clearly not a part of this audience, I can't really endorse or condemn.

Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw) [r]
Debut from L.A.-based singer-songwriter Brittney Parks relies equally on her violin virtuosity and an attraction to experimental R&B. There's not a lot going on but it sounds good late at night, especially if you're not sober.

Michael Kiwanuka: Kiwanuka (Interscope) [r]
On a rampage, having a great one, artistically engaged and totally floating in space with no outside intrusions. Best songs: "Living in Denial" and "Hero."

Earl Sweatshirt: Feet of Clay (Warner Bros.)
A ripped-up postcard from Earl, like entering a very heated conversation midstream. Seventeen minutes feel like ages. For what it's worth, this is weirder music than anything on any indie label at the moment.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: I Made a Place (Drag City)
Will Oldham, total lifer, total institution, wailing tunes and sharing rants in the movies, you know all this, but it maybe bears asking how much the Folk Wing of the college-indie rock metaverse is comprised of people who secretly wish they were back at home cranking John Denver records on the turntable. Oldham's latest is inoffensive until it simply goes on too long, with reasonably happy memories of Loudon Wainwright and Cat Stevens and Richard Thompson and Oar, a jaunty opener, a lovably intimate second cut and some pleasing female co-vocals. There are also some really stupid lyrics, some bad Dylan, some melodies you swear you've heard before... but what do you say? It's a nice voice I reckon ("Mama Mama") and it's some guy playing guitar.

Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance (Columbia) [hr]
Times have deteriorated, and the late Cohen's scraps are more interesting than the stuff Oldham gathers in a walled garden and hires a PR department to flog mercilessly; that goes too for most of Oldham's peers and younger, from Phil Elverum to Snail Mail; it's not their fault, it's just a fucking embarrassment, Cohen barely even breathed into a microphone to create this brief collection of fragmented, incomplete ideas surrounded by absorbing production and old ideas and it still ruins everything anybody might try to do in his wake. There's a song that's shaped by some verses he casually slipped into the microphone at a press conference a few months before his death; the music that surrounds his words thanks to producer-composer Adam Cohen is basically generic atmosphere, you can still vaguely make out the ambiance of the room and the whole thing is a fairly awkward concoction and it beats the living shit out of Sun Kil Moon's entire body of work. Cohen dicking around, at death's door, unaware that he is even making music is more impressive than if Car Seat Headrest was given a MacArthur Genius grant and spent it creating a new kind of music no one had ever heard before. Father John Misty should retire because his life is pointless. We should all retire. We should all retire and listen to this absolute asshole body us all with something called "The Night of Santiago," corny and silly and romantic, because it is more touching and effective than any artistic thought or impulse that will ever be generated from our foolish little heads. Beck guests on this. I think Feist or someone does too. Nobody cares. Cohen grunts and snarls and talks and that's all the fuck we care about, that's the only substance there is to anything. Respect to an absolute God. I miss him so much, and hearing him here is very cathartic.

Davido: A Good Time (RCA) [c]
U.S.-Nigerian singer updates "worldbeat" for the confines of R&B radio with all the short-sighted commercialism thereby implied. His performances are enthusiastic. The writing is generic, the production sometimes effective, and the album is much too long.

Tinashe: Songs for You (s/r) [r]
Jumping ship from the A-list to delve into her own ecosystem, this major talent could benefit from more outside editing but there's a lot to love here, especially the acid nocturne of "Save Room for Us" and the towering sound of not giving a fuck on "Perfect Crime."

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The regular feature in which I check the Discogs pages of everyone who got an exceptionally positive review here in the last ten years to see if they came out with something and I missed it. This time out I ended up with quite a few collabs and mixtapes and oddities but seemingly only one legitimate studio album:

The Last Poets: Transcending Toxic Times (Ropeadope) [r]
Not as vivid, and a little bit of a retread, but of course engaging.

In terms of shorter form releases, I ran into a couple of mild mediocrities from artists who did better work this year:

Samiyam: I Got Shit to Do (s/r)
Curren$y/Freddie Gibbs/Alchemist: Fetti (Jet Life)

And while some may disagree, I personally think consistency is a fine trait for a musician, so I will note that all of the below releases feature the artists in question doing exactly what you expect of them and doing it well.

Samiyam: One on Each Planet (s/r EP) [r]
Curren$y & Statik Selektah: Gran Turismo (Jet Life) [r]
Iglooghost, Kai Whiston & BABii: XYZ (Supernature) [r]
Songhoy Blues: Meet Me in the City (Fat Possum EP) [r]
Surfer Blood: Hourly Haunts (Persona Non Grata EP) [r]
My only minor notes here: the Samiyam has some genuinely freaky sounds on it, and the Surfer Blood disc is quite lovely, full of songs that sound like covers but aren't.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
- The Menzingers: Hello Exile (Epitaph) [I'm kinda getting emotional here, man]
- Chromatics: Closer to Grey (Italians Do It Better) [like so many houseguests, incredibly fun for the first few hours; "On the Wall"/"You're No Good"/"Closer to Grey"]
- Homeboy Sandman: Dusty (Mello Music) [oft engaging, oft poetry-slam dumb, always impressive sonically]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Bill Orcutt: Odds Against Tomorrow (Palilalia)
- Penguin Cafe: Handfuls of Night (Erased Tapes)

REJECTS:
Kelsey Waldon: White Noise/White Lines
Lightning Dust: Spectre
Julien Chang: Jules [NYIM]
Garcia Peoples: One Step Behind [NYIM]
Battles: Juice B Crypts

ORPHAN TUNES
Battles ft. Merrill Garbus "Last Supper on Shasta" [Juice B Crypts]
Tame Impala "Patience" [non-LP single]
Tierra Whack "Only Child" [non-LP single]
Vince Staples "So What?" [non-LP single]
Wye Oak "Fortune" [non-LP single]
Rolling Blackouts C.F. "In the Capital"/"Read My Mind" [non-LP singles]
Pusha T ft. Ms. Lauryn Hill "Coming Home" [non-LP single]
Charly Bliss "All I Want for Christmas Is You" [non-LP single] {Mariah Carey cover}

OLD ALBUMS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) LATELY
Courtney Barnett: MTV Unplugged: Live in Melbourne (Mom + Pop 2019) [hr]
Curtis Mayfield: Curtis (Curtom 1970) [hr]
Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor 1970) [-] {Still just can't.}
Flying Lotus: Presents INFINITY Infinitum Maida Vale Session (Stranded 2010/2019) [r]
Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol 1955) [r]

My very late 2019 list is forthcoming, followed by a revised decade list that will incorporate those results, with lots of other, more carefully written stuff in the interim. Let me know if you have any questions.

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