Monday, December 14, 2015

The room was empty, but...: Autumn 2015 music diary (part 1 of 2)

Designed to be the September post, but calling it that would seem silly at this point. Boo. I swear I'm doing my best to catch up.

Due to a pair of unforseen, praiseworthy records springing up from the evals, you get 22 this time!

Young Thug: Barter 6 (Atlantic)
Enunciate, dude!

Great Lake Swimmers: A Forest of Arms (Nettwerk) [NO]
Stop enunciating, dude! A tragic slide into MOR awfulness continues, and it'd be inoffensive enough if their first couple of records hadn't been so brilliant. Like Iron & Wine, this group -- a coincidental discovery I was once so proud of making for myself -- is an object lesson in why not to give your heart to folkies: sooner or later they'll stomp on it. Every song sounds like a Lowenbrau ad.

Speedy Ortiz: Foil Deer (Carpark) [c]
Same as before, so much done-to-death modern rock from the days when that was a profitable radio format. I get why this is a nostalgia trip for some folks but I didn't even like this kind of stuff in the '90s.

Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color (Rough Trade) [hr]
A straightforward, if adventurous and incredibly tight, rock band channeling the White Stripes, David Bowie and Al Green in equal measure? And they're (deservedly) popular? Escaping from the roots rock formalism of their previous work, this red-hot album boasts well-written, brilliantly performed, eclectic songs that get bolted into oblivion with dynamic guitarist and singer Brittany Howard at the helm. Howard's showstopper is the wild "Gimme All Your Love" but the band is best when demonstrating full synergy on cuts like the overjoyed road-movie "Shoegaze," the instant nostalgia creator "Don't Wanna Fight" and the pure glammed-out punk of "The Greatest". On the slow ones, they evoke the sensation of plumbing the depths of a box of old unknown eccentric 45s more than any of the groups ostensibly designed to do the same thing. What a joy this is to hear; it's perhaps slightly overlong but I'm not gonna complain.

Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld: Never Were the Way She Was (Constellation) [r]
This collaboration between popular bass saxophonist Stetson -- who does a lot of session work with hype bands -- and Arcade Fire violinist Neufeld functions as a solid atmosphere for zoning or working or dinner or whatever. Then you find out it was done without a single loop or overdub and suddenly your impulse is to start the whole thing over and listen intently from beginning to end, as you'd swear it was essentially an electronic record.

Blur: The Magic Whip (Warner Bros.) [r]
During the twelve-year gap from Think Tank to now, this became an Important Band... In a way it's comforting that they don't sound like one here. It's a slapdash record, which is a good thing, and sounds even more than usual like a group of outtakes from the Jam. Its charm and modesty are the ideal response to a post-breakup surge in popularity, but it does still manage to go a bit too far in the direction of trying to please multiple contingents. There's no sense of growth. Maybe that's all right.

Ciara: Jackie (Epic)
It didn't get as much attention as it deserved, but Ciara's last record was one of the leanest and most intensely fun R&B albums of the decade. This breakup album, inspired by her relationship with Future and her becoming a new mother, is distressingly bland by comparison, though her voice remains a juggernaut. The economy and hooks are both absent; what we do get goes for the painfully obvious, sounding like a slate of third-tier radio songs. She has every right to proclaim herself a bad motherfucker, write a love song for her kid and put the ex in his place, but it's all so undercooked.

Hop Along: Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Philadelphia indie rock band boasts great lyrics and fairly ordinary songcraft & singing, albeit with some Mary Wells-like stretching of range courtesy of leader Frances Quinlan. There is a decently robust sound here, so your taste for Quinlan's vocals could easily make this major for you.

Kamasi Washington: The Epic (Brainfeeder)
The backdrop of this fair to middlin' three-disc collection from the L.A.-bred tenor saxophonist sounds like the ambient music in Tomorrowland or something; the completely ridiculous lyrics on the finale could fit right in at the Carousel of Progress.

Hiatus Kaiyote: Choose Your Weapon (Flying Buddha) [c]
Smooooooooooooooooooooooooth generic ass lite-AM shit. (See, I don't have a pro-Aussie bias!)

Prurient: Frozen Niagara Falls (Profound Lore) [c]
2 CDs of sludge and tink and buzz.

Jim O'Rourke: Simple Songs (Drag City) [r]
The ordinary, shrouded in mystery, on O'Rourke's first conventional album in a decade and a half. O'Rourke obviously is better known for his work with other artists, but this is a surprisingly appealing record. Anyone fond of the grim, self-deprecating output of the best '70s singer-songwriters should get a kick out of this well-sung, intimate, immaculately recorded cycle of wit and despair.

Surfer Blood: 1000 Palms (Joyful Noise) [r]
Dollar signs were visible over Warners executives' heads when they signed this ruthlessly hardworking, now unceasingly troubled band five years ago; after a domestic violence scandal involving singer John Paul Pitts left their public standing deservedly shaken, the weak Gil Norton-produced sophomore album Pythons was barely promoted when it finally appeared from the Sire imprint. Now the band's meteoric major label rise and fall rivals Interpol's as the indie era's fastest self-correction, and they are back on a shoestring. And then comes news that guitarist Thomas Fekete -- single-handed architect of their shimmering, pointed sound -- is struggling with a rare form of cancer. In between all the bad news and bad acts is a album that's actually solid; they sound pretty depressed these days, which has improved their sound immeasurably after the misguided Cars move that was Pythons. It's too long -- could lose at least three cuts -- but all the songs eventually feature some striking hook or another; it's not always unpleasant to dig through the mess to find them, as on a song like "Saber-Tooth & Bone" that begins as a slog and grows increasingly pleasurable. The record in general most clearly resembles their obscure EP cut "Drinking Problem," the direction they really should have started taking years ago. There are still bits and pieces of "surf" music -- basically, Weezer meets the Barracudas meets Built to Spill, in this band's definition -- in songs like "Feast / Famine" and "Island" (virtually a clone of various songs on their first album, though better recorded) but Astro Coast was at its best when it diverged into a surprising taste for the driving power of a well-amplified lick. A good example is the inspired transition on "Grand Inqusitor"; even if both divisions of the song are a tad labored, it's riveting the way they collide. Similarly, "I Can't Explain" begins as the saddest song they've ever done, then hits upon that heavenly chorus. But Pitts sounds tired (check out "Dorian") and the only signs of real evolution are on "Point of No Return," which sounds a bit like... U2!? At any rate, a fun album that's actually better than the sum of its parts, and a step in the right direction for them.

The Tallest Man on Earth: Dark Bird Is Home (Dead Oceans)
It's the eternal folkie problem: what does "evolving" sound like? A half century after Bob Dylan came up with the best answer thus far for that question, singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, compared so often to Dylan at the beginning of his career despite bearing only a superficial resemblance, attempts to fill out a set of songs about his divorce with a full band and elaborate producing and engineering for the first time. To say the least, it's a jarring transition. Three albums of stark, solo strumming and singing made this conclusion almost inevitable, but one wishes he had taken on less safe points of reference. Bruce Springsteen seems like the overriding informant, with second track "Darkness of the Dream" rife with Born to Run Bossisms, but the inflix of an almost Celtic influence -- the first time Matsson's really allowed himself to "sound" European -- on songs like "A Slow Dance," "Beginners" and particularly "Sagres" give uncomfortable memories of Sting's post-Police Muzak. For someone whose music has been so appealingly intimate, a bid for the lush and epic is probably logical enough and the songs do come through eventually (the only outright bad one is a piano balled called "Little Nowhere Towns" that's as obvious and spineless as it sounds): "Singers" is pleasing in its slight complementing of his traditional sound, and the gradual, disarming buildup on the title cut -- which closes the record -- marks the first time that the integration of the fuller sound seems to properly fit with the material as written. The electric guitar that rang out on Matsson's 2010 cut "The Dreamer" was surprising and enriching in a much more striking manner than this, but maybe a second record in this format will allow him to smooth out the rough edges in the bad clashing of material and arrangement.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Xango) [r]
Absent of both the cutting, raw anger of the near-masterpiece Jama Ko (2013) and the immediate crossover appeal of I Speak Fula (2010), this album remains worthwhile just for the opportunity to sit and listen to one of the world's finest bands chill out and engage in their often riveting interplay of vocals, percussion and ngoni. Kouyate's wife Amy Sacko sings more than on the last two albums and in fact her voice dominates, as does more elaborate production that's not always as complementary as it should be. Likely the biggest reason for the reduction in urgency is that Jama Ko was recorded in the midst of an Islamist military coup, the same one documented in this year's acclaimed film Timbuktu; in that sense, the moments of calmness are a relief. But this is a matter of degrees -- for anyone who loved the previous records, this will be a delight, and it's as fine an introduction as any; you'll come away wanting more.

The Wave Pictures: Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon (Moshi Moshi) [hr]
This trio from Leicestershire was somehow unknown to me despite having formed almost twenty years ago and having collaborated with the Mountain Goats; they already have a rich, exhaustive discography -- this is their fourteenth album. But this is an immediately striking, invigorating introduction. Behind classic rock riffage (there are even two CCR covers!) and hook-filled anthems, lead singer David Tattersall has Tom Verlaine and Jonathan Richman in his blood, and the main attraction here is in fact his coy, evocative, frequently sublime lyrics (mainly written in tandem with renegade art school refugee Billy Childish). The music is danceable and catchy and every great thing you want from the best rock & roll, but what keeps you coming back is the thrill of listening to Tattersall bouncing around spinning everything into blissful, detailed, intricate image: the telephone three floors above, the neighbors not screaming at each other for once, that first cigarette, curling up like hedgehogs, being at "the Pattersons" (Paul McCartney once said about "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!": "the Hendersons -- you couldn't make that up"), frogs singing loudly in the distance, a room that's empty but the iron's still burning and a goldfish is circling, and everyone at the station dressed in black except for you. These feel like real spaces, real people, real moments, and it's a joy to live in them. That guitar music can still be sublime should give us all hope.

Ghostface Killah & BadBadNotGood: Sour Soul (Lex) [hr]
Ghostface is probably well past his prime at this point and the Canadian jazz-dance unit BadBadNotGood's work is often pedestrian, but the two are somehow an unexpectedly perfect combination in 2015, even when Ghostface slips into overly trodden "pimpin' ain't EZ" territory. The band's work and production are magnificent, even if it backgrounds the star attraction; if you have to have it delivered as mood music, it's worth it to experience the sheets of weird aural bliss and under-the-skin grooves (and, sure, the occasional spy movie theme song) reached thanks to the collision of a great MC's perfect delivery with a dynamic, adventurous band with a bottomless well of influences to draw from. It's not quite Astral Weeks -- jarring appearances from the likes of Danny Brown on the menacing "Six Degress" prevent a full-on Beautiful Music onset occasionally threatened by the instrumentals -- but Ghostface and the band manage to intensity one another's work, giving us what's probably his most inspired work in the better part of a decade and their strongest ever. More, please.

Holly Herndon: Platform (4AD)
San Franciscan DJ and sound-collage artist indulges in ear-tickling futurism; this sort of like a Oneohtrix album with shades of singer-songwriterism. It feels slapped together and doesn't hang, but it's still promising. The track that consists of audio from a RedTube clip is kind of out of place, though.

Hot Chip: Why Make Sense? (Domino) [r]
The worst Hot Chip album is better than James Murphy's best, but they do seem to be following trends now; their unabashed EDM record comes a full two years after Cut Copy's equally ignored and much more successful stab. Always listenable and danceable, they've passed into the same murk that started to plague New Order in the late '80s. I maintain that a long break after the tremendous One Life Stand would've helped, but I understand why it probably wasn't possible.

Nao: February 15 EP (Little Tokyo)
Pretty, pleasant, well-produced R&B; just a taste. Highly derivative, including of artists -- FKA twigs, for instance -- I can't stand, but more palatable because it's more anonymous, oddly. (Like Stone Temple Pilots versus most other grunge bands; RIP.)

Chastity Belt: Time to Go Home (Hardly Art) [hr]
Wondrous, minor-key post-punk schlock from the Pacific northwest lets the melodies right out in front while arming them with sheets of powerful, ringing guitars. There's an anti-slutshaming anthem and a smart, bleak relationship song called "Trapped" ("Why are we so concerned with endings? / we can be happy for a while / now when I close my eyes I envy anyone who feels all right"), and the generational critique "Joke," which finally goes further on the accusations made in Pavement's "Here." But the one that haunts the most is the fierce opener "Drone," mournful and melodic and sludgy but somehow utterly distinct and sharp, and built on a sneering, powerful chorus that deserves to go down in some kind of history: "He was just another man trying to teach me something." It's not all in the delivery but the delivery is something, and like the record as a whole it digs into a dedicated mood while never losing a sense of profound urgency. A slow-burning stunner.

Built to Spill: Untethered Moon (Warner Bros.) [hr]
If you went to college (or were supposed to be in college but didn't go, not that I'd know anything about that) in the early 2000s this was one of your favorite bands. Not that you remember, but their four seminal albums remain terrific in a fashion rare for the staples of their era. Since 2001, Doug Martsch and his band have gone on quietly, churning out plenty of respectable music but few of the moments of passion that infused records like Keep It Like a Secret. That's what happens, even to good or great musicians, and there are few out there greater in more understated a fashion. This, then, comes as a complete shock: Built to Spill's best, clearest, most incisive collection of songs in well over a decade. The strangest thing is that the record comes, conquers and leaves as casually as if power and fire underneath their best work had never gone away at all -- this is the sound of a band for whom the drone, the awe-inspiring riffs, the perfectly accented and extended hooks come naturally. Of course nostalgia factors into this; "Living Zoo" sounds like it just stepped off a time machine, and when you get lost in the perfect construction and meaty distortion of "Another Day," it's like... y'know, Alternative Is Alive. The band's lineup is more unstable than ever, though maybe the chemistry's improved this time around, but Martsch's obvious dedication has probably never been so evident, even if his lyrics still have the twinges of the sophomoric that always wavered between charm and irritation. He's as distinct and brilliant a guitarist as ever, though, and he's only improved as a singer over the years, to the point that album climax "When I'm Blind" could pass for mid-'70s Neil Young. When that song comes back for that last, unexpected chorus, well, who knew an aging guitar band could still providde such holy-shit moments?


Albums I heard in part that warrant further consideration; capsule reviews, short summaries or rejections will follow. I err on the side of caution here, allowing for mood etc., so a lot of these are probably not good. The ones at the top with stars next to them are the ones that really stood out to me and I may not have even been able to turn them off. They are almost guaranteed to become recommendations.

* Leon Bridges: Coming Home
* Four Tet: Morning/Evening
* Ducktails: St. Catherine
* Field Music: Music for Drifters
* Carly Ray Jepsen: E-MO-TION
* Blackalicious: Imani, Vol. 1
* Robert Forster: Songs to Play
- Wolf Alice: My Love Is Cool
- Nils Frahm: Victoria
- The Internet: Ego Death
- LA Priest: Inji
- Matrixxman: Homesick
- EZTV: Calling Out
- Rachel Sermanni: Tied to the Moon
- Ghostface Killah: Twelve Reasons to Die II
- Julio Bashmore: Knockin' Boots
- White Reaper: White Reaper Does It Again
- The Chemical Brothers: Born in the Echoes
- Stacy Barthe: Becoming
- Omar Souleyman: Bahdeni Nami
- Lianne La Havas: Blood
- Golden Rules: Golden Ticket
- Public Enemy: Man Plans, God Laughs
- Gunplay: Living Legend
- yuk: a n a k
- Night Beds: Ivywild
- AFX: Orphaned Deejay Selek EP
- The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness
- Max Richter: (From) Sleep
- Helen: The Original Faces
- Widowspeak: All Yours
- Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon


Dismissed from consideration. NYIM = "it's not you, it's me." The rest seemed pretty bad to me, but remember I don't listen to these start to finish (except those that were listed under "further investigation" last month).

The Monochrome Set: Spaces Everywhere [NYIM]
Allison Moorer: Down to Believing
The Go! Team: The Scene Between
Follkazoid: III
Pokey LaFarge: Something in the Water
Colleen: Captain of None
Toro Y Moi: What For?
This Is the Kit: Bashed Out
Stornoway: Bonxie
Polar Bear: Same as You
Rhett Miller: The Traveler
Georgia Anne Muldrow: Thoughtiverse Unmarred
Indigo Girls: One Lost Day
SOAK: Before We Forgot How to Dream
Girlpool: Before the World Was Big
Leftfield: Alternative Light Source
Prinzhorn Dance School: Home Economics
No Joy: More Faithful
Desaparecidos: Payola
Helm: Olympic Mess
RP Boo: Fingers, Blank Pads and Shoe Prints
Trembling Bells: The Sovereign Self
Meek Mill: Dreams Worth More Than Money
Failure: The Heart Is a Monster
Refused: Freedom
Stevie Stone: Malta Band
Best Friends: Hot. Reckless. Totally Insane.
Veruca Salt: Ghost Notes
Samatha Crain: Under Branch & Thorn & Tree
Ratatat: Magnifique
Flo Morrissey: Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful
Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell: Sing into My Mouth
Flying Saucer Attack: Instrumentals 2015
Warren Haynes: Ashes and Dust
Jill Scott: Woman
Watkins Family Hour
Kasey Chambers: Bittersweet
Liberez: All Tense Now Lax
Seven Davis Jr.: Universes
M.E.S.H.: Piteous Gate
Daniel Romano: If I've Only One Time Askin'
Red River Dialect: Tender Gold & Gentle Blue
The Maccabees: Marks to Prove It
Haiku Salut: Etch and Etch Deep
Deaf Wish: Pain
Iris DeMent: Trackless Woods
La Luz: Weirdo Shrine
The Phoenix Foundation: Give Up Your Dreams
Ultimate Painting: Green Lanes
Mac DeMarco: Another One
Dr. Dre: Compton
Teedra Moses: Congnac & Conversation
Teri Lynne Carrington: The Mosaic Project: Love & Soul
HEALTH: Death Magic
Slime: Company
Neck Deep: Life's Not Out to Get You
Palehound: Dry Food
Sweet Baboo: The Boombox Ballads
Barrence Whitfield & the Savages: Under the Savage Sky
Ghost B.C.: Meliora
Mick Jenkins: Wave(s) EP
Deradoorian: The Expanding Flower Planet
DRINKS: Hermits on Holiday
The Telescopes: Hidden Fields
Finale: Odds & Ends
Defeater: Abandoned
Maddie & Tae: Start Here
Hooton Tennis Club: Highest Point in Cliff Town
Frog Eyes: Pickpocket's Locket
Willis Earl Beal: Nocturnes
Foals: What Went Down
The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
Ane Brun: When I'm Free
k-os: Can't Fly Without Gravity
Blank Realm: Illegals in Heaven
The Wonder Years: No Closer to Heaven
Lou Barlow: Brace the Wave
Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats: The Night Creeper
Dam-Funk: Invite the Light
Public Image Ltd: What the World Needs Now
Travis Scott: Rodeo
Andra Day: Cheers to the Fall
Petite Noir: La Vie Est Belle
King Midas Sound: Edition 1
Rosie McDowall: Cut with the Cake Knife
Ought: Sun Coming Down


The Go! Team ft. Samira Winter "What D'You Say?" [The Scene Between]
Polar Bear "We Feel the Echoes" [Same as You]
STS x RJD2 "Doin' It Right" [s/t]
Chastity Belt "Drone" [Time to Go Home]
Alabama Shakes "Don't Wanna Fight" [Sound & Color]
Built to Spill "When I'm Blind" [Untethered Moon]
The Wave Pictures "The Goldfish" [Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon]
Yo La Tengo "Butchie's Tune" {Lovin' Spoonful cover} [Stuff Like That There]
Björk "Unison" [Vespertine (2001)]
Twerps "Shoulders" [Range Anxiety]
Pavement "Major Leagues" [Terror Twilight (1999)]
Van Morrison "And It Stoned Me" [Moondance (1970)]
Surfer Blood "I Can't Explain" [1000 Palms]
Ghostface & BadBadNotGood ft. Elzhi "Gunshowers" [Sour Soul]
Bob Dylan "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" [Highway 61 Revisited (1965)]
The Decemberists "Shiny" [5 Songs EP (2001)]
Stone Temple Pilots "Interstate Love Song" [Purple (1994)]


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Clarity clarity clarity clarity clarity clarity: New music diary for summer 2015

From the beginning of this blog's existence, the idea was that -- since I get an equal amount of enjoyment from listening and responding to music both new and old -- every new (current year, that is) release reviewed herein would be followed by a catalog writeup. A 1:1 ratio. However, reviews of old records routinely require more concentration and dedication, new ones more research and energy, so it seems logical at this point to split the two into separate routines. Thus from now on, the monthly regular posts will include no reviews of old records; those will be presented and archived separately in ways that will be explained in the near future. There won't be a timeline on those reviews any longer. New LP reviews, though, will start to correspond much more to release dates, though I can't accommodate more than twenty new albums in a month. New dedication to this cause came about because I recently joined the current decade and began using Spotify on a tablet and smartphone, which has made this stuff a lot easier to do consistently and fluidly.

The slightly altered format will also give a bit more information about what sources bring me to the albums that are reviewed here, and what material is being set aside behind the scenes. Very little of the writing on new albums is going to be as polished as something you'd want somebody to get paid for, and in fact I'm trying to scale things back to keep this all both relaxed and fun for me, but hopefully it will remain helpful all the same.


The 20 albums below, released in the first half of 2015 (we're behind), were all heard multiple times by me, and all fit at least one of the following criteria:
- They have received an average of 80 or above on Metacritic with at least ten critical reviews contributing.
- They were recommended by one of three specific sources: they received Pitchfork's Best New Music tag, even though these days P4K seem often to only define one of those three words in the same way I do; they were rewarded 4.5 stars from AMG (R&B and hip hop only); or they received an "A" from Robert Christgau in his Expert Witness column, currently situated at Noisey. These sources can and will change; Pitchfork is the only one I've consistently used since starting this thing in 2010. There are other specific critics I trust and try to follow around as they switch gigs, and friends whose advice carries extra weight with me; at some point I'll try to elaborate some on this.
- They are new albums (usually excluding covers albums or seasonal records, with some exceptions) or EPs by artists who've been given a "highly recommended" review by me within the last ten years. I do not count live albums, compilations, etc. as "new releases" for the purpose of this feature.
- Investigated by me for separate reasons on a previous month of auditions and evaluations (see below), they moved me enough to advance to the full-capsule category. This generally will only happen with records I really really love, enough so to add to my workload here!
- Metal albums are excluded from all of the above. I have no understanding of them and thus I don't review them. I also ignore certain artists it is established I absolutely hate, such as Kurt Vile, Drake and Sleaford Mods.

Matthew E. White: Fresh Blood (Domino) [c]
Virginian DIYer has a distinctly commercial sound; you'll discern quickly whether or not it's for you thanks to his (for me) nails on a chalkboard voice, which reminds me of a fusion between alt-J (whose music I actually like) and '90s one-hitters Eagle Eye Cherry and Everlast.

Madonna: Rebel Heart (Interscope)
Follow-up to MDMA came much more quickly than I expected, and at first I was pleasantly surprised because I'd thought she was likely on the verge of descending into confining her energy almost exclusively to touring. And this album, particularly on the front end, thankfully doesn't prompt the wheels-coming-off feeling of the last two but it still feels unsettled. Madonna is constantly confronted by sexism in the press via mouth-breathers who wonder why she doesn't settle into the adult contemporary doldrums instead of asserting that women her age actually like and want sex and expressing such with a sense of perk and energy. That sort of thinking drives me bonkers, but it's unavoidable that the strongest moments here are when Madonna quits trying to court the youth vote. The first couple of songs are relaxed, assured dance music with a breezy, grown-up nonchalance not unlike what Pet Shop Boys did with former M. associate Stuart Price. The rest vacillates between two weird extremes: elder-statesperson scolding and faux-"current" stuff. The former figures in weak pieces like "Joan of Arc," full of unbecoming "perils of fame" hogwash, and the latter is exemplified by a couple of Kanye West production guest spots, lyrics about "the Illuminati," and songs with titles like "Bitch I'm Madonna." No one can take away her iconic pedigree but the quest for an eternal image leaves the music circling the drain.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope) [r]
Is it permissible to call a spade a spade and admit this is bloated? I get it -- validated when the autobio went wide, he is everyman no longer and now a messenger, and as with so many superstars before and after him the sense of responsibility has become overwhelming, particularly in a year when the value of human life is so openly being questioned by murderous authority. Lamar fortunately is talented enough to process this into a compelling, admirable and often brilliant artistic statement, but the result is overlong, sprawling, overambitious. One thing for sure: it's not an album whose mark will be forgotten, thanks maybe less to its intermittently pleasurable, consistently confrontational music than to its unexpectedly timely politics -- George Clinton in tow for real and in spirit on the second recent record after D'Angelo's to call Parliament-Funkadelic and, yes, Sly & the Family Stone to arms as more than sonic wallpaper (Tupac shows up too, standing in as King of Denmark) -- and the engrossingly alive sound, making liberal use of live instrumentation that suggests the arrangement mastery of not just Arthur Lee and Flying Lotus but Marvin Gaye. It's nice to have a record that so boldly and slowly reveals its patterns and structures, denying even more than good kid, m.A.A.d. city the comfort of structred hooks ("i" comes closest with its Isley Brothers sample but tantalizingly breaks down into chaos); though it nevertheless offers up experiences as distinctive as the whimsical "For Free?", defiant "The Blacker the Berry," and blissfully slamming "King Kunta," its best songs "How Much a Dollar Cost" and "Momma" are its most apocalyptic, personal, audibly important. Righteous as it is, taken together it ends up sidelining his most distinctive features, with even his demented flood of vocal inflections from tirade to coo seeming overly worked over and contrived, but that's probably why he's proud of it: it's a message to the people, his people, in the most traditional sense, and that is the salve that eases his fuzziness and guilt over his own popularity. The biggest hypocrite of 2015 is still one of the most dramatic and gifted MCs going; his bid for a legacy is less pop than Section.80, less direct than good kid, as harrowing as either.

Twin Shadow: Eclipse (Warner Bros.) [r]
George Lewis Jr. goes full-bore on principled late '80s FM, power ballads and big dumb pop, and it's undeniable that he's exceptionally good at it, blooming as a consummate performer all but inaudible on his thoughtful, tricky debut Forget but in greater evidence on the tremendous Confess, possibly the record released in the last five years that I've spent the most actual time playing. Mixed in with all this is an unmistakable bid for a kind of pop-Jesus schtick that seems naturally outdated; the songs would've been radio fodder a long time ago, which seems to be the point Lewis wants to make about populism and the relentless universal romance of a late night. The indie rock press doesn't understand it -- major label move and all -- because they don't understand that "being ironic" isn't necessarily the only reason people listen to old Whispers and Al Jarreau singles, so they are powerless to comprehend the beauty in the maxed-out hooks of the insta-classic "Old Love / New Love." At bottom, though, this does all feel a bit rushed and like it was done this way on a dare. His remarks about rockist elitism may be on point, but these songs play less to his sense of flummoxed romance than the likes of "Patient" and "Run My Heart." But as repetitive and a bit lacking in nuance as they might be, these songs do fully convince; he may still be playing clubs, but he looks and sounds the part of a megastar.

Tobias Jesso Jr.: Goon (Matador) [c]
Elton John meets obtuse hipster folkiness and the news is bad. Canadian singer-songwriter plays piano, is very classicist and throwback in the vein of Father John Misty, so he and I don't get along well. He's said his prayers every night since 1995, and I don't even like the stuff to which he's paying homage. The album cover, which looks like a joke, sets the stage: forlorn-looking white guy with messy hair glares straight back at you as if a mirror. The one redeeming facet is that is voice is more versatile than usual, with equally distinctive high and low ranges. So you get the acid casualty sound of "For You," some George Harrison guitar on "Crocodile Tears" (which even sounds like the name of a Hari song)... but the Cat Stevens-like "The Wait" is the closest to tolerable that this gets.

Heems: Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce) [hr]
No way could Heems' proper debut live up to the often awe-inspiring imagination and exuberance of Das Racist's Relax, a record I'm still mad you all slept on; sometimes he cares a lot but sometimes he doesn't even care, and he feels too little need to suppress his depression, insecurity, anger -- but that doesn't make him maudlin. If anything, it makes him as vital a reporter of the American experience in this century as Glenn Greenwald or Kendrick Lamar (though he's so New York he still won't bump Tupac, and oddly in a way I find that more sympathetic than Lamar's open-ended interview with same). And also, don't take it to mean that Eat Pray Thug is absent of pop, just that its pop is intentionally mangled and undercut by Heems' constant and eloquently expressed doubts and caveats. The record lays out its punkest, most direct expression of the author's MO straight away with the witty and messy "Sometimes," and from there it never becomes any less defiantly individual, often musically (the trap-like insanity of "Jawn Cage," the unabashedly emotional alterna-pop of "Home"), more often lyrically (the harrowing pair "Flag Shopping" and "Patriot Act," both heartbreaking remembrances about the experience of being brown in the U.S. just after 9/11; bless Heems for placing them far enough apart on the album that it doesn't become overwhelming, but I suspect that by being grateful for this I'm only exposing my own white privilege), and always vocally. Heems is among the most distinctive MCs ever to work in hip hop, and his mumbles, singing, shouts and drawls perfectly express the mixed-up empathy and apathy, passion and scrawl that make him a major, unpretentious, unvarnished storyteller in the grandest tradition. He embellishes, glosses over nothing (to his label's apparent chagrin, as they essentially put this record out in secret) because he doesn't need to. Not that he and his former bandmates hadn't done so already, but this completely defies the ignorant "hipster" / "joke rap" stereotype affixed to Heems and to Das Racist, although unless you get your music info exclusively from you-know-where, you knew that already.

Earl Sweatshirt: I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside (Columbia)
Mysterious Odd Futurer's depressive flow is instantly recognizable but one can't dispel the feeling he's kind of a brat, and the beats are uninspired. Best album title of the year, though.

Lightning Bolt: Fantasy Empire (Thrill Jockey) [NO]
"Noise band from Rhode Island," say the press listings. Fuck you, this is metal.

Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop) [hr]
Barnett is an Australian singer-songwriter with throttling warmth and wit; it's almost impossible to hear her work and not be riveted. The music she and her capable, pointedly rollicking four-piece band create -- loud but not noisy, brash but soft -- is so addictive, clear and invigorating that the incredible, quietly passionate and well-observed lyrics can fly by almost unnoticed. This is where the lyric sheet packaged with the album is a blessing; even taken separately, Barnett's streams of compassionate consciousness are a pleasure, and like the best pop storytellers of our time from John Darnielle to Heems to Kate Tempest, she thinks far afield of a world solely her own, and in detail: "Breakfast on the run again, he's well aware he's dropping soy linseed Vegemite crumbs everywhere. Feeling sick at the sight of his computer, he dodges his way through the Swanston commuters, rips off his tie, hands it to a homeless man sleeping on the corner of a Metro bus stand. He screams 'I'm not going to work today!' Gonna count the minutes that the trains run late, sit on the grass building pyramids out of Coke cans!'" And all this sung and played with the energy you'd expect devoted to an otherworldly pop confection, which it somehow is. If you need proof that such a verbose album can be musically giant, start with "Depreston," one of the most coherent anecdotes ever delivered in perfectly catchy song form, blessed with a curiously dark and beautiful arrangement. If you need proof this is good old rock & roll, start with the searing "Pedestrian at Best." But really, start anywhere -- the album is sprightly at times, ghostly at others, worried, nostalgic, conscious, always human, and never once flags.

The Paranoid Style: Rock and Roll Just Can't Recall EP (Worldwide Battle) [r]
In their music, cynicism and most of all (inevitably) their vocals, this band is like a slightly grittier take on early Blondie, which is not meant as a reduction -- their invariably catchy songs are solid, if somewhat sloppily mixed with enunciated vocals a little too far out front for me. Elizabeth Nelson rails against idealism; her singing is frayed and awkward at times, the songs slightly rote, but the music makes quite an impression and is instantly appealing. This is a quick enough trip via Spotify that you don't really need the push, but try "New Age Tricks" if you want a good first taste.

Ryley Walker: Primrose Green (Dead Oceans) [hr]
Unabashed hippie-ish psych-folk from Rockford, IL lands because of its beauty and sincerity, and because Walker has a strongly emotive voice that will likely remind you of Nick Drake and/or Richard Thompson. Musically, he resembles neither, and in fact the most obvious aural influence is Astral Weeks; improvisational and almost jazzy at its best, this is clearly the music of -- ugh -- "vibes," but it's refreshingly simple in its ambitions and makes for some of the most perfect road music to come down the pipeline in a good while. Songs don't jump out specifically and the record is a length that won't try your patience, but I keep coming back to "Sweet Satisfaction" as the quintessential moment here.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty) [r]
Stevens' trajectory from Michigan to Seven Swans to Illnoise to Age of Adz was virtually unmatched in his chosen genre in terms of his constant progression and the refinement of his writing and performing. Carrie & Lowell is more of a piece with the tossed-off EP All Delighted People from 2010, signifying mostly a heels-dug-in commitment to lyricism and melody over distinctive sound. To these ears it's a bit samey, but others are finding it far more profoundly effective, and one assumes your experience with the grief at its center (as with Bjork's Vulnicura) will determine your relationship to the record. His work has never sounded more organized and polished; it's also suffocatingly formal, despite often arrestingly personal -- even oversharing -- lyrics. His is still a voice for the ages.

Lower Dens: Escape from Evil (Ribbon Music) [r]
These Baltimore indie rockers put on a hell of a show when I saw them in 2011; they'd have been the breathless stars of the evening were they not opening for the Walkmen, who were at their most magical that night. Their music was cerebral and incisive, but leader and guitarist Jana Hunter's considerable stage presence was the real takeaway. On their newest work, Hunter dominates and the sound has changed, her ever more flamboyant rock star delivery -- she's like a far more universally appealing version of Future Islands' Sam Herring -- casting a riveting shadow over pulsating, disco-tinged post-punk. (The cover even looks just like Hot Chip's The Warning, if you doubted its intentions.) The beat is unceasing and permanent. At its best -- the opening three songs, particularly the audacious "To Die in L.A.", and the arresting Joy Division tones of closer "Société Anonyme" -- the work is tense, focused, crafty and detailed. Synths abound, but the voice and snaking guitar lines are the story, Hunter the obvious star, and one who clearly loves what she's doing. The songs become less distinctive as the album progresses, however, and despite striking moments it all gradually recedes into an anonymous backdrop, as though its unflagging energy can only go so far to conceal a lack of variance. Indeed, tallying ten economical songs in just forty-one minutes, it still feels unfortunately longer than it is. As a full-on reveling in a sound, though, this is practically unbeatable, and with Twin Shadow's Confess and Chromatics' Kill for Love the ideal late-night rock record of our time.

Jlin: Dark Energy (Planet Mu)
Indiana electronics. Chirpy, confrontational, headachey, with obtuse samples not unlike those on Aphex Twin's early recordings but not nearly so cleverly incorporated.

Curren$y: Pilot Talk III (Jet Life) [r]
Like Paul McCartney, a guy who's eager to please to a fault, now somewhat hilariously running for cover under the rubric established by his one really notable proper studio record despite the fact that there's not that much daylight between the various episodes in his career anyway. This one is most significant because of the strange marketing strategy behind it; you can buy it at a premium with a bunch of Achtung Baby-like bonus appendages, or you can stream it for free. In this manner it may be Curren$y's most forward-looking record, because there is a decent chance the entire music industry will be floating in the free-listening / luxury-to-own cesspool in a matter of years, bad news for those of us who like music we can hold and touch. But whatever lets smaller artists survive is best, I suppose. As for the music, the first single "Briefcase" has lyrics so unignorably oddball you can immediately tell the guy feels liberated without the Warner Bros. bank. The last song "Alert" is fire. Everything in between is pretty good, fun to listen to, pretty par for the course; OKPlayer's price is righter than the label's.

The Mountain Goats: Beat the Champ (Merge) [r]
A concept album the way Little Deuce Coupe was, the most hard-hitting Goats record in the better part of a decade comes out swinging, driven much as The Life of the World to Come was by one of John Darnielle's many public enthusiasms -- here, pro-wrestling, mostly in the idiosyncratic, largely regional iterations he enjoyed as a child. The lyrical results are personal, shattering, transcendent, particularly on the first three songs: "Southwestern Territory," the desolate sound of a dead end with a heart attached; the extraordinarily vicious "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero," which in its oblique tracking of father-son relationships starts to reveal that this isn't really or completely all about wrestling; and the instant fan favorite "Foreign Object," as catchy and weird as anything in this rich catalog. The musical advancement and often complete capturing of a complicated, forlorn, slightly nostalgic and longing mood make you want this to be as phenomenal as it initially seems. While an improvement on the scattershot if passionate Transcendental Youth, it's still fatally front-loaded despite its focus, with too many near-dirges toward the end (though "Luna" is a unique moment, and the words to "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan" are essential Darnielle poetry). As ever, Darnielle gives us much to contemplate -- starting with a Wikipedia binge for this universe about which I'm unlikely ever to know much more than he has to teach me -- and he and the band continue to evolve: this is a feat of often masterful storytelling, with steadier-than-ever backing assistance.

Young Fathers: White Men Are Black Men Too (Big Dada) [r]
Earl Sweatshirt and Death Grips put together couldn't come up with an album title this eyebrow-raising and weirdly tone-deaf, although it probably has a different tone coming from non-Americans. The follow-up to Mercury Prize-winning Dead from this Scottish collective resembles a traditional hip hop outing even less -- more moody and layered, with droning and broken rhythms and all very indie, alas -- and provides some sense of a more collected, early '90s-style conscious activism. Not sure if that's good or bad but the songs are plenty engrossing.

Waxahatchee: Ivy Tripp (Merge) [c]
Katie Crutchfield's breakthrough Cerulean Salt was a standout in the c. 2013 overflow of strongly '90s-derivative indie singer-songwriters; her songs were personable and sharp. Her Merge debut seems somehow too ordinary; the songs are weaker, but much more to the point, the performances and production are altogether less inspired. Nothing about it sticks. I'm not fully able to articulate why this leaves me so cold and I'm clearly an odd man out despite really being keyed up for it, so give it a listen yourself.

Twerps: Range Anxiety (Merge) [hr]
Once in a while a band, like this Melbourne indie-pop quartet, comes along that reminds me what I frequently love about melodic, lyrical college rock. Wispy and sincere, they most handily conjure memories of R.E.M., the Go-Betweens and the Bats, strongly driven by gentle Byrds-infected guitar riffs and a terrific male-female vocal blend provided by dual guitarists Marty Frawley and Jules McFarlane. A nostalgia trip is nearly inevitable, and the record is quite ready and willing to drift winningly off into sleep alongside the likes of Real Estate, whom they've supported. But if you give it all of your focus, it has an unexpected bite easily of a piece with its influences. Take the early, surprisingly hard-hitting dual punch of Frawley's hungover lovelorn anthem "Back to You" swiftly followed by McFarlane's lilting alienation on "Stranger," halfway between Paisley Underground and Flying Nun. The performances sing and swing and seldom wear out their welcome, even the lightly drummed five-minute fadeout "Empty Road," and the rough-hewn vocals add to the charm of catchy chestnuts like "Love at First Sight" and "Shoulders," but every full cut here ends up revealing its rewards, and at least some of them usually come immediately. This is never more apparent than on the extraordinary centerpiece "I Don't Mind," an achingly moving masterpiece of latter-day jangle that sweeps you up and knocks you out with its sheer unguarded romance. This is an album full of gems, but that song is so grand that even the band can't resist leading off with it. Smart, affecting, quiet and unassuming, this is the sort of music some of us wait years to seek out, and it's the kind of thing that never hits for the jugular but will -- if it's in your wheelhouse -- most assuredly become a permanent and valued part of your life.

Pinkshinyultrablast: Everything Else Matters (Shelflife) [hr]
This would be a genuinely oddball band of hyperactive neo-shoegaze noisemakers even if they didn't hail from Saint-Petersburg. With an initially extremely alienating but stunningly incongruous mixture of electronic beats, feedback drawl and screaming walls of sound within almost prog-like sprawling song structures, stabbing guitar lines, enveloping reverb and fizzy synths, the record captures the airy mood of dreampop simultaneously with a heaviness atypical of such unabashedly vague vibe music. The music is unpredictable, the songs collapsing naturally into one another without becoming completely indistinct. The sound is gorgeous and alien -- with, as corny as this sounds, a feeling of being transported to icy plains and all sorts of underseen landscapes -- and packs quite an atmospheric wallop, sounding more massive than one could attribute to a mere five-piece. If I had to compare it to anything, hard-to-pin-down mystery and all, it's probably Cocteau Twins, and there's not quite enough press about this for me to check and see if I'm just being ignorant, but this truly does sound like one of the more unique and exciting records of its kind in a good while.


This is a list of records that were auditioned recently (see explanation below) that are in the running to be evaluated further. This isn't to be taken as an outright recommendation of these records, but it's worth noting that something about the cuts I heard intrigued me enough to set them aside for future reference; I will listen to these from start to finish at least once. Complicated as this sounds, it's the most efficient system I've come up with to weed through so much music. On occasion a record strikes me to such an extent that it immediately gets placed in the queue for a mainline review; this happened with the Twerps album above. A level below that are albums that would hypothetically receive asterisks on the list below, which means they stand a better than average chance of receiving complete reviews down the road. (Pinkshinyultrablast's album was an example.) When I spend more time with these albums next month, they will either appear as regular capsules, in the "also recommended" list at the end of the year, or will be demoted back to the reject pile. So consider this an albums list for the truly adventurous.

- The Monochrome Set: Spaces Everywhere
- Allison Moorer: Down to Believing
- Chastity Belt: Time to Go Home
- Lonelady: Hinterland
- The Go! Team: The Scene Between
- Follkazoid: III
- Pokey LaFarge: Something in the Water
- Colleen: Captain of None
- The Very Best: Makes a King
- Toro Y Moi: What For?
- This Is the Kit: Bashed Out
- Stornoway: Bonxie
- Polar Bear: Same as You
- Built to Spill: Untethered Moon
- Wire
- Stealing Sheep: Not Real
- Knxwledge: Hud Dreams
- STS x RJD2
- Rhett Miller: the Traveler
- Della Mae
- Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa
- Georgia Anne Muldrow: Thoughtiverse Unmarred
- Valet: Nature
- Indigo Girls: One Lost Day
- SOAK: Before We Forgot How to Dream
- Girlpool: Before the World Was Big
- Leftfield: Alternative Light Source
- Prinzhorn Dance School: Home Economics
- No Joy: More Faithful
- Sarah Cracknell: Red Kite
- Bully: Feels Like


Each month, I troll the Metacritic database for all recent album releases that have received an average of at least 70, which alas -- music critics are by and large a kinder lot than their cinematic brethren, or maybe the number of niches has just gotten too unwieldy -- is most of them. This -- for several years now, but I'm only now being this open about it -- is how I attempt to get a handle on the music that doesn't fit the criterion addressed at the top of this entry. If something grades in the low 70s and has less than ten reviews, I ignore it; I probably miss some good things as a result, but for my sanity I have to cut things off somewhere. In the upper seventies, that changes to five reviews. I also gather up the records that made it into the eighties but with just a handful of reviews attached. Laugh at my compulsiveness if you want, but this is how I found Kate Tempest among many other favorites of recent years; we can no longer count on PR and cool labels to bring us all that we need to hear.

Please note: I don't listen to these albums in their entirety. In a method borrowed from several other critics with similar ambitions, I play the first few cuts of each album. Sometimes, I can't even make it through one of them but I try very hard to give them at least a minute, a cutoff time I picked up years ago when I did a singles-review column called Wuzzon. Singles that failed to generate any kind of emotion from me after a minute were ignored; albums whose first few tracks I feel negative feelings or no feelings at all about will be listed below, as rejects. I never previously considered "showing my work" in this process, but it dawned on me that it may be helpful if, for instance, I eventually wonder why I never wrote anything about something listed below, or if ages from now I determine I need to take a look at something and wonder why it sounds vaguely familiar. There's also inevitably the chance I could just change my mind. I'm choosing not to do any "writing" about the material here, but I've included a special note on certain records -- "NYIM," which stands for "It's Not You, It's Me." This notes that my dismissal of the record is not to be counted as an actual criticism against what I heard of it, but that it is just so completely not to my taste (a metal record that slipped through, for example, or most modern country) that I can't hear or say anything of value related to it. The rest are objectively bad. Just kidding. But I could defend my boredom about them more concretely if I had to; thankfully you kind folks won't require that of me.

Villagers: Darling Arithmetic
Calexico: Edge of the Sun
Gallows: Desolation Sounds
Rocky Votolato: Hospital Handshakes
John Moreland: High on Tulsa Heat
Passion Pit: Kindred
Squarepusher: Damogen Furies
Olivia Chaney: Longest River
George Fitzgerald: Fading Love
Bill Fay: Who Is the Sender?
Nai Harvest: Hairball
Braids: Deep in the Iris
Mew: +-
Shelby Lynne: I Can't Imagine
Django Django: Born Under Saturn
Mikal Cronin: MCIII
Metz: II
My Morning Jacket: The Waterfall
Oddisee: The Good Fight
Coliseum: Anxiety's Kiss
Mac McCaughan: Non-Believers
Torres: Sprinter
Best Coast: California Nights
Nadine Shah: Fast Food
The Alchemist / Oh No: Welcome to Los Santos
Van Hunt: The Fun Rises, the Fun Sets
Snoop Dogg: Bush
The Weather Station: Loyalty
Prefuse 73: Rivinton Nao Rio
The Early November: Imbue
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell: The Traveling Kind
Blanck Mass: Dumb Flesh
Patrick Watson: Love Songs for Robots
Paul Weller: Saturn's Pattern
Graham Parker & the Rumour: Mystery Glue
Twenty One Pilots: Blurryface
The Story So Far
Brandon Flowers: The Desired Effect
Du Blonde: Welcome Back to Milk
Joanna Gruesome: Peanut Butter
A$AP Rocky: At.Long.Last.A$AP
Rachel Grimes: The Clearing
The Vaccines: English Graffiti
Turbowolf: Two Hands
Maysa: Back 2 Love
Rolo Tomassi: Grievances
Jaga Jazzist: Starfire
Four Year Strong
Nozinja: Nozinja Lodge
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie
Dawes: All Your Favorite Bands
Florence + the Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Dean McPhee: Fatima's Hand
J Fernandez: Many Levels of Laughter
Jenny Hval: Apocalypse, Girl
Ash: Kablammo!
The SteelDrivers: The Muscle Shoals Recordings
Hudson Mohawke: Lantern
Genghar: A Dream Outside
Heartless Bastards: Restless Ones
The Orb: Moonbuilding 2703 AD


Normally -- if I actually continue to include this feature -- it'll be Songs of the Month. These are the songs, new and old, that according to and my own estimates I've listened to the most in the relevant time period, or that I'm simply most obsessed with at the moment, and also songs from evaluated albums that I liked even though the records overall ended up in the reject bin. (Those are listed on the top.) In a lot of cases, the most-played songs will correspond to album reviews from this current post; sometimes it will give a hint of what you'll be reading a lot more about here very soon, as my schedule with these things overlaps quite a lot; and sometimes it's entirely arbitrary.

The Allo Darlin' song below is from an album I only had time to listen to in full once last year, which I now see was a mistake. I listed "Half Heart Necklace," from the same record, as one of my twenty favorite tracks of 2014, but "History Lessons" has turned out to be the one that haunts me. The lyrics, vocal and arrangement are all perfect. I tried and failed to learn to play and sing it myself. It is stunning and even just on its own would give enough reason to reevaluate the record and band as a whole in the near future. Meanwhile, Susanne Sundfør's "Fade Away" is -- especially in conjunction with "Accelerate," just before it on the album -- one of the most brilliant pop songs of the decade. And finally, when I got married in September, there was no first dance; that will be happening at a party we're throwing in the spring. But the Kinks song, a discovery from the vinyl-only compilation named, was certainly running through my head the entire time.

- The Unthanks "Mount the Air" [Mount the Air]
- Bop English "Dani's Blues" [Constant Bop]
- Susanne Sundfør "Fade Away" [Ten Love Songs]
- Twerps "I Don't Mind" [Range Anxiety]
- Allo Darlin' "History Lessons" (2014) [We Come from the Same Place]
- Courtney Barnett "Depreston" [Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit]
- Lower Dens "To Die in L.A." [Escape from Evil]
- The Mountain Goats "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" [Beat the Champ]
- Kendrick Lamar "How Much a Dollar Cost" [To Pimp a Butterfly]
- Twin Shadow "Old Love / New Love" [Eclipse]
- Heems "Flag Shopping" [Eat Pray Thug]
- Ryley Walker "Sweet Satisfaction" [Primrose Green]
- Curren$y "Alert" [Pilot Talk III]
- Bjork "Pluto" (1997) [Homogenic]
- The Kinks "There's No Life Without Love" (rec. 1967) [The Great Lost Kinks Album]
- The Paranoid Style "New Age Tricks" [Rock & Roll Just Can't Recall]

The September and October posts will follow in the next few weeks, sans wordy explanations; save those into a handy Notepad folder so you can keep up with this blog which I know is extremely vital to your day to day life! But honest to goodness I love you all, goodnight.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (1977-81)

(Sire [orig] / Rhino [reissue])


This extraordinary, crucial document of one of the best live bands in rock & roll history is a comprehensive ballooning of an already generous vinyl release from 1981. As brilliant as Talking Heads' studio albums were, the grit and energy of their live performances is beyond anything that could be duplicated offstage. Few bands had such teasing, sensual interplay even from the beginning, and as the lineup and sound broadened, this collection shows that their work only grew more exuberant. It's not that they lose focus and precision, it's that their world gets bigger.

The unique approach on both vinyl and CD versions gives The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads -- so named because of David Byrne's deadpan song introductions; the record starts with him declaring "The name of this song is 'New Feeling'... and that's what it's about" -- the sense of a story being told. The band applied such ambitions to the majority of even their more obligatory work; the film Stop Making Sense was a concert movie with a subtle story arc, the music video collection Storytelling Giant strings the work together in an oblique, artful way hardly befitting the PR slant of such an exercise, and the two-disc best-of Sand in the Vaseline is filled with puzzling asides and jokes. And here: rather than a capturing of a performance in a single era of this dynamic band's career, it's divided in half between their punk years and the point when their output was increasingly infused with R&B, soul and African influences.

The first disc covers the band in the '70s, from the new-wave CBGB's days through their evolution to a more muscular, virtuosic live act, mixing a clever restraint with an unheard-of connection to their audience. Yeah, they are weird... but you're with them all the way, and for all the tongue-in-cheek (mostly?) conservatism of Byrne's early lyrics, their irony is an act of subversion, and their rhythmic intensity and endlessly surprising eclecticism are already in place. To hear the band dissect and distort "Air" and "Heaven" is the kind of pleasure for which you never dared hope, with several cuts topping their studio variants (particularly "Mind"), but the unforgettable moments are that stunning, brooding "Stay Hungry," exposing all of the song's repressed sexuality, and an enormously moving "Big Country," a song I wouldn't have expected to make a good transition to the stage... but this manages to top Eno's cut, already one of the greatest songs in rock music, not least because Byrne almost sounds angry and Chris Frantz fills both ears and heart by taking a disarmingly poignant song in an even more striking direction. Byrne's voice is in fact a major asset here generally, cracking and stumbling through the familiar songs to reveal in them a new humanity and fragile sensitivity, making even the rearranged "Animals" and "Psycho Killer" somewhat melancholy, single-handedly bringing out new worlds in the songs. It may be the best vocal work he has on record.

The first disc of Rhino's reissue is likely the most durable of the pair because it is driven so much by individual songs, but the second is a magnificent album in itself, reproducing the entire setlist from the 1980-81 Remain in Light tour, rife with soaring guitar lines from Adrian Belew and uproariously grand performances from everybody. The very idea of stretching "Born Under Punches" to eight minutes and bringing "Houses in Motion" to explosive life is exhilirating even just in theory, but to hear them is to be stunned. The band is looser than on the subsequent Stop Making Sense, which documented their next and final world tour in 1983, delving into the kind of jams and tangents that led to the composition of these songs in the first place.

They were never more expansive or impressive live than in this period, and Rhino's uninterrupted document is as close as any of us will ever get to being there. It's not an exaggeration to compare it to, say, a Miles Davis album from the early '70s -- this is provocative, demanding, cerebral music, but it's also body music, and it stands in surprisingly sharp contrast to the cheeky novelties of disc one, where "Love -> Building on Fire" might evoke Television but remains a joyous piece of innocence and purity. On the Remain in Light-era tracks, even the older punk-period songs suddenly seem like dark, ambitious delvings into a widescreen dark night. Not only were they never stronger, they were never more serious.

Talking Heads seem to become more popular all the time, but it's hard to say whether this album -- which went unissued on CD for two decades, inexplicably -- has properly been canonized in the manner it deserves. Not even counting the thrill of hearing these songs taken from new angles, it gives the listener who's gobbled up the band's eight albums the feeling of having stumbled upon a whole new set of tunes or maybe a whole new band; virtually none of the selections duplicate or more than superficially resemble their studio counterparts. Not one cut here isn't impressive. (Why the fuck didn't "A Clean Break" make it to one of the Eno albums, anyway!?) This is a definitive document of a remarkable band in their prime. The only problem is it will only make you want to hear more. Luckily, there are some immensely rewarding bootlegs, but that's another story for another day.


[Includes material from a review posted in 2004.]

Sunday, August 30, 2015

You let me in your house: April 2015 albums

A short one this month, which I'm not too happy about; the next post, ready a little over two weeks from now by current estimate, will include a lot of the major-hitter stuff you were hoping would be long since taken on by now. I'm having an unusually hard time determining what I think lately -- luckily, as of the last month or so I've heard some new things I genuinely love, and when I'm ready to articulate my thoughts you'll be hearing from me. In the meantime, all three new records here actually got downgraded during the process of putting this together, and many other things were clumped off for next time. (The big gaping hole in my confused brain is Kendrick Lamar; I still feel I'm missing something on that record, and maybe by the middle of the month I'll have it figured out.) As ever, trust that hours upon hours of work went into this disappointingly brief post; I wish there were more to show for it, but we'll start to see payoff shortly.


THEESatisfaction: EarthEE (Sub Pop)
This Seattle R&B duo has hearts in the right place -- unmistakably progressive and intelligent, but ever since the earliest promo materials were issued for their first album they've struck me as pleasantly bland in the worst way. EarthEE is a marginal improvement because it has more shape than their older stuff and is less reliant on the cliches of "alternative" hip hop consciousness. It's strongly produced -- listen to the Nile Rodgersisms of "No GMO" -- and they have a solid identity, but the songs still aren't quite there and it just drones with little consequence. "Planet for Sale" is the most engaging sound they come up with, a Stevie Wonder-like bed of sound with good vocal blend floating above, but the preachiness, however righteous, is pervasive. When I listen to this I feel like I'm being covertly educated, as in a SchoolHouse Rock video, and lord knows I have plenty of gaps, but I prefer my learning to come with a tad more subtlety.

Levon Vincent (Novel Sound)
Overpraised electronica (more like pure ambient, save various annoying and long-winded moments) from Berlin by way of NYC is OK but lifeless, despite the artist's own lofty claims for it: "If you are a member of the rat race, climbing around a dumpster with the other rats vying for power, you may of course listen, but know - this is not music for you. This is action against you." White people are so fucking hilarious. Revolution generally varies the tempo a bit more, btw.

Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire: Oh! The Grandeur (Rykodisc 1999) [r]
Andrew Bird is an immense talent who, like the Asylum Street Spankers, was enterprising enough to ride on the coattails of a late-'90s vintage music revival: big band and electricity-free bluegrass were moneymaking, mainstream product again for a blip. Like ASS, his craft and range soon eclipsed the limitations of the movement that made him bankable; unlike them, he was a greater success in the aftermath. Oh! The Grandeur is his first really charming performance on record, but as with Thrills it is steeped in now-dated concepts of gimmicky authenticity. It's mostly a hodgepodge of pre-WWII swing and vocal records, but it's undeniably impressive that its songs, all of them originals, sound for all the world like covers. "Candy Shop" is his first fully realized song; the rest is pleasant, mostly costuming. He isn't nearly the confident writer he'd later become, concentrating heavily on aping established styles and finding little transcendence beyond those borders, but he is already an extraordinary singer -- see "Wait". It's fascinating to compare this record to the sublime looseness he displays on 2012's outstanding Hands of Glory, which operates in a similarly backward-looking (though more rural) mode. It's astounding what happens to some of us when we have nobody left we need to impress.

Marc Almond: The Velvet Trail (Cherry Red)
Marc Almond was half of Soft Cell a lifetime ago and they still tour; I was somehow unaware of this but he also has a voluminous number of solo albums from a career that's chugged along now for three decades. There's some solid glam that fuses past and present nicely, like "Bad to Me," though none of the songs feel complete, not even the disappointing duet with Beth Ditto, whose potential disco queen status already seems nixed. Like a lot of serviceable pop musicians his age, Almond can't resist forcing the scattered decent material on this overlong record to mesh with his penchant for schmaltzy, self-absorbed balladry. But the guy seems to know his audience.


I don't usually do this but coming up in the next two capsule posts: Kendrick (might be a long review), Madonna, Twin Shadow, Heems, Courtney Barnett, more.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Velvet Underground: Loaded (1970)

(Cotillon [orig] / Rhino [reissue])

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Given its convoluted origins, this has the initial impression of a major disappointment; lots of popular literature out there about the Velvet Underground characterizes their fourth record as an overly conventional comedown, useful mostly as an introduction. Actually, it's a supreme album, wonderful all the way through to anyone seduced by the lyricism and performative bliss of Lou Reed, which makes it even sadder that it broke up the band. The original release of Loaded on Cotillon butchers three of the songs, but it's not likely to bother you until you've heard the full-length versions. I'll beg you to pick up Rhino's deluxe version of the album instead of Warner's budget-line release, but any way you can get your hands on this marvellous album is really the right way.

Loaded doesn't really operate in the same way as any of its predecessors, but it doesn't matter since they all existed in their own realms anyway. Lou Reed moves toward a mainstream sound, and the songs are excellent, but it was to no avail as mainstream success was to pass the band by completely. His rock & roll purity is more intense than ever, his poetry more incisive. "Cool It Down" has him still searching for mysterious people, here with slick guitars and double-tracked vocals. "Head Held High" is tweaked to perfection, and Reed sings like we've never heard him before, in a throaty abandon that would seem irresistible to the FM crowd. "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" expertly tackles country in a fascinating tribute to William Burroughs. And the last song on the album, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" is a flawless widescreen expansion of his pity for the underdog, with ferocious guitar solos that don't pad out the (seven-minute) song. There is absolutely nothing in these songs to stop the band from becoming huge, and they are all a huge pleasure to listen to; it's extremely frustrating that fortune did not smile on these immensely talented people, no matter how hard they tried.

There are hints all through the album that Reed was growing disillusioned. On the teasing, insane wall of guitar "Train Round the Bend" he expresses supreme displacement. The unbelievably beautiful "New Age" sees him contemplating the fame that has narrowly evaded him and the inescapable demons of his past and everyone's. The listener may find solace in the oceanic "Hey Jude"-derived chrous that closes "New Age," but Reed is still audibly unsatisfied.

He reaches for -- and manages -- unbridled pop bliss on his opening trilogy. "Who Loves the Sun" could easily be classic Beach Boys. "Rock & Roll" is virtually Reed's autobiography, and possibly yours. Even if the end of the band would be a bitter one, this is a lasting testament to what they meant and how they would come to touch so many after their demise. "Rock & Roll" is an anthem for anyone who, like Jenny, felt lost until finding a new world on the lively radio dial and everything all of a sudden seemed to mean something.

"Sweet Jane" serves the same purpose. It is undeniably Reed's truest standard, and with its coda properly restored, his masterpiece. He wails with revelation about the people he sees and the happiness they find, and ends up making some sublime statements about life itself -- celebration from a man to whom joy so frequently seemed hard-won. Musically it's a work of his usual effortless beauty, but every note of the performance is infused with friction, and it is a song made for driving around with the top down. When it plays you feel alive and in the open air, even sitting alone in a room with headphones resting on your skull. There is nothing else like it.

My personal favorite song on Loaded, and it's filled with fabulous ones, is "I Found a Reason," a sequel of sorts to "I'm Set Free" which brings us a selfless love song from a man who admits to having just come from the brink. He tells a million stories at once, and the doo-wop textures render it proof that he is not ironic, that he believes wholeheartedly in rock & roll as communication and art and life. He is the same man who wrote "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray." The only possible conclusion is that he is a genius of his craft.

And after this, he left. The band slowly fell apart thereafter, first losing Sterling Morrison then Moe Tucker. Finally they kept rolling along for a few extra years with no original members in tow, just Doug Yule and some forgotten friends. Lou Reed went on to become an elder statesman of rock & roll, and died younger than he should have... a sad ending. But no matter. The music the Velvets left behind them is of more value than nearly any other legacy of their time. They have the capability not of transporting you to another place but realizing the beauty and wonder of the place in which you already sit. If this is the closest they came to an archetypal classic rock album, it immediately jumped to the top of that particular heap, and there it remains.

[Originally written and posted in 2003. I was 19 or 20, so you'll have to excuse the fannish tone, but it's all meant sincerely.]

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Alex Chilton: Like Flies on Sherbert (1980)



It's been opined often by various blowhards that Alex Chilton somehow wasted his talent. This he supposedly did despite living two complete lives in the pop hemisphere -- as atypically sincere teen idol then best-kept-secret pop savant -- before spending his last three decades making artistic choices that were wholly his own and frequently made no sense to others. In other words, aside from never achieving the comfortable wealth he deserved, he essentially did everything right, tried it their way and his way, and died a happy man. That this somehow translates to an abortion of promise simply indicates that most of us have no deep understanding of an artist's relationship to their own work.

Like Flies on Sherbert, technically but not strictly Chilton's first solo album (earlier material he'd made on his own ended up seeing release much later, in the '90s), is a good example of how little Chilton cared for adhering to the strict regimens others would have him observe, and how completely justified his own instincts usually were even (especially) at their most unorthodox. A singular, strange creation that often resembles a private joke or compulsive psychodrama more than an album of rock music, it follows along fairly neatly from the progression of the most crucial music Chilton had made early in the '70s. His three albums with Big Star are an amputation in three acts, with each successive record shedding a member and more possibility of absorption into any commercial marketplace. Though Chilton himself was never satisfied with Third, perhaps because it came from a tumultuous time in his life and undoubtedly in part because it was released without his consent, it's a fair bet that if you are attuned to the subtle beauty in the grooves of that now far more famous album, Like Flies is likely very much up your alley. It's the next logical step in that complete extended breakdown. (It's a whole album of "Downs," "Dream Lover" or "Kanga Roo" though perhaps without so much of their ethereal sweep.)

That's breakdown solely in a musical sense, because if anything Chilton sounds exuberantly cheery or at least bemused on this release. Everything about the record is sloppy, including the spelling of the title, the typeface on the front, its release history (multiple pressings with different track listings), and of course unquestionably the music. Songs are tracked complete with false starts and frequently keep going despite breakdowns in performance, missed cues and notes; often they're a complete shambles within a matter of seconds. Like Third before it, such flagrant disregard of Power Pop listener-friendliness was met with stern glares and finger-wagging from the rock crit establishment. A waste of talent! The worst album ever recorded! Unlistenable! One can only be reminded of the similar treatment once afforded the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, obviously one of the most deliriously beautiful albums in the rock canon. Chilton's album has a warmth not even found in the likes of Skip Spence's Oar, because it's a record that celebrates its own deficiencies -- it's a fuck-all, not a fuck-you, and its weirdness is blissful.

Let's dispense immediately with the idea that anyone could make music like this, that it's some DIY-aesthete misfire recorded by musicians who couldn't play. (Chilton's joined and produced here by Jim Dickinson, so let's not pretend to unprofessionalism.) In much the same way that only someone with a great and wide-ranging talent for drawing legitimately well can be a good cartoonist -- in the way that you must know how to do something well to do it truly off-the-cuff and badly, as opposed to incompetently -- Chilton pulls this recording off masterfully because he obviously has such considerable chops as a singer, writer and (especially evident here) guitarist. The record's accidents are deliberate; it's all a question of attitude, of performance style.

So what makes an exceptionally bizarre and challenging original like "Hook or Crook" or "My Rival" so compelling is that we don't only hear the Sister Lovers guy drunkenly losing his shit in real time, we hear the #1 Record architect of hook-perfect deep cuts, somewhere in there even the tender singer of "Soul Deep." Chilton's own songs here are relentless in their catchiness and could have been user-friendly classics with "proper" treatment, but he had no use for that notion of this material. He wanted to make it strange and sad and glorious, with wisps of devastating beauty amid what sounds like a session of noodling that falls only periodically and briefly into shape.

Chilton was probably conflicted about his life and career at this point, and you can hear this clearly in the unexpectedly magnificent "Hey! Little Child" -- a dirty-old-bluesman leering session at a Catholic schoolgirl that he somehow lends the most resigned, passionate vocal against a persistent non-riff that sounds both like a boorish regional garage-trash hit circa 1965 and like it burst out of the climax of "Marquee Moon." It's a mixture of Chilton's most and least ambitious ideas but it's all approached with the same brusque nonchalance. And this makes it powerful.

The primitive covers have the feel of private memory, dredged up simultaneously as jokes and as longing clasps at Chilton's most beloved music. The Carter Family's "No More the Moon Shines on Lorena" and Ernest Tubb's "Waltz Across Texas" get approached with unprofessional, irreverent sarcasm but also bottomless levels of enthusiasm and respect. Nowhere is this more evident than on the revision of K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," already one of the greatest pop singles of the period and a record deeply admired by Chilton. But his own version is nearly as good for the opposite reason -- it almost fails to make any kind of melodic or rhythmic sense and is in the end a massive send-up doubling back on itself. In a sense it's more punk rock than any thrashy revision of some MOR hit; it destroys the song, but also uncovers the broken-down sublime underneath its disco sheen. (And Chilton can't help but duplicate the funky guitar solo with wryly surprising faithfulness.)

These deconstructions and original mutterings won't speak to everyone, but the more one falls in love with it the more hard it becomes to imagine not noticing its elegiac sweetness and comical impatience. Is it that he's too lazy to polish anything or that he's too interested in the next weird moment he's out to capture? Either way, one wonders what kind of rock & roll life we'd have without shambolic messes like this, and if that results in suspicion of anyone who'd doubt Chilton's sincerity or brilliance when confronted with this, perhaps that's well justified. If you hate Like Flies on Sherbert, you hate rock & roll and you are its enemy.

The album's startling clarity and elegance of vision peaks with its title cut, an upside-down doo wop that sounds unfinished, insane, completely falling apart, and to this listener as gloriously personal and beautiful and inexplicable as recorded music gets. It's a mass punk insult. It's an ugly, distorted mess. It hums and moans and makes an awful, cathartic racket. It is melodic and strange and terrifying. It is Alex Chilton. Sometimes I think it's the best song ever recorded.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What to do for pleasure: March 2015 albums

Gaz Coombes: Matador (Caroline)
Coombes is formerly leader of the Oxford hellions Supergrass. I only faintly remember some of Supergrass' hits from the '90s -- their radio presence was lesser over here -- but what I do know implies fans won't be displeased with his second solo record. He seems keen to attract new fans with his clash of '90s melodicism and very un-'90s punkish sincerity. It's pleasant in that delicate Britpop manner and sounds designed to please a broad contingent but will still probably only connect strongly with his cult.

Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros. 1979) [A+]
The towering crown jewel of tortuous, cathartic college rock and post-punk; the legendary, influential (largely in bad ways), surly Leeds quartet fused political cynicism and rhythmic, funked-out thudding with a cunning wit and abstraction less obvious and immediate than their predecessors. Wire came close but lacked the provocative interpolations of black music; Mission of Burma had the thematics and the headbanging but couldn't be nearly so engagingly cold and harsh. Entertainment! is questionably the Gang's best -- hard, dark, twisted, metallic (indeed, redefining what metal means in a musical context), yet it's body music -- confrontational yet exuberant. And like all the best British albums of the late '70s, it's halfway to a greatest-hits: the hypnotic "Anthrax," joyfully vile "Natural's Not in It," the insistently teasing "At Home He's a Tourist." This echoes forever afterward in alternative rock, and its hard-won sneer remains timeless, even faintly scary in its absence of compromise. This kind of clipped, tight, elegant ruthlessness blesses us only rarely.

Natalie Prass (Columbia) [r]
Wispy major-label singer-songwriter from Virginia's debut has picked up considerable buzz since its release this winter. Strongly informed by the Joni Mitchell - Van Morrison school of aural theater, it features wondrous orchestrations but doesn't ever quite match the emotional power of its sadly brassy opening cut "My Baby Don't Understand Me" or the Dusty in Memphis desperation of "Your Fool". And Prass' vocals unfortunately lack personality, though that will probably change with time. At worst, the harshest thing you can say about her is she's a bit precious ("Christi" and "Is It You") but the intimacy makes up for it, even if the delicacy and theatricality do seem like a bit much over the half-hour span.

Jessica Pratt: On Your Own Love Again (Drag City)
L.A. folkie likes Tim Buckley, CSNY, etc. The perfect Mother's or Father's Day gift probably, sorry we're late.

Buddy Holly: Down the Line: Rarities (Universal 1949-59) [hr]
As comprehensive an official release of Holly's vault material as we're ever likely to get; the first major mark in its favor is that it's well-mastered and conquers the incessant overdubbing and doctoring a lot of this music has suffered over the years. It also assumes the listener is already a Holly fan, which is to its credit and detriment since the last half -- incorporating the legendary, unadorned, unbelievably beautiful apartment tapes -- contains some of the best work he ever laid down buried in all the hardcore-friendly stuff. This is probably the easiest and best way to hear those demos, which include such future classics as "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," "Love's Made a Fool of You" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" that he'd never properly record as well as first-hand evidence of his taste for innovation via his radical, slowed-down, filthy reintrepretation of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'." And on some days I prefer his "Smoky Joe's Cafe" to the Coasters'. The rest of the material is good but only bigtime enthusiasts are likely to quiver at things like a three-minute conversation between Holly and his wife Maria Elena captured on tape (I did), early recordings of Holly led by Bob Montgomery, and a few barely-distinctive alternate takes. On the other hand, shivers go down the spine at Holly covering Hank Snow at age 13 before his voice has even changed, and it's wonderful to hear stuff like "Think It Over" and "Fool's Paradise" without the schmaltzy accompaniment. Holly is just about the most restless and gifted white artist in rock & roll, and he was cut down in his prime; this combined with the concurrent Memorial Collection will set you up as a lifelong acolyte, though if you're like me you'll want more. It's out there -- ten discs' worth of material that make these two seem measly, but that's also dependent on your taste for repetitive alternates, false starts and mistakes. But any two hours in Holly's light is time well spent.

Björk: Vulnicura (Megaforce) [r]
As the Buckinghams put it, kind of a drag, and she's been listening to Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow; it's the soundtrack of the gutted, but it does seem to have cleared out some of her unfocused-ness -- for sure it's her least cluttered album since Medulla. I don't care for the orchestrations and miss her less formal -brutality, but it doesn't mean I don't admire this.

The B-52's: Mesopotamia EP (Warner Bros. 1982) [r]
Quite the curio: at the height of his fame, David Byrne produces the B-52's for a hypothetical album that never happened, with middling results. As usual, when the Georgians fully engage with their own warm absurdity, they're at their best and the self-conscious artiness (they go for an Eno/Heads thing on "Deep Sleep"; it's swampy and unappealing) falters. Full of modern rock riffage and then-innovative beats, the record is sometimes an off-putting fusion of duelling sensibilities. The B-52's were meant to be flamboyantly funny and off-kilter, so the top moments are on "Cake," wherein Kate and Cindy have a Shangri-Las spoken word routine suggestively discussing what kind of dessert they want to make; or when Fred rants respectively about ancient history and how Byrne's trickery is making him "apprehensive" on the title cut and "Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can." (The latter seems like a nod to Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song," more or less an answer to people who find stuff like "Rock Lobster" annoying.) Even at their most ordinary, you can't say their chops are inefficient (Kate Pierson's full-throated vocal on "Loveland" is breathtaking) but the outsider influence -- and pile-on of session players -- seems superfluous, which makes it ever stranger that they'd end up taking the same route later in the decade via Nile Rodgers and Don Was.

Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Columbia) [c]
Dylan was always funny in kind of a stupid way (there's that "I Shall Be Free" clutter that completely derails Another Side, for one thing) but this inexplicable joke LP of Sinatra covers is too much of an exercise in tiresome irony to become ha-ha funny, it's more like sad-funny.

Alexi Murdoch: Towards the Sun (Zero Summer 2009) [r]
Murdoch has a specific niche and he sticks to it, but the results are a wonderful listen. Breezier and obviously less sophisticated than Nick Drake, he makes mood music... but it's the sort of thing that hits the perfect medium of emotional catharsis and relaxed longing, frankly just what's required of certain mornings. The romantic intimacy of "At Your Door" and the lovely, Appalachian-tinged spiritualism of "Some Day Soon" render semi-moot the songs that wander off into dirge territory later.

Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)
Honeybear, is it!? Musically this project from former drummer of icky folk-rock outfit Fleet Foxes is kinda like Joe Cocker I guess, vocally it's Ringo or Cale? Same pseudo-soul backdrop and weird ornamentations only there's like a Death of a Ladies Man-style romantic fatalism; Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III and other such benchmarks seemed more honestly pathetic in their desperations. Misty's got a little bit of swagger but the lyrics are fucking awful and the sleaze is annoying when it's ironic, soppy when it's sincere, overall indulgent and repugnant in that classic white boy singer-songwriter manner. So yeah, the '70s are back.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Following the release of the masterful Innervisions, Stevie Wonder earned the right to rest on his laurels; to begin with, that album was brilliant enough to linger permanently as the definitive statement of a fully developed artist. But then came the day, just after its release, when Wonder sat dozing in the passenger seat of a car whizzing down I-85 when the driver smashed into a flatbed truck, impact focused squarely on Stevland Morris' forehead. Wonder was in a coma, had to be medicated, had to gradually gain back his faculties. The pop world's adoration of him was vocally affirmed as though it hadn't been already. He showed up to his first gig afterward pointing proudly at his scar and sending the enormous crowd into utter jubilation.

Did he slum it, then? Some have regarded Fulfillingness' First Finale as an indulgent, monochromatic affair. It's dominated by ballads and subtleties and explodes into action really only twice, both times with adult emotions -- sexual urge and political rage -- hard to imagine emanating from the 12 year-old genius or even as of Talking Book. Some also see it as a stopgap, sandwiched between two masterpieces, and of course it earns poignance from being part of a larger story and a longer run of superlative works. Yet the album's comparatively off-the-cuff nature and comfortably sparse production managed to seal it, for all its contemporary popularity, as a product ahead of its time. And as with Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, it bears noting that its supposed uncommercial nature is only by a matter of degrees -- it is Stevie Wonder, it is accessible and deeply moving and very plainly glorious.

If there's less momentum, if the ballads are subtler and more troubled than usual, it's merely because Fulfillingness is an unblinking representation of Wonder's mind in the months after his by all accounts life-changing accident. Wonder has never before exhibited so much frank sorrow or cynicism; the genius grows up. "Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away" argues with but also struggles over its title's implication; hook-filled as ever but mournful, it comes about its moving climax bit by bit, as though a catharsis like that of the prior record's religious anthem "Higher Ground" can now only come with hard work, uncompromised faith and pleading.

Wonder's musical preoccupations evolve less on Fulfillingness than on any of his past three albums or the next one; this is much more an exploration of established methods, an attempt as though in real time to determine if all of the artist's gifts remain, and then how far he can go with his own expertise at harnessing our bodies, hearts carefully, quietly (hell, "Bird of Beauty" is really just a seductive, surrendered variant on "Too High"). The only other mainstream soul record of the '70s that achieves so much under such dark, careful, unflashy circumstances is Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Yet Wonder never presents anything that resembles a dirge; the closest he comes is the classical piano-inspired, mournful and frightened "They Won't Go When I Go," as stark and hopeless a creation as Big Star's "Holocaust," but even it can't stay wallowed in the mire for its duration -- bursting finally and redeemed.

The record offers no "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," no "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," certainly no "For Once in My Life," yet it immediately envelops us in its uniquely reluctant spirit and mood. In short, Wonder is troubled, and not troubled in the conscious but swaggering manner of Talking Book and Innervisions at their darkest. Even the latter's saddest moment, "All Is Fair in Love," was suffused with sheepish wit. Wonder's accident-related revelation doesn't lead him all that far from his prior concerns or personality. Nixon terrifies him just like racism toremented him on "Living for the City"; the result is the outrageously funky, ferocious clavinet-driven "You Haven't Done Nothin'," boasting the great man's best-ever lyric and the propulsive vocal contributions of the Jackson Five, who visited Wonder in the North Carolina hospital where he lay nearly dying and now fight alongside him.

Indeed, one is reminded of Frank Capra, who once alleged that after the release of It Happened One Night he was struck by a godly revelation of sorts -- that his duty was to let the people who saw his films know that he loved them. Capra's work thereafter was deeply populist and humane... but so was nearly everything he had already made up to that point. Perhaps his focus was simply tightened. It's by this line of reasoning that FFF opens softly, assuredly, warm-heartedly with "Smile Please" -- a jazzy and casual saunter of catchy optimism only mildly tempered by its chorus' slight desperation. It's a giving, caring setting of the stage for what's to follow, yet it also withholds -- what it builds to isn't quite a peak, only a vague allowance of joy that's more or less brought to fruition by the even more complex "Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away."

Herein lies the major artistic evolution of this LP, its most famous payoff to come two years later. Probably very few people would make an argument that Innervisions is an inferior record to this one; many of us find them nearly equal, but there's little question that the prior album is the signature achievement and very possibly Wonder's finest moment on record. But each song of Innervisions was a world unto itself; they may have complemented one another beautifully, but they did not necessitate one another. In a shattered, newly awake world and outlook like Wonder's circa 1974, it suddenly must have seemed obvious that the tempered sweetness of "Smile Please" necessitated the worshipful paean and questioning of "Heaven...", that therefore the tentative, virginal, slide guitar-ridden "Too Shy to Say" required the pure sex of "Boogie On Reggae Woman," that both needed the romantic dread and superstition of "Creepin'." Without exception, all of the fine songs here are stronger when heard together in proper sequence; the album furthers, enlivens itself and its sometimes morose, lost sensibility. It's partly because no sentiment here is simple, childlike, innocent.

"Boogie On Reggae Woman" is accomplishment enough to require some digression, and a speedy comparison to the romances of Talking Book or My Cherie Amour casts into stark light just how much Wonder's albums of the '60s and '70s are a narrative of boyhood fading into physical and emotional maturity -- more eloquently and musically than the output of any other teen idol. Masculine sexual identity in rock & roll has historically been turgid and superficial, a result both of gender roles and of the bounds of the form. But even if Stevie Wonder is a modern American hero on a level with few, he as a musical entity is hardly traditional. Somehow, his hot-sex song is different -- and hotter -- not only because of the stark vulnerability in his voice but also the passive androgyny of the lyric. The song cannot be denied musically, driving along with cosmic force in one of the rawest grooves of Wonder's career. As engaging as it is, it's still the composition and -- especially -- the vocal performance that makes the song so potent, even today in a pop music world swimming in innuendo. This is the real thing, with genuine feeling, genuine primal lust.

Like Brian Wilson's legendary take on the far less (but not entirely a-) sexual "Don't Worry Baby," Stevie's vocal here makes its mark with orgasmic mystery, with his teasing groans and the bashful secrecy of "I like to do it to you 'till you holler for more," the submissive thrill of "I like to make love to you 'till you make me scream." The song is an admission of sex not just in one of the three pop interpretive traditions -- as pornographic bliss or an expression of love or a political metaphor, all of which have some truth -- but as a function of the flesh and a feeling that marks true humanity. The line that grips every time is the one that reveals the most about Wonder and the beauty of sexual relationships in general -- "I like to reggae with you, but you dance too fast for me." There's no song better suited than this for such delightful interpersonal revelation.

Yet again, however, that split second of dancing bliss requires counterpoint, and therefore side one ends with the gorgeous but meacing "Creepin'"; his voice never better or truer, Wonder wraps it around a blackened tale of obsession and lust, no ordinary love song, more evocative and conflicted than even Gaye's work of the period. It's a strange, counterintuitively calming track that belies its secret heart on a record that very often isn't what it seems to be. Songs that begin as whispers routinely evolve into full-blown gospel revival.

If "Creepin'" alone doesn't make the case, if the melody and ache of something like "It Ain't No Use" can't render this as vital and grand as any of the outstanding achievements in Wonder's catalog, if its thematic sophistication does nothing for you, maybe it's wise to stick to something simple: Fulfillingness' First Finale features the artist's best, most nuanced singing ever, full of character, charm, sensuality like at no point in his career before this and honestly not often thereafter. Beyond just his own singing, it's the versatile use of the human voice he displays in his productions: the harmonic lushness, openness, the intimacy of the way he is himself recorded.

This might really be a finale of sorts; it's the definitive moment of Stevie Wonder as the artist he set out to become at the end of the '60s when he acquired control of his output. Conceptually it's virtually perfect, almost seemingly effortless, and consistently rewarding and revealing. But when he lets the facade break just a bit and starts to suggest a bit of joy and passion looking ahead on "Please Don't Go," it's the first evidence of the earth-shaking universal classic he would unearth just a few years hence. Fulfillingness can't help but sit in the shadow of two great records it sits next to on the shelf of every music collector with an ounce of taste in this country and many others, but it's a great record in its own right specifically because of what it slowly begins to imply: more than a decade after "Fingertips," the reality of growing up and becoming an individual is beginning to require the full force of Wonder's creativity and intellect. He'd grown up before our eyes, and now we would really see in full the man he had become.


[A small portion of this essay incorporates material from a previously published piece about "Boogie On Reggae Woman," posted in 2004.]