Monday, May 29, 2017

Are secrets still a thing?: March 2017 music diary

Something I forgot to share last month -- in April we saw Kate Tempest in Washington and I wrote a little bit about it here. Onward.

Dirty Projectors (Domino) [NO]
The line between this joyless bunch and Gentle Giant was never as thick as we pretended when hordes of indie rock critics were going through their extremely unfortunate Grizzly Bear-Bon Iver phase, but even I was surprised by how violent a reaction this record elicited from me. Holy fucking shit this is bad, guys. The bridge in the first song is the worst thing I've ever heard, and I've heard First Love and Country Love. Remember the little man in Edward G. Robinson's chest or stomach or whatever who told him which insurance claims not to approve in Double Indemnity? The same little man suddenly appeared in my body and begged me, demanded that I turn this off, made threats against me if I wouldn't. I pressed on anyway so I could tell you that this twiddly, trebly, cutesy, aimlessly overstuffed music is probably the best case ever made that the collapse of all markets -- indeed, of the planet itself -- is a good thing.

Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch)
Giddens is a gifted musician with a great voice, but all of her recorded output to date has been politely boring and blandly produced, and this is no better; it lifts up occasionally with some of the covers, like Mississippi John Hurt's "The Angels Laid Him Away" and the version of the Staple Singers' peerless title cut, but even those can't come out from underneath the overly slick sonics, which make the record seem indistinguishable from virtually all modern roots music.

The Feelies: In Between (Bar/None)
The Clean and Yo La Tengo and the Bats and R.E.M. and Antietam and god knows who else wouldn't exist without the Feelies. Bands like Real Estate wouldn't exist without the Clean and Yo La Tengo and the Bats and R.E.M. and Antietam. Now, in 2017, the Feelies sound clean, relaxing, carefully atmospheric, ineffectual. In other words the Feelies have turned into, well, Real Estate.

Crystal Fairy (Ipecac) [r]
A supergroup comprised of members from the Melvins and At the Drive-In plus engagingly gritty singer Teri Gender Bender -- who sounds a little like Donita Sparks and a lot like Karen O -- make a lot of noise and end up with an unpretentious and engaging hybrid of hyperactive post-punk and crunchy '70s metal. Bender really holds it together with her tireless, confrontational singing, and for a few minutes a rock band just sounds like a rock band and it's actually an okay thing.

Visible Cloaks: Reassemblage (Rvng Intl.) [r]
If the influence of Music from the Hearts of Space on modern electronic music hadn't already been clear, prepare to get centered with this duo from Portland. These tracks are so peaceful they're almost startling, in the sense that if you close your eyes you'd swear you were in a very clean waiting room somewhere or getting a massage; the pair started out mimicking Japanese ambient on a number of underground releases. This proper debut incorporates the irresistible sound of vintage MIDI sequencing and is as likely as not to improve your evening.

Grandaddy: Last Place (Columbia) [c]
Sophtware Slump was one of the last CDs I remember being enthusiastically shared among friends on burned discs in high school; I remember little of it except that it seemed inoffensive and nondescript. I should probably have listened to it again before trying to review the California band's reunion record, but I'm not getting paid enough to delve into the genesis of such a dishwater dull recording. Grandaddy are somewhere in the vicinity of Spoon and latter-day Wilco: despite technical slickness and occasional charm, finding the space in the heart to be passionate about their music is beyond me, and even by those standards this particular record is hard to put up with. But people are excited they're back, so what can you say? Lyrically it's another divorce album, with such chasms prompting as always a sudden need for catharsis that seems to have resulted directly in the band's revival by chief proprietor Jason Lytle. But the music has the slick bloodlessness that suggests a tired, desperate over-eagerness to please; even though only one song is totally embarrassing ("Check Injin," strong evidence that Decca's Dick Rowe was right all along), listening to the whole album is like eating plain bread for an hour.

Blanck Mass: World Eater (Sacred Bones) [r]
Electronic project of Benjamin John Power from Fuck Buttons is somewhat more interesting than that band's aggressive droning, though this record is equally bombastic and quickly proclaims itself ideally positioned as film score music. I dunno, if you put it on while you're cleaning or something I imagine it would be a stronger motivator than pure ambient -- think Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, or Shadow Morton if he scored spaghetti westerns.

Thundercat: Drunk (Brainfeeder)
Skilled session bassist and producer Stephen Bruner has built up an impressive resumé over the past decade by working with virtually everyone in the Los Angeles hip hop scene as well as the likes of Shabazz Palaces, Suicidal Tendencies and Erykah Badu. This is his third solo record but the first to become a significant crossover hit; while his voice, instrumental talent and ambitious sonic artistry evoke memories of Stevie Wonder, he's yet again done in by ordinary writing, facile lyrics and a tendency to paper over his ideas with bad jokes -- the same sort of stuff that has made Frank Ocean's albums so frustrating, so if by your standards that's excellent company to be in, or if you think the "friend zone" is a credible concept (Ben Folds take note: I've found your next cutesy "ironic" cover), you may appreciate this. Maybe Thundercat has ideas worth exploring, maybe not, but the way to find out is not to playfully deflect any attempt to take them seriously.

Vagabon: Infinite Worlds (Father/Daughter) [r]
Hailing from Cameroon via New York City, Laetitia Tamko is a freak-folkie somewhat in the tradition of Frankie Cosmos, Kimya Dawson and Jeff Mangum but with a refreshing musical eclecticism alien to the foundations of that movement. Tamko's vocals evoke the beautiful shouted naivete of Doug Martsch and Kathleen Hanna without seeming indebted to any specific predecessor, and while her songs are only sporadically memorable, she knows how to push them away from singer-songwriter convention and to leave an impression with a variance of style that ranges from the confessional to the explosive to pure avant sound collage.

The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch) [r]
Stephin Merritt's best album 69 Love Songs might have been a gimmick, but it was also inspired and witty in a manner that was completely unforced. His attempt to recapture that energy, by writing a song dedicated to each year of his life to this point, is run aground by the feeling that he's structuring it this way out of a sense of obligation. Such an obsessive commitment to concept also destroys the possibility of coherent pacing, much as his original plan to arrange 69LS alphabetically would have. In fairness, almost every song on this quintuple album (!) is a complete thought -- no "Punk Love," no "World Love," not even a "Boa Constrictor" -- and the mediocrity of some of the melodies and the occasionally haphazard production is likely meant to call attention to the often brilliant lyrics, but it sadly has the opposite effect most of the time. And it seems as though Merritt's childhood, adolescence and twenties inspire a far more varied litany of textures than his evidently calmer adulthood, which is why the last two discs of soppy, meandering ballads could try the patience of even his most dedicated fan. But perhaps the biggest mark against this 150-minute collection is that its songs are sung exclusively by Merritt; on several of them he stretches that monotone like never before, but the presence of various guest singers on 69 and other Magnetic Fields records has been an indispensable element of their appeal historically. I could run down my objections to the individual cuts but it's easier to tell you which ones are keepers: the adorably melodramatic "'68: A Cat Called Dionysus," the eerily relatable "'70: They're Killing Children Over There," gorgeous reverse-protest apathy song "'74 No," the cruel stepfather revenge "'77: Life Ain't All Bad," the Byrds nod "'79: Rock 'n' Roll Will Ruin Your Life," the anthemic instant classic and best song on the record "'83: Foxx and I," the communal AIDS lament "'85: Why I Am Not a Teenager," the synth lust piece "'87: At the Pyramid," the second best song on the record "'92: Weird Diseases," the effectively lyrical pop "'94: Haven't Got a Penny," and the impeccably sarcastic "California Girls" sequel "'08: Surfin'." The message is that Merritt's not a bad musical theater composer. He's just a better synthpop composer, and an LP of between ten and twenty songs would have been a far more consistently rewarding use of his energy.

Laura Marling: Semper Femina (More Alarming)
British singer-songwriter's impressively fierce, guttural vocals survey friendship and lonerism with smart if passive lyrics, but the only unqualified score is the magnificent "Always This Way," which captures grief against a driving, teasing backdrop. This is Marling's sixth album; she's massively celebrated in England, and her previous work is probably worth a closer look than I can give it at the moment.

The Shins: Heartworms (Sony) [r]
The Shins haven't been a "band" in nearly a decade, but they weren't a real band when they made their reputation-creating Oh, Inverted World either. James Mercer's once-infallible capacity for crafting an endless stream of hooks and impeccable pop songs is no longer with him, but his reversion to minimalist bedroom pop without the distraction of Danger Mouse (even though "Perfect World" is the best song he's written since 2007) or the array of guests on Port of Morrow does plenty to recover some of the goodwill lost during the long stretches of downtime that resulted from his dismissal of the rest of the group. Like Inverted, this is pretty and at times irresistibly catchy, even if it verges much more often on irritating than he ever used to, and even though it's never incisive or cutting in precisely the way that the three Sub Pop albums were, making them still among the most indispensable examples of modern American guitar pop. Basically, if Mercer retired the Shins name and called this "Wings" or something you'd be really floored by how much fun you're going to have listening to it.

Jay Som: Everybody Works (Polyvinyl) [r]
Oakland's Melina Duterte has a voice that absolutely soars in its best moments, and she gets an equally lyrical, expressive sound from her electric guitar -- a wonderful relief from miles upon miles of acclaimed singer-songwriter records out this year that are acoustic or electronic-based, good as some of them are. Her second album under the Jay Som title is a promising gem indeed, though its two peak moments stand so far above the rest of the material that it's an easy bet record number three will be the triumph. Some of the rest of the perfectly agreeable tunes here were largely improvised, so it's remarkable how easy on the ear they turn out to be (see "One More Time, Please") but the wonderful "The Bus Song" is the anthemic rock track of the year so far, and the title cut is the perfect gesture of solidarity with a world that lives paycheck to paycheck to keep its head above water.

Conor Oberst: Salutations (Nonesuch)
Oberst was exactly on the precipice between navel-gaze and catchy dad-rock that made perfect sense on his last album, a precarious situation he promptly ruins on his follow-up, which tells us stories about divorce and health paranoia right down to the systolic/diastolic blood pressure numbers, but give it up for the fact that unlike Mark Kozelek, Oberst isn't necessarily telling us about his own blood pressure; and unlike Father John Misty, he doesn't then sing about fondling the doctor who measured it. Fun drinking game: knock one back every time Oberst drops a famous person's name -- he could fill a Sgt. Pepper LP cover with the cast he conjures up, including but not limited to Sam Peckinpah, the Dalai Lama, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Patty Hearst, Robin Williams, Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchens and Heinrich Himmler.

Spoon: Hot Thoughts (Matador) [r]
Read my review from last time and just paste it here, it's the same thing they did! Actually that's unfair -- Spoon is a really good group of players and their music is punchy, precise and instantly appealing, I just don't have a damn thing to tell you about it. It's dancier than any of their music since their first couple of Merge albums, but they seem reluctant to label it such. It's allegedly political. Listen to it. You'll like it.

Depeche Mode: Spirit (Columbia) [hr]
It's got nothing to do with Dave Gahan's genuinely hilarious reaction to his long left-leaning ("the grabbing hands grab all they can") band being ignorantly co-opted by a Nazi that their ferociously angry new album is their best since Playing the Angel, but it makes it an even more joyous occasion to hear just how good it is. The shot in the arm might come from their latest production savior (James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco), or from the emphatic and mobilized and energized mood they seem to be in, or from Gahan and Martin Gore singing with more focus and passion than they have in years, or it could just be that their newest crop of songs just happens to be unusually inspired, top-tier material. Gahan continues to contribute some of the band's best latter-day hooks ("No More"), Gore proves himself more than capable of getting a feel for the boisterous, tempestuous room on "Going Backwards" and the single "Where's the Revolution," and the procession of anthems -- peaking with the tremendous "So Much Love" -- is Rose Bowl-worthy. The time was right for Depeche Mode to remind us how fucking great they are, and I'm thrilled that we're all in sync with them again; by so openly rebuking the fringe insanity of their most questionable follower they've renewed their vows with the rest of us, and having loved them since I was a teenager I feel proud of the association, and when Gore becomes the first rock star (to my knowledge) to announce "we're fucked," I'm both deflated and ecstatic over the honesty, because I really trust that he means it and that deep down he's right in the mire with us.

Loyle Carner: Yesterday's Gone (Virgin) [hr]
The debut of this south London rapper (who's collaborated with Kate Tempest, which I swear I didn't know till just now) entrances immediately with its laid-back, tough-minded charm and only grows more addictive thanks to its lush, jazzy production, Carner's versatility and flow as a rapper and vocalist see us through several top-of-the-line hooks (especially the instant earworm "NO CD," at least in part an anti-shuffle anthem that touchingly betrays the auteur's affection for '90s hip hop), plus a closing suite of songs dedicated to his long-suffering mum, including her own poetic contributions, that will put something in your eye. Carner's lyrical style is openly awkward and confessional, honest about disadvantage and disability, which runs ragged in an interesting way against his smooth, quick-witted phrasing, with a cappella interludes and scattered moments when he slips into an unexpectedly lovely singing voice. In much the same way, the producers' varying stylistic choices somehow add up to a well-sequenced and complete portrait of the artist that can incorporate the catchy, guitar-driven "Stars and Shards" as easily as the throwback stoned vibe of "Ain't Nothing Changed." It's an album that, for all its eclecticism, demands to be heard complete and in sequence, and with the undivided attention you'd afford a Kendrick Lamar or Gil Scott-Heron... or some old Jay-Zs, couple ODBs.

London O'Connor: O∆ (s/r) [hr]
This exuberantly uncategorizable California singer-rapper-producer has it out for the net and for social networks but the suburban malaise he brilliantly articlates on this brief, stunning debut could just as easily be a narration of 1990s or 1980s or 1970s boredom, probably earlier if we wanted except that then we'd never get to hear music that so defies any notion of organization or prettified slickness. O'Connor's minimalist vocals vacillate between a breathless whisper and an atonal wail, and when he strips everything but himself away there's a world of feeling and Jonathan Richman-scale paranoia in his dry monotone; his maximalist synthesizer lines invite primal identification and also seem as keyed to post-adolescent turmoil as a Ronettes record. He's funny, he's fine if you can take or leave what he's doing, he's distinctive and instantly impossible to shake, he hates your guts and wishes people still hung out, and if his earnest narrative of not wanting to end up like the cranky oatmeal-eating uncle on the couch asking about the "music thing" just to make small talk is more superhero origin story than full-on exploration of the alienation really at the core of that encounter, try this impeccable couplet that seems more salient every time you hear it: "All my friends are on the net and all my friends are in the net / and all of us are out of it and none of us are into it."

- American Wrestlers: Goodbye Terrible Youth (Fat Possum): studio-based full-band followup to St. Louis singer-songwriter Gary McClure's home recorded project, this has an engaging post-punk nightclub intensity despite its more plaintive, wide-eyed emotional base and a few hooks that soar ["Terrible Youth" / "Real People"]
- Tinariwen: Elwan (Anti-)
- Madness: Can't Touch Us Now (Universal): if every revivalist throwback record any older-gen band made brought back the old times, the old times I never even thought I liked all that much, so effortlessly...
- Lee Fields & the Expressions: Special Night (Big Crown) ["Never Be Another You" / "Special Night"]
- Dawn Richard: Redemption (Local Action) ["Voices" / "Tyrants"]
- Denzel Curry: Imperial (Loma Vista): brutal hip hop (originally out last year but under my radar) with fellow Floridian Ronny J producing and a small, solid group of guests ["Zenith" / "Pure Enough" / "Story: No Title"]
- Teen Daze: Themes for Dying Earth (Flora): if Real Estate hadn't started sounding like presliced yellow American cheese
- Molly Burch: Please Be Mine (Captured Tracks): slightly solid, slightly edgy, slightly soulful
- PVT: New Spirit (felte): Yeasayer meets Underworld meets idk ["Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend"]
- Jesca Hoop: Memories Are Now (Sub Pop): folkie starts out with a bang and ends up resting on her laurels for a bit but her voice is "different" and the songs go somewhere

A new subset for the "also recommended" section. I use ambient and electronic music constantly in my day to day life even if it doesn't directly move me; in fact I think it's very often not the point to find such music novel or entertaining. (Some of what's listed here will be anyway, though more often I will tend to use it because it recedes -- and because excessive familiarity will make it less effective in this regard, I rotate the stuff constantly.) As both someone who appreciates something that just subtly harnesses a mood, keeps things calm or adds to atmosphere and as someone who once lamented the seemingly infinite amounts of electronica and techno music I'd never be able to afford that seemed so cool and would be so fun to use to make dubs and that sort of thing, I feel a duty to recommend the current records I've addded to the library of this kind of thing even if I don't really have much to say about them individually. Obviously if an ambient, electronic or instrumental record really strikes me as special you'll hear more detail about it.
- Romare: Love Songs, Pt. 2 (Ninja Tune)
- Bonobo: Migration (Ninja Tune)
- FaltyDL: Heaven Is for Quitters (Beat)
- Steve Hauschildt: Strands (Kranky): the most bare and minimal of the lot
- Loscil: Monument Builders (Kranky)
- Simian Mobile Disco: Welcome to Sideways (Delicacies): far from ambient, but a great motivator, especially the megamix version
- Brian Eno: Reflection (Warp): father of the genre is still its most assured and reliable practitioner
- William Basinksi: A Shadow in Time (2062): this is especially strong, lush and enveloping if that's what you're needing at the moment
- Moire: No Future (Ghostly): conspicuous consumption, Big Beat idiomatic indulgence

* Stormzy: Gang Signs & Prayer
* Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai
* Valerie June: The Order of Time
Sherwood & Pinch: Man vs. Sofa
Karriem Riggins: Headnod Suite
Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Navigator
Oddisee: The Iceberg
Anohni: Paradise EP

Foxygen: Hang
Lowly: Heba
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions: Until the Hunter
Jim James: Eternally Even
Martha Wainwright: Goodnight City [NYIM]
Emeli Sande: Long Live the Angels
Austra: Future Politics
Rose Elinor Dougall: Stellular [NYIM]
Moon Duo: Occult Architecture, Vol. 1
Dutch Uncles: Big Balloon
All Them Witches: Sleeping Through the War
Acceptance: Colliding by Design
Old 97's: Graveyard Whistling [sorry, guys :( ]
Peter Silberman: Impermanence
Xiu Xiu: Forget [though, as usual, if you think of it as a comedy act it's sublime]
Six Organs of Admittance: Burning the Threshold [NYIM]
Pissed Jeans: Why Love Now
Los Campesinos!: Sick Scenes
Alasdair Roberts: Pangs [NYIM]
Holly Macve: Golden Eagle [NYIM]
Why?: Moh Lhean
Temples: Volcano [NYIM]
Nadia Reid: Preservation [NYIM]
Spectres: Condition
Murs: Captain California
Pulled Apart by Horses: The Haze
Real Estate: In Mind
Sorority Noise: You're Not as __ as You Think
Tove Lo: Lady Wood [NYIM]

Martha Wainwright "Take the Reins" [Goodnight City]
Austra "Future Politics" [Future Politics]

The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas (Emperor Jones 2002): [r]->[hr]
The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed (4AD 2004): [r]->[hr]
New Order: Low-Life (Factory 1985): [r]->[hr]

Love Is All: Nine Times That Same Song (What's Your Rupture? 2006): [hr]
Love Is All: A Hundrd Things Keep Me Up at Night (What's Your Rupture? 2008): [hr]