Rhapsody Streamnotes: February 5, 2008

Year-End Mop-Up (Part 4)

This is the last of four sets of short notes/reviews I made while checking out highly regarded 2007 releases using Rhapsody. These are snap judgments, based on one or two plays. Some records, of course, would benefit from extra exposure, although some might wear worse. I wound up checking out all of the Pazz & Jop top finishers I could find -- see below for a list of exceptions -- down to Queens of the Stone Age (72: Era Vulgaris) and Bat for Lashes (80: Fur and Gold), beyond which little looked apetizing let alone important. I also checked out almost all of Christgau's honorable mentions (Rufus Wainwright was an exception I remember), plus a few odds and ends that struck my fancy. Aside from the Fats Domino tribute, I didn't get into the various artists compilations, and I didn't do much jazz -- either could have impacted my regular writings, and I didn't feel up to thinking about that. Before this exercise I had always been reluctant to review downloads. I still have mixed feelings about it, but I think it's been useful to get the broad overview this exercise has offered. Certainly saves me the temptation to hunt down stuff I wind up not caring much for, as well as the ensuing storage problems.

Shantel: Disko Partizani (2007, Crammed Disc): German electronica producer, full name Stefan Hantel, draws on Eastern Europe and North Africa, Gypsies, Jews, and Arabs, without pushing any particular line to excess. What sounds at first like restraint morphs into eclecticism. B+(*)

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (2006 [2007], DFA/Capitol): I handicapped this at #4, but it won the Village Voice's critics poll in a close three-way race and easily won among Idolator's somewhat more techno-friendly critics. I may have underestimated this because of a quirk in my methodology. A few months ago I found a copy at the library. Checked it out, gave it a couple of spins, thought it was pretty good, jotted down a high B+(***), and forgot about it. With a grade in hand, it wasn't a priority to stream, but after the Voice poll came out I figured it was time. A couple of plays later I can hear why it's winning without getting excited about it. It has four or five cuts that are bouncy enough to lift the rather drab vocals, and the off-speed bit about New York that seems off at first starts to get comfy. It is, in short, the sort of record that if you lived with regularly you'd get to like, maybe a lot. If that doesn't excite me, maybe I'm just too promiscuous to settle down. A-

Holy Fuck: LP (2007, Young Turks): Canadian duo, specializes in live improv electronica, on their second album. Mostly keybs and drums, all instrumental, big pumping riffs, something of a kraut rock influence. This jumped out of the speakers from the start, something called "Super Inuit," and the subsequent variations just added to the impact. Pace LCD Soundsystem, this only took one play. A-

Yeasayer: All Hour Cymbals (2007, We Are Free): Brooklyn group. Christgau described this as "tribal neo-psychedelia as spirit food for the grim times ahead." The multiple voices push the tribal concept, and the hodgepodge of references could pass as psychedelia. I'm a little short on details, but one song is called "No Need to Worry." That sounds like something to worry over. B+(*)

No Age: Weirdo Rippers (2007, Fat Cat): LA-based lo-fi drum/guitar duo, putting a lot of fuzz into a mix more/less reminiscent of Jesus and Mary Chain, perhaps a bit grungier. Don't have much to say about them, but I like the sound and the dingy album cover, which leaves a lot to the imagination. B+(***)

The Twilight Sad: Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007, Fat Cat): Indie rock group lays the Scottish on thick, the accent of course, but also storms of background noise resembling bagpipes and martial drums. It's almost shtick, but they play it straight and keep the excesses in check. In the end all they have to do is lay out a bit of shimmering guitar riff for something to play off against. B+(*)

Daft Punk: Alive 2007 (2007, Virgin): French techno outfit, been around since the mid-1990s, has never impressed me much before, but they're a brand name group in a relatively anonymous genre. Playing live cuts against the genre grain. Evidently they're big enough to get the full arena sound treatment -- cavernous echoes, mass audience noise. It suits their rudimentary kraut rock especially well. A-

Dälek: Abandoned Language (2007, Ipecac): New Jersey underground rap group, including an MC of same name, which leads to various degrees of confusion. Music is built from dreary industrial drones, with deadpan raps that sometimes signify. B+(*)

Dan Deacon: Spiderman of the Rings (2007, Carpark): Electronica impresario, loves those funny cartoonish sounds that are stock-in-trade clichés with synthesizers. E.g., first piece is called "Woody Woodpecker," a rehash of the cartoon theme song with all sorts of extra blips. Various pieces are more/less funny. Ends with an abortive attempt to tell a joke. B

Matthew Dear: Asa Breed (2007, Ghostly): Ann Arbor techno producer, comes up with fairly minimal beats, which at least here are formed into seductive little songs with more/less awkward vocals. B+(*)

The-Dream: Love/Hate (2007, Def Jam): R&B singer-songwriter, born Terius Youngdell Nash. Wrote Rihanna's hit "Umbrella," which won Idolator's singles poll, and had some sort of hit called "Shawty Is a Ten," which reappears here as "Shawty Is Da Sh*!" -- something about the vernacular there I don't understand, and it's not helped by the falsetto or the repeated references to "Shawty" as in "Nikki," who he's bedding in lieu of, or in spite of, Shawty, whoever she/that is. Also not sure what I think about the Nelly-like "heys" punctuating several songs. Thing is, he's pretty effective on a straighter song like "Fast Car" where he's not bogged down in the bogus horseshtick. Several discographical nuissances: not sure what the hyphen means; e.g., do we sort under 'T' or 'D'? Title on cover looks like Love Me All Summer, Hate Me All Winter, but most authorities list it as Love/Hate. Seems like a nice kid with a lot of talent who's trying hard to be polarizing. B+(*)

Low: Drums and Guns (2007, Sub Pop): Three-piece band from Duluth MN, with husband/wife vocalists Alan Sparhawk (guitar) and Mimi Parker (drums) and bassist John Nichols. They call what they do "slowcore": the music is slow, dank, industrial, not an inappropriate representation of their frozen rust belt town. (I spent a couple of days there a few years ago -- in July, thankfully -- and it's a fascinating place.) They've recorded steadily since 1994, and have a steady following. They always seemed like an interesting concept, but the few times I have sampled their music have left me dazed and dull. This isn't an exception, although a song about the Beatles and Stones is at least clear. They have a career, and will probably last as long as the Fall. B

Black Lips: Good Bad Not Evil (2007, Vice): Atlanta-based rock band. AMG lists them as Garage Punk and Garage Rock Revival. Half a dozen albums since 2003. Based on a pretty scandalous live rep, I expected more frenzy in a punk band -- maybe that was an early phase they've grown out of. Nothing terribly fast or hard, but there are traces of 1960s garage bands like Sir Douglas, the organ thinned with guitar, a certain wryness in the twanged accents. Not much here, but I like the basic sound. B+(*)

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Baby 81 (2007, RCA): Another garage band, from San Francisco, named for Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang in The Wild One. This is their fourth album, first I've heard. Most sources place their roots in 1990s Brit bands, especially Jesus and Mary Chain. That sound isn't obvious at first, but is increasingly pervasive. AMG's review complains that "BRMC has no personality to fall back on." That may be true, but in a conventional rock band with good skills and pop sense that isn't such a liability. I'm not sure I'd notice anyway. (PS: One problem here is getting the label straight. AMG lists: Sony, RCA, Island, Universal/Island, which covers two incompatible megacorps. I've also seen Red Int., Red Ink, and RCA/Red Ink. Rhapsody says RCA, which is my fallback position, but without having an actual record it's impossible to know.) B+(**)

Brother Reade: Rap Music (2007, Record Collection): White rap duo from Los Angeles, or maybe Winston-Salem NC, where James Joliff (Jimmy "Jael" Jamz or Major Jamz) and Erin Garcia (Bobby Evans) got their start in a punk band. Beats are soft, loosey, with a lot of undertow. Rhymes are smart enough but not exactly intellectual, and above or beyond partying -- just enough to make "Like Duh" sting. A-

Aesop Rock: None Shall Pass (2007, Definitive Jux): Ian Bavitz piles his beats up like an endless series of car wrecks -- he loves crashing electronic drones, and keeps them coming in ways that defy physics. He keeps the words coming too, but I'm having more trouble than ever catching any as they flash by. In that this sounds typical, just not as much fun as it used to be. B

Air: Pocket Symphony (2007, Astralwerks): French electronica group (Nicolas Godin, Jean-Benoit Dunckel), on the ambient side. The instrumental music here is measured, stately, elegant and comfortable, a little short of beat, but quite lovely. The vocals come far too frequently, and they mostly dull or blur the effect without destroying it. B+(*)

Joni Mitchell: Shine (2007, Hear Music): Returning from retirement to smell the coffee, she starts with an instrumental laced with Bob Sheppard sax, then unveils a series of ecology-friendly save-the-world songs, including a reprise of "Big Yellow Taxi" (the "paved paradise and put up a parking lot" song). I've always reacted out of sync to her, tuning into her early self-centered folkie act only through it reverberated through other people I knew, finding her jazz jones alternately aggravating and enchanting, yet enjoying much of her widely disparaged, other-centered late work. This is a mixed bag, but I like its pieced-together musicality and don't mind the apocalyptic. They have, after all, done worse things than build parking lots. B+(*)

Yoko Ono: Yes, I'm a Witch (2007, Astralwerks): She's recorded off and on for a third of a century, trading on her celebrity, connections, and interesting if not always good taste, but she has nothing distinct in style or sound, which makes her suspect as a musical artist. Her eclecticism is all the more exposed on an album of collaborations with artists who often rip her to shreds. Old songs, too, at least the few I recognize. B

Deborah Harry: Necessary Evil (2007, Eleven Seven): Several times this threatens to break loose but never sustains the interest song to song -- even the last three songs, which Christgau raved over, don't flow. They do at least break out of the mild pop rut of the groupthink on the first 14 songs -- AMG credits those to three or more writers each, whereas Chris Stein appears with two of the last three. B

Joe Henry: Civilians (2007, Anti-): Got some press early on for being married to Madonna Ciccone's sister, but with 10 albums in 21 years plus a lately blossoming roster of production credits, he has a pretty substantial resume by now. Born in North Carolina, raised in Michigan, he fits the midwest singer-songwriter niche (cf. John Hiatt, John Mellencamp), not countryish but at least direct and uncomplicated. B+(**)

Deerhunter: Cryptograms (2007, Kranky): Atlanta band, self-described as ambient punk, which seems a good enough label for their guitar-dominant pattern abstractions -- I'm reminded of the Feelies and Cabaret Voltaire, but on record at least they seem more constrained, less given to pop fancy. That seems at odds with their reputation, which takes punk more as a license to offend. This leans more toward ambience, but has enough edge to maintain an interest level. B+(***)

Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity (2007, Kill Rock Stars): Just for the record, I didn't actually listen to all of this. Sometimes Rhapsody skips over tracks, and I caught this happening at least three times here. I've seen it happen before, and sometimes went back, but here at least I've heard enough. San Francisco group, with a female vocalist, Satomi Matsuzaki, whose presence no doubt tempts them to Japanese tunings. Her voice, too. But they'd likely to be into ornate eclecicism in any case. I find the affectations annoying; before long that reaction also spreads to the sweeping pop riffs and sporadic guitar noise. Ninth album since 1997. C+

Grinderman (2007, Anti-): It would be hard to call Nick Cave a project given how steadfastly I've ignored him. He's been cranking out records since the late 1970s, but this is the first I've heard all the way through. I credit my lack of interest to Christgau, who occasionally entertains arguments whether Richie Havens, Nick Cave, or the Smashing Pumpkins are the worst live act of all time. (Laura witnessed the Havens concert and swears there can be no contest.) Actually, I have heard bits and pieces over the years, and he's usually struck me as a competent rocker, a little derivative and pompous, but listenable. This isn't bad, but it's charms are limited. E.g., he takes an overly obvious Bob Dylan melody and perverts it into "No Pussy Blues." Good guitar on the closer, "Love Bomb"; still, if you recall Flipper's "Sex Bomb," you might argue he merely unperverted it. B+(*)

The Ponys: Turn the Lights Out (2007, Matador): A pretty good indie rock band from Chicago, their third album. Seems like more of a guitar album than the first two, heavier anyway. In doing so, they've sunk into their own competency, going through the motions offering little of interest. B

Patty Griffin: Children Running Through (2007, ATO): Singer-songwriter, originally from Maine. I have her filed under folk, perhaps just my tendency to confuse her with Patty Larkin, who fits the role better. Hearing this had me thinking her marketing niche is adult contemporary, even before noticing the strings on the anthems. Still, her best best is the roots toolkit. She can be deadly dull without it. B-

Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007, RCA Victor): Singer-songwriter from Idaho. Can do some fairly minimal roots pieces, but also has a sense of how to hook a pop tune, and can reel off a credible ballad. I'm impressed, especially by "Right Moves," which should qualify as one of the most irresistible pop singles of the year if I was keeping track. B+(**)

Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (2007, Hear Music): Sometimes you can hear the knack he once had, but more often his vacillation between the grand gesture and the trivial sentiment is just annoying. By all indication, he worked harder this time. The result is that this lacks the lightness, not to mention the silliness, that has become his trademark. C-

Ian Hunter: Shrunken Heads (2007, Yep Roc): A surprisingly robust album from the former Mott the Hoople frontman, qualifying as something of a comeback even though his 30+ year solo career never really submerged even if he was often out of mind. More than ever, this parallels Mott, but comes off weaker, the soul, the glamour, the boisterous boyishness all faded. Closes with a ballad called "Read 'Em 'N' Weep" -- fits nicely, almost transcendent. B

Kings of Leon: Because of the Times (2007, RCA): Tennessee group, a cousin and three brothers sired by someone named Leon. Third album. They strike me as lightweight but unpretentious, and I rather like them. B+(*)

Thurston Moore: Trees Outside the Academy (2007, Ecstatic Peace): AMG lists recording date as "1971-2007," suggesting that some of this is old scrapbook material. (Moore would have been 13 in 1971.) A slightly lighter, more laconic Sonic Youth, minus Kim Gordon's vocals, which often make the difference. B+(**)

Blonde Redhead: 23 (2007, 4AD): Alt-rock band, formed by a couple of Italians who grew up in Montreal and met a couple of Japanese in New York. This happened back in the early 1990s. Their early music is invariably compared to Sonic Youth, and Kazu Makino voice is typically described as high and eerie. If that's all true, this qualifies as a relatively mature, moderate, and engaging work. B+(**)

The Avett Brothers: Emotionalism (2007, Ramseur): Country brother act from North Carolina, touted for their "high spirits," "flat-out kickass songs," "Appalachian-style string-band music with punk-rock abandon." Reminds me of the Statler Brothers, but even that's unfair. You always knew that the Statlers got pussy, even if they resorted to praying for it. These smarmy creeps you have to worry about. But at least they don't pray. How they get by without Jesus is a mystery to me. C

Akron/Family: Love Is Simple (2007, Young God): Brooklyn group, quartet (more or less), fourth album. Everyone sings, mostly in unison for a folkie singalong aspect. Reported to have invented their own religion, which is probably more useful than Magma inventing their own language. Sounds like they might not be bad but probably aren't worth the trouble. B

Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino ([2007], Vanguard, 2CD): Thirty-song tribute, almost as many artists. Don't have dates. Most cuts are probably recent, but John Lennon's "Ain't That a Shame" probably dates from 1975. One thing Allen Toussaint shows is that if you really want to nail a classic song it pays to have a near-match voice, not to mention a near-match piano. But if those are the standards, we can (and should) stick to the originals, peerless as they are. On the other hand, a small percentage of these covers stand alongside them (Randy Newman's "Blue Monday," Willie Nelson's "I Hear You Knockin'"), and some even add something (Toots' "Let the Four Winds Blow"). B+(**)

Sa-Ra: The Hollywood Recordings (2007, Babygrande): Also known as Sa-Ra Creative Partners, consisting of three R&B technicians with a long list of production credits (Ice-T, Heavy D, Jay-Z, P Diddy, Common, Coolio, just to pick some names from AMG's list). The principals are named: Taz Arnold, Shafiq Husayn, and Om'Mas Keith. I suppose part of the charm of such a group is that there's little of the usual compulsion to establish an identity -- the brand itself is intently anonymous. Mix of vocals and raps, lots of blippy little beats, skanky little grooves, in-jokes that could be funnier. Nothing yet suggests they're geniuses. B+(**)

Alicia Keys: As I Am (2007, J): Third studio album, settling into her mature level: good singer, thoughtful songs, nice production, some spots for her above-average piano. B+(**)

Chrisette Michele: I Am (2007, Def Jam): Another young R&B singer, good voice, good manners, has a convincingly self-defining song called "Good Girl." I liked it, and liked "Be OK" even better -- a survivor song that doesn't overstate the case. Then she jacks off "Mr. Radio" and tosses off gospel ululations on the senseless "Golden" before recovering a bit. Elsewhere she talks about studying Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Natalie Cole. I suppose it's all part of her business plan. Goes by first and middle name; last name is Payne. Not sure how to sort a name like that. B+(*)

James Luther Dickinson: Killers From Space (2007, Memphis International): Also known as Jim Dickinson -- that's how Wikipedia lists him, while AMG has separate entries under both names. Got his start as a session man (played the piano on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses"; Aretha Franklin's Spirit in the Dark, Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind) and producer (Ry Cooder's Into the Purple Valley, the Flamin' Groovies' Teenage Head, Big Star's Third, the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, more recently Amy LaVere's Anchors & Anvils). Cut his own album in 1972, another in 1979, a few more since the late 1990s. Only wrote one of the songs; don't recall hearing any of the others, a mixed bag that he brings a lot of history and feel to. B+(*)

Taylor Swift (2006 [2007], Big Machine): Teenage country singer, born 1989. Doesn't sound like jailbait, especially on songs like "Picture to Burn" and "Should've Said No" where she shows some evidence of experience. Leads off with one called "Tim McGraw"; as someone who never thinks of Tim McGraw (Tug, maybe, but very rarely), I figured she was selling herself short, but I didn't know she was 16 at the time. Got her a gig opening for McGraw and his good looking, no talent wife. Originally out in late 2006, then redone in a "Deluxe Edition" with bonus cuts and a DVD. Rhapsody only has the "Deluxe Edition," less the DVD. B+(*)

Carrie Underwood: Carnival Ride (2007, Arista Nashville): I've never watched American Idol, and have been militant enough about it that I resented a Jon Caramanica piece that taunted its readers with a "you know you watch it." I suppose that it's true that some significant artists have emerged in talent contests, although off the top of my head I can't think of any since Ella Fitzgerald, which has been a while. Even so, the spectacle of American Idol runs against almost every corollary of artistic distinction in rock, pop, or almost any specialization thereof. Listening to this Idol winner, it occurs to me that the main trait the show selects for is volume. My God, she's loud. Also pretty vapid, but that happens when Nashville can't find some irony to wrap around its clichés. C

Trisha Yearwood: Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love (2007, Big Machine): She has a dozen or so albums going back to 1991, when she started with a neotrad sound and a sense for songs that lately has atrophied. That she frontloads the crap here may mean that she's getting bad business advice. B-

Pam Tillis: Rhinestoned (2007, Stellar Cat): Like Yearwood, she's recorded steadily since 1991, although she's 7 years older, and steadier. Doesn't have an overpowering voice, but uses it well. Songs are sensible and smart. B+(**)

Zu & Nobukazu Takemura: Identification With the Enemy: A Key to the Underworld (2007, Atavistic): First album since I started doing this exercise that hasn't shown up on a single known year-end list. Zu is an Italian avant-jazz group I like a lot: Luca Mai on alto/baritone sax, Massimo Pupillo on bass, Jacopo Battaglia on drums. They've done a number of collaborations, including albums on Atavistic with Spaceways Inc. (Ken Vandermark) and Mats Gustaffson. Takemura is an electronica producer, based in Kyoto, with a long list of records, many on Chicago-based Thrill Jockey. However, this doesn't do much, the stasis coming mostly from the electronic drones that are presumably Takemura's contribution. B

Some things I looked for but couldn't get:

  • Amerie: Because I Love It (Columbia)
  • Battles: Mirrored (Warp)
  • Gui Boratto: Chromophobia (Kompakt)
  • The Field: From Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt)
  • Freeway: Free at Last (Roc-A-Fella)
  • Lil Wayne: Da Drought 3 (mixtape)
  • Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III: The Leak (mixtape)
  • Menomena: Friend or Foe (Barsuk)
  • James Murphy/Pat Mahoney: Fabriclive 36 (Fabric)
  • Róisín Murphy: Overpowered (EMI)
  • Meshell Ndegéocello: The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (Emarcy)
  • OM: Pilgrimage (Southern Lord)
  • Pantha du Prince: This Bliss (Dial)
  • PreNup: Hell to Pay (Rampage)
  • Swamp Dogg: Resurrection (SDEG)
  • UGK: Underground Kingz (Jive)
  • Wussy: Left for Dead (Shake It)
  • Tom Ze: Danc-Eh-Sa (Irara)

It's possible that some of these existed but I couldn't find them. There were several records that took several tries to find. I'm not sure what the status of the mixtapes are. Battles is the biggest surprise, finishing very high in the polls, but electronica seems to be especially spotty. I would like to have had more specialized year-end lists. I still haven't seen Cadence's poll results, which would break out of the semi-major label glut on the major jazz polls. I found a couple of country lists, but not much world, no folk or blues, not nearly enough hip-hop. Electronica appeared in more polls, but was relatively hard to find.