A Downloader's Diary (2): September 2010

by Michael Tatum

In classic lapsed-Catholic fashion, my superego spent all of August wondering if I championed the critically-drudged Liz Phair and Eminem records last month merely to make a splashy impression for my first column. This month I felt guilty about gravitating toward an obvious album of the year consensus pick, so I branched a little out of my comfort zone and found an Afropop excavation I loved even more. What do they have in common? They're both masterminded by two men from conservative religious backgrounds who realized they needed to leave a little bit of their world behind because the great wide world had something more to offer. So what if I'm projecting -- take that, Glenn Beck.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge) One of the many reasons I admire Win Butler is that when he titles his band's new record The Suburbs it won't be a two-dimensional attack on the same -- he leaves the sophomoricism to Green Day, who keep it so simplistic Broadway comes a-calling. Not to say he is uncritical of where he came from, but like his relationship to the Mormon faith into which he was born, he can't dismiss it entirely -- it informs one of the many facets of the man he has become. This confuses a lot of people who confuse irony with complexity: contrary to what some have suggested, Butler doesn't hate his fans. His gentle derision of the arcade kids in "Rococo" doesn't derive from anger, but from empathy -- he was once that kid who was bored when the bombs were dropped, that kid in the corner with his arms folded tight, the one who used to wait but now he's ready to start. The message here is that the distance that young people cultivate to deal with the painful transition from innocence to experience is an emotional dead end, and this album means to shatter those defenses, one exhilarating anthem after another. And if you need further balance, there's Régine Chassane's glorious "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," about why starry-eyed arcade kids flee to the city -- even if they return home to settle down to raise their future daughters before the damage is done. A

Best Coast: Crazy For You (Mexican Summer) The superior shoreline in question is Los Angeles, a slacker Shangri-La where Bethany Cosentino smokes weed, hangs out with her cat Snacks, pines for various pretty boys, and with multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno cooks up a dreamy pop amalgam that suggests Sister-era Sonic Youth channeling, well, the Shangri-Las. The swooping, instantly hummable melodies confirm that not only does Cosentino have the Carole King/Barry Mann part down, but the way she wraps her decorous vocal cords around them shows she's got the Ronnie Spector part down, too. But the shallow lyrical conception -- twice she promises to love the object of her affections "till the end" as if it means till the end of summer vacation -- leaves one wondering how much she's really pondered "Leader of the Pack" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." Has she spent too much time lying in her deckchair reading teenage romance novels, or did she think such complexities would mar the music's sunny innocence? I enjoy basking in this music's considerable charms regardless -- but truthfully, I've never been the beach-going type, and I've been a fellow denizen of the superior shoreline in question for twenty-five of my thirty-nine years. A-

Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (Warp) His vaunted Coltrane connections aside, Steven Ellison's frenetic samples overlaying samples overlaying samples, denser and more ambitious than anything he attempted on 2007's Los Angeles, at their best recall great Jon Hassell, Nils Petter Molvaer, and other inheritors of Miles Davis' mid-70s fusion fracases. Cue up any track and he'll cram your ears with fistfuls of sonic candy, though Auntie Alice's harp flourishes are an irritation, and like other laptop wizards, I wish he'd curb his fondness for film soundtracks. But what's missing, especially since the music isn't guided by or tied together by any organizational principles other than a mix so clinical you can hear the clanging together of surgical instruments, is emotional payoff -- what a big-brain like Ellison might cynically dismiss as "cheese." With twelve of the seventeen tracks ranging from one minute to two and a half, cutting out before their patterns induce the hypnosis this branch of electronic usually intends, there's no ebb and flow, no climax, either within tracks or across the record as a whole -- randomly jumbling its sequence (yes, I tried) neither improves nor weakens its shambolic mesh. The pop junkie in me wonders whether or not this could be strengthened by more guest vocalists, but Laura Darlington's wobbly offer as a "sounding board" is upstaged by the finest use of a ping pong ball as percussion in the history of recorded music. And Thom Yorke pontificating in his highly processed warble if there's "anyone out there" inadvertently illuminates that if Ellison knew he was reaching people emotionally, he wouldn't have to coax Yorke to ask. A-

El Guincho: Piratas de Sudamerica: Vol. 1 (XL/Young Turks) The brainwave behind this five song EP, the first of a projected series, is both so ingenious and obvious I'm surprised Manu Chao or Tom Zé didn't think of it first. In an aesthetic strategy similar to Moby's Play, Pablo Díaz-Reixa tweaks various "field recordings" (in this case, lost classics from the Cuban orchestras of the '30s -- the title is a slight misnomer) with his bag of studio tricks, aiming for shimmering lo-fi charm rather than extravagant arena-ready grandiosity. Díaz-Reixa realizes his cross-cultural dreams best on his remix of the Lecuona Cuban Boys' "Hindou," a shameless romanticization of the far-east so beguiling in its naivety even V.S. Naipaul would approve. My only objection to the package -- aside from the anti-climactic closing lullaby -- is its brevity. Treated as an in-between side project, a warm-up for the release of Díaz-Reixa's Pop Negro in September, the music is strong enough to warrant a wider exploration, a grander context -- a Play of its own. A-

Los Lobos: Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory) Compromise has kept these amenable East Angelenos thick as thieves for thirty years, but it's also trapped them in an artistic rut since the bean counters kicked them off Warner Bros. By "compromise" I don't just mean the vagaries that defined their tenure at the accursed Hollywood Records, but the aesthetic cease-fire that's prevented David Hidalgo from instigating the kind of power play that enabled them to make such daring records with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (1996's underrated Colossal Head more so than 1993's overrated Kiko, and the Latin Playboys spinoffs most of all). Although they cared enough about the music to fight their way back onto the roster of a sympathetic indie -- the first they've been on since the Slash years -- this band has been through too much for one of them to start rocking the boat: second banana Cesar Rosas, still the band's traditionalist, contributes lively if predictable salsa and norteño pastiches, while Hidalgo mildly indulges the band's more experimental side, without veering too far into the strange. Having said that, this is their strongest record since their mid-90s peak regardless -- even on the new original saddled with an embarrassing Robert Hunter lyric (never, never, never rhyme "in this world" with "give it a whirl") Hidalgo executes one of the record's many fierce, stark guitar solos. And then there's the amazing "27 Spanishes," which makes "Cortez the Killer" look two-dimensional -- starts off with foreboding whip-crack snares, then ends by offhandedly pointing out that these days the Conquistador-Aztec progeny "sit around on their porches playing guitar." Hey guys -- those imperialist assholes are responsible for my existence, too. A-

M.I.A.: Maya (XL/Interscope) Theoretically, I approve of the metallic, lo-fi aesthetic -- it's the natural of impulse of artists following a blockbuster to head for the metaphorical ditch: Neil Young of course, Nirvana's In Utero, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. Some have suggested a more precise analogy might be to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, but these are the kind of squiggles, squawks, and bleeps that fire the synapses, rather than blur into white noise tedium. Tune into the lyrics however, and you realize that the difficult music is actually the artiste's way of covering up -- subconsciously, I bet -- her insecurity about the ideas she's expressing. The intro suggests that the government utilizes the internet (Facebook, apparently) for purposes of identity theft, but the pop psychologist in me wonders if Maya Arulpragasam might actually be worried about losing her identity to her fiancé. "You know who I am," she repeats unconvincingly in the first track, before bemoaning "You want me be somebody who I'm really not" when her man gets a little too close in the next: "I try and not show it/But I think you really know." Sometimes she buries her fear in political metaphor: "They told me this is a free country/But now it feels like a chicken factory/I feel cooped up, I wanna bust free/Got nothing to lose if you get me." Sometimes, as in the defensive "Born Free," she transfers her fear to the media. Other times, she's more oblique: "Gravity's my enemy." When she resigns to her fate by copping to the terminally lame "It Iz What It Iz" cliché, I throw up my hands. We existentialists believe it is what you make it. And it doesn't "take a muscle to fall in love" -- how about lowering your defenses a little? A-

D.O. Misiani & Shirati Jazz: The King of History (Sterns Africa) Over the last decade, Sterns Music has cemented its reputation as the finest distributor and compiler of classic Afropop by assembling long overdue, definitive sets by the genre's giants: Papa Wemba, Rochereau, Franco (twice), and Etoile de Dakar. Comprised solely of vinyl-only recordings almost entirely unheard outside of their native Kenya, this left-field surprise accomplishes something I didn't think possible: it adds a new giant to the canon. You won't be disappointed if you hunt for Daniel Owino Misiani's only other American showcase, the '80s provenance recordings collected on Earthworks' long out of print Benga Blast!, but despite its clear mastery, it's also somewhat by the numbers, perfunctory -- expressed in Beatles terms, a Let it Be. This mid-'70s explosion of hit singles, which rescues only one of the three smashes cited on Misiani's entry on Allmusic.com, is the real blast: a benga Please Please Me. The Shirati Jazz are young guns ready to make some noise, led by a rebel-rousing young man whose deeply Christian father destroyed his first guitar, delighted for the opportunity to commit heresy after joyous heresy on a slew of killer 45s. You say you want rollicking rhythms, rubbernecking bass, dualing quicksilver guitar lines, and harmonies so indelible you could interchange with them the equally indelible melodies? You'll get them -- but you could get those on Benga Blast! too, if not so ebulliently or energetically. What will keep you coming back are the whoops, whistles, birdcalls, cowbells, and other surprising percussive devices that sound spontaneous as they leap out of your speakers even though some of them must have been carefully timed in advance. Think the New York Dolls, of girl groups, of early rock and roll -- hell, of the Beatles. Such exuberance, such joy -- you'd think they were inventing a new kind of music or something. A+

The Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam) The title is the latest of their multi-layered pop-culture in jokes: a reference to the classic Clara Ward gospel tune inspired by the night Ward's sister faked a bout of glossolalia to scare off white lynchers, but also a nudge and a wink to the cynics who think it takes samples from Jim James and Joanna Newsom to entice the indie audience into lapping up Ahmir Thompson and Associates' expert rap-rock-R&B-whatever hybrid. Fact is, the indie crowd has been hip to these Philadelphians since their debut, released on the same now-defunct label that broke Nirvana and Beck. It wasn't until they made the lateral switch to MCA and then Def Jam however, that they actually began deserving their rep: partly because their revolving door of rappers, singers, and musicians has kept their sound in a perpetual state of fruitful evolution, and partly because they realized the medium is the message -- that good songs are more compelling than good politics and good intentions. Because of this I prefer 2007's Rising Down, but it's a measure of their remarkable consistency that 2002's breakthrough Phrenology, 2004's underrated groove workout The Tipping Point, and now this, supposedly their swansong but don't count on it, all come pretty damn close. Like Win Butler, their searching ruminations on God are far from vacant navel-gazing -- thank the smarts of Black Thought and the revolving door of rappers, etc. for that. But what makes a quatrain like "Out on these streets where I grew up/First thing they teach you is not to give a fuck/That type of thinking can't get you nowhere/Someone has to care" affecting in song like it isn't on the page isn't the otherwise expert vocals, it's the power and subtlety of the rhythm section -- suspiciously described this time around by more than one young indie-rock critic as "in the pocket." I'd say that if Ahmir Thompson challenged Al Jackson, Jr. and Tony Thompson to a round of billiards played with drum sticks as cues, I know who I'd put my money on. A-

Honorable Mentions

Robyn: Body Talk Vol. 1 (Cherrytree) "My label's killing me," she complains, though does concede to their ill-conceived marketing scheme ("Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do," "Fembot," "Dancing on My Own") ***

Brian Wilson: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (Disney) Making up with modestly gorgeous arrangements for what he completely lacks in interpretive nuance and ironic subtext ("It Ain't Necessarily So," "Someone to Watch Over Me") ***

Janelle Monáe: The Archandroid (Atlantic) George Clinton and Outkast's sci-fi was goofy and they knew it, hers is pure camp -- too bad the American Musical and Dramatic Academy encouraged her to take camp seriously ("Cold War," "Tightrope") **

Reflection Eternal: Revolutions Per Minute (Warner Bros.) "A shift in the hip hop paradigm" no, "Download from your local internet provider" why not? ("Ballad of the Black Gold," "Just Begun") **

Sage Francis: Li(f)e (Anti/Epitaph) This former fiction writing group proctor would like to point out his short stories could be tightened by a sharp DJ and/or a well-programmed drum machine ("I Was Zero," "London Bridge") **

Method Actors: This Is Still It (Acute) Athens, GA's own Gang of Two ("Do the Method") *

Jason Moran: Ten (Blue Note) Stride-happy pianist with deceptive taste in song titles constructs unassuming foundations that cry out for some dissonance, cognitive and otherwise, from a more daring soloist ("Gangsterism Over Ten Years," "Old Babies") *

Field Music: Field Music (Measure) (Memphis Industries/Revolver) Hooks with no bait ("Them That Do Nothing") *


Rick Ross: Teflon Don (Def Jam) It's obvious why mush-mouthed William Leonard Roberts II failed as a corrections officer -- his oafish baritone conveys the authority of a bar drunk bellowing at you to pass the peanuts. Nevertheless, like so many civil servants before him, he harbored dreams of hip hop stardom, so he adopted both the name and persona of a famous drug trafficker (who sued for ten million), generating his own tepid publicity by manufacturing an absurd beef with 50 Cent -- who retaliated by coaxing Roberts' babymama to spill the beans about Roberts' employment history on YouTube. Fortunately, it's almost written into the Def Jam contract for the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Erykah Badu to lend their names even to the label's D-list artists, which proved just the commercial push Roberts needed to fund the debauched lifestyle he details so banally in song. What baffles me is why even critics are cottoning to his rote gangsta boilerplate -- he'll never die a "bitch nigga," whoop de ha hey. This record compensates toning down the faux-gangsta posturing of his previous flops by upping the misogyny, but I reserve special umbrage for "Tears of Joy," which begins with a snippet of Bobby Seale quoting Huey P. Newton in favor of offing cops and declares, "I gotta represent for Emmett Till / All the dead souls in the field." I'm no advocate for murder, but at least Bobby Seale was standing up for years of Emmett Tills who died at the hands of bigots merely for being black -- the only civil rights the Teflon Don seems to give a shit about are the rights to cruise hot bitches, drive Lamborghinis, and (no kidding) take his mom to the Poconos, all in the guise of a unrepentant pusher defending his turf by pointing his automatic at guys he, in his previous life, would theoretically have worked alongside. Bet in a real shootout between the cops and whomever, he'd choose whichever side had the most guns. In the meantime, I believe this liar like I believed Ronald Reagan -- nothing stuck to that motherfucker either. B-

Sam Amidon: I See the Sign (Bedroom Community)

Budos Band: Budos Band III (Daptone)

Matthew Dear: Black City (Ghostly International)

Lissie: Catching the Tiger (Fat Possum)

Laura Marling: I Speak Because I Can (Astralwerks)

John Mellencamp: No Better Than This (Rounder)

Pulled Apart by Horses: Pulled Apart by Horses (Transgressive)

Ra Ra Riot: The Orchard (Barsuk)

Wavves: King of the Beach (Fat Possum)

2010 August 2010 October