A Downloader's Diary (4): November 2010

by Michael Tatum

When I first conceived this column, I accepted that given both my "persona" (downloader as music critic) and the changing nature of the music industry (with iTunes superceding sales of hard copies), that every now and then I would review an album that, for one reason or another, would be only available digitally. What I didn't know was how much of that music would be essential listening. Last August, I wrote about Liz Phair's must-own Funstyle -- still underrated, and still one of 2010's best albums -- which at the time was only legally available from her website, but has since been issued by the indie Rocket Science, attached with a bonus CD of demos from her "Girlysound" period. This month brings us the "debut" by the as-yet unsigned Brooklyn hip hop duo Das Racist, which can be downloaded from just about any "mixtape" website gratis, and will hit your local Best Buy right after copyright lawyers become an endangered species. The other though, comes from Niger's Group Inerane, which thanks to the fetishist sickos at Sublime Frequencies, is only available on vinyl, though digital copies are (heh heh) clearly available -- NPR streamed it from their website for a short span of time before its release, and I myself downloaded it from the usual file-sharing suspects. A vinyl copy of Guitars from Agadez, Volume 3 runs about ten dollars more on Amazon than the CD theoretically would. This guarantees that until a CD version is released -- given how they marketed Inerane's first record, they'll sit on it for a year -- it's very likely this music will only be heard by a small group of people, and the artists will probably make less money than they are already. I generally advocate that you should buy CDs to reward a job well done, but this is one of those rare cases in which I actually encourage you to download the record in protest -- until a hard copy of the CD hits the stores.

I know, I know -- why proselytize about such an unimportant subject when from an antiquated health care system to an atrocious foreign policy there are so many more pressing things to worry about. But record labels -- ones that traffic in obscure world music in particular -- should take steps to make good music available to the widest audience possible, and vinyl-only prohibits this: musical elitism at its worst. Kind of makes you wonder why downloading has become such a phenomenon in the first place, doesn't it?

Belle and Sebastian: Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (Matador) Stuart Murdoch had two problems to overcome. The first was confidence -- not confidence as a song subject, you can get mileage out of that, at least while you're still young, but the confidence to lead his band slightly more autocratically. The songs you remember on the records following the near-perfect If You're Feeling Sinister are always his, not those of the band mates whose contributions he always encouraged, one of whom rationalized his plight with the mantra: "Think of yourself as George Harrison." The second problem however, was adapting his delicate songcraft to the big budget production values inevitable if you're an indie band that sticks around in one lineup or another for nearly fifteen years. Here, with the band seamlessly unified as one joyous voice even when they dabble in fugues, counterpoint, or call-and-response, and Murdoch's melodies now catchy-strong rather than catchy-wispy, the songs unambiguously celebrate the life (and love) pursuit they only promised last time. The glorious opening Sarah Martin duet "I Didn't See It Coming" rejoices in being lost on a cross-country trip and lost in romance, while simultaneously getting lost in the glistening gossamer of that once in a lifetime tune. From there, Murdoch seduces Norah Jones and Carey Mulligan (with mixed results), warns a newly ordained nun with movie-star good looks "If you touch me there's no going back" while sounding ecstatic about the prospect, and ends an unbelievably tender ballad with a deliberately fore-grounded mislead: "You calculated bimbo/I wish you'd let the past go." He wants the world to stop -- if only because he wants to savor the morning, afternoon, night, and every blessèd moment in between. A

Das Racist: Shut Up, Dude (mixtake) Wesleyan alumni and prodigious stoners Himanshu "Heems" Suri and Victor Vazquez first came to the attention of New Yorkers via the outrageous novelty hit "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," best described as an existential paradox masquerading as a fast food advert ("That's where I'm at -- where you at?"). Their provinciality, combined with the fact their output to date consists of two free "mixtapes" (of which this is the first) explains why it's taken a little more time for everyone outside the five boroughs to catch up with them. Tim Mohr of Playboy (in a blurb lamely headlined "Harold and Kumar go to White . . . Power?") described them as "equal parts hip hop and Cheech and Chong" but if you ask me, das racist -- would Cheech and Chong rhyme "mac and cheese" with "Maccabees," or "cardigan" with "play the race card again" to a beat jacked from Ghostface Killah (who jacked it from Eddie Holman, but never mind)? Along the way, they also forget Billy Joel's lyrics to "Movin' Out" as well as the ones they made up, belittle the fake patois of posers not hip to Kentucky Derby rider Shaun Bridgmohan, and hit on a raver chick who lets loose a hilariously racially-loaded list of all the people they supposedly resemble (Carlos Mencia, Devendra Barnhart, Slash "with no hat," "the dude who does my roses"). Commanding an expansive musical vocabulary and endless array of cultural references the likes of which hasn't been seen since Paul's Boutique, the first half is hip hop heaven -- if not the future of the music, the future to which I'm going to be paying the most attention. Halfway through the weed wins out, blunting the beats as the jokes go to pot, awakening only after their libidos take them on a detour to "Coochie Dip City," though their idea of foreplay apparently is reading aloud from Finnegan's Wake. Personally, they remind me of the quixotic "visceral realist" poets at the heart of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives -- so ridiculous in their obsession with words that they can't be anything other than dead serious. And so dead serious even their ridiculous moments offer glints of profundity, including an accidental slogan that should be plastered across billboards in endless variations across highways in Arizona: "I am a pickup truck/I am America." Right on, my brothers. B+

Group Inerane: Guitars From Agadez, Volume Three (Sublime Frequencies) When I first read Otis Hart's NPR review comparing this Niger aggregation to the Velvet Underground, I rolled my eyes -- thought it was another case of an indie kid seeing the world through his black plastic-rimmed glasses (and yes, I literally am an indie kid who wears black plastic-rimmed glasses -- shut up). Then I got around to actually listening to the music for myself -- and with the first track inspiring visions of the VU's "Hey, Mr. Rain," or maybe Fairport Convention's "Genesis Hall," I promptly shut my yap. Not that I really think the Berber nomadic pastoralists who comprise the Saharan desert's Tuareg people (who sometimes call themselves Kel Tagelmust, or "People of the Veil," how poetically à propos) have actually heard any of that music, mind you -- but the haunting modal guitar drones and hypnotic waltz-time rhythms will certainly strike listeners like you and me a little differently than it does to the Tuareg themselves. You might want to start with 2007's Volume One, partly because it's actually available on CD (as opposed to vinyl only) and partly because it's also a little wilder: the throaty hollers and melodic chants imbue the primitively recorded music with startling dynamic range, while on some cuts Bibi Ahmed's guitar feedback squelches like lightning overloading a set of bagpipes -- especially considering the album was recorded live at (no kidding) some lucky Tuareg couple's wedding, pretty damn impressive. This time around, the fidelity is a little muddier, and without female voices shooting the music skyward, the trance-like roil is less immediate, more impressionistic -- and only a hair less extraordinary. The next step is throwing a little money at them -- I'm not saying sequestering them in a studio with Nick Gold so they can record with the Buena Vista Social Club is the answer, but surely there's some sane middle ground. So here's hoping democracy finally comes to Niger as promised -- for the usual reasons of course, but also so these guys can procure some well-earned travel visas. I wonder if they play anniversaries? A-

No Age: Everything in Between (Sub Pop) This Los Angeles guitar-drums duo nicked their moniker from a 1987 SST compilation, which itself conflated the names of two genres: "New Age," that icky synthesizer music that oozes from the speakers of your dentist's office, and "No Wave," the cacophonous offshoot of art-punk associated with Arto Lindsay and Thurston Moore. On 2008's Nouns, they proved themselves worthy inheritors of the guitar noise that was No Wave's chaotic gift to the world, but on this breakthrough they deploy that noise more cannily: as sonic window dressing, as melodic counterpoint, even as carefully-timed hooks. Drummer-vocalist Dean Spunt's flatly austere tunes lack range, but they're very effective -- as bracing in their simplicity as early New Order, if you can imagine Bernard Sumner growing up as a skate-punk who never misses an opening at the New Image art gallery. I do wish they had spaced out the instrumentals rather than lumping them in the middle, but even the stately ninety-second "Katerpillar" sounds like a church hymn amplified through the turning engines of an over-passing Boeing 707. It helps that on album loaded with big bangs, they end with two of their biggest. And I also love their glorious opening quatrain, which I recommend to Nellie McKay: "One time is all I need/To know my job's complete/And when I reach into/Myself my past comes true," after which they repeat the two words "my life" -- fifteen times. A

Old 97's: The Grand Theatre, Volume One (New West) Eternally loyal though I am to the Dallas quartet's 1999 Fight Songs and 2001 Satellite Rides -- even to Rhett Miller's woefully underrated 2002 solo-with-one-man-band The Instigator -- their previous high points all share the not-too-egregious transgressions of heavily rehearsed arrangements and high production values. Although their other New West records have been leading up to this, they never before have yoked the manic energy of their live shows to new material, and the result is a rebirth. At first I was worried that like their former labelmates the Drive-by Truckers, they recorded a wealth of material that they spread over two CDs when they should have narrowed the field down to one. But the aesthetic, which at times suggests a derailed mining car careening through a saloon, doesn't give you time to wonder whether, say, minor songs like "A State of Texas" are throwaways or not -- they just run you right over. The major stuff though, ranks among Miller's best: reformed all-week binger turned stalwart family man, stalker at the dance class, one that relocates Dylan's Desolation Row to Champaign, Illinois. The one that hits the most though, is so subtle that, at first, I didn't notice it: a heartfelt pledge of devotion to a life partner -- whether she finishes and publishes that novel or not. Grand. Majestic. Bring on Volume Two. A

Steve Reich: Double Sextet/2X5 (Nonesuch) Especially given that its recipients tend to be rewarded for political content rather than for achievement in personal style, I'm cynical about the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to literature -- sure I covet Philip Roth's American Pastoral, but who reads Oliver La Farge or Margaret Ayers Barnes anymore? This goes double for the Eurocentric prizes for music, which has somehow seen fit to honor one forgotten classical piece after another, but were clearly too racist to give Duke Ellington one in 1965. However, if you think Ornette Coleman's win for Sound Grammar represented a long overdue acknowledgment to how he changed the way we hear dissonance, Steve Reich's win for "Double Sextet" does the same for how we hear repetition. Featuring the University of Richmond's eighth blackbird playing against their own pre-recorded "duet" tracks, "Double Sextet" lays down bedrock of agitated pianos and vibraphones on which gasping strings and woodwinds ascend and descend chromatically. If you cherish the last few seconds of Brian Eno's "Sky Saw," this piece achieves the same climactic effect for fifteen galvanizing minutes, split in half by a languid seven minute respite -- a peaceful lull in the middle of an aural traffic jam. And with Bang on a Can, the pulsing, incisive companion piece "2X5" -- another twenty minute composition in three movements -- proves to rock haters that the same ideas can be explored with electric instrumentation, with equally astonishing results. Perhaps not as beautiful as Reich's 1978 landmark Music for 18 Musicians. But like Sound Grammar, a hell of a summation. A

Shakira: Sale el Sol (Sony Latin Music/Epic) The kaleidoscopic international pop of El Guincho's Pop Negro is so engaging, so scintillating, I'm actually motivated to decode the Spanish-only lyric sheet -- and I have to say I'm impressed. No matter how brainy this Columbian hottie is, I don't think that's going to be the case here, and even though I know I should have worked a little harder in my (required) Spanish classes in college (or bugged my grandparents for free tutorials), Shakira's occasional obstacles in this department work against her both ways. Nothing about the straightforward pop rock of "Sale el Sol" suggests the sun breaking through storm clouds, but the pretty melody of "Mariposas" does evoke the fluttering butterflies of love -- and yes, I think both of the above quoted lyrics rework icky clichés, but if the music hits you right, what difference does it make? On the other hand, the English version of her (unfortunately included) World Cup theme cobbles together one lame shoe slogan after another ("pick yourself up," "dust yourself off," "get back in the saddle," etc.), and her cover of the xx's "Islands" -- a song I'm so familiar with I would have rather have heard it sung in Spanish -- loses the original's sensuality because she rushes the tempo. The other tracks however, most of which cast familiar Latin American dance rhythms in electropop arrangements, don't stint on the hooks, even the ballads (love the synth koto that tip-toes through "Antes de la Seis"), and if you're a heterosexual man who finds himself consulting the translated lyric sheet during Shakira's breathy sighs and moans . . . well, what can I say. I'm a sucker for this kind of fluff, when it's done well. I do draw the line at this mouth-biting thing though -- I mean really. I'm a married man. A-

Rachid Taha: Bonjour (Wrasse) Between the sprightly tunes and the benign cover visage of the artist looking quite the chansonnier in his magenta sports coat, this has been branded a sellout move from the fans Taha won over with his edgy marriage of rai, the highly danceable musical export of Algeria, to the hard rock guitar of longtime producer Steve Hillage, best experienced on 2000's fierce, monolithic Made in Medina. On this record, with the help of French singer-songwriter Gaëtan Roussel and Italian-American producer Mark Plati, Taha ditches power chords and middle-eastern scales to explore a hybrid of American country music and the Algerian wedding music known as "chaâbi." Some find it corny, but I find it enchanting -- in an odd way (maybe it's the Francophile connection I'm picking up on), a little reminiscent of Amadou and Mariam's collaborations with Damon Albarn on 2009's Welcome to Africa. It also should be pointed out that both rai and chaâbi -- in an evolution similar to country music in America, actually -- began in Algeria as "folk music" before expatriates, exiles, and rebels like Taha modernized it with synthesizers and drums machines. "It's an Arabian Song?" Well, that one's a little obvious. But he follows that with the funky "Sélu," a roll call of shout-outs to the enlightened that includes Nobel prize-winning writer Naghib Mahfouz, French philosopher Frantz Fanon, and Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, all of whose work I'm going to research on Taha's word. And given the elevating level of rancor against Muslim immigrants in France -- and elsewhere -- the bilingual handshake on the brotherly title track is no joke. A-

Yes We Can: Songs About Leaving Africa (Out Here) One advantage this exemplary African hip hop compilation has over Trikont's long lost 2002 Africa Raps is that the majority of the songs are in English, which aside from reinforcing the expatriation theme, means you don't always have to consult the thoughtfully included translations. Over persuasive beats that recall prime dancehall here, Wu-Tang Clan there, many of these songs' protagonists have packed their suitcases for America or the United Kingdom, dreaming of fame and fortune even though they know damn well that they could end up driving a cab in Chicago or shoplifting in London -- assuming they survive harassment and humiliation at the immigration office. And almost all of the non-English selections are compelling as music, including two haunting tracks dealing with the "dugout canoes" that carried thirty-one thousand Senegalese desperate to find work to the Canary Islands -- a nine-hundred mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean during which almost a fifth perished. Puts into perspective just what people will risk to make our country their home. I await a sister compilation from Mexico. A-

Honorable Mentions

Drake: Thank Me Later (Universal Motown) His introspective, e-z listening hip hop is appealing when he laments his teen idol fame, more compelling when he exploits that fame to forge a new career goal ("Over," "Find Your Love") ***

The Corin Tucker Band: The Corin Tucker Band (Kill Rock Stars) Like the mature emotions it expresses, her solo debut is nuanced not immediate, plaintive not desperate ("Half a World Away," "Doubt") ***

The Vaselines: Sex With an X (Sub Pop) "It feels so good/It must be bad for me/Let's do it, let's do it again" ("Sex with an X," "I Hate the '80s," "Overweight But Over You") ***

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard: Old Devils (Bloodshot) Made stronger music when he was pissed off in the age of Reagan/Bush than he does merely disillusioned in the age of Obama ("Old Devils," "Strange Ways to Win Wars") **

The Secret Sisters: The Secret Sisters (Beladroit) Sure, you could fool your friends with producer T-Bone Burnett's Alabama sister act -- but as modern day C&W formalists with no vision of their own, wouldn't you rather hear Loretta Lynn? ("Tennessee Me," "Why Baby Why") **

Kasey Chambers: Little Bird (Liberation) Regardless of what the messenger in the title song tells her, she was more interesting when she was young, confused, and on the cusp of selling out than she is older, wiser, and aiming for staid "authenticity" ("Devil on Your Back," "Someone Like Me") * [Later: **]

Idlewild: Post Electric Blues (Nice Music Group) Okay, "Words have meaning/And readers have writers," but if their perpetually circular tunes continue to reinforce their perpetually circular lyrics, how am I supposed to care about either? ("Readers and Writers," "Younger Than America") *

Robert Plant: Band of Joy (Rounder) Not folkies -- a travelling medicine show with FM radio sheen ("House of Cards," "Silver Rider") *

Babygramps and Peter Stampfel: Outertainment! (Red Newt) I'm not saying these "singing cartoons" aren't well matched, but their respective commitment is defined by the first two tracks: 'Gramps prescient warning to homeless Seattle kids and Stampfel's ode to a puppy ("Buzzard on the Gut Wagon") *

Marnie Stern: Marnie Stern (Kill Rock Stars) Kill Rock Stars' idea of prog rock, which believe me makes all the difference ("Nothing Left," "Building a Body") *


Bobby Bare, Jr.: A Storm, A Tree, My Mother's Head (31 Tigers) When it worked, 2004's From the End of Your Leash spotlighted Bare's strong suit, his pithy lyrics, while propping up his biggest weakness, his wobbly tenor -- in a style reminiscent somewhat of the early John Prine records, though Bare will never be as profound, warm, or funny. Here, the power chords, filtered backing vocals, and electronic gimmickry drowns out both -- "swollen but not the same," as one of the few keepers aptly puts it. On the other hand, the comparatively stripped down "One of Us Has Got to Go" and "Liz Taylor's Lipstick Gun" would have been as funny as he intended if he had rocked them up a little. Roots rock, of course -- John Prine style. Why he spends the majority of this record aiming for the arenas he'll never play I'll leave to you to figure out. B-

JP, Chrissie, and the Fairground Boys: Fidelity! (Rocket Science) No matter how far Chrissie Hynde sunk into the corporate rock swamp, no matter how many song doctors she enlisted to polish her tunes, she remained interesting -- sharp, spunky, and true to herself. Despite how much the embarrassing, rationale-providing "Perfect Lover" protests to the contrary, thirty-one year old Welsh singer-songwriter JP Jones ain't her equal, at least not on record -- otherwise, what would there be not to like? Sometimes I wonder if the latent sexist pig in me isn't subjecting Hynde to an unfair double standard here -- that deep down, I'm a little creeped out by this May, er, August romance. But what would your reaction be if, say, Neil Young cut a record with some fawning hanger-on half his age? Plus, I mean come on, who is this dude channeling? John Mellencamp? Bryan Adams? And regardless of their inexperience, the Fairground Boys are the anonymous studio hacks that the Pretenders never were -- even after they de-evolved into a revolving door of faceless backing musicians. C+

Nellie McKay: Home Sweet Mobile Home (Verve) "I used to think about it," she observes in the opener about wrangling with depression, "and when I say 'think' I mean satirize" -- a telling admission that sums up everything that's wrong on her worst studio album: who said that thinking and feeling were mutually exclusive? That song, "Bruise on the Sky," is a spot-on Radiohead pastiche that McKay doesn't play for laughs (although I suppose Thom Yorke would never murmur, "Send me a smile like Charo") but instead uses as an excuse to indulge in some truly dubious poetry. (In "The Portal" she actually stoops to the archaic poetic contraction "o'er" -- who does she think she is? Pete Townshend? Bono?) Broken from what sounds like the aftermath of a long-term relationship, elsewhere she joylessly wanders through an assortment of other genre exercises -- reggae here, New Orleans shuffle there, various fifties pop styles everywhere -- totally arbitrary to the lyrics they frame. This is as melodically rich and as musically accomplished as anything she's done, but she sounds a lot more emotionally detached "expressing herself" than she ever did when she was a smart ass. When she bemoaned on her Columbia debut that she "should have signed with Verve," was she really dreaming about the artistic license to do something like this? B-

Bad Religion: The Dissent of Man (Epitaph)

Andrew Cedermark: Moon Deluxe (Underwater Peoples)

Emeralds: Does It Look Like I'm Here? (Editions Mego)

Gaslight Anthem: American Slang (Side One Dummy)

Raul Malo: Sinners and Saints (Fantasy)

Laetitia Sadier: The Trip (Drag City)

Shit Robot: From the Cradle to the Rave (DFA)

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP (Asthmatic Kitty)

Women: Public Strain (Jagjaguwar)

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