A Downloader's Diary (5): December 2010

by Michael Tatum

Tis the season for pre-holiday blockbuster releases, and as a few of those happen to be very much worth of your time, I'll touch on three of them (with a few waiting in limbo until next month). They're augmented by a pair of electronic records; another three that compile seminal sounds from (respectively) Nigeria, Congo, and Brazil; a standalone indie rock EP, and a mixtape you can legally download for free. That's one of the things I love about music -- from oddballs like Tom Zé to girls next door like Taylor Swift, you never know where your next gift is coming from. See you next year.

Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (mixtape) "We're not joking/Just joking, we are joking/Just joking, we're not joking" goes the circular hook of the amazing "Hahahaha JK?," which in five rearranged words summarizes how much of a fine line these guys walk between gravity and flippancy. Like most worthwhile comedians, they take their craft seriously -- that's why they frontloaded all of the choice material on their first internet-only mixtape, Shut Up, Dude. Second time around, they get even more serious. Figuring that even in the internet world there is such a thing as preserving things for posterity, they take care of the consistency problem by drafting an army of guest producers and rappers for this darker, denser sequel. This doesn't peak nearly as high as Shut Up, Dude -- no "Shorty Says," "You Oughta Know," or "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" here -- partly because they make the mistake of thinking that getting serious means steering clear of novelty, and partly because I get the feeling they don't have the heart to ax any one-off collaboration, no matter how lackluster (I guess in the mixtape world the concept of a "b-side" is an anachronism). I'd also like to go on record and point out that calling out white people for their susceptibility to skin melanoma is as morally suspect as calling out black people for their genetic tendency toward sickle cell anemia. But what can you do. These guys are wacky, brainy, and drop enough pop culture references to fill their own volume of The Intellectual Devotional. And being half-Latino, half-whatever myself, I can certainly relate to the Sister Sledge interpolation on "Puerto Rican Cousins," the latest chapter in the convoluted, ongoing examination of their racial identity, which seems to confuse all of their (white) fans, but certainly not them: "We are family/I guess that's what it looks like we might be." A-

Eskmo: Eskmo (Ninja Tune) All beat manufacturers, whether their method of propulsion is Clyde Stubblefield or a Roland TR-808, boast a signature rhythmic move. I call the one belonging to laptop wizard Brendan Angelides "the old man": heavy boot thwopping on the two and four, busted leg dragging behind him on the one and three. If that description doesn't entice you, blame my writing: although Angelides has a little ways to go in the songwriting department, he reminds me of no one as much as Moby, both in his ambition and in his rangeless but effective baritone (though he seems to have been spared the messiah complex). While Moby's 1994 Everything is Wrong was oceanic but anthemic, this record is glacial but phantasmagoric: it resembles a good ambient record both in its minimalist structures and assiduous attention to detail (odd noises phased backward, unusual percussion devices popping up out of nowhere), but that whomping beat makes sure your mind doesn't wander. Hook the man up with some Alan Lomax field recordings and he'll be unstoppable. A-

Girls: Broken Dream Club (True Panther Sounds) Ah, the EP -- such a strange little beast. In the '80s, they made a certain sort of sense -- compared to a long playing album, they could be recorded and distributed quickly and cheaply, and could be used as springboards to procure deals with major labels. But these days, recording and distributing can be done quickly and cheaply from your living room, and most indie rock types have given up on major label deals. So who needs EPs anymore? Well, it depends. Sufjan Stevens useless All Delighted People was a digital land fill, while El Guincho's Piratas de Sudamerica explored a modest concept that wouldn't have fit on the more outgoing Pop Negro. And Robyn (reviewed below) rethought her three volume EP strategy in favor of one bright illumination that actually validates the aesthetic necessity of the long playing record (or CD, or whatever), piecemeal downloaders be damned. Girls frontman Christopher Owens, in an admirably grateful letter on the band's website, describes this generous half-hour quickie as a thank you to the fans, a "snapshot of the horizon" and a "taste of things to come," which sounds about right. Unlike Best Coast, who enliven sixties pop structures by tweaking the tunings, Owens' Drifters and Beach Boys pastiches hit deeper because this Children of God escapee's innocence is fraught by belated exposure to experience, which after a completely sheltered adolescence must feel like it's rushing at him all at once. So if at times he seems a little emotionally immature, if his teen romances aren't scripted nearly as sophisticatedly as Taylor Swift's, you can understand why -- he's behind the learning curve, trying to catch up, and with this latest batch of delicate but attractive tunes he proves he's getting there. Not since Bryan Ferry has a bad Elvis Presley impression seemed so noble, so heroic. A-

Gold Panda: Lucky Shiner (Ghostly International) What Pablo Díaz-Reixa does for Latin pop, Derwin Panda (yes folks, that's the man's real name) does for the music of what we once referred to as "the Orient." I use that discarded, politically incorrect metonym because Panda approaches his source material with an outsider's fascination -- titles include "India Lately" and "Same Dream China" -- and a sense of childlike wonder conveyed in beats that skip and flutter like a little boy jumping back and forth between squares on a hopscotch board. The astonishing, two minute quickie "Quitter's Raga" would have made my 2009 singles list had I been paying attention, and shouldn't have been left off this otherwise captivating debut. Then again, its inclusion would have drawn attention to the only thing keeping this pleasing platter from classic status: a curious avoidance of vocal and spoken word samples that would have provided some memorable context. It would have put a little more credibility into those DJ Shadow comparisons for sure, and perhaps elevated a snippet like "Parents" into something more than a mildly intriguing interlude (though the sound of fingers scratching against steel guitar strings is a nice faux-organic touch). Maybe that's what I mean by "childlike wonder" -- wide-eyed and awestruck, but at least at this embryonic stage, not self-conscious enough to imbue this music with a worldview of his own. A-

Cee-Lo Green: The Lady Killer (Elektra/Asylum) Even if the obnoxious titular cliché references le petit mort I could do without it, and the hackneyed John Barry tributes rekindle fond memories of '70s Academy Awards shows. But spin this record a few times and tell me Thomas Callaway isn't sick of being the nameless weirdo in Goodie Mob or Dangermouse's shadow. The million and one hooks of "Fuck You" make it the single of 2010, and the man doesn't stop there: this plays like one of those classic Rhino disco compilations with one man handling all the vocals, or maybe like an Earth, Wind, and Fire record minus Maurice White's astrological bullshit. A few badly sequenced ballads do drag down the end. But up to that point it's one stick of dynamite after another, including one for those who don't mind a little noir with their nachtmusik: the amazing "Bodies," in which the Overweight Lover seduces a foxy siren, like Barry White and Prince Be before him, by refusing to be anything else than the nice guy (albeit for dramatic purposes, a suave and sexually skilled nice guy) he no doubt really is. "They said that chivalry is dead," he declares in that supernal tenor. "Then why is her body in my bed?" Said siren is so satisfied, news of her intense gratification hits the papers the next morning. A-

Nigeria Afrobeat Special: The New Explosive Sound in 1970s Nigeria (Soundway) The obscurity for obscurity's sake mentality, that mindset that declares every garage sale acquisition worthy of digital preservation (spiffy packaging a foregone conclusion), makes Miles Cleret's UK-based Soundway Records the Bear Family or Revenant of world music labels. The stiff, dull The World Ends: Afro Rock and Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria is recommended only if you think John Densmore and Mickey Hart had something to teach Nigerians about rhythm. On the other hand, catching Fela Kuti and his lessers at the very moment Afrobeat was getting its shit together is some kind of great idea. In fact, Fela's much sought after original take of "Who're You" isn't even the most compelling thing here -- that award goes to all ten chaotic minutes of Eric Showboy Akaeze's "We Dey Find Money," a dense, unrelenting swirl of wah-wah guitar, screeching organ, honking sax, and hypnotic drums drums drums. Bet if you folded any one of these tracks into a solid '70s funk compilation, no one would notice the difference unless they listened closely, English or no English. And I admit it, the shoddy production values do provide that extra soupçon of excitement -- at this point in time, I think I'd rather hear the Anansa Professionals' jagged, thinly-disguised re-write of "Express Yourself" over Charles Wright's well-worn original. A-

Robyn: Body Talk (Konichiwa/Cherrytree/Interscope) Now this is what I'm talking about: five tracks each from the first two prematurely conceived Body Talk EPs, five more from the wisely rethought, download-only Volume Three, and the only song I miss is Volume Two's glittery "Include Me Out." For those wise enough to be fashionably late, here's what you've missed: solid gold electropop enhanced by sassy lyrics way more idiosyncratic than the electropop norm -- Madonna without the Kaballah, Lady Gaga without a penchant for performance art, i.e. grown-up but not deadly dull, a fembot with feelings who dances to the beat of, to choose two from an endlessly quotable list, "raw talent wasted" and "bad kissers clicking teeth." Like Shakira, the former Robin Carlsson is blessed with formidable verbal skills -- love how this Swedish disco dolly ironically slips in the phrase "Stockholm Syndrome" on "Love Kills" -- yet like Shakira, because she comes to English secondhand, either through forethought or serendipity, works attractive twists on familiar idioms ("Don't fall recklessly and headlessly in love with me"). This definitive reshuffle is cannily sequenced, too -- in my imagined reconstruction, I slotted the anthemic "In My Eyes" toward the beginning, but here it anchors the end, which should give you an idea of how sensational this is from start to finish. No remixes. No ballads. No letdown. No reason to download piecemeal. In fact, no reason to download at all. A

Roots of OK Jazz: Congo Classics 1955-56 (Crammed Discs) As all Afropop buffs know, "OK Jazz" refers not to mediocre be-bop, but rather to the mighty band led by Congolese singer-guitarist François Luambo Makiadi, better known as Franco -- a major twentieth-century musician, as powerful a force in sub-Saharan African music as spiritual cousin James Brown is in America. I didn't know what to expect from this concentrated, two-year sampler from the period before OK Jazz's proper formation, which nabs five Franco tracks, four not on the first must-own Francophonic compilation on Sterns, and all very much worth your time. But as it turns out, the credits on these songs, immaculately remastered from scratchy 78s, turns out to be irrelevant. Signed to a ten year contract by newly-formed Congolese record label Loningisa at the impossibly tender age of fifteen, Franco -- a mere eighteen for the oldest of these recordings -- wasn't hired solely as a recording artist, but also as a session musician: that's unquestionably his simultaneously terse yet mellifluous quicksilver guitar runs on records credited to singers Rossingnol Lando and Vicky Longomba, contrabassist/arranger Roitelet Moniania, multi-instrumentalist De La Lune Lubelo, and percussionist Dessoin Bosuma, all of whom in various degrees of participation would wind up playing in OK Jazz. So call this Francophonic: The Early Years. Reminiscent of the Cuban sounds that inspired it but far more rhythmically engaging, this is music that sings the body electric, with Franco's gorgeous guitar lines always leading the way. Cha-cha-ing at one in the morning when I should have been doing the dishes, I thought about those fevered all-night dance parties, joyous celebrations of the Congo's recent emancipation from Belgian rule -- the reason why those played-to-death 78s were so scratched in the first place -- and wished I had been there, gracelessly but enthusiastically dancing the rumba alongside them. This awesome twenty song recreation is the next best thing. A+

Taylor Swift: Speak Now (Big Machine) Let's get a few things straight. No, I wouldn't want to hear our ingénue sing without the benefit of major Auto-Tune. Yes, I too find the current wave of fascination with Young Romance incredibly nauseating. Of course, she's about as country as Olivia Newton-John. And no, I don't usually cotton to artists who hawk their wares on nationally broadcast Target commercials, promise to call out their parade of celebrity exes on a massive publicity blitz, and record for labels as blatantly self-descriptive as "Big Machine." And I could care less. Sure, technology can cover up for various shortcomings. But they can't help you devise indelibly glossy melodies, nor can they inspire improvised changes on those melodies when it's time to deliver the extra emotional payoff. They can't turn clichés upside-down, like "I was a flight risk with a fear of falling," or "You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter." They can't observe details as finely etched as those at the wedding she crashes: the "snotty family" decked out "in pastel," the bride abusing bridesmaids before "floating above the aisle" in a dress that "looks just like a pastry." They can't come up with put-downs as lethal as that Molotov cocktail thrown at a rival: "She's not a saint and she's not what you think, she's an actress/She's better known for the things that she does on the mattress." And while I don't normally read People outside the dentist's office, this record does something quite magical: it makes me care about the personal and romantic travails of someone I don't know, but feel like I do. We describe those with that rare ability as having star quality. So resist Taylor Swift at your own peril -- her jab at that blogger who hurt her feelings is so sharp I'm sheepish to admit the ones that forgive Kanye West and swoon for that Owl City idiot aren't nearly as good. Who knows -- maybe one day she'll write a catchy song castigating some pretentious rock critic who had the audacity to download her record to review it. And believe me, I'll be the first in line at Target to buy it. A-

Tom Zé: Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza (Luaka Bop) How to sum up the brilliant Tom Zé for the Brazilian music novice? On the lucky night I saw him perform live in Los Angeles backed by the post-rockers in Tortoise, he led the mystified crowd in a sing-a-long of the coda to "Hey Jude" -- backward. Then he performed the 1976 landmark instrumental "Toc," with percussion provided by blenders, typewriters, and hammers rapping on construction workers' hardhats. Receiving its first stateside release, this 2008 record is the third in his "studies" trilogy, each deconstructing a specific style of Brazilian music (compiled for American vinyl lovers on last October's Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You), this one the bossa nova that Zé claims turned his homeland from "a lowly exporter of raw materials" into a "country that exported art." This is music that needs no translation, though you'll get a lot more out of it by doing your research: in the opener, Zé transforms the sad sight of dead film actresses in O Pasquim (in Zé's youth, the pre-eminent left-wing periodical) into catchy pop tunes that he hopes will make some money -- and if not, at least provide backdrop to a masturbatorial fantasy. In another, he celebrates "Women in Music" -- provided they stay there. In several others, he plays the astute pop music critic -- suggesting that João Gilberto should demand back royalties from his less talented imitators, staging a hilarious Bossa Nova dismissal in the style of a Greek chorus narrating an Athenian tragedy, and making several persuasive debates for the importance of syncopation and dissonance. Novices should go in knowing these are the prettiest tunes of his career, which is why he's hired a few younger guest singers to put some of them across. But this relative expert can tell you it's the syncopation and the dissonance -- the off-kilter noises, the breathy moans, the sickbed groans on "Outra Insensatez, Poe!" -- that will hook that novice once those tunes lure him in. A

Honorable Mentions

Bryan Ferry: Olympia (Virgin) Brooding in a darkened corner while Kate Moss strips off those seven veils, he sips from the same perfectly-mixed martini he's been forlornly nursing since 1982 ("You Can Dance," "Alphaville," "Me Oh My") ***

Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (4AD) How many indie rockers does it take to inhabit a ghost town? (Be careful, it's a trick question) ("Memory Boy," "Desire Lines," "He Would Have Laughed") ***

Extra Lens: Undercard (Merge) The title comes from boxing, which designates a minor fight that precedes the main event ("Adultery," "Cruiserweights," "Communicating Doors") ***

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty) Neurotic about topping himself, he can't chill out in his own chillout room ("Too Much," "Impossible Soul") **

The Bad Plus: Never Stop (E1 Entertainment) Last time they invited a guest singer for an all-covers record, this one is back to basics for all originals -- isn't there a happy medium in there somewhere? ("Never Stop," "Bill Hickman At Home") **

The Thermals: Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars) Not quite as life-changing as they would hope, which makes sense for a band whose philosophy is "you only exist to be replaced" ("I Don't Believe You," "Never Listen to Me") **

Afrocubism: Afrocubism (Nonesuch) Papa Nonesuch says, "We gotta get these two lovebirds together"; said lovebirds exchange glances and shrug ("Karamo," "A Luna Yo Me Voy") **

Land of Talk: Cloak and Cipher (Saddle Creek) Gorgeous textures, but I wish Elizabeth Powell didn't hide behind them ("Swift Coin," "Color Me Badd") **

Blow Your Head, Vol 1: Diplo Presents Dubstep (Downtown) Love the sonics, love them even more when they adorn fully fledged songs (Jessica Mauboy, "Burn (Stenchman remix)"; Joker and Jinz, "Re-Up"; Zomboy, "Strange Fruit") **

Avey Tare: Down There (Paw Tracks) The Animal Collective leader's arrangement ideas trump Sufjan Stevens' -- now if only he was as interested as Sufjan Stevens in memorable tunes ("Heather in the Hospital") *


How to Dress Well: Love Remains (Lefse) "If the contemporary R&B slow jam thrives on the tension between earthy sexuality and the spiritual concerns of gospel," gushes Pitchfork's Mark Richardson, "How to Dress Well mostly does away with the sex part." Your humble downloader wants to know: what kind of monastic philistine would want to do away with the sex part? Turns out it's German philosophy student Tom Krell, whose staid, reverb-drenched, amateurish home recordings would only be associated with R&B and gospel by an ardent Animal Collective fan. This accurate précis, mind you, is from a rave: "The lyrics are indecipherable, suggesting that feeling where you're trying to sing an old song you love but can't remember the details, so you mumble along with the melody; the percussion is crude and indistinct, and somehow sounds halfway between a sample and a bad recording of handclaps in a bedroom." Just what we needed: not memorable songs -- that would require effort and talent -- but hazy, indistinct bullshit that sorta maybe kinda sounds like something that I just can't place . . . Al Green? D'Angelo? Er, Drake? Ah, no. Animal Collective? Maybe. They were always my favorite R&B group. C-

Bruce Springsteen: The Promise (Columbia/Legacy) If the Boss had recorded twenty-two worthwhile tracks between 1975's triumphant Born to Run and 1979's somber Darkness on the Edge of Town, don't you think that we would have heard them by now? I mean, do the math: this notorious perfectionist slotted eight tracks on the former album and ten on the latter, and neither of those, Darkness especially, was flawless by any means. I do prefer this earlier "Racin' in the Streets" -- as counter-intuitive at it sounds, overstatement amplifies the futility metaphor, and instills its narrator's small town victory with a kind of nobility. But I'd rather hear Patti Smith's "Because the Night" (faster, more forceful) and the Pointer Sisters' "Fire" (slower, more sultry), and some of the cuts here, especially the syrupy, attempted prom theme "Someday We'll Be Together," are among the most unlistenable things he's ever done. Darkness, for all its bathos, at least radiated purpose, meaning, energy -- here Springsteen, ensconced in legal and personal woes, sings as if the record company urged him to have a good time that he didn't have the heart for. Compare the murmured backing vocals on the well-named, double-edged "Gotta Get That Feeling" to the cat-scratch yowls on Darkness's "Adam Raised a Cain" and you'll see what I mean. Best in show: "Ain't Good Enough for You," a throwaway so silly he wouldn't have risked it on a contemporaneous b-side. In the same goofy verse, it mentions Bloomingdale's and famed producer Jimmy Iovine, who had he heard them, would have sent these dogs back to the kennel, too. B-

The Tallest Man on Earth: Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird (Dead Oceans) I would be hard-pressed to find a B.B. King fan who would second the dubious titular epigram. But lightweight DIY folk-pop, well that's another story. Native Swede Kristian Matsson would have fit unobtrusively into the '60s Greenwich Village coffee shop scene -- in fact, that finger picking guitar style recalls John Denver, his nasal tenor evokes Fred Neill. Maybe Mumford & Sons fans are primed to dig a dewy-eyed ballad yclept "Tangle in This Trampled Wheat." (See? "Yclept?" I can do it too!) Me myself, I prefer my modern-day folkies along the lines of John Darnielle, who sings and writes with punk edges intact, and who understands rhythm when he's delivering a song with a band or, as Matsson does on this five song EP, all by his lonesome. Moment of honesty: "I'm just a dreamer but I'm hanging on/Though I have nothing big to offer." C+

Clinic: Bubblegum (Domino)

Darkstar: North (Hyperdub)

Brian Eno: Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp)

Elton John/Leon Russell: The Union (Decca)

Junip: Fields (Mute)

Matt and Kim: Sidewalks (Fader Label)

The Posies: Blood/Candy (Rykodisc)

Twin Shadow: Forget (Terrible)

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