A Downloader's Diary (7): February 2011

by Michael Tatum

This month, in an installment that's relatively brief but more or less back on schedule, old school punks relive their youths, while new school punks act like their youths never ended. Trickling in are the first few good records of the new year, as well as some stragglers from late 2010. Don't worry -- there's more where this came from, on both sides of the divide.

The Beets: Stay Home (Captured Tracks) I don't object to lo-fi bedroom recordings if the songs are worth the effort, but if the songs sound like the microphones are buried under a pile of dirty clothes in an adjacent hallway, how exactly can I be expected to judge if they are? Nevertheless, as much as I hate bringing out the Velvet Underground for a favorable comparison, Juan Wauter's chunka-chunka rhythm guitar and Matthew Volz's Cro-Magnon thump do evoke Lou and Maureen circa 1969, although what few lyrics I can make out connect them to more childlike inheritors like Beat Happening and the Moldy Peaches: old reliables like "yeah, yeah, yeah" and "oh, oh, oh," a sincere "I want to spend my life with you," one singing the praises of "young girls" that sloppily rips off the hook from Harry Belafonte's "Day-O." Granted, Kimya Dawson wouldn't approve of the racist cover art, which depicts a stereotypical "tribal" African (nose-ring, face paint, sharp teeth, etc.) clubbing in the head of a hapless middle-class African American tourist, who moans "If only I'd stayed in Queens and just read about Africa" as his finger clicks his camera. Perhaps that's just Wauters obliquely commenting on his being a displaced Uruguayan in Jackson Heights, Queens, easing his alienation and homesickness by coaxing his buddies to bash out his catchy ditties into his boom box. Admittedly, said ditties are indeed catchy enough that I was willing to suspend my misgivings, and for a while I was about to slot this in the honorable mentions section, until I realized I could barely distinguish these little rants from each other. Yet I know damn well I'd rather hear those rants than the more polished Kings of Leon and Wire records that head that section. Graded leniently in the hopes that they'll use their down time to tidy up the house. B+

Gang of Four: Content (Yep Roc) The standard read on this Leeds aggregation is that their vision was watered down by some combination of synthesizers, band breakdown, and the advent of Duran Duran, even though the fascinating 1998 Rhino compilation makes the convincing case that Jon King and Andy Gill adapted to all of the above admirably, even if they couldn't necessarily keep it going over the length of a whole album. But we can debate about that next time: this volatile record subverts such arguments by pretending the '80s didn't happen, lopping their jagged trajectory off at "To Hell with Poverty," and rocketing directly into the here and now. So don't be disappointed if the songs zero in on sexual politics rather than capitalism and war -- these guys have been guilelessly juggling their metaphors since they described interpersonal relationships as "contracts in our mutual interest." And don't let those middling notices worry you either -- critics were split on Solid Gold in 1981. If anything, this record establishes two hard truths. First, that Dave Allen was the Go4's most crucial musical element: Allen apprenticed in a disco band, as opposed to a funk band, as is so erroneously reported by a lot of people who should know better, though dreadlocked new blood Thomas McNeice is willing to split the difference. The other is that from his wiry riffs to his incisive one-note stabs, Andy Gill clearly invented the vocabulary of post-punk guitar. Now if only they had ended with the wicked 2008 single "Second Life," included on the vinyl and self-indulgent fifty-dollar box but not the version they're selling at the local Best Buy -- would have been nice to know that little tidbit of information before I tore off that plastic. Call me an idealist, but it'd be nice if guys who bitch about how capital fails us would be on the side of the consumer every now and then. A–

Ghostface Killah: Apollo Kids (Def Jam) Initially wowed by this record's knockdown funk grooves, I later found myself flummoxed when I was unable to describe a single song when it came time to plunk myself down to write the review. Now, having had time to think about it, I'm ready to theorize. Ironman -- probably Dennis Coles' best record -- was produced in its entirety by Wu-Tang buddy RZA, and while far be it from me to descry the work habits of such notorious potheads, what I'm assuming that means is that the principals spent time planning: discussing the lyrics, fussing over the grooves, testing both the spoken word and musical samples, and most of all, giving some forethought to the album's flow. If that sounds like I'm ceding them too much credit, think about that album's family reminiscence "All I Got Is You" or its equal on Fishscale, "Whip You With a Strap" -- where's that moment here? On this album I hear twelve tracks from nine different producers, each of whom brings his A-game. But even though the lyrics are strong as usual, the stories are undistinguished and the tracks aren't linked by any real conceptual unity -- there aren't even any skits. It suggests that given the forty year old Coles' recent moonlighting as the lady-loving Ghostdini, his heart really isn't in the blaxploitation game anymore. Good for him -- time to move on. B+

M.I.A.: Vicki Leekx (mixtape) Unlike most people, I had no problem with Maya musically -- blips and bleeps and scratches are my kind of thing -- but rather how the aesthetic buried the lyrics' insecurity themes. Having listened a little harder, I'm beginning to see that a lot of what she's putting across is by design, as a kind of statement or self-examination, which I like. This generous mixtape takes the metaphor a little further: utilizing bits and piece from the Maya sessions -- outtakes mostly, but "Illygirl" and "Steppin' Up" make appearances -- these twenty interconnected fragments, cemented together in one unnavigable thirty-six minute MP3 file, won't inspire Julian Assange in terms of their political content, which is nil. The automated Anglo-Indian voice at the beginning -- Vicki Leekx herself I'm assuming -- informs us: "We choose the right format. We leak the information to the public. And we defend ourselves against inevitable legal and political attacks." And what do you know -- the music that follows opens up Maya's sound considerably, foregrounding the vocals, emphasizing space, and arranging the noise so it decorates rather than obscures. This being M.I.A., you'd be fool to expect anything resembling any real "full disclosure" -- with media artists this cannily dodgy, you take what you can get. But what you get is a solid, persuasive megamix that would have made the "deluxe version" of Maya worth those few extra dollars. "If it's not the world, it's the people," Vicki intones on Maya's (and Maya's) behalf. "And if it's not the people, then maybe it's you. And if it's not you, then maybe it's me. But if it's not me, then it's the music." Trust me, it's not the music. A–

OFF!: The First Four EPs (Vice) Especially as I transition into the modest comforts of middle age, I strive to be an open-minded, even-keeled man who prides himself on his liberal politics and catholic music tastes -- really, I do. But this little item, a hardcore punk revival comprising sixteen unrelentingly brutal fragments ranging from :34 to 1:33, is the one thing in January of 2011 to fill me up with unbridled joy. They're billed as a Los Angeles "supergroup" even though lead yelper Keith Morris (of early Black Flag and later the Circle Jerks) is the only real "name," but don't let that bother you -- this is the atom bomb of a record that Black Flag and the Descendents never had the attention spans for. Of course, it's pretty amusing that the four vinyl "EPs" that comprise this record get their nasty business done faster than Hüsker Dü's five song 1983 classic Metal Circus -- so fast you can play it at high volume in its entirety while your wife is out getting milk and butter -- but that only lends to the simultaneous charm and power of Dimitri Coats buzzsaw guitar, which tears out one monster riff after another. The nice thing about a fifty-something frontman leading this blitzkrieg isn't just the concept -- though that's an inspiration itself -- but that the expected anti-social lyrics aren't just the usual programmatic fuck-the-world nonsense. Instead, they are actually rooted in germane, concrete frustrations: the class alienation of "I Don't Belong," the post 9/11 paranoia of "Poison City," the "Black Thoughts" Morris is determined to beat by any means necessary. His catchphrases zero in on universals, too: "We keep on repeating the past," "We're the solution/You're the problem," "Building a better tomorrow for us/But the money's not there." And while you can bet they'll make the most of their "fifteen minutes of fame," they're not so hung up on the glory days that they'll stoop to SST production values -- they want to make sure every note hits you hard, fast, and clear. So would I pay money to see them live, at the risk of being pummeled by a spiky teenage girl half my age? Damn right, better believe it -- so long as they repeat that fifteen minutes six or seven times so I get my money's worth. A

Weekend: Sports (Slumberland) Their songs are two chord flag-wavers reminiscent of the Feelies and boast a wind-tunnel mix that recalls Goo-era Sonic Youth -- yes, this San Francisco noise rock trio are indie kids after my own heart. Naturally, they have their own tricks to show off: layering their guitars in carefully arranged and timed striations, high end wail hovering above the clamor, a feedback squelch that suggests a spatula pressing down a greasy hamburger -- devices that all come together in the fairly amazing six minute opener "Coma Summer." And then there's, oh well, Shaun Durkan's droning, largely incomprehensible vocals -- song titles include "Veil," "Landscape," "Afterimage," and the ever-popular "Untitled" -- which I find alluring when I'm not paying attention, and a little dismaying when I tune in. Given that both band name and album title suggest leisure, the cynic in me theorizes that they're upper-middle class kids in it for the "art" rather than gunning to get famous -- usually working class kids who think that rock and roll is their one shot usually put a little more into the songs. Bet when they realize how good they can be -- that is, when they start making art for real -- they'll put a little more something there. And when they do, we'll remember how fab they sounded even when they were fucking around. A–

Honorable Mentions

Kings of Leon: Come Around Sundown (RCA) Disinclined though I am to cotton to commitment phobic arena rockers who rhyme "I ain't got a home" with "I'll forever roam," their long-distance romances, whether intentional or not, do achieve well-needed red state-blue state outreach ("Radioactive," "The Face," "The End") ***

Wire: Red Barked Tree (Pink Flag) I don't mind them reproducing the icy grandeur of The Ideal Copy, but to achieve that bracing sweep they need to replace Robert Gotobed with a drum machine ("Two Minutes," "A Flat Tent," "Now Was") ***

The Radio Dept.: Clinging to a Scheme (Labrador) Musically, they outdraw Badly Drawn Boy, but if they want to "destroy the bogus capitalist process that's destroying youth culture" they might want to start by not burying their vocals in the mix ("Heaven's On Fire," "This Time Around") ***

Baths: Cerulean (Anticon) Hippitty skippitty skippitty skip ("Lovely Bloodflow," "Maximalist") ***

N.E.R.D.: Nothing (Star Trak/Interscope) "The album is very '68-'72,'73, America meets Crosby, Stills & Nash meets Moody Blues" -- Pharrell Williams to Billboard, 10/12/10 ("Party People," "Hot 'n Fun") **

Foals: Total Life Forever (Transgressive) What Vampire Weekend might have sounded like had their Math and Verbal SAT scores had been interchanged ("Spanish Sahara," "This Orient") **

Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles II (Fiction) Appropriate moniker for a band that, shall we say, is so high end ("Crimewave") *

Swans: My Father Will Guide Me to a Rope to the Sky (Young God) Jim Morrison lives! ("Jim") *


Wanda Jackson: The Party Ain't Over (Third Man/Nonesuch) I was temporarily relieved when I learned that Wanda (or Loretta Lynn or Jack White for that matter) didn't have a hand in the lyrics, but in the end I was turned off by this record's aesthetic conservatism, for which I blame not only the artist but her producer, who talks "authenticity" even as his session musicians blare with the subtlety of the Brian Setzer Orchestra. The song selection, ranging from Little Richard to the Andrews Sisters, from "Busted" to "Blue Yodel #6," is as conventional and unimaginative as you can get, while the Amy Winehouse and Bob Dylan newbies are totally wasted -- why couldn't she sub "I was thinking about Alicia Keyes," with, I don't know, the more cougarish "I was thinking about Justin T." (who at least is from Tennessee) rather than the more predictable "I was thinking about Jerry Lee" (who generally chases after women younger than Wanda anyway)? Then there's the issue of Jackson's singing, which sounds so strained and pinched one can almost imagine her quivering in fear while trombonist Justin Carpenter backs her into the studio corner. Speaking of being forced into a corner, does anyone else notice that the only songs on which Wanda sounds relaxed are the aforementioned Jimmie Rodgers cover and, hmmm, "Dust on the Bible?" I personally wasn't crazy about the recent Mavis Staples record. But at least Jeff Tweedy's arrangements showed restraint. And even when he tossed her one of his originals, he let Mavis be herself. C+

Broken Records: Let Me Come Home (4AD)

Foreign Exchange: Authenticity (Foreign Exchange Music)

Maroon 5: Hands All Over (A&M/Octone)

Miniature Tigers: Fortress (Modern Art)

Marc Ribot: Silent Movies (Pi)

Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)

Tapes 'N Tapes: Outside (Ibid)

Tennis: Cape Dory (Fat Possum)

2011 January 2011 March