A Downloader's Diary (9): April 2011

by Michael Tatum

Although I found more pretty-good to pretty-great music this month than in just about every other month since I started writing this column in August of last year, I had less fun doing it. March was so awful that more than usual I needed music to be less an experiment than a refuge, which is why any chance I got I gravitated to old favorites: The College Dropout, Al Green Gets Next to You, The Very Best of Joe Tex. This habit goes back to my childhood, when I would retreat to my spacious closet with my books, records, and cheap phonograph any chance I got -- in a way, I suppose as an adult I still go to that safe haven when things get difficult. Then again, I suppose one of the points of this project would be to find music that I would play in similarly strenuous periods in the future. What surprised me were the two records I wound up loving more than the new R.E.M. (not such a surprise, really) and the Mountain Goats. Curro Fuentes (?) and Britney Spears (!!), welcome to my safe haven.

Cartagena!: Curro Fuentes & the Big Band Cumbia and Descarga Sound of Colombia 1962-72 (Soundway) Founded in 1934 by Antonia Fuentes Estrada and still going strong today, indie powerhouse Disco Fuentes has been called the "Motown of Colombia" -- should you be so inclined, you can go to their website and order all sorts of records, videos, and memorabilia. But this is not the story of Antonio, or even his label proper, but rather his younger brother Curro, who broke away to form his own offshoot imprint not merely out of sheer ego -- though one imagines there was that -- but because he had a vision. So since I already know you're not going to connect to these songs the same way you do "My Girl" or "Dancing in the Street" even if your Spanish is superior to mine, let me elaborate on the very apropos Motown analogy. Like Gordy, Fuentes was no purist: he was a hitman, soaking all sorts of Latin American dance rhythms as long as they a) bustled with the sound of the city, and b) made people move. Also like Gordy, he had no interest in hiring expensive session men -- while Gordy scooped Jamerson, Benjamin, and the like from Detroit blues and jazz hangouts, Fuentes sought out the hottest local players from Cartagena's casinos, brothels, and strip clubs. And boy, can these guys cook -- not only do woodwinds and percussion and piano make their presence felt, the songs are recorded and arranged in such a way that individual parts ring out clearly even when the tempo is raucous or hectic, which is usually --to choose one of many great moments, listen to the way the timbales rise above el Super Combo Curro's beautiful clamor like police whistles vaulting over downtown traffic for that knockout solo on Clodomiro Montes' "Puerto Rican Zumbando." So although I'm sure Gordy would have admired Fuentes' moxie and ambition as an independent entrepreneur, I have no idea what he would have made out of these nineteen dynamite hits from Fuentes' 1962-72 heyday aesthetically. But I'm willing to bet Benny Benjamin would have thought they were dope. A+

Cornershop: Cornershop and the Double-O Groove Of (Ample Play) If you thought it was a little too early for a new album from Tjinder Singh, which at his rate of creative gestation we had calculated to appear around 2015, be advised that this extremely interesting detour has been in the works for -- I kid you not -- six years. His featured guest star, former launderette employee Bubbley Kaur, has been described in some quarters as a "Bollywood" style singer because of her distinctive soprano timbre, but in fact both her narrow range and lack of histrionics bring her closer spiritually to Singh's brand of post-punk pop, which in theory makes her an ideal collaborator. As with other Cornershop records, the idea is to juxtapose "foreign" elements against more Western devices -- the synth-brass furbelows that punch up "The 911 Curry," the baroque harpsichord line that pirouettes across "Double Decker Eyelashes," and the barrelhouse piano that stumbles through "The Biro Pen," the latter of which features a held blue note common enough to American blues or jazz, but if one has ever been assayed in Indian pop music, I'll eat my Pagri. But while the results are often beguiling, the possibilities are not quite fully realized. There's plenty of sonic candy to chew on here, but what's missing is the familiar, by which I mean not just pop strokes like "Brimful of Asha" or "Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III," but lyrics in English. Openers "United Provinces of India" and "Topknot" would have been major moments on any of Cornershop's other key records, but neither Kaur nor the lyrics she sings in Punjabi can carry the rest of this otherwise breezy record alone. Sort of like how I feel about turmeric -- an important spice in terms of accent and color, for sure. But without meat or potatoes, of pretty limited use. A–

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Songs From a Zulu Farm (Razor & Tie) This may not sparkle from beginning to end like Shanachie's 1990 Classic Tracks, but the pastoral concept makes this the Ladysmith record that sounds most unique in comparison to the others -- their gorgeous harmonizing is always wondrous, but who can resist the playful vocal mimicry of chickens, dogs, thunder, and stones splashing into puddles? A children's record partly because children constitute its target audience and partly because the concept encompasses traditional songs Joseph Shabalala and his robed compatriots sang when they were young, magical moments abound, and as with Youssou N'Dour on Nonesuch, thematic conceits suit them better than high-profile guest stars. But aside from a delightful mbube-fied "Old MacDonald," which reminded me of singing in my kindergarten choir at Rocky Ridge Elementary, my heart stopped only for the lovely "Imithi Gobakahle," which called me back home one night when I was lost -- lying on my couch, alone, staring at the ceiling, at two in the morning. A–

Avril Lavigne: Goodbye Lullaby (RCA) In which a teenpop fixture crashing headfirst into adulthood fashions the cheeriest divorce album you've ever heard -- surely, that in itself is something new under the sun. After a ninety second commercial for her new perfume masquerading as a lulling goodbye to her ex-husband, we get the indelible fake-Farfisa hooked "What the Hell," a deliriously happy breakup song that kicks Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" to the curb. While I credit this Canuck with less cleverness than Taylor Swift, don't be put off by the misleading banality of the song titles -- with Max Martin and Shellback in charge for the first half of the record, her song constructions are shorter and (God forgive me for using this word) punkier. Also, I can't imagine Swift delivering the goods on lyrics like "If you fuck this up you can take a hike," or "There's a girl that gives a shit behind this wall," nor can I imagine her being uninhibited enough to put her all into the sexually charged hook of "Wish You Were Here." I actually feel sorry for the chump in Sum 41 (whose name I refuse to look up on Wikipedia) as he recedes into his well-deserved obscurity -- after his simpy, reconciliatory cameo on "Push" Lavigne stomps all over him, later proving (to the detriment of the record) how much better off she is without him, not just as a life partner but as a producer. Pray she gets Martin and Shellback in the divorce settlement. B+

Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck (Merge) Like peak-era Dylan before him -- accept it, nearly ten years after the breakthrough Tallahassee, he's one of the few anointed with the 'D' word to have actually earned it -- John Darnielle is a songwriting machine. But like Dylan, recording quickly and churning out an album or two every year has not always served him well. We're so spellbound with those Nashville session players recounting in Mojo about recording "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" that we forget that plenty of times, Dylan's recording habits have produced sub-par results -- and really, who knows how many decent songs Darnielle lost by banging them out into his ghetto blaster? Here, carefully thought out arrangements frame the six perfect songs that begin this record, from the folk-punk stomp of "Estate Sale Sign" to the string quartet that quivers through "Age of Kings," all anchored by catchphrases that make me involuntarily move my lips every time they come around, the same way I windmill the air every time I hear the opening chords of "My Generation": "You don't want to see these guys without their masks on," "Goddamn these vampires for what they've done to me," and my favorite, "Every martyr in this jungle . . . is gonna get his wish!" But after a faux-Jordanaires mistake, on songs that are gnomically titled when they don't incorporate the names of kitschy actors, Darnielle makes the mistake of thinking he can skate by on words alone. Darnielle is such a fine lyricist that -- once again, like Dylan -- he almost gets away with it. But if he doesn't want me singing that idiotic line from "Hotel California" back in his face, he better damn well come up with something catchy to replace it with. A–

New York Dolls: Dancing Backward in High Heels (429) With new guitarist Frank Infante as imposing a musical presence as he was in Blondie -- that is to say, not much -- I know what fans are missing when they say they're disappointed: Johnny Thunders, or at the very least, some young gun willing to imitate him. But starting from scratch with a revamped lineup on a new label, the two Dolls left standing no longer have anyone's preconceptions to live up to. Having survived pursuing the hard rock market on Roadrunner's dime, here they get back to their original conception: sloppy, kitschy, New Yawk-style girl-group garage rock -- since that's what Infante's former bosses in Blondie excelled at, perhaps his involvement isn't so arbitrary after all. Sure, a little Thunders-style buzzsaw cutting through these songs would be nice. But Syl Sylvain has a ball filling up those empty spaces, stacking doo-wop vocals and dropping in sweet little keyboard parts, like the out of tune toy piano figure at the end of "Fool For You Baby." Meanwhile, David Johansen doesn't miss a trick: rhyming "Marie Antoinette/old baguette" and "sounds like hell/Tommy James and the Shondells," wondering what "dear, departed Murray the K" would have said about the carpet-bagging hipsters on Broadway, and dropping this little nugget of Zen wisdom: "If the words come out wrong/At least, see, it's not long/Uh dum dum diddy diddy." Yes, that goopy cover of "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" goes too far -- Johnny Thunders (who really did sell his heart to the junkman) would have balked at those mawkish backing vocals. But hell -- even the throwaway "Funky but Chic" boasts a great line about David Jo not minding that his mama thinks his new jeans make him look "fruity." A–

The Rough Guide to African Guitar Legends (World Music Network) From Sunny Adé's spacey Highlife dub to Tinariwen's hypnotic Tuareg, I accepted going in that this would be a pan-African stylistic grab bag, but with electric guitars not making an appearance until track four, I have to admit I'm a little disappointed. Not that I think that you have to rock a Fender Stratocaster to be a "guitar legend" -- to pick an obvious highlight, Djelimady Tounkara's flamenco-tinged "Fanta Bourama" leads off this compilation with good reason. But the former Rail Band guitarist could rip off a good solo on a Fender, Martin, or strategically arranged rubber bands. I'm talking about folkies in disguise like Kanté Manfila (Windham Hill for the politically correct) and Oliver Mtukudzi (Ted Hawkins without a drinking problem, living in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica by the beach), the latter of whose "Andinzi" rambles on about "heroes" for an interminable seven and a half minutes to an annoying (and not especially difficult to master) two-chord pattern. Seriously -- imagine your dismay if you bought a record called '60s Rock Gods and the compiler slipped in Richie Havens alongside Page and Clapton. But aside from the odd inclusion of Franco's "On Entre OK, On Sort KO" -- a classic, but decades older than the other tracks, and certainly not the track that inspired me to scrawl Franco is God across the walls at the San Marcos Sprinter station -- most of the rest is choice. I especially love Eric Agyeman's solo on "Nea Abe Beto," which coincidentally recalls (in a different key) Dave Alvin's guitar figure at the top of the Blasters' "Leavin.'" Do I mean to insinuate that Agyeman holds Non Fiction in such high esteem that he's willing to cop from it? Hardly -- pointing out rather that it's possible for great guitarists in two separate parts of the world to independently arrive at the same melodic ideas, and that we should be learning from and listening to them both. In short, for your Stevie Ray Vaughan-loving cousin, not a bad conversion tool. A–

Britney Spears: Femme Fatale (Jive) Worldly enough to know there's (probably) a vast difference between this real-life mother of two and the all-access tart that she portrays on record, Spears is beginning to remind me of my pre-marital fling K -- you know, the kind of girl you resist despite all the red flags she waves around her like a fan dancer, but find yourself eventually giving in to because she waves those flags so enticingly. Soon, halfway through track three, about a bad boy Spears can't give up because he's the only one who's been able to make her come, I've metamorphosed into the stereotypical stupid guy at the lip of the bar, whiskey sour in hand, zeroing in on all the things we have in common despite protests from my better judgment -- Daddy issues ("Britney, it wasn't our fault"), bipolar disorder ("Tegretol and Lexapro -- you?"), and, er, child genius burnout putting his/her all into a full court press comeback. So while I had penned a pre-prepared Plastic Ono Band putdown about the prodigious processing on Britney's pipes -- album about an identity crisis, meet an album about a woman with no identity other than being the receiving end of twelve unique one night stands -- in fact, she sounds better tied to the bedpost with Auto-Tune than she ever did running amok with that Disney-sanctioned voice training, and there's no computer program known to man that can generate squeals, moans, and gasps as sexy as the ones parading across this record. I had my doubts about "Hold it Against Me" on the radio, but it sounds spiffier here following the totally killer "Till The World Ends," one of the best singles of 2011, which leads to other goodies: will.i.am waving his "Big Fat Bass" in our heroine's treble, the sweetest "You can be my fuck tonight" you've ever heard, and the absolutely amazing -- and terribly sad -- "Criminal," best described as "Leader of the Pack" with a tattooed tear inked underneath its left eye. So Brit, I surrender -- it's the morning after and I still totally love your record. Just don't tell any of my friends and I won't tell any of yours -- we both have our dubious reputations to uphold. Agreed? A

The Streets: Computers and Blues (WEA) On this record's final track, Mike Skinner elects to "Lock the Locks" on the trusty "geezer" persona that's served him so well over the course of five impressive records, metaphorically moving out of the rundown tenement on the cover of 2002's Original Pirate Material into the plush condominium he peeks out from on the cover of this supposed swansong. American critics, many of whom could very well have typed their reviews with one hand still thumb-twiddling their Playstation controllers, have dismissed this as "unfocused," but that's really the chaotic mixtape Cyberspace and Reds, which sounds to me like a hastily assembled weekend bender recorded with the old gang while his baby and old lady were out of town visiting her Mums. You may not describe dealing with the maturity you've been staving off since the eve of your twenty-year protracted adolescence as "going through hell," but when Skinner vows to "keep going," I want to cheer him on because he's not running from it -- he's dealing with it. True, he dreams of a futuristic device that simulates a rave without the massive hangover, but he knows too well that weed "makes me not to want to go new places." What lies on the other side of the door he's so afraid to open are connections to other people: relationships with women who puzzle him in ways that the crosswords and cryptograms he's so good at don't, though he's wise enough to admit "We Can Never Be Friends" on the brutally honest breakup song of the same name. Elsewhere, he frets about "the bread under the bed" even though the daughter he knows he already loves is only "a hundred pixels on scan." I highly doubt that his music (which Skinner describes as "the thing that I love most") is really trying to "kill" him -- usually guys who aren't aware they're in a relationship until they check their romantic interest's status on Facebook ("there in plain Helvetica") probably should invest in a copy of Geezers Are From Mars, Birds Are From Venus regardless of whether they're big time celebrities or not. But spiritually this is such a step forward I wish Skinner had the courage to show us what comes next. A–

Honorable Mentions

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis: Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles (Blue Note) You'll so wish you could trade Marsalis' straitlaced cronies for Nelson's touring band, especially when Nelson mainstay Mickey Raphael slyly upstages Marsalis on his harmoni-ky every chance he gets ("Hallelujah, I Love Her So," "Unchain my Heart," "Busted") ***

The Sway Machinery: The House of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1 (JDub) Balkan Beat Box sideman Jeremiah Lockwood's got a hot band, arrangement ideas, and a few songs -- everything but a good singing voice, which is why he so needs Malian guest star Khaira Arby ("Sorgou," "Gawad Teriamou," "Youba") ***

The 1900's: Return of the Century (Parasol) Not nearly in a class with Rumours, but singer-songwriter Edward Anderson needs vocalist Jeannie O'Toole even more than Lindsey Buckingham needed Stevie Nicks ("Amulet," "Lion's Fur") **

Ellie Goulding: Lights (Cherrytree/Interscope) Vocally, as affected as Björk -- so why is she pursuing the Kate Nash market? ("Starry Eyed") *

R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros.) "The kids have a new take on faith," and if Michael Stipe attempted to reach out to them rather than try to impress them by dancing in place, he wouldn't have to fret so much about outstaying his welcome ("All the Best") *


The Decemberists: The King is Dead (Capitol) Although Colin Meloy's wide-eyed innocence still evokes a high school musical adaptation of Spoon River Anthology -- I don't buy a lyric like "I'm gonna stand my ground/If you rise to me I'll blow you down" from someone who sings like he wouldn't know the barrel of a gun if Dick Cheney pointed one in his face -- I understand why the clearer arrangements and forthright melodies have some labeling this as a comeback, or at the very least an improvement. But the overweening faux-literary pretensions are just too much to take, starting with the opener, in which a young man's casket is draped with a wreath of "trillium and ivy." Ivy was brought to North America by the early European settlers (after which it ran rampant), while trillium is indigenous to Canada and the northernmost United States (and has been actually illegal to pick in certain areas for several years). So keeping that trivia in mind, unless this vague song-cycle about an agrarian community in wartime takes place in a parallel universe -- always a possibility with faux-literary types -- we can pinpoint the war in question as probably the Revolutionary or even the Civil War. So where are we to presume this song-cycle is set? Duluth? St. Paul? Never mind logic or history or botany, "trillium" rolls off the tongue so poetically, which is why MeLoy drops the word "loam" (as opposed to the less melodic "topsoil") in two separate songs. And if you thought that lyrical analysis was long-winded and pedantic, I wasn't the one who wedded cheery folk-pop to this incomprehensible stanza, the lyrics of which no two websites can agree on: "Hetty Green/Queen of supply side bonhomie drab/(Know what I mean?)/On the road/It's well advised that you follow your own bag/In the year of the chewable Ambien tab." If MeLoy wants to declare independence from anti-depressant pharmaceuticals, that's his prerogative -- maybe it would improve his, er, poesy. I just hope Eric Cantor didn't use this as Exhibit A in the right's despicable crusade to shut down NPR. B–

The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar (Atlantic/Canvasback) As with the Londoners in Yuck, some are citing this Welsh trio as proof that a '90s revival is on tap in the United Kingdom, and if you think I'd be more interested in that prospect than the '80s revival spearheaded by Cut Copy and the Killers, you probably remember that I said as much in last month's column. But speaking as someone who will fully cop to skipping an afternoon class at UCLA after stepping on a flier advertising a free concert by Archers of Loaf commencing ten minutes from that moment in the campus pizzeria, I can tell you that not every '90s revival sounds alike. I realize that Gen-X critics pushing forty-plus want Sonic Youth to "return," but putting aside the fact Kim and Thurston are still alive and recording excellent records, not only don't Yuck and the Joy Formidable (despite critical assertions to the contrary) bear any resemblance to that band, they don't even -- what a shock -- sound like each other. I pegged Yuck, who I like, as "Dinosaur Jr. with songs," but between their monolithic power chords, glistening production, and a drummer who sounds like he spent his adolescence getting stoned to Rush's 2112, their vaguely prog vibe reminds me of the Smashing Pumpkins, albeit with a woman upfront. But although Ritzy Bryan is a great deal warmer than Billy Corgan (not exactly an accomplishment, but worth mentioning) I don't buy Will Hermes' rationalization that the "memorable riffs" justify the dearth of good songs. The riffs aren't that memorable. And if Bryan was capable of coming up with a "Cherub Rock" or a "1979," she didn't include it here. C+

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador) I never thought I'd live to see the day when an indie rock cause célèbre would be earnestly compared to Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and (this one really gets me) Bob Seger. Just don't pop this into the CD changer expecting "Night Moves" or "Free Fallin'" -- for this sad-sack singer-songwriter that would require the occasional electrical charge from his dulled synapses. Admittedly, when I let my guard down, I can hear the attractions of his atmospheric arrangements, languid finger picking, and casually drawled tunes. But aside from those minor pleasures, Vile's real selling point for his admirers is the beautiful loser ethos he leeches from those, er, classic rock forebears, though this being aimed at the indie rock crowd, the less "beautiful" his losers are, the better -- one gets the impression that Vile defines inspiration as waking up and discovered you've peed on the couch your friend has been letting you crash on, an apt metaphor for someone whose philosophy boils down to the lazy nihilism of "If it ain't workin'/Take a whizz on the world." I suppose there are plenty of hipster types who revel in sophomoric lines like "Society is my friend/It makes me lie down in a cold bloodbath" and "Well I bet by now you probably think I'm a puppet to the man/Well, I'll tell you right now you best believe that I am," but Vile's somnambulistic singing style, which gives the impression he recorded these songs while being propped up by a roadie (who perhaps used his fingers to aid Vile with the formation of words), drains any humor those lines might convey -- Meg Baird's ethereal backing vocals at the end of the creepily Oedipal "Baby's Arms" is a rare moment of grace. B–

Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)

Beady Eye: Different Gear, Still Speeding (Dangerbird)

Beans: End It All (Anticon)

Braids: Native Speaker (Kanine)

Anna Calvi: Anna Calvi (Domino)

The Streets: Cyberspace and Reds (mixtape)

Wye Oak: Civilian (Merge)

2011 March 2011 May