A Downloader's Diary (10): May 2011

by Michael Tatum

For my first column as a forty year old man, I play Merrill Garbus and James Allan's typographical games, while wondering whether An Horse should be filed under 'H' (recognizing the article, however improper) or 'A' (assuming it must be something else, because it can't be just wrong). For that matter, is Lupe Fiasco, as a nom de rap, slotted under the first name or last name? All terribly amusing, believe me. But will it inspire me to cherish their records? Hey man, I'm forty years old -- I've got shit to do. Here's what makes it onto the life list, and what doesn't.

An Horse: Walls (Mom + Pop) "Maybe it's my convict blood," wonders young Australian expatriate Kate Cooper about her headstrong spirit in the line that no critic will resist quoting, and indeed, in many ways her bracing indie rock is the sound of freedom, of a young woman happy to be out of the closet, out of her native Brisbane and relocated to Montreal. However, given that her admirers are complaining that this one sounds too much like the 2009 debut Rearrange Beds, I'm more interested in the line that begins the opener "Dress Sharply": "I have nothing new to tell you since the last time that I wrote." This is as fine a set of songs as you'll hear all year, musically strong and lyrically rich ("That's enough Twin Peaks for one night" is another quotable), and I admire how Cooper celebrates her homeland by lollygagging around in those vowels. But ultimately, she doesn't venture too far beyond guitar-drums-no-bass, which may be the new fashion but doesn't distinguish her musically from the dozens of other indie rock bands with the same lineup, even if she and drummer Damon Cox do it a little better. She needs someone else to play against: another guitarist, another singer, a fucking glockenspielist, something. I cheer on independent women, and there's no crime in going it alone. But if you don't have to, why should you? A–

Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (Capitol) Who needs another dozen plus rhymes about how dope you can rap? Apparently, I do. With Hot Sauce Committee Part One lost to the mists of time only to be superseded by a "sequel" that contains more or less the same tracks, I guess we fans of the nonpareil white hip hop trio will just have to do. But while I love a good prank just as much as the next blogging rock critic -- and completely sympathize with Adam Yauch, whose throat cancer diagnosis was the primary reason for pushing back the album's release date -- I want you to consider this quote from Yauch himself: "We just kept working and working on various sequences for Part 2, and after a year and half of spending days on end in the sequencing room trying out every possible combination, it finally became clear that [the original sequencing] was the only way to make it work." This would suggest an intimate knowledge of your product, no? So you can't tell me that they're not fully aware that the frontloaded first half of this record rocks like a mutha, so much so that I don't mind that the lyrical content per se is lax as usual when I can make it out through their studio trickery -- the key to this band's appeal has always been their synergy, the way they trade lines, egg each other on, raise each other up higher, and on this record Nas and Santigold join in on the fun. But most of the second half de-evolves into throwaways and bit pieces when it doesn't fall back on bad habits, namely hardcore ("Lee Majors Comes Again," almost prog-length at 3:43) and instrumentals (really guys, don't you think "Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament" is a concept that deserves a fully fleshed out lyric?). I'm glad that Yauch isn't down for the count, and am actually impressed he didn't exploit his illness with a Kanye-style annunciation. But those who wait years between albums, for canny reasons or otherwise, ought to know better. B+

Lupe Fiasco: Lasers (Atlantic) Mentally wipe away the 'A' spray-painted atop the white neon 'O' of the acronymic title and you'll get an unambiguous declaration of how much the former Wasalu Muhammad Jaco despises the album that Atlantic kept prisoner for two years while label execs tinkered with it. His profile in Complex is a heartbreaker -- in it, he claims the company bullied for creative control over the record's content and subject matter, describes the corny John Legend feature "Never Forget You" as a "bargaining chip," and asserts that he penned the rap for "The Show Goes On" under orders from Atlantic president Michael Kyser after he [Kyser] played the song for him on an iPod backstage at the House of Blues. Tragic details, to be told. But that doesn't mean the resulting album isn't any good. True, the numerous guest stars listed on the back cover credits suggest an album planned by committee (Skylar Grey in particular needs to go back to whatever talent show she came from) and Jaco overplays his hand on the retaliatory "State Run Radio" (even the guys at Atlantic know Linkin Park are Nowheresville), but musically and lyrically this is as strong as any of his previous records. Calling out Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as racists is one thing, but calling out Obama for keeping mum while Israel bombed the Gaza Strip is another, as is Jaco's vision of Bill O'Reilly solemnly reading from the Koran at Malcolm Little's funeral in the wondrous "All Black Everything." And if that's not personal enough for you, I wonder what Kyser thinks of the remarkably direct first verse of the hit song that Jaco disparages: "Have you ever had the feeling that you was being had/Don't that shit make you mad/They treat you like a slave, with chains all on your soul/And put whips up on your back/They be lying through they teeth/Hope you slip up off your path." Bet the man who describes himself as "a brand the fans trust" regains his precious cred with a killer mixtape he gives away for free. Until then, this ain't soft -- not by a long shot. A–

Generation Bass: Transnational Dubstep (Six Degrees) The mysterious DJ UMB is the man behind the Generation Bass blog, which collects tracks and compiles megamixes documenting the UK dubstep scene's impressive influence on global dance music. This arresting fifteen track sampler, the cream of some three hundred plus selections, incorporates music from regions you'd expect (India, Japan) and ones you wouldn't (South Africa, Poland), and if you fear ethnotechno that goes down easily and anonymously like those Buddha Bar compilations, let it be known that both the metallic beats and jarring noises that are dubstep's ugly gift to the world do make a difference. Two observations: Engine EarZ Experiment's "Kaliyuga" reminds me, as did last year's bhangra compilation on Rough Guide, that one of the reasons India works so well in these contexts is that sputtering tabla and sitar parts recall high energy sequencer lines. The other is that Gypsy music -- which is naturally abrasive anyway -- works even better. May I suggest a Balkan-specific sequel? A–

Middle Brother: Middle Brother (Partisan) I love this band's nominal conceit -- unlike the overachievers in Monsters of Folk, these three alt-country second-stringers know and happily accept their limitations: in the title song, the zany "I'm gonna learn to fly an airplane/I'm gonna make my mama proud/I'm gonna get my dad to notice me/Even if I have to fly it into the ground" later becomes the more pointed "But I'm gonna learn to fly an airplane/I'm gonna make my country proud/I'm gonna send this song to Nashville/Sell my soul to a whole new crowd." Of the three, Deer Tick's John J. McCauley is the most accomplished songwriter: that's his clever melodic cop from "Don't Be Cruel" that kicks off the rollicking "Me, Me, Me," his parents snapping photos of less than picturesque European landmarks, his gorgeous little daydream about the sexy bartender who poured last night's beer (and why he has a hangover this morning). Delta Spirit's Matthew Vasquez and the Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith's songs suffer by comparison, though the former brings the wry love song "Blue Eyes" and the latter brings the visionary breakup song "Million Dollar Bill," which he generously doles out one verse each to his cohorts like they were Fairport Convention covering Basement Tapes-era Dylan. But the nice thing about an album like this is that a plainspoken ballad like Goldsmith's "Thanks for Nothing" shines here in varied company the way it might not have on a Dawes record. Oh, and one more plus: those rusty harmonies won't garner any Crosby, Stills, and Nash comparisons. Who said that supergroups can't be super? A–

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music) Although the efficient shuffle of "The Afterlife" had me floating on a cloud during an afternoon in purgatory on Earth (i.e., the Oceanside branch of the California DMV), I was initially a little put off by reports of this album (cribbed from PR notes, I'm sure) supposedly favoring "rhythm over melody" -- I mean come on guys, this isn't exactly Parliament-Funkadelic here. But after immersing myself further, I came to the conclusion that those early reviewers really meant this album, like Simon's best records, plays the artist's gentle singing against what for lack of a better word I'll call "grain." Here, as Airto Moreira's percussion did on "Peace Like a River" and Forere Motloheloa's accordion did on "The Boy in the Bubble," Simon wisely juxtaposes his kindly tenor against Reverend J.M. Gates' Christmas Day sermon, Karaikudi R. Mani's vocal percussion, Yacouba Sissoko's kora, the Golden Gate Quartet's bop-bop-whoa, and Gil Goldstein's impressionistic orchestral arrangement for the startlingly pretty "Love and Hard Times," and the result is the man's best album since you-know-what (no, not Blood on the Tracks). Simon's thoughts on mortality may not be wholly original -- the conception of heaven as an existential bureaucracy goes back at least to Kafka, and the possibility that God views mankind as "slobs" was staged a lot more uproariously by Randy Newman. Unlike Newman however, who deploys the gorgeous declaration of domestic devotion "Feels Like Home" as a plot device for his femme fatale to fuck over his luckless middle-aged Lucifer, even though Simon counts himself among the slobs that God benignly dismisses, he thanks Him for sending him the love of his life anyway. I treasure Newman's Faust, and as a committed agnostic I have no interest in wondering where I'll go when I die, if I go anywhere at all. But Newman's cynicism will only take you so far. If there is an afterlife, and St. Peter promises me irony once I pass through the pearly gates, these are among the first songs I'll sing once he hands me my harp. A

tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l (4AD) It's been said that this improves on BiRd-BrAiNs' girl-and-her-dictaphone lo-fi aesthetic, but I say that Merill Garbus is a master boatmaker who could craft a seaworthy craft either with the full cooperation of Lockheed Martin or stranded on a desert island making do with bamboo trees. Garbus' assertion that the whomping "Bizness" is her approximating Paul Simon's Graceland on a tighter budget makes for good copy, but doesn't quite wash for two reasons. First, whomping beats aren't exactly Simon's raison d'être. But second, Simon (and for that matter, Vampire Weekend, to whom this album has also been compared) appropriates "exotic" sounds to a basic pop-rock format, while Garbus' tape loops and one-chord jams share more common ground with Talking Heads' Remain in Light. Like the Heads, Garbus emphasizes rhythm, not just in her looped beats, sax lines, and vocal phrasing, but even in the hard consonants she elects to use: coun-try, gangsta, killa. Except while David Byrne ecstatically testifies that the world moves on a woman's hips, Garbus is that woman, happy that her man likes her from behind, even if every now and then she entertains dark fantasies about the policeman who handcuffed her brother. But the crucial difference between Garbus and her exemplars -- perhaps connected to her femininity, but I suspect is rather an key component of who she is -- is her uncommon directness. Hard to imagine Byrne, who spent his artistic career either pretending to (or proving he couldn't) relate to "real people," wondering aloud why he doesn't have more black, male friends. Byrne wouldn't live in the Big Country if you paid him to. Garbus is slightly more ambivalent -- but not so much she's willing to live a lie before she finds out. A

The Weeknd: House of Balloons (mixtape) Children, this is a dubstep. Because although few reviewers have mentioned that genre in conjunction with this free-for-now tour de force, this is everything that I wanted the James Blake record to be: spare, halting, textured, compelling, creepy as hell. Part of its success rests with the production, which appropriates backing tracks from such unfunky sources as Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees and manipulates them into a haunting R&B amalgam of astonishing subtlety and power. Most of its success however, boils down to old fashioned conceptualization. It would be one thing if lyrics like "Better slow down or she'll feel it in the morning/She's not the kind of girl you'll be seeing in the morning" or "Got a brand new girl, call her Rudolph/She'll probably OD before I show her to mama" or the sickeningly heartfelt "Let me motherfuckin' love you," came out of the dirty mouths of Too Short or R. Kelly. They're another thing coming from Abel Tesfaye, who floats above the hallowed music anonymously, faceless and raceless, with a boyishly high tenor that evokes the kind of kid who might hit you up to buy him alcohol in front of the local Circle K, after which he'll speed off in a hot rod he's barely old enough to drive to participate in a glass table orgy he'll later document in song without excising one sordid detail. With intent, irony, and identity all question marks, this is the kind of formal coup that an artist can really only pull off once: a portrait of hell that doesn't deny hedonism's pleasures for a moment, addictive music that knows the power of addiction as a gaping, endless hole that can never be filled. If you were ever in that place, it will be a stinging reminder of why you got there. Now you have this dance with the devil to listen to if you dare consider going back. A+

Honorable Mentions

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong (Slumberland) Declaring fealty "even in dreams" because it's so much easier a commitment than one to the reality of adulthood ("Heaven's Gonna Happen Now," "Heart in Your Heartbreak," "Belong") *** [Later: B]

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Here We Rest (Lightning Rod) He's penned his own "Hickory Wind," but he's not Gram Parsons enough to go it alone ("Alabama Pines," "We've Met," "Tour of Duty") ***

Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise (Circus) Ambient minimalist's found sounds, piano doodles, and laryngitic percussion are more songful than the tracks featuring his lunkheaded vocals ("Être," "Colomb," "I Got a Woman") ***

Buddy Miller: The Majestic Silver Strings (New West) I'm still on the fence on whether his melodramatic pomo transformation of Roger Miller's "Dang Me" is a work of accidental genius or an unintentionally hilarious gaffe, but I will say it's the only time the band perks up behind Buddy's otherwise wispy singing ("No Good Lover," "I Want to be With You Always") **

Egyptrixx: Bible Eyes (Night Slugs) The Secret Life of Windshield Wipers ("Barely," "Chrysalis Records") **

Steve Earle: I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (New West) Hit or miss when his subjects were love and politics, his miss count increases when he shifts his focus to love and spirituality ("The Gulf of Mexico") *


The Feelies: Here Before (Bar/None) File this one away with the Stones' Steel Wheels and New Order's Waiting For the Siren's Call, middling "comeback" records that pleasantly replicate the respective artists' better selves without a trace of magic or necessity -- if the landmark Crazy Rhythms was the sound of six cups of strong black coffee in a Mustang careening through the Lincoln Tunnel, this bucolic sleeper is more like two bottles of light beer in a canoe floating serenely atop Lake Atsion. The idle acoustic guitar strums, which predominate, fail the memory of Bill Million's manic attack on "Fa Cé-La," while percussionist Dave Weckerman is completely wasted -- I'm not sure if he's undermixed or underutilized (given the idyllic album cover, perhaps he spent the majority of the recording relaxing in a hammock?). And while I never considered Glenn Mercer's lyrics one of this band's strengths, because the agitated rhythms are de-emphasized in favor of his nasal baritone, his reliance on tired tropes becomes more obvious, although certainly commonplaces like "find a way" and "doing it again" were contextualized better both lyrically and musically on 1991's definitive Time For a Witness. Even the opening couplet that everyone likes -- "Is it too late to do it again/Or should we wait another ten" -- doesn't even ring mathematically true: really the line should be "Or should we wait another twenty." Which, right, doesn't fit the meter, and would force them to change the rhyme of the previous line to something like, "We've got songs, we've got plenty." Which, sorry, they don't. B–

Glasvegas: Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\ (Columbia) On this Scottish quartet's admirable 2009 debut, James Allan set out to prove how much empathy a former football hooligan could display toward social workers and bullied teenagers, giving up not only a song about an absentee father but another about a father who wails "You Are My Sunshine" as he bemoans the murder of his only son. Here however, empathy explodes into a full blown Jesus complex. It couldn't have been done without Flood and Alan Moulder, who skillfully beefed up the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's Belong (reviewed above), but hiring them in the service of an arena rock band in love with Phil Spector makes about as much sense as sending Steve Lillywhite to produce a choir of pneumatic drills. Most of the blame for this turkey however, rests on Allan himself. What amazes me is that like his fellow countrymen in (remember them?) Idlewild, who followed the strong, stripped-down 100 Broken Chairs with the bloated, bombastic The Remote Part, he's following this strategy not only because he believes, in the classic U2 fallacy, that arena rock equals self-expression, but also because he labors under the delusion that this is what the American audience wants -- note that as Idlewild announced their intentions on The Remote Part with a lead single called "You Held the World in Your Arms," he does something similar with a cavernous, grandiloquent mess called "The World is Yours." Elsewhere, he commendably reaches out to the gay audience on three separate songs, but considering that the regretfully titled "Whatever Hurts You Through the Night" was inspired by some diabolical combination of Thelma and Louise, Melissa Etheridge, and Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," I reserve the right to skip the overheated boilerplate and send a check to Dan Savage and It Gets Better. And that catch in Allan's voice -- an endearing quirk on the debut but here an annoying affectation -- suggests a uvula so swollen and enlarged Oscar de la Hoya could box it. C–

The Strokes: Angles (RCA) After the smoke from this bomb clears -- "comeback album" huzzahs on the cover of Spin, remind me to hire their publicist when I publish my novel -- everyone in Alternative Nation will be asking themselves what went wrong. The answer is simple once you accept that their early success was explainable less by talent than luck. It's quite possible even for spoiled rich kids to cut a pretty good rock record -- Carly Simon did it once. The fact that these guys could come up with an album's worth of good material rather than one solid gold hit has less to do with musical gifts than it does with their historical moment: certainly, if you go back to the late '70s you'll find dozens of "new wave" bands that put together decent platters armed with nothing but a few chords and a snappy beat, juiced by the thrill of discovery. But sooner or later your fans aren't going to fall for the same facile tricks -- even bands as staunchly minimalist as the Feelies and the Ramones knew you had to build on your foundation or risk boring your converts. Unfortunately, that kind of growth takes the ability to not only write songs, but actually, you know, arrange them, which is beyond these slackers' ken -- as in so many other cases, defenders are claiming "experimental" when they really mean "unfocused," to which I'll add such descriptors as "thin" and "tinny." But the real problem here is the uncharismatic charlatan at the mic himself: whether whining or screaming or whining or mumbling or whining some more, Julian Casablancas' main frame of reference ain't the bar or the club, it's the lounge, and that self-pitying croon he barely conceals under that anemic snarl is his curse. Since he seems to believe "Life is Simple in the Moonlight," perhaps he can follow Carly's lead and record an album of standards. Let's see if Alternative Nation smells "irony" then. C–

Delicate Steve: Wondervisions (Luaka Bop)

Grails: Deep Politics (Temporary Residence)

Heidecker and Wood: Starting From Nowhere (Little Record Company)

Micachu and the Shapes: Chopped and Screwed (Rough Trade)

Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals 1966-1976 (Sublime Frequencies)

Parts and Labor: Constant Future (Jagjaguwar)

The Shoes: Crack My Bones (Southern Fried)

2011 April 2011 June