A Downloader's Diary (11): June 2011

by Michael Tatum

This month is a bit of a grab bag -- we have one mild recant (the first of a few), two electronica records (one from a relative newcomer, the other from a critic's darling unjustly turned into a critic's whipping boy), an R&B mixtape you'll soon be hearing more about, some Afrobeat, some indie rock, some country. Believe it or not, I started out with the intention of devoting a month mostly to hip hop -- which I'm ironically and regretfully short on this month -- but my iPod had different plans. Besides, taking things in one genre at a time . . . what fun would that be? Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Fleet Foxes record to delete.

Adele: 21 (XL/Columbia) My initial impression of Adele Adkins -- unfair to Adkins, but worth mentioning -- was that her success culminated what might be called the Simon Cowell aesthetic, Adult Contemporary Division, the irony of her age-referential album titles being that she sounds like she's aiming for a demographic ten, twenty years older than she is. Though her idea of a standard (the Cure's "Love Song") and her idea of "country" influences (purportedly Rascall Flatts) belie her true age and inexperience somewhat, two things stopped me from entirely dismissing her. The first was her voice: deep, British blue-eyed soul in the vein of Dusty Springfield, who she's probably more naturally gifted than even if she does less with what she's been given (at the very least, Dusty didn't write her own lyrics). The second was the unavoidable cultural tidal wave "Rollin' in the Deep," a quasi-gospel stomper as mysterious and as penetrating as its title, rhythmic and compelling right down to the chanting backing vocals: an undeniable classic. And that would have been that: so what if she dedicated an entire album to an ex later to be revealed as a litigious-happy douchebag? Carly Simon probably could probably anthologize a whole box set of material devoted to James Taylor. But that leads me to the crux of the Adele mini-phenomenon, which is -- let us not mince words -- her weight. Guys complain on message boards that the real life chanteuse is a lot chunkier than the thrush photographed from neck up by the creeps at Rolling Stone, while women who identify with her heartbreak woes (of varying weight brackets, I assume) fervently come to her defense. When an "ordinary" person (neither too rich or too thin) can generate that much interest from the public, that's one of the marks of true star power, which deepens songs that might be pedestrian coming from somebody else (like, say, Carly Simon). So while I may not hear "the voice of God" that Beyonce Knowles does, after several months of involuntary immersion, it's this odd factor that turns the tables on my original analysis, because in fact, Simon Cowell would vote her off of Britain's Got Talent for precisely that "star-killing" quality. Admittedly, I prefer Adkins' center-stage sass to her barstool balladry -- I wish there was more here like "Rumor Has It" and current fave "I'll Be Waiting," though some of the ballads have converted me, if not necessarily the weepy climax "Someone Like You," which apparently is to the Brits what Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" was to us Yanks. I can't see myself going that far with her. But then again, since I've warmed up to her more in the last six months than I ever did to Carly after thirty plus years, who's to say? B+

Bibio: Mind Bokeh (Warp) More songful than Gold Panda, more self-assured than Flying Lotus, Stephen Wilkinson adroitly balances (as the artiste himself describes it) "the familiar and the non-familiar" -- it's not for nothing he christens his mesmeric closer after the patron saint of travelling. The opener "Excuses" divides neatly into three very different, interlocking two-minute segments: an evocative murk of percussion, bass, and keyboards that suggests the mind's eye blur of Wilkinson's album title, which then segues into a mysterious, Eno-esque song fragment, finally coming to life with a fairly amazing coda, in which cascading beats and a spiralling synth line surround a dismbodied voice that may as well be describing the track itself: "a fragment of time, which is not yet recorded." Wilkinson's secret vice as well as his saving grace is the playful bubblegum retro-pop of "Anything New" and "K is for Kelson," which not only conjures happy memories of H.R. Pufnstuf, but also makes the riskier compositions go down easier. And just like the jokers in Cornershop, who casually slip in a crunchy rocker just to show what they could do a whole album of if they had any interest in doing so, Wilkinson tosses in the head-banging "Take Off Your Shirt," perhaps to show the electronica haters that he's not just "pushing buttons." Of course, if you listen close to that suspiciously tidy-sounding rocker, you'll realize the irony is that he is pushing buttons. But as with most of everything else here, he's pushing the right ones. A–

Moby: Destroyed (Mute) Reportedly, Moby snapped the picture that became this album's artwork one night at La Guardia Airport, killing time while waiting for a delayed flight. By chance, walking alone in a terminal, he came across an electronic sign flashing the message all unattended luggage will be destroyed. Because the sign could only accompany one word at a time, he waited until the word destroyed re-appeared in the sequence and clicked his camera. Such patience reflects the kind of care that went into this music, recorded mostly on tour in hotel rooms, which sounds de trop at first, but upon multiple listenings unfolds into something unexpectedly beautiful. Pitchfork's Andrew Gaerig dismissed its evocation of urban isolation and bleary, early morning quiet, but unlike Thom Yorke, who usually mines this turf for ye olde "meaningful" alienation, this record radiates a kind of cold comfort -- less the nightmare of aloneness than contentment in quiet solitude, like the aura that surrounds the narrators of Haruki Murakami's best novels, or the diner patrons in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Pledging his devotion to the blue moon while telling the sun it will be no more, wandering through the low hum of shimmering cities, this is a soundscape to get lost in, with the occasional song marking the path like breadcrumbs. And I'll be damned if "The Day" -- which if I'm not mistaken, details the real-life Richard Hall's anguished bedside vigil for his dying mother -- doesn't combine musical elements from three different songs on Brian Eno's Another Green World. A

Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador) The lyrics are functional/decorative rather than expressive/confessional, which is why the title is Demolished Thoughts rather than Demolished Emotions, Hurt Feelings, Sea Change, or Blood on the Tracks. Since Moore's mission in Sonic Youth has always been devotion to aesthetic pleasure, this should be no surprise even when he lays down his electric guitar for this delicate all-acoustic outing, which with Moore's string-bending and open drones recalls John Fahey, or perhaps producer Beck Hansen's "Blackhole," more than Experimental Jet Set's singer-songwriterish "Winner's Blues," or Nick Drake. Following suit, harpist Mary Lattimore plucks around Moore's vocal rather than assaying dramatic flourishes, while solo violinist Samara Lubelski -- that's right, no string quartets on the premises -- provides poignant counterpoint. Though an aesthete like Moore is certainly no stranger to beauty, that he could create something this exquisite is impressive. And without coming out and saying I'd rather this be a new Sonic Youth album, I'd have liked a little more of "Circulation," which is fast, and "Orchard Street," which brings the noise. A–

Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra (mixtape) It's hard to imagine Tyler, the Creator and the man who legally changed his name from Christopher "Lonnie" Breaux to Christopher Francis Ocean sharing space in the same hip hop collective. Expressed in classic rock terms, it would be akin to pairing Black Sabbath with Harry Nilsson -- no wonder Def Jam sat indecisively on this solo mixtape for months. Be thankful an irate Ocean took matters into his own hands and posted a link for the world to download the entire record from his tumblr account -- startled by the spate of resulting good press, Def Jam will be releasing a physical copy this July, and pray neither copyright lawyers nor A&R interlopers force Ocean to alter a minute. Sainted with a gift for tune, whether devising his own or elaborating on the inventions of others, as well as a knack for skillfully constructing/exploiting extended metaphors, he's dubious of time travel because nostalgia can't change the past and unconvinced our nation's flag is on the moon because he believes in private property as little as he does intellectual property. The novocaine with which his porn star girlfriend (who he assures us is studying to be dentist) laces his weed aptly circumscribes the way he kills pain and heartbreak with sex, music, and immersion in memory, and if his blissful "Songs for Women" doesn't tempt her from pumping Drake and Trey Songz in her car, he's too busy up in the lab concocting new brews to care. It takes some kind of spark to elicit soul and imagination from such questionable sources as UK pop sensation Mr. Hudson, MGMT's "Electric Feels," and Stanley Kubrick's sexploitation debacle Eyes Wide Shut, and in fact two of his recastings rank among 2011's very best songs. In the first, he transforms that Coldplay single you overlooked into a spellbinding reverie in which he clings to a childhood reminiscence while the world crashes to an end around him. The second, "American Wedding," the album's centerpiece, would signify as an unqualified work of art on the basis of its remarkable lyric alone. Married to the backing track of a certain iconic Eagles song -- all six minutes and eight seconds of it -- it's a jaw-dropping coup, a genius stroke of highway robbery. Now, I can see all of you raising a virtual eyebrow across the gauzy tundra of cyberspace. Believe me, when I heard that distinctive chord progression cueing up, I had my doubts, too. And yet by the end of the song, I'm passionately air-guitaring alongside Joe Walsh and Don Felder. Air-guitaring. With the Eagles. On "Hotel" fucking "California." If that doesn't rank as some sort of artistic achievement, I don't know what does. A

Brad Paisley: This is Country Music (Arista Nashville) Released last December to safely pave the way for the album proper, the title cut reinforces my suspicion that the marketplace scared him into changing his tune from "The Times They Are A-Changing" to "Gotta Serve Somebody," sucking up to his constituency so shrewdly its opening quatrain could have been drafted by Karl Rove: "You're not supposed to say the word 'cancer' in a song/And tellin' folks Jesus is the answer can rub 'em wrong/It ain't hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns, and mama, yeah that might be true/But this is country music and we do." Mainstream as underground, populists as renegades, vast majority as "oppressed" minority -- smells like the kind of stuff that Dick Armey feeds his Dick Army, wouldn't you say? Unfortunately, both that indelible tune and the spirited way Paisley delivers it win this cynic over anyway, even if Paisley unforgiveably ranks "Mama Tried" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" with that god-forsaken Lee Greenwood beer commercial. Anyway, there's a difference between pandering to your audience with lines commemorating those who "die for the red, white and blue," and, oh I don't know, actually sending those young men needlessly to die in Afghanistan and Libya. Yes, there is the Tim McGraw-derived "Love Her Like She's Leaving," and I fail to be manipulated by the cancer-stricken kids of "One of Those Lives," which doesn't put that lump in my throat like Another Saturday Night's "No," "Just Like Me," or "Welcome to the Future." But Paisley's best political instincts slip through in "A Man Don't Have to Die," in which he kindly explains to "Mr. Preacher Man" why broken down men fill strip clubs by the airport a lot more readily than they do churches on Sunday, as well as the how-sarcastic-is-he-being "Camouflage": "Well, the stars and bars offend some folks, and I guess see why/Nowadays there's still a way to show your southern pride/The only thing that's patriotic is the old red, white, and blue/It's green and gray and black and brown and tan all over too." Elsewhere, he justifies an Alabama revival, puts Carrie Underwood's Hollywood cornpone to good use on the endlessly repeatable duet "Remind Me," and plays a mean guitar throughout. Now if only I could be assured that Proctor and Gamble (Crest Toothpaste) and Georgia-Pacific (Dixie Cups) didn't coerce product placement into the lyric of the otherwise charming and succinctly accurate "Toothbrush." You know Georgia-Pacific, don't you? A subsidiary of Koch Industries, owned by the Koch Brothers of Wichita, Kansas, the Machiavellian schemers who brought you . . . the Tea Party? Maybe if I keep singing along I won't have to think about it. A–

Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin' (Columbia) While the masterful The Way I See It suavely took off from The Temptations circa 1964, back when Smokey wrote the songs and Ruffin and Kendricks split the vocals, the one chord whomp of "Heart Attack" announces the transition to the Temptations circa 1968, when Norman Whitftield saw the writing on the wall of Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," in hindsight as epochal as "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In short, as opposed to a Motown-influenced pop-R&B throwback, a funk record, and the former Ray Wiggins masters this idiom as confidently as he has any other he's set his sights on. But even in terms of pastiche, it feels slightly unrealized. While The Way I See It and even Tony! Toni! Toné's House of Music coasted by on charm, cleverness, and home truths, that won't wash with this harder music -- certainly, from Sly on, black pop began to explore darker themes that Wiggins has spent his career mostly skirting. I'm not saying anachronistic put-downs of "the man" are the way to go, but considering how much tragedy Wiggins has seen (one brother murdered, one sister killed in a car crash involving the police, two other brothers lost to heroin), his vow not to "Go to Hell" suggests he's been using music to insulate himself from the darkness around him ever since he could pick up a guitar. "I was the boy in the little picture/Always asking questions but never getting really good answers," he reminisces soulfully in the closer, observing later that he found his way because he was raised not merely by a family, but by a community, and he listened to everyone. If he thinks that's "The Answer," I wouldn't argue with his conclusions. But I wish he spent more time reflectively addressing the questions that -- at least in song -- he steadfastly avoids confronting. A–

Ebo Taylor: Life Stories: Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1973-80 (Strut) Stay away from Strut's recently-released Love and Death, featuring Germany's well-meaning but rhythmically stunted Afrobeat Academy. Be thankful however, that that project led to this wonderful excavation of assorted tracks from his '70s heyday -- although he's more journeyman than innovator, there are certainly worse exemplars than Fela Kuti and Sunny Adé, and much of these sixteen tracks on two discs is top drawer Ghanian Afrobeat. You haven't heard of the London-educated guitarist for two reasons. First, unlike Adé, his career missed Afropop's tiny commercial window in '80s, and second, unlike Kuti, his talent is entirely untainted by rampaging ego: the tracks here divide into eight different artist credits, only four of which feature Taylor's name proper. This makes him more a bandleader than a frontman, but even though there's an almost overwhelming sonic variety here, his spirit is strong enough that the package coheres, and even the tracks in English impress, especially Super Sounds Namba's militant "Yes Indeed" and the powerful original "Love and Death," voiced not by Taylor alone, but by a impassioned chorus of widows and widowers: "On our wedding day she gave me a kiss/It was the kiss of death/Love and death walk hand in hand." You may be familiar with "Heaven," sampled by Usher and Ludacris on "She Don't Know." But don't miss the unearthed rarity "Aba Yaa," an outlandish fifteen minute jam that may as well be Taylor and his session men fucking around. I say lucky for us some intrepid vinyl treasure hunter dug it up. A–

TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light (Interscope) Telling us not to "mind the noise" because it's "just the sound of being dragged ahead," the theme here is not love per se, as many others have suggested, but rather knocking down emotional barriers, signaled in metaphor by transformations, mega-quakes, cannonballs, and the post-precipital flight of a killer crane. And, oh yes, music that cunningly deploys time-tested tension-release structures as powerful if more subtle than Nirvana's: the first three songs for example, pit tentative verses sung in a guarded baritone that blossom into more expansive choruses delivered in an expressive falsetto. Tunde Adebimpe is the rare art-rocker who realizes that, like a lot of smart guys, his central problem, both interpersonal and musical, lies in a cerebral and overly cautious nature: on some level he must know that beginning a song "It might be impractical to seek a new romance/We won't know the actual if we never take the chance" aren't the choice words that will change that woman's mind. But as in films where the hero doesn't get the girl but the emotional growth has made him a better person for it, he's opened himself up to the possibility of deeper feeling, as tangible emotions rather than abstract concepts, electing to shift his "known position into the light," regardless of whether the war on the 6 o'clock news or the one in his head has abated or not. I ask you: can Thom Yorke make that claim? A

Honorable Mentions

EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions) Undeniable star power, but she could use a real band, or perhaps couples counseling ("The Grey Ship," "California," "Anteroom") ***

Foo Fighters: Wasting Light (Roswell/RCA) He's burning his bridges, but apparently not the ones that lead back to Butch Vig, Kris Novoselic, and, hmm, Kurt Cobain ("Rope," "Dear Rosemary") **

Mr. Dream: Trash Hit (God Mode) Fall followers are adept with the trash, which figures, not so much with the hits, which also figures ("Crime," "Holy Name") **

The Lonely Island: Turtleneck & Chain (Universal Republic) No late night comedian is an island, but they could have done better annexing protectorates that were funny rather than merely famous . . . ("Mother Lover," "I Threw it on the Ground," "I Just Had Sex") **

Art Brut: Brilliant! Tragic! (Cooking Vinyl)  . . . although even a bad comedian knows lesser material can be improved by expert delivery ("Bad Comedian") *

David Bazan: Strange Negotiations (Barsuk) If he needs something to believe in, how about his sharp political instincts? ("Wolves at the Door) *

Alison Krauss and Union Station: Paper Airplane (Rounder) As kindly and reliable as a good neighbor, or perhaps a State Farm insurance agent ("Miles to Go") *


Katy B: On A Mission (Columbia Europe) Dropping all but the first letter of her surname because that's the current fashion in British dance music circles, hitching her album to the dubstep locomotive because that's also the current fashion in British dance music circles, Katherine Brien churns out faceless electropop at its most expedient -- I can conceive how the music scribes at The Guardian might be fooled into thinking she's dubstep's great crossover hope, but can geniune UK clubrats be suckered in by the ocasional bleep or blip peppering this otherwise anonymous dance-shlock artifact? The second best track, "Power On Me," shamelessly swipes its melody from Madison Avenue's not exactly avant-garde 1999 UK smash "Don't Call Me Baby" -- Brien even appropriates frontwoman Cheyne Coates' distinctive phrasing. And while you might say the killer "Katy on a Mission" shifts her known position (love that "woo-oo-oo-oo" hook), I don't particularly see how the putative "dubstep" element -- that little twanging synth figure -- brings the shock of the new. In fact, it reminds me of the squiggle that bounces across the Who's "Join Together." Ah, yes, Pete Townshend: dubstep progenitor. You heard it here first. C+

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop) Some hear ambition in what could be the most talked about record of 2011, some hear garish pretension, and I say: why can't it be both? Musically this cringe-inducing faux-agrarian mélange derives from Mumford and Sons and the Decemberists with less of a knack for song than either -- "suites" are more their thing. Sources run from Yeats (I highly doubt they've visited Innisfree for themselves) and the medieval Robyn Hode: A Mummers Play (the only non-anachronistic antecedent of the magic phrase "Sim Sala Bim") to -- let us be frank -- Jethro Tull's Aqualung, though I'm sure they would earnestly embrace that comparison as a compliment. The indefensible title track is as horrifying a 2011 cultural marker as Rebecca Black's "Friday," and with less justifiable pretext: "I'd say I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me," Robin Pecknold warbles without a specknold of irony, but somehow I don't get the feeling that as a convinced bohemian he's happily prepared to kneel to the serving end of some Ayn Randian-licking stick. But if he's willing to participate in a useful social experiment, perhaps we can ship him overseas and dump him smack dab in the middle of an assembly line of a Malaysian sweatshop. We'll see how how much "use" he finds in singing the "helplessness blues" then. C

The Cars: Move Like This (Hear Music)

Chancha Via Circuito: Rio Arriba (ZZK)

The Dears: Degeneration Street (Dangerbird)

DeVotchKa: 100 Lovers (Anti-)

Elbow: Build a Rocket Boys! (Fiction/Polydor)

Gang Gang Dance: Eye Contact (4AD)

Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers: Teenage and Torture (Knitting Factory)

Thursday: No Devolución (Epitpah)

2011 May 2011 July