A Downloader's Diary (16): November 2011

by Michael Tatum

My original plan for this column was to switch gears somewhat and perpetrate my own version of Robert Christgau's annual Turkey Shoot (the last of which appeared in the Village Voice in November of 2004), but then I realized that metaphor might offend mopey Matthew Herbert, the auteur behind one of this month's most offending items. So call this the inaugural installment of my own annual tradition, the Downloader's Diary post-Halloween trick or treat bag: you rang my doorbell thinking I would give you Wussy or Das Racist, and instead I gleefully sent you glumly away with Superheavy and the Field. For me however, it doesn't just boil down to a dozen plus excuses to be sarcastic and sarcastic some more. I've always assumed that most people who read this column can probably already hear with their own ears what's good and what isn't -- in that regard, I've never felt like I offer anything new. Instead, I'm fascinated with the why, which for me anyway, is at least as worthwhile exploring with records you hate as it is with ones you love -- isn't that one of the reasons music criticism exists in the first place? If that rationalization doesn't cut it, there's always next month, which I can tell you for damn sure will not be repackages and reissues. (No, really.)


James Carter: Caribbean Rhapsody (Emarcy) Everything changed for this jazz great and multi-reed threat after 2004's Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. A showcase for fellow Detroit musicians and a project of personal significance to Motor City native Carter -- and a pretty good record if you ignore Gerard Gibbs' atypically mawkish synth workout on "Soul Street" -- Atlantic withheld its release for three years, until quietly dumping it out on Warners with little fanfare. Up to that point of course, the mercurial soloist (and candid egomaniac) had released six superb records on DIW and Atlantic, with most of his records for the latter centered around "concepts" -- make-out music, Django Reinhardt, duets with his mentors -- but following his falling out with Atlantic, hopping in frustration from label to label, his sensibilities split in half. His loose, noisy side he reserved for quirky, quickly-recorded blowing sessions -- live spots, that odd Pavement tribute record, and his two organ trio albums, including last month's At the Crossroads. Meanwhile, he relegated his "concepts" to bewilderingly tame, but more heavily-promoted, crossover sops to the dinner-jazz market that he clearly covets but will never win over, a category that includes his leaden Billie Holiday tribute and now this, a "concerto for saxophone and orchestra." Although sometimes on the otherwise fine At the Crossroads Carter feels like a guest artist on his own record, he says more with the incisive one-note jabs of "Oh Gee" and the cacophonous squelches on "Aged Pain" than the meaningless runs of sixteenth-notes that composer Roberto Sierra scripts for him here. But what really boggles my mind is how this in any way connects to Caribbean music -- what little syncopation the arrangements allow, like the herky-jerk figures in the opener "Ritmico," are choppy and disorienting, while pieces like the weepy "Tender" are pure glop, less Sketches of Jamaica than maybe some focus group-developed, cross-hybridized Muzak filtering unobtrusively into a high-end Cayman Islands resort. The "Soprano Epilogue," a Carter solo turn which I'm happy to report does not feature Kathleen Battle, is a sad reminder of everything he's capable of. B–

DRC Music: Kinshasa One Two (Warp) I may have overrated Damon Albarn's 2002 Mali Music at the time (slotted in the number two spot behind my beloved Best Bootlegs in the World Ever), but individual bits still sound alluring, calmative, modestly beautiful -- the project may strike some as fragmented and incomplete, but for me, that only adds to its charm. Recorded over several months during a trip Albarn made on behalf of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief and featuring collaborations with Afel Bocoum, Lobi Traoré, and Toumani Diabaté, it feels like a labor of love even though much of it was reputedly improvised. Crucially, Albarn doesn't intrude very much: his remixing and post-production work allows the music to breathe, his comforting melodica lines are attractively humble alongside the contributions of his more accomplished cohorts, and he allows himself only one starring turn, the rueful "Sunset Coming On." By contrast, the backing tracks for this sequel of sorts were swiftly cobbled together over a meager five days, predominantly with Kinshasa street musicians, many of whom provided percussion with whatever was laying around -- old fans, sheets of tin, tree trunks, and metal rods --and as such, the finished product feels more like salvaged odds and ends, intermittently interesting "sounds" that never cohere into a compelling whole. Especially with Dan "the Automator" Nakamura assisting behind the boards, this is certainly a lot more assertive beat-wise than Mali Music, which is definitely a plus. But the forced artiness and lack of forward motion make me frustrated that we'll never know what kind of music those street musicians might have made with Timbaland or Kanye West. B–

The Field: Looping State of Mind (Kompakt) Pop critics have been rushing to drape this unabashedly naked emperor in highly suspect haberdashery -- NME's Noel Gardner trumpets dubiously: "the very definition of forward minded music" -- but these interminably montonous loop-de-loops strike me as the nadir of "avant-garde" synth-noodling and vacuous navel-gazing. Or at least so I thought, until I chanced upon the rather perplexing revelation that mastermind Axel Willner actually recorded these seven non-songs (average length: nine minutes) with a live band. I suppose there is some kind of perverse Zen accomplishment in how they kept the first five minutes of "Is This Power" up without any discernible break in the pattern (by counting to five hundred or some such?). Me, I'm reminded that what makes minimalism so fascinating isn't repetition per se, but rather variations on top of that repetition, tiny changes validating that there is no such thing as two completely identical moments -- like Warhol's 100 Cans, each can of soup may have looked blandly indistinguishable from the other ninety-nine, but after you spent some time scanning row by row, each one would reveal itself as wholly unique. Live musicians or not, no such miracles occur here, and for all I know what little "music" there is could have been created by setting up the synthesizer to run by itself, and then going out and getting a sandwich. In the meantime, I'll take Steve Reich. Suggested alternate title: Music For Zero Musicians. D

Givers: In Light (Glass Note) It goes without saying I'm a big fan of optimism, catchy tunes, verse-chorus-verse song structures, co-ed singing, postmodern Afropop influence, and turning up the amps to eleven. Never in my most perverse fantasies however, did I ever dream that a band would make a big splash by aggressively shoving all of those otherwise admirable qualities down the listener's throat. Accomplished, melodic, and about as irritating as an afternoon at a Christian day camp. Whatever happened to Up With People anyway? B–

Matthew Herbert: One Pig (Accidental) Although liberal/progressive on most issues, I've never understood the left's fascination with vegetarianism. While I appreciate the economic argument that you can feed more people with the grain it takes to feed one pig than you can with the actual pig itself, I'm more persuaded by Anthony Bourdain's observation that vegetarianism is a "first world luxury," a lifestyle completely unthinkable in developing countries where no one knows where their next meal is coming from. I mention this because it's only fair that you know that I come to this suite of manipulated "found sounds" detailing the life span of one pig "from birth to dinner plate" with my own set of quirky prejudices. This is more than I can say for UK knob-twiddler Matthew Herbert, who himself isn't a vegetarian either, merely someone who's disquieted about the state of commercial food production, and wants us simply to "listen to the world more carefully." As a fond frequenter of petting zoos, I would be more sympathetic to Herbert's concerns if he devoted more time to the beauty and nobility of animals, but that would be too difficult. What emerges instead from the gothic/industrial settings is pure shock value: knives sharpening, mouths slurping and chomping, and terrifying porcine squeals that anxiously erupt after several minutes of pastoral silence encourage you (sucker!) to foolishly turn up the volume on your iPod. The song titles (named after months) roll by like title cards in a horror film, leading up the big payoff for which the audience has been luridly waiting: the inevitable slaughter, which in this case doesn't even occur, thanks to British law. This omission has been sophomorically described by several reviewers as "ironic," which I guess means that there are a lot of humorless people out there who think Charlotte's Web would have gotten its message across better as a snuff film. I mean, I myself am against capital punishment, but there's a reason no one films executions in America: certain kinds of people get off on them. And I'm the bad guy for liking bacon? C

Muppets: The Green Album (Walt Disney) A true story: answering an invite from A&M Records, I attended the release party for the Carpenters tribute record If I Were a Carpenter (held in the A&M parking garage) as a fledgling rock critic for UCLA's Daily Bruin in the naïve hope that I would meet Sonic Youth, whose "Superstar" was that album's highlight. Instead, I got the bland Jann Arden warbling "We've Only Just Begun" and the odious Richard Carpenter opining that the Carpenters were a "garage band too," as they had literally honed their act in their parents' garage. Bored out of my skull (and embarrassed that my photographer kept antsily complaining what a bust this gig was) I approached Paul Williams, not only the co-author of "We've Only Just Begun" but also Jim Henson's go-to composer, to tell him how much I adored "The Rainbow Connection." Williams (looking and acting more or more like Truman Capote in his old age) lit up excitedly and exclaimed: "Kenny Loggins is recording it for his next album!" Supressing the instinct to laugh (oh, how jaded we get) I beamed back in approval. Because Willie Nelson notwithstanding, one of the most incredible tricks of Jim Henson's creations of felt and plastic is that they somehow imbued humor, poignancy, and magic to songs (and sometimes jokes) that you otherwise would have found insufferably insipid. Weezer, the Fray, the Airborne Toxic Event, et al can't even make their own insipid material sound interesting -- what chance do they have here? Two minor exceptions are telling: Amy Lee's striking (if predictably melodramatic) re-write of the childhood reminiscence "Halfway Down the Stairs" may be associated with the Muppets, but was actually adapted from a touching poem by A.A. Milne. And the Alkaline Trio's goofy "Moving Right Along" is one of the only selections that aims for comedy rather than corn, and is still owned by a certain bear and frog duo regardless. C+

Terius Nash: 1977 (mixtape) The man publicly known as The-Dream had a problem. Actually he has several problems, most of them revolving around his rather appalling callousness and emotional immaturity, but the one I'm primarily referring to here is his deep-seated need for self-expression, namely how to expiate his vitriol toward long-suffering ex-wife Christina Milian in glorious song. No idiot -- at least in terms of his raw I.Q. -- Nash knew that even though he could fully back up his statistical claim to Pitchfork that "99% of all narcissistic R&B singing sensations" will cheat on their spouses (he really said "99% of all men," but I can read into these things) he also knew that his audience would balk if he devoted a whole album trying to prove it. Then one day, a friend played him the Weeknd, after which Nash realized that the lauded mixtape format would allow him to get away with outlandish bullshit that so-called "fake bitches" and "fake niggaz" (which I take to mean those unfortuante enough to be tainted with normal human sensitivities) would rake him over the coals for. So although the end result is surprisingly tuneful despite its sparseness, even occasionally engaging though the arrangements never rise above the quality of spruced-up demos, Nash shows why sometimes it's beneficial for your audience to keep you in line: he promulgates a pathetic worldview in which tenderness is closing the door so she won't hear him fucking another woman, a relationship's death knell is the moment she stops considering stripping as foreplay, and justice is served when she no longer has access to your cars and yachts. Should this be a surprise from someone whose "female empowerment" song for Beyoncé revolved around demanding a ring and a marriage proposal before giving up any action? Hope Milian took him for every dime. C

Nikki Jean: Pennies in a Jar (S-Curve) I enjoyed at least half of this album until I realized that part of my attraction to it was that it was stroking my vanity. Certainly, its back story is a rock critic's wet dream: young R&B ingénue Nicholle Jean Leary seeks out partnerships with pre-punk songwriting greats (and "greats") and when appropriate, records their efforts in a manner that successfully duplicates her collaborators' respective production styles. Later, she jumped ship to S-Curve Records when Sony -- her original label -- balked that no one cared about that era anymore, which must have amused prize draw Bob Dylan, who has been raking in stacks of moolah for them since 1963. But I digress. The one remarkable thing about the finished product is that if you're well versed in pop music, you'll have no problem discerning who did what, especially on the superior first half: Burt Bacharach's title track evokes Dionne Warwick, Thom Bell's "How to Unring a Bell," zings the Spinners, and Bob Dylan's solemn "Steel and Feathers (Don't Ever)" recalls Slow Train Coming, to choose my three favorites. But even there, the success derives from Jean's knack for pastiche, as well as the listener's satisfaction in being able to pinpoint her sources ("Hey! That sounds like the Supremes!"), rather than anything Jean herself brings to the table lyrically or musically. And while her melisma-free vocals (perhaps necessarily) hearken back to when white and black pop vocalists alike delivered tunes a lot less histrionically, she puts less of an individual stamp on these songs than Dusty Springfield or Diana Ross might have. This becomes even more obvious on the dull-as-dishwater second half, in which she enlists second stringers like Paul Williams, Carly Simon, and Jimmy Webb. Were Randy Newman and Paul Simon unavailable? Certainly Raphael Saadiq wouldn't have made that mistake. Come to think of it, Saadiq also wouldn't have needed to enlist outside help, but much like this record, that's neither here nor there. B

Ashton Shepherd: Where Country Grows (MCA Nashville) I can hear why rock critics searching for the next Miranda Lambert are flocking to praise this Coffeeville, Alabama singer and occasional songwriter: her attractively twangy vocals are completely devoid of Countrypolitan polish and the record as a whole sounds dynamite if you tune out the lyrics. But following the killer "Look It Up," in which Shepherd feistily sends her ex to research the dictionary definitions of faithful, forever, easy, etc. (she spits out the word "asshole" at the end of the album version), as well as the only song here with any spunk or fire to it, we get two pandering red state paeans from a slumming Bobby Pinson, a "tender" plea for connubial intimacy that begins with the woozy double-entendre "He told me 'the ground's just right for plowing,'" and the usual phoned-in odes to Saturday night, Sunday morning, and "Beer on a Boat." Those are mostly courtesy hired help, of course. Shepherd's main contribution is the dreadful ballad "I'm Just a Woman," which boasts a lyric so ghastly in its gender politics it could inspire Michele Bachmann to send a check to NOW. Give me a crazy ex-girlfriend storming the pool hall with a pistol any day. B–

Super Heavy: Super Heavy (A&M) I have to say, when Joss Stone soulfully wailed halfway through this record "What the fuck is going ah-h-ahn?," my wife could hear me guffaw from her upstairs office -- when a "supergroup" is this dull, one would think the answer to such a question would be obvious, no? This is less too many cooks spoil the broth, or even don't mix your chocolate with my peanut butter, but more that the players are all sous chefs who work best in collaboration with others who mesh well with their respective styles. Mick Jagger has proven one solo project after another he needs Keith Richards to supply the catchy riffs, Dave Stewart hasn't been interesting since he and Annie Lennox pretended to be new wave, A.R. Rahman writes soundtracks for films when Peter Gabriel isn't available, and Joss Stone is a goddamn cipher, which works out perfectly for Mick, who must salivate when such a fine young thing soulfully parrots back all of his moistly "liberal" banalities (a sample: "You got endless ambition/Crying endless contrition/It really gets my goat/It sticks in my throat/You're defying demotion" -- so much for writing "songs which [sic] had meaning"). The exception that proves nothing is Damian Marley, whose music is the freshest of all the participants (and where's Nas when you need him?). Too bad the old guys reward him for supplying the rhythm section with their stupor-heavy arena and/or orchestral overkill. C

The Weeknd: Thursday (mixtape) I found Abel Tesfaye's debauched come-ons attractive musically on House of Balloons because on that set of songs he wedded a gift for disconcerting detail and eerily turned metaphor to spare, compelling music. But not only was I right when I said that was the kind of formal coup an artist could only pull off once, that assertion only doubles in probability when said artist tries to repeat it a mere six months later. And it's not because we know any more about him now than we did then -- where once we were fooled into thinking he was multi-layered, that there was some degree of guilt and suffering underneath his tortured confessions from half-remembered house parties, here he reveals himself to be as uniroincally reprehensible in his attitudes toward women as Kiss or the Knack. RapGenius' shockingly nonchalant note prefacing the vile, gang-banging entreaty "Life of the Party" accurately sums up the prevailing concept: "[P]ersuading a goodie-goodie into being an open-minded whore with a little help from some hallucinogens." Although the beats are stronger and the music more dynamic than on House of Balloons, the tunes are non-existent and the lyrics hateful doggerel, the only noteworthy turn of phrase subcontracted to Drake, the abysmal "Man, if pole dancing is an art/How many artists do I know?" No less than the Eagles or Motley Crue, this is one more asshole separating women into two categories, angels and whores -- note that the triplicate cover blonde is portrayed as trashy and hung over on Wednesday and Friday, but blushing and virginal on the day in between. If that gets his dick hard, more power to him -- I guess. But I can guarantee you that with women as much as music fans, spacing out with your cock in your hand is never a turn-on -- sooner or later, everyone will get bored of waiting for the Weeknd to come. B–

Wire: 17 December 1985, Paradiso, Amsterdam (Pinkflag) Because the definitive post-punk quartet has shuttled through so many distinct stylistic phases, all of the titles from their so-called "Legal Bootleg" series are worth hearing, at least in terms of documentary value, by which I mean some of the titles are more interesting to talk about amongst your like-minded friends than actually listen to. The prime example is this imfamous set predating their mid-'80s reboot, to which they had already so committed themselves that they excised all of their classic '70s material from their sets, hiring a cover band ("the Ex-Lion Tamers") to go through the motions they were no longer interested in going through themselves -- you can almost hear the sound of hundreds of heads swiveling back and forth to each other in utter disbelief as multiple shout-outs for "12XU" (the "Free Bird" of post-punk, no?) are greeted with Graham Lewis and Colin Newman's deadpan stage patter. Although "Ambulance Chasers" and "A Vivid Riot of Red" never made it to vinyl for good reason, there's nothing wrong with the material per se, at least if we are to judge that material by the final product: certainly, Gareth Jones greatly improved two out of the three songs that later appeared on 1987's The Ideal Copy and both of the numbers from 1988's A Bell is a Cup . . . Until It Is Struck. But while the three songs that later formed the bulk of 1986's Drill EP are more or less fully formed, the band's slack, confused, desultory performances belie the fact that even though they harbored an inkling that cold, industrial, rhythmic hooks would eventually define their comeback, they hadn't yet accepted that synthesizers and drums machines were the only way they could get there. True, The Ideal Copy contained flaws in its DNA -- botched sequencing, inappropriately chipper arrangement for "Cheeking Tongues" (this set's opener), and Graham Lewis' pro forma doom show "Feed Me." But until I heard this concert, it never once occurred to me that the reason I loved the blissful "Kidney Bingos" sure as hell wasn't the half-assed lyrics. C+

Gardens & Villa: Gardens & Villa (Secretly Canadian)

Junior Boys: It's All True (Domino)

Leyland Kirby: Eager to Tear Apart the Stars (History Favours the Winners)

Little Dragon: Ritual Union (Peacefrog)

The Men: Leave Home (Sacred Bones)

Marissa Nadler: Marissa Nadler (Box of Cedar)

Pure X: Pleasure (Alternative Distribution Alliance)

Sons & Daughters: Mirror Mirror (Domino)

Tiger & Woods: Through the Green (Running Back)

Title Fight: Shed (SideOneDummy)

2011 October 2011 December