A Downloader's Diary (20): May 2012

by Michael Tatum

Although this month's jewel comes from a folkie singer-songwriter in his fifth decade of record making, most of the excitement this month is provided by hip hop -- much of it download only, some of it absolutely free, and more waiting in the wings. Which inevitably puts into question the justness and practicality of legislation currently putting a damper on big bad downloaders like myself. To which I would reply, I never bought a record I didn't like -- in advance. For those who feel the same way, but are squeamish about trolling the net for goodies themselves without a little guidance, I'll continue to provide this little public service, almost nearing its second anniversary.

Action Bronson: Blue Chips (Fools Gold/Reebok Classics) "Don't ever say my music sounds like Ghost's shit," Queens' favorite Jewish-Albanian ex-chef rapper warns, and though he refuses to alter that peculiarly similar vocal timbre, new producer-collaborator Justin Nealis (cheekily dubbed "Party Supplies") commands a far more expansive musical vocabulary than Tommy Mas, who provided the beats on Bronson's 2011 download-only debut Dr. Lecter. As such, Bronson sounds less here like a Wu-Tang wannabe than his own man. Launching with an audacious string quartet sans beats, Nealis appropriates old standbys like the Ohio Players and "I Only Have Eyes for You," ventures into left field with Iron Butterfly and "Jackie Blue," and gets downright perverse with a cunningly looped snippet of Dean Martin's "Return to Me" -- all catchy, all propulsive, and musically, this record never lets up. So much so, you might be dismayed how lazily El Bronsonlino falls back on the standard hookers-and-drugs palaver -- you almost want to hit the guy up on Facebook and tell him to pursue some healthier relationships. But having long since bonded with the man behind the character ever since I caught his amusingly low budget cooking show Action in the Kitchen (marveling over a slab of sushi-grade Ahi tuna: "We don't play games -- I pulled it off the carcass myself!" Or, poking his nostrils into a handful of chopped basil: "Smells like my favorite marijuana!"), I'm instead impressed by a vulnerability to which very few rappers will admit. Naturally, he buries it in the usual tough talk and jokey culinary metaphors, but it's there, most notably in this mixtape's painful centerpiece, in which he undergoes a penis extension to win back a first love turned to (sigh) hooking and drugs -- even if Bronson repudiates it as fiction, rapping about your tiny johnson rises to a level of shameful self-deprecation even Eminem wouldn't dare. Not that excuses Bronson for callously demanding that "bitch" to get him drinks. But the reveal, whether imagined or otherwise, provides a rationale worthy of, well, Dennis Coles himself. A–

Allo Darlin': Europe (Slumberland) Although I'm sure she'd covet the opportunity, Elizabeth Morris doesn't need to audition for the next Stuart Murdoch or Stephin Merritt side project -- she can write catchy, winsome songs on her own. But her popping Tallulah into the tape deck on her road trip from "St. Lucia to Surfer's" (about an hour away from each other, if you're curious) only tempts me into pointing out the obvious truth that one talented woman does not equal the Go-Betweens. This has less to do with the bright tunes and well-turned lyrics that she has in spades than the lack of anything to play against them -- maybe she is Grant McLennan in the making, but where's the arch Robert Forster type to play the foil? Where is Amanda Brown providing side commentary on oboe and violin? Where's her "Right Here" or "Apology Accepted?" These may seem like unfeasibly tall orders, but even their 2010 debut's arrangements had a little more kick: brittler guitar lines, hopscotching flute, and a charming duet with the Pipettes' Robert Barry. The musical approach here is comparatively more streamlined, not unlike the Go-B's airy, 1988 16 Lovers Lane, or better yet, McLennan's own 1995 Horsebreaker Star. Even Sheffield's Standard Fare accomplishes more with less -- their Emma Kupa isn't nearly in Morris' league as a songwriter, but lively drummer Danny Beswick and low-rent Johnny Marr impersonator Danny How interact with Kupa to the extent they feel like a band, rather than your basic "singer-songwriter with backup" approach. I guess that leaves me asking myself just how much I love Morris' singing and songs despite her current limitations. Well, how much did I enjoy Horsebreaker Star? A–

Macy Gray: Covered (429) Everyone approves of this messy hodgepodge of alt-pop covers in theory if not in practice, but I draw the line in describing it as "brave" -- in the '60s, the Beatles could cover Smokey, Aretha could cover the Beatles, and the Burritos could cover Aretha and no one would blink. But some people really do think this R&B diva tackling the Eurythmics and Radiohead is akin to an act of career suicide -- in one of this record's three uproarious skits, J.B. Smoove muses that if she really wants to scare her fans, she should go onstage with a sword instead of a microphone and prowl menacingly. Personally, I don't object to her "adventurousness" per se as much as I question her taste in what constitutes as a worthwhile song, but what's surprising is that the songs that work aren't always the ones you'd think -- she turns Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" into a Saturday morning cartoon theme and pointlessly dashes through the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Maps" precipitando, but corralling her daughter and her daughter's friends for a cheeky cover of My Chemical Romance's "Teenagers," a gem that previously flew over my radar, is funny indeed. Others give up minor revelations -- it never before occurred to me that Colbie Calliat's "Bubbly" concerned cunnilingus, howsabout that -- yet leave you wondering why she bothered in the first place. Gray is such a strong-willed artist that I'm tempted to blame her solely for the fifty-fifty hit-or-miss ratio, but I'm dismayed as well in producer Hal Willner, who couldn't have taken this much of an aesthetic back seat when sorting out songs with Marianne Faithfull. Maybe next time he can slip her some old Dolly Parton records. B+

Madonna: MDNA (Interscope/Live Nation) Twenty years after the Sex book, almost thirty since writhing onstage in a wedding gown on MTV, she's become so fully absorbed into the mainstream it's easy to take for granted how much she loved to provoke, titillate, and scandalize back when she was building herself up into a cultural icon. The transition occurred in the early '90s, following the backlash against Sex and the vastly underrated Erotica -- both, it should be noted, the first projects from her now-liquidated Warners imprint Maverick, thus the first projects over which she had complete creative control: even for the most famous person in the world, a considerable blow to the ego. After that, her record making became a great deal more cautious -- a newborn daughter does rearrange one's priorities, after all -- leaving "transgression" as such to the comparatively more banal Disney dollies who took her place. Happily, this seizes 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor and 2008's Hard Candy welcome if imperfect regressions to her younger self and slathers them with context -- namely, her nasty split from British film director Guy Ritchie. So thank goodness this "disco-fied divorce record" (to quote Joe Levy) cultivates a lot less emotional maturity than, say, Kathleen Edwards' boringly civil Voyageur -- in the first track, she flashes her tits in front of God; in the second, shoots Ritchie in the head and threatens to force him to be her chauffeur when they meet again in Hell ("I've got a lot of friends there," she reasons). Throughout, she gleefully references her glory days, quoting her old hits, appropriating some Cyndi Lauper, and stages a few cheerleader cheers a la Toni Basil, faltering only when she gets mushy toward the end (though I do appreciate her acutely-observed pointillism metaphor, "If you were the Mona Lisa/You'd be hanging in the Louvre" makes as much sense as "If you were a Big Mac/You'd be served at McDonald's"). The message? There's nothing sexier than autonomy. Nicki Minaj, please take note. A–

Spoek Mathambo: Father Creeper (Sub Pop) Maxinquaye never came across as powerfully onstage as it did on album partly because Tricky didn't always play well with others, but also because dissociative music rarely translates effectively in live settings. Theoretically, the disjointed electrorap crafted by South Africa's Nthato James Monde Mokgata (along with key collaborator Richard Rumney on synthesizers) is designed specifically for darkened nightclubs, juxtaposing jittery, anxious grooves against dark, expansive music. Tune in to the lyrics however, and you'll realize his anomie is a product of his impoverished environment rather than faulty brain chemistry or junk food dependency, and as such his depressive tendencies feel more earned, providing more than enough rationale for a bleak concept album that follows the imagined arc of his life from horny adolescence fumbling for finger pie to a compromised marriage promising nothing but adjoining graves. In between, he chooses waiting tables to turning tricks, spits in the tourists' curried goat and then begs for the scraps, and pays sorrow, tears, and blood for an engagement ring on a wicked track that banishes do-gooding Kanye West and Jay-Z to the realm of feeble, upper-class irony. He doesn't even take respite in music -- the one that begins "No, you don't need to be scared/Of bullets raining on your head" is sarcastically framed by a lithe Mbaqanga sample whose subverted desecration could make tears run down Paul Simon's face. The girl who leaves an imprint of cherry lipgloss on the back of her wrist in the opener becomes an old woman with saggy lips and crusty eyes he can't bear waking up next to by the record's end. And in this couplet, he says more about his world than others could in weighty, book-length commentaries: "I feel like I can't go home/But I feel like I want to go home." A

Rusko: Songs (Downtown) "You see, 'roots music' is creative music," idealistically muses the unidentified Jamaican musician sampled at the beginning of this record. "You understand? Dat means it original, it come from de heart. So whatever's in your heart, and you feel, say, you want to create a different sound, you create dat different sound. So who's to say dere's any boundaries?" In the background, his companions passively grunt their collective approval (one can almost imagine them cloaked in a leaden cumulonimbus of ganja smoke). Unquestionably, this preamble is Leeds musician Christopher Mercer's way of second-guessing his notoriously insular target audience's reaction to this record, who have already invented an admittedly hilarious designation to dismiss his vivacious dancehall/dubstep hybrid: "Bro-step." Pigeonholing the high energy of his music as testosterone-fueled seems slightly disingenuous considering how many female voices still do the heavy lifting, and I wouldn't even consider a crime even if there were any truth to it. I imagine what really rankles U.K. scenesters are the promised "songs" of the album title, which aren't signified in verse-chorus-verse structures so much as in pithy catchprases and demonstrative musical motifs, sharpened by the random noises that supposedly justify this as a separate subgenre (dig that tiger growl in "Opium"). And though I hate to once again bring in Moby as a reference -- as electronica's evolution branches out ever further, every dance musician who colors outside the lines inevitably evokes his influence -- I'm reminded of Everything Is Wrong's "Feeling So Real" and "Everytime You Touch Me," two similarly-minded touchstones to which Moby himself never returned to for inspiration, for a song let alone an entire album. Having said that, I should probably warn you that my favorite track is the one everyone else seems to hate: the slavishly pornographic "Dirty Sexy," much maligned by uptight types on both sides of the pond. Sure, all that "I'm a pimp" stuff is pretty calculated, even cynical perhaps, completely fashioned with American radio in mind (even if American radio is never going to play it). That a sassy woman delivers its catty lyric should provide all the respite from "masculine energy" any anxiety-prone politically correct type should need. A–

S/S/S: Beak & Claw (Anticon) Lamentably (and predictably), Pitchfork's Jayson Greene put indie pop wunderkind Sufjan Stevens at the center of his wrongheaded review, waiting until the second paragraph to mention avant-classical composer/second banana Son Lux, as well as this four-song, download-only EP's true draw, Chicago alt-rapper Serengeti -- the latter, in Greene's estimation, the trio's "wild card," even though of the three, Stevens is the only one not actually signed to Anticon. Granted, the interlaced synthesizers and drum patterns, as perfectly woven as the osier on a wicker chair, resemble Stevens' 2010 The Age of Adz more than anything on Serengeti's résumé, but this still strikes me akin to beginning a film review by praising the set designer rather than the screenwriter. And while no lyric on the frustratingly diffuse Adz pinned down a note of the intermittently beautiful music, here all of Serengeti's stories, beginning with an opener in which two ex-dopers wander aimlessly through the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, provide crucial context. Though all four vignettes share a verbal density that occasionally approaches obtuseness, each thoughtfully explores the often vast gulf separating perception from reality, including the wry, unfairly maligned closer that attempts to humanize Nadya Suleman. "If I could figure out what it was all about . . ." Stevens warbles in a key moment (through effects, to be sure), and Serengeti finishes his thought: "I had the world figured out beyond any doubt." Not that any of Serengeti's spiritually adrift characters have it figured out, either -- that's why Stevens and Serengeti need each other. Well, why the former needs the latter more so than vice versa, but we'll get to that next time. A–

Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man Now (2nd Story Sound) Although there's great poetry in Loudon III's observation he's older now than Loudon II when he passed, it's almost certain that Wife I sparked this awe-inspiring song cycle about "death and decay" -- she's the unnamed subject of the poignant "In C," co-author of a revisited old age song they wrote together as kids, and proud mother of Children I and II. More importantly, she fuels the survivor guilt at the heart of the title track, pushing this self-confessed asshole into pondering what he dubs "the heavy shit": namely, relationships between parents, children, ex-wives, and close friends, some whose number has been called, others still twiddling their thumbs in the waiting room, and all appearing on this record in one capacity or another. This in itself is an unprecedented accomplishment in pop music -- the few families that boast talent this profoundly rich wouldn't dare rebuilding their burnt bridges in public, let alone on album. But in fact, familiarity with the Wainwright clan's ongoing soap opera puts that lump in the throat on the touching filial duets "The Days That We Die" and "All in a Family," and cajoling all IV Children and Wives II and III to serve as the Greek Chorus in the flippant up-to-now life story that opens is one of many strokes of ironic genius. Burying the emasculating pain of impotence in two tortuously funny vaudevillian turns is another. The underlying theme -- that a combination of humor and forgiveness gets one through the pains of life -- is no secret. But the extraordinary capper is that underneath it all, the asshole still lurks: comforted only by the hard truth that hellhound on his trail is out to get you and me, too. A+

Honorable Mentions

Amadou & Mariam: Folila (Nonesuch) The title translates into Bamako as "music," which in this highly cross-promoted case doesn't necessarily make the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together ("Dougia Badia," "Metemya") ***

Carole King: The Legendary Demos (Hear Music) I've been waiting for this to happen for years, but I'd still trade most of the six repeats from Tapestry for, oh, her demos for "Locomotion," "Something Good," etc. ("Pleasant Valley Sunday" "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Natural Woman") ***

M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion (Merge) That companion is Ms. Zooey Deschanel, who comforts M. about his inability to sing like Roy Orbison (or write like T.S. Eliot) ("Me and My Shadow," "I Get Ideas") ***

Bonnie Raitt: Slipstream (Redwing) The beneficiary of a slipstream, not the generator of one, and consider the Gerry Rafferty cover and the titles of the two best songs if you doubt me ("Used to Rule the World," "Down to You") **

Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game (Decca/Polydor) Dreamed of a gay Lily Allen, woke up to a Rufus Wainwright album produced by Greg Kurstin ("Jericho," "Montauk") **

Dr. John: Locked Down (Nonesuch) In which producer Dan Auerbach confuses acid jazz for a New Orleans subgenre ("Locked Down," "Ice Age") **


Norah Jones: . . . Little Broken Hearts (Blue Note) The cover art was reportedly inspired by the poster for Russ Meyer's Mudhoney (and who knew I would one day type the words "Norah Jones" and "Mudhoney" in the same sentence?), but for some perverse reason, I'm reminded instead of the cover of Linda Ronstadt's Mad Love -- you know, murkily photocopied image, tousled hair, lip gloss typography? The one where she covered Elvis Costello and, er, Little Anthony and the Imperials in an attempt to covet the lucrative "new wave" market? Ah, but the differences between the two musically! For one thing, although Norah is the same age now as Linda was in 1980, the latter's skinny-tie moves were a deliberate ploy to "youthen" her up, whereas Norah is, at long last, merely "acting her age." For another, Linda always styled herself as an "interpretive" singer, splitting her time between rehashing familiar (if not totally obvious) hits of yesteryear and giving greater exposure to up and coming songwriters, while Blue Note signed Norah on the wobbly premise that they would allow her to "develop" her unproven songwriting while supplying her with commercial material in the interim. Now, I wouldn't necessarily argue that Jones has failed on that front -- though how many of today's chanteuses (uh, Diana Krall? the contestants on American Idol?) feel motivated to croon any of her copyrights, I wonder -- but I will say that nothing on this dubiously-touted breakup record is as lively as Linda's embarrassingly forced "How Do I Make You," let alone Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Brian Burton's wishy-washily atmospheric production style would be a bad match for Jones' meandering melodies in any case, but I'm fascinated by the impersonal detachment in what some call a "confessional" singer-songwriter breakthrough -- "I'm holding on/To a thing that's wrong/'Cause we don't belong/But you like my songs," sounds as dispassionate sung as it reads on the page, and if the songs themselves are this staid, what does that say about the broken relationship they supposedly memorialize? And can you really blame that unnamed fiction writer for running off for that unnamed twenty-two year old? Best in show: "Out on the Road," the only time she leaves the safety of her living room couch. B–

Georgia Anne Muldrow: Seeds (Entertainment One Music) Boosters claim that Madlib emancipates this underground R&B thrush from the incompetence of her own self-production, but even if the results weren't frustratingly ragtag, the artiste would still have much to answer for. A helpmate of the ever-declining Erykah Badu who takes her wardrobe cues from Alice Coltrane circa 1971 and shuns melodies in favor of complexly layered harmonies for which she doesn't have the chops, she's also the kind of noodle head who regards the syllogistically dubious "Why do we kill each other/When we're all the same" as Deep Philosophy. Then, after devoting 3:33 (someone alert the numerologists!) to the subject of "Kali Yuga," she suggests you go and Google it to educate yourself further. Now, I personally think that if you're going to expound for that length of time on any subject (you know, the Mayan calendar, the Age of Aquarius, like that) your listener should be somewhat of an expert by the time you're through. Nevertheless, as reindeer games are my raison d'être, I decided to humor her and hightail it over to that very search engine, and if I had done so before listening to the record, it might have spared me the review: "Kali Yuga . . . is the last of the four stages the world goes through as part of the cycle of Yugas described in the Indian scriptures . . . considered by many Hindus to be the day that Krishna left Earth to return to his abode. Hindus believe that human civilization degenerates spiritually during the Kali Yuga, which is referred to as the Dark Age because in it people are as far away as possible from God . . . A discourse by Markandeya in the Mahabharata identifies some of [its] attributes: Rulers will become unreasonable: they will levy taxes unfairly . . . Rulers will no longer see it as their duty to promote spirituality, or to protect their subjects: they will become a danger to the world . . . People will start migrating, seeking countries where wheat and barley form the staple food source . . ." C+

The Chromatics: Kill For Love (Italians Do It Better) For five impressive songs led by vocalist Ruth Radelet, they make like the xx, after which multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel's xy takes over and then they zzzz. B

Zammuto: Zammuto (Temporary Residence) Ex-Books multi-instrumentalist's blank page of a debut proves who got the Times New Roman in the divorce settlement. B–

Estelle: All of Me (Atlantic/Homeschool) Her taste in American boys last time ran to Kanye West and John Legend, this time to Chris Brown and Rick Ross, and the miseducation in her Lauryn Hill-esque skits is even worse. B–

Great Lake Swimmers: New Wild Everywhere (Nettwerk) I'm spreading the rumor they were discovered at a tailgate party for a Fleet Foxes show. C+

Alabama Shakes: Boys and Girls (ATO) I'm not sure if Janis Joplin would second Brittany Howard's declaration that it's more important for rock bands to be "sincere" than "original," but even if those virtues really were mutually exclusive, being painfully sincere is something else entirely. C+

Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It (Matador) "I will carry on with grace/See no tears, see no tears on my face," this James Blake acolyte emotes weepily, and even if he believed in drums and guitars I still wouldn't believe him. C

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