A Downloader's Diary (21): June 2012

by Michael Tatum

By some strange confluence of events, many of the records reviewed below in the main section have attracted controversy from one rockcrit corner or another, leading many to label them "problematic" if not dismissing them outright. Such records often pique my interest even before I actually hear them, but I was surprised by how many of them I turned out liking if not downright loving. I'm not a contrarian, merely someone who often finds music more rewarding when it has to be unraveled before it can be understood. Then again, one of the reasons I love such unfairly maligned records as the Neil Young or Die Antwoord is that I don't have to work so hard to derive pleasure from them. So I hope this month's mini-dissertations inspire you to take a chance on some actually good-to-great items you may have thought twice about. If not, well, there's always De La Soul.

Amadou & Mariam: Folila (Nonesuch) The title translates into their native Bambara as "music," which in this highly cross-promoted case doesn't necessarily make the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together. A little background: originally, Mali's most famous musical couple intended to make this a double disc affair, split between one set of sessions cut in New York with a bevy of indie rock musicians, and another comprising the same songs re-recorded with traditional musicians in their hometown of Bamako -- a world music take on Shania Twain's Up!, if you will. Later, they rethought this strategy, integrating the two halves digitally (a world music take on, er, "Strawberry Fields Forever?"), a painstaking process that reportedly took longtime engineer Antoine Halet about three months. The results are as pleasurable as anything they've ever done, and because the duo has always been so openhearted and catholic in their musical approach, cynical accusations of selling out don't wash; but on the other hand, no one would be complaining if the album wasn't denser and busier than 2009's more expansive Welcome to Mali -- all of the musical elements feel jammed together. Like cheap CGI effects, the music dazzles superficially but lacks organicity -- I think I'd appreciate the boast that they eschewed westernized drum kits in favor of traditional Malian percussion if not-so-indigenous drum machines weren't constantly churning in the background. Then there's the bizarre PR nightmare of French pop star Bertrand Cantat, convicted of uxoricide (I say tomato, the French say dolus eventualis) and inexplicably paroled after serving only four years of his sentence: shunned by the French music industry, yet who somehow cajoled his way into not one, but four of this record's tracks. Oh Amadou, tu n'as pas le choix/Oh Amadou, c'est plus fort que toi, he sings tortuously, lines pitilessly lifted from so many chansons: "You don't have a choice/You can't do anything about it." The callousness of the subtext is predictable and cowardly. More importantly, Amadou and Mariam's passivity toward that callousness clouds this project -- not least because it shores up their passivity toward everything else. A–

BBU!: Bell Hooks (Mad Decent/Mishka download) Sympathetic of slam poetry as an extension of high school arts programs if not necessarily convinced its leading lights should be anthologized, I was completely caught short by the apocalyptic allegory borrowed from seventeen-year-old Malcolm London, in which a metaphorical hurricane tears through south side Chicago as teens ravage the streets armed with guns and camera phones. "This is a wake up call/So how many of you will answer," it ends, and the extraordinary mixtape that follows provides the answer: a cocky, literate, downright incendiary Chicago crew claiming to have no interest in being stars, yet who hardly tow the underground hip hop line, gleefully noting: "Too many conscious rappers need to face facts/That drug dealers happen to make better raps." An unfair generalization, you say? Maybe, but one not without a kernel of truth, and even more than their buddies in Das Racist, this collective bridges the chasm between "politics" and "fun" better than anyone since the Coup, making the oft-heard complaint they run their choruses into the ground completely moot -- did anyone hurl that complaint at Run-DMC or A Tribe Called Quest? Testifying not only for Bobby Seale and James Baldwin but also for "sisters in the struggle who fought to be seen as queens" and "young queer kids who never fit in the scene," they also wonder if Sarah Palin would still have a hard-on for the Second Amendment if fully strapped brothers showed up at a Tea Party rally. Which leads me to the "cracker" issue, a word their presumably white manager (gleefully slipping into the "Steve Berman" role in a series of three hysterical skits) counts they use a total of "48.3 times." Quaint, damn near archaic, and far less scabrous than "honky" (which appears only once, toward the end) its pointed over usage only underscores how few racial epithets there are for whites to begin with -- as Chevy Chase learned from Richard Pryor the hard way, and this trio must know all too well. And besides, their idea of outreach is sampling Nirvana and (someone alert Don Boy!) the Eagles' "One of These Nights." I wish the piecemeal production cohered a little better. But "Fuck gangsta rap/Black Power is the hardest" is a credo the hip hop world should take to heart. A–

Best Coast: The Only Place (Mexican Summer) Those who disparage this record's aesthetically conservative approach should consider Bethany Cosentino's blasé acknowledgement that two years ago, her "song writing style was pretty different" and they are now recording in "a much more professional studio" -- a purposefully banal way of cloaking the fact the debut would have sounded like this had they had the experience, the resources, the money, and producer Jon Brion. Those who laugh at the naivety of sentiments such as "I don't want to die/I want to live my life" should consider the leagues of young people who don't -- that such a statement achieves profundity precisely because it risks elitist scorn. Those who roll their eyes at the amount of time Cosentino sings the word "fun" in the cheekily breezy Beach Boys homage that opens should consider "Rockaway Beach," or at the very least, appreciate the joke that a song about the state that's got the babes and the waves sets up a concept record about the state of mind of the babe who dates the Wavves, i.e. indie fixture and Cosentino boyfriend Nathan Williams. Those who think Cosentino comes off as a long-suffering codependent should consider how many strong-willed feminist types know the gender war score intellectually even if they can't reconcile what they know emotionally -- hell, anyone who admits that both she and the object of her affections are "too lazy to make it work" can't possibly be that submissive. Those who turn their noses at the deceptively simple lyrics should consider a subversion like "You seem to think you know everything/But you don't know why I cry." And those who swoon in song that Nathan Williams "knows everything" should probably be reminded who was whose opening act. If she had -- and I do mean she -- this would be one more concept record with an end, not just a beginning, middle, and cliff-hanging question mark. A–

Cornershop: Urban Turban (Ample Play) Roughly, think of the subtitular "Singhles Club" as Tjinder Singh's equivalent of Kanye West's "G.O.O.D. Friday." As West did in the weeks before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Singh and musical partner Ben Ayres e-mailed their website subscribers six collaborative projects over a period of as many months, all of which they reprise here, augmenting them with three newbies, an encore, and a "bonus track" (what that means in this digital age, don't ask me). On the one hand, I'm delighted to have a third Cornershop record in four years, especially since the ten years preceding only generated one, but I feel two ways about their sudden burst of productivity. Perhaps I've been conditioned to expect a period of dormancy between their great records (1997 to 2002 to 2009 makes the young Lucinda Williams look like a workaholic), but there's a touch of hobbyism here, of expediency, of messing with Mr. In-Between -- though everything save the dessicated udder that is "Milkin' It" rides a good groove that sometimes the band actually puts in service of a good song, like last year's Bubbley Kaur project, there's a sense that much of this material would have been filler on their peak albums, improved in their proximity to that increasingly rare of beasts, Cornershop songs that actually feature their head honcho's lead vocals. Too bad, especially since the one classic here, the mischievous "What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?," ranks as one of their best kiddie numbers -- Singh signals a breakdown by announcing he's dropped a crayon, and amuses his primary school charges with wordplay that must signify to them as pleasurable gobbledygook even when it means something to you and me ("Doubleday books and Double gum"). Then again, maybe since he swiped the backing for that song from 2002's "Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform," maybe a little chill out time between releases should be recommended. B+

De la Soul's Plug One and Plug Two Present . . . First Serve (Duck Down) Because they've been in the game longer than other rappers of the first rank -- only Public Enemy and (we hope) the Beastie Boys have longer tenure -- De La Soul's latter-day albums have a winning maturity about them uncommon in the hip world. Songs about your newborn daughter have become the hoariest of genre clichés, but songs about being forced to explain terrorism and religious fanaticism to that daughter when she's a little older, as Kelvin Mercer a.k.a. Posdnuos a.k.a. Plug One did on 2002's AOI: Bionix? Much more unique, as almost everything else released by this Long Island crew. Still, introspection and adulthood haven't necessarily endeared themselves to the mainstream hip hop audience, who with a few exceptions never trust anyone over the age of thirty. So for this concept record about the ups and downs of a fictitious hip hop duo, Mercer and De La Soul cohort Dave Jolicoeur re-invent themselves as "Jacob 'Pop Life' Barrow" and "Deen Witter," whose rocky but loyal partnership the more ambitious Jacob sums up thusly: "Known each other since grade four and I've been cheating off his homework since grade five." The temptation is strong to compare this record to their buddy Prince Paul's 1999 A Prince Among Thieves, but not only is it funnier, starting with Deen's malapropism-loving mother ("I didn't squeeze your little ass outta me so you get shot over some east coast/west coast pork!" Jacob: "It's actually beef, Mrs. Witter."), but it's also darker, and more personal: while in the former album one comrade murders another for a hit song, here business and personal difficulties crush a friendship while the record company sits back and happily profits. Even the ironies are deeper, as the duo parlays multiple plays on the title trope, and turn "Push It Aside, Push It Along" from a promise to parents to get serious when the rap game falls through, to an anti-anthem "celebrating" music played for money not for love (while the record company sits back and happily profits). Best of all, while the Prince Paul record is nuanced like a good novel, this record, with French production team Chokolate & Khalid on the beat, is all climax all the time, from start to finish. Think they had this much juice when they were kids? They didn't -- I checked. A

Die Antwoord: Ten$ion (Downtown) Critics revile their nightmarish rap rave because at no point do Watkin Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser ever drop their masks to reveal the prankish performance artists underneath -- in one of their promotional videos, they're portrayed as dirt-poor urchins living next door to each other in a South African squatter camp with their respective parents, when in fact the real-life duo are longtime musical professionals who have a son. Artist and countrywoman Jane Alexander -- who one assumes would be hep to this -- sued them for their appropriating her anti-apartheid "Butcher Boys" sculptures for a recent video on the premise that she feared her original intent would be perverted and misconstrued, yet not only did the band delete the video from YouTube without argument, Jones noted: "These beautiful sculptures are one of the few South African artworks we are truly proud to be associated with." Likewise, it's clear their vitriol for South African president Jacob Zuma has little to do with the color of his skin than the fact he's a corrupt racketeer and unrepentant polygamist who should rightfully have been prosecuted years ago for the rape of that HIV activist. Meanwhile, their American label kicked them to the curb for DJ Hi-Tek's use of the word "faggot" in their projected single, but check out Jones' rationalization: "DJ Hi-Tek is gay . . . [he] says the word faggot doesn't hold any power over him . . . [he uses it] all the time. He's taken that word and made it his bitch" (didn't Hi-Tek's threat to "fuck you in the ass/fuck you till you love me" strike anyone at Interscope as paradoxical?). Even "Ninja"'s boasts about getting fucked up are part of the ruse -- the real life Jones doesn't even drink. In the warped skit in which he plays a creepy benefactor drooling over Yolandi, he offers her herbal tea -- how funny is that? So resist these hard beats and rapid-fire rhymes all you want -- this is some of the most exciting music I've heard all year, and that it makes the uptight politically correct side of me nervous only intensifies its aesthetic charge. And it closes with a choir of integrated South Africans singing, in what is apparently a Zulu and Afrikaans mixed criminal language, "You can't stop me." May they rake in a shitload of cash and donate a hefty chunk of it to something useful. A–

Tommy Womack: Now What! (Cedar Creek Music) The Lord forgave this Nashville-based roots rocker for nicking "Greensleeves" for the dire "A Songwriter's Prayer" by providing him his great theme: making something of failure, defined in this particular case as "not becoming a famous rock star," the "shameful" (albeit completely redundant) admission of the centerpiece of 2007's well-turned There, I Said It!. If the back-to-back exclamatory titles didn't clue you in, this record picks up where its predecessor left off, transitioning from last time's "If that's All There Is to See" (in which "seeing it all" includes touring such gorgeous Meccas as Hoboken and Omaha) to the diminished but contented sexual expectations of the absolutely graceful "It Doesn't Have to be That Good," in which Womack gently coaxes his wife to let the kid play Nintendo while they beg, borrow, and steal a little time for themselves. Because the tunes are sturdily functional rather than solid gold catchy -- Freedy Johnston's Can You Fly serves as a good paradigmatic comparison -- Womack's neurotic self-deprecation always strikes one as humble rather than maudlin, a rare trait in your standard self-absorbed singer-songwriter. Still, I could do more with his more visionary detours, represented last time by "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood," a rumination on lost youth spurned on by a concert poster, and epitomized here by a sorta-rap featuring only him and his drummer, and the rollicking "Guilty Snake Blues," both of which sneakily reference the twelve step programs that I'm betting are the reason -- more so than even the love of his wife and son -- the man's made two albums this strong in a row. A–

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Americana (Reprise) Although not normally accustomed to quoting from someone's Twitter account, I can't resist this bon mot from Rob Tannenbaum: "There will be people who like the new Neil Young album. There are also people who drink their own urine." Well, I say pull the tap and make sure there's a head on it, because this hippie weirdo has just pulled off the ultimate parlor game for jokers who complain his albums with the definitive proto-grunge trio all "sound the same." Covering twelve oldie moldies, the majority of them in the public domain, the selections range from Stephen Foster to Woody Guthrie, from "Tom Dula" to (the one ringer) "Get a Job," and include two I sung every morning before school at Rocky Ridge Elementary. Had the artiste replaced their familiar lyrics with the usual ruminations on love and war, everyone would be championing this as another classic Crazy Horse record. But in fact, I would argue the resistance to this record partially stems from precisely those sentimental childhood memories to which I just alluded, memories which Young underscores by enlisting the backing of a grade school choir that play it far straighter than the kids who hang out with Tjinder Singh. But there's a few twists, because between digging up forgotten verses and re-writing a few of his own, re-arranging chords from major to minor and sometimes discarding melodies and starting completely from scratch, these songs aren't as engraved in memory as you might remember: is the narrator of "Clementine" a tormented father or lover? Why did my second grade teacher neglect to teach us the line in "This Land is Your Land" about hungry people at the relief office? And what about that astonishing passage in "God Save the Queen" about confounding politics and frustrating dirty tricks? Damn near inventing its own genre -- let's call it campfire grunge -- Young's production hasn't been this admirably ragged in years, and one can't help but love that the Talbot-Molina rhythm section is finally in a position to juice up songs more four-square rhythmically than they are. If they're too unkempt for your tastes, get over it -- I bet David Crosby doesn't think they have the chops for that delightful Silhouettes cover, either. A

Honorable Mentions

Disappears: Pre Language (Kranky) Looking forward to their intraverbal period ("Joa," "Fear of Darkness") ***

Actress: R.I.P. (Honest Jon's) The Secret Life of Geiger Counters ("Holy Water," "Marble Plexus") ***

Regina Spektor: What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (Sire) Outweirds Tori Amos -- outcharms her, too ("Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)," "Small Town Moon") **

Rye Rye: Go! Pop! Bang! (Interscope/N.E.E.T.) M.I.A. secretly dreams of Nicki Minaj's numbers, but wouldn't dream of stooping to her commercial level, which is why she's only too happy to have this Baltimore native do her dirty work ("Sunshine," "Never Will Be Mine") **

John Mayer: Born and Raised (Columbia) He hasn't given up the shallowness of his previous life as much as chosen to wade at the opposite end of the pool ("Queen of California," "Shadow Days") *

K'Naan: More Beautiful Than Silence (A&M/Octone, EP) Takes optimism in the face of genocide a little too far ("Nothing to Lose") *


Odd Future: The OF Tape Vol. 2 (Odd Future) I resigned myself to accepting beforehand that this collective's "proper" debut would sound nothing like Frank Ocean's sublimely beautiful Nostalgia, Ultra, the finest record of 2011, and more like Tyler the Creator's baldly stupid Goblin, one of 2011's more dubious artifacts. Far more comparable to the latter in its scattered, chaotic music and reliance on tasteless shock tactics, it distinguishes itself by being completely undistinguished -- five plays and I can't tell you anything about the record other than the ninety second spoken word intro. Which I've thoughtfully transcribed for you, as it provides as good a taste as any to their scintillating poesy. [Cue muzak, with light drum machine accents] "Let me tell all you niggas a little motherfucking story real quick. Once upon a time, there was this group of dusty-ass motherfuckers, created a little group for they-selves, they called themselves 'Odd Future.' These little niggas made a motherfucking tape: Odd Future Tape Volume Two. You know, that ugly ass nigga Tyler, with his bitch ass, I should FUCK that nigga up when I see him . . . nappy ass hair. Left Brain? That nigga ugly as FUCK! Big ass nose? Syd, gay ass . . . puttin' her . . . clit on other bitches' nipples and shit, whatnot. Matt? Big ass, big ass nigga with with some small ass earrings, bald? Mike G, crusty ass? My nigga Earl, ugly as FUCK! Let's have a moment of silence for that nigga real quick. [brief, merciful caesura] Fuck silence, fuck that! My nigga Jasper, dirty fat ass, that nigga's boxers STANK! My nigga Frank? [another meaningful pause, disgust clearly building up in the face of actual talent] Fuck, fuck Frank nigga, fuck you! Taco? Ohhhh . . . young bitch-ass, I should . . . aw, fuck, I hate all these niggas! And you know, that little short, gay, light-skinned nigga Hodgy and that fat ass nigga Domo? Let me jes [blows disdainful raspberry]. C–

The Chap: We Are Nobody (Lo Recordings) "Writing's for cowards/Talking's for men/Cowards write songs/And never do what needs be done." B

Gotye: Making Mirrors (Universal Republic) This Australian-by-way-of-Belgium's music and singing have been compared to Phil Collins, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Toto -- and this is from his supporters. C+

Claro Intelecto: Reform Club (Delsin) Este intelecto no está claro tanto como vacío. C+

Garbage: Not Your Kind of People (Stunvolume) They swipe the hook for lead single "Blood For Poppies" from, I shit you not, Laura Brannigan, from whom they also could have learned subtlety, or perhaps borrowed a slightly less bonkers mastering engineer. C

Kimbra: Vows (Warner Bros.) Easy to stuff your songs to the gills with arrangement ideas when they're totally empty. C

PS I Love You: Death Dreams (Paper Bag) As I write this letter, over the blare of arena indie in the Lincoln Tunnel . . . C–

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