A Downloader's Diary (22): July 2012

by Michael Tatum

Rock critics and rock critic-o-philes love guessing what records will win, place, and show in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll. Below, you'll find four picks that I'm fairly certain will wind up in the top ten, including the winner, with the Beach House record my only deviation from conventional wisdom. Perhaps because lately I've been so deluged with good music, I haven't had much time or patience to clear out much material for the Honorable Mentions and Trash sections, which for the last two months or so have been relatively scant. Trust me, if you wasted six plus hours of your life to that goddamn Fela Kuti live record you'd want to reward yourself with more worthwhile stuff, too.

Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Clean Slate) Like so many singer-songwriters, male or female, young or old, Fiona Apple is a narcissist -- if she's broken up with a guy named Jonathan, you can bet his name will grace a song title, and you shouldn't be surprised when she packages the resulting album with samples of her own "therapeutic art," scrawlings so dreadful they make Joni Mitchell look like Van Gogh. But what separates Apple from Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Suzanne Vega, and the like, aside from an awesome talent never quite in such sharp focus until this record, is that she has no interest in pretending to be nicey-nice -- she candidly owns her own massive failings and screw-ups, could care less about playing the doe-eyed ingénue, and delights in casting herself as the madwoman in the attic, provided you pay attention to the noise she makes on her floor/your ceiling. Plus, she actually has a sense of humor, something that absolutely eluded Joni Mitchell, from "I could liken (lycan?) you to a werewolf" to "I guess I just must be a daredevil/I don't feel anything until I smash it up," from rhyming "orotund mutt" with "moribund slut" to admitting "I'm a tulip in a cup/I stand no chance of growing up," all the way up to the irresistible novelty number in which she slyly offers you to cut her butter with your hot knife. And then there are the pleasures of the music, not merely those hip hop touches, expressed more in odd noises and sounds rather than the standard banal guest rapper, but her piano style, which regardless of its harmonic sophistication, in its approach to play reminds me of my high school friends and me fucking around during lunchtime on the choir room piano, devising songs to amuse each other. Think stuffing your album title with twenty-four words is pretentious? So does she -- the joke's on you. A

Beach House: Bloom (Sub Pop) Although admittedly not exactly a dream pop aficionado by nature, I know my resistance to this Baltimore duo's allure stems not from objecting to Victoria Legrand's mildly depressive temperament, but rather from her unusual detachment from it in song. "Help me to name it," she sings, as if holding this curious, strange new emotion to the light, turning it between her fingers, cataloging the nuances of each facet. Her sadness isn't the standard metaphorical "blue," but the more consciously arty "lapis lazuli." She observes of a break-up, "Other people want to keep in touch/Something happens and it's not enough." Though I don't subscribe to the idea that you have to "relate" to an artist to "get" them, this sort of compartmentalization of your feelings is so foreign to me that part of me suspects I resent her for being able to do it. Now I realize such judgments are not only unfair to Legrand as a person -- experience being relative, after all -- they also ignore the uncommon gorgeousness of the music, deeply affecting where 2011's Teen Dream settled for merely pretty. Without renouncing the basic harmonic simplicity of their previous work, the arrangements are now more expansive, slow-moving tidal waves riding the hypnotic pull of Daniel Franz's detailed drum loops. Although the music is even more beholden to electronic manipulation, there's something charmingly faux-organic about it: the "tin can" beats underneath "Myth," the "toy xylophone" that tinkles through "Lazuli." And though I'm mystified how a contralto this devoid of carnal suggestion could ever move any music scribe to describe it as "sultry," Legrand's cautious scalar ascensions and descensions, punctuated by the occasional glissando, are well-matched to her lyrics, which relinquish overweening metaphor in favor of straightforward language. Though when she sends off a lost love to a "strange paradise" where the next woman lies in wait, you have to wonder what runs though her mind when the song is over. A–

Clams Casino: Instrumental Mixtape 2 (free download) The biggest mystery about Mike Volpe's highly in-demand production work is why he donates so much of it to second-tier rappers. The best way I can rationalize it, working on the fringes enables him the widest amount of creative freedom possible, though why would he feel the need to leak two download-only instrumental sets if he truly respected what Lil B and Soulja Boy did with his handiwork? Though Volpe would benefit from the discipline of a major label -- one that would encourage his creativity, allow him to challenge himself, and yet force him to work within certain strictures -- there's no denying that this sequel represents a major step forward: those who found last year's batch of rescued backgrounds a little obtuse or soupy will have no problem accessing these more user-friendly pieces. It's no secret that Volpe mines inspiration from the feminine -- two very different tracks employ the same Imogen Heap song, though as with the Lana del Rey and Washed Out "remixes," not so you'd actually recognize the original source material -- but like many admirers, I'm shocked how much some of this approaches New Age antecedents: Enya, Enigma, even those damn Benedictine Monks. What makes him superior are those spellbinding beats: sluggish but authoritative, spaced-out but dragged through mud. Best of all, this includes my favorite Volpe track, the absolutely entrancing "Unchain Me," the rare instance you might conceivably identify the sample. The implication? If he can do this shit with an overblown track from the teen vampire flick The Lost Boys, he can do it with anything. A–

Lotus Plaza: Spooky Action at a Distance (Kranky) If you've resisted this Deerhunter spinoff, I fully sympathize -- although somewhat won over to that band's woozily alluring Halcyon Digest, Bradford Cox's pretensions (the Atlas Sound solo project, his one-hour Andy Kaufmanesque "My Sharona" piss-take) are often more fun to read about on blogs than actually listen to. But this nifty little record doesn't belong to Cox but rather his guitarist cohort Lockett Pundt, who gives up more shimmering hooks here than he does for his day job, worthy of Dean Wareham or Martin Phillipps, radiating a seductive beauty that brings to mind Tennyson: "And deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake/And music in his ears his beating heart did make." Although Pundt deliberately (and predictably) obscures his words via his nerdy baritone and lo-fi production, if you're patient enough to penetrate the music's attractive surface you'll discover that much like the mariners in that masterful poem, Pundt's dream world of beguiling, captivating melody is his anodyne for coping with the uncertainties of the outside world: a relationship threatened by distance, a friendship destroyed by drug use, days when "there's no going back" and it seems "you're on your own/there's no one else." But despite his rather offhandedly mesmerising gift for tune -- a complete surprise after the amorphous noodling of this project's 2009 debut proper -- what really made me take notice of all this was, of all things, the drumming, which while not powerful in the conventional sense, carries the music with a hypnotically bracing pulse. You'll wonder why Pundt doesn't recommend his band mate to his Deerhunter buddies. Then you'll peruse the liner notes and realize there's a reason for that: he's already in Deerhunter. He's the guitarist. A–

Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Def Jam) Even if Ocean had second-guessed outing himself and altered the pronouns and details in the last three songs here from the masculine to the expected feminine, this would remain an audacious, courageous record. He eschews sampling not because he fears late night visits from Don Henley's team of lawyers -- really, if Coldplay are willing to give away "Strawberry Swing" for free, one would figure anyone would have given Ocean eight bars for a chunk of the publishing -- but because he's been there, done that, and moving on. Having hooked the indie rock audience by playing pomo games with MGMT and the Eagles, he's now more interested in pushing the envelope of the music he grew up with, meaning not just Marvin and Stevie but D'Angelo and Maxwell -- i.e., form-free R&B, with the mid-tempo beats, non-linear melodic sensibility, and atmospheric arrangements that implies. In other words, he's asking both halves of his audience to meet him in the middle, on his terms. And once he's drawn you into his world with his seductively exquisite music, he'll captivate you with songs that empathize with strippers and moshers and crack addicts, take swipes at the idle rich, and denigrate any "bad religion" that forces him to his knees for professing his love for a man. Intelligent, humane, and absolutely fearless, you'll root for "Forrest Gump" to give him a second chance. A

Plug: Back in Time (Ninja Tune) I'd forgotten how much I had loved drum 'n' bass in theory: its sputtering beats, relentless loops, metallic arrangements, and sanded down chunks of noise, although perhaps I would have loved it more in practice had many of its practitioners hadn't fallen short of that ideal and tended toward John Williams, James Bond soundtracks, and nineteenth-century Romanticist twaddle. I didn't take much notice of Luke Vibert at the time, partly because there was so damn much to wade through, but also because he didn't fall neatly into any dance subgenre: like his buddy Richard James, Vibert straddled the line between workaholicism and releasing every last self-indulgent minute he committed to tape, not only under his own name, but also under the aliases Wagon Christ, for his trip-hop/ambient output, and Plug, for drum 'n' bass. You won't be disappointed if you spin his well-regarded, 1996 Drum 'n' Bass for Papa, which for me was lost in the IDM deluge and sounds pretty good now, even if the only moment that sticks in my brain is his sample of John Goodman's frenzied tirade from Barton Fink, erased from Nothing Records' 1997 reissue (and too bad -- "I'll show you the life of the mind!" really says it all, don't you think?). This vault-clearing of contemporaneous material has been dismissed as redundant in some quarters, but not only are the beats denser, busier, and more hectic, the samples are wilder and woollier, folding in -- and this is merely a partial list -- a rumbling timpani, a tip-toeing harp figure, a snake-charming flute, a Speak and Spell, James Brown concert patter, an uncomfortably bizarre male orgasm, a cheesy electric sitar figure more B.J. Thomas than Brian Jones, the "running away" sound effect from Scooby Doo, the cyborg stewardess from Eastside Connection's "Frisco Disco," and the hypnotic suggestion that "You might become aware of your anus or genitalia." A pretty direct admission that the life of the mind is infinitely richer when the extremities cooperate. A–

Patti Smith: Banga (Columbia) It's become so de rigueur for rockers over the age of sixty to devote whole albums to mourning their own mortality it's startling to hear one unapologetically celebrating discovery, transcendence, and hope. Punk rockers have always exulted in ringing in the new while tearing down the old, and indeed part of me muses this record's fearless embrace of undiscovered countries both literal and figurative is appropriate for a woman who pledged much of her early career to reveling in post-apocalyptic vision. But this only makes for good copy. I imagine the real reason is more simple: she's a woman. More specifically, she's a woman who views her children, both biological and spiritual, not as competition or a reminder of her waning potency, but rather as "the hope of the world, embarking on adventures of their own." Those poignant words culminate her astonishingly gorgeous liner notes, which offer a more evocative view of her introspective journey than mere printed lyrics would have, looking both forward and backward to progenitors and inheritors alike, including not only art heroes like Mikel Bulgakov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Sun Ra, Maria Schneider, and Michelangelo Antonioni, but even Johnny Depp and Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins. But she's not just dropping names like she used to when she was a kid -- there's a sense of gratitude, humility, and grace, accompanied by calmly majestic singing and music that unquestionably signifies as the most nakedly beautiful of her career, only more remarkable when you register how many of the songs utilize only a handful of chords, or like the hypnotic title track or the titanic epic celebrating Piero della Francesca, ride galvanically mesmerizing drones. "All is art," she wails, and of course, we've heard that before. But how about "All is future?" She won't see that future -- neither will you or I. But as the recontextualized Neil Young cover illustrates so lovingly, by necessity and by right, the future does not belong to us. A

Le Super Borgou de Parakou: The Bariba Sound (Analog Africa) The capital of eastern Benin's Borgou Department, Parakou is home to at least fifteen distinct ethnic groups; its name is derived from a Dendi word that translates into "the city of everyone." Benin's independence from France in 1960 promised democracy, but after a decade of turmoil marked by multiple regime changes, a weakened three-person "presidental council" crumbled, replaced by a brutal military dictatorship run by Mathieu Kérékou, who drove out foreign investment, crippled the educational system, ran the occasional sham election, and generated state revenue by turning his country into France's nuclear waste dump. It's against this backdrop that guitarist/bandleaders Moussa Mama Djima and Menou Roch conceived this superb Afro-funk powerhouse, which The Quietus' Richie Troughton claims mixes native folk influences with the usual American R&B appropriations, but my less savvy ears hear as a deft combination of highlife and Afrobeat, both exports of neighboring Nigeria. Hook hounds should note that these guys love to decorate their songs with catchy chants, and even if the rhythms aren't as polyrythmically insinuating as Fela or Adé, drummer Bori Borro does have a bag of tricks, my favorite being the rug-yanking change-up he pulls off on the opening "Gandigui." And while the limited vocabulary of the organist could easily have been disguised if they'd distorted the sound a little bit, the guitar playing is remarkably imaginative given its primitive mien, particularly in a passage that mimics a violin played pizzicato. And then there's the incendiary, endlessly repeatable "Abakpé," which wonders what Carlos Santana might have sounded like if he had forsaken John Coltrane for James Brown. A–

Honorable Mentions

Japandroids: Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl) Remember last night's keg and bong blowout? Remember when, remember when? ("Evil's Sway," "The House that Heaven Built") ***

Rhett Miller: The Dreamer (Maximum Sunshine) If only if he had the kind of ego and/or imagination that would inspire him to title his next record The Arranger ("Marina," "Swimming in Sunshine") **

Saint Etienne: Words and Music by Saint Etienne (Universal) Sarah Cracknell feels a right to the memories of her misspent youth because she knows she's now almost a memory herself ("I've Got Your Music," "Tonight") **

Metric: Synthetica (Mom + Pop) Boasts she's as "fucked up as they say," but fails to provide us with much corroborative evidence ("The Wanderlust," "The Void") *


Fela Kuti: Live in Detroit 1986 (Knitting Factory) Comprising four, er, "songs" lasting 29:33, 40:35, 34:06, and 38:57, this has to be the most appalling example of rockcrit sycophancy in recent memory. "You'll wish you'd been there," avers BBC Review's Steve Chick. "You'll wish it would never end." "[It] provides an exhilarating reminder of his presence as a live performer," swoons The Guardian's Robin Denselow. Inspiring the very first Downloader's Diary Throwdown: I challenge either of these clowns to upload a video of themselves listening to this two-CD document all the way through, from start to finish, without getting up, yawning, twiddling their thumbs, pounding their fists on the table, puncturing their eardrums with gardening shears, or displaying any other body language indicators of boredom, tedium, or mercy-begging. The prize: I will put you up in any Nigerian hotel, seven days and seven nights, all expenses paid (note: A Downloader's Diary is not responsible for any theft, kidnapping, or murder you may experience. Quarter at any foreign embassies is exempt from this offer). Fela was many things: icon, rabble-rouser, sloganeer, and sometimes, great bandleader. What he was not was a brilliant improviser on the electric piano. Four songs. Two hours and twenty minutes. Think about it. C

Carrie Underwood: Blown Away (Arista Nashville/19 Recordings) "Thank God for hometowns/And all the love that makes you go round/Thank God for the county lines that welcome you back in/When you were dying to get out/Thank God for Church pews/And all the faces that won't forget you" -- vomit, vomit, vomit, vomit. I mean, why not "Thank God for Gucci handbags/Dinner at the French Laundry/Thank God for Prada one-pieces/And a mansion on the hill?" Because after all, pandering to your target audience about the former batch of platitudes makes access to the latter bunch of goodies possible (and now that I'm on it, why not make explicit God is some combination of Clive Davis and Simon Cowell?). In any case, if the airbrushed vixen on the cover didn't clue you in, the record that Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz unironically glows is her "most stadium-rock-friendly album yet" doesn't suck up to the country audience as much as it does the more potentially lucrative American Idol audience -- you can tell, because she doesn't sing as much as yell, showing up the title as not meaning "impressed" so much as "deafened by cavernously loud volume." A pity, considering she's clearly (and clumsily) toughening herself up on what's essentially a Miranda Lambert move. Though to be fair, Miranda would have passed on the one in which Carrie faces down Cupid in a Mexican standoff -- which Carrie's hyperactive emoting only makes even more patently ridiculous. C+

Bobby Womack: The Bravest Man in the Universe (Honest Jon's) He once was lost, and now he's still lost. B–

Alt-J: An Awesome Wave (Infectious) If Radiohead specialized in madrigals, but replaced Thom Yorke with two Gary Numans. C+

Screaming Females: Ugly (Don Giovanni) Babe in Progland. C+

Royal Headache: Royal Headache (What's Your Rupture?) Described by the indie rock blogosphere as garage rock with "white-soul" vocalizing, the latter of which Pitchfork's Paul Thompson favorably compares to such "greats" as (find the ringers) Rod Stewart, Sam Cooke, young Roger Daltrey, Argybargy-era Glenn Tilbrook, and . . . Robert Pollard. C+

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