A Downloader's Diary (23): September 2012

by Michael Tatum

Even notwithstanding skipping my August installment, this has been somewhat of a weird month: no full A records (unless I'm mistaken, a first for me) and no titles that most of my readership, such as it is, aren't hep to already -- lots of backtracking here, with many more titles still languishing the queue. The big news is the inclusion of a short "choice cuts" section, which drop the names of two great 2012 singles -- one you've heard six times this morning, and another you should hear six times before you go to bed -- on otherwise middling albums that didn't merit a takedown. I gave that honor instead to a reissue of a record from the year I was born and a tribute record to Fleetwood Mac. Like I said, a weird month -- the Dirty Fucking Projectors? If I come back in October extolling the virtues of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, I may have to begin questioning my sanity.

Francis Bebey: African Electronic Music 1975-1982 (Born Bad) Like Brian Eno, to whom he is sometimes compared, this Cameroonian is a bit of a Renaissance man -- after retiring from UNESCO's information services division in Paris in 1974, he dabbled in novels, short stories, poems, and of course music, recording upwards of forty tracks that have earned such unlikely admirers as classical guitarist John Williams. As a child, he toyed with the traditional Pygmy flute, later learned mbira and guitar, and most importantly, at around the same time he quit UNESCO, purchased an early synthesizer that he installed in his living room and gleefully presented to family and friends as a novelty, which of course at that time it was. The key to falling in love with these low-rent tunes is to embrace their chintziness -- for example, he could have hired live percussionists to put some flesh on these charming, AA-battery beats, but that would have robbed the music of its originality: what might have sounded garishly dinky in the manner of Juan García Esquivel instead miraculously achieves a strange, almost homespun affability. By juxtaposing the native instruments of his youth with these synthetic drones and squiggles, he effectuates "futurism" without indulging in the bachelor pad sci-fi trappings that inevitably date themselves. And while the French and Duala lyrics outnumber the ones in English, I won't complain, especially with the chattily surrealistic "New Track" humorously peeling off one layer after another with every listen: "There's something wrong with the system," he remarks in an instrumental break. "Everyone says so . . . so I believe it." Now, really -- what kind of slogan for the revolution is that? A–

Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran (Sham Palace) An Arab folk dance performed primarily at wedding ceremonies, dabke traditionally incorporates the lute, the mijwiz (a sort of double-reed clarinet), hand percussion, spirited chanting, and most crucially, foot-stomping, the latter element the literal translation of the word dabke from Arabic. Pumping up both live and sampled beats so that the relentless 4/4 resembles a stadium full of wigged-out football fans, this compilation from the fertile Houran region stretching across southwestern Syrian and northwestern Jordan pulsates with a potent, electrorave groove that pounds with the inexorable energy of a bull hopped up on Viagra. These six tracks culled from '90s cassette-singles would be thrillingly galvanic had they been assayed more conservatively; instead, the cacophonous, brazenly modern touches once again prove how prime Middle Eastern music is for this kind of treatment, incorporating spiky noises that at various points recall sci-fi movie laser beams, the cheers of electronically-processed munchkins, a NASCAR racer careening into a brick wall, and an ululating bungee cord jumper, all riding a singly-purposed, monotonic bass pattern that makes Dee Dee Ramone sound like Jaco Pastorius. And the appealingly melodramatic titles, many of which straddle the line between the deadly-serious and knowingly-kitschty ("Love is Not a Joke," "Your Love Made My Head Hurt," "I Will Grieve Until I See Her Again") flesh out the general concept: masking vulnerability with macho bravado, which given the genre's matrimonial mien is only apropos. More fun than slow-dancing to power ballads or cheek-to-cheeking to Tony Bennett, that's for sure. A–

Death Grips: The Money Store (Epic) This trio's chaotic, apocalyptic noise-rap polarizes reviewers, and with tangible hooks completely nonexistent until track five, figure that's the way these Sacramento rabble-rousers want it -- think of the four tracks preceding the jolting, tough-talking "Hustle Bones" as an adult-proof cap for this bottle of bitter pills. Regardless of what you've read however, the music's challenge stems not from withstanding its punishing volume levels or hearing through its abrasive dissonance, but rather negotiating its near-lack of middle ground: rumbling bass and frenetic drum samples on one end, screeching discordance on the other, with bellowing rapper Stefan "MC Ride" Burnett left alone to verbally box his way from either side. His unceasing vitriol has been extolled by his admirers as "stream of consciousness," though I would compare it to Burroughsian cut-and-paste the obtuseness of which doesn't always signify -- "Bubonic plague/Spreaded faceless/Lurking in the deadest spaces/On your knees, black goat anus" is as laughable as anything Korn's Jonathan Davis has offered up -- but the exhilaration of the music, pungent in its inarticulation, catapults Burnett's glossolalia to a level it couldn't possibly achieve on its own. Sometimes however, when Burnett flays off the pretense, his lyrics can be harrowing indeed: certainly "Hacker," with its mighty "I'm in your area!" refrain, but particularly his incendiary ode to desensitization "I've Seen Footage," which contrasts the memories he can't delete from his neural hard drive ("Hand held dream/Shot in hell," which is actually pretty good) with the ugly gift of the Internet (viral snippets of a hit and run ambulance, a little boy shooting cats). I'm reminded of the shallow irony and middle-brow distance of Sting's "Driven to Tears": "Too many cameras/Not enough food." Favoring emotion over logic, confrontation over withdrawal, I'll take Burnett's ominous information-overload in a second. A–

Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan (Domino) The first few bars of the opener -- an arch two-part male harmony defined by jarring interval jumps -- are so aurally grating I dreaded subjecting myself to these critical darlings twice, but a funny thing happened when I concentrated during repeated listenings. When wobbly tenor Dave Longstreth hands off that part to bandmates Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle, the passage steadfastly rights itself, after which the leader audibly clears his throat and croons some acceptable verse. And then the band pulls the rug under his artsong by veering into a blistering chorus that alternates between 3/4 and 5/4 -- all illustrating this collective has finally learned that prog devices are meaningless unless they provide some sort of musical or emotional payoff, a lesson that this surprising, sometimes even beautiful record showcases in song after compelling song. While Coffman and ex-band mate Angel Deradoorian's killer wails made 2009's Bitte Orca, here the band builds on that advance by marshaling a smarter sense of dynamics, unfurling Longstreth's knotty melodies so much so they could be described as straightforward, even clear. Granted, his quirky histrionics still annoy, and anyone who rhymes "bergamot" (in this context, referring to the herb endemic to North America, not the orange used in Earl Grey tea) with "guillemot" (one of several species of seabirds in the auk family) deserves the Colin Meloy Award for Shameless Doggrel. But I reserve the right to believe Coffman has encouraged him to reveal the man underneath the fop: when she dryly observes, "That made no sense what you just said" after he sings a typically cryptic line about "morbid poetry," it's just the sort of self-deprecation he so desperately needs -- I mean, this is a guy who refers to meaningful fucking as "congress," an amusing banana peel for lyric sites who think he's referring to the legislative body. And if the love songs don't convince you, the masterful "Gun Has No Trigger," about a rich man and the outside world his gated community can't keep out, does everything but call Mitt Romney out by name. A–

Greenberger Greenberg Cebar: Tell Me That Before (Pel Pel) Now seven years away from legally being designated a senior citizen himself, David Greenberger's strange journey began after graduating from art school in 1979 and accepting a position as activities director at a nursing facility in Boston. Rather than engage his charges in painting however -- something he omitted from his repertoire on his first day of work -- he began talking to them, writing and recording their conversations, later utilizing them for a series of zines, compact discs, radio shows, and public performances, the most famous of these being The Duplex Planet Illustrated, comic book adaptations of his transcripts spearheaded by Ghost World author Daniel Clowes. In all of their media incarnations, two things strike me as pertinent to this project. First, unlike fellow caretaker John Leyland Kirby's 2010 collage record an empty bliss beyond this world, Greenberger doesn't portray the aging process as dreadful or haunting, but rather kindly, as a part of the natural order, which explains why he delivers these brief, appropriated monologues himself in his genial, insurance-salesman cadence, rather than allowing us to hear their cracked, aged voices ourselves. Secondly, his delivery is straight, completely devoid of judgment or prejudice -- when one octogenarian makes the wacky claim that bowling began in Cannes under the auspices of a French dietitian, or another insists women will only eat food aesthetically appealing to them ("and that's proven behavior!"), you never get the feeling Greenberger belittles or even pities them. The austere music, mostly composed by the Coctail's Mark Greenberg with valuable assistance from guitarist Paul Cebar, enhances this respectful aura -- the marimba chattering away at the end of "Good Girl Spend It," the asthmatic bass harmonica underscoring "On the Mayflower." I'm less reminded of my mother's mother, frozen in time on her cot in my uncle's bedroom, and more of my father's mother, who never fails to tell me she's the only Democrat in her retirement home: touched only minutely by shadows, but still funny, wise, noble. A–

Himanshu: Nehru Jackets (Mishka download) I avoided reviewing Das Racist's Relax last year partly because its dense production played a large role in other critic's pans -- Ian Cohen of Pitchfork drew comparisons to De La Soul is Dead, but I'm inclined to cite the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, another one of those records so jam-packed with musical and lyrical stimuli it takes time to sort it out piece by piece. The three free solo mixtapes released from the duo earlier this year throw both its difficulty and its rewards into sharper perspective: both of Kool A.D.'s efforts suffer from their hazy disconnectedness, with the relatively more grounded 51 the more penetrable of the two. But here, with valuable assistance from DJ Mike Finito, Himanshu Suri continues sardonically blowing smoke rings around Relax's chock-a-block grooves, acerbically darting back and forth through breakneck Bollywood and Punjabi samples that never flag for a solid eighty minutes. Once again, Heems doesn't mind if his rapid-fire references bounce off your cerebrum -- even if, for example, you're unaware the album art parodies the Parle G biscuit boxes of his youth, the joke is there to amuse him and the handful of knowing Indians and Pakistanis that rank among the "nerds that buy our records." But as usual, he doles out jokes you won't only laugh at, but will enjoy hearing again, my favorite being where he neglects to rhyme this couplet in his paean to "Womyn": "They like to take showers/And when they let you take 'em with them it's really awesome." And his brutally vivid response to the Strokes' "New York City Cops" isn't funny at all, reminding us that if Julian Casablancas had come up with something more damning in 2001 than "They ain't too smart" -- like Abner Louima, assaulted and sodomized by the NYPD with a bathroom plunger in 1997, or 57-year old Alberta Spruill, who died of a heart attack after the NYPD mistakenly tossed a stun grenade into the wrong apartment -- there would have been less of a rationale to ban that song in the wake of 9/11. Suri's details of these crimes are heart-wrenching. Trayvon Martin -- who died not at the hands of the NYPD but the fucked racial profiling endemic of police and citizens alike across America -- is why they need to be remembered. A–

Elle Varner: Perfectly Imperfect (RCA) Turko-American producer Warren "Oak" Felder and protégé Andrew "Pop" Wansel paid their dues producing the likes of High School Musical grad Ashley Tisdale and Hulk Hogan's talentless daughter Brooke, finding pop success more recently with hits for Big Sean, Trey Songz, and Nicki Minaj. Chortle at that roster all you want, but I'm betting that thankless apprenticeship enabled them to hone a spunky pop/R&B that they've been waiting to match with the right artist. Enter twenty-three year old lightning rod Gabrielle Varner, graduate of NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music (voted "Most Likely to Win a Grammy" by her classmates), who comfortably slips into the Janet Jackson role to their Jam/Lewis. Like Minaj, Varner is charismatic, witty, and absolutely born to be a star, and also like Minaj, she's a hard-working, unapologetic self-promoter: Conversational Lush, her download-only mixtape from earlier this year, proves she could have expanded this eleven-cut debut without wearing out her welcome, with special mention for the outrageous "WTF," in which she catches her boyfriend with another man, then runs into a mugger who makes off with her purse. But even with that track sacrificed to the internet to keep that dreaded parental advisory sticker off the cover, there's still plenty of warmth, pizazz, and hooks left to go around -- bet Oak and Pop have been sitting on that fiddle-not-violin sample sashaying back and forth across "Refill" for years. Those who require quick conversion should proceed straight to the breathless "Sound Proof Room," in which a snazzy two-key layout, nimble bass line, and a Morse Code guitar line straight out of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" rouse Varner into belting the year's most undeniable sex jam. Not "fly" enough? Girl, are you kidding? A–

Jack White: Blunderbuss (Third Man/XL) No (male) rock critic in the world will ever agree with me, but Jack White's postmodern blues suffers sans the crude bashing of his ex-wife drummer Meg. If that sounds like crazy talk to you, consider how much of this record finds the newly solo artiste sorting through the aftermath of not their romantic relationship -- which would be a little nutty given they signed those divorce papers over a decade ago -- but rather their uncomfortably prolonged professional relationship, which their early success made increasingly difficult to sever. "I woke up and my hands were gone/I looked down and my legs were long gone" states his problem in a terse little couplet; later, two back-to-back lyrics allude to the surname he borrowed from her for his nom de rock. And the Samson and Delilah metaphor in the Blasters cover is bitterly purposeful, though what has he been robbed of, exactly? His manhood? His music? His identity? Whatever the answer, the hussy brandishing the scissors clearly isn't ex-wife number two, model/singer/songwriter Karen Elson, who provides harmony vocals throughout, and reportedly split up with him so amicably they threw a party to "celebrate" their legal dissolution. There are plently of good songs here, and catchy riffs are a given. But on some level, White must know how flatly professional he sometimes sounds without his former foil. He can chide her all he wants for "not having nothing to do." But no matter how many other female backing musicians he sucks into his orbit, it won't compensate for her loss. B+

Honorable Mentions

Henry Clay People: Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives (TBD) Emotional immaturity is one thing, musical immaturity is another ("Every Band We Never Loved," "Hide") ***

Nas: Life is Good (Def Jam) That may be true, but don't let it make you complacent ("Accident Murderers," "Daughters") **

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music (Williams Street) Pushing the envelope by impersonating Ice Cube circa 1991, denigrating a president who's been out of office since 1989, and demanding his wife not re-marry should his overblown martyr complex become a self-fulfilling prophecy ("R.A.P. Music," "Reagan") **

Santigold: Master of My Make-Believe (Downtown/Atlantic) Yes, but M.I.A. wouldn't have outsourced beats from the same indie rockers who collaborated with Amadou & Mariam ("Disparate Youth," "The Keepers") **

Usher: Looking 4 Myself (RCA) "Revolutionary pop," my ass -- merely the kind of record Chris Brown might make if Diplo and Max Martin returned his calls ("Scream," "Climax") **

Kool A.D.: 51 (Greedhead download) Das Racist joker eschews verse-chorus-verse to create a new songform: asides-asides-asides occasionally justified by a killer hook ("La Piñata," "Oooh") *

Deep Time: Deep Time (Hardly Art) Stereolab as Rough Trade signee is a great idea, but I wish the trade was a little rougher ("Clouds," "Coleman") *

Choice Cuts

Carly Rae Jepsen, "Call Me Maybe" (Curiosity, 604)

Mystery Jets, "Greatest Hits" (Radlands, Rough Trade)


Paul & Linda McCartney: Ram (Hear Music) Saddled with the Herculean task of making their charge's much maligned solo material relevant in the ears of modern day reviewers, Paul McCartney's current publicity team deserves some kind of medal -- Lord knows the man himself must be tired of churning out myriad live albums showcasing his immortal Beatles material to remind the world he once Meant Something. And yet last year, they successfully brainwashed many naïve critics into championing 1980's McCartney 2, heard at the time even by his apologists as half-assed and scatter shot, as a brave, overlooked electronica experiment (yes, the great triumvirate: Eno, Kraftwerk, Macca). Now, Jayson Greene of Pitchfork burbles, "What 2012's ears can find on Ram is a rock icon inventing an approach to pop music that would eventually become someone else's indie pop," and given that he cites Of Montreal and Fiery Furnaces as the feasibly influenced, I deduce instead the times have caught up to this record in the worst of ways. In 1971, only an artist of McCartney's caliber could have made this kind of album -- both pretentious and aimless, unfocused and ornate, an enterprise like this once required the artist to have plenty of money and time at his disposal, not to mention a label that would humor his contented insularity. But now you can achieve the same effects on your laptop for next to nothing, and judging from Pitchfork's reviews section, records as self-indulgent as this get released by the score every week. What's frustrating is that McCartney was so much better than one side of post-Beatle bitchiness that titillated fans then and most likely embarrass him now, and another of pastoral whimsy that peaks with a goddamn Buddy Holly-style throwaway about eating at home (because let's face it, even if you're a millionare, it's impossible to get good Szechuan on the Scottish countryside). So while his handlers are dreaming up ways to connect the dots between 1972's atrocious Wild Life and Animal Collective, think about the man who fondled a pig on the inside cover of Imagine: because you know damn well they wouldn't be able to sell their bullshit if he was still alive. B–

Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac (Concord/Hear Music) Unlike 1998's insipid song-by-song Rumours retread, which featured such "alternative" blandouts as Tonic, Matchbox 20, and the Corrs, this aims higher than merely matching FM perennials to contemporary superstars -- indeed, four of these covers predate the Mac's better known and universally revered late '70s lineup. In fact, because these indie-identified performers respect the band's quirkier, more experimental side (Peter Green, Tusk, "Future Games," the latter over-literalized by MGMT into a synth-drenched miasma) this boasts plenty of variety, and even a few left-field risks. But with a half point awarded to Gardens & Villa's nicely textured "Gypsy," which I'd enjoy more with the benefit of a singer blessed with actual presence, only two songs earn their reprisals: Best Coast's endearingly clumsy "Rhiannon," which renews the original by recasting it in a major key, and the New Pornographers' "Think About Me," which amps up a worthy Christine McVie obscurity. But ignoring obvious misses like Antony's, er, recitation of "Landslide," what's mostly missing is magic, which might be defined in this case as the knowledge that many of these songs were originally emoted to someone often singing and strumming on the other side of the studio, something that will occur to you in the middle of Lykke Li's cavernous, overly-overdubbed "Silver Springs." Also, if I may allow my prejudices to surface, the remaining "classic period" choices are divided unequally -- two from Buckingham, one from McVie, and ten from Nicks, whose spacey post-Rumours tracks suffered from her ex's musical disinterest. No, "Sisters of the Moon" does not improve with St. Vincent co-handling the lead vocal. B–

The Tallest Man on Earth: There's No Leaving Now (Dead Oceans) "I knew a man, his nickname was 'tall' [harmonica wheeze] He couldn't think of nothing at all [harmonica] He's not the same as you and meeee. He doesn't dig poetry. He's so unhip . . . when you say DYLAN [harmonica] -- he thinks you're talking about Kristian Matsson . . . whoever he is. The man ain't got no cultcha." B–

OFF!: OFF! (Vice) Not a one joke band, a one punch line band: to get to the other side! To get to the other side! To get to the other side! To get to the other side! B–

Twin Shadow: Confess (4AD) This just in: a reissue of the Real Genius soundtrack earns an 8.6 and "Best New Music" designation in Pitchfork. B–

Joyce Manor: Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired (Asian Man) Come to think of it, the Descendents had a touch of emo about them, too -- except they weren't so, you know, emo about it. B–

Kool A.D.: The Palm Wine Drinkard (Greedhead download) A shame he released these 51 rough drafts after the fact rather than before -- he could have fibbed it was his "dub" project and the hipsterati would have creamed in unison. C+

Gold Motel: Gold Motel (Good as Gold) Rilo Kiley knew Los Angeles from the inside, but Chicago's Greta Morgan knows it only as a tourist, which explains why all her friends are "street musicians" rather than denizens of the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. C+

Future of the Left: The Plot Against Common Sense (Xtra Mile) So much comic potential in such promising titles as "Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman," "Failed Olympic Bid," and "Polymers Are Forever" -- too bad these Welsh blowhards don't believe humor is enough to stave off inevitable global apocalypse. C

Lambchop: Mr. M (Merge) 'M' for 'maudlin' of course -- Kurt Wagner's throat catches so often you'd think Shari Lewis had her fist in it. C

2012 July 2012 October