A Downloader's Diary (25): December 2012

by Michael Tatum

My grandmother had no idea I wrote a music blog -- by the time I began writing "A Downloader's Diary" in August of 2010, she had been for all practical purposes permanently silenced by Alzheimer's, an autobiographical tidbit I utilized (one could argue exploited) for my review of the Caretaker's an empty bliss beyond this world last July. When she passed away a few weeks ago at the age of eighty-eight, she had been a hollow shell for so long that her death seemed cruelly redundant, but it still affected my family deeply. When I think of the kinetic energy she harnessed as a younger woman, I have little doubt who I can isolate as the source of my own creative livelihood -- even my love of music can be traced back to her and my grandfather, both of whom were responsible for making "De Colores" one of the first songs I loved as a child. This column is dedicated to her dynamism, her spirit, her memory, and the passion for song that binds our family together, an ardor that has become one of the bedrocks of my life: la luz que ilumina, la gracia divina del gran ideal.

Azealia Banks: 1991 (Interscope, EP) Not exactly a Youtube troller, I'm a bit late to discovering what some call the best single of 2011 -- sorry, if you're not an adorable kitty, I probably haven't seen you. Even after having owned this four-song (plus one polarizing skit) EP for several months I didn't quite register its dumbfounding achievement -- because the pleasures of "212" and its worthy company are out front and Banks' raps themselves so lickety-split, like many people I slotted this merely as "fun" and dismissively filed it on the shelf. After all, zip zip zip zip and their sixteen minutes are up and out, burying Banks' vulgarity in electrohop beats so sneakily you can understand why Samantha Cameron could enthusiastically extol a song about pussy-licking without getting too much flack from The Daily Mirror. But then I bore down on the lyrics, only to be shocked into discovering that many of them turn the usual hip hop braggadocio upside down -- accusing that brother of sucking dick down by the Hudson River by noting the jizz in his do-rag would be vile coming from Rick Ross, but in the service of demeaning him by claiming that as a woman you can lap up his boo's cunt better than he can, well, that's something new under the sun. Banks is such a cunning linguist that she gets away with shit like this line after line, so craftily that unless you parse her jive she'll go right over your head, which is the way this gleeful provocateur wants it, even when she slows down to a crawl for that Ghostface parody that everyone hates. Resenting the ostensible upward mobility of Pell Grant awardees who think they're hot shit because they eat at Chipotle rather than McDonald's would be one thing -- hating on their new found preference for white boy metrosexuals makes a little more sense. But when you play that retarded (in the musical sense, dummy) section back at "proper" speed, you'll discover it's not Banks herself (she laughs in the background) but a man, which puts another spin on that scenario entirely. What's the intention? I have no fucking clue. So I start the record over and play it again. And again. A+

Lana del Rey: Paradise (Interscope, EP) Beginning with her somewhat outrageous protestation to Billboard that she doesn't "even know any people who are musicians" (and note the deliberately adolescent use of the word "even"), Lizzie Grant strikes me as a highly calculating young woman -- the question is, do people get the joke, and does it matter if they don't? Like Nabokov (of all people) she razzes traditional Electra complex pop psychology, from "Dying young and I'm playing hard/That's the way my father made his life an art," to "I pledge allegiance to my dad/For teaching me everything he knows," and like hey-Lolita-hey she has a propensity for calling men who don't share her DNA "Daddy" (though truthfully, as a literary device that reminds me more of Springsteen's "sir"). For shock value she contrasts babyish constructions ("Jesus is my bestest friend," "treat me real niceys") with sweepingly melodramatic bits of doggerel such as: "In the land of gods and monster/I was an angel/Lookin' to get fucked hard." At first I cynically guffawed at that line, which reminded me of the unintentionally hilarious Oedipal confessions of Jim Morrison (who of course is fervently referenced, along with Springsteen, Elvis, and Marilyn). Then I dug deeper, and found plenty of redeeming correctives, such as her ironic admission she's "like a groupie, incognito, posing as a real singer," and even chuckled at her Axl Rose tell-all/reveal-nothing "Bel Air." And while I'm not sexually available to take the Pepsi challenge regarding that claim about her pussy (Azealia Banks, are you reading this?), I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that product placement negotiation, or that gynecological visit following her tête-à-tête with Marilyn Manson ("More like Listerine and green algae, young lady.") Feminist heroine? I say as an upper class woman whose first record was funded by Daddy she knows there's more than one way to be a kept woman, and if she has to sing in her chains, why not make codependent romances in trailer park palaces her metaphor of choice? "Of the king," indeed. B+

Iris DeMent: Sing the Delta (Flariella) I'm not surprised by DeMent's switch from coffeehouse guitar to tent revival piano -- when I saw her solo tour in 1994 in support of her masterful second record, she rarely strayed from basic chord shapes strumming her six string acoustic, shifting her capo up and down the fret board when switching songs/keys. Short in stature and with dainty hands to match, it's not an instrument she's born to play. But when she pulled up that bench to play those eighty-eights, it was impossible not to be struck by her fluid, expressive accompaniment -- I was reminded less of Carole King than Aretha's demonstrative opening chords to "Don't Play That Song." But even though this record represents an impossible return to form after fifteen years laying low, with only an album of gospel covers released under her own name, I'm disappointed by her avoidance of any Great Statements -- while the absolutely classic My Life addressed the death of her father, and the worthy sequel The Way I Should cast a bitter eye on the state of the nation, this record settles for humble evocations of where she came from: reasons why she left, affirmations for coming back, both on her terms. As a metaphor for her artistic life, this is apt. But stripped of that metaphor, songs like "Go On Ahead and Go Home" or "Makin' My Way Back Home" could belong to anybody. Not quite the case however with the astonishing "The Night I Learned Not to Pray," which in its own subtle way neither states a case for atheism nor even denies the existence of an afterlife -- DeMent ends the lyric with a one-way conversation with a 41-year old photograph -- but rather notes that God can be one ambivalent son of a bitch indeed. Her mother, who we're told comforted her daughter about death by suggesting Iris and not she might go first, would certainly agree. A–

Donald Fagen: Sunken Condos (Reprise) The problem with Fagen's ambitious side -- at least how I think he conceives it -- is that "avant-garde" cocktail jazz is a complete oxymoron: when he doesn't a hit a lyric just right, the music fades into the background as it might in a dentist's office or a skyscraper elevator. Perhaps Al Jarreau (or Larry Carlton, ha ha) might have a "serious" concept album in them about post-9/11 America, but who would want to hear it? That's why 2006's uneven Morph the Cat perked up at its most shallow, lapsing back into the ever-reliable dirty old man routine that's been serving Fagen well since "Hey Nineteen" convinced him that thirty-two was the new sixty-five. This takes off from that record's "What I Do" (young Don solicits Ray Charles for sex tips) and "Security Joan" (something about the way she moves that wand gets him hot), with the added thematic draw of downward mobility, or at the very least the seduction of innocents suckered in by the promise of Donald's liquid assets: no longer hunting fine foxes at the Strand or Dean & Deluca, these days he takes what he can get at bowling alleys, Looney's pub, or the reptile cage at the Washington Zoo, with a detour to the Passaic, New Jersey Best Buy to halfheartedly threaten the tech geek moving in on his latest conquest. Which is why his irresistible cover of "Out of the Ghetto" sounds like such a nasty threat, in the vein of Philip Oakey in "Don't You Want Me." Better your dirty work be done by Isaac Hayes than David Palmer, I always say. A–

Flying Lotus: Until the Dark Comes (Warp) Steven Ellison's primary innovation -- as well as his primary limitation -- is that he conceives beats, samples, melodic snippets, and other assorted sonic doodads not merely as "music," but rather as bits of information, a series of zeroes and ones randomly arrayed back to back. 2010's frenetic, jarring laptop fantasia Cosmogramma still retains its intellectual appeal over multiple listens, but not once does the music ever open up a side door to entice you in -- in Ellison's aesthetic, ideas supplant emotion, chaos displaces discernible patterns, Jackson Pollock's fractals illuminate the universe in ways that Gene Davis' resplendent ribbons do not. Described by the artist as a "children's record" (for whose children, though -- Stephen Hawking's?), this chillier, more atmospheric follow-up isn't so anxious to impress: the arrangements emphasize space, allowing the variegated elements room to breathe -- though lest the math geeks at Warp start chewing their cuticles, not so actual songs develop, and you have to give credit to someone who consigns killjoys like Laura Darlington and (sorry) Erykah Badu to the role of glorified sound effects. But it's not the guest stars that will command your attention -- it's the beats, "African-inspired" says Ellison, and though while not exactly Fela Kuti let alone James Brown, they're as hypnotic as they are austere, fluctuating from handclaps to wood blocks to old fashioned synth kick drums. I wish he had more to offer the world than cognitive dissonance. But any man who can cajole Thom Yorke into singing a bar of an old Destiny's Child chestnut has earned the right to his watery Alice Coltrane harp flourishes. A–

Homeboy Sandman: Subject Matter (Stones Throw, EP download) We respect the literary acumen of the underground rapper. We recognize his soulful thoughtfulness, his embrace of the sublime, his observations of the everyday. But what too often keeps us from playing his records is his stubbornness in adhering to principle, his refusal in acknowledging that the mind and the body really do work best in tandem -- something you can't say (lest you accuse me of sexism in my deliberate choice of pronouns) about non-bepenised emcees from skyrockets like M.I.A. to fizzles like Kreayshawn, neither of whom wastes too much time worrying about catchy hooks emasculating her manhood. From his plaintive observation "It all starts with the beat" to the more elegantly imagined "Once me and my inner ear drum agree/My adrenal gland and my organs begin to argue audibly" to the startling "Where do these melodies come from" -- melodies, in hip hop? -- Angel del Villar never lets his dedication to the word supplant his innate musicality. Claiming his songs illuminate themes (as he boasts in the liner notes) "no one has ever rapped about before in the history of rap music" would be a stretch, but in fact touches like the off-kilter string section and (is it?) Natalie Cole sample that floats through the lost love remembrance "Unforgettable" shows how smart music can ground a good lyric -- the chic arrangement exquisitely evokes the persistence of memory, yet you could also argue it undercuts del Villar's introspection with self-conscious mockery. Then there's "Canned Goods," which doesn't rely on such frills, pivoting on that astonishing pun on the word "spoils" and pithy aperçus such as: "After the earthquake in Haiti/People gave a damn for like almost a month maybe." Savor that phrase: "like almost a month maybe." Says so much with those ironically mush mouthed qualifiers. And is it musical, too? You bet. A–

Pink: The Truth About Love (RCA) I don't quite buy the autobiographical readings that have been dogging this record. Sure, Alecia Moore's marriage is shaky even by showbiz standards, but from that morning photo shoot with Shape to an afternoon working off that pregnancy fat with a personal trainer to an evening recording in the studio then hopping off late night to make an appearance on Jimmy Fallon, when in the world does she have time to barhop, get soused, and take home that Channing Tatum lookalike? (And when does she order Chinese with Kara DioGuardi and write a song called "Sober?") Nevertheless, whether these excellent songs are well-detailed reports from the front or half-remembered tour shenanigans tinted by a colorful imagination, either way they satisfactorily sum up the inner life of a turbulent romantic who likens her attention span to "an infant tryin' to crawl around." The two peaks here are a political anthem disguised as a relationship plaint -- "I know you think it's not your problem/I know you think that God will solve them" stings like battery acid -- and the addictive "Slut Like You," which turns the tables on a nightclub conquest who drinks the shots that our heroine calls. But while journeyman Butch Walker gets lucky on the former and the ever-reliable Martin/Shellback team do their thing on the latter, the record is otherwise dominated by producer Greg Kurstin, who reveals himself once again to be a bit of a tabula rasa: pretentious with Rufus Wainwright, uptight with the Shins, and absolutely supercharged here, so much so I wish he had his fingers in the tracks assisted by Eminem and Nate Ruess -- neither adds as much as Lily Allen, who opens more emotional space in her lovely bridge on "True Love" than Pink herself does in belting the histrionic closer "The Great Escape." But from doing the walk of shame down a hotel hallway in last night's dress to the morning stink of your true love's armpits to that witty parenthesis that separates the qualifying "One Last Kiss" from "Blow Me," she's earned that pesky exclamation mark. Maybe now she can talk "Lily Rose Cooper" into taking her old patronym back. A

Sebadoh: Secret EP (self released, EP) Forgive me for trumpeting this minor blip in the indie rock world -- a download-only five song EP marking the return of indie rock's purest song band -- as a Major Happening, but it's not merely the nostalgic college grad talking. I'm unfazed by the slight tentativeness of Lou Barlow's three contributions -- if this really presages the full length the band promises will appear early next year, his legendary prolificness guarantees he's hoarding the best until then, while his prevailing subject matter (the difficulty of maintaining long term relationships, a theme that surely encompasses Barlow's various estranged collaborators as much as it does his wife) suggests there's more inspiration to be drawn from that well. But the blistering "My Drugs" ("Can't hang with sober people/They scare the shit right out of me") and the lilting country ballad "I Don't Mind" had me dreamily murmuring Barlow's partner's name like I was Nick Nolte at the denouement of The Prince of Tides -- supposed second banana Jason Loewenstein adds not only the expected musical muscle throughout (heard Barlow's '00s records?) but also takes the helm as producer. As a result, this sonically resembles their touchstone, 1994's scrappy Bakesale, more than it does 1999's slicker, if admittedly underrated, swansong The Sebadoh. And thank Loewenstein for drafting his Fiery Furnaces buddy Bob D'Amico, whose rough and tumble stickwork recalls ousted drummer Bob Fay (fired for an ostensible incompetence that I never registered) more than it does his replacement, the more four square Russ Pollard, who never fit in with the game plan. Credo: "Rock my days the harder way/My body and my mind/Beautiful and old/Keep the boy alive." A–

Taylor Swift: Red (Big Machine) Once again, I'm impressed with this teenpop heroine's talent for subtly manipulating received bits of language, which despite a overreliance on nature and color metaphors frees her from the cliché that brings down so much of her less-inspired competition. Try "We are alone, just you and me/Up in your room and our slates are clean," or "We're singing in the car getting lost upstate/Autumn leaves falling down like pieces in to place," or "You tell me your past thinking your future was me," or the entire lyric of the amazing "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," which pulls off this trick with nearly every line. But if she wants to take over the world, she's going to have to hire smarter lieutenants than the snoozy Ed Sheeran and Gary Lightbody, duet partners who fail to lighten up a second half dominated for the most part by songs the artist penned without outside help. But with teenpop svengali-saints Martin and Shellback pumping up three instant winners, the first half peaks even higher than the best of Speak Now -- from Rihanna the whomping "dubstep" breakdown of "I Knew You Were Trouble" would be all too predictable, but from the relatively conservative Swift it's a welcome curveball, and either way, she's better off sanding things down to a pop sheen than wandering star struck through sunlit forests. And I love how she channels Kesha's adenoids on the delightful tribute/parody "22," which begins by dissing the hipsters she's apparently not aware love her to pieces. As even the humorless singer-songwriting icon she's slotted to portray on film must know: you turn her on, she's a radio. A–

Honorable Mentions

Ry Cooder: Election Special (Nonesuch/Perro Verde) Mitt Romney is yesterday's papers, but class warfare and Jim Crow "state's rights" are ubiquitous ("Brother is Gone," "The 90 and the 9") ***

Titus Andronicus: Local Business (XL) De-evolving from Tommy to several haphazard shots at "A Quick One (While He's Away)" ("Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape With the Flood of Detritus," "Ecce Homo") ***

Neneh Cherry & the Thing: The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound) Glad the avant jazz combo rocks, wish the pop singer swung a little more ("Cashback," "Too Tough to Die") ***

The Soft Pack: Strapped (Mexican Summer) Or: Now That's What I Call Indie Rock 2012 ("Second Look," "Saratoga") **

Van Morrison: Born to Sing: No Plan B (Blue Note) "I'm not proselytizing, it's not some kind of manifesto. Songs are just ideas, concepts, and you just put the mic there and go" -- Rock Cellar, July 2012 ("End of the Rainbow," "Educating Archie") **


Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill (Reprise) I know I'm supposed to love Neil in epic rocker mode, but with eight songs totaling nearly ninety minutes and "Driftin' Back" alone as long as "Down by the River," "Cowgirl in the Sand," and "Like a Hurricane" combined, I think I can be forgiven if my mind wanders as much as Neil's apparently does. Oddly, this is nowhere near as ramshackle as Americana -- no false starts, few mistakes, comparatively clean arrangements -- so much so I can imagine Neil editing down a two hour marathon session of "Driftin' Back," excising all the relatively duff bits until he's cobbled together an acceptable, steady-rocking 27:37, kind of like Teo Macero on Bitches Brew. But what makes it onto the record is pure nutball-uncle-in-the-corner-on-Thanksgiving territory: donations to the Maharishi, hip hop haircuts (which are what, exactly?), Picasso co-opted by "tech giants," and the corrupted dynamic range of MP3s. Much like his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, this looks back: to his marriage, to his childhood, to hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" on the radio for the first time, to (oh, dear) what the sixties generation didn't accomplish. But as with the book, it also does so superficially, saying in three, seven, twenty-five minutes what he might have accomplished in a brief Twitter post, like this response to a no-duh question posed by manuelv1695: "Do you have favorite keys in creating chord progressions to sing over?" Answer: "Yes." B

Jessie Ware: Devotion (Universal) Much like last year's Katy B record, this works both the arty and commercial angles of UK dance music ("I like both kinds of music: dub and step!"), so one can understand why the usual UK suspects are going gaga for this Jewish-Briton chanteuse's much-anticipated debut. But what's in it for Americans like Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal, who gushes she "consistently strikes [ed: strikes?] blue notes somewhere between Sade and Whitney," as if he actually has a collection from either sitting on his shelf? At any rate, I challenge him to isolate one flattened seventh note on this on this highly sterile Mercury Prize nominee, accurately described by Clash's Joe Rivers as "the missing link between Adele, SBTRKT, and Sade." Putting aside that Ware actually sings for SBTRKT (technically a null link, wouldn't you say?), this made me wonder how much of a distance there really was between Adele and Sade. A lot, actually -- Adele actually knows what a blue note is, and occasionally indulges herself one. B–

Dwight Yoakam: 3 Pears (Warner Bros.) Thinks he can be the fourth Flatlander, but he should pay better attention to his Hollywood handlers, who rarely play him against type. B–

Lupe Fiasco: Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 (Atlantic) Thank God -- finally he made a totally uncommercial record. B–

Avett Brothers: The Carpenter (American) Rick Rubin: "You guys don't have the stuff for Full Moon Fever -- let's say we shoot for Wildflowers?" B–

A.C. Newman: Shut Down the Streets (Matador) New Pornographer henchman deserves credit for the brilliant title "There's Money in New Wave," but why does he set it to music straight out of a Renaissance fair? C+

The Walkmen: Heaven (Fat Possum) They're here to tell you they've been witness to the music of the spheres: the tinny tinkle of Paul Maroon's malnourished guitar. C

Cat Power: Sun (Matador) I was going to mock her perpetual sad little rich girl routine -- then I realized she's 40. C

Rachael MacFarlane: Hayley Sings (Concord) You wisely avoided her brother Seth's show tunes fiasco, but how about this voice actress' mishmash of pop standards and sixties classics, gauchely arranged in faux-Tin Pan Alley style and dubiously connected to her hippie chick character on Americian Dad? D

2012 October 2013 January