A Downloader's Diary (28): March 2013

by Michael Tatum

It would be downright unprofessional for a rock critic to blame his occasional unpunctuality on "writer's block," but every now and then it certainly does feel that way. Then again, as far as inspiration goes, the artists aren't helping -- this has been an exceptionally dry month, and only one record in my current top ten is likely to be there by year's end. Maybe late March is a little too soon to declare an arts world recession, but I sure hope things pick up soon.

David Greenberger/Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound: They Like Me Around Here (Pel Pel) Commissioned by Sheboygan, Wisconsin's John Michael Kohler Arts Center for "Hiding Places," a multimedia exhibition devoted to exploring the relationship between art and memory, David Greenberger's newest batch of spoken word pieces based on conversations with octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians doesn't differ thematically from anything he's curated previously. But with a real live backing band supplanting multi-instrumentalist Mark Greenberg's overdubs, Paul Cebar's arrangements are more playfully interactive than those on 2012's Tell Me That Before, and although Mac Perkins' bluesy call-and-response routine on that father-son recollection evoke Saturday Night Live at its corniest, in fact vaudevillian humor enlivened by the delightfully sideways logic of his geriatric charges is the idea: is "Nemo" a gender appropriate name for a female butterfly? Are "sentimentality" and "utilitarianism" really polar opposites? And would a father in Newton, Illinois really send for toys in nearby Quincy to perpetuate his children's belief in Santa Claus? I object to "The Thrill," in which we are set up to expect a tawdry sex story and in fact get a profound meditation on skydiving, mainly because the original speaker clearly didn't intend the double entendre implied by Cebar's musical misdirection. But I'm absolutely amazed by a piece in which a narrator's mother secretly votes for the first time in Woodrow Wilson's 1912 presidential election. At least I think it's 1912, because 1916 was Wilson's re-election. But wait a minute: only nine states (none of them Wisconsin) allowed women to vote that year. And Wilson didn't come out for women's suffrage until 1918, when political pressure forced him into it. Come to think of it, only Theodore Roosevelt included women's suffrage in his platform, and he split the Republican vote with Howard Taft, one more shift to the red state-blue state schism we're stuck in today. So who got her vote? That's the poignant, regrettably fragile thing about our memories -- we may never know, even when we think we do. A–

Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose (Warner Bros.) No matter how many longtime residents of the 37203 zip code you might suspect are hiding up in the rafters pulling Hippie Annie's strings, it's Monroe's youthful sensibility -- indeed, the sensibility she shares with Kacey Musgraves and her Pistol Annies cohorts -- that rejuvenates these agreeable variations on the usual workaday moon-June-shotgun honeymoon tropes. Vince Gill's sparkling neo-trad production, fine as it is, could be anybody's (and often has been), and the nine outside song doctors do aid and abet Monroe's treatment of the standard Music Row subjects (paying the rent, unwanted pregnancy, good girl gone bad), but Monroe gets more mileage out of their meddlin' than someone twice her age precisely because at this point in time, mapping out the lives of working class post-millennial kids is undiscovered country. And with Miranda Lambert the exception and most likely the linchpin, not since the halcyon days of Dolly and Loretta has someone in this notoriously patriarchal genre this young gotten away with expressing her irascible self rather than solely depending on some hack to hand her a script, something you can't say about Kellie Pickler or (God knows) Carrie Underwood. Admittedly, Dolly and Loretta had a better developed sense of humor: although the karaoke contest in the gratifyingly broad Blake Shelton duet "You Ain't Dolly (and You Ain't Porter)" becomes even more amusing when you remember who wrote "I Will Always Love You" and for whom, the two cheeky Fifty Shades of Grey references are asinine if not downright repugnant. Let's be frank: the male protagonists in the current tidal wave of erotica are billionaires because when a rich man hits you, it's sexy, but when your trailer park sweetie hits you, it's domestic violence, a "distinction" that the author of "Gunpowder and Lead" would clear up straight away. But when Monroe abjures puns and novelty -- virginity lost in a painfully observed ballad, secret lovers treating each other cruelly in public -- you'll know who gives the Pistol Annies their soul. In the meantime, I await Angaleena Presley's solo album. A–

Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury Nashville) As reality show singing competitions go, Nashville Star is no less meretriciously sappy than American Idol, yet it's somehow managed to produce two major artists where Idol has only squeezed out (and let's be kind here) around 0.5. Although I missed Miranda Lambert's television debut in season one (I caught up the year after, when the presumably predominately female viewership voted for snoozy Brad Cotter and George Canyon over endearingly goofy Roger Miller disciple Matt Lindahl) my best explanation for that statistical anomaly is that unlike Idol, which grooms contestants for the stultifying eventuality they will have little control over what minuscule career lays ahead of them, Star encourages versatility: singing of course, but also, crucially, songwriting. This native of Sulphur Springs, Texas (season five, finished seventh out of a field of nine) hasn't yet cultivated a distinctive vocal style, which may explain her disappointing placing. Instead, she lets her pleasing but plain-jane alto serve as the vehicle for her impressive songwriting, which though Musgraves herself would deny it, bucks traditional country hits-plus-filler philosophy by adhering to the Taylor Swift strategy, i.e., cultivating a strong batch of top ten potentials. In fact, despite Musgraves' downwardly-mobile greasy-spoon-waitress-makes-good aura, such homiletic bromides as "Silver Lining" and "Follow Your Arrow" sit firmly in the Swiftian tradition, except the more worldly Musgraves a) has no qualms shooting down sexist double standards, and b) extols bongloads and boys (". . . .or girls, if that's what you're into") as a corrective. You could argue there's more to heaven and earth than what is dreamt in her somewhat narrow philosophy, that dulling the pain of small town boredom with sex, dope, and consumer culture is no way to get off the merry go round common to blue states, as well as red. I say after years of Stepford blondes this twenty-four year old is a step in the right direction, and that's she's just getting started. A–

The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network) Perhaps Senegal is on my mind because of that Rough Guide compilation I reviewed last month, but comparing that West African nation's music to the cumbia-exporting countries of Colombia, Venezuela, etc. is instructive. Though heavily influenced by that style, the Senegalese music scene is highly competitive: artists vie for the top spot in national contests, ensembles compete against each other to snare a job as a nightclub's house band, with individual members often defecting when a particularly good opportunity presents itself -- or, at least that's how it's always seemed after years of reading dramatic liner notes. By contrast, South American musicians aren't tribal so much as communal, often playing on each other's records, toiling for the handful of labels that dominate the market -- note that the majority of the songs on this compilation are borrowed from the cumbia kingpins at Disco Fuentes. I don't know what that says about Latin-African cultural differences, but I do know that on a good mbalax compilation, songs leap out, fight to distinguish themselves. On a good cumbia compilation -- like this one -- the songs string together seamlessly, with few clunkers spoiling the party, yet few tracks where you say to say yourself, "Oh man, I gotta hear that one again." Excepting the irritating opener "La Guacharaca" (named after the percussion instrument that supposedly inspired it, though "La Fluta" or "El Hustle" might be more appropriate, if anachronistic) this survey is as listenable as any I've ever heard, but boasts no peaks or climaxes, even when the music incorporates "rock" or even "hip hop" elements as a corrective to its inherent gentility. That's why I hope some smart person lassos up more of the artist on the (once again) excellent bonus disc from Los Corraleros de Majagual, whose plentiful hooks are as cheap as their esmoquines. I'll take a chatty accordion over a long-winded flute any day. A–

Salva: Odd Furniture (Friend of Friends, EP) Paul Salva's 2011 debut Complex Housing isn't exactly a wash beat-wise, but it nevertheless suffers from the same musical vagaries that plague so many up and coming laptop musicians. This 5-track quickie, the title of which I can only assume is a snide jab at Tyler, the Creator's quickly disintegrating Ottoman empire, snaps to attention in the first bar with an enticing lickety-split rhythm that loops yet another obscure rapper you've never heard of: "You at the club/Every weekend/Bitch/Get a life," which even before the sampled cuíca and cell phone join the fun signal Salva's game: stupid dance music for smart people. Sure, you could complain about Salva dropping the b-word yet again into the hook for the next song, but who can resist the percussive drive of what suggests a dozen typewriters clacking in unison, accented by the whirr of a camera's rapidly advancing motor drive? Boosters insist that hip hop has always been one weapon in this producer's arsenal, but I'm betting his popular 2012 dancefloor remix of Kanye West's "Mercy" convinced him that a heavier dose of it would imbue his two-step with some much needed personality. There are some of those for whom a hook like "back back back back back back it up" repeated over and over at least a hundred times would be akin to Chinese water torture. If, like me, you're one of those people who would blast such a song over and over at the expense of your significant other's mental health, you know what to do. A–

Serengeti: Saal (Graveface) I conceive Dave Cohn as sort of a hip hop John Cheever, constantly churning out snapshot vignettes illuminating the details of his place and time, with subcultural ne'er-do-wells replacing the gin-and-tonic set. Unlike Cheever however, whose main outlet still publishes forty-seven times a year, it's probably difficult to convince your otherwise sympathetic record label to pop out another dozen or so songs every time you're ready, nor will beatmasters always have copacetic beats lying around with which to frame your never ending cascade of stories. Nevertheless, the inexhaustible Cohn leapfrogs from collaborator to collaborator, label to label, exhibiting productivity so fecund you wonder why Ryan Adams even bothers. Here he's once again in avant-mode, teaming up with German minimalist musician Tobias Vethake, who provides sparse arrangements consisting of guitar, bells, and cello, against which Cohn sets some of his bleakest narratives: a lazy boyfriend who manipulates his codependent girlfriend from the comfort of his couch, a sorry creep who crashes an ex's wedding wearing a clown nose, a husband who wishes he could redo a ruined evening with his wife, who's most likely lying in the next room as he ruminates in self-pity. The wordplay is so astonishing it would be a shame if his fans lost them in the stillness of Vethake's subtle settings: an abusive mom who gives her karate-loving son "belts and stripes," a pimp who hates tennis because of "the rackets, the courts, the scoring/the time honored tradition." Think Cohn can keep this up for another thirty years, until someone consolidates his greatest hits in one capacious volume? Ask me again in three months. A–

They Might Be Giants: Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce) In the bizarro world of Brooklyn's John Linnell and John Flansburgh, catchy tunes are like prime numbers: a multitude endlessly spiraling into infinity, mind-bogglingly random in their pattern, and when a new one is discovered, only MIT students give a shit. But though their cleverness quotient is such one figures they might one day prove Riemann's Hypothesis, it hasn't made for great longplayers since their 1986 indie debut, nor have they been able to take full advantage of the band they hired when they realized two men and a drum machine wasn't enough, and the pabulum albums they've released on their own label in the past decade have failed to make a case for autobot autonomy. That's what makes this record such a mindbender -- a dizzying song cycle suggesting the second side of Abbey Road infused with the spirit of Weird Al's polka medleys that dazzles whether the song length is three minutes or thirty seconds. While it goes without saying your subconscious won't know what to wake up humming the next morning, it's worth noting that while their usual modus operandi is to load up their tunes into an airgun, fire away, and see what sticks to the wall, here the tunes aren't just means without ends, they're often appropriated for devious cross-purposes: a sweetly meandering melody for a nonchalantly amoral drone pilot, a poignantly touching threnody for Nikola Tesla, two indelible bars of a saloon-styled singalong protesting Lyme Disease. The bouncy "You're On Fire" proves they've had sex enough times to figure out how to craft an irresistible dance song. In "Stone Cold Coup D'état," they don't just employez une expression étrangère quand anglaise suffira -- they do it twice! And in the rollicking, outrageous, and oh-so-true "Call You Mom" Linnell unashamedly dons a sailor suit and gets down to business with his own Oedipal Complex. The men don't know, but the perpetually boyish nerds understand. The men are missing out. A

Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni) While this unquestionably eclipses American Weekend's hollow bedroom demos, it would be hyperbole to claim former P.S. Eliot bandleader Katie Crutchfield has suddenly transformed her new brand from an art project into a working band. For one thing, the bass and drums -- both commandeered by roommates, one of whom happens to be her boyfriend -- drop in casually and intermittently: she arranges her opener solely for her voice and electric guitar, adds unobtrusive bass and tom-toms to the one that follows, and in both you forlornly wish the assertive crack of a snare drum would jolt the music out of its blankly wide-eyed detachment. Of course "intimacy" is one of Crutchfield's cardinal selling points, much like the early Liz Phair, who Crutchfield resembles in both her vulnerable candor and flattened alto, and certainly Exile in Guyville had its share of austerity, mooniness, woolgathering. But Phair also possessed a shrewd talent for pacing -- on Guyville, the startling immediacy of "6'1"" and "Help Me Mary" grab your attention before segueing into more challenging, nuanced material. Here, Crutchfield rounds out her first half with the loping brushstick pattern of the vaugely country-flavored "Lips and Limbs," another solo turn, then a slow-burning dirge where bass and drums provide the only accompaniment. It's not until track six -- a relationship metaphor disguised as tour van reminiscence, scuzzed up with grungy swirls of electric guitar -- that the players quit fooling around and start acting like a real band, and that song ends prematurely after an economic verse-chorus-verse in 1:46. Yet because Crutchfield no longer sings as if emoting to an opened guitar case or the dirty clothes littering her bedroom floor, now you can finally absorb her highly literate, deeply personal lyrics -- a bitterly observed wedding, an unnerving heroin confession, repressed anger boiling over on the blistering "Misery Over Dispute." And while I'm not sure the meaning of life is learning to "embrace the lows," there's enough spirit in her that I'm betting -- hoping, anyway -- that she rights herself before that swan dive into the asphalt. A–

Honorable Mentions

Wussy: Berneice Huff and Son, Bill Sings . . . Popular Favorites (Shake It free download) Sort of like the Beatles' Live at the BBC, except, well, the Beatles never gave it away for free ("Nomenclature," "Retarded," "Runaway") ***

Chelsea Light Moving: Chelsea Light Moving (Matador) Finds out the hard way that muculent riffs and laughably ersatz beat poetry are no way to sever the Gordonian knot ("Sleeping as I Fall," "Lip") **

Nuru Kane: Exile (Riverboat) Well-traveled Senegalese singer-songwriter-bassist does a little bit of this, a little of that, but sometimes I just wish he'd settle for making me dance ("Afrika," "Bayil") **

Marcos Valle: Previsão do Tempo (Light in the Attic) Brazilian singer-songwriter's unearthed 1973 record delights when it presages Tom Zé, intrigues when it celebrates classic tropicalia, and annoys when it blithely sails on The Love Boat ("Mentira (Chega de Mentira)," "Nem Paletó Nem Gravata") **

Richard Thompson: Electric (New West) Siobhan Maher Kennedy plays the Linda role, but not so much Richard would cede her an album credit ("Another Small Thing in Her Favour," "Where's Home?") *

Golden Grrrls: Golden Grrrls (Slumberland) I know there's no money or glory in being labeled the rightful heirs to Standard Fare, but they could up their Kelly Blue Book value by doling out their cute melodies one at a time ("Time Goes Slow," "Date It") *


The Bryan Ferry Orchestra: The Jazz Age (BMG) Don't get me wrong -- nobody likes parlor tricks, shell games, and pomo mind fucks more than I do. And for Bryan Ferry to "validate" the music he once drolly parodied by releasing an album of flapper-era recastings of eleven of his copyrights (six Roxy, seven solo) rather than the usual rehashing of the great American Songbook is pretty funny, and certainly the live-to-mono recording and pianist Colin Good's startling arrangements provide that soupçon of "authenticity." It's also downright ludicrous. Sure, the jitterbugging "Do the Strand" would have made a nifty epilogue to Roxy's For Your Pleasure. But Ferry's long suit has never really been melody -- "Love is the Drug" is many things: a dance floor classic, lead off to landmark album, the blueprint on which Duran Duran forged their sorry careers, and a great vehicle for Bryan's spiffy white tuxedo, but not necessarily a stellar tune. And stellar tunes are what Louis Armstrong and the like were elaborating on when they weren't pulling them out of thin air. I suppose it would have been fascinating to hear Louis and the Hot Fives run "Virginia Plain" or, hell, maybe even "This Island Earth" through some changes. Cornetist/trumpeter Enrico Tomasso is no Armstong. C

Iceage: You're Nothing (What's Your Rupture?) Many bloggers have accused this Danish quartet of dealing in crypto-fascism, most persuasively Scott Creney, who cites their appropriation of suspect iconography (hooded figures, Iron Crosses), their support of right-leaning bands (such as the National Socialist German death metal band Absurd), and lead singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt's racially-charged drawings. I've also seen plenty of passionate rebuttals -- many point out drummer Dan Kjaer Nielsen is Jewish, and I've even read a testimonial from guitarist Johan Surballe Wieth's mum, who notes the band's concern over the disconcerting populist influence of the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party. I'm sure that's true. But the band has thus far been unwilling to attach their loaded imagery and whatnot to meaningful context either in print or on record -- like Nixon or Reagan, Ronnenfelt continually blames the "media" for misconceptions he's evasive about clearing up. Me myself, I hardly think they goosestep even in the privacy of their own homes -- like the pathetic young punks in my neighborhood sushi joint who bedeck their walls with swastikas, I suspect they're attracted not to ideology, but shock value: they want to be perceived as dangerous, and I'm willing to bet they didn't expect their music to be famous enough outside of Europe so that they'd have to justify their dubious ruses to, say, the American press. I suppose it's easier for me to dismiss this band's sophomore effort because it's less hooky than 2011's New Brigade if equally inscrutable lyrically, but their continuing ambivalence to align themselves anywhere politically -- nothing deeper than the passive "this is what we see and feel" -- is disturbing, and I don't mean aesthetically. The Ramones may have dabbled in this shit too, but Joey and the gang yanked it by the nose and gave it an eye poke, undercutting their brutality with a gleefulness and charity these Danes suspiciously lack. What are they tearing down? What do they want to erect in its place? I have no idea. But nothing in these forbiddingly ascetic anthems for weekend stormtroopers tempts me to find out. B–

Jamie Lidell: Jamie Lidell (Warp) "People in the house! Make some noise for MICHAEL SEMBELLOOOO!" B–

Pissed Jeans: Honeys (Sub Pop) Less incontinent pants than incompetent rants. B–

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell: Old Yellow Moon (Nonesuch) Author of best song: Roger Miller, rounded out by more questionable entries by Patti Scialfa, Matraca Berg, Kris Kristofferson, Crowell himself, and hmmm, some guys from Harris' 70s touring band. C+

The Joy Formidable: Wolf's Law (Atlantic) Ritzy Bryan's Welsh prog-rock trio will never catch on in America -- doesn't she know Rush fans are terrified of women? C

Grouper: The Man Who Died in His Boat (1-2-3-4-Go) Q: What do you call a hundred Enya imitators at the bottom of the ocean? A: a good start. D+

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