A Downloader's Diary (29): April 2013

by Michael Tatum

I'm delighted by the symmetry of touting two pick hits from Mali featuring the ngoni (I'll explain in a minute), both distributed by German imprint Out Here. Unfortunately for me -- and, I'm afraid, for you -- Rokia Traoré's CD should have been re-issued stateside by Nonesuch, who as of this writing have pushed back the release date indefinitely. I have no idea if it's a licensing issue, but nevertheless, enough publications have run reviews on the record that I'm justifying its inclusion this month. If need be, do yourself a favor and hunt for a good price on the import -- or at least bug WEA to put it back on their release schedule. Good rock and roll is so hard to find these days.

Dieuf-Dieul de Thiès: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1 (Teranga Beat) Outshone in their time by a certain nonpareil Dakar outfit, these competitors from nearby Thiès couldn't garner the necessary financial backing to commit these 1982 sessions to cassette, let alone the more expensive vinyl. So even if thirty plus years later the resulting CD is prone to the occasional channel drop out, be thankful Baobab producer Moussa Diallo had the foresight to record them live at the Sangomar Night Club gratis when no else would. Although their name translates to "collective good deeds undertaken in hopes of future profit," one gathers from the testimonials from bandleader/guitarist Pape Seck and singer Gora Mbaye -- both of whom take pains to remind us that they've had no recompense from this project -- this short-lived aggregation was a labor of love that, despite its failure to live up to its nominal promise, has been unmatched musically or spiritually for either man before or since. Mbalax fans will find much to appreciate in Bassirou Sarr's dynamic tenor, but what really distinguishes this band -- and keeps their spellbinding jams going for an average of nine minutes each -- are insinuating, serpentine rhythms that rumble rather than rock, and two wild card saxophonists whose expansive, incisive solos actually go somewhere. In short, for those who covet the idea of garage rock, but are more persuaded by the kind of scrappy upstarts who are too poor to own a car -- let alone a garage. A–

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here) Showcasing passionate vocal performances not only from Kouyate himself but also lifemate Amy Sacko, Khaira Arby, Kassé-Mady Diabaté, and my favorite, leather-larynxed Zoumana Teretayou, you might be led into believing this is a singer's album. Of course, it is -- inasmuch as so many Malian records are -- but it owes its majesty and power mainly to the ngoni, a lowly stringed-instrument fashioned from wood or calabash and covered by a layer of dried, stretched animal skin: in other words, if one had a hankering to "shred one's ax," no match for a Fender Strat. In theory. But because its string placement makes it ideal for executing dazzling, pirouetting runs, and because this is arranged for not one but four players shadowboxing around each other, this is a guitar workout like few others, and with the help of amplification, effects pedals, and two percussionists who must have at least four hands each, their desert protest blues is powerful rock and roll indeed. Recorded with careful thought to space by Arcade Fire hand Howard Bilerman, Kouyate's leads are as lightning-quick as you'd expect, but he's equally deft at string-bending and one-note freakouts reminiscent of Santana or the Doors, resulting in an album with no dead spots, right down to the Howlin' Wolf tribute and the sprint-to-the-finish-line named after Kouyate's son. And the manic climax to "Ne Me Fatigue Pas" says more about doom and uncertainty about Mali's recent political coup than mere words ever could. A

Kate Nash: Girl Talk [Deluxe Edition] (Ingrooves) Nash's riot grrrl move makes a lot more sense when you work your way back through her discography. Compared initially to Lily Allen because each masked her privileged upbringing by cultivating a Mockney accent and a potty mouth after her egalitarian parents sent her to public school, one could argue the British record buying public cottoned to them because although they swore like Liverpudlian sailors, they remained "proper birds" about it. Even so, Allen herself would never have countenanced the tart homemade production of Nash's Made of Bricks and My Best Friend Is You, nor would Allen's bright, fluttery soprano have been capable of tackling Nash's new material -- hints of the nasal yowl the latter employs here have been hinted at in her darker timbre all along. And most crucially, many of Nash's songs, beginning with the anti-bullying "Dickhead" on the debut, address relationships with women: platonic of course (the phrase "best friend" reoccurs in song after song), romantic up in the air, and either way for you and The Daily Mirror to puzzle out. So while this first sounds like a mess, immersion reveals itself to be both a logical progression and a good way to stick it to the British pop music journalists who would turn their noses at the prospect of putting a "lightweight" on the cover of Mojo. And though the domestic release ends with a whimper -- the fey "You're So Cool, I'm So Freaky," followed by a lullaby that rubs its mawkish orchestral arrangement in old fans' faces -- the import deluxe concludes with three good-to-great tracks, including the self-explanatory "I'm a Feminist, You're Still a Whore," preceded by an ode to Pussy Riot that speaks feminism's universal language ("Meow, meow, meow, meow"). And note how Nash connects to her Russian compatriots: "They're the kinda girls that you'd be friends with/Cause they look cool and they give a shit/About the kind of things you give a shit about." Sisters gotta stick together. Brothers, take notice. A–

Orchestra Super Mazembe: Mazembe @ 45rpm, Vol.1 (Sterns Africa) Although identified with Nairobi benga -- their biggest hit, the lovely "Shauri Yako," appears on the magnificent 1991 Earthworks compilation Guitar Paradise of East Africa, though not here -- the Super Earth Shakers are actually carpetbaggers who came up in the 70s from the Congo, less to flee Mobutu's kleptocracy (one could hardly argue Daniel arap Moi's vile police state as an improvement) but because Kenya promised bigger money. Their basic approach, covering both sides of an affordable, ten-shilling, 45 rpm single, will be familiar to benga/soukous/what-have-you fans: luminescent verses/choruses, followed by a brief caesura, after which the music bursts into a breakneck reverie in which voices and guitar bounce off each other so ebulliently you'll be thankful compiler Doug Paterson, as with the great 2010 D.O. Misiani compilation he also curated, painstakingly fuses both sides together (besides, who wants to get up and turn over a record while he's dancing?). Unlike most Afropop combos, there is no prime mover here: the band had as much a revolving door policy as the Drifters or Parliament-Funkadelic -- the liner notes list twenty members, plus nine confederates of indistinct involvement. And they sung the majority of their material in their native Lingala, a language denizens of their adopted country understand only slightly more than you and I. So with beauty, beats, and Atia Jo's buoyant bass their only non-variables, why do you suppose sold these records like hotcakes? Clues can be found in the included pics, one displaying the band goofing around in hardhats and yellow slickers (their name also translates to "construction workers"), another a group shot in which they lightheartedly mug for the camera. Eager to please any which way, they're almost a little too accommodating -- this isn't nearly as lively, resourceful, or magical as Guitar Paradise of East Africa, which I guess is my way of saying eleven bands are better than one. Or maybe I mean one band is better than none -- the band's lack of cohesive identity is a problem. Beauty against adversity may be Africa's gift to the world, but that's no excuse to make pleasure feel like business. A–

Brad Paisley: Wheelhouse (Arista Nashville) Musically, Paisley's crazed strategy here reminds me of long-dismissed grunge reprobate Art Alexaxis: begin with a genre record, flirt with crossover, scurry to an apology, then heroically stage-dive into a full-fledged, gonzo sellout. The difference is that because he theoretically comes from right field, Paisley risks far more, not just by nodding three times to "rap" (the best by Charlie Daniels, who makes me wonder if "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was the antebellum "The Breaks"), but with samples, my favorite from a Roger Miller song I'm willing to bet that before this no one who actually own a Pro Tools setup has actually heard. Yet the knee-jerk conservatism of the lyrics shows how much Paisley is hedging his bets. It's one thing to remind red-staters that not everyone owns a gun, another to muse affectionately about "Those Crazy Christians" (Jeff Foxworthy: "If you bless a casserole or pray before a football game, you might be a Christian"). And while I love the gleeful abusive boyfriend revenge fantasy "Karate," songs like that have been staples of the genre long before Garth Brooks. But consider "Runaway Train," where Paisley opines, "When I was a young'un, my momma used to pray/That I'd find me a Christian girl and settle down someday," without revealing what kind of strong-willed woman took that archetype's place, or "The Mona Lisa," who regardless of her status as a ne plus ultra is seen, not heard, or the beer-commercial plots of "Harvey Bodine" and "Death of a Single Man." And while I'd point out that the Bob Doles of the world don't fear Bill Cosby or Ben Carson as much as they do brothers in gold chains and do-rags, you don't have to be Dolores Kearnes Goodwin to doubt the veracity of LL Cool J's closing benediction to Robert E. Lee (!!) and Abraham Lincoln in "Accidental Racist." Next time, Paisley should ring up Chuck D. But somehow I doubt Chuck's gonna return to the calls of someone who spends two "sensitive" verses rationalizing his reasons for proudly displaying the Confederate flag on a T-shirt. B+

Rilo Kiley: Rkives (Little Record Company) Completists complain -- and don't they always? -- why not include the juvenilia from their obscure first EP? Why not "Big Break" (the desultory b-side to "The Moneymaker")? Or the acoustic "Somebody Else's Clothes" (which appears only on the Live at Fingerprints EP) or "Xmas Cake," their bummed-out contribution to Nettwerk's Maybe This Christmas Too? Diligent Youtube research reveals however that these sixteen rarities plus one hidden novelty comprise the cream. Sure, there's Blake Sennett's mealy-mouthed demo "Rest of My Life," as well his petulant title-says-it-all "Well, You Left," which lies stillborn until Jenny Lewis adds a backing vocal to a disingenuously joyous coda. Yet although it took me several spins to suss it out -- the band would never have left a potential radio hit on the cutting room floor -- this is the rare odds and sods deal that can stand with the original records, and with three of the stragglers from 2004's heartfelt More Adventurous and seven more from 2007's slicker Under the Blacklight, what it offers in sonic variety makes up for what it lacks in thematic heft. Jenny is the star -- that goes without saying. But it never before occurred to me how much Sennett brought to the table until I heard how much muscle and imagination he put even into Lewis' second-stringers -- and had the benefit of Lewis' slightly more perfunctory solo efforts with Johnathan Rice and the Watson Twins for comparison. Great singer-songwriters are one thing. Great bands are another. A

Rokia Traoré: Beautiful Africa (Out Here) You won't be disappointed if you backtrack through this Malian singer-songwriter-guitarist's four previous albums, but as a whole they're slightly static: graceful to be sure, but also a tad too subtle, understated, and as deliberate as a piano recital, thus inaccessible to "world music" holdouts who thinks Oumou Sangare's records "all sound the same." This record poses no such hurdles. Beginning with the shotgun entrance of trap drum dynamo Sebastian Rochford, this electrifying set announces itself as nothing less than a rock record -- if you're wondering what might have inspired PJ Harvey confidante John Parish to sign on as producer, Traoré's crunchy guitar riffs, off-kilter time signatures, and awe-inspiring vocal gymnastics (from trilling coo to banshee wail to playful purr) must feel like familiar territory. And with the exception of the regretful "Mélancolie" this doesn't let up, including the two in English, a tough title anthem and a gorgeous song of praise for women. Not that you should let the ones in French and Bamako scare you off -- the killer girl-group backing vocals make the parlez vous ring out like doo wah diddy, hey-ya, hey-ya. A

Wire: Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag) Some bands evolve out of necessity; some evolve out of boredom. These shrewd shell-gamers evolve as to whatever fits their currents needs. If new wave bleaches punk, we'll bleach it even further by hiring Depeche Mode's producer. If our drummer quits, we'll lean harder on the drum machines. When our drummer returns, we'll get back to basics. And when guitarist Bruce Gilbert retires, we'll recycle and renew fragments from 1981's chaotic Document and Eyewitness like we were the Rolling Stones rolling from Some Girls to Emotional Rescue to Tattoo You, though letting thirty years pass by rather than three, well that's just shrewd shell-gamers for you. Their more obscure lyrics still don't signify without memorable melody -- the breakdown in communication theme may finally justify Graham Lewis' penchant for acronymic gobbledygook on "Re-invent Your Second Wheel," but it's still gobbledygook (and no, it's not code, Graham -- I applied a substitution cipher). But especially on the first half, catchier and more propulsive than their similarly-textured 2011 Red Barked Tree, their blast-chilled art punk makes the most out of lines like "How I adore your island/You're the one who should be spared," and a pile-driving anti-anthem that makes the change promised in their album title sound like a threat. And in the embittered opener, Colin Newman re-imagines "Reuters" from the point of view of an "ally in exile": "He breaks down in this theatre, but hopes not under these lights/Specifically those which gain strategic insights/By the best of good fortune, he had provisions in store/He doubles, then trebles the locks on his door." B+

Honorable Mentions

Suede: Bloodsports (Suede Ltd.) Okay I'm swayed, but the word "aniseed" appears in back-to-back songs, and "Like a cause without a martyr/Like an effigy of balsa/Like a hairline crack in a radiator/Leaking life" is from one of the good ones ("Barriers," "It Starts and Ends With You") ***

Atoms for Peace: Amok (XL) Joey Waronker isn't my idea of an Afrobeat drum titan any more than Phil Selway, but for chilly DOR he'll do ("Default," "Reverse Running") ***

Telekinesis: Dormarion (Merge) The question isn't can you be a one man band, but should you? ("Power Lines," "Dark to Light") **

The Rough Guide to Acoustic Africa (World Music Network) In which even songs I liked in other contexts are subsumed by a concept that could use its own change of pace (Syran Mbenza & Ensemble Rumba Kongo, "Mbanda Nasali Nini? (Madeleine)," Shiyani Ngcobo, "Yekanini") **

Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience (RCA) Maybe Smokey belabored the corny metaphors too, but he had the good sense not to stretch them out over an average song length of seven minutes ("Don't Hold the Wall," "Strawberry Bubblegum") *


David Bowie: The Next Day (Columbia) I have no idea what has taken hold in David Bowie's mind and body -- whether it's psychological, biochemical, or the thought of time waiting in the wings and speaking senseless things -- but whatever it is, it's scaring him to death: "Here I am/Not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree/Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me/And the next day/And the next/And another." Yet as he grips with the thought of his own mortality -- for real this time, no romanticized bullshit -- his Anglophile acolytes pretend, as they have for the last twenty-five odd years, that this represents a new dawning, another phase in a many storied career no one will admit has too many vacancies on the uppermost floors. Both the album title and the Dadaist appropriation of 1977's Heroes cover imply that this record is the one that should have surfaced in 1979 rather than Lodger -- a pretty bold statement, I'd say -- yet nothing here hits as hard as the first three songs on that underrated record's b-side. Meanwhile, Tony Visconti's production (another connection to his lost past) recreates old affects without that fertile period's air of discovery (the disjointed beat of "Dirty Boys" recalls "Breaking Glass," the squishy synth-snares of "Love is Lost" evoke "Sound and Vision"). Only on "The Stars Are Out Tonight" does the artist completely abjure sad nostalgia (the Potzdamer Platz, the Nurnberger Strasse) for directness and Visconti's chilly art rock find a purpose. Read the lyric sheet and you'll find that the celestial bodies in question have curious names like Birgitte, Jack, Kate, and Brad, and spend their time aimlessly wandering, never sleeping: "The dead ones and the living." And, one assumes, those in between. Peace be with you, David. B

Johnny Marr: The Messenger (Sire) You don't need to shoot him because there is no message -- message (and I use that word with reservations) was his old songwriting partner's department. So maybe the title should be Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Guitar Player? Except on the basis of this record, he doesn't have anything interesting to offer in that realm anymore either. Besides, who needs "message" anymore when your sole frame of reference is what Fran Healey and the Gallagher brothers were doing better in the '90s? Although if there's a "Some Might Say" or (ulp) "Writing to Reach You" here, I'll happily scarf up whatever Morrissey's serving up at the Staples Center. C+

Roger Knox & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts: Stranger in My Land (Bloodshot) Proves that "blacks" are alike the whole world over, singer-songwriters too. B–

Josh Ritter: The Beast in Its Tracks (Pytheas Recordings) He just went through a terrible divorce -- can you tell? C+

Bilal: A Love Surreal (Entertainment One Music) Or: A Lunk Supreme: Airhead's Redux. C+

Holly Williams: The Highway (Georgiana) Shows restraint by not mentioning Grandpa Hank until track two, whose own "highway" is more lost than you think -- the title track is a self-pitying plaint about being on tour. C

Jake Bugg: Jake Bugg (Mercury) Or, The Freewheelin' Lonnie Donnegan. C

2013 March 2013 May