A Downloader's Diary (30): May 2013

by Michael Tatum

After months of worrying whether or not the year was going to yield any great music, here comes the deluge, with the three pick hits my kind of raucous -- even with two originating from the European continent. As for the much adored new record from Vampire Weekend -- who aren't so raucous, after all -- you'll just have to wait.

Bombino: Nomad (Nonesuch) So conventional wisdom says I'm supposed to curse Nonesuch Records because they snatched Omara Moctar from the benevolent auspices of Vermont mircoindie Cumbancha, but unless Nonesuch bought out his contract with raccoon furs and wampum beads, I don't particularly see the downside, especially with new producer Dan Auerbach revving up Moctar's basic Tuareg rock and roll with a second drummer, an American bassist, and keyboards. Yet while this forcefully loco-motivates over 2011's Agadez -- and while Moctar most likely would have pleasantly repeated that record had he not made the jump to the majors -- Aurerbach represents a different kind of hegemony, as well as a creative dead end. There's no artistic growth here -- no surprise guests, no genre experiments, no bolder moves other than turning a few control board knobs clockwise and telling the engineer to look the other way when the needle narrowly crosses over into the red. In fact, excise the desert blues orientation and nothing distinguishes this sonically from Auerbach's own El Camino with the Black Keys, or Locked Down, last year's surprise comeback from Dr. John. Don't get me wrong -- especially compared to those overrated items, I hear many strong songs, penetrating vocals, and piercing, ductile solos that confidently shuffle Moctar into the small, select club of guitarists of the first rank. But I hear no big ideas other than Auerbach declaiming his Tamashek interpreter to precisely convey the concept of "going big or going home." A–

Chicha Libre: Cuatro Tigres (Barbès) This four track download-only EP delights all aspects of my being: the pop music critic, the half-Mexican/half-WASP, the novelty-loving post-modernist, the card with the stack of blank CDs and a black felt tip pen. Consider the group's demographics: based out of Brooklyn, with members from hailing from Iquitos, Paris, Caracas and San Luis Potosi. Or their cover of "The Guns of Brixton," a reggae pastiche from a British punk band detailing a race riot, delivered here in a unmistakably Texan drawl. Or "Alone Again Or," an unassailable classic from a racially integrated quartet, with the original arrangement, here taken to its logical conclusion, itself a nod to the flamenco dancing of author Bryan MacLean's mother. Or the theme to The Simpsons, a show whose worldwide fame hinges upon the ethnically vague orientation of its Pantoned-116 namesakes. That leaves only one the original of which you might not be familiar: "Rica Chicha," a cover of Los Shapis' electrocheese cumbia smash that kicked off the genre that made these jokers' careers possible -- a bit like No Age covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit," except every urban Peruvian knows Kurt Cobain. And to prove my point, my misread of the title (which refers to a rich beverage) made me disappointed that the lyric didn't begin with the lines: "Ella es una chicha rica/Y ha ido demasiado lejos/Le hacen saber que no importa de todos modos." Americans -- we're so uncultured! A–

Deerhunter: Monomania (4AD) From claiming dubious status as a "non-practicing homosexual" to tearing through an hour-long "My Sharona" marathon to take the piss out of a boisterous heckler, the question of whether Bradford Cox's pleas for attention distract from his band's music should only be of interest to those who make scrap churning out half-baked think pieces. His reaction to demos for his Atlas Sound project leaking online ("It became the kind of internet-fueled drama that I was quickly learning to despise") evinces the canned staginess of a Bravo reality show, and the bizarre proclamation "As a [gay man], my job is simply to sodomize mediocrity," would bewilder genteel Edmund White and Stephin Merritt types. Yet Cox's capricious unpredictability and undeniable charisma serves as the glue to this shambolic Atlanta outfit -- consider his buddy Lockett Pundt's Lotus Plaza side project, which radiates uncommon musicality but is stilted by its auteur's wilted carrot mien. Halcyon Digest went over my head two years ago because neither Pink Floyd worship nor limning nostalgia are my thing. But if I had paid better attention, the manner in which Cox mucked-up the music -- from the filtered vocals to the outre sound effects -- would have made its contrasting beautiful passages stick. This breakthrough ups the ante by dirtying up the guitars and muscling into the vocals while teaching fog machines and motorcycle engines how to rock. Not only that, but Cox has cultivated a sense of humor to match his Pitchfork interviews, from a cheeky c&w travelogue that doesn't leave Pensacola, Florida to "Dream Captain," a (take your pick) wage slave and/or kept man protest outfitted with the corny refrain "I'm a poor boy/From a poor family." Punks? Nah, that was in a previous life -- that phase lasted only a month. But Lord, if there must be prog, let it be like this. A

Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses): The Low Highway (New West) On record, Earle has spent the last ten years splitting the difference between oracle and crackpot, while in the interim churning out a novel, grabbing a spot on HBO's Treme and marrying for the seventh (and we hope last) time. So there's no explaining why this little item ranks as his best since 2002's Jerusalem or before, except perhaps his disappointment in Barack Obama to keep hope alive on more than just an eye-catching t-shirt. Of course, this loyal Democrat and Occupy Wall Street beardo doesn't call out the beleaguered prez by name -- rather, he obliquely lets Kennedy and the Maharishi stand in for the man on "21st Century Blues" while grumbling over Lockheed Martin's failure to build that flying car and teletransporter he was promised. Meanwhile, in the low highway leading to the despondent present, an Iraqi war vet fills potholes in the road, Grandpa plots to burn down a Wal-Mart, and an enterprising youth provides the formula for quality meth (I ask you: when was the last time you heard the word "iontophoresis" used in a song?). Theme: "There's a hole in my shoe but I don't mind/Cause it keeps me connected to the ground." Most valuable player: violinist and backing vocalist Amanda Shires, who we can only hope reprises her Emmylou act on Jason Isbell's next record. A–

The Knife: Shaking the Habitual (Mute) The element that makes this Swedish duo's magnum opus so damn hard to listen to -- and ultimately so rewarding -- is pitched electronic percussion. Unlike 2006's Silent Shout, on which resident maestro Olof Dreijer utilized basic drum machine programs, here the tribal thundering isn't just rhythm, it's the music itself, with each building block meticulously placed and tuned precisely, an effect not unlike Jamaican kettle drums (sampled for your pleasure in "Raging Lung"). On this jagged, disconcerting bedrock, the "melodic" components offer little relief, with many -- the sour synth-penny whistles on "Without You My Life Would Be Boring," the strangled electro-squelches on "Full of Fire" -- are flattened, sharpened, zrrled, or bronked for heightened dissonance (dig the Chinese water torture effect of that giant violin bow dragged across a buzzing power line on "Fracking Fluid Injection"). In other words, the perfect complement to sister Karin's banshee wails, protesting not only mindless shopping cart pushers and gluttons binging at the world banquet, but celebrating raw, carnal sexuality: territorial pissings and penetration urges, all in the name of conjugality, and in the sensuous "Wrap Your Arms Around Me," freeing an "unborn child from the castle." Not that the y-chromosomed liberals-not-radicals who write history don't make Karin seethe, as in this tellingly truncated couplet: "Let's talk about gender, baby/Let's talk about you and me/Let's talk about gender, baby/Let's talk about errrr waaaaapppp." A

Pistol Annies: Annie Up (RCA Nashville) Where their dandy debut mixed and matched the songwriting credits, this one attributes two solely to Angaleena Presley (she must have material lying around -- she's the only member of the trio without a solo contract), two to Lambert/Monroe, and eight to the group, suggesting the Annies wrote the bulk of this material in the studio; i.e., not when the spirit hit, but when the money was on the line. As crimes go, this is minor -- a slapdash group effort is a small price to pay for that made-whole Ashley Monroe solo album -- but nevertheless, you can hear the rush, rush: the two uptempo throwaways tucked away on the second half, the bouncy "Don't Talk About Him, Tina" and the feisty two-stepping hoedown "Damn Shame," last time would have been filler. Elsewhere, the anticlimactic Victoria's Secret commercial that opens lacks titillating specifics, a perfectly entertaining marriage plaint ends with a hackneyed "Can I Get an Amen?," and the manipulative "Loved by a Working Man" fails to mention the not-so-blue-collar day jobs of the real-life beaus in question (country singer, White Sox starting pitcher, tour manager). Maybe I'd be less cynical about this record if it didn't end with the lame greeting card devotional "I Hope You're the End of My Story." But given Miranda Lambert's recent woeful tour of the gossip rags (hubby rumored to be cheating, she reportedly retaliates by monitoring his cell phone, then lobbies for positive PR by opening an ice cream parlor) what can one say when the two best songs concern the time-honored Southern pretense of pointlessly keeping up appearances? As in: "We're the Pistol gosh-darned Annies, we're here to drink lemonade, politely shake your boyfriend's hand, and willing to play our music at a reasonable level?" B+

Rainbow Arabia: F.M. Sushi (Kompakt) The ubiquitous Knife comparisons escape me -- that band's obviously in my heavy rotation too, but I don't hear it. For one thing, Los Angeles' Tiffany and Danny Preston (husband/wife not sister/brother) have Euro leanings, but it's not their identity. For another, they're not strident enough -- though I applaud the live drummer augmenting their preprogrammed beats, the rhythms themselves are comparatively conservative, even measured against the "Iko Iko" inspired numbers on 2011's excellent Boys and Diamonds. As oblivious to dubstep as they are to grunge, their decidedly un-radical music is brazenly straight out of 1986 -- New Order synths here, Quarterflash sax there, arpeggios nicked from various Eurythmics hits -- albeit gratifyingly more elaborate, even extravagant. And Tiffany herself plays the lustily aching siren, not the floating, full-bodied apparition. In other words, they're a little trashy -- arty without being gratingly self-conscious about it, and as unlikely to be hitbound in 2013 as they would have been twenty-five years ago. Maybe back then they would have been dismissed by the finicky Britpop clique as "too weird." But now they're rapturous nostalgia even for those who didn't realize how much they missed Bananarama. A–

The Rough Guide to African Disco (World Music Network) Oh, those dastardly world music imprints -- anything to seduce us into buying their product, as if this nebulous concept could introduce us to anything as immortal as "Ring My Bell." Except as nebulous concepts go, African Disco sure beats Acoustic Africa (or, The Rough Guide to Cross Promoting Our Recent Releases) and Arabic Revolution (fine in theory, but next time, don't invite the sensitive collegiate types). Plus, unlike compilations centered around countries and regions, especially ones which have been plundered to death, African disco, much like the Yankee kind, eschews artists of "quality," giving rise to one hit wonders and quirky oddities that may have previously flown beneath our radar -- of the thirteen featured artists, only Manu Dibango and Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens have sustained whole albums, with only the Lijadu Sisters, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Osibisa, and Tony Allen recognizable second-stringers. That leaves a handful of Gloria Gaynors and Rose Royces, christened with delightful monikers such as Teaspoon & the Waves, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and Mixed Grill, the latter responsible for the winningly greasy workout "A Brand New Wayo" ([Some people] want to make that bread without sweat . . . people call that hustle!"). Significantly, many tracks lean closer to funk than anything Giorgio Moroder put his name on, at least until two-thirds of the way through, when the spirits of Jan Hammer and Bill Conti stink up the joint, reminding us that American television reaches across the Atlantic Ocean as pervasively as American music. Those anomalies aside, this can stand with whatever Rhino booty-shaking compilation of your choice. Better than "Ring My Bell": Mahlathini's immortal "Kazet," home of the world's most beautiful guitar lick and this still-startling quatrain, groaned in the language of the people that imprisoned them and their countrymen in the dilapidated slums of Soweto: "This is our kind of rhythm in Africa/We send our messages through music/This is our tradition in Africa/Come on, let's sing together now." A–

Rachid Taha: Zoom (Wrasse) Perhaps it was the unnerving sight of the rai king playing the jocular master of ceremonies in that hideous magenta-neon sports coat, but 2010's Bonjour tanked with the critics even though it was among this committed vulgarian's prettiest records. However, with anti-Muslim rancor accelerating in supposed liberal bastion France (the burqa outlawed, racially-motivated crimes on the rise) perhaps he thought it was time for a show of strength, and indeed, the first half is the man in powerhouse form, from Dylanesque opener to a Celtic punk stomper, peaking with an amazing, so-sarcastic-it-must-be-sincere cover of "It's Now or Never" (yes, that one) offered as a coyly heartfelt plea for tolerance. But the second half is prime, dirtyass rock and rai, from a Bo Diddley shuffle that demands to see your passport to a banger that makes skronking good use of that accursed Auto-Tune. On the spectacular re-make of the anti-racist "Voilà Voilà" -- the young Taha's first hit with his original band -- Brian Eno once more dons his king's lead hat. And on the terse "Straight to Hell" tribute "Algerian Tango," Mick Jones drops bombs between the minarets down the Casbah way. A

Wussy: Duo (Shake It) Diehards are mystified why this isn't a masterpiece -- as if all bands knowingly issued their finest music in limited edition formats on Record Store Day -- but deconstructing its minor-pleasures-not-major-triumph isn't exacting. It's not a matter of acoustic versus electric or the Cleaver/Walker duo versus the band proper as much as tentative demos versus polished product. Funeral Dress II worked beautifully because those sublimely perfect arrangements had been confidently set in place for seven years, with a combination of time, reflection, and the acoustic setting tinting and shading the emotions of the classic originals. By contrast, these seven song-sketches are various levels of thought-through: generally, Walker's material is more fully formed (though the equivocal play in the title "New American Standard" is jejune), but Cleaver's is pokier -- a problem since on Wussy's proper albums Cleaver's hookier songs often set the stage for Walker's more introspective ones. Perhaps the occasion's forced deadline caught him short of new material, but this isn't always rough-hewn in a good way -- the privacy invasion theme of his "Like It or Not" is fertile lyrical territory, but in a band version, Mark Messerly would have fashioned an enticing way to fill up the dead musical space preceding the refrain. The grotesque backwoods vignette "Ring a Ding I'm Rotten Inside" would surely be consigned to a b-side (and too bad). Although consider the remake of the Ass Ponys' "Pretty as You Please," its reprisal a tip off as much as it is a revelation -- on the one hand, you miss Dave Morrison's sample-ready drum intro on the 2000 original, but on the other, Walker's spine-tingling harmonies guarantee you'll actually remember that song a decade from now. Which is why, flaws be damned, I'd rather hear this than the Ass Ponys' august Some Stupid With a Flare Gun. A–

Honorable Mentions

Fantasia: Side Effects of You (J) You can take the girl out of American Idol, but you can't take American Idol out of the girl ("Supernatural," "Ain't All Bad," "Without Me") ***

Aaron Neville: My True Story (Blue Note) Talk about your anachronisms -- how about pre-Beatles covers from a time when rock and rollers never imagined that one day they might need a dose of Viagra? ("My True Story," "Gypsy Woman") ***

Ghostface Killah: Twelve Reasons to Die (Soul Temple Entertainment) Oh, goodie -- I love re-runs! ("Blood on the Cobblestones," "Twelve Reasons to Die") **

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito (Interscope) It's forward, lateral, then fumble ("Sacrilege," "Mosquito") **

Wavves: Afraid of Heights (Warner Bros.) The title metaphor would make more sense if he didn't champion his victory scaling molehills ("Demon to Lean On," "Paranoid") *

The Rough Guide to Arabic Revolution (World Music Network) Scattershot and disorganized, not unlike most revolutions (El Tanbura, "Heela Heela"; DAM featuring Abeer Al Zinati "Hon Enwaladet") *


Paramore: Paramore (Fueled by Ramen) This album has opened up all kinds of awareness for me. I never knew that anyone took this Tennessee quartet-now-a-trio seriously, nor did I think the tragic departure of their bible-thumping lead guitarist and drummer (brothers, I didn't know that either) would move some to mourn the death of the apparently distinctive, well-regarded "Farro sound." I never imagined that anyone would thrill to Hailey Williams chronicling the band's soap opera in song, nor that anyone would descry sonic "variety" in what is essentially a blatant arena move (guess that's what Williams means when she opines "Some of us have to grow up sometimes"). Hell, I didn't know there were boho types who insisted Paramore were some kind of "indie" band despite Atlantic Records camouflaging their connection to major label bucks by inventing a pseudo-imprint (wink, wink). Okay, now I'm just being ornery. Really, I have nothing against Disney punk, at least in theory. But catchier toonz do not signify artistic growth -- neither do strings or three ukulele "interludes" (which on a riskier record would merely be called "songs"). Admittedly, the incessant blare does give up a moment or two worth your time. But as a vocalist Williams still lacks subtlety, the bombastic arrangements have no sense of dynamics, the shallowness quotient would make Britney Spears blush, and the record itself goes on way too fucking long -- real punk albums would keep it to thirty, forty minutes rather than an endless 63:48. B

Mikal Cronin: MCII (Merge) Why is this shaggy anachronism garnering such unadulterated huzzahs? Granted, he's a more passable melodist than his day job boss Ty Segall, but like so many in the shop class rock crowd, his vocals cultivate no special distinction beyond somnolence, and the prerequisite low-budget production can't disguise the fact his precious BFA in music hasn't taught him any new tricks to spruce up his dire late '70s clichés -- I dare you not to guffaw at the ballerina piano triplets that introduce "Weight." And his lyrics are hardly more radical than anything the Black Crowes serve up, from the clumsy "I've been starting over for a long time," to the banal "I learned a little bit a long, long time ago/Just from a friend I used to know/About how love can end so slow" to the downright farcical "I fear the fight that I'm about to fight for you girl/Cause it's a side, a sight of me I've yet to see." Leading me to believe two possibilities: either Bob Seger is currently toiling in the a&r department at Merge, or there are a great many young, white stoner-boys writing rock criticism. I wonder which one it is? B–

James Blake: Overgrown (Universal Republic) Despite a broader production palette that peaks with a startling RZA cameo, as tediously self-regarding as the debut -- it takes a real simp not to realize "a touchdown on a rainy day" scores the same amount of points as those on hundred-degree scorchers. B–

Kurt Vile: Wakin' on a Pretty Daze (Matador) Still takin' a "whizz on the world," but at least "To be frank, I'm fried/But I don't mind" imparts insightful context. B–

Bleached: Ride Your Heart (Dead Oceans) Bananarama as indie rock without Stockman/Waterman/Aiken, though you might not have known that from examining the Tiger Beat gender politics B–

The Rough Guide to Latin Psychedelica (World Music Network) Santana was of his time, the not so revolutionary music compiled here (mostly of 70s provenance) is at least ten years behind the times, and the occasional English lyrics are for all time: "Let's take care of business/Let's get high." C+

The Mavericks: In Time (Valory/Big Machine) When meaningful content has always been your albatross, turning up the volume is not recommended -- especially when your attempt at said content is the ghastly "(Call Me) When You Get to Heaven." C+

DJ Koze: Amygdala (Pampa) Warning: German electronic maestro's Marvin Gaye quote of choice isn't "I'm a stubborn kinda fella" but "We are all sensitive people/With so much to give." C+

Savages: Silence Yourself (Matador) The perfect band for those who spend their dorm room downtime debating whether or not Taylor Swift promulgates traditional patriarchal values. C

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