A Downloader's Diary (41): July 29, 2015

by Michael Tatum

"A Downloader's Diary" first began five years ago this week at the site of my frequent partner-in-crime Tom Hull. Then, for six months or so last year, it appeared with other pieces of mine at Odyshape, a music webzine started by three of my like-minded friends. When that went the way of so many rock bands, I spent a few unproductive months pondering what I was going to do next. With Robert Christgau axed yet again (this time from Medium, and screw the link on that) and rock criticism back in the old doldrums once more, I decided to take the Expert Witness Pledge and return to my previous identity. I'd like to dedicate this inaugural Mark II (or III?) installment to Lester Bangs, who grew up in Escondido, the town next door to where I currently live, and came up through Who Put the Bomp?, a mimeographed fanzine that allowed him to get away with the watershed "James Taylor Marked For Death." And of course, to Wendy, who provided the cartoon avatar. See you soon.

Africa Express: Africa Express Presents Terry Riley in C (Transgressive) Riley's landmark 1964 composition -- arguably the "Rock Around the Clock" of "serialist" minimalism -- consists of fifty-three musical phrases in the key of C to be repeated and improvised upon by an indefinite number of musicians performing on any instrument of their choice. In its original incarnation, Steve Reich -- who would himself become a major player in this scene -- introduced rhythmic elements to Riley that would become crucial: that's him plunking away on the Wurlitzer electric piano in staccato eighth-notes. Since then, there have been many permutations, but even the excellent 2001 rendition by Bang on a Can sounds clunky compared to this enthralling flight of fancy, masterminded by Afropop gadfly Damon Albarn in Mali with local musicians, who prove that unlike the far stiffer conservatory set, they have no problem thinking and feeling simultaneously. For the first twenty minutes, it's an exquisite head trip bordering on religious experience -- the arrival of each enchanting new element (kora, calabash, flute, balafon, Albarn's melodica) makes you wonder how long the 17 players plus one conductor can keep building up this bewitching suspense, this graceful tension. Which remarkably they do, until around about the halfway mark, when the pulse vanishes, the players take a short but necessary breather, and a few emotive vocalists ponder, muse, daydream, reflect. After a sharp, incisive phrase on what sounds like a synthesizer though none is listed in the credits, the music resumes, builds, and breathes, yet feels more like a frustrated coda rather than a satisfying climax -- consider Reich's similarly-inspired but more carefully constructed Music for 18 Musicians, which understands that anxiety makes more sense when brought to a resolution. Wait a minute -- how many players did I say were on this thing again? Hmm. A MINUS

Jason DeRulo: Everything Is 4 (Warner Bros) And here I thought my man Jason wanted to be the Al Green of the Auto-Tune age -- turns out he really wants to be the black Adam Levine. This is fine as it goes -- DeRulo is charitable enough to produce more than one "Sugar" per album, and the first four tracks are worthy of last year's Talk Dirty, especially the wild "Get Ugly," Jason's reasonable request to his boo as to how to deter leery, would-be suitors, and the hilariously lecherous "Pull Up," in which he provides the hook by imitating the screech of a braking car. But as predicted by those of us made slightly nervous by his comparing Jordin Sparks' various body parts to Coldplay, Katy Perry, and Kanye West songs, much of the remainder could have been churned out of focus-group hell: Mehgan Trainor! K. Michelle! Keith Suburban, looking to lasso up some downtown action! Poor Jennifer Lopez, whose voice is so processed she appears not as a duet partner, but as product placement, like Spicy Nacho Doritos! And note that where street cred last time was provided by Snoop, Tyga, and Timbaland, here the nifty lead smasheroo is farmed out to producer Ian Kirkpatrick, responsible for keeping Hilary Duff, Nick Jonas, and Neon Trees on life support. And with Kirkpatrick's "Love Me Down," buried on the second half, inspiring fond memories of the Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song," I'm betting from here on out DeRulo gets even more complacent. As for his enigmatic album title, simultaneously press the shift button and the respective number on your computer keyboard to see what "everything" is really "4." B PLUS

Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit) Amid bitter accusations of gross mismanagement, the Congo's Staff Benda Bilili telescoped the kind of career that takes most bands a decade into a brief, three-year, two-album run, after peaceably eking out an arduous six-year existence busking the dilapidated thoroughfares surrounding the Kinshasa Zoo. With frontmen Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza forming this new aggregation with younger hometown musicians (who in publicity photos look as if they might inspire the likes of Young Thug and Birdman to slink unobtrusively to the other side of the street), Tony Allen collaborator Liam Farrell behind the boards, and their Metacritic score floating around in the high eighties, I tore into this like that blogger over there might lap up the new Radiohead. I can't say I'm not impressed, but I'm not overwhelmed either, and despite Farrell's radical mixing approach, redolent of dubmeisters like Adrian Sherwood as much as simpatico guest stars Konono No. 1, I couldn't figure out why until I came upon Tristan Bath's curious rave on Drowned in Sound, which bizarrely observes that this record has "danceable bass lines, but they're often razor sharp, or stuck on a bare handful of notes, closer to Joy Division than Fela Kuti." I don't care how singular an accidental musician Peter Hook is, this cockeyed approach doesn't suit the pleasures of Congolese music, nor does Farrell's voluminous, wind-tunnel mix highlight what's most special about it -- like the Jurassic Park films, it sacrifices humanity to a panoply of sometimes irritating attention-getting special effects. Even worse, I'm not entirely sure it's Farrell's fault -- until this rockets to life after a lovely ballad he was wise to leave alone, the songs are vague enough his zooms and whooshes function more like camouflage than window dressing. Not so vague: the electrifying finale "1 Million C'Est Quoi?," the lyric of which, unless I'm mistaken, has something to do with money. A MINUS

Miguel: Wildheart (RCA) I'll concede the embarrassing mistake of not recognizing Miguel as a major R&B love man two years ago if you'll cop to admitting that this luxuriantly ambitious record, probably the most daring this year excepting Kendrick Lamar's, doesn't fulfill its admirably heady ambitions. From the cornball fatalism of "A Beautiful Exit" ("We're gonna die young" -- hey, are we?) to the highly dubious porno fantasy "The Valley" ("Fuck you like I hate you, baby . . . force my fingers in your mouth," etc.), the lyrics are frustratingly uneven, and the heavily textured music, awash in synths and ethereal production geegaws, doesn't always rescue his more strained conceits. Also, much like Don Henley, Miguel labors under the delusion that a virtuous angel will liberate him from rotting away in the lobby of the Hotel California, and even if Miguel works with more exciting musical materials, it's really his youthful innocence, for now anyway, that bails him out -- a more cynical lothario would never follow the sweet trajectory of word play/gun play/pillow talk/sweet dreams/coffee in the morning, nor would he spend much time fretting about being "too proper for the black kids/too black for the Mexicans/too square to be a hood nigga." Yet I although I imagine this music to continue unfolding, to give up more of its secrets, in weeks and months to come, I find the most telling moment here to be the prettiest: "Leaves," constructed from the grist of the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979," which despite Billy Corgan's icky vocal nevertheless marshals a smarter sense of dynamics. The Smashing Pumpkins. A smarter sense of dynamics. Than a major R&B love man. A MINUS

Boz Scaggs: A Fool to Care (429) Does anyone remember this Marin County habitué anymore? Younger rock fans know him, if they know him at all, for "Lowdown" ("Gotta have a jones for this, a jones for that") and "Lido Shuffle" (a.k.a. "That Heaven-Sent Whoa-Whoa Hook"), a pair of indelible hits from the otherwise forgotten 1976 smash Silk Degrees, the album my father, a fan of the records Boz made with the young Steve Miller, once dryly referred to as "that thing he made with those guys from Toto." What a shame. Because this left-field winner is a shining example of old school record making -- you know, when Bonnie Raitt or whoever would round up the boys, select a solid bunch of songs, and cross his or her fingers. In other words, the sort of record most people don't give a shit about anymore until something like this tiny miracle turns rote nostalgia into a moot point. Since this features the same skillful cabal of session men that appeared on Scaggs' 2013 Memphis (the core: Reggie Young, Willie Weeks, Ray Parker, Jr.) it's fair to say that success here boils down to, as it usually does, songs: superior but surprising material plucked from the catalogs of first-rate artists, augmented by some striking originals, including one in which the gentleman-of-independent-means artiste, who currently holds down a day job as a vintner, sticks it to fat cat polticos with prize duet draw number one Raitt. I can see you're not convinced. So skip right to the second half, which closes even stronger than the first half begins, with soulful readings of Huey Smith's "High Blood Pressure," Al Green's "Full of Fire," the Spinners' "Love Don't Love Nobody," and the Band's "Whispering Pines," on which prize duet draw number two Lucinda Williams turns in her most heartfelt vocal in years. As for Boz himself, this seventy one year old has always been laid back, but the way he has a ball lollygagging around in his vocal tics finally makes it sound like a state of mind to aspire to. And then there's his agile guitar work, which isn't laid back at all. A

Skrillex & Diplo: Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü (OWSLA/Mad Decent) This historic meeting between the bros and the mates recalls the golden age of nineties electronica duos, except who knows what the individual members of the Chemical Brothers brought to the table aesthetically? Here we can assume that Sonny Moore of Highland Park, California masterminds the whopping big beats and cacophonous splatter bombs while Thomas Wesley Pentz of London, England by way of Tupelo, Mississippi adds the formal discipline and uncanny ear that have served him only intermittently since that breakup with M.I.A. robbed him of his greatest context. Maybe it's foolhardy to impose too much musical analysis on a record on which your favorite moment involves the normally execrable 2 Chainz chanting "Yeah, I'm the shit/I should have Febreze on me" (and hey, does Proctor and Gamble get a kickback?). Either way, one assumes if Rolodexes still existed outside of backwater insurance offices, these well-connected schmoozers could probably fill several football fields full of index cards -- I'm sure they could have enlisted more famous helpmates than Kai, Kieza, AlunaGeorge, Bunji Garlin, and I-thought-she-retired Missy Elliot, but the robust music here is so invigorating, they'll do. I imagine you're probably chomping at the mega-bit for me to talk about the Justin Bieber track. If you ignore the stinky perils-of-fame lyric, it's actually not bad. I think it has something to do with the production. A MINUS

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) Speaking as someone who squealed like a little riot grrrl when Corin Tucker ordered bouncers to escort a douchebag out of the Troubadour after he tossed a lit cigarette up onstage -- this would be 1997, on the tour for Dig Me Out -- I must confess I found the collective fawning over this beloved trio's comeback slightly embarrassing. Yet though I wouldn't swear they changed the world except for people for whom their subculture is their entire world, they undeniably opened a door that very few since, female or otherwise, have had the courage to walk through. But with the initial thrill of this record worn off and replaced with deeper admiration, I'm reminded of how much they needed each other even on their worthy solo projects: once again, Corin provides crucial context for the formal pleasure of Carrie's articulate guitar noise, while Janet Weiss, finally back in her own house, bangs the skins like she doesn't give a shit about waking up the neighbors. But not only has the music deepened, so has the worldview -- where on their early efforts their feminist tracts sounded like something they were parroting from a social media course, here they trade theory for praxis, beginning with the hair-raising "Price Tag," which says more about the class and gender wars than anything else they've previously recorded. Their antidote: solidarity and perseverance. "We win, we lose/Only together do we break the rules." "It's not a new wave/It's just you and me." "Hope's a burden or it sets you free." Corin claims she's no longer an "anthem": "All I can hear is the echo and the ring." This is the rare instance in which the echo and the ring will suffice. A PLUS

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty) Death can be a problematic subject to broach in pop, which hasn't stopped critics from overrating Lou Reed's Magic and Loss, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, and now this, which nevertheless stands as the best record Stevens has put his name on since Illinois. Floating adrift on a life raft of fluttering, finger-picked guitar lines, these rank among the prettiest melodies he's ever written, while carefully-drawn details such as Oregon's Tillamook Forest burning to the ground, a stepfather who calls him "Subaru" because he can't pronounce his first name, and a communion offering of fast food fries and Long Island Ice Tea, all evoke in the manner of yellowing Polaroids in a weatherworn family photo album. I'm also encouraged that Stevens' perpetually buried gay subtext is finally asserting itself -- the detached lover who resembles Poseidon and who checks his texts while Sufjan jerks off makes quite an impression (though really, how many "Manelich"s do you know?). Yet even discounting the numb, low-affect arrangements that cry out for the release of drums and electric guitars -- hell, maybe even some death metal screech -- I'm dismayed by the immaturity of the underlying philosophy, and I'm not merely referring to his wearisome over-reliance on Christian and Greek mythological references. It was one thing for the death of a friend on Casimir Pulaski Day to trigger a crisis in his religious beliefs, but it's another when Stevens falls into the familiar trap of wondering why the universe deals him an unfair hand when he leads what he considers to be a penitent life. Keeping in mind the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 2:16, Stevens won't move forward until he accepts that the universe is governed by random chance, heartache is equally distributed, and death comes without exception for Christians, Muslims, atheists, and everyone else. Or, better yet, maybe he should give up Jesus altogether. Because God is the concept by which I measure this solid if unspectacular return to form. B PLUS

Veruca Salt: Ghost Notes (El Camino) Though we'll get to the long-rumored physical altercation that temporarily ended the first version of this band in a moment, one of Louise Post and Nina Gordon's biggest problems after the impressive 1994 debut American Thighs was finding a producer empathetic to women. By that word I don't actually mean human beings with C-cups and vaginas, but rather songwriters who, despite reveling in good sex and cultivating an affinity for harder, crunchier guitars than their contemporaneous Lilith Fair schoolmarms, ultimately traffic in traditional relationship songs, not exactly an area of expertise for either Bob Rock or Steve Albini. Crucially, this distinguishes them from, for example, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, and their supposed sound-a-likes in the Breeders, and I suspect is one of the reasons the petty indie rock set rejected them at the time -- and embraces them in fond remembrance now. Not especially interested in challenging men in any way except musically, they were made for the returning Brad Wood, who helped define the mode for fellow Chi-Town resident Liz Phair, and who in turn subverted the mode every chance she got. What makes this tuneful comeback fascinating is that the relationship Post and Gordon are limning isn't one with some dude -- it's their own. Louise, the more nakedly emotional of the two, dominates the proceedings, comparing the flood of her feelings to hemophilia and beginning "The Gospel According to Saint Me" with the pithy "I wanted to live, so I pretended to die/I had to shut down, cash out and get buried alive." Artier Nina, who penned their two pop hits, still loves her pomo, often self-referential jokes, such as resurrecting and revising the nasty "Black and Blonde," omitted from the stateside version of her solo blandout Tonight and the Rest of My Life because it concerned the vicious hotel catfight she had with, well, Louise. Though the harmonies are more cautious, oddly respectful in their distance from whoever's singing lead, what becomes clear is that the "girls" (Nina's word, I swear) they remember and the women they've become are far more important to them than, say, whatever happened to Dave Grohl: ultimately, they're sisters first. What's more feminist than that? A MINUS

Young Thug: Barter 6 (300/Atlantic) When we last encountered Jeffrey Williams, I made a joke that I would play Norman Mailer to his Jack Abbott should his felonious shenanigans wind him up in the pokey. Now that a close confederate of his has been indicted in a failed conspiracy to murder his hero/rival Li'l Wayne however, I shall now refer to him as Jeffrey Lamar Williams -- between defiantly playing an inaugural show in Wayne's old digs in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans (where he was roundly booed) and boldly threatening his idol on Instagram soon after, Williams' unhealthy fixation has officially has entered trinomial Mark David Chapman territory. Let's not mince words: this is a scary man folks, and cf. Jack Abbott -- six weeks after Mailer campaigned successfully for his parole, Abbott stabbed a twenty-two year old waiter and aspiring actor/playwright who refused to allow him access to an employees-only restaurant toilet because it could only be reached through a potentially slippery kitchen. So no, I don't really believe some people can be "redeemed" no matter how goddamn talented they are: like Abbott, Williams is a bruised and scarred man who seems to value very little other than some fucked up perversion of self-respect and honor. Having said that, this digital-only "official" mixtape, released by Atlantic with no promise of a physical release, is compelling, addictive, and downright frightening. Sputtering through an arsenal of grotesque scat devices, torturing his tongue with triplet-laden phrasing, tunelessly moaning so that the Auto-Tune mercilessly drags his obsessive laments through the slime and muck, Williams currently stands unrivaled as hip hop's most accomplished stylist. Uneasy fans of the slightly hookier Bloody Jay summit Black Portland should be advised Williams' pussy euphemisms remain oblique (unless you fantasize about putting your dick in calzoni, I guess) and he tempers his rampant minacity with embedded puns ("I'll leave you dead and call it Dedication"). You'll do a stunned double-take when he boasts he'll "fuck your father" if he gets prison. And then there's the one in which he gives a shout-out to Mike Brown while pledging unyielding loyalty to the Bloods. Its first line? "I think I'm OD'ing on drugs." A

Honorable Mentions

Jamie xx: In Colour (XL) Like many noir specialists, so much better in b/w ("Stranger in a Room," "Loud Places") ***

Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop) The thinking man's Michael Murphey -- you can tell by his Van Dyke Parks-styled arrangements and the way he ironically peppers his lyrics with internet slang ("The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.," "Chateau Lobby #4 [In C For Two Virgins]") ***

Wilco: Star Wars (BPM) A relief after Jeff's wan solo album, but when your best song is an instrumental intro, the force is not with you ("EKG," "More," "Random Name Generator") ***

Waxahatchee: Ivy Tripp (Merge) Aimlessness is her theme (again), which unfortunately I could discern before I read the lyrics ("La Loose," "Under a Rock") **

Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material (Mercury Nashville) "You can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the girl," uh uh -- especially when your idea of roots is Owen Bradley at the Nashville High Senior Prom ("This Town," "Late to the Party") **

Pops Staples: Don't Lose This (Anti-) That's not really Jesus doin' the overseeing -- just Jeff and Mavis ("Somebody Is Watching," "No News is Good News") **

Belle and Sebastian: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador) Dance beats from 1977, progressive politics from 1987, best music in 1997 ("The Cat With the Cream," "Nobody's Empire") *


Björk: Vulnicura (Elektra) Despite courting the hottest beatmasters on the British dance music scene early in her solo career, the Icelandic grande dame has been edging closer to stilted Artsong over the past decade, in a manner that reminds me of the screenwriter's complaint to Marcello Mastroianni's character in Fellini's 8 ½: "[Your project] doesn't have the advantage of the avant-garde films, although it has all of the drawbacks." Where at least her re-imaginings of key tracks from 1995's Post with the Brodsky Quartet (forgot about that, didn't you?) at least benefited from the presence of "real" songs (or at least structure), these nine tracks in one hour, with seven running between six and ten endless minutes, are more like shapeless autoschediasm spread over imperviously baroque arrangements. And while I know her insufferably reverent claque has long since made peace with -- in fact, even embraced -- her cockeyed phonetics and ham-strung metaphors, they suggest affectation that goes beyond a mere language barrier: does anyone in the Scandinavian diaspora really roll their r's? Or pretend that the word "coordinates," when employed as a noun, utilizes the long a in its last syllable, rather than a schwa? Would even the guys in ABBA describe an estranged lover as "coagulated," and oppose that to "open chested?" "Moments of clarity are so rare," she opines ruefully in the opener. I open-chestedly agree. In the next song she qualifies that: "I smell declarations of solitude." Hey, lady -- she who smelt it dealt it. C MINUS

Blur: The Magic Whip (Warner Bros/Parlophone) I have nothing to say about the music per se -- nothing, really! -- but did you know Blur bassist Alex James' new line of "everyday cheeses" hit the British supermarket shelves in 2011, offering such enticing flavor combinations as "cheddar and tomato ketchup," "cheddar and salad cream," and "cheddar and tikka masala?" You're probably dying to know: what did the critics say? Ask Tim Chester of The Guardian, who accused James of "releasing bizarre flavour mash-ups in sliced, processed, plasticky form." C PLUS

Tobias Jesso, Jr.: Goon (True Panther Sounds) Like Josh Tillman's Father John Misty project, Vancouver's Tobias Jesso, Jr. has been generating internet buzz on his recidivist musical conception alone, but where the former exploits overripe singer-songwriter usages, Jesso mines the classics: Randy Newman, Nilsson, and other inheritors/subverters of the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Leaving Dirty Harry out of it, if Newman honed his piano style by studying Ray Charles and Fats Domino, Jesso gives the impression he taught himself keyboards by poring over the sheet music for "Sail Away" without actually listening to the record -- you can almost hear an blandly automated voice over his shoulder counting off the beats while he follows the bouncing ball on a Youtube video tutorial. So far, as potential for comedy this could go either way. But where smart guys working in this mode aim for the ironic, Jesso is a wide-eyed romantic who makes the worst of hackneyed titles like "Can We Still Be Friends," "How Could You Babe," "Can't Stop Thinking About You," and "Without You," which I'm relieved to note for Dirty Harry's sake is not a Badfinger cover, especially since Jesso sings like Jonathan Richman with delusions of Eric Justin Kaz. Given Jesso's so-self-conscious-he's-oblivious aura, I suppose this all leaves his "sincerity" open for debate, but the only knowing wink he gives is with his album title, which suggests he intuits what this mushy collection will eventually earn him from its dedicatee: a well-deserved restraining order. Say something -- he's (sob) giving up on you. C

Ne-Yo: Non-Fiction (Motown) I'm not saying there aren't a few good songs scattered throughout this concept album about a narcissistic R&B sensation who, golly gee, just can't stay monogamous, but why christen your two female characters "Integrity" and "Temptation?" Why not just go full-Freud and name them "Virgin" and "Whore?" It would certainly put his categorical denial of being down for boy-girl-boy threesomes in fascinating perspective. B

Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Columbia) I admit it -- Dylan's ability to pull off an octave jump in the first track impressed me until I realized I was rewarding him for accomplishing something Tony Bennett could do with Lady Gaga pinching his trachea between her thumb and forefinger. And that was before I got to Bobby's version of "Some Enchanted Evening." B MINUS

Darren Hayman: Songs for Socialists (Where It's At Is Where You Are) The ex-Hefner frontman sets poems from William Morris the nineteenth-century social activist to music, with the kind of hyperactive bluster that suggests he wants to arouse the interest of William Morris the talent agency. C PLUS

Lower Dens: Escape From Evil (Ribbon Music) I have no clue what "evil" they're escaping, but if Siouxsie and the Banshees is their new identity in the Witness Protection Program, I say going down in a torrent of bullets isn't such a bad way to go. C PLUS

Dawn Richard: Black Heart (Our Dawn Entertainment) Yet another prog-R&B song cycle, this one about how that Dannity Kane reunion record you ignored last year flopped commercially and critically. Give me Yes -- at least when Jon Anderson warbled about castles made of sand, warriors on the mountain, and a Phoenix rising from the ashes he didn't cram his voice into a vocoder and stack the resulting layers like deli meat. C

Viet Cong: Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye) Noise punk psychedelia so excruciatingly tuneless it could make John McCain cite the Geneva Convention. C MINUS


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