A Downloader's Diary (45): March 24, 2016

by Michael Tatum

I spent the last few months simmering in my latest, and I imagine final, annual mid-life crisis. I resolved it by, among other things, getting my driver's license, not to mentioning immersing in music. My lesson: getting older can be fun, provided you can do it as gracefully as Bonnie (66), Willie (82), or Kenny (56). If only Elton (68) was as spry and lively as he was on his karaoke drive with James Corden. With even more material in the can than this installment, loaded with good stuff and short on the stuff you should avoid, I'll see you again in about six weeks.

Babyface: Return of the Tender Lover (Def Jam) Back in the nineties, when I listened to far too much guitar rock for my own good, I grumblingly acknowledged Kenny Edmonds' clear mastery of swanky R&B on 1995's The Day, but wondered why he skimped on the uptempo jams. Twenty plus years later, looking much the ladykiller in what looks like a corner office at Goldman Sachs, the most ebullient, outgoing record of his career makes me disappointed that these nine songs (four with the word "love" in the title) try so hard to ingratiate themselves -- please tell me he's not filling his coffers to donate more money to that creep Marco Rubio. But from "your love is exceptional" to giving his new bride a "standing ovation," no one else in R&B gets away with this high grade of lover man bullshit -- he might not be the paragon of monogamy he sells himself as, but the fact he's devoted an entire career to exploring this persona says a lot about his character (or portends a future career as the duped husband in a daytime soap opera). He gives El Debarge a cameo because he owes him big time. He gives After 7 a cameo because, well, two of the guys in the band are his brothers. And though I don't necessarily favor live musicians over synthesizers, in this case it serves to bolster the warmth that's Kenny's specialty. As for that absolutely smoking lead guitar, the credit belongs to Michael Ripoll, whom I'm assuming got the job because Clapton wasn't available. A MINUS

Erykah Badu: But You Cain't Use My Phone (Motown/Control Freaq) In which the former Erica Wright gives up astrology readings and conspiracy theories and returns to her greatest calling: comedy. Hiring a hapless Drake impersonator for a tribute/parody to "Hotline Bling," offering up her dee-jaying services for your cousin's slip-and-slide party, and telling Tyrone if he wants to send a message to her he needs to teach himself Morse Code for the old towel-and-campfire trick, she hasn't evinced this much winning personality since Mama's Gun back in 2000. Trading the Soulquarians for the samples and synths of producer and fellow Texan Zach Witness might bum out her neo-soul fanbase, but her music hasn't been this formed and focused in years. It helps that this is predominantly made of a well-chosen bunch of idiosyncratic covers -- Usher's "U Don't Have to Call," Ray Parker's re-write of "Please Mr. Postman" for New Edition, Todd Rundgren by way of the Isley Brothers, her own "Telephone" from New Amerykah, Pt. 1. The central conceit of modern day communication is a timely one, and I'm surprised no one's tried it before -- it reminds of that time my wife and her Disneyland group met in person for the very first time -- and most of them spent their time with their heads down, glued to their cellphones. Badu and babydaddy Andre 3000 teaming up for "Hello it's Me" is downright magical, especially since I'm left wondering how much they actually call each other anymore. But please, Erykha: I don't care how heterosexual you are, don't replace the word "girl" with "squirrel" ever, ever again. A MINUS

BJ the Chicago Kid: In My Mind (Motown) Like Jason DeRulo, Bryan James Sledge combines aspects of the boy next door with the slavering rake, a guy whose response to the old Saturday Night/Sunday Morning dichotomy is a chorus that goes: "She says she wanna drink, do drugs, have sex tonight/But I've got church in the morning/Hopefully we can go to heaven, I pray/Hopefully we can go to heaven, 'cause I'm stayin'." After years of predators, pricks, and the usual corporate schtick, I find this an encouraging development. What mother couldn't adore this R&B dreamboat? He's industrious ("I wanna work that body like it's a nine-to-five"), respectful of the opposite sex (though not James Brown, who should get royalties for "Woman's World"), and has a way with humble ballads ("Fall on my Face" has the touch of greatness). He even lets his girl Isa get the last word on "Wait til the Morning," which suggests pre-empting tough conversations with sex might not be such a hot idea. And since Sledge's second career (after an abortive beginning with Kanye West) began with mixtapes, we also get cameos from Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, both of whose sixteen bars are always welcome. As for the meaning of the title, I always thought heart and mind go together in the spirit of any credible lover man, but here are some words to live by: "In my mind I am crazy . . . crazy about the right things. Crazy about the things that could change my life, and honestly if you ain't crazy about something, I can't rock with you. So at the end of the day man, get crazy about something." A MINUS

Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Atlantic) As your friendly neighborhood stickler for detail, I'd like to point out the paths of Hamilton and his nemesis Aaron Burr didn't cross as often as much as sextuple threat lyricist/composer/actor/dancer/singer/rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda would have you believe -- historically, they didn't become especially acquainted until they practiced law in New York, which in Broadway time would put that at the end of act one. Of course, I could also kvetch Alexander Hamilton wasn't Puerto Rican, Eliza Schuyler wasn't half-Chinese, and James Madison wasn't Nigerian, and what fun would that be? Because ultimately, the subtext of a Broadway cast consisting mainly of people of color reflects Hamilton's deep belief in American meritocracy, something "the greatest city in the world" (New York City, by a funny coincidence where this musical plays seven nights a week) theoretically makes possible, and that Miranda casts white actors to portray George III and the redcoats opposite his band of upstarts only underscores the joke. So you bet the New School is one reason why this original cast recording is such a gas -- my favorite is Daveed Diggs (half black, half Jewish), who plays the marquis de Lafayette more broadly and Thomas Jefferson more smugly than they were in real life, and makes you love it every time he seizes center stage. Cramming thirty years of history in two-and-a-half hours, I can forgive these mild transgressions because first, if they aren't always true to history they are true to human nature, insomuch as Miranda understands that from battle rapping politicians insulting each other to push their financial policies to indignant soldiers dueling to defend their "honor," regardless of the time period, mankind's foibles are immutable. And second, I'm positive that Hamilton, a destitute immigrant from the Caribbean island of St. Croix, would completely sympathize -- of all the founding fathers, he was the only one who began and ended his political career an unapologetic abolitionist. Thomas Jefferson, go hang your head, over there in the corner with Andrew Lloyd-Webber. A

Archy Marshall: A New Place 2 Drown (True Panther Sounds) Taken out of context, the title would seem to mean the weeping brook into which Ophelia threw her weedy trophies and herself; in context, Marshall clarifies with a drawl what he's drowning isn't himself but his sorrows. But in what, exactly? Oh, the usual things: sex, drugs, music, J.D. Salinger, a short film, and a classy tome of poetry/sketches/photographs curated by his brother Jack, not necessarily in that order. I don't recommend this approach as a life strategy -- believe me Archy, I was young once, too -- but I can't deny its seductiveness entrenched in music this haunting, compelling, cerebral, and sexy. In fact, though some claim this is some weird strain of indie rock (a la Deerhunter on Halcyon Digest) or punk jazz (James Chance was never this loose), I myself couldn't nail any antecedents other than Tricky, so you can imagine my shock when instead of a scowling Black Briton with asthma problems, Marshall turned out to be a skinny urchin who looks like Rupert Grint's malnourished kid brother. His slack jawed, nick-your-trainers baritone is far better suited to these stoned beats and phantasmagoric keyboard lines than they ever were to the more straightforward singer-songwriter-with-guitar moves of his former identity as King Krule, as well as his free associative verse, which mostly concerns the usual post-adolescent sexual resentment no matter how much he hides it behind Barry White and cornball BBC sitcoms. Also like Tricky, he seems to relish juxtaposing sticky sexual details ("Locked in blood, gunk, fluids and mixtures/Of sweat, grease chicken, beef and love leaking stitches") with tributes to his mum, who in Archy's case lives down the hall. Yeah, that's right, down the hall -- you can see her in that short film. No wonder the kid's love life sucks. A MINUS

Willie Nelson: Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (Legacy) Not that Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon weren't deserving of being canonized by the Library of Congress, but Willie Nelson is the Gershwin Prize's most spiritually appropriate recipient. Thought for much of the sixties to be out of touch with the country mainstream with his unusual vocal phrasing -- either jumping ahead or lagging behind the beat, many complained -- he later revealed the source of his unique style with the 1978 album Stardust, which made clear his debts both to the Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition and the great pop and jazz singers that staked their reputations by endlessly toying with it. Nelson has dabbled in his penchant for standards many times since -- with the glut of old fogeys indulging in them, it's almost been a commercial necessity -- but this is one is special for two reasons. First, because it features Nelson's touring band, led by his pianist sister Bobbie and who probably have had these songs ingrained in their DNA for years. Second, because not only is Willie's wry, poignant, playful baritone made for George's tunes and rhythms, but his yearning brings depth to Ira's lyrics on material you thought had been plumbed to the ocean floor. In fact, my only complaints are the duets: Sheryl Crow on "Embraceable You" (passable -- did you know she was once an elementary school teacher?) and Cyndi Lauper on "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (in which she crosses Blossom Dearie with the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre). Elsewhere, this is a delightful treasure trove for those on the younger side of your humble downloader's mid-life crisis. For those on the older side, you're probably wondering: do I need yet another version of "Summertime?" You betcha. A

Bonnie Raitt: Dig in Deep (Redwing) I would like to credit Bonnie's best since 1991's Luck of the Draw to the crisp self-production -- incredibly, the first time she's manned the boards on her own in her forty-five year recording career. But really, I'm just glad she dismissed Joe Henry, who co-helmed 2012's Grammy-winning (i.e.: zzzz) Slipstream. In truth, Bonnie has aligned herself with several top notch producers over the years, but Don Was and the team of Mitchell Froom/Tchad Blake had their names on winners as often as they did outright losers. So as always, you can boil success down to songs, some written by the artiste, some by hired guns, and all about "love" except a poignant ballad about her father and an anti-banking song even droller than Boz Scaggs' ("I'm here to tell you your sicken loan is coming due," right on, sister). Except these are the kind of love songs you remember, not merely because of memorable tunes per se -- although there are plenty of those to go around -- but because rather than muddle about in romantic vagaries, each lyric focuses on a specific aspect of a relationship dynamic. It's an unintended consequence of love. I would have lied, but I couldn't lie, 'cause I knew. I'm all alone with something to say. Never could have guessed it, best friends since we were kids, but now I lose it every time that you're near. With articulate, punchy solos from Bonnie and the band a given, you're probably wondering if she's come up with a more left field cover than the last outing's Gerry Rafferty. So I direct you to her startling take on INXS's "Need You Tonight," the original of which always reminded of the Doors -- sex as a crude art pose, or an avenue to score a top ten hit. Both noble endeavors, I say. But Bonnie delivers it like she wants you to hop under the covers pronto. Guess which version is more convincing. A

Rihanna: Anti (Westbury Road Entertainment/Roc Nation) For four years in a row, from 2009 to 2012, Robin Fenty released an album for the Christmas buying season -- a pretty much unheard of level of productivity that struck me less as Beatles-Stones level inspiration and more assembly line workaholicism. Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy her singles along with everybody else, but how else are you going to sell records if you don't have a few of those coming off the presses? Then she took a breather, for aesthetic reasons I would assume as well as personal ones, and her reward is her most satisfying long player. No hit singles here, and the album has underwhelmed sales-wise, but that's the price she pays for the independence she claims for herself in lyrics after lyric, and if this isn't as amazing as the Beyonce album that many silly people think isn't as good as Beck's dreary Mourning Face (or whatever it's called), the artiste, well, isn't Beyonce. Give her credit, however, for jumping on the Kanye West bandwagon, joining the growing cadre of hip hop artists who are using their power and clout for creativity rather than sinking into a morass of complacency. Skipping out the dance floor to the chill out room, this sounds like it could be a Massive Attack or Tricky record, with nods to Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and, er, Tame Impala, and finally this Barbados native's dancehall moves are organic rather than contrived. And though the bad girl act does get wearying, finally she's unpacking the psychology that fuels it -- "There ain't nothing here for me/But I don't want to be alone," or the sadly knowing "Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch/Didn't they tell you I was a savage?" I'm sure there a lot of naïve young people who would describe the stoned brag about how "amazing" she's in bed as "sex positive" or some nonsense like that, but until now it never occurred to me how many victims of abuse often suffer from the insecurity that they're only worth a damn in bed. And if you think I'm being puritanical, I never get that feeling with Beyonce, who also offers up far juicier conjugal details. Sure Re, white knights are an icky, codependent lot. But that only means you're selling what he's desperately buying, and your folly is no less tragic. A MINUS

Rokia Traoré: Né So (Nonesuch) The titular concept ("Home") signifies differently to a diplomat's daughter than than it does to a Tuareg nomad, even if they are both angry at the same religious fundamentalists that have taken that concept away from them -- do the guys in Tinariwen split their time between Bamako, Paris, and Marseille? Not to downplay their respective struggles, but the difference is between an upper middle class feminist who has the freedom to do and express whatever she wants, and a single working class mom stuck in two dead end jobs barely scraping by raising her two kids. Traoré's music has always been "beautiful," sometimes even compelling, but what it doesn't have is urgency, something you can't say about most other Malian musicians. With John Parish once again in the producer's seat, the interweaving guitar lines and tricky time signatures are about as close as African music gets to art rock, and even if it's more heartfelt, it's also the music of privilege. Like 2013's Beautiful Africa, this starts strong and winds down, especially tripping when she translates her one-world banalities to English or cedes platitude duties to Devendra Barnhart. The apotheosis of all this is covering "Strange Fruit" in 2016, rather than hiring a rapper to drop some knowledge down about Ferguson: conservatory protest past its sell-by date rather than righteous dissent in the current moment. I can't deny this record's prettiness, even in its most languid moments -- but she could be moaning about the pleasures of gardening or home cooking and we would be none the wiser. B PLUS

The Velvet Underground: The Complete Matrix Tapes (Polydor) If the sixties was the greatest decade for rock and roll, how come it produced so few worthwhile live albums? Between weak performances, subpar recording technology, and Berry Gordy's unceasing desire to cram his flagship acts into dinner jackets for gigs at the Copa, classics on the order of Live/Dead and the Beatles' Live at the Hollywood Bowl are few and far between. It says something that the only three artists who have multiple live albums worth attending to -- we'll leave the Dead out of this -- are Hendrix, James Brown, and the Velvets, all of whom evolved aesthetically from album to album, toured to death, and never failed to give their fans more than rote recitals. This four-disc bonanza, which would have been deemed an "event" back when people gave a shit about CDs and would have been priced twice as much its $29.98 retail, documents two nights from the band's intermittent month-long residency at San Francisco's Matrix Theatre -- November 13th-15th declares the original ticket (Barry "Eve of Destruction" McGuire a few days later!), but recorded on the 26th and 27th according to the slug on the cover. Does any sane person really need four versions of "Heroin," totaling about forty minutes? Does "Sister Ray" keep the orgy going for thirty-seven? You bet. And oh, the revelations! For minimalists, they never executed a song the same way twice, and weren't above stretching out not unlike their supposed polar opposites in the Dead -- the fagged-out ennui Lou Reed masters in the slowed-down versions of "Sweet Jane" and "I'm Waiting for the Man" has been imitated to the point of parody, but never equaled. Doug Yule emerges as the greatest noise-rock organist of the decade. And guitar, guitar, more guitar. I once thought I could hear the riff of "What Goes On" ad infinitum -- or at the very least, for nine minutes. Turns out I was right. A MINUS

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music) Acts of insanity should be judged by their circumstances and levels of aforethought. If I were to bum rush Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards because I thought Beyonce deserved to win for "Single Ladies," I could easily dismiss it in a week and blame it on booze, nerves, or the rush of the moment. This mixtape cum cris de cerveau and the Twitter meltdown leading up to and away from it are in a different realm of lunacy altogether. Rearranging titles and track listings from day to day, rationalizing a lay with Taylor Swift because "I made that bitch famous," comparing his marriage to Kim Kardashian to the trials of the biblical Mary and Joseph, fretting whether that Tribeca model's asshole-bleaching might stain his shirt, or completely yanking his latest opus from Tidal (its only outlet!) after a mere twenty-four hours, he's pushing buttons to see how far he can go, then retreating into his shell when the politically correct wing of the internet spanks him for his transgressions. When he short-circuits after skipping a few Lexapro doses, I really feel for him -- the dude needs a better psychiatrist, one who does more than introducing him to patients with the hip hop equivalent of a screenplay to sell. Not unlike his buddy Paul McCartney -- strangely absent from the proceedings -- West recycles motifs and unused fragments in the time-honored side-two-of-Abbey-Road fashion, and it completely suits both the tortured subject matter and the artiste's angst-ridden mindset. The "real" album will supposedly come out this summer. I'll believe it when I hear it. It may be "superior" in quality -- but it won't be nearly as revealing. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Tricky/Skilled Mechanics: Skilled Mechanics (False Idols) Trust me Adrian, forgive your Dad -- it'll be good for your art ("Hero," "Boy") ***

Future: EVOL (Epic/Freebandz/A1) "Your Honor: Exhibit A: on track two he boasts about how he wants to forcibly put his genitals in my mouth" ("The Program," "Xanny Family") **

Lyrics Born: Real People (Mobile Home) Killer music and unassailable flow, but the meatiest lyric is a mother-in-law lament not quite as funny as Ernie K. Doe's ("Holy Matrimony," "Chest Wide Open") **

David Bowie: (Columbia) Contemplating scary monsters (Death) and super creeps (Thom Yorke?) ("Lazarus," "★") **

Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers) Not even God would go on about "Faith and Grace" for twelve endless minutes ("Place in my Heart," "Dust") *

Pinegrove: Cardinal (Run For Cover) Evan Stephens Hall does indeed have more soul and brains than Robin Pecknold, but doesn't everyone? ("Then Again," "New Friends") *


El Guincho: Hiperasia (Nacional) Supposedly inspired by the eclectic music played in the Hiper Asia chain of Chinese bazaars Pablo Díaz-Reixa frequented in Madrid, GOOD AFTERNOON SHOPPERS AND WELCOME TO HIPERASIA [*Berryz Kobo on the intercom] Chinese broccoli on sale this week for a 1.1 Euros a pound, Kenji cleanup on aisle fifteen, would you like to sample the new Sangria-flavored Ramune GOOD AFTERNOON SHOPPERS AND WELCOME TO HIPERASIA how fresh is this tuna [ . . . ] wouldyoulikepaperorplasticwiththat I'm sorry we only have the narrow rice noodles excuse me I need to get into this aisle [ . . . ] Aquí está su cambio, Señor GOOD AFTERNOON SHOPPERS AND WEL B MINUS

Jeremih: Late Nights (Def Jam) Like most English majors, I have a deep appreciation for dirty talk, and in rock and roll as in literature, there's a gold standard: Marvin Gaye and Madonna, Prince and Liz Phair. The four of them have something in common, which is the knowledge that the genitals don't get aroused by manual stimulation alone -- you also have to move the heart and/or spark the brain. For example, Prince Charles' desire to be reincarnated as his beloved's tampon disgusts not because of the literal reality of the metaphor, but its dunderheaded banality -- this is the woman that gets you hotter than Diana and that's your best come hither? Hailing from the same city as the far sweeter BJ the Chicago Kid, journeyman R&B mack daddy Jeremy Felton likewise can't tell the boudoir from the locker room -- laying down an offer to join the Mile High Club, comparing her vaginal juices to Crown Royal Regal Apple, sticking his finger in her ass without buying her a nice dinner first, or coaxing J. Cole to spit a couplet about how his dick is so big it'll feel like "a foot in your mouth," these are the puerile sexual fantasies of a smug dimwit whose marijuana brag -- I can't get over this -- actually references Ray-J's "I Hit it First," his infamous yes-but-I-made-a-sextape-with-her reminder to Kanye West. And, if I may indulge myself in a little semantics, he confuses the concepts of "climate" and "weather" like a goddamn Fox News meteorology "expert." He needs that gaggle of pinch-hitting rappers to distract from his mundanity, and none do him any favors. As for dull beats, I'm betting it's part of his end game -- putting her to sleep as a prelude to sticking it in seems about his speed. C PLUS

Elton John: Wonderful Crazy Night (Island) First of all, shut your goddamn mouth -- back when I was a kid and this guy pounded the 88s in a Donald Duck suit, he was my hero. Even as a five-year-old I knew that the first side of Caribou rocked and the second was lame, so when Sir Reg's press machine promised us an album solely of uptempo rock and roll, I remember nodding off through the maudlin Peachtree Road material ten years ago at Cox Cable arena, telling myself "Love Lies Bleeding" and "Rocket Man" would be in the second half of the show. So fuck naivety: I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Except this isn't 1974 -- a lot has happened to Elton since then: The Lion King, electric pianos, vocal nodules, tours with Billy Joel. And, I would also argue, AIDS benefits, Ryan White, coming out of the closet, Princess Diana's death, sponsoring Eminem's sobriety, marriage and kids. In other words, he's "matured" enough so that he thinks his fans don't expect product from him, they expect significance. Unfortunately for Elton, he's always left significance to Bernie Taupin, whose lyrics were inconsistent even at Elton's peak, and were almost always mush whenever he aimed for depth or candor. Especially in the team's vaunted "assembly line" mode, many of their best moments were tossed off -- the buoyantly light doggerel of "Solar Prestige a Gammon," the catty "The Bitch is Back," the committed-but-to-what anthem "Philadephia Freedom." This begins with a hopping-bopping ditty that makes "Crocodile Rock" sound like "Search and Destroy" and read like "All the Young Dudes." Later, it "peaks" with a hoary paean to lost bluesman Utah Smith, who deserves more than a lyric that romanticizes his "old Gibson" but delivers T. Bone Burnette's sanitized production values. Personal to Elton: bring back Ann Orson and Carte Blanche. Now those were some lyricists. C

Milk Teeth: Vile Child (Hopeless) I'm intrigued by the notion that England is warming to the notion of American indie rock -- even if it's twenty, thirty years too late -- but key touches like amateurish singing, alternate tunings, and dodgy production values are beyond them. I imagine this quartet gets ink because they're actually two bands in one -- or were, since Josh Bannister left three weeks before this was released. I say good riddance -- sounds like he wanted the band to emulate the Melvins. That leaves the more interesting Becky Blomfield, who I bet thinks Linda Perry sold out when she started working with Pink. C PLUS

Note: El Guincho review includes two chunks of Chinese characters which cannot be represented using the current character set. Some day we'll grow up and switch to UTF, but not right now. The David Bowie album/song is otherwise known as Darkstar. Also not in the character set, but easier to work around.


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