A Downloader's Diary (3): October 2010

by Michael Tatum

There have been more pivotal, transformative markers in my life -- the day I got married, my grandpa's funeral, hell, the heartbreaking morning last August when Wendy and I found our beloved Ruby dead at the bottom of his bowl -- but Robert Christgau's premature retirement of the Consumer Guide has certainly changed the way I hunt for new music. Jenny and Johnny's delightful I'm Having Fun Now is the kind of record I would have found on my own, but many of the unexpected choice finds below resulted from (for me) uncharacteristic forays into all sorts of world music cross-pollinations, from a cosmopolitan Barcelonian to an expatriate Swede, bhangra from India and "new wave dance music" from South Africa -- all of which excite the old pleasure center more than the new Les Savy Fav or Neil Young. Meanwhile, heading the "trash" section you'll find dissections on two incredibly overrated "roots" records that have been receiving way too much positive press. (Personal to Will Hermes: claiming Jamey Johnson's pro-corporeal punishment "By the Seat of Your Pants" rides a "funky Stevie Wonder-style keyboard riff" -- how could you?) "Record processing," as the Dean once described it -- there's no reason any sane person would do it, especially as a sideline for amusement, with no monetary recompense on the horizon. But it's a diversion I recommend to anyone.

El Guincho: Pop Negro (Young Turks/XL) I'd been anxiously anticipating the arrival of Pablo Díaz-Reixa's feria ambulante for weeks, so you can imagine my giddy excitement when I discovered it had pitched its tents in my hometown a few days early. Less negro than multicolor, the gleeful ringmaster let loose thrill after thrill: fireworks, ferris wheel, rollercoaster, and a parade that didn't just march by, it enveloped my wife and me, lifted us up, and set up atop a passing-by papier-mâché float. Needless to say, we had a blast. Two minor complaints, though: several of the attractions unexpectedly halted mid-ride -- a clever trick the first time, but not so much I didn't notice when it happened again. Also, the rides all had the same aerodynamic thrust: a herky-jerk start-stop motion that after awhile got tiresome. The Greatest Show on Earth, you ask? Well, pretty darn good, but I've experienced better. Is it worth the ticket? Ask me later -- I wanna ride "Bombay" one more time. A-

Jenny and Johnny: I'm Having Fun Now (Warner Bros.) I don't get these protests that Johnny is riding Jenny's coattails -- aside from arrangement ideas and melodic contributions to songs that would have been nothing without Jenny singing them, Blake Sennett owns only one great song on Rilo Kiley's two classic records: the hypnotic "Dreamworld," on which Jenny sings the hook. I'm not saying that treating your boyfriend like he's Gram Parsons actually turns him into Gram Parsons, but Johnny's no slouch -- yes, Jenny gets all the best lines ("I don't believe in sucking my way to the top," she confides) and it's Jenny's songs you notice first, especially "Big Wave," about the house that Arnie wrecked. But you notice Jenny's songs first mainly because she owns the superior set of pipes -- aside from the zippy "Scissor Runner," on which Jenny supplies punch lines to Johnny's soon-to-be-duped straight man, he turns in winner after winner, culminating in the record's centerpiece, "Animal," the saddest song about being a "headstrong agnostic man" you've ever heard. And while it's true Jenny's throwaway waltz is the record's only real dud, she emerges from this "side project" unscathed as the finest young singer-songwriter standing. And like so many of the greats, working in collaboration brings out the idiosyncrasies, musical and otherwise, that her perfectly fine solo records do not. A

Khaled: Liberté (Wrasse) Almost completely overlooked in America (hmm, I wonder why), acolytes of the man once considered Rai's great crossover hope describe this 2009 return to form as a "roots" move, which I find slightly disingenuous -- producer Martin Messonnier, the man who brought King Sunny Ade into the digital age on Synchro System and Aura, isn't exactly a "roots" kind of guy. Synthesizers still play a major role in the music, but their presence is more subtle: the beats allure rather than abrade, the arrangement components imitate the organic rather than the metallic -- basically, an album for listening, not for dancing (hence, why the roots crowd digs it). This also means as opposed to a song showcase like 1994's Don Was-assisted N'ssi, N'ssi, still the place to start, what we get instead is a vocal showcase along the lines of Youssou N'Dour's Egypt -- not quite as successful, but only a step below. This time around he's ambitious for sure: after a few listens, you can discern a satisfying ebb and flow, enhanced by intros that actually do set moods for the mostly captivating tracks that follow. Though Khaled is still apolitical -- the prison metaphor in the title track refers to his newfound artistic freedom, not an imagined escape from Abu Ghraib -- it's worth noting that the right wing Muslims who exiled him from Algeria loathe him even more the right wing Christians whose ears would blister if they heard this blaring from their next door neighbor's window. Proof for the Sarah Palin fan in your family that whether Islamic or Christian, theological or musical, wherever you go, the enemies are the same: fundamentalism and purity. A-

Robyn: Body Talk, Vol. 2 (Cherrytree/Interscope) Sure it's markedly better than the first volume, but consumers have a right to be annoyed: who can reasonably be expected to plunk down their hard earned cash for three eight-track EPs retailing at roughly eight dollars each, rather than one trim, budget-priced fifteen track CD? Perhaps Cherrytree thinks this strategy discourages downloading, but I would argue it encourages it -- as we speak my evil dopplegänger is architecting his own digital reconstruction, beginning of course with the first volume's all purpose theme song "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do," but certainly followed by the opener here, the skyrocketing "In My Eyes." No redeeming social value, you say? I say "Can I get a bam bam for all my whatchamacallits doing whatever with whomever they like" is my kind of nonsense dancefloor credo. And a woman whose aesthetic owes everything to Madonna's "Into the Groove" fulfills all the redeeming social value she'll ever need. A-

The Rough Guide to Bhangra, Second Edition (World Music Network) A more ecstatic embracing of and/or reliance on electronic gimmickry, even more so than the success of "Beware of the Boys" and Slumdog Millionaire, justifies this sequel to Rough Guide's 2001 set. Live musicians couldn't come close to duplicating the sputtering synthesized tablas and sitars that decorate the best tracks here, even if the price of westernization also leads to Niraj Chag's Celine Dion moment and one with English lyrics that makes me pine for Nicole Scherzinger. Then again, perhaps that's merely emblematic of the genre's omnivorous kitchen-sink voraciousness, compelling them to corral foreign sounds not just because producers know novel hooks sell hits (although there's certainly that) but also because they're simply enamored with sound. (I mean, are those really uilleann pipes I hear on "Mera Yaar Vajawe Dhol?") The most intense hour of music you'll hear all year, peaking with Panjabi MC's retooling of the Dhol Drillerz' awe-inspiring "Boliyan," rescued from the second half of his otherwise overlooked Indian Timing megamix. Don't blame that recent earthquake on plate tectonics -- I'm fairly certain it was a mob of several million Indians simultaneously booming out this song from several million radios, stomping the ground in flawlessly choreographed unison. A-

Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music from South Africa (Honest Jon's) I realize why some may be irritated by the novelty factor here -- separately, both my wife and my brother mildly dismissed its "Donkey Kong" aesthetic -- but for me, the compilation I've nicknamed The Uncatchable Beat of Limpopo is the most exciting, energetic, and completely mind-boggling musical subgenre since the mash-up crowd failed to take over more than a few square blocks of London in 2002. I love it not just for its invention and its vivacity, but also its paradoxes. Dance music almost too fast at 180 beats per minute? Primo Afropop -- with no bass? Only to discover with shock -- I still can't get over this -- that the entire low end to these songs is supplied by a cheesy synth marimba? How about the crowning contradiction: a high energy synthesis of various urban-associated musical styles purveyed by rural folk who escape from the jobs they hate in downtown Johannesburg by returning to their homes on the river -- to cook up arrhythmia-inducing electropop on their cheap laptops. The wild-eyed Tasmanian Devil behind all this merry mischief is Richard "Nozinga" Mthetwa, alias "Dog," who has managed to sell (we are told) tens of thousands of records from his mini-bus, garnered several South African music awards, and even hustled a local Kentucky Fried Chicken advert without -- prior to now -- any distribution outside of South Africa and Mozambique. The snooty objection that he leans heavily on "pre-sets" bothers me about as much as hip hop purists who complain about Sean Combs' shamelessly obvious samples -- if anyone with a beat-up Dell could generate dance tracks this hot, why is the only person in Limpopo able to do it this savvy former cell phone repairman? And this unstoppable twelve track sampler spanning from 2006 to 2009 is the cream: the bizarre but tasty fruit of a music-mad, one-man cottage industry who must regard "Bombs over Baghdad" as a wistful ballad. How does that outrageous hook go in the opener? Bzzz dodododo woowoo -- "yuh dri-i-i-i-ve muh cra-a-a-zay!" Have fun figuring it out. A

Ski Beatz: 24 Hour Karate School (DD172/Def Jam) I wouldn't swear the only reason I spent so much time with Curren$y's Pilot Talk has come up with a hook here as striking as that record's "Audio Dope II" (off-kilter steel drum) or "Seat Change" (an apparently unsampled riff that sent me fruitlessly searching my Funkadelic records for the original). Then again, ear candy is probably the perfect aural metaphor on a record where the producer, artiste, and target audience all have the munchies -- here the focus is more on texture and flow, solid beats and steady backdrops, blank canvases on which Damon Dash's DD172 roster can drop, drip, and spatter some abstract expressionism. So while nothing here jumps out as an obvious power cut -- the banging "I Got Mines," the only track constructed as an actual verse-chorus-verse song, comes close -- the shifting cast, featuring Ras Kass, Jean Grae, Curren$y himself, and others, gives this "mixtape" an engaging variety that the more laid-back Pilot Talk lacks. I wish the title was keyed to a Handsome Boy Modeling School-style concept rather than merely serving as an all-purpose umbrella for thematically unconnected tracks, but I even get a buzz off the two closing instrumentals, including the swanky, trumpet-flecked "Cream of the Planet," which I would have dismissed as elevator bullshit had it appeared on some Herb Alpert comeback album, but here sounds silky and smooth. Did a little research -- turns out both originally featured Mos Def, until the usual contractual fooforaw forced Willis to erase his contributions from the official release. If only there was some way I could restore those tracks -- and this record -- to Willis' original intention. O, God bless the home computer. God bless Mediafire. A-

Richard Thompson: Dream Attic (Shout! Factory) If Hurricane Katrina can stir up Dr. John's gumbo, why can't the Next Great Depression do the same for this legendary singer-songwriter? He's sharper on the economic downturn than buddy Loudon Wainwright III because he eschews thoughtful analysis for indignant outrage: "If you'll just bend over a little/I think you'll feel my financial muscle/Spread it wide, wide as you can/To get the full benefit of my plan." His rigid baritone will never move mountains, but the live setting forces him to project these new compositions like he never does on record; similarly, the performances, cobbled together over a period of several nights, gain in roughness and immediacy what they lose in definition and studio separation. Thompson only misses on the slower numbers that he would have given to Linda -- would have loved to hear her mournful wail on the aging meditation "Crimescene," the crawling seven minute length of which she certainly would have justified. Well, everything outside of the sixty seconds dominated by Richard's astounding guitar, in which he rages against the dying of the light by setting the woods on fire. A-

Honorable Mentions

Leonard Cohen: Songs From the Road (Columbia/Legacy) Major and minor omissions from an otherwise perfect live album, plus a few redundancies to pad it out to the requisite sixty minutes ("Chelsea Hotel," "Waiting for the Miracle," "The Partisan," "Famous Blue Raincoat") ***

Les Savy Fav: Root for Ruin (Frenchkiss) Not in my nature guys, but you have to admit: on Let's Stay Friends you put a little more into the relationship ("Appetites," "Dirty Knails") ***

Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone (Anti-) Despite the peaks, I still wish this was 70% secular and 30% gospel rather than the other way around ("Don't Knock," "Creep Down, Moses," "You Are Not Alone") ***

Maximum Balloon: Maximum Balloon (DGC) I'd rather hear Dave Sitek salvage Dear Science outtakes than hear Mick Jagger salvage ones from Exile on Main St. ("Groove Me," "Absence of Light") **

Neil Young: Le Noise (Reprise) With Daniel Lanois buffing the sonics to a shiny finish, too varnished to be Arc with lyrics -- more like the second side of On the Beach, albeit louder, shallower, and without "Walk On" for contrast ("Hitchhiker," "Peaceful Valley Boulevard") **

Tricky: Mixed Race (Domino) Glad he's more balanced, but this skimpy half-hour quickie could use some of the old wild mood swings ("Early Bird," "Kingston Logic") **

Curren$y: Pilot Talk (DD172/Def Jam) First-class DJ blows smoke rings in the face of a Li'l Wayne sidekick, who thanks him for the contact high by doing the dishes ("Audio Dope II," "Seat Change") **

Dr. John and the Lower 911: Tribal (429) The Roots would have spruced up the Night Tripper's paeans to Katrina and other "lesser emergencies" -- too bad he's too set in ways to take that leap ("Big Gap," "Manoovas") **


Jamey Johnson: The Guitar Song (Mercury Nashville) Although between the stock melodies and scratch arrangements there's more formula music here than anyone will admit, I understand why critics compare Johnson favorably to Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr. Unfortunately, what those critics won't tell you (or don't know) is that neither Jennings or Junior has ever established himself as a country artist of great distinction, though each possessed enough image consciousness to play up his proximity to those who were -- although in fairness to both, neither had the hubris to release two hour-long CDs of new material in one shot. Sure, there are winners -- I mean come on, out of twenty-five songs it would be statistically improbable if he couldn't come up with a few -- but they're outnumbered by the misses, and the truly vile tracks are hard to ignore. "California Riots" offends me not just for upping the pro forma Southern elitism of "Playing the Part" into thinly-veiled paranoia, but also because like Johnson I grew up in Alabama -- I entered the Birmingham elementary school system in 1975, right around the time they had just finished desegregating the schools. Then there's the impassioned defense of spanking children that the band bloats to six and a half minutes (climaxing with, I shit you not, an interpolation of the Hawaii Five-O theme), robbing what tiny grace there is from a maudlin lullaby for his six-year old daughter that actually makes Harry Chapin look honest. As for the covers, any second-stringer from Trace Adkins to Tim McGraw could have done right by Keith Whitley's idiot-proof "Lonely at the Top," but to pick only one, Johnson completely botches Mel Tillis' "Mental Revenge" by playing it straight -- Christ, even Linda Ronstadt knew better. Sure, it goes without saying this respectable Outlaw Professional scores better on the "black side" than the "white side." But I'd argue his main problem is being unable to see the world in anything other than black and white in the first place. B-

Mumford and Sons: Sigh No More (Glass Note) Playing Belle and Sebastian at the barn-raising to Laura Marling's Sandy Denny without a drinking problem, Marcus Mumford's quartet defines itself with an odd arrangement trick: dynamic crescendos that leap from the introspective to the bombastic, yet curiously still sound static. I suppose I can understand why some hear this as trumpets greeting them at the Kingdom of Heaven, but I take issue with the lyrics, which are not only syntactically clumsy (who says "Tell me now where was my fault in loving you with my whole heart?") but beholden to a worldview both insufferably elitist and conspicuously lacking in munificence. Stevie Wonder's "Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away" softens my agnosticism partly because it's more beautiful than anything Mumford will ever write, partly because it approaches doubt with kindness and empathy, and partly because generally speaking, Stevie has the good taste not to bring in the Lord when his relationships fall through. Manly enough to admit straightforwardly "I really fucked it up this time" in his oft-quoted UK hit, Mumford otherwise spends most of his time pontificating, in stilted quasi-nineteenth century verbiage, on the perfidy of women: "Oh the shame that sent me off from the God that I once loved/Was the same that sent me into your arms." Or: "So make your siren's call/And sing all you want/I will not hear what you have to say/Cause I need freedom now/And I need to know how/To live my life as it's meant to be." Or: "How can you say that your truth is better than ours?" I don't know about "truth," but this strikes me as the return of sexual repression masquerading as Christian virtue, which hasn't been this nauseating since the heyday of Scott Stapp, who these days can be spotted every Thursday at the local Pure Platinum, bellowing "My Sacrifice" to his latest stripper-pole crush. B-

Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses: Junky Star (Lost Highway)

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Hawk (Vanguard)

CEO: White Magic (Modular/Sincerely Yours)

Magic Kids: Memphis (True Panther)

Mark Olson: Many Colored Kite (Rykodisc)

Wild Nothing: Gemini (Captured Tracks)

The World Ends: Afro-Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria (Soundways)

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