A Downloader's Diary (8): March 2011

by Michael Tatum

A few days ago I caught myself singing "Mrs Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," a song I initially encountered on one of the first records my mother ever bought me, the Peter Pan Pop Band & Singers' Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron, which also contained revelatory covers of such kiddie chestnuts as "How Much is That Doggie in the Window" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight)." While I'd like to think that my musical tastes have grown more sophisticated over the years, in truth my love for a catchy, well constructed song pretty much begins there in my childhood, where I first made lifelong friends out of "Jet," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," and (the game-changer) "Rock Lobster." Many of the prize records in this month's "A list" reflect my profound weakness for a catchy tune, and my eternal loyalty to a beautiful one. And if you want to know why this month's "Trash" section is so lengthy, blame my lack of patience for anyone who thinks that kind of pleasure has no place in pop music. For those who want more elucidation, audio-visual content, the occasional bad pun, and for tips on how to improve your golf swing, you can hightail it to the Downloader's Diary page on Facebook. If anyone knows where I can download that Peter Pan Pop Band record, please advise. Songs as sharp as those are something rare.

The Baseball Project: Volume Two: High and Inside (Yep Roc) Having been consistently picked last in team sports as a skinny, uncoordinated, and athletically inept young man, as an adult I have as much interest in following America's Greatest Pastime as I have in following Grey's Anatomy, the Twilight saga, or the Republican Party. That's why my belated appreciation for this side project going pro bloomed only after I approached their songs as short stories -- Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, and Harvey Haddix are as fascinating characters in song as they must have been to the wide-eyed kids who fanatically traded for their cards. So though it still sounds to me like Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey sing like they're trying to hit knuckle balls with fungo bats, here's where they up their game and prove they're no minor league washouts who got lucky. Granted, their appreciation for the tarnished, what-could-have-been heroes of "Buckner's Bolero" does imply an unhealthy self-identification with also-rans and underdogs: "Some kind of fame lies in being a scapegoat/And if not that, then you're just a historical footnote/And your twenty-two years playing ball might be forgotten/Maybe Bill Buckner was lucky his luck was so rotten." But from calling out flip-floppers on the irresistible "Fair Weather Fans" to their haunting elegy for guilt-ridden Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, nearly every track hits it out of the park. Most Valuable Player: Linda Pitmon, who steps out from behind the drum kit for a few sassy backing vocal turns. Batting cleanup: the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, who brings the runners on base back home with the hard-rocking "Don't Call Them Twinkies," which until last month I would have thought was a passionate defense of crème-filled sponge cakes. But I bet later this month its chorus will be a deafening roar from the fans in Target Field when the Twins take their positions at the top of the first. A

Hayes Carll: KMAG YOYO (And Other American Stories) (Lost Highway) These days, Conor Oberst notwithstanding, people aren't so anxious about finding the "new Dylan" anymore, perhaps because a little more than a decade ago, the old Dylan decided to re-fill the gaping hole he left round about Blood on the Tracks. But that's not the reason I myself am far more interested in finding the new John Prine. I want a songwriter who gives it to me straight, with a wry sense of humor and a penchant for honest sentiment, someone who documents the hard times of ordinary people who "aren't what they get for a living" and others who "steal what they need," and right now, Joshua Hayes Carrl is that songwriter. Somehow, I get the feeling that whatever his actual financial condition, this former history major would be perfectly content to tour America's underbelly with his acoustic guitar from the back seat of his car -- like buddy and featured guest Todd Snider, he's addicted to the road, as well as bad romance and dalliances with the occasional controlled substance. The first half rocks harder than his excellent Lost Highway debut Trouble in Mind and is nearly as funny, from haranguing that Dylan is "overrated" to impress the spray-tanned redneck woman of his dreams to dodging action in Afghanistan by going AWOL to grab a piece of the heroin trade. The second half leans a little too heavily on the ballads and could use a few more of his patented tall tales to even it out. But the song that tips the scales for me is the poignant "Grateful for Christmas," which mentions the "birth of our lord" only as a setup rhyme for "my folks and my brother in an '82 Ford," and doesn't waste a minute speculating if his dead family members are watching in approval from heaven -- he's just thankful to be sharing the imperfect present with those left behind, and I say amen. B+

The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts (Memphis Industries) Ian Parton may not be your idea of a musical genius, but anyone who can meld together irritating musical elements ranging from high school marching bands, Japanese pop, Double Dutch chants, and football cheers into a rousing dance pop amalgam has achieved . . . well, something. To vary things up, he tosses in two heaven-sent girl group tributes, one guest starring Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino, who would start a youth revolution if only she could find change for the subway. Sadly, the dance floor clears out with some ill-conceived, beefed-up exotica toward the middle, but they end on a pair of high notes, including a title track that suggests Puffy Amiyumi going gaga over Yo La Tengo. "Where's the 'Be My Baby?'" you may complain. I say anyone can achieve this level of sonic grandeur without any hint of neurotic undertow knows things about joy undreamt of in Phil Spector's philosophy. B+

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant) Gordon Brown wasn't the British prime minister who got into bed with George II to the disgrace of his nation; nevertheless, it took some kind of courage for Polly Jean Harvey to tell him in song that England's dancing days were done when she performed this album's title track on BBC One. In a striking, radically original musical setting that encompasses autoharp, trombone, xylophone, and bass harmonica and suggests a Salvation Army band produced by Tricky, Harvey channels that same courage to give voice to unburied ghosts from wars forgotten, imagined, and still in progress. Sometimes she inhabits the role of a narrator, and sometimes phantoms float up to the surface of the music to bear witness: a disembodied bugler leads a spectral charge, Winston "Niney" Holness vows to burn down the oil fields, and Harvey henchmen Mick Harvey and John Parish sardonically pledge to join Eddie Cochran for that protest at the United Nations. So much blather has been written about this record and its putative connection to the "Great War" (as opposed to the less poetic "World War I") that I can only assume that a lot of rock critics are lazily using their press releases as Cliff's Notes, but although the two songs based on Gallipoli reminiscences are almost as powerful as "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," what's most striking here is not the record's universality, but its eerie specificity. "The Words That Maketh Murder" for example, turns the failure of diplomacy into a cruel existential joke, and if you think that's not timely, remember that in 1917 the United Nations was thirty years away from being created. Leading me to suspect that if Harvey had an audience with Barack Obama, she'd tell him in song our dancing days were over, too. A [Later: B+]

Todd Snider: Live: The Storyteller (Aimless) My late grandfather used to tell this multipartite joke that was about, naturally, joke telling. In it, a group of prisoners had gotten so used to each other's company that they had memorized each other's jokes, and had accordingly affixed a number to each one for quick reference and an easy laugh. So they tell a new inmate to shout out a random number, as a sort of test and initiation. "Number seventeen!" he yells, to silence. "What happened?" he asks the prisoner next to him, who shrugs and replies: "I dunno -- I guess it's in the way you tell it." That punch line explains how Snider's conversational twang encourages his audience to laugh at jokes you know they've already memorized from the records, like these two from "Greencastle Blues": "You know the number one symptom of heart disease is sudden death," and "Less than an ounce for possession? Shit -- I can do that kind of time standing up." It also explains why I don't mind solo reprises of my favorite tracks from the must-own East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know, even if in the end I prefer them with a full band, and faster -- this has to be the rare live album on which the artiste actually slows down the tempi of the original recordings. Fulfilling truth in advertising, the stories alluded to in the subtitle enliven the lesser songs they sometimes interrupt, and while Snider disdains organized religion, the occasional cadence of his monolgues and his tongue-in-cheek deploying of call-and-response techniques does suggest a secular church of comedy -- the best kind of church, actually. I'd like to think my grandfather, who also fell asleep in his fair share of pews, would have approved. A–

Lucinda Williams: Blessed (Lost Highway) Most of Lucinda Williams' post-Car Wheels on a Gravel Road output has sprung from the idea that Steve Earle was on to something when he declared that Lucinda's botched dobro intro to "Can't Let Go" was worth keeping -- in fact, was more "perfect" than had she insisted on multiple retakes to the tedium of her session players. Dylan devotees claim this is the essence of great rock and roll, and while they may be right, the ethos hasn't always served Williams well, which is why Hal Willner's imposed artiness on West was a welcome departure. This however, is the first new Lucinda record which hasn't made me miss the precision and accomplishment of the old ones. Part of its success can be attributed to the band, which provides her most empathetic backup since Car Wheels, but mostly rests on the superiority of the songs, which are among her finest. Austere and bone-simple on the page, the lyrics are often built upon repeating parallel constructions that gain power the further she builds upon them, as in the stirring title track, a list of the commonplace miracles we take for granted that begins banally and ends up like an incantation. And the hypnotic "Awakening" comes to life in ways that poor Kate Chopin never dreamed: "I will pray for nothing/I will say what I want to/I will not make amends/I will not mourn my youth/I will give you a gift." At fifty-seven years old, she's still got gifts to give. A

Yuck: Yuck (Fat Possum) Between their insincere name and the presence of genuine female Mariko Doi on bass, some are heralding this as a early '90s revival, and if you think I'd be more interested in that prospect than the '80s revival spearheaded by Cut Copy and the Killers, you are entirely correct. But speaking as someone who will fully cop to begging his then-girlfriend to drive him to the now defunct Rhino Records (near the corner of Westwood and Santa Monica) in the pouring rain so he could purchase Slanted and Enchanted after having read about it in the Village Voice, this isn't exactly the Return of Pavement some would have you believe. Jonny Rogoff's beat is propulsive but never galvanic, and certainly doesn't sputter or trip over itself -- functional, but ultimately conventional. Similarly, Max Bloom and Daniel Blumberg's guitars are lyrical rather than noisy or jagged -- one of them strums straightforwardly while the other distorts tuneful leads that actually carry more melodic weight than the wispy vocals. But despite the sometimes offhand, lackadaisical lyrics -- those who question the literary merit of Britney Spears' latest should ponder doozies like "You can be my destiny/You can mean that much to me" -- their attractive, ear-catching tunes earn my admiration regardless. So pigeonhole them as Dinosaur Jr. with songs, or perhaps given their vaguely country moves, what the Lemonheads might have sounded like had that himbo Evan Dando had been down with the program. Maybe Malkmus could give them irony lessons? A–

Honorable Mentions

Marianne Faithfull: Horses and High Heels (Naive) Excellent white soul covers, decent originals, ghastly cover art ("Goin' Back," "No Reason," "That's How Every Empire Falls") ***

Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (New West) Makes me yearn for the days when dictatorial record companies would force bands to whittle two middling records into one pretty good one ("Ray's Automatic Weapon," "Used to be a Cop") *** [Later: A-]

Cut Copy: Zonoscope (Modular/Interscope) Kajagoogoo were always my favorite indie rock band ("Sun God," "Need You Now," "Take Me Over") **

Fujiya and Miyagi: Ventriloquizzing (Yep Roc) The tightly wound have no right to pawn off puppetry metaphors ("Cat Got Your Tongue," "Taiwanese Roots") **

Cake: Showroom of Compassion (Upbeat) Brutal opener cocks an eyebrow at fiscal malfeasance, after which they shift the satirical focus to -- ho, hum -- themselves ("Federal Funding," "Long Time") *

Adele: 21 (XL/Columbia) Her "maturity" is what appeals to her claque and what bores those of us who smirk at the irony of her age-referential album titles ("Rolling in the Deep") * [Later: B+]

Cloud Nothings: Cloud Nothings (Carpark) Nice, wiry lo-fi guitar propels these cartoony car tunes, but the vocals must have cost a fortune in helium ("Should Have") *


James Blake: James Blake (Atlas) Having once giddily overused the word postmodern to the annoyance of my college friends, I have nothing against a little aesthetic deconstruction -- in fact, I welcome it. But at some point, those components have to lock together so those sitting in the cheap seats can connect with it, and nothing like that happens here. The presciently titled, two minute "Give Me My Month" gives you this sad sack Londoner's approach sans special effects: mush-mouthed, faux-gospel white soul vocalizations, austere piano chords providing skeletal structure. Incredibly, the rest is minimal -- and I mean minimal -- variations on that schema. You say you were intrigued by the harmonizer treatments on Imogen Heap's a cappella "Hide and Seek?" For the first thirty seconds, maybe? Now imagine that facile parlor trick wearing out its welcome over the length of a seemingly endless forty minute record, lightly punctuated with a not especially beatwise overlay of metronomic ticky-tock. "Torch songs," sez Pitchfork. Oh yeah, torches and pitchforks are something like it -- don't stop storming the castle until we've tossed this con artist into the moat. C

Bright Eyes: The People's Key (Merge) I would like all of you to memorize this mantra and repeat it three times before you before you go to bed: Rock and roll and fantasy and science fiction do not mix. Sure I love Led Zep's "Ramble On," but all that preposterousness about Gollum and the "darkest depths of Mordor?" Totally embarrassing. This axiom is especially true if you take your metaphors seriously -- the George Clinton of "Bop Gun" and the David Bowie of "TVC15" kept it playful, but as with American Musical and Dramatic Academy graduate Janelle Monae on her asinine Metropolis homage, Oberst doesn't crack a smile on this overblown song suite. This begins with a two and a half minute monologue from Texas musician Denny Brewer, who prattles on incomprehensibly about Sumerian tablets, the Book of Genesis, "aliens inbreeding [sic] with humans," "800 universes spinning counterclockwise," and in the finest sensationalistic Fox News tradition, the ubiquitous (who else?) Hitler, who Brewer describes as a "chara-mystic yeller" -- an oblique Panhandle pun or cockeyed malapropism, who the fuck can tell? The tone is pure post-millennial claptrap, just in time for 2012, End of the World 2.0, and though Brewer's intrusions don't really have a connection to the rest of the record per se, they cast a pall regardless -- superfluous synthesizer overdubs, quasi-ponderous interludes, fussy arrangements that flirt dangerously with prog. There are some good melodies here -- namely, "Shell Games," which interestingly, seems to address a personality crisis in the age of celebrity. Leading one to believe that what distinguishes the records that Oberst releases under his own name from those under the Bright Eyes moniker he wants to leave behind is a stronger sense of self, free of the youthful insecurity that might inspire one to surround strong songwriting with fatuous guest stars, ornate and unnecessary instrumentation, and bullshit. Pray that Oberst gets back in touch with his better self before the Mayan calendar runs out. B

Destroyer: Kaputt (Merge) When Pitchfork's Mark Richardson descries Chuck Mangione, Sade, Steely Dan's Gaucho (as opposed to Katy Lied or even Aja), the gauche silkscreens of Playboy shill Patrick Nagel, and that incredibly influential cover (as opposed to actual music, we are assured) of Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man in these hollow grooves, I'm at least impressed by his candor -- "beautiful plasticity" is not what most musicians would deem a compliment. Theoretically, Dan Bejar redeems his bland late '70 pastiche by critiquing the time period it evokes, but all I hear is smug condescension -- when he recounts in that Carol Channing on Prozac drawl about "a savage night at the opera/a savage night at the club," "chasing some girls, alright/chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night," he sounds like the kind of petulant creep that the bouncers at Studio 54 would have kept lingering forlornly at the door. I'm reminded of Roxy Music's Siren and Chic's Risqué -- two superior records from guys who might have been appalled by singles bars and coke parties, but understood the pleasure principle enough to give the world "Love is the Drug" and "Good Times." By contrast, all Bejar's got are tinkly seventh chords he swiped from Nicolette Larsen's cover of Neil Young's "Lotta Love." Someone hire that man a cheap hooker. C+

Ebo Taylor: Love and Death (Strut) The latest minor Afropop veteran to be rescued from obscurity by the nice folks at Strut is a Ghanaian highlife bandleader best known for the spellbinding, re-recorded hit that lends its name to his first internationally released album's title: "On our wedding day she gave me a kiss/It was the kiss of death/Love and death walk hand in hand." Except even there the power derives from the gravity of the words, not necessarily the music -- the backing musicians in Afrobeat Academy are so stiff they make the Budos Band sound like the Famous Flames. Which made me wonder: where did they pluck these players from? Accra? Kumasi? Neighbouring Lagos, Nigeria? Answer: Berlin. C+

Eisley: The Valley (Equal Vision)

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)

Lone: Emerald Fantasy Tracks (Magic Wire)

Jessica Lea Mayfield: Tell Me (Nonesuch)

Anna Waronker: California Fade (Five Foot Two)

White Lies: Ritual (Fiction/Geffen)

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