A Downloader's Diary (12): July 2011

by Michael Tatum

The twelfth Downloader's Diary -- yes, it's been almost a year since I started this little obsession -- is dedicated, in the spirit of Independence Day, to rebels and oddballs, or at least, rebels and oddballs in the context of this column. We have two electronica guys, one who digs sitars, another who specializes in pre-war 78s. We have two punk records, one you need a lyric sheet to decipher, another that's supposedly in English, yet I can't understand a word. We have, in what must be a first around these parts, a Tony-winning musical. And we have the number one album in the country. No, not Bon Iver -- Justin Vernon is sitting mopily at number two. We'll get to him next month.

Sorry Bamba: Volume One 1970-1979 (Thrill Jockey) As a nobleman's son, future bandleading guitarist Sorry Bamba was forbidden to play music, a state of affairs that changed when -- gotta love that caste system -- he was orphaned at the age of ten. At around the same time, Mali declared independence from France, and as we have seen in the "emancipation" of other African countries (from foreign rule, anyway) from Nigeria to Congo, that rush of liberation, coupled with the excitement to modernize, can make for exciting music. It must have helped that Bamba's hometown of Mopti (from the Fulfulde word for "gathering"), often referred to as "the Venice of Mali," sits at the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers, actually spreading itself across three dyke-linked islands: like most towns linked to waterways, a natural hotbed of cross-cultural excitement, that in this case eight distinct ethnic groups (including Tuareg, Songhai, and Moor) call home. It's gratifying to hear Mali's familiar musical signatures (minor keys, modal scales, circular rhythms) in the context of classic big band Afropop, and while I might have warned Bamba off those embarrassingly garish psychedelia touches in the otherwise serviceable jam "Sayouwe," quaint little bits like that muted trumpet at the beginning of "Aïssé" more than compensate. My favorite moment though, comes at the end of the lithe "Astan Kelly," when Bamba pivots off two very strange, dissonant chords for a good fifteen seconds, before resolving them in the melodic way you would expect. Every time I hear it, I wonder: was that a mistake that he ran with and left in because it sounded so cool? Or was it a tension-release game planned entirely in advance? I say it's a moot point -- either scenario stands as proof of a keen musical mind at work. A–

The Book of Mormon: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Ghostlight) Aside from the fact I'm a fan of his long-running Comedy Central cash cow, Trey Parker and I have a little bit in common. First, we're both piano-playing veterans of high school theatre. Second, we both dated, with disastrous results, a Mormon girl. This makes me primed to appreciate his Tony-winning collaboration with South Park cohort Matt Stone and kindred spirit Robert Lopez, the mastermind behind the uproarious Sesame Street tribute/parody Avenue Q. In a nutshell, the plot follows two Mormon elders -- idealistic but completely naïve Kevin Price and buffoonish but ultimately endearing Arnold Cunningham -- serving a two year mission in Uganda, about which they know little other than it being the setting for The Lion King, whose soundtrack gets outrageously mocked in the hysterically blasphemous "Hasa Diga Eebowai." When the Ugandan townspeople jeer Price for his pomposity and inability to connect his faith to their cruel day-to-day reality, Cunningham, who knows even less about Mormonism than he does about Africa, improvises -- with creative inspiration siphoned from J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas -- his own (even more) ridiculous version of the gospel, eventually winning the townspeople over. Terry Teachout complained in the Wall Street Journal that the production was "flabby, amateurish and very, very safe," and I suppose none of these undeniably catchy, sometimes poignant, always funny songs will ever find their way into the Great American Songbook. But I defy you to find another Broadway show in which black and white actors share the same stage in equal numbers, or one in which in an interracial relationship isn't presented as a hurdle of controversy that less enlightened straw men have to jump, but merely as a simple attraction between two people. Especially given the Mormon Church's crusade against gay marriage in California, I get a special kick out of "Two By Two," in which an army of clearly gay chorus boys joyously sing about getting partnered up for their missions. And though you may find the moral -- that it's healthy to accept religion as a pliable metaphor rather than staunchly defend it as a literal truth -- old hat, given that a large majority of Americans, Mormon and otherwise, oppose that concept to the point of controlling what gets taught in schools and how much money goes to women's health clinics, I say it's a moral worth celebrating. A–

The Caretaker: An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners) When I was eighteen, on a somewhat ill-advised crusade to generate funds for my Senior Prom, I played a "piano bar" set for several old age homes, comprised mostly of -- because I was neither sophisticated enough to know, nor empathetic enough to learn, the Tin Pan Alley classics -- Beatle ballads and a few assorted pre-rock oddities. My third outing was at a convalescent home. After cheerfully warbling two quick rounds of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," I stopped to shuffle my sheet music. As I did, a woman in a wheelchair, her head cocked to one side, continued to sing along as she stared into space blankly -- and she wouldn't stop. Although now I know I reached her in a positive way, at the time, it shook me up -- and has haunted me ever since. That may be why I connect to this record, in which Leyland John Kirby loops, manipulates, and strings together various quaint, pre-war 78s of schmaltzy parlor ballads into a suite that mirrors his own interest in Alzheimer patients' reactions to old music. In each piece, his strategy changes. In the opening "All You Are Going to Want to Do Is Get Back There," the seams are so imperceptible you can't tell where the loop begins or ends, but on the next cut, he repeats a haunting forty-second snatch of piano and separates them with a brief pause in which you can hear a needle audibly skipping its way into the scratchy groove. Later, the loops become shorter, more fragmented; motifs repeat only to be subverted. In one track, the sound swings from the left to the right stereo channel, like the pendulum in an antique grandfather clock. And in the peak -- if an album as staid as this can be said to peak -- two piano chords repeat nobly for three full minutes: memory persisting in the face of unforgiving time. The music is so compelling, eerie even as it comforts, that I would like to share it with my grandmothers. Unfortunately, one has deteriorated to the point where she tells the same handful of stories every time I see her. The other hasn't known my name for three years. A–

Cults: Cults (In the Name Of/Columbia) The long held convention about agoraphobic producers like Brian Wilson and Phil Spector is that they spent hours upon hours in the studio because they wanted to create an inner world to insulate themselves from the big, bad world outside. But how -- aside from providing backing vocals or belting lyrics drafted by Gerry Goffin or Jeff Barry -- do the objects of their affection fit into the equation? Here, this Brooklyn duo answer that question with a sparkling debut on Lily Allen's Sony-distributed imprint, a thinly-disguised concept album in which guitarist Ryan Mattos (who bills himself as "Brian Oblivion") traps indie cutie Madeline Follin in the Tower of Song, from which she wails trapped underneath a latticework of reverb. After getting "Abducted" in the briskly-paced opener ("I knew right then that I'd never love her," Mattos confesses), Follin smacks down Jim Jones' spiked cup of Flavor-Aid ("To me, death is not a fearful thing," his ghost murmurs on Mattos' behalf, "it's living that's treacherous") and chastises his anti-social tendencies: "You really want to hole up/You really want to stay inside and sleep the light away." Separated from her family and stuck with a "new crowd" she's not sure she likes, she complains about plans being made for her even as she voices insecurity about moving on and starting a life with "someone new," playfully putting her foot down at the denouement of "Never Heal Myself": "I can never be myself/So fuck you." Mattos remains undeterred, constructing a post-Brill Building pop mélange so dense its musical weight is almost palpable, which is perhaps why it takes even melodies as sturdy as these so long to sink in. On the final track, Follin elects to "Rave On," and considering these guys will be hitbound if and when Mattos loosens up his hold on the music a little, that's probably a good career move. So why does Follin sound so resigned to her fate when she sings it? A–

Fucked Up: David Comes to Life (Matador) Who is the real-life David Eliade, whose "inspiring story" is the ostensible subject of this eighty minute post-hardcore meta-opera? The (suspiciously citation-free) explanation on this Montreal sextet's Wikipedia page reveals little: "Eliade is the 'fifth Beatle,' and manages Fucked Up from behind the scenes . . . He is the only person involved with the band who knows how to tune a guitar. Unfortunately he has never attended one of Fucked Up's live shows . . ." So let's say he's a composite of every proletariat clock-punching Everyslacker these guys know, or perhaps an autobiographical doppelganger for resident yowler Damian Abraham. I'm slightly skeptical about Abraham's much-ballyhooed literary credentials -- even after several listenings I've yet to piece together any coherent storyline here, let alone find evidence of the thwarted terrorist plot (!!!) Larry Fitzmaurice adduces in his Pitchfork review, although the unreliable narrator motif (a classic meta-fiction staple) is a nice touch. Truthfully, I'd rather know why doomed inamorata Veronica's last name is the French word for "drink," or why Veronica shares her initials with David's ex-girlfriend Vivian, or if David himself has any relevant symbolic connection to theology professor and fascist sympathizer Mircea Eliade. But I'll leave those discussions for the college dissertations most likely already in the works. For most of us, the real draw here will be the explosive synergy between Abraham's searing vocals and the almost symphonic grandeur of the band, led by guitarist/composer Mike Haliechuk. Without Abraham, Haliechuk's music -- much cleaner/sharper than Hüsker Dü, to whom this record is often compared -- would be hypercharged AOR, anthems with context. And without the melodic weight of the music, Abraham would be one more howler in the post-hardcore vacuum. Fused together and burning brightly as a single glorious incandescence, they're one more reason why true literary types have been putting down their summer reading for rock and roll since Chuck Berry gave up cosmetology for Maybellene and Johnny B. Goode. A

Gold Panda: Companion (Ghostly International) Fans of the London-based laptop wizard probably don't need this digital-only item, which cobbles together three self-released 2009 EPs, adding on one negligible new track, but like most juvenilia, it provides useful insight into the artiste's creative process. It begins with what I call his greatest hit, the two minute quickie "Quitter's Raga," which niftily establishes his modus operandi: choppy snippets of melody tactically laid on top of solid, rhythmic bedrock. A handful of sitar samples aside, this relies less on flights of exotica than Panda's true debut, the excellent Lucky Shiner, which also means that it's less unified as a whole. On the other hand, compilations like this often give us a chance to pull off the face of that finely tuned clock to examine the wiring inside: for example, I love how the fuzzy surface noise underneath the keyboard hook of "Like Totally" becomes a hook in itself, or how that lowly, intentionally flatted synth flute sadly drags its feet through the moping new age parody "Lonely Owl." I could do with a little more however of tracks like "Win-san Western," in which a toy piano figure races across a stuttering breakbeat. Fast tempos: never underestimate them. B+

Iceage: New Brigade (What's Your Rupture?) While I'd be the first admit that I play the punk card in front of my ex-hippie parents as a means to set myself apart from them spiritually, in truth I reject most of the lo-fi, no-wave bands that come my way as unlistenable, tuneless caterwaul. The tuneless caterwaul proffered by this Danish quartet however, not a one of them out of their teens, is something special. Damned if I could tell you quite why -- usually when a band like this breaks out of the no-wave pack, their success is attributable to a talent for burying melodies in noise, or a penchant for foregrounding memorably clever lyrics delivered as football chants. You know -- songwriting. The strategy here is more like marshaling cohesion from chaos, and making it compel. Though the lyrics are reputedly in English, I can only understand a few snatches here and there, and Elias Bender Ronnenfelt's thuggish baritone isn't exactly what you'd call an instrument of great range, emotion, or feeling. But from the tribal thumping of Dan Kjaer Nielsen to the efficient thrashing of Ronnenfelt and second guitarist Johan Surballe Wieth, these upstarts showcase in twelve "songs" in twenty-four minutes their version of post-punk slash and burn, which essentially boils down to napalming the cornfield while they celebrate its destruction by joyously ransacking the farmhouse. Fierce, unrelenting, and startlingly vital from start to finish, you won't be quite sure what's hit you when it's all through. After which you'll have no problem shuttling yourself through their maelstrom one more time. A

Jill Scott: The Light of the Sun (Blues Babe/Warner Bros.) Scott has plenty of reasons to feel "Blessed," some of which she lists in that opening song (her parents, her son, last night's restorative sleep) and some of which she doesn't, namely her split from Hidden Beach Recordings, which has freed her to craft her sassiest, sexiest record, quite possibly the best neo-soul record since Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun -- she deserves her first Billboard number one. Suffice to say, if you've ever found Scott's records, even 2007's fine The Real Thing, a little too dependent on texture and flow, there will be no problem waiting for the songs to kick in. Part of its success can be chalked up the band, including guitarist Randy Bowland and bassist Adam Blackstone, who improvised backing tracks for Scott to use when she came into the studio without any pre-prepared material. But really this album is where Scott really opens up as a performer and as a singer -- compare the cover of The Real Thing (sweater-clad ingénue, chunky purse slung over her shoulder, looking like she's planning to take you shopping for sheets at Bed, Bath, and Beyond) to the pose she strikes here (slimmed down, sexed up, leaning with attitude against a classic car): who would you rather spend some time with? At first, I was a little surprised by two tracks in which she tells that new guy that they should put off sex till next time -- they seemed so out of character -- until I found out former lover and ex-drummer John Roberts broke up with her a few months after their baby was born. But with a little help from Eve, Doug E. Fresh, Anthony Hamilton, and others, elsewhere she gets gratifyingly loose and even a little dirty. In a nine minute "vent suite," she drops "the boom" on a guy who won't call her back, telling him off by revealing "somebody else has been sniffing my dress." Later, she delivers a "Womanifesto" that declares, "I'm more than just my ass," which leads to this brazen boast: "There's power in them rolling hills." Do tell Jill, do tell. A–

Honorable Mentions

The Tedeschi Trucks Band: Revelator (Sony Masterworks) Yes, but Delaney and Bonnie sought out great songs when they knew they couldn't write them ("Come See About Me," "Until You Remember," "Midnight in Harlem") ***

Neil Young and the International Harvesters: A Treasure (Reprise) "Leftin' then a-rightin'/It's not a crime, you know" ("Grey Riders," "Southern Pacific," "Are You Ready For the Country?") *** [Later: A-]

Boubacar Traoré: Mali Denhou (Lusafrica) Hypnotic, calmative, and almost completely interchangeable with 2005's slightly peppier Kongo Magni ("Mondeou," "Dundobesse M'bedouniato") **

Tinie Tempah: Disc-overy (Capitol) Admitting that the underground makes him feel "out of place," he breaks into the UK mainstream riding what could be a new subgenre: arena grime ("Pass Out," "Miami 2 Ibiza") **

The Wave Pictures: Beer in the Breakers (Moshi Moshi) Dave Tattersall would be one more literate British post-punk popper, except as a guitarist he counts surf, flamenco, and soukous among his influences ("Little Surprise," "Blue Harbour") **


Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic) I admire that this Swedish export (real name: Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson) nurtures a fondness for updating sixties pop forms -- "99 Tears" here, "Be My Baby" there -- but her flat, affectless alto, fenced in by a meager range of about six notes, fails the memory of Ronnie Spector: witness the high note she flubs on "Sadness is a Blessing," the vaguely countrypolitan one in which she makes Zooey Deschanel sound like Patsy Cline, her questionable harmonizing technique throughout. It doesn't help that the expected post-adolescent relationship themes are dogged by some flimsy (and confusing) high school versifying: "Rather live out a lie than live wondering how the fire feels while burning/For life is like a flame and the ashes for wasting" -- wha? Believe it or not, the two major exceptions make their presence felt, of all things, rhythm first: the sardonically self-explanatory "Rich Kid's Blues" and -- especially -- the prickly ironic prick-tease "Get Some." Not because of that "I'm your prostitute" nonsense, though -- more because of that galvanic Bo Diddley beat. A few more of those and she might have gotten away with a lot more. B–

Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong (Slumberland) Without abandoning the adolescent frustrations of their '80s Brit-Pop exemplars -- who after all knew what side their bread was buttered on -- the lyrics forsake the acutely observed details of their 2009 debut for a more generalized approach: compare the debut's opener "Contender," which quickly but effectively sketches a failed bohemian who gives up "books for film," then "film for time," to this record's title cut, which rues a love won and lost (in the only couplet worth quoting) "in hospitals and shopping malls/with heavy heads on locker walls." Especially with Flood and Alan Moulder beefing up their guitar sound, this would suggest they've got their sights set on the big time, and if they had come up with a few more tunes as catchy as the first three or four here -- with a special mention for the siren-song of a guitar hook on "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" -- they might have taken this to the next level. But the tempos -- both a little slower and more stately than on the debut -- frame a guitar sound that's attractively fuzzy on first blush, but on repeated listenings reveals itself to be as thin as tissue paper, even with the addition of second guitarist Christopher Hochheim, who helps them ratchet up the volume but not architect a distinct aesthetic. This calls into question their sincerity: in song they can declare fealty to the object of their affection "even in dreams" because it's so much easier than committing to the reality of adulthood, but in reality these twenty-somethings should be long past the age of wondering "what the body's for." Does Kip Berman really require that girl to rock fishnets and leather for a night on the town, or still refer to the posters on his wall as "his only friends?" If he was fifteen I might entertain how painful life can be for the "pure of heart" -- but once you start pushing a certain age, unless you start cracking some jokes on the side, I'm going to start questioning how pure your intentions really are. B

Tyler, the Creator: Goblin (XL) I'm a little surprised that neither the pop music critics at GLAAD nor the hip hop historians at Fox News have come clean about the most offensive aspect of this notorious little item, which isn't lyrical, but rather musical: Tyler has to be endowed with the least demonstrative set of pipes of any rapper to grab headlines, and the pleasureless, mostly deconstructed backing tracks make sorting this out a chore for anyone not willing to dismiss him outright -- you know, to "listen" to him. He resents the "horrorcore" tag because he doesn't want to be put in a "box" -- fine. But if he thinks that there's more to his shock tactics than offending the easily offended, what could that possibly be? As his therapist alter ego quickly learns in the title track -- and the impenetrability of the music reinforces -- he spurns self-analysis, something you can't say about Tyler's hero Eminem, who early on let Dr. Dre voice the conscience that Tyler offs in the climax of "Yonkers," which with its Bernard Hermann cum RZA synth stabs sure sounds like horrorcore to me. And the dearth of self-analysis is the reason that Tyler's smarter detractors have no problem putting him into that box -- for example, he never once realizes that his liberal (small 'l' please) use of the word "faggot" throughout is his way of dismissing in others the emotional closeness he never got from his absentee father, or that the stalker tendencies (fictional, I'm sure) detailed in the painful "Her" constitute his way of simulating intimacy without actually leaving himself vulnerable to it. And you don't know how many times I actually had to listen to the record to get to the bottom of this. Please don't make me do it again. C

Airborne Toxic Event: All at Once (Island)

Crystal Stilts: In Love With Oblivion (Slumberland)

Dirty Beaches: Badlands (Zoo Music)

Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams (Reprise)

Ty Segall: Goodbye Bread (Drag City)

Sloan: The Double Cross (Yep Roc)

True Widow: As High as the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth (Kemado)

The Vaccines: What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? (Columbia)

Mike Watt: Hyphenated Man (Clenchedwrench)

Wild Beasts: Smother (Domino)

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