A Downloader's Diary (13): August 2011

by Michael Tatum

Though hardly superstitious and not prone to triskaidekaphobia in the slightest, the month leading up to my putatively unlucky thirteenth column, which also marks the first anniversary of A Downloader's Diary's debut on Tom Hull's stomping ground, was a dry one indeed, so I looked backward not only to records that have been sitting in my queue (currently at a dizzying ninety-plus items) but also rethinks on a record that more than one reader gave me flack for (mildly!) dismissing, and another that I'll describe as my own personal bugbear for 2011. There's certainly more backlog where that came from, and I will definitely get to it. But I do hope September brings back the thrill of the new. L'il Wayne, Kanye West, Jay-Z: get to it.

Buck 65: 20 Odd Years (WEA) Even when compared to other alt-rappers, Richard Terfry's career choices mystify me, but I suppose the haphazardness of his ambition (or lack thereof) is one of his virtues. Nevertheless, while he's certainly been productive during the two decades referred to in this unusual compilation's title, one gets the sense he's not especially invested in fulfilling his own creative promise as much as he is working on his own nonchalant timetable. After a spate of excellent underground releases generated enough interest to entice the Canadian arm of WEA to sign him, he should have vaulted to fame on the basis of his debut for that label, 2003's masterful Talkin' Honky Blues, but Warners in America declined to give it stateside distribution, even when it garnered a Juno and made Terfry a cult hero in France (I suppose for us Yanks, being lavished by the French is the kiss of death). To add insult to injury, a year later the now-defunct indie V2, instead of releasing the record proper, picked off its most accessible tracks for a useful if confusing remixed primer, and when that failed to take off, they passed completely on 2005's Secret House of the World -- it's stupefying when you ponder that this accomplished original's American fame peaked when he escorted Pamela Anderson to a 2006 awards show (a Canadian awards show). Now after such obscure artifacts as 2008's highly peculiar download-only Dirtbike series (each comprising a single untracked hour of music) we get a string of four EPs united by no discernible thematic threads -- these could very well be odds and sods, tracks donated to movies, or outtakes and b-sides, as random as that V2 primer, with less excuse. But what's truly weird (if not necessarily wicked) is that starting with a "Too Much Monkey Business" tribute/parody that rationalizes his method of operation with the all-purpose brag "Superstars don't love, they play," the strongest material here, especially with various female backing singers making major contributions, ranks as among the most potentially commercially viable of his career. So if he hasn't missed a step, why isn't he more interested in coherence, connecting to the outside world? The answer might lie in the haunting "Whisper of the Waves," in which Terfry assumes the voice of Death, the "Drowning Machine," who without mentioning her directly, grimly explains why he won't give back to him the mother who couldn't outrun breast cancer: "Feed me your agonies, your riches and voices/Trespass against me, but offer me choices/Stronger than fire, the cancer is slow/Your tears are like mine, but the answer is no." A–

Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (ATO) As a child of the vinyl era, I understand double albums. We could have winnowed all this material down to a single, but our rampant egos prevented us from doing so. One more record means we're that much closer to getting out of this shitty contract. We can't stand being in the same room with each other, so every member gets his own side. Because an obscure footnote in Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi merits a four-side quasi-symphonic opus. But the marketing ploy of releasing two albums culled from the same sessions is a product of the inflated retail pricing of the CD era, because nervous record labels know that fans won't shell out thirty bucks for a two-CD set as willingly as they would fifteen bucks for two separate purchases spaced a year apart. In the case of the Old 97's Grand Theatre sets (the second of which is reviewed below) I'm both chagrined and frustrated that the band determined what songs landed on which volume by gauging live audience reaction -- it explains why all the spirited fast numbers and lyrically foregrounded slow ones ended up on volume one, why the easily lost midtempo cuts ended up on volume two, and how the whole project could have been better balanced if they had instead led by their own brains and guts. The difference between this record and last year's The Big To-Do however, strikes me as a bifurcation along the lines of Springsteen's Human Touch and Lucky Town -- not a ho-hum division between the "rockers" and the "ballads" (thankfully), but rather one between the established path and the scenic route, which is why it took me so long to appreciate this record's virtues. If the former record lays out the well-turned southern rockers we've come to expect from these Muscle Shoals mainstays, this record's reliance on subtlety, genre exercise, and sustained mood means that a straightforward winner like Mike Cooley's "Birthday Boy" would have upset its flow, the difference between (as the Weeknd might put it) the party and the after party. The stories aren't always up to the challenge, although the anguish of Patterson Hood's "Ray's Automatic Weapon" and "Used to Be a Cop" would have been worthy additions to Brighter than Creation's Dark, and the dry thud of the sleazy title track recalls the Beatles' "Yer Blues." And while I may have originally found the key changes at the end of "I Do Believe" cornily manipulative, in the end I find them as audacious and uplifting as the similarly-structured climax of Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady." Minor, for sure. But a worthy detour. A–

Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc) Those acoustic guitars: what do they mean? We could take Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger at their word and assume that if they recorded these songs after polishing them up over the course of a short tour, then most likely they habituated themselves to -- and felt no need to expound upon -- the uncharacteristically stripped-down arrangements. Personally, it sounded to me as if they were accepting that "Stacy's Mom" wasn't the kind of fluke they could build a career on, and that they were giving up on the possibility of taking over the world with their solid gold pop-rock -- the hapless protagonists of "Richie and Ruben," who lose a childhood chum's money in various dubious get rich schemes, sure sound like stand-ins for Chris and Adam, perhaps delivering a thinly-veiled pre-emptive apology to their new record company. More conventional types however, positing the dogmatic rockist wisdom that acoustic guitars equals sensitive singer-songwriters (who somewhere down the line presumably beat their celebrity spouses) are labeling this as a sign of "maturity," which should tell you how little they paid attention to the lyrics of Welcome Interstate Managers and Traffic and Weather. All the autumnal music suggests is that they know their summertime is over: where once that quarterback had "all kinds of time" to complete that magical touchdown pass, now an overworked father races against time that his doctor sternly tells him he doesn't have. Beginning with an oblique quote from the Kinks, the first six songs are perfect: a ne'er-do-well daughter, "Richie and Ruben," a love affair on an Acela train thwarted by an alcohol-induced nap, a song about failure in which a chorus of taunting businessmen provides the hook, that would-be "Action Hero" trying to beat the clock, tellingly followed by a vacation reminiscence that mysteriously slips in the observation "I'm assured the procedure is painless." The second half has been dismissed for being "too subtle," yet not only can I recall every melody without cheating, the uptempo throwaway "Radio Bar," in which jocks and dreadlocks alike dig "Stacy's Mom" when it's queued up on the jukebox, sticks out obtrusively like it might not have had it been sandwiched in the middle of their b-sides collection. And it ends with the absolutely gorgeous "Cemetery Guns," in which a dead soldier says goodbye to his tear-stained widow. A

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant) The extent of the risk Harvey takes for this undeniably ambitious song cycle about not-so-modern warfare is best summed up by her performance of its title track on BBC One: pre-recorded alone on a soundstage with autoharp and backing tracks, which then-prime minister Gordon Brown later watched expressionlessly over a television monitor. Although the musical synthesis here, encompassing not just the homely autoharp but also trombone, xylophone, and bass harmonica, is indeed striking -- I picture a Salvation Army band as produced by Tricky -- there's so much distance in these songs that no matter how taken you are initially with its aesthetic, sooner or later there will be a mighty disconnect. Although "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" may have been set during the battle of Gallipoli, its universality was unmistakable, whereas Harvey's songs centered around the same material feel permanently stuck in the past, half a world away, which the disembodied voices and spectral samples, no matter how alluring musically, only underscore. On the one concession to the present, she allows Winston "Niney" Holness to burn down the oil fields while she watches from a safe distance. And while I applaud "The Words That Maketh Murder" for turning the failure of diplomacy into the cruel existential joke it's been since the inception of the United Nations, only the closer "The Colour of the Earth" truly confronts wartime's horror and dread. Why, you may ask? It's the one song that Harvey's voice doesn't dominate -- she gives the lyric to Mick Harvey, whose plainspoken ordinariness says more about the soldier's sacrifice than her increasingly arty soprano ever will. B+

Lady Gaga: Born This Way (Streamline/Kon Live/Interscope) "A cultural event!" sardonically proclaims the handwritten slug on the copy of the CD that I burned for my wife (a major fan who met the artiste at a fundraiser for Rady's Children's Hospital in San Diego), but months after the initial hoohah, the one thing that really shocks me about this record is that it didn't turn out to be a "cultural event" at all, merely a hit album with a bunch of successful singles attached. This is significant: while Germanotta clearly designed this to have the monster impact of Thriller (by which I mean a record that would not only move a shitload of units, but rivet the public consciousness) and '80s-period Madonna (by which I mean songs that would up the ante on pushing the thematic envelope), it seems to have fallen short on both fronts: not only hasn't this record increased or decreased her stock, but neither her LGBT anthems nor the expected Catholic-baiting generated as much controversy as the (pretty genius) theft of the blockbuster title track from Madame Ciccone. I'm not sure if the American public subconsciously suspects that's she's trying too hard, but none of this takes away from the outrageousness of the music, which in its cornucopia of impudent try-anything gambits reminds me of nothing so much as Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, though this being 2011 and this being Gaga, the level of lunacy is admirably higher: Shania Twain cop here, Springsteen tribute there, anthems for bad kids and a campy love song for a Chicana decked out in "floral shorts," government hookers and heavy metal lovers, all directed toward an audience encouraged in song after catchy song to prize its individuality, no matter how strange. Which, more so than anything, is why that unlike Thriller, you won't find two copies of this in every home by year's end. Good for her. A–

The Reatards: Teenage Hate (Goner) As unfocused as he could be manically inspired, Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.'s bewilderingly messy discography, spanning eleven wild years before he died of cocaine and alcohol toxicity at twenty-nine, teems with projects from eight different bands, as well as the solo material recorded under the moniker that most people know him by, Jay Reatard. Though I haven't done much research, I'm fairly certain very little of that output could possibly touch this outrageously chaotic blast of lo-fi garage punk, which recalls the Angry Samoans in its adolescent intensity, or perhaps given this high school dropout's rockabilly leanings (Fear and Buddy Holly on the same record?), suggests X with no need for money, rewarding sex, or Ray Manzarek. The titles -- "I'm So Gone," "When I Get Mad," "You Fucked Up My Dreams" -- say it all, the riffs are junk guitar heaven, and the breakdown at the end of "Down in Flames," with its carefully plotted call-and-response chant of "motherfucker," is lowbrow performance art at its most basely gratifying. But the bonus material, culled from the formerly cassette-only Fuck Elvis, Here's the Reatards, is a misnomer two ways. First, no matter how blurred by distortion, his Sun Records fixation is still unmistakable. Also, bassist Steve Albundy (conflating "Albini" and the character from Married With Children? really, I want to know) and drummer Elvis Wong weren't on board yet -- these are bedroom recordings that predate the 1998 Teenage Hate, which I'd call "demos" if they didn't sound like what they probably are, which is Lindsey banging on a tin can into a cheap cassette recorder while another cheap cassette recorder next to it indecipherably blares his pre-recorded guitar and vocal. Touching, really -- I used to do the same thing when I was a teenager. But a hardcore version of the Beatles' "I'm Down" -- as the Beastie Boys could tell you -- is a great idea that deserves better treatment than it gets here. B+

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis: Come on Board (self-released) Always the most "urban" of the Have Moicy! commune -- why else pen a joyous Manhattan-themed rewrite of Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere?" -- Peter Stampfel, despite his reputation as a wry codger, was born to be a citizen of the digital age. Not only does it enable him to record and distribute new product cheaply, it also provides him an outlet for records like 2009's excellent Dook of the Beatnicks, which had been languishing on the shelf for a decade. So let's hope this delightful one-off with worthy inheritor Jeffrey Lewis, hastily committed to tape with an ad hoc aggregation of what very well could be Apple Scruffs, marks the beginning of a long working relationship. Stampfel, whose wide-eyed vocalizations were once deathlessly described by Craig Marks and Jeff Salamon as evoking a "chicken who's just won the lottery," hasn't burst with this much exuberance in ages, perhaps because he's spiritually freed by the musical conception, a lot looser than his projects with Gary Lucas and Mark Bingham, which combines the usual anti-folk zaniness with the scrappy energy of early rock and roll. The setting also inspires the hit-and-miss Lewis to focus his lyrics -- I'm tempted to read his Jules Verne tribute as a harbinger of environmental disaster and his ode to the Hammer House of Horror as a thinly disguised hipster nightlife nightmare, while his gender-bending war ballad could be interpreted a number of ways. Then there's Stampfel's startling "Little Sister in the Sky," about death -- but first, one last dance. Lewis follows that with the ten minute "On We Went," about the long journey that leads up to its inevitability. A

Honorable Mentions

Washed Out: Within and Without (Sub Pop) Approve of the fabric softener, could do without the bleach ("Amor Fati," "Soft," "Eyes Be Closed") ***

Araabmuzik: Electronic Dream (Duke Productions) Dipset ("dipset?") mixmaster conducts surgical procedures on trance "classics," but trance-planting beating hearts into department store mannequins isn't quite the same as giving them brains ("Underground Steam," "Streetz Tonight," "Electronic Dream") ***

Blueprint: Adventures in Counter Culture (Rhymesayers) Fails to live up to his most trenchant observation: "So when these rappers only rap about a home or a broad/It's cause they don't know what's happening at home or abroad" ("My Culture," "Go Hard or Go Home") **

Old 97's: The Grand Theatre Vol. 2 (New West) Their fans picked the winners last time, and who am I to challenge the democratic process? ("Brown Haired Daughter," "I'm a Trainwreck") **

Big K.R.I.T.: ReturnOf4Eva (mixtape) "I guess the story of a country boy ain't compelling," he admits, but I nevertheless give this Southern emcee credit for working (slightly) harder than Curren$y ("Rise and Shine," "Rotation") **

Kasey Chambers: Little Bird (Sugar Hill) Regardless of what the winged messenger in the title song tells her, she was more interesting when she was young, confused, and on the cusp of selling out than she is older, wiser, and aiming for staid "authenticity" ("Devil on Your Back," "Someone Like Me") **

The Civil Wars: Barton Hollow (Sensibility Music) Anachronistic neo-folk so pristine Alison Krauss could slurp caviar off of it ("I've Got a Friend") *


Bad Meets Evil: Bad Meets Evil (Shady/Interscope) Loyalty, forgiveness: these are qualities to be admired. I'm reminded however, that LL Cool J had the sense to drop his return to Farmer's Boulevard in the center of Mama Said Knock You Out rather than honor his old buddies with a gratuitous thirty minute EP (fifteen minutes longer in the "deluxe" version). While I commend Mathers for reaching out to estranged cohort and former jailbird Ryan Montgomery (serving for a DUI -- what a badass!) and am touched by Montgomery's vow to make enough money for his father to retire from his job at the post office (may I recommend a respectably brief stint in real estate instead?), the bland beats, indifferent rhymes, horrorcore convention, sensationalistic blather, and un-ironic reliance on the usual red button words ("dyke," "cunt," "slut," "AIDS," yawn) mean that Evil is phoning it in and Bad, well, he's just working up to his modest potential. But that's nothing to get worked up about unless you're Bill O'Reilly. What really bothers me about this record are two tracks: "The Reunion," in which various unlucky females make the mistake of thinking Em is a nicer guy than the sociopath he sometimes portrays on record, is a brilliant idea that warrants a more sophisticated approach than it gets here, but since Montgomery isn't nearly a tenth as famous, how can anyone he meets on the street -- I mean, would you recognize this dude if he walked into a party? -- fall into that same trap? That goes double for the nauseous "Lighters," the arena rock imagery of which would be dim-witted enough, but since Em has been a superstar since he popped out of the box and Montgomery would be lucky if he garnered the same response opening for Em and Dre at Madison Square Garden, strikes me as wishful thinking at its most dubious. I know Mathers is still torn up about the death of his old friend Proof, and this rapprochement is one step at making peace with that loss. But in the interests of the record buying public, may I suggest that next time a contrite phone call might be sufficient. B–

Beyoncé: 4 (Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia) When Knowles was still laboring under Papa Matthew's managerial thumb as the only remotely interesting member of Destiny's Child, she sang tough about being an "independent woman," a "survivor" -- perhaps not "feminist" enough to satisfy women's studies majors, but certainly more militant than your average R&B pop product, and definitely worthy of its cultural moment. Now that she's finally in charge of her own career, she over-emotes needy, co-dependent lyrics over thundering drums and showboating guitar solos -- she yaps to trades about how she's been inspired by Fela Kuti and the Stylistics and such, but the antecedents are clearly Journey and Foreigner. On the new single, he treats her like shit, but he's still "the best thing" she's ever had -- if she's singing about her father, I'd be horrified if the embarrassingly flimsy riposte "it sucks to be you right now" refers to her satisfaction over his being cut off from her career (i.e. money). Does this woman not understand that when Sam Cooke -- who was certainly no dummy -- humbly sang "Don't know much about algebra," he got away with it because he delivered it in a coyly boyish tenor, rather than slathering it with melismatic melodrama? (Cooke also never sang "I don't know much about guns," either.) Is she aware that James Dean would have been more interested in Jigga than in her? Or that the dopily wishful "I wanna leave my footprints on the sands of time" is a clumsily mixed metaphor (and two lame clichés at that)? And "Run the World (Girls)," the only track worthy of her modest legend, salutes the real independent woman: M.I.A. (Fela Kuti, my ass), who would never have thought twice about censoring the word "motherfucking." C+

Radiohead: The King of Limbs (TBD) Christened after a millennium-old oak in Wiltshire's Savernake Forest and beginning with a celebration of nature sung from the point of view of (oh, dear) a humpback whale, I'd make the observation that their most technologically dependent record could benefit from a few more signs of organic life, but that would be too easy. Also slightly immaterial, because my favorite album of theirs has always been the deconstructed, sampler-heavy Kid A, which this record superficially resembles, but with a few crucial differences. First, while the former record found the Oxonian quartet eschewing the grandiose tendencies of their previous records to embrace minimalism -- a tactic that allowed their songs not only to sing but breathe -- the frenetic clatter of this record's first half appealingly recalls Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma, to which Thom Yorke lent a guest vocal, a favor he returns in the title of the song that opens this record's second half. But while on Cosmogramma the focus of the music often shifted according to the seemingly aleatory whims of mastermind Steven Ellison, here the focus is always on the eternally mopey Yorke, which is, right, the other difference between this record and Kid A -- where the earlier record often submerged the vocals in murk, on this one they remain the focus, which, sorry, between the usual two-dimensional putdowns of faceless businessmen and predictably sophomoric versifying on the order of "Turn to nasty now/The dark cell/The pit of my soul/The last one out of the box/The one who broke this spell" just won't cut it anymore. And then there are the last three songs, about which I remember nothing other than that the first two are unlistenable dirges. Beats me how they can dub something this wearily labored "a newspaper album." But at least now I know what I can line my birdcage with. C+

Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See (Domino)

Bachelorette: Bachelorette (Drag City)

Bombé and Mr. Caribbean: James Drake (mixtape)

Nedry: Condors (Monotreme)

Plan B: The Defamation of Strickland Banks (Atlantic)

Toro y Moi: Underneath the Pine (Carpark)

Touché Amoré: Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me (Deathwish Inc.)

Frank Turner: England Keep My Bones (Epitaph)

2011 July 2011 September