A Downloader's Diary (14): September 2011

by Michael Tatum

Last month I was optimistic about Stephen Malkmus, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne ending the summer drought of worthwhile new releases. With the jury still deliberating on Tha Carter IV (and the Weeknd's new mixtape throwing me for somewhat of a loop), little did I know I'd have more of an adventure marching through the Sahara Desert than I would through climes closer to home.

Action Bronson: Dr. Lecter (Fine Fabric Delegates) Just when you thought Ghostface Killah's well of dramatis personae had run dry, straight outta Flushing comes a three-hundred pound chef of Jewish-Albanian extraction who's stolen the Wu-Tang mainstay's flow and timbre for a startlingly fresh debut. Forget the voiceprint similarities -- every rapper cops to vices, but if Bronson referenced "fish" on this record, he wouldn't be musing about those powdery white lines, but halibut, or maybe turbot, perhaps sautéed in olive oil and served in a lemon caper sauce with a dollop of creamed spinach. Identifying with hulks like Miami Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka and pro-wrestler Barry Horowitz even if his ideal body type is former Mr. Universe Ronnie Coleman, Bronson says no to the blanco, yes to cheeba, and is disappointingly unimaginative about pussy on the perfunctory sex jam "Forbidden Fruit." But his breathless zeal for food is palpable -- not too many hip hop songs out there blaming compulsive binge eating for holding you back from continuing advanced culinary training in Rome (atop a rollicking sample from Donny Hathaway no less, who certainly shares both Bronson's girth and taste in hats). It helps that Bronson's main man Tommy Mas, between his love of old school R&B, tough beats, and classic movie snippets (he prefers The Big Lebowski to Carlito's Way, and good for him) slips naturally into the RZA's musical vernacular circa Ironman, although lackluster foils Meyhem Lauren and Maffew Ragazino aren't exactly Cappadonna in the second banana department. So here's hoping Bronson graduates from playing footsie with a hooker under a banquet table to hooking up with some nice Jewish girl who shares his antipathy toward shrimp and fervor for steak, chocolate, and cheese plates. Alt-rap comes and goes, but this is an up-and-comer with room for, er, growth. A–

Bombino: Agadez (Cumbancha) I fantasize about the day when Nick Gold will pluck Group Inerane from one of their wedding engagements and whisk them away to a plush studio in Manhattan -- then maybe I'll be able to determine whether or not those Velvet Underground comparisons are based on something stylistically analogous in their music or are a hastily conceived reaction to the rudimentary way in which their prior output has been recorded. I mention this because recording techniques do actually make a difference in this particular item -- filmmaker Ron Wyman, who tracked down Omara "Bombino" Moctar after falling in love with one of his cassettes while filming a documentary about the Kel Tamasheq people and their oppression by Niger's former government, may not have experience making records, but he knows something about sound. For example, in "Ahoulaguine Akaline" ("I Greet My Country"), the haunting traditional song that begins this record with what a lesser man once described as "cautious optimism," you can hear the insistent hitting of one open guitar string -- i.e. the drone -- while Moctar's other fingers dance silvery pirouettes on top of it, a perfect aural metaphor for the guitarists who remained steadfast and determined while spreading the Tuareg's musical message of freedom. Moctar's contemplative, fortitudinous tenor and his ability to still sing about unity despite the fact the Nigerien army murdered two of his compatriots, reminds me American liberals' indignance over Ladysmith Black Mambazo dancing and grinning throughout the video for Paul Simon's "Homeless" -- as another South African once succinctly put it, "This is our tradition in Africa." So while this isn't nearly as compelling as the two Tuareg albums discussed below, it's worth noting that Moctar and the men who stood beside him foreswore guns for guitars because they believed in non-violent resolve -- and the Nigerian army still branded them a threat regardless. It's heartwrenching when you realize that for so many countries in Africa, that's a tradition, too. A–

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (Sub Pop) "We be to rap what key be to lock," Ishmael Butler lightheartedly boasted on his only hit, and for a few months the world seemed his to claim. But soon enough, armed with funk and R&B samples far more immediately gratifying than anything in Digable Planets' jazzy arsenal, master blacksmith Sean Combs (and later, Wyclef Jean), changed those locks, and by the time Butler returned to the scene with the denser, weirder Blowout Comb, the fickle hip hop audience had moved on. Internal squabbles -- namely Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira's frustration at not being equally compensated for her creative contribution to the Digable's two albums -- killed the group for good, and Butler wasted years trying to right his foreshortened career. So really, this unnervingly abstract turn as leader of an amorphous collective shouldn't really surprise anyone. Replete with oblique references to cocaine ("cake," "diamond dust") and organized crime (in the opener, detectives infiltirate a gang funeral), Butler first dares you to extract his metaphors from the murk, then dares you to take those metaphors at face value, ruminating several times on the difference between perception and facts, all of which he bitterly connects to his lost fame: "At a tender age/We learn to turn the page/To mind the screen and stage/To see who got the glaze/To hustle up or fade/Either get made or played/Find your spot in the shade/And nigga, get paid." Darting in and out of beats and samples as foreboding as shadows splaying ominously from a darkened alley, Butler recalls Tricky a lot less than he does Sly Stone, who would have understood Butler's disenchanted offhand remark about wanting to go "back to Africa," as well as his recastings of old Digable Planets lyrics that in this context are less mischievous than Butler's cynical way of thanking his audience falletin him be himself agin. And when Butler purloins the chant from the Digable's "Escapism (Gettin' Free)," altering the plays on "funk" back to the Last Poets' original "black" -- "Black is you, black is me, black is us, black is free" -- he makes it sound like wishful thinking indeed. "Who do you think you are?" he demands. Wonder if he knows that answer when he looks himself in the mirror. A–

Terakaft: Aratan n Azawad (World Village) This Tuareg trio's rhythmic signature is so terse and compelling they could be Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two at Sun, or maybe Wailers-era Catch a Fire, and their gratifyingly precise, intertwining guitar attack could be the Sahara's humble answer to Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. But despite the wealth of top-drawer tunes and riffs, I was initially discouraged by the bare-bones arrangements, which comprise the core band of three electric guitarists, Liya Ag Ablil ("Diara") and brothers Sanou and Abdallah Ag Ahmed, rounded out by session percussionist Mathias Vaguenez, who seems superfluous only because he subtly underscores a kinetic forward motion already implied by the trio's crisply taut playing. But I was astonished to realize that not only are these the kinds of songs that stick with you -- you'll consult the included translations to double check if the words correspond to the emotions their respective melodies evoke -- but by how much the band accomplishes with so little: even on the second half they pull off such tricks as a joyous soukous tribute, the incisive six-string stabs that provide the climax of "Wer Essinen," and the breakneck "Kek Amidi Nin," which I'm pegging as their "Rock Island Line." And if you're wondering how all of this strange yet familar music could possibly stand the test of time, it in fact already has -- many of these songs were co-written twenty years ago, during one of many Kel Tamasheq uprisings, by Diara with his brother Inteyeden Ag Abil, who died of a mysterious illness in 1994. Perhaps that's the reason these songs sound so trenchant -- maybe more so now than they would have then. And I bet Johnny Cash would have loved them. A

Tinariwen: Tassili (Anti-) Regardless of your preference for acoustic guitars over electric, the most attractive quality about this record, especially when played against the Tuareg competition noted above, is not just the fuller sound -- as one might expect from an attempted "world music" crossover issued on a SoCal-based punk imprint -- but that even the uninitiated can effortlessly identify individual songs without putting in hours of listening time: the critic's dream, no? The evocative opening track defines the pleasures of the first half: the band drops out for the final chorus -- a trick they picked up from American records rather than East African ones, I bet -- before handing the spotlight to Nels Cline, who executes a trick I swear he swiped from Sterling Morrison on "Venus in Furs." Then follows a crawling ballad wrenching unbearable tension from its deliberately dragged-out tempo, a paean to the "jealous desert" co-starring TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, and a number featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's sweet and sour horns. That makes three out of four tracks aided and abetted by guest spots, with Adebimpe and Malone dropping in backing vocals throughout. But remove the window dressing and you're left with a record with far too much space and overly dependent on mood and atmosphere -- the Terakaft record, despite its austerity, is far more expansive, and doesn't fall back on the desert blues tried-and-true (doleful tempos, minor key drones, gratuitously flashy guitar interludes). So why are these guys getting all the media attention? Perhaps it might have something to do with the vaunted charisma of frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, whose name critics consistenly conjoin to adjectives like "mysterious" and "enigmatic," and whose bushy cool probably comes off as "deep" to ex-hippies between bong hits. I'm not implying that Ag Alhabib, who at age four witnessed the execution of his father, doesn't have anything meaningful to say, though at least as far as the translations reveal, what he comes up with here is frustratingly vague and non-specific. Which fuels my suspicion that when David Maines complained in his otherwise astue review of Terakaft's Aratan n Azawad that the songs "could easily expand to six or eight minutes," this was the sort of smoke-filled hotbox he had in mind. A–

Kanye West/Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella) The dynamic Frank Ocean feature "No Church in the Wild" is impressive not only in the audacity of the samples (Phil Manzanara and Spooky Tooth and James Brown?) but also in the snaky way Jigga lets his esses slither across his tongue before they putter out: the sound of a man being freed, if not from average music per se -- he's far too canny a businessman to countenance that -- but from perhaps more conventional music. Even his wife sounds less uptight on the ebullient, skyrocketing "Lift Off" than she does on her own recent flop. But if West's mind is a Pandora's box, this time he's compartmentalized it, donating to the project what on the one hand sounds like his most outré musical experiments, while on the other somewhat holding back lyrically, which suggests he's saving his choicest goodies for his next proper album. Even the oft-quoted stanza in which he wants to program his son to be a Republican so everyone will know he "love white people" seems as two-dimensionally naïve as his Katrina outburst -- I doubt Michael Steele likes cuddling up to white people as much as he does cuddling up to rich people, preferably ones in positions of power, a category that decidedly includes the artistes. Which not only illustrates this record's limitations, but also illuminates that "No Church in the Wild" isn't, as is often misread, a renunciation of organized religion, a commentary on patriarchy, or even a metaphor for cutting through the strictures of average and/or conservative music. It's an existential question about whether or not man (yes, man) can survive the modern world without Providence's guiding hand, whether he's on the street, in the boardroom, or doing lines in the club. Which convinces me why this project could have used a little more of Yeezy, whose approach to examining his relationship to power, money, fame, etc. is more self-consciously ironic than his partner's. A–

Withered Hand: Good News (Absolutely Kosher) Dan Willson may mock "Religious Songs," but between his durable tunes, humble chord structures, and ironically seraphic arrangements, that tradition informs his songwriting, and throughout this album, several Sunday service oldies but goodies are quoted or subverted outright, starting with the good news of the album title, which I can guarantee you isn't the report that Willson has got a crown up in that kingdom. So while I've yet to decipher whether his moniker is a reference to the man Christ healed in the desert or simply another euphemism for the pen he measures against John Updike's, I'm fairly certain his observation that water is the missing link between gas and ice is his cleverly banal way of pointing out it could never be turned into wine, and that he chastises death metal bands because unlike so many backsliders he's into balance rather than extremes. So complain about his wobbly tenor all you want -- I'd choose him warbling "I want to put my dick inside her" in the voice of a castrated altar boy any day over Robert Plant groaning about giving some groupie every inch of his love. And although he substitutes breakfast cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg for the son of God in his riff on "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," it's worth noting how that song connects fellow-countrymen the Vaselines (an obvious influence) with Nirvana (the alt-rock band, not the state of mind), who Willson mopily regrets never toured Edinburgh. The best Dave Grohl and Kris Novoselic could do to correct this oversight would be to hook him up with a real rhythm section. A–

Honorable Mentions

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Mirror Traffic (Matador) "Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie," complains Malkmus on this marriage-in-trouble album, but so are quirky time signature shifts ("Tigers," "Senator ," "Brain Gallop") ***

The Chain Gang of 1974: Wayward Fire (Modern Art) Kamtin Mohager's 80's-styled electropop is less irritating than Passion Pit's, but I'd still rather hear Lindsay Buckingham's voice speeded-up than Mohager's voice slowed-down ("Stop," "Heartbreakin' Scream") **

The Kills: Blood Pressures (Domino) Only occasionally do I feel like upping the Lisinopril ("Future Starts Here," "Nail in my Coffin") **

Desolate: The Invisible Insurrection (Fauxpas) Black and white cover art does not a Burial comparison make, but unlike ambient maestros from Nicolas Jaar to Tim Hecker, he knows a little something about beats, not to mention kitsch ("Imagination") *


Blondie: Panic of Girls (Eleven Seven/EMI) I'd love to be able to say that the little girls know but the middle-aged women understand, but the middle-aged woman in question only has a hand in six of these eleven songs, not including the best, the slick "What I Heard," written by new keyboardist Matthew Katz-Bohen with wife and songwriting partner Katy. Chris Stein contributes solely to the three tucked at the end, which include appallingly dreadful misfires in Spanish and French. Crucial ingredient Jimmy Destri, fresh out of rehab, was not invited to participate. The American release has been in limbo for months, and looks like mid-September it will be available stateside "exclusively" through Amazon. Uh, who's panicking? C+

Pusha T: Fear of God (mixtape) Although two of my favorite records of the year happen to be free mixtapes, I'm not entirely convinced that the format is a creative watershed. Frank Ocean posted Nostalgia, Ultra on his tumblr as a (now continuing) reaction to Def Jam's reticence to release it commercially, Nicki Minaj networked dilligently until the majors took notice, and the Weeknd thrives behind the internet's curtain of anonymity, but how could Pusha T possibly benefit from one of these? Not only is he already an established critical and commercial presence with his brother in the Clipse, but he's also currently signed to Kanye West's vanity imprint, which was reportedly supposed to have released a truncated version of this last month, which at this late date I'd doubt: even by mixtape standards this is dismayingly shoddy. Admittedly, this is hardly of documentary value -- I mean really, Rick Ross (who naturally guests) belches out a mixtape of this caliber every month -- but it's worth mentioning that this goes the extra mile by managing to be patently offensive on several levels. The only reason Terrence Thornton might conceivably "still want to sell kilos," as he dubiously declares early on in the only remotely listenable track, has nothing to do with his cash flow and more to do with his addiction to instant gratification, a hard truth reinforced by "Touch It," a pathetic ditty in which he and Kanye spend an odious three and a half minutes begging for fellatio (though who knows, maybe they're making overtures to each other, which from these two colossal narcissists would actually be sort of endearing). I'm not here to proselytize that it's better to give that to receive. Nevertheless, I say it's prudent to look a gift horse in its gold-capped mouth: I guarantee you, rappers on record bragging they "got it for cheap" will never have any motivation to give away their good shit for free. C–

Atari Teenage Riot: Is This Hyperreal? (Dim Mak)

Black Lips: Arabia Mountain (Vice)

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (Drag City)

Ford & Lopatin: Channel Pressure (Software)

Jesu: Ascension (Caldo Verde)

Cass McCombs: Wit's End (Domino)

Viva Voce: The Future Will Destroy You (Vanguard)

WU LYF: Go Tell Fire to the Mountain (LYF)

2011 August 2011 October