A Downloader's Diary (15): October 2011

by Michael Tatum

The increased record count this month occurred from the fevered inspiration that I could be recognized as the Hardest Working Downloading Rock Critic in Show Business. So far, neither Pitchfork nor Rolling Stone have phoned me to announce my award. I suppose you could argue spending the month with the nine winners below constitutes its own reward. But then again, so did spending the month with the worst record I've heard in several years, also reviewed below. What can I say . . . I'm a perverse kind of guy. That's why downloading is its own reward, too.

Battles: Gloss Drop (Warp) I sometimes wonder if my oft-stated ambivalence toward progrock (or post-rock, or math rock, or whatever pretentious label they're trying to market it under these days) is rooted in my embarrassment in having blundered though "Home Ec" Math during the latter half of my Senior Year while most of my friends (all fellow honors students) slogged through Calculus. Either way, the Battles of this record is an entirely different beast than the one that dropped 2007's arch Mirrored. Guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton is out of the picture, and gone with him are his grating fingernails-on-chalkboard vocal ululations -- he's quite possibly the only falsetto in the history of pop music fascinated with the male upper register not as an expression of vulnerability, but rather because he considers irritating people a novel way to seduce the avant garde. On this follow-up, aside from a few guest stars they've roped in for the express purpose of suckering in song fiends like you and me (or I don't know, perhaps they're gunning to land a few catchy bars in another video game advert), they dispense with the whole front man racket and make collective creation the focus, and man, what a difference: the beats chaotically ricochet off each other, the noise is both plentiful and playful, and in general their efficient trio gets weird without alienating the listener from the fun. In fact, "fun" is the operative word -- not exactly an adjective I associate with prog, or mathematics in general. But these guys have adopted such a predilection for mischief in their new identity that I can only assume Braxton's departure had less to do with his antipathy toward touring or a desire for solo glory and had a lot more to do with how he related musically and spiritually to the rest of the band. Especially once you realize that Braxton's true replacement, aside from those aforementioned guest stars, is actually a squelchy synthesizer sound that the band varies to evoke a mallet clanging on the bars of jungle gym, a carousel spinning off its axel, or an android coughing up a Jamaican steel drum. I say Tom Zé should ditch Tortoise and contract these guys the next time he decides to tour stateside. A–

Clams Casino: Instrumentals (mixtape) Generally speaking, I find instrumental hip hop records de trop -- cleaving the contextual meat only leaves bacon and breadcrumbs on the halfshell, wouldn't you say? -- but this free mixtape, which showcases New Jersey physical therapy student Mike Volpe's production work on projects from Lil B, Soulja Boy, and lesser lights, justifies the conceit. Although Volpe considers himself a hip hop producer first, I'm not entirely convinced his swampy approach is a copacetic match for the genre -- on Brandon "Lil B" McCartney's recent I'm Gay (I'm Happy), BigBoyTraks's conventional beats on "Game" buoy McCartney's shallow philosophizing, but he gets completely lost when submerged in the lemony miasma of Volpe's wild, spacey "Unchain Me" (as an Italian, Volpe should know never to sprinkle cheese over seafood). Volpe's aural signature may seem shapeless at first, but repeated immersion reveals a penchant for laying thick, attractively sluggish beats over slowed-down or stretched-out samples from songs sourced from Adele, Björk, Imogen Heap, and (the one mistake) Janelle Monáe. Although the frustratingly absent "Unchain Me" nicks its hook from Gerard McMann's "Cry Little Sister" (from the soundtrack to The Lost Boys, you can stop scratching your head), its non-inclusion draws attention to the mystique Volpe derives from his undeniable secret weapon, feminine power. The amusing revelation that he produces his tracks from his mother's attic does humorously defuse the notion that his is a music captivated by the song of the sirens. But like Odysseus strapped to the mast, he makes navigating those waters seem downright heroic. A–

Steve Cropper: Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales (429) Cropper belongs on any thoughtful list of great rhythm guitarists, which for my money would also include Nile Rodgers, Teenie Hodges, Johnny Ramone, John Lennon, and Keith Richards. The fact all those names made their best work thirty plus years ago illustrates what a lost art rhythm guitar playing has become. Cropper's own contribution to this craft is a sense of timing and space, the rare wisdom of knowing when not to play: the consummate accompanist (check out his restrained passage at the end of Otis Redding's "Tennessee Waltz" and you'll hear what I mean). Here, his approach is to engage in a dialogue with the vocalist, partly because his name graces the album cover, but also because that's the style of Royales guitarist, songwriter, and all-around auteur Lowman Pauling, who himself would be remembered as one of the greats if Mojo wasn't published in England. Unlike the gang on Rave on Buddy Holly, Cropper doesn't "update" these classics, all of them unjustly obscure save the accidental hit "Dedicated to the One I Love," but rather translate the Royales' hard '50s R&B to a modern day re-tooling of the Stax/Volt aesthetic. Interestingly, there are so many great singers here -- I'm especially fond of B.B. King's slavering lead on "Baby Don't Do It" -- Otis isn't the ingredient I miss. Instead, it's the criminally unsung Al Jackson, Jr., whose grace and light touch, especially when recalled against the heavy stickwork of the Average White Band's Steve Ferrone and Keith Richards sideman Steve Jordan, reminds me that R&B drumming, Ahmir Thompson notwithstanding, is a lost art, too. A–

Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds) It took several listens before I realized the zippy "Honey Bunny" wasn't just a revved-up re-write of "Fun, Fun, Fun" -- it actually introduces the central themes of this record: Christopher Owens' codependent relationship with his estranged mother, and his own emotionally stunted narcissism. Fall in love with him please please please, but if you want him to change his ways, that's your problem: because his mother accepted him despite his bony frame, dirty hair, or "the stuff that [he's] on," which given Owens' admitted dependence on "heavy opiates," probably isn't Robitussin. This leads later to the little lost boy motif of the despairing "My Ma," as well as the sad, creepily Oedipal closer "Jamie Marie": "I went and found the modern world/But I miss the way life was when you were my girl." This subtext explains Owens' affection for "Alex," a disaffected, gender-non specified hipster who has a band, a boyfriend, and no empathy -- or perhaps knows well enough to stay the hell away from boys with bony frames, dirty hair, and a dependence on heavy opiates. It also illuminates what draws Owens to junk in the first place -- narcissists are always trying to fill that infinitely deepening hole. All of which would make this record completely unlistenable if Owens actually sang like a narcissist, with the macho sensitivity of a Steve Perry, or the smug sensitivity of a Jackson Browne. But his tenor is so fragile, so quavering, even his gospel-inflected backing singers sound reticent to belt over him. It also helps that his top shelf melodies flirt with such "uncool" influences as early Pink Floyd, Poco, Herman's Hermits, and Deep Purple, simultaneously negating (or at least forestalling) reservations as it creates and justifies a rationale for the music's perverse anachronism. However, when Owens references the oft-quoted Proverbs 26:11 (As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly), he reminds me that records like this capture moments in an artist's evolution that can't be repeated -- you either learn from your mistakes and enter adulthood, or you go down in flames. Lou Barlow grew up and stopped making good music; Kurt Cobain wound up dead. Fuller than the 2009 debut, more of a piece than the 2010 EP, this record is so beautiful I hope Owens avoids both traps. But somehow, I doubt he will. A

Highlife Time Vol. 2: Nigerian and Ghanian Classics From the Golden Years (VampiSoul) "If you marry taxi driver/I don't care/If you marry lorry driver/I don't care/If you marry railway driver/I don't care/If you marry motor driver/I don't care" goes the chorus that rang through my head for the last month, a joyfully mean-spirited bonbon on a half-miraculous, half-perplexing, compilation of highlife obscurities from a Madrid-based world music label. With a few minor exceptions, there aren't heavy hitters here, and while I like the idea of collecting unjustly ignored minor league gems, the track listing is a chronological mess, skipping around incomprehensibly from a late '20s recording by palm wine guitarist George Williams Aingo that closes the first disc, to the more familiar rumba-fied selections from the '60s and '70s throughout. Still, most of the first disc fires off winner after winner, particularly the only track I knew beforehand, Prince Nico Mbarga's marvelous "Sweet Mother," one of those monster grooves that goes on for ten minutes and you wish could go on for half an hour. But the predominately instrumental second disc is a bewildering muddle, less songful and more jam-oriented, but not necessarily more grooveful -- Sir Victor Uwaifo's "Ogibo" plods clumsily, Celestine Ukwu's "Okwukwe Na Nichekwub" stumbles woozily, and if any song deserved a lyric, English or otherwise, it's Kofi Ghanaba's two-minute wuss-out "Ours, This is Our Land." Closing with an a cappella performance by Aingo that makes me wish for so much more -- namely, a compilation with a beginning, middle, and end -- instead, I have a feeling this "volume two" could be easily interchanged with "volume one" and nobody would be the wiser. B+

Rave On Buddy Holly (Hear Music) For an instructive contrast, skip through Verve's competing Listen to Me: Buddy Holly (at the very least, a blasé title by comparison), which showcases the usual moldering relics behind tattered velvet rope (Linda Ronstadt recycles her own 1977 version of "That'll Be The Day!" Jeff Lynne thinks the object is to cover Beatles For Sale! Have-a-Go Merchant has delusions of Sarah McLachlan! Eric Idle impersonates William Shatner!). Meanwhile, this well-promoted little item makes me push the forward button only twice: "Rave On" (Julian Casablancas, please go back to mooching off your father) and "Raining in My Heart" (warbled by some random insurance salesman, whoops, I mean Graham Nash). I suppose one could complain most of the junior contributors stick too closely to the orignal arrangements, but while Listen to Me is so homogenously streamlined it could be the same backing band on every track, here even Karen Elson (coltish), She & Him (flirty), and Cee-Lo Green (wacked out) by necessity put their own individual stamp on songs you know far too well. Meanwhile, the pomo "desecrations" are pretty daring: we get "It's So Easy" from an ex-Beatle who's probably given a colonoscopy to every business contract he's ever signed but never once considered giving a future spouse a pre-nup. Florence Welch's deconstructed, mechanized arrangement of "Not Fade Away" actually accentuates that song's debt to Chess Records. And by literalizing "Words of Love," Patti Smith radiates a warm maturity that sits well alongside a mostly younger generation aiming to recapture the nerdy tributee's perpetual adolescence. A–

Teddybears: Devil's Music (Big Beat/Atlantic) I don't get accusations of "trashiness" and "sleaziness" -- isn't that the point? Aside from the fact these qualities are treasured in my button-down household, it's worth noting that most artists are far too self-conscious to be trashy and sleazy for more than one hit single at a time -- before Femme Fatale, Britney Spears, to choose someone with plenty of both stored in her artistic reservoir, would balance knickers-dropping "statements" like "I'm A Slave 4 U" with "sincere" balladry, just so you would know there was someone "real" (i.e. "boring") underneath that halter top. In any case, especially in this repressed moment in American history, dismissive labels like "trashy" and "sleazy" usually indicate a commitment to pleasure that most people are too uptight to cop to when they know other people are looking. These Swedish pranksters are so cognizant about the tragic link between pleasure and shame that they refuse to reveal the "real" faces underneath those oversized bear masks, while at the same time coaxing more famous singers and rappers to undertake their dirty work. The message? That the Wolfman would make a more suitable party guest than Lawrence Talbot, that the "Devil's Music" is better soundtrack for life than Gregorian Chants, that outrageous jokes will make you feel more alive than received wisdom, and that drums machines . . . well, they may not have more soul than Ahmir Thompson or Charlie Watts, but I doubt Bo Diddley hand Frank Kirkland himself could duplicate the sputtering tribal thumping on the title track's bridge, over which a sample of his boss' name repeats in full or in part fifty-odd times in rapid-fire succession. But lest you think they lack a moral compass, they go on record (albeit cheekily) against "Crystal Meth Christians" and "suffragettes on barbiturates," and take bribes from the Yakuza or Russian mob only as long as it allows B.o.B. to purchase a house for his dear old mama. And their credo filters Bukowski through a vocoder: "Save that tiny little ember of spark. And never give them that spark because as long as you have that spark, you can start the greatest fire again." A

Wilco: The Whole Love (Anti-) Rolling Stone's Christian Hoard once described this Chicago sextet as "America's foremost rock impressionists," one of those pithy declarations one imagines rock critics dole out in hopes of landing a few choice words on a cover sticker. However, I'd take that art history metaphor a little further. Jay Bennett-era Wilco, from 1996's atmospheric but vague Being There to 2002's incandescent but dippy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, strikes me like Monet: exquisite little blossoms, beautifully blurred, rendered indistinctly rather than concretely, with tiny swells of music demanding lyrics far more direct and emotionally engaging than the splintery shards of post-Burroughs bullshit Tweedy usually offers up. This explains why Bennett's arrangements worked so much better on Wilco's two Woody Guthrie albums -- those words actually went somewhere, and the music matched them line by line. Although the transition has sometimes been painful, Nels Cline's spiky, coruscating abstract expressionism has proven more appropriate for Tweedy's drips and drabs of imagery, so now lyrics that might have in the past have come across as half-assed now resonate as the confused, angry, outbursts that Tweedy intends them to be -- so much so that I don't even mind when he uses the word "ambulance" as a verb in the amazing seven-minute opener "The Art of Almost." Although Tweedy threatens the possibility of setting fire to his kids in the jaunty hissy fit "I Might," the worthy theme is "loneliness postponed," dealt with sometimes reflectively and sometimes futilely, but always viewed as a dark sun peeking ominously over the horizon. Climaxing with the galvanic coda of "Born Alone," essentially a massive chord progression descending down an endless staircase across a climactic fade out, the first side comprises their strongest set of songs ever. The second half degenerates into cloying cutesiness, namely the McCartney-esque soft shoe routine "Capital City" and the Vegas fist-pumper "Standing O." But then comes what I suspect may be Tweedy's greatest moment: the absolutely gorgeous "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," which ambles briskly on the heels of three shimmering chords that circle for twelve hypnotic minutes, refusing to resolve. It's told from the point of view of an apostate son whose angry fundamentalist father angrily tells him he's not going to heaven -- and yet every magical second feels like forgiveness. Directness does occasionally offer rewards. A–

Wild Flag: Wild Flag (Merge) Of Sleater-Kinney's two principals, Carrie Brownstein was the formalist. Like most formalists, she's obsessed with the inner workings of her favorite records and figuring out what makes them tick, but not especially drawn to self-expression -- that was bandmate Corin Tucker's department. Brownstein's 9/11 song on 2002's One Beat, the caustic "Combat Rock," was a stylized tract -- she even adopted a faux-Cockney accent for her delivery -- while Corin's powerful "Far Away," from the same record, was more personal, drawn from the memory of watching the Twin Towers fall on television while cradling her newborn. As befits a graduate of a liberal arts college, many of Brownstein's S-K songs analyze culture through the prism of music -- nostalgia-mongering on "Entertainment," women channelling "male" power on "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" -- but on Tucker's more emotive relationship songs, her countermelodic side commentary often darted and weaved underneath the lead vocal. Her most nakedly poignant song with the band, 1999's "The Size of Our Love," imagines an elderly couple lying side by side in a hospital -- if not a scenario completely drawn from her imagination, then at the very least a fiction based on events witnessed secondhand. So while this indie rock powerhouse, comprising Brownstein, S-K drummer Janet Weiss, Helium frontwoman Mary Timony on second guitar, and Minders drummer Rebecca Cole switching to organ, will sound absolutely dynamite exploding from your speakers, don't expect it to tell you anything insightful about the woman testifying behind the mic, no matter how hard she rocks. Wiry riffs abound, Weiss hasn't sounded this alive since Sleater-Kinney's 2005 swansong The Woods, and the project as a whole drives home how far the indie rock scene has strayed from the visceral thrill of the greatest '90s bands, of which Sleater-Kinney was certainly one. I want to hear more records like it. But while "Sound is the blood between me and you" might have worked from a twenty-something in 1995, for a woman nearing forty to worry about "the music passing her by" -- a phrase she means literally, not metaphorically -- she makes those "crystal songs" sound less like expressions of desire and more like a fortress in which to hide. A–

Honorable Mentions

DJ Shadow: The Less You Know, the Better (Verve) A poison pen letter to the audience he's tired of trying to please ("Border Crossing," "I Gotta Rokk," "Warning Call") ***

Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys (Atlantic) Wise about some boys, not so much about specific women ("Some Boys," "Codes and Keys," "Doors Unlocked and Open") ***

SBTRKT: SBTRKT (XL) Mysterious London DJ cultivates anonymity, perhaps a little too much so ("Hold On," "Something Goes Right," "Trials of the Past") **

The Rapture: In the Grace of Your Love (DFA) Asked for a more humane LCD Soundsystem, they gave me a campier U2 ("Miss You," "How Deep is Your Love?") **

Lil Wayne: Tha Carter IV (Young Money) He was once a triumph of style over substance -- and then "substance" reared its ugly head ("She Will," "President Carter") **

Zomby: Dedication (4AD) Dubstep fixture's sixteen tracks in thirty-five minutes: he says dedication, I say dilettantism ("Witch Hunt," "Natalia's Song") **

Bootsy Collins: Tha Funk Capital of the World (Megaforce) Thirty-odd guests namedrop a dozen funk legends and recycle even more P-Funk platitudes, but the ballads are dee-licious ("Stars Have No Names (They Just Shine)," "Yummy, I Got the Munchies") **

Wiley: 100% Publishing (Big Dada) Grime kingpin as obsessed with copyright ownership as Paul McCartney, which could almost make you appreciate silly love songs ("Numbers in Action," "Boom Boom Da Na") **

Jimmie Dale Gilmore & the Wronglers: Heirloom Music (Neanderthal) Endearingly weird on Elektra, he now plays it way too straight ("I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," "Way Downtown") **

Lil B: I'm Gay (I'm Happy) (BasedWorld) Hawking an optimism inspired less by Sly Stone than Horatio Alger, he hires guys like Clams Casino when he should be hunting down Jazzy Jeff ("Game") *

Eleanor Friedberger: Last Summer (Merge) You can tell she's a singer-songwriter now because she thinks music solely exists as a backing track into which she can cram as many words as possible ("My Mistake") *

Lil Wayne: Sorry 4 the Wait (mixtape) You don't miss Da Drought till da well runs dry ("Sorry 4 the Wait") *


Lindsey Buckingham: Seeds We Sow (Mind Kit) I'm slouched dreamily in the back seat of my mother's car, paying close attention to the radio, as I always did. This would have been the summer of 1985, long after my mother and father had separated if not legally divorced -- I remember distinctly, because the DJ snarkily joked about Madonna's then-published Penthouse pictures (her unshaved armpits made her look like she had "Willie Nelson in a chokehold"). He then introduced Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back" by chortling that her signature alto rasp suggested she had just gotten "hit in the throat with a sack full of nickels," a putdown my teenage self found so hilarious I committed it to memory: someday, I promised myself, I would become a rock critic, and would incorporate this very line into a suitably derisive review. Little did I know that it wouldn't be utilized to describe Nicks, but rather her ex-lover and sometimes bandmate Lord Buckingham, whose once-ebullient tenor has turned so adenoidal and pinched that it's downright painful to hear without double-tracking beefing it up. But aside from those bizarre voiceprint similarities (was all that youthful cocaine abuse the great equalizer?), I should have discerned the difference between their two 2011 albums immediately. Whereas Nicks returns to stalwart L.A. session man Waddie Wachtel for her latest bland-o comeback, the ever-rebellious Buckingham stubbornly overdubs the fussy guitar parts himself in a manner so gratingly precise that his predominating antiseptic acoustic sounds like a harpsichord sample run through a sequencer. I'm reminded that Buckingham, who some dub an "indie rock progenitor," spent a million dollars of Warner Bros.' money while recording Tusk to approximate sounds that dozens of punk upstarts were churning out cheaply, and better. Indie rock progenitor, my ass -- a career at Windham Hill awaits. C

Owl City: All Things Bright and Beautiful (Universal Republic) Hipsters spent 2009 denigrating this former Coca-Cola truck driver for Disney-fying the Postal Service, but I never saw the point, for much the same reason I would never waste my time heckling a contestant in a junior high talent show. Then I came across this quote from his young hotshot manager Steve Bursky in online music industry rag HitQuarters: "I think they [meaning Owl City label Universal Republic] saw Owl City as representing the future of our business. This idea of a kid in a tiny town in rural U.S. being able to make songs in his basement that sound like Top 40 radio could never have happened ten years ago. By hiring a young management company who understands the business circa 2011 over a seasoned industry vet, who might not understand the online spaces well, showed a lot of understanding of where this kid was going to end up having success." In other words, the artist can record an entire album in his basement for next to nothing, promote his record on social networking sites for less than that, and because of that, the label barely has to spend a dime on a project that once might have cost them thousands of dollars. And everyone "wins" -- except perhaps for the American public. So I say it's time to squash this cottage industry before it becomes a rampant assembly line of Auto-Tuned electropop mediocrity. His doe-eyed motto "Reality is a lovely place but I wouldn't want to live there," Adam Young is less a "deer in a headlights" than an ostrich with his head in the sand: his idea of true romance is declaring love to a pretty stranger in a parking lot (she retaliates with pepper spray), and one of his many "frivolous thoughts" includes the bizarre notion that astronauts aren't in it out of an innate curiosity about the way the universe works, but because they long to "touch the face of God." That quote comes straight of the sampled mouth of Ronald Reagan -- quite possibly the first and last time that odious human being has/will ever be heard in a non-satirical context on an American pop album -- and inaugurates an appalling suite of songs inspired by, of all things, the Challenger disaster. In this context, "kiss the planet goodbye" is tasteless as it is asinine, and his moony avowal that God is "the only North Star" he'll follow amusing only because I'm pretty sure: a) his knowledge of the Milky Way is based on glow-in-the-dark press-on stars his parents put on his ceiling, and b) he doesn't know that because of the precession of the Earth's rotational axis, the North Star actually changes every two thousand years -- about the same turnaround time for world religions too, I imagine. For Disney-fied Postal Service copycats the pull date is considerably sooner. I hope. Couplet that explains everything: "I swear/There's a lot of vegetables out there." E

Africa HiTech: 93 Million Miles (Warp)

Atmosphere: The Family Sign (Rhymesayers)

Cities Aviv: Digital Lows (Fat Sandwich)

Liam Finn: Fomo (Yep Roc)

Joan as Police Woman: The Deep Field (PIAS America)

Ladybug Transistor: Clutching Stems (Merge)

Amy LaVere: Stranger Me (Archer)

Listen to Me: Buddy Holly (Verve Forecast)

Peter Bjorn and John: Gimme Some (StarTime International)

Ximena Sariñana: Ximena Sariñana (Warner Bros.)

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