A Downloader's Diary (17): December 2011

by Michael Tatum

With no less than six artists tinkering with old material and with one of my grafs a re-think of an honorable mention, the theme to this month's return to quality music is "remake/remodel." Still plenty of items on the back burner, and I'm vowing not even to touch any 2012 music until March or so. Regardless, you can look forward to some surprises in the early months of next year. Hope this will tide you over until then -- and provide some gift-giving ideas, for whatever holiday you celebrate.

James Carter: At the Crossroads (Emarcy) When Francis Davis dismissed this as hawking "which-way-back-to-the-chicken-shack clichés," my first thought was that he should listen to more Jimmy Smith, not to mention dig into a big greasy plate of pan-fried chicken -- especially since to my ears, his 2011 Carter of choice, Caribbean Rhapsody, spends its hour plus lounging under an umbrella at the George Town Hilton Garden Inn. In any case, Carter's approach to the organ trio isn't exactly Jimmy Smith, whose distinctive, be-bop influenced style is a great deal more straightforwardly percussive than Carter main man Gerard Gibbs, who favors choppy stabs and swirls of sound. Besides, Carter's bag has never been re-creation as much as re-invention, and here as elsewhere, his band follows the leader -- you could wince at the mawkishly sustained Hammond B-3 chord that introduces Gibbs' solo on Sarah McLawler's ballad "My Whole Life Through," or you could chuckle at how it pokes fun at such sudsy conventions before Gibbs explores more adventurous harmonic territory. No denying the vocal numbers are less successful, however -- nothing wrong with Carter's manly honks on "The Walking Blues," but both the band and Miche Braden overplay the punch lines (check out Jesse Powell and Fluffy Hunter's sexily understated original), while Ellington's "Come Sunday" and the traditional "Tis the Old Ship of Zion" completely betray the concept, dragging the record's tail half into an unwarranted sanctimoniousness not quite dispelled by a slightly unfocused Julius Hemphill reading that takes its sweet time getting started. But ultimately, there really isn't a real concept to betray, other than a vaguely loose aura undeniably stemming from Carter's knowledge that between his two 2011 records, this is the one less likely to shift major units. I say if you really want a concept, how about a blowing session with his quintet, like the scorching numbers I've seen popping up over YouTube? That would be a draw -- rather than all this in-between shit. B+

Class Actress: Rapprocher (Carpark) Once just another "meaningful" folk-pop singer-songwriter, former coffeehouse habitué Elizabeth Harper spent years struggling to get noticed under her woefully bland government name. Then, along came fairy godfathers Mark Richardson (producer) and Scott Rosenthal (engineer/multi-instrumentalist) with a battery of analogue synthesizers and bippity, boppity, boo -- like Madonna and Lana del Rey before her, she transformed herself into a coquettish, raven-haired ingénue, making like a Victoria's Secret model on her fetching album cover. True, Harper is less strikingly photogenic than either of the chanteuses just named (only adds to her appeal, I say) but she bests her electopop exemplars by actually possessing the musical chops necessary to layer her insouciant soprano with beguilingly tricky harmonies. Lucky for her, because one minor limitation of this music is that analogue synthesizers offer very little variations from their factory pre-sets, so although the songs are musically richer than the Human League and Depeche Mode records they take off from, the flat, brittle timbres offer frustratingly minute sonic variation from song to song. So if that makes Richardson and Rosenthal's medium the black and white movie, Harper's lithe singing is the image-softening, Vaseline-smudged lens, while her clever script slyly surpasses standard come-ons: "You made me late for work," we've heard that before, but "you made me late for church?" "I don't need to know any more than you tell me?" "Do you think that I care what we talk about when we talk about love?" Actually, I'm sure she does -- even though she blows the inevitable moment when Electropop Law mandates her to deliver a ballad revealing the heart of gold she keeps beating under the covers. Stanislavski would have seen right through that one. A–

Dessa: Castor, the Twin (Doomtree) This should be the final nail in the coffin for any purist cynically dismissing Minnesota's Maggie Wander as NPR's rapping white girl of choice. Here, she elaborately reworks three tracks from 2005's False Hopes EP and six from 2010's A Badly Broken Code, adding the excellent new "The Beekeeper" -- while rejecting programmed beats and samples in favor of her touring band, with guest spots from not only live string players but a goddamn mandolinist, too. The result is luxurious, grand even, especially if you compare the growth in Wander's singing to the tentative delivery of her EP -- angry moments turn conciliatory, edges elide until what's left is the grace that was always burning brightly underneath: For the Roses with beats, rhymes, and life. The trade off however, comes at the cost of sacrificing the dynamism of the original recordings, as well as the freshness of her initial conception: marrying hip hop innovations (i.e., those rejected programmed beats and samples) to basic singer-songwriter conventions. Take away those innovations and you're left with conventions. This is often beautiful and always intelligent even though it stays within the lines she no longer crosses. But like the "Mineshaft" theme she hammers home in two separate songs, we've been before and we know where it goes: it goes down. B+

Fruit Bats: Tripper (Sub Pop) Other than geographical proximity, or the possibility that James Mercer's perfectionist ethos has alienated every other alt-identified musician on the Pacific Rim, I don't quite see how Fruit Bats leader Eric Johnson fits in with the Shins. True, both bandleaders specialize in meticulously arranged indie rock that looks over its shoulder to pre-punk pop forms. But while Mercer's tightly wound arrangements underscore the ambitions of a guy hell bent on hightailing it out of Albuquerque for Portland even if it meant leaving his girlfriend behind, Johnson's more spaciously elegant aesthetic is as definitively Southwestern as the Meat Puppets or Georgia O'Keefe, the bemused observations of a wide-eyed wanderer whose nomadic ways stem from curiosity, restlessness, and boredom. Fittingly, he populates his lyrics with a motley cast of "broken down punks and zeros" that includes truck-hopping Tangie and Ray, long-suffering cutie Dolly, "the Mayor of Nowheresville," and titular hippie anachronism Tony, who defends his can of beans against an army of spectral snakes in a combustive, hallucinatory fit. And in a nice narrative arc, although Johnson inhabits the voice of a detached narrator rather than an active participant in the ill-fated cross country trip that opens the record, by the Supertramp tribute near the end, he joins that banished exile on her lonely exodus out of town. I wish that exodus didn't take Johnson off the edge of the record, however -- he should save instrumental doodles for his soundtrack work, and it would have been wiser to honor his late songwriting friend Diane Izzo with his own song, rather than meander through her lazily "spiritual" "Wild Honey." But I say any album that claims escape for its underlining theme ending with a song about a picture of a bird rather than the usual ho-hum ode to the bird itself has its pomo bases covered. A–

Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie (429) From Bragg/Wilco to the Klezmatics, the lyrics will be the primary draw on any of Nora Guthrie's projects utilizing her father's unfinished songs, but the window dressing does make a difference. The only constant on this long-gestating multi-artist compilation is bassist and arranger Rob Wasserman (whose fluid style curiously recalls that of Fernando Saunders, whose boss Lou Reed delivers the rueful "The Debt I Owe"), so more than usual, the success rate here hinges upon the delivery of the vocalists. However, while I have no problem with classy types like Kurt Elling, Madeline Peyroux, or (especially) Nellie McKay, I'm not sure if Woody Guthrie would have recognized his voice in theirs -- putting aside their respective political instincts, they neverthless represent the flip side of the dichotomy observed in Ani DiFranco's piece, in which the delicatesstan patrons she observes (and Studs Terkel later brillliantly inhabits) speak the "deep sound" and "full tone" she recognizes as her own. Note also that the lyrics that Elling and Peyroux appropriate are more generalized (and McKay's more sentimental) than DiFranco's and Terkel's more profoundly class conscious entries. But although I'd rather hear Todd Snider ruminate about "High Lonesome" than Chris Whitley, I'd say the remaining odds and ends are well matched to their collaborators, especially the two traditional singer-songwriter plaints. Lou Reed's fingerprints are so perceptible on "The Debt I Owe" it could have been sandwiched in the middle of Ecstasy and no one would have questioned its authorship. And while Jackson Browne normally foregrounds his solipsisms with that vanilla baritone, here his straightforward singing actually works to his advantage -- bereft of the histrionics he couldn't pull off anyway, he makes the lyric the star for fifteen spellbinding minutes. A–

Pusha T: Fear of God II: Let Us Pray (Decon) Initially slated for official Def Jam release until it was sent back for seasoning, this impressive salvage job of the original download-only mixtape demands a point by point scrutinization of the improvement. Four tracks dubiously designated "freestyles?" In the wastebasket. The intro appropriating that hackneyed snippet of Scarface? On the cutting room floor. The "Bohemian Rhapsody" misfire, with its dubious claim that if Wesley Snipes had only followed Pusha's sage advice, Snipes might have avoided time in the slammer? Discreetly disposed of. And the obscenely flaccid Kanye West fellatio plaint "Touch It?" I'm sure everyone involved is pretending that never happened (I know guys, it's hard to get it up when everyone's looking). That leaves by my count five holdovers from the previous record, and while they're undeniably the best tracks, they're also shuttled toward the end of this reshuffle, which should tell you how confident Terrence Thronton was with their quality to begin with. So although the seven superior new tracks are still too Michael Bay to suit me -- especially compared to Hell Hath No Fury's grainy film noir -- the level of care in both the music and lyrics are, as "Changing of the Guard" puts it, "closer to clarity, not parody." What's missing isn't self-reflection -- Lord knows one would be a fool to expect that from this candid narcissist -- but a second dimension. I'm thinking primarily here of his brother Gene, whose upcoming memoir details the Clipse's extracurricular drug dealing, Gene's own descent into depression, and his subsequent return to his religious upbringing. Now I know that scenario is as old as the hills, and with their former manager having plead guilty to masterminding a multi-million dollar drug ring, perhaps suspiciously timely in its convenience. But contrast that with Terrence's somewhat overstated acknowledgment of his culpability in "inner city genocide," his declaration that he's beyond redemption, that only God knows his pain even if the shorties he bangs don't, that he'd stop pushing kilos if we treated him like Michael rather than Tito -- it's cartoonish in comparison. Based on this work, I'd say he's Jermaine plus, and should coax Gene to play "Malice" one more time before the inevitable stint in the ministry. B+

Wire: 12 Nov 1978, SO36, Berlin (Pinkflag) It makes sense that any band with Justine Frischmann's attorney on speed dial would seek control over the torrent of concert bootlegs fans have been circulating for years. As so often is the case however, the question of how much of a difference any of these records might make a difference in your life boils down to utility -- even the 2000 San Francisco gig reviewed below doesn't come close to matching the ferocious set that blew me away in Los Angeles one month previous, despite reprising the same songs and running order. This record however, isn't about nostalgia -- it's a record with a mission. Reprising only the title cut from the masterful Pink Flag, skipping obvious recent high points like "I Am the Fly" and "Outdoor Miner," and ignoring ubiquitous drunken requests for "12XU," the band instead heroically rescues material from Chairs Missing and 154 by severing themselves from both Mike Thorne's intrusively arty production and their own increasingly arch studio personality. Beginning with a scorching "Practice Makes Perfect" that ironically outlines their mission statement (Newman: "Never for money, always for love." Lewis: "A-ha-ha-ha-ha!"), they serenade their appreciative Berlin audience with the Anglophillic confusion of "French Film Blurred," rip through "Former Airline" and "Two People in a Room," and even thoughtfully supply a ponderous intermission with eight minutes of "A Touching Display." I'm sure there are forty versions of these songs already in their catalog, and their legal bootleg series will probably unearth forty more. But having struggled for years with their late '70s material, this album is a tiny miracle -- undoubtedly where I'll return when I want to hear the most beautiful song ever written about Centerville, Iowa. A–

Wussy: Funeral Dress II (Shake It) I suppose to some degree, recommending a record no longer obtainable through legal channels smacks slightly of cruelty. So until Shake It prints more than the five hundred copies they drummed up for Record Store Day, you'll have to procure this from the usual dubious online sources. As well you should -- usually when artists travel down the unplugged route, it's at a point when they lack the juice for high-powered electricity anyway. But Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver aren't emoting these eleven wonderful songs for a respectful, middle-aged VH-1 audience -- they knocked this off in eight swift hours, most likely returning afterwards to their day jobs as a waitress and a stone cutter (the latter gig referred to in the opening verse of "Airborne," although I never noticed). And it's a classic nevertheless -- because 2005's Funeral Dress marked their first time in the studio as a band, to some degree they were still sorting out their sonic identity. That certainly signifies as one of its strengths, but by the same token, it shares less aesthetically with the other items in their catalog, which means this redux sounds less like the Ass Ponys and more like the fractured partnership this band would eventually become. Additionally, Lisa Walker returns to this material with increased confidence -- note that six years ago she stuck closely to Cleaver's melodies, but here damn near dances on top of them. And because the acoustic setting foregrounds the lyrics, the songs are imbued with more emotional range as a result. Funny -- here we thought Wussy was their breakup album, or maybe Strawberry. Turns out they were unraveling right from that very first song: "It was just another Thursday, like any other Thursday, except that we were through." Which only points up that for bands like this, there are no ordinary days, musical or otherwise. A

Wussy: Strawberry (Shake It) Robert Christgau aptly dubbed this Cincinnati quartet's self-titled third record as "brutal a relationship album as Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights." But what happens when two world-class singer-songwriters break up romantically but not musically, mutually intuiting their best chance to make a mark professionally is with that ex-lover they're leaving behind? This record springs from the hard truth that falling in love on the job makes for a frustrating mess -- you may not sleep in the same bed or come home to the same one bedroom apartment, but you're stuck toiling away in the same studio, glaring at each other from opposite sides of the stage, making awkward small talk in the tour van. Tough new drummer Joe Klug also produces, and probably functions as mediator/therapist -- he certainly lets principals Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker bash each other with foam bats on the galvanic "Pulverized," and supplies empathetic undertones to the majestic ballad "Grand Champion Steer." "Do you love me or not?" Chuck asks, sitting in the back seat, riddled with doubt. Toking on a "breathing apparatus," she nonchalantly replies, "Sure," while leaving notes to another man for him to see: "You're pretty good, but hard to find." Her boxes packed and stacked around his feet, she removes the ampersand that once connected their names, as he observes: "Looks like I was the last to know." Meanwhile, he holds on by incorporating her vocals into every song he's written about her. She performs her own numbers alone. He passes the time, up in the air. She's changing her mind -- she's already there, and gone. A+

Neil Young: International Harvesters: A Treasure (Reprise) One of a string of "unrepresentative" '80s records that didn't endear the unpredictable artist to David Geffen, it took three years for 1982's Old Ways to hit record stores, and by the time it did, Young had altered its track listing so much he referred to it in interviews as a "sequel" to its original incarnation. As with his Devo detour and rockabilly debacle, his fans reacted with a combination of bewilderment, confusion, and disbelief -- Harvest and Comes a Time were certainly "country influenced," but between the traditional honky tonk structures, Waylon Jennings cameos, and Gogi Grant cover, musical questions on the order of "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" came off completely disingenuous from a troubadour with real roots in Winnipeg coffeehouses. Maybe that's why his seasoned Nashville crew sounded so stiff on record -- maybe they didn't take his "back to the country" shtick seriously, either. By this tour however, they had loosened up considerably, reworking not only two tracks from Old Ways, but a pair from Re-ac-tor, and two oldies: a lively "Are You Ready for the Country?" and a listless version of "Flying on the Ground is Wrong" that points up how Richie Furay's squarer, sincerer tenor enhanced much of Young's Buffalo Springfield-era juvenilia. Though I'm rankled by the embarrassingly jingoistic cheers for American car manufacturing at the top of "Motor City" (guess they missed the line about that domestic car turning out to be a piece of crap), there's no denying the draw of the unreleased material -- how much top drawer stuff does this guy have lying around in his vault anyway? Highlights unquestionably include the spirited song for his newborn daughter, the sly David Geffen rationalization "Nothing's Perfect," and the wild, blistering "Grey Riders." But the real charmer is the utterly slight "Let Your Fingers Do the Walking," an unabashed throwaway which inhabits Nashville conventions (corny puns, two-step rhythms) with aplomb, yet without condescension -- which is probably why the set list selection from Old Ways tops out at two. A–

Honorable Mentions

Deer Tick: Divine Providence (Partisan) A little too anxious about proving he's more Paul Westerberg than Stephen Stills ("Let's All Go to the Bar," "Funny Word," "Miss K.") ***

Wire: 02 May 2000, Great American, San Francisco (Pinkflag) "I shift the blame/To the guy on the barstool/With the cheap ass tape recorder" ("Silk Skin Paws," "12XU," "Drill") **

Lydia Loveless: Indestructible Machine (Bloodshot) If only her tunes were as indestructible as she pretends to be ("More Like That," "Steve Earle") **

Crooked Fingers: Breaks in the Armor (Merge) Makes me yearn for the days when he feigned ignorance of minor chords, not to mention acoustic guitars ("Typhoon") *

Connie Smith: Long Line of Heartaches (Sugar Hill) A paradox: a relief from 2011 Music Row because it anachronistically hearkens back to Music Row 1971, yet had it actually been released in 1971, its dearth of top shelf material would have been (even more) obvious ("Ain't You Even Gonna Cry") *


Kate Bush: Director's Cut (Fish People) Like spiritual daughter Tori Amos, Bush attracts legions of acolytes who swear vociferously by her entire output, and hopefully one day one of them siphons from that output the dynamite compilation she no doubt deserves -- with the possible exception of her the fine 1978-85 EMI collection The Whole Story, none of her records lives up to its lofty literary and musical ambitions from beginning to end. So in a way, I'm grateful for these remakes and re-workings of songs from 1989's The Sensual World and 1993's The Red Shoes, because it inspired me to a burn a disc of the original recordings for the purpose of comparison, and perhaps even alert me to winners that I had missed. And indeed, I was completely won over by the tart "Song of Solomon" ("Don't want your bullshit/Just want your sexuality") and the gorgeous elegy "Moments of Pleasure," two excellent songs that failed to make on impact on me eighteen years ago. But while the 1989 version of "The Sensual World" was the hottest thing this once-emotionally repressed teenager had ever heard -- the siren song of the saucy librarian who would take my spark in her hand and whisper mmm yes in my ear -- this remake, approved by the Joyce estate and retro-fitted with Molly Bloom's famous monologue from Ulysses, not only proves that she knew more about the erotic than Joyce did, but also that her voice was better equipped to evoke that eroticism when she was young. Similarly, the new versions of "Moments of Pleasure" and the waiting room masterpiece "This Woman's Work," both slowed down and stripped to their essence, are completely robbed of their magic -- when Bush devotes a couplet to the sense of humor she doesn't have, boy is she not kidding. I mean, if you re-record eleven songs under the pretense that you've learned more in the two decades since their first release and the end result is longer by ten full minutes, how much have you really learned? C+

Architecture in Helsinki: Moment Bends (Downtown)

Gabe Dixon: One Spark (Fantasy)

Dubioza Kolektiv: Wild Wild East (Kool Arrow)

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner Bros.)

Man Man: Life Fantastic (Anti-)

My Brightest Diamond: All Things Will Unwind (Asthmatic Kitty)

Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog)

S.C.U.M.: Again Into Eyes (Mute)

Veronica Falls: Veronica Falls (Slumberland)

2011 November 2012 March