A Downloader's Diary (18): March 2012

by Michael Tatum

I was going to extoll the virtues of my new digital, er, "entertainment unit," which plays both hard discs and MP3s, making the additional yuks in the newly expanded trash section possible. Then, my iPod's wake/sleep button stuck. Oh, well -- at least there are ways around that. These are the first of my findings for 2012, with a heavy emphasis on co-ed energy, plus a bit of trash from late, late 2011 I couldn't leave, shall we say, untouched.

Thomas Anderson: The Moon in Transit (Four-Track Demos 1996-2009) (Out There) To give you insight into the quaintness of these "four-track demos," no one records on portable analog studios anymore: technology has evolved to the point where you can not only record dynamite sounding demos digitally, but you can feasibly produce an entire album from the comfort of your own living room and no one would be the wiser you didn't book a week at Sear Sound. So such marks of amateurism as that ungainly drum machine or that seemingly two-stringed guitar might strike some as chintzy to those weaned on Stephin Merritt and Tune-Yards. But in fact, as with Anderson's papyrus-thin tenor and nursery-rhyme-simple melodies, such low-rent conventions only heighten the timelessness of the lyrics, which at their best approach top-drawer John Prine (as Anderson notes of doomed rockabilly minor player Warren Smith: "Could have been a hundred years ago/Could have been today, for all we know"). After a somewhat frivolous instrumental (how many of those did Prine record?) Anderson takes on the Donner Party ("Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah/Good one boys, now fill my plate") and Harry Houdini ("What if she screams, 'My God, it's really real?'"), but also tries his hand at more modest sketches: a transvestite babysitting uncle, a former Humble Pie groupie, the perils of following in Fred Gwynne and Boris Karloff's footsteps. But the song that hits the hardest, both musically and lyrically, undoubtedly hearkens back to this former Oklahoman's small-town ennui, a rationalization for a bored high school kid spinning his wheels: "Hear my roar from miles around/Nothing else to do in this dumbshit town." A–

Bhi Bhiman: Bhiman (Boocoo) A busking graduate of the San Francisco BART station, this Sri-Lankan singer-songwriter reminds me of no one more than Ted Hawkins -- his stridently percussive strumming and warmly commanding tenor suggest the experience of someone who knows he has only a few chance seconds to capture your attention before you board that 8:30 train. In fact, although Bhiman overdubs most of the instruments himself, many of the arrangement touches -- hand claps, vibraphone, double bass -- could all conceivably be reproduced on a street corner without the benefit of amplification. Even so, he relies so heavily on texture, atmosphere, and sublimated rhythm that I'm curious what he could accomplish with the help of someone like Tchad Blake, who might have transformed Bhiman's stately pulse into something more scintillating without sacrificing the artiste's innate naturalism. Nevertheless, Bhiman's inventive music is far more postmodern than anything Hawkins ever dared -- he processes one of his many Wall Street reprimands so that it sounds like an old 78, while he nicks the melody for that perhaps overly optimistic retiree from the traditional lullaby "Hush, Little Baby." And the amazing "Kimchi Line" doesn't concern the train you take to your favorite K-town restaurant, but rather a convict imagining away his time in a North Korean prison. Not exactly Ted Hawkins material, is it? A–

Burial: Kindred (Hyperdub, EP) Having generated no major music since 2007's watershed Untrue, killing time with two EPs purposely issued under the radar only in download and vinyl formats, another cavalierly distributed obscurity may strike the impatient as more premature Burial. Certainly, any of the tracks from last year's unobtrusive Street Halo EP could conceivably have been folded into either of William Bevan's regular-release albums as filler -- fine experienced as background music, but too noncommittal and indecisive to justify a standalone release. But this time around, sputtering breakbeats and stacatto keyboard figures grab your attention early and refuse to let up, sustaining an impressively high level of energy for two tracks lasting almost twelve minutes and one almost eight, cresting on a wave of astounding momentum that never once bursts over the dam nor collapses in exhaustion before it reaches the shore -- Bevan even peppers what few rest breaks he allows with the unsettling sound of needles ominously skipping back and forth in out-grooves. Much can be said about the fascinating multipartite structures, cleverly repeated motifs, and occasional moments bordering on the ecstasy that raves and religion merely promise. But I marvel in how Bevan's pretensions condescend neither to his audience nor the house music they love: disembodying those divas from their original contexts and releasing their essence skyward as if doves in a cathedral, he's less outside a tradition than a true believer devoted to bringing that tradition closer to God. Of course, whether or not the mysterious Bevan actually promulgates any religious beliefs, conventional or otherwise, is doubtful. I certainly don't. But no matter whether you spend your Saturday nights on the dancefloor, your Sunday mornings in church, or your entire weekend purveying the outside world from the privacy of your living room couch, this is an incantation whose power you can believe in. A

Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory (Carpark) With major help from his incendiary new band -- especially pitiless drummer Jayson Gerycz -- this indeed improves upon the wiry lo-fi rock of Dylan Baldi's 2010 one man EP: the music is more developed, the noise more articulate, and the reedy vocals slightly more muscular. But with the ad hoc band still slightly embryonic, having only recently been assembled for touring purposes and until now unproven in the studio, the choice of Steve Albini as a producer is somewhat questionable. Nobody questions Albini's technical proficiency -- his abrasive aesthetic is both singular and unmistakable -- but by his own admission, he tends to set up shop, press record, and stay out of the artist's way. So while this burns and blisters as mercilessly as In Utero or Surfer Rosa -- undeniably the touchstones Baldi aims to evoke -- Kurt Cobain and Black Francis' musical visions were so strong they didn't need much intermediary tinkering, which is why they could get away working with someone so laissez faire in his production style. One wonders if someone with a more applied approach might have pointed out to Baldi that, for example, the dirge-like opener wastes too much time getting started, grinding away for three and a half minutes before shifting upwards to the brutal climax that justifies the song's sluggish tempo. But between the song titles -- "No Future/No Past," "Stay Useless," "Wasted Days" -- and Baldi's sardonic admission "No one knows our plans for us/We won't last long," one gets the sense that not only does he no longer consider this band merely a way for him to kill time between classes, but the songs are his way of triumphing over his own boredom and complacency. No wonder he fixates so much on Nirvana and the Pixies -- he's an heir to a grand tradition indeed. A–

Lana del Rey: Born to Die (Polydor/Interscope) From "Leader of the Pack" to Tom Waits, fatalism has always had a place in rock and roll. But as a product of sincere expression it often indicates an immature worldview, as an invention of cynical contrivance it smacks of base audience manipulation, and either way rarely succeeds in reflecting the way the world really works. The former Lizzy Grant however, falls into neither trap. Shrewd enough to surmise she would never hit the big time under her own name, she adapted an alter ego not only to fascinate the fickle blogosphere, but also because it provided her a medium in which she could explore fatalism ironically, as an explicit subject, an aspect of her art which has oddly gone unnoticed in the United States, even at Pitchfork, where they see irony in music the same way Fundamentalist Christians see the face of Jesus in convenience store breakfast sandwiches. Owner of a highly sophisticated, thought-through vocal style that reveals the otherwise decent bonus tracks on the "Deluxe Edition" as the juvenilia they probably are, Lana del Rey passively torches from an alternate universe where good girls live for the thrill of Bacardi chasers, slot machines, red nail polish, open-mouthed kissing, and wife-beater undershirts, who wait out their old man's release from Rikers by sipping Diet Mountain Dew through a plastic straw while leaving the Jesus on the car dashboard alone. The first six songs are pop perfection. After that it's somewhat more hit or miss, but even so each song will grab you by hook or by (ha ha) crook if you put in enough time, especially in regards to Grant's phrasing: the way she shortens the "i"s in the word "vitamin," or coos the phrase "like a fuckin' dream I'm livin' in" so sweetly you'll have to consult the lyric sheet to verify what your ear's not quite sure it's heard. Lindsay Zoladz completely missed the mark when she wrote, "Even when Del Rey offers something that could be read as a critique...she asks that we make no effort to change, escape, or transcend the way things are" -- what does she expect, a coup on the order of what Randy Newman did in 1974 when he singlehandedly solved America's race problem? Ruing the loss of the real-life middle school friends she lost when Daddy sent her to rehab -- which actually ends the record on an appropriately poignant note -- is one thing: it's the only moment in which she imbues her subject with the touch of the genuine. But when Del Rey asks that bad boy, "Do you think we'll be in love forever?" she has no idea what to expect. Lizzy Grant on the other hand knows for sure the answer is no. Get it? A–

Ani DiFranco: ┐Whose Side Are You On? (Righteous Babe) I agree with the consensus that after ten years, DiFranco has finally cured herself of Joni Mitchell's Disease, the artistically crippling malady that deludes its victims into thinking that her highly suspect jazz pretensions supersede their unassailable (but highly specific) songwriting gifts. Perhaps the dire political climate convinced her to forswear the posturing and get back to business, but writing about politics has always been tricky, even for those with instincts as comparably as sharp as DiFranco's. Her Florence Reece appropriation hits all the right notes -- corporations, stolen elections, the not-so-free market, and so forth -- but the titular slogan has become as empty a platitude to the left as, oh, "Buying Ani DiFranco albums means the terrorists have won" is to the right. I cheer her on when she bullet points the rationale for the Equal Rights Amendment and admire how she poignantly incorporates abortion in her painful homelessness song, but even if it's intended as a joke, I wince when she attributes her "balance" to her astrological sign (because horoscope readings only reinforce patriarchy, don't you think?). And while the doobie-on-the-front-porch rumination "J" at least sets itself up to be somewhat unfocused, it's criminal that she aligns an insight as astute as Obama "could be the next F.D.R./But instead he's shifting his weight" next to the Weekly World News-worthy fear that street drugs are entering our water supply (according to WebMD, prescription pharmaceuticals represent a far more worrisome threat, and even those still appear in negligibly low quantities). She reminds me of a vegan acquaintance I once had several years ago, who while well-informed on most subjects, kept insisting that dairy farmers disguised blood-contaminated cow lacteal by utilizing it for chocolate milk. Then again, I never always agreed with Chuck D either, and even at her most trenchant, DiFranco never fails to radiate warmth and empathy, both in her deft singing and underrated guitar playing. Tipping the scales (like Libra, ha ha) is the wise, knowing "Promiscuity," which DiFranco defines as "research and development." Where was that line when I was in college? A–

Imperial Teen: Feel the Sound (Merge) A decade plus past toiling on the major label treadmill and regrouping only when the spirit is willing, these San Franciscans remain one of indie rock's longest running bands, and none of their albums disappoints tune-wise. But if you think tunes are their reason for existing, I say subject yourself to a little test. Listen to 2007's excellent The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band, which begins with a perfectly serviceable "Be My Baby" cop via drummer Lynn Truell, and compare that to the punchy, unstoppable "Ivanka," which jumpstarts 2002's galvanic On. Now immerse yourself in the breathless rush of this album's glossy opener "Runaway" and ask yourself if, like the B-52s before them, this band's music bursts with so much life because these two gay men and their female rhythm section divide their time equally between discos and rock clubs. Although they playfully dirty up such two dollars words as "palindrome" and "affidavit," you may be disappointed initially by the lyrics, which adhere primarily to simple rhymes and automatic tropes: "Book the time, set the tone/Something borrowed, something sewn," preceded by the even more nonsensical "Are these feathers meant for down?/Are these letters meant for noun?" But they structure their songs thusly mainly because they prize rhythm above all else, though every now and then they subvert clichÚs for a cheap laugh, from "go in, go out" to "I could be you and you be me," topped by my favorite, "If I had my way, my way again/It would come in a spray." And the bracing music pulsates with so much sexiness, whether you're male or female, gay or straight, you'll feel its charge. And for those who like their clever a little more obvious, there's the catty "Last to Know," which concerns a doomed affair with a closet case stashing "steroids in the cabinet" and saddled with "a trophy wife with benefits." Me, I'm hoping it turns out to be about Rick Santorum. A–

Prinzhorn Dance School: Clay Class (DFA) Although this husband-wife post-rock duo's 2008 debut veered precariously close to performance art territory, the audacious "Anthrax" cop that opens this follow-up announces their ambition to re-create the classic Gang of Four sound with half the personnel. It can't be done outside the studio, of course -- although they've toured by themselves with a shared, modified drum kit, the tenser, springier, more sophisticated rhythms this time around demand someone with two hands and undivided attention. Bassist Suzi Horn, who rarely adventures beyond rudimentary single-note lines, is still the weaker link, reminding us once again how lucky Dave Allen was to apprentice in that disco covers band. But while on the debut she clung to those root notes like a child to a teddy bear, here her confidence has increased enough so that she fights a little against the beat, and Tobin Prinz has replicated Andy Gill's choppy signature so masterfully it more than compensates. Initially chagrined that they sang/chanted/hectored primarily in unison rather than playing off each other like King/Gill, I accepted happily that perhaps they don't have that kind of adversarial relationship. True, the album begins with the couplet "I'm glad you're here/Building on sand," which I'm assuming references their marriage, described later as a "fleeting pact" and a "loving prison." But when they jointly attack the "Usurper" that dares come between them, you'll have no doubt where their loyalties lie. A–

Standard Fare: Out of Sight, Out of Town (Melodic) The few critics that know this Sheffield power-pop trio unfairly dismiss them as "twee," but that shortchanges energy and spirit even more in evidence here than on the fine 2009 debut The Noyelle Beat. Bassist Emma Kupa's winsome alto, which dominates over guitarist Danny How's affably conversational baritone, is surer of itself this time around, while How's tuneful six-string cascades and arpeggiatons underscore his debt to Johnny Marr, although he doesn't shy from crunch and crackle when drummer Andy Beswick bears down on the tempo, which thankfully occurs often. With violin and trumpet making occasional cameos, this would be their maturity move, and there's not an unmemorable tune in the bunch. But while they may be dead set on growing up musically, their relationships are still stuck in high school. Kupa's dig at "Older Women" is irresistible, but she lets off that cougar chaser too easily -- he's not interested in the thrill as much as he is in being mommied, something made clear by the lovely separation ballad you'll be caught short to discover begins with the couplet, "I'm not Darth Vader/Luke, I'm not your father." The issue? She's going out for the night with her friends. For the night. I suppose this is a step up from The Noyelle Beat's love interests, one of whom was fifteen (what was that about older women?) and another whom lived an ocean away in Philadelphia. But when Kupa sweetly sings "You're not five years old" -- a line you'd expect would be sarcastic reading it on paper -- the forty-year-old married man listening wonders why she doesn't dump the simp and search for an equal. A–

Honorable Mentions

Schoolboy Q: Habits and Contradictions (Top Dawg) Appreciate his zeal for sex, but if he wasn't always so blunted he might not be reduced to treating sex as some sort of rare event ("There He Go," "Raymond 1969," "Hands on the Wheel") ***

Paul McCartney: Kisses on the Bottom (Merge) Finally as cute as he's always wanted to be, in part because he no longer has the youthful energy to shove his cuteness down your throat ("More I Cannot Wish You," "It's Only a Paper Moon") ***

Dr. Dog: Be the Void (Anti-) Toby Leaman should ditch Scott McKicken and lobby to replace either Taylor Goldsmith or Matt Vasquez in Middle Brother ("Lonesome," "These Days") ***

Hospitality: Hospitality (Merge) Bj÷rk and Sebastian, except would you believe it's the former who needs to dial down the twee? ("Friend of Friends," "The Right Profession") **

Nada Surf: The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk) Melodies like diamonds, though the charisma is so devoid of sparkle I wouldn't blame you for mistaking them for cubits zirconium ("The Moon is Calling," "Waiting for Something") **

Kathleen Edwards: Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder) It's like they tell you in therapy: never follow an ultimatum with a bunch of ballads ("Empty Threat," "Change the Sheets") **

The Little Willies: For the Good Times (Milking Bull) Psst, Norah -- "Jolene" wasn't a fucking Childe Ballad ("Fist City," "For the Good Times") *

The Caretaker: Patience (After Sebald) (History Favours the Winners) Has clearly mastered embalming, now should try his hand at cremation ("When the dog days were drawing to an end," "I have become almost invisible, to some extent like a dead man") *

Wiley: Evolve or Be Extinct (Big Dada) Grime kingpin confuses his own phyletic gradualism with punctuated equilibrium ("Boom Blast," "Link Up") *

Wilco: iTunes Session (Anti-) Although the Nick Lowe cameo makes me sad, it does point out the philosophical superiority of "You gotta be cruel to be kind" over "You gotta know how to die to learn how to live" ("Born Alone") *


Craig Finn: Clear Heart, Full Eyes (Full Time Hobby) Hold Steady albums work when they do -- I'm thinking particularly of the one-two punch of Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America -- when Craig Finn fights to make himself heard over Tad Kubler's guitars and Franz Nicolay's keyboards. Because Kubler and the now-departed Nicolay have been the primary architects of the band's music, this record finds Finn not only in the novel position of having to devise tunes himself, but also leading and arranging his backing band, two highly specialized skills for which he has up to now shown no perceivable knack. As a result, the band mostly chugs along anonymously while Finn delivers his latest missives from the lapsed Catholic front in a passively subdued sprechgesang -- the difference between drunkenly careening into a confessional and blandly wishing "Peace be with you" to the stranger on your right. Regardless of what he claims in song, these days he doesn't learn his lessons from Freddie Mercury or Johnny Rotten -- more like Jackson Browne. B

The Weeknd: Echoes of Silence (free download) Musically, the latest transmission from the House of Buffoons is sharper and edgier than Thursday, itself sharper and edgier than the debut (only eleven months ago, my how time flies). Unfortunately, in this context that's not a plus -- much like Michael Jackson de-evolving from "Billie Jean" to "Dirty Diana," the upped testosterone levels only make Abel Tesfaye's innate gynophobia that less forgivable, and that he chooses "Dirty Diana" for his first cover only illuminates his hypocritical damnation of any woman who sluts it up as much as he does (and by the way, Michael could hit those notes without the benefit of Auto-Tune, though I hope retaliatory testicle squeezing is responsible for the bum note Tesfaye blurts at the song's climax). Although Tesfaye's observation that his latest conquest needs money for a face lift at least encourages me he's an equal opportunity perv (and here I thought he limited his penthouse parties to minors), I wouldn't exactly rank "All that pain you feel/You can tell we ain't makin' no love" high in a list of the all-time great come-on lines. Plus, I'm spreading the rumor that downloading this little item gives you a dangerous virus. The virus? Herpes. B–

Sharon Van Etten: Tramp (Jagjaguwar) A forty-five minute swooping contest between Sharon's voice and Aaron Dessner's guitar that neither seems happy to win. B–

Cate LeBon: Cyrk (The Control Group) Evoking Nico a lot less than she does LŠtitia Sadier, she satisfactorily explains her "abnormal fixation with death" to BBC Wales by citing "early experiences with a string of pet deaths." C+

Bahamas: Barchords (Jagjaguwar) Toronto singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen makes like John Mayer channelling Santo & Johnny for the purpose of scoring jeans commercials, which I'm sure are already in negotiations. C+

Laura Gibson: La Grande (Barsuk) Postmodern "country," because without the prefix and quotation marks the mediocrity of the songs would be (even more) obvious. C+

First Aid Kit: Lion's Roar (Wichita) Not to say these Swedes don't nail the twang -- but why do they insist on accenting all the wrong words? C+

Howler: America Give Up (Rough Trade) Sure, they're influenced by the Strokes -- the Strokes of Angles. C

Keepaway: Black Flute (Greedhead) I have no problem with stoner rap, but stoner rock is another story. C

Rick Ross: Rich Forever (free download) Dozens of ways to rhyme the word "nigga," often with the word "nigga" itself. C

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