A Downloader's Diary (19): April 2012

by Michael Tatum

This column's newly expanded format (suggested by Noisecritic's Joey Daniewicz) has presented me with a few unexpected problems. Where once I could merely dump a record under the "trash" heading and wipe my hands clean of it, now I'm forced not only to assign each a letter grade, but also concoct a succinct dismissal to justify it -- a task that might sound easy, yet I've been finding myself at a loss to describe such inexplicably hyped items as Ital's Hive Mind, Grimes' Visions, and Jon Talabot's Fin, even after subjecting myself to more than the requisite five listens. I suppose the best way I could (as a for example) sum up the Ital record for the curious reader would be to attempt a sort of post modern review in which I repeated the phrase it doesn't matter if you believe in him it doesn't matter if you believe in him it doesn't matter if you believe in him for a few pages, like that climactic scene in The Shining, but something tells me you'd rather hear about music more worth your consideration. So would I. Onward.

Air: La Voyage Dans La Lune (Astralwerks) As fans of George Orwell and Disneyland's defunct Adventure Thru Inner Space ride know, what its contemporaries regard as futurism has a nasty way of dating itself very quickly -- in the introduction to his collected short stories, J.G. Ballard glibly recalls how a reader took him to task for describing his poetry-composing computers as operating on "valves" rather than chips and wires, after which the author bemusedly notes he didn't have the foresight in the early sixties to imagine PCs and pagers either. Georges Méliès' 1902 science fiction classic doesn't fall into that trap -- relying more on the whimsical and the fantastic, Méliès ridicules his scientists and scholars, shoots his heroes' rocket into l'oeil de l'homme lune, and populates the moon's surface with little green men. This makes the duo of Nicholas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, no stranger to beautiful but otherworldly kitsch -- fromage-vert, you might say -- perfect for scoring the restoration of this film's once-thought-lost hand-colorized version. The resulting fifteen minute film can be easily found online and is worth watching to appreciate how well Godin and Dunckel understand their countryman's sensibility -- they decorate the theme for the "Astronomic Club" with mock-regal drum rolls and synth-brass proclamations that lampoon the explorers' befuddlement, while the brief snippet that plays underneath the factory scene (frustratingly absent from the album) rattles with evocative clinks and clanks redolent of hammers hitting anvils. Padded out with material not used in the film, including two tracks featuring the usual vocalists for hire, the track order might initially be confusing, forsaking the film's chronology to sequence the more atmospheric material toward the end. But this is a minor quibble: their soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's 2002 The Virgin Suicides was arid by necessity, as it filled empty space in a dialogue-heavy film, but because here they're providing music to supersede the original narration, they're forced to be more creative in their attention to detail. The result: their most consistently beautiful and beguiling record since the last time they took a safari to the moon, way back in 1996. A–

Chiddy Bang: Breakfast (Virgin) Drexel dropouts whose combined ages barely surpass that of your humble downloader, Chidera "Chiddy" Anamege and Noah "Xaphoon Jones" Beresin came up through mixtapes, one of which brought them to the attention of England's Parlophone Records, best known to you and me as the label that gave the world the Beatles -- perhaps a propos for a duo who claim to have a thing for British shorties and sample such non-R&B entities as Sufjan Stevens, MGMT, and Radiohead. But don't fall under the impression they're arch or arty, even in the slightest: musically, this duo is a nonstop pleasure machine, doling out playful hook after playful hook, mining kiddie pop sources as disparate as Sweden's Icona Pop and British soul singer VV Brown and incorporating them into a seamless, sparkling production style that gives you plenty of sweet stuff to chew on. But speaking as someone who rarely indulges in the meal that nutritionists always remind us is the most important, their aesthetic is less ham and eggs than Count Chocula, especially when you hone in on the lyrics. Although heartwarmed by Amamege's admission in the delightful "Mind Your Manners" that he had a crush on his junior high school principal -- "I guess I was turned on by the leadership," he muses, which I doubt, but okay -- I don't find much evidence of the intelligence that he vows not to dumb down in the title cut. He's clever for sure, but that's slightly different -- I'm not wanting wisdom or enlightenment as much as I am a little imagination, or at least a worldview that extends beyond the mundane pursuit of girls and weed, not necessarily in that order. Certainly, anyone whose list of life goals includes getting high with Keith Richards probably shouldn't have to ponder why the women in his uncomfortably naïve relationship songs keep telling him to grow up. Then again, I was probably a lot like Anamege when I was his age -- only a great deal less witty, warm, and outgoing, all qualities best appreciated on the dynamite "Ray Charles," which turns Anamege's obliviousness with the ladies into one of this year's must-hear singles. And if you're wondering why those qualities can't quite sustain a whole record, fast forward to the finale, in which he vows to go out "hard in the fourth quarter," at least two quarters too late. A–

Karantamba: Ndigal (Teranga Beat) Gambia's Bai Janha is the consummate Afropop journeyman -- as a writer, arranger, and guitarist, his résumé includes Black Star, the Whales Band, Fabulous (later "Supreme") Eagles, and the Alligators. The latter group disbanded, reformed without Janha, and recorded as Guelewar, the band whose 1982 live recording Teranga Beat label founder Adamantios Kafetzis excavated and released as 2011's Halleli N'Dakarou. By this point in his career, Janha had moved on and founded this aggregation, essentially a "school of mbalax" for young, upcoming musicians, which as legend has it beat Youssou N'Dour and Super Etoile de Dakar by two places in Senegal's Zone II Music Festival -- must have been a sensational night. This particular item captures Janha and his charges in a live recording from Janha's Club Sangomar in Thiés, Senegal, and if it's as not as hot as prime Etoile de Dakar, that's not to say it doesn't often come close. As you might expect, Janha's wailing guitar reflects the standard Santana influence so common to West African musicians, and his authorative tenor commands impressive gravity, but in all fairness, this is not his record: the explosive synergy and blazing groove is dominated by the woefully uncredited percussionists, who thump their sabar drums so forcefully they muscle their way center stage for the entire set. I don't know if these nameless players wound up going to medical school or driving taxis. But they deserve far more than the one night they got. A–

The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge) Stephin Merritt must have secretly loathed recording for Nonesuch. Sure, among major labels the patience and latitude extended to its roster, from humoring Jeff Tweedy's migraines to providing a forum for various world music summits, approaches a rare degree of corporate sainthood. Nevertheless, they do exude a certain aura of propriety, the kind that turns up its judiciously-trimmed nose and sniffs: "Yes, I listen to NPR on my drive to work, read The New Yorker on my lunch hour, and take two brisk, environmentally conscious showers every day." This might explain the relative conservatism of most of Merritt's projects for that label, which aside from last year's vault-clearing Obscurities included four soundtracks and the Magnetic Fields' so-called "synthesizer free" trilogy -- note that in the former category, the sole standout is the hilariously macabre Gothic Archies companion to buddy Daniel Handler's Lemony Snicket books, while his proper band's outré Jesus and Mary Chain homage Distortion trumped the limply soft-rock i and the sterile Joshua Rifkin simulation Realism. Now back on Merge, the triumphant return of cheap synths and cheaper jokes suggest the delight of a young boy who's just discovered he can get away with dropping f-bombs without the censure of his parents -- subjects here include premarital sex, vibrators, orgies, putting out a contract on your ex's new flame, running away to join the fairies, and leaving the big city for Laramie, Wyoming, all executed compactly between 2:01 and 2:35. As both a fan and unapologetic dispenser of lowbrow humor, I wholeheartedly approve. But what's missing is that moment when the artist lets his guard down and reveals the vulnerability that sarcasm so often veils -- the only song that approaches anything resembling depth is the gender-fucked "Andrew in Drag," about falling in love with a girl who doesn't exist, because he's actually a guy (and contains the most loving use of the epithet "fag" you've ever heard). Nothing wrong with plumbing the lowbrow depths. But a moment or two of profundity might have made these fifteen quickies as memorable as the sixty-nine he made back before the taste makers crammed him into the respectability box. A–

Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (Universal Republic) "[On] my first album I was very guarded," the artiste revealed to Ryan Seacrest last Valentine's Day. "I felt like I was making music to please everyone else. I had to be politically correct, but on this album I am just creating music, and there's such a big difference." But then, only a breath later, she adds: "I've tried to make it very, very balanced, because I don't ever want to be boxed in, and that's always what drives me. So I made a very diverse album." If those two thoughts read like they contradict each other, you'll have no problem sorting out this semi-disappointing sophomore effort's incommensurate halves. The first seven tracks thrill in the same way that Terminator X's beats and samples once did: they're abrasive and hard to hear, but not because of the music per se, which of course is high grade, juiced-up commercial hip hop, but because of Minaj's voice, which grunts, growls, and whines without sacrificing any of her innately pleasurable musicality. And the joy she takes in allowing her id to run rampant in this sequence is palpable, especially in the much-maligned "put my dick in your face" segment, which I think is hysterical -- first manipulating her voice with studio effects to ugly it up even more, then sweetening her delivery for an uproarious a cappella breakdown: the musical equivalent of what's she's threatening to do. After that, she hits the brakes and cruise-controls through what's basically a quality Rihanna record -- except for the bathetic power ballad "Marilyn Monroe," which dubiously updates Bernie Taupin for the Reality TV generation, fine as such stuff goes, but completely safe. More importantly, alter-ego Roman Zolanski completely disappears, materializing again only for the outlandish, endlessly repeatable, whoop-whooping finale, "Stupid Hoe." "I am the female Weezy," she brags as the song screeches to a halt, and sometimes I find myself marveling how close she comes. I just wished she also didn't have designs to be the Trinidadian-American Fergie. B+

Skrillex: Bangarang (Atlantic, EP) Sonny Moore's impressively swift ascendancy to the dance-pop heap offends snooty John Talabot fans, and I'll say this for him: any hairstyle that resembles a palomino's hindquarters when viewed from an elevated height commits cosmetological crimes so outrageously grotesque they could send Korn's Jonathan Davis into a raging fit of trichotillomania. Fortunately, these follicular quibbles have minimal impact on Moore's electrifying, exhilarating dance-pop -- anyone who champions Sleigh Bells has no right to be slamming this guy. Like that band's Derek Miller, Moore harbors a weakness for '70s stadium rock that he updates with dynamic, sledgehammer beats, although since ravers rather than rockers constitute Moore's target audience, his mallet-blows to the head are more cannily timed, a boon to those mindful of their aspirin consumption. Perhaps absurdly, I'm reminded of R.E.M.'s "King of Comedy," a song I'm certain Moore has never heard, but might serve as a suitable entry point for all of you agnostics out there who still cling to the fallacy, like the chump Moore samples at the beginning of 2010's Grammy-validated Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, that musical artistry equals two guitars, a bass, and a drum. On this EP comprising seven songs and no remixes -- which in itself signifies as an improvement over his 2010 EP -- Moore elaborates on his industrial-strength minimalism by enlisting numerous collaborators and experimenting with arrangements, unquestionably peaking with the sensational "Breakin' a Sweat," in which the surviving members of the Doors not only re-affirm that people are strange, but also kindly donate a snippet of the Lizard King intoning from beyond the grave about a future in which lone musicians rely solely on "tapes, machines, and electronics." Now, I've personally always regarded as ravers as the present day hippies. But won't those sixties holdouts freak when they not only realize their sainted Jimbo really was a prophet -- was there any doubt? -- but that he forecasted the existence of the very music that sends so many of them into apopletic convulsions? I'm playing it for my father the first chance I get. A–

Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror (Mom + Pop) The kids are bummed about this one, but hey, aren't the kids always bummed about something? Once a debut lays down the ground rules, noise technicians as severe as these only have a few options when it comes time to return the studio: they can repeat themselves, in which case they'll be accused of playing it safe. They can take the dissonance even further, in which case they run the risk of alienating their audience. Or, they can do as what Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss do here: experiment and branch out, which as you might expect has confused a few of their former supporters, many of whom have taken an annoying amount of smug satisfaction in reminding us Krauss clocked hours in a teen R&B outfit. But if we're to trust interviews over liner credits (which blur the details somewhat) and Krauss contributed more to this record than 2010's Treats, her input actually ups Miller's game, introducing him to such pop conventions as middle eighths, the 6/8 time signature, trickily layered harmonies, deft countermelodies, and even a dash of optimism for "Comeback Kid." Most importantly, the new lyrics speak to teenagers, directly, in their language, rather than condescending to them with stray references to good grades, telephone calls, and what your boyfriend might think about your new braces -- bet Krauss wrote the lyric for the painful morning-after plaint "End of the Line" and post-breakup "Leader of the Pack." Leaving Miller to pursue his perverse dream of transforming himself into the indie rock Roy Thomas Baker, which he damn near accomplishes. A–

Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (Aimless) Preferring songwriters to mere storytellers, I was comparatively mild on Snider's 2011 live double -- sure, his sardonic sprechgesang never fails to put his words over, but as with most acerbic guys with acoustic guitars, he often needs musical color to drive those words home. Hence, his proper studio albums are the best place to access his righteous sarcasm and caustic wit, and this ranks as his best since 2006's The Devil You Know. The major advance here is the addition of backing vocalist and violinist Amanda Shires, who saws at her strings as if felling an oak, the perfect musical foil for songs that in one bitter lyric after another address the Americans that have fallen straight thought Mitt Romney's mythical safety net, from a New York banker who rips off an entire school faculty's pension fund to an cranky small-town reactionary who kindly suggests the local rabblerousers improve their lot by picking up trash in the park. Of course, there are scores of Martin-toting wags similarly sticking it to the one-percent, if not with such wit and accuracy. What separates Snider from so many other smartasses is the purposefully uncultivated grain of his music -- compare Jimmy Buffett's original "West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown," which plays out like a kitchen-sink melodrama and sinks its potent punch line in a morass of strings, to Snider's striking cover, which makes every consonant smack like a slap in the face and doesn't stoop to reducing a young woman's life to a cheap genre exercise. And pithy truisms like "Good things happen to bad people" and "The best revenge is revenge" sting all that much more soaked in the vinegary tang of Snider's out-of-tune guitar. A

Honorable Mentions

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball (Columbia) Lee Greenwood for Liberals ("Shackled and Drawn," "Death to My Hometown," "Easy Money") ***

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden (Nonesuch) More soulful than a Civil War re-enactment, but equally as unconvincing in that you sense they're not too keen on deviating from the script ("No Man's Mama," "Country Girl") ***

Balkan Beat Box: Give (Nat Geo) Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat once again DJ the bar mitzvah of your dreams, but Tomer Yosef's simplified sloganeering suggests a future career emceeing at Reggae Sunsplash ("Political Fuck," "Money") ***

Escort: Escort (Escort) The spirit of August Darnell exits their disco dance party far too early ("Chameleon Chameleon," "Cocaine Blues") ***

The Shins: Port of Morrow (Columbia) Won't change your life, but will certainly perpetuate the one you already have ("No Way Down, "Simple Song") **

Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times and the Tides (Matador) More tuneful than Bill Callahan, but still needs Kim and Thurston for roughly ten changes of pace ("Xtina as I Knew Her," "Shouts") **

Sinéad O'Connor: How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? (One Little Indian) I do not want what I haven't got, I do not want what I haven't got, okay maybe I do ("4th and Vine," "The Wolf is Getting Married") **

Wire: The Black Session: Paris: 10 May 2011 (Pink Flag) And now for something truly perverse: the quintessential frigid art-punks at their warmest ("Drill" "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W," "Two People in a Room") **

Jamie Woon: Ghostwriting (Verve) Sino-Briton Woon plays Craig David to William "Burial" Bevan's Tricky, and guess who's the weaker link ("Shoulda," "Lady Luck") *

Lilacs and Champagne: Lilacs and Champagne (Mexican Summer) Half of the post-rock quartet Grails imagine an aural utopia in which Josh Davis would never dream of trolling record stores to sneak his product into the hip hop section ("Nice Man") *


The Men: Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones) Superficially, this improves upon last year's Leave Home by bearing down on a fierce groove that rarely lets up -- clearly, touring has tightened these Brooklynites' brutal prog-punk. But while it's hard not to be impressed by the velocity of a fast moving freight train, what sort of goodies do these guys have stowed in their hopper car? Lyrics? Tunes? None that I can discern. They can't even be said to craft hot guitar riffs -- most of the tracks here, especially the longer ones, are really only extended one-chord vamps on which guitarists Mark Perro and Nick Chiericozzi solo, and not especially imaginatively at that. In fact, the only reason they choose "Open Your Heart" as the title track isn't because they want you to think they're succumbing to unguarded vulnerability, but rather because that song is the closest they get to traditional verse-chorus-verse, not counting the totally bizarre Laurel Canyon ringer "Candy," in which they attempt the kind of bone-simple country rock that wouldn't have gotten John Fogerty a quarter mile out of Lodi. B–

Tennis: Young and Old (Fat Possum) I too am charmed by kissy-face newlyweds, but in this case, a record whose most dramatic moment occurs when the two principles miss each other in a train station only goads me into secretly hoping one of them develops a severe drinking problem. B

The Cranberries: Roses (Downtown) These roses are blue, and will never be read. C+

Dierks Bentley: Home (Capitol Nashville) The gag-worthy "Diamonds Make Babies" cements this Arizonian's well-deserved rep as the finest country singer ever to graduate from New Jersey's prestigious Lawrenceville prep school. C+

Belbury Poly: The Belbury Tapes (Ghost Box) Air gets Georges Méliès; Jim Jupp makes like Robert Moog out to score a colorization of Ed Wood. C+

Heartless Bastards: Arrow (Partisan) Humorless actually-the-youngest-of-two Erika Wennerstrom compares life to a marathon for an endless 6:10 and actually titles her "redemptive" anthem "Got to Have Rock and Roll," by which I presume she means '70s AOR -- her band sure does. C+

The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond (Republic) I have seen the post-apocalyptic future, and its impoverished survivors still apparently record their music in sports arenas and coffee shops. C

Wilson Phillips: Dedicated (Sony Masterworks) If they really wanted to be honest to their birthright, they'd re-name themselves "Gilliam Rovell." D

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