A Downloader's Diary (24): October 2012

by Michael Tatum

Because I have so many worthwhile records still left untouched on the proverbial back burner, I probably won't be repeating last year's post-Halloween Trick or Treat bag, in which I took a tour of the year's worst records -- blame that partly on me skipping my August column, though I certainly have plenty of non-worthwhile records to write about as well. You'll see me before then however, as I have yet another in my continuing series of single-artist columns ready to drop mid-month. Until then, we're adventuring through far off climes: Mali, Brazil, Sweden, and, er, Canada. For bonus content -- videos, talkback, etc. -- feel free to hit me up on my column's Facebook and/or Twitter page, link provided below.

Zani Diabaté & Les Héritiers: Tientalaw (Syllart) Malian guitarist/bandleader Diabaté arrived on the international scene far too late, recording his only album, Mango's 1988 Zani Diabate and the Super Djata Band, long after the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs' respective heydays, narrowly missing the brief window when Paul Simon's Graceland briefly made Afropop a hot topic amongst musical dilettantes. So the modest success that greeted some of his better-known countrymen eluded him. Instead, he spent two decades toiling in Bamako clubs, occasionally traveling with the National Ballet, and mentoring young musicians he would eventually welcome to the fold. In a parallel universe, perhaps he recorded a string of excellent albums that Sterns Music might have judiciously excerpted and we might be talking about now. Instead, what actually happened was even better. With crucial assistance from his band of princely inheritors, including his guitarist son Sinaly, vocalists Moussa Fané, Sikasso and Baden Sangaré, and a fierce group of percussionists, Diabaté marched into a Bamako's Bogolan Studio and laid down a set that for all we know could very well be his greatest hits, practiced and honed over years in nightclubs, replete with ennervating rhythm shifts, fleet guitar, and joyous vocal arrangements that will inspire you to play their call and response games whether you know Bambara or not. And now he's gone, passed away in a Parisian hospital after an untimely stroke. This is his accidental testament: catchy, ebullient, far more propulsive than the Malian norm, and the best homegrown Afropop record in far too long. A

Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge) Most musicians use "super group" side projects as pretenses to dump lesser material they wouldn't have risked on albums released under their established brands, but this Austin outfit, fronted by Spoon's Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner, constitutes the rare exception. Its appeal lies in an unsystematic spontaneity that prevents the principals from backsliding to their respective vices. Exempting Boeckner's austere "Civilian Stripes," the music is strikingly unpremeditated, most likely elaborations of riffs forged during impromptu jams, often structured around primitive patterns utilizing only two or three chords, dominated by Daniel's choppy synths but propelled by New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown's intense bash and roll. Because the aesthetic urges instinct rather than self-consciousness, it opens up the usually tightly-wound Daniel ("I wear a poker face so well/That even my mother couldn't tell," he confesses offhandedly) while simultaneously thwarting Boeckner from the introspection that might have afforded him the opportunity to craft the thoughtful doggerel that until now has been his trademark. Which makes them not a super group at all, but a band. Facetiously sequencing a song called "Like Ice Cream" next to one called "Neopolitans" -- the kind of drollery completely lacking in their previous identities -- is the reason they need to stay together. A–

Bob Dylan: Tempest (Columbia) No one considered Together Through Life a masterpiece because Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics, and as Gene Simmons can tell you from painful personal experience, what point is there to collaborating with the Bard of Hibbing if he isn't going to at least throw you some scraps? But in fact Hunter is partly responsible for the buoyant opener "Duquesne Whistle," which doesn't refer to a train, but rather the "Dorothy Six," once the world's largest blast furnace -- the Delaware and Hudson Railroad that connected Kingston, New York to Carbondale, Pennsylvania didn't even run though Duquesne, and in fact, to "keep on going" after the Carbondale stop meant you were leaving that town's anthracite mines and traveling west. Somehow though, I suspect that the journey is rather a spiritual one, signaling "the coming of the Lord" in a very literal sense, which may be why Dylan spends so much time cramming in as many honeys, harlots, heavy-stacked women, and flat-chested junkie whores into his itinerary before he reaches that final destination. Some may bristle at the licentiousness quotient, preferring instead the righteous indignation of the killer one-percent diatribes "Pay in Blood" and "Early Roman Kings," but I say Dylan is better off indulging his apocalypse jones in service of laughs, whether political or sexual, than the leaden solemnity of the final three tracks, which take up almost as much time as the previous seven. If the end of the world is drawing high, I'm pretty sure James Cameron isn't one its soothsayers. And if dedicating a song to John Lennon was such a great idea, why did Dylan wait thirty plus to do it? "The Late Great Johnny Ace" at least boasted a compelling metaphor. "Here Today" offered up personal experience in the service of genuine pathos. All Dylan has are William Blake, the Lord's Prayer, song titles that could have been coughed up by a random generator, and not so thinly-disguised self-pity. Its subject sings from the grave: "Hey Bob, maybe you should serve yourself?" B+

Kid Koala: 12 Bit Blues (Ninja Tune) Considered state of the art when I was in high school, utilized by the Bomb Squad on Public Enemy's hip hop milestone It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, and beloved by producers for its ability to mimic the supposed "warmth" of vinyl recordings, the E-mu SP-1200 boasts a loop length of about ten seconds and is so elementary to operate the manufacturer printed the instructions on its top panel. Obviously these days, no one uses it anymore -- among other reasons, its reliance on floppy discs makes it cumbersome to load up -- and in fact Eric San spent years looking until he luckily chanced upon one on Craigslist. One wonders why he'd bother, other than perhaps a sentimental attachment to EPMD's Strictly Business, but one listen to this record, a knotty stitch-up of scratchy blues, gutbucket rhythms, and hip hop savvy, will tell you why: while Moby's Play achieved similar effects with comparable raw materials, in that case the new context lifted the music to the heavens. Here, San's impressively frowzy aesthetic drags these Depression-era obscurities through the mud, subtly arting up the structures while simultanouesly championing "mistakes" of the sort that on those old blues sessions the players often didn't have the money or resources to fix. Indeed, San's digital helpmate is antiquated enough so that it sometimes short circuits mid-song, last gasps that San cleverly utilizes to his advantage, though I wish he had erred on the side of noise or momentum rather than the stretches of languidly hazy somnolence that sink the middle of this record into tedium (well, he is "trip hop" identified, after all). But hey, he packages both the CD and vinyl with your very own, easily-assembled cardboard turntable (plus one plastic flexidisc) -- sewing needle and dexterous right hand not included. Can't get much more old school than that. A–

Jens Lekman: I Know What Love Isn't (Secretly Canadian) Here's a breakup album with a sense of humor: at least four different women mentioned by name, not counting Everything but the Girl's perpetually melancholic Tracey Thorn ("All I know 'bout love I learnt from you," which explains everything), and a Edinburgh Gardens possum the lovelorn artiste names Samantha ("I offered a slice of apple from my hand/She would sniff it, frown and then lumber back to the trashcan"). Elsewhere, he dishes all sorts of observations about Jennifer (who should come with a pamphlet warning off prospective boyfriends) and Danae (a lesbian who humors Jens by rating female passers-by on the classic ten-point system), yet despite the chatty details, the key line here is "She asks you what's wrong/You say nothing, it's nothing." Part of me has doubts about encouraging the frustrated romantic exploits of a passive-aggressive who clearly lets his women do the dirty work, only engages when he's positive he's been set up for failure, and plays ambivalent one moment and clingy the next. "Well, at least he's honest, working through things," the boys protest nervously. "Maybe in song," the girls reply, "but then there's that thing called real life." I'll note that you don't have to be a sociopath on the order of Frank Sinatra to have your "shit figured out," nor do you need to don "a pair of cowboy boots" to walk the straight and narrow. And having said that, the top-drawer melodies, stylish arrangements, and witty aperçus render such petty objections moot, especially since he slips his failed paramours all the best lines, including this one that sums him up: "I wish you had cheated on me instead." A

Pet Shop Boys: Elysium (Astralwerks) I prefer to imagine "Elysium" as a nightclub where yesterday's pop culture figures wheedle away the wee hours. Bryan Ferry is there, at his usual table in that darkened corner, stirring his martini with a stainless steel pick, counterclockwise, as if attempting to turn back the years, forlornly staring at Kate Moss, who breezes by without looking directly at him. By now she's used to his ogling, but still finds him creepy enough that she avoids him in favor of Neil Tennant, who has his own spot in the center of the room, where he'll affably chat up anyone who approaches. "Neil Tennant!" she exclaims. "I thought you were dead!" "I am dead, sweetie," he replies drily. "I stick around in the land of the living to continue providing context for [here, gesturing around him] all of you beautiful people." Shrugging nonchalantly, he adds, "Though the party's over, and I'm not much use." His old mate Chris Lowe is there as well, crouching in the dark behind his sequencers and synthesizers, spinning subdued sounds over the club's sound system, occasionally glancing at his Issye Miyake blowup suit from Top of the Pops hanging proudly on the wall. American tourists, clearly out of place, approach: a boyish middle-aged man with jet black hair and his demure, blonde wife. The latter remarks: "You've been around but you don't look too rough, and I still quite like some of your early stuff," while her husband notes that even though he has his doubts about their new single -- a gay identity anthem masquerading as an Olympic theme -- he still loves their tunes and finds the one which sticks it to Sting hilarious. Tennant looks him over in bemusement, and snaps his fingers, at which Lowe reverts back to what could have been an oldie but goodie: "Face Like That." The couple looks at each other in surprise. And everyone, even doleful Bryan, gets up to dance. A–

A Place to Bury Strangers: Onwards to the Wall (Dead Oceans, EP) Call this Brooklyn trio's genre wind-tunnel rock, an aesthetic they've mastered more splendidly than their Ontarian competitors in the somewhat tentative Weekend and the downright abysmal P.S. I Love You. They excel at noise because guitarist/bandleader Oliver Ackermann loves discord so much he actually owns and operates his own guitar effects pedal company, the fittingly dubbed Death by Audio -- check out those head-splitting detonations that close this five song EP's "I Lost You," which you can duplicate yourself at home with the "Fuzz War" for a mere $150.00 (the website avers: "a high-tech fuzz mutilator at an affordable price"). They sell that noise by keeping things simple, combining unadorned, modal song structures with remorseless rhythms that seamlessly merge their drummer of the moment (here, Robi Gonzalez) with the pitiless churning of machines, suggesting what Joy Division might have sounded like had Ian Curtis lived to have Arthur Baker remix them. This may not strike their fans as consistent as 2009's Exploding Head or the current Worship, but that's partly because the production is dirtier, burying Ackermann's lyrics to the point of incomprehensibility (er, I'm assuming he's going through a bad breakup?) but also because in the time-honored stopgap fashion, he's trying new things, like adding Moon vocalist Alanna Nuala to the anxiously taut title track. Hey, it worked for Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound -- why not this post-punk equivalent? A–

A Place to Bury Strangers: Worship (Dead Oceans) Differentiating the stylistic shifts in their admittedly similar-sounding records may seem a daunting undertaking for those who can't distinguish their meticulously orchestrated cacophony from a battalion of pneumatic drills, but it can be done. While Exploding Head, their previous long player, is comparatively speaking a much more traditional "guitar" record -- check out the brutally thick riff that kicks off the wild "Is It Nothing" -- starting with the Onwards to the Wall EP, Oliver Ackermann abandoned conventional playing to embrace a sheets-of-sound approach, fuzzy striations that he layers over new bassist Dion Lunadon's rudimentary patterns. Here, the noise is more calculatedly utilized, integrated into songs rather than suicide bombing into them, which provides for better dynamics and, not coincidentally, leads to better songs. I still think that Alanna Nuala, who guested on the EP, endowed them with a much needed higher end -- doubling your melody at the octave may not be your idea of sophisticated harmony, but it did provide them with some much-needed additional color. Admittedly, they compensate for their lack of depth with a compelling singleness of purpose: cold, steely-eyed, unsentimental noise rock. As musical tricks go, it's persuasive. But it's the only one they have, and they can't keep doing it forever. A–

Tom Zé: Tropicália Lixo Lógico (Lapa) I'm unable to provide very many concrete details for this little item, the title of which translates into the enticing "Junk Logic," as I haven't come across any related articles I haven't had to run through Google's piss poor translator. It's currently not available domestically, and without the benefit of a trot, the import of the lyrics eludes my meager grasp of Portuguese (what's with that delightful ditty about Maria Clara and the motorcar? and the line about Frank Sinatra in "Tropicalea Jacta Est?"). Yet as always, I'm both elated and enchanted by everything in this Brazilian's droll arsenal, from his impish vocalese, herky-jerk beats, whimsical arrangements, and occasional dollops of English, here represented by a number in which Zé takes Paul Simon's line about prophets scrawling poems on subway walls at face value (personally, I missed "Stand clear of the bloody cross" on the Green Line back to the Sherry Netherland). 2000's Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza looked backward, lovingly skewing the music of the artiste's youth, but this record, his wildest and edgiest since the '70s period immortalized on Luaka Bop's 1990 landmark compilation, braves the future, with the help of various newcomers: quirky pop star Mallu Magalhães, rapper Emicide, Los Hermanos' Rodrigo Amarante, even retired soccer star Washington Stecanela Cerqueira. From the pitch-tweaked vocal that opens "Amarração do Amor," the mock-tortured growl that introduces "Não Tenha Ódio no Verão," and the here-come-the-giants stomping that serves as his overture, there's plenty that will catch your ear. But I'm partial to the jarring segues, the way certain songs drop out mid-bar then dash straight to the next intro. Is this purposeful, or merely a sign my lowly download has been corrupted? The beautiful thing about Zé is that I have no idea. And I don't care. A

Honorable Mentions

Kanye West Presents G.O.O.D Music: Cruel Summer (Island/Def Jam) Too commercially viable to give away for free, not good enough to issue under the overlord's name, and either way I hope he gives away the profits to the committee to reelect the president ("To the World," "New God Flow") ***

Diamond Rugs: Diamond Rugs (Partisan) If all it takes to form a super group with John McCauley is paying his bar tab, tell him I'm free this Friday ("Gimme a Beer," "Christmas in Chinese Restaurant") ***

Azealia Banks: Fantasea (free download) Nineteen track free mixtape competes with a four track EP she's selling for $5.98 -- where would you put the quality work? ("Fuck up the Fun," "Jumanji") **

Four Tet: Pink (Domino) The title signifies as "undercooked," though a few choice cuts toward the end are well done ("Pinnacles," "Peace for Earth") *

The xx: Coexist (XL) Baria Qureshi's musical departure emphasizes the space between the principals, which in turn emphasizes the space between the principals and their audience ("Angels," "Chained") *


Carly Rae Jepsen: Kiss (604) I can explain the addictive appeal of "Call Me Maybe" scientifically. Lyrically, it succinctly pins down a specifically adolescent state of being -- particularly in its ingenious use of that magical word "maybe" -- while at the same time musically reinforcing its mixed up romantic confusion by never quite settling on the tonic chord, i.e. the "home" key. In other words, the resolution that the ear craves -- the extra-verbal metaphor signaling that guy with the ripped jeans really will call the song's heroine back -- never comes, instead ping-ponging back and forth without setting the listener back on solid ground. It's such a cleverly simple trick one marvels why no one has ever thought of it before. Nothing else here however will distract you from the hard truth that this attractive but otherwise nondescript ingénue was a finalist on the fifth season of Canadian Idol -- thankfully (and surprisingly), she doesn't fall back on the mawkish ballads that epitomize her American counterparts, but she evinces a great deal less personality than, for example, guest star Adam Young, who's irritating to be sure, but who can at least be described uniquely, without resorting to stock universals like "youthful" and "perky." In fact, one wonders if the ubiquitous observation that this twenty-six year old comes off at least ten years younger than her actual age is only everyone's transparently diplomatic way of saying she acts a great deal dumber and immature than you'd expect from reading her bio. Or maybe not. I suppose Hilary Duff with one undeniable hit under her belt trumps Hilary Duff without one. But not by much. B–

Caetano Veloso and David Byrne: Live at Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch) Ordinarily I stick to reviewing records rather than branching out to cover gallery openings, especially ones which skimp on the vino and meagerly compensate by offering up exotic cheese plates. But alas, the event in question also turns out to be a summit between two stiff ex-art rock heroes that reminds me of the old joke: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice, practice, zzzzzz." Veloso's mostly solo acoustic set is gorgeous, nuanced, and interminably boring, Judy Collins for Lusophones, featuring only one relatively well known song, "O Leãozinho," anthologized by Byrne on Luaka Bop's Beleza Tropical, although including his touching ode to Manhattan from 1998's Livro is a nice gesture. And then, seven tracks in, Byrne himself shows up, awkwardly reprising embarrassing duds from his solo career while forgetting that Talking Heads were great at least in part because their rhythm section rocked -- Allmusic's Fred Thomas tactfully describes Veloso percussionist Mauro Refosco as "understated," but I might opt for descriptors like "abstract" or "inconspicuous." Consider this record's "Life During Wartime," a specter of its former self, in which Refosco pathetically compensates for the loss of Chris Frantz' nervous pulse with a metronomic plip that I swear he's generating by popping his cheek with his index finger. And the audience's reflexive sycophancy is a downright annoyance -- is Veloso's floridly arch vocalese in "(Nothing But) Flowers" intended to be self-parodic? Or even funny at all? How would you know? He always sings like that. Amusing anti-climax: when Veloso encourages audience participation at the end of "Terra" -- and no one joins in. C

Bob Mould: Silver Age (Merge) Proof he's hit rock bottom: "Briefest Moment," a post-punk "When We Was Fab." B–

Alanis Morissette: Havoc and Bright Lights (Columbia) Buffered little placebo. B–

David Byrne and St. Vincent: Love This Giant (4AD/Todo Mundo) Yes, I get your references -- now shut up. C+

Passion Pit: Gossamer (Columbia) Critics flock to Michael Angelakos' bombastic synth pop because his testicles are at the very least a millimeter in diameter bigger than Owl City's Adam Young -- why, you can tell even without the benefit of an orchidometer! C+

Dan Deacon: America (Domino) Oh, beautiful -- a specious guy. C+

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