A Downloader's Diary (27): February 2013

by Michael Tatum

Although I'm not the perfectionist that My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields claims to be, the self-imposed first of the month deadline that I originally set for myself back in August of 2010 has become a major albatross -- ever mindful of the quality of my "product," I find that rushing does (and sometimes has) compromise both my conclusions and the pretty prose in which I vainly try to cloak them. So don't expect the future of this column to run like clockwork: while more or less keeping things monthly, I'd rather sit on something until I'm satisfied than dump out something half-assed. Those who crave a little more should check out my new tumblr page, where I'm essentially posting all of my work notes, often going into a little more detail than what I give here, especially in regards to the records that wind up in the trash and honorable mentions sections. I'm not sure who'd be crazy enough to peruse everything there, but at the very least it illustrates how much work goes into building this little beast, which hasn't gotten joyless or boring for me yet.

Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion) I'm not sure who pissed Carol van Dyk off, but curse him in public and thank him in a private corner of your mind, because this time Bettie doesn't just serveert but she scoort -- half-written in the studio, their tenth and best record blazes and blisters like their then-overrated, now-forgotten 1992 debut Palomine never did. And you can be damn sure "him" is the correct pronoun -- the m-word in question isn't "mayhem," though it aptly sums up Peter Visser's cuspidate guitar and Joppe Molenaar's powerhouse drumming, but "monogamy," the explicit subject of an unbearably sexy interlude that begins "the body remembers what the body was taught" before promising she'll "pop" if you prolong that foreplay. Biologically just past the big 5-0 and having led some form of this band for half of that, Van Dyk finally belts over the boys rather than settling for Nico-esque sprechgesang, which gives heft to such unforgiving declarations/indictments as "You're gonna hear the allegation," "You can tell me all you want/But I'll never believe it," "I'm gonna get my tough skin back," and "Just say it/Just say it," all of which have me hiding from my stereo speakers and cowering behind furniture. Though you'll be immediately smitten with the winsome Brill Building throwback "Had2BYou," the manifesto is the all-purpose avowal "D.I.Y." -- "Carpe your diem/Is the essence of my being" -- which could be directed from a woman to an ex-lover, a band to a former label, or anyone with a vagina to anyone without. Don't open the door for her, douchebag -- she'll get it herself. A–

The Box Tops: Playlist: The Very Best of the Box Tops (Sony/Legacy) Item culled from the April 18, 1997 issue of coastal California's music magazine Bam, previewing the Box Tops' upcoming one-night stint at the House of Blues: "This is for the bozo who shouted out for 'The Letter' at that Big Star reunion show from 1994." Well friends, now the story can be told: I was that bozo, witlessly hollering for Alex Chilton's initial vehicle's biggest hit for no other reason than that during that time period, I wasn't playing with a full deck. But despite their status as minor league two-hit wonders, the Five Tops weren't merely puppets of producer-songwriters Dan Penn and Chips Moman -- granted, four of said Tops rarely played on a studio track, but if Big Star taught Chilton the limits of autonomy, his first big break exemplified benevolent despotism, even if the legendarily acrid man himself would have bitterly disagreed. Sure, their four albums were hastily thrown together (although the first side of 1968's Non Stop mostly succeeds despite itself) and outside of a few exceptions, their handlers would never have wasted a surefire hit on them, hence why Mark James gave "Suspicious Minds" to Elvis, leaving to Chilton the underrated "Turn on a Dream" and "You Keep Tightening Up On Me," the latter of which functions as an amusing love-hate letter to his record company. But in fact Penn's stinginess with the top drawer material somewhat comes as an asset, leading to such left-field winners as Eddie Hinton's "Choo Choo Train" (which beats the dirty minds at Kasenetz-Katz to the double entendre punch) and Penn/Oldham's amazing "I Met Her in Church" (Alex goes looking for love in all the wrong places). This could stand to rock a little more -- the missing include the killer "She Shot a Hole in My Soul," the only cut you'll miss from Atlantic's 1988 and Arista's 1996 compilations, and their downright bacchanalian cover of the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On." But for a solid fourteen tracks in thirty-nine minutes this is the bubblegum R&B of B.J. Thomas' dreams, with a fervent shout-out to unsung hack-genius Wayne Carson Thompson, responsible for not only "The Letter," but the faux-psychedelic "Neon Rainbow" and the gorgeous "Soul Deep," the latter of which belongs on your Life Jukebox. Benighted September gurls and December boys, learn your lessons here. A–

Cakes Da Killa: The Eulogy (Mishka download) "Homosexual or not," begins an approving blurb on The Needle Drop ("home of the internet's busiest music nerd," harrumph), but before you jeer that amusingly persnickety verbiage, I ask you: why would a straight, upcoming hip hop star choose for his persona one clearly modeled on Meshach Taylor's scene-chewing mega-queer archetype in the abysmal Andrew McCarthy vehicle Mannequin? Other than, say, to put himself in a position where he could conceivably beat the shit out of Chris Brown for a parking space? Then again, that naivety aside, The Needle Drop is one of the few sites I've seen to even touch the former Rashad Bradshaw's unapologetically filthy handiwork with or without protective rubber gloves -- for example, no one at the usually industrious Rap Genius has at this writing parsed a single one of Bradshaw's uproarious rhymes, which considering they subvert red-button words like "faggot" and "bitch" differently than any other rapper to date, should neither shock or scandalize anyone. Me myself, I think it's a riot -- over the Mishka/Greedhead empire's trademark abstract-in-your-face beats, commencing with a histrionic flourish from "Macarthur Park," Bradshaw orders that thug to pay off his loans then finger-fuck his asshole, boasts about the seductive power of his "goodie goodies," demands you remove that jockstrap, and calls out that bitch-ass Eddie Murphy for gay-bashing in his standup then picking up transvestite prostitutes in his down time, all in a tenor that's tough and demonstrative even when Bradshaw lisps his esses. My fondest hope is that he starts beef with Azealia Banks. But I'll settle for a cameo for Frank Ocean, at whom Bradshaw blows this playful little kiss: "I've been thinking about dick -- have you been thinking about it too?" A–

Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (self-released, EP) Straight outta the fearsome hood of Daytona, Florida, laying down tricky rhymes when not peddling cheap jewelry at Claire's Boutique, nineteen-year-old flame-haired coquette Kathryn Beckwith took her 2012 fluke internet hit more seriously than Kreayshawn did hers in 2011 -- which is to say, rather than relying on the no doubt obsessive social networking that got her noticed in the first place, she instead sharpened her rap skills. Transcending the mere novelty of which she's often been accused, the result is this engaging eight-track EP available through her tumblr ("you can download it for free, I'm not that money hungry of a slut"), where over a theme best described as "My Little Pony" you'll also find such helpful biographical tidbits as where she met her producer/boyfriend ("Christian Mingle," ha ha) and what she thinks of Pitchfork's recent pan ("I'm always a 10, shawty"). Whether her crushes on various hip hop bad boys are real, imagined, or mere cyber-stalking, her self-consciously girly delivery is the perfect mask for complicated adult feelings, most notably the pain of being a young woman pointlessly in love with a much older man. Of course, older men cultivate ambivalence because leading young women on is sometimes what they do, but she nevertheless connects her rejection to a shame that encompasses such painful admissions as her urinary incontinence, cellulite hang-ups, anxiety rashes, and Complex's accusation that she can't hold a mic -- literally. In her many lighter moments, her clumsily half-hearted attempts at talking tough are both charming and revealing -- how many "authentic" homegirls would spend a song protesting innocence to the mother that lurks on her tell-all blog, or begin another with the winningly tentative "I don't have an opening/I guess I'll go ahead?" Admit it: isn't a girl who claims "I grew up on the shy side/the free wi-fi side" the kind of girl you'd want to get to know? A–

My Bloody Valentine: mbv (Pickpocket) Stop me if you've heard this one before: fussy wunderkind leading seminal alt-rock band of considerable if somewhat pernicious influence takes twenty-two years to release follow-up to iconic if somewhat inchoate landmark album, except -- and here's the punchline -- the resulting recording sounds exactly like its predecessor, so much so that an innocent greenhorn (a green-horned Martian, let's say) would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. I mean, what pertinent context are we missing here? Was Kevin Shields playing an existential game of chicken with the universe? Was he in a dick measuring contest with the equally autocratic Axl Rose? Consulting London's best tinnitus doctors? Experimenting with woozier downers? Or was he merely waiting out the day when whatever contract he put his name on all those years ago was null and void? And while we're at it, why do critics feel rushed to overnight reviews for a record that took twenty-two years to reach their ear holes? Suffice it to say, immersion reveals this isn't quite a carbon copy of 1991's Loveless -- it emphasizes sensation over substance even more than Loveless did compared to its predecessor, 1988's Isn't Anything. But although too often this music feels like you're meant to perceive it solely via tactile impression -- perhaps blindfolded, through holes in a wooden box -- it makes up for what it lacks in its bone marrow with an aesthetic rapture appropriate to their increasingly hymn-like song structures: meadow, grove, and stream, the earth, and every common sight, appareled in celestial light. Wrapped in a gauze of childlike awe, revelling in the splendor in the grass, the glory in the flower, this is music composed by and for ex-Catholics who still long to connect to the divine. Sometimes when it's on I wonder what words are really worth. But not when the music's over. A–

Parquet Courts: Light Up Gold (What's Your Rupture?) Carpetbagging Texans who migrated to Brooklyn partly because Austin is a lousy town for bagels and partly because their hometown job opportunities boiled down to a career in combat or a stint in the church choir, this quartet could be Mark E. Smith trading in his working class London accent for something resembling aesthetic consistency -- I certainly don't remember This Nation's Saving Grace keeping it up for a solid fifteen songs in thirty-three minutes. The secret -- why didn't that arseholed sod think of this? -- is two lead singers rather than one: hard to lapse into self-indulgence when you're constantly trying to one-up your partner's last one-liner. Your guess is as good as mine whether Andrew Savage or sidekick Austin Brown can claim the copyright on their observations on North Dakota ("Cigarette advertisement country -- wild and perfect, but lacking something"), the River Styx ("It's no river at all/It's a tidal estuary"), and their slacker lives ("Time was measured in balls of lint, laundry claim tags/The number of cents it takes to drown your brain into a just-dowsed former fire") but they maintain the witty repartee even as their narrow diet of Swedish Fish, roasted peanuts, and licorice keeps them "stoned and starving." The guitars are propulsive rather than galvanic, the merely functional tunes slanted rather than enchanted, but other than those small quibbles, these guys are the best tribute act in this vein since you-know-who. So keep lighting up those gold soundz, fellas. Or, as you put it so evocatively in that policy-stating title track: "Sifting like a miner in the conscience debris, hunched down/Gleaning embers from a burning field/Trying to find something warm and real." A–

The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network) Epochal though it may be, Etoile de Dakar's line-drawing "Thiely" doesn't belong in this classy company, partly because it's already a key track on two must-own records -- Etoile's 2010 Sterns compilation, as well as 1998's awe-inspiring The Music in My Head, where it sets the uncouth tone -- but also because it doesn't fit the tenor of this extroverted, cosmopolitan overview. The Orchestra Baobab number from Made in Dakar -- the other track with which most Afropop neophytes might be familiar -- gives you a better taste of what to expect: crossover Afropop proud of its roots in mbalax and other indigenous styles even as it reaches out to Cuba, Mali, the Congo. The first half cobbles together winners from Cheikh Lo, Nuru Kane, Fallou Dieg, and Baaba Maal, as well as a solid rap from Sister Fa so hypnotic musically you won't mind that compiler Dan Rosenberg, as per Rough Guide policy, skimps on the trots. The sequencing could have used some tweaking -- the last four tracks, predominantly acoustic and showcasing relatively new artists, might have had a greater impact had they been interspersed rather than clumped together toward the end, though the faux-Gypsy violin and accordion on the generous actually-a-bonus bonus CD, 2005's Introducing Daby Balde, exhibits how many persuasive musical risks you can take in that mode. But this closes with a bluesy solo turn from Ismael Lô so compelling you'll wonder why he wasted so many years futzing around on synthesizers. Skeptics who doubt Dakar to be a musical mecca on par with Detroit or New Orleans should take a flyer. A–

Skrillex: Leaving (OWSLA, EP) I'm not willing to do the research, but I'd venture a guess that the man whose mama calls him Sonny Moore is the only Grammy awardee never to have released a "proper" record. Then again, I suppose EPs and singles, aside being natural formats for the glowstick-waving crowd, are also signposts of our digital age: only too aware he'll probably make chump change from records his fans will conceivably download anyway, Moore instead channels bigger energy into live performance and production work, where the bigger money undoubtedly lies. This three song freebie, available through his label's subscription service, his Youtube page, and the usual dodgy online sources, is more of the same whizz pop sputter crash boom bam. Created mostly on the run in hotel rooms on tour, it's dismissed by its admirably generous creator: "[I use this] more as a DJ tool, but I wanted you guys to have it." Agnostics will shake their head in disbelief: why would any sane person want more of the same? True believers will cry out: "Thank you, sir -- may I have another?" Adjust your own reaction accordingly. A–

Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.) "I made a promise to myself I wouldn't mention their lesbianism in my review," declared a young rockcrit friend of mine, and when you scan such cringe-worthy descriptors as Pop Matters' Enio Chiola's "the band of super cool twin lesbians," one might sympathize with my friend's political correctness (and by the way, Enio: a duo is not a "band"). The way I see it however, such signifiers are useful in terms of fixing artists contextually, especially in the case of this super cool lesbian duo's brave bid for the top 40. Sure, those glitzy synth-pop hooks in of themselves crackle like Fourth of July fireworks, but the generalized lyrics only fall into place when you think about who's singing to whom, by which I don't merely mean woman to a woman -- though "Your arms outstretched/Your hair cut shorter than it'd been" is pure bliss -- but as lesbians/indie rockers expanding from their possessive core fan bases to the mainstream audience. Where once they boasted sardonically in an unreleased song, "I'm in the army of sell out, shut up, go home/Make your money when you're dead and gone," here they hide their subcultural disillusionment in plain sight like they were Bob Dylan in 1964: "I couldn't be your friend even if I tried again," "You never really knew me, never ever/Never ever saw me, saw me like they did," "If you're worried that I might've changed/Left behind all of my foolish ways/You best be looking for somebody else," and especially, "I'm not their hero/But that doesn't mean that I wasn't brave/I never walked the party line/Doesn't mean that I was never afraid/I'm not your hero/But that doesn't mean we're not one and the same." And if those comparatively kind kiss-offs fail to do the trick, there's always: "One day soon/I will be the one to insult you" and "What you are is lonely." Notes Sara to Rolling Stone: "I didn't want a passive [album] title . . . something that made us sort of seemed martyred. I wanted something that was very confident because we were feeling so confident about the album that we had made." And why shouldn't they be? Resist their brazen "It's not just all physical/I'm the type who will get oh so critical" at your peril. A–

Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador) Because allure comes so effortlessly to this long-running Hoboken trio, the yardstick by which their albums are judged -- to each other if not to those of others -- should be measured slightly differently. Revisit 2003's beguiling Summer Sun -- dismissed by many at the time as insubstantial -- and you will descry any number of captivating moments: the extra two beats the band sneaks in at the end of the first chorus of "Little Eyes," the two-chord transposition at the second refrain of "Season of the Shark," the pizzicato denouement of "Tiny Birds," the fluttering conclusion of "Take Care." Although undeniably pretty, no such flashes of magic occur here -- you might say the arrangements, many of which stick to steadfastly basic patterns (indeed, the first and final songs are constructed around a single chord) function as metaphors for the dependably stalwart constancy of a marriage entering its fourth decade and a musical partnership beginning its third. "Honey, that's okay," Ira sings to Georgia, and perhaps to us, "If we're getting old/If we're not so strong/If our story's told/That's the point of it," which reminds me of those couples who claim they can sit in silence at weekday dinner yet still divine each other's innermost thoughts. In a relationship, it must be a comforting place to be. Musically however, something in this band's dynamic needs to be shaken up: the horns and strings, more involved here than on their previous two records, are brave steps toward that, but although they could conceivably make records this sublimely graceful forever, it's also possible they'll be incapable of tours de force like Summer Sun unless the unthinkable occurs -- a rift in the band itself, or, ulp, Ira and Georgia's marriage. No compassionate person would ever want that to happen. So once again, this delicately exquisite but ultimately unrevelatory splendor will have to suffice. A–

Honorable Mentions

Solange: True (Terrible) Proves that subtlety is no more "true" than star power ("Locked in Closets," "Losing You") ***

Peter Stampfel & the Ether Frolic Mob: The Sound of America (Frederick Productions/Red Newt) Too damn communal for its own good ("Drunken Banjo Waltz," "I Will Survive") **

Monoswezi: The Village (Riverside) Scandinavian jazzbos plus Zimbabwean vocalist/thumb pianist and Mozambican vocalist/percussionist do right by tape loops and soundscaping, not so much by improvisation ("Hondo," "Ndinewe") **

A$AP Rocky: Long.Live.A$AP (RCA) Until a few key guests get Rocky going, it's rocky going ("Fuckin' Problems," "Wild for the Night") **

The History of Apple Pie: Out of View (Marshall Teller) Sonic Youth plays your junior prom ("Tug," "Mallory") *


Tim McGraw: Two Lanes of Freedom (Big Machine) I'll admit it -- the title of this record goaded into me into hoping for so much more, mainly the kind of jingoistic tripe and xenophobic baloney a cynical Alabaman expatriate like me could sink his teeth into. Imagine my profound disappointment when I discovered that not only does the emancipation in question refer to McGraw's heroic escape from the infernal Curb Records plantation, but McGraw himself is a proud Obama supporter who labels himself a "blue dog Democrat." But don't get too excited about that biographical tidbit, because Tim has no desire to upset the Music Row applecart -- this performer-not-writer will sing whatever bland, formulaic three minute scrap his handlers will throw his way, from the hapless "One of those Nights" (you know, the kind you'll remember forever), the unctuous "Southern Girl" (what do the Pistol Annies see in boys from the South, anyway?), the mawkish "Book of John" (a scrapbook remembering a late father), to the execrable "Nashville Without You" (which damn near Xeroxes the song list from Brad Paisley's "This is Country Music"). Then there are the requisite local-newscaster puns ("Mexicoma?" "Truck Yeah?"), as well as the implausible fate of convict "Number 3745," whose fifteen year plus sentence for drunk driving/vehicular manslaughter, though just as far as I'm concerned, doesn't mirror the appalling reality of the public record. Sure, there are no monuments of cheap sentiment here as smarmy as "Live Like You Were Dying." But that's only because this ten-gallon dildo's speed is more like living like you were merely living. C+

Christopher Owens: Lysandre (Fat Possum) I imagine this puppy dog of a singer-songwriter to fall madly in love with a "lucky" fan in every city he tours: Helena in Baltimore, Hermia in Chapel Hill, Demetrius in Providence. That's his business. But as you might expect from someone who cloyingly a-prefixes the word "hugging," he labors under the illusion that the critical issue with his worldview lies in those who question the veracity of his sincerity ("What if everybody just thinks I'm a phony/What if nobody ever gets it") rather than those who question the maturity level underlying that sincerity. "I'm not sorry/Gonna keep on usin'," he boasts in that wispy pre-pubescent tenor, a reference to the opiates he'll be damned if he's going to give up, but also to the love interests he's going to latch and hold on to for dear life. I know that his delayed entry into the Real World after years of isolation in that religious cult should make me allow for his forestalled adolescence, but his unaffectedly callow sentiments were fresher when they a) were new, and b) had his former bandmate Chet White toughening up the arrangements. Think "I remember learning how to make a quick hundred bucks/Sleeping in the back of a pickup truck/I remember looking through the barrel of a loaded gun/Texas cops and cooking drugs" is a trenchant lyric? Now imagine it juxtaposed with annoyingly cheesy flute and/or tenor saxophone and maddingly framed by ad nauseam reprises of a meager snatch of melody that makes "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" sound like "Greensleeves." C

Ex Cops: True Hallucinations (Fat Possum) So adept at sampling other people's hooks one would hope they'd also figure out a way to appropriate other people's vocals. B

Foxygen: We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic (Jagjaguwar) Supposedly a throwback to the halcyon days of Dylan and the Velvets, but the best line in their standout cut gives them away: "There's no need to be an asshole/You're not in Brooklyn anymore." B–

Camper van Beethoven: La Costa Perdida (429) These days David Lowery would rather take the skinheads golfing. B–

Dawn Richard: Goldenheart (101 Distribution) Blowing up manageable interpersonal struggles into epic sagas, the only thing that separates this from The Real Housewives of Atlanta is the occasional dubstep move and Dawn's impressive taste in body armor. C+

Adam Green & Binki Shapiro: Adam Green & Binki Shapiro (Rounder) I always thought Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood were two hunks of processed cheese food, but what happens when some Velveeta morning these two too-hip-to-be-hipsters wake up and realize they're actually the reincarnations of Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence? C+

West of Memphis: Voices for Justice (Legacy) Should come with a t-shirt that reads: "I was wrongfully imprisoned for eighteen years and all they gave me was this shitty soundtrack featuring Marilyn Manson covering Carly Simon." C

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