A Downloader's Diary (31): June 2013

by Michael Tatum

A very strange month -- I spent a great deal of time looking for 2013 records as surprising in their quality as Rachid Taha's Zoom and Rokia Traoré's Beautiful Africa (still both unavailable domestically in America, and still in my top 10). Instead, I found two super obvious critics' favorites that will probably top the Pazz & Jop poll, whatever that once honorable distinction is worth anymore. What's worth more is that they're also my two favorite records since I started writing this column. Records actually worth their hype? Who would have thought?

Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China (Sublime Frequencies) The best approach to absorbing this peculiar but alluring music culled from ethnomusicologist Laurent Jeanneau's travels in an ever-shrinking Tibet is intellectually -- play this up against Ornette Coleman and imagine the musical elements as jazz instruments and you'll hear what I mean. Ululating voices cry out in imperfect harmonies that hesitatingly fluctuate back and forth, navigating between notes like 3 A.M. drunks feeling their way through their darkened apartments, occasionally merging into brief moments of union before wavering back outward. Plucked string instruments barely in tune mercilessly riff on one note, with the drone on an extraordinary twelve-minute centerpiece resembling the sound you might conceivably hear in your head while chewing a rusty copper wire. But once appreciated on its musical merits, you're faced with realization of what all of this strange music means to its practitioners emotionally -- the staccato sobs and anguished gasps that punctuate the Pashun Village's "crying song" may be one man's exotica, but it's also a whole peoples' catharsis. Sure, that ditty in which squeaky sopranos Mei and Peng Hua show how the Tibetan ladies call their lover boy is, well, kinda weird. But then again, that's the only lighthearted moment in an hour plus, including a wedding song that sounds like dread and death until the aged Yang Xiao Si -- much to my relief, actually -- breaks down into laughter at the end. Gives me hope that happy couple might actually have a long, happy life to look forward to. A–

Future Bible Heroes: Partygoing (Merge) Your soiree hosts are dolorous singer-songwriter and well-known merrymaker Stephin Merritt, his lampshade-wearing sidekick Claudia Gonson, and classy composer and keyboard maestro Christopher Ewen, who loosens up his stately themes for the gratifyingly debauched occasion, which happens to be a novelty record deeper and funnier than Merritt's 2012 Magnetic Fields record Love at the Bottom of the Sea. That's because buried not so deeply underneath the expected warped jokes and chirpy tunes there's a poignant subtext: alcoholism. From that "great brown glow" that lifts you up from being low to champagne-guzzling Aleister Crowley crowing about the water shortage in the ninth circle of hell, boozing it up is a recurring theme, as is its inevitably piteous fallout, getting old before your time. "Who would believe I was naïve," Merritt bemoans to the "Prince of Peace" (you know, Satan), "Who would believe I was once young?" Don't let that stop you from sipping your whiskey sour, though -- in one side splitter, we're treated to a joint suicide, with the lucky couple in "silk pajamas and sleeping mask, in black" and "a muumuu a la Roberta Flack." In another knee-slapper, Merritt reveals the ultimate solution to keeping your children shielded from the horrors of priests, bullies, and the producers of Girls Gone Wild: putting them in a medically-induced coma. For all of you hopeless romantics who never leave your dank, lower East Side apartments, we have the elegant "Sadder than the Moon," almost as lovely (no, really) as "I Don't Believe in the Sun." And for ardent devotees of the Great American Songbook, there's the one that begins with a subtle quote from Irving B.'s "White Christmas." It's called "Digging Your Own Grave." Now, who's got the bean dip? A–

The Lonely Island: The Wack Album (Republic) Viral culture moves at such a furious pace that I'm a little behind with these guys, so I haven't seen most of the videos that accompanied these outrageous bangers on Saturday Night Live (give me a break, these days it's way past my bedtime). But this time around Andy Samberg and Co. come not only armed with the usual panopoly of titty and, er, semi-colon jokes, but also a worthy concept: the stupidity of herd mentality, as well as the paranoia of ultra-square parents who fret about the ability of their kids to recognize irony in such timeless titles as "I Fucked My Aunt." They go "kindergarten" with Robyn ("Have a motherfuckin' baby on the floor/Raise it in the club/Homeschool it by the door") and share the laundry list of things they've got planned for their Cancun orgy ("ripping beer bongs/sex with a man"), only to reverse their strategy with the sneaky "We Are Young" parody "YOLO," which "climaxes" with Kendrick Lamar offering sage financial advice ("Renting is for suckers right now"). As for mainstay Justin Timberlake, I say if he has time in his schedule to wait eons between studio albums, he has time to be a full fledged member of the crew -- he and Samberg were meant for each other. Maybe Gaga can send out the wedding invitations? A–

Tricky: False Idols (!K7) Capricious though his uniquely bummed-out genius continues to be, his facility for discovering and adeptly deploying young, obscure female vocalists remains extraordinary. Though native to a country that can't get enough Adele, Jessie Ware, and (a related development) Britain's Got Talent, the Asthmatic One hasn't drafted any celebrated songbirds since Hollywood Records deludedly dreamed Alanis Morissette and Cyndi Lauper might break their cult signing to benighted American audiences back in 2001. Instead, he rewards those who've chosen to stick around with a roster of singers who constitute his best helpmates since his 1995 touchstone Maxinquaye: expressive Nigerian diva Nneka Lucia Egbuna, exquisitely subdued Fifi Rong, even killjoy Antlers frontman Pete Silberman, whose falsetto-soprano I mistook for a woman's until I read the liner notes. Believe me, that's a compliment: certainly, the remake of the Antlers' "Parenthesis," which emphasizes space, blows away cobwebs, and cranks up the guitar, reiterates how persuasively effective Tricky's aesthetic can be even with questionable material -- remember Ed Kowalcyk and the Wonder Woman theme? But his real find this time is aloofly chilled-out chanteuse Francesca Belmont, who emits just the right amount of detachment to counter the calculated overstatement of "Easy boy, I cut your throat/Smoke that weed, snort that coke," itself later righted by Tricky's trenchant admonishment to that gangsta thug to stand by that bird after he knocks her up. Worldview: "Nothing Matters," "Nothing's Changed." No surprise there. What does surprise is the artiste's talent for making such downtrodden material continue to compel -- enlisting the Chet Baker's youthful eidolon to spook up a single-mom council flats melodrama is some kind of coup indeed. A–

The Uncluded: Hokey Fright (Rhymesayers) Kimya Dawson is such an original that her wide-eyed, childlike aesthetic finds new wrinkles in genres we thought had run their creative course -- DIY punk with the Moldy Peaches, singer-songwriter folk on her own. Though hardly a genre exhausted for ideas, one reason she cottons so well to indie hip hop is because those emcees are so anti-mainstream, they have a misguided tendency to equate musical pleasure with artistic compromise, which is why for the last ten years Aesop Rock has been the kind of guy one champions in theory even if one rarely plays his records. But partnered together and buoyed by Dawson's innate sense of play -- has any rapper been this self-deprecatingly whimsical without sacrificing his precious manhood? -- they find common ground in a love of language that would win the hearts of the readers of The Source if only they could stomach the xylophones, the campfire tunes, and James McNew's ham-handed drumming on "Delicate Cycle." But all of those mischievous elements, much like Dawson's eternally wobbly soprano, only reinforce the childhood pain themes that are Dawson's raison d'être: that comforting apple Jolly Rancher after you eat shit at the skate ramp, the teleprompters on the back of your eyes that tell you you're worth something when you're picked last on the kickball team draft list. But as usual, there's a twist: the things you don't understand as a kid only get more complicated as you get older, as they ruminate in a startling three song run toward the beginning about death, peaking with a song about organ donation recommended to that god-fearing Ray Davies. Also, speaking as someone who could give two shits about the next installment in the Marvel franchise, I'm delighted to report that the mouth-watering enumeration "Superheroes" isn't about musclemen in tights. If the taste makers at Rapgenius.com want to test their chicken salad recipe against mine, I'm game. A

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL) Every blissful note in its right place, every jarring, discordant note ditto, this is what occasionally -- too rarely, actually -- happens when remarkably talented young people with unlimited means and all the time in the world hole up in their private studios, discarding songs, amending lyrics, tinkering and re-recording until the perfect music in their heads is no longer compromised. This accomplishment might escape you at first because the difficulty in Rostam Batmaglij's musical details -- the careening guitar line in the off-kilter rockabilly tribute "Diane Young," the congas lifting Ezra Koenig's lilting tenor heavenward on "Everlasting Arms" -- are so subtle, so understated, it may take you a while to hear how delicately they can make their tiny angels hopscotch across pinheads. But once absorbed, these songs will take on a life as a pulsing, vivacious whole in a way that even their 2008 debut and 2010's Contra -- merely excellent records loaded with great songs, ho hum -- do not. From there, you're free to note that their new obsession with time -- "The wisdom teeth are out," "Counting seconds/Watching hours/Though we live on the U.S. dollar," -- dovetails with the glum realization that even if they lived forever, they still wouldn't be able to defeat city hall. Zion don't love you, Babylon and America don't love you either, and even poor Henry Hudson is swallowed up by his own pelagic namesake. So what's the point of living if "you've got the luck of a Kennedy?" Love? Certainly. Aesthetic rapture? Definitely, and closer to the point -- every time we win a war for beauty, that's one more victory for unbelievers like you and me bound tight to the tracks of train. I say if their idea of Elysium-on-Earth means preferring YZ and Bread to "Dies Irae" and the Hallelujah, they've earned that right. A+

Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam) In a year that's been a boon for noise, from cacophonous opener to wink-wink finish this forty-minute cultural hurricane blows away all contenders to the throne. But I'll assume you already appreciate this record's virtues in that regard -- what you really want to know is whether you can listen to this guilt-free without worrying about looking like a recalcitrant pig to your wife, girlfriend, or senior thesis adviser. I say you don't need an English-Swaghili dictionary to hear this record's inner turmoil, a scary tour of West's roiling subconscious: his fear of commitment, petrifying separation anxiety, crippling Oedipal guilt, and ambivalence toward a media machine that perceives him as King Kong dragging Kim K. to the top of the Empire State. Those who chastise the sweet and sour sauce preoccupation filthily detailed in "I'm In It" (and note the qualifying ". . . and I can't get out") don't seem to notice the various ways West points out black men are treated as fetish objects, not people. Those offended at the desecration of various civil rights symbols are oblivious to the self-conscious irony that the road beginning with bodies swinging from poplar trees leads fruitlessly to a club teeming with lights, drugs, and easy pussy. Is the cheeky just-a-dream conceit "Bound 2" a chickenshit copout? Not really -- its narrator, really a muted version of West's signature douchebag, can't remember when he first met that birthday girl even though he described the event itself only one verse prior. Is Yeezus the "real" Kanye West? I dunno -- is Jerome the "real" Martin Lawrence? Is Patrick Bateman the "real" Bret Easton Ellis? Betcha Kim K. doesn't think so. And even without the tumultuous clamor of the endlessly rewarding music calling you back again and again, you should be smart enough to know the difference. A+

Honorable Mentions

Mavis Staples: One True Vine (Anti-) Actually Jeff, "real" gospel records don't put the acoustic guitar so high in the mix ("Can You Get to That," "Every Step") **

Gurf Morlix: Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense (Rootball) Such a smart lyricist one would hope Lucinda Williams owed him some tunes for loyal service ("My Life's Been Taken," "Bang Bang") **

The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD) At this point in time, the perks of being a wallflower are that you just might sell more records ("Demons," "Fireproof") **

Surfer Blood: Pythons (Sire) Yes, but there's no way they encourage you to emulate Weezer in anger management courses ("Weird Shapes," "I Was Wrong") **

Gold Panda: Half of Where You Live (Ghostly International) From pop novelties to EDM travelogues that disprove the idiom "getting there is half the fun" ("Junk City II," "An English House") *


Jason Isbell: Southeastern (Southeastern) This former Drive-By Trucker's hard-fought sobriety is something to celebrate, as is his marriage to Emmylou-Harris-in-Training Amanda Shires. This blustery, overly-serious major statement, I'm not so sure. Its general aura reminds me of the hackneyed scene in certain westerns in which the hero, after ninety or so minutes of stumbling boozily across the screen, slowly but confidently walks down a creaky wooden staircase, now handsome and clean-shaven, to greet the family of the woman he's trying to win. Turning to his wife, the woman's father remarks: "My my, he sure done clean up good." Despite a clear attention to improving his craft, from the austere black and white cover visage to the Spartan arrangements, this reeks of the same humorless bathos -- I'm not even sure a "real" country singer would risk a sentiment as palpably corny as "I've grown tired of traveling alone/Won't you ride with me." And while every savvy cinema aesthete knows that love stories saddled with cancer themes are best left to the Lifetime Channel, I'm not sure if the maudlin soap opera in which the narrator observes, "If I'd have fucked her before she got sick/I'd never hear the end of it" is callous, unintentionally hilarious, or both. He shouldn't abandon his sponsor. But he should definitely hire an editor. And a band that rocks as hard as the Truckers would definitely help. B

Public Service Broadcasting: Inform-Educate-Entertain (Test Card) On paper, this reads like a pomo dream: nerdy, pseudonymous British duo (billed as "J. Willgoose, Esq" and "Wrigglesworth") combine samples and live instrumentation as a backdrop for snippets from British public information films. Their putative mission: "to teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future." Unfortunately, the music isn't as radical as they think -- the booming but humdrum beats are pretty four-square, closer to mainstream rock than any electronica subgenre in recent memory, and Willgoose's intermittent banjo picking is as close as the arrangements get to evincing personality. As far as informing/educating goes, nothing here tells a story, in words, in music, or with both working in tandem -- unlike the Books' "A Cold Freezin' Night" (a little girl threatens her "asshole" brother via answering machine) or DJ Shadow's "Stem/Long Stem" (brash monologist Murry Roman harps about his "traffic offenses"), most of the purloined archive footage and propaganda film fragments zip by as anonymously as the arrangements that frame them. I'm also tempted to point out that if the source material means to be, as the Independent's Simon Price intriguingly suggests, "powerfully evocative of a disappearing Britain," what's nostalgia for the small subset of UK nonagenerians who won't buy (or hear) this record won't resonate with listeners on this side of the pond at all -- at least, not in a way that signifies. Then again, transmuting the static musings of Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Thomas Woodrooffe (author of 1958's long out of print Vantage at Sea: England's Emergence as an Ocean Power) into compelling rock and roll would be some kind of trick, indeed -- imagine a musician in 2055 doing something similar with staid NPR news reports and you'll see what I mean. B–

The Strokes: Comedown Machine (RCA) Although they haven't depreciated perceptibly since 2011's bottom-feeding Angles, consider the grade an exasperated protest, a we-must-remember on the order of Milli Vanilli, who I think at this juncture we can all agree are the superior artists if only for the virtue they didn't write, sing, or play their own wretched material. From the petulant title song (our inability to treasure them is apparently our fault) to the cynical cover (depicting a generic master tape sleeve), everything about this lazy record screams contractual obligation, right down to the band's blatant disinterest in touring behind it. And who can blame them? The success of the breezy Is This It turned what most likely began as a pleasant rich kid diversion into a boring j-o-b -- how can we reproach them for dissolutely turning the page in that Sharper Image catalog? And as for Rob Sheffield's innocent question in Rolling Stone as to why this isn't a Julian Casablancas solo record, he knows damn well: no one would give a shit about product under Casablancas' own name. But what annoys me most about their yawn of a career arc is that they don't seem to give a shit about music -- they treat it like a hobby, like collecting stamps or building toy trains, to set aside for something else when their interest level diminishes. Scores of hungry musicians would kill for the golden eggs that have been given to them, and yet I bet -- much like (remember him?) soporific ex-politico Mitt Romney -- we'll never hear from Casablancas' four comrades ever again. Romney was in it solely for the money-not-passion, too. Look where it got him. E

John Murry: The Graceless Age (Evangeline Recording) Bound to form a supergroup with Ryan Bingham after they bump into each other at the methadone clinic. C+

Meat Puppets: Rat Farm (Megaforce) The white reggae title track alone deserves a glitzy video where the guys in ZZ Top hand the Kirkwood brothers the keys to their tricked-out car before snatching them away. C+

Disclosure: Settle (Interscope) People jeered the last will.i.am record, but I'll take Britney/Miley on top of the Black Eyed Pea's whomping beats over Jamie Woon/Jessie Ware on top of the Lawrence brothers' nondescript ones. C+

Will.i.am: #Willpower (Interscope) No wait, I take that back! Back! BACK! C

Haxan Cloak: Excavation (Tri Angle) Only the Halloween Hit Factory's covers of "Ghostbusters" and "Thriller" distinguish this from Wal-Mart's essential budget CD Halloween's Greatest Hits. C–

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