A Downloader's Diary (32): August 2013

by Michael Tatum

I spent the latter half of July and the majority of August suffering from what I thought was a terrible bronchial infection -- incessant dry cough, lung pain, and, most importantly, incredibly low energy, so much so that any intellectual heavy lifting I wanted to do was pretty much tough going. So I skipped last month's column to recuperate, not really taking into account how long it was actually going to take me to recuperate. My doctor informed me earlier this afternoon that I may have unchecked asthma -- considering that I tend to suffer health-wise around this time of year (for similar reasons, I also skipped my August 2012 column, and August 2011 was short by my usual length), it may just be that late-summer allergies aggravate it. So consider this installment written under duress, with calibrated puffs of Budesonide (now there's a word for you fellow collectors out there) the supposed cure for the rockcrit blues -- Lord knows an otherwise boring August wasn't cutting it. Hopefully I'll clear out what's remaining in my queue next month, and bring a little something newer than repackaged Britney Spears to the table.

Kool and Kass: Peaceful Solutions (free download) If I had to venture a guess, Das Racist's Heems and Kool AD parted ways because the former began viewing himself as a "professional," in it for a committed career rather than purely for art's sake, hence why Heems' 2012 projects, the solid Wild Water Kingdom and the superior Nehru Jackets, trump the spaced-out, aleatoric grab bags his inconsistent ex-partner tossed up to the internet concurrently. Like it or not, form has function, which is why Kool needs someone like producer-rapper Kassa Overall, a musician's musician type whose own 2012 mixtape cleverly bit (swallowed whole, actually) hits from such respected hip hop titans as Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez. Here, without sacrificing any of the zonked-out spaciness that distinguished Kool's 51, 63, and 19 (see what I mean by aleatoric?), Kass reins in his partner just enough, so that a "boast" like "Under the influence, but I'm congruent" might not convince the highway patrol, but for our purposes will more than suffice. Though outlawing credit cards satisfies my square sensibilities more than legalizing weed regardless of how I voted on Prop 19 (please tell me that number is a coincidence), it bums me out to report politics figures less into what they do than advocating a blissed-out solipsism exemplified by the idyllic "Pleasance," which contains the most complaisant "We don't give a fuck about a thing at all" ever uttered on a hip hop recording. Best of several unwitting cameos, in a field that includes glossolalia-struck newscaster Serena Branson and brazen publicity slut "Ray J" Norwood: Bizzy Bone, whose manic, ten-minute-plus outpouring at a Houston radio station needs to be heard to be believed. As for those miffed Kool once again recycles that classic "art, man/Robert Altman" verse, he's got a special riposte: "Sometimes I repeat myself -- get used to it." Well, not really a riposte -- more like a blasÚ statement of purpose. Which is hilarious, and totally in character. A–

The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band: Hey Hey It's . . . the Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band (self-released) Seventy-four, still warbling like a coyote with his tail caught in the feed of a paper shredder, and continuing to make that yelp sound like he's found the secret of Eternal Youth, Peter Stampfel has no problem staying young -- indeed, one of the problems with recent projects with the Ether Mob and Baby Gramps has been finding compatriots who can keep up with his boundless vivacity. But although the far droller Jeffrey Lewis isn't my idea of a sparkplug -- one might say he plays Harold to Stampfel's Maude -- their imperfect vocals don't join together like brothers so much as gleefully play against each other, with Lewis' mopey baritone resting on that bass clef like a chin on a cupped palm, and Stampfel's wild tenor harmonies sprightly bouncing all across the staff to wherever it gosh darn feels like. Their 2011 summit Come on Board was excellent, but bassist Isabel Martin and drummer Heather Wagner, doing double duty as backing singers cum rah-rahing cheering section (I can't get enough of them exhorting J&P to spell "dook" on the re-make of "Duke [sic] of the Beatniks"), turn them into a proper band, radiating so much jocund camaraderie the sort of man who knows the difference between a bee-det and a bee-ret might call it "esprit de corps." And the songs! Boiling them down to their thematic essence doesn't do them justice -- walking your dog, skipping-and-jumping-not-walking down NYC sidewalks, lollygagging as a bid for immortality, the life and times of "fucking Snooki," "Indie Bands on Tour," having more fun than anyone. Hawking merriment as spiritual achievement, no one's pulled off a trick like this since the Ramones -- except Johnny R. had no need for fiddles and banjos. A

Daniel Romano: Come Cry With Me (Normaltown/New West) Despite its high Metacritic score and Polaris Prize long-listing, I stayed clear of this little item for weeks: the parodically lachrymose title, Romano's nudie suits and Tom Selleck mustache, it was all just a little too much. Indeed, the first listen confirmed my suspicions: Romano, whose furry baritone suggests Bobby Bare, Jr.'s hapless picked-upon younger brother, clings so tightly to classic country conventions (steel guitar, girlie choruses, drummers who know nothing other than brush sticks) that he veers closer to pastiche than tribute -- in a spiritual sense, resembling Weird Al Yankovic more so than "authentic" torch bearers as far flung as Randy Travis and Lucinda Williams. And yet perversely, that's what makes this trip down Bizzaro World Music Row so uncommonly fresh, especially given how straight-faced Romano delivers his often outrageous original material, from the Buck Owens spoof "I'm Not Crying Over You" (he's not brokenhearted, just a method actor), the "A Boy Named Sue" send-up (he's not a poultry farmer, just a chicken hawk) and the "Mama Tried" lampoon "Middle Child" (he's not a bad kid, just a victim of Dr. Kevin Leman's quacked-up birth order theory). A little more soul and a band that's not the artiste over-over-overdubbing himself and he might even fool Nashville. A–

Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle (Nonesuch) Even if it has to cheat do it (ex-hubby Loudon's "Swimming Song," sister Anna's inevitably included "Heart Like a Wheel"), these thirty-two songs (two repeated) culled from three tribute shows in London, Toronto, and New York more than prove McGarrigle's standing as one of the late twentieth century's finest songwriters. True, this could have used some judicious pruning -- one disc rather than two would have sufficed, and although inheritors Rufus and Martha Wainwright dominate as they should, stubbornly sticking to the original keys leads to periodic gaffes (Rufus belting "Kiss and Say Goodbye" as if his mama was really Ethel Merman, flubbing a high note in the melody of "First Born," then wisely retreating into the ensemble by ducking down into a harmony). That being said, many of the reinterpretations are downright remarkable: Rufus' coy "Southern Boys," Martha's fearless "Matapedia," even Norah Jones' delicate "Talk to Me of Mendocino." Histrionic youngsters balance out plaintive old timers, sometimes on the same song, sometimes on competing interpretations, and if the kids don't realize playing to the canary fanciers is the self-consciously arty aesthetic obverse of the doe-eyed chorines who cozy up to Simon Cowell and the like, well, there are worse crimes to exculpate. But I could do with a few more recastings like Broken Social Scene's "Mother Mother," which strips away the original's stilted art rock moves and turns it into something that could almost be mistaken for pop music. Or, as my wife commented from upstairs after the umpteenth piano stool ballad, "Michael, could you change this please? This is really depressing." B+

Britney Spears: The Essential Britney Spears (Jive/Legacy) Dividing neatly into is-she-or-isn't-she and soiled dove periods, this may at first seem like way too much -- she couldn't cut a one-disc deal in 2004 without stooping to a Bobby Brown cover, so how could she pull off a two-disc pig-out a mere three studio albums later? Except that for a Disney reprobate turned well-coifed train wreck not known for memorable self-expression, mental stability, or singing with the voice God gave her, ace producer Max Martin and her various handlers do have a remarkable talent for, if not actually articulating the nitty-gritty of Spears' inscrutable inner life, then elucidating the thoughts and feelings that her many devoted fans have projected on her. After flashing us the tight thong beneath her Catholic girl school uniform in the undeniable bombshell that detonated her career, she opines, in a mid-tempo ballad you long forgot assuming you've actually heard it -- "But if you really want me move slow/There's things about me you just have to know." Things which, believe it or not, she actually reveals, slowly but surely, over the course of what is now a fairly impressive career: her smothering via the overprotection of others, her ambivalence toward her fabricated early image, and -- over and over again -- her propensity to hook up and hold onto the wrong guy. Miley Cyrus, beware: this might happen to you, the career arc if not the efficiently executed songs. Now if only so many of those early ballads weren't so, as Britney herself might say, barftastic. A–

Superchunk: I Hate Music (Merge) Paul Westerberg hated music because it had too many notes, Mac McCaughan hates it because even though he's generated plenty of money from giving a home to Arcade Fire, Spoon, and the like (and bless him for that) he hasn't made much scratch from the band that inspired him to start his own label in the first place. Still, while I'd be the first to admit that 2010's Majesty Shredding and now this more tuneful follow-up constitute the best records in the two decades he's been trying, you'd think he'd have more subjects to explore than his own relationship to "the scene": tweaking a busted amp at the front of the house, rocking a festival in Barcelona, meeting at a bar called the "Low F," catching a ferry to the ballpark, "looking at girls/shopping for jeans" -- surely there's more to McCaughan's world than this? Yeah yeah, the high-grade tunes do indeed make me pump my proverbial first. But back in the early '90s when McCaughan wasn't putting out records half this memorable, the indie mill churned out a record this good every month -- a record that would occupy us momentarily, until our attention-deficient noggins moved along to the next one. I mean, Pavement dedicated a whole album to their scene, too. But if McCaughan has devised a perfect melody on the order of "Range Life" or a lyric as foxy as "Stone Temple Pilots/They're elegant bachelors," I'm Gerard Cosloy. A–

Honorable Mentions

El-P/Killer Mike: Run the Jewels (Fool's Gold) Better to tag-team hammering that one note than to bludgeon it on your own ("Sea Legs," "DDFH") ***

Young Fathers: Tape One (Anticon) Not quite out of the basement yet ("Rumbling," "Romance") ***

Robin Thicke: Blurred Lines (Interscope) If I was getting Timberlake's leftovers I'd be insecure about my dick size, too ("Blurred Lines," "Ain't No Hat 4 That") **

Major Lazer: Free the Universe (Secretly Canadian) . . . but cram those collaborators into these tiny electro-dancehall boxes ("You're No Good," "Get Free") **

Dessa: Parts of Speech (Doomtree) You'd figure someone who teaches lyric writing in her spare time would realize "If you don't aim for the center, it's a waste of the art" is a double-edged metaphor ("Skeleton Key," "Call Off Your Ghost") **

Pet Shop Boys: Electric (X2) Work tapes from the euphoric dance floor record I've been waiting years for them to make -- I mean, these are work tapes, right? ("The Last to Die," "Love Is a Bourgeois Construct") **

Speedy Ortiz: Major Arcana (Carpark) Putting down "virgins" isn't my idea of feminism, but I'd be more forgiving if their energy level didn't evoke Speedy's somnambulist cousin Slowpoke ("Cash Cab," "Plough") *

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories (Daft Life/Columbia) Nile Rodgers yes, Paul Williams no, and with that kind of arbitrary taste in collaborators here's betting next time they gun for George Benson ("Give Life Back to Music," "Get Lucky") *


Camera Obscura: Desire Lines (4AD) These twee Glaswegians, buddies with Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, titled an early release Underachievers Please Try Harder -- the perfect out, right? Album five puts a little more muscle into the production, torches up the vocals, cedes cameos to Neko Case and Jim James -- and still they underwhelm. Now what's their excuse? C+

George Strait: Love Is Everything (MCA Nashville) The 2006 Country Hall of Fame inductee is some kind of institution: twenty-eight studio records and sixty number one hits on the Billboard Country Charts since his 1981 debut. He's never left MCA in that time, and he's stalwartly worked with producer Tony Brown since the soundtrack to Pure Country, which my first girlfriend dragged me to see in 1992 (would you believe John Doe in a major supporting role?). So you could argue he's survived in a way that his poor neotrad fellow traveler Randy Travis has not. But if he has, it's purely by applying a clock-puncher's attitude to his chosen vocation: release a mediocre record every couple of years (but not too mediocre), leading it with a sure shot hit to make sure it clears the bottom line. I admit, it takes a little bit of spirit and imagination (I said a little bit) to do something with the thin conceit of "I Got a Car." But how about "I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing?" "That's What Breaking Hearts Do?" "When Love Comes Around Again?" The more-accurate-than-he-knows middle-aged plaint "Sittin' on a Fence?" And "I Got a Car" wasn't even the hit -- that would be perfunctory ode to whoopie-makin' "Give It All We Got Tonight." It got no higher than #7. Remember to punch your card on the way out, Georgie-Boy. C+

Wings: Wings Over America (Hear Music) Is this hulking dinosaur excavated from the days when live doubles were actually live triples quality entertainment? Indeed it is, as was the evening I saw McCartney myself in 1990, when he anti-climatically opened with Flowers in the Dirt's "Figure of Eight" and royally embarrassed himself by inserting a snippet of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in the coda of "The Fool on the Hill." But then as now, once you objectively remove yourself from the excitement of seeing a real live ex-Beatle in the flesh, there's too much to forgive. Even mentally separating this behemoth into its original six-vinyl-sides, Denny Laine remains impossible to avoid, from the pathetic Moody Blues revival ("See! I had hits in the sixties, too!") to the inexplicable "Richard Cory" cover (unless "But I work in his factory/And I curse the life I'm living," is underhanded protest). The acoustic set in the middle in particular is a disgrace, bowdlerizing not one but three Beatles classics (with the shit-kicking bass line at the end of "I've Just Seen a Face" only the worst of many indignities), with McCartney himself at his most clearly disengaged ("How does 'Blackbird' end again?"). Why does the crowd hoop and holler after Jimmy McCulloch's abysmal roman Ó bass clef "Medicine Jar?" Are they stoned? And why does McCartney sing "Do me a flavor" in the chorus of "Let 'Em In?" Is he stoned? And what did drummer Joe English mean when he told Macca biographer Peter Ames Carlin that overdubs were necessary for this record because "people were singing out of tune?" Is that why "Cook of the House" wasn't on the nightly set list? Docked a notch because I can't see the explosions on "Live and Let Die" in my living room. C+

Wayne Shorter: Without a Net (Blue Note) In space, no one can hear you play soprano sax. B

Thundercat: Apocalypse (Brainfeeder) Not Jamaaladen Tacuma, not Bootsy Collins -- more like Nigel Godrich produces the Gap Band. B–

Natalie Maines: Mother (Columbia) I'll give this to the Indigo Girls -- when Amy Ray went solo, her idea of "edgy" went beyond Pat Benatar covering Pink Floyd and the Jayhawks. B–

Alice Smith: She (Rainwater/Thirty Tigers) Alicia Keys may be married to Swizz Beatz (a.k.a. "the McRib of hip hop"), but this perennial R&B up and comer is married to Citizen Cope -- top that. C+

French Montana: Pardon My French (Interscope) Of course Rick Ross sounds smug on his (three) cameos -- he's content in the knowledge he's no longer the dullest rapper in the known universe. C

2013 June 2013 October