A Downloader's Diary (33): October 2013

by Michael Tatum

An awful month for rockcrit: not only was Robert Christgau fired from MSN with every other freelancer -- thus ending his Expert Witness blog -- but close friends of mine felt the pinch of money problems at their respective magazines (which shall remain nameless). I'll note that the economy sucks for artists everywhere: one of this month's pick hits is only available as an import, another is a freebie, a third is a cheap download, and most of the rest are on indie imprints your local Best Buy is unlikely to stock.[1] Hope the Gogol Bordello will at least provide some solace: "We'll Rise Again." We always do, don't we?

[1] Ed: I checked and found that Costello and Gogol Bordello are stocked in some (but far from all) Wichita-area Best Buy stores.

Babyshambles: Sequel to the Prequel (EMI) The UK press despises Pete Doherty: for flaunting his carefree junkiedom, for having once dated Kate Moss, for botching various Libertines reunions, for rhyming "career" and "Korea" (because who would do that?), for stalling on recording this sequel to 2007's Shotter's Nation, then for exhibiting zilch in the way or artistic/musical growth when he finally roused himself from his languor to do it. I say if you're going to ask what became of the likely lads, cast your aspersions toward his perpetually estranged buddy Carl Barât, whose pompous, 2010 cabaret-styled solo debut fails the Libertines' memory far more than Doherty's latest round of sloppy guitar hooks and readymade music hall melodies, and if he nicked them all from the Stone Roses, they sure as hell didn't sound this memorable in 1987. On some level, I can understand why some might be galled by the druggy, self-referential subject matter, from nursing a hangover with the penguins at the London Zoo to blithely dismissing concerned friends while walking around with "anesthetic shades with scratches on the lens." But Doherty has so much more generosity of spirit than your average hopeless headcase his charming but frank self-deprecation, on record anyway, is irresistible. You might think turning the dirty joke about the farmer's daughter into a soaring statement of purpose is perverse, but I say it's perversity with vision. His line about "all these heartfelt songs and melodies" is as sarcastic as it is sincere. And though I normally dissuade consumers for plumping for deluxe editions -- particularly when even the regular-release hasn't been issued domestically -- the bonus cover of the Velvet Underground's "After Hours" is a song Doherty was born to slur. A–

Ceramic Dog: Your Turn (Northern Spy) Marc Ribot belongs on any thoughtful list of major New York session guitarists -- Adrian Belew, Robert Quine, Vernon Reid -- but with the half exception of Reid (the long-forgotten, much disabused Living Colour are really a group thing), he's the only one to helm notable side projects. 2010's grainy, atmospheric Home Movies, well-regarded by the jazzheads who adore him, is less up my alley than the 1998 pomo tribute to Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez, but this project, which takes the piss out of the lumbering power-trio format, is even more so. Unlike others who worship at the altar of Hendrix however, Ribot isn't merely interested in showing off his technical prowess, which he already assumes you know is a given, but with transferring unwieldy Stegosaurus rock into the realm of noise and art punk, the industrial sledgehammer and the pneumatic drill (plus a simile as malicious as "Like Hitler loves his Eva" really wasn't Jimi's thing). Whether instrumental or vocal, most of these tracks get their business done, and the sloppy vaudeville routine "The Kid Is Back!" cries out for a cover from frequent Ribot employer Tom Waits. But I'd appreciate it if someone could tell me what Hendrix riff Ribot rips off for the atomizing "Ritual Slaughter" -- it'd make me a little more immune to that guilt trip he lays on me in "Masters of the Internet" for downloading his record for, you know, review purposes. A–

Elvis Costello and the Roots: Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note) For the first time in many years, Declan MacManus makes a play for the youth audience, but the downloader in the back of the audience has a few questions. We are told EC has been saving some of these lyrics since the early eighties -- why? Because one day he would feel the desperate need to remind us he was once one of the western world's great singer-songwriters? And why didn't he seize upon such trenchant lyrics as "Wise Up Ghost" in lieu of, say, "The Only Flame in Town" back when he had the chance? Tipoff couplet: "I stood out in the glorious reign/Knowing full well I can't go home again," which explains the limitations of this historic meeting of the greats. I suspect EC is attracted to the Roots not merely because of their hip credentials or nonpareil musical facility, but rather because among modern rock/funk/whathaveyou combos, they're as classy as it gets -- possessing infinitely greater musical command than his two-thirds-Attractions aggregation the Imposters, but nowhere nearly as messy as the Attractions proper as late as 1986's Blood and Chocolate. And messy makes the difference -- as he's proven time and time again ever since departing Columbia Records, such "refined" collaborators as Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, and the Brodsky Quartet don't always mesh effectively with his sardonic wit. That being said, the tight, terse music is the best connected to his name since then, but comparing the versions here to the incendiary live incarnations posted on Okayplayer's YouTube channel and elsewhere, you get the feeling that Ahmir Thompson and company are holding back a little here -- not unlike the studio versus live versions of D'Angelo's Voodoo. Except in 2000, D'Angelo was at the height of his powers. And in 2013, EC is just one more legend who knows full well he can't go home again. B+

Deer Tick: Negativity (Partisan) If Paul Westerberg changeling John J. McCauley would lay off the side projects, or at least hoard away his choicest material for his Deer Tick records, he could release his very own Let it Be. Someone at his label however, is so sure he's this close to the big time that they've enlisted Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin to produce, so call this McCauley's Pleased to Meet Me, as equally ambivalent about fame and fortune as the 'Mats ever were. "I don't want to be your bargaining chip," McCauley sneers against a particularly acidic slide guitar line, but even by that point (track two) he's already laid his cards on the table -- track one begins with a harebrained tone poem ("the [rock] that can't break through/the window of our love," egad) before segueing into a scathing rocker marred by the tritest horn chart this side of Paul Shaffer. Except it turns out "The Rock" is the engagement ring McCauley's real-life ex-financée unceremoniously returned after realizing she couldn't keep up with his roadhog lifestyle, and McCauley actually justifies and/or fights against that horn line with one of his intensest vocals, much as he later does contra such dubious touches as tinny glockenspiel, cocktail piano, and Vanessa Carlton. So maybe we should cut the man some slack for these mixed messages -- the poignant "Big House" turns out not be about the Great Condo of Life but the prison cell where his Dad will wait out the rest of his days on fraud charges. And McCauley does have guitarist Ian Patrick O'Neil's ultra-catchy power pop number to cheer him up. Its title? "The Dream's in the Ditch." A–

Gogol Bordello: Pura Vida Conspiracy (ATO) I'll admit it: the first time I played this through I thought they had de-evolved from El Clash Combo ("Play fifteen dollars a day/Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, anything") to Flogging Katya -- in theory, Andrew Scheps' pumped up production isn't really my thing. But as usual, immersion convinced me once again this was rock and roll like none I'd ever heard -- and want to hear again and again. Eugene Hütz' melodies, whether the anthemic "We Rise Again" or the agreeably cornball "Malandrino" ("I was born with singing heart"), all seem derived from the great store of traditional Balkan melody even though they might not be, which means either he's smartly nicked a few tunes that have stood the test of time, or (more likely) learned a few things since mastering the art of the hooky chant. In the meantime, his finesse with inspiring rallying cries hasn't flagged: "Even atheist holds up the candle/We rise again," "But it is the way you name your ship/That's the way it's gonna row," "I've seen the other side of rainbow/And it was black and white," "Where is the exit/Of course, there is none," many slanted slightly by a Russian immigrant's penchant for dropping definite articles -- which, naturally, makes it stick in the ear all that more effectively. So humane, ennobling, and full of life you won't even notice when Hütz mines New Age con artist Eckhart Tolle for wisdom: "To reduce the aliveness of another human being to a concept is already a form of violence." "Aliveness?" you may ask. Hey, if a snippet of gobbledygook can exalt the man into this level of vision, I'll send him my wife's disused copy of The Secret pronto. A

Clay Harper: Old Airport Road (Terminus) Talk about obscurity: unless you want to hit up ex-Coolie Harper on Facebook, the only way to procure a physical copy of this offbeat curio is by visiting Fellini's, a string of pizzerias in Atlanta that Harper owns (in her five-star Yelp review, Haley J. of Athens, GA raves: "the gem of pizza in the south," but warns, "don't expect to be waited on. It's mad chill." Chloe S. of Roswell: "I think they put crack in the cheese."). As a freebie offered to patrons over the counter however, this sure beats Parmesan garlic breadsticks -- with the exception of a delightfully cheapjack Def Jam knockoff in which female rapper Slim Red equates Red Lobster with the High Life, these eight spacey, jazz-inflected studio rock excursions evoke the squalid underworld as if Harper was Donald Fagen minus the big label slush fund: transvestite hooker harassed by a callous beat cop, middle-aged man coming to terms with paying for that kind stroke on the cheek, a personal sex ad promising a disease-free, curvaceous, independent woman who "has her own place." But despite the seedy subject matter, what separates Harper from Fagen (aside from access to Larry Carlton, God bless) is an unusual capacity for compassion toward his subjects -- the guy covers Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" as if it was as much of a classic as Carole King's. And employed in the service of defending his motley but sympathetic cast of flunkees and deadbeats, floozies and johns, now it is. A–

Elizabeth Morris: Optimism (self-released, EP) "Recorded" by Hefner's Darren Hayman (whose sole contribution I can only assume was twisting a knob or two on an old reel-to-reel), the Allo Darlin' front woman claims these four solo recordings, two on piano and two more on guitar, didn't sound to her like they belonged on her band's upcoming record, which I interpret as classic singer-songwriter code for "this time I really wanted people to hear the words." And while I always assumed that was why God created lyric sheets, the words are indeed this four-song EP's reason for existence: singing Buddy Holly in the street, trying to play it cool until his eyelashes put you in your place, calling a love interest for consolation after waking up from a nightmare (Paul Simon dying doesn't make me wake up in a cold sweat, but to each his/her own). But the real prize here is the quietly stunning title cut: "And I said that you're too young/To give up on optimism/And I turned away when you looked at me straight in the eye" -- as memorably affecting a chorus as you'll hear all year. Sure, Morris' skills on the eighty-eights hardly surpass Liz Phair's on "Canary," who proves herself here to be an until-now untold influence. But Morris has evolved into such a winningly charismatic vocal presence that she makes the lovely refrain of the Wave Pictures' heretofore negligible "Sweetheart" -- "I will write you without poetry" -- undeniably her own. A–

No Age: An Object (Sub Pop) What made Everything in Between the finest indie rock record of 2010 wasn't exactly its base fundamentals (alluring melody, swirling guitar noise, skewed time signatures) but rather how those elements meshed together into a compelling whole, so masterfully absorbing in its enthralling sweep one didn't realize, say, the song "Glitter" was in the unusual 6/4 meter until consciously counting out the measures. I'm not sure to what degree these L.A. art punks currently depend on sampling versus live instrumentation -- more on the former we are told, though I've yet to locate someone with a verified list of source materials -- but this is sparse and fragmented to the point where you become hyper-aware of each discrete part: every choppy strum, every muffled snare, every winningly flat vocal. This makes their latest album a more discomfiting listen, less a reverie to lose oneself in and closer to an art exhibit to be pondered and mulled over, a set of theories offered for academic deliberation. Occasionally, they break through their own self-imposed abstractions: the volatile "C'mon Stimmung" is one of their best rave-ups, while the quavering synth-strings on "An Impression" could be their most entrancing moment yet. But other (shall we say) passages don't justify their mild intrigue -- is the muted orchestral section underneath the closer meant to be an homage to the Beatles' "A Day In the Life?" John Cage? The musical heritage of Lockheed Martin? All I can really do is shrug -- then move on to the Joseph Kosuth installation in the next hall. A–

Young Fathers: Tape Two (Anticon) Their moniker suggests several layers of interpretation. As outsiders two ways (not only as hip hoppers in the midst of a Edinburgh music scene centered around indie pop, but also as sons of African immigrants) they've invented their hypnotically dissociative music in a relative vacuum -- without any antecedents, you might say they've raised themselves up despite the lack of parentage. But there's also the implication of literally absent paterfamilias, the idea that they've been forced to grow up before their time -- "Don't you turn my home against me/Even if my house is empty," the eerie chant that hooks the opening track of 2011's recently reissued Tape One, smacks of the personal, not the political. With native homeboy Graham Hastings' production so dank and pungent you can almost smell the mildew, Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole develop these themes further on this excellent sequel: the mother who can't sleep when the son's out of town, the new father who doesn't want to repeat family history. Occasionally, I wish their songs weren't so impressionistic -- words and music don't always gel, and without a lyric sheet you find yourself grabbing on to phrases before they slip through your fingers like phantoms. But for artists whose main subject is breakup and collapse, something tells me that's the idea. And damned if last night while I was dreaming the skulking hook of "Way Down in the Hole" didn't loop over and over in my head. A–

Honorable Mentions

Yoko Ono: Take Me to the Land of Hell (Chimera Music) I don't begrudge her warbling for peace (some more) or saying goodbye to John (yet again), but even when the music indulges the weird, fresh subject matter has its virtues ("Bad Dancer," "Leaving Tim") ***

Garland Jeffreys: Truth Serum (Luna Park) Granted, "Rock and Roll Music" was a more challenging cliché for this seventy-year old rocker to subvert than "Dragons to Slay" and "Ship of Fools" ("Any Rain," "What I Am") **

Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks (Columbia) Things I'm worried about this week: 1) Syria, 2) the NSA, 93) this autocratic control freak's midlife crisis ("Copy of A," "Satellite") **

John Mayer: Paradise Valley (Columbia) I don't mind hearing about who you fucked on your summer vacation, but why do you have to get on your high horse about it? ("Wildfire," "Hey Marie") **

Guy Clark: My Favorite Picture of You (Dualtone) 71-year-old Clark: a tattered black and white, harmony vocalist Morgane Stapleton: the too-occasional splash of color ("Good Advice," "I'll Show Me") **

Lorde: Pure Heroine (Universal) A Kiwi teenpop darling's genius moneymaking scheme: write songs about wanting to be rich, but pretending you don't care if it doesn't happen (because in real life you're already rich) ("Tennis Court," "Royals") *

Pity Sex: Feast of Love (Run for Cover) Ann Arbor co-ed quartet turns the volume up on their old Ride records so the neighbors won't hear them arguing ("Wind-Up," "Drown Me Out") *


Sebadoh: Defend Yourself (Joyful Noise) The unspoken criticism against this coolly received reunion record has as much to do with shifting sympathies toward co-leader Lou Barlow as it does with the indifferent music. As indie rock back stories go, you can't beat winning back your girlfriend from an attorney in song after great song, the soap opera that provided the impetus for much of 1993's uneven but high-peaking Bubble and Scrape and 2004's superior Bakesale. But here, the phrase "the hardest thing I've ever done" occurs twice: first in regards to serving divorce papers to the former Mrs. (Q: And where's that lawyer now? A: See album title), second in regards to the pain of separating himself from his children in the process. All of which bolsters my long-held suspicion that Barlow's problem isn't the romantic ineptitude he paraded twenty years ago ("But looking back on it, it was pretty much one step away from harassment," he admitted once in an interview), but rather that he uses that persona to soften up his public image. Maybe I wouldn't be so judgmental if the much-maligned Bob Fay motorvated these numbers rather than quotidian replacement Bob D'Amico. Maybe I'd be more forgiving if Barlow's two best melodies here (the first two tracks) were as catchy as partner Jason Lowenstein's two best (the next two). Maybe I'm feeling burned after giving them the benefit of the doubt on last year's Secret EP. But there's no denying that Lou sounded much more engaged trying to win the Mrs. back than he is now trying to let her go. B

Glasvegas: Later . . . When the TV Turns to Static (BMG) Gone: Flood, that Santa Monica studio, the pompous bluster of ///Euphoria Heartbreak\\\. Returning: James Allan's self-production, the arresting sonics of the debut. Missing: Caroline Tucker's tympani, songs as good as those on the aforementioned debut, any semblance of restraint. Inspirational confession, from a bombastic ditty about divorced couple's custody battle: "It's all about the money money money money money money money money." Ha, "economic, social, and cultural hypocrisy," my ass. B–

Arctic Monkeys: AM (Domino) Further indulging the Black Sabbath jones that's been sucking them into the morass pit -- and the blatant "War Pigs" quote makes it even worse. C+

John Wizards: John Wizards (Planet Mu) For all of you snobs who turned up your noses at that Shangaan Electro joint, Cape Town's John Withers, who judging from the recorded evidence has heard more prog records than, my goodness, Josh Davis himself. C+

Eleanor Friedberger: Personal Record (Merge) She knew her prolix songpoems and two-note tunes needed some major pop uplift -- so why did she hire John Wesley Harding? C+

Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake (Story Sound) Of course the originals are definitive -- none of the confident contributors here sings with anything approaching Nick's wan self-pity. C

Earl Sweatshirt: Doris (Columbia) Sure, he wins points for abandoning Odd Future's patented shock-rap, but since he hasn't also abandoned their pleasure-free anti-aesthetic, how the fuck am I supposed to figure out what's taken its place? C

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