A Downloader's Diary (34): November 2013

by Michael Tatum

As a gangly teenager I listened to two kinds of music: the classic rock of my parents and the contemporary popular music of my friends. Regarding the latter, I did lean somewhat toward the commercial/accessible side of indie -- R.E.M., the Smiths, XTC -- but these were not especially unusual bands to like in my peer group. I was aware there was some sort of schism between the two -- as well as between the current top 40 and what I was hearing on the more "alternative" 91X -- but I not only owned Phil Collins' No Jacket Required and Steve Winwood's Back in the High Life, I also owned the complete sheet music for each. In other words, I was egalitarian to the point of utter obliviousness. It wasn't until the year after I got kicked out of UCLA, working my way back into their good graces at a community college, that I discovered music that I could truly call my own: Talking Heads, Eno, Roxy Music, Bowie, and perhaps most of all, the Velvet Underground. So considering that he came into my life just at the exact moment I was having a major identity crisis, Lou Reed means a great deal to me -- I finally found music that spoke to my own inner life, rather than that of the people around me. The key line in the deceptively pretty "Sunday Morning," "I've got a feeling/I don't want to know" said more to me than anything phonies like Depeche Mode (my best friend's favorite band) ever had to offer. So I'm grateful to the late, great Lou Reed for saving my life with rock and roll -- his. May he teach the angels to play "Heroin" on de-tuned ostrich harps -- they could use some rock and roll up there, too.

I've had no time to unravel most of the big critical and/or commercial releases that everyone has been talking about the last few weeks, so you'll have to wait on my final analysis on M.I.A., Lady Gaga, Dismemberment Plan, and a few others. I still have much to catch up with from earlier in the year, too. I hope that this generous bounty after the usual dry summer will more than compensate.

Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Merge) The worst mistake you could make in approaching this difficult but ultimately deeply satisfying record would be to let its sycophantic admirers -- you know, the kind of people who until last week thought that Either/Or was merely the title of a "classic" Elliot Smith album -- deafen you to its virtues. To begin with, this isn't a "dance" or "disco" or Haitian rara record any more than, say, "Fool in the Rain" represented Led Zeppelin's serious attempt to break into the samba market. In both cases, the genre borrowings are merely novel ways for an art rock band to vary up their increasingly arena-friendly music, with Arcade Fire's lack of instrumental virtuosos an undeniable plus no matter how much difficulty Jeremy Gara has handling any rhythm involving more than two thuds per measure. Their worthy theme is a "reflective age" in which people look at the world expecting to see an echo of themselves rather than accepting the world the way it is: husbands and wives, a gay son and his disappointed father, the "normal people" haranguing the new kid, teenage boys and online porn, Christian missionaries and poor Haitian natives, indie tastemakers and "Joan of Arc," Eurydice and Orpheus separated -- then united -- by cultural differences. And though I wish they hadn't extended this metaphor by allowing two long ambient noodlings to bookend ("reflekt") two separate discs that could have been squeezed onto one, they've never gone to such musical or lyrical lengths to connect with their audience, nor have they ever written this eloquently about the risks and rewards of conjugal commitment. "Supersymmetry" is their resplendent reward. A

Best Coast: Fade Away (Mexican Summer, EP) Bethany Cosentino will never make an album with James Murphy, nor will she ever suddenly discover desert blues and travel to Mali to make a record with local musicians. Every album she will ever make will boast the same whopper hooks and lushly decorous melodies, and unless excessive bong smoke fries her larynx to a charred crisp, she'll always have that big contralto to bail out her nonchalantly commonplace prose and indifferent rhymes ("won" and "one?"). In other words, she's so unlikely to hit an artistic growth spurt, me having to tell you this new EP sounds pretty much like everything that's come before it is wholly redundant. And yet despite her predictability, there's still psychology to dissect -- once again, she cops to an identity crisis that she is seemingly unaware connects to her desperate need to people-please. "I won't change/I'll stay the same" circumscribes her narrow conception of independence -- she could be talking about her music as much as her inner life -- while the sad "I don't know how to tell you I love you" ironically justifies (and perhaps even softens me up to) her chronic banality. I'd like to think Shirley Alston would approve -- even if Shirley wouldn't have wasted time wavvving that heartbreaking "charmer" goodbye. A–

Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap (free download) Chi-Town's Chancellor Bennett has his vices: Jack Daniels, weed, LSD, 'shrooms, the red pill Neo took from Morpheus in The Matrix, and Xanax (the latter provided a psychiatrist hasn't prescribed it). That regardless of his admitted perpetual truancy he probably boasts a wider vocabulary than the English teachers to whom he gave grief in high school constitutes one of those ironies more English teachers should take a moment to ponder -- "But I'd fight if a nigga said I talk white/And both my parents was black/But they saw it fit that I talk right" is a bold statement of purpose for all language lovers everywhere, whether or not they adore the playfulness of slang as much as Chance and I do. Those who have no moral objection to getting crunked up but have reservations to it as a frequent thematic concern should be reassured Bennett takes his bong to places undreamt of by Wiz Khalifa and Gucci Mane -- in the poignant "Cocoa Butter Kisses" he confesses to hitting the Mary Jane to ease the pain of his dysfunctional familial dynamic, while sadly acknowledging his beloved Nana won't kiss him if she can smell it on his breath. Still, any rapper that can coax his proud papa to show his support on a winning outro has earned the right to this playfully contorted quatrain: "Flip the candy yum/That's the fuckin' bombest/Lean all on the square/That's a fuckin' rhombus." A–

Brandy Clark: 12 Stories (Slate Creek) Perhaps I'm a little bitter after being inundated with a year's worth of hype, but I'm impressed more by Clark's marketing strategy than the album it promotes. When was the last time a country album by a female artist didn't feature an alluring picture of the babe-artiste on the cover? The two typewriter keys against a field of stark black suggest we're dealing with a songwriter, not an ingénue, and while I'm convinced of the latter -- no flash or charisma for this young lady, no sir -- I'm not quite won over by the former claim either. This is someone who can take such classic country tropes as killing the cheating boyfriend, sleeping with another woman's husband, and getting high and buying lottery tickets sound downright perfunctory, less cries from the trailer park than genre exercises intended to rope in urban outsiders like you and me, lifted neither by spunky voice, catchy melodies, sprightly arrangements, or clever turn of phrase. If Ashley Monroe is hard country and Kacey Musgraves is mainstream C&W with a difference, Clark is a folkie -- smarter and more heartfelt than Mary Chapin Carpenter, but equally as middlebrow. I'm not sure I would have noticed "Stripes" or "Crazy Women" (attention-getters in this company) on a Pistol Annies record, and speaking as someone who wouldn't be writing this sentence without the benefit of pharmaceuticals, I'm here to tell you the one-dimensional "Take a Little Pill" is "Mother's Little Helper" sanitized for the Redbook crowd. Having read Ann Fessler's masterly mid-century adoption chronicle The Girls Who Went Away -- in which much of the conception is far from immaculate or even consensual -- "Illegitimate Children" is as wrongheaded as it is sanctimonious. And filler like "Hold My Hand" and "What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven" is goopy balladry for sure. B+

Four Tet: Beautiful Rewind (Text/Temporary Residence) Laptop collagists like Kieran Hebdan don't really have any interest in overarching concepts or controlled environments in the vein of Moby or DJ Shadow, they merely have sounds they find "interesting" -- Hebdan's records often feel more like elaborate show-and-tell presentations than starry nights or majestic cathedrals. Having said that, this is one of Hebdan's finest collection of rocks, twigs, and matryoshka dolls: certainly stronger than Pink, last year's peculiar collection of bland twelve-inch singles, and on par with 2003's celebrated Rounds and 2005's strangely underrated Everything Ecstatic. That this isn't earning nearly the same huzzahs as the recently-reissued Rounds (tenth anniversary! a whole eon in Pitchfork years!) shows how much more credit you get the first time hipsters take notice, though Hebdan's newfound keenness for -- shame! -- the human voice shouldn't be discounted. Purists, shut-ins, and other anthropophobes might dismiss such mnemonics as thrills of the cheapest sort, but to provincial rubes like yours truly they're fine how-do-you-do's -- not just the usual dancefloor exhortations ("Hey! Hey! Hey!" "We got it! We got it!") and comely sirens beckoning you to the shore, but chopped and screwed bits of barely parsable babble that may or not incorporate smutty vulgarities. All of which inspires me to say, "Hey, Kieran -- 'where you bee fuck you bee shet you beyet fuck' to you, too." A–

Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven (Warp) Having suffered through ambient offerings from Tim Hecker and Matthew Hebert, I feel compelled to ask: what makes this elctro-twaddle so different from other records like it? I'm reminded of Andy Warhol complaining about the birds and insects unknowingly flying into the frame of the eight hour Empire -- the difference between an artist who waits for things to happen, and one who makes things happen: really chaos fans, sometimes order and forethought count for something. On 2011's Replica, Daniel Lopatin treated us to the sounds of scouring pads, looped pianos, exhaling automans, a disembodied melodica, the cries of digitized gulls, and a gremlin running in a hamster wheel, with samples directly procured from television advertisements -- not that one would ever have known that, of course. Brighter, grander, and with a touch of the ecclesiastic (the opening pipe organ drone could be straight out of Bach, or Arcade Fire's "Intervention"), this peels off a layer of Replica's aural mystery without any sacrifice of its basic fragmented aesthetic: a plucked kora, laptops communicating to each other in Morse Code, wind chimes pealing in a hermetically sealed bubble on the moon, and a subversion of that hoariest of banalities, the children's choir. But hey there -- "Inside World" even boasts something resembling a chord progression. What's next -- snippets from self-help or stand-up comedy records to deflate the flatter, more "somber" moments? Um, is Lopatin lowbrow enough to do requests? A–

Lee Ranaldo and the Dust: Last Night on Earth (Matador) I mean, whoa man, wotta hippie -- Ranaldo's second album showcasing actual songs features (I can't get over this) wah-wah guitars that his former Simpsons co-star Peter Frampton could get behind. Excepting "Late Descent #2," which begins with an out of character harpsichord line (!!!) redolent of Nicky Hopkins on mid-'60s Kinks records, the tracks are on average much longer than those on last year's Between the Times and the Tides, ranging from five to eleven and a half minutes. The climactic "The Rising Tide" appears to be about an acid reminiscence at a seventies Dead show, while on the intro of the title track, Lee sees fire, rain, and sunny days he think will never end. So is this where the avowed Joni Mitchell acolyte finally loses -- hell, maybe even ditches -- the Sonic Youth crowd? I sure hope not -- with the backing players more fully integrated into the music than last time out, the tunes themselves more assured, and the words more direct without sacrificing the auteur's basic spaciness, Ranaldo makes a far better singer-songwriter than he does beat poet -- especially since no other ex-hippie, with the perennial exception of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, can fashion guitar noise this satisfying, dynamic, plainly beautiful. And Neil and the Horse haven't been this hot in this mode since Sonic Youth themselves opened for them way back in, oh, 1991. B+

Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals (Mom + Pop) Young tastemakers could get behind 2010's Treats because of the audaciousness of the loud concept, but now that the process of sneaking melodic structure that began on 2012's Reign of Terror is complete, they've got their doubts -- in her Pitchfork review, Lindsey Zoladz resembles a distraught parent begging the kids to turn down the volume. But fuck that: musically, this is a quantum leap forward, and not merely because they've started consistently writing songs to justify their aesthetic -- Derek Miller proves that the acoustic guitar is first and foremost a percussion instrument, just as Pete Townshend taught us, while not only unsheathing a sword and letting the dogs out on the defiantly codependent title track, but putting cows out to pasture right after the number about young legends dying. But this is primarily Alexis Krauss' triumph, not merely showcasing her versatility as a vocalist -- from girlish whispers to high-pitched wails that will blow out your cocker spaniel's cochlea -- but crafting lyrics that rise to Miller's musical challenge, from burning down sugarcane fields to lighting her ponytail on fire, to sending gummy bears to the electric chair, the latter accompanied by the jingle of actual sleigh bells. Who says Def Leppard fans don't have more fun? A

Omar Souleyman: Wenu Wenu (Ribbon) This certainly isn't the wildest example of the Syrian wedding music known as dabke you can find, especially considering that up to this point Souleyman's corybantic output has been recorded predominantly on site at nuptial celebrations, then passed around on bootlegs, rather than captured in the studio under the auspices of a proper producer. But I'm not sure the studio has tamed Souleyman quite as much as Kieran Hebdan, who with his other identity as Four Tet brings the promise of the magic hat, the kitchen sink, the bag of tricks, but instead here mutes his own eclectic influence, settling for knob-twiddling without providing the interference that theoretically makes such aesthetic transcontinental summits worth the cost of the plane picket. Then again, the clean mix and patented modal themes make for great converting stratagems for your electronica loving brother who likes the idea of a touch of strange in theory but is too timid to go whole hog into more bacchanalian territory. I would suggest next time Hebdan get in touch some guest rappers (there must be some in the UK, despite all the evidence I've heard to the contrary) but perhaps an even better way to loosen everybody up would be shots of good scotch whiskey all around. I mean, hey -- it works at wedding receptions, doesn't it? A–

Tal National: Kaani (Fat Cat) To those excited I'm finally writing at length about that Brooklyn by way of Cincinnati indie rock quintet and their overrated 2013 record on which I wasted valuable ear-time several months back, please move on to the next graf. This mighty aggregation hails from landlocked Niger, a country not associated with a specific Afropop style, perhaps why you'll hear elements of soukous here, desert blues there, Afrobeat everywhere. Led by guitarist Hamadal Moumine -- a moonlighting judge, former soccer player, and current ambassador for the SOS orphan foundation in Niamey -- their fierce, almost Springsteenian momentum has been undeniable for their countrymen, who delight in their marathon, five-hour performances, which the band sometimes stretches logistically by splitting their thirteen revolving members into two separate, simultaneously running gigs. And yet miraculously, they still found time (via cloning, perhaps?) to record this dynamite set, their third overall since 2006 and first for international release. We're so conditioned to expecting fleet guitar and hypnotic cadences from this music that it's almost de trop to continue pointing it out as a virtue, but aside from the sharp, defined production, the real surprise here is the rhythms, intense and forceful where proper Tuareg bands often settle for insinuating and gentle: here the combined effect of full drum kit and talking drum suggests an avalanche beating the shit out of a landslide. Max Weinberg and Bryan Devendorf might cower in a corner. But I'd like to think Ahmir Thompson would turn this shit up. A–

Tamikrest: Chatma (Glitterbeat) One more Tuareg rock band that took up guitars when others took up weapons, this Malian quintet began covering their fellow countrymen Tinariwen before writing their own material, but the generation gap between them and their forebears is palpable -- these are young people savvy enough to have heard Hendrix, Santana, Pink Floyd, and Dire Straits via downloaded MP3s rather than discovered them piecemeal through bootlegged cassettes. Perhaps that's why, formally and aesthetically, this resembles traditional "classic rock" more than any competing desert blues yet: the perfect entry point for your cranky (grand)father who believes there hasn't been a great album since Abraxas. Where Tinariwen combine the ubiquitous modal guitar with indigenous percussion, the lineup here adds a full drum kit augmented by congas, enervating where others settle for merely "mesmerizing." Not only that, they understand the flow and pacing of albums -- those who complain this style sounds like "one long song" will find much to love between the variegated balance of hard rockers and soft acoustic numbers (though I blame that gratuitous snippet of backwards guitar on their German producer). As for "big concepts," start with the title, which translates to "sisters," as in: "The sisters are waiting for their freedom," or "Freedom is my soul's ultimate goal/In my land, the desert/Where my sisters live." If that fierce sloganeering doesn't satisfy the authors of Salon think-pieces, how about the painful protest: "The desert is not for sale/It shelters the tombs of our ancestors/And men pay the price of freedom with their lives." Or the ultimate statement of rhetoric defiance: "I remember our words/I didn't leave anything out/I said it all." A–

Honorable Mentions

Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady (Bad Boy) More guests is a great idea -- how about some that like hooks more than she does? ("Dance Apocalyptic," "Prime Time," "Givin' 'Em What They Love") ***

Parquet Courts: Tally All the Things You Broke (What's Your Rupture?, EP) If it ain't broke, don't stretch it out to 7:38 ("You've Got Me Wonderin'," "Descend") ***

Randy Travis: Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am (Warner Bros.) The singing (and album subtitle) suggests he's immersing himself in the past because he's terrified of the future ("Tonight I'm Playing Possum," "Saginaw, Michigan") **

Haim: Days Are Gone (Columbia) If the Nu Shooz fit, wear 'em. ("Honey and I," "Forever") **

Miley Cyrus: Bangerz (RCA) Better bangerz than ballads, better ditzy than Disney, better French Montana than Hannah Montana. ("SMS," "4X4") **

Court Yard Hounds: Amelita (Columbia) Most of the best songs are about the titular blowhard/killjoy, whose full name I can only assume is (find the anagram) "Amelita Iannes" ("Sunshine," "Amelita") **


Drake: Nothing was the Same (Cash Money/Universal) Having needed Kanye West, Alicia Keys, and the like to help him break through, the Canadian child star is now free to slow it down a bit, because apparently a hundred beats per minute is way too taxing to rap across unless you're pimping Sprite. Over fifteen songs in an hour that drags on for what feels like at least twice that, Aubrey Graham bears his "soul": "I don't wanna fuck/I wanna make love," and that such a transparent lie is processed to Auto-Tune, then justified later by one more backing singer who avows she "understands him" ("I'll love you for both of us," ho boy), shows how far this born liar will risk for "honesty." But gunning to be hip hop's answer to Jackson Browne is one thing. If you really want to track this poseur's errant laziness, check out his indolently epistrophic poesy: not counting choruses (where repetition is often a smart literary device) and the word "nigga," note how many times Graham repeats words because he's too lazy to open up his rhyming dictionary, apotheosized by what could be the worst opening quatrain by a "major" artist: "Comin' off the last record/I'm gettin' 20 million off the record/Just to off these records/Nigga that's a record." But please, don't talk to him like he's famous. Pretend it's five years from now -- if that. C

Paul McCartney: New (Hear Music) Conventional wisdom regarding Sir Paul's solo career posits that he desperately needs a collaborator brave-faced enough to inform him when his lyrical and musical ideas are shit. Sir Paul interprets this to mean that he needs a foil who can disguise his old ideas in contemporary garb, or at least make them presentable enough for the widest possible audience, a misperception that's put him in the orbit of some far-flung haberdashers: Elvis Costello, 10cc's Eric Stewart, Police/Phil Collins producer Hugh Padgham, Radiohead "sixth member" Nigel Godrich, mashup DJ Freelance Hellraiser. Meanwhile, those of us who hear the virtues of 1999's post-Linda rock and roll revival Run Devil Run and 2007's mortality-conscious Memory Almost Full aver that nothing beats a meaningful context (or at least attempting one) -- something that ain't gonna happen when the recently-married artiste is the most happily complacent he's been since the early '90s. Calculate all of these factors together and you have an embarrassing bomb of cataclysmic magnitude. With the exception of George Martin's progeny Giles, all of McCartney's current helpmates have made their names helming teen-identified music -- Paul Epworth with Adele, Marc Ronson with Lily Allen, Ethan Johns with Mumford and Sons -- and their combined full-court-press production gloss is the aesthetic equivalent of enlisting a high-priced Beverly Hills plastic surgeon to spruce up a department store mannequin. That's why the uncomfortably pained vocal of the acoustic "Early Days" registers as his only moment of grace. Sure, it's his 5,000th song about being in a rock band with John Lennon. But at least there he's -- somewhat -- acting his age. C

Moby: The Innocents (Mute) Having never displayed a knack for (white, living) collaborators, this time he enlists Skylar Grey, Damien Jurado, Mark Lanegan, and Wayne Coyne, the latter of whom seems to believe the Polyphonic Spree are an Actual Spiritual Happening. Not to suggest of course, that a cameo from Clade Jeter himself would justify the artiste's somber musical pacing, which suggests God slouching across the film of a mud puddle, with the interminable, nine-and-half-minute solo piece "The Dogs" the nadir. Titled The Innocents because The Hopelessly Naïve would have been way too candid. B–

Minor Alps: Get There (Barsuk) In which Nada Surfer Matthew Caws and former Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield make like Buckingham/Nicks on, er, Buckingham Nicks. B–

Robbie Fulks: Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot) Yeah, yeah, country, "that's where you're from" -- but no male folkie has been able to get away with a boast like "nobody can sing like me" since Woody Guthrie beyond the grave. B–

The Chvrches: The Bones of What You Believe (Glassnote) I'm not sure if Lauren Mayberry's girlish soprano redeems such maladroitly high school poesy on the order of "Float like a pretty box of your evil," but compared to such obvious forerunners as David Gahan, I sure burst into uncontrollable laughter a lot less often. C+

Amanda Shires: Down Fell the Doves (Lightning Rod) Asked for Emmylou Harris with songs, got Tracy Bonham without a fluke hit. C

VV Brown: Samson & Delilah (YOY) Nah, last time she was just joshing you with all that Motown shit -- really, she's into Bauhaus and Dead Can Dance: "I'll be your drug, I'll be your heroin/Put me inside your veins and let me in." Yuck. C

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