A Downloader's Diary (35): December 2013

by Michael Tatum

A somewhat abbreviated month, at least by my usual standards -- blame those hectic holidays. But don't worry, I'm forsaking my usual habits and planning to continue sorting out 2013 in January and February of the new year. I haven't heard the Childish Gambino yet (or Beyoncé, or for that matter Katy Perry). Until then, below you'll find two of the best records of the year -- disparaged by many others, but completely beloved by me. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm exiting stage left to celebrate six years of marriage with Lady Gaga's biggest fan.

The Dismemberment Plan: Uncanney Valley (Partisan) Travis Morrison's concept album about maturity (which he dubs "the afterparty for the afterparty for the afterparty") has been roundly dismissed by brash critics who might also dismiss parenthood as "overrated," but luckily, Morrison has already anticipated their petty snickers. He refers to his forty-something self as a "fat nun on drugs/drowning in hugs" before that pop culture geek lollygagging in his parents' basement can beat him to it, then goes out on a Vegas-style high note after rationalizing to a hapless blind date why he stood her up. Meanwhile, as an upstanding representative of Corporate America, he keeps his thing in his pants on a breathless tour of America's Reston Parkways, and though I think we can all agree that Quantico, Dulles, and Ashburn are hardly loci for quality tail, we can admire his restraint regardless. Those primo yuks are all on the terrific first half. But the astonishing second half begins with two of what I can only describe as "standards," whatever that antiquated term might mean at this late date. The extraordinary "Lookin'" celebrates a lifemate long after her aura of mystery has dissipated: "Just as a painter returns to his muse/With his hands more slow and sure/Once he wanted to paint her naked/Now he only wants to paint her." And the poignant "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer" eulogizes the things parents sacrifice for their children, then celebrates what they get in the bargain. Compare those two major statements to the emotional high point on 1999's much-loved Emergency and I, a lumbering power ballad about romantic confusion -- by comparison, kid stuff. And that same record's sentimental "You Are Invited," about a hypothetical invitation to an imaginary party, doesn't have anything on this record's carousing blowout closer: "When I say 'cluster,' you say 'fuck'/Cluster-(fuck!)/Cluster-(fuck!)" See kids, maturity can be fun -- even when it isn't. A

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (Aftermath) I'm not especially worried Em is joining Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige in the sequel-to-a-landmark ploy, nor am I fazed by the commercial caution of the first single, which pays lame homage to Em's supposed roots in Def Jam-era Beastie Boys -- roots that no real fan of his actually believes exists anywhere other than in the abstract. I'm more concerned about a labyrinthine opener in which Stan's little brother Mitchell plays the avenging angel for "all the bullies you hate/that you became/with every faggot you slaughtered/coming back on you/every women you insult." We don't need to be told Mathers has a double standard when it comes to his daughters, and one more layer of irony won't convert those who didn't get the point in 2000 -- they won't bother trying now. We who love the artiste but might decline to send him a dinner invitation prefer the asshole, the one who boasts "there's no rhyme or reason" for all the shitty things he does, mainly because watching him catalog his psychic damage attests to the contrary. Most of the first half, from making the most of adolescent misery to insulting everyone with a vagina in range, reclaims old turf with renewed wit and verve. But the second half is something new. "Stronger than I Was," which finally gives long-suffering ex-wife twice-over Kim her say, is actually a self-loathing exercise in disguise, and considering a November 31st anniversary couldn't possibly exist, might be one more cruel lie regardless. The brave "Headlights" humbly apologizes to his mother after years of vindictive backbiting. And "Evil Twin" fuses past personas so the man behind the the multiple masks can finally step forward to accept responsibility for his shit. Who knew he would take his twelve steps off the edge of a precipice? A–

The Handsome Family: Wilderness (Carrot Top) I don't relate to doleful types like Brett Sparks too much -- like many people with bipolar disorder, my lows can be just as frighteningly energetic as my highs, so when I go that awful place I'd just as soon hear something like Nirvana's cathartic In Utero, or perhaps this duo's 2002 Live at Schuba's Tavern, which leavens their greatest dirges with plenty of jokey patter. But that merely reminds me that this band's cult really revolves around Brett's better half, his lyric-writing wife Rennie, a nature-walker whose e-book Wilderness not only occasioned this companion piece, but for those of us not privy to Rennie's vast knowledge of morbid 20th century Americana, also provides plenty of pertinent (or at least entertaining) context. In the chapter on woodpeckers for example, Sparks digresses with a brief account of Mary Sweeney, "the Wisconsin Window-Smasher," who under the frequent influence of cocaine roamed the state hurling her satchel through plate glass windows, often getting arrested before she finished the job -- a story which worms its way into the record proper's "Woodpecker" (thought not Sparks' tangential discussion of the "rare" but apparently documented incidence of spontaneous human combustion in "elderly, sedentary women" -- these are three-minute songs, after all). Which should give you a taste of what to expect: more songs about log cabins, mud puddles, and death, with almost every track devoted to man going up against nature and losing, beginning the one about flies feasting on Custer, Wal-Marts swallowing up the forests, and embattled army ants winning wars in silence. A–

Jon Hopkins: Immunity (Domino) A child prodigy in his native Australia, a Ravel/Stravinsky/Depeche Mode/Pet Shop Boys fan whose last two solo albums -- including the one under discussion -- were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize despite it usually being awarded to UK denizens, electronica maestro Hopkins certainly qualifies as a subject for further research. The currently-reissued 2001 debut Opalescent, well-regarded by his fans, radiates a Pink Floyd at the day spa kind of aura -- fine if you're into such things -- but this year's model is ambient in my kind of way: background music not for airports or hotels but for a middle-aged man on a forty-five minute Sprinter ride west from San Marcos, CA to Oceanside: silver dollars tinkling in a coin slot, the wheeze of an elevator pushing itself upward, the gasp of brakes as the light rail train comes to a stop, doors grudgingly shutting open and closed, the invented sound in your head of city sights whisking by silently, daydreams breaking the surface of the watery subconscious, then submerging again when someone apologizes for accidentally kicking your leg. If that's too pretentious and/or conceptual for you, I'll add that what gets this vehicle from point A to point B, especially on the urban-not-pastoral first half, is beats, my favorite being the oscillating bass line on the well-named "Open Eye Signal." And for the night ride home we have the second half, leading with the stoic piano chords and impressionistic swells of the evocative "Abandon Window" and ending with the gorgeous title track, which combines the sensibilities of both halves: the unadorned arrangements of the second and the simulated "found" sounds of the first -- so seductive I nearly missed my stop. A–

Lady Gaga: Artpop (Streamline/Interscope) Word scrawled onto a bathroom stall in red sharpie, early December: ARTPOP. One week later, marked out in black, accompanied by a request and smiley-face turned ninety degrees: FUCK YOU. So it turns out everyone really is a critic, and a good thing the Gaga fan in my household encouraged me to tune them all out. Abandoning rock dreams for sexxx dreams, which for her means IDM and trap beats and black guests more alive (sorry) than Clarence Clemons, this is where Gaga delivers the pure pleasure machine her previous records only promised. Justifying the pooped-out "your anus/Uranus" pun with a boast about her own derriere, rolling around with the other swine in the mud and muck, and giving her girlfriend a "manicure" that doesn't involve an emery board (unless, of course, that's what she's into), there's enough sex here to make the uptight squeamish, which you can bet is one reason why those who turned up their noses at Erotica are doing the same here. Yet despite the PG-13 mien, I'd argue that monogamy is what's made her comfortable enough about her "body parts" to sing about a hundred ways to stimulate them, the reason why the gender-fuck classic "G.U.Y." claims power about being the girl-under-you rather than the girl-on-top. It's also why R. Kelly acts like a pure gentleman on the addictive "Do What U Want" even after Gaga gives him the red light to indulge his nastiest fantasies. She doesn't just deserve that applause, she deserves a standing ovation. Or kneeling ovation. Or squatting, straddling, hovering. Whatever you're into. One hour of this and I'm up for anything. A

Pusha T: My Name Is My Name (Def Jam) Terrence Thornton's admittance into the House of Kanye comes at almost precisely the right moment in his current benefactor's history: when West applied the cinematic prog-rock of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Pusha's poesy for 2011's slightly overblown Fear of God II: Let us Pray, the aesthetic effect suggested the Michaels Bay and Mann, but the more pared-down production here, of a piece with Yeezus, returns Pusha to the nitty-gritty where he belongs. But though I don't necessarily demand that my cocaine rap come with a conscience, this doesn't nearly boast the depth or literary accomplishment of 2006's Hell Hath No Fury, his best record with brother Gene for the Clipse, either in terms of complex rhyme or meaty content. Applauding his born-again brother for taking "the better path" is only to be expected, confessing he never outgrew being the spoiled younger child is no surprise, and bragging he would have used that forty acres to grow poppy seeds his only shocking moment (which leads me to wonder -- has Kelly Rowland fallen so out of commercial favor she's ready to be his mule?). Granted, the simultaneously crude yet sophisticated music doesn't flag for a second, and this is the leanest and meanest Thornton has been in years. But Kendrick Lamar's tongue-twisting cameo shows up the man's more prosaic raps for the two-dimensional commercials for the "good life" they've become. And only Rick Ross' penetrating verse on "Hold On" offers any reflection: "Chasing my paper, couldn't fathom my wealth/Built a school in Ethiopia, should enroll myself." Reflection -- from Rick Ross. What has this world come to? A–

Honorable Mentions

R. Kelly: Black Panties (RCA) Begins with two great cunnilingus boasts, leads to two very good marriage lies, ends with several reprehensible evasions ("Cookie," "Legs Shakin'") ***

Red Hot + Fela (Knitting Factory) Second volume of Kuti covers too conceptual or not conceptual enough (Tuneyards, ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo, Akua Nara: "Lady"; Spoek Mathambo, Zaki Ibrahim: "Yellow Fever") **

Swearin': Surfing Strange (Salinas) Meet the lesser Crutchfield twin and her lesser half ("Parts of Speech," "Dust in the Gold Sack") **


Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp) I have this childish fantasy that never will come true, but you can't blame me for dreaming. It's based on something I saw on television, in which one snobby New York socialite sneakily tricks her nemesis into blind test-tasting the latter's own brand of Pinot Grigio and asks for her "honest" opinion, which of course, she completely disparages -- to her later embarrassment. In my version, I've invited people much cooler than myself to my private listening party, in which I promise to give them a sneak preview of the new Boards of Canada record, but instead, I put on an old Tangerine Dream from 1977. "Their most cinematic and vast-sounding album yet!" cries out The Guardian's Dorian Lynskey. "Suggestive of barren plains and burning skies, wonder and dread, watching and being watched!" "There is joy in these grooves!" swoons The Independent's Laurence Phelan. "The attentive care of studio perfectionists, and the warm embrace of an old friend!" Then I give up my sneaky subterfuge and reveal my clever switcheroo, embarrassing everyone, and put on Skrillex, after which everyone angrily leaves. And you know why that scenario wouldn't play out like that? Because you know damn well all those Britcrits, much like American hipsters, drink up Tangerine Dream like they might a 2005 Domaine Stirn Cuvée Prestige Sigolsheim. Meet the new harvest, same as the old harvest. C

Britney Spears: Britney Jean (RCA) Haven fallen for her mechanical sex doll bit on 2011's Femme Fatale, I've now woken up the next morning to discover said doll has real feelings, often conveyed in (ulp!) lyrics of her own devising (albeit not sung in her "real" voice). A handful of major will.i.am beats almost redeem the enterprise (if not sister Jamie Lynn's vacuous guest shot "Chillin' With You"), but I'm not bothered by the possibility BJ thinks EDM stands for "entelligent dance music" as much as I am by two flat-out annoyances. Musically, "Work Bitch" is damn near epochal, but the empty philosophy of the lyric is Horatio Alger filtered through Andy Cohen: you don't really have to work that hard to create a lifestyle in which you spend all day sipping Martinis, driving a Lamborghini, and rocking a hot bikini (bet all the Real Trophy-Housewives think they "work hard"), and few wannabe ingénues will ever become Britney Spears no matter how hard they put their bobbed noses to the grindstone. I mean, why not brag about something truly difficult but within the realm of tangible possibility -- say, getting into Harvard Law (wait -- let me guess)? Meanwhile, the metaphorically repulsive, territorially-pissed "Perfume" begs for a video in which BJ squats over her boyfriend's new Armani jacket and squirts her initials onto the sleeve. Graded leniently for putting the banality about her newborn baby on the deluxe edition. B–

The Chills: Somewhere Beautiful (Fire) There are no bad seats at a Chills concert -- unless, of course, you're the hapless sound man, twiddling knobs several blocks away. B

Neil Young: Live at the Cellar Door (Reprise) "I caught you playin' at the Cellar Door/I love these songs, but your set is a bore." B–

Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience Vol. 2 (RCA) Wait a minute -- doesn't the dull bachelor party come before the boring wedding? C+

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domino) Solange Knowles' producer-collaborator shows he can do it with his own starpower, or lack thereof. C+

Laura Marling: When I Was An Eagle (Ribbon) The Pentangle with one point: modal drones are really neat. C

2013 November 2014 February