A Downloader's Diary (36): February 2014

by Michael Tatum

A month with no real pick hits encourages me to tell you that if you're going to spend your hard earned money on anything here, go for Babyface/Braxton and the New Mendicants before anything else. And note that for two guys on the side of the proletariat, Todd Snider and Bruce Springsteen give you the least value for your money.

Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014, Red Distribution) If you penned a dramatic thinkpiece about how this little item challenged your latent heteronormative prejudices -- even you, a sensitive leftie type! -- please pat yourself on the back and move forward three squares in the game of Cultural Enlightenment, to the space "Consider all the things Macklemore has to apologize to the African-American community for." As for those of us who are in it for hard-hitting tunes rather than self-congratulatory platitudes, it's worth nothing that Laura Jane Grace rocks harder here than she did on 2010's White Crosses as a man named Tom Gabel -- maybe she didn't have the heart for all that phony lost-youth nostalgia after all. In fact, she reveals a far more trenchant high school reminiscence on the vicious "Drinking with the Jocks," a portrait of adolescent macho insecurity in which she's conflicted between swinging her dick and sticking it between her legs, concluding with an angry, defiant "There will always be a difference/Between me and you," one of many clichés upended in this explosive context. But although I'm impressed by the subversion of such red button words as "cunt" and "faggot" and "pussy" (have those pejoratives ever been wrapped up in such pain, such anguish?), I'm disappointed by Grace's mundane self-production, pretty humdrum for a coming-out party -- alter the lyrical perspective and this could be whatever Orange County punk record you tuned out at your precocious cousin's house last week, even if Grace's tunes are more catchy-compelling rather than catchy-annoying. Still, there's no getting around that these aren't just new sentiments for Grace, they're new sentiments for rock and roll -- thrilling, even -- though I feel obligated to point out that her threat to "piss on the walls of your house" is a logistically masculine privilege. And as for the band mates that deserted her after she no longer wanted to be a him, they can sink their teeth into a soggy turd sandwich. A–

Katy B: Little Red (2014, Columbia) I'll never understand UK dance music. By definition a singles genre, why would anyone bother with the records proper -- because the filler is "acceptable?" That certainly didn't make much of a difference with Katherine Brien's debut, home of the definitive dubstep crossover hit "Katy on a Mission" and not much else. And over the pond they've considered slotting singles on albums as being in bad form since "She Loves You," one of the reasons why last year's "What Love is Made of" failed to make the final cut for this, her sophomore outing. Except as it turns out, "What Love is Made of" is pretty negligible (struggled to number twenty-one -- do the charts lie?), while the record proper solves my two problems with 2011's On a Mission. First, in the zippy opener, she finally justifies her club-centric lyrical focus with one succinct chorus -- "We move on to the next thing/Until the break of dawn" -- thus rationalizing what follows by establishing the only real theme most raver kids have to offer (you know, "the futility of life" or some such). But second, and more important, producer Gordon Warren, probably having figured out that more people will be listening this time around, finally whips those rickety-rockety hooks into shape, so most of the hit-bound first half is memorable -- "beats so sick/tunes so ill," indeed, and when he goes out for fish and chips on the second half, it shows. I still am unsure about Brien's voice, caught in that inscrutable netherworld between muted-soul and low-affect, perhaps the reason why she and fellow traveler Jessie Ware name their fierce sexual rival "Aayliah." On the other hand, that voice is also the reason why I'll take the slow-burning denouement "Still" over Adele's bathetic "Someone Like You" in an automated heartbeat. A–

Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage, and Divorce (2014, Motown) In which a minor R&B genius gifted with a musicality for which the current scene has little use plays house with a minor R&B diva only as strong as her material, resulting in a concept album about a doomed relationship crafted as cannily as classic Ashford & Simpson. You want sumptuous melodies yoked to silky arrangements emboldened by mellifluous singing? You'll get them, and just to show he's learned something from his younger charges, Kenny Edmonds makes sure even the sleek ballads come fitted with forward propulsion. But with neither of the principles a stranger to the three conditions triangulated in the album title, what makes this record remarkable are the lyrics, penned not only by Kenny but by Toni, which I'm betting makes the difference. Every song carefully hones in on one discrete sentiment, unpacking details one by one until each is neatly squared away in matching his-and-her luggage. I'm leaving you today, but I hope that you're okay. I'd rather be broke than be with you. If you want to fight, let's take it to the bed tonight. I hope she hurts you, but not too much -- enough to make your life hell, but not enough so that you'll leave. As for "Reunited," I'm relieved to report it's not a Peaches & Herb cover. These two are so on they don't need covers -- unless they're getting underneath them for one last goodbye. A–

Hard Working Americans: Hard Working Americans (2014, Melvin/Thirty Tigers) Often described as a roots-rock "supergroup" even though the only person I know by name besides leader Todd Snider is drummer Duane Trucks (and even that because of his more famous brother Derek), this collection of covers, despite its surface nonchalance, is thoughtfully chosen -- the average Americana fan has probably only heard two: Randy Newman's oh-so-timely "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" and Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer," the latter of which I assume Todd nicked from touring buddy Elizabeth Cook, if not Faron Young. I myself have only heard two others: Hayes Carll's hilarious "Stomp and Holler" (with its immortal boast "I'm like James Brown/Only white and taller") and the Bottle Rockets' lovely "Welfare Music," which Todd owns if only because he has charisma and, well, poor Brian Henneman (remember him? right) doesn't. Even Gillian Welch's pensive "Wrecking Ball" is derived from an independently-released album unknown to anyone who let their subscription to No Depression lapse after O Brother Where Art Thou's mainstream breakout. Yet this is the rare instance in which being a walled-off genre specialist gets you somewhere: Kevin Gordon's plaintive "Down to the Well" and Kieran Kane's "The Mountain Song," to name two, are winners salvaged from micro-indie obscurity, while Snider invests even the lesser material with his thoughtful phrasing and delivery. And the sloppy Randy Newman revival (can't have too many of those) suggests their glib moniker isn't merely an ironic wink to their dubious work ethic -- this is, after all, Todd's fourth album since 2011 -- but rather an insouciant brag that especially if you're getting dirt to do it, being on the clock is more fun on your own terms. I mean, let's face it: Randy Newman hasn't worked -- in the sense that he means it, anyway -- a day in his life. B+

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Wig Out at Jagbags (2014, Matador) From one forty-something with an impossible full head of floppy hair to another, there's not too much "wigging out" here, at least not compared to Malkmus' old records with Pavement, where percussionist/wild card Bob Nastanovich countered the increasing persnicketiness that has made much of Malkmus' solo career such a drag. In particular, the willful rhythm shifts are a real irritation, and not just because they point up Malkmus emerging prog-leanings -- where the Beatles made such devices so natural you didn't notice them unless you concentrated on Ringo's drumming, here the added/subtracted beats call attention to themselves in every instance, in that annoying, elementary school look-what-I-did kind of way. And yet Malkmus' critical standing hasn't yet taken a nose dive -- indeed, this improvement on his treasured jam band format has been getting the same yeah-why-not seals of shrugging approval as 2011's considerably more fastidious Mirror Traffic. But an improvement it is, not that anyone would notice -- even though he yawns he's "not contractually obligated to care," not since his eponymous debut have his tunes been this hummable, nor his jokes so outgoing, so eager to please: making room for a mopey French horn solo, coyly rhyming "chariot/lariat/carry it/bury it," wagging a finger at "all you Slim Shadys," extolling the adolescent pleasures of "Tennyson, venison, and the Grateful Dead" and "the music from the best decade ever" (the '80s apparently, a great decade for jam bands). All that's missing is an unironic embrace of conjugal monogamy and fatherhood -- which would sink his reputation with the cognoscenti pronto. A–

Modern Baseball: You're Gonna Miss It All (2014, Run for Cover) A ringer for latter-day Haley Joel Osment and singing in a adenoidal warble that suggests the Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi irked over the size of Adam Green's trust fund -- the first of many indicators he's a stock character in a grand indie rock tradition -- Philadephia's Brendan Lukens spends more time complaining about his inability to get to second base rather than bragging about his skill at getting to first: "I hate worrying about the future/'Cause all my current problems are based around the past." He soothes his callow pain with aspirin and pizza, pores over BBC's Planet Earth for tattoo inspiration, sneaks the word "Instagram" into one of his many putdowns of ex-girlfriends, and before getting his one good night of sleep a year, sums himself up thusly: "Sharp as a tack but in the sense that I'm not smart, just a prick." Probably an exaggeration, at least in terms of intellectual rather than emotional IQ, but not without its entertainment value -- the wonky guitars jolt new life into those "high school songs" bouncing around in his head, and like Jonathan Richman before him, he parlays his failure to hit any note not pitched straight to the batter to evoke that time honored suburban collegiate anguish. Now someone tell drummer Sean Huber this ain't no fucking emo outfit. A–

The New Mendicants: Into the Lime (2014, Ashmont) Canadians only by virtue of their borrowed drummer and Joe Pernice's Toronto-based microindie, Pernice and Teenage Fanclubber Norman Blake are my kind of sourpusses, ones with a sense of humor -- "mendicants" are beggars who live off of alms, like maybe the Kickstarter campaign to which they might have to resort after this record fails to move their minute fan base. Too bad -- granted, they prefer Hollies/Zombies to the Beatles because the latter are way too R&B for their construction-papered larynges. And sure, not even middle-school poets say "How can I love someone so cruel" in regular conversation. But I say two birds with one broken wing each, joined together, might actually be capable of flight, as on the bracing power pop of "Shouting Match," which sounds less like "World War III in a third-floor flat" than classic Yo La Tengo. Elsewhere, on sparkling tunecraft that only goes south on the "Sister Ray"-styled rant that closes, they cover Sandy Denny, court a girl who has no need for either one-upmanship or August Strindberg, and wander snowy streets on "a very sorry Christmas Eve" looking for redemption you can be sure they don't get. I say for Pernice to absolve the guy whose halfway-decent Bandwagonesque inexplicably beat out Nirvana in Spin's notorious 1991 album poll is deliverance enough. A–

Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes (2014, Columbia) Stop picking on David Fricke and his reflexive five-star reviews -- what's the guy gonna do at this late juncture, teach non-fiction writing at a junior college? But don't let that one-stop-hype-shop put you off to a pretty good record, either -- take it from someone who dismissed (in hindsight, perhaps unfairly) 2011's Wrecking Ball as "Lee Greenwood for Liberals." The complaint that this collection of formerly orphaned songs doesn't cohere "thematically" doesn't ring true to me -- since when has Bruce ever aimed for high concept? Aside from the one about his failed marriage (every boomer has a few of those, right?) there have been electric ones and acoustic ones, with the peerless examination of blue-collar plight his only constant. As for Tom Morello's wall of guitars bringing the Boss ever closer to grandiose arena rock bluster, hasn't that always been his unapologetic métier? It's not like these objections are new ones -- weren't 80s punks nay-saying the bombast of River-era Bruce while championing the superiority of Feelies-style minimalism? Bet thirty years from now, long after the fog from the dry ice machine has cleared, this will be remembered as a sturdy half-classic, one of the rare cases (Lord forgive me) where swollen ostentation actually works, Bruce's batshit-nuts heavy metal-Celtic-gospel amalgam be damned. Compare The River's clean, bright mix to the dense, unnerving swirl of "Harry's Place" and "American Skin," two numbers that belong at the top of the Boss' canon, or Morello's white noise fury on the remake of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." And for your precious subtlety, your iron fist in a velvet glove, try the murmured, bitter "I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry." Audioslave with actual songs and cogent politics? Sign me up. B+

Tinariwen: Emmaar (2014, Anti-) In their own way, these nomadic rockers are as formalist as Crazy Horse -- to hear them perform a song in a major key (which happens on this record only once) is as jarring as it would be to hear Neil and Co. jam away in 6/4. Because their aesthetic is austere, singer/guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib limited in his vocal range, and their lyrics accessible to English speakers only through trots, the only way you can tell their very similar records apart is through their guest stars. However, where 2011's particularly Spartan Tassilli at least had Nels Cline and TV on the Radio to lend color to the predominantly acoustic textures, this far more urgent sequel, though it returns to the electric guitar interplay that made many a foolish record label prez dream that Ag Alhabib might be the Muslim world's answer to Bob Marley, reduces the cameos to such luminaries as Chili Peppers guitarist Matt Klinghoffer, Chavez leader Matt Sweeney, and hapless multi-media figure Saul Williams, who dashes off some doggerel about "walking on water in the desert." Yet would you believe that the record is strongest at its most elemental: that the two pastoral departures at the end sacrifice fervor for a stab at diversity that won't register as such for most of their American fanbase? And that even there, a prosaically translated lyric such as "I no longer believe in unity/I will only believe in it again if/Those opinions serve a common ideal/That of the people from which they emanate" rings with the sublimity of great poetry in context? Maybe that speaks to their innate gifts, maybe that's the result of living through terror, exile, and kidnapping, and either way, I pray no one else from their part of the world will leave me wondering which. A–

Honorable Mentions

Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits (2014, Signature Sounds) Boston hipster jazz-pop quartet dominated by lusty contralto Rachael Price, who strikes me as a young Carole King the morning after she sold her soul at the railroad tracks for Martha Reeves' lungs -- but sacrificed Gerry Goffin in the Faustian bargain ("You Go Down Smooth," "Bad Self Portraits") ***

Rosanne Cash: The River & the Thread (2014, Blue Note) Someone tell this subtlety junkie that there are more colors in this "big, wide world" than a "million shades of modern blue" ("Etta's Tune," "Night School") ***

Jennifer Nettles: That Girl (2014, Mercury Nashville) The Sugarland lead singer still sometimes emotes as if Steve Perry's squeezing an ovary, but in this context, underplaying Bob Fucking Seger is some kind of accomplishment ("That Girl," "Like a Rock") **

Dum Dum Girls: Too True (2014, Sub Pop) At its best, the comedy record the Cocteau Twins would have made had they not been so damn moony ("Rimbaud Eyes," "Evil Blooms") **

Irene Kelley: Pennsylvania Coal (2014, Patio) Like Ashley and Kacey, a country songsmith performing her own songs, but since Irene's weakness is bluegrass rather than rock and roll, we get lyrics about angels, babies, and gardens ("Breakin' Even," "You Don't Run Across My Mind") **


Eric Church: The Outsiders (2014, Universal) His vocals milder and his guitars crunchier, his idea of "progressive" Queen or maybe Pantera, his brightest tune squandered honoring the right-leaning left-turners at Talladega, and his album art a clear homage to the movie poster of The Expendables 2, this is where Church fritters away any outreach he might have gained with 2012's Chief. His doltish metaphors -- wrecking ball, rollercoaster, broken records -- have about as many layers as James Carville's haircut. Of course, all of these transgressions add up to is one more country music blockbuster, but two songs in particular edge this disappointment into the realm of appalling. The long, muddled monologue about Nashville paints the city as a "princess of darkness," a "tramp, slut, bitch, and mutt," and a "junkie with a limb (???)" who will "bury it in your ass," yet I'd love Eric to show me pictures of Universal Nashville president Mike Dungan's moist vagina. Then there's the revolting "Dark Side," which warns "all you thugs and ugly mugs dealing drugs and making noise" that "You can kill each other all you want, but if you touch my little boy/You begging for this bullet will be the last thing that you say," which I'm inferring from that creepy laugh might include that twelve-year old black kid wearing a hoodie innocently asking Eric's son directions to the Boys & Girls Club. In short, more proof than you need that secession may not be such a bad idea. C+

Hospitality: Trouble (2014, Merge) The first time Amber and I met it was a real Meet Cute -- even if it this doesn't turn into a fulfilling long-term relationship I reasoned, maybe she'd be the kind of girl I'd wanna hang out with every now and then. Goes to show you how much I know -- our first actual date she took me out to see goddamn Laser Floyd at the IMAX, while she rambled on about "parasols" and such like her real dream was to write Jane Austen fan fiction. How could I have misjudged her? Have I not gotten over Isobel running off with that dildo Mark Lanegan? Maybe someone who Meets Cute really isn't my type. Or maybe, better yet, like so many times before, I didn't realize how insignificant our initial Meet Cute really was. B–

The Pixies: EP-2 (2014, PIAS America) Of the thirteen bands profiled in Michael Azerrad's definitive '80s indie rock chronicle Our Band Could Be Your Life, only one group recorded music in this millennium that could stand with the music they made in their respective heydays: Sonic Youth. So why should this seminal band (left out of Azerrad's book because they had the bad taste to sign with Elektra), no matter how crucial a missing link between that era and Nirvana, be expected to top, let alone equal, the gleeful imp rock they perfected on such touchstones as 1988's much-adored Surfer Rosa and 1990's underrated Bossanova? Especially with Black Francis' inside joke of a solo career manna only to his adoring claque and ethereal-voiced bassist Kim Deal -- who made far more interesting records in the interim -- completely indifferent to returning to the fold? Surprisingly, with Gil Norton once again behind the boards, the down-to-a-trio still sound remarkably like themselves. But only the occasional 7/8 measure keeps the ham-fisted "Blue Eyed Hexe" (more cowbell, please) from being mistaken for Back in Black-era AC/DC, the siren-call hook of "Magdalena" cries out for Deal's larynx, and throughout Francis doesn't sound quite as, shall we say, agitated as he did back when he anointed himself a "nimrod's son." Leaving me to speculate whether Kim's role wasn't just to be a wild man's maternal foil -- maybe having a chick in the mix really got up in his dander. B–

Broken Bells: After the Disco (2014, Columbia) The dullest guests on The Barry Gibb Talk Show. B–

Doug Paisley: Strong Feelings (2014, No Quarter) Daniel Romano for wistful Poco fans, which explains why, unlike Romano, Doug isn't in it for the laughs, unless repeating the first bar of Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" ad nauseam in a ditty called "What's Up is Down" counts. C+

Warpaint: Warpaint (2014, Rough Trade) Darker than you'd expect from a band the original members of which included A Knight's Tale's Shannyn Sossamon, but these days, "dark" doesn't mean shit -- betcha Lorde and Haim think "Love Is to Die" is a deep insight, too. C

Actress: Ghettoville (2014, Ninja Tune) Don't judge Darren Cunningham because he's a former footballer from the nondescript London suburb of Wolverhampton -- judge him because he thinks the ghettos he'll never really know are desolate, ugly, boring places to be. C

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