A Downloader's Diary (37): April 4, 2014

by Michael Tatum

This month, A Downloader's Diary makes its grand splash onto Odyshape waters. Most of these titles won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the usual suspects, though I seem to be the only one around here who adores the new St. Vincent (well, let's say three-quarters adores). As for the even holier St. Dan Willson, he deserves every scrap of praise this bit of the interwebs can throw his way.

Bob Dylan in the '80s: Volume One (ATO) I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall as producers Jesse Lauter and Sean O'Brien pitched the concept for this unusual (and unusually useful) tribute record to the Kennedy Center honoree. "So, you're saying my records really sucked in the '80s? That I hooked up with superstar producers that had no idea how to bring out the best in my music? That my best songs from that period need salvaging -- by guys with names like [*reads memo] Elvis Perkins and Langhorne Slim? [*pauses pensively, strokes beard.] Okay, now wait a minute, you're saying all of my albums in the '80s sucked? Even Shot of Love?" Well, yes -- superstardom drained the life out of many a great baby boomer rocker in that decade, but in Bob's defense, at the very least one could counter Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton never came up with a lyric in that time period as poignant as "A Sweetheart Like You" or evocative as "Series of Dreams." Which is why snobs like us need this compilation: to restore the Bard of Hibbing's poesy to the one-take ethos of his salad days, via a motley crew of semi-professionals for whom the one-take ethos still actually means something. The two best songwriters -- Craig Finn and Deer Tick's John J. McCauley -- are also, unsurprisingly, the two best interpreters. The worst is Lucius, a band signed to M.I.A.'s Mom + Pop imprint, who forget the point of this exercise is to liberate this material from the Reagan Era, not saturate it in it. And the most devilish is Built to Spill's "Jokerman," which in its original incarnation on Infidels cursed The Great Communicator to suffer a plague of locusts, but Doug Martsch turns into a cosmic joke on/exposé of Mr. Tambourine Man himself. Well okay, except for that part about Michelangelo carving out his features. A MINUS

Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here (Thrift Shop Recordings) Other than admiring her in an academic sense -- i.e. respecting her as the first woman to break the honky tonk glass ceiling -- it's hard to fathom what Laura Cantrell specifically idolizes in Kitty Wells, the honoree of Cantrell's 2011 Kitty Wells Dresses. Wells effortlessly inhabits an "authenticity" that Cantrell thankfully doesn't waste time emulating -- it's difficult imagining Cantrell, whose aura and bell-like vocal timbre resemble the pert music teacher you had a crush on in the first grade, voicing a sentiment as piously bitter as Wells' acrimonious "Will Your Lawyer Talk to God." Conversely, it's hard to envisage Wells pulling off a modernist trope on the order of Cantrell's chirpy "All the Girls Are Complicated": "They're still working out who they are." Yet ultimately, what I think the forty-six year old Cantrell has absorbed from Wells is a meticulous investment in her own personal vocal style -- winning, disarming, even sexy -- that eluded her on her fussier early albums, and finally she has the attractive tunes that make attention to that kind of detail worth the risk. I'm not always persuaded by Cantrell's perhaps willfully mild persona -- one of her protagonists needs an "easy chair" to get over the hardships of a band that didn't play her song, a bartender that watered down her drinks, and a letter that never got a reply (not an e-mail you'll note -- too urban), and I doubt Kitty Wells ever expressed her fondness for "southern songs." Still, a great leap forward, though it begs the question: assuming that's Cantrell's real-life record collection in the CD booklet, why does she own two copies of Lambchop's How I Quit Smoking? Hell, why does she own one? A MINUS

Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans (ATO) Incredible though it may seem, in the last decade-plus second banana Mike Cooley has evolved from strong-change-of-pace to Keith Richards with lyrics: in other words, not merely an equal, but deserving of star billing. The Exile on Main Street-worthy opener "Shit Shots Count" begins, "Put your cigarette out and get your hat back on/Don't mix up which is which" and doesn't give up a witless couplet from there. He follows that tour de force with one perspicacious lowlife sketch after another: a kind warning from one redneck friend to another to think twice about running off with his ex-wife ("She had a bad tanning habit/She's like a talking leather couch"), a paean to a long lost love rediscovered via online pornography, and a complex, empathetic portrait of a father re-evaluating his uneventful life when his only daughter gets hitched. In fact, Cooley's songs are so overwhelmingly immediate in their impact at first you might think his main man Patterson Hood may have missed a step. But after a dozen spins I'm hard-pressed to single out any of Hood's contributions I would sacrifice, from a biography of an "absolute piece of shit" of a politician whose "own mama called him an SOB," to very different portraits of two failing marriages, both distinguished by sympathetic but needy husbands on the one hand and lonely housewives who want something more than a lifetime of being a failed man's sounding board on the other. And on the finale, Hood raises a glass to a fallen friend, capturing a vivid Technicolor snapshot of the Grand Canyon so evocatively beautiful that John Ford might raise his glass, too. A

Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-95 (Strut) As a high school freshman in 1986 my listening tastes were pretty narrow -- everything from the Beatles to XTC, with Prince and Earth, Wind, and Fire the only black artists in my collection, and I was completely oblivious to possibility that the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" might be East End Boys in their finest drag. By 1995 I had for all practical purposes become the cheerful omnivore that would eventually write this column, but the contemporaneous output of Chicago-based Dance Mania Records was completely out of my area of expertise -- in fact, by that point I had never even stepped into a proper club, unless you want to count West Hollywood's lesbian hotspot the Palms, the kind of anachronism where an earnest request for Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" wouldn't have gotten you laughed all the way down Santa Monica Boulevard. By contrast, this collection of house, ghetto house, acid house, and for all I know ghetto acid house twelve-inches are far more obscure, built on gaudy beats and low-rent hooks, and from my spot in the corner I say all the better for it. I mean, you'd have to be a hayseed duck call magnate to have the power to resist Hercules' sleazily addictive "7 Ways," a sort of gay disco version of "The Hokey Pokey" ("First . . . visualize the body in front of you . . .") which (as they say) climaxes with "jacking" on the lucky dance partner of indeterminate gender directly to your right. In my estimation, a camp classic, and though not everything else is up to that level, the usual dancefloor exhortations ("Don't try to fight it," "H-h-h-h-house nation," James Brown whoops and grunts) keep the orgy lubed up for two indefatigably exuberant discs. "Feel your motherfucking bass in my face?" "Bend over bitch?" Well, only if you ask politely -- and take me out for surf and turf first. Inspirational malapropism: "rhythmatically." A MINUS

Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie) Inexorably, boys and girls in America having a sad time together become middle aged men and women still longing for connection -- not so much a surprise in a duskily lit world of clubs and pubs in which the men let the women know they're "interested" by dropping money for another round of salted rims and frosted mugs. Craig Finn knows their biographies like he's memorized the ins and outs of St. Paul thoroughfares: the ex-girlfriend sleeping in a storage space by the airport, the ex-gang member who can't keep away from his old mates building a new playground in a bunker by the river, the drifter who crashes every night at the Ambassador, which turns out not to be a ritzy hotel but a cramped bar where they don't serve beer above a 3.2% alcohol level. But while I can get behind the plaudit that Finn is one of our great storytellers, this is also music, and this band has been struggling with positioning themselves in this department since keyboardist Franz Nicolay exited stage left -- his piano flourishes, and I suspect his wordless sing-a-long hooks, provided the melodic bits that grounded Finn's narratives musically. By contrast, Tad Kubler's guitar parts are merely functional, like a sheet of carbon paper scrolled into a beat-up Underwood waiting to be filled up with words, rather than expressive or embellishing. These days, these Minnesotans' musical satisfactions are more understated: a surprising harmony vocal, an elegant piano part sneaking in through the back door, the monotone wailing guitar underpinning the chorus of "The Only One." Overwhelming exception: "Spinners," which explodes to life with a tricky 3/4 time intro, rides a bracing tune interlocking with gorgeous wordplay ("Flat champagne and inbound trains/Soft hands and phantom pains"), and dazzles with two false endings before ceding Kubler a coda to articulate in music what Finn has already accomplished in words -- which, if I'm not mistaken, is the way this shit is supposed to work. A MINUS

Kool and Kass: Coke Boys 5 (free download) My father once chuckled to a family friend that I would laugh at anything regardless of how asinine or nonsensical, proving the point by delivering the phrases "brown socks" and "outside garages" in varying cadences. So perhaps you shouldn't trust my bemused affection for this slight little item, an insta-mixtape recorded by Kool AD and Kassa Overall in Berlin, Germany on the 19th of February, 2014 and posted on Bandcamp six days later. In fact, I myself fashioned a dis for it before I even heard a single track: "Someone should tell Victor Vazquez that Robert Altman often started with a pretty good script." And wouldn't you know, like the merry jester he is Vazquez spoils it all, not only by neglecting to reprise that "Altman/art, man" rhyme he's dropped at least five or six times in half as many years, but by sullying his wickedly droll sense of humor all over gleefully plebeian backing tracks nicked from Young Thug, Wu-Tang, and Drake. The latter in particular is subjected to a mercilessly fierce drubbing -- after Vazquez dryly asks, "How come Drake say he 'started from the bottom' but, um, he really didn't though?," the Toronto totem himself drops in via Funkmaster Flex's radio show ("All the way from DeGrassi!"), which then segues into a hysterical seven-minute parody of "Started from the Bottom" in which nothing of consequence happens outside of the protagonist peacefully napping in expensive hotels and on airplane flights. The "coke" dealt in the title isn't Bernie's Gold Dust, which I highly doubt has found its way into either of these nice boys' nasal passages, but rather a metaphor for the sleazy DJs who haunt hip hop's back alleys, with jacked beats and sloppy thirds lining their trench coats like they were stolen Rolexes -- aside from the ultra-obvious source material, purloined tags for Maybach Music and the Trap-a-holics ("Trill! Trill!") pop up at random and repeatedly, as does that hackneyed snippet "Damn son, where'd ya find this??" I'd love that oaf Rick Ross to take a day off from posing to sue Vazquez for all the Benjamins he and Kassa made off of invoking the name of his fine outfit. But then Ross would have to admit he downloaded it for $0.00 from Bandcamp like everyone else. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali (Second Edition) (World Music Network) Though the French army eventually drove them out, the fundamentalist ideologues who temporarily held power in Northern Mali banned music not only as an expression of dissent but as expression period. Though in the interim musicians responded to the crisis with more powerful music than ever, it's sobering to absorb the truth that nothing even remotely similar befell Bob Dylan in 1963 or John Lydon in 1977. Recorded in a house in Bamako only a few hours away from the worst action of a military coup, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba's must-own Jama Ko captures much of the urgency of the moment, and this compilation nabs its opener, which invites Christians, Muslims, and Animists to live together and join in the dance, a notion which sounds quaint to you and me, but a suggestion in their part of the world can get you killed. Reaching back fifteen years before the coup, I wish the rest of this compilation lived up to that song. Unlike other Rough Guide compilations, which either mine hidden gems dug up by microindies or -- in the case of their own recent The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You've Never Heard -- play the shell game with artists from their recent catalog, this record, by necessity, reaches out to labels not so desperate for cash that they don't know a little something about licensing, so this doesn't necessarily showcase the best tracks from Fatoumata Diawara, Khaira Arby, or even Oumou Sangaré. On the other hand, the killer cuts from assouf rockers Terakaft and bluesman Vieux Farka Touré remind me how hard it is to stay current with this music, even with artists you admire, and more importantly, the pacing of compiler Daniel Rosenberg, which enlivens the tranquil/hypnotic by alternating with the terse/hypnotic, guarantees the whole package flows as one piece. And the closing instrumental benediction from Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabate bids, without uttering a word, to go with God as well as go in peace. A

Studio One Rocksteady (Soul Jazz) A veritable pebble of a stepping stone between '60s ska and '70s reggae, lasting only for a brief two years spanning roughly from early 1966 to mid-1968, there's not much mystique surrounding this fascinating subgenre outside of Jamaica -- for example, to my knowledge, there are no Orange County college kids billing themselves exponents of "third-wave rocksteady." But when singer/producer Derrick Harriot declares, "Ask any Jamaican musician and they'll tell you the rocksteady days were the best days of Jamaican music," you can hear why -- not only is it the point where singers and musicians began to exert more control over what had been mostly a producer's music, but at this juncture the music remained predominantly secular, breezily focusing on love and romance rather than jah and ganja. But Harriot's nostalgia contains another dimension as well: this music arrived very soon after Jamaica's 1962 independence from Britain, when the prevailing tone was still optimistic, before fiscal mismanagement worsened this tiny island's already palpable class animus, so you can understand how rocksteady's unblemished innocence might make it so precious to a Kingston native, yet also understand why the music that proceeded it was so major -- why the world still has a fascination with Bob Marley rather than, say, a proud pro like Alton Ellis. Sticking generally to well-known artists (the Heptones, John Holt, Wailing Souls) while leaving more obvious classics to Island's essential Tougher Than Tough box, this uncovers some extraordinary gems, beginning with the Eternals' gorgeous "Stars." But I'm struck by how often politics sneaks in through the back door, like in John Holt's "Fancy Make Up," a "Back Stabbers" or "Smiling Faces Sometimes" masquerading as a put down of uppity wimmin, or Marcia Griffith's "My Ambition," a thinly-veiled metaphor about how much harder Jamaican female artists have to work to be respected than their bepenised counterparts. And then there's the resplendent but completely unsentimental "Row Fisherman Row," which at least partly explains why crime and class animus exist in the first place: girls don't make passes at guys who fish for basses. A MINUS

St. Vincent: St. Vincent (Republic) No lover of ostentatiously arranged baroque pop no matter how hot the post-rock guitar, I found myself so overwhelmed by this record's fat-bottomed whomp that I went back to Annie Clark's 2011 Strange Mercy to ponder what I might have missed. But though that record hit a little deeper after the new one chipped away (really, jack-hammered at) at my resistance, this one really constitutes a formal breakthrough. Partly this can be explained by the tighter, pared-down band -- Bobby Sparks on minimoog and Daniel Mintseris on synthesizer, two different drummers, and, amazingly, no bass, though the elephantine riffs and rhythms are so thick and sinewy you wouldn't have known that without checking out the credits. But the rest can be attributed to the auteur: last time she fled New York for Seattle because she claimed suffering from "information overload" (I know, why couldn't she have turned off Facebook and saved the money she would have spent on plane fare?), a subject dealt with much more tersely on this album's nightmarish "Huey Newton" than anything on Strange Mercy. This time she celebrates her extroverted side with a "party record you could play at a funeral," though you might want to shut Grandmother's ears for the extended onanism metaphor "Birth in Reverse." Sometimes the lyrics are too damn obfuscated to suit me -- the gorgeous hymn for soul-searching "Prince Johnny," a gay friend who holds court with friends and acolytes in bathroom stalls and wants to be "son of someone," also contains a stanza in which he and Annie snort a piece of the Berlin Wall. But that's a minor quibble with music this gregarious, this satisfying -- the one in which Annie prefers her mother's love to Jesus doesn't need any annotation at all. That heaven-sent melody is enough. A MINUS

Withered Hand: New Gods (Slumberland) On his straight-up classic 2011 debut Good News, Dan Willson surveyed the "drunk and oversized" girls at Scotland's plus-sized-chicks-only Paradise Club and asked himself whether or not Kurt Cobain died in vain. This time around he nicks Nirvana's font for his cover art (Bodoni Extra Bold Condensed, in case you're curious), muscles up the rock and roll with a bunch of his buddies from the Scottish music scene, and delivers eleven perfect meditations on love, mortality, and the distinct possibility that the Creator might not give a toss about his inability to manage himself emotionally on the road. That notion occurs to him in his updated version of "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" (replete with pteromerhanophobia, playing the slots in a Vegas airport lobby, and realizing he's left his trusty pocket pussy at home), which itself sets up a brilliant triptych about the touring life that culminates in the breathtaking "California," which begins harmlessly with "stopping for a burger at the In-n-Out" only to segue into a frightening paean to withdrawal symptoms that I pray isn't drawn from recent memory. Do the nods to The Gilded Palace of Sin and White Light/White Heat indicate what to expect musically? Hardly -- Willson's furry tenor makes Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch sound like Roger Daltrey. But when he sings about "dancing to the light of a dead star," he's not merely referring to white dwarfs cooling millions of miles away, he's also bowing to Lou and Gram and Kurt spinning on the turntable. With every ingratiating melody and well-turned phrase as sparkling as the Pleiades over an Edinburgh moor, here's hoping he can convince the world how beautiful the barely-pushing-plain can be. A PLUS

Honorable Mentions

Eagulls: Eagulls (Partisan) Post-punk with so much growing room here's hoping they don't implode before One of these Nightingales and Ho-tern California ("Nerve Endings," "Tough Luck") **

Pharrell Williams: G I R L (Columbia) After a year of slumming he finally gets to sell out under his own name ("Brand New," "Come and Get it Bae") **

Karim Baggili: Kali City (Homerecords.be) Whimsical Belgian guitarist with Jordanian-Yugoslav roots picks up an oud, straddles the line between traditional and postmodern, and proves there was more wrong with Armik than synthesizers and a yuppie fanbase ("Down Town," "Kali City") **

Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else (Bloodshot) You wonder why you don't like this hard-drinking, dirty-talking alt-country chick more -- and then Kirsty MacColl gives her a songwriting lesson ("Wine Lips," "They Don't Know") **


Beck: Morning Phase (Capitol) Since this copy-cat sequel to the arid, overrated Sea Change displays zero in the way of emotional or artistic growth -- for crying out loud, each album begins with the exact same open E major acoustic guitar strum -- it's about time to ask ourselves why Beck Hansen has been such a pod person since permanently giving up laffs in 2002. The reason is the dirty but open secret no one has the temerity to come right out and discuss: the artist's renewed commitment to the Church of Scientology. The slacker of Mellow Gold couched meaning in metaphor, jokes, obscurantism, the arbitrarily ironic -- all safe havens for a rootless young man temporarily acting out against Mommy and Daddy. But as he crawled back into Hubbard's cupboard, protected by handlers and unable to intellectually access the wider world he's been cut off from since childhood, his latter-day records come off as vacant and impassive because he has become the person he was raised to be: a blank slate with an eighth grade education, most of which has been in schools associated with the church. I suppose on some level one might read these songs as a desperate message in a bottle, as cris de prison: "I'm so tired of being alone/These penitent walls are all I've known/Songbird calling across the water/Inside my silent asylum," later capped off with allusions to "lies that will divide us both in time." But regardless how emptily portentous, there are more persuasive ways to express such sentiments. Like, I don't know, renouncing Daddy's weepy string arrangements. C

Sisyphus: Sisyphus (Asthmatic Kitty) In which Serengeti/Son Lux/Sufjan Stevens change their moniker from S/S/S to Sisyphus, hopping from Serengeti's Anticon label to Sufjan's Asthmatic Kitty in the process, and boy does that upset the balance of power -- this is less a sequel to their fine 2012 four-track EP Beak and Claw than it is Stevens' failed 2010 electropop experiment The Age of Adz, a development which probably won't even entice the five or six bloggers who burbled euphorically about that record four years ago. The music is less amorphous and more beatwise, which might be good, except that it's constructed by two nerds who have absolutely no feel for hip hop, the genre in which Serengeti has done all of his best work, a stupidly obvious factoid I'm emphasizing if only because the focus on almost all of the reviews for this record has been, predictably, on Stevens, who I wish young white folks would just come out and admit hasn't made a decent record since he left Illinois for Alphaville. Worse still, this time 'Geti's lyrics are either more abstruse ("Lion's Share," about two failed Chicago robbers) or more generalized (the lame "Booty Call," which is about just guess), neither approach of which does him any favors, outside of the straightforward advice song "Calm it Down," which bemoans, among other things, the failure of telegrams as a viable form of communication. I suppose I'd be more despondent about all this if I didn't know intuitively that 'Geti probably has another worthier project coming down the proverbial chute -- maybe next week, posted in some obscure section of the internet. Wish I could say the same thing for Stevens. B MINUS

Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar) I'd rather listen to someone who titled their record Don't Burn Your Fire For Anyone, and if you prefer Angel's wording, perhaps you too gave your love a cherry that had no stone? C PLUS

The Hotlier: Home, Like No Place Is There (Tiny Engines) Emo-h, no more irritating indie rock subgenre is there. C PLUS

Eleni Mandell: Let's Fly a Kite (Yep Roc) Well, there's a title that saves me a review. C

Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks) As far as I can tell, a concept record about a woman undergoing a labiaplasty, wide awake and without anesthesia. C

2014 February 2014 May 23