A Downloader's Diary (38): May 23, 2014

by Michael Tatum

Well, I had an exciting and colorful month of May. First, I quit a thankless job of ten years after being passed over yet again for a promotion. Then, I spent a grueling four days in a motel after being evacuated from my house due to a harrowing man-made wildfire. That behind me, I'm happy to say that not only is there as much great music this month as last month, but all three full-A titles tackle "maturity" in their own ingenious and/or poignant ways. And although I'm a little behind the curve in terms of new releases (did you know writing a weekly column lowers the sperm count?) there's certainly more good stuff in the pipeline for June.

Lily Allen: Sheezus (Warner Bros.) This London troublemaker was overcome by a brainwave, one which I sincerely hope came to her while she was breastfeeding on the Tube in late afternoon rush hour: to deconstruct and reassemble Kanye West's most infamous persona into a ball-breaking babymama who rules in a world in which she's "let herself go," hubby makes breakfast-from-frozen for the kids, and the only "motherfuckers" on the premises completely sympathize when said mothers are too fagged out to fuck. From sucking to dick in order to land a major label contract to insulting runway model Jordan Dunn's Instagram, lovely house, and ugly kids, Allen's a nonstop font of shit talking low comedy, and cohort Greg Kurstin keeps the earworms burrowing whether he devises them himself or shamelessly swipes them from James Brown or the Tom Tom Club. I could do without the insult directed toward an online taste-making poseur -- who does Allen think she is, Brad Paisley? -- but I'm disappointed that URL badwomen like Pitchfork's Lindsey Zoladz aren't down with Allen's hilarious conceit. Of course Allen's cheeky demand for the teen pop crown is supposed to be "too convincing" -- she's merely parodying (and therefore paying tribute to) a grand tradition that goes back to Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J, while simultaneously casting aspersions at a male-dominated press that pits starlet against starlet. Before she goes to "hell in a Range Rover," may she continue to prefer domesticity to "sticking things up my nose." A

Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark) Amazingly, given his anemic lo-fi juvenilia, Dylan Baldi has mastered an aesthetic, mapping the inter-workings of his Nirvana and Pixies records like others might feverishly study Fibonacci sequences in the leaves on flower stems or the delicate balance of light and shade on a Vermeer. Plowed down by the massive tempo shift in "Quieter Today" -- duple time in the verses, common time in the chorus, separated by a jarring full-stop that will catch your breath every time -- you'll know Baldi has far surpassed his one-man-band apprenticeship. But if this record is as "primal" as its adherents claim, it's less in a mother-you-had-me-but-I-never-had you way than in a mommy-I-want-that-piece-of-candy-way -- especially given the bookended sentiments "You know there's nothing left to say" and "I'm not telling you all I'm going through," Baldi needs merciless drummer Jason Gerycz, the major musician in this power trio, to articulate all the pent-up confusion Baldi can't quite express with words alone. Of course, an over-reliance on feeling over thought signifies as one of the reasons this record generates a strong buzz when it's on, but fades after it's finished. One of these days, when the "somewhere" becomes "here" no matter how hard Baldi tries to keep it at bay, he'll regret not cultivating the memory he fights so hard against. A MINUS

Company Freak: Le Social Disco (Opus) One thing that bugs me about modern day disco revivals is the novelty factor -- the feeling that the artists in question approach the genre "ironically," distancing themselves so much from the music spiritually you get the feeling they would record music on the order of the Dirty Projectors if they thought they could get away with it. You don't get that vibe from Company Freak maestro Jason King -- this Renaissance man doesn't cover Sylvester as a joke, but because he truly adores the man, and I say right on. Both on the faculty of NYC/Tisch (among the courses taught: "The Record Producer as Creative Artist," "Music Moguls," and "Branding") and a sharp freelance journalist (from his heroic defense of Drake's Nothing Was the Same: "Unsalvageable homophobes point to Drizzy's love jones for Aaliyah and Sade as proof that he's a wuss, and if they were alive in the '70s they would have given the middle finger to Alan Alda and James Taylor, too."), King is one smart cookie, so it makes sense that this project-not-band would boast plenty in the jokes department. And it does -- "If you want to do a crackdown/Better do a crackdown on yourself" throws some seriously hilarious shade at the 1%. But I wasn't prepared for the sincere outpouring of love -- not just for the music, which suggests what Niles and 'Nard might have done with a battery of synthesizers, but for a whole subculture, one that embraces former Vogue editor at large André Leon Talley, parties on Friday night after slaving all week at thankless jobs, and finds no need to check themselves into a clinic for their rampant sex addiction. And if that's not enough to cheer the man on, here's one more: his ballad doesn't suck. A MINUS

Deena: Rock River (Life Force) Unfeigned innocence crossed with warm sensuality is this ex-Cucumber's modus operandi, except there's nothing especially calculated about her tone -- this middle-aged Jersey Gurl is as modest and unassuming on record as I imagine she is in real life. With the exception of the perky "My Friend Superman," a clever metaphor about an overachieving husband who can bend steel in his bare hands but can't stomach Sunday morning with the in-laws, her unpretentious self-effacement might make you slow to register the high quality of her bright folk-pop tunes. But once absorbed, you'll notice some subtle but deft wordplay, like the numerical shell games she plays on "All She Wrote," or how the days of the week delicately underscore the stress of long distance relationships on the sassy "Find the Love" and the lovely "Always Tomorrow." And when she asks for a kiss on that incandescent ballad, it's a pop moment worthy of Taylor Swift -- except I dare Taylor to sound this wide-eyed and clear when she's fifty-six, on a song cycle about a husband/collaborator she's been married to for three decades. A MINUS

EMA: The Future's Void (Matador) I have no sympathy for Anderson's information overload era alienation -- I mean, here's a woman who consistently monitors her Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. and she has the gall to protest about people posting videos of her own Youtube without her consent? Then I read her compelling Talkhouse piece on Britney Spears' last record, which begins by describing various paparazzi "ring wraiths" dispatching disturbing clips on the order of "Britney Spears Screaming Mad Inside Gas Station Restroom" and "Britney Spears Has Mini Breakdown at Starbucks" and suddenly it clicked -- ah, not just internet privacy invasion of the garden variety sort, but the kind that impinges upon celebrities. With apologies to Ms. Spears, this arouses my sympathies even less, no matter how genuinely traumatic it might be for the participants, Anderson included. But there's no arguing with this record's sonic improvements on her spare 2011 debut: swirling white noise, gripping big-beat drum patterns, Anderson's often enthralling vocals mitigating such dim puns as "might lose some fur/my Lucifer." And though I'm not so sure the promulgation of selfies spells the end of Western Civilization, lyrical strokes on the order of "He's gonna act like a feminist/But leave it up to you" and the lurid infidelity psychodrama "When She Comes" make this sensitive Neanderthal grunt in begrudging approval. A MINUS

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Piñata (Madlib Invazion) Never having cottoned to Gibbs' blaxploitation malarkey in the past, I'm not necessarily convinced by the artiste's contrite disclaimer to the webzine Rappcats: "I will show you my flaws. I'll show you what I've done wrong and what I've fucked up at. I don't regret shit, but I'll show you the things I'm not proud of." This is partly because he's got so much to answer for: three tracks in and he's viciously castigating an ex who's wisely dumped him for a "pussy nigga" astronaut-in-training who may or may not be the father of her child. "Maybe you's a stank ho, maybe that's a bit mean," this former drug dealer raps, "Maybe you grew up and I'm still living like I'm sixteen" -- a self-aware aside that not only justifies the song, but creates a rationale for the rest of the record, even for Gibbs' most blustery tough guy platitudes (be careful if you find yourself behind him in line at Harold's Chicken Shack on Chicago's South Side). Later, something similar happens on the frenetic "Shitsville," in which our Young Anti-Hero, after bragging about hitting your girlfriend's pussy for "six minutes" (try breathing techniques, dude), confesses he dipped into his father's condom stash whenever he needed a jimmy protector, then stops to wonder if his mom knew about Pop's "bottom drawer" for his "bottom ho." As epiphanic ironies go, not as humanely expressed as a button-down suburbanite like myself might prefer, but with the help of Danny Brown, Raekwon, and other rappers that provide a thankful respite from Gibbs' somewhat monotonic bellow, Gibbs finally creates a context for these cautionary reminiscences from his drugged-out wasted youth. And crucial ingredient Madlib provides the kind of blissful, phantasmagoric soundtrack that you don't have to be blunted to get lost in. A MINUS

Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978 (Strut) Compas means "beat," but what does compas direct (literally "direct beat") mean? Bandleader Nemour Jean-Baptiste explained what he had in mind for this new aesthetic at an epochal rehearsal in 1955: "Today, we are going to adapt the slow meringue ("slow?" -- ed.) to a slower rhythm ("slower?" -- ed.) but the various notes of the horns need to fully intertwine with the amalgamated sounds of the guitar, drums, congas, and percussions." In other words, a cosmopolitan cross-pollination of too many variegated Afro-Cuban musical styles to count, in which the arrangement treats every instrumentalist equally, and unlike similar crate digs from continental Africa from the same period, the stereo separation allows you to follow -- and thus, appreciate -- the music's collective bob and weave. The screwy track order makes little sense -- disc one chronicles the explosion of the pared-down "mini jazz" combos of the late '60s and early '70s, while the second backtracks to the music's pre-compas formative years, then jumps ahead to the slightly more post-modern late '70s, where you'll meet Djet-X, nicknamed "La Douce qui Vient" by their fans (literally, "Here Come the Sweetness") and who famously interpolated "Hotel California" into a song called "Jive Turkey" (though not the Ohio Players, harrumph). Far slinkier and less uptight than similar music made concurrently in neighboring Spanish-speaking countries -- I'm guessing crippling poverty and the odious Duvalier dynasty had something to do with it -- this represents a precious chunk of musical history only now beginning to be retrospectively charted by the world music claque. So thank the angels at Strut for pulling the curtain on these beguiling, serpentine, highly danceable styles. Believe me, you haven't lived until you've heard the lowly Vaksin, a long bamboo flute which appears here on two very different versions of the appropriated folk song "Gadé Moune Yo," represented twice to show how far Haitian music had evolved in a mere ten years. It can play only one note. A MINUS

Old 97's: Most Messed Up (ATO) After years of compact vignettes observing the grand theater of the great wide world, this time Rhett Miller elects to get autobiographical and let it all hang out. Except that the opening tour diary "Longer than You've Been Alive" isn't as stream of consciousness as it first appears -- bet it took Miller a few drafts to nail the right words to master the illusion of spontaneity, like the uproarious way he crams the word "self-referential" into one couplet despite the clumsy syllabic over-spillage. Also, I highly doubt that these consistently funny rock star brags and plaints truly represent his real-life day-to-day -- after all, what would his wife and elementary-school aged daughter think? But whether this is poetic overstatement, persona mongering, or gussied-up memories from his twenty-something self, from hotels where the best amenity is the free ice to f-words Miller yelps like he's been dreaming of dropping them for years, this is the raucous cow punk document they didn't have the wit or songcraft to pull off before Elektra smoothed out their rough edges. If you're hung up on themes and such, consider the burning phallic symbol on the cover. But these days, Rhett and the boys don't aspire to the slacker poetry of their classic one-two punch Fight Songs and Satellite Rides. Instead, they're rowdy knights-errant on a holy mission: to show Paul Westerberg what a real hootenanny sounds like. A

Shakira: Shakira (RCA) I can't resist quoting the Roland Barthes epigraph that graces the lyric sheet: "Love has protected me against worldliness: coteries, ambitions, advancements, interferences, alliances, secessions, roles, powers: love has made me into a social catastrophe, to my delight." This, from a pop dynamo whose first album in English since 2009's She Wolf comes riding on product endorsements from Activia, T-Mobile, and Crest 3-D, a spot on Target, a key role on NBC's The Voice, and duets with Rihanna and Blake Shelton, two people who wouldn't be caught dead partying in the same island resort -- does this sound like she's got all of her bases covered? But though sloughing the two lone songs en Español to the back like they were sops or afterthoughts strikes me as a sad testament to Yankee-centric commercial caution (especially with one of them a reprise of her Rihanna radio hit), that's all just me being my usual fussbudget self -- sure, hearing Shelton stutter the line "p-p-p-p-popping the pills" is chortle-worthy, but elsewhere Little Miss Hips' predictable foray into dubstep is as hot as her dancehall-grunge mash-up, sounding as sizzling from your home entertainment system as it might from the dozen or so radio formats she's scheming to ransack via the back door. Also of continuing interest is her continuing talent for ingeniously mangling and/or subverting common idioms: "I am covered in scars/Like a rose without thorns," sure, but how about "I used to think there was no God/But then you looked at me with your blue eyes/And my agnosticism turned into dust." Okay, shut up about the correct word being "atheism" -- how often do you hear the word "agnosticism" in a song by a pop dynamo? As far as I'm concerned, she can storm whatever Billboard chart she fucking wants. A MINUS

Wussy: Attica! (Shake It) By now it's getting to be an existential joke: obscure indie rock quartet-now-quintet beholden to classic rock virtues and adored by a major rock critic (and, in turn, his critic-followers) releases yet another album celebrated by their enamored clique while the rest of the world once again fails to take much notice -- if it takes five regular release albums for the obscurity hounds at Pitchfork to catch up with you, what does that say? Yet above all else, these mighty Cincinnatians' newest batch of tunes validates those of us who obsessively love them to pieces, pitting such markers of Midwestern mundanity as "a pamphlet on the door declaring he has risen," a cork popped alone "to toast another year," and a Sunday morning not spent at Bethel no. 12 in Norwood with Job's Daughter's International against such life-affirming talismans as Keith Moon's bass drum exploding in Pete Townshend's ears on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, "North Sea Girls" diving into the ocean "hair done, makeup on," Sonny Wortzik mocking New York City's finest for the sake of TV glory, and, oh yes, "the life outside of here/much more amazing/than either one of us could ever imagine." And as usual, tunes, guitar noise, and detailed vocals make all of those bristling metaphors flesh. I doubt Chuck Cleaver was really a "monster" in 1994 -- I mean, that Ass Ponys record was pretty good. But this burns brightly with the weathered beauty that callow young people only imagine inhabiting. A

Honorable Mentions

Let's Wrestle: Let's Wrestle (Fortuna Pop!) "I'm an actor, comedian -- but no one really notices me" ("Rain Ruins Revolution," "Always a Friend") **

Baseball Project: 3rd (Yep Roc) From major songs about minor players to minor songs about major players ("The Day Doc Went Hunting Heads," "¡Hola America!") **

Tune-Yards: Nikki Nack (4AD) Who knew drum machines wouldn't be as funky as whatever was lying around the house? ("Water Fountain," "Left Behind") *

Peter Stampfel and the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron: Better Than Expected (Don Giovanni) Even if the instrumental sketches weren't trifles, how could they top a song that begins: "Who reads everything you post on Twitter/Who has drones to watch you on the shitter?" ("Eat That Roadkill," "NSA Man") *


Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound) Unlike his 2013 project with Syria's Omar Souleyman, Kieran Hebdan's production tricks on Neneh Cherry's first solo record in sixteen years are plainly evident -- his spare, claustrophobic beats make themselves felt on nearly every track, particularly on the martial washing machine tumble of "Blank Project," which would be called "Paper Cup Regrets" on an album confident of its strengths. But unfortunately, Cherry's problem here is the same as on her record with Scandinavian jazz trio the Thing -- the meager melodies she brings to the table don't fly high or wild enough to compete or even complement the hectic music of her more unruly associates. One wonders what Cherry might have accomplished collaborating instead with Tricky, who would have been a better fit, and whose former better half Martina Topley-Bird's style owes much to Cherry's sing-song alto. But Cherry would still be left with clumsy similes (anyone who says "like your bricks are filled with mortar" hasn't attempted her own landscaping) and head-scratching metaphors -- the lost-years plaint "Weightless" includes a tangential masturbation reference before declaring "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." I'm not sure if there were any songs per se on Raw Like Sushi either, but she sounded so much wiser when she was a spunky up and comer, charged with the afterglow of having just heard "It Takes Two" and confidently declared to herself, "Damn, maybe I could do this, too." And with all deference to Hebden, the beats of the early Wild Bunch didn't hurt either. B

Skrillex: Recess (Owsla/Big Beat/Atlantic) Bugged that he spent years doling out singles and EPs rather than going pro with longplayers, I'm now wondering if short-sharp-fast isn't this six-time Grammy-winning speed demon's natural format. It's not like he's slowed down, or that his beats don't still hit like a reggae-ton of bricks, but a combination of some notion of artistic progress (I've got more in my bag of tricks than bing-bam-boom) and the not-so-deluded notion that you have to vary up what you do over the course of eleven tracks in forty-seven minutes has forced Sonny Moore into a position where he feels he needs to diversify. I applaud that, much the same way I might have applauded the Ramones for doing the same on Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin had I been cognizant and appreciative of punk rock in 1978. But where the Ramones expanded their minimalism with surprising genre exercise, Sonny Moore merely enlists guest stars: Chance the Rapper, Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos, and others of even less renown, none of whom do much for Moore's cacophonous ragga bombs and doompy poomps. When a parade of puffed-up dancehall rejects makes you pine for Elle Goulding and the Doors, you've got problems. B

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Days of Abandon (Yebo) Abandoned: their label, several band members, their big shot production team, and, sadly, memorable songcraft. B MINUS

Afghan Whigs: Do to the Beast (Sub Pop) Dulli noted: "This must be what jailbait is really like." Wonder if the young stuff knows that he nicked the opening riff of "The Lottery" from the theme from Shaft? B MINUS

Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo (Top Dawg Entertainment) Stoner rapper wants to "take it back to 1998" (!!!) which explains his fondness for E-Z listening hip hop, if not necessarily explicate why living for "bitches and blunts" is any better or worse than living for "weed and money." B MINUS

Todd Terje: It's Album Time (Redeye) There's mojitos and shuffleboard on the top deck, but even on vacation, you can't pry Esquivel from his laptop. C PLUS

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