A Downloader's Diary (39): July 4, 2015

by Michael Tatum

I don't normally make an auxiliary appeal for my recommendations, but I'll make an exception for the exemplary Paul Heaton/Jacqui Abbot record, which is only available as a British import -- after a decade of relative invisibility for both principals, it debuted in the UK charts at #3, right behind (I can't get over this) Michael Jackson outtakes. Frankly, I'm not sure which detail in that revelatory factoid is stranger, but if you're still on the fence, be advised that several other items below won't cost you a dime. The delicate balance of commerce: it's not for us to understand.

Aloe Blacc: Lift Your Spirit (Interscope) How anachronistic is R&B journeyman Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III? He nicks the spirited hook for the best song he'll ever write -- as it turns out, an uplifting anthem of black pride -- from Elton John's "Your Song." Then he retrofits his 2013 dance-pop crossover hit with Avicii with a galloping acoustic arrangement straight out of Riverdance. And between his un-processed baritone and feel-good bromides he comes on like a modern day Bill Withers -- and I don't mean the genteel but tough troubadour of "Use Me" and Live at Carnegie Hall, I mean the leisure-suited cheese ball who courted the thronging disco masses with the insipid "Lovely Day." But what might have been repellent in 1977 is such an overwhelming breath of fresh air now that it might take a few spins to process how strong and self-possessed these anthems really are -- even when Dawkins falls back on such dubious self-help shibboleths as "here today, gone tomorrow" or "love is the answer" or "I'm the man/I'm the man/I'm the man," his music is so confidently ebullient that you know he won't be bitter after his inability to capitalize on the warm afterglow of his fluke hit forces him back into anonymity. B PLUS

Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott: What Have We Become (Virgin) Has a decade of low-profile solo records and owning his own pub mellowed out righteous barfly angel Paul Heaton? In a recent Q&A supporting this album conducted at that very establishment, when a fresh-faced lass innocently put this record's titular query to the great singer-songwriter, he devilishly replied to the delight of the audience, "Well, the question was more for you rather than me." Of course, Heaton's never been at a loss for a witty line, in evidence and then some from with the caustic put-down of a wannabe rebel that rockets this comeback to a breathless start ("The revolution won't be televised/and neither will your death") to the sardonic message in a bottle he sends to that pompous sot Sting ("Lose the fucking yoga"). But when Heaton elected to turn this into a duet project with the sublime Abbott, by far the finest of the three female vocalists to serve as his foil in the Beautiful South, he immediately launched into edit mode, re-writing songs already slated for what would have been a solo album and composing a few more for the occasion, resulting in the most carefully conceived -- and best -- studio recording of his nearly thirty-year career. Abetted by the group's secret weapon, jaunty keyboardist Stephen Large, guitarist and tunesmith Johnny Lexus operates from the ingenious assumption that Elvis Costello's Trust could have been improved by pub-ready sing-a-longs and the occasional power chord, while offering Heaton his most energetic accompaniment since the latter's days fronting the Housemartins. And the eternally winsome Abbott supplies enough compassion and dulcitude to make Heaton's earnest demand for the death of Phil Collins sound like a mission of mercy. A

Chrissie Hynde: Stockholm (Caroline International) Damn right this counts as Hynde's first solo album -- where, say, the Pretenders' Packed featured none of the co-founders of the original charter but still adhered to the illusion of front woman plus guitar-bass-drums, this one not only jettisons the concept of a traditional working rock and roll band but traditional "rock and roll" altogether, at least as how Rolling Stone and your ex-hippie father might define it: when Hynde claims she wants to stoke the sensibilities of not just John Lennon but ABBA too, she's not kidding. And like the album title promises, she couldn't do without crucial input from Swedish sous-chef Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, who co-wrote every song save the two co-helmed with Joakim Åhlund of the Teddybears. The secret to their success ratio with their sextagenarian charge is that both treat collaborating with Hynde no differently than they would with Taylor Swift, which is why the familiar new-love tropes sound so much more thrilling than they did on Hynde's 2010 debacle with J.P. Jones and the Fairground Boys -- with its swirling keyboard lines and thundering synth-timpani, the exhilarating "You or No One" could be updated Ronettes. She's never made a more instantly ingratiating record -- which, as should go without saying, doesn't mean she's going to threaten Swift's chart dominance any time soon. Then again, Swift wouldn't wrap her sweet timbre around a line like "Don't fuck with this heart of mine" and make it sound like a bracing, romantic declaration. A MINUS

Kool AD: Word OK (free download) Although you can't fault his generosity, the main problem with Victor Vazquez releasing his OK outtakes several months prior to his OK intakes is that it points up how indistinguishable both batches of admittedly quality material are from each other -- sort of like claiming one Iceberg lettuce salad is superior to another because each is tossed with a different brand of bottled ranch dressing and served on dissimilarly shaped plates. I mean, I've spent two months with the damn things and all I remember conclusively is that this record -- the intakes one -- features the track that bites Nirvana's "On a Plain." After that, I'm scrambling for my college-ruled spiral notebook: on which one does Vazquez sing, "Rikki-tikki-tan, Rikki-tan-tan-tan?" (A: Not OK.) One which one does Vazquez deliver the amusingly accented reference to "toe-bock-o leaf papers?" (A: Word OK.) Which one briefly cedes the spotlight to nerd-rapper Milo, who brags he writes "young adult fiction like Gary Paulsen?" (A: Not OK.) Which one reprises Vazquez' mockery of Jay-Z's upturned vocalese? (A: Word OK.) On which one does Vazquez proclaim he's "Kool AD, Kool AD, Kool AD, I'm the greatest rapper in the world?" Okay, that was a trick question ("Bieber! Bieber! Degrassi! DeGrassi!"). But this one does boast my favorite moment: Vazquez slowly coming to the conclusion that, hey, maybe there is something he can do about urban hunger ("But what can one man do? I don't know . . . probably a lot!"), then noting about his music, "You don't really even fuckin' need to listen to all if it, but some of it is nice, and this joint? It's hella nice." If that doesn't sum him up, nothing does. A MINUS

Amy LaVere: Runaway's Diary (Archer) Like Lana del Rey, "Amy LaVere" is an exotic nom de rock, which is too bad -- Amy's birth surname, "Fant," is old French for "child," which fits this thirty-eight year old woman's troubled teen construct much more accurately than "LaVere," which merely places her hypothetical ancestors in a village near Bayeaux, Normandy (the word means "alder" in Gaulish, so maybe Amy's wrong about the feminine article). Also like del Rey, this "self-made orphan" has got some serious Daddy issues, albeit smarter in the way she underplays them, as in the creepy one in which she laments how Daddy paid more attention to her big sister because her elder sibling was more sexually developed. Having said that however, I much prefer offhandedly depraved details like "Ring, goes the bell of my bike" or her shortlist of intimates ("It's only got you, Michelle, and one other dude") to laughably grandiose "statements" like del Rey's "I fucked my way up to the top," and what's more the former does more with her childlike soprano than the latter does with her Nancy Sinatra impersonations -- better the otherworldly high note accentuating her soon-to-be-lost "innocence" on "Last Rock 'N Roll Boy to Dance" than del Rey warbling through gritted teeth like she's maneuvering her tongue around an oversized orthodontic retainer. You don't have to deal with the real-or-fictitious-who-cares death wish fantasies, either -- the glib closer, which coyly demands to know why her homecoming isn't celebrated with ticker tape parades and trumpet blasts, posits LaVere firmly on the side of the ironists, where she belongs. Of course, del Rey is on the side of ironists too, even if she would never admit as much to The Guardian. But LaVere also illustrates the real life limitations of a life devoid of trust and intimacy, particularly on her well-chosen covers -- John Lennon's "How?" used to be a litany of rhetorical questions. Finally, they get answers. A MINUS

Bob Mould: Beauty and Ruin (Merge) Mould is the last guy I'd want to invite to my lampshade party, but from watching magic go down the drain in the dirge-like opener to "I don't know how anyone survives" in the supposedly inspirational closer "Fix It," the death of his father has got him even more despondent that usual. The difference between this and 2012's dull Silver Age however is that now he's got purpose, which is why he's once again he's indulging his muse with the mercurial guitar and soaring tunes like he hasn't since leading Sugar. Strangely, even with a different rhythm section, between the compressed sound and the discretely mixed parts, this sounds exactly like Sugar -- indeed, use the shuffle function on the music device of your choice and your ear might be tricked into thinking these were culled from the same sessions as, say, Copper Blue. In other words, expect consistency not revelation -- Mould will never again unhinge himself musically or spiritually as he did on those classic '80s records with Hüsker Dü. But the rapprochement with the dead that he details so poignantly on "Forgiveness" begins with the knowledge that the old man who yells at those punks to get off his lawn isn't his Dad, the fictitious "Mr. Grey," or Paul Westerberg -- it's himself. A MINUS

Conor Oberst: Upside Down Mountain (Merge) Not counting relatively obscure tour arcana, this is Señor Vibrato's first solo record since his 2008 self-titled peak -- for a bewilderingly industrious scenester once considered the font of quality song Ryan Adams only wishes he was, that's worth noting. Between collaborative efforts with the Monsters of Folk and his own Mystic Valley Band, as well as that unendurably pretentious Bright Eyes swansong, it's also his most straightforward and personal, and that's also worth noting. Measured to his previous output, Oberst hasn't been less productive in the new decade, but he has been slightly off the radar, which makes we wonder: why? With "Shell Games," ironically the only bit of prophecy on Bright Eyes' post-millennial The People's Key, an ominous harbinger, Oberst's latest batch of singer-songwriter plaints, which comes on the heels of a particularly nasty rape allegation (Oberst has since sued his credibility-challenged accuser of slander), may provide some insight. In the opener, he sequesters himself in a town that "time forgot/where I don't have to shave or be approachable." Later, he advises a gawker who tells him he resembles a famous actor, "There are hundred of ways to get through the day/You best find one," and bitterly tells "Enola Gay," the author of a "big tell-all," "You will get your wish, it's just a matter of time/Until you vanish like the rest, out of sight and out of mind." Once indie rock's pretty boy gadfly, nowadays the man only wants a quiet room of his own, regarding even the concept of "home" as a "perjury, a parlor trick, an urban myth." As subject matter goes, this is of limited value -- no way this is going to compel in the manner of, say, his twin songs about mortality from 2008, "Danny Callahan" and "I Don't Want to Die in the Hospital." But from his overactive uvula to a rough-and-tumble verbosity he once again justifies musically, Oberst has always been a head-clearer -- if he can put out another album this good in 2010 I say we change his name to M. Ward and shuttle him into the Witness Protection Program. A MINUS

Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?) I don't quite get the disappointment surrounding this record -- are fans bummed these Brooklynites by way of Austin, Texas now sound less like Pavement than they did on 2012's Light Up Gold? There wasn't really that much of an aural resemblance, of course -- that was just a shorthand reference to place them in the tradition, and you know how sentimental those Gen-X types can get -- but with last year's Tally the Things You Broke EP now sounding like a dandy transition, on this tighter, less shambolic follow-up they're less vieux jeu and more like a stylish chapeau cocked over the forehead. They haven't forsaken obscurantism or spiky guitar riffs, but now the instrumental parts artfully interlock like the herringbone mosaic of wood tiles comprising the ground floor of Versailles. And while you might not hear it that way at first, after several listens the songs themselves, from pithy fragments to faux-blues extravaganza to moments of genuine lyricism, coalesce into a brisk suite of sparks and dust so cannily sequenced your ear will actually crave hearing it in that order -- and with the record beginning and ending with the same coy harmonic pivot between F major and F minor, that was clearly the idea. Like most clever guys, they're not so forthcoming about the nuts-and-bolts details of their apparently frustrated romances, so consider that a theme, from a "hypnosis poet" who confesses the names of the guys she makes breakfast for only to her moleskin, to the cruel "mamasita" who performs "instant disassembly" until "the house collapses on itself," though maybe they'd get further with the fairer sex if they didn't refer to their inability to communicate as "the parlance of the problem itself." On that note, as for whether "Vienna II" refers to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Eastern European trade agreements, or the old Billy Joel song, well, you tell me. A

The Roots: . . .And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam) As a passionate devotee of Pynchon, Nabokov, Dick and other post-modernist weirdos, I have a great respect for artists who explore different modes of storytelling, but the reverse chronological gambit of Undun didn't entirely work, mainly because the impact of the not-quite equal parts didn't resonate any greater programmed backward than forward -- the fault lay in the underdeveloped narrative itself, something temporal fuckery on its own couldn't cure. As the appropriated Romare Bearden cover collage suggests, their second thirty-minute concept album in two years doesn't track the life of one person but several, which certainly gives Black Thought an out for not designing a cohesive piece united by one definitive statement. This time Ahmir Thompson and the band elect to tie up the loose ends musically with oddly compelling interludes from Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams, and French experimental composer Michel Chion, and if those ingredients suggest they're moving one step further from the hip hop that's been their bread and butter to the "respectability" of classical music and jazz, be assured that this is gratifyingly lo-fi and atmospheric without any sacrifice of the rhythms that are their primary reasons for being. Admittedly, the agnostic that I am, I'm not particularly bothered by those who run from the face of God after begging for His divine intervention -- for me, the problem lies in the passive belief in the deus ex machina scenario in the first place. But damned if they didn't beat me to that point with a ironically sunshine-kissed little ditty in which guest star Raheem Devaughn sadly notes, "Everybody wants tomorrow right now." Which they then immediately follow with an ocean of diffuse piano chords that ends the album with a question mark, suiting their idea of closure much more succinctly than a dying thug's melodramatic soliloquy ever could. A MINUS

Young Thug and Bloody Jay: Black Portland (free download) Boasting a wacked-out penchant for spacey wordplay which he explores almost exclusively on free mixtapes, charismatic Atlanta rapper and inveterate workaholic Jeffrey "Young Thug" Williams is a L'il Wayne acolytle, though naming his forthcoming major label debut Tha Carter VI is, well, perhaps taking hero worship a mite too far. Like his forebear, he's a pure entertainer who doesn't have much interest in making serious statements: his only message seems to be that you have a subconscious, and beneath that you have a sub-subconscious, and beneath that you have a sub-sub-conscious, and that all three strata of your spongy gray matter love to party. As such, this is -- though some will probably deem me downright screwy for making this comparison -- the Dirty South's hip hop answer to R.E.M.'s Murmur: rarely have I ever been so enchanted by an album's musical aesthetic while simultaneously not having a fucking clue about the highly elliptical and/or nonsensical lyrics, and the usually helpful RapGenius.com is throwing in the towel on that front, too. So, let me proffer two helpful observations. First, Williams' bizarrely creative approach to phonetics signifies as a hook in itself: he treats the word "Florida" as if it has two syllables rather than three, then when he joins it to the word "water" to describe a bangin' honey, he pretends all four sonants consist of only one vowel sound -- a long O -- and makes you love it. Second, unlike his three I Came From Nothing mixtapes, this has Justin "Bloody Jay" Ushery contributing indelibly nutty one-line hooks ("I like chicken, I like fiiiiiiiish!") just when you might think Williams has wandered out of the studio to get his umpteenth tat. And now I hear both have been arrested for drug possession, reckless driving, and not wearing safety belts. Come on guys, stay frosty -- if you don't keep Portland weird, who will? A

Young Thug & Gucci Mane: Young Thugga Mane La Flare (free download) Next, we have the strange case of Birmingham's Gucci Mane, better known to Atlanta law enforcement as Radric Davis, currently serving time for possession of a firearm by a felon, his illustrious rap sheet including such accomplishments as battery, assault, and numerous parole violations, though in 2011 he was sent by a judge to be evaluated by a psychiatric hospital, a tidbit which does make me raise a sympathetic eyebrow. Yet all of this appalling behavior didn't stop luminaries like Pharrell, Swizz Beats, Nicki Minaj, and even whatever-happened-to Wyclef Jean contributing to The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted, which in 2010 the sociopathic mush-mouth somehow took to #4 on the Billboard charts. But I digress. With his rallying cry "Holiday season, bitches!" (enjoy that weekend furlough, my man), Davis finds a fellow traveler in Young Thug, with whom he shares an affection for codeine, concealed weapons, trap music, and rhymes so addictive I may have to join the duo in whatever Narcotics Anonymous support group they end up in when they finally get paroled. This is less appealing than Black Portland because both the music and the metaphors are a little less mysterious -- I totally dig YT's wild phrasing on the crack and smack fantasia "Bricks," but you can only go so far with the observation that drinking too much lean can make you look pregnant, and the unnerving "Don't Look at Me," in which YT details all the reasons he's considered a "flight risk," is as scary and unnerving as it is absolutely mesmerizing. So I'm begging officials in DeKalb County: I don't mean to pull a Norman Mailer on this pair of Jack Abbots. But as long as they're locked up, make sure they've got a laptop with a good pair of headphones. Western civilization needs one more "OMG Bro." A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Lana del Rey: Ultraviolence (Interscope) He hit me and it felt like a cynically deployed shock tactic ("Brooklyn Baby," "West Coast") ***

Rough Guide to African Blues (World Music Network) Blues means different things to different people -- sometimes it's "Wang Wang Doodle," sometimes it's the theme to Chapelle's Show (West African Blues Project, "Lalumbe"; Tamikrest, "Tamiditin") ***

Lykke Li: I Never Learn (Atlantic) The real Roxette ("Gunshot," "I Never Learn") **

Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Mom + Pop Music) I'm not sure how to gauge my level of interest when the crisis in the best song could have been averted by staying indoors and keeping hydrated ("Avant Gardener," "David") **

Chromeo: White Women (Big Beat) Still as witty and tuneful as ever, but let's face it: they couldn't radiate star power if God gave them the ability to fuse massive amounts of hydrogen ("Jealous (I Ain't With It)," "Lost on the Way Home")*

Anansy Cissé: Mali Overdrive (Riverboat) World Music Network's online Battle of the Bands competition: so much more reliable than American Idol, no? ("Sekou Amadou," "Baala") *


Lee Fields: Emma Lee (Truth and Soul) According to Wikipedia, sixty-three year old R&B singer Fields, who I'd describe as a "journeyman" if his career had actually traveled an arc perceptible by a protractor, has been "sometimes nicknamed 'Little JB,' for his [ed. -- utterly nonexistent] physical and vocal resemblance to James Brown," which if you peruse the references they attribute to the soul music experts at the French weekly news magazine L'Express. The page then claims -- I'm not making this up -- that he "recorded his first 45 tours in 1969," which deserves some sort of investigation by the Guinness Book of World Records, not least an answer as to how many tours Fields embarked on in 1969, if one-city-stops are counted as a discrete "tour," and if he's had to rent out a spare apartment to keep the recordings of said tours pristine for the listening enjoyment of further generations. As it turns out, I'm having a little fun with a sloppy wiki translation from French to English (tours means 45 rpm record in French), but this heavily-promoted pallid imitation of early '70s R&B is nevertheless one of Metacritic's hottest items of the year, garnering praise from John Paul at Pop Matters to Hal Horowitz at American Songwriter (though, hmmm, no one from Vibe or The Source). I mean, what gives? If this record (as Paul says) "could easily sit next to, if not surpass, the greatest releases of the late 1960s and 1970s," where's the "What's Goin' On" or "Tired of Being Alone" or "Freddie's Dead?" Hell, where's the "Alone Again, Naturally?" And why isn't anyone complaining about the Expressions, his somnambulant backing band? Because -- just maybe -- the involvement of white soul poseurs "legitimizes" the whole cursèd enterprise? Especially annoying: funk-deficient drummer Homer Steinweiss, who makes the dude in Wild Cherry sound like Clyde Stubblefield. C PLUS

A Great Big World: Is There Anybody Out There? (Black Magnetic/Epic) The top-40 abomination of the year: a perky dweeb who comes on like Marc Cohn at sixteen-going-on-twelve, with maybe two years of precious piano and voice lessons under his belt, recording his self-pitying, fourth-hand show tunes in his school's performing arts center at lunch. Sound insufferable? Now imagine a band comprising two of them. Especially annoying: an unironic zippee-dee-doo-dah ditty straight out of South Park that advocates fair treatment to our homosexual brethren because "everyone is gay," rather than because it's, you know, the morally right thing to do. C MINUS

Neil Young: A Letter Home (Third Man) Despite that fact it has antecedents in about a dozen middling Twilight Zone episodes, the poignant conceit for this modest collection of painfully obvious folk-pop covers is so touching I'm inclined to share it. It begins with Young cheerfully addressing his late mom through the "magic" of a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-graph vinyl recording booth owned by "his friend Jack." He urges her to start talking to his father again now they're both "up there," makes a cute joke about having met Al Roker ("the weather man for the whole planet, if you can imagine that!"), asks her to say hello to his old friend Ben Keith, and tells her he'll be there eventually -- "Not a while though, I still really have a lot of work to do here!" He then launches into what we are later told are "the old songs" he used to play with his parents as a little boy growing up. Now I don't know if Neil prized Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown" as a spindly teenager, nor if he relates to that highly Jersey-centic lyric (were there black people even living in 1950s Winnipeg?), but I do appreciate the personal touch, and if I was his mom, I'd be proud. Unfortunately, as a un-maternally finicky rock critic I feel obligated to point out the off-the-cuff arrangements are spare to indifferent, the songs sometimes inappropriate for Young's vocal range, and the audio fidelity dim and stifled, especially coming from an ambitious entrepreneur who wants me to re-purchase my entire CD collection after investing in his new goddamn MP3 system. Re-tooling Stephen Foster with Crazy Horse via his old buddy Tim Rose was one thing -- offhand Bert Jansch and Gordon Lightfoot (twice!) is another. Also, if it's not too impudent of me to say so, Neil and his friend Jack make a lousy fucking Everly Brothers. C PLUS

R.E.M.: Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions (Rhino) A born studio band offers one set supporting 1991's Out of Time, another for 2001's Reveal -- guess which one is kinda-sorta worth your time. B MINUS

The Strypes: Snapshot (Virgin) Rockpile might be their touchstone (get it?), but these upstart Irish retrogrades seem to think their forebears might have been a greater band with Terry Williams penning the lyrics -- and Nick Lowe bashing away on the drums. B MINUS

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