A Downloader's Diary (40): August 15, 2015

by Michael Tatum

There are fewer records this month than July -- though to be fair, two titles comprise five discs. August is always tough for this column, even though it began this month four years ago.

Calypso: Musical Poetry in the Caribbean 1955-69 (Soul Jazz) Killjoys have been complaining about the quotidan music and shallow lyrics on this compilation of hits from Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and elsewhere, but I say that depends on what you deem "poetic" -- just because Lord Byron (the calypso star, I mean) resembles Edward Lear a great deal more than he does the Right Honorable George Gordon doesn't mean he and his like-minded buddies don't have a gift for whimsical rhymes and ribald subject matter. I ask you: wouldn't you like hearing a catchy uptempo ditty about James Bond villainess Pussy Galore, the first moon landing, or the first heart transplant rather than one limning, say, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage?" All right, all right, the heart transplant one is historically inaccurate -- the recipient (Jewish grocer Louis Washkansky) and the donor (car accident victim Denise Darvall) were both white, so there was no "Negro Heart" involved, though Darvall's kidneys ended up saving the life of ten-year-old Jonathan van Wyk, a black South African. But would you really let that spoil the one in which the sassy Brownie fantasizes about being a bed bug biting the asses of the most voluptuous women he can find? Or the one in which a ghost thwarts Lord Kitchner's "Love in the Cemetery," or the one that justifies prostitution as "Exchange Not Robbery?" As for the music, it doesn't always walk in beauty like the night -- the formula is part of the charm. And they keep the hijinks and hilarity going without a Sparrow song in the bunch. A MINUS

Golem: Tanz (Corason Digital) Between the energizer-bunny rhythm, vaudeville trombone, boneheaded chord progression, and inane lyric, the track these klezmer-punk renegades open with might irritate and/or frighten away sweet shiksas like my darling wife, and that's how these madcap New York jokers want it -- for them, a chant like "Dance dance dance dance dance dance dance" is a clever feint lulling you into a false sense of what banalities to expect next. Which just happens to include: a naive virgin washing away her wedding night jitters in the mikin veh bath, a Yiddish cowboy who speaks English to his kids and German to "the guards," and a Russian Jew who joins the anti-Semitic Soviet Armed Forces in order to enroll in med school, then eye-pokes someone who dares call him a "kike." Then they appropriate an inadvertently hysterical Russian public service announcement detailing the horrors of Vodka: "It makes you sickly, makes you cough/Makes you smell like dirty socks." Later, in a related playlet, mastermind Annette Eziekiel Kogan and her dapper sidekick Aaron Diskin play two miskayts -- poor souls so homely they're actually cute -- who fall in semi-committed lust after overlooking various shortcomings and grotesqueries. Musically, the band strangely recalls the Mexican pop music my grandparents played while I was growing up, which explains why Mexico City based-label Corason Digital scooped them up when JDub, former home of Matisyahu and Balkan Beat Box, went bust. And as for that deceptively dimwitted opener? It turns out it commemorates the life of a concentration camp survivor who emigrated to America, amassed a small fortune, and lived the rest of his years to the fullest. If that's not enough of an accomplishment to make a man do the sher, I don't know what is. A MINUS

Hyperdub 10.1 (Hyperdub) Glasgow-born, London-based Steve Goodman boasts a Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Warwick, which he's put to good use as the author of 2009's Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, a study of "acoustic force" -- what people like you and me call "noise" -- and how it affects whole populations when utilized as a weapon, warning, or instrument of torture. He begins by chronicling a disturbing 2005 report that the Israeli air force utilized deafening sonic booms -- high-volume, deep-frequency cacophonous reverberations caused by low-flying jets traveling faster than the speed of sound -- to terrorize Palestinians on the Gaza Strip. That might give you some insight into Hyperdub, the webzine he founded in 2000 and upgraded to a proper record label four years later, which for many represents ground zero in the now-ubiquitous electronica subgenre known as dubstep -- this is a man fascinated not by music or even rhythm as much he is sound, texture, and, especially, dissonance. This disorientingly copious thirty-five track pig-out celebrating the label's first ten years focuses on what Noel Gardner of NME dubs "dancefloor bangers," but Americans raised on "Get Low" and "Turn Down For What" might not hear it that way -- engaging rhythms abound here, but the prevailing mode here is more the trippy lo-fi electronica that the Brits do so well. Surprisingly however, with Burial and DJ Rashad the only names a neophyte like myself registers in the old long term memory bank, this zips by engagingly, even if the proceedings are a mite anonymous until Mark Viera (handle: Flowdan), of the same crew that produced Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, smears a little grime on the dancehall-inspired "Ambush." Don't get me wrong -- to choose but one example, I dig the slurping synths on Ill Blu's "Clapper" just fine. But close-minded rockists such as myself do prefer some nifty catchphrases, whether banal but efficient ("Wind it up!") to the winningly bizarre ("I need a blanket cuz I'm cold mother cold") to the surprisingly useful (someone should hire Spaceape to chant "Am I new age therapy spreading fear and disease" on Jenny McCarthy's doorstep). Verdict: as head candy goes, not nearly as hard as I might prefer. But crunchy enough to fleck tiny bits of enamel off the old medulla oblongata. A MINUS

Miranda Lambert: Platinum (RCA) People go a little too far when they label Lambert a "feminist," but she isn't exactly your average Nashville blonde either -- the first song justifies taking the surname of your husband by noting it sends a message to your father that you're your own woman. The album is full of these paradoxes, as on "Automatic," in which Miranda remembers the halcyon days when she taped the Country Countdown on a cheap cassette recorder because she didn't have the money to buy the albums proper -- presumably a slag at downloaders, yet simultaneously acknowledges, inadvertently or not, the reasons why people "steal" music in the first place, i.e. they're goddamn broke. From an idyllic song about getting rowdy to a celebration of "old shit" that sounds completely out of character coming from a thirty-year-old woman, from a number protesting gravity's war on the human body to a sincere championing of pre-martial sex as the prime factor that "maintains a small town population," her slightly twisted tropes enable her to get away with the nostalgia-mongering that rankles on so much other Nashville product, so that when she says she misses the days when "staying married was the only way to work your problems out" you nod in sympathetic agreement rather than counter with statistics on infidelity and domestic violence. As such, this isn't merely Lambert's victory, but also one for songwriter Natalie Hemby, who has her name on seven out of fifteen tracks, including many key songs fitting the theme. Which is what, exactly? Eat, drink, and fuck in the back of your Daddy's pickup truck: for tomorrow you might be pregnant and married to a guy who looks like Blake Shelton. Perish the thought. A

Jenny Lewis: The Voyager (Warner Bros.) Though I appreciate Carl Wilson coming out in Slate against anti-California prejudice -- I'm tired of being forced to the back of the bus every time my wife and I vacation in New York -- I'm afraid that even as a native, I must demure. There are qualitative demarcations between Rumours, Late for the Sky, and (look it up) What's Wrong With This Picture?, and though Jennifer-oh-Jenny bests Jackson Browne and Andrew Gold as a wordslinger and tunesmith, she's never led a band as strong as the Mac on her solo recordings. I said "solo recordings" -- if you're going to self-plagiarize yourself, as Lewis does on this album's "Slippery Slopes," you better make damn sure no one's going to play the end result up against 2007's Under the Blacklight and rue the absence of Blake Sennett's arrangements and Rilo Kiley's underrated rhythm section, and those excited that she's looking to Beck and Ryan Adams for production pointers should probably reacquaint themselves with the aforementioned's sorry discographical pages on Wikipedia. And before I start carping about the occasionally mannered singing and perfunctory lyrics, I should probably mention that I enjoy almost everything here regardless -- no doubt if someone like, say, Bethany Cosentino were to produce material on the order of the disco-lite pastiche "She's Not Me" or the bemused-not-bitter "Just One of the Guys," I'd be frothing at the mouth at what a artistic breakthrough the album represented. But unlike Cosentino, Lewis has made a point of setting the bar high, something she's not going to ironically dismiss with her rainbow pantsuit and the iconic Warner Bros. Burbank palm trees on the CD label. Also, the meaning of the metaphorically muddled title track completely mystifies me -- something you can't say about "The Pretender" or "Lonely Boy," which at least accomplished self-mythologizing on their own solipsistically narcissistic bullshit terms. B PLUS

Spoon: They Want My Soul (Loma Vista) A common rockcrit cliche -- the indie smartypants who knows his record collection forwards and backwards -- defines the limitations of the formalist: someone who knows how to ignite your synapses with a drum beat or guitar riff but uses his musical acumen to camouflage anything remotely resembling an unguarded emotion. That's Britt Daniel in a nutshell -- I've been a Spoon fan for a decade and I don't think I could tell you one damn bit about what kind of person he is, either as a flesh and blood human being or even a contrived persona digitalized and written on aluminum and plastic. I can't even find evidence of a wife or long-term girlfriend in his online interviews. Thus, his albums are only as effective as their hooks, and are differentiated only by the tiny bits of himself that peek out from underneath his tightly-wound aesthetic. Granted, new keyboardist/guitarist Alex Fischel helps ensure this is the band's most immediately arresting record since 2002's Kill the Moonlight, while legendarily EQ-ignoring producer Dave Fridmann makes this boom and scratch and bubble like no album they've ever done. But if Kill the Moonlight bemoaned the dead-end slacker lifestyle (which Daniel denied) and 2010's Transference dared breach the mystery zone of long-term romantic commitment, what's going on here? I say it's about getting what you want but realizing it's not all that you thought it was cracked up to be -- the holy rollers have got him down, there's still rent to be paid, and all of his peace is hidden on back-masked tapes that he no longer owns, all mitigated by a mysterious innamorata who, if we're to take the urgent "Rainy Taxi" at its word, must have to put up with some frustratingly mixed signals. May I recommend the more straightforward "Break out of character for me/Time keeps going on when/We got nothing else to give." A MINUS

Suburban Base: The History of Hardcore, Jungle, and Drum & Bass: 1991-1997 (Suburban Base) Hardcore will never die! -- although there is a very good chance it will evolve, fade, or transform itself into whatever electronica subgenre gets the UK ravers ecstatic this week. Which isn't to say that the music doesn't have staying power, or that it can't be contextualized for those of us who get our thrills in our living rooms rather than dance floors, or that a stellar comp couldn't make sense of what back then seemed like too much of a good thing. So meet Dan Donnelly of Romford, the administrative headquarters of the London Borough of Havering -- a "suburb," if you will -- who in the late '80s opened a record store specializing in dance music called Boogie Times that eventually branched out into printing its own white label records. You can see why that format might be a plus in electronica circles, which both cultivates facelessness and zips to the next big thing when a "star's" fifteen minutes of fame (you know, the A-side of a 12" single) are up. So don't be nervous that you don't recognize any of the artists on these generous three discs selling retail for less than one -- Donnelly had an ear for the novel, the voltaic, the quixotic, the onomatopoetic, the vivacious, ending his run only when it stopped being a source of personal pleasure. Tracking the progression of a scene that goes from shallow to arty as soon as the club rats turn up their snouts at the immortal "Sesame's Treet," each of these three CDs can be played from beginning to end with nary a dull spot, and the pacing and segueing ensures that each moves like one thing. Too much like one thing, actually -- I've spent a month with the damn thing and "Sesame's Treet" is the only thing that sticks out. Maybe if hardcore had come up with a few more hooks like that, maybe it wouldn't be, you know, dead. B PLUS

Jack White: Lazaretto (Third Man/XL Recordings) Having encountered the titlular archaism by complete coincidence while re-reading Italo Calvino's masterful On a winter's night a traveler (p. 70: This was as we passed the Church of Saint Apollonia, then transformed into a lazaretto for cholera patients . . . ), I feel qualified to take on Jack White's thematic metaphor. Is this album a quarantined holding station for bad feelings too sick and twisted to be unleashed onto a pure and pristine listening public? Nah, that would be a Nick Cave album -- though the artiste would never describe it as such, this is is White's comedy record, supposedly adapted from a batch of short fiction he wrote when he was nineteen and found moldering in a box his attic. Now personally, as back stories go I find that a little bit too pat to be credible, which is why I'm lodging a protest once I quit doubling over in laughter -- I mean, the man busts his lip on Wine Spodie-Odie, proves he can dig ditches like the best of 'em, complains about not indulging his God-given right to entitlement, plays dumb like Columbo for his woman, and nicks some choice rhymes from Horton Hears a Who, all while bulking up the flesh and muscle on his country-blues monster til its ambling gait shakes the rafters. Now all I wanna know is if the hilarious "3 Women" refers to Janice, Sissy, and Shelley or Meg, Renée, and Karen. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Eno/Hyde: Someday World (Warp) Or, Yes Pussyfooting ("Daddy's Car," "Witness") **

Wye Oak: Shriek (Merge) Wye pine? Well, she's awfully good at it ("Schools of Eyes," "Paradise") **

Eno/Hyde: High Life (Warp) The lion oversleeps tonight ("Lilac," "Cells & Bells") *


Robin Thicke: Paula (Star Tracks/Interscope) I have a deeply ingrained cynicism against displays of "vulnerability" as public as this -- when a Padre fan asks his girlfriend to marry him via stadium jumbotron, he does so because societal expectation demands for her to answer yes, even though they know zilch about their relationship. Where privacy entails true risk, and doesn't pressure the woman into a scenario in which she is "required" to give into the man, a mass audience unwittingly plays into the manipulations of passive aggressive men, a rule that goes for Lou Barlow (who at least got some good songs out of it), as much as this calculating asshole, whose serenading of his sixteen-year-old biracial future ex-wife with the song "Jungle Fever" during their first dance should have been a red flag predictor of his future callousness. Except this putative show of contrition even screws that up, revealing more unsavoriness about its creator than I think even Thicke himself realizes. Why on earth would he sing a song about his own salacious impulses, and have a chorus of young girlies echo or answer every self-directed finger-wag? Why would he recall an evening when she chased him with his favorite golf club, then pretended to down twenty sleeping pills -- to make her look good? If she's a "spoiled rich kid," does that mean Alan Thicke got screwed out of some Growing Pains royalties? Why does he cutesily refer to her pedalian appendages as "toesies?" Why does the album cover ape Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies? Wouldn't Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man have been more apt? And why would you try and win back your wife four months after being served divorce papers with a hastily-written batch of quickies and sloppy seconds that might remind your wife of . . . aw come on man, do I have to take that joke to its logical conclusion? D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T, dude. C

Sharon van Etten: Are We There (Jagjauuwar) How pathetic is this indie songstress? When I found out this was a song cycle about a recent break-up, my first thought was: wait a minute, what was the last one? My second? Um, where's the "Rolling in the Deep?" B MINUS

Morrissey: World Peace is None of Your Business (Harvest) His most direct political statement: when he indicts the beef industry for its role in the nation's rise in colon cancer. C PLUS

YG: My Krazy Life (Def Jam) Ah, no actually, pretty konventional. C PLUS

First Aid Kit: Stay Gold (Columbia) If you put a million papegojors in a room and forced them to listen to Gram Parsons records for eternity, two of them would eventually be able to imitate his cadences -- but that doesn't necessarily mean they'd come up with "Hickory Wind" or "Grevious Angel." C PLUS

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