A Downloader's Diary (42): September 10, 2015

by Michael Tatum

Figuring I'd break up what I'd missed in 2015 in easily manageable chunks while still pushing forward, I'd envisioned this to be Afropop month. Well, it was -- but indie rock came out on top. With any luck next month I'll finally get to cases on Kendrick Lamar.

Ezra Furman: Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union) Initially, I balked at the term "genderfluid," not because I object to guys in dresses kissing other guys who want to feel like girls, but because of the delineation's collegiate fustiness. Since Furman clearly cherishes the New York Dolls as much as I do, whatever happened to David Johansen's "try-sexual," or Arthur Kane's delightful "I think we're just a bunch of kids looking for a good time?" Then I remembered those French Structuralists I pretend to have read at ritzy dinner parties, particularly Ferdinand de Saussure's "binary oppositions," the theory that the human mind works best as a dichotomizing machine (man/woman, black/white, and so forth), and the third wave feminist critique that such thinking inherently favors the status quo. I also factored in my not-so-novel opinion that such dogmatism makes life, well, a lot less interesting. However, speaking as someone who was dragged into a junior high school football field sewer on the pretense of being the "faggot" he never was, and who later relished donning drag in a student movie because doing so (excuse the metaphor) stuck it to the macho hard line, Furman's songs made me realize he isn't a jaunty tourist playing dress up -- this is where he lives. Or doesn't live, as the case may be -- as this record's trenchant line "I can't go home/Though I'm not homeless" reminds us, there are too damn many kids tossed into the street by their parents for being gay, lesbian, transgender, or indeed, "genderfluid." Suffice to say, this epiphany occurred long after this huge leap forward in songwriting and performance convinced me this was my kind of coming out party -- the kind which I'd hope would inspire everyone across the gender spectrum to break out the pleated mini-skirts and Cover Girl Colorlicious Lipstick #318 ("Eternal Ruby"). Boasting he's a tip of a match who longs to "strike himself on something rough," Furman declares the novelty-hungry human mind gets "way fucking sick of beauty," suggesting that amelioration begins with "burning it and starting over again," a process that might include the very album he's recording. Showing up for a congressional hearing in an Indian headdress, ecstatically tearing off a dinner jacket to reveal the cheap five-dollar dress underneath, he opines to an arrangement swiped from Blind Willie Johnson that "one day I will sin no more" because "one day heaven and earth will be like one." I'd like to think the perfect simplicity of that line would have given de Saussure pause. And if that's not philosophical enough for you, there's always my favorite: "Lose yourself completely, but stay alive/Ditty bop sha lang lang/Ditty bop sha lang, sha ditty lang/Ditty bop sha lang lang, ditty lang." A

Freedy Johnston: Neon Repairman (Singing Magnet) An anachronism in the era of grunge, gangsta rap, Madonna, and then-we-called-it-techno, Johnston's 1992 Can You Fly remains one of the greatest singer-songwriter documents -- not a fossil, but a living, breathing organism, a flawless album. After that, he struggled matching that watermark, and how 1997's spare Never Home (helmed by James Taylor/Jackson Browne buddy Danny Kortchmar) came closer than 1994's overrated This Perfect World (produced by Nirvana/Sonic Youth vet Butch Vig) remains one of the great mysteries of rock paleontology, until you pay attention to how much punch and snap Kortchmar engendered from Stan Lynch's snare. This new set is quieter than either of those, and too subtle by half -- the only songs that leap out on first listen are the lovely "Baby, Baby Come Home" (Alan Jackson, please cover) and the wry rocker in which a luckless gambler craps out at the casino, but wins over a trailer park cutie who appreciates him for bringing 'round a television set so antiquated he can still carry it through her front door. But after a few spins you'll be able to recall almost every tune, from the spooky title protagonist, who considers darkness his friend not because he's a Smiths fan but because it pays the rent, to the downcast closer that sounds like a formulaic country ballad until you notice the subject matter concerns a traumatized veteran: "You know I saw the others/Bloodying the gutter/And that's the last thing I know." Sure, his stasis could use a little jolt of punctuated equilibrium. But with his adenoids more relaxed in his middle age, his singing has gained so much grace and presence you won't mind even when he spends a verse or two chewing the scenery. B PLUS

Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Glitterbeat) When François Hollande sent French forces to quell Mali's attempted coup by Sharia fundamentalists in January 2013, they minimalized civil unrest, enabling legislative elections to be held the following November. So the stakes aren't as high now for Kouyaté as they were when he and his world class rock band recorded 2013's masterful Jama Ko. "With the help of the thorn in my foot, I spring higher than anyone with sound feet," Kierkegaard once declared, but I ask you: did the Danish philosopher ever record an album with a faction of the state military ousting the president from the capitol a half mile down the road? Between enforced curfews, random power outages, and the grim knowledge that reactionary forces could execute you merely for playing music, is it any shock that the electrifying climax of "Ne Me Fatigue Pas," the song that Kouyate wrote in direct response to this turmoil -- which I swear he nicked from the Doors -- suggests Jim Morrison setting the night on fire with pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails rather than with killer weed and lava lamps? With the drums and rhythms more forceful, the arrangements denser and more complex, and new labelmate Jon Hassell providing nice texture on trumpet and keyboards on "Aye Sira Bla," this comes reasonably close to making life during peacetime sound as urgent as it did when they thought their world was ending, even with the weak instrumental "Bassekouni" ending the record on an indecisive note. Thanks at least in part to Violet Diallo's English and French translations, which reveal the steely lesson underlying the otherwise spirited "Te Dunia Laban," which spells out for the extremist opposition the inevitable connection between such heroes and villains as Sekou Toure, Patrice Lumumba, and Nelson Mandela: no matter how much power you accrue in this life, sooner or later you wind up dead. A MINUS

Nellie McKay: My Weekly Reader (429) Cabaret types, they're not like you and me, are they? I recall my good friend Scott, who back in 1987 insisted that Barbra Streisand's self-serving The Broadway Album should rightfully win the Grammy over "Short Stuff," his bemused epithet for Paul Simon (when I demurred Graceland was far superior, his jaw dropped indignantly). Scott later chronicled his adoration for Doris Day in a well-received one-man show, which brings me to Threepenny Opera veteran McKay, who follows her own tribute to Ms. Day with a normal-as-blueberry-pie selection of sixties covers. Given the green light, "cool" people like you and me might plump for the Kinks and the Impressions, "Candy Says" and "Alone Again Or," but though we get the swaggering "Sunny Afternoon," we also get "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," all performed and arranged so that naive young people might think they all sprang from the same genre, which I guess by now, they do. With McKay's New York stomping ground represented solely by Mimi and Richard Farina (oh, I forgot Short Stuff's commissioned "Red Rubber Ball"), much of the remainder perversely comes from the hippie claque in California, and not who you'd think either: Frank Zappa, Country Joe & the Fish, Steve Miller's "Quicksilver Girl," and the perennially uncool "Wooden Ships," all gussied up in McKay's perky lounge pop, with genders changed when she thinks it might be funny, unaltered when she thinks it might be poignant. And for timely social commentary we have her slipping in the phrase "bloviated turd" into Moby Grape's "Murder in My Heart for the Judge," as well as these painfully funny asides: "What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It's irrelevant!" And: "I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit." A MINUS

Ashley Monroe: The Blade (Warner Bros.) I'm sure you're bored with reviewers comparing the Pistol Annies' solo projects to each other every time a new one pops into the racks, but damn it, this time indulging the critical cliché bears rewards: if Miranda Lambert aims for the pop jugular and Angeleena Presley opted for the modest route on that fine record she self-produced with her husband, Ashley Monroe plots to take her more sophisticated vocal technique to the realm of "adult contemporary" country in the vein of Lee Ann Womack. I don't care if Vince Gill produces her records, in the wider scheme of things that's a commercial risk, especially considering that Monroe is only twenty-eight -- three years younger than the spunkier Lambert, ten years younger than the earthier Presley, and a mere two years older than kiddish fellow traveler Kacey Musgraves, who on her disappointing new Pageant Material pretends she's still a local girl waiting tables. Monroe's transformation is so complete that if you took the two best songs here and subbed them for the two weakest songs on 2013's Like a Rose, they wouldn't fit, even the bubbly (and of course thematic) hit "On to Something Good": "I'm better moving on than going back/I'll ride this train till it runs out of track," she chirps, her weed and whipped cream days behind her. If this means that she'll subject us to borderline dreck like "Has Anybody Ever Told You," it also means she'll display strong command on masterful strokes like the stirring ballad "The Blade," which is the title track for a good reason: neither Miranda nor Angaleena could have delivered it half as well. A MINUS

Giorgio Moroder: Déjà Vu (RCA) Back in the Me Decade, Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, and the unjustly forgotten Pete Bellotte made the best kind of dumb dance music -- the smart kind. But though no rock critic has given this throwback anything but shade, it succeeds in ways that Moroder's buddies in Daft Punk do not -- perhaps because Moroder isn't especially interested in making an art statement. On his own, he churns out highly generic fluff suitable for those who think "cardio" is a noun. With Sia Fuller, Kylie Minogue, and Charli XCX however, he detonates Bürgerfest skyrockets. Unlike other records where these three might cameo, you don't get the feeling they're cashing a paycheck or paying back an aesthetic debt: they're doing it for love. For wallflowers and milquetoasts who carp about "songwriting" we have Mikky Ekko (who?) re-purposing Kanye West re-purposing Billie Holiday, and Matthew Koma (right, exactly) quoting Elvis Costello. And if that's not "literary" enough for you we have the pièce de résistance, Britney Spears covering DNA tweaking Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner," presumably because Britney has even less command of the English language than Giorgio does. The latter track might be the key to how you feel about this record: as students of audio engineering know, one of the charms of DNA's original remix lay in hearing Vega's disembodied but prepossessing, warm but technically flat contralto against synthesizers that know nothing else but the key in which they were programmed, while Britney, not unlike Darth Vader, is at this point in her career more machine than woman. When I'm feeling persnickety, I think: is this the busty automaton with whom I want to spend an intimate breakfast? Most of the time though, I think it's glorious, especially during the break in which a heavily Auto-Tuned Moroder steps out from the behind the curtain, slaps us on der Rückseite, and boisterously welcomes us into his Bavarian ale house. Someone tell Britney that Suzanne Vega didn't know who the fuck William Holden was either. A MINUS

Mountain Goats: Beat the Champ (Merge) An excellent writer can fascinate you with a subject that would not otherwise pique your interest. For example, while repulsed by Hemingway's gauche Death in the Afternoon (he knows where to find Madrid's finest whores, but is oblivious to bulls being red-green colorblind), I can objectively appreciate how he connects the dots between the romance of a centuries-old tradition and his own peculiar notions of masculinity and the creative process. Something similar happens with John Darnielle's concept album about professional wrestling -- such colorful character sketches as "Foreign Object" and "Choked Out" would be compelling from anyone, but when he struggles to translate a Spanish telecast in his head because "I need justice in my life/Here it comes," fans know he means to evoke the memory of his abusive stepfather. As with 2012's Transcendental Youth, he continues to frame his songs in arrangements that incorporate strings and woodwinds, like the oboes that linger a few feet above the Route 60 asphalt as a repentant father looks back on his life in the sport. A few holdouts may rue the sparer approach with which Darnielle made his reputation, but anyone who can take that oboe arrangement and wed it to a wistful vocal in which that father waxes nostalgically about the night he "nearly drove Danny's nose back into his brain/All the cheap seats go insane" has officially earned the Randy Newman Seal of Approval. And if you've still got doubts, here's the astonishing last verse of the song that contrasts Darnielle's stepdad with the legendary wrestler Chavo Guererro: "He was my hero back when I was a kid/You let me down but Chavo never once did/You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/Now your ashes are scattered on the wind/I heard his son got famous, he went nationwide/Coast-to-coast with his dad by his side/I don't know if that's true but I've been told/It's real sweet to grow old." A MINUS

Songhoy Blues: Music in Exile (Atlantic) In a scenario you'll find all-too familiar, they fled their homes for Bamako when radical fundamentalists occupied Northern Mali -- the next time that drummer friend of yours complains about couch surfing all over Brooklyn, tell him what musicians in Northwestern Africa have to endure. Extraordinarily, Aliou and Oumar Touré formed a band because of this experience, befriending Blur's Damon Albarn, impresario Marc-Antoine Moreau, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Nick Zinner, all of whose names show up in pieces about the band more often than the names of the band members themselves. Sure would be nice to know how the tough songwriting splits -- these guys have clearly studied their Chicago blues: the steamrolling tribute to "Nick," who also produces and contributes guitar throughout, will have you scouring your Muddy Waters records in search of the original. Zinner also deserves credit for the terse production -- guitars and drums are turned way up, as if he thinks he's twiddling the knobs on the Bamako version of Some Girls. In other words, this "sounds" like traditional American rock and roll more than Tamikrest or Tinariwen, heavy on the four-four and not especially interested in incorporating too much Western audiences will find esoteric. If this were a Chicago blues album, I might find it impressive sonically, but wanting spiritually. But these Johnny-Winters-Come-Latelies invest their memorable riffs and vocal hooks with charisma, authority, and youthful vigor -- even if you've encountered these coruscating guitar licks before, you'll be temporarily tricked into thinking you haven't. And if you want to grumble you've heard one too many songs titled "Mali," even ones as lovely as this acoustic closer, think for a moment how many of our homegrown musicians would dare a song called "America." Don't bow down your head, listen up. A MINUS

Tal National: Zoy Zoy (Fat Cat) Afropop records can be a challenge to describe, mainly because most of the non-compilations/albums-as-albums that reach our shores fall into two categories: variations on the American and/or Cuban inspired music we've come to know and treasure, or crossover bids heavily saturated with modern-day production techniques and guest stars. Amazingly, these ambitious Nigeriens, comprised of a shifting line-up of musicians from Songhai, Fulani, Hausa, and Tuareg backgrounds, fall into neither bracket: they achieve their radical synthesis of homegrown rock and roll and complex song structure, the latter inherent mostly in concussively abrupt changes in tempo and time signature, without the "civilizing" benefit of a Damon Albarn- or Nick Gold-type catapulting them into the modern age with samples, synthesizers, or, um, Ry Cooder. The merciless ouragan (windstorm) about which they sing could be the literal one tearing through the Ténéré desert, the sociopolitical changes sweeping their embattled homeland, or their cataclysmic drum sound, achieved by two players and suggesting Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann being thrown down a flight of concrete stairs, their kits and risers ricocheting off steps behind them. Yet they remain remarkably tight rhythmically -- Richie Troughton of The Quietus intriguingly dubbed this bracing bricolage "Afro math-rock." I sure can't envison Battles or Tortoise fans dancing to these catchy chants and wild ululations -- not that they're known much for dancing anyway. But I'd give anything to see this band's passionate fans twerk through one of their legendary five hours sets to show them how it's done. A MINUS

Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There (Matador) "One thing classical music types don't understand about singing is that any opera-trained tenor can belt out a technically flawless version of 'Yesterday,' but as a song it's far more moving in Paul McCartney's plaintive original." This would be a visiting choral music conductor addressing my high school's elite madrigal group, a bold statement which made me (the skinny black-haired tenor in the back row) cheer to myself -- not merely because I loved the Beatles, but because I secretly felt alienated by the decorum and sterile formality of the European choral tradition. Sure, the Korean expat who sat next to me had a dynamite voice for arias, but his melismatic vibrato sounded flat out dumb on that Beach Boys medley. Little did I know how much this vocal approach would play into the music I would treasure as an adult, beginning with Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, who realized their thoughtful, empathetic murmurs were their secret weapon circa 1995's Electr-o-pura, not coincidentally also when their songwriting blossomed. This collection of covers, remakes, and bonus originals welcomes such unlikely bedfellows as Goffin/King, The Cure, The Lovin' Spoonful, Great Plains, George Clinton, and Sun Ra into their kind, comforting tradition -- steadfast devotion expressing itself not as a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes, but as a smoke made with the fume of sighs. Georgia mournfully sings "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to the twinkling stars from her balcony, while Ira stands below on the veranda with his acoustic guitar, wondering what's on her mind to a pensive tune they wrote together twenty years ago. As always, they sing to each other pretending the other can't hear -- the inside photo portrays them in the studio as I've always imagined them: staring into each other's eyes. Almost. That may not define them as a "real-life" couple, but that does sum up their synergy, their intimacy, their aesthetic, and their music's modest spell. Me myself, I've seen a lot of hot, hot blazes come down to smoke and ash. Embers can be beautiful, too. A

Honorable Mentions

Rhett Miller: The Traveler (ATO) Most Messed Up Pt. 2 -- or do I mean The Grand Theatre Pt. 3? ("Wanderlust," "Jules") ***

Shamir: Ratchet (XL) Not really a "countertenor" -- countertenors have ranges ("Make a Scene," "On the Regular") ***

Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free (Southeastern) Caveat auditor: not only doesn't "To a Band That I Loved" memorialize the Drive-By Truckers, it doesn't even rock ("The Life You Chose," "24 Frames") **

Gang of Four: What Happens Next (Metropolis/Membran) Give Andy Gill this: he's better at being a Gang of One than the Talking Heads were sans David Byrne ("Broken Talk," "Isle of Dogs") *

Kasey Chambers: Bittersweet (Sugar Hill) Divorce inspires her most substantial record in years -- now if only her current God fixation didn't lead to that appalling ditty in which she plays midwife to Mary and Joseph ("I'm Alive," "Oh Grace") *


Beach House: Depression Cherry (Sub Pop) Cannibalizing entire reviews from other writers signals monumental laziness on my part, but this is one instance in which the temptation proves too strong. Now, ahem: "In general, this record shows a return to simplicity, with songs structured around a melody and a few instruments, with live drums playing a far lesser role. With the growing success of Teen Dream and Bloom, the larger stages and bigger rooms naturally drove [the band] towards a louder, more aggressive place, a place farther from [their] natural tendencies. Here, [they] continue to let [themselves] evolve while fully ignoring the commercial context in which [they] exist." All right, calling these vaporous tunes "melodies" might be stretching it a bit (c.f. Bloom, even the overrated Teen Dream), but that's about as accurate a review as I could write -- should adorn the record like a Parent's Advisory warning sticker on an Eminem joint. Actually, I admire any reviewer who can endure this morass of molasses without slipping into a coma. So where did I pilfer this bit of prose, you ask? From the Sub Pop Records website. The authors: Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand. Impressed? B MINUS

Iris DeMent: The Trackless Woods (Flariella) Her once-miraculous contralto now shriveled to a tremulous warble, unable to hit the low notes she insists on slipping into her new songs, and her monotonous arrangements pure drawing room respectability, this is where DeMent takes her secular audience to church, the humorless solemnity of which this record resembles in every way except actual religious content. I remember when DeMent wrote poetry rather than appropriating it -- not that the magniloquent poesy of tribute subject Anna Akhmatova connects emotionally on the page any more than it does wedded to such lifeless music. Consider "Not With Deserters," written for those who fled her native land of Russia after Lenin's Revolution (punctuation hers, not mine): "Poor exile, you are like a prisoner/To me, or one upon the bed/Of sickness. Dark your road, O wanderer,/Of wormwood smacks your alien bread." Now consider this parody of Akhnatova by one of her more bemused detractors, shameless deserter Vladimir Nabokov, from page 56 of his novel Pnin: "I have put on a dark dress/And am more modest than a nun;/An ivory crucifix/Is over my cold bed./But the lights of fabulous orgies/Burn through my oblivion,/And I whisper the name George --/Your golden name!" Anna didn't find that the least bit amusing -- which really says it all, don't you think? C PLUS

Neil Young & the Promise of the Real: The Monsanto Years (Reprise) Some fret that after a series of releases that include a concept album about electric cars, a collection of folk songs retooled for garage rock, a scratchy batch of covers captured through a Voice-o-Graph vinyl recording booth I'm sure sounds hot on Pono, and now this, an album-length protest against agribusiness behemoth Monsanto, Neil has regressed to the bonkers unpredictability of his Reagan Years. Speaking as someone who plays 1980's Hawks and Doves and 1982's Trans (not to mention 2012's Americana) more than he does 1989's Freedom or 1990's Ragged Glory, this doesn't bother me a whit -- Neil's respectability had gotten way too dull. But the problem here isn't consistency per se, it's the nature of protest music. It was one thing for Neil to ask America what they would have done if they had found Sandra Scheuer on the Kent State green, shot dead by the tin solders of Nixon's National Guard, but it's another when he wants us to get as riled up as he is about the dangers of genetically modified food. I'll probably get some angry feedback for saying so, but no reputable research has ever found anything dangerous in consuming GMOs, and though I agree more investigation should be done in that area, a well-informed friend of mine who knows something about the subject claims they are the "modern day equivalent of putting iodine in drinking water, science at its best." Yet here we have Neil, who I suspect fears the "rules of change" more than he does corporate greed or environmental catastrophe, making the highly questionable claim that pesticides are "causing" autistic children, as hysterical as Michele Bachmann's spontaneous outburst on national TV about the HPV vaccine being a a trigger for "retardation." He also seems to think our access to higher truth is blocked by our cultural preference for silly love songs, forgetting the asinine "It's a New Day For Love" two tracks previous (I guess loving the planet's more "profound"). In spite of his well-intended objectives and skill at pulling decent tunes, an unmitigated disaster, heavy-handed with nothing actually in the clenched fist. And that's without considering the graceless musical presence of Willie Nelson's talentless sons, who I heard are hitting the bar band circuit as Tame Gelding. C PLUS

Best Coast: California Nights (Harvest) Same catchy tunes within the same octave, same block harmonies, same romantic confusion, same middle school sad-bad, girl-world rhymes, same ne'er-do-well-boyfriend. The Disney gloss, well that's new. B

Aphex Twin: Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt. 2 (Warp) "Interesting" I guess, but my antipathy toward Richard James goes back to a sycophantic college roommate, who under the influence of two pathetically weak tabs of acid swooned "It's almost like mathematics!" while forcing me to listen to the first track of the supposedly "seminal" Ambient Works, Vol. 2 on interminable repeat. He also swore the churning dishwasher in our college commissary made more compelling music than the Everly Brothers and didn't intend a jocose metaphor. Bet he loves this. B

Titus Andronicus: The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge) For symphonic punk-prog, this is listenable enough, and as the subject of interest of many a mental health professional, I guess I should be grateful for the overarching concept (bipolar disorder . . . yay?). But even if the point of these things is to exceed the sum of its parts, there are a lot of fucking parts -- twenty-nine, to be exact. And resident Pete Townshend wannabe Patrick Stickles didn't even write the best one: Daniel Johnston's "I Lost My Mind." B

Colleen Green: I Want to Grow Up (Hardly Art) A Descendents fan's concept album about Veruca Salt -- not the band, the Roald Dahl character. C PLUS

Joss Stone: Water For Your Soul (Kobalt) Despite her semi-miraculous beginnings as a white soul natural, the barefoot contralto has always cultivated an aura of hippie retro, which meant it was only inevitable that after humoring her record companies nudging her to sell out she would regress to the trappings of, Lord help us, "authenticity." Dennis Bovell and Damian Marley's presence aside, I don't know much about white reggae, but I do know one thing: no fair-skinned Dover lass should ever write an original called "Sensimilla." C


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