A Downloader's Diary (43): October 29, 2015

by Michael Tatum

A little late by my usual five to six week turnaround, but I spent a great deal of time on two records below, one of which happens to be the best album of 2015, the other which happens to be the worst. I promise to be back with the next column by the end of the year, with a few surprise bonus installments, including perhaps notes for Pazz and Jop, assuming of course it's in the works. My top ten is starting to look (and sound) pretty damn good.

The Chills: Silver Bullets (Fire) Between the death of his second drummer, his former label yanking financial backing in the middle of a 1992 tour, anti-depressants, alcohol, low-grade home-cooked opiates, and a staggering thirty-three different lineups of his band, Martin Phillipps has seen more than his share of anguish. Currently clean and sober but in stage four of the Hepatitis C he contracted from a fellow junkie, he told The Guardian's Michael Hann last year, "If I'm around in 10 years, I think I'll be very lucky." Yet even though the last proper Chills album dropped in 1996, between occasional concert appearances and uploaded tracks-in-progress, he never quite closed the book on what without question remains New Zealand's greatest rock band. And now we have the impossible: this impassioned return to form, as sweeping in its modest grandeur as the sublime 1990 masterpiece Submarine Bells. Musically, the hypnotic guitar and keyboard lines aren't played so much as plotted, labyrinthine constructions that wend and detour, criss-crossing latticeworks to get lost in. Lyrically, Phillipps retains his gift for naturalistic metaphors, a Shelley or Tennyson beamed into the twenty-first century, whether he's writing about the comfort of a sleeping woman's "warm waveforms" or the despairing "underwater wasteland" of American class war. He offers an uncommonly tender gesture of atonement to the tomboy he taunted in grade school, but now knows was more confident in her skin that he's ever been in his. And though he remains bitter toward Americans unaware that Wall Street's gravy train has long been de-railed, more than anything else this radiates gratitude for this small shot at redemption. Spiritual but without much use for the literal Almighty, his only prayer isn't to the Man in in the Sky for another decade, but to Gaia to forgive us for the damage that won't be apparent until after he's dead. A

Deerhunter: Fading Frontier (4AD) "Combien de temps?" asked Michael Stipe on R.E.M.'s 1983 hunger song "Talk About the Passion." The next year, Lionel Richie wrote the more forthright "As God has shown us by turning stone to bread/So we all must lend a helping hand" for Willie Nelson and Al Jarreau -- a slightly different approach, no? Yet R.E.M. couldn't be mumbling obscurantists forever -- eventually they had to embrace a more direct avenue to connect to larger audiences. Although Deerhunter's Bradford Cox shares with Stipe a stream-of-consciousness approach to crafting lyrics (please Bradford, not "automatic writing" -- that's for Ouija board apostles), in the past what we might call his "wall" has not been, as in Stipe's case, what psychiatrists refer to as "clanging," i.e. randomly associating words by sound rather than concept, but utilizing "transgression" as an emotional avoidance scheme -- you know, like playing "My Sharona" for an hour to ridicule a heckler, or titling their debut record Turn it Up Faggot. Supposedly spurned to reconsidering his life by a near-fatal car accident, this dispenses with the occult and aspires to be lyrical: "I've been spending too much time out on the fading frontier/Will you tell me when you find out how to recover the lost years," he declares wistfully, resolving to "live his life" regardless. There's even a lovely song that appropriates the old folks homes of David Greenberger's Duplex Planet zine for a metaphor, climaxing with a gorgeous, fuzzed-up harpsichord passage that you might say balances the band's newfound expressionism with its trademark experimentalism. But though I won't argue this is their most exquisite record -- prettier than R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People if not Out of Time, and certainly weirder than either -- the indecisive rhythms, whether live or programmed, don't quite carry the melodies emotionally, but plod them forward. So I suspect this will appeal more to Deerhunter zealots than it will attract new converts. As for myself, I'm addicted solely to 2013's grungy Monomania -- and mourn the departure of one-stand-only lead guitarist Frankie Broyles, who would have tempered this lyricism with as much noise as Cox would have let him get away with. A MINUS

Robert Forster: Songs to Play (Tapete) In a 2006 interview I would cite if it weren't for the brief lifespan of online music magazines, Grant McLennan noted that when "Bobby plays you five songs and four of them are the best he's ever written, that's a pretty good start to a Go-Betweens record." Forster added that McLennan traditionally would offer as many as two dozen completed songs during their pre-production sessions, and that he (Forster) would whittle them down to the best five. That's how their non-collaborative Lennon/McCartney-style partnership functioned -- separately, with McLennan a one-man assembly line and Forster a more painstaking craftsman. Now McLennan is dead, and Forster waited seven years before releasing a follow up to 2008's elegiac The Evangelist, because by his own admission the accessible, ingratiating melodies that were his late partner's specialty don't come to him as easily. Here, the modest tea-and-crumpet arrangements support Forster's amiable baritone like embroidered throw pillows on a coffee shop sofa -- his Velvet Underground cops sound as civil as that simulated Mariachi trumpet on "A Poet Walks." Granted, the mundane violin passages of Forster's wife Karin do make me wonder what delicate filigrees the more accomplished Amanda Brown would have coaxed from the same space. But I'm delighted how much mileage this lifelong bohemian ekes out of bemused self-deprecation -- his beatnik existence is demystified as often as it's romanticized. Sure, he's a "songwriter on the run" who skipped the ballet to polish up his memoir, but what kind of free-spirited troubadour lives by a credo as banally workaday as "I got a notebook/I got a light?" Or would rhyme the sweeping declaration "A poet walks" with the more prosaic "shits and talks," and then cap it off with a breezily aloof "just a thought?" He claims only to stop for petrol or Dylan once he "gets to moving," but he never gives you the impression he would overtake Sammy Hagar on the Autobahn -- more likely he'd wave politely and let him pass. Usually when rockers cry out "All right!" it's to express and/or generate excitement. When this one does -- graciously, of course -- he's telling the band, "Oh my, that's pretty good." And indeed, it is. A MINUS

Heems: Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce) "When I go to AA man, I always feel too dark," complains this son of Indian immigrants, an offhand revelation illustrating why his long-awaited "proper" debut (after two free mixtapes) arrives carrying so much psychological weight. While his former partner Kool AD remains enamored with flip surrealism, puckish humor, and off-kilter freestyling, Himanshu Suri instead chooses (step four) to make a "searching and fearless moral inventory" of himself, which on this record includes working through his drug and alcohol issues, confessing to mental health struggles, deconstructing an imploding relationship, and wondering if he should have sought counseling after watching the Twin Towers fall from Stuyvesant High School, two blocks away. Unlike Suri, my own vantage point was from an insurance office's meeting room, the visual an antiquated combination VCR/television set, which was distressing enough with the volume turned down -- I can't fathom what it would have been like for someone whose school served as triage, who moans "I seen things that I never wanna see again/I heard things that I never wanna hear again." And while for most of us, particularly those of us outside of New York City proper, the aftermath consisted of drifting though vague numbness to a surreal detachment -- the most significant impact on my life was consistently getting frisked every time I went through airport security -- for Suri, a post 9/11 world meant being lumped with the "Islamists" of Fox News saber-rattling, shopping for American flags emblazoned with the legend "I am not Osama," and wondering after another Pakistani cab driver was beaten to death if he might be next. With dense, difficult, but ultimately rewarding music amalgamating the best of both Bombay and Brooklyn, he drops the second reference to Alex Haley's Roots this year on a hip hop record: "They want a shorter version/They want a nickname/They want to 'Toby' me like Kunta Kinte." Says the rapper who goes by the name of "Heems" -- who knows adopting a catchy moniker isn't merely a good way to endear yourself to the advertising agency for whom you do data entry: it's also crucial to winning over the crossover audience, i.e. you and me. Rarely has an identity crisis been a more powerful affirmation of the human spirit. A

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) To begin, that "butterfly" trapped underneath the jewel tray as if encased in a stylized shadowbox is actually an Ascalapha odorata: a black witch moth. So you say Compton's favorite son fails the grade in lepidoptery -- what about sociocultural analysis, his supposed raison d'etre? Do I believe, as he posits in "Wesley's Theory," that America is far too hard on noveau riche black men for mismanaging money, because as struggling inner city kids they didn't learn basic economic lessons in school? Not really -- those lessons are the responsibility of parents. Even so, Wesley Snipes was the son of an aircraft engineer and a teacher's assistant, a graduate of Orlando, Florida's prestigious Jones High School. Do I approve of Lamar using a woman as a metaphor for the temptations of greed, power, and money? Absolutely not (and by the way, Kendrick -- the white bar streaking across the wings of that moth indicates your specimen is female). But more than any competing media artifact, this music gets me thinking. I recall watching an argument between two black men on a Santa Monica Boulevard bus, one proud his talented son might someday be drafted by the NBA, the other angry investing too much hope in a pie-eyed dream would be unrealistic for his son and detrimental to the black community. I remember Taylor Branch claiming to Stephen Colbert the billions the NCAA generated from unpaid college athletes being tantamount to slavery. I remember Arthur Agee of the documentary Hoop Dreams, plucked from an inner city playground when he was fifteen, held back from graduating because the high school that recruited him to play basketball -- and promised a scholarship -- demanded $1,300 in back tuition his family couldn't afford. I'm betting Lamar knows stories like these and many more, and those experiences provide the backdrop for a sprawling, ambitious, musically varied album that even months after first listening never stops unfolding. I'm especially taken by, to choose one among many standouts, the brutal "The Blacker the Berry," which begins with a painful litany of broadly-drawn black stereotypes, then segues to Lamar declaiming in the voice of the archetypal street thug he's "the biggest hypocrite of 2015" because although he might weep for Trayvon Martin, "gang banging make me a kill a nigga blacker than me." And this isn't a stray track tucked away on the back half of a record -- this is a hit single. That popular artists have the freedom to express such devastating sentiments shows how far we've come. That it remains necessary to do so is a disgrace. That Lamar is conscious of and can make triumphant art of the paradox doesn't make him 2015's biggest hypocrite -- but one of its greatest heroes. If he wants to hatch from a cocoon rather than a chrysalis, he's more than earned that right. A PLUS

Jill Scott: Woman (Blues Babe/Atlantic) Geffen Records urged the Roots to replace Scott with Erykah Badu on their 1999 classic "You Got Me" because they thought the single would make a bigger commercial dent with a proven brand name attached -- even though Scott wrote the chorus. The band went out of their way to rectify that slight on their live album from the same year, assiduously explaining to the audience who was responsible for what, yet even now, the native Philadelphian has never captured the public imagination as much as her Dallasite counterpart. You'd never see Scott in a head wrap unless she was playing a TV role that required one, nor would you see her arrested for disrobing in Dealey Plaza, nor would she date a series of rappers in a string of high-profile relationships. Partial to comfy sweaters and somewhat critical of hip hop even though she got her start in that scene, Scott is very much in the mold of the girl next door, so it's easy to take her for granted. Yet although she's never produced anything as stellar as Badu's 2000 landmark Mama's Gun, she's also been a hell of a lot more consistent -- not counting the dregs coughed up periodically by her former label, she's never released anything remotely approaching a mediocre album. Sure, she's staunchly aspiring to middle-class R&B a la Alicia Keys, but she displays more personality than that genre usually requires: bragging about recipes she's nabbed from Epicurious, longing for a night with her man because she had to "reprimand a grown-up," telling that ex she's fucking solely for "Closure" and better not expect those strawberries in agave in the morning. Though the extended pussy metaphor "Wild Cookie" makes a dandy beginning, the interlude about her man's double standards should have been developed into a full-fledged song. And the lame attempted Stax/Volt number "Run Run Run" has nothing on her cover of Carl Hall's (really, Lorraine Ellison's) "You Don't Know Nothing About Love." A MINUS

Sleaford Mods: Key Markets (Harbinger Sounds) Remember when we all thought Mike Skinner of the Streets represented the voice of the British working class? Well, funny thing about that -- Skinner, who once described his upbringing in the Barratt residential estates in West Heath as "not poor but not much money about, really boring," now seems as comfortably dull as Noel Gallagher. Hailing from Grantham, the same market town that gave the world a grocer's daughter named Margaret Thatcher, and looking far more grizzled and sinewy than his forty-three years, Jason Williamson is my kind of working class hero: where Skinner toiled behind fast food counters and Gallagher put in time as a roadie, Williamson worked in a benefits office. In other words, while Skinner and Gallagher collected the dole in their leaner years, Williamson has been on both sides of the counter. While curiously remaining somewhat mum on Skinner, to whom he has been lazily compared, he's blasted Gallagher in the UK newspapers as "an elitist apologist, a withered victim of luxury" and "a secret Tory." I mention all of this because Williamson, hectoring and haranguing in a tangy East Midlands accent against Andrew Fearn's minimalist backdrops, strikes me as the first British rock and roll hero since John Lydon to (as Lydon himself once sang) "really mean it, man," and like Lydon, class isn't just his pet subject, it's his driving force. Castigating aging '90s Brit pop heroes as "old cows graz[ing] on grass from the boom" and indicting them with a brutal "You pretend to be proud of ya own culture/Whilst simultaneously not giving two fucks about ya own culture," he also has harsh words for former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who resigned after controversially raising university tuition fees, but is now gunning for a political comeback: "This daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful/It's accepted by the vast majority/In chains years from now/Who's that tit?/Don't matter who that tit is/He's still with us/In our arses, in our food, in our brains and in our death/In our failure to grab hold of what fucking little we have left." With Fearn's terse samples hanging on for their dear lives to the bare essentials -- drums, bass, and little-to-no top end -- he recalls Rick Rubin's austere early productions for Def Jam, albeit punker and more lo-fi. Which means he doesn't want to grab your attention -- he wants to stay out of the star attraction's way. This is their eighth album, their third for their new label, and you know what I like best about them? Their indignation and outrage are so tangible and timely you can tell they're just getting started. A MINUS

Omar Souleyman: Bahdeni Nami (Monkeytown) It's been said that Souleyman, not unlike Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Ramones, mines a basic style so unwaveringly that it's impossible even marginally differentiating one record from another. Though I haven't sampled much of the output from the supposed 850 quickie CDs he doled out when he worked Syrian weddings, music later excerpted on loving compilations from Sublime Frequencies, his amalgam of electronic production techniques and the Syrian nuptial music known as dabke is approached differently here than on 2013's excellent Wenu Wenu. Though at the time I praised producer Kieran "Four Tet" Hebdan for taking a hands-off approach, this new set, incredibly the prolific Souleyman's second proper studio album, recorded in Istanbul rather than Brooklyn but remixed by western DJs, strikes me as more carefully produced even as the instrumentation leans more toward the traditional -- a nice trick. It's also a tad slower, which might disappoint the ranters, revelers, and roisterers at Bonnaroo, but might move me to describe the result as more "song-oriented" than what he's offered previously if only I could speak Arabic. The arrangements and improvisations are certainly more detailed and thought-through, thanks not only to returning synth genie Rizan Sa'id, but also fresh new recruit Khaled Youssef, who contributes intricate lines on the electric saz (the baglama to my Turkish readers), a stringed-instrument native to the Middle East, and a close cousin to the lute and the bouzouki. In this thrilling context, the only failure is Danny "Legowelt" Wolfers' lame, lo-fi tweaking of the killer title cut, which sacrifices a compact, precise mix for one mired in a style its creator describes as "a hybrid form of slam jack combined with deep Chicago House, romantic ghetto technofunk and EuroHorror Soundtrack." The remainder however, is so trenchant and persuasive it might have me pensively fingering my misbaha as Souleyman does in his videos if I actually owned one -- the perfect melding of the amin and the hey-ho-let's-go. Not many electronica wizards would graciously thank you for listening after a particularly banging track. This one does. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness (XO/Republic) Best production since House of Balloons, but really: if you can find a woman who will blow you all night, make you come three times, and you're not sobbing for her to stop by 9:30, you're in the wrong fucking business ("Losers," "The Hills") ***

Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA) You can't fool me with all this "condemnation of our tabloid news-obsessed society" stuff, Jazmine -- I saw you tending bar on Watch What Happens: Live ("Silver Lining," "#HoodLove") ***

They Might Be Giants: Glean (Idlewild) So hooked on novelty this time around that when a song is actually "about" something, you notice ("All the Lazy Boyfriends," "Good to Be Alive," "Aaa") **

Daniel Romano: If I've Only One Time Asking (New West) The problem with playing it straight: he might become Bobby Braddock, but he'll never be George Jones ("Strange Faces," "Learning to do Without Me") **

Maddie & Tae: Start Here (Dot/Big Machine) Since their attention-getting hit deconstructs country cliches so well, you wonder why the rest of the record revels in them -- until you realize the follow-up single ponders their careerist ambitions ("Girl in a Country Song," "Your Side of Town") *


Ryan Adams: Live at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) Comprising ten songs in the physical version, an endless forty-two in the digital download, this record is damn near critic-proof -- to anyone in Adams' fawning, sycophantic claque, this is a treasure trove of sensitive, heartfelt singer-songwriting. To those of us unimpressed by his portentous tenor, nebulous tunes, self-involved lyrics, turgid tempos, and lazy instrumental technique, this is torture akin to being wrapped in a straitjacket and forced to watch a turtle on Quaaludes attempt to crawl out of a half-filled bathtub. The enraptured silence that surrounds Adams during this unceasingly lugubrious, all-acoustic showcase is unfathomable, unless they're checking their cell phone feeds as often as he jokes. As for the revealing, self-aware between-song patter, it could make a companion disc at least as useful as 1974's notorious Having Fun With Elvis on Stage. "We're not gonna make it louder -- you're just gonna have to listen harder." "I don't remember writing [this song]. I was just super, super fucked up . . . and then I woke up the next day . . . in my serial-killer handwriting it was written on a cereal box or some cliché like that . . . like a cry for help." "I don't know if this kind of, like, sadness is interesting for this long." "I can't fucking play [piano] at all . . . in fact, when I learned this thing, I only learned what barre chords were on the black keys because there were less of them . . . because apparently I had something else to do like . . . probably drugs." "Oh fuck, wrong key." "This song is so sappy." "[I'm sure] 86% of you are on Paxils [sic], so you understand about depression . . . you're at a fuckin' Ryan Adams show." "This song is really long, so if you have to go to the bathroom, go now." "I made this record . . . and I didn't like it because it was stupid . . . and then I made another one and I really liked it, but it totally was stupid . . . and then I made another new record that just has my face on the cover." "I don't even know what capo position [this song] is in . . . I'm assuming it's in [this one] because I'm usually too lazy to change it." "Thank you for coming to see me play this depressing shit." The latter of which, naturally, earns him resounding applause from the front row to the box seats, as the poor, piteous testudine sinks dejectedly under the surface of the water, glub, glub glub. D PLUS

Dr. Dre: Compton (Aftermath/Interscope) Andre Young has shelved two projects since 2001's creatively-titled 2001, and though he credits "perfectionism" as the reason, I'm more convinced he nixed them, particularly the long-awaited Detox, because he wanted to protect his "brand." Never one you looked to for deep thinking or original ideas, Young is less a passionate craftsman than a consummate businessman. Most of his "greatness," at least the parts he didn't mooch off George Clinton, belongs to his proteges. As a performer, his greatest "accomplishment" is creating and popularizing the G-funk paradigm, which from its lazy musicality to its cynical embrace of casual sexism and rationalized violence stunted hip hop evolution. Nevertheless, 2001 was the swansong for his schtick --one of the many things you can say about Eminem is that he subverted the form with irony, humor, and psychological complexity, setting a standard that made the old modes passe, as he himself illustrated on the retrogressive "horrorcore" homage Relapse. Dre was responsible for much of that disaster's music, and don't think its commercial failure didn't scare him, especially when his own 2011 single "I Need A Doctor" failed to (as they say in board meetings) perform to expectations. Supposedly what this offers in penance is "consciousness," which basically means Dre wants to impress Kendrick Lamar fans with a few gratuitous references to the injustices of police brutality. But in fact what we get mostly are retreads of the usual palaver: preaching the same small-minded rugged individualism, shutting up his numerous detractors, likening his "art" to badass street thuggery, and of course, lyrically recapitulating past successes. Meanwhile, Kendrick and Eminem rap from the back pages of their notebooks, Dre re-stages the scenario of "Kim" while stripping it of its context, and various no-names provide so much ghostwriting one suspects Eazy-E is earning some royalty points. "One day I'mma have everything" boasts one of his underlings, a brag so much more one-dimensional than anything on To Pimp a Butterfly, which doesn't bullshit about the high price tag of the African American success story. But what do you expect? Lamar's main man is Wallace Thurman. When Dre wants an inspirational speech ("And to do better than the next guy, I just had to kill") he channels famed civil rights leader Jimmy Iovine. Only one mean street walked down here, and it's not in Compton -- it's in Santa Monica. C PLUS

Muse: Drones (Warner Bros./Helium-3) I always figured this British pop-prog power trio were what Queen would have sounded like had they been into manscaping, which I suppose is one of the many things that makes them attractive to swooning teenage girls. Nevertheless, if they want to challenge their tween demographic with a concept album about the dehumanization of technological warfare, or in leader Matthew Bellamy's words, "a modern metaphor for what it is to lose empathy," between the football stadium fascism of their here-come-the-choppers pomp rock and their sanctimonious two-dimensional tracts, this doesn't connect with anything resembling compassion or reason. Branding those in service as drones, psychos, reapers, and puppets but somehow never abandoning his overblown metaphors to call out the true jingoists and warmongers out by name, Bellamy is as philosophically hollow as the straw men he condemns. Ever met any Marines, Matthew? I have -- many are filled with regret, guilt, and anger toward their country, far from the Orwellian stooges that populate your songs. For every unhinged sociopath there is a misplaced poet, like the literal one who read his harrowing, versified experiences to a writing group I once proctored, and who within minutes reduced us to babbling brooks. All of which reminds me that Freddie Mercury dug a man in uniform -- and was smart enough to have a sense of humor about it. C PLUS

Destroyer: Poison Season (Merge) Dan Bejar is not a lounge lizard -- he's a lounge Gollum, scampering across a cramped stage in an abandoned Ramada Inn, hissing about "his precious." I suppose this is intended to be "ironic" -- but does that make it listenable? B

Lou Barlow: Brace the Wave (Joyful Noise) I was initially going to go easy on the archetypal indie rock balladeer's best batch of tunes since the '90s -- sure they're essentially demos, but half a great Sebadoh album could come from them, right? Then I realized that not one song radiated the magic of 1993's essentially-a-demo "Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)" B MINUS

Ryan Adams: 1989 (Pax-Am) I'm sure there are many bepenised twits who secretly think Adams "ennobles" Swift or some bullshit like that, but I say it's about time he had top drawer material. Now if only he could do something about his drummer. Hell, his whole band. And his cheapjack production values. And while he's at it, do something about being Ryan Adams. B MINUS

Tame Impala: Currents (Interscope) Evolved from being indie-rock's Todd Rundgren to its Mannheim Steamroller. C PLUS

The Clientele: Alone and Unreal: The Best of the Clientele (Merge) In which London's Alasdair MacLean wonders what the Left Banke would have sounded like with the Auteur's Luke Haines as the frontman. Creepy and "beautiful," I guess -- but after seven albums, where's their "Pretty Ballerina" or "Walk Away Renée?" C PLUS

Petite Noir: La Vie Est Belle (Domino) "And while [Yannick] Ilunga frequently incorporates elements of his half-Congolese, half-Angolan ancestry, his music shouldn't be shoved off into that condescending, colonialist hangover, 'world music.'" So sniffs Pitchfork's enlightened Miles Raymer, and fair enough -- but who said we King Leopold II types pined for someone on the African continent who evoked David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and Peter Gabriel? C


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