A Downloader's Diary (44): December 23, 2015

by Michael Tatum

Those who have suffered through my brief introductions to this column over these past few years know two things about them. First, I hate doing them. And second, the dark days of November/December are my least productive weeks of the year. So there aren't as many records discussed below as have been knocking around my download folder. However, unlike my usual practice, I'll keep plying through 2015 well into 2016 -- and will certainly find time to say nice things about Courtney Barnett, who certainly has earned a slot in my top five.

Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch) Because I've absorbed this companion record to Anderson's documentary of the same name over a dozen times on headphones, I disagree that this gorgeous song cycle doesn't contain any "music." In any case, without her deep, rich backgrounds, her natural speaking voice has always been musical in its timbre, cadences, and timing, as in this well-turned joke: "Now I had heard rat terriers could understand 'about' . . . five-hundred words, and I wanted to see . . . which ones . . . they were." But what makes these meticulously structured remembrances of Anderson's mother, childhood, and artistically-inclined dog Lolabelle endlessly fascinating aren't individual parts per se, but rather how these strands of memory, when tied together, explore how we approach death, and how discovering what connects the living, the dead, and the things we leave behind doesn't make the process any less impenetrable. Like Anderson, I keep my own mysteries. Why did I burst into laughter when the mariachi band began to play "De Colores" at my grandfather's funeral -- the song I associated with him -- before I broke down crying? When our beloved beta Ruby passed away, why did I sob about him being "my little boy" while sitting with my wife in the office of Forever Friends Pet Cremation? Anderson explores her own riddles by connecting parallel lines of thought: between a diving board accident that puts her younger self in traction and trying to pinpoint the one moment she thought her mother loved her. How Kierkegaard's observation that "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards" recontextualizes a Lou Reed song she doesn't cover, but lifts wholesale from Ecstasy. Then there are paradoxes she leaves unresolved: casually mentioning she's seen three ghosts in her lifetime, but only reveals the identity of one. How the meaning of a repressed memory -- the self-serving nature of storytelling -- negates the driving force of her entire career. And what is the meaning of Anderson's dream, in which she invents a way for doctors to sew Lolabelle into her stomach so that she can give birth to her? "It's just the way . . . things had to be," Anderson notes sadly. I think of Ruby and I understand. Like Lou and Laurie, my wife and I never had children either. A PLUS

Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop) "If there was nothing left to lose/Then you'd have something to prove," coos Victoria Legrand to the twirling majorette on the bewitching opening grabber, and she's not kidding. What I don't understand is why August's dull Depression Cherry garnered such strong notices from the usual suspects (Pitchfork, cough cough) and this one, released a scant three months later, has been completely ignored -- is everyone embarrassed about overrating them then that they're hedging their bets now? In any case, this has to be the nuttiest marketing scheme by an indie rock band to date -- it's like Springsteen decided to drop Human Touch in autumn as an apology for putting his fans to sleep with Lucky Town in the summer. And yet it gets weirder: without sounding drastically different, this material, supposedly recorded during the Depression Cherry sessions yet not considered "outtakes" or a "companion album" by the duo, has me scratching my head in a side-by-side comparison. What exactly makes this one superior to its drab predecessor? Slightly more emphasis on the backbeat? More attention to melodic detail? Chewier chord progressions? Legrand's casual use of the word "peridot" (gem-quality olivine, a deep green, magnesium-rich mineral)? The songs are on average a measly five to ten beats-per-minute faster? It isn't a peppier philosophical outlook, that's for sure (first couplet: "Imitation red carnation/Nothing is new and neither are you"). The differences are subtle -- as you'd figure with this band, probably too subtle. Yet this recaptures the stately grandeur of Bloom without sallying further into "the larger stages and bigger rooms" they complained about crafting their music for in the note they published on their website -- this sounds more organic and "homemade" without falling into the trap of being chintzy. Now if only the majorette didn't drop le bâton on the well-titled "Elegy to the Void." B PLUS

Blackalicious: Imani, Vol. 1 (OGM Recordings) Especially since they've been dormant since 2005's excellent The Craft, this Sacramento duo's undiminished chops are pretty inspiring from guys on my side of forty -- like, say, Steely Dan resuming after an equivalent amount of time on Two Against Nature, they've lost nothing musically or lyrically, with the enjambment-loving Gift of Gab spitting out breakneck rhymes so rapidly the transcribers on RapGenius have been throwing in the towel and resigning themselves to a parade of bracketed question marks. So given this constitutes their fourth full-length in a decade and a half, I'm chomping at the bit for the two other volumes they promise in this fan-funded trilogy in the next two years. Yet though I'm hurt that they stoop to the moldy canard that critics don't have the talent they do and therefore should keep their opinions to themselves (I thought we compared musicians to each other rather than to ourselves, but never mind) I'm nevertheless moved to point out they waste far too much time reminding us how dope they are -- content does occasionally present itself as a problem, especially if they're going to waste a couplet on the presumed color of Jesus' skin like it was 1991. But Chief Xcel's old school beats and samples are so strong such nitpicking will only occur to you if you stop and think about it. And anyway, I approve of sentiments like: "Funky like Good Times, Soul Train, or What's Happening/Darker than the random check of passengers/Traveling first-class/Blacker than the President/Well, half of him." And before you inquire about the blackness of that episode of What's Happening where Re-Run humiliated the gang by bootlegging a Doobie Brothers gig, send out good vibes that consequential installments contain more material like the grim "Escape," about an aging gangsta operating past his sell-by date: "Being respected as an OG/Someone no one dares/To cross, but what he doesn't realize is/No one cares." A MINUS

Eric Church: Mr. Misunderstood (EMI Nashville) Between the thinly-veiled racial paranoia of "Dark Side," the unnecessarily misogynistic tone poem about Nashville, and the noxious cover art modeled from action movie posters, 2014's The Outsiders was exactly the type of reactionary horseshit Church dodged (or at least muted) on the 2011 breakthrough Chief. Released in physical form solely to the members of his fan club but available to everyone else via iTunes, this gets back to basics, with a twist -- first track imagines an alienated teenager who consoles himself with Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Wilco, with the latter's Jeff Tweedy singled out for being "a real bad mother." Later, the stack of vinyl a girlfriend leaves behind in "Record Year" -- a basic country music conceit, right? -- turns out to contain not just Willie and Waylon but Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. Some may find such references as apologetic pandering to Liberal rock critic types, but in a genre in which cynical citations of classic country songs are offered as actual lyrics (did anyone actually believe Brad Paisley when he claimed he broke down crying recording "This Is Country Music?") this is a startling declaration of faith from someone who lives for strong melodies with a good story attached. I could do without the bloated melodrama "Knives of New Orleans," narrated by yet another one of Church's good-men-pushed-too-far -- scared white men with itchy trigger fingers should not be romanticized as underdogs. Maybe that's why I don't mind the cornball closer about all the things Church has learned from his three year old son -- "Say 'I love you' all day long/And when you're wrong, you should just say so" -- because it's the only time he realizes empathy is for other people, rather than something you want people to give to you. "Love's in Need of Love Today" -- first song on Key of Life, remember Eric? A MINUS

Leonard Cohen: Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour (Columbia) This octogenerian has taken his sepulchral croak all over the world since his ex-manager absconding with his life's savings coaxed him out of the Mt. Baldy Zen Centre, but how much of it should be documented? The two-disc Live in London was definitive, but the 2010 quickie Songs from the Road, released a mere fourteen months later, shuffled his most overexposed tracks ("Hallelujah," "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," arrrgh) into a deck of minor classics to no great effect. And 2014's three-disc Live in Dublin chronicled nothing exciting other than a guessing game as to what major metropolis might generate this sacred cash cow's next doorstop. But this strange beast, assembled from concerts and sound checks, really does attempt to present itself as "new" product: one bemused comedy routine (good for a laugh), two recent copyrights (negligible), two covers (would you believe George Jones?) and two more minor classics ("Night Goes On" and "Joan of Arc"), led by three songs you might have missed on I'm Your Man, The Future, etc. because stronger songs upstaged them, but sound terrific here with the help of Cohen's crack touring band. I'm especially taken by the brilliant "Field Commander Cohen," written for New Skin for the Old Ceremony in response to his time in Israel and, given his later role in a controversy over twinned concerts at Tel Aviv and the West Bank, I fantasize about being an envoy to Ariel Sharon types to lay down their guns for bourgeoisie pleasures: "Waiting rooms and ticket lines/Silver bullet suicides/And messianic ocean tides/And racial roller-coaster rides/And other forms of boredom advertised as poetry." One thing about Fidel Castro, the putative subject of that verse -- he never wasted much time "working for the Yankee Dollar." Put a fiver in an old man's cap, will ya? A MINUS

Drive-by Truckers: It's Great to Be Alive! (ATO) Based on the RIAA's very strange calculating practices, in which each disc of a release counts as one copy sold, Bruce Springsteen's Live 1975/1985 has sold thirteen million units -- this boils down approximately to four million actual copies, mostly as a five-disc vinyl or a three-disc CD set. So however many beads you swipe to the right on your abacus, this item materialized on a shitload of coffee tables, leaving me to wonder -- how often did fans rummage through it at the time, and how often have they listened to it since? Tallying up roughly to an epic three hours and thirty-five minutes (longer than Dances with Wolves but shorter than Lawrence of Arabia), this three-disc set, which supposedly recreates the experience of an actual Truckers show rather than documenting a year-by-year artist evolution, clocks in at a more modest three hours and a quarter -- realistically, how much utility is there in that, even for fanatics? Yet I'm sure the fanatics have already picked this package up -- like the Boss, these Alabamans do inspire rabid devotion in their base. More or less foam-flecked at the mouth for them myself, I'll objectively note two-thirds of this reprises songs from their four best albums without redefining them, and that it offers no new originals or covers to compensate, save for the minor "Runaway Train," from Hood and Cooley's old band Adam's House Cat. But the remaining fifteen songs recapitulated from their lesser albums are impressively choice -- Hood's brutal "Puttin' People on the Moon," about the pissed-off working class of Huntsville toiling in the shadow of the Marshall Space Flight Center, Cooley's "Birthday Boy," told from the point of view of a cynical stripper offering to wipe the nose of the mama's boy too nervous to know what to do with his hands, and many others. And the band resists the temptation to squeeze a bunch of material into a small space -- an hour for each disc is the perfect length. Sure, they do tour to death -- I've had plenty of chances to see them myself. But I work retail five nights a week, and I don't get out much. Hood and Cooley, who've spent their entire lives singing the working class blues they know so well, would understand. A MINUS

Future: DS2 (A1/Freebandz/Epic) Boy, am I naive. Supposedly a sequel to his download-only Dirty Sprite mixtape, Atlanta's Nayvadius Wilburn shortened the title of this blockbuster sequel to a three-character acronym because he was nervous Coca-Cola's legal team might force him to blow some commas, apostrophes, umlauts, and various other bits of punctuation on trademark violation. Why, I thought -- doesn't "sprite" refer to the elfish, mythological creature? Nope, he's really alluding to his boy Drake's favorite product endorsement -- which Wilburn and other junkies mix with the purple-hued cough syrup Actavis, supposedly discontinued because of its rampant abuse, but findable if, like Wilburn, you've got connections. Some muse whether or not the unrelenting monkey on his back might be digging harder into his shoulder blades because of his painful breakup with Ciara, especially since the first track candidly boasts "I chose the dirty over you" as he pisses and sees codeine coming out. But there's a serious chicken-egg paradox in effect here -- Wilburn's slavish devotion to the "M.O.E." code ("money over everything") reveals a more twisted pathology, particularly in a deep-seated paranoia not only toward outsiders to the perceived loyalty of his friends, a theme that appears often enough that suggests a level of self-awareness. Mind you, after repeated listenings I'm still not sure how many layers of consciousness this troubled man has -- when he needs therapy turns not to Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, but Alexander McQueen, the late fashion designer, and his disturbing shout-out to overdosed rapper and friend A$AP Yams is: "Love live A$AP Yams/I'm on that codeine right now." With his spare music and tuneless delivery reinforcing his anomie, this is the sound of a black hole sucking everything in its path -- drugs, pussy, a false sense of security -- into the event horizon. That Wilburn knows the cycle won't end until he's dead or in jail only makes it more compelling. A disquieting glimpse into one man's season in hell, here are a few pages from the diary of a damned soul. A

Jlin: Dark Energy (Planet Mu) Jerilynn Patton's unnerving music is often described in the context of Chicago's "footwork" subgenre, a form of electronica related to street contests in which quick-stepping dancers showcase their best moves. This is useful, but I'm more fascinated by the fact she hails from Gary, Indiana. Located in the state's northwestern Lake County, the "City in Motion" is most famous for being the birthplace of the Jackson clan, but it's also one of the the centers of the American steel industry, and much like Flint, Michigan, fell apart economically when the industry shifted much of its operations overseas. Currently, the city's demographic is eight-five percent African-American, disproportionately high compared to the national average, which is about thirteen percent. Patton, who is both black and works at a steel mill, firmly denies her churning, industrial backdrops have anything to do with the disquieting music of conveyor belts and blast furnaces, describing her music to Fact's Laurent Fintoni as coming from an emotional place, "the belly of the beast." Yet there's something coldly mechanical even in the subtle Afro-Cuban influence, which juxtaposes 6/8 figures over 4/4 rhythms to nerve-wracking effect. I'm also struck that she limits her samples to the stray disembodied voice, and that two of them address a daughter's relationship to her mother: one from the horror movie The Ring ("You don't want to hurt anyone," "But I do, and I'm sorry"), another from Mommie Dearest ("I am not one of your fans!"), and neither played for camp or ho-hum shock horror. It may be a minor record, but she's a major talent, and either way someone needs to send her demos to Beyonce or Kanye pronto -- this is one woman who needs to get the hell out of town. A MINUS

Peaceful Solutions: Barter 7 (free download) For comedic purposes, let's do a quick recap. L'il Wayne, known to his mama as D'wayne Carter, releases a string of numbered albums titled The Carter. While his sequel to the lukewarmly-received The Carter V languishes in legal and label limbo, his shameless idolator Jeffrey "Young Thug" Williams considers christening his first release for Atlantic Records The Carter VI as an homage, but because Wayne can afford better lawyers, at the last minute alters its title to Barter 6 because Bloods find any word that begins with the letter c a "burseword" (what silly bunts!). Meanwhile, somewhere in Brooklyn, the alt-rap duo Peaceful Solutions name their new opus Barter 7, because, why not? "Peaceful Solutions" is the new handle of the former Kool and Kass, appropriated from the title of their highly amusing 2013 mixtape. Confused? Isn't that the idea? Guys like these don't have neat and tidy discographies -- their output is akin to magazines in a dentist's office, stray issues lying across a white plastic cube table, bent and thumbed-through, arranged in no particular order, entire weeks and months missing. But to those of us who have been following Kool AD's scattershot and somewhat repetitive post-Das Racist career, 2014's Right OK served as a kind of summation, an anthology of his choicest jokes, forcing him to start from scratch. In other words, no more jokes about Justin Bieber, Drake's pathetic beginnings on DeGrassi, or the Maybach Music mixtape assembly line, but plenty of new yuks, my favorite being a parody of Trina's "Real One" in which he rolls out an uproarious Auto-Tuned marathon of minutely-varied and often muddled brags about his authenticity: "First verse I said 'I'm deep like a Navy SEAL'/I'm a real one/So then I was about to rhyme that before the hook came I was about to say/'At the club like a baby seal'/Cause I'm a real one/Cause I used to club baby seals." If that doesn't make you chuckle, consider once again Club Bandcamp isn't charging a two-drink minimum. Although when Kool requests several times in a breakdown for silent partner Kassa to "spit some boars," make sure you're not sitting in the front row. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

The B-52's: Live! 8-24-1979 (Rhino) Ricky's so on fire you'll wish Kate and Cindy had stayed in tune on "Rock Lobster" ("52 Girls," "Devil in my Car") ***

Chastity Belt: Time to Go Home (Hardly Arts) From digging casual sex to finding it wanting -- not much of a story arc, is there? ("Cool Slut," "Time to Go Home") **

Motorhead: Bad Magic (UDR) If the devil's in your rear view, put the pedal to the metal ("Fire Storm Hotel," "Sympathy for the Devil") *


Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings (Universal) Previous Nirvana exploitations have been notable for not being especially exploitative -- from 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York to 2009's Live at Reading, one gets the sense that no matter how much Courtney Love and Dave Grohl squabbled, they knew they had an important legacy to protect. Conceived as the "soundtrack" to Brett Morgen's documentary (also in quotes, perhaps?) of the same name, this ragtag collection of fragments, noodlings, and endless stretches of mental masturbation is a greater transgression than the dribs and drabs on the With the Lights Out box set, which at least offered, you know, songs. Here we have stoned ramblings, Roarschach blobs, varispeed experiments, juvenile stabs at improvisational comedy, and a skin-crawling version of the Beatles' "And I Love Her" that would have made me call Child Protection Services. Its most accomplished piece of music is a painful spoken word piece about false bravado and sexual humiliation more revealing than anything else here, especially when you can hear Cobain turn the page solely to get to the final sentence ("I hated everyone, for they were so phony"). It's followed by the grunge version of "We Three Kings" -- out of tune, of course. E

Lana del Rey: Honeymoon (Interscope) My Lana del Rey problem is similar to my Melissa McCarthy problem. Some argue that for a heavy-set woman to garner leading roles in films constitutes a sociocultural breakthrough, others counter that every single comedic role she has taken has been written specifically for an overweight woman, and that her girth figures into the punchline of many of her jokes. For my own part, neither of these two points of view are relevant, because McCarthy's movies offend me only on one basic level: they aren't funny. A woman who falls over on a motorbike because her heft throws off her balance -- how is that remotely witty? Similarly, I don't care whether the florid, romantic fatalism of Lizzie Grant's alter ego is good for feminism or sets women back to the dark ages, whether she's "sincere" or "ironic." Quoting Goffin/King's "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" or bemoaning how she fucked her way to the top fails creatively both ways -- if she's sardonically role-playing she's not saying anything particularly new or compelling, and if she's writing from heartfelt personal experience, she's pathetic, and her Marilyn-Monroe-Goes-to-Julliard vocalizations and Julie London-styled arrangements of her collaborators only make things worse. 2011's Born to Die at least had the benefit of coming first, while 2013's Ultraviolence boasted two undeniably seductive tracks: "West Coast," which incorporated an actual tempo change, and "Brooklyn Baby," which hooked me because I'm a sucker for songs that romanticize Lou Reed. The tempos here are unbelievably turgid, while the references are perplexing, and arbitrary when they're not ridiculous: A History of Violence, "Ground Control to Major Tom," "Rapper's Delight," "Lay Lady Lay," T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, the oral sex conceit of "Like a Prayer," and in the dire "God Knows I've Tried," two Eagles titles. Rhyming "ghetto" with "Art Deco" -- is that a joke? When she rhymes "ciao amore" with -- I'm not kidding -- "cacciatore," is she referring to the chicken dish, or is she aware that word translates into Italian as "hunter?" Who cares? Opening line of the year: "We both know it's not fashionable to love me." B MINUS

Grimes: Art Angels (4AD) Though this is more fully formed than 2012's Visions, I'm a little alarmed that from her pre-pubescent squeals to middle school epiphanies the art angel of Claire Boucher's better nature is a j-pop princess gunning to cross over. Especially since her twee electropop negates the possibility she's playing this role for irony, I have no idea what strong-minded female critics see in her -- the popularity of an act like Tokyo Girls Style could only be possible in a country where middle-aged businessmen sneak off to Akihabara sex shops to grab a pair of used panties from one of those creepy vending machines. Is this philosophically akin to that demonstration I once saw on television about young Muslim-American women choosing to wear or not wear the hijab -- that when it comes down to it, it's "her choice?" Beats me. As for what male critics might see in her, that they spend too much time wanking to anime porn presents itself as an all too-real possibility. B MINUS

Janet Jackson: Unbreakable (Rhythm Nation/BMG) From "Let's Wait Awhile" to "Throb" and cupped breasts on the cover of Rolling Stone was quite a fascinating journey, but this snoozy reunion with Jam/Lewis ponders what she doesn't know much about -- "The Great Forever," or something like that. In other developments, if you ever wanted to know what Michael would have sounded like with botox injections in his larynx, you now have your answer. B MINUS

St. Germain: St. Germain (Nonesuch) Ludovic Navarre's idea-- admittedly a great one -- is to do for African music what Moby did for blues and gospel on Play. Now if only his highest aspiration wasn't to land a spot on the next Buddha Bar compilation. B MINUS

The Mantles: All Odds End (Slumberland) Initially, I warmed to this because its mild glow recalled the naivete of the great New Zealand bands. Except this ain't 1986, this quartet hails from San Francisco, and their "naivete" isn't quite organic or willful to justify what it really signifies: they can't write or play. C PLUS

Trust Fund: Seems Fair (Turnstile) American-inspired British indie rock has always seemed a little too neatnick for my tastes, but the right singer and songs might compensate for that. Ellis Jones' squeaky tenor is a little too appropriate to someone who describes his bedtime piss as "doing as wee." C PLUS

Neon Indian: Vegas Intl. Night School (Mom + Pop) A few weeks ago, my boss informed me that Indians "always" seemed to fill out customer surveys. Wondering how scientific his data was -- if he had tracked every single Indian customer in the store, divining their DNA through security cameras and whatnot -- I asked him if he meant Native-Americans or those who hailed from the country of Gandhi and Bollywood. Part of his reply involved breaking out into what I assumed was an authentic rendition of a rain dance ceremony, his open palm striking his pursed lips as he emitted a low, monotonic hum. So for the purposes of clarity, I should probably tell you what kind of Indian this Mexican-born electropop dude is: the kind that really digs Howard Jones. C

Susanne Sundfør: Ten Love Songs (Warner Music Norway) If you call "compositions" that split the difference between Frédéric and Kate Chopin "love songs" this lyric: "Here I stand with a gun in my hand/Waiting for the water to calm." Wouldn't it be ironic if Kate Bush pushed her in? C


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