A Downloader's Diary (46): May 17, 2016

by Michael Tatum

I wasted much of my April on O.P.M.'s (you know, Other People's Masterpieces), putting way too much time into records that didn't give too much back. This resulted in lots of also rans until the last few weeks, when I was hit by the deluge. More to come soon, but already 2016 is looking pretty damn good.

Beyonce: Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia) My favorite conspiracy theory regarding this hotly discussed item accuses Queen Bey of being cahoots with hubby to put their dirty laundry out on display -- or fictionalizing non-existent marital travails outright -- in order to push a few more units. That's patently ridiculous, but no more so than my own crackpot speculation: that the dreaded "Becky with the good hair" refers not to actress Rita Ora, but Beck Hansen -- you know, that has-been whose Boring Place (or whatever it was called) beat Knowles 2013 self-titled release for Album of the Year at the 2014 Grammys. "Oh, so I'm not an 'auteur' enough for the blogosphere?" she muttered through gritted teeth. "I'll sample or hook up with every white male musician in the indie rock universe and then we'll see who's the goddamn auteur." So two years later we now have a Pitchfork-approved gallery of heroes (Jack White, Ezra Koenig) and villains (James Blake!) joining wheelhouse buddies like the Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar, and to a man, Knowles plays every single one like he was a trumpet or violin. Strong from start to finish, spitting out more crotch-grabbing, shit-talking vulgarities than Jay-Z has over an entire career, I can't testify as to whether this toes the line in regards to proper and/or current race and feminist philosophy -- I'll leave that to bell hooks. But since I probably know pop music better than ms. hooks, I'll point out that doesn't matter -- ultimately, Knowles' true political message is stated outright on the last line of the record: "You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation/Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper." So if you're still scratching your head as to how Knowles can link the personal to the political, in song or in her must-see longform video, consider what she's really doing is linking sexual power to artistic power to any other power you can think of -- not once does she ever let the boys lose sight of whose in charge: "I break chains all by myself/Won't let my freedom rot in hell/I'm-a keep running/Cause a winner don't quit on themselves." And though I wished she had said "herself," I'm moved to quote the old adage. You know the one: "If life gives you lemons, squeeze those lemons 'til the juice runs down that cheating motherfucker's leg." A PLUS

Bombino: Azel (Nonesuch) This excellent offering is so unsurprising I was considering re-running my review of 2013's Nomad, altering nothing but the title, to see if anyone would notice. If he didn't take any chances, why should I? Perhaps I'm being overly cynical -- five years ago I couldn't get enough of the so-called "desert blues" coming from Mali and the nations surrounding it, now I'm a little bored with re-explaining, for example, that the phrase "desert blues" is a lazy Anglo catch-all for several different wings of similar-sounding West African music. Unfortunately, I noticed that Omara Moctar had traded one indie rock producer for another, and since the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach was my main reservation last time, it nudged me into the marginal differentiation zone, and even if though it sometimes felt like I was comparing two swatches of off white wallpaper, eventually the contrast registered. Where Auerbach makes every artist he works with, from Dr. John to Lana del Rey, sound more "mechanical" than they actually are, the more laissez faire David Longstreth beefs up Moctar's sound without re-wiring the band into cyborgs to do it. There are even some acoustic numbers, so the flavor here is rounder and fuller than what Moctar served up previously. If I were to recommend one album to a stranger, this would be it. But Moctar doesn't need a silent partner any more than he needs an autocrat -- like most worldbeat artists looking to cross over, an optimal pairing would be someone who brings his or her own ideas to the table without obscuring, in this case, the coruscating guitar and compelling rhythms that made Moctar a vital force. When your third record could almost be a combination of your first and second, you need something to break out of your rut. Hell, why not give his hero Mark Knopfler a call? This guy needs to sell out -- quick. A MINUS

Robbie Fulks: Upland Songs (Bloodshot) The strange odyssey of Chicago's Robbie Fulks is dotted with so much weirdness it would take several reviews to document it all. He inadvertently invented bro country in his brief late '90s stint on Geffen with the I-thought-it-was-a-parody "Let's Kill Saturday Night," made a shameless bid for rock critics by advertising the "Fountains of Wayne Hotline" for struggling songwriters, and dumped a bunch of outtakes into a CD he christened The Very Best of Robbie Fulks. More recently, he's evolved into his true calling as a folkie, first because he's better at quiet empathy than raunchiness or sarcasm, second because he's the rare man who's better at wise than wiseass. Although this is the kind of folk record where the love objects are named "Katy Kay" and "Sarah Jane" and Jenny Scheinman is credited on "fiddle" rather than the usual "violin," Fulks doesn't waste time romanticizing downhome living or Grandma's feather bed -- one of his protagonists says fare-thee-well to Carolina gals, while another returns from the North to the resentment of his family and neighbors. Nor for that matter is he especially interested in the usual singer-songwriter confessionals. Instead, he fashions perfect miniatures that you might mistake for a public domain classic until you read the credits, deepened by harmonic chord shadings much more sophisticated than this record's more straightforward predecessor, 2013's Gone Away Backward. In almost every song, from James Agee photographing "Alabama at Night" but unable to talk a single soul, to the rest home resident who loans his memories of the family who doesn't visit him to a neighbor who has no family at all, the common theme is alienation and loneliness, occasionally lifted when one of his characters tries to understand those around him. This peaks with the stunning "Needed," one of those songs that comes to a songwriter once in a lifetime. It's about telling the grown daughter you almost abandoned before she was born that sometimes taking the road more traveled makes all the difference. A

Anderson .Paak: Malibu (Steel Wool) I once saw an absolutely indelible D.L. Hughley comedy routine in which he riffed through a hilarious laundry list of his impoverished childhood. A few years later however, one of his jokes hit home in an unexpected way, when my mother told me that she watered down orange juice because she knew that if she didn't, her eldest son would polish off a carton before she would have money to replace it. That revelation is the key to unlocking this wondrous record, in which painful memories from one's past don't function as manipulative tropes or stock genre exercises to satisfy an audience's expectations -- as they do, say, on Margo Price's Midwest Farmer's Daughter -- but as a way to connect with fellow travelers who are "products of the tube and the free lunch" (and thank you to guest Talib Kweli for reminding us that in Oakland, the Black Panthers initiated those free lunch programs). Brandon Paak Anderson has been through some shit -- both of his parents were incarcerated for non-violent crimes at different points in his life, while as an adult he was dismissed without warning from his job at a marijuana farm, rendering him, his wife, and his newborn son temporarily homeless. In response, he networked like a motherfucker, providing the few bright spots on Dr. Dre's otherwise unattractively cynical Compton, paving the way for this, his breakthrough second solo album, which follows Venice, like Malibu a California paradise which must seem like a dreamworld to a poor kid from Oxnard whose saving grace from a dad in jail and a mom funneling her money to Chumash Indian casinos was old reruns on cable TV. Although the music is so dense it takes more than the usual three-four listen to realize it, evoking dreamworlds through color and sound is definitely his métier, as well as cajoling command performances from second-tier rappers and coaxing deep, hypnotic bass lines out of a string of session players. The result: the most visionary R&B record since D'Angelo's Voodoo. A

Parquet Courts: Human Performance (Rough Trade) Much like rappers, indie rock wiseacres have their patented schtick: alienation, anomie, the never-gets-old inability to love. Sure, there have been very few aesthetic breakthroughs on their turf for two decades -- this could have been recorded in 1994 -- but because they've learn to fend off those subjects off with irony and sarcasm, they're always good for a laugh, and if you have a way with a tune, all the better. But what happens after you sweep up the dust coming through the doors and windows rather than watching it collect on sills and awnings? With Rene Descartes providing their Latinate motto, you get Parquet Courts' most human performance, in which they turn their problem into their theme: displacement defined by a barrage of street sounds keeping you indoors, your favorite Chinese restaurant closing even though you still have the leftover fried rice in the fridge, inexpensive cell phone service that takes way too much commitment to sign up for. Even the harrowing vignette recalling the 2014 murder of two on-duty police officers -- ostensibly as a payback for brutality toward African-Americans, yet shooter Ismaaiyl Brinkley's victims were not only innocent but minorities themselves -- is recalled not through rhetoric or strongly defined images, but by confusion and barely registered details. And though I'm not sure whether "an extinguished crutch of a rollie inside yellow fingers" refers to the crutch of a Rollie chair (actually "Rolly") or, more likely, a joint burned to the nub, they're right to realize that nothing lasts, even if their idea of a metaphor is briefly rueing a wrapper that once enveloped a döner kebab. The shameless musical touches -- from vibes to keybs to synth squibbles to good old six-string rave-ups -- function as correctives to their self-imposed insularity. As does "Steady on my Mind," a love song that is one no matter how much they might deny it. A

Pet Shop Boys: Super (x2) The year is 1990, and Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have just played a show in Los Angeles. They're attending their own after party, when they hear a dynamite house remix from DJ Frankie Knuckles blaring from the speakers. Neil yells over the din: "Why don't we make records like this?" Chris looks at him incredulously: "Neil, it is us!" So began the Pet Shop Boys' superb second decade, in which the American club music they loved gave rise to a trio of excellent records: Very, one of the greatest records of the '90s, and two worthy sequels, Bilingual and Nightlife. Then, disappointed after their 2001 musical received mixed reviews, they mellowed out a little, churning out decent enough pop records that never relinquished their trademark cleverness, irony, or sophistication, but stinted a bit on the element that made them icons. I'm referring of course to cheese -- by which I don't mean just Brie or Camembert, but spreadable port wine and Cheddar Whiz straight out of the aerosol can (you didn't think those horns on "Domino Dancing" were "authentic" did you?). They attempted to rectify this on 2013's Electric by pretending to be one more hi-NRG revival act, but taking the lyrics out of the equation reduced them to "songs" that sounded more like demos. This tips the balance slightly, and though I wish they had fleshed a few of these tracks out a little, the first half in particular recalls the good old days: chiding a twenty-something who can't find his way back to his flat without a smartphone, mocking Kim Jong-un ("The joke is I'm not even a demagogue/Have you ever heard me giving a speech?"), and recalling a biology student Neil had a crush on back in the '80s when he was a "pop kid." I especially like the one line running through their opening quickie: "It's a long way to happiness, a long way to go/But I'm gonna get there, boy the only way I know." Note that use of the word "boy" -- from a Pet Shop Man who will turn 62 this July. And you thought electric guitars were the only way to stay young. B PLUS

Gwen Stefani: This is What the Truth Feels Like (Interscope) Back when No Doubt were breaking, Entertainment Weekly ran a piece in which they asked various musicians what they saw in a set of Rorschach blots, after which their responses were analyzed by a psychologist. Stefani's banal, monosyllabic responses were labelled by the "expert" as "childlike," which was certainly unfair (if Stephen Malkmus had given the same answers everyone would be smirking about how "ironic" he was) and incredibly presumptive on a lot of levels (who knows how seriously stars take those quickie tests?). Yet for me, the damage was done -- mentally, I dismissed Stefani as a blondie simpleton for years, chortling in sympathy when she was derided as a "cheerleader" by none other than Courtney Love, the subject of Stefani's future classic "Hollaback Girl." We can discuss how shallow, sexist, etc. that was on my part in the future, but in my defense until this record Stefani has never dug so deeply into what really makes herself tick, or reflected so much on the psychology underlining the two superstar relationships that have made her a gossip monger's wet dream. With teen pop savant Greg Kurstin and the team of Mattman and Robin taking care of the perky hooks, Stefani does several things that would be extraordinary for any artist, beginning with writing credible songs about happy love. Look no further than the euphoric "Make Me Like You" -- when she hits that octave jump or squeals "Oh God, I'm glad I found you," you'll feel the sexual charge between your legs even if you have the anatomy of a eunuch or Barbie doll. And though the second half overdoes the lust letters and revenge fantasies -- or maybe I'm just sick of trap production -- she also observes in her other peak performance one of the great paradoxes of romance: you never realize how much you once loved someone until resentment extinguishes that love to nothing. Both of these achievements take -- sorry, kids -- brains. And speaking of brains, does she call Miranda Lambert "stupid" in that terrific song that closes the regular release edition? Someone call the Enquirer! A MINUS

Wussy: Forever Sounds (Damnably) They think with the meatier sound of recent drumming/producing recruit Joe Klug they can inch a little closer to the big time, and why not? So turning up their amps, they fashion the noisiest guitar album of their not exactly bucolic career, inspiring Jason Gubbels of Spin to trot out comparisons to Ride and My Bloody Valentine. Although I'm sure Chuck and/or Lisa have a copy of Loveless on their respective shelves, the analogy doesn't quite wash, because without exception British bands employ chaos and clamor purely as an art move, utilizing that aesthetic as a method not as personal expression but as a way to connect to the divine. As proud Midwesterners, Wussy are more akin to the Afghan Whigs on Gentlemen, in which dissonance is an aural metaphor for doubt, tumult, and anguish. With both principals happily married if no less settled in their spirituality, they turn to myth and narrative, somewhat in the vein of R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction, albeit at a far higher pitch of poetry and musicality. Except where R.E.M. never shied from stooping to corn -- I have no idea what "Driver 8" means other than it maybe being about a train, but that melody has encouraged me to lie to myself about its "profundity" for thirty years -- the music doesn't quite connect with the words as they have on past Wussy records. Sure, the band works up a fine wallop on the monumental riff of "Gone," but when Lisa explores Dudeism as an alternative to Catholicism or Chuck obliquely quotes "MacArthur Park" and "Jack and Diane" I'm a bit perplexed. But these guys have an unmitigated advantage over early R.E.M., as well as hundreds of other pretenders: they may have their doubts in regards to Jesus, but they're true believers in rock and roll. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Lucy Dacus: No Burden (Egghunt) "Too old to play/Too young to mess around" ("Troublemaker Doppelgänger," "Strange Torpedo") ***

Seth Bogart: Seth Bogart (Hardly Art) Hairdresser on Fire Hunx gets Julie-ruined ("Eating Makeup," "Smash the TV") **

Loretta Lynn: Full Circle (Sony Legacy) A born songwriter, her singing approached greatness when she was expressing herself -- one more reason why the "Fist City" remake is pointless ("Wine into Water," "Lay Me Down") **

Bob Mould: Patch the Sky (Merge) Personally, I'm down with the urban myth that aspartame causes sterility in men ("The End of Things," "Pray For Rain") *

Nada Surf: You Know Who You Are (Barsuk) "One day, I'll love somebody else/One day, I'll take care of myself" -- truer words were never spoken ("Believe You're Mine," "New Bird") *

Hamburger Helper: Watch the Stove (free download) Somewhere, Action Bronson is wrinkling his nose in disgust (while lapping up the skillet) ("Hamburger Helper," "Crazy") *


PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island) Although this concept record about Harvey's trip to the poorest parts of Washington, DC contains some of her most rewarding music in years, much of it is marred by its creator's reflexive attitude toward the world -- rather than see things for what they are, she projects her value system on it. Consider her portrait of New York from 2000: a bustling locus of romance and mystery, whether talking time travel on a rooftop in Manhattan or tossing her bad fortune over the ledge. But had she been in a different mindset that year (or wanted a subject for, say, an art project) she could have made like Billy Joel and walked through Bedford-Stuy alone and Stories from the City would have been a completely different album. To be fair, that area of Brooklyn has gone through a great deal of gentrification in the past few decades, and is now more Harvey's kind of town -- I mean, one of her most indignant charges against D.C.'s Ward Seven is the dearth of, I kid you not, "sit down restaurants" ("I've heard the cry of the poor, and what they need is more bistros!"). Some criticize her lack of solutions to poverty and urban blight, but I'm more disturbed that rather than connecting to living, breathing people -- which would be a lot harder to do -- she instead portrays Ward Seven merely as an affront to her sense of proper "civilization" ("Broken glass/A white jawbone/Syringes, razors/A plastic spoon") (and by the way Polly, no one cooks heroin in a plastic spoon). This defines ivory tower Liberalism: putting things in terms of us vs. them, here vs. there, implying "necessary" psychological distance from your subject -- I mean, why not talk that area's decrease in crime, attributed to stronger literacy programs, the razing of old housing projects, a no-questions-asked illegal gun depository, and other such positive steps forward? That's because in a sense, Harvey isn't interested in politics as much as apocalypse -- even in her best work, the world is ending in one way or another, and her only solution is "transcendence," whether it be sex, God, or this album's dismayingly vague desire to "do something good." Of course, two decades ago the end of the world was intimated by death via orgasm, or something like that. Now it's the news, repeated in eight "climactic" lines, that Capitol View knocked down some public housing to build a Wal-Mart. Lord God! The end times are upon us! B

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer's Daughter (Third Man) More than anything else, Jack White cultivates "authenticity" -- the guy would distribute his catalog on etched metal cylinders if he thought it would earn him a hip cache. His newest find, as Stephen M. Deusner notes in Pitchfork, boasts a résumé that uncannily resembles the classic country songs she means to evoke: Dad lost the farm and Nashville screwed her over, after which she shacked up with a married man, did a brief stint in jail, and miscarried a pregnancy. And oh yes, the coup de grâce: to record this album, she hocked her wedding ring and car to pay for sessions at Memphis' legendary Sun Studios. How early Dolly Parton is that? Unfortunately, most of the soap operas on Dolly's early records were flat out dross -- masterpieces like "Down from Dover" were the exceptions, not the norm, primarily because after a while, scenarios plagiarized from The Perils of Pauline take earnest suffering to to the point of camp burlesque. No offense to Price, who's certainly had a harder life than mine. But regardless of how close it hews to her actual experiences, her bio sounds like the cynical creation of a savvy publicist, and her complete dependence on well-worn C&W tropes, from stock metaphors ("turn back the cruel hands of time," "the future ain't what it used to be") to tired retreads of songs you've heard a million times ("About to Find Out" lamely re-writes Loretta's "Fist City"), only belies the odd boast that this album was recorded in three days (Dolly recorded her early quickies in about that time, too). The melodramatic, autobiographical "Hands of Time" itself almost succeeds anyway -- at six minutes you can at least say it's designed to go over the top. But I have serious suspicions about anyone who complains about shitty tours and prays to be as lucky as Richard Manuel -- not to get all big brother, but hanging yourself isn't really the answer. I mean really, sometimes you don't succeed because you're not that good. B MINUS

Kevin Gates: Islah (Artist Partner Group) I don't get why everyone is all in a tizzy about this oafish throwback to the Master P/No Limit era -- tis said he updates the old model with more "sensitivity." Which as far I can hear, basically boils down to copping to a foot fetish and admitting: "One thing I really is love is makin' love to the pussy." I wonder if her presence beyond that is optional? B MINUS

Kamaiyah: A Good Night in the Ghetto (free download) Finally, after all these years, Oakland produces a feminine corrective to Too Short. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, but don't feel badly -- she's not that excited either. B MINUS

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool (XL) Asked for Steve Reich, they gave me Robert Kirby. C PLUS

Anna Meredith: Varmints (PIAS/Moshi Moshi) Available to DJ your next coronation -- provided the royals getting hitched are giant killer robots. C PLUS

Venetian Snares: Traditional Synthesizer Music (Planet Mu) In their heyday, modular synthesizers -- think early Brian Eno -- sounded like the future, but helmed by Aaron Funk, they sound rather quaint. Got to justify that retro cover, I guess. C PLUS

Bibio: A Mineral Love (Warp) Organic instruments instead of synthesizers aren't better or worse -- they're just a strategy or gimmick, one that means nothing without a concept, which here seems to be imagining what the Alan Parsons Project would have sounded like with better beats and more soulful vocals. When he makes those ambitions a reality, don't let me know. C PLUS

The 1975: I Like It When You Sleep for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It (Polydor) They're a bit like Icehouse or Wang Chung gone "arty" -- except that I don't think either of those bands came out against orthodontia. C


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