A Downloader’s Diary (48)

by Michael Tatum

Those who have been following this column around from site to site since August of 2010 are probably wondering where I’ve been the last two years. To summarize: I asked for a divorce, sank into a depression, fell into a period of writer’s block, discovered Latuda, and got my shit together. Those who are wondering who the hell I am: I download records, listen to them, think about them, and attempt to be entertaining when I tell you how I feel about them. Today happens to be my forty-seventh birthday. Lots of women under discussion this month, which I like; lots of indie rock as well, which as an omnivore bums me out. Hopefully there will be some more hip hop or Afropop to chew on next time. And there will be a next time. Soon.

Dream Wife: Dream Wife (Lucky Number) I’m not intimidated easily, but N. makes me slightly nervous. A punk rock wild child, she pursued me ardently on Match.com after scanning my profile, which led to texting, flirting, and sending me glossy glamour pics that looked nothing like the, er, more casual ones on her public page. Yes, in real life, I’m more drawn to the girl next door, because, well, I lived next to her. But what daunts me in my romantic travails completely thrills me on record, which brings me to this caterwauling Brighton trio, so unrelentingly clit-to-the-wall they turn on the wainscoting: playfully assertive vocals, finely-honed power chords, crackerjack drumming, and lots of woo-hoos and hand claps, classic garage rock in the Stooges mold, except the band is tighter, and you’ll wonder where Rakel Mjöll picked up that accent until you discover she hails from Reykjavík (like Bjork, she eschews schwas). Reports from the indie rock front that they’re taking on white, male, corporate oppression is, surprise surprise, the usual case of publicists shamelessly milking media studies majors — the only lyric that gets close to taking on “the man” is an impressionistic sexual assault tale told partly in the second person and so existential in its approach Simone de Beauvoir might have raised her pencil-thin eyebrows: the chilling “You were a cute girl standing backstage/It was bound to happen” leading to the detached “I am not my body/I am somebody.” Elsewhere they’re making out with hey-hey heartbreakers and falling in love “without reason” like they were kids again — as far this divorcé is concerned, socially worthwhile life missions. If I’m not ready for a marriage proposal, would they settle for a pie down at Fillipi’s Pizza Grotto? A MINUS

The Go! Team: Semi-Circle (Memphis Industries) Finally this band fulfills the dream that Ian Parton set out for himself — to lead the world’s greatest pep squad turned indie rock band. (Yay team!) It couldn’t have happened without Parton conceding that while he may be the mastermind on the premises, the band now really belongs to his charismatic frontwoman Ninja. (Because there’s no “Ian” in “TEAM!”) Not only does the simple expedient of leaving the vocals to one person tighten up the concept, but unlike past guest stars, the woman in question completely understands said concept, from the various styles in which she pitches her delivery (often girlish, completely beguiling from a thirty-five year old) to the lyrics themselves, which range from the touching playground plaint “Chain Link Fence” to the one in which she turns down an overeager marriage proposal before the question actually gets popped. (Ninja, get on top of that human pyramid!) This gives Parton inspiration to emulate and even sample high school marching bands, including an astonishing number which co-stars rapping students of George Washington Carver High School (from my old hometown of Birmingham, Alabama!), coming to you straight outta the class of 1983. (GO RAMS!) Dismiss it as shallow fun scored for tubas and glockenspiels, but I say there’s much to love here, from the breezy instrumental that sounds like a tribute to sixties new program themes to the frenetic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” Morse code beeps than pin down “Mayday,” and even to the quirky cover art, which suggests Sgt. Pepper’s as staged by an over-earnest yearbook photographer. What’s the grade? Gimmee an… A MINUS

Hailu Mergia: Lalu Belu (Awesome Tapes from Africa) Unfortunately, we’re going to have to begin by dispelling some shameless exaggerations and minor misunderstandings. This shepherd-turned-musician currently toiling as a D.C. cab driver isn’t a “funk pioneer” — for crying out loud, the guy’s current rhythm section is from Australia. He also doesn’t dabble in jazz — there’s nothing remotely improvisatory about the drummer, who isn’t one of Stephin Merritt’s cheap rhythm boxes, but certainly isn’t Art Blakey either. Furthermore, the piano chords are blocky in the manner of awkwardly-placed Jenga pieces, and at no time does more than one soloist take two steps forward to make a statement. If you’ll excuse the obviousness of the metaphor, Mergia’s American boosters are the equivalent of Friday night barhoppers, not taking the time to get to know the guy driving them safely home, a lawyer or a doctor in his home country who gave it all up for a shot at his sons and daughters to be Americans — exoticism at its most sophomoric. I say consider this cheerful Ethiopian expat a novelty artist of sorts, not peddling “the future,” as more than one barhopper has lazily proclaimed, but a sort of dreamily boutiqued version of the recent past — Les Baxter noodling at a slightly wacked-out Ramada Inn in Addis Ababa, say. The results may not be as “visionary” as some claim, but excepting the laughably awkward piano recital that closes, I say this strangely curious music, which settles for quaint when it doesn’t attain the sublime, achieves something special. If that notion doesn’t move you, I recommend you succumb to the nutty genius of title track, Mergia’s shot at “Tequilia,” the endearing nonsense lyric of which is almost completely comprised of an infectious chant that goes — let’s see if I can transcribe this — “Li da little lup.” A MINUS

Kasey Musgraves: Golden Hour (MCA Nashville) I don’t have anything against happy love songs any more than I have anything against watching enamored teenagers hold hands or marveling over the occasional postpluvial rainbow. Yet being able to talk eloquently about happy love in the context of a song is a rare gift indeed, and I don’t think that Musgraves necessarily has it, at least on the basis of her written words alone — “You know the bar down the street don’t close for an hour/We should take a walk and look at all the flowers” may be the first of many jaded eye rolls (also, what kind of city street is this? Is this pub located in the center of a greenhouse?). Yet as you may have guessed, there are some mitigating factors. First, the incandescent tune for that song and others that follow take off not from the spunky hometown plaints with which she made her name but from the magical “Life of the Party,” the only great song from 2015’s otherwise dull Pageant Material. Second, there’s the enchanting music, which some have derided as middle of the road but I prefer to think of as “side of the road,” folding chairs of aluminum and pastel plastic set up on crunchy gravel, a green dandelion stem rolling back and forth between the teeth. Third, and here’s the decisive one, a modest but unbearably sexy voice that means every word, so that even when she trots out some cheeseball butterfly metaphors all I can do is prop my chin on my palms and burble that she’s more of an expert in lepidopterology than Kendrick Lamar. Yes, these are very subjective calls, and I realize that some might chide me for falling for the illusion that a very pretty young woman is singing these songs directly to me — the aural equivalent of Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze,” and perhaps why this mild achievement has male critics falling over themselves. Yet when she strokes my face and moonily tells me “these are real things,” I’m convinced. Those who might share my weakness know what to do. Cynics are directed to the fragment in which Musgraves misses her mother, who happens to live a few states away from Nashville in Texas, and her mother misses her mother, because she happens to be dead. B PLUS

No Age: Snares like a Haircut (Drag City) Because this ambitious art punk duo are shameless gallery opening habitués, people level charges of snootiness at them even though they would never attack the Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth, their rather obvious inspirations, on the same grounds. Is this because they hail from philistine Los Angeles rather than the more acceptably chichi Manhattan? If so, let me briefly defend my west coast brethren. We’re known for Hollywood, Disneyland, and Rodeo Drive. Most of our most notable “punk” exports from the last twenty years fashion themselves as either third-wave skatalites or emo screamers — bottom of the barrel type stuff so expedient that if your humble downloader reviewed them you wouldn’t take me seriously. So can you blame these guys for slapping Daphne Fitzpatrick’s eyebrow-raising readymade on the cover of their newest opus, a slice of parabolically curved Swiss glued with beeswax to a piece of plywood and pierced by a utility knife? (title: The Four Strings of Picasso’s Guitar, but I call it Cutting the Cheese.) Yet the naysayers do have a point. Though this is warmer and more dynamic than 2013’s excellent but well-named An Object, replete with monster hooks, beautiful noise, and marginally improved vocals, they will never again release anything as unselfconscious as 2010’s masterful Everything In Between, which in a recent Noisey interview, Dean Spunt dismisses as a rush job but I would argue is an act of non-premeditation they would be wise to repeat. No matter what the Daphne Fitzpatricks of the world might think, triumphantly repeating the phrase “my life” eighteen times for a chorus is a greater artistic achievement than a tone poem in which a treated guitar approximates the sound of scissors snipping. Plus, I mean come on guys — five years between albums. A little too long for an art punk duo, doncha think? A MINUS

Amy Rigby: The Old Guys (Southern Domestic Recordings) Granted, I have no inclination to buy a ticket to witness a Cat Power meltdown, but watching this great singer-songwriter beg an audience of no more than thirty people to buy her CD at the merch table so she and the band could afford gas money to get to the next town remains one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen on stage. Twenty years later, setting her sights to the “middle or somewhere below” because that’s where she fears she belongs, insecurity haunts her work, from accepting she’s stuck playing dive bars, dreading playing her hometown of Pittsburgh because that’s where the mean girls mocked her shoes, to envying that hot number Leslie, regardless of the fact she hasn’t accomplished much more than being able to sleep with whatever musician rolls through town. We even have psychological projection in an extraordinary opener in which Philip Roth, whose eligibility to win the Nobel Prize is drawing short, sends an e-mail to that upstart winner Bob Dylan complaining that the Bard of Hibbing seduced the committee on grounds of popularity — hilariously out of character coming from the reclusive author of such stone masterpieces as The Counterlife and (my crackpot fave) My Life as a Man, not so much from Amy Rigby. Her other great theme here is death, from mourning Robert Altman (in a good one), an ex-boyfriend from college (in a sappy one), to Lou Whitney of the Morells (in a complete skyrocket). She’s nearing sixty, so you can see why that might be on her mind. Perhaps ruminating on mortality might motivate her to release more solo records. This one’s her first since 2005. A MINUS

Soccer Mommy: Clean (Fat Possum) The soccer moms in my hometown radiate the sexual confidence of former cheerleaders, which makes them the perfect ironic conceit for Sophie Allison, who spends an entire record envying that type while presenting herself as a forlorn doormat. Normally this sort of behavior puts me off regardless of gender, but I can completely forgive in someone for whom high school is a two-year-old memory — in fact, when I’m feeling paternal, she’s kind of lovable. Having said that, her weak moments are so trite, naïve, and indicative of her own tractability that I fear she might be the subject of future think pieces about why she’s a bad influence on young women, in the manner of those doltish Taylor Swift denunciations from a few years ago. Seeing the younger version of myself in her, I say those kind of feelings are as common in young men as in women, and provided you have a self-consciousness about it, completely venial — one of the things that breaks my heart about the standout in which she asserts “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog/That you drag around” is that you can tell by her vocal delivery, which suggests a teenage girl scooping Rocky Road to football players after school at the Baskin Robbins, is that she absolutely would be that dog again in the right circumstances, and she knows it. I say root for her — her surefire tunes and attractively airy rhythm guitar will make it easy. Treat her right — awkward girls like Sophie grow up to be the more interesting adults anyway. B PLUS

Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (Merge) Although wedding bitter lyrics to euphoric music has been a rock and roll strategy ever since Chuck Berry celebrated all of the things a black man couldn’t possibly have in the U.S.A., the internet still marvels at the “irony” of the song that gives this album its name. Wouldn’t terror of history both repeated and amplified jolt anyone who never thought it could get worse than George W. Bush into a state of righteous anger — even a guy like Mac McCaughan, an ironic chap since he slacked his way out of the box? After eleven records in nearly thirty years, it takes Donald Trump to inspire him to finally put the oft-misused ’90s contrivance that Alanis Morissette made famous to good use. Without uttering der Fuhrer’s despicable name, or bringing in Vladimir Putin, Jared Kushner, and the thugs in Charlottesville as character witnesses, we get “All these old men/Won’t die too soon,” “Cut the black thread,” “You broke the world/That you’re not long for,” “Everyone is acting normal/But no one’s sleeping through the night,” and other end time laments and fight song slogans too numerous to count. We also get “Reagan Youth taught you how to feel/Reagan Youth showed you what was real/But to tell you the truth/There was more than one Reagan Youth,” and although I was more a navel-gazing Smiths fan than a hardcore punk during those years, perhaps because McCaughan is a Gen Xer four years my senior I know exactly he what means — I became a lifelong liberal after staring at a Time magazine cover in my orthodontist’s office, the white house shrouded in darkness, illuminated only in fuzzy yellow light, the accompanying quote the Gipper’s appallingly canned line about a “bitter taste of bile” in his throat putting a bitter taste in mine. If only we knew back then what a middle class luxury irony would turn out to be. A

U.S. Girls: A Poem Unlimited (4AD) Meg Remy’s demented art rock sounds nothing you’ve ever heard — closest I can get to a shorthand witticism is “early Roxy Music scoring a Eurotrash porno,” but even that doesn’t begin to the music’s woozy, late night textures, with various seamy saxophonists in particular presaging the bad matutinal hangover to come. As such, this taste of strange takes more listens than usual to register as sweetness on the tongue — even her unconventional soprano, which suggests Lene Lovich attempting to seduce Emmanuel Macron in a Parisian back alley, requires a bit getting used to. So I suggest acquainting yourself with the lyrics, not included with the physical release, but if you search them out will open up the record considerably, revealing it to be a sort of perverse post-feminist song cycle in which women mercenaries disguise themselves as fabric traders, an employee at a plastics factory loses her ability to conceive children but continues to look smashing in polyester, and Meg herself has to fuck St. Peter as a quid pro quo for entering the pearly gates. And then suddenly the depraved music makes a certain kind of aesthetic sense — the undercurrent of boho sleaze puts Remy’s downcast characters in appropriate context. Especially since she’s an American expat living in Canada, I’m slightly dismayed she gives Barack Obama the spurned lover treatment in “Mad as Hell” rather than our current kleptocrat-in-chief, who I suppose deserves to be treated far worse in song — as a buffoonish rapist, say. But her ace bandleading for this (she says) “collaborative effort” is so smart and detailed she earns the right to a mostly-instrumental eight-minute finale — an impressive feat that would elude just about any indie rocker with a penis. A MINUS

Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune) Nick Farruggia suggests that Trump has got these never exactly cheerful Scots down, but I say that between rampant heroin use and chronic unemployment, Edinburgh has enough problems of its own without gazing across the pond for reinforcements. But never before has this disconsolate trio made an album this cohesive, this compelling — over disquieting lo-fi samples and fraught beats of overpowering musical vitality, they don’t bemoan addiction and squalor so much as jeer the church that cynically passes the collection basket around to the working poor while the depraved rich banquet on fine wine and foie gras. Like Tricky at his bummed-out best, this is music that comforts the listener as often as it creeps him out, and that’s the idea — like Superchunk, they sing about what a great time it is to be alive in the nerve-wracking “Wow,” but the horrified, Munchian way they scream the title aims for a uncommonly bitter irony that no mere indie rocker would dare. Waiting for miracles that don’t come while insisting “You’ll never find your way to heaven/But you can follow me,” they offer no solutions and don’t expect one either. They only pray you don’t turn their brown eyes blue, while accepting the down payment of whatever small amount of love will come to the destitute in this life: that when their number is up, the reaper will celebrate by dancing on their graves. A

Honorable Mentions

Ezra Furman: Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union) Stylish, but I prefer him in trashier dresses (“Suck the Blood From My Wound,” “I Lost My Innocence,” “No Place”) ***

Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy (Matador) “Is it the chorus yet? No. It’s just a building of the verse so when the chorus comes it will be more rewarding” — this is a delusion that must be nipped in the bud (“Sober to Death,” “Bodys”) ***

Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet: Landfall (Nonesuch) If the artist credits had been switched, maybe I wouldn’t feel so cheated (“All the Extinct Animals,” “The Water Rises”) ***

Yo La Tengo: There’s a Riot Going On (Matador) Titled as such because had they been honest and called it Ain’t But the One Way, no one would have gotten the reference (“For You Too,” “Shades of Blue”) **

Walter Martin: Reminisce Bar and Grill (Family Jukebox) Walkmen bassist writes from his own experience, because I suspect that’s all he knows (“Me & McAlevey,” “I Went Alone on a Solo Australian Tour”) **

Tune-Yards: I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD) Should probably ask herself why that mere liberal Paul Simon has more male black friends (“Heart Attack,” “Look at Your Hands”) **

cupcakKe: Ephorize (self-released) The perfect soundtrack for hate fucking, if you’re into that sort of thing (“Crayons,” “Cinnamon Toast Crunch”) **

Lucy Dacus: Historian (Matador) Maybe Robert Caro can teach her something about narrative structure (“Addictions,” “Nonbeliever”) *

Salad Boys: This is Glue (Trouble in Mind) As befits a jangle pop outfit from the agricultural center of Christchurch, New Zealand, naturalistic metaphors dominate the first half until Thanatotic horseshit takes over on the second — but consider the titles of my two pick hits, which are fast (“Choking Sick,” “Psych Slasher”) *

Trash

Moby: Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt (Mute) Two decades after being anointed a not-so-reluctant electronica messiah, Richard Hall finally de-evolves to the calling we all knew was an inevitable career move: motivational speaker, cult leader, earnest bullshit peddler, end times orator who skips Matthew 24:24. Neither lyrics nor liner notes have ever been a reason to buy his records, but check out these mind blowing titles: “Like a Motherless Child,” “The Tired and the Hurt,” “The Sorrow Tree,” “The Ceremony of Innocence,” “Welcome to Hard Times.” “Downtempo” isn’t even the problem here — more like cathedral synths so gothic in atmosphere you can feel the communion wafer turn to moist paste between your tongue and hard palate. He derives his title from Slaughterhouse Five, the epitaph of hero Billy Pilgrim, which unless I’m mistaken Vonnegut employed for black irony, a difficult task for someone who thinks “Say what you mean/Mean what you say” is a repeatable mantra and spends an insufferable hour manfully deploring his listeners he can nail himself to his own cross. Irony, Richard. Indicative of a sense of humor. A useful skill, no? C PLUS

Restoration: The Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (MCA) There are two competing sister discs dedicated to these guys, and wouldn’t you know, the artists on Revamped, the “pop” one, completely forget the tributees wrote some top-notch rock and roll songs — the only “fun” tracks come courtesy Pink/Logic and Q-Tip/Demi Lovato, both excellent. Yes, I’m gratified that Sam Smith gives the finger to that churl Bernie and insists once and for all in his gorgeous take on “Daniel” that that song concerns a man-to-man relationship (“Vietnam vet,” yeah right), but if a Christian band is going to cover the one about how Elton’s gay mentor convinced him not to marry that awful socialite, why does it have to be the stiff choir boys in Mumford and Sons? And so it goes. This country set has its own set of problems, beginning with the fact that with the exception of Willie Nelson, the boys are dolts and dullards — Don Henley, Dierks Bentley, Chris Stapleton, that dope in Little Big Town whose name I’m too lazy to look up. But keeping Sam in mind, I think a better concept would have been Recast: Chicks and Gays Bring Something New to the Hit and Miss Canon of Elton and Bernie. On this volume, sassy Lee Ann Womack and ass-kicking Miley Cyrus (!) prove that “Honky Cat” and “The Bitch is Back” are indestructible. As for obscurities, which outside of Coldplay (yawn) Revamped doesn’t bother with, Kasey Musgraves pilfers one of the best songs on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and completely sells that line about wanting to have ham in her sandwich than cheese, while Miranda Lambert turns “My Father’s Gun” from a tepid “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” re-write into a rather scary post-Trump clarion call that makes me nervous and thrilled simultaneously. And Rhonda Vincent and Dolly Parton brilliantly re-tool “Please,” from an album I’ll call Made in Fucking England, into a fast-stepping hoedown, accomplishing what these kinds of projects should: turning shit into high grade manure. Downloaders, you know what to do. B

Shame: Songs of Praise (Dead Oceans) If the post-punk riffs are this catchy, I won’t argue with the heavy metal pyrite contaminating the Solid Gold, but tellingly, the only thing Charlie Steen rails against more than his nasty self is that slutty model banging that lecherous millionaire for Louie Vuitton. B MINUS

Screaming Females: All at Once (Don Giovanni) Some combination of production tricks and constant touring have made them listenable, but nothing save brain salad surgery can do the same for Marissa Paternoster’s flashy heavy metal guitar moves. B MINUS

The Breeders: All Nerve (4AD) Asked for “Cannonball,” they gave me ball bearings. B MINUS