A Downloader’s Diary (50)

Michael Tatum
Jun 29 · 23 min read

by Michael Tatum

The Grrls Are All Right

In the original introduction to my fiftieth column — a milestone, yippee — I was going to remark that this was a marvelous year for women in music, one of those silly generalizations men expect women to pat them on the back for making (which is why the cynic in me is making it half-ironically). Instead, on the very day I planned to drop this product of my blood, sweat, and ears, Robert Christgau announced — and not for the first time — that his new Expert Witness column, pending unforeseen opportunities, would be his last. So instead, I’d like to step onto my small soapbox and say a few words about the dearth of quality music journalism.

In the past, quality journalism — and now I’m talking about network news — was considered a “loss leader.” That is to say, corporate execs accepted no one would watch The CBS Evening News as much as My Favorite Martian, but they aired it anyway because the felt they were providing an important social service. They didn’t expect Walter Cronkite to rake in barrels of cash, depending instead on the likes of Ray Walston and Bill Bixby to cover the deficit. I suspect there was a similar, unspoken contract about music criticism. Let’s face it friends, music criticism will never be as popular as film criticism, at least in part because everyone goes to the movies, and not everyone buys (or downloads) music, and when they do, depending on criticism to get them to the good stuff is not as germane to the public at large as someone like me would hope (can you imagine a Siskel and Ebert record review television show with Marcus and Bangs?). So with hard publishing in decline, music criticism has gotten to the point where its costs are no longer swallowed up by the larger concerns of a big paper or magazine — instead, it’s judged on its own moneymaking merits, which boil down to racking up “clicks.” I’ve often been suspicious of the pendulum shift to “poptimism” from obscurantism for this very reason — not because it offends the egalitarian in me (though it does), but because it dovetails too neatly with this historical moment, in which the only currency is feeding the endless hunger of the bottom line. Christgau’s firing is one more blow to quality music criticism, which year after year is being kicked further and further into the margins.

I’ll still be performing this little public service — like the Mafia, music criticism has a tendency to reel you back in after you think you’re out. But it’s both exhausting and disheartening, especially when you consider America’s best-known music scribe isn’t a scribe at all, but a YouTube tool on record as being uninterested in the written word. Where does that leave someone like Christgau? Or me? Or maybe you? More of a creative type than a businessman, I don’t know what the solution is, and sometimes I’m afraid there isn’t one. But here I am again, back for my fiftieth go-round, plotting a fifty-first. And if someone is considering hiring Robert Christgau for the purpose he was put on this Earth, I can provide a humble reference.

Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD) If Billboard classifies this as “Folk/Americana,” then so is A Moon Shaped Pool — the rhythm shifts, strange tunings, and ambient noises are more Thom Yorke than Dock Boggs, even if the hackneyed “Orange is the color of my love” made me chuckle when I first heard it. Yet if you’ve ever been fascinated by Bob Dylan’s observation that true folk songs are about “roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really swans and geese and turn into angels,” this mysterious music will bewitch you. None of these enigmatic incantations allow such concessions as the basic, strummed chords of “Shark Smile,” the pick hit off 2017’s Capacity — the elliptical guitar patterns here instead resemble a delicate latticework. Incredibly, given their modest earlier output, they’ve become a highly responsive group of musicians, particularly drummer James Krivchenia, who reminds me oddly enough of Al Jackson Jr., in the sense that I can actually hear him thinking through each subtle microbeat. And where in the past Adrianne Lenker’s papery soprano has been a limitation, now when she reaches for a note too high or low for her narrow range it’s one more fascinating bit of texture, like a silk ribbon tying together a clutch of long-stemmed roses. Admittedly, I have no idea if Jenni, Betty, Jodi, or Caroline are lovers or friends, real or imagined, but I say Lenker’s finally earned the right to her strange affectations. I mean, if Björk pronounced the word “alien” with the accent on the third syllable rather than the first, I’d say she was fibbing for the sake of delighting socially-challenged sci-fi geeks. When Lenker does it, I’m touched that she still painfully longs for her “U.F.O. Friend” to take her away, to deepen her love, if only a fraction. A

The Coathangers: The Devil You Know (Suicide Squeeze) On an album that will alienate fans of their barn burning early work, the key track is an eerie closer called “Lithium” that has nothing to do with the Nirvana song of the same name. If the content is autobiographical and Julia Kugel really is acclimating to psychotropic drugs prescribed for bipolar disorder, it might “balance” her out so that she might not be up to the band’s usual “manic” level — I can relate, because I took that medication for years, until interaction with Lisinopril, an ACE inhibitor used for blood pressure, landed me in the emergency room talking gibberish, which should show you what the limits of “mania” are. Then again, maybe that’s maturity after five punchy albums, or producer Nic Jodin nudging them toward variety and craftsgrrlship. Either way, give them your full attention and after a few spins you’ll realize that even with the energy dialed down a notch this is as consistent as anything they’ve ever done, with the tough Stephanie Luke compensating for Kugel abandoning her Bikini Kill screech, with the two often deftly switching off verse/chorus within the same song. Their outreach ranging from screwed farmers to hirsute homosexuals to prog guys who won’t believe the tricky 7/8 measure they sneak in as they barrel through the gauntlet of “Last Call,” my hope is that everyone gets over them relinquishing their punk bona fides, especially since they recall the good old days on the most incendiary song about the NRA yet written. “The culture war’s just a part of life,” they remind us. Roll over Charlton Heston and tell Wayne La Pierre the news — preferably while one’s still in the grave and the other’s finally in jail. A MINUS

Control Top: Covert Contracts (Get Better) I better explain to the men in the audience — too many I fear, but what can you do — that “control top” refers to pantyhose reinforced so that it emphasizes a slim figure, while a “covert contract” (a more gender neutral concept), as lead vocalist, bassist, and resident troublemaker Ali Carter sums up, is an agreement “only known by [sic] the person who makes it.” And so I introduce you to the most dangerous punk rock band this side of Bikini Kill, with Carter railing against patriarchy, temp jobs, type-A manipulators, and “non-consensual infatuations” that don’t involve human beings with penises (directly) so much as the information overload she claims is constructed to trap her in a tract home with a stockbroker husband, two screaming kids, and an array of sterling silver kitchen appliances. Yet this isn’t Carter’s record alone — had she kept her crew to the female foil, male guitarist, and male drummer backing her on that half-cocked (get it?) 2016 four-song EP, we wouldn’t be talking about her. She needed the help of a co-equal, namely guitarist Al Sheedon (billed as “he” to Carter’s “she”), who deserves credit for the precise, industrial-influenced production, less like anything Kathleen Hanna has done and more akin to A Place to Bury Strangers minus the cavernous reverb. And for those into gender parity, we have merciless drum dynamo Alex Lichtenauer (“they”) who bashes and bludgeons where the ousted Justin Sledzinski was unnecessarily fancy. Single-minded fury like this carries very little “truth” value, I suppose — it cries out for a concession to nuance. But do we need his/her/their righteous rage at this particular historical juncture? Oh yes, we do. A MINUS

Dave: Psychodrama (Neighbourhood Recordings) Although my therapist once advised me not to compare my “mundane troubles” (as I described them) to other people’s, this Nigerian-Brit’s issues fall less under the category of “psychodrama” and more under the realm of difficult but manageable problems. True, he calls my bipolar disorder and absentee dad and raises me anger management issues, two brothers in jail, and a racial identity he explores as intelligently as Kendrick Lamar, but ultimately he’s a bright, sensitive kid who wants to do the right thing: the violence he promises to anyone who insults his ex-girlfriend is a “shot” only in metaphor, while steering clear of uppers to help you pass your O-levels isn’t exactly a scenario you hear from too many of Dave’s American counterparts. Yet despite his strong flow and verbal skills the density and difficulty of which occasionally approach peak Jay-Z, the concept is misbegotten. The “therapist” who provides the framing device sounds less like any psychologist I’ve ever met and more like a pencil-pushing square who reads the financial news for the BBC, rendering the snippet where he observes, “I guess it’s important that you have someone you can trust” after Dave extols his girlfriend’s enviable fellatio skills unintentionally hilarious. What’s more, the prevailing mode isn’t the promised “confessional” a la Eminem but observational — the two best tracks are the self-explanatory “Black” and the riveting domestic violence playlet “Lesley.” But in the end, my main problem is British hip hop in general — the music’s cinematic sweep is sometimes more Thomas Newman than RZA, which I blame on collaborator Fraser T. Smith. Never heard of him? He’s the chap who produced Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” A MINUS

Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian) Making like Lily Allen gone DIY or the Go-Betweens had they been fronted by Lindy Morrison, this Perth lass mans (and I do mean “man”) her classy chamber pop with a rogue’s gallery that serves as a provocation to the “dogs” in her target audience. I would never shove that bar of soap in her face, they protest. Not me. I’m so, er, “woke!” Yet from the top end of this chronicle of douchebaggery (the six-figure asshole who puts his dick in her face) to the low end (the self-absorbed nitwit who only knows one conversation subject), part of this record’s genius is how it forces men to see themselves in it. You may have been the sensitive guy whose ex-wife’s lawyer, banker, notary, etc. said they had never met a more civil soon-to-be-ex-husband, but you were also the idiot who browbeat his college girlfriend into repeated listenings of Automatic for the People during a late night Vegas trip even after a) she insisted it was slow and boring, and b) she reminded you it was her goddamn car, inevitably culminating in swerving and missing a deer around four in the morning, during the umpteenth go-round of the song she (hilariously) dismissed earlier as “Fuck Me Kitty.” Sorry fellow gentleman hets, we’ve all been “that guy” and maybe worse — this is but the latest chapter of our overdue reckoning, so enjoy it for its combination educational and entertainment value. But Donnelly doesn’t just drop science — she has tunes, arrangements, and a girlish soprano that sneaks in lines like “I’m locked out of my body and all its usual common sense/I’ll be here in the end playing with myself again.” That’s preceded by one of the best abortion songs ever written, “Watching Telly,” only one of many things she doesn’t have in common with the unworthy object of her masturbatory fantasies. It reminds me of nothing other than Graham Parker’s self-serving classic “You Can’t Be Too Strong.” I bet you he would have been one of her assholes, too. A MINUS

Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom/Interscope) I’ve been waiting for some smart young person to adapt trap rhythms to a pop sensibility for years, and if that sounds like I’m pro-cultural appropriation, let it be known I fully give Kanye West permission to break into your apartment and ransack your King Crimson vinyl. Twenty-five years ago, we would have slotted Eilish with an upstart outsider like Beck, who himself nicked then-current hip hop innovations for his own slacker fantasias. Now however, this self-made Hollywood habitue is a multi-platinum sensation with no other analogue in pop music, which should tell you how left of center the mainstream has veered. She couldn’t have done it without her producer brother Phinneas, whose arrangements have been described as deconstructed or even unfinished, but strike me as spare playing fields held together by concise song structures, like the classic ii-V-I-vi progression that underpins the wistful “Wish You Were Gay,” which painfully conceals teen insecurity in a “joke” the more literal-minded among us are too politically correct to appreciate. That’s because her holy mission is to turn hoary teen angst tropes on their head — “bad” enough to gender-switch as a prelude to offering herself up as a willing object of statutory rape, but “good” enough to count herself out of recreational drugs while her friends vomit in the back seat. In a sense, her brother’s minimalist aesthetic even reinforces what one might call this record’s “sincere” irony, much in the same way she plays off her Tourette’s in interviews with abrupt sideways glances that some misperceive as impatience or boredom. And like every good conceptualist, she knowingly ties up her themes in a two-minute coda that leaves her “fate” open-ended, ambiguous. All the good girls go to hell, but when we all fall asleep, where do we go? Right here. A

hand habits: placeholder (Merge) There are all sorts of ways to process heartache. In my early thirties I fell for a Mormon girl whose strict, religious family made her choose between me and them — not a difficult decision for a twenty-one-year-old woman with little worldly experience. Because we worked together I tried to play it cool, as I’ve learned to do, until she cornered me, prodding me into telling her how I was “feeling,” until I ended up obliterating a book into pieces by slamming it repeatedly onto a metal cart (“Well Michael,” she said through gritted teeth, “it’s nice to know you have emotions after all”). I can’t say my coping strategy was a healthy one, but the narrative payoff in that outburst makes for “good” storytelling, and thus for “compelling” art. Committing neither to anger, nor gender binaries, nor capital letters, that’s the twist with Megan Duffy, best known until now as lead guitarist for alt-folkie Kevin Morby — hurt and rejection run deep in their songs, but they remain strangely detached, like someone blankly staring out of a window. Is this willful emotional repression, or alexithymia? Their melodies gorgeous, their chord progressions otherworldly, they limit their violence to their passively delivered lyrics, cryptic even as they express their deepest sorrow, their only burst of color provided by the finale’s saxophone coda. Maybe they really do forgive Jessica for “shattering my reality” — part of this record’s allure is puzzling out the depth of that truth. But somehow, I doubt it. B PLUS

Little Simz: Grey Area (Age 101) Every time I’m underwhelmed by a decent but overrated UK rapper, I wonder what I’m missing — even something as accomplished as Dave’s Psychodrama succeeds on the basis of its frank, hard-hitting content rather than music per se. Yet this well-regarded item bursts with feverish intensity coming out of the gate, with a keen-edged breakbeat that evokes Richard Roundtree barreling down a dark alley, chased by Curtis Mayfield and a tongue-fluttering flautist, the perfect playground for Simbi Abisola Abiola Ajikawo’s hippetty-skippetty delivery, possessed of a spritely musicality even when’s she’s merely bragging or talking tough, which is usually. I ask you: who can resist that schoolyard chant, “You’re not listening, you’re not listening/I said it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend,” capped with a triumphant “Uh-huh”? Or that breakdown in which producer/whiz kid Dean Josiah Clover underscores an Alice the Wonderland reference with a panoply of sound effects purloined from the Hanna-Barbera foley library (bongo feet, bang, whoosh)? As befits someone who stormed Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list partly because she’s her own label boss, Ajikawo focuses a great deal on self-determination rather than politics or social problems — even her feminist declarations concern themselves with how she’s perceived by the press and hip hop community as a woman rather than larger gender issues. So while she has less to say than Dave — himself also the progeny of Nigerian immigrants — she’s nevertheless proof that style and charisma really do matter, which is why as someone who regards Paulo Coehlo as magical realism’s answer to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I crack up when she quips, “Some people read The Alchemist and still never amount to shit.” A MINUS

Caroline Spence: Mint Condition (Rounder) This Charlottesville, Virginia singer-songwriter exhibited intelligence and craft on her previous records, but her Rounder debut displays serious concentration — every musical movement has purpose, beginning with the D major to A minor cadence (rather than the expected A major) that pulls the rug underneath the choogling rocker “What You Don’t Know,” launching it into entirely different emotional territory, the longing that is her area of expertise. Likewise, the words are approached with the assiduousness of an English major hewing closely to the contained format of a five-paragraph essay, with details carefully observed and metaphors followed to their logical conclusions. Occasionally the conception is a little too immaculate, particularly on the abysmal “Sometimes a Woman is an Island,” which fails the memory of John Donne right down to quavery backing vocals resembling theremin oscillations (not to mention, oh dear, rhyming “future” with “suture”). But I swear the meta “Song About a City” (“I wish I could write a song about a city/Instead of songs about you”) is the Lucinda Williams answer song you didn’t know you wanted. A MINUS

Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride (Spring Snow/Columbia) Songs that should have been left on the cutting room floor: “Honey Pie,” “Revolution 9,” that ska cut of Paul’s. They should never have continued recording with Chris Thomas after George Martin absconded to Bermuda on vacation. And they should have reconsidered that square Danielle Haim warbling on “Bungalow Bill.” I await their Peter Max joint, replete with negligible throwaways, Rostam orchestrations, and Chris Baio’s repressed, god-awful solo work. B PLUS

Jamila Woods: Legacy! Legacy! (Jagjaguwar) Unpacking this poet and R&B songstress’s extraordinary second record takes herculean effort — she’s been “readin’ the books you ain’t read,” as she chastises a racist who won’t “change a hood” by “showing his face” — and if I had the time and resources I’d supply Cliffs Notes for thought and research that probably took this unapologetic brainiac years. Each carefully plotted, densely worded lyric receives its own footnote in the crucial liner notes — for example, superscript eight will take you to a YouTube video in which poor Pete Welding tepidly asks a patient Muddy Waters why white kids might be able to play the blues but not “counterfeit” it, which Woods uses as a springboard to craft a terse aesthetic manifesto told from Waters’ point of view. That would be worth hearing in of itself, but then you realize that Waters and other blacks coming north to Chicago during The Great Migration set in motion events that would lead to that metropolis’ dynamic hip hop scene, the most exciting musical locus this side of Bamako, featuring not only such obvious luminaries as Chancelor Bennett, Fatimah “Noname” Warner, and Woods herself, but homegrown producers like Peter Cottontale and Woods’ main man, Ypsilanti, MI transplant Slot A. This is the real “legacy” of Woods’ exclamatory title — it may have been Miles and James Baldwin and Sun Ra and others that brought her here, but it’s the synthesizing of her predecessors that’s the true cause for celebration, closer to “jazz” in its execution than others who co-opt its more superficial genre trappings, both in her supple phrasing and Slot A’s complex, unorthodox arrangements. She’s more than earned the right to appropriate Nikki Giovanni to justify smashing a racket on the tennis court without protests to be more demure from an uptight paleface like me. A

Honorable Mentions

Ariana Grande: Thank u Next (Republic) If Sweetener was a labor of love about love, this is a tossed-off followup about tossing people off — which would you prefer? (“thank u next,” “Bad Idea,” “Ghostin”) ***

Jenny Lewis: On the Line (Warner Bros.) The wayward hussy act might work better if she dropped the grande dame act (“Rabbit Hole,” “Do Si Do”) ***

AJ Tracey: AJ Tracey (self-released) I’ve always found British grime records to be pretty indecipherable, but here we have audible references to Louboutin, Chanel, Forbes, Prada, Wendy’s over Chick-fil-a — why, it’s like I never left home (“Triple S,” “Ladbroke Grove,”) **

Ex Hex: It’s True (Merge) Foghat for feminists (“Diamond Drive,” “Cosmic Cave”) **

The Chemical Brothers: No Geography (Astralwerks) When you can’t make that exhortation to “keep on making me high” more exciting than Peter Brown, that should be a warning sign (“Bango,” “The Universe Sent Me”) **

Prince: Originals (Rhino) The few actual “hits” were tailor-made for their respective beneficiaries, while the farmed-out ballads — well, if you crave the original of Kenny Rogers’ “You’re My Love,” be my guest (“Sex Shooter,” “Baby, You’re a Trip”) **

Sir Babygirl: Crush on Me (Father/Daughter) In which Kelsie Hogue re-imagines Ashlee Simpson as an unhinged non-binary punk who seduces cheerleaders in the bathroom stall, but I ask you: how about a quiet dinner with a sensible librarian? (“Cheerleader,” “Heels”) **

Mountain Goats: In League with Dragons (Merge) The roll of the twenty-sided die says Laurel Canyon soft rock, Jordanaires-styled backing vocals, and Owen Pallett’s orchestral pallet take away fifty hit points (“Doc Gooden,” “Sicilian Crest”) **

Helado Negro: This is How You Smile (RVNG Intl.) Says more with a dissonant 1:38 instrumental than he does with his watery, bilingual quasi-sambas (“My Name is For My Friends,” “Please Don’t Please”) *

Trash

Florida Georgia Line: Can’t Say I Ain’t Country (Big Machine) I know, picking on this moronic duo, the kind of floppy dildos who probably put hair gel in their pubes, is akin to shooting pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped fish in a barrel, but the title gauntlet cannot be resisted. Beginning with the “bro-country” tag that Jody Rosen swears he didn’t mean pejoratively, the conservative elements of their nominal audience think they have much to answer for: incorporating hip hop-isms, relying on ProTools and Auto-Tune, employing Nickelback’s producer, and denying law enforcement backstage access to concerts in Wisconsin and Iowa due to the pair’s concern over police shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights. Like Brad Paisley’s pitiful “This is Country Music,” the song where he underhandedly apologized for implying, not unreasonably, that Obama was good and cross burnings were bad, they’re in defense mode — except unlike Paisley, they probably couldn’t reel off a list of classic country songs even if they binge watched a whole season of Hee Haw. So we get the usual litany of references to NASCAR, small towns, trucks, tractors, long necks, and red dirt roads, all of which I’m sure they gleaned from focus groups they conducted in Ellijay and Okeechobee, with the mealy-mouthed faux-liberalisms of “People are Different” the only nod to the big bad world outside. Stick a fork down your throat — I mean really far, so the tines puncture the uvula — for the atrocious Jason DeRulo collaboration that celebrates “Women,” but only if they’re attractive and fuck you, or at the very least service your petty emotional needs. C

Matmos: Plastic Anniversary (Thrill Jockey) M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel devise the sort of “high concept” records that are catnip to a certain kind of music critic, like 2013’s The Marriage of True Minds, which used as its inspiration (and sometimes raw material) the verbal outpourings of people in sensory deprivation, and 2016’s Ultimate Care II, which consisted entirely of sounds gleaned from the titular Whirlpool washing machine. This one fabricates music solely from plastic objects, an endeavor the duo themselves describe as an exploration of “the world’s relationship to [to a substance] whose durability, portability and longevity, while heralded by its makers, are the very qualities that make it a force of environmental devastation.” This banal mission statement leads to silliness like Heather Phares’ review for Allmusic, in which she notes it also serves as a metaphor for the duo’s twenty-five-year romantic partnership, and that the music is “filled with nearly as many dualities as [the band itself].” Now I’m not smart enough to know what that means, but the not exactly profound epiphany that consumer goods are useful but sometimes ecologically unsound is something we’ve all known since “Every Bit O’ Litter Hurts” aired on Sesame Street — am I supposed to pat myself on the back before those re-purposed billiard balls and mammillary gel implants ceremoniously resume their journey to that New Jersey landfill? What’s worse, these “compositions” would be banally kitschy whether arranged for bagpipes, flatulence, chicken squawks, or the jiggered synths they otherwise resemble. Yesterday’s novelty music, today’s avant garde — how far we’ve come. C PLUS

Self Esteem: Compliments Please (Fiction) You don’t recognize Rebecca Taylor’s name, it’s Charles Watson’s fault, and already I’ve confused you. They comprised the long-running Sheffield, England duo Slow Club, a middling indie act famous primarily for earning the fandom of Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, and not much else. But the ambitious Taylor longed for Gaga-level fame, so she broke up the band, forging a new “alter ego” that might have you wondering, what with all those sweaty bodies clamoring at her on that album cover, how ironically does she intend her new moniker and debut’s title? While Gaga’s “narcissism” has always been hilariously cheeky, Taylor devotes almost an entire fifty-minute record humorlessly excoriating her former partner: “You never let me breathe,” “I’ll take all our money/Spent it forgetting ‘bout you,” “And you respect what I’m doing, but you just can’t stand me now/And I’ll stop the screaming if you put something in my mouth.” Forgetting that “How Do You Sleep?” was compelling at least in part because we had emotional investment in the players, Taylor comes on like that person who declares she’s had enough of your drama, then spends her time flinging mud at you on Facebook posts that sport numerous capitalized words and exclamation points. With her histrionic contralto and faux-gospel backing vocals more Lovato than Gaga, what will happen when this performs a major belly flop commercially and the circle of people to blame shrinks by a factor of everyone? I say she retreats to therapy and comes back with yet another “concept” project, this one how she “forgives” everyone, followed by a reality show stint in which she thanks her adoring fans for accompanying her on this “journey.” I’m tearing up already. C PLUS

Stephen Malkmus: Groove Denied (Matador) In which the aging boy wonder futzes with synthesizers in his basement and hornswoggles his loyal label into releasing it — I mean, it’s more “songful” than Metal Machine Music, so why not? Yet like that record, it’s a deliberate provocation to the artiste’s die-hard acolytes, who are a different breed since the naysayers of 1976 — while straining to invent reasons why they actually like the thing, critics have been praising Malkmus for this brave new “direction,” which seems to me a put-on right down to the title, which was in place before Matador prexy Chris Lombardi flew to Portland to claim the timing wasn’t “right” for what in the ’90s would have been dismissed as an ill-advised blunder. Earnest millennials who disagree need to explain to me why the candidacy of Pete Buttigieg epitomizes white, male privilege incarnate and this doesn’t. B MINUS

The Cranberries: In the End (BMG) Nothing they’ve released has tugged the heartstrings since their debut twenty-five years ago, and you wisely ignored 2012’s Roses, their first reunion record, so why give this one a listen, other than to pay respects to the premature death of Dolores O’Riordan? True, it’s clear the band and producer Stephen Street worked their asses off to make this sound as presentable as possible, but O’Riordan’s vocal performance is oddly expressionless, bereft of her usual swoops and ululations, as if she wanted to straightforwardly deliver a melody so she could remember it, as if she was singing on a demo, which of course she was. As such, non-bon mots like “It’s all an illusion/This is my conclusion” ring even more hollow than usual — I mean, “Linger” wasn’t Yeats, but mostly thanks to O’Riordan’s litheness, it radiated a kind of ineffable charm, even magic. And for making the limp finale provide her epitaph — “Ain’t it strange/When everything you wanted/Was nothing that you wanted/In the end” — the band should hang their heads in shame. C PLUS

Adia Victoria: Silences (Atlantic) Dubbed an “elctro-blues siren” by The Vinyl District, perhaps because many of her Gothic wails resemble an approaching ambulance reaching the peak frequency of the Doppler Effect, this Spartanburg singer-songwriter’s music generates a mild buzz at least in part because of the participation of the National’s Dessner brothers — Bryce arranged the strings, Aaron produced and plays many of the instruments Victoria doesn’t. That it’s a no sale lies with the quirks of the artiste, who moans a great deal about the Devil, God, Jesus, sin, murder, Jezebels, demons, and cuckoo tenants who “keep a pistol in my pocket/got a dagger hidden in my vest” when the landlord comes a-knockin.’ And how do you know she’s serious about her taste in concealed weapons? She pronounces the name of her home state as “Caroline.” Jesus, indeed. C PLUS

Karyyn: The Quanta Series (Antevasin) “My grandfather was in my great-grandmother’s belly when her husband’s head was delivered to her door,” this Syrian-American told Pitchfork’s Jazz Monroe. “They collected the intellectuals and beheaded them and then delivered them back to their wives.” If only there was a moment in this collection of singles that felt as trenchant as that quote. Instead, she emotes and emotes some more over spare synths (drum machines and song structures optional), wondering why so many people compare her self-absorbed melodrama to Björk, a comparison I find unfair, too — you never hear Björk audibly breath in, once, twice, three times in a single four-beat measure. Also, even at her daffiest, Björk never explains her heavy-handed metaphors, as in: “I sit here in the deafness/Silence that means.” C

Gary Clark, Jr.: This Land (Warner Bros.) Many deem this Texan a blues savior, but he strikes me as a Funkadelic devotee who has zero interest in George Clinton’s humanity, sense of humor, or arrangement skills. He piqued my curiosity because he landed smack dab in the middle of a recent online list of artists with no history of abuse toward women — mostly young, white, and female, what a shock — compiled by a philistine who wondered with whom he/she could allow to sully his/her pristine turntables in the post Me Too era, and who doubtless hasn’t yet forgiven his/her awful parents for being less than perfect. Well, if he/she doesn’t want to listen to John Lennon anymore that’s his/her loss, but anyone who prefers this boorish oaf must like the influence of y-chromosomes mitigated by frontal lobe lobotomy — Clark’s stomach-turning sex jam “I Got My Eyes on You (Locked and Loaded)” has as much grace and finesse as his atonal anti-racism rants. And here I thought what made Mick Jagger great was “irony.” C

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