A Downloader’s Diary (51)

Michael Tatum
Sep 13 · 23 min read

by Michael Tatum

Hello From Capitol Hill

I’ve been a little disorganized lately, or rather I should say, a little more disorganized than usual. When I first began writing this column nine years ago, I was a married man living in a north county San Diego suburb. I fondly remember sitting on my knees in front of my coffee table (a position I do not recommend), typing away at my laptop, my then-wife commenting from her upstairs office on the music I was playing. Although much of what follows below was written in July and August, I finished the last few entries here from a studio apartment in Seattle, boxes and bags still waiting to be unloaded and organized, burnt corn muffins on my counter top, the salvageable innards scraped out and eaten as I’ve been writing. So much I still have to tell you about: a Denzel Curry album I really like, a Jens Lekman record I don’t. The assembly line will continue. But first, my landlord needs to fix my oven. See you soon.

Carsie Blanton: Buck Up (self-released) With John Porter — yes, that John Porter, the guy who produced Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure and those classic Smiths singles — this New Orleans-based singer-songwriter made 2014’s Not Old Not New, the perfect title for the same blues/pop/jazz record she’d been making for years. But with the 2016 return of studio soulmate Pete Donnelly, of the obscure Saratoga Springs alt rock aggregation the Figgs, her records became sonically more adventurous, more contemporary, despite the simultaneous appearance of what I consider her signature arrangement touch, the background plinking of a toy piano. By that point, her persona was already in place: playful, spunky, “revolutionary” rather than garden variety Democrat, “sex positive,” though I detest that phrase, partly because it’s a cliché, and partly because the horny among us, male and female alike, can often be desperately insecure people who need to fill a hole, or need to have a hole filled for them, to satiate their broken egos. I prefer thinking of Blanton as someone who creates the impression, or at least the illusion, of being so confident in her sexuality that she won’t suffer any damage to her to self-image if you rebuff her advances — in theory. This works to her advantage because the woman who admits “I fall in love a lot” on her blog and has a hilariously broad definition as to what that means often finds herself lusting for the kind of guy who might have great abs, but also thinks Joe Biden would make a plum presidential candidate. With nary a dud in the bunch, her first great record wrestles not only with the pitfalls of mooning over “that boy,” but dealing with the debilitating depression I fear is obsessive desire’s flipside — not only inevitable, but inherent in what drives it. Lying in a bed that’s a sanctuary when it’s not a playground of fornication, how does one “buck up,” struggling in a US of A in it for the glory of God and capital gains? Answer: make ’em laugh if you can’t lick ’em — and if that means pilfering the melody of John Prine’s indelible “In Spite of Ourselves,” that just means you know where to find the best jokes. A

Blarf: Cease and Desist (Stones Throw) Between the gleeful McDonald’s copyright infringement on the cover and his double-dare-ya album title, I figured the best way to honor this bonkers side project of Adult Swim provocateur Eric Andre would be to pilfer someone else’s rave review and pass it off as my own. Unfortunately, this Pandora’s Box of plunderphonics hasn’t been burning up Metacritic, probably because reactions to comedy are almost as “personal” as those to music. Take Andre himself — your proverbial ribs may not be tickled by staging a mock “protest” outside of the Los Angeles Scientology Center with main man and Bill Cosby nemesis Hannibal Buress insisting L. Ron Hubbard was actually black (“Battlefield Earth should have been a Tyler Perry movie!”). I think it’s hysterical. I also chuckle when his parade of obvious samples ropes in Katie Couric asking Li’l Wayne if he considers himself a role model, Wayne dryly riposting “If you need an example for how to live, then you just shouldn’t have been born,” followed by a snippet of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” tossed into a particle accelerator. I can even justify the track that supposedly inspires self-administered eardrum lacerations, the only piece over 3:58, the conceptually hilarious endurance test “I Remember Satan”: ten brutal minutes of firebombing a bovine abattoir (“Mooo!”), about ninety seconds of the climax of Rosemary’s Baby (“Mrs. Wodehouse!”), fifteen seconds of the Reading Rainbow theme, topped off by a dollop of the intro to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Love’s Holiday.” You don’t find that good for a laugh? Really? You don’t? Oh, whatever. Sue me. A MINUS

Car Seat Headrest: Commit Yourself Completely (Matador) Ambivalent about the Twin Fantasy re-recording, I was ready to make stopgap jokes about Will Toledo recycling material yet again for the edification of his ecstatic fan base, which from the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, OH to the O2 Forum in Kentish Town, London, has memorized every word to every song. Instead I found this as bracing and engaging as anything he’s ever done, the Twin Fantasy three-peats definitely included — this has to be the first concert recording in history in which songs aren’t sped up for cheap thrills, but slowed down for dramatic effect, giving the expanded band lineup room to stretch out and Toledo to put down his guitar and work on his front man schtick, best described as a Jonathan Richman who wants you to think he’s got the sex appeal of Bowie. Of course, you can’t actually see that while the record’s on, but the dorky warmth is palpable, and in particular “Fill in the Blank,” which remains the one song I wish I could have sung to my parents when I was eighteen, is worth hearing with its re-tooled arrangement, with the rhythm guitar part played higher on the fret board. Frank Ocean’s “Ivy,” performed solo, with its exploration of the ambiguities of young, same-sex friendship, could be a Toledo original. And how about this knowing, hilarious bit of between-song patter — “How many of you guys are in college?” A MINUS

Stef Chura: Midnight (Saddle Creek) The key to understanding Chura’s great leap forward from her negligible 2017 debut Messes isn’t merely the production input of Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo, but her side gig hosting a Detroit karaoke bar. I don’t mean to imply she vainly flaunts her galvanized pipes, like that Korean wannabe debutante I met two decades ago who barely spoke a work of English but could impersonate Celine Dion like a Disney audition depended on it, but rather that she hones the modest gifts with which she was born — where once Chura’s pinched contralto was indistinct and unexceptional, now she painfully twists lines as if squeezing blood from a soaked gauze sponge. She even improvises, never quite sticking to her melodies, something you hear more in R&B rather than indie rock, which makes the anxious passages where she doubles back thrilling, reinforcing her desperation (“I can do it to you too/If you do it to me/No, I don’t care/I can do it to you”). I associate this technique with Toledo, who if he doesn’t perform some of those sections himself, also deserves credit for coaxing that agonized clangor from Chura’s frenetic guitar, as expressive as her tortured singing, in the untutored manner of John Lennon or Polly Jean Harvey. Mocking Sara Barreiles’ disinclination to write personal love songs on call and dueting with Toledo on the genderqueer answer to “The Boy Is Mine,” she one-ups Billy Idol’s creepiness by pretending “Eyes Without a Face” wasn’t a metaphor, yawping apprehensively, as if the backing tapes got stuck in a loop. No wonder she insists “they’ll never take this place apart” so vehemently — she wants the pleasure of doing the ransacking herself. A MINUS

GoldLink: Diaspora (RCA) I first learned about the concept of “the Diaspora” (capitalized) from Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, where it was employed in its popular usage, to refer to the radiation of Jews from their ancestral homelands, first to Europe, then to America. Holocaust or not, African-Americans don’t have the same tradition of voluntary emigration, not nearly, which makes D’Anthony Carlos’ appropriation of the term so radical: we may have been kidnapped from our motherland, but these are the places we went, this is what we accomplished, and these are the sounds that scorched every dance floor on which we set foot. Conceptually, the notion would probably make thoughtful students of colonial history nervous, but I bet Carlos, the son of a parks and recreation worker who sold drugs on the side, finds it liberating. Repping for the DMV (not the Department of Motor Vehicles — Carlos’ DC hometown plus Maryland/Virginia) and reaching out to like-minded allies in Britain, Carlos takes disparate subgenres you may have found achromatic and refracts them into rich, brilliant hues: cocaine rap with Pusha T, dancehall with WSTRN, dream-like R&B with Khalid, and on the undeniable “Zulu Screams,” a house banger that I hope elevates “Tala bana bazo ningana” (in Lingala, “Look at the kids, they are moving”) to the new “Mama say, Mama sa, ma ma coo sa.” Quick-lipped perhaps because he’s got nothing to say, Carlos puts to the test my own oft-stated preference for style over substance — for example, I doubt Carlos has any real interest in cutting blow with baking soda other than that’s what a Clipse pastiche requires. Though I suppose if this record can inspire my hip hop-loving pharmacist buddy to wonder aloud where it would be filed categorically, maybe that’s substance enough. A MINUS

Jambú (E Os Míticos Sons da Amazônia) (Analog Africa) Brazilian party music sans professionalism and pretensions to middle-class gentility? Where do I sign up? The title refers to a leafy herb indigenous to northern Brazil that when chewed initially tastes grassy, then creates a pleasant “tingling” sensation on the tongue, not unlike Sichuan peppers, while the record’s thirty-second intro could be the revelers of Smokey’s “Going to a Go-Go” transplanted to Belém, capital of the state of Pará, a port city and gateway to the lower Amazon. So with the first track of the eighteen that follow translating to “Let’s go drinking,” you’re fair to assume a highbrow type like Caetano Veloso won’t spoil the festa with arcane references to Lévi-Strauss. Yet there are all kinds of celebrations — is this a soiree or an orgy? One in which a retiree is bestowed with an engraved watch or one in which six strangers wake up under a pool table encrusted in someone’s vomit? I say it’s the sort of informal get-together in which everyone is handed an instrument but no one actually knows how to play one beyond a few rudimentary beats or chords, except of course for Marcos’ new boho girlfriend, who for reasons no one can explain always totes her flute around in an unwieldy carrying case. In other words, we don’t really get the “mythical sounds” promised by the title — nice Cuban and Caribbean influences, as one might expect from Belém’s proximity to those islands, but without the stylish precision you associate with, say, rumba, and despite the ‘60s and ‘70s provenance, acoustic instruments predominate, with song construction often boiling down to basic call-and-response. Which, I guess if you’re drinking, has its uses. Quick, hand me that reco-reco. B PLUS

Kokoko! Fongola (Transgressive) Their delightfully onomatopoetic name translates to “knock knock knock!” from Lingala, and because they’re a loose collective, I suppose you might say the mystery man behind the door is anyone who had the night off to show up to their hell-raising block party. Fancifully describing their impoverished hometown of Kinshasa as “a city you can listen to,” their raw, lo-fi style recalls like-minded countrymen like Mbongwana Star and Konono No 1, and like those aggregations they’re admirers of dance music too poor to afford synthesizers or a laptop. So in a strategy familiar to any struggling mother who watered down orange juice to make it last longer for her thirsty sons, they improvise, reproducing the sounds in their head by jerry-rigging other people’s junk, their “found” instruments including a typewriter retooled so the bars strike a sheet of scrap metal and a makeshift “harp” made of wires strung up to old coffee cans. With French producer Xavier “Débruit” Thomas (whose electropop solo outings, truth be told, aren’t nearly so “brutish”) bringing technical know-how to the table, they fashion a visionary sound as dystopic as it is joyous — the powerhouse closer “Tokoliana” (“We devour each other”) incorporates animal noises to illuminate its brutal theme of corporate greed as cannibalism. Perhaps they had in mind Claudia Sassou-Nguesso, daughter of DRC president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who reportedly used stolen government funds to buy a $7 million condo in the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York, yet another in The Money Launderer In Chief’s accomplishments in international finance. A reminder that some people can’t “go back” to the “rat-infested” countries they came from — they’re stuck there. A MINUS

Madonna: Madame X (Interscope) Within every rabble-rouser lies a strong desire to be accepted on her own terms. The last time Madonna was this subversive, on the 1992 masterpiece Erotica and the coffee table artifact Sex, she was spanked by the American public for her “transgressions,” after which she immersed herself into the middle-class conventions of religion, motherhood, and liberal politics, re-making herself into the kind of sweet New Age kook you might sit next to in spin class — except she was, you know, one of the most famous people in the world. Some said it was because she wanted people to forget how “kinky” she could be, but I think it was a great deal more fundamental: she didn’t want people to think she was “weird.” Even 2000's Music, her best record in the interim, suffered from a mild case of the ordinary. So critics don’t know how to react to this record’s more wacked-out moments, as when Our Lady of the Kabbalah warns, “Can’t you hear outside of your Supreme hoodie, the wind that’s beginning to howl,” but I’m amazed that even with the Auto-Tune that makes philistines cry foul she finds so many creative ways to express herself — clenching her teeth, rolling out jody calls, uploading her consciousness to the internet, imitating the cadences of De La Soul’s “Me, Myself, and I.” And holy cow, is that the chord progression that underpins Negativland’s “Helter Stupid,” itself purloined from Bebu Silvetti’s discotheque fave “Spring Rain?” Trap, cha-cha, reggaeton, a children’s choir, “Bohemian Rhapsody” structures, Tchiakovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Flutes” from The Nutcracker? “Bitch, I’m Loca,” she brags, but she also insists no one will “drive her crazy” — in two languages! — which means she’s no longer interested in whether you think she’s a head case or not. Bitch, she’s Madonna. Again. Finally. A

Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains (Drag City) Because I’m highly protective of my mental health and had my doubts about the Silver Jews, I initially avoided this forty-four minute suicide note set to music— David Berman’s “medication-resistant depression” is the reason guys like me daily and dutifully take their Tegretol like they were facing Mecca. But in truth, as a strategy these carefully chosen last words remind me less of myself and more of my Grandpa Bill, dead of an aortic aneurysm in his doctor’s parking lot, who might have known for at least a year his days were numbered, and instead chose what my father calls “suicide on the installment plan.” Haunted by an emotionally abusive father and traumatic wartime experiences, he spent his last few months tying up loose ends and making peace with his family. After copping to spending a lost decade “playing chicken with oblivion,” that’s what Berman does here, in great song after great song, with the ex-wife to whom friendliness comes easily and the dead mother he venerates, and not a syllable for his father, a lobbyist for the gun and tobacco lobbies who he once described on a message board as a “a world historical motherfucking son of a bitch.” But with Berman sticking primarily to the seven easiest guitar chords to finger and his shaky baritone evoking Snuffleupagus on ‘ludes, he knew he needed a fresh musical approach to put his final testament across, and he got it from the guys in Woods, who fashion arrangements suggesting Forever Changes recorded a few months after John Wesley Harding rather than a few months after Sgt. Pepper. Yet even acknowledging with no small amount of guilt that sorrow is no longer for him but for the ones he leaves behind in death, there’s humor, even empathy leavening the desolation — what kind of depressive temporarily abandons his gallows missives with a chirpy ditty like “Storyline Fever,” about telling the haters to fuck off? Or bids adieu with his own “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” one that reveals “If no one’s fond of fucking me/Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me?” A dead one. Mental illness: damn it, damn it, damn it. A PLUS

Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won’t Hold (Mom + Pop) The balance of a rock band is important, even ones as theoretically indomitable as this one. It was probably inevitable that between Portlandia and a stronger media presence Carrie Brownstein (who sings lead on seven songs here) would overtake Corin Tucker (who sings four), but the arrival of Annie Clark’s technocratic production tips the scales even further — and nudges the underused Janet Weiss, who was always the soul of this band, up and out. According to an article with the remaining duo in Billboard, Clark suggested they consider their newfound twenty-something audience, a dubious bit of career advice Brownstein meets with come-ons that recall Trent Reznor at his most inadvertently “fuck-you-like-an-animal” hilarious: “Dip your toes into the chaos/It’ll feel like a cure,” “My heart wants the ugliest things,” “Let me defang you and you and defile you on the floor.” Whatever her charms as a comedian, her skills as a dramatic actor and S&M songstress suck, the exception here being the repeated “You got me used to loving you” that hooks the desperate “Hurry on Home.” Meanwhile, much as Tucker once sold Brownstein’s “darkest eyes,” her 9/11 reminiscence, and her son’s premature birth, here she explores the ruins of a marriage in trouble, from the riveting threat “Look out ‘cuz the children/Will learn your real name” to the heartrending “Broken,” in which the little girl inside her fails to protect the adult self falling apart. Millennials who stupidly mock Chance the Rapper’s marriage record won’t approve — do they approve of anything? If they want Carrie’s “daring” ass-vagina pants, they can have ’em. B PLUS

Spoon: Everything Hits at Once: The Best of Spoon (Matador) Foolish me, I thought this would solve my Spoon problem, which I always assumed was needing a definitive package arranging their most addictive hooks in a fetching order. But Spoon albums are never in shortage of hooks, but rather of reasons to hear them, which almost always boils down to concept, and to date they’ve only had two: “Britt hates his day job,” on 2003’s classic Kill the Moonlight, and “Britt braves the Mystery Zone of romantic commitment,” on 2010’s excellent Transference, and seizing upon the time-honored “biographical fallacy” dodge he denied the former, while his youthful admirers missed (or more likely, conveniently ignored) the latter. There’s only one concept here, and that’s product to sell at their stadium shows with two lesser acts whose names I’m not going to advertise, so in the end, this is as useful as most of their studio albums — that is, to a point. If you’re keeping score, three each from They Want My Soul and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, one or two from the others, plus a recycled newbie. Despite feeling sexy when “I Turn My Camera On” queues up as I walk in 4/4 time down Broadway, a product as expedient as an Oasis primer — for much the same reasons, and with less excuse. B PLUS

Honorable Mentions

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Bandana (ESGN/Keep Cool/Madlib Invazion/RCA) Last time I rationalized Gibbs’ repulsive personality because the music was so good; this time the music is better and we get anti-vax malarkey and bon mots like “I beat the pot like Joseph beat Mike and Jermaine” (“Crime Pays,” “Flat Tummy Tea”) ***

Mekons: Deserted (Glitterbeat) At this point they could never make a bad record, but they might make one for which they weren’t prepared (“Lawrence of California,” “In the Sun/The Galaxy Explodes”) ***

The Hold Steady: Thrashing Through the Passion (Frenchkiss) “I like the party favors but I hate the party people” — oh, really? (“You Did Good Kid,” “Entitlement Crew”) ***

Imperial Teen: Now We Are Timeless (Merge) In which a quartet known for kinetic interplay record their parts from their four far-flung hometowns — no really, I never would have guessed (“How We Say Goodbye,” “Parade”) **

Ibibio Sound Machine: Doko Mien (Merge) Still better lyrics than Gloria Estefan, or maybe I just mean fewer ballads (“Just Go Forward (Ka I So),” “Basquiat”) **

Kate Tempest: The Book of Traps and Lessons (American Recordings) A pretty good audiobook (“Hold Your Own,” “Lessons”) **

Digital Kabar: Electronic Maloya from La Réunion Since 1980 (Infiné) If traditional Maloya was banned by the French until the sixties for its ties to La Réunion’s Creole population, then I suppose what this compilation tells us is that, eventually, as the music became more streamlined, the colonialists won the culture war as sure as the ethnic peoples lost the moral one (Patrick Manent, “Kabaré Atèr (Jako Maron Remix),” Boogzbrown, “Timbila”) **

Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe (ATO) I agree there’s some adventurousness in this multi-ethnic Londoner’s indie rock, but there’s also classical guitar, Sade gone prog, and asinine skits that don’t give the self-help industry the proper drudging it deserves (“In Your Head,” “Safety Net”) *

Nigeria 70: No Wahala: Highlife, Afro-Funk & Juju 1973–1987 (Strut) Time to put this brand to rest (International Brothers Band, “Onuma Dimnobi,” M.A. Jaiyesimi & His Crescent Brothers Band, “Mundiya Loju”) *

Trash

Beyoncé: Homecoming: The Live Album (Parkwood/Columbia) Did I enjoy the studio versions of most of these songs? It goes without saying, especially the ones from Beyoncé and Lemonade. Would I have loved to have seen this show? Not knowing what to expect, and putting aside my extreme dislike of large crowds, of course I would have. Do I think a black woman headlining Coachella is an achievement worth celebrating? I guess, but don’t pat yourself about how “far” we’ve come — everyone involved did what was best for the bottom line. Do I credit the artist for her championing of historically black colleges? Naturally, though I’m repulsed by the incorporation of Greek letters into her album art (“theta” replacing the “o”s, etc.) — although according to a 2014 Atlantic piece there’s statistically less alcohol abuse in black fraternities than their white (er, I mean “multi-ethnic”) counterparts, Howard’s Omega Psi Phi, to choose one purely at random, has still seen its fair share of hazing and rape allegations. I’m sure Knowles willlfully overlooks that, in the knowledge that those shameful institutions spawn the future black capitalists who personify the only philosophy she has ever convincingly espoused. More make or break is her decision to incorporate collegiate dance troops and marching bands into her show. “The drum rolls and the haircuts and the bodies, and the — it’s just not right, it’s just so much damn swag,” she marvels, although I’m not going to watch the video to verify. All I know is that the marching band, culled from HBCs across America, isn’t much different from the whitest high school orchestra in Topeka, Kansas — they only play what’s on the pages in front of them. It’s not like they imbue those notes with more “swing” or, God knows, “funk” — in marching bands, unison is key, and as a result they throw the rhythm off of every song they clumsily pummel their way through. You crave a studio best-of? Be patient and you’ll get one. She’s a businesswoman, after all. C PLUS

Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars (Columbia) I can’t deny there are some fetching melodies here, but we don’t go to Springsteen for those, we go to him for “truth” — or, as that concept is known without the qualifying quotation marks, bullshit. Bruce himself comes clean in regards to this in his awe-inspiring Broadway show — “Now I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud — so am I.” What makes that bullshit resonate depends on how well that guitar-slinging confidence man can seduce you into thinking his line of patter connects to your life — what it is or what you romanticize it to be, you beautiful loser, you. Here, the monumental corniness announces itself with cheeseball titles like “There Goes My Miracle,” “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” and “Sleepy Joe’s Café,” along with several maudlin paeans to a washed-up stuntman who pops Viagra to give “some lost sheep from Oklahoma [sipping] her Mojito down at the Whiskey Bar” the metaphorical (and probably completely chimerical) orgasm of the album title. Then there are the preposterous arrangements — cereal advert horns, Las Vegas chorus girls, and orchestral swells straight out of Anita Kerr’s Blazing Saddles theme, which ruin every moment of grace (or “grace”). If you can keep from bursting into laughter when Bruce hits that operatic high G during the climax of the overwrought Jimmy Webb tribute “Sundown,” I suggest you steer clear of any slick back-alley type who invites you to a game of three-card monte. B MINUS

Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising (Sub Pop) Much as the ’90s attempted to reclaim Martin Denny and Esquivel for a generation nostalgic for their parents’ shitty exotica records, we are currently experiencing a re-assessment of easy listening and soft rock, for much the same dubious reasons. “If I could go back to a time before now,” this much-ballyhooed record opens. “Before I ever fell down/Go back to a time when I was just a girl/When I had the whole world/Gently wrapped around me/And no good thing could be taken away.” Although I myself favor active engagement and have such difficulty looking back I skipped my twenty-year high school reunion, I’ll allow that every ostrich has the right to stick her head into whatever hole she deems fit. But even if I arrived at the not especially radical epiphany that my friends and family “sadly don’t stick around,” I’m not sure I’d sooth my soul with a “soaring” ballad the melody and arrangement of which recalls “The Morning After” or “Torn Between Two Lovers.” Tunefully purring like a haloed Karen Carpenter, cloaked in seraphic robes, perched on a tuft of clouds, Natalie Mering peddles a kind of squeaky-clean pornography for people who get off romanticizing “what once was or what could never be” — which I put in quotes because I myself would never use that phrase, but I have a feeling she would. If only the “progressive” elements that are supposed to justify the insufferable schmaltz were more creative than twiddling the toggle switch on an old analogue synthesizer. B MINUS

Anderson. Paak: Ventura (12 Tone/Aftermath) “Recorded at the same time as Oxnard” we’re told, and you know what that’s code for — outtakes. Everything misfires slightly — even a really dumb piano/choir piece breaks up the best track, the occasionally soulful Andre 3000 feature “Come Home.” He should give up the game and title his next one Sherman Oaks. B MINUS

Marvin Gaye: You’re the Man (Motown) No one but the naïve believes this was axed for “political” reasons — even an egomaniac like Gaye wouldn’t bury a masterpiece merely out of petulance. He shelved it because there’s only one great song here, the knockout title track, and one very good one, the pensive “Where Are We Going?,” both available on Motown’s superb 2002 2-CD distillation The Very Best of Marvin Gaye. Elsewhere we have a mother lode of half-baked lyrical and musical ideas, with the few fully-cooked ones not so palatable either: the maudlin generation gap bromide “Piece of Clay,” a noxious feminist plaint that appropriates a Virginia Slims advertising slogan, two clumsy Christmas songs (one instrumental!) that prove you shouldn’t muscle in on territory Jews have owned since Irving Berlin. If you think I’m being unfair, that I should give an icon a little wiggle room for mediocrity, concentrate on Hamilton Bohannon’s desultory drumming on the shockingly non-funky “Checking Out (Double Clutch).” Tap, tap, tap on the snare, asking the musical question “What’s Goin’ On?” — incredulously. B MINUS

Hama: Houmeissa (Sahel Sounds) Sahel Sounds prexy Christopher Kirkley crossed paths with Mouhamadou “Hama” Moussa by accident while looking for another musician on a hunt for new sounds in Niger. In a region not known for electronic music, Moussa’s novel idea is to yoke a Yamaha PSR-64 synthesizer, a rare model notable for working in “Arabic Scales,” or quarter tones, to Tuareg folk songs and “desert blues” (even in this setting, the hard downbeat on the “one,” a waltz no-no according to Johann Strauss, stands out). Though the aesthetic strategy, here constructed using the free program FruityLoops, sounds “interesting” on paper, in reality it’s the sort of “futurism” redolent of fifties and sixties Exotica purveyors — despite the supposedly “cutting edge” trappings, still quaint and cheesy, crusty Velveeta wrapped in tin foil. If you don’t believe me, here’s Kirkley: “Forgoing the limitations of his keyboard, the new album delves into a much wider territory of factory synths [“factory?” — ed.] and plastic future shock. The compositions remain rooted in Niger [sic] folk music, but the sound is somewhere between synthwave or a video game score.” B MINUS

Sebadoh: Act Surprised (Dangerbird) I treasure 1994’s Bakesale so much I keep paying attention to their negligible Mark II output even though their Mark I period wasn’t always consistent — I mean, Lou Barlow prefers 1993’s tentative Bubble and Scrape to the better records that followed it, and blames 1996’s spotty Harmacy on Bob Fay’s drumming rather than uneven songwriting, so what does he know? This sounds dynamite at first, and Jason Loewenstein still comes up with the occasional monster riff, like the opening scorcher “Phantom.” But if twenty years ago their gift was a self-knowledge about their own failings in friendship and romance which they justified with memorable tunes, now you get the feeling that, especially with Barlow, it’s still the only medium through which they can express their innermost thoughts about the long-suffering life mate lying next to them. Which from aging slackers in their early fifties is a little pathetic. B MINUS

Kim Petras: Clarity (Bunhead) As air-headed in her inexhaustible supply of ditzy femme tropes as Maren Morris, this German pop princess is a trailblazer of sorts — damn it, transgender women can be shallow and vapid, too. Lest you think I’m being hard on this unabashed material girl’s bad bitch cliches, consider this: she wanted Dr. Luke as a collaborator even after Kesha’s sexual assault allegations, first insisting to NME, “I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not,” then back pedaling every so slightly on Twitter: “While I’ve been open and honest about my positive experience with Dr. Luke, that does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple experiences cannot exist at once.” I don’t know if her consciousness is bouncing between parallel identities in the multi-verse, but why not be honest? “I needed an established hit maker who at this low point in his career would take a dollar from anyone, to manifest the ‘nada to Prada’ destiny that I dream about every night — is that so wrong?” Why yes, yes it is. C PLUS

Offset: Father of 4 (Motown/Quality Control) On 2017’s wonderful Culture, Offset and his brothers displayed a serious commitment to joy, but here he sounds like he’s fulfilling an obscure section of his contract dictating that if he ever got caught cheating on Cardi B, he would go into damage control mode and release a quickie “apology” record as penitence. And not only does he not seem to have any interest in projecting the required normal human sensitivities for such an endeavor (maybe he mainlined lean to make the task tolerable), his audience doesn’t care either — the first two singles, the first with his brothers and the second with the scorned woman herself, both missed the Billboard pop top thirty by a wide margin. Of special note: a repulsive duet with pro-rape (kidding!) homophobe (kidding again!) Cee-Lo Green claiming “victim of the media” status that gives the game away. Dull and douchey. C PLUS

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