A Downloader’s Diary (49)

by Michael Tatum

Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine

There are so many goofballs, eccentrics, mavericks, and all-around non-conformists in this month’s column you’d think I’d planned it. But no, that’s just how the first few months of 2019 played out — and if the music continues to be this good, I say bring on the weirdos. See you next month.

Charlotte Adigéry: Zandoli (Deewee/PIAS) The minimalist electronica this Belgian-Caribbean releases under her own name is as experimental as the bleep blips she credits to WWWater, but a great deal more playful, i.e. catchier, and more pop. Her great theme is pleasure seeking in an age of Puritanism, whether she’s celebrating that cougar cavorting with a youthful gigolo (I mean, she did spring for grilled lobster) or showing the palm to any natural hair sister who would judge her affection for wigs: “Indian lace front, remy ash blonde, curly silky straight, synthetic wave.” Soulwax’s metronomic ticky tock bumpy bump serves her conceit perfectly, whether she’s skipping around the beat like a rogue teenager avoidng a truancy officer, or punching through it when she shifts into rat-a-tat double time on “Paténipat.” Maybe next time she’ll feel so good about feeling good she’ll stop thinking it’s “God’s punishment” that makes her “beg for more.” Also Charlotte, not that you’re trying to impress me, but pink yaki bobs? Totally adorbs. A MINUS

Big Star: Live on WLIR (Omnivore) Alex Chilton has just led his shambolic little trio through six power pop gems, rendered more perfectly on 1972's #1 Record and 1974's Radio City, but who cares? John Lightman has only been serving as Andy Hummel’s replacement on bass for three weeks, and hearing them this ramshackle is gratifying — who would have thought forty-five years ago this set would be released for the edification of Chilton worshipers not once but twice? But then, we’re introduced to deejay Jim Cameron, an early specimen of the kind of fanboy that Chilton would roll his eyes at in later interviews. Cameron notes cheerfully that Radio City has been garnering spectacular reviews. Noting that they’ve gotten those before, Chilton dryly responds: “That’s nice. I hope it sells.” Cameron brings up the Box Tops and asks about his experiences. “Pretty scummy,” he replies. “I don’t know…about as scummy as now.” After Chilton further de-romanticizes the touring life (Cameron chuckles nervously), complaining that his former handlers never allowed him to record his own material (forgetting “I Must Be the Devil” and several others), Cameron asks if his current popwise approach is “anachronistic” in early 1974. Chilton muses with the only art-for-arts-sake sentiment I’ve ever read attributed to him: “I don’t know, I haven’t really decided. Someone may convince me of that yet. I’m just doing what I like to do. What sounds melodious to my ears” — this from a man who once ended a solo set by asking his audience: “Anything else anyone needs done for them?” Elsewhere, he’s more boyish and outgoing than he ever will be again, except on Loudon Wainwright’s blasély cynical “Motel Blues,” which, like Big Star’s version of Todd Rundgren’s “Slut,” acknowledges the seamier side of seventies sexual politics that, say, the forthrightly ebullient “Back of a Car” pretends doesn’t exist. Enjoy his innocence while you can. B PLUS

Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar None) To penetrate the mystery of Alex Chilton’s post-Big Star career, you have to listen to 1970’s “Free Again,” cut right after he left the Box Tops. Not because it’s a great song — indeed, it’s lousy — but because its sentiment and even its lazy execution say worlds about a man who would later pen a politically incorrect ditty constructed around wince-worthy Asiatic puns, cover “Volare” with a smirk, and birth to the world the dead-eyed “Holocaust,” one of the most painfully acute songs ever written about crippling depression. Don’t dig what he’s putting down? Too bad — that’s your problem for being so uptight. Rhino’s 1991 19 Years is his best solo showcase for two reasons: first, because it cheats by nabbing five cuts off of Big Star’s Third, and second, because it circumscribes his wild late ‘70s and early ‘80s stabs within its purview. This narrower sampling, commencing with tracks from 1985’s Feudalist Tarts, marks the beginning of his slide into relative normalcy, which — golly, could this be a coincidence? — concurs with him kicking booze. So nothing here is as raucous as “Take Me Home and Make Me Like It,” tragically not on the Rhino either. But we do get “Dalai Lama” (Alex must have had a thing for questionable Oriental-oriented humor), “Underclass” (no, he got screwed out of all those Box Tops royalties), and the oh-so-timely “Guantanamerika” (“‘Sieg Heil’ to the in-God-we-trusters”). Let him take you home. A MINUS

Martin Frawley: Undone at 31 (Merge) In which a former Twerp and lifelong goober crafts the paradigmatic white-singer-songwriter-getting-over-a-girl — no wait, come back! This one really does belong in some sort of time capsule — in a doleful baritone that suggests he spends much of his spare time kicking tin cans down empty side streets, this Melbourne sad sack knows he’s an emotional handful, apologizing to anyone in his corner of the bar who has to deal with his lovelorn wretchedness and woebegone reminisces. Yet over arrangements sturdy in the manner of a table with one leg a half an inch too short, his piano, bass, and guitar-playing buddies offer up plenty of empathetic cross-commentary to his golly-gee despondency, as if to say, “Hey Mart, maybe you should lay off the Foster’s.” Actually, I’m betting Frawley imbibes no more than 1.5 alcoholic beverages per hour, allowing for a nice self-pitying buzz while skirting a morning hangover massive enough to tempt him to call out from his mundane day job, which I bet is some bean-counting civil service gig. Rarely has someone with so clueless a persona dealt so much frank self-knowledge — you can see why that girl loved him, why she should move several towns away, and why Frawley is in desperate need of a stern but supportive life coach. If this seems like I’m damning with faint praise, like I might need schooling in the difference between pathos and bathos, I should tell you his best hook approximates a sobbing jag: “Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah.” So please, do consider plunking down your hard-earned bucks for this often-impressive ironic-not-ironic document of beta male weltschmerz — the happiness and well-being of the next girlfriend cum babysitter to enter his orbit depends on it. A MINUS

Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990 (Light in the Attic) Two discs of intense cratedigging through obscure Japanese “musical furniture” from the Reagan/Nakasone Decade, underwritten by the esoterica junkies at Light in the Attic — I can see why up until now you’ve been putting this one on the back burner. And believe me, curator Spencer Doran culled this from all manner of strange and dubious source material, not just out of print albums but a rare “tapezine,” a promo single intended as a sleep aid, and an advertisement for Seiko watches. But from Satoshi Ashikawa’s hypnotic “Still Space” to Haruomi Hosono’s majestic closer, the latter reminiscent of the first track of Music for Airports and commissioned to be looped over the PA of the Muji department store chain, this is a treasure trove of absolutely beautiful music. Finding inspiration in Satie, Reich, Budd, contemporary architecture, temple bells, pastoral landscapes, and air conditioners, luxuriating in the silences between the notes, the sonically varied tracks incorporate not only assorted synth gizmos and doohickeys, but more organic instruments, including, on one enchanting interlude, a collection of volcanic rocks indigenous only to the composer’s hometown. One might reasonably wonder if this is merely the cream of an otherwise fatuous movement, the artsy-fartsy corner of a pedestrian dentist’s office, that maybe Doran knew where to find the good stuff. So I sauntered over to YouTube to sample Ashikawa’s only album, 1982’s Still Way, and was instantly humbled by gorgeously cerebral mood music on the order of prime Eno/Hassell. And its creator died a few months after its release, only to have the record disappear to the point where you now have to shell out upwards of two hundred dollars for a physical copy. Sometimes I glance over at my Beatles and Pavement records and wonder just how much this music “expert” really knows. A

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Miri (Out Here) After 2015’s electric Ba Power, one would figure the next logical step for Kouyate would be to ramp up his crossover potential and collaborate with a few American brand names, and maybe if he recorded for Nonesuch rather than German imprints he’d be nudged in that direction. Instead, this acoustic outing keeps the guest stars to Moroccan oudist Majid Bekkas, vocalists and fellow Malians Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum, Abdoulaye Diabate, and in their one moment of transcontinental outreach, Yasel Gonzalez Rivera for a killer Afro-Cuban summit. The soloing of Kouyate and his cohort is predictably dizzying — when has it ever not been? — and the bottleneck slide on “Weli Ni” certainly grabs the ear. Yet both the laid back setting and the title instrumental, which translates as “dream” and is intended to evoke Kouyate sitting at the banks of the River Niger playing on his ngoni far from urban unrest, is a retreat from 2013’s masterful, defiant Jama Ko, which drew a line between them and the fundamentalists and dared to dance while at the barrel of a gun. An armchair progressive myself, whose sole contact with such native analogs is a cranky great uncle in Florida who frets we’ll all be speaking Spanish by next Tuesday, I should probably give Kouyate a little more credit — with the fanatics in check for now, maybe he deserves a break from waiting for the other sandal to drop. But no matter how breathtaking the playing — and believe me, there are some spellbinding moments here — the lack of urgency is palpable. And if he continues to release albums at this level of achievement, that’s a small sacrifice for the American record buyer. A MINUS

Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken (Rhymesayers) Once again blogger Matt Daniels’ graph cataloging rappers’ usage of “unique” words is making the rounds, and once again I shall bang my fist on the table and insist that Aesop Rock’s lyrical acumen doesn’t best Shakespeare’s. Twenty-first century denizens have a much bigger dictionary to plunder than Elizabethans — on this record’s first two tracks alone we have “gaffe” (1909, borrowed from the French), “camouflage” (1916, Fr.), “catharsis” (1775), “pundit” (1661), “cactus” (1738), and the ever popular “douchebag” (1908). On 2016’s The Impossible Kid this sort of verbal hocus pocus functioned as a distancing mechanism between him and the women in his life (including his long-suffering therapist) but here he cops to it — “I got some walls up,” he bluntly admits— while his unkempt quarters, detailed in “Acid King,” serves as a compelling metaphor for his state of mind. So maybe it’s good that other than dealing with his depression and isolation, most of the other tracks look outward: to hip hop, murderer Ricky Kasso, Ae’s multicultural youth, and a livestream of two bald eagles in Pittsburgh. It also helps that the music is much brighter and more affable than the alt-rap norm, thanks to his duo partner Thomas “Tobacco” Fec, whose trebly synths serve as a nice contrast to Ae’s salty baritone. And now Ian, go clean your room — you’ll feel better, believe me. A MINUS

Sigrid: Sucker Punch (Island) Between voice lessons, musical theater, and American Idol’s cult of personality, homegrown top forty can be bland, histrionic, witless, or downright moronic. Even a noble failure like Maggie Rogers’ current Heard it In a Past Life suffers from self-conscious preciosity — reviewers claim that her various helpmates wipe away the “folk” influences they supposedly discerned in “Alaska” and the like, but I say she only perks up when Greg Kurstin’s bubbly hooks take over, while the overwrought ballad/piano lesson that provides her only sole writing and production credit proves she needs as much help from Kurstin and company as she can get. No such problems with Norway’s Sigrid Solbaak Raabe, who over the last two years threw eight English language singles against the wall, four of which are included on this impressive debut, including the dynamic title track, euphoric young love as fireworks bursting as crossettes and chrysanthemums across the night sky — a perfect song. From there, youthful infatuation gets tested on the next four very good tracks, as she overthinks her way through post-adolescent uncertainty, begs him to boil down his complexities to the basics, and resolves to live in a moment she knows won’t last longer than the next song-doctored theoretical single. In classic hits-plus-filler fashion she drops off after that, with the duds including “Business Dinners,” a wasted title if ever there was one, and the 2017 flop “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” But she closes with a quietly devastating ballad that admonishes that slippery Romeo: “You’re as safe as a mountain/But know that I am dynamite.” Here in the Land of the Free Markets, her album stalled at #90. Rogers’ topped out at #2. Fucking Americans. B PLUS

Spellling: Mazy Fly (Sacred Bones) I’ve tried so many times to rationalize this album out of my earhole. There aren’t any songs on it. The lyrics are oblique at worst, vague at best. This chick is Too Weird. I can’t stand the childish misspellling of her moniker. Yet I kept returning to it, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something, and then again, and again, at last coming to the conclusion that Tia Cabral’s swampy voodoo — murky, disquieting, haunting — is an environment to immerse yourself in. From her disorienting key changes to synth lines slogging from subterranean depths to kickdrum patterns cascading like water droplets down the forehead of a bound and gagged prisoner, this unnerving music will get under your skin, whether she’s nicking a hook from “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” communing with the murky ghosts of New Orleans’ colonial slaves, or watching aliens mournfully dance to Madonna and Prince tunes they absorb through intergalactic radio waves. What’s more, it’s a definite progression from her 2017 debut Pantheon of Me, which finds her perfecting her penchant for spectral backing vocals but otherwise, for what’s essentially “experimental R&B,” is too under-cooked to make much of an impression — and believe me, this music is all about impression. Too bad she’s not Beyonce’s sister — that this isn’t beating Solange in the Metacritic sweepstakes is one more reason to bemoan America’s over-fascination with celebrity. A MINUS

Sunflower Bean: King of the Dudes (Mom + Pop) In the past they’ve tended toward anonymously bland dream pop, but on this dynamic breakaway four-song EP haughty bassist Julia Cumming leads these Brooklyn boys through hilarious cock rock moves that treat Joan Jett like a postmodern joke. Rising like a heavily mascaraed Aphrodite from the feathery spume of Kurt Cobain’s “aqua sea foam shame,” Cumming walks in on some “circle jerk shit,” offering up a “manly solution” that climaxes with her in the back seat of a willing victim’s car, only to reach between his legs to discover “the jewelry of a man disillusioned.” With guitarist Nick Kivlen keeping the hooks coming while smirking from underneath his mid-60s Dylan Afro, she then takes a detour through the Springsteenian “Fear City,” ending on a two-minute-and-fifteen-second punky blowout in which she demands to be breastfed from the masculine teat of one of her hapless beaus while buried in a plush bed of “silk and women.” How much of this is a put on? I say all of it and none of it. And how much do you want to bet they return to their normally scheduled programming when their popped beer can cover art fails to lure in unwitting bros? Lady dudes, you know what to do. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Sharon van Etten: Remind me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar) John Congleton’s prog effects result in this folkie moaner’s best sounding album — but so what? (“Seventeen,” “You Shadow”) ***

Mavis Staples: Live in London (Anti-) A night without Jeff Tweedy and his backing musician buddies sounds grand, but Jeff would have nudged Mavis toward a better song selection (“Slippery People,” “Who Told You That,” “Can You Get to That”) ***

The Specials: Encore (Island) The two best originals are toasts, which only serves to remind you songwriting has never been their strong suit (“B.L.M.,” “10 Commandments”) ***

Better Oblivion Community Center: Better Oblivion Community Center (Dead Oceans) You’ll be curious because of Conor, you’ll stick around because of Phoebe (“Dylan Thomas,” “Didn’t Know What I Was in For”) **

Our Native Daughters: Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) Impressive conceptually, but Kiah Amethyst sparkles harder than Rhiannon Giddens because no slave ever studied opera at Oberlin (“Black Myself,” “Polly Ann’s Hammer”) **

Julia Jacklin: Crushing (Polyvinyl) This austere Australian folkie frets about her ex, but I prefer her when she stands up for herself, i.e. rocks (“Pressure to Party,” “You Were Right”) **

Maggie Rogers: I Heard It in a Past Life (Debay/Capitol) Fresh faced ingenue with backing vocal skills frets about the crippling fame she’s sure is coming her way — which from someone with a worldview this banal is more than a little irritating (“Give a Little,” “Overnight”) **

Sleaford Mods: Eton Alive (Extreme Eating) Yes, but sometimes I really like string sections (“Discourse,” “When You Come Up to Me”) *

Girlpool: What Chaos is Imaginary (Anti-) Harmony Tividad’s changing voice make this a band in transition in more ways than one, but they and they will find their way — perhaps starting by firing their new drummer (“Pretty,” “Swamp and Bay”) *

Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock (Merge) Decent aspartame with a minor string section aftertaste, but Pete Townshend gave Keith Moon the Tommy summer camp theme song for a good reason — it was bogus (“What Do You Want Me to Do,” “Thirty Dozen Roses”) *

Pet Shop Boys: Agenda (X2) Some good cheap shots, but too often Neil Tennant punches down (“Give Stupidity a Chance”) *

Trash

Deerhunter: Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (4AD) Deerhunter albums work — when they do — not because Bradford Cox has a way with pretty tunes or a turn of phrase but because at his best, he has a gift for making noise and dissonance compelling. His approach was occasionally beautiful on the very good Halcyon Digest and trashy on the even better Monomania, his one-album-stand with guitarist Frankie Broyles, who has since embarked on an uneventful solo career best described as Deerhunter without the benefit of Cox’s charisma. His sound once again evolving in response to a shifting band lineup, this is his second album in a row (the first being 2015’s well-named Fading Frontier) to flirt with “accessibility” — the weirdness dialed down, the arrangements more straightforward. Unfortunately, to pull this kind of approach off, it’s not enough to be welcoming in your music, you also have to give a little bit of yourself, to risk looking corny, or at the very least take time out to marry a catchy tune to something that resembles an emotion or idea that a real person might actually express. Cox has neither the discipline nor the restraint to do this — he needs pretentious effects because they distract from what little he has to say. And if you need interesting effects, Cate Le Bon’s two-finger harpsichord lines ain’t it. B MINUS

Mercury Rev: Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited (Bella Union) I hadn’t thought of Deserter’s Songs in twenty years, and I don’t think other critics have either — after rave reviews in 1998, it’s since been mentioned retrospectively in only one overview: the UK’s 1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die (harp, singing saw, glockenspiel, orchestral washes, and Jonathan Donahue’s malnourished warble — exactly what I want to hear on my deathbed). I hadn’t thought of Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 The Delta Sweete at all, and for those who might be wondering if it’s some lost country classic, be informed it’s some kind of unholy mélange of Lee Hazelwood and Connie Francis, about as roots-oriented as a seedy casino, where I’m pretty sure it was recorded. Not wanting to be outdone, Donahue and company convert every track into a languid ballad and hire a revolving cast of women (Beth Orton, Latetia Sadier, Margo Price, Hope Sandoval, etc.) and ask them to imitate Lana del Rey after huffing paint fumes out of a paper bag. It says something when the only halfway decent track comes from Norwegian art rocker Susanne Sundfor, and only because that sweeping shift from 4/4 to waltz time in “Tobacco Road” is the record’s only moment that plays with rhythm, rather than relying solely on “feel” or “texture.” And Lucinda Williams’ appalling “Ode to Billy Joe,” the only song that doesn’t originate on the 1968 album, is so affected in its vocal delivery you’ll wonder if Greil Marcus has been spoon feeding her dirt from her father’s backyard. In its own perverse way, more “authentic” than Gentry’s record — and still the sort of solemn, prissy horseshit that makes you want to hurl yourself off the Tallahatchie Bridge. C

LCD Soundsystem: Electric Lady Sessions (DFA/Columbia) A few stats: their third live album in a decade, their second live “in studio,” their fourth overall to include a version of “Get Innocuous!,” here decapitalized and bereft of its exclamation point, I hope to indicate their cult’s diminishing excitement, but you know how cults are. Lousy covers of Chic, Heaven 17, and that inadvertently hilarious Human League song about killing JFK. You wanted a hit? Well, maybe they don’t do hits. C PLUS

Steve Gunn: The Unseen In Between (Matador) This Brooklyn-based Pennsylvanian folkie is buddies with Kurt Vile, which should tell you all you need to know. But I’m amused by that vagabond “camping in a graveyard,” who takes up a job “cleaning some tombstones.” Aside from the fact funeral homes don’t hire grave cleaners — they’re strictly freelancers, hired by the deceased’s love ones — nor do they rent out living space in their mausoleums to starry-eyed troubadours, grave cleaners are actually artisan types, not unlike scrapbookers or florists, who make upwards of two hundred dollars per job. So why does Gunn think they’re destitute nomads who belong in a H.P. Lovecraft short story? Well, types like Gunn don’t really live life, but they certainly do have an overly romanticized idea of what it might be like — it involves waking up in a pile of raked leaves every morning, right? In other words, one more white, male singer-songwriter. C PLUS

Weezer: Weezer (The Teal Album) (Crush Music) As jokes go, their remake of “Africa” was pretty yuk-worthy, but this all-covers smorgasbord serves no social function other than nostalgia-mongering for the ’80s kids in Rivers Cuomo’s deluded target audience. Aside from Toto, mega-obvious warhorses from Tears for Fears, the Eurythmics, A-ha, and most anemically, Michael Jackson, all get the risk-free treatment, which involves following the original arrangements note-for-note while gussying them up with post-emo power chords and Cuomo’s pinched tenor. Trust me Rivers, I’m frightened of this thing you’ve become, too. C

Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer/City Slang) This singer-songwriting pixie reportedly fretted about recording her drumless “otherworldly” folk pop for the first time in a proper studio, but I say it’s the perfect place for it — other than perhaps an intemerate, hermetically sealed room, where she can coo “fare thee well” to the “dust of ages old” in that infantile soprano. Yes, he’s “the lovelorn colors of/somewhat hapless in his touch” (???), but not to worry — she’ll fly away on “morning wings.” I say, tarry not a twinkle more. C

Durand Jones and the Indications: American Love Call (Dead Oceans) This is Dead Oceans’ idea of Al Green, which means of course it’s anything but. What it’s also not: Willie Mitchell, Teenie Hodges, Al Jackson, Andrew Love. Hell, O.V. Wright. About on par with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Tones, though lest you chide me for speaking ill of the recently departed, Jones would have steered clear of the feeble jurisprudence puns in the atrocious “Court of Love” and seen through the muddled, emotionally dishonest “Long Way Home,” the sunniest ditty ever composed about a life in chattel slavery. C

William Basinski: On Time Out Of Time (Temporary Residence) In a musical aesthetic I can only describe as “stasis,” the New York avant garde composer creates “music” from the centuries-old thrumming of two black holes merging. Which makes me wonder: who’s gonna get the $12.75 this generates in royalties? C MINUS

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