Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sound ‘Round: Eric Church / Tinariwen

Guitars are still a thing, ya know

Eric Church – The Outsiders (EMI Nashville)

eric church - the outsidersIt’s hard to posture and portray yourself as a Nashville outsider when your prior album busted the charts, went double platinum and got you invited to Lollapalooza. It’s even harder when your highly touted departure plays up the very pitfalls you’re decrying: an excess of beer, guns and pigheaded machismo. Nevertheless, Eric Church attempts to bid farewell to a scene inundated by the ills of frat-bro culture and give country music the kick in the ass it deserves. Though his lone wolf shtick falls flat lyrically, even his soft side is undercut by limpdick metaphors: a breakup he likens to a roller coaster, comparing his penis to a wrecking ball (ugh) and NASCAR-centric nostalgia that will surely resonate with its target audience. Musically, he’s more adventurous. The title track sports a tricky prog-rock bridge that leans more Metallica than Montgomery Gentry, and the sudsy stomp of “Cold One” benefits from a playful brass section. There’s a lot going on here, at times too much. Leave it to two ballads to salvage the occasion – a small town tearjerker remarkable for its absence of corn and a tranquil meditation on Church’s midlife crisis. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Cold One” / “Give Me Back My Hometown” / “A Man Who’s Gonna Die Young

Tinariwen – Emmaar (Anti-)

tinariwenThe first notable African release following a banner year for African music was recorded in the sands of California and fueled in part by Mexican food. A band of nationless Tuaregs in self-imposed exile, they fled their home region of Northern Mali as it succumbed to violence instigated by religious extremists. These 11 songs, all alike in polyrhythmic groove and bluesy sunbathed guitars, double as encouraging words for friends back home and prayers for peace and reconciliation amidst the bloodshed. A sampling of translated lyrics: “Friends, companions, hear my truth and my conviction / These banishments that befall us bring no joy to my heart.” “Peace imposed by force is bound to fail / and give way to hatred.” “My brothers, why all the misunderstanding?” “I no longer believe in unity / I will only believe in it again if those opinions serve a common ideal / That of the people from which they emanate.” Even if you didn’t know the subject matter, however, you’d still grasp their deft melodicism, punctuated syncopation and the intricate exactness of the music. Here’s wishing a homecoming occurs sooner than later. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Timadrit in Sahara” / “Aghregh Medin” / “Toumast Tincha

Sound ‘Round: Angel Haze / Kool A.D.

Leftovers from 2013

Angel Haze – Dirty Gold (Island/Republic, 2013)

angel haze -dirty goldDumped into stores on December 30 – no man’s land for new releases – and a subsequent commercial disaster, this Brooklyn emcee’s major label debut is the victim of an all too common hip-hop narrative: Talented youngster signs with a corporate entity and wrestles over artistic freedom and a supposed lack of hits. Though my chart-topping senses never tingled on multiple rotations, that is not to say there are no worthwhile songs. The opening trio is marked by buoyant beats, rapid-fire rhymes, surprising melodicism and young bravado with no regard for her shortcomings – of which there are a few. She damn well has the right to protest her overbearingly religious upbringing and the sexual abuse she endured as a child, but her cliché metaphors render otherwise powerful subject matter rote – to say nothing of those songs’ punishing running time. Though she never rediscovers the playfulness of the first 15 minutes, I’m willing to give this 22-year-old the benefit of the doubt. “I’m making (this record) for people that just wanna get lost,” she says. I felt the same way when I was her age. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Sing About Me” / “Echelon” / “A Tribe Called Red

Kool A.D. – Not O.K. (self-released, 2013)

Kool A.D. - Not O.K.His fourth mixtape released since the demise of Das Racist continues in the bratty brand of arid non sequitur rap he relishes. The running gag is his joking just joking he’s not joking query about him being the best rapper in the world. “Kool, how you blessed with the best flow?” he asks himself before responding, “Blessed with the best flow? I guess so. I guess I’m just lucky, yo.” For such an ambiguously intentioned figure, I’ll take his half-assed sincerity at face value. After all, few rappers could string together a seemingly random assortment of spare rhymes. He’s at his best, however, when he turns meta. “See me pull my own abstract out the back pack. Just kidding I don’t want that.” Odd ball and oddly humorous, he still misses his buddy Heems – who added structure and a dose of logic to the ceremonies. “Kool A.D. the best rapper in the world?” Nah. Most idiosyncratic? Maybe. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Trippy Girl” / “CNN” / “V

Sound ‘Round: Dum Dum Girls / Beat Coast

Beautiful and sad

Dum Dum Girls – Too True (Sub Pop)

dum dum girls - too trueIn which Kristen Gundred forgoes the weightless mist and go-go girl chic of Only in Dreams, she turns arty and dark in mood, slick and robust in songsmanship and finally delivers the proper Chrissie Hynde impression she’s aimed for since day one. The few naysayers cite the occasional hackneyed verse as empty pretentiousness. For instance: “The void in my head / the whole in my heart / I fill them with things which all fall apart.” Me, I’ll take trite generalities over the empty reference to surrealism and French philosophy in “Rimbaud Eyes” every time. Like most musical utilitarianists, I prefer gut feeling and melodicism over drab art school attitude. And while she occasionally overreaches for the brooding ways of youth, her tunefulness, brevity and pop smarts uplift her neo-gothic theatrics.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Evil Blooms” / “In the Wake of You” / Cult of Love

Best Coast – Fade Away EP (Jewel City, 2013)

best coast - fade away epSimple lyrics tackling simplified themes of yearning and heartache expressed by big hooks in a warm contralto on top of treble surf guitars. The recipe for Bethany Cosentino’s third release, a seven-song EP, mimics her 2010 debut, a reason I vastly overlooked it. Upon a revisit, however, I was struck by the slight, but significant, sonic maturation. The bass is defined and fleshed out, adding structure and muscle to a once featherweight sound, and the drums snap with a tight rigor to counteract her elongated enunciation. While such improvements are obvious, the subtle guitar leads and sprite piano fills bolster what would otherwise be a self-admitted stoner’s bummer jams. Credit the facelift to producer Wally Cagel who saves his biggest favor for the front woman in question – drawing her brilliant voice out of the murky mix from which it was once caged. Lyrically, it’s her wheelhouse: irreconcilable feelings for boys she loves to hate to love. She’ll always make music like this – sad-eyed surf pop on repeat. There are worse things. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: This Lonely Morning” / “Who Have I Become?” / “I Don’t Know How

Sound ‘Round: Del the Funky Homosapien

Still ill after all these years

Del The Funky Homosapien – Iller Than Most (self-released)

del the funky homosapien - iller than mostTo quote the man whose signature song details the benefits of personal hygiene: “First off, don’t expect no deep shit / The world’s got a lot of tribulations, we tryna beat it.” Ice Cube’s cousin is honest but misleading. Though he doesn’t protest income inequality, the Syrian Civil War or Ride Along, he’s preoccupied with, and consistently ridicules, hip-hop carpetbaggers. Del doesn’t name names, but confronts such an impostor – peddling his struggle rap – on the opening track, and later confirms his vitriol on the self-explanatory “Bitin’ Ain’t Samplin’.” At 41, he can easily be pegged as a bitter forefather aggravated by the genre’s current state of affairs. But he pulls back the disdain for a welcomed moment of perspective a few songs later. “That ain’t for everybody. That’s just for like a few muthafuckas. Ya know what I’m sayin’?” Soon, he gives dap the Beastie Boys on a track that’s as jovial and irreverent as his best material. The rest of these freebies sport fluid and varied beats, joyfully clunky rhymes and predictably keen lyrics. Call him old school, but for Del there’s no time like the present. “Fuck nostalgia / We doin’ it right now.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Leader” / “Bitin’ Ain’t Samplin’” / “Mental Fitness”