Monthly Archives: September 2014

Sound ‘Round: The New Pornographers / The Muffs

Back in the saddle again

The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Matador)

the new pornographers - brill bruisersAfter two uninspired albums of sounding like the side project they always were, this tenured bunch of Canadian pros (and American, Neko Case) returns with a renewed sense of vigor on a comeback no one expected to be this satisfying. Though their expert hook-making abilities lean superficial, at times rendering their candy-coated ways a mere sugar rush, this sixth album is their most consistent, meaty and pleasurable yet. It’s not their customary melodic flourishes and expert harmonies which make me a believer, however. Those traits are apparent and expected. What’s different here is a subtle but profoundly well-rounded musical texture. No longer a glorified barbershop outfit, the guitars are as brilliant as the vocals and their bigger-is-better rhythmic mantra puts the “power” in their power-pop aspirations. Once too cute to function, they at long last sound like a real band. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Brill Bruisers” / “Backstairs” / “Champions of Red Wine”

The Muffs – Whoop Dee Doo (Cherry Red / Burger)

the muffs - whoop dee dooShit-canned from The Pixies after a five-month stint on bass, Kim Shattuck resurrects her old band for the first time in a decade. The title is tongue-in-cheek, a tip of the cap to the nonexistent hype which has greeted their return. She’s the only remaining woman in this quartet turned trio, and she leads the charge just fine. It’s her crunchy power chords out front in the mix, her charming voice segueing between nasally verses and raspy howls, her lyrics about boys, apathy and harmless nostalgia which betray her 51 years of age. Never political enough to fit the Riot Grrrl mold 20 years ago, Shattuck’s continued command of melody and strict devotion to concise songwriting lends an air of amiableness too many acts shun these days. Destined to be an afterthought, this record is nonetheless fun and immediate. Play it loud. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Up and Down Around” / “Cheezy” / “Weird Boy Next Door

Sound ‘Round: The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali / Calypso: Musical Poetry in the Caribbean 1955-69

Songs about peace, Neil Armstrong and bed bugs

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali (Second Edition)(World Music Network)

mali This second edition compilation exists as a matter of necessity. No country has produced more socially relevant music in the past two years than war-torn Mali. After a 2012 coup d’état saw Jihadist rebels instill Shariah law, forbidding all forms of music, a groundswell of powerful, and illegal, protest songs emerged. Since French military forces drove out the oppressors, these 13 hymns of dissent don’t necessarily further a cause, but act as one hell of a summarization of recent affairs. They also reflect the nation’s obsession with the blues, though each track acts as its own subgenre. Khaira Arby’s contribution on “Goumou” is a call-and-response anthem marked by her expressive contralto. Things become more arid on Terekaft’s take on the desert blues, his husky voice riding atop a guitar lick to infinity. Though disparate, the common thread is a plea for a peaceful resolution and a celebration of good-natured humanity. The opener, brimming with wistful fretwork and an acute rhythmic intuition, says everything you need to know. Its title translates to “Everyone, Together.” The rest is more of the same. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Jama Ko” / “Awa Adounia” / “Goumou

Various Artists – Calypso: Musical Poetry in the Caribbean 1955-69 (Soul Jazz)

calypsoCalypso music does plenty right: bustling polyrhythms, endearing humor, lush instrumental textures, and an effervescent sense of melody. The genre’s greatest asset, however, is its unpretentious lyricism. Simple and direct, the performers double as newsies, relaying headlines to the world. So, while the term “musical poetry” sounds nice, it’s not quite the point of this era-capturing album. I prefer “musical microfilm,” songs rendered historical documents by the passage of time. Events recounted include Armstrong’s stroll on the moon, the rise of the Iron Curtain and the sex appeal of the latest James Bond temptress (“Pussy Galore. I am sure every man like Pussy Galore.”) If dated epistles aren’t your thing, stick with the jokes. There’s the one about a man who wishes to be reincarnated as a bed bug so he can bite a “big woman’s romper,” or another about West Indians who can’t stand cold English winters. Profundity is rarely the aim, but is found on “Negro Heart,” a black-pride anthem which recounts the story of the first successful heart transplant. Having occurred in South Africa, the imagery of a black man’s organ becoming a white man’s pacemaker is not lost – even though it’s historically inaccurate. Who needs facts when people need inspiration? It’s musical poetry if I’ve ever heard it. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Negro Heart” / “Man on the Moon” / “Pussy Galore

Sound ‘Round: Gucci Mane & Young Thug / Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Hip-hop hookups.

Gucci Mane & Young Thug – Young Thugga Mane La Flare (self-released)

gucci mane young thugThugga’s Black Portland mixtape with ATL counterpart Bloody Jay glorifies gang violence without regard for the caskets of young black men who become another statistic. No amount of slick rhyme-making or trap-beating can overshadow such a glaring moral failure. This pairing with The Oddfather is by no means a beacon of puritanism, but I would hate that more than needless Bloods vs. Crips posturing. The standout individual talent is Young Thug, whose diverse vocal work is an antithesis to Gucci Mane’s monotonous drawl: articulate yet slurred, melodic yet brash. He’s still up to no good, however. By track two he’s already pulled a high stakes drug heist. I’m not appalled. Rather, I’m impressed with his use of metaphor. “Got more bricks than a muthafuckin’ project.” He uses deft humor as realism, a skill worthy of good press. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:Bricks” / “Ride Around the City” / “Stoner 2 Times

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata (Madlib Invazion)

freddie gibbs madlibA fellow Indiana resident, I found Gibb’s music overvalued by Hoosiers desperate for a local name to cheer for other than John Fucking Mellencamp. Can you blame them, though? The Gary native converts me on this mashup with veteran producer Madlib. It wasn’t his continued insistence on imitating Blaxploitation tropes which won me over, but verses which recognize and reconcile past transgressions. He refers to a woman who ditched him as a “stank ho” only to realize the root of the problem on the next line: “Maybe you grew up and I’m still acting like I’m sixteen.” He again deals with his immature youth a few tracks later: “Can’t see eye-to-eye with my old man / Hiding my insecurities with this gang flag.” The relationship between father, a former police officer, and son, a former dealer, finds Gibbs at his most compelling. When he discovers the old man’s secret condom drawer, he ponders if his mom is aware of Dad’s “bottom drawer for his bottom ho.” His introspection, though raw, adds a soft edge around his street-wise growl. To quote the man himself, “That shit’s deep as hell, motherfucka.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Shitsville” / “Deeper” / “High” feat. Danny Brown 

Sound ‘Round: Brad Paisley / Hank Williams

Playing to the base

Brad Paisley – Moonshine in the Trunk (Arista Nashville)

brad paisley - moonshine in the trunk His good intentions undone by questionable imagery on last year’s “Accidental Racist,” the king of cosmopolitan country calls it quits on the statement-making anthems and returns to his southern comfort zone. Doubling down on his signature cowboy hat and faithful guitar, he ditches the centrist politics that defied Nashville and got him invited to D.C. In their stead are relished tropes he once transcended: alcohol, swimming holes and fast cars. It’s unfortunate if expected. An otherwise genial exercise in bro-country is salvaged, however, by genre-beating humor and wit. “Crushin’ It,” the opener, works as a motto for tailgaters and as an affirmation of Paisley’s perpetual optimism. His half-assed endorsement of Chick-Fil-A a few tracks later may irk some, but it’s no coincidence the auteur refers to a group of patrons as “low lifes.” His fretwork remains potent, his disposition good-natured, and his respect for women is so refreshing, he’ll always have an opening slot reserved on Miranda Lambert’s tour if the hits stop coming. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Moonshine in the Trunk” / “High Life” / “River Bank

Hank Williams – The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 (Omnivore)

hank williams - garden spotStop me if you’ve heard this before: a posthumous release that’s neither revelatory nor essential. These tapes, culled from four appearances on The Garden Spot radio show (“music for the family and the good ol’ fashioned way”), is hampered by useless banter and brief instrumental segues. Only half the track list is comprised of real songs, an excuse to mark up the sticker price. Nonetheless, the godfather of country shines through the marketing tricks. Williams’ voice, a slender drawl, is lively and adaptable, suiting lyrics about stale love, dead mothers, bachelorhood and Jesus. His rhythmic intuition is remarkably exact and propulsive despite the absence of a drum kit. Like every master songwriter before or since, he knew the formula to achieve posterity: Visceral feeling mixed with simple brevity. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Lovesick Blues” / “Jesus Remembered Me” / “Mind Your Own Business”

Sound ‘Round: Jenny Lewis / Spoon

Rejuvenation nation

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Bros.)

jenny lewis - the voyagerUnchained at last from a perpetual downer like Blake Sennett, her first solo release since nixing Rilo Kiley is a coming-of-age album that trumps nearly all of her prior discography. A California kid with a sunset-rock vibe and bad romance on the brain, lazy critics will continue to make superficial Fleetwood Mac comparisons and continue to miss the point. True, her penchant for gold dust guitars and sleepy harmonies recalls Rumors. Also true, the slick production mirrors Jackson Brown and the empty cowboy imagery of The Eagles. But where those West Coast troubadours of old got off on rock star excess or limp-dick poetry, Jenny Lewis gets conceptual and personal. Her voyager character is more than a rainbow power suit, it’s the personification of her recent past – including the death of her father. Weathered by mortality, business decisions and being “another lady without a baby,” she braves the storm from the get go. To quote the opening hook: “There’s a little bit of magic / everybody has it / There’s a little bit of fight left in the end.” It beats “Landslide” every time. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Just One of the Guys” / “Slippery Slopes” / “Head Underwater

Spoon – They Want My Soul (Vista)

spoon - they want my soulOn the wrong side of 40, Britt Daniel at long last pulls his copy of Big Star for Dummies out of his ass and has a little fun. In which he finally delivers a career-defining album, he does so by staying out of his own way. Where Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Kill the Moonlight are supposed to be tour de forces of indie exuberance, Daniel’s abiding love for tightly wound minimalist rock undercuts his best ideas. No more. His guitar work, punchy and raw, possesses a sense of urgency unprecedented in his catalog. His voice, forever raspy and sharp, demonstrates a new-found dynamism: barking vigorously on the ones that jam and crooning like the longue singer he secretly wants to be on the quiet ones. My vote for MVP, however, goes to hired hand Alex Fischel, whose delicate keys and synths softens Daniel’s raw Texas edge and solidifies his romantic inklings on the finale. There’s no crescendo, rather world-beating consistency. For Britt Daniel, it’s just the rent he pays. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Do You” / “Rent I Pay” / “New York Kiss

Sound ‘Round: The Roots / Royksopp & Robyn

Funeral marches

The Roots – … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam)

the roots - and then you shoot your cousinThey continue to stave off house band domesticity by remaining weird and unorthodox. Their second straight concept album is a kissing cousin to 2011’s Undun, a grave-to-the-cradle story arch which never properly coalesced. The goal here isn’t linear or art house chic, but rather a series of vignettes concerned with characters who ask the tough questions like, “What’s for dinner?” Spoiler: “Nothing, nigga.” Even by their street preaching standards, things get heavy. Death hovers on nearly every track. “I’d rather O.D. than be the next O.G.” “Life is a bitch and then you live until one day by death you’re found.” Gravedigger, dig a hole that fit a black nigga.” Their brevity, however, alleviates their woeful ways – as does a zig-zagging musical palette of soul, gospel, avant minimalism, arena rap and piano balladry. Capturing the zeitgeist isn’t the point, but Black Thought comes awfully close with the line, “A life in times unchecked, now that’s American.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: When the People Cheer” / “Tomorrow” / “Black Rock”

Röyksopp & Robyn –Do It Again (Dog Triumph)

royksopp and robyn - do it againA collaborative EP between electro minded Scandinavian acts is an exercise in colorless Euro-dub obfuscating a good hook. The duds are a pair of 10-minute snoozers which serve as bookends – one is a vacuous instrumental, the other a pretentious diatribe on sculptor Juliana Cerqueria Leite which doubles as a metaphor for death, because art. The middle trio of songs, though victims of rudimentary production, features a handful of earworms: a bubbly bass riff, a stutter-step synth line, Robyn’s usual melodicism. Too much highbrow idealism on the part of the men in the masks, and not enough charisma from Ms. “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do,” makes this record neither here nor there.  I’ll call it a draw.GRADE: B+
Key Tracks:
Do It Again” / “Every Little Thing” / “Sayit”