Monthly Archives: April 2016

Sound ‘Round: Beauty Pill / PJ Harvey

From D.C. to the world at large

Beauty Pill – Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are (Butterscotch, 2015)

Beauty Pill - Beauty Pill Describes Things As They AreChad Clark’s second album with the D.C.-based Beauty Pill borrows from so many genres, it defies categorization. Blurring the lines between prog, funk, chamber pop and avante minimalism, this kind of listening experience is becoming rarer in today’s ever-desperate search for instant gratification. Melodies abound and hooks are plenty, but they ride shotgun alongside Clark’s warehouse of grooves and textures stockpiled during an extended recovery from life-saving open heart surgery performed in 2007. Every instrument is treated as a drum, giving all but a few songs a polyrhythmic pulse that sounds like a heard of stampeding elephants. Just as tricky as Clark’s penchant for syncopation is his lyricism predicated on the ol’ bait-and-switch. That beautiful woman doing her makeup in the car nearly gets you killed in a car crash (“Near Miss Stories”), and the method actor who swears he’s not an addict gets what’s coming to him. (“For Pretend”).  Clever, yes, but he’s at his best when the verses play it straight to contrast the complex arrangements. “Ain’t a Jury in the World Gonna Convince You, Baby,” is a tip of the cap to Black Lives Matter, while “Steven and Tiwonge” details the struggle of oppressed African gays so vividly, you’d swear it took place in North Carolina. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Steven and Tiwonge” / “Afrikaner Barista” / “For Pretend”

PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Vagrant/Island)

PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition ProjectPolly Jean wanted to demolish the world during her feminism-first heyday, coming close in 2000 on her magnum opus. Now she’s content to demolish a few sections of city housing. Inspired by a globe-trotting tour through some of the world’s worst slums, the representative from England takes the floor on an album-as-news report. With lyrics plain and direct embellished by music ornate and knotty, she spotlights the modernity of human suffering. Critics are right to squirm when she calls drug addicts “zombies” on “Community of Hope,” named for the D.C. outreach center, but they miss the mark. Those walking dead need another fix like they need the Wal-Mart put there by P.J. on the ending coda — as if corporate gentrification equates to salvation. The duality between rich and poor is seen elsewhere, like the Vietnam Memorial and Lincoln Monument. National tokens of solidarity are made pillars of shame. But notice how the record’s closing one-two punch takes place not in Washington, but Kosovo and Afghanistan. There, she’s confronted with a decade’s old wall plastered with the faces of still-missing children and a pock-marked child begging for money on the roadside. The fact such scenes can take place in the first world is not lost on the auteur. If anything, that’s the point. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “The Wheel” / “Community of Hope” / “Dollar Dollar”

 

Sound ‘Round: Erykah Badu / The Internet

Communication breakdown

Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown/Control Freaq, 2015)

Erykah Badu - But You Caint Use My PhoneThe last time this Dallas native tried making a statement, she was hit with a misdemeanor for stripping nude in the streets of Dealey Plaza. Though her first batch of music in five years eases on the socio-political protests, the conceit is just as topical. Each of these 11 tracks is concerned with humanity’s addiction to cellphones and the insidious level of detachment they produce. The best boast/punchline is “I can make you put your phone down / Your mama probably think you out there missing.” And it’s that sense of humor that turns a would-be sermon into a string of laughs that are no less potent. During an extended cover of “Hotline Bling,” she offers to DJ your nephew’s slip and slide party over the answering machine, and poor Tyrone has to use smoke signals and Morse code to relay his messages on the opener. And while the public service announcement regarding the peril of honey bees brought on by cellphone radiation is no joke (“Dial’Afreaq”), the shout out to Big Sean a few lines later certainly is. As the world gets smaller with the advent of every new technological gizmo, Badu is smart enough to know we’re just as isolated as we were in the days before Marconi. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Dial’Afreaq” / “Cel U Lar Device” / “Phone Down”

The Internet – Ego Death (Columbia)

The Internet - Ego DeahtFor all of the gains made by the LGBT community this millennium, hip-hop has some catching up to do. How do you explain Frank Ocean getting zero cameos after confessing romantic desires for Tom Hanks?  What makes Syd tha Kyd’s third album so refreshing is the object of her affection. In a genre dominated by piggish men whose cerebral cortex and glans penis are one in the same, along comes a woman who treats lesbianism as normal and knows complicated romance pays no allegiance to sexual orientation. With a small, smoky voice that bellies her musical fortitude, she spends 16 songs concerned with apathetic lust and apprehensive love. Though Syd sings plenty about the good times spent with her girl, she chickens out when responsibility calls. Poor Gabby has to sit in the car while Syd contemplates their future at an airport terminal, and the unfortunate soul on “Just Sayin’” is kicked to the curb faster than Syd can produce a new beat for her Odd Future homies. What drives her skittish ways isn’t the fear of being a societal outcast, but the nerves associated with being 23 and intimidated by commitment. “Don’t get caught up loving me,” she says. “I’m too young.” Too late. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Go With It” / Girl” / “Gabby”

Sound ‘Round: Anderson .Paak / Weezer

Lucky is the family guy 

Anderson .Paak – Malibu (OBE/Steel Wool/ArtClub/Empire)

anderson .paakThe city for which his second album is named lies thirty miles east of his hometown of Oxnard, California. A singer/rapper/producer with too much ambition and know-how to be contained by a small West Coast suburb, .Paak makes his case for the big time. Though he pays lip service to the club and gets it in on the bedroom jams, such material is just a ruse. His real aim is more personal. To quote the 30 year old R&B lifer with a wife and kid at home: “Fuck fame, that killed all my favorite entertainers.” So focus not on the riches, but the rags, like the two-part suite “The Season / Carry Me,” where he sings about a complicated love for a mother and step-father who spent seven years in prison for securities fraud. Though mama also had an addiction to booze and gambling, that didn’t stop her from buying baby .Paak his first pair of Jordans when he was 6. It’s that dynamic which propels the best song, “Celebrate,” tucked neatly near the end. Though his family tree is flawed, he still basks in the shade of its branches. “Where would I be without you / What would you do without me?” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Celebrate” / “Am I Wrong” / “The Bird”

 Weezer – Weezer (Crash)

Weezer - White AlbumHoly Hare Krishna, Batman. Rivers Cuomo knows how to talk to women! In which a marriage soon to enter its tenth year finally opens a gateway through which he drops the tortured man-child routine, the oft-maligned front man writes some of his strongest love songs. The album cover’s monochrome color scheme is akin to their 1994 eponymous debut, and plays up the career-comes-full-circle archetype (read: marketing strategy). But rarely has this band been so musically steady-handed and lyrically grounded. Cuomo will always be petrified of women to some degree, but he loosens up on songs that envision romance beyond Santa Monica Pier. That “good thing” he keeps going on about is a destination wedding in Puerto Rico that precedes “King of the World,” wherein the newlyweds hideaway to a Galapagos honeymoon by car because the Mrs. hates flying. Though there’s plenty of dap for his California home, such familiar settings bring familiar pitfalls. Those L.A. girlz are right to ignore his whiny pleas for attention, and while we all thank God for girls, Cuomo’s well-meaning Hallelujahs rank among his worst endeavors since visiting Beverly Hills. Here’s hoping he remains happily wedded, because he needs her a lot more than she needs him. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “(Girl We Got a) Good Thing” / “King of the World” / “Wind in Our Sail”

Sound ‘Round: Azealia Banks / Rihanna

Looking out for number one

Azealia Banks – Slay-Z (self-released)

Azealia Banks - Slay-Z

A.B. is so damned pugnacious and prideful because she possesses talent and bluster in equal measure. A black-power feminist who rightly holds America in contempt for disregarding women of color, she claims success on her town terms — hence the nudie cover photo for this self-released mixtape, not to mention her so-questionable-you’d-swear-she’s-trolling endorsement of Trump. Though her iconoclasm costs brownie points with the music-media gatekeepers, she still ranks among hip-hop’s most consistent voices. “I like unrest, understand? / I like being in command,” she proclaims on the opener wherein a synth-pop hook and gal pal Nina Sky instigate a ri-i-i-iot. However, Banks eyes bigger targets to overthrow than the pop charts, i.e. sexual mores and traditional gender roles. So it’s no coincidence Rick Ross spends his cameo referring to the host as Cleopatra and a princess. Notice too how the black-athlete-as-powerbroker conceit namechecks not Chef Curry but the WNBA’s Skylar Diggins (“That bitch ballin’”). Matching her world-beating bravado is a series of big big beats that mesh the syncopation of club glam with the bass-heavy sound of a back alley block party.  “This is the life I was born to live,” she says. With bottomless charisma and unbeatable charm, she’s not domineering, just keeping it real. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Skylar Diggins” / “The Big Big Beat” / “Queen of Clubs

Rihanna – Anti (Deluxe Edition) (Roc Nation)

Rihanna - Anti

In which Rihanna satisfies a career-long quest for independence, she redoubles her feminist bonda fides and delivers pop’s best statement-making album since Miranda Lambert went platinum. During 16 songs and 51 minutes, she derives power from sexual pleasure and expresses desire without diminishing her personhood. That she shares songwriting credit on all but one track adds bite to her boasts — the exception being the Tame Impala cover that’s still every bit as as hooky and beat savvy as the originals. Bad romance dominates the agenda, but she still ventures beyond X-rated pillow talk. The tranquil “Never Ending” details the constant suspense of a troubled romance that won’t die, and “Desperado” finds her bumming a ride from a heart-broken stranger who shares in her solitude. If the bad-girl-as-grown-up marketing plan is apparent, the music isn’t. Abandoning the formalities of the dance floor, she retreats to the backroom where the grooves lean loose and heavy and arrangements are inverted with glee. If the soft-spoken ballad-as-finale leaves you wanting, invest in the three bonus tracks that continue her hedonism and conclude with a question in the form of a statement on “Sex With Me.” Answer: Absolutely. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Kiss it Better” / “Never Ending” / “Needed Me”

Sound ‘Round: Bonnie Raitt / Loretta Lynn

Age ain’t nothin’ but a number

Bonnie Raitt – Dig in Deep (Redwing)

Bonnie Raitt dig in deepShe’s a pro’s pro with a dresser drawer full of Grammy gold and plenty of incentive to spend the rest of her career on the never-ending classic rock circuit. Refusing to dwell on yesterday, Bonnie Raitt’s twentieth album is instead her most invigorated in 25 years. Serving as a first-time producer and releasing music on her own label, Raitt relishes artistic freedom with a repertoire of tunes heavy on groove and lyrics that treat love like a virtue instead of a marketing tool. Be it one of the five originals or seven covers ranging from the Tex-Mex twang of Los Lobos to teary-eye longing of Pat McLaughlin, Raitt runs through the love, loss, pain and pleasure of relationships in unequal measure. The confident strut of the opener matches her declarations of renewed romance and is naturally followed by “Need You Tonight,” where her customary slide guitar adds buoyancy to the pseudo-soul sexuality of INXS. Her instrumental abilities and knack for rhythm a given, she dusts off her songwriting chops on a finale that’s as somber as much of the rest is upbeat. With a lone piano guiding her through a broken heart, she pays homage and says farewell to people more precious than a boy toy — her deceased mother and father. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Need You Tonight” / “I Knew” / “The Comin’ Round is Going Through”

Loretta Lynn – Full Circle (Sony Legacy)

loretta lynn album coverCareer retrospectives often lean grim and reek of cash-grab nostalgia — the last chance for an ever-desperate music biz to wring a few more pennies from a Hall of Famer before they bid adieu. And though this coal miner’s daughter will meet a fate we all share, she has no intentions of going quietly into the pines of history. To quote this album’s most sneering song: “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Lynn’s signature spunk emanates on the strongest of these country-folk ditties, including the “Fist City” rehash wherein flirtatious females who get too close to her man are threatened with a round of fisticuffs. More threatening than a homewrecker is a pending date with the grave that comes in one fashion or another. “I Never Will Marry” observes a woman who chooses drowning over being a wife, and the self-reflective “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?” ponders just that. Macabre, sure, but fitting for an 83 year old who knows eternity will soon beckon. Easing her end-of-life crisis is amigo, and fellow senior, Willie Nelson, who shows up on the finale about a life well lived. “I’ll be at peace when they lay me down,” they sing. Here’s hoping so. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Everybody Wants to go to Heaven” / “Fist City” / “Lay Me Down”