Monthly Archives: July 2016

Sound ‘Round: Car Seat Headrest / Paul Simon

Death at both ends of the spectrum

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador)

Car Seat Headrest - Teens of DenialWill Toledo is like a lot of smart twentysomethings with more ambition than career prospects: lost, desperate and glum. Such innate emotions, however dreadful, drive his lo-fi basement rock — from the many DIY EPs found online to this major-label breakout complete with a crew of hired hands to bolster his melancholy. Written during his senior year at William & Mary College, the best songs contrast the impending doom of adulthood with a youthful disillusionment. That desk job he fears is as unfulfilling as the countless hangovers or the mushrooms that let him talk to Jesus. Eternally stuck between two rotten paths, depression is Toledo’s greatest muse and reoccurring theme. He doesn’t find a cure because he doesn’t want to — a fact made clear in the opening coda: “I’ve got a right to be depressed / I’ve given every inch I had to fight it.” Complicit in his own dreariness, he goes down swinging with unhinged noise, frenzied feedback and prog arrangements that belie his true pop leanings. What really saves the day is humor that’s as morose as the auteur’s mental state. The best joke sums up everything: “Of course I’m O.K. with death / But why you talk about it so goddamn much?” GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Drugs with Friends” / “Fill in the Blank” / “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Warner Bros.)

Paul Simon - Stranger to StrangerHe seemed content to die a beautiful death on 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, a wonderful album wherein a then-69-year-old Simon waxes poetic about our shared fate with grace and charm. Five years later, he’s still very much alive and a member of the modern world. Though the grave looms large here — a wealthy Milwaukee man is murdered by his wife in the opening verse — the point transcends mere morbidity. By the end of the first number, said Milwaukee man symbolizes the ills of income inequality. Ditto the proceeding song about a musician who joins the homeless after being shut out of his own gig for not wearing a wrist band. From there, we’re introduced to a suicidal soldier and a manic street preacher who escapes the walls of a psych ward with a parade inside his damaged mind. Sounds like a lot, but this is awful slight given its subject matter: 11 songs at a brisk 35 minutes. Aside from two drowsy instrumentals, Simon is predictably eclectic and erudite — Afro-beat meets Americana and pop hooks collide with the tongue worthy of an English PhD. A master of his craft on cruise control, there are worse things. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “The Riverbank” / “The Werewolf” / “Wristband”

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Sound ‘Round: Kyle / Homeboy Sandman

Hip-hop’s cool kids seize the day

Kyle – Smyle (Indie-Pop, 2015)

kyle smyleIf America swears that ability alone is all one needs to climb its rigid economic ladder, why is this good-natured youngster still grinding away in obscurity? Here is a gentleman who is as dead-funny as he is dead-smart. Who gets everything right from the video game beats to the slow jams that kick Drake’s ass. Who digs Star Wars, Wonder Woman and Jesus. Who prefers one night toss offs but still dreams about his future shawty. Who returns the favor to Chance the Rapper for allowing him a dynamite cameo on last year’s unbeatable Donnie Trumpet collab. That much of these 13 tracks are set during the summer means you’re right to get your kicks in before school starts. But even after teacher calls roll and the trees shed their leaves, the music will still radiate heat. Credit Kyle’s infectious hooks — whether rhyming in a West Coast accent that masks his lower class upbringing or crooning in a timbre so sweet it’s a wonder he hasn’t been granted more features. The one time things turns nasty comes on “Remember Me?” wherein he lashes out at a deadbeat dad who skipped his birthdays. Can you blame him? Here’s to smyling even though it’s sometimes the hardest thing to do. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “SummertimeSoul” / “Remember Me?” / “Endless Summer Symphony”

Homeboy Sandman – Kindness for Weakness (Stones Throw)

homeboy sandman - kindness for weaknessAngel Del Villar is a former law student who spits with such ferocity it’s as if his rhymes double as opportunities to regurgitate notes from the Bar Exam. He’s quick-lipped as he is prolific, releasing 14 albums, mixtapes or EPs since 2007. His verses are marked by wit, humor and wordplay, and his smooth flow is so nimble yet strong he often skips the chorus — more time to showboat. Though this outing is marked by many familiar traits, it’s most striking for its methodical nature. The beats are slowed to a thick jelly as Homeboy realizes sacrificing speed doesn’t negate potency. He plays by a new set of rules, but keeping it real remains the grand objective. He’s fond of his Queens home but still loathes riding crowded subways and observing neglected homeless citizens. He also lambasts media entities who report the latest rap beef while ignoring mass incarceration of young black men. Truth takes the form of the Almighty on “God,” with a sermon that falls flat from an abundance of pontificating. His humanistic side wears better on the finale. “In this reality (truth) might seem out of place / That’s only because this reality is so out of shape.” Amen. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Speak Truth” / “Seam By Seam” / “Talking (Bleep)”

Sound ‘Round: Brandy Clark / Buddy Miller

Words and music, emphasizing the former

Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town (Warner Bros.)

Brandy Clark - Big Day in a Small TownAn ace songwriter who helped Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and The Band Perry maintain their mega-country dreams, Clark’s solo work has struggled to crossover and breach the small confines of the showcase circuit. Though lauded by critics, her open lesbianism doesn’t do her any favors with a Nashville radio landscape afraid of the big-bad gays. She doesn’t help herself, however, with a sound so folkie and plain it gets swallowed and discarded by a scene obsessed with bombast and beer. No wonder this followup to her 2013 debut ups the production to cozy to Music City — fortifying familiar tropes about speed trap towns with bigger, twangier guitars and a rhythm section so steadfast it allows for just three well placed ballads. Despite the refurbished soundscape, lyricism will always be her calling card. The funny-if-exaggerated opener sends up little town melodrama, and the title track treats the quirks of rural America with dignity. If the anti-vanity of  “Homecoming Queen” seems condescending, know Clark was one herself, and know the seeming religious overtones of the finale don’t appease the Bible Belt, but instead weeps for small towns devastated by the capitalism they profess to love. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Big Day in a Small Town” / “Broke” / “Girl Next Door”

Buddy Miller – Cayamo Sessions at Sea (New West)

Buddy Miller - Cayamo Sessoins at SeaYou’ve probably heard Buddy Miller (or his influence) even if you didn’t know it. A good Midwestern son who knows the hustle never ends, he’s a singer / songwriter / instrumentalist / producer who has sang with Cash, sat behind the soundboard with Willie and recorded for the Dixie Chicks, Robert Plant and Elvis Costello, among others. This covers album was pieced together during a two-year period in which several seafaring trips doubled as recording sessions with icons and drinking buddies alike. There are the obvious selections — including Kris Kristofferson crawling his way through “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a song he penned in 1969 and let the Man in Black take to No. 1. But there are surprises to be had, too. Who knew Richard Thompson and his thick London accent could so easily replicate Hank Williams’ “Wedding Bells,” wherein a crestfallen lover sees the woman of his dreams tie the knot with another man. Nearly every performance comes with conviction (Hello, Doug Seegers), charm (I see you, Elizabeth Cook) or both (Good on you, Lee Ann Womack). The lone pitfall arrives with Lucinda Williams, whose music grows more burdensome with every wheezing breath. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “If Teardrops Were Pennies” / “After the Fire is Gone” / “Wedding Bells”

Sound ‘Round: Brad Paisley / OutKast

American classics for your Independence Day playlist 

Brad Paisley – American Saturday Night (Arista Nashville, 2009)

Brad Paisley -- American Saturday Night

The millennium’s best country album earns its status because it appeases the Nashville machine while transcending country radio archetypes. It also succeeds because the auteur is gracious, funny and smart enough to match his genre-busting ambition. Paisley sets the egalitarian tone on the opening title track, flipping the script on patriotic flag-toting to toast American multiculturalism at the fair — Italian ice, German cars, margaritas and The Beatles included. He does one better on “Welcome to the Future,” ditching his trusty guitar for a synth hook before ending with a verse that decries racism to celebrate the election of Obama — making the rise of Trump even more tragic. After lauding a U.S. of A. that’s less progressive than Paisley knows he imagines it to be, it’s onto a set of marriage ballads remarkable for their emotional heft. “Then” concerns an elated love without irony or cheese, and the finale proper knows true romance is doing the little things (like scratching her back in places she can’t reach). In the meantime, there’s a letter to his son, a wife who is her own woman, lessons from grandpa about God and a day on the lake. Paisley wants everyone to not just hear this album, but relate to it in some way. Me too. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: “Welcome to the Future” / “Then” / “American Saturday Night”

OutKast – Stankonia (LaFace / Arista, 2000)

outkast - stankoniaThis magnum opus of southern comfort began a three year run of unquestioned brilliance. Though differing artistic visions caused their slow goodbye, here their musical disparities draw them closer than ever. Big Boi’s infatuation with crisp, punishing beats helps tether Andre 3000 to reality, and Dre’s disregard for hip-hop formalities provides room for Big to display his underrated versatility. So self-assured and jocular, the hellfire of the opening “Gasoline Dreams” seems like a mere genre exercise when followed by the unbeatable swagger of “So Fresh, So Clean.” From there, it’s nearly an hour long display of veteran showmanship and real talk. The rhymes never drop an ounce of potency regardless of the subject matter — parenthood, teen pregnancy, staying clean on a dirty street or contempt for a government that criminalizes black skin. There’s darkness on the edge of town at Spaghetti Junction, but they nonetheless find grace in urbanity (“Slum Beautiful”) and stay strong in the face of adversity (“Humble Mumble”). Rather than succumb to the drugs-money-hoes conceit paraded by so many others, they instead steamroll through many of hip-hop’s preconceived notions. When the guitar solo (!) hits on “B.O.B.,” it sounds like the birth of a new constellation. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “B.O.B.” / “Miss Jackson” / “So Fresh, So Clean”