Monthly Archives: September 2016

Sound ‘Round: Britney Spears / Margo Price

The sex bomb and the songbird

Britney Spears – Glory (RCA)

britney-spears-gloryBritney’s been marketed as a sex object since her days as a Disney wunderkind because cheap thrills are the lifeblood for a depraved industry desperate for every penny it can muster. No wonder she made it to album number nine. They need her more than she needs them. Each new record is a good excuse to cash in. She’s stupid rich, sober and the primary caretaker of two children. But Britney — like all everlasting icons — knows how to stay on message. Instead of sunny-side-up ballads, an assembly line of songwriters (32!) and producers (17!) help construct her most consistent set of bedroom jams to date. The beats pulse and sweat with a kind of club fatalism that would be pretentious to deny, and a digitized soprano plays up the pleasure aesthetic of her porno-pop fantasies. Her pillow talk ranges from aggressive trysts that put holes in the wall to late-night cuddles that never seem to last long enough. I fancy “Do You Wanna Come Over?” for its jaunty rhythm and admission that sometimes a good tease is better than the dirty deed itself. “Nobody should be alone if they don’t have to be,” she declares. I agree. Don’t be a prude. Indulge yourself. Chances are there’s something here for you, too. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Do You Wanna Come Over?” / “Clumsy” / “Man on the Moon”

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)

margo-price-midwest-farmers-daughterOn first listen, she comes off as another geetar-pickin’ starlet brushed aside by a corporate country machine that’s hungry for bombast and TNA. Instead Price offers ol’ fashion storytelling told in plain rhyme and delivered in a Midwestern drawl that can take a good melody anywhere — be it the Tennessee woods or the nearest watering hole. With a voice that recalls Tammy and an eager-to-roughhouse disposition that mimics Loretta, she follows the grand tradition of women who yearn to make daddy proud while breaking all the rules he instilled. Her Christian upbringing is drowned in tequila on the second number, and whiskey makes her regret four years wasted with Mr. Unrepentant Two-Timer near the end. But grief hits closer to home on the opening track. After the family farm goes under, the old man works odd jobs and struggles to put food on the table. Parental anguish comes full circle a few verses later when her infant son dies from a genetic disorder. Given such tremendous heartache, the subsequent booze hounding becomes a means of escape more than an excuse for a good time. That such a bummer of an autobiography kicks-off an otherwise upbeat affair is obvious — family comes first. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Hands of Time” / “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” / “About to Find Out”

Sound ‘Round: Vince Staples / Young Thug

Contemplating and celebrating the freedom of celebrity

Vince Staples – Prima Donna (Def Jam)

vince-staples-prima-donnaIf last year’s Summertime ’06 was a meditation on growing up gangster in the mean streets of Long Beach, consider this seven-track follow up an epilogue wherein Staples reflects on the fame he was always so apprehensive about seeking. The cars, cash and diamonds that serve as status symbols are made objects of disdain by this lifelong Crip who’d rather seek realness in a material world. He passes on that new Rolls and instead gets nostalgic for pre-K birthday parties at McDonald’s. But such pastoral imagery is scant on this dour trip through Staples’ psyche. Here is a young man so conflicted he makes existentialism his lyrical centerpiece. The irony of “Smile” hits home on the dispirited coda that goes, “Sometimes I feel like giving up”, and the good sex of “Loco” is tempered by the truism, “We all waste away.” Deflated but not defeated, Vince’ high-pitched mumble of a voice softens his moodiness and allows space for beats both minimal and bullish to fill up what’s left. Euro soul-man James Blake dresses the somber rhymes in 8-bit drab while DJ Dahi serves as the antithesis. Don’t play this for fun. Play it to remember that a dream can sometimes become a curse. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Loco” / “War Ready” / “Prima Donna”

Young Thug – JEFFERY (Atlantic)

young-thug-jeffery

On time for his obligatory mixtape drop, Jeffery Williams’ semi-eponymous release finds a sense of cohesion that’s eluded him since last year’s Barter 6. But where that batch of songs marched in methodical fashion, here raw power is sacrificed for clean, accessible hooks. Thugga hasn’t sounded this energetic and jocular since spazzing out two years ago with fellow ATLien Bloody Jay. Every track borrows the musical styles of its namesake in an act of supposed tribute — the opening “Wyclef Jean” sways with the ease of Caribbean tides and the pounding trap beat of “Guwop” owes much to the recently freed Gucci Mane. But Thug is too slippery to be taken at face value. What lies beneath is a series of masterful troll jobs. He mimics Future’s monotonous delivery when he covets another man’s baby mama before skewering Rihanna’s new-found penchant for femme-friendly power anthers. That he helps himself to whichever sub-genre he fancies is a credit to his audacity. That he succeeds so brilliantly is a testament to his acumen. Since Thug harbors no ill-will, the many non sequiturs are easy to digest — although the song named for convicted abuser Floyd Mayweather is a tough one to stomach. But feel free to chuckle during “Harambe.” I certainly did. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Kanye West” / “Future Swag” / “Harambe”

Sound ‘Round: Waco Brothers / Leland Sundries

R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

The Waco Brothers – Going Down in History (Bloodshot)

waco-brothers-going-down-in-historyThe title is tongue-in-cheek, as if Jon Langford and Deano Schlabowske’s band amounts to anything more than a footnote from the industrious ‘90s rock scene. But then you realize this is their first album proper in 11 years and it might be the end after all. But a collection of farewell ballads this ain’t. Aside from the record’s opening line — “This is the first track from the last album.” — they forego curtain calls to exhibit punk formalities with precision and punch. At 10 songs in 30 minutes, the instant gratification here is enough to convince you rock will carry on long after its retreat from the mainstream is complete. Langford is the leader — does nearly all the press, stands center stage at gigs — and it’s easy to focus on his Welsh snarl that sounds like Joe Strummer full of Budweiser and tenderloin. But I gravitate to the more gruff stylings of the Milwaukee-born Schlabowske. Though he splits mic duties 50/50 with his coworker, his melodies are more memorable, his lyricism is more to the point and his humor more keen. While Langford’s middle-aged misanthropy is onto something in “Building Our Own Prison,” it comes nowhere near the droll succinctness of Schlabowske’s best line: “You can’t kill us, we’re already dead.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “DIYBOB” / “Receiver” / “Building Our Own Prison”

Leland Sundries – Music for Outcasts (L’Echiquier)

leland-sundries-music-for-outcastsNick Loss-Eaton pays attention to detail — a skill he learned in his youth while studying Dylan lyrics and later refined as a publicist for fellow indie-lifers Camper Von Beethoven and soul survivor Mavis Staples. Writing to pay the bills makes the never-ending search for a good angle all the more pressing. So it’s no coincidence nearly every track comes with a story complete with humor and enough worthy couplets to prove he made the right choice in ditching his day job to traverse the highways in search of the rock ‘n’ roll dream. And traverse he does, swallowing pills on a greyhound from Reno before encountering a stripper in his native Brooklyn who gets her kicks watching The Today Show. In between are Carolina ghost towns, Redwood wildfires and oceanfront tranquility. Loss-Eaton’s voice, stunted but spirited, is emboldened by a blue-collar swagger that meets the challenge of occupying whatever emotional space is required: anxious longing, cocksure bravado or paranoid android. His deadpan timbre is maximized on the apocalyptic opener wherein an ex-lover refuses to take him back even as the dooms day clock strikes midnight. Always the good sport, he still wishes her well 10 songs later on the finale. Here’s hoping the road takes him home, wherever it may be. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Radiator Sabotage” / “Stripper from Bensonhurst” / “Apocalypse Love Song”

Sound ‘Round: Kanye West / Rae Sremmurd

The temptations and triumphs of hedonism

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music)

Kanye West - The Life of Pablo

While Yeezy was trolling Taylor, asking moguls for bailouts and self-editing his messiest album on the fly, I remained perplexed by the fuss. The beats steamroll and the production glistens, but the lyrical shortcomings are glaring — his pornography-as-power-trip is a turn off and he fails as a husband when calling the mother of his children a bitch. I wasn’t converted until I realized Mrs. Kardashian West inspires more rewarding subject matter. Kanye’s always played the persecuted genius with fame, ego and a mother’s ghost burdening him. Now his woes lie in matrimony and fatherhood — fearsome territory for a man who proclaimed, “Hurry up with my damn ménage.” So color me surprised when Mr. Slow Jamz rebuffs the temptations of the club on “FML.” “God, I’m willing to make this my mission / Give up the women / Before I lose half of what I own.” Scoff at Ye’s declarations of fidelity, but know his motivation lies not in self-aggrandizement but in out-parenting a father who cut corners. His rhymes are revealing as ever, even as the music fractures into madness and the metaphors occasionally fall flat — comparing his marriage to the biblical Mary and Joseph is the kind of mania derided by his haters. But, as the auteur says, “This is fame, bro.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “FML” / “Real Friends” / “Waves”

Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife 2 (Interscope/Ear Drummer)

Rae Srummerd - SremmLife 2Aw, to hell with maturity. With a bank account as big as their fleet of fast cars and a rolodex of eager-to-please girlfriends, brothers Aaquil and Khalif Brown double down on their club life fantasies with this sequel to last year’s debut. Roll your eyes at such blatant materialism, but keep in mind the oldest member is only 22 and both relish an American Dream that was for centuries denied to countless people of color. So relax and jam with Khalif as he brags about his personality traits with glee: “Gettin’ money my favorite sport.” Their mission is as simple as the means. The beats — many cooked up by Mike Will Made It — are as greasy as Southern cooking and bang with enough power to match their boastful rhymes. Hip-hop’s power brokers have turned moody (Drake), cerebral (Kanye), pious (Chance) or a mixture of all three (Frank Ocean), making their unapologetic cash-grabbing, pill-popping ways refreshing. Right, they’re sinners and bad role models, now shut up and grab the wheel while they roll another joint. Adulthood looms in the distance — as it always does with acts like this. But why worry when being young sounds this melodic, entrancing, funny, harmless and almost too much fun? GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Black Beatles” / “Real Chill” / “Start a Party”