Monthly Archives: April 2017

Sound ‘Round: Spoon / The New Pornographers

Guitars? Never heard of ’em. 

Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Matador)

Brit Daniel is one hell of a shapeshifter despite possessing the inflexible vocal dexterity of Eddie Vedder. While Vedder’s martyrdom complex left him chasing Kurt’s ghost, Daniel’s free-flowing minimalism lightens his load and keeps him nimble. That’s not so say he welcomes complacency. This album is among the band’s most immediate and surprising, musically speaking. Less interested than ever in the guitar, they satisfy their long-gestating synth-pop fantasies with typical punch and snappiness. Every instrument is a drum, be they guttural bass churns, reverberating keyboards, Daniel’s staccato vocal delivery or literal drums courtesy of the real MVP Jim Eno. Aside from an abiding love for the primordial groove is a treasure trove of tricks that play counterpoint to their steadfast tempos — “Can I Sit Next To You” comes with a warbling, off-key synth fill I can’t stop whistling. The lyrics remain as vague and cryptic as Daniel himself, although he gives politics a go on the anti-border wall anthem, “Tear It Down.” But I’m more captivated by “Pink Up,” an experimental jam in which Daniel’s vocals are played backwards, making them another colorful instrument in a kaleidoscope of sound. Praise be to the front man who knows when to get out of the way. It lets the rest of us have some fun. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Can I Sit Next To You” / “Hot Thoughts” / “Shotgun”

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord)

A.C. Newman is the most forgettable of the indie-pop ringleaders. Not only is he Canadian, but he shares mic duties with the ebullient and personable Neko Case – a Virginia-born redhead who spent three years studying art in British Columbia.  Though Newman is as plain as they come, his sturdy melodic gifts have sustained this band for 20 years. This album is their first without collaborator and Destroyer auteur Dan Bejar, whose contributions were as clunky and disposable as Newman’s remain effervescent. With no more art-pop inklings to satisfy, it’s straight ahead on 11 songs in a taut 41 minutes. As is the new norm these days for guitar geeks in mid-life crisis, Newman’s latest musical infatuation is synthesizers that digitize the growing ire he holds against his chosen profession. The music glistens, for sure — only insomniacs and the dead are immune to the opening choral of “Second Sleep” — but their pop sensibilities only serve to contrast songs about the downside of the industry: ticket scalpers as leeches, the highway as purgatory and musicians as careerists instead of inspired radicals. Their complaints reflect their milieu, which stunts their market share. But hooks for the sake of hooks ain’t a bad way to enjoy life in the terrible year of 2017. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “High Ticket Attractions” / “This is the World of the Theater” / “Colosseums”


Sound ‘Round: Ab-Soul / Migos

He’s the ego, they’re the id

Ab-Soul – Do What Thou Wilt. (Top Dawg, 2016)

Herbert Stevens IV values a worthy couplet over instantaneous beats. He’s from the same collective as Kendrick and Schoolboy Q, hence an addiction to wordiness and musical density. Album number four is his moodiest and gloomiest and is too damn long (16 songs in 76 minutes). He craves a good editor. Instead we’re given a tangled heap of smarts, braggadocio and crass one-liners. I prefer his I.Q. because it bolsters his boastful ways and makes the jokes funnier. He’s no Q-Tip or Lupe Fiasco, but he holds his own among hip-hop’s intelligentsia. Rare is the rapper who name drops Black Panther Huey Newton and black magician Aleister Crowley. But he never sounded so smart as when he steps to the plate for feminine equality — a rare subject matter among bros. “Threatening Nature” ridicules the inherent sexism of religion while pondering the fate of Hillary Clinton, and he’s down to help his lesbian friends start a family on “Womanology.” Elsewhere, nature is a mother, God is a girl and water is wet. Ab’s good intentions hold everything together, and the rhythms steady as things progress. These songs may not inspire a bevy of raw sales, but perhaps they will kick-start a movement. Lord knows we deserve it. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Threatening Nature” / “Huey Knew THEN” / “The Law”

Migos – Culture (Atlantic/300 Entertainment)

Blood is thicker than molly for this Nawf Atlanta trio. They bonded during a childhood rife with poverty and stood together in their quest for trap-rap riches. Good decision, too. None of them have the voice or vocabulary to go the distance solo — ringleader Quavo is the only one to make notable cameos elsewhere. As a unit, however, they temper any doubts concerning crony capitalism with a series of gilded club anthems so superficial you can’t help but smile at a group of mama’s boys done good. Their themes are fundamental: expensive drugs, fast cars, women adorned with cellulite and admonishing the haters by exercising their second amendment rights. Call them cliché and I’ll call you clueless. This is music about gluttony and greed for an era when such cardinal sins are required to survive. Without any old money, they rake in plenty of new money with beats as syrupy and medicated as the Sprite they ingest. But notice how fickle they find fame. Quavo ain’t here to take no pictures, Takeoff learns a lesson in coveting thy neighbor and Offset is always relegated to the last verse. Also notice the person who instilled them with a sense of self-worth is the woman who raised them. This is more than a party record, it’s a Black excellence record. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “T-Shirt” / “Bad and Boujee” / “Slippery”

Sound ‘Round: Jens Lekman / The Magnetic Fields

Judy Garland, Lady Di, Grace Slick and Mormonism

Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian)

Label me a curmudgeon at best or a xenophobe at worst, but this Swede singer/songwriter was too vanilla for my American taste buds. The hooks are always apparent — he’s from the same country as ABBA, Avicii and Max Martin — but Lekman’s melodicism is stunted by music more schmaltzy than smooth and insipid than inspired. Think yacht rock without the casual sex. Now comes album number four, not a casual sex record but a casual love record. And what a casually brilliant love record it is: endearing, tuneful and groovy as a Swede can be. But don’t confuse love for romanticism. The Mormon missionary of the opening track honors Princess Diana by following the Golden Rule, and the cancer survivor on the ensuing song finds out his beer buddy was praying for him the whole time. Gentle gestures keep coming when the romance creeps in — holding hands under the table during dinner to forgive an earlier fight, lending his bass to the woman he introduces his friends to, letting his best bro sleep on his shoulder during the train ride home after a raucous evening. Through it all, Lekman projects a welcoming sense of humanism increasingly rare in pop. To quote Mr. Nice Guy, “In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear.” GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Wedding In Finistère” / “To Know Your Mission” / “Evening Prayer”

The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir (Merge)

Stephen Merritt’s 50-song album is his most ambitious effort since his 69-song album. While the latter gets emotional about love, the goal here is less universal but just as grand — five CDs at 10 songs each, one song for every year of Merritt’s life. The entirety clocks in at 150 minutes and costs $40 (Spotify provides a 16-song sampler to whet your appetite). This being Merritt’s story, the album largely resembles a solo effort. He plays more than 100 instruments (synths and ukulele are his forte) and his brooding bass takes the lead on every track. Most of these mini-flashbacks run a brisk three minutes, but the raw volume of the material makes this an investment. I still struggle to maintain interest in disc two and his bohemian tendencies only go so far. Nonetheless, Merritt is an American treasure that demands respect. Should you disregard the whole, focus on these tinier bits — A childhood cat that doesn’t reciprocate his love, recalling the death of Judy Garland, awakening his agnosticism, falling for the fictitious Ethan Frome, sharing an apartment with three men and a dog, recalling a snowy New York evening, make-up sex with an ex, avoiding a mid-life crisis by recognizing the freedom middle age affords. This record is messy but charming, consuming yet rewarding. Such is life. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Ethan Frome” / “The Ex and I” / “Somebody’s Fetish”


Sound ‘Round: Becky Warren / Sunny Sweeney

Further explorations in the women-country renaissance

Becky Warren – War Surplus (self-released, 2016)

She’s a little name with big time songwriting chops and the pipes and ambition to match. With a crew of honky-tonkers playing backup, her solo debut is a concept album about a married couple on the fritz. Her name is June, an unabashed loud mouth with a soft center. He’s Scott, an Iraq vet who comes home with PTSD. Sound like a heartland cliché? Think again. These tracks are rooted in Warren’s past. She wed a soldier in 2005 before he shipped to the Middle East. He returned damaged. They fought to save their marriage but surrendered in divorce court. So, during songs wherein life imitates art, turbulence is the prevailing theme. June’s no passive army wife but an ironwood-strong woman as mouthy as hubby is stubborn. As for Scott, he’s a well-meaning man corrupted by enemy gunfire and the military industrial complex. Politics aren’t apparent with Warren, but they’re not absent, either. “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” is an anti-war anthem so acerbic it belongs in Dubya’s funeral. In Nashville, subject matter such as this is often performed by jarhead wannabes pandering to their uber-patriotic base. So credit Warren for putting the human element first, and for knowing love is indeed a battlefield. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” / “Take Me Back Home” / “Ironwood Strong”

Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Thirty Tigers)

To better appreciate the mid-tempo about face, revisit 2014’s Provoked, a rowdy record that fell short of the big time even as she rhymed “working class” with “kiss my ass.” Over her bad girl phase, she’s content with where the music takes her. This follow up slows down and turns contemplative. Call me sexist, but I prefer sassy over sincere. That bright Texas twang sells the jokes and plays up an endearing devil-may-care demeanor. But Sweeney no longer craves booze-soaked indulgence. Here she takes home a stranger for lack of other bad ideas. With bar crawls turned passé — she is 40, ya know — the best songs concern more significant moments. Three are penned by songwriting dynamo Lori McKenna (“Girl Crush,” “Humble & Kind”). The title track finds Sweeney telling off her man’s crazy ex-girlfriend, while the would-be schmaltz of “Grow Old with Me” is followed with “I’ll keep you young forever.” But the greatest object of desire comes on “Bottle By My Bead” in the form of a child she can’t bear. “Don’t even know you yet, but I know I love you,” she sings. Infertility is one of music’s few remaining taboos. That Sweeney does the subject matter justice is proof that toughness is more than hell-raising bravado. It’s tackling your fears head-on. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Bottle By My Bed” / “Grow Old With Me” / “Trophy”