Monthly Archives: September 2017

Sound ‘Round: Queens of the Stone Age / LCD Soundsystem

Indie gods wrestle with the beat

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains (Matador)

Josh Homme’s latest artistic coup isn’t teaming with retro-minded and retrograde producer Mark Ronson, it’s not even his re-infatuation with the beat-centric robot rock he first forged in the California desert two decades ago. What’s got him stirred up is a re-invigorated appreciation for the air in his lungs — he’s a happy husband, even happier dad and the ringleader of millennial modernity’s most celebrated rock act. So count his seventh album with the Queens as his most jovial, pop-oriented and dance-friendly. Such redoubt optimism is appreciated during these troubled times, but the titular villains Homme fears are abstract, oblique and undefined. The bad guys aren’t the fundamentalists who targeted best bro and Eagle of Death Metal, Jesse Hughes, nor are they the corporate satans suffocating our democracy. No, Homme’s boogeyman is “circumstances,” a hollow generalization that means everything and nothing.  But even if his target is too big to fail, his intent is earnest and bolstered by nine songs bound by the groove and a desire to keep breathing. Best turn of phrase: “Going on a living spree / Any wanna come with me?” Best truism: “It ain’t if you fall, but how you rise that says who you really are.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “The Evil Had Landed” / “Fortress” / “The Way You Used to Do”

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (Excelsior Equity)

James Murphy behaved like an old soul from the get-go. Here is a man whose debut single came at the geriatric age of 32 with the prophetic title “Losing My Edge.” That was in 2002 when New York’s insular scene conquered the world in a sheet of secondhand smoke. His band’s zenith came in 2011 at Madison Square Garden during a supposed farewell concert which capped a decade of meshing frenzied electronica and rock’s debonair ambivalence. But Murphy’s grand finale was spoiled by his impulsiveness and an oversaturated festival market desperate for any headliner who’ll play. So here comes an album history had no reason to expect from an auteur losing his edge as promised. Murphy’s near-fatal flaw is a lack of vision. Where records of yesteryear were replete with a warehouse of grooves, his polyrhythms have turned flat and uninspired. Half of these 10 songs lack structure and stagnate with percussion apathy. His vocal inflections and lyrical platitudes don’t make up the difference, either. The exception is “Call the Police,” an anti-Trump number that awakens his paranoia and stirs his signature deadpan humor. While middle age and a mad world have him down, his love life appears resilient enough to get him through. At least that’s what I want to believe. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “call the police” / “oh baby” / “tonite”

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Sound ‘Round: Hamell on Trial / Gogol Bordello

Street performers and gypsy punks resist and endure

Hamell on Trial – Tackle Box (New West)

To label a streetwise bohemian like Edward Hamell a mere comedian diminishes his art and lessens the dangers of these terrible times. He’s a smartass, sure, but his lyrical barbs are more than cheap laughs. They’re cynical truisms from a one-man-band smart enough to know the cathartic value of gallows humor. Targets of vitriol are obvious — President Diablo and law-breaking cops, for the newcomers. The world is rightly awash in protest anthems, and preaching to the converted doesn’t do much good. So credit the 62-year-old Hamell for pondering global dilemmas through the smaller and more pressing prism of fatherhood. “What am I supposed to tell my child when morals and integrity have all run wild?” precedes “How do I tell my son this ain’t the way when the schoolyard bully is the president today?” precedes “I’m trying to teach my kid there’s some authority that needs to be respected.” His parental instinct softens his pessimism and opens a doorway through which his rage transforms into compassion and heartache. He honors an estranged childhood friend taken by cancer and the finale mourns a broken marriage that lingers a decade later. Good on him for learning to love again. She’s an immigrant who hates the president. And they lived happily ever after.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “NOT ARETHA’S RESPECT (COPS)” / “BALLAD OF CHRIS” / “MOUTHY B”

Gogol Bordello – Seekers and Finders (Casa Gogol)

Every punk group worth their salt makes a record wherein they rage against life’s great inevitabilities: age, death, (gulp) contentment. But for Eugene Hutz, 45, his dread is more personal. Born in Soviet-ruled Ukraine, he knows first-hand the sinister rule favored by the kind of despots occupying the White House. He and his band of fellow gypsies also understand how to fight beyond the ballot box — with agape love and an unbeatable humanist streak. Musically, they are rightly at their most subdued. Partying can wait during mass deportations. But Hutz’s thick accent renders verse after verse of some of the year’s most spirited lyrics. Assemble his best one-liners, and you reveal a protest hymn for the ages. “There must be more to this life than one strife after strife.” “One mania after mania / One phobia after phobia / One damn strife after strife / Promises of the afterlife.” “Life quest for a unity / Death propels the community / To break all the dividers.” “The undividable will hold me up when all goes down.” “With immigrant stamina you know who you are. “And all I know as on we go / The more it’s like so long time ago / My eyes and heart still open wide / Towards unknown and silvery tide.” GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “You Know Who We Are (Uprooted Funk)” / “Seekers and Finders” / “Break Into Your Higher Self”

Sound ‘Round: American Epic / Randy Newman

American epics and new American standards

Various Artists – American Epic: The Collection (Sony)

What Burns was to jazz and Scorsese to da blues, so now is antique revivalist Jack White to (what else?) obscure recordings produced during the roaring ‘20s and depressed ‘30s. While White has turned this series into a worthy enterprise — including a four-part documentary film and a slew of specialized albums — this review concerns the 100-track box set that makes a worthy gift for collectors and notable playlist for the Spotify crowd. These five discs tell the story of America’s foray into mass media, when radio and nascent recordings revolutionized the way music was consumed. Buried among the many treasures are names and stories already etched in stone: Carter, Johnson, Jefferson, Rainey, House, Rodgers, Patton. But, true to the franchise’s namesake, these songs stretch beyond the Mississippi delta and Appalachian coal mines. There’s ragtime from Chicago, Spanish-language romance from the NYC, railroad blues through Memphis, Native American rituals, Alabama gospel, Hawaiian lullabies, jug bands, Creole ballads and Dust-Bowl era country. Altogether, this collection is a remarkable patchwork reflective of America’s diverse and spirited people. A good starting point is the Carter’s weeping willow followed by Barbecue Bob’s pro-Black anthem written during the era of lynch mobs. The music may be historical, but it’s history that’s alive and well. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree” / “Chocolate to the Bone” / “Cecillia”

Randy Newman – Dark Matter (Nonesuch)

Political satire has been Newman’s forte since the days of Lee Atwater, so of course we get a trio of tragi-comedies out the gate. “The Great Debate” pits scientists against theologians in a battle for the country’s intellectual soul. That Newman lets the Bible thumpers win is an indictment of tribalism over reason. Sound familiar, Trump fans? Then comes “Brothers,” wherein RFK fails to stop JFK’s plan to rescue Cuban actress Celia Cruz. Rounding out his state of the union is the self-explanatory “Putin.” Just as pressing as humanity’s devolution toward insanity and authoritarianism is a date with the grave that awaits us all — and just shy of 74, Newman’s got reasons aplenty to be worried. Only thing is, he’s not. In fact, he’s as gracious and endearing as ever. Subjects of empathy include a soon-to-be widower, a father who mourns his son and a man humbled by a love he doesn’t deserve. But the auteur pities real people, too. Deceased bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson gets his due on an eponymous number that’s resplendent with lyrical charm and musical joy. “I’m the only bluesman in Heaven,” Williamson says through Newman’s distinct drawl. Here’s hoping Newman will provide good company beyond this mortal coil, and let this record show that he earned his ticket to paradise. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “She Chose Me” / “Sonny Boy” / “On the Beach”

Sound ‘Round: Bob’s Burgers / Young Thug

Cartoon characters, literal and almost literal

Various Artists – The Bob’s Burgers Music Album (Sub Pop)

One of the year’s most unlikely success stories isn’t unlikely at all. Granted, it ain’t very conventional — 112 mini-songs and vignettes from an animated sitcom wherein the titular family’s musical instigator is a woman voiced by a gay man. As a fan of the show, I purchased the vinyl as a collector’s item and left it on my bookshelf to gather dust. But after rearranging furniture around the house and making my record player more accessible, I gave it a whirl and was reminded why the music is such an integral part of the show in the first place: impeccable pop know-how mixed with enough brevity to keep the punch lines a-coming. And at just under two hours, there are jokes here in spades. Some of the laughs rest in the show’s warped realism and diminishes their accessibility (the longest track is a medley from an episode concerning a Die Hard musical). But the uninitiated need not strain to grasp the more elemental bits: a son admitting his fear of snakes, a wife relishing date night, a boy-crazy girl who’ll do anything for a kiss, the satisfaction of a “BM in the PM.” Treat yourself. Put this on shuffle and have a few giggles. It’s a small way to remain sane in these terrible times. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “I Want Some Burgers and Fries” / “Not Bad for Having Three Kids” / “Mononucleosis”

Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls (Atlantic)

To experience certified weirdo Jeffery Williams is to remember that expectations are silly things. Three years removed from his trap-rap peak he’s since evolved into one of the game’s premiere iconoclasts. He aims to please on his own terms, slurpin purp, slurrin’ rhymes and stackin’ paper with glee. The terms here, however, are a stretch even for his unbounded sense of direction. 14 glossy songs produced by fellow ATLien London On Da Track. All but one (the stoner anthem featuring — you guessed it — Snoop Dogg) written with a romantic bent that plays to his auto-tune addiction and penchant for hooks. These are pop songs, not street bangers, and therefore live and die by the hook. That’s the most glaring fault, here. Too few ear worms to make this genre experiment stick. Much of the second half is devoid of flavor and grows stagnant. But if his pop life fantasies fail, he’ll make a worthy comedian. Favorite one-liners include: “I’m fresh to death you know I should be coughing.” “She plan on havin’ more kids than God.” “Ain’t talkin’ Nicki, I’m ‘bout to have a ménage.” Other areas where he succeeds include fatherhood and cunnilingus. That both are intricately related is a joke not lost on him. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “For Y’all” / “Daddy’s Birthday” / “Family Don’t Matter”

Sound ‘Round: Blondie / Tom Ze

Silly kids, sex is for grandparents, too.

Blondie – Pollinator (Noble ID)

If 27-year-old Taylor and 32-year-old Katy can proclaim sexual maturity as personal liberation, why can’t 72-year-old Debbie Harry? She’s done so since her reign as queen of New York’s infamous New Wave scene. That was when her heart was full of glass. Through four decades it’s become full of passion, romanticism and blood. She isn’t an electro-pop princess anymore. Age has turned her into something better, a real person. An eleventh Blondie album may seem inessential, but these songs represent validation for Boomers and anyone else brave enough to live and love while they still breathe. Co-writers include 25-year-old Charli XCX, 41-year-old Sia and 52-year-old Johnny Marr — whose cynicism delivers the best one-liner in the form of “Human beings are stupid beings when we’re young.” But Harry’s ebullient delivery turns almost every verse and chorus (no matter how lyrically oblique) into a truism at best or a worthwhile melody at worst. Her voice is weathered, yes. But her spirit is mostly jovial and resilient. No wonder the best songs have to do with the bedroom — this is still pop music, ya know. But notice how tender things get on the Gregory Brothers-penned breakup song. Saying goodbye to an old flame hurts, but she knows there’s another day to live tomorrow. Talk about sound judgment. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Already Naked” / “Long Time” / “When I Gave Up On You”

Tom Zé– Cancoes Erotics Para Ninar (Irara, 2016)

This decade has provided a bounty of death records, be it Cash’s ghost or Bowie and Cohen on the cusp of eternity. Pop will always romanticize an old hero who paid their dues (you’re on deck, Randy Newman), but how refreshing it is to hear 81-year-old Tom Zé, a Brazilian romantic who forgoes geriatric meditations for music’s most primal subject:  Coitus. The lyrics are in Portuguese, and I can’t find English translations anywhere on the not-so-world-wide-web. But Zé is a utilitarian and makes it easy to decipher the intent behind these erotic lullabies. The opening song is titled “Sexo” and is articulated in a passionate whisper indicative of the dirty deed. Elsewhere, vowels ascend scales to replicate the pleasure of orgasm — a universal language, indeed. This album is playfully dirty, but perverted? Fat chance. Not with music this genial, light-hearted, tuneful and beholden to a patchwork of polyrhythms so infectious only a prude would refuse. No cheap tricks allowed. Lovers only, please. And it’s the music that gets lovers in the door. For Zé’s obvious lyrical intentions, his unbounded libido lives only to serve a series of pulses and beats that refuse to quit. I admire his workmanship and eagerness. Should I reach old age, I hope I’m just as driven. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Descaração Familiar” / “Orgasmo Terceirizado” / “Sobe Ni Mim”