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”

Advertisements

Sound ‘Round: Vince Staples / Tyler, the Creator

Wherein Odd Future alumni (mostly) grow up

Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Def Jam)

Like the rest of his Odd Future classmates, Vince Staples has a mean cynical streak. But what distinguishes this Long Beach native from his contemporaries is an ability to articulate his ennui in a way that strives for more than the garish hooliganism idolized by post-modern knuckleheads. He can’t get no satisfaction, but he doesn’t waste time complaining about it. Besides, Staples is sharp enough to understand comfort isn’t found in the nostalgia of home or the excesses of fame. Both cause their fair share of headaches. But happiness isn’t the end game on this sophomore effort, which softens his penchant for harsh beats and cozies to the impersonal touch of electronica. The goal here is primal and a central tenant of the pop mystique: Short-handed youth doing the best it can with the tools at its disposal. The music is comparatively sparse, less formal and more heady —the better to make room for Staples to crisply enunciate his list of grievances. Dislikes include greed, materialism, white privilege and Trump. All is not dour, however. He likes Amy Winehouse documentaries, Kilo Kish playing devil’s advocate and fast cars. The best songs concern his angst, a factor indicative of his youth. Here’s hoping age allows him to someday enjoy life’s finer moments in equal measure. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “BagBak” / “Yeah Right” / “Big Fish”

Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy (Columbia)

Every odd-numbered year since 2011, Odd Future’s amoral compass has croaked up an album and reminded me why I never tolerated his despicable rhymes in the first place. Homophobia was his muse, violent chauvinism his favorite pastime — all done in the name of a modernity too cruel to live in. I wrote off this record, his fourth, without hesitation. That was before news broke of Tyler’s supposed coming out on “Garden Shed,” a surprisingly tender and cryptic song about remaining in the closet. He’s since been noncommittal about his sexuality, as is his right, but he wouldn’t be rap’s first walking contradiction. Self-hatred is a prerequisite in the music biz, even a good way to boost sales.  Just as refreshing as his apparent bi-curiousness is a warm, approachable musical palette that signifies his newly discovered humanism. Songs that once sounded like buzz saws in a pressure cooker now relish the joys of funk and neo-soul. Tyler even dares to share the love. He supports Black Lives Matter and gets down right inspirational. “Tell these black kids they can be who they are,” he says. His end game is also applied in good faith. “Good health, success, time on earth worthwhile.” Celebratory goals, every one. He may just be a real boy, after all. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Garden Shed” / “November” / “See You Again”

Sound ‘Round: Starlio & Don Trip / Jay-Z

Professors of blackonomics impart their knowledge

Starlito & Don Trip – Step Brothers Three (Grind Hard LLC)

Should Music City’s unsuspecting rap scene ever cough up another act to the national stage, please let it be this pair of intelligent hustlers who are intelligent precisely because they hustle. Starlito is the gruff one with a slow, exaggerated drawl. Almost like a cartoon character. Don Trip is what Lil Wayne would have sounded like if he ever finished puberty. Definitely a cartoon character. Both are dead funny, dead serious and practitioners of the mantra that doubles as this mixtape’s label — Grind Hard. Like the Will Ferrell comedy of the same name, these guys are addicted to the one-liner. But, unlike the Will Ferrell comedy, the jokes stick. I’m fond of “Boomshakalaka” and Starlito’s play on Pistol Pete and Peja Stojakovic to brag about his .30 caliber. Trip’s brags are closer to home. “I count my money to my babies while I rock them to sleep.” They like to laugh as much as they like to keep it real, which is why things get serious on “Good Cop Bad Cop,” in which the son of a black officer is murdered by a trigger-happy white cop. “It’s an everyday conflict / Losing your sanity,” they declare. Which is why it’s so important to remember to laugh. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Boomshakalaka” / “Good Cop Bad Cop” / “Fortune”

Jay-Z – 4:44 (Roc Nation)

Sean Carter’s most personal album isn’t his best. It’s not even second or third. But striving for greatness ain’t one of his 99 problems. What keeps hip-hop’s richest O.G. up at night is a wounded marriage caused by a reckless ego. But Beyoncé already documented that on Lemonade. So don’t think of this as a response record because there is nothing to respond to. Right, men are scumbags. Right, men breathe. So don’t miss his true aim of preaching economic self-reliance to a black clientele perpetually victimized by crony capitalism. “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit.” True, but Jay will have to use more practical anecdotes than investing $1 million in real estate and fine art as examples of every-man accomplishments. That cash is put to better use on songs that sample Stevie Wonder, Hannah Williams and features a Frank Ocean cameo. With no use for bangers, his rhymes are conversational and the beats are cool and fluid. He still means business though, specifically family business. Hence the finale that doubles as a living will for his kids. “Generational wealth, that’s the key.” It’s an ostentatious statement, sure, but also a reflection of these terrible times when greed is required to earn a seat at the table. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Smile” / “The Story of O.J.” / “Legacy”

Sound ‘Round: Amber Coffman / Waxahatchee

Women staking their claim with a burgeoning sound

Amber Coffman – City of No Reply (Columbia)

A brief backstory concerning the lives of the semi-rich and semi-famous. Coffman first split with boyfriend/boss/Dirty Projectors impresario Dave Longstreth in 2012 only to reunite with him as a lover and collaborator two years later. Things irreparably soured in 2016 while Longstreth helped prep this solo debut as a producer. He soon kicked Coffman out of his band and wrote a typically dense breakup album more concerned with being smart than cathartic. Coffman says good riddance. Though her former beau gets a co-writing credit on every track, the rewards here are all hers, as is the musical vision. With no desire for sour grapes or the need to self-aggrandize, her supple soprano disavows the ornate art-pop coveted by intellectuals like her ex and articulates in plain English and plainer arrangements regarding both sides of the romantic coin. Just as refreshing as her new-found knack for simplicity is her ability to let the music say more with less. The surprises come in small packages: be it sly use of auto-tune on the opener, the warm breath of a horn section near the finale, or synths that warble and burp but don’t diminish her performance. She states her goal from the get-go. “All I want is to feel strong,” she sings. The rest is more of the same. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “All To Myself” / “Do You Believe” / “City of No Reply”

Waxahatchee – Out of the Storm (Merge)

Humanity cried out for another Katie Crutchfield solo record like it cried out for the damn movie about emojis. Much of her music this decade is comprised of drab austerity and reverb-drenched confessionals concerning bad romance. The songs are often as monotone as her target market — mainly white college kids and young adults who feign sadness and self-pity for the retweets. But after three albums and five years of rinsing, reusing and recycling old tropes comes 10 songs that recall days spent alongside twin sister Alison in femme-punk outfit, P.S. Eliot. Tired of dull bedroom pop and half-assed shoegazing, the opening 16 seconds features a spirited blast of distortion and robust drumming that’s controlled and tempered but more driving and instantaneous than anything the Japandroids cobbled together this year. The musical achievements trickle into other elements, too. Though her subject matter is familiar, Crutchfield’s songwriting is more assured, less vague and not afraid to be hopeful. “When I fall I will not be ashamed at all,” precedes “You’ll have your truth, I’ll have mine,” precedes “I tell the truth / I feel amazing today.” A bolstered sound and a clearer perspective all in just over 30 minutes. Here’s hoping the good vibes last. We deserve it, and she does too. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Silver” / “Brass Beam” / “Never Been Wrong”

Sound ‘Round: Steve Earle / Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

The ballads of the Outlaw and the Family Man

Steve Earle – So You Wannabe An Outlaw (Warner Bros.)

There’s a cantankerous side to Steve Earle that’s always made me keep my distance even while sympathizing with his politics. Anti-death penalty, yup. Anti-war, amen. But the deal breaker was a stiff outlaw disposition that rendered his music a demonstration in attitude over the savvy songwriting he displayed decades ago. These dozen songs comprise Earle’s most enjoyable and consistent album this century. Go figure it happened when he at long last softened his crusty side. Why now, at 62 years old? Because a life of hard living ain’t worth spit. In fact, the cons are many and listed plainly on the opening title track. Home is nonexistent. Friends are a luxury. Rewards are unfulfilling. Mom is a snitch. Old habits die hard, which is why much of the first half reeks of cigarette smoke, old whiskey and turgid riffs. He’s too old to outrun the lawman, but he’s seasoned enough to pen a convincing ballad. The best song knows “falling is the easy part” when it comes to love. Another knows the toughest man ain’t too tough to cry. And yet another knows the one person in this godforsaken world worth pleasing is Mama. Sounds like Mama Earle did good. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “This Is How It Ends” / “You Broke My Heart” / “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)

A decade has passed since Isbell left his drinking buddies in the Drive-By Truckers, and it seems he can finally smile without the help of Jim Beam. Sobriety has its rewards — a clear mind and a clearer perspective, sure. But nothing as eye-opening as fatherhood, a doorway he stepped through two years ago and a role that makes him twice as anxious as the booze ever did. His dread is mostly political. “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know” puts it mildly. But politics is an endeavor best left to songwriters who recognize the human element behind every protest anthem. His aim is true on “White Man’s World,” wherein he pleads for gender and racial equality, but the song lacks an emotional heft due to Isbell’s lyrical solipsism. His stump speech sputters, but his home-spun tales of comfortable domesticity suit him better. “If We Were Vampires” knows a good love song is a good death song: “Maybe we’ll get 40 years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.” And the finale finds eternal joy in casual moments these terrible times can’t diminish: singing songs with family on the front porch, counting stars with his wife, and fatherhood. Definitely fatherhood. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Something to Love” / “If We Were Vampires” / “Tupelo”

Sound ‘Round: Omar Souleyman / Mariem Hassan

To hell with your travel ban, Mr. Trump

Omar Souleyman – To Syria, With Love (Mad Decent)

Earth’s most famous Syrian expat never wanted such a title. He began his career in 1994 wanting only to be the best wedding singer in the Middle East. Hundreds of bootleg recordings and one humanitarian crisis later finds him the reluctant figurehead of a movement he avoided. How did we get here? Because a) he was known to the West four years before Damascus crumbled and is therefore a visible figure and b) the music is a tremendous exhibit of dabke, a genre of Syrian dance-pop. In six years of civil war with millions dead, his music existed in a bubble. Zigzagging synths and relentless polyrhythms spared no silence for the dead and his lyricism eschewed bloodshed for love as rapture and dismay — again, he’s wedding singer. Five of these seven songs are in his hopelessly romantic wheelhouse. While there’s something to be said for escapism, Souleyman addresses the 500 pound international disaster in the room on the final two tracks. Translated lyrics: “I’m tired of looking for home and asking about my loved ones / My soul is wounded.” The songs are topical, not political, more heart than head, and all grief. “Look upon us, O Lord / Our sadness is larger than mountains.” Here’s hoping Souleyman and other refugees someday return to a peaceful home. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Khayen” / “Aneta Lhabbeytak” / “Chobi”

Mariem Hassan – La Voz Indomita (Nubenegra)

Before Mariem Hassan and her uncontainable contralto were silenced by bone cancer in 2015 at the age of 58, she was a singular talent who performed the world over on behalf of her people, other nationless refugees and oppressed women everywhere. Here is a woman so strong-willed and determined that she divorced her first husband when he forbade her from pursing a music career. The bulk of Hassan’s discography was recorded in Barcelona where she worked as a nurse and performed with Sahwari refugees such as herself. This album doubles as a soundtrack to a Spanish-language documentary and was recorded in the last five years of her life. Though plagued by health issues, Hassan’s vocals are a beautiful, unwavering wonder to behold. Whether breathlessly soaring above arid and ornate instrumentation, or slithering and hissing her voice through a trio of desert jazz improvs, her voice is as resolute as her spirit. No song here is more resolute than the finale, an acapella coda recorded in a refugee tent near Algeria five months before she passed. It runs just 115 seconds but says more about death, existence and love than most other death albums articulate in 115 minutes — and it’s not even in English. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Latlal” / “Illah Engulak Di Elkalma” / “Hajii Madiya”

Sound ‘Round: Charly Bliss / Girlpool

The sisterhood of the traveling bands

Charly Bliss – Guppy (barsuk)

As Taylor, Lorde, Hayley and the sisters Haim conquer the world with Regan-era glam, along comes Eva Hendricks with enough punk-pop bonda fides to make Courtney Love swoon. Her bubbly soprano resembles Carly Rae on helium and signifies a bratty disposition that revels in the kind of teenage boredom others spend a career lamenting. “I haven’t tried, but it sounds too hard,” is their mantra. And, at a time when seemingly every pop act with a vagina pens a self-serving grrrl anthem, it’s refreshing when Hendricks rejects such gross displays of solipsism. That’s not to say these songs aren’t anthemic, too. With a band of bros at the ready — including actual bro Sam on the drums — Hendricks employs power chords and brevity in equal measure on an album that keeps the hooks coming. Four years above 16, her aspirations are zero. She’s resigned to working at Dairy Queen, but not before laughing when your dog dies. Things aren’t much better in the love department. She gets dumped on her birthday and winds up the other woman in an affair between cousins. But notice the two songs wherein Hendricks displays her humanism are named after women. “Julia” finds empathy for her boyfriend’s ex, and “Ruby” is an ode to her therapist. Feminism is for others, too. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Westermarck” / “Black Hole” / “Glitter”

Girlpool – Powerplant (Anti-)

Diminutive bedroom-rock like the kind fancied by Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad often leaves me drowsy and disinterred. Their affinity for sparse production plays up the intimacy they sell by the pound, but their twee minimalism is for aesthetes who mistake bad poetry for brilliance. So two years after their full-length debut — a record that made me yawn and the indiesphere fawn — comes a follow-up worth believing in. The latest development is the addition of drummer Miles Winter, who helps formalize their songwriting, shore up their musicianship and provides a backbone to tunes that otherwise couldn’t walk straight. With their spirited duo made a worthy trio, Tucker and Tividad take the opportunity to expand their sound. If previous albums recalled the bedroom, this is straight out the basement. Guitars jangle and hum, and nebulous riffs are born from newly acquired distortion pedals. But their evolution to noise rock is undercooked. They aim for Yo La Tengo and wind up short of The Pixies — tranquil verse begets noisy chorus. It’s a simple formula, but their whisper-thin voices undercut their bolstered sound. They let their angst out on the opener about a troubled romance and settle for sensitive the rest of the way. Abandon the genre conventions, ladies. Let ‘er rip, lest we fall back asleep. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “123” / “Static Somewhere” / “It Gets More Blue”