Monthly Archives: February 2016

Listening notes: Life after Pablo

Genius is overrated and so is crazy, but that doesn’t mean either can’t make for great music, or that their absence can’t hold back good music.

index

Kevin Gates
Isiah (Deluxe edition)
GO

On his first commercially available album, this Baton Rouge hustler reminds you why they call it a grind. He’s stressed out because he can’t hold back, and though his melodic moan sounds nothing like Ghostface, he powers forward with the same hysteric thrill, sorting through life’s hassles rather than bawling for sympathy. When he rhymes about setting firewalls in place between the separate aspects of his hectic life on “Two Phones,” he’s bragging, but you can almost picture six sweat beads shooting forth Cathy-like his head. Though I suspect I’d be even more icked out by the way he pronounces “pussy” if my body came equipped with one, he enjoys sex as something more than a metaphor for dominance. And if the “respect yourself, queen” double standard bullshit on “The Truth” is beneath him, could any other contemporary MC could get away with a line like “How could someone call me those things?” Don’t push him, ‘cause he’s close to the edge.

 

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Kanye West
The Life of Pablo
SLOW

Ye needs an editor, a cold shower, a hug. But mostly, the guy just needs. I’m not about to slide into his DSM with a diagnosis, but there’s an emptiness at the core of this intermittently stunning album that no amount of gospel choirs or shitty Future impressionists or love for family or mass hatemiration can fill. I’m relieved that his concept of “beauty” has evolved from Bon Iver and Jon Anderson to El DeBarge and Kelly Price (for both color of skin and content of character reasons) but he still mistakes grandiosity for greatness, aspiration for inspiration and, most of all, taste for genius. That his taste is both broad and fallible is his — well, not his saving grace, because grace, spiritual or secular, is what Kanye so notably lacks. He strives to channel one of the richest musical heritages on the planet through his own considerable individual talent, but he can’t get the fuck out of the way. Maybe that’s his point — he may be an asshole but he’s a black asshole, not a bleached one, and it’s his birthright to exploit as he sees fit, fuck you for asking — and may he forever remain the sand in our celebrity culture’s swimsuit area, rendering black defiance so uncool that it denies white idiots their vicarious thrills. But whatever conceptual cartwheels I spin in defense of his imagined intent, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to hear him jizz stupidly over a brilliant suite that bridges Rihanna and Nina Simone with Sister Nancy, and that “Ultralight Beam” was spared a similar fate almost makes me believe in divine intervention. As a public artist, after all, what Kanye really needs is for the rest of us to make sense of the brilliant mess he makes. Me, I get distracted long before he starts yammering about his sneaker deal.

 

bj

BJ the Chicago Kid
In My Mind
SLOW

Like a lover summoning the stamina for one more late-night round just when you thought he’d be snoring, Bryan Sledge has a gift for fluffing a tired sex metaphor. “Hopefully we can go to heaven” he tells the party girl he hopes won’t make him late for church. “Can I work that body like it’s a 9 to 5?“ is the stated career objective on “The Resume.” Nice, nice. But “I want you to feel the love I have inside me / Inside you tonight” is what Marvin would call beating around the bush. And ultimately The Kid’s hedonistic and spiritual sides are too sanely balanced — a recipe for a happy life, maybe, but offering no insight into why we’re drawn to either extreme.

 

cappin

2 Chainz
Felt Like Cappin
SLOW

Over a half-dozen inessential, memorable cuts, he demonstrates just how little effort he has to put in for his self-satisfied spite to win you over — even makes a hook out of “Told that bitch you motherfuckin’ right” just by clenching his jaw. Notable guest: Lil Wayne, who knows a little something about not trying. I also feel like cappin — cappin all rap albums at six tracks, that is. (Sorry. Had to.)

 

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Wiz Khalifa
Khalifa
NO

Deliver us, Lord, from ambitious stoners. I’d hoped that his medical marijuana branding gig would sideline this overachieving underperformer, but somebody keeps driving him to the studio — as last year’s megahit Paul Walker tribute/high school graduation theme song proved, the industry considers Wiz too big to fail. Pretty sure this is what all rap sounds like to racists.

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Singles round-up: Girls still rool, Rivers Cuomo still needs a damn bib

Not exactly singles this week — more like teasers for four upcoming albums. Two I can’t wait for, one I’m newly curious about, one I’m about as excited to hear as the next Advance Auto Parts ad on Spotify. Plus a novelty indie-rock cover of a rap hit that keeps on kicking after the novelty fades.

Sheer Mag
“Can’t Stop Fighting”

Last year these Philly punk brawlers released II, an EP that sounded like it was recorded straight to boombox on a TDK SA 90 left out of its case underneath the floor mat in someone’s car for a decade. Even so the songs punched right through the scuzz, but I’m glad they’re now fully audible. On the first verse Tina Halladay references the widespread gang violence against women working in Juarez factories; on the third she asserts “all my life I’ve felt the eye of the catcall,” a daring expression of global female solidarity that suggest how quickly relative privilege gives way to absolute vulnerability. But she sounds energized by the struggle for female self-preservation rather than weary, and Kyle Seely’s revamped classic rock riffs are there to say we may as well enjoy a struggle that’s not ending anytime soon.

 

PJ Harvey
“The Wheel”

The thunderous prophesies that Let England Shake carved in stone, pronounced in the voice of ecstatic indomitability that made Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea sound like a promise of deliverance from evil.

Dilly Dally
“Know Yourself”

Drake is Canada’s Trump, an improbably popular entertainer whose power feeds off your ridicule. But this Toronto band — have you heard their 2015 album, Sore, because you should probably hear their 2005 album, Sore —  don’t bother with irony or desecration on this Erykah-worthy endeavor but plunge straight into noise and leave us to sort through the wreckage. Ever wonder if a human voice could sound like the how the Death Star blowing up looks? Listen to Katie Monks shred “woes.”

Little Scream
“Love as a Weapon”

Jeez, Annie Clark really took some liberties with this Stones cover.

 

Weezer
“L.A. Girlz”

The year is 2036. Paul Ryan is still Speaker of the House, Jenny McCarthy is still battling against science on daytime talk shows, and Rivers Cuomo’s songs are still scrounging for pity sex from college sophomores. The only reason I couldn’t have predicted Cuomo’s steady descent from enthusiastic opportunist to cynical careerist from the start is that I’d never have guessed he’d stick it out this long–thanks a lot, ‘90s teens. And the only reason I listened to the fourth advance track from the fourth album he’s too lazy to name was because I was driven by a need to lash out after enduring an extended workout mix of “Magic” at my circuit training class on Saturday–thanks a lot, Midtown YWCA.

Ima fix wolves

Now that we live in a world where nothing ever has to be finished, I went back and made the past month’s posts less aesthetically grotty. (Made some minor tweaks too.)

Listening notes #3: Chart toppers

There have been five number one albums so far in 2016, and here they are. One was released in 2015, I know, but I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. 

anti

Rihanna
ANTI-
GO

If this feels like her most personal album, that’s partly because it’s messy enough to suggest a glimpse at how much effort being and making and presenting Rihanna requires. But it’s mostly because her serrated vocal attack, often a free-floating expression of defiance and hurt upon which we each project our own particular desire and pain, rings out for once like the property of a specific individual struggling to get past a sense of fucked-over world-weariness to find something like love. If this sounds like her best album that’s partly because it feels like her most personal album, so even the weaker songs feel lived in. But it’s mostly because it has more good songs than her other albums.

 

EVOL

Future
EVOL     
SLOW

“I got way, way too many issues” is his way of pushing you off — Future is the perfect rap star for the social media age, where unlimited psychic exposure requires that everyone besides genuine sociopaths and the supernaturally well-adjusted grow a protective exoskeleton. He’s through moanin’ the AutoTune blues with that profane horn of a voice, instead flexing cool rhythmic mastery: He escalates on “Ain’t No Time,” lags on “In Her Mouth,” falls out of meter entirely on “Savage Time,” repeats the title of “Fly Shit Only” till it blurs. But you know how it goes: Fewer emotional risks, fewer emotional rewards.

 

25

Adele
25     
SLOW

I respect the time-honored tradition of immolating misery through immersion in emotional immensity, but because I’m the kind of pop fan who relies on melody and wit to remind me that there’s a life beyond heartbreak and on rhythm and groove to get me there, Adele’s never gonna be my girl. But if her burnished sob doesn’t automatically trigger my tear ducts, it doesn’t poke my gag reflex either — she’s too subtle to consistently belt you in the chops with her chops, and when she’s not prematurely eulogizing her youth (save something for 29, girl) this nestles warmly in the sweet spot between plaintive and wistful. But only twice does her voice jolt a lyric beyond the literal. She rides the hook word “lo-o-ver” on the Max Martin/Shellback track “Send My Love” with an openhearted amusement that suggests a plentiful store of warmth and growth and empathy behind it. Then there’s the chorus of “Hello,” which I’ve been slow to acknowledge because I only grudgingly admit that some kinds of regret — the kind roused by unobtainable forgiveness, for instance — can’t be laughed or danced or loved away.

 

blackstar

David Bowie
Blackstar
SLOW

This past month I listened closer to Bowie’s music than I had in a quarter-century and thought harder about what I heard then I had maybe ever, confirming my longstanding suspicion that his work pole vaults right over petty critical evaluations like this one because his flaws are not only more interesting than many other artists’ successes — they’re essential to his successes. Bowie’s greatest musical (rather than cultural) innovations were rhythmic because he always approached a beat from the outside, getting it wrong in defamiliarizing ways, though Lodger remains my personal go-to because I prefer him knocked back on his heels, struggling to regain his footing, and casting about for a groove that might remedy his alienation. The mood of measured composure he sustains here grew instantly more impressive on January 10, of course, and it’s a masterful showcase of his most questionable musical innovation — the ability to represent emotion vocally without conveying it. There’s only so much trouble Donny McCaslin’s sax can stir up with Mark Guiliana’s drums falling into precise patterns and delineating the four corners of each composition, so many of these performances still remain intriguingly opaque for me. And yet, I keep returning to the simple ballads that close this out to hear Bowie at his prettiest and gentlest, a man who, at the end, still wanted more, but didn’t let that yearning trouble his soul.

 

Panic_at_the_Disco_Death_of_a_Bachelor

Panic! at the Disco
Death of a Bachelor
NO

If you’re too young to have had to vote for John Kerry and if Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were your Beatles and Stones (or Nirvana and Pearl Jam), maybe you’re nostalgic for a time when these guys were your, what, Kinks? (Or Smashing Pumpkins?) But all that’s decadent about Brendon Urie is a hyper-electicism (hyphen optional) that tries to pawn off overstimulation as inspiration — anyone who thinks you can expand upon the sensibility of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by interpolating the riff from “Rock Lobster” just doesn’t get so very many its. The chorus to his Big Bad Voodoo Daddy rip (“you’re just like Mike Love/ But you wanna be Brian Wilson”) suggests an ironic consciousness about his delusions, but so what? This is 2016 — even Larry goddam King is self-aware. And Urie croons the title track with the conviction he could be Michael Buble tomorrow if he could just remember to fill that dang Ritalin prescription.

Singles round-up #2: Super Bowls & superheroes

This week, two women warriors top two wearying rap battlers, and I try to find something nice to say about Chris Martin.

Grimes
“Kill V. Maim”

Claire Boucher is an artisanal cyborg hacking into 21st century pop’s fantasies of bulletproof female power without surrendering autonomy or idiosyncrasy or emotional nuance to the machinery of capital, her infinitely mutable, defiantly cute vocals proof that a lively post-human self can thrive amid the tech she controls. Art Angels just keeps sounding better, and “Kill V. Maim” is a conceptual high point, cheerleader taunt as genderfucked battle cry, its male drag an excuse to parody testosterone rage and a license to appropriate its potency.

 

Beyoncé
“Formation”

At First Avenue, maybe six hours after the “Formation” video dropped, the same crowd that would go bananas when Sophia Eris closed her DJ set with “Run the World (Girls)” seemed notably unslain by what had to have been their first exposure to this song in a club. Still, I don’t want to read too much into that anecdote — “Formation” is a tricky track, a time bomb that’s deliberately all countdown and no kablooey, a showcase for a seething vocal performance, with lyrics that split the difference between slogan, meme, and aphorism. And it’s foremost the soundtrack to the “Formation” video — a video, incidentally, that will neither ignite the revolution nor prolong capitalist hegemony, but that presents the persistence of a rich cultural heritage as a political struggle in itself.

 

Young Thug feat. Quavo
“F Cancer”

The way Thugger inflects the uncensored title, that mantra of helpless rage sounds half like a question, half like a shaky effort to speak a foreign language. Then he leans back into MIke Will Made It’s groove like an Olympic luge medalist, subtly accentuating its melodic hints until Quavo leaps in off the ropes.

 

Drake
“Summer Sixteen”

Meek Mill feat. Omelly
“War Pain”

The quagmire thickens. Drake preens with unruffled smugness, Meek barks with graceless belligerence and to mark your scorecard for skills or beats or factual accuracy is just to sink into the muck yourself. Remember how your parents used to say “I don’t care who started it. I’m ending it”? Nicki should send both of them to their rooms.

 

Coldplay
“Hymn to the Weekend”

Recorded evidence that no matter what your Coldplay a-hatin’ Twitter pullquote snark pretends, Beyoncé still likes Chris Martin better than she likes you. A quick listen to the first album of theirs I’ve checked out in full since (I think) Mylo Xyloto confirms what the singles have suggested: Coldplay have adapted zero-grav U2 anthemry to the swell and crest of radio-friendly EDM with truly stupefying ease, and if Martin would stylishly mumble lines like “Oh, angel sent from up above/ You know you make my world light up” instead of laying each word out like Pete Seeger trying to teach a crowd “We Shall Overcome,” this wouldn’t sound much dumber than a lot of much cooler music that gets over on sheer sensation and professional texturing.

What’s beef?

meek-mill-drake

I wrote a quick blog post for the website for GO 95.3, the Twin Cities’ new R&B/hip-hop/etc. radio station, sketching out the ways technology has transformed rap feuds over the years.

Listening notes #2: Ready for the country

The first great country record of 2016, two sometimes great collections of rootsy collaborations, an Americana heroine in decline, and the first lousy country record of 2016.

osborne

Brothers Osborne
Pawn Shop
GO

Tom Erlewine triangulates these Maryland brothers-not-bros dead-to-rights between Sam Hunt and Chris Stapleton, but don’t let that spook anyone harboring doubts (*raises hand*) about the former’s offhandedness or the latter’s bluster. The sense of humor that 99 percent of us will need to make do in this age of diminished expectations runs through “Dirt Rich” (“If you’re broke don’t fix it/ Learn to live with it”), the Trip Advisor for glass-half-full staycationers “Rum,” and a title track that evinces a hella sharper eye for second-hand goods than Macklemore (“Buy a cheap gold necklace with a stranger’s name”). Brother T.J. isn’t a sweet-talker — his m.o. is to get swept away in the moment, so that when he sings about “that night when you slipped off those cut-off jeans” you can trace the descent of denim along every curve from hip to toe. It would be a marvel how “Stay a Little Longer” escalates from verse to chorus as though actually driven by the inexorable magnetism of sexual attraction even if Brother John’s extended guitar coda didn’t then pull off the same trick. Twice.

 

buddy miller

Buddy Miller & Friends
Cayamo Sessions At Sea
SLOW

Buddy takes top-billing — it’s his party, after all — but his harmonies and co-leads generally cede the spotlight to the friends on these old favorites, so the credits pretty much let you know the keepers. Lee Ann Womack? Kacey Musgraves? Nikki Lane? Elizabeth Cook? Drag all four directly to your playlist. The low points range from too tasteful (Shawn Colvin’s bridled over-articulation breaking “Wild Horses”) to too tasteless (Brandi Carlile and the Lone Bellow gilding the wings of “Angel from Montgomery” so chintzily that I could hear the handclapping a capella climax coming a chorus away) to too tastefully tasteless (if you think Lucinda Williams’ voice hasn’t deteriorated, play this muggy “Hickory Wind” alongside the clarion “Return of the Grievous Angel” she contributed to the 1999 GP tribute of the same name). The high point? Richard Thompson intoning “Wedding Bells” with the icy restraint of a nutcase packing the semi-automatic arsenal he plans to bring to the chapel.

 

luther

Luther Dickinson
Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II)
SLOW

The fusty title had my guard up even before I saw how the antiquarian packaging design takes Harry Smith’s fonts in vain or read the North Mississippi Allstars star’s boasting that “This art is not for the masses.” Really, though, the part of the title that indicates the album’s flaw is that & II: Dickinson’s not folksinger enough to carry 21 songs in 75 minutes, no matter how sweet he plays his many guitars. But his vocals are relaxed and flexible, especially when softened by the right harmonies. Great guest cast: Alvin Youngblood Hart and especially Amy LaVere are my kind of folkies, Jason Isbell is a welcome addition to anyone’s band, and Mavis Staples could make “Ain’t No Grave” sound like church over a Zaytoven loop.

 

lucinda

Lucinda Williams
The Ghosts of Highway 20
SLOW

Remember when she was a studio perfectionist? Her slurring has somehow become both more mannered and lazier over the years, and at times here she’s so dead-tongued and slack-lipped you’d think her drug of choice was novocaine. You might recognize the most memorable song here — it’s the ninth-best track on Darkness on the Edge of Town. But but but but but. The sound of a gifted woman aging audibly is one we still (still? still!) too rarely overhear and though Williams is a mere 63, her passions, undimmed, lead her more often to bewilderment and desperation. You can sense her realization that poems about death aren’t just lyrical exercises even as she tries to shrug off those epiphanies with lines like “I know about pain/ And all that jazz.” And when she starts musing about “the river of truth” or whatever you can try and listen past her to the lovely playing of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.

 

hank

Hank Williams Jr.
It’s About Time
NO

Bocephus has been many ridiculous things over the years — shameless nepotee, pro sports mascot, wingnut Facebook meme made flesh — but he’s never been subtle, and there’s something ignobly endearing about his commitment to rowdy clowning. Still, his flat-footed delivery endumbens Skynryd’s “God and Guns” to the point that it could almost pass as a parody in a less bitter and clingy world, “Club U.S.A”  takes no stand on what what door policy we should adopt, and “Dress Like an Icon,” which mentions Nicki “Mee-naj” and instructs us to “Walk this way like DMC Run” — you know what? I take it back. Clowns a) get the joke and b) are scary. Junior’s just an old dude who hears no too rarely. Guest enablers include Eric Church and Brad Paisley, whose participation is probably required by CMA bylaws.

Lizzo: First among equals

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I spent a couple hours this weekend examining the relationship between Lizzo and her Minneapolis fans and/or trying to dance while taking notes.

Look, Lizzo could have kept the sold-out crowd at First Avenue waiting till 1:45 Saturday night, then seated herself on the edge of the stage and just tossed out GRRRL PRTY ski caps till bar time and her Twitter mentions would still have been blessed and ablaze with grateful emoticons till the break of dawn.

You can read the rest here.

Singles round-up #1: All pop is meta

Pop has so much to say about itself in 2016, it almost* does my job for me.

*Then again, Macklemore.

One Direction
“History”

Zayn
“Pillowtalk”

My fave cut on the loopy pasticherie Made in the A.M. is “Olivia,” which lets Willy Wonka lead the Magical Mystery Tour, but the c’mon-baby-we-got-a-good-thing-goin’ strum ‘n’ hum “History” is first runner-up, and its forced-casual camaraderie sounds even livelier up against the forced-intense heavy-breathing of the-1D-who-got-away. Though dropping a single that promises fans “We can live for-e-ver” just as your group calls it quits is a dick move.

 

Selena Gomez
“Hands to Myself”

Selena roused herself from the docile stupor of “Good for You” only to stagger into “Same Old Love,” which was as much fun as a barrage of texts from your roommate about how that’s it, she’s fucking deleting her Tinder account. But this frisky little frolic about copping a feel is her sexiest cut since “Do It” (a best-of bonus track that I dig, nobody else cares about, and everyone on YouTube thinks sounds like a Christmas song). She doesn’t exactly sound like her own woman, but she doesn’t sound like somebody else’s either.

 

Rihanna feat. Drake
“Work”

workworkworkworkwork You and me both, Rih. workworkworkworkwork Whatever concrete meaning the rest of the lyric might seek to convey crumbles as Rihanna’s articulation erodes into the patois equivalent of a Peanuts schoolteacher. workworkworkworkwork The strain of having every public moment of joy commodified for us drones who have to workworkworkworkwork seems finally to have gotten to our IDGAF avatar. Then Drake pops by to suggest that enduring his boastful Eeyore routine is an effective relaxation technique. The struggle is real.

 

Erykah Badu, “Trill Friends”

Kanye West feat. Ty Dolla $ign, “Real Friends”

Inviting Drake onto your mixtape so he can watch you steal “Hotline Bling” away from him is just cold-blooded, and my only complaint about the rest of But You Caint Use My Phone is that Badu should have found a way to segue from Rundgren into Adele’s “Hello.” I’m sure some sensual masterwork of apocalyptic sci-fi Afro-mysticism will burble up from her cauldron eventually, but I hope she spends as much time as she can spare side-eyeing pop from the wings, radiating the unreadable mix of chill and passion that makes her distillation of Kanye’s word-bloated “Real Friends” such a coolly minimalist riff/riposte. Do Bieber next.

 

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Jamila Woods
“White Privilege II”

This elephantine exercise in consciousness-raising is a mix of good intentions and self-aggrandizement, like every celebrity political stance in recorded history, and I wish the big dope all the luck in the world as long as I don’t have to listen to again myself. An actual hook might have helped get the message across to more young fans, true, but it might have also led voting members of the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences to reward him again. Thing is, the hair-shirted austerity limits its political insight. A 45-year-old document of unrepentant barbarism, “Brown Sugar” is still smarter about racial plunder because it revels in all the ugliness and pleasure that privilege entails.

Prince: Maybe he’s just like his father

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If you’d asked me a month ago to describe Prince’s piano style, I’d have come up short. I watched him play solo for ninety-something minutes two Thursdays ago at Paisley Park, as I struggled to scribble review notes, and the best I can say for now is “starkly bifurcated: all the blues in his left hand, all the pop in his right.” Maybe he’ll bring this show to a bootleggable venue and I won’t have to rely on memory, first impression, and bad handwriting.

Though we long ago accepted the fact that Prince is multi-instrumental whiz, he insisted throughout the night that piano is a second language in which he’s still striving for fluency. It was a touching admission of a flaw he simultaneously proved didn’t exist, an invitation to intimacy masking a display of mastery, because in Prince’s world, vulnerability and virtuosity are always inextricable.

Anyway, this is all just an excuse to get this two-week-old review upon the blog, for posterity and ICYMI.