Monday, November 14, 2011

Domain Changes

Change is good, you know. And over the past several months, I've spent more and more time on what was originally meant to stand in as a side-project to this blog, with the result being that the cerebral decantation action is now very much over on tumblr and not here on blogger at all.

Partly this is due to the speed and ease of tumblr, where I've found editing and uploading to be a far easier task, and also due to my own obvious falling away from penning longer essays and turning towards dense shorter pieces and utilizing quotes and links for non-cultural criticism. I have every reason to suspect this switch in tactics has much to do with the fact that in a few weeks our son will turn one year old. In a way, I'm amazed that I've managed to actually increase my writing output since his birth and since I took over the reins as his full-time caregiver, but I also recognize that this came at a price. Word counts fell, even if quality rose.

So with this in  mind, I've taken the step of switching the titles of the blog and tumblr sites, to better reflect the fact that, if anything, it's the blog that has become the side-project or maybe even the afterthought. With less time to do anything, much less crank out essays, I have no regrets accepting the fact that I no longer wish to spend excess time pondering the often depressing and nearly always infuriating realm of cultural/political emerging stories. Thinking about them can be defeating enough. I'd rather spend a few minutes assembling quotations and offering a bit of context via related comments than take the whole morning to immerse myself in the philosophies of Herman Cain. Attempting to understand why art and cultural artifacts enrich my life seems a much healthier and beneficial way to keep the synapses firing as a stay-at-home father.

So, watch this space, I guess, although don't watch it too hard. And know that over on tumblr, Cerebral Decanting pushes on.

http://decanting-cerebral.tumblr.com/

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This And That: Blog & Tumblr

Most visitors here are aware that I split my time between this space and the more streamlined tumblr site, which has seen more action as of late, especially in the realm of music reviews, which have turned into a regular feature each Wednesday. Whether or not I'll ever get around to tweaking the title to reflect the fact that the listening notes are no longer "ultra-brief" remains to be seen.

So, each Wednesday, six newly released recordings, two strongly recommended, two less strongly recommended, two to avoid.

There's always a link for the tumblr on the upper right side of this blog. But old-school blog layouts being what they are, it can get missed. Direct link for the most recent post below for those interested.

http://decanting-cerebral.tumblr.com/post/10771169030/listening-notes-ultra-brief-pt-14


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Madness Of Crowds: Or, Which Side Are You On?




Though some may cry "relativism," morality remains an intensely personal concept, far from any universal agreed-upon standards. And the construction of a personal morality isn't something that happens overnight. Just like any thoughtful human being, my political and philosophical beliefs are precious to me precisely because they were hard-won, concepts I grappled with over the course of years and continue to tinker with to this day. Just as somebody who has never lived anywhere but the town or region they were born in will never understand the difficulties and pleasures of the peripatetic lifestyle, so, too, do those who have never wavered in their beliefs often fail to understand why the world might best be viewed through a decidedly gray prism rather than a fixed black and white lens.

Gray shouldn't be considered a pejorative term - the central nervous system functions to a large extent thanks to gray matter. But certain strands of ideologues will steadfastly insist that to assign any issue or argument a gray hue is to toss reason aside and join the ranks of the savages. Interestingly enough, many of these same ideologues will tell you from time to time that they aren't interested in politics or philosophy, that they avoid the stuff precisely because they "know what they believe". The problem with such stances (there is more than one) is that it defies logic, claiming personal beliefs exist in some formaldehyde chamber using chemical compounds to neutralize the petty bickerings between national political parties - the notion that politics exist apart from our daily lives and only within the halls of government buildings and across radio bandwidths.

I long ago stopped apologizing for my political and moral beliefs, not because I think everybody should think the way I do or that anybody who does not is a demon, but because removing those beliefs from daily conversation seemed intellectually feeble and dishonest. These beliefs do not get trumpeted to the world via bumper stickers or megaphones, and I don't saunter into working-class bars to pick fights with patrons over why FOX News is on the flatscreen overhead. But I've managed to hold many civil conversations on a variety of topics that ordinarily epitomize the "I don't want to talk about politics" mindset, conversations that unfold calmly precisely because neither party felt the need to apologize for their beliefs while also never once stooped to hyperbole or accusation. In most cases, there was also rarely if ever an attempt to "convert" the other, a rather hopeless cause for any single conversation, even if points and counter-arguments remained lodged in both brains for some time afterwards.

Maybe only those of us who have undergone some type of gentle conversion process are able to easily transcend labels and mingle with opposing sides, if only because we can recall how self-sustaining our old beliefs and opinions really were. Political conversions also tend to unfold slowly - not baptisms in fire, but small incidents spilling over into one or two dark nights of the soul. No doubt, if my experiences with those taking issue with spouted opinions back in the formative years of high school had manifested itself through red-faced shouting matches, I might have proven less pliable. But the handful of incidents in which I clearly saw that my words or opinions had wounded, confounded, or disappointed others made their impact thanks to the calm manner in which the response unfolded - the look on a friend's face when I aped some line I'd heard about building a wall around Mexico, the gentle suggestion by an English teacher that I was probably a bit too smart to really agree with some stock phrase I tossed out, or the quiet hour-long discussion I had with an unfairly demonized religious instructor who took issue with a handful of thoughtless slurs I'd peppered a paper with simply to gain attention. In all three cases (there may have been more, but these three stick out), it was the absence of judgement and anger that forced me to confront why exactly I was saying the things I was saying, to question what reason, if any, such opinions were things I held dear. In nearly every case, the startling discovery was made that a large bulk of my political assumptions were at odds with my moral and philosophical beliefs - that I was lazily referencing what I heard at home without questioning whether they actually applied to my worldview. Things fell very rapidly into place once I squared my morality with my politics.



This very long stroll down memory lane is really just an excuse to step back and reflect upon how grateful I am to have undergone this type of conversion experience, because there are times when I wonder if specific causes I've allied myself with are hopeless, or wrong-headed, or pointless. When I read reports of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, I recoil at the documented evidence of police brutality, yet also shake my head at the sheer empty-headed cluelessness permeating a crowd that perfectly personifies the toothless utopian dreams of the politically unsophisticated. From the literally meaningless signs hoisted into the air (personal favorite - "Even If The World Were To End Tomorrow I'd Still Plant A Tree Today") to the confusion manifested in a crowd bringing Apple products to a protest against global capitalism, I understand the desire yet cannot get behind the political naivete. In the eyes of some, this makes me a traitor, a term that perfectly summarizes the conformist mindset of too many decent, driven people. But I've also incurred the wrath of activists before by telling them to leave their damn "Free Mumia" signs at home next time they come to protest an illegal war. 

All this wavering on the edges and sidelines, then, can lead to concerns about the very relativism I noted at the opening of this essay - the concern that seeing multiple sides to any issue is really just a spineless or lazy attempt to shrug off making hard decisions. But I easily recall the way it feels to bask in the pleasure of a black-and-white belief, the way endorphins rush through the body as one delivers a sermon choked with certainty much as if one had just devoured an entire block of chocolate. This is something only rarely remarked upon by those who wish to understand differences in moral reasoning - it feels good to be sure about something. And the more confounding the issue - the more perilous taking a stance may prove - the better it feels to cast doubt aside and embrace certainty. And so when I see or hear or read reports of audience behavior at recent political debates (behavior I'm highlighting below in an attempt to remind myself and anybody interested that clear moral differences exist between worldviews, in which the responses of the actual politicians being questioned have been removed because the crowd speaks ever so much more loudly than they could) - behavior that shocks and appalls many even if it warms the hearts of others, I don't marvel so much at what seems to me their cold-heartedness or absence of empathy or indeed possibly even their complete lack of humanity. I marvel instead at how easy it is to express disturbing or even unthinkable opinions as long as one has anonymity within a crowd who will back you up. That, too, feels good. Nobody ever said politics or morality was easy.


***********************************************************************************


1.  


September 7, 2011 


Brian Williams, moderator:


Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you -


Audience:


[applause, whistles]






***********************************************************************************


2.


September 12, 2011


Wolf Blitzer, moderator:


You're a physician, Ron Paul. You know something about this subject. Let me ask you this hypothetical question. A healthy, 30 year old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, You know what? I'm not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance, because I'm healthy; I don't need it. But you know, something terrible happens; all of a sudden, he needs it. Who's going to pay for it, if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for it?


Ron Paul:


Well, in a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him.


Wolf Blitzer:


Well, what do you want?


Ron Paul:


What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not before -


Wolf Blitzer:


But he doesn't have that. He doesn't have it and he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?


Ron Paul:


That's what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.


Audience:


[cheers, applause]


Ron Paul:


This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody -


Audience:


[applause]


Wolf Blitzer:


But Congressman, are you saying that society should let him die?


Audience Member :


Yeah!


Ron Paul:


No -


Audience Member:


Yeah!


Additional Audience Member:


Yes!


Audience:


[applause]






***************************************************************************************




3.


Sept. 22, 2011


Stephen Hill, soldier serving in Iraq:


In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was, because I'm a gay soldier, and I didn't want to lose my job. My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?


Audience:


[several loud boos]

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Dangers of Satisfaction: Thoughts On The Death Penalty, Troy Davis, And Guilty Versus Innocent




Even somebody with only a handful of facts about the case (ie, me) suspects that a massive injustice went down in Georgia last night, when, despite last-minute appeals to the Supreme Court, and despite a whole host of irregularities during both the original investigation and the ensuing trial, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia for the killing of a Savannah police officer twenty-two years prior. The case attracted extraordinary attention both in this country and worldwide, leading to strong condemnations and pleas for clemency. In the end, doubts were cast aside and the lethal injection made its way down the intravenous tubing.

Interestingly enough, on the same night Davis’ final appeal was rejected, a man named Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed by the state of Texas, also by lethal injection. There were no large groups of protesters assembled to plea on Brewer’s behalf, other than a few scattered members of his own family. Worldwide concern and condemnation did not rain down upon East Texas as it did Central Georgia. And this is not surprising. Brewer was one of several white supremacists who chained a black man named James Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death along a rural road soaked in blood and body parts. Clearly guilty, and clearly motivated by race hatred in his crime, the likes of Brewer do not often inspire death penalty opponents to make their case.

 But here is where things get very complicated. I remain firmly opposed to the death penalty, a stance I slowly arrived at and have continued to ponder. Cases like Troy Davis are the ones that tend to rope in both the party faithful and less-committed outsiders, those who remain unconvinced of the inherent barbarity of capital punishment but are roused to action when it involves an innocent life. However, this seems to me a somewhat dangerous exercise – or if that’s too strong a word, a morally ambiguous band-aid for a larger problem.

I actually shy away from making the you-may-be-killing-an-innocent-person argument when I speak against the death penalty, partly because it doesn't get to the heart of what's wrong with it in my eyes. Obviously, killing an innocent individual is a monstrous deed, and most people would agree with that – indeed, anybody who would not should be asked to leave the discussion (Such people, I am led to believe, do actually exist). But if we construct our opposition to the death penalty along guilty versus innocent arguments, a slippery debate ensues over varying levels and degrees of outrage, which eventually leads to people making decisions on what is and is not a crime worthy of capital punishment. We begin to weigh certain factors and cast aside particular circumstances – we enter the perilous realm of counting stab wounds to tally up an atrocity ballot.

For me, the issue comes down to (among many other things) the fact that execution flies in the face of all our other societal approaches to law and punishment. The concept of revenge has effectively been removed from the court of law as a justified course of action - we deal with reparations, monetary payments, removal from active society, etc. Given the possibility of life without parole and a guarantee that predators and monsters would pose no threat to any other innocent soul, execution's only reason for existence is to allow victim's families a sense of closure, which manifests itself as revenge.

 In no other aspect of our contemporary society do we allow revenge to play this kind of a state-sanctioned and legal role. It's understandable that victim's families might want to see killers receive the ultimate sentence - it's a basic and primal human urge. But courts and the law exist to pursue punishment rather than leaving it up to the aggrieved. The fact that so many death penalty proponents point to victim's families as the reason they support the death penalty suggests they understand very well that the primary motivation for capital punishment is revenge for impacted parties. It makes sense - and yet it's a perversion of justice.

The New York Times, among other news sources, has reported that, “One of the witnesses, a radio reporter from WSB in Atlanta, said it appeared that the MacPhail family ‘seemed to get some satisfaction’ from the execution”. Again, I don’t question or condemn the family for these feelings or urges. To be sure, some extraordinary individuals in other cases have urged for mercy on the grounds of forgiveness or a desire to end the spiral of violence. But we recognize this as extraordinary because we also suspect that such efforts come from a deeper well of morality or inner strength than many of us probably possess. Left alone in a room with an individual we suspect or are convinced murdered our child or spouse or sibling, many of us, no doubt, would rush to tear them to literal pieces. This is why the law does not place victim’s families alone in rooms with accused murderers. I refuse to begrudge the family of Mark MacPhail for seeming to “get some satisfaction” from Troy Davis’ death. But I begrudge the state of Georgia and our own deeply flawed and unjust system for placing vengeful satisfaction above every other corrective to those who would have or might have done harm. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Summer Raves (Wounded-Kite at :17): Three Months of Music Listening Notes







Not as much time spent at this space as once upon a time, although blaming a certain now-9-month-old wouldn't exactly be fair, because in many ways the new reality of fatherhood has allowed me to jump back into writing and critical thinking in a way that hadn't seemed quite as necessary before. Credit a new value placed on free time, and a desire to exploit quiet moments (and sometimes moments are all they are). Also credit the arrival in these United States of Spotify, an online music streaming service that lets non-biz-connected music fans like me sample the best and worst of the current crop without spending excessive amounts of cash or downloading on the artist's dime. Finally, credit the near-constant music/culture chatter I've been fortunate enough to observe and sometimes even join in on from a variety of blogs, chat groups, and message boards. By the time you enter your thirties, there's no way popular music can mean the same thing it did when you were twenty. But part of that falling away comes from the unavoidable fact that one's peers and equals are at that same time often substituting music and culture for more mundane realities, which often leaves one flailing about in an echo chamber of sorts, tossing out names of emerging artists that more often than not fall on deaf, or at least semi-plugged, ears. So having like-minded folks who are either at the prime of their music-is-my-life stage or have refused to substitute the DJI for the NME to bounce ideas off of has proven bracing.

Final credit should go to slipping outside the boundaries of the blog and into the faster-moving realm of the tumblr, where for the past several months I've been compiling weekly "listening notes" of new music I've either streamed, downloaded, or, in some cases, even bought. At first simply an attempt to keep straight the dozens of new recordings and artists I was sampling every week, I used the easily-updated tumblr to put up "ultra-brief" notes that I jotted down while listening, later assembling them into something resembling a compressed mini-essay. Usually when I write about music, it comes after at least 5-6 listens, several of which involve "deep listening," and multiple drafts of tightly-edited scrawlings. These listening notes are something different - ideas and thoughts that are the result of only one or two listens, helping to form an opinion on what to follow up on and investigate further. This is potentially hazardous and usually rather slip-shod, meaning I get things wrong and miss obvious details. Looking over the notes compiled below, I note albums overpraised because I fell for attention-getting opening salvos, or artists dismissed without a fair trial (William Elliot Whitmore, for example, certainly deserves a reassessment). But at the same time, I'm surprised at how often snap judgments held strong, or at least helped contribute to a later critical judgment. I'm also surprised at the sheer number of new(ish) music I've managed to track down, listen to, think about, and splurt thoughts on over the past few months. If anything, the time and effort I've put into this fairly modest little project only heightens my respect for those doing so on a regular basis, on a larger canvas, and for a wider audience (three inspirations for this project have been three like-minded yet very different musical critics, all of whom are currently easily sampled on electronic databases: the great Robert Christgau (Expert Witness blog), the indefatigable Tom Hull (Tom Hull - On The Web), and the (relative) newcomer Michael Tatum (A Downloader's Diary). All are worth your time).

The original "columns" compiled herein can be found at my tumblr, with much prettier pictures and a tighter layout. Each week, six recordings are highlighted, roughly broken into Picks, Near Picks, and Bombs, which is pretty self-explanatory. For my purposes here, I've rearranged things slightly to help separate higher-tiered items from others, hence a selection of Top Picks (stuff that is of exceptionally high quality, A and A+ [or 8.5 and higher, for Pitchfork types], with maybe a few A-'s that keep nudging their way upwards), Upper Picks (stuff that is solid, rewarding, well-crafted, thought-provoking, and consistently really really good, A-), Near Picks/Honorable Mentions/Good Stuff (the tricky world of the B+, albums that are very good in many ways, and even have transcendent moments, either can't fully sustain their best efforts or suffer from poor quality control, but still something I wouldn't hesitate to listen to again and recommend), and Bombs (stuff that should largely be avoided, although encompassing  a pretty vast realm of good-hearted failures and execrable junk).

In the columns, I try and rank all 6 items in some vague approximation of descending quality, with the top choice being my favored pick and the last choice being the worst of the bunch. In this current collection, this is not the case. Items have been separated into the order in which they were posted, so that all the Top Picks are together without one being selected as the "Top" Top Pick, partly because I'm lazy, partly because I just don't yet know which one is the "best". There are also several longer reviews not included here that I may post later, both expansions on these short reviews and albums not reviewed here at all. I should also note that there are several high-ranking releases I've especially enjoyed over the past few months that are not represented here at all, either because I doubted my ability to write an original review after soaking in the thoughts of others (some noted above) or because I just didn't get around to it. Their absence doesn't mean anything beyond that (right, tUnEyArDs?).





******************************************************








TOP PICKS



Lee Perry / Bill Laswell, Rise Again



Two visionaries with uneven outputs – uneven largely because they so often serve as their own producers. In this meeting of minds, Laswell tempers Perry’s tendency to ramble, while Perry forces Laswell to lay off the effects. Result – a true collaboration, with bass in your face. Plus, Perry still manages to slip in one song about space aliens.





Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What

The old pro could teach the young’uns a thing or two about crafting solid lines of verse – it’s not about clever rhymes or obscurity, but it does have something to do with selecting small details, keeping the jokes subtle, and asking big questions with small words. It also has something to do with placing deceptively simple lyrics atop sympathetic arrangements and within charming melodies.


Nigeria 70: Sweet Times (Afro-Funk, Highlife & Juju From 1970s Lagos)

Typical solid compilation from the Strut label, in which various performers both known (Ebenezer Obey, Dele Abiodun) and unknown (Soki Ohale, Tunde Mabadu) spin out grooves less beholden to American funk and more in line with traditional highlife and the emergence of juju. But there’s still plenty of funk – Strut remains a groove label, after all.






Frank Ocean, nostalgia, ULTRA


Seek out the free download version before the official Def Jam release mucks everything up, because muck it up they will. Every track by this melodic, intelligent, funny r&b man is worth checking out, but it’s the copyright law-defying theft of “Hotel California” that highlights his audaciousness - Ocean doesn’t so much sample as just sing atop, cutting off and sitting back to let the guitar solos play out to completion. Ballsy, no?



Walter Gibbons, Jungle Music: Mixed With Love

Gibbons revolutionized DJ culture in the late 1970s, when his reel-to-reel edits and break samples in New York discos made the same kind of impact DJ Kool Herc was perpetrating uptown. Two discs worth of edits, mixes, and acetates, encompassing both standard disco thump and minimalist avant-garde. And the dance underground was born.



Sons & Daughters, Mirror Mirror

Comparing this Glasgow outfit to X isn’t lazy, it’s damn near unavoidable. But while the boy-girl vocal tradeoffs do suggest John and Exene, a warm Scottish burr coats this fourth full-length, which fully trades folk atmospherics for echoed 80s indie raunch. Hands-on producer: one-half of electronic outfit Optimo. Which means this rocks, but also grooves. 


DJ Sigma, ‘79



Stafford, UK hip-hop enthusiast Sigma dug deep into his vinyl collection to assemble this monster jam, which collects nearly 40 hip-hop singles circa 1979, aka Year Zero. With minimal interference, he wisely lets these voices from the past do the talking. Spoonie Gee, Funky Four Plus One, Grandmaster Flash you know. Others you won’t. At 86 minutes, it’s not for neophytes, but it’s also the great multi-label old school rap compilation we’ll probably never get.





Shabazz Palaces, Black Up



Seventeen years after Digable Planets’ second and final album dropped, Ishmael Butler returns on a deeply abstract full-length building off two EPs with good press. And what’s most remarkable here is how hard the former Butterfly has gotten. Not hard gangsta – hard complex, dense, layered, avant-garde. After fifteen plus years of underground hip-hop, it took an elder to produce something truly challenging. I swear you can dance to it.


Orange Juice, …coals to newcastle

124 songs, nearly 7 hours of music, and if you think that’s overkill you should get a load of the music. Featuring vocals from a swooning fop no less original for echoing Bowie and anticipating Morrissey, the complete (and long unavailable) works herein trace a weird journey from shambolic pop to Talking Heads-style white funk. Embracing kitsch rather than ennui, they kickstarted a Scottish revolution that enriches pop to this day.


Terakaft, Aratan N Azawad

As one piece of an expanding puzzle of nomadic Saharan musicians wrestling the concept of “desert rock” away from the likes of Kyuss, Terakaft exemplify what is remarkable about the bluesy guitar music emanating from the Tuareg. Boasting melodies exotic enough to fascinate world music virgins, they concurrently embrace hooks and western-derived guitar leads. It’s enough to awaken nostalgia even in those who left classic rock behind years ago.   


iceage, New Brigade

Not so much a blast of fresh air as a quick swig of battery acid, four teenaged Danes brilliantly confuse Killing Joke with a pioneering hardcore act, detonating eleven songs plus one interlude in under 25 minutes. Noise and thrash dominate, but sing-song melodies have their place, too. A servile press hails them “saviors” of punk, which they aren’t. But it’s punk rock deferential to post-punk maturity, with energy only youth can provide.




******************************************************







UPPER PICKS


Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck

Whatever John Darnielle might otherwise suggest, the concept here isn’t Tarot cards, but ghosts – literal and metaphorical. How much this concept intrigues you may depend on your tolerance for vague imagery rather than sharp detail, plus your tolerance for Darnielle’s previous output. But press in, and the details do emerge. Jokes, too. 


Moby, Destroyed

His fame now faded, and no longer pretending any relationship with “dance,” our hero adds his voice to a few songs here, leaves the heavy lifting to various female friends, and scratches his 70s electronic itch. Still has an ear for hooks – and a weakness for grandeur.


Battles, Gloss Drop

Boy, could these guys teach their fellow NYC noise freaks Gang Gang Dance a thing or two about good art rock. For one thing, it involves distortion. And pummeling grooves. Preferably all at once. [see below]


Jill Scott, The Light Of The Sun

Undeniably drags a bit near the middle, with the 9-minute “Le BOOM Vent Suite” in particular making me fidget. But the rest of this thoughtful jazz-friendly soul makes enough welcome nods to the high times of early 2000s Soulquarians to erase bad memories of the less-inspired moments. And the lady can sing some.


Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel

I prefer Taborn when he’s plugged in – his electric keyboard exploits with Tim Berne and various Thirsty Ear sessions slam like few of his contemporaries. But this ECM solo piano date isn’t just an attempt to shore up his traditional bona fides. Like Anthony Braxton doing whole albums of chestnuts, it’s a chance to explore new sonic realms the so-called traditionalists claim as their own. Plus, an attempt to shore up traditional bona-fides.



Cults, Cults



Dismissing this charming pop outfit as derivative is just dumb – of course they’re derivative. But their affectionate pastiche of Brill Building/ Phil Spector archetypes isn’t the result of a lack of ideas. Maybe they just got tired of hearing other indie acts mining from the same shallow well of ideas and decided to take a chance.








Horse Meat Disco III



No lapse in quality in this third installment from the long-running London club of the same name – in fact, they up the ante by tossing in a second disc of premier “sleaze disco” to compliment the enjoyable mixture of hits and rarities that make up disc 1. No turntable shenanigans, no pointless extended mixes, just hedonism on the turntable. 






Washed Out, Within And Without



Accusations of Ernest Greene’s synthesizer project “going mainstream” needn’t worry normal folks like us – near as I can tell, he’s just streamlined his melodies a bit and toned down the grime from earlier EPs. Could even be a guitar album. Synth-pop in which the pop is as important as the synths? How radical. Or is that centrist?


Fucked Up, David Comes To Life

Those lamenting mp3 dominance will rejoice in this four-act “punk opera,” complete with booklet and incomprehensible plot. With a single acoustic interlude disrupting the onward rush of walled guitars, this is uncompromising, even grand. If an entire album’s worth of Damian Abraham’s screamo vocals leave me wanting more female interjections, they do eventually seem a natural affectation rather than unnecessary male aggression.


******************************************************








NEAR PICKS / HONORABLE MENTIONS / GOOD STUFF



Gil Scott-Heron / Jamie xx, We’re New Here

Remix of last year’s I’m New Here, which it improves upon simply by casting a wider sonic net. Also gives us “I’ll Take Care Of You,” which does honor to Gil’s memory while making me ansty for that new xx album.


Elbow, Build A Rocket, Boys!


Too close to Coldplay for comfort. But Guy Garvey’s Manchester childhood is remembered with a delicacy and skill that has so far escaped Chris Martin. And the children’s choir is at least deployed sparingly. 









Wild Beasts, Smother



Speaking of smothering, successfully fight off the urge to choke lead crooner Hayden Thorpe with a pillow, and you just might find a quietly pulsing collection of synth pop nuggets and some of the most preposterous sex lyrics to grace an album this year. “O Ophelia / I feel yer,” goes one, and it gets better from there.







Colin Vallon Trio, Rruga



Fairly typical ECM piano jazz – lyrical, never swings too hard, heavy on the atmospherics. More Richie Beirach than Keith Jarrett, for good or ill. And pretty literal fellas, too – “Eyafjallajokul,” named after the infamous Icelandic volcano, rattles and clinks just like tectonic plates converging. I was actually hoping for something a little more whimsical. 



Lady Gaga, Born This Way

In the end, too wearying for all but marathon runners, with one anthem too many and nary a rest stop in sight. Also, her supposedly forward-looking politics may date sooner than she or her enthusiasts suspect. But pretty smart and pretty funny for the biggest superstar currently inhabiting planet earth.



Hauschka, Salon Des Amateurs

Far more varied than one might suspect from the ninth full-length release of an artist dedicated to the prepared piano. With kit drummers from the rock realm lending a hand, this takes off some from mere minimalism. But it remains a bit earthbound.


J-Rocc, Some Cold Rock Stuff

Orange County turntablist, proud Beat Junkies member since ’92, finally drops a proper solo record. Only, this isn’t a mix tape or even much of a DJ extravaganza – more of a hazy, tripped-out stringing together of grooves and noize. Part thematic statement, part simple desire to put something on wax. Imperfect, but worth your attention.


The Weeknd, House Of Balloons

Mystery soulman from Ontario, riding a download-only buzz into national attention thanks to an excellently conjured dark mood and pleasantly surprising samples. But a vocal approach permanently lodged in the falsetto range complete with autotune eventually runs out of ideas, and the whole sex-as-manifestation-of-inner-pain thing gives off the whiff of squiggle porn streaming alongside a badly misinterpreted Anais Nin tract.


Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times and Nigerian Boogie Badness 1979-1983

These 15 examples of “Nigerian Boogie” go some way towards suggesting the limits of vault digging and also help showcase the degree to which American disco and r&b was copied by admiring African musicians  – not always compellingly copied. Still, beat fans will find much to enjoy, and the accompanying book-not-a-booklet is mighty impressive.


.
Chalk Circle, Reflection

Act of archaeology uncovers unjustly forgotten pioneering female D.C. act, circa 1983, with fairly typical jerky rhythms. Think Gang Of Four or Delta 5, only nowhere near as accomplished. Their amateurishness and muddied sound help further dilute the message, but this is far more compelling than anything offered by many of their D.C. hardcore contemporaries.



Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., It’s A Corporate World

There’s an odd mocking of blue-collar life going down here, from the “look at this fucking hipster” band name to stray references to mobile homes. Pretty milquetoast for Detroit boys, too. Yet they handle themselves ably with a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit,” and while Gil’s lyrics can’t help but highlight their own deficiencies, this band definitely has better tunes.



Hotel St. George, Bloodlust

San Diego lads jettison the clean snap of earlier productions for a murkier vibe that provides the preferred backdrop for Matt Binder’s Peter Murphy-inspired vocals. “That’s why I drink every night,” he declaims over heavily-processed guitar echoes, and it’s nice to know he’s got a reason.



Soft Metals, Soft Metals

An innocent bystander asked if this was Depeche Mode, which is either high praise or a diagnosis. A few too many lengthy instrumental workouts do eventually take their toll, but this Portland, OR-based romantic duo embrace warmth and (surprise surprise) human relationships far more than their many chillwave contemporaries. Plus, “Voices” is a standout single – another distinguishing characteristic.


Augustus Pablo, Message Music: Augustus Pablo’s Digital Productions, 1986-1994

Pretty corny, even for Pablo, which is saying something. The high-end compression of these “digital productions” are less woodsy and primordial than classic dub, and the technology has dated some (although less than you’d suppose). But there’s something noble in the way Pablo single-mindedly pursued his beloved dub in the face of dancehall onslaught.



Jay-Z / Kanye West, Watch The Throne


Just as the whole affair begins resembling a Kanye project with Jay-Z on backup, Yeezy steps aside and allows Mr. Carter room for air. And before the production values and micromarketing become oppressive, our two kings demonstrate they’re capable of embracing a sloppier, half-assed aesthetic. That is, this is frequently pompous, self-indulgent, and redolent of the focus group. But how about that Phil Manzanera sample, the shout-outs to civil rights veterans, treating Otis Redding like the royalty he is?




Motor City Drum Ensemble, DJ-Kicks

Opens with Sun Ra, closes with James Mason (the Roy Ayers guitarist), and in between come Tony Allen, Aphex Twin, Walter Gibbons, Geraldo Pino, and Loose Joints. Which should suggest how far afield of traditional house music this Stuttgart house producer likes to roam. Yet here’s the thing – it all flows perfectly together. Admittedly, turning Tony Allen into house music could be seen as a criticism. But not in this case.


Kendrick Lamar, Section.80

Can’t get behind everything this Compton rapper does – schmaltzy ballad here, preachy interludes there, folks “actin’ like hoes”. But elsewhere on this loosely conceptual album, a young man confident enough to use his real name wonders aloud if hitting on a stewardess would flag him as a terrorist and calls out Ronald Reagan’s inner-city legacy before going out spitting political over a flurry of jazz beats. The dude’s 23 years old.


Bon Iver, Bon Iver

The either/or love/hate directed at this mild-mannered folkie has never made much sense, and whatever formal limitations are embodied in his garbled verse and pretty melodies certainly aren’t offensive. Here he wards off the sophomore slump by embracing busied arrangements, sometimes bombastically so. Intentions re: the schlocky finale are less obvious – perhaps a litmus test on the perimeters of cool, or just basking in non-ironic banality.


Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, Mirror Traffic

“Forty with a kid/Living on the grid,” the former SM notes, and a decade out from his Pavement days, it’s becoming clear he’ll forever paint on smaller canvases. Malkmus appears incapable of releasing a lousy record. But in the 90s, a line like “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blowjob,” would’ve been dropped without preamble amid other non sequiturs. Here it becomes the chorus. A sign of progress, or a retreat to the bland middle?


Cut Off Your Hands, Hollow

Not an original bone in their dear little frames, unless choosing The Trashcan Sinatras as your inspiration counts, which it probably should. Credit or blame the remoteness of New Zealand for the quaint nature of this guitar-pop record - charming lads echoing any number of quietly wonderful Kiwi bands mining similar inoffensive veins. Coming by their Anglo-Saxon worship naturally, they shimmer, strum, even write some tunes.  


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BOMBS

New Boyz, Too Cool To Care

The sort of autotune vapidity one would expect from a duo forming around a dance craze involving tight pants. Includes dick jokes. So how come the front cover doesn’t show off their crotch bulges? Might they be pulling one over on us?



Chad VanGaalen, Diaper Island


Indie singer-songster attempts to enter the mind of Woman on this modest offering’s final track. “Shave My Pussy,” it’s called, and, yes, it’s as clumsy as you suspect. If VanGaalen really feels the need to share his personal hobbies with the outside world, he might look into home brewing. 



Dengue Fever, Cannibal Courtship



When this Cambodian singer and her non-Cambodian LA backup band were delivering most of their material in Khmer, they at least had a shtick to help them stick out. Having now switched to mostly English lyrics, their lack of imagination has been thrown into relief. Still fun at times, but anybody lucky enough to regularly sample LA’s fleet of pan-cultural food trucks won’t be too blown away by the melding of cultures herein.







The Antlers, Burst Apart



I’ll agree that sincerity may be preferable to irony, but not if it’s going to be this defiantly down in the dumps. And while losing a pet may indeed be a personal tragedy, when an arty indie chamber-pop outfit chooses this as the subject matter for their grand and hyperbolic finale, they’d better expect a few chuckles.





Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact

Boy, could these guys learn a thing or two about good art rock from their fellow NYC noise freaks Battles. For one thing, it involves distortion. And pummeling grooves. Preferably all at once. [see above]



Owl City, All Things Bright And Beautiful

At first you think he’s got to be kidding – that this fluffy take on The Postal Service’s lighter moments must be some kind of decadent joke. Then you notice how singer Adam Young chirpily enunciates lines like “
I stood under the waterfall kiwi-pineapple parasol,” and figure maybe he’s just working through some personal issues. The worst thing to come out of Minnesota since Michele Bachmann.



James Blake, James Blake



Not dubstep, silly, post-dubstep. With all the fussiness and pointless fetishizing sub-sub-genres specialize in. Plus, a lousy lyricist in love with his quite modest vocal abilities. And not only can’t you dance to it, there’s not much to even keep time to.







Miracle Fortress, Was I The Wave?


Glorified EP from indie outfit now trending electronic. Out of ten tracks, I count four songs, three of them memorable, all in sway to an imagined 1980s soundtrack. Some generous soul at Allmusic.com adduced this a “great summer afternoon album” for “day-driving with friends”. What, with these gas prices? 



Joaquin “Joe” Claussel, Hammock House: Africa Caribe

Having always found Fania Records and their salsa lineup a bit slick for my grungy tastes, I held out hope this mix by DJ Claussel might mess things up a bit. Instead, it still comes off pretty slick, with a useless bonus disc gummed up by several minutes of pompous piano flourishes that had even my classical-leaning wife begging me to shut it off.




Mountains, Air Museum






Think Music For Aquariums – this ambient/post-rock duo doesn’t so much drone as shimmer, and if you’ve heard a single Klaus Schultz track, you’ve heard it done better forty years ago. Easy on the ears and zero ideas – how very mainstream. 



William Elliott Whitmore, Field Songs

The guy’s got some good politics. Plus, he boasts a prematurely wizened voice, accompanied by banjo – just like Bascom Lamar Lunsford! Also, he utilizes clawhammer banjo technique rather than typical post-Earl Scruggs bluegrass technique – just like Bascom Lamar Lunsford! But Lunsford wasn’t being deliberately archaic – he was playing what he knew. Now let’s talk about some of the other ways William Elliott Whitmore differs from Bascom Lamar Lunsford.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

There’s been a psychedelic revival of sorts trickling out of New Zealand since at least the late 1970s, and near as I can tell, the only thing Ruban Nielson brings to the party is a weakness for stoopid spelling (“Ffunny Ffriends,” let me try to control myself), stunningly long fade-outs, and some satisfyingly lo-fi yet funky drums. The drums I can get behind.


Rahsaan Patterson, Bleuphoria

Decent guy, solid pipes, proper respect for his elders, creates something new out of “I Only Have Eyes For You”. But far too often, this dull neo-soul exercise merely plods, melodically spare and largely bereft of hooks. The big gospel moment arrives via farting synth bass and the Andrae Crouch singers. He “sits all day” on the “Mountain Top,” although he doesn’t so much take you there as drag you along.


MellowHype, BLACKENEDWHITE

Previously a free mixtape, now Fat Possum-sanctioned, this Odd Future crew’s re-release isn’t so much complex as just busy, with keyboards dominating, sometimes annoyingly so. Frank Ocean’s cameo briefly lifts proceedings. But this crew has a rep for crazy lyrics? “There’s so many hoes/In the strip club/Taking off they clothes/In the strip club” is quite the observation. And “Fuck The Police”? Come up with that yourself, Hodgy Beats?


Theophilus London, Timez Are Weird These Days

Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-raised, yet what he knows about r&b comes straight outta business school, with networking skillz outstripping musical gifts, no matter the overtures made towards indie rock and electro. Try as he might, he can’t quite deliver the party anthem the marketing exec in him desires, although chiding a female exhibitionist would seem to be one attempt. Remember MC Hammer? He spent whole songs reminding you what his name was, too.


Gucci Mane, Ferrari Boyz

Don’t wanna elbow Gucci Mane’s muse aside, but rhyming “faggot” with “braggin’” (twice!) just doesn’t scan right. Might I suggest “braggart”? Better yet, why not drop the entire verse? Elsewhere on this plodding “street release,” somebody attempts the forced rhyme “private” / “privates,” which suggests a bit of confusion regarding rules of verse, although it’s quite clear which of the two we can suck.


Brilliant Colors, Again And Again

Maybe this kind of deliberately amateurish twaddle was endearing back in the early days of C86 and twee-pop. But I suspect if The Wedding Present or The Shop Assistants had highlighted vocals this desultory, lifeless, and pitch-challenged, there wouldn’t have been a movement worth referencing. In literature, this kind of thing is called a genre exercise, although even there you need to put all the commas in the right place.



James Pants, James Pants

Archaic synths and muffled vocals of no consequence, assembled by a fella hailing from “an American backwater called Spokane,” last seen hawking a concept album “made while reading mystical books”. Like his many chillwave contemporaries, he suspects Atarai graphics represent the height of Western art. Unlike them, he claims to represent a movement he’s dubbed “freshbeat”. There certainly are a few beats.
  





The War On Drugs, Slave Ambient



Undeniably impressive, the way this Philly crew manages to blend 70s song structure with paisley-flecked psychedelic contours. But what to make of an outfit once featuring rising star Kurt Vile who took four years off, parted ways with their acolyte, and now return sounding almost exactly like Kurt Vile? Key difference – Vile writes sharper tunes. And their paisley-flecked psychedelic contours could be a whole lot woollier.





The Cave Singers, No Witch

In which the bassist for Pretty Girls Make Graves assembles fellow Seattleites to explore the possibilities of an acoustic-driven format one might kindly dub Campfire Rock. An improvement on two previous efforts, with nods toward electricity welcome indeed. But snot-punk vocals atop bongos ‘n drone has aesthetic limitations. Art defining white male culture as the tribal calls of bearded forest dwellers has even less to teach us.