Rhapsody Streamnotes: August 26, 2008

August 26, 2008 Notebook

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on April 17. It is at least a way to keep up on new releases without having to track down all that product. Past notes are collated here.

Blitzen Trapper: Wild Mountain Nation (2007, Sub Pop): Portland group, third album. I figure what they're trying to play is old fashioned psychedelia, except that nobody who cared about it knew what it was in the first place. The country-ish "Summer Town" is very nice, and "Murder Babe" has some bounce to it, but there's other stuff that AMG charitably described as "a hippie marching band," and there's reason to suspect that somebody slipped some bubble gum into their acid, or vice versa. B

The Kills: Midnight Boom (2008, Domino): Third album. Duo, female singer, male guitarist. Expected more thrash -- AMG calls them "garage punk"; Christgau made a comment about "feel the power" -- but this is pretty stripped down, with elemental beats, short rhymes, sharp enough to feel. Ends with a Velvets cop, "Sunday Morning" turned into "Goodbye Bad Morning." A-

Beck: Modern Guilt (2008, Interscope): Obviously, he's not a real loser. He's turned out solid albums every year or two since 1994 -- nothing as monumentally improbable as Odelay, which ranks as one of the signpost albums of the 1990s. I've never spent enough time with any of this decade's albums to get comfortable with them, which seems to be key. Some day he will be a project for a substantial career overview. Meanwhile, this is as credible as any -- a little folkie, a little pathetic, a keen sense of how to mix the drums. The one talent he doesn't seem to have is the ability to make us care. B+(**)

Atmosphere: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Sh*t Gold (2008, Rhymesayers): Not sure whether the music is sneaky or just understated; not sure if the rhymes are deep or just observant. Either way comes close to working. Packaging evidently contains a book or something. B+(***)

Seun Kuti + Fela's Egypt 80 (2008, Disorient): Fela's band, led by his sun. "Don't Give That Shit to Me" lays it on a little thick, but maybe he has a point. Up to then you're thinking what a great band they have always been. Beyond that you start to get impressed by this specific record. Some disagreement on title, rendered above as it appears on front cover. A-

Coldplay: Viva la Vida (2008, Capitol): Keyboard heavy group, a few decades back would be considered prog, but probably just Brit rock now. Took me 4-5 plays to warm up to the latest Radiohead; haven't given this the same break, but it's ahead of the curve. Looks like Brian Eno produced, probably hoping to rub some U2 off, but he's done better things in the past, especially with keybs. B+(***)

Ry Cooder: I, Flathead: The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns (2008, Nonesuch): Reportedly the third album in Cooder's "California Trilogy" -- following Chavez Ravine and My Name Is Buddy -- which doesn't convince me there won't be a fourth. Package comes with a 104-page novella, which I know nothing more about. All songs are originals, although there's a lot of "fair use" in "Johnny Cash" -- the only thing Cooder's period pieces have over his choice of vintage material is that they're guaranteed to be obscure. A "homeland security" song called "Spayed Kooley" would have been a find. "Steel Guitar Heaven" and "Pink-O Boogie" and "Filipino Dancehall Girl" and "5000 Country Music Songs" are self-explanatory. Took a long time for Chavez Ravine to slip over the A- cusp as its literate mix of history and myth settled into reality. Haven't had that luxury with its successors, but can't swear they wouldn't do the same. B+(***)

Elvis Costello and the Imposters: Momofuku (2008, Lost Highway): New label, after unsatisfactory pretensions at Deutsche Grammophon and Verve Forecast, promises something countryish, but we get no closer than pub rock, a superficial gloss on something like Blood and Chocolate. More hard rockers than anything in about that long. Still, they feel brittle and muddled, like replicas with no sense of the originals. But the two songs that stand out -- "Mr. Feathers" and "My Three Song" -- are ballads, which open up for his narrow but dramatic voice. Maybe Nashville was the right idea, but he just didn't get comfortable enough. B

Was (Not Was): Boo! (2008, Rykodisc): Detroit pseudo brother act (David Was = David Weiss, Don Fagenson = Don Was), started out as jokesters on the much loved ZE label, wound up in 1990 with a great offbeat soul album, Are You Okay?, then one more in 1992 noticed by no one. First album since then, although Don Was has a long list of producer credits in the meantime. Uses guest vocalists, like old hand Sweet Pea Atkinson, who sounds a little rough for the wear. At their straightest, sounds like Motown, but usually a bit kinkier. B+(*)

Cat Power: Jukebox (2008, Matador): One of those acts I read about but never read anything compelling enough to make me want to check out. Evidently just an alias for Chan Marshall. About six records since 1995, a set of somewhat obscure covers, done with measured professionalism but no special panache. B-

Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (2008, Atlantic): Another fairly successful band I'm only familiar with only by name. Seventh album since 1999. This one has garnered solid-plus reviews, and hit #1 briefly. Mostly seems like neither here nor there -- soft voice, writerly, melodic, can ride a groove: "I Will Possess Your Heart" starts with a hypnotic repeating riff, adds the lyric organically, even pumps up the volume. Other songs fill in pleasantly enough. B+(*)

My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (2008, ATO): Another big one, six albums since 1999, this one peaked at #9, probably the top rated record of the year, at least from Rolling Stone to Blender to Spin, with an A from Entertainment Weekly but a 4.7 from Pitchfork. Singer can run falsetto, and can slip back into his sweet Louisville twang -- I don't hear the Neil Young comparisons -- but other songs show no evidence of either, and they can transform into a pretty slick hard rock group. I can see how people can be impressed, but find it too eclectic to care about. B+(*)

Portishead: Third (2008, Mercury): Trip-hop group, featuring pathetic singer Beth Gibbons. Probably their third album, or maybe just the third one worth counting -- after their absurdly hyped first album I lost count. Starts off sounding like they may have broken out of their funk rut, but soon enough it slows down and the machine starts spitting bolts and nuts. B-

David Bowie: Live Santa Monica '72 (1972 [2008], Virgin/EMI): Official reissue of a legendary booleg from the Ziggy Stardust/Spiders From Mars tour. The usual caveats with live albums of the era apply -- sound a little tinny, songs less fully fleshed out than the studio versions -- but the excitement is palpable, and the show pulls several good records up to a new plateau. A-

Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (2008, Nonesuch): The words are slurred even when he isn't trying to pull his punches, and the melodies are the low lying fruit of years of oft inspired hack work. This is the closest thing to a real album he's done since Bad Love in 1999, which I suppose means he's trying to revive satire from its recent demise. He doesn't come up with much in "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" -- still, it's worth googling for the lyrics, which are hard to follow in this slight but charming stab at country music. A sharper line appears in "A Piece of the Pie," where he notes that if you're "living in the richest country in the world/wouldn't you think you'd have a better life?" B+(**) [later: A]

NERD: Seeing Sounds (2008, Interscope): Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes, made their mark producing, where their hook sense was uncanny. First album was as irresistible as ear candy comes, but I haven't followed them closely. Still have the same basic sound, same basic hook sense, some beats. Just don't have songs I care all that much about. It's like it's just become a production to them. B+(**)

Loudon Wainwright III: Recovery (2008, Yep Roc): Song titles seem like throwaways -- "Muse Blues," "Motel Blues," "The Drinking Song" -- or sometimes easy pickups -- "Saw Your Name in the Paper," "Movies Are a Mother to Me" -- but they're sharply observed, often self-lacerating. Not sure whether the charm is that he's still chasing sex at his age, or that he's so pathetic and obvious about it. [Oops: looks like the concept is recovering old songs. Embarrassingly, I only recognized one, which I recall hearing Johnny Cash play. So maybe his age has nothing to do with it. He could always be pathetic and obvious. He could always write sharp songs, and picking old ones is even more surefire than writing new ones.] A-

Teddy Thompson: A Piece of What You Need (2008, Verve Forecast): Richard and Linda's son, on his fourth album. Like his father, he's better at playing them than writing them, but he writes anyway, and they're not bad -- just not as strong songwise as his previous mostly-covers album. Ends with an uncredited take of "The Price of Love"; QED. B+(**)

Ponytail: Ice Cream Spiritual! (2008, We Are Free): Christgau like this group, but he's always been amused by Japanese bubblegum punk, whereas I've never tolerated the shrieks and squalls enough to bother getting the joke. This one is more developed than the previous one, their debut Kamehameha. That's probably an improvement, but I can't swear to it. It does make it less annoying. B

Lykke Li: Youth Novels (2008, Atlantic): Young Swedish pop singer, the slow music adds gravitas, but the whispery vocals are uncommonly slight, and her command of the English language doesn't give you much reason to hang on every word. B

The Hold Steady: Stay Positive (2008, Vagrant): Fourth album for Craig Finn's group. On two plays it's not clear that this is any weaker than the other three. The religious themes remain quirky enough to convey human frailty rather than celestial hubris, and I can't help but find the spaced-out girls seductive. The growled vocals and the guitars are a constant. A-

T Bone Burnett: Tooth of Crime (2008, Nonesuch): Singer-songwriter, after an interesting series of albums cut his best in 1992 (The Criminal Under My Own Hat), then nothing until 2006 (The True False Identity, nearly as good) -- all that time he was very visible as a producer. Several songs run spoken word over rough, primitive riffing with echo, an interesting effect even on the trivial "Swizzle Stick." But none of the songs grabbed me like the last two albums -- yet, anyhow. B+(**)

Etran Finatawa: Desert Crossroads (2008, Riverboat): A group from Niger, a big desolate chunk of the Sahara, populated by Wodaabe and Tuareg. Second album, following Introducing Etran Finatawa from the World Music Network's series; this on their subsidiary label. Coarse rhythmically, chant-oriented, grows on you without seeming to ever amount to much. B+(***)

Man Man: Rabbit Habbits (2008, Anti-): Philadelphia alt-rock group, third album, shows a Brecht-Weill influence, which they probably got from labelmate Tom Waits, but there's also something from further eastern Europe, and maybe a little Beefheart, a little circus music. Could be fun, but haven't proven their case yet. B+(**)

Heidi Newfield: What Am I Waiting For (2008, Curb): Former frontwoman for a group called Trick Pony I've never heard of. First solo album, which I take to be country -- a bit more rockish than pop or neotrad, but she has some twang in her voice and trends toward Miranda Lambert territory, just a little short on songs. It helps that Lucinda Williams wrote the opener. B+(**)

Amy MacDonald: This Is the Life (2007 [2008], Decca): Young Scottish singer-songwriter. Maintains a good, sharp beat, with various levels of pop layering. Catchy, serious, not so much of a good time. B+(*)

Menya: The Ol' Reach-Around (2008, Menya, EP): Six songs, I tend to grade against EPs on the grounds that they're excess paperwork. Clearly they didn't have more, but when they do they'll be worth revisiting. Dance crunk, the first and last are standouts, with keyb cheese and lines like "girl I'm down to fuck tonight" and "suck my dick/blow your mind" (or what that "girl you're mine"?) repeated ad infinitum. Actually, those are the minority male lines; a female named Coco Dame has a nice way with "nice tits." B+(***)

Steve Wynn/Scott McCaughey/Linda Pitmon/Peter Buck: The Baseball Project, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (2008, Yep Roc): Leader Wynn was in the Dream Syndicate, which had a decent album back in 1982, and later did another memorable album as half of Danny & Dusty; McCaughey was in another 1980s group, the Young Fresh Fellows. Pitmon is evidently in Wynn's more recent groups. Buck does something (I forget what) in R.E.M. Evidently, all like baseball; more importantly, at least the first two know something about it. "Ted Fucking Williams" suggests they're going to be funny or at least irreverent, but they don't follow it up. "Satchel Paige Said" and "The Death of Big Ed Delahanty" bring up two notable names from way back with enough detail to show you they've done their homework and thought about it. "Harvey Haddix" is more homework, rendered in list form. Lists are important to baseball fans; almost as important as statistics, which this at least shies away from. B+(***)

Records I looked up but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Girl Talk: Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)
  • Ra Ra Riot: The Rhumb Line (Barsuk)
  • Silver Jews: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City)
  • Otis Taylor: Recapturing the Banjo (Telarc)

The following were written for Recycled Goods or Jazz Prospecting:

Scott Hamilton & Friends: Across the Tracks (2008, Concord): Hamilton has been a perennial favorite: the first and in many ways the best of the swing-oriented "young fogey" players to come up around 1980. His last two records made the Jazz CG A-list (Back in New York and Nocturnes & Serenades). This isn't as strong: a very relaxed set with Gene Ludwig on organ and Duke Robillard on electric guitar. B+(**)

David Sánchez: Cultural Survival (2007 [2008], Concord Picante): Tenor saxophonist from Puerto Rico. I don't really consider him a Latin jazz specialist, although his 1998 roots album Obsesion was all Latin and nothing short of glorious. He belongs to the Coltrane branch of the jazz mainstream, not far removed from Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and Ravi Coltrane, and at least on their level. The 20:31 closer, "La Leyenda del Cañaveral," stands out as one of the major works of this group. The smaller pieces will need more study. B+(***) [Later: B+(**)]

Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump: Original Heavyweight Afrobeat Highlife & Afro-Funk (1968-81 [2008], Strut): Back in the 1970s Nigeria seemed like the cradle of Afropop, with highlife bands maturing into complex juju and all sorts of hybridized beats, ranging from mundanely funky to hypnotically transcendental, but the largest country in Africa since fell into obscurity; how rich the 1970s were is attested by how easy it seems to be to assemble a seductive compilation from obscurities -- they don't even sound like lost gems, just everyday relics of a golden age. A-

The Rough Guide to West African Gold (1950s-1970s [2006], World Music Network): Compiling West Africa is trickier than compiling Congo because it's so much more diverse, and the rhythms are so much more improbable; from Ghana's genteel E.T. Mensah to Senegal's afro-salsa Orchestra Baobab, with jumps to lush Nigeria and Guinea and arid Mali, another random sample of unlimited bounty. A-