Rhapsody Streamnotes: August 2, 2009

Rhapsody Streamnotes Returns (August 2, 2009)

After a lapse of nearly a year, I'm back on Rhapsody, streaming occasional records of interest, rushing to judge them, remembering them with short notes. I did this same thing for a year ending in November 2008. Listening to a music from a record piped into a computer isn't the same as actually sitting down with a tangible record and packaging. Some of the missing info can be compensated for by the web (and, of course, much more info is available there), but the feel and sense of gravity isn't the same. And while I can (conceivably) go back in the future and listen more, this method puts more pressure on me to make up my mind quickly. Some records I will eventually obtain and re-evaluate -- Randy Newman's Harps and Angels is one that I underestimated from Rhapsody, but most won't get a second chance. Come to think of it, that's pretty close to standard operating procedure anyway.

In the first batch I'm starting to play catch up, mostly with records from Christgau's Consumer Guide. Once I get past these priorities I'll start exploring other interests and rumors, not least jazz and recycled items, which may first appear in their usual contexts. As for new records, my 2009 year-end meta-rankings file already has quite a bit of data in it, providing me someting to work off of. I'll probably post these reports every 2-3 weeks, depending on how much material I accumulate, which depends on what else I'm trying to do at the same time -- as will be clear come Monday, this does steal time from Jazz Prospecting.

Past notes are collated here.

Wussy: Wussy (2009, Shake It): Alt-rock group with Chuck Cleaver (ex-Ass Ponys) and Lisa Walker trading vocals, and a couple of others. A lot of people I generally agree with think they're great -- Robert Christgau has all three of their full LPs at full A, which puts them one shy of the Ramones -- and they may be, but I find them hard to follow, maybe because I find them hard to care about: thicker and muddier than the Handsome Family, less unpleasant and melodramatic than X. Did get better with the second play and a bit less volume, and may get better still with a few more plays -- or may not. I did manage to buy the second album, Left for Dead, and never got into it either. B+(***)

Moby: Wait for Me (2009, Mute): A lot of old tricks here, like the gospel sample and the Eno-worthy synth motifs, as well as more conventional songs and more ordinary ambiences that are far from stretches. He's always been comfortably appealing, which at this level of consistency suffices nicely. A-

The Handsome Family: Honey Moon (2009, Carrot Top): The sound they have down pat, with Brett Sparks' deep monotone and echo, occasional harmony from lyricist-wife Rennie Sparks, and some strumming. A little short on songs -- can't allow the love songs occasioned by their 20th anniversary to fall into cliché so they often settle for odd distance -- but "Junebugs" starts to do it, their fascination with the insect world an old standby. B+(**)

Rhett Miller (2009, Shout! Factory): Sometime Old 97's frontman, sometime solo artist, third album of the latter. Christgau argues that his songs take time to kick in keep growing even beyond the reviewer's patience. Some cuts seem underdeveloped, awkward even, but that may be the idea, and that may ultimately be OK. At least "If That's Not Love" kicked in the second time. With just two plays I have to admit I'm projecting, but that's part of the game (and caveat) with quick-judging streamed albums. A-

Wayne Hancock: Viper of Melody (2009, Bloodshot): Alt-country singer with a lot of twang in his voice, raised on honky tonk and inclined to dig deeper rather than move on. Good example here is "[I've got] Your Love and His Blood [on my hands]." But Hancock's laying on so much pedal steel this time he veers into western swing, and even careens around its jazzier end -- the title song viper references has more to do with Cab Calloway and Fats Waller than with Bob Wills. Best when he ties them all together, as on "Working at Working" and "High Rolling Train." Only one cover (the Hawaiian-sounding "Midnight Stars and You"), so he's running retro the hard way. B+(***)

The Flatlanders: Hills and Valleys (2009, New West): Three singer-songwriters, two at least (with help from the songs of the third) made enough of a mark by 1990 that the reissue of their 1972 album was titled More a Legend Than a Band. Getting old, the song well drying up, they're just a band again. Jimmie Dale Gilmore has one of the great voices in country music. Butch Hancock doesn't, but wrote some great songs. Joe Ely could do both, sometimes nearly as well. He's the mainstay here, but Gilmore still sounds supernal. B+(**)

Art Brut: Art Brut vs Satan (2009, Downtown): Ah, young people, finally discovering shit you knew about decades ago -- the Replacements, the Stones, DC comics and chocolate milkshakes -- and finding it especially weird that their parents got there first. Not far removed from the punk rock that predates their birth dates -- sure, I recognize that they're probably picking it up from the Art Monkeys and the Hives -- but where the old punks were stripping down, they're building up, working on their art references. Kind of sweet that they take a stand vs. Satan. A-

Pet Shop Boys: Yes (2009, Astralwerks): A return to form: nothing here could be mistaken as coming from anyone else, not least because every turn in the music is a reprise from elsewhere in their catalog (except maybe a bit of Queen-ishness in "Legacy"). Thus far, none of the songs take flight like everything in Very ultimately did, nor do they suggest the understated elegance that made Behaviour a personal favorite. Still, not sure that a few more plays won't make this indispensible. B+(***)

Serengeti: Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) (2008, Audio 8): Chicago underground rapper, David Cohn, released an album called Dennehy in 2006, expanded here as plotted out (refs to A Prince Among Thieves). Christgau cited this as his pick from a fairly long list of recent obscurities by Serengeti. I can't find a real CD of this -- seems to be download only, just links to itunes and emusic. I have some qualms about starting to catalog and review such things, but suspect I should give up if I can't handle them. Can't follow the story enough to comment there, but the beats are deft and they carry the words well. Wish I had a real copy. A-

Serengeti & Polyphonic: Terradactyl (2009, Anticon): Thought I'd try this. Got one cut, then "unexpected" errors.

Brother Ali: The Truth Is Here (2009, Rhymesayers Entertainment): EP-length, about 35 minutes, some (or maybe all) live, with guests like Slug, and a DVD in the package (no dealing with that here). Probably a stopgap, two years after his second, which came four years after his superior debut. Still has some beats, raps smart, cares, is one of the good guys. B+(**)

Mos Def: The Ecstatic (2009, Downtown): Awkward musically, a lot of short rough sketches, serious subjects, not much attitude. Reminds me a bit of the Minutmen's Double Nickels on the Dime, one of those albums whose indigestibility suggests there'll always be more to chew on. Long, and I never got a clean play on all of it. Will probably have to get a real copy to get a real take on it. A-

The Lonely Island: Incredibad (2009, Universal/Republic): Three Saturday Night Live writers -- Andy Samberg is the front man -- backed with studio pros and fortified with guest stars run through 17 songs and 2 interludes. Spinal Tap-ish metal giving way to hard thumping hip hop. Lots of stuff like "Dick in a Box" and "Jizz in My Pants" deterioraring to "We Like Sportz." Hits more often than not, but I can't see playing it much -- except, of course, to turn people on to "Natalie [Portman]'s Rap." B+(***)

Mr. Lif: I Heard It Today (2009, Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises): Cover has a rather emaciated government seal eagle grasping an oil derrick and a syringe. Intro goes something like: "so now we're supposed to start trusting the government now that we got a friendlier face to it, huh?" As sharp politically and most likely otherwise as Public Enemy, but doesn't have the big beats or the vocal contrast, making it a bit harder to sort it all out. A-

Two Fingers (2009, Paper Bag): Dark-toned trip-hop, soft beats, scattered rappers, possibly English, a bit obscure. Front for Amon Tobin and Doubleclick, whoever they are. The sort of mix I could enjoy as background almost indefinitely. B+(**)

Madlib: Beat Konducta, Vol. 5-6 (2009, Stones Throw): DJ Otis Jackson, had a stack of records since 2002, including previous volumes under this aegis. Nominally a tribute to J. Dilla, another DJ I don't know jack about. Lots of short pieces, very scattered. B+(**)

Extra Golden: Thank You Very Quickly (2009, Thrill Jockey, EP): Mixed American-Kenyan group. Kenyans drum and sing; Americans (white) play guitar and bass. Have two previous albums, so this 5-song EP bears a "Vol. 3" on the cover. Aside for lyrics in Luo (or something), this sounds more rockish than anything else. B

The Hold Steady: A Positive Rage (2007 [2009], Vagrant, CD+DVD): Craig Finn's group, from Minneapolis, has four studio albums, each worth hearing -- classic rock riffs, a growl of a voice that holds you even down to a whisper, songs of real people, failings all the more poignant -- now turn in a live one, reportedly with DVD in the package. They crank up proven material a notch, the intro and patter just more grist for the mill. A-

Brakes: Touchdown (2009, FatCat): Band sometimes known as "brakesbrakesbrakes," nomenclature that first appeared with their second album and is echoed here by repeating "BRAKES" three times on the cover, stacked and centered. Their MySpace page goes under "BrakesBrakesBrakes"; but their label still refers to them as "Brakes," which would be my druthers. Maybe this is one of those cases, like Squeeze, where the group name is clear in the UK but not in the US, leading to . . . a mess. Whatever the name, the record itself makes a fine impression. Their first signalled a country interest with a Johnny Cash cover. This one binds the threads tighter. B+(***)

Levon Helm: Electric Dirt (2009, Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard): The voice gets you from the start, as primordially, archetypally American as male voice gets. Mostly sticks to safe turf, including two Muddy Waters blues, but co-producer Larry Campbell wrote him a gem in "When I Go Away," and Randy Newman's "Kingfish" is a delight. B+(*)

PJ Harvey & John Parish: A Woman a Man Walked By (2009, Island): She can be amazing, but she can also fly off the skids, lose any semblance of song, and wig out in ways I find more disturbing than merely literarily bizarre. This has a lot of all those parts. I'm duly impressed, but I also doubt that I ever want to hear it again. Still, I'd play this before Dry or Rid of Me, because it feel more like its perversity is for show. B+(*)

Major Lazer: Guns Don't Kill People . . . Lazers Do (2009, Downtown): Some sources, including Rhapsody, have this as Gunz, but most go with Guns; at least one source uses a comma instead of an elipsis. Band's website MySpace page conflict (sometimes on same page). Basically, a dancehall mixup by Diplo (who I've run across before) and Switch (a new one on me), with beaucoup de guests at a level of gravity pioneered by comics. Not that I care much: pretty sureshot beatwise, and little else matters. B+(**)

Clem Snide: Hungry Bird (2009, 429): Well regarded rock group, led by singer Eef Barzelay, cut 5 albums from 1997 to 2005, then disbanded -- Barzelay has two 2006-08 albums. This was evidently their sixth album, recorded just before the breakup, now released following a reunion. Barzelay's first solo album is just guitar and voice; this is filled out a bit more, a batch of slow, poignant songs that strike a note. I only heard their second album, missing two later ones that Christgau A-listed. Looks like they'll be worth researching further. B+(***)

Jeffrey Lewis & the Junkyard: 'Em Are I (2009, Rough Trade): Cartoonist, working on a second (or adjunct?) career as an antifolker. As is often the case, he's getting sophisticated as he plays more, at times starting to sound like someone like Robyn Hitchcock, not the worst thing that could happen. Still, he's best off when it honors his own maxim: "it's hard to get bored/when you pick the right two chords." "Whistle Past the Graveyard" has a nice upbeat sentiment: "if I was in hell I'd be happy other people were in heaven." "Bugs and Flowers" is workable philosophy. B+(**)

M. Ward: Hold Time (2009, Merge): Singer-songwriter from Oregon, sixth album since 2001, first I've heard. The originals are tuneful, measured, some big, some small. Evidently there are guests. Two covers are slow (Buddy Holly's "Rave On") and slower (Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" -- mostly handed over to Lucinda Williams). A song about Jesus, "Fishers of Men," is a choice cut. B+(**)

The-Dream: Love Vs. Hate (2009, Def Jam): Second album, following a debut titled Love/Hate -- the similar titles give you an idea of his range. Beats are up, as are the guests, in both cases correlating with the money. Christgau liked the first album better, detecting a drift toward R. Kelly here. He's probably right, but barring some other compelling reason, I tend to evaluate these soul/hip-hop things formally, which may even give this one a slight edge. Hard to tell. B+(*)

Regina Spektor: Far (2009, Sire): Russian-born New Yorker, third album plus some miscellany, AMG regards her as antifolk, but I can't imagine why. Piano-based singer-songwriter stuff, somewhat samey but some songs rise above the norm, with only one getting into a round of hallelujahs I could do without. B+(**)

New York Dolls: 'Cause I Sez So (2009, Atco): Christgau called this, their second album since regrouping in 2006, their first record that's "less than epochal." I wasn't all that wild about the first, but it was pretty solid. The relative slip here isn't obvious from the first (title) cut, but the ballads show some wear. Got me thinking they sound more like the Rolling Stones than like themselves, especially since we're talking about Stones of comparable age -- even when they cover themselves ("Trash"). B+(**)

Lady GaGa: The Fame (2009, Interscope): Dance-pop singer from Yonkers, b. Stefani Germanotta in 1986, not much of a voice even by dance-pop standards, which makes her more of a conceptualist. Still, the music is catchy, beatwise, robust. B+(*)

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

  • The Coathangers: Scramble (Suicide Squeeze)
  • Doom: Born Like This (Lex)
  • Golem: Citizen Boris (J-Dub)
  • Japandroids: Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar/Tunecore)
  • Taj Mahal: Maestro (Heads Up)
  • White Denim: Workout Holiday (Full Time Holiday)