Rhapsody Streamnotes: December 4, 2010

I spend most of my serious listening time agonizing over jazz records, so this is a break for me in two respects: gets me away from jazz, and lets me rush out an opinion based on very little effort -- usually just one play, sometimes two, and a little guesswork. Some things I tend to hedge against. In particular, electronica readily turns me on but is too narrow to keep me coming back, so I held back on Holy Fuck, and for that matter Tatum's A-listed Eskmo and Gold Panda. I also tend to regard EPs as having less utility, even though they almost all run longer than LP sides used to and there's no shortage of CDs that run on way too long. Still, it annoys me a bit that while the list price for the 6-track Girls EP is $5 less than last year's 12-track Album, the street price delta is less than $2. Still, even with the hedging came up with a lot of good records. The latter half of this was sampled while I was starting to build up my year-end-list metacritic measures, that work mostly pointed me at the lower reaches here. On the other hand, I should credit Robert Christgau's return as Expert Witness for Shad, which every other critic and pub in America (except Urb) missed. Christgau also likes Tricky's Mixed Race more than I do, but that's usually been the case, all the way back to Maxinquaye (although I liked Blowback as much as anyone).

More scrounging around the year-end lists next month. Maybe even an early post if I can get this Jazz CG wrapped up soon.

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 November 6. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Lyrics Born: As U Were (2010, Decon): Tom Shimura, broke in with a terrific 2003 album (Later That Day), although he had done things of note before. Hip-hop, of course -- the skits are more of a giveaway than the beats, which rock hard and funk out under lyrics that are mostly sung. "Kontrol Phreak" blew me away, and nearly everything else measured up. A-

Lil Wayne: I Am Not a Human Being (2010, Universal Motown): Another placeholder until he gets out of jail, at which point Tha Carter IV is scheduled to be rushed out. Doesn't have whatever the concept was last time, but throws some shit together and makes it rough enough to stick. B+(**)

Meat Beat Manifesto: Answers Come in Dreams (2010, Metropolis): Jack Dangers gets a lot of mileage from that trademark decay in his electrobeats, which hum through most of this. Slowing it down for gloomy soundtrack effects, somewhere between industrial and horror but not loud enough for either, also works. Vocals less so, but not many of those. B+(*)

Blow Your Head: Diplo Presents Dubstep (2010, Mad Decent): Most sources file this under Various Artists, but I figure it doesn't exist if Diplo doesn't "present" it. Dub echo punches up most of everything here, sometimes to cartoon levels. Mostly works, although a couple cuts ("Youth Blood" is one) fall badly. B+(*)

Tricky: Mixed Race (2010, Domino): Fifteen years after Maxinquaye blew everyone (but me) away. I never really disliked him, and caught up with A Ruff Guide and (especially) Blowback. This, however, returns to the norm. Wouldn't say he's in a rut -- even here he's too well grooved. B+(**)

Cee Lo Green: The Lady Killer (2010, Elektra): Checked this out on its release date: a totally sucky Rhapsody experience, with most tracks halting dead in their tracks, one or two "temporarily unavailable" -- prudence suggests that I should wait a few days (or weeks) and give it one more shot. But one reason for jumping on it right away was wondering whether it would be worth grabbing a copy while it's on one of those chart-goosing debut week sales. The expectations are high -- I can't say that Gnarls Barkley ever lived up to the hype, but his first two solo albums were great and pretty good, and the single is already a sure shot for year-end lists -- a catchy funk ditty, even if the real hook is the title ("F**k You"). But a lot of what I managed to hear is pretty ordinary synths-and-chorus soul -- I might have hit reject a time or two myself. [Second play had fewer glitches, but didn't help the grade.] B

Taylor Swift: Speak Now (2010, Big Machine): Also had a lousy time the night this dropped, but heard enough I splurged on a sale copy. First three songs are as bright and sharp as country pop gets, and "Mean" is even better -- someone who's confidently moving beyond her roots, and more power to her. Tails off a bit in the home stretch, but not without hitting a couple times. A- [cd]

The Volebeats (2010, Rainbow Quartz): Detroit (or do I mean Hamtramck?) group, been around since late 1980s; AMG files them under country, which I don't hear, and not just because their midwestern accents are twang-deficient. Their inspirations strike me as the Beatles (vocals) and the Byrds (guitars), although they're so understated they reminded me first of the early Jayhawks then an even tamer alt-rock group, the Vulgar Boatmen. Not as good as any of the above, of course; groups that remind you of everyone else aren't. B+(*)

Coal Miner's Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn (2010, Columbia): Short (twelve-cut) various artists tribute on the 50th anniversary of Lynn's first single, with Lynn herself on the title track, which she hands off to Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert. Two cuts from her duets to give the guys a cut, with Alan Jackson doing a more swaggering Conway Twitty. Lucinda Williams is herself, but Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack, Gretchen Wilson, Allison Moorer, and Carrie Underwood aren't in the running. Indeed, the only voice here up to the song is credited as White Stripes -- is that really Meg White? B+(*)

Matt and Kim: Sidewalks (2010, Fader): Looks to me like they spelled out "and" on the cover, but most sources like the ampersand. Brooklyn duo, third album, more Matt (keyboards) than Kim (drums), although the rumpity-thump beat is main thing they have going. With a little orchestration, they're even sort of catchy, not that you really get much. B

Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights (2010, Secretly Canadian): Antony Hegarty, has four albums, a following, probably more like a cult, and probably pretty easy to dislike, too. Arch voice, quaint sensibility, "Thank You for Your Love" is pathetic but has a definite musicality and even starts to peek out of its shell. B-

Nelly: 5.0 (2010, Motown): St. Louis rapper, has a playful cadence which crossed over big time at first, and set a trademark style that he promises to grind into nothingness. Gets some extra juice here from guests but winds up falling back on his own knack, as far as it goes. B+(**)

Rihanna: Loud (2010, Def Jam): Given her title progression (Good Girl Gone Bad, Rated R) I wonder why they didn't call this one S&M, after its opening and most explosive track. One quick play suggests this isn't quite her breakthrough, although she does keep getting closer to a consistently impressive pop album, perhaps unsure whether she wants to dance or diva or just roustabout. Closer is superb too, with a blast of Eminem that shows you how far she still has to go to really live up to bad. B+(***)

Gold Panda: Lucky Shiner (2010, Spunk): Electronica, somewhere between ambient and danceable, reminds me a bit of Germans like Cluster but this tends to shift around more, sometimes fracturing into thin electronic sheets. Hard to tell how it would hold up over the long haul, but attractive and interesting as this sort of thing goes. B+(***)

Kid Cudi: Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (2010, Universal Motown): Rhapsody only has 9 of 17 tracks here, only 2 of the 5 AMG track picks, with the Kanye West track among the missing, so this is exceptionally uncertain and unfair. More a talkie singer than a rapper, beats amble pleasantly, makes for unobtrustive background, could grow on you, or lull you to sleep. B+(*)

The Walkmen: Lisbon (2010, Fat Possum): New York alt-rock group, sixth album since 2002. Weak voice, not much guitar. One song with horns is pretty ridiculous: reminded me of a Pogues death march but only if the Pogues weren't Irish and weren't punks and couldn't play much. The slow ones do bring out the fatalistic nostalgia. Still, I found myself disliking them less and less as the record wore down. B-

Holy Fuck: Latin (2010, Young Turks): Graham Walsh and Brian Borcherdt, from Toronto, electronic dance music, plenty of beat (at least once you get past the slo-mo intro), no vocals -- none intelligible anyway. I could see going higher here, but figured I should be cautious on one spin of what's basically high-calorie ear candy to me. B+(***)

Grinderman: Grinderman 2 (2010, Anti-): Nick Cave group, formed for eponymous first album in 2007, back for second, as simple as that. Last one had a howler monkey on the cover; this one has a wolf. Somehow I got scared off Cave long ago -- Christgau has reported he's one of the worst live acts ever, and routinely slams his records as duds when he bothers with them at all -- so I've missed virtually everything, but I did check out the first Grinderman, found he has a real knack for rock hooks if you don't pay too much attention to what he does with them. This started OK, slopped around, then fell apart. When he sings about evil, he sounds, well, evil. When he doesn't, he's not without talent. B-

Roky Erickson: True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010, Anti-): Many sources co-credit this to Okkervil River, but AMG doesn't -- can't see the cover clearly -- and they do credit all the songs to Erickson. They're a competent countryish band, and that's most likely a big step up for the legendary songwriter of Texas psychedelica. When he sings about evil it's metaphorical, countered with devotionals and scattered with sound fragments, but mostly mellowed out. Seems like an album that might grow on you, slowly for sure. B+(**)

Jack Rose: Luck in the Valley (2009 [2010], Thrill Jockey): Solo guitarist, in the folk tradition of John Fahey and/or Leo Kottke -- can't quite tell. Dropped dead of an apparent heart attack at 38 shortly after cutting this session. Originals are hard to figure, with lots of overtones. The covers (3 of 10) at least give him a framework to differentiate from -- interesting "St. Louis Blues," flat-out enjoyable "West Coast Blues" (Blind Blake). B+(*)

Let's Wrestle: In the Court of the Wrestling Let's (2009 [2010], Merge): English alt-rock band, principally someone named Wesley Patrick Gonzalez. Saw a comment likening this to the Buzzcocks, but reminds me more of the goofball wing of punk -- groups like the Rezillos. Could be funnier, catchier, rawer, less inclined to pun on King Crimson, but I find it charming anyway. B+(**)

Junip: Fields (2010, Mute): Swedish group, led by yet another Jose Gonzalez. Extremely laid back ersatz Americana -- think of the Vulgar Boatmen, then slow the tempo and cut the volume. B

Gonjasufi: A Sufi and a Killer (2010, Warp): The artist also known as Sumach Ecks, if artist is the right word. Remarkably annoying shit. C-

Liars: Sisterworld (2010, Mute): Fifth album since 2001, staring as a post-punk band, although by now they're so muted and compromised it's hard to describe them at all. C+

Billy Jenkins: Born Again (2010, VOTP): Another straight blues album, at least as straight as Jenkins gets. His laments are skewed and crazed; guitar too, but the latter with its odd notes and twists is more wondrous. One thing Jenkins' blues sensibility lacks is a sense of being alone: he surrounds himself not just with a band but with a community that pops up on the cover -- his Trio Blues Suburbia shows well more than a conventional trio -- and in the extra vocals. B+(**)

Jaga Jazzist: One-Armed Bandit (2010, Ninja Tune): Norwegian band, non-vocal, AMG lists it as jazz first, electronica second, and suggests acid jazz. I filed it under pop jazz, which is my catchall for various fusion strains as well as the smooth shit. This carries a beat and keeps it tight -- the drums could just as well be experimental rock, but the horns steer it back. (The only member I recognize is trumpet player Matthias Eick.) Fifth album since 1996; first I've heard. Solid group, escaping all the ruts this kind of music is prone to. B+(**)

Jónsi: Go (2010, XL): Singer-guitarist for Sigur Rós, an Icelandic group I've never got around to checking out, now on "indefinite hiatus." Pixie falsetto voice, very upbeat, hard to dislike although not much sticks. B+(*)

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010, Roc-A-Fella): No doubt I'll own this before this note is published, but couldn't think of anything I'd rather check out. More rap than his last one (808s and Heartbreak), the narrower vocal focus forcing him to sharpen up those rhymes, which he does. Haven't heard a smash hit yet, but the one including the line "no more drugs for me/pussy and religion is all I need" is pretty close, and nothing is very far. Wouldn't be surprised if this bum rushes the polls. Could even get some sympathy votes now that GWB has singled him out as the black person he cares enough about to hate -- even before that song about "a rapist called freedom." A- [later: A]

Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday (2010, Universal Motown): Debut record, after some mixtapes and a lot of networking, including a shot on Kanye West's record that he returns with interest here. If anything, this is sharper beatwise, and she steps up to every challenge, even when all it takes is playing along. A-

Twista: The Perfect Storm (2010, Get Gang Money): Chicago rapper, Carl Terrell Mitchell, has been cranking records out since 1991 (Runnin' Off at Da Mouth, credited to Tung Twista). Speed raps, machine gun beats, gangsta poses, a sense of humor. Not perfect, but kicks up plenty of dust. B+(***)

Chilly Gonzales: Ivory Tower (2010, Arts & Crafts): Keyboard player, beat mixer, raps (or speaks) a little, previously released records as Gonzales, including from 2000 Gonzales Über Alles. Given name seems to be Jason Charles Beck, born in Canada, residing in Paris. Mixed bag of beat pieces, raps work when they're funny (about half the time). Choice cut: "Never Stop." B+(*)

Girls: Broken Dreams Club (2010, True Panther Sounds, EP): Six leisurely songs, 30:07, which nowadays counts as an EP, and probably means a price break. I've always questioned the utility of EPs, which is about my only reservation here. The first track, "The Oh So Protective One," starts off ripping off "Under the Boardwalk," then works through other borrowings before emerging on its own. The title track is a blue-eyed soul master stroke which doesn't flaunt those blue eyes. B+(***)

Kesha: Cannibal (2010, RCA, EP): Nine cuts, including a remix of the title cut from her previous album (Animal), total 31:58, another marketing move to make more of less -- almost exactly the same sequence of moves as Lady Gaga's album then EP, including the deluxe double that combines the two. I never spent enough time with Gaga to get past the blemishes, but Kesha's are more superficial and opportunistic, like the $ in the middle of her name. Only thing I didn't like here was the gaudy remix, which cost the record at least a point. B+(*)

Eskmo (2010, Ninja Tune): Brendan Angelides. AMG says he's been recording as Eskmo for ten years but only lists this one record. First two-thirds are soundscapes that often sound underwater, fractured refractions, except they hang together better than that description. Toward the end a voice or voices emerge, which don't help the sound and will take more effort to determine whether they add something on their own. Might be worth it. B+(***)

The Black Eyed Peas: The Beginning (2010, Interscope): Feels like they're trying to assemble a tidy little groove concept album, everything subtly interlinked with nothing gaudy standing out. Which means this might be the sort of album that could grow on you, but they've never thought that far ahead before. Last record, The END, with the acronym standing for Energy Never Dies, smacked out hit after hit, nothing subtle about it. This has its share of sureshots, but the energy level is subdued -- not dead, of course, but attenuated and diffused. B+(**)

Major Lazer: Lazers Never Die (2010, Interscope, EP): Not ready for a second album, just a 5-cut -- 3 of them remixes -- quickie. Same jumpy dancehall dub, fun while it lasts, which isn't long (23:04, to be exact). B+(*)

John Grant: Queen of Denmark (2010, Bella Union): Singer-songwriter from Colorado, former frontman of the Czars, a band that cut five albums from 1997 to 2006 without me ever taking notice of them. His debut solo, however, is Mojo's pick as the best record of the year 2010, and it's scoring well on other UK lists while being generally ignored stateside -- maybe that has something to do with queens (and/or Scott Walker). Much of this is too ornate for my taste, but it generally has an ingratiating charm, only rarely cloying. The bigotry song "Jesus Hates F*gg*ts" stands out, not that I'm sure the extra gusto is such a good idea. B

Shad: TSOL (2010, Decon): Canadian rapper, b. 1982 in Kenya, parents from Rwanda, a few years younger than K'Naan, spends less time looking back. Christgau's Expert Witness CG returned with two obvious albums in the first post (MIA, Arcade Fire), then two obscure ones in the second (this one and what seemed to me like just another average Tricky album). In my list research, I bumped into this one a couple of times without it registering: Urb gave it a favorable review (the only one I noted), and it was on the short list for Canada's Polaris Music Prize (the only rap record, ultimately won by Karkwa's Les Chemins de verre, the first French record to win in a nation sensitive to that sort of thing). One of the year's better rap records -- beats, flow, brains, decent attitude. Makes me wonder about his previous albums. Been wondering anyway about a handful of Canadian rappers I haven't heard from in a few years. A-

Shad: The Old Prince (2007, Black Box): A little looser than the new one, which makes it easier to follow the rhymes. And the rhymes are consistently interesting -- maybe a bit too much Jesus but I get no sense that that's a problem. Not sure if this is better than the new one, or just more accessible, but it's a close match. A-

Robyn: Body Talk (2010, Konichiwa/Cherrytree/Interscope): Sweden's latest disco sensation, recycled from last decade's Swedish teen pop star. Her business plan called for three EPs this year -- a constant flow of product, priced cheap but still padded with filler. The first two were pretty good teasers, and I predicted on hearing the first one that someday the inexorable logic of capitalism would cut three superfluous EPs down into one pretty good album. But capitalism is working quicker than expected: Body Talk Pt. 3 has been sidelined to download-only status, so there's no more wating for the prize. Better than I expected: fifteen songs, some already iconic, many more well on their way. A [cd]

Freddie Gibbs: Str8 Killa (2010, Decon, EP): From Gary, IN; based in Southern California. Built some cred on mixtapes, then dropped this 35:20 EP. Underground beats with gangsta brio, except on a couple of cuts that flirt with reggae. B+(*)


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

  • Fefe Dobson: Joy (21 Music)
  • The Fugs: Be Free: The Fugs Final CD, Pt. II (Kindred Rhythm)
  • Jamie Lidell: Compass (Warp)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Badfinger: Magic Christian Music (1969 [2010], Captiol): From Wales, originally called the Iveys, replicated the Beatles as formula and got a lot of flack for the imitation and the flattery, although they sound legit enough today -- I'm reminded that when Sonny Stitt was taunted for imitating Bird, he stuck his alto sax in the assailant's face and said, "here, let's see you imitate Bird." Actually, it was just Paul they were following, from the Rigby-ish posh of "Beautiful and Blue" to the soft-shoed Little Richard act of "Rock of All Ages," and their reward was "Come and Get It," a song McCartney wrote for the movie Magic Christian which gave them their first hit and the marketing concept for their non-soundtrack. Scoff if you like, but this is better than most of the albums Paul released in the following decade. And it's grown harder to dismiss the band as opportunists. They were never more than moderately successful, their profits lost and stolen; before long the two key members committed suicide. B+(*)

Badfinger: No Dice (1970 [2010], Capitol): Their best-selling album reveals them to be a remarkably ordinary band, straightforward rockers with occasional pop hooks; "No Matter What" was the semi-hit single, but "Without You" is the one I recall, more likely from Harry Nilsson's cover than from Mariah Carey's, but I could have heard it here; interesting that the bonus tracks (mostly demos) sound so much fresher than the studio tracks. B

Badfinger: Straight Up (1971 [2010], Capitol): Charted about as well as No Dice, with the group's last two top-20 singles -- "Day After Day" and "Baby Blue" (I don't remember them either and worse, didn't recognize them); the Beatles shine has mostly washed off, leaving them more ordinary than ever. B-

Badfinger: Ass (1972-73 [2010], Capitol): Last album on Apple, starts with a kiss-off called "Apple of My Eye" ("Oh I'm sorry but it's time to move away") which had to suffice for the single; period bands in similar straits invented pub rock in England and lazy cowboy rock in LA, but here all you get is the quandry. C+

Mary Hopkin: Post Card (1969 [2010], Capitol): Paul McCartney's first label find, a Welsh folkie who found an inevitable hit in Gene Raskin's Russian-derived "Those Were the Days" among a passel of covers ranging from Irving Berlin to Donovan to Welsh folk songs; love the hit, but these days what it reminds me of is Norman Finkelstein closing his documentary remembering it as more timeless than it was. B

Mary Hopkin: Earth Song / Ocean Song (1971 [2010], Capitol): Her sophomore effort has less obvious covers which she handles with greater assurance and aplomb, over simple folkie arrangements, sort of a cross between Cat Stevens (who she covers) and Joni Mitchell (who she sometimes sounds like); also her last album for Apple, practically the end of her career at age 21. B+(*)

Jackie Lomax: Is This What You Want? (1969 [2010], Capitol): English singer-songwriter, considered a soul man because he over-emotes as if that's what makes Joe Cocker (let alone Otis Redding) one; missed one wave after another until old chum George Harrison produced this album, with three Beatles, Eric Clapton, Nicky Hopkins, and Klaus Voorman in the ordinary-sounding band. C

The Modern Jazz Quartet: Under the Jasmin Tree/Space (1967-69 [2010], Capitol): Apple records only foray into jazz was to release these two short LPs which now fit smartly onto a single disc; MJQ played elegant chamber bebop, Milt Jackson vibes swinging over John Lewis piano, nothing to distinguish this from their other records except a little more jangle in the rhythm section. B

Billy Preston: That's the Way God Planned It (1969 [2010], Capitol): Flamboyant funk/gospel keyboard player, played with the Beatles on Abbey Road and Let It Be and with the Stones on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. and plenty more -- King Curtis to Stephen Stills to Aretha Franklin to Barbra Streisand to Joe Cocker to Quincy Jones to Peter Frampton, with close to 30 albums under his own name; useful guy, but reminds you of people who are clearly better, and doesn't produce enough songs where his weaknesses don't matter -- "What About You" is one. B+(*)

Billy Preston: Encouraging Words (1970 [2010], Capitol): He couldn't resist getting first crack at George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" even though he's totally inappropriate for it -- got a hit single nonetheless, but it drags down the middle of what is otherwise a good-natured funk album. B

Keith Richards: Vintage Vinos (1988-92 [2010], Mindless): Draws from his 1988 and 1992 solo albums, with a few cuts from a 1991 live set, slapped together to coast in the wake of his autobiography; the original stuff wasn't good enough for even a substandard lackadaisical Rolling Stones album, and the Stones songs from the live set have been played by a better band. B-

Elliott Smith: An Introduction to Elliott Smith (1994-2003 [2010], Kill Rock Stars): Singer-songwriter, developed a small cult following in the 1990s, surrendered to depression and drugs, was working on a lousy comeback album when he was stabbed in the chest, a probable suicide -- a career arc which brings up parallels with English folkie Nick Drake; this slices up seven albums, some of which seemed promising at the time, without finding a single indelible track, so maybe he is, indeed, best forgotten. B

John Tavener: The Whale/Celtic Requiem (1970-71 [2010], Capitol): British composer, filed under classical but Apple released his first two LPs, short enough they fit on one disc here; The Whale starts with an anatomy lecture before the music overwhelms it, turning churchly with the Requiem, too much moaning, or worse in a cut called "The Vomiting"; not, uh, my kind of thing. C-

James Taylor (1968 [2010], Capitol): Apple's most successful discovery -- the best would have been Delaney & Bonnie had they bothered to released the album, but Taylor outsold and outlasted them. He led a generation of laid-back singer-songwriters who were rock-identified mostly by generation, and for critics like Lester Bangs he all but personified evil -- a threat that nowadays is so far estranged from reality it's hard to understand why anyone gave a shit. He certainly didn't -- something that even Bangs came to grudgingly respect. First album is tuneful, sloppy, overblown, perverse in ways that remind me of Paul McCartney although it was produced by Peter Asher, on his way to becoming the Mitch Miller of the 1970s. B-

Doris Troy (1970, Capitol): Co-wrote and recorded one of the best hit singles of 1963, "Just One Look," a one-shot that got her this one-shot album (and in 1972-74 two more on Polydor); nothing miraculous here, just a strong, confident soul singer, and a studio band that's long on guitar and short on horns; the bonus cuts hold up fine. B+(**)

Come and Get It: The Best of Apple Records (1968-73 [2010], Capitol): If the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, it only stood to reason that they could have their way with EMI. So they launched their own label, Apple Records, in 1968, and for a while dabbled in promoting other acts beyond their flagship product. This avoids the collective and former Beatles (not to mention Yoko Ono), although they do slip in covers and soundalikes -- three cuts by their most successful client group, Badfinger (originally the Iveys). Otherwise, a couple of notable singles, a bunch of indifferent crap, and a suppressed novelty, "King of Fuh" by Brute Force (typical lyric, oft repeated: "all hail the Fuh king"). B-

Yes We Can: Songs About Leaving Africa (2010, Out Here): Don't know when these pieces were recorded, but the preponderence of rap suggests that they are recent, tales of hope and fear in an African diaspora driven not by slavery but by the quest for freedom; the one name I recognize is Somali-Canadian rapper K'Naan, who sets a fine standard. A-

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting: