Rhapsody Streamnotes: December 10, 2011

Shortest monthly take all year -- 31 records below, vs. 36 in April, 43 in July, 45, 46, 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 59 in August, 110 in two sets back in January in what was clearly an excess of year-end mop-up. Don't really know why I collected so few this month. I slipped behind a bit in my metacritic file research, and I've been a bit less pro-active in chasing down well-reviewed albums of no real personal interest -- My Morning Jacket, Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, for instance, currently in the 48-52 range, although the only record above that level I haven't heard or searched for on Rhapsody was the Foo Fighters. This month I mostly looked for things I was curious about -- e.g., 12 of the 31 albums are hip-hop, with most of the rest either electronica or alt-country.

Wussy, by the way, appeared on my hard drive thanks to a mystery donor. I wasn't hip enough to snag a copy of Funeral Dress II, which both Christgau and Tatum have raved about recently. In fact, I only decided that original Funeral Dress is worthwhile in Recycled Goods this week, and still have reservations about their second and third albums. Still, I've never had the problems with them I have with Tune-Yards (see the remake/remodel section below). One story I didn't manage to work in below is that 6-9 months ago I went to a poetry slam bar here in Wichita and they had a young woman singer do a set. As I recall, she was from Springfield, MO, and working her way to Portland, OR, but I don't recall the name -- had one self-released album I should have requested. She was doing the exact same thing Merrill Garbus is noted for: singing or playing (mostly druming) fragments into a sampler which would be repeated as her rhythmic backup. Interesting, I thought; don't have any idea how common that is. But from where I sat the distance between Garbus and nobody wasn't that great.

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 9. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Arthur's Landing: Arthur's Landing (2011, Strut): A tribute to post-disco maven Arthur Russell, by a group assembled from his former associates -- Russell died in 1992 -- playing many of his songs. Has a singer-songwriter feel while playing, but is swept up in enough flow that it has a dance afterglow -- not sure how they managed that trick. Russell has long been a SFFR for me, but I've never managed the time or the opportunity. This is an oblique approach: I'm not sure where it leaves me, but it's been an interesting ride. B+(**)

Astronautalis: This Is Our Science (2011, Fake Four): Andy Bothwell, originally from Jacksonville, moved to Minneapolis, which I guess is what underground white rappers do these days. Fourth album. Music broadens out into alt-rock territory, even keying off piano, and trends from spoken to sung, not a fatal flaw but losing the sharp sting of the rap. B+(*)

Danny Barnes: Rocket (2011, ATO/Red): Banjo player for the Bad Livers in the 1990s, has accumulated nine solo albums since 1999. I thought his previous Pizza Box showed promise, but this just sort of meanders aimlessly: not enough banjo for folk, not enough twang for country, not even sure what to do with the poison. All originals except for "Bang a Gong (Get It On)," which won't win him any friends in Nashville. B

Childish Gambino: Camp (2011, Glassnote): Donald Glover, born on an Air Force base in California, first or fourth album depending on who's counting what -- downloads mostly, mixes, what not. This connects often enough I wonder if there isn't more to it, but certainly nothing that can be sorted out quickly. Closes with a 7:42 talkie "That Power" that could be a different person, certainly a different persona. B+(*)

Kelly Clarkson: Stronger (2011, RCA): I've never watched more than a couple minutes of American Idol and I've never taken any of its annointed stars seriously, but this is her fifth album, so why not? Actually, pretty solid pop sound, big ballads and some upside on the upbeat. Unfortunately, "The War Is Over" isn't true, and the title track is a hack cliché, also untrue. B

Dessa: Castor, the Twin (2011, Doomtree): Margret Wander, Minnesota rapper, got her degrees in philosophy and has a lit angle on hip-hop rhymes. Previous album, A Badly Broken Code, wound up on my 2010 P&J ballot. This one's giving me a bit more trouble, probably because it is mostly sung, the words gently curved rather than slammed down. B+(**)

Doomtree: No Kings (2011, Doomtree): Minneapolis hip-hop collective, several MCs with albums I've previously noticed: P.O.S., Sims, Dessa. Second studio album (fifth according to AMG). Starts with hard guitar, mostly living there, very rockish sound. Dessa stands out, not least because she provides the most contrast; maybe also the most brains. B+(*)

Drake: Take Care (2011, Universal Republic): Aubrey Drake Graham, parlayed an underground vibe and attitude, or maybe just Canadian good manners, into a huge hit a year ago, winning him the budget to open up, and take up the major issues of our times, like bitches -- and, as Jim DeRogatis points out, "a whole lot of whining about the tax burden required of the one percent." And to quantify "whole lot": 79:49. B-

Florence + the Machine: Ceremonials (2011, Universal Republic): British rock singer Florence Welch, has pipes like Grace Slick and finally has a machine like Paul Kantner only dreamed of. I was prepared to be as unimpressed as I was by her Lungs and certainly don't feel any desire to be sucked into this, but for overwrought arena rock this is actually as neatly organized as it is orchestrated. B+(*)

G-Side: Island (2011, Slow Motion Soundz): Hip-hop duo from Alabama, Stephan Harris (ST 2 Lettaz) and David Williams (Yung Clova). Fifth album, most digital only, including an earlier one from this year (The One . . . Cohesive) I haven't been able track down. Some Southern grit, but always sharp and tight. A-

Chris Isaak: Beyond the Sun (2011, Vanguard): Roots rocker, always influenced first and foremost by rockabilly, so 27 years after his debut album one can't fault him for making the hajj to Memphis and applying his warm voice to a couple dozen tunes associated with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and most of all Elvis Presley. Available in a 14-cut standard edition, or in a "Deluxe Edition" with an 11-cut extra disc. Not strictly Sun -- for Orbison, he goes to "Oh, Pretty Woman." The extra is excess, of course, but so is the initial disc, and he's consistent enough I'd be inclined to grade both configurations the same. B

Etta James: The Dreamer (2011, Verve Forecast): Diagnosed with Alzheimers, suffering from leukemia, this is billed as her last album, but it's remarkably solid all around -- she's in strong voice, in her production element, covering songs from her early (and mostly departed) contemporaries. If it seems a bit haughty, that's her trademark. B+(**)

Joy Kills Sorrow: This Unknown Science (2011, Signature Sounds): Boston folk group, third album, Bridget Kearney sings, or is it Emma Beaton? -- the combination threatens to flutter, if not soar, away. String band backing -- banjo, mandolin -- can sound ordinary then special. B+(**)

Korallreven: An Album by Korallreven (2011, Acephale): Swedish synthpop group, long on the synths which pick up the slack when they run out of things to say, much as they pumped up the beat when their words flittered about meaninglessly. B+(**)

Kuedo: Severant (2011, Planet Mu): Jamie Teasdale, also works with Roly Porter in dubstep duo Vex'd. Electronics, bright and shimmering, shapely forms. Hard to see much more in them, least of all when adding vocals. B+(*)

M83: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (2011, Mute, 2CD): Synthpop group from France. Over the top in so many directions maybe their world really is flat. B

Mac Miller: Blue Slide Park (2011, Rostrum): Malcolm McCormick, from Pittsburgh, white, Jewish even (via his mom), still in his teens, which means he isn't legal to do anything he exalts in "Up All Night" -- the most exuberant drinking song I've ever heard, informed, no doubt, by sheer fantasy. That song breaks out ten in, and the album makes a turn toward more intersting after that. B+(***)

Ana Moura: Coliseu (2008 [2011], World Village): Portuguese fadista, under 30 at the time but has the robust voice and stature to carry the tradition. Live performance, predates last year's Leva-me aos Fados -- seems original release in Europe was on DVD, then converted here to an audio disc for US release, but I'm unsure of all that. Seemed a bit constrained at first, but grew on me cut by cut. B+(**)

Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers: Starlight Hotel (2011, Signature Sounds): Countryish singer and band from Seattle, second outing after a self-released eponymous thing. Not a lot of chops, but the easy gait is infectious, and the songs have substance and gain stature. If Merle Haggard ever gets too worn down to write his own songs, he could make do with "Tired Worker's Song." B+(***)

9th Wonder: The Wonder Years (2011, Traffic Entertainment): Patrick Douthit, from North Carolina, made his mark as a producer, which comes through here in the weird smorgasbord of squiggly effects backing a score of guests -- Terrace Martin shows up on three cuts, Phonte on two, more singletons I've heard of than ones I haven't, but instead of canceling one another out they help keep it fresh. A-

Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica (2011, Software): Daniel Lopatin, seems to prefer vintage synths although there are bits of piano mixed in here that work as well as anything. Sixth album; his fifth, Returnal, got a lot of attention in 2010 (but not on Rhapsody). This one too, but it's too scattered and too fractured to win me over in two plays. B+(***)

Bill Orcutt: How the Thing Sings (2011, Editions Mego): Miami guitarist, came up in bands like Trash Monkeys and Harry Pussy, cut a Solo CD in 1996 and offers another one here -- well, I missed an earlier one this year. Tends to hit his lead chord hard, then diddle it a bit, sometimes getting a blues effect, often something sourer. Some vocals -- groans and grunts, anyway, or was that me? C+

Phonte: Charity Starts at Home (2011, HBD): Phonte Coleman, formerly of Little Brother, then the Foreign Exchange, goes solo. Underground beats, critiques, sentiments, worth following and pondering. Has some upside potential, but hasn't really sunk in yet. One side turn into song strikes me as the sort of amateur failing one could fall for. B+(***)

Pusha T: Fear of God II: Let Us Pray (2011, Decon): Terrence Thornton, been around as half of Clipse, with a few good albums, a whole mess of mixtapes I haven't heard. Dumped the first volume/revision of Fear of God out as a download earlier in the year but I figure this as his solo debut. Big beats, flashy guests, Neptunes hooks, fishscale by the kilo, selling hard if you care. B+(**)

Rihanna: Talk That Talk (2011, Def Jam): R&B diva from Barbados, sixth album since 2005. She gets the usual help with a massive phalanx of writer, producers, and featured guests, mostly cancelling each other out. Not bad at all: she's pretty much hit her plateau. B+(**)

Rocket From the Tombs: Barfly (2011, Fire): Mid-1970s Cleveland band formed by soon-dead rock critic Peter Laughner ("Life Stinks!") and croaky vocalist Crocus Behemoth (David Thomas) before evolving into Pere Ubu. Their 1974-75 demos finally surfaced in 2002, leading to some sort of reunion, a new album in 2004 (Rocket Redux), and now another. Laughner, of course, is still dead, but guitarists Richard Lloyd (ex-Television) and Gene O'Connor (aka Cheetah Chrome, ex-Dead Boys) had nothing better to do. Thomas sounds a bit arthritic, or maybe just anemic, but he rings true, and they found some horns. B+(*)

The Roots: Undun (2011, Def Jam): Released Dec. 6, I figured this as the last best hope for a crossover hip-hop album to storm the year-end lists like Kanye West did last year -- not that they came close with either of their last two albums. Reportedly a conceptual song suite, the title from Guess Who, samples from Sufjan Stevens, a guest list that tantalizes me more with D.D. Jackson than with Bilal. A couple pieces live up to their plateau, but I lost track even before "Redford Suite" got lost in string la-la-land. B+(**)

Rustie: Glass Swords (2011, Warp): Russell Whyte, from Scotland; AMG calls this left-field, hip-hop, IDM, dubstep. I'm more tempted to call it garish, glitzy, gauche. Album cover looks like a 1980s exercise in ray tracing, but even then we were more concerned with using the technique to enhance realism than to just show off our equations. B

Tegan and Sara: Get Along (2011, Vapor): Canadian duo, twins actually; started folkie, which is to say low budget with songs not afraid of their words. After six albums, here's a live one, possibly a best-of -- don't know the originals but most of the songs register and merit the applause. B+(**)

Wussy: Strawberry (2011, Shake It): Alt-rock group from Cincinnati, fourth (or fifth) album, much beloved by Robert Christgau and his followers, present company skeptical. (The parenthetical delta is a live remake of their first album done as a limited edition which dropped out of print as soon as Christgau graded it A.) As alt-rock goes, they're a bit heavy for my taste, the vocals murky, lyrics indecipherable -- maybe just something with my ears. But they're co-led by a couple -- Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker -- and they get a slice of life feel out of that, with no real sense that one dominates or one fronts or both compete. I've heard the other albums (not the paren, unfortunately) but only bought one and never stuck with it long enough to get comfortable. Same here, but "Asteroid" is the first song I recognize a hook in, so maybe this is a breakthrough. A- [dl]

Yelawolf: Radioactive (2011, Shady): Michael Wayne Atha, white trash from the Dirty South, had a couple mixtapes with one remixed for released by Interscope last year. Looks like the reviews likening him to Eminem landed him on the Shady label, with at least one song credit to Mathers -- although he also ropes in Kid Rock. Like Eminem he goes big and flashy, copping more rock than r&b motifs, but neither his flow nor his persona breaks through. His radio play is shameless; his anthem "Slumerican Shitizen" is as ignorant as it sounds. B+(*)


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

  • Coldplay: Mylo Xyloto (Capitol)
  • Faust: Something Dirty (Bureau B)
  • Giant Sand: Blurry Blue Mountain (2010, Fire)
  • Luomo: Plus (Moodmusic)
  • Lou Reed & Metallica: Lulu (Warner Brothers)
  • Tom Waits: Bad as Me (Anti-)
  • Wussy: Funeral Dress II (Shake It)
  • Zola Jesus: Conatus (Sacred Bones)

Also, from way back:

Revised Grades

Sometimes further listening leads me to change an initial grade, usually either because I move on to a real copy, or because someone else's review or list makes me want to check it again:

Ry Cooder: Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (2011, Nonesuch): In September I played this, noted some good politics (though I was dismayed over the white folks' lament, "Lord Tell Me Why") but found it overall too messy, too half-baked, concluding "just isn't a very good record." On the other hand, Christgau stuck with it and, after decades grouching about Cooder's Cuban and African forays, rated this above every Cooder record since Paradise and Lunch. I begged a copy and got comfortable with it. Cooder's folk songs are anything but anthemic -- "this land should have been our land" but isn't; hell, "if there's still a God in heaven He's got to hit that lonesome road." Cooder's Tex-Mex has matured a lot since Chicken Skin Music, and he's gotten old and bitter enough to pawn a John Lee Hooker impression. [was: B] A- [cd]

Tune-Yards: Whokill (2011, 4AD): Seems like everyone I follow loves Merrill Garbus, not to mention enough people I don't know to make it a leading Pazz & Jop poll contender. But I didn't make much sense out of her first (Bird-Brains) nor this one -- feeling inadequate to the task, I graded it leniently (suggesting "at best she's like a real American Tom Zé"), hoping to score a copy and figure it out later. But I never did, finally going back to Rhapsody to recheck it and see whether an extra play (or two) would make a breakthrough. As it happened, I was thumbing through Christgau's old Creem CGs and found this -- perhaps the worst one he's ever published, but almost exactly what I was feeling: "I find this record baffling because I'm a critic. For critics, it is an article of faith that one can be baffled by a record -- which is to say, it is an article faith that all music can be analyzed, or anyway, puzzled out. I'm trying to right now -- it's my nature. Not only doesn't [X] agree -- most musicians don't -- but he proves his point, or would if proof were one of his categories. It isn't. The discipline his uniquely aural world requires is technical, not logical or even conceptual, and technically it's unexceptionable." Garbus has some interesting technical tricks but the songs are hit and miss, alternatively attractive and repulsive in a way that adds up to disinterest -- her deepest thought seems to be: "there is a freedom in violence that I don't understand"; on the other hand, her catchiest refrain goes: "I'm a victim now/don't take my life away." I reckon that beats "I'm a survivor," but not by much, a difference that may intrigue a real critic but which I find myself increasingly shying away from. By the way, the last album that made me feel this way was Maxinquaye. On the other hand, I can't say that Christgau's conundrum ever puzzled me in the least: Stevie Wonder, Innervisions. [Was: B+(***)] B+(*)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Eddy Current Suppression Ring: So Many Things (2003-04 [2011], Goner): Odds and sods collection from an Australian punk band first championed by a fortuitously flattered Chuck Eddy -- I always figured a piece of esoteric electronics, but further research indicates that the guitarist is named Eddy Current and the singer is Brendan Suppression. (The bassist is accurately Rob Solid, the drummer Danny Current.) They got the basic sound perfect from the start, and stick close for the two years of thrashing here -- 22 songs, 71:29, only two covers, including a winning "We Got the Beat." A-

El Rego: El Rego (1966-70s [2011], Daptone): Singles cut from 1966 on into the early 1970s by Theophile Do Rego, a James Brown wannabe from Dahomey born in 1936; this compilation puts him close the the roots of Afro-funk while still working in song forms with only one crossing the 4-minute mark. B+(**)

Gorillaz: The Singles Collection 2001-2011 (2001-11 [2011], Virgin): Virtual hip-hop group, where Jamie Hewlett's graphics front for a pool of not-quite-anonymous music talents -- Dan Nakamura, Damon Albarn, Miho Hatori, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and various others (although Wikipedia only lists Albarn and Hewlett). Whenever I've sampled their five albums plus ephemera they seemed vacuous, but suitably concentrated they are tolerably amusing -- especially when I flash back on Dan the Automator, the main talent wasted here. B+(*)

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt (1996, Roc-A-Fella): First shot, hard and cold, a discipline that would work for him even when he's sliding, which this being his first shot he dares not do; the spare beats conserve budget and set him off, rarely forcing a rhyme, gradually building to a stride where he takes delight in his label name, rubbing your nose in it. A-

Jay-Z: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997, Roc-A-Fella): Second album, first of three numbered volumes, showcases his business acumen starting with his insights into how the rap game matches up with the crack game; beats steady, not flashy, even when enveloped in background vocals and stray gunshots he keeps it simple -- his preferred term may be real. B+(***)

Jay-Z: Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life (1998, Roc-A-Fella): Third album: title cut isn't a joke but is a bit too cute; beyond that his business sense moves from analogies between crack and rap toward mining the former for material, a sign of desperation or compacency -- couldn't just be laziness; looks sharp on the cover, his hard knocks clearly behind him. B+(**)

Jay-Z: The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002, Roc-A-Fella): Having never warmed to Z's 2001 The Blueprint, I have no recollection of what this sequel's relationship is, but I suspect the gift is Z's talent for credible flow and the curse is the need to keep fresh product rolling off the assembly line; still, the sheer length is impressive, even achieved by force, more rapid fire than when he was coming up, but less wasted ammo. B+(**)

Jay-Z: The Black Album (2003, Roc-A-Fella): Concise and to the point for once, with a story line that brings him from a painless ten pounds to the top of the rap game, the life he chose, not that chose him; strangely enough, when this came out I only heard him over Danger Mouse's Beatles rips, but given the choice I'd take Z's crack beats in a moment. A-

Jay-Z: Kingdom Come (2006, Roc-A-Fella): Bumped up to Def Jam CEO, nominally retired -- barely raising a blip in his discography, or a speed up if you count joint efforts with Linkin Park and R. Kelly -- not that he has much riding on this; on the other hand, post-Katrina, he has things to weight in on. B+(**)

Jay-Z: The Hits Collection, Volume One (1998-2009 [2010], Def Jam/Roc Nation): Third or fourth such compilation, all promising more volumes, no second volumes yet. I count five top-10s here, including features for Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Kanye West and Rihanna, so only two of his own leads -- "Izzo (HOVA)" and "Show Me What You Got" -- but he's an album guy: three cuts each from The Black Album and The Blueprint 3; none from his striking debut. Some stuff I'd pick, some I'd skip, leans harder than I'd like on the noise -- someone must think those are party anthems. B+(**)

The Klezmatics: Brother Moses Smote the Water (2004 [2005], Piranha): Looking for the klezmer group's recent Live at Town Hall, I stumbled across this "Live in Berlin" special with black Jewish gospel singer Joshua Nelson and fellow traveler Kathryn Farmer providing a robust gospel fusion on old testament anthems -- all trad. except for the one by Sam Cooke; I'd prefer less fire and brimstone, and for that matter more Yiddish. B

Mates of State: Team Boo (2003, Polyvinyl): Husband/wife group, Kori Gardner on keybs, Jason Hammel on drums, both sing; met in Lawrence, KS in 1997, and moved to San Francisco the following year, with seven albums since then; this early one catches them at their cheesiest, lots of organ, songs about what it takes to get through the night. B+(*)

Mates of State: Re-Arrange Us (2008, Barsuk): Songcraft much improved, both structure and hooks, and the piano adds stature where the organ merely kicked it along; upbeat, suspiciously happy, not least with each other; don't know why I don't find them more appealing -- perhaps a bit too bulked up. B+(**)

Wussy: Funeral Dress (2005, Shake It): The first of five Christgau-rated grade A albums, a level of affection that cannot be gleaned from one or two or probably a half-dozen plays, in that it must be personal because it sure isn't formal. Chuck Cleaver was in a 1990-2000 group called the Ass Ponys, producing moderately catchy, somewhat grungy alt-rock. Lisa Walker joins him as a second, but by no means second, guitar, voice, and brain, plus they have a bassist who plays more than that and a drummer who hangs in there. I've sampled a couple of their later records, admired them respectfully without ever feeling the need to get engaged. Probably would have helped had I started here, mostly because Walker is so much more out front, but either way they take a lot of work. I'm told they're worth it. A-

Wussy: Rigor Mortis (2008, Shake It, EP): Four studio cuts plus three live ones, the title cut appearing twice, adds up to 24:44; dense and relatively hard for me to follow, but the energy is palpable, as are the "blood and guts." B+(**)

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting:

Sřren Kjaergaard/Ben Street/Andrew Cyrille: Femklang (2011, ILK): Pianist, b. 1978 in Denmark; co-founded the label, has a dozen or so albums since 2001. This is the third with Street (bass) and Cyrille (drums). B+(**)

Matthew Shipp/Joe Morris: Broken Partials (2010 [2011], Not Two): Piano-bass duo. Shipp is one of the few pianists I can follow all the way down to solo, probably because his attack remains so sharp, but also the flow of his lines makes sense. Morris is best known as a guitarist, but is warm and supportive on bass, and shows more edge than I expected when he gets the lead. B+(***)

Sonore: Cafe Oto/London (2011, Trost): Free sax trio: Peter Brötzmann (alto/tenor sax, clarinet, tarogato), Ken Vandearmark (tenor sax, clarinet), Mats Gustafsson (baritone sax). Fourth album for group, although each has played with one or both of the others many times. Each wrote one piece; the fourth is jointly attributed, which usually means improvised on the spot. Even at 38:42 the noise can be wearing, especially since each horn has the same palette to draw from. B

Miguel Zenón: Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011, Marsalis Music): Alto saxophonist, MacArthur Fellowship genius, seventh album since 2002, third specifically targeting the music of his native Puerto Rico. Tremendous player, his sax repeatedly soaring above his fine quartet -- Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass), and Henry Cole (drums). I'm less pleased with the 10-piece wind ensemble conducted by Guillermo Klein -- flutes, clarinets, oboe, bassoon, both French and English horns -- that sometimes broadens the sound sweep and sometimes just warbles in the interstices. B+(***) [dl]


Everything streamed from Rhapsody, except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd (but made most sense to review here)
  • [bc] available at bandcamp.com
  • [dl] something I was able to download from the web; may be freely available, or may be a promo deal