Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Music Week

September archive (in progress).

Music: current count 32080 [32047] rated (+33), 227 [229] unrated (-2).

Held this back an extra day, as I couldn't quite get it together on time. Cutoff was late Sunday evening, after posting Weekend Roundup, so I've already got a jump on next week.

My listening was even more scattered than usual last week. My A-list finds all came so early that by weekend I forgot that I had any. I hoped Michael Tatum's new A Downloader's Diary -- his third this year after a prolonged lean patch, and his first since moving to Seattle -- would offer some major discoveries, but started with Blarf's Cease & Desist and found it really wasn't for me. Several other records impressed but didn't wow me. Two I had dismissed earlier got new spins, and minor grade upticks. Tatum's review of Purple Mountains is especially insightful, but describing the album as a "suicide note" doesn't do much to draw me in.

Tatum started writing his column in August, 2010, intent on filling in the void left by the second sacking of Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide (by MSN Music). Christgau rebooted at MSN in November 2010 with his Expert Witness blog, while Tatum continued his monthly columns into 2014 (skipping a couple along the way). I tried to help out by publishing (and archiving) his columns. In April 2014, he moved to Odyshape, ending later that year with a piece called The Pause Button. Since then, he's self-published (most recently at Medium), while I've intermittently updated the archive. After a couple thin years, he's made a strong return to form this year, with three columns so far. He's one of the sharpest and most lucid critics around, and deserves your readership and support.

Meanwhile, Christgau has been publishing his Expert Witness blog at Noisey, but that ended in June. With no new publisher forthcoming, Tatum might have had another hole to fill. But Christgau has come up with a new scheme to keep publishing new Consumer Guide capsule reviews. He's launching a subscriber newsletter, based on Substack, called And It Don't Stop. It will cost you $5/month to get a once-monthly batch of new reviews sent to your e-mailbox, plus there will be various extras -- he explains his plans here, in It's a Start. Subscribers will get their first batch of reviews delivered on Wednesday, September 18.

As you probably know, I built and maintain Christgau's website, with its database of 17,271 albums and 1,372 articles (or more, as that easy-to-find number is actually a subset). At some point (undecided at present) I'll add those new reviews and pieces to the website. This isn't fundamentally different from the various timelocks we've been using for years, where publishers insist that their payments merit a period of exclusivity. I don't have any real solutions here, but I do believe that we're all fortunate to have Christgau continuing to write for us. Subscribing helps.

Back to my list this week, aside from Tatum's picks, most of this week's records are things I became aware of feeding data into my metacritic list. I started this year's list by collecting mid-year lists, but then I made two discoveries/decisions: rank info in the lists wasn't very useful (most lists were unranked, and many were shorter than EOY lists so the scales didn't quite fit), so I just started counting references without any weighting; also, I found that I could rather easily supplement the lists with AOTY's ratings lists organized by publication, so I started adding those in (first for publications that didn't offer mid-year lists, eventually for nearly all non-metal sources), usually using 80+ as my standard (90+ for AMG and Exclaim!, where 80s are ultra-common). Thus, I've been able to pick up new records as they're released. The sampling is not as good for post-July records, but it gives newer records some recognition. Thus far, the top-rated August/September releases (points in front, my grades in brackets at end, just before that is the AOTY score and review count):

  1. [24] Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell (Polydor/Interscope) 85/28 [A-]
  2. [20] Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won't Hold (Mom + Pop) 76/29 [-]
  3. [18] Bon Iver: i,i (Jagjaguwar) 80/31 [-]
  4. [18] Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union) 79/24 [A-]
  5. [16] Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend (AMF) 84/19 [-]
  6. [16] The Hold Steady: Thrashing Thru the Passion (Frenchkiss) 75/20 [A-]
  7. [13] Charli XCX: Charli (Asylum) 79/20 [**]
  8. [13] Clairo: Immunity (Fader) 74/21 [***]
  9. [12] Blanck Mass: Animated Violence Mild (Sacred Bones) 79/20 [-]
  10. [12] The Murder Capital: When I Have Fears (Human Season) 86/14 [-]
  11. [11] (Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar (Domino) 83/14 [-]
  12. [11] Rapsody: Eve (Roc Nation) 86/7 [***]
  13. [10] Kano: Hoodies All Summer (Parlophone) 86/12 [-]
  14. [10] Shura: Forevher (Secretly Canadian) 79/18 [-]
  15. [10] Jay Som: Anak Ko (Polyvinyl) 79/20 [-]
  16. [10] Taylor Swift: Lover (Republic) 71/22 [***]
  17. [10] Tropical Fuck Storm: Braindrops (Joyful Noise) 77/14 [-]
  18. [9] Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee (Columbia) 85/4 [A-]
  19. [9] Sheer Mag: A Distant Call (Wilsuns) 76/11 [**]
  20. [9] Tool: Fear Inoculum (Volcano/RCA) 79/20 [-]

I'm most surprised that Saadiq has gotten so few reviews. I'm less bothered that Lana Del Rey's point total only places her album at 31. That's a structural problem due to the fact that more mid-year lists were counted than ratings. AOTY's 85 score for the album rates it at 17, with 28 reviews topped only in the top 100 by Sharon Van Etten's Remind Me Tomorrow (84/35), Thom Yorke's Anima (82/29), Bon Iver's i,i (80/31).

I'll note that two 1970s rockers died last week: Eddie Money and Rick Ocasek. The former never interested me much, but I had one of his compilations on my unrated list, so figured I should check it off. Tried looking on Napster before going to my shelves, and found a later 2-CD 35-song edition in place of my 1-CD 15-cut item, so I wound up reviewing both. Ocasek, of the Cars, was more important, but I didn't have any unfinished business with them, so didn't bother. Last one of their records I played was the Cars' 1985 Greatest Hits, giving it B+(**), which is about where I pegged their first two albums (both B+ in my database).

I did some work on the Jazz Guides last week. I still have some group albums to fold in -- I left them out of the first pass because they involve more cross-referencing -- but otherwise am up to date (through August). Current page counts: 1791 + 829.

One thing that slowed me down in getting this out was that I started writing up a postscript to Sunday's Weekend Roundup. Despite vowing not to slip down any rabbit holes, I had trouble doing that. Spent much of today figuring I would polish this up a bit, but didn't manage that either. For what it's worth, I wrote these further notes on Monday:

  • There was a breaking story that I barely touched on, but which may prove to be the week's most important. Start with: Everything we know about the Saudi oil attacks and the escalating crisis in the Gulf. The first problem here is that "everything we know" isn't very much, especially when you discount what various parties with their own ulterior motives have tried to claim (a list that starts with Mike Pompeo). Several sources noted that the Houthis in Yemen had claimed responsibility. Saudi Arabia has been bombing them for years now, so they have motive, but Pompeo doesn't see how they could pull such an attack off. The only other claim I've seen is here: Iranian drones launched from Iraq carried out attacks on Saudi oil plants. That would still involve flying drones 500-600 km, so I have to wonder whether it wouldn't have been easier to smuggle much smaller drones into the area, especially given that you don't need a lot of firepower when you're shooting at something as flamable as an oil refinery. Still, the real problem here isn't a "whodunit" or even its contextualization -- Saudi hostility and aggression against their neighbors (both direct, as in Yemen, and through proxies) is clearly at the root of this incident -- but a question of what the real powers will do next. Trump almost immediately tweeted that an American retalliation was "locked and loaded," awaiting only the Saudi government's direction. The implication is not only that Trump has subordinated American interests to the Saudis (as he has even more emphatically to the Israelis) with scant care for whatever the consequences may be. On the other hand, maybe the Saudis are coming to recognize how vulnerable they are to blowback from their wars. Too early to tell how this dangerous story sorts out.

  • There is something very unsatisfying about the various Bolton links. While Bolton was well understood and his views roundly opposed, it isn't clear what he actually did while in the Trump administration, or whether he actually had any effect beyond adding to the chaos. A fly-on-the-wall insider account might help, although it's equally likely that no one will ever make any sense out of US foreign policy during the Bolton year-plus. A couple of odd data points: Bolton was fired after the Taliban deal was scuttled; before Bolton was fired, Trump seemed to be more open to meeting with Iran than after, as exemplified by his post-Bolton "locked and loaded" tweet. I've never had any doubt that Bolton was pure evil, but the first week without him has already brought into question Jeet Heer's title, John Bolton's ouster makes the world safer. Yet another piece I should have linked to: Robert Mackey: Threatening new war for oil, Donald Trump calls his own offer of Iran talks "fake news".

  • I wasn't very happy with the Bacevich and Walt pieces on Afghanistan, or for that matter with Ward's piece on how the Democrats debated Afghanistan. Lots of things in US politics make it very difficult to extricate ourselves from wars that are going badly, and it seems like everyone falls into one such trap or another.

  • On Samantha Power, also see: Jon Schwarz: A memoir from hell: Samantha Power will do anything for human rights unless it hurts her career.

  • What bothers me most about the Jonathan Franzen fracas is how fervently his critics cling to stark and simplistic either-or dichotomies, when the actual problem is complex, with complicated tradeoffs that can be very hard to get at, let alone discuss rationally. It could take a book to unpack that line, especially as I've come at it through old problems in philosophy. But really, climate change has been happening for decades now -- Bill McKibben's first (1989) book on the subject was The End of Nature, and he wasn't talking about some hypothetical future. That leaves us with two obvious problems: how to adapt to the world we have altered (and will continue to), and how to limit further damage. Recognizing the already-occurring changes in no way excuses us from trying to keep the situation from worsening (Franzen says as much, although you'd have to read him to find out, as his critics' cariacature lose such details).

Also thought I'd note why I didn't link to anything on Tuesday's election in Israel: I basically didn't find anything very interesting on the subject. Still, if you're curious, you might read Zack Beauchamp's pre-election piece: Israel's election, and how Benjamin Netanyahu might lose, explained. Nearly everything I read predicted a Netanyahu win -- as did everything before the previous election, even though it ended with Netanyahu unable to form a government. Latest results I've seen are "too close to call," with Netanyahu/Likud trailing Blue and White by a very slim margin (25.7% to 26.3%), which probably means another hung election.

New records reviewed this week:

Franco Ambrosetti Quintet: Long Waves (2019, Unit): Swiss trumpet player, father Flavio Ambrosetti was a saxophonist of some note, played in his father's quintet 1963-70, starting a long relationship with pianist George Gruntz. Close to three dozen albums, only one I've previously heard, but his supporting group here would have been hard to miss: John Scofield (guitar), Uri Caine (piano), Scott Colley (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). B+(***)

Blarf: Cease & Desist (2019, Stones Throw): Someone named Eric Andre, from Florida, mixed Haitian-Jewish, studied at Dreyfoos School of the Arts and Berklee but seems to be best known for low-budget TV comedy. First album. Has a long stretch of noise, which isn't totally awful, surrounded by all sorts of pastiche -- some bits are funny, sure, but not something I feel up to working through. B- [bc]

Peter Brötzmann/Alexander von Schlippenbach/Han Bennink: Fifty Years After: Live at the Lila Eule 2018 (2018 [2019], Trost): Three founders of the European avant-garde reunite at the venue of the saxphonist's fifty-year-old Machine Gun, but not to look back. The pianist missed that album, but he was as seminal a figure, his initial albums dating from the same period (Globe Unity from 1966). He is remarkable here, adding more dimensions to the saxophonist's primeval roar. A-

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (2019, Drag City): American singer-songwriter, recorded thirteen albums as Smog 1990-2005, followed by six under his name. Not much more than voice and guitar, reminds me a bit of Dave Alvin but falls short. The extras on "Lonesome Valley" make a difference. B+(*)

Car Seat Headrest: Commit Yourself Completely (2019, Matador): Will Toledo, self-recorded a bunch of albums before signing his label deal, scored his breakthrough with Teens of Denial (2016), but since then his new product has been old: a remake of his 2011 Twin Fantasy, and now this live tour comp, recycling those same songs once more. I'm not unimpressed, but I've never been much invested. B+(**)

Frankie Cosmos: Close It Quietly (2019, Sub Pop): Greta Kline, fourth studio album after dozens of "Bandcamp exclusives," many attributed to Ingrid Superstar. Short songs, 21 of them. B+(**)

Deerhunter: Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? (2019, 4AD): Atlanta-based band, eighth studio album since 2004, only Brad Cox (vocals) and Moses Archuleta (drums) on all of them. Has a certain artiness to it, some nice stretches, some that drag a bit. B

DSC [Leon Lee Dorsey/Greg Skaff/Mike Clark]: Monktime (2019, Jazz Avenue 1): Bass, guitar, drums, playing eight Monk tunes. Press package makes it clear that Dorsey, a bassist from Pittsburgh with two records 1995-99, is the leader here, although Skaff is more prominent, co-produced, and is marginally more famous (5 records since 1996). B+(*) [cd]

Dump Him: Dykes to Watch Out For (2019, Musical Fanzine/Get Better): Northampton MA punk group, guitar/vocals Mattie Hamer, others list their pronouns as "they/them." Short album (10 songs, 23:21), following a couple of shorter cassettes, but still long enough to evolve from thrash to something approaching songs. B+(*)

Avram Fefer Quartet: Testament (2018 [2019], Clean Feed): Alto/tenor saxophonist, backed by guitar (Marc Ribot), bass (Eric Revis), and drums (Chad Taylor) -- although "backed" isn't quite right word: Ribot dominates so thoroughly I have to strain my ears even to discern the leader's presence. I've played this a lot, and there are stretches near the end that make me want to hear it again, but it takes too long to get there, and I was never hoping for this kind of fancy fusion drive. (Note that without Ribot, this trio's Eliyahu was a ballot pick in 2011.) [Nov. 8] B+(***) [cd]

Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (2019, Bella Union): Singer-songwriter, started leading Ezra and the Harpoons, still thinks in band terms (I've seen this credited to "Ezra Furman & the band with no name"). Describes this as "our punk record," by which he seems to mean short songs: 11 in 27:27, some crunch to the music, some grit in the lyrics. E.g.: "I refuse to call this living life and I refuse to die . . . The ache inside reminds my mind my body's really there . . . I'm not sure I can bite the hand that feeds me anymore." A-

Jayda G: Significant Changes (2019, Ninja Tune): Canadian DJ Jada Guy, based in Berlin, various singles/EPs since 2015, "has risen steadily and steathily through the dance music underground," this first album with a few vocals a modest step. B+(*)

Tim Hecker: Anoyo (2019, Kranky): Canadian electronica musician, ambient division, close to a dozen albums albums since 2001, previous one with the similar title Konoyo. String sounds give it a bit of fuzz to sharpen the edges, such as they are. B

The Hold Steady: Thrashing Thru the Passion (2019, Frenchkiss): Craig Finn's steady band, seventh studio album since 2004, second since Finn started releasing albums under his own name (four since 2012, including I Need a New War earlier this year). Difference, I reckon, is that he gives the band more head, and they swing as well as rock. Still, Finn's voice uniquely catches the ear, and he's usually reeling off a line you want to hear. A-

Cate Le Bon: Reward (2019, Mexican Summer): Welsh singer-songwriter, Cate Timothy, based in Los Angeles, fifth album since 2009. B

Derel Monteith: Connemara: Solo Piano Improvisations (2017 [2019], self-released): Pianist, based in Illinois (Peoria, I think), grew up and studied in North Carolina, day job attorney. Has two new records, this solo plus a trio, seem to be his debut. Improv pieces have some bounce, leading to a favorable roll. B+(**) [cd] [10-18]

Derel Monteith Trio: Quantity of Life (2019, self-released): Piano trio, with Andy Crawford (bass) and Jason Brannon (drums), playing the leader's sensible, sensitive pieces. B+(*) [cd] [10-18]

Muna: Saves the World (2019, RCA): From Los Angeles, three women, Katie Gavin the singer, the others started on guitar but evolved toward electropop -- not sure who the drummer is, but there is one, and that matters. Second album, plenty of ambition, even if they'd would rather save the world than conquer it. B+(**)

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis: Beautiful Lie (2019, Next Waltz): Country singer-songwriters, he from Texas, she from Virginia, married 1996, by which time she was better established, recorded a holiday album together in 2006, three more duo albums since 2013. B+(**)

Sheer Mag: A Distant Call (2019, Wilsuns): Postpunk group from Philadelphia, Christina Halladay the singer, Kyle Seely lead guitar. Got attention with three 7-inch EPs and their 2017 LP. B+(**)

Elza Soares: Planeta Fome (2019, Deck): Brazilian singer, started in 1960 with samba, adding some jazz touches including scat. Thirty-seventh album, most recorded before 1980 and unknown to me, but her two latest blew me away. At 82, her voice is well aged but far from shot. B+(***)

Colin Stranahan/Glenn Zaleski/Rick Rosato: Live at Jazz Standard (2018 [2019], Capri): Piano trio, together since 2010, not a lot of reason to list the drummer first, as Zaleski wrote all but two of the songs (one by Rosato, one by Jerome Kern). Zaleski does the credits toward the end, too. But the names line up with the cover photo, and he looks best in the middle. B+(*) [cd]

Taylor Swift: Lover (2019, Republic): Pop megastar, seventh album, the first six multi-platinum, Wikipedia notes her age (29) and net worth ($360 million). With that kind of money, she can hire good help -- chiefly Jack Antonoff and Joel Little -- while stretching her product out to 18 songs, a bit over an hour. Album has some lulls, but I have no doubt it could be edited down and sharpened up. Two songs I always notice: "Paper Rings" and "You Need to Calm Down." B+(***)

Emi Takada: Why Did I Choose You? (2018 [2019], self-released): Standards singer, born in Sapporo, Japan, based in Houston, has a couple albums. Backed by piano (Michael Kanan), guitar, bass, and drums, with Marion Cowings singing some. Swings some, can get a bit corny. B+(*) [cd]

Wilma Vritra: Burd (2019, Bad Taste): Collaboration between London-based "artist" Wilma Archer and LA-based rapper Pyramid Vritra. Even-tempered rhymes riding not-quite ambient waves. B+(*)

Charli XCX: Charli (2019, Asylum): British pop singer, Charlotte Aitchison, third album plus several mixtapes. Some grime around the edges. B+(**)

Thom Yorke: Anima (2019, XL): Vocalist for Radiohead, probably the most exalted of the 1990s wave of Britpop bands -- can't say as I was ever a fan, but I listened dutifully and rather liked In Rainbows (2007). Third solo album, slotted as electronic, although the London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir are also credited. Not awful, but feels pretty empty. B-

Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Live at Woodstock (1969 [2019], Craft): Standard live set from a period when the band could do no wrong, hit singles, the odd cover, winding up with two 10+ minute grinds ("Keep On Chooglin'" and "Suzie Q"). Strikes me as redundant, but nothing particularly wrong with it. B+(***)

Jambú E Os Míticos Sons Da Amazônia (1974-86 [2019], Analog Africa): Dance rhythms from Belém, near the mouth of the Amazon River, a large city these days but not one that figures prominently in popular Brazilian music. Indeed, sounds closer to Colombia, Cuba, Mexico even. B+(***)

Old music:

Eddie Money: The Essential Eddie Money (1977-95 [2003], Columbia/Legacy): Shortened his surname from Mahoney, probably thought that was appropriate when his 1977 debut went double-platinum. Released three more platinum albums up to 1986 (highest peak was 17), two more top-200 to 1991 (as far as this comp goes), four more with one just before his 2019 death. Had some singles too, but only 10 cracked the top-40, their peaks almost randomly distributed (4, 9, 11, 11, 14, 16, 21, . . . ). Usually a 2-CD series, but he was so slight this 15-cut single seemed more than adequate, and sat unplayed on my shelves until now. He took a path we came to call "arena rock" -- big sound, sweeping gestures, clichés as hooks, and he played a little sax for occasional flourishes. He was uninteresting at the time. In retrospect, tolerable until he wasn't. B- [cd]

Eddie Money: The Essential Eddie Money (1977-91 [2014], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Expanded to 35 cuts for the bits-are-cheap digital era, dropping the one cut from his 1995 album Love and Money (not on Columbia, so the cross-licensing would have hit their budget), filling up with odds and sods -- a single version, acoustic demos, some live cuts. Rounds him out, not that it helps. C+

Grade (or other) changes:

Stef Chura: Midnight (2019, Saddle Creek): Singer-songwriter from Michigan, second album, strong on guitar, especially early on. [was B+(*)] B+(**)

Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains (2019, Drag City): One-shot album by singer-songwriter David Berman, who recorded as Silver Jews 1994-2008, released less than a month before he killed himself at 52. Seems like a very solid effort, open and accessible, could grow on you, although I doubt I want to explore his suicide. [was B+(**)] B+(***)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • The Raymond De Felitta Trio: Pre-War Charm (Blujazz)
  • Laszlo Gardony: La Marseillaise (Sunnyside): October 24
  • Ben Markley Quartet Featuring Joel Frahm: Slow Play (OA2): September 20
  • Tish Oney With the John Chlodini Trio: The Best Part (Blujazz)
  • Peterson Kohler Collective: Winter Colors (Origin): September 20
  • Markus Rutz: Blueprints Figure One: Frameworks (OA2): September 20

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