Turkey Shoot: 2013

Last year's "crowd-sourced" Turkey Shoot was enough of a success that I figured we should give it another shot. As most readers know, Robert Christgau came up with the idea of running a Thanksgiving week Consumer Guide with nothing but turkey in 1984, and continued it from 1988-2005. The trick in his columns was not just to pick on bad records but to find ones notable enough to be worth picking on -- some were huge popular successes, some favorites of various coteries of critics, some portended trends he wished he could nip in the bud.

We've tried to do that here: the records below have some critical cachet and/or big sales. (Only Luke Bryan is exclusively in the latter category -- even Country Weekly only gave Crash My Party a B–.) And we tried to establish more of a consensus approach this year: it's safe to say that none of the records below will be showing up on any contributor's year-end ballots this year (unlike Kendrick Lamar last year). The invite this year allowed quite a bit of leeway in what we might cover, but we skipped over proposals to "pepper" (Dick Cheney's immortal phrase) records that at least some of us like a lot (Arcade Fire's was one) or that hardly anyone had noticed (such as Julieta Venegas').

Tomorrow we'll turn around and recommend some records few of you have heard of: something we call the Black Friday Special. Each year thousands of records are released and few of them ever emerge from the cracks they fall into -- in part because well-oiled publicity machines work so hard to keep you eating turkey on Thanksgiving. But we wanted to point out that there are alternatives to leftovers this weekend. The on Saturday I'll finally post my November edition of Rhapsody Streamnotes, with some second thoughts on today's and tomorrow's records.

Last year I put together a table where I tried to get everyone to rate everything, which would give you some extra context info on the records reviewed here. But it was a lot of work and it turned out that most reviewers had sensibly avoided most of the year's turkeys, so it wasn't all that worthwhile. I've missed about a third of this year's records myself. No one can listen to everything, which is why we need and read critics. Christgau quit the Turkey Shoot not because he decided it wasn't needed, but because he got sick and tired of spending so much time listening to crap. In a just society obnoxious but necessary jobs will be spread out, as we're doing today.


The Beach Boys: Made in California (Captiol, 6CD)
The "career-spanning box set with unreleased rarities" is art vs. commerce at its most grandiose -- the type of product that typifies the ever-increasing American urge to have it both ways. For the Beach Boys, who are still trying to do just that some fifty years after catching their first wave, such a bloated collection exposes the group's ongoing binary oppositions and fails to create anything resembling a satisfying song sequence. (At least the 1993 Good Vibrations set had the "Smile" mystery as a narrative conceit.) Tellingly, the best material from the vaults comes from Dennis Wilson, the member who has been dead the longest; ironically, his best "new" track is entitled "Wouldn't It Be Nice (To Live Again)." But reincarnation (or, for that matter, reinvention) is something that was not in the cards for this group; absent that, this collection leaves us with the long drift that the band has endured ever since Capitol consigned them to that endless summer. The over-trebly remixes don't help, either. B MINUS [DM]

Willis Earl Beal: Nobody Knows (XL)
Problem isn't that Beal the "noise-rock black gospel postmodern bluesman" has left the lo-fi grime of his debut behind, although fans of rock weirdos and outsider art in general have certainly noted the "slick" production with clucking tongues. The problem is a scattershot blowhard writing beyond his means whenever he's not penning sluggish odes to ramblin' and/or excoriating "fools." "I am nothing/and I think it's everything," he writhes; "Morality and virtue/can easily hurt you" he thunders; "I got nine hard inches like a pitchfork prong/so honey lift up your dress and help me sing this song," he moans. Son House he's not, even when (no, especially when) he strums. C PLUS [JGu]

Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp)
After an eight-year wait, this bored reclusive electronica duo gets endlessly praised for finally deigning to switch on their synths and tape decks again. What's really depressing is that with the heart and imagination of their first two records long-gone, the dreary atmospheric stretches and moribund drum beats here are supposed to count for something significant in a year when Gardland, James Holden, Secret Circuit, Within Reason, The Cyclist and Ulrich Schnauss have all done much more captivating, multi-layered work with the remnants of IDM but have little to show for it in comparison. Though it surely helps their mystique, maybe it's a blessing that these Scots rarely tour anymore or bother to speak to their fawning press. With any luck their samplers will break down and they'll follow their namesake into scoring films that few non-academics will see (maybe "Bears and Man" or "Churchill's Island" need updates). C PLUS [JGr]

Body/Head: Coming Apart (Matador)
Yes, I revere Kim Gordon and her contribution to Sonic Youth. No, I have not done the theoretical research (nor do I have the patience) on her current musical partner Bill Nace's past projects (X.O.4, Vampire Belt, Ceylon Mange, Northampton Wools, you remember). Yes, I appreciate critics rallying to her post-divorce support -- in theory. And yes, as my father left my mother for a much younger woman when I was twelve, I myself share those sympathies. But if my mother had retaliated by picking up the dulcimer that my Dad gave her for her nineteenth birthday (but subsequently never learned to play), I'd like to think she would have come up with more imaginative conceits than "Murderess," "The Last Mistress," and "Actress." And though Nace's feedback does generate the occasional buzz against Gordon's drones, and Gordon's vocal charisma does perk up ones ears when the music is relegated to deep background, it's depressing when you can convey a record's disappointment merely by quoting its press release: "They have even ["even?" -- ed] started writing and playing 'songs' now [quotes in original], compositionally distinct from their purely aleatory origins, but still featuring lots of built-in improvisational space [itals mine]." C [MT]

Luke Bryan: Crash My Party (Capitol Nashville)
With a voice as pumped-up as his pecs, Bryan makes hits that allow for less sexiness or shagginess than his meticulous chin-stubble. Country music's foremost exponent of the beer-and-trucks party ethos, Bryan extends that concept on his fourth album into cheerful absurdity, unless there's a universe in which the refrain "You're lookin' so fine with your beer in the headlights" makes sense. Power ballads predominate, filigreed with guitar lines that could have been sampled from Steve Lukather circa Toto IV. In short, he's a frat-boy pushing forty, a charmer who seems for the first time excessively nostalgic for a youth ("We Run This Town," "Blood Brothers") others in his position might be more ambitiously eager to grow up and out of. C [KT]

Jake Bugg: Jake Bugg (Mercury)
Because he plays folkily and sings buzzily and kicked off his blitz with a b&w troubadour-chic shoot, this kid sauntered onto the scene with the word "Dylan" all over a kite-tail of rockrag scraps stuck to his shoe. These excitable writers are right on -- he's claimed hearing Don McLean's Vincent Van Gogh song on The Simpsons was his "formative musical moment" and dismisses Bobby himself as "not a major influence," thus demonstrating instant flair for the Zimmermesque press put-on. Either that or, God forbid, he's as serious as these dull songs suggest, a symptom of the simplemindedness he shares with early Donovan (check his other shoe). And though he wishes he had a quarter of Rockaday Dono's creative flair, a few of these tracks do sound like homages to the wrong half of the famous Don't Look Back duel. Bugg is 19, an age at which Dylan could only spastically howl standards (albeit more rivetingly than any of this), so it's cruel as a rule to dock him for not having cracked how to appear inspired. Yet he's still being lauded like he was alive on arrival. Maybe the fact that in candid shots he looks like he's wandered away from One Direction is what started my suspicion that this is Big Indie trying to pied-pipe tykes into one more market niche by paying off weathermen to blow some idiot wind about him. Or maybe it's the total absence of punk sneer when he mentions "the feds." Tip for a 24 y/o Jake: there's plants in the bed and the phone's tapped anyway. C PLUS [RM]

The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars (Sensibility Music/Columbia)
The heartache of love's labor's lost informs nearly every song in this duo's brief catalog, melodrama finely calibrated since Williams and White first met at songwriting camp, she the disenchanted Californian fleeing Christian pop, he the Tennesseean with a solo debut shelved by Capitol. Because there's two of them, you hear lots of comparisons to storied c&w male-female duos (June/Johnny; Dolly/Porter). And because they supposedly aren't speaking with each other anymore, the backstory delivers the drama their music lacks, along with coffeehouse vocals exactly as anodyne as might be expected from a project not named after the bloody culmination of America's greatest tragedy, but "all the wars that we each face." Terrified of country & western's hokum, avoiding Appalachian balladry's bloody handprints, too genteel for blue-collar specifics, Williams/White seek solace in an adult-contemporary folk music as artificial a veneer as the truck anthems and Child ballads their uncouth Nashville cousins adore. After all, that's not Richmond that's burning on the cover or anything -- it's just love's embers smoldering. B MINUS [JGu]

Dirty Beaches: Drifters/Love Is the Devil (Zoo)
Some grouse about Lana Del Rey as a casualty of style over substance, but how do they square that with praising a dude who likens his music to David Lynch films, threatens to knock the teeth out of "rude" interviewers, and releases a half-instrumental double album for his first discharge after the Bands to Watch incubation period? If Alex Zhang Hungtai made like Wayne Coyne and released actual wax cylinders, that would at least explain why 75 minutes of music aren't on the same disc. But he deserves to be reviewed stylistically if he's going to refuse to release substance. Hungtai's debut Badlands sought to make Suicide and Elvis cooler by trading tunes for "intensity" and Hiccupping Loudly into crap microphones. For a guy seemingly obsessed with respecting his elders you think he would've studied his I-IV-V before programming a facsimile into the drum machine. But he spends this sequel "composing," or whatever you call what U2 did to wind down when they took 1995 off. "Mirage Hall," "Landscapes in the Mist" . . . sixteen beatless sampler walkthroughs only distinguish themselves as separate records when Hungtai's occasional moan becomes foghorns of sax. Forget asking why there are no songs here, where are the vibes? Why didn't he just make a movie? Is he hoping budding student directors will check these out of the library and fill in the blanks? C MINUS  [DW]

Forest Swords: Engravings (Tri Angle)
Side one of Matthew Barnes' big ponderous laptoptronica statement arranges movie-music strings, brightly pealing flutes, virtual guitar riffs, and coldly glossy textural atmosphere. Side two fuses solemnly orchestrated xylophones, quite functional percussion tracks, keyboard tinkle, and coldly glossy textural atmosphere. The new MacBook Pro can be purchased at any Apple Store near you. Buy one now and make your own bad art-rock album! C [LF]

Grant Hart: The Argument (Domino)
Hart actually wrote more of my five most-hummed Hsker D songs than Bob Mould. Mould has "Celebrated Summer" and "I Apologize," while Hart has "Turn on the News," "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" and, my most hummed overall, "Books About UFO's." So, regardless of the fact that utilizing more of Hart's songwriting could have easily made Hsker D's discography much worse, his lackluster solo career is undeniably disappointing, especially compared to that of Bob Mould. The Argument isn't just lackluster, though. It's unpleasant to listen to, with a Paradise Lost concept that's pompous rather than ambitious, Hart's wannabe Bowie vocals, and the grating instrumentation. The songwriting is what you'd expect with titles like "Awake, Arise" and "I Am Death." There's no "Books About UFO's" here. There's not even a "2541." C PLUS [MR]

The Haxan Cloak: Excavation (Tri Angle)
More than anything, the worst album of the year leaves me flabbergasted. It has received positive reviews, but what does that entail? Do people listen to this in their cars? Do they listen to it on headphones when they go for walks? Do they play it at parties for reasons other than convincing people to leave? I can't see a context for listening to this outside of writing a review. It's odd how scary movies make money despite getting terrible reviews, and yet the only people who give a shit about scary music are rock critics. D [MR]

Iceage: You're Nothing (Matador) After a bracing debut Allmusic described as "charmingly underdeveloped," these spoiled Danish teens get worse. "Unlike some groups who sign to a bigger label and beef up their sound in the wrong ways," Pitchfork warns, they've gone ahead and included an "industrial/ambient instrumental." No one's snickering when No Age does that, but they'd never make it sound like a Nuremberg Rally, which I hear is an unfortunate coincidence for Iceage. You can read about that in the blogosphere; my job's just to point out they sustain remarkable blurriness for 28 minutes, this time with the drums mixed down so as not to obscure the lack of hooks, one of many things that distinguishes their "brittleness" from Wire's. One of those takedowns for their links to fascist-whatever puts it perfectly: "I hope it's therapeutic. But if this is the best catharsis you can find, I feel sorry for you." C [DW]

Jack Johnson: From Here to Now to You (Brushfire)
While this Hawaiian surf-guitar master may be marketing his albums as the true sound of tropical peace, he's nevertheless your average American sensitive guy. He just loves to sit on the shore watching the sun go down, quietly strumming his acoustic, sighing lyrics about domestic tranquility. He's existentially anxious and often worries about his sins, but it doesn't take much to make him happy -- tending his garden, say, or feeling a warm breeze blow through his hair. Sometimes he gets restless and goes walking through the hills, wondering if he should get together with his honey and build a little home. But for now he at least has his youth and freedom. C PLUS [LF]

MGMT: MGMT (Columbia)
Did somebody accidentally tell them that "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters" was the Oracular Spectacular track that charted? That's the only logical explanation I can think of for how ignorant these guys are about what they're good at. Even more than Congratulations, this self-titled third album (doesn't it seem like everybody's making those?) is frustrating, indulging in the worst kinds of prog-rock pretentions. There aren't any tracks half as long as "Siberian Breaks," but a couple seem longer, and the band seems completely oblivious about what they're trying to do. It's gotten so sad that there's little dignity left in making fun of them. You'd rather sit them down and try to get it in their heads that the only reason they've made it this far is because people pretended that the debut didn't have a second half. C [MR]

Gregory Porter: Liquid Spirit (Blue Note)
It wasn't surprising to read in Downbeat that before assuming the mantle of jazz singer, he wrote and performed a one-man theatrical revue called Me and Nat "King" Cole, because though blessed with a sonorous baritone, he's less a singer than an act -- both vocally and as a lyricist, a retro-'70s soul-on-sleeve synthesis of Bill Withers and Gil Scott-Heron rather than a legitimate heir of Cole's (or Joe Williams's, Johnny Hartman's, or whatever great male balladeer you want to name). Withers and Scott-Heron weren't jazz, and despite the Blue Note imprimatur, neither is Porter. That doesn't bother me. What does is the suspicion that many of my colleagues in the jazz press are embracing him for all the wrong reasons, beginning with lyrics that pretend to meaningfulness without ever meaning anything specifically. He's not going to stand for "musical genocide," he tells us in a song of that title. Meaning what? Hip hop, I'd guess. But he doesn't say. To be fair, Porter's commanding stage presence comes through even on disk, his arrangements (in combination with Kamau Kenyatta and pianist Chip Crawford) are often catchy, and although "The In Crowd" is a misfire, "Lonesome Lover" might be the best of the recent spate of Abbey Lincoln covers. And even at his most self-indulgent, he's no more annoying than Kurt Elling, whom he's poised to topple in the jazz polls -- and for whom he could be mistaken on a drawn-out "I Fall in Love Too Easily," where what he really seems sweet on is a showy dynamic range at odds with the vulnerability called for by the lyrics. B MINUS [FD]

Sigur Rs: Kveikur (XL)
gtis Byrjun -- their one decent album -- has earned its place in music history and, ever since its release, every high Metacritic rating they've received has seemed like a congratulatory pat on the back. In that case, Kveikur is their lifetime achievement award. "This is an album no one anticipated Sigur Rs would make," NME's Al Horner wrote, which makes me wonder who replaced his copy with something interesting. Meanwhile, saying this album shows a more aggressive side of the band is like saying that Andy Warhol included more character development in Taylor Mead's Ass than he did in Empire. Compared to Valtari, however, this at least feels like a Sigur Rs album, which is good. After all, when you're this boring, staying true to yourself pays off. But not much. C [MR]

Tyler, the Creator: Wolf (Odd Future/XL)
Much as I'd like to, I can't think of anything too mean to say, and neither can he. Or maybe he just sounds so bummed because he chose Tumblr pussy over rape jokes and still can't get any. We already knew he was no fun, though he's lost his sense of humor about it. He fetishizes jazz chords just like the Pharrell he misses more than his daddy. His gay friends probably call him "fag" more than he says it to them, his only advantage over Eminem. His fake M.I.A. song beats his real Erykah one. And if you watch "Tamale"'s eye-popping video, you'll find the creative exuberance and comic enthusiasm that dried up from his music in record time. B MINUS [DW]

The Wild Feathers: The Wild Feathers (Warner Bros.)
Blogger Geneva Shenanigans of Sofa King News indignantly demands to know of this Nashville quartet: "Are they Christian rock? Country rock? What kind of bizarre, hillbilly, conservative, law-abiding hybrid is this?" My theory: a fascinatingly grotesque corporate roots rock apotheosis, with churchy undertones kept to a minimum in hopes that ex-Creed fans will bite. They don't rock in the manner of Led Zeppelin, whose "Trampled Under Foot" they flat out rip off for the oafishly bungling "Backwoods Company," nor do they ever sink to the soporific nadir of the Eagles, whose "Take it to the Limit" they mine for the drippy "Left My Woman" -- between their dunderheaded whomp and their treacly harmonies they split that difference right down the middle. An aesthetic "decision" about which I can only be grateful -- that commitment to nonspecific vagary guarantees they have no chance of becoming a cultural presence. Inspirational Classic Rock Tautology: "I can see for miles/'Cuz I have opened my eyes." D  [MT]

Jonathan Wilson: Fanfare (Bella Union)
Admirers dig this because it reminds them of forgotten and/or lost -- which some take to equal great -- artifacts of a certain era of grandiose West Coast pop such as David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name and Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue. And sure, I hear those similarities too, the difference being that where to the converted those albums signify, oh I don't know, stellar works of singular minds that probe life's eternal questions, they are touchstones of self-indulgence and schmaltz to these ears. Sweeping soundscapes, swelling strings, layers upon layers of instrumentation, jams for the sake of jamming, let's chase that crescendo, shall we? The use of vocal harmonies in an attempt to hide the lyrical cliches. Yeah, I'm familiar with that trick too. The fact that one of the album's redeeming pieces is the relatively simple but dumb "Love is Love" is proof enough that this album is an example of more definitely being less, much like its spiritual forebears. "Aural comfort food for many Uncut readers and writers," said the review from the same mag. The only way you could've been provided with a stronger hint of this album's blandness is if the spirit of that phrase had been used by Q magazine instead. B MINUS [CM]

Youth Lagoon: Wondrous Bughouse (Fat Possum)
There are people who think Lorde, the first woman to top the alternative chart since longer than she's been alive, is some kind of 16-year-old hustler. But have they gotten a load of Trevor Powers, who exploits his um, nave appearance with the catchword "youth" and an asthmatic, prepubescent voice to its fullest extent on the only fast thing here, which begs "You'll never die/You'll never die" for most of the lyrical portion of six minutes, as if the dying relative in question can just click heels and go home. Thing is, the sort who think Fevers & Mirrors is Bright Eyes' best album have fetishized moldy juvenilia since long before Powers and his Animal Collective/Washed Out-responsible associate started detuning pianos to break up his stateliest melody with filler. Except for the horribly circuslike "Attic Doctor," you can strain and hear songs beneath the wobbly textures on the first half that hold some attention spans better than the Drive-By Truckers. The second half disproves this -- even the Olivia Tremor Control kept their songscapes under five minutes. Maybe that's why the clock is considered the devil on the first track. As for the boyish Powers, I hear Perverted-Justice is hiring. C [DW]

Yuck: Glow and Behold (Fat Possum)
Even in 2011 I never really had any real hope for these Londoners as the Great Indie Hope -- it really is possible for beginners to stumble upon hooks as heaven-sent as "Get Away" and "Georgia" -- but since this is botched a great deal more than your average follow-up, a post mortem is in order. What made this band momentarily interesting wasn't tunes or guitar pizzazz, but the two working in tandem. Turns out that departed guitarist and apparently lead everything Daniel Blumberg was responsible not only for both of the above but maybe the pizza, beer, and My Bloody Valentine fixation, too -- the shoegaze aspects have disappeared completely, replaced by the sort of vague pop sheen suggesting a different strain of '90s revival: the Lemonheads. Missed them lately? B MINUS  [MT]

Contributors

Thanks to all the contributors, listed below.

  • Francis Davis [FD] is the author of seven books, a former columnist for the Village Voice and former Contributing Editor of The Atlantic, and a 2008 Grammy winner for his liner notes. He conducts an annual Jazz Critics Poll, which will be hosted this year by NPR Music.
  • Lucas Fagen [LF] writes regularly for Hyperallergic Weekend.
  • Jason Gross [JGr]: Editor/perpetrator of Perfect Sound Forever; has written for the Village Voice, Billboard, Time Out New York, The Wire, PopMatters, Blurt.
  • Jason Gubbels [JGu]: Writes the blog Cerebral Decanting, and is a freelance contributor to SPIN and Rhapsody.
  • Brad Luen [BL] is a lecturer in statistics at Indiana University.
  • Ryan Maffei [RM]: Writes the blog Kill Me With Sound, runs Jamrag Records, keeps an eye out for other opportunities and is thankful for all of them.
  • Don Malcolm [DM]: Don Malcolm co-edited the first issue of Terminal Zone with Tom Hull in 1977. Since 2006, he has been editor-in-chief of the Film Noir Foundation's quarterly journal NOIR CITY.
  • Chris Monsen [CM]: Freelance writer and regular contributor to Musikkmagasinet in the Norwegian daily Klassekampen. Blogs at perfectsounds.blogspot.com.
  • Matt Rice [MR]: Writes the Matt on Music column for the Eastern Echo.
  • Michael Tatum [MT]: The author of the monthly (more or less) blog A Downloader's Diary.
  • Ken Tucker [KT] is a cultural critic whose music reviews can be heard on NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross."
  • Dan Weiss [DW] is the alt/indie editor at Rhapsody and the "New Releases" columnist for Radio.com, as well as a contributor to Spin, Vice and others. He writes the blog Ask a Guy Who Likes Fat Chicks and plays in the band Dan Ex Machina.

Notes

Greg Morton submitted a review that we didn't include because the subject didn't qualify according to the rules -- arguably that's only because the rules on "notability" were excessively pegged to the US/UK press. But it's worth reading and keeping a copy here:

Julieta Venegas: Los Momentos (Sony Music Latin)
Music in languages I don't understand presents a barrier only if the music qua music is boring or if the performances are weak. Otherwise, it's an enlightening window into a different way of life and frequently an exciting testament to our common humanity by using a universal language, cf., Mahlathini and the Queens, Orchestra Baobab, and to the point, Julieta Venegas. Affirming as Mexican though born in Long Beach, CA in 1970, singing only in Spanish on now six studio albums, one live one, and one Greatest Hits, she became a national success with the string of Bueninvento, Si', Limon y Sal, MTV Unplugged and Otra Cosa that covered the last decade. While Bueninvento feels transitional, a teenager trying to fill out an adult's wardrobe, and the MTV album peaks high but levels off, the two strongest, Si' and Limon y Sal are chock full of pop enjoyment -- harmonies, hooks, humor, love, dancing, even the occasional social commentary. Fun, fun, fun with smarts and a heart, you might say. Like Smokey Robinson on a good day. Otra Cosa was the insular version; as if recorded in a hermetically enclosed studio with no air movement. Los Momentos triples down on that tendency. Thin vocals that used to be exuberant, tame or even nonexistent instrumental interplay, mild tempos, dim/mechanical production, an overall sonic deadening. Quoted as "inspired by the situation in Mexico and the difficult times the country is experiencing"; in this case, I guess you do have to speak the national language because the universal one has lost its charm. B MINUS