A Downloader's Diary (47): August 29, 2016

by Michael Tatum

I'll begin this by saying, briefly, that depression sucks. Also, that I purposely kept shit back so I could return sooner, perhaps in a month. This year hasn't been my best -- more on that next time. Until then, here are some, you know, reviews.


Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers) Ian Bavitz is one of those guys who makes me embarrassed to be an English major. Not because his facility with language is better than mine -- though it probably is -- but rather because his fans staunchly insist it's his greatest asset. For example, a study by blogger Matt Daniels (a digital strategist for Fortune 500 companies in his spare time) cataloging rappers' usage of "unique" words found that Bavitz' lyrical acumen surpassed 85 other major hip-hop artists, as well as Shakespeare's works, thereby I suppose making Aesop Rock the most brilliant man to ever pick up a pen. But not so fast, Matt -- I'd argue this is ridiculous for many reasons. To begin with, there are more words now than there were in 1604 -- to cite a few that appear on this shameless argument for logorrhea, "terraforming," "schmoozing," "acrylic," "dreadlocks," "acne," and "cartoon," the latter of which derives from the Italian and missed the first performance of The Tempest by several decades. Furthermore, minimalists from Lou Reed and J.D. Salinger have illustrated time and time again how far you can go with very little. But most of all, showing off one's expansive vocabulary is the preferred method of feeling superior for politically correct guys who wouldn't dream of measuring their dicks over bar stools, hence why they gravitate to a more socially acceptable form of bullying. Not that Bavitz is a bully mind you, but too often his polysyllabic rants feel too much like obfuscation -- I would never have figured out "Supercell" was about Ae skipping visiting his family over the Christmas holidays if I hadn't done the requisite research. On the other hand, we also have fond memories of two brothers, one scarred by a little league coach crudely dispatching of an unlucky gopher around third base, and another who sneaks out of the house to see Ministry after failing to convince their mom that they're not a Satanic cult. We also have a very revealing dialogue between Ae and his (female, of course) therapist: "She says, 'I'm not your enemy.'/I said, 'That sounds like something that my enemy would say.'" Now you know why Kimya Dawson was such a good influence on him. A MINUS

Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book (free download) "Gratitude is the opposite of despair," noted Mark O'Brien, the poet-journalist and polio survivor whose life inspired the 2012 movie The Sessions. In the 1995 documentary Breathing Lessons (from which that movie cribs liberally) he quotes renegade priest and theologian Matthew Fox, founder of "creation spirituality," the idea that "we co-create the universe with God" and that "art is our way of making the universe sacred." Those ideas compress into a nutshell what makes Chancellor Bennett's worldview so appealing, how his stalwart belief in a God who gives if only you ask avoids falling into the sanctimony trap and thus entices atheists like me and probably you. I suppose that his end game isn't bitches and cars is also worth considering -- I mean this is a man who slips in a Louis Jordan joke when he asks you for gas money (which he won't accept because you've had too much to drink). From giving away his music gratis to continuing his involvement in youth programs at the Harold Washington Library, he operates from the assumption that if you put things out in the universe for free, very often good things will come back to you: if you send the praises up, the praises will come down. And come down they do, from Young Thug indulging in a little self-parody, Kirk Franklin continuing his 2016 Resurrection Tour, and assorted buddies from Donnie Trumpet and Peter Cottontale providing absolutely gorgeous backing throughout. Yes, Chance prefers "signs to science" -- his James Early reference zings the Eddie Murphy character from Dreamgirls, not the engineer who won a bottle of scotch whiskey from John Robinson Pierce for inventing a transistor that oscillated faster than 1 GHz. But this is a man so good he forgives Justin Bieber for his sins, can fondly remember Chris Brown juke jams at the skating rink without slipping into domestic violence jokes, and hopes that if the mother of his child leaves him that his successor will treat her well. Best rapper alive? Depends on what you mean by "best" -- which I guess makes the answer yes and yes. A

Joey Purp: iiiDrops (free download) For me, the most important news here is the contribution of two superb Chicago-based producers: Knox Fortune and Peter "Cottontale" Wilkins, who either separately, in tandem, or in conjunction with others, have their hands in nine out of these eleven tracks, including the deliriously catchy "Girls @," which should be an internet skyrocket in the manner of "212," and the diabolical "Photobooth," based on a sample that sounds like an elephant sticking its trunk into a light socket, recalling the Bomb Squad's classic work with Public Enemy. These guys are major players, both participating in the last two projects from Chance the Rapper, including the new Coloring Book, reviewed above. Unfortunately, I'm slightly underwhelmed by Joey Davis' rap style, which gets upstaged by Chance and others, and only grabs the ear when he lampoons (or perhaps pilfers from) his influences, particularly Kanye West, who he quotes sardonically to no end and imitates to the point of parody in the wicked "Say You Do" (does any other rapper brag so much about doing it with the lights on?). Perhaps he should spend less time on scheming to nick a pair of size 9.5 Yeezies (doesn't Chance get them from Kanye for free?) and more on conceptualization, which supersedes mere entertainment for the explosive final three tracks: the brutal anti-kids-and-drugs screed that nudges Future with an Auto-Tuned vocal filter, a harrowing collaboration with Vic Mensa ("Winner's Circle," the Chi-Town version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero"), and a finale in which Adams escapes from the killing fields that Ice-T wrote about half a continent away, twenty-five years ago. I don't know what "reality" is, and I don't have the background to know whether Spike Lee betrayed Southsiders as much as Adams bitterly claims. But "reality" trumps the usual money and bitches boilerplate any day. A MINUS

Konono No. 1: Konono No. 1 Meets Batida (Crammed Discs) Electronica types dig this Congolese aggregation for two reasons. First, despite the their harum-scarum arrangements, close listening reveals their rhythm beds suggest old school MIDI sequencer lines. Second, in classic postmodern style, their "futuristic" sound is accomplished via the crudest instrumentation possible, namely electric likembes (a variation of the mbira, the African thumb piano, in which the metal rods are attached to a resonator) and jerry-rigged "lance-voix" (literally, "voice-throwers," according to York University's David Font-Navarette, a megaphone introduced to the Congolese government by the Belgians, utilized by Mobutu during his twenty-six-year regime). This makes them ripe for someone like Pedro "Batida" Coquenao, Portuguese by blood but Angolan by birth, who on his own albums toys with old hits from his adopted home country to delightful effect, my favorite being a riff on "Tequila" that goes: "Bazuka!" (actually, Carlos Lamartine's original hit spelled it like the gun, not the UK wart medication). So you bet that while this is less jarring than their past records, by most listeners' standards this is an improvement: Coquenao structures these tracks so they boast actual bass lines and distinct drum patterns, while at the same time beefing up the weirdness at the top end (who can resist those metal pea whistles?). I wish he had interfered more -- samples would have brought something a little more audacious to the table. But if you're looking for something to annoy that spouse or housemate who demands that the sofa throw pillows be perfectly straightened when no one's watching TV, look no further. A MINUS

Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger (Concord) Back in 1966, you would have been crazy to have pegged the weirdo who wrote and sang "Visions of Johanna," rather than the earnest author of "The Dangling Conversation," to be the one to cover "Young at Heart" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" fifty years in the future. Yet here we are, with Dylan making like a western swing Jimmy Durante (sans swing) and Simon the only musician of his generation pretentious enough to describe his new album as boasting a "rhythmic premise." I would never trade my more extensive Dylan collection for his paucity of classics, but from reggae to Peruvian flutes to mbaqanga to this record's embrace of flamenco and Harry Partch's microtonal theories, Simon has exhibited more musical outreach not only compared to the retro-minded Dylan, but also such bettors as Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed. He puts (solo) David Byrne to shame. Despite his many failures (Brazilian pop, Broadway by way of Havana), this is what I call a rich, fulfilled musical life. Although I wish the aforementioned "premise" had continued clip-clopping into this record's second half, Simon redeems himself with the usual quirkily beautiful arrangements and left field subject matter: a scenario swiped from Alfonso Cuarón, center fielder James "Cool Papa" Bell pontificating over the sad usage of the word "motherfucker," the Golden Gate Quartet serenading a homeless street prophet, the "werewolf" that comes for us all regardless of the size of your tax return. But especially considering he still talks dirty every time the sight of his wife in the doorway takes him aback, this time around his worldview is slightly too dour for my taste. His astrophysicists measure heaven as being roughly six trillion light years away, Stevie Wonder has it at ten zillion, and while as a committed secularist I'm not sure how the conversion tables work in these matters, Stevie is wise enough to know it takes a long time for us to reach Him because we've got so far to come. A MINUS

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive (Ribbon Music) "Michael, I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when you were a teenager," my father told me recently from across his long dinner table. "If it's any consolation to you, I was really crazy at the time -- I wouldn't have been a good father to you." Without looking into his eyes, I replied: "Thanks for telling me that, Dad, but I forgave you for all those things a long time ago." Which was true, but also more complicated than I admitted -- is an absent parent in no condition to be a positive force in one's life really better than him screwing it up in person? And what of how I felt like his complicit pawn during those years, in particular how he asked me to lie about where he was, and about who he was or wasn't with? Those issues are at the heart of Thao Nguyen's breakthrough record, a success with or without the production expertise of Merrill Garbus, though those off-kilter rhythms suit the tumult in her soul as much as her slightly strained soprano. She knows "This is how the goods get stolen/No science, just devotion," but that doesn't stop her from devoting her life to capturing that "astonished man" alive, a "fool forever" who won't come get his girl even though she's "easy to find." And then there's the devastating closer, which pits a churning 6/4 chorus against verses in 4/4, which is the most painful of all -- an "endless love" that she doesn't want, begging to have to it (note the three run-on prepositions, as if in desperation) "carved on out of her." Does this refer to a childhood anguish that can never be healed, or is it a metaphor for an aborted child, a signal that she fears she's enough like her father that she might be one more link in the chain? My father used to ask me time and again when I would ever have children. These days, he knows enough not to bother. A

White Lung: Paradise (Domino) I'll come clean: gothic hardcore punk has never been a priority of mine, even when I could hear this merciless Canadian outfit markedly improving (or as young people say, "selling out") as they went along. Musically, they recall A Place to Bury Strangers, with Kenneth Williams' guitar riffs and Anne-Marie Vassiliou's beats more precisely mathematical and producer Lars Stalfors, formerly of Mars Volta, tidying up their sound, adding synthesizers and nicely splitting the difference between thrash and prog. But let's face it, no one into this group analyzes or even cares much about aesthetics -- they're into them solely for front woman Mish Way, one of those Grace Slick/Siouxsie Sioux types who define feminism as "you step on me, I'll stomp on you with my jackboots, provided I don't get those aforementioned boots too dirty." No point arguing whether her approach to the subject constitutes second- or third-wave thinking -- she's a philosophical tsunami unto herself, championing downward mobility as her protagonist gives birth in her boyfriend's trailer, or taking a pointer from the Camille Paglia playbook by celebrating physical beauty because it "dies" and therefore should be admired. Dishing out icky corporeal metaphors on the order of the opening "A pound of flesh lays between my legs and eyes/Secure the sutures, he'll grow beneath the ties," her philosophy is best summed up by an article she wrote for Vice in which she insisted that female "accomplices" of male serial killers are every bit as brutal as their male counterparts, and only patriarchal assumptions about womanly weakness prevents them from receiving equal treatment and punishment under the law. Which I agree with in theory, but makes me uncomfortable in practice, and I imagine is the idea. Of limited use spiritually, sure. But in this ugly moment, her all-purpose rancor has its uses. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

Skepta: Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know) I wonder if grime fans think all trap records sound alike? ("Shutdown," "That's Not Me") ***

Flume: Skin (Mom + Pop) Maybe next time he can get better guests than AlunaGeorge and Little Dragon ("Lose It," "Say It") ***

Kaytranada: 99% (XL Recordings) Maybe next time he can get better guests than AlunaGeorge and Little Dragon ("Got it Good," "Bus Ride") ***

DJ Shadow: The Mountain Will Fall (Mass Appeal) Well, no AlunaGeorge or Little Dragon here, but remember when he didn't feel the need to have guests at all? ("Mambo," "The Sideshow") ***

Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor's Guide to Earth (Atlantic) He's the one who covers Kurt's real pretty song, but he don't know what it means ("Sea Stories," "Keep It Between the Lines") ***

Animal Collective: Painting With Animal Collective (Domino) So nerdy even They Might Be Giants skirt them in the school cafeteria ("FloriDada," "Bagels in Kiev") **

Avalanches: Wildflower (Modular/Astralwerks/XL/EMI) More calypso and rap, less Bobby Goldsboro and Harpers Bizarre -- please ("Frankie Sinatra," "The Noisy Eater") **

Daniel Romano: Mosey (New West) I know I said last time he needed to get his weirdness back, but a John Fowles tribute and a number where he cajoles Rachel McAdams into seducing Toulouse-Lautrec wasn't what I had in mind ("Medium Cool," "Hunger is a Word You Die In") **

Dori Freeman: Dori Freeman (Free Dirt) If I were a alt-country songstress from Appalachia, Teddy Thompson wouldn't be my first choice for producer, but apparently, she hit him up on Facebook ("Fine Fine Fine," "Tell Me") **

Trash

Bob Dylan: Fallen Angels (Columbia) With the song selection even more ridiculous than that on the more "sublimely" awful Shadows in the Night, it's about time we ask the hard questions, such as: if critics hated Self Portrait (and Dylan even more), why are they fawning over this? And furthermore, what's Dylan's motivation? A truly perverse wool-pulling exercise? I say it began with Dylan singing with Springsteen and Ol' Blue Eyes himself over a piano in Palm Springs, the two rockers sheepish as Sinatra cajoled them both to project a little more: "Come on, you guys are singers aren't you?" So Bobby says to himself: "Hell, Lord knows I can't swing, but damn it, I'll warble 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams' better at seventy-four than Frank could have at eighty!" And guess what? He does! C PLUS

Brian Eno: The Ship (Warp) I would be a little terrified to do a personal inventory, but Brian Eno might be the most shameless flimflam peddler whose music ever meant something to me -- did you know he once claimed in an interview never to have owned a copy of the Velvet Underground's third album, on the pretense of loving it so much he didn't want to become overly familiar with it? Now that only shows he's not a fan -- if he was, he'd be like me, feverishly purchasing a newly remastered copy every time a new deluxe edition or what-have-you hit the racks (am I on my fourth copy?). But I digress. This little item, which I'd describe as a "dodge" if the thing actually moved, has been earning a few huzzahs because it's the first Eno release in years to feature his distinctive vocals, but this ain't no Wrong Way Up, let alone Here Come the Warm Jets, because an album that features vocals isn't quite the same as one that contains actual songs (oh I'm sorry, "compositions"). The interminably long twenty-one-minute title track, structured around a harmonic compass so narrow it makes the Gregorian chants it mimics sound like "Scrapple from the Apple," flows at a pace so glacial it will make you want to bulldoze a Brazilian rain forest. This segues into yet another "suite" with the dubious title "Fickle Sun" and an even more dubious eighteen minutes of aimless fucking around, "climaxing" with actor Peter Serafinowicz attempting a prosody reading inspired I'm guessing by the godawful versifying that opened and closed the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed (I was almost expecting to see "insipid figures of light" to pass by). Until finally we get to the pièce de résistance -- what have we here? -- a cover of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Set Free," which I'm assuming Brian spent an afternoon with on YouTube or something to, you know, refresh his memory. It's rather beautiful. But if anyone needs to "find another illusion," it's this guy. I say we help him out by sending him a coat without elbow pads. C PLUS


Nice as Fuck: Nice as Fuck (Loves Way) Jenny Lewis' new side project consists almost entirely of arrangements pitting her voice against bass and drums, with minimal guitars and keybs -- because when you think Jenny, the first thing you think of is: rhythm section. B MINUS

Gold Panda: Good Luck and Do Your Best (City Slang) Well, the "Orientalism" is down -- what a relief! B MINUS

Case/Lang/Veirs: Case/Lang/Veirs (Anti-) Comparing these lasses to Parton/Ronstadt/Harris vocally doesn't wash -- even at their most "angelic," their harmonies are pretty wan. What's more, Ronstadt/Harris accepted long before they hooked up with Parton that songwriting wasn't their métier, unlike grande dame Lang and the ickily precocious Veirs. As for the hit-or-miss Case, her most striking tune here is a throwaway that admits she hides behind an "armory" (what, a "plackart" wasn't good enough?) and begs you to love her anyway. Good luck with that. B MINUS

Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing (Bayonet) I know the phrase "manic pixie dream girl" has been denigrated by feminists, but Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates' daughter has boiled the archetype down to one truly pathetic couplet: "I haven't written this part yet/Will you help me write it?" B MINUS

Whitney: Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian) A supergroup -- why, just like Poco! -- except rather than being led by the third banana and fifth wheel from Buffalo Springfield, we get a reshuffle of Smiths Westerns and the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. This time around however, the drummer is the lead singer, which might explain the lollygagging rhythms -- hell, George Grantham was livelier than this. It doesn't however explain his weedy tenor, which suggests Neil Young being given a rim job by an iguana. C PLUS

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2016 May 16