Sunday, February 1, 2015

Out with the old...

My 100 favorite recordings of 2014

No genre limitations. Listed without comment. Decided on after much consideration and reconsideration. I love these albums and wish I had the time in 2014 to write about more than a handful of them. I feel the need to get these down on paper, for myself if no one else, so I can move on with my life...

Note: links go to videos, reviews, the album itself for download, etc.

100. For All the Girls, 70 Love Songs (Self-Released)
99. Advance Base, Plastic Owen Band (Orindal)
98. Curren$y, Saturday Night Car Tunes and More Saturday Night Car Tunes (Self-released)
97. Ela Stiles, Ela Stiles (Bedroom Suck)
96. EDJ, EDJ (Easy Sound)
95. Circulatory System, Mosaics Within Mosaics (Cloud)
94. The Royal Landscaping Society, The Royal Landscaping Society (Beko)
93. Lecrae, Anomaly (Reach)
92. The Hobbes Fanclub, Up at Lagrange (Shelflife)
91. Zammuto, Anchor (Temporary Residence)
90. Ray Price, Beauty Is...The Final Sessions  (AmeriMonte)
89. Circus Devils, Escape (Happy Jack)
88. The Steinbecks, Kick to Kick With the Steinbecks (Matinee)
87. Soft Science, Detour (Test Pattern)
86. Archibald Slim, He's Drunk! (Awful)
85. Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (Superlatone)
84. Virginia Wing, Measures of Joy (Fire)
83. Your Friend, Jekyll/Hyde EP (Domino)
82. Tinniens, Dub Guns (Geographic North)
81. Pharoahe Monch, P.T.S.D. (W.A.R.)
80. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)
79. Ambrose Akinmusire, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note)
78. Carla Bozulich, Boy (Constellation)
77. Alpaca Sports, Sealed With a Kiss (Luxury)
76. Stanley Brinks and the Wave Pictures, Gin (Fika)
75.Andrew Bird, Things Are Really Great Here...Sort Of (Wegawam)
74. The Popguns, Pop Fiction (Matinee)
73. Georgia Anne Muldrow, Oligarchy Sucks (Some Otha Ship)
72. Set in Sand, What Is This Place (Audio Dregs)
71. Dierks Bentley, Riser (Capitol)
70. PRhyme, PRhyme (PRhyme)
69. Mobb Deep, The Infamous Mobb Deep (Infamous)
68. Amen Dunes, Love (Sacred Bones)
67. Taken By Savages, Taken By Savages (Self-released)
66. Taylor McFerrin, Early Riser (Brainfeeder)
65. Ultimate Painting, Ultimate Painting (Trouble in Mind)
64. Generationals, Alix (Polyvinyl)
63. YG, My Krazy Life (Def Jam)
62. Prince, Art Official Age (Warner Bros)
61. Willie Nelson, Band of Brothers (Legacy)
60. Anthony Atkinson and the Running Mates, Broken Folks (Lost and Lonesome)
59. Dragon Turtle, Distances (Oscillating Color)
58. Umbra Sum, Aún no has demostrado nada (Acuarela)
57. Cosines, Oscillations (Fika)
56. Sunny Sweeney, Provoked (Thirty Tigers)
55. The Wendy Darlings, The Insufferable Fatigues of Idleness (OddBox)
54. Lewis & Clarke, Triumvirate (La Société Expéditionnaire)
53. Flying Lotus, You're Dead (Warp)
52. Should, The Great Pretend (Words on Music)
51. One Happy Island, Your Flaws Aren't Picturesque (weePop!)
50. Ben and Ellen Harper, Childhood Home (Prestige Folklore)
49. Landlady, Upright Behavior (Hometapes)
48. Guided by Voices, Motivational Jumpsuit (GBV Inc)
47. Bear in Heaven, Time Is Over One Day Old (Dead Oceans)
46. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Days of Abandon (Yebo)
45. Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems (Columbia)
44. Withered Hand, New Gods (Slumberland)
43. Steve Gunn, Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors)
42. Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage and Divorce (Motown)
41.  Mick Jenkins, The Water(s) (Cinematic)
40. The Luxembourg Signal, Distant Drive (Shelflife)
39. Alvvays, Alvvays (Polyvinyl)
38. Literature, Chorus (Slumberland)
37. Rome Fortune, Beautiful Pimp II (self-released)
36. The Zebras, Siesta (Jigsaw/Lost and Lonesome)
35. clipping, CLPPNG (Sub Pop)
34. Let's Whisper, As Close As We Are (weePop!)
33. Melbourne Cans, Moonlight Malaise (Lost and Lonesome)
32. Jerry David DeCicca, Understanding Land (self-released)
31. Pattern Is Movement, Pattern Is Movement (Hometapes)
30. Jason Anderson, Cold Cold Rain (self-released)
29. Jennifer Castle, Pink City (No Quarter)
28. Schoolboy Q, Oxymoron (Top Dawg/Interscope)
27. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Landmarks (Blue Note)
26. J Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive (Dreamville/Roc Nation)
25. Sun Kil Moon, Benji (Caldo Verde)
24. Lee Ann Womack, The Way I'm Livin' (Sugar Hill)
23. A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Sea When Absent (Lefse)
22. Big K.R.I.T., Cadillactica (Def Jam)
21. Hallelujah the Hills, Have You Ever Done Something Evil? (self-released)
20. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager (Warner Bros)
19. Auburn Lull, Hiber (Geographic North)
18. Greg Gives Peter Space, Greg Gives Peter Space (Erased Tapes)
17. Haley Bonar, Last War (Graveface)
16. The Rosebuds, Sand + Silence (Western Vinyl)
15. Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class (Slate Creek)
14. Architecture in Helsinki, Now + 4eva (Casual Workout)
13. Benjamin Shaw, Goodbye, Cagoule World (Audio Antihero)
12. The Caribbean, Moon Sickness (Hometapes)
11. Nicholas Krgovich, On Sunset (Tin Angel)
10. Common, Nobody's Smiling (Def Jam)
9. Allo Darlin, We Come From the Same Place (Slumberland)
8. Fear of Men, Loom (Kanine)
7. Bitchin Bajas, Bitchin Bajas (Drag City)
6. Father, Young Hot Ebony (Awful)
5. The Iceypoles, My World Was Made for You (Lost and Lonesome)
4. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Piñata (Stones Throw)
3. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso (Partisan)
2. Taylor Swift, 1989 (Big Machine)
1. The Happy Couple, Into the Woods (Felicite)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Colin Clary, Twee Blues Vol. 1

The affable Colin Clary and his bands – the Smittens and Let’s Whisper, primarily – might seem the epitome of “twee” to many listeners: gentle, sweet. Yet rather than take that as an insult, Clary seems to embrace the notion; even, at times, to turn the aesthetic into a countercultural call for a particular way of life, built on openness, tenderness, peace.

As optimistic as his music can be, it’s always struck me that there’s a deep strain of sadness or at least melancholy within it. I don’t think it would work so well without it. So, the idea of “twee blues” makes sense – even though, as a musical idea, twee blues might seem an oxymoron.

Twee Blues, Vol. 1 (Wee Pop) isn’t a cross between indie-pop and blues, exactly, but it is a version of the former with instruments and sounds pulled from music that’s somewhere sort-of getting relatively closer towards music that touches the edges of the blues genre. For the LP Clary has pulled together a band – Brad Searles and Brad San Martin – that manages to add some eclectic touches while staying focused and together. There’s slide guitar, little horns and things, and occasional nods towards the folksier of Neil Young’s work, or a variety of “singer-songwriters”. Yet it also sounds like a typically melodic, clever, in-love-with-music Colin Clary indie-pop record.

The first line of the first song: “It’s hard to find out not everybody wants to be your friend.” Coming from a singer who often presents himself as everyone’s friend, it comes across as confession. The line is delivered like advice to someone younger, but also a reaching out, a longing to hear that a friend is OK. If the song seems light in tone, a friendly message from one person to another, underneath it is not. Beyond the personal, it also carries an acknowledgement of life’s fragility: “things break down.”

There’s intentional complexity of feeling/sound here, but also songs that are intentionally direct and even repetitive. Clary will often take a sentiment and repeat it like a mantra or lesson. Some examples – “guess I gotta say it / don’t think it out”; “Give it some time she said / you’ve gotta give it some time”; “hey I got a notion / ooh / Atlantic Ocean”, “would you love me forever / baby baby please”.

There’s rumination going on here. But often, the songs are swift and sweet like the Smittens’, with a sense of humor and, of course, a music collector’s reference points. There’s a song that nicks a Fleetwood Mac lyric and a love song that begins, “you’re the DJ / I’m the rapper”. I love the confident, playful announcement, “I wanna be in the bad girls club”, from the song “Bad Girls Club”. That song has a certain ‘50s greaser garage-rock-ish tone that emerges also on “She’s a Motorcycle” and “Boogiepop (Don’t Stop)”.

Those put together with references to farm animals, wizards and album-cover models show that Colin Clary has developed his own personal language of what he thinks is cool, as we’d expect all interesting artists to.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Architecture in Helsinki, Now + 4eva

Across their 14 years, the Australian group Architecture in Helsinki has shape-shifted, and not. The essence of their music has been the same – using melody, rhythm and varied instrumentation on pop songs about life/death/love, with a poetic sense of whimsy. Yet to an extent they’ve changed up the language they use. They started with small, orchestral-leaning pop, took that in a more epic direction, and then in a more hyper one with a dance-club hiding beneath the chaos. They took four years between albums, and then, for 2011’s Moment Bends, streamlined their sound, taking those same elements in a sleek direction that was both tropical and futurist in tone.

Now, in 2014, they’re starting with that same minimalist foundation (working with the same producer, Franc Tétaz of Gotye fame) and loading it with 1980s pop touchpoints galore. The opening song “In the Future” immediately reminds me of ‘80s aerobics videos and Madonna, a clear influence through the album. The low background voice uttering “are we in the future/living in the future” alone offers a wealth of ‘80s memories for me: a baritone voice uttering “pop goes the world”, the spoken voices behind Whitney Houston telling us to dance, and on and on.

It’s not just the ‘80s, though that is the dominant vibe. They take a ’60s pop song (Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk Into the Room”) and make it sound like an ‘80s prom. They end the album with a party song also in a 1960s mold, where you can easily imagine a group of men in matching suits doing a dance number. Yet the lead vocals on that song are Kellie Sutherland singing like Madonna, as she does through much of the album. Which means we think of the ‘60s and the ‘80s at once – which means, of course, The Big Chill soundtrack and its wake. Or, if you’re slightly hipper, the Style Council.

At the start of “U Tell Me”, singer Cameron Bird throws a pseudo-goth effect on his voice, to echo that he’s singing about the dead, visiting catacombs. There’s a very Prince-like keyboard in that song too, within its sort-of reggae, sort-of Miami Vice feeling. On “April” he takes us into ballad territory – not power ballads, more like white teen-pop-ers trying to pull off an R&B slow jam. “Born to Convince You” conjures up creepy ‘80s stalkers with hints of Tears for Fears and even something like a Glenn Frey or Don Henley hit. “2 Time” resembles rollerskating music, perhaps rollerskating to “Heart of Glass” as interpreted by a breathless pop diva that came in its wake. Sutherland throws a little Madonna-ish rap into the mostly Bird-sung “Boom (4eva)”, a song, like many here, about falling in and out of love.

I’ve been focusing on the musical influences and touchpoints here, but I could just as easily be writing about the heartbreak in these songs, the way it, like many great pop albums, often feels like a break-up album when you listen closely. But if it is one, it’s also an overly hopeful, positive one which is also about nonconformity, about smiling and dancing in the face of oblivion and certain doom. On “Echo”, the protagonist asks someone, “have faith in me / don’t ask me why-y-y-y-y”. I get the sense throughout the album that beneath the bright colors, the grooves and the fun looking-back costume-wearing, there’s a mass of pain, grief and uncertainty.

On “Before Tomorrow”, one of the clearest party anthems but also a likely breakup song, Sutherland sings, “there are times when all our people keep their problems alive / we’ll be floating backwards into the sun.” Is this escapism or suicide? And which direction are we going, forward or back? And again, the future and past are mixed up: “Make some history for tomorrow”, she beckons.

What Architecture in Helsinki is up to here doesn’t seem like nostalgia. They’re repurposing specific elements of pop music past, utilizing all of the emotions and sensory reactions tied up in those memories, and combining them into something that nonetheless feels fresh.

As basically a child of the ‘80s, I’m eating up the mixing and matching they’re doing, within songs that still hit on all of the reasons I’ve been an Architecture in Helsinki fan since the early 2000s. Basically this album almost made me stay up all night watching music videos of one-hit wonders from the ‘80s instead of finishing this review.

But I had to finish it, because I’m feeling completely out-of-step with other critics on this one. Look through all of the major Internet music sites and you’ll find negative reviews: Pitchfork, Paste, AllMusic, and so on. I don’t relate to those reviews in any way; they seem to be punishing the band for not sounding enough like they did when the writers first heard the band.

Somehow the album itself seems to anticipate this reaction. The album overtly acknowledges that the band is out of tune with the trends of our time, in its navigation of past decades and in the songs’ expressed uncertainty about where they belong. “Is this the future? Are we in the future?”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

REW<<, Departeures

There are palm trees on the cover, and the first song starts out with a vaguely tropical feeling before turning into something closer to a French-pop duet. A song midway through starts out with ambient sounds that very closely resemble (and probably are) the sounds you hear when you’re settling into an airplane seat and getting ready for takeoff. The final track, “Arriver” (as opposed to the opening track, “Departeures”), ends with a pilot’s loudspeaker announcement and some kind of field recording of applause.

This is a travel album, one created during journeys which also replicates the disorientation and beauty of being on the move, abroad. It does that mainly through rather gorgeous, shifting dream-pop, consistently melodic (in a sticks-in-your-head even if you’re not sure what he’s saying way), but also with the directness of folk or punk. REW<< is Ryan Weber, who is half of the somewhat similarly focused duo Eric & Magill, and also has played in emotionally direct groups like the Promise Ring and its rootsier relative Decibully. That past is here somehow, though not so close to the surface that you’d guess it without knowing.

Departeures was recorded in “hotel rooms and train compartments” in Asia and Africa, and is largely a one-person affair. The music feels carefully put together by someone with a lot of time on his hands; and a laptop that able to be recharged at airports across the globe. These songs seem solitary, too; focused within the brain of the traveler, asking questions of himself like, “Where do I go from here?” or expressing thoughts like “it’s getting tougher all the time.”

Listening, though, I never imagine that those questions and thoughts pertain just to travel itself, but are more a reflection of how travel, especially solitary travel, presents a unique opportunity for contemplation.

It may be rare for a DIY pay-as-you-wish “singer-songwriter” bandcamp album, even one for the laptop era, to warrant an additional instrumental version of the album. Yet this one has it, and deserves it. My ears and mind are drawn more often to the music and the ever-shifting textures of Departeures than I am to the singing and lyrics. Or rather, the vocals are just one more piece of the fabric; they unite with the synthesizers, acoustic guitars and unexpected or unidentifiable sounds.

As an album it floats by quickly, but not without permeating your thoughts. Like travel itself, perhaps?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On the challenges of writing about music in 2014

Excuse me, if you will; a moment of introspection.

This piece could be just as easily titled “On the challenges of parenthood” or “On the challenges of owning a house” or “On the challenges of having a job you like” or “On the challenges of being a music obsessive who also is interested in other things”. Or “On the challenges of being alive”.

It’s all related to time. Growing up = losing your grasp on time.

I’ve written about music as a hobby for 20 years.  Every time I write, I feel the specter of time over my head. It says, “why are you writing about this one when you’re further behind on this other one?”, or “when are you going to write your dream project”, or “you aren’t as good a writer as you would be if you had more time”, or “why are you writing when you should be doing [fill in the blank]?”

I read an interview once with Nick Hornby where he talked about his early career as a music critic and how no one can write about music for too long without getting burnt out on it. 20 years hasn’t burnt me out on music at all. If anything, it’s the opposite. The more time I spend writing about music or reading about music or listening to music, the more excited I get about doing more writing, more reading, more listening. Every week I learn about another musician I want to hear more of; some weeks I learn about several.

Feeling the crush of time makes me always feel like I’m missing out on a great band or album. It makes me always feel like I’m wasting my talents (so to speak) even when I’m happy with what I wrote. It makes me think again and again about writing something, without ever actually writing it. It makes me spend too much time writing about how little time I have, apologizing for not writing enough, and coming up with plans that I’m sure are going to help me manage my time better, but never do.

It can’t just be about aging. It is true that we have instant access to more bands and albums than ever before. If I wanted to, I could stay up all night just listening to bands I've never heard of before, who sound great. It used to take effort to hear a band that I read about in a magazine, words that were written months before. We've gained and lost from that change.

As time goes on, I get more interested in more types of music. This has been my trajectory since birth. I plan on it being true until the day that I die. But the more I get into, the harder it is to write about it all. Actually the harder it is to write about anything, because to write (or at least, to write well) you have to slow yourself down and pay attention, stop yourself from hunting and gathering at hyper-speed.

I am disillusioned with the current state of music criticism, even while I am part of it. This leads to a kind of paralysis tied to self-doubt. Should I write about music on a blog? Yes, I should, but I hate most blogs; they’re so shallow. Your average music writer for a blog seems to listen to an album once or twice before deciding definitively on it. I want to listen ten times, at least, before writing a word, and still never be sure if I'm right. 

Should I write about music for a print magazine? I do, but it takes forever between the writing and the publishing, and the word counts are so small, and it always ends up feeling anticlimactic when it’s published and I hold it in my hand. Should I write a book? I read books, I love books, I collect them. But what to write about, and how?

Most years lately I end up delaying writing about many, many albums until I get to the end of the year, when it’s free time for everyone to share their opinions left and right, to an increasingly suffocating degree. I can vote in some year-end polls, write a few short year-end blurbs, and feel like I wrote about more music than I really did.

I can feel like I contributed to the overall conversation about music, even though the number of times I actually wrote about music in the year is minuscule compared to the number of articles I wrote in my head.

And the new year will start, and I’ll feel hopeful that this year will be different. This year I’m going to write more, I’m going to choose more carefully, I’m going to edit myself better, I’m going to make every word count. I’m going to turn my barely-used website (4 posts in a year?) back into something people want to read. I’m going to get out those ideas that have lingered in my head for years, and make them work. And at the same time I’m going to keep up with all of the great music that comes out. I’m not going to feel like I missed out.

This conversation with myself is going to continue for the rest of my life. I don’t see any way that it won’t, unless I figure out the magic formula or give up. And I’ve always declared that I won’t give up. I’m going to be the 80-year-old in the concert audience with all 20-year-olds. I already feel like him sometimes. I’m going to stay interested in new music and old music and all music. I’m not going to tell people, “oh I’m so out of touch, I don’t even pay attention to music anymore.”

I’m going to be writing about music, because I don’t see any other way. And I’ll probably still be telling myself, next year is going to be better, next year I’m going to get it right.

(Or maybe this year will be that year?)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

25 Years Ago: Road to the Riches

March 14 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of De La Soul's playful-rap classic Three Feet High and Rising. It's a date likely to be noticed, in part because of the trio's recent headline-making move to put their music online for free; but also because of the creativity, in form and specifics, of the album.

And also because it's one of those hip-hop albums that non-hip-hop fans find themselves drawn to, one that's entered the pantheon of 'rock' music, likely to be hailed by, say Rolling Stone or Spin. In other words, it appealed to ‘cool’ middle-class white people. (A memory from a summer job in my teenage years: while discussing music with a black co-worker, she asked, "why do you white people like De La Soul and Public Enemy so much?") .

The album's message of nonconformity through individual expression, combined with their overall look at the time, made it likely to be classified as "alternative", something the group fought hard against but has also occasionally embraced.

Another landmark hip-hop album, at least equally significant but quite different, was released on the same day but is more likely to go unnoticed by the broader press: Road to the Riches, the debut album from Kool G Rap and DJ Polo. Its relative lack of cachet, at least among non-hip-hop critics/fans, no doubt is related to its comparative toughness, the more tragic urban stories the duo depicts and Kool G Rap's take-no-prisoners rapping style. As an entity, the group also had a shorter career, with less commercial success; Kool G Rap himself settled into more of an underground hip-hop hero's career while Polo disappeared from public view.

Road to the Riches is a sparse affair, without the epic album quality that appeals to rock critics. It has tracks that could be considered filler compared to their more powerful neighbors, like most hip-hop albums of its era. Even those, like the automobile tribute “Cars” and the DJ showcases “Cold Cuts” and “Butcher Shop”, are memorable. Yet the overall sleekness of the album ties right in with the hard-hitting minimalism that is one of their biggest strengths. The silence within this album is a major player, and helps make Kool G Rap all that much more of a riveting presence.

That presence has to be seen as a supremely influential one within hip-hop history. His compelling narrative style on certain tracks foreshadowed and influenced many of hip-hop’s greatest storytellers - Ghostface Killah, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., etc. His tough, yet quick and precise rhyming has been influential to legions of MCs of various stripes. America’s favorite late-night band, The Roots, have at least two straight-out tributes to Kool G. Rap on record; “Boom!”, where Black Thought imitates G Rap for a verse, and “Thought at Work”, basically a cover of Road to the Riches’ “Men at Work”.

“Men at Work” is basically a show-off for Kool G. Rap’s skills, and on that level it is absolutely devastating. He’s stringing words together quickly, breathlessly. They’re boasts mainly, some metaphors, some put-downs and a lot of big claims about the power of his rhymes. More than any specific phrase what impresses is mainly the river of words that comes forth relentlessly. I take that back; there are phrases here that stand out, and some that have been sampled and imitated over the years to come, but they emerge from within a flow that is astounding in its seemingly unstoppable energy. He goes and goes until, satiated, he cuts it off -- “Yo, Marley Marl, let’s stop the breakbeat.”

Marley Marl, the producer, is the secret weapon on that song, with its breakbeat and electric guitar. And he’s so on the album overall. This was the era when you had a DJ billed in the group name, contributing audible scratches, but a producer who really was the chief creative force behind the music. Marley Marl brought to Kool G Rap and Polo a minimalist smoothness, even prettiness that managed to both highlight the brutality of the raps and counterbalance it.

Ugliness + prettiness is an equation running through the totality of Road to the Riches, especially on the title track. If any single song here should be considered an all-time classic of hip-hop, it’s “Road to the Riches”. It’s a perfect example of Kool G Rap’s storytelling - basically a gangster tale, of a youth, born into a rough life, seduced by the promises of wealth and led into a life of violence and tragedy. It pulls no punches - revenge kidnappings, torture, jail time. But there’s a poetry about it, too, and an increasing sense of doom - “Looking at the hourglass / how long can this power last?”

The music is a big part of the story, too. It’s a classic example of the resourcefulness and creativity of the best hip-hop producers of the time, they way they would find breakbeats in unlikely sources and loop them, to a huge impact. Here it’s Billy Joel’s “Stiletto”, drumming that’s funkier than you’ll remember there being in a Billy Joel song, followed by a little piano part. It’s a moment that goes by quickly in the Joel song, but looped to seeming infinity it’s powerful stuff, gorgeous in its simplicity yet uncaring about the tragedy it’s soundtracking.

The song really tells two tales - its second and third verses are the gangster tale that makes the lasting impression, but the first verse is about hard work, about hustling to get a record deal and then getting one - “All my manpower for four bucks an hour / Took the time, I wrote rhymes in the shower / Shoes are scoffed cos the road gets rough / But I'mma rock it til my pockets ain't stuffed enough.” That’s another powerful theme of the album, the “I’ve made it” moment.

“It’s a Demo”, the duo’s first single, is more skeletal but just as classic, its roughness stemming from the song’s basic conceit - “it’s a demo”, like they said - and exemplifying the duo’s overall edge. “Poison” is muddy in a purposefully stomping way that suits the rhymes. There are non-singles here just as noteworthy: “Trilogy of Terror”, another sharp collection of boasts with light but somehow menacing music; “Rhymes I Express”, comparatively less fluid, with more of an LL Cool J/Run DMC-style of blocky enunciation, but no less tough.

As light in subject as some of the songs are, the brutality of the album is thorough - if not as much so as their other two albums (1990’s Wanted: Dead or Alive and 1992’s Live and Let Die). When it comes to a song like “Yours Truly”, Kool G Rap’s worldview is ugly in a retrograde way reflective of the macho man of the era’s fears - of AIDS, and by relation gay people; of “slutty” women and by relation both women and sex. That the song’s perspective resembles the likely voice of the narrowly focused wanna-be gangster of the title track probably shouldn’t be lost on listeners. Neither should the way the verses resemble crass stand-up comedy of the time. Meant to be so or not, it’s an exaggerated vision of masculine fears of the other - in this world, everyone different than you is out to get you, to take your money and give you a disease. Is the tough man really that tough, or scared?

“She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” tries somewhat unconvincingly to open up Kool G Rap past his tough demeanor, to reveal his sensitive side (“a broken heart ain’t no joke”). It and “Yours Truly” might seem in opposition -- caring and uncaring -- but they really resemble two sides of one coin - the tough guy trying in different ways to steel himself against the world’s brutality. For if Kool G Rap’s rhymes themselves can be brutal - and they absolutely can, as much as any rapper then or now, they also set up a brutal, uncaring world around them. Kool G Rap’s articulation of that would itself be remarkable, but backed by Marley Marl’s intuitive, curated sound, it’s a whole different beast, the tough and the smooth joined together elegantly.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jeffrey Lewis and the Jrams - s/t CD

I’m finding it harder to keep up with my favorite bands. Either by age 40 I’ve collected too many favorite bands or life is moving too fast for me to stay on top of it. Things happen that never did before – I’ll realize a band I listened to obsessively in 2005 has put out two more LPs since then without me knowing. Or, for example, Jeffrey Lewis put out an exclusive tour CD and I nearly missed the fact of its existence.

Actually, it’s available not just at shows but on his website. It’s under the name Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams, not to be confused with Jeffrey Lewis & the Rain or Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard or the Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band or simply Jeffrey Lewis. Nevermind, go ahead and confuse them, they all involve the same person, the Lower East Side folk singer/comic artist/writer of sonnets based on Sonic Youth lyrics named Jeffrey Lewis.

Eclecticism is, to an extent, part of his music too – or at least this collection of 10 songs is lovably rag-tag. The CD starts with a lonely pop song that begins with him imagining his own funeral, wanting it to happen while he’s alive and moves into general longing for gatherings of friends and ponderings about his own ability or inability to maintain friendships within today’s social-media, fast-paced world (“You’re Invited”). [One thing I always relate to about Lewis is his ability to articulate the feeling that the world is slipping by you or making you feel like an out-of-touch alien.]

The CD ends with a short acoustic track that takes on a traditional folk form more than the rest (“Down to See”). In between those bookends is a song my wife mistook for the Violent Femmes, a spoken poem about Pussy Riot, a spacey daydream called “Nonsense” (“Nonsense rules supreme”; truer words not spoken) and a kind of gutter blues song about the hardships of daily life, like burnt pancakes or the morning newspaper not showing up (“It’s No Good”).

His wit and humor, within a Charlie Brown-like "woe is me" persona, is exemplified by the quick-and-easy "Outta Town", a would-be college-radio hit that seems like a tragic tale of heartbreak -- what can he do now that she's gone - until he reveals that she's only out of town for the weekend, and has only been gone for a day and a half. The bouncy, almost optimistic pessimism on display there is a hallmark of this collection and Lewis' overall discography, which is filled with many similar pleasures.

[P.S. To illustrate my first paragraph's point - while finishing up this piece, I spent some time looking at Jeffrey Lewis videos and stumbled across the fact that in 2012 he contributed to Tallahassee Turns Ten, a track-by-track, various-artists cover of the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee album. It has Jeffrey Lewis, Kimya Dawson, Hallelujah the Hills and bands I don't know yet. Awesome; this kind of discovery is what keeps me up too late, what makes me spend too much money and what keeps me excited about music every single day.]