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Expert Witness: November 2012

The Coup/The Rough Guide to Undiscovered World

Written long enough before Sandy to be saved to my laptop
Friday, November 2, 2012  

The Coup: Sorry to Bother You (Anti-)
As a proud communist who's spent his career claiming the people are ripe for revolution, Boots Riley has at his disposal a rich, seldom-tapped seam of scathing rhetoric and concrete metaphor and fleshes out leftist analysis with humanist muscle and poetic integument. How many anti-school rants rise to "statistics is the tool of the complicit"? How many anti-hipster snark jobs match "You're the asshole ambassador/But your friends obey like Labradors/I vomited on the alpine decor/It's OK, your daddy's gonna buy some more"? But as he passes 40 it gets harder to deny that, ultimately, he's almost as deluded as the average H.P. Lovecraft obsessive, who at least understands he's on a fantasy trip. The songcraft on this hard-rocking hip-hop album is uneven by Riley's high standards--some are unclear, others longer on hook than wisdom. So when Das Racist and Killer Mike join in on the finale, I'm happy to be reminded that there are younger rappers ready to move Riley's vision worldward. Good for him. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to Undiscovered World (World Music Network)
Dumb title. If they're afraid to call it "world music fusion" because that sounds too cheesy, how about "polydiscovered" or "cross-discovered"? Gambian-Scottish reels, Cypriot-Chilean rebetika, Polish orientalism, like that. At its worst, which is pretty bad, New Age mawk wafts incenselike from its gentle shows of musical privilege. But pull the plug on the unspeakably polite English Arabists at track six and program past the peace-addled Africana at tracks nine-ten-eleven and you have a lively panoply of sounds you've never heard before. Most of them couldn't maintain your interest for more than a track, although I hope eventually to double-check that assumption with the gamelan funk of Sarutusperson. Instead they're held together by their hopeful, thoughtful, universalist curiosity. B PLUS

The Mountain Goats/Ned Sublette

Crowns of thorns
Tuesday, November 6, 2012  

The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth (Merge)
Thorny to begin with, John Darnielle reached some near-perfect threshold of liminal comprehensibility with Tallahassee 10 years ago, then got thornier again, albeit in liminally comprehensible mode. But here he goes so clear Tom Cruise may propose matrimony. If you want songs that hit as hard as "No Children" and "International Small Arms Traffic Blues," put on your body armor, because most of these hit harder. From "Amy AKA Spent Gladiator"'s unequivocal "stay alive" to the title youth rising heavenward on "air gone black with flies," here is all-embracing existential despair that refuses to get down in the mouth about it, peaking with two sunken-hopes tracks midway through that taken as a diptych constitute the greatest song he's ever written. Matthew E. White's horn charts are the musical development Darnielle has in store for us. But the dealmaker is Jon Wurster's spare, inescapable drumming. A

Ned Sublette: Kiss You Down South (Postmambo)
My favorite tune here was also Thomas Jefferson's--the 18th-century hit "Money Musk," which Sublette appropriates the better to ensnare the "great brain of a brave new nation" in his own sweet trap. Listen faithfully and you'll find more, beginning with the geographical-anatomical title lick. But in truth I wish they weren't so subtle, just as I wish the clave aficionado had enlisted a rhythm section instead of recording these 14 songs as if his 1969 nylon-stringed Ramirez classical guitar was Leadbelly's steel, which it isn't--momentum-wise, anyway. That said, phrasing that stops you short he can do, and lyrically he's something else. "Flow" and "Between Piety and Desire," "Gangster Roots" and "The Auctioneer's Nightmare," "Drugs (Fuck All You Motherfuckers)" and "Hey God"--these deliver the requisite lyricism, complexity, and rage, respectively. The Jefferson song, entitled "Sally," delivers all three. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman

No, really
Friday, November 9, 2012  

Homeboy Sandman: Chimera EP (Stones Throw)
The beats on these six songs tend low and thrummy, less than catchy but they stick with you. The philosophical lyrics are braggier than usual, and in a touch I like, every damn one is reproduced on the cover of the vinyl version. First side, "I Do Whatever I Want" and especially "Cops Get Scared of Me" prove somewhat less than compelling. But the second begins with a a geopolitical analysis so much shrewder than the unpromising title "Illuminati" that the two excellent if lesser tracks that follow are, well, illuminated. B PLUS

Homeboy Sandman: First of a Living Breed (Stones Throw)
Between speed of delivery and brevity of line, Sandman's nonstop tunefulness here tends jingly no matter how gritty his flow. So listen up, Goya Foods--he's a Dominican vegan with an old rhyme called "Canned Goods," and if you're real nice maybe he'll let you attach it to a garbanzo commercial. As a sucker for babies, let me praise the sample that runs through the "Wear Clean Draws" variant "For the Kids"; as an elder, let me remind those who've forgotten (as I had) that the treated verbalese of "Cedar & Sedgwick" namechecks the birthplace of hip-hop. Sandman's rhymes are so unfailing I wish he'd tell stories as well as pile on rhetoric, because rhetoric is harder to sustain at the level of interest he deserves. I also wish his best album didn't recycle one standout each from his two 2012 EPs. But there aren't many rappers who can top a strong collection with a progress report on their careers which credibly reports that the nicest thing about earning money is having more to give away and transforms a diffidently childish "not really" into a dynamite hook. I mean, what a boast: "Not really." A MINUS

Taylor Swift/Donald Fagen

The ingenue and the roue
Tuesday, November 13, 2012  

Taylor Swift: Red (Big Machine)
So if Stephin Merritt can make a big deal out of 69 love songs, why can't Taylor Swift make a fairly big deal out of 16? His being formally savvy in his pop-polymath way and hers being formally voracious in her pop-bestseller way? Need either deal be autobiographical? One hopes not in both cases, although verisimilitude has its formal aspects for bestsellers. Swift hits the mark less often than Merritt--65 or 70 percent, I'd say. But one could argue that the verisimilitude requirement forces her to aim higher. I like the feisty ones, as I generally do. But "Begin Again" and especially "Stay Stay Stay" stay happy and hit just as hard. That's hard. A MINUS

Donald Fagen: Sunken Condos (Reprise)
How can you not dig an ED-defying lounge lizard whose April-November romance evolves as far as "Today we were strollin'/By the reptile cage/I'm thinkin': Does she need somebody/Who's closer to her own age"? Whose examples of how "I'm Not the Same Without You" include a spontaneous facelift and an extra inch in height? This is cynicism lite swung tite. You'll grow to love the queen of Bowlmor Lanes, the Jazz Age gangster who takes pride in his work, the souvenirs of dooms past rusting in the back of the sci-fi shop. And before you get het up about the one called "Out of the Ghetto," know this: it's an Isaac Hayes cover. A MINUS

Two Fingers/Lukid

Knob twiddling can be fun
Friday, November 16, 2012  

Two Fingers: Stunt Rhythms (Big Dada)
At my usual loss when attracted to an electronic dance album, I sought out reviews to see what I could crib, and never got past the Pitchfork 5.6 I started with. Chicago Reader staffer turned Brooklyn freelancer Miles Raymer, thanks for providing lingo I can spin. "The brainy, meticulous knob twiddler [i.e. Amon Tobin, who did another album I liked under this slumming moniker] might be having a laugh at the expense of his own reputation as a brainy, meticulous knob twiddler"? Keep a smile on your face, Amon. "It's like flipping through the sketchbook of a respected conceptual artist only to find it full of expertly rendered pornographic cartoons"? Reminds me of a painter pal who in the '60s did a whole slipcase of polarized bicolor sex silkscreens--some lovely, some gross, all yummy. "The unmistakable trademarks of Americanized dubstep"? I'll leave that one to my aesthetic advisor Carola Dibbell, who enjoys this CD even more than me but observes, "He's not as good as Skrillex, though." A MINUS

Lukid: Lonely at the Top (Werkdiscs/Ninja Tune)
Although I enjoy an endless groove as much as the next Afropop fan, my Afropop-inflected taste in grooves means that when it comes to British dance music, I prefer my beatmakers rockish. So it finally is with Luke Blair, who on his fourth and least austere album ventures into songlike territory without ever enlisting a vocalist, although vocal sounds do enter the mix. The first three tracks evoke a Madchester DOR approach, only Blair's fuzzed-up, uninhibited textures, the first two incorporating treated chorales, have more character than most of the wasted singers on that scene. Subsequently, different sonic sets front each track. One thumps, one arpeggiates, one twinkles, one loops atmospheric, one loops bassy, and so forth. It's almost as if Blair has called in has-beens for cameos--here Otis Clay, there, I don't know, Brett Anderson. Not exactly, though. A MINUS


Inky dinky parlez-vous
Tuesday, November 20, 2012  

Encre: Flux (Clapping Music '04)
I know more about the French electronic musician Yann Tambour now than when I reviewed Encre's eponymous debut in 2005. I know that that record came out in 2001. I know that he's released three albums and three EPs under the moniker, and that both EPs I've heard, Marbres and Plexus II, are forgettable. I know that he leads another band or unit called Thee, Standing Horse that makes music as stillborn as its horrible name. I know that when I wondered jokingly in my first review whether he was talking about time (fois) or liver (foie), he was probably talking about liver, because the extensive printed lyrics here begin "Ah mon foie! tu prépares un vieux prémature" ("Ah my liver! You prepare a premature old age"). I know I'm not going to translate the rest of those lyrics, which on a casual scan tend passionate and prétentieux, and that I'm not going to let them stop me from reporting that Encre is one helluva laptop unit. It's one-man chamber music with a fondness for rhythmic repetition--for hypnotic motives, say--and also, occasionally, percussion. Tambour (the French word for drum, as it happens) plays guitar and kora, but his sonic palette favors chamber quartet sonorities, brief orchestral samples, simple piano figures, and other classical-type materials. Only half the eight songs include lyrics, which Tambour whispers winningly and mysteriously. I hope he's taking care of his liver. But I'd hope harder if he hadn't abandoned Encre for Thee, Standing Horse. A MINUS

Encre: Common Chord (Clapping Music '06)
Encre's live album features a five-person group playing versions of Tambour's studio creations, some of them radically reconceived. The big difference is that they rock--the drums are always there, and almost always state a beat. Similarly, the music's louder in general; similarly, there's more guitar; similarly, Tambour oft exclaims where once he whispered. He also cedes one vocal to his female cellist. A laptopper with an outgoing side--we like that. A MINUS

Saigon/Kendrick Lamar

Rap versus real
Friday, Novemver 23, 2012  

Saigon: The Greatest Story Never Told: Chapter Two: Bread and Circuses (Suburban Noize)
Although the beats have fallen off a little--Just Blaze moves up to executive producer on most tracks--the prompt follow-up to Brian Carenard's long-delayed debut is slightly less militant and, as a direct result, stronger. The best song on an album distinguished by two major conscious anthems--the well-hooked tribute to the martyrs "Blown Away," and "Rap vs Real," a sharp-tongued rebuke to hip hop authenticity myths that backhands Puffy on its way to gonorrhea and the IRS--nails a theme few of his fans are savvy enough to grok and no rock icon of my acquaintance has gotten near: "Relafriendship," about his long-term bond to a woman he'd better not go to bed with because that'll screw up what they've got. But almost nothing here dips to ordinary. And beats or not, one reason is that the rapper's rough clarity is musical bedrock. A MINUS

Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
The rap-versus-real dichotomy Saigon moralizes anthemically Lamar enacts softspokenly in this so-called "short film." (Concept album? In 2012? Nah.) The accuracy of its intimate autobiographical details is irrelevant--what matters is that this album helps you feel the internal struggles of a good kid who may not be good enough as he risks derailing his life by succumbing to the kneejerk loyalty, petty criminality, and gang warfare of the hood he calls home. Nobody is heroic here, including Lamar--from Christian strivers to default sociopaths, all the players are confused, weary, bored, ill-informed, with disconcertingly naturalistic, almost verité skits dramatizing their limitations. The commitment to drama has musical drawbacks--there are no dancefloor bangers here, and not many fully distinct songs, although more hooks than you'll first believe. But the atmospheric beats Dr. Dre and his hirelings lay under the raps and choruses establish musical continuity, shoring up a nervous flow that's just what Lamar's rhymes need. A MINUS

Heems/Kool A.D.

Free tan everything
Tuesday, November 27, 2012  

Heems: Wild Water Kingdom (free Greedhead mixtape)
Flushing is in the F'ing house--namechecking Quaker hegemony resister John Bowne and college-bound bus route Kissena Boulevard, Himanshu Suri is my Cherry Avenue homeboy. And although more far-out referents might arguably block my passway to his freewheeling freestyles, subcontinental beats like Keyboard Kid's electro-Carnatic "Let It Go" and Harry Fraud's serpent-charming "Wild Water Kingdom" mean to create a world of fun for everyone: "When Heema rappin'/This is what happen/Everybody foot gets to tappin'/Everybody dance like they Latin/Everybody clothes turn to silk and to satin/Everybody metal turn from silver to platinum/Everybody set like director said action." Climaxed by a love song to an r&b also-ran whose first name rhymes with Tone-Loc's favorite love potion, this jumpy tribute to substance exploitation may be his gangsta album. But it comes with a PSA: "Don't do drugs. They're bad for you, they make you feel strange, your friends won't love you anymore." A MINUS

Kool A.D.: 51 (free Greedhead mixtape)
Heems's Das Racist partner favors skinnier, more electro beats, most by his Bay Area compadre Amaze 88, which he loops under raps that carry more weight on this April mixtape than they did on The Palm Wine Drinkard just a few months before--as do the cameos from Mr. Rogers and a chipmunked Huey P. Newton. True, the record shudders to a virtual halt when the ecumenical auteur turns beatmaker midway through, and some may judge the rhymes irresponsibly playful. But he's right about "Yo these girls are smart man/I'm trying to figure out how to play my part man/I don't know how to start man/The strangest organ is the human heart man/Fuck with shortcuts like I'm Robert Altman/Fuck with long shots like I'm Robert Altman/Fuck with actresses like I'm Robert Altman/Recycled like half a verse but that's art man." That is art. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 018

World lounge faces the world
Friday, November 30, 2012  

Andra Kouyaté & Séké Chi: Saro (Studio Mali)
Intricate and improvisatory, griot scion reaches out to the world and back into history ("Yele With Seke Chi Intro," "N'Goke") ***

Ramzi Aburedwan: Reflections of Palestine (Riverboat)
Imagining, and almost creating, a civilized peace ("Bahar," "Bordeaux") ***

The Rough Guide to Bellydance (World Music Network)
The politer dabke, raqs sharki, khaleeji, baladi, etc.--complete with instructional DVD! (Satrak Sarkissian, "Boos Shoof"; Said Al Artist, "Sadaf Iskandarani") ***

The Rough Guide to the Music of Afghanistan (World Music Network)
Brave in exile, even braver not, and a lot less solemn than they have every right to be (Setara Husseinzada, "Zim Zim Zim"; Rafi Naabzada & Hameed Sakhizada, "Sabza Ba Naaz Mea Ayad"; Mehri Maftun, "Dar Khyal-e Ishq-e Khuban") **

The Lost Cuban Trios of Casa Marina (Ahi-Nama)
Two of them, to be precise, making sweet harmony if not love in a Batista whorehouse (Trio Zamora, "Vacilon"; Trio Melodicos, "El Negrito Del Batey") **

The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge (World Music Network)
Don't worry, it'll be air-conditioned (Azzddine With Bill Laswell, "Droub Al Lit"; Ghazzi Abdel Baki, "Al Guineyna"; Amir ElSaffar, "Khosh Reng") **

Gustavo Casenave: Tango Casenave (Watchcraft Music)
Uruguayan piano ace and former Bette Midler music director executes arresting but not quite uplifting de facto Piazzolla tribute ("Noviembre," "Humo") **

Egyptian Project: Ya Amar (Six Degrees)
French svengali arrays traditional vocals and instruments from the title nation over "tasteful electronic rhythms," breaching cultural barriers more readily when they're, sacré bleu, a little quicker ("Ya Sahbi," "Soufi") *

MSN Music, November 2012

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