This is a more-or-less complete collection of my past work. Much of my early Emerald work was lost during a major website update this year, but the Emerald staff is currently working on recovering these articles.
An interesting opportunity to examine the early sparks of a talent that would soon explode.
Vladislav Delay has shown Sistol, originally released in 1999, more love than any other release from his back catalog. For its 20th anniversary, Sistol 1999 marks its second re-release, after a 2010 deluxe edition that included a whole disc of new remixes. But other than as a two-decade milestone, the occasion for celebration is uncertain. This is an odd album on which to lavish such treatment, as it’s one of his earliest releases, and far from his best. But it’s an interesting opportunity to examine the early sparks of a talent that would soon explode.
Delay would break free in 2000 with an astounding run of albums: Entain, Vapaa Muurari Live as Uusitalo, and Vocalcity as Luomo. These albums sound like nothing else, but Sistol sounds like a lot of microhouse albums that came out around the time, and it exemplifies the convention from which Delay would have to break free for his talent to fully flower. The beats are rigid and not terribly funky. Too-clever affectations abound: The skipping kick drum on “Luomo” reads like a mistake rather than a subversion, and “Hac” teases being in the wrong time signature for no reason at all. It’s a relic from a time when microhouse itself was a novel concept and reducing dance music to its pointillist essentials was still subversive and scary. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Outback Steakhouse Locations in Oregon Are Being Used to Test New Employee Surveillance Technology
Date: Oct 21, 2019
Big Brother is watching you eat that Bloomin’ Onion.
Update, 10/22: In a statement, a spokesperson for Outback Steakhouse’s parent company, Bloomin’ Brands, tells WW via email that it has halted the testing of Presto Vision at the chain’s Portland location: “We know our franchisee had the best of intentions when testing technology to help provide exceptional service. But, we all agree that hospitality is best achieved by serving our customers’ needs in the moment. For this reason, the test in Portland, OR has been cancelled and they are no longer using the program.”
Outback Steakhouse locations in Oregon are being used to test a new computer surveillance tool designed to analyze interactions between customers and service staff.
According to an article in Wired, the “computer vision program,” called Presto Vision, is a product of Presto, a restaurant tech company based in Redwood City, Calif. It uses pre-existing security cameras to track metrics such as the length of time it takes for food to arrive and how quickly waitstaff tend to tables, then sends data to restaurant managers. The information can then be used “to identify problems and infer whether servers, hostesses, and kitchen staff are adequately doing their jobs,” according to the article.
Presto Vision does not identify individual diners, nor does it employ facial recognition software, the company says.
Wired reported the technology is currently being employed exclusively in the lobby of the Outback Steakhouse location at 11146 SW Barnes Rd. in Beaverton, analyzing “factors like how crowded the lobby is and how many customers decide to leave rather than wait for a table.”
But when reached by WW, a manager at the Beaverton location said Presto Vision is being implemented in all five Outback Steakhouses in Oregon except Tualatin. The Outback in Medford confirmed it is using the program, while the Keiser and Springfield locations declined to comment.
This is not the first example of a restaurant testing wide-scale surveillance technology. Domino’s uses “DOM Pizza Checker” at some locations in Australia and New Zealand, which utilizes an AI-equipped camera to monitor workers as they assemble pizzas.
Representatives from Evergreen Restaurant Group, the Washington-based company that manages the Outback Steakhouse franchise in Beaverton and elsewhere, were unavailable for comment. But Jeff Jones, Evergreen’s president and CEO, told Wired that it will not collect any personal information from customers, and video is deleted within three days.
This is one of the year’s essential remasters, bringing new life to an underloved masterpiece of early ambient music.
Ernest Hood’s Neighborhoods is unique among proto-ambient synth albums in that it looks back in time rather than forward, and that’s why it’s aged so much more gracefully than most of its contemporaries. Synthesizers were desired in the ‘70s for the space-age possibilities they represented, but music meant to evoke the future looks pale and silly once the future actually rolls around. Meanwhile, music meant to evoke the past only becomes more uncanny and mysterious the further we drift from it down the timeline.
Hood, known as Ern or Ernie in life, was born in North Carolina in 1923 and spent most of his life in Portland, Oregon. A hotshot jazz guitarist during the ‘40s, he lost the ability to play after contracting polio in the early ‘50s, switching to zither and keyboards. He obsessively recorded the sounds of his environment, taking his backseat mic setup on car trips around the suburb of West Linn. After co-founding the independent radio station KBOO, which still exists, he used his airtime to broadcast “audio postcards” made from found sounds and his own narration.
Hood’s goal was to unite his art and his environment, and Neighborhoods, released in 1975, is the culmination of this vision. Half of the album’s real estate is devoted to sad, simple synth melodies and attractive blossoms of zither. The rest is field recordings, mostly of kids interacting with their parents, all of them talking in that folksy mid-century way that feels a little more stilted and innocent than how we speak now. Crickets and birds chirp balmily. A kid spills 7-Up on his peanuts. Old cars race around; a dog barks; thunderclouds rumble. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
We Had It All was the last solo album Walker would make in hopes of a hit.
The songs on Billy Joe Shaver’s 1973 album Old Five and Dimers Like Me comprise one of the great bodies of work in country. Through Waylon Jennings’ interpretations on Honky Tonk Heroes later that year, they helped spark the outlaw movement. Then there’s Scott Walker’s We Had It All from 1974. Do we need to hear these songs third-hand? This is one of the more warmly received of Walker’s ‘70s potboilers, perhaps because the concept of Walker singing outlaw country is kind of interesting but more likely because most of its champions haven’t heard Honky Tonk Heroes.
It’s hard to picture this Bergman-watching vampire of the avant-garde as the kind of shit-kicking characters Shaver portrayed. To his credit Walker at least ended up with the Shaver songs best-suited to his voice. “Ride Me Down Easy” lets Walker indulge the tremulous low range of his voice, and maybe he related to “Old Five and Dimers” as a sad man who was drinking a lot (“Good luck and fast bucks are few and far between”). Less fortunate is his take on “Black Rose,” peppered with some of the most unconvincing “lord”’s this side of a Mumford & Sons Pandora. His cadences are inconsistent between the two choruses, perhaps because he didn’t give much of a shit. He sounds like one of those kids in the West Side Story movie, snapping their fingers and hoping we’ll believe they’re in a gang. It’s awful. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
f the characters on Richard Dawson’s 2020 are not the reincarnations of the ones on the 2017 masterpiece Peasant, their lives are being ruined by the reincarnations of the same problems. “How little we are, clung to the river’s edge/ Come hell or high water,” Dawson exclaims on “The Queen’s Head,” singing as the proprietor of a flooded pub. From ancient times until today, nature fucks with people’s lives in random and unpredictable ways. But isn’t it curious how the people most affected are usually the ones with the fewest means to rebuild?
Dawson is a fiercely working-class songwriter – the Ken Loach of rock. Peasant titled its songs after its characters’ professions, which for better or worse defined them in the rough medieval environment his songs waded through. And though 2020 is exhilarating to listen to just on the strength of its writing, its power and poignancy comes from its empathy for the underdog, be that the exploited proletariat or just a kid failing at his soccer game. “Stop fannying around,” yells the kid’s disappointed dad on “Two Halves.” “You’re not Lionel Messi.” That might be true – but the kid is the star of a Dawson song.
If you don’t know who Lionel Messi is, welcome to Dawson’s unyieldingly English – specifically Northern English – world. Aldi, Nando’s, Peroni, Ready-Brek, Sellotape, Wetherspoons, Zoopla. Hyper-specific references abound, including those to contemporary technology that are usually used in songs as a cheap way of dating them to the present. A “Heart Emoji” catalyzes a cuckold’s realization that his wife’s always been kind of awful. A “Civil Servant” finally musters up the courage to skip work and play Call of Duty. The album’s centerpiece, “Fulfillment Center,” takes us inside the nightmarish guts of some dreadful warehouse; Wiis and Blu-ray players go in, people who complain go out. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Born in 2002, Rojo worked as a show animal in a 4-H program until a spectator observed his exceptionally gentle demeanor and suggested he might have a promising career in therapy.
His handler, Shannon Joy, enrolled him in the animal therapy program at DoveLewis Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital in 2007. When he passed, Joy and her mother Lori Gregory founded Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas in Vancouver, Wash., whose cadre has since expanded to 11 camelids.
At 17, Rojo is well into old age—20 years is a typical lifespan for the species. He’s showing signs of slowing down and currently resides on a farm in Ridgefield, Washington.
The anonymous Seattle project Topdown Dialectic makes eight-track, 40-minute albums of spidery, loose-limbed dub techno, packaged in formidable gray sleeves that basically show us a box inside a box. Each track is five minutes long, a decision that accomplishes three things. It gives the tracklist an aesthetic symmetry to go with its cover. It implies these tracks could go on forever and that five minutes is an arbitrary constraint. And it allows us to develop enough of an idea of what five minutes feels like that four minutes or so in we get excited for the track to fade out so we can hear what’s next.
There’s never really been dub techno like this. The closest analog might be the music Vladislav Delay started making in the late 2000s: albums like Vantaa and Kuopio, which were only occasionally ambient and always restless, their aqueous substance perpetually being shifted and stirred by loud, sudden metallic noises that dominate the percussive stratum rather than your usual kicks and hi-hats. It’s hi-def and diurnal, the kind of music you could listen to on a balmy day rather than saving for proper dub techno weather—which is cloudy skies and, if you can find it, fog.
Most of what can be said about Topdown’s second album Vol. 2 can be said about their first, last year’s Vol. 1, though this one distinguishes itself through what sounds like snatches of voice. The percussion on “A2” (of course the tracks are untitled) sounds like someone whispering, and there’s a moaning, bluesy sample deep in “B1” that resembles the distant snatch of Robert Johnson on Coil’s “Theme from the Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex.” “A4” sounds like a vaporwave track, and the gated snare crash that runs through the song is the album’s most familiar sound. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Danny Brown’s ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’ Is a Classic Hip-Hop Record Without the Experimental Edge
Date: Oct 10, 2019
Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s uknowhatimsayin¿ is a spare, principled record that’s mostly about hard beats and harder bars.
Danny Brown – Dirty Laundry
uknowhatimsayin¿ fits the profile of a classic rap album, but this far into Danny Brown’s run, it feels relatively minor. That’s more to Brown’s credit than to his fifth album’s detriment. Since breaking out early this decade, he’s been one of rap’s most extra figures. He broke out as a bug-eyed, chip-toothed, emo-haired, duck-voiced Detroiter who rapped with appalling candidness about sex, drug addiction, and Detroit disenfranchisement. He’s a “hipster at heart” and a purist’s nightmare. Although, he’s also the Platonic ideal of a rapper: a guy who loves to spit truth over whatever beats his cabal of producers throws his way. And because he leans towards indies like Fool’s Gold and Warp Records rather than the rap-biz monsters like G-Unit that courted him early on, he’s able to court the rap cognoscenti while maintaining the kind of creative control that endears him to the indie crowd. That’s especially true when he names an album Atrocity Exhibition, after the Joy Division song, and fills it with beats that are more post-punk than anything else.
Here, he’s “listening to Wu-Tang and rubbing on my balls”. uknowhatimsayin¿ is a spare, principled record that’s not about much besides hard beats and harder bars. It’s not indie or experimental or crossover. It’s 33 minutes long, his shortest by some margin. It’s executive-produced by Q-Tip, as good a symbol of rap as brain food as you’re likely to find. He still coaxes spit-takes out of his sex raps and wrings wrenching black comedy out of everyday Detroit poverty—just not as much. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Oregon’s Only Strip Club Haunted House Is Coming Back, and This Year, They Made a Horror Movie to Go with It
Date: Oct 09, 2019
It stars a handful of Spyce dancers in scenarios lifted from classics like “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th, and “Child’s Play.”
Spyce Gentleman’s Club in Old Town is bringing back its annual Strip Club Haunted House for the fifth year in a row, featuring strippers in ghoulish makeup and an au courant theme—vintage ’80s horror, still riding the wave of nostalgia that brought us It Follows and Stranger Things.
The difference is that this time, they’ve made an actual horror film to go with it.
The 11-minute clip, directed by Sam Lingle, stars Haunted Strip Club impresario DJ Dick Hennessy and a handful of Spyce dancers in scenarios lifted from classics like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Child’s Play.
It’s not particularly scary, but it’s surprisingly compelling and funny, with Hennessy and Spyce manager Matt Doss reacting with befuddled logic to the offing of their employees by classic horror villains while mounting a desperate rescue. (Click “web”or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Blood Harmony is less interesting for the world it creates than the world it inhabits and eulogizes.
The 2018 wildfire season struck a chord with Californians, filling the skies above Los Angeles and San Francisco with ash and blood red, giving us an image to go with the very real possibility that many of us living today are going to die with the human race. People talked like the world was actually going to end. And in pop, the burning of its capital has become shorthand for those fears. “L.A.’s in flames/ It’s getting hot,” sings Lana Del Rey on “The Greatest,” so far the best song in this vein. “Hills burn in California,” whispers Billie Eilish on “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.” Eilish’s older brother Finneas O’Connell, who writes and produces most of her material, has gone one step further. On the cover of his debut EP Blood Harmony, he’s trying to outrun the flames.
“You found me just as the smoke filled the room/ In the valley,” he sings on “Die Alone.” It’s one of the year’s eeriest pop songs, a play-by-play of a conversation that could happen between two lovers as the fires get closer. “Do you want to die alone or watch it all burn down together?” she asks over an anti-beat that could be an Eluvium track on its own. “I’d rather try and hold on to you forever,” he responds. It’s the kind of kissing-as-the-world-burns scenario we’ve all been familiar with since the last shot of Fight Club. The difference is that the world is actually burning. It’s kind of clever, using an age-old pop snow clone as a vessel for fears rooted in the real world. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Scott Walker’s voice sounds incredible over sighing strings and it’s the one thing that makes Any Day Now halfway redeemable.
cott Walker’s voice sounds incredible over sighing strings. He knows this, we know it, and it’s the one thing that makes Any Day Now halfway redeemable. Of all the questionable, money-hungry people the singer found himself shacked up with in the studio during the ‘70s, he certainly had the best taste of any of them. When we hear Walker’s voice fly free into sweeping vibrato on the compositions by Anka, Bacharach and Webb that comprise the best songs on his 1973 album, we know it’s because he knows he’s making decent music, and it’s one of the few consolations he must have had during a decade defined by schmaltzy covers and contractual obligations. The subversion, the avant-garde impulses and the mordant wit inherited from his idol Jacques Brel are gone. The sound remains, and if you exorcise all context, Any Day Now sounds like it could be the work of a weirder, more vampiric Michael Bublé, a set of pipes you’d be happy to hear wafting through a Macy’s.
But as anyone who’s ever listened to The Disintegration Loops or a Daniel Johnston album can attest, context is a bitch. Any Day Now is one of four albums Walker made in the ‘70s that consist of covers. The story’s familiar: following the commercial failure of the towering Scott 4 and its intermittently great follow-up ’Til the Band Comes In, Walker was forced to renounce creative control and pay the bills as a standards-interpreting crooner. These records aren’t unlistenable; 1972’s The Moviegoer, in particular, shows a bit of moxie, and the decision to let the guy who wrote “The Seventh Seal” pick his own selection of film themes strongly suggests Philips Records hadn’t even bothered to pick up a copy of 4. But it’s easy to forgive a Walker fan for skipping them, in part because of their reputation and in part because Walker’s done his best to suppress them. Any Day Now isn’t available to stream, though some of its tracks are available on subsequent compilations. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
A Portland Tech Company’s Weird New Video Game Has Become a Viral Sensation
Date: Sep 30, 2019
Since its release two weeks ago, “Untitled Goose Game” has earned celeb endorsements and inspired an endless stream of memes based on its long-necked lead.
If you’ve browsed social media at all the last week or so, you’ve likely heard of Untitled Goose Game, the video game that lets players step into the webbed feet of the titular waterfowl and wreak havoc on a peaceful English village.
Since its release two weeks ago, the game has earned celeb endorsements from Chrissy Teigen and Blink-182 and inspired an endless stream of memes, artwork and mash-up videos based on its long-necked lead.
What you might not know is that the game was published by Portland-based company Panic Inc.
Steven Frank and Cabel Sasser founded Panic in 1997 as a software company, creating file transfer app Transmit and media player Audion before pivoting to gaming in 2016 by publishing the acclaimed indie game, Firewatch. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Jenny Hval’s ‘The Practice of Love’ Is Brainy, Conceptual, and Hugely Entertaining
Date: Sep 30, 2019
Jenny Hval’s The Practice of Love is a playful, conceptual pop record that makes sorting through its heady themes as fun as listening to it.
Jenny Hval speaks through her voice and that of a collection of female collaborators on her seventh album The Practice of Love. One of them happens to have a speaking voice that would make David Attenborough drop dead with envy. “Look at these trees, look at this grass,” Vivian Wang implores us in a careful, confident tone as The Practice of Love roars into action with “Lions“. Once a throb of bass enters, so rich and satisfying, we immediately relax our muscles and prepare to luxuriate for the next 33 minutes. We understand what Hval’s doing. The kind of voiceovers that usually tell us to look inside ourselves and find inner light here serve as conduits for some of the Norwegian musician’s headiest ideas.
Produced by Hval and Lasse Marhaug, The Practice of Love draws from the most spiritually inclined strains of electronic music. That’s notably trance but also the downtempo new-age of acts like Enigma, the comedown club music of the Orb, and the work of pop artists like Kylie Minogue and Madonna who tune their ears to the electronic underground. It’s not an entirely sincere appropriation. Hval calls the trance she uses “trashy”, albeit in a “beautiful” way. But Hval wants this music for its uplifting properties: a centering bass, slow and unpredictable builds, and those massive synth chords that scrape the sky with their grandeur. First and foremost, The Practice of Love sounds good. Then it goes for the head, exploring childlessness, female bonding, the role of women in society, the meaning of being an artist, and love not as a feeling but as a conscious and sustained action—a practice. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Portland-Born Rapper Aminé Is Going on a Speaking Tour of Local High Schools Today
Date: Sep 27, 2019
The 25-year-old will discuss “practical ways to help students grow, prosper, and create generational wealth in communities of color.”
Portland rapper Aminé will be taking the mic at four local public high schools today—not to spit, but to speak.
The 25-year-old, best-known for the 2016 hit “Caroline” and the gold-certified album Good for You, will discuss “practical ways to help students grow, prosper, and create generational wealth in communities of color.”
The rapper, born Adam Aminé Daniel, says his partnership with “Project: Unlock the American Dream” was inspired by Nipsey Hussle, the L.A. rapper and community activist who was killed in March.
Aminé, who attended Benson Polytechnic High School in Northeast Portland, is currently scheduled to appear at Grant High School, Jefferson High School, Open School East and Rosemary Anderson High School.
He’ll be joined by Ryan Carson, CEO and founder of Treehouse, a Portland organization that places people from underprivileged communities in apprenticeships that could lead to high-paying tech jobs.
Aminé’s speeches are part of “Project: Unlock the American Dream,” an initiative co-organized by Treehouse, the Boys & Girls Club of America, and AnitaB, a California-based nonprofit supporting women in tech. Its goal is to place 100,000 apprentices in lucrative jobs around the country. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Phil Sylvester Makes Guitars That Should Be Mounted on the Walls of Avant-Garde Art Galleries
Date: Sep 25, 2019
“As long as you’re building it, you might as well make it interesting.”
What does he make? Guitars that should be mounted on the wall of an avant-garde art gallery.
Above all else, Phil Sylvester wants to make a great-sounding guitar. But the way he sees it, “As long as you’re building it, you might as well make it interesting.”
That’s an understatement. The instruments he makes under the imprimatur of Pheo Guitars—a reference to his childhood nickname—combine his background in visual art, architecture and mathematics with the instrument he’s played since he was a Beatles-worshipping teen. His favorite creation is the “Slip Cat,” which takes a Cubist lens to a ’60s Melody Maker guitar until it looks like two continental plates drifting apart. Others are festooned with metal studs, old photo prints and anarchic splotches of paint. His amps are even odder—he’s known to nest speakers inside hot plates and hair dryers. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
The Alameda indie-pop band (appearing Sat/28 at Slim’s, SF) was signed by the mega-label in 2014 after years on the Bay Area all-ages circuit and support slots for artists like Billy Idol. After signing, they were able to share stages with some of the world’s biggest names—Ed Sheeran, Twenty One Pilots, the Black Keys—and sell out venues like the Fillmore.
But their partnership with the label yielded only a re-release of their self-released Tears You Apart and an EP, When Night Becomes Day. They haven’t released a record in nearly four years.
“Our relationship with [Elektra] seeped its way into everything,” says lead singer Brendan Hoye. “I don’t know what it was, but they felt like they had to be there every step of the way and hold our hands.”
“We’d send them songs they wouldn’t approve of, then they’d hear the same songs six months later and be like ‘oh, this is incredible,’” says guitarist Alex DiDonato. “When you have your team not really supporting the songs you’re working on, it doesnt give you a lot of confidence.” (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Charli XCX’s new album is as much of a radio-pandering, streaming-finessing pop potboiler as a pastiche of one, or a parody of one, or an attempt to push the boundaries of one. Anyone can recognize it as the “album” she has to put out to maintain her pop bona fides before she can indulge her real whims on her “mixtapes.” The album is too long, there’s filler, there are songs that feel like naked grabs at pop radio airplay. But Charli’s long made a living off kidding the pop machine, and you can envision her mischievous smile as she sneaks her bizarre Estonian friend Tommy Cash onto posse cut “Click,” or mirrors the hacky Troye Sivan collab “1999” with a better, weirder song late in the album (also with Sivan) whose title skips ahead a hundred years.
Charli, likely titled in tribute to her idol’s own third album, Britney, is the biggest platform yet for the direction the British pop star’s been pursuing since 2016’s Vroom Vroom with Sophie. She’s the patron saint of hyperreal robo-pop, a chart-wise arm of the music her trusty producer A.G. Cook perfected with the PC Music label. Her knack for pop songwriting is well-established, but she subverts it by filtering classic chord progressions through a glass, darkly. She throws as much shit on her voice as she can (“Gone,” “Silver Cross,” “Shake It”) until she sounds as much like a person as a sample. That latter track feels like an experiment as to how far a pop song can retreat inward; even CupcakKe, a rapper not exactly known for lowering her voice, whispers here. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Kachka Spinoff Restaurant Kachinka Is Temporarily Closing Due to Rain Damage
Date: Sep 20, 2019
Repair assessments made this week indicate the establishment may remain closed until November or December.
Kachinka, the popular sister restaurant to Russian powerhouse Kachka, will be closed for the next two months due to water damage from the recent rains.
The restaurant, located at 720 SE Grand Ave., initially closed September 8, but repair assessments made this week indicate the establishment may remain closed until November or December.
In a press release, owners Bonnie and Israel Morales blamed heavy Portland rainfall and “negligence of the part of the roofing contractor” for the damage.
The couple, however, intends to bring some of the Kachinka menu to the lounge at Kachka as part of a late-night happy hour menu, though no concrete plans have been made yet. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
’Til the Band Comes In might’ve been a late-career masterpiece had it been recorded by Paul Anka or Tony Bennett.
While researching cheeky disappointments to put in his song “Bad Cover Version,” from Pulp’s swansong We Love Life, Jarvis Cocker included “the second half of ’Til the Band Comes In” alongside such anathema as the Rolling Stones’ ‘80s work and the episodes of Tom & Jerry where the animals talk. Gutsy given that that song was produced by Scott Walker, who either didn’t hear the lyric or – more likely – agreed wholeheartedly with it.
The five covers tacked on the end of Walker’s first album of the ‘70s were a record label decision, something that would increasingly define the singer’s career in that decade as he grinned his way through hacky covers and unconvincing cowboy ballads. But they’re not as bad as Cocker makes them sound, in part because they’re perfectly passable but mostly because the first half is perfectly passable as well. Most of the originals are leftovers from a planned song cycle about the tenants of an apartment complex, apparently co-written with his manager Ady Semel, and they conjure the same lamp-lit urban melancholy as Frank Sinatra’s best records, if not the bravery and emotional depth of Walker’s 1967-1969 self-titled tetralogy.
The thing about ’Til the Band Comes In is it’s defined by its peers. It’s nearly impossible to take on its own terms, and your opinion of it depends on whether or not you can divorce it from its surroundings. Along with 1984’s Climate of Hunter, it’s one of two Walker albums that don’t fit neatly within the popular narrative of his career – former teen idol makes amazingly mature baroque-pop albums, descends into label hell, emerges in middle age as a fierce avant-gardist. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Like listening to your boyfriend sweet-talk you into forgiving his transgressions.
Listening to The Fall of Hobo Johnson is like listening to your boyfriend sweet-talk you into forgiving his transgressions. Whether or not you enjoy the album depends on: 1) how deeply you see into Johnson’s bullshit and 2) whether or not you’re willing to roll with it.
The Sacramento rapper born Frank Lopes emerged last year with the Tiny Desk Contest entry for “Peach Scone,” in which he smoked a cigarette in a backyard and mugged into the camera to make his face all but indelible. He didn’t win the contest, but the impact was immediate. Some gushed over his originality and emotional depth. Others cracked jokes about his smell, compared him to obnoxious slam poets, pointed out that the song was just him bitching about how a girl won’t fuck him.
Here’s the thing: Lopes is charming. In a grotty way, yes, but charming. He’s kind of hot. He has nice teeth and dark eyes and a lot of enthusiasm. His music is ramshackle and interesting, defined by starts and stops that fluctuate with the volume of his voice. No one’s ever really rapped the way he has before, vacillating between punk belting and a puppy-dog whine halfway between a sob and a laugh. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Portland Punk Legend Toody Cole Has Opened a Store In the Basement of Mississippi Records
Date: Sep 19, 2019
The store will sell various bric-a-brac—from quilts to dishes to kids’ toys—she and her late husband and bandmate, Fred Cole, accumulated throughout their 50 years together.
Toody Cole, the legendary Portland punk bassist whose resume includes stints with Dead Moon, Pierced Arrows and the Rats, has started a new business.
Her store, Junkstore Cowboy, opened quietly last week in the basement of Mississippi Records in North Portland. As the name implies, the store will sell various bric-a-brac—from quilts to dishes to kids’ toys—she and her late husband and bandmate, Fred Cole, accumulated throughout their 50 years together. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
It’s hard not to see this as Perri’s attempt at inhabiting his little piece of sky.
As much as Sandro Perri’s music suggests the warm, meandering milieu of the ‘70s, the Canadian’s last two albums could only have been made in the 2010s. Last year’s In Another Life encouraged the knee-jerk tendency to tie escapist art this decade into our end-of-the-world anxieties. It asked us to imagine another life free of this one’s horrors, and it created one in a title track whose 24-minute runtime felt like a bulwark against reality until the song ended and our fears set back in. It was new age for a world of shit.
This year’s Soft Landing is less apocalyptic, but it’s a product of its time for another reason: it represents the full flowering of the Vibe in indie rock. For many years a loathing of the Grateful Dead and descendants was almost a given in any underground music descended from punk. Then Animal Collective started sampling their jams, and Real Estate covered “He’s Gone” at a Jerry Day show in San Francisco. Now Vampire Weekend is proudly touting their Phish influences, Bob Weir is working with the Dessner brothers, and Perri can get away with a rootsy, happy-go-lucky shaggy dog story of album whose real estate is largely given up to consonant guitar solos tasteful in everything but length. We even hear him “deedly-deedly-doo” along with one of these solos. He’s so unconcerned with looking cool it’s exhilarating. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
An anti-Rihanna album at the expense of being a Rihanna album.
Anti(2016) is the consensus pick for best Rihanna album, but when it came out it felt a little unsatisfying. She’d been gone for four years, her absence exacerbating her mystique and yielding feverish speculation on what her new music would be like. Her run of 2015-16 singles had been alright, “Bitch Better Have My Money” taking on pantheon status after people got over the fact that that was Rihanna’s new music. Out came the album, and it turned out not to be a grand comeback but a short, understated thing full of short sketches, generally lacking in gloss, featuring exactly none of her pre-release singles. A “deluxe” edition came out not long after, whose track “Sex With Me” would’ve been one of the best songs on Anti had it been part of its lineup. The world was still reeling from the endless, confusing rollout of Kanye’s Life of Pablo and the album-mixtape ambiguity stirred up by Drake and Young Thug. Anti seemed like another nail in the Spotifying coffin of the album, the totem around which rock-crit religion had revolved for half a century. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Mike Cooper is a treasure of underground music. Born in 1942, the guitarist came up amid the British blues boom, made a few astonishing folk-jazz albums in the early ‘70s, and spent the ‘80s in free improv land. In old age, he got into sailing and even more into Hawaiian shirts. And since 2004, he’s quietly released a run of excellent albums that deconstruct exotica, that postwar easy-listening genre that approximated “ethnic” music for Western ears.
The best of these albums is 2017’s Raft, but Rayon Hula – freshly remastered and reissued by Lawrence English’s great Room40 label for its 15th anniversary – is the first. Rayon Hula established a template to which Cooper’s adhered almost exclusively since: Hawaiian-style steel guitar, vibraphones that approximate the clangor of boats at berth, eerily close-sounding samples of bugs and birds, a pall of static that laps like a swelling ocean. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
There’s not a moment on Iconology where Elliott isn’t trying to remind us who she is and what she’s done, as if what she’s doing now doesn’t matter.
“This is a Missy Elliott exclusive,” goes the disclaimer at the beginning of every track on Elliott’s new EP. There’s not a moment on Iconology where she isn’t trying to remind us who she is and what she’s done, as if what she’s doing now doesn’t (or shouldn’t, or doesn’t need to) matter.
Elliott has earned her place in the canon. The singer-rapper-songwriter-producer is the brains behind some of the most forward-thinking pop ever made, both as the star of the show or as a writer for Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Tweet, Ciara, Monica, and so on. Perhaps no artist save her childhood friend Timbaland is more responsible for the creative fertility of the pop charts between 1996 and 2007, a time when what bumped out of cars could be as beguiling as any grungy basement noise.
We know this. She doesn’t need to remind us with corny lines like “I did records for Tweet/ Before y’all could even tweet.” It’s a shame the lyrics here are so preoccupied with her legacy when the production is pretty great. “Throw It Back” and “Cool Off” are minimal, low-budget club stuff designed for getting down to rather than to let waft in the background. They remind us how deep her and Tim’s influences permeate left-field pop; it’s hard to imagine Kelela, Charli XCX, Jessy Lanza or the last two Ariana Grande albums existing without their blueprint on how to make pop twist the brain. But Elliott displays no interest in showing the kids how it’s done, and she’s instead more into telling the kids what she’s done. (Click “web”or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Lover is a cornucopia worth combing through to find some of Swift’s best, some of her worst and a lot of her most interesting songs.
Deep in her pop phase, Taylor Swift sprawls out and lets us know what she’s capable of on her seventh album Lover. Most will prefer the tightness of 2014’s 1989, which first united her with ‘80s-indebted superproducer Jack Antonoff and announced a complete severance from her country roots. But Lover is definitive, a cornucopia worth combing through to find some of her best, some of her worst and a lot of her most interesting songs.
Because “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” isn’t a fake Pixar theme and “False God” doesn’t actually turn into free jazz, I wouldn’t go so far as to call Lover Taylor’s White Album. But there’s a reason for the sprawl. There’s just so much weird shit buried in here. It’s mischievous to place a Dixie Chicks collab, which is every bit as maudlin and heartbreaking as you’d hope it would be, directly after the deeply kinky “London Boy.” You have to take things like the gay-pandering “You Need to Calm Down” and the moldy DJ Mustard rip “I Forgot That You Existed” along with the near-undeniable gems like St. Vincent collab “Cruel Summer” and pop-punk “Paper Rings.” The shitty tracks are more challenges than deal breakers, and Lover yields riches rather than doldrums. Even after a few listens you might forget what comes next and be pleasantly surprised.
Swift’s songwriting hasn’t always squared well with her decision to move firmly into pop, but she manages fireworks here. Lines like “I hate accidents except when we went from friends to this” make us smile because we’re hearing classic Swift. Ditto details like “we could let our friends crash in the living room” on the title track’s inflamed matrimony fantasy. Or the alarmingly Prince-like lyric “I’ve loved you for three summers now.” She must release underwritten pabulum like “Me!” to make us expect a horror show from her next album until we remember she’s still a great songwriter. We like her when the album’s out, less so when we’re waiting for it. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Various Artists: Shrek: Music from the Original Motion Picture
Date: Aug 25, 2019
That no improvements have been made to the content of this album since its 2001 release reveals an ignorance on its distributors’ part as to how ubiquitous the Shrek soundtrack has become.
Please, please, please know this before you buy the reissued Shrek soundtrack on vinyl: these are not the songs you remember. This isn’t the reissue of the Shrek soundtrack as in the music that actually appeared in the film but rather the reissue of something called the Shrek soundtrack that came out in 2001, swapping out many of the film’s best songs for flimsy remixes and covers that presumably cost less for DreamWorks to get their hands on. It’s a shame this reissue didn’t correct this problem, or at least assign its ersatz versions of songs that appeared in the movie to a second LP of odds and ends. I imagine a lot of people buying this thing on vinyl without doing their research will be very pissed off. Consider this review your research.
Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” inspired a young Rico Nasty and, no doubt, countless other kids to seek out punk rock when it played over Shrek’s most entertaining fight scene. Would they have been as curious had the version that appears here—by a band called Halfcocked, which was actually signed to DreamWorks’ label—played instead? The beat is a lifeless karaoke version, and the singer sounds like she’s auditioning to be a pop star, transmogrifying her vocals into awful ballpark embellishments instead of screaming like her mom needs to get out of her room. Halfcocked broke up the year after Shrek came out, maybe because DreamWorks found the rights to “Funkytown” easier to obtain.
Rufus Wainwright sings Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” central to Shrek’s most emotional moment, rather than John Cale. This makes sense: Wainwright was something of a star in 2001, while it’s hard to get people to care about the stodgiest, artsiest member of the Velvet Underground. But Wainwright’s tremulous, slightly overwrought vocal pales next to the stern precision with which Cale sings his. This is where many of us heard “Hallelujah” for the first time, but you’d be hard-pressed to remember who sang it. Though the Cale and Wainwright versions are similar enough that a good number of the people who bought the CD probably thought they were hearing the same thing, Cale’s version is better, and it deserves to be here instead.
But the biggest injustice here is what’s been done to “I’m a Believer.” Smash Mouth’s version is arguably superior to the original recorded by the Monkees. The punchiness of the Smash Mouth arrangement better conveys the song’s central epiphany—“AND THEN I SAW HER FACE!”—than the coy Monkees version. But what’s here is the most hideous remix you can imagine. Its exuberant organs have been replaced with muddy synth horns and its driving beat with a trip-hop drum loop that’d sound cheap in a hair salon. It sounds like leftovers from Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” It’s worthless. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
The world’s most inscrutable rapper, Young Thug makes clear what he’s saying and where he stands on his most forthright release yet.
“No time for gibberish, all the critics hearin’ this,” says Young Thug on “Just How It Is”, the opening track on his new album So Much Fun. It’s the clearest mission statement the world’s most inscrutable rapper has ever given us. Maybe he’s responding to the Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, who claimed: “his hoohoos and melismas and blahs and mwas and frogcroaks and put-puts are the message” of his 2016 zenith Jeffery. Christgau wasn’t totally wrong; that album featured some of the most extreme vocal performances ever heard on an album that could pass for pop. But if Thug is hurt by the suggestion that no one cares what he has to say as long as he makes those funny noises, that explains a lot of what we hear on So Much Fun, the rapper’s most forthright release yet.
He’s still flamboyant as hell, riding the seasick beat of “Surf” and exclaiming “whoa, wavy” as if hearing it for the first time, layering so many backing vocals behind himself on “Ecstasy” as to become Young Thug and the Famous Flames. But that’s not the message. Rather, it’s how good Thug is at the pure art of rapping. Anyone who thinks Thugger can’t spit hasn’t been paying attention. He launches into rapid-fire triple-time patter, affects a dancehall cadence just because he can, makes up architecture on the fly as a walking A-Z of trap flow. And not since the Weezy worship of I Came From Nothing has he been so insistent we understand what he’s saying. When he pouts “I don’t care about no cop” on “Just How It Is” it’s with the same sense of honor as Waka Flocka bellowing “I’ma die for this, I swear to god” on “Hard in the Paint”. Same when he declares, “I don’t wanna talk about no hoes with my dad.” It sounds like something he’s resolved not to do a long time ago. (Click “web” or “pdf”view to continue reading.)
It’s Remarkable How Heavy Loscil Makes Emptiness Feel on ‘Equivalents’
Date: Aug 21, 2019
Scott Morgan makes emptiness feel heavy on Equivalents, an album inspired by Albert Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds.
The ocean is unknowable. The earth might be knowable, but only if you had more time to explore than is available in a human lifetime. The sky—well, what we see is pretty much what’s there. The sky has no landmarks. Birds and airplanes stay close enough to the ground to see. There’s nothing up there that’ll come and eat us, which is why characters in horror movies never think to look up. When we gesture at the sky, it’s usually to indicate the possibilities of that scarier realm beyond, outer space. When the sky commands awe, it’s not for its mystery but for its size and the way it seems to hover precariously above us. There’s a fear— casadastraphobia—of falling into the sky. And we all know the story of Chicken Little.
It’s hard to imagine anyone evoking the dread blankness above our heads better than Scott Morgan does on Equivalents, the 12th album by his long-running ambient project Loscil. These long, beatless tracks have an undeniable sweep, but not much happens while they’re on. They’re huge and empty, with only a few details crisscrossing their expanses. A vibraphone, long one of Loscil’s favorite instruments, on “Equivalents 8”. A thick, filtered, dragging sound on “Equivalents 1” that suggests the eerie way the most massive clouds move across the vast plain of the sky. A piano winding its way through “Equivalents 3”, buried so deep in the mix we might not hear it if we’re listening in a place with a lot of background noise. Some ambient artists like sounds that seem heard from far away. Equivalents likes sounds that seem to come from high up.
Maybe if this album weren’t explicitly modeled on Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of clouds, I might think of something different upon listening. But Morgan’s inspirations are part of the package with any Loscil album. This has long been one of the most programmatic ambient projects, and Morgan’s ability to translate his inspirations into music is uncanny. Submers suggested the ocean not simply with aqueous textures but with a murkiness through which flashes of sound and light slowly materialized. First Narrows evoked the encroachment of human activity on the sea by letting the swells of pad and guitar and strings in the background dwarf the mechanical pinpricks in the foreground, like the ocean dwarfing a boat or a bridge or a port perched perilously on its edge. Endless Falls, about the Vancouver rain, had a curiously reflective quality, like a wet sidewalk reflecting the light. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Bon Iver’s ‘i,i’ Hangs Between Surrealism and Meaning
Date: Aug 20, 2019
Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) lyricism is as cryptic as ever, but the firmness with which he sings his abstractions robs his fourth album of much of its mystery.
What is soul? I don’t know, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you’re feeling your lyrics as hard as Justin Vernon does on Bon Iver’s new album i,i, and you want other people to feel them, it’s best you communicate what’s meant to be felt. Alas, Vernon’s lyrics are just a little too cryptic to get across what’s in his head, nor evocative enough for us to get the gist of what he’s abstracting. When Prince screams, “could we just hang out, could we go to a movie”, it’s earned because he’s throwing his body at the wall between himself and unattainable love. When Young Thug screams “Patrick Ewing”, it’s because he’s drunk off his own eccentricity. When Brian Wilson sends “Surf’s Up” to a heartrending climax on the words “a children’s song”, it works because the lyrics are rich enough in their psychedelic detail that we feel them even when we understand they’re essentially nonsense. But when Vernon screams, “Tell them I’ll be passing on / Tell them we’re young mastodons,” there’s a disconnect between this crypsis and the firmness with which he sings it. Throughout i,i he treats absurd lyrics with so much oomph his earnestness becomes inadvertently comical.
That’s what separates i,i from the rest of Bon Iver’s often brilliant discography, from which the record otherwise springs naturally. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, from 2011, existed in an impression of America made from fake place names and woodsy rusticism. Its lyrics could be dazzlingly imagistic. A line like “over havens fora full and swollen morass, young habitat” effortlessly suggests a swampy and untamed wilderness without having to make any sense. 22, A Million from 2016 was a puckish puzzle, retreating into tangles of mysticism, daring us to make sense of it in a way that was thrilling and hallucinogenic. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Captagon can be exhilarating, but it’s best consumed in short bursts.
Rod Modell, the Detroiter who usually makes dub techno as Deepchord, comes off as a pensive man with a spiritual bent. In an XLR8R interview shortly after the release of 2017’s Auratones, Modell expressed concern that the loud, aggressive music designed for big club soundsystems might somehow be harmful to the body, might not stimulate the chakras, might not induce a positive state of mind. Freshly signed to veteran techno label Tresor, affiliated with one of Berlin’s most hallowed clubs, Modell is ready to put his vision to the test on Captagon.
The only ambient bone Modell throws us here is opener “Triangulation,” on which a vibraphone struggles to be heard over a sea of static. It’s as if Modell is telling us a sound so dainty has no place here. From then on Captagon is relentless in its forward motion, rarely dipping below 140 BPM as if its life depends on maintaining constant speed. It’s a little like riding a rocket. Or watching lights pass by on an underground bullet train that never stops. Or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated autogyro. And so forth.
The bottom line is that Captagon is all about motion. Modell tends to err on the faster side of techno, but his kicks are usually situated in the middle of immersive soundfields that spectacularly exploit the depths of stereo imaging. He’s typically comfortable creating spaces in his music (20 Electrostatic Soundfields) or making music designed to be played in spaces (Hash-Bar Loops, exactly what it sounds like). Captagon is about hurtling through space, or perhaps bending space to its will like a starship traveling faster than light.
The sound design is concentrated almost entirely on the drums. Modell creates heaviness not through overwhelming bass or dull thuds of noise but through generous, almost violent compression. Even as they barrel forward, these tracks still seem to be retreating into themselves. “Qurra” sounds like it’s being vacuumed up. The kicks are treated with great sloppy filters, and a wetness seems to ooze from the very drums, with little aquatic fizzing sounds sharing space with Modell’s beloved pall of static. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
ExpoZoom documents one of Geesin’s most prestigious assignments.
Ron Geesin is a footnote in rock history, best-known as the man Pink Floyd called in to finish Atom Heart Mother—a record already seen by many as a footnote to its creators’ career. But it’s hard to imagine him complaining given how in-demand his commissions are. The 75-year-old has been one of Britain’s go-to sound designers for most of his life, and ExpoZoom documents one of his most prestigious assignments: composing music for a series of technical films screened at the British pavilion at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, each one celebrating an aspect of British industry.
Like most Ron Geesin albums, it doesn’t have much interest in hanging together the way rock’s cult of the album—codified in part by his buddies Pink Floyd—demands. ExpoZoom is alternately beguiling and frustrating, and it’s hard to imagine an environment in which you’d want to put this on. But upon reviewing the old tapes half a century later, Geesin found a “crude vitality” to these recordings that merited its release. I understand what he means. (I’m reminded a little bit of Springsteen’s defense of his inferior late-‘80s/early ‘90s albums like Human Touch, which he admitted were stopgap, but that he also “liked” them whenever he listened to them.) There’s something liberating about listening to music this incidental outside of its environment. How it held up at the World’s Fair is known to only Geesin and those aging few who live with those memories, but the lack of context makes it a tricky challenge to encounter it purely as music.
If you like music to have melody and harmony and rhythm—to sound like what most people would imagine as music—ExpoZoomis not for you. Mostly, these are simulations of technological processes. They whir and zoom like cars speeding down the autobahn. The sound palette is metallic when it’s not bursting into whoops and yibbles inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German avant-gardist in vogue in the Swinging Sixties. When Geesin gets into a rhythm, we’re reminded of the intrinsic link between the forward motion of vehicles and the repetition of techno, which links the Germans in Kraftwerk with the Detroiters in Cybotron. Some of these tracks, especially “End Wall 3” and “Float Glass A,” sound uncannily like some of the more austere and extreme music to descend from the clubs; Pan Sonic comes to mind. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Immunity is a mood-centric pop album that never sacrifices the fundamental unit of the song.
Clairo’s Immunity is a mood-centric pop album that never sacrifices the fundamental unit of the song, a proud display of minimalism that doesn’t rely on trendy fingersnaps and economic use of space but stirs up inhabitable environments with only a few ingredients. If this is “bedroom pop” it’s less because of where it was made or even how it sounds than how it feels—like pillows and bedsheets and blankets, from under which Claire Cottrill scarcely needs to come out to make her presence known.
The 20-year-old is a deceptively skilled singer. You might think, because her voice barely rises above a breathy coo, that she’s lacking in the vocal department. But listen on “Sofia” to how she barely has to raise her voice to bust out the kind of melismas R&B singers let loose when they’re trying to show off at the ballpark. Like Aaliyah, whose smart and sonically forward-thinking pop is a touchstone here, she lets a lot of her most wounding vocal curlicues loose when she seems about to run out of breath.
Aside from the infuriating way she pronounces some of her vowels, there’s not much to connect her to contemporary trends in pop. The production, mostly by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam, is full of the same plaintive pianos and faintly glowing pads that inspired Tyler, the Creator when Pharrell put them to use. A faint guitar here and there suggests the more pleasant end of post-grunge, songs like “Semi-Charmed Life” or “Steal My Sunshine.” The synth bass can be overwhelming, as on “Closer to You” and “I Wouldn’t Ask You,” and it might’ve been a prudent decision to hire an electric bassist to accompany Danielle Haim’s live drums. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Despite its forbidding French title and modern-artsy sleeve, it might be the most accessible release from either artist.
Intemporel opens with slow, billowing sax clouds from Ariel Kalma, and anyone who’s done a bit of digging into new age will be right at home. But where’s Sarah Davachi? We squint through the mix to hear a single note droning in the distance. There she is.
Even in the odd niche of intergenerational avant-music pairings—epitomized by RVNG Int’l’s FRKWYS series, for which Kalma collaborated with Lichens’ Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe—this is a curious combo. Ariel Kalma is not exactly a minimalist while Davachi is so much so as to be almost monkish. Though both more or less make ambient music, Kalma’s roots are firmly in new age, Tibetan singing bowls and all. Davachi is more of a classical composer than anything else. Surely Emily A. Sprague, whose Mount Vision from last year explores the same mind-massaging capabilities of drone music as Kalma’s late-career highlight Eternalia, would’ve been a better candidate for a young collaborator.
The album does take a second to build steam, and “Hack Sat Zoom” makes us wonder if this isn’t going to be more about two nerds playing with their hardware than about atmosphere and soundscaping. But once we emerge at the other end of the 12-minute “Adieu la Vie” we’re right at home with these two. It’s a relief to find that most of Intemporel’s 47 minutes concern themselves with foggy mystery and minor-key searching rather than dueling egos.
It’s a lopsided collaboration almost by default. We’re usually hearing much less of Davachi than of Kalma. Her drones are content to act as the floor atop which his exotic filigrees twist, twirl and leap. We realize in due time that this is a conscious artistic decision. Sometimes collaborations work best when one cedes some room to the other. Good taste is one of the most important factors in ambient collaborations, and sometimes the ego has to be sacrificed in service of the work. (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)
Lavender Country: Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows from Lavender Country
Date: Aug 07, 2019
The world might be going to shit, but to pretend nothing’s changed is an insult to those who’ve fought to make it a better place.
Age looks good on Patrick Haggerty. The 74-year-old’s voice, once high and reedy, has thinned to an inquisitive honk perfect for the ribald, tender and righteously angry songs on his first album since 1973 with Lavender Country. The distance between 1973’s self-titled and this year’s Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows from Lavender Country amounts to the entire sweep of a gay elder’s life, and he looks to the past not with nostalgia but with relief at how far we’ve come. The world might be going to shit, but to pretend nothing’s changed is an insult to those who’ve fought to make it a better place.
Haggerty recalls those furtive days in pre-Stonewall gay bars, under the cover of darkness in secrecy, on “Gay Bar Blues.” On “Weeping Willow” he remembers the camaraderie between gay men in the pre-AIDS days—and the grief that set in once those men started disappearing. Even the bawdy love song “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” the only song returning from the 1973 album, is permeated with the sad unsustainability of a forbidden love. It’s as if he’s preparing for a generation of young, gay listeners who take their newfound freedoms for granted.
Lavender Country focused almost exclusively on gay men. Here, Haggerty broadens his scope. “Clara Frazer, Clara Frazer” tells us of a Seattle leftist leader whose employers found it fit to fire her for her outspokenness. It’s a goofily specific story Haggerty presumably remembers from his days in Seattle’s political scene (he’s run for public office twice), and it doubles both as a celebration of hard-headed, no-bullshit leadership and a way for Haggerty to flex his activist bona fides. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
The lack of reverb or stereo depth prohibits the music from gelling holistically.
Jah Wobble embodies the fact of the bass. The longtime avant-rock fixture, best-known for appearing on the first two Public Image Ltd. albums, plays with a steady, modest melodicism. His instrument exists purely in the low end, content to be itself rather than trying to rocket to uncharted heights or dreaming of being a guitar as is so often the case with bass performance in rock. Bill Laswell, meanwhile, expands the instrument’s possibilities, playing with an immediately distinctive low-end filter or letting big fretless chords glide over the proceedings. Their styles are opposite enough that Wobble could essentially get away with playing rhythm bass and Laswell lead bass on 2002’s excellent Live in Concert from Wobble’s Solaris band.
The two artists’ collaborations together, though, more or less situate Wobble in the universe of Laswell’s “collision music”: a sort of rock-dub-jazz fusion hydra played by diverse supergroups of underground heroes, focused on the interactions between different players and disciplines. The last Wobble-Laswell collab, Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission, offered a sort of polyglot groove music led on a few tracks by North African vocalists. Realm of Spells is vocal-free dub that serves less to explore bold new possibilities of global fusion than to let a few choice players jam out. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Tycho’s Weather doesn’t reach the atmospheric heights of his post-chillwave classics.
Tycho’s Weather doesn’t reach the atmospheric heights of his post-chillwave classics Dive and Awake, but because he’s borrowing from pop instead of rock this time around, it’s less aggressive and more interesting than 2017’s cheap-seats gift Epoch. This stuff would work at festivals and at luxe penthouses late at night, but despite a track being called “Into the Woods,” not in nature.
Though billed just to the San Francisco producer born Scott Hansen, Weather is basically a collaboration with Arizona singer Hannah Cottrell, a.k.a. Saint Sinner, who appears on five of the album’s eight tracks. She’s no great shakes as a vocalist, with the same breathy lilt and vocal curlicues as every singer trying to hit it big in the late 2010s, but pop looks good on Tycho. He’s always used big, dumb, predictable chord progressions, which moves his music up one level of accessibility from that of his heroes Boards of Canada. It’s surprising a singer hasn’t showed up in his music yet.
Hansen had a chance to take advantage of the mono-artist billing his seniority guaranteed him and imagine what a singer would sound like inside the world he’s honed on his four previous records. But he builds platforms for Cottrell, not environments. He glides along on simple major-to-minor progressions, employing time-tested tricks like cutting the drums for a throwaway bar between the first chorus and the second verse. He also indulges in a sadly common pop trope: lazily ending tracks at the end of the loop, a short tail of reverb substituting for a final chord. The fadeout on “Pink & Blue” feels almost subversive. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire: Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire
Date: Jul 28, 2019
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire feels like an unburdening, artistically and personally.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire will say whatever he wants. In “The eXplanation,” he argues for his adopted middle name as a symbol of agency. He delights in the use of the word “fuck,” treating it like a word that still offends people the way it did in the Tipper Gore days, and when asked by a concerned listener to make music kids can listen to, his response is swift and satisfying: “Fuck your kids.” He knows R. Kelly’s a monster, but he doesn’t know why he can’t listen to “Ignition” when he still has to stand for the anthem. This is the kind of guy who’d punch Richard Spencer but wouldn’t complain if Joe Rogan had him on. His ideas aren’t always sound, but he holds onto them tightly.
The Brooklyn rapper, born Hugh Allison, came up in the blog-rap era and was briefly signed to Interscope to no success. He’s on his own label now, and he not only embraces his freedom but has made an entire, self-titled album about it. He revels in final-cut privilege, ending the album with an eight-minute, avant-garde “short film” and a four-minute mission statement just because he can—and, no doubt, because Interscope wouldn’t have let him. Paranoia about social media surveillance aside, this is an album that could’ve feasibly been made in 2011, and its grimy No-Fi New York beats stem from the template of his breakout track “Huzzah!” The way he sings, like a perverted old man in the shower, hearkens back to the days when the idea of a singing rapper was kind of funny. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Those disillusioned with the Lips’ transition into the world’s weirdest party band must’ve longed for something like this.
King’s Mouth is the first Flaming Lips album to really look back, ditching the Miley Cyrus party hijinks and festival-stage vaudeville to return to Wayne Coyne’s fixation with the overwhelming goodness he sees in the universe—set, as always, against grand sci-fi sweep. But there’s not much sense in wishing it into the next Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
King’s Mouth doesn’t really have any good songs or songs in general, for that matter. The 41-minute concept album is structured so all the tracks blend together, interspersed with narration by the Clash’s Mick Jones in the role of bedtime storyteller. This means its most moving moments are often separated by long stretches of orchestral pomp which don’t sweep and swell the way great Lips tracks like “Sleeping on the Roof” do but remain strangely muted, as if heard from behind a wall. There’s an astounding moment on “Giant Baby” where Wayne Coyne slowly pronounces the words “last night I saw your face across the sky” in that voice of his that always seems perched on the verge of joyous tears in the midst of an epiphany. Then it melts into something called “Mother Universe.” (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)
Buying an ambient synth album meant to be heard by plants doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
When Mother Earth’s Plantasia first started making the rounds on the sidebars of YouTube full-album vids, it seemed like a goofy oddity from a dippy past. But its time is now. Plants are hip. Millennials too time- and cash-strapped to buy cats and dogs are plant parents instead (“You Don’t Have to Walk a Begonia,” one track title tells us). We like to surround ourselves with cute things to stave off existential dread. We like chill music, too. And we like New Age crap like astrology. So buying an ambient synth album meant to be heard by plants doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. It seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d do if the world was ending.
Mort Garson’s album was first released in 1976, at the dawn of the ongoing houseplant trend. The Secret Life of Plants was a bestseller, and the idea that plants could understand and respond to music wasn’t necessarily fringe. Garson gave away copies with the purchase of a houseplant at Mother Earth Plant Boutique in Los Angeles. What was once a weird freebie is now being reissued by respected indie label Sacred Bones as a hot cult commodity, but it’s safe to say nobody in the seventies bought a begonia just to get their hands on a copy of Plantasia. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)