oeuvre

oeuvre

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.

My work can be found on the following sites:

Article count (616)

Date: May 16, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Gloryhallastoopid, which concludes the Parliament mythos, imparts the same bittersweet feeling as when anything wraps up and acquires a body count in the process.

The Spectrum Culture P-Funk retrospective happens to arrive at Gloryhallastoopid (Or Pin the Tail on the Funky) at a time when conclusions are a big part of the cultural discourse: “Game of Thrones” sprinting through miles of plot in mere hours, Marvel grandly dispatching its Avengers to their destinies. And Gloryhallastoopid, which concludes the Parliament mythos, imparts the same bittersweet feeling as when anything wraps up and acquires a body count in the process.

This is where the Sir Nose saga ends. In the last minutes of “Theme from the Black Hole,” the long-nosed enemy of all that is funky (if you fake the funk, see, your nose will grow) finally vanquishes his enemy, the George Clinton avatar Starchild, by turning him into a mule. The logic can be explained by another of Clinton’s elaborate jokes, and it’s to his credit that the record suffers from no shortage of donkey jokes without giving us a single “ass” double-entendre. The P-Funk mythology is more convoluted and makes less sense than fans like to pretend, but what little story exists concludes rather hastily. Starchild should’ve been sent off in grander fashion, especially when Clinton teases his demise as early as the second track.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 13, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy’s eerie calm reflects the domestic quietness every adolescent party animal fears.

It’d be a shame if everyone treated Here Comes the Cowboy as the last stand of early 2010s slacker indie against the genre’s more principled and inclusive new wave, because Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy is a thorny, frightening, often frustrating record about the passage of time. It’s something he’s been chronicling in real time since he first let loose the words “what mom don’t know has taken its toll on me” on his 2014 record Salad Days. The Rockaway Beach ruminations of Another One and the existential horns and thorns of This Old Dog paint a picture of a rock-star hedonist acutely aware of the toll of the touring life and not entirely willing to give it up. Cowboy’s eerie calm reflects the domestic quietness every adolescent party animal fears stumbling into when they get older.

Per DeMarco, “cowboy” is a term of endearment he likes to use for his friends, an admission that drew some derisive laughs in the wake of the “yee-haw agenda’s” subversion of the all-American white-male cowboy ideal. I think it’s a red herring: the cowboy is the unseen force at his back, keeping him on his linear path through life—not necessarily his conscience, but something in that wheelhouse. He refers to himself as “little doggy”, like how cowboys refer to cattle in cheesy old songs, on two separate songs. On “Little Dogs March” he’s telling himself to “march on”, and at the end, the cowboy finally arrives in an unsettling dust-storm of “yee-haws”, as if to tell him it’s time to stop fucking around on the guitar and do something else.

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Date: May 08, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

It sounds like a lot of Jelinek records, but it doesn’t feel like them.

Two years after the reissue of Jan Jelinek’s Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records on his Faitiche label comes the first vinyl edition of an earlier and more dated but nonetheless engrossing record by the German producer. Released as Gramm, 1999’s Personal Rock feels a little like a test run for its more famous successor and even uses many of the same sounds, most notably on “St. Moritz,” built on the same drone as “Moiré (Piano & Organ)” from Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records. But it holds its own as a foggier and more tempestuous record, and it boasts a marvelous sound design that departs from the weightlessness of so much ambient music to feel dense and oppressive.

More than Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records—but less so than 2002’s Textstar, the compilation of cuts as Farben that completes Jelinek’s impressive introductory triad—Personal Rock is haunted by the ghost of club music. The pinpricks and muffled footsteps that substitute for kick drums and hi-hats swarm high in the mix. Behind them we hear a little data cloud of clicks, muffled scratches and static transmissions that swirl amorphously in turmoil, filling in the neglected corners of the stereo field and situating us in a space. Then deep, deep in the mix we hear chords, usually the low hum of a pad that resembles machinery dutifully going about its day-to-day functions—though on “Non-Relations” he chances a full-on chord progression that resembles that on any cheesy house classic of the ’80s and ’90s, except it seems heard from miles away.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 07, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

A.O.D. is a distressing loss of form.

There’s a moment on Tiger & Woods’ “Don’t Hesitate” that’s nothing short of miraculous. Katie Kissoon’s sampled vocal has been repeating the title ad nauseam, as if… well, hesitating to say something. The producers have to do something to help the poor woman. So, acting as wingmen, they insert a high-pitched pinprick of synth string that lines up so perfectly with the second syllable of “hesitate,” and becomes so indistinguishable from Kissoon’s voice we might think if we weren’t listening closely enough that she’d made the kind of vocal leap from which karaoke classics are born. It’s as conducive to maudlin ecstasy as any high note any singer could hit with elbow grease alone, and it pinpoints the curious magic of Tiger & Woods. Few dance producers wring so much power from the humble loop. Unfortunately, there are far too few moments like that on A.O.D.

Tiger & Woods’ third album pulls not from American disco but from their native Italy’s home-grown club-music tradition Italo disco. A little more rigid than its American precursor, Italo disco is more fixated on groove and less on ecstasy. Rome’s Goody Music/Full Time Records, source of most of these samples, leans especially languid. And A.O.D. sticks to a comfortable pace throughout, at no particular pains to get anywhere or to feel anything. It sounds a lot like synthwave, the French genre that draws from old video-game and action-movie soundtracks to conjure a square-jawed, strong-but-silent image of ‘80s masculinity. And like Ryan Gosling in Drive, which catalyzed that genre’s aesthetic, A.O.D. is curiously allergic to displays of emotion.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 02, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

What saves Ride Waves from wretchedness is GRiZ’s innate knack for motion.

One of the most pleasant surprises at 2013’s Outside Lands festival was then-23-year-old producer GRiZ playing at the smallest stage. This was when EDM was getting a little stale and the dubstep thing was starting to mutate into trap, deep house and big-room electro house. Even if you think you’d seen enough DJs to last a lifetime, this skinny guy, projecting a bug-eyed confidence and grinning like a madman, spun funk so nimble and lithe it was near-impossible not to move. Yes, there were buildups and drops, but GRiZ’s music wasn’t about jumping ecstatically to an endlessly-teased musical cue. This stuff got under the skin.

His records are less exhilarating, which one might initially peg on the fact that a lot of dance music is built for DJ sets and not for home listening. Ride Waves, though, gives another answer. GRiZ is a festival artist, and this is festival music specifically for the jam-band crowd. These songs are meant to be experienced live, possibly many times over by the devoted descendants of Deadheads that still load up in vans in pursuit of the Vibe. How else to explain the classic-rock instrumentation throughout, the bluesy organs and Claptonesque guitar fills at odds with the liquid-metal motions of his bass drops? How else to explain the presence of Matisyahu? “All we need to learn is love,” he sings, a thesis that immediately deflates once you’ve heard his fake patois.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 30, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

These lesser-known records still feel like Alice whispering her secrets to us.

As the Alice Coltrane reissue campaign soldiers on, we enter the depths of the great musician’s catalog. The four records reissued by Superior Viaduct—Eternity (1976), Radha-Krsna Nama SankirtanaTranscendence (both 1977), and the live Transfiguration (1978)—were her first for Warner Bros. after years on Impulse. They find her embracing the bhajan and kirtanforms of Hindu devotional song while opening up new worlds with her Wurlitzer organ. Of the four only Transfiguration is a true masterpiece, but because these curious collections of prayers (both sung and implied) are so uncompromising, so removed from the classic profile of great jazz albums—so totally her—it’s like we’ve been given a glimpse into something sacred.

Eternity is the least of the four and the most experimental in terms of Coltrane putting her new tools to the test on wax for the first time. It opens with her Wurlitzer, whose sound will be a constant across the album, but it solos meekly over a lush orchestral arrangement, never quite finding the right notes. It’s meant to be a Sketches of Spain sort of thing, but as we’ll learn later, that organ sound is better when it does the bulk of the sonic load-bearing. An arrangement of a section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is similarly staid, and “Om Supreme” is a test run for the Hindu-gospel fusion she’d make her m.o. throughout her Warner Bros. run. The best track is the rip-roaring “Los Caballeros,” whose Latin affectations still feel a bit hokey.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 29, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

It’s unclear how or why Foxygen—indie rock’s most notoriously acrimonious duo—is still together.

It’s unclear how or why Foxygen—indie rock’s most notoriously acrimonious duo—is still together, especially after hearing their new record Seeing Other People. “Work” imagines a nasty argument between the two band members, and the jabs they lob at each other cut deep. “Face the Facts” recounts their failure to find stardom. “Livin’ a Lie” details singer Sam France’s disdain towards the name-dropping ingratiators he perhaps finds on tour. By the end, they’ve concluded they’re “seeing other people,” which is curious; the band has no intention of breaking up. Maybe it’s band-breakup-album as pastiche. France consistently uses the dated term “rock ’n’ roll” to place the grievances of an indie band within the storied tradition of road-warrior woes.

Foxygen is one of indie rock’s more reverent bands. 2014’s …And Star Power imagined a hypothetical third Todd Rundgren masterpiece, while 2017’s Hang paid tribute to the big-budget orchestral rock punk rebelled against. Seeing Other People might work if they ripped from something like Let It Be or Neil Young’s ditch albums, but they’re pulling willy-nilly from the past without apparent rhyme or reason. “Mona” resembles any indie band this decade that treats New Order’s “Age of Consent” as a sacred text. “Livin’ a Lie” is Elvis Costello. “The Truth Is” is Springsteen (they actually had to edit it to make it less Springsteenian). “The Conclusion” sounds like Sly Stone, specifically the dark funk of There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Why is beyond me.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 29, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

Band leader Michael Angelakos speaks about the terrors and rewards of his acclaimed first album—and the golden age of indie pop.

ALL EARS When Michael Angelakos first toured Manners, the 2009 debut of his then-rising project Passion Pit, he couldn’t hit the high notes. A side effect of the anti-psychotic medication Seroquel, it turns out, is paralyzing your vocal cords.

Angelakos was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17 and speaks so candidly about his mental health as to often surprise interviewers. “When I was making this record, I didn’t think I was going to be alive much longer,” he tells me, rather offhandedly, of Manners.

Manners came out on May 15, 2009. Now, Angelakos is taking the album on tour for its 10th anniversary, backed by a crack squad of musicians tasked with performing songs that haven’t been played live in nearly a decade.

“It’s not like I’ve been very positive about touring in the past,” says the New Jersey-born, Boston-based musician. “But it’s jarringly therapeutic and strangely easy and fun getting back in the rehearsal and playing these songs.”  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

 

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Date: Apr 28, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Lizzo’s mainstream debut comes on strong, but its self-absorption can feel like an endgame.

Lizzo is feeling herself. After kicking around Minneapolis’s indie-rap scene for most of the last decade, the 30-year-old now exists on the level of fame where people will recommend her to you on the presumption you might not know who she is, but you do, because someone else has told you about her before. She’s perilously close to becoming a mainstream star, and Cuz I Love You is clearly meant to make as big an impression as possible. Given the breadth of what she’s done before, especially the military-grade, Missy Elliott-informed dance-rap tracks on her 2014 debut Lizzobangers, Cuz I Love You comes off as chart debut as a genre piece. She can make an album like this because she can, and she is at great pains to show us she can do everything else pretty damn well too.

It’s easy to see why people love Lizzo within the first ten seconds or so of Cuz I Love You. The album begins with her belting—absolutely belting; this isn’t some timid R&B-starlet melisma—the album’s title. Then she’s met by big, blown-out Dave Fridmannesque guitars that no doubt sounded great over Coachella-sized speakers this year. Soon she’s abstracted her words into a wrenching simulation of a crying baby, and when the song finally peters out, it’s hard to imagine she hasn’t twisted herself into a ball of twitching limbs like that girl in Suspiria. But nope—she gets up and sings the next song with gusto.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 24, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Beyoncé’s Homecoming is one of the most impressive shows ever, but its need to tell us how impressive it is deflates some of its awe.

When Beyoncé postponed her Coachella set by a year after becoming pregnant with twins, she shed the need to promote an album (2016’s Lemonade) and could focus on putting on a show. Her two sets at 2018’s Coachella felt like work as consequential as Lemonade or her earth-shattering 2013 self-titled album. The setlist wasn’t a parade of hits as much as a recasting of her catalog: in paying tribute to America’s historically black colleges, she re-calibrated her music to incorporate marching-band instrumentation while keeping the most Pavlovian cues (the siren-bark that signals “Formation”) intact.

But for all the great songs involved, the show wasn’t as exhilarating to watch for the music as for its scale: hundreds of people onstage, Beyoncé surveying the crowd from a giant crane, superhuman dancing, fireworks we barely even notice at that point. Watching the just-released Netflix concert film Homecoming and listening to its accompanying live album imparts some of the same thrill as watching some of those old Soviet films where they leveled whole hills to make the sets and spent as much government money as they could on extras. It might be the best show-as-statement in pop history, putting as much (if not more) ambition into its two-time run as any of her blockbuster albums.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 22, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Foodman, Japanese footwork’s biggest star, didn’t find fans through pop smarts but through sheer skill.

Foodman, Japanese footwork’s biggest star, didn’t find fans through pop smarts but through sheer skill. Early releases like Couldwork and the excellent Doguu EP were replete with sounds you might’ve never heard before but understood took great skill to make. Like a sound-effects artist in an alien studio, he threw robots, insects, deliberately obnoxious synth trumpets, and occasional snatches of blissed-out jazz into a machine that seemingly pulled them apart into their constituent atoms. Like the best footwork, his music was as weightless as it was weird.

It might strike one as odd that Foodman’s signed to Diplo’s label Mad Decent. But it’s easy to forget that before finding the pop formula most agreeable with Spotify algorithms (he invented those chipmunk noises on every EDM-lite song), the producer epitomized the mid-‘00s’ more optimistic approach to the musical possibilities of the Internet, promoting Brazilian dancehall and favela funk and hiring his Sri Lankan-British protégé M.I.A. to rap about Third World violence over untreated Missy Elliott instrumentals. Could Foodman have tapped into those old hungers?

In case you were concerned: ODOODO, Foodman’s first release for Mad Decent, isn’t an adulterated version of the Foodman formula. It is, though, an example of the producer working in a more listener-friendly milieu than usual. While beats were usually more implied than felt on Foodman’s early work, most of these cuts are grounded in house beats or trap skitter and are easily identifiable with the scuzzy dance-music mutant known as “outsider house.” But while ODOODO is far less interesting than most Foodman releases, his idiosyncrasies remain intact.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 22, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

The Redwood City band is emblematic of a Bay Area moment when rock, emo, punk, and pop combined—and audiences sang along.

ALL EARS Pursuing music often begins with a simple realization: that it could be you up on that stage. And before he started the Redwood City rock band Please Do Not Fight in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, Zen Zenith was just a kid staring goggle-eyed at the pop-punk bands that dominated Bay Area clubs in the late ‘90s.

The Matches, with whom he’s still friends, wowed him in particular. “They had rehearsed moves and such incredible stage presence,” he says. “There’s one song where people get down low. These are clichéd things now, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it. I was like, ‘how do they know how to do this? How do they know we’re all gonna jump at the same time?’”

After playing in a few short-lived bands, Zenith formed Please Do Not Fight in 2007, at age 24. That year, the project released its sole full-length, Leave It All Behind. Counterbalancing pop-punk sugar rush with spiky, sophisticated lyrics and a chilly, lonesome atmosphere, it’s the kind of album one could see inspiring the same underground cult love as American Football’s debut or Duster’s early records.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 16, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

This isn’t some kind of conservationist concept album.

If all you know about Jayda Guy is that she recorded for 1080p prior to signing with Ninja Tune, you might expect her to trade in a distinctly Canadian style of house music: bleary, stoned, based mostly on woozy chords and VHS-caliber sound quality, wary of the excitement that defined the genre’s embryonic form as an evolution of disco. By contrast, Guy’s music as Jayda G is proud of its lineage. Her debut long-player Significant Changes is made of sharp edges and clear lines and seems designed to sound good over big club speakers. She even has her own handbag-house diva on call, the fabulous Alexa Dash. The one snarky joke they make at house music’s expense is a pretty funny one. “Push! Pull! It’s antithetical,” Dash screams, parodying instructional dance records with a nifty paradox.

There’s another interesting angle. Guy is a marine biologist specializing in Canada’s threatened killer whales, and she recorded Significant Changes while finishing a paper on the effects of certain chemicals on the animals. We hear their piteous cries on track four, “Orca’s Reprise.” I’m no biologist, but to me the creatures sound frightened, helpless, in need of a friend. More cause for alarm comes on the next track, “Missy Knows Best,” as biologist Misty MacDuffee (misspelled in the track title, but “Missy” is more alliterative) steps up to the mic. “Why are these whales threatened, and what can we do about it?” she intones gravely as Guy fucks playfully with her voice. She doesn’t give us an answer, but she doesn’t pretend to, either. She gets us thinking.

This is the Midtown 120 Blues approach to political music, denying us disco goodness until we can get down with the message. Saving the whales is more palatable than DJ Sprinkles’ thesis that dance music is the music of suffering, of course, and a listener who might not even know Canada’s orcas are in trouble might hazard a Google search to see what they can do to help. Guy sees no discrepancy between her two hustles and, in fact, considers it her duty to your booty to combine the two. Her platform as a DJ is far bigger than her platform as a scientist, so why not use it to get the word out?  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 15, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Ribbons is a folk album made with a beatmaker’s perspective.

Bibio’s Ribbons is a folk album made with a beatmaker’s perspective. Throughout the record, Stephen Wilkinson keeps a curious distance between himself and his material in the same way as a producer using his favorite soul songs as fodder for a rap beat. Though Ribbons speaks the musical language of the British Isles, with finger-picked guitars and Celtic fiddles, it chucks the fundamental building block of folk music—that’d be the song—out the window.

Tracks end abruptly, as if Wilkinson’s trying to tell us to not really think of them as songs. There’s a fuzzy filter over his convincingly wizened voice, letting us know the vocals and lyrics aren’t really the point. The guitars loop almost aggressively, without the fluid motion of someone hammering out the chords to an old folk chestnut in real time. And the margins are filled with electronic burbles that definitely couldn’t be replicated by someone strumming a guitar in a field somewhere. The folk songs anthologized by historians like Francis James Child and Steve Roud were written sometime in the primeval filth of British history and designed to be passed down through the generations. Ribbons is designed to stay on wax.

But it’s unwise to hold Ribbons to the same standards as a Shirley Collins record. It’s an extension of what Wilkinson’s been doing for his whole career: conjuring a rosy, abstract view of rural Britain that, even if you’ve never taken a drive through the island’s countryside, gives you a pretty good idea of what it might be like. Last year’s disciplined ambient project Phantom Brickworks extended a tendril through his home’s impossibly storied past, evoking the mystery contained within vast swaths of time. Ribbons is more diurnal and contained in the present, but it’s in the same vein of Albion ambient.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 09, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

ew rappers have ever done so much with their voice as Young Thug—not just the physical action of bending the muscles in the mouth, throat and tongue but in using certain vocal tics and affectations to generate momentum. One of the great rap albums, Young Thug’s 2016 album Jeffery is worth it just for how his voice skids dangerously on the word “sleep” on “Wyclef Jean” to tease that “Life on Mars”-worthy octave leap. How the ascending “what-what-what” chorus of “Swizz Beats” seems to do backflips in midair. That third “earn” that rockets into the heavens on “Riri.” Everything is melted down into a hook with Thugger, and you’ll find yourself singing individual lines or even noises at least as often as the actual hooks. It’s one of the most audacious ways anyone has made pop, and the album establishes him as artist, stylist, star—and star child.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 07, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Is it appropriate for young kids to listen to this stuff?

Billie Eilish isn’t an exception to chart rules but an extreme. Teens have hit it big singing gothic lyrics over shuddering post-dubstep beats before. Have any gone as far over the top as Eilish on her first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It’s exhilarating when pop stars throw caution to the wind like this. Usually, the most avant-pop projects exist when an artist has reached such ubiquity that their name is the selling point rather than the product. There’s a lifeline between Kanye’s Yeezus and Rihanna’s Anti and this album. But Eilish is a rising star, so it feels riskier.

So much of the album is just her voice flickering faintly over a bass tone or a distant snatch of choral harmony. Then something happens, usually something big and frightening. On “You Should See Me in a Crown,” it’s a bass drop. On “Xanny,” it’s song-subducting distortion, over which she struggles to stay afloat. She gets one word out unscathed: the title, the “n” sound elongated until it threatens to snap.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 03, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

“Lost album” has a better ring to it than “posthumous album.”

The record being released as You’re the Man is not what Marvin Gaye would’ve served Motown as the follow-up to What’s Going On. Nearly all these tracks have already been released, there are several conspicuous remixes, and at an hour and change it would’ve had to have been a double album. But “lost album” has a better ring to it than “posthumous album,” so the stakes feel a little higher than if it were the thousandth dump of studio jams from the Hendrix estate.

Let’s pretend for a second that You’re the Man, in its present form, had actually been released in 1972. It’d probably afforded the same stature as Prince’s Around the World in a Day or Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. It wouldn’t be revered as a towering album, but it’d be appreciated as a good one. These songs glide with the grace of an artist working at the peak of his powers. And it’s not that much messier than Here, My Dear.

Marvin Gaye albums in the ‘70s were always about something. What’s Going On was about a Vietnam vet adrift in the hell that followed the hippie dream. Let’s Get It On was about sex. I Want You was about his mistress. Here, My Dear was about his separation from the wife he was cheating on. Ostensibly, You’re the Man is where the hopeless searching of What’s Going Oncalcifies into a clear-headed rebuke of America the broken and the Tricky Dick in its highest office.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 01, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Neither Lennon nor Ono were great at writing about politics.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono seem to have started Some Time in New York City with the conviction that a song could, by itself, change the world. Then they apparently went through the papers with a highlighter before raising their voices to shout away gender inequality, the Troubles and the injustice and brutality of American prison systems.

But music can’t change the world by itself. Ever notice how “Imagine” is mostly played when something horrible has already happened? If any tangible good came out of the songs on the couple’s fifth album together, it has more to do with them playing “John Sinclair” at a rally for the leftist writer, imprisoned on a pot charge (he was released three days later), or “Attica State” at a benefit for the families of that prison riot’s victims. Money speaks louder than song.

If the agit-pop on Some Time in New York City is to be admired, it’s for having the courage to know precisely what it’s mad about. It’s refreshing to hear Lennon bluntly sing “the island for the Irish,” though I wonder how his support for the IRA squares with his pacifism. “Angela Davis is a political prisoner” is a simple statement, but it’s one likely to alienate his centrist fans. Better to be specific than to rage against some vague machine.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 01, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

This is stripped-down Fennesz, or at least as stripped-down as music where the effects are the message can be.

For all the fireworks Christian Fennesz throws on his guitar, it’s usually pretty easy to tell what’s going on in his music. He’s not usually the shoegaze type who puts all manner of shit on his guitar until it sounds like an indistinct blur. His music is all sharp edges and clear outlines, and he has a pop-schooled knack for melody and shameless, maudlin emotional cues. It’s not for nothing his best record shares a name with The Beach Boys hits compilation Endless Summer.

On Agora, some of the detail bleeds out in the wash. Blame circumstance: the Austrian lost his studio for unclear reasons and was forced to move his musical equipment into his bedroom, constructing music the same way as so many of the Bandcamp punks he inspired. Without the benefit of state-of-the-art speakers, he was forced to mix the record on headphones. This is stripped-down Fennesz, or at least as stripped-down as music where the effects are the message can be.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 28, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

Legends Paul Simon and Mavis Staples alongside newcomers Tierra Whack and Kacey Musgraves in a fest more balanced than usual.

ALL EARS The monster that is Outside Lands (August 9-11, Golden Gate Park) coasts less on San Francisco’s rock ’n’ roll reputation these days than when the music festival was new—which means on the one hand the music is more youth-oriented, and on the other we get a lot of the same artists who’ve been making the festival rounds for a few years.

Last year’s fest was dull aside from Janelle Monàe’s usual extravaganza and an astonishing but poorly-attended Janet Jackson set. This year’s lineup, its 12th, was just announced: It finds a happy medium, with some predictable perennials—Childish Gambino, Hozier, The Lumineers, Twenty One Pilots—and a nice cast of oddities.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 26, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Solitude exposes the breakup album as the one-sided, self-obsessed, petty, and manipulative genre it is.

The two members of King Midas Sound, poet Roger Robinson and producer Kevin Martin, are happily married men. It’s hard not to see their second album together as anything but a subversive genre piece. Solitude exposes the breakup album as the one-sided, self-obsessed, petty, and manipulative genre it is. Whether that’s their intention is up in the air.

In a Wired interview, Robinson expressed disbelief anyone would interpret the album’s content as creepy—despite an entire song, “Who,” about the art of stalking. Perhaps embarrassed by his partner, Martin argued that the characters on the album aren’t “particularly nice people” and maybe were left for a good reason.

That seems clear upon a first listen. Robinson’s voice is perpetually perched on the edge of violence. He gives no details about the breakup and shows us only the before and after. A woman’s perspective is conspicuously missing—literally, as second vocalist Kiki Hitomi does not appear on this record. A female voice might have served better to make the band’s point than the feedback loop of male ego we find here.

It’s not a stretch to imagine someone sharing the Robinson character’s feeling of alienation and seeing him as a hero rather than a reprobate, the way so many college dorm-room posters continue to miss the point of Travis Bickle. But what’s clear is Robinson does not demand sympathy. We don’t feel for these characters so much as fear for them, or simply fear them.

Robinson is well-respected in his own right in Britain as a poet, and his words make delicious use of space. On “You Disappear,” he and his lover “float through different parts of the house like a chess game,” and on “Zeros” they separate “only to go to the toilet.” Sensory details abound: the look of a lover’s body, the feeling of a wet tongue on skin, the food she’d order, the food he eats now.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 22, 2019

Publication: Jewish News of Northern California

After interviewing so many mangy, foul-mouthed, hard-living road warriors as a music journalist, it’s kind of a shock to interview a rock band in a room with one of their moms.

The members of Cubed are all 12 and started playing together when they were even younger. When their faces show up on Skype for our interview, they look like a mini version of a classic rock band, especially with keyboardist Nataan Hong’s long hair. Each has a distinct personality, and were they 10 years older and 10,000 times more popular, they might incite fans to squabble over their favorite.

All four are Jewish and attend Brandeis Marin in San Rafael. If their win at the Oshman Family JCC’s Battle of the Bands in February doesn’t take them to the next stage of local stardom, the $700 they received as a prize just might.

But despite sharing a love of Queen (they’ve all seen “Bohemian Rhapsody”), don’t expect them to blow that money on harps or orchestras or expensive overdubs. Their concerns are more practical: “If Ezra needs a new snare or if we need a smaller keyboard or a new bass or whatever, we’ll use that [money],” says Hong.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 21, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

The garage rock stalwart launches new label Rocks In Your Head and still believes deeply in the local scene.

ALL EARS As the decade began, all eyes were on San Francisco’s rock scene. Sic Alps, Thee Oh Sees, White Fence, and the Fresh & Onlys found adoring fans and astute imitators. Pitchfork wrote a love letter to “San Francisco’s new garage rock” and gave big red Best New Music stamps to Mikal Cronin’s MCII and Ty Segall’s Slaughterhouse. 

In 2014, Pitchfork published another article: “Why So Many Musicians Are Leaving San Francisco for LA.” You probably already know why: tech money’s coming in, DIY spaces are drying up, artists are getting priced out.

Sonny Smith is one of a few holdouts from the old, weird SF. He’s lived for 12 years in the Sunset: appropriate, as his band is Sonny & the Sunsets. And though it may seem like tech killed the city’s last DIY cells, Smith says San Francisco is very much alive.

His new label Rocks In Your Head will debut April 1. The label’s name comes from a record store Smith visited in New York once. He remembers it as a certain type of store “where you go in and there’s record covers all over the walls and you gotta dig around,” as opposed to the boutique record shops prevalent in San Francisco, which Smith compares to “galleries.”  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 19, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Plastic Anniversary, made of sounds sourced from plastic, juggles a lot of heavy themes.

Matmos’s music is so good it tends to outstrip its concept. Usually that’s a good thing. Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel are highly skilled at repurposing things like the sound of liposuction or the clank and rattle of a trusty old washing machine into sentimental, good-humored, funky music. So much conceptual electronic music drifts too far from the ideas that fuel it, but Matmos are a mischievous antidote to these doldrums at their best.

Plastic Anniversary, made of sounds sourced from plastic, juggles a lot of heavy themes. It’s a celebration of the two musicians’ 25th anniversary as a couple, and like their romance, plastic lasts an awfully long time. Also at play are the inherent, inevitable problems with plastic: its disposability, its effect on the environment, the fact that it can be used for good (condoms, blood bags) as well as evil (3D-printed guns, riot shields).

How to fit that into a 40-minute record? Matmos…doesn’t, really. It’s cute to use a riot shield to make joyous sounds instead of to oppress the disenfranchised, but the shield—like the other loaded tool, a breast implant—isn’t recognizable in the same way as the body sounds on A Chance to Cut Is a Chance To Cure, which sounded about what you’d expect liposuction to sound like. We don’t get the same synchronicity of subject and emotion we get from, say, that album’s “For Felix (And All the Rats),” which uses sounds sourced from a lab rat’s cage to evoke fear, sympathy and, yes, the squeaks of a small mammal in terror.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 18, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Music for dancing, with tough beats and minimal atmosphere.

Peter Kuschnereit’s Substance project debuted in 1998 on Chain Reaction, the German label that’s put out a dozen or so of the best dub techno releases of all time. Chain Reaction was an oddly egoless affair. The music was packaged in metal tins with almost no artwork, and artists like Vainqueur, Fluxion, and Hallucinator seemed to draw from the same primordial soup of chords and echo. So did Substance, but his Session Elements was sharper than most of the stoned drifts on that label. It was music for dancing, with tough beats and minimal atmosphere.

Twenty-one years later, after some time spent by Kuschnereit as DJ Pete, Substance is back on the Ostgut Ton label. That’s the label of the great Berlin club Berghain, and listening to his new EP Rise & Shine, it’s obvious what kind of architecture Kuschnereit has in mind for his music. This is cavernous, decadent German techno, less purist than the cliché and happy to integrate influences from dub and ambient music but still tough to imagine outside the biggest of rooms.

There are five tracks. “Rise and Shine” starts with pinprick synths and follows a shuddering 2-step beat: slowly, distant little siren-things that would sound great lost in some distant corner of an airplane hangar-sized club start to flicker in and out. It’s a track with a lot of heft, but I couldn’t help thinking the main synth riff sounds a little stupid, almost like a rock riff a kid might write.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 14, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Drew Daniel of Baltimore-via-Bay Area pranksters Matmos discusses their new album Plastic Anniversary, homophobic Montana moms, and the difficulties of recording a breast implant.

“I feel bad Martin isn’t here to talk about the record,” says Drew Daniel. “He’d be arguing with me, interrupting me, going ‘no, no, it’s like this, it’s like that.”

His partner—better-known as M.C. Schmidt, the other half of Matmos—is off in the Netherlands doing an opera. But Matmos, according to Daniel, has always been about the “chasm” between them. Both come across as men of rigorous intellect and mischievous good humor, but if Daniel’s descriptions are accurate, Schmidt is

a little more of a hard-headed punk-rock realist, less interested in the poetic reasons for a sound’s existence than the process of creating it.

But it’s as clear from watching the two light-heartedly tease each other with plastic objects in the promotional video for their new album Plastic Anniversary as from listening to their extensive catalog of music together that Matmos is—as they titled a 2013 album—a Marriage of True Minds.

Since the ’90s, the Bay Area-rooted, Baltimore-based duo has released ten albums (not counting collaborations and limited-edition EPs) made mostly from found sounds and typically based on a concept. Perhaps their most famous album is 2002’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, built from squishy, gruesome samples of surgical procedures like liposuction. Their best album might be The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, a tribute to great queer artists made with sounds relevant to those figures: a track paying tribute to William S. Burroughs, for instance, is rudely interrupted several minutes in by a gunshot.

They’ve also made an entire album using the sound of their washing machine, which they lugged around on tour with them. A common wow-look-how-weird-these-guys-are soundbite involves the use of amplified neural signals from crayfish on a track on their self-titled debut. What’s astonishing is that Matmos’s music consistently transcends the concepts. Matmos albums can be sonically and academically challenging but are always sentimental, good-humored, and funky.

Plastic Anniversarydovetails with their 25th year together as a couple. It’s made entirely from the sounds of plastic—a material which, like their relationship, lasts an awfully long time. Via Skype, I talked to Daniel about how something as disarming as the longevity of plastic can tie in with something as beautiful as love.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 14, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Solange’s abstract fourth album When I Get Home plays like a dream, but its logic is sound.

Solange repeats “I saw things I imagined”, or some variation thereof, 16 times in the first minute of When I Get Home. Sometimes it’s just “things I imagined”. Sometimes she emphasizes one word over another. Sometimes she burrows into her throat and her voice emerges a little deeper and duskier than before.

If that sounds a bit daft to you, it comes with the territory. When I Get Home requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief—maybe not quite an inclination to believe in the supernatural, definitely a willingness to let reality slip. The more she repeats the phrase, the deeper the mystery becomes until an upward keyboard trill interrupts and the record blossoms to life.

When I Get Home‘s biggest risk is that it sounds a little stupid. In contrast to the tersely worded polemics of 2016’s A Seat at the Table, the lyrics here often come up blank or are hard to understand. Words like “dreams” are repeated. Pearly synths form florettes as Solange perpetually sighs in a faraway coo. Small wonder it’s inspired by Stevie Wonder’s pseudoscientific The Secret Life of Plants.

But anyone who’s heard A Seat at the Table, one of the best polemical albums of recent years, knows Solange is a smart woman. Detractors who can’t see her as anything but the scion of an aristocratic pop family, the Knowles clan of Beyoncé fame, will confuse its effortlessness with a lack of effort and use it as fodder to argue she did nothing to earn her success. An interlude on the record lands as a preemptive criticism: “Do nothing without intention.”  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 14, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Let’s Take It to the Stage from 1975 is the tightest Funkadelic album.

Let’s Take It to the Stage from 1975 is the tightest Funkadelic album. But is tight what we want from this band? The best P-Funk releases drag their long tails through miles of funk, and Parliament’s marvel of concision from the same year, Chocolate City, does a far better job of bottling the band’s eccentricities into something that swiftly flies by. It’s obvious from albums like this one and the next year’s Tales of Kidd Funkadelic and Hardcore Jollies that George Clinton’s most out-there ideas at the time belonged to the increasingly brilliant Parliament project, which would be the source of his best music in the latter half of the decade until Funkadelic’s apex at the turn of the eighties. But even if Let’s Take It to the Stage is a minor album, it’s good enough that I’d be willing to hear out a hardcore fan who’d claim it as their best.

The songs on this record tend to hover around four minutes long and sound as much like arena-rock anthems as funk songs, heavy on riffs that punch and shred but lacking in the viscous quality of the earlier records. Its longest and final song, “Atmosphere,” is a Bach-interpolating Bernie Worrell keyboard freakout that’s both astoundingly beautiful and a bloated chops show-off, much like Funkadelic’s most celebrated track “Maggot Brain.” Clinton himself admitted that the record was conceived at least in part due to his frustration at not being played on rock radio. His competitors here aren’t just the fellow funksters he light-heartedly ribs on opener “Good to Your Earhole” (“Slick and the Family Brick,” “Fool and the Gang”) but bands like Led Zeppelin, who had the number one album in America when Let’s Take It to the Stage came out. In the case of “No Head, No Backstage Pass,” it’s as much because of the sexual politics as the music, and it’s telling that Clinton writes a song celebrating or castigating – it’s hard to tell with songs like these – that old rock-star standby, the groupie. Funkadelic wanted to present themselves as rock stars, right down to the title; though nothing here was recorded live, the name immediately gets us thinking of those outrageous costumes and oversized glasses (the Mothership came later).  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 13, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Seven Horses succeeds because it’s really good at being dark.

Seven Horses for Seven Kings is a horror-movie thrill ride elevated by its invocation of dread mythology, martial power, and arcane history; it’s a great dark-room album that pretends, but not really, to be something more. It feels bigger and more significant than it is, but not in a way that sends us scuttling for meaning but in a way that makes us feel like we’re witnessing a work of great art rather than B-grade schlock.

If a statement on Bandcamp is accurate, Marc Richter, the German who makes unsettling sound collages as Black to Comm, doesn’t want us to read too deeply into his record. This is a relief given how vastly experimental albums whose press releases do all the talking outnumber ones that speak for themselves. It’s tempting, because the sound palate is grim and dissonant and because the record’s title is redolent of obscene power, to think of it as a political album. But that seems like a stretch, and I’d argue the title is just a nonsensical mishmash of demon iconography: seven kings of hell, seven seals, four horsemen of the apocalypse, and so on.

Seven Horses succeeds because it’s really good at being dark. A lot of albums aim for true horror and just end up edgy or noisy, but this thing seems to conceal a lot of secrets. It brings to mind torches panning across archaic runes in dusty old temples. There’s unmistakably something ancient about it, and not just because a lot of its samples come from medieval music. The density of the mix, together with a pleasing low-end, creates the illusion that everything’s half-buried in time and dust. Even when he’s sampling free-jazz saxophones or the music of contemporary classical composer Nils Frahm, the music conjures the same gnosticism as Nico’s solo albums, the pained drones of the Third Ear Band, or the jeremiads of Current 93.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 12, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Bay Area political punk band, SWMRS talk about changing their name, recording in conference rooms, and committing to social justice as a rock band.

SWMRS‘ new record on Fueled by Ramen comes two years and two weeks after white-nationalist creep Milo Yiannopoulos was set to speak at UC Berkeley and protesters just about burned the place down. The band makes it pretty clear where they stand within the opening minutes of the album, whose first song and title track is called “Berkeley’s on Fire”. The implied next sentence: “let it burn”.

It’s a bold clearing, a warning for centrists to get the fuck out of here. Ever since they were Emily’s Army, the East Bay punk band’s commitment to justice was obvious. The band’s Becker brothers, Cole and Max, named the band for a cousin with cystic fibrosis and used the band to promote a fundraising effort of the same name to raise money for her lung transplant; she now has a fully functioning set of lungs. The band’s SWMRS Fund gives a dollar from each ticket on tour to a different group quarterly: the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, the National Bail Fund Network, the Third Wave fund for women and queer youth of color.

The band will probably always be compared to Green Day. Drummer Joey Armstrong is Billie Joe’s son, and they don’t deny the big man gave them a lift up early on. But while Green Day’s political songs preach broad messianism, SWMRS have razor-sharp focus: if they can’t change the world, they at least can change some people’s minds, and they can certainly do more than if they were playing garages for cans of Coors.

Not to necessarily say their music wouldn’t have caught anyone’s notice: though they started in the mold of the bands that sprung from 924 Gilman in the late 1980s, they’re dabbling in dub and hip-hop and broadening their palate while tightening their sound (the new record is 13 minutes shorter than their last one, 2016’s Drive North). In their omnivorousness—and in Cole Becker’s bark—they’re more properly in the lineage of the Clash, and they might just make their Berkeley Calling in time.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 12, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

The black holes that feature on this album are 30 times the mass of our Sun, but they’re puny next to the universes Basinski conjures.

William Basinski’s work has always played with time. The NYC maestro often lets his tape loops sit for years before releasing them. His best-known work The Disintegration Loopsactually chronicled the process of decades-old tapes falling apart. 2017’s A Shadow in Time canonized his hero David Bowie by melting his memory into the fabric of the universe. So it’s no surprise he’d want to make an album with the sounds of an event that took place billions of years ago.

On Time Out of Time includes the sound of two black holes colliding, recorded by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, whose complexes in Louisiana and Washington are the kind of vast rural structures that could inspire a whole ambient album to themselves. Of course, “sound” is a little misleading. There’s nothing in space through which sound can travel, so what we’re hearing is light signals converted into soundwaves. It’s serendipitous that they sound like what we’d imagine space to sound like: rumbling and unpretty, the closest thing to the sound of a void short of silence.

Basinski frames On Time Out of Time as a love story between the black holes, which is an endearing angle: two big, unlovely space juggernauts converging and forming a union, like two amorous hippos mating in some swampy Nile bulrushes. Maybe that’s why the forty-minute title track starts out as amelodic drone and distant rumblings, reminiscent of the work of late Italian master Oöphoi, and eventually yields to synth tones that almost approximate the sawing strings of some epic Hollywood love theme.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 10, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Harverd Dropout works as a party album, but beware any party where it’s playing.

Whether or not Lil Pump actually dropped out of Harvard is rather hard to confirm, thanks in no small part to his fans. A Quora thread earnestly asking if the face-tatted 18-year-old from South Florida actually attended America’s most prestigious institution of higher education is choked with fans facetiously claiming he dropped out of Harvard to “save the rap game.” If Pump’s spinning a fiction, it’s a telling one: to him, education, parents or anyone else that tells him what to do is lumped into a Big Bad.

His second album Harverd Dropout is a celebration of the Bart Simpson school of arrested development: rebelling against your parents long after there’s anything to rebel against, reveling in the same impulsive dismissal of authority figures that leads right-wingers to cry “freedom of speech” whenever someone calls them on their shit (of course “I Love It” ended up on this thing). For Pump, dropping out of school to get rich is the ultimate fantasy, and when he chuckles “stay in school, kids” on almost-title-track “Drop Out,” it’s with the same smirking facetiousness that “The Simpsons” used to use on their “Treehouse of Horror” disclaimers.

To Pump, nothing is cooler than being a “drug addict.” Does he know what a drug addict is? Rap has always celebrated chemical consumption, but his use of “addict” suggests he’s borrowing from the damaged-boy bullshit in which emo-rap is mired even as he tells us repeatedly on the record how great his life is. That there’s been far less outrage about the non-black Pump’s use of the n-word and Smokepurpp’s line about “getting money like a Jew” than similar transgressions by trap artists Nav and 21 Savage suggests listeners are content to let the new sound of the youth sink into its own obnoxiousness.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 03, 2019

Publication: Resident Advisor

I, Assassin holds up better than most of Numan’s work.

Gary Numan was 24 and already over the hill when he put out I, Assassin in 1982. He’d just come off a “farewell tour” after which he returned to performing almost immediately. Though his first two solo albums hit number one in the UK, his delightfully avant third Dance stalled at number three, and I, Assassin hit eight. When Warriors from 1983 reached only 20, his label dropped him. Thus began his wilderness period, which lasted until a ‘90s revival amplified the gothic aspects of his sound.

I, Assassin sounds a lot like Dance: The drum machines are more obviously artificial than the rock-aligned real-drums of “Cars” and the Tubeway Army records, and there’s always a fretless bass swimming overhead. The difference is that while Dance’s songs sprawled to nearly 10 minutes, I, Assassin’s clock out at six. It’s ruminative but not enough so to scare off listeners.

What makes I, Assassin unique is its holistic approach, which is closer to Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics or some of Prince’s most extreme music than the bleak, hooky synth-rock on which Numan made his name. Everything sounds like it’s rendered in the cheap 3-D of an early Pixar short. Pino Palladino’s bass is the most noticeable sound simply because it’s uncommon to hear that instrument so totally dominate a pop record. But it doesn’t take up that much more space than the drums, the occasional pinpricks of guitar and even Numan’s voice.

Numan isn’t talked about much as a singer. He should be. If he sounds like a robot, the lifeform to which he’s most often compared, it’s one that’s just learned to feel emotions. He has a lot in common with David Byrne; like Numan, his voice is clipped, paranoid and extremely reactive to stimuli, as if he’s perpetually tilting his head to hear what startled him.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Feb 28, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

With Funkadelic in a minor slump, Up for the Down Stroke signaled the reins being shifted to the Parliament project.

This is where Funkadelic molts into Parliament. Up for the Down Stroke takes the filth and sex obsession of the first two Funkadelic albums and scrubs the caked sludge down to nice layer of slime. There’s a clarity of detail that makes it a little easier to tell what’s going on; instead of the nasty bits being blurred, they’re pumping and thrusting in front of your eyes.

There’s something serpentine about the album. On “Up for the Down Stroke,” Bootsy Collins’s bass moves in perfect, stepping eighth-notes, forming a staircase down which everyone else parades, and the same thing happens on “I Can Move You (If You Let Me)” with the vocals. The girls on the cover seem to parade single-file past a vignette of George Clinton in Dracula drag dominating another woman. Passing casually by scenes of decadence is the order of the day; it’s like The Shining if the guy in the bear suit were behind every door.

Some grouse about the endless outro to “The Goose,” but it’s pleasingly repulsive as it slithers by, and the five-note guitar figure that comes in about halfway through always reminded me of someone picking their own ass. On “Testify,” the phaser on Clinton’s voice sounds like nothing so much as a wet finger sliding down a pane of glass. There’s always something, and it’s even more perverse when you know both of the aforementioned came from Clinton’s old band the Parliaments.

The Parliaments recorded “The Goose” and “Testify” in 1967 alongside “All Your Goodies Are Gone,” which also appears here. (“That Was My Girl” from America Eats Its Young is a Parliaments cut, too.) Clinton had a nasty sense of humor even back then. Both “The Goose” and “That Was My Girl” rely on unsavory animal metaphors, and the former has one of the most brazen double entendres I’ve ever heard; the lyrics tell me he’s saying “I’m nuts all over you,” but it sounds like something else—something that wouldn’t have been lost on a band with as lick-my-doo a sense of humor as this one.

If you know a song down pat and have ever tried to play it drunk, you know how weird that shit can come out sometimes; just look at Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Having a familiarity with the physical motions of the song must’ve helped the acid-addled Parliament players focus on where they could take it next: submerging them in liquid. Clinton seems to retract inside his own vocals and push himself back out again, as if singing through some kind of frog-like dewlap. Instead of suave soul professionalism, Clinton sounds extremely uncomfortable in his own skin. It’s the hyper-awareness of one’s own body, especially the sweaty bits, that’s an unpleasant side effect of psychedelics.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Feb 27, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Mazy Fly excels in laser noises and organs but is light on surf guitars and theremins.

Tia Cabral, late of Oakland’s terrific Ratskin Records and now signed to Sacred Bones, might be the most visible face of the East Bay experimental scene, which consists largely of young queer musicians and musicians of color rather than the pasty bald mountains of brawn we typically see behind noiseboxes. It’s easy to see why her Spellling project is the biggest post-Ratskin success story to date. Her music’s approachable, not necessarily because it has much for the casual listener to latch onto but because it rejects the extremes of aesthetic and thematic ugliness in what we think of as experimental music. Cabral comes across as pleasant, and indeed my former Bay Guardian colleague Emma Silvers had a terrific time feeding ducks with her at Oakland’s Lake Merritt and writing about it for Pitchfork. It’s easy to imagine a lot of people liking her Sacred Bones debut because of who she is as a person; once you bond enough with the protagonist of a piece of music, everything else tends to fall into place, and moments that seem inexplicable are thrown into blinding light.

Mazy Fly is steeped in speculative fiction, from horror to sci-fi to fantasy to the flights of the imagination that grow organically out of everyday life. Some of her stories are simple: What if my border collie could fly? What if aliens came to earth? Some are uglier: “Haunted Water” imagines Atlantic waters echoing with the cries of those who died on the Middle Passage. For the most part, Cabral looks at the improbable with a friendly smile, never winking at her own nerddom or betraying any awareness that the plot of “Real Fun” is not terribly different from that of Earth Girls are Easy. It’s rare to find a pop album inspired by these themes but not the Cold War camp of pulp comics and flying-saucer movies, which haveve been beaten to death in recent years by Burger Records and affiliates. Mazy Fly excels in laser noises and organs but is light on surf guitars and theremins.

The sound palate of the record is basically synth-pop, all bubbling sequencers and endless gated snares. Where it gets weird is in Cabral’s vocals. Her voice resembles a thick skin that’s been allowed to settle on the music, and she sways impressively between wicked cackles and tenebrous moans, usually accompanied by a small army of herself. She sings slowly and deliberately, and the first sentence of “Haunted Water” takes nearly half a minute to pass by. Mazy Fly sounds sort of like a New Romantic classic dredged from the Dagobah swamps. It’s less musically interesting than her much stranger Ratskin release Pantheon of Me, perhaps because it’s in limbo between pop and the primordial murk. It’s never particularly hooky nor terribly atmospheric, and the songs often end up so far from where they started that they’re hard to keep track of. Cabral only recently began making music seriously after a long hiatus spent pursuing the visual arts, so it’s likely as she progresses she’ll tighten her craft and learn to write songs as good as her submersions.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Feb 25, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

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Date: Feb 24, 2019

Publication: SPLITTOOTHMEDIA

The Green Book is a black hole designed to siphon awards from films that deserve them. Every spot it occupies in award-nominee listings, including its Best Picture win at the Oscars, could have gone to a work of political art that knows what it’s talking about. Something like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, or even Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, a film I didn’t care for but at least had the courage to be about something. Peter Farrelly’s film about a white man driving a black pianist on tour through the South was designed to win awards. That’s how socially conscious dramas promote themselves, and Farrelly and his marketing goons know their best hope of lining their pockets is to get it to the highest echelons of award season. But The Green Book is not a truly conscious film but a race-flavored buddy comedy that makes no insights that would have been controversial even in 1990, when Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture. This film is a con, and because its theft of awards means white moviegoers will see it instead of films like Riley’s and Lee’s that might actually inspire them to think about their role in perpetuating racism, it’s arguably evil.

Good political art puts the audience on the spot. It asks us if we’re part of the problem and has hope we can change. Sorry to Bother You asks us why we choose to turn our heads in a time where atrocities are a normal part of the daily news. Blackkklansman argues racism is an intrinsic part of American history. The Green Book plays it safe for its white audience by fostering an us-vs-them mentality where if you’re woke enough to pay for a ticket you can assuage yourself that you’re one of the “good ones,” floating above the seething mob of rednecks responsible for racism in America. According to The Green Book, New York is devoid of racism except for one Italian family, while the South teems with hateful bar hooligans. How else to interpret the scene toward the end where they’re on their way back to New York and a cop pulls over the Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali characters? We think he’s going to bust them for something arbitrary because Ali’s black, a scenario that’s already happened a few times in the movie. Instead, he politely tells them one of their lights is out and lets them go with a smile. We’re in the North now, Farrelly is telling us: no more racism. Never mind that The Negro Motorist Green Book, the real guidebook for black travelers that gives the film its name, was authored by a New Yorker and maps not only the South but the rest of the country. Or that sundown towns, a plot point here, were a Northern phenomenon.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Feb 24, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

This double album forces us to reconsider what draws us to Liz Harris’ art.

After Its Own Death/Walking in a Spiral Towards the House is Liz Harris’ first album as Nivhek, a curious name that’s just a hair away from Nivek, i.e. Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre. That’s Kevin backwards: Kehvin? Maybe it’s a ‘90s baby reference or perhaps the Grouper auteur understands female musicians who don’t sing are almost inevitably misgendered and wants to play with that ambiguity. For those who like her music for its smeared, ethereal layers of voice, this double album forces us to reconsider what draws us to her art.

The album opens on layers of Liz’s voice, but soon it yields to what sounds like a mercilessly whacked note on a dusty Rhodes: the baby version of a Sunn O))) drone. It’s a gnarlier and more aggressive spin on the tried-and-true Grouper formula, and one with more momentum. Harris’ pieces typically hang in thin air. This one moves, and in a few minutes we’re excited about what comes next.

There’s a brilliant section with pendulous vibraphone and plucks of echoing guitar that should sate anyone’s withdrawals following the breakup of the great ‘90s post-rock band Labradford. Then comes a blast of violent power-ambient guitar that makes the opening Rhodes rumination sound puny. Every now and again her voice pops in, as if to comment on the action.

Then, as “After Its Own Death (Side 2)” winds its way towards its conclusion, the entire sound palate yields to unadorned vibraphone, its long sustain ringing through what sounds like a vast, churchy space. The vibraphone is a terrifically pure sound that conjures a whiff of ‘50s space-age pseudo-sophistication; some of the best-ever ambient tracks—Oval’s “Do While,” Loscil’s “Charlie”—abuse it half to death. But after the odyssey of the album’s first 30 minutes, it’s a tremendous letdown to find out the latter 30 minutes are just the one instrument.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Feb 19, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

ALL EARS Two tracks into Yoshi Flower’s debut mixtape American Raver we hear a voicemail from his dad. It’s a shortcut to pathos we’ve heard on a million albums, from Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city to recent albums by Aaron Carter and Mike Posner. It’s easy for the uninformed to roll their eyes—except Yoshi’s “dad” is 26-year-old comedian Brandon Wardell, who regales Yoshi with criticisms in a voice that sounds almost like someone’s happy-go-lucky pops.

“We recorded like 20 minutes of it,” Yoshi told me over the phone—though only a few short snatches made it onto the mixtape. Both performers were quite stoned, and judging by the singer’s tortoise-slow drawl and lyrical fixation on chemical consumption, it’s not an uncommon state to find him in.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Feb 12, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

These are the albums most new Residents fans will hear for the first time.

1979’s Eskimo and 1981’s The Commercial Album are the first two Residents albums to feature their iconic eyeball masks on the cover, which might be why they’re among their most famous. While the band had operated for the last decade as a hermetic outfit who spoke through their art, the eyeball masks gave them a badass brand image as indelible as KISS’s. The Residents tend to be a formative obsession for left-field rockers, which might be because of Primus’s covers of “Constantinople” and “Hello Skinny” but also because certain aspects of their music appeal to a more juvenile mindset than most avant music. Beyond the masks, there’s their dark-carnival aesthetic, which isn’t too far removed from what we find in James Wan movies or the grungier corners of Midwestern rap. Americans, especially young Americans, love a good subversion of an innocent trope. Then, there’s the way they like to tie their music into fake-deep anti-corporate concepts. The imagined Inuit on Eskimoare loyal consumers, incorporating Toyota and Coca-Cola slogans into their “traditional” chants. And The Commercial Album works on the premise that, given how repetitious pop songs tend to be, there’s only about one minute of actual music in a three-minute single—hence an album of one-minute songs that are “commercials” for themselves. If you’re the kind of rock listener for whom ambition and conceptual heft define great rock music, the Residents come with a built-in appeal. It’s not a huge leap to go from The Wall to a Residents record.

These two albums, freshly reissued for the Residents’ ongoing “pREServed” campaign, are the most recommendable Residents albums but far from their best. Eskimo is probably the band’s most meticulously sound-designed album, making wonderful use of space and an omnipresent pall of digital wind to evoke a barren landscape. It’s also an odious study in phony ethnography that, nearly two decades away from the end of the Canadian residential school system, uses an offensive exonym to reduce real people to props for a flimsy concept. Throughout the record, we hear garbled gibberish and fake-Native heya-heyas that once in a while cohere into something like “you asked for it, you got it!” or “Coca-Cola is life!” If the Residents wanted to make a statement about the wide-reaching tendrils of American-style capitalism, why not recruit real people to speak in real languages and talk about real issues plaguing their communities? Why even use the fake language? It might’ve been fun if all we heard was advertising slogans in English. Erase the voices and the “Eskimo” conceit and we’d have a great ambient album on our hands. Either way, we don’t get much out of the concept aside from the jokey incongruity of hearing these Times Square-friendly slogans in the midst of an Arctic whiteout.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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