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Expert Witness: July 2012


That Old Testosterone High
Tuesday, July 3, 2012  

Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran (Sham Palace)
From seven weddings and such in southern Syria, 42 board-tape-to-vinyl-only minutes collected by Sublime Frequencies' Mark Gergis and released in an edition of 1000. Why you should want such a fetish object is simple--access to the most intense music you'll hear all year, including anything by Gergis's related discovery Omar Souleyman. It's very male and replete with strange noises: grunts and yelps, chipmunk squeals, and the buzzy overtones of a bamboo flute called the mejwiz--sometimes live, sometimes sampled, sometimes, Gergis says, both. Yes the music drones--it's supposed to. No you won't understand a word they're singing--insofar as they're singing any. A little one-dimensional sure--assuming you're not from southern Syria yourself. A MINUS

Japandroids: Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
Kind of heartwarming that it's still possible for a young band to rock out with palpable joy about the pleasures, terrors, and life lessons of the road--the songs of experience thing, as if the road is reality in a way their jobs in Vancouver weren't. Helps that they're a duo--decreases the mathematical likelihood of a member nutting out, increases each member's share of the measly take. Also helps that they're not actually young--around 30 is my guess. Rendering this an escape into youth rather than from it by guys old enough to realize that if they hope to make a success of their hustle they need to turn into something like professionals--tunesmiths, even. A MINUS

Roskilde Rising

Wiz Khalifa/Janelle Monae
Friday, July 6, 2012  

OK, here goes, not a review I've rewritten half a dozen times but an actual off-the-cuff blog post from an actual event in progress. Personal stuff: five hours to get my bag in the Copenhagen airport, finally arrived at my dormitory three miles from the site (in a town of 50,000 40 miles from Copenhagen) eight hours after touching down. Due to the kind attentions of the two young publicists who waited with me at the airport--though I didn't know they were there until two hours in--it was tolerable enough. But I was pretty tired that first day. Nor did it help that I got lost biking back to the dorm, resulting in a four or five mile ride on no sleep but this being Denmark plenty of light as 10 p.m. approached. That was before the festival officially opened, but I did see a local band I liked, Danish dubstep by Linkoban, fronted my a Copenhagener who looked to be of East Asian heritage and knew her way around English flow. Good enough to check out their album should such come my way. Maybe simple, which would be fine, maybe simplistic, which wouldn't.

Yesterday the festival proper began at 5 p.m., maybe 100,000 people streaming into the seven-stage space with music supposed to begin on the dot of five but actually everything seemed to get pushed back half an hour. These were mostly young Danes, though given the 1000 media passes and the elasticity of the term "mostly" there were plenty of people in their thirties and older and a few who looked nearly as old as me. Also, this being Denmark, plenty of wheelchairs, some bearing the kind of severely disabled most societies try to keep out of sight. I saw five acts all told plus wisps of a few others as I passed by (melancholy Danes Kellermensch, which I believe translates something like Underground Man, all grand and somber, the Abyssinians keeping the faith): Django Django, the Shins, Wiz Khalifa, Modeselektor, Janelle Monae. No further comment on all but two because I'm faced with the formal problem of not preempting the long lookback essay I'll be doing for MSN after I return to the States.

What I do want to write about is something I just figure I won't have time to squeeze into the big piece three more days of music down the road: what it was like to see two very different African-American acts whose records have never done much for me in an audience consisting primarily of large young Nordics most of whom speak English but almost none of whom have any firsthand knowledge of the culture of urban America, with "urban" meant as the straightforward antonym of "suburban" rather than the evasive synonym of "black."

Both bands, like the Shins, played the Arena stage, Roskilde's second largest. Khalifa was scheduled for 8:30. But when I arrived at 8:25 the entire Arena area--which the Shins had played to a full tent that thinned out as the show progressed, which is natural as people sample music and move on--was jammed impassably, not just the tent but all the surrounding grass (which is designed for overflow) and the approaching street (which isn't). Khalifa came on maybe 10-15 minutes late--not terrible, but also unnecessary considering. I could barely glimpse the stage over the blond heads, so mostly I watched the Jumbotron or whatever it's called these days. These blond heads did not belong to curiosity seekers. These people, almost as many female as male where I was standing, knew the songs. The one with the "money hoes" hook? Check. The roll-it smoke-it it's-a-party one? Check. The slow jam with the sung-croaked "five o'clock in the morning" chorus that sent me off in search of a pork sandwich? Check. And the apparent anthem, 'cause everybody sang this one as Wiz stood there basking: approximately (I claim no prior awareness of this song, though I must have heard it somewhere): "So what if we smoke weed/Just havin' fun/That's how it's sposed to be/Running wild and free/All just havin fun." This was some of the most vapid music about getting f&cked up I've ever heard. It was awful--beats, tunes, flow, singing, show. And yet for all these young people with no knowledge of any of its elements except the weed, it was escapist bliss. Wild and free. I felt bad for them, and bad for America which sold this crap, and bad for Pittsburgh, which deserves better and instead got Mac Miller or whatever his name is.

Janelle Monae was scheduled for 11:30, but I got there early because even though I think her records are overrated I wanted to be in her crowd and see her. Thus I stood from 10:45 or so about midway up in the tent, which meant my back was killing me before she even took the stage (precisely on time) and was why I left after an hour during what turned out to be her last number before the encore, where I heard her telling everyone they'd have to dance as I went off in search of a beer and my bike ride home in the dark (which was fine--bicycling is really easy in Denmark because there are dedicated bicycle paths everywhere). Watched the Jumbotron more than the stage even so, but the stage plenty.

The show had its limits. She didn't dance as spectacularly as I'd anticipated, for one thing, though I bet she pulled out a few stops for the encore. But from the moment she appeared the contrast with Wiz Khalifa was intense. All right, she's still a jill-of-all-trades who isn't quite good enough at any of them--even when she had the sense to cover "Smile" instead of sticking in another undistinguished original, she didn't do enough with it vocally or conceptually. But overall, her talent, command, and conceptual audacity were unmistakable from the moment she appeared. The differential was enormous. And there were things I loved throughout. I loved how she dressed--male b&w drag, no shows of skin whatever, which is hardly to say unglamorous. I loved loved loved her cover of "I Want You Back," performed perfectly and revealed as a great American standard as the entire audience sang the chorus and much of it sang the verse. And I loved her fans, who around me were mostly female, with the guys appreciative but plainly along for the ride. So many of these young Danish women were flat-out enthralled, identifying with as well as admiring Monae's autonomy and her talent. Next-to-last came Monae's "Cold War," always one of her more memorable songs but with everyone once again knowing the chorus and plenty the verse, also revealed as a potential standard. I was moved by them and proud of my countrywoman. Only in Denmark--or anyway, not possible in the same way in America.

Odds and Ends 013

Tuesday, July 10, 2012  

Clams Casino: Rainforest (Tri Angle)
Too atmospheric? naturalistic? programmatic? somewhere in there ("Gorilla," "Waterfalls") ***

Sao Paulo Underground: Três Cabeças Loucuras (Cuneiform)
Post-rock cornetist gets up with three Brazilian co-conspirators, two of them percussionists ("Just Lovin'," "Rio Negro") ***

Jazz Punks: Smashups (Foam @ the Mouth)
A trip when jazz heads interlock with rock hooks, workmanlike post-bop when they improvise, give the drummer some throughout ("Heavyfoot," "Clash-Up") ***

Cut Chemist: Sound of the Police (A Stable Sound/Soul Kitchen)
Veteran L.A. DJ keys two 20-minute soul mixes to Ethiopian beats, which soon prove the main attraction ("East Side") ***

Supreme Cuts: Whispers in the Dark (Dovecote)
Chicago duo claim house, hip-hop, and avant influences for their ambient, which is indeed less austere than ambient ordinaire ("Belly," "Val Venus") **

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Twenty Dozen (Savoy Jazz)
Greatest practitioners on record of America's premier you-had-to-be-there music ("Dirty Old Man," "We Gon' Roll) **

Paolo Fresu & Omar Sosa: Alma (Otá)
Intelligent easy-listening fusion from flugelhorn-loving Italian trumpeter, studio-loving Cuban pianist, and parttime-loving Brazilian cellist ("Alma," "Under African Skies") **

Fernando Otero: Vital (World Village)
Argentinian pianist thinks classical but feels tango, only then his mind wins ("Danza," "Globalizacion") *

Blind Willie Johnson/Tommy Johnson

Johnson & Johnson
Friday, July 13, 2012  

Blind Willie Johnson: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia/Legacy '93)
Between 1927 and 1930, in his early thirties and probably his prime, the Texas-based Johnson applied his gravelly voice and dexterous bottleneck to 28 gospel sides. On 19 of these he was accompanied by a female singer, usually his first wife Willie Harris, and in a sense lyrics and melodies are rendered superfluous by the sound of his gruff false bass shadowed and set right by a simpatico soprano: a sane, haunting aural image of suffering and succor that's hard to get too much of. But most of the songs are at least solid in themselves, and refreshingly unfamiliar unless Johnson planted the seed of their renown, as he did with "Motherless Children," "If I Had My Way," "John the Revelator," and the indomitable "Praise God I'm Satisfied." Like most gospel, they value melodic flow and rhythmic momentum more than the Delta blues other Johnsons purveyed. I'm not going to say they rock. But you might. A

Tommy Johnson: Essential Blues Masters (Goldenlane '09)
This Johnson is a Delta legend best appreciated by blues aesthetes like the late great Robert Palmer--who hears, for instance, "a slippery, danceable swing" in guitar accompaniments others account regionally generic. Johnson messed with your woman, drank Sterno for breakfast, and claimed meetings at the crossroads with you-know-who. But he only recorded for two years of his 1896-1956 lifespan. Like most collections available, this one preserves 17 tracks and 13 songs, five of which I have now removed from my iPod for reasons of distressed audio, compositional shortfall, or (usually) both. I've also banished three alternate versions, although I kept both scratchy "Black Mare Blues" just to hear New Orleans's Nehi Boys kick in their piano and clarinet, which do Johnson a lot more good than you-know-who. As I hear it, he has two drop-dead classics in his kit: the indelible "Big Road Blues" and the clarion "Cool Drink of Water Blues." The frailing "Maggie Campbell Blues" and the confessional "Canned Heat Blues" are close behind, and the rowdy-to-miserable likes of "Big Fat Mamma Blues" and "Lonesome Home Blues" fill in the blanks. I saved serious bucks by purchasing this iteration as a download. It also includes a posthumously electrified band version of "Canned Heat Blues" designated "an abomination" by the one blues aesthete on the interweb to acknowledge its existence. Personally, I welcome it as a hint of what might have been. B PLUS

Burial/Saint Etienne

The Varied Glories of British Disco
Tuesday, July 17, 2012  

Burial: Street Halo/Kindred (Hyperdub/Beat)
Two EPs from the mysterious William Bevan, six tracks divided evenly between his 20-minute 2011 return and his 30-minute 2012 stride forward, cohere almost seamlessly as the album they become when you don't have to turn any plastic over. The accomplished recapitulations of Street Halo--faerie electro-soprano and vinyl sputter-crackle laying their dream and disquiet on the nervous beats--pause briefly at what is now track four, which takes seven seconds to achieve liminal audibility before slowly building into a peppier elegy than anything he's previously dared. And despite the lamentable title "Ashtray Wasp" (please, I don't want to know), the 12-minute finale begins as a distressed house anthem--not literally uplifting, this is Burial, but inspiring nonetheless--and then trails off into something more lyrical. Thoughtful, even. A MINUS

Saint Etienne: Words and Music by Saint Etienne (Heavenly/Universal)
It's not like they ever disappeared--in Britain they've been minor fixtures, regularly releasing albums that all sounded markedly inferior to 1993's So Tough from here. There's even a best-of no Stateside bizzer ever touched. But they clearly regard their first proper album since 2006's Tales From Turnpike House as some kind of recapitulation or theme statement--a looking back that's warmly affectionate but too cool to melt into nostalgia. Announcing her intentions with a striking half-spoken reminiscence of a fandom that began at 10, Sarah Cracknell devotes most of these songs to the young clubbers and music lovers she was and knew. But at times you suspect her subjects and personas are older, still caught up in the same dreams. And the subject of "Twenty Five Years" is the time in front of her. Her male partners Bob Stanley and Peter Wiggs provide reliable disco-inflected pop or vice versa that the remixers on the optional bonus disc trick up with more wit and fidelity than we who avoid remixes sagely expect. A MINUS

Frank Ocean/Greenberger Greenberg Cebar

Words Before Music Done Right
Friday, July 20, 2012  

Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Def Jam)
One, Nostalgia, Ultra wasn't perfect. Two, neither is this, but in a different way. There's no song here as astonishing as "Strawberry Swing," "Novacane," or "American Wedding"--two of which, you will note, exploit Other People's Music (not to mention the Other Man's Music), and all of which inhabit a narrative world simultaneously richer and more ordinary than the haut-monde demimonde of most of these songs. But the musical craft on this almost sampleless album is so even-keeled that there's no song here as forgettable as "There Will Be Tears" or "Dust" either. You could speculate that when he's the sole composer Ocean resists making a show of himself--resists the dope hook, the smart tempo, the transcendent falsetto itself. And just as his music is about control, he never promotes a subject matter I believe fascinates him in a cautionary way, as the assigned fate of the r&b elite. Definitely his official debut is about the demimonde, not of it. And definitely the verbal content rules. For a musical prodigy to be a writer first is a mitzvah. But that doesn't mean we have to share his fascinations. A MINUS

Greenberger Greenberg Cebar: Tell Me That Before (Pel Pel)
David Greenberger and his Duplex Planet project are old news, and there've been other recordings. But I'm not sure how many a music person would want, and can't imagine any of them improving on the new one I've fallen for: 17 subtly intonated dramatizations of words Americans in elder facilities have spoken to Greenberger followed by a multivocal 19-minute finale. No one's altogether bitter, but many are weary, and gradually the selections become not so much sadder as deeper, their bygone vernacular a bearer of authority and idiosyncrasy, reason and regret. Wise, deluded, confused, loving, placid, wacky, they reminisce and philosophize as they wait for the end, and Greenberger respects them all. Mark Greenberg provides each reflection with dedicated homespun accompaniment--bass and/or drums and/or keyboard, ukulele and/or accordion and/or vibraphone--that accents the musicality of their speech. The words would appear to be all. Yet every time your mind wanders, your ear tells you they're not. A MINUS

Fiona Apple/Regina Spektor

Piano Women
Tuesday, July 24, 2012  

Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Ever Do (Epic)
A funny thing will happen once you've figured out that the title is the stupidest thing about an album that's damn catchy after all. It'll sound like a piano record--a defiantly primitivist, raucously avant-garde lounge singer's piano record, with a really nutty drummer: he'll-bang-on-anything (and-get-her-to-pitch-in) producer Charley Drayton. There are few arpeggios, and not much tone color and such. She just executes simple figures and hammers thick chords, including a few boogie-woogies just to make a point. She also sings--words, yes, but more decisively, sounds. Not background music. But you could sure call it mood music. A MINUS

Regina Spektor: What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (Sire)
Outside of country music (and I don't know who compares there), pop music is home to few friendlier artists than Regina Spektor. So well-meaning you want to kiss the tip of her nose, she uses her classical chops to craft tunes that will help any normal listener smile. But although a practical humanist is a rare thing, this one often needs more spice or even grit, and here her whimsy is front and center. I love "All the Rowboats," about a museum--"Masterpieces serving maximum sentences/It's their own fault/For being timeless"--and "Firewood," about a piano. "Ballad of a Politician" plays off "Shake it, shake it baby" (hands, get it?) and "Open" comes with a gurgling groan. But many of these songs are merely bemused, and when she revises "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good," all she achieves is a different singalong from the one you expected. B PLUS

Khaira Arby

Timbuktu Woman Sings Her Mind
Friday, July 27, 2012  

Khaira Arby: Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music)
Although she's too unreconstructed to inspire much loose talk about feminism, this cousin of Ali Farka Toure's--one of many, I bet--has the gravity and the drive to replace the effectively emeritus Oumou Sangare as Mali's female musical ambassador. Problem is, while this 2010 album is arresting, it's also fatiguing. Of course she's singing in her sand-blasted power contralto, but over 12 tracks it's often more like she's holding forth--after all that hectoring you crave some lilt, the sense that maybe she'll dance a few steps when she does this one live. Nice theory, only the two liltiest concern "the anguish of women" and "workers returning from the salt mines." She's not getting ready to dance. She's just giving herself time to think. B PLUS

Khaira Arby: Tchini Tchini (Clermont Music)
Conceived as new merch to sell on an American tour that ended before the pressing was ready, this three-track EP doubles as an economical introduction. Its near-frantic four-and-half-minute opener is guitar-driven. Its trickier five-minute closer is drum-driven. And for the seven-minute wedding song in between she relaxes a little with her ngoni guy before the guitar guy has his say. Not fatiguing, that's for sure. A MINUS

Orchestra Baobab

Solid as the Stones
Tuesday, July 31, 2012  

Orchestra Baobab: La Belle Époque: Volume 2 1973-1976 (Syllart)
Proud owner of their early N'Wolof, which focuses on the pioneering Wolof traditionalist Laye M'Boup, and of the late-'70s Paris sessions released decades ago as On Verra Ça, I thought I had all the early Baobab I needed and most of what there was. Now I doubt that even this follow-up to the 1971-77 first volume reviewed below gets it all. As Florent Mazzoleni's français-seulement notes make (somewhat) clear, they released many (shortish) albums back when they were the toast of the post-colonial elite at downtown Dakar's Club Baobab. Salsa was the rage of Senegal's emergent ruling class, and there was always clave near the heart of Baobab's groove. But cosmopolitanism was also on the agenda of a multitribally multilingual unit that could bring off its worldwide ambitions because its band sound was as solid and unmistakable as the Rolling Stones'. Hear them run King Curtis over Jimmy Cliff on "Issa Soul" or go all-out JB on "Kelen Kati Leen," try an uptempo blues on "Sey" or a careful bolero on "Cabral," remember their roots on "Nidiaye" or stretch out San Francisco-style on "Sibou Odia." Hear Togolese Bartelemy Attisso run the show without ever hogging the spotlight. A MINUS

Orchestra Baobab: La Belle Époque 1971-1977 (Syllart)
This two-CD import has many discographical drawbacks. The adequate audio on the first disc, all or most of which was recorded live without audience in an empty club, could be more forceful and distinct. It shares the preponderance of its second disc with Nick Gold's On Verra Ça comp and a few tracks with the somewhat superior archive dig N'Wolof. Individual selections have been reinterpreted on Baobab's reunion CDs, picked up on this or that Afrocomp, and/or recycled on cheesier reissues. So as an economic matter this iteration of their early recordings, trending Latin and also often featuring Laye M'Boup--although note Rudy Gomis's star turn on the climactic "Yen Saay," which does have a studio sheen--may seem a redundant extravagance to some old fans. If so, however, I urge them to seek out not just "Yen Saay" but the gorgeous "Baobab Gouye Gui"/"Geeja Ngala Riir"/"Samaxol Fatou Diop" sequence, preceding it with "Jarraf" if they don't know N'Wolof, where it's called "Yaraf." Also, um, "Ndaga"/"El Vagabonde" up front is pretty sweet. Et cetera. B PLUS

MSN Music, July 2012

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