Frank Ocean/Himanshu

They do mix tapes, they do albums, they do it all. Ocean’s album isn’t necessarily better than his mix tape, while Himanshu’s mix tape definitely isn’t better than his group’s album, or their other mix tapes. It’s still nice to have guys this smart who are also this prolific. Case in point: in the time it took me to review his first mix tape of 2012, Himanshu released a second. I shudder to think what kind of grade he’d give me.

imagesFrank Ocean: Channel Orange
It speaks to the expectations Ocean raised with his 2011 mix tape that this official debut LP feels both wondrous and underwhelming. Shouldn’t it have been more wondrous? Alas, Channel Orange is not the masterpiece we all hoped for; it is merely an outstanding set of songs—Ocean’s second in under two years. This one takes a broad view of Ocean’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles, where the “Super Rich Kids” sound every bit as lost as the guy hooked on “Crack Rock,” that being the only substance here more damaging than money or unrequited love. It’s worth remembering that, before he was flying private with Jay and Ye, Ocean was both a Katrina refugee and a victim of major label mismanagement. His biography was difficult and rich long before he started discussing his sexuality, and he’s got the kind of empathy a rich and difficult biography only deepens. Yet he doesn’t identify with the hard-luck cases he sings about any more than he judges them. As is befitting a Capital-A Artist whose writing and singing are most thrilling for their restraint, he simply lets them be. Because Ocean has yet to master the art of sequencing (what’s that weird thing about fertilizer doing at track three?), the album’s highlights arrive in the middle. Highest of all is “Pyramids,” a five-minute fever dream about a woman named Cleopatra that gives way to another five minutes of the dreamer’s waking life. Turns out he’s a hustler who’s “still unemployed,” and whose beloved Cleo works (probably doing more than just dancing) at a club called The Pyramid. That one throws every musical idea Ocean can fit into ten minutes at you, making all of them work, and leaving you awed, exhausted, and wondering if anyone—hard-luck or otherwise—ever beats their odds. A-

NEHRU-JACKETS-COVERHimanshu: Nehru Jackets
Even bullshitting, Himanshu (you know him as Das Racist MVP Heems) is the kind of guy you want to spend 70 minutes with. That’s partly because he’s a great bullshitter, but more because he’s such a demonstrable sweetheart. Highlights from this rambling mix tape include songs in which he samples PJ Harvey and Kate Bush, two of the women, we can presume, he means to honor in “Womyn,” an ode to the fairer sex as goofy as it is heartfelt. Also on his roving mind: the entire oeuvre of Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, Jason Bourne’s origin story, and what ever happened to Elian Gonzalez. In other words, it’s a true mix tape: freewheeling and far from succinct. There are lots of ideas for their own sake, lots of guest spots from lesser lights; Childish Gambino—you know him as Troy from “Community”—sounds like a TV star just rich and famous enough to get people to let him rap, and I wish Heems wasn’t one of those people. But when Heems’ light shines, it shines bright. As an artist who loves giving his music away for free as much as he loves the things money can buy, he has complicated ideas about wealth. As a lifelong New Yorker, his takedown of his local police force would feel unjustly simplistic were it not for the six unassailable words on which he pins it: “You never made me feel safer.” Doesn’t get much more succinct than that. B+

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July 2012 Consider/Avoid

The two young rock bands atop the consider column this time around benefit from an exuberance that seems to have abandoned the once-atomic Hives and always eluded harmfully harmless Beach House. For hooks, I favor relative old hand Rufus Wainwright over relative upstart Nicki Minaj. For New York-centric chamber pop, I favor Rufus over Magnetic Fields, too. “Andrew in Drag” makes it a close fight, though. Video most definitely NSFW.

 CONSIDER
The Men: Open Your Heart (“Please Don’t Go Away,” “Open Your Heart,” “Candy”)
Japandroids: Celebration Rock (“Fire’s Highway,” “Adrenaline Nightshift,” “Continuous Thunder”)
Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game (“Sometimes You Need,” “Candles”)
The Hives: Lex Hives (“Come On!” “Go Right Ahead”)
The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea (“Your Girlfriend’s Face,” “Andrew in Drag”)
Spiritualized: Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (“Too Late,” “I Am What I Am”)
El-P: Cancer for Cure (“Works Every Time”)
Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (“Champion”)
Santigold: Master of My Make-Believe (“The Riot’s Gone”)
The Walkmen: Heaven (“Song for Leigh”)
Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It (“Take Me Home”)

AVOID
Beach House: Bloom

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Loudon Wainwright III/Jack White

On his first solo album, Mr. White straddles the space between the first-person character songs of the White Stripes and something more personal—without ever quite delivering on either. Mr. Wainwright, on the other hand, confesses as only he can, constructing something larger than life out of life itself.

Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man Now
A key line from the most moving song on an album full of them: “Here’s another song in C/With my favorite protagonist: me.” There are confessional songwriters, and then there is Loudon Wainwright III, a writer whose candor cuts granite. On his 22nd album, Wainwright wrestles, jokes about, and almost comes to peace with his usual ghosts: the late, great father whose memory still haunts him, the late, great ex-wife he loves and resents in equal measure, and the now-famous kids he wants to get right with before his own greatness becomes late. The difference is that this time, as if realizing no autobiography is a monologue, Wainwright invites family and friends to hash it all out with him. The appearances from Rufus and Martha are heart-rending, as is his take on “Over the Hill,” which he co-wrote with said ex-wife, Kate McGarrigle. But when Ramblin’ Jack Elliot joins him in a plea for a “Double Lifetime,” or Chris Smither helps him sort through a list of friends he doesn’t think should have died before him, he and his like-minded friends turn the personal universal. If I wish he’d cut a few of the campier tracks (“I Remember Sex” is a better title than song), I also concede that those of us who don’t know what it’s like to be older than our old men now (or even what it’s like to be older than Rufus) probably shouldn’t question his inclination to get a few more words in. A-

Jack White: Blunderbuss
The confessionals-cum-tall tales on Jack White’s first solo album remind me of miniature versions of Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” one the many blistering covers the White Stripes regularly worked into their set. Except as tales they aren’t tall enough, and as confessions they aren’t exactly revelatory. If this record has a precedent, it’s the Stripes’ underrated 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan, also a collection of what sound like warped breakup songs—remember, White saw both his marriage and his band end last year. That album was a series of grotesques, and White conveyed genuine hurt without breaking his band’s carefully constructed fourth wall. It also helped that the music was as thorny and immediate as the words. These songs just sort of (hard to believe I’m saying this about Jack White) sit there. He isn’t capable of a total misfire: “Love Interruption” is a fine balance of desperation and mystique, and “Sixteen Saltines” is a blast. No coincidence they were the first two singles. Fearing it was me and not him, I considered the possibility I was taking the album too seriously, but that just made me realize it’s not much fun either. Though White does, at times, comes across as cartoonish in a way he never did when he was dressing in red and white and calling his ex-wife his sister. The way he pronounces “nervous” as “noyvous” on Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’,” sounding like he’s both mimicking and mocking the original, makes me cringe every time. B

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Todd Snider/Bruce Springsteen

Being easy for anthems, examinations of class and privilege that come down on the side of the least privileged, and Springsteen himself, I tried to give Wrecking Ball every conceivable break. I even buy some of the arguments I’ve read in its favor—particularly that the songs are hazy on specifics because they’re protest songs; being broad is the whole point. To which I must counter (and I’m hardly the first) that the people with the most to protest can’t afford a ticket to the live show where these songs undoubtedly find their ideal home. For class-conscious songs that resonate in any setting, and employ humor as the great weapon and salve it can and should be, there is Todd Snider.

Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
In a world of singer-songwriters with one specialty, Todd Snider has three. Aside from the socio-religio class songs that have become central to his work, he’s got a jaw-dropping knack for the acutely etched relationship song. He’s also developed a subgenre all his own with a series of biographical odes to his musical heroes that at once honor and demystify their subjects. “Brenda,” a highlight of Snider’s ninth album, may mark the first time he’s managed all three at once. The tale of the young couple who meet on a train and go on to build an empire together, only to feel their relationship fray as one of them stays home crunching the numbers that allow the other to party until dawn, is no less sweet or funny or wise for the revelation that it’s about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They’re the only millionaires here who aren’t appearing in the murder fantasies of someone less fortunate. Snider’s class-consciousness has grown plainer as he’s grown older. Funny from the beginning, he has never fused anger and humor as totally as he does here: “If I had a nickel/For every dime you had/I’d have half of your money/You talk about not half bad.” He’s just getting warmed up: “It’s too soon to tell what we’ll ever avenge/They say that living well is the best revenge/I say bullshit, the best revenge is revenge.” Snider sets all of this to a rough-hewn blues that seethes and scrapes around him, and he never hits harder than on “In Between Jobs,” in which he offers everyone in that particularly anxious purgatory, feeling duped yet undeterred, words to live by: “You think I‘m not very bright/And you might be right/I might have been born yesterday—but I was up all night.” That’s a great joke, but it’s a better threat. A

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Springsteen’s most sonically suped-up album since Born To Run comes packed with Alan Lomax field recordings, Celtic folk, drum loops, gospel choirs, and snatches of “Ring of Fire” and “People Get Ready.” Until you get to the ill-advised rapping, these are good ideas; they’re meant to give what amounts to Springsteen’s State of the Union address social and historical breadth, make the album a ragged and rangy music of the people. So it’s a shame the production, courtesy of Springsteen and a guy whose previous clients include Candlebox and Sixpence None the Richer, is so big and bloodless even Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello ends up sounding like the guy from Journey. For an album Springsteen’s been pushing as his angriest ever, it’s awfully prim. The Rising, Springsteen’s 2002 reaction to 9/11, and Magic, his 2007 survey of the Bush II era, were also too polished for their own good. But those albums had people. They had stories. Springsteen’s lyrics here are so broad they barely register. “Banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin/It’s all happened before/And it’ll happen again,” goes the representatively pat “Jack of All Trades.” But if Springsteen has any real feeling for what that working man lost (or any ire over what the banker man took from him), it’s swallowed whole by this 21-gun salute of an album. It’s some kind of miracle—or maybe just a testament to the kind of person Springsteen is—that he never once sounds disingenuous, nor remotely opportunistic. He wants to give us the Big Redemption his music has always promised, and his live shows are still where he gets it done because that’s where he still connects. Outside of the arena, Wrecking Ball stands as the most impersonal record he’s ever made. It’s a valiant failure, but a failure nonetheless: an album for everyone, seemingly about no one. B-

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April 2012 Consider/Avoid

More to avoid than consider this time around, much of which I’m told I’m supposed to like. The subtle (though often slight) beauty of Grimes did grow on me. Same with the skillful hedonism of Schoolboy Q. But the relentlessly frenetic (and wearying) Sleigh Bells? The needy earnestness of Alabama Shakes? With apologies to that taste-maker Brian Williams, I’d rather listen to Lana Del Rey. But avoid her too, if you still even care (and, really, why would you?).

CONSIDER
Grimes: Visions (“Oblivion,” “Symphonia IX (my wait is u),” “Skin”)
Schoolboy Q: Habits & Contradictions (“Sacrilegious,” “There He Go,” “Blessed”)
Tennis: Young and Old (“Origins,” “Petition”)
Mark Lanegan Band: Blues Funeral (“Gravedigger’s Song,” “Harborview Hospital”)
Cate Le Bon: Cyrk (“Ploughing Out Part 1”)

AVOID
Lana Del Rey: Born To Die
Damien Jurado: Maraqopa
Beth Jeans Houghton: Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose
Nada Surf: The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
K’Naan: More Beautiful Than Silence
Frankie Rose: Interstellar
Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls

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