Wilco/Joe Henry/Tom Waits

ANTI- distribution deals aside, these three are united by a warped take on Americana that, on the evidence below, just keeps on giving. If you thought the last couple Wilco albums contained some very good songs, but that Jeff Tweedy wasn’t using the excellent musicians around him as well as he could, this one’s for you. And if Joe and Tom don’t arrive with quite as many surprises this time around, know that there’s a difference between a rut and a groove.

Wilco: The Whole Love
You’ll be hard pressed to find a review of Wilco’s eighth album that doesn’t fixate on the stunners that bookend it. You may have heard less about the excellent songs that lie between “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning.” Not since the acrimonious departure—and, then, untimely death—of Tweedy foil Jay Bennett has a Wilco album sounded so much like a team effort. Nels Cline still shreds plenty, but where his guitar work once seemed designed to leap out from the arrangement every time one of Tweedy’s tunes was in need of a bailout—see: Sky Blue Sky—it’s now as likely to slink as thrash. The return to prominence of John Stirratt’s bass lines, meanwhile, may serve to remind us why he is the lone original member of Wilco besides Tweedy who remains in the band 16 years after A.M. For the first time in its history, Wilco has gone three straight albums without a lineup change, and whether or not constancy among musicians is what makes this one such a success, constancy has always been at the heart of what Tweedy does. “It’s all one song,” Neil Young famously admonished a heckler who told him all his songs sounded the same. Like Young, Tweedy is an artist with an emotional through-line, more felt than articulated, that unifies his work regardless of stylistic diversion. Here as ever, he is pushing down his own road, toward the place where you don’t have to feel so distant, and can stop telling lies for love. Those journeys are easier when the band’s got your back. A
***
Joe Henry: Reverie
I am so sympathetic to Joe Henry’s worldview that I’m inclined to let him go on for hours without asking too many questions. By my count, he has made three masterpieces, and I wish I could say this was one of them. After two albums of craft and formalism, Henry aims for immediacy: surrounding himself with terrific musicians he wouldn’t presume to micromanage, he presses record and shouts go. The music, a shambling jazz-folk that happens before your ears, is thrilling. Likewise, Henry’s lyrical sketches of life lived moment-to-moment are just right for an album so concerned with the experience—not just the passage, but the experience—of time. The problem is that Henry has become such a poetic writer he occasionally trips on his own language; a lyric like “I dig in the dirt/and yank at the root/of a shadow’s dark vein/in a story gone mute” rhymes real nice, and is so fussy it only affirms my belief that poets and songwriters have very different jobs. He lands on the right side of that line far more often than the wrong one, but he spends enough time on the line itself to make me wonder what happened to the iconoclast who once professed a desire to work with Dr. Dre. That’s an affront to dignified taste I hope comes to pass. For now, I’m thankful for any album that ends with poetry as unfussy as this: “I’m an hour from arriving/and three from where I rose to go/and maybe two from where I’ll find you/between the world and all I know.” Maybe, just maybe, time has come today. A-
***
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Now 61, Tom Waits is writing with an urgency the whippersnappers who worship him should envy, and then learn from. The music on his 17th studio album admittedly won’t send anyone to the thesaurus in search of fresh adjectives, but the songs themselves are as generous as ever, and more timely than those who accuse Waits of shtick have likely bothered to notice. “Hell Broke Luce” continues a string of anti-war songs—begun with 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” and deepened with 2006’s “The Road To Peace”—no current songwriter young enough to fight can touch; “Talking At The Same Time” details chaos with disarming calm; and “New Year’s Eve” uses “Auld Lang Syne” to express the weary hopes of the downtrodden even better than Waits’ own “A Sight For Sore Eyes,” a song written a generation ago in rock years. Speaking of which, the most extreme moment of beauty on the album happens when Keith Richards himself shows up to harmonize on “Last Leaf,” a survivor’s song that manages to be weary and noble and funny all at the same time. A-
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Shabazz Palaces/The Weeknd

The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye and Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler have stoked almost as much interest for their reclusiveness (both released their music anonymously before becoming big things, though Butler had a former public life with Digable Planets) as the shadowy R&B and hip-hop that dominate their highly celebrated records. Black Up, which follows two Shabazz EPs from 2009, is the first hip-hop album ever released by Seattle’s Sub Pop label. House of Balloons is The Weekend’s debut mix tape, and Tesfaye has already released a second in the time it’s taken me to get around to reviewing it. I’ll let the grade below stand for both.

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
Ishmael Butler makes his intentions known less than a minute into Shabazz Palaces’ debut LP: “I run on feelings/Fuck your facts.” That’s a good mantra for a record that favors the physical experience of music—beats that shift and crack and splinter—over the intellectual. That’s not to say the words aren’t important; it’s that Butler uses them to direct you back to the music, or at least discourage you from parsing the two things separately. He and cohort Tendai Maraire are more interested in creating one long, immersive experience than they are in individual songs, which may be why they have titles as unwieldy as “A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis (1000 Questions, 1 Answer).” You’re supposed to let the whole thing, and all the feelings Butler and Maraire pack it with, wash over you. Those feelings peak on “Recollections of the Wrath,” when Butler raps “With that starlight in your eyes/you want to find surprise/With the neon in your blood/you move to find your love/tonight.” He hits the ‘tonight’ hard, word and beat working together, as if to ask what you’re waiting for. A-
***
The Weeknd: House of Balloons
Call me a puritan, but anyone who begins his record with what sounds an awful lot like a date rape, then has the stones to end it with a wronged-man ballad, makes me feel gross. Weeknd mastermind Abel Tesfaye is a Canadian R&B guy whose principle concerns are designer drugs, designer women, and the clearest path to obtaining both at once. Unbridled hedonism has its place, and sometimes the biggest creeps make the most compelling music, but Tesfaye is too shallow to generate anything besides atmosphere. His sound is as edgy and paranoid as a morning after, and if he weren’t so mean-spirited, his songs would work as something besides background music. I don’t doubt for a moment that this would sound great in a club—a cavernous one, with the bass so loud you can barely hear the words. B-
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October 2011 Consider/Avoid

Same format as the last time, with some surprising names falling in the avoid column. Laura Marling improved a quantum on her second album, and the Joni Mitchell-lite of her third is a letdown I didn’t see coming. Speaking of letdowns, Lil Wayne’s turgid post-prison comeback album—for me, the most disappointing of the year—doesn’t even sound like the work of the same freewheeling genius who gave us all those free mix tapes a few years back. Notable from the consider column: Steves Merritt (his album a collection of outtakes) and Malkmus (his a proper studio album) honor if not improve their own legacies, Bill Callahan’s pomo folk both impresses and grates, and truly evocative singers Feist and St. Vincent still leave me wanting more in the song department.
 
CONSIDER
Stephin Merritt: Obsucrities (“Forever and a Day,” “Plant White Roses,” “Take Ecstasy With Me”)
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Mirror Traffic (“Brain Gallop,” “Forever 28,” “Fall Away”)
Cymbals Eat Guitars: Lenses Alien (“Definite Darkness,”“Another Tunguska”)
Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (“Drover,” “Baby’s Breath”)
Feist: Metals (“Graveyard,” “A Commotion”)
Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge (“City of Refuge”)
St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (“Champagne Year”)
Matraca Berg: The Dreaming Fields (“South of Heaven”)
 ***
AVOID
Laura Marling: A Creature I Don’t Know
M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Earl Sweatshirt: EARL
Lil Wayne: Tha Carter IV
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Frank Ocean/Tyler, the Creator

Divisive LA crew Odd Future has been the rap story of the year; even New Yorker subscribers not necessarily known for their horror-core affinity have heard a thing or two about them. I’m in the camp that contends their glib shock-rap—especially that of leader Tyler, The Creator—goes absolutely nowhere. The exception is singer-in-residence Frank Ocean, whose voice will be familiar to anyone who’s heard Watch the Throne, and whose brainy brand of R&B is by far the greatest thing Odd Future hath wrought.

Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra
What this guy understands that his Odd Future cronies don’t is that real candor is more exciting than any blatant attempt to shock. It’s usually more shocking, too. “They say you can’t miss something you ain’t had/Well I can/I’m sad,” he says of the father he never knew and the grandfather he met once. If those words look flat on your screen, trust that they’ve got plenty of dimension when Ocean sings them. They’re also awfully soft for a guy whose key affiliation is with a gang of rape-and-pillagers. Other highlights on this debut mix tape include Ocean’s improvement of Coldplay and Eagles songs you’ll recognize, one about a lost weekend with a future dentist/current porn star that Ocean likens more to Novocaine than ecstasy, and another detailing his frustrations with the girls who turn off his copy of Kid A (“What is a Radiohead, anyway?”) in favor of Drake and Trey Songz, both of whose “songs for women,”Ocean is chagrinned to discover, said women prefer to his own. If all the above doesn’t make you want to know Ocean a little better, you’re aware of more innovative modern R&B than I am. He’s such a breath of fresh air that you wish he didn’t under-stay his welcome. Things end abruptly with his fantastic reworking of MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” effectively reminding us that this is a mix tape, not an album. Other artists have blurred that distinction. Ocean nearly obliterates it. A-
***
The problem isn’t—as many have asserted—that this 20-year-old Odd Future ringleader is socially irresponsible; it’s that he’s boring. Tyler rapes and stabs his way through a coma-inducing 15 songs in 75minutes, the scope of his vision summarized thus: “kill people, burn shit, fuck school.” Forgive me if I like my rebel yells just a little more interesting than that. His “Random Disclaimer,” along with his introductory declaration that he is not a role model, along with pretty much everything he does, clearly evokes early Eminem, but this is closer in spirit to Relapse than The Marshall Mathers LP. Speaking of that one, wasn’t the whole point of Slim Shady raping his own mother even though they gave him the Rolling Stone cover—a near rhyme funnier and more shocking than anything here—to render moot the dull gross-out fantasies of dweebs like this? “Her,” in which Tyler discovers that even goblins can get stuck in the friend zone, comes as a relief not so much because it gives the goblin himself some depth, but because he leaves the ‘her’ in question unmolested for a change. “I’m fuckin’ radical! I’m motherfuckin’ radical!” he shouts at us, as if shouting alone made it so. C
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Arctic Monkeys/Old 97’s

Words up front, guitars not far behind.

Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See
Turns out the bludgeoning desert rock these normally nimble Brits turned in on 2009’s Humbug was just an aberration. Phew. Main Monkey Alex Turner weds quip to hook with far too much finesse to settle for brawn alone. A bit of Humbug’s heaviness remains, but it comes with the sorts of angular guitars and turns of phrase that marked the band’s surprisingly durable 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. And Turner, always precociously self-aware, is beginning to do genuine feeling almost as well as come-ons and kiss-offs. “Love Is A Laserquest” maps the moment young people start feeling old with a cartographer’s precision, and the title track—it’s British slang for “give it a try,” in case you were wondering—suggests that Turner may go on to write the sorts of wry love songs that become standards. If, for now, it sounds like he’s still a few genuine feelings away from that, give him time. Four albums in, he’s still only 25, and getting deeper. B+
***
Old 97’s: The Grand Theatre, Volume Two
How is Rhett Miller, who has built a long and fruitful career out of using train mishaps as metaphors for romantic dysfunction, just now writinga song called “I’m A Trainwreck”? Everything here sounds like something the 97’s could have, should have, or actually have done before, and your degree of affection for the band will determine whether you describe this little brother to last year’s Volume One as freewheeling or merely stitched together. The two volumes should have been edited down to one, sure, but the keepers here prove this is still one of the few bands whose live chemistry translates to record, and Miller more than meets his quota for lyrical jewels: “He said, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’/What he meant was, ‘Can I buy you?’/Yeah his eyes were pits of despair/But his accent recalled the bayou.” That’s almost as good as “I keep turning up The Wedding Present/You’re too tired to turn me down/Well you’reprobably gonna tell me that this sounds a little adolescent/But counting me there’s 1.3 million lonely people in this town.” You barely notice that sly little ‘counting me’ the first time around, which is exactly how Miller wants it. B+
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