Tag Archives: Desolation Row

Cloud Nothings/Sharon Van Etten

Young folks doing what young folks do.

ImageCloud Nothings: Attack on Memory
Eight songs—all of them fast, only one very long, and none particularly wordy, though the words do count. Twenty-year-old front man Dylan Baldi is a born yowler who likes his guitar more than his thesaurus, but when he screams his way through a dozen or so repetitions of  “I thought I would be more than this” on “Wasted Days,” you don’t have to suffer from his troublesome combination of entitlement and self-doubt to feel where he’s coming from (though it probably helps). His themes are tried and true for 20-year-olds with guitars—Why does time move so fast? Is tomorrow just a rumor? Is she really going out with him?—but no less cathartic for it. Baldi, recording with a full band for the first time and enlisting the engineering services of none other than Steve Albini, keeps the whole thing brutal and hooky. Play it loud. A-

ImageSharon Van Etten: Tramp
“You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/You’re why I’ll need to leave,” this Brooklyn-via-Jersey girl sings on “Give Out,” the second song of her third album. You’d be right to call her a fatalist, and to hope she gets over it soon, but she knows herself well. Chances are you’ll recognize her too. Van Etten has hurt more than her share of really nice guys and fallen victim to at least as many bad ones, but when she catches herself playing the type—which she usually does—her plain, punishing asides tell her whole story. You might expect someone who drops lines like “I wanted to try for you/Wanted to die for you” to be tedious company, but Van Etten is in on the joke, and follows them up with a mocking “dramatic things.” Better still is “tell me I’m worth all the miles that you put on your car,” which I like to think is an actual text message she sent one of the nice guys. The offhandedness of her lyrics is a double-edged sword, and the basic strum-and-thump of the music can wear thin, but her ruefulness wins in the end. A plea from the closing track: “Tell me to leave the next time I’m in front of you.” She sounds restless enough to go places. B+

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The Best Albums of 2011

I’m naming 12 albums to my best-of list because there are 12 months in a year, and so it feels like a less arbitrary number than 10, even if it is also less round. Plus, where good music is concerned, more is always more. If you put Wilco at the top of your ballot, you forgo any chance of seeming fashionable (especially if you put them ahead of Frank Ocean and Tune-Yards), but if you’re going to engage in any activity as subjective as ranking the albums released in a given year, listing them in rough order of how much solace you’ve taken in them is the only honest rubric. If you haven’t heard any of these records, I feel qualified in saying that there is one sort of solace or another to be found in each of them.

Happy New Year, everybody.

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Das Racist/Drake

To put a rather fine point on it, Drake and Das Racist provide clear examples of the broadening definition of rap: ethnically diverse, liberally educated (two of the three members of Das Racist met while they were undergrads at Wesleyan), and, in Drake’s case, confessional in a way that would have led to some name-calling a decade ago. If the Das Racist guys are smarter (they are), it would still take a fool to deny the pleasures of Drake, superficial though they may sometimes be.

Das Racist: Relax
“But are they serious?” That’s the question that’s dogged this Brooklyn crew since they dropped their exceptionally daffy—and brilliant—single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” in 2008. The mix tapes they gave away two years later didn’t necessarily settle the debate, and the less-than-rapturous reaction to their first for-profit LP suggests many have stopped caring altogether, which is a serious shame. Indian-American Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) uses his first verse here to share the story of his immigrant parents: “1980, from Delhi to Queens/She had a pocket full of lint/He had a suitcase full of dreams/From holdin’ me to bagging groceries at the Pathmark/To scoldin’ me for drinking and driving in fast cars.“ Then a promise: “I ain’t backin’ out until I own a bank to brag about.” We’ve come a long way from the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Heems, along with fellow Indian-American Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dap) and Cuban/Italian/African-American Victor Vazquez (you can call him Kool A.D.), are so self-aware and hyper-informed about the world around them that their apparent contradictions and bone-deep irony sound like honest reactions to information overload. They say Urban Dictionary is for “demons with college degrees,” but make fun of themselves for all the poetry readings and jam band shows they attended at Wesleyan long before you have the chance to. Along they way, they prove that hip-hip is now as much the province of those places—not to mention the posh dorm room—as the ‘jects, even if they would roll their eyes at me for being so earnest about it. What does it all mean? Here’s a clue: “If you wanna be me, you can be me/…you can look all day but you still wouldn’t see me/If you wanna be you, you can do that too/And if you don’t, then I don’t really know what I can tell you.” Call it alternative rap or psychedelic rap or meta rap or whatever hashtag you can think of. Just don’t call it a joke. A-
Drake: Take Care
I don’t begrudge Drake’s apprehensions about his own fame and fortune; I wish I had his problems, but I’m sure I’d find plenty to gripe about in the life he leads. I don’t even get annoyed when he drunk dials his ex to tell her how all the sex he’s having is hurting his soul; that nakedly pathetic Hail Mary is the most compelling moment here. Drake—along with Kanye West—is a hip-hop confessor who pays little regard to the understood musical definition of ‘hip-hop.’ But because he’s not exactly what you’d call deep, his musical vision is a whole lot more engaging than his take on himself. The words ‘head case’ come up a lot in conversations about Drake, but his stakes are penny ante even before the Kanye comparisons he begs for and suffers by. The good news is that this follow-up to last year’s Thank Me Later never sounds anything less than terrific. Rapping and singing better than ever, getting the most out of his Toronto pal The Weeknd, and co-opting snippets of songs by Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and—on the title tracka Jamie xx remix of a Gil Scott-Heron cover of an R&B classic made famous by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Drake makes the case for the aficionado as artist. His taste and skill are plain throughout, and the beats he gets from his go-to producer Noah “40” Shebib are luxurious. I just wish all the above made as strong a case for Drake’s soul as it does his ear. B+
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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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Tune-Yards/Bon Iver

By now you know how much acclaim these ostensible one-person bands—Tune-Yards masterminded by former puppeteer/superhuman performer Merill Garbus, Bon Iver by sensitive soul/insufferable drip Justin Vernon—have enjoyed for their sophomore albums. Sometimes it’s clear what all the fuss is about. Sometimes it isn’t.

Tune-Yards: Who Kill
“There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand/and like I’ve never felt before.” So shouts Merrill Garbus midway through an album that begins with the intimation of an underclass revolution and ends with a song called “Killa.” There isn’t a lot of peace in between; “violence” is a word Garbus uses as casually as most songwriters use “love,” and her bat-shit arrangements—horn blasts slam up against big beats while guitars blare and sirens wail and yes that is a ukulele you hear—are meant to agitate. Even the love song is jumpy. Garbus shares M.I.A.’s pan-musical ambition and Tom Waits’ knack for repurposing junk. Like those great artists, she is also, on occasion, easier to admire than she is to love; all that kinetic energy can be overwhelming. Then again, how else do you want your revolution? It also helps that Garbus chooses her targets well: manipulative record label execs, unjust cops, the penny-pinching one percent, and oppressors of all sizes and stripes. In short, she’s one of the good guys, and she sums herself up in the end: ”All my violence is here in my sound/Ready or not/I’m a new kind of killa.” A-
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
For my money, the best musical decision Justin Vernon has made since the release of his massively overrated debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, in 2007 was when he allowed Kanye West to use his (heavily autotuned) voice to both soothing and menacing effect on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Lord knows he’s too dull to have achieved either on his own. Said debut’s oft-repeated back story—Vernon got dumped and retreated to a cabin in the Wisconsin woods to write songs about it—was stereotypic emo-by-numbers, and the songs Emma Whoever She Is inspired were, to my ears, exactly that. To everyone else, Emma was some kind of touchstone, a breakup album so “pure” and “real” that even its boring back story turned to myth. So now we see what a little love can do for the lovelorn. That is, convince them it’s okay to indulge every single idea that comes to mind: gentile arpeggios that build to money-shot walls of sound? At least one per song. Synths and strings? All over the place. Flutes and other various woodwinds? Those’ll age great! Unlike new BFF Mr. West (or Merill Garbus, for that matter), Vernon doesn’t have the taste or the talent to bring all his disparate musical ideas together in one song; he simply pours his paints on the pallet and stirs until they turn gray. The most memorable moment here is the electric keyboard intro to closer “Beth/Rest,” mainly because it sounds like a Christopher Guest joke about singer-songwriters whose emotionality is as direct as it is false. So is Vernon just too sincere to know when he’s being mawkish, or cynical enough to know he can get away with it? You probably shouldn’t trust him either way. C
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