Album Roundup: February 2016
Tough time to be a living polar bear these days what with all the melting, but what a great time to be a stuffed penguin. This past Xmastime saw them get Santa hats slapped on their heads and indoctrinated into holiday commerce. And while I understand there’s a polar inversion going on right now as the planet experiences all kinds of serious geologic flux, as of today penguins live as far away from Santa Claus, and by extension Xmas, as they could possibly get and still be considered a resident of earth.
Full disclosure: there are currently not one but two of these Xmas penguins in my house. Both of them were presents for my 18mo old son—one of them has green eyes, which also doesn’t occur in nature. Anyway, it’s possible that my extended family thinks Antarctica is the place where all the ants live.
No column last month because the music business, much like the part of my brain that regulates things like patience & empathy, goes on vacation for pretty much all of December. No idea what they do with all this free time. Presumably, they spend it dreaming up more flimsy liberal arts-ish rhetoric they can use to prop up an artist on a label that spent 10 grand to hire a big PR firm b/c the shortest route to music stardom is through a series of inboxes where favors are exchanged and futures are calculated, just buddies helping buddies, and hey, how else are you going to make a living writing/sellling/playing music in this ever-shrinking music business.
A sinking tide drowns all ships.
All albums scored on the famous Album Roundup Binary Scale, because multivalence is for the multitudes. And because time is money, and music might be free but your soul still pays a price. And just in case my sternly worded e-mail falls on deaf ears, these are all albums that came out in January, regardless of what the title might imply.
ALBUM OF THE MONTH:
Fat White Family – Songs For Our Mothers (Without Consent)
People wonder if they’re taking the piss, which is funny because it’s obvious FWF find taking a shit way more interesting. Decadent & funny & paranoid & fucked, I prefer the energetic ones to the dirges, but that’s probably because I find their cartoon excitement more believable than their cartoon horror (FWF’s three H’s are Hitler, Heroin, & Holocaust). But still, there’s so much greatness, both active & dormant, going on here that they might make a defining album of our age if they find a way to focus all that anger & brains. Instead, they’ve made the defining album of January 2016.
MISPLACED HYPE OF THE MONTH:
Savages – Adore Life (Matador)
There’s a joke around these parts. One UK person goes up to another and says they want to start a band. ‘That’s great,’ answers the 2nd UK person. ‘What should we wear?’
No band wears their uniform harder these days than Savages, a band dressed all in black who probably kick members out for smiling and are so on-message with each album’s manifesto that I imagine them pulling out index cards w/ their talking points on them whenever they do an interview. Nothing wrong with bands & ideas, but the harder Savages try to sound deep, the more two-dimensional they become. Which is beautiful as a kind of tragic inverted-Cassandra myth, but not a whole lot of fun to actually listen to.
It might be endearing, if they didn’t take themselves so goddamned seriously. And while plenty of other bands have suffered from lead-singer-empty-messiah issues (U2, Doors, Zeppelin, Joy Division), the musicians understood they needed to play some memorable hooks/melodies/chord progressions to offset all the turgid bombast. Unfortunately, the melodies here are mostly forgettable. Combined with lyrics that you wish you could forget (‘This is what you get when you mess with love / A morning in darkness, the eyes of the dawn / Suffering, straight from the gods / No medicine, no drugs’) and what you’re left with is an album that’s sonically impressive but totally empty. Posing for posers. A Birthday Party with even less sense of humor and I didn’t believe such a thing was possible.
Deantoni Parks – Technoself
Has to be heard to be believed. A drummer playing alone in a room with zero overdubs and what sounds like an infinite number of samples & pads. Rhythmic as fuck, and totally impressive, but everytime I listen for more than 20 minutes I get a splitting headache and a fluttery feeling somewhere in my ribcage like the amphetamines are malfunctioning. What could be more Jan. 2016 than that?
David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia/RCA/ISO)
It’s weird. The week before he died, I couldn’t stop listening to this album—it sounded full and brave—but I haven’t listened to it all the way through since he died. I’m still not sure why. Here’s something I wrote while Bowie Was still alive. I have no idea if I still believe this—or if I don’t.
In all its sighing exhaustion, Blackstar makes a fitting eulogy for humanity, fin-de-Bowie as fin-de-siecle.
Maybe the death of mankind is more interesting to me than the death of someone I never met. Or art is like words, and context means more than it should. Or maybe it’s because impressive as this is, it’s not even Bowie’s 10th best album (at best), and all I want is to listen to the other 10.
Hinds – Leave Me Alone
If all you’re offering is is fun, then there needs to be more fun than this.
Eleanor Friedberger – New View (Frenchkiss)
If all you’re offering is maturity, then there needs to be more maturity than this.
Sia – This Is Acting (Monkey Puzzle/RCA)
Self-empowerment is the cheapest of all pop’s lyrical tropes (‘Footprints’ isn’t a cover of everyone’s favorite christian thrift-store wall hanging, but it might as well be). Mainstream success beckoned for Sia, and she’s chosen to play it as safe as possible. If these lyrics are to be taken as face value, Sia either became incredibly boring last year, or she’s engaging in Ted Cruz levels of audience-pandering. Based on the music—top-40-by numbers, mid-tempo anthem after mid-tempo anthem—it feels like the latter.
Rihanna – Anti
It’s a goddamn mess. And we should demand nothing less from our pop stars. The best moments (‘Consideration,’ ‘Kiss It Better,’ ‘Work,’ ‘Needed Me,’) are stellar (or as Rihanna would sing it ‘stella’), and so what if the album as a whole is a tedious slog. The Supremes never made a great album either, and they’re the greatest rock band in history.
Charlie Hilton – Palana (Captured Tracks)
Sincerity as a pose. If Hilton scraped her ankle on a cactus, nothing would escape from her wound except a cold, flavorless milk. Sometimes this reminds me of Roberto Cacciapaglia’s The Ann Steel Album, which I suppose is something. This record could exist or not exist, be heard or not be heard, and I can’t help feeling that no one, not even Charlie HIlton, would know the difference.
Future – Purple Reign (Mixtape)
Drinking the Dirty Sprite like GBV once drank the Budweiser, Future’s every bit as prolific and even has the good business sense not to charge money for every single idea he tosses out. The beats & sonics on this freebie are better than they needed to be and make for great psychedelia—you can hear the purple & yellow walls beginning to sweat. Future’s on a run right now that makes nearly every artist in any medium look like an apathetic slacker. Enjoy it while it lasts though, I think Future might have a drug problem.
(All reissues get an emphatic 1, because who goes looking for turds after they’ve been flushed?)
Some months it seems like everything was better before you were born, or before you became sentient, or before you became you. This is one of those months where the past turns out to be more forward-thinking & exciting than the present. Or maybe people these days, both artists & consumers, are so afraid of the blaring overloaded intensity we’re living through that they crave the safety of the familiar & predictable. This month’s reissues are from a time when people still believed in a future.
This Heat – This Heat, Deceit, Health and Efficiency (Modern Classics)
All three of these are essential in their originality & dread. It’s where PiL and Miles Davis threatened to go in their darkest moments. Music as architecture. And the beatless-ness here makes all the urban noir angst of dubstep seem so quaint & eager to please. You ask what it sounds like? Dignified brooding. Meatlocker beauty. Ethotic noise.
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (Republic)
Talk Talk’s best known for their pair of new wave hits, but this (along with Spirit of Eden) is what makes people want to grab strangers around the neck and force them to listen. One of the most yearningly spiritual flat-out beautiful pieces of music ever made, so mystical you imagine a lot of fasting and wandering through the desert went into making it. Fragile & strong, ephemeral & assured, this sounds like nothing that came before it, and the stuff people think it influenced (i.e. this month’s Tortoise reissues) doesn’t come within spitting distance of the greatest record ever made for panic attacks, spiritual nourishment, or just blissing out in the bath.
The Peter Brontzmann Sextet – Nipples (Clen Fuegos)
From the late 60’s, these guys specialized in jazz as a kind of violence—hyperactive, jerking, & spurting—that at times can be exhausting the same way a roomful of young men arguing into the night, constantly trying to one-up each other w/ their vengeful insults & insights, can be exhausting. But if you’ve got a certain spot in your brain that needs to be scratched w/ sharpened brass fingernails, this is the place to turn. Think a later-period Coltrane who believes god is dead, and beauty is just a fascist oppressor.