Michael On Everything

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A Downloader's Diary (52)

June 2024

As I Was Saying...

My initial plan for my first column since September 2019 — since moving to Seattle from San Diego, actually — was to ease back into “the life” with current releases from familiar artists. Should be a cinch, I thought. Pretty soon I remembered work is work and that no matter how intimate you may be with a musician’s previous output, sometimes a new album is like starting from scratch, for them as much as you. Even so, my favorite record of the month came from someone to whom I was once ambivalent, while old reliables like Billie Eilish and Carsie Blanton left me a little underwhelmed. In the meantime, how have you been? Yeah, I know. Me too.

album cover, Get Bleak, by Ducks Ltd.
Ducks, Ltd: Get Bleak (Carpark, 2021)
With the guitars jingling⁄jangling and bleating spokesdude Tom McGreevy clearly still reeling from that enchanting brunette in third–period Advanced Drama declining his invitation to the Homecoming dance, this Canadian indie rock duo operates in such a comfortably familiar mode I’m torn between declaring undying fealty and dubiously raising my eyebrow. So if you’ve got doubts about letting your guard down for two more scrawny boho throwbacks, ask yourself: haven’t you always wondered what the early Go−Betweens might have sounded like if they were Canadian? Of course you have. In any case, their charming passive−aggressive pop is at its most winning on this reissued 2019 EP, with three solid bonus tracks augmenting the original five. At its most fullest sounding as well — on the later albums the string arrangements are so subtle I wouldn’t have known they were there had I not perused the credits, but here they have such an attractively impressionistic tint you’ll wonder if they subcontracted Claude Monet to man the mixing board. This also contains what might be described as their greatest hit: the hilariously petulant title track, an adenoidal statement of purpose in which McGreevy attempts to convince a dour, jet–setting paramour not to go back to Berlin, or is that Korea, or maybe Rockville? A post−collegiate type who knows the meaning of the word “anhedonia,” perhaps from intimate first−hand experience — does that benighted betty know what she’s missing? Probably too well.
A–Grade: A–

album cover, Modern Fiction, by Ducks Ltd.
Ducks, Ltd: Modern Fiction (Carpark, 2021) Last time Tom McGreevy bemoaned a girlfriend who wanted to skip out of their hometown (and, in a related repercussion, his life) but one gets the impression he could use a change of scenery himself: “Just about okay living the old way⁄Out of belief, still walking around.” To be fair, this was written and recorded during the COVID lockdown, so one imagines there was a point McGreevy saw very few flesh and blood human beings outside of the DoorDash deliverer, but where his earlier lists of grievances yoked to mopey tunes exuded a charming pettiness, here he achieves musical and spiritual liftoff only once: on the Feelies–worthy closer, in which not even the St. Kilda Football Club tearing up the pitch 10,000 miles away can rescue a fracturing relationship. It rarely does. B+Grade: B+

album cover, Harm's Way, by Ducks Ltd.
Ducks, Ltd: Harm's Way (Carpark) A recent Substack enthusiast could think of no higher compliment for this duo than declaring they had consistently crafted “the most pleasant–sounding indie rock of the past few years,” but if you ask me, they’re too pleasant — their songs are possessed of such a breeziness you can almost feel them caress your cheek as they whisk by, but only occasionally, as on this record’s irresistible if environmentally unsound “Train Full Of Gasoline” (their “Head Full of Steam?”) do they dare break out of their perpetual existential deadlock into something grander. To be sure, this is more sure−fire than 2021’s Modern Fiction, I suspect because they figured filling out their new label’s reissue of their 2019 debut would be the most cost-effective use of their best recent material, and perhaps my own tendency toward psychological projection induces to me to hold them to an unfair standard. Nevertheless, given how much they obviously worship the Go–Betweens but come closer to inhabiting their spirit than they do approaching their literary ambitions, it might behoove them to hire a third member (oboist? glockenspieler?) who could provide some alluring Amanda Brown–style counterpoint. Also might be helpful for McGreevy to come to terms with the bitchiest of his opening plaints: “All we ever do is need⁄Eat, fuck, and sleep⁄And then repeat forever,” which sums up their fatalistic rut more than they know. A–Grade: A–

album cover, The Past is still Alive, by Hurray for the Riff Raff
Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Past Is Still Alive (Nonesuch) I struggled to articulate why this hit harder than 2017’s The Navigator or 2022’s Life on Earth despite the latter in particular containing some of the best songs about the migrant experience since Los Lobos. Then I came across an illuminating passage in Sarah M. Broom’s astonishing memoir The Yellow House, in which she rationalizes to a friend how traveling might help her better understand her New Orleans−based family’s displacement after Hurricane Katrina, only to find herself using “anthropological, academic language for the urge to distance myself from the fate of my family, which of course was my fate, too.” Here, in a formal strategy similar to occasional collaborator Katie Crutchfield, Alynda Segarra eliminates both the third−person disassociation and willfully arty music that has marred so much of their past work. Sometimes when I’m feeling contrary I regret Segarra’s disinterest in snazzy chord changes and such, but pretense and fancy effects might get in the way of these uncommonly direct lyrics, all deeply felt, keenly observed, and obsessed with escaping a past that reveals itself to be a constant companion rather than a figure in the rearview mirror, a perhaps inappropriate metaphor given none of these “characters” can afford to own a car. Instead, Segarra and their fellow travelers hop trains, scavenge for food in dumpsters, double−check the Narcan nestled in their coat pockets, and consider brief access to hot running water the bright side of a failed relationship. Maybe that’s why despite their improved station Segarra still feels like an imposter among those newly acquired dinner party friends, whose first reaction might be to wonder whether or not “riding the rails” is a Depression−era anachronism rather than who might be huddled in a freezing boxcar a mere six blocks away. Or, as Segarra puts it so succinctly: “There’s a war on the people⁄What don't you understand?” AGrade: A

album cover, Sun Without the Heat, by Leyla McCalla
Leyla McCalla: Sun Without the Heat (Anti−) Third album in a row I’m moved yet again to beg her to poach Rhiannon Giddens’s publicist — compared to her former bandmate, McCalla is less overripe vocally, playful without denying the perpetuity of struggles both personal and political, the superior artist if only by virtue of downplaying the conservatory training on her admittedlty impressive résumé. What’s more, this is not only her catchiest record, but her most adventurous — admirers are quick to point out the Brazilian and West African influences, but the real coup here is the experimentation with, of all things, mainstream rock, reminiscent in an odd way of Arcade Fire’s forgotten Reflektor, but this time approached organically, from the Haitian−American side of the equation rather than the other way around. Carnivalesque here, bucolic there, and enchanting everywhere, McCalla could be a little more resourceful melodically (that can’t be her shamlelessly nicking Gerhswin, can it?) and ineluctably her more reflective, philosophical lyrical approach this time around doesn’t pack the wallop of, say, the savage title track to 2018’s The Capitalist Blues. Then again, bromides and eye−rollers like “You want the crops without the plow⁄You want the rain without the thunder” attain a strange profundity when segued after an atonal freakout not unreminscent of Sonic Youth, itself the climax of the gripping “Tree,” which begins with the wince−worthy “I became a tree⁄Thought no one would care for me” and ends with the narrator peering off the edge of a cliff, debating whether or not to swim to shore after she jumps. A–Grade: A–

album cover, The Interrogator, by the Paranoid Style
The Paranoid Style: The Interrogator (Bar⁄None) Indie boys who chide Elizabeth Nelson as she reaches for the books on that “very high shelf” are the obverse of the reactionary pearl−clutchers who whined at the Chicks to just “shut up and sing,” and as far as I’m concerned they can fuck the right off. Yet although I count myself a fan, I think I can reasonably lodge a few related criticisms — reservations, say. Nelson in many ways represents a fantasy figure to the kind of music nerd who mistook High Fidelity for a celebration rather than an affectionate critique (“Golly, I didn’t know women even subscribed to Mojo!”), yet as you should have known before Saint Greta told you, deliberating the finer points of the Pavement discography isn’t the same thing as forging a profound emotional connection, a home truth applicable across gender lines. Roseanne Cash borrowings notwithstanding, Nelson’s temporary−like−Achilles heel is depth — one suspects a cherished pet could be flattened by an SUV on Tuesday and by the weekend she would have knocked off a toe−tapper about Jann Wenner firing Jim DeRogatis for his hostile Hootie review.  Given that in the last sentence, like Nelson, I shamelessly mined a few obscure nuggets of rock lore for some easy yuks, I suppose I’m holding her to a sexist double standard I wouldn’t apply to, choosing a totally non−random example, Nick Lowe. So rather than resent her being so adept at gratifying her dweeby white boy demographic, I’ll note that her third consecutive longplayer to wholly win my affection improves even on 2022’s superb For Executive Meeting — the newly recruited Peter Holsapple must have brought in an arrangement idea or two, while a few of these spiffy melodies transcend the functional catchiness for which Nelson sometimes settles, particuarly the wicked “Client States,” a sincere offer of friendship provded you stay on your side of the golf cart. And for those waspish, nitpicky indie boys — including me, I guess — this timely couplet: “There are so many dudes⁄Who think they get me so well.” AGrade: A

album cover, Rail Band, by Rail Band
Rail Band: Rail Band (Mississippi) Demystifying this crucial aggregation’s haphazard reissue discography lies in its early history. One country to the west, Dakar’s celebrated Orchestra Baobab was the house band for a ritzy club founded by Senegalese politicians, but the Rail Band were sponsored by Mali’s Ministry of Information and the city’s transportation department, hence their moniker, nicked from their primary venue, the Buffet Bar of Bamako’s Station Hotel. This 1973 recording originally appeared on “Rail Culture Authentique Mali,” a government label devoted entirely to the band, extraordinary in terms of socialist enterprises, but explains its scarcity, while their bureaucratic disinclination to bestow the band’s five or so mid−’70s releases with actual names would frustrate even an ardent Peter Gabriel devotee (Buffet Hotel de la Gare is as reasonable a title as any). Where Baobab were stylish and sophisticated, Rail Band were wild and scrappy, less directly indebted to Afro−Cuban styles given that landlocked Mali has no port cities, but more wide−ranging in terms of incorporating traditional musical influences, in this case Bambaran and Mande Griot, into the standard Congolese−inspired rumba. Aesthetically this means more often they traffic in chants and jams as opposed to fully formed songs, not that I’m complaining when the music is this hot − proceed directly to the intense “Marabayassa,” in which guitarist Djelimady Tounkara fires off a typically trenchant solo and Mory Kanté emits a manic shriek that will stir the hearts of Little Richard devotees the world over. So by all means, take advantage of this tiny window of domestic availability. But Mississippi, Syllart, Sterns, I’m begging you — somewhere in those rare albums, there’s a sensible best−of. I know a blogger who will do your liner notes for dirt cheap. A–Grade: A–

album cover, Don't Forget Me, by Maggie Rogers
Maggie Rogers: Don't Forget Me (DeBay Sounds⁄Capitol) Rogers’s overwrought 2019 debut was shot through with cross purposes: cluttered production eager to impress, lyrical subtext anxiety−ridden over the possibility of being chewed up and spit out by the hype machine, although at that point her only real brush with fame was one−count−’em−one viral video. Granted, media overexposure has hobbled the spirits of greater artists, and taking a sabbatical (if that’s how one describes graduating from Harvard Divinity School) before recording the more relaxed 2022 follow–up Surrender clearly mellowed her out. With the studio players now whittled down to Rogers, producer⁄multi–instrumentalist Ian Fitchuk, and the occasional pinch–hitter, this collection finds her even more at ease, her strongest set of songs yet. Her contract guarantees less label interference than the average twenty–something chanteuse, but this strikes me as the first time she’s been confident enough to exercise that autonomy — true, she never strays too far from the middle–of–the–road aesthetic that is no doubt her destiny, but one can only hope that the memory of Sarah McLachlan will steer her away from the median for at least a few more albums. It also helps Rogers reels her worries down to a more relatable level — Mom selling the childhood house, an old friend getting married, a potential love interest ditching her for a Knicks game (and by the way, they lost). And then there’s the indelible breakup song “The Kill,” in which the hunter gets captured by the game, who isn’t nearly as helpless as she pretends. A–Grade: A–

album cover, Walls Have Ears, by Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth: Walls Have Ears (Goofin') I was bananas enough a fan to stake out the Bruin Theatre with my import CD copy of Daydream Nation so I could catch Kim and Thurston walking out of an evening showing of Indecent Proposal (April of 1993 — my girlfriend and I had been debating over whether or not to catch the 20th Anniversary re−release of Blazin’ Saddles across the street) and even I struggled getting into this reissue of the notorious 1986 bootleg. Part of my ambivalence stemmed from their insistence on duplicating the original release, which at the time they resented for showcasing them warts and all. Not that I’m not sympathetic, but haven’t they heard of Compound W? Were they afraid Scooter Braun would copyright anything they left on the cutting room floor? Because for sure we have some chaff clogging up the silo. We have emcee Claude Besey carping in the two−minute intro about Rough Trade censoring a recent album cover (“In this day of AIDS and, uh, Ethiopia and all that shit,” right on). We have an audibly frustrated Thurston condescending to a no doubt hapless soundboard engineer in the voice of Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls (“Please put more of this guitar here”) with more assertiveness than, if you believe Kim’s memoir, he exhibited in their marriage. Because it welds together two UK gigs seven months apart, we have three selections reprised under (sucker!) different titles. Each set contains dead spots so wide they’re damn near gangrenous. And as goes without saying, the dimly recorded audio evokes a subway train rattling underneath creaky floorboards at four in the morning (wait, that’s a plus). In the end however, I told myself to stop nitpicking and luxuriate in the unremitting thrum of their guitars, which has been the Music of the Spheres for me since “Theresa’s Sound World” bewitched me during a shift at Sam Goody, and though the songwriting would improve, this is where they perfected their inimitable aesthetic. Comparing the London half of the record with drummer Bob Bert to the Brighton half with his permanent replacement Steve Shelley, you can hear the latter asking himself mid−dirge: “How can I make these misshapen fucking things move?” And guess what? He makes them move. A–Grade: A–

album cover, Ten Total, by 1010benja
1010benja: Ten Total (Three Six Zero Recordings/Sony Music) I’m reluctant to curse Benjamin Lyman by comparing him to Frank Ocean or the Weekend given that a decade after their respective debuts, the former has vanished into his own vague pretensions and the latter continues to be rewarded for regarding the “female perspective” with uncommon contempt. If you read the Spotify fine print however, you’ll note that unlike his predecessors, Lyman’s longform debut actually has major label backing, the anachronistic “mixtape” aura it emanates more a reflection of its deliberately unfinished feel rather than its creator’s need as an industry outsider for internet back channels. But for someone with a taste for the maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but presumably lacking the budget to cover the tab for Kanye's croissants, it’s the perfect strategy — after a few tentative late ’10s stabs at a cheapo R&B⁄arena rock amalgam that suggested Lyman takes early Radiohead a little too seriously, we get a pirouetting music box motif, En Vogue recast as a peanut gallery, a bossa nova synth preset burbling underneath what I swear is some trap parody⁄fakeout, and the soaring raise−those−Bics power ballad “I Can,” which climaxes with satisfied nonverbal grunts underscored by faux−John Williams pomp. Helps also that underneath that Auto−Tuned tenor Lyman is a self−effacing guy with a sly sense of humor — I ask you, don’t you think The Idol could have been improved if the Weeknd had insisted Lily Rose−Depp pump the brakes on passenger side fellatio until she watched Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle? A–Grade: A–

album cover, Only God Was Above Us, by Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend: Only God Was Above Us (Columbia) Critics initially pigeonholed this band as a gifted singer–songwriter abetted by a crucial arranger, but their first two albums especially got by on a lively esprit du corps one normally associates with Ivy League rowing teams. Ariel Rechtshaid’s production expertise brought a further dimension to their peak, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, signaling a denser, more layered approach to their vivacious indie pop, but even so, I’m willing to bet Rostam Batmanglij’s subsequent departure inspired a bout of insecurity in the proverbial corporate office. That’s why I’m glad the two Chrises are back in the rhythm section after Ezra Koenig recorded Father of the Bride as a de facto solo debut credited to the brand. The music is less sprightly than usual, for any number of reasons — boys becoming men, collegiates turning professional, Ezra once again trying a little too hard to prove his self−reliance. But though most of this won me over after suitable immersion, the level of futility remains striking — I mistakenly thought Ezra’s heartfelt plea “I hope you let it go” in the gorgeous finale referred to intergenerational conflict or somesuch before realizing he’s actually urging impressionable young people to accept “the enemy is invincible” lest their self–righteousness grind them down into embittered “Gen X Cops.” This, from the guy who took on the sexist proposition of Lady Doritos — and won? A–Grade: A–

album cover, Tiger’s Blood, by Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee: Tiger’s Blood (Merge) It’s perverse given only a decade separates us age−wise, but I must admit, Katie Crutchfield’s evolution from basement studio habitué to Late Show musical guest does bring a fatherly tear to my eye (yuk it up all you want, boys — once you turn fifty, it will happen to you, too). After all, it’s not every microindie sensation who can over the course of a shapeshifting decade dump a toxic relationship, kick booze, and blossom into a world class singer−songwriter some have dubbed the second coming of Lucinda Williams. Yet although I agree alt country is where she’s found her voice, the comparisons aren’t always apropos — where the young Lucinda’s intractable perfectionism exasperated several of her labels, the looser Crutchfield has a tendency in her weaker moments to wander lyrically and melodically. She focuses better when someone pushes her a little — producer John Agnello rallying the band to record live on 2016’s Out of the Storm, Jess Williamson’s harmonies and contrasting persona on the Plains collaboration. Here, that ineffable something extra is provided vocally twice by Wednesday’s Jake Lenderman: on “Evil Spawn,” where Crutchfield cedes him the stirring coda, and the striking “Right Back to It,” where he receives a backing credit for “merely” providing the grievous angel function. Compare live versions on YouTube in which she sings without him and you’ll want to petition Plains to expand their charter. A–Grade: A–

Honorable Mentions

Mdou Moctar: Funeral For Justice (Matador) Tuareg rock’s answer to Queens of the Stone Age (“O France,” “Modern Slaves”) ★★★

Billie Eilish: Hit Me Hard and Soft (Interscope) I knew it was over when she won that fucking Oscar (“Lunch,” “Blue”) ★★★

Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poet’s Department (Republic) Ann Powers wishfully compares Swift’s diaristic stratagems to “auto fiction,” but even Karl Ove Knausgaard edits himself a little (“But Daddy I Love Him,” “Clara Bow”) ★★

Old 97’s: American Primitive (ATO) Gratitude in the face of apocalypse is heroic, complacency less so (“Falling Down,” “Somebody”) ★★

Carsie Blanton: After the Revolution (self-released) Less inclined to crack wise as the end of the empire approaches, unless I’m missing something and she intends the title track’s misguided arena rock arrangement as a joke (“Labour of Love,” “Empire”) ★★

Kacey Musgraves: Deeper Well (MCA Nashville/Interscope) Possibly her prettiest record, but while I'm happy she's foresworn toxic friends and gravity bongs, may I humbly suggest she also dump codependency and monotheism (“Cardinal,” “Dinner With Friends”) ★★

Dua Lipa: Radical Optimism (Warner) “Radical?” (“Illusion,” “Training Season”) ★

Congo Funk: Sound Madness From The Shores Of The Mighty Congo River (Analog Africa) Supposedly whittled down from 2,000 contenders yet doesn’t get going until the usual suspects show up (Orchestre Celi Bitshou, “Tembe Na Tembe Ya Nini”; Les Fréres Soki et L’Orchestre Bella−Bella, “Ngana”) ★


album cover, Ghana Special: Electronic Highlife & Afro Sounds In The Diaspora, various artists

Ghana Special 2: Electronic Highlife & Afro Sounds In The Diaspora, 1980−93 (Soundway) Limiting your highlife purview to Ghana makes about as much sense as restricting your English Invasion survey to Wales, especially if like Soundway your stock in trade is two−disc behemoths, but the first volume, covering the years 1968−1981, had its uses. This sequel follows expatriate second−stringers fleeing Colonel Jerry Rawlings’s junta for Germany, where with the help of emergent synthesizer and drum machine technology they created a new subgenre: “Burger−Highlife,” which I’m sorry to say refers to the city that co−birthed the style and not Happy Meals at the Dusseldorf McDonald’s, though if you made that mistake after sampling a taste of the dubious product, you would be forgiven. It would be churlish and puritanical to complain about the digital elements — King Sunny Adé was making miracles around the same time fiddling with similar elements. But he did aim a little higher than unctuous, warmed−over Eurodisco. And if those occasional Sanborn−esque sax solos aren’t played by an overly zealous German audio engineer, I’ll invest in John Ackah Blay−Miezah’s trust fund. Military dictatorships — fuck ’em. B– Grade: B–

album cover, If I Don't Make It, I Love You, by Still House Plants
Still House Plants: If I Don't Make It, I Love You (Bison) Supporters justify this formless clatter by disingenuously linking it to “jazz” and “soul,” the latter a real head scratcher — I suppose that’s how white indie rock critics describe the voice of any Scottish woman who doesn’t sing like Isobel Campbell. The general conceit is a 1980 Rough Trade signee spruced up by a few semesters at the conservatory and it does have its moments, particularly when Finlay Clark picks obsessively at the open strings of his guitar as if barely healed scabs. Unfortunately, he’s continually undercut by drummer David Kennedy, who doesn't play behind the beat so much as stumble around it, and like so many math rock types before him, hits the snare as if silently mouthing numbers while counting out his precious uncommon time signatures. How you respond to this trio however depends on how you feel about its defining member, vocalist Jessica Hickie−Kallenbach, one of those time−honored affectationists who’s convinced the road to crafting great poetry begins when you embrace decapitalization. Then again — and I suppose this is where “jazz” fits in conceptually — she’s not interested in language so much as phonetic possibilities, how words potentially gain power in elaborated repetition, which she might have taken somewhere if she subverted humorless and unironic clichés rather than merely hammer away at them, or expanded the compass of her melismatic warbling a little more than the six notes she allows herself. To say nothing of insufferably bellowing in the manner of Jeff Buckley trapped underneath a refrigerator. B–Grade: B–

Kali Uchlis: Orquídeas (Geffen) La belleza del idioma español no mejorará necesariamente la banalidad de tus canciones, ni tampoco tu reseña mediocre del disco. B– Grade: B–

Chastity Belt: Live Laugh Love (Suicide Squeeze) No kidding, I wouldn’t have known they decided to split the vocals four ways on their dreary fifth album without reading the press release. I blame Julia Shapiro, who hasn’t told jokes since Childbirth (the band, not the biological process) unless you count the obtuse reference embedded in her sardonic album title, which in terms of impeccable comic timing has zilch on Jenna Ellis. B– Grade: Grade: B–