What a tuneful month. Jens Lekman’s “Become Someone Else’s” is instantly hummable and impossibly catchy, nearly in the same league as The Rough Guide to Highlife, which has the best melodies (among other things) all year. Most beautiful nonclassical singing all year, too, though I can’t say there’s much competition. Also worth noting: the worst album of the year so far has almost no singing and almost no melody, not even on the 8-minute Ray Bradbury suite.
Twin Shadow: Confess
4AD, 2012 [BUY]
Though this sentimental ballad album is graced with succulent electronics, it’s stagnant all the way through. One of those guys who pretends that being fatalistic about love strengthens his worldview rather than undermines it, George Lewis Jr. kicks off the record with his one hook, “Golden Light”, and then spends the remaining forty minutes trying to figure out how to make his misery interesting.
The gleaming production here struck me as retro on first listen, but just because he’s wearing a leather jacket on the cover and looks like a pinup doesn’t make him an ‘80s nostalgic. The big fat heart Lewis Jr.’s too afraid people will notice is pure adult contemporary, a genre barely even born back then. Instead of macho posturing, a common way to hide emotional involvement, he furnishes his slow pour-your-heart-out exercises with deeper and subtler sound effects than rock expressionists can typically afford – synthesizer smokescreens, ostinato textures, all to give the music a sense of smoothness. This will never be achieved as long as he’s histrionically moaning about who exactly is manipulating whom in this relationship.
The various musical excesses do get his depressed attitude across well enough, but in the end they’re just distractions, meant to divert your attention while he creeps in and tries to break your heart. How much he’ll succeed in this endeavor depends on how sexy you find him. Personally, I don’t find him nearly as sexy as Howard Wolowitz. B MINUS
Bob Dylan: Tempest
Columbia, 2012 [BUY]
Fifty years after he first started, Dylan is still writing consistent, entertaining songs. This album isn’t the greatest example of his gifts, but it’s not completely slack either; overall it’s a pretty ordinary batch – as always, he scores when he’s funny or profound, and loses it when he’s sentimental or gimmicky. Filled with Dylan’s various charms, eccentricities, and tics, it will be analyzed to death by pros and amateurs alike.
Though he sounds weary most of the time, he’s not sad, just restful and respectable, as befits a man who just won a Medal of Freedom. A lot of these songs last way too long, especially the ballad about the Titanic. At fourteen minutes, it’s longer than “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, and a lot less engaging. We also have three seven-minute songs and a nine-minute one, including a dreary lament for John Lennon. Also, if you didn’t like his voice in 2001 (or 1963 for that matter), you should hear him now; on this record he really does sound like a singing toad. But everything else is worth hearing, from the frisky basslines to the pedal steel to his infinite supply of blues grooves. He also makes some playful political statements and touching romantic confessions.
As with many Dylan albums, what sticks with me here are the words, in particular his rock one-liners rather than his poetic mannerisms. I might just drawl “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/there are secrets in them that I can’t disguise” the next time someone asks why I’m wearing sunglasses indoors. B PLUS
The Rough Guide to Highlife
World Music Network, 2012 [BUY]
These thirteen tracks constitute the most flawless highlife compilation I’ve ever heard, definitely stronger than the 2003 collection on the same label with the exact same name. It’s hardly an exhaustive introduction to the genre – where’s Cardinal Rex, for example – but as a record, its eccentric sweep holds together solidly and blissfully.
The style in question came into being in Ghana, when local harmonies were applied to the wider Congolese rhythms more popular at the time. As opposed to bittersweet soukous or tragic mbaqanga, the resulting combination is Afropop in the truest sense of the word, actually expressing the shameless joy American dabblers are always mouthing off about.
Formally, the structural and instrumental conventions tailor-made to sing of a love for melody, ecstasy, and general humanity, and on this album, those virtues all come to a head more strikingly and immediately than on any other compilation of the genre. Partially, this is due to the unusual selection; it sets racing jams against mellow, chilled-out ditties against band-interplay expansion just as it unifies them all with the same crackling percussion and inflected guitar plucking. However, I would also submit that the individual vocal hooks here are especially gorgeous.
Except for Stephen Osita Osadebe’s “Osondi Owendi”, an epic eleven-minute supergroove, these pop songs are all miracles of compression. They don’t just tickle your ears, they jump on top of you and start licking your face. A PLUS
Istanbul 70 – Psych, Disco, Folk Classics
Nublu, 2012 [BUY]
When I first heard this back in April, it sounded weird and confusing, but having absorbed the style and done some research, it now sounds mesmerizing six months later. On this record, the apparent biggest hits of ‘60s/’70s Turkish rock all cohere into a specific fashion while exhibiting a wide compositional range. Like Eastern European rock, it draws heavily on traditional melodies, while unlike Eastern European rock it avoids sheer kitsch.
Fusing Turkish folk music with funky Western psychedelia makes more sense than you might expect. The combination is creepily spiritual and hilariously over-the-top, intensely earnest about not taking itself seriously. Its smoky female voices are especially pungent, but each song distinctly offers up its own goofy bassline or wah-wah riff. Despite general sonic thinness, the record taps a spacey, otherworldly tone that never fails to rock out propulsively or glide along the backbeat as the case may be. Erkin Koray’s “Cemalim” is slow and eerie and mentally captivating, and the rest falls nicely into place after you’ve paid enough attention. All in all, pretty cool stuff.
Though these songs may be standards in Istanbul, stateside it’s hard to imagine this being anything but a novelty record. And since it’s a great novelty record, I love every bit of it. A MINUS
The Sheepdogs: The Sheepdogs
Atlantic, 2012 [BUY]
Nothing special here, just fourteen nice songs about feeling good. Compared to the live show I saw in New York this summer, the record is relatively slick, the guitar riffs cleaned up and the tracks shortened, and I say good for them. Their general sound melds a number of classic rock radio channels into one molten stream of traditionalism, so the lucid production thankfully makes their red-blooded song structure more immediate.
Like most young hippies, they suffer from retro band syndrome – free-love attitudes that seemed radical fifty years ago are now just flaccidly conservative no matter how cool it is to look like a mountain man. But because their particular rock tradition has been going on so long, they’re not even ‘60s revival, they’re ‘60s revival revival, with the benefit of twenty-first century equipment and pop conventions to spruce things up a bit. Anyway, aren’t your average blues-rock formalists infinitely preferable to your average folk-rock formalists? Their goofy, provincial guitar snarls pleasantly, with touches of country that make them less universal than producer Patrick Carney’s own Black Keys, but almost as charming. The drummer’s nervous clarity defines the rest of the music.
Quite intentionally, this is a good-not-great album; they never aim for anything particularly original or meaningful. It’s also worth noting that such albums have been keeping rock alive since rock was born, almost. B PLUS
Orient Noir – A West-Eastern Divan
Piranha, 2012 [BUY]
I was drawn in here by Watcha Clan’s cover of “Im Nin’alu”, a seventeenth-century Hebrew poem set to music by Ofra Haza, which I first discovered when it was sampled on the Coldcut remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full”. A lot of the other songs are recognizable too, only the reason for this is that they recall exotic-dancing scenes in adventure movies.
If you were wondering what the Klezmatics and Boban Markovic are doing on the same record, the title is more meaningful than you might think. It’s a concept album about romanticizing the music of the Middle East and surrounding locales, subsumed in Western cliché about what Eastern music sounds like. A lot of the songs rock with slinky understatement – the melody to Maurice el Medioni’s “Ya Maalem/Kelbi Razahi” memorably inverts itself halfway through, and the Klezmatics’ “I Ain’t Afraid” is pretty accessible for its piercing lyrics – but they also feature melodic melodrama, vocal exaggeration, and solemn flute solos. Even when the intricate horn arrangements kick in, the sonic context is so theatrical they seem like a strained affectation.
This album would be enough to scare unwitting American consumers away from “oriental music”, that is if “oriental music” even meant anything. Based on the list of artists here, I can only assume this mysterious term refers to places such as Serbia, France, and Tisch. C PLUS
Deadmau5: > album title goes here <
Ultra, 2012 [BUY]
Kids like Deadmau5 because he’s become a sort of cultural meme; adults like him because his music sounds grandiose and hence significant. I think of him as techno-Wagner. Defined by a mechanized spirituality that dominates so much underground music these days, this record consists entirely of rich yet meaningless texture.
There are in fact sonic details here, as well as the occasional hook, and “Channel 42” even has a tune. But the overall effect is more, how to put it, impressionistic, so imagine this: inside a giant spaceship, you walk through sliding glass doors, through a long bright hallway, occasionally passing a floating android. At the end of the hallway is a small room with white walls and a clean mattress upon which you lie down. A robot sidles up from out of nowhere, whispers friendly words to you in its computerized voice, and injects you with a sedative. Once you’ve slowly faded into your trance, your robot starts to give you a massage. It’s nice, comfortable, like you’ve bonded with your inner being. By the time you realize you’re caught in an antiseptic vacuum, you feel too tranquilized to care.
His ethereal atmosphere isn’t religious, definitely not New Age. Theoretically, anybody in the entire world should be able to appreciate these slow, sumptuous compositions. Such common-denominator strategies originated with the invention of the automatic toilet, and we’ve been wasting water ever since. D PLUS
Jens Lekman: I Know What Love Isn’t
Secretly Canadian, 2012 [BUY]
The idea of this breakup album by a Swedish singer-songwriter doesn’t look at all inviting on paper, but in reality it’s quite pleasing in the manner of Belle & Sebastian. Since guys as smart as this are typically drawn to other topics than discontinued love, it’s gratifying to see this one handle his emotions in such a mature, stylish, catchy way. Also, since guys as analytic as this are typically drawn to edgier music, his cheerful softhearted baroque pop is some kind of phenomenon.
After coming up with a unique persona that strikes you as unsettling at first, a funny, urbane-sensitive guy who overthinks both his and your feelings, he then mines that persona for everything it’s worth, making so many hilarious observations and so many delicious songs that you start to overthink things too. Relationships aren’t his specialty – I found him more perceptive with the nuanced politics of last year’s “Waiting for Kirsten”. His brilliance lies in his aching voice on “Erica America”, the piano hook on “Become Someone Else’s”, even the string quartet on the chorus to “I Know What Love Isn’t”. He’s a pop singer who sounds like a human being, someone you could talk to and have some fascinating conversations with.
This isn’t just another flowery indie record. It’s an argument for the aesthetic pleasures of preciousness, and this time I’m on his side. A MINUS
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Albums I enjoy about which I don’t have much to say: though Marianne Nowottny & Barry Schwabsky’s A Voice Hears You From Mysterious Places is more poetry than music, the music recalls various shades of Eno/Byrne and the poetry fits with that ethos.
The Guthrie compilation Woody at 100 is the same Guthrie as ever. And Kanye’ West’s spinoff group G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer is your average decent-but-generic rap album. Incidentally, though West seems to be enjoying his transformation from the classiness of six years ago into one of the crassest rappers out there, he can still rhyme as always and make great jokes. He’s like the head don of the rap game, sending out heavyweight Rick Ross and Whoopi Goldberg look-alike 2 Chainz to do his dirty work. Maybe he’ll even make another music video as amazing as “The New Workout Plan,” which I highly recommend you see, right now.