Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (December 2013, Part 2)

earpods-HOME11The sad thing about December is that on the day after Christmas, holiday music all but vanishes from the radio — no more Johnny Mathis, no more waiting around Macy’s to hear Karen Carpenter singing “Sleigh Ride,” no more taking the road before us and singing a chorus of two — and the long season of catching up on 2013 music you missed stretches before you. Fortunately, we have lists from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, Billboard, etc., to guide us. Once again this week, faced with two great albums, I wound up slightly preferring the warm, cushy, comforting jangle-rock over the edgy, innovative pop music. Theoretically, that’s not how my taste is supposed to work, but results are results. See you next year.

Jake Bugg: Jake Bugg

jake-bugg-320(Mercury/Island, 2013) [BUY]

As one of the few conventional singer-songwriters to emerge this year, this scruffy English rascal isn’t as achingly sincere as you might imagine, but he sure is achingly bland. Rarely does he convey much by way of emotion beyond annoyed ennui, though the bitter alienation he flaunts does seem genuine.

Essentially, this album is the sound of a hip, polite, mild, slightly reactionary, stubborn but good-hearted young bohemian proudly expressing his inner feelings. Rolling out an array of simple, forceful, melodic songs all keyed to Bugg’s acoustic guitar, his intricate plucking is simultaneously warm and sharp, and his dry folk-rock backing band achieves the lively, communal commitment it’s supposed to, letting loose in a self-consciously tentative yet unaffected way. His voice is reedy and scratchy, somewhere between a cough and a whine. Beyond a few tales of criminal debauchery and rosy descriptions of the English countryside, he typically eschews specifics in favor of generalized existential longing; even his concrete nouns remain somehow indistinct (“Those little doves had set my mind and heart a-beatin’/To say I felt weird really doesn’t need repeatin’”). Taking his cues less from Dylan than from Christian Bale in I’m Not There, Bugg is your stock singer-songwriter, lost in his own vulnerability. His literary idiosyncrasies add up to vague, heartfelt banality.

Despite his cocky attitude, Bugg specializes in calculated, disingenuous innocence. He is good at vocal impressions, though. Introduce this album as All The Roads We Have to Walk Are Winding: Liam Gallagher’s Lost Years and I bet nobody would blink an eye.

Veronica Falls: Waiting for Something to Happen

81W-320(Slumberland, 2013) [BUY]

To call these London romantics an indie-pop band per se would be appropriate to their songwriting style and musical aura, but it exaggerates their capacity for juvenalia and doesn’t do justice to their sheer vitality. They’re as propulsive as most hardcore punk bands, albeit in a milder, gentler way. They’re also as hooky as most hardcore pop bands, even if they are more relaxed about it.

This pretty album really is rather haunting, dreamy without being sentimental. The band’s spare minimalism, direct melodicism, and breathy harmony singing realize a terse, tumbling cadence, in control of its own keen longing and rapturous desire. Its clear, bright guitars ringing out with those eternal suspended-fourth R.E.M. chords, what distinguishes their jangly clatter is straightforward rhythmic drive, a constant throbbing pulse that turns hypnotic and dynamic when blanketed in resonant riffage. Powered by this backbeat, the record’s shiny exterior and dark undercurrent capture the hopeless bliss of youthful woolgathering, channeling teenage anxiety so blatantly and unflinchingly you’d think they were actually going through this part of their lives or something. If in the end it’s just an exercise in nostalgia, pining after the days when they were kids pining for the days when they would be adults, they only rock harder for it, their will to harness and experience this youthful energy both shamelessly naive and stunningly generous.

In England, they would be categorized as “twee” — not silly enough to be dismissed as a “kiddie” or “novelty” band, they’re also not pushy enough for “posh,” or, God knows, “rock.” In America, they’re “English pop-rock.” Take it from me, this is a terrific English pop-rock band. Their wistfulness is true to life, winningly expressed in song after tuneful song.

Danny Brown: Old

Danny-Brown-320(Fools Gold, 2013) [BUY]

Supposedly, this album represents the wacked-out Detroit alternative-rapper’s mature move, in which he worries about growing up and the future of his career. What I hear is a goofy, eccentric young guy who’s sitting on top of an engaging groove. He hasn’t quite figured out the direction of his music or learned how exactly to put a record together, but these things come with time.

Brown made his name by virtue of a squeaky, cartoonish wail, the perfect instrument for chattering his deranged iambics, though often he lowers his register for a rougher, more sober-sounding delivery, and both perfectly project his crazy-comedic image. His rubbery, bouncy Greedhead-style electrobeats flex and pulsate underneath, providing a solid, percussive backdrop for Brown to muse about ghetto violence and daydream about sexual parties and joke about puking into hotel sinks and murmur “I am in a kush coma” in a dazed drawl. You know he’s still alternative-identified because his preferred form is the fragmented vignette, and these rushed, cramped, miniatures flow by far too modestly for such a jokester. But they reveal a veritable wealth of tunelets, small but fiery sonic constructions that, should Brown choose to expand and arrange them according to conventional pop structure on his next album, might prove potent indeed.

The double-album conceit here, something about Side A plumbing his soul and Side B awakening his inner party animal, stretches the record past any casual listener’s patience. However, there’s a lot of worthy music here: “Lonely’s” good cheer, “Wonderbread’s” mortal terror, and especially the sublime “Clean Up,” which boasts the closest thing to a catchy riff on the album.

M.I.A.: Matangi

mia_matangi_320(Interscope, 2013) [BUY]

As statements of political dissent go, worldbeat-techno auteur Maya Arulpragasam’s fourth album certainly beats 2010’s Maya if not 2007’s Kala. Her angry militance has lost its generosity, and these songs take on an excruciating shrillness that signals deliberate commercial suicide. Nevertheless, her talent for blistering, mind-numbing dance music remains superlative.

Where five years ago Arulpragasam’s radical politics and canny subversion were earned and gripping, she’s since started playing victim to her own fame, and if anything her aesthetic has gotten more uncompromising as a result. Grimy, caustic electronic crackle and searing bass buzz hold up a jungle of high-pitched squeals, whizzing blips and scratches and chemical corrosions, Bollywood samples and Middle-Eastern scales, all melded into heavy, harsh, discrete music. The resulting effect is almost nauseatingly abrasive, and if its formal chaos is hard to listen to, it’s also hard to pull yourself away, with her spewed, aggravated, rhythmic chants about personal frustration and global crisis heightening the musical tension even further. Thanks to a few straightforward pop hooks, especially the irresistible “Bad Girls,” her rough textures and obnoxious squelches lock tightly into place, at once irritatingly dinky and mind-numbingly pleasurable like the perverse avant-garde maneuver they are.

This album brims and detonates, packed with dense, rewarding dissonance. Like Kanye West’s Yeezus, say, it cultivates incoherence and disjunction, yet nevertheless coheres in the end.

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