CHICAGO — Glad to see foreign non-Anglophonic music finally taking a stand on the American pop charts. Then again, I have to wonder if this is actually good, because the American pop charts have a high schlock requirement, and does Gotye, an Australian, really count just because he’d fit right in at Eurovision? Why have “Somebody That I Used To Know” when you could have “Let’s Be Adult”?
Die Antwoord: Ten$ion
Zef Recordz, 2012 [BUY]
Back in 2010, the classic “Enter The Ninja” convinced me to put aside my suspicions that this comic, vulgar-on-principle Cape Town crew’s debut was a novelty. There’s nothing so rich on this follow-up, and now I think I was right the first time. Their ecstatic hooks have worn thin, and the same goes for their comedy. The big-dick-joke of “Evil Boy” was funnier than this whole album.
As the white figureheads of the presumed South African zef movement (“you’re poor but you’re sexy, you’ve got style,” or “I fink u freeky and I like u a lot,” or “not a harmonious merging, but fucked into one thing”), they’re one of the most socially interesting or at least original groups currently enjoying press time. But beatwise, with the exceptions of “So What?” and “Hey Sexy,” they’re eager to jump straight into the stiff competition of who can make the loudest, most pugnacious club music. Before, they were lightly provocative, but media hype has corrupted them into self-justification. You better like us, they scream, and if you don’t, DJ Hi-Tek will fuck you in the ass. The relentless aura of obscenity is actually their biggest attraction, epitomized by Yo-Landi Vi$$er’s high-pitched squealing. The synth loops and bass blasts that frame it are so lackluster the only place suited for them is a club scene filled with yuppies certainly more genteel than they are.
Their delusions mimic the psychotic, as they try to be crazy instead of funny. Thanks to their gauntness, sounding ridiculous is no longer possible. All in all, they’re really annoying. B
Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror
Mom + Pop, 2012 [BUY]
Alexis Krauss’s vocals recall a higher-pitched version of shiny British pop darling Sarah Nixey, while Derek Miller is a devout scholar of the Iggy/Albini jackhammer guitar tradition. That the two should come together and make two solid albums out of a synthesis so unlikely is, frankly put, miraculous. They sound like they could go forever, which not so many young bands do anymore.
Mostly, the sound remains unchanged from Treats. They’ve cut down on the noise a little, and I’m glad, as that makes it easier to hear the actual songs under the guitar load. The words are still pretty difficult to make out, but squealing riffs and hooks and earworms are all over the place, and they pile-drive you harder than the most outrageous brostep. Not everyone can be an arch hipsterdroid, but thanks to the girly singing, they’re surprisingly warm and hardly even mechanical.
The lyrics are committed to tongue-in-cheek oracularity. Such devices are mostly dumb, but against this music, these are hilarious. My favorite moment is when Krauss gleefully croons “Road to hell/road to hell” as if she just won the lottery. Given the current state of indie irony, she’s probably serious. A-
Gotye: Making Mirrors
Eleven, 2011 [BUY]
Here we have the common ground between Peter Gabriel and rah-rah-Rasputin. This heavily marketed Belgian-Australian is so clearly a one-hit wonder I don’t know why people even bother with the album. It impressed me for a short while before I realized I was reacting only to the chorus of the one hit.
Besides a couple of campy jokes and a no-name hypersensitivity that probably explains his chart-friendliness, he doesn’t have much personality, while the background electropatterns are unobtrusively designed to showcase a great one. This void is present even on “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which starts all quiet and emo and then ends at the sunny moment right before you expect some sort of climax. Read that as a deliberately contrarian move if you want. More likely the song was conceived as a cameo for his friend Kimbra and hence won a bunch of prizes.
A couple of these feathery, diffident moodsongs are hummable enough to justify his Eurothug posturing — you know, that soccer player victory-dance chest-thumping. The rest is only good for when posturing Eurothugs need to fake sentimentality. B-
Teranga Beat, 2012 [BUY]
Though Bai Janha — according to the label, “the most important musician to have come from Gambia” and certainly the greatest bandleader — has been in more groups than you can remember, these epic, previously unreleased 1984 sessions are unforgettable. Apparently this particular group was a school for fellow band members, which makes sense. With Janha at the center, it has none of mbalax’s interensemble instrumental competition. He’s a great frontman, and the everlasting clatter never lets you down.
This isn’t as rich as most African music, or even most mbalax. It compensates by rocking really hard. The band’s constantly forward-moving groove is a primal force, stretching punk’s economic intensity over jam tracks that last up to twelve minutes. The percussion, chock-full of cymbals as well as the traditional sabar, is violent and metallic; the bass is turned way up in the mix, grounding the other musicians’ indulgences. Janha’s contemporaries are often formulaically compared to the blues — blues evolved out of West African music, of course they sound alike. Here, his guitar interludes snarl so viciously the evolution sounds reversed. Given the story included in the liner notes about meeting B.B. King, I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
At the center of the nonstop pulsating energy is Janha’s guitar, fondly licking at the other instruments, so matter-of-fact that it’s even modest when soloing. Over these beats, a virtuoso could easily get away with showing off. In this band, everyone always makes sure to go the extra mile. A
Frankie Rose: Interstellar
In which a centerpiece of Brooklyn lo-fi has a lot of fun with guitar pedals and distortion. The former bands Frankie Rose has been in are a nice proof of how Kathleen Hanna’s riot bubblegum has stayed relevant in the 21st century. Solo, she sounds like a mature take on kiddie bedroom pop. The difference is one of energy and tone, which in a style this subtle can mean everything.
Rose isn’t as formless as she first sounds. It turns out she has a taste for melodies and refrains, and the tunes are just obscured by a blanket of reverb. This album’s ambient drive reminded me of Laurie Anderson’s magnificent Strange Angels until I realized Strange Angels was a pop move, representing Anderson’s appropriation of traditional songform, while this is the inverse — Rose already had that, and only now does she whip up the mood. Add her breathy singing to such a breathy sound, and she simply fades from consciousness.
Who would have guessed — out of all the Vivian Girls, it would be the drummer who was the most distracted. One of her biggest influences is 1960s girl groups, but this is album is hardly a wall of sound. Too echoey. B
Fun.: Some Nights
Fueled By Ramen/Netwerk, 2012 [BUY]
Arena puke-rock is a dying breed in the 21st century, so much so that you never even hear of it anymore. So while it may be easy to typecast Nate Ruess as another Mark Foster, he’s dense enough that his band is actually closer to Bon Jovi, as is the emphasis on youth. Not only is the big hit called “We Are Young,” it was made for that slow, back-and-forth swaying that only kids can stomach.
Back in 2009 on Aim And Ignite, when they were still an indie band, they made loud but delicate baroque pop, but that got them nowhere. So now, with the help of superstar producer Jeff Bhasker, they make loud, crude Broadway-metal ‚ oh, sorry, “hard rock.” This only makes it more obvious, all the better to become teen icons. The guitar compensates for Ruess’s sugary voice and bloated choruses. But he’s still stuck with the piano and synthesized strings, making him sound like even more of a ham.
With all the tunes blending into each other, even “We Are Young,” I’m just grateful they’re not very catchy. Otherwise, their radio coup could go worldwide, mainstreaming teenage riots everywhere. B-
Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Aimless/Thirty Tigers, 2012 [BUY]
Protest songs, love songs, whatever. Todd Snider is simultaneously the greatest goofball and the greatest ideologue currently in rock & roll. This would be his best album in six years on the strength of the one-liners alone: “Good things happen to bad people,” “Everything in moderation including moderation,” “What’s keeping me from killing this guy and taking his shit?” The song that calls Mick Jagger a woman is an honest tribute. I bet Keith Richards would love it.
Snider’s common theme of class warfare is crass and materialistic, more about whoever has more stuff than about equality. But should there in fact be a radical redistribution of wealth anytime soon, I’m in no position to complain. Anyway, unlike Patterson Hood he doesn’t speak for the whole underclass, just his own roguish persona, meticulously calculated not only to evoke but add to classic American myth. The band is strong and raw throughout, especially Amanda Shires’ fiddle, which matches Snider’s own guitar. His songs are uninvolved enough to reinforce the image he projects, but despite this they’re professionally played. Otherwise, he’d just sound stupid, and he doesn’t, not at all.
He’s out to blow your mind, and he will, the easy way or the hard way. Though I could call him a lying poser, that just means he’s a talented singer-songwriter. A
Cloud Nothings: Attack On Memory
Carpark, 2012 [BUY]
I saw Dylan Baldi and co at the A.V. Club Festival last year when they were unleashed on the world, and I preferred the show to this album, which has producer Steve Albini written all over it. Though axe bombardment has always been Albini’s gift, here they mute the guitar. Everything is conceived mainly as backup for the frontman. Before, he played all the instruments himself, but now the tunes get across.
Baldi’s committed Billie Joe Armstrong impression is self-involved to the max, and so is the chugachugachugachug of the band, which under Albini has lost any semblance of rhythmic subtlety. But they still follow the great Amerindie tradition with thoughtful, well-constructed songs that keep them from sandbagging. However dramatic the lyrics, such simple, generous melodies often keep talented guys content with the beats they know, like true slackers. If Baldi’s fantasy of being an anxious one is a gimmick, at least it’s an interesting paradox, and who am I to say it’s impossible?
Recalling an era back when great new bands were a thing, this is a great new band, and they’ll get better. You can thank the Onion. B+
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I’m still on a dubstep high, thanks largely to Skrillex and Chase & Status, but clubbers please note, it’s best as pop music, and not Deadmau5’s “music is meant to provoke feeling and thought” guff. If you want club-as-art, go for Scooter, because they’re faster and crazier and their beats never end. Oh, and they’re foreign.