CHICAGO — A whole bunch of old folks have new records out: Beach Boys, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Loudon Wainwright III. But by definition, old folks make a lot of records, and it’s all probably a coincidence. So I looked into the underground a little and was greeted with this year’s second great electronica record. One by itself is miracle enough in an age where Jay-Z has to call for the “Death of Auto-Tune.”
Plug: Back On Time
Ninja Tune, 2012 [BUY]
Yeah, sure, he’s back on time — Luke Vibert has been consistently making records for over ten years under a number of stage names. Out of everything I’ve heard, this is the kookiest and best. Apparently he redefined techno in the ’90s, but since Moby and DJ Shadow were busy making whole new genres out of the same foundations, nobody noticed. Cut in 1997 and unreleased until now, this is his strongest work. It’s much stranger and might actually influence pseudo-DJs today.
Beats are the backbone of this kind of music, but many rely on them too much. Thanks to all the extra sonic details here, it’s easier to appreciate them. In addition to the roiling drum & bass breakbeats and countless variations on the classic jittery acid synth, all of which are staples, Vibert sequences a whole bunch of crazy noises, sometimes vocals, sometimes exotic instruments, sometimes blips and bleeps that in context are surprisingly musical. The record maintains aural mystique due to the fact that it’s mostly instrumental, only not really, because even the sitar loop on “Come On My Skeleton” keeps making fun of itself. Who needs singing? His mischievous percussion breaks and scratches convey enough personality as it is.
This is more than just rave stuff, or background music for moody sex scenes in avant-garde movies. It’s a soundscape record with a strong beat, a techno record that’s weird in a human way. Of course, it would be excellent background music for moody sex scenes in avant-garde movies too. A
Silversun Pickups: Neck Of The Woods
Dangerbird, 2012 [BUY]
The mainstream success of the Smashing Pumpkins was about half a decade too late; they belonged in the late ‘80s with Throwing Muses and Hue & Cry. Though the Silversun Pickups do sound a lot like the Pumpkins, they’re not as backward. The values that fuel these bands are still around — including a need to get away, for which I blame the ugly political sphere. But don’t feel too sorry for these guys. They do it enough themselves.
People into this sort of thing are annoyed by this album’s lack of catharsis, but that’s a minor irritant. What turns me off is their decadent, escapist pride in their own lethargy. Slowly but surely creeping its way into contemporary indie, this attitude is much more than a mere slackerdom revival, and the Pickups typify it. Despite this, frontman Brian Aubert’s definition of success is overkill – to make his big statement about whatever, he takes a perceived emotional authenticity sucked from some vague, dissociated notion of punk and beefs it up with big sound effects. But he’s too lazy to really put over such a mannered sound, and the result is painfully awkward. Aubert’s influences are often admired for literary talent, but his own lyrics are clumsy, especially with his bitter, grotesque snarl: “I’m marching through the branches in a fit of wanderlust/to see you in a black hole reaching out for something just.” Really, iambics?
When progressives stick to their roots by pretending to be bunglers, they at least sound natural. Here, even Aubert’s self-pity is contrived. C
Issa Juma & Super Wanyika Stars: World Defeats the Grandfathers Vol. 2
AIT Digital, 2012 [BUY]
Issa Juma’s early ‘80s offshoot of Simba Wanyika (you might know them from Kenya Dance Mania, or Guitar Paradise of East Africa, which is now out of print) came at the end of the big African soukous explosion. As one would expect, it sounds great. Nothing much distinguished it from Volume One, but given how much I love the sound, why complain?
This is a good document of what East Africa’s rumba craze was like before the more Kenya-specific benga erupted. Juma’s variant on the original band has a stronger beat with less instrumental complexity, almost like plastic cartoon rumba, but that’s inconsequential. His friendly melodic tropes, carried across on soft guitars he made sure to foreground, are remarkably happy even by the standards of the genre. Where most similar-sounding bands were fleeing the Congo under Mobutu, this Tanzanian one came to Kenya just because that was where the music was. Hence they were a lot less vulnerable than most, and a lot perkier. I’m still looking for someone who can explain the title — were the Grandfathers a rival band? Maybe it refers to world music triumphing over outdated conservative hegemony.
Juma’s type of relentless, ever-cheerful overdrive made for such great disco, it spawned a French Afroclub craze. We don’t have those over here, though. Get the record and turn your own living room into a dancefloor. A-
Allo Darlin’: Europe
Slumberland, 2012 [BUY]
They should have saved their debut’s “Woody Allen” for this album, because it’s more maudlin and nostalgic than Allo Darlin’. Rumors that this band is twee are admittedly pretty silly, because Elizabeth Morris is just as teary as Adele. But in another longer and far more charming tradition of English soulfulness, she knows how to grin and bear it.
With a guitar towards the jangly end of the spectrum as its most noticeable sound, this is openly, unapologetically a song band, like the Go-Betweens, whom they mention in the song with the ukulele, or the Silver Jews, whom they also mention in the very next track. Morris crams her wistful love songs with exquisite details, like “a postcard from Berlin of a fat man eating a sausage,” or more often astral bodies like Capricornia skies, northern lights, wishing on a satellite, men on the moon, the age of airplanes and miracles, they could name a star after you and you’d still be complaining, to name a few. The pretty but simple melodic constructions are a triumph in clarity, and her voice is so modest and down-to-earth she sounds like a real person you’ve met somewhere. By the end of the record, you’re good friends.
If all indie pop were this traditionalist, the charts would be a lot less asinine. I especially love “Neil Armstrong,” which is to the tune of “Mr. Tambourine Man” — Bob Dylan never wrote his own melodies, so he deserves to be himself ripped off, especially when the result is as poignant as this. A-
Fader, 2012 [BUY]
Where clever, literary Anglophones try to get by solely on words, all Yuna has is atmosphere. This feeble piece of adult contemporary is designed specifically to pander to thoughtful Westerners who love the idea of world music but not the actual sounds. Of course, I don’t blame her for her audience. As to what could move a smart Malaysian law student to ape American pop clichés, no idea.
When some palooka from the States belches out shoddy sentimental ballads, it doesn’t really bother me, because like it or not, that’s part of our musical heritage. When foreigners appropriate them for the money, or worse, the emotion, well, that’s when I start going on anti-imperialist marches. At first I took “Live Your Life” as advocating proactive behavior, but it’s actually just a big fat recycled platitude, sporting complacency worthy of Bobby McFerrin’s simple pleasures. On the rare occasion that her voice sounds as caring as she wants it to, her antiseptic guitar strum, or more often, her pointlessly evocative, bleakly ostinato keyboards undercut it. But even if they didn’t, her voice wouldn’t make much difference, especially with only moral abstractions for lyrics.
She confirms my theory that people don’t hear Coldplay’s sonics, they hear Coldplay’s sentimentality, and they imitate it. If this is what other people take away from our culture, bring the diplomats home. C
Amadou & Mariam: Folila
Nonesuch, 2012 [BUY]
For Manu Chao, who previously collaborated with Amadou & Mariam, pop accommodation means exotica — obscure radio clips, instruments from all across the world, basically any sound he likes. For the blind couple of Mali, it means Westernization. Diligently adding our grandiosity to the brute force of Maliam music, they rock hard. They nearly belong in an arena.
This album achieves a commerciality rare in Africa even though it’s less immediate than 2009’s Welcome To Mali. That’s not to say it eschews traditional sounds like father/son team Sidiki & Toumani Diabate’s wondrously childlike kora plucking or Ahmed Fofana’s ngoni, but the big booming guitars are even louder. My favorite out of the array of famous guests is Tunde & Kyp, aka TV on the Radio, who as I recall like to show up out of the blue on other African records as well. But even when singing in English, the guests never distract from the couple themselves, who provide the sweet, raw intensity that drives the music. And with a big budget, the production is excellent.
The title translates simply to “music,” meaning no piddly little genre differentiations. Their habit of approaching everything with open arms is why this album is already charting. A-
Odd Future: The OF Tape Vol. 2
Odd Future, 2012 [BUY]
With the hip-hop mainstream claimed by sensitive singer-songwriter types like Drake and J. Cole, true vulgarity is left to the underground in the form of Kool Keith, Hopsin, and most of all Odd Future, mental patient wannabes who have somehow become the quintessential internet rap sensation. True, minor artists don’t have to tend their image as carefully. But when Eminem of all people says you’re “pushing boundaries,” you know you’re in trouble.
Unlike a lot of their other work, this album is amusing — neat rhymes, tricky music, and at least one virtuoso, Frank Ocean. Sometimes they even make me laugh, which not even Ocean’s singles do consistently even though they’re far more vivid than anything the group’s other members come up with. Hearing the whole crew in rapid succession, it’s clear there are a lot of good rappers. They just never cohere on record. The beats veer between erratically dinky and luxurious over-the-top, and the verses are really aggressive even if not all of them have big voices. At times it’s so horrorcore, Tyler turns into Boris Karloff and I worry they might all kill each other. Other times it’s merely spooky.
They clearly have something to prove, but what is it? Until they do, they’ll sound like a bunch of freakish psychopaths absent-mindedly complaining about nothing in particular, by which I mean swag, bitches, blunts, dicks etc. B
Beach House: Bloom
Sub Pop, 2012 [BUY]
This band has been consistently making soundscapes for distracted young people since 2006, and this is the loudest one with the clearest sonics. Their airiness is very calming without quite holding your attention. Also, they’re grandiose. I just like the glowing, chillwave-extracted sound, and so what if it’s a product of artificial studio perfectionism?
They’re not precious anymore, and thanks to a bunch of production tricks, they’re warmer and very nearly direct. Shiny guitar hooks remove the histrionics from Victoria Legrand’s rich, dark voice, which in turn makes the music less mechanical. It takes a while to find the real songs, but this time they’re there. Normal consumers might find such excessive dreaminess irritating, an affected, contrarian response to Facebook-era soullessness, and since when do young people care about their feelings? I have to chuckle at the fact that among indie tastemakers, sincerity has won out over the postmodern.
This isn’t a song band, and their smoky textures don’t deserve to be weighed down by all this deep sentiment. But if it wasn’t for their ever-returning wishful reveries, I might even say they provide emotional release. B+
* * *
Flipside to all the new records by old folks: right after I accuse the All-American Rejects of being a boy band last month, a bunch of real boy bands surface. Besides the new Justin Bieber record, we also have The Wanted, Neon Trees, and One Direction, whose album I’ve been putting off all year. I worked up the courage to listen to it a couple weeks ago with the intention of reviewing it and couldn’t make it past the first three songs. So take what I say with a grain of salt if you like, but on the lead single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” they’re so young that even if they write their own material, they still sound like they’re being exploited by Simon Cowell. Without talent like the Jacksons, someday those kids will hit thirty and wonder where all the screaming chicks went.