Here I begin the long season of post-2012 fallout — records I forgot about, records I somehow missed, records I deliberately avoided but have reached so much consensus they can’t be ignored. I mean, it’s not like 2013 albums are coming out anyway, besides a bunch of utilitarian dubstep compilations I found in the iTunes “Electronic” section. Personal to Barry Schwabsky: thanks for turning me on to Cat Power.
Lana Del Rey: Paradise
Interscope, 2012 [BUY]
Like any X Factor singer, Lana Del Rey is a rich girl getting richer by pretending to be richer than she is; her vulgarity is directly correlated with her wealth. She claims to have a huge amount of money and a lot of sex, which is why people buy the album. Even if you don’t like her, you might like the life she lives, only I don’t like the life she lives. Upper-class guilt may be bad, but it’s infinitely preferable to upper-class pride.
Between the actressy vocals, California visuals, and changes between characters, her debut, Born To Die, sounded like a gross parody of reality TV. This record foregrounds her voice over her pristine keyboard textures, so now I can partially hear the pop revolution all the fans are hearing. She has some melodic talent, and now that her music is a little simpler that talent is easier to appreciate. I still can’t take the persona, though – gold-digging slut name-dropping expensive brands and (expensive?) genitals left and right, then sighing about her deep, existential depression. Her breathy, histrionically orgasmic vocals perfectly embody this ethos.
Presumably it’s “ironic”, but not ironic enough, given that she is really a Hollywood celebrity. Anyway, irony alone is never a justification for anything. Honey, let’s fuck in the Camaro tonight instead of the Mustang, that synthetic leather really turns me on. Synthetic leather? Why not real leather? Oh, how tragic it is to be one of the beautiful!
Kid Koala: 12 Bit Blues
Ninja Tune, 2012 [BUY]
In sampling a bunch of old blues recordings, eccentric DJ Kid Koala has made the conceptual coup of the year. Like most of his other work, the way he arranges his music is sweet and silly, but it also constitutes an unconventional songform that the Kid has been working towards for most of his career. For all the disjunction, each track seems to relate to the others in its own specific way, a conflict he makes the most of.
Where Moby, who invented the blues-electronica hybrid, presented his scratchy tunes in a clean, synthetic setting, Koala throws everything into the blender of his every-note-for-itself disarray and takes whatever comes out. Through the chaos emerges a consistent, unique structure that somehow mixes the varied cycles of twelve-bar blues melodies with the monolithic cycles of looped turntable patterns. Constructed like a typical dancefloor album, this follows all the rules of individualistic techno: computed static uniting the disparate musical elements, hooks cut-and-pasted together, samples slowly altered rhythmically over a measure and then all of a sudden restored to the original sample. What really deepens the groove, though, is the reliable Alan Lomax vocals, pianos, horns etc, which are familiar enough and take on goofy new life in this loving recontextualization.
In lieu of any meaningful words, the tense, wacky, profound motion of the music fascinates you. As usual, humanizing technology works best when it includes actual humans, or at least their sonic presence.
Japandroids: Celebration Rock
2012, Polyvinyl, 2012 [BUY]
This Vancouver duo’s conventional garage-rock is as exotic as anything right now in an indie community where bands are always one-upping each other with weirder and weirder sounds, and a whole lot more listenable. Like the multitude of Canadian male leads taking over the movie industry, they seem a bit bland at first, but they’re just too eager and enthusiastic for that impression to last. They’ll stay fresh as long as they stay locked into the uptempo rush that fuels them.
Even by the standards of the genre, they flirt with corny, overused arena devices more than most can stand – exaggerated choruses, backup shouting, “whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa”, you know. Nearly every song reaches for the skies, showing off their shallow but sincere, joyous feelings. They know perfectly well how ridiculous this makes them look, which is exactly what they want, because if you couldn’t laugh at them, what kind of rock & roll would that be? In fact, it’s by channeling bathos that they recharge the overarching emotions typically associated with it. Their vivid, crackling, cleansing, distorted power riffs and tightly sprung rhythm section really pound everything home. The carefully thought-through melodies they apply to the oomph that is their music sing loud and clear.
Each song here feels like a miniature epic, but the album peaks right at the end with the one-two punch of “The House That Heaven Built,” in which their detractors go to hell, and “Continuous Thunder,” which sounds like continuous thunder. Together, they achieve a kind of stormy, throbbing catharsis, which had better be the point of all this bathos in the first place.
Cat Power: Sun
Matador, 2012 [BUY]
Chan Marshall’s expressive singing and harmonic sense have always gripped me, but most of her albums are also intermittently maudlin, so I was amazed when this one tumbled out of the speakers as assertively as anything this year. Why not, though? There’s a strong beat and memorable tunes, which makes this record actually as poignant as fans have found her previous acoustic meanderings.
However subdued you find this at first, the seductive glide of her keyboard-rock seeps through in waves, moving at its own pace until you adjust. Though she sighs more than most pop stars or even most singer-songwriters, she just intones her crassest attempts at poetry, and her clunky rhymes take on a certain amount of fetching charm. Having thought of her for a long time as a whiner, I love the way she alternates between elegant, delighted, levelheaded, haunting, and wickedly borderline insane. The sonic charge she packs here with her skittering electropercussion is simply strong enough to make you like her dejected tendencies, which have in turn gotten braver and more realistic due to her increased maturity.
It’s not as if she’s found true happiness or anything, but she’s finally achieved a perverse joy through her long commitment to acting miserable. That’s an inspirational message if anything is.
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
ATO, 2012 [BUY]
Where artists like Lucinda Williams or Jack White exemplify the connection between traditionalism and mastery, this young “blues” band exemplifies the connection between traditionalism and lethargy. They’ve won over a bunch of self-appointed rock gatekeepers, starting with Rolling Stone, and small wonder, because they’ve fashioned one of the most prehistoric band sounds in recent years. Its sheer lack of originality is remarkable.
Really, this is the music of people who grow up listening to golden-oldies radio. Songs don’t start out as golden-oldies, of course, it’s just that once a certain amount of time has passed, conservatives start liking them, upon which other people start thinking of them as ho-hum. So when Brittany Howard attempts to create a whole album based on what she loves about Stax and Atlantic records from the ‘60s, it naturally turns out archaic – those records weren’t great because they were old-fashioned, now were they? Lead track “Hold On” lays down a mildly forgettable groove that they maintain for the entire record, its guitar licks and soulful melodies purely functional. Guided by Howard’s raw belting, their Southern garage-stomp sounds unbearably crude and awkward.
It’s interesting to watch the singer’s voice crack over and over again, song after song, but otherwise nothing much distinguishes them from Jack White imitators. How heartwarming, another band mistaking formal particulars for automatic emotional inspiration, although surely they’d go platinum if we lived back in the day when musicians stuck to their roots and stood up for what was right.