Friday, April 04, 2014

Albums and Singles That are WORTH IT!!! (first quarter of 2014)

I'm back to neglecting singles this year, since I've been focused on a paper that's made me neglect The Singles Jukebox. But albums, especially the ones without bad words, fit my passive listening patterns in the car and during playtime, and these albums are all pretty good at least. Like, the worst I can say about Braxton/Babyface is I'm usually ready for it to be over with about two songs left; but it still sounds gorgeous, most of its songs are good, and Braxton in particular displays some caustic wit. Writeups for Against Me! and Behemoth follow.


Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble) (indie)
Behemoth - The Satanist (Metal Blade) (indie, metal)
Gerardo Ortiz - Archivos de Mi Vida (Del/Sony Latin 2013) (major, Latin) *
Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron (Top Dawg/Interscope) (major, rap)
The Shrine - Bless Off (Tee Pee) (indie)
Raoul Björkenheim - eCsTaSy (Cuneiform) (indie, jazz)
Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski - Gathering Call (Palmetto) (indie, jazz)
Martin Castillo - Mundo de Ilusiones (Sony Latin) (major, Latin)
Present - Le Poison Qui Rend Fou (Cuneiform) (indie, reissue, prog)
Algebra Blessett - Recovery (Slim Frances/eOne) (indie, R&B)
Frankie Ballard - Sunshine & Whiskey (Warner Bros.) (major, country)
Toni Braxton and Babyface - Love, Marriage & Divorce (Motown) (major, R&B)

* I’m just sort of hoping this breaks big in 2014.


“Los Awesome” - Schoolboy Q ft. Jay Rock *
“Coming of Age” - Foster the People
“Noche de Lokera” - Los Buitres de Culiacan, Sinaloa *
“Turn Down For What” - DJ Snake & Lil Jon
“Drop That #NaeNae” - We Are Toonz
“Hermosa Experiencia” - Banda MS
“Give Me Back My Hometown” - Eric Church
“Twilight” - Louie ft. Boy Wonder
“Tension” - Kach
“Move That Dope” - Future ft. Pharrell, Pusha T, & Casino

* I’m just sort of hoping these become singles.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble)

The sixth album from Florida punks Against Me! starts with a Paul Simon homage so blatant it might be deliberate. While the drums stomp out a martial groove and everyone else plays two chords, Laura Jane Grace’s melody hovers around the notes “do” and “mi” as she sings, “Your tells are so obvious” -- it’s “The Obvious Child”! Obviously! Only, where Simon’s 1990 album opener winked with petulant bourgie resentment, “Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues” roars with empathy, scraping away the writerly artifice of Paul Simon types to get to What’s Real. This has been Grace’s gift for the nine years I’ve loved her band. Her song structures can barely contain the blunt exuberance of her language, which makes her lyrics seem like diaristic experience even when she’s craftily turning that experience into metaphor.

“You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress;
You want them to see you like they see every other girl.
They just see a faggot. They’ll hold their breath not to catch the sick.”

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is informed by Grace’s gender transition the way, I dunno, Springsteen’s The Rising was “informed” by 9/11. The album’s unimaginable without the event. But in those would-be oglers of a summer dress, Grace sees a vision of life’s insolubility -- no matter what, some clubs will forever bar your entry. “Even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn’t be enough to save me,” she sings in “Unconditional Love”; her band does their best gang-shouty Green Day imitation in an attempt to prove her wrong. Later, two songs about death, the only universal club, take insolubility to its limit. “Dead Friend,” the hand-clappier of the two, opens, “You don’t worry about tomorrow any more ‘cause you’re dead” -- if Grace is scraping away writerly artifice from old dudes’ songs, this would be Springsteen’s “You’re Missing” -- and then the acoustic meditation “Two Coffins” looks ahead to the inevitable, perfect for the recent Ash Wednesday. (This has been a great album for driving to church and funerals, just a step behind Hallelujah! I’m a Bum, the 2012 meditation on insolubles from hometown heroes Local H.)

A couple songs here get by on their rage -- “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” gets by on its title, mostly -- but the worst song, “Fuckmylife666,” shows that a band can’t live on pretty chords alone. I keep comparing Against Me! to hoary classic rock rather than nihilistic hardcore because they have hooks and big bright classic rock chords, and they come up with distinct grooves that actually groove. Atom Willard’s drum parts sparkle with personality, and Grace sings as powerfully as ever. In the stunning second verse of album closer “Black Me Out,” she makes every tremor in her howl count. When life stands in your way, you rage on anyway; and even if it doesn’t get you anywhere, in the raging itself there’s some kind of answer.

Behemoth - The Satanist (Metal Blade)
Back at the Burnside Writers Collective, I kept meaning to write a series called “Should I Really Be Listening To This?” to deal systematically and philosophically with music of questionable moral content. Schoolboy Q and Behemoth would have been prime contenders, given their respective endorsements of Oxycontin and Satan. Satan metal still makes me nervous; I’m suddenly back in junior high youth group watching an anti-rock video and learning about the lurid acronyms AC/DC and KISS and trying to envision an eternity of pain and hairy devils baring their teeth at me. I mean, ETERNITY. So, Behemoth! Should I really be listening to this? On my metaphorical shoulders, Bon Scott and anti-rock institution Jeff Godwin (The Devil’s Disciples) are torn.

Bon: It’s a really good album! Bloke! The guitars are amazing and the power and evil of the songs is real show-don’t-tell stuff -- like, they slip free of expected song forms so you don’t need to suspend yr disbelief. You’re no longer listening to mere songs -- THESE ARE THE ACTUAL RANTS OF POLISH HEATHENS (i checked) PRAISING SATAN.

Jeff: Which is why you shouldn’t listen to it, because after enough exposure to this music you’ll be convinced to worship Satan too, or at least to not love Jesus --

Bon: but that’s RIDICULOUS, because it’s an ALBUM and you, Josh, are an OLD MAN and any Jesus love or Satan love is pretty much fixed at this point. You know, don’t let your EIGHT YEAR OLD listen to it. He doesn’t want to anyway. He walks around singing “Let It Go” all day.

Jeff: I realize I barely have a case here [NOTE: the real Jeff Godwin would never ever say that], but I’ll go down rocking the hell out of you. Isn’t the mere act of listening to Satanic metal disrespectful to the Jesus you claim to love? How can you look at his sacrificial death and resurrection, and go through life in grace and truth, trying to see Jesus in everyone you meet, and YET listen to music that depicts and endorses his overthrow by the Ultimate Despicable? If you’re dead to yourself in baptism, isn’t Behemoth one of the worldly things you leave behind? Like paying the plumber cash so he can cheat on his taxes?

Bon: Twit, if you’re really going in grace and truth to serve the Lord and remember the poor, the music you listen to is like the smallest part of your witness. It basically has no effect. If anything, it’ll up your empathy with people who also enjoy listening to Behemoth --

Jeff: OHO! That is silly! Because Behemoth does not want you to be a casual observer, spying on Satanists through your… spyglass… You said it yourself -- THESE ARE THE ACTUAL RANTS OF POLISH HEATHENS (you checked) PRAISING SATAN.

Me: Guys, I haven’t researched Behemoth to know whether they’re actually Satanists. Irrelevance of intention and biography blah blah blah

Jeff: Irregardless, Behemoth’s goal is not to write a National Geographic article about Satan’s overthrow of the Kingdom and set it to music. They marshall a visceral power. They want to move you liturgically. They want to rock the hell INTO you. You can’t have it both ways -- either this is music you listen to with a grain of ironic salt (and I’m struggling to turn this into a Holy Pun about losing your saltiness, help me out here), or you acknowledge that Satan rock this grand and powerful is bound to affect you and your walk with Jesus.

Bon: But then do you also deny the thrill whenever Satan shows up in Paradise Lost? Or should we stop reading Paradise Lost because Satan is the best character in the book? And furthermore -- hey, this is my shoulder, who are you?

Ted Gioia: What is this, lifestyle reportage? WHAT ABOUT THE MUSIC?

Me: Yes yes. I apologize for not going full Pallett on this, but the characteristic musical effect is slow-ish minor-key harmonic and melodic movement over furious blastbeats, and then the lead vocalist, who did i mention is a leukemia survivor, growls and rasps in an unsyncopated manner. But sometimes there are backbeats with screaming solos, sections that sound more like radio hard rock. Sometimes the band slips into creepy ambient passages and it’s unclear how they’re doing it. The forms of the songs are so unpredictable, they create the illusion of the Natural -- roiling and unfolding with little reference to musical convention. I mean, there are VERSES, you know you’re still on the same song, but any song structure is the bare minimum required to create a sense of cohesion within each song. They keep exploding into new areas of grisly spectacle, sort of like Inferno, which is obsessively structured but the structure gives Dante the freedom to go off on tangents and create the illusion of life.

Bon: Right! And should we also discourage Christians from reading Inferno? Because it makes hell seem cool?

Jeff: Are you sure you actually read Inferno? Because it did not in any way make me wanna end up in hell.

Bon: But The Satanist doesn’t make you wanna worship Satan! It might make you wanna swagger around 10 feet tall and rage against the presumption of the moral authorities in your life, which isn’t necessarily a bad influence or antithetical to the message of Christ, who though he came to fulfill the law not abolish it nevertheless railed against the presumptuous moral authorities of his day.

Gioia: Whoa, Bon Scott is a major theologophile.

Bon: Anyone can see that worshiping Satan is itself paradoxical, because a) Satan is a shifting symbol throughout history and b) Satan’s consistent symbolic character is one that challenges powers and authorities, the anti- figure. So while scary people do actually worship Satan and defile churches, The Satanist is less a gateway drug than a meditation on awesome power that rages against ultimate power. Not too far from that Against Me! album, actually.

Jeff: Whatever dude, you’re gonna start doing drugs and sacrificing your cats. I’ve seen it man! I was there! Don’t listen to Stryper either. Total gateway drug.

Bon: But that’s just the thing! Everybody draws the line somewhere different, and Behemoth unmoors you from simple line drawing strategies. Music of such exaggerated and yeah I’ll say it EXTREME power demonstrates the futility of our piddly everyday moral lines in the sand. It might even make you stop worrying about such stuff and kick you back into Love God Love Neighbor territory, which we’ll all agree is where Jesus wants us to be anyway.

Gioia, listening to The Satanist on headphones, starts cackling and making devil horns and carving little pentagrams into his arm.

Monday, March 17, 2014

These two regional Mexican comps are NOT worth it!

I wrote up two mediocre comps for PopMatters:

My wife, God love her, complains that all male country singers sound the same. This is patently untrue. Blake Shelton sings like a smarmy geezer wiling his way into a younger crowd, while Luke Bryan’s blank prettiness belies his terror of turning into Blake Shelton. Big difference. Eric Church is the reedy outlaw, Jason Aldean is the wannabe outlaw who also wants to rap, Brantley Gilbert is the outlaw who can’t sing. Justin Moore, who claims to be an outlaw, is really a big-hearted romantic; Kip Moore celebrates “Young Love” but remains a sociopath. Isn’t this all obvious? You can hear it in their voices!

Regional Mexican radio works in a similar way; all genre radio does, really...

Monday, March 11, 2013

Noel Torres, José Feliciano, y Otros are Worth It!

From my latest Sheep & Goats, over at Burnside Writers Collective:

You don’t look to the Managing Editor of Entertainment Weekly for music tips, but it was still jaw-dropping to read this in his post-Grammy editorial: “Mumford & Sons’ victory established folk rock as the most exciting and artful movement in music right now.” Do people really think that? Apparently so — EW ran a cover story on the “movement” the following week, and worship music has started biting the Mumfords’ style like they’re a new U2. Nothing against the Mumfords, who basically resemble what you’d get if Coldplay replaced ZZ Top in Back to the Future III, but surely folk rock is only the most exciting and artful music played by acoustic instruments, covered byEntertainment Weekly (a Time Warner company), and directed at English-speaking brains — if that. (I’d still take jazz, fwiw.)
Where I live, in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the winner of Most Exciting And Artful Musical Movement is currently banda from the state of Sinaloa, Mexico. Like English folk music, banda’s been around for a long time and is enjoying one of its periodic resurgences. If you’re seeking acoustic radio hits, the big swinging horn sections of Roberto Tapia, La Arrolladora Banda El Limón, and Banda El Recodo get as much radio play as the Mumfords, the Lumineers, and their ilk. One of our seven (!) Spanish-language FM stations recently changed its slogan from “Más Y Más Música” to “Banda Y Más,” which seems significant, though several other Latino genres are hot on banda’s heels. This is the cultural bounty of demographic shift, of course; the suburbs where I live and work are both younger and more Hispanic than the country at large. But if the last presidential election taught us anything, it’s that diversificación is sweeping the nation, so with any luck your radio waves and public library will soon carry some of the following, if they don’t already. (Or you can click on most of the titles below to stream them.)
(... and then you get reviews of the astounding Torres, the suave Felicianos, the dreamy Veronica Falls who don't really fit, the Dovells-like Los Caporales de Chihuahua, and more...)

Monday, January 07, 2013

Happy Birthday To Me! (1977 Playlist)

Back in August I gave myself a birthday present: 26 songs from my birth year*, one for each letter of the alphabet, only one of which I'd heard before that month, and they all had to be good or at least indelible in some way. They also had to be streamable -- I wanted to hear them. Turns out I didn't find a Q or an X (I can't do Rush's "Xanadu" every year), so I supplemented with some others and wound up with 27. They make for a pretty good playlist -- so here's the list with Youtube links, rescued from my Facebook page.

*The Year of Impact Rule applies.

1977 IN NIGERIAN POP: "Arabade" by Sir Victor Uwaifo and the Titibitis. This is probably a minor work (reminds me of Sly's "Dance to the Music") but I dig the rhythm, horns, and brutal shrieking keyboard layered on top of each other -- plus, it's hard to resist a song where the singer tells you, "The song goes like this." First big hit was in 1965, and Ronnie Graham sez: "By the 1980s Victor had established his own TV studio with his weekly half-hour show going out to all corners of Nigeria."

1977 IN LATIN DISCO: "Black Pot" by Santa Esmerelda. This is the B-side of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" -- which you know, you've seen Kill Bill! -- and it chronicles Leroy Gomez's swirling mystical trip into a "land of make believe". The swirls are portrayed by Gomez's sax and somebody else's electric guitar darting around a bunch of horns.

1977 IN SHOCK ROCK: "Child Eaters" by Rubber City Rebels. This song is about exactly what you think it's about, though it's very tastefully done. Before the Black Keys were born, Akron had these guys and the Bizarros, who I'll get to later. "Child Eaters" stands in the proud pro-cannibalism tradition of the Buoys' "Timothy", and its fake Brit accent and creepy spoken interlude foreshadow Kix's "Yeah Yeah Yeah".

1977 IN GLAM METAL: "Delirious" by Heavy Metal Kids. This performance kicked off an episode of the German TV show DISCO, which started airing in 1971, which should give some idea of the omnivorous reach and breadth of the term "disco". (Wiki assures us, "The name of the show was devised before disco as a musical style existed.") Other performers on this particular episode included:
* Howard Carpendale - Nimm den nächsten Zug
* Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Anything that's Rock 'n' Roll
* Bonnie Tyler - Heaven
* Peter Maffay - Andy, Träume sterben jung
* Graham Bonnet - It's all over now Baby Blue
* Didi Zill - Rock 'n' Roll made in Germany
* Uriah Heep - Lady in black

1977 IN POMP ROCK: "Down To You" by the Strapps. I guess it's pomp rock, because it seems to fall halfway between glam and prog -- keyboard solo that sounds like Keith Emerson with an editor, multiple instrumental textures but still concise, even at six and a half minutes, and very very loud. (Martin Popoff says, "The new sound is unlike any other act I can think of," and then he lists, like, six other bands.)

1977 IN NAZARETH: "Expect No Mercy" by Nazareth. I wonder if Paul Ryan rocks out to this when he formulates budget proposals OH SNAP

‎1977 IN VINTAGE COUNTRY DISCO: "The Feelin's Right" by Narvel Felts. This #19 hit from his album The Touch of Felts - eek! - floats and flutters with erotic expectation, and I hear more than a hint of anxiety too. Felts sounds thrilled by his own vibrato, even as it makes him nervous.

1977 IN GERMAN ITALO DISCO IF THAT'S A THING: "Get on the Funk Train" by Munich Machine. Basically this is a '77 Donna Summer album without Donna Summer -- Moroder & Bellotte produced, personnel looks the same, and the Midnite Ladies sing "Love to Love You Baby" twice. Not much singing on this song, though -- a 15 minute disco suite with three or four memorable themes, the precursor to Quad City DJs big hit and heir to... some old-timey song where people dance on trains, I guess. There must be at least one of those.

1977 IN LATIN FUNK: "Happy as a Fat Rat in a Cheese Factory" by Mongo Santamaria. If you liked that big Fania salsa compilation back in 2011, here's the least Fania-salsa-ish person on it. There's a wild guitar solo halfway through, harmonically and sonically at odds with the surrounding horns.

‎1977 IN COUNTRY WEEPERS: "If You See Me Getting Smaller" by Waylon Jennings. This is a beautiful Jimmy Webb song that I've posted before, although now it occurs to me that it might just be Waylon explaining the principle of linear perspective to an incredulous Willie Nelson.

1977 IN INEXPLICABLE CHART POP: "Jeans On" by David Dundas. Or should I say LORD David Dundas? Wiki sez #3 in England, #17 here, #1 in Germany, originally a jingle for Brutus Jeans, sampled by Fatboy Slim, and can't we all relate to its sentiment?

1977 IN EASY LISTENING: "Kyrila" by Demis Roussos. So the ex-singer of Greek prog band Aphrodite's Child records this song in German, and its parent EP scrapes the bottom of the British singles charts. And from Wiki I learn this: "In 1993, he released Insight to general acclaim, although his attempt at a rap song, 'Spleen', which appeared on the album, was generally seen as a regrettable idea."

1977 IN COUNTRYPOLITAN: "Love's Explosion" by Margo Smith. This has a big winding melody that allows her yodeler's voice to swoop all over the place, though there's no actual yodeling here. Produced by Norro Wilson, who -- fun fact! -- would also work on Kenny Chesney's early stuff.

1977 IN BRAZILIAN FUNK: "Melo de Lula" by Banda Uniao Black. Atmospheric!

‎1977 IN PUNK (oh yeah, that happened then): "No Heart" by the Vibrators. A poor millworker comes home every day to find his wife neglecting him for the TV. If this was Gene Watson, he'd turn to drink. But since the guy's a punk, he shoots her. (At least I think that's what happens.) (I can't believe I'd never heard these guys before.)

1977 IN TV SOUNDTRACKS: "O.K.?" by Julie Covington, Rula Lenska, Charlotte Cornwell and Sue Jones-Davies of ROCK FOLLIES OF '77. Plot summary: "Anna and Dee both write songs, but Dee's pop/rock song 'O.K.'" -- sort of a proto- "I Do Not Hook Up" -- "is chosen over Anna's more literary effort. Thus begins a growing rivalry between the two friends." Has anyone ever seen this show? The song's really good, and it hit #10 on the British chart.

1977 IN DOWNTOWN CLASSICAL: "Piano" by Morton Feldman. This might misstate their compositional strategies completely, but for me Feldman's music is like a slowed down, quieted down Cecil Taylor. Both are compelling for their harmonic language, which is dissonant but not haphazardly so (you hear things repeat and themes emerge), and for their rhythms, which are extremely precise but do their best to hide it. If Taylor's found ways to give improv the integrity of composition, Feldman developed techniques to give his composition the character of improv. Anyway, a palate cleanser. Part 2/3 is actually my favorite, but I'm sure you can find it if you're as compelled as I am.

1977 IN CHRISTIAN GUITAR HEROISM: "Rejoice" by Phil Keaggy. It's just an OK song until the extremely fluid guitar solo starts around 3 or 4 minutes. Mark Allan Powell calls him "probably the most versatile guitarist who has ever lived, having taken on a wide variety of styles, mastering them all, and putting his own identifying stamp on them. It is easy to imagine both Jimi Hendrix and Andre Segovia smiling down on him, nodding their heads in approval, albeit with reference to completely different projects."

1977 IN JAZZ: "Song of Songs" by Woody Shaw and Anthony Braxton. After a swoony introduction with Shaw's trumpet, Braxton's clarinet, Arthur Blythe's alto, and Muhal Richard Abrams's piano smearing all over the place, the band launches into a waltz full of fine solos and cheek. The interval between the third and the flat six features prominently; nice changes in the second half of the head. Cecil McBee's bass sometimes sounds like a foghorn.

1977 IN SOUTHERN METAL: "Shame" by Hydra. Speedy!

1977 IN SPACE DISCO: "Tango in Space" by Space
A French outfit headed by classical musician and early synth adopter Didier Marouani, Space got very popular in the USSR, in part because (according to this interview) the state TV channel would play stuff like the "Tango" underneath all their space footage. Space got to play Russia in the early '80s and did very well, and in 1992 (can this be true?) performed the first major concert in Red Square. "Tango" is not a tango at all, but one of those clean, sparse jams whose pleasure comes from hearing every instrument interact. You can practically see the different musical lines intertwining.

1977 IN REGULAR DISCO: "Tattoo Man" by Denise McCann. In the RS Record Guide, Dave Marsh gave this album one star and declared McCann "in no danger of being mistaken for Donna Summer" (who, let's face it, basically owned 1977 along with her producers). But this song is really good! It's a tightly wound portrait of a pimp, made scarier because it doesn't overstate its scariness. Horns, background singers, occasional synths, burbling beat, and and a great guitar riff -- it could be any high-flying minor key disco strut, until you notice that it can't escape the minor key. Whenever the "Tattoo Man!" chorus comes around, I expect it to resolve major, but it doesn't, and the mood of tension is inescapable until the fadeout, with McCann babbling "Gotta get away from the Tattoo Man" with increasing desperation.

1977 IN COUNTRY GOSPEL: "Uncloudy Day" by Willie Nelson. A #4 country hit, voice and guitar inhabiting the song like comfortable cotton, the opening guitar solo just a little bit off-kilter.

1977 IN CROSSOVER MINIMALISM: "Victor's Lament" by Philip Glass. Christgau gave the North Star album an A- and said Glass achieved his rhythms "through mechanical repetitions cunningly modified." Which you can hear here -- built over the same ostinato Sonny and Cher used in "The Beat Goes On", this is basically a rondo that keeps returning to the high keyboard theme after it modifies the midrange keyboard theme, I think just by adding a note each time and letting the rhythmic chips fall.

1977 IN POST-VELVETS PROTO-PUNK: "White Screen Movies" by the Bizarros. A raver, from their split album From Akron with the cannibalistic Rubber City Rebels (see above).

1977 IN EXPLICABLE CHART POP: "You've Got Me Runnin'" by Gene Cotton. Like a big shiny hug from your dentist.

1977 IN ZIGLIBITHY: "Zibote" by Ernesto Dje-Dje. From the Ivory Coast; Ronnie Graham says, "This is a Bete dance rhythm which [Dje-Dje] sought to modernise, thus demonstrating to fellow Ivorians that they should make increasing commercial use of their indigenous musical heritage. Ziglibithy was a highly rhythmic dance which Dje-Dje mastered completely. He would stop and dance sideways, shaking his shoulders to an irresistible sound which found appreciative audiences around the country."

The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll, Chuck Eddy, Da Capo 1997.
The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, Joel Whitburn, Billboard 2010.
British Hit Singles 8th Edition, Paul Gambaccini, Jonathan Rice, Tim Rice, Guinness 1991.
The Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal Volume 1: the Seventies, Martin Popoff, Collector's Guide 2003.
The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, Ronnie Graham, Da Capo 1988.
Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, Mark Allan Powell, Hendrickson 2002.
Joel Whitburn's Hot Dance/Disco 1974-2003, Joel Whitburn, Record Research 2004.

Plus Discogs, ILX, Wikipedia, and

Sunday, December 30, 2012

WORTH IT IN 2012: Langhoff's Top 40


“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” - Taylor Swift
from Singles Jukebox:
Taylor’s always done teenpop — she’s effortlessly broadened teenpop’s scope to include country, or maybe vice versa, an accomplishment either way — but in taking on the classical teenpop template here, she’s produced a classic of the form, mostly because of her still-evident songwriting craft. The first ace line — “I remember when we broke up/The first time” — turns out to rhyme with “‘cuz like,” so she establishes the song as part parody, a tone that never lets up. Spoken interlude: bratty! (Shania’s were always so stiff.) Four chords: well-deployed! Whiplash plot developments: impossible to follow! At the end of each chorus, the extra “ever”: clever! And there’s real emotional heft, as well — mostly the giddy joy of a master excelling at whatever the hell she wants. We-EEEE!

“Mirando al Cielo” - Roberto Tapia

from TSJ:
The big swinging tuba is selling point #1 — this year I’ve hung onto some mediocre music for way too long, simply for the stunning tuba parts. #2 is Tapia’s tuba player interlocking with the rest of the banda, which splits into brass and woodwinds to comment like Pips on the action, deliciously messing around with the beat a couple times. Tapia’s singing is #3. He’s straightforward but heartfelt, warbling on the high notes but never cloying, leading out of the choruses on a hard-hitting string of syncopated rhymes right into the triumphant focal point of trumpet solo and horn tutti, #4, that feels like road and sky opening up and allowing us to take flight. Which is weird, since for Tapia the sky offers no escape, only a reminder that his lover exists only on his cell phone.

“One Thing” - One Direction

from TSJ:
The one thing I need is energetic young men singing in octaves over major seventh chords and efficient beats. The verses are utter crap — a moratorium, please, on kryptonite/Superman metaphors — so it’s no “I Want It That Way”, but then only a churl would dismiss Mission: Impossible III for failing to attain the heights of Sneakers.

“Springsteen” - Eric Church

from TSJ:
“Every time I think of you, I always catch my breath” … that’d make a lot more sense, but this song isn’t about that song. “That song” — the one that means freedom, lust, masculinity, tattoos, a Jeep, amateur astronomy, and a girl not wanting Eric to go — seems to be “Born In the USA,” which isn’t necessarily weirder than “Jack and Diane” for Kenny Chesney or “Sweet Home Alabama” for Kid Rock. Guitar sounds and unnamed drummers evoke what they will and who can understand the connections? Eric doesn’t try, just as he avoids forcing his specific reverie onto his listeners, sneaking the name of the song into the second verse. As an audio madeleine, “Born In the USA” would seem incongruous to most people, but “Springsteen” the song doesn’t even have to be about Springsteen, really, or sound like him — he’s just big and mythical enough to fade into the scenery of a song whose real subject is a night when every listener was seventeen.

“Dirty Dishes” - Mark Mallman

reminds me of dorky Christian alt-rock from the '80s, though obviously it is not

“Spring of Life” - Perfume
This reminds me of DDR, in that whenever I listen to it I imagine some dude shouting compliments at me for my dancing. Wish fulfillment!

“Country Boy Fresh” - the Lacs
guitar sounds vaguely like "How Bizarre"

“Gente Batallosa” - Calibre 50 ft. Banda Carnaval
Shoup holla! Humongous brass, brawling accordion coming out of the key change.

“Mamireru” - Kimura Kaela
from TSJ:
Either that’s a really long chorus or it’s two choruses battling for supremacy. You’ve got your “HEY let’s go!” chorus and then the chorus where she reaches wistfully for high notes — I say “wistfully” not because I think Kimura Kaela actually feels wistful, but because the tune demands wistfulness, so she checks off her wistfulness box like a station attendant initials the bathroom door. You can tell there’s a verse sandwiched in there because it’s got words (about a rhino and mystery?) but it’s not a chorus. The two different instrumental breaks are also not choruses. Wistfulness is fine and everything, but who’s got time for it?

“Rooster in My Rari” - Waka Flocka Flame
We've all been there. One of the more FX-laden and dizzying songs off his current album, and a single, so hey!


1. Wadada Leo Smith - Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform) (indie, jazz) JAZZ-CLASSICAL MASTERPIECES
PopMatters review at bottom

2. Local H - Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (Slimstyle) (indie) RECESSION ROCK
(from P&J comments submission)
Instead of Japandroids, give me Local H’s Scott Lucas roaring “I smell like a brewery!” while he bounces another check and gets on his dog’s nerves. This all occurs in “Another February”, one of the many funny and/or sad blasts of bullshit-parting off their spectacular new album Hallelujah! I’m a Bum, which I’m hoping other people heard? As duo rock it cuts Japandroids, as recession rock it outdoes Springsteen. The album seized me that increasingly terrible December death week, the one that culminated in Sandy Hook, which still boggles my parental mind if I let it. Until that Friday, it was also a terrible week for many people throughout my various communities in Lake County, IL, coincidentally Local H’s old stomping ground. People just kept dying, making it the worst week ever for handfuls of folks I know, and so by the time Friday rolled around I was grabbing for Local H like they were booze. Lucas’s rage, his ability to be passionately cynical, his taste for beauty and off-putting experimentation all gave me permission to feel sad and angry, like any good catharsis should. (Some of us sicko Pollyanna types need permission, you know.)

Lucas refuses to allow easy answers -- mostly while discussing economics and politics, true, but despair is portable. “Your Superman, he says ‘Yes, we can’” -- hey, I have that guy’s bumper sticker! -- “but we’re grains of sand. We get set free in waves again. Jesus saves again. But no one wises up, so no one will rise up,” blah blah blah, that’s just how it goes and no matter how angry this shit makes you, what are you gonna do? (Maybe arm a bunch of teachers and clap like an idiot seal.*) The election and Obama’s first term showed that our country is riven by enormous philosophical chasms, and death is an enormous chasm, and if you pause to let this stuff boggle your mind, it will. So I admire a band who doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but can still make beauty from that. I’m guessing Local H’s favorite book of the Bible, like mine, is the beautiful existential downer Ecclesiastes. I wonder if Japandroids have read it? ‘Cause it’ll really slow you down, and right now Japandroids are busy with their self-importance, dressing up like hipsters and making fun of their exes. The sooner they learn they’re grains of sand, the better.

*this is unfair, both to the NRA and to idiot seals, who at least don't want to ARM TEACHERS

3. Skrillex - Bangarang (Owsla/Big Beat/Atlantic) (major, dance) BROSTEP
He is a big handful of snot extending a hearty handshake.

4. Taylor Swift - Red (Big Machine) (major, country?) NU-COUNTRYPOLITAN
from PopMatters:
Yes yes, Swift filled this album with a “dubstep” song, a U2-style stadium thing, teen-pop for 22-year-olds, and lots of modern rock. But she also wrote ace story songs about troublesome men, grace, partying, home, and fame’s perils—and they’re the same songs. The skills that brought her country fans she applies to new styles with a master’s ease. Her fanbase still loves her, and why not? She sets the intense break-up ache “All Too Well” beside the euphoric “22”, packs an entire world into each, and instantly beats whole genres at their own games. Her singing has never sounded better or more powerful. Her mopey British duet partners don’t take up too much space, and great songs quickly come along to wash them away. Whether Swift’s nü-countrypolitan remains her m.o., or whether Red ends up a Milsap-gone-disco blip, few musicians are packing this much color, craft, and sheer pleasure into their music.

5. Ja Rule - PIL2 (MPire/700 Hit Season) (indie, rap) EMO RAP
from PopMatters:

Eight years after his last hit, on his own tiny label that only releases mixtapes and Ja Rule albums, it’s fair to say nobody expected greatness from the incarcerated Queens rapper. As they teach you to say in job interview seminars, Ja Rule turns his weaknesses into strengths, crafting a first-rate emo-rap album with producer 7 Aurelius. The rapper spends the album hating his own fame and wondering what constitutes real life (a “Bohemian Rhapsody” sample was denied.) Sometimes he slurs his bark beyond comprehension, giving the whole thing a desperate and confused feel, especially when he starts praying in the middle of his sex jams (for reasons unknown, he also shouts out that wack Nine Days song, “Story of a Girl”.) But things still cut through the murk: the hook singers’ clear voices, the producer’s vivid production touches, and especially Ja Rule’s love of syncopation, making his syllables snap even when he seems to lose his tether to reality.

6. Adrenaline Mob - Omerta (Elm City/EMI) (major, metal) HAIR METAL
Solos are over-the-top, the cover of Duran Duran's "Undone" stomps, and they deploy tropes and arrangement gimmicks like the pros they are.

7. Thousand Foot Krutch - The End Is Where We Begin (TFK) (indie, CCM, metal) CANADIAN CHRISTIAN RAP-ROCK
More post-Rage post-Tool metal dudes fretting aggressively about their Christian walk, only this time they’re white Canadians and one of ‘em raps! None of this bodes well, but wouldn’t you know -- they pull it off. 12 distinctive singalong tunes with chunky riffs and tricky rhythms, and even their cartoonish aggression is endearing. (Just a courtesy call, brah: they get WICKED.) The melodies are catchy and the rapping’s only slightly embarrassing.

8. John Surman - Saltash Bells (ECM) (indie, jazz) NEW AGEY JAZZ
The obvious predecessor is Keith Jarrett's one-man multitracked Spirits, but I also hear a lot of Sonny Sharrock's one-man multitracked Guitar, without the noise but with just as much beauty.

9. Devin Gray - Dirigo Rataplan (Skirl) (indie, jazz) JAZZ
You want your free jazz to swing, get the drummer to lead it. Often sounds like strutting second-line stuff with all sorts of appealing gobbeldygook over the top. The melodies often sound like parodies of "angular" jazz heads.

10. El Doom & the Born Electric - El Doom & the Born Electric (Rune Grammofon) (indie, prog, metal) PROG METAL
Funny, heavy, and hairy.


11. Various Artists - Giant Single: Profile Records Rap Anthology (Profile) (major, rap, reissue) RAP REISSUES
12. Various Artists - The Return of the Stuff That Dreams are Made Of (Yazoo) (indie, country, blues) OLD TIMEY REISSUES
13. Nas - Life Is Good (Def Jam) (major, rap) GROWNUP RAP
14. Heart - Fanatic (Sony/Legacy) (major) CLASSIC ROCK
15. Jerrod Niemann - Free the Music (Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville) (major, country) POST BIG & RICH COUNTRY
16. Waka Flocka Flame - Triple Life (Warner Bros.) (major, rap) SOUTHERN RAP
17. PO PO - Dope Boy Magick (Mad Decent) (indie) SLACKER ROCK
18. Vijay Iyer Trio - Accelerando (ACT) (indie, jazz) PIANO TRIO JAZZ
19. Van Halen - A Different Kind of Truth (Interscope) (major, metal) VAN HALEN

21. Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror (Mom + Pop) (indie) INDIE ROCK
22. The Souljazz Orchestra - Solidarity (Strut) (indie, jazz) HORNY DANCE BANDS
23. Wiley - Evolve Or Be Extinct (Big Dada) (indie, rap) GRIME
24. System of Survival - Needle and Thread (BPitch Control) (indie, dance) MICROHOUSE
25. The Lacs - 190 Proof (Average Joes/Backroad) (indie, country, rap) COUNTRY RAP
26. The Coup - Sorry to Bother You (ANTI-) (indie, rap) COMMIE RAP
27. Various - The Karindula Sessions (Crammed Discs) (indie, African) KARINDULA
28. First Aid Kit - The Lion’s Roar (Wichita) (indie, country) ALT-COUNTRY
29. Damita - Anticipation (Tyscot) (indie, CCM) GOSPEL
30. Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord - No New Tunes (indie, jazz) GUITAR JAZZ SKRONK

31. Todd Terje - It’s the Arps (Smalltown Supersound) (indie, electro) ELECTRO EPS
32. Hillsong Kids Jr. - Crazy Noise! (Hillsong/Sparrow) (major, CCM, children’s) CHRISTIAN KIDDIE MUSIC
33. Third Coast Percussion - John Cage: The Works for Percussion 2 (mode) (indie, classical) CLASSICAL CENTENNIALS
34. Ceremony - Zoo (Matador) (indie) PUNK
35. Flo Rida - Wild Ones (Atlantic) (major, rap, dance) POP RAP
36. Various - WOW Gospel 2012 (Verity) (major, CCM) GOSPEL COMPS
37. Graffiti6 -- Colours (NW Free/Capitol) (major, dance) BRITPOP
38. Batida - Batida (Soundway) (indie, dance, African) KUDURO
39. The Fresh Beat Band - Music From the Hit TV Show (Viacom) (major?) BUBBLEGUM
40. Los Dareyes de la Sierra - Mis Favoritas (Sony Latin) (major, Latin, reissue) NORTENO REISSUES


All those descriptions of “monumental” make sense. Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is first of all BIG: a four-disc 19-track monument to the Civil Rights movement, performed by the 70-year-old Smith on trumpet along with the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble and the latest incarnation of Smith’s Golden Quartet (or Quintet, if two people are drumming). Whenever he can corral them all to perform the thing live, the concert lasts three nights and covers audiences with heaps of music: free improv, modal jazz grooves, and classical composition including (why not?) a string quartet movement. Though bracketed by tributes to Dred Scott and Martin Luther King, Jr., the work is so sprawling it can’t even be constrained by its Civil Rights framework. Songs keep spilling off like free-associative ideas with ungainly titles: “Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press”, “The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times”, and so on. Monuments seek to overwhelm, and Freedom does its best.

Is there precedent in jazz for such a work? Cecil Taylor’s box sets are even bigger, but they lack a connective framework beyond their performance scenarios. Wynton Marsalis has written extended works for large ensembles, notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, but unlike Marsalis, Smith refuses to put too fine a point on his ideas. Freedomforgoes singers, and you never catch it winking at the audience; there’s no Marsalisian pastiche or cutesy humor here. Smith’s music speaks with a statesman’s seriousness. These pieces transform their subjects into musical invention and moods; they’re not literal or programmatic. Freedom‘s closest forebears are contemporary classical pieces—“Creative Music”, the AACM veteran might say—that invite meditation and make their points through abstraction.

This shouldn’t imply that you need a music degree to enjoy it. More than anything, Freedom is about sound: the tangible, physically beautiful sounds of Smith’s imperative trumpet and of different instruments in combination, testing their own limits. Most of the lengthy pieces are split into distinct sonic areas, with each area receiving the spotlight in turn. “The Freedom Riders Ride” (song 10, if you’re keeping track) builds from an uncertain opening, the Quartet scattered and thinking out loud, into a ravishing group improvisation. Anthony Davis’s lush piano chords coexist with stripped-bare dissonances, and tempos shift according to some precise telepathy. Then, four minutes in, an ominous stop-start section tumbles into a blazing free walk, with trumpet, piano, bass and Susie Ibarra’s drums all racing along in the sort of collective freedom that jazz exists to celebrate—beautiful beautiful beautiful. But it doesn’t last. Things fall apart, as things do, to focus on the different instruments—sawing bass, skittering drums—building until another fast walk ends the piece. If lightning-fast swing is the reason you turn to jazz, Freedomhas plenty such passages, but its explorations of space and stillness are just as crucial.

Other indelible moments:

—the fuguelike section in “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless”, where strings, harp, and quartet enter bit by bit and swirl into cacophony;

—in “Buzzsaw”, an aggressive, mournful groove, the contrast of John Lindberg’s bowed bass against propulsive piano, drums, and trumpet;

—in “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954” (whew!), the swinging bass groove that gradually disintegrates over the course of eight minutes;

—the smearing, sliding strings of “Black Church (String Quartet No. 3)”;

—the times that recall Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way”, with Smith’s clear tone soaring over wobbly rhythm section drones, and sometimes fighting against them, in “America, Parts 1, 2 & 3” and “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days”.

For all these and more, credit Smith’s musicians and his compositional methods. Like many modern jazz and classical composers, Smith has developed his own system for organizing improv. He calls it “Ankhrasmation,” a graphic notation that helps musicians coordinate their jumping-off points. While he doesn’t seem to have used that system in Freedom, his goal is similar. Pre-ordained motives move inexorably to moments of spontaneous creation and back again. Even during the slow parts, when the music threatens to crawl to a stop or turn into a hazy Terence Blanchard score, violin and cello and trumpet hold their notes slightly out of tune, vibrato and dissonance beating with portent, and the effect is riveting. Every instrument pops; sound and silences pulse with vitality.

If Freedom resembles a monument, at least in my mind, it’s the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—“just a big piece of modern art on the bank of the river,” a friend once affectionately described it. It’s abstract and even austere, sure, but that only makes it more universally accessible. A short walk from the courthouse where Dred Scott sued for his freedom, the Arch embodies different shades of symbolic meaning. Depending on your sympathies, it can be a soul-stirring paean to Western expansion, a costly reminder of American imperialism, or a fun place to go on a field trip. All sorts of stuff, good and bad, baked into an inverted steel catenary. Freedom lacks the Arch’s simplicity of line, but its takeaways are just as complex. It’s never simply a celebration or a lament, a history lesson or a big piece of modern art. You don’t have to choose, Smith seems to say; this music contains everything.

Freedom is even sort of shaped like the Arch; it climbs to a rarefied peak. The album’s 24-minute centerpiece, “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964”, stretches austere abstraction to its limits, but it contains moments that rival Stravinsky’s famous Rite chord for time-stopping sound, moments you could reach out, touch, crawl inside, and settle down with. It’s quantum music theory: the strum of a harp contains the world. Live with this music long enough and it seeps into the rest of your life. These days I can’t look at Robert Caro’s massive LBJ biography, or even think about America’s elongated battle over health care reform, without hearing the roiling timpani that define “Great Society”, giving voice to slow-motion legislative wars in every age.

Monuments overwhelm, but they do so by speaking to us personally. Like visiting a sacred site or reading Tolstoy or Proust, listening to Freedom is an emotional and intellectual luxury, a chance to commune with greatness. Years after I’d taken my last field trip to the Arch, I graduated from school and moved back to St. Louis, for the first time living on my own in a cramped little apartment. One day I parked at the library and walked to the river, and as the Arch loomed before me I was overcome by emotion. Besides being a symbol of Western expansion, the Arch had become my expansion, at once my freedom and homecoming, my destiny tied to the country’s destiny. Ten Freedom Summers speaks like a great civic monument. In four and a half hours, Wadada Leo Smith writes one of America’s defining events in sound, and the story is all of ours.