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.

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