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.