Monday, February 27, 2012

I Moved!

I started this blog one year ago today. In honor of the occasion, I'm giving it a new home. From now on, you can find my reviews here.

Thanks for reading. See you at the new crib (which is still a work in progress).

Monday, January 9, 2012


If the waning weeks of 2011 hadn’t gotten away from me, I’d have given Girls and Los Campesinos! the full B+ reviews they deserve, but my reservations about both records (Girls made a theoretically admirable move towards Big Rock that led them to the actually tedious land of flutes and seven-minute run times, while the unsurprisingly clever Los Campesinos! album was unsurprising in most other ways too) were serious enough that I decided to include both in this final nod to the year just passed. Elsewhere, The Roots affirm my uneasy feelings about concept albums, but still turn in their second admirable record in as many years; Fallout Boy front man Patrick Stump uses his Micheal Jackson impression to put across some disarmingly articulate songs about pushing 30 in the lower reaches of the 99%; and Coldplay, a band I don't hate on for sport, spends the better part of an hour in search of a memorable tune.

Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (“Honey Bunny,” “Alex,” “Jamie Marie”)
Patrick Stump: Soul Punk (“Run Dry,” “Coast,” “Bad Side of25”)
A$AP Rocky: LiveLoveA$AP (“Wassup,” “Demons”)

Wild Flag: Wild Flag (“Future Crimes,” “Black Tiles”)
Ryan Adams: Ashes & Fire (“Dirty Rain,” “Lucky Now”)
Phonte: Charity Starts at Home (“Everything is Falling Down”)
The Black Keys: El Camino (“Little Black Submarines”)
Florence + the Machine: Ceremonials (“Shake It Out”)
Coldplay: Mylo Xyloto
The Weeknd: Thursday

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

I’m naming 12 albums to my best-of list because there are 12 months in a year, and so it feels like a less arbitrary number than 10, even if it is also less round. Plus, where good music is concerned, more is always more. If you put Wilco at the top of your ballot, you forgo any chance of seeming fashionable (especially if you put them ahead of Frank Ocean and Tune-Yards), but if you’re going to engage in any activity as subjective as ranking the albums released in a given year, listing them in rough order of how much solace you’ve taken in them is the only honest rubric. If you haven’t heard any of these records, I feel qualified in saying that there is one sort of solace or another to be found in each of them.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Das Racist/Drake

To put a rather fine point on it, Drake and Das Racist provide clear examples of the broadening definition of rap: ethnically diverse, liberally educated (two of the three members of Das Racist met while they were undergrads at Wesleyan), and, in Drake’s case, confessional in a way that would have led to some name-calling a decade ago. If the Das Racist guys are smarter (they are), it would still take a fool to deny the pleasures of Drake, superficial though they may sometimes be. 

Das Racist: Relax
“But are they serious?” That’s the question that’s dogged this Brooklyn crew since they dropped their exceptionally daffy—and brilliant—single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” in 2008. The mix tapes they gave away two years later didn’t necessarily settle the debate, and the less-than-rapturous reaction to their first for-profit LP suggests many have stopped caring altogether, which is a serious shame. Indian-American Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) uses his first verse here to share the story of his immigrant parents: “1980, from Delhi to Queens/She had a pocket full of lint/He had a suitcase full of dreams/From holdin' me to bagging groceries at the Pathmark/To scoldin' me for drinking and driving in fast cars.“ Then a promise: “I ain’t backin’ out until I own a bank to brag about.” We’ve come a long way from the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Heems, along with fellow Indian-American Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dap) and Cuban/Italian/African-American Victor Vazquez (you can call him Kool A.D.), are so self-aware and hyper-informed about the world around them that their apparent contradictions and bone-deep irony sound like honest reactions to information overload. They say Urban Dictionary is for “demons with college degrees,” but make fun of themselves for all the poetry readings and jam band shows they attended at Wesleyan long before you have the chance to. Along they way, they prove that hip-hip is now as much the province of those places—not to mention the posh dorm room—as the ‘jects, even if they would roll their eyes at me for being so earnest about it. What does it all mean? Here’s a clue: “If you wanna be me, you can be me/…you can look all day but you still wouldn’t see me/If you wanna be you, you can do that too/And if you don’t, then I don’t really know what I can tell you.” Call it alternative rap or psychedelic rap or meta rap or whatever hashtag you can think of. Just don’t call it a joke. A-

Drake: Take Care
I don’t begrudge Drake’s apprehensions about his own fame and fortune; I wish I had his problems, but I’m sure I’d find plenty to gripe about in the life he leads. I don’t even get annoyed when he drunk dials his ex to tell her how all the sex he’s having is hurting his soul; that nakedly pathetic Hail Mary is the most compelling moment here. Drake—along with Kanye West—is a hip-hop confessor who pays little regard to the understood musical definition of ‘hip-hop.’ But because he’s not exactly what you’d call deep, his musical vision is a whole lot more engaging than his take on himself. The words ‘head case’ come up a lot in conversations about Drake, but his stakes are penny ante even before the Kanye comparisons he begs for and suffers by. The good news is that this follow-up to last year’s Thank Me Later never sounds anything less than terrific. Rapping and singing better than ever, getting the most out of his Toronto pal The Weeknd, and co-opting snippets of songs by Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and—on the title tracka Jamie xx remix of a Gil Scott-Heron cover of an R&B classic made famous by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Drake makes the case for the aficionado as artist. His taste and skill are plain throughout, and the beats he gets from his go-to producer Noah “40” Shebib are luxurious. I just wish all the above made as strong a case for Drake's soul as it does his ear. B+ 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Wilco/Joe Henry/Tom Waits

ANTI- distribution deals aside, these three are united by a warped take on Americana that, on the evidence below, just keeps on giving. If you thought the last couple Wilco albums contained some very good songs, but that Jeff Tweedy wasn’t using the excellent musicians around him as well as he could, this one’s for you. And if Joe and Tom don’t arrive with quite as many surprises this time around, know that there’s a difference between a rut and a groove.

Wilco: The Whole Love
You’ll be hard pressed to find a review of Wilco’s eighth album that doesn’t fixate on the stunners that bookend it. You may have heard less about the excellent songs that lie between “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning.” Not since the acrimonious departure—and, then, untimely death—of Tweedy foil Jay Bennett has a Wilco album sounded so much like a team effort. Nels Cline still shreds plenty, but where his guitar work once seemed designed to leap out from the arrangement every time one of Tweedy’s tunes was in need of a bailout—see: Sky Blue Sky—it’s now as likely to slink as thrash. The return to prominence of John Stirratt’s bass lines, meanwhile, may serve to remind us why he is the lone original member of Wilco besides Tweedy who remains in the band 16 years after A.M. For the first time in its history, Wilco has gone three straight albums without a lineup change, and whether or not constancy among musicians is what makes this one such a success, constancy has always been at the heart of what Tweedy does. “It’s all one song,” Neil Young famously admonished a heckler who told him all his songs sounded the same. Like Young, Tweedy is an artist with an emotional through-line, more felt than articulated, that unifies his work regardless of stylistic diversion. Here as ever, he is pushing down his own road, toward the place where you don’t have to feel so distant, and can stop telling lies for love. Those journeys are easier when the band's got your back. A

Joe Henry: Reverie
I am so sympathetic to Joe Henry’s worldview that I’m inclined to let him go on for hours without asking too many questions. By my count, he has made three masterpieces, and I wish I could say this was one of them. After two albums of craft and formalism, Henry aims for immediacy: surrounding himself with terrific musicians he wouldn’t presume to micromanage, he presses record and shouts go. The music, a shambling jazz-folk that happens before your ears, is thrilling. Likewise, Henry’s lyrical sketches of life lived moment-to-moment are just right for an album so concerned with the experience—not just the passage, but the experience—of time. The problem is that Henry has become such a poetic writer he occasionally trips on his own language; a lyric like “I dig in the dirt/and yank at the root/of a shadow’s dark vein/in a story gone mute” rhymes real nice, and is so fussy it only affirms my belief that poets and songwriters have very different jobs. He lands on the right side of that line far more often than the wrong one, but he spends enough time on the line itself to make me wonder what happened to the iconoclast who once professed a desire to work with Dr. Dre. That’s an affront to dignified taste I hope comes to pass. For now, I’m thankful for any album that ends with poetry as unfussy as this: “I’m an hour from arriving/and three from where I rose to go/and maybe two from where I’ll find you/between the world and all I know.” Maybe, just maybe, time has come today. A-

Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Now 61, Tom Waits is writing with an urgency the whippersnappers who worship him should envy, and then learn from. The music on his 17th studio album admittedly won’t send anyone to the thesaurus in search of fresh adjectives, but the songs themselves are as generous as ever, and more timely than those who accuse Waits of shtick have likely bothered to notice. “Hell Broke Luce” continues a string of anti-war songs—begun with 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” and deepened with 2006’s “The Road To Peace”—no current songwriter young enough to fight can touch; “Talking At The Same Time” details chaos with disarming calm; and “New Year’s Eve” uses “Auld Lang Syne” to express the weary hopes of the downtrodden even better than Waits’ own “A Sight For Sore Eyes,” a song written a generation ago in rock years. Speaking of which, the most extreme moment of beauty on the album happens when Keith Richards himself shows up to harmonize on “Last Leaf,” a survivor’s song that manages to be weary and noble and funny all at the same time. A-

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shabazz Palaces/The Weeknd

The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye and Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler have stoked almost as much interest for their reclusiveness (both released their music anonymously before becoming big things, though Butler had a former public life with Digable Planets) as the shadowy R&B and hip-hop that dominate their highly celebrated records. Black Up, which follows two Shabazz EPs from 2009, is the first hip-hop album ever released by Seattle's Sub Pop label. House of Balloons is The Weekend's debut mix tape, and Tesfaye has already released a second in the time it’s taken me to get around to reviewing it. I'll let the grade below stand for both.

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
Ishmael Butler makes his intentions known less than a minute into Shabazz Palaces' debut LP: “I run on feelings/Fuck your facts.” That’s a good mantra for a record that favors the physical experience of music—beats that shift and crack and splinter—over the intellectual. That's not to say the words aren’t important; it's that Butler uses them to direct you back to the music, or at least discourage you from parsing the two things separately. He and cohort Tendai Maraire are more interested in creating one long, immersive experience than they are in individual songs, which may be why they have titles as unwieldy as “A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis (1000 Questions, 1 Answer).” You're supposed to let the whole thing, and all the feelings Butler and Maraire pack it with, wash over you. Those feelings peak on “Recollections of the Wrath,” when Butler raps “With that starlight in your eyes/you want to find surprise/With the neon in your blood/you move to find your love/tonight.” He hits the ‘tonight’ hard, word and beat working together, as if to ask what you're waiting for. A-

The Weeknd: House of Balloons
Call me a puritan, but anyone who begins his record with what sounds an awful lot like a date rape, then has the stones to end it with a wronged-man ballad, makes me feel gross. Weeknd mastermind Abel Tesfaye is a Canadian R&B guy whose principle concerns are designer drugs, designer women, and the clearest path to obtaining both at once. Unbridled hedonism has its place, and sometimes the biggest creeps make the most compelling music, but Tesfaye is too shallow to generate anything besides atmosphere. His sound is as edgy and paranoid as a morning after, and if he weren’t so mean-spirited, his songs would work as something besides background music. I don't doubt for a moment that this would sound great in a club—a cavernous one, with the bass so loud you can barely hear the words. B-

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Same format as the last time, with some surprising names falling in the avoid column. Laura Marling improved a quantum on her second album, and the Joni Mitchell-lite of her third is a letdown I didn’t see coming. Speaking of letdowns, Lil Wayne’s turgid post-prison comeback album—for me, the most disappointing of the year—doesn’t even sound like the work of the same freewheeling genius who gave us all those free mix tapes a few years back. Notable from the consider column: Steves Merritt (his album a collection of outtakes) and Malkmus (his a proper studio album) honor if not improve their own legacies, Bill Callahan’s pomo folk both impresses and grates, and truly evocative singers Feist and St. Vincent still leave me wanting more in the song department.

Stephin Merritt: Obsucrities (“Forever and a Day,” “Plant White Roses,” “Take Ecstasy With Me”)

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Mirror Traffic (“Brain Gallop,” “Forever 28,” “Fall Away”)

Cymbals Eat Guitars: Lenses Alien (“Definite Darkness,” “Another Tunguska”)

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (“Drover,” “Baby’s Breath”)

Feist: Metals (“Graveyard,” “A Commotion”)

Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge (“City of Refuge”)

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (“Champagne Year”)

Matraca Berg: The Dreaming Fields (“South of Heaven”)

Laura Marling: A Creature I Don’t Know

M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Earl Sweatshirt: EARL

Lil Wayne: Tha Carter IV