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march 2016

3.1.16
I picked up a bunch of records recently, some because they were on sale for cheap and some because I've been meaning to pick them up for a while. They include Television's Adventure, the Go-Gos' Beauty and the Beat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome, M.I.A.'s Arular, and Vince Staples' Summertime '06.

I've been tempted by Vince Staples for a while now, but I've never broght myself to pull the trigger. There are some parts I really like when listening to the previews, and some that really don't do anything for me, so I have a feeling it's going to take a few listens before I know how I feel about it.



3.2.16
I know this is a probably considered a crime in many circles, but I think I like Television's sophomore album, Adventure, better than their classic debut Marquee Moon. In general, the songs are more straightforward and remind me a bit more of the Velvet Underground. And within seconds of hearing it, "Glory" became my favorite Televsion song, and it has remained that way through multiple listens of Adventure and a revisiting of Marquee Moon just to be sure.

The striking thing about both these albums is their relatively brevity at only eight songs each. I know in the age of the CD and then the digital album, we've gotten used to bloated tracklists of 14 songs or more, but even for the late 70s eight songs was pretty brief (even if muscially the records ended up having as many minutes of content because the song lengths on these records was a bit longer than average).



3.3.16
When I finally convinced myself to buy M.I.A.'s Kala last year (when it was on sale at a deep discount), I instantly liked it and also instantly regretted not buying it sooner. The same has turned out to be true for the album that preceded it, her debut record titled Arular.

It doesn't have that one single that instantly blows me away like "Paper Planes" (which I understand gets a lot of its appeal from the fact that it borrows from One of the Greatest Songs Ever), but it's got the same weird mix of global sounds crossed with hip hop production and beats, and sheer, almost studied whimsy crossed with a bored indifference. It's just as listenable as Kala, if not quite as mature in its style. Well worth a $5 investment, especially if at least one of the tracks makes it into my regular rotation for my runs.



3.4.16
Until I saw it on sale at Amazon for $5, I don't think I'd listened to or even much thought about Frankie Goes to Hollywood's debut album, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, since the first couple of years after it was originally released in 1984. But man oh man did I listen to that record a lot during that time, especially on long car rides.

It had a lot of appeal to where I was in my life at that time (just entering my teenage years), from the literary references (the title song is a retelling of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" poem, which I was obsessed with for both its content and the story behind how it came into being) to being something I was absolutely sure that my parents and teachers wouldn't want me listening to (in that respect it had a common bond with another album released that year, Prince's seminal Purple Rain).

At the time, it didn't seem any more or less unusual than a lot of the other material I was discovering, but listening to it now, it's a completely bonkers record (in a good way): the title track is a meandering (but very listenable) thirteen minutes long; it has a ton of covers that hearken back to the days of British music from childhoods of the parents who wanted this record banned while their kids were adoring it; it covers Springsteen's "Born to Run" just about as well as I've ever heard it covered, which I totally didn't remeember and wouldn't have expected from an early 80s British dance band that trafficked in sexual ambiguity; it's chock full of ballads that in the hands of a band like Simply Red could have been monster hits; and it closes with a manic organ coda with a voice that sounds like Ronald Reagan intoning "Frankie say" over cymbal crashes and somewhat random percussion.

And I adore it all the more now given just how improbably it is that a record like this ever got made, much less became a smash hit. The music holds up surprisingly well, especially if you were a fan way back when, but I think I love it more now for the sheer craziness it brings to the table.



3.7.16
The Go-Gos were a band that I was far too cool to like at the time becuase everyone else instantly liked them, and so I never owned Beauty and the Beat even though I was smack in the middle of the demographic that went crazy for it.

But I've gotten over my fear of 80s pop bands that, with a little bit different turn of fate coule have ended up the critical favorites who never crossed over to the mainstream rather than the ones that dominated the airwaves (I have a real appreciation for some of the weirder things that Tom Petty and the Cars were doing that borrowed from the same sources as bands like Wire and Talking Heads), so when I saw Beauty and the Beat on Amazon for $5, I didn't hesitate to pick it up.

It's shockingly good——and not just the hits, either (although "We've Got the Beat" and "Our Lips Are Sealed" are definitely two of the stronger numbers). It's not a mystery why this record was such a big hit, but rather the puzzle is why there weren't two or three other hit singles culled from it ("How Much More" and "Can't Stop the World" would be my top picks). I used to think that bands like Sarge and Chumped were indebted almost solely to Joan Jett, but it's clear that the Go-Gos had an equal (or greater) influence on them.



3.8.16
I've been a big fan of Thao Nguyen (who releases her albums under the name Thao and the Get Down Stay Down) since her charming debut came out back in 2007. Since then her sound has evolved somewhat, becoming gradually more oriented around a slinkier groove and away from the twee pop of her earlier work, but I've remained a fan throughout because of the ineffable Thao-ness that permeates her work.

Her most recent, A Man Alive, was just released last week, so I haven't had a lot of time to absorb it yet, but while there aren't many weak tracks on it, neither are there any immediate killers, and overall the effort seems more subdued and less ambitious than her earlier albums. It's not on the level of Eleanor Friedberger's latest, which is so satisfied that it leaves virtually no impression at all, but I'm wondering if Thao has finally gotten comfortable enough in her own skin as an artist that she's not pushing herself as hard as she used to.

I'll spend a lot more time with this album before I render any kind of final judgment, but I've always been quite taken with her songwriting on each record so far, and this one's just not grabbing me the same way.



3.9.16
Vince Staples. Summertime '06. If you like any rap or hip hop at all and you don't already have this record, go and get it right now. It's kind of hard to describe, but this is easily the most accomplished debut in this genre since Kanye West's The College Droput.

Not that he's on the same musical spectrum as Kanye——I actually don't know how to describe his beats and his overall atmosphere other than to say that there's an awful lot of Massive Attack creeping around the low end and in the spare, skittering treble side of the percussion (I can pretty easily map the song "Mezzanine" on top of Staples' "Norf Norf", which is the signature track from this album), something that seems so obvious in retrospect that I can't believe it hasn't been done before.

Lyrically there's a lot of early Kendrick Lamar, where you can't tell if he's telling you first person stories or pretending to be an amalgamated character of people he's known (or both), but his voice is much more authoritative and confident that Lamar was on his first record. It's still sort of astonishing to me when a record like this (and it's a double album to boot) appears out of thin air instead of a few albums into an artist's career, but let's hope this is just the beginning of an arc that he's going to ride to even greater heights.



3.10.16
M83 shared a track from their upcoming new release Junk titled "Do It, Try It":

I've been waiting for a new record from Anthony Gonzalez for a long time, but I don't know how I feel about this track. At best, it sounds like a mediocre track from any number of contemporary indie electronic/dance artists; at worst, it sounds like something that even a 70s prog rock outfit would have been too embarrassed to release.

This doesn't augur well for the new album, but I'm certainly going to give this song and the whole record a few chances based on his track record.



3.11.16
Beth Orton will be releasing Kidsticks in May, her first album since 2012's Sugaring Season, and she recently shared a track from it titled "Moon":

I've grown increasingly disinterested in Orton's work as she's drifted more towards bland, traditionally-inspired folk and away from her early collaborations with electronic producers like William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, but this sounds like more of a return to that early sound. It's definitely much more electronic than any of her stuff since the turn of this century, and it's coproduced by Fuck Buttons' Andrew Hung, which seems to be the likely source of this new direction.

I'm going to have to hear a lot more like this before purchasing the album, but this is far and away the most interesting track she's created in more than a decade.



3.14.16
Peter Bjorn and John are releasing a new album, Breakin' Point, and have shared a new song from that record called "What You Talking About?":

I was in love with Writer's Block, but the follow up, Living Thing, didn't do anything for me, and the record after that, Gimme Some, never even made it onto my radar. So even though in my mind, I think of myself as a Peter Bjorn and John fan, the evidence says maybe not really.

This song doesn't make me want to rush out and buy this record, but I'll at least give it a listen. I don't know if they'll ever recapture the charm of Writer's Block, but I know myself, and I'll never give up on that dream no matter how many times they disappoint me.



3.15.16
PJ Harvey has a new record coming out in April called The Hope Six Demolition Project, and last month she shared a track from the record called "The Wheel":

This reminds me a lot of her sound from Is This Desire? and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, but also has some commonalities with her last record, Let England Shake——and those three records happen to be three of my favorites from Harvey, so I'm feeling good about this new record.

She has a tendency to drift off of my playlists in the long stretches between new releases, but I have no idea why that happens——there are very few weak spots in her catalog, and she's one of the most consistent and consistently interesting artists of the past 20 years.



3.16.16
Bob Mould's recent run of albums that return to the sounds of his early post-Hüsker career looks like it's going to continue with the upcoming Patch the Sky, and Mould recently shared another track from that record called "The End of Things":

The first song he shared from the record, "The Voices in My Head", very distinctly reminded me of the acoustic-tinged sound of his first solo outing, Workbook, but this track is definitely more in the realm of Sugar's intense EP Beaster. Both tracks are great in their own way, especially if you're a longtime Mould fan, and it's great to see him staying on track with what he does best after some lost years in the first decade of the 21st century.



3.17.16
I thought Animal Collective were starting to run out of ideas a couple of albums ago, but then they surprised me by finding new life in the same basic principles with 2012's Centipede Hz, so I was expecting more greatness from them with Painting With, especially given the four year break from recording, the longest they've taken in their career (although individual members continued with solo and outside projects during that time).

There are some good songs on here, and although I've never seen them live, I'm actually going to see them twice on this tour (once when I'm in Atlanta and then a few days later in DC, where I'll be for a conference), and that may give me a new perspective on some of the new songs. But this is the fist album of theirs that I haven't returned to repeatedly in the weeks after first hearing it, and I'm just not that intrigued by what I've heard so far on this one.



3.17.16
So after weeks of messing with us, Kanye West now seems to be saying that the only way his fans will ever legally hear his new album The Life of Pablo is if they subscribe to the Tidal music service, which is owned by his friend and business partner Jay-Z.

Part of me doesn't really believe this, but if that's the case, then I guess that means I won't be hearing this record. Which kind of sucks——My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus were his two most brilliant works, made all the more impressive individually by how different they were from one another, and I really wanted to hear where he would go next.

Yes, he's a very irritating individual (and the marriage to Kim Kardashian a few years ago sure didn't help make him any less so), to the point where it's sometimes hard to separate the public persona from the music and the artist making that music, but he's been the most consistently innovative and consistently great mainstream music artist since his debut in 2004, and it's almost unforgiveable of him to leverage and manipulate his fans just to help out another one of Jay-Z's moneymaking schemes (which, if history is any guide, he will ditch as soon as he can find a sucker to pay him five times what it's actually worth, epecially once it's separated from his brand).

We'll see how this plays out, but after weeks of delays and changing tracklists, titles, release dates, and release platforms, I've just about had it with this record before I've heard a single note of it.



3.21.16
M83 recently shared a second track from Junk, this one called "Solitude":

I like this one better than "Do It, Try It", which was shared a couple of weeks ago, but that's not necessarily an endorsement. I've always needed to take their albums as a whole, often finding only one or two standalone tracks but usually liking the album as a whole, and this definitely sounds like one of the tracks that I wouldn't single out for a shuffle playlist but which might make sense in the context of the songs around it.

Still, I was hoping for at least one killer single to be released before the album to give me some hope. I'll definitely be listening to this one a couple of times before deciding whether to buy it.



3.22.16
I've got a new obsession: Bent Shapes' Wolves of Want, which I've listened to a dozen times in my first 48 hours of ownership. Yes, it certainly helps that the record is only about half an hour long, but still, that's a lot of listens in a short amout of time for a band that wasn't even on my radar a week ago.



3.23.16
I have a weakness for charmingly lo-fi indie pop, and when I stumbled across the Goon Sax, a trio from Australia whose frontman, Louis Forster, is the son of the leader of cult favorites the Go-Betweens, I immediately fell for them. Their debut album is called Up to Anything (which is the Aussie version of the American phrase "up for anything"), and I ended up picking it up the week it was released.

There's not a particular song I can point you to as the best track on the album, or one that your going to find something worthwhile in if you don't share my affection for this kind of shuffling, almost shy music made for what I suspect is a mostly adolescent audience, but the title track and "Sweaty Hands" are probably two of the more distinctive ones. The songs focus on the agonizing minutiae of pubescent life, like getting a bad haircut, having to talk on the phone, and having sweaty hands when you want to hold hands with a girl, which makes them all the more charming to someone like me.

I like the feigned indifference that's masking the embarrassment of really caring in Forster's voice compared to his bandmates James Harrison and Riley Jones (all three band members contribute songs), but the other two only have a few songs, and they end up providing a nice balance and contrast with Forster in the context of listening to the album as a whole. Having three songwriters in a trio typically leads to problems down the road if the band stays together, especially when there's a clear frontman, but for right now they really make it work, and there's not a noticeable difference in the quality of the songs at this point.

If I was still actually a teenager, this would have been one of those albums that I would have obsessed over privately and wouldn't have wanted to share with anyone but my best friend or a girl I had a crush on (who would inevitably not share my love for it or even particularly like me), but as someone solidly in middle age, in mostly appeals to me because it reminds me of my more awkard, shyer years——I have real affection for that kid even though his way of dealing with the world is very different from how I approach life as a husband and father. Some of the best parts of who I was and who I've become are rooted in the person I was then, and any record that reminds me of those qualities in myself is going to have a special place in my hears.



3.24.16
Okay, now that I've had a couple of weeks to sit with it, I'm just as enamored of Thao's A Man Alive as I am of all her previous records. It's definitely got a different feel, with a slinkier groove and hesitating beats that make you wait an achingly sweet moment for the payoff, but it's still her, and it's still pretty brilliant.

The one misstep for me is "Meticulous Bird" (which might be my favorite of her song titles): it's chorus is a sing-songy repetition of "Why deny?" that is a dead ringer for a very annoying song from GoNoodle that my five year old son listens to that uses the nonsence phrase "Pop See Koo" instead of "Why deny?", but otherwise the choruses for the two songs are exactly the same. I can't listen to "Meticulous Bird" without hearing that song, and I really, really hate that song (as does everyone above age seven).



3.25.16
The same day I bought the Goon Sax's debut full length, I also picked up the introductory EP of another young Australian band named Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. The EP is titled Talk Tight, and the songs reference late 80s alt guitar pop (there was more than one track that reminded me immediately of the Pastels and the Reivers).

It will be interesting to see how/if their sound evolves on their inevitable full length, but I'm intrigued by the EP enough to hope that their debut isn't just adding a few more songs to this collection but is a batch of entirely new tunes that build on what they're sharing with us here.

My main criticism is that they are already showing a proclivity for making the songs longer than necessary——most of the tracks on here would be much more satisfying if they ended around the 3 minute mark instead of the 4-5 minutes that they all take (the shortest song is 3:47). Unnecessary tangents and filler guitar solos are what kill many of the songs for the Wave Pictures (a band that I nonetheless have a serious weak spot for)——like that band, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have a great moment in almost every song, but they tend to wander off from it and dilute its power.



3.28.16
I don't know what happened to the Thermals. The first thing I owned from them was there unquestioned masterpiece, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, and from there I picked up their messier, less focused, but more endearing record that preceded Body, Fuckin A. The follow up to Body, Now We Can See, was a worthy successor, but there was a serious dropoff after that: 2010's Personal Life was listless and unispiring, and the three year gestation that produced 2013's Desperate Ground improved the energy but not the songcraft.

It's taken another three years to create their latest, We Disappear, a title that could be dangerously prophetic for a band that seems to have lost its way. Many of the songs have the same heaviness that was present on their last release, the unispired Desperate Ground (another omninous title for a band seeking to regain its form), which makes the songs seem to drag on for longer than they actually are (most tracks clock in at under three minutes, and some just barely over two, but many of them feel like four minutes or more).

Still, I initially like this better than any of their prior two releases, so while it's far from a return to the heyday of Body and Now We Can See, it's the first sign of improvement this decade, and there's a part of me that thinks these songs would be better in a live performance, where the band would almost have to play them with more energy than they've managed to capture in the studio (something that wasn't a problem on their early releases).

The hooks are still there, and therefore the potential is still there for these songs to be great, but there's a key ingredient missing from the recording process that's really holding them back.



3.29.16
Bob Mould has been on a quite a roll since 2012, when he released his first decent record since the 1990s, The Silver Age, followed two years later by another disc, Beauty and Ruin, that accompanied his autobiography and also hearkened back to his strong work with Sugar and as a solo artist in the early to mid 90s.

It's been another two years, and he's back with another solid effort in Patch the Sky, which might be the most ambitious and diverse entry in his late-career renaissance. There's nothing here you haven't heard echoes of in his earlier work, but it's all echoes of his best work, and it's not tired retreads but new, fresh takes on the sound and style that I loved about this strongest releases.

Opener "Voices in My Head" wouldn't be out of place on his very first solo outing, the subtle and brilliant Workbook, but it's followed by "The End of Things", a rager that wouldn't be out of place amongst Sugar's most blistering tracks or Mould's brutal Sheets of Black Rain. And virtually every track pulls this trick, making you not only think about where in the best moments of his career this track would fit, but also making you wonder if this might be better than the songs you're comparing it to.

In four short years Mould has resurrected his career in a way that was unthinkable after his disastrous series of releases in the early 2000s, and there's no reason to believe that he's running out of steam after three albums.



3.30.16
PJ Harvey shared another song from her upcoming new album a couple of weeks ago, this one titled "The Community of Hope":

This is one of her more overly political songs (and indeed, it has attracted the ire of right wing politicians in the US), but this is just a great little song that gets me really excited for this record.



3.31.16
In the absence of any way to hear Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, I finally did what most of the rest of the world had already done and downloaded it from a torrent sharing site, promising myself that if he ever does make it purchasable, I will dutifully pony up for an official copy. The problem: now that I've actually heard it, I'm not sure I would actually want to pay for it.

There's only one Kanye album that I don't actually like and that has very few individual songs that I want to listen to, and that's 808s and Heartbreak. Otherwise, his output has been remarkable in its high quality, especially given how much he hops around and tries out different styles and influences.

And while this record is certainly stronger than Heartbreak, I don't think it's anywhere near as good as his last two, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the blistering Yeezus. It has its moments, certainly, but what's shocking is how absent Kanye himself seems to be from the proceedings. He's frequently worked with many collaborators on his albums before, but he's never faded into the background the same way he does here, and especially compared to Yeezus, where he was front and center with no other voices competing for time, it's a radical change, and not one for the better.

For example: the opening track, "Ultralight Beam", is one of my early favorites, but Kanye is surrounded by a gospel choir from the very beginning, and their presence grows as the song proceeds, eventually giving way to solos by gospel singers Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price and fellow hip hop artist Chance the Rapper. And unlike previous collaborative efforts, where Kanye always made sure he was the star, it's really Chance, both with his sung verses and his rap, who ends up stealing the show and making the track as memorable as it is.

I don't know. I'm sure I'm going to spend more time with this record, and I know that part of my reaction is due to my annoyance with his public persona in the run up to this album's release and his annoying and frustrating choices about when and how to release it after weeks of broken promises. But I also know, even if I grow to like this one more, it's just not as good as his last two records, especially given that he worked on this one much longer than he's worked on any previous release.