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MINDLESS SELF INDULGENCE - If (The End Records) [Apr. 26th, 2008|07:16 pm]
It's strange being more or less able to hear myself think while listening to an MSI album. Not a terrible thing, though, and MSI are still heaven-sent if you've ever wondered, say, what Britney Spears' personal life would sound if like set to music by someone who wasn't trying to sell records to Britney's audience. They're still intensely trashy, antic and (sonically) vicious, but no longer all at once all the time. And they're catchy again. I wish I could stop there and just put this on repeat.

But in a few of these songs Jimmy Urine runs bady afoul of the fact that a male misanthrope who writes songs about women has about five ways to sound like a misogynist fuckwad, and with limited context (i.e. not knowing the guy personally) I can't tell the difference between

#1: Writing songs whose point is to make you look like a creep (playing with audience/performer relationship)

#2: Meaning to reclaim the whole idea of hostility as being about you, not about whoever you shout at (though this can segue into "Hey, I'm just expressing myself" which is usually a veil for #5)

#3: Just wanting to push people's buttons

#4: Expecting people to realize you have just as much contempt for men

#5: Actually being a misogynist fuckwad

We suspect from past MSI records that Urine's feelings about people he hates and/or thinks of only as sex objects are complex and interesting and probably forgivable. But we also suspect from those records that he can weave lyrics a little tighter than "You wouldn't take no for an answer you fucking BITCH". That the thread in question is dayglo and looks like it can't possibly hold weight is beside the point, because he's done it before.

MySpace, with whole album streaming

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BEANS - Thorns (Adored & Exploited) [Apr. 21st, 2008|07:23 pm]
If it's true, as he says in one song, that Beans spent two straight years on tour "damn near homeless" because he got kicked out of his house for constantly cheating with women he met on tour... well, he seems to regret it, but it's pretty obvious how well it might suit him. A self-reinforcing closed loop that outputs opportunities for Mr. B to fuck and rap is exactly the habitat you'd expect to find a robot Beans occupying in 2108's hip-hop museum; give him points for realizing he might have made mistakes (and more points for drawing a connection between his father's early death from cancer and his own more self-inflicted disappearance from his daughter's life), but there's no repentance here. The gist of Beans' lyrics has always been "HEY I AM BEANS CHECK IT OUT", and perhaps that constant repetition has made him realize that he's stuck with himself.

(In the context of all that, you have to give him a pass on the record's one entirely forgettable song: "MVP", where he sappily addresses a (new?) beloved and confesses that the song was "the hardest to write". Fair enough.)

So I like Thorns, but even with a softer side showing, Beans hasn't calmed down at all; his forceful delivery can wear out a listener fast, making all his metaphors about the physical harm that his mic skills do to his rivals unfortunately vivid. And yet I started writing this post meaning it to be positive. At the very least I'm impressed. Beans is a difficult listen and yet it never seems that way while his music is playing. Like I said, self-contained.

MySpace page

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THE PAPER CRANES - Halcyon Days (Unfamiliar Records) [Apr. 21st, 2008|02:57 pm]
Panic At The Disco have been getting some good press for releasing an album of power pop, with the supposed grounding that this is unexpected. I don't understand it. When early modern "emo" band The Promise Ring turned out to be a power-pop band, I read reviews claiming it was surprising. When Fall Out Boy's label Decaydance signed The Hush Sound, who turned out to be a power-pop band, I read reviews claiming it was surprising. And suddenly I'm drawing a blank on all the other times this has happened, but seriously, am I missing some part of my brain that would make any of this even slightly weird?

Anyway, the particular bouncy piano + drum schtick that drives most of this Paper Cranes record may be part of the problem. (I think it's just banging the same chord every beat while the drummer accents the 2 and 4, but I'm not sure. I JUST KNOW IT WHEN I HEAR IT.) There's still something slightly incongruous about anyone scruffy or hostile riding this style, and maybe that's the sort of thing the critics respond to.

On Halcyon Days the Paper Cranes pull two other genre exercises-- the Clash-dubby "Horse Track" and the New Order/Cure/whatever pastiche "Middle Class Guilt". I react almost involuntarily to the signifiers in that last one: the bass prominently carrying a melody, the ice-water synth strings, the racing cymbals during the chorus (that last one maybe from playing too much Rock Band); I'm actually kind of glad it doesn't add up to much, lest I like it just enough to feel conflicted about ultimately disliking it.

It all just makes me sad in a similar way to when, in the course of my elementary-school-age self reconstructing the timeline of the prior few decades of pop culture, I realized that Grease and Happy Days weren't actually from the 50s. Reuse of culture is great, but with the Paper Cranes (and so many other bands) I get the feeling they know the difference between collage and Mad Libs, and prefer Mad Libs.

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AESOP ROCK - Float (Mush, 2001; first heard 2000) [Mar. 23rd, 2008|12:35 am]
The record that got me into hip-hop. The whole thing sounds thing; both Blockhead's beats (more skillful than Aes Rock's own, I realize) and the man's voice, which I had never consciously noticed is double-tracked for, like, most of the album. More than anything else, the fact that he's constantly chorusing with himself makes it all feel very homemade, and knowing that Aesop Rock would succeed, have a nervous breakdown, and then succeed even more gives these lyrics about trying to live for your art (and the ones about doing nothing all day) a kick they didn't used to have. Plus it takes a few albums' worth of practice as a listener before you can tell what his point is anyway.

I am now totally unsurprised he ended up working with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

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AIR MIAMI - me. me. me. (Teenbeat, 1995) [Mar. 22nd, 2008|10:06 pm]
Even now, knowing what to expect, I find the kinds of music Mark Robinson and Bridget Cross played in Air Miami to be confusing when not found in large homogenous blocks. The mix of jumpy, rhythmic indie rock sung by Mark and spacy pop sung by Bridget still doesn't jell across the album as a whole. But it's easier to see (especially with my current drum-centric perspective) how the rhythm section was the whole point even when the drums weren't mixed super-loud, so I appreciate "Neely" and "Sweet As A Candy Bar" a lot more than before. Also unchanged: I like Robinson best as a prankster, but have never been able to elucidate at whose expense his pranks come, nor why they're funny. Also also unchanged: The moments of New Order homage ring no less true now that sounding like New Order is nothing special.
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WHY? - Alopecia (Anticon) [Mar. 22nd, 2008|12:47 am]
Why?'s last album, Elephant Eyelash, left songwriter Yoni Wolf hanging from an artistic cliff. The Pavement homage "Sanddollars" was the sort of pop song people kidnap musicians in order to force them to write more of at gunpoint, and the rest was assembled so nimbly that any time it jelled, Wolf seemed to have access to huge undiscovered veins of musical possibility. But the parts which didn't come together proved he didn't actually know where the treasure was buried, and worse, it sounded like he had a whole lot of raw misery he wanted to unload in his music but couldn't-- at least, he couldn't do it with the skill he brought to wistfully celebratory jams like "Sanddollars" and "Rubber Traits". How, I wondered, would he ever get out of this one?

And then, with a single mighty leap...

So for one thing, Wolf has obviously made his peace with the fact that a nasal-voiced absurdist rapper who tries to fuse his existing style with indie rock is going to end up sounding like John Linnell a couplet away from getting booed offstage at the Scribble Jam. That's life. It never bothered me.

There isn't a single track on Alopecia that doesn't reward close listening, but if you listen to it as a whole album (which you should), some of them carry more weight than others. "The Hollows" has a creepy and unexpected section right in the middle, punctuating a defiant but vague anthem (dedicated to "all my underdone, other-tongued, lung-long frontmen") with eerie fragments of a trip to Berlin. Meanwhile, Doseone crawls all over the verses, hissing lyrics from elsewhere on the album. The meaning is unclear but the effect stays the same every time I hear it: I get a chill down my spine when the guitar punches in to end the bridge. In fact, every time he sets aside his usual coded messages in favor of a real objective correlative, it gets to me. One recurring motif on the record is Wolf ducking into a bathroom in some public place because he needs to be alone-- to masturbate, in "Good Friday"; to write down a song, in "By Torpedo Or Crohn's"; to practice his "plane wreck face" in "Gnashville". So that's the most life-affirming record I've heard all year, one whose hero is constantly hiding out to try to process what's going on, or prepare for disaster.

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BLACK FRANCIS - Svn Fngrs (Cooking Vinyl) [Mar. 6th, 2008|12:47 am]
In the Pixies' early days, Black Francis mastered a sort of encapsulated squick, a way to make the grotesque so obviously personal that even though it-- and your own reaction to it-- was the whole appeal, it never raised issues for anyone except Mr. F to deal with. At least, I don't remember ever confronting my own mortality after listening to Surfer Rosa, even though you can't really get in the door with that record unless you're fundamentally not okay with being made out of bones and liquid. It was freaky, but it never stung.

So anyway, he's back, with what seems to be a concept EP about a man "born of double seed" with seven fingers on each hand. The whole thing is soaked with the feeling that the narrator was doomed to some terrible fate by the circumstances of his conception, though the identity of that fate is obscure. It wouldn't work with clearer edges drawn around the details, though: the narrator's doubly-human-ness blurs into being half human, and the way to make up for his incompleteness might be to find a woman, or it might be to buy a robot, or to accept death at the hands of muderous enemies. Even with an ostensibly unifying conceit, Francis works mostly by juxtaposition of unrelated ideas, like in the Buñuel he wrote a song about all those years ago.

Musically, he sets the bar pretty high on opener "The Seus", cramming a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion-ish song-sketch with lots of doubled vocal tracks and shouted exclamations, and though that one does rattle itself to pieces by the end, I would have liked a whole EP of that just fine. He settles down, though, still experimenting with how much old Pixies fire he can bring into his well-established solo sound, hitting the mark way more often than I've come to expect in the past decade. This may even send me back to Bluefinger-- the one other record he's released under his old stage name, rather than "Frank Black"-- which I remember being so-so.

[You can hear three songs from the EP at blackfrancis.net; click on the guitar. Also, while writing this post I learned about the Irish hero Cuchulainn, who some or all of these songs might be about.]

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SWAY - The Dotted Lines Mixtape (Dcypha) [Mar. 5th, 2008|11:55 pm]
Free web release* to promote Sway's upcoming second record. The "mixtape" format means some of this is probably old material; who knows? Certainly the chorus of "F Ur X" (and its he-said-she-said structure, and the SMS conceit) sounds enough like Dizzee's "I Luv U" that it would be embarrassing to have written it anytime later than 2005...

Except that Sway has talent to spare, and I think he comes off better here than in the high-pressure world of "official" releases. The best track is "Black Stars", a loving, curiously relaxed (given its high velocity) rap about Ghana. The Lily Allen mashup's nice too, and then we get excerpts from guest appearances, freestyles, and a radio show on which Sway encountered rapper and MTV reporter Sway Calloway, who also goes by "Sway".

Sway's good humor and ability to shrug off disagreements mostly offset his (standard-issue) arrogance and declarations of superiority. He can get a little self-pitying, though, as when he expresses surprise that anyone could be offended by his song "Fuck New York" or disses the other Sway. And the less said about his alter-ego Charlie Boy the better. But it's free and sporadically brilliant.

* You can get it from swaymixtapes.com if you give a name and address-- I strongly endorse mailinator.com for things like this-- or hit Google for one of the many blogs that posted it on Rapidshare or whatever. Alternately, at least listen to "Black Stars" on his MySpace page.

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HELEN LOVE - It's My Club And I'll Play What I Want To (Elefant, 2007) [Feb. 19th, 2008|12:19 am]
Praising a Helen Love album for consistency seems like praising a pack of M&Ms for the same thing, but despite the cookie-cutter feel of her songs, listening to ten of them in a row, let alone sixteen, has generally been hard.

Now it's not. Great! But there's the same repetition of key 'exciting' words and phrases, and the same accumulation of fetishized entities from pop culture: Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry, Wings (there's a whole song called "Jet" about the Wings tune of the same name), the 1910 Fruitgum Company. The air of unreality this creates abruptly becomes sad when Helen starts hitting the "we'll be in love forever and ever and get married and have kids because we're in love" themes too hard, especially in "First Boyfriend". Barbie as celebrity stalker; charming.


MIKE DOUGHTY - Golden Delicious (ATO/Sony BMG, 2008) [Feb. 16th, 2008|01:14 pm]
Maybe I should hear Mike Doughty's constant use of the word 'girl' as
unmarked standard pop-music behavior. Instead, I assume prereflectively
singing about 20-year-olds, which is a little creepy. On thinking about
it, okay, whatever, it's fine. Titling a song "I Just Want The Girl In
The Blue Dress To Keep On Dancing" crosses the line into self-parody,
but we extend the prerogative of self-parody easily these days, and the
equally-bad title "I Wrote A Song About Your Car" is Golden
's best track, if you don't mind it sounding 70% like "How
Many Cans?".

Anyway. After Soul Coughing, it came as a shock that what was good about
Doughty's songwriting was compatible with the timidity and MOR-itude
that he seemed to want. But I guess it is, and I now often underestimate
him-- the Spanish lyric of "Wednesday (No Se Apoye)" isn't flimsy
multiculturalism, as I first thought; it's an MTA sign telling New
Yorkers not to lean on the subway car door. But the seconds the stakes
inch upward, as when a (sampled?) female voice does an embarrassing
imitation of Doughty's 90s-era vocal cadences in "More Bacon Than The
Pan Can Handle", I say to myself, there has to be a better way than

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