Semipop Life: Beauty, not transience
Julius Eastman, Joshua Ray Walker, Apollo Brown & Ché Noir, WizKid, and more!
Wild Up/Christopher Rountree: Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine
Celebrated by New York’s downtown scene, then so lost that nobody knew about his 1990 death until his disciple Kyle Gann wrote up an obit for the Voice eight months later, Eastman has received a push, extending into the non-classical world since Jace “DJ /rupture” Clayton revived “Evil N—” and “Gay Guerrilla” in 2013, to be recognized as one of the great American composers. Since then there’s been a spate of recordings of Femenine, a 1974 composition similar to but more malleable than Reich and Riley works from that era, and this one is more fun than anything I’ve heard in its vein besides Music for 18 Musicians itself. The repeating 12-note pattern and the even simpler two-note hook (an E flat and an F, if you’re playing along at home) is stately from a distance, but focus on your favorite four or eight bars and you’ll find some beauty-for-the-sake-of-beauty asserting itself. The LA ensemble Wild Up emphasizes the clockwork beat while giving saxes and horns space for natural, characterful solos, with the low, flatulent baritone on “Hold and Return” a peak of individual expression. Occasional vocals and a piano that starts hammering out sixteenths in “Eb” prevent things from getting too nature-y. There’s even time to break out into the Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” (who art thou?) The best news is that this is only the first entry in a planned seven-volume set. May Eastmania run wild up on us for some time.
Grade: A (“No. 6, Increase”, “No. 4, Hold and Return”, “No. 8, Be Thou My Vision (Mao Melodies)”)
Joshua Ray Walker: See You Next Time
Dallas-based neo-traditionalish singer-songwriter who has a way with a hook phrase that evidences his absorption of decades of popular song: “it’s once, twice, three strikes a felony”. With his third album, he’s become successful enough to get Jimmy Fallon to say that album title on the Tonight Show, on which he performed single “Sexy After Dark” with a horn section and a dose of the kind of cordial irony that often accompanies crippling self-doubt. He deserves work writing for any country star who claims working class, yet an on-paper career would deprive the world of his strong upper register and his sometimes uncanny falsetto. And I don’t know how many country stars could implement an addiction song as figurative as “Gas Station Roses” without smacking listeners in the face with its meaning; Walker makes it clear that it’s the commonplace beauty that’s meant to be celebrated, not its transience.
Grade: A MINUS (“Gas Station Roses”, “Three Strikes”, “Flash Paper”)
Apollo Brown & Ché Noir: As God Intended (2020)
He’s the DJ, she’s the rapper, whose flow is as natural and comfortable as guest Black Thought’s. Noir comes across as a grown-ass woman, whether rattling off instances of institutional racism or copping to unspeakable crimes in her murky past (everything before you’re 25 is murky), though apart from the guy about to propose to her, it’s ambiguous how literally she (or, fine, her character) has been “put[ting] rappers in cemeteries.” Her cleverness attempts have a solid hit rate—as a fan of country writing, I appreciate “Can’t walk in my shoes, you n—as can’t even foot the bill”. Brown understands his job is to support his MC, so when violence approaches he pulls back on the soul in favor of sparer, more disconcerting beats. Otherwise, he uses samples from Ghostface to Common that situate Noir as part of a truth-telling culture at least as well as the BLM monologue on “Freedom” does. Honesty: it’s harder than you think.
Grade: A MINUS (“12 Hours”, “Anti-Social”, “Live by the Code”)
WizKid: Made in Lagos (2020)
When “Essence” crossed over last year, he became Nigeria’s most popular international star ever (check Fela’s placement in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame fan vote before disputing this.) His major rival, Burna Boy, brings a stronger-than-usual version of his macho Auto-Tune on track two and still isn’t as interesting a singer as his host, who also has no trouble matching up with an intercontinental array of guests, the non-Brits of whom acquit themselves well. When WizKid does use evident pitch correction, as on the Damian Marley collab, he does so expressively. The Afro-with-Jamaican-characteristics beats are pleasant if not cutting edge, while the lyrics are the usual boy-girl-jollof stuff. The lack of innovation hardly matters on the best tracks, led by “Essence”, in which duet partner Tems comes across as—what’s this—an equal? (The deluxe edition adds four tracks, including an “Essence” remix in which Tems lets Justin Bieber take her place for a bit, which would be a lot funnier if it wasn’t over an hour in.)
Grade: A MINUS (“Essence”, “Ginger”, “Smile”)
Czarface & MF Doom: Super What?
Their collective breadth of knowledge of pro wrestling, from Jimmy Carter’s mom’s fave Mr. Wrestling II to contemporary AEW, is Meltzerian; the comics references show similar historical range. Like the Coasters or Naoki Urasawa, they construct castles atop a foundation of pop culture detritus, proving that anything can stand the test of time if you say it does. It helps that 7L’s and Todd Spadafore’s beats are what we old school indieheads used to call “actually good”, building and rebuilding over the course of a song. Still, with respect to all involved, the one participant who I could associate with genius without having to wear a mask is Doom, who fades out over the second half, though his shadow remains large even when they all stop for a track to explain who Czarface are. Doom’s final verse (on the second-to-last song) isn’t exactly Prospero drowning his book: he beheads and surfs, does an Evel Knievel dance, makes out with Lt. Uhura to eternity.
Grade: A MINUS (“The King and Eye”, “Mando Calrissian”, “So Strange”)
Docteur Nico: Dieu de la Guitare (2018)
Planet Ilunga’s double-vinyl summation of one of Congo’s two greatest guitarists features a lot of good music, yet it’s even more frustrating than their Grand Kallé comp I reviewed last month, and declines to make the plausible case that he should be number one. It starts in the mid-’50s with Kallé’s African Jazz playing Caribbean styles straight, with occasional hints of the innovation to come. Even the calypso is kind of good, but if you’re primarily interested in Nico the guitarist, there’s a sense of “when are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” When they do arrive at Sixties African Jazz and Nico’s and Rochereau’s splinter group African Fiesta, however, there are a surprising number of fizzers. Most of the era’s much-compiled key tracks are absent (“Indépendance Cha Cha” would be unnecessary here), but surely there was no need to reach so far down into the barrel as to get to floppy genre exercises like “Reguerdas”. Only in the closing run, when we get to Nico’s splinter-group-of-a-splinter-group (who does he think he is, a leftist or something) African Fiesta Sukisa do we get a run of the Docteur in top form playing first-rate, distinctively Congolese material like the effects-and-slide heavy “Limbisa Ngai”. Despite my kvetching, the music is worth hearing more than a couple of times, though I wouldn’t censure anyone who’s sent Planet Ilunga a bunch of Euros this year from pursuing less ethical substitutes on less ethical streaming services.
Grade: B PLUS (“Limbisa Ngai”, “Ntumba”, “Bolingo Na Ngai Aye”)
First up: a Nice God Herself in Not-So-Nice America song, in which She makes for a more human protagonist than those of most countryoid Jesus in America songs. Second up, the latest in his series of ’til-death-do-us-part songs gets his low-key love across in spite of himself, and third, the mega-depressing dementia sufferer’s lament miraculously does as well. After that he’s earned the right to a few that drift. His storytelling sense and moral clarity return later on: loneliness bad, states where at least one of your exes lives also bad, lawyers useful until you run out of money. Ending with a song where he becomes a god is a nice symmetry, though one might hope for a Higher Power who’d vacate all those Astros wins.
Grade: B PLUS (“Nice Things”, “You Get It All”, “Help Me Remember”)
Two decades after fleeing Côte d’Ivoire malarial and pregnant, and one decade after earning a Grammy for covering Sade with India.Arie, this French resident brought her insistent mid-range back to Abidjan to create something more representatively pan-African (and maybe duck COVID.) This starts off with a pop desert blues, then winds its way south for a while, exploring Ivorian rhythms and her ex-husband Colin Laroche de Féline’s Congo-and-its-diaspora guitar over beats programmed by Tam Sir, a co-producer on Rémy Adan’s “Le goût de”, which I keep telling you was one of 2021’s best songs. The prevailing mood in the second half is inspirational Afrofeminist dance party, which is an above-average kind of dance party and maybe an above-average kind of Afrofeminist dance party. Hard work is valorized, the twentieth century is exorcised, independence is not cha-cha-ed but four-on-the-floored. Throw your hands up at her.
Grade: B PLUS (“Vis Ta Vie”, “Yakané”, “Lève-toi”)
Frank Dupree/Württemberg Chamber Orchestra: Kapustin: Orchestral Works
Nikolai Kapustin was a Ukrainian-born Soviet/Russian composer with an interest in jazz, though not improvisation. His Piano Concerto No. 4 (1989) is a hoot, with a jazz rhythm section, orchestrations that risk schlock, and pianist Dupree smashing that keyboard so hard one shudders to think of his Steinway bill. Violinist Rosanne Philippens joins in on a Double Concerto (2002) that’s less freewheeling (ew, a Largo), yet it eventually syncopates its way into a unification of early 20th century dance crazes that James P. Johnson would admire. On the Chamber Symphony (1990), conductor Case Scaglione downplays Dupree in favor of several kitchens’ worth of sinks, and while the trade isn’t justified, the kitsch doesn’t quite sink.
Grade: B PLUS (“Piano Concerto No. 4”, “Concerto for Violin & Piano, III: Allegretto”, “Concerto for Violin & Piano, I: Allegro non troppo”)
She crams an impressive density of ideas into tidy five-to-seven minute chunks. The packaging is retro-house, with time spent in four-on-the-floor exceeding that spent in breakbeats unless you want to get relativistic, which her wibbly-wobbly title suggests she does. While her palate differs from her dnb-loving partner Octo Octa’s, she shares the same goal of updating classic dance tropes for an age that, whatever its civilization-risking flaws, allows for a wider range of open expression in music and sexuality than the fjucking Nineties. When she samples the Peter Fonda/Screamadelica “Loaded” speech, in addition to being cheap as hell, it claims the historically butch yearning for freedom for all genders, past present and future.
Grade: B PLUS (“Time to Move Close”, “Pick ’em Up”, “Quivering in Time”)
Nod to the kitsch sink/kitchen sink pun