Semipop Life: Clatter-mari Da-Marxy
DJ Black Low, Emperor X, Phelimuncasi, the Paranoid Style, and more!
Awesome Tapes from Africa might’ve had to explain what “tapes” were to digital Pretorian Sam Austin Radebe, born in the twenty-first century a year or two after Mandela’s presidency. He takes futuristic tendencies in African electronic music and twists, exaggerates, deconstructs them to create a sound-language of his own—one that might be difficult for any other flesh-based being to translate, even as they acknowledge it feels like it makes sense. Keyboard tunes progress according to rules Western theory can’t summarize, yet always with a sense of internal consistency. The synth drum grows ten legs and skitters away from you. Squelches that could’ve come from a Hyperdub clear vinyl release arrange themselves into logical melodic and percussive patterns. The vocals sound like he set GPT-3 to flip between various South African languages and got randos like the superbly named Licy Jay to grunt the output. Only amapiano’s familiar log-donk, which drops in every now and then, anchors the music at particular coordinates in space-time. Perhaps it’ll turn out the historical moment that machine intelligence started to emerge was when a kid from the townships played around with FruityLoops. He may be our best chance of solving the AI alignment problem, so throw him some money, billionaires.
Grade: A (“Sbono” (vocal mix), “Emcimbinii”, “Downfall Revisit”)
I’ve been willful about much of the previous output of fortysomething lapsed physicist/avant-jazz booster/train nerd/leftist with complicated feelings about leftism Chad Matheny, because, I dunno, mirrors, man. In his work circa Western Teleport, Matheny observed bits of the world as they blew past him and interpreted them through his idiosyncratic weirdnesses. Now not only has the world met him halfway by getting weirder, he’s made his theoretical apparatus sticky so he can cling to news chryons and second-hand Eastern Bloc histories like a Marxist Katamari with a knack for a tune and a gaggle of pet Germans to join in on the choruses. If the lyric sheet resembles revolutionary pomo poetry written by someone who’s written too many music reviews (which describes a decent proportion of revolutionary pomo poets), the music makes the ideas at least theoretically more accessible to a sax-solo loving semipopular public. Freedom remains his major topic: while it may not be any closer, his vision of it has become clearer, more detailed, more humane. The spectre of mass death may be everywhere, but there’s freedom in being able to stare it in the face and chant “we’ll die, we’ll die”. You bet he gets his Germans to sing along to that one.
Grade: A (“Communists in Luxury”, “The Crows of Emmerich”, “Freeway in Heaven”)
We’ve passed the brief period during which certain optimists around here thought surly syncopated multi-ethnic electrobeats could somehow be the next worldwide party trend. Durban’s obstinate gqom scene, however, remains resistant to the tendency towards chill that’s swept both Southern Africa and YouTube in recent years. The two-guys-one-gal of Phelimuncasi chant and exhort over fast, jittery, and, okay, often repetitive beats that often resemble turn-of-the-millennium ghettotech—Detroit Grand Pubahs anyone?—as much as any Afrogenre. Other times the synths that sound like drums that sound like synths that are a staple of sub-Saharan software settings dominate. Their best sonic signature is the chatter that goes on beneath the lead vocals, like they wanted to make an Altman movie after Trump killed Leonard Cohen. Reports say their songs are staples of local hard left rallies, and “I Don’t Feel My Legs”, a hell of a title, would have very different meanings inside and outside the club. Though my lack of isiZulu means I can’t verify the presence of any political content otherwise, the deep-voiced Humpty Humpish guy sure does sound dangerous and convincing.
Grade: A MINUS (“I Don’t Feel My Legs”, “Maka Nana”, “Kdala Ngiwa Ngivuka”)
Criolo: Sobre Viver
At first, São Paulo’s most acclaimed middle-aged rapper wanted to make the opening “Diário do Kaos” the title track, but decided to foreground the possibility and fact of survival instead. Not everyone made it: his sister died of COVID aged 38, and on “Pequenina” he and his mom tie her fate to a long history of race-based deprivation in the favelas, leading him to repeat “I will make money, mother” as a mantra. (“Isn’t that a victory for the system?”, interlocutors enquire, to which he responds “Are you in Narnia?”) While nothing here is as straight-ahead samba or trad MPB as on Espiral de Ilusão, even when Milton Nascimento gets a long interpolation, he does plenty of effective singing, soulfulness easing into mournfulness into depression. Still, he’s most striking as a rapper: when the Tropkillaz bring him a beat worth going hard over, he kills it, making clear that the real gangster is the President. If this doesn’t quite match Run the Jewels as best political hip hop of the semi-fascist (half fash, too furious) era, it helps to remind us the problem is international.
Grade: A MINUS (“Sétimo Templário”, “Pretos Ganhando Dinheiro Incomoda Demais”, “Pequenina”)
When Elizabeth Nelson sings “I’m not about to apologize/Because I take my cue from old white guys”, she’s joking not joking, as the aging kids say. I get that her aesthetic interests can seem too good to be true to men of the approximate age, class, and record collection of Timothy Bracy, but for the most part I’m prepared to let her enjoy things: she’s a rock dork, and I appreciate dorks of all leanings. There’s much more music here than there was on the comparatively dry A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life, with sax and piano tinkling and pizzicato strings used to create a fuller and more satisfying sound and, sometimes, a groove. As Nelson’s grown more comfortable using a voice that talent show judges would call pitchy (all the more “Seven Year Ache” for us), her melody lines have grown more idiosyncratic, which produces comic relief when she gets fellow freehand tune-sketcher Patterson Hood to cram a bunch of syllables into his lines. And if this time her subject matter panders to her Twitter followers, her tales of travails in the popular arts are broad enough to encompass everything that matters from COVID to Fascism, so who’s to say Doug Yule doesn’t deserve a song? Well, Lou Reed and John Cale for a start, but they’re old white guys.
Grade: A MINUS (“Love & Demotion”, “I’d Bet My Land and Titles”, “Exit Interview with P.G. Wodehouse”)
Reissue of the 1970 debut from a Peruvian group playing Cuban music. The forms may be borrowed—the usual descargas and guajiras—but star Pancho Acosta’s electric guitar is always fleet, whether he’s fingerpicking riffs or diagramming long features in dialogue with the vocalist or drummers. On the reasonably named “Mi Descarga Es Mejor” he slips into quite non-Cuban sounding scales—whether they’re Andean or he’s just making shit up is beyond my knowledge. On occasion, the grooves loosen into something more shambling, hinting at Acosta’s contemporaneous work helping to invent chicha with his other band, Compay Quinto. Lead singer Kiko Fuentes is appealing and has decent range when he chooses to use it, the horns are in tune and on time, the shakers shake and the claves clave, and whoever whistles with unrestrained amor to open “Dulce Guajira” should’ve made a career out of that.
Grade: A MINUS (“Dulce Guajira”, “Mi Descarga Es Mejor”, “Descarga Kinto”)
A reunion with two-fifths of the classic lineup—bandleader and alleged founder Dan Satch and conga-and-mallets drummer Aquila—with two-fifths passed on and alleged bandleader and founder Kabaka chilling or uninvited out in the Igboland countryside. Here, Satch, Aquila, and the ringers 25%-75% of their age (judging from the album cover) they herded into what sounds like a pretty good studio, bankrolled by my favorite Columbian highlife nerds at Palenque Records, create remarkable facsimiles of their classic sound, with chiming no-you’re-out-of-tune guitars, propulsive polyrhythms, and, on “Ebubo Asi”, a time signature change. Only the most annoying marginal differentiators might kvetch that the enthusiastic vocals by Satch and co. don’t quite have the magnetism that the late, great Dr. Sir Warrior provided. Non-churls can pretend any of the five long tracks could’ve been playing infinitely through several decades and constitutional orders. (In keeping with the Brothers’ tradition of having an impenetrable discography even by Afropop standards, the Bandcamp and streaming versions have the same tracks in a different order and with spelling variations.)
Grade: B PLUS (“Edi Special”, “Ebubo Asi”, “Oku Ngwo Di Ochi”)
Charli XCX: Crash
That she decided to spend her last fistful of Atlantic Records’ dollars appropriating Cronenberg aesthetics proves long-held suspicions that she’s always been an art-weirdo at heart. That the result was her first UK number one album, after having never come close before, proves the suspicions that she’s an art-weirdo with immense pop sense. “Good Ones”, the lead single, follows recent synth and melodic trends and served its purpose as a decent-sized hit. Most of the rest of the songs try more outre production or tune tricks, but with an increased focus on accessibility relative to How I’m Feeling Now. If she still doesn’t have an entirely distinctive charisma as a singer (there’s a reason she had to cede her biggest hit’s primary artist credit to Icona Pop), she adds a touch of vocal fry here, a bit of faux-coyness there, and that’s enough for producers like PC Music Guy and Oneohtrix Dude to work with, applying their molecular gastronomy techniques to create bubbles of uncanny taste. A minor star who could burn for a while yet.
Grade: B PLUS (“Baby”, “Constant Repeat”, “Lightning”)
Pop-gaze, I suppose? Except she has more comprehensible words per verse than the Cocteau Twins totaled in a career, and they’re pretty serviceable words at that. Australian Harriette Pilbeam, such a throwback that by all appearances she’s heterosexual, starts out with happy love songs that might be sickly if the dream-guitar overdubs didn’t dull the palette a little. The usual millennial doubt and loathing soon creep in, but the arrangements stay much the same: night, light, rain, pain, it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry. Given this, it’s somewhat reassuring (for monogamists, anyway) that she writes and plays everything with Joe Agius, whom she married last year at Vegas’s Graceland Wedding Chapel. They accept the assistance of Olivia Rodrigo’s cool uncle Dan Nigro on the standout “Quicksand”, whose chorus melody soars while Hatchie’s feet remain stuck, which is one way to keep them on the ground.
Grade: B PLUS (“Quicksand”, “This Enchanted”, “Lights On”)
A Nigerian-born Norwich art school grad’s two-thirds successful attempt to alt-up the Afrobeat(s) template into something Pitchfork-palatable, not that they bothered to review this one. You won’t be surprised to hear that I prefer it when he noodles less and leans more on the eons-old tradition of Actually Having Drums on Things, yet his pleasant vocals (and whistling) mean that even the textural stuff goes down easy. Lyrics track the by now de rigueur swings between angst and self-affirmation, though on “Message in a Hammer” he tries secondhand Fela excoriations of “government devils” and it’s one of the most thrilling moments on the record, despite the lack of clarity as to whom he’s calling out. If it was Boris, I guess he’s avoided becoming dated already.
Grade: B PLUS (“Wrong for It”, “Message in a Hammer”, “Sugar”)
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