Semipop Life: Get your ur-freak on
J. Lewis & P. Stampfel, Megan Thee Stallion, a different J. Lewis, Marina Sena, and more!
The Jeffrey Lewis/Peter Stampfel Band: Both Ways
TO YOU FROM WE: SIDE THREE
Readers of this column will be aware that Peter Stampfel is the man with the encyclopedic mind, filled with decades of ad jingles.) Here he passes on his knowledge of orgone energy—that’s “ghost juice”, for people who haven’t watched Dragonball—and of countless old ditties, some his own and/or Antonia’s and/or e e cummings’s. The recordings are from just before his bout with dysphonia, and, howling and replicating some asshole’s fake orgonasm from decades ago, he manages one more release of ghost juice into the digital ether.
FROM US TO YOU: SIDE TWO
You might be surprised to learn that the driving force behind the very 2017 and hence at minimum retrospectively cringe “True Tax Forms” and “Song for the Women’s March” is the guy who makes cartoons of Communist history for fun. The thing is, cringe succeeded, at least electorally, although it was touch and go at times. Would the Soviet Union have endured if Eisenstein had put the comrades on the Odessa Steps in pussy hats? I dunno, it deserves its own animated exploration.
WANT SOME MORE? SIDE FOUR
What cringe is, maybe: shared culture that’s close to but not quite on one’s wavelength, often because the idiosyncrasies that make art interesting become irritations when others partake in them. It follows that the best way to get over one’s discomfort is to cover “Marquee Moon”. It feels so much less silly singing “life in the hive puckered up my night” when everyone else is singing along too. The band acquits themselves well, especially Stampfel (“I saw them live back in the day and wasn’t knocked out”) on fiddle and whichever mandolinist that is. Get in? Get in.
STARTING THE FUN: SIDE ONE
Like the best semipopular forms (and like capitalism tbh), the lower Manhattan freak folk tradition that Stampfel, Lewis, and their multigenerational retinue were formed by is extremely adept at having it both and more ways, at absorbing influences high, low, and subterranean. Their process is sort of a cringe dialectics, engaging with a seeming antithesis and banging away and reshaping it until you’re comfortable with it, regardless of whether anyone else is. This amounts to a kind of optimism: that anything, even Sonny Bono, has the potential to be revolutionary, that wasting your lives could be a step towards utopia. Yet I’m glad they haven’t.
Grade: A (“Both Ways”, “Marquee Moon”, “Brand New Ways to Waste Your Life”)
Megan Thee Stallion: Something for Thee Hotties
With the odd wapping exception, I’m finding her more lovable on her tossed off and bits-and-pieces releases than on her big budget productions. True, there’s plenty to enjoy in “Thot Shit”, though on that one I feel more vicarious pride in her Texas Southern graduation than in her assertions of sexual dominance. On most tracks, however, she makes claims for the supremacy of various physical and socioeconomic aspects of M. T. Stallion much more loosely, rendering an honors thesis superfluous. Better to freestyle or just spell out p-u-s-s-y over lively, sometimes danceable—remember dancing?—beats by Lil Ju et al. She identifies still more body parts I never thought of sexualizing (oesophagus fetishists are reeling) and alternately shouts out and negs her inamoratas City Girls like she just read The Game, which maybe she has. And if her initial foray into self-production is a qualified success, imagine how good she'll be when she learns to play the piano with two fingers.
Grade: A MINUS (“Kitty Kat”, “Outta Town Freestyle”, “Thot Shit”)
James Brandon Lewis Quartet: Code of Being
Yet another excellent record led by the richest working tenor player (rich in tone quality, that is; I’m sure he could use a Macarthur.) This time there’s no overarching concept: just the group who did Molecular negotiating eight new Lewis compositions. The band leader rewards us with his most melodic playing, stretching and squashing his ideas so that they can appear either smooth and pointy. He begins his solo on the opening “Resonance” (now the best single track to start with if you’re new to him) embellishing the long bent notes of the head statement, then he accelerates into frantic, fractured phrases before signing off with a low trill. Pianist Aruán Ortiz is an ideal foil, repeating patterns for Lewis to play against, then breaking them to keep the leader on his toes, while bassist Brad Jones further the leads’ aims with the lack of fuss that gets you work with Ornette Coleman and Sean Lennon. Nothing is groundbreaking or disconcerting, except occasionally when Chad Taylor pushes things out a little further, but those moods don’t last long. They don’t have to.
Grade: A MINUS (“Resonance”, “Per 4”, “Where Is Hella”)
Marina Sena: De Primeira
Much more export-optimized than the Brazilian norm, and it’s paid off, with “Por Supuesto” becoming a viral hit of the magnitude that entices record companies to give you money to make more viral hits. While that one chases the moment to an almost parodic degree, down to the vocal filter on the chorus distancing her to some hitherto undiscovered hemisphere (who needs to know what the lyrics are, they’re in Spanish or something), the rest is pan-American fusion of high tastiness and at least some substance. Producer Iuri Rio Branco runs baile funk rhythms through a software update, appropriating North American programmed drum sounds with no apparent shame. Several tracks add guitars of varying traditionalism to fashionable globodance fads: welcome back for yet another decade, reggae-lite. Even when Sena’s cramming in syllables, her drawl has a fetching laziness, though on the fairly straight, credible samba “Tamborim”, she puts in a little more effort to be clear, at least sonically: “you’re making a fuss on my tambourine”, says Google Translate, which unfortunately doesn’t yet speak metaphor. She’ll be understood when she wants to be.
Grade: A MINUS (“Cabelo”, “Voltei Pra Mim”, “Pelejei”)
Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & Ole Morten Vågan: Plastic Wave
All the big names are here—Gard Nilssen! Signe Emmeluth! Eirik Hedgal! Still, while moments of virtuosity are permitted from time to time (you’re not going to keep two tenors in the band otherwise), this is more about bassist and artistic director Vågan using Norway’s premier state-sponsored jazzorchester as an instrument. Though his preferred rhythms are jerkier than mine, I appreciate that he doesn’t go full prog. He permits himself plenty of amusement, not least with titles (“Dismay on Ice”, an appropriate theme for this Winter Olympics), and is particularly skillful at fitting singer Sofia Jernberg’s non-verbals into the palette. Amidst the fireworks and explosions, Vågan's a calm center, gently directing his bandmates to blow up a little more in that direction.
Grade: A MINUS (“AfterMath Rock”, “Soil Survivors”, “Fanfare”)
This prime-of-career, moderately duck-voiced Manhattan-to-Brooklyn rapper is a top-notch rhymer: his first verse starts with “merit or inherit it” and progresses through a dozen double assonances to “a pair of kicks”; later, in “Ego Death”, he raps in 3/4 (that one goes from “motif” to “poultry.”) But he’s more than the sum of his flows. He has a clear point of view about his city: thanks to yuppies and the inconsistency of the Mets, it’s now just tolerable compared to the halcyon days of (looks up Wiki’s age on Wiki) Bloomberg I guess. Which doesn’t mean that, somewhat in spite of Navy Blue’s elegantly repetitive production, he doesn’t have fun: monogamous fun, often, which he details in a charmingly awkward meet-cute in “Never Fall Off”. And if the closest he can come to recapturing the childhood joy of grape soda is weed, at least that’s legal now.
Grade: A MINUS (“Never Fall Off”, “Not Today”, “Ego Death”)
Morgan Wade: Reckless
Though nothing else here has a chorus of comparable caliber to that of “Wilder Days”, which creditably finished mid-pack on my end-of-2021 singles list, Wade’s writing is strong throughout, and save for the odd attempt to get existential, she can put her songs over. Her vocal quality is Sheryl-Crow-with-a-twang, but comparisons could be made to any number of rockers from the marginally earlier, patiently hornier Poppy Bush Interzone (wilder days, eh): “Passionate Kisses”, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”, hell why not “All I Want to Do Is Make Love to You”. What’s different besides improvements in birth control is that she never achieves total freedom, even for a moment. Millennial that she is, there’s always something gnawing at her mind: a red wine stain on her white dress, an awareness that everything could fall apart in a moment that she may or may not get over. Love might help. Sex might too.
Grade: B PLUS (“Wilder Days”, “Last Cigarette”, “Other Side”)
Música Esporádica (1985; reissued 2019)
Six avant-gardists/hippies led by Andalusian Suso Sáiz (credited with “Susotronics”) fairly spontaneously create ambient drone in the spirit of Steve Roach, or Steve Reich, or maybe some other experimental Steve I don’t know about. The palettes are not entirely to my taste—though the only one that avoids the dreaded kalimba-marimba turns out to be my least favorite—but María Villa’s edited vocals produce some trippy, if not unprecedented, psychoacoustic effects, and the dinky stuff creates polyrhythms that are rubbed pleasantly by the drifting harmonic field generated by real and state-of-the-mid-Eighties-art Roland guitars. What keeps everything minimally motorvating is Glenn Velez’s hand drumming. You might be skeptical it matters that he played the tambourine “Arabic style”, but when you hear “I Forgot the Shirts”, you’ll find it’s the only way to travel.
Grade: B PLUS (“I Forgot the Shirts”, “Música Esporádica”, “Combustión Eterna”)
Juçara Marçal: Delta Estácio Blues
This has got more favorable attention outside of the usual Lusophile corners than any previous Clube da Encruza release, I guess because it can be experienced as an electronoise beats album that happens to have some Brazilian characteristics. And it’s a good electronoise beats album, as Marçal, Kiko Dinucci, and guests construct soundscapes that evoke “um homem medíocre” Robert Johnson less than your megacity of choice. The Brazilian characteristics are somewhat muted (except, interculturally, on the one in Yoruba)—the modernized samba melodies that characterize the Clube’s best work are largely absent, replaced by unholy-in-a-good-way bellowing and unholy-in-a-less-good-way Auto-Tune. Still, one would hardly begrudge her an Elza moment, or at least an English-language Wikipedia article.
Grade: B PLUS (“Crash”, “Vi de Relance a Coroa”, “Iyalode Mbé Mbé”)
Ben Goldberg: Everything Happens to Be.
Clarinetist Goldberg and tenor Ellery Eskelin borrow Mary Halvorson’s Thumbscrew trio, bringing out the best in all parties. The rhythm players avoid getting too bogged down in effects and whimsy: even when Halvorson turns the echo up to eleven on “Fred Hampton”, it doesn’t drown out the winds. Goldberg takes primary responsibility for melodies, phrasing beautifully, while the idiosyncratic Eskelin plays like he’s drawing from every era of jazz at once. Just when things start to get languid towards the end, they syllabify “To-Ron-To” in a banger that, so politely does it insist, is an argument they deserve honorary Canadian citizenship.
Grade: B PLUS (“Everything Happens to Be”, “To-Ron-To”, “Fred Hampton”)