Semipop Life: Tongues twisted
Tom Zé, Mary Halvorson, Lil Durk, Denzel Curry, and more!
Tom Zé: Língua Brasileira
Hy-Brasil, per Irish folklore, is an Atlantic island whose name, per Wikipedia, has no linguistic connection to actual Brazil. Zé strengthens his “Hy-Brasil Terra Sem Mal” with the force of another popular story by singing the moniker to a minor-key version of the Jesus Christ Superstar title melody, before leaping to the Roman Empire to ponder the meaning of Pompeiian graffiti. This is just the opening to his soundtrack to a play about the Brazilian tongue, and if there’s little reason to think it an accurate account of the linguistics, well, neither is Chomsky’s work and we still put up with him. Thematic and geographical detours abound—Zé takes the old saw about singing the phone book literally, as he doubles up regular and falsetto voices to inform us of the contact information of the New York Fire Department borough by borough, before contrasting them with Brazilian emergency numbers that lack the childish memorability of the FDNY Manhattan’s 212-999-2222 when the services exist at all. There’s still no one who sings or rocks out quite like him—this time there are more programmed beats than his usual, but the guitar and sense of groove remain liquid Zé. If the album’s scholarship doesn’t match some of the Estudandos, it’s as fun as anything he’s done in his 30-year second act; I’d have it in my top five Zés. I suspected the multi-movement 9:42 “A Língua Prova Que” might be some kind of summation of everything he’s ever said about life and death and Afro-Brazilian music. After spending an age trying to find lyrics before thinking to click on the Discografia section of Zé’s website, it turns out to be about a Yoruban myth in which deities cook the best worst meal on record since “Rapper’s Delight”: tongue (i.e. língua) with a hint of bay leaf. There are also a lot of nonsense syllables. Macum-micum-macum-mi.
Grade: A (“A Língua Prova Que”, “Metro Guide”, “Hy-Brasil Terra Sem Mal”)
I’ve long been a lowish voter on Halvorson’s albums as leader (with exceptions like 2013’s Illusionary Sea), and Amaryllis’s twin, the virtuosic guitar meets static string quintet Belladonna, doesn’t break this pattern. Amaryllis itself, however, is almost all killer. Trombonist Jacob Garchik, one of Illusionary Sea’s stars, returns, often hovering between lead and support with apropos harmonies and borderline inapropos honking, while vibes player Patricia Brennan is a clear positive. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, who can be a bit stately, wakes up big time when the rhythm players funk and/or prog things up, as on the title track. In these contexts, when Halvorson essays her fleet runs and literal weird flexes, they cut deeper into the groove, revealing secrets of the compositions in a way that would be uncanny if she didn’t write them. Then when the Mivos Quartet show up, they’re fetching decoration.
Grade: A MINUS (“892 Teeth”, “Side Effect”, “Amaryllis”)
A Bogotan synths-and-laptops electrocumbia duo (classically-trained Afrobeat guy and avant-tropical orchestra guy), with production assistance from a Meridian Brother, make one of the more satisfying nuevo Latino projects I can recall, in large part because they don’t neglect the old rhythms, with two-stepping tambors sometimes left raw and sometimes gussied up to resemble contemporary dance beats. On top, they layer genuinely unusual sounds: squealing software noises that resolve into actual notes, ethnomusicological samples from across the two good continents (I can’t hear the ngoni in “Fandan’goni” but the tune does sound sort of West African), something that sounds like the “Groove Is in the Heart” intro scrambled. Aside from one minute of ambient bullshit, the rhythms are kept central, avoiding drift into mere exotica. The final two tracks remix their other bands and, like a good academic paper, suggest many directions for future work.
Grade: A MINUS (“Ñocoñoco”, “CumbiAchiampong”, “Truequeo (Rmx)”)
Tenille Arts: Girl to Girl
The loose concept is songs this b. 1994 Canadian wishes she’d heard when she was fifteen, the approximate age she started posting Taylor Swift covers on YouTube; it’s not coincidental that OG Swiftie Nathan Chapman puts in a production shift. Country nostalgia rolls on: CDs are a throwback now, she says in her formulaic minor hit “Back Then, Right Now”; she also looks back on Friday night lights, which maybe they had in Saskatchewan too. Almost everything else is better: kiss-offs and kiss-ons, inspirational shit about being her own best friend, memories that reflect the lived experience of some normalish young person, all crafted with care and with copious use of country’s good old re-punctuation trick (“high school, sweetheart.”) “One Bedroom Apartment” is the rare contemporary country song that recognizes low square footage urban life has its pleasures, like making it easy to get the girls together, though one senses she wouldn’t turn the mansion down. Arts’s naturalist singing is, well, artful, making the uppy and downy bits of her melodies seem as conquerable as hundred-foot hills on the prairie.
Grade: A MINUS (“One Bedroom Apartment”, “High School Sweetheart”, “Mama’s Boy”)
Lil Durk: 7220
The Chicago kids who broke drill in the early 2010s are pushing 30 now, which means it’s time to at least consider growing up. While Durk doesn’t eschew violent imagery, the murders of family and friends have shaken him, and in his letter from an Atlanta jail, he misses his kids, thinking “I could be with them watchin’ Peppa Pig”. Actions have consequences in relationships too, as he finds that getting blocklisted after getting to know someone’s tastes and idiosyncrasies sucks a lot. Growing up is hard—in “No Interviews” he swears off Percs after Juice WRLD’s death, then takes four distinct drugs in the chorus—but rapping gets easier and easier for him, as he finds catchy rhythmic patterns to match the admittedly narrow range of his beats and riffs off them with more creativity than guests like Future and Gunna. Probable genuine rap fan Morgan Wallen holds his own.
Grade: A MINUS (“No Interviews”, “Blocklist”, “Broadway Girls”)
Nduduzo Makhathini: In the Spirit of Ntu
The first release on Blue Note Africa—thanks UniMoth!—is the ninth-or-so album credited to South African pianist Makhathini; I’d only heard him on those Shabaka and the Ancestors records I liked and many loved. His compositions are quasi-spiritual, more Trane than Abdullah Ibrahim, and are often about (the press kit says) aspects of South Africa’s culture and its ills. His agreeable arpeggios form a basis for denser if still chill playing from trumpeter Robin Fassie and saxist Linda Sikhakhane. Occasional vocalists, Makhathini’s wife Omagugu included, run Blue Notey whether singing in English or Zulu but are welcome additions to the palette; the vibraphone doesn’t get in the way. Highlight is when Jaleel Shaw brings his alto to “Emlilweni” and everyone lifts their game to impress the Yank.
Grade: B PLUS (“Emlilweni”, “Re-Amathambo”, “Senze’ Nina”)
A more mature, introspective Curry, apologetic about past objectification of women and “killing off my demons ’cause my soul needs redeeming”. Starting from the opener’s Robert Glasper tinkling, the beats too are more mature and introspective, albeit with occasional Jidaigeki thrills and T-Pain to pep things up. After establishing he can go hard and smart on single “Walkin”, Curry’s rapping remains fierce at lower intensities, ensuring that it always feels like something’s at stake—if not his soul, then at least his chances of ever getting another nine-digit streaming hit. There wasn’t one here, but I can attest the aggro posse cut with Rico Nasty and some Spillage Villagers has been an effective niche summer jam if one is willing to embrace contradictions, which these days one must.
Grade: B PLUS (“Ain’t No Way”, “Melt Session #1”, “Sanjuro”)
Priscilla Block: Welcome to the Block Party
Some are comparing this Raleigh-to-Nashville singer to early Miranda, which isn’t wrong; she says Kelly Clarkson too and I hear at least as much of that. Her choruses would fit nicely on mid-tier singing competitions, with short high notes to show expression rather than stamina. Many songs concern the usual boys and bars, and the Every Country Album of the Last Decade production means some aren’t distinctive. Still, on “Thick Thighs” there’s explicit body positivity unprecedented at the CMA Festival, though regarding the Kardashians, you do not, under any circumstances, gotta hand it to them. Her negativity is valuable too: “Peaked in High School” is as vicious a vengeance against the mean girls of North Carolina as you’ll find in any group chat. No class, no principals, no problem.
Grade: B PLUS (“Heels in Hands”, “Peaked in High School”, “Ever Since You Left”)
Elza Soares: Elza Ao Vivo No Municipal
These recordings, made at Rio’s opera house in January two and three days before her death, aren’t epochal like the Mulher diptych—they’re mostly conventional sambas with mainstream if contemporary arrangements. Soares was starting to sound close to her ninety-one years, yet canny to the end, she used her rasp to rough the songs up. Small touches like her closing moan on the lightweight “Balanço Zona Sul”, which she first put on record in the Swinging Sixties, force you to reconsider how much alternative there was in her from the beginning. It’s a neat trick to spend your last days making your life flash in front of everyone else’s eyes, not just your own. It’s even neater when you’re in control of the flashbacks, able to issue one last retcon at the end of the world.
Grade: B PLUS (“Lata d'Água”, “Maria da Vila Matilde”, “Meu Guri”)
Mixed year for him: number one album, SNL debut, in jail and denied bond awaiting trial after he and buddy Young Thug were charged with racketeering. The charges against Thugga are much more substantial; as far as my non-lawyer ass can make out, Gunna seems to be accused of drug dealing based on association and on, well, rap lyrics; suffice to say it would be a terrible precedent to make convictions based on scraping Genius. On the highly competent populist trap of the number one album, he downplays pushing drugs in favor of pushing “P”, which means something close to the Roman virtus. The effects slathered on to his vocals signify luxury rather than heighten expression, but that’s a valid use. If he manages to wriggle out of this jam, I hope he reconsiders the company he keeps, though I guess the presences of Kodak Black and Chris Brown ensure that no one mistakes him for the worst person on his album.
Grade: B PLUS (“Pushin P”, “25k Jacket”, “You & Me”)
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