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Semipop Life: Topographic oceans
Bill Scorzari, Killer Mike, Buck 65, Baaba Maal, and more!
Although I buy that Congolese-influenced Kenyan-Tanzanian music from the ’80s slays in the Colombian Caribbean, the title seems a geographic stretch: the compilers appear to be a Spaniard and a Kenyan (Barranquilla’s Don Alirio wrote the notes that didn’t come with my Bandcamp download.) And several of the artists justify their own comps: Issa Juma alone got two from Sterns. No matter, because to use the name of an Orchestre Shika Shika comp, this is hit after (lengthy) hit. The complementary guitars of Shika Shika’s “Diabanza” are typical, the lead spewing new ideas, the rhythm deciding it’ll keep playing the same figures and you’ll like it. Nairobi Matata Jazz’s “Dada Mwajuma” breaks off to chatter mid-song; the singers party harder afterwards. Les Volcano’s “Hakuna Dawa Ya Mapenzi” (“There Is No Love Potion”), possibly an answer song to “Dawa Ya Mapenzi” by their predecessor group Orchestre Super Volcano (a rare example of name deflation) might have the most fetching vocal, by Charles Ray Kassembe I think. Nine songs in all, and every one holds up for its eight-to-ten minutes. Now all I need is for someone to explain the significance of the Spanish subtitles.
Grade: A (“Hakuna Dawa Ya Mapenzi (La Guitarra Sónica)”, “Diabanza (La Gallina Java)”, “Dada Mwajuma (La Pistola)”)
Edit: See Glen’s explanation of the Spanish subtitles in the comments.
A writer’s record for sure, the most singular thing about it is Scorzari’s hoarse-walks-into-a-bar voice, full of tenderness and clarity as well as character. The settings roam from Atlantic to Pacific; the music is compatible with the geography. Mandolin, steel, a woman singing backup? Must be a Kelly Reichardt movie. It’s not obvious whether his narrators are just one guy with a lot of digits on his odometer, but say that they are and they sum to an artful study of a constant explorer, full of little anecdotes and not-quite-jokes, with the past or maybe a head-on with a semi only a lane change away. The rent-a-band (that’s Miranda’s consigliere Danny Mitchell playing piano and organ) is worth his former trial attorney money, and effects like Native American instruments and a Tibetan singing bowl are used sparingly until the final track. In “Tryin’, Tryin’, Tryin’, Tryin’” he sings overlapping English and Navajo vocals for twelve minutes, and it works inasmuch as the album is about the process of questing more than the outcome. Best American road music since Harpoons-era Ezra Furman.
Grade: A MINUS (“Not Should’ve Known”, “All Behind Me Now”, “Multnomah Falls”)
Killer Mike: Michael
From Pitchfork to the World Socialist Website, the online left has turned on him (the ’Fork complained about him mentioning his Benzes—imagine, a rapper bragging about having nice cars) to the extent that there are whispers that El-P is the better emcee, which, come on man. Until he files to run for Georgia State Senate, I’m not interested in litigating his photo-ops. Instead, I’ll claim it’s evident his skill level is at the same plateau it’s been at throughout the RTJ era: full of earned authority and moment-to-moment clarity, if perhaps lacking the nerve to hit the extra gear he deployed in his youth. To compensate, he’s more open about his past sins than he’s ever been, especially on “Slummer”, a confession to wronging a teenage lover; their shared naivete (underlined by a choral “We’ve Only Just Begun”) doesn’t make him less of a cad. And though the WSWS may not have his back, he still has everyone in the Atlanta hip hop scene on his side: even André 3000 shows up for an (excellent) cameo, the rap equivalent of a John Lewis endorsement.
Grade: A MINUS (“Slummer”, “Scientists & Engineers”, “Something for Junkies”)
Having played together on so many good records (the Mary Halvorson-led Code Girl is a favorite), it’s long been inevitable they’d make a trio album worthy of their aggregate talent, but I didn’t predict they’d do it by switching drummer Tomas Fujiwara to vibes a big chunk of the time. On that instrument, he constructs catchy modernist melodies, with the likes of “Future Reruns and Nostalgia” more ethereal than truly spooky, whereas behind the kit he brings his usual post-bop accuracy to weirdo rhythms. Halvorson isn’t content to rest on her laurels as the most acclaimed guitarist in jazz (except by Downbeat readers); the not-quite parallel lines of “Survival Fetish” are novel to me, while the long, artfully-constructed runs and self-duels one expects from her are in high supply. Bassist Michael Formanek, who has the plurality of writing credits, holds the compositions together when Fujiwara moves to mallets; otherwise he’s free to explore the full range of his instrument or complement Halvorson in loop games, like on the well-named “Fidgety”. Glad they’re still discovering new ways to be free.
Grade: A MINUS (“Survival Fetish”, “Capsicum Annuum”, “Multicolored Midnight”)
These 1971 Casablanca recordings are the birth of desert blues, says label Radio Martiko, who have double gatefolds to sell; Sahel Sounds instead calls the Ahl Nanas a Mauritanian Patridge Family. To me, a big appeal is that the sound has almost no rock in it, one sibling holding an electric guitar on the cover notwithstanding. I don’t grok which Moorish mode is used where, let alone the lyrics, but to me, the primary fusion seems to be with the wider world of Arabic popular music. Pentatonic simplicity is compromised by microtonal embellishments, and the yearning is for secular accomplishment rather than spiritual infinitude, no matter how many songs are over six minutes. Boy-I-think singer Yassine Ould Nana, who may be the same Yacine who became his nation’s Michael Jackson in the Eighties—Mauritanian pop history isn’t well-documented on the English-language Internet—maintains an easy appeal without having to resort to hitting the notes too exactly, and the loose band holds together through stops and starts. Whatever this was the birth of, it’s clear they wanted to be starting something.
Grade: A MINUS (“Ahlane Ouassahlane”, “Ya Llali Ya Ouichi”, “Adji Kar Teri Miri”)
Sam Coomes sounds youthful for someone who’s played the grumpy old indie rock vet since before the current century. From the opening “Last Long Laugh”, which rolls out its descending lines with a not-funny-anymore determination to play through it, he and Janet Weiss cram a parade of contemporary wonders and horrors into a statement that Pitchfork 6.3’d, calling them “middle class”; in fairness, Quasi’s on record as having raised money for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU rather than the Multnomah County Communist Party or something. Those willing to enjoy indie rock songs for their descriptive and evocative qualities rather than their theoretical apparatus, or, failing that, for some hooky synth vamps and for the scene’s universally (minus two people) acknowledged most invaluable drummer might score this higher. “Shitty is Pretty” is a throwback statement of aesthetics; if anything, a little more shittiness wouldn’t have gone astray. And on “Rotten Wrock”, which may be about the emperor’s-new-clothed media mogul of your choice, the two of them have the meanest fun either of them has had in years.
Grade: A MINUS (“Last Long Laugh”, “Shitty Is Pretty”, “Rotten Wrock”)
King of Drums, he’s merely a Tenured Professor (at a solid teaching university) of Rapping. His skills, as sharp as ever, are deployed with ambition; from the opening “Turf Rider”, he spits at speeds he’d have disdained as showing off in his youth, while on “Endless Counter-Attack” he flips between 6/8s and swung beats. Less altered are his references: pupils who don’t know who Tito Santana’s tag team partner was will have a lot of cramming to do. If he’s unwilling to rap about his “ten years living in exile” (or much that’s happened in the Trudeau era, the must-rhyme Shohei Ohtani aside), he has a Substack for that anyway. There’s no lack of tight rhymes—he’s kicking himself for not coming up with “Sissy Spacek”/”shitty paycheck” 20-odd years ago; hell, he’s still mad about Kanye’s “Gnarls Barkley”/“Charles Barkley” in 2007, and he has much higher standards for himself. Maybe not a Hall of Famer, but an interesting career.
Grade: A MINUS (“Endless Counter-Attack”, “Mono No Aware”, “Super Dope”)
For their umpteenth record together since the Vandermark 5, saxophonist Rempis and drummer Daisy invite around violinist Feldman, who’s come home to Chicago after a few years playing sessions in Nashville followed by a few decades in NYC collaborating with everyone from John Zorn to They Might Be Giants (that’s him on “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”.) Feldman can play lyrically or dirgily, and his interplay with Rempis and Daisy is outstanding. About twenty minutes into “Ostro”, the first 28-minute half, Rempis comes back after a percussion break with some alto jabs, and in time Feldman joins in, countering with his own sharp phrases, then bringing out the rest of his palette—descending flurries, harsh chords, or sliding up and down a string. While they continue to squall away on the second half, “Bora”, it isn’t quite as intense, and the first half is free to listen on Bandcamp. It’s worth your ten to fifteen bucks anyway.
Grade: B PLUS (“Ostro”)
I failed to pay attention to him for twenty years, missing even the Black Panther sequel where he was Chadwick Boseman’s chief musical mourner. So I was shocked how contemporary he sounds pushing 70. The old ways are by no means abandoned: there’s plenty of bass ngoni and trad drums, and melodies are in theory traceable to Fula and/or Senegalese sources. But producer Johan Karlberg hits the one hard, and Maal’s guests pin him to the 21st century, especially Mauritanian party rapper/declaimer General Paco Lenol. More conservative are The Very Best, who join in on “Freak Out”, which appears to be about how the Internet is forever; more serious is “Ndungu Ruumi”, about the desertification of his hometown in the north. With a little multitracking, Maal’s singing is authoritative as ever, no matter how dry the air gets.
Grade: B PLUS (“Mbeda Wella”, “Yerimayo Celebration”, “Freak Out”)
Though I didn’t love Wild Up’s Vol. 3: If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?—I prefer Jace Clayton’s Satanic 2013 “Evil N***er” to their overorchestrated one—it reminded me to return to this. Fittingly for an exploration of joy, the structure is that of a sandwich. The bookending “Joy Boy” and “Stay on It” play with vocal-instrumental contrasts, exclaiming “stay on it” and “ya ya ya” over chattering flutes and farts that put the ass in bassoon. There are two versions of “Buddha”: “Field” and “Path”. The topographical metaphor works at first: in “Field”, the 30-piece orchestra clears vast spaces in which minor slopes are momentous, but then “Path” sounds pretty fieldy as well. One Jiji Guitar arranges and executes “Light” and “Heavy” takes on “Touch Him When”, and you need not have a Decibel subscription to guess which is more satisfying.
Grade: B PLUS (“Stay on It”, “Buddha (Field)”, “Touch Him When (Heavy)”)
Corook: Serious Person (Part 1) EP
Fjuck it, let’s go one by one: a love song for the times sung with a caress; a parade of insecure reveries that gives genuine insight as to what being enby means; a broken family song that turns into an aging song, which, however sensitive, one could at least wait until one’s thirties to write, I’m just saying; an “I can’t believe how hot my life partner is” song worthy of Brad Paisley over beats worthy of TikTok; millennial depression song that stands out in a world of millennial depression songs for its bravery; a youthful self-discovery song that doesn’t stand out in a world of youthful self-discovery songs; and the irresistible fish one. Lovable? For sure. Serious? That too.
Grade: B PLUS (“If I Were a Fish”, “Tiny Little Titties”, “Serious Person”)
Ballots for the 2003 poll are due Friday. Get allocating!
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