Semipop Life: White hunters nearly crazy
Dry Cleaning, BaianaSystem, Carsie Blanton, Blackpink, and more!
“Artsy British woman talks over post-punk” has long been a rewarding micro-genre, and if you’re willing to accept that talking really means talking, sometime fashion illustration lecturer Florence Shaw’s only-sometimes-a-monotone is an eloquent instrument. You might prefer the band’s earlier EPs, particularly Sweet Princess, if you’d rather hear Shaw express her thoughts about stuff conversationally (where the conversations are often as awkward as in the current Fleabag-to-I May Destroy You wave of British cringe, Shaw’s bloody sensibleness notwithstanding) without heavy use of modernist trickery. I’d rather hear her play at disjunction, pasting together Gertrude Stein enigmatic observations with overheard dialogue fragments to give some sense of the multiplicity of contemporary English life. When she shuffles from “I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe and I’ve come to smash what you made” to “Why don’t you want oven chips now?” in a few lines, she parodies the relentlessly logical progression of her g-b-d. Crucially, there’s plenty to parody. On the LP, they grow from three-and-a-half to four-minute men, using the extra room to stretch newly longer legs, with ex-hardcore guitarist Tom Dowse employing all manner of gear tricks to add weight to his fine-art riffs. Then when Shaw finally does sing, it’s dada, dada.
Grade: A (“Scratchcard Lanyard”, “Unsmart Lady”, “More Big Birds”)
What to do when the evidence that your country has gone horribly astray becomes overwhelming? It would be reductive to claim that it’s something in the Brazilian national character makes these specialists in all styles decide to party their way out of it, but I don’t write a Brazilian music blog so I’ll leave that statement there. The title OxeAxeExu seems to have been chosen because it allowed the highly metal cover logo, but it also imparts the sense of diverse but compatible parts uniting, Voltron-style. The album itself takes three previously released EPs—trans-Atlantic piracy one, instrumentalish one, pan-American friendship one—and shuffles them such that individual elements remain distinct. The carnival elapses in Portuguese and Spanish and Swahili, with Cuban rhythms and rap beats and all manner of Baiano/a sounds. As music, it’s remarkably assured, at a level of musicianship to which few party bands aspire. As a model for what Brazil could be once the fascists are chased off, well, there’s an election next year.
Grade: A MINUS (“Oxe”, “Capucha”, “Catraca”)
Buck Up felt like the sort of career peak a clear-headed and unneurotic career singer-songwriter can luck into like it’s an inside straight. So even though this isn’t quite as seductive at the tune level, in a way it’s more impressive. It’s hard to identify a Trump-era political songwriter as consistent—Killer Mike I guess, but Blanton has a couple more notes. She puts across how hard and how brave it is to be good in this country, among others. But she doesn’t want to make it any harder than it has to be, nor any less enjoyable: some can dance at the revolution, others can sing along. And there are the love songs. Contrary to what you might’ve heard, love is often fun too.
Grade: A MINUS (“Be Good”, “Down in the Streets”, “Shitlist”)
José Carlos Schwarz & le Cobiana Djazz: Lua Ki Di Nos
How’s this for leftist bona fides: his pro Guinea-Bissau independence activism earned him two years in Portuguese prison, which you bet he got a song out of. He then ran the new country’s Department of Art and Culture before the revolutionary council got sick of him and shipped him off to Cuba, where he died in a perhaps suspicious plane crash in 1977, aged 27. Relevant for our present purposes is that his politics informed his music, and that his music brings it. The grooves are mostly various Afro-Latinisms in the vein of early Baobab, with touches of what I assume are local traditions (proto-gumbe?) blended with modern sounds most beguilingly on “Flema Di Korcon”. Zé Carlos was an authoritative singer in the manner of Fela, but with a little more flexibility: someone willing to go where the music and his beliefs would take him.
Grade: A MINUS (“Na Kolonia”, “Mindjeris De Panu Pretu”, “Tiu Bernal”)
The Boys from Nairobi: Benga and Rumba from 1980s Kenya
Boys indeed, how many how many? Five brotherhoods, each providing an A-side and a B. The Kyanganga Boys Band play guitar licks high on the neck (and in tune!) in a classic benga style. The Kangundo D Boys (the “D” is for dangerous) groove more subtly, if less in tune, naming one track after fallen culture hero Mbarak Mwinshehe, whose influence is all over this album. The Kirurumo Boys play like Zaiko Langa Langa superfans, with vocal harmonies that actually sound premeditated. The Nyeri Honey Boys also demonstrate pan-African sources, without being copyists; “Ndikwenda Kwanangwo” has a two-part structure that doesn’t so much climax as scuttle in another direction. The Kali Kali Boys are the least original here, but one of their titles translates as “manners are character” so I won’t complain. For those of us who eat this stuff up, yum yum.
Grade: A MINUS (“Njeri”, “Ivinda Ya Tene”, “Mpenzi Maggie”)
He’s not a showy melodist, and his nonagenarian buddy and short documentary subject Joy Teraoka (née Takeshita) might still beat him out as first string singer for the George Igawa Orchestra. This hardly matters, as his subjects are under- or uncovered in popular music, and his treatment of them shows an academic’s rigor and a buddy’s sensitivity. Capturing the entirety of East and Southeast Asian diasporic history in twelve songs (not to mention a solidarity verse with land border crossers) would be impossible even if his attempt to cram the last 414 years of Filipino history into three and a half minutes was a little faster. But he makes a jolly good show of being representative, down to the Trump-voting aunt he aspires to empathize with, instead of just quietly disenfranchising like a normal leftist would. That’s why he gets that Smithsonian money.
Grade: A MINUS (“The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming”, “Tell Hanoi I Love Her”, “Close Your Eyes and Dream of Flowers”)
I give in, mostly. Though I question whether they’ve spent the necessary time with primary sources to gain any novel insight into undecided voters or Dragonball Z movies, as yet they show no shortage of catchphrases to dangle from hook to hook. The real step up is that their melodies are structurally improved, with strategic lulls to make the choruses pop more. The arrangements too are savvier, with enough variation upon repetition of verse-prechorus-chorus, and the occasional bridge that effortlessly leads back to the main sequence without too much spillage. And when they stumble upon a subject they know about, such as waiting in line, one might detect a hint of feeling.
Grade: A MINUS (“Nashville Wedding”, “Waiting in Line”, “Undecided Voters”)
Dinosaur Jr.: Sweep It into Space
Minorly miraculous: as good as, say, Where You Been on a fraction of the budget, though that also means it’s merely a good Dinosaur Jr. album. Mascis hasn’t expanded his subject matter and Barlow and Murph aren’t going to learn how to swing this decade. Yet there’s something affecting about fifty-somethings taking teenpop/Radiohead truisms like “I ain’t good alone” or “Think I lost myself” and hammering away at them with distortion and snare thuds, simply because that’s what they’ve always done together. Mascis’s solos are to the point and emotionally consistent with the writing. For a minute there, he finds himself.
Grade: B PLUS (“I Ain’t”, “I Ran Away”, “Hide Another Round”)
Genesis Owusu: Smiling with No Teeth
Ghana-to-Canberra sing-rapper with a distinctive alt-hop sonic identity, powered by a veteran backing band that uses all their Australian wiles to construct a funk more disciplined than the currently en vogue stoned Californian varietal (at least until the floppy one near the end that plagiarizes Janet’s “Together Again” and/or the Full House theme song.) Is he especially good at sing-rapping? That’s mostly beside the point, but since the reviews often bewilderingly mention Prince, I’m obligated to say not yet, in terms of either delivery or writing (gold chains: did you know they are also cold chains?) Still, he has the fortitude to use “I Don’t See Colour” as an ironic title, and it seems plausible that he might write a whole song that wicked before long.
Grade: B PLUS (“Waitin’ on Ya”, “I Don’t See Colour”, “The Other Black Dog”)
Blackpink: The Album
After four years of singles and EPs, this A-list girl group receiving an export push (they were on Gaga’s Chromatica, remember that one) makes a first Korean-language full-length with eight whole tracks. On the hits, producers including R. Tee and 24 show they’re aware of hyperpop and will happily employ its wave and melody shapes while eschewing that movement’s strangeness. The rest is mostly trap-pop generics, with “Crazy Over You” the only one I need and the closing inspirational anthem the only one I don’t want. The ringers make next to no impact: Selena Gomez has little to do, and Cardi phones it in to a degree that would be unacceptable to anyone steeped in K-pop’s work ethic. Maybe she’s the sensible one.
Grade: B PLUS (“Lovesick Girls”, “How You Like That”, “Crazy Over You”)