Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory (Carpark Records)
What catapults this minor band into major league territory isn’t Dylan Baldi’s bored youth laments, a Midwestern affliction these Clevelanders investigate with little distinction - uninspiring surroundings, dead-end romances, and the hopes that art might offer meaning or at least subtext to lives predetermined. Rather, it’s the interplay of a physical band replacing the one-man-show Baldi made his name with. Hearkening back to an early-90s sound only partly imaginary (a more melodic In On the Killtaker, say), this able unit roars and churns with the complicated youthful adrenaline artsy indie once cultivated before indie got all prog. Plus, they trust their own abilities enough to not subsume their six-string interplay with distortion, choosing instead to emphasize the most caustically dry instrument at their disposal – Baldi’s voice. Of course, “they” might really just be producer Steve Albini, who continues to impart his instantly recognizable ethos to any outfit willing to put up the cash. Only I don’t think Albini twists arms so much as recommends optimal microphone placement schemes. And it’s impossible to credit Albini for a decision to follow a nine-minute noise juggernaut with two of the cutesiest numbers they’ve ever coughed up. When a young indie band pushes back against weedy lo-fi, it’s cause enough for celebration. When the weediness they’re pushing against is their own sound, even more so.
Tim Berne, Snakeoil (ECM)
Perhaps when completed oeuvres are tallied, it will be Tim Berne challenging John Zorn for the crown of post-70s downtown jazz titan. Zorn certainly has the output, name recognition, and oversized personality. But I wonder if Berne’s relatively lower profile masks an equally significant contribution to the art form. While Zorn lays claim to one of the most varied catalogues in recent semi-popular music, Berne has plugged away at a specific sound for several decades – a jagged, rock/funk-influenced take on “scripted improvisation”. And while he’s as uninterested in mere virtuosity as ever, this “chamber-like” ensemble eschews the electric/acoustic sound Berne has explored with his Science Friction band on private label Screwgun, meaning one might credit or blame ECM’s Manfred Eicher for the relatively muted tones. Yet Berne notes his move to the label was precipitated by a desire for greater distribution, and that these sessions were recorded quickly after months of intensive woodshedding. With Matt Mitchell sticking exclusively to acoustic piano and Chris Smith moving between drum set and assorted percussive devices, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and Berne help guide six lengthy tracks between tightly-composed themes and open-ended solos, each number riding waves of intensity that drift back into gentle reveries as often as they climax. This synthesis is achieved most notably on the longest number, the 14-minute “Spare Parts,” with Noriega displaying a versatility on clarinet encompassing bebop honks, classical flurries, and avant-squeaks, although the relatively brief “Not Sure” also builds impressively, hitting a memorable groove by the five minute mark. The only problem with this project is the same problem that afflicts much of Berne’s work - melodies and themes so committed to complexity they fail to distinguish themselves from each other unless you’re really paying attention. So pay attention.
Lana Del Rey, Born To Die (Universal Distribution)
The best thing about this product – a product delivered to an unwitting public courtesy of a media blitz appropriate for North Korean dictators – is the voice of the chanteuse delivering it. A dusky contralto wrongly pegged as a throwback (throwback to who? Helen Forrest? Patti Page?) because she avoids the octave-leaping tricks of her fellow sisters, Del Rey proves a committed manipulator, line-reading like a pro and handily playing the crowd. One example -“Off To The Races,” where she vacillates between coquette and hiccupping Betty Boop, quoting Lolita as she sniffs “I need you to come here and save me”. Which leads to the second best thing about this product - lyrics a good deal smarter than haters admit. Knowing, literate, winking, ironic, detached, absurd, she plays her cards so close so often that casual listeners mistake wry sarcasm for spoiled malaise. Not that plenty of these songs aren’t fairly straightforward and fairly dumb, or that extended metaphor “National Anthem” doesn’t quite achieve its aims, namely, the seamless merging of vulgar displays of patriotism with individuated sexual charms. Yet “Video Games” highlights a generational existential crisis, while “Radio” masks deep cynicism with cheery lines like “pick me up and take me like a vitamin.” And while I wouldn’t want to push the comparison, references to trash-culture signifiers abound in a manner worthy of old reprobates Fagen and Becker: “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice,” “Cipriani’s basement,” “soft ice cream,” “cherry schnapps,” “Bacardi chasers,” “Diet Mountain Dew”. If only this ironist didn’t drift away noticeably from her core strengths as an unnecessarily long album drags on to fifteen numbers. And attention must be paid to the worst thing about this product – tempos slow and unvarying enough to help ensure her worldview seems more ponderous than it really is.
Craig Finn, Clear Heart Full Eyes (Full Time Hobby)
During The Hold Steady’s Boys And Girls In America tour, a friend noted after a performance how one could eventually have their fill of Craig Finn’s shtick. And although I dug that album as I had the previous two, I knew what she meant. Odd, then, that my own skepticism only emerged when Finn chose to avoid what I assumed my friend meant by his shtick – yelling street poetry over bar band dynamics. This album is so much quieter than we’re used to that once-sympathetic listeners have claimed there’s no good lines to be found. Perhaps those listeners should redouble their efforts, then, because lines like “later on in the garage / I couldn’t find my chainsaw / and in the distance / I heard trees just fallin’ down” or “Joan Didion and Graham Greene / said roughly the same thing” seem as worthy as anything Finn’s put to paper or wax. But those lines both come from the same song, the muted Skynyrd-esque stroll of “Honolulu Blues,” and most of the other lyrics I jotted down involve Jesus. Finn remains one of our premier Catholic entertainers. But Stephen Colbert does more with the faith he un-ironically embraces than Finn does with the faith he wisely vacillates over. And Springsteen always sounded best when backed by a band that believed every word he said.
Cate Le Bon, Cyrk (The Control Group)
If you’ve ever wondered what a posh, poised, deeply pretentious Nico acolyte moaning indifferently over a Nuggets track for an entire album might sound like, you are in some kind of luck. Except the catch is that the Nuggets track is Sagitarrius’ “My World Fell Down”. Nothing wrong with being quirky, nothing wrong with crafting a detached persona, nothing wrong with shamelessly mining sounds now gone. But one could at least try to choose just one of those attributes to pursue, especially if you’re not planning on being very funny about it.
Terry Riley, Aleph (Tzadik)
When a visionary like Terry Riley comes knocking, one pays respect, even if he comes knocking with a two-hour improvised meditation for synthesizer that he accidentally recorded as an MP3 file. And since this piece was originally created for San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Aleph-Bet Sound Project, Tzadik’s choice to release it as part of their ongoing Radical Jewish Culture series makes sense. As “a meditation on the various meanings of this supreme emanation from the Hebrew alphabet,” then, it’s suitably whimsical and heady enough for a concept encompassing a humorous midrash, the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, and the giver of life to the golem. But as a listening experience, it’s a demanding slog through the limited tonal palette of the Korg Triton Studio 88 soprano sax setting. No doubt trained musicians and composers with a far greater understanding of the significance of just intonation scales could point out exactly what I’m missing. But that wouldn’t be enough to convince me that this probably worked best in the installation it was designed for.