Bachata Roja/Vijana Jazz Band
Oldies but Goodies, Pained and Jocose
This introduction to Dominican son was "recorded live to 2-track," sniffs the same label's co-released Bachata Legends, in which the original artists re-record decades-old classics smoothly and even beautifully but seldom enthrallingly. What the original vocals lacked in accomplished ease they made up and then some in quirky intensity, and they weren't anything like amateurish. With more at stake professionally and personally, these young singers grabbed onto the "bitterness" at the heart of their barrio-bohemian genre so as to dramatize not only the pain of thwarted love but the hunger for public identity that eats at a people after half a century of tyranny. Sometimes it's almost like they're crying. A MINUS
Vijana Jazz Band: The Koka Koka Sex Battalion: Rumba, Koka Koka & Kamata Sukuma: Music From Tanzania 1975-1980 (Sterns)
One band with two names so it could record over quota when it managed the journey to the studio in Nairobi, Vijana Jazz Band and its Koka Koka Sex Battalion doppelganger favored the typical East African iteration of soukous's rippling guitars. Sometimes this approach is compared to country music, but that's a metaphor, not a musical analogy‑-these guys aren't true soloists, and rarely is Nashville guitar so ramshackle. In East African rumba, guitars provide atmosphere more than content. The content's in the jocosely hectoring vocals and single-line saxophone interjections, which with this enjoyable little band are numerous and various enough to engage non-Swahili speakers who find some of the melodies warm and others tepid. B PLUS
Happy Chanukah, if you swing that way, from Cambridge, MA, where last night I tried to get my 14 year old interested in the Klezmatics holiday record and pretty much all I got was an arch "oh they're using minor key to make it sound more Jewish. So cliched."
As Paul Lynde sang, "what's the matter with kids today?"
I like Wild Flag (#48! Shouldn't this be higher?) I would think so and, in isolation, it's an A- album. Than you put on an S-K album and you say "Why did Wild Flag forget to included any lyrical content?" Sounds good, though.
Bingo! We have a winner.
ETA: Also this one that one of my friends kept sneaking into the queue at my Christmas party last weekend http://goo.gl/3XsVC
Sorry for repeating, but: I live in North County San Diego, and have for most of my life. Lucky Jason Gubbels lives downtown; I live in the boring suburbs with my wife Wendy, where it's slightly harder to find a good restaurant. I did grow up in Birmingham, Alabama (leaving when I was nine) and in my 20s lived in Los Angeles (where I went to college) and DC and Chicago (following a college girlfriend, more or less). I wish I lived in New York City -- it's where Wendy and I got married, in Central Park's Belvedere Castle. Someday.
There was actually a somewhat pastoral period shortly before that accident (November) when we were winterizing systems, which is a lot less stressful and allowed for a lot more album-listening time. In the spirit of the Live Wire files Cam had gifted, I did some research on the periods of the band I hadn’t investigated – namely, post-1979. I didn’t even know Document & Eyewitness was mostly originals. Everything after that bad art EP that used to be 154’s CD penalty was a mystery to me, so having found Wire too arty-rocky to treasure (as opposed to songy, and not rocky enough after that first blast), I was pleasantly startled to find a Stephen Hague dream-amalgam of Beauty Stab and early Tennant/Lowe; a scintillating little robotic counterpart to Cloudland; pop! In certain theoretical models I’m sure Wire’s punk pedigree helps less-inclined listeners justify its product, but really it needs neither justification or intellectualizing – it’s just weird, wild future-age radio, as faux-deep as Big Audio Dynamite but at least as compelling, and a monumental redemption of the McCartney II school of English electrodabblers.
Graham Lewis always drew the lion’s share of my fascination with Wire, a group I’ve by now done some serious delving-into, and mostly because it was so often associated with a kind of revulsion. 70s Graham Lewis – a stout little gargoyle of a guy who spent the first Wire rehearsal being made fun of, who opens the band’s bit on Roxy London WC2 by stuffily huffing “pay attention”, whose nerdy little Pink Flag lyrics are full of little pseudo-academic riddles and are sodden with sexual resentment and are nevertheless drenched out by astonishing music – has always struck me as one of rock’s less savory personalities. “I Should Have Known Better”, christ; that’s the high school fringe kid you knew even you could probably beat up but who still somehow seriously unsettled you. (I swear on my life that I was not that kid.) But even though his little fear/contempt of the opposite sex remains creepy (“Ambitious”) or just generally embarrassing (“Feed Me”), Lewis’ over-the-top vocals are one of the more enjoyable sonic components of The A List, particularly those bourgeois little interjections (“buzz, buzz”), giving the sense of a former freak having evolved into a stately social misfit who still somehow resists sexiness. “Torch It!” is as cute a pleasure as “Kidney Bingoes”, wherein Lewis’ vocal ascensions toward the coda make want to cry my eyes out. Nowadays, of course, he’s the one who ended up aging the best, and writing the best songs.
Time to go take more amphetamines!
20. The Mountain Goats, "Damn These Vampires" & "For Charles Bronson"
19. Wire, The A List 1985 – 1990
You have friends and you think that they're the greatest people in the world, but there comes a time when you realize, all at once or it can come upon you gradually, that your friends aren't the greatest people in the world but they're actually parasites sucking the blood from you – not because they need the blood but just for their own entertainment. And then you have like one friend on your shoulder saying you're just being neurotic, your friends are great, and yourself in the middle saying 'no they're not, look at the facts'.
This fairly relatable (and awkward) ramble, a quote from Darnielle as gleaned from (alleged) concert attendance, is the big reason I cottoned so hard to the inarguably attractive "Damn These Vampires" this year, which has the kind of undeniable little chorus that renders me permanently fond of a song even if I grow to realize I don't actually care for it. It's not about cowboys (or lost boys) after all – it's about outgrowing your pals! Dropping almost obscenely obvious hints throughout the verses that he's talking about misfit kids spending their adolescence, teenhood & beyond ****ing around in their hometown ("mount those bridge rails", "scream when captured", “feast like pagans", “sleep like dead men”), the point it makes is actually a rather daring and empowering one. Not only do bad friendship guesses do serious long-term damage, it's not your fault, even if you were the one who decided to take the chance.
In a year where a person, say, exhausts most of their emotional energy on a live-in girlfriend whose refusal to put forth effort in the years since you lost your best friend and confidant to a girl you cheated on said girlfriend with has already resulted in the disintegration of an active domestic fantasy, while at the same time that former best friend, confidant and songwriting partner (who spent a year ignoring your calls after having talked with you every day for six years) is telling you to ditch her and move out to L.A. where you could start the band again and try it for real this time, and meanwhile his girlfriend is flirting with you and he's waiting for his last unemployment check and stealing groceries to eat and when you start to indicate you probably can't move out there he starts to get weird and then stops talking to you without warning again, and on top of that you're working forty-five hours a week on people's sprinkler systems in ****ing New Jersey when all you ever wanted to be in life was a great artist/intellectual and paid to do that and only that and live an imaginary high life and now that you realize you can't you're getting basically just getting bummed out in a supreme fashion -- this is purely hypothetical -- in a year where that happens, a song like "Damn Like Vampires" stands a pretty serious chance of establishing an eternal emotional attachment, even if the more workmanlike nature of its construction doesn't entirely befit a master like Darnielle. A year after Tallahassee felt uncomfortably close, Darnielle had given my misery another brilliant mouthpiece. So that’s why it’s on my little list.
By the end of the year, Joey's long-supported "For Charles Bronson", a wiser and more all-encompassing empowerment-anthem-from-the-brink-of-collapse, had gained traction and become the one I preferred on a record I still wasn't sure about. I got in a ****ing car accident listening to that one, after which my car got towed because I somehow didn't have the insurance handy or my phone, and there's more I could relay but the point is that I didn't ever end up buying that copy of the deluxe Daydream Nation.
Bottom line: John Darnielle is amazing. (“I am gonna make it/through this year/if it kills me…”)
(Not sure if that was diaristic or merely diarrheic. But anyhow --)
Wouldn't it be crazy if we really were faking it and had stolen the identity of four people who happened to be friends??
22. Amy LaVere, “Stranger Me”
21. Withered Hand, Good News
Broken is beautiful, be it pro or be it ragamuffin. On the title track of the slick third entry in a career not dissimilar to St. Vincent’s, LaVere quiets down from the anthemic heroics of the standard-ready “Damn Love Song”, which is so titanic it swallows her voice, and bathes her guarded plea in sonics you wouldn’t notice on a U2 record, the sort of city-lights synthetic throb that typically compels critics to use the word “sonics”. It befits a brilliant no-breakup-please plaint whose closest recent spiritual cousin is “Mountain of Tires” – the music’s cautiously seductive invitation mirrors the level-headed humanity and hugely affecting honesty of the lyric, a sort of how are ya with a subtext of deep, dignified yearning the music never once fails to completely inhabit. It’s a climax worthy of the finest Eno (or at least Daniel Lanois) when it all coalesces and then lifts upward, hurling every lovely little subtle hook imaginable at you along with a repeat of that most stirring lyric – “laugh at the traffic”. She's singing to someone who could compel her to the point of peak expressive satisfaction in that most claustrophobic and deadening of situations, a rare and significant quality even if she's lying to herself about it. She ought to have called this one “Real Love”.
Broken is beautiful, be it ragamuffin or be it pro. Dann Wilson isn’t actually too thrilled about hangin’ on the boulevard with the idiot savants, so he reckons it his divine right to cut a pop confessional. He knows an emphasis on the less attractive details of his pained existence don ‘t exactly qualify him for a higher-order crowd, but he’s compelled to set it all to the prettiest music he can conjure up with his amigos simply because he has in him a joy and that joys needs to be beaten out. Riding an much-needed poster-boy train re: the psychological destruction in which religion usually results, Wilson can’t shake the idea that love is a disease and chooses to focus most of his literary autobiography on that definitive handicap, which badly needs the exorcising. It’s a niche he inhabits with the deftness of an expert, but keep him away from Trevor Horn or he’ll be staging uncomfortable, pretentious musicals about that ****.
Really, though, I’m satisfied with my characteristically overwrought assessment on 5 Records: "The irrefutable intrinsic value of a basic universal morality notwithstanding, religion remains one of humanity’s worst enemies, whether poisoning our political discourses or stagnating fine psychologies as those they belong to try to make sense of life’s unavoidable chaos. On this miracle of an album, amiably unassuming Edinburgh everybloke Dan Willson spends ten perfect songs gently keeping this demon at bay, while struggling to make sense of the damage it’s done to him for no good reason at all. He’s tried to make a real and earthbound love his ticket to ride, incurring further wounds from merely wishing his dick were inside her; the emotional toll that sleeveworn heart has endured bedecks every rivetingly plainspoken sentence. It’s that pure and hardly unpoetic directness that makes these lyrics the best you’ve heard and will hear in a while, shambling from contradictory thought to random-**** image with a clarity and conviction nobody this ****ed up should be so capable of. And he’s set them to the first absolution that’s ever really worked in a life devoted to the pursuit of one, a splendorous folk that combines the fragile backroom beauty of pre-pro Belle & Sebastian with an oddball prowess forged in his own image. As casual baroque touches sweeten the empty spaces, he sermonizes in a voice that’s either perennially threatening to crack or perpetually stuck in the middle of one, every careful word intoned with the misery of age and the ebullience of its accompanying wisdom."
I like Wild Flag (#48! Shouldn't this be higher?)
I approach 50 (middle age? Or am I already there?)
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.
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