It's been ages since I wrote anything about music. I call this series "In the Changer" even though as much of my music listening happens through the algorithm-fueled magic of my iTunes random shuffle as by cd. Indeed, what usually happens is I'll get a cd, burn it onto my laptop and onto my office computer and will put it in a pile of cds in my car, which is likely the last time I'll actually pull out that cd because between iTunes on my computer and my iPod, let's face it: The cd is an anachronism, despite the fact that the compressed digital sound is far inferior in quality.
All that said, I still believe in the idea of the album. And I still consume music by the album, whether on cd or through the magic of downloading (and I still have the tendency to transfer music onto a backup cd -- keep in mind that problem some time ago when Amazon pulled books people had bought directly from peoples' Kindles.
Anyhow, I've tons of catching up to do, so there might be a lot of writing about music in the next few weeks.
Antony and the Johnsons -- The Crying Light: I was introduced to Antony (real name) and the Johnsons (not) by my friend Dan, who was one of my professors at UNCC. We have always shared music with one another and there is enough mutual benefit that we both introduce one another to lots of new stuff. If I were to characterize Antony's voice I would say that it evokes a more operatically inclined Jeff Buckley. This is what I would call "time and place" music inasmuch as it won't fit every occasion. I can listen to, say, U2 or Radiohead just about any time and anywhere. This is better as Sunday brunch or writing or bedtime music. It might not represent the best playlist to pull out at a party. Grade: B
Arcade Fire -- "The Suburbs": This is the It Band of 2010. And in reality Arcade Fire have been the It Band for quite a while now (Funeral in 2004 and Neon Bible in 2007 were arguably the best albums of their respective years). And why not? The shit-to-quality ratio in music -- and not just in this era -- is always gallingly disappointing. Yet there is always good stuff to listen to, and the best stuff in any given generation is as good as that in every given generation. Most people get frozen in time when it comes to music, and that time tends to be in those years between 16 and 22, high school and college, a phenomenon that I have always found sad, especially since these are the sorts of people always most inclined to make declarations about rock being dead and music was better when, and all of the grand pronouncements that can only be made when one adopts a pose of defiant ignorance and gauzy nostalgia. For the rest of us who care about music, however, time marches on. There are those for whom music ended when the Beatles broke up or when Kurt Cobain gave up on this mortal coil. That's too bad. They are missing out on Arcade Fire, and they are missing out on what will likely be the album of the year in the mind of a lot of critics and fans, some of whom will someday insist that music died when Arcade Fire broke up in 2016. Grade: A
Belle and Sebastian -- Belle and Sebastian Write About Love: The most endearingly twee band of all is, endearingly, somewhat less twee on their latest offering. But the essentials are the same -- catchy melodies with a sweet sadness, lush musicianship and production, boy-girl vocals, pure pop sounds with clever lyrics. If you like Belle and Sebastian you'll like this album. If you don't like Belle and Sebastian you'll reject my opening premise in this paragraph. I like Belle and Sebastian. Grade: B+
BLK JKS -- After Robots: Languages: English, Xhosa, Pedi, Zulu, and Tswana; Musical strands: Township jazz, mbqanga, rock, and Kwaito: These are the influences of BLK JKS, a South African export that carries with it a melange of post-Apartheid influences and that continues to stand on the cusp of being South Africa's breakthrough hipster export. Think TV on the Radio and you have a pretty good sense of the polyglot, complex, and occasionally frustrating sound BLK JKS (pronounced "Black Jacks") brings to the table. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed with my first exposure to BLK JKS, a group I had actually never even heard referenced in South Africa at the time they started getting modest amounts of exposure in the sorts of circles where modest amounts of exposure equal massive amounts of buzz. But something keeps bringing me back to these guys, and I suspect it's that they produce a daring, epic sound that challenges and engages. In that sense too they are much like TV on the Radio. At a certain point promise has to reach fruition and the whole has to start adding up to something approximating the sum of its parts. BLK JKS isn't there yet, but they keep knocking on the door, and for me that's enough to keep me coming back. Grade: B
The Corin Tucker Band -- 1,000 Years: The starting point for this album will always have to be Sleater-Kinney, one of my favorite bands of all time, the apogee of all of the Riot Grrrl sturm und flannely drang of the post-Nirvana 90s. Corin Tucker was part of that power trio, a band I saw close the Olympia Theater and who had at least two albums that changed my life (Dig Me Out, The Hot Rock; run, don't walk; order them now, thank me later). Tucker's voice was one of the key reasons for SK's sublime power, a weapon that was all the more potent because it was not always fully unleashed. But when it was, oh, what a weapon. And so naturally the expectation that many fans had of this album was that it would be all about unleashing. As a result there is a hint of lamentation in the reviews. I can see that, but it is beside the point. We always expect our favorite artists to release a slightly different version of their last album, which is why it takes more than one listen to get a sense of just about any new album, but especially from a familiar artist, and why the first impression is almost always naive disappointment. The same can be said of solo releases -- we expect them to take on the character of the artist, to be sure, but mostly just to take on that character while giving us a stripped down version of their original band. With Sleater-Kinney on indefinite hiatus (and fans hang on to that label because the idea of a complete breakup is simply too much to bear) that yearning for the familiar was all the more trenchant. Tucker fully unloads in one song, "Doubt." This song has it all. Vertiginous guitar, drums getting the piss pounded out of them, and that voice. Holy fucking shit, that voice. She completely unloads at the 45 second mark, only briefly, and you're hanging on the very edge of the world during that entire time. There is a dopey 16-measure interregnum in the middle of the song that makes no sense whatsoever, just crashing waves and silence, but then they seem to use that as an excuse to drumkick a watusi beat out of nowhere, and why the fuck not? 3:22 of almost perfection, and almost perfection is usually better than perfection. Grade: A