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Leap Second — Ten important things before the half-year ends.
1. Chromatics – songs from Dear Tommy
Four months after the album’s promised release date, only three songs have surfaced. I don’t know how Johnny Jewel and his band operate, but “In Films,” “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around” and especially “Just Like You” are too great to suggest that they’re making it up as they go along. Clearly there’s a full album, a whole universe, that corresponds to these tracks. But even if it never arrives, the listener can just program its existing 15 minutes, followed by a silent hour of drifting in and out of strange, quiet dreams, and experience a lost masterpiece.
2. Tinashe – Amethyst
I missed out on the beloved Aquarius but Amethyst, a personal project that zooms in from star sign to birth stone, made me pay attention. Like Everything But The Girl’s Walking Wounded, its second track is called “Wrong,” this one playing like a rewrite of Tracey Thorn’s self-recrimination and an update of Ben Watt’s slinky, understated beat, made lucid, thrilling by the vocal. Like the quieter moments, the “let’s get lost” intermissions of Chance’s Acid Rap, its air of solitude reveals a contradiction: The music’s most essential when it feels most private. Or: The future is hers, even when she’s just having lunch with Alicia.
3. Jad Fair & Norman Blake – Yes
Fair’s Half Japanese returned on Joyful Noise Records for last year’s Overjoyed, and he remains there for a new one with sophisticated, summery arrangements by Teenage Fanclub’s Blake. Here, he’s so overjoyed that Yes suffices as a title. The relentless positivity of his words makes for a fascinating puzzle. Is he snagging castoff marketing slogans with punk rock cool? Is he being ironic? Is he just really in love? Whatever the case, the buoyant, breezy music sells their spirit and Fair sounds like a young man singing them.
4. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf
When I imagined Yes as the album of the summer, I didn’t know that Surf was just a few days away. It’s a deeper experience, cutting positivity and warmth with their essential counterparts, introspection and melancholy, equally good and valid summer feelings. The chilly, tranquil stuff appeals to me the most. On “Warm Enough” and “Nothing Came To Me” a singer and a trumpeter act out the titles, respectively, the former declaring self-worth amidst the music’s cool surrender, the latter searching the wasteland for a vibe, and in the contrast their heat shines through all the more brilliantly. The single best moment belongs to Chance the Rapper, singing in joyful Chance-speak “your grandma ain’t my grandma” on “Sunday Candy,” but it’s not really a competition. All his lines have a better ring to them in the context of the collective than they would on a solo album. “I don’t wanna be cool, I just wanna be me” is an easy thing to say when you’re cool, but I believe it. Clearly he’s among friends.
5. ILoveMakonnen – Drink More Water 5
I should’ve known, when Makonnen’s voice on “Tuesday” grabbed me with shades of The Rosebuds’ Ivan Howard, that his moniker would eventually prove prophetic for me, too, that I’d want to hear him in as many strange, new environments as possible. And that’s the primary advantage of Drink More Water 5, which follows an introductory freestyle with equal and opposite impulses: five slightly more conventional cuts with guest verses; five retreats to the bedroom and/or the crystal palace of Makonnen’s thoughts. Every song has something to recommend it, but I prefer the latter approach, songs where he loosens up over a lonely piano figure, fractured or pretty, songs that sound like they’re assembled from deconstructed A.R. Kane beats, songs that seem to cast him in soft light in a beautiful, empty room. But when he emerges the results are just as nice. The chimes of “trUe thang” positively glisten, like the launch of Janet Jackson’s “Escapade.” And as a rapper holding his own among his collaborators, Makonnen recalls the parched yet casual quality of Heems, the guy who once said “I need water” a few dozen times but never dried out.
6. Built To Spill – Untethered Moon
If Hard To Be A God, an immersive three-hour panorama of unalleviated human misery, taught me anything, it’s that barely controlled chaos is a person’s only hope in the world of art and physical existence. There’s nothing inevitable in life or art except its decomposition, no ultimate versions, just a bunch of stray elements that would rather fall apart held together for a brief moment. How does this pertain to the new Built To Spill record? Well, they scrapped a whole album before making Untethered Moon, and have instead captured a glow, warmth, an impression, before these things disappear, that’s sometimes not as evident on their more studied, earlier albums. It’s their Imperfect from Now On, and they’re better for it. But, imperfections aside, there are quite a few unmitigated successes here: all the energy “Living Zoo” accumulates as it feels out a tempo and a riff; the way the heavy intro of “Some Other Song” gives way to Doug Martsch’s dreamy “I can’t wait to get back home to you”; the jaunty Real Estate/The Men (when they’re jaunty) vibe of “Never Be the Same”; the guitar freakout that ends “When I’m Blind,” so sublime, such a powerful and visceral record of what the senses have to lose that “When I Go Deaf” could have been the name, if Low hadn’t already taken it.
7. Mew – +-
An archetypal, super-condensed Mew album ends up being the most difficult to gain footing with. There are no clear entry points to their madness this time, no jagged riffs in stark relief, no children’s choir, no breathers as lovely as “Silas the Magic Car,” just a steady mid-tempo thump, in a few different time signatures, supporting a labyrinth of studio effects that strains the mind’s capacity to imagine a space containing them all. Still, this being Mew, melodies and little details float to the surface over time. Enter here: the firework bursts and angelic refrain that carry “Making Friends” to outer space.
8. Waxahatchee with Girlpool and Kitten Forever – Triple Rock Social Club (Minneapolis) – Wednesday, May 6, 2015
It was Waxahatchee’s third time at the Triple Rock in under two years, and the first time all the pieces fell into place and a beautiful, seamless night of music transpired. Waxahatchee opening for Screaming Females was good, Kitten Forever opening for Waxahatchee was better, and Kitten Forever opening for Waxahatchee with an intervening set by Girlpool was better yet, a dream lineup of kindred acts that elevated the energy and mood of everyone involved.
The women of Girlpool harmonize so effectively, both as singers and guitarists, that I could only understand them in the context of the Everlys, Wilsons, and Deals, but they’re not siblings in name. Intertwining guitars recall the city at dawn that Television also carved lines into, and piercing voices, which had a confrontational edge on the duo’s punkish debut, achieve a more reflective tone on new songs like “Chinatown,” as soothing and luxurious a sonic postcard from a life in progress as the Luna or Destroyer songs of the same name.
Waxahatchee’s lineup changes slightly with each tour. This time the key players had solidified into a powerful five-piece, no longer made timid by their leader’s intimate, plainspoken songwriting. But they held back as Katie Crutchfield opened the show alone, plucking on her synth the long, low, room-quaking note that begins “Breathless.” While perhaps technically not an innovator, she does everything with such purpose and clarity that it constantly feels like she’s inventing a new vocabulary. In 2013 she created the idea of dual guitars, rock ‘n’ roll, the rock band, and in 2015 she creates the idea of synthesizers (on Ivy Tripp it’s a Moog) as new spaces for the human voice. Through that passage into the rest of the set, nothing rote or banal could pass. Only novel sensations remained.
9. Stephin Merritt with Advance Base – Cedar Cultural Center (Minneapolis) – Friday, May 15, 2015
[cut and paste full review here]
10. Shabazz Palaces with Eaters and ZuluZuluu – Fine Line Music Cafe (Minneapolis) – Thursday, June 4, 2015
9:00 — I showed up in the middle of a DJ set that moved from “Move On Up” to “That Lady” to “Rock with You” to “Sir Duke” to “Atomic Dog” to every other song you might freely associate from there. So lovely I had to close my eyes.
9:45 — Hip hop quartet ZuluZuluu came with lines I needed to hear (“free yourself from yourself”) and the kind of live, organic sound that Kendrick Lamar and his associates are bringing back to popularity.
10:45 — So far, so good, Shabazz Palaces were scheduled to appear next and it seemed nothing could interrupt the night’s pleasant flow! But, alas, the modern concert can’t escape its certain fate: a series of disconnected things happening in sequence. In place of the main act, Eaters arrived to play generic, undeveloped post-punk songs with no live drummer. I’m not sure what purpose they served except to make the night grow later and later. Afterward, the DJ tried to put things back to order and immediately cut to “King Kunta,” and then to some other vibrant R&B tune at the exact moment we heard the next pop.
11:45 — Shabazz Palaces, at last. An account from an e-mail I sent:
“The show was real cool, more prerecorded tracks than I’d been led to expect but the hand drum and vocal improvisations made it worth it. And basically I just wanted to hear bits of the albums on the best sound system in town, and I did. It was loud to the point that loud loses all meaning, and Ishmael Butler at one point started criticizing the sound guys for not being able to make it even louder, but does loud bass not hurt the ears the way loud guitars do? My ears seemed okay after.”
1:00 — I snuck out as “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” stretched past 10 minutes, 15 minutes, to break of dawn as far as I know.
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