The Go-Betweens: G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1, 1978-1984

The Go-Betweens were their own favorite band, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan met as teenaged boys at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, as Forster explains in the book that’s the centerpiece of this anthology of their first seven years together. (His 70-page history of that period is written in the third person; count on the Go-Betweens for a touch of the impersonal where it’s least expected.) They had their own ideas of what pop might be, and especially of what Australian pop might be. The very end of the book names their influences: Abba, Bowie, Creedence, Dolenz, Easybeats, Fellini, and then themselves.

The two of them bonded over their enthusiasm for film and literature at least as much as they did over music. Young men of that era didn’t become filmmakers or novelists together, because that couldn’t yield Jules et Jim, so Forster taught McLennan how to play guitar, and they started the group. (Forster described their partnership as “platonic homosexuality.”) Between 1978 and 1989, they made a small mountain of records but never made much of a ripple commercially; their 2000-2006 reunion was cut short by McLennan’s death. Forster’s essay, though, disputes the received wisdom that they “were ‘unsuccessful’ and had little luck. It is a view Forster and McLennan never shared, having taken a two-piece Brisbane bedroom band out to the world.”

The Go-Betweens have tried to organize and reassess their chaotic early period a few times now: There have been a few greatest-hits sets, 1985’s semi-bootlegged Very Quick on the Eye, 1999’s ’78 Til ’79: The Lost Album, the expanded 2002 reissues of their early albums. G Stands for Go-Betweens includes new vinyl remasters of Send Me a Lullaby (1982), Before Hollywood (1983) and Spring Hill Fair (1984), and an LP called The First Five Singles, which is just that. There are also four CDs: three discs’ worth of demos, compilation tracks, B-sides and oddities, and a live set from April, 1982, which features a few songs that mutated or disappeared before they could be recorded. This is, in other words, aimed at Go-Betweens superfans, but most of their fans were always superfans anyway.

They were a singles band more than they tended to let on—a lot of their songs are best experienced one or two at a time. The First Five Singles, released one a year from 1978 to 1982, is the most immediately delightful of these eight discs, although the very early Go-Betweens were callow, awkward, and a little uncomfortable with women, in the way that bookish young men can be. Both sides of their first single are paeans to unattainable women, one of them Lee Remick and the other a librarian who “helps me find Genet, helps me find Brecht, helps me find Chandler… she’s my god, she’s my G-O-D.” “People Say”, from 1979, is a homemade homage to the garage singles of a dozen years earlier; the next year’s skittish “I Need Two Heads” made them the only non-Scottish band to release music on Postcard Records, thanks to a trip to the UK whose charming details Forster explains in the book.

Forster has noted that people shouldn’t buy the Go-Betweens’ first album “without at least owning three others,” and he’s probably right. (The 1999 Go-Betweens retrospective Bellavista Terrace didn’t include anything from it.) Send Me a Lullaby—the LP included here is the 12-song British version that came out in early 1982, rather than the eight-song 1981 Australian version—is the kind of arch, dry post-punk that sat itchily next to, say, Essential Logic or James Chance records (the occasional blurts of James Freud’s saxophone are a reminder that that was the flavor of the underground at that particular moment).

Forster and McLennan weren’t yet comfortable with their voices; “Midnight to Neon” sounds like Forster wasn’t even sure how its melody was supposed to go. Lullaby‘s main contribution to the band’s history is introducing drummer/occasional vocalist Lindy Morrison, who was also dating Forster at the time, and who would be the backbone of the band until the end of its first incarnation in 1989. Morrison was never a showy musician, but she gracefully navigated the eccentric rhythms and time signatures that were starting to appear in both songwriters’ work.

Before Hollywood from 1983 was the first time the Go-Betweens really sounded like they would for the rest of their initial run: a little bit off to the side of the pop mainstream’s commercial-alternative tributary, looking skeptically at it as it rushed alongside them. The distinction between Forster’s writing (acidic, bristling) and McLennan’s (tender, playful) was starting to become clearer; McLennan’s first real jewel of a song, “Cattle and Cane”, is a self-consciously poetic reminiscence of his youth, set to a gorgeous mesh of acoustic and electric guitar tones in 11/8 time; Forster’s songs are the album’s tougher rockers, especially “By Chance”, which sounds more than a bit like the early Smiths (both bands were releasing records on Rough Trade at the time).

By the time they made 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, on which McLennan switched to guitar and Robert Vickers, who’d met them at their first show, took over on bass, the Go-Betweens had apparently made peace with prettiness. Its single “Bachelor Kisses” was McLennan’s sweetest-sounding song yet—although, naturally, its lyrics bit harder than his delivery suggested. The band’s reach still exceeded its grasp sometimes, and their stabs at funk and spoken-word vers libre are stumbles (although not disasters); a remake of the “Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea” single doesn’t match the frantic nervousness of the original. But you can also hear them successfully assimilating what they’d picked up through their engagement with other people’s music. “The Old Way Out” is effectively the Fall translated into the Go-Betweens’ own idiom, and Forster’s “Part Company” is Bob Dylan‘s Blood on the Tracks refracted through Australian rehearsal room windows.

Dylan’s idea of a “thin wild mercury sound” was an obvious ancestor of what McLennan and Forster had called “that striped sunlight sound,” a phrase from the sleeve of their first single that reappeared as the title of their 2005 live album. You don’t come up with something like that unless you’re very interested in figuring out how to mythologize yourself. But why shouldn’t they have? The Go-Betweens’ endless enthusiasm for their own work is what propelled them out of that Brisbane bedroom in the first place, and the richness of context that this box provides makes it a deeper pleasure than its component albums are on their own.

The first 600 copies of G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1 also features a bonus book: a volume from McLennan’s own book collection. (Domino has hinted that there are another 1200 books in reserve for follow-up collections.) That’s entirely appropriate for them in a way that it wouldn’t have been for nearly anyone else. There may have never been a more bookish great band than the Go-Betweens, and their career had a lot less to do with the kind of massive pop-cultural success that usually engenders comprehensive boxed-set histories than it did with precious artifacts passed from one fan to another.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Elephant Micah: Where in Our Woods

Elephant Micah is Joseph O’Connell, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter whose songs betray his day job as an Indiana folklorist. Take “Slow Time Vultures”, the 7-1/2-minute centerpiece of his Western Vinyl debut Where in Our Woods, which describes the time O’Connell’s childhood home in Pekin, Indiana, attracted a giant flock of vultures. The song anthropomorphizes the birds, who use the barn roof as a soapbox to lament Indiana’s conforming to Daylight Savings Time. (Prior to 2006, most of the state disregarded DST, and locals often referred to its singular zone as “slow time.”)

The vultures question and criticize fast-paced progress (“We can’t afford to go forward any more”), and O’Connell sanctifies their words in a sparse, patient arrangement. It takes about 20 seconds for him to sing the first six words—”Vultures on our old barn roof”—and he spends much of the song hypnotically plucking the low E of a nylon-stringed guitar that permeates the album, becoming its signature instrument. The effect is stark and haunting and entirely vulture friendly.

O’Connell has been experimenting with Midwestern Americana for 14 years now, but most of the 11 Elephant Micah releases prior to Where in Our Woods were primitively recorded and distributed on tiny labels or self-released on CD-Rs. Elephant Micah isn’t exactly a secret (you can find most of the releases for pay-what-you-want prices on Bandcamp), but O’Connell has remained on the margins more than friends like M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger (the two covered each other’s songs for a 7” release a few years ago). All that, plus the folklorist thing, has contributed to Elephant Micah’s outsider/not-of-this-time rep. You get the feeling O’Connell doesn’t get worked up about iTunes updates or the appropriate context for leggings.

If 2012’s Louder Than Thou refined the Elephant Micah sound, Where in Our Woods continues the distillation until, after stripping away all but guitar, voice, a pump organ, and some rumbling drums (courtesy of O’Connell’s brother Matthew), the minimalism becomes the album’s calling card (think Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s unadorned but crisply rendered Master and Everyone). The album isn’t so decorous that it doesn’t take chances, though. It’s a risk, in fact, to present O’Connell’s voice so nakedly, since it’s neither a showstopper nor terribly eccentric. He doesn’t whisper, doesn’t yell. It’s smooth, almost to a fault, but the clarity of his tenor fits the pace and spareness of these eight songs. And just when you start yearning for something more, the bonnie prince himself, Will Oldham—an obvious inspiration here—shows up to add some harmonies.

Often, folk singers are either storytellers or read-into-it-what-you-want poets, but some of this generation’s best (Oldham, Jason Molina) fall somewhere in the middle. Elephant Micah stands firmly in that middle ground, not shying away from small details nor lofty, ambiguous ideas. Without some background explanation, it would be impossible to know that “Demise of the Bible Birds” refers to an Indiana man who trained birds to perform Christian-themed tricks. Or that O’Connell ripped the three stories in the gorgeous “Albino Animals”—hunters killing an albino deer, athletes capsizing on a boat, and meth cooks avoiding prosecution for a trailer fire—from the headlines of his hometown newspaper. O’Connell, though, gives us all the details we need to ponder ignorance and the unknowability of life while falling under the spell of a bewitching, repeating guitar line that somehow communicates both the tragedy and mercy in the stories.

The songs on Where in Our Woods were all written in 2006 and 2007, and while the Elephant Micah albums of that period have an experimental, homespun charm to them, O’Connell was wise to set these songs aside until he found the right setting for them, even if that didn’t become clear for several years. As the slow time vultures sing, “Ours are the spoils and the things that we can find on our own time.” Maybe those birds are onto something.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

James Murphy: Remixes Made With Tennis Data

In 1961, John Cage laid a musical stave over a map of the galaxies and traced clusters of notes over the stars. The result was Atlas Eclipticalis, an unusual attempt at capturing the music of the spheres. He repeated the technique in 1974 for Etudes Australes, a set of short, blindingly difficult piano pieces he composed—or transcribed, anyway, with the help of the I Ching—for the pianist Grete Sultan. In a 1975 review in the New York Times, John Rockwell drew a comparison to Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, noting that “the music sounded almost serial, in a lazily erratic sort of way. The process of its creation reflects Mr. Cage’s all-embracing mysticism, but one result is to insure a harmonic randomness that Schoenberg sought by far different means.”

In the intervening years, as the world has been plotted across every type of map and grid imaginable, such translations of data points to musical values have become commonplace. Tobias Frere-Jones’ “F-Hz (#190736, 1996)” gathered a year’s worth of high and low temperature readings from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts, and converted them from Fahrenheit to hertz. On the 2000 album Traceroute, the noise collective UBSB (Zbigniew Karkowski, Atau Tanaka, Edwin Van Der Heide, and Ulf Bilting) created a Unix software agent that eavesdropped on Internet communications before translating that mass of data into abrasive noise. And in 2011, a multimedia project called the Radioactive Orchestra paired the electronic musician Axel Boman with a group of nuclear physicists to generate musical patterns from the behavior of radioactive isotopes.

The latest addition to this canon of data-oriented music making comes from James Murphy—well, strictly speaking, from James Murphy, IBM, the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, the “visual storytelling” brand agency Tool, and all of the players in the 2014 U.S. Open. Last summer, as a demonstration of IBM’s cloud-computing might, data scientists from Tool worked with Murphy to create generative music, in real time, out of all 187 matches in the tennis tournament. Excerpts of the results are available on IBM’s SoundCloud page, and while it’s difficult to discern much about their methodology from the music itself, we know from interviews with the project’s masterminds that basic variables like pitch, timbre, and tempo were determined by players’ names and seeds, temperature, court names, etc., and that game data—game score, set score, time between points, and “significant events” like aces and point breaks—determined the shape of the music as the games played out.

If you’ve listened to a few of the excerpts, you may have noticed that a little bit of this goes a long way, at least as a listening experience. (Apparently the audio was initially live-streamed as the matches played out, along with complementary visuals that parsed additional data points from the tournament.) It sounds a little like a Casiotone with the hiccups, or a small animal walking over the controls of a sequencer. A few of them are mildly unpleasant to listen to; on “Match 6, Round 1”, some variable or another has given the sound a harsh, distorted edge, suggesting an etude written on crumpled tinfoil. Others are more absorbing: “Match 104, Round 2” is animated by lively swing and odd little call-and-response motifs; “Match 184, Men’s Semifinals” is both placid and quietly stylish, as though a computer virus had hybridized the back catalogs of Windham Hill and Smallville. But only a crazy person would listen to them all. For the most part, they recede into the background, like wind chimes—or at least windchimes rigged, via strings and pulleys, to a metronome.

For the final step in this long, lazy volley between humans and machines, James Murphy has remixed various segments from the tournament into a dozen discrete tracks. A few of them, like “Match 186 Set 1”, don’t sound much less aimless than their raw material, but that’s also not a criticism; especially at these more manageable lengths, that meandering quality is part of their appeal. In general, though, Murphy’s guiding hand has become visible as he selects key motifs and reworks them into arrangements resembling techno or ambient music. “Match 4”, displaying Murphy’s fondness for Carl Craig, features steady Roland drum programming, a grinding bass arpeggio, and a dramatic breakdown, complete with congas. The breakbeat under “Match 104” brings vintage Aphex Twin to mind. In “Match 184”, harpsichord-like plucks are fleshed out with a doleful 303 line and a slow, four-to-the-floor kick drum, and the results sound uncannily like Tin Man’s mournful, drifting acid. The electro-disco ditty “Match 185” might almost be an early sketch from the Sound of Silver sessions, while the closing “Match 187″—with plucked arpeggios beating against buoyant choral pads—takes the whole collection out on a high, hopeful note.

This isn’t a major work for Murphy, which I think is implicit in the fact that it’s been given away for free. But, particularly when compared with the truly random raw data that was his source material, it has plenty of charm. Whether or not the original feed tells us anything about tennis, as he coaxes data points into patterns, and massages happenstance into meaningful events, we learn at least one thing about Murphy: this guy can make music out of virtually anything.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Death Grips: Fashion Week

Remember when Death Grips were as much a band as they were a bunch of agent provocateurs? No slight to the hype cycle-upending stunts they’ve pulled post-The Money Storeskipping highly anticipated shows (including Lollapalooza), holing up in the Chateau Marmont, sending every fan of theirs a cover-art dickpic, telling Epic to go screw, releasing an album that was supposedly a legitimate Björk collab but presumably merely sampled her voice, breaking up, ditching an opening gig for Nine Inch Nails, maybe not breaking up, and so forth. But even as the sound that made all this relevant in the first place got a fraction of the press as the crazy shit orbiting around it like noisy satellites, the music itself is more notable than the social media gimmickry. Anyone can be an aloof dildo on the Internet; not everyone could bring the trans-genre aggro bravado that those antics were meant to justify at a couple hundred kilobytes per second.

That said, it wouldn’t be a Death Grips album without some weird mystery behind it, and Fashion Week has its share. For instance: someone of unknown origin and affiliation downloaded this entire album from some arcane private corner of Death Grips’ website a few months back, posted it to the band’s fan subreddit, and was widely dismissed as someone trying to pass off a fraudulent leak. Then Death Grips, or a representative thereof, actually posted the album on Soundcloud to prove its legitimacy, gave it a track listing that spelled out “JENNYDEATHWHEN” as a taunting acknowledgement of their supposed last album’s all-question-marks release date, and then went off to do who the hell knows what else.

Leaving hungry listeners with some scraps to pick over means that what might be a stopgap release in the context of any other band is going to be pored over fiendishly by one of the more dedicated cult fanbases in music today. So Fashion Week is going to be put through the wringer, and there will be speculation about future direction. Maybe this is a bunch of scraps from the archives that hints at ideas they eventually strengthened and routes they could’ve taken instead, or maybe it’s a few things Zach Hill scraped together to keep Death Grips in the public eye as jenny death struggles to life, or maybe it’s an actual Fashion Week soundtrack some designer commissioned, or maybe it’s even the instrumentals for jenny death itself, or maybe it’s just some record.

Whatever it is, it’s pretty bracingnot hellaciously noisy or completely impenetrable, but at least raucous enough to feel legit. That it was so readily dismissed as a hoax when it first leaked months ago gives you some idea of its quality, but what makes this record likable is still pretty elusive. You get careening invocations of trademark ideas all butting up next to each other, riding on sparking, hissing, glitching synthesizers and Zach Hill’s drums rattling like a lost-time accident at the corrugated steel warehouse. And it really knocks in a surprising way when some distinct elements jump out through the familiar framework: feverishly lighthearted circus organ on the first “Runway N”, occasionally abrasive but otherwise straightforward classic Detroit techno on “Runway D”, a nasty, mud-trudging lope driven by oozing nightmare Moogs on the first “Runway H” that plays like a power struggle between Tobacco and Trent Reznor. Hell, “punk” usually seems like a “for lack of a better subculture” term that gets thrown at Death Grips as a Gen-X dadrock assessment, but the second “Runway H” proves that if they wanted to, they could be this decade’s Devo.

What Fashion Week‘s really missing, though, is some kind of central idea—if anybody ever thought this music could melt steel without MC Ride acting as threat-slinging, dinosaur-lunged instrument of corrosion, they’ll probably be let down. The album needs the percussive abrasion of his voice, and digging into some of the more typical slabs of Death Grips’ instrumental tendencies doesn’t unearth much more than a pretty solid workout soundtrack. It makes for a good exercise in how grimy and knuckles-out they can get even when going straight-up electro, but don’t try and call “Runway A” or “Runway W” transgressive hardcore art when they barely transcend the possibility of sounding like decent Run the Jewels outtakes. The titles aren’t the only parts of the songs that spell out a question about what Death Grips’ future is supposed to sound like, and don’t expect answers to come easy.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

The Range / Niia: Breaking EP

The prospect of James Hinton (a.k.a. the Range) producing for a pop vocalist is intriguing for all the same reasons his 2013 breakthrough, Nonfiction, was: his careful, pellucid compositions are refreshingly off-trend. While electronic producers—everyone from Arca, to Sophie, to Bok Bok—have been tapped with increasing frequency for pop, rap, and R&B duties, they have opted almost exclusively for the nebulous, the veiled, and the dramatic. Hinton’s music, via its samples and tempos, brushes against rap, grime, and dance but in a comparatively tranquil manner.

Hinton finds a partner in Niia, an upwardly mobile chanteuse in the Jessie Ware mold: modern sensibility, classical execution. Before her Generation Blue EP hit late last year, her sole credit was an appearance on a 2007 Wyclef Jean track. Generation Blue vacillated between the type of pleasant indie disco you might pair with Solange (“Body”) and classicist soul ballads whose lack of imagination baffled. Breaking is a five-track EP featuring three re-workings of Generation Blue tracks and two new songs. Effusive and bright, but patient, the result of this coupling is a little odd, like someone set out to squeegee trip-hop’s windows. Hinton and Niia are functionally playing the same game as artists like Kelela and FKA twigs, but they’re more tentative, befitting two artists still feeling out a partnership.

Hinton does well here, especially considering these songs were written and produced without him. The electro bassline that he stitches to “Body” is the kind of melodic charmer you take to meet mom. The track, which features Niia’s most distinct vocal, is a clear improvement on the original, strong enough to anchor this minor, exploratory release. One minute into the second track, “Breaking”, he deploys one of those strident, staccato piano bursts that buoyed Nonfiction. This trick, which he again employs on closer “David’s House”, is like hearing the track’s heartbeat accelerate, an instant indication that things are ramping up. This is undeniably attractive music: Niia a pristine presence, Hinton seemingly incapable of producing music that doesn’t twinkle while flinging itself forward.

Still, this is a threadbare release, and the partnership falters. On “Last Man” Niia probes an old playground taunt (“Even if you were the last man on earth/ I wouldn’t try to love you”) for emotional depth and, predictably, finds little; hearing her repeat the phrase over blisters of sulking bass is faintly absurd. It’s difficult to blame Hinton, though, as Niia needs the help: she’s an indistinct presence, leaning on tropes and a needlessly breathy delivery. Even the chorus of “Body”, the finest track here, feels like an exercise in R&B madlibs: “We can be strangers/ We can be strangers in the night/ We can be lovers/ As long as you love my body right.”

Niia x The Range is a bit of a lark, both artists stepping outside their comfort zones, but only just so. The EP functions as a bit of a proof of concept for Hinton, as he proves himself capable of sliding in underneath a vocalist while retaining his sound’s character, while Niia’s contributions feel slighter. Let’s call this practice, for both of them.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Chief Keef: Nobody

The anthropomorphic cartoon moon is in the seventh house, and Glo Gang has entered its Age of Aquarius. The evidence is all there on Chief Keef’s Instagram which, in recent months, has been filled with dozens of commissioned and original works of art. They’re mostly portraits of himself and his friends, in varying degrees of trippiness. Often, they’re depicted (by what seems to be Glo Gang’s in-house artist, a silver-bearded Angeleno called Bill Da Butcher) as members of a cheery cartoon solar system; Blood Money, Keef’s cousin and the Gang’s eldest member, who was shot and killed in Chicago last spring, is memorialized as a tattooed moon with angel wings. There’s a collage of Keef as a Viking skeleton holding America in a cage (he calls it “Americun Shakedown”); a sketch of a dread-headed Mount Rushmore; a triptych depicting a G-rated Keef engaging in water sports. Last month, Keef helped curate a gallery show in collaboration with media company FRANK151, to which he also contributed original artwork. He’s turned his Los Angeles home into his own private museum, obsessing over the minutia of presentation (“Trying to see if I should keep what’s up up?”)—this from the guy whose preferred mode of self-expression, not so long ago, was “Emojis”.

Then again, Keef’s thorough immersion in his own universe of aesthetics echoes his musical agenda since the release of his divisive major label debut two years ago. Since then, the Chicago ex-pat has refused to be understood on any terms other than his own, rejecting anything remotely resembling his 2012 crossover hits in favor of abstraction and obscurity. He drowned the crowd-pleasing hooks of Finally Rich in Auto-Tune and promethazine (he’s blamed critically panned 2013 mixtapes Bang 2 and Almighty So on the latter) and probed the outer limits of vocal performance. Yips, skrrrrts, and gurgles took the place of coherent language. He became obsessed with making beats, an entirely non-verbal mode of expression; on October’s brooding, distorted Back From the Dead 2 tape, released a week after the announcement that Keef was dropped from Interscope, he produced 16 of its 20 tracks. Nobody, his long-awaited sophomore album, released suddenly and without much fanfare, is similarly experimental, and equally devoid of any conventional hits. But where Keef’s spent the last two years attempting to hide in plain sight, stubbornly obfuscating his own thoughts to compensate for his discomfort in the spotlight, Nobody is, at its best, strikingly lucid. Maybe his recent passion for visual art has rekindled an interest in direct expression. Maybe he’s just growing up.

Finally Rich, as an album title, was aspirational as much as it was declarative, harnessing the laws of attraction to will fortune into existence. Nobody is a similar statement of purpose, but this time, the goal is to disappear. It’s not hard to understand Keef’s preoccupation with obscurity. Thrust into the public eye in 2012, he became a stand-in for Chicago’s ills more than an artist in his own right. His music had always been characterized by themes of loyalty and betrayal (trust only your inner circle—the rest are dangerous); hysterical media attention only reinforced that. If you’re going to be misunderstood anyway, why not ensure it? Equal parts knee-jerk trolling (he’s still a teenager) and defense mechanism, he hurtled towards oblivion, in what looked a lot like a downward spiral.

Nobody, much like BFTD2, is a dispatch from this void. But BFTD2 functioned as a submersion into his new aesthetic, more concerned with style than meaning; it narrowed in on weird grooves, unorthodox rhyme patterns, mood over everything. Almost in spite of its mission statement, Nobody is sharper, clearer, and more purposeful. It’s a neat 12 tracks, some of them less than two minutes long, executive produced by Glo Gang’s 12 Million. A handful feel more like sketches than completed works. But its high points have a clarity unmatched within Keef’s last two years of work; at times, he’s straight up vulnerable. He may not be coming back to earth any time soon, but he’s looking his audience in the eyes.

Keef’s lyricism has gotten slyer. His wit seems sharper; sometimes he cracks subtle jokes at his own expense. On “Pit Stop”, an album cut on par with any of Finally Rich’s, he quips, “Watch out, I’m 18 and I’m driving fast!” In the context of his public traffic arrests (in 2013, pulled over for driving 110 in a 55, he told police, “Well, it’s a fast car, that’s why I bought it”), it’s the equivalent of Taylor Swift winkingly acknowledging her reputation as a crazy girlfriend on “Blank Space”. “Twelve Bars”—a hypnotic burst of chimes that, like much of Nobody, is a closer descendent of cloudy cult favorite “Citgo” than anything else on Finally Rich—is a play on the drill canon as much as it is an exercise in wordplay. It nods to the drill canon, only to subvert it with novelty bars like, “Driving 12 cars at one time!”

But on “Hard”, one of the album’s two emotional cornerstones, Keef goes beyond crafty in-jokes and bares his soul. Over a beat somewhere between 40’s sulky symphonics circa Nothing Was the Same and the wispy New Age chirps of Lil B’s Rain in England, Keef delivers two of his most vulnerable verses to date (along with some pretty impressive bar-for-bar lyricism). “She don’t accept me, but she speak to my watch/ She won’t look at me, but she see I go hard,” he sings, honing in on the romantic insecurities that have emerged in Keef’s work for years now, from 2012’s “Save That Shit” to 2014’s “No”. He shrugs at his success, recognizing it as more of a burden than a blessing—everything’s pointless anyway. “Money ain’t that much, I’ll give it up… Life ain’t that much, I’ll live it up.” He’s at once proud of his ability to support his people and wary of being used: “Everybody eat, I’ll bill it up/ Baby I’ll keep my mouth closed, I’ll seal it up.” Even its title references the unflinching ubermasculinity that characterizes drill and its proponents, and beyond that, the temperament expected of black men from a young age. In early interviews, Keef claimed to be 16 going on 300; he’d long since been a man, but in many ways remained immature. These days, he’s just a world-weary 19.

It’s Nobody’s title track, though, that gives the sharpest insights as to where Keef’s at these days. Initially teased on Instagram last summer, with its Kanye West feature and threadbare Willie Hutch sample, “Nobody” hinted at a return to the old, coherent Keef. Instead, it’s as sonically inscrutable as ever. The snares are decidedly off. Kanye’s contributions don’t go too far beyond that 15-second clip. Listeners wondered if there’d been some mistake, if the track was unfinished, if Kanye had signed off on this at all. It doesn’t matter: “Nobody” isn’t about Kanye, it’s about Keef at his rawest and most honest. “They thought I was a joke,” he burbles with a melancholy that suggests he reads the comments. It’s Keef’s most clear-eyed dispatch yet from the void into which he’s hurtled himself. “I can’t fear nobody… I can’t hear nobody… I can’t see nobody,” he mewls, almost giddy with loneliness as he watches his surroundings fade to black, romancing the abyss. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re better than the alternative. It was awfully dreary, anyway—being Somebody.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Canooooopy: Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds

Japanese producer Canooooopy draws from the more mundane moments of daily life. “The sound of an air conditioner, the rhythm of a pen falling down, a conversation from other people,” are just some of the ho-hum influences on his music that he mentions in an interview with Japanese music blog Hi-Hi-Whoopee, capping his answer off with “a monotonous life.” Canooooopy subscribes to a “100% sampling” ethos, and builds every track on his first CD release Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds from noises that seem innocuous enough in their original context—an automated telephone greeting, people chatting, children singing. Yet he’s able to warp them into disjointed little worlds, and Disconnected serves as a solid introduction to one of the wonkier beatmakers to pop up out of Japan over the last couple of years.

A lot of what makes Canooooopy interesting emerged via a recent collaborative project, wherein he teamed up with fellow Japanese trackmakers Lidly and Axion117 to form Ganghouse Fungi. That trio’s work often featured experimental dashes that hinted at what Canooooopy would do on Disconnected, but his partners hailed from a more traditional crate-digging beat scene, one influenced by the sound of American hip-hop and favoring jazz samples. Canooooopy, meanwhile, appears tied to nothing—he loads up on samples and field recordings and melds them together into forms few rappers could contend with, all in Garageband (an approach he shares with Grimes, who along with James Brooks of Default Genders have shared Canooooopy’s music online).

Despite the herky-jerky nature of his collage approach to music, Canooooopy shows an attention to detail on Disconnected that makes his best tracks click just right. “Viral Address Stalker” kicks off by nabbing the intro to Marnie Stern’s “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave” (“Get me out of this prison, man/ Let me run, run, run, run, run”) and looping her stuttered “run,” building a beat around it before playing with the vocal some more. “Songs About a Sunken Hope” bounces between various vocal samples of British-accented words and syllables, Canooooopy timing it just right so no voice rams into the other and everything syncs with the skittery beat. Even brief numbers such as “Kaleido World Mysty Sisters” and “Doppelinedancerstomps” treat every second and sound with care, not wasting anything during their 90-second runtimes.

Disconnected’s jagged construction also emphasizes an eerie atmosphere, the rush of voices often making for some uneasy moments. Sometimes it’s simply an unexpected sound—”Mono Montaged Oratorio” is packed with sampled dialogue, but none comes through headphones more clearly than a cutesy voice saying “baby” for a jarring second. Usually, though, Canooooopy lets the mishmash of sounds create an unnerving feel that lingers over the entire beat, such as on the bouncy “Too Long Way Home”, where voices mixed deep in the track constantly sneak into the main rhythm. The album suffers when Canooooopy strips the music down and tries to create something creepy with minimalism, as he’s at his best when sounds jumble together and unsettling moments emerge from the clamor.

Even though Canooooopy has an attentive eye when it comes to individual tracks, Disconnected doesn’t quite click together as an album, as certain stretches of it can get a little too cluttered. But then an individual track will burst through—such as the burbling “The Polygonic Spree” or clattering “The Phantom of the Gauss”—and remind how he’s able to turn a scattershot collection of samples into something otherworldly. It’s a great introduction to a producer able to alchemize the everyday into the surreal.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Various Artists: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume Two (1928-1932)

Money, you might have noticed, is on the mind of many musicians. As music consumption continues to shift toward digital methods of distribution, from illegal downloads that pay the artist nothing to authorized streams that pay very little, some makers are wondering just how they’ll continue to make. If the consumer isn’t willing to foot the bill by paying, how can the product exist?

Though the circumstances have changed in most every respect during the 80 years since the Paramount Records empire crumbled, this core question hasn’t: How do you keep putting music out when you’re no longer pulling money in? The success of Paramount Records, a loss-leader meant to move the music-playing furniture made by the Wisconsin Chair Company as World War I came to a close, was a surprise for the business’ leaders. The shoddily recorded and haphazardly manufactured shellac discs became a rather big boon as the ’20s roared. Hired in 1923, J. Mayo Williams, an ambitious talent scout who had headed north from Arkansas, led the pivotal Paramount charge. He assembled and managed a roster of uncontested originals, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey to Blind Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. But in 1927, Williams left the label following a series of injuries and insults from the company’s white owners and officers. That’s where the first volume of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records—a massive two-set collaboration between Jack White’s Third Man, John Fahey’s revived Revenant and a fleet of researchers, writers, graphic designers, fabricators, builders, archivists, printers and collectors—closes.

Williams’ departure, though, isn’t the end of Paramount’s rise, even if it might denote the start of the fall. The second volume of The Rise & Fall is instead a catalogue brimming with genius, no matter that the label’s scouts in fields and offices alike didn’t carry the same historical clout as Williams. Charley Patton and Son House, Lottie Kimbrough and Dock Boggs, Geeshie Wiley and Skip James, Thomas Dorsey and Emry Arthur: Those are only some of the names that arrive for this set, which stretches from 1928 until the label’s unceremonious end in the wake of the Great Depression in 1932. That’s when the money ran out for music.

The talent had not stopped shipping into Grafton’s record-pressing plant during that time of widespread financial woe. In fact, the 800 remastered tracks offered in Volume Two document the roots of gospel and swing and the intensification of blues and jazz through the efforts of some of American music’s formative musical minds. You can hear the earliest echoes of bluegrass, which would be born a dozen years after Paramount closed, and antediluvian traces of rock’n’roll, hot on its heels with added electricity.

The funds, however, just weren’t what they used to be. “Despite many of the great talents he helps bring to Grafton, you can’t sell the records if no one has money to buy them,” writes Scott Blackwood of the pale, bespectacled and pivotal Paramount recruiter Art Laibly. “Likely, out on the road or riding the rails across the South, Art Laibly’s anxieties about the future would sometimes get the best of him. The Crash. The poor getting poorer. A part of him knowing the days of the Race Records business were numbered.” At least they kept it going long enough to firm up the foundation for their rather young country’s recording pedigree.

You can examine that foundation for yourself on Volume Two. You can ponder the existential strangeness of Patton’s still-singular approach to the blues and his divisive belief in both religion and the bottle. (His “Prayer of Death” tunes as Elder J.J. Hadley are essential.) You can sway to the woozy, wobbly string-band fare of the Mississippi Sheiks. You can nod and shake to the delirious a cappella spirituals of the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham, particularly the delirious and pulsing “Clanka-A-Lanka (Sleep on Mother)”. Skip James’ inescapable “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” is here, as are two versions of Dock Boggs’ “Will Sweethearts Know Each Other” and Geeshie Wiley’s continually magnetic and tragic “Last Kind Words Blues”. Had the unlikely and uncanny venture of Paramount never thrived, and had these songs never been captured, it’s easy to imagine the next several decades of music taking very different turns.

Not everything here changed the world, of course, and some of Paramount’s hidden gems arrive through its most obscure oddities. Brother Fullbosom’s “A Sermon on a Silver Dollar” is a racially and religiously irreverent faux sermon on the power of that most almighty ducat. “Wicked Treatin’ Blues”, a duet for despondent harmonica and vocals that seem delivered from a deathbed, hypnotizes with sadness. George Hamilton’s “Chimes Blues” offers a delightful piano jaunt. Ollie Hess’ parlor-ready “Mammy’s Lullaby” combines arching, urbane vocals and simply picked guitar—country, meet cosmopolitan. Two of the best and most truly haunting songs in the entire Paramount oeuvre belong to Rube Lacy, a little-known blues moaner who only recorded these two cuts as far as anyone can tell. In its waning days, without Williams in command, Paramount was grasping for anything to sell. Many of these didn’t do that, but thanks to Paramount for thinking they might—they are wonderful, ponderous relics. The worst that can be said about any of these songs is that they’re simply curious; the best is that they’re landmarks.

The first volume of The Rise & Fall came housed in an impressive chestnut box, lined with green felt and accessorized with metallic emblems. Its six LPs lived in a wooden record book, and the marbled brown vinyl looked as though it had been cut from the cross-section of some grand old oak. An accompanying USB drive—a “Jobber-Luxe”, Third Man likes to call it—contained the central trove of songs and graphics in a tarnished brass device that seemed pulled from a steampunk’s wildest pipe dream. Both the design and the text were nominated for Grammys in early December, and deservedly so.

You can expect much the same for Volume Two, which steps into the machine age through an aluminum replication of RCA Victor’s beautiful Special Model K portable record player. When the outside latches are unlocked, sets of rivets on either half unscrew to reveal the contents—on one side, a packet of promotional Paramount reproductions and six alabaster white records that sparkle with holograms when lit; on the other, two dense books that detail what’s known about all the musicians involved on these tracks and Blackwood’s romantic history of the second Paramount era. A second USB drive sits lodged in this volume’s navy blue felt. It’s the Paramount eagle, wings up and cast in bright aluminum. The Streamline Moderne approach intends to pull the music from a past of rural antiquity and toward urban modernity. “The machine was the source of America’s might and standing in the world,” Blackwood told Wired in October, “our capacity as an industrial power that connected the vast plains of our country.”

Still, it’s hard to see these sets as more than museum pieces, or, at best, fetishist collector items that lock vital research, history, and context away in a private vault with actual latches. Taken together, volumes one and two of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records are mighty resources for understanding how the near-century of music that has followed first moved. But it’s a shame that such indispensable history remains so relatively unobtainable. Issued in editions of 5,000, these bulky boxes cost $400 each; tellingly, the first volume is still available through Third Man, more than a year after its release.

The price, believe it or not, is worth it. Given the work that went into each package, it’s hard to imagine that White is building his own private railroad with the profits. The treasures in the sets are staggering and sprawling, capable of inducing laughter, heartache, belief, and disbelief. There is bedrock and bedlam alike. But as Blackwood himself writes of a different but not entirely separate era, “You can’t sell the records if no one has money to buy them.” It’s hard to believe that most people have an extra mortgage payment sitting around for this history lesson, however great it may be.

And that’s a shame, because this music still moves. Not only do many of these songs maintain a vibrancy and a spirit that function even now, but they’re part of a still-incomplete story. Paramount was infamously terrible at record-keeping and accounting, so researchers like archivist Alex van der Tuuk are still finding facts and chasing myths to build a more complete label history. “Sun to Sun”, a steady-swerving Blind Blake tune recorded in November 1931, hadn’t been heard by modern ears until a copy was found in a steamer trunk in Raleigh, North Carolina, by the collector Marshall Wyatt in 2007. And Willie Brown, who contributes some of the best blues guitar to either set, remains something of a ghost, despite his relationships with the more famous House and Patton. “No conclusive evidence has been found to prove that this is indeed the real Willie Brown,” van der Tuuk writes of Brown’s believed burial site.

Such mysteries sit close to the core of Pitchfork contributor Amanda Petrusich’s 2014 book, Do Not Sell at Any Price. “There is even a vague fear that rare-record collecting could one day become analogous to fine-art collecting,” Petrusich writes early in her book, “the obligation of wealthy aristocrats whose consumption of art is more a statement of status than a function of love or even understanding.” It’s unfortunate, then, that in an age of infinite digital replication, where media need not be scarce, these archival releases have intentionally realized those fears by turning this music into artifacts for only those who can afford it. The new Jobber-Luxe contains an application that plays all of these tracks in specific orders or at random. If these boxes ever sell out, let’s hope Third Man considers its money made and puts that player online, so that more listeners can know exactly where they came from.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork