I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions any more, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the need to rectify some of my sloppy behaviors when the calendar flips over. So I’ll level with you – even though I’ve really fallen off posting on my Music by the Book experiment, I’ve still kept up with my alphabetical listening and so I am WAAAAAAAY behind. Given that precisely nobody seems to read these particular posts and that they are therefore largely a self-indulgent exercise for my own benefit, it may be unclear why I should give even an atomic-level shit.

And yet I do – because I’m still trying to be honor-bound to listen to all this damn music, and if I don’t keep at least SOME kind of log about it as I go, it seems like a wasted effort. So I’m gonna try to pick up the pace a bit here, not wax so verbose, and not procrastinate quite so much, and see if we can’t make it to the letter D before October. Let’s hear it for low expectations!!

Various Artists – Brazilectro: Latin-Flavoured Club Tunes – Session 8

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I thought as I looked at the next title on the list. How many of these goddamn electronica compilations did I manage to accumulate in the 90s? Was I visited by the DJ Fairy while I slumbered, his gossamer headphone cord trailing airily behind him as he glided soundlessly across my bedchamber, dropping phat beatz for all the children of the world? I even considered just pretending it wasn’t even here. Damn my iron-clad sense of honor, I just can’t operate like that.

But is it overly faint praise to say that this exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations? It delivers no more or less than what the title promises – Brazilian-tinged loungey music, with a touch of the funky. Probably not for dancing. Better for a relatively chill party – the kind where you serve actual grownup ‘cocktails’ rather than just tearing open a box of PBRs or pouring random shit into red plastic cups – or something to play the first time you invite a girl over to your place for dinner. Hey, maybe that’s why I got it. And the Portuguese vocals and funky instrumental samples go a long way toward saving it from the bin, sprucing up even the more generic downbeat tracks and turning what could have been just another 45 minutes of aural wallpaper into real songs with their own personalities – some of the best songs, like ‘Mi Swing Es Tropical’ by Quantic and Nickodemus, barely even qualify as electronica and just sound like old-school Brazilian music. Which, as we have established previously, is a good thing.

Brazilian Girls – Brazilian Girls

How can you have anything bad to say about an album where one song’s chorus consists of the cheerful chant “Pussy pussy pussy marijuana” over a bouncy reggae beat and lazy, drunken horns? You can’t, and don’t try to tell me different. But that doesn’t really tell you much about the rest of the music. It’s a real genre-bender, with songs in French, English, Spanish, Italian, German – maybe even Klingon, I’m not quite sure – and styles that swerve from sultry torch songs (well-suited for lead singer Sabina Sciubba’s warm, sweet voice) to jazzy Latin beats to new-wavey Europop to the above-mentioned reggae pussyfest. And yet – it holds together well. I’ve neglected this album a lot, but re-listening to it I’m really appreciating the heart and soul behind it. I saw these guys live in New York long, long ago, when I was probably too drunk for my brain to assemble any useful synaptic connections, but I do have vague memories of having a really good time in spite of being crammed into a dark and sweaty firetrap of a bar. This album helps me remember why.

My Brightest Diamond – Bring Me the Workhorse

Dark and theatrical, without ever quite crossing over into histrionics – this walks a thin line for me. For example – I really don’t care a whit for Antony and the Johnsons, no matter how many times people have tried to bludgeon me over the head with how awesome Antony’s voice is. Sorry, but I start to break into hives after a minute or two of his warbling. And yet this works for me. Maybe it’s because lead singer Shara Worden’s voice is so uniquely suited to the music she’s crafted, and it feels like she’s earned the right to be melodramatic with her interpretation – kind of like how I feel about Jeff Buckley. And I do very much enjoy the melancholy moodiness of this, with elements sporadically popping up that remind me of Portishead and PJ Harvey.

I got this album from a friend years ago, and never listened to it until my girlfriend – who in turn got it from me, after we’d become serious enough to entrust each other with our respective music collections – told me how much she liked it. “What the hell are you talking about, woman?” I asked gruffly, hurling a whiskey bottle at the wall. (No, I didn’t actually do that) Then she explained that she’d found this album on her own exploration of ‘the vaults’, truly a diamond in the rough (har har har).  But she was right. And it was exactly the kind of revelation that helped prompt me to start doing this musico-archaeological effort. Oh, and in case you give a damn, my personal highlights is ‘Something of an End’, the slithering and swooping opening track, which somehow encapsulates much of what is to come later in the album. So very good. Also, ‘We Were Sparkling’, which is somber and mournful but with some whimsical touches that keep it from becoming downright funereal.

Bring your own weapon.


And to think that Mitt Romney was prepared to put a 8-foot tall, hallucination-prone, sentient bird out of work just to save a couple of bucks. It’s only continuing to become clearer just how much of a disaster his presidency would have been.

(wait – what’s going on here?)

Cut Chemist/DJ Shadow – Brainfreeze

About 15 years ago, I got onto a big Ozomatli kick – in particular, I found myself listening obsessively to this one track, the Cut Chemist Suite from their first, self-titled album circa 1998. At the time, it was just way too funky for my whiteness to handle (and yeah, I was also a big Chali-2na & Jurassic 5 fan, which didn’t hurt).

But so, even though I was already into DJ Shadow thanks to ‘Endtroducing…’, I went on a massive bender of … um … acquisition of albums by Chemist and the other great turntablists of the 90s/early 00s, and that became my big ‘thing’ for at least the next four or five years, and it never really entirely dissipated. This album was an early part of that musical land-grab, a powerhouse Clash of the Titans between two of the (in my opinion) all-time greats, a record-crate clearing free-for-all of 60s and 70s awesomeness.

‘Brainfreeze’ reminds me of one of those Disney-style theme rides, a la Pirates of the Caribbean, where you get strapped into a car that then wheels you through a series of rooms containing animatronic montages depicting a history of funk and soul. Each sample snippet is just the right length, although occasionally motifs from earlier in the album will pop up in the background to invade the ongoing sample, kinda like hearing faint strains of “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me” even after you’ve gone round the riverbend. Oh, and occasionally the animatronics freak out and start skipping and scratching and bugging out.

But it’s not just a parade of samples – everything’s woven together airtight, with none of the clumsy transitions or gimmicks you’d see from lesser DJs. It’s a whole bunch of big clumps of musical joy that shine on their own but have somehow stitched themselves together into a coherent new musical work of its own, like some kind of jazzy Voltron.

And as somebody who’s followed both DJs pretty closely for a long time, it’s also great fun to hear the LPs they’re each hitting up for samples here that get semi-reincarnated in later works, like their other head-to-head bout, ‘Product Placement’. For example, Brainfreeze features a bit of ‘Funky DJ’, by a group called Fried Chicken – which is a virtual copycat of a funk track by Earnest Jackson, ‘Funky Black Man’, which came out two years earlier but was subsequently sampled on Product Placement. You can get a bit more on the history from the Funky 16 Corners website. There’s a similar disconnect where the two throwdowns use different versions of ‘California Soul’, with Brainfreeze using the brash and brassy version by Marlena Shaw and Product Placement dipping into the smoother and silkier version by the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, both of which outshine the somewhat limp original by Fifth Dimension in my opinion. But anyway, I love how both DJS/CC albums riff off each other like that, using familiar elements in a way that isn’t at all lazy but instead takes in an even-broader scope of musical history.

If you haven’t heard this album, I think it’s hard to get a proper sense of the artistry of what an expert DJ can do. Get this shit now.

Or just listen to the whole thing here 🙂

Brian Jonestown Massacre – Bravery, Repetition and Noise

After extensive time spent listening to and trying to get a handle on the Brian Jonestown Massacre, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is best suited for two seemingly opposite activities: getting brain-destroyingly high, or trying to focus intensely on work. Thanks to the machinations of a friend who is utterly enraptured by the band, I’ve somehow acquired their entire catalogue of albums, but I lack his unbounded enthusiasm for droning psychedelia. Not that I dislike it, just that I can’t imagine listening to it as an endpoint in and of itself. Fittingly, he came to visit recently, and his trip coincided with a concert by BJM – we went, and another friend who joined us asked me afterwards, “Was that all just one song?” Since I was neither stoned nor working particularly hard, I couldn’t really answer his question – I just went off adrift for the duration of the show, pleasantly borne away by swirls of guitar riffs, and then suddenly realized that at some point they had stopped playing and it was time to drink some more.

So how do I review this album, after listening to it three times and trying to figure out what I might possibly say about it? Or the other BJM albums yet, inevitably, to come? It’s good. I do like their sound. I like that ‘Let Me Stand Next To Your Flower’ opens up with what appears to be the sound of somebody accessing a BBS via what seems to be a 14,400 US Robotics modem, transporting me back to high school and a misspent youth of trolling Prodigy chat boards and attempting to finish downloading highly pixelated porn GIFs before my connection crapped out. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. But that’s what BJM is good for – freeing up the flow of your stream-of-consciousness mind and allowing it to wander at least five times as efficiently and farther than it would do otherwise.

Various Artists – Brazil Classics Vol. 1

Holy crap – did you know that this CD runs you a cool $30 from Amazon? Glad I picked this shit up more than a decade ago at a stoop sale…

I own exactly one volume from this series of CDs, making it, I believe, the sole album of Brazilian music – minus a few scattered Seu Jorge, Caetano Veloso or Gilberto tracks here and there – in my entire collection. And that’s just fine, ’cause I get pretty much everything I need right here. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, a little world music goes a very long way for me, and this is a perfect dose of tropicalia for any given day.

But it’s super fun. I’m half Portuguese, and have been to both Portugal and (briefly) Brazil, but I still find Portuguese an utterly impenetrable language – even with a working knowledge of Spanish. I can’t explain it, ’cause I’m generally pretty good with languages, but it just all bounces off my eardrums without ever actually penetrating Wernicke’s area. And yet I find myself aping the sounds of the choruses without the faintest idea what I’m actually saying, much like an eager parrot. As far as I know, “Umbabarauma” might mean “I seek vigorous anal penetration this second”, but I’ll be damned if that’s going to stop me from witlessly chanting that when I’m listening to this album. Because this stuff is damn catchy. And by the way, I only know how that’s spelled because it’s the track title – I say it more like “hurmabopparooma”, which probably means something even MORE offensive in Portuguese.

So just let the music caress you, as the sweet and squishy sounds of Portuguese bounce gleefully off the Africanesque-rhythms and skillful guitar strums, and try not to overanalyze it too much. This is not music to run or work out to – it’s music for a slow stroll on a sunny afternoon, or sleeping in the park or a cold beer in the early evening. And yeah, just maybe it makes me want to start planning a REAL trip to Brazil some day soon….

In brief: glad I have this, wish I understood it, but probably won’t be picking up the rest of the set. Why mess with such self-contained Brazilian perfection? And for those of you who wish to add this to your own musical libraries, I’m sorry to inform you that it’s gonna set you back a pretty penny unless you’re lacking in scruples re: downloading and willing to pluck pennies from the pocket of Jorge Ben. In which case, shame on you! Cough. Cough.

I spent *far* too long working in an Osco pharmacy in Massachusetts during my misspent youth, and so I have become deeply familiar with (and slightly embarassed by) the spectacle of people scrambling frantically like it’s feeding time at the zoo every time a “blizzard” is imminent. Especially because those folks weren’t living out in the boonies of Western MA, but in the cozy greater-Boston-area  suburbs where AT MOST you might experience two or three days of inconvenience. I knew this even as a teenager, for fuck’s sake. And yet every – EVERY – time there was a winter storm alert, swarms of people would cram into Osco and buying armloads of bread, pasta and toilet paper as if they were heading to a fallout shelter to weather the Cuban missile crisis.

How little things change.

As we Philadelphians brace for the imminent onslaught of Sandy – which by all accounts promises to be an evil bitch of a storm – even I found myself heading to the store to pick up a few basics. Y’know, some simple non-refrigerated eats in case the power goes for a day or so. But apparently I’m underpreparing.

Seriously – two 12-packs of toilet paper? Is this guy planning on shitting his way through to Armageddon? And if we are going to be buried in snow long enough to go through twenty-fucking-four rolls of TP, I don’t think that a case of Poland Spring bottles and a handful of Swanson Hungry Man frozen dinners is going to cut it from a provisions perspective. But what do I know, my survival skills background is limited to heavy viewing of zombie movies.

And this was at the relatively sane grocery store; the scene at the Whole Foods on the next block looked like the fall of Saigon. The entire store was threaded with epic lines that I’m convinced actually looped endlessly with one another without ever meeting a checkout counter.

Fortunately, there was no line at my next, most important stop.

As always, the streets of Philadelphia are leading the way in political activism. Although it’s not clear from this decal, another nearby specified that this is apparently a Ron Paul-related message.

I’ll confess, I’ve not been following The Good Dr. Paul’s campaign so closely this election cycle, but frankly I find his ‘End Sorcery’ platform to run counter to his supposed libertarian values. After all, if wands are outlawed, only outlaws will have wands. But I suppose that he’s probably just pandering to Muggle voters. Politicians, amirite?

I’m also somewhat concerned about this apparent amnesty for the Devil. I’m about as bleeding-heart a liberal as they come, but I think we’ve pretty much established this guy’s guilt. Have some sympathy, sure, but forgiveness is a bit much.

But I’m intrigued by the rest of his positions. In case you can’t read the insanity, they are as follows:

1. Giants. Yes. Oh fuck, yes. More giants please. The Night’s Watch may complain, but I’m with you all the way.

2. Heal Domes/Heal World’s/INSTANTS. Um… I was with you right up until the end. Let’s stick with just the Heal Domes for the time being.

3. Working with List’s of Angels. I’ll forgive the apostrophe abuse this time because I’m glad to see Paul is taking multilateralism seriously. Yes, we’ll forgive the devil, but only because we’ve got “List’s” of angels standing behind us every step of the way.

4. Reality Walking. I think we’ve already got that in place, so let’s keep going with it.

5. The Day of the Lord. I’m assuming this is just the natural outcome from our recruiting giants and lists of angels to join our sorcerer-free picnic with the devil under our newly-constructed (and ideally climate-controlled) heal-domes.

On the fence in 2012? Tired of the same old non-choices?

Vote Ron Paul: Less Sorcerers, More Giants!

(wait – what’s going on here?)

The National – Boxer

I like The National. Really, I do. But I’ll be honest, this is the only album of theirs that I keep coming back to over and over again. The rest of the catalogue, the ingredients are all there – Matt Berninger’s sexy basso murmur, which flirts dangerously with sounding like a wannabe Ian Curtis except for the fact that it’s not always quite so mopey and Berninger can actually carry a tune (much love for Joy Division, but tunefulness isn’t why we listen to them, is it?), the complex interweaving instrumentation, (generally) smart lyrics.

And yet, I think I’ve listened to ‘Alligator’ three times, ‘High Violet’ maybe five or six? Dunno why, but I switch them on, start doing something else, and then next thing I know, hey, the album’s over! But, oh, ‘Boxer’. Went to see these guys live at the Electric Factory a while back, and even though I only had vague reptile memory of 50% of the songs, the ones I did know were electric. And though you’d never guess it from his mellow delivery, Berninger’s a wild man on stage – climbin’ shit, roaming into the audience, surprisingly charismatic. Not sure why, I just expected the semi-autistic live presence you often get from heart-on-sleeve indie-rockers, but he really held that big-ass room in his hand.

And like I said, I’m saying this as a big fan of exactly one of their albums. Speaking of which. It has a perfect side 1/track 1 opener with the piano riff that kicks off ‘Fake Empire’, slowly ramping up the action with the percussion until you’re finally ready for the more aggressive and bombastic ‘Mistaken for Strangers’, my favorite track on the album by far (even if it seems a tad like it was nicked from Interpol). Everything gets quite a bit slower and moodier after that emotional high-point, but doesn’t ever really get boring – and even if a few of the songs sound quite a bit the same, it’s still a pretty damn decent song-species at the end of the day.

One note regarding the lyrics – though most of the writing is smart crisp story-telling, there are a few dingers. Like: “They’re going to send us to prison for jerks“? Really? OK, let’s just move on.

Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner

For those music geeks among you who get a boner over ultra-narrow genre classifications, Dizzee Rascal is one of the few surviving representatives of a style called ‘grime’ – a downbeat, low-fi subcategory of British hip-hop. It also has the dubious distinction of being a predecessor to dubstep, a sin for which we shall simply have to do our best to forgive it. Trust me, this stuff is miles away from Skrillex. And in fact, Dizzee’s music owes a lot more to true dub music than the WubWubWub frat-tronica shit most people associate with dubstep, with clear reggae roots apparent in its rhythmic and vocal DNA. But still, grime’s a pretty choice label for it – like grunge, this is the dirtier, sloppier, mopier version of its parent genre, meant to be performed in an illegal party thrown in some dank firetrap of a basement that’s normally used for occasional underground fight clubs or perhaps to host businesses based on human trafficking.

Personal bias alert: I think British rap mostly fucking sucks. I gave The Streets and Lady Sovereign and a few others a shot, but mostly I found their attempts at rapping to be initially amusing but also ineffectual and ultimately pathetic, like a dog trying to figure out how a mirror works. Plus, I just find the sound of rapping Cockneys really grating on the ear. It just makes me think of Ali G, and I can’t take the music seriously after that happens. When I think of British bad-asses, I think of dudes like Terrence Stamp or Vinnie Jones or Christopher Lee, with a low menacing rumble, not some skinny chav with a high-pitched voice and gimmicky goofball ‘enry ‘iggins delivery, and so I find that the sound is often at odds with the lyrical message.

But Dizzee won me over. I love the sharp-brittle beats, rumbly-grumbly bass and claustrophobic production, which just gets right up into your business and stays there. He’s got good flow and I don’t find his accent at all silly or distracting, so good job on that, D.R. Some of the tracks do blur into each other, but it’s still a pretty bangin’ background soundscape and I found that I didn’t mind giving the whole album multiple sequential listens to get a better handle on what I actually felt about the damn thing. Some favorite tracks, ‘2 For’, where both music and lyrics are delivered with a punchy staccato that will set your body to twitching, and ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’, which only features some sweet samples from Mr. Billy Fucking Squier, with a great contrast between his arena-rock hoot and howl and the completely stripped down minimalist pounding beat that it’s been paired with.

Is this album enough to entirely redeem UK hip-hop as a scene? Probably not, but it’s certainly a damn good start.

Belle and Sebastian – The Boy with the Arab Strap

Did you ever just reflexively dislike a band for no other reason than you really disliked somebody who liked that band? Like, you think that surely anything that finds favor in that person’s world-view must be deeply and fundamentally flawed beyond the point of redemption? But then one day you realize that YOU actually like that band, too, and just feel like a small-minded twit for thinking like that in the first place? Well…

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you exhibit A: Belle & Sebastian. Disliked exclusively because of a former co-worker who pissed me off for reasons that can generously be described as ‘irrational’ or ‘stupid’, but hey, the human brain is a vault of mysteries, innit? And this is the album that was out when I was consigning them to my auditory hate-ghetto.

Oddly enough, this was also the album that eventually roped me back in. Those of you who are not up on your B&S might recognize this (specifically ‘Seymour Stein’) as the “sad bastard music” Jack Black complains about in ‘High Fidelity’. I happen to be a fan of sad bastard music in general, but this really more poppy and twee than mopey – something I usually have a far lower tolerance for before I get that diabetic warning kicking in. But the lyrics are a touch darker and more interesting, about love and lust and sexual frustration and confusion, and not the dopey hipster-shit that cutesy twee pop artists normally spew out. The arrangements are lush and warm, especially on my two favorite tracks (‘Sleep the Clock Around’ and ‘Dirty Dream Number Two’). None of this is BIG music – it’s quiet and intimate. ‘Is It Wicked Not to Care?’, one of the few tracks fronted by Isobel Campbell’s sweet girly voice, sounds like it was meant to be sung to an audience of one. And there’s only one track I really loathe – the weirdo talkie rambler ‘A Space Boy Dream’, which drags especially because I know that it’s going to be followed by ‘Dirty Dream Number Two’. I’ll never understand why bands feel the need to throw dumb shit like this and contaminate what would otherwise be essentially a flawless album – it’s like the rap ‘skit’, except I’m pretty sure that Stuart Murdoch et al. were probably not toking on fat blunts while they were in the studio, so there goes that excuse. But just one track consigned to the bin ain’t so bad.

OTOH, now that they’ve been rehabbed in my mind, this album has fallen considerably out of favor in my mind relative to works both earlier (‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’) and later (‘The Life Pursuit’) – not because of that dopey ‘Space Boy’ shit, which thank god it never occurred to them to try again – but just because those albums push the boundaries a bit more and aim just a little bit higher in terms of sonic and lyrical diversity. All the same, you could do far worse as a B&S gateway drug.