“California Tuffy” - Geraldine Fibbers (Butch)

Writing a review on one of Nels Cline’s newer collaborations (with superb jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman) got me thinking about how fantastic he sounded backing Carla Bozulich on Butch.

On a very superficial level, some of the same tendencies are at play in Butch-era Geraldine Fibbers and in some incarnations of Wilco, like a slight affinity for tweaked Americana, nods to punk (remember when they used to do stuff like this?), and a restless tendency to play with form. But the end result of Cline’s work with the respective bands isn’t even in the same universe.

Ten albums: Modern trends in crayon-blending

1. Grenier Meets Archie Pelago

Sax, cello, electronics, a song called “Pliny the Elder” that i’m 60% sure is about the beer: it’s what they used to call downtempo except not terrible (says the guy who still owns a Groove Armada t-shirt). Lapsed dubstepper Grenier and no-band-is-an-island Archie Pelago hint at precursors both high (Reich on “Octavia”) and sub-basement (Deep Forest on “Hyperion”), but it’s all liquefied into a bicoastal blend with just enough acidity. More claret? Give me the whole damn jug.

2. Jenny Scheinman: The Littlest Prisoner

2014-to-date’s best-written and best-performed country album is by a jazz violinist – it’s been that kind of year. Perhaps it takes someone who can’t differentiate between rednecks and hippies to fuse those genre staples the prison song and the pregnancy song, but it shouldn’t take a jazzbo to recall that not every tune has to build to an F-150 driving through a ring of fire – that a chorus can also colour or clarify. Then again, it shouldn’t take an Americana turn for a jazzbo to sing well – you’d better trust in the languid lines to resolve if you wrote them. Bill Frisell and Brian Blade offer well-weighed support, but Scheinman gets the instrumental showcases, as she deserves.

3. Paramore (2013)

On release I thought it too plastic, but the radio hits broke me, though most could be improved with a tweak or two. “Still into You” understands how to use dynamics in an over-compressed world, though it resolves too easily, as if a thoughtful anniversary present meant you were good for another year. “Daydreaming” timeshifts Blondie, though Hayley’s new backing band makes Clem and Nigel (I think it was Nigel) seem like household names. “Ain’t It Fun” makes you wait for the exhortation to not be a mama’s boy but delivers in multiple chordal contexts. “Crazy Girls” could use a better string arrangement. Not sure they needed to close with an eight-minute Joy Formidable track but other than that there’s only one too many wannabe Old Navy ads on the back half. Perfect: “Anklebiters.”

4. Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 (2013)

The reasonably accurate conventional wisdom is that Shostakovich was a Stravinsky disciple until Pravda called him out for making formalist jazz and he made a hard turn to Mahler. This earned him the lasting enmity of those consarned modernists, but Virgil Thomson didn’t have a firing squad. The Fourth Symphony, written in 1936 but premiered only after Stalingrad got a less awkward name, is a key transitional work, with a great big orchestra playing great big dirges with the odd jig tossed in for light relief. If this sounds oppressive, this version, conducted by accidental sexist Vasily Petrenko, emphasizes the rhythmic elements, creating an impression of scale without bloat. By unifying the Stravinsky and Mahler approaches it makes something new, and that’s finally enough to sell Shostakovich to a consarned postmodernist like myself.

5. Miranda Lambert: Platinum

Nothing’s bad – I’m a little underwhelmed by the singles for not being Kerosene/Gunpowder & Lead/White Liar, not for any stinkiness. But the whole enterprise sounds a little too… shrill? Compressed? Avril? (Though i’m glad she addresses her famehound’s-wife song to Mrs Presley rather than Mrs Kroeger.) Still, it’s hard to argue for a shorter album when nobody seems to agrees which tracks are the weak ones. I like “Bathroom Sink,” though i might just be glad to hear a country song instead of a meta-commentary on the radio prevalence of bros/trucks, and “Hard Staying Sober” is the album’s best attempt at a Clark/McAnnally way-we-get-by song (better than the actual Clark and McAnnally co-writes). Could do without “Girls” but even that’s not bad, just a limp choice for an opener.

6. Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith

The “Smith” is the late Jimmy; the “2nd Line” means there’s a sousaphonic New Orleans dance mojo backing Handy’s tenor and Kyle Koehler’s Hammond. Handy grooves hard and with authority.  Dee Dee Bridgewater and a couple of Marsalises show up and perform efficiently. Easy fun for jazz dabblers and discographers alike.

7. Royksopp & Robyn: Do It Again

It’d be going too far to call Royksopp the weak link, given that all the rhythm tracks move and fascinate, though not for ten minutes. Still, the goodness here is proportional to the amount of Robyn, inasmuch as her lyrics prevent sax solos. And at her least personal, she outsings her virtual duet partner. Take that, Turing!

8. Vic Mensa: Innanetape (2013)

For everyone quietly muttering that none of 2014’s breaking rappers are in Chance’s league (quietly muttering over DJ Mustard beats is all you need for 9/10 from Spin), here’s an internet-not-inane tape I missed last fall from his boy (and uh Jeff Tweedy protege, but that’s not important right now) Vic Mensa. Same Chance flow, same Chance thoughtfulness, he only lacks the warmth that every blog’s favourite lowercase black hippie radiates. His co-productions are some of the tape’s best beats, especially the drum-and-bass-lite “Lovely Day,” giving him maybe a 3% chance of going Kanye. It’s not like anyone else has better odds, so hope someone is trying to break his heart.

9. Made to Break: Cherchez La Femme

Ken Vandermark saxes-and-loops project, with three long tracks, each dedicated to two women artists (Sleater-Kinney yay! Betty Davis, okay i guess.) I unequivocally like the Davis/SK one, where Vandermark and knob-twiddler Christof Kurzmann shadowbox before funking up, and the abstract expressionist one, which starts as jazz trio before Kurzmann goes subterranean, with Vandermark providing intermittent lighting. Last one buzzes and clatters and does get good for a bit.

10. John Fullbright: Songs

“John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces…” oh wait, why am O reading American Songwriter, let’s start again. “The most interestingly uneven album I’ve heard in a while,” says Ken Tucker; well, it’s the most uneven interesting album I’ve heard this month. He deserves props for using his sands-through-the-hourglass voice to sing his Oklahoma koans, instead of following the alt-everything trend of blowing off the lyrics. The songs fascinate less for being koans (one’s called “Keeping Hope Alive” ffs)  than for being reflexive (one’s called “Write a Song” ffs) – he’s laid down the hours and left lots of traces, how metamodern! Now someone pay his band enough to back him for a whole album. Tracks recommended to those who like this kind of thing: 1, 7, 2, 6, 12; since he is not Jimmie Dale Gilmore, avoid the gooey seven-minute one about a tractor accident.