What we're listening to
Di Doo Dah
(Light in the Attic)
Arriving in the wake of Light in the Attic's reissue of the masterful L'Histoire de Melody Nelson, this, Birkin's first proper — if such a word can be applied to anything involving Serge Gainsbourg — solo album, is a series of light delights. Jean-Claude Vannier trades his characteristic dark orchestration for a string sound that is agile and brighter. On the title track, Birkin revels — in a melancholy way — in her tomboyish characteristics, setting the stage for more pun-filled escapades in androgynous amorousness. Elsewhere, she's a hitchhiker, a sidewalk cruiser, a hotel trick, a girl on a motorcycle, and other fantasy figurines. The most audacious song is "Les capotes anglaises," which begins with her blowing up condoms and letting them float off a balcony. The special treat is "Le décadanse," not so much a failed attempt at creating a dance craze as a successful erotic mockery of dance crazes. There, Gainsbourg appears for another classic duet.
The album's name is apt, as these tracks, recorded between 1988 and 1992, capture Dâm-Funk's sound and outlook in a teenage stage of sonic bumptiousness and lyrical lustiness. The content is spelled out in the titles: songs like "I Like Your Big Azz (Girl)," "Sexy Lady," and "When I'm With U I Think of Her," are a world away from the mystic leanings of more recent Dâm-Funk tracks like "Mirrors." Equally direct are the album's musings on existence, such as "I Love My Life." The sound owes a debt to — or is a youthful outgrowth of — the early 1980s electro funk of Prince, Mandre, and others. Dâm-Funk has been honing his use of analog keyboards for a long time — when it comes to Korgs and Casios, he's no new kid on the block, though he was back when these songs were captured on tape. The homecoming-dance cover art, selected by Peanut Butter Wolf from Dâm's photo albums, captures the vintage feel perfectly.
THE FLYING LIZARDS
The Secret Dub Life of the Flying Lizards
Flying Lizards are best known for creating possibly the cheapest British chart-topper in history, a pots-and-pans 1979 cover of "Money (That's What I Want)," distinguished by Deborah Evans' hilarious deadpan vocal. As the title hints, Evans isn't present on The Secret Dub Life of the Flying Lizards, nor are any other traditional vocalists — instead, main Lizard David Cunningham remixes 1978 source material by Jah Lloyd. The catch was that Cunningham only had a mono master tape to work with, rather than the plethora of tracks usually associated with dub. A lost gem from the early days of reggae-punk fusions and collisions, this album — with loops built from tape-splicing — reveals the dub underpinnings of Cunningham's brash and innovative work on "Money." An irreverent vanguard producer, he uses ping-pong balls to create ricochet effects on one track, just as "Money" seems to throw everything but the kitchen sink at listeners.
Broken Dreams Club EP
(True Panther Sounds)
One of the things that makes Girls so special is Christopher Owens' ability to write so directly about the unavoidable aspects of life without falling into cliché. So it is on "Heartbreaker," which begins with the observation, "When I look in the mirror/ I'm not as young as I used to be/ I'm not quite as beautiful as when you were next to me." A newer addition to Girls' nascent greatness, as displayed on this six-song collection, is their facility at traversing various genres while always sounding like themselves. The reggae and early rock 'n' roll fusion "Oh So Fortunate One," the bossa nova touches of "Heartbreaker," and the country lament of the superb title track (complete with pedal steel) sound like ... Girls. While the sonic palette shifts from song to song — and sometimes within them — more than one composition evokes the anthemic balladry of their 2009 debut album's "Hellhole Ratrace." That's no small achievement. The outlook, though, is less hopeful and more disillusioned. Who knows what the future holds.
There should probably be a moratorium placed on the use of the word panda in group names, but the man known as Gold Panda can be forgiven, based on the sheer zinging energy of this album, which has nothing in common with any Beach Boys-flavored Animal Collective endeavors. One of Gold Panda's trademarks is a sharply-edited, sped-up approach to vocal samples that makes Kanye West's sound like screw. Instrumental tracks such as "Vanilla Minus," "Snow & Taxis," and the incandescent "Marriage" call the crackling warmth of the Field to mind, but their energy is more hyper, their outlook much more colorful. "Same Dream China" takes the glassy percussion of Pantha Du Prince's "Stick to My Side" into out there realms — it's one of a few tracks that maneuvers across a high wire just above exotica and Orientalism. A late contender for techno album of the year.
San Francisco's the Mantles deliver great straightforward rock 'n' roll. Dressed in a cover by local artist Michelle Blade, this EP picks up where their debut album left off, as guitarist-singer Michael Olivares leads the charge with vocals that somehow manage to sneer and snarl and seem amiable at the same time. "Situations" is actually kind of harsh, taking a scenester or gold-digger to task for his or her shallow and failure-fated state of being. "Lily Never Married" is more reflective, a portrait of a spinster that opens into thoughts about family within a changing world. "Waiting Out the Storm" finds the group trying on its epic journey boots, and they fit just fine.
The Effective Disconnect
A disturbing subject yields mournful tone poems on this album by Stars of the Lid's McBride, which collects elements of his soundtrack for Vanishing of the Bees, a 2009 documentary on colony collapse disorder. (Mercifully, voice over by Ellen Page is left off the album.) There's no flight-of-the-bumblebee whimsy in McBride's musical testimony to the spirit of the beehive. In the liner notes, he writes that filmmakers George Langworthy and Maryam Henein suggested he focus on "the gloriousness of the bees, the endurance and hardships of traditional beekeepers, pesticides, and the holistic nature of non-industrial agriculture." These elements aren't always clearly distinguished, but they are present in a manner that avoids cliché.
ARTHUR RUSSELL AND THE FLYING HEARTS FEATURING ALLEN GINSBERG
Ballad of the Lights
"Ballad of the Lights" was performed by a friend at the late Arthur Russell's funeral, which is as strong a proof as any that it is an important entry within his vast and diverse songbook. This two-song 10-inch vinyl release couples it with another recording from Russell's many studio collaborations with Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg's recitals within "Ballad of the Lights" almost come off superfluous, except that they set the glory of the song's resurrection-like structure in greater relief. The B-side, "Pacific High Studio Mantras," is a Buddhist chant accompanied by instrumentation, and perhaps not intended for commercial release. (Ginsberg himself hinged back and forth about whether it should presented in this fashion.) Bob Dylan even figured briefly within Ginsberg's and Russell's endeavors, but with so few of them available, it's hard to discern whether "Ballad of the Lights" is their best work. That it's pretty great is clear, even if coupled with portraits by Archer Prewitt that play into the more cloying aspects of viewing artists as icons.
THE SOFT MOON
The Soft Moon
It's no surprise that the debut album by Bay Area musician Luis Vasquez is dark and densely claustrophobic — nor is it a surprise that it's excellent. It kicks off with one highlight from his earlier EPs, "Breathe the Fire," where his whispered vocal — dancing over doom-laden bass and guitar worthy of Pornography-era Cure — manifests maximum sinuous menace. The death dance of "Circles" is more Sister of Mercy-like, but really, Vasquez transcends well-known goth and more obscure dark wave poses and influences through sheer intensity of focus. "Sewer Sickness" might be the album's darkest and most compelling black pit, as Vasquez's susurrant vocals take on the quality of a malevolent primal incantation.
She Was Coloured In
Like Gold Panda, Solar Bears counter a dodgy name by delivering solid tunes. She Was Coloured In is more melodic than most recordings on Planet Mu. "Children of the Times" mixes Johnny Marr-caliber guitar shimmer with a Vocoder chorus that is sure to evoke comparisons to Air. Likewise, the title composition places Air-y elements up against Aphex Twin-like ambience. Enjoyably ham-fisted prog keyboard flourishes dive in and out of techno terrain on the title track. The chord changes and underpinnings of "Head Supernova" evoke Angelo Badalamenti's scores for David Lynch. The riddle of Solar Bears is whether all these touchstones or influences add up to an act with its own identity or — perhaps no less an achievement in 2010 — a generically beautiful album.
(Light in the Attic)
When an excellent songwriter disappears, his or her voice remains. There is proof of this in the recent issuing of Connie Converse's priceless previously-private recordings, and now in this reissue of the 1969 debut album by Jim Sullivan, a ten-song collection that fuses orchestral ornamentation and plainspoken brevity. Sullivan vanished into the New Mexico desert one day in 1975, but his musical legacy is being revived, and rightfully so, as the best moments here are reminiscent of better-known contemporaries such as Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. All the doomed young men: there's something eerie about the funereal string intro of the opening track "Jerome," yet Sullivan's music also possesses vitality and good cheer. Best of all is "UFO," a graceful piece of baroque pop (and quintessential example of a California paranormal mindset), adorned with echo-laden effects that Malibu kinfolk and relative survivor Linda Perhacs might appreciate.
Golden Haze EP
Captured Tracks is home to some of the most beautiful guitar sounds being made today, thanks to Beach Fossils and this group, who see no shame in sheer '80s-ness. Wild Nothing hail from California, but England meets Australia (and gets along with it better than usual) on "Your Rabbit Feet," as Slowdive-gone-fast guitar radiates around a vocal that's equal parts Morrissey and Robert Forster in its offhand debonair delivery. "Take Me In" has another immediate, whirligig guitar melody, and a chorus as big as 100,000 violins. Gorgeous stuff.