Listening Post: 17th September Albums of the week The records to hear this week, including two strangely elegiac blockbusters.
Album of the week: How To Dress Well – Total Loss [Acephale / Weird World]
Anyone can make bleak music about loss – wailing, heartbroken, Bridget Jones’ tearful All By Myself type music – but to make uplifting, paradoxical, intelligent and enlightened music out of the pain of losing someone or something is a much more impressive skill. Tom Krell, the Brooklyn-based producer known as How To Dress Well, achieves the latter with care, intricacy and a knowing smile on his second full-length, ‘Total Loss’.
Despite the dreary catharsis his grim title might suggest, the completeness and the hyperbole of it captures exactly what Krell is doing on this album. He’s taking the listener to the darkest, deepest point of having lost someone or something, and he’s revealing the touching, human, or even humourous strokes to that feeling – because, as this album reveals, there is no such thing as one “total” feeling. Human nature is way more complex than that, and the upbeat, delicate and soulful tracks that Krell has put on display show for themselves the spectrum of hues that loss can come in. It’s a spectrum that includes everything from desperation to hope, and it’s beautiful to listen to. Even when you’re in the throes of one extreme feeling, after all, you still recognise the slight ridiculousness of feeling that strongly, and you still experience variations in how you cope with the emotion.
One song that sticks out here as an example of this contradictory hopefulness is & It Was U. Bumping and brash, wearing its pop influences on its sleeves, it dresses Krell’s strange falsetto in an accessible and addictive package. One thing that might have held How To Dress Well back in his debut, ‘Love Remains’, was that wishy-washy, just-out-of-reach feeling that submerged and distanced him from a mainstream audience. With ‘Total Loss’, Krell is tapping into something that despite (and because of) its subject matter, is much more relate-able, and so much more easily enjoyed.
William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops [Temporary Residence]
Over the first few months of last decade, downtown New York composer William Basinski transfered the tape-recorded composition loops he had recorded to digital. As he was doing so, the fragile magnetised ferric oxide fell into dust, so he gave the tapes the rather lovely title “The Disintegration Loops”. Legend has it that when he was finished, he had some friends round to listen and eat some food in his apartment. That day was the 11th September 2001, and as he played his tapes, the delicate, mournful, dignified minimal compositions soundtrack the tragedy unfolding in the Manhattan skyline. It’s a story too good not to be true, and, after a sellout performance at the Southbank Centre’s Queen’s Hall, these tapes will be released as an exquisitely lavish boxset, retailing at £299. Whether or not you’ve already snapped up the re-issue, or coming to it fresh, it’s a timely reminder of this desperately elegant elegy to the first tragedy of our young century, and one of modern composition’s most striking achievements. It’s music of loss, sketched with absent tones, but its true achievement is painting tragedy and decay with life-affirming majesty.
G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer [Def Jam]
Kanye West’s outspoken new record seemingly has little to speak out about, but despite its superfluous and self-congratulating existence, it is undeniably an enjoyable, memorable listen. Lyric-wise, this collection of tracks has its moments of grin-inducing greatness, fantastically orbiting around the chant of “Mitt Romney don’t pay no tax!” heard on album opener (and our Song of the Week ) To The World. As for production, this is a fun, frantically engineered album that fires on all cylinders, leaving the plush layers of vocoder sadness long behind in ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, to be replaced by the thumps and clicks of the likes of Hudson Mohawke and The-Dream. Overall, this is a stellar example of a summer mixtape, which makes it cruel in that it came too late.
Grizzly Bear – Shields [Warp]
‘Shields’ is a brilliantly crafted, excellently-played, well-meaning collection of alternative rock songs by a band, an actual, proper band, which has been very considered and lovingly recorded, with lots of breathing room for each instrumental flourish and nuance of vocals, with songs that occasionally break out and turn into sweeping post-rockers, that deserves to be heard on headphones in isolation to be properly appreciated. It’s just a very great rock album, really, and this is why I don’t like it. It fits into rock’s rich tapestry. It doesn’t threaten to confront or offend any of its listeners. It errs on the side of experimental and it has extended instrumental moments that you wouldn’t hear on drivetime radio, but in the end these are rock songs, traditionally structured and composed, with studio production sheen, with sounds you’ve heard before, with vocals that are nice but normal. This is fine if you like well-crafted rock music, because Grizzly Bear are leagues ahead of pretty much every traditional rock band out there. But if you like music that is way rougher round the edges, that has a little bit of aggro, or is centred around a groove, then maybe this is not for you.
J.J. DOOM – Key To The Kuffs [Lex Records]
I should say straight off that DOOM’s music has never grabbed me. I fit firmly into the camp of lyric deafness, so already the vast majority of his appeal is lost on me. I do love a lot rap music despite this, but it tends to be more of the brash and hookish variety, and I appreciate the sound of a voice and the delivery of words rather than the actual content of them. I’ve also never been a fan of self-stylised ‘intellectual’ hip hop, probably due to its assumption, or at least its fan’s assumption, that other hip hop is inherently dumb or devoid of deeper meaning. So from the outset, I hold a bias against ‘Key To The Kuffs’. Would my opinion be changed? Well, not really. But I think that, bias aside, this just isn’t a great record, objectively – but it’s certainly not a bad one, either. The record was recorded in South London – a tangle of visa issues meant that DOOM was stranded for two years in the United Kingdom. The end result is a UK-centric record from an outsider’s perspective, made in collaboration with producer Jneiro Jarel and peppered heavily with references to our fine country, some brilliant, many others cringe-inducing.
Jarel’s densely layered production is the most enjoyable part of the record. The orchestrals of GMO clash excellently with the beat’s grimy sub bass, with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons making a fleeting but beautiful guest appearance in the middle, whilst Bite The Thong is a warped stormer, once again featuring a guest spot from a legendary British musician (this time Damon Albarn, though you’d never be able to tell). But ultimately, there’s not all that much to enjoy – DOOM’s rapping sounds perpetually bored, rather than gruff or urgent. And at 15 tracks, it’s just a tad too long, ambling along without much sense of momentum until its eventual end. But maybe I’m just being a muppet, which, according to the final track – Wash Your Hands, the raddest and, perhaps unsurprisingly, most contemporary-sounding track on the album – is “a British term that means a stupid, ignorant person”.