Useful Noise #11
New goons and other tunes, plus an Ed Shee-rant from the vaults
Hot enough for ya? (Just a little joke there, because this summer has been very hot.)
GO SLOW NO
Go Slow No is a survey of new, new-to-me, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty simple: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and NO means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.
The Goon Sax: Mirror II (Matador)
With producer John Parrish both paring down and toning up their sound, Brisbane’s Riley Jones, Louis Forster, and James Harrison are twee-I-Y no more. Guitars that once jangled and strummed now sear and seethe to envelop a brooding m/wary f vocal tradeoff, all the better to stylize the moody disappointments of young adults compulsively overcomplicating their dating lives—a sexy enough proposition even without the accusations of vampirism and psychic ability scattered amid the many rationalizations and recriminations. Still, slick they ain’t, not with Harrison fashioning ramshackle reveries from mismatched chords like a Syd Barrett who knows his limits, or “Bathwater,” which fakes you out with an intermittent New Romantic sax, revving up midway with all the ease of a drunk teen learning to work a clutch. As Forster camps up “Now I'm the one coughing up blood/Blood, blood, blood” and declaims climactically in German, I ask myself: Naturalistic goths or realists with a dark streak? But this is not an album that answers questions. Songs typically start in the middle of some fraught scenario and leave you scrambling to piece together specifics, till you realize those matter less than the wounded rhetoric—that’s why one chorus alternates “Why would you say that you'd come back?” with “Why would you say that you'll never come back?” Though let me say, Jones’s rumination that “desire is a daydream of love” is pretty deep, whatever the context.
Vince Staples: Vince Staples (Motown/Blacksmith)
Go on, scoff at his brevity: Three years after the skit-padded 22-minute F.M., the Twitter-garrulous rapper scrapes together... another whole 22 minutes. But in the age of rap-till-you’ve-got-something-to-say, where G’s move in about as much silence as Google, Staples’s clipped parsimony not only enforces quality control, but works thematically. Haunted by and allegiant to a street life he claims he aspired to rather than fell into, he sounds like he’s holding back on his horror stories for our own good, because we can only handle a little bit of reality at a time. The hyper-alert musicality of his flow, along with the muffled murmurs and electronic colors of Kenny Beats’ production, keep the project from dwindling into hood austerity. And if it’s aphoristic thug wisdom you be wanting, Staples is a Long Beach Confucius. “These streets all I've known/And it's no place like home.” “Hangin' on them corners, same as hangin' from a ceiling fan/When I see my fans, I'm too paranoid to shake they hands.” Oh, and “Everybody tough 'til they gotta go and see the judge.”
The Go! Team: Get Up Sequences Part One (Memphis Industries)
I understand if you think it’s way past time to put Ian Parton’s hyperactive crew down for their naps—you can only watch a juggler for so long before you wander off to see what else is up at the carnival. But when you come back at the end of the day and realize he’s kept the balls in the air all that time, you gotta appreciate it. The willed culture clash of these kinderjams might seem quaint up against the omnivorous shapeshifting of hyperpop (though it remains more vital than many of commercial pop globalism’s lab experiments), but that doesn’t mean you’ve heard this all before. For a half hour, Parton makes me a fan of flutes and steel drums, as Ninja honors the inexcusably neglected tradition of the old old-school’s female rappers with a matter of fact “That’s just who I/That’s just who I am,” “We Do It But We Never Know Why” might seem like a self-aware title, but “Bee Without Its Sting,” a protest song handed over to Detroit teens Jessie Miller and Rian Woods, shows they know exactly why: They believe righteous exuberance will always win out over its foes. I’d rather not disagree.
Clairo: Sling (Fader/Republic)
There’s introspective, there’s recoiling from the scrutiny of fame, and then there’s … the paradox of crafting pop songs you’re not sure you want anyone to notice? Something like that, which is why no chorus on Claire Cottrill’s follow-up to Immunity hits home like “Bags,” and the one that lands closest goes “I show up to the party just to leave.” Instead, there’s self-harmonizing as self-care, that last-minute chord change that makes the merely tuneful wholly memorable, and a certain ubiquitous pop producer slightly overcompensating with varied guitar textures, clavinets, Ringo drum fills, and all matter of ’70s studio rock accoutrements until you’ve had Ant-enough. But listen close and you’ll hear a writer dissecting the anxiety that accompanies “stepping inside a universe/Designed against my own beliefs” without being precious about it. As Clairo ponders passively accepting objectification to win over a creep (“Why do I tell you how I feel/When you're just looking down my blouse?”) and actively retreating to domesticity (“Let the real еstate show itself to me/I could wake up with a baby in a sling”), among other ways of giving in without giving up, there’s a quiet heroism in her ambivalence. Almost too quiet.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
I have my suspicions that plenty of the grown rap experts now justifiably dunking on this cluttered cash grab would have similarly written off the streamlined cash grab that soundtracked the original Space Jam had they been old enough not to know better. No masterpiece whatever your childhood memories tell you, the 1999 collection did brim with the premillennial exuberance of rap and R&B conquering pop, not to mention that it featured a classic inspirational anthem (by someone who we’re really not to mention). There’s no soaring above here, just winning at any cost, which, sadly, doesn’t tell you anything about pop and capital you don’t already know. 24kGoldin, Lil Tecca, G-Eazy—these guys are as likely to record a decent Jock Jam as I am to shoot a three from midcourt. John Legend is the wrong kind of cornball for this, Chance the Rapper (who should be the right kind of cornball) chokes, and whoever thought “Pump up the Jam” and Onyx both needed a dinky 808 makeover should be forced to hand wash the Tasmanian Devil’s jockstrap. Eddie Valiant didn’t prevent Toontown from becoming a freeway for this shit.
This running playlist of the year’s best songs, along with a few sentences that try to get at what makes ’em work, is called The Uselist, because it has to be called something, and if you can’t go high, go as low as you can.
Big Red Machine feat. Taylor Swift, “Renegade”
The layered synth/guitar wash of Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s buddy project is just an adequately neutral backdrop for their famous pal, but the percussion twitches add a nervous energy to Swift’s assured delivery. And the lyrics themselves are relentless: “Is it insensitive for me to say ‘Get your shit together/So I can love you?’/Is it really your anxiety that stops you from giving me everything?/Or do you just not want to?” Curiously, when Vernon emerges in full voice from his low harmonies he sounds a little like… Richard Thompson?
Lorde, “Stoned at the Nail Salon”
I warmed up to the pastiche escapism of “Freedom ’21” d.b.a. “Solar Power” once I accepted that its high-on-the-beach vibe is “about” fun rather than a promise of the real deal. But I prefer how this weed-engendered reflection on maturity is both “about” being sad and genuinely bummed—the title gently ironizes the mood that it nonetheless sucks you into, and enlisting sisters in sulk Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo for backup is brilliant stunt-casting.
Azealia Banks, “Fuck Him All Night”
She really does make it hard, doesn’t she? (I mean “difficult,” potty brain.) Why’s she gottta gloop up a suitably filthy house track with celeb gunk? (“This is about the throbbing black billionaire cock,” she’s said—if I had to read it, so do you—while painting Kanye’s name on her nails to demo her trademark subtlety.) But the beat goes on, her delivery is nasty as she wanna be, and the bit where “cunt” echoes into infinity is genius. If the Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s rockin’, don’t bother knockin’.
Justine Skye, “In My Bag”
The full-voiced Skye is as out of step in the “no hooks just vibes” era as Timbaland himself, who stacks memorable synth riffs Tetris-style to keep this club-bound thot-for-a-day celebration moving. Rest of the album’s worth a listen too.
Bad Bad Hats, “Detroit Basketball”
Minneapolis indie trio grooves hard as Kerry Alexander spools off a quest for love and contentment along a trail of half-rhymes: “kissin’”’“Pistons,” “decision”/“pigeons.” “position”/ “kitchen,” “mission”/”listen.” I’m a sucker for a happy ending.
Named for a song from back when Miley Cyrus was good, 7 Things is a grab bag where I dump uncategorizable thoughts too long for a tweet and too short for an essay. (Though unlike Miley I don’t hate ’em. Well, not all of them.)
Well, he outlived Kevin Duffy, if not Gilbert O’Sullivan. Though Biggie lifted a flow from him wholesale, his beatboxing was fantastic, and his crate-digs were the envy of every DJ, to acknowledge that Marcel Hall’s gift to hip-hop was as much his presence as his art takes nothing away from “Pickin’ Boogers” or All Samples Cleared. With entitled jerks now demanding obeisance for every scrap of trash they fetishize, we can remember Biz as an emissary from an era of good-hearted pop culture nerds—so secure and sincere in their pet obsessions they never sought revenge. Paradoxically, his gift to pop culture at large was his art: Maybe some dopes condescended to the wounded bellow of “Just a Friend,” but most of us groaned along in the sympathetic knowledge that love will eventually make every one of us its punchline.
Natalia Ginzburg: Valentino and Sagittarius
These two novellas, both published in 1957, packaged together this year by NYRB Classics, are my first taste of this resurgent postwar Italian author. Both examine families as sites of great expectations, greater disappointment, fostered misapprehension of outsiders, and constant anxiety, their sour moods leavened less by humor than by the narrator’s distance—a strange trick, since in each case the story is told by a family member, albeit an aloof one. Both examine the perils and pleasures of pettiness, and Sagittarius, which centers on a fraught friendship between two middle-aged mothers, twists the knife with a particularly cruel artistry.
Speaking of NYRB Classics, for whom I simp unrepentantly, Jason Diamond chats here with Christine Rhee, who fashions mock ups of celebrity memoirs from the likes of Drew Barrymore and Anthony Kiedis in the imprint’s distinctive style, and also talks with the folks at NYRB itself about book design.
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is too multifaceted a work for me to digest in a blurb, so let me instead say good stuff about Coel’s simpler but by no means simple previous sitcom, which, guffawing much, I finally got around to finishing after a lapsed HBO subscription. The premise is straightforward: A 24-year-old virgin from a religious background repeatedly tries and fails to get laid. Laffs ensue. Before I May Destroy You showcased Coel’s range as an actor, she’d already given all you could ask of a comedian here as Tracey, in no less memorable a performance—intensely physical, perfectly timed, charmingly inappropriate. And the show wraps up as an unexpected valentine to the council estate where it’s set.
Summer of Soul
The footage of this unjustly overlooked 1969 Harlem music festival is as incredible as you’ve been told—Stevie Wonder showing off on clavinet and drums, David Ruffin exuding impossible cool, Mahalia Jackson passing the torch to Mavis Staples then snatching it back, the Fifth Dimension plenty Black enough for the crowd no matter what whitey thinks, Sly and the Family Stone still beyond description a half-century later, Nina Simone regal and revolutionary, the crowd itself a endlessly watchable mix of fashions, attitudes, and ages. Too bad Questlove didn’t trust that footage to tell its own story. Every time an artist stops singing, some person or another overexplains what you’re hearing, or why you’re hearing it, and more than once that person is Lin-Manuel Miranda. While Sonny Sharrock is shredding, I don’t want to hear anyone yakking, not even Greg Tate.
For Rolling Stone, I reviewed Mayer’s Sob Rock, a slight letdown from 2017’s The Search for Everything but within a notch or so of every album in this consistently competent S.O.B.’s catalog. I’ve been defending Mayer’s craft for years and years, far beyond what it (and certainly he) deserves, because it’s fun to tweak the anti-normie prejudices of purportedly discerning music fans. But these stylistic rehashes, masterful as they are, do underline how his music lacks what we used to call “content” back when that word meant “substance” rather than its opposite. P.S.: Grocery shopping at the Cub the other day, I wondered what uncharacteristically hyped up Mayer track I was hearing. Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking,” of course.
Amy Klobuchar, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age
Antitrust legislation, which is, for better or worse, about fine-tuning capitalism to stave off more radical measures, is a suitably progressive channel for my state’s senior senator’s energies. And if you can stomach its folksy affectations, her book, which she discussed with me for Minnesota Monthly, is a solid history of economic injustice and midwestern resistance leading to some sensible policy prescriptions that, no, don’t go as far as Elizabeth Warren’s, which may mean elements of it have a chance of passing and may mean we’ll get crumbs from a half-loaf. Klobuchar will never make a sharp left turn, but she can still be a solid liberal, which means a little something to anyone old enough to remember when that was a forbidden word.
From the Vaults
Ed Sheeran ÷s and Conquers (City Pages, March 7, 2017)
NOTE: Ed’s so anxious about his rep as a softie (call it Billy Joel Syndrome) he followed this album up with an album of rap and R&B collabs and recently joked about going “death metal.” But I still say he’s gonna go smooth when his audience ages out of the clubs.
While you were deliberating the merits of the new Lorde single last week, a tiny ginger songsmith from Yorkshire was casting a long ominous shadow across the contemporary pop landscape.
Last Friday, Ed Sheeran released his typographically challenging new album ÷, the follow-up to his hugely successful + and x. (It’s the kind of stunt Prince might have pulled if he’d been really into math instead of fucking.) Every one of these 16 new Sheeran songs landed in the British midweek charts’ Top 20, and while things aren’t quite so grim stateside, that’s what we said after Brexit, and now look who's president. Divide, as I guess we’re calling it, broke Spotify first-day streaming records and will top the Billboard 200 next week as the biggest selling album of 2017. We’re doomed.
Sheeran’s a reliable and recognizable pop type: a white middle-of-the-road acoustic singer-songwriter with a warmly soulish delivery and a facility with last year’s rhythms. On the current single “The Castle on the Hill,” an electric guitar chinga-da-chings with borrowed U2vian grandeur, its swoop reminiscent of the days when Coldplay was aching to be the food-court version of Radiohead. But mostly Sheeran drives the songs forward with his own chunky acoustic guitar rhythms, piggybacking off the Hacky Sack funk of the Dave Matthews Band and vamping like he’s trying to remember the chorus to the John Mayer song that was playing when he lost his virginity.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad,” you say, because I haven’t gotten around to telling you that he raps.
He’s tried to deny it. “I’m not a rapper/ I’m a singer with a flow,” Sheeran protested a few years ago on “Take It Back”—yeah, tell it to the cultural appropriation judge, mister. On Divide’s lead track, “Eraser,” Ed sounds a tad like Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park might after the SSRIs kicked in, ranting rhythmically about the downside of his success. Apparently rap is now the musical style white people use to complain about being rich, just as they once played the blues to complain about being poor.
Because you are apparently not permitted to write about Ed Sheeran without discussing his appearance, here are a few things he looks like, according to Twitter:
the cactus enemy from Super Mario
a rough draft of a muppet
a heartbroken sloth
the unholy child of Boris Johnson & Garfield
that kid at school who has nosebleeds all the time
a huge Ed Sheeran fan waiting in line to see Ed Sheeran
None of these mean-spirited comparisons are 100 percent untrue, though they exaggerate the homeliness of a pleasant-enough face that’s reassuringly spherical in a world of famous, desirable cheekbones that look like they could draw blood. Sheeran’s innocuous looks, however, mask a cold wronged-nice-guy mean streak. The man responsible for Justin Bieber’s profitably soft-spoken blast at a supposedly stuck- up ex, “Love Yourself,” regularly targets the character flaws of women who no longer sleep with Ed Sheeran and the men they now sleep with instead. Here his victim is a former lover who’s started eating kale and keeping up with the Kardashians since leaving him for a “New Man,” a bloke who has “his eyebrows plucked and his arsehole bleached.” What sort of woman would choose vitamin-rich greens and personal grooming over Ed Sheeran?
That lyric gives you an idea of Sheeran’s writing style—he has a knack for vivid yet tedious description, like the graduate of a writing workshop that emphasized the importance of using concrete nouns. As he matures (let’s face it, he ain’t going nowhere), he’ll probably demonstrate “growth” not through wiser lyrics but through a wider palette of sound effects. There are steel drums on “Barcelona,” “Bibia Be Be Ye” dips into Afropop as visions of Graceland dance in its head, and Sheeran’s current (and first) number-one hit, “The Shape of You,” hops along to an insinuating marimba pattern I dare you to call “Caribbean” without quotation marks. At this rate, by the time Sheeran gets to √ he’ll probably be describing his sound as “jazzy.”
Let’s complain about that hit a little more. Not only does the non-idiomatic “shape of you” make Sheeran's partner sound like an unusual cloud formation, but his coy refrain of “I'm in love with your body” is so clearly crafted to sneak past the parental control settings that its euphemistic lechery sounds crasser than if he’d just called the song “Damn, That Ass!” Sheeran, to his partial credit, rarely leers like this. More often, he yearns. Patiently, plaintively, adequately, Ed Sheeran yearns. You look perfect tonight, he informs some imaginary listener too young to have been conceived to Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” a listener likely tiptoeing for the first time into the rapids of desire and heartbreak, a listener who has made Sheeran’s music the soundtrack to her own private yearning, establishing a sacred and judgment-proof bond that no criticism can or should sever. Avert your eyes, tween-to-teen Sheerios--none of my vitriol is meant for you.
And yet, think back to how the great teenpop of the turn of the millennium transcended commonplace lyrics to rocket suitably empathetic adults back to their own teenhood—the electronic bludgeon of Britney hits captured the terror and ecstasy of sexual discovery, the immensity of boy band harmonies confounded sexual and existential longing. Sheeran, to my ears, pulled off something like that just once, with his 2014 single “Photograph.” Picture Ed pining for you and recall the first time you realized your own absence could be powerful enough to generate such a gorgeous swell of misery. I'd like to think Sheeran could pull that off again. Then again, Divide has a song called “How Do You Feel (Paean).” Paean! Who died and made you Sting, Ed Sheeran?
Sting is still alive, right? Somebody check on Sting.