50-worders: midsummer 2019 edition

Here we go—after a long absence from the airwaves—with another round of 50-word album reviews, rated on a scale of 1 to 10. Some new stuff, some old, organized chronologically by release date. Lots of me trying and failing to catch up to current trends. For a primer on the process and rating system, go here. For earlier entries: one, two, three, four, five.

raphael saadiqjimmy lee (2019) — 8.0
Imagine De La Soul’s “My Brother’s A Basehead” as concept album, and you’re halfway there. Melodic but throbbing, gospel but street, beats hard but voice honeyed, Saadiq portrays his addict brother empathetically but unsentimentally. Saadiq chose a different needle (turntable) from his sibling (heroin) but connects the two impulses thrillingly.
reminds you of: Daft Punk / Sly and the Family Stone / Earth, Wind and Fire
slay tracks:Something Keeps Calling,” “Kings Fall,” “My Walk”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

steve lacyapollo xxi (2019) 9.0
Vocally laconic rather than audacious, comfier with simple clean riffs than with outsized guitar wizardry, Steve Lacy nevertheless shares his model’s penchant for falsetto and DIY recording. Also, gender-bending—which Lacy’s altogether more casual and less performative about. Ain’t quite Sign O the Times yet but that’s where he’s headed.
reminds you of: Prince (duh) / D’Angelo / Cody Chesnutt
slay tracks:Like You,” “Playground,” “Guide,” “Hate CD,” “Amandla’s Interlude”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

trey anastasioghosts of the forest (2019) 5.5
Too many echoes and vocal reverb; too many New Agey bromides; too many sky and water metaphors; too many un-rhymed diary entries set to music; too many arrangements; too many instruments and soul harmonies; too much flooding of wobbly despair—which maybe means the problem is more me than him.
reminds you of: Phish (maybe despite Anastasio’s best wishes) / Fleetwood Mac / Neil Young
slay tracks:Beneath A Sea of Stars” (yes, the 20-minute closing song), “Drift While You’re Sleeping,” “About to Run,” “In Long Lines”
just say no, Nancy: Friend,” “Halfway Home”

carsie blantonbuck up (2019) 8.5
She’s so lyrically sharp and snappy-slurry in flow, like a codeine-woozy Billie Holliday gone country, that the junkyard-circus arrangements and studio flourishes (mostly) delight instead of annoy. The horns coax out her horniness, plentiful indeed, but also let her smart leftist politics run wild, runny and juicy in her hands.
reminds you of: Madeleine Peyroux / Lucinda Williams / Pokey LaFarge
slay tracks:Jacket,” “That Boy,” “Bed,” “Moustache”
just say no, Nancy: Battle”

bob mouldsunshine rock (2019) 6.5
While this Mould/Narducy/Wurster combo technically outshines the Mould/Maimone/Fier trio of Workbook, or even (gulp!) the Mould/Norton/Hart trio of you-know-who, those earlier groups better balanced despair and jubilation. The wan string sections and synthesizer washes wallow alongside the lyrics. The sunniness and nostalgic despair feel equally forced. It’s hard to take.
reminds you of: The Cure / The Ramones / Sugar (duh)
slay tracks:What Do You Want Me to Do,” “Thirty Dozen Roses,” “Western Sunset,” “Send Me A Postcard”
just say no, Nancy: The Final Years,” “I Fought,” “Sunshine Rock”

phish kasvot växt: í rokk (2018) 8.0
Prog, funk, schlock, and anthem rock merge in this Cuisinart amalgam of 1970s pop impulses. The quartet hasn’t felt this unhinged, absurdist, or joyfully surprising with new material in years. With these guys, of course its best album post-reformation gets released as a concert covering a nonexistent band’s sole record.
reminds you of: Smashing Pumpkins / Kraftwerk / (let’s just go ahead and say for once) The Grateful Dead
slay tracks:Shaky Dog,” “Passing Through,” “We Are Come to Outlive Our Brains,” “Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.”
just say no, Nancy: Everything Is Hollow,” “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long”

erroll garnernightconcert (2018, recorded 1964) 10.0
Midnight in a smoky Amsterdam concert hall, and there’s no place you’d rather be—and this was well before that smoke would’ve been weed-borne. Swaggering, sinuous, jiving, Garner (piano) and company—Eddie Calhoun (bass) and Kelly Martin (drums)—make the Great American Songbook anew, writing and refining it at once.
reminds you of: Fred Hersch / Oscar Peterson / Bud Powell
slay tracks:One Green Dolphin Street,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “That Amsterdam Swing”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

aphex twincollapse EP (2018) 8.0
The English Richard James works better in short mode than longform, plowing beats into the soil rather than aiming for the clouds. Here, he returns to club beats while keeping the spooky echoes that make him nonpareil. Either rage to it or bliss out to it; nothing works in between.
reminds you of: Chemical Brothers / Moby
slay tracks:1st 44,” “MT1 t29r2”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

lhasa de salalive in reykjavik (2017, recorded 2009) 10.0
Lhasa’s low-slung voice, sly in delivery but with quivering depths and spiky wit, mesmerizes all by itself. Her crackerjack band adjusts to her every hard swoop and delicate pause, and releases secrets slowly like perfume or a slow kiss. You’ll be spellbound as long as she wants you to be.
reminds you of: Cesaria Evora / Nina Simone / Susana Baca
slay tracks:Fool’s Gold,” “Is Anything Wrong,” “La Confesion,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Bells”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

yo la tengostuff like that there (2016) 9.7
Docked a few decimal points only because this is mostly covers, although, hey, they’re sometimes covering themselves, the Hoboken trio finds itself in other folks’s songs. Melancholy, yearning, aching, each track seems like an original, divorced from other contexts even while you think you’ve heard this song all your life.
reminds you of: The Roches / Indigo Girls / The Velvet Underground with Nico
slay tracks:I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Friday I’m In Love,” “Deeper into Movies,” “My Heart’s Not In It”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

trey anastasioshine (2005) 7.5
Beware of shiny surfaces. Anastasio, near the bottom of drug addiction and absent his anchoring band, offers up bright, beautifully catchy pop filled with New Agey lyrical fragments that he desperately wants to believe but which don’t disguise how often the ever-present water imagery (he’s always “adrift,” “floating”) evokes drowning.
reminds you of: Hootie and the Blowfish / XTC / The Beach Boys
slay tracks:Shine,” “Come as Melody,” “Tuesday,” “Sweet Dreams Melinda,” “Sleep Again”
just say no, Nancy: “Black,” “Invisible,” “Love Is Freedom”

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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