What’s in my Discman, March 2011

James Blake – James Blake (2011)

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

ZZ Top – Eliminator (1983)

The trio of Gibbons, Hill and Beard were always thinly veiled rip-off artists, but they tended to be damn good at it, fusing John Lee Hooker’s riffs and attitudes with the kind of classic rock hooks that fit snugly on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. On Eliminator, those mainstream tendencies completely took over, and it was a blessing. By polishing up their guitar sounds and throwing some love songs into the mix, ZZ Top found the balance they needed to make a great record. Instead of sounding like a guy who’s bullshitting his buddies, a la “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” Billy Gibbons sounds sincere in his appreciation of legs, suits and TV dinners, letting his guitar do the bragging with one indelible riff after another – “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man” is one of the strongest opening sequences in ’80s rock.

Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude (2010)

The second mixtape Das Racist released last year, Sit Down, Man, was a Discman constant for me, along with the Wallpaper remix of their corporate homogenization novelty song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Now that I’ve circled back and picked up their debut mix Shut Up, Dude, it’s crystallized in my brain – few things are more fun these days than listening to these guys. The lyrics might be delivered with a stoner’s irreverence, but they’re meticulously packaged blasts of verbal candy, delightfully off-kilter (“We can eat gruyere as if we care/We can eat Roquefort, or we can kick it like Rockport”) and rich in pop culture (references include Saved By the Bell, Tim Meadows, The Land Before Time, Look Who’s Talking Now and Jake Gyllenhaal). And given that it’s a mixtape, Das Racist can rap over anything, whether it’s a choice Madlib beat or a hyped-up slice of Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out.” The result is mischievous, way smart and party ready, and a reminder of how much fun rap is when it doesn’t have to worry about intellectual property law.

What’s in my Discman, May 2010

I’m really into albums from 1971 these days, for some reason. I guess I’m just swept up in the memories they inspire – you know, me at -7, eating Tootsie Pops and playing four square while living in the twinkle of my pappy’s eye.

Paul & Linda McCartney – Ram

Like any aspect of Beatles history, the band’s attempt to get back to its roots on its muddled-with-patches-of-brilliance swan song, Let It Be, has been analyzed to death. But you don’t need an insider biography to tell you that Paul McCartney was leading this charge towards stripped down rock and blues constructions. All you need as evidence are his first two solo records, 1970’s jarringly spare McCartney and 1971’s Ram. The latter is the much stronger album, presenting the ideal mixture of the farmhouse rusticity Macca was obsessed with and the gloriously produced melodies that have always been his strong suit. You’ve got the unadorned Delta blues of “3 Legs” and the light, scatman folk of “Heart of the Country,” as well as the beautiful Beach Boys harmonies of “Dear Boy” and the looking-ahead-to-Wings power ballad “Back Seat of My Car.” Unlike any other McCartney album, Ram never goes to extremes; even Linda’s hopelessly flat back-up vocals fit the homestyle milieu. The Cute One went on to do some great things, but he never again made an album as balanced as this.

Bill Withers – Just As I Am

Bill Withers is the quintessential R&B folksinger, and this, his debut album, is prime evidence to back up that claim. Over the course of a dozen tracks, the music world was introduced to the steady, hypnotic bluesiness of Withers’ voice, his soul-infused acoustic guitar playing, and the gut-wrenching drama of his songwriting. Withers tells gripping stories as easily as he delivers those buttery vocal runs – “Grandma’s Hands” mourns the loss of a matriarch; “I’m Her Daddy” is the stirring plea of a man who realizes he has a six-year-old daughter; “Better Off Dead” is a suicide note from an abusive alcoholic. Producer Booker T.’s arrangements are subtle and tasteful throughout, letting Withers’ glue-you-to-your-seat tunes carry the day – just thinking about “Ain’t No Sunshine” gives me goosebumps.

David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World

Few artists have dabbled with as many different styles as David Bowie. But until I heard The Man Who Sold The World, I didn’t realize that prog-rock and early metal were on the list. Before the pop perfection of Hunky Dory or the conceptual, glammed-out brilliance of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, there was this album – a loud, roughshod recording dominated by huge guitars and huger concepts. “Running Gun Blues” is an unflinching Vietnam critique, “All the Madmen” a harrowing depiction of a man about to be released from a sanitarium, “Saviour Machine” a plea from a governmental leader to help him kick his power addiction. It’s all bathed in chugging Sabbath riffage and epic early-Zeppelin arrangements – while the towering melodies and glamorous sensibilities of classic Bowie are ever-present, the guy never rocked harder than he does here.