Payday Albums: 6/28/13

It’s been just over a month since my last Payday Albums post, but it feels much longer than that. I had been trying to spend less money on records, so that I could actually spend more time listening to the records that stood quietly on my shelves. A valiant endeavor, if I do say so myself, but one that didn’t really work out as intended: Instead of spending money on records, I spent money on books. I almost posted a Payday Books list, but I figured the grumpy old audiophiles would stone me for reading.

I’ll tell you, though, I’ve been reading a lot of John McPhee, largely because he can write powerfully and compellingly about anything, partly because he’s from New Jersey, and partly for other reasons. There’s just something in me that wants to be close to him now. You can probably hear McPhee’s tone in my writing, if you read carefully enough, because I’m not so good a writer to have my own distinct voice. Rather, I assume the voices of those authors I read. I don’t think this is too terrible a thing, so long as I read good writers.

I’ve also been reading a lot of Nick Hornby. His column for The Believer, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” is hugely inspirational, and I find many parallels not only between Hornby’s relationship with reading and my relationship with listening, but also between Hornby’s view of the literary world and my view of the audiophile world. To again spare myself a stoning, I’ll give you no examples.

During my recent reading craze, I’ve noticed that a certain faction of the literary world seems intent upon rehashing the old Death of the Novel topic. This strange matter, like The Death of Hi-Fi or The Death of Rock’n’Roll, is exhumed every 30 to 50 years or so. Some, who see the novel as a dying art, call for something “new”—something that mirrors our modern lifestyle. Whatever that is. I suppose it would have something to do with the Internet. The “new” novel should probably have pictures, interactive videos, chapters limited to 140 characters, and text that scrolls from right to left, punctuated with emoticons.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to keep the old novel. It took me 25 years to learn how to read, and I really don’t want to go through that all over again. Miraculously—perhaps fortunately, for me—novelists still seem capable of telling good, provocative stories, even when they use regular old-fashioned words. And isn’t that what we want out of a novel? A good, stimulating story?

Maybe it’s a certain concoction of literary elements, genres, and voices that makes for good writing. If that’s the case, I’d like to mix John McPhee with Nick Hornby, add one part Art Dudley, one part Sam Tellig, a pinch of hard-boiled Haruki Murakami (substitute with Charles Bukowski, if necessary), and garnish with a sprig of John Atkinson.

Queens of the Stone Age: …Like Clockwork (CD, Matador; Listen via Spotify)

Maybe it’s the same way with rock music. Can there really be anything truly “new,” other than the day itself? If Jimi Hendrix had released his debut record in 2013, rather than 1967, would we hear it as something new? Can we hear the new Queens of the Stone Age record without hearing David Bowie or Elton John? (The band QOTSA seem most indebted to here, strangely enough, is Polvo. Perhaps it's time to dig out the great Exploded Drawing.) Can we hear the new Savages record without hearing Wire or Sonic Youth? (Sonic Youth is very clearly quoted, or ripped-off, in Savages’ album opener “Shut Up.”) Does it matter? Or are we fortunate to merely hear anything at all? Isn’t there value—even great value—in combining and recombining these elements and introducing them to new times?

Savages: Silence Yourself (CD, Matador; Listen via Spotify)

A few factors—some specific, some general—contributed to this particular list of Payday Albums. I go through phases of listening just as I go through phases of reading. Sometimes, I search for something new. Other times, like now, I simply search for something familiar and good.

You’ll notice that I purchased all of these albums on CD—crazy, I know, but I’m in the process of reviewing NAD’s new C 516BEE CD player ($300), which replaces their C 515BEE, and I tend to use CD player reviews as good excuses for purchasing CDs.

I didn’t really intend to give my money to so many major labels, but whatever. You might even wonder where one goes to buy CDs these days. The answer: Best Buy. They have tons of them! And they’re all, like, $8.99 or less!

Kanye West: Yeezus (CD, Def Jam; Listen via Spotify)

The day before the official release of Kanye West’s Yeezus, I was at a karaoke bar with a few friends and acquaintances. When the topic of my work came up, someone asked for my opinion on Kanye West, on Daft Punk, on Macklemore. Unfortunately, I had no opinions to share. Instead, I might have discussed Aidan Baker or Jenny Hval, but neither artist would have gone very far with this particular crowd. As is so often the case, I failed to relate, and felt somewhat inadequate because of it. Shouldn’t I, as someone intimately familiar with modern music, have at least some opinion of the new Kanye West album?

Maybe, maybe not.

Now that I’ve listened, I’m surprised by Yeezus. The opening track, “On Sight,” might have easily appeared on any of the “new” crop of albums from young independent artists determined to combine electronic music and noise—Pete Swanson, Rene Hell, and Container immediately come to mind, though none of these artists, as far as I know, have been mentioned in recent reviews of the West album. Why is that?

Sigur Rós: Kveikur (CD, XL Recordings; Listen via Spotify)

I pretty much stopped listening to Sigur Rós after their second album, Agaetis Byrjun, not because I no longer enjoyed the band, but because I thought I knew what to expect from them. I read a review somewhere, though, that insisted the new record, Kveikur, represented a departure from their earlier work. Or did it represent an evolution? I can’t remember. Anyhow, I agree, I guess. After just one listen, Kveikur strikes me as sounding slightly darker, heavier, more menacing than the band’s earlier stuff—less celestial, perhaps, with a hint of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Okay, I also bought Kveikur for its awesomely creepy album art. The fact that Valgeir Sidgursson recorded the album’s string section provided greater incentive.

Bruno Mars: Unorthodox Jukebox (CD, Atlantic Records; Listen via Spotify)

I picked up the Bruno Mars album, with all kinds of guilty pleasure, because I’ve enjoyed, with all kinds of guilty pleasure, every one of the singles I’ve heard on the radio. Can’t help it. I mean, if you like Michael Jackson (and who doesn’t?), you’re going to like “Treasure,” and if you like The Police, you’re probably going to like “Locked Out of Heaven.” And if you like Prince, and if you like Sam Cooke . . . well, you get the picture. Besides all that, Ms. Little enjoys dancing to this record, and I can think of no better reason to own it.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: The Heist (CD, Macklemore; Listen via Spotify)

Same goes with the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis disc, The Heist. I still want to vomit every time I hear “Thrift Shop,” but it is pretty cool that the duo made about a gazillion dollars (and counting) on an album they produced, recorded, and released independently.

R. Kelly: (CD, Jive/Sony; Listen via Spotify)

I continue my way through the voluminous R. Kelly discography with, released in 2000. This is one of the few R. Kelly releases Ms. Little didn’t already own, so I took the plunge: $6.99 at Best Buy, which is less than what it costs for take-out lunch in Manhattan—and take-out lunch, no matter where it’s purchased, never makes me laugh or dance as much as this.

J. Cole: Born Sinner (CD, Columbia/Sony/Roc Nation; Listen via Spotify)

Mac Miller: Watching Movies with the Sound Off (CD, Rostrum Records; Listen via Spotify)

I’d never heard of J. Cole or Mac Miller until seeing their new records, respectively Born Sinner and Watching Movies with the Sound Off, advertised on the Other Music website. I have a policy which states that if Other Music sells it, I buy it. So, I bought these two on a whim and I’m glad I did. Born Sinner features cameo performances by Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, TLC (!), Amber Coffman (of Dirty Projectors), and James Fauntleroy (of The Y’s), and gives writing and production credits to R. Kelly, Sean Combs, Andre Benjamin, and Fela Kuti, among others, so I figured there’d be plenty to hold my interest. Similarly, the Mac Miller production credits read like a Who’s Who of Electronic Hip-Hop: Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Earl Sweatshirt, Clams Casino, The Alchemist, et al.; cameos include Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Action Bronson, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Electronica.

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories (CD/LP, Columbia; Listen via Spotify)

That leaves Random Access Memories, which deserves more than a few words, if only because my emotional response to it has been so violent and strong: That is, I’ve swung from violent hatred to violent love. Really, I’m confused by this record. I enjoy it so much, I bought the vinyl version, too.

The first time I listened, I could only get through the first song and a few seconds of the second, which is probably unfair, but I found the music exceedingly offensive and nearly unlistenable. And haven't you ever abandoned a novel? You're allowed to, you know—it's one of your god-given rights. Random Access Memories didn’t sound like music as much as the glossy sheen of music—some sort of foul idea of music. Which struck me as being very cynical. And gross. Ick.

But, even as novels can be poorly written, it’s important to remember that they can also be poorly read: John McPhee usually requires more concentration than I can afford while standing on a crowded commuter train, for instance. Charles Bukowski generally requires more angst and irreverence than I can muster at this point in my life. Similarly, just as music is sometimes poorly performed or poorly composed, it can also be poorly heard. The first time I listened to Random Access Memories, I was at work, with a million other things occupying my mind, streaming from Spotify through my horrible laptop speakers.

Listening to this album through the hi-fi is an entirely different experience. The performances are flawless, the melodies infectious, the grooves deep. Many of the darker, more adventurous synth lines remind me of Umberto’s Confrontations. Compare, for instance, Umberto’s “Final Revelations” to Daft Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder” or “Contact.” While the Umberto stuff is extremely enjoyable, I find the Daft Punk stuff to be more sophisticated, more precisely performed, and better presented. Also: As Ms. Little pointed out, Random Access Memories is some sort of funk-rock robot opera. Which is every bit as silly, absurd, and wonderful as it sounds.

I’m nearly brought to tears whenever I hear “Within.” The song features a lovely performance by Chilly Gonzalez on piano, and a ridiculous robot, in search of friendship, identity, love:

There are so many things that I don’t understand
There’s a world within me that I cannot explain
Many rooms to explore, but the doors look the same
I am lost, I can’t even remember my name

[Wimper, wimper…] Ahem. Excuse me. You see? If you can’t relate to that, you’re not human.

Damn. What else have I been wrong about? Is it really time to go back and listen to that Ke$ha album?

No. I’d stone myself before stooping that low.

Ariel Bitran's picture

T.P. 2 is R.Kelly's most consistent record, good choice.

Agaetis Byrjun for some reason at some point in my life, i challenged myself to memorize the names of all the songs on this album. such beautiful music. those names are gone, but i'm curious about the new sigur ros now. thanks for the tip.

macklemore and ryan lewis: something unbelievably bothersome about macklemore that I can't explain. i think its his self-righteous attitude, but his social commentary isn't loathsome ie it's stuff you can get behind if you are a decent human being so you can let him be. Ryan Lewis is the real star. check out the track BomBom.

Gubarenko's picture

Why not add links, so people can order instantly?

Queens Of The Stone Age 


Kanye West

Sigur Ros

Bruno Mars

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Guy pissing on kids

J. Cole

Mac Miller

Daft Punk

Stephen Mejias's picture

Why not add links, so people can order instantly?

I'm not interested in being a salesperson, and I think anyone who's interested in this music can take a few seconds to copy and paste an album or artist name into a browser. But, rather than provide links to purchase, I've provided links to listen. You'll need Spotify, however.

Also, since you've mentioned it, I think it's unfortunate that so many people know nothing about R. Kelly other than the allegation that he urinated on a minor. In general, I think it's unfair to judge an artist by his or her personal (as opposed to artistic) acts—unfair not only to the artist, but to the audience: Musically, R. Kelly has a lot to offer; and I don't appreciate being derisively seen as someone who supports the act of urinating on adolescents, or other things. [Smiley face.]

Anyway, from what I recall, R. Kelly was found innocent. [Winky face with wagging tongue.]

burnspbesq's picture

I assume that if you appreciate great prose writing, you also appreciate great songwriting.

If so, run (do not walk) to your favorite record store and grab a copy of the new Jason Isbell album, Southeastern.

philipjohnwright's picture

Books that is. Have you done a (blind?!!) test to see whether good old fashioned paper books are better than new fangled Kindle ones? And are Kindle digital books better than those from the dark side (Apple iBooks).

blue touch paper suitably lit, am now retiring rapidly...........

Ps thanks for the Spotify links, I think all record reviews should include them

mal's picture

Feel free to post about John McPhee any time. Don't worry about internet vengence. Enough of us are from Jersey that we can surley abuse the less fortunate into a state of stupified quietude if necessary.

Whatever you do, though, don't listen to Daft Punk's "Contact" when you're trying to avoid speeding tickets. That song will see you to 120 faster than you'd like to think. The whole album may be pasted together out of embarrassingly guilty pleasures, but that's the only one that will cost real money.

untangle's picture

Speaking of links, this Queens link is exceptional.

Nice list, as usual!



john abramson's picture

Your reading John McPhee indicates, most assuredly, that you are on the path  of rightous reading. :) I wear my "grumpy old man" hat with honor, along with my old SDS button.  McPhee is a wonderful journalist, who is incapable of turning out anything other than first rate lucid prose.. When props are due, I tip my old well worn wool  "grumpy man" hat, with neither irony nor snark, solely as a sign of recognizing good taste. Keep posting your reading list.

ajcrisci's picture

I initally just scrolled, and thought to myself, f&#k, did Stephen just join the indie blog-major label payolla list, and all of a sudden just sprout banal taste in music? 

But I read the narrative so all is good. I hope you have a more fruitfull payday next month,

Stephen Mejias's picture

I like all of these albums—and I like them with absolutely no feelings of guilt or shame. Some of them, such as the QOTSA and Daft Punk, I like very much. There are many moments on both of those albums that leave me aching with pleasure.

And the bigger point is this: There's room in this world (and in all of our hearts, I would think) for mainstream and underground music, challenging and purely pleasureable music—just as there's room for both pulp and literary fiction. 

ajcrisci's picture

yes, yes, true, true...but you listed three of the most hyped albums I can remember (The Savages, Kanye, and Daft Punk) and bought them all on the same day, which is not your modus operandi. That to me is not a great day. The high praise these three albums received across the board, i feel, is much more a function of being able to provide the blogs that cover them, clickable content in the pre album cycle, with a final package that was competently put together. So instead of anything actually great, we get;

The Savages - Music that is 12 years late to the post punk revival party. (although, what they say is true, incredible live act)

Kanye - Death Grips on Prozac and Cialis

Daft Punk - Hold music/yacht techno made by dudes in their 40s & 70's. Damb that back half is prety great though. More like Contact please.

cgreen416's picture

I have heard good things about the new Sigur Ros and I liked the last one. I am told it is definitely a different sounding album than with the past band line up. A couple of them have left and the (I can't remember the names) but one of the former band members played multiple instruments and was largely responsible for some of the great sounds on AgaetisByrjun. That was one of my all time favourite shows. I saw Sigur Ros in 91, shortly after 9/11 at Massey Hall. The show was sureal and the musicianship of the band was unlike anything I have ever seen.

I have been really digging the the latest Mark Mulcahy album (Dear Mark J. Mulcahy)and in a different tone the latest Camera Obscura album (Desire Lines) is terrific.

You're right about R. Kelly, I giggle everytime I hear his name. Can't say that I have ever listened to more than 5 minutes of his stuff. I just can't take him seriously.