High Places
High Places vs. Mankind
Thrill Jockey

When the Agit Reader interviewed Robert Barber and Mary Pearson about exactly where the duo was heading into the future, the response was one of stock quote regularity—that they were constantly “evolving,” and the proverbial “it’s too early to tell.” Pearson did hint that what was coming next was “fairly straight ahead dance tracks,” and after a tedious listen through the couple’s sophomore record, High Places vs. Mankind, it’s apparent that a dancefloor and disco ball have fully replaced what made them such an intriguing anomaly in underground rock. It’s not that such an artistic shift is a problem for High Places—dense, textured jams are their forte—but here it would have suited them better to stay focused. If they were to settle for the discombobulated ice-funk of “On Giving Up,” the skeletal hip-hop of “When It Comes,” or the Blondie-esque sheen of “The Longest Shadows” for the length of the record, we would have ourselves a new late-night staple in the vein of Bjork’s Homogenic or any of Portishead’s threes stunning bummers. Instead, the listener is met with lugubrious experiments by Barber on guitar and a junk drawer of beats and samples that are vaguely reminiscent of their previous recordings.

Pearson’s pixie madrigals have become standard fare in a cadence that rarely strays from a few wispy melodies. Couple that vocal annoyance with their shared vision that cantankerous noise can equal out their overlong, if not colorful, fever dreams, and a song like “Canada” will sit vacuous and empty, as if it’s been playing forever. It’s more forced hypnotism than ethereal transcendence. Those inspired by High Places earliest incantations, though, will find a deeper meaning and a darker, crisper core to Mankind. In several spots, especially on the childish dub of “The Most Beautiful Name,” their kitsch is mesmerizing, really looking towards that “evolution” they were talking about. But with the promise of the top-heavy disco rhythms and the eventual letdown of High Places’ flaccid indulgence, Mankind is nothing more than a great EP with a ton of navel-gazing and window shopping—nothing with which you’d really want to spend the night.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “On Giving Up”

The Dø
A Mouthful
Six Degrees

It’s probably fitting that the debut album from the Dø, A Mouthful, begins with a defiant playground chant, as the French duo seems determined not to play by anyone’s rules. First, they recorded the album in English, a move that ensured they would receive less airplay in their native land. Nevertheless, the record became the first English-language release by a French group to top the charts there. Second, and more importantly, the pair seem unconcerned with conventions or stylistic norms, shifting from one idiom to the next throughout the album’s 15 proper tracks and three bonus cuts. It makes for a listen that is at times as enthralling as it is dizzying.

Pinpointing the Dø is a slippery proposition, but within the band’s sonic hodgepodge it’s still possible to find an emotional center. With “On My Shoulders,” singer and guitarist Olivia Merilahti tacks a rhythmic riff to a compelling complaint for a song whose pull equals its simplicity. In a similar, though darker, way, “The Bridge Is Broken” recalls Dry-era PJ Harvey, pulling as much gravitas from its stark setting as from Merilahti’s howling of lines like, “It’s all you fault.”

But much of the remainder of the album confuses things. “Stay (Just a Little Bit More)” shows a dark side too, but it’s belied by old-timey showmanship. “Unissasi Laulelet,” sung in Merilahti’s native Finnish tongue, is an infectious multi-culti jam, but like the dancehall inflected hip-hop of “Queen Dot Kong,” is too eclectic for its own good. One gets the sense that A Mouthful could have been a great album, if only the Dø knew which one it was they wanted to make.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Boy Eats Drum Machine
Hoop + Wire
Tender Living Empire

First things first, Boy Eats Drum Machine is really, really odd. It’s the solo project of one Johnny Ragel, and his latest album, Hoop + Wire, is essentially a collection of electro-acoustic fluff-pop experiments. It’s all immediately catchy of course, but man is it strange—especially considering how well it all works.

Like low-rent versions of what Hot Chip does, these songs are made of a concoction of rubbery synths, ticky-tack drum machines, and even a little soul-aped brass. That’s all danceable, of course, but the main star here is Ragel’s voice. Depending on the song, he could be crooning classically veered lines like “I love you, I love you. I’ll never leave your side”(“Syncopated”) or his voice could be shoved through so many filters he barely even resembles a human. (“ABQ”). It all has a slight sense of irony, which is a little disappointing; it would be nice to see someone embrace this sort of goofiness with open arms. Oh well.

I’ll be honest, I approached Boy Eats Drum Machine with absolutely no prior knowledge. All I knew is I thought the name was silly and I have a bit of a fetishistic thing with anything involving drum machines. And you know what? Hoop + Wire exceeded my expectations, and it’ll probably exceed yours.
Luke Winkie

MP3: “Hoop + Wire”

Viv Albertine
Flesh ep
Ecstatic Peace!

If one thing is clear from Flesh, it’s that Viv Albertine hasn’t made up her mind yet when it comes to matters of the heart. On the EP, the first release from the former Slit in 25 years, she flip-flops on the subject of love, singing “I don’t believe in love” (“I Don’t Believe in Love”) one moment and “Don’t let anyone tell you it wasn’t love” (“If Love”) the next. But for however her feelings may sway, in the context of the record’s four songs, they couldn’t be conveyed better.

While the Slits may have recently reunited to present a caricatured version of their once potently boiled version of punk and reggae, Albertine has taken to a more subtle approach to music making that’s more flattering to her legacy. “Never Come,” the EP’s first cut, meshes wispy vocals with a slyly disjointed clamor that hints at some of the Slits’ sinewy verve, but fully eclipses it as well. Here, Albertine perhaps best explains her amorous ambiguity, singing “I wish I was Neil Young and could explain my heart.”

On the EP’s remaining three songs, Albertine finds ways of exciting without being obvious about it. The aforementioned “If Love” is a whirl of ethereal pop, but also shows just enough disconnect to make it known that it could fall apart at any time. On “The False Heart,” Albertine could be a torch singer if she wasn’t also intent on providing the song a tough underbelly. In other words, there’s just as much guts to her singing as there is, well, heart. In general, Flesh seems so possessed by an emotive wellspring that there’s got to be more where it came from.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
I Learned the Hard Way

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been four years since Amy Winehouse’s brand of throwback R&B stormed both the blogs and the sales charts. Anchored largely by the Brooklyn-based Dap-Kings, it was a welcome reprise from the digital bleeps and bloops that dominated the airwaves. It was also the coming out party for the Dap-Kings who, along with singer Sharon Jones, had toiled with modest success, but never had that one big break. But with the gears greased, they finally broke through with their biggest seller, 2007’s 100 Days and Nights. What followed have been high profile collaborations and more people seeing their explosive live shows. Now, three years later, they’re releasing the follow-up, I Learned the Hard Way.

Even those with a passing knowledge of Jones & the Dap-Kings can recite the bullet points. Middle-aged former corrections officer and wedding singer teams up with analog R&B revivalists to make records that sound like the greatest hits of a lost Stax band. Sonically, I Learned the Hard Way is exactly what you’d expect. The warmth of sound compared to mainstream radio sticks out like a drag queen in a nunnery. Still, Jones & the Dap-Kings manage to avoid invoking any soul revue cliches without going modern. It’s a balance of the format being both the focus and an afterthought.

One of the biggest surprises of I Learned the Hard Way is the relatively subdued mood. Instead of tearing through the tales of love and life gone wrong with a sassy confidence, Jones is melancholy and reflective, adding an unexpected gravitas. As a result, when the tough strutting Jones re-emerges on “Money,” it doesn’t really work in the context of the record. It will kill live, but here it’s a bump in the road. It’s nice to see that the introspective Jones is just as engaging as the soul shouter. If Jones and the Dap-Kings did learn the hard way, the lessons were well earned.
Dorian S. Ham

Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

There’s probably been more ink spilled over Erykah Badu in the past week than there has in her entire 13-year career. For the past few days, the soul singer has been a cause celebre of the 24-hour news circuit due to her controversial video for “Window Seat,” the first single off of New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh. In a remarkable turn of events I would not have thought possible a month ago, Erykah Badu even became a topic of discussion at my family’s Easter dinner, my parents mystified by her nude walk through Dealey Plaza and the mock-assassination that concludes the video. The controversy will undoubtedly be good for whatever passes for album sales these days, but let’s not allow the media firestorm to overshadow the fact that Return of the Ankh is a fantastic achievement and an early contender for the best record of the year.

From the airy jazz-organ chords that open the album, it’s apparent that the anger and outrage that overflowed on Badu’s excellent New Amerykah Part One are more controlled this time around. In fact, her sense of cool self-possession makes her lyrics all the more potent. Badu sings about “20-foot walls” (“20 Feet Tall”), which seem insurmountable until she realizes that “if I get off my knees, I’m 20-feet tall.” People can make her feel trapped, but it’s merely an illusion. Even better is the 10-minute closer, “Out My Mind, Just in Time,” a multi-segmented epic that earns every second of its lengthy run-time.

Unlike its predecessor, Return of the Ankh is more concerned with issues of personal intimacy than social commentary. But when Badu asks her lover to “leave me alone to fly” on “Window Seat,” she could just as easily be addressing the Fox News culture warriors who have made her their latest target for suburban ire. I’m glad that the music video has created increased exposure for Badu, but the recent dialogue surrounding the video has been limited to a debate over public nudity, when what we really should be talking about is the video’s message: that people feel the need to “assassinate,” in body or in character, that which is different. And although Badu admits that her video was “grossly misunderstood all over America,” the response from many corners of the nation sadly illustrates the very point she was trying to make.
David Holmes