Sade: Soldier of Love / Sony/BMG
Timelessness can be the trickiest of marketing strategies. Usually the myth is established early: Elvis, Aretha, Michael Jackson – they were spoken of in mythological terms before leaving their mid-twenties. How could anyone be a Queen of Soul at the age of 26? The thing is, their publicists ended up being right. Was it a lucky accident? How can any artist live up to the honey-tongued praise of his or her promotion? One way is to disappear, and let the myth do the talking. Sade had a relatively regular career around the turn of the 1990s, but then decided she would only speak when she needed to… with two albums in the last 17 years. The irony being that not too much attention was being paid to her meaning: the focus was on her groove. It’s not like losing Sade’s vocals would affect a record the way, say, it did, The Doors after Jim Morrison OD-ed. Which is to say – sans Sade, her music would be only slightly more agreeably anonymous. But Soldier of Love, with its drier production, allows Sade to be more upfront about her emotional turmoil – offered in a cool and languid delivery, of course. It’s like the final acoustic track on most of Madonna’s records, during which she attempts to speak to us as if she’s a human. But she’s a myth.
Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here / XL/Beggars Group
Heron is often referred to as a legend, despite the fact that he was prolific during the 1970s and any interview shows him to remain a quick-minded quip meister. So when he’s called ‘mythological’, it means that he’s spent 30 years high or in jail, and any sort of comeback is going to be more of a reflection of our goodwill toward him than an artistic statement. The idea of having XL label head Richard Russell wield Heron as a cudgel of authenticity for his not particularly impressive post-industrial soundscapes does seem tasteless in the manner of myriad Bill Laswell productions. Still, Heron’s recollections remain sharp: why call him a legend or a myth, when a greater compliment would be ‘artist’? Perhaps now he’ll get to sire Melissa Etheridge’s next kid.
Massive Attack: Heligoland / Virgin
Massive Attack is another musical mythological beast that releases music rarely, and with erratic member participation – whoever’s around at the time will do. Yet the results have been consistently ‘good enough’ since the original trio and satellites split. And when everyone keeps going back to your first couple of albums, ‘good enough’ is, for the present, good enough. Over the years, the results over the years have inched from downtempo toward pop (and pop has scrunched toward them), though there are enough leftfield moves here – the electro burbling of “Flat of the Blade”; the Beach Boys by way of Zero 7 in “Prayfor Rain” – for it to remind you of a time when this music looked to be the great avant-pop merger of 1998… when there were myriad acts such as, say, Leftfield.
The Knife: Tomorrow in a Year / Cooperative Music
There’s avant-pop and then there’s Pop Brands Going Avant and pecking the hands that sprinkle their seeds. Though tame compared to Muslimgauze or late-period Scott Walker, Tomorrow, an opera about Charles Darwin featuring local heroes Planningtorock and Mt. Sims, is probably the most ‘unlistenable’ album by an ostensible hitmaker since Lou Reed’s 1975 classic (and, at the time, publicly lacerated) Metal Machine Music, and the few strings attached shows just how much the industry has changed in the last 35 years. The fact that music means so little culturally can free up an artist – which can be an awful thing, as the amateurism of the approach here is coated in a Nordic stentorian-ism when a stoner Brooklyn tribal effect would be preferable. I assume that, like Darwin’s finches, you had to be there.
Rhys Chatham: The Bern Project / Hinterzimmer
I tend to prefer avant-gardists-going-pop over an avantgarde from popists: look at how Sonic Youth’s guitarists got their start with guitar terrorist Glenn Branca. Rhys Chatham was Branca’s secret weapon, now a bit less of a secret after last year’s Lincoln Center 200 guitar extravaganza. His piece “Guitar Trio” plus teen semiotics pretty much set the template for SY and all the guitar cascades that washed ashore afterward. Likewise, this recording from 2008 with Bern-based musicians reflects the post-My Bloody Valentine lightning sheets that have transformed the public musical vocabulary. So droning that might once have offended with aggression now sound twinkly and pretty. If you want to piss people off these days, you have to write an opera.