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PREFAcE INTRODucTION PART I: OLD FRIENDS
The Rolling Stones Eminem (featuring Lil Wayne) Big Boi Paul Weller Blur Robyn The Shins Train Stone Temple Pilots Hole Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Plundered My Soul No Love Shutterbugg No Tears to Cry Fool’s Day Dancing on My Own Goodbye Girl Hey, Soul Sister Between the Lines Samantha I Should Have Known It
PART II: NEW SENSATIONS
Drake Sleigh Bells Janelle Monáe Jenny and Johnny Best Coast Magic Kids Hunx and His Punx The Drums Male Bonding Japandroids Free Energy Happy Birthday Over Tell ‘Em Tightrope Scissor Runner Boyfriend Superball U Don’t Like Rock n Roll Forever and Ever Amen Year’s Not Long Younger Us Hope Child Girls FM
Table of conTenTs
PART III: BETWIXT/BETWEEN
M.I.A. MGMT The Hold Steady Against Me! Gaslight Anthem LCD Soundsystem Scissor Sisters Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings Band of Horses The Dead Weather The Black Keys Arcade Fire The National Interpol Vampire Weekend Katy Perry The Kills Blitzen Trapper Ray LaMontagne Mark Ronson & the Business Intl Cee-Lo Green Xxxo Flash Delirium Rock Problems Rapid Decompression American Slang Drunk Girls Invisible Light I Learned the Hard Way Factory Die By the Drop Everlasting Light Month of May Afraid of Everyone Lights Jonathan Low California Gurls Pale Blue Eyes Destroyer of the Void Beg Steal or Borrow Lose It (In the End) Fuck You
ABOuT ThE AuThOR
As proof of my willingness to subscribe to the conventions of preface writing, allow me at once to dispense with the caveats. First and foremost, it’s ridiculous to conceive of this book as anything more than a blurry snapshot of contemporary pop music. Its composition – 40-plus song reviews, channeled into three semi-arbitrary age brackets, then organized without regard for chronology – represents a direct affront to the Western notions of linearity and narrative momentum. This is not the textual equivalent of a mix tape, wherein the tracks build on one another for purposes of edification or pleasure. “Singles On Speed” is exactly what its name implies: several dozen one-off criticisms, turning over rapidly and groping for some sort of collective purpose, only to find that modern life is confoundingly random. Secondly, it’s ridiculous to conceive of this book as anything less than a blurry snapshot of contemporary pop music. What we listen to, both as individuals and as aggregates, might be a mere point of data on the larger indices of economic determinism. But I’ll be damned if our taste in music doesn’t hold some significant meaning, be it material or ideal. Our record collections function as surrogate diaries, compressing loose fragments of sound into postmodern mosaics of identity. These mosaics can reveal less than they should or more than we’d bargained for, but their content is almost always instructive. The 21st century man is virtually inseparable from his music, connected as he is by sleek wires, strange frequencies, and aesthetic impulses. “Singles On Speed” aspires to affirm this connection without forsaking its underlying mystery. Faith in music ought to be like faith in God: iron-clad and fire-tested, but ultimately ineffable. Thirdly, despite my evident tendencies toward soap-boxing and popping off, this book is not about me. Nor am I a particularly important actor on its subject matter. Music exists and excites irrespective of the critic, and will continue to do so as long as our species retains the slightest trace of aural competence. The art is, and must be, the prime mover. Those who
write about it are simply trying to negotiate a foothold in its wake. The tasks of the critic skirt the border between indulgence and futility – but the job’s inherent vanity only serves to make it more fun. Lastly, despite my admitted penchants for disavowal and prevarication, this book can’t help but be about me. To abdicate responsibility for its contents would be a shameless act of cowardice, made incalculably worse by the existential importance I’ve already ascribed to pop music. So rather than retreat, allow me to move forward with a short series of personal confessions: I came of age during rock and roll’s Lost Weekend, with my childhood bookending the Reagan Eighties and the Clinton Nineties. (This is roughly Born in the U.S.A. through Nevermind, though I was too busy listening to Michael Jackson and Kool Moe Dee to appreciate the gravity of such records.) I grew up without the Internet, cell phones, or cable TV, and have subsequently been a late adopter of virtually every cutting-edge technology save the Norelco® electric razor. This is not so much a point of pride as an admission of neglect: I don’t follow trends or fads because I typically lack the intellectual wherewithal to understand them. I’m alternately three years behind and five years ahead of the times. Which makes for an awkward social life and a spastic summer wardrobe – but also an awfully interesting record collection. In the end, “Singles On Speed” is a reasonably honest document of what I’ve been listening to for the past six months. It jumps genres and corrupts more than a few cultural idioms, but the book’s true merit, insofar as it has any, is its consistency. I always called them as I heard them. And I occasionally heard them wrong. Yet I never failed to remain thematically dedicated and sonically curious. There’s a certain nobility in this – a nobility that, when coupled with $1.29, can buy me the new Taio Cruz single. So, hey, maybe there’s no money in art. But there’s no art in money, either.
Looking back at my half-year struggle to keep up with the daily tastemaking and hourly downloads, all I know for sure is something I’ve known all along: Pop music is under no obligation to be popular. This is usually a blessing, sometimes a curse, and always an interesting topic for discussion. It’s the truth that redeems the faults of “Singles On Speed.” Find it on your own terms. If you come away empty, don’t be concerned – it’s probably my fault.
A.m.V. September 7, 2010 Paris – Zürich – Trieste – Dublin – Asbury Park
author’s note: This book started as a blog. not just a blog, but an anti-blog; that is, anti-”american Idol,” anti-”Glee,” anti-Ke$ha – even anti-animal collective. Ironically, in the midst of this reactionary stance, I forged a workable coexistence with billboard and bedroom pop alike. In “anti,” I somehow found affirmation. still, the angers and frustrations that midwifed “singles on speed” won’t be forgotten anytime soon. as such, the blog’s original mission statement is included below – largely unedited and completely uncensored. Its concerns remain relevant, even to those of us who have come to love pop music unconditionally. (Well, quasi-unconditionally.) Give it a speed read.
This blog’s founding operational principle is that the Ramones were an enormously influential band. Just not influential enough. Pardon the staggered phrasing and the sudden stop. They’re not used as devices of rhetoric or agents of misdirection; they merely underscore the fact that rock music, like political ideology and social class, is becoming hopelessly bifurcated. In one corner, we have the douched-up bellows of Chris Daughtry and Chad Kroeger, a school of sound that seems to aspire to standards first broached by such world-beating bands as Creed, Staind, and 3 Doors Down. In the other corner, we have Animal Collective and Hot Chip, a streaming mediocrity of fey atmospherics and effete in-jokes, each accorded status and sanctuary by a patchwork of dubiously credentialed music vlogs. That which exists between these two poles can rightly be called a sonic no man’s land – first because it’s sparsely populated; second because it’s utterly devoid of testosterone. In fact, with just a quick booster shot of perspective, the “no man’s land” label can be extended to incorporate the dueling poles. Nickelback may traffic in the latest iteration of cock rock, but they certainly don’t bowl you over with stubble-ridden menace or the more violent hypertrophies of the XY chromosome pairing. Their songs are threatening only in their conspicuous absence
of intelligence. As for Animal Collective, their records are tone and pulse followed by pulse and tone. The music is entirely lacking in secondary sexual characteristics. It’s androgynous without the attendant ano-genital intrigue. It’s also bereft of focus and stridency. Despite being spectacularly overthought, the Collective’s discography remains inadequately self-aware – that is, too cool for school, but too smart to question its underlying theses. This speaks to the central qualitative problem in contemporary pop: Indie music is far too cerebral, while mainstream music is completely insentient. I can forgive the mainstream its trespasses. (After all, what is the Top 40 if not a grope for the lowest common denominator?) Indie, however, has some serious explaining to do. The genre is fabled to represent an alternative to the reigning musical regime, a tug not only to the left of the dial but also to the left of what’s normal. Consider rock and roll’s shadow history: The Velvet Underground subverting British jinglejangle with their narcotic drone and NC-17 themes; Iggy and the Stooges exposing the lie in Flower Power by taking an industrial buzzsaw to the Peace and Love crowd’s mellow acoustics; and the Ramones – perhaps the quintessential expression of rock and roll spirit – bringing speed, volume, and attitude to a scene that’d been lulled to sleep by ‘ludes, drum solos, and Rick Wakeman’s keyboard. This trip down memory lane is not made in the service of nostalgia. The proto-punk movement needs to be remembered, if only so that we can also recall the musical caprices that the punk machine raged against so passionately: progressive rock and disco. The irony of contemporary indie is that it’s inverted the animal spirit that infused both its infancy and early adolescence. Today’s “alternative” is a mutant conflation of prog languor and disco sheen, a music that subordinates human agency to pixelated sound effects and hypnotic swells of rhythm. It’s not bold, rude, or dangerous. As such, it’s not rock and roll – at least in the traditional (and best) definition of the phrase. “Failure to rock” is not a federal offense. But it is a case of gross artistic negligence. Contemporary twenty-somethings are being disserved by
Beach House, Ke$ha, and Ariel Pink in much the same way that Seventies youth were disserved by Yes, Peter Frampton, and the Village People. Each artist, past and present, is guilty of specializing in distraction at a time when engagement is absolutely essential. Here we are, in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Roosevelt era, with our nation embroiled in two protracted armed conflicts, with China and India threatening to usurp our platinum-card consumer status, and the best we can come up with in terms of Pitchfork-certified redemption songs are “My Girls,” “Round and Round,” and “Good Intentions Paving Company”? Where’s the urgency? Where’s the anarchy? Where’s the blitzkrieg? Well, if you’ll forgive a little premature chest pounding, I’ll solemnly declare that here’s the urgency, the anarchy, and the blitzkrieg. In case you haven’t noticed, this blog is called Singles On Speed (S.O.S.). It’s designed to showcase songs that undercut the synth-laden sloth that the indie industry callously slops onto our plates, complete with number grades and wholly unnecessary remixes. S.O.S. represents less a cry for help than a call to arms. It’s here to argue that the synthesizer cannot be used ironically; that digital audio loops are instruments of artifice, not art; that Radiohead should cut the shit, and get back to writing songs like “Just.” “Hey ho, let’s go!” isn’t just a Ramones lyric; it’s the first and last sentence of this site’s mission statement. And our need for speed has nothing to do with amphetamines. I’m cynical enough to realize that three chords played in 3/4 time no longer constitute the raw materials of revolution. Contemporary rock and roll, even in its primest permutation, isn’t likely to change the world. But it can change your world. (Or, at the very least, your day.) Whether this change will be for the better or for the worse, I don’t know. And this unpredictability, this off chance at a blindside wallop or grievous testicular injury, is part of the punk ethos’ appeal.
If you’re content to bob and weave to this week’s chillwave psychodrama, that’s perfectly OK. But that’s not me. I want sins, not symphonies. I want a track that’ll impel me to do something that I’ll later be ashamed of – like head banging, fist fighting, or voting Republican. A fifty-carat rock single comes with clearly discernable side effects. These include, but are not limited to, loss of car keys, bloody stool, and temporary feelings of invincibility. Chalk the first two up to harmless teenage kicks, and the third to that blurry emotional intersection where men win glory and meet danger at the same time, often with only tenuous command over their faculties. That’s what S.O.S. is searching for: Music that’ll make a sober man feel drunk and a drunk man feel sober; sounds that possess equal parts clarity and grandeur, with headache and heartbreak commingling in microments of stark power and sheer release. Jonny Greenwood may be a musical genius, but I’ll take Johnny Thunders, cracked voice and junkie business included. Better yet, I’ll take Johnny Ramone. He set the pace for modern rock. Accordingly, he set the preconditions for Singles On Speed. His music, like his band’s typically hyperbolic album title, is truly “Too Tough to Die.” So let’s skip the epitaphs, and double-time it to the rock and roll. Because when nobody moves, everybody gets hurt.
(March 7, 2010)
PART I: OLD FRIENDS
The Rolling Stones Plundered My Soul
Disclaimer: Song reviews needn’t always be prefaced by a disclaimer. But when the song in question is the Rolling Stones’ “Plundered My Soul,” a little context can do an awful lot of good. So, for the record, this reviewer is obliged to report that he considers the Stones to be the greatest band in rock and roll history. By “greatest” I don’t mean the most skilled or influential, just the most emblematic of what mainstream rock was, is, and aspires to be – that is, the most rock and roll of rock and roll bands. At bottom, the rock genre is an atomic-powered mixture of backwater blues, high-country swing, and streetcorner bravado. It was birthed in the wake of the nuclear bomb, developed in an age of unprecedented material comfort, and matured amid a malaise that called into question the very dance-first, ask-questions-later ethic that characterized its wonder years. The Stones remain singularly important because they covered this panoramic musical evolution better than any of their contemporaries, moving from dawn to decadence at a pace commensurate with the times.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards not only wrote rock’s signature song, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” they also produced the genre’s most compelling creation myth: the verse-chorus-verse of “Brown Sugar.” Those scarred old slavers and cotton-field laborers, those African drums that beat cold while English blood ran hot, corroborate the fact that rock and roll is a conspicuously miscegenated medium. Take the five-note African scale and superimpose it on the diatonic European scale, and you’ve got the makings of all blues-based music. Not coincidentally, you’ve also got the Rolling Stones. I can feel the Too Cool For School set retreating at the mere intimation of the Stones’ indispensability. So let’s agree to drop our sabres and seek reconciliation on the only reliable middle ground: the belief that Exile on Main Street is the band’s best album. After all, we’re gathered here today to assess “Plundered My Soul,” a song that dates from the famously strained Exile sessions but is only now enjoying the dignity of an official release. The track is a revealing sonic artifact of a titanically popular band caught digging at its roots and dodging its taxes, only to harvest spectacularly strange fruit. Like “Tumbling Dice” and “Honky Tonk Women” before it,
“Soul” splits the difference between rollick and reserve. It shuffles out of the box into a Stones-standard open-D riff, with Keith Richards’ blues savvy laying the foundation for Billy Preston’s piano plunk. Less than 10 seconds after the opening note, we’re telepathically ported back to 1972. Punk has yet to happen; the Beatles’ break-up has yet to indicate its finality; and Michael Jackson has yet to turn in his dark skin and nappy hair. By god, what an innocent time! Still, only a fool would argue that the Stones were squeaky clean. The Richards family name is more or less synonymous with junk and booze, largely on account of the debauched behavior that Keith exhibited during the Exile era. “Soul” reaffirms Richards’ doped-up grooves, gaining its slink and strut from rock’s most economical lead guitar. Keith sets the mid-tempo pace, then weaves in and out of the song’s foreground with his sweet electric licks. Mick Jagger handles the rest, peppering his typically overemoted vocals with gritty melisma and pointed accents. “My indiscretion’s left a bad impression,” Mick admits, flush with the realization that his lady friend is gone for good. He’s not particularly heartbroken over the loss, just embarrassed that the sudden departure has caught him off guard.
“I thought you needed my loving/But it’s my heart that you stole,” Jagger sings. Then he adds the punch line: “I thought you wanted my money/But you plundered my soul.” A woman he’d pegged as a gold digger has left his bank account untouched, only to swipe a healthy portion of his vaunted mojo. Such subject matter is par for the course on Exile. The double album’s most identifiable lyric is probably “Baby, I can’t stay” – a fourword attempt to convince us that inconstancy is somehow romantic. Then again, what else would you expect from a rolling stone? Bluesmen are not known for their fidelity, nor are rock and rollers uncommonly prone to stasis. The Stones are a single band that’s survived five or six different lives: the death of Brian Jones; the Mick Taylor-Ron Wood transition; the disco stupor of Emotional Rescue; and the stone-cold folly of Steel Wheels being mere bumps along the path. “Soul” takes the boys back to their heyday. It sounds like “Tumbling Dice” folded into “Waiting on a Friend,” evincing a melancholy that’s part Mississippi Delta, part London Fields. There’s a caution to this despair, implying that a straight-ahead rock number, like “Rip This Joint” or “Down the Line,” is just around the corner.
We’ll cross that corner next month, when Exile is reissued as a two-disc treasure trove of digital remasters and previously unreleased studio tracks. Reissues commonly feed off Boomer sentimentality rather than righteous tunes, hoping to bank in on the remembrance of things past. In this case, however, you get the feeling that the nostalgia will be good, but the music will be better. The simple truth is that Exile hasn’t gathered any moss or betrayed any loyalties. It sounds the same as it did in 1972: old, dirty, and guilty as sin. It offers no apologies for its excesses and expects no sympathy for its shortfalls. It just wants to be heard. Let the disclaimers end there.
(April 20, 2010)
or Detroit vs. Brooklyn, but Dre vs. Ye. Em embraced the lighter side of Dr. Dre, infusing the über-producer’s sleek, electro-Chronic piano rags with a rousing combination of fifth-gear flow and devil-may-care lyrics. Jay, on the other hand, partnered with supersamplers on the order of Kanye West. He rode their jacked instrumentals like a pimped Cadillac – loose and easy when times were good, rough and ready when the shit went down. Truth be told, Em was the better portent to the future of hip-hop beat making. If the Dirty South takeover has proved anything, it’s that you don’t need a stockpile of James Brown or Ornette Coleman 45s to cut a blockbuster rap record. Nowadays, beats are truncated to the point of chic mongrelization (think Wayne’s “A
Eminem (featuring Lil Wayne) No Love
Slim Shady has never been one for phat beats. Even in his heyday, when he was moving more units than Jay-Z and Lil Wayne combined, Em preferred to rhyme over slinky electronics rather than hype samples. Compare “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me” to “99 Problems” and “Encore.” The key distinction is not white vs. black
Milli”) or soap-operatic swell (think Drake’s “Over”). MCs who dabble in the finer side of sampling are typically fitted for cap and gown, then cited as late graduates of the Old School. Even Hov himself, ever the enterprising businessman, has struck a clean balance between the suave R&B rip and the fluttering, M.I.A.-meets-CashMoney digital dove. “On To the Next One” is manned by Sean Carter, but it just as easily could have been driven by the man behind Tha Carter III.
So how does Marshall Mathers, the world’s erstwhile favorite rapper, fight his way back into hip hop’s top tier? Apparently, he takes a look at what’s trending and rushes headlong in the opposite direction. Em’s “No Love” is fueled by a fat, gaudy sample – a sample which proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Mathers is afflicted with elephantitis of the scrotum. The source material is Haddaway’s perennial club-douche anthem, “What Is Love” (better known as the Night at the Roxbury song). As Pitchfork so eloquently put it, “Word to Chris Kattan.” Can I get a “WhatWhat” for Will Ferrell? Jokes aside, the funniest thing about “No Love” is that it kinda, sorta works as an angry-rapper theme song. Wayne and Shady walk these mean streets together, trading verses less like bummed cigarettes than used hypodermic needles. They’re clearly getting high off their rhymes. Each shouted recrimination is triple-layered with a Me Against the World spirit, as if the single-finger salute were the only weapon worth brandishing in contemporary pop. As line builds upon line, and the “You kicked me while I was down” refrain ensconces itself in your memory bed, “No Love” becomes the unlikeliest of dis tracks –
one that should have dissed the disser but instead calls the game out on its tendency to dispose of its heroes. Don’t get me wrong: This single is not especially good. But that’s not for a lack of effort, passion, or pedigree. In addition to the Weezy guest spot, Em gets a beat custom designed by the good folks at Just Blaze Enterprises. What results is the most profane public service announcement since the infamous “I learned it by watching you!” spot for a Drug-Free America. Suffice to say that Wayne’s lead verse is not even remotely drug free. It’s cued by a lighter flick, which communicates a dual urge: first, spark the joint; then, set the track on fire. Weezy comes through with killer opening couplets: “Throw dirt on me/Grow a wildflower/ Fuck the world/Get a child out her.” This is a man who knows a thing or two about rebirth. And though he’s currently encaged, it’s obvious that the chains of convention can’t hold him. Weezy has become the thinking man’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard, mouthing off on the cosmos even as he trades in profundities he doesn’t fully understand. When he tells us, “My bars are full of broken bottles/And my night stands are full of open Bibles,” we don’t waste much time wondering
how he reconciles sin and piety. That would be like trying to capture the Holy Ghost. Em’s mic turn isn’t as immediately compelling as Weezy’s, but it’s definitely flush with Shady’s characteristic bursts of well-articulated catch phrases. His flow is quicksilver, and it alights on every hot topic from bitch MCs to the hellacious payback that’ll soon befall his haters. If anything, Em raps too fast and skillfully to lend his points the benefit of gravitas. He’s still got that arresting sinus-infection inflection, bile dripping from his nose like water out of a primed spigot. And his intra-line fluency – the consonance, assonance, and accenting from word to word – remains as tight as a vice grip. Only Em can spit the rather pedestrian “I’m on the top of my game til the hip don’t hop anymore” and leave the hair standing up on the back of your neck. Yet, in the current pop environment, some talents are hindrances rather than credentials. Em puts his head down and plows through his verse like Secretariat on steroids. His stagecrashing fantasies – and a very funny “Where’s Kanye when you need him?” lyric – get lost in the shuffle. Wayne, in contrast, starts slowly, then stutter-
steps into warp speed. He not only controls his verse; he contains his anger. Em can only smite his candle and curse the darkness. Ultimately, both MCs make the best of their pairing – not only with each other but with Just Blaze’s nightclub synths. A central problem of genre-bending rap producers, especially those who purport to work in “rock,” is that they don’t know rock very well. The emoization of hip hop, seen previously on Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock” and Wayne’s Rebirth, is pushed to sordid depths on “No Love.” One could be forgiven for thinking that the track coalesced as follows: Blaze decided to make a bad Timbaland beat, circa 1998, while Weezy and Em conspired to channel their inner Dashboard Confessional. The beat is not phat, it’s lazy. And while the flow comes fast and furious, it can’t fully redeem the flaws of its host. Let’s give Em some credit: His song has the weight and urgency of an Emergency Room visit. Unfortunately, the patient in question comes across as sick rather than ill. Somebody page Dr. Dre. We need a strong dose of some of that funky stuff.
(June 9, 2010)
Big Boi Shutterbugg
The indie rock sound is varied and dynamic, but a good portion of its enthusiasts run on borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties. (James Murphy’s words, not mine.) One wonders when hip hop is going to follow suit. After all, the genre came of age during the Reagan-era push for slashed entitlements and draconian drug policies. Urban decay was the necessary backdrop for rap’s growth, as it allowed DJs to siphon off public electricity, graffiti writers to vandalize public works, and MCs to articulate public concerns. Those public concerns included, but were not limited to, disco beats, “my Adidas,” and break dancing.
(perhaps the) major player on the hip hop scene, and arguably no other act has been as instrumental as OutKast in earning ATL its capitol status. In a slow, sweaty, decade-long grind, Big Boi and Dre brought Southern Playa anthems into the pop mainstream, using pointed drawls and atmospheric beats to circumvent the horseshit East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars. The Kast were a crew of many colors, but its central stripes were club-vibed and chronic-lit. (See “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move” for the dance floor bang and “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ms. Jackson” for the psychedelic edge.) As such, it should come as no surprise that Big Boi has painted his first proper solo record with several coats of good-time varnish. “Shutterbugg” is 2010’s answer to
That’s the thing about the unremembered Eighties: While Rome burned, hip hop was advising its clients to kick back and cut a rug. In this particular history, Rome happened to be New York, but any underfunded American city would have sufficed. Thirty years later, amid “the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” rap’s axial poles may have shifted south, but its party ethic still holds primacy. Atlanta is a
the escapist disco sound that defined early-Eighties hip hop. It’s an Old School joint sparked with new-age feints and flourishes. “Bugg” flies out of the gate with an electric blast, chock full of talkbox effects and “Cry Me a River” Timbatronics. The style is modern but not exclusively digital; that is, it’s driven less by cold, high-tech loops than warm, heavily syncopated ripples. (Imagine Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” folded into the muzak from Nintendo’s “Pole Position.”)
There’s a buoyancy to the beat, a pulse that’s first hypnotic, then magnetic, but always held down by a dynamite MC. Big Boi has the tightest flow of any rapper south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In terms of sheer lingual speed and agility, our Boi can hand Lil Wayne his ass and Young Jeezy his walking papers. Big has something of a jazz singer aesthetic: He’s equally adept at quick surges and syrupy reels; he can spin his way through tricky vocal cadences or snap along to rat-a-tattat lyrics; and, most impressively, he can embrace hot bebop slurs or stone-cold, Sinatra-like enunciations. On “Bugg,” he imparts an effortless sprint to his rhymes, racing to the dance floor like a man on fire. His sharp intonations are as clear as his instructions to cut loose: “Party people in the club/It’s time to cut a rug/And throw your dukes up in the air/Just for the shutterbuggs.” Public Enemy this is not – but it’ll still take a nation of millions to hold us back. “Bugg” hosts a battle of alter-egos: Even as Sir Lucious Leftfoot puts his best foot forward, Daddy Fat Sax is consciously taking the track retro. In his second verse, Big makes pointed references to the Geto Boys, the Underground Kings, and the Wu-Tang
Clan. Then he plunges even deeper, singing the refrain from Soul II Soul’s 1989 club hit, “Back to Life.” At that moment, the listener is inclined to look around for Downtown Julie Brown and her MTV dancers, flush as the sound is with proto-rave ingredients. In the end, however, “Bugg” adheres to the “I’m the greatest!” tradition that hopped from Muhammad Ali to the likes of Kurtis Blow and LL Cool J. Big Boi flexes nuts regarding his “triple O.G. status,” fancying himself the center of attention as he double fists his way through the V.I.P. lounge. With synths aflutter and drum machines pounding on cue, Big takes complete control of the narrative, sounding slicker than Slick Rick and kooler than Kool Moe Dee. What often goes unremembered about the Eighties is that its rap beats were utter garbage – lightweight sound effects completely unworthy of the thoroughbred MCs who were rhyming over them. “Bugg” corrects this deficiency by drafting a thick, propulsive Scott Storch production as its backdrop. Storch gives the track a metro-Miami feel, which Big snatches up and escorts directly to A-Town. The song works because the dove and the divo are finally matching in pedigree and acting in concert. Big
checks the rearview mirror but doesn’t marinate his music in tired nostalgia. Sometimes it’s best to merely look back, rather than actually go back, before advancing forward. “Bugg” is a long time coming and a longer time delayed, but its author is still so fresh, so clean, and so much better than his Southern competitors. Big can curtsy to the classic or nod to the new without deferring to the myopic trends of the marketplace. He understands his genre’s potential. Just as importantly, he understands its limitations. His new single proves that commercial hip hop can survive its shotgun marriage to Auto-Tune. Every line of his testimony deserves our time, our attention, and, ultimately, our applause. Now more than ever, let’s hear it for the Boi.
(April 10, 2010)
inclined to drop the deuce, and opine that the Modfather is moving forward by looking back. In this particular case, as is the general rule, objects in the rearview mirror may appear closer than they are. At first listen, “Tears” sounds like a straight-ahead Neil Diamond rip, complete with the chesty baritone and Brill Building warmth. Upon second spin, the Northern Soul vibe and Scott Walker symphonics assert themselves, packing a resonance worthy of Phil Spector. Subsequent analyses pick up Tom Jones in the nose and Ray Davies on the palate, with a pleasing, spirited aftertaste of public house psychedelics. Everything is very swinging and Sixties until you realize that the vocalist is the lead singer from the Jam – at which point you say, “Where are the fucking power chords?” These chords are not forthcoming. Nor are they necessary. Because on “Tears,” Weller is less concerned with the exigencies of the modern world than the reliable rewards of a wellproduced pop song. His voice is bright and generous, possessing none of the cockney severity that characterized his early Jam vocals. Rather than reboot the take-it-to-you guitars of “In the
Paul Weller No Tears to cry
What’s gotten into Paul Weller? Is it that most obsequious of artistic tropes, nostalgia? Or that lifeblood of progressive songwriting, sonic curiosity? After listening to Weller’s latest single, “No Tears to Cry,” I’m
City” or the working-class redress of “That’s Entertainment,” Paul cops the tender rises and echoes of the Righteous Brothers. In a song that barely eclipses the two-minute mark, we get subtle strings, plangent piano, and textural shifts that lend equal deference to builds and drops. Weller is engaged in a balancing act between recalcitrance and desperation: He and his betrothed have lost that loving feeling, and Mr. Mod is keen to come off as both sensitive and dispassionate. He starts the track with “If you don’t want to see me fall/Turn your face to the wall,” inviting listeners to imagine a man on the verge of breakdown. But by the time he reaches the chorus, Weller is in full recovery mode, bellowing “There’s no way I can lie/ There’s no tears to cry/My eyes have dried.” Such are the wages of romantic impasse: It hurts to let go, but not quite so much as it hurts to stay together. This is an evergreen pop topic, and Paul does well to give it the Nick Lowe by way of Elvis Presley treatment. The question is whether he does this in earnest, as per the King’s protocol, or with irony, in the manner of the Basher. I don’t hear any sarcasm in “Tears.”
The track has the blue-eyed charm and blokey immodesty of a solid Nick Lowe single, but it certainly isn’t “Marie Provost” or “American Squirm,” wherein ambient, power-pop tones palliate the jaded narrative. Here Weller is reaching back beyond his punkish roots, beyond his Who fetish, to a simple story about man, woman, and their tragic incompatibilities. There are no wasted words or bratty asides, just the cool reserve of sorrow and realization. Weller has certainly earned this perspective. Earlier this year, he picked up the “Godlike Genius” statuette at the NME Music Awards, thus sealing his legacy with the type of honorary accolade that says “Sorry your band never got as big as U2.” For many of us, however, the Jam are far more vital and affecting than their worthy Dublin acolytes. Paul was a godlike genius well before Bono had dispatched with his Irish mullet. By the time Margaret Thatcher rolled into Downing Street, in 1979, Weller had already written such enduring proletarian anthems as “Away From the Numbers,” “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” “Saturday’s Kids,” and “Eton Rifles.” “Tears” doesn’t attempt to match these classics; instead, it aims to transcend them, to sidestep the
Jam and leapfrog the Style Council. By staring down his past, Weller is ensuring that his future is written by no one’s pen but his own. “Tears” is so versatile a ballad that it could have been sung by Roy Orbison, Engelbert Humperdinck, Elvis Costello, or several of the everevolving iterations of Bono. Yet, in the end, what makes the single special are the Weller bona fides – that is, the combination of street beat and love story. More than any other contemporary British songwriter, Paul can make timeless beauty sound like breaking news. And that’s neither nostalgia nor sonic curiosity – it’s the rarified product of sheer talent.
(April 13, 2010)
faded. But the mid-Nineties records that fueled their showdown remain far more popular than the boy-band shite and introspective art rock that gained favor in their wake. As such, the recent disbanding of the Brothers Gallagher and the purported reunion of the Albarn/Coxon cohort scored high enough on the breaking-news index to merit blog posts and video embeds on both Pitchfork and Stereogum. After all, even the most jaded Beach House fan has fond memories of Parklife and Definitely Maybe, what with their enduring counterpoints of symphonic swells and hi-fi pride. Earlier this week, the rumors of a formal Blur reunion were substantiated by the appearance of a brandnew studio track. It’s called “Fool’s Day,” but it’s not meant as a joke or contrivance. In fact, the single is positively adult – an odd descriptive to apply to Britpop, considering that the genre has always been something of a promotional arm for the enfant terrible (see Gallagher, Liam). These days, Damon Albarn seems less intent on whipping up a media frenzy than dialing down the bombast of his Cool Britannia past. “Fool’s” is not interested in heady dreams or aspirations. Instead, it focuses on commonplace routines and rituals.
Blur Fool’s Day
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. So it should come as no surprise that Britpop, a genre long thought to have been felled by the rough edges of Radiohead’s OK Computer, still has a vestigial grip on the pulse of perfidious Albion. Sure, the Blur-Oasis tabloid beefs have
Each verse reads like a lean haiku entered into the daily diary of a lowmaintenance middle-aged man: “TV on/Of course caffeine/A science of submission again/Another day/On this little island.” That’s nearly a quarter of the song – and it’s not even half a Tweet! If Blur started out as an anti-grunge band, perhaps they’ve now evolved into an anti-Gaga band. They pack no bright lights or expensive pyrotechnics, nor any implication that what they’re doing is particularly exciting or noteworthy. “Porridge done/I take my kid to school/Pass the pound shop, Woolworth’s” is real-time testimony from a day in the life, resembling a 45th-anniversary update of “Woke up/Got out of bed/Dragged a comb across my head.” As if to rebut Jarvis Cocker’s most memorable argument, Albarn seems to be implying that even wealthy rock stars can live like common people. His statement is backed by a comfortably muted instrumental: a basic drum beat, an on-again/offagain synth swirl, and a guitar jingle that never quite meets up with its jangle. The chilled-out vocal cadence is useful, as it’s able to tell a mundane story with either sober engagement or
numb detachment, depending on the listener’s predilection. I see “Fool’s” as subscribing to a school of thought that combines the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” with the Jam’s “That’s Entertainment,” whereby a slightly cockney voice can ascribe gravity (or at least poignancy) to a simple meeting at the subway station or the passive act of “watching the tele and thinking about your holidays.” As the old saying goes, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. In this regard, “Fool’s” is a perfect slice-of-life capture. It eschews the soaring chorus that typically acts as the backbone of a Britpop song, opting for short verse after short verse of status updates. Yes, there are the occasional digital pulses and stark psychedelic tones, but the track will not be confused with anything from the new MGMT album. “Fool’s”’ vibe is stripped down and grown up, facing the charms and indignities of adulthood with a long-night’s stubble and a long-day’s weary resolve. Albarn ends the song where he, as a working musician, belongs: in a studio, professing “a love of all sweet music/ We just can’t let go.” His song may sound like an ennui-ridden lament, but it’s ultimately a celebration of his profession.
Which is not to say that it’s a celebration of Britpop’s legacy. Blur in general and Albarn in particular transcended the genre’s limitations ages ago, with the most conspicuous evidence being Damon’s platinum run with the Gorillaz. This idiomatic mobility aside, 2010 remains an important year for Britpop, since it marks the inception of the sound going legal, at least in statutory terms. If you date the genre to the Stone Roses’ 1989 debut LP, then Britpop is 21 – so you’re compelled to buy him a drink. And if you date the movement to Suede’s 1992 “Downers” single, Britpop is 18 – so you’re obliged to pass him a voter’s ballot or a conscription card. Either way, you’re forced to come to terms with the fact that Britpop has come of age. Maybe that’s why “Fool’s” sounds so goddamned mature: Blur simply aren’t kids anymore. They’ve been on hiatus for more than seven years. Were they to return with another burnt offering to the gods of eternal adolescence, we might find it hard to take them seriously. Those who feel that all that’s sacred comes from youth obviously haven’t spent much time listening to pop radio. Occasionally you need a wizened eye and a furrowed brow. On “Fool’s,” Blur supply the former while preventing the latter from casting a
pall over the entire affair. If there’s any desperation on the track, it’s of the quiet variety. What could be more British than that?
(April 18, 2010)
Robyn Dancing on My Own
The New Yorker recently described Robyn’s Body Talk, Pt. 1 as “eight handsomely formed, near-perfect pop songs.” I’m content to echo this assessment, albeit with the addition of a qualitative sidebar: Of the album’s eight songs, none is more handsome or near-perfect than “Dancing on My Own,” a fluttering wallop of digital disco that might be my favorite pop single of the year. “Dancing” has the thrilling immediacy of a club track but the sober awareness of an acoustic ballad. This mixture of wild mercury and coiled intensity gives the song an odd chemistry and an odder charisma; it not only gropes for the zeitgeist, it also looks forward and backward with equal deliberation, as if crossing some sort of sonic byway. Robyn is mindful of the traffic, but makes no concessions to intervening forces or external actors. This is her drama, and she’ll cry if she wants to.
Perhaps I led this review with the New Yorker plaudit merely to document the scope of Robyn’s bourgeois appeal. If this is the case, my aims were completely unconscious yet entirely understandable. Robyn may not be a household name, but she’s hardly a fringe act, either. Her last album, self-titled and released in 2005, is widely considered to be one of the best pop LPs of the past decade. Its clean Swedish production is conjoined with singing that’s playful, clever, and utterly human. The conceit seemed to be that man and machine were not accursed antagonists in a hastily evolving dystopia, that the organic and the inorganic could affirm, rather than subjugate, each other. This ethic now informs blockbuster singles from the likes of Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas. The avant-dance idiom that Robyn helped propagate five years ago has become the new normal, with the woman-as-robot aesthetic climbing to new heights on Janelle Monáe’s ArchAndroid and falling to new lows on Christina Aguilera’s Bionic. Consider it computer generation for the Computer Generation; that is, music that uses the mechanical device as theme, instrument, and reason for being. Digital certainly didn’t start with Robyn, whose discography dates only to the late Nineties, but she’s always
been just far enough ahead of the curve to seduce hipsters and the NPR set alike. Body Talk re-ups Robyn’s “I’m a cyborg, and that’s OK” conceit, only with greater bandwidth and more gigabytes. In fact, the record pairs the robotic and the emotional so expertly that “conceit” hardly seems an appropriate noun to attach to its approach. At this point, the techedup love ballad deserves a subgenre all its own. And Body Talk’s first single, “Fembots,” could offer the movement’s mission statement: “I’ve got some news for you/Fembots have feelings to.” The song is smart, catchy, and sexy. But “Dancing” is the better composition, largely because it subordinates savvy jocularity to the passions that come pre-programmed in all adolescents. Radio Pop is a young woman’s game. And although she’s in her early thirties, Robyn is uniquely positioned to crash Billboard’s gates. Her voice is infused with a perpetual adolescence, one which not only maintains an alto-legato range but also is quick to drop “g”s and “er”s. This slang-style elocution makes Robyn sound younger than she is, perfuming “Dancing” with the scent of underage kicks even as it bangs with adult insight.
There are, of course, more obvious reasons why “Dancing” is an eliteechelon pop song. Let’s start with the beat: It sounds like a Japanese motorcycle in full rev, primed to a healthy purr but too disciplined to dabble in the red. The rippling electronic notes amp up to an impressive RPM level, then propel forward with a sleek blast of snares. It has the texture of a Max Martin track crossbred with the theme music from Nintendo’s “Pole Position.” The digital and the dulcet don’t so much duke it out as bond together in a covalent alliance. This bizarre aural alloy reminds me of the lyrical imagery in Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” wherein the Boss claims to have “silver star studs on [his] duds like a Harley in heat.” Robyn doesn’t quite pack the horsepower of a Harley, but her shiny rice rocket of a track definitely secretes some serious pheromones. There’s sex, love, vulnerability, and longing on the vinyl – a range of feelings that most Top 40 fare is anathema to cover but that Robyn indulges on the regular. This is not to say that Robyn writes with the nuance of Shakespeare or Joyce. On “Dancing,” the lyrics work precisely because they don’t require a Cliffs Notes treatment. “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her/I’m right over
here, why can’t you see me?” makes for a fairly direct chorus. The narrator is in a dance club, eyeing a former flame who’s moved on to another woman. There’s a tacit intention of winning him back, but a provisional acceptance of staying solo and enjoying the caprices (and catharses) of the dance floor. In other words, “I can live, with or without you.” That said, I’m not willing to let Robyn off the hook so quickly. The essence of songwriting is the marriage of the wordplay with the instrumental, and something about “Dancing” tells me that this particular drama holds more than meets the eye. So let’s use our ears instead: The beat is sweet and the chorus is convincingly downhearted, but there’s a sinister tone that chimes just below the radar. Is the protagonist a jilted lover or a deluded stalker? When Robyn sings, “So far away, but still so near/(The lights go on, the music dies)/But you don’t see me standing here/(I just came to say goodbye),” we can’t help but feel a little creeped out. What, exactly, does this goodbye represent? Is Robyn once again channeling Springsteen – “For me this boardwalk life’s through/You oughta quit this scene too”? Or is this song’s postscript an aggravated assault?
I’m clearly taking liberties here. Dancing on one’s own is substantially different than pulling a Single White Female of the Jennifer Jason Leigh variety. But I consider it a tribute to Robyn’s musicianship that her pop dramas provide the flexibility for interpretation – even if some of the interpretations are wild and illconceived. Club singles rarely activate anything but the id, but “Dancing” is imaginative enough to counter the body talk with a little brain teasing. It’s sentient and sensate, yet still highly syncopated. That’s the future of pop music: a bizarre amalgam of techno, rock, and R&B, all rendered personal by confessional lyrics. Left-of-center artist have been making this sort of music for years. Now’s the time for radio to catch up.
(June 22, 2010)
our sociocultural trend toward everincreasing complexity; but, to those who follow indie music with an attuned ear, the Shins’ no-fuss approach can hardly be said to come as a surprise. Much has happened in the 32 years since Squeeze released their “Goodbye Girl” single – namely New Wave, postpunk, New Pop, hip hop, thrash metal, grunge, digital disco, and countless hybrids of these and other idioms. The net result is that there’s more competition and cross-pollination in contemporary pop music. One would expect this outward-expanding corona of sound to push serious songwriters toward postmodern composition. But in certain alternative sectors, our multiplicity of forms actually translates into less cacophony and clutter. “Goodbye Girl” is a great case study in reverse engineering. The original, full
The Shins Goodbye Girl
The Shins’ cover of “Goodbye Girl” defies convention by sounding demonstrably less modern than the original. It reconceives a busy, mechanical affair as a sweet strum through power pop’s back pages. Such treatment might clash with
of the frenzy of 1978, sounds like it was recorded in a clock shop or a penny arcade. There are Devo-esque blips, beeps, and cuckoos – all of which were signs of the times, none of which were necessary to the song’s inherent integrity. After all, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are more Lennon/ McCartney than Mothersbaugh/Casale or Byrne/Eno. Their tracks imagine that
rock’s radicalization never happened, that the Beatles’ discography stopped at Rubber Soul. For Squeeze, the melody is the medium and the harmony is the cherry on top. What they communicate is the very opposite of U.K. punk’s daft anarchy – that is, a reification of daily ritual, where one describes the here-and-now of the silent majority rather than the dystopia of the vocal fringe. Tilbrook/ Difford compositions endure because they treat shared experiences with a Faulty Towers sensibility: The lads are more than happy to have a laugh at their own expense. Listen to “Up the Junction,” “Another Nail in the Heart,” or “Is that Love?” Each song plays like a reaction to a Dear John letter that the writer never took the trouble to mail. “Goodbye Girl” fits this tradition to a T, turning a private affair into a public humiliation. You wouldn’t think that the Shins would be up for this sort of thing, as James Mercer, the group’s leader, is often described as painstaking and self-serious. Yet on the “Goodbye Girl” redux, the band breaks out heaping doses of good humor. Mercer will not soon be mistaken for a barrel full of monkeys, but his crafty, almost artisanal approach to songwriting owes much to the Tilbrook/Difford model.
Lyrically speaking, Squeeze can adore without adornment, and Mercer flexes this muscle by presenting “Goodbye Girl” as a stripped-down, acoustic ballad. The background noise is minimized, lending primacy to the story. Our tale begins with the perambulations of a one-night stand, segues into a fly-by-night robbery, and ends with a confession of longing for the purported thief. More specifically, a mark falls for a woman he encounters in a pool hall and, duped into the illusion of mutual attraction, is subsequently relieved of the contents of his billfold. Mercer sings Squeeze’s lines with clarity but not embarrassment, using his high register to report an honest, detail-oriented account of the goings-on: “She took me to her hotel/A room on the second floor/A kettle and two coffees/ The number on the door.” Is this the tattered poetry of recollection or the spartan prose of a police report? One could ask that question about many Squeeze songs. Tilbrook/Difford often force their protagonist to play the fool, making his bed in the first two verses and lying down on it in the third. What’s special about “Goodbye Girl” is that the protagonist plays the
unwitting (or, at least, the unrepentant) fool. Even after he’s been robbed and ransacked, shrugging off the matrimonial bond to his wife along the way, he still pines to “say hello to [his] goodbye girl.” He either doesn’t realize that the little lady is a cold, calculating pro – the type of woman who slips a mickey into her john’s hotel-room coffee – or his adoration is so great that he’s willing to let bygones be bygones, and offer himself up for another pilfering. The Shins do their best not to obscure this message. Their breezy melodies both honor the sheer songcraft of Tilbrook/Difford and conspire to mimic the duo’s central leitmotif: quasi-consensual victimhood. Mercer disavows his own writing credit even as he reaffirms Tilbrook/Difford’s, arguing that caring is not creepy. This argument fails, of course – which is just as Squeeze intended. The sentimental fool is destined to play the perpetual ass. On the original “Goodbye Girl,” Tilbrook/Difford identified the donkey. Three decades later, the Shins provide the pin-on tail.
(July 30, 2010)
Train hey, Soul Sister
If you want to know why the recording industry got bamboozled by the digital revolution, look no further the major labels’ long-standing allergy to ingenuity. In light of the blind betting and Johnny-come-lately strategies that sustained the commercial music apparatus in the decade prior to Napster, one can only wonder how a structure so decadent and depraved managed to survive as long as it did. The feckless drama’s denouement went something like this: At the beginning of the Nineties, Sony, Capitol, and RCA – along with countless other off-shoots and affiliates – barnstormed the Pacific Northwest, jockeying to scoop up any band that sounded even remotely like Nirvana. In the mid Nineties, as Dave Mathews Band, Counting Crows, and Hootie and the Blowfish started to break the bank, the Big League brokers were keen to sign every five-piece with a grounding in roots rock and ready access to an electric harmonica. Then, at the turn of the century, as Generation X outgrew terrestrial radio and Baby Boomers surrendered to the nostalgia of Greatest Hits reissues, the labels packed up their guitars and
threw heavy timber behind the Boy Band phenomenon, milking Justin Timberlake like a many-nippled cash cow. This carpetbagger mentality underscored the industry’s ruinous myopia. At every juncture, the majors were guilty of chasing their tails – that is, waiting for something big to break, then imitating the reigning sound until the fad lost its mojo. Amid this frantic grope for the zeitgeist, the industry lost control over the means of production. Musical content was still critically important, but, by the early Aughts, the physical CD became an antiquated, unnecessary encumbrance. You might be thinking, “This is all good and well – but what in God’s name does it have to do with Train?” Well, Train are a major label outfit, a band of wily veterans with a history dating back to the heady, Monica Lewinsky-era program in Adult Contemporary hit-making. They were signed during the aforementioned dash for roots rockers and radiofriendly jam bands. But when the mass market lost its passion for patchouli, Train proved versatile enough to tackle girl-targeted guitar pop, in the vein of Matchbox Twenty and 3 Doors Down. They bridged a certain gap in chart
logic, grabbing the melodic tones of late-Nineties album-oriented rock and finding platinum on this side of the millennial divide, specifically with 2001’s Drops of Jupiter. Then the bridge collapsed, to much sound and fury. (Emphasis on the fury.) Aside from Creed, is there a pre-9/11 pop band more pervasively reviled than Train? Sure, Matchbox and the Goo Goo Dolls come to mind, but neither of these groups were as earnest as Train. Pat Monahan pledged to sing to you until you liked him, goddammit! He lacked Scott Stapp’s ferocious messianic complex and Johnny Rzeznik’s thinly veiled selfloathing. He intoned to the heavens – literally “Calling on Angels” – and expected the firmament below to accept his entreaties with equal parts wonder and delight. In short, the guy was a douche but thought he was a prince. As it turns out, a little delusion can take a middling band an awfully long way. Against all odds, and back from a sphere many iterations more distant than death, Train have pulled into Grand Central Station with a huge, glossy, totally disarming #1 record. “Hey, Soul Sister” is a glittering pop gem derived from untold decades
of soft-rock rites and lite-FM rituals. It will haunt your mother’s radio station for years to come, finding its niche alongside such reliable warhorses as Rod Stewart’s “Reason to Believe” and Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Despite being almost 10 months old, “Soul Sister” has only recently managed to claim this year’s “I’m Yours” slot. This slow build – released to crickets and tumbleweed, then subsequently resurrected to fanfare and a media blitz – demonstrates the confounding incompetence of the record industry. Train are a Sony outfit, party to resources that the likes of Vampire Weekend or Dirty Projectors could never imagine. Yet the label couldn’t break this blatantly obvious summertime anthem? If Sony didn’t hear the single potential in “Soul Sister,” they ought to be investigated by the Better Business Bureau, and have their commercial licenses revoked. But enough about the industry; let’s focus on the song. It’s not a criticism when I say that “Soul Sister” is generic and pandering. Not every single needs to push the envelope of post-millennial songwriting. In fact, most of the time, the mass audience (or, more appropriately, what remains
of the mass audience) is looking for something friendly and escapist. “Soul Sister” fits that bill to a T, making up for what it lacks in originality with a heaping dose of infectiousness. I find the gratuitous use of ukulele – yes, ukulele! – instantly arresting and gratifying. Though you’re bound to hear rebuttal testimony, I think it takes balls for a group of grown men to resort to dulcimer tones. Most contemporary pop is synths and drum machines, and Train have conquered the charts by busting out the uke? We haven’t seen a coup like this since R.E.M. rode Peter Buck’s mandolin solo to a loss of religion and a win of several Grammys. Which begs a peripheral question: Is Pat Monahan as old as Michael Stipe? With his band back in the spotlight, Monahan has had to entertain the Today Show and View circuits. And while he’s certainly a fine-looking man, his A&R department seems determined to make him look mildly ridiculous. Pat’s big hair and bratty countenance position him as a member of the Replacements circa Let it Be. But his tight blazers and skinny trousers place him as an Entertainment Tonight guest host. We excuse these trespasses only
because Monahan sings an order of magnitude better than Justin Bieber. He may not have quite the same pipes that channeled “Meet Virginia,” but “Soul Sister” is so well structured that anything more than an unintelligible rendering will suffice to charm and beguile. Pat’s lyrics have never been his strong suit. (Cases are still pending in The Hague for such cruel and unusual lines as “She checks out Mozart while she does tae-bo.”) Yet “Soul Sister” has the melodic elasticity to accommodate train-wreck couplets of the first order, including “Your lipstick stains/On the front lobe of my left-side brains” and “I’m so obsessed/My heart is bound to beat right out my untrimmed chest.” These words, however dubious, lock into the track’s ambient groove and adhere to the simple instrumental like a snake around a staff. This snake isn’t chasing its tail; it’s wagging its rattle – and inviting us to sing along. Popular music being the unstable, balkanized compound that it is, “Soul Sister” is likely to be Train’s last mainstage hurrah. Facebookers and iPaders have little use for graying crooners of questionable pedigree. They’d rather identify and exploit the next big thing, like the major labels of yore. Content is important but replaceable; it’s the
platform that counts. But, if you’ll forgive the pun, Train have a platform as well. They bust out well-produced, overwritten power ballads, fueled more by “Rocket Man” ambition than “High Enough” posturing. So if “Soul Sister” happens to be their last dance, what a way to go out. The song has scored musical cameos on CSI: NY, Medium, and Nurse Jackie, with close to 3 million legal downloads to boot. And lest it go unobserved, “Soul Sister” seems destined to soundtrack a future ad campaign for either eHarmony or Match.com. The song is mellow gold, and it shines all the brighter for sidetracking the typical machinations of the recording industry and meeting the listening public on its own turf. If Train’s next stop is oblivion, at least they left us something beautiful to drown out the sounds of departure.
(April 12, 2010)
Stone Temple Pilots Between the Lines
Were Stone Temple Pilots the first of the second-wave grunge rockers or the last of the Sunset Strip hair bands? Given the two-decade backlog of narcotics in Scott Weiland’s circulatory
system, identifying his quartet’s genre by means of blood test or DNA sample is more or less out of the question. So let’s wave off the white lab coats and cut directly to the chase: STP were neither a C-league Pearl Jam nor a tepid retread of Motley Crew; they were a creaky bridge that connected L.A. leather with Seattle flannel. This sonic dexterity made them one of the Nineties’ most popular rock bands. But it also makes them acutely difficult to compartmentalize. Take another listen to STP’s first single, “Sex Type Thing.” Is that Layne Staley on lead vocals, or Axl Rose? Weiland’s sex-type thing, whatever it might purport to be, definitely swung both ways – ie, back to the alcoholic Eighties and ahead to the heroin-chic Nineties. (Granted, the latter had already begun in earnest by the time of Core’s release, but it had yet to reach the parodical, aggro extremes of Staind, Limp Bizkit, and Creed.) There is, of course, a slight problem with any discussion that seeks to carbon-date STP’s sound to the period straddling George H.W. Bush’s presidential term – namely, that we’re currently living in 2010. Today’s pop music fan couldn’t give a quibble or a bit about the C.C. DeVille/Jerry
Cantrell sonic continuum. The only question likely to come forth from his tongue is “What have you done for me lately?” Until this week, STP would’ve had the damnedest time cuing up a respectable response. But now that they’ve leaked the first single off their upcoming reunion album, the band’s music can finally speak for itself. The song in question, “Between the Lines,” is not of the genus that seeks to skimp on volume. Its message is refreshingly clear: “For those about to rock, we salute you!” Which is not to say that “Between” is an AC/DC rip-off or a conventional head banger. Yes, the track is heavy and anthemic, but it can’t completely hide its terroir. Like many other selections from the STP-Talk Show-Velvet Revolver discography, “Between” adheres to the classic rock side of grunge, placing an emphasis on straight melody and swagger-laden guitar. Weiland wields the ringmaster’s cane, pointing to his own sordid past with such lines as “I like it when we talk about love/You always were my favorite drug,” yet his remonstrations aren’t so egomaniacal as to turn the affair into a one-man show. Dean DeLeo runs his hands up and down
the song’s throttle, pushing “Between” into hyperdrive with a canon fusillade of power chords and retro riffs. There’s nothing inherently novel about this bellow-and-wail formula, but we’re not filing patents here – we’re simply rocking out to a solid, all-American guitar jam. The STP of 2010 are an order of magnitude more confident than the STP of 1992. Rather than hide their influences behind concussive kick drums or extended low-notes, the band is content to show its hand to everyone at the card table. If daddy wants a shout-along chorus, daddy will write a shout-along chorus. And if mommy wants to bite a full 15-second mini-section from Nirvana’s “Stay Away,” mommy will pull the theft red-handedly, complete with “Get away!” background vocals. Weiland finally realizes that he’ll never be Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose, or David Bowie. He’s now free to tinker unapologetically with his back catalog, fashioning “Between” as the logical fallout of “Slither”’s metallic echo and “Tumble in the Rough”’s trippy bluster. Without according primacy to either grungy static or hairspray shimmer, Scott and his STP comrades manage to unleash an unlikely winner. If you can resist the temptation to make a “Dead and
Bloated” joke, you’ll discover that the band is alive and kicking.
(March 23, 2010)
You know those “Miss Me Yet?” bumper stickers? The ones that are currently making the rounds at your local evangelical church and Bass Pro Shop? Well, if you replace the sticker’s awkward background photo of George W. Bush with a Getty image of Courtney Love, you’d have a pretty cogent advertising campaign for Hole’s new album, Nobody’s Daughter. Music-based nostalgia has finally beset Generation X, with the source of their yearning being more guttural than reasonable. It seems that most people over 30 hate contemporary pop with such a passion that they’re willing to revert to sounds they never really embraced in the first place. “Celebrity Skin” (1998) didn’t get any higher than #85 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and Live Through This (1994) peaked at #52 on the LPdedicated Billboard 200. Yet we long for Courtney because she’s a symbol of Album Oriented Rock’s last stand, a
conflation of Seventies punk, Eighties underground, and the early-Nineties’ indie-fab moment, all strung together by a connubial tie to rock and roll’s last legitimate icon. So while the reconstitution of Hole might be something of an anti-reunion – few original members, no hot-shit festival exclusives, only luke-warm blog buzz – it nonetheless takes Generation X back to a time when guitars ruled the roost, when Big Government wasn’t cramming affordable health care down our throats, and when apartments in Seattle could be had for a song (literally). I’m not sure if the band’s newest single, “Samantha,” will conjure a full-on revisitation of yesteryear’s grungy verve and Sub Pop sonority, but it does its job – that is, making today’s antic dance music seem childish – fairly well. It’s essentially a 4-minute “Adult Swim” banner, raised by heavy reverb, snarling vocals, and the nation of millions that’s not content to bequeath Top 40 to Taylor Swift. “Samantha” starts in mid-tempo, then builds into a heavy romp through Courtney’s back pages. The titular Samantha is cast alternately as an object of pity and ridicule. She’s a junkie, a prostitute, and a major-league
hustler, hell bent on the destruction of pride and property. You don’t need to run any chemical assays to determine that she’s Courtney Love’s alter ego. (Think Mariah Carey’s Mimi with a run in her stocking and a spike in her vein.) Courtney is clearly relying on the burned-out rocker’s favorite songwriting trope – public confession of private sins, cleverly disguised as a dialectic. But she does this sort of thing inimitably well, both on disc and in the tabloids. I think she’s bright enough to enjoy the irony in her construction: She disavows the very past she’s banking upon to sell her record. “Samantha” is cut from the alt-rock cloth that launched dozens of “Seattle sound” subgenres and moved untold quantities of flannel. It’s got a mixture of Smashing Pumpkins fizz and Jack Endino fuzz, whereby the vocals burn and the guitars bleed. When Courtney sings “Stab the gutter right out of that girl,” she sounds like she’s been studying at the Marianne Faithful School of Skanky Rasp. She may be a fifty-carat flake, and her persona may be as fraudulent as Goldman Sachs’ annual report, but the trauma in her voice is real. Insofar as the song has a chorus, it’s the umpteen repetitions, either in whole or in part, of the phrase
“People like you/Fuck people like me/ In order to avoid agony.” Looks like someone’s got a victim complex. But it also looks like someone’s got a credible rock single. “Samantha” manages to marry the pain of the prey with the bloodlust of the predator, sounding equal parts put upon and wizened up. Courtney needs help, but she’s certainly not helpless. In this way, she reminds us of her late husband, who always offset his whimpers of defeat with growls of defiance. “Samantha” takes the vulnerability of “Dumb” and shoots it up with the bravado of “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” The result could be something insipid – a Bush song, for instance – but instead we get a tattered diary page that packs the sort of sonic punch that the game’s been missing. However you feel about Miley Cyrus, you can be certain that she’s not going to drop a single containing the line “If you were on fire, I’d just throw kerosene.” That’s why Courtney is so necessary: She’s not afraid to be indelicate. The moral of “Samantha” seems to be Love’s not-so-soft lament of “No one can regain their innocence again.” This is somewhat suspect, considering that
Hole’s founding operational principle is that innocence is overrated. Courtney Love doesn’t value innocence so much as her ability to lose it. And once it’s gone, she can only hope that it’s paid off well, like hubby Kurt’s celebrated teenage angst. Love’s sense of purity is far too track-marked and emaciated to prop itself up and ask, “Miss Me Yet?” Rather than pose subjective questions, Court would prefer to reach for the proverbial kerosene, if only to scorch the outer layers of her celebrity skin. Such “Burn, baby, burn!” insouciance reaffirms Courtney’s appeal. The charred remains of her career are far from beautiful, but we just can’t find the fortitude to look away. The reason for this is unclear. But I guess we’re afraid we might miss something.
(April 29, 2010)
Tom Petty and the heartbreakers I Should have Known It
Tom Petty may not have been the best singer-songwriter of the late Seventies, but he certainly had the best mission statement: “Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus.”
Rarely is a sentiment this concise also so expansive. The phrase contains the snarl of punk, the stomp of garage, and the smirk of a rock and roll outlaw. It covers the sonic continuum that stretched from Elvis to the Ramones, leaving ample gas in the tank for Tom’s own variations on its theme. And Petty, never shy or imprecise about his origins – see “One foot in the grave/ and one foot on the pedal/I was born a rebel” – ran down his dream with all the amped-up horsepower of a race car driver. Ultimately, the key distinction between Tom Petty and Kyle Petty is not one of attitude but of instrument: The former traffics in guitars, while the latter trafficked in motor stock. Both feel the need for speed. And both know it’s good to be King. At present, of course, few phenomena hold less cachet in the music press than NASCAR and dinosaur rock. If the hipster set has any respect for Tom Petty, it probably comes with a side order of caveats and condescension. His Zagat-style entry in Pitchfork’s back pages might read, “Reliable bar-band leader” with an “ear for pop hooks”… but “where’s the innovation?” Yet by posing such a question, the indie snob unwittingly reveals his ignorance:
He’s forgetting that Petty and his Heartbreakers weren’t the least bit interested in reordering the aesthetic principles of Western music. This is a band that wanted to go back to the future – that is, to remember the time when verse-chorus-verse was a catalyst to exhilaration rather than an object of disdain, and then to channel this fistfirst ethic onto the airwaves. Bear in mind that we’re speaking of Jimmy Carter-era airwaves, frequencies beset by prog fog and disco taint. (Hell, even the president himself spoke of an invidious cultural “malaise.”) Much of what had made the American songbook so spectacular – the lowbrow sensitivity, the miscegenated rhythms, the 12-bar blues – was obscured by the smoke and mirrors of studio production. Pop-star posturing, with its attendant bared chests and demi-god grandeur, didn’t help matters either. Man and medium were caught in something of a death spiral, clearly unaware that their fates were intertwined. As the music became more artificial, so did the musicians. I’m not going to be so ingratiating as to ask whether this milieu rings a bell. Some things should be obvious – among them that contemporary pop is a no-man’s-land of teen
dreams and television tie-ins; and that contemporary indie, the so-called “alternative” option, is dominated by fidget house (ie, disco without the black people) and chillwave (ie, prog without a conceptual frame). Considering these ground conditions, Petty’s new single, “I Should Have Known It,” plays like a Heartbreakers record from the late Seventies. The track dusts off “Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus,” only to roll it around in the mud of the Mississippi Delta and soak it in the swamps of the Florida Panhandle. Once again, the M.O. is not invention but reinvention: taking the blues of the Deep South and transposing them onto the jingles and jangles of reverb-laden rock and roll. It should come as no surprise that this formula renders a racket that sounds an awful lot like Led Zeppelin. “Known It” is a ramble through Zep’s prime, blending the buzz and resonance of “Black Dog” with the slinky majesty of “Misty Mountain Hop.” There are traces of the disorienting slurs and wrinkles that characterized “The Crunge,” but, by and large, the band razes the roof at full throttle. Perhaps it’s only coincidental that the Heartbreakers have produced a track so similar to “Heartbreaker.” Or maybe Petty is just having some fun with us.
Despite the song’s boy-done-wrong subject matter – “Thanks for nothing/ Yeah, thanks a lot/Go ahead, baby/ Take all I got” – it certainly sounds like Tom is enjoying himself. He continues to insist that postpunk never happened, refusing to allow the Heartbreakers’ lead or rhythm guitars to be subordinated to the bass. He hits us with a walloping riff as soon as the track opens, and gets us to the chorus in under a minute. (Not bad, Tom. Not bad at all.) Yet, truth be told, this is not Tom’s song. It’s Mike Campbell’s. He’s the one who’s wielding the killer riffs and the “Heartbreaker” hammer, not to mention the compositional gear shift. At the start of “Known It,” Mike is all about propulsion – he’s revving the engine and spitting out sparks. By the song’s midpoint, he’s moved to slide guitar, content to vamp and wail like Duane Allman on amphetamines. The real rush, however, comes in the final minute, when Campbell is unleashed like a mad gator in a Gainesville marsh. He imparts an Everglades echo to his stadium-rock chops, making music that’s at once of the soil and the sky. Petty chimes in with his ringing Rickenbacker, but only to lord over a band that’s white hot. It’s almost as if the Heartbreakers had developed a
fever, and that the only cure was more Campbell. “Known It” is the strongest classic rock single of the year. That’s not saying much, given the genre’s slim slate of new material; but young folks could learn a great deal about songcraft by studying the PettyCampbell dynamic. What starts as a strut morphs into an all-out gambol, with limbs aflair and toes atapping. The listener doesn’t think, he merely experiences – which is not a sign of insentience, but transcendence. When you’re not given the time to get bored, you’re not afforded the luxury of indulgence. Melody and verse engage you head-on, chugging like a freight train towards a chorus that serves as a climax. This swift evolution from tension to repose is no musical caprice – especially when all parties involved know that the intensity is about to be ratcheted up to higher and higher levels.
Now more than ever, there’s a place for a song that grabs you by the lapels and drags you across the barroom floor. “Known It” can call that place its own. The track is a Petty single in the tradition of “Woman In Love” and “Running Down A Dream,” wherein angst and aspiration are let off like so many pockets of steam. By ascribing primacy to the guitar, it asks Campbell to do the dirty work while Petty makes a clean escape from the burdens of rock stardom. Tom doesn’t care if he’s “relevant;” he just wants to be good. That sentiment may not be as catchy as “Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus,” but it’s just as bulletproof. Long may you run, Tom. No one from the current generation is going to catch you.
(May 17, 2010)
PART II: NEW SENSATIONS
Of the many things that Drake and I don’t have in common, perhaps the most conspicuous is a collaboration with Nicki Minaj. Sure, this “Dricki” partnership is initially notable for its sheer comedic value, as Nicki Minaj is the most over-the-top MC name since Tony Yayo. But, upon further review, the collab also merits mention for its tacit hubris. Both Drake and Ms. Minaj are relative newcomers to the hip-hop game. Neither have the platinum album or Disney franchise to ensure immediate integration into the Billboard Hot 100. Yet Young Money Entertainment released their joint joint, “Up All Night,” as a single. This tells me that the organization has a lot of confidence in Drake. He carries the proverbial load on “Night,” dropping the first verse, sing-speaking the chorus, and lending the track its pervasive cool. Instead of Hova, he’s Nova: the newbie who’s charged with bringing enough star power to light up the pop charts, the social media, and the hearts of the silly white girls who underwrite both enterprises. Drake is getting a 500-decibel PR blast because he represents hip hop’s next frontier: the post-street cred
MC. Rather than subscribe to the tired exaggerations of biography-bybullet-hole, Drake uses his ostensible disqualifiers – a comfortable suburban upbringing, a protracted tenure on Degrassi: The Next Generation, Canadian citizenship – to his professional advantage. In our age of ascendant tween spirit, Clean Cut is the new Thug Life. Commercial rap isn’t looking to recycle Rakim or Tupac; it’s looking for its Fall Out Boy: an act that places sensitivity and introspection over the genre’s historical pillars of violence, misogyny, and ego. After all, it’s awfully hard to make industry-leading dough when you’re locked behind bars – a lesson that Drake’s sponsor, mentor, and hype man, Lil Wayne, has learned the hard way. Drake is being marketed as a dude who’s more likely to pack moisturizer in his pocket than a Tech Nine. This palatability, distinct from the outright friendliness of a Justin Bieber or a Jonas Brother, is the central emblem of his fast-track approach to superstardom. Last year, he graduated from playing a paraplegic high school student on Degrassi to trading main-stage rhymes with such musical stalwarts as Jay-Z, Kanye West,
Weezy, Alicia Keys, and The-Dream – all before releasing a proper LP. The hip-hop gods were clearly hoping that Drake would assimilate into rap’s royal family without any detours through drug rehab or the state pen. And “Over,” the standout track on Drake’s much-anticipated debut album, just might mark the beginning of his reign as pop music’s crowned prince. “Over” leaps off its vinyl with an artful flourish, using a symphonic R&B sample to signal Drake’s arrival. The brass and the fanfare give the song an outer armor of importance, coupling Wagner with blaxploitation before ceding the floor to Auto-Tuned vocals. Drake sings (and I use the verb loosely), “I know way too many people here right not that I didn’t know last year/Who the fuck are y’all?,” his voice sounding more exhausted than threatening. At first glance, these lyrics could serve as the introduction to one of Kanye West’s recent records. The texture (decadent chill) and the attitude (V.I.P. ennui) come from the Ye school of existential hip hop. The key difference, of course, is that the MC is a decade younger and comes with several metric tons less baggage. Yes, “You too fine to be layin’ down in bed alone/I can teach you how to speak my language, Rosetta Stone,”
would fit nicely in Kanye’s pantheon of clever come-ons. But, when delivered by Drake, the words exude worn-down melancholy rather than amped-up pride. Throughout “Over,” the boasts glance while the anxiety wallops. The single trades in currencies of selfdoubt, not self-aggrandizement. In mathematical terms, Drake = Ye + Weezy/Kid Cudi. He’s got a deliberate, beat-adhering flow that mixes gravel and grass. Our boy’s neither too hot nor too cold; which, for all intents and purposes, makes him the Goldilocks of the rap circuit. In a scene already overloaded with “too angry” and “too arty,” Drake steps up to deliver the “just right.” And by “just right” we mean not prone to unlawful weapons possession, uncalled-for VMA stunts, or untenable hipster rap. After all, a pimp has got to keep his hos on the street if he wants them to make their numbers. And “Over,” an expertly pimped out track from both a production and promotion standpoint, is copyrighted by Young Money Entertainment, Cash Money Records, and Universal Motown. That’s three deep-pocketed industry players throwing their collective resources behind a single unproven MC. Which is precisely how a star is born in contemporary pop. Did you really think
that Drake was blowing up on his own? Drake is a classic right place/right time entertainer. The major rap labels now employ fully credentialed marketing consultants and a bottom-line oriented A&R staff. Each corporate pusher is sophisticated enough to know that fans of Justin Bieber, Joe Jonas, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift will soon need something slightly edgier to grow into. Drake fills that hypothetical void, acting as a counterpoint to hip hop’s long parade of reprobates and roustabouts. That’s why Young Money has got him dressing up in varsity jackets and tooling around in Sprite commercials. When an MC has no street cred to lose, the blatant acts of ingratiation can start from inception. In addition to being a highly leveraged commodity, Drake is a capable performer, a deft rapper, and one sharp cookie. “Over” isn’t the work of a Manchurian candidate. If anything, it’s a muffled shout of protest from inside the machine. “Who the fuck are y’all?” is rap’s answer to “By the way, which one’s Pink?” The performer knows he’s being exploited, but his rewards are so great that he’d be stupid to hop off the gravy train. Drake seems to have his facts straight. After airing the insecurities that come standard with his profession, he
informs the listener that he’s not going to change a thing: “This is what I’mma do til it’s over/Til it’s over/But it’s far from over.” That last bit of swagger is characteristic of artists who employ mononymous stage names. Prince, Madonna, and Bono find common ground in their embrace of fame and all its trappings. Drake is not yet of their stripe or their station, and he probably never will be. But his cautious confidence is backed by moneyed interests and discernible skill. If this rap thing doesn’t work out, he can always take the Will Smith route, and return to acting. Should the industry pimps raise their hand, Drake is athletic enough to duck the blow and double-time it to greener pastures. So when he says “it’s far from over,” I’m inclined to believe him. And I have it on good authority that Nicki Minaj feels the same way.
(June 18, 2010)
Sleigh Bells Tell ‘Em
In The Iliad, Homer frequently describes battle as “the clamor incessant.” This epithet could just as easily attach itself to Sleigh Bells’ new single, “Tell ‘Em,” a ring-the-alarm
cochlea crusher that shoots first and asks questions later. The track makes an absolute racket, with arms of iron and bronze cascading into each other like so many strong-greaved Greeks and horse-breaking Trojans. Ultimately, however, the song is less ancient than postmodern: It sounds as if it’s caught up in the Hadron particle collider, subject to subatomic squawk and industrial mayhem. Sleigh Bells cram the primal, the prevailing, and the futuristic into a tight, tinnitus-inducing package. The result is something as concussive as a sharp blow from swiftfooted Achilles. Who knew that “the clamor incessant” could take the form of some next-generation shit? The implications of the Hadron comparison extend beyond “Tell ‘Em”’s jones for hyperspeed collisions. Like nuclear physics, Sleigh Bells’ fire-in-the-hole aesthetic can be a bit too knotty and arcane for the layman mind. Its sound is so dense and thrustboostered that one wonders how it can make the upgrade from smoking gun to mushroom cloud. This is not an irrelevant concern. The Bells are touted in indie circles as the Next Big Thang, just as Animal Collective was tagged with the “greatness” label some two to three
years prior to “My Girls.” But let’s take a look at the video tape: While the AC have certainly made their mark, they’ve made it in the margins, winning critical lauds and a pole position in the Chillwave 500. There’s been no real crossover in demographics. If you ask your mom if she knows who Avey Tare is, she’s likely to point you in the direction of James Cameron. Translation: Our indie-rock battles, though often loud, are small in scope and smaller in glory. Sleigh Bells have already garnered major buzz, yet they’re largely unknown outside of Brooklyn’s hipster ghettos. “Tell ‘Em” could (but probably won’t) change all that. It layers deftly detonated noise bombs with a dance beat and sheer rock and roll spirit. In the aggregate, it sounds like metal machine music, only with lasers. The song swirls and pulses almost as hard as it crashes and crunches. It opens with a digital explosion that approaches sonic boom; the whiplash is so fast and furious that the listener should be made to wear a neck brace. Next comes the weaponization of the drum machine, whereby snares and toms morph into short rounds of rat-a-tat-tat gunfire. Sleigh Bells’ patron and partner in crime, M.I.A., helped pioneer this “violence-is-pop”
arrangement. What the Bells do, and do conspicuously well, is add guitars to the musical cocktail. It’s useful to mention that the band’s eardrum assault comes courtesy of just two people: Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss. Miller mans the guitars and the production board, and Krauss womans the vocals. Together, they constitute a flavor combination that pleasantly fucks with your palate. Call them the sweet and sour chicken of skinny-jeaned indie, at once in thrall to brutally serrated riffs and pop-singer melodies. In their earlier singles, Sleigh Bells sounded a bit like Gwen Stefani fronting the Kinks. With “Tell ‘Em,” the duo move into My Bloody Valentine territory, alternating shrill orchestrations with warm buzz. Still, the track is far from loveless. Krauss’ voice manages to rise above all the feedback and distortion, as if the band were aiming for the crunk sublime. I don’t know whether this is an aesthetic or a messthetic. Nor do I care. “Tell ‘Em” works as avant-garde pop and top-shelf indie – not that there’s much of a distinction between the two. You get the sense that Sleigh Bells are committed to making a high-end variety of low-end music, wherein the bass, while physically absent,
determines the directional integrity of the track. “Tell ‘Em” is uncivil but not uncivilized. It’ll pulverize your senses and befog your spatial awareness even as it commands you, however dangerously, to dance. It’s in this small crevice between poison and palliative that today’s music makers win glory. The acclaim may not be incessant – in fact, it may be cruelly truncated – but the laurels, once loosed, cannot be taken back. The Bells deserve credit for pumping the volume on an increasingly stillborn idiom. They’re one of the few alt-rock bands with the balls to pull off an open-carry. Their guns are out, and they’re positively blazing. Now it’s up to the gods to decide whether the bullets will hit their targets.
(May 3, 2010)
Janelle Monáe Tightrope
In a recent essay on popular culture, British novelist Martin Amis wrote, “One can be famous without being talented. And one can be rich without being talented. But one cannot be talented without being talented.” Janelle Monáe proves this smirking
tautology right – at least insofar as it can be proved and not simply shrugged off with an acerbic “No shit, Sherlock.” As a singer, songwriter, dancer, and conceptual artist, Monáe is defined by her ability to contrive, choreograph, and perform. Her talent is omnipresent and overwhelming; it bubbles up and sparkles like the effervescence in a glass of Champagne, as if to signal the potential to enliven and intoxicate. She’s yet to become particularly famous or wealthy, but her uncommon endowment for the arts has her in prime position for a breakout into superstardom. Now’s a good time to issue the evergreen critical caveat: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves! At the moment, Monáe is decidedly indie. That is, she’s alternative in the sense that she’s doing something demonstrably different and less popular than your Rihannas, your Beyoncés, and your Katy Perrys. These indie credentials, however, shouldn’t be misread as indicating a proclivity towards the raw or the low-fidelity. Monáe doesn’t work in the tradition of Beat Happening or Guided By Voices, where a conspicuous amateurism constitutes a large component of the performer’s
appeal. Janelle is DIY in attitude but painstakingly professional in execution. First, she mapped out a cycle of concept albums so esoteric that they could throw Jeff Mangum for a loop. Then she recorded with the likes of Big Boi and Diddy. And, somehow, the process cohered into top-shelf pop. Monáe’s first major-label single, “Tightrope,” sounds like the jumpoff to a long and fruitful career in mainstream music. Its enticements are immediate and numerous, ranging from Janelle’s opening soul man howl to the track’s finger-snapping beat. The verse singing is quick and clipped, in the manner of hip hop, but the choral interludes are articulated with a little more space and resonance. Monáe can go from zero to sixty faster than a Ferrari Testarosa, spitting “When you get elevated/They love it or they hate it” with a fluency that reminds us of Big Boi’s hyper-speed rhymes. (Note: He graces the track with a brief but bangin’ guest verse.) She can also lean back and wail, fortifying the song’s Dap-Kings-on-dope rhythm with Erykah Badu-style intonation. She doesn’t aim for the grown-woman gravity of Sharon Jones, nor does she settle for the little-girl melodrama of the Glee cast. If “Tightrope” can be classified conventionally, it would be
as “indie soul” or “art-school R&B” – which, to the ecumenical listener, translates seamlessly into “pop.” This track is as easy to like as “Hey Ya!,” “Womanizer,” or “Crazy.” How, then, do we make a Monáe? Well, if Lady Gaga is the bastard stepchild of David Bowie and Madonna, Janelle might be best conceived as equal parts James Brown and the Black Eyed Peas. Bear in mind that we’re talking the good part of the Black Eyed Peas – the accessible beats, the strong songcraft, the energy exchange between Will.i.am’s DJing and Fergie’s singing. There’s also the explicit futurism, that audacity to deal in “next-level shit.” The key distinction, of course, is that Monáe is actually making that next-level shit, while Will is giving Eurodisco an electric charge and calling it the Second Coming. There’s something Old School about Monáe’s futurism. It’s not Dada like Gaga, a perfomer who aims to wow us with gut-wrench acoustics and punitive couture. It’s more like James Brown trapped in a science fiction novel – far-out but funky. “Tightrope” comes from an album entitled The ArchAndroid, wherein Monáe’s alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, becomes a messianic figure to the
android community of a civilization called Metropolis. When Janelle sings “I’m another flavor/Something like a Terminator,” you not only believe her but push right past James Cameron to Fritz Lang and George Lucas. Her narrative is cosmic rather parochial, packing an interstellar groove that marries Devo with OutKast. Yet even if you know nothing of the Mayweather saga or the Metropolis back story, “Tightrope” can still transport you to a distant universe. It works as a dance – dexterously “walking the tightrope” – or a lifestyle – keeping your cool and maintaining your foothold, even as androgenic society crumbles. I can’t think of an entertainer I’d rather see usher in the rise of the machines than Janelle Monáe. With her spectacular pompadour – which takes the follicular excesses of Cosmo Kramer and squares them – and her tuxedo-and-tails approach to stage wear, she exudes a prescription dose of “Other.” Her sophisticated sense of rhythm and flat-sole virtuosity are less superhuman than extraterrestrial. Take a look at the “Tightrope” video and try not to come away believing that Monáe is one of the best dancers in popular music. Her performance is musical Viagra® – not for the proverbial member, but for the spirit.
In the end, Janelle’s talent makes her what the game’s been missing: A New Hope. (Star Wars reference fully intended.) And if modern history has proved anything, it’s that A New Hope doesn’t necessarily imply A Sure Thing. In President Barack Obama, we’ve seen how “once-in-a-generation” political talent can be subordinated to the indignities of political commodity. The same thing can happen in the name of commercial commodity, whereby rough edges are rounded and wild ideas are domesticated for the sake of the mass market. But the real fun of “Tightrope,” like the real fun of “Yes We Can,” is the faith it inspires in its affirmer. We revel in the notion that this guy or girl is worth betting the house on, even if – especially if! – that house is in danger of being repossessed. With Monáe, I’m hoping for change I can believe in, but I’ll settle for a few solid singles and a rising pop profile. As Janelle sings at the onset of “Tightrope,” “Another day/I take your pain away.” This may seem a meager reward, but it’s good enough for now. Dull the ache and maybe – just maybe! – a more consequential deliverance will follow.
(May 20, 2010)
Jenny and Johnny Scissor Runner
Jenny Lewis is one of my favorite contemporary singer-songwriters. Notice the absence of the word “female” in the previous sentence. Gender, after all, has very little to do with the calculus of good songwriting: Either you can pen a solid tune, or you can’t. And Jenny most certainly can. (For case-closing evidence, see “Acid Tongue” or “Rise Up With Fists!!” – her exclamation marks, not mine, though I’m happy to second the enthusiasm.) With “Scissor Runner,” Lewis adds a Y chromosome to her catalog’s DNA. This genetic material comes courtesy of her boyfriend and frequent collaborator, Johnathon Rice. (“Johnny” if you’re nasty.) An accomplished songwriter in his own right, Rice has a weary, wistful voice that mixes John Mellencamp’s earthiness with John Mayer’s pop orientation. His solo work has always been a little too deliberate to hold my attention, but, coupled with his paramour, Rice finds just the right pace and provenance. His vocals are made for AM Gold of the Laurel Canyon strain – which, to be clear, indicates no strain, just day after day of warm sunshine and low humidity.
The Eagles did this sound well. Fleetwood Mac did it better. And Jenny and Johnny, given their semisoft acoustics and mixed-double pairing, mirror the Mac in ways that transcend a shared geography and similarly boho-chic wardrobes. The Mac wrote one of the late-Seventies few perfect pop songs, Rumours’ “I Don’t Want to Know,” leaning heavily on Stevie Nicks’ lyrical concision and Lindsey Buckingham’s vocal restraint. “Scissor Runner” takes this track’s mojo into the 21st century, keeping the light riff and the male-female interplay. To call the single breezy is like calling Chicago windy or Seattle wet – that is, simultaneously clichéd and understated. The Jenny and Johnny website describes the duo’s early material as “fast” and “ultra-melodic,” adding that their voices were often blended together, “creating a completely new sound.” Well, two out of three ain’t bad. “Scissor Runner,” which is among the group’s earliest collaborations, is quick enough to support a hasty gallop. (It might even be considered “fast” by West Coast standards.) And no sentient soul will question its ultramelodiousness. But on the originality metric, this song will win no blue ribbons. Beyond its Return of the Mac
amiability, “Scissor” bites the soulful, weekend vibe of Bruce Springsteen’s “Meet Me at Mary’s Place” and the shot-out-of-a-cannon opening chords of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” The single’s tastiest attribute is its forward propulsion, which is insistent even as it leans toward the mellow-yellow sounds of the Me Decade. If you’re going to look back fondly on the Seventies, you could choose poorer influences than Stevie, Lindsey, Bruce, and Nick. Still, forward propulsion implies a future purpose. And I think this band has the chops to replicate their replications – to not just reanimate the Mac’s old tricks, but to deliver pure pop for now people. There’s something astral, perhaps even heavenly, about a love song that doesn’t try to hide its underlying positivity. “Scissor” sounds so happy that it causes you to hear hand claps even though none are included in the mix. Such is the sensibility of an enchanted afternoon in the Canyon, wherein delight overpowers the protests of despair. In the end, Jenny and Johnny prove to be a charming, symbiotic duo. Lewis sparks the track, and Rice dedicates it to the one he loves: “She ain’t a princess/But she’s
an artist/Painting a portrait/All over my heart.” You’re a lucky man, Johnny. Thanks for setting your relationship to music.
(July 21, 2010)
Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” than the catty melodics of the LavigneSimpson sound factory. Don’t get me wrong: Bethany loves cats (see her Twitter page and her album art) and melody (listen to “Sun Was High” or “When I’m With You”), but “Boyfriend” largely succeeds on the strength of its dog-like devotion to harmony. The track is a study in vocal loops and lo-fi production, the very elements that define Best Coast’s debut LP, Crazy for You. Cosentino supplements her hazy verses with ample and extended “ahhh”s, serving as her own background singer. This second vocal layer plays deftly with the song’s unobtrusive surf guitar, which is presumably supplied by Cosentino’s collaborator, Bobb Bruno. (He is marginalized in virtually every press piece on the band, so I feel no need to elaborate on him here. Sorry, Bobb.) “Boyfriend” is something of a straggler from the recent “blissedout buzzsaw” scene, wherein reverb and girl-group harmonies come together to impart warm noise and clunky textures. Almost invariably, the production sounds estranged and anti-charismatic, like the theme music to a postlapsarian Eve. The subgenre that’s popped up around this sound is conspicuously female, if not necessarily
Best coast Boyfriend
Hey, little boy, she wants to be your girlfriend. “She” is Bethany Cosentino – singer, songwriter, and, in that dual capacity, the central creative engine behind Best Coast, a partly sunny two-piece band from Los Angeles. The “little boy” in her equation goes unnamed but not uncoveted, adhering to the grand musical traditions of Avril Lavigne and Ashley Simpson – ladies who are content to lunch on the remains of another woman’s man, then skip out on the bill. With “Boyfriend,” Cosentino reveals her willingness to play the house wrecker, to separate her beau from his beauty of the moment. As it turns out, this extradition is less malicious than fantastic. The song is a California daydream – fairly easy, fairly breezy, and awfully aspirational. It owes far greater debts to the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and
feminine. Vivian Girls led the pack, with Dum Dum Girls following in tow and delivering better tunes. Best Coast establish their own identity by being considerably less abrasive. Their Wall of Sound is minimalist and ethereal, packing little of Phil Spector’s bombast. “Boyfriend” could be the work of a somnambulist, with its twin columns of languor and longing softly pulsating behind a veil of sleep. What’s interesting about this single is that it begins with a feint but is defined by a protracted flutter. Listen to the opening drum break – it’s nearly identical to the percussive flourish that jumpstarts Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands.” But where the Boss pumps his track full of gravity and pathos, Cosentino dials down both her emotions and her tempo. She’s passively lovesick and actively prone to lonely-girl platitudes, including “One day I’ll make him mine/And we’ll be together all the time.” Occasionally, however, the limp prosaics are busted up by patches of postmodern poetry, such as “The other girl is not like me/ She’s prettier and skinner/She has a college degree/I dropped out at 17.” These couplets bear the mark of Joey Ramone, who seemed forever fated to lose his baby to either the neighborhood tough or the regional
KKK. A rock purist might be inclined to criticize Cosentino for failing to decide whether she wants to be quirky or punk. But if you look at the discographies of the Ramones, the Cramps, the Misfits, and the Talking Heads, you’ll find that quirk was an essential element of punk. Before the CBGBs scene got paved over by aggression, its only entry requirement was weirdness. Best Coast win bizarro points for making the confessional sound distant. “Boyfriend” is inviting but not sweet, brandishing retro-chic tones that seem benign until they become narcotic. It casts out a line, then quietly reels you into its echo chamber. This chamber could be an L.A. recording studio or a New Age drum circle, but I prefer to think of it as a beating heart, forever pounding out its cardiovascular cadences, be they healthy or diseased. In all honesty, I wish Best Coast would raise their BPMs to, say, a steady 65, just to keep me from nodding off during successive spins. Yet I’m sure that if Cosentino tried to corset her laid-back vibe into an amped-up uniform, the music would lose much of its magic. If I learned anything from my awkward adolescence, it’s that you don’t get
between a girl and her beau without shedding a little blood. So let’s allow “Boyfriend” to keep its distance. Given adequate space, maybe the relationship will grow.
(July 29, 2010)
Up – then to move on to the next victim before expectation can assent to afterglow. The period of actual pleasure is abridged to a condition of negligibility. Our Band Could Be Your Life has been replaced by Our Band Could Be Your Weekend. This tendency toward the premature
Magic Kids Superball
Music blogs trade in connectivity rather than connection. They alert us to the sorts of musical microtrends that might inspire a new hairstyle or a tighter cut of jeans, but they do it breathlessly, as if preoccupied by the footsteps of the next nanosized paradigm shifter. This loose footing and itchy trigger finger are at odds with the deep institutional memories that characterize such sites as Pitchfork and Stereogum. One would think that a scalable collective of professional music writers would stand up for staying power, and issue their superlatives in a manner conducive to fan building and sound breaking. Instead, the introduction to a new artist is short but bombastic, like a slightly more intellectualized version of an ad campaign for a Will Ferrell movie. The impetus is to Like Us, Friend Us, Retweet Us, Buzz Us
purge is a symptom of connectivity. The fruits and memes of social networking are filtered through a prism of cool, enabling the medium to heat up with a maniacal blaze of turnover. The content is almost irrelevant so long as the reaction is strong. Connection, on the other hand, requires complete surrender to a band’s charms. No glances over the shoulder, rebooting for fresh headlines, or jumping to another mp3 – just a physical record and a Do Not Disturb sign. By offering our full, unironic attention, we stand a chance of stilling the fray and identifying the keeper, like Keanu Reeves picking out essential fragments of binary code in The Matrix. This job is difficult, but far from impossible. And we don’t have to be among the ranks of the chosen to spot a winner. Sometimes a song can outsmart the music blogs’ promotional
cycle, and swing back around for a second helping of hype. Magic Kids’ “Superball” is doing just that. Last year, the song’s demo-level recording dominated my indie earbuds for, well, the better part of a weekend. It was jaunty, fun, and conspicuously life-affirming – so much so that it retained a beloved-orphan status on my playlists through the early part of this summer. Then, just as Magic Kids were fading to the fringes of my consciousness (seemingly destined to be confused with Here We Go Magic and the Magic Numbers), “Superball” returned in prime fighting condition: pumped-up by the production board and ready to serve as the sonic anchor to a credible debut album. True to its title, “Superball” is designed to bounce. Its strings are warm and coiled, as if prepared to bound energetically off a cement surface. Prior to launch, the vocalist whispers a “1-2-3” count off, then sings in a manner so sweet and unaffected that his voice more or less cedes the floor to the fluttering instrumental. In the original, a pairing of violin strokes and organ swells gave the song two distinct RPMs: the first was set on “hummingbird,” the second on “butterfly.” The former was frantic, the latter ethereal – and both
worked, albeit through lo-fi haze. The newer, album-ready version brings a welcome crispness and an added electric interlude. The harmonies soar and the chamber arrangement works up a sweat. No longer do we mistake an orchestral flourish for a set of rusty bed springs. Twee is tweaked to a knee-high replication of the Wall of Sound. Still, “Superball” sounds less like a Phil Spector number than a Beach Boys composition cut down to size by Beat Happening. It doesn’t endeavor to bowl you over with excess. Instead, it colors itself lovelorn and nostalgic, yearning for the days when the protagonist bounced his Ball to the rafters, ostensibly in between feedings of peanut butter and Popsicles. Lyrical snippets suggest an unhealthy relationship between Ball and boy: “When we were young/I used to play with you for hours in the sun” segues shortly into “You were always on my mind/And you stayed in my pocket all the time.” But more important than the effect of this odd anthropomorphism is its motivation. What, exactly, is going on here? Is Magic Kids’ totally unguarded approach genuine or a cheeky pose? Is “Superball” too precious and, as such, too good to be true?
To ask these questions is to give the song more headspace than it deserves. (Or desires.) “Superball” disarms you with its sweeping, highly musical phrasing, not its brain-dead narrative. The demo recording stayed in my pocket for more than nine months, enjoying as many spins as a busy iPod could reasonably accord a one-off single. It’s a credit to the album track that version 2.0 intensified my connection to the song rather than diluted it. In fact, I prefer the lightly tousled remix, with its spit-shine and peppy oom-pah-pahs. It’s heartening to see a song this special get a second running on the blog roll. The rebound was worth the wait, and its example is worth learning from: Connectivity is for 13-year-old girls with calloused thumbs. Connection is for those of us who are willing to make genuine sacrifices for our music. All it takes is a little patience, a lot of bandwidth, and a discerning ear. The future belongs to listeners who don’t mistake the wind up for the pitch. Wield your bat wisely.
(August 6, 2010)
hunx and his Punx u Don’t Like Rock n Roll
Here’s the thing about punk rock: Just because anybody can do it doesn’t mean that anybody should do it. Far too often, the genre’s insurgent spirit is channeled into deviant forms, including such lamentable subcategories as “Eastern Elite art-school project” and “German supermodel’s musical debut.” Three chords are easy to play; easier to play badly. Every lumpen misfit with a movie to promote or a daddy issue to resolve can simply pick up a guitar, slash a hole in his jeans, and set about soiling his reputation. Bad-boy status is earned – sometimes convincingly! – with just two or three Dee Dee Ramone-style count-offs. Then it’s all aboard the Rocket to Russia, a vessel of rich musical heritage but dubious standards of personal hygiene. Part of the peril of being in a rock band is that most of the flights towards acclaim and solvency have to be aborted, sometimes suddenly, often deservedly, and occasionally with an immodest body count. Hunx and His Punx have all the makings of a crash landing. They pack the look of a performance troupe who’ve begrudgingly chosen music
as their “dominant artistic medium,” owing to a lack of returned phone calls from Jon Waters. Hunx (nee Seth Bogart) is a hairdresser by trade, and his backing band appears to be composed of plus-sized women with sub-Sid Vicious chops. I’m not flexing my critical license when I say that Hunx is spectacularly amateur. Nor am I betraying any secrets when I say that he’s spectacularly gay. His first album, released last month, is a loose collection of bubblegum punk and swinging disco-rock, perched somewhere between Danny & the Juniors and the B-52s. The record is called Gay Singles, presumably much to the chagrin of the folks at eHarmony. The most compelling of the gay singles is “U Don’t Like Rock n Roll,” a bare-bones romp through the sillier sections of the Ramones’ catalog. A reverberating bass line and twee production values are paired with drums and hand claps lifted directly from “Rock and Roll High School.” The resulting mess is less thievery than homage. Hunx spends the track berating his boyfriend’s taste in music: “What the hell is wrong with you?/I think you sniff too much glue/You don’t like rock n’ roll/And I don’t like you.” If such a chorus is not a monosyllabist’s
wet dream, I don’t know what is. The song ultimately reveals itself to be a punk-mediated Dear John letter, a breakup caused by irreconcilable record collections. The “sniff too much glue” reference is obviously a quick wink to Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy – one which is followed shortly thereafter by “You don’t like the Ramones/So you’ve got to leave home.” Call Hunx a hack if you must, but don’t accuse him of lyrical ambiguity. He’s smart enough to keep it simple, and weird enough to keep it interesting. Were he to find the nerve to dress himself in something more than a slinky, leopard-print leotard, his list of influences could be worn on his physical, rather than his proverbial, sleeve. The Punx sound is heavy on echo and jingle-jangle, in the manner of Buddy Holly, the Ronettes, and Girls. The latter group is San Francisco’s most ascendant “It” band, and Hunx has positioned himself as their strongest Oakland ally. Highlights from this subtle act of ingratiation can be seen in Girls’ Triple-X remix of their “Lust For Life” video, wherein Hunx scores a nude cameo. This appearance might lead you to believe that our boy aims to make his name as an
agent provocateur. Yet his own music largely steers clear of shock rock and protracted PR gambles. Yes, Hunx is unapologetically fabulous, but he tempers the built-in hurly-burly by projecting a small measure of queer prudence. For every song named “Cruising” or “I Won’t Get Under You,” there are three or four with more innocent, innuendo-free titles, such as “Teardrops On My Telephone” and “The Last Time.” In the aggregate, Hunx churns outs singles that are equally suited for afternoons at the malt shop or late nights at the Blue Oyster. His Rocket to Russia has landed safely, and without much in the way of media-driven fanfare. “U Don’t Like Rock n Roll” may not be popular, but anybody with functioning eardrums and a sense of humor can tell that it’s campy, quirky, and harmless fun – albeit the type of harmless fun that seeks to supplant “The Thong Song” with “The Schlong Song.” Its perfunctory guitars are charming; its catty, nasal vocals are disarming; and its generous organ swells keep things rolling in the right direction. Note to reader: With “organ swells,” I’m not making a cryptic allusion to erect appendages. This is 2010,
people. If gay singles are ready to go steady, I say we let them marry them into our playlists. Don’t allow the Mormons over at Clear Channel to dissuade you from the notion. They don’t like rock and roll. And though rock and roll is too classy to comment, I’m inclined to think that the feeling is mutual.
(April 1, 2010)
The Drums Forever and Ever Amen
The Drums’ “Let’s Go Surfing” was the best beach song of last summer. The track hung loose but also delivered a welcome, sobering edge, like a cool morning’s cup of coffee. “Surfing” effectively turned last August from a sweaty, humid mess into a sweaty, humid mess with whistling and angular guitar. It traded in something you don’t hear much of in pop music: understated good times. Apparently, these good times became so protracted that they prevented the Drums from wrapping their debut album with any semblance of urgency. Only now, nearly 10 months after the “preview” single, is the band’s LP materializing on release schedules.
To complement this auspicious portent, the Drums have released another postpunk banger, “Forever and Ever Amen.” Just be forewarned that I use the words “postpunk” and “banger” cautiously: Yes, the song retains the band’s signature guitar tone – somewhere between Tom Verlaine and Johnny Marr, with every strum feeling like a stab – but the overall sound adheres closer to the college rock of the 1980s than the militant entertainment of the late 1970s. The Drums appropriate the spikiness of Gang of Four without the strident politics, preferring to temper their music with the warm rush of a perpetual chill PiL. Singer Jonathan Pierce is a kind of anti-Johnny Rotten, eschewing provocation in favor of romanticism. As a frontman, he’s most often compared to Morrissey. This analogy is convenient but ultimately misguided. Pierce can’t croon with the same mesmeric contempt as the Moz. But what he lacks in pitch he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. Even when his band is lazily brandishing its minimalist racket, Pierce imparts the impression that he’s trying – and trying really hard! Such volitional, undisguised effort is tantamount to trampling on Morrissey’s grave. (And Morrissey’s not even dead.)
Despite its Anglophilic ethos, “Amen” stands as a direct counterpart to the British Invasion: Instead of featuring British boys who sound American, the track features American boys who sound British. A neo-Albionese character coats the entire affair. The verse cadences and the interplay of electric and analog remind me of the Moody Blues’ “In Your Wildest Dreams” (which, ironically, is a song that’s perhaps best left forgotten). The lyrics, however, seem to have been plucked from The Lesser Lines of Echo & the Bunnymen. “And let me run till the end of time/Until our hearts are aligned into the sky” conjures open fields and high-altitude fantasy, as if the song’s narrator could pop in and out of his paramour’s comic book – like in A-Ha’s “Take On Me” video. Still, “Amen” and its authors hold far more indie cred than their European forebearers. Though the Drums have “Big in England” written all over them, they can still set the backstreets of hipster Brooklyn aflame. The dancepunk contingent professes a taste for authenticity in their music. But concomitant with every hard truth is a rough day that these kids would rather put behind them – either through sonic abandon or epic dreamscapes. So when Jonathan Pierce sings “We,
we are the young/We live forever,” you can almost see the skinny-jeans set pivoting toward the slender-guitar sound. The Drums’ genius is to pair the sharp chords of postpunk with the soaring choruses of New Pop, excising the former’s abrasiveness and the latter’s schmaltz. “Amen” starts with a flurry of echo-laden pizzicato, but ends with an extended cascade of “Oh”s. This is proof positive that the band is not averse to the niceties of anthemic songwriting. All those “Oh”s give the song a “Born to Run” audacity, in which parting feelings, both anxious and exhilarating, can be emoted but not articulated. Such are the sweet limitations of youth. May they live forever and ever. The “Amen” is strictly optional.
(May 24, 2010)
of concrete on concrete exudes both solidity and stolidity, as if the demolition man had stopped by, started the job, then lost interest. That’s a fairly good fictional parallel for the true story of Male Bonding’s sound. The band started in the rockhard environs of punk and noise, then abruptly shifted to a more tuneful iteration of slacker pop – that is, something lower in volume but higher in fidelity. This metamorphosis makes the Nothing Hurts cover art informative as well as interesting. At first glance, one expects the unalloyed clamor of a wrecking crew. At first listen, however, one gets the skuzzy reserve of urban bohemia. Either way, Male Bonding is a band under construction. And their first single, “Year’s Not Long,” seems to imply that their recent sonic renovation was not only completed ahead of schedule, but also designed to highlight the group’s core competencies. Singer John Arthur Webb is far from an Iggy Pop-style wild man; in fact, his voice’s strength is its fragility. By channeling his soft tenor into a dreamy croon, Webb gives “Not Long” an ethereal vibe, as if the Morning Benders were trading harmonic structures with Fleet Foxes.
Male Bonding Year’s Not Long
Male Bonding’s debut album, Nothing Hurts, has beguiling cover art. It depicts a fine mess of shattered brickface, with each chipped block stacked at random against a whitewashed stone wall. This image
Still, Male Bonding are a rock band, with a grounding in three-chord riots and primal percussion. When these abrasive elements act in concert with Webb’s more heady impulses, the group finds a sweet spot between hardcore and shoe gaze. Perhaps this explains why “Not Long” sounds like a conflation of Weezer and Sonic Youth, mixing “My Name Is Jonas” bombast with Daydream Nation drone. It’s friendly enough to attract even the cautiously curious listener, but strange enough to scare off the dilettantes. Noise purists might not take to the song’s conventional arrangement. “Not Long” uses its clangs and buzzes as narrative accompaniment rather than sheer experimental texture. Despite a rollicking drum beat and quicksilver guitar riffs, the track’s uproar isn’t all that uproarious. Don’t get me wrong: “Not Long” packs plenty of energy – but it’s an energy that feels more rodeo than rock and roll. With its spasmodic bass line and cavalry-charge rhythm, the song is somewhat reminiscent of the Old ‘97’s “Time Bomb,” only with Mike Watt slapping out the low-end strings. Taken together, the guitars spiral out
like microwaves, slowly heating up the track while the singer keeps his cool. This juxtaposition of abandon and detachment affords “Not Long” its well-deserved Sub Pop credential. The jagged edges of the instrumental align with the round resonance of the vocals, as was the case with most of Sub Pop’s “Glory Days” bands, from Mudhoney to Nirvana. Male Bonding stand out for their concision and their Englishness. “Hanging on in quiet desperation” doesn’t presuppose a proclivity for the 10-minute epic. So when the band broke ground on “Not Long,” they made sure that the project would take just a shade over two and a half minutes – thus validating the last two words of the song’s title. All in all, Male Bonding are just another brick in the wall: They play light fuzz spiked with the unwashed spirit of grunge. But with constructive building blocks so hard to come by in contemporary alternative, why not grab the clay and pass the mortar?
(May 26, 2010)
Japandroids Younger us
“Younger Us” is a straight-ahead song with a split personality. It wears its heart on its sleeve even as it presses its blade to your jugular, balancing vulnerability and menace like constituent members of a highwire act. This odd emotional alchemy, by which soft nostalgia and hard riffs are brandished in separate but equal measures, animates the track with a sonic youth that’s part punk, part pop, and part indie. Assemble these parts together and you’ve got the gestalt of the song’s authors, a promising twopiece band from Vancouver called Japandroids. The Droids occupy the blunter edge of the Pacific Northwest tradition, taking the garage-honed chops of the Sonics and pasting them onto the antic musicality of Hot Hot Heat. Brian King (guitar) and David Prowse (drums) play accessible noise rock that doesn’t sacrifice feeling or affect for the purposes of arty existentialism. “Younger Us,” their best work to date, gets to the heart of what it means to be human without resorting to the spiked vein or the Kleenex box. Lines such as “Remember when we had them all on the run?/And the night we
saw the midnight sun?” communicate a camaraderie that will outlast the dewy caprices of youth. Yes, the lookback-with-longing vibe is a bit precious for a pair of 25-year-olds. (Can a singer really evince nostalgia for something that he might have experienced last weekend?) But, taken as a whole, the song is less a lament than a firestarter. It flashes forward with a desperate, windswept determination, as if its very reason for being is to rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light. “Younger Us” breaks out of the box with the tones and textures of Nineties alternative. Its opening riff recalls the post-grunge guitar pop of Green Day, Blink 182, and No Code-era Pearl Jam, channeling a jittery hybrid of “All the Small Things” and “Lukin.” Once the vocals kick in, however, it becomes clear that we’re in lo-fi territory. The narrator may sound like a basket case, but his story will not fit inconspicuously on the Dookie track list (or on any charting album, for that matter). He’s neither paranoid nor disturbed, just a little taken aback by the head rush of a quarter-life crisis. When King shouts “Give me that you-and-me-to-thegrave trust/Give me younger us,” the listener is quickly convinced that he’s not using punk as parody or protective layering. The Droids are completely in
earnest. Amid a fuzz fest and stopand-go phrasing, King and Prowse articulate their most naked insecurity: the fear of advancing years and retreating vigor, be it real or imagined. They’re content to save the “Forever Young” pep talks for Jay-Z. As we get older, we become more concerned with our legacy. (The fact that this statement is a cliché doesn’t make it any less true.) I think Japandroids conceived “Younger Us” as a youthful artifact that will age with the twin graces of truth and dignity. And I’m pretty sure that the track will manage to fulfill these objectives. Through the fortunes of fate, I recently sequenced the song alongside the Skids’ “Of One Skin” on an iTunes playlist. The Skids number dates to 1978 – that year of flux between U.K. punk and Anglo-American New Wave. “Of One Skin” has the same split personality of “Younger Us”; its tactics are balls-out but its strategy is rather conservative. The song, like “Younger Us,” sprints forward, then comes to a near stop – only to sprint forward once again, with all the swiftness of Mercury. This is “tempo rubato,” wherein certain notes are lengthened while others are shortened, in a manner that can seem disconcertingly arbitrary. Yet, despite its intrinsic inconstancy, tempo
rubato is the right speed for youth, a time when mad dash can beget lazy melancholy with neither purpose nor warning. “Younger Us” climaxes with an extended shock wave of cochleacrushing sound. As the ripples build on one another, and an echo pattern begins to emerge, the listener gathers that Japandroids are thrashing about with both pride and regret – fighting off the final throes of young adulthood, even though resistance is futile. We have a name for this angry metamorphosis. It’s called “growing up.” I hope Japandroids stick around long enough to reap the benefits of their maturation.
(June 16, 2010)
Free Energy hope child
Free Energy are something of an endangered species in today’s alternately rule-laden and scattershot music scene. They play timeless, hypermelodic power pop, yet they’ve been embraced by the central curators of Young America’s postmodern sound. Such thematic incongruity would be laughable were it not
corroborated by the facts on the ground. Here are Free Energy’s hipster bona fides, in order of descending importance: 1) James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem – who’s pretty much the don of digital disco – recently signed the Philadelphia five-piece to his proprietary label, DFA; 2) Pitchfork, a ratings agency that likes its synths up front and its guitars tuned by either Tom Verlaine or Andy Gill, just gave FE’s debut album, Stuck on Nothing, an enthusiastic 8.1; and 3) SXSW blog posts, careening out of Austin at a fever pitch, report that the band took skinny-jeaned Texas by storm. If these guys were on NASDAQ, they’d have just scored a killer IPO. From stats we move to queries; namely, What’s fueled the Free Energy phenomenon? The answer to that one is easy: influential word of mouth. But as to what caused these mouths to go all slack-jawed in the first place, I can only posit a theory: I think rock critics like Free Energy because the band has evinced a commitment to rewriting the greatest hits from Lou Reed’s back catalog. Their first single, titled “Free Energy” in the smirking, solipsistic tradition of “Bad Company” and “Minor Threat,” is essentially a straight
rip of Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard.” And their current single, “Hope Child,” is nothing if not an uptempo, off-thesmack version of “Sweet Jane.” Smart money says a reprisal of “Satellite of Love” comes next. Somebody call David Bowie. So, yes, FE’s music is hopelessly derivative. In the aggregate, it sounds like the Velvet Underground shifting into Bachman Turner Overdrive. Or Big Star with larger amps and smarter groupies. Or Fountains of Wayne with an ascendant AC/DC fetish. Each of these descriptions, amusing as they might think they are, don’t do the band justice. The thing about FE is that their pathology reports are already in – and it’s clear that their tunes are positively infectious. The Velvets on Prozac® sounds like a patently bad idea. Yet when “Free Energy” is cued up, complete with cowbell and fuzztone guitar, the formula works like a charm. “Hope Child” is equally auspicious. The truncated “Sweet Jane” riff kicks things off with Detroit Rock City abandon, only to be nicely tempered by hypnotic hand claps and warm, echoing percussion. When the singer finally skips in, one wonders whether
Stephen Malkmus took a break from the Pavement reunion expressly to cut this track. Frontman Paul Sprangers obviously supplemented his collection of Reed, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy records with an ample chaser of Slanted & Enchanted. Accordingly, Free Energy’s slacker sensitivity manages to stretch all the way from Andy Warhol’s Factory to Kurt Cobain’s Pacific Northwest, with the interdimensional slow-ride hitched aboard Rick Derringer’s Rock n’ Roll Hoochie-Koo. On “Hope,” FE pound out insentient dinosaur-rock tropes and insipid lead-guitar clichés. Their hooks and chord surges gnaw away at your elitisms and defensive reflexes, until your only option is surrender. It’s a Cheap Trick, in every sense of the phrase. Success is cinched shortly after the track’s minute mark, when Mott the Hoople piano clunks crash the party and immediately set about working their magic. Buzz gives way to shimmer, and shimmer to sonic breakdown. Free Energy undertake a dynamics adjustment from the Springsteen school of anthem building. They reduce the ruckus to a single drum beat and an acoustic strum, generating the requisite tension for a sing-along finale (a la “Badlands” or “The Rising”). When
Sprangers asks, “Do you know child/ That a little while/Is all we got?”, he’s choreographing the triumphant return of his song’s mantra: “We broadcast hope!” In the coda, FE repeat “You’re not alone” over and over again, like the Boss shouting “Dream of life!” in between the final lyrical passages of “The Rising.” Lonesome days, we presume, are terribly overrated. “Hope” may spring from the fiery heights of a Marshall stack, but it closes in a communal exhalation of relief. Here we have an indie band staking its claim to the feel-good song of the year. When was the last time that happened? I’m going to go with “never.” Maybe Free Energy are innovators after all.
(March 21, 2010)
happy Birthday Girls FM
Sub Pop has been putting one over on the underground for nearly 25 years. They purport to traffic in leftof-center guitar rock and shaggy Seattle sonority, but they’re actually a brilliantly commercial label. Art-school aesthetics, timely talent acquisition, and the world’s greatest corporate
tagline – “Sub Pop Records: Going out of business since 1988!” – belie a cleverness that extends from the recording studio to the digital marketplace. The label’s most resonant single is almost certainly Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick,” which set the template for the high-viscosity, bleeding-guitars sound that would later become known as “grunge.” Yet as Sub Pop matriculates into young adulthood, its cultural legacy is perhaps better characterized as “Touch Me I’m Slick.” SP sell us pop, but call it “indie.” And they do it with a smile on their face. Which brings us to Happy Birthday, new-school Sub Poppers who merit high marks for their latest single, “Girls FM.” The track is a tasty mix of Calvin Johnson, Brian Wilson, and Kurt Cobain, keeping just enough space for the alternation of vibrato guitar stabs, twee choral harmonies, and loser-tinged lead vocals. As a whole, “Girls” evinces a smirking naïveté; Birthday know they’ve got something special, but they’d never be so gauche (or industrious) as to beat us over the head with it. Their song is driven by stop-start percussion, enabling it to showcase stutter steps of momentum and then slacken into a stasis of retro dreamtones. It’s accelerator, brake,
accelerator, brake – except when it’s brake, accelerator. This tempo tug-of-war is mediated by guitar phrasing that starts flat and drone-heavy but builds to quick crescendos and, eventually, a sliding synth-treatment. “Girls”’ final minute features a feedback-and-sound-effect section that recalls Nirvana’s “On a Plain,” only in rainbow hoodies and skinny jeans. The track climaxes with a fun shambles of speedy falsetto and digital key shuffles, as if Birthday were aiming to fast-forward the breakdown from Weezer’s “El Scorcho” into 2010. References aside, the “Girls” gestalt is fairly simple: petty discord into swinging harmony. It throbs, bops, sways, and rocks – all in under three minutes, and never with anything less than a healthy teen spirit. The single is spectacularly accessible, but its affiliation with an indie label will get it branded “Alternative.” And I think Sub Pop likes it that way. Because if they can corner the market on “Girls”‘ brand of snap, crackle, and pop, SP will be going out of business for many years to come.
(March 16, 2010)
PART III: BETWIXT/BETWEEN
As M.I.A. becomes more popular, she also becomes more convenient. It’s one thing to have a fringe rapper big-up the Tamil Tigers; quite another to have a multi-threat entertainer make subversive music videos and ready-to-wear couture. American poet Dan Chiasson recently wrote that “anti-institutional assaults of sufficient vigor inevitably end up being institutionalized” – a sentiment that seems just about right for M.I.A. She’s no longer a madcap emissary of chaos, but a reliable agent of provocation. And this reliability makes her an order of magnitude less dangerous. Don’t get me wrong: M.I.A.’s fangs are still out. It’s just that their edges have been blunted by a surplus of attention. In the wake of “Paper Planes” and the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, her fan base has become more expansive but less discriminating. This transition seems to have pushed M.I.A. into Flipper territory: She doesn’t want audiences with good taste. She wants audiences that taste good. When Flipper coined this slogan in the early Eighties, they were San Francisco punks with an audience that was
largely limited to the criminally insane. M.I.A. can’t be afforded the same “anything goes!” mentality, as she’s now something of an alt-pop icon, with a record label to run and production values to maintain. But, to her credit, she does seem to be stubbornly set on “devour,” forever determined to eat an ever-larger portion of market share. Her chief colleagues and competitors are no longer Hot Chip and Lady Sovereign but Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. “Xxxo” is probably M.I.A.’s most accessible single to date. It takes her electro dancehall tendencies and tilts them toward digital dance rather than mutant disco. The sound is postpunk and neo-tribal, which, given the sordid history of the compound adjective, might lead you to believe that “Xxxo” is feral like the Slits or savage like Siouxsie and the Banshees. This is simply not the case. The track is pulseheavy but understated, with M.I.A.’s vocals alternately sung and spoken rhythmically. Imagine Ke$ha with a gag reflex, or Gaga with a grounding in the music of Southeast Asia. The harsh drums say “jungle,” but the swirling synths say “hipster nightclub.” The track will work rooms from Bangalore to Brooklyn. Consciously or otherwise, M.I.A.
is following a quiet-loud-quiet dynamic. She creeps up on the track slowly, issuing her first few lines with “Paparazzi”-style echo and reserve. Only in the chorus does she relent to “Bad Romance”-caliber bombast. She sings “You want me be somebody/Who I’m really not,” half in frustration, half in acceptance. One could take issue with the broken English: “You want me be” is the kind of construction I typically associate with my buddy Chico, who, as of this writing, has not secured a recording contract in either his native Dominican Republic or the good old U.S. of A. But it’s not like we listen to pop music for its practitioners’ perfect elocution of the Queen’s English. M.I.A.’s culture, which is also our culture, is more than postpunk – it’s also increasingly postcoherent. When was the last time you received a text message composed of complete sentences? Have you ever Tweeted in idiomatic prose? And how, in God’s name, do we reconcile Chatroulette with Western concepts of linearity? These questions are not entirely rhetorical. Nor are they thematically irrelevant. M.I.A. peppers “Xxxo” with references to iPhones, Twitter, and photo uploads, suggesting that modern connectivity might be both a
catalyst and an antagonist to modern love. Constant contact is naturally at odds with constant craving, as the former preempts the latter. There’s simply no substitute for alone time – and “Xxxo,” by all rights a love song, is expressly devoted to the type of boy-meets-girl narrative that needs no peripheral characters. If he wants her to be somebody that she’s really not, well, she can pull him aside and set him straight. The song’s final lines are “We can find ways/To expand what you know/I can be that actress, you be Tarantino.” I’m hoping that this is a “so happy together” point of departure, not a thinly veiled reference to a sex tape. M.I.A. is under no obligation to go blow for blow with Britney Spears. She’s not a freak diva, Billboard bimbo, or radio-friendly felatrix. She’s always classified her music as “Other” – that is, divorced from the drivel on the airwaves and acutely allergic to genre classification. In years past, M.I.A. reminded us of a World Music Missy Elliott – a woman who was as enthused about getting her freak on as getting her point across. Now Maya’s got a bigger pop profile than any contemporary female rapper, in part because she’s ignored the no-politics ethos of commercial hip hop. Her
songs may sound cacophonous, but they’re always driven by a steady beat and a fertile mind. “Xxxo” shows that M.I.A.’s songwriting and production still taste good. As to whether they evince good taste, I’m inclined to go with a cautious affirmative, reserving final judgment until the full LP drops. Check back with this adjudicator after the album is officially released. By then, the prosecution will have rested, the defense will have risen, and the gavel will have been smashed to pieces.
(May 12, 2010)
most musically ambitious pop song of the year would be an understatement of epic proportions. The track is an electropsych carnival of synth balms and organ swells, with “Kids”-like propulsive drones abruptly giving way to Papa John Phillips harmonies and “Bizarre Love Triangle” vocal cadences. In the aggregate, the single sounds like Win Butler fronting Love, as produced by an acid-addled Phil Spector. If I’m dropping a lot of names, it’s only because I’m picking up a lot of reference points. And Love’s Forever Changes, an enduring WTF? moment from 1967, is a convenient starting block. Combine Arthur Lee’s hippie head trips with Oracular Spectacular’s haunted house music and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what “Flash” aspires to. It’s equally indebted to Summer of Love smiles and Winter of Discontent surliness, with the Fall of Man being acknowledged implicitly. “Forever changes” isn’t just a “dinosaur rock” album title; it’s also an apt description of MGMT’s fourminute sonic chameleon. “Flash” starts with an electronic whimper – think the opening notes of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” or the Broken Bells’ “High Road” – leading you to
MGMT Flash Delirium
Contemporary indie bands are tacitly forced to choose between angularity and reverb. They can come icy, shrill, and sonorous or buzzy, layered, and headache-inducing. The third way, generally speaking, might as well be the highway. Well, I hope MGMT have EZ-Pass – because they cover an awful lot of sonic asphalt on “Flash Delirium,” the lead single from the band’s upcoming Congratulations LP. To call “Flash” the
imagine that the song will adhere to a standard quiet-loud-quiet dynamic. As it turns out, nothing about the track is standard. The principles of pace are given a workout worthy of Jack LaLanne, with Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden alternately stretching, sprinting, and pumping iron. The duo move seamlessly from Killers-style space pop to hipster discord and an echo-heavy, “I Am the Walrus” crescendo. There’s no subscription to the conventions of verse-chorus-verse, but the interplay of tension and repose flashes a classic commitment to weirdness. “Flash” secures its ultimate triumph by knowing its breaking point, and then pushing right past it. The song is a formal eclipse of the expectations hoisted upon an indie outfit beholden to a major label contract. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden are pressured to make some serious Euros for the Sony Corporation, yet they refuse to be corseted into this year’s model. I’m not sure if this is musical genius or commercial suicide, but, anyway you slice it, congratulations are definitely in order.
(March 10, 2010)
The hold Steady Rock Problems
By decree of the Twin Cities Council on Subterranean Pop, the Hold Steady are legally required to sound like a conflation of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. Some might consider this a rock and roll problem of the first order. I consider it an impetus to greatness. Even without Prince & his attendant Revolution, Minneapolis/St. Paul had one of the most fertile music scenes of the early-to-mid 1980s. And although the Hold Steady’s frontman, Craig Finn, is now an established Brooklynite, his roots trace back to urban Minnesota and its messy, rollicking Twin/Tone catalog. The Steady’s recent records have been at odds with contemporary indie precisely because they’re informed by the likes of pre-major label Paul Westerberg, Grant Hart, and Bob Mould; that is, each HS album holds classic rock as sacrosanct, not as an obsolete idiom best left to history’s dustbin. For all their leftof-the-dial urgency, the ‘Mats and the Huskers were among the few Eighties alternative bands to champion Creedence Clearwater Revival and U.K. punk in equal measure. Melody generally won out over noise. As Bob
Mould put it, “I don’t tend to walk down the street whistling hardcore.” The Steady’s latest single, “Rock Problems,” passes the whistling test – provided that you have the labial dexterity of a virtuoso. This is a fastpaced, hard-hitting song, driven by a buzzsaw riff and dense, rapid-fire lyrics. The problematic narrative follows the out-all-night exploits of boys and girls in America, two constituencies that seem to be teetering on the edge of fracture. “The girls want to go to the party/But no one’s in the shape to drive,” Finn reports, sounding like Bruce Springsteen with an epic hangover. His backing band, however, is less E Street than Cheap Trick or KISS. “Problems” bumps and shreds, as if custom designed for burnouts and dirtbags. Yet the Springsteen analogy remains apt. The Boss, after all, is something of an aberration – an East Coast rocker with a Middle American sensibility. If you buy one of his tracks on iTunes, the Genius app is likely to direct you to John Mellencamp or Bob Seger, not Lou Reed or the Ramones. The Steady occupy a similar sphere – the place where the Badlands meet the Outer Boroughs, where the barroom floor meets the arena lights. “Problems”
is another of the band’s bantamweight anthems. The song fights to be heard, and it’s bound to succeed in its anticipated niches and pockets. Just don’t expect HS to sell out Madison Square Garden anytime soon. Such sentiments could serve as an improvised postscript for the twin discographies of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. These Minnesota bands had pop chops, but their intentionally sloppy, guitar-fueled sound clashed inexorably with the Reagan Era’s hypermodern, synthhappy New Pop. Today, with digital effects and trippy atmospherics winning the indie dollar, straightahead riff rockers are similarly disenfranchised. As Finn’s female antagonist complains in his newest work, “I just can’t sympathize with your rock and roll problems” – ostensibly because they’re so dated and cliché. But there’s a timelessness to the onetoo-many aesthetic that the Steady have cultivated. The band is heir to the sonic thread that runs through such disparate pieces as Springsteen’s “I’m A Rocker,” the Huskers’ Zen Arcade, and the ‘Mats’ “Message to the Boys” – not the Dylanesque “wild mercury” but a late-Fifties atomic fission of anger and aspiration. Finn seems to realize
this; which is probably why he ends “Problems” with a cry of “This is just what we wanted!” Good rock and roll is about conflict – between the body and the mind, the rhythm and the blues, positive charges and negative energies. If this mixture weren’t a recipe for trouble, it wouldn’t yield such a glorious cocktail. My advice is to drink ‘em if you got ‘em. Because without its flair for intoxication, rock and roll wouldn’t be half as fun.
(March 29, 2010)
“Rapid Decompression,” the first single off the band’s upcoming White Crosses album, can be said to revel in the sonic limbo between Black Flag’s poverty and Nirvana’s prosperity. Its fiery interplay of lead and rhythm guitar coats the track in thick layers of rock and roll danger, with each down-stroke alternately churning up the adrenaline and settling the groove. The central chord flourish marries Johnny Thunders with Slash, finally closing the 3,000-mile gap between CBGBs and the Whisky A Go Go. Frontman Tom Gabel barks out his lyrics like a Digital Age Joe Strummer, using an anticly quick cadence to propel the song forward. He builds momentum with each successive line, enabling his comrades to stick and move with percussive volleys and shouted harmonies. This unit cohesion gives the track an All-for-One, One-forAll vibe. “Rapid” is, for lack of a better descriptive, an anthem. But what happens when you write an anthem and no one shows up? When you assemble a sing-along chorus, and no one sings along, are you party to a sound or a chimera? That’s the dilemma that bands like Against Me! and the Hold Steady face. Every time they release a bouncing, arena-ready number, questions arise as to whether
Against Me! Rapid Decompression
Against Me! occupy the sphere where strident punk meets commercial hard rock. In theory, these coordinates would place them in deep-pockets territory, alongside such reliable gravy trains Green Day and Pearl Jam. In practice, however, the band arrived a little too late to partake of the postgrunge enthusiasm for guitar-driven pop. Given today’s abhorrence of the amp, Against Me! seem fated to appeal to pockets and cults, playing out the string of their major label contract in rock venues that bring respect instead of revenue.
their ambitions are justified. Even the biggest barrooms pale in comparison to Madison Square Garden. And the contemporary stuff that passes as mass-activating fare either derives from American Idol or comes from the Killers/Muse school of synths and spaceships. What’s an earnest little band of punks to do? Now as ever, the only recourse is to keep on plugging. Against Me! started in the manner of the Pogues, leveraging sloppy acoustics with a convivial undercurrent. “Rapid” shows just such a knack for catholic rabblerousing. It could stand in for an Irish drinking song or an Irish fighting song, provided that there’s more than a pint of difference between the two. When Gabel sings “Sometimes it feels like the whole world’s coming to an end,” you don’t know if he’s pushing politics or blarney. Nor do you care. “Rapid” is a quick jaunt into the unwashed corridors that accommodate the likes of the Dropkick Murphys and Alkaline Trio. The living isn’t easy, but it isn’t without its charms. This song will find an audience among the hopefully disaffected – that is, the downtrodden who take stock (and find hope) in upward mobility. No wonder Bruce Springsteen is an
Against Me! fan: Both he and Gabel deal in the same themes and textures. And if the Boss were launching his career today, he’d likely find himself in the same predicament – beloved but marginalized, on the backstreets until the end.
(March 30, 2010)
Gaslight Anthem American Slang
The highway is alive tonight, but it’s claiming heavy casualties. That seems to be the score on Gaslight Anthem’s latest single, “American Slang,” another earnest, honest, and hardcharging dirge from the group’s small but memorable discography. Despite their relative youth, Gaslight possess old souls. Their sound is redolent of Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, and U2, with the Boss clearly claiming head-honcho status. These Jersey boys shimmer and suffer, flashing a spirit in the night that’s first leavened by a runaway American dream, then shadowed by the proverbial darkness on the edge of town. If Springsteen were a litigious man, he could plausibly claim half their royalties. The disorienting thing about “Slang”
is that it starts with a Cars-y bounce rather than an E Street shuffle. The jingle-jangle guitars that compose the song’s opening passage are more in the manner of Matchbox 20 than Steven Van Zandt or the Edge. At the 30-second mark, you’re inclined to anticipate the imminent arrival of Rob Thomas’ husky tenor, presumably for a mellow romp through Adult Contemporary. But then Brian Fallon’s voice emerges out of the ether, worn and broken, yet reliably undaunted. Fallon sings a bit like Brandon Flowers, filtering the Killers’ Las Vegas New Wave through the machines and fires inherent in New Jersey’s 732 area code. It’s in this sonic badlands – part desert, part blacktop, part alley way – that “Slang” asserts its identity, moving from toe-tapper to anthem. Fallon shouts about “damage,” “gallows,” and the place “where we died last year,” but his blood brothers lift him up with woo-hoo! and ohoh! harmonies. The bell-ring guitar break and “Cut me to ribbons!” background vocals mix urgency with resolve. Gaslight are a No Retreat, No Surrender band, and they’re not about to apologize for investing so much energy in their throwback rock and roll. Fallon brings the track to a close with a forceful but tender refrain, singing
“You told me fortunes in American slang” until the words leave their mark. He’s cryptic enough to keep the meaning ambiguous. The line could be a lament or an accusation, and the song as a whole could be a product of failed romance or financial crisis. Yet any mention of horoscopes, especially those of the dubious variety, inevitably points us towards Madam Marie, whom the cops busted way back in 1973, “for telling fortunes better than they do.” Springsteen’s blue-collar smarts and boardwalk mentality are never far from Gaslight’s radial burn. Even the single’s title recalls E Street’s “American Skin,” a ballsy ballad about the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. That song’s final couplets – “It ain’t no secret/No secret, my friend/ You can get killed just for living in/ Your American skin” – cost Bruce the Rush Limbaugh demographic, not to mention more than a few New Yorkarea police escorts. That’s the price you pay when you have the stomach to write about what’s real. Bruce and Gaslight both traffic in the biggest of big subjects: life and death, right and wrong, your worst memories and your favorite song. For them, the only topic that trumps untimely demise is unlikely redemption. “Slang” is partial to just such a rising. You
can search iTunes and Limewire until your hard drive explodes; you simply won’t find a more exhilarating song about the darker angels of human nature. “Slang” is therefore the perfect soundtrack for hard times: anthemic but not escapist, inspirational but not melodramatic. Even when we’re saddled with debts that no honest man can pay, we’re compelled to remember that fortune favors the bold.
(March 23, 2010)
water level, setting the pressure gauge at just the right reading for LCD’s protégés and label mates, The Rapture, to break the proverbial flood gates with “House of Jealous Lovers.” The resulting deluge managed to drown those of us who were gauche enough to spend late 2002 listening to the Strokes, the Mooney Suzuki, and Longwave. Our neo-punk movement sputtered in its infancy, shifting from scene soundtrack to jeans-commercial fodder in less than a year. Bands started trading in guitars for turntables, and the more alluring cohorts within the young female demographic began to filter out of the rock clubs, in favor of the DJ and his dance floor. I’ve long held James Murphy responsible for this unfortunate exodus, as he was an erstwhile rocker (fronting such bands as Falling Man and Pony) who succumbed to the twin indulges of the DJ booth and the digitally-enhanced production studio. To me, his work was directed at a dubious end – that is, getting people who shouldn’t be dancing to boogie like they’re on “Soul Train.” But after listening to LCD’s latest single, “Drunk Girls,” I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, and kill my anti-Murphy grudge in its eighth year.
LcD Soundsystem Drunk Girls
Guitar-rock partisans are prone to associate the words “LCD Soundsystem” with the mark of the beast. Just as the early-Aughts’ underground garage revival was gaining national traction, James Murphy & Co. dropped “Losing My Edge,” an epic-length negotiation between spoken-word testimony, lowend Casio pulses, and delayed-release block rockin’ beats. It rode hipster neuroses (“I hear that everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know”) and a truncated Killing Joke sample to the central square of Lower East Side indie. “Losing” raised Ludlow Street’s
“Drunk” is synthetic music with organic sex appeal. Under normal circumstance, I’d be inclined to cover my ignorance of pop’s contemporary dance genres by alluding to the evertrenchant New Order or the alwaysreliable Chicago house idiom. But while “Drunk” is certainly teched up and high-BPM, it’s clearly not techno or breakbeat rave. There’s some rock in its genome, not to mention a disarming sense of humor and a distinct sense of purpose. As indie tilts toward “chillwave” and “blisscore,” with nary a guitar nor a non-android voice in the cupboard, Murphy returns with angst, insecurity, and an elevated heart rate. His sound is human, eschewing our latter-day pulse puritanism for an antic, amped-up playfulness. “Drunk” is a Dionysian track, in thrall to alcohol and all the insipid rituals associated with its excessive consumption. Murphy’s target is not the intoxicated woman but his own obdurate alter ego, particularly its tendency to be stupefied by first principles. “Oh, Oh, Oh! I believe in waking up together,” he sings, adding “That means making eyes across the room.” Murphy’s manic, Bowie-inflected voice exposes the inconveniences of ideology:
Sometimes doing what you believe in requires you to act out of character. What “Drunk” argues is that alcohol is a way around the rules, a catalyst that skips the set-up and gets straight to the action. In musical terms, this means taking Bowie’s “Hang On to Yourself,” giving it the glam-meets-Blur treatment, and then layering in a snippet of Billy Squier’s “Everybody Wants You” guitar lick. Here we have LCD’s new microgenre: mutant disco, as informed by electro-punk and Britpop. Like Pulp, Murphy uses syncopation not to stand in for substance but to underscore his social message. His lyrics tend toward the observational and the confessional, like Jonathan Richman stuck in a strobe light: “Drunk girls like a night of simplicity/They need a lover who’s smarter than me”; “Just ‘cause I’m shallow doesn’t mean that I’m heartless/Just ‘cause I’m heartless doesn’t mean that I’m mean.” Notice how many times the word “mean” has appeared in this review, both in lyric citation and text proper. “Drunk” is an ode to hedonism, but not one that advocates insentience. As in “Losing My Edge,” LCD spike their footloose and fancy-free instrumental with several bottles of intellectualized insecurity.
Reduced to its essence, this single is pogo music – a fluid, rollicking affair expertly crafted for jumping and jiving in a dark nightclub, with the Miller Lite in your right hand raised up like the Statue of Liberty’s torch. From a certain remove, “Drunk” sounds like “Lust For Life” updated for the 21st century – or scaled back to suit paleolithic times. When Murphy puts a wrap on the track by singing “The day becomes the night!,” you don’t know whether this is a cause for celebration or concern. As Mark Mothersbaugh once said, “The more technology you have, the more primitive you can be.” And LCD, with their supercomputer feel and Art of Noise futurism, somehow harken back to man’s state of nature. “Drunk” is a high-momentum backing track for the noble savage. I guess that makes it punk – or at least rock and roll. You’ve come a long way, Mr. Murphy. Have a drink on me.
(March 26, 2010)
ask of Scissor Sisters. The electrodisco ensemble has laid low for the temporal equivalent of a presidential term, releasing nary a track since 2006’s Ta-Dah. The content gap has grown so wide that Chinese Democracy is starting to get worried, fearing a loss of straggler glory. Thankfully, Axl’s opus can quit biting its nails, for the Sisters have returned with a single that aims to make up for lost time. At 6:12, “Invisible Light” is the collective’s longest commercial track. It argues, unwittingly or otherwise, that a deep hourglass is needed to accommodate the myriad caprices of today’s digital dance floor. Seductive synths are not enough. Groovy buzzes and snaps are but a whetter of appetites. In the postGaga, post-James Murphy world, credible club music had damn well better be layered, sarcastic, and selfaware. There are only two targets for contemporary pulse poppers: “epic” or “anthem.” A mere “entertainment” simply will not do.
Scissor Sisters Invisible Light
Are you better off than you were four years ago? That seems to be the question that fans and critics need to
“Light” holds up the epistemological end of the bargain. It’s born to be an epic, both in length and impact. The track is built around a steady, synthetic heartbeat, a metronomic device that throbs and fades but never stops
pumping. Ana Matronic’s keys blend into the rhythm, providing soft swells and subtle flashes of atmosphere. Percussive components, supplied by both a first-rate sampler and second-generation drummer Randy Real, coalesce into a supplementary pacemaker, ensuring that the track doesn’t slacken when the primary beat loop is drowned out by vocal surges or ambient noise. Amid the pitter-patter and dreamy vibes, Jake Shears’ voice stands out for its ability to gear-shift from methodical control to Dionysian abandon. His upper-register wail remains the Sisters’ sonic signature, a point of differentiation that enables them to work in the broad tents of pop rather than the stuffy ghettos of house or trance. Shears’ singing gives the melody shape and direction, a one-two punch that leads the band straight into the “Twilight Zone.” I speak not of the classic television program, but the Golden Earring banger from the fall of 1982. This rock track’s bouncing, mildly malicious cadences are borrowed generously for the first three to four minutes of “Light.” But just as the intimations of plagiarism begin to gain traction, the Scissors throttle back the beat and cede to the foreground to a spoken-word interlude.
This song section is captained by Sir Ian McKellen (seriously!), thus demonstrating the considerable advantages that American bands enjoy when they happen to be huge in England. McKellen’s script is largely balderdash and poppycock – it consists almost entirely of softcore doggerel centered on lust and sexual awakening – but its subject matter doesn’t preclude the voice-over from packing its fair share of fun. How can you not derive a little pleasure from hearing an Oscar-nominated actor bark out the following nonsense: “Painted whores. Sexual gladiators. Fishtailed party children. All wake from their slumber to debut at the Bacchanal.”? Is Sir Ian pissed that he lost the lead role in Caligula to Malcolm McDowell? Or are the Scissor Sisters just irredeemably perverted? I’m going to have to go with the latter – but not without a nod of respect and an offer of congratulations. On “Light,” the band manages a sleek musical progression, jettisoning their Elton John-meets-Bee Gees disco fever for a Depeche Mode-meetsFrankie Goes to Hollywood New Pop swagger. Gone are the icy plunk of “Laura” and the queer honkytonk of “Take Your Mama”; in is the warm wash of the group’s hypnotic
“Comfortably Numb” cover, albeit with an added dash of glam. “Light” is a lithe yet loafing single, at once motoring along and skipping deliberately. I take these tricks of tempo as a sign that the song is properly self-aware – that is, conscious of its length, architecture, and purported importance. I don’t know enough about dance music to determine whether “Light” delivers game-changing goods. Nor am I properly qualified to opine on the relative merits of the band’s upcoming album, Night Work. All I’ve got at my disposal are fond memories of the Sisters’ debut and six-plus minutes of sonic testimony that reaffirm my earlier convictions. “Light” is adequately excellent to keep its authors among the fillet of the mutant disco genre. I’ll leave it to the market to determine whether the band is better off than it was four years ago.
(April 14, 2010)
passages from pop music’s Book of Love that it’s neglected to ask a very important question; namely, Is one text sufficient to cover a subject so vast and variegated? Shouldn’t there be an entire School of Love? Or at least a baccalaureate program expressly devoted to affairs of the heart and the harmony? Just imagine the emeriti, in Soul and R&B alone: Dean Al Green, Provost Luther Vandross, and such Honorary Musical Chairs as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye. If this roster had been assembled, perhaps Sharon Jones wouldn’t be in such a bind. Had she been offered a more comprehensive course load in sound and sentiment, maybe she wouldn’t have had such a bad-luck rumble through the blackboard jungle. Jones’ latest single, “I Learned the Hard Way,” is a done-me-wrong ballad derived from one of the Book of Love’s more sour chapters. Despite its lush, retro arrangement, the song is emotionally naked, pushing accusations, insults, and self-reproaches across a slinky astral plane. “Hard Way,” however, isn’t next of kin to Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” or Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” It’s
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings I Learned the hard Way
The listening public has become so accustomed to hearing three-minute
not the reaction to faithlessness that’s accorded primacy but the realization. The act of discovery – that she’s living a lie, that her man is untrue – is what drives Jones’ narrative. She smells the foreign perfumes, hears the breathless phone calls, and fingers the tell-tale hotel key, piling all the accouterments of the philanderer into a blazing bonfire of vanities. Once the sordid plot is unraveled, Sharon doesn’t flinch from meeting adultery’s petty indignities head-on. She channels infidelity in high-fidelity, giving orchestral heft to a humbling confession: “I learned the hard way, that your love was cruel/I learned the hard way, to be your fool.” The instrumentation on “Hard Way” fits the track’s subject matter. The opening horn blast, more sobering than stirring, sets an ominous tone, as if operating by the dictates of pathetic fallacy. It’s immediately clear that something is rotten in the impending state of affairs. Jones’ voice, recalling the likes of Tina Turner and Marva Whitney, adds a necessary urgency to the background brass. Her central refrain – “Now I know about you!” – throws its weight around only after Jones has walked the thorny path from suspicion to certainty. Her soundtrack never reverts to the whiplash funk that
helped break the Dap-Kings. This is not a James Brown-style hip-shaker; Sharon is committed to composing a deliberate, classy denunciation of her beau. In place of lightning, “Hard Way” brings the thunder, with claps of admonition segueing into cracks of righteous anger. Jones doesn’t traffic in the headlong melodic runs of Beyoncé Knowles or the sultry swagger of Erykah Badu. She makes “Urban” music that’s completely uninformed by hip hop and its attendant heavy beats. Her songs belong to the live-band era, packing a sound that’s as organic as it is insidious. “Hard Way” seeps into your bloodstream and rattles your bones, like the sock-it-to-me soul that it so obviously aspires to imitate. Jones has truly studied under the masters, mixing Otis Redding’s down-home abandon with Aretha Franklin’s pitched control. Yet, on “Hard Way,” she comes across as a latter-day Tina Turner, forever shouting “What’s love got to do with it?” Fortunately, Jones doesn’t use this question as a mere point of rhetoric. She provides an answer, and that answer is “Everything!” Love parades through her songbook like a marching band through the Rose Bowl. Its
lessons may be hard, but we get the feeling that the subject is worth the fighting for. And while Jones might have been slow to intercept the cheater on her horizon, this middling misgiving is nothing that can’t be cured by a couple of hours with a Bobby Womack album. Smart money says Sharon already has Womack cued up on her turntable. She may not be a founding member of our theoretical School of Love, but she’s certainly earned the right to take home a degree. Let the record show that she’s graduating with honors.
(April 5, 2010)
portion of Neil Young’s discography to displace its sludgy, viscous, ax-grinding counterpart. Insofar as this movement had a vanguard, and not just an ad hoc assortment of sweet-singing strummers, the Shins could probably be said to constitute the lead flank. They were the earliest popularizers of the Back to the Garden ethic, setting the turn of the century as something of a dividing line between the Old Masters and the New Slang. Scores of pale imitators followed – and by “pale,” I mean “lily white” – but their hack work eventually bore righteous fruit, coalescing into the current bumper crop of Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, and Band(s) of Horses. Each ensemble is whip-smart and buzzworthy, but, of the three groups cited, only the Horses possess true commercial potential. With their warm acoustics and highpitched harmonies, BoH are a living testament to the lighter side of Shakey. They exude a vibe that’s at once feral and ethereal; the band manages to keep their knees in the soil while their heads float amongst the clouds. Ben Bridwell’s braying lead vocals are clearly reminiscent of Young’s drifter croon. Yet, both materially
Band of horses Factory
Is it just me, or has the Pacific Northwest gone mellow? In the 15-plus years since grunge lost its commercial punch, the so-called “Seattle sound” has toned down its intensity and amped up its facial hair. Out is the heroin-chic fealty to Rust Never Sleeps; in is the beardo fascination with Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. The Sub Pop scene has negotiated a gradual but genuine paradigm shift, allowing the singer-songwriter
and metaphorically speaking, the “commercial potential” to which I allude has less to do with Harvest than After the Gold Rush. I’m fairly certain that the Horses have won the majority of their gold through product placement, be it in ads for Ford Edge or via quick musical cameos on One Tree Hill and 90210. They’re a zeitgeist group, if only in the sense that their music pairs well with the contemporary lifestyle, wherein a mellow backing track is preferred to a song that grabs you by the throat. “Factory” is another sleek ballad in the middle-of-the-road tradition. Its soft pulses and deliberate pacing conjure a lazy afternoon in the country rather than a hard day’s work on the factory floor. But under the dreamy instrumental lurks an affecting sob story: Bridwell’s protagonist has just been dropped by his girlfriend. Now he’s forced to carry on all alone, shuffling from hotel to hotel and from shiny recollection to painful memory. “It’s temporary, this place I’m in,” Ben sings, “I permanently won’t do this again.” To augment the Man-Beside-Himself aura, the Horses unbridle a series of doleful, moaning guitar breaks, redolent of Weezer’s “Pink Triangle”
and Pete Droge’s “Beautiful Girls.” These smooth symphonics give “Factory” a spectral air, as if it just emerged out of the gloaming. BoH do this sort of thing better than any other indie rock outfit. Even if you’d never heard of the group, and stumbled onto “Factory” by happy accident, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the band’s last underground hit was called “Is There A Ghost.” This single will coexist peacefully with the recent Morning Benders’ cut, “Promises.” Like the Benders, BoH have a knack for semi-orchestral builds that give a song texture and taste. Guitars ring and keyboards chime, quietly marking rhythm as the track ventures onward. The band is walking in place, but they appear to be climbing the stairs. Such is the rock sound for the modern moment: soothing yet active, everpresent yet unobtrusive. This sonic formula lets us combine labor and leisure, to listen in to our digital jukeboxes even as we’re thumbing out emails and status reports. Perhaps the Pacific Northwest has gone mellow because rock at large has become less immediate. The genre no longer kicks in your door and impregnates your daughter; instead, it wafts into
conference room, kitchen, and retail outlet alike, as if channeled through some unknown but ubiquitous censor. You can’t order a cup of coffee or watch a sports highlight without encountering a short piece of mood music. And if this is the milieu in which we’re obliged to operate, I’ll gladly take “Factory” over, say, “Party In the U.S.A.” or “Need You Now.” BoH deliver a pleasing, plangent vibe. They never demand your attention, but once they infiltrate your defenses, they command your respect. “Factory,” “The Funeral,” and, above all, “No One’s Gonna Love You,” comprise a post-millennial iteration of AM Gold, offering easy listening to palliate the vicissitudes of our hard-knock lives. It’s not Guns n’ Roses, but it gets you through the day. And in times like these, there’s certainly no shame in copping the aural lithium. Just be sure to hold on to your Nirvana records. Because this softer Seattle sound, like the heavier fare before it, shall pass – regardless of how many Edges Ford is able to push off the lot.
(April 21, 2010)
The Dead Weather Die By the Drop
Sinister machinations are afoot on the Dead Weather’s “Die By the Drop.” Makeshift graves are being dug; death plots are swinging into motion; and lead guitars are crying out in pain, suffering the tortures of a thousand spiked beasts. The preponderance of the evidence points toward two possible interpretations: Either the Dead Weather are evolving into a suicide cult, or Jack White is trying to lay his current commitment to rest, presumably so he can start another frighteningly hirsute supergroup. Then again, perhaps one shouldn’t expect sunshine and tangerines from a band named the Dead Weather. Such a designation has a leaden, lumbering feel, like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, or Nickelback. And “Die,” true to its title and pedigree, positively drips sludge, mire, and base intentions. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The track is dense but not ponderous, heavy but not weighed down. Its sonic heft recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and “When the Levee Breaks,” twin celebrations of the blues transported to a mystic realm beyond psychedelia. “Die” has a similar intensity, high on
drone and vibration, but still insistent enough to qualify as a single rather than an experiment. In the shorthand reserved for bastard genres, the track is less Psych-Blues than Abnormal Psych-Blues. Supporting testimony comes early and often. “Die” opens to rattles and quivers that imagine the mash-up of MGMT’s “Flash Delirium” and Captain Beefheart’s “Electricity.” The song quickly assumes a magnetic pulse – a gentle tug with a malevolent edge. Alison Mosshart and Jack White trade lines like bummed cigarettes, alternately dragging and spitting out smoke. “Let’s dig a hole in the sand, brother,” Mosshart proposes, “A little grave we can fill.” The subject is shared destiny, wherein wide-eyed madness and millennial desperation coalesce into unholy matrimony. “I’m going to take you for worse or better!,” shout the Glummer Twins, leaving little doubt that this marriage is bound for the underground. Mosshart and White consecrate their connection in the muck and murk of freshly upturned soil, with no honeymoon suite in sight. For the Dead Weather, the key marital vow is not “I do” but “Til death do us part.” Fortunately, death becomes this
serious, dark-toned band. Eerie atmospheres get along well with the blues, as the idiom is flush with little devils and would-be Robert Johnsons. There’s an element of the supernatural to the entire Mississippi Delta mythology, what with its crossroads, its hell hounds, and its spectral journeymen. When White sings “Some people die just a little/Sometimes you die by the drop,” he could be eulogizing all the shut-down strangers and backwoods bards who never escaped their provincial cultures. He could be. But he isn’t. Because “Die” treats the blues progressively, incorporating rock vibes and the occasional Digital Age flourish. Its choral rush forsakes the strippeddown acoustics of Son House for the thick grooves of Jimi Hendrix and the industrial buzz of grunge. I’ll be damned if the “worse or better” guitar layering doesn’t sound conspicuously like the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Down.” There’s a brutality to these blues, and the listener is compelled to feel the noise. “Die” is Jack White returning to what he does best: down-tempo bombast. When he realigns with Meg, maybe they’ll channel the Elephant side of their discography – a wide pocket
of catalog that manages to pair an electric feel with a swampy sensibility. In the meantime, we’ll settle for the Dead Weather’s potent strains of moody blues. Their sound is maturing. And their textures are sharpening into a dagger blade of ever-more-blunt proportions. This might appear to be cause for concern, but I offer my sincere assurances: The evolution is all for the better, none for the worse.
(April 3, 2010)
Sure, such analysis reeks of bias and oversimplification. But when we treat pop music with a complexity normally reserved for rocket science, we sacrifice the thrilling immediacy that’s made rock and roll something of a surrogate religion. The faithful were there for Mick Jagger in 1965, and they still line up by the millions to sing along to the final verse of “Satisfaction.” You can call this sort of rock and roll fundamentalism irrational, unbecoming, or, if you must, pathetic – but you can’t deny that it’s a force to be reckoned with. Even as we acknowledge disco’s hipster-mediated resurgence, we’re obliged to note our doubts about its staying power. In the late Seventies, Donna Summer’s Bad Girls was of greater cultural import than the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. But do you honestly think that Ms. Summer’s songs could support a worldwide stadium tour? She couldn’t sell out The Olive Garden, never mind Madison Square Garden. And this fact is oddly comforting. The Black Keys enter our discussion precisely where it began – that is, at the onset of the 21st century, when synths were slowly encroaching into territory formerly accorded to guitars. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney
The Black Keys Everlasting Light
If you’d told me 10 years ago that indie rock would soon make a hairpin turn toward mongrelized disco, I’d have dropped my Strokes EP and petitioned for your immediate institutionalization. The classical theories of popular music posit that rock and disco are diametrically opposed idioms – one representing truth and teen spirit, the other celebrating the shiny, the skeevy, and the insensate. Rock generally requires human agency: a band, several instruments, and a convincing live performance. Disco, quite conversely, suppresses organic effort with mechanical efficiency. It’s push-button music instead of music that pushes the envelope.
began collaborating as the Nineties met the Aughts, and have since put in a decade of shared service. In that time, they’ve seen the riff-centered power duo tumble from a position of primacy (the White Stripes, Local H) to the outskirts of obscurity (Sleigh Bells, No Age, Japandroids). Within the indie circuit, guitars are now frequently cited as tools of the rear-guard, vestiges of a “rockist” regime that championed phallic symbols and primal energies. Their subtle erasure from both the music video and the sound stage has resulted in the wholesale emasculation of pop music. The airwaves and the social media are now firmly controlled by five Amazons (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Ke$ha, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus) and one countertenor (Justin Bieber). The Top 40, in short, has surrendered its balls. This is why we’re obliged to thank our lucky stars for the Black Keys. They’re a two-man wrecking crew that somehow manages to temper the sound of demolition with dense flurries of rhythm. The formative BK hit parade, comprising such songs as “I Got Mine,” “10 A.M. Automatic,” and “Strange Times,” is rendered thick by the intermingling of Delta swamp and Akron rubber. It’s as if the river and the factory conjoined beside the assembly
line, allowing for the mass production of all-natural goods. The Key’s latest single, “Everlasting Light,” signals a slight departure – in register if not in texture. Auerbach sings in a suave falsetto, recalling a hybrid of mid-career Curtis Mayfield and “Blue Orchid”-era Jack White. That said, the track is far from ethereal. Carney grounds the production in a bedrock of drums, deftly pairing the percussion with Auerbach’s chugging guitar. The central riff is short, sweet, and repetitive – abuzz with reverb but never in danger of losing its propulsive energy. Think Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Maker” or the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” wherein a concise figure drives the song forward, backward, and, occasionally, sideways. The melody locks you in so intensely that you’re inclined to ignore the narrative. Perhaps this is for good reason: “Light” is not a song for fans of sophisticated lyrics. The lines are constructed to maximize rhyme potential, not to illuminate the human condition. This is the ironic legacy of Mayfield, who, for all his civil rights glory, could shoehorn three rhymes into a transitional chorus without forsaking his croon. (See “It is now up to us/And we know we must/Build
up a trust.”) Auerbach works similar wonders, offering to bring “sun where there is none,” and then to captain “a train goin’ away from pain.” The latter lyric, though puerile, folds beautifully into its attending riff, which sounds like a locomotive just setting off from the station. If the Keys have a message, it’s “Woman, get ready, there’s a train coming.” The boxcar door is wide open – and so is the joint future of the protagonists. For once, however, let’s allow the medium to usurp the message. Rock is a wildly miscegenated form, stitching up the Mason-Dixon and Anglo-American divides with sleek threads of sonic testimony. The Black Keys are a product of this sublime orgy of parochial impulses and universal aspirations: What happened in Memphis and New Orleans can happen in New York, Chicago, Liverpool, or London. (Hell, it can even happen in Akron.) Blues-based music travels on a continuum that provides no quarter for racial or geographic discrimination. It’s a sound that’s utterly hostile to the concept of the velvet rope. And the Black Keys’ grand purpose, insofar as they have one, is to disavow the conceits of Digital Age disco.
Although I characterize it as a rebuttal of contemporary indie, “Everlasting Light” excludes no one. Its lumbering wallop packs the pagan blues of Led Zeppelin alongside the urban soul of the Impressions, sounding at once of the soil, the water, and the sky. This coalition of elements comprises rock and roll’s living palette wheel. Artists blend the colors anyway they see fit, and we quarrel on the merits of the resulting canvas. In this particular case, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the ear of the listener. All we can do is keep listening, and hope for the best.
(August 14, 2010)
Arcade Fire Month of May
At the 3:42 mark of “Crown of Love,” the sixth track on Arcade Fire’s debut album, Funeral, the indie rock universe abruptly pivoted on its axis. After using the majority if its run time to build a dour, dirge-like tension, the song activates its hidden pressure valve, releasing a genre’s worth of angst, ennui, and stalled momentum. Part purge, part call to arms, this microment of violin glory revealed Funeral for what it was: A memorial
service for the garage rock revival, and an augur of the eclectic, multiinstrumental sound that would soon come to characterize the minor-label circuit. “Crown of Love” is not one of Arcade Fire’s more popular tracks, but its sonic reorientation is a genuine feat of physics. In terms of compositional gravity, there’s a discernible Before and After, a clear Action and Reaction: Previously, simple, stripped-down rock and roll had ruled the roost. (Remember the Vines and the Hives?) Subsequently, serious, carefully orchestrated pop assumed the reins. The difference between Arcade Fire and, say, the White Stripes is best understood in the context of this transition: The latter is a band going for broke; the former is a band going for Baroque. What made the Fire indispensable, however, was that their Baroque rock harbored not the slightest vestige of Renaissance Faire slackery. Yes, there were harps and luthier-quality narratives. But these elements didn’t cohere around a litany of tired pastoral themes. Funeral’s track list reads less like a study in functional tonality than as a stacked line-up card: The “Neighborhood” songs load the
bases; the “Crown” pivot point shows the pitcher’s tell; and “Wake Up” knocks the ball out of the park. “Rebellion (Lies)” simply tacks on insurance runs, as if to say, “This band means business!” Unfortunately, such forthright ambition can’t help but earn a group a reputation for being uncompromising or “too serious” – a charge that Arcade Fire’s second album, Neon Bible, seemed expressly designed to corroborate. Another masterpiece – or another hyper-indulgent chain yank, depending on your proclivity – Neon fostered several sleek leitmotifs and an impressive array of unconventional instruments. It was the sound of the king’s court and the scholars den, condensed into a single LP. Yet despite its comfort with subjects high and mighty, the record still burned with the power-chord passions of the demotic age. It tried to be all things to all people, and it damn near succeeded. The Fire’s newest single, “Month of May,” betrays these aspirations. It’s nothing more than a balls-out banger – which makes it nothing less than a slap in the face to those who pine for the band’s more lush and intricate arrangements. I won’t go so far as to call “May” a “sonic departure,” as that
would be a cliché. (And a meaningless cliché at that, considering that Arcade Fire have shown an ability, if not a preference, to make pedal-to-themetal rock and roll.) Still, the song’s bull-rush rhythm and double-time beat are not what you’d expect from the Fire after a three-year hiatus. Perhaps that’s why it’s packaged as a B side to “The Suburbs,” the official lead single from the band’s forthcoming album. By unchaining “May” from the A-grade sweepstakes, Arcade Fire allow the track to be its own animal. Separated from its natural habitat – that is, the LP – the song takes on a feral air: It’s neither thrash metal nor freak folk but a sturdier, more efficient amalgamation. And when metal and folk come together, what do they form? I’ll go with “punk rock.” No need to polish your spectacles: I’m indeed reporting that Arcade Fire have released a punk record. In the language of their own discography, “May” sounds like a souped-up and electrified “Television Antichrist Blues,” only with the Springsteen inflections usurped by the discordant heebie-jeebies of the CBGBs set. The track commences with a Dee Dee Ramone-style “1, 2, 3, 4” count-off, then careers into a riff that could easily be mistaken for something off of
Rocket to Russia. The more appropriate reference point, though, is deeper and darker: The Misfits’ Static Age. I’ll be damned if “May” isn’t a kissing cousin to the Misfits’ “Bullet.” The singles share a manic intensity and a breakneck pace, with “Bullet” garnering distinction for being an order of magnitude more violent. Win Butler may be a man of many colors, but he’s yet to drink the blood-red potions that transport mere mortals to Glenn Danzig territory. True, when Win shouts “Some people sing, sounds like they’re screaming/Used to doubt it, but now I believe it,” we’re lead to wonder whether he’s forgotten to take his meds. But even with the track’s pounding percussion and death-stare guitars, we never doubt that Butler will retain control of his art. He does this by folding less reactionary textures into “May”’s DNA. The lead riff bears vague traces of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” adding just enough fuzz to temper Tony Iommi’s stutter-step propulsion. Eventually, the track finds room for ambient tones and noise layers that recall early-90s Sonic Youth. When Régine Chassagne steps in to harmonize with Butler, “May” feels like it’s being visited by Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. This doesn’t mean that the single goes soft; it
merely signifies that, after a sustained crescendo, the song jumps the 2:30 hurdle by playing around with its dynamics. The sound washes out in a snap of the fingers, then returns at full blast for a minute-long coda that’s equally moody and ferocious. In the end, “May” wouldn’t be out of place on either Static Age or Goo. It’s punk rock and art rock, tinged with firm strokes of goth and indie. Let’s call it “Blitzkrieg Baroque.” On “May,” the ornate flexes are reserved more for the lyric sheet than the instrumental score. Butler apparently conceived the track to be part of a song cycle that chronicles a city-to-suburbs diaspora. Surprisingly, Win idealizes the urban environment but renders the outskirts of town brutal and malignant: “Month of May, everybody’s in love/In the city we’re safe from above” segues rapidly into an ominous depiction of suburban youth – “Kids are still standing with their arms folded tight/Some things are pure and some things are right.” This inflexibility, be it philosophical or aesthetic, is a harbinger of a culture war, one which the Fire are loath to fight but too proud to boycott. The band will be heard, in every sense imaginable. And American music will be all the better for it.
“May” earns classification into the “Songs That Matter” file for two reasons: First, anything that a group of Arcade Fire’s caliber puts out after a sustained absence is going to cause a Richter-level tremor. Second, the song effectively rebuts the belle orchestre sound that Funeral helped escort from the margins. “Month of May,” like “Crown of Love,” represents a musical pivot point. Only this time it’s Arcade Fire themselves, rather than the indie rock universe, that’s swinging on its axis. This change is not as drastic as its predecessor, but its repercussions will still leave a fairly wide wake. Let’s hope that this wake swallows Funeral’s more unfortunate godchildren. Because like other epochal indie records of the past 15 years, such as Kid A, Aeroplane Over the Sea, and “Losing My Edge,” the Fire’s first album inspired untold volumes of second- and third-tier music. This unfortunate (and perhaps inevitable) irony prompts my final, absurdly unreasonable request: On their next LP, the band that’s renowned for taking themselves far too seriously will have to raise their self-regard to near-messianic levels. In my mind, Arcade Fire’s meticulously arranged postpunk is obliged to be perfectly emblematic of our age. It must
integrate dark urges with light speeds, satirize a material culture on the verge of insolvency, and conquer the vast, purgatorial spaces between mechanical failure and human triumph. If possible, it should also sound good. “Month of May” can’t fully deliver on this one-in-a-million fantasy, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And I, for one, am extremely interested to see where the next step leads.
(May 28, 2010)
Thankfully, the National’s latest single, “Afraid of Everyone,” doesn’t aspire to a dual identity. It’s the perfect distillation of an artist beset by modern anxiety, haunting its indie vinyl like nothing since the last Arcade Fire album. In fact, “Afraid” could be mistaken for a Win Butler solo record, as it combines my-body-is-a-cage themes with black-mirror augury. Berninger is clearly trapped within himself, and the accommodations are far from comfortable. “Lay the young blue bodies/With the old red bodies,” he sings, imagining a killing field that spans generations and colors alike. The narrator is positively bleeding with insecurity, a condition that appears to result from the tremors of uncertain times and the shortfalls of a low-rent pharmaceutical regimen. The track’s sober, pain-addled chorus reads, “With my kid on my shoulders I try/Not to hurt anybody I love/But I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” I’d be inclined to slip Berninger some Xanax® were his song not so singularly arresting. “Afraid” commences with a drone tone of somber digital swells, fogging up the canvas in preparation for the dark-hued vocals. Berninger’s lyrics and delivery are so honest and immediate that the listener quickly
The National Afraid of Everyone
Things weren’t looking too good for the new National album. Its first leak, the limp, atmospheric “Blood Buzz Ohio,” full of clipped croons and pregnant pauses, sounded like Julian Casablancas covering Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly.” The live material that followed was similarly mellow and moody, with lead singer Matt Berninger applying an Ian Curtis baritone to U2-style shimmers and rings. This mixture of antic intensity and anthemic composition made for a shaky vessel. At a certain point, jagged vulnerability ceases to be a signature musical texture and starts to become an alt-rock fetish.
understands the depths of his terror. He’s afraid of radio, television, and the people he encounters on the street. Most of all, he’s afraid of himself. And the fallout from this paralyzing pantaphobia is a sense of visceral longing for the unattainable; that is, an antiseptic, threat-free Fortress America. If “Afraid” can be said to be a party jam, the party in question would have to be a Tea Party, all placard-carrying worry and shit-yourpants panic. The only fear that matters on this particular track, however, is fear of music. I mean that in a respectful, Talking Heads sort of way, whereby a chilling vibe is established without multi-instrumental bombast. The National evince a vintage reserve, making their message unambiguous but keeping their acoustics soft and no-filler. You won’t find a fleet-fingered guitar solo or a sing-along refrain on “Afraid.” Its aims are more modest, but no less affecting, than anything by Coldplay or Green Day. I plainly admit to being blindsided by its hazy synths and stark verses, a sonic seduction made all the more unlikely by my initial distaste for this religiously buzzed-up band. When their new album, High Violet, is released, I’ll give it a fair and thorough listen. I advise you to do
the same. Because if “Afraid” proves anything, it’s that the National are nothing to be frightened of.
(April 20, 2010)
Quick, who’s the better Joy Division cover band: the National or Interpol? The former are trending higher, but the latter have posterity on their side – so, ultimately, the decision is largely a function of taste. I’m going to take the path of least resistance and greatest complexity: I prefer the National to Interpol for sheer songcraft, but still think that the Pols are an order of magnitude better at the Joy Division business. They key differentiating factor is Interpol’s clinical sterility. You could undergo prostate surgery in their recording studio and come away infection-free. Their throbbing bass and rhythmic guitars pack industrial heft without the risk of industrial accident, always reining in the aggression before it reaches the point of absolute abandon. Like Joy Division, Interpol make alien sounds out of human emotion, all echo and ominous jangle,
while the National can’t quite extend beyond the terrestrial plane. The Pols latest single, “Lights,” may be their first in two years, but it’s certainly not far removed from their postpunk wheelhouse. The band continues to traffic in neurotic buzzsaw, with pointed twitches and flails popping off under the reverb. “Lights” sounds a bit like “She’s Lost Control” – but, then again, so do three out of every four tracks in the Interpol discography. The new single distinguishes itself by subordinating Manchester’s clink and clank to New York’s quivering angularity. This is a song on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with the band seeking asylum in pointed confessions of frailty. The ill-at-ease vibe is concentrated in Paul Banks’ shuddering vocals. His voice is a jagged ripple of ache, reimagining Ian Curtis’ haunting baritone without the Jim Morrison deep-throat. Banks sounds like he needs a hug, or at least a month away from blunt objects. When he pleads “Teach me to grieve and conspire with my age,” you’re not sure if he’s suicidal, homicidal, or just bored. This hint of instability goes from amber to red only when Banks puts in an earnest request for supervision: “Please police
me/I want you to police me/But keep it clean.” You can just about hear the orderlies reaching for a straitjacket. Still, is it any surprise that “Lights” is characterized by darkness? Interpol aren’t the Black Eyed Peas, and Banks runs no risk of being confused with Will.i.am. When the Pols’ frontman has, in the pop parlance, “gotta feeling,” that feeling is generally depressing. The band’s music is clean but fidgeting, as if the ensemble were practicing masochists, forever in thrall to hair shirts and self-flagellation. Their heavy snares sound like a whip hitting the flesh. “Lights” builds its stress level with formidable dexterity, then pulls its pin with a minute-long coda of instrumental calm and pained vocal repetition. Banks sings “That’s why I hold you/That’s why I hold you...dear,” with the pregnant pause before the last word expressing more assurance than doubt. The effect is oddly reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse,” which closes with a soothing promise: “All that is now/All that is gone/All that’s to come/And everything under the sun is in tune.” Yet, despite this implicit harmony, we can’t ignore the fact that the sun has been eclipsed by the moon, that the lunatics are
on the grass, in the hall, and in our heads. Interpol’s job is to stand in this darkness and try to fend off the demons. Let’s hope Banks is more successful than Ian Curtis was – and that his band will never be forced to take the New Order route. Interpol have cohered into something special: there’s no joy, but there’s no division either. And in the bizarro world of rock and roll mathematics, these two negatives add up to a resounding positive. Just don’t expect a smile anytime soon. Because if Interpol ever attempted to turn its frown upside down, the universe would probably implode.
(May 4, 2010)
around town in my father’s recently decommissioned Mercedes Benz, stripped of its top but churning with the character of money nearly as old as Plymouth Rock. The mayor of Wellfleet would refer to me unironically as “Chief,” “Junior,” or “Pal.” And Ivy League chicks would dig me. End scene. But don’t start over. Because flights of fancy are what make Vampire Weekend so lovable. Your average middle-class kid, not knowing Choate from Exeter or Falmouth from Mashpee, connects with the band through vibe rather than narrative. VW songs drip with privilege but towel off with alternating strokes of sarcasm and satire. Ezra Koenig is singing of a demographic to which he’s never belonged, nor will ever belong. In a sense, VW provide the soundtrack to the life that he wishes he was living. The yacht clubs and the Vuitton sweaters merely offer cover for Koenig’s counterintuitive stratagem: Rather than pretend to be less wealthy than he actually is, he insinuates that he’s an order of magnitude wealthier than the typical J. Crew customer. This charade is part of the substance: VW observe from afar, then infuse their blue-blood personae with all the color,
Vampire Weekend Jonathan Low
Vampire Weekend provide the soundtrack to the life I wish I was living. This life is characterized by prep-school spirit, wrinkle-free khaki, and a flair for the high seas. If I had my druthers, I’d be sailing astride the Elizabeth Islands at a cool 15 knots, wearing little more than boat shoes and a strategically folded Dartmouth diploma. Once landward, I’d tool
quirk, and humor of John Cheever or J.D. Salinger. They’re not just a band. They’re short story writers. The Vamps’ latest musico-literary effort, “Jonathan Low,” is aflutter with the mysteries of a handsome drifter. As a one-off contribution to the forthcoming Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack, the song is not of a unified piece with Vampire Weekend or Contra. It’s forced to wander on its own and mingle with the hoi polloi, hoping against hope that it won’t be throttled by album-mates Muse or the Dead Weather. Upon first listen, “Low” doesn’t appear to be concerned with rendering itself immune to the taunts of neighborhood bullies. Koenig starts the track with a Totally 80s guitar figure – think the opening strains of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” – then has his comrades overpower his light strum with a firm blast of mandolin (yes, mandolin!). By the 15-second mark, “Low” seems to be aiming for a hybrid of Working Class Dog and “The Battle of Evermore.” Koenig’s vocals don’t entirely betray this sensibility, as they bounce amiably from Indie power pop to accessible World. It’s full steam ahead, like a ride on the Block Island ferry.
The track takes on an added dimension when Rostam Batmanglij unsheathes his electric strings. Though Rostam is technically a “keyboardist,” he’s fluent in many instruments and multiple musical histories. He spikes “Low” with a piquant dose of Classical, triggering a chord progression that’s oddly redolent of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. (Don’t give me that face. You know this piece from weddings, graduations, and jewelry commercials. It’s pretty much joint at the hip with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, signifying “class” to those of us who have none.) As one might deduce from its constituent elements – lean Eighties guitar, rapid-fire mandolin, and Baroque composition – “Low” packs an ethereal instrumental. Yet even as its players soar above the clouds, the song’s lyric sheet is rife with references to the clay beneath our feet. There’s a macabre aspect to this number, a pesticide of sorts that’ll keep the bullies at bay. Early in the track, Jonathan Low is depicted as “Living inside a house/Beneath the hanging tree.” Later, Koenig transitions from ugly portents to clear causes of concern: “Violence from without/And anger from within/Crawling through the fields/Informing next of kin.”
Mr. Low is either a killer or a murder victim. As such, his song is as compatible with the Eclipse concept as it was incompatible with the Contra LP. By giving this single a little time in the cellar, VW has found the right outlet for its distribution. Like the Vamps’ three earlier B-sides, “Ladies of Cambridge,” “Ottoman,” and “Giant,” “Low” is different from the band’s proper album tracks – but only subtly different. The distinction is a hair-part or a mustache trim rather than a complete face lift. “Low” is a little darker and more menacing than, say, “Campus” or “Cousins,” but it’s still a VW short story, complete with scene, protagonist, and sonic signature. VW continue to do for “Afropop” music what Hall & Oates did for “Philadelphia Soul”: They Anglicize and suburbanize it, not in petty homage but in an effort to domesticate a bastard idiom. The Vamps order Indie and World in effectively identical measures, then make each item more palatable for listeners at large. The result is neither a disgrace nor an act of cultural appropriation; it’s a triumph of pop over pomp. For all the fiction, fantasy, and aspiration in the VW storyline, the
band’s canon is based on a knowing wink and a playful nudge. The privateacademy pretensions and Cape Cod allusions are mere fodder for the haters, of which there are many. But when the Vamps’ discography is reviewed as a whole, a simple truth emerges: What initially sounds like a gimmick quickly establishes itself as an ethos. VW aren’t playing games; they’re playing music. And when my ship comes in, be it to Martha’s Vineyard or Bayonne harbor, I want to hear “Mansard Roof” coruscating out of the dock-side jukebox. I enjoy feeling like I’ve made it, even if I’m an island’s-length removed from respectability. Vamps like us, baby, we were born to run. And someday, we just might get our victory lap.
(June 4, 2010)
Katy Perry california Gurls
Here we are, just three days into summer, and the annual flex-off for Song of the Season is all but over. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is running the musical equivalent of a West Coast offense, first befuddling its competitors with flash and dash, then jacking up the score with extreme
prejudice. The track has been the #1 song in America for only two weeks, but it’s held sway as our country’s most ubiquitous single since it was released in early May. “Gurls” is dominating every pop medium, from radio to video to digital download, which all but confirms that our instruments of promotion act in semiconspiratorial concert rather than proud independence. The song is so pervasive that I sat down to write this review without having heard Perry’s opus in its entirety. I’ve since corrected this glib point of entry, but, truth be told, I was never being particularly cocky or bold; I was just being reasonable. Because when a single gives you a bum’s rush of the “Hey, Soul Sister” or “Run this Town” variety, you don’t have to actively listen to it to hear its message. And Ms. Perry’s message, insofar as she has one, is “Put away the posing oil and pick up the suntan lotion.” “Gurls” offers an endless summer to friends and foes alike, displacing diva snark and one-upmanship with the glossy confidence of a pusher who knows that her product is the best on the market. Ironically, “Gurls” is not the best summer song on the market. (Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” Mark Ronson’s “Bang Bang Bang,” and
Janelle Monáe’s “Locked Inside” are all of a higher caliber.) But Perry is not selling her song, per se. She’s selling California – which, despite its crippling debt and heinous White Zinfandel, isn’t likely to be outdone by Missouri or Connecticut on the public relations front. The state’s female contingent has been internationally renowned since Brian Wilson was but a gleam in his overbearing father’s eye. So, at bottom, Perry’s song functions to remind us of what we already know: that California girls are irresistible, unforgettable, and undeniable. Each of these adjective is used in the song’s lyrics, and they are easily the longest words that Katy deigns to toss at us fawning submentals. Summer songs are not composed to pique the intellect. If anything, they’re stridently insentient, awash in glad tidings and feel-good rhythms. “Gurls” delivers on both accounts, bringing the breezy, the bouncy, and the melodic in familysize portions. Perry co-wrote the track with a pair of Scandinavian Billboard busters, Dr. Luke and Max Martin. This translates into music that’s jam-packed with electronic ripples and computermanipulated emoting. The result, in effect, is a very good Miley Cyrus song. A synth-laden beat, tactfully smuggled over the border from parochial guido
to international house, flares up into a disco-glam guitar figure. It’s as if a Chic bass line were given a quick Prince polish, then hyperlinked to the 21st century. The track should have its own Twitter feed, if only to prove that it’s alive, self-aware, and of the moment. Perry’s vocals are demonstrably modern. When she sings “You could travel the world/But nothing comes close to the Golden coast,” her voice is Auto-Tuned into a condition of sterility. Despite its frequent references to scantily clad women, “Gurls” is ultimately too camp to be sexy. Its goal is to charm, not to titillate. Perhaps that’s why Perry turns to Snoop Dogg to lend the track an extra dizzle of narrative fluency. Snoop welcomes us to Cali with a short spoken-word intro, then ushers us out with a playful closing verse. In doing so he joins Ice Cube and Dr. Dre in the pantheon of West Coast rappers who have handed in their strap for a full clip of crossover appeal. The Dogfather has more or less been a high-profile musical prop ever since the “Beautiful” buzz died down in late 2003. He’ll work with anyone (see the Andrew Dice Clay collab), and he usually gets the job done. On “Gurls,” he spits short, suave rhymes, capping his guest stint with
“Katy, my lady/Lookie here, baby/I’m all up on ya/Cuz you representin’ California.” This is pretty prosaic stuff from a man who was once the poet laureate of Long Beach. But, in the end, we can’t help but think that it ain’t nothin’ but a G thang – as in, “How many G’s is Katy paying Snoop for this cameo?” Wes’side reputations don’t come cheap. It’s instructive to note that Perry considers “Gurls” to be something of an answer song to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” And while it’s a bit heady for KP to go tete-a-tete with Hovi, you can’t blame a California girl for trying. But you can call her out for falling short. I grew up directly across the river from Manhattan, in a satellite city that bundled a higher crime rate with a lower tax bracket. As such, I hold a Jersey-fortified antipathy toward the big-money grandeur and cultural arrogance of New York. Yet I still fell hook, line, and sinker for “Empire.” The beat is tight, the MC is a virtuoso, and the chorus girl’s got pipes that could channel the lower Hudson into Newark Bay. “Empire” captured the 24/7 hustle and flow that’s central to New York’s identity, both as the Tri-State’s backbone and the business capital of the world. The song’s sound, circumstance, and
drama conspired to induce chills. “Gurls” doesn’t supply the same anthemic firepower. It simply tickles your fancy until you scream “Uncle!” and succumb to a guiltless belly laugh. This may seem to be a lower form of art, but maybe that’s Perry’s point: Look to New York for the histrionics and the striving. Here in California, we’re all about entertainment. I can accept this explanation. I just hope that the East Coast-West Coast beef doesn’t regenerate its more malicious appendages. If Suge Knight were to smoke Alicia Keys, Ke$ha would have to be put down as a matter of consequence – which, on a strictly hypothetical level, might not be such a bad thing. Thankfully, however, we can stand reasonably assured that New York and Los Angeles will not only coexist amicably but feed off each other. Songs like “Gurls” and “Empire” reach such exalted heights because both coasts are pumping and priming the hype machine. When “Empire” started to fade, “Gurls” stepped in to pick up the slack. With an eye towards summer, it arrived with a trunk-load of silliness. (Have you seen the song’s video? It looks like a soft-core Fanta commercial.) Yet as the swimsuits and tank tops were unpacked, a telling
truth was revealed: Although the track’s sound is ersatz, its appeal is realer than Real Deal Holyfield. “Gurls” is a phenomenon of the first order. And as I ogle the myriad pop numbers that cross my laptop, I find myself opting for a slight modification of Brian Wilson’s classic refrain: I don’t wish they all could be California Gurls, but I’ll allow Ms. Perry to melt my Popsicle until something better comes along.
(June 24, 2010)
The Kills Pale Blue Eyes
The Levi’s Pioneer Sessions constitute the musical arm of the company’s “Go Forth” advertising campaign. If you’ve missed the TV spots, you’ve missed consortia of uncommonly athletic men and women running through fields and setting off fireworks, apparently at random and without regard for trespassing laws. As these kids streak, rampage, and generally whoop it up, a Whitman’s sampler of Leaves of Grass couplets are counted off in the voiceover. “Pioneers O Pioneers!” makes for logical source material, and its lines are quoted freely:
Come my tan-faced children Follow well in order, get your weapons ready Have you your pistols, have you your sharp-edged axes? ...We must bear the brunt of danger We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend By the end of the spot, your blood is stirred and your loins are lubed. But you’re also left scratching your head. What, exactly, have you just witnessed? A Hitler Youth recruitment film? An especially strident preamble to Season Two of Jersey Shore? Or a uniquely American call to arms? I happen to be a pretty big Walt Whitman fan. As a writer, he swung for the fences even as he imagined a world where fences would be rendered immaterial. In the context of the Pioneer Sessions, however, don’t his words sound just a trifle bigoted? “Tan faces” and “sinewy races” recondition the conventional jeans commercial as a Digital Age exercise in eugenics. As any student of history can tell you, manifest destiny loses some of its romance after that destiny has been made manifest – particularly when it’s clotted with lynchings, border skirmishes, and dead Indians. We might want to move beyond an ideology that predates Plessy v.
Ferguson. Reconstruction was a real bitch, especially for the dungareed classes. But let’s drop the politics for the moment, and focus on the tunes. The Pioneer Sessions, quite ironically, are a Levi’s-mediated program of covers songs. Contemporary artists rework classic pop, rock, and hip hop joints, pioneering nothing but the degree of corporate outreach into the independent music scene. From a thematic standpoint, Levi’s would have been wiser to shelve “Pioneers O Pioneers!” in favor of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In this poem, Walt states “I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again, look for me under your bootsoles.” Kind of flips the cosmos on “Don’t tread on me!,” doesn’t it? “Song” is the most generous of Whitman poems. The writer reframes eternal life as an organic resurrection, in which every foot that descends into the soil upturns a thousand sleeping spirits. This is a great metaphor for a covers collection. After all, what is a cover song if not an earnest retread? And I’ll say this for the Sessions: The covers that Levi’s have unearthed to date run the gamut from the earnest to the spectacular. Highlights
include Nas’ sleek update of Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World,” the Dirty Projectors’ good-humored treatment of Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” and the Shins’ acoustic version of Squeeze’s “Goodbye Girl.” Overall, the terrain has been friendly, and comes with welcome variations in topography. The Session’s latest release, the Kills’ take on the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” is notable for its retrospective revelation: If the Kills’ Alison Mosshart had been around in 1967, Nico would have been out of a job and Lou Reed might have found a muse less destructive than heroin. Mosshart sings the track masterfully – which, in a sense, means that she doesn’t sing it at all. “Pale Blue Eyes” is never going to cue a running of the bulls, be they in Pamplona or on Wall Street. The song is a quiet resignation, lamenting a love lost and an idyll defaced. As such, it’s kind of an anti-Pioneer anthem. Rather than go forth, “Pale Blue Eyes” hangs backs, content to arrive fifth, sixth, seventh, or twenty-eighth – whichever number manages to help the protagonist lose all semblance of momentum. The Velvets excelled at down-tempo drone and sonic indolence, with the space between their notes indicating a
rough mix of laziness and intoxication. I can’t think of a song I’d rather not run through a field to than “Pale Blue Eyes.” Its stark minimalism is the very antithesis of Whitman’s transcendental bounty. Yet the song obviously proved inspirational to Mosshart and her Kills collaborator, Jamie Hince – otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen to cover it. The duo remain convincingly faithful to the original, just adding a little more rollick and sobriety. Where Reed and company sound dreamy and untethered, Mosshart and Hince have their boots on the ground. Beneath their soles lay tighter chords and more discernible feelings. Hince’s strumming is slack but wary, ever vigilant for the chorus and the next verse. Mosshart’s vocals recall a punkier, artier Chrissie Hynde, discovering that her city, her innocence, and her man were gone. Still, she survives, calmly articulating Reed’s distinctions between conception and reality: “I thought of you as my mountain top/I thought of you as my peak/I thought of you as everything I could not keep.” The vibe is less outright surrender – to sorrow, pity, and self-loathing – than casual forgiveness. In this way, the
Kills’ “Pale Blue Eyes” sparkle with some of the cautious optimism of Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” which Johnette Napolitano memorably closes by intoning “Joey, I’m not angry anymore.” The Kills don’t sound angry, just a bit disappointed. This sentiment is in keeping with the left-of-normal scene that the Velvets helped launch. If “Pale Blue Eyes” came out today, Pitchfork would be on it like white on rice, championing it as a zeitgeist track. And they’d be right: The song sounds current in ways that “Come Together,” “Sugar, Sugar,” and “I Heard It Through the Grape Vine” simply can’t. The great pop bands of the 1960s, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, weren’t afraid to experiment, to bounce off the walls until their blood began to boil and their skin became scabbed. But the Velvets always did them one better: They ripped the scab away in one quick, fearless motion, leaving blood on the floor. They were the pioneers – the youthful sinewy race on whom the future of independent rock depended. Mosshart and Hince do a nice job of documenting the history that the Underground set in motion. Their “Pale Blue Eyes” is as much of the
here and now – finding kinship with LCD Soundsystem’s “All I Want” – as it is of the then and there – borrowing some of the negative charge from the Velvets’ “Sister Ray.” In the process, it captures the in-between, sounding like the Modern Lovers singing about modern love. Graded as an item of observation, rather than revolution, the song shines. It won’t foment free dope or fucking in the streets – but, for a jeans commercial, it’s not half bad.
(July 21, 2010)
Blitzen Trapper Destroyer of the Void
In his capacity as lead singer and songwriter for Blitzen Trapper, Eric Earley has shown striking aptitude for verse-chorus-verse constructions. Tracks such as “Furr,” “Wild Mountain Nation,” and “God & Suicide” carry the sobriety of bardy precision even as they flaunt the abandon of electric rock and roll. Earley often seems dedicated to wielding his wares in the service of a classic rock reclamation project, wherein stalwarts like Neil Young and Bob Dylan join hands with upstarts like Ten Years After and the James Gang. But his music also saves room for modern themes and latter-day influences, including Beck, Pavement,
and Wilco. These artists supply the lo-fi, slacker tones that help prevent Blitzen’s songs from becoming too tight or cerebral. After all, Harvest and Blood on the Tracks have been done before – and no post-millennial band stands a chance of topping the originals. “Destroyer of the Void” represents a semi-surprising change of direction for Blitzen. It’s not that they’ve forsaken Harvest or Blood; it’s that they’ve spliced the acoustic pride of midSeventies Young and Dylan onto the DNA of Dark Side of the Moon. On “Destroyer,” the prairie winds meet the lunar fringe, and the point of intersection sounds strangely like the Beatles adrift in the cosmos. Earley does away with linear narration and the trusty refrain, burying his old spells like a Pacific Northwest Prospero. Still, more than a modicum of Blitzen’s early magic remains, largely because Earley can separate “concept” from “structure,” and write a song that remains thematically intact despite frequent shifts in style and tempo. I won’t lie to you: “Destroyer” does occasionally skirt the outer borders of listener comprehension. That said, listener comprehension is not a prerequisite for listening pleasure. The
track gives no quarter to art school elitisms, whereby the challenge of “getting it” usurps the commitment to songcraft. Earley never attempts to deceive or outsmart us; he simply makes it plain that, on this particular journey, he prefers the detour to the paved road. Clocking in at six-plus minutes, and composed of four distinct song suites, “Destroyer” is as dynamic a freak-folk song as anything we’ve heard during the Chillwave Era. It’s a kind of sonic second cousin to MGMT’s “Flash Delirium,” with melodies and motifs that last for just a few bars, then are torn asunder by the imagination of the composer. Which is not to say that “Destroyer” is discordant or abrasive. If I was forced to describe the song in one word, I’d go with “harmonious.” And I’d do it for two reasons: 1) Blitzen’s vocal harmonies are pitch perfect throughout the track, and 2) Earley’s sequential song suites operate in concert to form a unified whole. The effect is not a collection of short stories but a series of book chapters, each subordinating individual glory for collective integrity. The suites are best understood as loose patches of rock history stitched together by highly competent
musicians. For its first minute, “Destroyer” is in thrall to CSN harmonies that allude to Queen at their most bohemian and rhapsodic. Harpsichord-like keys soon enter the pool of voices, providing a crash course in the studio phrases of the Beatles: The warm psychedelics recall Magical Mystery Tour, while the forlorn strings remind us of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” This contemplative chapter gives way to astral synths and copious “ohh”s and “ahh”s, flipping the Beatles weathercock in the direction of “Lovely Rita” and “Something.” Yet as the track ambles forward, the George Harrison textures slowly morph into a Joe Walsh guitar solo. This arenarock flourish informs the next episode, which sounds like Axl Rose covering Mountain. The pace picks up, fingers become fleeter, and feet start to stomp. Earley sings like he’s got a rattlesnake in his throat, lending shake and sizzle to every vocal line. This third suite will please long-time Blitzen devotees, as it follows the band’s signature formula: versedriven struggle resolved in a choral catharsis. But before the listener gets too comfortable or nostalgic, Earley downshifts into the song’s final section,
a piano ballad that’s equally earthy and ethereal. “Destroyer” is the title track from Blitzen’s most recent album, and it’s in this soft, spacey, searching place that the LP reveals its essence. The record is a bildungsroman without bombast, and the single is something of a synecdoche: An abbreviated representation of the aggregate, complete with wild ideas and grounded testimony. Earley may have ignored the amber lights of the four-minute mark, but he keeps his lyrics clipped and crisp. “Destroyer” begins with the line, “Here’s to the lone and wayward son,” a lean phrase that somehow conflates T. S. Eliot’s “Let us begin then, you and I” with the cornfed rock of Kansas. Blitzen are high and low, realistic and romantic, alternating road-weary wit (“I fell in with men who were wicked in the end”) with misty visions of dragons, wizards, and similarly symbolic characters from the Land of Make Believe. This marriage of man and myth defines “Destroyer,” which plays a bit like Dylan on acid. (The song is tangled up in tambourine men, if you will.) Its story is prone to loops and tangents, but the tale’s hero brings it on home in the end. When Earley sings “The future is winging like a bird/Out over the void/ And all my petty crimes and curses,
they are destroyed,” he completes the arc of sin and redemption. It might sound like wishful thinking, but is hope really all that audacious when one’s dues have been paid, one’s stature has been earned, and one’s guitar is decidedly in tune?
His voice is one of the five deadliest weapons in contemporary pop music, the other four being Jay-Z’s digital Rolodex, Max Martin’s production board, Lady Gaga’s hat rack, and Justin Bieber’s undescended testes. Among the contributors to this
Like country rock and plugged-in folk, cynical pop has been done before, and done exceedingly well. So perhaps Earley is telling us that it’s time for Bright Side of the Moon. The lunatic remains on the grass, but he’s free to dash headlong into the forest without fear of capture or punishment. The Blitzen songbook has always been open to the possibilities of, well, possibilities. And while “Destroyer” is a break from the past, it honors the band’s “Don’t fence me in” ethic. You’re free to choose your own adventure. Then you’re beholden to deal the consequences. Rock and roll is a big-tent affair, but it has no room for the unimaginative.
(July 1, 2010)
fearsome arsenal, only Jay and Ray can make credible claims to immortality. Both produce music that’s fit for annals – in Jay’s case, the annals of urban cool; in Ray’s case, the annals of frontier anxiety. Nearly all of LaMontagne’s songs feature a man in the midst of crisis, seeking a token female comfort or the redemptive buzz of manual labor. On his very first single, “Jolene,” Ray put it this way: “A man needs something he can hold on to/A 9-pound hammer or a woman like you.” I’ve heard these lines more than a hundred times, and they still elicit a standing ovation from the hairs on the back of my neck. Some of the blame can be accorded to the beauty of the lyric. But most of the culpability belongs to Ray’s husky, beleaguered baritone.
Ray LaMontagne Beg Steal or Borrow
Even on the doggiest of summer days, Ray LaMontagne can give you chills.
LaMontagne’s latest single, “Beg Steal or Borrow,” isn’t quite as raw or affecting as his Trouble-era material, but it hosts the quiet desperation that’s long pervaded his acoustic canon.
The song’s themes are evergreen: ennui and wanderlust – or, translated into the vernacular of American folk, closed minds and open roads. This tradition, however, is tempered by a small slice of novelty: LaMontagne now has an official backing band, the Pariah Dogs, who patch up the empty spaces that a solo performer is obliged to leave unattended. This adds girth to Ray’s sound even as it robs it of the immediacy that “one man, one guitar” seems expressly designed to deliver. “Beg” is warmer and thicker than “Jolene,” yet it has little of the latter’s bleary-eyed starkness or material urgency. This track conjures emotions, not tears. And it communicates that LaMontagne, for better or for worse, has pushed past the boundaries of first-person songwriting. Consider the song’s first line: “So your hometown’s bringing you down.” On Trouble, Ray would have scrambled the perspective, and gone with “My hometown’s bringing me down” – or perhaps something less direct and more poetic, so as to color the composition confused, wayward, and romantic. But this is not Trouble. And this is not Ray LaMontagne circa 2004. His maturity is marked by his ability to transcend the self and become a story teller divorced from personal
involvement in the story. If before he was confessing, now he’s testifying. Let’s not make too much of this adjustment in narrative handle. LaMontagne’s most bankable asset is still his voice, a bellow that packages grit and grace in a manner that recalls Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, and Bobby Womack. Part country, part soul, this voice gives “Beg” a steady hand and an honest intensity. Ray paints a Hopper-like portrait of small-town angst, his claustrophobic protagonist itching for a taste of whatever the highway might bring. The single slowly blossoms into a harvest of old influences and contemporary passions. It packs the sober drive of Neil Young’s “Old Man” and the country twang of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Teach Your Children,” thus reimagining the aesthetic possibilities of the CSNY franchise. It also carries the backwoods stomp that Jack White recently brought back to Nashville, as well as the unplugged, “let-it-grow” fervor that Blitzen Trapper and Fleet Foxes have planted in the Pacific Northwest. When you combine this pastoral conviction with postmodern unease, you get LaMontagne’s call to action: “One of these days it’s gonna be right/ Soon you’ll find your legs and go/And stay gone.”
This take-to-the-road spirit is part and parcel of Outlaw Country. But it’s also the essence of second-generation classic rock, a genre that derives much of its directional integrity from “We gotta get out while we’re young/’Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run!” Take away the exclamation mark and you’re left with the dry-palmed gravity that LaMontagne imparts to “Beg.” By replacing the Jersey fist pump with a hinterland beard stroke, Ray converts the fuel of Born to Run into the fire of Darkness on the Edge of Town. His song’s chorus – “Young man, full of big plans/Thinking about tomorrow/Young man, you’re gonna make a stand/You beg, you steal, you borrow” – could be the rich man’s rebuttal to the attitudes expressed in “Badlands.” And the final couplets of the final verse – “Dreamin’ of the day you’re gonna pack your bags, put the miles away/Just grab your girl and go where no one knows you/Oh, what will all the old folks say?” – sounds an awful lot like the entreaty that Springsteen used to seal the fate of “Prove It All Night”: Baby, tie your hair back in a long white bow Meet me in the fields, behind the dynamo You hear their voices telling you not to go
They’ve made their choices and they’ll never know What it means to steal, to cheat, to lie What it’s like to live and die To prove it all night The difference, of course, is the degree of estrangement; which, almost as a matter of course, plays like a difference in the degree of commitment. Whereas the Boss has hatched his own escape plan – and is trying desperately to convince his girl that his love, his ambition, and his promises are worth the risk – LaMontagne is merely reporting on another man’s predicament. The crisis is still there, but it’s existential rather than elemental, with the protagonist thinking too much and doing too little. There’s a truth to this approach. In the planetary aggregate, more small-town flights are conceived than carried through. But the drama, as it were, is with the getaway car. If a young man is willing to beg, steal, or borrow, then he should be ready to steal, cheat, and lie – that is, to lay it all on the line and never look back. Sure, such terminology places us squarely in the theater of the cliché; but clichés only become clichés because they’re commonly understood. This familiarity eventually breeds contempt, as the
phrase is overused to the point of vulgarity. Good songwriting, however, should be vulgar, meaning that it’s obliged to allow a certain measure of demotic comprehension and popular buy-in. But it should also be refined, demanding that its craftsman show an uncommon flair for the interplay of sound, word, and image. Songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Ray LaMontagne are national treasures because they need just three chords and four minutes to turn the mundane into the extraordinary. On “Beg,” LaMontagne doesn’t quite complete this magical transformation. We get his voice, which is beautiful, but we don’t get his personal perspective, which is essential. There’s gossip in this grain, but it feels oddly detached, like a second-hand account made to stand in for the whispers of the prime mover. I’d prefer Ray uncensored, unfiltered, and unfettered. He’s talented enough to go it alone.
(July 5, 2010)
Mark Ronson & the Business Intl Lose It (In the End)
Mark my words: Record Collection, the hotly anticipated LP from Mark Ronson & his Business Intl, will be the pop album of the year. This is not an entirely naked prediction. I make it on the strength of three pre-released singles – “Bang Bang Bang,” “Lose It (In the End),” and “The Bike Song” – which, in their aggregate, feature a transatlantic guest list that includes everyone but Mary Queen of Scots. Each song is infused with the zeitgeist, playing out that ever-deliberate battle between the high-tech and the human, the turntable and the guitar rack, the dance floor and the concert stage. Ronson not only has his finger on the pulse of Young Anglo-America, he’s also dictating the normative range of beats per minute. His headphones serve as something of a stethoscope: The man is Dr. Pop, alternately supplying remedies and issuing prognoses. “Lose It” is his most compelling brand of medicine – not because it goes it down easier than “Bang” or “Bike,” but because it has a longer period of efficacy. I’ve been listening to the track several times a day for the past two weeks, and it’s still growing on me. The
beat is epic, occupying the heretofore unpopulated sphere between a truncated Bach toccata and an ampedup version of “The Legend of Zelda” theme. It’s both Baroque and digital, balancing technical command with contrapuntal swagger, as if to prove that the act of “dropping science” can be performed either in the laboratory or on the street corner. Much of this science is dropped by Ghostface Killah, the V.I.P. MC whom Ronson recruits to spark the track. Ghost bounds into the beat, bringing an earnest grit to the song’s pulsating, video game undertone. Like all WuTang veterans, Ghost knows how to back you up and beguile you at the same time, issuing vague threats and pointed humor in rapid sequence. For my money, the track’s choicest couplet concerns Ghost’s take on the lubricants of love: “I stay in clubs drinkin’ the white gin/’Cuz y’all girls is poison, peace to Mike Bivins.” That’s the first Bell Biv DeVoe reference I’ve heard since the mid-Nineties. And Ghost pulls it off without a hitch, quickly moving from old friends to newer editions. His two verses are short but memorable: all Killah, no filler. The toughest job on “Lose It” falls to Alex Greenwald, lead singer of
Phantom Planet and returning Ronson collaborator. He draws the unenviable task of bookending Ghost’s guest verses with an airy R&B hook. Those familiar with Wu lore will recall that the only man deemed fit to introduce Ghost is the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard. I doubt that Greenwald would deign to lace up ODB’s mud-caked Tims, but, in the interest of Ronson’s track, he serviceably carries the vocal component, sounding at once poppy and forlorn – that is, English. After all, the Business Intl are not quite as cosmopolitan as their name might imply. Their formula, as devised by Ronson, is to conflate American hip hop with British dance pop. This is a slight deviation from Ronson’s previous obsession, which was to pair U.K. neosoul with classic Motown. Inevitably, both productions derive from the same place: the post-millennial recording studio. Ronson is like a three-star chef in a test kitchen – prone to intrepid experimentation, but smart enough to keep the ingredients palatable. His genre-bending is impressive because it’s not forced. Ronson largely adheres to the blues-based traditions of the American and English pop canons, mixing R&B with hip hop and rock with funk.
This is a rather polite way of saying that he doesn’t punish his audience with cold, unattenuated, Moroderized forms. Twenty-minute synthscapes, all hard and minimalist, are simply not his style. “Lose It” clocks in at a swift 2:27. Contained therein is an expert instrumental build, Greenwald’s deft interludes, Ghost’s wicked rhymes, several hype horn samples, and a closing bell of pounding percussion. Ronson’s track covers a lot of ground, but it’s neither overconceptualized nor underdisciplined. It’s a generous, master-class caliber pop gem. I’m proud to have it in my record collection. And I look forward to meeting its brothers and sisters.
(August 14, 2010)
wide enough stance to accommodate three distinct generations, like a Patek Philippe watch or the effects of a faulty chromosome. Such singles are useful because their onset of action isn’t staggered. Mom, sis, and grandpa could conceivably initiate an a capella version of the tune at the Thanksgiving dinner table, in between servings of turkey and pumpkin pie. Pitch and key aside, I’d argue that this impromptu serenade is actually a good thing, not just for familial bonding but for national accord. Let’s frame this debate in the fields of 2010’s pop crop. At some point during the year, you’ve probably experienced Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” or Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” either in audio or video form. Choose one track as your baseline variable, then ask yourself the following question, even if it’s entirely hypothetical: Could this song maintain
cee-Lo Green Fuck You
Although the year in pop music is getting a little long in the tooth, it’s been decidedly short on the type of one-size-fits-all anthems that mislead us into thinking that America still has some semblance of cultural unity. I’m speaking of songs that push the threshold of universality, striking a
the collective interest of me, my children, and my parents for more than a two-week period? I’m going to hazard a guess. And that guess is an emphatic “No.” Not because the songs are inherently flawed or improperly marketed, but because pop music now adheres to the promotional strategies of blockbuster film: The opening weekend means everything – so the
emphasis is placed on the preview, not the feature. We expect epic turnover in content and don’t like to look back more than a month or so, for fear of being called a straggler. Songs have got to put up or shut up, which means that many worthy singles are buried prematurely, often to the sound of silence. I’m hoping that this will not be the case for Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” The track’s title will obviously fortify its appeal to the under-18 set, who require at least one expletive or sexual reference per pop single. But make no mistake: “Fuck You” is not a novelty song. It succeeds in spite of (rather than because of) its name. Green dresses his track in casual chic attire, supplying a head-bobbing rhythm and a finger-snapping beat, each of which is indebted to Motown’s Funk Brothers and ATL’s prime hip-hop export, OutKast. Ultimately, the best measure of the song’s merit is expressed in a single data point: its level of infectiousness. On a scale of 1 to 10, “Fuck You” scores an 11 and change. It’s effective immediately, like a bracing squirt of hand sanitizer, a tart letter of resignation, or “Hey Ya!” Yet it’s not all wind up and no pitch. The song
holds its grip for the duration of its run time, from verse to chorus to bridge. If anything, it gets progressively better, channeling its pressure gauge from firehose to fountain, leaving the listener drenched in liquid gyrations of melodic glory. I can think of only one contemporary pop single that’s as instantly arresting as “Fuck You”: Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” But even this comparison is faulty, largely because we’re dealing with a fundamental difference in caliber. In terms of overall infectiousness, Robyn merely transmits a stomach flu. Cee-Lo, on the other hand, delivers an STD heretofore undocumented in the clinical literature. To be less clever, and more callous, the difference between the communicability of “Dancing on My Own” and “Fuck You” is analogous to the difference between the relative severity of HIV and AIDS. I use an insensitive analogy because “Fuck You” is designed to elicit a strong reaction from the listener. The lyrics are addressed to a recent ex, whom Green encounters amidst his daily routines and rituals. She’s with her new boyfriend, and the passing of the proverbial torch lights the fuse on Cee-Lo’s barrage of f-bombs.
The cursing is neither gratuitous nor especially angry; “F U!” is simply the default reaction to witnessing one’s lady with another man. We’re working with known knowns here: She’s clearly a whore and he’s clearly a douche. So why not exploit the universality of the situation? That’s the irony of Cee-Lo’s pop masterpiece: Here we have the most radio-friendly single of the year, and its title precludes it from being played on the radio. Luckily for Green, no one actually listens to radio anymore. His track will blow up on the Internet, spreading like wildfire along the California coast. If he hopes to make any money off “Fuck You,” he’d better release it on iTunes before I finish writing this sentence, like Taylor Swift would’ve done in the event of a leak. One song, however great, isn’t going to sustain his momentum all the way up to his album’s tentative release date, in December.
smooth and steady. “Fuck You” takes an alternate route, using Cee-Lo’s inimitable pipes and hyper-honest lyrics as its central selling points. Like another soul man with the last name Green, Cee-Lo doesn’t sing so much as sang. He can shift from falsetto to croon in a single vocal line, allowing the emotive to overpower the intellectual. If “Crazy” was the cerebral Cee-Lo, this is him at his most instinctual. His wounds manifest in the form of blame and petty derision. “If I was richer/I’d still be with ya,” he testifies, later upping the ante with “I pity the foo-ooo-ool/Who falls in love with you,” perhaps hoping that his melisma will soften the slight. The Best Supporting Vocals statuette goes to Cee-Lo’s partners in harmony, who throw in a timely “Ooops she’s a gold digga/Just thought you should know ni**a.” The delivery is so charming that you’ll forget that Kanye West used the same rhyme scheme five years ago. Cee-Lo, however, is intrinsically
But let’s not worry about that now. Instead, let’s enjoy the track’s transfixing piano clunk, soaring harmonies, and jingle-jangle guitar. The latter element reminds me of the Spinners’ “It’s A Shame,” another lamentation on the faithless woman, but one where the R&B comes
different from Kanye, Big Boi, and virtually every other “urban” artist in pop music. His vulnerabilities are the essence of his appeal, not something to be revealed merely to counter charges of egomania. Green projects a sort of anti-swagger, in which he’s always being undermined by some
uncontrollable urge or irresistible force. On “Crazy,” it was manic depression. On “Fuck You,” it’s a lady. Both times, the muse inspired a cathartic track. By professing his lunacy, Cee-Lo seemed to negotiate the task of transcending it. And by flipping off his ex, he’s taken the first step toward forgetting her. This song is that rare track worthy of vintage Prince: wronged but upbeat, profane but confessional, simple but funky. “Fuck You” closes with a bout of emasculated desperation, moving from tenuous resolve to cry-baby appeals. When Cee-Lo sees his little red Corvette being piloted around town by another fellow, he comes spectacularly undone, pleading “Baby baby baby why ya wanna hurt me so bad?/I tried to tell my mama but she told me ‘This is one for your dad’.” The first line could come from a Smokey Robinson ballad, the second from an early Beatles number. CeeLo winks even as he weeps, evincing a musical economy that’s perfectly attuned to today’s social media, where curse-addled multitasking is not just recommended but compulsory. That said, Cee-Lo is probably a bit too uncompromising to conquer the mp3 generation, never mind their CD- and vinyl-toting forebearers.
He refuses to recognize the hard boundaries between the confessional and the anthemic, so his work tends to alternate between seduction and concussion. “Fuck You” aspires to master both conditions by juggling a personal statement with a universal narrative. In practical terms, this means that the song can’t decide whether it wants to be liked by millions or loved by thousands. To be fair, pop songs never had to make this decision when content was valuable and radio was viable. But “Fuck You” doesn’t have the luxury of an Alan Freed or a Casey Kasem. It’s an anthem cruelly deprived of a flag to salute – so it assembles a salute all its own, using little more than a frown of disgust and an extended middle finger. For some, this constitutes a freak flag. For others, it represents a naughty little caprice. For me, however, the filth and the funk coalesce into the best pure pop single of the year. Whether or not we’re willing to admit it, America needs this song. It shouldn’t let a four-letter word stand in its way, even if it’s used with extreme prejudice and frightening repetition. Perhaps today’s pop music has to be adequately offended before it can cease to be thoroughly offensive. Sure, this is an opportunistic conjecture;
and, yes, I duly concede that your contrary opinion is just as worthy as mine. But if you’re more outraged by Cee-Lo’s language than the fact that “Love the Way You Lie” has been the #1 song in the country for more than a month, we’ll be hard pressed to find even the slightest sliver of common ground. This polarization is symptomatic of America’s current state of intractability. We have many problems, from the economic to the existential, but I think our musical crisis still demands some token attention. Simply put, a nation of, by, and for the people deserves a
far better soundtrack. Cee-Lo is trying to provide it. And since we’re fortunate enough to live in a liberal democracy, we’re blessed with two distinct choices: Either buy in or get the fuck out of his way. Vote red or blue, early or often, for change or for stasis – but, for God’s sake, at least have the conviction to show up at the polls. Our pop franchise is too valuable to bequeath to an oligarchy of rhythmless MBAs. Let’s take America back, one Billboard slot at a time.
(August 22, 2010)
aboUT THe aUTHoR
Anthony M. Verdoni is the president of Green & Byrd, a fledgling advertising firm based in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He has written about pop music for the better part of four years, garnering several meaningless awards that needn’t be specified here. He holds diplomas and/or post-due tuition bills from such schools as Boston College, Rutgers University, Princeton University, and P.S. 33 of Jersey City. Singles On Speed is his first book. He intends to write another – but he’s not sure when, how, or why.
Singles On Speed is dedicated to Kenny Marino (1943 - 2010), a classical music fan who was cruelly deprived of his coda.