Friday, January 29, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Electrik Red doing "Freaky Freaky" (CAUTION: TOO SEXY)

The sound world in "Freaky Freaky" is made up of several things I'm a total sucker for. The opening synth stutter sounds like it was lifted wholesale from Timberlake/Timbaland's "My Love," easily one of the past decade's greatest huge hits. The voices keep doing crazy things, like call-and-responding falsetto "fricky-fricky"s with some electro dude nodding "aw aw", and following THAT up with the overly dramatic "OOH OOH OOH OOH" hook. There's even some cute Prince-like text painting when the morning dove sings "tweet tweet tweet". The whole song is a colorful feast of disparate sounds. Feast away!

You can guess what the song's about, but honestly, the words didn't even register until I read them online. It's all a bunch of "baby sex-stuff" (as Randy Newman once characterized Prince lyrics, positively) like "If my body's a club, you're my disco ball." The most interesting line, apart from the sound fx quoted above, is probably the oft-repeated rap, "Love when the DJ, DJ play my shit, my shit." The line conjures up images of Electrik Red hearing their song and bragging to their conquests WHILE getting freaky freaky. In some interview somewhere, Janet Jackson says it's weird when that happens.

This tune, like most Electrik Red songs, was written and produced by The-Dream with his partner in music, Tricky Stewart. Together these guys are responsible for three of my favorite songs from the last decade: Rihanna's "Umbrella," J. Holiday's "Bed" (which shares "Freaky"'s sense of overwrought drama), and Beyonce's "Single Ladies," for which they should win every Grammy in sight this Sunday. In addition, they came up with the first Mariah song I've liked in a long time, "Touch My Body."

Look at the variety among those songs! "Umbrella"'s an impassive mountain; the song's words are comforting, but it guarantees its promises with the transcendent steely power of its beats and bassline and Rihanna's voice. You're glad to have "Umbrella" on your side, and you sort of feel bad for the rain. "Bed" is all pleading psychodrama, the desperate cry of a man who needs It worse than anyone outside his head can imagine, so he'll say whatever it takes. "Single Ladies" is an almost Spartan contrast to Dream/Tricky's normally stuffed palette; the unusual beat is all*, every element is exposed for observation, with the little random background squiggles just as vital as Beyonce herself. And "Touch My Body" is warm, plush, funny Mariah, just a rung down from the others. I haven't done the math, but that could well add up to a collection of hits as impressive as anyone racked up in the '00s.

*"All" except for Beyonce's voice, of course, and the vocal harmonies, and the massive bassline that shows up periodically, etc...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Surfing With White Heart and Steve Taylor

Since Surfing in Babylon has allotted blog space to Satanists and metaphorical Satanists, it's time we offer the Christian rock community a forum for rebuttal. First up: White Heart, from their excellent excellent '89 album Freedom, this is "Bye Bye Babylon":

As you might expect from Christian rockers, White Heart give us a little sermon-in-song. In verse one they look back at historical Babylon; in verse two they apply the lessons of Babylon to today's world. (Steve Taylor will do something similar below, only more subtly and less well.) Interestingly enough, the 'Heart's take on Babylon isn't particularly Biblical, except for its Judeo-Christian bias. That is, they don't focus on the Exile or on any other specific Biblical texts; Babylon is just a big impressive civilization that didn't worship God, and today lies in ruins. If this song was your only frame of reference, you'd never know that Babylon enslaved the Israelites. White Heart's Babylon could just as well be Assyria or the Persian Empire, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference to the song.

Well.... maybe a BIT of difference, for two reasons:

1. White Heart's Babylon is a "monument to pride," which alludes to the Tower of Babel story and its most common interpretation.

2. Since Babylon is the Bible's second-most-mentioned ancient civilization--right behind Israel--White Heart's Christian fans can more immediately relate to the image. White Heart are sort of exploiting the free-lunch symbolic associations we already give Babylon, thanks to the fact that John the Revelator and his prophetic predecessors imbued the place with oppositional symbolic meaning centuries ago. They did the work so White Heart wouldn't have to.

What's White Heart's main takeaway message? "Don't be Babylon!" (Did I get that right, guys?) Though again, it's not QUITE what you'd expect. They're ambivalently didactic with their advice. Here's verse two:

"Rocket ride through time and space,
It's 2088--
They're diggin' around in the dust of what we've done.
Now people study me,
I'm a part of history;
Oh, did we leave them another Babylon?
Is there evidence of spiritual revival,
Or did we leave a land of broken idols?

They're not pulling a Pat Robertson, saying "If we worship idols, we'll be destroyed." In White Heart's theology, you get destroyed regardless of who you worship. (And apparently, America will be dust by 2088. Good times.) But wait: then they sing this in the chorus:

"If God is not our strength and song
It's good-bye Babylon!

Unless I'm misreading them, White Heart seem confused about providence, about causality and their own Deuteronomic convictions. (Whatever the case, "Bye Bye Babylon" is certainly more coherent than Cryoshell's song of the same name.) I could very well be misreading the White Hearts; doing so makes them sound SO much more reasonable. An alternate reading might say that if God IS our strength and song, the future people sifting through our dust will be fellow Americans; whereas if God is NOT our strength and song, America will lie in ruins and when the Chinese finally arrive to collect on their debt, they'll be in for a very big surprise.

This theme, of Babylon as Dead Civilization, is fairly common. It notably appears in Celtic Frost's "Babylon Fell" ('87), which we'll get to someday.

Next up is Steve Taylor's "Babylon," from his '87 album I Predict 1990. "Babylon"'s not very good; Steve's often sarcastic and funny, or at least catchy, and this song is none of the above. (Other songs on 1990 include "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better" and the brilliantly titled, apparently controversial "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good," about an ice cream man who's an anti-abortion zealot for financial reasons.)

Taylor's Babylon seems to depict a Hebrew child of the Exile, torn between the lure of Babylon's worldly expertise ("Come and learn," she beckons) and the promise of something better from "the heavens." Does this not parallel our contemporary life? Aren't we torn between vicissitudes of science and faith? Do we not dance around with light sources both spot and torch, if you believe the very dated video?

According to both Taylor and White Heart, Babylon has walls and idols, and they could very well be the same place. Both Babylons seem nice from a worldly point of view--White Heart's offers "strength and security, comfort and safety", while Taylor's has learning, or something. Taylor's seems more negative because his narrator is in the final throes of disillusionment, but the two are still compatible--you could imagine Steve Taylor showing up in White Heart's song to wave his light sources around. Most importantly to their meaning, both songs see Babylon in contemporary America, and both say God provides more than what Babylon's got to offer. If you confuse your country with God, you do so at your peril--which is a refreshing lesson to hear from Christians, especially if you've been watching too much Fox News.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Brad Paisley doing "Then" (and also Change doing "The Glow of Love")

Hearing "Then" on the radio today, I realized the song is kind of about itself, at least in my world. That is, it keeps growing on me, and that's after I voted for it in a year-end poll, and after I've stuck up for it over on ILM's Rolling Country thread. But today it was even more touching, relatable, and perfect, like an image of my life here in Two-Thousand and Ten, so I thanked the song and said, "And I thought I loved you then." (This increase in love is kind of a relief, proof to myself that I didn't overrate it.) By all means click and listen:

"Then" is better than most sappy prom ballads, in part because its verse melody sets the song up to be in a minor key, which is unusual for a happy song. The minor opening gives the song some additional depth. It creates a wistful tinge of longing and maybe even uncertainty--is this going to be a sad song? Does she get run over by a train or something? But once we get to the soaring major chorus and we realize everything's OK, Brad Paisley's love sounds even happier for having made it through the minor-ness.

In 1980, Change's song "The Glow of Love," featuring Luther Vandross's first prominent lead vocal, employed a similar happy-minor strategy. This song's even better than "Then," and notice how the first three notes of their piano riffs are the same (5,3,2). Coincidence? Yeah, I'm sure it is.

On Youtube, the Change comments are mostly music-related; they talk about how great Luther was, and how great Michael Jackson was (sister Janet sampled "The Glow of Love" in "All For You"). The Brad Paisley comments, on the other hand, are mostly shout-outs and dedications, tributes to real life love and how people use this song in their actual lives. Will we still be using it in 30 years? "Then" is so perfectly crafted, it should be sturdy enough to survive, no problem.

Friday, January 22, 2010

This new Liquid Divine album is Not Worth It

Liquid Divine

Autophobia, by German electro-dudes Liquid Divine, starts off great. The first three songs are like a mini course in "Synths I Like 101"--big ol' elektro backbeat, lots of bouncy synth layers, shimmery fake-string overlay with the majestic sweep of Lawrence doing Arabia. Raspy singer Guido doesn't fare too well, but he disguises his voice with enough Grandmaster Flash "Scorpio" FX that it doesn't matter too much. If Guido and his producing partner Christian kept up this pace throughout, we'd have a solid genre release tailor made for Saturday night at the Exit club (or, in my case, the Radio Shack--good times!).

Alas, it's not to be. With song #4, "Ghost," we leave the straightforward thumping and enter busy-beat territory, which sounds like the Pet Shop Boyz when they're trying to get fancy, or like "Tom's Diner"--only without the tunes. Kick drums start hitting on offbeats and songs lose their power. Occasionally the drums even drop out so that Guido can whisper about his tears and whatnot. Ug.

Even the song "Cocoon," which starts off fairly bangin', turns boring. Scorpio's back, they regain some momentum--I'm ready to be reeled back in, boyz! But then the cool kickdrum goes away, to be replaced by more boring...DIFFUSE...16th beats. If you have a cool beat, don't mess it up, man! It's like when we moved the old bookcase and we thought about knocking out a shelf so we could put the TV on it, but I couldn't get the shelf out! I tried unscrewing, hammering, prying, everything my Inept Handyman brain could conjure up, but no dice, the shelf stayed attached. It's like after 30 years wood glue just SETS IN for good and there's nothing you can do about it. Well, we finally reasoned, you don't waste sturdy shelves, so we gave up, the TV remains where it remains, and we keep books on the bookcase, calm in the knowledge that no matter how much we load 'er up, the shelf ain't gonna bow. AND THAT'S WHAT CHRISTIAN SHOULD DO WHEN HE STUMBLES ACROSS A GOOD BEAT! Don't let that baby out of your sight! Good rockin' beats are more precious than gold, so why mess with 'em?

Song #8 is about "Comagirl." Feelin' a little comatose myself right now, I gotta say. Oh my word, a woman is singing! Too bad they didn't give her a tune. No no, I kid; there IS, technically, a tune. Though of course, if you charted the silhouette of a goldfish on staff paper, you'd have a tune too, and one that was more of a conversation starter at parties. I mean, yeah, you can talk about aleatoric composition technique for all of, what?, two minutes, but that conversation will at least lead into other things, like your useless composition major, and the stodginess of the academy, and before you know it you're both drunk out on the porch discussing the proto-Marxist rhetorics of Beethoven's Ninth and feeling absolutely WONDERFUL. "Comagirl," on the other hand, would not start any such conversations. You'd be all like, "Why do they always play this crap electro when I come here?," and the other person's all like, "I know, right?," and then you look around for something to eat. It's sad, really, because your relationship could've amounted to so much more.

An informative man introduces song #11, "Redshift": Autophobia is the fear of being alone. That's good to know in case you're ever on Cash Cab. Now HERE'S a beat! BIG thumping house, bouncing, this is what I needed. At this late stage it's not enough for me to recommend the CD or anything, but the Liquid Divines should at least know that THIS BEAT IS GOOD. "Redshift"! Do more songs like "Redshift"! Do a suite of variations on "Redshift," that'd kill an hour or so. Arpeggios, oh my lord, arpeggios! And then... the beat drops out. Now wait a minute, Christian, you remember what we talked about? When you find a good beat, you don't just make it go away for an operatic soprano and a dude talking about autophobia. Especially when he's repeating info he gave us at the beginning of the song! Time out for Christian.

Song #12 is called "One Day of May in '99." I actually remember that time! I was sprawled on a college lawn reading Goedel Escher Bach, when my composition teacher passed by and told me I should be working on my composition portfolio, even though we both knew I wasn't going to grad school. I still don't have a composition portfolio. I also don't remember that much about Goedel Escher Bach, so I guess it was a lose-lose, but I do remember how excited I was about that book while reading it, how I wanted THIS to be my life, even though I couldn't have told you what THIS was, exactly. Something about recursive loops creating intelligence. I bet Guido and Christian have read it, or are at least more conversant with AI than I. (This song sux, by the way.) (Slow.) You need books like that, to spur you on, even if your life has nothing to do with the subject matter of the book. Who knows what your life "has to do with"? Everything, nothing, certain things, that's the eternal ever-shifting mystery. Good song title at least.

The official consensus: NO, NOT WORTH IT. Though as I've pointed out, Youtube might give you something tasty:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Weird Al Yankovic doing "Bob" (NURSE, I SPY GYPSIES--RUN!!)

I should've posted this on 01/02/2010, but 01/020/2010 isn't too much of a stretch. This is the smartest "Subterranean Homesick" parody, if not the smartest Dylan parody ever, because it works ON A WHOLE OTHER LEVEL, MAN. In case there was any doubt that Weird Al's a genius, here you go:

This must've been a hard, but fun, song to write. I mean, he got it to rhyme! And the lines have just enough thematic unity that it actually sounds like an inscrutable Dylan song.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Flowtation Device Prezentz: "Usual Suspects" by Rick Ro$$ ft. Nas (CUSSING, BIG SURPRISE)

In which the Flowtation Device comes to the controversial conclusion that NAS IS A BETTER RAPPER THAN RICK ROSS. OR maybe you already knew that without the FD's help. Indeed, any four-year-old could probably deliver the same verdict, provided we let them listen to Rick Ross CDs in the car, which we certainly DO NOT. So this particular aesthetic judgment is not particularly earth shattering, nor was the FD necessary to its derivation. BUT! Maybe the Flowtation Device can help to clarify WHY Nas is superior. Listen and we'll chat:

Truth is, Rick Ross is pretty good. And his CD! Deeper Than Rap should TOTALLY have made my '09 list, probably #3 or #4. (Adios, U2!) The first several songs hone to perfection a smooth variety of "yacht rap," based on conspicuous-consumption lyrics and perfectly placed sonic elements, that's as reassuring as reading the Zingerman's catalog. (Or another expensive catalog from which you dream of someday placing an order.)

But back to Mr. Ross. He's maybe a little stiff and doesn't attempt anything too outrageous, but he's certainly more authoritative than Soulja Boy, let alone the guys in Lonely Island, whose "I'm On a Boat" sprays Rick's whole block with a glock. His two verses here set up such regular rhyme patterns that you barely need the Flowtation Device to make them scan:

If you balling physics, nigga money never flow
Meaning every day I'm living tryna stay afloat
Coming from a BOSS, I can predict a double cross
Handlers managing money, they never come across

Of course I have to point out that he rhymes "cross" with "cross." There are worse crimes. For instance, there's fact that a bunch of his rhymes fall square on beat 4, which makes him sound like he's trying to run in lead shoes. But he's capable of changing things up on occasion, like with this swingin' syncopation from Verse 1:

*i'mTOO_COOL_FORlame / =dudes=thatRIDiCULE_ /

So, yeah, faint praise, but it's not like he's got no business doing what he's doing. As I said before, he knows how to make a great album and he's a talent magnet--as evidenced by the Nastradamic greatness of the middle verse, at 1:59.

If Ross sounds leaden, Nas's verse has more twists and swoops than Muhummad Ali flying around the ring. Here's the blow by blow:

*andSTILL_MYtalENTis / YETtoBEchalLENGED.HADno /
JET.WITHmyOWN_PIlot / *noBLASTingOFFbutFLEXing /
DjKHAled*myMOM_ / STRESSingCOLLege*.BUTmy /

Rhymes are EVERYwhere. Notice that "talent" and "challenged" start on offbeats, while all the others--"pilot," "Khaled," "college," "logic," "wallet"--start on the beat, but on DIFFERENT beats--4, 2, 2, 3, and 4, respectively. You can tell immediately that Nas commands his words enough to rhyme wherever he wants. Ross's regular rhyme patterns, on the other hand, make it seem like he HAD to put those rhymes on the final beats or else he'd get lost. His attitude is big enough that it doesn't undermine his authority too much (he's THE BOSS, after all), but next to him, Nas sounds like he's spiraling into the stratosphere. And it gets better:

*trySPITtingONaGREEN_ / TINTedACcord=.WHICHcould /
MEANaSENTenceUPnorth=. / WHEREtheHOMieWASbutBACKthen /

!!!!!! In case you missed it:


That virtuosic run of 29 syllables without a rest is a thrilling contrast to the shorter phrases that precede it. Listening to this verse is like listening to a Sonny Rollins solo heat up. When it starts out I'm thinking, "OK, I think I know what's going on here," I can follow the notes and the tune and everything, and then all of a sudden he's gone, and I have NO IDEA what's going on, and I love him even more. Not done yet; I believe Nas was talking about his wrists...

*wasNOTbev /
STANDonROOFtops=withTWO_ / GLOCKS_*.FIGurIN'how /
DOiTURNmyTIMberLANDSto / CROCS_*nowREPtiles=

I sheepishly admit that I don't understand why the Nazareth wants to turn his Timberlands to Crocs. Please explain this mystery to me, and then allow him to flabbergast you again:

was /
PLUStheMUScleTHATyouBRINGin' / ISnothINGtoMEifYOUthug /
GIN'andFAKEorSHAKEDon=cub / ANshoutOUTmyRICans*dealt /
WITHallOFyouGANGstasTOthe / ROUGHestJAMaiCANSandHAItians /

ANOTHER 29 syllables without a break, the strong ones on offbeats and the weak ones on strong beats, except in those cases that they're not. In this verse, Nas demonstrates his unique gift for creating an rhyme logic that doesn't fall into those cookie-cutter "sung-style" (Adam Krims holla!) patterns, patterns that are weaker MCs' bread and butter. This verse would be amazing in any context, but it leaves Rick Ross in the dust. One Youtube commenter wonders, "Why would Nas go on a song with this guy?" That's like asking, "Why would he want his dick to look huge?"

Monday, January 18, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Liquid Divine doing "Sojourner (Diskonnekted Remix)"

The beat, glorious electrobeat! And the lyrics! They mope in a stolid way. "We will fight/ We will fail/ and the sun will always rise/ and I'm beyond time/ We will fade away/ From the arena of life/ And I'm beyond time..." It's sort of like Ecclesiastes with synth stabs--click and marvel.

These guys can't seem to write memorable melodies to save their lives, but it's like metal, it doesn't really matter when you've got all this texture and momentum and layering action going on. "I remember the night/ Don't you miss the sky?" Well yes, if the sky were unavailable I believe that I would miss it. What does lead singer Guido mean when he sez he's "beyond time," though? I dunno, if Guido wants this song to preserve his place in immortality, he might be disappointed. But it is very pleasant, thank you Guido. I should also thank Christian, who's doing all the production. They seem like good guys.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Surfing With Yabby You (RIP)

Nothing sounds better on a Friday afternoon than this tune. If you're looking to chant down Babylon, this is where you start.

"Chant Down Babylon Kingdom", from the Jesus Dread comp, 1977:

"Babylon Gone Down", from One Love, One Heart, 1983:

"Babylon A Fall", from Deliver Me From My Enemies, also 1977 (bad buffering on this one):

Farewell to a conquering lion of Judah!

Not Worth It: new Freedy Johnston, Jason Boesel, and the Avatar soundtrack

Freedy Johnston
Rain on the City

Johnston's smoothed out all the weird phrasing and vowel shapes in his voice, and only a couple tunes are worth remembering. What remains of his arsenal? "Evocative" lyrics, which usually only evoke the feeling that I wish the song was faster; and a pretty good sense of rhythm for a singer-songwriter, which is SOMETHING, but also faint praise. You should totally listen to this, though:


Jason Boesel
Hustler's Son
(Team Love)

Boesel drums for Rilo Kiley and Conor Oberst, so it's ironic that this alt-country effort is devoid of beats. He sounds SORT of like Jack Johnson, if Johnson had a less distinctive voice.


James Horner
Avatar soundtrack

Depending on how much you dig movie scores, your opinion may vary. The most I can say is that it's unobtrusive enough for background music. As someone who's recently been subjected to the third Harry Potter soundtrack, I can testify that big budget mainstream movie scores can be far more adventurous than Horner's faux nativisms. With all of the 20th century's classical techniques at his disposal, why is Horner content to rip off himself?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Surfing with Congorock

Congorock: "Babylon"
(For real, click on this--you WON'T NOT turn into a dancing fool.) (The double negative represents the strength of my feelings and the unruliness of my limbs.)

What's a song like this got to do with Babylon, you ask? Does it serve as a reminder that they knew how to party? Invented the beat? Laid down the Code of the... OK, I'll stop now and listen to it again.

It comes down to this: if you come up with a vaguely "exotic" sounding synth hook and set it to a sped-up reggaeton beat, you can call your song "Babylon." I'm surprised MIA hasn't done a Babylon song yet. Along with that irresistible hook, Mr. Congorock (Italian producer Rocco Rampino) gives us a shimmery synth cloud that resembles a cloud of gnats, a heavy "distorted guitar" sound, something that sounds like a lawnmower or clippers, and a dude (the gardener?) yelling out "Boyo!" and "Yeah!" and "Babylon!" in approval. It's a very outdoorsy tune, though maybe I'm being influenced by the excellent video, with its lovely closeup shot of a snail. Really, I feel like I need to keep listening to this song over and over.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Merle Haggard and Leona Williams doing "The Bull and the Beaver"

This delightful tune might be the sexiest trucking song ever (give or take Garth's "Callin' Baton Rouge"), if it weren't so goofy. And it's not just me--after the song played on Rick Jackson's Country Hall of Fame yesterday--and after Lea and I finally figured out what it was about--Rick Jackson himself practically collapsed into giggles talking about it. He could barely get a word out! Your results may vary, but here you go:

What else? The sax solo reminds me of something off Paul Simon's Graceland, weirdly enough--maybe it's just the timbre. This song is NOT on the album pictured above, but Bear Family's still a great label, so how could you go wrong? And it occurs to me that "Bull/Beaver" may also be the sexiest jargon song (which I'm thinking of redubbing "shoptalk songs") ever, not that there's a lot of competition on that front (unless you read "Strawberry Roan" WAY differently than I do). I mean, you gotta love that Merle ACTUALLY SINGS this verse:

"Well, it won't be hard to back it,
Babe, I'm right behind you--
Just put them air brakes on and let 'er slide!"

Ah, romance.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

This new XP8 album is worth it! (CUSSING CAUTION)

Drop the Mask

In song, album title, and press release, XP8 declare, "It's time to grow real fast... it's time to drop the mask." This is a TERRIBLE idea for a couple industrial dudes wearing mascara and creative hair, one of whom has this rad tattoo of some cattle-skull deity on his arm:

Dressing up is intense! Masks are intense! Remember Eyes Wide Shut, when the King of the Orgy commands Tom Cruise, "You will kindly remove your mask"? Spoiler alert: Tom Cruise removes his mask and doesn't get to have any orgy fun. (He has a bad couple days besides that.) And consider the Greek tragedy! Those people all wear masks, and they're so creepy I can barely look at these people doing Agamemnon:

In short: masks = mysterious, sexy, and badass.

XP8 seem to be going for mysterious, sexy, and badass. Lead single "Want It" is sort of like a more thumping version of "Closer" by NIN, wherein guest singer Daniel Graves (from Aesthetic Perfection) Wants It "now," "rough," and "sexy as fuck." I think we all know what he's referring to! Honestly, I can't think of a better soundtrack for violating someone you hate--or at least someone you're pretending to hate, for kicks (they keep getting harder to find)--while lights both black and strobe jack up your electrical bill.

But of course the two XP8ers, Marco and Marko, could just claim that their future stripclub hit is telling it like it is. Being honest! Cutting through the usual seduction crap! Isn't that what we all want, after all--to live in a world that's honest, where men can be free to bare their souls and atone for any previous deception? Hence the cynical "One True God," which seems to be about how monotheism is a precursor to violence and hatred, much like the violence and hatred embodied in Marc(k)o's fierce industrial grooves.

But what've they got going in "One True God"? Synths and synths and synths, that's what! And without making any fatuous "synths signify falseness" claims, I can point out that there's a low swoopy bass synth, a midrange fast-sequence synth, a high shimmery descant synth, and a disco thud, which, when coupled with the swoopy bass synth, makes the whole thing sound pretty bouncy for an angry anti-intolerance tune. One way to make angry protests signify is to strip them way down to an acoustic guitar and a voice, like Tom Morello doing his dire Nightwatchman spiel; a better, albeit more dressed-up, way is to make them dance.

Land sakes, the next song's even faster! "One Pill Missing" it's called, and must be a representation of a frantic speed freak in search of that one precious pill that was no doubt palmed by his good-for-nothing jock roommate, who keeps calling speed freak's EBM music "totally hardcore, dude," and then returns to his idiotic O.A.R. CDs. Only, O.A.R. can do rage, too--what's that song that gets some play on AAA and Hot AC stations--"Didn't you LOOOOVE ME, faster than the devil?!!" (Always struck me as a waste of a good rhetorical question, that one--how fast is the devil supposed to be capable of loving? Your Bible's not gonna have the answer, friend; maybe Paradise Lost, or the South Park movie.)

And "Awake, Restart" is ALL thump. Until the synths start to pile up, that is, and Marc(k)o starts screaming orders at himself. "aWAKE! reSTART!" It's gonna be a great day! And you could TOTALLY do aerobix to this song--remember Kanye's Workout Plan? That's what the beat reminds me of, even though the songs are nothing at all alike. You could use this album in a number of different social settings. This tune's good for the gym, whereas "Want It" is a total strip club hit waiting to happen, tucked between "Crazy Bitch" and Rob Zombie's greatest hits. The awful slow "Breathe the Poison In" is perfect for your breakup mixtape, when you're trying to inflict as much pain as possible on the recipient, blinded from the fact that they're just gonna listen once, laugh, and load that one O.A.R. song into iTunes before pitching the CD. I mean, seriously: even when the disco thud comes in, it doesn't enliven the fact that Marc(k)o's still being a sadsack who just keeps breathing poison, and I can't figure out WHY. Dude, you don't even have to go out in the sun or anything, just pull your shirt up over your face.

Look, XP8 can drop whatever masks they want, but as long as they're making music their music's gonna dress up whatever cathartic revelations they deem worthy of honest poesy. Most such sentiment is rendered palatable with big beats and squiggly sequences. I don't know if those elements are masks that obscure or conduits of true emotion, but here's the skinny: no songs as good as "Zero" by the YYYeahs, which follows these guys in my iTunes, but still seven or eight solid genre stompers. They'll be a swell accompaniment to your next makeup-and-leather get together.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Sade doing "Soldier of Love"

Completely unexpected, with more jagged edges than I've ever heard from Sade before, but maybe I just haven't been listening. The drummer keeps coming up with new snare beats while maintaining the martial groove, which is some kind of feat in itself. The gang vocals swerve towards atonal "WOOO"s and new structural elements keep unraveling before our ears. Sade the soldier sounds bedraggled, like she's at the end of her tour, until all she can do is wait for love to come, the surge that'll turn everything around. But her music tells us that's more dream than certainty.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Flowtation Device Prezents: "I'm On a Boat" by Lonely Island ft. T-Pain (DETAILED DISCUSSION OF PROFANITY)

The Flowtation Device doesn't actually have much to say about this one, but when has that stopped us before? Sometime before you lose your sense of humor, you should really watch this video, if you're not one of the 10 million people who's already done so:

And if irregular buffering gets you down, you can always just listen to the song:

The Singles Jukebox, an entertaining critical roundup, was divided into thirds over whether this song was a really good parody that was also an homage, an OK joke that could have been better executed, or a lametard joke that insulted its target and wasn't funny at all. Since it was my favorite single of 2009, I'm going with the first choice, but I'd like to downplay the importance of the "parody being simultaneously an homage". Of COURSE it's simultaneously an homage! This is not so unusual. In fact, the genre of parodies could plausibly be divided into thirds: one third simultaneously pays tribute to its target (Lonely Island, Hot Fuzz, some Spike Jones); one third insults its target (other Spike Jones, "Smells Like Nirvana"); and one third you can't really tell (most other Weird Al songs). These thirds are probably unequal; I haven't done the math, nor do I intend to. Please contact me if you're interested in doing so, and I'll endorse your results.

The guys in Lonely Island are pretty good rappers, and they're good in a way that highlights the shortcomings of the Flowtation Device. Read on the page, a line like

"i'mRIDin /
ONaDOLphin*.DOin / FLIPS_ANDshit=theDOLphin's /
SPLASHin=.GETtinEV'ry / BODyALLwet*"

is sort of funny, but rhythmically it's simple and boring. Accented syllables fall about where you'd expect them to, and the only item of interest is the syncopation that sometimes occurs on the "and" of beat 2: "FLIPS_ANDshit" and "EV'ry / BODyALLwet". (Let's call that the "rhythm of the boogie the beat" phrase-ending syncopation, for short.) But the Lonelies' delivery makes the line and puts over the rest of the song. It's the Beastie Boys effect. Lonely Island are aggressively in character and they really sell this idea that being on a boat is the most covetable example of conspicuous consumption that's ever existed. Plus they have T-Pain singing the funniest parody cameo since Michael McDonald offered to get your car detailed for 20 bucks, at the end of the South Park movie.

Alas, the Flowtation Device cannot depict flow delivery. So we'll end by pointing out two elements that DO fall under our jurisdiction, but that you probably could have noticed without our help:

1. The Lonely Island may not be the most skilled rappers, but they make themselves appear more skilled by changing flow patterns every four lines. The array of patterns--five different ones over six verses--helps create the impression that a whole posse of guest rappers is in the studio, and the brevity of these four-line verses keeps us from getting bored by what are some fairly pedestrian rhythms. Some of the verses start their lines on beat one, some rest on beat one, some rhyme at the end of each line, some rhyme on beat 2--they've identifed a variety of simple ways to change things up.

2. The one surprising rhythm (and maybe I'm just easily surprised) occurs in verse 5, the "motherfucker" verse. I expect lines like


to end on the "and" of beat 3, which would continue the "rhythm of the boogie the beat" phrase-ending syncopation, discussed above. Instead, Mr. Lonely holds out "FU--" for a whole beat, and hits second syllable "CKAH" right on beat 4, if not the barest smidge before. Ordinarily, hitting every beat in a bar would be the most boring rapping imaginable, the sort of parody you'd get from some blowhard who'd only ever heard rap blasting out of car windows and felt threatened by it. But since they've cannily established the expectation of ending phrases on offbeats--since we know the Lonely Island are capable of syncopation--the refusal to syncopate just emphasizes the word "motherfucker," in all its ridiculous glory, even more.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Best Things I Heard Today: Don Williams's "I Believe in You" VS. Savage Garden's "Affirmation"

"Best" with reservations, maybe--more on those in a moment. (They concern the lyrics.) But the tune's unforgettable, the bass sound is big, the pedal steel sounds like a synth (unless that's a synth?), and Mr. Williams's delivery is laconically intense, if such a thing is possible. Here he is on Hee Haw:

Yeah, about those lyrics. Don Williams offers us a belief system, cunningly presented through a dogmatics of disbelief. Perhaps he's been reading this book (I know I haven't!):

A dialectic: Don Williams explains what he doesn't believe in, and then what he does believe in, so we get a better sense of what's going on inside Don Williams.

So what does Don Williams believe in? Unfortunately: babies, children, and old folks. What does that mean, exactly? He believes they exist? That can't be it, because he doesn't believe in organic food and foreign cars, the existence of which only a fool would deny.

So maybe he believes that babies, children, and old folks have something true and important to tell us about life and the world. Well, I don't know about that either. Have you ever met a baby? I say this with all the greatest love for my own son, and with the acknowledgment that kids have a remarkable capacity for faith and love, but KIDS ARE NOT FUNDAMENTALLY GOOD. Not even babies! They're selfish little parasites, endowed by natural selection with the cunning and will and cuteness to get what they need to survive into adulthood, at which point they have the luxury of acting on more altruistic ideals. You can call this "original sin" if you want, but just because kids aren't smart enough to break the 10 Commandments or whichever checklist you like to use, doesn't make them "innocent" or "sweet" or anything. There's a reason we tell adults not to act like children--it's because children don't act all that great to begin with.

Rather than move on to insulting all the old folks in my life, I'll just say that, for all of Don's spiritual insight in verse 2, I wish he didn't slip into this tired glorification of babies. Sure, you need "faith like a child" and whatnot, but that's a symbol of one specific aspect of children's behavior--their natural, unforced faith--and not a glorification of childhood or infancy as some ideal state of being. This "belief in babies" recalls another lyrical howler, from Savage Garden's "Animal Song": "Animals and children tell the truth, they never lie." Where are they? Where are these children who never lie?! And what about those moths that make themselves look like wasps?!!!!??

Ahem. As it happens, Savage Garden also have a musical dogmatics of belief, entitled "Affirmation." From the same album, in fact! Enjoy, and then we'll figure out a creed to incorporate both the Garden and Don Williams. The Savage Williams Creed, we'll call it. (Do Creed have any songs like this?)

Well, I don't wanna spend too much more time on this, but a couple notes:

Savage Garden are sometimes as softheaded in "Affirmation" as they were in that line about animals and children. I note particularly "the struggle for financial freedom is unfair"--not sure I agree with it, since all of life for most everybody (INCLUDING animals and children and maybe millionaires) is a struggle. (Savage Garden themselves struggle with English when they sing "the grass is no more greener on the other side.") Which isn't to say we shouldn't struggle for financial freedom. By all means, struggle and manipulate laws to take money from the privileged classes! That's what politics is all about.

Meanwhile, Mr. Williams does not believe "that gasoline's in short supply, the rising cost of getting by." Does this mean he does believe inflation and income are rising at equal rates? That gas prices are high because of futures speculation or OPEC manipulating the market? Does anyone remember what gas prices were like in 1980?

But forgive me, I must go. If anyone wants to convene a credal conference to work out a Savage Williams synthesis, let me know.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: The Raveonettes doing "Bang!"

An irresistible homage to the Crystals' "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)." More to the point, an irresistible homage to Stella Kowalski reminiscing about her husband Stanley's violence, and concluding "I was sort of--thrilled by it." Which is to say, the Raveonettes aren't doing anything new by wrapping up edgy material in a pretty package. Don't they make it sound good, though?:

Boring confessional: Along with 2009's debut from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, this Raveonettes album (In and Out of Control) makes me think I should get around to listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain before I die. I've heard more JMC tribute bands than I've heard JMC themselves. It's really disgraceful. From what I understand, JMC were a feedback/reverb-heavy Phil Spector tribute band, so it's not like THEY were doing anything new either. PoBPaH emphasize the feedback/reverb aspect of JMC, with little wispy melodies floating through the noise.

The Raveonettes are more in love with pop structure, so their songs have actual bridges and things amid the wispy melodies. At least on "Bang!", Sharin Foo's voice has more presence than anything the Painz were able to pull off. Great chiming guitar tone, too. Drumming isn't their strong suit, I think--on a Spector song you'd have huge fills and exciting textures in the background, where the Raves manage a couple simple thumping patterns. But the rest of the song's good enough that they prevent me from caring.