Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: King's X doing "Over My Head"

King's X had bigger hits, but "Over My Head" is their signature tune: it's funky and catchy, everybody sings, Doug screams, and Ty plays a killer guitar solo, split into two parts by a breakdown that demonstrates how impossibly tight they were. Naturally, they left all that off their Greatest Hits album, opting for an inferior live version that demonstrates how impossibly long-winded Doug can get when you let him talk.

It won't embed, but you should really watch the video they made for this song. Notice that during the guitar solo, starting around 1:30, there are no apparent overdubs. (Of course you can hear that as well, but it's especially clear when you watch them play.) Even so, there's no loss of momentum or texture; Doug's ringing bass tone covers the riff, Jerry crashes the cymbals strategically, and you don't even miss Ty's chords. They played that way all the time; my high school classmate David, a guitarist, singled out that strict three-part texture as their most salient feature. It reminds me of those amazing Led Zeppelin live recordings where the sound remains huge, even during Jimmy's solos. Except with King's X, all three instrumentalists also had to sing.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Or so I hector at the ever-lovin' Burnside Writers' Collective, in a review that reads only slightly like a crazy person on the train.  Oh yeah, it's a review of Faith Hope Love.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Surfing With Steel Pulse

In 1979, with punk and Margaret Thatcher looming over the nation, the British reggae band Steel Pulse pulled off something unexpected:  an exuberant ode to suffering in the face of tyranny.

"Babylon Makes the Rules" must be the bounciest song to contain the sentiment, "You've brought fire on my head and now you must pay."  (Don't mind if I do!)  "Babylon" is a call and response between David Hinds and his bandmates.  Hinds is great, but his backup singers and their Pips-ish cheer sell the song.  Resisting Babylon is gonna be tough, they seem to say, but what we really want to do is SING!  And oh yes, have you tried the Jah herb?

The words of "Babylon" are uncompromising; plenty of reggae's Babylon songs advocate passive protest, but Steel Pulse don't mess around:

And now I say we must create a scene
(WAR, WAR, create a scene!)
We must recapture our culture by any means
(Recapture our culture!  Recapture our culture!)

 They sound like the Moral Majority, with their belief that direct political action can take back The Culture.  (Not so much with their communal pot smoking.)  Even so, the song swings wildly back and forth between force and resignation.  No matter how fired up Hinds and his mates sound during the verses, they always return to the more subdued, minor-key chorus:
Babylon makes the rules
Babylon makes the rules
Babylon makes the rules
Babylon makes the rules
Where my people suffer ...

The only attempt at resolution comes at the end, when Hinds starts singing "Jah love... will carry I home."  Well, sure, but that still doesn't tell us how to deal with Babylon in the meantime.  Do we put up with Thatcher until we can vote her out, or do we order her to Stand Down?  The sound of "Babylon Makes the Rules" offers an even better option:  SING!  Preferably with one another.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Janet Jackson doing "This Time" and "New Agenda"

Assisted by Kathleen Battle's vocal impression of a theremin, Janet gives one of her most forceful performances:

Janet's never had the biggest voice, and her production team, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, perversely bury her inside their enormous productions, so that it's often hard to understand what she's singing. (To their credit, those productions sound fabulous.) This time they let her soar; we hear a litany of complaints about Janet's cheating boyfriend and all his "nasty hoes." Team Janet enliven their unremarkable breakup song by letting Janet's voice pop out of the mix, and by setting the breakup inside some sinister concert hall, replete with an orchestra and Battle's "opera solo."

Here's how it went down: heartbroken Janet hired the ensemble for the sole purpose of humiliating her man. She rented out the hall, invited her unsuspecting boyfriend to join her for an evening of forbidden pleasure (maybe she sang him "You Want This" over the phone), and then ambushed him with a bunch of stern musicians wearing opera masks. (Wearing only opera masks?) Since this is Janet we're talking about, the boyfriend was also trampled by an exquisitely choreographed dance troupe. By the time she could say, "You're dismissed," he lay bloody on a stretcher. Don't cheat on Janet.

Because it's Friday and I can't decide and Jam & Lewis make the best drum sounds known to man, here's Janet's happiest social justice song, "New Agenda". At least, I assume it's a social justice song; her voice is buried inside an enormous production. (Sounds great!) The song features Chuck D and it's called "New Agenda", so what else could it possibly be about?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Flowtation Device Prezentz: Kanye's "Gold Digger"

How do you get to be the second- or third-biggest rap song of all time?  That's the question the Flowtation Device will ponder today as we consider "Gold Digger", Billboard's 49th biggest hit.  Among raps and semi-raps, only Flo Rida's "Low" and the Usher/Luda/Lil' Jon behemoth "Yeah" have placed higher on the all-time list.  Without considering those two for now, the FD would like to propose that Kanye's rapping was an integral factor to the song's success.  Obviously FD is biased, but consider the argument while you listen.

First, let's ask this:  what rap songs do you have memorized?  If you're anything like the Flowtation Device--i.e., a casual rap fan for most of your life--the answer is probably Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" and Young M.C.'s "Bust a Move".  FD attributes this to a couple factors.  First, these songs hit when FD had way more time to devote to pop radio, and way fewer pop songs already cluttering the brain.  Second, their flows are in the simple "sung" style of most early rap--the couplets fall at regular intervals, and the syllabic patterns stay pretty much the same from one line to the next.  Obviously, Young M.C. raps with ease and authority:

"*.*.*.*this / =here's=aJAM_FOR_ / ALL.THEfel=las*tryin' /
=toDO_WHAT_THOSE_ / LAdies=tell=us="

--while Vanilla Ice sounds like one of the proverbial Retarded Cousins:

"TAKE.HEED.*causeI'Ma / LYRicAL.PO_ETmi /

Oh, I kid Vanilla Ice!  He actually gets off some lovely syncopations in that song, whose complexity has been wholly underrated.  (Vanilla Ice, on the whole, has not been underrated.)  The point is this:  "Bust a Move" and "Ice Ice Baby" are easy to memorize because their rhymes occur at regular intervals, because their slang isn't terribly esoteric, and because, when they do alter their rhythmic patterns, they do so in ridiculously catchy ways.  Witness:


Chances are, if you're FD's age and someone near you says "Will it ever stop?", you'll have "Ice Ice Baby" running through your head the rest of the day.  Likewise this nursery rhyme sing-song cadence from "Bust a Move":


These songs are full of non-melodic hooks that dig into our brains and don't let go.  Both were big hits, though neither was as big as "Gold Digger".  Now, "Gold Digger" also places rhymes every two bars, but it's much more lyrically complex than those earlier songs.  Syllabic patterns change several times per verse; Kanye employs many more internal rhymes than did Vanilla Ice or Young M.C.  As the simplest and funniest verse, Verse 2 is closest to those precursors and also the easiest to memorize.  It contains several ear-puncturing hooks that break from their surrounding patterns, namely:

"EIGH_TEEN_YEARS_*. / EIGHteen=years=sheGOT. /
ONEofYOURkids=gotYOUfor / EIGHteen=years"


"*.*.*.IFyou / AIN'Tno*punk*.HOLla /
WEwant*pre=nup*. / WEwant*pre=nup*yeah"

--which reprises Vanilla Ice's strategy of having a bunch of burly guys shout out a memorable line.  At verse's end, we get to hear "EIGH_TEEN_YEARS" again.  Catchy!  But then, virtually everything Kanye says in this song is catchy.  Other highlights include, from Verse 1:

"ASSlikeSERe=na=tri / =na*.JENniFERlo / =pez=fo'=kids"

--and from Verse 3:

"but / WHILE_YA'LL_WASH_IN'watch / *him"

Basically, anytime Kanye changes up his flow pattern, he adds another hook to the song.  This is why, when people complain about Kanye or Vanilla Ice being poor rappers, it doesn't really ring true--at least not as far as the aforementioned hits are concerned.  (As I say, Vanilla Ice isn't usually underrated.)  Even if they don't conjure up mindbending displays of lyrical dexterity, a la Nas or Eminem, they're capable of creating three verses full of rhyming couplets that people around the world have effortlessly memorized.  That's some kind of feat.

Kanye gets more credit for making tracks than for rapping, and this song is a prime example of why that's so.  His* beat bounces thunderously--how'd he manage that?--and the synth bari-sax under Verse 3 is funny and irresistible, as is usually the case with bari-saxes in pop music.  The Ray Charles sample is also gold.  Quite simply, there are more catchy elements in "Gold Digger" than you find in the entire Billboard Top 10 some weeks, and it hit #1 the day after FD's boy was born five years ago.  The Flowtation Device has no problem considering this the 49th best pop song ever.

"Low", on the other hand, is a different story--one that we needn't discuss today.

*see commentz

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Cathedral and Grong Grong are Worth It! Ariel Pink, Toro Y Moi, and the Newsboys just plain suck.

The Guessing Game
(Nuclear Blast)

Determined to exploit every conceivable nook of Prog, pseudo-Prog, brutal Prog, and (this being Nuclear Blast and all) Prog Metal possible, this bunch of British vets have created a double disc album-of-the-year contender that sounds effortless. They're Prog because their songs are shape-shifting organisms with new elements busting out all over, ignoring conventional song structures. (Also there's a Mellotron.) The pseudo-Prog is audible in their weird debt to jazz rock shuffles and Ken Nordine. You can hear the brutality in Garry Jennings's crushing doom riffs, though the band use that sound more for the joy of its sonic kickassery. And the Metal holds it all together. Leader Lee Dorrian (ex-Napalm Death) ensures that every fill, solo, and flourish sounds as good as what's come before it, all the while drawling out his sprechtstimme with a sense of detached cool. Ultimately, the whole thing is a celebration: of how much ground you can cover with a rock band, and, in closing song "Journey Into Jade," of what such a band can mean to the world, even if it's all ultimately a guessing game.

Grong Grong
To Hell 'n' Back

(Memorandum reissue)

This '80s Australian sicko-punk band had a pretty good sense of what they WANTED to mean to the world; they just had a strange way of going about it.

Guitarist Charlie Tolnay on Grong Grong's songwriting process:
“It was just so simple. Dave [Taskas] would think of a bass line, or I’d think of a guitar line, then we’d put drums to it, and then think of some lyrics and that would be it.”
Maybe the weirdest thing about Grong Grong--aside from their lurching monoriff "songs," tin can production values, and squawl that sounds like guitar strings scraping the scales from a screaming eel--is the fact that they actually had some showbiz acumen. Singer Michael Farkas might have barked out every grotesque image that popped into his head, but he also hired a sax player and led his combo to a Battle of the Bands victory on the radio. Amid the odes to "Vlad the Impaler" and a "Meat Axe", they made room for a band theme song ("Grong Grong") and a dedicated show opener ("Club Grotesque"). As far as it's possible for a group like this, they almost hit the big time, derailed only by Farkas's overdose and subsequent coma. (He recovered, partially paralyzed.) Like most good post-punk bands, they had arresting grooves and a singer who could bellow like nobody else. So God bless Memorandum for this collection of live stuff and demos. It sounds great driving through a summer heat haze or trying to endure a bad campground.

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Before Today

These guys are prog too, right? Because they keep changing time signatures, and they let their cleverness get in the way of their tunes? The disjointed songs sound like they'll fall apart any second, which may be what Ariel Pink was going for. Only, where sometimes that's a good thing--like with Cathedral or early Weezer--here it's pretty terrible. Cathedral thunder like the carousel-gone-wild at the end of Strangers On a Train; the Haunted Graffiti sound like wet tissue paper in a fan. Mr. Pink's voice and his drummer hardly bother to show up. "Butthouse Blondies" at least has the courtesy to rock--for almost half its running time!--but nothing else is compelling, even when the band manages to land on a pretty chord. When Pitchfork's Mark Richardson calls "Round and Round" "one of indiedom's most unifying and memorable songs in 2010," and also "endlessly replayable," I honestly have no idea what he's talking about, unless he means it's replayable as a torture device for some common enemy. So, while I'd be happy to blast it Cusack-style outside Sarah Palyn's window, I'd be sure to demand some earplugs for my trouble. Indiedom can do better.

But wait, there's more! Apparently Mr. Pink is a big influence on:

Toro Y Moi
Causers of This

As a work of production prowess it's pretty flawless, seamless, facile, all that kind of stuff, and I SUPPOSE could serve as swank mood music for your next Espana y Gaul dinner party, because Lord knows the musical substance wouldn't distract anybody from their conversations. (Trust me: when you're proffering educated opinions on the new Rick Bayless restaurante or your latest homebrewing discoveries, you don't wanna be derailed by the crass sound of a hook!) T Y M is the nom de glo of Chaz Bundick, who's part of this new chillwave scene that WE WILL ALL STILL CARE ABOUT NEXT YEAR, assuming nothing else happens between now and then. I enjoy my hazy '80s memories as much as the next huppie, but I prefer to re-enact them by chilling to actual pop songs, whether by Groove Armada, Diana Reyes, my beloved Kylie, even the ol' Vampire Weekend boys. And strangely enough, all those schlockmeisters boast more interesting "soundscapes" than Toro Y Moi. So there!

Born Again

At this point the NEWSBOYS are only 1/4 Australian, and sound NOTHING like Midnight Oil. Or Grong Grong.

CD's called Born Again, and it's a concept album about Nicodemus. JUST KIDDING! You'd like that, wouldn't you, people who don't read this blog? (That's OK, you don't have to start.) First song sounds like ALL OTHER MODERN ROCK SONGS FROM HOT ac RADIO STATIONS LIKE 101.9 "THE MIX"--Michael Tait (formerly of DC Talk) is putting it all out there to let us know "where he stands," i.e., that he's a Christian, like we didn't know. Now the guitar solo. That was a guitar solo? The guy played one note. What is he, the Edge? (Answer: no he is not.) Yeah, that song sucked. Wellness does not bode.

"HEY!" They're excited, you can tell. OR CAN YOU? (No I cannot.) Tait seems to be singing about how he came up in "the industry" now. You've only got ONE SHOT--to prove what you're all about! That's a harmful message to send today's youth--isn't the message of the God of Grace that you get shot after shot? That, while our missioning message should be fueled by an existential urgency, we need no longer fear the grave, the ever-rolling stream of time culminating in DEATH, because Christ has conquered death and the grave forever and ever? (All around the world every boy and girl!) What would Grong Grong do? (WWGGD?)

"Even though you brought this world to shape/ You love me in a personal way." I guess I'll let 'em get away with that--that's sort of one of the crucial paradoces, right? (I just noticed that "crucial" is derived from "crux.") Mr. Tait is seeking something "way beyond [him]self." Though storms come his way, though Kid murder Play, though bishops be gay, Tait will persevere. "Like the wind that moves the leaves, Lord you move me to my knees." This is an awful CD, by the way.

Here's the one where God gives us strength. The strength to waltz, apparently. You ever try to waltz? It's a strenuous endeavor, I gotta say, especially if you're supposed to be leading. (With G's help, Tait can "do the impossible.") Anyway, waltzing. You gotta know where you're going and be keenly aware of spacial relationships, because it's not just YOU that's gotta stay out of everyone's way, it's HER too (or HIM, if you're a gay bishop), and S/HE will be more keenly embarrassed than you if you ram into another couple. There's not much that can save face in that situation. If you're lucky, nobody's hurt and you all head over to the punch bowl, which some punk kid has (again luckily) spiked, and then you can imbibe and jibe, and maybe bribe the picture-taking lady to erase any record of this humiliating incident. As I say, luck plays a big role. We can call it "providence" if you prefer.

Whoa, new song! They don't mean to brag, don't mean to boast, but... actually, that's pretty much it. "When the boyz light up, who gets the praise, who owns the show? We ain't nothing but the conduits." This is where Tait and the boyz deflect the inevitable adoration of their audience to the One who has so blessed them with the ability to rock bellz. I refer, of course, to Hal Leonard. His influence is immense.

Ooh, now we're chuggin' like Muse. Not quite as dramatic, but still, best or second-best riff on this turd.

Do the guitarists know how to do anything other than play chords? Or play rhythms that aren't straight eighth notes? There's no modulation or variation or amelioration or animals-we-ation of anything here. Well, I guess they DO get soft and then they get loud again, whoop-de-doo. Tait's running to God, fantastic.

Does God like this music? Well, look, you can't really put God onto that plane--the "music-digging-or-not" plane, let's call it. God hears music. God doesn't hear music. God is music. God is not music. (I'm doing my non-personifyin' exercises; they're like kegels for the soul.) Whether God does or not, I DON'T. And I don't say that about all Xian rock, you know that, whoever nonexistent reader you are. "Get on your knees!" bellows Tait. HE MUST WIN US OVER. HE IS CONDUIT (for sale).

Here's my dilemma. I really don't want to listen to any more of this album, but they're going to cover DC Talk's "Jesus Freak," which is a really good song and it'll be either the best thing on here or a train wreck beyond comprehension. So I've gotta stick it out. (Current song sux, stopped keeping track. Mountains, mighty like you know who...)

Here it is. Why is "Jesus Freak" better than anything else that sounds remotely like it? Better riff, for one thing. We'll see how the rapper does. Sounds pretty good, gives me chills. Why do I have no control over my senses when I hear this song, even a remake of this song? Probably because I have a history with it, plus some sense of its historical significance. Please, God, let that be the end of the album.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Surfing With Avantasia

We've surfed with Tobias Sammet before.  When last we sailed with him through the frothy white seas of Babylonian iniquity, he was singing lead for Edguy and raising towers of untold height.  Such hubris!  Well, the world hadn't seen nothing yet:  Sammet went on to form power metal's pre-eminent supergroup, AVANTASIA.  What's that?  You thought all power metal bands ALREADY sounded like supergroups, with everybody trying to outsing and outshred their fellow soul-patched lifers?  Just try listening to this with a straight face:

Think nothing of it, friends, that's just Jens Johansson of Stratovarius tickling the ivories at 3:20!

In Edguy's "Babylon," Sammet joyfully proclaimed that nobody could stop him from raising towers to Babylon, no matter how much the old ladies in town frowned upon such a practice.  It was an homage to hubris as happy as any song you're likely to hear.  (HACHOO!)  In "Angel of Babylon," Sammet contrasts Babylon with Paradise, a conception that's pretty common.  (Indeed, if I ever get around to editing and compiling all these ramblings, Babylon As Hell will get its own chapter.)  But the question remains:  how does our friend Tobias imagine his Hellish prison of despair?

1. Its entrance is marked by a "tower in the night, up to the sky."  This got me wondering, what would Freud say about such a tower...?

2. Babylon's relationship with Paradise is expressed in curiously intimate, and consistent, terms:  it exists on "the back side of light," it's "the snake in the backyard of heaven," and when you visit Babylon, "Venus" guides you "to the back door of love."

3. While peering at Babylon through the shadows, Tobias and his supersinger friend Jorn witness "iniquity galore."  Do they run away in terror and disgust?  Hardly!  "Been worth a detour and some more," they crow.

Well!  It kind of makes me wanna go to Babylon, how about you?  Tobias's Babylon sounds less like a Hellish gauntlet of fire, and more like a delightful, if not completely sanitary, bathhouse.  This may be an important wrinkle in the story--the symbolic oppositional society that dare not speak its name.  I wonder how that OTHER Tobias would read it...?