Saturday, January 29, 2011

Last Week In Jukeboxing

"Oh David, I feel like I'm the only girl in the world!"
"Oui. And you see how I do not use my hands."

Les biens:

I like how Rihanna’s line “Sheeza been a crazy dita” cops the shape of “Quien es esa niña” from “Who’s That Girl?” It’s a nice touch, somehow allowing subtler, more mysterious, more Latina early Madonna to inhabit the same THUMP THUMP CLUB CLUB feel of recent Madonna fitness music. Also dig the pretty chords and funny electro voices that leaven all the thumping.

The Joy Formidable: "Austere" [7/10]
It seems Lilliputian or Kleenexian, by which I mean charming in a stringing-stuff-together-as-it-occurs-to-us way. The high vocal hook over the bass is fun, and then they realize they want to add some extra beats every couple bars, which necessitates changing the hook, and then the guitarist decides to sound all Joy Division-y, and the drummer forebodes, and they figure if they’re sounding foreboding they better play something worth boding, so they start exploding. Dense swaths of noise ensue, with guitars playing rhythms out of phase. They wisely peter out after just the right amount of time.

...le mal:
Sugarland: "Little Miss" [1/10]
This seems to further Sugarland’s long sad slide into sounding like big fat nothingness — my wife suggests, “It sounds like generic Christian rock,” while I’m leaning more towards Melissa Etheridge. I’m trying to think of another band that started off bursting with so much life, only to wind up singing empty assurances to adult contemporary radio. Bon Jovi? le mot juste (not so much for me, but the collective effort's pretty funny):
The Katy Perry Boobs Explosion: "Firework" [3/10]
Despite this thing’s ubiquity, I never know what or who it is until she gets to the part that sounds like Erasure’s “Always”. Then I remember it’s the one where she sounds more constipated than usual. Different problems trying to parse the video, in which — what? Katy’s breasts liberate a chubby girl from doubt and fear? How does that work, exactly? And what kind of Firework cuts away to Katy’s face in the middle of a gay kiss?

Blake Shelton: "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking?" [6/10]
Sara Evans: "A Little Bit Stronger" [2/10]
Nicole Scherzinger: "Poison" [3/10]

Also, I didn't review this one, but it's a really cool garage rock cover of an early Detroit techno track, and you should investigate:
The Dirtbombs: "Sharevari" [7/10 overall, I'd've probably given it an 8]

Friday, January 28, 2011

Heavy Winged are WORTH IT!!! Trace Adkins's Greatest Hits, maybe...

Adkins has always been a fiend for pure skronk.

Heavy Winged came out in December and were widely slept on (though not by Ned Raggett!), so I'm gonna count 'em as a 2011 release.  Let the games begin!  Excerpts below, but there's plenty more at PopMatters.

Heavy Winged: Sunspotted [8/10]
You can’t call ‘em “hooks”, but Sunspotted certainly has landmarks, memorable sonic areas that you can recognize and bask in with every listen.  The guitar riffs tend to be simple, built on fourths; the bass is a monstrous looming beast; the drums rock.  (At one point, Bindeman sounds like he’s smashing melons with a club.)  This is accessible noise that delivers the goods.  Four minutes into “Breathe Life”, the low end achieves a sound that resembles the moon bouncing off a tarpaulin made of whale skin.  Before hearing this CD, I wasn’t even sure what a tarpaulin was!  This shit will expand your mind.

Trace Adkins: The Definitive Greatest Hits: Til the Last Shot's Fired [6/10]
Ultimately, Adkins is a master of the Throw-It-At-the-Charts-and-See-What-Sticks school of country singing.  He’s a master because most of his stuff sticks and he sings it with ease, even when he picks the most boilerplate ditties offered him.  (Adkins co-wrote only two of these 28 songs.)  His non-novelties range from forgettable (“Big Time”) to maudlin (“All I Ask For Anymore”) to actually pretty good (“Every Light In the House”).  Your tolerance for this stuff may vary.  Depending on your mood, generic country songs can be as satisfying or as boring as generic John Wayne movies, but they’re shorter and they create a good ambiance for getting your bake on.  (Pies, smart aleck: this isn’t a Willie Nelson album.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2010 Albums and Singles that were WORTH IT!!!

Also posted this at the Burnside Writers Collective, where I'm afraid people think I'm joking. 

Top 10 Albums:
Cathedral–The Guessing Game (Nuclear Blast)
Jamey Johnson–The Guitar Song (Mercury)
Ke$ha–Animal + Cannibal (RCA)
Diana Reyes–Ámame, Bésame (EMI Latin)
Slum Village–Villa Manifesto (E1)
Israel Houghton–Love God. Love People. — The London Sessions (Integrity/Columbia)
WASP–Babylon (Demolition)
Frightened Rabbit–The Winter of Mixed Drinks (Fatcat)
Groove Armada–Black Light (Cooking Vinyl)
Various Artists–Next Stop Soweto: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga (Strut)

Top 10 Singles:
“Vida en la Noche”–Daddy Yankee (El Cartel)
“All the Lovers”–Kylie Minogue (Parlophone)
“Your Love Is My Drug”–Ke$ha (RCA)
“Felt Good On My Lips”–Tim McGraw (Curb)
“Baby”–Justin Bieber feat. Ludacris (Island)
“Get Off On the Pain”–Gary Allan (MCA Nashville)
“Praise You Forever”–Marvin Sapp (Verity)
“Babylon”–Congorock (Fool’s Gold)
“Soldier of Love”–Sade (Sony)
“Fresh”–Tye Tribbett (Columbia)

Looking over my albums list, what stands out isn’t so much its diversity as its obnoxious tokenism.  I try to believe that diverse musical taste, even with frequent exceptions for rap and country, is more the rule than the exception for most people — especially now that the Hot Adult Contemporary stations have started playing token rap and country songs.  The only genres to make it onto my list more than once are dance pop (Ke$ha, Diana Reyes, Groove Armada), metal (Cathedral and WASP), and, if it’s playing by the rules to consider a 2009 WASP album one of 2010′s best Christian albums along with Israel Houghton, CCM.  But that leaves one spot apiece for country, Latin, rap, indie rock, and mbaqanga, the first four of which had vital 2010s.

Trust me, this tokenism wasn’t by design.  Plenty of fine albums missed the cut at the last minute.  Sho Baraka’s Lions & Liars (rap, CCM) felt too long, the Drive-By Truckers’ The Big To-Do (indie rock, country) and Vampire Weekend’s Contra (indie rock, mbaqanga) are too filler-happy, and Sleigh Bells’ Treats (indie rock, dance pop) is, despite its brilliance, decidedly one-note.  For a couple of its songs I mean that literally.  And as for the Roots’ How I Got Over (rap) — I’m really not sure why that’s not on the list.  It’s arresting from top to bottom, and it rewards thoughtful attention as surely as the movie Inception.  With the Roots, Rick Ross’s Teflon Don, Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, the minor Wu Tang pow-wow Wu-Massacre, Nas & Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives, The-Dream’s Love King, Curren$y’s Pilot Talk, Ludacris’s intermittently icky Battle of the Sexes, and Kanye if we must, the major label Def Jam probably bankrolled more good 2010 music than any other corporation.  Arguments for Barsuk can be advanced in the comments section.

Major label rock, on the other hand, didn’t have such a great year.  I enjoyed two such albums — David Bowie’s live A Reality Tour (my preschooler’s favorite) and Ludo’s goofy American take on Muse, Prepare the Preparations.  I’m not really sure how categorizing labels works, so other bands that might count are Disciple (distributed by Sony) and LCD Soundsystem (ditto Virgin), though describing LCD as “major label rock” seems weird.  Compared to all the year’s good indie rock (check Dylan Peterson’s list), that’s a pretty sorry lot.  I’m not the one to speculate where major label rock is going, but I will observe that, when I want to hear good new rock music on the radio, I turn on the country station.

This observation is nothing new, especially if you went through last decade air-drumming to Montgomery Gentry songs.  But every year more mainstream rock tumbles into the country sea, whether it’s Jamey Johnson looking like a metal dude and ending his 25-song tour-de-force with a power ballad, the tattooed Gary Allan rocking harder than the Truckers, or Tim McGraw completely selling out any country pretenses to create an irresistible blend of post-punk riffs, skinny tie beats, and apparently Auto-Tuned vocals.  Of the latter, Country Universe complains, “it puts every modern recording barrier it can think of between his vocal and the listener.”

Right, so one more thing about Auto-Tune and then I’ll shut up about it, at least until some enterprising musician finds a way to make it sound even more exciting than it did last year.  Four of my top singles — Daddy Yankee, Ke$ha, Marvin Sapp, and Tye Tribbett — use A-T or something similar in a blatant way, as a vocal effect rather than a corrective device.  Tim McGraw uses something, though it makes him sound less like a robot than like a Person Singing a Pop Song in 2010.  Please note: that’s five of the year’s 10 best songs using blatant vocal fx.  That’s more than use a piano.  That’s as many as use audible guitar.  Whether this makes you feel giddy or irrevocably divorced from pop music, or at least from my taste in same, there’s no denying Auto-Tune continues to be a commercial force.

But to my ears it’s also a creative force.  (OK, two more things.)  Musicians use Auto-Tune to talk to audiences and to each other, to say “This is a pop song” (Israel Houghton) “that deserves to be huge” (Diana Reyes) “and it represents a new chapter in my life and career” (Tye Tribbett) “and if you don’t like it, you’re an old man who is gross” (Ke$ha).  Going Auto-Tune is similar to going electric in ’65 or going disco or punk in ’77 — that’s where things are happening.  As a tool, A-T has facilitated aesthetic breakthroughs for Ke$ha and Tye; they’ve used it to create songs that sound like nothing else, and in K’s case, a persona that sounds like nobody else.  For Marvin Sapp and Tim McGraw, A-T seems to be more of a lark, and maybe a chance to demonstrate that they care more about communicating with fans than living up to genre purity tests.

Not that purity can’t communicate.  Most of my top 10 albums belong unmistakably to one genre, and some of their creators would probably scoff at the idea of incorporating different genres or gimmicks into their acts.  (WASP goes crabcore!)  But no matter how uncomfortable it’d make me to shove the pitch corrector at Jamey Johnson (or, God forbid, Sade), behind the scenes there’s often less purism at work than fans might hope.  Johnson financed his songfest by writing huge hits, including, as every review must mention, “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk”.  Underground rappers Slum Village dabble in some very aboveground-sounding R&B and dancehall.  Diana Reyes alternates her usual duranguense (read: polka) songs with Selena-style techno-cumbias.  Frightened Rabbit are making a living helping to sell Detroit 1-8-7 and The Beaver.  As factories for art — they love it when you call them that — artists need to take in much more raw material than they could ever produce, and they need money to finance their operation, that room of their own.  Under ideal circumstances, this makes them both willing communicators and voracious consumers.

In 2010, nobody sounded more voracious than Ke$ha and Cathedral.  Ke$ha is hungry for man-flesh; but even more, she’s hungry to turn her poverty into gigantitude, like ’80s thrift-store icons Madonna and Axl Rose, like most rockers since blue suede shoes were fashionable.  To set herself apart from the pack of Katys and Avrils, she’s adopted a sprechtstimme style as calculated to offend as it is to entertain.  Basically, K wants to transcend mere songs, so she’s in your face, real as life, even if your visceral reaction is to hate everything about her.  Though I’m a fan, I can sort of understand where the hatred comes from — the most persuasive rap is that her music just plain sounds ugly, and it’s hard to argue taste.  But as a fan, watching people hate Ke$ha with a vehemence usually reserved for pedophiles and Karl Rove is simply entertaining, like driving too slowly in front of an angry Hummer person.  You can’t believe silly pop songs could provoke such outrage, yet the outrage is proof that there’s something to her, that she’s doing something right.

Less outrageous but maybe more ambitious are Cathedral, a veteran British metal band led by Lee Dorrian, briefly of Napalm Death.  Though their double album The Guessing Game has moments of crushing brutality, it’s also got folk music, a mellotron, a flute, and some of the most charming psychedelic tunes in ages.  One song, “Cats, Incense, Candles & Wine”, is about Dorrian’s quiet evenings at home with, you guessed it, cats, incense, candles, and wine.  (No word on whether he knits.)  There are also some scathing attacks on organized religion, including a misreading of the beatitudes that’s pretty standard Nietszche so I won’t get into it, except to point out that the catalyst for this misreading is A VISION OF A TALKING SCARECROW.  The band sounds both spontaneous and premeditated throughout, and every song has about 10 different cool elements:  Word Jazz recitations, blazing solos, even sections where the songs falls by the wayside and all that’s left is a monstrous thwomp.  Spending an hour in Cathedral’s company is like spending the evening at a bar with the coolest, smartest, hairiest person you’ve ever met.  I dug plenty of albums last year, but Cathedral’s is the only one whose greatness seems to lie forever beyond my grasp, that inspires a sense of awe every time I hear it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Last Week In Jukeboxing

If you wanna floss, go get your own!

Last week The Singles Jukebox reviewed a bunch of acts on the BBC's "Sound of 2011" list.  After weeping for BBC listeners in 2011, I became afraid that I was on the losing end of some impassable cultural divide.  Thankfully, the Jukebox's British contingent disliked most of the reviewed songs as much as I did.  Highlights:

Le bien:
The Naked and Famous: "Punching In a Dream"
There’s an appealing looseness about the whole thing — the singers “woo-OOO-oo!” along with the synth lines, Alisa Xayalith’s high notes sound unhinged, and every time you turn around there’s some new sound popping up. MVP is drummer Jesse Wood, who punches up some choice electronic effects while throwing a whole bunch of unexpected ratatats and cymbal crashes into his swingin’ disco beat. His fills at the end make me smile every time. As does this shirtless man drumming along to the song.

...les mals:
Warpaint: "Undertow" 
I call “Polly” reference! Never thought a song would make me long for the taut grooves of a Nirvana ballad, but there you go.

Yuck: "Rubber"
The opening chord reminds me of the Gathering’s stellar blast-off tune “Liberty Bell”; the rest reminds me of what I always imagined Spacemen 3 would sound like before I actually heard them, and Mr. Yuck sounds like he’s singing in a tin can, so I first assumed this song had something to do with space travel. Now I’m not so sure. I mean, it’s certainly as monotonous as space travel must be, but you’d think real astronauts with time on their hands would come up with more adventurous guitar parts.
[2] le mot juste:
Jamie Woon: "Night Air"
One of my most indelible musical memories comes from summer vacation when I was 10, hearing Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name” pouring out of boomboxes around the swimming pool. I had no idea what the song was. Somehow its exotic Caribbean lilt and stately melody got all mixed up with the image of a bunch of half-naked people soaking up oppressive Wisconsin sunshine, and I knew I was in the presence of a voice that possessed some esoteric adult knowledge. I was surprised my parents didn’t cover my ears. Thing is, I don’t even like “Sign Your Name” that much. And I don’t particularly like “Night Air” that much — it’s fine, whatever. But despite having little in common with “Sign Your Name”, beyond minor-ness and a tenor voice and a beat I could imagine Sade copping, “Night Air” seems authentically haunting in the same way. When Woon sings, “I’ve acquired a kind of madness,” I believe him, and I imagine that phrase could forever alter some 10-year-old’s vision of the world.

Wretch 32: "Traktor" [8]

Friday, January 14, 2011

These Cameo Parkway Reissues are WORTH IT!!

Here's the review over at PopMatters.  The Dovells and Dee Dee you've heard; Zacherle was a case.  Here's an excerpt:

How’s this for weird?  In 1958, John Zacherle, a 40-year-old World War II veteran and TV horror movie host, went to the Philadelphia studio of Cameo Parkway to record a spoken-word piece of gruesome limericks.  Cameo Parkway producer/guitarist Dave Appell laid down a two-chord backing track with the label’s house band. Dan Dailey punctuated the limericks with thick sax solos.  At some point Zacherle’s friend Dick Clark stopped by to check on the song’s progress.  (He’d later ask Zacherle to tame the song down for American Bandstand.)  In the spring, “Dinner With Drac Part 1” hit #6 on the Billboard pop chart, despite lyrics about swimming in blood and eating mummy veins.  Why you never hear this song on oldies radio is beyond me.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Sheep & Goats -- Album Reviews You Can Use

New-ish column at the Burnside Writers' Collective:  Sheep and Goats.  Sheep = Albums that are WORTH IT, Goats = Albums that are NOT and will be cast into a fiery pit where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, or at the very least polite beg-to-differs on the Burnside comment board, currently the scene of a polite/snarky/inscrutable ("Ben") debate on Jesus Seminarian Marcus Borg and the idea of Christianity's exclusivity or lack thereof, which I'm inclined to think indicates people are using "exclusivity" in two different ways, but which nonetheless feels like an argument in which I'm scarcely qualified to participate, not being Jesus, and even less compelled to do so, because it'd use up valuable time that could otherwise be spent writing record reviews.  Speaking of:

Sheep and Goats December '10
Sheep: Disciple, Norma Jean, Jars of Clay, Kenny Chesney single
Goats: Kanye, Lecrae, the Afters

Sheep and Goats November '10
Sheep: Israel Houghton, the Thermals, Sufjan (Adz), Dandy Warhols, Tye Tribbett single
Goats: Michael Whittaker Smith, Point of Grace, Sufjan (Delighted)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

This Billy Joel Greatest Hits Album is TOTALLY WORTH IT!!!

Look there!  Reflected in his glasses!  Is it... MURDER?

Of course, you could probably string together a better compilation, but it's an interesting song selection anyway.  8/10.  Choice paragraph:

Of course, there are songs that don’t invite any shame at all.  “Allentown” is sharp social commentary, with a melody as complex as its lyrical dilemmas and working-in-a-coalmine grunts borrowed from Lee Dorsey.  “Pressure” is a war between Man and Synth, unresolved despite Joel’s anguished screams.  And for all you yaks talkin’ smack like “Lists aren’t songs”, just TRY writing a catchy tune that rhymes “Pasternak” with “Kerouac”.  If you grew up with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, you know that hearing any of its historical name-drops is like turning over the Queen of Diamonds in The Manchurian Candidate. Only instead of assassinating people, you’re compelled to finish singing the song, regardless of whom you might annoy.  In the most recent DSM-IV, this is called the Harry Truman Doris Day Trigger.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Last Week in Jukeboxing

Les biens:
Tye Tribbett -- "Fresh" 
(my pick!) 
The parts of “Fresh” that make it gospel — addressing God, quoting the Bible — feel like afterthoughts; this is really a song about Tye discovering the joys of Auto-Tune, or whatever voice-manipulator he used (apparently you can use it “straight out the box”!) He seems blissfully unaware that secular R&B has been doing the same thing for many years now, and that blatant Auto-Tune isn’t even unheard of in Christian circles — Marvin Sapp, a more traditional gospel singer, used it on a couple songs earlier this year, and the icky tobyMac has had a big A-T hit. So CCM’s lagging behind secular music again, what else is new? But apart from the synth-arpeggios and strutting beat and chord changes, all great, I love this song because Tye uses his new toy with such unbridled enthusiasm, mutating his voice in a variety of ways I don’t think I’ve heard outside Ke$ha. During the choruses he sounds like a whole P-Funk army. And if it weren’t for their chronology, Tye’s coda could be a minimalist riposte to Kanye’s overwrought Vocoder solo.

After School -- "Bang!"
Brings me back to the heady days of the Bring It On soundtrack, which I was convinced would illuminate some nascent bubble-underground and usher in a euphoric age of insanely shiny global pop supremacy. (Though I think B*Witched was as “global” as the made-in-USA BIO ventured). Probably my “euphoric age” will remain perpetually out of reach; probably it’d feel more oppressive than euphoric. But if history tells us anything, it’s that trying and failing to live up to such impossible ideals can produce some nifty side-effects. Speaking of: my word, is that a harpsichord? And then, after all the hot-stepping percussion and the smooth breakdown, we get ACTUAL STEPPING SOUNDS. I have no idea what this song’s about, but it SOUNDS like hot cheerleaders flipping through the air, competitively. It’s an image that might look oppressive to that portion of the student body who aren’t hot and can’t flip. But one of the joys of pop is that you don’t have to pass its practitioners in the halls.

...le mal:
Luca Brazi -- "Wake Up"
Despite my weakness for Christian rappers who can actually rap and cuss and quote Jay-Z (are there others?), I may be even more prejudiced against underground rap with sucky beats and no hooks. What to do? Well, it turns out the words aren’t much either. He’s more smug than prophetic — correct me if I’m wrong, but Brazi’s totally raging against ALL THOSE OTHER PEOPLE who worship greenbacks and whatnot, without acknowledging the same tendencies in himself, like Kanye did in “All Falls Down”. This oversight makes him sound petulant, but more to the point it makes him less interesting than (say) “All Falls Down”, because there’s no way into his music. My heart’s probably not pure enough for him, so we couldn’t stand together against the infidels; but I don’t recognize myself as one of the people he’s railing against either, since, devoid of specifics, his attacks don’t really stick. The industry may well be full of “boot-clickin’ ass-kissin’ house niggas”, but absent any way of identifying with either Brazi or his strawmen, I don’t know or care whether that’s true. And, watery lyrics aside, that beat’s not gonna wake anybody up.
[3] le mot juste:
Kanye West ft. Pusha T -- "Runaway"
Way to show the Primitive Radio Gods how it’s done! Although I will say this: if you title your song “Runaway” it’s bound to be good, sort of like if you call your song “Do It Again” (the conflicting implications of these phenomena will be fully explored in my forthcoming EMP paper, Should I Stay Or Should I Stay Somewhere Else?: Primitive Radio Gods and the Ineluctable Modality of the Transitive). Speaking of which, does anybody remember the Pearl Jam song “Who You Are”, which according to my copious research followed “Waiting To Use the Phone Except I Don’t Have Any Quarters” at #1 on the Modern Rock Chart? Well, don’t look it up. ‘96 was bleak, man.

The Tallest Man on Earth -- "The King of Spain" [8]
Ke$ha -- "Cannibal" [8]
(review and comments include wonky choir director stuff) (and wonky K fan stuff) (it's really out of control at this point)
The Greenhornes -- "Saying Goodbye" [6]
Right Said Fred -- "This Love" [4]