Sunday, March 25, 2012

This New Wiley Album is Totally Worth It!!!

He'd rather be working.

Select sentences from my PopMatters review of Wiley's Evolve or be Extinct:

Now he’s back with the double album Evolve or be Extinct, basically a tribute to his workaholism.

After the so-so introduction “Welcome to Zion”, Evolve slams into your brain with its title song, a boxing match between track and rapper. Wiley’s track mainly consists of a double-time riff repeated over and over, while his flow is a hyperactive syncopated wonder that darts in and out of the spaces in the production, elaborating and playing off its rhythmic possibilities. A hypeman declares, “If you’re not spittin’ this way on the 140 bpm, you are not evolving, rudeboy,” and you don’t doubt him.

The beat for “Link Up”, by name-to-remember Nana Rogues, is mostly implied, with a huge snare on the fours, a shaker and chime twinkling unpredictably, and a bass vroom that swells and throbs the rhythms of seduction. 

Also great is Most Wanted Mega’s mega electro racecar roar “Boom Blast”, which makes Wiley’s heart stutter like “voodoodoodoo dadadada voodoodoodoo POW!” At several points during the song, he touches the ceiling.

As a varied production showcase, Evolve impresses like DJ Quik’s The Book of David and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives.

In the sparse meditation “This is Just an Album”, Wiley reveals that he maintains his breakneck schedule to connect with the public and provide for his family. But his big dance song, “I’m Skanking”, is all about dancing alone. The atonal loner anthem “Weirdo” asserts “You ain’t in the same planet as me / They ain’t in the same planet as me”. And in “No Love Lost”, Wiley acknowledges that he’s lost touch with many homies: “We started together / Now we move solo,” an appropriate motto for a guy who apparently vacations in Barbados by himself. Blame his fans, who double as his enablers: “People ask me every day, ‘Wiley, what you workin’ on?’” No wonder he wants to see what the sea’s like.

Still, this guy’s so good at his job, it’s hard to imagine him lazing on a beach somewhere, with or without Rihanna. Evolve or be Extinct succeeds as both a collection of songs for public use—dancing, drinking, celebrating Christmas, protesting customs officials—and as a complex portrait of the artist who’s sacrificed his sleep and sanity to create them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This Old Bachata Comp is WORTH IT!!!

Can you spot The Lawless Goat?

I didn't point it out in my PopMatters review, but Bachata Roja was Robert Christgau's 45th favorite album of 2011. Hey, mine too! Here is the review:

¡Qué grande es el amor!

Bachata music has lately threatened to take over Latin pop radio. Turn on your local station for a half-hour and you’ll hear the romantic fibs and bereft longings of some bachata singer, like Prince Royce or Romeo Santos, handing you his still-beating heart over guitar arpeggios and ticky-ticky percussion. (Women sing this stuff, too, though most conspicuously in duets with men.) Back in the ‘90s, Santos and his band Aventura innovated traditional bachata by mixing it with R&B chord changes and vocal mannerisms. This proved a winning combination, since R&B singers also truck in romantic fibs and bereft longings, and Aventura achieved crossover success and began printing money.

Integral to bachata’s sound are its guitars. If you count modern bachata as an R&B subgenre—and you really should—it’s the most guitar-centric of any R&B that currently charts. When contemporary R&B highlights a guitar, it strums a ballad or throws in a novelty solo. (Think Lil’ Wayne’s “How To Love” or Beyoncé’s “1+1”.) The sound of bachata, though, is unimaginable without the guitars: bright rhythm and lead lines interlocking with the percussion, creating clockwork structures whose regularity and precision provide secure frames of reference for all the vocal emoting. The guitar solos can be pretty impressive, too; bachata still prizes virtuosity.

It’s always done so, on the evidence of these two recent albums of traditional bachata. Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue compiles Dominican recordings from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, and The Bachata Legends gathers many of the same players, Buena Vista Social Club-style, to recreate old songs live in a modern studio. This traditional music resembles Aventura and friends in its abundant guitars, steady 8th-note rhythms, and bittersweet vocalizing. ButBachata Roja also betrays unexpected variety, both in beats and lyrics. It showcases a genre still in the process of being codified, and therefore looser and wider-ranging than its modern incarnation lets on. Listening to Roja is sort of like hearing about the wild early lives of your grandparents, before they settled into the predictable grandparentness you know and love.

The wildest guy on Roja is Eladio Romero Santos, who celebrates girls and knife fights in “Las tres muchachas” and wanders through a drunken haze in “A los 15 o 20 tragos” (“At 15 or 20 drinks”), which Eric Church should totally cover. Santos’s music is irresistible and closer to merengue; his guitar work is less intricate but more danceable than most bachata, and his percussion parts have more space and variety. For straight up bachata heartache, there’s Augusto Santos (no relation), who implores “Con el amor no se juega” (“Do not play with love”) and claims “Yo soy puro amor” (“I am pure love”). His voice floats like a feather while his guitar picking and background singers elaborate his anguish. “What springs from my chest is pure love”, he sobs. Eek.

Most of Roja’s songs fall somewhere between those two extremes. Indeed, most tracks are in major keys, and while very few evoke the most disgusting scene from the movie Alien, they do get their love and their pain all tangled together. The music gets tangled, too. Like lots of genres in the process of being formed, this early bachata borrowed songs and styles from other places: Ramón Cordero adapted Mexican rancheros; Ramón Isidro Cabrera drew from Spanish décima poetry, and so on. Cordero sings with a wonderful smoky tenor, a bit like Harry Belafonte. Cabrera, meanwhile, uses his braying timbre to appropriate a Spanish persona called “El Chivo sin ley” (aka “the lawless Goat”); he’d run with it the rest of his career. The hard-living Marino Perez laments never taking his mother’s advice over adventurous chord changes that try to escape their own song. (He’s rumored to have vomited up his own liver, but that can’t be true, can it?) And along with Augusto Santos, the great guitarist Edilio Paredes livens up many of these tunes with virtuosic lines that astonish and delight.

I have a theory, rejected by Science, that tone color is the strongest musical memory trigger—stronger than melody, harmony, or rhythm, and comparable to smell in its power to conjure forgotten places and feelings. Roja bursts with memorable tone colors in guitars and voices, the odd saxophone, and instrumental variety from song to song. It’s an expert compilation. Less successful is the newly recorded Legends, which features our friends Paredes, Cordero, El Chivo, and Augusto Santos, among others. Paredes remains a guitar hero—the warring rhythms of “Calzoncillo largo” dropped my jaw—but the men’s voices have lost some distinction and the overall sound is too homogeneous to maintain excitement. Still, when the Lawless Goat honks out the quick “Tirale bajito” with accordion and merengue rhythms, he proves that traditional bachata has some surprises left in it.

Friday, March 02, 2012

This New Cursive Album Is NOT Worth It!

My negative review at PopMatters has been a fruitful source of angry comments from the Cursive Army. (Did you know they had an army?) I admire the commenters for using their full names rather than pseudonyms. Below, the I Am Gemini review in full, followed by some of the choicer responses.

Coquettes in concupiscent dress bat their eyes. Seriously.

When considering the failure of Cursive’s concept album I Am Gemini, it may be helpful to ponder the words of Stephen Sondheim. Or Friedrich Nietzsche. Or noted aesthetic philosopher Phife “Go get yourself some toilet paper ‘cause your lyrics is butt” Dawg. Any words, really, that distract you from those of Cursive lyricist/singer Tim Kasher, because his words are butt. Terrible, terrible butt. You can open the script to any page—btw, THE LYRIC SHEET IS A SCRIPT, COMPLETE WITH STAGE DIRECTIONS—and find gems like, “When the cat’s away / It’s said the mouse will play”. We all remember Nietzsche’s dictum: “Prefacing a cliché with ‘it’s said’ renders it no less a cliché, while rendering its user more an ass.” Kasher soldiers on, still babbling about cats: “Now the cat’s out of the bag and someone’s got to pay.” Imagine, if you will, the terrible dialogue from the movie The Happening, where Marky Mark talked to the trees but they wouldn’t listen to him. Now imagine that same dialogue full of halfhearted attempts at rhyme and assonance (pun intended), and you’ll approach the cringe-inducing cleverness on display here. Also you’ll bang your head against furniture.

Gemini’s “plot” revolves around two estranged twins, named Cassius and Pollock by their smug hipster mother Edith Hamilton. (She’s not a character.) Cassius was that dude talking all the smack about cats. At the time, he was getting ready to kill his sleeping “doppelganger” with a knife. (Phife: “Sucker MCs go and use the word ‘doppelganger’ / Now their song won’t never be a banger.”) You can’t really blame Cassius. Pollock had earlier shackled his brother and cut his head open, a misguided attempt to delve into the secret world of twins. Most of this action takes place in a big old creepy house, though for imagination’s sake, there’s one scene at a creepy sideshow carnival, where creepy Siamese Twins teach our heroes about life. That’s after the brothers’ past crimes appear dressed as Skeletons, but before we learn that It Was All A Dream. At one point the brothers travel through a looking glass—THAT’s the dream!—“into a world similar, although somehow askew”. Sounds like a challenge for Art Direction.

In The Man Who Mistook His Show For a Hat, Stephen Sondheim praises Porgy and Bess, writing that lyricist DuBose Heyward “understood the difference between character and characteristics; the lyrics sounded like heightened natural speech rather than self-advertised ‘poetry’.” Kasher doesn’t understand the distinction. His line “Albatross necktie / Looks so dignified / But you gotta loosen it up!” fails both ways: it’s not poetic, nor does anyone talk like that. The line doesn’t even help to establish character, which would have been helpful since Kasher sings both brothers exactly the same. Without the script, it’s impossible to differentiate Cassius from Pollock; both just sound like facile indie-rock singers making awful allusions and puns.

This seems a good time to share the dodgiest line from I Am Gemini: “Out cold, run over by the boulder of Sisyphus / Doesn’t it seem to get a bit repetitive? / Overandoverandoveragain…” High school mythology students in Cursive’s audience grin knowingly.

Believe me, I understand: writing a rock opera is hard work. The Drive-By Truckers only attempted it once. Look, I like the Who as much as the next guy. (Next guy: “What’s an Eminence Front?” Roger Daltrey: “IT’S A PUT-ON!”) But nobody pretends like the lyrics to Tommy are good, with their painful exposition and their supple wrists. Tommy gets by on its songs, which have held up to decades of radio play, endless cover versions, and armies of high school students singing them on the bus to speech contests. I Am Gemini falls into every rock opera trap—even its title is exposition. But if Cursive had brought the tunes, all would be forgiven. (Well, except for “I’m gonna paint this bloody town black and blue”.)

Sadly, the band chokes on the albatross necktie of Kasher’s lyrics. From the press release: “Kasher… wrote album lyrics in a linear fashion, in order, from song 1 to song 13.” Hooks appear during Act One—the “Come out, come out” chorus of “Warmer Warmer” is pretty catchy—only to get chased away by the all-important storyline. The band alludes to rock music without fleshing it out into self-reliant songs. “The Sun and Moon” is probably the best, with its organ-driven New Wave momentum, but even that’s killed by Kasher’s mythological asides. And if Act One is where hooks go to die, Act Two is a wasteland. Kasher briefly tries to play the resurrector and give the dead some life, handing his band an actual EXPLOSION to play—“We’re gonna blow this unholy house to dust!”—but they just sound like some guys playing an explosion.

Back in 2006, Cursive released the extremely likable concept album Happy Hollow. Lyrically it was more transmissions from the Kasherian sphincter, something about religion and The Wizard of Oz, but the music had so much life and so many bizarre horn lines, the words hardly mattered. Realizing that storyline was their least important concern, Cursive built their concept from discrete hooky songs. I Am Gemini gets its priorities backwards and lacks horns. For all its tempo shifts and attempts at fun,Gemini sounds like the work of an ascetic band scared of pleasure. When Cursive attempts another one of these things—and you know they will—they’d do well to heed Sondheim’s dictum from his “If you’re dealing with a musical in which you’re trying to tell a story, it’s got to sound like speech. At the same time it’s got to be a song.” Just one of those goals would suffice.

In response, Cursive fan Erik sez:
First of all, you're not funny.  You're the only one laughing at your "quips."  You don't even review the album, you just show how many references you can make to either rock-opera albums or philosophers. Your review is terrible, one-sided, and makes poorly-supported (or completely uninformed) claims. Also, you obviously wasted a good portion of time writing a review on a website I've never heard of, probably for no money at all.  Continue writing negative reviews in an effort to feel superior, since you're a hip writer and all.  However, a writer should at least know that art direction shouldn't be capitalized.  I hate it when Writers capitalize Nouns when they're not supposed to be.  How about stick to being a church musician - sorry, I meant Church Musician - rather than write scathing reviews for an album that is in no way as bad as you say.  2/10 rating?  Wrong.  Just wrong.

And Glenn sez:
I read [reviews] to get an actual description of how good or bad an album is.  This album is an A+.  The time you spend analyzing every little word of the lyrics is quite tiresome.  The guy wrote a play, then set it to music.  It is a peice of literature and here is what you say: "Go get yourself some toilet paper ‘cause your lyrics is butt”".
So your critisizing someone's art while bastardizing the English language it was written in.
and this "Believe me, I understand: writing a rock opera is hard work."  Really when did you write one?
The words don't have to be poetic as you want them to be, like rock music is meant to be perfect prose, free of the cliche's that you don't like.
The fact is that this album is over your head.  Any person who appreciates music would recognize the thru composed nature of this cd, YES WITH KEYBOARDS, NOT HORNS, (sorry they didn't pick your favorite alternate instrument this time) and recognize that it is A) amazingly complex  B) Addictively memorable  C)something no other band could ever create.
This site is butt, I'm out of here.