Wednesday, June 20, 2012

This Balkan Brass Best-Of is Sort of Worth It

The PopMatters review of Golden Horns, by the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar, who I've seen live and they were very good... but you'll see:

More swerve!

Maybe you have to see them live. In Chicago back in 2008, the headlong rush was incredible—virtuosic but off-kilter, like flying along in one of those Indiana Jones mine cars only perfectly, surrounded by control and chaos all at once. Whatever musical devices they used to get that effect—percussion perched on top of the beat? horns going slightly sharp? certainly the solos were more unhinged—the rush comes across only occasionally on Golden Horns, a compilation from the Boban i Marko Marković Orkestar, Serbia’s premier brass band led by father Boban (flugelhorn) i son Marko (trumpet).

This is frustrating, if not unexpected. After all, “you gotta see ‘em live” is one of the biggest clichés of the recorded music era. (Maybe people said the same thing about unsatisfying sheet music—“This Mozart aria reads OK, but you gotta hear it live, man.”) Album opener “Khelipe e Cheasa” promises adventure, excitement, thrills, chills and sljivovica: somebody wolf-whistles, tenor horns blat and men shout “Hep!” on the offbeats, saxman Erol Demirov calls ducks, and the horn tuttis are surrounded by little warbling countermelodies. A party! But for all its promises, “Khelipe e Cheasa” doesn’t thrill. It’s a very pleasant song; the band switches from hook to ingratiating hook with professional ease, and their chops should make us proud to be human beings. The song closes with an aggressive shimmering cacophony, some horns trilling away while others interject melodic lines, and it’s all very impressive, but it’s hard not to feel like something’s missing.

Much brass band music, whether Balkan or banda, straightlaced Sousa or downtown New York, walks a particular sort of high-tension wire. The prevailing texture of this stuff is homogeneous. It’s got counterpoint—a few horns work the melody, some other horns work the harmony, and maybe someone else throws in a countermelody—but everyone’s working together towards a unified musical effect. What keeps things interesting is the threat of heterogeneity. The more musicians you get together, the greater the probability that something will go wrong intentionally or otherwise. The parts will diverge and someone’ll start playing an unexpected counterpoint that doesn’t quite fit, even as it ratchets up the excitement. This is simple math, the arithmetic of obnoxia.

On record at least, the Orkestar isn’t obnoxious enough. In the formulation of writer David Wondrich, they’ve got a lot of drive but not enough swerve. (Wondrich: “Whenever there’s a proper, legit, ‘dicty’ way of phrasing the tune in question and a musician plays something arbitrary, irrational, spontaneous, unexplainable, that’s the swerve.”) Partly this is a matter of expectations. You listen to most brass band music, including Balkan brass, with the expectation of craziness. Fanfare Ciocărlia plays chewy staccatos that threaten to become pure rhythm. Yolanda Pérez’s banda goes so fast and sharp you fear it’ll topple over. Something’s bound to go wrong. Indeed, the Orkestar plays up these expectations, rapping a song called “Sljivovica”, shouting “Hep!” and “Hey!”, subtitling the 2007 album that contributed several of these tunes Brass Madness. Not Brass Skill or Virtuoso Brass or Brass Who’ve Worked Really Hard to Cross Over. No, these guys claim to be mad crazy; they just don’t sound like it here. Their largely instrumental songs are about parties, but they don’t bring the party itself. They’ve premeditated every “Hep!” and “Hey!”

That’s not to say I couldn’t listen to them for a while. Golden Horns compiles some fine moments, from the ‘70s car-chase tribute “Dzumbus Funk” to the burnished spaghetti Western vibe of “Obećanje”. Besides their trademark polkas, the Markovićs and their drumline touch on all sorts of rhythms: funk, reggaeton, ska, swing, you name it, and that’s not counting the two limp dance remixes tacked onto the end. They throw in winking touchstones like Mozart’s 40th Symphony (you know: “dunaNA dunaNA dunaNAHNA! dunaNA dunaNA dunaNA!”) and, in the album’s most thrilling moment, a live version of “Hava Naguila” whose swerve comes from its playful tempo changes. Their tunes are catchy and their burbling arrangements always carry plenty of momentum. Balkan brass could do worse than these genteel ambassadors.

The Orkestar sort of reminds me of two rock groups I love: Sonic Youth and Lightning Bolt. They’ve fashioned unique styles for themselves, you could imagine them working minor variations on those styles until the world ends, and they all nod to a transgressive craziness that, at this point, you know they’ll never actually deliver. For all their noise, Lightning Bolt basically play groovy dadrock, and all the Markovićs’ party promises amount to enjoyable family music for public lawns. Go see ‘em live. The adults drink, the kids dance, sometimes vice versa, and everyone has a fine time before driving home in their SUVs. The group’s virtuosity is never in doubt. If it was, they might sound more exciting, but they’d have trouble getting gigs and you’d be way less likely to hear them.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

This Adam Lambert album is NOT Worth It, unless you are a SUPERFAN

Hola, partidistas del Glamberto! If you are moved to comment, please do so with etiquette and decorum. I LIKE HIM, REALLY. AND I DON'T THINK HE NEEDS TO BE MORE GAY OR LESS GAY. (And really, why is nobody calling me on the terrible Ed Lover joke? Just godawful.)

My PopMatters review of Glambert's Trespassing has been a fruitful commentary magnet, so you should definitely click on over there and read all the passion one man can inspire. But here's the review in full:

"Trespassing"? Yeah, my ass.

Let’s get something straight: Trespassing is not Adam Lambert’s “big gay dance-club album” (as one illustrious publication put it) any more than Savage Garden was Savage Garden’s big gay pop album or Songs from the West Coast was Elton John’s big gay roots album. With Trespassing, Lambert becomes the first out solo artist to score a number one album—cigars all around!—but queer identity barely shows up in the songs themselves. The pronouns are mostly “you”, and the innuendos pretty much top out at “straight jacket” and “Such a beautiful release / You inside of me”. Everything else—ignoring “no trespassing” signs, partying all night, enjoying naked love—is hedonism available any day of the week in Pink or Ke$ha songs, on classic rock radio or blues clubs or wherever. This isn’t a knock against the album; that’ll come in a minute. But taken at face value, Trespassing reads straight or gay: however you want it. Take the subject of “Kickin’ In”, the one who puts her shot glass down and asks for another round. If you hear her as a drag queen, you probably read about it on Twitter.

Screw Twitter. I’m too busy trying to figure out whether the drag queen’s friend Eddie, who’s got words that rhyme and a dirty mind, is some outdated Ed Lover reference.

Anyway, heard at face value, “Kickin’ In” is the best song here—produced by Pharrell Williams in strutting MJ knockoff mode, with mysterious synth percussion that makes me laugh like his Britney jams did more than a decade ago. (Remember “Boys”? Now, don’t you think Glambert should cover it? Let’s start a petition.) Lambert sings in octaves, his party starter tenor laced with the menace of his impossibly clear falsetto. There’s a cool breakdown with a kaleidoscopic array of Glamberts leering and shouting, as though you’re viewing him through the bottom of an empty tumbler. Pharrell also produced the opener “Trespassing”, a funky march with handclaps and a bassline that swings like a Chic-y monkey. Speaking of Chic, guitar hero Nile Rogers shows up on “Shady”, a reasonably funky Lester Mendez production that inhabits the same freak-infested clubs as Ke$ha, with salacious vocal swoops out of the Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons”. These songs are all on the album’s first half, seven uptempo dance tunes ranging from really good to pretty good (“Cuckoo”, “Naked Love”) to forgettable (“Pop That Lock”, inexplicable second single “Never Close Our Eyes”). The kick drums stomp; the synths are state-of-the-charts; song lengths fill a narrow range from 3:00 to 4:08.

Here’s why I mention song lengths. Almost from the start of American Idol, fans and critics speculated about which contestant would use the show’s format to break molds and shift paradigms, or to rebel against the format itself. To date on Idol, only two contestants have fit the bill: Sanjaya Malakar, who demonstrated that the public has terrible taste, and Adam Lambert, who proved the opposite. Even Joshua Ledet, Season 11’s insanely talented gospel-soul screamer, fits the Idol mold: an attractive person singing a song well, usually in a way we’re accustomed to hearing it sung, and receiving a reward. In contrast, Lambert took over Season Eight, mentoring the other contestants, doling out his own rewards (“Mad World”) and punishments (“Ring of Fire”), and using the format to establish himself as the country’s most vital entertainer. Despite his second-place finish, he owned the show; he was bigger than the Simons. (Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield: “Having Adam around seems to cheer everybody up, including the other singers, who know the pressure’s off. Hell, even Simon looks happy.”) If Season Eight—or Idol itself—is remembered artistically centuries from now, it’ll be for Glambert’s performances.

After the season ended, the question—the worry—became, “How does he translate this persona into a recording career?” Idol gave Lambert the gift of constraints; he kept his songs to a certain length so the producers wouldn’t give him the stiletto boot, because what fun would that’ve been? He sang MJ and Johnny Cash because he had to, upending audience expectations in the process. On-stage, Lambert was a big-hearted rebel, but the show’s narrow parameters gave him something to rebel against. As my wife feverishly downloaded his singles, there was something disappointing about hearing “Black or White” apart from the Idol stage—it simply sounded like a really good singer’s cover version, but not like the world historical chokehold of the previous night.

So unfortunately, the answer to that worried question remains, “He hasn’t figured it out yet”. Like his first album For Your Entertainment, Trespassing disappoints because it’s Lambert playing on pop’s terms and sometimes narrowing the terms unnecessarily. He hires the same big-name Top 40 writers and producers that everyone hires—heck, even Entertainment featured pomp-rock guys from The Darkness and Muse alongside Max Martin and Shellback. His songs all run about the same length—yes, pop singles are supposed to be short, but pop albums from Erasure to Big & Rich to Madonna have been unafraid to stretch out musically. Trespassing deviates from the big beat formula on its second ballad-heavy half, notably on the lite industrial groove of “Chokehold” and the Wainwright-y falsetto warbling in “Outlaws of Love”. But “Outlaws”, like its neighbors in Ballad Land, isn’t much of a song. The second half gets pretty dispiriting, especially if you shell out for the version with three “bonus” tracks, which are like ending the school year with some bonus homework. 

Most worryingly, for all their talk of trespass and release and lock-popping, Glambert’s songs unleash very little Glambert. On the solemn ballad “Underneath”, Lambert sings, “Underneath, under my skin / Underneath the depths of my sin / Look at me, now do you see?” Well, no actually, we don’t. Not that Lambert needs to provide a blow-by-blow account of his “sin”, but most of his lyrics amount to workmanlike clichés. “Tower of Babel has fallen down again”; “Let’s just stay awake until we grow older”; “I’m swingin’ off of my hinges / I’m cocked and I’m ready to go”—these ideas have been expressed better elsewhere and could’ve been expressed by anyone. I should also point out that the Five Man Electrical Band came up with more creative “No Trespassing” signs.

So while I’m rooting for the guy and his amazingly versatile screeches, he still doesn’t know how to make pop music work for him, rather than the other way around. Other people do. Take the big gay examples from up top. Elton John’s “Original Sin” and Savage Garden’s “Santa Monica” are both strange and beautiful songs that become more poignant if you hear them as gay monologues. Lambert’s songs don’t work that way—“Outlaws”, his closest contender, is too flatly written to achieve strangeness, beauty, or poignancy. But it’s not just old music that’s showing him up. This year in mainstream pop, fun., Graffiti6, and Dev have all packed their albums and singles with more weirdo personality than Glambert’s self-proclaimed “world of truth”. Whether his songs would improve with more queer self-expression is anyone’s guess, but he clearly needs to do something.