Saturday, December 24, 2011

Soul Time


Everybody seems to agree that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are the premier retro-soul outfit of our time. Soul Time is their fifth studio record, though it's actually just a compilation of previously recorded studio material. Honest, I haven't listened to the whole thing yet, but there's a reason for that. I'm starting to feel a little bored with Jones and her mates. They've long perfected replicating a sound that was already perfect and that's no easy feat. I just wish they would start veering from the script a little.

However, because Shuggie Otis's Inspiration Information was one of the first album obsessions of mine (I wore it out on cassette in high school), I was excited to see this album-closing cover on Soul Time. (If I had been more up on this, I would have heard it originally on Dark Was the Night.) The backup vocals are a big part of this song in the verses, and Jones' version does more with them. Compare and contrast, if you will.



Sunday, December 11, 2011

undun

I've always been a big Roots crew fan. Black Thought is an unbelievable lyricist, one of the most consistent out there. ?uestlove seems to be everywhere at once and still he rarely disappoints. Only complaint I've had in recent years is that their live shows have suffered, in my opinion. I first saw them in 2002 at the Stone Pony and they rocked the crowd. I saw them again in 2007 and it seemed like they were narrowing their setlist to appease mostly college frat-boys. Why else cut out most of the new material from Game Theory and instead do a gimmicky cover of Dylan's "Masters of War"?

Anyway, I like the direction the Roots have gone in the last few years. How I Got Over, the score for Night Catches Us, and now undun. Feels like they have settled into a mood and message for their albums that fits them perfectly. In the last few years, the Roots have fixated on the stories of young people either overcoming or drowning in repressive, urban blight. undun narrows the focus even more to tell the story of one fictional character over the course of the entire song cycle. It is a sophisticated and subtle album. And it's pretty rare for any concept album to be both sophisticated and subtle.



Gotta mention, though: man, do these last two albums have the ghost of Curtis Mayfield all over them or what? Curtis told these same stories. Others did too, obviously. Marvin, Stevie, the list goes on. But what set Curtis apart was his reliance (almost to a fault) on narrative storytelling. More, while he was singing about drug addiction, poverty, and racism, he was pretty much rapping: each verse had such simple end-rhymed couplets. The Roots follow in a proud tradition.



And, while I'm doing the whole comparison thing (dangerous, I know), you can't see these beautiful videos from undun and not think back to Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of Black families in Watts. If you haven't seen it, check it now!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Watch the Throne: Chicago


Been thinking a few days about posting my thoughts since I saw the Watch the Throne tour in Chicago last Thursday. I've read a few reviews already, so I think I'll fill in some gaps I haven't seen anybody else write about yet.

First of all, it's amazing how Jay-Z and Kanye can keep 24,000 people on their feet for three hours. They are at the top of their game when it comes to showmanship and skill as performers and entertainers. Kanye was literally sprinting from one side of the stage to the other while holding down entire verses of "Touch the Sky". They chose a set list the way a DJ spins records for a dance floor. There were crescendoes in energy, mini-sets of songs that shared common themes, and the few lulls in momentum were carefully planned and spaced throughout the night.

Regarding energy and performance style, Jay-Z came across as more relaxed than Kanye. The audience was so engaged, though, that Jay's reserved style brought the fans into a more intimate space to appreciate what he was doing lyrically. During some of his more intricate and rhythmically complex verses, he would quiet down and just stand still during the delivery. The crowd went just as wild for those little bursts of words as they did for the Kanye sprints! That's how finely attuned the audience was to what he was doing on the mic.

I also liked how they chose to intersperse tracks from Throne with their older hits. Got me and my friends thinking about how a theme for the album, the tour, even their careers, is how power is used (or misused) by those who have risen to the top of the game. Most of the songs from Throne have to do with the interdependency of success and responsibility. Of course, the exorbitance displayed on "Otis" is cartoonish and (unfortunately) probably not satire. But "No Church in the Wild" is about the misuse of religion; "New Day" grapples with Black fatherhood; "Made in America" recalls the legacy of Black political leaders; and "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Murder to Excellence" are all too real about senseless crime among the urban poor.

I'm also thinking about the use (misuse?) of power as it pertains to the now-infamous marathon of "Paris" performances that has ended each night of the tour. When we saw them they played it eight times straight. Which pretty much proves Jay-Z and Kanye West are past the point of trying to please. They have been so good for so long at giving fans what they want, that they are now defining what the audience wants, instead of catering to it. I was wondering if the 45 minute block of "Paris" was supposed to be some kind of Kaufman-esque, postmodern comedic stunt, in which the comedians make the audience so confused that they forget what is supposed to be funny. If it was, I guess you could call that a misuse of power. But I don't actually think that was it at all. I think the majority of people in the arena genuinely loved watching Jay-Z and Kanye ham it up on that track. If only they had gone for nine.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Black Friday

Three great albums bought used at Soundstation in New Jersey. Thanks Bob!




Nomo, Ghost Rock (Ubiquity, 2008)
El Michaels Affair, Sounding Out the City (Truth and Soul, 2005)
Tommy Guerrero, Loose Grooves and Bastard Blues (Galaxia, 2007)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Oranges and Lemons

On the way back from work last week I picked up XTC's Oranges and Lemons (1989) at K Starke Records on Western Ave. XTC had first been recommended to me by my friend Ben Mercer, who sent me a copy of Drums and Wires (1979) in a CD swap last year (he got Bandwagonesque). More on that other XTC album later.

By cover alone, it's clear Oranges and Lemons is a young, mixed-up relative to both Sgt. Pepper's and Yellow Submarine. (It's one of those albums you somehow recognize from seeing in music shops when you were 15.) XTC's mixture of heartfelt British pop with cartoony, inane imagery recalls that era of the Beatles. But after the first spin, further listening proved difficult, even frustrating, for me. There's A LOT to listen to on this double album. Songs like "Merely a Man" and "Mayor of Simpleton" are packed with melodies: vocals, background vocals, guitar lines, trumpets, even pitched, flanged drums and bass seem to carry their own lyrical force. Down side: this makes an album of otherwise catchy pop songs almost impossible to completely digest in one sitting. Up side: serious replay value.

So then I went back to Drums and Wires. I was amazed! These two albums sound like they were recorded by two entirely different bands. Not surprisingly, Drums came out in '79 at the height of New Wave. It sounds like it. And even though this album is much more frenetic and jerky than Oranges, it proves to be much more of an enjoyable listen for two reasons. One, the songs are more cohesive, hold together better in feel and tone. Two, the arrangements are simpler. Whereas Oranges fills up space, Drums cuts to the chase. Especially on "Life Begins at the Hop", one of my favorites from the album.



Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blue Eyed Soul, Mayer Hawthorn, and... James Taylor?

Mayer Hawthorne's picking up some steam with the new album, How Do You Do?, which adds some slick and gloss to his previous efforts. I first came across Hawthorne's work a year or two ago by reading excellent sites like Soul Sides and Mixtape Riot. Now more than ever he's being compared to blue-eyed soul acts because he's white and he does retro-soul. Critics are putting him in the same sentence with Michael McDonald (I can see it), but also with Black soul acts, mostly from the Stax era and region.

My question is: what about the Delfonics, Smokey Robinson, Shuggie Otis? It seems like a lot of times when we get these new, usually white, retro-soul acts, people always make the comparison to Southern Soul, most likely because it's seen as the definition of authentic soul music. But Hawthorne's music has way more pop than blues. It is certainly influenced by Motown. (Nathan S. at DJ Booth does mention the Smokey influence, and, by the way, I agree with him on the Snoop feature.) And some of those chunky bass lines and keyboard swirls could have fit perfectly on Inspiration Information. Take a listen.

Band Rehearsal from MayerHawthorne on Vimeo.


Anyway, not to jump too many musical waters at once, but why does Hawthorne even have to be put in the blue-eyed soul camp at all? Besides the obvious, I mean. If the opening track sounds exactly like Philly soul, then let that be the comparison. I'm into criticism over racial authenticity -- especially as it pertains to African diasporic music -- but maybe Hawthorne's being white is NOT the most crucial feature. Truth is, when I think about the word "soul" I think not just of the genre that fused R&B and gospel, but of music carrying deep and genuine expression. Music that is heartfelt, sincere, passionate. So when I think of all that PLUS blue eyes I think of this performance from 1992. James Taylor may look like your high school principal but just listen to this other kind of (white) "soul" music and try not to be convinced.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Magic Sam's "West Side Soul"

Magic Sam was born in Mississippi and later moved to Chicago to become one of the true local legends of electric blues. Shame I hadn't heard of him til I found a copy of West Side Soul (1967) at the Harold Washington Library downtown. What an incredible singer and guitarist. Interesting that the first track, "That's All I Need", is a pop R&B number that highlights his upper vocal range in a Motown kind of melody, but on the rest of the album his blues guitar steals the show. Listen to this album. As an introduction, there's some great live footage below.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Live Blogging the Hideout Block Party

4:04. Booker T doubles up with two classics, "Born Under A Bad Sign" and "Green Onions". He wrote the former with William Bell for Albert King. Organ on "Onions" sounds identical to original MGs version. Wish this guitar didn't sound like a noodly Satriani. Gimme some more tremolo and less fuzz.

6:55. Really enjoyed Jon Langford but now Mavis is onstage and holding court. Band has a great mix and is a great testament to her original sound without comIng across as leftovers. I used to think the problem with "You're Not Alone" was it sounded TOO much like Jeff Tweedy but this performance convinced me. Great vocal delivery and blend for the band.

7:05. Nice subtle "fuck you" to the Tea Party. Go Mavis!

8:24. I really like Dosh. How many acts can consider the sound board as one of their instruments? weird placement in the lineup though. I do dig him more than Animal Collective, but as far as electronic acts go, he's not exactly rocking the crowd. Probably a good thing though.

Used to listen to Pure Trashna lot in 2005. Saw Dosh live at the Living Room in Providence that year. Set was so different. He was dropping shit off the stage and mic-ing the sounds of it hitting the floor. Now most of this stuff is pre-prepared but well layered in the moment nonetheless. I like.

9:35. Do Andrew Bird songs always have so many fragmented parts? Seems like he is switching tempos and doing starts and stops more than I remember from the albums. Maybe it's a necessary byproduct of looping the whistle and violin. As I wrote in my GBV review, I place a high value on "cutting to the chase" and the loops can sometimes frustrate (not unlike the TuNeYaRdS Pitchfork set in that way). Can't complain though. Some of these new songs are top-notch.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Miles Davis Quintet (1967)

Every now and then I return to a phase of heavy listening to the second Miles Davis Quintet. If you have never heard this band, or even if you have, I recommend watching this performance from 1967. Listen to how intensely these musicians are interacting with one another as each solo develops.



Thank you Jordan for buying me Miles Smiles for my 16th birthday!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

B96 9/11 Tribute

If you listen to B96 here in Chicago, you've probably heard the new Bruno Mars song in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. Producers took the chorus from "Lighters" and filled the verses with audio clips from speeches by Michael Bloomberg and George W. Bush from the weeks and months after 9/11.

This thing is shockingly painful to hear. A more successful project would have simply used audio honoring the heroism of those who lost their lives that day. And I think that's what the original intention probably was. But by the middle of the song, we've swerved directly into Bush II's original spin: by coming together and fighting for freedom, the American people have regained their dominance as world superpower.

The very last thing I want to commemorate today is the fact that 9/11 put us on a path to international war and domestic division. But by rehashing the shallow argument that the people of this country have somehow been brought together in the decade since 9/11, all I can think of is how that assertion is just one big shortsighted lie. Don't most agree at this point that we had a moment of unity in the immediate aftermath, and then we blew it? The most false thing you could do to remember 9/11 a decade later is pretend the last decade never happened.

Like I said, they could have just made a song in tribute to our fallen civilians and emergency workers who lost their lives before all this turned to shit. Wait, someone already made that song. In 2002.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Happy Labor Day

Respect to union labor from 1973. The Band performs "King Harvest" at their studio in Woodstock.

Monday, August 29, 2011

More Hazards More Heroes


Got to share a bill last night at Subterranean with this duo from Nashville. They're called More Hazards More Heroes and they are really good. Talk about Quiet is the New Loud. Excellent interwoven acoustic guitar lines, yet you might hear some Isaac Brock in those vocals. I mean that in the best possible way. Album is available on their site.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Year of 4

Your heart's gonna melt after watching this thing. Year of 4 tracks the year running up to the release of Beyonce's fourth album, reviewed earlier this summer on WCR.

Highlights (in no particular order):

  • B shedding a tear as those dancers from Mozambique leave the set for "Run the World".
  • All those musicians and execs bobbing their heads as they run through the potential track list of the album.
  • "Countdown" being "every hipster's favorite track" (there's no doubting that).
  • The silhouette of Jay doing the HOVA arms. You know it's him before she says, "There's Uncle Jay." Funny how he can make his presence known without saying a word.
  • Beyonce's unabashed optimism, enthusiasm, and grit throughout. She is truly one of the great performers.





Shout out once again to ET. You are now not only a musical collaborator but increasingly my WCR blogatorial curator.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Laughing Stock

The last album by Talk Talk from 1991. Benjamin Miranda of Detholz! told me about this album at a show a few months ago and I've listened to it many times since. Gives "prog rock" a very different name. This is like the Kind of Blue of prog. The album slowly develops, ephemerally and impressionistically. A few other thoughts: they got the perfect tone on every instrument. Listen to that snare! Also, is "Ascension Day" actually a blues song?



Thursday, August 18, 2011

Steven Hyden on Kanye West and Elvis Costello

Remarkably, someone has written a lengthy comparison of Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreaks and Elvis Costello's first two albums, My Aim is True and This Year's Model. In my opinion, those albums, Costello's, are much better than 808s. But that doesn't matter so much as the argument: Kanye projects his vulnerability and self-hatred onto the women who have spurned him, outwardly displaying a "mean streak toward women" that mirrors Elvis in the early days.

I do see the point about Kanye's portrayal of and attitude toward women. (Recent creepy, controlling lyric from Watch the Throne: "Don't ever fuck nobody without telling me.") But I think it's rather harmless, especially compared to the last 20 years of popular rap and hip hop, and more unique than anything for the level of revulsion projected inward. I disagree with Hyden on Costello, though. I see the role of women in his early songs certainly as people who have rejected him, which is the source of his cynicism, but I don't think he is out to get them so much as himself. Even when he gets creepy ("I'm afraid I won't know where to stop" on "I Want You"), he's self-aware enough to know that obsessing in the shadows is no way to win someone back.



What's weird, I first heard "Alison" as a song comforting a woman who had been sexually abused. I thought "somebody better turn out the big light" meant to get this person out of the spotlight so she could heal after somebody had taken "off her party dress". Hyden sees it as a straight murder plot. "My aim is true"? I was thinking about Cupid arrows. Hyden was thinking crosshairs.



C'mon. On the early promos for My Aim is True, just look who's at the center of that bullseye.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Headlines

Love this song! Super minimal vibe even though those are some pretty busy snare hits. Drake kills those little melodic lines too. "They know, they know, they know..."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Cave... Really?

I know this isn't exactly a new song or anything, but WXRT has been playing the Mumford and Songs song "The Cave" for what seems like many times daily for the past year. I don't understand it. This is a terrible song. What's worse is that you can tell this band is trying so hard to make it sound both lyrically and musically complex. It is neither. Here's why.

The Words

I will hold on hope.
You can't hold on hope. You can hold on. And you can hold on to hope (I guess). Both of these other options would express the same idea but probably wouldn't have fit into the melody. Sucks that this is the first line of the chorus.

And I'll find strength in pain.
It's true you can find strength in pain. But, unlike the "hope" line, this one clearly does not fit the rhythm of the song. I wince every time I hear the vocalist trying to rush the word "find" (0:55).

Cause I need freedom now.
I think it's hard to pull off singing about freedom unless a) you are actually singing about freedom (Bob Marley, slaves), or b) you are singing about personal freedom, in which case you'd better explain yourself at some point in the song. These guys are doing neither.

The music:

Banjos!
The instrumental section of this song is the banjo-equivalent of an incredibly monotonous hair-guitar solo. It unfairly demands that we stomp one foot. (See YouTube comments: "BANJO SOLO!!" and "I just stomped a hole through my floor....")

Trumpets!
You really have to earn your crescendoing trumpet coda within the first three minutes.

Little guitar picking thing.
The guitar in this song sounds like a college acoustic open-mic night that is just okay.

Maybe I have lost half of my readership by the end of this post. I certainly haven't made any new fans. But just listen to this song. Seriously.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Messing with Saxophones

Perhaps inspired by "Just Dance"-era Lady Gaga (before her empowerment phase), Katy Perry and Ke$ha are making it popular again to sing about young girls getting dangerously drunk and bragging about it. At least Cyndi Lauper was discreet. When I heard "Last Friday Night" on the drive home from work this week, I almost barfed. Until it got to that beautifully manipulated saxophone solo. Listen to that. So good.

It got me thinking about other strange saxophone sounds in pop songs. One comes to mind from Pink Floyd. Can anyone think of it?! Maybe I'll follow up with another post.

Go ahead and just skip to 3:58.

Katy Perry: Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) from Starworks Artists on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Animal Collective at Pitchfork




By now, it's become commonplace to refer to Animal Collective as the Grateful Dead of the indie music scene. Why?
  • The musicians perform their songs loosely in concert, often choosing to find their way through electronic and rhythmic improvisations as musical transitions.
  • Band members Avey Tare and Geologist recently cited the band as a shared influence when they first met because of their interest in improvisation as 9th graders.
  • They are now using a Dead sample in oneof their songs.
  • Their live shows push an absurd amount of neon psychedelia (see above).
  • It seems that many of their die-hard fans have adopted a counterculture-like style of fashion (face paint, rags), which, as in the case of the Dead, risks becoming a parody of itself as it increases in popularity. (A little editorializing there.)
If I sound cynical, please note that I am trying my best to be evenhanded. This Friday's performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival here in Chicago marked my first time seeing the band live, and, in some ways, I was impressed. I enjoyed listening intently to hear how those beeps, glitches, and howls would transform into songs. I think there is a lot to be said for a band that risks finding its way, musically speaking, in front of a live audience. But my respect for that kind of integrity reaches a point and then stops.

I've come to believe strongly in this basic principle: if you are a rock band, you need to deliver songs. Many excellent songs. Whether in the studio or in concert, the songs are where the focus should be. Observing the audience during AC's musical transitions, I noticed that many fans would either lapse into conversation or take a toke and wig out dancing. Both are signs of musical boredom that I recognize from every jamband concert I have been to. And, believe me, I've been to more than I care to recount. The best moments in AC's set were the songs. But there were too few of them.

It's a bit ironic that the band that took to the Green Stage before Animal Collective was Guided by Voices, guys who have made their name simply playing the hits. Upon taking the stage, Robert Pollard asked the audience (paraphrasing here) if we were "ready for some quality, authentic, rock and roll music?!" The band proceeded to blast drunkenly through 15 to 20 strangely anthemic tunes, the best of their career, and then left as quickly as they had appeared. And how, you ask, did Pollard transition between songs? Song title, dose of tequila, count-off, go. That's rock and roll.







Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Eight Bit Tiger

A friend told me that upon hearing new music, he tries to not instinctively think of which bands or artists the music sounds like. I can see why. It's helpful to have a context, but too much provides a framework for the sound that might limit the way you hear it. Unfortunately, in the case of Eight Bit Tiger, I just can't resist. Saw this band last Saturday night at the Hideout. They do electronic indie pop very well. Their sound patches and prerecorded patterns are incorporated deftly into the live sound, meshing with keyboard and electric guitar drenched in reverb. But based on sound and style, I can't help but wonder...

Will this band...



become this band?



or this band?

Monday, July 4, 2011

4


Beyonce is maturing with style and class. The songs on her new album, 4, owe a lot to R&B from the 80s and 90s, and some tracks, with their crisp production and sneakily singable chord movements, could have found success as mid-70s soul and dance tracks. "Love on Top" could have been a solo Diana Ross hit. (Four key changes in that song! Thanks to Emma for making me take a re-listen.) Seriously, this album is sophisticated, danceable, and purely enjoyable. Definitely take a listen.

There were lots of thoughts I wanted to put down about "Party" (probably the best song on the album) but, in all honesty, Nathan S. at Refined Hype put down the same ideas more succinctly and with more detail than I probably would have. Definitely check the link. I thought immediately to R&B but Nathan notes the verses are actually a reworking of the melody of Keith Sweat's "Right and a Wrong Way". He also writes that Kanye's beat is so minimal that he's not sure if it's genius or it just sucks. To me, it's perfect. Except for the intro and outro rhymes. "Swag sauce" is bad, but "dripping swag goo" is infinitely worse! And, of course, it's exciting to hear Andre 3000 deliver a great guest verse.

Seriously, go to Refined Hype to hear the track and look around at this great blog. And, while you're here, check out Solange doing "Stillness is the Move" by Dirty Projectors. Why do I post this? Beyonce's layered vocal harmonies made me think of the production on the vocals from the Projectors song. And Solange is Beyonce's sister.



Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Genius Rap

If you were born in the 1980s, your first exposure to Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" was most likely the sample in the infectious Mariah Carey hit, "Fantasy". Some time in college when I was taking more of an interest in the evolution and development of hip hop music, I learned that "Genius" had links to rap even when it was first put out by the Tom Tom Club in the early 80s. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were the rhythm section for Talking Heads. If you watch Stop Making Sense, you can even see Chris Frantz doing some proto-rapping while drumming on the song. He keeps mentioning James Brown. It's pretty funny.

I had never heard the two original rap songs based on "Genius of Love" until reading about them in Dan Charnas's new book The Big Payback. One is from Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde called "Genius Rap". It predates the second reinterpretation, "It's Nasty (Genius of Love)" from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I love how these early rap songs, first of all, are SO long, and the entirety of the tracks would get played on the radio. It's also interesting that producers hired studio musicians to rerecord exact replicas of these disco/funk songs rather than just looping a recording of the original track. I'm not sure why they chose to do that, since they still gave a percentage to the original artists (in the case of "Genius," it was something like 10 cents for every record sold).

As a side note, did you know the original creative force and producer behind "Rapper's Delight" was Sylvia Robinson? How many female producers are there today in any genre, let alone in hip hop? Pretty interesting backstory.



Friday, June 10, 2011

Cruisin Classics '03 - '10


I posted a month ago about why I like to listen to music loud. Looking back, this seems a terribly mundane topic to write about. It's also a shame because I could have boiled down the four paragraphs of my rationale into two words: Lame Drivers. I am listening to Crusin Classics '03 - '10, a collection of their songs over the bulk of a decade from Providence, RI and then New York. Singer/guitarist Jason Sigal is a DJ at WFMU and, in the years I've known him, has been a big disseminator of garagey, noisy power pop. (One of my first exposures to Guided by Voices was watching him perform in a GBV cover band wearing an oversized Celine Dion T.) According to lamedrivers.com...

In our youth, Lame Drivers were courted by a larger record label who thought we sounded like Bruce Springsteen and The Clash. Young Lame Drivers were also compared to a “dirty mix of Replacements/Stooges-influenced pop”, “like a young Replacements or Guided By Voices“, “like the Buzzcocks getting a reacharound from the Descendents,” “rock hard in Jesus & Mary Chain fashion”. More recently, Lame Drivers one Lame Drivers song was compared to Pell Mell and their music was described as “filled with hooks, it’s got a punk influence, power-pop influence, indie rock, psychedelic, all my favorite rock elements“.

Lucky for us all, we can buy or download Cruisin Classics and listen to 27 awesome tracks and trace the evolution of one of my favorite bands. Do yourself a favor and take a listen. "Superbomb" packs chaos, tight riffs, and something about pork tenderloins (?) into only 1:04. "Last Call for Violence" is something like an anthem. "Lemme Get Those #s Down" is a standout from the early days and was a fan favorite of ours back in Providence. Their sound now as a three-piece is leaner. Check the December 2010 performance below.

By the way, Jason, If I wrote that "Little Child" channeled Thin Lizzy and "Train of Thought" was like a rough-and-tumble Kinks (Arthur era), would you add me to your site? Except I guess Thin Lizzy would never write something as cool as this: "And on the bright side/ we're really docile/ we're really flexible / And in our downtime / we lose our eyesight / playin around with primitive fire tools." Fuck yea.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Briefly, Like Six Words (2)


Impending
apocalypse
never
sounded
so
good!

TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light (2011)

*Post written and submitted by Claire Harlan Orsi in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Chrissy Murderbot


I was standing near a fire pit last night with some nice, drunk guys here in Chicago. They started talking about their friend Chrissy Murderbot, a DJ who will be playing at Pitchfork this year. They had one of his mixtapes playing and I liked what I was hearing. Then they told me that Chrissy Murderbot had this project where he did a mixtape each week for a year. I thought, Cool. So here's a Year of Mixtapes, in case you want to take a listen. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Fall


My favorite moment on Gorillaz' Demon Days (2005) occurs between 2:00 and 2:10 of "Dirty Harry." The track announces the arrival of Bootie Brown's verse with a crescendoing, gritty shriek-- something between a plummeting helicopter and a cartoon growl. The dramatic entrance is akin to deep jump off a verbal diving board: the momentum carries Brown through an unforgettable verse, buoyed by stop-and-start drum glitches in all the right places. It is rare thing to always look forward to a specific part of a song, and for that five or ten seconds to still not let you down after years of listening. Even though Brown's verse ranges into unforgivably "on the nose" diatribe ("The war is over, so says the speaker / with the flight suit on / Maybe to him I'm just a pawn / so he can advance"), he and the band make up for it with the rollicking, propulsive music.

I guess this is what I had always appreciated about Gorillaz. From song to song, and, in many cases, within a single track, the music tends to announce itself through sudden changes of tone and sound. "Feel Good Inc" maintains a hip hop feel featuring another throwback set of MCs, but it has that nice acoustic interlude with a beautiful Daman Albarn melody. The title track ends a dark and foreboding album with a cinematic uplift. Flash forward to Plastic Beach (2010), and the reverberated voices of Mos Def and Bobbie Womack on "Stylo" precede the futuristic commercial jingle of "Superfast Jellyfish". Later we return to Albarn's gift for melody with "On Melancholy Hill", a gorgeous sing-song dance track. Plastic Beach is not even that good an album. But, still, you can tell that Gorillaz (that is, Albarn) still has that diverse sense of style that keeps an album interesting from front to back.

The Fall, on the other hand, stays static from beginning to end. The effect of the spare drum loops and tidbits of melody is that one wonders if Albarn were intentionally trying to be as minimal as possible. He might explain this decision as valuing the creation of a sparse and subtle mood over complex songcraft. The context that the album was recorded on the road and that each song represents a different city or region of the U.S. even adds to the mood argument. And I'm into that. I like mood. I like Brian Eno. But the mood on this album isn't particularly interesting, and it isn't particularly moody. What's more, I am going out on a limb here and saying that some of these tracks are so not-interesting that parts of them will be used as background fodder for TV commercials within one year from this post-date. They will be "Revolving Doors" (before the melody enters) and "Detroit" (the part with the Moog melody).

The album is being hyped as the first album to be recorded entirely on an iPad. This has apparently given Albarn a good excuse to take a break from making frenetic, far-reaching music. It's funny, because I just got an iPad and this was the first album I happened to listen to on it. I had just started to wonder how the iPad might become a seamless part of my life, considering whether it might be something I used so effortlessly that I forgot it was even there. It could be on while I'm eating breakfast, I might pay attention to it for a minute, then tune it out, depending on whether it crosses my mind as an enjoyable thing to do. The Fall strikes me the same way. It's nice. I like the ambience. It even has another awesome Bobbie Womack track. But I could probably have it on for the length of an entire meal and only notice it a handful of times.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The ArchAndroid


Janelle Monae's "Tightrope" is a huge success on two levels. For one, it is an awesome dance song. After watching this video, it's hard to believe that this move did not become a national dance craze last year. It's not only a great dance song, but it is also a great metaphor! I have been thinking lately about songs that are about the complicated effect of fame on artists.

This is a common theme, but I first started thinking about it again a few weeks ago when I watched the scene where Jesse Eisenberg rips off Pink Floyd's "Hey You" in The Squid and the Whale. If you've ever listened to The Wall, even just once, you know that album hits you over the head about a musician's inner death from outer fame. A week later I watched the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter, where we see Sissy Spacek fall over on stage from the pressures of touring. I also recently heard a cover of Phil Ochs's "Chords of Fame" by Teenage Fanclub, featuring the lyrics, "God help the troubadour / who tries to be a star." So I guess you could say this subject matter was swirling around in my brain when I took another listen to Janelle Monae's "Tightrope" from 2010's The ArchAndroid last week.

Monae's "tightrope" is the ever-shifting line between success and failure, public acclaim and critical flop. Look here:

Some people talk about ya
Like they know all about ya...

When you get elevated
They love it or they hate it
You dance up on them haters
Keep gettin' funky on the scene
While they jumpin' 'round you
They trying to take all of your dreams
But you can't allow it.
Whether you're high or low
You got to tip on the tightrope.


Yes, this song could be interpreted at a more personal level, essentially about not letting haters get you, not letting bastards grind you down, whatever pop reference you want to insert. But considering the shape-shifting nature of her career, and the mind-bending eclecticism of The ArchAndroid album more specifically, it makes sense that Monae would be singing about being an unclassifiable act in a market that likes to pigeonhole its artists, especially its Black female artists. It's rare for an African-American woman to be marketed credibly as a hip-hop or rap artist; most, even if they have talent on the mic as an MC, are pushed into R&B or Soul categories. It seems like Monae just saw that coming and decided she was going to move in all directions at once for this album. Obviously Monae is some kind of genius (not to mention she's giving Erykah Badu a serious run for her money). But I've got to hand it to Sean Combs and Big Boi, too, for following through with the production of something this risky: a sci-fi concept album featuring psychadelic rock, funk, orchestral overtures, mid-90s R&B throwbacks, 1960s folk pastiches, and, yes, hip-hop dance tracks. All from a young female artist very few had heard of before 2010.

The ArchAndroid represents a stylistic tightrope. For sure, Monae is going to be walking her own artistic and commercial tightrope in the years ahead. This video shows she has the moves to do it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bug


I spend my work days trying to create the most perfect, calm, and controlled environment for 28 9-year-old kids so they can focus on two things: learning and getting along with each other. I rarely play music in class but when I do it's usually John Williams (the classical guitarist, not the composer) doing something from the Classical period. My friend and colleague in the next room plays stuff that is a little more New Agey, which, I guess I could have guessed it, is awesome for relaxing little jittery bodies, especially after lunch.

This year I've noticed that, when I get in the car, or when I get home from work, I want to play my music louder and louder. The music that I find most relaxes me and helps me unwind has exactly the opposite qualities that I spend my entire day trying to promote: rather than controlled, it is frenetic; instead of pristine, it is distorted. I'm not the most hardcore listener you will find-- far from it. But loud music after work helps me escape that carefully constructed world of the elementary classroom and puts me back in touch with the whole range of emotion and feeling that I have in my personal life. I guess this is what people call a "release." It certainly feels that way.

There have been a few particular bands that have helped me relax after work. They include: Guided by Voices, Husker Du, the Replacements, and Dinosaur Jr. Yesterday at Reckless Records I bought the third album by Dinosaur Jr that I've been listening to this year, Bug. I know J Mascis, when he was creating all that sludge (is it just me or do critics always describe his guitar sound as "sludgy"?), probably wasn't thinking, "I bet some 3rd grade teacher is gonna really unwind to this shit." It's kind of funny to think about it that way though. Most people think of that kind of all-enveloping guitar fuzz as a way of getting riled up. But for me I guess it's just a little different. But don't worry, I'm not gonna try to play "Freak Scene" for my students or anything.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Back to the Feature

One of the great things about hip hop music is the way good rap lyrics reveal themselves over time. I don't mean here that they get deeper or more emotionally resonant the more you listen to them (although many do). I'm referring to what Jay-Z calls "Easter egg" lyrics: verses so packed with wordplay, cultural reference, and multiple meanings that a listener has to listen repeatedly to uncover all the clues to unpack the full meaning. You know, the way you go hunting for Easter eggs on Easter. I guess. I've never done that. But my students tell me it's fun!

I like rap mixtapes a lot because they are full of two of the things that make hip hop music so unique: beats and lyrics. Songs on mixtapes are usually free of commerical pressure; artists don't need to fill a song with catchy hooks or appeal to broad listenership. That often frees MCs and producers up to get pretty creative. You don't often hear big singles off of mixtapes, but watching an interview with Young Chris reminded me that Drake's "Best I Ever Had" was a huge single off a mixtape that helped launch Drake's career. (Lil' Wayne did the rest.) Listen to Drake's So Far Gone tape here.

Anyway, so I went back and listened to some mixtapes recently and found a whole bunch of "Easter eggs" on Wale's Back to the Feature. Ten seconds into the song "Cyphr", Young Chris name-drops Marlo Stanfield from The Wire. I like the biographical reference here, since Wale is from the DC/Baltimore region where The Wire takes place. More notably, he is cousin to an actor who plays a prominent role on the show. Post the actor's name and his character to win a mix CD of songs from or inspired by this blog. And thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96

I just listened to the Sound Opinions interview with Kembrew McLeod, author and producer of the documentary Copyright Criminals. Check out the episode if you are at all interested in the effect copyright laws in the early 90s had on the use of samples in hip hop. It's often thrown around that an album like Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys could never be made today, because the amount it would cost for the group to clear the hundreds of samples on the record would make for a financially impossible situation. Well, McLeod was interested in finding out the extent to which this tidbit is true. Turns out if the Beasties were to attempt another Paul's Boutique under current copyright law, they would be in the red by an amount to the effect of $20 million. Makes you want to go back to that record and pick apart all the intricate and diverse samples, honoring an era of creativity in hip hop that, McLeod argues, has been all but destroyed by the greed of the copyright industry.

Later in the episode, Jim and Greg play some of their favorite sample-heavy songs. They cite DJ Shadow's Endtroducing... as a genius work of sample collage. I agree. But I think there's a nice coda to this story that could have been added on the show. On that album, Shadow includes a brief song called "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96". It's a slow drum groove that ends with a sample that, in turns, gives a witty answer to the question the song title poses: "It's the money!" It's perfect that Shadow uses a three-word sample to explain how hip hop artistry is crippled by an industry that limits its use of sampling. That's some self-reflexive shit right there.

And where did Shadow get all those sources anyway? The documentary Scratch (2002), sheds a little light on an otherwise dark basement.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Briefly, Like Six Words (1)

Basically,
Muddy
Waters
with
indie
appeal.

The Black Keys, The Big Come Up (2002)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lasers


I've tried for the last few days to sum up my thoughts and synthesize how I want to tackle a review of Lupe Fiasco's Lasers, released last week. Disparate ideas keep popping in and out. Here they are, roughly.

The Cover
When I first saw the cover to the album, I thought, "Hey, cool, a Dan Flavin reference." Then I thought.. contemporary art... hip hop... how often do these things reference each other? My first instinct was not often. Next: why is that answer my first impulse? I'm thinking listeners of hip hop have to try to always combat this idea that rap music is low culture and other forms of music and art (i.e., neon tubes hung up in art galleries) represent high culture. Meanwhile, Jay-Z's Decoded features Andy Warhol on the cover. And then you could just go back to Basquiaat and the whole paradigm is f'd up right there. Graffiti as high art, huh? And don't forget Kehinde Wiley, who juxtaposes black men in street wear with centuries-old profiles of European royalty. So, my take on this? Hip hop artists should keep blurring the boundary between their music and what has long been considered a more elite (and certainly less black) form of artistic expression.

The Hooks
I read in another review of this album that the melodies in the songs on Lasers are really overwrought. I couldn't agree more. Rap songs that are marketed for radio play rely heavily on the catchiness of their hooks (what's up T-Pain), and clearly this, Lupe's third album, is moving in that direction. Listening to this album, you feel like the choruses take up the majority of your listening time. That's a shame for two reasons. For one, the hooks range from mediocre to downright unlistenable. Second, and more importantly, Lupe FIasco is a fantastically inventive and dextrous MC. The more time I have to sit through another repeat of a chorus, the less time I am getting to hear him spit some excellent verses. It makes matters worse to admit that the verses here also do not stand up to Lupe's memorably playful and skillful rhymes from his first two albums, not to mention the one that got it all started, his guest spot on Kanye's "Touch the Sky". I wish there was something half as good on Lasers as what he put together for that golden single from Late Registration:

Yes, yes, yes guess who's on third?
Lupe still like Lupin the Third.
Hear life here till I'm beer on the curb
Peach fuzz buzz but beard on the verge
Slow it down like we're on the serve
Bottle-shaped body like Mrs. Butterworth's.
But, before you say another word,
I'm back on the block like a man on the street.
I'm trying to stop lion like a Mum-Ra,
But I'm not lying when I'm laying on the beat.

The Press
Finally, I give Lupe some credit for sitting through the dreadfully patronizing and offensive interview conducted by Guy Raz for NPR last weekend. Any radio spot that starts like this cannot bode well:

"Wasalu Muhammad Jaco grew up in rough neighborhoods in and around Chicago, where crack addicts would pass out on his front stoop. But, while his friends were drifting in and out of jail, he joined the chess club and the academic decathlon at high school. He was also a drama geek."

I think Raz mentions prostitutes and crack addicts three times in the interview, just to make sure the listener understands where Lupe grew up: in the GHETTO. And yet, he turned out okay! What? He read National Geographic and watched PBS? How astonishing. Once again, we are getting the message that growing up in poverty is some otherworldly predetermining influence; nerds, geeks, skateboarders, backpack-rappers, whatever label you want to throw, apparently don't exist in that realm, so when they do, it is worth it to take note. You know, slate.com once ran a column describing the D.O.R.F. hypothesis; that is, NPR only reviews new black music if the artist is Dead, Old, Retro, or Foreign. I know there has got to be a fifth letter to represent the type of interview that Lupe endured; leave a comment if you've got any ideas.

One thing Raz did get right is referencing the skilled verse on this song, "Us Placers." (Too bad he cited a Radiohead sample; it's from Thom Yorke's solo work.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

T-Bone Burnett


T-Bone Burnett finished off 2010 producing two well-received albums for aging rockers: Elvis Costello's sprawling but well-conceived National Ransom and John Mellencamp's surprising No Better Than This, an album that apparently gets so rootsy that its sound way predates the faux roots that Mellencamp was famous for in the 80s. Earlier that year he produced Jakob Dylan's Women and Country, also featuring Neko Case, which I listened to repeatedly after its release. Oh yes, and he won a Grammy for the soundtrack to the Jeff Bridges show that was called Crazy Heart .

No doubt Burnett is famous for the sound he has helped other artists achieve on some of their best albums. His name has become synonymous with a kind of country and folk-rock purity. Considering his most notable production credits, one thinks anything he touches will have a genuine, warm tone, from the Counting Crows' August and Everything After to Gillian Welch's Hell Among the Yearlings. The music Burnett helps create is often sparse, but the tone, even of just one or two acoustic instruments, is rich and inviting. These albums never feel shallow.

But growing up as a big Elvis Costello fan, I have always been uneasy with the tension that, while Burnett is famous for this warm traditional sound, he also produced Costello's Spike in 1989. No song sounds alike on this weird outing, and nothing save for "Tramp The Dirt Down" translates as even remotely traditional. There are reverberated pipes being banged on. Brash trumpets pop. Suddenly a tympani announces itself. Spike is a roller-coaster of eclectic pop songs, and an album I like to revisit from time to time for its sheer sense of adventure. But for all the timelessness in Burnett's sound, this album sounds like it came straight out of the 1980s. Especially that muffled snare drum!

I was expecting something similar from Burnett's 1986 self-titled release when I first saw the cover. Burnett wears a boxy tuxedo and stares off in an odd, stately manner. I was anticipating new wavey confusion and having visions of the big suit from Stop Making Sense. Turns out I was wrong. There's barely even a snare drum to fuck with! Just ten songs played by a bunch of excellent acoustic musicians and singers. Jerry Douglas's dobro work is, as always, extraordinary. (He's no stranger to Burnett, who produced the last two Costello records on which Douglas appears.) And the sound is, as I should have expected, rich with texture. I never thought I'd quote an amazon.com review, but one phrase I read does seem fitting: the songs and the production "shine without showboating". I think that's a pretty good way to sum up how I feel about Burnett's qualities as a producer over the years.



Alright. I've held off writing about how strange T-Bone Burnett looks for this long, but now I can't help it. In that TNN video he looks exactly like the bully from The Karate Kid.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Circle Pines

I just got back from relaxing and playing old-time fiddle music at the Circle Pines Center, a summer camp and retreat center in Delton, MI. After listening to, playing, and writing about rock music for the past few months, it was a welcome treat to play acoustic music in the woods for much of Saturday. The place is nearly 75 years old. We played old-time music in the same room as Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy once played in 1957. It was the last performance Broonzy gave before undergoing a throat cancer operation. I learned from a handwritten note from Seeger that was framed on the wall that Broonzy "never sang again" after that night. Broonzy died about a year later, in Chicago, in 1958. I thought this picture might be a nice tribute to share.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Innervisions

Over the summer I picked up Stevie Wonder's Innervisions but failed to write about it, instead focusing on the other Motown/Tamla recordings I bought in the same trip (an early Marvin Gaye compilation and, um, Thriller). Whenever I play Innervisions, I move right away to "Living for the City". This is a powerful, dramatic song. From a boy being "born in hard time Mississippi" but then not being about to find a job in the city because "they don't use colored people," Stevie is writing about the struggle and disappointment in Black urban life, and that reference to Mississippi brings to mind the change in experience from rural South to urban North that came about as a result of the Great Migration. Oh yeah, and that's Stevie's brother near the end of the track who finally makes it to New York City ("New York, just like I pictured it!") before promptly getting arrested for being Black.

Stevie played all the instruments on this song for the album, as well for "Higher Ground" and "Jesus Children of America". That's impressive, I know, but watching the performance below makes me kind of wish he had reconsidered and gone for a backing band as tight as this one.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman


As the Blizzard of 2011 was touching down here in Chicago, I was at Dusty Groove America on Ashland Ave, spending a warm hour listening to music, digging through the jazz bins, and generally not getting pelted with sleet to the face. It was wonderful. I listened to two Common albums and found my all-time favorite jazz ballad album, John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, waiting in near-perfect condition for me. The album's warm tone was a perfect night-cap as fences were being blown over outside my window and a light, icy mist was spraying into my bathroom through a ceiling vent. I really hope those folks at Dusty Groove got home okay. They were open til 8.

Now, musically speaking, I generally favor consistency in tone over eclecticism; this album is an exemplar for how a group of artists can compliment each other in a fluid, balanced way. Hartman's voice is so warm and rich and it floats over McCoy Tyner's piano comps so unassumingly, just as Coltrane's horn does. From song to song, the musicians never waver in their uncanny pitch and melodic phrasing. Listening to Coltrane's ballad playing, you don't necessarily hear the "wall of sound" he was becoming known for after 1959's Giant Steps. There are very few complex harmonic structures. There is no playing "out". He riffs on the melody in short, effortless phrases, repeating powerful motifs that are short kernels of song in themselves.

Speaking of consistency, Coltrane's best ballad albums all appeared around when this one did, in 1962. As I learned from A.B. Spellman in the original liner notes, the albums that preceded John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman were Ballads and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. To my mind, these three are companion pieces. Coltrane's career, like any great artist's, can be seen in movements, and this period in his evolution--after Giant Steps but before 1964's spiritual and harmonic behemoth A Love Supreme-- was devoted to melodic exploration within songs that gave him a lot of open space.

Pianist Tommy Flanagan once said, "Ballads are harder... because you've got so much more time." Countless other musicians have quipped a variant of the same message. Listening to John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, it is staggering to hear how easy these guys make ballads feel.





Sunday, January 23, 2011

Superchunk on Sound Opinions

I caught last week's Sound Opinions episode on WBEZ featuring a live performance by Superchunk. I guess I could feign knowledge of all sorts of seminal and influential bands and artists on this platform, but I'd be lying; I had never taken the time to listen to this band. Since yesterday, I've been going back to some of the video clips of their in-studio performance. Here's one of my favorite tracks from 2010's Majesty Shredding, "Digging for Something". For a full recording of the show and other performance clips, check out the Sound Opinions archive.

Superchunk performs Digging for Something on Sound Opinions from WBEZ on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Historicity

While searching through some recommended jazz blogs, I came across a reference to Vijay Iyer on Darcy James Argue's Secret Society page. In keeping with talk of Moran's reworking of "Planet Rock", it came to mind that Iyer did a version of MIA's "Galang" on his piano trio album Historicity. The album was named 2010 Album of the Year by Downbeat's International Critics' Poll. This version tends toward deconstruction of the original, namely the syncopated rhythm of the first part of the song and then the melody of the outro. It's also fun to revisit MIA's earlier music videos, long before the days of exploding body parts.

Here's "Galang" from Arular.

M.I.A. Galang - Music video from marco ammannati on Vimeo.



And Vijay Iyer's version from Historicity.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Monster Contest


As a result of doing some research for the last post, I ended up watching the video for "Monster" a few times. WTF. I would have loved to be at the meeting where Kanye's people came up with the concept. Like, "This video needs women. Naked women. I mean, dead naked women. EVERYWHERE." Regardless, the diversity and range of these four verses are incredible. If I've got this right, I believe Kanye's verse contains a quick reference to Napoleon Dynamite. First reader to email wecheckrecords@gmail.com with the line gets a mix CD of songs featured on or inspired by this blog.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Modernistic Planet Rock


Sometimes while watching a jazz band improvise, I start to think about similarities between the general form of a jazz combo and a hip hop act. Typical in jazz, the rhythm section provides a backbone to two main melodic parts, those being the melody itself and the string of improvisations that are taken in turn by the instrumentalists. In hip hop, DJs provide a vamp for rappers, MCs, whatever label you prefer, to alternate between hook and verse. To me, the hook is the equivalent of the melodic "head" of a jazz song, and the verses, though not necessarily improvised, are the chain of riffs most analogous to jazz solos popping in and out of the chorus. The effect is heightened when I watch a group of MCs (Wu-Tang, Tribe, even Kanye's new posse cut "Monster") trading verses; it recalls the interplay between soloists, how one player's solo on top of the musical vamp can overlap or contrast with another's that came before or after.

Of course, things get a lot more exciting when there is a more direct connection between jazz and hip hop artists. Now it's not an altogether new thing to hear something that sounds like jazz in a hip hop beat. It wasn't a far stretch to evolve from disco Chic in "Rapper's Delight" to the jazz piano, guitar, and horn vamps in tracks produced by Premier or Eric B., or in a Tribe Called Quest song (though my mind was particularly blown when I first heard Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay" and Tribe's "Sucka N****" within the same week way back when; that bass line!). Hell, Madlib's Blue Note series and Blue Note's own remix compilations have made jazz and hip hop particularly synergistic as of late. I've been wondering about the inverse connection; that is, what about contemporary jazz artists that are reworking hip hop songs? What are they taking and using from a genre that depends almost entirely on rhythm and verse and how are they incorporating those elements into instrumental jazz?

These thoughts developed after listening a few times to Jason Moran's Modernistic, released on Blue Note in 2002. Moran is a piano player of extraordinary talent and inventiveness and has been a critic's darling, for good reason, ten albums deep. On this solo piano outing, he shows original compositions as well as a diverse array of interpretations from standards (a beautiful "Body and Soul") to romantic piano music (Robert Schumann). Moran, who's always given some kind of a nod to hip hop in his work, also does Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and clearly this is the piece that I've been returning to.

Here's the instrumental edit from Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force in 1982.



Here's Moran's interpretation, twenty years later.



I love how recognizable Moran's version is. It is true to the original hit, which was essentially an electronic dance number, by using those percussive drum sounds and the rhythmic use of the blues scale across the whole register of the piano. (He racked the strings with paper clips and clothespins for the drum effect.) Piano jazz interpretations of pop songs can often spring toward "deconstruction": the basic elements of the song remains (maybe the melody, or a certain repeating vamp) but are changed in such a way that they are hard to recognize, perhaps giving a different tone or mood to the song itself. What's cool here is that Bambaataa's melodic lines are almost exactly reconstructed by Moran (check the hook in the top clip at :50 and the minor line again at 2:12) but he uses the rest of the song to do some exploring with tonality, with tension and dissonance.

Hearing this track has made me wonder what other jazz interpretations of hip hop songs are out there that I have not yet come across. There are endless renditions of pop songs and probably more of R&B. After all, soul jazz artists of the late 60s and early 70s routinely used R&B selections to get play on black radio, since it would otherwise be pretty tough to get radio play with instrumental songs (and white radio was out of the question altogether). Producer Bob Porter told me as much in a conversation in 2007: "Remember that jazz musicians routinely used pop hits in their repertoire until recently when everything had to be original. During that era, I was using so many Motown tunes that I got a call from them volunterring to get me any LPs I needed!"

But jazz renditions of hip hop is kind of a different beast. I imagine the main reasons for putting a hip hop track in a jazz setting would be to either: one, pay homage to the evolutionary link between the two black art forms and/or, two, to see what a jazz artist can do with some severe, as they say in poetry, restrictions. I mean, you're pretty much working with eight bars of a looped rhythm section and the rhythms of lyrical verse. Jason Moran puts together something quite nice here with "Planet Rock", which is why I considered it worth the highlight.

Oh, and just in case you're worried this is some kind of novelty/kitsch thing, just listen to this album from 2010.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Zulu Preview

Check back in a few days for a few thoughts on jazz interpretations of pop and hip hop songs. For your information, I will not be writing about The Bad Plus. I will be writing about Afrika Bambaataa.