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


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.