Sunday, October 30, 2011

Vicki Leekx - M.I.A. - Metacriticism

Almost a year on, let's have a bit of fun and look at the critical reception of M.I.A.'s mixtape Vicki Leekx.

Most critics make the mistake of approaching the material as an album, and even worse as an apology for /\/\ /\ Y /\ and an attempt to show that M.I.A. hadn't lost the magic of her universally-acclaimed first two albums. It is none of these. It's just a slap-dash mixtape, and that's all it's meant to be. And it's one of the most irresistibly danceable pieces of music - album, DJ set or otherwise - released in the past few years by anyone. As its engineers/mixers Nguzunguzu help explain, it was meant to be released straight after /\/\ /\ Y /\, and was meant to be a danceable counterpart to that deliberately disjointed and jarring album. It consists mostly of off-cuts from those sessions, and is contrastingly linear.

Neither is there any lyrical return to form; it's the same genius linguistic play, political and otherwise, that has been a common thread through all of M.I.A.'s work. As she says, "If you listen up/ You can hear me all day". She hasn't "found her sense of humour", having presumably lost it as some have claimed.

Sonically, Vicki Leekx is dominated by exquisite, richly textured beats similar to those of the high-tempo sections of Kala, with a bit of the low-fi, rough-and-ready feel of Kid 606 thrown in. It also draws less on external samples than M.I.A.'s other, less dance-oriented mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism.

I'd rank the following reviews in order of merit:

Village Voice (good)

Pop Matters (bonus points for pointing out the front-of-mix positioning of lead vocals whereas the opposite was the case on /\/\ /\ Y /\)

Muumuse (generally accurate)

The Music Network (nicely written)

Pitchfork (covers the field, well written)

Slant (mostly OK)

Indie Shuffle (OK-ish)

Sputnik Music (OK-ish)

Rebel Frequencies (politically focussed)

Thought Catalog (mostly lyrically focussed)

Expert Witness (vapid)

Spin (why did they bother?)

Rolling Stone (again, why did they bother?)

Serious Business Tunes (way off)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Loose - Nelly Furtado

There aren't many albums that have been so widely misapprehended and misrepresented despite massive commercial success as Nelly Furtado's Loose. Both lyrically and musically, comprehension of Loose requires attentive and discriminating ears.

This, Furtado's third album, is musically complex and sophisticated. It's lyrically mature, almost wise. Furtado, despite the pleasingly youthful tinge to her voice, always oozed wisdom in the lyrics to her first two albums.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of the public is under the impression that she “sold out” by teaming with Timbaland, perhaps the most famous hip-hop producer in the world, for the majority of Loose. That is partly because they also wrongly interpreted her first two albums as snugly fitting into the thoughtful-girl-with-an-acoustic-guitar mould. Furtado’s music has never done so. Two of her first singles, “Turn Off the Light” and “Shit On the Radio” were heavily leavened with hip-hop beats and even scratching. Indeed, Furtado addressed an ex-lover who jealously accused her of selling out by going commercial on the latter single. The fact that her dancing sexily in skimpy clothes in the film clip to Loose’s mega-selling “Maneater” turned a lot of Furtado’s folk rock-loving fans almost acrimoniously against her is just a continuation of her journey.

Ultimately, Loose was a massive commercial success: the 22nd highest-selling album of the noughties, with two US number one singles, “Promiscuous” and “Say It Right”.

Furtado wanted to create an ambience of reckless impulsivity, and to capture the tasteful sexual confidence of Janet Jackson circa 1993 for Loose. Despite the “loose” feeling conjured by a couple of moments of studio chat in between a few tracks and heavy instrumental and vocal syncopation in the dance tracks, this is in fact a perfectly sequenced and balanced album. It is heavy on emotive ballads and latin pop, in addition to the more exciting and controversial electro, hip-hop and R&B. Indeed, one of Furtado’s “throwaway” studio interactions with Timbaland couldn’t be a more precisely appropriate ending to “Maneater” and introduction to “Promiscuous”. Furtado: “Am I throwin’ you off?”. Timbaland: “Nope.” Furtado: “Didn’t think so.”

The first three tracks do feel like the album is about to fly off the rails on first listen. “Afraid” is a haunting ode to self-doubt and confusion whispered, chanted and wailed over quiet hip-hop that sometimes sputters out of control.

Then sonic confusion for most listeners explodes: “Maneater”. A towering, unforgettable colossus of a song, it is handled by Timbaland with absolute loving attention to detail. Intricate, surprising in turns, it could be mistaken for a quirky dance track. It isn’t. “Maneater” kicks along to a bizarrely paced marching beat, over which bass synth horns sublimely provide a simple riff. There is also a uniquely engineered sliding/scratching motif that morphs into a hi-hat in the chorus. Furtado says that people don’t give credit for Timbaland’s ability to bring the best out of singers’ voices. The truth in Furtado’s praise is most evident here. After a ghoulish backing vocal intro, Furtado’s cracking verse delivery floors the listener. The melody and key changes of the verses are magnificent and Furtado’s occasionally guttural voice changes in inflection, tone and syllabic emphasis, creating an ominous, anxious, yet exciting atmosphere. And somehow it is impossible not to dance to. The chorus is catchy and slightly upbeat, but the illusion created by the compulsion to dance is dealt a death blow in the bridge, where Furtado’s voice, alone over just the bass, a shimmering, growing synth and Timbaland’s whispers, makes her sound like she’s doubled over in pain, as if on the verge of violent tears. This part of the song was glossed over in the single release, for good reason. It’s devastating.

“Promiscuous” is a catchy, sexy duet between Furtado and Timbaland. The verses are perfect, staccato back-and-forths between the two pitched over a break beat and an off-kilter synth-accordion riff. A more conventional chorus stabilises the track, but it somehow remains eerie. The low key patter in the verses obscures clever lyricism.

Ballad-wise, Furtado spins out of nowhere a crushingly painful masterpiece: “Say It Right”, which sounds as if recorded in a cathedral, with strikingly original, haunting engineering. “No you don’t mean nothing at all to me/But you know what it takes to set me free”. The melodies and harmonies could be delivered from a coffin, from a soul utterly resigned to a coming nothingness. “I can’t say that I don’t love the light and the dark/I can’t say that I don’t know that I am alive”. It is Furtado’s highest-ever selling single. The several other fairly conventional ballads on the album are also beautiful, and deliciously painful.

“Glow” is blessed with a swing beat and a vulnerable section where Furtado nails a high-pitched, falling melody in which she cries “I don’t know what to say/I don’t know what to do.” The album is further normalised with the sauntering yet painful ballad “Showtime” and three catchy, well-written latin/salsa numbers.

“Wait For You” is the one true R&B track, yet doesn’t sound out of place. “Let My Hair Down” is a sexy, latin-hip-hop hybrid with subtle arrangements, and is another highlight.

Throughout, Furtado’s confidence in her vocal ability is undeniable. She powerfully emotes, excites, exudes sexuality and effortlessly slides between styles. The true anchor of the album is the voice. Timbaland’s excitement about the album is evident in his exquisite production and arrangements, sometimes subtle, sometimes striking, sometimes like nothing ever heard before, anywhere, ever. One of the highlights of the decade, this album is destined to be considered a classic for a long time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Blue Lines (album) - Massive Attack

Now acclaimed as the first-ever trip-hop album, Blue Lines is a huge step away from anything that ever preceded it. It is an album fusing live and sampled hip-hop and soul instrumentation with low-key English rap and sung vocals, as well as unobtrusive scratching. An entirely low BPM-affair, Blue Lines is a staple for many pot smokers.

Rappers include the group's 3D, Daddy G, in addition to Tricky, whose voice was then unscarred by chronic ganga consumption. The main singers are Horace Andy and Shara Nelson.

The two best tracks are the title track and "Five Man Army". On both tracks the rappers seamlessly alternate and/or call-and-answer each other. "Blue Lines" is underpinned by a heavy bass-beat, simple hip-hop treble drums and claps, and a mellow synth riff. The concluding bar in which 3D's final line is allowed to progress without any instrumental accompaniment is heavily reminiscent of collaborator Neneh Cherry's "Manchild". Again, "Five Man Army" is largely an affair of rapping over slow-jam hip-hop and a memorable bass line. The interspersing of rapping reaches its pinnacle here. Tricky: "Her touch tickles/Especially on my tummy" Daddy G: "Now who's got the microphone?" Tricky: "Now who's honey?". The final half of the track is haunted by Horace Andy's refrains such as "Get away with your gospel/We don't like it" and "Money, money, money/The root of all evil".

"Safe From Harm", the opening track is mainly a bitter and passively-aggressive vocal delivery from Nelson, in which she insists that "You can free my heart/You can free my mind/Just as long as my baby's safe from harm/Tonight". 3-D inserts some low-key rapping such as the memorable "I was lookin’ back/To see if you were lookin’ back at me/To see me lookin' back at you". The whole track is laid over with a sampled fast-rolling bass line and slow-BPM kick drums, in addition to an occasional, front-of-mix funk bass melody. It's a plaintive yet urgent intro to the rest of the album. The second track, "One Love", has an even slower bass drum foundation, in addition to a catchy, liquid-smooth synth sample over which Andy sings about monogamy. This track halts the emotional intensity with which the album begins and leads into the smooth title track.

"Unfinished Sympathy" is the big, classic single from Blue Lines. It is an emotionally-wrought melodic vocal masterpiece from Nelson, including lyrics like "Like a soul without a mind/In a body without a heart/I'm missing every part". The samples and scratching seem secondary on this track, except in the long vocal-less outro where strings and piano skilfully complete the emotional devastation of Nelson’s intense vocals.

“Daydreaming” and “Lately” are continuations of Massive Attack’s revolutionary combination of soul/hip-hop samples, mellow rapping and Nelson’s vocals. They are smooth and down-tempo but not as emotionally exhausting as “Unfinished Sympathy”.

The final track, “Hymn of the Big Wheel” combines a didgeridoo-like accompaniment with break-beats, dominated by a beautiful melody sung by Andy. The lyrics are delivered as if from a place of peace above the tragedy and comedy of human life in general. “The Earth spins/On its axis/One man struggles/While another relaxes”.

This is the album that sparked one of the most innovative and fruitful movements of the 1990s, trip-hop. Innumerable acts, even now, owe their art to this seminal album, which is almost flawless. It is a must-have in any music historian’s collection.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Öngyilkos Vasárnap (Szomorú Vasárnap) (Gloomy Sunday) - Venetian Snares

From his album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, Venetian Snares peels off a rare feat with "Öngyilkos Vasárnap": an electro track sampling a tragi-ballad and superseding its original.

Venetian Snares samples the WW2-era version by Billie Holiday. Dubbed the "Hungarian Suicide Song", it was banned in its native Hungary and the Holiday version banned by the BBC. Probably because of lyrics like this: "Little white flowers will never awaken you/Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you/Angels have no thought of ever returning you/Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?".

While Holiday's version is minimalist, this version underpins Holiday's vocals with bass, a marching beat and break beat, and heart-rending string samples. It also cleans up some of the vocal distortion from Holiday's version, while keeping her frank delivery sounding as if from an aching spirit resigned to its place in a coffin.

Also, Venetian Snares glaringly omits a two-line section in Holiday's version that hints ambiguously at resolution, sparing the listener no pain.

A devastating version of a devastating song.

Writers: Rezsô Seress/László Jávor/Sam M. Lewis/Aaron Funk

Producer: Aaron Funk

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thriller (album) - Michael Jackson

Most notable for its status as the highest-selling album of all time, Thriller is a must-listen.

Michael Jackson openly declared his intention for Thriller to set the world record it did, if only in sheer bitterness for being overlooked for a Grammy for his disco-era spectacular Off The Wall, which was the first album ever to have four US top-ten singles. While recording, Jackson continually insisted that he would model the album on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in that every track should be a show-stopper. Hence the now-cliched phrase: "All Thriller, no filler".

Off The Wall was the first solo album for which Jackson had creative control. Thriller was the first album Jackson recorded after becoming estranged from his father and securing the then-highest royalty deal for a recording artist. A time of personal loss and loneliness produced a work of creative sublimity.

Thriller opens with a massively beat-ensconced, disco-funk opus, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. One of the highlights of the album, as are two of the other three Jackson-penned tracks, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, this track silenced the naysayers in the wake of the first release off the album, the appalling “The Girl Is Mine”, a flaccid piece of balladry crafted in conjunction with Paul McCartney. Jackson hoped to equate his own craft with that of The Beatles with this track; instead he proved his own superiority with unpalatable results.

The only other bad track on Thriller is the title track. It might have had better potential without the child-like lyrical content and overall embarrassing Vincent Price rap, but the only salvation to be found in “Thriller” is the catchy, main bass riff. And the video, which in conjunction with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, helped create MTV, which in turn helped create Thriller.

At this point it is probably worth mentioning the war between CBS’s Walter Yetnikoff and MTV. Despite the artistic and commercial appeal of the videos of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” (both released within a month of each other), Yetnikoff had to threaten MTV with a total CBS boycott and public accusations of racism in order to get the videos shown. Jackson then became the first black artist to be aired on MTV. A year later, a full half of MTV’s airtime was given over to the video of “Thriller”. The first single, the biracial love dirge “The Girl is Mine”, positioned Jackson on a par with McCartney as intended; the second single - “Billie Jean”, the biggest selling of Jackson’s lifetime - cemented his position as an R&B maestro; the third single, “Beat It”, with its guitar-rock, allowed young white people respectable entree to Thriller. Finally, the videos to the latter two - including the Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean” - as well as the video to the title track, refused to allow the Jackson brand out of the popular consciousness, where it reigned supreme for a full two years. The other issues with racism included Rolling Stones' refusal to feature Jackson in a cover article, to which Jackson responded: “Just wait. Someday those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I'll give them one. And maybe I won't.”

It’s unfortunate that “The Girl is Mine” and “Thriller” are positioned on the track listing consecutively, and in the middle of the album. They show the worst excesses of Quincy Jones’ cinematographic production, and little substance. The rest of the album, however, is absolute brilliance.

The second, better, half of the album is heralded with “Beat It”, centred around unusual verses that Jackson laces with sharp notes and aggressive breath vocals, just as in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”. It’s braced by two strong guitar riffs in the verses and chorus, further enhanced by Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo towards the end.

Quincy Jones wanted “Billie Jean” off Thriller entirely, and faced with Jackson’s intransigence, urged that the intro be cut. When Jackson refused, Jones had engineer Bruce Swedien construct a minimalist masterpiece around Jackson’s melodies and vocal mastery, beginning with a blank, instantly recognisable drum beat, then the rising-and-falling bassline, a single, distinctive Jackson whisper-chant, a recurring, simple four-note synth motif, and finally Jackson’s verse introduced by his vocal hiccup. Besides the memorable bridge, chorus, and the instantly recognisable, ostentatious, string riff in the chorus, not much else musically is involved in “Billie Jean”, nor need it be. Like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "Billie Jean" sports paranoid and visceral lyrics.

Ballad-wise, “Baby Be Mine” and “Human Nature” are without parallel. “Baby Be Mine” is a much-ignored, immaculate piece of R&B. It's a compulsively danceable mid-tempo track, jammed full of beautiful production, including Jackson’s unrelenting vocal magnificence. “Human Nature”, coming after the two big singles of the album, is more emotive, written by members of Toto. Its synth melodies could have been produced in the 1990s by someone like Babyface. Sampled countless times in popular culture, the most memorable refrain from this track is Jackson’s exquisite, haunting “Why?” cry. “The Lady In My Life” is less formidable, but still holds its own as the closing ballad on such an ambitious album. In between comes the loosest, funkiest track on Thriller: “Pretty Young Thing”.

Many a pundit has tried to analyse the reasons behind Thriller’s extraordinary commercial success; Bruce Springsteen admitted that he tried to replicate the tempos of Jackson’s biggest hits on Born In The USA.

In the end Jackson surpassed his own standard from Off The Wall, with all seven singles - lifted from a nine-track album - entering the US top ten. Perhaps this is why Thriller remains the highest-selling album of all time 30 years later. Perhaps it was the videos. Whatever the case, the artistic merit of the album itself shouldn’t be questioned, especially coming at the point in history at which it did.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Baikonur (album) - S.K.E.T.

Baikonur is an epic ride through a high-powered, sometimes bleak, industrial/hard techno/breakcore landscape, all of S.K.E.T.’s own creation. A colossus of a work, Baikonur is crafted with absolute love of, and attention to, detail. It’s named after one of the most important USSR/Russian launch sites for space satellites.

This album is almost entirely high-BPM industrial and tech-breaks, except for the beautiful slow-break jam of “Meteor 2-5”, a psychedelic affair of layered beats, scratches and plaintive vocal samples.

The rest of the album is high-tempo, with the only breaks from the often danceable beats coming in portentous pauses before the storm hits, often overlaid with pained vocal samples, dark synths, machinery samples and scatterings of hi-hats.

Sometimes the minor chord synth chord progressions can teeter on the edge of camp happy hardcore such as at the beginning of the opening track. But the casual listener will be convinced within the first few tracks that Baikonur is a serious effort at a cohesive industrial album.

After the first two rousing tracks, S.K.E.T. slam the listener's ears with fast-tempo breaks, crunchy beat drops and pensive/doom-like synth chords in the trilogy named "Vostok I - Gagarin's Flight Path I-III". Then they hit with a beautifully-tempoed classic, "Elektron (Behind the Truth)". Just when the listener feels like taking a breath, precisely engineered percussion refuses to relent.

Perhaps the best track on the album is "Proton-K", where the doom-laden chords meet an exquisite pastiche of percussive vocal samples and glitchy electro.

In tracks like “Tsiklon-3“, this strange mix of emotional vulnerability and hard, high-tempo percussion continues at apex level.

However, Baikonur barely pauses for a dull moment throughout its entirety.

A soaring, immaculately -produced and -engineered opus, Baikonur deserves its place among the few industrial/electro classics that come along each decade or so.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Down Under vs Kookaburra - Men At Work

I always just assumed that everyone knew that two of the flute riffs in Down Under were deliberate nods to Kookaburra Sits in The Old Gum Tree. (See below for a discussion about assuming everyone knows something.) How bizarre that people have been debating it.

I don’t believe that Men at Work and their producer were unaware of the plagiarism. It’s done so skilfully. The first line of Kookaburra is reproduced in the first riff and the second line, which I think is just a key change (I’m not a muso) variation on the first, is reproduced after a bar separating the two. These are the two most identifiable - flute or otherwise - riffs in the whole song. I don’t think the song would have been anywhere nearly as successful without these particular riffs. Both songs are creepy. The creepy bit about Kookaburra, and the flute in Down Under reproduces it perfectly, is the sing-song-like lilting effect achieved by the last two notes in the first two lines. And the creepiness fits perfectly with Down Under’s creepiness, which is largely achieved by its lyrics. It’s bizarre that so many people think of Down Under as a alternate national anthem, unless you’ve got an especially wry and cynical sense of humour.

It should be noted that there is a different culture now with respect to composition vs arrangement, most likely influenced by the spread of hip-hop. Specifically, in the past, people who wrote the bare bones of the melody were afforded more song-writing credits than in the current situation, where people who arrange or are sampled are more easily given song-writing credits.

(One annoying thing about blogging is sometimes I write things that I learn later to have been totally obvious to everyone else, making myself look like an idiot, or I neglect to write something because I assume it’s obvious. The latter is especially annoying when I’m prescient about something. I’m too flighty to be bothered writing anything that isn’t likely to be an original idea.)
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