Singles round-up #1

One Direction, “History”

Zayn, “Pillowtalk”

My fave cut on the loopy pasticherie Made in the A.M. is “Olivia,” which lets Willy Wonka lead the Magical Mystery Tour, but the c’mon-baby-we-got-a-good-thing-goin’ strum ‘n’ hum “History” is first runner-up, and its forced-casual camaraderie sounds even livelier up against the forced-intense heavy-breathing of the-1D-who-got-away. Though dropping a single that promises fans “We can live for-e-ver” just as your group calls it quits is a dick move.

 

Selena Gomez, “Hands to Myself”

Selena roused herself from the docile stupor of “Good for You” only to stagger into “Same Old Love,” which was as much fun as a barrage of texts from your roommate about how that’s it, she’s fucking deleting her Tinder account. But this frisky little frolic about copping a feel is her sexiest cut since “Do It” (a best-of bonus track that I dig, nobody else cares about, and everyone on YouTube thinks sounds like a Christmas song). She doesn’t exactly sound like her own woman, but she doesn’t sound like somebody else’s either.

 

Rihanna feat. Drake, “Work”

workworkworkworkwork You and me both, Rih. workworkworkworkwork Whatever concrete meaning the rest of the lyric might seek to convey crumbles as Rihanna’s articulation erodes into the patois equivalent of a Peanuts schoolteacher. workworkworkworkwork The strain of having every public moment of joy commodified for us drones who have to workworkworkworkwork seems finally to have gotten to our IDGAF avatar. Then Drake pops by to suggest that enduring his boastful Eeyore routine is an effective relaxation technique. The struggle is real.

 

Erykah Badu, “Trill Friends”

Kanye West feat. Ty Dolla $ign, “Real Friends”

Inviting Drake onto your mixtape so he can watch you steal “Hotline Bling” away from him is just cold-blooded, and my only complaint about the rest of But You Caint Use My Phone is that Badu should have found a way to segue from Rundgren into Adele’s “Hello.” I’m sure some sensual masterwork of apocalyptic sci-fi Afro-mysticism will burble up from her cauldron eventually, but I hope she spends as much time as she can spare side-eyeing pop from the wings, radiating the unreadable mix of chill and passion that makes her distillation of Kanye’s word-bloated “Real Friends” such a coolly minimalist riff/riposte. Do Bieber next.

 

Macklemore, “White Privilege II”

This elephantine exercise in consciousness-raising is a mix of good intentions and self-aggrandizement, like every celebrity political stance in recorded history, and I wish the big dope all the luck in the world as long as I don’t have to listen to again myself. An actual hook might have helped get the message across to more young fans, true, but it might have also given voting members of the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences an excuse to rip Kendrick off again. Thing is, the hair-shirted austerity limits its political insight. A 45-year-old document of unrepentant barbarism, “Brown Sugar” is still smarter about racial plunder because it revels in all the ugliness and pleasure that privilege entails.

Prince: Maybe he’s just like his father

If you’d asked me a month ago to describe Prince’s piano style, I’d have come up short. I watched him play solo for ninety-something minutes two Thursdays ago at Paisley Park, as I struggled to scribble review notes, and the best I can say for now is “starkly bifurcated: all the blues in his left hand, all the pop in his right.” Maybe he’ll bring this show to a bootleggable venue and I won’t have to rely on memory, first impression, and bad handwriting.

Though we long ago accepted the fact that Prince is multi-instrumental whiz, he insisted throughout the night that piano is a second language in which he’s still striving for fluency. It was a touching admission of a flaw he simultaneously proved didn’t exist, an invitation to intimacy masking a display of mastery, because in Prince’s world, vulnerability and virtuosity are always inextricable.

Anyway, this is all just an excuse to get this two-week-old review upon the blog, for posterity and ICYMI.

Listening notes #1

Needs a snappier title, and the yellow looks weird, I know. Design and branding suggestions welcome.

Anderson .Paak — Malibu  GO

Musically panoramic in the style of Cali’s retro du jour, with melodies up front but hooks off-center — a drum fill, Robert Glasper’s keys, a woman’s blurted “Can you fuck me already?” when the sex patter strays too far into the fantastically metaphorical. But if .Paak’s sound is ambitious (“visionary” is his word), his sing-song rasp is modest, emulating Curtis Mayfield’s soul without claiming his upper register, expressing tenderness toward not just the Korean-American mama who always paid the cable bill on time but the African-American dad who left them for addiction and prison. He’s even too humble to exploit his signifying surname. (No homophone.) Too bad that the old-time surfer bros whose voices surface between the tracks not only bust up the flow but imply that .Paak rides high on waves of sound. He doesn’t. He bobs. He treads. He wades.

Lecrae — Church Clothes 3 SLOW

At ten tracks, trimmer than 2014’s Anomaly, honing this chart-topping Christian soldier’s righteous exasperation to a terrible, swift sword. There’s never been any awkward youth pastor earnestness to Lecrae’s flow, but now he sounds ready to bust up street fights. Yeah, I wish he didn’t call out Planned Parenthood (in a rhyme targeted at Christian hypocrisy, but still…) and then mention “killing unborn babies” and murderous police in the same breath on the very next track. Shit, I wish lots of rappers didn’t say lots of things — and that secular hip-hop hadn’t ceded the moral high ground to dopes like Lupe and Cole years back.

Lady Leshurr — Queen’s Speech SLOW

This bratty bright-toned Brit has been kicking around since 2009, though not much digital evidence persists beyond the memorably mushed consonants of Mona Leshurr (2013) and promising scraps from the 2014 mixtape Lil Bit of Lesh. Last year she spat five identically named rhymes on YouTube, each new “Queen’s Speech” improving on the last. After stomping on some raver’s bare skanky toes on #3, she found her true calling: skewering the questionable hygiene of party girls, from “Change your panties” to “Brush your teeth” (well, “teef”) to “Their lips look like crispy bacon.” All five tracks are collected here. “1 Million Views” is a victory lap.

Migos — Young Rich Ni$$a$ 2 SLOW

Nimble, athletic, virtuosic, and no less energized by their and each other’s skills than at the jump, with Quavo’s verse on “Commando” a stunner (he mispronounces Al-Qaeda to near-rhyme with “Nina,” then corrects himself so he can twist and turn that long “i” sound for another 11 lines) and their concern for renal health a sign of maturity if that’s what you’re after. No unshakable syllable-play like “Versace” or “Hannah Montana” or “Bachelor,” though, which I might forgive if the most memorable line wasn’t “I gave my bitch a Plan B cause she my plan b.” which I couldn’t wrench out of my head the whole time I spent waiting in line at the post office last Saturday. Grrr. They won’t be young forever. They might not even be rich forever. Where does that leave them?

Future — Purple Reign SLOW

He bores even deeper into the skittering murk, a fuckably groggy rodent, jaws clamping listeners like stunned prey, the alluring exhaustion of affluence made crawling digital flesh. But if this isn’t the first time he’s pretended that purp, and not the heartbreak it numbs, is the source of his inspiration, it’s the first time I’ve believed him, which says something about how inspired he often doesn’t sound.

 

Let’s try this again

I started 2015 with a characteristically overambitious attempt to resurrect this blog as a site for well-considered mini-essays on the music I heard and the movies I saw and the books I read. For a month or two, the project energized me, but the pace I’d chosen was unsustainable as a hobby, especially once the weather got nice. Rather than judiciously scale back, I kinda let the whole matter drop.

At the end of the year, I regretted it. What had 2015 sounded like to me? I scrambled around to find an answer. I realized, yet again, that to fully experience the art that matters to me, I need to commit to an opinion and force myself to justify it.

But time is tight. So in 2016, I’ll just be collecting listening notes here, bookmarking my musical impressions so I can return to them and hear where I’ve been. As an evaluative shortcut, I’m adopting the old Spin system: green means go, yellow means slow, red means no. (Don’t expect too much red though — the idea is to celebrate what rises to the top.) Mondays will be for albums (though I’m giving myself till Tuesday this week). Fridays will be for what I still call singles cuz I’m old.

In between, though, anything goes. Links to published writing (not just my own). Brief responses to books and movies. Quips and quibbles about my non-virtual lived life. Maybe even a well-considered mini-essay or two.

One for the road

I was assigned a review of John Seabrook’s The Song Machine that was killed for scheduling reasons, and I figured I’d throw it up here before we move on to 2015.

The existence of Max Martin seemed to come as quite shock to book critic Nathaniel Rich. Writing recently in the Atlantic, Rich revealed how he became aware of the incomparably successful yet media-averse Swedish pop craftsman through reading John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. From that book, Rich was dismayed to learn that most of today’s pop superstars rely on professional European songwriters and trackmasters like Martin – whose given name, Karl Martin Sandberg, the critic intoned as though divulging the alias of some nefarious foreign operative hitherto strolling unnoticed among our children. Rich called this standard industry practice an open yet closely guarded secret.” You or I might call it “a well-known fact about a subject Nathaniel Rich usually ignores.

The Song Machine is far from the searing expose of modern megapop that Rich’s review suggests. A longtime New Yorker staffer, Seabrook pries into the process of modern hit-making with a dogged and generally respectful curiosity, and his Conde Nast credentials allow him intimate access to high-level practitioners – Dr. Luke plays him Katy Perry’s “Roar” before its release. But access doesn’t guarantee expertise, or even accuracy. If an uncle suggests at Thanksgiving that Afrika Bambaataa “birthed hip-hop” with “Planet Rock,” you’ll know he’s been reading Seabrook.

This is foremost a book about contemporary pop music written for people with no particular interest in contemporary pop music, many of whom, like Rich, will approach it as a vegan might a book about sausage-making. Maybe to ease such readers into a world they suspect as aesthetically noxious, the book is bracketed by two cutesy, klutzy first-person framing chapters. Cool dad Seabrook “discovers” modern pop when his son, “the Boy,” blasts Flo Rida’s “Right Round” on the car radio. (Seabrook’s hyperbolic all-capped description of the track’s supposedly alien electrosquelches might make you think IHeartRadio has Merzbow in heavy rotation.) Seabrook (and, theoretically, you, skeptical middlebrow reader) eventually comes to love this commercial noise and respect its creators, while the Boy grows up and discovers the Smiths.

But Seabrook‘s main task is to whisk us through the past quarter-century of the pop music biz, which he does with moderate competence. We watch as Sweden’s Cheiron Studios experiences unexpected early success with Ace of Base, enters a lucrative partnership with Jive Records to foster the teen-pop explosion of late ’90s, then falters after the death of colorful founder Denniz PoP and the financial undoing of scummy boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman. Kelly Clarkson emerges from American Idol to do battle with old-school record exec Clive Davis. Rihanna overcomes her battering at the hands of Chris Brown by embracing a harsher electronic sound. Katy Perry loses Jesus and finds Max Martin. Ke$ha levels rape allegations against Dr. Luke.

If these stories sound familiar, you might not need to read them again. If they don’t, you might not be that interested in the first place. Seabrook’s tale is episodic, in part because much of this material is previously publishedthe New Yorker features on K-Pop and Spotify he shoehorns in are distracting tangents in a book already lacking focus. Certain themes and issues recur, particularly the clash between an artist (often a young woman) and the industry (typically represented by a powerful man). Not all these struggles. are as dramatic or painful as Clarkson‘s or Ke$ha‘s. In Seabrook’s profiles of Ester Dean and Bonnie McKee, topliners who yearn to break out as artists on their own, many creative individuals will recognize the compound frustration of having your voice stifled and yet doing your best work as a result. But overall the anecdotes and information here accumulate without coalescing into a real story.

Seabrook himself seemed to acknowledge the narrative weightlessness of his subject in a recent New Yorker piece on Martin, which drew heavily from the material in his book. (Martin characteristically declined to be profiled.) In closing, Seabrook compares the Swede’s legacy to the Beatles’ and laments “the absence of a broader political and cultural framework.”

The story of the Beatles, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Let It Be,” is a story of the sixties—politics, war, protest, drugs, free love, and how the songwriters responded to those forces. The hits are embedded within albums that offer rich, complex musical statements, and insights into the artists’ personal development and changes. What story does Martin’s string of No. 1s tell, from “… Baby One More Time” to “Can’t Feel My Face,” his most recent? What changes do they trace? The songs are all about the same thing, more or less, which is not the same thing a Continue reading

2015: The Year in Keith

I feel like I wrote a lot more than this?

Anyway, here’s most of the best of what I published in 2015. Thanks, as always, to my editors: Chris Weingarten at Rolling Stone, Jay Boller and Reed Fischer at City Pages, Christy DeSmith at the Star Tribune, Brad Nelson at Maura, and Rob Harvilla at Deadspin.

Essays, reviews, previews, listicles, etc.

“The Blurred Lines verdict proves only one thing: you can’t second-guess a jury,” The Guardian, March 11  The most lawyerly article I’ve ever published outside of the Cardozo Law Review. Takeaway for tl;dr types: Judges make law, juries don’t.

“The Mall Gaze: When Tiffany’s ‘I Saw Him Standing There’ Looked Back at the Beatles,” EMP Pop Conference Presentation, April 19, audio here, also published in Maura Magazine, May 19 (subscriber only). A history of Boomer fretting about the Beatles’ legacy throughout the ’80s, leading up to T. Darwish’s trash-cendent reminder that duh, pop is a commodity. (Recommended to the social media snoots who were claiming the other day that they wouldn’t listen to the Beatles on Spotify because the music is “too special to stream.”)

“Why this Minnesota transplant loves the State Fair,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, August 25  The State Fair is a thing Minnesota writers write about, and I am a Minnesota writer who wrote a thing about the State Fair.

“Show us your hits! Analyzing KDWB’s top pop jams,” City Pages, September 9  The Hendrix of hookily modulated cyborg puking, General Swift’s testimony before a VMA subcommittee on weaponized feminism, and other quip-crit from the summer that was. The headline is a tribute to a singles roundup I published in 2002 eight years before the Bloodhound Gang best-of, I’ll have you know.

“Album reviews: Motion City Soundtrack and Low,” City Pages, September 16  This is the first time I wrote about two of Minnesota’s biggest legacy acts.

Two concert previews: Madonna & Girlpool, City Pages, October 8-15.

“20 Great Moments in Rock Star Nudity,” Rolling Stone, October 29  I wrote so many blurbs for Rolling Stone this year that my student loan servicer should send Weingarten a Christmas card. Some were a little too, you know, institutional to make the year-end c.v. (Feel free to browse, though.) This was among the funner assignments.

“God Bless Alan Jackson, Country Music’s Invaluable Extra-Vanilla Everyman,” Deadspin, November 20  Most everything I’ve written about Jackson over the years, rearranged into a longer overview of his music and his persona. Hoping to do a lot more of this sort of thing in 2016.

Show reviews

I love reviewing live shows, and I got to do that plenty for City Pages in 2015.

Sleater-Kinney summoned chaotic intensity at First Avenue, February 16

Kacey Musgraves is as real as country’s ever been, February 23

Stevie Wonder gives you more than you ever knew you wanted, March 30

Father John Misty preaches to the converted at First Avenue, April 6

Morrissey finally arrives in Minnesota, July 14

Miguel navigates sexistential crises at the State, August 17

FIDLAR’s show at the Varsity is better than drugs, September 15

Madonna celebrates all things Madonna at Xcel, October 9

Yo La Tengo bring a special kind of hush to Pantages, November 9

How I spent my summer vacation

I wrote a little run down of the late summer’s biggest pop hits for City Pages today, which seemed like a good excuse to post a recent link dump.

The Mall Gaze: When Tiffany’s “I Saw Him Standing There” Looked Back at the Beatles EMP Pop Conference Presentation, April 19, audio here, also published in Maura Magazine, May 19

Morrissey Finally Arrives in MInnesota City Pages, July 14

Miguel Navigates Sexistential Crises City Pages, August 17

Why This Minnesota Transplant Loves the State Fair Star Tribune, August 26

Livin’ right and bein’ free: Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson & Sturgill Simpson

Though age hasn’t quite taken the toll on Merle Haggard’s throat that it has on his posture, his force and accuracy have ebbed enough that his old pal Willie sings him under the table without raising his voice on their newish and OKish duet album, Django and Jimmie (#1 country, how about that?) But last night at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand, Hag compensated with a wicked sense of phrasing and benefited from the close proximity of Kris Kristofferson who, as ever, couldn’t carry a tune if it was lashed to his back with heavy rope.

At 79, Kristofferson looks about 10 years younger than the 78-year-old Haggard, who in black fedora, shades and dark suit was pretty much a white scarf and 50 pounds away from passing for Van Morrison.* But Kris sounded about 20 years older than Hag, creaking amiably through his classics with the humble poise of a talented guy who’s never stopped being amazed that people consistently pay him to do something he quite literally cannot.

Merle’s choices were solid if unsurprising, with Lefty’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and a faithful “Folsom Prison Blues” mixed in with the likes of “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home.” His work on guitar and fiddle was hot, and so was the current incarnation of the Strangers, even if that saxophone was occasionally more Saturday Night Live house band than Texas Playboys.

But no “Working Man Blues” on Labor Day? And both of his classic hippie-bashers? Not even sure what squirrelly guys “Fightin’ Side of Me” targets these days — Glenn Greenwald maybe? When Merle introduced “a song about marijuana,” I was hoping for the recent Willie duet “It’s All Goin’ to Pot.” But nope, ‘twas ye olde “Okie from Muskogee,” which is essentially camp at this point  distaste for short hair, weed and sandals sounds more like a straight-edge punk’s ethos than a country music fan’s.

As for Sturgill Simpson  look, I get it. Virtuoso musicianship and macho nasality never go out of style. For a certain kind of country fan, an outlaw is someone who follows the rules and to be real you’ve got to be an imitator. Yeah, guitarist Laur Joamets smokes and sure, “Turtles All the Way Down” is a helluva trip. But Simpson sang like he had a CD of Honky Tonk Heroes lodged in the back of his throat that he was trying to expel through his nose, and I’m sure he could add a few more hooks and consonants to his repertoire without being accused of aping Luke Bryan.

Simpson doesn’t really interpret When in Rome’s “The Promise”  he just kind of countrifies it  but I’d still like to hear what he can make of someone else’s songs. My own preferred New Waylon, Jamey Johnson, had the good sense to cut an album of Hank Cochran copyrights a couple years ago. You know, Billy Joe Shaver’s still writing a bunch of good songs. And I’m pretty sure Waylon done it that way.

* For those unfamiliar with Hag’s interest in fashion, a recording of Bob Eubanks repeatedly informed us that Merle crop-top baby t’s were available at Hag’s General Store.

Nothing’s too good for the working class

My friend Brad Zellar wrote a terrific Labor Day piece for the Star-Tribune about (among other things) growing up to become the white-collar son of a blue-collar dad, and it got me thinking about my own vexed relationship with labor and family even more than I usually do on Labor Day.

My dad installed siding and remodeled kitchens until he died ten years ago. Scholarships and sacrifices allowed me to be educated among wealthier kids, though the end result of that education was never clear, and so I moved away from one kind of life and work toward some other unspecified destination.

I’m mostly happy with where I wound up, which is far from where I started. For nearly two decades, I haven’t been paid to move any part of my body above the wrist (unless you count standing at concerts). And yet, I’ve never quite shaken the working-class misconception that conscientious effort will be recognized and rewarded (partly because I’ve received just enough recognition and reward to keep me afloat financially and emotionally) and I’ve never developed a careerist’s knack for working with a purpose beyond the immediate task at hand.

A life of labor both strengthened and wrecked my father’s body. He struggled to balance a commitment to craftsmanship with the drudgery of a daily routine, to achieve an economic independence that was a source of pride and of isolation. I wonder if he taught me so little of his trade because he wanted a less exhausting life for me or if I learned so little of it because I lacked interest in practical matters.

After my brother and I were too old to play baseball with, my father’s life outside work seemed to shrink. On weekends he took up projects around the house, because that’s what he knew how to do well. This Labor Day morning, as I’m compelled to arrange and rephrase my thoughts, just like I do most other days, I wonder if I’m just following a family tradition of confusing unpaid labor for leisure, and whether that would be such a bad thing anyway.

“I Doubt That Kurt Cobain Ever Did Enough Work to Wear a Hole in His Pants”

An older woman from St. Paul named Barbara sat next to me while I was reading by the lake this evening. She is currently receiving a month of free HBO from Comcast and had some pretty unflattering things to say about Kurt Cobain.

I brought that on myself by telling her I was a music critic. I made sure to tell her that I’m also an immigration attorney, because I like to watch Midwesterners try to use “Mexican” and “welfare” in the same sentence without seeming racist.

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