When will they b paid?: The latest on the Prince estate

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As I mentioned yesterday, I attended a hearing in Prince’s probate case, and as promised, here’s my write-up on Judge Kevin Eide’s order for Billboard. I’m no expert in estate law, business law, or entertainment law, but it strikes me as a judicious balancing of interests, allowing Bremer Trust to capitalize on Prince’s IP assets without straitjacketing his heirs (whoever they may be) into long-term contractual arrangements. There’s something in the judge’s order to disappoint every party to the case, and that seems like a good sign. (Also, I’m curious what they have in mind for Paisley Park this summer.)

This is the fourth story on the Prince estate I’ve written for Billboard in the past month. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s the full saga (or at least as much of it as I’ve been the one to tell).

“Prince’s Heirs Apparent: A Look At The Siblings Who Stand To Inherit His Fortune,” May 11.

“Two Claim Share of Prince’s Estate Through Half Brother,” May 18.

“How to Prove You’re Related to Prince and How His Estate May Be Sliced Up,” June 3.

Prince: There ain’t nothing, nothing left to say

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Today would have been Prince’s 58th birthday. It’s officially “Prince Day” here in Minnesota, much as it has been, unofficially, for 46 days now, and will be every day this summer, at least. Me, I’m going roller-skating. It’s what he’d have wanted.

The day itself  I spent in the Carver County District Court in Chaska, attending a hearing in Prince’s ongoing probate case, which I’ve been reporting on for Billboard. (When the judge issues his order on Thursday, I’ll link to my story, and to my previous coverage.)

So yes, most of what I have to say these days has less to do with the man and the art, and concerns the legal aftermath of his death. A couple weeks back, for MinnPost, I covered the gruesome “PRINCE Act,” a proposed right of publicity statute that fortunately stalled in our dysfunctional state legislature.

On the other hand, I did get an opportunity to write as encyclopedic a history of the New Power Generation as I could squish into 1000 words for The Current. (Though I didn’t get a chance to attend any of the NPG’s quickly sold-out tribute shows.)

Finally, apropos of zip, other than avatars of African-American excellence dying, here’s an obituary of Muhammad Ali I wrote for Rolling Stone last week. I’m not the kind of guy who says “this fuckin’ year.” But really, this fuckin’ year.

 

Survivor Tactics: Beyoncé and Ashanti

So far, so what? Nothing new here — she’s a survivor, her body’s too bootylicious, shoes on her feet, she bought ’em, say her name, say her name, say her name. But as Beyoncé officially goes solo, she trades in the faux autonomy of Destiny’s Child for something more freakazoidal. With the Disney Channel market clearly subleased to baby sis Solange, Beyoncé fills the first half of Dangerously in Love (Columbia), her first solo album, with some of the funkiest heavy breathing in recent memory. As a kind of parental advisory, she cribs from “Love to Love You Baby” on the second track, “Naughty Girl”; next she’s drooling over a “Hip Hop Star,” asking, “Do I blow you away?” and chanting “Undress me” as OutKast’s Big Boi cheers her on with a lip-smacking, “Take off that tank top and pull off them drawers.” And Bey kicks it all off with “Crazy in Love,” an admission that she’s been hypnotized by some hot thang’s magic stick and can’t make her own decisions anymore. Maybe there is something missing — something about independent women.

The real question isn’t why Beyoncé’s now a hung-up boy toy — it’s how such a malleable lump of multiplatinum plastic put off being cast in this mold for so long. After all, such male-identified quandaries are stock in trade for an R&B princess like Ashanti. As blank a slate as has ever topped the charts, Ashanti was Murder Inc. CEO Irv Gotti’s protégé, making her name by purring sweet nothings to hip-pop’s ickiest best sellers, allowing Fat Joe to straddle her on “What’s Luv?” and cooing, “I love it when you thug me, baby,” to Ja Rule. “Foolish,” the first single from her self-titled debut album, is the closest many of us will ever come to hearing a starlet talk in her sleep. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but that sure hasn’t held Ashanti back.

Working up a detailed critique of Ashanti’s Stepford diva persona might seem as pointedly pointless as, oh, holding a celebrity roast to lampoon Carson Daly. But in fact, on the new Chapter II (Murder Inc.), Ashanti emerges as her own woman. You can tell, because Ja Rule doesn’t show up even once. Actually, “emerges” is probably the wrong word — she drifts through “Rock With U (Aww Baby)” like her own underpaid backup singer. But by murmuring to herself, she seems to create a safe, private space where beautified anonymity provides a defense against thug sexuality. A pretty girl with an ability to ingratiate herself with famous and powerful men, all Ashanti asks in return is to protect a tiny corner of her psyche, to retreat inside herself, into what guest interlocutors keep referring to as “Shanty’s World.”

Beyoncé, on the other hand, leaps into the battle of the sexes crotch first, flaying (for instance) the title ballad so viciously you never even think to ask what love’s got to do with it. Her attitude toward romance here is best summed up in a single line: “Love is so blind, it feels right when it’s wrong”from the tellingly titled “Me, Myself and I,” the one track where she winds up on her own after the jerk walks out on her. “That’s all I got in the end,” she states of those three first-person pronouns. “From now on, I’m gon’ be my own best friend.”

Except it isn’t all she ever had. You remember her old group, which projected a female solidarity that was obviously a pretense long before LaToya and Latavia were pink-slipped — there’s a reason Matthew Knowles never called his baby girl’s combo Destiny’s Children. But the pop-feminist euphemisms that DC faked — sisterhood, girl power — still provided a welcome counterbalance to no-good machismo, a corrective that’s in notably short supply these days. “Crazy in Love” is Beyoncé’s equivalent of “Back in My Arms Again,” the Supremes song on which Diana Ross rejects “her friends’ advice”and a long, vital girl-group tradition — because her heart knows better. But when Bey’s friends wonder, “Who he think he is?” of the lust object who runs their girl’s life, she offers none of Ross’ I’m-my-own-woman rationalization here — she just has no choice.

Which means that video image of Beyoncé’s violently exerted self-control is essentially as a show of limitation. Beyoncé can’t afford to lose herself in the music when she feigns sexual obsession, because she’s moved beyond the girl-group ethos, and there’s no one left to catch her when she falls. And because no other female has got her back, Ashanti can’t risk allowing whatever personality she might be developing to burble up through the music. The most touching moment on Chapter II is a skit, where Ashanti’s sister drops by to sing along. For once, all too briefly, we hear two female voices in harmony. There are worse ideas.

Artist of the Year: Beyoncé G. Knowles

Say her name: Beyoncé. The pivotal diva (pictured, front left) of Destiny’s Child would have been one ingenious starlet to choose that stage name for herself, given its playful echoes of fiancée and beyond and bounce. In fact, she was christened Beyoncé at birth by her father (who, not coincidentally, doubles as her manager). Like so many of Beyoncé’s business dealings and artistic decisions, her name is outside her control. Then again, Elvis didn’t get to name himself either. But could an Ernest Presley ever have been the king of rock ‘n’ roll? Sometimes events outside of an artist’s control are crucial to her artistry. I mean, Elvis didn’t write his own songs, right?

Neither does Knowles–she’s fourth on the list of the seven folks who share songwriting cred for “Say My Name,” the most intense pop ballad in many a year, though who’s to say how much input this truly amounted to. It matters much more that the lead name in that list is producer Rodney Jerkins. The limp Timbaland remix shows how much “Say My Name” owes to the expert rhythmic pacing Jerkins devised on the original release. And whether you see Jerkins as an old-school studio Svengali or you don’t, it was hard not to appreciate the delicious irony of Destiny’s Child contributing “Independent Women, Part 1” to the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack, since Beyoncé and her cohorts are exactly as independent as the Angels–three forceful photo-genies who require a shadowy father figure to free them from their bottle.

But who ever said artistry was about independence? Too often, we approach art with a demanding juridical scrutiny, as if the work in question was a premeditated homicide and we had to pin the responsibility on someone. When it comes to girl-group pop, whether ancient or modern, our desperation to find an auteur leads us to anoint the producer. But all beats aside, “Say My Name” could have been an insecure whine if placed in the wrong larynx. Instead Knowles’s prepossessed but pained wail echoes the claustrophobic paranoia that underlays every desperate Motown ballad. Like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Say My Name” is a tale of identity being dissolved in a crucible of infidelity, the song’s emotion seemingly too big for the cozy confines of the pop-radio format. And that takes some kind of singer. Say her name.

Singles round-up: Sulking into Spring

April showers bring pop downers. If you don’t have enough to mope about lately — well, you do, yes, but regardless, here are five moody tunes to immiserate you, in ways both good and bad.

Chairlift
“Crying in Public”

The lyrics sketch an urban panopticon, but really, doesn’t the title describe what we do on social media all day long? Typically too glib when hit-hungry (“Romeo”) and too subtle when woodshedding (the rest of Moth) here Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly serve up just-right spoonfuls of Everything But the Girl’s porridge. Polachek overdoes neither stoic verse nor sniffly chorus, and little touches like the way the Wimberly’s guitar quietly but inexactly foreshadows the vocal melody to come are hardly irrelevant. I would buy so many Gap t-shirts to this song.

 

Demi Lovato
“Stone Cold”

There’s an art to tasteless oversinging. OK, maybe “art” isn’t exactly the right word. OK, maybe “art” is exactly the wrong word. Whatever. Lovato grabs this garbage tune by its ears and slams it against the floor with relentless, shameless, pitiless gusto, like the colicky lustchild of Steven and Bonnie Tyler. The climactic high note is both unforgiving and unforgivable and could only be delivered by a cyborg with a t-shirt cannon where her heart should be. I love it.

 

The Chainsmokers feat. Daya
“Don’t Let Me Down”

The production duo that should rename itself Jamie PG-13 churns out the spiritual descendant of ‘90s hair-salon/wine-bar trip-hop, updated stylistically for contemporary easy-listening consumption, with queasy electrogulps standing in for domesticated breakbeats. I don’t want to call this progress. But I don’t want to remember Olive either.

 

Sia feat. Sean Paul
“Cheap Thrills”

Rihanna would have scuffed mournful depth into this party trifle as surely as Adele would launched “Alive” into orbit. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason neither didn’t.

 

FKA Twigs
“Good to Love”

Sade Bush has had her moments (the candidly cautious “Lights On,” the nastily gasped “Two Weeks”) but I can’t even hypothesize what’s relatable or attractive about this sullen, overworked plea.

Accidental post-racism in a southern voice: What country music did and didn’t say as the Age of Obama began

The following paper was delivered at the 2016 EMP Pop Conference.

Sometime around 2008 it occurred to certain segments of the country music industry that African-Americans existed. An alert country music listener could occasionally hear what we might call reverse dog whistles – lyrical clues indicating that the singer wished to be perceived as not racist. Several country singers, in small but perceptible ways, challenged modern country radio’s implicit understanding that the Southern man is also a white man.

Mainstream country music has an uncanny knack for refracting cultural trends — or at least perceived cultural trends — through its hits, its stars, its representation of itself as an industry, operating at a point where market research feels, at times, practically indistinguishable from a kind of intuitive mass empathy. 2008 was one such time. The candidacy and eventual election of Barack Obama was clearly one impetus for Nashville’s new racial cognizance, but it was not the only one.

In August 2006, 93.9 KZLA in Los Angeles segued from Keith Urban’s “Tonight I Wanna Cry” to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started.” With L.A’s sole remaining country station making the switch to “rhythmic pop contemporary,” you could now no longer hear country music in three of the four largest markets in the U.S. New York hadn’t had a country station since 1996; San Francisco had been country-free since 2001.

Changing demographics in the U.S. had already stoked corporate anxieties in Nashville. The percentage of Americans who were white was expected to steadily decline, a fact of particular importance to country radio because its listeners are almost exclusively white – a 2006 Arbitron report estimated that only 2.3% of country radio’s audience was black.

Radio remains an important part of breaking country stars and nurturing their careers. Gary Overton, the head of Sony Music Nashville, frequently says of country music: “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Sometime around 2008 it occurred to certain segments of the country music industry that, in a significant portion of urban America, country music superstars did not exist.

 


In March 2009 Darius Rucker’s “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” became the first #1 country song by an African-American singer since Charley Pride’s final chart topper, “Night Games,” in 1983. This chart statistic became instantly totemic, indicative either of how resistant Nashville was to change or a signal of potential transformation to come, depending on your perspective. Rucker’s third country single, “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” first charted in November, the week of the 2008 election. Sometimes Nashville’s timing is so on the nose it’s embarrassing.

When Rucker who signed to Capitol Records Nashville in 2008, he was, of course, a known quantity. As the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, he’d been one of the biggest rock stars of the ’90s and one of the least hip. If the trajectory from aging rocker to country star was an increasingly common one, few followed it as gracefully the Charleston, South Carolina, native Rucker. He released his debut country album, Learn to Live, in September 2008 to widespread acceptance from country fans.

As a performer and as a star, Rucker was worlds different than country music’s last black hopeful.

The most recent African-American country performer to achieve any commercial success had been Cowboy Troy, a “family member” of the wild, garish Big & Rich MuzikMafia that attempted to remake Nashville in its own image in the early aughts. Troy’s debut, Loco Motive, hit #2 country in 2005, but two years later, his follow-up, Back in the Saddle, stalled in the 20s. With its heavy guitars and goofy demeanor, “I Play Chicken with the Train” announced itself as a novelty hit, hardly a way to successfully integrate country radio. Rucker, in contrast, was a southern everyman, a guy who maybe drank a little too much but loved his kids and worried about the state of the world in measured cliches on songs like “If I Had Wings.”

And yet, that track, with the anodyne line “Why do we hate?” significant recalls Rucker’s query “Why must we hate one another?” from an older, more explicitly topical song.

Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1994 song “Drowning,” was almost certainly only single by a platinum rock band of the decade to complain that the state of Carolina still flew the Confederate flag. When, in the wake of a mass shooting at black South Carolina church twenty years later, the display of that symbol became was more widely and publicly challenged, Rucker did not explicitly address the controversy. Nor was he any more obligated to do so than any other country music star. In fact, he may have been less obligated to – his new career itself was a kind of political stance.

 


When he rose to fame in the early ’90s, Tim McGraw did not always display a keen sensitivity to the complex and often tragic role race played in American history.

 

“Indian Outlaw” was, we can hope, the closest we’ll ever come to hearing a 12-inch dance remix of the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk chop on the radio. Lyrically, its redsploitation cliches are made more offensive by a last-minute bid for liberal redemption: For a coda, it tacks on the chorus of John D. Loudermilk’s “Indian Reservation,” a pop cry against the mistreatment of native Americans, best known as a hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders.

But McGraw’s position, as they say, evolved. He duetted with Nelly in 2004 on “Over and Over.” (“It ain’t nothin’ country about this song,” McGraw half-apologized to fans at the time.) By that point McGraw had became one of country music’s most prominent Democrats. A longtime Bill Clinton fan, he voiced his support for Obama in People in September 2008, identifying as a “Blue Dog Democrat” and saying he liked “the statement he would make for our country to the world.” At that time, McGraw also had an album in the can, Southern Voice, that, to his vocal consternation, would be delayed for a year because Curb Records chose to release McGraw’s compilation, Greatest Hits 3.

Nearly a year later, McGraw released the title track from that album as a single. Written by Bob DiPiero‎ and ‎Tom Douglas, “Southern Voice” lists prominent historical figures who in some way typify a regional ideal – hardly a groundbreaking lyrical conceit. Yet the list is racially integrated in a manner that no country hit would achieve by accident.

Six of the sixteen southern voices named in the verses are African-American, though the overall racial percentage of the song is skewed slightly more toward the Caucasian side of the ledger by the mention of Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels t-shirts in the chorus, and passing mentions in the bridge to Jerry Lee Lewis. (The bridge also mentions Jesus but, this paper will assume that He is invoked in his non-corporeal form so as to avoid speculation on his racial identity.) (Also appearing is Pocahontas, who I suppose technically lived in what would become the American “south,” but, I mean, still, come on.)

The song’s insistence on a racially composite southern heritage would be more exciting if the writing was a little better. But though a bit hacky, the writers create interesting comparisons almost in spite of themselves.

The first line pairs off Hank Williams and Dale Earnhart – gotta get them out of the way, right? But then it gets interesting: Linguistic innovators Chuck Berry and “Will” Faulkner are set beside one another, followed by powerhouse vocalists Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton. Then, weirdly and with no audible irony, Rosa Parks and Scarlett O’Hara. I do like how Martin Luther King and Billy Graham are nearly side by side the second verse.

Through representation and inclusion, the song insists everyone mentioned is a southerner despite his or her skin color. That makes for glib history and thin politics, maybe, but there’s something redeeming about the focus on the voice – that though divided by their appearance, there is nonetheless, through voice, a material manifestation of self that all these figures share.

 


The writer Choire Sicha once suggested that every mayor of New York City gets the Yankee superstar he deserves, and the same could be said of U.S. Presidents and country music stars. Sometimes the correlation is one-to-one: Garth Brooks’ frank commercial triangulation made him a Clintonian country singer just as Bill Clinton’s gargantuan offer to feel our pain made him a Garthian president. George W. Bush, an aging frat boy called upon to talk tough, was a Toby Keith who wished he could be a Kenny Chesney, or maybe vice versa.

The shadow president of Nashville in Barack Obama’s first term was not fellow color-bar-breaker Rucker, but a singer who displayed the theoretical strengths and stark limitations of white America’s good intentions: Brad Paisley. At the time Obama was elected, each of Paisley’s last nine singles had been number one country hits, and in 2009, the savvy West Virginian set a new record with his tenth chart topper, “Then.” But the album that launched that single, American Saturday Night, suggested that Paisley was ready to gamble with his commercial capital and nudge listeners into a new era post-racial country music cosmopolitanism.

The title track is a blithe ode to globalization that explicitly rejects golden age traditionalism. But it was “Welcome to the Future,” written as an immediate response to Obama’s election, that made Paisley catnip to northern urban liberals like myself,many of whom had already been impressed by Paisley’s songwriting wit and fluent guitar, and who now sought reassurance that they had weren’t wholly alienated from their fellow Americans.

The song’s final verse in particular encapsulated the mood of hope for the future of race relations in the U.S. that was widespread following Obama’s election:

I had a friend in school

Running back on the football team

They burned a cross in his front yard

For asking out the homecoming queen

I thought about him today

And everybody who’d seen what he’d seen

From a woman on a bus

To a man with a dream

Paisley would go on to perform at the White House. Still, as he told Country Aircheck in 2009: “I caught a little bit of flack from some people that didn’t quite understand, that thought for a second that maybe I was getting political with this song.” Then something terrible happened.

“Accidental Racist” is what happens when you let two professional awards show hosts try to sort out America’s tangled racial history together. You know the story: Paisley’s narrator wears a flag with the Confederate flag on, L.L. Cool J is the offended black barista he encounters. But though it’s Paisley’s character who’s in need of education, it’s L.L. who supposedly learns a lesson: “If you don’t judge my do-rag/ I won’t judge your red flag.”

Paisley’s knack for embodying the southern naif who hopes to decipher the changing world has never tripped him up so disastrously as that again. But even on “Southern Comfort Zone,” which argues that travel broadens a southern man’s mind, Paisley assays a presumptuous: “I know what it’s like to be the only one like me/ To take a good hard look around and be a minority.” Paisley has endeavored to nudge his audience forward, but the process often pulled him backward artistically. “Welcome to the Future” culminated with a “glory, glory hallelujah”; at the climax of “Southern Comfort Zone,” a chorus launches into “Dixie.”

Anyway, by 2013, country music had already expanded far beyond any southern comfort zone.

 


 

That’s Nelly again. (Why always Nelly?) In 2012 Florida-Georgia Line, the straw that breaks the poptimist back, released a new version of their crossover hit “Cruise,” featuring an appearance by the previously misplaced St. Louis rapper, and it went top ten.

The wooshy synthesizers of Paisley’s “Welcome to Future” suggested a kitschy, wide-eyed ’70s kid’s dream of Tomorrowland. Glossy, rhythmic, slick, impossible to imagine without contemporary non-country pop music, “Cruise” was what the actual future sounded like, the culmination of a reworking of mainstream country that had begun with Jason Aldean’s 2010 version of the Colt Ford/Brantley Gilbert song “Dirt Road Anthem,” which featured a straight-up rap break.

Rucker, McGraw, Paisley – each wondered, or allowed listeners to wonder, who or what a Southerner was. As rap and pop began to inflect country production and singing, a different question arose, and not for the first time: whether these new-fanged sounds were “country.” “You know, nobody grew up more countrier than me,” Luke Bryan would say when defending the sound of his music.

When Bryan sings that he bumps “A little Conway, a little T-Pain,” on “That’s My Kinda Night” or Florida Georgia Line pull out a mixtape on “This Is How We Roll” that’s “got a little Hank, little Drake,” it’s superficially similar to what McGraw and Paisley were up to. But the racially integrated consumption celebrated in these new songs-that-I’m-trying-really-hard-not-to-call-bro-country leapfrog over Paisley’s concerns about the modern south. They’re not explicitly re-imagining a regional heritage the way “Southern Voice” had. And, of course, the singers are not black like Darius Rucker.

Country returned quickly to Los Angeles with KKGO Go Country 105 in 2007. By 2013, New York even City had a country music station again – the Cumulus-owned Nash FM. A 2014 New York Times story noted that country “has displaced Top 40 as America’s most popular musical format with an audience that has grown stronger, wider and younger.”

No less white, of course. In 2008, country radio faced a test. Within a few years it had found a way, at least in the short term, to dodge the questions that racial identity posed – simply by peeking over and copying pop music’s answers.

Hang tough, children: Life after Prince

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In the months since Bowie’s death, I’ve had ghoulish “Who’s next and how will we react?” conversations with just about every music fan I know. I don’t remember Prince coming up once, at least not till the health scare a week ago. Even that we brushed off with an eager sense of relief that now feels like denial.

Where was I when I heard the news? Where I always am: in a coffee shop struggling with a finicky wifi signal. I was paralyzed, uncertain how to feel or respond, as a fan and as a journalist, until I lucked into two great assignments. Rolling Stone ordered me to step away from the internet and report on what was happening on the ground in Minneapolis and Chanhassen. Then Jill Mapes at Pitchfork asked me to write about “what Prince meant to Minneapolis,” a topic that, as a transplant, I’d have felt presumptuous for pitching myself. It’s been gratifying (and, frankly, a relief) to hear from fellow Minneapolitans who saw some part of themselves reflected in those stories. (I hope the self-effacing self-promotion here is an indication of how truly Minnesotan I’ve become.)

Crisis crystallizes half-forgotten anecdotes and impressions into words. So much great writing has followed Prince’s death, from pros and fans alike, that I’m reluctant to even attempt a link dump here, knowing I’ll leave off too much, that there’s so much I haven’t even read yet. So I’ll just limit myself the work of some fellow Minnesotans, because these are my people.

At an institutional level, there’s been terrific coverage by the Star-Tribune, the Current, and City Pages.

Michaelangelo Matos, who knows and cares as much about Prince as any writer alive, wrote the definitive obit.

Andrea Swensson, who knows and cares just as much about the music scene Prince helped foster, made me cry, dammit.

Dylan Hicks expanded upon his excellent 2014 Mpls.St.Paul piece to trace Prince’s roots in the social and musical climate of Minneapolis.

Jon Dolan elicited a heartfelt testimonial from Paul Westerberg, of all people.

Reed Fischer zeroed in on the weird world of covering Prince as a local reporter.

Melissa Maerz recalled the power dynamic at play when Prince summoned her to Paisley Park.

As for Prince’s musical legacy, we’ve got the rest of our lives to consider that. Most of what followed his ’80s pop prime will sound better than it did when we were worrying about “relevance” and “innovation.” (There’s a lesson there for music criticism.) In that sense, the Current’s A-W stream of the Prince catalog (no “Y” because none of his songs start with “you”) was like a glimpse of the future. You’d think, Prince being so stylistically versatile, that listening to his songs alphabetically would make for some jarring transitions, but there’s a consistency of vision, a core Prince-ness, that holds this body of work together, through peaks and valleys, in whatever order you play it.

Saturday night, I finally made it out to one of the all-night parties First Avenue had thrown in Prince’s honor, the third and last. I danced with friends I hadn’t seen in years. I saw a six-year-old girl bouncing around to “P Control.” (You lose, Tipper.) I sang along as “Purple Rain” completed its ascendance from brilliant power ballad to genuine hymn. The night ended, perfectly, at 7 a.m. with “Let’s Go Crazy,” a young man’s wet dream about mortality jet-propelling its way through the decades to reveal itself as his own eulogy, even if the weekend we’d experienced as a city had taught us that he was wrong about us being on our own.

To make it out to First Ave, I had to put off watching Lemonade. And I’d just finished dancing to “When You Were Mine” when I glanced at my phone and learned that Papa Wemba died. I was besieged by reminders that the world wasn’t about to slow down no matter how what dead genius I needed to mourn. There’s more great music out there than we can ever hear, more great observations about that music than we can ever read, more great people who love that music and make those observations than we can ever meet. What a fucking fantastic challenge to face.

Listening notes: Most of the girls like to rock but only some of the boys do

I’m fully aware how dumb and lame it is in 2016 — two-thousand-and-sixteen! — to lump a bunch of bands together simply because women sing and play in them. But. One reason there are more good guitar bands these days than there have been in two decades (at least) is that more women sing and play in those guitar bands than ever before. So step up your game, boys. Or, actually, don’t. Keep on, uh, microbrewing or gaming or listing things or whatever it is you’re doing instead.

kf7hearts_cover_web

Kitten Forever
7 Hearts
GO

When I try I can (mostly) figure out who’s singing when (probably) but why spoil the illusion that any member could at any time make any sound here — rotating from mic to bass to drums like the punkest of volleyballers, these three Minneapolis women kick up a collective clamor with an unmatchable all-for-one espirit and, you might have noticed, no guitars. I don’t miss them much — for too many punks guitars are just thickening agents anyway. Besides the cymbals fill in the silence and the ping-pong bass bits are no less hooky than the plainspoken chant-rant sloganeering. After 15 songs in 28 minutes, I’m a little worn out, I won’t lie, but they’re not, and that’s what matters — in this enervating cultural moment, expending boundless energy is itself a political statement. So is “I don’t wanna/ You can’t make me.”  And “You say you got something to say/ So say it.” And “Who cares?/ Don’t be scared/ I’m cool/ You’re cool/ I’m cool/ You’re cool.” And — well, you get this idea.

wall

Wall
Wall
GO

These New York post(uring)-punks subsume rage into disdain so briskly that I might even wonder whether they’re “really” angry at all if they didn’t target their contempt with such stylishly dressed-down accuracy. On “Cuban Cigars” Sam York gobs full-throatedly into the meals of her city’s wealthy overlords as Elizabeth Skadden’s thick-thumbed bass lags a fingernail’s breadth behind the lurching drums of Vanessa Gomez for a dogged LiLiPUT chug that Rough Trade retreads have been striving to recapture for decades. The gender studies truisms of “Fit the Part” (“Girls are the same/ But costumes have changed”) sound lived in (“Girls are the same/ But costumes have changed”) and “Milk” is vintage Sonic Youth if Kim Gordon had dug lolcats instead of Karen Carpenter. And Vince McClelland’s guitar uses Andy Gill as a launch pad the way so many old-time punks used Chuck Berry.

hop along.jpg

Hop Along
Get Disowned
SLOW

This 2012 debut has been reissued on “opaque blue colored vinyl” at nearly half the cost someone on Amazon thinks they can get for the original CD pressing, which matters to me only because I get an excuse to review a debut I wouldn’t have shut up about if I’d heard it four years ago. Then it would have been my introduction to Frances Quinlan’s thoughtfully expressive non-Euclidian vocal backflips, which improbably fracture at high volume into the whispery overtones of a pillow-muffled tantrum. Now for me it’s the de facto follow-up to the brilliant Painted Shut, and I can hear unformed moments as gawky as a middle-school yearbook photo here, with Quinlan’s eccentricities occasionally just the melodically noncommittal digressions of a much bigger Jeff Mangum fan than I am. Still, juvenalia this ain’t. The singalong chorus “There are some/ Parents whose/ Children long/ For divorce” is among the most Saddle Creek moments ever Saddle Creeked, and what’s exciting about Quinlan singing “I can’t believe someday I’m gonna die” is that I have no clue whether she can or not.

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Sheer Mag
III 7″
SLOW

“Can’t Stop Fighting” sets the bar too damn high. Tina Halladay’s unselfconscious certainty on that so-political-it’s-personal EP opener makes the two great riffs-plus-attitude that follow feel like the dust that’s kicked up after a tire-squealing getaway. But the so-personal-it’s-political EP closer “Nobody’s Baby,” treading in the riff tracks of “Living After Midnight,” reassures me that they’ll clear that bar when the full-length finally comes.

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Lucy Dacus
No Burden
SLOW

Speaking of a high bar. “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” would have been the best song ever written about struggling free of the straightjacketed identity your personality tics have laced up even if Dacus’s delivery didn’t illuminate its subtleties by swerving from the sass of “I got a too short skirt, maybe I can be the cute one” to the pathos of “Is there room in the band/ I don’t need to be the front man?” “Troublemaker Doppelganger” spirals out from a vignette about a bored pageant winner “put on a pedestal for good hygiene” who’s “too old to play but too young to mess around” to become a fairly heavy meditation on evil. Things do drift after that, Dacus wafting allusively as her band jangles and drones and swells and sways sympathetically but shapelessly, but landing at times on sharp lines like “It’s hard enough for me/ Not to fall in love with every person I see.”

The Best That Has Been Streamed or Heard (So Far This Year)

Here are the 15 best albums and 15 best singles (sez me) released between January 1 and March 31, 2016, listed alphabetically because I’m not ready to commit to anything more just now. Lots still under consideration and, of course, unheard. (And lots of my faves still unreviewed.) Let me know what’s missing in the comments, if you’re that kind.

Albums:

Azealia Banks: Slay-Z
Bent Shapes: Wolves of Want
Brothers Osborne: Pawn Shop
Charli XCX: Vroom Vroom
DJ Katapila: Trotro
Kevin Gates: Islah (Deluxe Edition)
KING: We Are King
Kitten Forever: 7 Hearts
Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered
Anderson .Paak: Malibu
Bonnie Raitt: Dig In Deep
Rihanna: Anti
Wall: Wall
Wussy: Forever Sounds
Soul Sok Séga

Singles:

Erykah Badu, “Trill Friends”
Azealia Banks, “The Big Big Beat”
Beyoncé: “Formation”
Chairlift, “Crying in Public”
Brandy Clark, “Girl Next Door”
Selena Gomez, “Hands to Myself”
Little Scream, “Love as a Weapon”
M.I.A., “MIA OLA”/”Foreign Friend”
One Direction, “History”
Pet Shop Boys “The Pop Kids”
Rihanna feat. Drake, “Work”
Santigold, “Banshee”
Sheer Mag, “Can’t Stop Fighting”
Taylor Swift, “New Romantics”
Young Thug feat. Quavo, “F Cancer”

Singles round-up: Not even past

Pop music isn’t solely about misremembering yesterday, but that’s a big part of what it does right. And wrong, Sturgill. And wrong.


Taylor Swift
“New Romantics”

Tay plays jaded the way she once spun fairy tales, relishing the feigned cynicism that cushions heartbreak the way she once thrilled to the fluctuating pulse rate of infatuation. She’s always had a cunning craftswoman’s sense that formal convention shapes desire as surely as biology, but she’s moved on from giving Romeo & Juliet a happy ending to giving As You Like It a sad (but still celebratory) one.


Pet Shop Boys
“The Pop Kids”

Nostalgia as victory lap. Neil Tennant gloats fondly about an age when you could still be smug about liking songs without guitars, then stretches “here” into a syllable and a half with a longing that erases a quarter-century.


Ariana Grande
“Dangerous Woman”

Lock up your donuts — Mariahna squanders her annual allotment of consonants, rhymes “permission” with “decision” like Britney taught her, and vamps as though she thinks the motto is you only live twice. Less empowering than a shelf of Curvy Barbies on clearance, but still fun fun fun till Carole King’s lawyers take a song credit away.


The 1975
“The Sound”

I know, I know, the simplistic chorus is meant to offset the verbosity of the verses  — that’s Matt Healy’s performative way of making a maybe a certain and pretending you can’t spell synthesizer without “thesis.” But every time I try to decide whether he’s a smart Brit playing cute or vice versa I get distracted by the guitar solo morphing uncannily into Steve Winwood’s Prophet-5.


Sturgill Simpson
“In Bloom”

A victory from beyond the grave. Evading Sturgill’s turgid determination to sing Kurt’s pretty song like he knows just what it means, the lyric loiters coolly past the edge of coherence, like a rabbit that knows the exact length of a dog’s leash.

What I have been and will be up to

If all goes well, this will be a busy blogging week. There are many more album reviews where that last batch came from, as well as some singles round-ups, a movie review or two, and possibly a couple 1st quarter top ten lists.

And here are a few stories I’ve recently been paid to write.

“Why the Hulk Hogan Sex Tape Verdict Matters,” Rolling Stone

“How ‘Eddie the Eagle’ Made an Imaginary Eighties Pop Soundtrack,” Rolling Stone

“In Defense of ‘Thong Song,’ Inexplicable Winner of PiPress’ Worst Song Ever Contest,” City Pages