Chart for Charts’ Sake: R&B/Hip-Hop Songs

index

Today’s club hookup hits tend to be gross and leering, and not in the fun way that actual club hookups can be. Listening to the R&B/Hip-Hop top ten, my inner grad-school Marxist-feminist grows increasingly restless, until I’m incapable of seeing “the club” as anything more than a site where powerful and wealthy men peddle their reality as your fantasy, jockeying for prestige as the stride through a showroom of female products seeking to consume the grandest commodity of all: a woman who “belongs” to another man.

R&B is such a jerk farm these days that even a guy who’s made a career of projecting decency looked at his calendar and realized it ain’t The Year of the Gentleman anymore. I hear nothing flirtatious or seductive in Ne-Yo’s voice on “She Knows,” just the cool approval of an art buyer or livestock trader, gliding along the beat as though the definition of class is to restrain yourself from shouting instructions at the women you ogle. To keep his own hands clean, Shaffer Smith outsources the icky, sticky sex metaphors to Juicy J, who has become a one-man Mumbai call-center for such gunk. Dr. Luke and Cirkut hit the right crass notes with that farty synth-horn, but then the track faux-suaves into blandness as Ne-Yo reaches the all-important questions “Does she love the attention? Does she get it when she moves?” Dude, why are you asking me?

In an age where romantic illusions still needed dispelling, the Weeknd’s “Earned It” would score candor points for how it ‘fesses up to the economics of sexual affection. An impresario of somber sleaze when he’s auteuring on his own dime, Abel Tesfaye pimps himself out for Fifty Shades of Grey as a sugar daddy with a heart of gold here, and the overt theatricality of the production suggests a campy self-awareness — a guilty wink at the kitschy naughtiness of the vanilla-kink blockbuster he’s soundtracking — that his falsetto credibly builds on. There’s even some wordplay, I guess you could call it, tying back into the titular nexus of romance and finance: “You don’t pay it/ Don’t pay it no mind.” A harmless bit of commodified roleplay — though expect some resistance when you tell him you get to pick the costumes tomorrow night.

With all this in mind, it’s nice to see Natalie la Rose breaking into the top ten, and not just because I never thought I’d get the chance to type the words “Flo Rida protege.” On “Somebody,” Natalie and Jeremih are just two attractive people meeting in public, drinking and dancing, then leaving the club together. Imagine that. The Futuristics have chosen a fine ‘80s to misremember — their keyboard bass pops, their sequenced vocal blurts burble, and that little 808 fillip is tasteful and stylish. Jeremih’s slightly obnoxious Lil Jon homage “Shots! Shots! Shots!” bugged me at first, but now I think of it as a clumsy but well-meaning attempt to show off that Natalie, instead of LHFAO, responds to with a patronizing but not dismissive eyeroll. Had la Rose sung “Somebody”’s Whitney hook she might seem to be putting on airs, so when Jeremih respectfully spindles the lyric to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” it’s as polite an act as opening the cab door for her after they leave the club. Downright gentlemanly.

The Duke of Burgundy: Studies in Lepidopterotica

572564265641c972f5f19039ac75d4d3

Submissives really hold the power in a BDSM relationship, it’s said, and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy pushes that truism to its limit and beyond. Demanding girlish sub Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) painstakingly scripts her fantasies — to be bossed about as a maid, used as a urinal (off-screen, out of consideration to us pee-shy types), bound in a box. Handsome, formidable Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) studies her lover’s index cards and dons the wigs and vintage undies required to enact her role as stern, punitive mistress of the crumbling country house the lovers share.

But when we see Cynthia backstage, as it were, the strain of catering to a submissive perfectionist shows. She’s gulping water, breathing deeply, barely coping, Evelyn seems more excited by their ritual with each repetition, but it’s eroding Cynthia’s soul. Domination just isn’t her kink. She’d rather snuggle in her pjs or relax to recordings of crickets.

Both women study butterflies and insects (even their safe word is “pinastri,” a moth) as does pretty much every woman in this unspecified continental town in which everyone is a woman, even the mannequin seat-fillers at the scientific lectures. The time period is similarly fuzzy, that indeterminate moment in the past where all naughty fairy tales occur. In other words, we are very much in a movie: Strickland ’s doting visual homage to arty turn of the ‘70s Euro softcore. Even the heavily-accented voices have the occasional effect of bad dubbing. True connoisseurs will certainly uncover details I missed.

But for all its decadent sophistication the film’s humor and its drama emerge from a very ordinary problem of sexual compatibility, with the stylized atmosphere allowing us to study the everyday power negotiations between lovers that realism can explain away as idiosyncratic or circumstantial. Strickland doesn’t trivialize or psychoanalyze Evelyn’s desires, though he recognizes her single-minded pursuit of those desires as a decreasingly endearing flaw.. In fact, he’s kind of a humanist softie  — Cynthia wants what the film all but calls “normal love.”

Though cutely matched to film’s lighter moments, though, the director’s own cinematic fetishism chafes as the drama up-notches. It’s an insult to Knudsen’s nuanced performance to translate her arc into Art with a lurid dream sequence, and he’s truly breaking a butterfly upon a wheel with a winged kaleidoscope effect that’s clearly intended as a directorial set piece. Strickland has effectively dramatized the toll that living out someone else’s fantasy can take;.there’s no need to make us experience that suffocating feeling ourselves by overindulging in his own fantasy. Pinastri, dude. Pinastri.

Kacey Musgraves: As Real As Country’s Ever Been

I’ve got a review of Kacey Musgraves’ State Theatre show up at City Pages. Interesting to watch a new artist whose rep (critically and within the industry) outpaces her sales and airplay success and see how she chooses to present (and preserve) herself in today’s winner-take-all pop arena.

I still have reservations about Musgraves’ writing — one of her new songs includes the line “If you don’t have nothin’ nice to say/ Don’t say nothin’ at all,” and even that “mary jane” pun on “Merry Go Round” is a little too Sgt. Joe Friday for my taste. But I’m glad she hauled this oldie out. I just hope market demands don’t lead her to downplay her comic side — today’s country can use all the John Prine influence it can get.

Mourn: Boys Are Stupid, Play Rock at Them

index

With their one-word name and their two-note riffs and their competent boy drummer, Mourn are as ‘90s as baby barrettes and budget surpluses. Their debut, Mourn, sounds like its DGC promos could’ve been stacked 20 high for resale at the Princeton Record Exchange in 1996. That’s the year Jazz Rodríguez Bueno and Carla Pérez were born, though they sound much younger — as young as 15-year-old bassist Leia even. My guard was up.

I don’t trust “the ‘90s,” see, because sometimes I still stupidly miss them. By age, I’m predisposed to fall for their sounds and sensibilities, so when young bands, with all those recorded yesterdays to plunder, choose to echo my youth I overcompensate with tough-minded resistance. For months I questioned my enjoyment of Parquet Courts before succumbing – they could call themselves Prrr’chei Kurdts next and I’d stay onboard. I still judge Speedy Ortiz too harshly because I didn’t flip for them instantly.

But the suburban Barcelonan girls (and boy) in Mourn tickled me from the first time I heard “Your Brain Is Made of Candy.” Beginning with an unaccompanied strum, the track builds incrementally verse-by-verse, with no chorus to impede its progress toward a final abrupt halt. As Bueno moans her intent to gobble up all that sweet stuff in your skull, her voice ripples with gothic foreboding and thunders like a Brontë-saurus, but there’s a cute flashlight-below-the-chin campfire spookery to it all. She’s like Footie-PJ Harvey.

Mourn love angry music from the past, but you hear the love more than the anger. When they tell off the title jerk in “Jack” with “You think you’re awesome/ I say you’re bo-o-ring/ You called me a baby/ I just say …. “ well, you know what she just says, but you aren’t expecting her to just say it, rather than scream it. I bet the title of “Misery Factory” owes more to Soul Asylum than to Paramore even if its guitars don’t, “You Don’t Know Me” rocks like Nirvana or at least Radish, and “Otitis” is literally about an ear infection, which is why the chorus is Why should I go living/ If I can’t go swimming?” Throwing tantrums to stave off boredom, Mourn play with punk rage as a pose, which is no dumb way to do it.

Yoko Ono: Living in the Eighties

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono turned 82 today. It’s probably not fair to point out that by now she’s recorded several more hours of indispensable music under her own name than her late husband did under his — John is, after all, operating at a significant disadvantage in this contest. Yoko, nearing 50, was just honing her craft around the time of his murder; John was belatedly regaining command of his. With its workaday ‘70s session-rock layered over with tenderly ironic ‘80s new-wave gloss, Double Fantasy is a masterpiece of publicly performed coupledom, simulated yet sincere and a challenge to anyone who thinks those qualities can’t coexist.

Why stop there? Yoko’s three solo high points — the gutsy, polished, cathartic Season of Glass (1981), the alternately stormy and calm Rising (1995), the reckless no-feet-in-the-grave, try-anything-twice Take Me to the Land of Hell (2013) — eclipse the solo work of John’s former bandmates as well. Let McCartney’s defenders object, but a side-by-side comparison is telling: An amateur experimenting as a means of molding her quirks and quips into a fittingly idiosyncratic shape is simply more exciting than a master experimenting as a way to escape the confines of a craft that comes to him all too easily.

For more than a century now, recorded pop has increased the range of sounds that we’ll allow humans to make with their mouths and still consider music. Like many men before her and many women after her, Yoko demonstrated early on that your throat’s connection to your brain is as important as its connection to your diaphragm. Yet for all its apparent freedom, her art is held in place by a taut balance between pretension and simplicity, each pulling against the other to create as counterintuitive an architectural wonder as the suspension bridge. (And for the past two decades, it’s also been nurtured by the most fruitful mother-son musical collaboration I can think of.)

Yoko-hate sadly lingers, true, but it’s increasingly a badge of dated dimness — like all sexism, I suppose, except even more so, like being freaked out when women wear pants or something. Yoko-love only grows, though, and in her old age, she could have simply become a mascot for young feminists and avant-gardists, cherished as a benign figure in the way so many female artists are once they’re no longer seen as sexual or aesthetic threats. But Take Me to the Land of Hell is flat-out the the best rock album ever recorded by anyone her age. (Genre qualifier imposed out of respect to Alberta Hunter and whoever else I’m forgetting, and with an eye to whatever Willie’s working on next.) To hear someone sing “Let’s throw that past in the biggest trashcan” when she can’t have too much present left to take its place makes the youthful bravado of the wildest rockers or rappers sound tame.

Jazmine Sullivan: Let’s Put on a Show

index

Jazmine Sullivan doesn’t expect her man to the tell the truth. She’s an R&B singer; his lies fuel her art. But she draws the line at inept duplicity, demanding “If you gon’ lie, then at least be good” before a martial chorale once again chants the song title: “Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!” Don’t hate the game. Hate the fool who don’t know how to play.

In 2015, doubts arise as to whether music remains the best arena for that game, doubts the title of Sullivan’s newest album, Reality Show, acknowledges. Pop has risen far above our lives, and celebrity superheroines rule fiefdoms, their minions no longer winking fondly when they use uncomfortably supercharged metaphors like “queen” and “goddess.” TV is where human-sized drama rages, where stagy yet raw conflicts between women emerge as though via direct visual feed from our subconscious. The intimate yet mediated world of R&B, where desires and pain are modulated through hook and rhythm and timbre and craft, can feel quaint and distant up against this competition.

Reality Show takes up that challenge. Sullivan breezes though a broad range of roles with a versatility that might feel dilettantish if her commitment to each wasn’t total. On “Brand New” she’s a hot young rapper’s girl unsure of his how fame will change her life; on “Stanley” she’s a neglected housewife. She reluctantly dabbles in street crime on “Silver Lining,” then turns ride-or-die for her man on “#hoodlove.” In each song, we can imagine our own caricature from the outside, then we can hear Sullivan humanize her through monologues too private for any Bravo camera

Then there’s  “Mascara.”

Yeah my hair and my ass fake,

But so what?

I get my rent paid with it

And my tits get me trips

To places I can’t pronounce right

He said he’d keep it coming if I keep my body tight

There’s a new disparaging slang word every day for the self-commodifying hustler here, but she’s no ratchet cartoon, just a matter-of-fact operator. Sullivan doesn’t strive to make us like her, doesn’t mask her contempt for the less savvy. A tinge of concern for how long she can pull this off may abrade her voice but no moral doubt or rationalization intrudes. The track itself is unrushed and opulent, the melody lines varied and elastic. An anthem for an age where opportunity dwindles and keeping up appearances matters all the more, “Mascara” distills this jumble of anxiety and expectation into a single pointed question: “Don’t I deserve to be privileged?” Answer carefully.

Sleater-Kinney: Start Them Up

index

This Valentine’s Day, while you were shivering in your winter-inappropriate fancy-date outfits en route to enduring an obligatory prix fixe, I was watching one of my favorite bands for the first time in nine years. I wrote about it for City Pages.

Sleater-Kinney once showed us how to harness the chaotic intensity of youth without letting it consume you; now they show us how to summon that intensity in middle-age when it threatens to dissipate. As the band proved Saturday night, there’s no less glory in fighting against the tide than there is in riding the crest of the wave.

I might try to expand on my thoughts about No Cities to Love l

And if you’re curious about the S-K performances I unfairly compared this show to, here is the most ridiculous lead I ever wrote after a life-changing show at NYC’s Mercury Lounge in 2005, and a more professionally modulated rave about a show at the Starlight Ballroom in Philadelphia the following year.

 

Chart for Charts’ Sake: The Hot 100

index

Sometime this summer, the climactic leap in a So You Think You Can Dance contemporary routine will begin just as Ellie Goulding desperately pants “What are you waiting for?” and conclude when the chorus of “Love Me Like You Do” thunders back with the brute force of a thousand hearts being totally eclipsed at once, and there is nothing you, I, or Ellie herself can do except hope that the telecast doesn’t coincide with the Fifty Shades DVD release and the costumers don’t bind the dancers in too much kitsch ‘n’ kink.

I like how Goulding sings, but as with many current pop voices, it’s hard to say what I mean by that. Her pleasing crinkle doesn’t express a personality so much as attractively notate personality traits we’ve happily encountered elsewhere; she’s like a charming yet needy emoticon who longs to become a real girl. (Calvin Harris is her best shot at a Blue Fairy, Ryan Tedder the coachman who’ll ship her to Pleasure Island, Max Martin the whale who swallows her whole.) Her voice is breathy but not physical, lacks depth but isn’t flat, refracts her surroundings like an imperfectly re-smoothed ball of tin foil. The digital age needs a metaphor less corporeal than Barthes’ grain of the voice, but what? The sheen of the voice? The shimmer?

Maybe no pop star has capitalized on this sort of stylized affect as smashingly as RIhanna, whose serrated presence thrills or numbs, dependent on her setting. But when wounded rage strikes, she transforms from vehicle to agent; on “FourFiveSeconds” she belts in full-bodied, open-ended, percussive pulses, the trajectory of each seemingly left to chance. WIth its acoustic guitar as novelty instrument and oddly singsong fury, the song is a genuinely peculiar exercise in catharsis as tuneful distraction. Will the new folk trio of Kanye, Paul & RiRii put the charts in a stranglehold? Or will pop fans wonder will what’s all the fuss (2 Bad Jokes Only ‘80s Teens Will Wince At.)

The third single to enter the Top Ten since I last ran it down hints at the Adam Levine I first fell in not-loathing with back in the days of “This Love.” Levine is Daryl Hall as limited liability company, offshoring his rock ‘n’ soul to Swedes whose big bam boom h2omogenizes its senuality. As Levine hatches little baby falsettoes out of each other like a Russian nesting doll, it’s clearly not her kiss that’s on his lips, but that crimped lite-funk is just warm enough to dissolve “Sugar” but just too cool to generate any steam. I’m just glad Dr. Luke’s crew has got its hooks in Levine and not a retro magician like Mark Ronson. At the thought of an Adam Levine “Uptown Funk!” I’m almost willing to fully retract all last month’s Mars attacks.

Bob Dylan: Let Him Be Frank With You

“Trolling” can be the new “pretentious” — a lazy word to instantly dismiss what bugs you without exercising due diligence. Good on Bob Dylan for kicking around long enough to suffer both cheap slams. Thing is, we’ve always liked to think the sly coot is putting us on — lets us pretend he gives a damn what we think. But if Dylan is making any statement with the ten Sinatra-identified numbers on Shadows in the Night (aside from the same one he makes in every interview, that he flat-out loves old songs) it’s one he shouldn’t and doesn’t have to after more than a half-century of recording: The sounds he makes with his mouth are not accidents.

The clinkers here (he has a few) are placed as cannily as Monk’s. That’s an imperfect comparison — Monk could play what he wanted, Dylan’s physical limitations shape his artistic choices no less surely than his melodic or his rhythmic ingenuity. So imagine Monk sometimes favoring the half-dozen, half-dead keys of a battered barroom piano, sometimes trickily playing around them. The performances are more mannered than that image suggests — as with some of the finest of jazz vocalists (would you believe?) the emphasis on nuance here can detract from the story the song has to tell. You don’t hear “Some Enchanted Evening,” you hear Dylan singing “Some Enchanted Evening.”

More often, though, a character emerges, a hopeless romantic in the most literal, pitiful sense of the cliche: too old to love again, too weak to shelve his longing. Dylan sounds 73 going on infinity here, his willed decrepitude deepening the resignation of “Why Try to Change Me Now,” and, more importantly, engulfing “I’m a Fool to Love You” and “Autumn Leaves” in a lonesome pathos, imagining what it must be like to suffer the very last heartbreak of your life. The subtle arrangements — pedal steel throughout, an occasional light horn swell for color — accentuate the bleak mood. But they also smudge the distinctions between pop traditions. At times you wouldn’t even notice that these are songs Bob Dylan isn’t supposed to sing.

Together Through Life and Tempest suggested that Dylan’s turn-of-the-century revitalization was ebbing, and maybe Shadows in the Night is as minor as those predecessors. But that renaissance — Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft,” Modern Times –  couldn’t have happened if Dylan hadn’t re-immersed himself in folk, publicly woodshedding on Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Maybe these songs will seem a similar jumping off point in retrospect. Or maybe they’ll just stand as another instance of Dylan exercising his genius in the service of democracy, indicating a cultural heritage that’s open to whoever’s willing to claim it with wit and guile.

Sixteen and Life to Go

It’s a little unnerving to hear a roomful of old people singing “Life goes on/ Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone” and a lot unnerving when you realize you’re one of them. I hadn’t planned to spend my Wednesday night at the Northrop Auditorium with John Mellencamp, but my friend Reed had an extra free ticket and I’d worn out a TDK-90 with Scarecrow dubbed on one side during my junior year of high school so was I turn it down?

At 63, Mellencamp has the blockish skull of a Dick Tracy villain and he thrusts his thick body about with the age-stiffened defiance of a regular TCM viewer. His newer songs, if you’re wondering, are about getting old, but then again, so were his older ones. He’s never been a guy with a lot to say, but his tongue-tied thinking out loud still lends his lyrics an authenticity that compensates for their lack of poetry.

Mellencamp’s politics essentially boil down to a simple question: Can’t a man carve out enough space to flex his ornery autonomy no more? They came a lot closer to the comfortably working-class worldview I grew up around than Bruce’s more visionary romantic solidarity ever did, and John got two great singles about property rights from them: A pitiless protest song about farm foreclosure and an ambivalent celebration of homeownership as consolation prize for duped American dreamers. He rocked ‘em both tonight.

Mellencamp may cling to his limitations, but at least he earnestly dotes on them: One of his best hits, after all, is essentially “small town” repeated obsessively over a loud snare. As a bandleader he reclaimed the rudiments of the Some Girls et seq. Stones as the core of heartland expression. Then he expanded his sound to take in the fiddle and accordion he still tours with today and which came to the fore on his closer, the warmly nostalgic “Cherry Bomb.” Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the beat of Kenny Aronoff is gone.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.