Monthly Archives: September 2010


At least two new posts. Sorry for the lag!


Cassie — “Me & U”

Released: 12.16.05

Peak: #3

Coolly intricate, vibrant yet disengaged, “Me & U” sounded like someone had smuggled an uncharacteristically popwise Junior Boys track onto R&B radio. The architect of that minimal electro skeleton was Ryan Leslie, a Harvard grad turned music biz hustler, and its seductive core was Cassie Ventura. Amidst that track’s swelling keyboard waves and curt electronic punctuations (including something resembling the Windows “crash” sound) Cassie’s whisper, more Ashanti than Aaliyah, hovered between shy and bored, seeking to dominate the track by passive-aggressive stealth.

Hers is a timbre particularly stimulating to certain nerdish membranes–she’s developed a devoted cult eager to interpolate a personality between her aloof murmurings. These diehards swear by the unreleased Connecticut Fever, just as diehards swore by Kelis’s Wonderland, though I suspect a certain crate-digger mentality seeping into pop, not to mention a gnostic faith that gatekeepers are keeping the truth hidden away. And the weakness of Cassie’s official follow-ups hasn’t made me eager to investigate: On “Long Way 2 Go,” Leslie’s electronics were as wan as Cassie’s quasi-rap, and it would take a more killer ballad than “Is It You” to compensate for her physical shortcomings.

Cassie bares a sharper attitude in her public life. After someone leaked nude cellphone pics, she tweeted: “STOP ACTING LIKE YOU HAVEN’T SEEN A TITTY BEFORE.” Then she shaved one side of her head as though to prove she’s hot enough to pull it off. But she and Leslie have since parted ways, his own limited fame obviating the need for a fly mouthpiece, and Cassie’s new handler, Diddy, hasn’t demonstrated a sense of what to make of her. So he’s latched her to obvious consorts (Wayne, Akon, himself) and even more obvious beats. The charisma that Cassie generated with “Me & U,” an alluring feat of shifting electronic veils and vocal feints, feels every day more like a wonderful fluke.

Best Albums 2005 (1-5)

5. Fiona Apple — Extraordinary Machine

Jon Brion’s vestigial day-glo chamber-pop streaks the re-recordings of Apple’s bent showtunes more stubbornly than internet demo-collectors notice, and Mike Elizondo retooled a better version of her than the perpetrators of 2005’s dumbest pop controversy admit. Her acid whimsy indomitable even when questioning her own desires (“I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me”), Apple tumbles forward from heartbreak to vengeance with a pluck more singer-songwriters should mimic. As she summons low-end comic menace with her left hand and traipses quizzically with her right, her own peculiar sense of rhythm is what anchors these tunes firmly enough for Brion and/or Elizondo’s trickery to matter at all.

4. Gogol Bordello — Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike

Mustachioed, bug-eyed, slavering, Eugene Hutz revels in a Gypsy stereotype that hasn’t haunted American pop culture since the heyday of classic Universal horror flicks. But with the playful menace of “I am a foreigner/And I’m walking through your streets,” he enmeshes himself in the sketchy underside of the neo-liberal dream, where porous borders and unchartable immigrant undesirables are the price “we” pay for the easy transfer of capital. In the name of all mongrels and mutts for whom racial, cultural, and national purity haven’t been an option in generations, Hutz and his crew unravel those seams of Middle Eastern and Balkan culture already stitched into hip hop and jazz. Then he grabs your girlfriend’s ass.

3. The Hold Steady — Separation Sunday

Sure they love Bruce, but from the initial lurch of Tad Kubler’s first huge riff, this rocks way more in a James Gang groove than an E-Street shuffle. And Craig Finn retells stories that could only have washed up on the banks of our land of a 10,000 treatment centers with a punky grit that the Boss would airbrush out. Scoring in more way than one with hoodrats who prefer Kate Bush to Humbert Humbert, Finn exudes sympathy for his heroine’s need to fuck far shadier characters than himself, never condescending to mere pity. And he weights “Lord, to be 17 forever,” and “Lord, to be 33 forever” with equal sentiment because he knows the only way to understand the difference between the two ages is to recognize the feeling of longing that connects them.

2. Kanye West — Late Registration

Even before he stunned Mike Myers, Kanye West obviously took race more seriously than your average platinum MC. He also believed, unfashionably enough, that hip-hop could subsume all music within itself, which is why Jon Brion and Adam Levine are as welcome (and as suited) to his Technicolor productions as Nas and Jay. Jerky egotist he may be, but the kid’s got heart, beefing with nurses during a tender farewell to his grandma and promising his mother he’ll get that B.A. someday. That heart bleeds into his politics too, when he blames Reagan for the crack epidemic or wonders how many child soldiers died for his diamonds. And so he earns the right to identify with the biggest-hearted soul man of all, Otis Redding, on the flat-out magical closer “Gone.”

1. Art Brut — Bang Bang Rock & Roll

Whether comically exaggerating his hubris or his self-deprecation, Eddie Argos thrusts himself into his humor with a rare mix of self-consciousness and abandon. Unlike fans of stand-up recordings, sitcom reruns, and SNL, I rarely go out of my way to laugh repeatedly at the same jokes, but five years later Argos’ giddy delight with his “Brand New Girlfriend” (“I’ve seen her naked! Twice!”) and desperation over his persistent impotence (“Don’t tell your friends!”) still jolt me. I credit this album’s staying power not just to Argos’ pinpoint delivery–his determination to find a middle way between glib sarcasm and overweening earnestness–but to the precise post-punk attack of that band he’s so proud that he and his buddies formed.

Madonna — “Hung Up”

Released: 10.17.05

Peak: #7

Madonna may never understand why we love her–not because she’s willing to confess on a dance floor, but because she’s willing to dance in a confessional. Still, a superstar cannot thrive solely on disco brilliance; without her ever-mockable pretensions and affectations — yes, even posh accent and Kabbalah dabble and double shotty soy latte — her fame would have likely have gone the way of Donna Summer’s. I’m just grateful that every few years she shucks off the burden of Being Madonna and tries to lose herself in a great dance song like “Hung Up.”

Producer Stuart Price, that phony Frenchman who made his name disguised as Jacques LeCont and Les Rhythm Digitales, cannily updates the past here. The musical elements — that sample of ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” which initially wafts in as from an overheard boom box, that flutey keyboard muffled by a blanket of electronics –jostle for prominence on the track, a slab of revisionist pop history as a work in progress. Tis a far far better thing Price does here than remixing Killers songs.

Of course, like Dylan says, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” “Hung Up” is less trashy fun than “Music,” its retro less timely. And let’s not even bring Madonna (the album, that is) into all this. And, in fact, “Hung Up” is hardly shorn free of image-consciousness–she slides a little self-referential “don’t cry for me” interpolation into the bridge. And we’re surely meant to admire the cheekiness of a forty-seven-year-old woman’s complaint that “time goes by so slowly,” just as her new lean and hungry look, all feathered hair and pink leotard, invites us to contrast youthful urgency and mature desperation. Or is that youthful desperation and mature urgency?

Miranda Lambert — “Kerosene”

Released: 10.3.05

Peak: #61

Reality TV has long since proven its uselessness as an A&R tool, failing to dredge up not only talent but even reliable sales figures, and overall contributing just slightly more to pop music than Pat Boone. Apparently Nashville Star second-runner-up Miranda Lambert wasn’t cut out for glorified karaoke. Voters passed over the cutely square-jawed blonde Texan in favor of hit-making juggernaut Buddy Jewell and the legendary John Arthur Martinez.

Lambert bounced back fine. Her first single was the charming “Me and Charlie Talking,” which recalls two ten-year-olds’ first crush from a gently knowing adult perspective. But her follow-up reduced charm to bitter ash. “Kerosene” kicks off with a death rattle of a tambourine and a hazardously detuned riff, before a stripped-down backbeat that’d make Kenny Aronoff proud drives it home. Each musical element — even that fierce harmonica — contributes toward the cut’s intensity. And Lambert, barely concealing a slight Natalie Maines sweetness in her upper register, hacks through downs romantic illusions on the verses en route to her refrain: “I’m giving up on love/ ‘Cause love’s given up on me.”

“Kerosene” notably lacks the cute sass that usually cuts country women’s revenge fantasies (including Lambert’s own “Gunpowder and Lead”). And unlike Gretchen Wilson, who she’s outlasted both commercially and creatively, Lambert didn’t need to flaunt her redneck attributes–they’re just a part of who she is. Also, who she is was a lady classy enough to share writing credits for “Kerosene” with Steve Earle, because she thought she cribbed from “I Feel Alright.” Probably wouldn’t hold up in court, and I bet Steve wouldn’t have tried it. Or denied that hers is the better tune.

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley — “Welcome to Jamrock”

Released: 9.12.05

Peak: #55

A throwback in more ways than one, and maybe only a Marley could come on this pop, this old-school, and still sound hard and timely. Or, rather, two Marleys, since brother Stephen produced “Jamrock,” running a Zap Pow bass line underneath Sly and Robbie’s World Jam riddim. Despite sounding like a half-forgotten, retooled mid-80s classic, “Welcome to Jamrock” echoed through Jamaica’s yards all summer, as the homicide rate and the temperatures there soared, overcoming the reluctance of that island’s finicky beat connoisseurs’ to settle for yesterday’s beats.

Plenty of specific details poke through Marley’s dystopian rant: the weed giving your girl a contact high, the elections bought and sold, the tourists’ enjoying a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, the “poor people a dead at random.” Yet what drives the song is the moral heft genetically encoded within Damian’s voice. True, his dad rarely need to puff himself up to such stentorian levels to project authority, but the son has inherited a righteous power that neither hip-hop nor rock regularly summon these days. (And no, nothing out of Jamaica quite does either.)

Not that Junior’s booming growl resembles Bob’s sweet chirp in the least. His dignified deliberation demands the prophet’s mantle of its own accord. Marley’s molten flow also melds effectively with hip-hop–on his recent collaboration with Nas, it proves an excellent foil to the MC’s trebly, darting impatience. Above all, his is a voice for bearing witness, “Out in the street / They call it murder,” Ini Kamoze sings on the hook, his sample from another time, hinting at another question: What do they call it in the safe, well-manicured homes? Nothing, they barely notice.

James McMurtry — “We Can’t Make It Here”

Released: 9.6.05

Peak: Did not chart

In the ’00s, blaming blinkered God-fearin’ hicks for all of America’s problems became the acceptable liberal alternative to blaming welfare moms, the ingrained impulse to lash out any which way but upward proving itself the most bipartisan element in U.S. politics. If nothing else, “We Can’t Make It Here” returned a prole’s-eye perspective to a political rock given over to a privileged snottiness. A novelist’s kid he may be, but McMurtry pares his language down to essentials–even the mild wordplay on “make it,” referring to both industrial output and middle class success, is rooted in everyday speech. Over a fatalist snare-beat and a guitar as evasively snaky as Richard Thompson’s, “We Can’t Make It Here” explores those few working class opportunities that remain over the course of a bleak seven minutes, with every wrong turn proving a dead end.

The U.S. trade deficit may not be at the root of all our domestic ills, but it’s a fair place to start. Springsteen’s “My Hometown” charted the decline of manufacturing industry; McMurtry signs off on its post mortem two decades later. Stocking shelves at Wal-Mart inadequately replaces the life once made possible by now long-gone textile mills, which have themselves become spots to score heroin, a solitary high that’s taken over for the social kind the struggling neighborhood taverns once supplied. And if military service is the last remaining career, don’t expect much help afterward, with “the V.A. budget” slashed. (A fine American tradition, that is, the screwing over veterans, instituted by St. George Washington himself.)

One of democracy’s greatest pitfalls is the willingness of the disadvantaged to direct their rage toward the closest targets. McMurtry rightly sees the antidote to a faux-populism that blames big government for everything is one that focuses on “the men who sent the jobs away” whose “kids won’t bleed,” the corporate powers that have sold out their country’s vitality. And with a chorus that’s barely inarticulate chant. “We Can’t Take It Here” is bleak enough that no demagogue could mistake it for a patriotic anthem–though Bernie Sanders, God bless him, enlisted it as its 2006 campaign theme.

Best Albums 2005 (6-10)

10. Wussy — Funeral Dress

Chuck Cleaver of brilliantly bent ’90s Cincinnati alterna-flops Ass Ponys and his on-and-off-again younger gf Lisa Walker take lyrical turns here, hers milking metaphysics from the concrete, his etching the everyday into the abstract. Their guitars split the difference between jangle and drone, wading among waves of death and depression rather than soaring above or (for damn sure) sinking beneath. It’d make perfect sense if the “Funeral Dress” that Walker’s terminal optimist saves up for is the same as the “Yellow Cotton Dress” Cleaver says looks like a “motherfucker” when she fills it out.

9. The Clipse & Re-Up Gang — We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2

“Grindin'” didn’t convince me that corporate shenanigans were all that kept Malice and Pusha T from changing the face of rap as we know it. But they damn near steal “1 Thing” from under Amerie’s cute little nose, and “Hate It or Love It” becomes a genuinely difficult choice when posed by such gifted yet hate-worthy rappers. In short, with help from Ab-Liva and Sandman, not to mention impressario Clinton Sparks, they half-convince me that the previous three years of music would’ve sounded fresher if delivered with pure bile rather than entrusted to cutie-pie pimps. So much better than the first installment I question their skill as dope dealers–even I know that the follow up should never be a purer high than the first free hit.

8. Minotaur Shock — Maritime

Fluttering somewhere between Pet Sounds and Pet Shop Boys, David Edwards soundtracks a conflict-free video game where pixels politely make way for each other as tracks build with a sense of purpose Jimmy Page would envy. That doesn’t mean Edwards is predictable: “Mistaken Tourist” runs generic “ethnic” polyrhythms overtop a Casio beat for a spell, then blurts into Georgio Moroder electrodisco, swiping fake strings from a Commodore 64 commercial; on “Muesli,” synth clarinets bob up and down like pistons, their tones gradually coloring over one another, before a xylophone pattern nudges in to provide counterpoint and horns explode into a bright carousel melody. Take it from someone who knows next to nothing about electronic music: Lost electronic music album of the decade.

7. Sleater-Kinney — The Woods

Glad we didn’t know at the time this would be the grand finale–our mood would’ve been too elegiac to recognize the new ground they broke, and too respectful to argue over whether they should have. I’m down with the makeover: Carrie gets to brandish her chops, Corin belts like a blooze mama, Janet bashes away as though ain’t a damn thing changed. And though Dave Fridmann’s need to push the levels into the red antagonizes loudness warriors, I’m Switzerland in:re compression, and the cheapness thrills me. If they insist their work was finished (and that Interpol’s should’ve never begun) who are we to dissent?

6. M.I.A. — Arular

Those who accuse Maya of radical chic are fighting some other decade’s war. Deploying insurgent rhetoric in Fortress America, even as late as ’05, was commercially iffy and genuinely defiant, and if it was just a pose, well, duh, it’s art. Not only does she tweak tropes further outside the law than any gangsta shtick, but she channels the burbling of international voices with such polyphonic ease so that her voices seem to emerge from everywhere and nowhere at once. As an MC, she’s Neneh Cherry wit’ Attitude, maybe, but fifteen years down the road, where bhangra and dancehall and baile funk fill U.K. clubs rather than watered down U.S. hip-hop.

The Legendary K.O. — “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”

Released: 9.6.05

Peak: Did not chart

What was I saying about protest songs again? If Iraq demanded a pop response in keeping with precedent — wars create anti-war songs — the Katrina disaster demanded a response because it was unprecedented. Not entirely, of course — as the resurrection of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927” reminded us, New Orleans had already gone through so much of this, including the not-quite-paranoid fear that outsiders were abetting nature’s havoc. But we’d never watched a major U.S. city disappear on national television before, or seen so many black American faces almost literally washed away.

Looking back, what was so remarkable about Kanye’s notorious, unscripted on-air speech was how little it tracked with the typical rant. Rather than confidently striking the time-honored notes of indignation we expect from African-American spokespeople, Kanye’s words were nervous and frightened, leaving logical blanks for sympathetic listeners to fill in. He builds slowly, scolding the media for disproportionately accusing black families of looting, noting the resources deployed overseas that could have gone to help fellow citizens, recognizing his own complicity. By the time he blurts the only line we remember — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — it’s less a smug accusation than a reluctant conclusion based on what he’s witnessed.

As remixed by the Legendary K.O., “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” struck a less emotional tone. Kanye’s original statement is truncated to the more rhythmically pliable “George Bush don’t like black people” by a couple fed-up guys who’ve sound as though they’ve seen all this shit before. These MCs only wish they could be shocked by the fate they recount in sharp detail. Their recycled hook implies that politicians are the ultimate “gold diggers,” too busy sucking up to corporate interests to bother with the job entrusted to them. And the climatic taunt of “Come down Bush, come on, come down” is just plain nasty.

There were other Katrina protests — Public Enemy’s “Hell No We Ain’t All Right” was angrier, and maybe smarter, more specifically linking federal disinterest to a preoccupation with overseas adventures. But if Dem Knock-Out Boyz are just serviceable rappers up against Chuck D (or Kanye, for that matter), their world-weariness seemed like the next step past shock that the black community would inevitably take, That resignation in their voices, echoing a belief that whites think that “niggaz … used to dyin’,” contextualizes Katrina not as an unfortunate one-off, but as the latest chapter in a long, traumatic history.

Keyshia Cole — “I Should’ve Cheated”

Released: 8.2.05

Peak: #30

Keyshia Cole is hardly the most underrated female R&B star of the ’00s. Still, despite her hair’s strawberry tinge and her three-season reality show, she’s among the least recognizable for pop fans–her voice doesn’t project the consistent, distinct personality that makes for a star. And her music is the better for it, because her voice, with its warm burr, does, in fact, project a strong personality, but her fame never overshadows her music, making her a suitable heir to the first-among-homegirls title that Mary J. long since became too famous to wear.

All that’s maybe just a fancy way of saying Keyshia doesn’t cross over, an antiquated-sounding term, but relevant enough here to make us think twice before we cosign the conventional wisdom that R&B and hip-hop are the new mainstream. Cole’s been plenty successful on her own turf, with three platinum albums, two of ’em R&B #1s, and “I Should’ve Cheated” charting as just the first of ten consecutive R&B top ten singles. And if her debut single, “I Changed My Mind” stiffed, despite Kanye rehashing a sample of Solomon Burke’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” by way of Dr. Dre, maybe there was just too much going on there. Or maybe she’s better suited to B than R.

“I Should’ve Cheated” centers on a simpler conceit: If her man’s gonna accuse Keyshia of infidelity, she may as well have fucked around. “You came to accuse me of all the things you are guilty of,” she tells the dog, leaving open the question of whether her “First of all, let me say” is a deliberate or unconscious nod to “Say My Name,” especially given the slight melodic echo. As producer/ writer 112’s Daron Jones works his unobtrusive Quiet Storm thang, with an unfancy thwock moving things forward, Cole refuses to work up to the sort of sub-diva foot-stompiness that passes for catharsis in the world that Whitney and Mariah made.

Maybe it’s just that Cole doesn’t have the diva chops to pull that off. Plenty of R&B aesthetes judge her voice too rickety, after all. But that’s what plenty of critics said about Mary back when too. And unlike Mary, there’s as little danger of Keyshia outgrowing her normality as there is of her blowing a situation out of proportion.