Monthly Archives: January 2011

Against Me! — “Thrash Unreal”

Released: 10.10.07

Peak: #11 [Modern Rock]

“Thrash Unreal” calls bullshit on every promise of transcendence that rock music has ever made. Then it jams those lies so hard that they ring momentarily true. Like a harsher version of Bowling for Soup’s “1985,” or a more secular and less sentimental distillation of the Hold Steady’s oeuvre, Tom Gabel’s somberly defiant party anthem worms its way into the desperation and regret of a rocker chick aging past her sexual prime with a show of empathy that few songwriters would expend on women they’re not out to fuck.

Like “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” or “Glory Days,” “Thrash Unreal” acknowledges that rock and roll’s temporary escape from the everyday may feel more necessary than ever come middle-age. But where Seger and Springsteen tempered their grown-up blues with a what’cha-gonna-do shrug, Gabel stands stolidly outside the good times. He takes upon himself to depict the life of the woman he sings about with a seriousness she’s too much in need of a chance to cut loose to risk herself. It’s Gabel, nor she, who observes, “No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie/ No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to sleep alone.”

Well. You know how Greil Marcus testifies that he has to drop to his knees in adoration whenever he hears the opening drumbeat to “Like a Rolling Stone”? (I may be paraphrasing there.) My own tastes are far less apocalyptic–I appreciate reality enough that I don’t require that its fabric be rent asunder every time I press “play.” But that couplet, declaimed in such an earnest hardcore-dude voice you can practically hear the strain of Gabel’s neck muscles, stops me dead every time. And yet it wouldn’t work if the boys didn’t chant “ba ba ba/ ba ba babadada” cornily in the background, if the guitars and drums weren’t hitched to such a conventional rock chorus. Transcendence can be funny that way.

The-Dream — “Falsetto”

Released: 9.28.07

Peak: #30

The shadow of R. Kelly loomed large over the ’00s. As prison threatened to subtract the lewd master from the R&B game, Terius Nash emerged among the friendlier pretenders to the throne–The-Dream may not boast Kells’ physical gifts, but his taste in kink is less ludicrous. Which ain’t to say vanilla: The-Dream merely used his freaky imagination to expand sexual options for both partners, rather than to discover what nasty shit she’d let him get away with.

The lead single from Love/Hate, “Shawty Is Da Shit” (known in primmer circles as “Shawty Is a 10”) lusted after the newly grown cuties he remembered teasing on the playground; single #3, “I Luv Your Girl,” argued convincingly that T-D was the better of two options for the lady in question. But “Falsetto,” released in between, best shows off his bedroom bona fides, its central conceit recalling the old bit where Richard Pryor spots Minnie Ripperton in his audience and fantasizes about hearing a woman climax to those ridiculous high notes from “Lovin’ You.”

The vocal hook on the “Falsetto” chorus suggests a dirtier “Umbrella,” and The-Dream tacks on a few “ella”s as a coda, lest we forget, though they’ll hardly seal the deal if you ain’t wet before then. Even more seductive is Tricky Stewart’s tidal groove, laps forward and back gently but insistently, and the low churn underneath, especially a nasty guitar rumble that’s less solo than interlude.

The-Dream’s boasts are playful rather than belligerent; when his gal teases him, calling “last night a fluke,” he sets out to prove himself again in round two, rather than getting all pissy. And “Falsetto” leaves open the possibility that the reason Dream gets off on her ecstatic squeak might just be because he likes to hear a woman enjoy herself.

Flo Rida feat. T-Pain — “Low”

Released: 9.16.07

Peak: # 1

Pretend all that you want that Autotune-bashing hasn’t become more irritating than Autotune itself could ever be, but T-Pain has been a force for good in contemporary R&B. And among his better deeds was the rehabilitation of this modestly talented member of DJ Khaled’s circle. “Low” is, at the very least, several notches more humane than “Bitch I’m from Dade County,” and its beats come courtesy of Montay Humphrey, the man behind the inexhaustible “Walk It Out,” If this be crunk-lite, who needs the calories?

But maybe I’m just a sucker for a guy who spends more time noticing what the women he desires wear than he does ordering them to strip it off, or than he does celebrating his own wardrobe. Beginning with his moniker, Flo Rida (how did no one claim that nom de rap before this?) brings the obvious lols, from the candid “I love women exposed” to that whassat? metaphor “like a pornography poster” (we used to call them centerfolds, I think).  Shorty gets low without any spastic dork shouting instructions at her, and if she makes bank off Flo for a one-night floor show of ass gymnastics, he’s not complaining or calling her a ho, ’cause he knows she ain’t. By today’s standards that makes him a motherfuckin’ gentleman, if not an incurable romantic.

If you want to claim that Flo has long since outlived his utility, I’m not fool enough to argue otherwise. On “Elevator” he and Timbaland hoped you weren’t yet tired of those magic final syllables from “Umbrella,” and while I’m partial to “In the Ayer,” I suffer will.i.am more gladly than most. Subsequent hits maintained a chart foothold by pillaging freely from Eiffel 65 (“Sugar”) and Dead or Alive (“Right Round”), with both songs more memorable for the gal-sung hooks than any flo he rides. And though in theory an “I Gotta Feeling” rip is just this dude’s speed, “Club Can’t Handle This” proves David Guetta to be truly the last refuge of a scoundrel.

[PS: Not sure why/how I posted Miley out of order. Oops.]

Best Albums 2007 (11-15)

15. Marnie Stern — In Advance of the Broken Arm


Stern yelps great and shreds great and Zack Hill drums great. But what renders her clamor brilliant rather than adept is novelty appeal rather than chops–not that she dares to be great but that she dares to grate–and if you think that’s a dis you’re a snob. In the spirit of instrumental-first smarty post-post-rock, the meaning of “Every Single Line Means Something” is that titles don’t. Two albums later, she’s still coasting on sheer exhilaration, with diminished-not-negligible results, and I swear it’s not snobbery to expect something new from a talent this irrepressible. No offense to Hill, but I wish she’d form a band. A real band. With other women.

14. Hyphy Hitz


These collected Bay Area clowns may have as little sense of plot as Family Guy (the source material for the gooey finale “Stewy”) but their jokes are funnier, and they’re no more two-dimensional than their contemporaries, just more upfront about it. From their revamped electro beats to their lyrical sensibility, which recalls the long-ago recuperation of “fool,” “dumb,” “stupid,” and “sick,” this scene was hardly cutting edge–no surprise that MVPs E-40 and Keak had been kicking around for years. Of course unreconstructed rockcrits loved this sound: Hyphy’s throwback to a more creatively juvenile spirit bears the same relationship to thug-pop bloat that Ramones did to ELP. And, sadly, had about as much commercial impact.

13. No Age — Weirdo Rippers


Marginal malcontents will always mistake “noise annoys” for the whole of the law. But eventually (damn near invariably) avant-garde scenes gestate an accessible thrill for us well-wishing rubberneckers, and guitarist Randy Randall and drummer Dean Spunt were The Smell’s gift to my world. By skimming the cream from five previous EPs, these sonic youths demonstrate that their sense of structure was the fruit of collaboration rather than a pre-existing condition. Self-disciplined but never austere, their din achieves beauty because it craves form rather than transcendence.

12. Balkan Beat Box — Nu Med


You could hear Eugene Hutz hovering over the shoulder of their self-titled debut, but here drummer Tamir Muskat and multi-woodwind whiz Ori Kaplan find their true voices through conversation with others. Lots of others: Gilber Gilmore shares a childhood Moroccan tune, members of London Bulgarian Choir contribute an a capella duet, Macedonian clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski guests on “BBBeat.” Here some Queens Roma, there an Arabic rap from a Syrian singer,  everywhere MC Tomer Yosef hyping the crowd. And what keeps the burble from deteriorating into babble is the strong Jewish-Gypsy accent that predominates.

11. Burial–Untrue


William Bevan is one of those anonymous soundscapers seeking to refine his mastery out of existence, paring his fingernails while the universe decomposes into atoms. And yet, as ghostly beats tumble into the eternal echo, haunted by the voices that Moriconi thought audible if we could only access the correct frequency (here often attached to more famous names than your ears suspect), Burial’s neato sound effects creak with the irreducibly material persistence of the industrial decay just outside your window.

Miley Cyrus — “See You Again”

Released: 12.19.07

Peak: #10

Jane Dark in late 2007: “We have yet to hear a good song from Hannah Montana, but won’t be surprised when we do. It’s like getting a good Christmas present from your uncle who works in Silicon Valley: he’s clueless, but he’s got pockets full of money and friends full of advice, and sooner or later he’s gonna nail it.” Mr. Dark eventually heard what he was listening for in 2009’s autotuned-to-a-pulp celebration of big-tent pop, “Party in the U.S.A.,” about which, personally, I’m only like, yeah. Its melody blends invariably (and not entirely explicably) into Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” in my head, though I’m grateful for the tip that it’s uncool to wear cardigans in L.A., which is maybe why I’ve never been.

I’d heard a few good songs from Miley Cyrus had before that, beginning with “See You Again,” released (but maybe unheard) before JD’s comment. In truth, I’ve yet to hear a good song from Hannah Montana–either Miley has hogged them all from her alter ego, or she’s a better actress when she’s playing “herself.” She’s certainly a better actress when she’s singing–you’d never expect the shouty Disney brat on TV could match the sexy menace of that sneaky spy guitar and synth ominosity with her distinctly brunette huskiness.

Granted, that predatory self-control holds only through the slow build of the verses–the chorus obliterates her composure. “See You Again” brilliantly captures that frustrating high school duality: the utter confidence in private, the embarrassing emotional face-plant in public. The latter is particularly humiliating here, as Miley’s “stu-stu-stuttering” is followed by “My best friend Leslie said/ ‘She’s just being Miley.'” (Thanks for nothing, Leslie.) “See You Again” is that compulsively re-rehearsed pep talk in your bedroom each day after school, that reassurance that next time everything will be different–that next time you will be different. And oddly enough, its success may have as much to do with Miley as with the rich uncles who gifted her with it.

Tegan and Sara — “Back in Your Head”

Released: 7.24.07

Peak: Did not chart

 

Pop songs feed upon relationships in crisis. Conflicts entertain, after all, and extreme emotions snugly fit into the catchiest tunes. But everyday life with another person has subtler difficulties than many songwriters acknowledge–I mean, if your world is all fucking around or throwing furniture or neighbors’ brooms banging from downstairs, maybe you should reconsider your options. But Tegan and Sara Quin share such a preternatural ability to obsess over romantic anxieties without blowing them up into easy melodrama that Robert Christgau advanced the silly notion in Rolling Stone that lesbians must lead tranquil lives because they “don’t have men to lash out at, put up with or gripe about.”

Obviously, someone oughta sign the Dean up for Showtime. But the steady hands with which the twins recalibrate their love affairs is noteworthy. “Back in Your Head” isn’t the first song to chart that Sargasso Sea into which couples drift when the tidal pull of passion fails them and the lukewarmth of shared existence entangles them. But what sets it apart is that the lyrics both avoid the pop instinct to lash out in response and also the common impulse to settle for complacent comfort. The “wall of books/ Between us in our bed” that Sara (right?) sings about isn’t a tragedy, and “I’m not unfaithful but I’ll stray” isn’t the end of the world. But both observations scare her.

And after escaping a period of dreadful, earnest teen folk, the duo honed a musical aesthetic that suits their cool temperaments as well. Here it’s fine-tuned by bandmate Chris Walla (also of Death Cab): a deliberate single note doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo piano plinking along with a rhythm that’s insistent but not overheated sums up the Quins’ mood exactly. They’re serious, but not desperate.

Feist — “1234”

Released: 7.15.07

Peak: #8

God knows there have been times I’ve wished Leslie Feist’s voice crisper, warmer, jauntier. “Mushaboom” was the ideal showcase for her upscale bohemian flirtiness, right down to its self-descriptive title; her carelessly re-named take on Bee Gees’ “Love You Inside Out” blurred away the song’s edges at the expense of its emotional core. Yet both success and failure marked Feist as an impressive vocal stylist rather than a bona fide interpreter of material. And that style, casual and gorgeous in equal and complementary measures, was so understandably integral to her appeal to fans she’d haven been a dope to listen to the wishes of mere admirers like me.

Still, funny what the right song can do. On “1234” Feist’s soft-focus burr keeps in check a playfulness that a chirpier gal would have allowed to ripen to insipid tweedle. Co-written with Sally Seltman of New Buffalo, “1234” is as simple as a children’s song, as instantly memorable, and as unable to conceal its bittersweet undercurrent. As Feist longs for the warmth of her former romantic naïvete, the church-basement air of the production, from its choppy acoustic guitar intro to its brassy Beatles ’67 close, grows as wistful as it is whimsical.

Feist’s dancing has its charms, as does her video–even though, like so many, it compromises emotional ambiguity for the sake of good times. And only a real dick would begrudge Feist her iPod money, or blame her for re(de)fining a particularly marketing-friendly indie preciousness. Maybe without “1234,” no one would ever have greenlit those grisly Pomplamoose ads for Hyundai. But that’s hardly the worst reality that teenage hopes have grown to encompass.

Paramore — “Misery Business”

Released: 7.15.07

Peak: #26

Teenage girls clearly deserve a better fount for their inchoate rage than Hayley Williams. She squanders no empathy when belting out her prerogatives, which, on “Misery Business,” range from objectifying pretty boys to pissing off pretty girls. Here’s pop-punk crammed into a VH-1 reality show template, with sexily unhinged women tussling over a guy who can’t possibly be worth the scratch marks. It’s enough to make Avril’s “Girlfriend” seem progressive.

In other words, Williams’ humorless intensity doesn’t even draw from the worthy seriousness than sexists (used to?) call “strident” in defiant women. She and her band are zeitgeist kiddies, powered by the joyless emo that’s become the default tenor of rockers dumb enough to be embarrassed about their Blink CDs. Only by accident does the title conceit suggests Soul Asylum’s “Misery,” that attempted (if dim) auto-critique of the whiny alt-anthem. Yes, Paramore have even less insight into their motives than Dave Pirner.

But that doesn’t mean Paramore can’t write, and this is probably where I should mention that “Misery Business” is a blast. Williams has a knack for phrase-tweaking, from the babe with the hourglass figure ticking like a clock to the dismissive “Once a whore/ You’re nothing more.” Like most volleys of bile, hers suggests a reflux of self-loathing, and the mixed emotions with which she exclaims “God, does it feel so good” satisfy my admittedly minimal (and admittedly stodgy) need for ideological “contradictions.” Plus, pop-punk machine-gun riffing fronted by an angry redhead chick sells for a very good reason. After all, there have been times that teenage girls have had no font for their rage whatever.

My Chemical Romance — “Teenagers”

Released: 7.9.07

Peak: #67

As the ideal consumer, the teenager is the sole mass-produced entity that is absolutely essential to capitalism as we know it. As a human being, though, the teenager is irreducible surplus, and our essential economic problem is how to keep teenagers consuming as much as possible without letting them enter the job market too soon. Every honest adult knows that teenagers have every valid reason to hate him, and that he has good reason to hate them himself.

Sitcoms exist to reassure us that the confrontational relationship between adults and teenagers is mildly comic if not outright banal. But the perpetual war between generations refuses to be laugh-tracked into domestic submission. Taking an opposite tack, Gerard Way blows up this cross-generational hysteria to a comic sing-along, with a video that translates the garbled angst of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a full-scale assault. It ups the stakes further, envisioning adolescence as a war of all against all–the second verse doesn’t exactly argue that the bullies at Columbine had it coming, but to paraphrase Chris Rock, MCR understands.

My Chemical Romance’s idea of theatrical rock comes from consummate ham Alice Cooper rather than fussy humbug Pete Townsend; as glossed up by Rob Cavallo, “Teenagers” is the kind of showstopper that neither Green Day’s punk operas even approach. The big joke of “Teenagers” is the admission that they scare the living shit out of Gerard too. But the final punch line is the best of all: The video’s PSA conclusion that “VIOLENCE IS NEVER THE ANSWER.” What was the question again?

Keyshia Cole feat. Missy Elliott & Lil Kim — “Let It Go”

Released: 6.19.07

Peak: #7

In its quiet way, “Let It Go” is among Missy’s most confident creations. Few producers would have risked sampling “Juicy Fruit” a decade after “Juicy” claimed those distinctive synth waves and skittering beat for all time, and fewer still would have pulled it off. Rather than banking on a younger generation’s possible ignorance, Missy explicitly cites her source, tackling a B.I.G. impression to predict, “They gon’ mix it with Biggie/ ‘It was all a dream’,” and inviting Lil’ Kim to grunt her own “uh uh uh” introduction.

If the hyperlinking to “Juicy” gives “Let It Go” a distinctive ’90s feel, so, I’m afraid, does the song’s message of female solidarity. When Missy and Keyshia boast, “I don’t want your man,” they aren’t just refusing “other woman” status–they’re warning the woman they address that her man is a dog. In an industry that likes to orchestrate catfights between strong women, Missy stands out as perhaps the most sisterly of female MCs, a spirit manifested in her post-Timbaland willingness to collaborate with other women.

As usual, Cole’s compensates for the insufficiently diva-esque pinch in her upper register with her relatable everydayness. I’m not sure how true to the lyrics she lives her real life — dating rappers and ballers is not the ideal path to true love. But I’m a sucker for this sort of sisterly advice song, and firmly believe there can never be too many songs about dumping emotionally inadequate chumps. Though I admit that Cole, by following this single up with “Shoulda Let You Go,” might have revealed she didn’t have as much to share about this topic as she might think.