Monthly Archives: October 2011

Lady Sovereign — “So Human”

Released: 4.6.09

Peak: Did not chart

The moral rap against sampling is simple: Why should technological shortcuts  permit just any asshole to cash in on some genuine innovator’s masterful creation? Thing is, though, often enough, the innovator’s more the asshole. On “Super Freak,” brilliant sleazeball Rick James caked a killer riff with the muck of his PG-porn fantasies; about a decade later, derivative nice guy MC Hammer liberated that hook for all ages with “U Can’t Touch This.” Similarly, the Cure’s Robert Smith dangled his band’s shiny melodies to lure impressionable misfits into mistaking his overwrought bedroom hysterics for psychological complexity. (The desired response to a typical Smith fit seemed to be “If I will fuck you will you shut up already?”) Why shouldn’t Lady Sovereign throw open the curtains and let the “Close to Me” hook (already well-cannibalized as a dancehall riddim years before) glitter in the light of the sun?

Louise Harman was among Jay-Z’s early Def Jam signings, and may Hova’s namesake bless him for either failing to realize that no white Brit was going to become a famous female rapper or just plain not caring. The pop grime that Lady Sov crafted with producer Gabriel Olegavich for her full-length was somewhat less delirious than her earliest hit, “Ch Ching (Cheque 1 2).” And on her closest thing to a breakthrough hit, “Love Me or Hate Me,” Dr. Luke stripped her beats of nuance even as her rhymes took her out of context: though brattily attuned to the instant feedback of the internet era, the song seemed to express the presumptions of a far more famous person. Still, Sov’s candid amateurism (“I can’t dance/ And I really can’t sing”) and scurfy tomboy persona were refreshing.

Or could have been, had they’d also been commercially viable. Instead, Sov and Def Jam parted ways; she released her follow-up, Jigsaw, on her own. And as a modest “chin up!” anthem, “So Human” lacked the drama needed to snag a high school kid whose identity is tied in so intimately with the issues of self-esteem and popularity endemic to pop music. Who wouldn’t rather apply the lessons of T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life” or Britney’s “Circus” to her Twitter feed than cheerily acknowledge “Doesn’t it feel much better, uh huh/ When you’ve had a better day than yesterday?” By the time we heard “So Human,” Dr. Luke had found another bratty, slovenly woman eager to rhythmically talk her way to fame. Is Lady Sovereign, in some small way, responsible for Ke$ha?

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Best Albums 2009 (16-20)

20. Raekwon — Only Built for Cuban Linx . . . Pt. 2

No MC represents the changing fortunes of the Wu-Tang dynasty quite like Rae. The original Cuban Linx established that solo Wu joints could be solid artworks rather than hodgepodge advertisements for each rapper’s persona. But fourteen years is a long damn time. In the interim, Ghostface has handily upstaged his former tag-team as a solo rhymer, and Wu quality control has slipped some (though less than commonly believed). But from “House of Flying Daggers” on, Pt. 2 feels like old times, with appearances from every Wu MC except U-God (he couldn’t make time?) and a heartfelt ODB tribute, “Ason Jones.” Until you check the fine print, you might not even notice that RZA’s down to two production credits. And the funny thing is, “House of Flying Daggers” is an exhumed Dilla beat.

19. Art Brut — Art Brut vs. Satan

Eddie Argos will try anything once, even conventional verse-chorus songwriting. Having followed that detour to a dead end on Art Brut’s second album, It’s a Bit Complicated, Argos doubled back to rediscover his natural métier: standup rants with punk accompaniment. Where before he trumpeted his ambitions, he now proclaims a litany of stuff he likes: “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes,” riding the bus, the Replacements, shitty-sounding records. Chastened but still brash, Argos remains a proudly anti-pop people person even if his songlets will never be half as universal as “Happy Birthday” — which I bet couldn’t win a plurality among the record-buying public these days either.

18. Rokia Traoré — Tchamantche

Last time out she collaborated with Kronos Quartet; this time she covers “The Man I Love.” Traoré isn’t just courting First World audiences — whether consciously or instinctively, she’s specifically eyeing the NPR/Starbucks demo. She’s a singer-songwriter in the Western sense, complete with acoustic guitar, introspective lyrics, and a voice that’s remarkably delicate by Malian standards. This particular First Worlder isn’t always sure what to make of those lyrics: “Tounka” calls for Africans to stay where they are, and “Zen” makes me glad she sings in Bambara. But the guitar and voice still sound as smart as they do gorgeous.

17. The xx — The xx

Their low-affect sparseness un-piqued my curiosity at first. But eventually I heard that their apparent melancholy wasn’t even necessarily sad, and that the empty spaces flattered their minimal décor, especially Romy Madley Croft’s thin, dangling guitar lines. Few singing pairs have sounded like they need each other quite like Croft and Oliver Sim do. Not that they cling to one another or boldly express solidarity. Instead, two fragile voices gather strength from one another’s presence, most obviously when they conceptualize their bond — on “Infinity” (“I can’t give it up/ To someone else’s touch”), the mutual pep talk “VCR,” and the shut-in anthem “Islands” — but even when the lyrics say otherwise.

16. Brad Paisley — American Saturday Night

Times are so tough that Paisley can sell middle-class comfort — time off for fishing, nice underwear for your gal — as an escapist fantasy. I’m a little warier when he peddles neoliberalism as progress: the title track confuses the trade deficit with the melting pot, and “Welcome to the Future” finds equal reason for optimism in black presidents and the latest electronic gadgetry. Still, he balances his beer-commercial manhood with a celebration of his wife’s independence, an imagining of his newborn son’s eventual revenge, and two great songs about being dumped. Not just the best album yet from country’s biggest male superstar, but the best mainstream country record from a guy since…  No Fences? Something Special?

Brad Paisley — “Then”

Released: 3.13.09

Peak: #28

Brad Paisley has always found monogamy sexy. From the easy-swinging pun “Wrapped Around” (“It’s time to put a ring on the finger I’m wrapped around”) to the good-hearted sexism of “Waitin’ on a Woman” (punch line: men die first because women are never ready on time), Paisley has shown himself to be seduced by the inexhaustible experience of committing your life to another person. On some level, you have to cherish commitment in itself to find mating for life a possibility.

And yet, Paisley has never been much for the straight-ahead love ballads that are a career country star’s fallback position. Maybe that’s because he’s a great guitarist who likes to cut loose; maybe it’s his weakness for an easy joke. Or maybe Paisley, as half of a down-homier celebrity marriage than Tim and Faith, just realizes that country ballads typically strip away the everyday details that make long-term commitment worthwhile. He’s always been as amused as infatuated by lifetime love, and his biggest hit ballad, “She’s Everything,” painstakingly includes his wife’s flaws and contradictions within that “everything.”

“Then” is more conventional. Its arrangement — piano both lush and bluesless, guitar floating melodically on the surface, drums lightly rat-a-tatted — isn’t worlds away from bestselling goop like Rascal Flatts, the members of which would likely find “like a river meets the sea” a more poetic image than I do. But Paisley’s verses are simpler and more schematic, sketching scenes of a first date, then a marriage proposal, concluding both times “I thought I loved you then.” The song builds to a bridge about looking forward to the future: “What I can’t see is how I’m ever gonna love you more/ But I’ve said that before.” Yet, despite some typically flashy guitar and a “hoo-a-hoo-ooh” coda, “Then” never becomes melodramatic. Corny, that’s another story. But if songs about love growing stronger with time are too corny for you, you’ve got no business listening to country music. Or marrying maybe.

Miley Cyrus — “Fly on the Wall”

Released: 2.16.09

Peak: #84

Sure, some parents couldn’t quite tune out the umptillionth High School Musical replay, and the occasional grown weirdo like “Metal” Mike Saunders would immerse himself willingly within the giddy, sexless mania of Radio Disney. But much of the decade’s tween-pop eluded conscious adult hearing, and no strictly prepubescent audience will exert effective quality control over its appointed entertainers. Still, hacks tend toward craft over time, if only out of boredom, and hormones will eventually spice up the sugary hyperactivity of even the latest bloomers. So I was hopeful when a trio of 2009 near-hits — Miranda Cosgrove’s “About You Now,” Demi Lovato’s “La La Land,” and Selena Gomez’s “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” — showed signs of evolutionary progress.

Reservations were had: The Jonas Brothers’ innocuous dance rock, for starters, sounded wan up against the R&B-influenced boy bands of ten years before. But the kid apparently destined for the role of millennial Britney seemed to have learnt a thing or two from her predecessor’s missteps. On “Fly on the Wall,” Miley Cyrus sounds energized by the psychological challenges of stardom without feeding co-dependently off them. Riding a guitar riff as aggressive as a rock lobster preserved in Mudhoney, Miley plays her husky alto for menace, inviting “them” a little closer while hinting at a star quality considered impossible in TMZ America: her ultimate unknowability. At the same time, “Fly on the Wall” is true to Cyrus’s child-star roots: the way she belts out “a little communication” or freaks out about “all these paparazzis” in the video is pure showbiz.

But “Fly on the Wall” also packs a conceptual wallop, combining a teen boy’s curiosity about how girls talk when they’re alone, a jealous dork’s need to know his infatuee’s  every move, and the stalkerish coverage of celebrity girls into a single powerful conceit. And it exploits Miley’s commonalities with her fans more subtly, deeply, and truly than the faux-humble “Party in the U.S.A.,” a trifle whose unfortunate role as Miley’s biggest hit gave snobs the wrong idea about the capabilities of a girl who didn’t help herself by admitting disinterest in the pop world her song celebrates. Not that this would matter much by 2010, when Justin Bieber subsumed all tween adoration unto himself, and Glee gobbled up all music past and present like some insatiable Kidz Blob. As for Miley, already rich and famous, she suggested with “Can’t Be Tamed” mostly that she couldn’t be bothered, and announced that she was taking a break from music. Who wouldn’t?

Best Albums 2009 (21-25)

25. Dark Was the Night

Now That’s What I Call Pitchfork! The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner couldn’t have chosen a slate of artists I’m more ambivalent about if they’d tried: Dirty Projectors, Beirut, Yeasayer, the National. (OK, they could have left off Yo La Tengo.) (And Buck 65.) (But you get the idea.) Like a radio station worth a monthly listen to keep up on trends, the Dessners’ mix not only renders irritants like Justin Vernon, Antony Hegarty, and  Grizzly Bear palatable — it explains why their fans adore them. The unwary might even be lured into drawing some foolish conclusions about Today’s Music: that quiet is the new loud, that folk is the new punk, that Vashti Bunyan and Shuggie Otis belong in the canon. Never doubt the ability of the Red Hot organization to elicit the best from their contributors.

24. P.O.S. – Never Better

Maybe no white MC could get away with rapping and repping as punk as Pissed Off Stef, who quotes Fugazi on “Savion Glover” and provides some helpful backstory on the personal reminiscence “Out of Category.” Not even if he rhymed as sharp as Promise of Skill. But Product of Society could only have emerged from a city big enough to foster subcultures but too small for them to keep from intermingling. And “Drumroll” isn’t the only track hooked to a drumroll — the dominant rhythm here is a hardcore/funk tumble crafted by Lazerbeak and none other than Plain Ole Stef.

23. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There Are Mountains

Joseph D’Agostino’s lyrics say less than his guitar, but his reveries and instrumental detours are both more focused than his band’s track lengths suggest. Time wasted on sluggish arterials — the Merritt Parkway, the GWB, I-90 — gives him the opportunity to notice “the way suspension bridges shake/ When you’re stuck behind trucks/ Sailing into 1999.” A life spent in Staten Island, not Brooklyn, has insulated him from indie trends — Times New Viking and Yuck sound like pioneers up against this band of sonic and spiritual ’90s throwbacks. But drummer Matthew Miller swings some and the music-hall piano is a nice touch. Besides, people even still make great blues records sometimes, you know, and that stuff’s from way before the ’90s.

22. Staff Benda Bilili  Tres Tres Fort

These paraplegic Kinshasa street musicians (I know, I know) are my favorite noisemakers to emerge from Vincent Kenis’ Congotronics marketing scheme and, not coincidentally, the least given to hypnotic repetition. Credit goes to the youngster in their midst, eighteen-year-old Roger Landu, and his homemade, single-stringed electric lute. Maybe also to their homely busker origins, apparent in the ease with which they dip into rumba and reggae and funk and whatever else will entice passersby with spare coins. After all, what are world music fans but a certain subclass of tourist?

21. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

I always knew Nick Zinner had a guitar-god record in him. Just wouldn’t have guessed it would also be his keyboard-whiz record, or that so much of the fun would come from distinguishing axe work from synth effects. As for Karen O, she screeches “Off with your head/ Dance till you’re dead” like she means it, celebrates transcendent anonymity on “Zero” like she doesn’t, and calls the tune where she confesses “You suddenly complete me” “Hysteric.” Not quite a Parallel Lines for an age in which disco has more cred with aesthetes than punk; more a Garbage 2.0 for an era that mistakes taste for principle.