Monthly Archives: March 2016

Mountains May Depart: Patching the sentimental veil

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Jia Zhangke’s best work focuses a cold eye on the violent displacements demanded by capital but allows for dramatic ambiguity. Mountains May Depart is somehow just both didactic and vague. A young woman named Tao chooses a jerky nouveau capitalist over a stolid mine worker; they name their son Dollar, then divorce; and the husband emigrates to Australia with the boy, who grows up incapable of understanding Chinese. The film is trisected into vignettes taking place in 1999, 2014, and 2025, and the aspect ratio enlarges with each leap forward. The characteristically broad span of time allows to Jia to focus, as usual, on how individuals caught up within historical forces beyond their comprehension strive to maintain their footing. This structure might have allowed him to re-imagine the present as the past, and Dollar could have served as an avenue for hypothesizing the psychological makeup of a member of the cosmopolitan young elite class of our future. But Jia fumbles on both counts, and as Tao responds to her personal losses by retreating into the preservation of traditional customs, he seems to endorse a sentimentality that’s under-examined and at odds with the implications of the story. Surely Jia must recognize some irony in the closing image of Tao, alone but financially secure, dancing to the Pet Shop Boys’ wistful version of “Go West,” nostalgic for a moment when youth and capital combined to offer her a delirious promise of freedom. And how are we supposed to title, which comes from a Chinese proverb: “Mountains may depart but the roots remain unchanged”? Marx knew better than that, and I suspect so does Jia.

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Singles round-up: Beats of many sizes

Honest, I tried to embed a Meghan Trainor video, but she’s DMCA’d them all clean off YouTube.


Azealia Banks
“The Big Big Beat”

Roll over Rick Rubin and tell Billy Squier the news. Clipped electro-bass below, Biggie chopped to the edge of coherence above, insouciant house beat running straight up the middle — that’s all Ms. A to Z requires to coast along on impure attitude, from the soft-spoken bad-bitching of her verses to the jazzy look-ma-no-gravity runs on the chorus. Hope she won’t hop back on social media to explain the bit about the pricey Jesuit medal. But if she keeps dragging producers like An Expresso out of the underground, she can tweet any dumb shit she wants — Ted Cruz dick pics, my credit card number, plans to bomb a preschool, w/e.


Zayn
“It’s You”

“Like I Would”

“Hey, what’s up, it’s been awhile” is a fib at best on your third track of the young year, but the phantom chorale and when-I’m-damn-well-ready beat of the resentfully arrogant “Like I Would” would be a nasty kickoff to that solo full-length. And the postcoital you-still-awake? falsetto on “It’s You” would provide a sweet coda to an album of bangers. I’m disappointedly suspecting that “Zayn Malik, newly grown-ass man out to get what he deserves” will win the narrative tug-of-war with “Zayn Malik, dreamy fuckpet that newly grown-ass women deserve” when it all shakes out. Then again, “It’s You” is track 3 and “Like I Would” is #17, so what the hell do I know?


5th Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign
“Work from Home”

If the latest installment in the grand pop tradition of oh-shit-they-already-called-a-song-that? hardly clears the hurdle set by the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love)” it doesn’t punch the clock like Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” either. Even Ty plays his part when it comes time to free his lance. Sexier than configuring a VPN, not to mention Jordin Sparks’ 2015 B.O.B.-abetted application for the same job. But that’s not saying much, and aside from the A+ “No getting off early,” neither are they.


Gwen Stefani
“Make Me Like You”

“Misery”

Her likable band uncoincidentally accredited cachet just around the time that the alternative (as we used to say) was nu-metal, and though I appreciated how her solo bow accentuated her hyper-girlishness too loopily to fit anyone’s pop feminist paradigm, that shit got annoying (A-N-N-O-Y-I-N-G) pretty quick — and that’s coming from a guy who loves echoing her Akon song at ballgames. She’s had to try twice as hard as Dave Grohl to survive the biz, and that ain’t fair. But both of her recent Swedepop makeovers fall back on that huskyperkycool vocal affectation that’s been rubbing me the wrong way for two decades, modulated to a pout or puckered to a sob as the mood requires. She sounds more at home in her Target ad than she does as a Gen X Sia.

Meghan Trainor
“NO”

What’s wrong with being confident.

Carly Rae Jepsen: And Her Hair Was Perfect

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Upscaling critically as she downscales commercially, the CRJ I got to see at the Varsity on Wednesday isn’t just at a significant career juncture — she’s the kind of artist who could help expand the accepted musical language within indie circles. My review’s here.

Singles round-up: Heartland murmurs

Went looking for some great country songs and found some good ones and some not-bad ones.


Brandy Clark
“Girl Next Door”

At times on the brilliant 12 Stories, Clark sang with the tentative precision of a songwriter cutting demos, but here she digs into a beat that could make Terri Gibbs talk dirty about Jesus to form a character rather than just sell a lyric. Really, though, either she, Jessie Jo Dillon or Shane McAnally should’ve scrolled through Netflix romcoms for ten seconds to find a more contemporary ingenue to bash than Marcia Brady.

 


Maren Morris
“My Church”

Subbing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash for Jesus and Paul, this lively pupil reminds us that Americans have a lousy habit of reducing joy to reverence and disguising piety as blasphemy. But she would have totally gotten away with if her beat didn’t sound like a Lumineer slapping a milk crate.

 


Cam
“Mayday”

I fell hard last Spring for the four-cut promo EP Welcome to Cam Country — two of the year’s best country singles plus the two best songs that would resurface in December on Untamed, a full-length she didn’t seem totally ready for and the original home of “Mayday,” a warning flare that sparks and smolders but never catches fire.

 


Aubrie Sellers
“Sit Here and Cry”

The sound of a bright shiny apple falling a little too close to a tree that’s already way too conscious of its roots. (I imagine Lee Ann Womack solemnly and tearfully telling her daughter, “I recorded ‘I Hope You Dance’ so that you wouldn’t have to.”) Upbeat but sane, straight-faced but not somber — that could just be another way of saying “glib,” but this ain’t quite that, so maybe Sellars is still ripening.

 


Dierks Bentley
“Somewhere on a Beach”

Another terrifically sloshed stagger of a riff from where “Drunk on a Plane” came from, but you know how sequels can get — when Dierks boasts of his new hottie “She’s got a body,” I wonder if his ex is a ghost.


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Listening notes: A little more rhythm, a little less blues

If you’re the kind of person who cares about such things, here’s a rough conversion scale for my rankings. GO = 8-10, A- through A+. SLOW = 6-7, B through B+. NO = everything under that.

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KING
We Are King
GO

A lovely bath bomb of an album, dissolving in hypnotic swirls, releasing soothing gels, emitting tranquil scents. The pleasures here are sensual rather than sexual: Chord changes gently divert a melody from its expected course for a familiar but unspecifiable effect (Stevie at his most abstract? Chaka at her jazziest?), percussion fades distantly and synths twinkle in its wake. From such forms and textures producer Paris Strother coaxes a pulse that falls somewhere between Isleys as ambient and the drowsy brush of a lover’s fingertips, while the murmurs of her twin Amber and third member Anita Bias harmonize and diverge, occasionally choked with Baduizt incense. Immerse. Indulge. Luxuriate.

 

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Santigold
99¢
SLOW

Santi White still belts with the eager rasp of a teen discovered while harmonizing on her stoop and writes with the wit of the Brill Building hustler tasked with supplying that girl’s #1 hit. Bo Diddley couldn’t mean “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” any more than she does, and “Banshee” is like the work of a one-woman Nina Sky (feat. M.I.A.). The metapop packaging’s a little arch, though any mid-lister, regardless of profession, who got a foot in the door just as the walls came crashing down can identify with that nostalgia for self-commodification. But if you can’t get enough of her either you won’t get enough of her here — too often she falls back on a jagged groove as though vamping till inspiration strikes.

 

mavis

Mavis Staples
Livin’ on a High Note
SLOW

Like Jeff Tweedy before him, producer M. Ward can assemble a roots record without getting in his own way. I wouldn’t be surprised if those are his ace Steve Cropper imitations, and he does the Lord’s work adapting MLK’s words for an acoustic coda. Few of the NPR First Listen alums in the credits would be my first songwriting choices, but Staples makes the best of what Ben Harper or the Heart and the Head don’t have to say, and I’m like sure-why-not? with the two lyrics that conflate soul and self-care. Only Aloe Blacc’s “Tomorrow” is DOA, a collection of chin-up cliches that Randy Newman should still be nasty enough to re-record with “(Song for a Dying Five-Year-Old)” tacked onto the title. The weak link, honestly, is Staples’ oomph-deficient touring band. You know, Mavis, to my knowledge ?uestlove has never turned down a paying gig.

 

rokia

Rokia Traoré
Né So
SLOW

A willowy voice in a nation of baobabs, Traoré crafted a neotraditionalist sound on her early albums that, while genteel by the robust standards of Mali’s Wassoulou queens, felt modestly defiant — a diplomat’s daughter refusing to be estranged from a culture worth preserving. Nearly two decades later, with international Islamism proving an even greater threat to her heritage than international capital, she struggles to accept that the gorgeous and cosmopolitan acoustic music she makes with sympatico Brits John Parrish and John Paul Jones could be more instructive to Westerners than any UNHCR fact sheets. Contrast “Strange Fruit,” which confronts horror with art, with “Se Dan,” which offers platitudes and Devendra Banhart. Stick with Wanita, Bowmboï, even Tchamantché, and donate to the Mali crisis relief organization of your choice.

 

wet

Wet
Don’t You
NO

Not even PBR&B. Not even Beach House. Not even damp.

Kesha: From a case to a cause

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Last week, I wrote about Kesha’s court case for the Guardian, and afterwards I was invited on the BBC World Service’s program Newsday to discuss my story.

I wound up discussing how Kesha’s story highlights pop’s gendered division of labor, and about the challenges women face in a music industry dominated by older men — a subject which, let’s face it, I am less qualified to address than literally every female music journalist on earth.

Since I happened to have the air time, I figured better me than no one. Still, it’s a subject I wouldn’t have thought about nearly as much, or have been able to talk about even a little competently, without the growing number of smart, passionate women currently writing about pop music. At the very least, then, I wanted to link to a few of the stories about Kesha (I’m sure I’m overlooking several others) that helped me sort through my thoughts out and gather the facts.

Haley Potiker, “What Happened to Kesha?: A Timeline”

Katherine St. Asaph, “Some reporting questions for the Kesha court case”

Jia Tolentino, “‘She Was Proving Hard to Control’: Some Background on Kesha’s History With Dr. Luke”

Devon Maloney, “What’s Next for Kesha”

Tinashe: In the club, about the club

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A Sunday night show at a Minneapolis club with a standing capacity of 1,300 is just about as tentative a soft opening as you’d expect for a world tour in support of an album that still lacks a release date. Tinashe’s direct-to-Jumbotron performance style was an awkward fit for a small room. Even when she slowed down for a balladified “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which ebbed into “Same Old Love” just to make sure she didn’t lose the kids, Tinashe interacted with humans just a hundred feet from her as though from hundreds of miles.

But so what if she’s no natural onstage? She’s not about to hit the Chitlin’ Circuit. “Player” improves just as much as you’d expect once Chris Brown is subtracted, the great mixtape Amethyst was represented by “Looking 4 It” (“you ain’t Tupac, bitch”), and once she got to the hits (in the last third of a show that lasted almost exactly one hour) the material took care of itself. Also, everybody up on that stage sure could dance.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I stand by most of what I wrote in this Tinashe primer last Friday. So, ICYMI and all that.