Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Critical Beatdown: Round 7

Note: This XL Beatdown was (largely) guest-curated by Geoff S., who blogs over at Reading (b)log.

Nikki & Rich, "Next Best Thing"

AM: Sanitized retro R&B for the shopping mall crowd. If you find contemporary R&B a little too 'urban' for your tastes, but crave uninsightful lyrics about sex, this should do. 1/5

NS: The product of a jailbait chanteuse/enigmatic DJ duo whose idea of soulful probably begins and ends with Amy Winehouse, "Next Best Thing" at least has the ebullience of its subject matter and a comfortable and commanding lead singer, so it isn't all bad. But if DJ Rich Skillz wants to stay in this business, he might want to consider expanding his palate, and learn more than two piano chords. You know, just in case. 2.5/5

Teenage Fanclub, "Baby Lee"
AM: Shadows was in the can before Chilton died, but "Baby Lee" only highlights what a talent we lost. Even the Big Star obsessives in Fanclub can't fill that void, which isn't to say this isn't a good song. A bit slow, but the the tune churns along winningly, with a sweet chorus. 4/5

NS: Bandwagonesque fan though I am, the rest of Teenage Fanclub's discography remains unknown to me, and this piledriver of a power-pop number proves how mistaken I was to write them off. Their trademark heavy guitar crunch is mostly absent, but they find a worthy replacement via the magic of economically-applied string parts, which fit them well, of course. 5/5

Zola Jesus, "Night"
AM: Bands sure have weird names these days, don't they? It's not a problem, I guess, but this is music that grinds along gloomily. "Night" is just short of quality, without a compelling element to suck listeners into its dark haze. 2.5/5

NS: I like a bit of dreadful, stifling atmosphere in my music, especially stuff like Siouxsie and the Cure (as well as obvious antecedents like Bat For Lashes), but the thicket of keyboards herein would probably sound better soundtracking the next David Lynch movie than it would as a singular album. Zola Jesus certainly seems to have the skills necessary to make transportive music, so why does this feel pre-sequestered for goth club bathroom music? 3/5

MGMT, "Brian Eno"
AM: This would make for good listening on Halloween, if people still care about MGMT come October. Spookier than I'd imagined, which totally befits a tribute to the non-musician. The madcap "Eno" has something of the spirit--much diluted, of course--of Here Comes the Warm Jets, so I won't complain. 4/5

NS: MGMT might think this ultra-prehensile garage number has the requisite blips and bloops to act as a legit tribute to its namesake, but to my ears it sounds more like one of the late Jay Reatard's Nuggets psychedelic goofs, and that's not a bad thing. As an MGMT-agnostic, I find this more exciting than any of their previous chart-toppers, but as a statement of musical allegiance, it's no "Alex Chilton." 3.5/5

UNKLE, "Natural Selection"
AM: The music whirs and buzzes like XTRMNTR-era Primal Scream, but without the same fury. This song seems rather to skip along the precipice, without ever taking that plunge, hiding its tunefulness in some almost Peter Hook-ian bass work. 4.5/5

NS: UNKLE could teach Zola Jesus and MGMT a thing or two about how to do the 80's right (if you absolutely have to). Sounding like a Tears For Fears or Gary Numan song shot full of Hawkwind-amphetamine fuzz bass, "Natural Selection" shows again how often it is that the best post-punk is being made by DJs, especially in England. You also get some of the coolest bass tones in recent memory. 4.5/5

Erykah Badu, "Window Seat"
AM: The sort of thing Nikki & Rich will never be, "Window Seat" hearkens back to the Baduizms of the singer's neo-soul period. I was hoping for "Honey Redux" personally, but the gently lingering keys remind us that we won't need a next best thing while Erykah's still around. 4/5

NS: One of my biggest musical blind spots involves Erykah Badu and the neo-soul movement she comes out of (a very different type of neo-soul than Nikki & Rich), so perhaps not listening to New Amerykah Part One disqualifies me from making negative judgments. This is...not exciting music, to be sure. Badu is a powerful singer, but everything about the track is so quiet and lounge-y, so when something lovely does pop out of the ether, and the instruments get a bit more lively, you can't blame me for not noticing. 2/5

Insane Clown Posse, "Miracles"
AM: The productions sounds like the PS2 beats of Boy In Da Corner, without the sharp edges, and the rapping is barely competent. And yet, in something of a miracle itself, this song doesn't suck. The ICP's dumb wonder sounds so sincere I can't help but share it, and professionalism is never a prerequisite to a good jam. Side note: is there a contemporary American folk movement larger than the Juggalos? They must be doing something right. 3.5/5

NS: Thank you/fuck you Aaron for taking my ICP V-card after years of studiously avoiding this group [you can thank Geoff --Aaron]. But I won't lie: "Miracles" is a strangely powerful experience, less so for the music than for the inspiring conviction with which these two proudly ignorant rappers name off natural phenomena they are easily impressed by (Favorite: "Music is ALL magic/you can't even hold it!"). Their rap skills are non-existent, and the production is sub-Casio, but somehow that's beside the point, so I'm forced to plead the Fifth on this one. RATING: N/A

Caribou, "Odessa"
AM: These spasmodic rhythms recall Remain In Light in the best possible sense. The album cover of the upcoming Swim captures this groove better than my clumsy words could hope to. 4.5/5

NS: This is by far the best thing Caribou has yet produced. Typically inscrutable and distorted for maximum terror, it's also the ultimate amphetamine buzz of this nascent 2010. And at the same time...you can almost dance to it. Hats off to this math professor for using his considerable intellect towards the cause of cramming as many awesome and crazy ideas into a song as he can. 5/5

The-Dream feat. T.I. "F.I.L.A."
AM: A slice of Southern triumphalism that falls slightly short of its aspirations. The loud, synthetic horns regrettably overshadow the piano, which tinkles with quiet bite. Dream tosses out hooks like it's his birthday. 4/5

NS: You know from the first "AAAAAYYY" that this is a T.I. song, and then The-Dream intrudes on Tip's territory with his own trademark "Radio KILLLAAAAA," so it's hard to say who the dominant force is on this track. I'm always happy to hear new T.I., particularly when the track in question bears the hallmarks of his King-era music, but with the sweetness of those horns, this could easily be appended to Love Vs Money. And it would be one of the best songs. 4/5


  1. Cool. I'll weigh in briefly on a few of these.

    Nikki & Rich: Worry not that I like these people, Aaron. I saw them on Ellen (she is great; her taste in music not) and Nikki's horrible coy perma-smile, which I associate with fraudulence and soullessness, kept me from even being able to hear the song.

    Teenage Fanclub: Glad you guys dig this. The 'Club have been part of my listening for most of my life, so my expectations are always high. I haven't yet detected in "Baby Lee" that undercurrent of deep feeling that made Man Made one of my favorites of the last decade. But this song's pleasant, and grooves along on a certain depth of feeling, so what do I know?

    Zola Jesus: I like what I've heard, but I think their/her effect is probably cumulative, not song-oriented, which would explain some of your misgivings.

    MGMT: I had never heard these guys, but their awesome new album cover and awesome new tracklisting (also curious to hear "Song for Dan Treacy" and "Lady Dada's Nightmare") made this one seem like prime Beatdown fodder. It's pretty good.

    ICP: By giving a pass to this song, you have helped me see the good in life in the same way ICP must. It would be silly to be cynical when they are so clearly not.

    Who will guest-curate next? The ghost of John Peel?

  2. I worry I was too harsh describing Nikki, especially in light of ICP goodwill. I was only insulting her performance style, not her character.

  3. Were you aware that Thom Yorke named Teenage Fanclub's Songs from Northern Britain his favorite album of 1997 in Spin magazine? I just remembered that, but have no way to prove it. Maybe I'll scan my issue.

  4. I gave a listen to Songs From Northern Britain and loved it. I was stupid to give up on Teenage Fanclub after one album.

    Another note on the ICP song (which didn't really belong in the review proper): "Miracles" is about as full of a 180 from what I expected as I have ever known. I've watched the video again several times in the past week, and it just might be the most life-affirming and uplifting song--ever? Really weird.

    But I expected trumped-up and hyperviolent death raps over spooky/metal-tinged beats. What is it about these bands with scary make-up that renders their music so disappointing? I remember when I was very young and seeing pictures of Kiss, thinking that these looked like the makers of some terrifying/brutal music. Then you listen to Kiss and realize it's basically feel-good, mid-tempo glam rock-lite, and it doesn't fit at all. I expect ICP to be a more extreme extension of Eminem's violent white Detroit rap fantasies, and instead they disappoint me by brightening my day.

  5. I didn't realize the 90's were such a Teenage Fanclub lovefest for Spin--they also picked Bandwagonesque as the best ablum of 91, over Nevermind.

    I looked up their 1997 favorites, OK CPU was number two. Many bonus points if you can guess their #1 before you click on the link

  6. A Cornershop collab with MIA recently surfaced. I was going to ask you guys to Beat it Down, but I guess it's not technically new.

    It seems that Spin often preferred the sunnier alternatives to the year's obvious frontrunners, I think with some good cause. You fail to mention that Out of Time also beat out Nevermind in '91. Sweet! I know I've told you Marlon James loves that album, but did I ever show you the links? He made a yearly thing of praising it, see his #2s of 2007 and 2008:



    And a piece on Spin. Weird. Too bad his blog is now inactive.