Monday, May 31, 2010

Critical Beatdown: Round 8

A tip of the hat to readers Corey S. and Juell S. for their suggestions.

The Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"

NS: I'm finding it harder and harder to defend the Arcade Fire's brand of melodic comfort food--surely music this sentimental has to be a con, right? And yet after three albums a track like "The Suburbs" still ends up being somewhat irresistible. I'd suggest giving another listen to the lyrics, though--they aren't as good as you think. 3/5

AM: A great band can take material that's just decent, and sell it. That's what the Arcade Fire do here, dressing up Cat Power's "Living Proof" in Neon Bible's gloomy bounce. It's nice to hear Win's voice again. 4/5

Madvillain, "Papermill"
NS: It's immediately apparent this is another classic Doom/Madlib pairing. The sample and guitar work is compelling enough on its own to make a great 1:45 even without Doom's oddball raps, but the only possible criticism I will allow is that the flow of the piece ends rather abruptly. 4.5/5

AM: Even at Madvillainy's immaculate best, the songs sounded tossed-off. "Papermill" does too, albeit not quite so brilliantly, but I can't hate a song that bites the helium guitars of "Rapp Snitch Knishes." 3.5/5

Kanye West feat. Dwele, "Power"
NS: Yes, there's the occasional lyrical groaner (does anyone belt out more banal pop cultural references than Kanye?), and our boy is as self-obsessed as ever. But this is one of those rare anthems that never lacks for new ideas, even as it barrels towards its last minute (kind of like his early high-water mark "Jesus Walks"). I look forward to a Kanye-led King Crimson resurgence. 4/5

AM: Lead single from a universe in which 808s never happened, but the VMAs did. West scowls and sneers his way through this one, and you can almost hear the chip on his shoulder. The production, a collaboration with Symbolyc One, is iced lighting--when 'Ye boasts the "power of making life so exciting" you just accept it. 4.5/5

Francis and the Lights, "Darling, It's Alright"
NS: Electro-funk that my dad could dig, possibly. If you can get over the lead singer's Phil Collins vibe, there's something pleasant and refreshing about the way Francis and the Lights combine dance tropes with the slightest hint of jazz fusion. It's no Manzel, but it will do. 3.5/5

AM: Well-executed but extremely insubstantial pop. Two-thirds of the way through, the singer starts shouting about a breakdown, but "Darling" avoids intensity of any sort. 2.5/5

The Rolling Stones, "Following the River"
NS: A pox on Mick Jagger for continually refusing to understand that Exile On Main St. is brilliant because of those buried lead vocals, not in spite of them. This is a beautiful gospel-tinged ballad that demonstrates the Stones during their greatest period--too bad it had to be tarted up with new vocals and instrumental parts that are about as far from Exile as you can get. 2.5/5

AM: This Exile "outtake"--which appears to have Jagger vocals of very recent vintage--aims for "Moonlight Mile" but falls short. I'm a sucker for this side of the Stones, and, after a couple minutes the bluesy balladry of "River" sweeps me in, even though the backup singers sound like they care more than Jagger. 3/5

Reflection Eternal Feat. Estelle, "Midnight Hour"
NS: Talib Kweli and Estelle seem to be under the mistaken impression that retroness allows for corniness. Kweli is fine here--I've always thought he seems to have a habit of interrupting his own flow--but there's a lot of noises here that are unnecessary (why a police siren at the end?), and "Midnight Hour" doesn't merit much thought or repeated listening. 3/5

AM: Talib usually plays for the hip-hop pedants--you know, the type who only listen to real hip-hop--so this vaguely Cole Porter-ish jam is something of a headscratcher. I loved Estelle's "American Boy," but I've yet to hear her do anything half as fantastic as that tune, this included. 2/5

B.O.B. Feat. Bruno Mars, "Nothin' On You"
NS: B.O.B. isn't a bad rapper, and it's always nice to see hip-hop stars who run counter to the prevailing gangsta mode make good, which is probably why it bothers me so much that he devotes his album to sentimental trash like this. If I ever grow old enough to want this bullshit played at my wedding or something, shoot me. 1.5/5

AM: Way too close to "Drops Of Jupiter" for comfort. 1.5/5

Dum Dum Girls, "Jail La La"
NS: It's impossible for that bass tone not to kill me, every time, I swear. I'd never bothered giving Dum Dum Girls a listen until now, and as often happens, I'm missing out: while "Jail La La" is hard-boiled, all-business pop, there's a flightiness and breeziness that still makes the 2:30 go by rather quickly. 4/5

AM: The sort of wimpy, lo-fi indie-pop that was old hat by 1987 but is still awesome now. More bands should aspire to be Talulah Gosh. 4/5

Phosphorescent, "Los Angeles"
NS: Immediately redolent of Neil Young (particularly his longer jams), "Los Angeles" loses some of its juice about halfway through, but nothing can take away from the dopeness of the steel guitar and Matthew Houck's voice. I'll file this under "to be repeated when I have more time on my hands." 4/5

AM: I don't know if the boat has sailed on singer-songwriters or what, but it's been a long time since I've heard anything that deserved comparison to On The Beach. "Los Angeles" isn't as jaw-dropping as that album, but shares the mixture of defeat and defiance, as well as the wistful guitar heroics. 4/5

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Where is the DJ Kool Herc of 2010?

Last year, the Brooklyn band Sleigh Bells' demos made their way to the internet, garnered plenty of attention, and were named best album of 2009 by New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Last week, Sleigh Bells actually released an album, Treats, their first (Nathan's take on it is here).
The album is already divisive, and appears set to provoke several cycles of backlash, as any group ‘hyped’ on the internet inevitably does among the statistically insignificant portion of the population that follows such things.

If you’re reading this you’re likely one of those people, and probably already expected that of Sleigh Bells. It’s de rigueur, after Wavves, Vampire Weekend, and the rest. Rappers like Gucci Mane and Freddie Gibbs have inspired similar awe and consternation among hip-hop fans. If you scour the internet for information on some other corner of music, you can probably furnish your own examples.

The script—mp3 by a new artist gets online exposure, a slow stream of tracks, videos, shows, EPs, mixtapes, and leaks build anticipation for the album, buzzy artist releases exciting/execrable debut—gets more predictable with each iteration. Plenty of intelligent people follow and comment on these happenings, but it always seems like uncritical adulators and kneejerk haters make the most noise. It’s my sense that, after the album’s out and a handful of adjectives have been attached to it—preppy, say—then argument revolves less around the music than it does speculation about what sort of people listen to the artist in question. I think we all know what sorts of colleges Vampire Weekend-types supposedly attend, or what decade of hip-hop Freddie Gibbs fans are said to dig.

I would speculate that niche artists attract so much attention and debate because there’s no real dividing lines in popular music today. Think about it: between 1975 and 1985 years ago you either got punk or were a dinosaur, felt disco or thought it was trash, heard hip-hop as revolutionary or considered it a novelty.

There’s no analog to that in 2010--no genre that throws down the gauntlet, threatens the values of any other, or makes possible new kinds of listening. Portable music players, one would assume, might encourage different kinds of music (rather than music that is simply louder), but they mostly enable antisocial behavior. And the serendipity of radio listening has been diminished, by shrinking audiences and reduced playlists. On the internet, no one is ever forced to sit through anything.

Two competing trends help explain the obsession with polemic individual artists. On the one hand, music fans are more able to focus on small slices of the genre pie, reading only those sites and blogs that cater to their tastes. On the other, and thanks to the poptimists or whatever forces brought them about, few listeners have a blanket animus toward any genre of music, the obnoxious sort who claim to listen to “anything but country” excepted. That no polemic genre on the scale of the three mentioned above has emerged recently surely plays into both of these. But is it also the product of these trends?

I wonder: what transformative musical forces exist today? And if you, like me, hear none, then what happened?

A Look At Janelle Monáe's Metropolis Cycle, Part 3: The ArchAndroid (Part 2)

Sorry about the confusing title. We pick up at Suite III, which has significantly fewer songs (seven as opposed to eleven) and a vibe much more conducive towards chillin'.

1. Suite III Overture
Suite III begins where Suite II left off, beginning with a piano-driven callback to the strings at the end of Suite II closer "Mushrooms & Roses." Like the last overture, this is (slightly more syrupy) film music, featuring the same ghost-in-the-transistor voices at the beginning of The Archandroid (good luck telling what they're saying). The strings are as swooning as ever, for sure, but like its predecessor, this is mostly setup in the larger scheme.

2. Neon Valley Street
The most traditional R&B track, if you'll allow me to be slightly reductive. More heavy (but still quite pretty) string parts, with Monáe taking vocal command of the track just as the bass groove kicks in. More than other songs on this album, "Neon Valley Street" suggests an indebtedness to Lauryn Hill, especially in the way it marries old-school easybeat soul with contemporary hip-hop. The operative word for the vibe here is "sedate." BUT, I should add, there's another cool if brief rap from Monáe that reminded me of Erykah Badu's spaced, easygoing verses.

3. Make The Bus (Feat. Of Montreal)
You'll be forgiven for wondering if The ArchAndroid hadn't suddenly been hijacked by Kevin Barnes and Co., as this is probably the most marked stylistic departure in an album brimming with genre crosses. Whether or not you like this song depends entirely on whether or not you like most of Of Montreal's album tracks, and since I've always been a big fan, the transition was easier for me (can't imagine what a normal hip-hop head would think, though). Monáe claims that she and Kevin Barnes trade off singing lines, and maybe it's because my ears aren't what they once were, but I only hear Barnes for the most part. All of this is a long way of saying that "Make The Bus" is pleasant to listen to and an interesting sequential gambit, but if you were to drop this on an Of Montreal album, you wouldn't have to change a thing.

4. Wondaland
My nomination for single #3. There's a pretty melody that's immediately apparent underneath the layers of hazed synths and bouncy bass, and that plus the disco beat make this already engaging listening. But it's Monáe's vocals, as usual, that elevate this to the level of conceptual and musical brilliance. "Wondaland" has one of her most effective chameleonic performances, affecting some sort of pixie-ish, fairy queen register that I swear is somehow not cloying at all. All of this bounces by prettily, until the chorus, where the voices and instruments switch from spacey to bassy in perfect tandem--it's difficult to explain the mood-shift that goes on, so you'll have to listen to it for yourself. The title, by the way, refers to Monáe's record label and arts collective the Wondaland Arts Society, but the song would feel utopian even without that as a subject matter. But does "Wondaland" have any function within the larger Metropolis narrative? I'll admit that I have really, really lost the plot at this point.

5. 57821 (Feat. Deep Cotton)
How many stylistic shifts can one album make before it starts to get boring? The answer: probably at around the same time said album starts mining Fairport Convention territory. Or at least that's what I think is happening here. Monáe's labelmates Deep Cotton get a chance to harmonize over some "Scarborough Faire"-like Renaissance dramatism, and if you're like me you probably weren't predisposed to that kind of music to begin with. I don't deny the pretty harmonies, and unlike "Make The Bus," this song shows that Monáe can be a background player without relinquishing the spotlight completely. "57821" is kind of long, though. It's here that The ArchAndroid starts taking a turn for the sleepy.

6. Say You'll Go
No idea how to explain this one: it's like a Broadway melody played over a lugubrious, barely-there groove, which features a quotation of Claude Debussy's piano piece "Clair de Lune," which was itself inspired by Paul Verlaine's poem. There's a chance that the Verlaine connection is relevant: it fits in with the romantic vibe of Suite III and matches the tone (if not the plot) of the lyrics. We get a nice reprise from the ghost voices as well. Man, that last minute: Debussy could really crank out a tune, right? So now Monáe can drop "classical" from her genre-geared Punnett Square.

7. BaBopByeYa
Monáe's well-established love for film music takes an appropriately avant-garde turn. "BaBopByeYa" by itself is a discrete and highly engaging symphony of sorts, with Monáe starting out in torch song mode and graduating into something more whispery and percussive. There's a lot of plot to wrap up here, and I'm not sure Monáe does that successfully, but at least it manages to fit the "throw in the kitchen sink" tone of the orchestration. Pay attention to the vocals at the end: Monáe really hits it out of the park, and in an alternate universe I could imagine her being a big Broadway star. It's a good thing for all of us that she took a more interesting route.

We will see when or if Suite IV eventually comes out, or whether The ArchAndroid's success could yield a new generation of sci-fi-oriented hip-hoppers. For now, let's just applaud her considerable talent, drive and ambition. Rarely is it this apparent that we have a classic artist in the making. Even if you aren't the type to buy your albums anymore, you should support her.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Look At Janelle Monáe's Metropolis Cycle, Part 2: The ArchAndroid (Part I)

The saga continues. I will note that The ArchAndroid comes with liner notes that feature a list of influences and inspirations for each track, but I don't have those notes on me so I'm going into this blind.

1. Suite II Overture
Unlike the beginning of the "Chase Suite," Suite II starts out with a proper orchestral overture. Utilizing a motif that resembles the most famous part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (aka the Countdown With Keith Olbermann theme), this overture is short but heavy on theatrics and changing moods. It ends with a chorus of ghostly voices, singing as if stuck in an old transistor radio--and then we're immediately transported elsewhere.

2. Dance Or Die (Feat. Saul Williams)Monáe is joined by Niggy Tardust himself for this one, the first of four high-profile guest appearances on the album, and his presence is welcomed. But surprisingly, it's Monáe who does the majority of the spitting on this first track, and Williams is basically relegated to the background, offering his own take on futuristic word association games first heard in "Many Moons." Monáe is a good rapper, and each individual bar, clipped to the length of the song's bass line, is strong, but doesn't necessarily make me want to hear more of her rapping, at least at the expense of her singing.

3. Faster
The album really starts taking off here, as a motif jacked from the breakdown in "Dance Or Die" turns into an orgy of splayed electric guitar and DJ scratches, which then transforms into a go-go, hyperfast take on the Great American Songbook. This is where we first hear Monáe's memorable line "shake it like a schizo," but what really kills me is the way she intones "faster, faster I should run," and the way that guitar part sort of bubbles around her.

4. Locked Inside
Monáe sings about being in an abusive (android-human?) relationship, "where the man is always right." Another example of Monáe counterpointing Metropolis' futuristic, dystopian setting with tales of too-similar woe and injustice taking place in modern America. The track itself is the drum intro from Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," I believe, married to a melody that would have sounded perfectly at home in Songs In The Key Of Life. Big, ringing jazz chords characterize this track, and the "Oh how, oh how I need you baby" part is a killer example of Monáe's epic but not overpowering method of overdubbing vocals. The ending is even kind of Steely Dan.

5. Sir Greendown
"Sir Greendown" is presumably meant to refer to Anthony Greendown, the human male Cyndi Mayweather fell in love with at the beginning of this saga. While the first three songs (plus the intro) sound basically of a piece, easily flowing into one another, "Sir Greendown" is more of a short, ponderous break in the action. I don't know what to call music like this--it definitely has the feeling of an old standard, with Monáe's vocals are comparatively dialed down. Deserves the adjective "lilting," but among the rest of the tracks on Suite II, this sounds like it could be on the slower, more romantic Suite III.

6. Cold WarMonáe must really love the drum track in "B.O.B." (who doesn't?) because it shows up again here, anchoring a slab of apocalyptic electro-punk perfection. That's right, I said perfection, because this is indeed a perfect, immediate classic, and an obvious choice to go to for a second single after "Tightrope." There's something so universally tense and expansive about the melody here and the way Monáe belts out the phrase "this is a cold war/you better know what you're fighting for," singing it slightly different and at a different, higher register each time, it feels like. I find there are two extra-killer parts of this song: a) the way Monáe sings the part "I'm trying to find my peace/I was led to believe there's something wrong with me," and b) the suitably dramatic guitar solo, and it's here that I should point out that Monáe's regular guitarist Kellindo Parker has major chops, and (given that he doesn't have much competition that I'm aware of) he could become known, if they keep up his profile, as the true master of the Moog guitar.

7. Tightrope (Feat. Big Boi)
Will I ever tire of writing about Big Boi? Don't think so. He's more of a concentrated presence here than Saul Williams, if you couldn't have already guessed that. But Big's verse isn't particularly special, as he knows that the big draw here is, as always, Monáe and her titanically-assured vocal stylings. "Tightrope" is the big single, and deserves to bigger than it is (it even has its own dance). Me, I love the ukulele-and-strings bit toward the end the most, and I wish that part would go on forever. The whole thing is one great, Outkastian groove-fest, and it's not a surprise that the two tracks most indebted to Outkast will probably end up being the two big singles. In my world, this is starmaking stuff.

8. Neon Gumbo
This number is Monáe's earlier song "Many Moons" (which I wrote about here), specifically the last 1:30 of that track played backwards. So this is a song that belongs in the category of, like, "Dreams Reoccurring" or the Stone Roses' "Don't Stop," which is to say, surprisingly compelling despite the fact that it's another song played backwards. No idea how this reprise fits into the narrative of Metropolis, but I lost that map a long time ago.

9. Oh, Maker
I read someone online compare this song to a Pink Floyd number, which I can sort of see, as "Oh, Maker" is otherwise completely devoid of convenient vantage points. Beginning with a repetitive but flexible guitar figure, the song morphs into a showcase for Monáe's deft vocalizations (yet another one), and it's hard not to find the way she intones "so much hurt/in this earth" completely killer. It definitely has the feeling of a classic soul number, but there's a ghostly, futuristic quality to the proceedings--probably the only reason why invocations of Pink Floyd even begin to make sense.

10. Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)
The album's most Dead Kennedys-esque song, if you consider that an endorsement. A diabolical, oppressive cabaret-punk burner, "Come Alive" is a lot about the dramatic, swoopingly scratchy guitars but also about Monáe's insane ululations, including a high-pitched shriek between 2:15 and 2:35 that sounds outside the realm of possibility for the human voice. Monáe is a great singer, rapper, and screamer--put that on top of her dancing and songwriting skills, you have what is, at the minimum, an insane quintuple-threat.

11. Mushrooms & RosesI've somehow gone this far without mentioning Prince once, and this song finally provides a perfect outlet to do so. With underwater vocals married to a melody not entirely unlike "Crimson & Clover" (which, you'll remember, Prince happened to record a solo-laden cover of), itself married to more of those cinematic strings, "Mushrooms & Roses" provides a perfect sense of (temporary) finality. It's a slow, creepingly cinematic pop number at first, and when the guitars come in the result is very Gold Experience. Monáe's voice is more unrecognizable here than usual, due to the aforementioned phased vocals, but somehow, the emotion still comes through, switching from a spoken-word part to crooning "Little Mary, Mary, and she's crazy about me." It's one of five specific points of "Mushrooms & Roses" that absolutely kill, and who knows, you might find an additional few others. "Mushrooms & Roses" could easily be dropped into Sign O' The Times, and no one would bat an eye.



Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Look At Janelle Monáe's Metropolis Cycle, Part I: The Chase

Janelle Monáe is an acclaimed and increasingly popular alterna-pop star with an art school pedigree and a penchant for genre-hopping and Octavia Butler. You may have heard her single "Tightrope" already, or known that her first album The ArchAndroid was released on Tuesday to much (deserved) acclaim. You may not have known that The ArchAndroid itself is actually part of a longer album cycle, called Metropolis, that Monáe has been working on since 2007. The album is marketed as parts II and III of what will ultimately be a four-part series; part I came in the form of a 2007 EP subtitled "The Chase." I have no idea when the final suite will be released, nor do I know whether it will be in the form of an EP or a longer album.

Monáe is an artist that you're really going to want to watch in the next few years. I could explain why, or I could link to this performance from The Late Show a few days ago, and let you decide for yourself. Before yesterday I had only heard (and enjoyed) her song "Tightrope," but as of today I think I am obsessed with this woman and her music. For now, I am reasonably confident that The ArchAndroid will be appearing near or at the top of my 2010 best list. As an album, it's as audacious and joyful of an experiment as any of Prince's great 80s albums, and Monáe's vocal abilities are almost supernaturally assured (doubly impressive given that this is her first LP--Prince was never this good starting out).

It's hard to find many artists in contemporary R&B who look to the album as a discrete artistic statement anymore--it would be even harder to find someone whose vision extends beyond one album, someone interested in multi-album conceptual epics. Monáe is pretty much alone on this front. Because of this, however, I consider the (also excellent) EP that preceded The ArchAndroid's release to be just as necessary listening as the album itself (just as I would imagine that the eventual release of Part IV will build naturally upon the themes of the first three chapters). Instead of sticking with Rockaliser's usual album track play-by-plays, I thought I'd instead divide this post into three (eventually four) parts, and evaluate the themes and inspirations behind this very, very good album one suite at a time. So today, I present a track-by-track analysis of Suite I, also known as "The Chase."

Note: A word about the original release--when Metropolis Suite I Of IV: The Chase came out in 2007, Monáe's initial idea was to release each suite online as its own EP. That plan was changed slightly when Diddy signed her to Bad Boy Records. The original independent EP was re-released on Bad Boy with two additional tracks, and her "debut" album became a collection of the next two planned EPs. I have to say, I have to give a lot of credit to Diddy for otherwise not really messing with Monáe's creative vision: this is defiantly weird pop, and as catchy as pop gets, but I imagine it could be a tough sell to a country that tends to be unnerved by pop progressivism, especially when it comes from black female artists.

1. March of the Wolfmasters
For our purposes, this is basically the EP's "intro" piece, and not much of a song. Monáe's narration explains the basic plot of the piece, which so far seems as follows: in the future, Cyndi Mayweather (otherwise known as Android 57821) falls in love, illegally, with a human named Anthony Greendown. Because emotional agency on the part of androids is no longer allowed, Mayweather is "scheduled for disassembly" and is chased by bounty hunters wielding "chainsaws and electro daggers." So that's the chase. Elsewhere, the cinematic backing music points to a trend that will reappear both on this EP and in the next couple suites.

2. Violet Stars Happy Hunting!!!
It's a credit to Monáe's versatility that the first proper song on Suite I sounds, at first, like a Pixies song. Backed by energetically limber guitar and bass lines, Monáe sings from the point of view of the android on the run, living a lifetime of being either chased, threatened or mocked for being different. This is a very prevalent theme through the entire album cycle: though on its surface conceptual level this is a sci-fi epic involving androids in a dystopian future, Metropolis cuts subcutaneously at a number of emotional universals, among them a fear of loneliness and isolation, of how hard it can be to express oneself creatively without being thought of as "different." There's a lot of social commentary packed into lines "I'm a savior without a race," but it never seems hoary, because this is energetic, punky music aided by the tension and sweetness in Monáe's vocals. If only The Love Below started out with a song as good as this.

3. Many Moons
Following a seamless transition, "Many Moons" transfers the previous track's energy and forward momentum into a more macabre, cinematically expansive setting, with a keyboard hook that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an old Doors record (or Michael Jackson's "Thriller," come to think of it). The relentless drum track is indebted to "B.O.B.," but otherwise this song is entirely Monáe's own, and what really stands out this time is the sometimes chameleonic, dramatic nature of her vocals. There's a chorus of Monáes in this song, many of them playing different characters with opposing viewpoints, but the results are never cluttered, and in fact we have in this song a clarity in presentation and performance rarely heard in popular music. The track ends with a spoken-word free-association of American litanies from the last 20 years, followed by a lilting, drum-less denouement, all of it captivating listening.

4. Cybertronic Purgatory
The other half-song on this EP (which, considering it originally had only five songs, seems like one too many), "Cybertronic Purgatory" is a brief but beautiful ballad focused entirely on the interplay between a classical acoustic guitar and Monáe's operatics (I do mean "operatics"--she sounds like she's singing an aria). What she happens to be singing is beyond me, and I think it's at this point that I forgot I was trying to concentrate on the plot.

5. Sincerely, Jane.
As I said earlier, Monáe has a fascination with film music and seems to be an art film buff at heart (it's been suggested that Metropolis draws a lot of its iconography from the original Fritz Lang film, but there are obviously big differences, such as a lack of crypto-fascist anti-union agitprop). Here we get what is basically a big, brassy show number to end the first suite, laden with restless string parts and guttural horn blasts. The tone of the music matches the subject matter, which boils down thusly: "All your dreams go down the drain, girl/are we really living or just walking dead now?" The bleakness of Metropolis and the inhumanity it expresses toward its underclass will sound familiar to anyone who had lived during the Bush era, and so Suite I ends (basically) with a certain level of hopelessness.

6. Mr. President
This is the first of two bonus tracks added to the Bad Boy release. I'm going to guess that neither of them really belong to the Metropolis cycle itself, although they could, but "Mr. President" is very much in the style of socially-conscious R&B, particularly policy directives aimed toward our Commander-In-Chief, ranging from Stevie's "You Haven't Done Nothin'" to Big Boi's "Sumthin's Gotta Give." This is easy, soothing R&B ear candy, nothing nearly as challenging as anything on the actual EP, but while some of Monáe's opinions may seem banal, it's always nice to hear them voiced by a musician with actual opinions and ideas on the matter.

7. Smile
This is a cover of the Charlie Chaplin song that first appeared in The Great Dictator and was later recorded by Nat King Cole, and then more famously Michael Jackson and a bunch of other people. With nothing more than an electric guitar for backup, "Smile" rests entirely on the talents of its vocalist, who contributes a devastating version of the song that in its austerity reminded me of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah." It doesn't have anything to do with any sort of sci-fi craziness, but it's a great vocalist doing a good job on a over-covered standard, so that makes it worth listening to at least once.

Tomorrow we'll talk about Suite II, or the first eleven tracks of The ArchAndroid. It would do you some good, maybe, to give those tracks a listen before I come back. You won't regret it.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sleigh Bells: A Track-By-Track Analysis

Sleigh Bells are a noise-pop duo from Brooklyn. Already, I can tell you're starting to not pay attention: these days, who isn't in a noise-pop duo from Brooklyn? Especially since they're a male-female duo, you can already guess who sings and who plays all the instruments. The dynamic is typical, as is the story, so why pay attention to this buzzed-about band as opposed to other buzzed-about bands?

The simple reason is this: Sleigh Bells are hard. I'm not talking, like, Mastodon-hard or anything like that. This is pop music, yes, with some of the punchiest, most ear-shattering noises you are likely to hear this year. As a debut album, it has to be compared to something like the Ramones' first release, in that it's often impossible to come up with a comfortable vantage point through which to discuss the toughness of this music. Gnarly guitar noises are a dime a dozen, but Derek Taylor introduces several new tricks to the game. He plays like a novice, but he's always augmented by intense, epic synths, horns played through amplifiers with their speaker cones drilled through, then chomped and compressed in the studio. Meanwhile, singer Alexis Krauss sings normal pop hooks and lyrics. It works more often than it doesn't.

In order to spice up the often staid nature of these track-by-track analyses, I'll provide, in addition to my comments, a list of music that I think resembles corresponding Sleigh Bells tracks in certain, illuminating ways. It will be useful, because in the case of something like Treats, it will often make more sense to link to a track's progenitors than to try to explain it myself. But please feel free to disagree.

1. Tell 'Em

Sounds Like:
Ratatat's pitch-shifted, in-the-red guitar harmonies; air raid sirens (and the Bomb Squad songs that feature them); the industrialized snare-pummeling of Portishead's "Machine Gun"; Faith No More's similarly barnstorming opener "From Out Of Nowhere" (in terms of album agenda-setting).

Treats' opening track establishes the band's sleight of hand rather quickly: elementary guitar riffery filtered through blown-out speakers; stentorian, tension-building beats (at any volume level, it sounds ear-splitting); and off-key lady vocals out in front. "Tell 'Em" isn't one of the album's best songwriting efforts, but as an indicator of Sleigh Bells' ferocious intensity, it's a great statement of headache-inducing purpose.

2. Kids
Sounds Like:
At the beginning, Smashing Pumpkins' Adore-era techno-rock; at the 18-second mark, amphetamine-jacked Swizz Beatz horn samples; some of MIA's spacier half-raps.

"Tell "Em" is intense, for sure, but "Kids" is a whole different kind of blunt instrument. Alternating between punched-up horns and a looser, dreamier vocal section, it also has perhaps the most echo-heavy snapping samples in recorded history. "Kids" is clearly pop, in some demented manner, yet I'll be damned if it isn't among the hardest things I've ever heard. This will be a common observation throughout the remainder of Treats.

3. Riot Rhythm

Sounds Like:
What the title suggests; guitar work reminiscent of The Fall or PiL's Keith Levene; Neptunes beats (particularly for the Clipse); beat-flipping a la "A Milli."

Like the first track, "Riot Rhythm" sounds at first like more of an abrasive put-on, with a lack of balance between that grinding guitar figure and Alexis Krauss' vocals. But I think I like Krauss as a screamer more than a singer, and it's amazing that Sleigh Bells can keep up this level of energy after three songs.

4. Infinity Guitars
Sounds Like:
Dave Davies in chrysalis; the empty space between Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," Nirvana's "Very Ape," and the distorted, chanty vocals of Angus Andrew; rap battles between cheerleaders; No More Tears drums.

A collection of clipped, lo-fi bar chords and full-throated chants, barreling into a stadium rock closer at the end, "Infinity Guitars" is ironically-named--there's only one guitar present that I can hear. Instead, a riff that could have been lifted from Nuggets (or the Eagles of Death Metal!) basically acts as a placeholder between bouts of aforementioned screaming and cooing.

5. Run The Heart
Sounds Like:
HEALTH, basically. Plus maybe a little bit of that Timbaland-Crystal Castles accidental connection. Every mash-up artist has a track that sounds like this, at least in theory.

For Sleigh Bells, I guess this counts as more of a mood piece--the percussion is dirty and deep but not penetrative, and Krauss' wordless vocalizations are chopped in a manner that makes them of more use to the rhythm of the piece than the melody. I'm a sucker for the sound of cascading synths (which is why I'm a Timbaland fan), and "Run The Heart" has plenty of that, plus those now unmistakable crunched guitar loops. When the two are in tandem, the results are very weird.

6. Rachel
Sounds Like:
Cocteau Twins; If the end of Hot Chip's recent dirge "Slush" had its orchestration replaced with Jock Jams synthesizers.

There's a quality to these ethereal (sorry for the overused buzzword, but it fits) vocals that seems to have a strong precedent in something, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what (such problems were numerous when listening to this album for the first time). A lot of what I said about "Run The Heart" could apply here, except this seems like more of a cool placeholder than the song that preceded it. There's an appealing melody at the center of this maelstrom, but it never changes or develops, and basically just ends after two minutes.

7. Rill Rill
Sounds Like:
Funkadelic's "Can You Get To That" (for obvious reasons!) filtered by the Avalanches; a (vague) quotation of T.I. "What You Know"; any song with a lady vocalist seductively chanting "oh, oh" for twenty seconds or more.

A clear highlight, and probably the place to go if you're interested in Sleigh Bells' sonics but can't stand the headphone-busting nature of their other hits. There isn't much to this song other than a liberal quotation of the aforementioned Funkadelic track, plus some church bells or something for dramatic emphasis, but what really makes "Rill Rill" kill is Krauss' criminally alluring vocals, of which I can only repeat what Youtube commenter PowerInAUnion says regarding Krauss' live showcase: "crushing so hard." Do I feel similar, and if so, is that relevant? I'm sorry, but sometimes it can't not be.

The point is that "Rill Rill" lodged itself in my mind after a mere one (1) listen and refused to leave, which doesn't happen very often.

8. Crown On The Ground
Sounds Like:
Previous track on the album "Kids"; The Go! Team at their most effervescent; Jack White's squealier guitar moments; the beginning of the Butthole Surfers song "Weber" (pretty sure that last one is unintentional).

Sleigh Bells' big hit--or at least, it would be, if it wasn't so punishing. In a perfect world, I imagine this topping the Billboard charts and signifying the beginning of a newer, more confrontational pop style, because those horns, sampled or screwed or however they were recorded, absolutely kill it. Great pop tracks are always as much about the tension as they are about the release, and "Crown on the Ground" is deadly calibrated in that regard. No other track better illustrates the synergy between the two Sleigh Bells auteurs (whereas many of the other songs are good, but would have been just as good switching out one for the other).

9. Straight A's
Sounds Like:
The Liars (with the creepy ambience removed and replaced with more punishing volume); Kap Bambino; what I imagine happy hardcore to resemble, in my dreams.

At 1:30 or so, this bears every hallmark of being a studio goof or filler, but damn if it doesn't prove a cathartic experience even after the onslaught of "Crown On The Ground" before it. Absolutely not a good place to start if you're looking to get into Sleigh Bells, unless you're into one-off punk ditties like Sonic Youth's "Nic Fit" or Blur's "We've Got A File On You." Not a shred of poppiness in this one, either, which makes it unique.

10. A/B Machines
Sounds Like:
A Place To Bury Strangers; the beginning of LCD Soundsystem's "Sound Of Silver"; the guitar style of Bryan Gregory (from the Cramps); Outkast's "B.O.B." slowed down to half its original speed.

The problem with most of the songs on Treats (if you choose to think of it as a problem) is that Derek Miller doesn't seem to be interested in developing more than one or two ideas per song, which is why it's good that most of the tracks don't go past the 3-minute mark. This one does, and you can definitely tell when exactly it wears out its welcome. But that's pop, I guess. Not a highlight for me.

11. Treats
Sounds Like:
The heavily tremelo'd guitar figure #1 from the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now"; one of Metallica's slow-burners. Other than that, you've got to help me out, dear readers: have you ever heard anything as hard as this?

I should add that the one other exception to the three-minute rule is this killer of a closing track, which hints that Sleigh Bells' sonic palette may be capable of expanding as Derek Miller's songwriting ambitions grow. This is all booming bass and screeching lead lines, anchored by drum samples that couldn't be more leaden and grinding if they tried. It's so hyper-compressed that your head might pop. So I'm giving you fair warning: you will like this track, if you are anything like me, and furthermore you will play the heck out of it and hope the second album sounds more like this. If not, Treats will have a short shelf life, no matter the initial buzz.