Tuesday, June 28, 2011

R&B Listening Journal, Volume One

I'm currently hard at work, researching a book about R&B. It's for middle schoolers, the sort of thing you see in school libraries. The book isn't especially long, but I've been throwing myself into the research, taking it on as my summer project, as well as a second job (it's also a weak excuse for my recent absence here).

This means that I've listened to R&B and little else for the past month. In recent years, my exposure to the genre has grown considerably, but it's still selective--I dig the cinematic soul of the 70's, and love the Minneapolis Sound of the 80's. But New Jack Swing or Philadelphia Soul?--these are blind spots. I've made a few steps to rectify that, and to fill some embarrassing holes in my knowledge. It's been rewarding, but a little frustrating, since the book isn't really a work of criticism. That's the impetus for this possibly ongoing Listening Journal, which will highlight some of the most incredible or otherwise remarkable music I come across.

"Escapade," Janet Jackson
The opening bars of "Escapade" give the same insane rush as The-Dream's "Rockin' That Shit"--synth programming aimed straight at the pleasure centers. The chiming keyboard figure, which resurfaces for the chorus, gets even better when Janet harmonizes with it: "Don't hold back/Just have a good time." The production, by Jam and Lewis (the ex-Time maestros with seventeen number ones to their credit) is drunk on sound, mashing together the swooshing, chiming and thumping noises that their technology produces. Prince, especially "1999" and Sign 'O' The Times, is a reference point, but the song's deployment of several units of Jackson vocals gives it a unique texture. It's unusually dense for a summer jam, but that's what "Escapade" is--an invitation to get lost, to fucking enjoy yourself.

"7 Rooms Of Gloom," The Four Tops
The Four Tops were responsible for plenty of vintage Motown--"Bernadette" is staggering--but this song intrigues me because it's such an aberration. The group apparently hated it, unsurprising for a song that sounds so un-Motown. What "7 Rooms" does resemble is 60's garage--I swear this could be a lost Nuggets classic. Levi Stubbs belts with a shout-y frustration about his girl problems. And the track has a crude crunch, hitting its aggrivated groove and just staying there. The gothic backing vocals are the only embellishment. You don't hear this much anger or psychdelica in 60's Motown; "7 Rooms" outdoes plenty of 60's garage too.

"Sadie," R. Kelly
R. spends most of his solo debut dwelling on the carnal--this is a record whose centerpiece is the 10-minute jam "Sex Me". And, you know, he does that pretty well. It just makes "Sadie" that much more arresting. Part celebration, part remembrance, "Sadie" is Kelly's tribute to his dead mother. The organ places the song squarely in church, and the chorus rises high on Kelly's conviction and simple backing vocals. But a single detail about Sunday mornings helps fill in the portrait. 12 Play's least lascivious moment (and least hip-hop informed) is also one of its best.

"Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away," Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder's clavinet is responsible for his funkiest turns, but the instrument also informs the serene explorations of Music Of My Mind and Fulfillingness' First Finale. It lends this cut a quiet, naturalistic feel. Yet the vocals come from a place of pain--how is it that heaven seems so far away when hate and racism are so immediate? The short answer is that you don't believe in God enough. "Heaven" is pure gospel: ultimately, salvation is there, and here. Wonder's voice is joined by a small choir as the song moves towards its celestial finale. His conviction is so powerful, his talent so unique that, for these five minutes, he will make you believe.

"What'd I Say," Ray Charles
An epochal song in American music. I'd thought of Ray Charles as music for parents: well-performed, tastefully arranged, too safe. But the Genius' early Atlantic recordings are gritty, sweaty stuff, of which nothing tops "What'd I Say." For seven minutes, Charles' fingers dance across his keyboard, pounding out the electrified boogie as clattering cymbals drive the thing into further frenzy. By the time you reach Part Two, with its grunted give-and-take between Charles and the Raelettes, you realize: this still sounds dangerous.

"Me & Mrs. Jones," Billy Paul
Certifiably smooth--Paul's jazzy vocals and the drifting strings will take you there. But like all good smooth music, the quiet storm of the surface masks a fraught interior. In this case, the narrator is having an affair with the married Mrs. Jones. The tension is present in the verses, but really comes out when Paul lets loose right before the chorus. He's back to smoothness ten seconds later, but his outbursts--stretching words to the breaking point, belting with a deeper intonation--color the entire song. This is considerably slower than most of the 70's Philadelphia International hits, and the scene's maestros, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (who wrote this song together), made a rare commercial miscalculation in following up "Me & Mrs. Jones" with a song called "Am I Black Enough For You?"

"We Need A Resolution," Aaliyah
Aaliyah's tracks are blocky, shifting things that, on first listen, don't make sense rhythmically. On "Resolution," Static Major and Timbaland's production explores the friction produced by abutting plates of sound, while Eastern-sounding flourishes fill the center of the space. Timbo shows up at the end, spitting with admirable attitude, but only Aaliyah holds her own--her vocals are wispy, but forcefully so. Of course, Aaliyah's career never reached a state of resolution: she died shortly after Aaliyah was released. Static Major too passed before his time, a few years later, literally days before his frigid work on "Lollipop" bum rushed the charts.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Confiscated Dreams: Robyn Hitchcock's Ten Best Albums

This June marks the thirty-first anniversary of The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight. It's as good an occasion as any to celebrate the work of Soft Boy and solo artist Robyn Hitchcock, whose vast and confusing body of work is, with several exceptions, a treasure. I can't find a list of Hitchcock's best best albums online, so I'll observe the birthday of one of my very favorite albums with this career-spanning Robyn Hitchcock Top Ten.

1. Underwater Moonlight, The Soft Boys (1980)
A record whose punkish energy is so warped by the Soft Boys' surreal touch as to render it a phenomenon unto itself. Very unlike anything Hitchcock, his bandmates, contemporaries, or followers would ever produce. A twisted, shimmering jewel of an album, one of the best ever made.

2. Olé! Tarantula, Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 (2006)
Achieving the long-sought synthesis of Syd Barrett with Reckoning-era, R.E.M. Robyn and his new group--which happens to include Peter Buck--play it loose and jangly, fitting accompaniment for a vocalist who has abandoned his lower register.

3. I Often Dream Of Trains, Robyn Hitchcock (1984)
The wintry Trains is the finest among Hitchcock's (many) folk-leaning efforts. It also contains some of his darkest material, circling back to schizophrenia and nostalgia even in its lighter moments.

4. A Can Of Bees, The Soft Boys (1979)
A wry, post-punk take on blues rock, sounding like a terrible nightmare that the dinosaurs and the punks could both disavow. But the Soft Boys were too good to completely obscure the heavenly melodies of their "human music."

5. Gotta Let This Hen Out!, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1985)
Hitchcock is no virtuoso, but his taste in collaborators has been superb (Soft Boys/Egyptians bassist Andy Metcalfe deserves special mention). This live set bears witness to the prowess of the Egyptians, featuring definitive versions of several Hitchcock tunes.

6. Queen Elvis, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1989)
Hitchcock and the Egyptians at their most majestic, with several moments of Beatlesque clarity amongst the tangled guitar figures.

7. Invisible Hits, The Soft Boys (1983)
More invisible than ever, after Yep Roc phased it out (the same is true of #9). Fuck that, these sixteen songs--scrappy oddities heavy on the low-end--are a main course, even if they are scattered footnotes.

8. Element of Light, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1986)
Then-current production gets in the way now--not the only 80's record here to bear that distinction--but the diversity and quality of the songwriting shines through. Element's brightest moments soar, or are at least hilarious.

9. Invisible Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock (1986)
A ravishing hodgepodge, covering 1981-85, and featuring several stone cold classics. Askance folk and labyrinthine grooves dominate.

10. Fegmania!, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1985)
"You've got arms and you've got legs and you've got heaven," Robyn sings in an especially distinctive Hitchcock moment. It's also telling that this is the third entrant with an exclamation point in its title. Fegmania's colorful baubles are distintively Hitchcockian--accounting for its fan-favorite status--if not always top shelf.