May 21st, 2014 12:21pm
One of the most frustrating things to me about genre is how it can create this pressure for artists to conform to a set of established expectations, as if all possible ways of working within a form have been exhausted. This is particularly true within rap – the basics of the genre only really require rhythm and rhyming, but it’s so closely associated with a very specific black culture that artists will feel a need to conform – or perform – culture even if they’re not from it at all. (Hi there, Iggy Azalea.) Kate Tempest is exciting because while she is working within rap, she makes no attempt to be anything but exactly who she is: A working class woman from England with a background in poetry and literature. She is purely herself in this music, and I think in doing that is actually closer to the spirit of hip-hop than the sort of white artists whose entire rap career may as well be shouting “hey me too I can do that too” without much self-awareness or cultural sensitivity.
Tempest’s music and creative voice isn’t far off from Mike Skinner’s work as The Streets, but her writing style is far more literary. “Marshall Law,” the first track off her debut Everybody Down, is densely written short story set to beats. Not even in the sense that “oh, it’s a story in a song,” but like, I’m reasonably sure that if you transcribed it, it would read exactly like prose on the page. Tempest’s lyrics are extremely vivid and precise as she narrates an encounter at a terrible artsy party between a girl and an ambitious but quite lonely guy who rambles on about his feelings and personal goals and becomes convinced that he’s found a special person who GETS HIM. Of course, he never really asks much about her, so she gets bored and leaves. Tempest’s words are a cutting critique of this self-absorbed guy, but the song has a lot of empathy for him – you really get a sense of his misery and desperation for a connection, and his cluelessness about his behavior only makes his situation more tragic. He’ll probably never learn.
May 20th, 2014 11:47am
There are three versions of this song – the original demo, the version with Justin Timberlake, and this glorious, classy disco tune arranged by Timbaland and J-Roc. You can’t go wrong with any version of it, it’s just a gorgeous, joyful song written and sung by Jackson at the pinnacle of his talent, but this is undoubtedly my favorite. I don’t think Jackson would’ve ever done a thing like this if he were still alive; he seemed very resistant to going back to his Off the Wall sound. But this is on par with the best music of his career, and even if it’s morally dubious to mess around with his discarded work after he’s died, I really do think the world is a better place with this song in it. It’s also nice to have a song on the charts that truly connects with the melodic and harmonic generosity of prime disco – compared to this, a thing like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” is revealed to be rather flimsy.
May 19th, 2014 3:19am
You might have an idea of what Skrillex’s music is like, and if you’re very dubious of him, it’s not flattering. And a lot of Skrillex’s music probably is something like what you have in mind – jock jams as remained by a punkish hacker kid – and, well, sorry, but that music is awesome and you’ll probably come around to noticing that at some point. But “Stranger,” one of the best songs on Skrillex’s new record, isn’t quite like those tracks. It’s much more of a pop song, and the mood is fairly chill. It reminds me a lot of those really hot summer days where the heat seems to make the whole world slow down, and every blast of air conditioning feels incredible. It doesn’t NOT sound like Skrillex – the lead keyboard sounds have the same signature tonal palette of his famous “drops,” but it has a different character here. Instead of feeling like a jolt of manic energy, it has a more smeared, psychedelic effect.
May 15th, 2014 12:35pm
Owen Pallett @ Bowery Ballroom 5/14/2014
Midnight Directives / Scandal at the Parkade / Keep the Dog Quiet / Soldier’s Rock / Bridle & Bit / The Secret Seven / Tryst with Mephistopheles / Song Song Song / That’s When the Audience Died / The Passions / This Is the Dream of Win & Regine / The Great Elsewhere / Infernal Fantasy / The Riverbed // Song for Five and Six / Lewis Takes Off His Shirt /// Pretty Good Year (partial improvised Tori Amos cover) / Peach Plum Pear (Joanna Newsom cover)
When I see an artist like Owen Pallett perform, I always stop for a second at some point to think of how few musicians – however great they may be – who are anywhere near his level as a musician. The full range of Pallett’s talent includes his excellence and sophistication as a composer and lyricist, his stunning proficiency with the violin, his imaginative use of live sampling and keyboards, and his gorgeous, highly controlled singing voice. A lot of his show, in which he builds elaborate arrangements on the spot with his loop pedals and his rhythm section, seems like a magic trick, and whenever I’m not sucked into the emotional urgency or sheer beauty of the music, I wonder how on earth he’s doing it all.
Pallett’s new album In Conflict is the best record I’ve heard so far in 2014. It’s been an unusually meh year so far, but even if things pick up a lot later, it’s very unlikely many better records will come along. The record is astonishing for many of the reasons I mentioned above, but it resonates with me deeply mainly for how Pallett approaches the idea of depression and the awkwardness of establishing true connection when you’re lonely with an degree of accuracy and generosity of spirit that is hard to come by.
It’s very hard to pick a single favorite on a record like In Conflict, but “The Riverbed” is a good summary of the record’s themes, and its arrangement is the most urgent – it just feels like a crushing emotional weight that feels like it could lift at any moment, but you’re just waiting around for that relief in the hope that it will actually come. I like the way Pallett’s words hit on ideas that will inevitably spark anxiety in some people – writer’s block, alcoholism, being alone and childless in your 30s – but the implication isn’t that these don’t necessarily need to be awful things, and they come out of choices you make for yourself that even when flawed are rooted in an attempt to do what’s right for yourself. The first two thirds of the song set up the anxiety and dread, and the final third offers comfort, mainly by introducing a positive form of doubt: What if you’re wrong, and you’re not a failure at all? What if it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does? Can you let go of your pride, if that’s what is really bringing you down?
May 14th, 2014 12:50pm
Usher’s catalog at this point is like a museum of hot R&B production trends from the past two decades – there’s not a lot tying it all together aside from his voice and a consistently good instinct for knowing what kind of sounds will be exciting at any given moment. “Good Kisser” uses the recent Pharrell renaissance as a jump-off point, but pushes that syncopated, off-kilter take on classic soul a bit further, so the track feels like you’re hearing an early ’70s Stevie Wonder song from a strange angle. Usher’s phrasing in this song is fantastic – he’s very nimble and expressive, shifting from more staccato, rhythmic parts in a somewhat pinched voice to a smoother, more delicate tone when the song drops its tension in the bridge up to the chorus. The whole song is a very well calibrated build up of excited, anxious energy and cathartic release, so it’s not very surprising that the lyrics play off that by having him lust for this person, and then go loose and ecstatic the moment he gets what he wants.
May 13th, 2014 11:40am
Uzoechi Emenike is remarkably fully formed as a singer and producer at 19 – his song have a youthful energy, but his creative choices are very sophisticated. His production on “Every Little Word” has a perfect balance of bounce and precision, and his vocal performance is controlled but not remotely fussy. The thing that really makes this song is such a simple decision – he repeats the phrase “every little word you say” in the chorus, but rather than keep it all about the same, he sings the words with the same phrasing but a slightly different tonality, with his voice going higher for emphasis. The music doesn’t follow suit, so you get this effect that in my mind reads kinda like a 3-D book where those words suddenly seem to leap off the page while everything else remains flat.
May 12th, 2014 12:21pm
Veruca Salt never really went away – though most of the band’s original lineup had departed by 1998, Louise Post essentially released a series of solo records under that name through the past decade. The original band is back together now, and they put out a new single a few weeks ago for Record Store Day. It’s not too special for ’90s bands to reunite now, so let’s get to the actually exciting news: Veruca Salt’s two new songs are both excellent, and it’s like they just snapped back into exactly what made them such a good, fun band in the mid-90s. Gordon and Post’s music on their own was never anything too special, but they clearly just have a real spark when they’re together. Creative chemistry is a weird and unpredictable thing, you know? The lyrics of “It’s Holy” seem to acknowledge this, both in terms of an excited “we’re back!” feeling, but also just being thrilled to reconnect with each other, and their inspiration. This doesn’t sound like an old band doing their old thing; this sounds very young and passionate to me.
May 8th, 2014 12:49pm
The Voluntary Butler Scheme is a one-man band project, but doesn’t sound much like one – there’s a spark to the interplay between the guitar, drums, and horns in his tracks that feels very live, like it’s something that’d come out on Daptone Records. The sound leans a lot on ’60s soul, but Rob Jones’ voice is pure English pop – affable and polite, but sorta distant too. “Brain Freeze” sounds perky and warm, but Jones’ cryptic lyrics keep you at a distance. It seems to be a song about feeling ambivalent about what it takes to make a lot of money, but it’s just vague enough that it also seems like a strange display of affection.
May 7th, 2014 11:41am
It’s a little weird to me that Girl Talk didn’t jump into hip-hop production sooner – sure, mashups are his THING, and he clearly makes a good living as a DJ, but he’s so good at energetic track-building that it seems like he would’ve been pushed into it once he became a legit star. I don’t think every rapper would be at home in a Girl Talk track, but Freeway fits in perfectly, and his shouty rhymes are ideal for this sort of blaring, heavy composition. Their entire EP is excellent, but “Tolerated” is the one that really gets across that “ridiculously excited!!!” Girl Talk vibe while also conveying genuine menace. This is fantastic summer music, or maybe more accurately, pre-summer music.
May 6th, 2014 12:53pm
“Find A New Way” starts with Merrill Garbus singing about feeling creatively stuck, and someone telling her to just “find a new way” to sing. You’d only tell her that because she makes being a bold, idiosyncratic singer seem so easy. She cycles through a lot of doubt in the song, but the part that really gets to me – perhaps more so than anything else I’ve heard recently – is the point in the song where she belts out “when I see you changing, you make me think that I can change too.” I like this because it accepts change as a positive, often necessary thing, and that seeing it happen in others is usually the best way to see that possibility for yourself. A lot of people are terrified of change, and that’s a whole other thing. This is about the anxiety of wanting change, but having no idea how to do it, and feeling frustrated by that. It’s easy to tell anyone to “find a new way,” and it’s just as easy to know they’re right. It’s just usually extremely difficult to actually find that new way, especially when you’re all on your own.