Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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Review: Rock Band Blitz

September 16, 2012

Image from Harmonix, on whose site there are links to buy the game.

Summary: Harmonix independently publishes a digital download music game, ditches the instrument party for a solo controller setup, and reinvigorates Rock Band for the lean social age.

Ups
• I’m quite happy that Harmonix finally put out a Rock Band game that allowed the use of a controller. After I hit a plateau in Rock Band 3, it became less fun to pull instruments out of my living room closet. Blitz’s exclusive reliance on the controller makes it much more accessible to casual players.
• Despite its simple concept, the game gives you a lot to manage. You have to hit enough notes on 4-5 instruments, switch between them enough times so that the point disparity between them isn’t too great, watch for white notes (to build your overdrive meter for launching power-ups) and purple notes (to trigger other power-ups), and push your accuracy meter to enter Blitz mode (where the game speed seemingly doubles but you get more points for every note you hit.) I enjoyed the complexity.
• Part of the appeal of each new Rock Band game is its song list. For $15, you get 25 songs right out the (virtual) box. Before the game dropped I was looking forward to some of the songs, notably Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” I thought those were fun to play, but I also had some surprisingly good times with Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” and Avenged Sevenfold’s “So Far Away,’ both songs I had never heard of before this game. Heck, after playing through Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” I no longer think of them as horrible clunkers. For a $15 digital title, there’s a decent mix of material right from the get-go.
• On top of that, any song that you have on your console’s hard drive gets integrated into Blitz’s gameplay system. If you were regularly buying DLC and/or exported the setlists of the other Rock Band games into Rock Band 3, then you’ll have a lot of fresh levels to play and leaderboards to climb. It’s a great nod to players who invested a lot of time and money into past games, as everything old is new again.
• Free export! When I bought other Rock Band games in the past, export was always an extra $5-$10 on top of the cost of the game. Even if you aren’t feeling the gameplay, Blitz is a mega-cheap track pack at $.60 a song. Enjoy duets of “One Week,” people.
• You can’t fail out! While there is an incentive to play the game well and not just wail on the buttons (though on the guitar solo parts I might as well have been), you can still do ok by mashing when buffered by the right power-ups (gotta love that shockwave!)

Downs
• Remember what I said about the game’s use of the standard controller making it more accessible to casual players? This is counterbalanced by the sheer speed and number of notes coming at you as you play. Each song’s charting in Blitz is based on its expert mode charting in regular Rock Band so if you’re unfamiliar with a song or your hand-eye coordination is a little slow, it can be easy to get discouraged. Toss in all the different stuff you have to be aware of while playing (see my second point in the Ups section) and things can get pretty overwhelming, especially if you’re not in the right mindset for this kind of thing.
• There’s nothing really connecting the levels of gameplay. There is no band onstage, no cutscenes between levels, and no changes in what the highway scenery looks like while playing the game. I liked Rock Band 3’s use of story in its Tour Mode as a means to get me emotionally invested in my band of avatars. Similarly, the acquiring of character customization options through completing goals kept me coming back after I had heard all the songs in the game. The game looks the same each time you play it and there are no human faces on which you can project yourself while you play. It feels a little cold.
• Instead, there’s a big focus on social networking with challenging friends and strangers to “Score Wars” and Facebook integration. While leaderboard rankings were present in Rock Band 3, they weren’t the big prize for playing well (see previous point.) I’ll admit that it was neat to see my run on Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back” placed in that song’s top 10 (by the time you read this it’s probably ranked #310 or lower), but leaderboard rankings are fleeting and so is the satisfaction I get from placing on them. I also don’t buy into the Facebook integration thing because I’m not sure I want to share that part of me with distant relatives or work colleagues. I recognize that this may be a big thing for some people, but it isn’t for me.
• Sadly, there is no way to play Rock Band 3 songs in Blitz at this time. Frankly, this isn’t that big a deal to me. Kickass as that game’s tracklist was, I did get a little tired of hearing the same songs as I was trying to complete many of the game’s goals. I’d rather have Blitz’s more open-ended goal system that encourages playing of lots of different songs.
Blitz has a lot more value if you already have a bunch of songs on your console’s hard drive. That might be a little discouraging to newcomers who plow through the base 25 songs in a weekend and then want to do something new but might not want to pony up $2 a song.

Conclusion: As I type this the game has been out for almost a month and I still feel the urge to go back to it. It’s a testament to the game design prowess of Harmonix that they can make a game that’s cold and a little cynical and overcome those shortcomings through deceptively complex gameplay, solid musicality, casual-friendly level structure, and a soundtrack that’s fun at the start. Beyond that, I’m just happy this game exists and Harmonix hasn’t totally focused their energies into Dance Central. I’ll be honest, before this title launched I hadn’t played a Rock Band game since 2011, which would have come as a shock to me circa when I launched this site. Then again, the way I felt about Rock Band in 2010 was the same way I felt about Dance Dance Revolution in 2003 – that it would be around forever and that I would love it forever. Nothing lasts forever, and while both series are still alive (though DDR is questionable) my enthusiasm for both series has waned considerably in the wake of other titles and interests. It’s a little unsettling to consider this in an “ashes to ashes” sense. In the meantime I’m glad that there’s a new way to connect with Rock Band and enjoy this fabulous series for a little bit longer. Blitz on!

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Review: Beth Ditto EP

July 7, 2011

Image from Amazon, where you can buy the EP

Summary: The Gossip singer strikes out on a cold urban dancefloor sojourn.

Fun Facts

  • Though this is Beth Ditto’s first solo record since her days in Gossip, this is not the first time she has worked together with Simian Mobile Disco, who produced this EP. She guest-starred on “Cruel Intentions,” which is on the SMD album Temporary Pleasure.
  • As far as I know, this EP has been released in two versions, one with the short “radio edits” of the songs and one with the longer cuts. For the purpose of this review I will be reviewing the shorter version you can buy on Amazon.

Ups

  • Ditto is a very pleasant singer. Her quavering, slightly hollow singing style is perfect for the yearning lyrics, yet powerful enough to command a dancefloor, as she demonstrates on “Do You Need Someone” and “Open Heart Surgery.”
  • Speaking of the lyrics, they capture the romantic uncertainty that occurs at a club or a house party. “I Wrote The Book” covers the guarded feelings of someone who has been burned by love and is going out newly single. “Good Night, Good Morning” reminds me of the ambiguity of dancing with a stranger for the first time. “Open Heart Surgery” conveys the damage that one lover can do because they’re in high demand and dangerous but you’re going to move on, dammit! “Do You Need Someone” closes the EP out with outreach to a new partner. The music brings imply the physical connection and Ditto’s lyrics hint at something beyond lust.
  • Musically Simian Mobile Disco split the EP between the dance tracks and the sexy chillout/makeout numbers. “I Wrote The Book” is a catchy lead single with its retro synthetic bassline, but “Open Heart Surgery” is the real burner on the EP. The keyboard line and percussion section reminds me of some of Madonna’s early 80s numbers, but the melancholy bassline is pure deep techno. It makes for a cool contrast. Meanwhile “Do You Need Someone” percolates with gurgling rubberband bass, rising keyboard arpeggios, and oscillating beats that make a great soundtrack for getting close.

Downs

  • Objectively I find several of these songs to be good for the dancefloor, but the dancefloors they remind me of are in dark, sparsely populated clubs and basements with low ceilings (particularly Smartbar inChicago.) That’s due to SMD’s cold and retro overall production, which had me nodding my head but left me feeling emotionally underwhelmed. Without Ditto’s charismatic presence to hold the whole thing down, the songs would put me to sleep.
  • The low point of the EP is “Good Night, Good Morning,” which comes off a little too rough and bleary with distortion to be romantic or optimistic.

Conclusion: This EP is a nicely balanced, albeit slightly alienating first solo outing for Ditto. If she expands on this effort for a full-blown album, I feel that she could increase her impact by collaborating with catchier producers and/or going back to her dance punk roots. Still this EP is musically solid, emotionally wide-ranging, easily relatable, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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Review: One Love

May 11, 2011

Image from Amazon

Summary: Fourth time’s a charm! The French super-producer’s fourth artist album is brimming with hedonism, positivity, guest stars, and the most unsubtle beats this side of Justice. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s his first big crossover record in the U.S.

Fun Facts

  • This album feels as though it’s been released in a bajillion different versions. It first came out as One Love, with 12-15 tracks depending on which country you bought the album in and whether you bought it on CD or digitally. It came out again as One Love 2010, which changed the track sequence, added some new songs, and increased the guest count. It came out yet again in 2011 as One More Love, which condensed the track listing but added one more new song, a collaboration with Rihanna titled “Who’s That Chick?” Somebody – Guetta, his managers, or the labels who distributed the album – is milking the hell out of this album. For this review I will be using the 2009 14-track version of One Love that came with a mix CD. It is not the most comprehensive version of the album, but it’s pretty decadent and covers a lot of the core tracks that are in all of the album’s versions.
  • One reason the album blew up like it did in America was that this was the first time Guetta began working heavily with American hip-hop and R&B artists. Kelly Rowland shows up on 3 songs. Will.I.Am appears on 2 songs. Akon, Ne-Yo, Kid Cudi, and Apl.de.Ap each appear on a song. And while she’s not American, English singer Estelle (who was popular in the States for “American Boy”), sings the title track (and does a damn fine job of it!)

Ups

  • Guetta’s production is incredibly accessible and catchy for hard club music. A key part of that is that he keeps his rhythm sections mostly simple. The big singles “When Love Takes Over,” “Sexy Bitch,” “Memories,” and “One Love,” all stick to very basic but heavy 4/4 beats and simple but hard basslines. That sounds like a criticism, but the simple rhythmic components give the songs appeal on a very visceral level. That allows Guetta the freedom to play with the synth lines or the vocalists some room to shine while everyone is dirty dancing.
  • For what’s pretty much a dance pop record, Guetta plays the keys pretty hard. The synths on songs like “I Wanna Go Crazy,” and “Choose” are bathed in distortion, like they’re dancefloor napalm. When he uses cleaner piano on “Memories,” and “When Love Takes Over,” he mixes it high and uses it to make melodies to make catchy hooks for the singers to ride on. Sometimes he goes for a little 90s throwback cheese like on “Missing You,” which feels like an Ace of Base outtake, but it’s all still really fun.
  • Several of the guests are good matches to Guetta’s unsubtle hedonism. Kelly Rowland uses her power pipes to cut through the darkness like a lighthouse beacon shining through a storm. She and Guetta should do a whole album together. Will.I.Am and Apl.De.Ap rap and shout on “On The Dancefloor” with the same reckless abandon that they showed on The E.N.D. (which Guetta helped produce.) Chris Willis, who has sung and produced with Guetta since 2000, is a fine showman on “Gettin’ Over” and “Sound Of Letting Go.”

Downs

  • The big stumble on the album is actually on a remix of one of Guetta’s biggest hits, The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” The FMIF (which stands for “Fuck Me I’m Famous”) remix shares the same intro as the original, but then does a bait and switch. You would think that tonight’s gonna be a good night, but then everything drops out into this screechy, off-key trainwreck of failed dance pop. What’s more the “remix” part of the song barely counts, as it uses virtually no elements of the original song: almost no vocals (save for a brief cut-up of Will.I.Am), no bass line, no guitar, not even a “mazeltov!” It feels like false advertising. A good remix shouldn’t feel like a practical joke (unless it’s by Kid606.)
  • Guetta also makes a failed early attempt at dubstep (which is like uptempo rave music played at half time) at the end of the album. “If We Ever,” while well-sung by Makeba, feels like a big buildup to nothing.
  • Though it’ll go without saying, not a lot of material on this album is going to pass Alyx Vessey’s dance music test. 13 of the 14 songs are about partying, love, relationships, or objectification (the affirmation-themed title track is an exception). That’s not a unique failure, most of dance music is like that, but it’s indicative of the larger problem of the album which is….
  • Musically Guetta isn’t taking many risks (aside from working with a relatively unknown singer like Novel or Makeba). His consistency is often in danger of becoming homogenous, and if you’re not paying attention it just might become just that. It’s a good thing that when Guetta mixes everything together on disc 2, he throws in more songs and changes their arrangements because otherwise he would wear out his welcome very quickly.

Conclusion: One Love’s extravaganzas are efficient dance music delivery systems – incredibly catchy, visceral, and human. Lots of people want to cut loose, to get over bad breakups, and/or to dance really close with loved ones (or strangers) to pounding, pounding house music, and there are lots of songs here that can fill those needs. The songs on One Love are big and stupid and some are horrible noise blasts or bridges to nowhere. There’s star power, hot synths and pounding beats. With few exceptions there isn’t a whole lot to find beyond the bacchanalia but somehow it works, dammit!

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Retro Review: Endtroducing…..

January 9, 2011

Buy it and stream clips on Amazon

Summary: DJ Shadow (real name: Josh Davis), a quiet, unassuming guy from California’s academic capital, channels his depression and sense of mortality through a gajillion old records, interviews, and film clips to make what would become a cornerstone of alternative hip-hop.

Fun Facts

  • Note: Eliot Wilder’s 33 1/3 entry on Endtroducing….., consisting of a series of conversations Wilder had with Shadow, is a pretty comprehensive look into Shadow’s backstory and creative process. If you’re interested in digging more into the backstory of this album and its creator, I would recommend picking it up.
  • Endtroducing….. is comprised almost entirely of samples from 90 or so different recordings (though only 7 are credited in the liner notes) The only non-sampled elements on the album come from the rappers Gift Of Gab (of Blackalicious) and Lyrics Born (of Latyrx). Both rappers also happen to be members of the Solesides crew, of which DJ Shadow is also a member. Gift of Gab chips in a few raps that Shadow scratches up in “Midnight In A Perfect World.” Lyrics Born (who is also the guy on the right side of the album cover) provides a few spoken word clips on “Untitled” and “Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ’96.”
  • Shadow samples some films as well, including Silent Running, Blade Runner, and Prince of Darkness (that’s where those “Transmissions” on the album come from), as well as the Twin Peaks TV show. It’s kind of interesting given that VHS was still the dominant entertainment medium in 1995. I just wonder what kind of rig had to be set up to extract the sounds. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that info)

Ups

  • In the 33 1/3 book, Shadow tells Wilder about how he suffered from depression over the course of making this album. Suffering can often be a boon for an artist, and Shadow turns it into some ominous, scary chillout music. “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt” features this deceptively simple blend of piano, basic hip-hop drums, and a chorus combined into what ghosts might listen to in the haunted ruins of office buildings. “Stem/Long Stem,” begins with what sounds like a harp and a few chimes and builds from there. The intermittent double-time rock drums and crazy keyboards are chase scenes in a horror movie. The mellower sections are foreboding like when the last teen is hiding from the killer after one such chase scene.
  • Another inspiration Shadow cites is driving along the highways in California early in the morning when the sun is coming up. The more positive songs have a zen, hazy quality, like when a marijuana user has a moment of clarity on the nature and purpose of the universe and things feel right. “Changeling” best encompasses this feeling by employing elements similar to “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt,” only with happier-sounding chord progressions and blurrier vocal samples. “Midnight In A Perfect World” reminds me of walking through suburban Chicago or Ann Arbor at night in the winter. Everything is covered in snow, which is reflecting the street lights and making everything feel brighter. Most people are inside because it’s so cold, so it’s very quiet outside. It’s a good time to be reflective.
  • The spoken word bits are the album’s best kept secret. When I hear the stoned lady talking about Xanadu and Darth Vader on “Mutual Slump,” I don’t know whether to laugh at the non-sequitur or get nervous when she suddenly mentions “five feet under.” The intro of “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain” consists of a lone recording of a redneck-sounding guy inviting someone in for a game of chess. The original source is probably innocuous, but without any music to define it, it feels weird and foreign. The story about getting arrested on parking tickets that pops up about 4:25 into “Stem/Long Stem” comes from a stand-up recording by the late Murray Roman. It may have been funny, but Shadow’s recontextualization turns it into the scariest thing you can hear.
  • One way that DJ Shadow was a pioneer among producers was his use of samples that fell out of the funk/soul/jazz continuum that made up the bulk of the hip-hop producer’s sound pool. Even though artists like Tone Loc and The Beastie Boys sampled rock records long before Shadow began work on Endtroducing….., those were higher profile samples. It’s very doubtful that even the seasoned listener would recognize most of the sounds this album. This album was put together by diving into piles of records no one else wanted. Wilder writes that Shadow’s use of old, forgotten records mostly by people who no longer have careers is like rescuing lost souls from old civilizations. Death pervades this album, but not always in a scary way.

Downs

  • Getting into this album requires patience. It took me a few tries before I really appreciated it beyond the beats. More than half of the songs on the album are more than five minutes long and favor slow, repetitive builds as Shadow adds and removes loops from the mix. Luckily, they are spread out over the album and are mixed with palatable party cuts like “The Number Song,” which feature more conventional DJ scratch moves on top of the ambience.
  • After getting into this album enough to where I ended up listening to it twice in a row, the only song I still don’t care for on the album is the Giorgio Moroder-sampling “Organ Donor.” Now, “Organ Donor” is probably my favorite song by DJ Shadow, only in its full length version that appears on disc 2 of this album’s deluxe version, or on the Shadow singles compilation Preemptive Strike. Shadow essentially makes a kick ass organ solo through creative sequencing and then throws sharp beats and scratches on top of it. On Endtroducing….., it’s cut to 1:55 and never really builds to the point of being interesting. Instead it gets swapped out for a cheesy g-funk keyboard meant to symbolize the conventional g-funk style of mainstream hip-hop on “Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ’96.” Now, Shadow opens both songs with the same sample, and by juxtaposing them together in the track list, he makes a gambit in an attempt to be clever. I just don’t care for it or feel that it ages well.
  • The variety of themes and sounds in the album and within the individual songs makes for great listening on its own, but difficult background music for chilling out or for dancing. This is the kind of record that asks for the listener’s attention, and that may limit its appeal.

Conclusion: Endtroducing….. is considered a key album in both alternative hip-hop and chillout electronic music. The sheer number of samples DJ Shadow creatively combines makes for incredibly dense and rewarding listening. It’s alternately intriguing, inviting, warm, cool, cold, manic, and scary. Getting into it may take a few listens, but I can assure you it gets better every time you crank it up.

 

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Review: Rock Band 3

December 31, 2010

Buy it from Amazon

2010 was a great year for music games, at least in terms of the sheer number of choices available to fans of the genre. We saw the release of Dance Central, Def Jam Rapstar, DJ Hero 2, Just Dance 2, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and the latest versions of Dance Dance Revolution. For me, there was only one game that mattered: Rock Band 3. The latest Rock Band game made huge improvements to the series with the incorporation of multiple vocal lines from the Beatles and Green Day games, addition of keyboards (finally!) and establishment of pro modes so I’m reminded how much I couldn’t cut it as a real musician. The steady accumulation of downloadable content (henceforth abbreviated as dlc) and content exported from the other RB games has allowed Kathy and me to build up a pretty sizable library. Looking at my song list I feel like a karaoke DJ.

Even with tons of dlc, the main game’s song lineup is refreshingly diverse. Highlights for me include Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” and Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” I also have a new appreciation for both Dio and Smash Mouth. Props to Harmonix for including Spanish and German-language songs. While Juanes is not my cup of tea, I realize that the dude is incredibly popular and it is nice to see a music game publisher recognize the diversity of its audience.

Game progression has improved, allowing for more choice and less repetitive grinding. No longer will players have to play a “random difficult drum song,” knowing that it will be “Spoon Man,” “Pinball Wizard,” or “Chop Suey” (if you put a lot of time into Rock Band 2’s World Tour mode, you know what I mean). Goal Progression can be done in Quickplay, Tour Mode, or Career Progression, where players can view their goal lists and directly attack challenges in the game.

One of the features of the Rock Band franchise that has gone underrated in the opportunity to create a band of custom avatars. What changes from the main previous games in the series is the increased emphasis on story. Taking cues from Lego Rock Band, the game inserts your avatars into cutscenes depicting their formation and growth as you complete challenges. You’ll see them get shortchanged at their first gig, play a festival on the West Coast, and arrive in Japan to screaming throngs of fans. It’s really cool to see this motley crew (get it?) that you made acting outside of the main stage as more fully formed characters.

As for the character creator itself, it is just as fabulous as it was in Rock Band 2. There are more customization options for characters’ faces and bodies (almost enough to rival a Sims game). As for outfits, there are not a ton of changes from the previous go-rounds. The money system of acquiring outfits from the previous games has been replaced with an unlock system. Players earn articles of clothing by completing certain goals. This replaces the old tour mode grind and forces players to learn the Rock Band 3 songs, since many of the clothing-related goals are still tied to the core game. I’m resigned to not acquiring some of the items since they are tied to pro mode goals and as I’ve written before, I’m just not going to get that good.

This brings us to some of the disappointments in an otherwise stellar title. First, the game has many bugs. Before it got patched, loading screens would freeze, forcing hard resets. Some characters move weirdly or fade into their clothes in unnatural ways. One time I was playing a two-song setlist and after the first song I got kicked out of the game and sent to my PS3’s main menu. Luckily, my progress was saved. The game’s bugs aren’t deal breakers and the game is 98% playable, but the periodic bugs can be annoying.

Second, multiplayer is difficult for the wrong reasons. Playing a road challenge in the game’s tour mode requires communication among your band to get full completions and unlock more items. In road challenges, players are tasked to not only play songs well, but also fulfill conditions such as sustaining the enhanced-score overdrive, going into overdrive a certain number of times, or hitting a certain number of notes with each player taking turns to hit that number. The problems occur when one player gets designated in a difficult section and they just can’t hit that sequence, or timing overdrive is crucial but vocals and drums have limited control over when they can go into overdrive. Either way, there’s trouble.

Regarding dlc, I would like to see more content beyond music. While you can pay for Doors and Who T-Shirts for your avatars, I have a feeling those items were on the disc and you’re just paying to unlock them. I’d like to see new ensembles come out as often as songs. For more on this, Lisa Foiles has a neat article on Kotaku advocating for more crossover between fashion and gaming. As for the music content, offerings have been solid, but pretty conservative. Can we get something that was recorded in the past ten years? Nonetheless, I hope the Bee Gees dlc may be a sign of things to come.

The game includes a very deep tutorial mode to get players into playing the pro modes which simulate real instrumentation. It’s cool that you can learn to play scales and chords on keyboard and guitar, but the tutorials could be more user-friendly. In Rock Band 2, instrument tutorials included text, illustrations of someone properly playing the instrument, video demonstrations, and a play-through. In Rock Band 3, the only demo video you get is a quick intro to how the pro guitar interface works. The keyboard tutorial is text and playthrough-only, and the text directions for finger placement fail to communicate how a piano is supposed to be properly played. I may complete the tutorial lessons eventually, but I doubt I’ll really learn to play keyboards. Developer Harmonix assumes a level of musicality in their audience that may not always be there. This tutorial system would have been improved through an instruction system that appeals to a variety of learning styles.

Overall, the real value of the game comes from the sheer number of things to do and the opportunities to personalize the experience. The technical problems don’t break the game and can be fixed with future patches. Rock Band 3 is a fantastic experience with tons of music, customization, replay value, and just good times rocking out. It’s my game of the year!

 

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Review: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

December 30, 2010

Buy it and stream clips on Amazon

Summary: Hip-hop’s most successful eccentric since Kool Keith uses every trick in his book to bang out 13 catchy and difficult songs about the continuing journeys of a man made weak and unique by his conflicting desires.

Fun Facts

  • While it was in development, the album’s original title was Good Ass Job. Then the whole hijacking Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech happened (not the first time), there was a public backlash, and Kanye had to go think about how things were going.
  • Kanye released about 25% of this album for free as part of his “G.O.O.D. Fridays” promotion, where he gave away a different new free song, every Friday (though sometimes they wouldn’t really drop until Saturday). “Monster,” “So Appalled,” and “Devil In A New Dress,” (which are all next to each other in the album track listing), were all part of the promotion. If you want to check out the album without dropping $10-13, many of the songs from the promotion should still be up on his website. You can get several cool songs that didn’t make the album (my favorites are “Chain Heavy” and “Christian Dior Denim Flow”) as well get a taste of the overall aesthetic of the album, which these songs share.
  • This occurred to me on a recent trip to the National Gallery of Art in D.C.: One of the recurring images West uses in the album’s artwork, promotional campaign, and related live performances is the ballerina, though upon several listens of the album I did not catch a single mention of ballerinas or dancers. Another artist who used frequently used ballerinas as subjects was the French semi-impressionist painter/sculptor Edgar Degas. Degas and West actually have a few things in common. Both derived their early works from the art of others (Degas drew several hundred copies of Italian Renaissance art; West built his best beats from old soul samples). Both are associated with specific genres and scenes (Degas with impressionism, West with mainstream hip-hop via Jay-Z and Roc-a-fella), but neither produced work that quite fit into those communities and sometimes distanced themselves from those networks. Both expressed anti-social tendencies in interacting with the public and both seemingly encouraged public perceptions of them as misanthropes. Degas died friendless due to his hostile tendencies and anti-Semitism. West has pulled some jerk moves in the 7+ years he has been in the limelight, but nothing so dire or unforgivable. (all Degas info from Wikipedia)
  • Note: I haven’t seen West’s 30+ minute “Runaway” video in its entirety, but one reason for its length is that it contains music from a good chunk of the other songs on the album. As such, I haven’t linked to previews for all of the songs.

Ups

  • On the production side of things, Kanye relies on the moves that helped make him a top producer and fuses them together with just enough variety and novelty to avoid rehashing. He goes back to sampling old R&B records, though there’s far less of his signature chipmunking. Occasionally he reaches for a higher-profile rock sound, like when he samples King Crimson on “Power,” but that’s no “oh snap!” moment like when he rapped over Daft Punk back in 2007. He uses lots of vocal processing, but it isn’t cleaned or robotic. It’s more like when his voice is pitched low and pasted onto itself to create an otherworldly feeling on “Dark Fantasy,” or on “Blame Game” when it’s panned around the stereo mix to sound like voices in his head (seriously, it’s quite the trip for your earbuds), or when he does an Imogen Heap impression at the start of “Lost In The World.” And sometimes, Kanye doesn’t process himself at all. He’s gotten more confident in his singing ability that he can go out on stage and lead a singalong or hold his own with John Legend. Meanwhile on the beat side, West rarely uses the same kind of drum track twice. For example he sticks to the basic drum samples on “Runaway” and “Dark Fantasy,” uses some off kilter rave beats on “All Of The Lights,” puts the lo-fi drum track way back in the mix on “Gorgeous,” and finishes the album off with some reverbed tribal drumming on “Lost In The World.”
  • One of the recurring themes in Kanye West’s work is duality. Lyrically the album continues the familiar West themes of gratification vs. guilt (“So Appalled,” “Gorgeous”) professional braggadocio vs. personal failure (“Runaway,” “Blame Game”), and challenging social conventions vs. buying into them (“Hell Of A Life,” “Dark Fantasy”). Longtime West listeners know he likes to use homonyms in his raps and unpack the multiple meanings of a word (which often results in a simultaneously clever and annoying habit of rhyming words with themselves). Considering that, there’s a reason “Power” and “All Of The Lights” and “Monster” are right next to each other on the album since those three songs each turn on their keywords. “Monster” is one of my favorite songs on the album. On its surface it’s an incredibly catchy dancehall-esque party track with West, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj celebrating their monster talents as MCs and the power they hold as professional entertainers, but as Jay-Z illustrates when he compares himself to a sasquatch, a ghoul and Godzilla, monsters are often feared and hated as a consequence of the powers they hold. The song celebrates that paradoxically ugly beauty.
  • As has been pointed out elsewhere, the only really double-take moment on the album is Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster.” Minaj stands out because as a fairly new talent she comes out hard, seamlessly morphs her voice into her array of characters like she’s Hank Azaria, keeps up her flow, sounds like she’s having a good time, and just plain kicks ass. Otherwise, most of the guests hold their own with few really stinking up the joint.
  • Overall Kanye mixes up his tricks (for both production and choice of guests) enough that nothing feels like a gimmick. On this album, it’s clear that West has an idea of what he wants to say, and he will arrange the elements in such a way that nothing overshadows the meaning of the song. The songs really cohere in a tapestry and aim for a consistent good over a series of moments.

Downs

  • For an album where many of the tracks are over five minutes long, there aren’t too many duds here, though a few songs unnecessarily meander. While some songs are fine in the extended length because there’s enough varied content within (West raps and sings in “Blame Game,” there are maybe five guys sharing time on “So Appalled”), I can’t justify the length of others. The sore thumb is the extended outro of “Runaway.” Though West’s super vocoding is cool the first time around, it almost doubles the length of the song. In a concert setting I understand. The purpose of a musician noodling onstage for 5 minutes is to (1) show off his/her technical prowess and (2) give everyone else in the band time to go get a drink of water backstage. In a studio setting though, this just comes off as pointlessly indulgent.
  • Devil In A New Dress” reminds me of some of the weaker moments in The College Dropout with its lethargic pace, vanilla soul sample, and ridiculous rapping (though it’s worth at least one listen when Rick Ross shows up at the end and does the musical equivalent of scenery chewing).
  • Maybe I’m misinterpreting things, but a recurrence in the lyrics seems to be the porn star/stripper (juxtapose those lyrics with the ballerina pics). When West fixates on sex, he does it in a puerile, visceral, and sometimes creepy way, similar to Goichi Suda’s work on the Killer7 and No More Heroes video games. While West admits this and sometimes criticizes himself for his behavior (mostly on “Runaway”), the subject matter can still be as adolescent as a crunk song (“Hell of a Life”) and as resentful as an emo song (“So Appalled”). Chris Rock’s post-coital outro on “Blame Game” is as ridiculous as Rick Ross’s appearances on the album, but the narrator’s fixation on all the things his woman does in the bedroom makes it seem even crasser (though it makes sense coming from Rock, a comedian who has been incredibly sharp and funny when riffing on race and class issues but has demonstrated a somewhat misogynistic view when making jokes concerning men vs. women and relationship dynamics). I don’t know, maybe the sheer ridiculousness of the way the ribald subject matter is conveyed is meant to show how shallow that kind of fixation is and cast the protagonists in the light of depravity (kind of like the aforementioned video games). Then again, it’s unfair to single out West and co. for acting like teenagers when so many artists in pop culture (music and otherwise) do the same thing. At least West undercuts the objectification celebration in the lyrics with bleak beats to show something is amiss. I guess my point is that I sometimes felt uncomfortable, and maybe that was how I was supposed to feel.

Conclusion: MBDTF is very much a return to form for Kanye West in terms of both lyrical themes and production style. It’s denser and more difficult than his earlier work, though I feel there are fewer actual duds on this album than on his last two. I’ll admit that it’s difficult to root for Kanye or the way he conducts himself in public. I can understand a reluctance to buy the album in that one could make the argument that buying the album is enabling the asshole. However, I feel that here he has made an interesting record chock full of introspection and cultural criticism concealed in a baker’s dozen of club bangers. This is one of my top albums of 2010.

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Retro Review: Breath From Another

August 15, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: Who knew trip-hop could rock? The Canadian singer/songwriter kicks off her recording career with an album that expands on the conventions of what chillout electronic music can sound like.

Fun Facts

  • Like Goldfrapp or Bon Jovi, Esthero is the name of both the singer and the band. Esthero sings, Doc plays the instruments, and both have production credits.
  • The band was a studio creation – Esthero and Doc wrote and performed the music on the album, but their partnership was engineered by Michael McCarty, then president of EMI Publishing Canada.
  • There’s a secret instrumental track (“Anywayz Pt. 2”) buried in the album about 5 minutes after “Swallow Me.”

Ups

  • Esthero’s smooth and smoky singing is beautiful but still has this warm quality to it. Her singing’s warmth makes it more approachable compared to that of Beth Gibbons of Portishead or Shara Nelson of Massive Attack.
  • Doc’s production sticks to the basic trip-hop conventions of hardcore hip-hop rhythm sections with jazz and worldbeat influences but expands on the genre through the frequent use of guitars in singles like “Heaven Sent” and “That Girl.”
  • The string sections are the album’s X-Factor and make the album stand out from other R&B and trip-hop records. They can make a song sound cinematic (“Heaven Sent”) or exotic (“Half A World Away”). The hook on “Country Livin’ (The World I Know)” makes me think of zipping around Monte Carlo in a sports car circa 1967.
  • There are just these other cool touches like the Deliverance sample that opens “Breath From Another”, the neat double-time shuffle drumline on “Lounge,” and how “Superheroes” uses effects processing to tweak an otherwise garden variety bassline into something spacey and dreamy.
  • The combination of the warm soul singing and classy, slightly edgy beats make for a very sexy total package. After the hip-hop of “Breath from Another” and the hard rock of “Heaven Sent,” the remainer of the record is straight-up makeout music.

Downs

  • The album runs out of steam towards the end. “Indigo Boy” plods along at too slow a pace, the sax on “Lounge” borders on Kenny G-esque smooth jazz, and the singing on “Superheroes” is a little flat. Luckily Esthero closes out the album with “Swallow Me” a Chick Corea-sampling electronic number that explains what drives her music – “Music was the lamb that made a lion out of me.”

Conclusion: This is another forgotten relic from the late-90s electronic music boom. Growing up near Detroit at the time, I first heard Esthero through 89X, the local alternative station which was based in Windsor (gotta love those Canadian content laws). I love this album because it’s warm, sexy, exotic, hard, and just a little weird. Unfortunately, this album isn’t available for digital download, but you can still track down copies through online resellers. If you like chillout electronic music, I would recommend checking this out.

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Review: Flesh Tone

August 11, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: Kelis makes the big jump from quirky R&B to hard dance with the help of some of the biggest producers in the game.

Fun Facts

  • This is Kelis’s 5th studio album and the first on Will.I.Am’s imprint. She left her previous label after the fairly low U.S. sales of her previous album Kelis Was Here.
  • Kelis recorded a good chunk of this album while she was pregnant with her kid. Kelis gave birth to her son Knight less than a year before Flesh Tone was released.
  • This is Kelis’ first album since her divorce from Nas.

Ups

  • The album’s lyrics are printed on zoomed-in art of a heart for a reason. Much like Christina Aguilera on Bionic, Kelis is able to synthesize her artistic talent and experiences to make music that is catchy enough to appeal to anyone but personal enough to help her stand out from her dance diva peers. This is an electro album about God, having a kid, striking out against the judgmental, and reclaiming independence from a deadbeat ex, but those experiences connect Kelis with an audience beyond the visceral level. It’s all very “high-bandwidth.”
  • Like Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, Flesh Tone’s tracklisting and running time make it feel more like an EP. Unlike The Fame Monster, which was all over the place musically, Kelis and her production team keep the music pretty cohesive, which is pretty amazing since a lot of producers (Burns, Boys Noize, DJ Ammo, Free School, David Guetta, Benny Benassi and more) chipped in backing tracks. It makes for a better whole.
  • While most of the producers play to their strengths, especially Guetta on “Acapella” and “Scream”, occasionally you get a surprise. I normally find Boys Noize’s music to be abrasive and difficult to listen to for a long time, but on “22nd Century,” his typically syncopated beats go really well with the melodic piano lines and Kelis’s cooing.
  • And sometimes playing to your strengths leads to success. Between the cool keys and singalong chorus, Kelis and Guetta make a great pair on “Acapella.” On “Brave,” Benassi’s sick bass line goes with Kelis’s hard-edged lyrics like beer and barbecue.

Downs

  • The transitions between songs are awkward. Look, if you’re going to continuously mix your dance album a la The Chemical Brothers, make sure your songs actually blend together. Don’t start bringing in another song, then fade into silence, and then start up ten seconds of the next song within one track. The end result is that most of the songs end up starting in weird places and ending with messy collisions of noise. Either blend your songs or don’t blend them. (This may be a problem only for the CD version. Maybe the digital or vinyl versions are edited differently.)
  • Given the pedigree of the production team, a lot of the music doesn’t really stand out. Maybe that’s meant to give Kelis more of the spotlight, but if you are at all familiar with these producers’ past work, the results feel just a little phoned in.
  • Kelis’s thin, breathy singing voice is well suited to her past R&B catalog and the sparse, quirky instrumentation of her singles, but it doesn’t carry a chorus as well atop the jackhammer beats and blaring basslines of David Guetta and Boys Noize. Her lyrics and intentions go well with the unsubtle music, but her voice falls short (except on “Acapella,” and “22nd Century” where she is gold).

Conclusion: Overall Flesh Tone is very cohesive and the listener can really sense the intentions of everyone involved, but I find this record to be a little off. The production is catchy but lacks melody and Kelis shows passion and guts through her lyrics but her vocal range doesn’t fit the music very well. I attribute that to the challenges of making a big genre switch and going to the hot talent with not as much consideration given to producer/artist fit, but if Kelis sticks to her guns and finds a production team that can better fit her abilities and performance style (I’m thinking Alan Braxe or Matthew Herbert), I would expect her next record to be stellar.

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Retro Review: On How Life Is

August 8, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The quirky and controversial Macy Gray makes her hip-hop/soul debut.

Fun Facts

  • Everyone remembers this album for its big single “I Try,” which I still hear come up as occasional background music in big box stores. Though On How Life Is was released in 1999, the single actually debuted in the 1997 rom com Picture Perfect. It also was not the first track from the album to be released as a single. That distinction belongs to the Outkast and Nice & Smooth-sampling “Do Something.”
  • Before her debut album dropped, Macy Gray made her first major-label appearance on the Black Eyed Peas’ debut album Behind The Front.
  • I remember Macy Gray getting popular around the same time the hip-hop/soul movement of artists like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Musiq Soulchild, Jazzy Jeff (free from the Fresh Prince), and King Britt was making waves in both the mainstream and underground. While a lot of those artists came up through the Philadelphia scene, the Ohio native Gray started making connections while attending USC and working a cashier job in Beverly Hills.

Ups

  • Gray lives up to her album’s title by covering a wide range of topics from self-affirmation (“A Moment To Myself” & “The Letter”) to passionate sex (“Caligula” & “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak”) to the murder ballad (what?). Yes, “I’ve Committed Murder” is a smoldering tale of Gray saving her lover from a jerk boss by “dealing with” said boss, taking her money, and fleeing to Jamaica with lover in tow. Unlike songs with similar subject matter by, say, Johnny Cash, this ballad has a happy ending. Gray wrote all of the lyrics on the album and the sheer variety really speaks to her talents as a songwriter.
  • Jeremy Ruzumina’s instrumentation is full and lush. The funky rhythm and horn sections really keep the music chugging along. The production also uses cool samples from Outkast (on “Do Something”), DJ Shadow, and Kurtis Blow (both on “A Moment To Myself”). The selective sampling keeps the listener on his/her toes without being gimmicky.
  • Gray and Ruzumina can write an infectious chorus. I can totally picture Gray leading crowds in sing-alongs of “Do Something,” “I Try,” and “I Can’t Wait To Meetchu.”
  • Finally, the unique and soulful aspects of the album come across when delivered through Gray’s signature raspy voice. Gray follows a long line of distinctly-voiced divas including Billie Holiday and Minnie Riperton, and her gravelly alto gives her lyrics character that a cleaner singer would fail to deliver.

Downs

  • However, when I talk to friends about Macy Gray, I am told her voice was a dealbreaker for them (and they often go into bad impressions of her singing “I Try.). I admit that I wasn’t into Gray initially and I found the overplaying of “I Try” on radio and MTV annoying. It took her appearances on Fatboy Slim’s “Demons” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Request Line” to convince me to give her a serious listen. The bottom line is, if you can’t get past her rasp, I understand your hesitance, because it’s like that for the whole album.
  • A criticism I often have of funk and soul albums is that the constant full power of the lush backing band can have things run together. Luckily producer Andrew Slater keeps the album a tight 45 minutes so it never overstays its welcome. Still, it would have been nice if the music went down a notch every once in a while.

Conclusion: Macy Gray makes a name for herself on On How Life Is through her many distinctive qualities beyond her voice. Her varied, unique lyrics; her solid taste in music, and her rock solid production team and backing band make On How Life Is a deep but filler-free soul album. If the most recent thing you remember about Macy Gray is her appearance on Dancing with the Stars, I recommend you give this record a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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Retro Review: Decksandrumsandrockandroll

August 4, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: Two guys from the UK take the then-hot big beat electronic sound into the swanky 60’s and make a hip-hop James Bond score.

Fun Facts

  • Of the five major big beat acts of the late 90s (the others being Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, and Lo-Fidelity All-Stars), the Propellerheads made themselves stand out with their jazzy spy-film sensibilities. I seem to remember that in the late 90s, the swinging 60s aesthetic was hot, given the popularity of the Austin Powers movies and the emergence of rock bands like Lit and Smash Mouth who adopted lounge lizard looks while playing alternative pop music. My point is I’m surprised that this record wasn’t more popular when it first came out. (I know, not a fact)
  • “You may remember me from….”: “Spybreak!,” arguably the album’s most well-known song, features prominently on The Matrix (it’s in the lobby shootout scene). “Bang On!” is on both MTV’s Amp 2 compilation and the soundtrack to Wipeout 64. I first heard of the band on an early IPod commercial featuring “Take California.”
  • Sanguinestyle tipped me off that if you listen closely to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” you’ll hear morse code. The morse code translates to “O.H.M.S.S.” Very nice little touch there!

Ups

  • So that last point about all those commercial and soundtrack features? Well, the band got those deals for a reason: they have ears for the cinematic, from their use of old film dialogue sound clips to their huge horn section samples. If you bump this in your car, be careful not to get pulled over, because you’ll be doing 90 for most of the album.
  • Do you like James Bond movies? The album really kicks into gear when Shirley “Diamonds Are Forever” Bassey comes in to belt on “History Repeating,” and her voice hasn’t aged in 30 years. The band pushes things even further for the album’s centerpiece, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” an epic 9+ minute remix of the titular film’s theme. It features two big movements and this cool breakdown where the band steps back and lets the original score run untouched for a while before the sick bass and Will White’s crisp drumming kick in again.
  • When you’re not rescuing Laurence Fishburne from evil Agents or stealing nuclear secrets back from SPECTRE, you can kick back with the album’s slower numbers. Both “Bigger?” and “Better?” make for lively lounge music that has more in common with Mr. Scruff than Fatboy Slim.
  • For me, this was also the first big electronic album to feature guest appearances from American rappers. Alternative hip-hop icons De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers pop by for a song a piece (Dreamworks US version only), which lends the album additional critical credibility outside of the 60s appreciation.

Downs

  • The album gets off to a slow start. It’s not that album openers “Take California” and “Velvet Pants” are bad or boring, they just don’t stand out as much when you know the banger-heavy middle and end sections are coming up.
  • Similarly, some more straightforward instrumentals like “Winning Style” rely more on building grooves than having pop-out features or guest vocalists and can feel like letdowns when compared to the album’s many standouts.
  • The 60s appreciation/appropriation may come off as shallow or a gimmick, but really, what band doesn’t have some kind of gimmick.

Conclusion: By fusing their love of old spy movies with classic New York hip-hop, Alex Gifford and Will White made a unique electronic album that could be classy and jazzy without being quiet or restrained. You don’t need to make a big listening investment to appreciate the album’s many neat touches and the music has some great applications. A modern classic if you can find it.

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