Posts Tagged ‘music review’

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Thoughts on The Voice: Audition Round 5

February 27, 2012

Image from &y at Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Alright people, I think the coaches have fewer than 10 picks to make, so hopefully they can wrap this up and we can get to the much more fun and very probably rigged battle rounds.

Contestants’ Notes

-Whitney Myer is giving off that Nikka Costa vibe, and it’s not because of just her curly red hair. It’s also that light, uptempo, janky R&B. She’s doing “No One,” which I think was originally by Alicia Keyes, and I quite light this bouncy rendition. She earns turns from all four coaches. Whitney goes with Adam, whose experience fusing pop-rock and R&B might help develop her overall brand with minimal genre clash. What a good start to the show!

-David Boreanaz lookalike David Dunn goes the lite-rock route on “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved.” When I heard the first few notes of this song, I thought this was going to be another jerk with an acoustic guitar, but I saw him with just a mic, which was a relief. David tried to make the bleh song lively with some walking around the stage, but he just didn’t have the emotion or charisma in his voice (and he just blew that falsetto section.) No turns for you!

-The Shields Brothers seem like some kind of rock n roll Coreys. At least their dual-tenor duet of “Dancing With Myself” is different than the usual schtick duo acts pull. Nonetheless, they have the same problem most of the duos on this show have – neither one of them is a very good singer individually. They skate by on their uptempo style and their harmonizing. They end up on Team Cee Lo.

-I must compliment Cheesa for taking on Beyonce, especially on the midtempo clunker “If I Were A Boy.” She starts off sounding way, way, way too low for her range at the start, but she pulls out the stops for the big, soaring chorus and knocks out most of the notes. I didn’t care for the performance because it felt like so much oversinging. Still, I respect her vocal prowess and she definitely has the charisma worthy of a Beyonce song. She gets a turn from Cee Lo.

-I think Preston Shannon could have used a sparser arrangement for “In The Midnight Hour.” singing was rough and solid, but it couldn’t quite stand out against the big, clean arrangement of the house band. While Preston seems to come from a blues background, he kept the soloing to the beginning and end. He was good on the axe, but it’s called The Voice, not The Guitarist. It’s too bad, and I hope this guy finds a good avenue for his art.

-OK, so the alliterative Lex Land lands two turns (Adam and Cee Lo) within the first 8 notes of the song, but damn she is undersinging the hell out “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” I heard serious mush mouth problems in her singing and the dulcet, plinky music didn’t help al all. Maybe if she did something with more menace and smokiness (Portishead, Goldfrapp, early-2000s Moby, etc.) she would have come across better. Then again I just want trip-hop to make a comeback. Eh, maybe Blake can help bring out her inner torch singer.

-Cameron Novack starts out strong, doing a weird Savage Garden-esque soft sell of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” Then he gets bogged down in the flow of the build up to the chorus (back off the freestyling, dude.) He then shifts to oversinging the chorus. Overall Cameron’s performance wasn’t too bad, but his abrupt shift in delivery style for each part of the song might have been too jarring. If he stuck to the restrained pop style or even charged in with aggressive oversinging I feel like he could have done better. Also, letting the coaches “cheat” and pick him after the turn would have set the worst precedent for the show, because then every hot contestant who walked up onstage would have a second shot, and that would be shitteous!

-At the start, Orlando Napier comes across as a low-key guy with a piano (which is still better than an acoustic guitar.) He got away from that once he got up from the piano, but he failed to win me over. The John Mayer song choice and Randy Newman singing style was a bad combination. Also…ENUNCIATE! Adam picks him has his final team member.

-Lee Koch has guts for taking on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which karaoke connoisseur Brian Rafferty called one of the worst songs to sing since the verses are so rambling and weird against the familiar chorus. Lee is trying his best with the material and doesn’t flub any of the lines, but he just could not hit those “how does it FEEL” lines in the chorus. He earned a turn from Christina through his harmonica playing, which in my opinion is a bad sign. I don’t like when competitive singers use instruments as crutches. It feels like cheating. I predict that he’ll get eaten alive in the battle rounds.

-WADE (is the all-capitalization really necessary?) tries something kind of cool with a warm Stax-ed out soul rendition of “Rehab.” Vocally WADE (and that’s the last time I’m all-caps-ing that) has bursts of greatness, especially in the verses, though he hit some rough spots in the other parts. He just needs a little practice. Otherwise he’s a good combination of traditionalism and risk-taking. Cee Lo should be able to work his voice out, as Wade becomes his concluding pick.

-Adley Stump takes on Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name” (uh-oh) and it’s a bit of a wreck. She wasn’t bad, just mediocre. You could walk into any karaoke bar, and someone singing that song would sound just as good. Frankly the performance felt like so much mediocre singing except for those few belts (which I concede gave me chills.) She really couldn’t sustain her run and stick the landing. Predictably, she heads for Team Blake, and I think he’ll have more faith in her. Maybe he’ll coach her on fashion as well (go-go boots, star bandana, and Victoria Jackson hair?) She is the last pick of Team Blake.

We get a brief montage of failed singers (the Beta lady who sang Jason DeRulo sounded kind of interesting to me.) Also, Danny Devito sings “Three Times A Lady” during a Lorax crossover commercial skit. I was just wishing he’d sing “Troll Toll” from The Nightman Cometh. Then….

-Sera Hill pulls out every trick in the traditional R&B singer book – up and down runs, extended holds, power belting – and she kills every one. I thought her song choice was super slow and boring (and way too Idol) but damn she was good! She was a pro doing her thing, and that’s just wonderful. She becomes the final pick of the show as the last contestant to join team Xtina.

And now a summary of tonight’s winners, in the order they were announced:
-Mark Ronson should pay attention
-“I can’t tell Corey Feldman from Corey Haim.
-Charisma without the power
-Will Beth Gibbons come on as a mentor?
-Bad meets icky
-Karaoke cannon fodder
-Tradition meets risk
-A lot of people could do that
-She could have a good run on Idol

And there we have it! We have our Top (shudder) 48! Tune in next week for the theatrical battle rounds and tune in tomorrow for the start of my recapping of American Idol’s Live Top 25 rounds. SO MUCH SINGING!!!

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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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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: Playlist: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

August 3, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The dance rock pioneers get an entry on Sony’s budget best-of compilation series.

Fun Facts

  • The band hails from Birmingham, England, home of Black Sabbath, who got popular just a few years before ELO. Their drummer actually left the band to join Sabbath (props to Wikipedia for the info).
  • This compilation was initially released as “The Essential Electric Light Orchestra,” but was repacked in the cardboard digipak with extra CD content.

Ups

  • In the 1970s, ELO was a band that combined the muscle of what would become classic rock with the big orchestral sound that The Beatles started rocking in the late 1960s. A side effect of that combination was that ELO became one of the first rock bands to also make disco music. This in an age when the integration, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s was splintering into more hardcore factionism (though maybe it was different in the UK).
  • There are some great dance singles here. “Don’t Bring Me Down” features platinum-heavy riffs with solid 4/4 dance drumming. “Shine A Little Love’s” strings and handclaps have the band sounding like Jamiroquai were it not for the “jug-jugga-jug” rhythm guitar in the hook.
  • Overall the music has some nice contour without being epic. “Mr. Blue Sky” is 80% piano-driven McCartney-esque pop-rock, but its final 20% turns to a choral crescendo that makes for a huge contrast. The opposite happens on “Hold On Tight,” which opens with menacing distorted guitar but quickly transforms into an upbeat inspirational rocker I imagine the band performing on a moving truck or bus.
  • Even when they’re not being all maximalist and dance-friendly, ELO can turn out great mellow songs too. “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” is a band geek love song that, were it not for its sincerity, would be on more indie kid mixtapes. On the flipside, “Evil Woman” is your basic mean kiss-off wrapped up in falsettos and acoustic strumming. It’s engaging nonetheless.

Downs

  • The downside to the orchestral maximalism is that sometimes it’s too much, it’s heavy-handed. Songs like “Do Ya” and “Livin’ Thing” just plod along as though all the stuff going on in the song can hide the crummy choruses and thin songwriting.
  • Frontman Jeff Lynne & friends sing in a range of voices that would rival Maria Bamford. They have a tendency to sing in these ultra-falsetto, slightly off-key harmonies alternated with bassy chants that make them sound like Muppets. Couple this with the general hairiness of the band members in their press photos and the effect is exacerbated (I realize this may be an up for some people).
  • I know that it’s trite to knock a best-of for missing songs, but I was kind of disappointed that none of the songs from ELO’s half of the Xanadu soundtrack were featured. That record went platinum and inspired a Tony-nominated broadway revival, so it seems weird that none of the music was featured. Now that’s what I call a roller disco disappointment.

Conclusion: Though American acts like ZZ Top, Electric Six, and N.E.R.D. would continue to fuse rock instrumentation atop dance beats, and countless big indie bands would continue to utilize classical music with quirky arrangements, ELO’s rock/dance/classical discography made them icons in pop music fusion. The compilation itself is cheap, it has a lot of classic rock staples that also mix well in dance sets, and it makes a solid intro to the band. If you buy this best-of, check out Xanadu soundtrack next, and then go from there.

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Retro Review: American Gangster

August 2, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The biggest name in hip-hop, one album into his return from retirement, makes a concept album synthesizing his biography with the Ridley Scott movie.

Fun Facts

  • This is Jay-Z’s only “concept album.” It has a rise-and-fall story that compares the ol’ Goodfellas/Scarface trope with the limited shelf life of the pop musician. Given some of the Kingdom Come reviews, it’s understandable why Mr. Carter would be thinking of his commercial and/or critical mortality.
  • Consequently, it is also Jay-Z’s only album that he is not selling on ITunes (he is selling it on Amazon though). He wants the listener to hear the record from start to finish, just like AC/DC!
  • This is the second Jay-Z album to be released with an acapella version. Remember how many crummy “concept” The Black Album mashup albums came out 6 years ago trying to be Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album? Even I tried my hand at one back in 2005.
  • Finally, the intro features King Driis himself, Idris Elba. At the time, he was best known in the States for his role on The Wire, but he booms over Chris Flame’s atmospherics in his native Hackney accent. Damn he can do a voiceover!

Ups

  • Hate on Diddy and his antics all you want, but the man knows his way around a high profile sample and a cinematic sound. “Pray” stomps with swagger and symphonic pomp and the guitars rage just enough to be badass. “No Hook” feels like a ganglord pontificating over his empire when Jay-Z flows over the slow burn music. Heck, even the Marvin Gaye sample on “American Dreamin’,” enhances the song’s wistful/wishful tone.
  • You can always count on the Neptunes to make some good beats. “I Know” has this peppy bounce to it, and Pharrell’s chorus is nothing if not infectious. Later on, “Blue Magic” features some cool minimal organ backing and some early 90s, 2 Unlimited-esque keyboard stabs and manages to hold the whole thing together.
  • Two words: Just Blaze! Though he chips in only one track, “Ignorant Shit,” the music is some of the catchiest modern disco this side of the Freemasons.
  • Though he has the gall to wrap up his biography with a big-budget crime drama given all of the legitimate money he has earned over his nearly 20 year music career, at least Jay-Z has the humility to end the main part of the album with the gangster’s fall and the rapper’s irrelevance on “Fallin’.” It speaks to his self-awareness.

Downs

  • I fell asleep listening to some parts of the album. “Sweet’s” hazy 70’s ambience and minimal beats had me struggling to stay focused. “Say Hello” runs too slow for its own good. Even Jay-Z sounds like he is yawning his way through the verses on that song.
  • Sometimes the good parts just don’t come together: “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” features a Lil Wayne guest verse and a very, very dirty beat, but unless you’re a native New Yorker, there’s not much to really draw you in lyric-wise.
  • Beanie Sigel’s turn on “Ignorant Shit” is reminder that while Jay-Z is one of the most successful rappers of all time and he helped break both Kanye West and Just Blaze, he has never found a good protégé: Memphis Bleek, Foxy Brown, Tierra Marie, Young Gunz, and yes, Beanie Sigel. Does he make a bad label manager, a guy who picks talent to make himself look better by comparison, or just a guy who wants to give the people he cares about breaks?
  • Finally, the spoken-word outro from Beyonce starts to sound eerily like she’s preaching the church of Hov. Maybe she’s just going all “Jesus Walks,” but I call it like I hear it.

Conclusion: I find it ironic that Jay-Z would think of this record as a conceptual whole when execution-wise it is so hit-and-miss. Maybe if he got one, two producers to do the whole album, or punched up some of the downtempo tracks with DJ Shadow, RJD2, or Eminem, then we’d have a better overall album. Nevertheless, this is good for maybe 8-10 tracks if you’re feeling generous. Good thing you can buy the individual mp3s!

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Danger! Low Voltage!

July 14, 2010

Image from Amazon

On paper this seems like a bad idea. One of the most important pop music producers of the past 12-20 years teaming up with like Katy Perry and that guy from Nickelback. No wonder it’s called Shock Value II. Timbaland wants to show off the artists he can pull for collaborations, the variety of the beats he can make, and his versatility as a singer, rapper, and producer. The man has an ego. I mean, the lead single off of the first Shock Value was a four-minute, all-star diss track on rival producer Scott Storch. Then again, an ego is legit if the results back it up….

Full review after the jump….

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Beyond Bionic

June 22, 2010

Image from Amazon

Whenever a musician decides to reinvent him/herself stylistically, they can give themselves a new artistic lease on life and possibly increase their fanbase. David Bowie is a master of this practice. However, when an artist does a reinvention, they also run the risk of straying too far from the sound that made them successful in the first place. When U2 incorporated electronic music and crisp pop production into their Zooropa and Pop albums, they made some kickass dance music (Pop is my favorite U2 album), but also alienated many of their longtime fans. They quickly corrected course for their album All You Can’t Leave Behind, and distanced themselves from their electronic experimenting by re-recording those songs for their Best of 1990-2000 and whitewashed away their work of the mid-to-late 90s.

Christina Aguilera has made a career of reinventing herself while maintaining her identity through her cruise missile of a voice and her no-nonsense attitude. Her latest album Bionic continues her history of reinvention. Consistent with the title, the album is part electro dance pop and part clean traditional slow songs, all upholding Aguilera’s themes of sexual empowerment, self-confidence, and emotional honesty. Do the cybernetic upgrades pay off?

Let’s examine the parts. Much like her 2002 album Stripped, Aguilera supplements her talents with the aid of a solid team of collaborators in songwriting, producing, and/or performing. Overall the partners seem good matches. By working with traditionally indie acts, Aguilera allies herself with sounds that one doesn’t hear much on top-40 radio: the driving electro and catchy sloganeering of Le Tigre; the hazy vocals and bleary electronics of M.I.A. and Switch, etc. On the deluxe version of the album, Santigold and Ladytron enter the mix, furthering the album’s indie dance aspects.

I liked that on this album Aguilera didn’t give in to the temptation of going “cannon, cannon, cannon,” with her vocal performances. She knows when to back off or at least when she wants to back off. If she did an entire album of vocal acrobatics, she’d come across like Celine Dion and the end product would be one long held note. It would be boring for both the audience and I imagine the artist. Sometimes Aguilera alters her vocal style to blend into a song and give more attention to the music, the lyrics, or the performances of her guests. She may be a diva, but she is also gracious host.

This is very apparent on the dance tracks, which I really got into. Switch expands on the style he made with M.I.A. for Kala on “Elastic Love” and the title track. The music is very catchy in that off-kilter way, and Christina does a great M.I.A. impression, sometimes too well. The same could be said for the tracks from Polow da Don, whom you may know as the guy who produced Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Chris Brown’s “Forever,” and Usher’s “Love In This Club.” Polow’s production diversity is reflected in his contributions: “Not Myself Tonight” is a fairly straightforward club track, “Woohoo” features playfully percussive beats and some solid rapping from Nicki Minaj, and “I Hate Boys” is a shuffle-beat stomper that sounds like it could have come from Dr. Luke.

And therein lies the downside of 2/3rds of the album: while catchy and propulsive, it’s pretty derivative. A concern expressed by others about this record has been that it tries too hard to ride the current electro-pop wave led by one L. Gaga. Now I for one am not complaining about this. Aguilera is a bloody awesome performer and has the musical knowledge to work with the real deal in this genre. It adds further legitimacy to this kind of electronic music.

My bigger complaint is with the album’s middle third, which grinds the whole show to a halt for 6 slow, cleanly produced ballads. For Aguilera this is musically conservative territory, as the bubblegum beats, clean pianos, and orchestral crescendos serve to focus the listener on her voice, and what a voice it is! It would be garden variety diva fodder were it not for Aguilera’s lyrics. Since hooking up with Linda Perry in the early 2000s, Christina has set herself apart from her peers by combining her personal confessions with affirmations that connect her to her viewers. On “Sex For Breakfast,” Aguilera sings about fi-yi-yine slow jam sex in the morning, but focuses on her own sex drive and sexual satisfaction. If another singer of Aguilera’s stature, say, a Beyonce, were to sing this kind of song, it would more likely focus on pleasing the male partner.  Meanwhile on “All I Need,” which rides this neat minimal ¾ waltz, Christina sings a love song that’s worded ambiguously enough that one could make the case that, assuming it’s true, could be about her husband or her son.

That’s the cool thing about Christina: she comes across as very multifaceted. She’s a strong, hardworking musician, a parent, and a sex symbol, and she performs all of these roles on Bionic, often at the same time, while still connecting with her audience. Not even Eminem can claim that. She proclaims that yes, you can be a person of both style and substance, dammit, and that investing in one should not have to compromise another. Madonna may have the longevity, and Gaga may have the innovation, but it’s Christina who comes out complete regardless of reinvention.

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Crazy Circuitry

June 14, 2010

 

Janelle Monae – The Archandroid

What makes a good concept album for me is that the album’s individual songs should be able to stand on their own apart from the whole. I feel this way because even if the album’s central story is some weird, sprawling, half-baked idea, I still get to hear some great tunes. Lots of great rock songs from “Another Brick In The Wall” to “Pinball Wizard” to “American Idiot” came from concept albums and went on to great commercial success as classic/alternative staples. However, I have trouble thinking of concept albums outside the rock genre other than Mike Ladd’s Infesticons hip-hop trilogy (which just concluded) and that Imelda Marcos disco musical David Byrne and Fatboy Slim wrote. Enter the Monae.

Janelle Monae is an up-and-coming R&B singer with a story to tell on The Archandroid. It is definitely a weird, sprawling story to rival those great rock operas: time travel, cloning, secret societies, Monae having an android pop star descendant in the 22nd century who will save humanity from said evil secret society (hence the title), and Monae in the present being a mental patient having delusions about the whole story. It’s actually a continuation from her first EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite. While the sci-fi and insanity themes have been touched on before by singers like Kelis and Macy Gray, they have never been approached with the grand scope and musical range as on this album.

The Archandroid has a very maximalist feel to it. You can see Monae’s commitment to her universe before pressing play by looking at the album cover: the Metropolis artwork, the Bioshock fonts, the liner notes listing the inspirations for each song (including Stevie Wonder, Prince, Muhammad Ali’s fists, and glow of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber), and a multiparagraph synopsis written from the perspective of another character in the story.

And the songs? Oh, they more than match the mood. It’s a credit to the artistic vision and talent of Monae and her production team that they made an album with such stylistic variety from song to song and the whole thing still holds together like it’s sci-fi Grease. One thing I didn’t realize until about halfway into my first listen is how flexible Monae is with her vocal styles. The first time you hear her voice on “Dance Or Die” she isn’t singing or cooing or belting, she is rapping with a staccato flow like how Busta Rhymes used to do it in the late 90s. But a few minutes in, the music doubles in time to a rocking Motown number and she’s suddenly singing in a breezy alto on “Faster.” Monae’s singing ranges from Tina Turner scream to Simon & Garfunkel choral whisper, and she even goes into full-on GLaDOS mode on “Wondaland.”

My initial favorite songs on the album were the more upbeat numbers on the album’s first suite, especially “Cold War” and “Tightrope” both of which recall Outkast with their southern-fried paisley-funk backing, and “Come Alive,” where Monae throws all her cards on the table in a rockabilly asylum dance party. The slow-burners on the second suite take a bit more getting used to, as they have sparser instrumentation and Monae’s performances are much cleaner and restrained. However, after re-reading the liner notes and listening closer to the lyrics I came to the conclusion that the second suite is performed by Monae’s Sasha Fierce android-clone Cindi Mayweather. Since these songs are supposed to be performed by a sleek, bionic messiah in a cold, dystopian future, it kind of makes sense that the music feels sad, haunted, and hopeful. It’s a big contrast from the urgency and loony playfulness of the first suite, but that’s what makes the album’s concept – the progression of a story.

Overall The Archandroid is a damn good record, concept or not. There are some hot singles and potential hits for the casual listeners and there’s a neat album progression and nerdy sci-fi theme for the more attentive listeners. Here’s hoping this album sells a boatload so we can get more of this in popular R&B.

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