Posts Tagged ‘soul’

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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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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.