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Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Friday, May 18, 2007
I haven't yet decided what to do with this blog (i.e., whether I should just let it slip into obsolescence instead of half-heartedly reviving it periodically), but I thought I should at least mention the first Stylus article I've written since last summer, on Bjork's "Cocoon." (I am indebted to the editors for providing with me with the opportunity to publish my thoughts there, so it seems niggling to note that, having written a paper on E.E. Cummings in 12th grade, I had capitalized his name, now lowercased in the article, with some intention).
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Maybe these were all rejected from the Jukebox because I couldn't muster enough excitement about any of them to give them more or less than a 7?
Devin the Dude ft. Snoop Dogg and Andre 3000, "What a Job"
None of these dudes, Devin or otherwise, are on the top of their form (Devin doesn't even sound like he's trying), and the novelty of a song about the workaday life of the rapper as recording artist eventually wears off when you realize they haven't got much to say. Still, it has such a light, summery bounce that I can't write it off entirely.
Kate Bush, "Babooshka"
The career of Tori Amos obviously owes a lot to Kate Bush, and it's particularly apparent on this daintily jaunty song, parts of which can be heard as a model for early Amos fare like "Leather," while the rest is its own wonderfully weird, witchy clatter.
Kate Bush, "Wuthering Heights"
I'm a fan of the sort of pretentious art that inevitably results from precocious 20-year-olds titling songs after Victorian novels and involving, like, harpsichords and shit, but it's also true that Bush hadn't yet learned restraint on her debut, as her high, fluttering, birdlike voice and relentlessly florid, tinkling piano almost overwhelm the song's inherent prettiness.
Also: The new Kelly Clarkson single, "Never Again," isn't as monstrously good as "Since U Been Gone" (I mean, what is?), but I swear to God when it came up randomly on my iTunes, I thought it was Sleater-Kinney.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Hi. I haven't been here in a while.
Here's some singles blurbs from the last few weeks that didn't make the cut:
Lil Mama, "Lip Gloss"
For the same reason I like “Drop It Like It’s Hot” better than “Wait (The Whisper Song),” I prefer “Hollaback Girl” to this song—musically, it needs something sweet or lush to counteract that relentless drum cadence. Still, it’s cute that it’s about lip gloss, which also makes it a more plausible jump-rope song than Gwen’s.
The Stooges, "My Idea of Fun"
I've never had much use for the Stooges' crude blues-derived proto-punk, so the fact that this new single only harkens back to the glory years in its playful nihilism, but otherwise resembles Dirty-era Sonic Youth (Iggy even seems to mimic Thurston Moore's flat sing-song), is a nice surprise.
Kanye West, Nas, KRS-One, and Rakim, "Better Than I've Ever Been"
Since the all-star team assembled here had me worried at first that the track would be an overblown mess, I'm pleased that it's so lean, giving each rapper plenty of room to represent and rhyme alongside the beat's stylish glide. I just wish there was a hook, though, since that same restraint also makes it lapse into monotony.
All of these reviews, to varying degrees, reveal the extent to which I prioritize sonic elements over lyrical/thematic ones, which sometimes troubles me. I mean, it's not as if it's a conscious decision, it's just what I notice first. One of the first pop songs I ever reviewed on this blog (Lil Kim's "Magic Stick") focused almost exclusively on the melodic structure of the chorus and dropped the term "major triad." These days, I try to avoid more egregious displays of music theory, but my tendency to isolate individual instruments, in describing how they contribute to an overall mood, is what led me to wonder if this approach could be classified as formalism.
It sort of strikes me as New Criticism-influenced, not dissimilar to the way I examined contemporary poetry in Conrad Hilberry's class in 1997: picking apart how each semi-colon, each use of consonance, contributed to the whole. (I had a lot to say about the anapestic meter in Stephen Dobyns's "The Music One Looks Back On.") And all of that is fine, except in cases like that song with all the rap legends, when surely it might've done me good to force myself to pay attention to what they were actually saying. (There's a potential tangent here about why I'm able to pay attention to words when they're on paper and not when they're in my headphones, but I'll skip that for now.)
Somewhat related: I don't think Timbaland's "Give it to Me" is worth much more than the 7 that I gave it last month, but realizing that it's a Scott Storch diss track makes me appreciate it on a whole new level. The presence of Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake as guest vocalists always seemed like a show-off move ("I'm so great, I can get two of the biggest pop stars in the world to do cameos for me"), but now it just so seems so much more in-your-face, and I like that it makes Nelly and Justin complicit in the beef. Even if Storch wasn't likely to work with Timberlake again, anyway, there's a riskiness to it that's attractive.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Stylus had a spotlight on "sophisti-pop" yesterday, complete with a Jukebox full of classic mid-80s singles. I had a couple of blurbs included, but a surfeit of contributors meant that another couple got cut.
Without further Adu:
Sade, "Smooth Operator
The best song on offer here, and not just because it’s the only one I’ve heard a million times (though I am irrationally affectionate toward songs I’ve heard performed by lounge bands at divey bowling alleys). It’s also a smooth jazz song—maybe even the one that codified the genre’s name—that nevertheless avoids the aimless vapidity of most of its peers. This is sometimes achieved through a climactic sax trill but mostly through Sade Adu’s marvelously creamy voice (dig the supple hiccups on the “coast to coast” part). As a character study, it lacks the emotional component of some of her later singles, but it’s an exceptionally worthy debut.
Aztec Camera, "Somewhere in My Heart"
After hearing lounge-pop also-rans The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group reference Aztec Camera as an inspiration in “Goodbye to All That,” I had high expectations, but my first encounter with Roddy Frame (via Todd Hutlock’s “The Sound of Young Scotland” mix CD) was a stripped-down disappointment. Turns out there’s more to the band than just clever jangle, though, and the insistent beat and dramatic sparkle of this later effort go a long way toward making me revise my initial opinion.
As a bonus treat, here's another unpublished blurb from a while back:
Arcade Fire, "Black Mirror"
Though the Arcade Fire's strength has always been less in their wailing melodies than in their ability to build tension and enforce a sense of dynamics, Win Butler's transformation of the song's title into a tiresome mantra means that the usual slow burn of plunking piano and ramshackle drums flickers out before a sudden burst of French can save it.
I'm still looking forward to Neon Bible, though. Sasha Frere-Jones's profile of the band in this week's New Yorker is particularly good, although using Ian McCulloch as a reference point for Win Butler's voice would've been a fresher insight if my friend Dan hadn't made the same connection (upon hearing Echo and the Bunnymen for the first time) two weeks ago.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
(NOTE: Revised in light of Matos's announcement that there were 503 Jackin' Pop voters, not 497.)
So Pazz and Jop is out now, and I thought it would be interesting to see if my prediction that it would reward more conservative tastes (rock dinosaurs, singer-songwriters) came true. At first glance, this does appear to be the case: while Jackin' Pop had Bob Dylan's Modern Times in the #6 slot, Pazz and Jop elevates the album to its top position.
In order to get a better look at the rest of the list, I constructed the following formula:
where PJ = Pazz and Jop points
JP = Jackin' Pop points
494 = number of Pazz and Jop voters
503 = number of Jackin' Pop voters
The voter totals are remarkably similar, but they're not equal, so the first part of that equation ((PJ*503)/494) represents a weighted Pazz and Jop vote, i.e. what we would expect if nine more people had voted. The rest of the equation calculates the percentage change in points from Jackin' Pop to Pazz and Jop.
In analyzing the 51 albums that garnered at least 200 points on either poll (this still isn't a perfect comparison, since Pazz and Jop allowed voters to give up to 30 points per album, while Jackin' Pop set a max of 15), here are the ones that did much better on Pazz and Jop:
|E. Costello/A. Toussaint||78||240||213.2|
|New York Dolls||106||205||96.9|
Naturally, I then reversed the equation to see which albums performed better on Jackin' Pop:
|Love Is All||103||226||115.5|
|DJ Drama/Lil Wayne||113||226||96.4|
*this figure is unweighted
I think the results speak for themselves.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Everyone's already been linking to it, so there's a good chance you've seen it already, but the Stylus Singles Jukebox has converted to a blog format. It's great news because it means I can review songs more or less as they come along, instead of having to commit for a whole batch that all too often took up my Sunday afternoon. So far, I've written blurbs for Alan Jackson, Musiq Soulchild, Linda Sundblad, Mike Jones, Akon, and the Shins. (Speaking of whom, Wincing the Night Away is, horrible title notwithstanding, much better than I'd been expecting. "Sea Legs" reminds me of Beck's "Paper Tiger" -- which itself rips off Serge Gainsbourg, as I recently noticed when listening to L'Histoire de Melody Nelson for the first time -- but I dig that taut guitar strut slathered in ascending strings.) Here's my blurb for Amerie's "Take Control," my favorite single of 2007 so far, which didn't make the cut:
Female-led R&B these days seems to rely on either a cool robotic sheen (Ciara) or a commanding belt-'em-out style (Beyonce), so it's refreshing to hear a woman who's a) got some grit in her voice but b) doesn't resort to histrionics. In fact, Amerie often reminds me of an early Michael Jackson (it's in that raw tug right after the chorus: "I said 'baby!'") and on "Take Control," the creeping spy-movie guitar and horn blasts do little to play down the resemblance to something like "Off the Wall." This is energetic, infectious stuff that proves "1 Thing" was no fluke. 
I almost bought Touch the other day, not least because her pose on the cover is so hot, but also because I don't really listen to many hip-hop/R&B/pop albums, which doesn't seem fair. With hip-hop, this is a pragmatic choice, since 90% of the time I listen to music, I'm also doing something else (like copyediting or reading or composing blog posts), and it's just too distracting for an hour-plus at a time (I actually like that new Clipse album, but I've barely gotten around to listening to it more than twice). With pop and R&B, I think it's partially a rockist assumption that nothing's going to be as good as the singles (even though I have heard some solid albums qua albums, like Brooke Valentine's debut), and partially the fact that I don't have as much access to it: these aren't the kind of albums that are put up on Luisterpaal or that I can gank from friends who are otherwise all too willing to burn me the new Bloc Party or Wilco discs (I had to drive all the way to Milwaukee to see a Brewers game with Matt Cibula to get my hands on Brooke Valentine!).
Of course, after Noah Berlatsky, in a recent Chicago Reader article, called LeToya's debut "one of the most accomplished and creative recordings I've ever heard, in any genre," I wanted to seek it out immediately. (Something about the article as a whole bugs me, though: even though I understand that its premise is a defense of a genre that's probably maligned by much of the paper's readership, it sometimes reads like a persuasive essay for a freshman comp class. With pat formulations like "contemporary R&B does have something to offer" and "The best thing ... isn't the lyrics, though. It's the music," I half expected the article to conclude with the old high-school paper stand-by, "Try it, who knows you just might like it." As it stands, "And it's right on the Top 40 station of your choice" isn't much better. I'm not entirely sure what would've improved the piece, but I'm sort of left wondering where all this nervous protestation sprang from.)