cartwheels into your heart

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New singles reviews.

Only one of mine that didn't make it was my Omarion blurb, which is just as well, since in retrospect it looks like a evaluation (this track has similar modern R&B stylings, heavy melodic ornamentation, and a vocal-centric aesthetic...):

I've somehow never noticed Omarion before, but I'm totally in love with this single right now. Like Mario's "Here I Go Again," most of its appeal comes from its blend of silky, languid R&B vocals with an insistent uptempo beat and an unusual instrumental riff: where Mario had crashing rock guitar, Omarion has a strutting liquid synth straight out of Stevie Wonder. And when the chorus hits, everything's locked in just right.

Maybe I should've said something about how he looks like Ludacris Jr.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

So the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing book doesn't come out for another two months, although series editor Daphne Carr has revealed the table of contents. And since an entire two thirds of the articles chosen for publication are currently available online (many appeared there originally), I decided to reprint the TOC with the relevant links. See, now you don't even have to buy the book.

Greil Marcus, Stories of a Bad Song / Threepenny Review

Alex Ross, Doctor Atomic "Countdown" / The New Yorker

Mike McGuirk / Rhapsody
 Rush, Hemispheres
 Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors
 Ted Nugent, Cat Scratch Fever
 Kylie Minogue, I Believe in You
 Accept, Balls to the Wall
 Frosty, Liquor Drink
 Iron Maiden, Number of the Beast
 Boredoms, Super AE
 Kraftwerk, Man Machine
 Dream Theater, Octavarium

Robert Wheaton, London Calling -- For Congo, Coloumbo, Sri Lanka... / PopMatters

Jon Caramanica, Ghetto Gospel / XXL Magazine

Elizabeth Mendez Berry, Love Hurts / VIBE [PDF]

Charles Michener, Going Bonkers at the Opera: Glimmerglass Flirts with Chaos / New York Observer

Ann Powers, Crazy Is as Crazy Does / eMusic

Miss AMP, Kevin Blechdom / Plan B Magazine

Kimberly Chun, Touched by a Woman: Dolly Parton Sings about Peace, Love, and Understanding / Creative Loafing

Frank Kogan, Frank Kogan's Country Music Critics' Ballot 2005 / I Love Music [I think this is it?]

John Biguenet, The DeZurik Sisters / The Oxford American

Katy St. Clair, A Very Special Concert / San Francisco Weekly

Nick Weidenfeld, Dying in the Al Gore Suite / The Fader

Tom Ewing, The Beatles "Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine" / Popular

Geoffrey O'Brien, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" / The New York Review of Books

Geoff Boucher, Ex-Door Lighting Their Ire / Los Angeles Times

Dave Tompkins, Permission to 'Land / Scratch Magazine

Kevin Whitehead, Chops: Upstairs, Downstairs with Art Tatum (and Monk) / eMusic

Robert Christgau, The First Lady of Song / The Nation

Anne Midgette, The End of the Great Big American Voice / New York Times

Bill Friskics-Warren, Bettye Lavette / No Depression

Susan Alcorn, Texas: Three Days and Two Nights / Counterpunch

John Sullivan, Upon This Rock / GQ

Peter Relic, The Return / XXL Magazine

Dr. David Thorpe, Thorpe's Notes on R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet / Something

Raquel Cepeda, Riddims by the Reggaeton / Village Voice

Wayne Marshall, we use so many snares / wayne&wax

Andrew Hultkrans, Sweat and Lowdown / Artforum

J. Edward Keyes, Where's the Party? 13 Hours with the Next Franz Ferdinand / DIW Magazine

David Marchese, High on Fire / PopMatters

Monica Kendrick, Bang the Head Slowly / Chicago Reader

Will Hermes (as Robert Barbara), Vegetarian militancy, sound magick, B&D, and the most astonishing live show of my life / Loose Strife

Moustafa Bayoumi, Disco Inferno / The Nation

I've been talking about pop music a lot lately with a new co-worker, Laura, and thus revisiting some of the reasons why I suddenly embraced pop again after toiling in the indie wilderness for too long.

(Which reminds me, haha, so the other day, Krista was trying to remember the name of Nelly's first really huge single, like something before "Hot in Herre," and I was like, I don't know, that must have been during my dark period, and she said, "I like how your 'dark period' isn't a time when you were depressed or doing lots of drugs or whatever, but when you weren't listening to pop music.")

Anyway, so I told Laura, who's feeling skeptical about downloading "Toxic" when Wilco and Calexico seem smarter and more relevant, that one reason I took to current Top 40 so quickly was that it was the sort of music I'd always genuinely liked but had merely repressed for ten years. I mean, when I first used Limewire three summers ago, I downloaded not just "In Da Club" but also Candyman's "Knockin' Boots" and Father MC's "I'll Do 4 U." I had a fierce nostalgia for hip-hop and R&B, and what was on the charts in 2003 was just an update of a genre that had always been there for me. (The back-turning, by the way, wasn't such a bad thing: as snobbish as my impulses sometimes were, I also really needed to explore the world beyond MTV.)

So Laura said, "Yeah, well, the music I was listening to before I got into indie rock? Mainstream country. I'm not sure I want to return to that." And I smiled, because even though my tastes in pop generally run in the KISS-FM direction, I'm enough of a dilettante that there are actually a couple of nouveau-Nashville singles that I quite like. For instance, I still maintain that Gretchen Wilson's "All Jacked Up" is one of the finest songs of the last couple years in any genre.

After I mentioned this, Laura wrinkled her nose and said, "I don't know, a lot of that stuff just sounds so overproduced." Now obviously, I don't usually have much of a problem with fancy production -- after all, I like dance music -- but I guess I knew what she meant. I shrugged. "I honestly haven't heard a whole lot," I said, "but some of what I've heard has really clever and funny lyrics, and these big, warm, charismatic voices that make me want to sing along." I stopped myself. "I guess since I never really heard country music at all until recently, maybe there's a novelty factor, too. Like hey, they're telling a story!" She laughed.

My friend Jason Hughes thinks that the only reason I like any mainstream country music at all is that no one else I know is listening to it, and so it keeps me ahead of the curve. There's a weird insinuation here that I haven't really given up indie, or at least indie's contrarian impulse to reject what's popular: in these days of the Decemberists signing to Capitol, he claims, the only truly subversive move is to reclaim commercial pop. (And once that's cool again, leave the city altogether and head out to Wal-Mart.)

And while there's an embarrassing grain of truth in that, I also think that there is something intrinsic about country that appeals to me, starting with what I fumblingly tried to explain to Laura. I'm reminded of an interesting observation Jonathan Bradley made last week on the new FunkyFunky7 blog:

One of my favorite things about country music is the economy of the lyrical structure. Every single line is placed to build up to the one or two lines in the chorus that provide the thematic center of the track. It's even like they've worked backwards, which in actuality, I'm sure they do. The killer phrase in the chorus comes first, and the entire track gets built round that.

He goes on to contrast this approach with those of rock and hip-hop, where the hook is often just a re-affirmation of what's come before it. Now I'm sure there are plenty of counterexamples to this theory, but I've been amazed while listening to country at how captivated I am by the lyrics, and I'm willing to surmise that it's because this style of songwriting not only demands but rewards a close listen. For instance, I love how, in Brad Paisley's "Alcohol," the first verse functions almost as a riddle to which the chorus reveals the answer.

Or take Steve Holy's "Brand New Girlfriend," which shares an infectious giddiness, not to mention an entire lyrical hook, with Art Brut's "Good Weekend." (Despite the similarities, I somehow doubt the two acts are aware of each other.) The first verse reminds me of one of those old Gershwin or Porter opening verses that nobody actually remembers and which serve only to set up the chorus. (The one that comes immediately to mind is the tense monotone -- "like the beat-beat-beat of the tom-tom..." -- that starts "Night and Day" before it turns luxuriant.) But in "Brand New Girlfriend," this quiet, conversational intro also conveys the song's backstory: nowhere else do you hear that this is a rebound relationship.

Factor in how much fun it is to sing "playin' kissy-kissy, smoochie-smoochie, talkin' mushy-mushy about nothin'," not even caring how saccharine it is, and you've got a winner, a song that reliably makes me grin. Now I've just got to borrow Laura's old Kathy Mattea tapes...

Monday, August 14, 2006

I was in Michigan all weekend for a wedding, so I missed that my rumination on songs that list women's names was published on Stylus on Friday. It contains more lyrical exegesis than probably anything else I've written for the site, but I'm pretty pleased with it. Writing it reminded me of what I liked about college.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

After initially disliking Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" for sacrificing the brilliant songcraft that made the singles from Justified such an unexpected pleasure, the damn thing's grown on me. All last weekend, the iPod in my mind bounced between "SexyBack" and N*E*R*D's "She Wants to Move," and my constant chants of "get your sexy awwwn" and "she's sexy!" probably annoyed my girlfriend. (I haven't actually tested yet whether these two mix well for real). Still, is it just me or does Timbaland, urging JT to "Take it to the bridge!", sound a shade like Mr. Ed?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Grand In-Joke

While re-screening Brokeback Mountain last night, I was reminded of one of my favorite closing lines to a Wallace Stevens poem: "It was like a new knowledge of reality." Jack Nasty, we hardly knew ye.

Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan savages my beloved Pet Shop Boys. Of course they're fey and insouciant, but even on Fundamental (which sounds fresher than its critics maintain) they're also invigorating.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Pitchfork Music Festival Recap:

The best performance of the weekend was Art Brut, which I probably could have suspected, despite never having seen them before. I like Bang Bang Rock & Roll, but don't love it, probably because it places more importance on shouted lines and rudimentary riffs than on ineffable textures and melodies. But unlike the Hold Steady, where the bar-band jamming seems like a mere placeholder for Craig Finn's dense narratives to be set against, there's something refreshing about Art Brut's simplicity. The eager excitement of Eddie Argos, talking about starting a band or seeing a girl naked, feels so genuine that you wouldn't want the arrangements to get any trickier. Toward the end of the afternoon on Saturday, Argos played a rare cover of Kim Wilde's "Kids in America," took a break in the middle of "Emily Kane" and exhorted the crowd to let go of their exes, and ad-libbed like crazy ("Silver Jews, Top of the Pops! ... hmmm, now that would be something!") -- all with enough goofy enthusiasm to keep a grin on most festivalgoers' faces.

The runner-up was probably CSS, although I have to say that, with the exception of the disco-sheened "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above" (which was already seeing a lot of play on my iPod), the mostly all-girl Brazilian electro-rock band won me over on presence more than music. But man, what presence: frontwoman Lovefoxxx twirled her microphone like a lasso, engaged in bizarre broken-English banter, and dove from the stage several times, her rainbow tights kicking up from the sweaty sea of people under the Biz3 tent. I was also glad to discover that my observation, upon hearing the record, that she "sounded Japanese" wasn't ill-founded: the gal's last name is Matsushita, and when supported by that battery of spiky guitars, I couldn't help recalling Shonen Knife.

However, a note to festival organizers: while the Biz3 tent makes a lot of sense for DJs, there's not much point to putting a live band (especially such a rambunctious one) in that space when half the crowd can't even see the stage. And since the main stages this year were pretty electronic-free (in comparison to 2005's Out Hud, Go! Team, Four Tet, Prefuse 73, and Tortoise), it'd have been nice for them to take a chance with a band like CSS to rock the sunshine.

Like CSS, Man Man impressed me mostly with their antics (faces adorned with war paint, multi-colored feathers blown out into the crowd, trinkets thrown at cymbals to create some classic pots-and-pans percussion), though their frenzied Tom Waits-ish circus music can't easily be separated from the performance thereof: the whole act is pretty compelling.

Destroyer was fine, too, with some nice blazing guitar solos in the midday sun -- but Bejar was more or less blank-faced the entire time. I liked the set but mostly because I like the new album: otherwise, no real surprises, except for the band ditching the broken-down coda to "Rubies" and translating "It's Gonna Take an Airplane" away from its original MIDI glory. (I met up with Mike Powell beforehand, and halfway through I asked him, "Are you, like, a Destroyer fan?" To which he nodded vigorously, and I was like, "Oh shit, of course he is, dude loves stuff like this," recalling his many paeans to enigmatic, romantic poets like John Darnielle, David Berman, and Donald Fagen. I wish I'd gotten a chance to hang out with him more.)

Though most of the weekend was hellishly hot, and I was wearing these cheap flip-flops that made my heels ache like crazy, I couldn't say no to the acts that closed out the dance tent each night. A-Trak struck me as a quicker Diplo, effortlessly mashing up hipster favorites with such purpose that he'd sometimes tease us with snippets rather than whole hooks: all we got of "Bucky Done Gun" was the horns and one looped second of rap.

But when Diplo took the stage the following night, the essential similarities (which Tom hints at, too) were made apparent: both DJs amped up the audience with Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous," Kanye West's "Gold Digger," and Cassie's "Me & U" (which got a surprisingly big reaction, even as I longed for the mournful synths of the original mix). Both even reached for obligatory blog faves Hot Chip: A-Trak took "Just Like We (Breakdown)," and Diplo went with "Over and Over." The most unexpected crowd-pleaser, though, was Diplo dropping "Walk Like an Egyptian" over the bare-bones beat of "Wait (The Whisper Song)." Oh-way-oh.

The rest of the fest was sorta meh. I still wish I liked the Mountain Goats more than I do, because Darnielle is such a smart, personable dude, but I've got this block when it comes to lyrics-driven singer-songwriters: they require a kind of attention that I'm just not used to giving (and which thus feels like a chore), and in the absence of this focus, it all just sounds "boring." I'm 90% confident that I'd respond better to both him and Craig Finn if they jettisoned the music altogether and published their songs as poems. They could even read them aloud: at least I'd be listening with a different ear.

I do consider myself a Yo La Tengo fan, but I've been burned both times I've seen them now. In 2001, at Nevin's Live in Evanston (during the brief three-month period when that place was committed to booking top-shelf bands), they played a set heavy on obscure cover songs, while at Pitchfork they stuck to their new, unreleased material. I know they have a reputation for being unpredictable live -- like suddenly they'll start jamming out on "Lola" just for kicks -- but I was clamoring for the hits and was sad when they never came.

Matmos was good, although I don't always know how to approach that breed of IDM, especially in a festival setting. I nodded along to some unexpectedly danceable tracks (reminiscent of the last Mouse on Mars album, actually) before cutting out to gab with Chicago Reader critic Brian Nemtusak, who was near the tent to see Matmos but was still frothing about Art Brut: "No matter what they do, it's so cheeky!"

In fact, as with last year, the opportunity to commiserate with some of my favorite music writers often outweighed the desire to see as much music as possible, especially on Saturday. I caught most of the Futureheads set behind the stage, out of the corner of my eye, as I conversed with the incredibly friendly Chris Dahlen for the first time. And since I frankly didn't care about several of the mainstage bands (including the Silver Jews, the Walkmen, and Ted Leo), I was happier hanging out in the shade with free beer and fresh fruit, chatting with folks like Nitsuh Abebe, Rob Mitchum, Matthew Perpetua, Amy Phillips, and Mark Richardson. (Former Illinois Entertainer editor Althea Legaspi and I even revisited our debate, conducted at the Q101 studios early last year, about the artistic merits of Britney Spears.)

On Sunday I arrived at the park for the tail end of Jens Lekman's set, caught a few songs from Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif (I dutifully sang along to the chorus of "Daylight," my favorite cut from either of them), and popped in the tent long enough to realize that microhouse is a poor proposition when the sun is still out, no matter how cute Ada is. But my real excuse for missing Os Mutantes and Devendra Banhart, never mind Mission of Burma and Liars (big ol' shrug), is simply that the weekend wore me out. But let's do it again next year, shall we?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Half-Year Roundup: Top 20 Singles
must be released as a single between Jan. 1 and Jun. 30, 2006
[in alpha order]

Lily Allen, "LDN"
Ellen Allien & Apparat, "Way Out"
Aly and AJ, "Rush"
Booka Shade, "Night Falls"
Belle and Sebastian, "The Blues Are Still Blue"
Beyonce ft. Jay-Z, "Deja Vu"
Calle 13, "La Jirafa"
Coldplay, "Talk (Thin White Duke Mix)"
CSS, "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above"
Field Mob ft. Ciara, "So What"
Nelly Furtado ft. Timbaland, "Promiscuous"
Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"
Hot Chip, "Boy From School"
Lupe Fiasco, "Kick Push"
Panic! At the Disco, "I Write Sins Not Tragedies"
The Research, "Lonely Hearts Still Beat the Same"
Rihanna, "S.O.S."
Sonic Youth, "Incinerate"
T.I., "What You Know"
The Whitest Boy Alive, "Burning"

This was in response to Matos, although the rules and regulations are all mine, just because I don't know how I'd winnow it down to 20 otherwise. Basically, I'm leaving out non-singles like Destroyer's "Painter in Your Pocket" and Final Fantasy's "This Lamb Sells Condos" and brand-new shit like The Knife's "We Share Our Mother's Health" and Midlake's "Roscoe." Tops is probably "What You Know," although I may be suggestible on that, since Mark Pytlik told me the other day it was his favorite of the year, too. Ask me later.