cartwheels into your heart

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As a bonus treat, here's another unpublished blurb from a while back: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:

Artist     JPpts     P&Jpts*     %change

E. Costello/A. Toussaint78240213.2
Roseanne Cash94277200.0
New York Dolls10620596.9
Tom Waits34160881.5
Ornette Coleman20631455.2
Bob Dylan749112352.7

Naturally, I then reversed the equation to see which albums performed better on Jackin' Pop:

Artist     P&Jpts     JPpts*     %change

Love Is All103226115.5
DJ Drama/Lil Wayne11322696.4
Girl Talk21242094.6
Hot Chip30752969.2
Justin Timberlake27447068.5
Grizzly Bear16427464.1
J. Dilla24938451.5

*this figure is unweighted

I think the results speak for themselves.

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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. [9]

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.)