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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008
Sincerely, Jane - Janelle Monae

One of the most offensively sexist critical crutches is the diminishing addendum of “protege”  applied primarily to female artists subtly hinted to be be ventriloquist dummies for more talented Father-Miyagi male musicians. (see also M.I.A. as Diplo’s protege)  Though Janelle Monae has built a resume as producer, vocalist, writer and arranger, her work with Andrew 3000 and Big Boi apparently makes her their understudies.


I wish the sound quality of this clip could convey “Sincerely, Jane’s” orchestral bombast. Unlike other uses of classical music in songs steeped in the hip hop tradition (where piano loops or violin shards suffice), the song is actually structured in grand movements with Monae displaying an acrobatic range in what amounts to a scalding litany of misery, blistering accusation and disdain for humankind.  In short, it’s fantastic.  Think Shirley Bassey having Marianne Faithful put a cigarette out in her eye.  I also love the crazy clash in her onstage image:  equal parts Grace Jones aggression and small-framed Anita Baker swaying. 


I’m cautiously optimistic about her debut.  Monae reminds me of Macy Gray and Imani Coppola (whose new project Little Jackie is my othersummer obsession) in that she borrows from several genres and the chemistry is either pop perfection or simply dull dilution.  Macy Gray in particular embodies the pitfalls of having a voice with no vision, resulting in songs that generically clip the tips of various fads and frenzies.  I think Janelle has more talent, style and depth, but for every successful genre alchemist there are dozens of Cree Summer’s, Rosey’s, and Nikka Costa’s.


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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008

You’d think that a single 49-minute track where the songs bleed into each other, layered over one another, with some of them nothing more than snippets (as if some invisible hand is spinning a radio dial) would be the most annoying thing ever. Turns out, though, that it might be one of the best releases of Paul Westerberg’s solo career. 49:00 hit the Amazon MP3 store on July 19 (or June 49th, as Westerberg puts it) for the low, low price of 49 cents. Even if there were only one good song in the whole digital mess, it would be a bargain. But some of these songs (who knows what any of them are called, you give up after a while and just accept the sound collage flow) represent some of Westerberg’s best work since the Replacements folded (the one with the “devil raised a good boy” chorus is certainly one of his fiercest).


Thankfully free of Folker-esque bleating, 49:00 is of the same comfortable, cozy basement cloth as Stereo/Mono—heck, it might even be more ragged than even that wonderfully scruffy release. Ramshackle Faces-inspired rockers blend with sensitive ballads, jangly workouts, snippets of cover songs, Westerberg’s patented put-downs of new men in ex-flames’ lives, jokes about his cleaner lifestyle (“please don’t ask me about my liver”), and what might even be his son yelling over a vintage Westerberg rock riff. 


Listening to 49:00 is just a lot of fun (heck, it might even be Year’s Best material if its staying power holds up). It feels like being on a road trip where you’re flipping between two or three great radio stations—always missing the names of whatever you’ve just heard—that play solid song after solid song. For much of Westerberg’s solo career, it sounded like he needed a foil in the studio to kick him in the pants when his ideas weren’t up to snuff. Maybe all he really needed to do was relax. That said, it would be great if some of these songs got an “official” release as songs. Some of them are just too good to remain buried in this tasty blend of music.


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Sunday, Jul 20, 2008
Track eight...

Testify


I find it disappointing that a lot of reviews from other publications have called this out as one of the album’s weaker tracks, like Nas’ whole purpose here was to condemn his suburban white fans for not truly supporting his cause. In my review of the album, I called Untitled Nas’ Blood on the Tracks. I didn’t mean that so much in terms of concept but in terms of career context. If we talk in terms of concept though, “Testify” is this album’s “Idiot Wind”. It’s the frustrated, mournful breakdown of an artist in the midst of an emotionally complex situation.


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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Friday, Jul 18, 2008
"Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music." -- John Cage

A partial digression from my previous post.


The summer of 2000 was when I first discovered Napster. After a bit of peer pressure, I was persuaded to download the software and start searching out MP3s, which were a new technology to me but not one that was completely esoteric. I had downloaded a few of them at tiny bitrates off the unofficial Tool web site to hear some their rarer, less available tracks. To my impressionable 18-year-old brain, it didn’t even occur to me that Napster’s services could be illegal or that they might even cause a wrinkle in the long-term spacetime continuum of music. At a 33k dialup connection, I could retrieve around one song per day before I started making significant dents in the phone bill. Without a CD burner at my disposal, I connected an ¼ inch connector cable from my computer’s speakers to my tape recorder and transferred 20 or so of the songs I downloaded onto a cassette so that I could play them in my car. It seemed no different at the time than taping those songs off the radio, except that I got to choose what the radio played.


Napster materialized as an ideal space to indulge my quirky tastes. I downloaded the Eminem song only available on the “clean” version of The Marshall Mathers LP, songs off the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack that I had been listening to diegetically since childhood, the Moby remix of “Beat It” I knew I’d never elsewise hear,  the Airwolf theme song I’d been humming for years but which no one I knew could validify, and many of the songs I’d heard and enjoyed in the pre-Amazon years through sound samples at the call service 1-800 Music-Now. Far be it for me to prognosticate the collapse off the behemoth music industry, I thought that Napster might have actually been doing the job of the major labels for them. Not only by promoting artists, but by eliminating the need for bootlegs, which at the time were running $40 or so for a single disc of live and/or rare material by major artists (which was still a bargain compared to tracking down overpriced imports) and, the companies claimed, hurting their sales significantly. As I continued to spend all the money earned from my summer job as a smoothie salesman on music, this previously illicit or overpriced material was the stuff I went for first on the free Napster service.


Looking back at all this now, it seems like a different world. Music thievery is practically a full-time job to some downloaders, who load up 800G external drives full of music that it would take a lifetime to sort through, let alone appreciate. CD burners come standard on any home computer and you can get five writable CDs for less than a bottled water. Bootlegs are pretty much nonexistent, as are import singles. All the chains I used to peruse in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY are gone: The Wall, Media Play, Sam Goody, Record Town, etc. Even the closest indie store I knew, Trash in Danbury, CT, a 40-minute drive from my house and the site of my first vinyl purchase, closed its doors after it was forced out of its location.


When I went off to college, I experienced a minor love-affair with my T1 Connection. Unaware of the speed of technology, I horded all the free music, movies, and software I could, fearing I would soon move off campus and never experience the lightning-fast joys of ethernet cable again. The transfer speeds remained undiminishingly novel as I devoutly watched the bars move across the screen. Within minutes, you could access any song. It was an instant jukebox, a radio station that didn’t suck. More than that, it brought the music closer and it brought all of us lonely freshmen closer together. My roommate Ben assigned a rule to our room; new visitors to 709B Cashin, which turned out to be quite a few people, had to sign his computer with a marker and download a song onto it. These songs got incorporated into his regular playlist and, by proxy, we inherited a little bit of the personality of the campus that year, as spazzcore, happy hardcore, and Shaggy co-mingled with each other.


With Napster, though no one was paying for it, every one was every one else’s Alan Freed. We all introduced each other to some kind of new sonic cultural experience. Detractors may say that all we were doing was stealing music. But that’s only half of the narrative. The larger story is that we were stealing all kinds of music, a shit-ton of it, and expanding our palettes in the process. Hippies were introduced to house, speed-punks found glory in electro and math-rock, hip-hoppers were able to track their roots in funk, and myriad others found out that Radiohead and Aphex Twin didn’t emerge from a bubble. It was the first and perhaps only time that I felt I was part of something important in music. It was not a democratization of music as some idealists still opine, but a full-fledged free-for-all. Anarchy. Autonomy. Freedom. Absolute leisure upon escaping the shackles of market capitalism. It was only forbidden to forbid. The concurrent college and rock star credos of sex, drugs, and music reigned. But you had to pay for drugs. You had to be careful who you slept with. The music just persisted, with or without you.


Yet, it was revolution communicated through the vernacular of mass consumption. Its problems persisted not in process, but in participation. Those downloading music were not all rebels trying to buck a corporate system. Some of them were just byproducts of a “gimmee” culture of entitlement. To them, there was no difference between ripping off the local band who pressed their LP with pocket change better served paying overdue student loans and the stadium giants hawking $25 T-shirts at their $75 concerts so they could harass hotel maintenance staffs and woo college-aged girls who had downloaded their latest album. It was almost a kind of absent-minded dadaist statement. The musician in absentia became the signatory to blame, for trying to make a living off of their art, or for trying to make art in the first place.


As income diminished for most of my fellow state school students, the cost of rising tuition meant that music, moreso perhaps than drugs and alcohol, was seen as something of a luxury item (and to be fair, it is). So why pay for it when you can just as easily get it free? Their market attention went elsewhere, and soon the cult of hegemony began to take notice.


Not everyone gave up so easily. I continued to spend whatever money I could scrounge together on CDs and concert tickets. So did plenty of others. Yet we were all criminals, victims of a pandemic of antisocial behavior. But perhaps that’s what felt so exciting. It was like prohibition, with industry playing the government’s role as moral policeman. As the lunatics had taken over the asylum, it had begun to look like culture at large, so quick to condemn and judge yet so slow to adapt, was our only real disease, our only lasting psychosis. The cure to this illness wasn’t file-sharing. It was the free flow of information and knowledge, the very thing going to college was all about. It was the choice to have musical literacy be part of our curriculum. It was the music itself, intangible sound waves unable to be captured, bottled, or stopped. It has continued to spread to the point of critical mass, nearly to where the music itself can no longer be governed, no matter how hard the mass media tries to gentrify it. Will we live to see the time when people finally forgo all this baggage and just listen to what they want regardless of what’s pertinent, what’s sanctioned, or what’s for sale?


This is the real deep-seeded fear of capitalism, which has always had an uncomfortable relationship with post-rock ‘n’ roll music (which frequently tries to sell its owners the ropes with which to hang themselves); that one day music will no longer be something they can control. In my previous post, I discussed how they’ve already lost part of that control by diverting its attention from its fragmented consumer base (instead opting to socialize its loses by pushing for federal lawsuits and ISP taxes). Next, I’ll take a look at those people like me, you, and everybody else you know, who take music that isn’t ours, but isn’t rightfully anybody else’s either.


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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008
A trio of big names step into Abbey Road's famed Studio One this week.

Sundance Channel’s acclaimed Live from Abbey Road series airs the fifth episode of its second season this week (Thursday, July 17 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific). The featured artists this time are all pretty big names and heavy hitters: Sheryl Crow, Hard-Fi and Diana Krall.


In Sheryl Crow’s segment, she discusses how fortunate she has been to have had a long career, talks about being in Abbey Road studios before on The Globe Sessions and feeling the weight of its history, and she reiterates many of the themes expressed on her latest record (maturity, how environmentalism becomes personal when one is a parent, calling for change), Detours. In fact, the songs in this episode are taken exclusively from that album, and it’s very clear why. The rehearsal and performance footage demonstrate that this is surely her strongest material to date (“Now That You’re Gone” is the showstopper here, in my opinion.), which is all the more impressive when you think about the fact that Detours is her sixth regular release.


Hard-Fi has only two full-length releases so far, but they’re still aware of the “vibe” in the most famous studio in the world (and quite keen to have a go at the piano used on “Lady Madonna!”). We only get two songs from them, “Tied Up Too Tight” from 2005’s CCTV and “We Need Love” from last year’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but both songs are so perfectly executed (and “We Need Love”, particularly, so suited to the surroundings!) that another might simply have sent viewers over the edge. Is it too obvious that I’m a bit of a Hard-Fi fan? Well, when you see and hear these performances, you’ll understand why.


Diana Krall’s segment takes the energy back down a notch, but it’s no less compelling. She speaks of her passion for her life and lifestyle and her eclectic enthusiasm, but her laid back, almost understated manner seems at odds with her words at first. That is, until she starts swinging at the piano. “Exactly Like You” is infectiously energetic and “I’ll String Along with You” is all the more sublime within the resonance of the room. It’s truly amazing to notice—especially while watching it on a television—how much of a contribution the environment really makes! It’s not just superficial ambience, it’s like Studio One is another instrument in the mix.


Though this week’s episode seems to focus more on the final performances than the rehearsals or interviews, it certainly doesn’t suffer for it. I meant what I wrote last week, and if Live from Abbey Road keeps coming up with shows of this caliber, Sundance Channel is going to have to expand its production schedule.



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