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Monday, Jan 19, 2009
Why was Lil' Wayne the single biggest musical phenomenon of 2008?

Lil’ Wayne’s success has reached such a phenomenal peak that at one point, as I was about to turn the radio to a hip-hop station coming out of Boston, my friend could say “How about some Lil’ Wayne?” and be absolutely right. I can’t remember if the station was playing one of his songs or if it was a guest spot, and it doesn’t matter. Between guesting for everyone who makes anything even related to hip-hop or R&B and making a huge score with Tha Carter III, Wayne’s voice is everywhere, and it’s so distinctively hoarse that it seizes for itself—and also flattens—whatever sound is behind it.


That flattening effect is part of the reason Wayne has so completely overshadowed every other rapper around him. He doesn’t sing on top of beats. He eats them, makes them irrelevant. On Tha Carter II, his previous non-mixtape album, the production by T-Mix was focused on distorted soul samples. T-Mix gave soul choruses the rough, dissonant sound of music played too loud on cheap speakers. Wayne took it too easy on the vocals, particularly during the verses, but he still sounded great. On this new album, the soul samples are mostly gone in favor of crunked-up electro, but when they do make an appearance (like on the Jay-Z duet “Mr. Carter”), the switch is barely noticeable.


Wayne demolishes these beats by singing so hoarsely that the noise of his voice, like a blue shirt on a blue-eyed person, pushes forward whatever noise is latent in the music, making it sound dirty and messy. Then he sings all around the beats, basically ignoring where the stresses ought to go, in such a random way that the song’s meter melts down. Sympathetic producers on Tha Carter III build this into the very structure of the songs, so that when Wayne suddenly announces “Bitch I’m the bomb like tick…tick” on “Got Money,” Play-n-Skillz stops the music. Wayne is singing in his own post-detonation vacuum. The point here is that Wayne doesn’t care what he sings over, because he’s just plain hungry to rap. In his and our world, a radio station like Power 105.9 in Los Angeles will reduce everything to equivalent “hip-hop” anyway.


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Friday, Jan 16, 2009
Kathleen Edwards is slowly becoming one of today's great songwriters. Sad stories are not her only strength. In the background is a wry sense of humor and critical eye for the subtle issues of her characters that makes her a songwriting force.

Kathleen Edwards’ career has been established with hard hitting lyrical work and a simple, but biting sarcastic tone. She was immediately thrown in the pile with other country-rock legends, and without a doubt; Edwards’ lyrical work is on the evolutionary chain from Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy, but I always felt this distinction was a bit disjointed. Why does Edwards’ need to be thrown in with the “Women who Rock” category?


Edwards’ characters struck me as those who were at last fed up with the ass holes that plagued their lives. Without a doubt, track one from her first album Failure “Six O’Clock News” is an absolute gem. When Kathleen screams at the end that “I can’t feel my broken heart.” I do think of Emmylou and Dolly and Patsy because I know her character is absolutely destroyed by the narrative of her boyfriend (and father of her child) lying dead on the avenue from the piercing wound of a cop’s bullet, I also wonder if it’s sometimes because it’s the end of something that should have ended long ago. Edwards’ characters are filled with this deep sadness, but there is always a subtle hint of brutal irony and sarcasm in her characters. Although Patsy, Dolly, and Emmylou share this irony; theirs is a hidden, almost a wink. Kathleen is tired of the wink. Edwards can work a bunch of angles at once and she’s developed this presence throughout her career.


Edwards’ newest album, Asking for Flowers demonstrates this lyrical complexity. She’s a storywriter and a pretty damn good one. Her ability to turn dialogue and demonstrate symbolism all the while holding universality in her lyrical work demonstrates a songwriter who understands songwriting is a shared experience between author and listener. This is a universal sign of good songwriting. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty, Earle, and Tweedy get this. However, Edwards’ does this while balancing the complexities of telling the same sort of stories from the woman’s point of view. It’s the trick that makes her one of today’s finest songwriters.


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Friday, Jan 16, 2009
After a split 7" with Fucked Up and a featured spot on Chemistry of Common Life as well as a performance lined up for SXSW 2009, it's about time people started to notice Katie Stelmanis.

My first prediction of 2009: Katie Stelmanis is going to blow up. She’s been ignored for too long and after her performance at SXSW this year, it’s going to be “Stelmania” (I stole that phrase from her MySpace).


Join Us

Join Us


Katie Stelmanis was already starting to pick up steam in 2008. Almost a year since her nearly unnoticed debut album, Join Us dropped on Blocks Recording Club (a record co-op based in Toronto), Stelmanis was featured on Fucked Up’s Chemistry of Common Life, and split a Matador released 7” with them in late 2008. In 2009, people are bound to pick up on the ethereal and eerie leanings of this powerful vocalist and songwriter. 


The album shares some similarities with the darker side of Kate Bush, but for the most part it’s hard to find an apt comparison to Stelmanis’s slightly operatic, dark, synth-based debut. Rufus Wainwright shares a couple of her characteristics on his more gothic sounding numbers and one could compare certain songs to that spooky Christmas song “Carol of Bells”(I mean this in the best way possible), but there’s nothing completely comparable. The album is well-paced and there is patience and artistry in each composition and they usually swell to commanding and satisfying multi-voiced choruses.


Album opener, “In My Favour”, and the three following tracks are throbbing slow-builds while “You’ll Fall” and “I’m Sick” are classically tinged balladry. In addition to the originals, a highlight is her penchant for atypical cover songs. The album ends with an amazing interpretation of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and on her MySpace page is an equally excellent cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. 
Add this to her already impressive oeuvre and you’ve got a success-prone arsenal set to explode in the coming year.


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Thursday, Jan 15, 2009

“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things I didn’t understand… for getting involved with something I shouldn’t have been involved with… well, FUCK THEM.”
—Neil Young, in the biography Shakey



In 1982 Neil Young released the album Trans, a synthesizer heavy, electronic rock album with Young’s vocals rendered virtually unrecognizable by use of a vocoder on all but three of the nine songs. At the time it was a commercial and critical flop but in recent years has begun to be reassessed and appreciated, if for nothing else the boldness of such a release from a mainstream artist, another example of Young’s total commitment to doing exactly what he wants, when he wants.


It’s easy to dismiss Trans (and much electronic music) as “cold” or lacking in emotion due to its synthesized drum machine beats and robot sounding vocals. This would be a mistake. Trans is one of Young’s most personal, heartfelt, and affecting albums of his career. In 1982 Young was going through an incredibly trying time in his personal life. His son Ben had been born with severe cerebral palsy, rendering him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil couldn’t understand his son’s words, so he made an album where the listener can’t understand the singer’s words.


Perhaps the most well-known song from Trans, probably due to it’s inclusion in Neil Young’s 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged, is “Transformer Man”. The only song on the album to not feature a single guitar, it is driven by a drum machine, keyboards and Neil’s voice processed to a computerized falsetto by the vocoder. It has a serene, lilting quality to it that immediately defies the cliché of synth-pop as “cold”. The song benefits from the vocoder immensely, the vocal sounding like a sad cry from the deep reaches of space. The keyboards are warm and unassuming, the drum machine beat is simple but the emotional punch of the song comes from what Young is singing.


A long time train aficionado, one of the ways Neil was able to connect to his son was through model trains. He even developed a remote control that enabled Ben to properly use the trains on their tracks. With this knowledge it becomes immediately apparent when you hear the lyrics (although reading along with a lyric sheet might help) that Transformer Man is Ben: “You run the show / Remote control / Direct the action with the push of a button / You’re a transformer man”. The most touching moment comes in the chorus, when Young sings “Every morning when I look in your eyes / I feel electrified by you”. It is at this point that the song becomes, in my opinion, one of the most moving songs of Neil Young’s career.


Neil never pursued electronic music further after Trans and I think it’s kind of a shame. I would love to hear what Neil Young in 2009 would do with the genre. Knowing Young’s penchant for bucking preconceived notions, an electronic album might not be that improbable.


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Thursday, Jan 15, 2009
It might only be two weeks into '09 but I think I've already got a soundtrack.

The world of music journalism is on board with the new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and rightly so; it’s a varied, dense and accessible piece of weird-pop wonder. On it, there is one song in particular that I need to listen to five to 10 times a day because it makes me feel that good. I speak, of course, of “Summertime Clothes”


The song begins with some odd, pulsing, syncopating keys, then thumping bass joins in to smooth out the pulsations, making it a head-nodder by the 20-second mark. The song progresses nicely; when the layers of vocals begin the song gains some momentum and depth without taking any drastic steps. Then the vocal harmony starts and brings the song into Brian Wilson territory (or perhaps, more aptly, the excellent Brian Wilson aping of 2007’s Panda Bear album), and once the vocal inflection hits on the “makes me smile” line we know we’re in the land of Pop Monster-Jams. 


The chorus hits almost without warning sending a rush of emotion that makes me want to throw my arms in the in time to the “dusty but digital” electro-lushness. By the time “I want to walk around with you / And I want to walk around with you” (is that a direct refutation of the Ramones?) comes in, it’s a bit disappointing that the chorus has already ended, but there’s still the exciting anticipation of its return.


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