Books

Born in the U.S.A.

Dante A. Ciampaglia

You don't need to be a Springsteen fan to have heard the song or seen the video and know what's happening in it, making Himes's unsubstantial analysis of the song a waste of a page and a half. Himes's bio states he won a 2002 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Feature Writing -- you'd never guess it by such academic, overstated passages.

Bruce Springsteen's 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. stands as one of the most successful, seminal works of the 1980s and as one of the Boss's defining moments. The cover, a shot of Springsteen from behind, in ratty jeans and a beat-up ball cap sticking out of his back pocket, facing a large, foreboding American flag, is instantly recognizable, and the album's 12 tracks are a veritable hits package on their own, containing seven Top 10 singles.

It's a hell of a record any way you slice it: there are rockers, pop confections, and gems that for any other musician would be the highlight of a career, but in Bruce's hands, and by virtue of appearing on this record, are destined for deep-cut oblivion. It's tough, sensual, brutal, loving, agitated, and accepting. In other words, classic Boss.

It's no surprise that Born in the U.S.A. was chosen to be a part of Continuum's 33 1/3 series of books which take alternatively critical, wistful, and awestruck looks at albums important to both popular culture and the writer dissecting the album.


Born in the U.S.A.
Author: Geoffrey Himes
Continuum
August 2005, 144 pages, $9.95 (US), £6.99 (UK)



In this case, Geoffrey Himes, a writer, according to his bio on the back of the book, who has been writing about music for the Washington Post since 1977 while also contributing to Oxford American, Rolling Stone, No Depression, Paste, and Jazz Times, takes a crack at peering behind the curtain of Springsteen's wildly successful album.

While Himes is obviously a fan of the album -- a record he calls, along with The River, one of Springsteen's "finest moments" -- his writing about it is surprisingly dry and unfocused.

Born in the U.S.A. is an album that finds Springsteen balancing weighty subjects approached darkly, like returning from Vietnam in the title track, and serious subjects approached humorously, like wallowing in the past as your present crumbles around you in "Glory Days." Himes is wise to point this out as one of the album's best attributes. He spends a chapter discussing how comedy among the tragedy of Springsteen's characters redeems what could have easily been a crotchety clunker of dread. Surely, the playfulness of songs like "Dancing in the Dark" and "Working on the Highway" contributed not only to the album's success but also to its staying power. And Himes is astute in pointing this balance out, especially when it's usually lost in most discussions of the album.

But where Himes goes wrong is with his bland writing. In one his dissections of "Glory Days", for example, Himes goes verse by verse, all but reciting Springsteen's lyrics, discussing how the characters in the song are acting and how it reveals Springsteen's ability to look at the funny side of life. And that's fine. But "Glory Days" is a huge song, one of the longest singles to come from the album. You don't need to be a Springsteen fan to have heard the song or seen the video and know what's happening in it, making Himes's unsubstantial analysis of the song a waste of a page and a half. Himes's bio states he won a 2002 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Feature Writing -- you'd never guess it by such academic, overstated passages.

Himes also gets far too tangential and editorial, distracting the reader from the subject at hand. At one point, in an analysis of "I'm on Fire," Himes states how sexed up a song it is, "Springsteen had obviously been listening to Prince a lot, and black pop would exert an increasing influence on his songwriting in this 1982-84 period." Unfortunately, there is no mention of the Boss spinning any Prince while writing the songs that would make up Born in the U.S.A. in Himes's piece, and if you're reading the book closely you'll find yourself searching the previous pages for the Prince albums that so influenced the Boss. So to claim that he "obviously" listened to Prince is a dubious claim at best.

What's more likely is that Springsteen was influenced by working with Gary "U.S." Bonds, a black rock and R&B singer who influenced Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt as youngsters. The two men plucked Bonds out of lounge-circuit obscurity and revitalized his career by producing two successful records, Dedication and On the Line. Himes writes about all that, but it amounts to nothing more than a tangent. Himes spends three pages discussing the working relationship between Springsteen and van Zandt and Bonds, how Springsteen wrote some unbelievable songs for Bonds, and how he had a hard time translating that to his own work. Then he connects Springsteen to Prince in a wholly unsubstantiated way while leaving Bonds's possible contributions to Springsteen wallowing in the ether.

It's these types of passages and claims, along with Himes's back-alley surgical approach to discussing Born in the U.S.A., that doom his analysis. This entry to the 33 1/3 series should be explored by Springsteen fans, certainly; the information presented should be appealing even if it's packaged poorly by Himes. Casual fans of the Boss, though, might be better served listening to the album itself and reveling in its magnificence.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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