Music

fun.: Aim and Ignite

Aim and Ignite lands somewhere between Queen, the Mars Volta, and the soundtrack from Hairspray, and so is pretty original to say the least. Unfortunately, it drowns under its own weight.


fun.

Aim and Ignite

Label: Nettwerk
US Release Date: 2009-08-25
UK Release Date: 2009-08-25
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Listen to “Be Calm” on fun.’s Aim and Ignite, and you will be forgiven for thinking it was written for Zach Efron by Gerald Way in a jester’s suit. The album marks a (fun) sojourn for Nate Ruess, former frontman/vocalist of the Format, currently lying dormant if not dead. For Aim and Ignite picks up where the Format’s Dog Problems (2006) left off -- the latter a feel-good carnivalesque sing-along that knowingly put the kibosh on erstwhile label Atlantic’s entreaty for marketable indie pop. Indeed, the self-released Aim and Ignite lands somewhere between Queen, the Mars Volta, and the soundtrack from Hairspray, and so is pretty original to say the least. Long gone is the guy who was once chided for hiding behind a Goo Goo Dolls-like anonymity. Aim and Ignite finds Ruess blazing in his own skin with plenty of chutzpah and jazz hands.

fun. was formed when Ruess decamped to New York from his native Arizona and hooked up with ex-Anathello flugelhorn-playing assorted percussionist Andrew Dost, and Jack Antonoff of guitar quintet Steel Train. Still, fun. is essentially Ruess’s vehicle. Just consider the similarities between its debut and Dog Problems. Both brim with sleekly-produced baroque pop songs filigreed by a cornucopia of horns, violins, organs, and spectral backing choruses. Ruess’ confidence on both betrays some fragility, making even the most sarcastic of his heartbreak songs endearing. A point of difference is that Ruess’ dark past (which includes the near death of his father), dissected on Dog Problems, has found a precarious resolution on Aim and Ignite. This album does little to expand on the breadth of musical styles explored by the Format. Instead, between the album’s chamber pop and balladry and the odd multi-instrumental extravaganza, Ruess drowns at the cheesy end of theatrical pop -- something he skilfully skirted on Dog Problems.

“Be Calm” inaugurates the album with a serenading violin and French accordion. Gentle guitar strums and swirling strings then vie for attention, as does a vortex of high-pitched woodwind and a boastful horn section. Ruess, attempting to assure himself that he has made the right move to NYC, assumes a histrionic, vaguely menacing warble as the song progresses. But just to inform us that he hasn’t ditched his past entirely, the track sheds its elaborate coat for some good old guitar punk, topped by the vocalist reaching an impressive sky-scraping catharsis. As expected of any piece of musical theatre, there’s a lot involved here. But at no time is any note or instrument out of place, nor does it ever sound profligate. In fact, the song displays a winning formula as heard on (yet again) Dog Problems, whereby a fastidious orchestration sounds remarkably effortless and catchy to boot. In terms of musical choreography, it doesn’t get better than this.

The sky then opens with “Benson Hedges”, which was originally used to bait Ruess fans before the album was completed. Its title might reference the singer’s chain-smoking habit as he is wont to do in songs past. (He does so here again on “I Wanna Be the One”). But according to absolutepunk.net, it takes in Ruess’s favourite movie, The Baxter, a light paean to the nice, sensitive guy (aka himself) for whom the dream of being happily hitched remains just that. The song begins with a shout-to-the-heavens chorus, by the end of which you will think Ruess’s latest fixation is gospel rock. But then a pretty standard indie-pop number with dancing keyboards, piano glissandos, and strings ensues. Still, it’s wound tighter than many other tracks here.

In fact, fun.’s song-writing prowess is most evident on the album’s more understated tunes. “Light a Roman Candle with Me”, for instance, is a delightful piano-led ditty which recalls Sondre Lerche and talks about diving into the cesspit of love with eyes wide open. The song is particularly interesting for its deft incorporation of Queen-like "oohs" and "aahs" and what sounds to me like the gentle workings of a lap steel guitar. “Walking the Dog”, meanwhile, charms with its island balminess, which is shot through by dirty guitar. Taking the cake, though, is “The Gambler”, a unique heart-rending ballad. For someone already given to opening up, Ruess paints a portrait of his family from the point of view of his mother, and allows himself to take solace in the sturdy love that binds his parents. Forget the bile he threw at lovers that wronged him and all they stood for on Dog Problems, because now: “He thinks just like his mother, he believes we're all just lovers, he sees hope in everyone”.

Before these tracks, though, the listener is taken for a ride to the album’s nadir beginning with “All the Pretty Girls (on a Saturday Night)”. It’s bad enough that the song concerns Neuss wanting to get over a girl with, yes, all the pretty girls, and inevitably fails (poor sensitive soul). But when buttered up with Queen-like vocal and guitar harmonies, the song doubles its efforts to make chintzy fodder for a second-rate teenage musical. Similarly inclined, “I Wanna Be the One” features "ba-da-ba-da"s and a stomach-turning chorus: “Now for all the steps you'll take and all you'll overcome / I wanna be the one to put in a song / Take every single tear for all the world to hear / I wanna be the one to put it in a song”. Not quite had enough? Well, “At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)”, suffice to say, is made for the playground. And need we speak of its title?

Unfortunately, these insufferable moments, coming like a torrent near the album’s beginning, distract from more accomplished later ones to the point that their cartoonish, saccharine character makes rather lackluster everything else worth your attention. It’s like being shown a series of Andy Warhol prints alongside a series of Renoirs. Which shouts louder?

“Be Calm” set the scene for an album that failed to live up to the Format’s last outing. Dog Problems balanced experimental baroque pop with more pared-back but sophisticated song writing. With Aim and Ignite, Ruess has substituted a chance to further showcase his grasp of '60s-style cerebral pop for something nearing parody. It may have been fun for him to do, but not so fun for those who have to listen to it.

5

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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