Sunday, March 28, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Erykah Badu - "New Amerykah pt. 2: Return of the Ankh"

In a lot of ways, everything we need to know about Erykah Badu's latest, New Amerykah pt. 2: Return of the Ankh, can be found in a brief comparison between the cover of this album, and that of its predecessor, New Amerykah pt. 1: 4th World War. The cover to the previous release was a dark, angry affair. Badu's face was set for battle, her hands raised in fists, and her afro was comprised of images signifying a nation in crisis: factories, handcuffs, a syringe, an SUV, dollar signs, a toilet, chains. Badu's hair, on that album cover, it seemed, was trying to tell us something: we're fucked. But then, once we took a closer look, we saw more: a turntable, flowers, a hand making a peace sign, an open book and...a tuning fork? Badu wasn't just pissed about the state of world and taking aim at all the haters--she was setting out to bring shit into harmony, help us get in tune. While no album has ever had that kind of impact on anything, New Amerykah pt. 1 sure as hell didn't hurt for trying. In fact, as I mentioned in another recent blog post, Badu's last album wasn't just a great soul record, it was the best soul record of the last decade, and probably the decade before it, and maybe even the one before that. Just so we're on the same page, here's that other cover:

Now, looking up at the cover for Badu's latest, we see a very different type of image. The rubbish from Badu's afro is now a junk pile behind her, while the dark colors have been replaced by a brilliant array of flowers, and a lovely purple sky. Also gone is Badu's angry face, replaced by a more serene expression, despite the fact that the singer is now depicted as robotic--the post-human soul singer, having transcended the poison of culture. Even the albums' respective subtitles point to the albums' differences: "4th World War" and "Return of the Ankh."

True to the new album's cover, Return of the Ankh is a gentler, more loving affair than its radical predecessor. And, again, as indicated by the difference in presentation, Badu's latest is more concerned with loving gestures and a serene spirit, a preoccupation that manifests itself in ballads and cool soul grooves as opposed to the urgent pleas for justice and unity on the previous album. "20 Feet Tall" kicks off the album with a gorgeous melody, hopeful lyrics, and some of the warmest electric piano this side of Innervisions. Badu sings, "But if I get off my knees/I may recall/I'm twenty feet tall," an exhortation for individuals to embrace their own abundance of spirit. I know it sounds a little cheesey, but shit, Badu sells it, not just on this song, but through the entire album. Next up is "Window Seat," a piano driven piece bolstered by ?uestlove's slick drumming. The song grapples with independence and longing--the chorus repeats, "Can I get a window seat/Don't want nobody next to me," but by the bridge, over stomps and claps, Badu is singing "I need someone to clap with me . . . come back baby." The song is the kind of thing at which Badu excels--taking tired pop music sentiment and pushing it to someplace fresh and exhilarating.

While the songs on Return of the Ankh seem, at first, more familiar and less urgent than anything on 4th World War, they're full of daring ideas and riveting arrangements. "Agitation" opens with fusion-fueled piano runs and full-bodied bass--hints of Weather Report, or Jaco--before incorporating some kind of synthy, harmonica type sound that feels like it could have been lifted from Stevie's best 70's work. "Love" feels like a spiritual counterpoint to the previous album's "The Healer," opening with a jarring tone and spoken word intro about emotional frequencies before Badu sings, "this one is for Dilla," again, paralleling "The Healer," then settling into a solid groove. "Incense," is an ethereal slow jam, built around harp runs to produce one of the most startlingly gorgeous atmospheres of any of the album's songs. Then there is album closer, "Out My Mind, Just in Time" which exists in movements--a gentle, jazzy piano intro that wouldn't sound out of place in a Billie Holiday set, which evolves into something more like a spaced-out soul jam. Of course, no matter how outre the songs sound, on Return of the Ankh, Badu's insistent humanity is still the root of everything.

Ultimately, Return of the Ankh excels through its production and use of textures. The song writing isn't quite as immediate or daring as its predecessor, but there is something to be said for convention, especially when its wrapped up in analog keyboards, slick beats, and impressive instincts as to when to pile on the sonic layers, and when to scale back to basics. While Badu's career has been built on impressively consistent albums, the New Amerykah records have taken her to a new level. Part Two, by showcasing Badu's versatility and all around soul savvy, finishes the work started by Part One in elevating the singer to Wonder-esque heights. While 4th World War might be the slightly better album, both of the New Amerykah albums have earned their placement among the finest soul albums ever made.

The album comes out on 3/30. If anyone sees a vinyl copy anywhere in Oklahoma, let me know.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ahead of Its Time: The Replacements' "Bastards of Young" video

As a record collector, I often read about interesting records that are obscure or hard to track down. Thanks to the Internet, especially YouTube, some of these records are accessible to me as placeholders for some moment down the line where I might be able to procure them physically. There is one curious subset of YouTube clips I'm interested in here: users who provide video images of their records actually playing.

Here is one such clip, of the mildly difficult-to-find Keith Richards 45 "Run Rudolph Run," a cover of the Chuck Berry holiday tune:

Here is another, this time of the 1961 single "Angel Baby," performed by Rosie & the Originals:

While this YouTube practice may seem quaint, quirky, or even woefully nostalgic to some music fans, it turns out that long before the high speed Internet era, one music video predicted this would happen.

For aficionados of music videos, The Replacements' clip for their 1985 single "Bastards of Young" is one of the greatest, and one of the least known. Coming from their critically acclaimed album Tim, the video is often cited on lists of the greatest music videos of all time. Why? Well, it's refreshingly simple. The camera focuses on a stereo playing a phonograph record of the latest hit by the Replacements. We see the speakers bumping and the record spinning on the platter. The camera slow pans back and eventually a man sits on his couch in front of the stereo and smokes a cigarette while listening to it. Its minimalism is staggering, and virtually guaranteed it no MTV rotation back in the mid-1980s.

However, today, this clip seems oddly prophetic. I'm pretty sure the director(s) of this clip had no idea that footage like it would appear all over computer screens twenty-some-odd years after it was destined for obscurity. Here is the link for this video, one of the finest, and simplest, of the 1980s, and, now, a proto-meta-critical example of music in screened form.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town"

War is hell. And hell is other people (thanks, Jean-Paul Sartre). Sadly, though we all know war is good for absolutely nothing (thanks again, Edwin Starr), we keep doing it. And when we get a respite from all the fighting, we get involved in personal wars with the ones we love. Kenny Rogers knew this, as did his "backing band," The First Edition, when they cut "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" during the height of the Vietnam War (in 1969). He also knew that he was in the process of growing the greatest beard since Merlin the Magician. Both of these contributions to our cultural landscape can no longer go overlooked.

According to Wikipedia, war has existed for years, extending all the way back to World War II in the early 1940s. Troubled relationships, at least in the United States, extend all the way back to a fictional, colonial Boston in the mid-Seventeenth Century when the noted seamstress Hester Prynne cheated on her "slightly deformed" alchemist doctor of a husband Roger--who was away on business for an extended period of time--with Boston's most respected up and coming reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Posterity views her as the heroine in this love triangle. It is rather unfortunate as well that love and war have been so intertwined for the bulk of humanity's 6000 years of existence on this planet.

What makes "Ruby" so universally understood is that everyone can relate to it. How many of us have lost the use of our legs serving our country only to find out our significant other is going off to carouse with anonymous men or women "hundred[s] of times"? Well, if this hasn't happened to you, literally, it has totally happened to you metaphorically -- literally! Kenny Rogers and the First Edition had just made the transition from C-grade psychedelic rockers (especially with their quirky hit "I Forgot What Condition My Condition Was In" in 1967) to a lite-country act for the occasion. The First Edition gently stomp through the cut as Rogers wistfully sings one of the most dour lyrics in the history of mankind. The traditional "my dog died, my woman left me, and I'm out of booze" lyrics of country music are seem like a kids' birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's compared with "Ruby," which examines the moral obligations of a union (whether a long-term relationship or marriage) where one of its members has been physically incapacitated during "that old crazy Asian War" from injuries that mean "it won't be long ... until I'm not around." Is Ruby the villain in this scenario for leaving her symbolically impotent and physically absent man behind (like Hester Prynne did) to have intimate couplings with strangers, "in town," like she has a "hundred times before"? Is it her right? Well, according to the narrator, Ruby's actions are not cool at all: "If I could move I'd get my gun." Because he is not able to provide the kind of physical affection that Ruby desires does not mean he is incapable of love.

Wow, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition: y'all are depressing the hell out of me, despite the relative peppiness of your musical backing. Fortunately, this wasn't Kenny Rogers' last great contribution to society's collective psyche:

I don't think I need to persuade anybody how genius that beard is!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Shop Boyz' "Party Like a Rock Star"

To the uninformed observer, "rock stars" know how to party, and party hard. One such group of observers is the Atlanta-based trio Shop Boyz, whose 2007 monster hit "Party Like a Rockstar" made sure -- over and over and over and over again and again and again -- that the listening public knew they were going to replicate these recklessly hedonistic lifestyles and, indeed, "Party Like a Rockstar." Fusing distorted electric guitar lines, crunk beats, and classically-sequenced synthesized strings with wry observations about the unleashed id, Shop Boyz give voice to this all-too-human necessity in "Party Like a Rockstar," one of the most powerful songs in the existence of existence.

The best rock-star exemplars of this party-instinct over the years have been acts like The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison, Rick James, Parliament/Funkadelic, Guns N' Roses, Motley Crue, Poison, and Gary Glitter. These are groups of grown men who like to saw the legs off all the furniture in $3200/night hotel rooms, huff airplane glue, snort Pixy Stix cut with Mexican tar heroin, and occasionally defile women with live seafood. Conventional wisdom would suggest that, yes, this IS a party, and that this is what it's like to "Party Like a Rockstar." You would be wrong, however, to think that rock stars were the first people to "party hard."

Long before Andrew W.K. and the Beastie Boys, before there were "rockstars," people knew how to party. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine (also known as Bacchus in the Roman tradition), was the first immortal to recommend drinking one glass of red wine a day for a healthier heart (and twenty-four more glasses to, according to Homer, "rock the party until the rosy-fingered dawn"). His legacy was passed down to the first Colonial settlers at Plymouth Rock, when Thomas Morton and his band of revelers set up a maypole and debauched themselves with wine, paganism, and guns. Then, in the Eighteenth Century, Marie Antoinette lost her head -- LITERALLY -- for the right to party hard. It is that important.

The Shop Boyz, fully aware of this lineage of Bacchanals extending back to ancient times, bring their story of human bodily excess -- in the name of blackout drunk fun -- to 2007. So what if their vision of "rockstars" is limited to "skull belts and wallet chains," the Osbournes (?), and surfing (double??)? They not only know how to get the party started, brah, but they let the listener know -- about 64,239 times -- that they are gonna "Party Like a Rockstar." Totally, dude!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A little bit of Badu...

With Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), dropping in just a couple of weeks (March 30), I've found myself returning to its predecessor, New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War over, and over, and over, and over again, and again. I can't help but think that Badu's most recent effort might be a little bit underrated. That might be a strange claim to make for an album that received glowing reviews upon its release, and even landed at #133 on Pitchfork's "The Top 200 Albums of the 2000's" list. While those achievements are fine and good, the album deserves more. I didn't quite realize it at the time, but New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War) isn't just one of the best soul albums of the last decade, but one of the freshest, warmest, most engaging album.

Through the course of it's ten songs and a bonus track, Badu's voice slithers and slinks through smooth vocal melodies and production that manages to come off as both heavy-as-fuck and soft. It's as if each song is a spirited cry from a place of repression--there are hooks and grooves on the surface, but there's something vital buried beneath, burning, pushing every song beyond the sum of its parts. The end result is the kind of celebratory, life-hungry soul album that can stand right along side some of Stevie Wonders' 70's highlights. In fact, while Badu's sound and style is modern, dripping with an undeniable sense of newness, the songs on part one of her New Amerykah set constantly remind me of Innervisions. Perhaps the roots of this comparison can be found in the album's sophisticated production, arrangements, and vocal delivery, or maybe it's the urgency that runs through every track.

Anyway, if you haven't checked it out, or haven't revisited it in a while, you owe yourself another trip through Badu's New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War). The album deserves every ounce of its solid reputation and then some.

And here's looking forward to the sequel. We'll be lucky if it's half as good as its predecessor.

I'll leave you with the video for the album's "hidden bonus track" "Honey." It's an excellent song and a pretty killer video:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch"

Since the development of music in reproducible forms (i.e. records, tapes, compact discs, and mp3 files), the best popular music has made more difficult and sensitive topics broadly accessible to the public. Think of songs like Paul Anka's pro-life ditty "(You're) Having My Baby," Rod Stewart's tragic tale of homophobia, "The Killing of Georgie," or the visceral teenage suicide described in The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack." Well, in 1977, one glorious and subtle pop song turned the concepts of rough, sweet bondage and sadomasochism into one of the most luscious tracks of all time: Dan Hill's tour de force, "Sometimes When We Touch."

Delicate as a flower in mid-Winter, Dan Hill's earnest rasp of a voice--resembling a choir of Kenny Loggins clones being suffocated by a large dancing gopher--appears to relate the tale of a couple at the most vulnerable point in their relationship. But a closer look at the lyrics and musical backdrop reveals a coupling whose psychosexual motivations are wrapped up in pain and domination. The male in the relationship would "rather hurt you honestly / than mislead you with a lie." In addition, he'd "like to break you / and drive you to your knees." The emphasis on pain in this relationship is as brutal and fantastic as that described in The Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs," a song that has never received much radio airplay because of its blatant and fetishistic references to the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1870), the man whose name is the etymological root for the term "sadism." The song's string arrangements clearly illustrate that "Venus in Furs" is a referent for this song. If that wasn't enough, the male narrator thinks that "the honesty's too much," and his admission that "I wanna hold you til I die / 'Til we both break down and cry" suggest he is stimulated by both choking and humiliation. This is validated in the opening line, when he sings, "You ask me if I love you / And I choke on my reply."

For the many "vanilla" listeners of this song, the sadomasochistic lyrical content may be too difficult or strange to process, as the world the narrator sings about is shrouded in decadence, mystery, and grand misconceptions. For that very reason, Dan Hill decided to also make the song about "honesty," an abstract concept so thorny that even the French philosopher Jacques Derrida never wrote a book about it. "Sometimes When We Touch," as I've already pointed out, discusses the idea and morality of honesty. But what Hill brilliantly does here is to put those automatons in the aphorism factory who came up with the phrase "honesty is the best policy" in their place. In fact, what Dan Hill's revolutionary pop song reveals is that the effect of honesty is unpredictable, and unpredictability is never the best policy. Honesty can get people fired from their jobs, kicked out of their relationships, and ridiculed mercilessly. Therefore, what makes this seemingly innocuous pop hit of the 1970s so filled with unprecedented genius is its ability to shroud its pro-BDSM agenda with an intellectual examination of truthfulness and its all too painful consequences. Basically, without this song, songs like "Every Breath You Take," "Wrapped Around Your Finger," and "The King of Pain" (coincidentally, all of these songs are by The Police!) would never have been the big hits they became.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Few Questions/Thoughts I Have Concerning the Narrator of George Strait’s Classic Country song, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”:

1. Do you really think it’s necessary to move all the way to Tennessee from Texas just because of a few ex girlfriends?
2. In terms of your ex-girlfriends, you only mention Roseanna in Texarkana, Eileen in Abilene, Allison in Galveston, and Dimples in Temples. If Texas really is the place you would “dearly love to be,” there are certainly plenty of other cities in Texas. Dallas, for instance. It’s a huge city. Or Austin. Or Fort Worth. Or Houston. Or San Antonio. These are all big cities. I’m sure you wouldn’t run into any of those ex girlfriends.
3. This line concerns me: “Dimples, who now lives in Temples, got the law looking for me.” Why? Does this mean you broke a restraining order of some sort? Were you stalking her?
4. Finally, it doesn’t seem very strong or cowboyish to run away and “hang your hat in Tennessee.” We all have ex's. If you want to be a real cowboy, you’re going to have to grow up and quit acting like a pussy.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henry VIII, I Am"

For far too long, acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, and Gerry and the Pacemakers have been the face of the so-called "British Invasion." Sure, these bands had some nice tunes and good ideas. But none of them were anywhere near as brilliant as Herman's Hermits, who faithfully drew inspiration from the music and illustrious history of the British people to create one of the 1960s' most powerful and intellectually engaging hit singles, "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," their sixth U.S. hit single, in 1965.

Rarely has a pop tune been so directly engaged with the intellectual legacy of the West. Sure, The Beatles had songs that some classically-trained music reviewers in the 1960s said bore echoes of classical masters such as Frederic Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven. But they had nothing on Herman's Hermits. Sure, "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am" was originally written and recorded in 1910 by British music hall legend Harry Champion. But the Hermits--Peter Noone, Karl Green, Barry Whitwam, Derek Leckenby, and Keith Hopwood--were clearly in command of their song selection and knew that this supposedly simple classic tune was anything but. In fact, the track tackles some of the headiest notions in Western Philosophy.

Philosophers will readily admit that the opening lyric, "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am," is a direct critique of Rene Descartes' dictum first described in Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641), translated into English as "I think, therefore I am." Herman's Hermits' implicit joking reply is "I think, therefore I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am." This interpretation reveals an understanding of the ideas of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who posited in Scienza Nuova (1725) that history essentially repeats itself, or that it is a cyclical force. Herman's Hermits' brilliant revision of the original tune erases all but the chorus, and repeats it three times during the one minute and forty-nine secord duration of the recording. This insistence on repetition is validated when lead singer Peter Noone seemingly tosses off the line "Second verse, same as the first." Consequently, the apparent primary joke of the song--that Henry the Eighth does not refer to the scandalous and oft-married British monarch who reigned from 1509 to 1547 but to a man named Henry who is married to a woman who has married seven other Henrys before him--is merely secondary. History even repeats itself in the lyric's narrative.

HAS YOUR MIND BEEN BLOWN OR WHAT? When The Beatles were singing silly tunes like "Drive My Car" and The Rolling Stones were claiming that "Time is on My Side" (which is, of course, a total non sequitur, since time is an abstract concept and therefore outside the purview of geometry), Herman's Hermits were grappling with the giants of Western philosophy, essentially refuting Cartesian thought whilst insisting on the Viconian cycle. They also applied the aesthetic of Gertrude Stein in her experimental novel The Making of Americans (1925) to help them realize the self-reflexivity of repetition in popular music. Long before pretentious music snobs lauded songs like The Fall's "Repetition," Flipper's "Brainwash," Laurie Anderson's "O Superman," or Lil Wayne's "A Milli," Herman's Hermits' proved themselves to be amongst the most precocious and brilliant group of musicians of all repeated time.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Late to the Party: Aziz Ansari's "Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening" (2010)

It has been quite awhile since I bought a new comedy CD. Aside from the spate of posthumous Bill Hicks releases from the late 1990s and early 2000s, I think the last one I bought was David Cross's appropriately titled It's Not Funny (2004), which I later sold on for like $5 when people were still buying CDs.

Well, the other night, I was flipping through the channels and landed on a stand-up performance on Comedy Central. I recognized the comedian, Aziz Ansari, from a bit part in an episode of Flight of the Conchords (where he plays a man who runs a fruit stand and has an irrational hatred of Australians) and from his turn as "Raaaaaaaandy" in the sluggish Judd Apatow dramedy Funny People. He's probably most known for his role as Tom Haverford on NBC's television show Parks and Recreation.

What makes his comedy CD (also available on DVD) Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening so hilarious is his infectious delivery, his mastery of fairly complex and quickly delivered bits, his handle on contemporary pop culture (especially his relation to it as a comedian and actor with some decent media exposure), and the musical cadence of comedic voice. Ansari never sounds angry, though he can get animated, especially during his most sarcastic routines. His voice is reminiscent of Mitch Hedberg, but is delivered with the bravado of a rapper. His observational humor tends toward the surreal, especially as he expands on the minutia inside of his bits. For instance, in a sketch called "Sheets," while discussing the mundane topic of "thread counts," he relates buying sheets that were advertised as having a thread count of 600. But, after doing some online research, he finds the actual thread count of the sheets is 296. His response: "Are you shittin' me, man? I almost slept on that shit. 296 is sandpaper as far as I'm concerned. If that was a drug deal, I would have shot Hotel Luxury Linens in the face." His observations about race, particular as a first-generation American, from South Carolina, whose parents immigrated from India, are insightful. While doing a promotional interview for a TV show, he tells his audience that an interviewer asked him if he was "psyched" about the success of Slumdog Millionaire, which is an odd question considering Ansari was not in the film. He is asked the question simply because of his Indian ancestry. He then asks: "Are white people just psyched all the time? It's like, 'Back to the Future. That's us. Godfather. That's us. Godfather Part II. That's us. Departed. That's us. Sunset Blvd. That's us. Citizen Kane. That's us. Jaws. That's us. Every fuckin' movie BUT and Slumdog Millionaire and Boyz N the Hood. That's us. We're white people. Suck our dicks!'"

Ansari hits his stride when talking about his cousins Harris and Darwish and how he complicates their lives by "messing with them" on Facebook. These intimate yet oddly universal tales are reminiscent of the best comedy in that it touches on the mundane and familiar with remarkable and silly detail. This leads into a bit where Ansari describes hanging out with the rapper Kanye West. Similar to Richard Pryor's account of similar interactions with larger than life figures (in his instance, football player and movie star Jim Brown and boxer Muhammad Ali) or Kevin Smith and Charlie Murphy's narratives surrounding meetings with the eccentric musician Prince, Ansari relates the kind of details that at once surprise and seem exactly like the media-construction of Kanye West. He tells the audience about being cut off mid-sentence by Kanye West so the rapper can go to his high-powered telescope to check out a female neighbor with large breasts. However, the highlight of the proper set is his account of going to an R. Kelly show (and later meeting him). It's nearly as funny as Dave Chappelle's impression of him in his mock-video "Piss on You." Ansari gets the singer's cadence down spot-on. He also perpetuates the stereotypes made about R. Kelly (especially his hypersexuality) in new and hilarious ways. After visualizing for the crowd a rather explicit element of R. Kelly's stage performance, Ansari says, "Wow. You are not gonna see shit like that at a Modest Mouse concert."

One criticism that can be made of this performance is his transition between the R. Kelly material and his encore as Raaaaaaaandy (that's right, with eight As), Ansari's comedic alter ego who embodies some of the lowest common denominator tendencies of comedians/performers like Dane Cook, Andrew Dice Clay, Funkmaster Flex, or the more sexually-oriented Def Comedy Jam comedians. The material is funny, but his performance is so similar to his concluding musical impression of R. Kelly that it's really hard to distinguish Ansari's regular stand-up from his alter-ego Raaaaaaaandy.

Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening in no way represents a revolutionary breakthrough in stand-up comedy. Ansari's material is slight, and when he does slip into political topics outside of the domain of race, like gay rights, he is more interested in social aspects of political integrity than in making statements. But there is nothing wrong with this. Ansari's debut CD is highly entertaining and almost always generate laughs for the duration of its fifty-four minutes. Ideally, this is what a comedy performance should do.