Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks: M.I.A. - /|/|/|Y/|"

Normally, when I review a pre-release leak, I try to make sure that I'm working with a reasonably high quality specimen. Typically, if I come across a leak in a bit rate lower than 160 kbps, I'll discard it immediately, and wait for something better. I try to avoid trans-codes, radio rips, web rips, anything that could get in the way of my listening to, understanding, and internalizing a particular album. Well, with M.I.A.'s latest, the annoying to type /|/|/|Y/|, I decided to break this rule. Why did I decide to change my philosophy now? Well, because I couldn't wait to hear /|/|/|Y/|, and so when I came across a shitty leaked version, I had to check it out. Of course, that still doesn't explain why I'd want to write a pre-release review of a shitty leak*. The truth of the matter is, the shitty leak is good enough that, while I'm sure the album proper, in all of its high fidelity glory, will sound infinitely better than the shitty leak, the shitty leak still sounds remarkably good. In a moment, we'll talk about that some more, but first, let's talk about where this leak came from.

It seems appropriate, since I'm reviewing an actual shitty leak, that I provide some detail on the leaked text itself. So, this leak resulted from, what appears to be, a retail website error. If my understanding is correct, a particular website that sells songs as Mp3's, posted samples to the songs from /|/|/|Y/|. Usually, in such a scenario, the web-retail site will provide thirty second clips of an album so that listeners can get a general sense of what a song or album sounds like. If you're unclear on this, check out iTunes or Amazon--they both do the "short clip" approach. However, either by design or accident, this particular website's sampling allowed users to listen to thirty second clips, but each time a user clicked play, they got the next thirty seconds of the song. Instead of hearing the same thirty seconds over and over again, users could effectively listen to an entire song in thirty second tidbits. As the internet is full of crafty individuals, someone managed to record the entire album in thirty second snippets, piece it together, and disseminate it through whatever and wherever. I came across the file at a message board I frequent, downloaded and, and have listened to it enough to realize that, shitty quality and all--in addition to the occasional splicing flub, the Mp3's sound slightly worse than something you may have recorded off of the radio in 1986-- /|/|/|Y/| is an exceptional album.

So what makes /|/|/|Y/| so good? In a word, it's the album's raw audacity. M.I.A. has always been a big, challenging personality. From our first introduction to her on the Piracy Funds Terrorism Mixtape, she has come to represent chaos in pop music--referencing the PLO in a pop song on her proper debut, dropping the oddly controversial gunshots into "Paper Planes," rocking the Grammy's as pregnant as possible, and more recently, stirring up some ruckus in the press. What this album represents, then, is the first time that M.I.A. has been able to harness her own anarchic energy and use it as the guiding principle of an album. Arular was an exciting, and daring record, yes. And Kala was even better, blurring numerous boundaries in pop music to become some sort of Homi K. Bhabha-esque pop dream. What /|/|/|Y/| does, consistently, that neither of its predecessors could sustain, is to render genre in pop music almost utterly irrelevant. If Kala found M.I.A. blurring pop, hip hop, indie rock, and any other number of influences into a delicious pop hybrid, /|/|/|Y/| finds her pulling punk and noise into the mix to make a raw, abrasive, confrontational album that manages to walk the delicate line between pop as sex and punk as fuck. In fact, I could see some pretty strong arguments coming about that /|/|/|Y/| is the punkest album to come around in years.

I should have known it was a good sign when Diplo tweeted, a couple of weeks back, something to the effect that most of the new M.I.A. album sounded like Skinny Puppy and freaked him out. While Skinny Puppy might not be the most obvious point of reference, the wall of tech-noise aesthetic running through most of the album's songs is stunning. "Teqkilla" builds on a messy groove complete with odd sampled vocal fragments and blasts of angry, displaced tones and warped keyboards. "Lovalot," on the other hand, is a bit more straight forward, it's production consisting of minimal percussion and bass. Unlike "Teqkilla" which finds its strength in noise, "Lovalot" relies on M.I.A.'s hot, simmering intensity as she delivers the line "I fight the ones that fight me," followed by more restrained bursts of sampled mischief. Elsewhere, M.I.A. bounces over a slick reggae groove on the hopeful "It Takes a Muscle," and I'm guessing if you're reading this, you've already familiarized yourself with the Suicide sampling burst of gut-punk that is "Born Free." In a way, the more extreme production choices on /|/|/|Y/| recall some of the bolder moments of Public Enemy's Bomb Squad. That's not to say that /|/|/|Y/|'s production actually sounds like the Bomb Squad, just that these songs sometimes work on a similar principle, but up the stakes to better fuck with our contemporary sensibilities.

The only song that doesn't quite work for me--yet--is "Tell Me Why," which is easily the most straight-forward, radio friendly song, here. The song's accessibility isn't, in and of itself, though, the reason for its failure. The problem is the sense that the song is trying too hard to be accessible, to be this album's "Paper Planes." Even with this misstep, though, the album comes to a close with the lovely and weird "Space," and we realize, as the album ends, that once again, M.I.A. has upped the ante, not just for herself, but for pop music as an art form. I know that's a pretty big claim to make based on a shitty leak, and maybe I'll change my mind in a month, but right now, with the shitty leak in my iTunes, I can't help but find /|/|/|y/| absolutely stunning.


M.I.A.'s /|/|/|Y/| is out on July 13, on Interscope records. You can preorder the album here.

*Yes, I do believe that "shitty leak" is the technical term for what I'm listening to, here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: The Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes"

Traditionally, the fool is a figure of merriment, an employee of the high court hired to bring jollity and to provide satire. The most famous of these figures is Yorick in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In the tragic play, Prince Hamlet asks Yorick's skull, "Where are your jibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?" Yorick, "a fellow of infinite jest," is the official fool in the scene. But the ahead-of-his-time Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon gives us an early look at the fool of our times, as the hot-headed Hamlet is interrogating a dead skull. What a dumbass! Today, the word means something much different. According to urbandictionary.com, a fool is "A clumsy or stupid person who is pitied by Mr. T." However, before the erstwhile B.A. Barracus was pitying fools, The Doobie Brothers established their epistemology in the 1978 smash hit "What a Fool Believes."

Prior to the hit, which was co-written by Kenny Loggins and The Doobie Brothers' own lead singer, Michael McDonald, nobody really knew what fools believed or even thought about. For psychologists during the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century, the fool represented their frontier. What did fools do? What did they eat? What kind of clothes did they wear? Did they think their Pet Rocks were actually alive? What did they do when they saw signs that read "Disneyland Left"? Fortunately, "What a Fool Believes" proved to be their manifest destiny, their Key to All Mythologies.

The Doobie Brothers were a well-respected rock group throughout most of the 1970s. In the middle of the decade, their lineup was bolstered by the addition of Steely Dan alums Jeff "Skunk" Baxter--a guitar whiz-kid--and keyboardist Michael McDonald. After they joined the group, The Doobies became an unstoppable force of nature, releasing such powerful recordings as "Takin' It to the Streets" and "Minute by Minute." On "What a Fool Believes," unquestionably their greatest contribution to musical history, Michael McDonald dazzles listeners with his wavering baritone and his oscillating falsettos, which reach up to heaven and tickle sleeping angels. The Doobies also forsake their typical rock instrumental set-up, exchanging their jazzy guitars it for saucy, state-of-the-art synthesizers to more effectively communicate the plight of the fool who is the subject of McDonald and Loggins' insightful lyric. As a result, the group never sounded more vital, or chirpy.

To make the ideology of the fool more accessible to his listeners, McDonald relates the tale of a foolish man in love with a woman who: 1) had no idea he loved her, and; 2) has absolutely no interest in the jamoke. Have you ever heard of anything so tragic? Apparently fools are self-obsessed and have delusions of grandeur, yet have a low self-image and are unable to pick up on even the most basic of social cues. Thanks to Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers, we now know what makes fools tick. Furthermore, the song also goes so far as to offer us a totalizing philosophy in which we are all fools. During the chorus, he sings, in a glass-shattering falsetto, "But what a fool believes, he sees / No wise man has the power / To reason away / What seems to be." Even the "wise man" is a fool for trying to "reason" with the fool, which, in fact he turns out to be. Consider your mind blown! As the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, blame it on Rio."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)"

Tag Team's 1993 classic "Whoomp! (There It Is)" is a fantastic song because it brings together so many aspects of the human condition. First off, humans like to get the party started. And, clearly, Tag Team knows a thing or two about partying ("There's a party over here, a party over there / Wave your hands in the air"). Second, we love catchphrases. Think of all the wonderful coinages that have been inspired by "Whoomp! (There It Is)" since it burst upon the scene during the height of the grunge revolution: "Wusssssssssup!" "Who Let the Dogs Out? Woof. Woof. Woof," "I'm Rick James, Bitch," and "I can see Russia from my house," just to name a few. Lastly, the song returns us to our most basic and fundamental understanding of philosophy: what it means to be "real" and what it means "to be."

On a practical level, Tag Team's magnum opus makes one of life's most annoying events--like losing something, for instance--a cause for celebration. How many times have you lost your keys, forgot where you parked your car at the mall, or misplaced your children? After the usual retracing of steps and "looking in the last place I left them," you find them in some completely obvious place, like in your pocket or dangling off a cliff. Prior to Tag Team, recovering such things would offer us very little consolation for having been an idiot for losing them in the first place. But once the song was part of our global collective consciousness, we could sing "Whoomp! There It Is" to celebrate the rediscovery: Whoomp shakalaka-shakalaka-shakalaka-shaka!

Philosophically speaking, the assertion "Whoomp! There It Is" returns us to the pre-Socratic thinker Parmenides of Elea and his proem The Way of Truth in which he argues, "It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not." And if something "is," it is "real." Tag Team--more than any other rap group in history thus far--keeps it realer by offering us a celebration of the most basic truth about the reality of objects and thoughts, acknowledging the "is-ness" of something: Whoomp! There It Is. Furthermore, Ludwig Wittgenstein's concluding assertion in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) that "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" is verified by Tag Team. There is no song called "Whoomp! There It Isn't."

Tag Team's two brilliant MCs, DC the Brain Supreme (an apt moniker) and Steve Roll'n--like deciding to not have an abortion--celebrate life in "Whoomp! (There It Is)." By singing about life-affirming topics such as "kickin' the flow," "gettin' busy," [making] this party hype," "gettin' bent," and "mad skill flow," they remind us that "we are," and that is reason enough to have a party. Has there ever been a more positive message than this in popular music?

Here's the video:

"Picto-View!": Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today

I'd fully intended to write a "We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks" piece for this album, but due to circumstances out of my control, I didn't get the chance. Now, this stunning album has been released, reviews are rolling in, so what's left to do but represent it in pictures snagged from the internet? As usual, if any of the following pictures are yours and you'd like them removed, just holler at me and I'll get it done. Without further ado...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Concert Review: The National, with The Antlers

DAR Constitution Hall
Washington, DC
6 June 2010

In one of their many banters between songs, The National’s Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner talked about the last time they played DC’s Constitution Hall, a 2007 show in support of the Arcade Fire. When the National opened that evening, the seats were half full. What a difference three years and two highly successful albums make. By the time the National took the stage last night, every seat in the 81-year-old concert hall was full.

Opening act the Antlers were less fortunate. When the Brooklyn three-piece took the stage, the crowd was thin, with almost as many people congregating in the lobby to sip their drinks as those gathered inside to witness the sonic experimentation. Those who cared more about their beers missed one hell of a performance.

The Antlers stuck exclusively to songs off 2009’s Hospice in their limited stage time, but they seemed to feel no pressure to stick to them faithfully. Instead, on songs like “Kettering” and “Bear,” the quiet parts were played even slower than on the album, while the louder bits got loud enough to make your ears bleed. Their moving performance of “Two” was especially poignant, but album highlight “Sylvia” was sadly missing. The Antlers played their guts out and then packed their own equipment into their small panel van that was dwarfed by the National’s mammoth tour bus and moving truck.

The National came out later and slid into “Runaway,” which seemed a strange opener since it is the slowest song on High Violet. But from there they launched straight into a rocking version of “Mistaken for Strangers.” When they played current single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” two songs later, I wondered if they would be able to maintain the crowd’s excitement, having exhausted two fan favorites in the first four songs. But I doubt many National fans walked out of Constitution Hall disappointed.

Throughout the performance, they showcased most of the songs off High Violet while managing to work in many of the great songs off Alligator and Boxer. One of the show’s highlights came from a slightly different arrangement of “Apartment Story”: The signature drumbeat did not begin until after the first chorus. By the end all six voices were singing “all things are well / we’ll be alright” in unison, and most of the crowd seemed to lend their voices to this catharsis.

On “Abel,” Berninger hopped into the orchestra seating and walked the aisles, stagehands trying desperately to unravel his microphone chord behind him. When he reached the back of the crowd, Berninger climbed on a chair and shouted the rest of the lyrics in a throng of fans. The National later closed their set with “Fake Empire,” the song that seemed to draw the most fan requests.

After a short break, the National returned for five encore songs. Bryce Dessner announced, “This is an old song we don’t play very often” before they started into a beautiful version of “Karen.” High Violet tracks “Lemon World” and “Terrible Love” framed one of the show’s best moments, a powerful performance of Alligator’s “Mr. November.” Berninger again went into the crowd, this time climbing into the balcony, and again shouted the last half of the song perched on a seat surrounded by fans.

The National’s performance in our nation’s capital confirmed what critics and Billboard sales figures have been suggesting: This is one of the most important rock bands of the day. Their level of intensity, the flawless execution of their performances, and their easy and captivating stage presence blended to create a truly remarkable concert that every fan owes it to herself to catch as soon as possible.

Click here for upcoming tour dates.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Picto-view!": Robyn - Body Talk pt. 1

Quirky pop star Robyn released her new, wonderful, eight song, mini-album Body Talk pt. 1 recently, and it seemed like an exceptional candidate for a pictorial review. Without further ado, then, here is what the new Robyn album sounds like (again, if any of these pictures are yours and you have a problem with their use, please let me know and I'll remove them immediately):

Friday, June 4, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Osmonds' "One Bad Apple"

Apples are weird! No other fruit has had such a vexed existence as this red and/or green-skinned orb. Good apples contain antioxidants that can help prevent colon and prostate cancer. Why else would they say "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"? Apples can also refer to the lumps in men's throats (the Adam's Apple) or to those expensive computers marketed towards hipsters. None of these facts, however, can help explain why apple juice tastes so awful. However, in The Holy Bible by God, Adam is described in Genesis eating the forbidden fruit, ushering him and Eve into the world of original sin. This was very bad. This fruit has since been characterized as an apple. Though the powerful apple lobby has tried for years to rescind this appellation, it has unfortunately stuck. In their monumental 1970 recording "One Bad Apple," the Osmonds further revolutionize the symbolism of the "bad apple" by comparing it to a big jerky jerk of a man. In doing so, they manage to suggest that the number of bad apples is relatively small compared to the quantity of tasty apples in the "whole bunch," effectively minimizing the symbolic tyranny of the bad apple. Their convoluted argument can be reduced to three words: men are awesome!

Making this sound-document all the more impressive is its lineage. The Osmonds consisted of a group of religiously pious brothers from Utah. Seventeen year-old Merrill Osmond sings the lead vocal atop a apple-flavored Bubblicious confection of cavity-making pop sweetness, including strings, horns, chimes, and flutes. The lyric relates the tale of a "girl" who is about to "give up on love" because "some guy brought sadness into [her] happy world." Fearful that another man will "come along and sock it to [her] again," she needs to be convinced that this was just an aberration. Then thirteen year-old Donny Osmond chimes in, during the chorus, belting out the following line: "Give it one more try before you give up on love." Donny's soulful, soaring, pre-pubescent voice is almost unfair. How can any woman resist this line of argumentation coming from a boy this damned cute-sounding? The confident and persuasive Merrill continues, "I could make you happy, baby / Satisfy you, too." This sexual hellion doesn't stop here, telling this girl, who has "messed up his mind," that he's willing to be masochistic to prove his love to her, as he sings, "I'd rather hurt myself than to ever hurt you." The rest of the Osmonds, including the precious, cherub-cheeked Donny, completely support and concur with Merrill in his brave attempt to convince this "girl" that, in essence, all the other apples in the bunch are worth eating.

One of the reasons "One Bad Apple" is so astoundingly brilliant is that it is so true. Most men are clearly awesome and women should never forget that, especially when one misguided male randomly turns out to be a "bad apple" who might be physically, emotionally, or psychologically abusive to women. Just look at how this group of young brothers, ranging in age from 13 (Donny) to 21 (Alan Osmond), are willing to step up to the plate and vouch for the pious honor of each other. So what if the song is a psychoanalyst's buffet of sexual neuroses, including the vaguely incestuous and homoerotic "make me proud son" approval the other Osmond brothers heap on lead singer Merrill in his valiant attempt to not only win the love of this "girl," but to also prevent her from leaving her heterosexual shores for a life of exile on the Isle of Lesbos? No, there's nothing shady about that at all. By implying that the "bad apple" is merely a distraction to be instantly discarded, this group of seemingly harmless brothers prove that even they are totally willing to subvert their religious principles in an attempt to procure some ass. How precious is that? With "One Bad Apple," the raw force of manhood never again sounded so damned CUTE!

Here's a YouTube clip of the song: