Rage Against the Machine – Bulls on Parade

Rage Against the Machine introduced my 13 year old self to the idea of encapsulating politics in art.  Most serious art, that most insufferable of phrases, contains a political element, but rarely so nakedly and on the surface as with RAtM.  I already knew that music could contain a message.  I was even willing to accept that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” played a significant role in the civil rights movement (because I had seen movie montages) even if I wasn’t clear on the mechanism by which it worked.

But Rage left none of the politics to chance and instead wielded a duel ended sledgehammer of political fury and bludgeoning hard rock and hip-hop.  Problematically, I couldn’t tell you exactly what their politics were.  Only that they really felt it.  Also, think about a duel ended sledgehammer and how well that would not work.

“Bulls on Parade” arrived with an explosive guitar intro and a chaotic video that mixed concert footage with historical protests that served to heighten the “WTF?!” factor for me.  Never before had I heard anything like it in the MTV Buzz Bin (if you remember that, it’s ok to feel old).  Zach de la Rocha’s line “They don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ’em now” always stuck with me, like the wisdom of a man who had thought about things.  I didn’t even have a half-baked political agenda at the time, but I found value in Rage Against the Machine’s anger over grunge’s general disaffection.  Whatever was happening here felt pretty important in 1996.

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I don’t know enough about playing the guitar to say that Tom Morello is a great guitarist.  I do know enough to say that he teased some devastatingly cool noises out of his instrument and made the sound popular and distinctive.  You know when Tom Morello plays guitar.  Morello is the Hideo Nomo of guitarists – an unconventional delivery that redefined how to be successful in a craft.

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Killer Mike and El-P Are… Run the Jewels

Killer Mike and El-P had banner years in 2012, starting with the release of Mike’s critically acclaimed and El-P produced R.A.P. Music that was soon followed by El-P’s own Cancer 4 Cure.  The purest culmination of their collaboration, R.A.P. Music, was the best hip-hop album of 2012 and arguably the best record of the year.  Each rapper pulled the best out of the other.  El-P’s tendency to construct complex but busy beats was blunted by Mike’s booming delivery, powerful and brash enough to swipe even the most manic track from the jaws of chaos.  As the album’s sole architect, El-P’s presence gave Mike’s album a consistent tone that his records have lacked in the past.  Their chemistry was undeniable and it is no surprise that the duo reunited for another go-round.

Courtesy of @sawbrey

Courtesy of @sawbrey

The eponymous Run the Jewels positions itself as the rebellious, purse snatching counterpart to that other hip-hop pairing, but rhymes about wealth have been replaced with ones about being delinquents.  Undercurrents of their individual political consciousnesses are present, but ultimately Run the Jewels is about Mike and El-P having fun, trading rhymes, and playing off of each other’s boasts of their own bravado.  “Run the Jewels” is the best example of them tossing the mic back and forth, but “Do It” has been my favorite from day one.

Run the Jewels works so well because it gives the impression that Mike and El-P worked on the tracks together.   Feature spots on rap records often feel like financial decisions rather than artistic ones and many times it’s easy to think that the track’s host didn’t know what his guest’s verse would be until it arrived by email (*cough* Jay-Z’s verse on “Never Let Me Down” *cough*).  “Do It” features the kind of rolling, bass heavy beat that I love and a great pair of verses that you know had to be written with full knowledge of the other:

[El-P]
My name is Jaime Meline

I’m not chasing the green, I’m taking it
Bosses don’t change a thing in the name of seemingly making it
Servants’ll kiss the ring of whoever they think is paying ’em
You don’t deserve the spit that they hurdled up in your face and shit

[Killer Mike]
My name is Michael Render
And we are the new Avengers
We’re here to tell you all your false idols are just pretenders
They’re corporation slaves indentured to all the lenders
So even if you got seven figures, you still a n****

Courtesy of @sawbrey

Courtesy of @sawbrey

At a compact 40 minutes and a price of freeRun the Jewels is the best deal of the summer.  The only thing that I don’t like about it is the cover art, so I snagged alternatives created by superfan @sawbrey from El-P’s tumblr.

Courtesy of @sawbrey

Courtesy of @sawbrey

Regarding Saturday Morning Cartoons Theme Songs

Eric: So I heard that they’re going to be making a Captain Planet movie.

Friend: *singing* Captain Planet, he’s our hero / Gonna take pollution down to zero

Eric: That was definitely a memorable theme song.  You know what was the best series theme though?

Friend: The Perry Mason theme?

Eric: No, I actually don’t know that one.  I was going to say the X-Men theme.

Friend: Ahh… Well I don’t know that one.

Eric: What?!  You’ve never heard it?  You’ve gotta listen.  *googles the youtubes*

Friend: Well, let me find the Perry Mason theme too then.

Eric: Here it is.  The animated intro isn’t too shabby either.

Friend: Yeah, that is good.  Well, here’s the Perry Mason theme.

Eric: Oooooh.  I do like that.  But you know what…

!!!!!

*dramatic sting*

It’s the same song!

Kanye the Merciless

During the month following his performance of “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” on Saturday Night Live, there was a lot of talk that Kanye West’s Yeezus would be dark, abrasive, and challenging.  West described his new sound as “aspiration minimalism” in a rare and quickly legendary New York Times interview.  Some speculated that the album would tilt towards industrial rock based on the (probably wrong) assumption that “Black Skinhead” sampled Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People.”

Reports of the album’s stark sound ring true.  It’s a good one too, although I like it and do not love it.  It is a wholly separate creature from his College Trilogy albums and is a million miles away from the rich, lush sound of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  The closest precedent for Yeezus is the lonely 808s & Heartbreak.  However, 808s gave us a heartbroken Kanye, whereas the Kanye of Yeezus sounds hateful.  “On Sight” should score the birth of villain, a merciless electro-lord fueled by rage and vengeance.  Kanye cops to the fact that he looks to not be having fun 90 percent of the time in the NYT interview, but Yeezus sounds like it wants to banish fun altogether.  Our rapper turned artist turned villain turned redeemed soul has taken a scorched earth approach towards critics once thought slain.

Kanye West at home.

Kanye West at home.

Normally I love music this raw, but I’m not sure that I like this version of Kanye.  From a position of anger, his jokes have less punch and his confessions less soul.  Steven Hyden had it very right when he wrote:

“Is Kanye a good person?” has been a running question on all of his records; this is the first time West hasn’t allowed for the possibility that the answer might be “yes.”

His entire body of work refutes that Kanye is a bad person, but within the context of Yeezus, this is almost entirely true.  “Bound 2” comes closest to softening the album, but he doesn’t approach College Dropout era likeability.

The song that I’ve kept thinking about since Yeezus dropped is “Everything I Am.”  Graduation was a considerably less harsh album, but even it required a digestive.  “Everything I Am” is sincere, even sappy.  There’s a little swagger, a little confession and social consciousness, all wrapped up in a charmingly vulnerable package.  Kanye steps out of playing the megalomaniacal character and shows that, behind the curtain, he gets it.  The chorus, poetry worthy of a high school yearbook, contains everything you need to decipher the him as an artist.  I don’t think meant to do so at the time, but “Everything I Am” is the truest thing that Kanye would ever write about Kanye.

Gnarls Barkley – Crazy

It’s easy to become jaded over what passes for art in a consumer driven culture. Whether your form is film, music, writing, cars, couches or whatever, there exists a temptation to believe that personal preferences are based in objective criteria and that the broader public is too lazy/stupid/indifferent to venture beyond what Big Media has spoon-fed them. As a younger man I was stubborn and plagued too by the belief that my music was superior to what resided in the Top 40 morass.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” restored my faith in popular music. When I first heard it during a 3am drive I thought, “This is such a great song. It’s a shame that nobody will ever hear it.” I chalked it up to being the sort of song that the last remaining homo sapiens DJ attempted to slip by his Clear Channel robot overlords and felt a pang of sadness for the loss of a song to the late night radio ether.

I almost exploded when “Crazy” popped up again a week later. That’s the song! And then I heard it again. And again and again. “Crazy” became ubiquitous and was as likely to be encountered while lounging at a barbecue as it could be while sipping a latte at Starbucks. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 list and stayed their for seven weeks. Critics loved it, the public loved it, and the only protestations against it were that it was just too popular. I regard it as one of the greatest pop songs of all time.

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Danger Mouse & Cee Lo Green

The popularity of “Crazy” was a hash mark in the poptimist column. It also took my sizeable ego down a notch. I realized that the public could pick a winner and that quality music didn’t stem from age, obscurity, inaccessibility or the fact that I liked it (What can I say? It was 2006 and I was only a year out of college; I had a lot to learn). I went through years when I couldn’t be bothered to know what the song of the summer was, but I take greater joy now in the fact that songs like “Crazy” or “Call Me Maybe” can dominate our collective cultural mindspace. It’s time we find out what song we can’t escape for Summer 2013.

Jay Reatard – Turning Blue

I love “Turning Blue” for being the song I’d write if I’d ever learn to play the guitar gathering dust in my bedroom.  There is joy to be found in straightforward, infectious rock and the now deceased Jay Reatard was a master of it in its sloppiest,  most raucous form.

If you let the Wikipedia page tell the story the exact type of rock is up for debate.  The genre header lists every possible permutation of the words “garage,” “punk,” and “rock” and though each term works, it also implies that none are distinct.  “Garage” is usually applied to the lo-fi guitar music with pop appeal of the pre-punk era .  The problem is that a Jay Reatard record sounds more punk than a Ramones record does.  The Ramones themselves don’t sound nearly as punk as their garage rocker predecessors, The Stooges.  And The Stooges outpunk any of the early 2000s garage rock revival “The” bands (Whites Stripes, Hives, Strokes, Vines, etc.).

I’m not a huge fan of the genre proliferation that’s prevalent in music journalism.  I like when a genre communicates something substantive about the music (“punk” has specific connotations that “rock” does not), but I hate when genre becomes a barrier to entry or is  simply a rebranding of something older.  Do seapunk fans have a right to be mad at Rihanna?  Is drill music anything other than the gangster rap coming out of Chicago in 2012?  I once saw a passionate argument that Purity Ring was SO OBVIOUSLY a part of the probably-doesn’t-exist witch house scene.  This has always happened to a degree, but the Internet seems to have accelerated our tendency to divide musically.  It allows for micro-genres to develop united by blog posts, forum communities, and SoundCloud uploads.

Fiery Furnaces and Silver Apples

Here Comes The Summer

Based on the Hollywoodian calendar (the practical successor to the Julian and Gregorian models), summer is upon us and we should be spending our time in air conditioned movie theaters or lounging poolside, drinking flavored rums from the hollows of coconuts.  But we’re not because it’s still like 40 degrees out there for some reason!  What is going on, Nature, and why do you hate us?  

Still, I wanted to share with you two songs that remind me of summer’s better days ahead.  I found both of these songs on one of my best days of musical discovery.  Last year I was sitting in a beer snob bar with a friend from out of town when “Here Comes The Summer” by The Fiery Furnaces came on.  I’d never heard the song, so I furtively Shazam’d it under the table.  From the jump-start initial chord, the song is like sipping distilled nostalgia sprinkled with the essence of summers gone by.  It makes me think of my Pittsburgh past.  I hear it and I think of barbecues and beers on Dawson Street, of iced teas and a book club that met on Murray Avenue.  I think of the Washington, DC version of myself and how March 2012 was so warm that it really did feel like summer.  Daylight savings time had toyed with my body clock, so I jogged in the mornings and evenings and discovered that I could run five kilometers.

The other song I unearthed that day, “Oscillations” by Silver Apples, was truly ancient, having been released as a single in 1968.  I acted coolly with “Here Comes The Summer,” but I became an obnoxious smartphone geek the moment that “Oscillations” hit my ears because I feared losing the song forever.  It just sounded so damned cool and yet I couldn’t place it at all.  The recording was primitive, but the music was so modern.  It was dancy and psychedelic, but electric guitars had been replaced with synths.  Silver Apples project leader Simeon used so many synthesizers/oscillators that he rigged together his own device to control it all, apparently also called The Simeon.  This work places Silver Apples at a pretty influential spot on the electronic music timeline.  Musically, you can hear a little of what will eventually become Radiohead and Simeon has Thom Yorke beaten on the digitally disaffected front by about 40 years.  The group had a big impact on Portishead as well, who do a spot on Silver Apples impression on their tribute, “We Carry On.”  Other recommended songs are “You And I” and “I Have Known Love.”

The same friend at the bar with me that afternoon moved to Washington, DC recently.  We’ve known each other since we were both little and we’ve spent many summers at the park, first fighting monsters, and later on talking about life and love and  just trying figuring out who in the hell we actually were at 13 years old.  We haven’t seen each other consistently for 17 years, but with the best friends you don’t have to.  This is the same kid that I figured out music with and watched the 1994 World Cup with.  The same kid whose elbow I broke in pursuit of a bouncing rubber ball and the one I learned how to do an oil change with.  The last time we watched a Knicks playoff game together OJ had just killed a guy.  We have a lot of summers in our past that I look back on fondly.  We’ll be adding another.

Iron Man 3, The Bechdel Test, and Rilo Kiley

I saw Iron Man 3 this weekend and absolutely loved it (there is only the tiniest drop-off in quality from the spectacular first film). As I do with movies that I enjoy, I searched for podcasts to listen to the critical reactions of the viewing public. The guys at Overthinking It mentioned that Iron Man 3 successfully passes the Bechdel Test because two women (Pepper Potts and the ambivalently evil Maya Hansen) manage to talk to each other about something other than men or romantic relationships. Well, they do mention that Maya’s boss is a man who may be working for an international superterrorist (certainly worth mentioning), but they also discuss things like the impact that US military funding has had on their projects. I don’t regard passing the test as any sort of Sisyphean task, but I’ve also never been on the lookout for it. I’m sure that its existence is evidence that Hollywood could spend a little more time thinking about these issues when it comes to scripts. So… points to Iron Man 3 for passing the Bechdel Test.*

You know who doesn’t get points for passing the Bechdel Test? Boorish lout Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. She’s got a man on her mind and she aint’ afraid to talk about him.

I discovered “Does He Love You?” this week and the song absolutely floored me. There’s so much good going on here. The spring morning melody, Lewis’ magnificent voice, the theatricality that ramps up with each passing verse. “Does He Love You?” is a one-sided conversation between Lewis and another woman with whom her relationship is unclear. They share a lover and Lewis certainly plays the mistress, but are they friends? Lewis calls her a friend (for what that’s worth), and there is some evidence of a prior relationship:

Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend. You and I were almost dead.

The third verse provides little clarity, but a strange role reversal occurs. Upon discovering the affair, the wife calls and confesses to the mistress that she only married out of desperation. Lewis, perhaps as a consolation, offers up the pained admission that despite the affair, she will never have sole possession of her lover. Whether that fleeting loyalty stems from true love for his wife or from familial duty, Lewis knows she can’t be enough to trump the emotion.

The music leaves no ambiguity as to the pain of both confessions. I love how it peaks on the line he will never leave you for me followed by the addition of the strings (at the 4:03 mark) for maximum dramatic effect. A lesser group could have played this for melodrama, but Rilo Kiley avoids the overwrought through strong songwriting and just enough restraint.

*Editorial note with SPOILERS: A friend has commented that I’m setting an incredibly low bar for Iron Man 3 by praising it for passing the Bechdel Test. Let me be clear – I am praising Iron Man 3 because it’s awesome. I have set a low bar, but that is also a part of what is notable. The superhero genre so frequently relies on retrograde depictions of women that it’s barely even noteworthy. Iron Man 3 successfully engages in minor genre subversion by giving Pepper Potts agency outside of the immediate world of Tony Stark and even though she spends some time as a damsel in distress, she also saves the day in the end.

Miguel and Erykah Badu Meet The Notorious B.I.G.

I’ve been in a rare R&B mood lately, probably brought on by the Grammys and all the attention that Frank Ocean and Miguel have been receiving recently.  Specifically, this has meant listening to a lot of Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream and Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One & Part Two.  The trio of albums pull off the neat trick of being retro, futuristic and sexy at the same time.

“Adorn”, Miguel’s biggest hit from Kaleidoscope Dream,  was ubiquitous on R&B radio for a while, but it failed to make an impression because of it’s similarities to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”  It’s the album’s poppiest effort and probably worthy of its popularity, but the beauty of Kaleidoscope Dream lies in its weirder and more rock oriented moments.  The guitar heavy duo of “Don’t Look Back” and “Arch & Point”,  and the eponymous Kaleidoscope Dream (which apes the bassline of Eminem’s “My Name Is”), demonstrate the album’s artsier ambitions and the winding paths Miguel ventured to achieve that goal.

But it was the chorus of album closer “Candles In The Sun” that captured my attention.  It only takes a 1:14 minutes for Miguel to drop the “kick in the door” from the Notorious B.I.G. song of the same name.  It’s a fun moment and not terribly important, but it somehow feels meaningful and it’s a soulful context in which to repurpose an otherwise menacing lyric.

New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh starts strong with standouts “20 Feet Tall” and “Agitation” and I was already kind of in love with the album when I reached “Fall In Love (Your Funeral)” towards its tail end.  And then this happens:

Erykah sings there’s gonna be some slow singing / flower bringing / if my burglar alarm starts ringing which is of course lifted from Notorious B.I.G’s glorious “Warning”.  Two Notorious B.I.G. callbacks in the same day!

Pay attention at 1:27.
 

“Warning” is the song that best captures everything that was great and which was lost with Christopher Wallace’s death.  The entire package is on display here: the masterful storytelling, the effortless flow, and the creative wordsmith-ery.  During the Ready To Die era it’s clear that The Notorious B.I.G. took pride in writing his rhymes.  “Warning” begins as a conversation in which Big is informed of an impending robbery and then shifts to plotting a brutal counter-attack.  He avoids gibberish, broken phrases, and inscrutable slang and instead focuses on fitting the English language as it is spoken into the rhyme scheme (I find this more impressive than simply rapping quickly).  Details pervade, giving life to the scene.  And there is the slow singing – I’ve always been struck by the oblique brilliance of that line.  Most writers would probably argue that simpler is better, but Big makes hiding his meaning just an inch beneath the surface feel so natural. It’s one thing to say that the victim’s family will be sad, and it’s another to paint the funeral procession.

And that’s why Badu’s strikes me as the more significant of the two quotations.  Erykah and Biggie are both offering threats, but the dangers come from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.  Big’s warning is to home invaders destined for violent ends.  Badu’s is to her lover who is about to fall for the wrong woman.  While B.I.G. goes all scorched earth with a hail of gunfire and gunpowder-fed rottweilers, Badu playfully acknowledges that she’s only using her man until a better one comes along.  You don’t want to fall in love with me, but if you do… what the hell?  It’s your funeral.    

The Diminishing Returns of Lupe Fiasco

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Photo by Shot By Drew from The Come Up Show

Lupe Fiasco recently reached into his bag of controversy and pulled out a weird, broken record performance at the StartUp RockOn presidential inauguration party.  According to the noted hip-hop journalists over at Politico, he was kicked off the stage after 30 minutes of repeating his anti-Obama lyrics from “Words I Never Said.”

I like “Words I Never Said” and I support artists including political content in their work.  I like giving the middle finger to the man.  But I don’t like screwing over paying customers.  Disruptive activism should piss off the people who’ve abused their power and not the ones who happily pay your bills.  Instead of bringing people’s attention to the very real reasons not to vote for Barack Obama, Lupe Fiasco comes off less like a political firebrand and more like a petulant asshole.

It pains me to say that I’m not surprised by the incident.  I’ve been a Lupe supporter since his guest feature on Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky” and I consider Food & Liquor a minor classic.  He was young, weird (name-checking Lupin III), and possessed of a unique voice capable of rhyming from the perspective of an anime mecha-warrior without sounding cheesy.

Things have changed dramatically in the times since “Kick, Push” was his signature track.  There’s been label drama, retirement announcements, and enough general BS to make me sick of the baggage that he brings.  But this all helps to mask the fact that there has been a remarkable decline in the quality of his music since The Cool.  For all the fighting it took to get Lasers released, it probably shouldn’t have been, and Lupe has never sunk lower than he does on the atrocious “Bitch Bad.”

The song is mind-bogglingly terrible.  There is so much wrong here: the stilted rapping, dangerously high levels of didacticism (an 8.7 as measured on the Nas Scale), the beat Lex Luger would make if he was sad and bored, and a vocabulary that displays no faith in the intelligence of its audience.  “Bitch Bad” is “conscious” rap at its preachy worst and what it preaches doesn’t fly.  Mychal Denzel Smith offers a spot on analysis of it’s shortcomings, but it suffices to say that Lupe’s politics are a little lacking (women infect the boys, girls infect themselves, and the women need to be lectured to).  It all makes the false retirement announcement seem like a broken promise.