Friday, October 30, 2009

Ghostface Stories

Last year we showed you this for Halloween. This year, something even better, courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel via the Daily Swarm. I present to you: Ghost Stories with Ghostface Killah.

So, that makes about as much sense as I expected. Shout to Midget Kiss.

WATCH: Ghost Stories with Ghostface Killah [daily swarm]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Retire for Real: The Trouble with Jay-Z

jay-z-glastonbury.jpgJay-Z said this to NYMag's Vulture blog on the subject of his "Death of Autotune" song:

I really just wanted to send a message to rap; I didn’t know it’d be a cultural dispute. I really wanted to have the conversation, like “are we just going to sound like each other? Everyone’s going to sound the same? That’s what we’re gonna do? Don’t ya’ll know this is dangerous? And this is just how rock and roll got pushed from the forefront?” We did this to rock and roll. Everyone was doing the hair-band thing on MTV with the tight pants. They all had the big hair, just different colored tights. It just became about more of a look and a sound than the emotion of the music. And that’s what hip-hop’s becoming. It’s losing the emotion — you can’t have emotion in the robotic voice. I can’t feel anything! And then everyone sounds the same. I really wanted to have the conversation amongst us. And it went outside the culture.

Jay? You can't have it both ways. Blueprint 3--the album you seem to think really broke free of the hip hop pack--would be the most tired thing you've released to date, had you not also released Kingdom Come and American Gangster. And it's not exactly high on emotional expression. Your words and your actions are completely at odds with one another. It's going to take a LOT more than eschewing heavy autotune use in order to breathe life back into hip hop. Maybe you gave a damn about the music contained on BP3, but it certainly didn't sound like it. Sure, "Empire State of Mind" is a pretty good track, but it doesn't sound like anything that couldn't have come out in 2003 (and while we're on the subject, it would have been among the weakest tracks you did release in that year). If you want to keep making music this boring, that's fine. You're way past the Three Classic Album Rule. But please, stop acting like you're here to save us.

Now, if you've read this blog before, you might know a bit about my feelings on the state of hip hop: that it's tired, it's boring, it's just one stop short of dead. Everyone's afraid to try something new, and any feeble attempt to do so gets so chopped up by meddling hands that it ends up a sad neutered excuse for a record. And that's just for the artists who care, which most of them don't seem to. Call me cranky, but I defy you to come up with a compelling argument to the contrary. The best I can do these days seems to be Kid Cudi, and again, that record came out completely lopsided (I still like it a lot more than anything on BP3).

The only silver lining that I could possibly conceive of here is right in line with Jay-Z's rock music/hair metal analogy: the revitalization that rock music saw in the days during and after the hair metal craze was a direct result of said craze; four kids in Forest Hills needed to be bored to death by rock radio before they could bring it back to life as The Ramones (and that's just one example). So here's hoping that Jay can move along the utter stagnation of hip hop to the point that some kid, somewhere, gets fed up and does something completely insane, original, interesting, vital, and fun. Or any of the above. If they're out there and you know it, let me know where I can hear it in the comments.

Jay-Z on DJ Hero, 'D.O.A.,' and His Future Career As a Bar Mitzvah Performer [vulture blog]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

That Really Was It: Michael Jackson's THIS IS IT

A lot has been said about Michael Jackson's THIS IS IT: Father of the year Joe Jackson claims that body doubles were used, his sister LaToya says that Michael would be horrified by the film's release; as a perfectionist, he wouldn't want fans to see him not giving his all, even in a rehearsal. Expectations were high for fans, especially for those who were supposed to see the concert, and many critics were skeptical. After all, Jackson needed this money. These dates were a way to help with his monstrous debt. And since he is one of the most beloved performers of all time, it would be easy, and not surprising at all, for him to simply phone in 50 shows and leave at least a few people satisfied, just happy to catch a glimpse of his former glory.

Well, after seeing the premiering 11:55pm show in Brooklyn last night with my brother, I can tell you this: The King of Pop still had a little fight left in him.

To be honest, I bought these tickets the day they were released a month ago in the hopes that the film would shed some subversive light on his health pre-death. Maybe unintentionally show Michael in a Demerol induced haze, stumbling through rehearsals. Perhaps prove to the world that he was in absolutely no condition to fulfill those 50 planned dates at the O2 arena in London anyway. I am not particularly proud of my initial interest in the documentary, but like most people, I am not completely immune to scandal consciously and unconsciously forming my opinions of someone I have never even met. I was looking for sensationalism. I will admit that. I was looking for a few bittersweet laughs at a fallen legend's expense. I will admit that too. But I got the complete opposite. And I am impressed.

This wasn't funny. Or fucked up. It wasn't even sad, in a pathetic sense or otherwise. Parts of it dripped with melodrama, but that was no surprise, his tastes often lead to that. Really, it was just fascinating. It basically was a run through of the concert that never was, about almost 2 hours of him just planning, singing, dancing and rehearsing his way through the elaborate set. There were explosions, a Swarovski embellished "Billie Jean" costume partially developed by scientists in the Netherlands, that was so bright you needed sunglasses to see it up close (not joking), aerialists hanging from chandeliers, the world's luckiest dancers (one of the best scenes was footage from the auditions held for back up dancers, all of them crying with joy at the prospect of dancing not with, but for the King), amazing musicianship (his female guitarist was particularly excellent, and the band was fantastic) and tons of insane footage that was meant to be projected over the stage for pretty much each song, basically serving as mini music videos, even though the majority of said songs already have pretty amazing music videos to begin with (the "Thriller" one, although filled with great makeup, costumes and special effects, was no match for John Landis' original and the video footage for "Earth Song" had me checking the time a lot).

It started with "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and ended with "Man in the Mirror," and in between there was a Jackson 5 medley (complete with an exact replica of The Jackson 5 Show set, which was my favorite part), a reinterpretation of Gilda set to "Smooth Criminal" which via green screen had Jackson spliced into the night club setting with Rita Hayworth, a Chicago-esque performance of "The Way You Make Me Feel," and the whole time, Michael's immaculate attention to detail. Whether he was schooling (soft spokenly and politely of course) his musical director for not playing the EXACT key used on the original "The Way You Make Me Feel" record for the intro of the song, chastising his band for not letting the bass "simmer" enough, or stopping a number because the mix sounded like a "fist was being pushed through" his ear, he was completely at the helm. His voice, is still phenomenal, even if he wasn't going full throttle on each song (although he did a lot and during his duet with back up singer Judith on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" he got carried away in the moment and really let loose, quite beautifully, and then told her teasingly it was "OK for you to do that, but I need to conserve MY voice").

Joe Jackson, once again, can die in a fire; those were 110% Jackson's moves, start to finish. He didn't miss a beat, he just moved a few seconds slower than normal, partially because it was rehearsal and a lot of sound check stuff, and of course partially due to health, but nevertheless: he not only kept up with his lithe dancers, he led them. This was no walk through. He jumped around, threw himself on the ground, crotch grabbed, air humped, moonwalked, "Thrillered," Jackson 5 "rolled" (you know, the classic hand/arm roll the boys did all in a line with the two-step) and maintained great measure in his singing the whole time. He made perfect sense every time he spoke, even if he used ridiculous metaphors and passively aggressively told everyone when they messed up that he was correcting them with "L-O-V-E" and even though he seemed exhausted, was shockingly alert.

I have always said that Michael, even as a child, looked the most comfortable while singing and dancing. All other times, he seemed uncomfortable in his later giant and skeletal frame, nervously waving, shyly smiling. This film solidified that. His element, is performing. Watching him lead rehearsals was like watching someone come back to life. I wasn't even paying attention to his looks; they didn't matter. His hair, his skin, his nose, none of those heavily criticized things were an issue. I mean, I am no fool. I know they showed the best days of rehearsals. I know things were edited, heavily. I know he wasn't always that lucid. But I also know what I saw and I know that I would have loved to see the final outcome. There was no scandal. No gossip. No circus show (other than the one on stage). No law suits. Just a legend who quietly was building his swan song, proving that even though his records weren't what they once were, his natural gift for entertaining, immaculately and joyously, had never left.

Monday, October 26, 2009


One of our favorite blogs is Idolator. They consistently bring thought provoking commentary to some of the most ridiculous happenings in the world of popular and independent music, and for that, we thank them.

Currently, they're counting down the fifty worst songs of the '00s. It's a dirty job, but... well, actually no one had to do it but I'm glad the Idolator crew has taken to it. Because it gives us great harsh lines like the following:

This is a “collaboration” like leprosy is a collaboration with your skin, with Wu-Tang’s involvement little more than their collecting royalties on a copy of Wu-Tang Forever some kid probably sold to a CD Warehouse in 1998. So basically you have 30 seconds of a Wu-Tang record you already own, a full-on pause, and then a really fucking loud Ozzy and Tony Iommi playing a completely dogshit moronic chorus. And then the Wu record again, but really quietly and sadly just playing by itself with an out-of-tune Cypress Hill noises on top of it. Loud rocks!

Doesn't matter what song they're talking about (it's some kind of horrible Ozzy/Wu-Tang collabo), but these are still worth a read.

F2K: Idolator Counts Down The 50 Worst Songs Of The ’00s, One By Ear-Splitting One [idolator]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Some New Stuff I've Been Listening To: Avetts, Hawthorne, Perkins, Cash

The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
This LP, the 5th one from the Avetts, is their major label debut, produced by Rick Mothafuckin Rubin. It is the band's most concise album; it doesn't have the sometime meandering quality of the others. Unfortunately, it is also the most boring of their albums. There are a few winners on here, but nothing comes close to the high points of Emotionalism or Mignonette. Good thing that these guys easily get the three album rule seal of approval, so they could decide that they were a Taylor Swift cover band and I'd give them a pass.* Key tracks: "Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise," "Kick Drum Heart," "Slight Figure of Speech"

Mayer Hawthorne - A Strange Arrangement
This debut release on Stones Throw from Ann Arbor's Mayer Hawthorne is a short, smart, and masterfully crafted tribute to the Motown sound. Like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Hawthorne specializes in what I'd call period soul, but instead of the James Brown/Aretha Franklin vibe that the Dap Kings put forward, Hawthorne is a pitch-perfect Motown replica. Vocal cues come from Smokey Robinson's falsetto, while the songwriting takes a page from the Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook. Key tracks: "Your Easy Lovin Ain't Pleasin Nothin," "The Ills," "Maybe So, Maybe No," "One Track Mind"

Dudley Perkins - Holy Smokes
This is one of the craziest things I've ever listened to, in any genre. Perkins is an emcee who takes his cues (and samples) from psychedelic soul. Could've swore on listening to this that it's a Madlib production from Stones Throw, but the whole thing was produced by Georgia Anne Muldrow (who has a new album out as well) and is released by Koch. But regardless, if you're into Madlib's brand of trippy hip hop, this is something you should cop (and for what it's worth, Perkins and the Stones Throw label have worked together in the past). Key tracks: "Uncle Ruckus," "Funky Soul," "E&R"

Roseanne Cash - The List
I'm an unabashed fan of the genre I like to call Father's Day music. These are albums that your dad will probably love, and they top the charts around Father's Day. Note that they don't need to be released around Father's Day for the phenomenon to occur; usually these are slow growers in terms of sales, so they need a good six months lead off. They always win Grammys. O Brother Where Art Though, Steely Dan, the Alison Krauss/Jimmy Page record Raising Sand, these are all classic Father's Day albums and artists. T-Bone Burnett is the unchallenged king of the genre, though he's usually behind the scenes. Well, this year my dad is getting a copy of The List for Father's Day. The story goes that Johnny Cash gave his daughter Roseanne Cash a list of the 100 essential songs that she had to know when she was in her early twenties (apparently, girl didn't know jack about country and blues). This album consists of covers of a dozen songs from the list, from traditionals to Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Bob Dylan and others. A solid album of covers with guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy. Key tracks: "Miss the Mississippi and You," "Girl From the North Country" (I love that Johnny Cash included the one Dylan song that he duetted on in his list), "She's Got You"

*Not gonna lie, I'd actually be all about this.

The Avett Brothers' I and Love and You [amazon mp3]
The Avett Brothers' back catalog [emusic]
Mayer Hawthorne's A Strange Arrangement [emusic]
Dudley Perkins' Holy Smokes [emusic]
Roseanne Cash's The List [amazon mp3]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Most! The Best! The Greatest! Forever!: Mixes by Cryptacize

Soon after the release of their fantastic 2006 album Calamity, San Francisco band The Curtains went and did a stupid thing. They broke up. Well, that might be a little misleading, since the "band" was essentially just Chris Cohen, a former Deerhoof guitarist who wrote, performed and recorded the album almost entirely on his own. Luckily, Cohen continues to write similarly minimal, challenging pop music as a member of Cryptacize, which also includes guitarist/vocalist Nedelle Torrisi, who lent her voice on a couple of Calamity tracks, and toured with The Curtains in support of that record. Though it's hard for me not to compare Cryptacize's two albums-- 2008's Dig That Treasure and 2009's Mythomania-- to Calamity, and to feel that they don't quite measure up to the excitement and singularity of that earlier album, that's a bit unfair, seeing as Calamity is easily one of my top five records of the last decade, if not ever. In fact, I actually think Cryptacize has put out two quite-good albums, and has forged a unique sound that melds elements of Ennio Morricone's 60s western soundtracks (Mythomania's "I'll Take the Long Way"), stage musicals (Dig That Treasure's title track), and melody-heavy children's music (Dig That Treaure's stand-out tune, "Cosmic Sing-A-Long") into a compelling and engaging new form.

It's this combination of disparate influences in Cryptacize's music that makes the mixes up on their blog so enjoyable and illuminating. On February 16th of this year, Cohen posted his first mix-- there are now five-- with the note:
since finishing our album Mythomania, I've been rediscovering listening to music for pleasure! as everyone knows, there is so much music available everywhere and for free. it's like a dream come true to me - anything I ever want to hear. well anyway, I'm going to make a bunch of mixes - and here's the first one.
And with that, Cohen gives us a 60-minute compilation that's as eclectic and exciting as any you'll ever hear. It starts with a swaggering blues/gospel number from post-war vocalist/guitarist Arbee Stidham, featuring an ecstatic organ line and Stidham's booming baritone. The next track, from a 2005 album by avant-punk group The Howling Hex, explodes with a wonderfully simple, distorted guitar lick that repeats for the entirety of the 3:30 minute song, underneath alternating male/female vocals. Then we have an experimental Moog composition, which shows up in iTunes with the title "Pixillation (schwartz, bell labs, 1971)", followed by a track from a J.A. Adofo & City Boys International, who describe as "Ghanaian highlife from the 70s and 80s". And the eclecticism never lets up from there. Each of the five mixes has it's own vibe, but all of them will have you thinking "that was great, who was that?" Occasionally the songs can tend toward a more experimental bent, but for the most part the music is accessible, and the majority of the more challenging songs are still palatable and rewarding upon repeated listens. Though there are a few recognizable names sprinkled throughout the mixes-- Les Paul, The Ronettes, Nina Simone, Queen, T. Rex--the vast majority are, to me, unknown treats. Ann Peebles' "Make Me Yours," from Mix #2, is one of the catchiest and most energizing songs that I've ever heard, while the song that opens that mix, "Motherless Child," sends chills down my spine.

Although you don't have to know Cryptacize to enjoy these compilations, it's definitely interesting to hear how each of the tracks is influential on the band's style-- the instrumentation of Tom Zé, the raw energy and simplicity of The Troggs, or the vivid, dreamlike imagery of Richard Harris' "Watermark". And to top it all off, Cohen has created a great series of "covers" for each of the compilations, all employing the same visual style of colorized, distorted photography, and a consistent typographic treatment: the text is uniformly Helvetica, with titles in quotes, all caps and italicized, and the remaining text in all lowercase. Though the covers aren't completely necessary-- most of the songs display their own album artwork in iTunes anyway-- their existence adds to the feeling of curation and care that has gone into the selection of each mix, and serves to hold them all together as a sort of boxed set--something much more considered and deliberate than the bulk of online music sharing.

If you're looking for a place to start, Mix #2, "Find Someone", is my favorite, though all have stellar tracks. Cohen has this to say about Mix #2, which articulates the juxtaposition and joy in each mix:
songs about looking for something or just beautiful songs.

please give Richard Harris a chance!
get inside of his brain!

the rest is sweet candy
Mix #1: "A Rainbow's Revenge"
Mix #2: "Find Someone"
Mix #3: "The Eternal City"
Mix #4: "The Edge of the World"
Mix #5: "Magic Glue"

Friday, October 2, 2009

Stuart Murdoch and the Three-Classic-Album Rule: God Help the Girl


Is it a Belle and Sebastian album? A Stuart Murdoch solo effort? A crowdsourced theatre geek pet project? Yes, yes, and yes. Stuart Murdoch's said before that he wasn't involved in any side projects because Belle and Sebastian took up all of his time, and he micromanaged everything from production to art direction (I'm paraphrasing here). Shame, really, because he seems like the kind of artist very well suited to have his hands in all sorts of things. Enter God Help the Girl. The concept: God Help the Girl is the soundtrack to a nonexistent musical (it's also the name of the band), with vocals by three lovely young ladies who are up until now unknown, as well as Murdoch himself, and music played by all the members of Belle and Sebastian. So how is it?

Let me preface this by saying that I have a rule that if a band or an artist releases three or more classic albums, then any meandering experimentation they do can be excused (I reserve the right to give these artists a hard time regardless *cough* Jay-Z *cough*). You can call it apologist, and you may be right, but it seems fair to me. Belle and Sebastian reached this point early in their career (Tigermilk, The Boy With the Arab Strap, If You're Feeling Sinister, plus oodles of stellar EPs collected on the double disc Push Barman To Open Old Wounds), and on God Help the Girl, Murdoch really flaunts his achievements by meandering, HARD.

The album is good, not great. It's in some ways a return to the twee bedroom confessions that made us fall in love with B&S in the first place. In another way, it plays like Murdoch wants to have his Phil Spector girl group moment. In other ways still, it contains the worst and hammiest of Broadway musical songwriting. This isn't necesarily a bad thing, and after the non-stop pop barage that we've gotten from the band recently, it's refreshing. "Act of the Apostle" and "Funny Little Frog," both from the band's last effort The Life Pursuit, sound better for the orchestrated arrangements and female leads. Title track "God Help the Girl" has a nice bounce to it and stands with the best of Belle and Sebastian's upbeat pop arrangements. These new female vocalists, apparently selected by internet contests and anonymous Glaswegian classified ads, really hold their own. But a number of tracks ("Hiding 'neath My Umbrella," "Pretty Eve In the Tub") get lost in Broadway musical tropes and ultimately fall flat.

Here's the thing: a lot of the time, a musical works really well on stage and doesn't translate to a recording; unfortunately we don't know if these songs work on stage or film (they may very well) but they're missing something on record. With the right production team this could make a phenomenal musical. As it stands, we've just got a sort-of alright Belle and Sebastian album. Which, all things being relative, is a pretty great thing to have.

God Help the Girl [eMusic]