Monthly Archives: November 2014

“Motivators”

Beats-Rhymes-and-Life-Cover
A Tribe Called Quest
Beats, Rhymes & Life, 1996

Before the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, 1998’s The Love Movement, rapper/producer/majordomo Q-Tip promised nothing less than hip-hop’s Dark Side of the Moon. That prediction seemed remarkably off-base upon release: even with the breakup hype, the record was not a smash, and in the years that followed most die-hard Tribe fans chose to remember the group’s first three albums as the pinnacle of the band’s career, if not hip-hop in general, while ignoring their later work. But listening to Beats, Rhymes & Life today — the album that first signaled a break from the old ways — I think I understand what Tip was going for. On a cultural and commercial level, of course, there is no reasonable comparison to be made. But sonically it’s a different story. There’s a consistent, subtle energy to Beats that finds its way under the skin over time, not unlike those better Floyd records. The music molds itself to Q-Tip’s mellow, laid-back persona. BPMs stay steady from track-to-track, samples are filtered well below the rhythm section in the mix and the energy never flags. This is hip-hop reimagined for rooms: dense, ambient, sophisticated and above all extremely well-considered. What seemed cold in ’96 strikes me as nothing less than prescient today.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20Motivators.mp3]

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“Nobody’s Perfect”

bazan
David Bazan
Bazan Monthly Volume 2, 2014

Dave Bazan may have given up on Jesus, but that doesn’t mean he’s ever going to stop singing about him. As the erstwhile Pedro the Lion, Bazan was Sufjan Stevens back when the decimal-rating system was just a gleam in Pitchfork’s haughty eye — a Christian indie rocker it was okay to like because he openly wrestled with his faith instead of extolling it. Then, after years of intimation, Bazan did the honest thing and ditched his nom de plume. The religion soon followed, but not the struggle. “The crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice,” he confessed on 2009’s Curse Your Branches. “All this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about you.” Five years later, his feelings may be settled but the subject is the same. The character in question this time is the Lord himself, who sheepishly admits that hey, maybe he was overreacting with that whole don’t-eat-from-the-tree thing … take Him back? Believers current and former will find a lot of meat on these ribs; atheists may continue to wonder why all the fuss.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20Nobody’s%20Perfect.mp3]

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“The Dance #1”

day of
Laraaji
Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, 1980

Part of Brian Eno’s groundbreaking Ambient album cycle, Day of Radiance was performed exclusively by multi-instrumentalist Laraaji, with Eno layering and tweaking the original recordings to develop the final result. “The Dance #1” in particular is fascinating because the effort taken to produce the music is so at odds with its effect. The song is built from aggressive, almost assaultive hammered dulcimer patterns, looped under and above each other to create a rhythmic, hypnotic sensation not unlike the one found in Steve Reich’s “pulse” music. The difference here lies in Eno’s minimalist approach — all that sound and feeling from a single instrument. Listen long enough and you’ll find your thoughts slipping away into the music, which of course is the idea.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20The%20Dance%20No.%201.m4a]

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“Put Your Number in My Phone”

ariel_pink_pom_pom
Ariel Pink
Pom Pom, 2014

Ever since he decided to come out of the bedroom on 2010’s Before Today, there have been a handful of tracks on each Ariel Pink release that just about anyone can get into: that album’s “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and reworked “Round and Round”; “Only in My Dreams” and “Baby” from follow-up Mature Themes. And on the brand-new Pom Pom it’s “Put Your Number in My Phone.” Even without the scuzz and confusion of Pink’s defiantly weird early lo-fi, listeners must still contend with the glossier persona left on the table, and you could certainly forgive some for wanting to tap out. But then one of these songs comes on and it’s a reminder of just how good and — holy fuck — how universal Pink’s music can be. Whether or not “Phone” is a sincere come-on or a nasty taunt — the voice message on the bridge suggests the latter, which doesn’t do much for Pink’s reputation — it’s tunefulness is enough to satiate safe listeners and obscure-pop nerds alike.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/06%20Put%20Your%20Number%20In%20My%20Phone.m4a]

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“When the Party’s Over”

nights
Allen Toussaint
Southern Nights, 1975

While I don’t think this song necessarily gives it away, Allen Toussaint is known and respected as one of the most important figures in the history of New Orleans music. With his reputation as a pianist, songwriter and producer already secure, 1975’s Southern Nights was a swing for the fences — his attempt at a concept record a la Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone or the other album-format heroes of the day. The end result isn’t nearly as diverse or well-remembered as the best from those performers, but a handful of classics still made the cut, notably the title track, “Basic Lady” and the easy Sunday-morning funk of “When the Party’s Over.” Like all the best songs in the genre, it sounds as warm and inviting on the first listen as on the fiftieth.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20When%20the%20Party’s%20Over.m4a]

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“How Do You Do”

600full-david-grohl
Dave Grohl
Touch Soundtrack, 1997

Dave Grohl: your new music sucks, dude! You’re in classic-rock hell now: too much actual singing, too many boring ‘70s weak-ass riffs. The Colour and the Shape still holds up, man. I know, because I listened to it this week right after streaming the new one, Sonic Highways, which … the less said about that title (or album art) the better. Tom Petty’s latest is named Hypnotic Eye, for crying out loud — it’s like you guys switched bodies. Anyway, there was a stretch of time after Nirvana in the 90s — a span of several years in fact — where you ruled as a power-pop songwriter. It was like the perfect blend of kind-of-still-grunge-but-cleaner and kind-of-moving-into-radio-pop-but-not-quite-there-just-yet. And then the same year as Colour, you flipped the script and scored a Paul Schrader indie flick, based on a book by Elmore Leonard. I mean: that’s pretty edgy, dude! And you wrote a great song for that movie, a song which almost no one knows but I’m lucky to have stumbled across in my dorm room c. 1999 thanks to Napster. “How Do You Do” is everything that used to be good about Foo Fighters all in one song, and it proves once and for all that you were what was good about Foo Fighters because you recorded it on your own. It’s catchy, it’s high-energy, the drums kill and like the best pop songs — from The Beatles to yep, Nirvana — it never wears out its welcome. In Your Honor, I’m playing this one on loop today. Everyone still likes you here — how could we not?, you’re our Dave Grohl, the only one we’ve got! — and we’ll keep rooting for you until you decide to call it a day. But seriously, dude. Sonic Highways?

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20How%20Do%20You%20Do.mp3]

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“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers”

mingus
Charles Mingus
Let My Children Hear Music, 1972

Mingus said Let My Children Hear Music was his best album, and the guy was a beast so I’m not gonna argue. “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers” kicks things off and fittingly, it’s a masterpiece of complexity that flits from Ellington-esque big band to free jazz and back. His ability to wrangle an orchestra into the shapes and sounds he required is truly stunning; this is both a first-class composition and a first-class recording. The first time I heard it, I realized I’d never heard anything else like it — the highest compliment I can pay from my meager blog perch.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20The%20Shoes%20of%20the%20Fisherman’s%20Wife%20Are%20Some%20Jive%20Ass%20Slippers.m4a]

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“Ja Funmi”

ksa
King Sunny Ade
Juju Music, 1982

I must confess I don’t know too much about King Sunny Ade, the jùjú genre or Nigerian culture in general. My understanding is that Juju Music, KSA’s major-label debut, made quite a splash in America when it was released in the early ‘80s, paving the way for the minor Afro-Pop wave that followed. It’s not too much of a stretch to listen to “Ja Funmi” and understand how this music, or music like it, would’ve captivated Paul Simon, David Byrne and other white artists of the time. (I’m probably getting the influences all wrong — in theory, Graceland was built more on South African sounds, and Talking Heads were Fela Kuti devotees. Still, for an uninformed WASP, the similarities are clear.) What’s fascinating about this record, and even more so follow-up Syncro System, is the way KSA successfully integrates his singular guitar sound with modern-for-the-time production: drum programming, deep bass and a pristine mix that sounds phenomenal through a good set of speakers. Since Ade’s playing is inimitable, the music has aged remarkably well and continues to be popular among “world music” fans and crate diggers alike.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Ja%20Funmi.m4a]

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“Coming Back”

jay stay paid
J Dilla
Jay Stay Paid, 2009

Got a quick one today, but it’s one of my favorite Dilla beats ever. There’s not much left to say about the Detroit hip-hop legend that hasn’t been said better elsewhere, so I’ll skip the myth-building and get right to the music. Just like with Dylan, the best way to acquaint yourself with the work of an acclaimed artist like Dilla is to simply find a song you like and go from there. Sequenced by Pete Rock, posthumous collection Jay Stay Paid is an ideal way to do this, as it features beats from every era of his work. If you’ve any interest in hip-hop, at least a few should stick with you. “Coming Back” is a standout, a straightforward loop of an obscure soul track (Brother to Brother’s “The Affair”) that seems so mind-blowingly simple once you’ve heard the original sample, you realize only a producer of Jay’s caliber could’ve put it together. Listen on repeat!

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/26%20Coming%20Back.m4a]

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“More Yellow Birds”

sparklehorse
Sparklehorse
It’s a Wonderful Life, 2001

“More Yellow Birds” is, for me, the definitive Sparklehorse song from the definitive Sparklehorse album. Musically gorgeous, lyrically oppressive, childlike, beautiful and slow, sad but somehow still hopeful — all of the things Mark Linkous’ songs came to be known for, all in one place, perfected. It feels borne of a yearning, defensive posture he likely knew well given his history of severe depression. “Will my pony recognize my voice in hell?” — a question that might read as ridiculous delivered by any other songwriter — is par for the course in Linkous’ apocalyptic mind, like asking your wife if she brought in the mail. Crucially, it all seems to add up in the world of these songs; the instrumentation delicately embodies the artist’s concern. While he couldn’t save himself, as a listener and a fan I hope Linkous managed to find some measure of deliverance in his music.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20More%20Yellow%20Birds.mp3]

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“Renata”

holden-inheritors
Holden
The Inheritors, 2013

James Holden’s The Inheritors was one of the most fascinating records I heard in 2013. By turns inventive, engaging and exhausting, it has also proven to be one of the hardest to shake. Long a respected electronic musician, The Inheritors represents a foray into more organic instrumentation for Holden. The net effect is something akin to the relentless attack of the feistiest krautrock, with all the experimentation and none of the traditional rock signifiers. Shimmering and explosive, “Renata” is the closest the record has to a traditional four-on-the-floor stomper. And yet even at its most conventional, with all of the build-ups and breakdowns, “Renata” can wear you out. As the album title alludes, this is music willing to outlast its audience in every sense of the word.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20Renata.m4a]

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“Love Will Keep Us Alive”

eagles-hell_freezes_over_a
The Eagles
Hell Freezes Over, 1994

For some reason — okay wait, I know the reason: it’s because I just watched that three-hour Eagles doc on Netflix — “Love Will Keep Us Alive” has wormed its way into my skull this week. And I’m both deflated and surprised to report that this has been a mostly positive development. For while it sports all the radio-pap trappings its whitebread progenitors built their mansions upon, the fact alone is not enough to dismiss that bloody-minded acoustic guitar line, a hook so simple and so catchy that one listen is enough to remember it forever. Nor can I fight the nagging sensation that, well, maybe there’s a little more going on here than appears at first listen. As much as I’d like to dismiss a song that delivers the line “I would die for you/Climb the highest mountain” as if a thousand other pop songs hadn’t already beaten it to the punch, when taken in context, I’m actually quite touched by the expression. After all: “The world is changing/Right before your eyes,” suggesting that, shit, no matter who or where you are, the universe has the potential to be a dangerous and lonely place. Even (especially?) for rich white old dudes. Why walk that road alone? Why not turn to love in the face of so much uncertainty? Hell can be cool indeed.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Love%20Will%20Keep%20Us%20Alive.m4a]

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“Honey Joy”

royal2
Royal Headache
Royal Headache, 2012

Australia’s Royal Headache make scuzzy rock that’s most notable for its determination to break away from the genre. While there are no shortage of garage bands in this world willing to flaunt their love of Motown, very few sport a lead vocalist who sounds like he could’ve been a soul-music star in a parallel universe. Shogun (he goes by first name only) is that outlier, and the band’s biggest virtue: whatever soul is — and I’m not sure I’m qualified to speculate on the particulars, or that I’d even want to — it’s clear he has it in spades. Sometimes the music catches up to him and follows suit; sometimes it stands still in predictable punk fashion. Both ways, it works.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/11%20Honey%20Joy.m4a]

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“Prison Song”

toxicity
System of a Down
Toxicity, 2001

It’s Election Day here in California, and that has me in a civic-minded mood. At ballot today in my home state, among other measures promising, is Proposition 47, a proposal to reclassify personal drug use, small-scale shoplifting and other current felony charges as misdemeanors that carry reduced sentences. The goal of legislation like this, in addition to freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses and an already overcommitted corrections system, is the relaxation of drug policy many view as predatory and biased against disadvantaged populations. As of “press time,” results are undecided. Now if you’re an out-of-stater, you could spend the next hour of your night reading up on this proposed legislation and all arguments pro and con, or you could spend three minutes listening to a thrash-metal song that’s more than a decade old. Your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate System of a Down, if in fact you’re inclined to do that sort of thing. It’s not often politics and pop music make such easy bedfellows; I find that artists who are the most willing to embrace hysteria are often the most effective (see also: Rage Against the Machine). When someone’s screaming at you, it’s hard to let the words just roll off your back. This song may not ultimately change your mind, but it’ll definitely make you defend your position.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Prison%20Song.mp3]

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