Get Lucky

Daft Punk

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It’s patently absurd that Daft Punk et al are, in their words, “up all night to get lucky.”  With basslines this slinky and leads this hiccupy, this simply is not a matter of luck.  Basically, it’s a question of just how many honeys they can beat away with a stick.  Backed by Nile Rodgers’ instantly recognizable sleek disco and fronted by Pharrell’s silky come-ons, the lead single to Daft Punk’s forthcoming Random Access Memories finds the Gallic duo doing exactly what they’ve always done best: fashion genuinely fun dance music without an agenda.  This isn’t a commentary on the postmodern fusion of eclectic dance styles; this dance music that seems to have remote access to your hips and your ass.  By the time that pitch-perfect double-tracked vocoder enters the mix, you’re taken back to those heady days of Discovery when “One More Time” felt like the most genuine joyous song you had ever heard in your entire life.

20

04 2013

Outer Space

Scissor Lock

In their excellent year end review, Tiny Mix Tapes made quite a bit of hay about something or another called vaporwave.  After chillwave and minimal wave and cold wave and dark wave and ethereal wave and plain old new wave, the -wave suffix likely produces more shudders than it does nods of recognition.  And it certainly didn’t help that vaporwave was alternatively know webwave or doswave.  I mean, good grief!  But behind this brainless designation was a statement about junk culture that was weirdly profound and undeniably catchy.  You could easily find yourself listening to Mediafired’s “Pixies,” a radical deconstruction of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” soundtracking a fucked-up edit of a Cindy Crawford Pepsi commercial, for the better part of an afternoon.  As near as I could tell, the mini-movement was about creating moments of sublime bliss out of the refuse of our shared popular culture.  Which is what makes Scissor Lock‘s incredible “Outer Space” seem like a necessary step forward as a like-minded artist is that it sounds like a re-imagining of pop culture rather than a deconstruction of it.  Here, Scissor Lock aren’t interested in revealing the shallow consumer-minded pop confections of Scooter Braun‘s world domination scheme.  No, no, no, Scissor Lock seem to be interested in recreating that same ebullient giddiness with a different set of tools.  Sure, “The Beauty and the Beat” and “Baby” and “Call Me Maybe” aren’t brilliant poetry, but neither is “Outer Space.”  But when the gentle toms and hi-hats find their footing and the synth starts shining like a discoball and the cavernous vocal sample starts hollows out bassy pits in the mix’s lower ends, you’re reminded again, for the millionth time, that intelligence has absolutely nothing to do with it.

05

02 2013

Full of Fire

The Knife

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“Let’s talk about gender, baby.”  The Knife have digitally twisted Karin Dreijer’s cooly affectless voice before, pumping it up with ProTools testosterone until it flexes and hulks like a demon.  But on the nine minute freakout that is “Full of Fire,” Dreijer’s voice goes through a full sex change before ultimately becoming gloriously transhuman.  So, yes, let’s talk about gender.  The Swedish brother-sister duo have always played with musical gender idioms before, but the primal sonic violence of “Full of Force” crushes them together into something that burns like a post-feminist supernova.  And the video—replete with cross-dressing grannies and fetish bikers and protesting anarcho-punks—seems to depict a society on the verge of some kind of gender collapse.  But with The Knife, these are no conclusions, no resolutions, only tantalizingly inscrutable images and sounds that suggest but never confirm.

05

02 2013

High Above the Gray Green Sea

12-inch-jacket

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Earlier this month, Colin Stetson quietly released a collaborative album with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustaffson.   Stones wasn’t just difficult and demanding; its bellicosity practically seethed in the atonal blats and stabbing squeaks that defined the album’s sound.  Though they shared their names on the record sleeve, this was primarily Gustaffson’s affair.  Free of the tonally angry free verse of Gustaffson, Stetson, alone, wired like a madman with microphones, sounds much more mannered.  The fluttery arpeggios of his best work only sound like a chaotic whirlwind of notes.  Even at his most turbulent, Stetson’s steady hand guides the composition through the storm of his own creation.  In advance of the forthcoming New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light, Stetson has released the howling “High Above the Gray Green Sea.”  Here, the rising tide of notes is stayed by the haunting bellow of a detached voice.  The yowl pushes the upper register of the mix, carving out a tremendous distance between the song’s two core elements, an subtle touch that allows Stetson to keep the fluttering notes under control.  And its exactly in these moments that Stetson’s work feels like a well-reasoned argument by an utter crank prophet.

29

01 2013

Friends of Italian Opera

Teith

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Teith‘s “Friends of Italian Opera” is life-affirming in the same way that a near-death experience is life-affirming.  Call it salvation through brutality.  Only by having your leg crushed by a run-away boulder can you truly appreciate a lazy stroll through the park. Likewise, those yawning synths and ascendant basslines only sound uplifting because of the deathly stomp that couches them in the mix.  The quartet hides a lot of prettiness amid the squealing feedback and grinding rhythm section, beauty that doesn’t circumvent the ugliness so much as rise above it.  But by the time that the triumphant bass solo melds into a full-on fit of post-rock histrionics, the roaring exaltation has blurred any line between beautiful and ugly, leaving you winded and beat but saved nonetheless.

22

01 2013

Donuts

Donuts

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Musical collectives are a watery mirage shimmering in the desert of pop culture: they usually promise a lot more than they can deliver.  Some collectives function more or less like actual bands (Animal Collective, Black Mountain, Parliament-Funkadelic), while too many others are only occasionally operational (Wu-Tang Clan, Broken Social Scene, Amon Düül I/II).  And then there are some collectives that transcend the petty business of actually recording music as a unit and unite their discographies under a single aesthetic banner (Elephant 6 Collective, Dungeon Family, OFWGKTA, Native Tongues).  Like any of these collectives, the Soulquarians‘ discography burned supernova bright (Things Fall ApartVoodooMama’s GunLike Water for Chocolate), but faded just as quickly without a single production credit in the last eleven years.  For the gobs of obscene talent in the collective, it was J Dilla who served as a one man braintrust for the collective’s greater aims.  Everything they ever wanted to accomplish as a group, Dilla accomplished in a single 43 minute beat record.  Though they never made an album as a group, Donuts was a sketchpad—merely sketches because it is a rap record with a rapper, a soul record without a diva, a rhythm and blues record without a crooner, a jazz record without a horn solo—of a unified Soulquarians record.

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Though the album is barely seven years old, Stones Throw is re-releasing it as a lavish boxed set of seven 7-inch singles (flipping the records every three or four minutes is probably super-frustrating, right?).  Which means it’s as good of a time as any to reflect on what Donuts means in 2013.   Though the Soulquarians had their soul album (Voodoo), their R&B album (Mama’s Gun), and their rap album (Things Fall Apart), what they didn’t have was a grand unifying statementa single document that summarized everything that their art was or could be.  From the fiery grind of “Geek Down” to the stark boom-bap of “Stepson of the Clapper” to the weepy sheen of “One Eleven,” Donuts is that document.  Listen closely enough and you’ll hear everything from ?uestlove’s wet snare to D’Angelo’s baby-soft Rhodes to Pino Palladino’s smooth fretless bass to Q-Tip’s playfulness to Badu’s fiery passion—everything that defined the Soulquarians’ artistic ethos.

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But that’s really the remarkable thing about Donuts:  it plays like a random recording of a broadcast from Dilla’s internal radio station.  Listening to Donuts is a lot like standing by the window of a train as it hurdles down a grim industrial corridor.  The flashes of graffiti are bright, though you can never catch a whole piece, but together that blur creates a dazzling kinetic mosaic.  It’s not really a coherent artifact that telegraphs a consistent message.  Sure, there’s a definable mise-en-scène, but Dilla seems almost blindsided by the staggering number of ideas that are flying through his SP-202.  Of his most immediate peers, Dilla is less virtuosic than DJ Shadow, less brainy than Madlib, less clinical than RJD2, less ideological than RZA, and he’s more discipined than Pete Rock, more imaginative than MF Doom, and more accessible than Flying Lotus.  Not better or worse than any of those men, he just seemed to possess all their attributes in spades and almost none of their weaknesses.  Which is probably why Dilla’s discography continues to grow.  He’s still making new music, the severe limitations of his death not withstanding.  His deeply sad death immediately after Donuts‘ release means, among many other things, that the album has become so sacrosanct that everyone must pay homage to it.  And they do in scores by rapping over his brilliant beats, borrowing his sturdiest techniques, drawing inspiration from his genius.

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Since the Soulquarians’ mini-movement lost steam, the Roots have become the house band for a late night comedy show, and Common hasn’t been relevant in almost a decade.  Mos Def and Q-Tip’s late career revivals seem to have stalled, and D’Angelo’s James River seems like it’s never ever ever going to finally grace us with its very existence.  At least Erykah Badu keeps attaining new levels of perfection; otherwise the whole thing might seem like a faint dream of a more idealistic age.  For Dilla, there are no late career dead ends, no ill-advised cash-grab collaborations, because he wasn’t there to make those mistakes.  You wish the same were true of all of the Soulquarians;.  You wish for D’Angelo or Q-Tip to reclaim their early genius; you wish for Common to be the Common of Like Water for Chocolate.  You wish deeply and sincerely for these things until you realize, sadly, gratefully, that at least these people are still around, still trying to translate share their best ideas.  And that lump in your throat as you listen to “Last Donut of the Night” means that you wish you could say the same for Dilla.

16

01 2013

Suit and Tie

Suit and Tie

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The future, it turns out, sounds a like velvety R&B swank from the 70s.  Seven years (!) after his top-to-bottom masterpiece FutureSex/LoveSounds, it seemed as if Justin Timberlake would, again for the millionth time, recalibrate pop music by casting familiar tropes so far into the future that they seemed entirely new.  Maybe that was wishful thinking from someone who listened to “My Love” and “Until the End of Time” an obsessive number of times.  But it’s not all that surprising that Timberlake’s latest move would be another reclamation project, is it?  His self-confidence with and mastery of pop idioms is so complete that he barely breaks a sweat doing his gauzy take on The Bee-Gees while Timbaland masterminds some effervescent funk from behind the mixing board.  After all, this is a man who rewrote Off the Wall as super-smooth millennial rhythm and blues.  Now, if only Timberlake could do something about Jay-Z’s phoned-in guest verses . . .

14

01 2013

Pink Matter (Remix)

Pink Matter Remix

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Calling it a remix is pretty generous.  I might even hear arguments that it’s out-and-out misleading because this is still the wobbly and anemic “Pink Matter” that started to close out Channel Orange.  Just, you know, a verse by Big Boi has been surgically appended to the track.  Which isn’t a bad thing at all because we get weirdly inspired couplets like “Make her ass spread like the back of a cobra’s/Down there in her titties like a soldier.”  And to even begin to suggest that this represents in any way, shape, or form an OutKast reunion is patently ridiculous.  Even still, that old push-and-pull between Antwan and André is still there, even if they’re not in the same studio.  The way that Big Boi gleefully embraces pleasure over grey matter (“Act a donkey, pin her tail to the mattress”) contrasts starkly with André 3000′s lovesickness (“Who needs another friend/I need to hold your hand”).  Even if this remix isn’t a remix, and even if this reunion isn’t a reunion, it’s simply nice enough to hear these two giants sharing some space over a languid beat.

14

01 2013

Where Are We Now?

David Bowie Performing

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In 1975, David Bowie asked, “Who can I be now?”  It was an important question for the man in the mid-70s: he had burned through his alien rock star alter ego and he was shopping around for a new identity, starting to the plastic soul of his Thin White Duke persona.  But the question isn’t just who should Bowie become, it’s who would you like Bowie to become now, after Ziggy Stardust, after Aladdin Sane, after Halloween Jack.  Now, that edgy adverb, suggests that he’s trying to balance audience expectations with internal truths.  It’s a young man’s question, really, so it only makes sense that in 2013, with a lifetime of identity crises behind him, Bowie is asking, ”Where are we now?”  Old Man Bowie jokes aside, the question is an interesting one because it moves Bowie’s search for the multitudes inside of him from an internal investigation to an external one.  It’s a question of context: now that I am who I am, where does this person fit into the world?  Well, Bowie is fresh off a ten year sabbatical with a new album, The Next Day, featuring nearly heretical cover art and a quietly awesome new single (stream above).

While Tony Visconti, the long-time producer of Bowie, has promised that this is a rock record, there’s nothing in the gentle melancholy of “Where Are We Now?” to verify his claims.  The song is a weary travelogue through Berlin, name-checking the Bösebrücke Bridge, Potzdamer Platz, and the symbolically important KaDeWe department store.  These locations, historically important all of them, are evocative of the totalizing sweep of history.  But Berlin is also undeniably important to Bowie’s career; it’s where he created his trilogy of krautrock-inspired masterpieces, Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger.  The song, then, uses Berlin’s cosmopolitan transformation since 1989 as a counterpoint to Bowie’s own metamorphosis.  For all the time that Bowie has spent crafting new identities, irradiating the artist DNA that informed his music, it’s almost as if he is suddenly realizing that everything around him has been changing at the same feverish pace.  From the understated vocal performance to the muted saxophone phrasing, the very sound of lostness is woven into the song.  Just as the former version of Berlin has been ghosted, replaced by something else entirely, so does Bowie sound haunted, unsure of how an infinitely complex city managed to undergo seismic shifts as drastic, as terrifying, as total as his own.

09

01 2013

It’s Not Forever

STS-135 Atlantis Launch

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The last time we caught up with Phaseone about two years ago, he was dropping the trunk-rattling “All to Herself.”  As I wrote at the time, the song culminates in a tumbling fountain of an arpeggiator that sounded like a torrent of cartoon hearts gushing from someone’s chest, spilling all over the dance floor, pilling up in the sticky puddles of spilled cocktails.  Whatever club-inspired romance Phaseone had envisioned didn’t seem to last because here we are with “It’s Not Forever,” the (probably unintentional) brokenhearted sequel-of-sorts to “All to Herself.”  The song is balances a nimble high-hat/snare pas de deux with looming bass drones while the bleak titular refrain grinds itself into near meaninglessness.  Though the narrative connections between the songs is likely incidental, they nicely subvert one another’s greatest tricks.  While the arpeggiated synth on “All to Herself” sounded gleefully in love, twinkle-toeing all over the mix, the looping melodies of “It’s Not Forever” spiral around the deadpan refrain, considering each word, looking for a semantic loophole where it can mercifully remove the central negation from that void of a sentence.

09

01 2013