Thursday, April 29, 2010

Congratulations to Jim Derogatis, A Critic I Have No Problem With

I've devoted many of my most precious blog hours to the criticism of certain music journalists, which is fine, but uncharacteristic given that I spend just as many hours outside of this blog defending the practice of criticism as a whole. It's perfectly reasonable to ask: well Nathan, who is a critic that you admire/can say mostly good things about?

Let's talk about Jim Derogatis, because it's a perfect time to do so. The long-time Chicago Sun-Times music critic finally left his perch at the newspaper on April 21, much to the rock crit community's disbelief. For many, it seemed that Derogatis was as much a firmly embedded Sun-Times guy as Roger Ebert (of whom the comparisons don't necessarily stop there), and given the state of the industry, I was expecting the Sun-Times to fold long before Derogatis would ever quit. According to their distinguished competition, Derogatis is choosing to split his time between working at Chicago Public Radio (where he has hosted Sound Opinions, the "world's only rock 'n roll talk show," for many years) and teaching at Columbia College. I also believe that part of his reason for leaving is that he no longer has to mediate the racist and verbally abusive comments on his Sun-Times blog, which are among the worst you can find on the Internet.

Jim Derogatis has long been a critic I respected and admired, a guy who refuses to apologize for his counter-cultural leanings in a landscape of too many obsequious and fame-seeking music journalists. Like the two of us at Rockaliser, he is first and foremost an 80's college rock kid, but he was around long enough to actually see the days of Our Band Could Be Your Life in action. Like the musicians he admired in Sonic Youth or the Replacements, Derogatis tried to maintain a level of conviction, honesty and DIY integrity in his writing, choosing to completely ignore the groupthink of the Pazz 'n Jop establishment and the Billboard Hot 100-ites alike.

You may recall that the first notable test of his character as a critic came during his brief tenure as an editor at Rolling Stone in the 90s. I'll briefly recount this story, because it should be told more as lesson to nascent music journalists. It starts with a review Derogatis wrote of Hootie & The Blowfish's album Fairweather Johnson, in 1996. Needless to say, he did not give it the RS-mandated three-star review:
To these ears, Hootie are the blandest extreme of a wave of bands for whom blame can be placed squarely on the Grateful Dead. The Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and most of the other "baby Dead" or "jam" bands try to uphold the Dead’s ideals of exploring diverse musical genres such as jazz, bluegrass, and worldbeat from a rock perspective, as well as transcending the everyday through a combination of hallucinogens, music, and community. Hootie doesn’t even attempt the first (though they do stretch things out a bit live), and they only succeed at the second if you consider Bud Lite a psychedelic drug.

But the connection to the Dead is there in a recording style that reduces American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead to their lowest common denominators: a down-home hippie folksiness, a lilting melodic approach, and, of course, that lazy, elastic groove. Hootie music never rocks, and you certainly can’t dance to it; at best, you just sort of do the awkward white-person wiggle so prominent at Dead and baby Dead shows alike. (Remember, too, that David Crosby, the Dead’s secret weapon on American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, also crafted the harmonies on "Hold My Hand.")

Come hear Uncle Hootie’s band, playing to the crowds. More than 8 million buyers can’t be wrong. Or can they?
That review was killed and replaced with a more favorable one written by Elysa Gardner. A few weeks later, The New York Observer called Derogatis to ask him about a possible conflict of interest between himself and Wenner, with the kicker being the following, printed as a pull quote right next to a picture of Wenner:
The very next day, Derogatis came into work only to be fired and immediately escorted out by security. In a way, this reflected a similar RS firing of Derogatis' hero Lester Bangs after he wrote a negative review of Canned Heat in 1971. Can I say how right both of them turned out to be? Darius Rucker, last time I checked, was doing commercials for Burger King, I think.

One of my favorite pieces of music criticism ever is a long interview published in the Sun-Times with Stephan Jenkins, the lead singer of Third Eye Blind (it was included in one of the earlier Da Capo Best New Music books, and reprinted elsewhere as well). The article is about as far from a sycophantic celebrity interview as you can get, and it's brilliant. The story began when Derogatis wrote an extremely negative review of Third Eye Blind's stage show, saying about the lead singer: "Rarely has such a mediocre singer, uninspired songwriter, and uninvolving stage presence been lucky enough to be deigned a rock star."

After a few testy exchanges, Derogatis and Jenkins set up a follow-up interview where each party had a chance to defend his view on Third Eye Blind's general quality as musicians. Think about that: when was the last time you have seen, before or since, a critic interviewing a band and asking (or demanding) for them to defend their posturing and childish behavior? Christopher R. Weingarten can go off on Big MP3 Blogging for not saying anything negative about the new Broken Social Scene, but would he even say that to Kevin Drew's face? I'd like to see that, for sure (and I'd particularly like to see him doing that for one of his corporate overlords at Rolling Stone).

The great thing about this piece is that both Derogatis and Jenkins give everything they have to their arguments. They don't pussyfoot about and try to come to some generalized agreement. But neither of them are overtly hostile or insulting, either. In Derogatis' case, he's simply laying out his case as any journalist might. Here's an exchange:
J.D.: I'm not threatened, and that's not what this is about. This is about me respecting you wanting to have your say. There's not enough meaningful dialogue in rock today; it's all about hype. I don't like your music, but I respect your desire to talk.

S.J.: Hype is something that our band has certainly eschewed. Our band has been, if not the most DIY next to Fugazi, then number two or three.

J.D.: How can you say that? Third Eye Blind is a creation of MTV and modern rock radio and a major label. And you're taking money from the Hard Rock Cafe to play a festival that has corporate sponsorship up the wazoo.
Though Derogatis' view on Third Eye Blind's music is pretty close to being vindicated, I think both parties come out looking pretty good (phenomenally stupid comparison to Fugazi aside), and there's a refreshing honesty and openness to their exchange that is at an intellectual far above anything I have ever seen in corporate rock mags. It remains an interview that I will often read for pleasure, and for inspiration.

The Jenkins interview was my first real exposure to Derogatis, but the thing that really got me interested in him was a book he edited called Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsider the Classics, which I bought the day it came out at my local Borders. Now oddly out of print, the book was apparently inspired once again by Rolling Stone, whose recent list of "the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" was so weighted towards 60's establishment rockers that he conceived this book as a necessary countermeasure. It mainly consists of reappraisals of sacred cow albums, ranging from It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Exile On Main St (Derogatis wrote a fine and convincing piece on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rolling Stone's #1 choice). Some make better arguments than others (the pieces on Led Zeppelin IV and Nevermind are especially unconvincing), but the book itself is invaluable as a rejection of canonicity in a market often driven by focus-grouped lists.

Astute readers may remember that I've railed against needless contrarianism in the past, so how is Kill Your Idols different? It's a matter of perception to some degree, but I don't see Derogatis as someone who says "your band sucks" for the sake of being the only guy who thinks your band sucks. There's always a level of honesty to his writing that is backed up by carefully considered facts. It's one thing to say that Sgt. Pepper's is terrible, but it's another thing to point out (quite rightly) how messy of a concept album it is, how weak tracks like "Getting Better," "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Fixing A Hole" are, and how much better "A Day In The Life" is than anything that preceded it.

Derogatis is surely reacting to an establishment line that puts this album on a pedestal, but he certainly isn't a Beatles hater by any means, and his disembowelment of this album is, at the end, an act of love. And that's something I detect in his writing more than I can with most music critics. In fact, if he resembles anyone, I'm pretty sure it has to be Roger Ebert.

I've gone this far without discussing the "world's only rock 'n roll talk show," Sound Opinions, which was conceived as a Siskel & Ebert for music geeks and features Derogatis and Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot (another favorite of mine). I miss the days before it was on Chicago Public Radio and it was a three-hour show, but even in its current one-hour form it's still about the best podcast in the world. Again, this might be because Kot and Derogatis' interests are very similar to mine--a few weeks ago, they did a "classic album dissection" of London Calling, and anyone who knows me can tell you, if there's two things I love, it's dissecting classic albums and London Calling. But apart from that, what makes Sound Opinions great is that the two will often rail against the corporate music industry, attacking Clear Channel or Live Nation, defending file-sharing networks from the litigious eye of the Big Five, and in general expressing solidarity with the miserable loners who enjoy music most as the most solitary of pleasures, not as a means for cocktail chatter or making money. They also seem to be the last critics alive who care about music being ruined in car commercials.

Derogatis opens his biography of Lester Bangs thusly: "Sometimes Lester was full of shit." To be honest, I could say the same thing about Derogatis, occasionally (take his review of the latest Vampire Weekend, for example). But I still think, post Sun-Times, that he's probably the best music critic in America today. Surprisingly, there aren't many people I think who'd agree with me--in doing Internet research for this post, my general conclusion is that Derogatis is one of the most hated and consistently derided music critics working, which makes absolutely no sense to me (seriously, someone explain it). Maybe that's the price you pay for taking on The Man, but that usually should give you props in most critical circles. Theories can be posted in the comments section.

It probably has something to do with the fact that Derogatis is unashamed about what he loves--the earliest days of the 60s psychedelic movement, the late 70s punks and post-punks, the bands of Our Band Could Be Your Life, etc. Like Roger Ebert, he's a critic that tries to be inclusive, genre-wise, but he's open and honest about the fact that, as a human, he has biases--in fact, he confronts them in some fashion in many of his reviews. And, most importantly, he's a dying breed of media type who writes consistently against the corporate media hype and what constitutes modern popular radio. Industry and musical trends have changed dramatically during the last few decades, and it is to our credit as a democracy to have someone out there standing athwart those trends, evaluating them on a case-by-case basis, cautiously skeptical but not needlessly antagonistic. It's why musicians like Billy Corgan, so wounded when given a bad review, come to see that he has a legitimate viewpoint many years later.

So congratulations to Mr. Derogatis on his new job, if he needs it. He's especially needed now that the most basic precepts of music criticism (i.e. the fact that it should continue to exist) are under attack, and there's a lot of flash but very little heat to most of the arguments I hear. The only reason I mourn is because he won't last forever, and there has yet to be anyone who seems to be adequately prepared or willing to take his place.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

All The Critics Hate You In New York

No one is left to say "the new Broken Social Scene song sucks." The new Broken Social Scene song sucks, everybody.

I just watched Christopher R. Weingarten's music criticism rant at last week's 140 Characters Conference and learned one thing--dude loves to swear!

More seriously, Weingarten covers a lot of ground in 10 minutes, so let's consider five of his strongest statements, as more-or-less accurately transcribed by yours truly:

1. The Hype Machine is the lowest common denominator
One of Weingarten's central arguments. I'm not sure it bears out, and one of the site's staffers has objected strongly. I understand that any aggregator will favor certain MOR elements, which is Weingarten's point. But you have to consider two things I don't believe he did: (1) the pool of people posting and being aggregated, and (2) how people use the website. On the former, the Hype Machine certainly tends toward broadly acceptable indie favorites. This rarely parrots the truly MOR music, and stands a little more left-of-center than Weingarten acknowledges. If there's a complaint to be made about indie blogs, it's the one Lucas Jensen made in 2008, that music blogs have shifted away from discovering unsigned artists, and towards reprinting press releases. On the second point, I don't have that data, and I doubt Weingarten does either. Do Hype Machine users simply listen to the most popular tracks, and ignore the rest? Many do, I'm sure. But surely others have used the site to discover obscure and experimental acts that piss in the face of Vampire Weekend, or whatever it is that CW hates so much.

2. When clicks are your lifeblood it doesn't matter if the writing is any good
I'm not sure how this represents a new development. I don't doubt that the editors of Rolling Stone, long before the internet, covered many shitty artists, and printed all sorts of non-news stories, just to sell issues and gain subscribers.* Indeed, for many publications, the lower-brow fare, along with the readers and advertisers it brings in, subsidizes the more serious journalism and criticism.

Weingarten only had 10 minutes to speak, but with the last two assertions, a few well-chosen examples could have helped illustrate his argument. I'm prepared to believe either, provided he argues them convincingly. In the absence of anything concrete, I'm skeptical.

3. The hardest thing to get someone to click on is the unknown
This is a great point. The internet is an oddly insular place; you're never going to Google a band you've never heard of.

4. We're creating this culture where bands have to fight for blog attention all the time
Also very astute. This online attention isn't necessarily about ego, but about promoting one's music, which, lest we for get, is the livelihood of musicians. How many Jandeks have gotten lost in this shuffle?

5. Don't believe the Hype Machine
This is how the speech ends. Thankfully, Weingarten hasn't used the 10 minutes for the sort of self-promotion that troubles him, concluding on a graceful note that oh fuck wait he just--just as in April 2nd--published a book about Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions. Thanks for not letting us forget, Chris!


Now, you may enjoy reading Weingarten, and find him insightful. So do I, as it turns out.** But I felt compelled to point the synergy in his last remark, given the asinine thing he said about Broken Social Scene. And I don't like that song either.

*Perhaps with the internet it's become a more exact science, but that's a difference of degree, not kind.
**If you liked his speech, make sure to track down the one he gave last year

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Critical Beatdown: Round 7

Note: This XL Beatdown was (largely) guest-curated by Geoff S., who blogs over at Reading (b)log.

Nikki & Rich, "Next Best Thing"

AM: Sanitized retro R&B for the shopping mall crowd. If you find contemporary R&B a little too 'urban' for your tastes, but crave uninsightful lyrics about sex, this should do. 1/5

NS: The product of a jailbait chanteuse/enigmatic DJ duo whose idea of soulful probably begins and ends with Amy Winehouse, "Next Best Thing" at least has the ebullience of its subject matter and a comfortable and commanding lead singer, so it isn't all bad. But if DJ Rich Skillz wants to stay in this business, he might want to consider expanding his palate, and learn more than two piano chords. You know, just in case. 2.5/5

Teenage Fanclub, "Baby Lee"
AM: Shadows was in the can before Chilton died, but "Baby Lee" only highlights what a talent we lost. Even the Big Star obsessives in Fanclub can't fill that void, which isn't to say this isn't a good song. A bit slow, but the the tune churns along winningly, with a sweet chorus. 4/5

NS: Bandwagonesque fan though I am, the rest of Teenage Fanclub's discography remains unknown to me, and this piledriver of a power-pop number proves how mistaken I was to write them off. Their trademark heavy guitar crunch is mostly absent, but they find a worthy replacement via the magic of economically-applied string parts, which fit them well, of course. 5/5

Zola Jesus, "Night"
AM: Bands sure have weird names these days, don't they? It's not a problem, I guess, but this is music that grinds along gloomily. "Night" is just short of quality, without a compelling element to suck listeners into its dark haze. 2.5/5

NS: I like a bit of dreadful, stifling atmosphere in my music, especially stuff like Siouxsie and the Cure (as well as obvious antecedents like Bat For Lashes), but the thicket of keyboards herein would probably sound better soundtracking the next David Lynch movie than it would as a singular album. Zola Jesus certainly seems to have the skills necessary to make transportive music, so why does this feel pre-sequestered for goth club bathroom music? 3/5

MGMT, "Brian Eno"
AM: This would make for good listening on Halloween, if people still care about MGMT come October. Spookier than I'd imagined, which totally befits a tribute to the non-musician. The madcap "Eno" has something of the spirit--much diluted, of course--of Here Comes the Warm Jets, so I won't complain. 4/5

NS: MGMT might think this ultra-prehensile garage number has the requisite blips and bloops to act as a legit tribute to its namesake, but to my ears it sounds more like one of the late Jay Reatard's Nuggets psychedelic goofs, and that's not a bad thing. As an MGMT-agnostic, I find this more exciting than any of their previous chart-toppers, but as a statement of musical allegiance, it's no "Alex Chilton." 3.5/5

UNKLE, "Natural Selection"
AM: The music whirs and buzzes like XTRMNTR-era Primal Scream, but without the same fury. This song seems rather to skip along the precipice, without ever taking that plunge, hiding its tunefulness in some almost Peter Hook-ian bass work. 4.5/5

NS: UNKLE could teach Zola Jesus and MGMT a thing or two about how to do the 80's right (if you absolutely have to). Sounding like a Tears For Fears or Gary Numan song shot full of Hawkwind-amphetamine fuzz bass, "Natural Selection" shows again how often it is that the best post-punk is being made by DJs, especially in England. You also get some of the coolest bass tones in recent memory. 4.5/5

Erykah Badu, "Window Seat"
AM: The sort of thing Nikki & Rich will never be, "Window Seat" hearkens back to the Baduizms of the singer's neo-soul period. I was hoping for "Honey Redux" personally, but the gently lingering keys remind us that we won't need a next best thing while Erykah's still around. 4/5

NS: One of my biggest musical blind spots involves Erykah Badu and the neo-soul movement she comes out of (a very different type of neo-soul than Nikki & Rich), so perhaps not listening to New Amerykah Part One disqualifies me from making negative judgments. This is...not exciting music, to be sure. Badu is a powerful singer, but everything about the track is so quiet and lounge-y, so when something lovely does pop out of the ether, and the instruments get a bit more lively, you can't blame me for not noticing. 2/5

Insane Clown Posse, "Miracles"
AM: The productions sounds like the PS2 beats of Boy In Da Corner, without the sharp edges, and the rapping is barely competent. And yet, in something of a miracle itself, this song doesn't suck. The ICP's dumb wonder sounds so sincere I can't help but share it, and professionalism is never a prerequisite to a good jam. Side note: is there a contemporary American folk movement larger than the Juggalos? They must be doing something right. 3.5/5

NS: Thank you/fuck you Aaron for taking my ICP V-card after years of studiously avoiding this group [you can thank Geoff --Aaron]. But I won't lie: "Miracles" is a strangely powerful experience, less so for the music than for the inspiring conviction with which these two proudly ignorant rappers name off natural phenomena they are easily impressed by (Favorite: "Music is ALL magic/you can't even hold it!"). Their rap skills are non-existent, and the production is sub-Casio, but somehow that's beside the point, so I'm forced to plead the Fifth on this one. RATING: N/A

Caribou, "Odessa"
AM: These spasmodic rhythms recall Remain In Light in the best possible sense. The album cover of the upcoming Swim captures this groove better than my clumsy words could hope to. 4.5/5

NS: This is by far the best thing Caribou has yet produced. Typically inscrutable and distorted for maximum terror, it's also the ultimate amphetamine buzz of this nascent 2010. And at the same can almost dance to it. Hats off to this math professor for using his considerable intellect towards the cause of cramming as many awesome and crazy ideas into a song as he can. 5/5

The-Dream feat. T.I. "F.I.L.A."
AM: A slice of Southern triumphalism that falls slightly short of its aspirations. The loud, synthetic horns regrettably overshadow the piano, which tinkles with quiet bite. Dream tosses out hooks like it's his birthday. 4/5

NS: You know from the first "AAAAAYYY" that this is a T.I. song, and then The-Dream intrudes on Tip's territory with his own trademark "Radio KILLLAAAAA," so it's hard to say who the dominant force is on this track. I'm always happy to hear new T.I., particularly when the track in question bears the hallmarks of his King-era music, but with the sweetness of those horns, this could easily be appended to Love Vs Money. And it would be one of the best songs. 4/5

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chapter Book Revue

Thanks to Hennepin County's libraries, I've managed to read a few books about music in the past month. I thought I'd write them up...

Silence, John Cage
Cage was an important, even pivotal figure in 20th Century music, and this book collects many of the experimental composer's lectures and magazine pieces, up to the early 1960s. He returns to the same subjects over and over--the dichotomy between noise and music, the nature of 'experimental' music, electronic sounds, the influence of chance in composition, and silence, or the impossibility thereof.

Profound questions, and, at its best, inquiries well-handled by Silence. On noise and silence--those false antitheses to music--in particular, the book sparkles with uncommon depth and a sense of intellectual mischief.

But to find the whole of Silence interesting, or even readable, one's interest in music must align perfectly with the composer's. I don't believe the concept of filler existed in Cage's period, but Silence is stuffed with it--uncritical expositions on Eastern philosophy, an unending barrage of unordered vignettes, 'experimental' lectures that were never meant to be read. Parsing the good from the nutty isn't difficult, however--when Cage chooses to write clearly his unorthodox ideas are almost always provocative--and still worth you time.

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Andy Miller
An early entry in Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Andy Miller's take on The Kinks' greatest album features an unimaginative structure, unimaginative prose, and an unimaginative take on 15 of the richest songs every recorded. Miller mostly pulls quotes from Ray Davies' autobiography and articles about the Kinks, and connects with wordy, worshipful sentences; it reads like a lengthy Wikipedia article. The track analyses are OK, but by the time I got to the chapter of analysis about Village Green-era tracks not included on the album, I put down the book. The volume itself is slim, but the whole book seems very slight.

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus
Greil Marcus' prose, on the other hand, is sublime. Large parts of Invisible Republic are given over to lengthy, novelistic descriptions--of live performances, Appalachian history, the Anthology of American Folk Music, and above all, the worlds Marcus hears inside songs. Some of these sections are reason to read the book by themselves.

But in a book ostensibly about Bob Dylan & The Band's landmark Basement Tapes, Marcus' stream of consciousness cultural history doesn't always work. The ace writing masks the fact that parts of the book have the cluttered, impenetrable inner logic of, well, a Dylan epic. Like "Desolation Row," Invisible Republic sometimes insinuates very thoughtful points through clouds of poetry and allusion. Other times you get the letter just as the doorknob breaks.

Perhaps you have heard that Greil proposes an "old, weird America"? Why yes, yes he does, and this old and weird America is a shot at poet Kenneth Rexroth, recognition of the centrality of the coo coo bird in American song and mythology, and home to Smithville and Kill Devil Hills, hamlets of the author's own creation. Among thousands of other things.

I won't rule out that large parts of Invisible Republic simply elude me, though I doubt the whole thing does. Dense and twisting thoughts work wonders in "Desolation Row," but as cultural history their power is somewhat diminished; I'd argue style should sometimes take a backseat to decipherable analysis in any history. This is by no means a bad book, however, and I can promise you that Marcus writes beautifully and with great knowledge.

The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History, Jim Walsh
An oral history of rock's greatest fuckups that gives more time to fans, scenesters, critics, and local history than it does to the band. The approach was probably necessary: Paul Westerberg doesn't appear to have talked to Walsh for the book, Bob Stinson sadly cannot, and while Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson participated, they don't play a major role as storytellers here. Walsh relies on folks like Peter Jesperson, Lori Barbero, and Peter Buck to fill in the details.

But the outside looking in angle makes sense for a band that was almost more important to its fans than its own members. There's a wealth of hilarious and heart-wrenching anecdotes, though major aspects of the band go almost unmentioned. Notably, there's very little about the terrible incident, shortly before Bob's dismissal from the band, when Westerberg forced Stinson to drink after having completed a treatment program, and absolutely nothing about Chris Mars' Pappy the Clown alter ego.

Walsh's book has a wonderful sense of place, at least if you're reading it in South Minneapolis. The obsession with street names and local hangouts may explain the mixed reviews Shouting received in 2007--that, or the author's boring articles from the 1980's that he chose to reprint--but it gives a sense of the scene and city that gave rise to the Placemats.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Top 40 Track Reviews, Written As If The Songs In Question Were By Lady Gaga

"Break Your Heart"
Peerless even among The Fame Monster's third-wave fembot anthems, "Break Your Heart" showcases the shapeshifting Gaga in black widow mode. The lyrics reveal a heart of darkness, doomed to a lifetime of self-sabotage, though the Ludacris guest verse brings a bit of levity. The track also features production from frequent collaborator RedOne, whose style on "Heart" is more inventive than Quincy Jones and the Bomb Squad combined. All in all, another epoch-defining jam from Gaga.

Lady Gaga's kid-pop pastiche, and a profound comment on our times. "Baby" exposes the infantilizing effects of internet-era celebrity, but with a delicious twist: the song features no less than 40 costume changes. How Gaga keeps this up is anyone's guess; there's no precedent for hitmaking of this caliber.

"Imma Be"
Less a song than a treatise on performativity, and a damn smart one at that. This is the sound of 2010, and kudos to Gaga for repurposing a mixtape cliche for mass consumption. The tune has some boilerplate synthesizer work, but this in fact functions as a comment on the dullness of these very sounds. And what can you say about the video that Entertainment Weekly hasn't already? It's a half-hour confection with all the flavors pop has to offer: we watch Gaga and Jason Mraz storm a leper colony, and there's a scene set in a Pizza Hut that gives new meaning to the term salad bar.

Gaga boldly confronts rumors about her gender and sexuality in this buzzed-about Euroclub number. "BedRock" pushes the envelope to new levels--again--with a verse in which Gaga and Nikki Minaj exhume Warhol's corpse and sodomize it with a tube of Crest toothpaste.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Great Guitar Solos #5: Blur, "Look Inside America" (Graham Coxon)

Available On: Blur, 1997
Solo Bits: 2:42-3:09

I've already talked a bit about Graham Coxon on this blog, particularly in regard to how in terms of wedding technical and creative sensibilities, he is basically an unmatched player. Further stoked by the release of a video of Albarn and Coxon playing "This Is A Low" (unfortunately acoustic style), I felt that it was time to give this man his due.

Truthfully, Coxon may be an integral component of Blur's sound, but Albarn has proven he is capable of making excellent music without Coxon (Think Tank, Gorillaz, etc.). But Blur is just an all-around great band in my opinion, in the sense that they are a group of four great, easily identifiable musicians, and they're generally underappreciated by my friends in part because the British press has made it a habit of oversaturating its content with talk of Blur and Oasis, as if they are the two standard-bearers of Britpop. I can hardly believe that there continues to be some sort of rivalry between Blur and Oasis fans--not because it is more than a decade after the fact but because I can't believe anyone could consider it a contest at all. Blur is a better band than Oasis in every way, ever since their inception, and I'm sure they still are now. Die-hard Oasis fans perplex me, because their argument will often boil down to the fact that Blur does songs like "Girls & Boys" that lack the rawk-authenticity of their main competitors. And they sound gay.

Many critics have noted that a lot of Blur's best work illustrates the tension between Albarn's songwriting and Coxon's playing; I always get the sense that Coxon has no patience for the poppy and pastoral chord changes of Blur's early years and did his best to undermine what could be typical-sounding music by surrounding his lead lines with notes that don't fit harmonically. Coxon's playing is unique because he often chooses not to play the melody of the piece, or at least the chords that Albarn tends to use. He's a restless player, prone to mixing bursts of fuzzy noise with leaden open strings and weird, dissonant arpeggios. An example of his genius at work can be heard in the first nine seconds of "Magic America" off Parklife. What is it that he is even playing here? It sounds like he is playing a lead line that trips over itself and ends on a big, dissonant non-chord. He manages to out-Keith Levene Keith Levene here, who was so fond of trying to find the wrongest notes possible.

In addition, Coxon can simply play as well as anyone. Even Blur's ballads show Coxon's virtuosity to be pretty much engrained in everything he plays--in "Tender," for instance, Coxon manages to make a lead line out of something as banal as a chord change from A to E. Of course, Coxon's reliance on these techniques and his general habit of avoiding bluesy, tonal solos and lead lines has given him a reputation as a "reluctant guitar hero" or an "anti-guitarist." Whatever. He could easily play the sort of derivative motifs of his peers, but his technique is far too personalized. Plus, I'm sure he seems like the kind of guy who just prefers Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca anyway. Like those artists, Coxon doesn't do many typical solos per se, making it difficult for me to find one that really illustrated his skills. "This Is A Low" came to mind, and it is a beautiful moment, as is that moment in the middle of "Coffee & TV" when he stretches out just a few notes past the point of perceptibility. I'm not sure "Look Inside America" is my favorite solo, or even the most representative, but it certainly gets me excited.

So "Look Inside America" is from Blur, the album that was supposed to be Blur's tribute to Pavement as well as a significant departure from the heavily orchestrated Great Escape. It contains, if you remember, "Song 2," probably the most distorted song to ever become a stadium hit, and "Beetlebum," perhaps the most catchy heroin ditty of our time. "Look Inside America" is a song that harks back to previous Blur songs like "Magic America," exploring Albarn's simultaneous need to make it across the Atlantic while remaining aloof and disappointed with American consumer culture. At least that's what I think it's about: I'm too often distracted by Coxon's crunchy ringing chords in the chorus (which admittedly sounds similar to "Country House"). The song adds strings, which is a nice touch, and the whole thing seems to be one of those Blur songs full of sweepy backing vocals and lots of Pixies stop-start moments. The solo itself begins as a sort of bluesy high-octane riff, which follows a brief harp interlude. It only lasts a few seconds, and then the harp returns, followed by Graham doing what he does best, playing combinations of open and fretted notes, weaving slight touches of feedback without overcoming what seems to be his shot at providing a completely alternative melody. The solo just jams, even if not that many notes are actually played. It's just so economical and is played with such rhythmic heft (if it were Oasis, they would probably call it "swagger"). It shows just how much control Coxon has over his instrument.

Coxon is the ingredient that makes even the most tossed-off Blur song sound interesting; it's hard to think of a single song of theirs featuring Coxon that doesn't feature at least one extraordinarily out-of-the-box guitar lead. How many bands have any instrumentalists that fulfill this sort of function? Santiago comes to mind, although I am always unsure as to whether or not it's Frank Black dictating what he's playing anyway. As far as non-guitarists go, maybe Jean-Jacques Burnel. The way he plays, I'd just listen to whatever recordings I could of him goofing off.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Brief History of Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

At the risk of assuming my esteemed colleague's opinion on the matter, I'm pretty sure that there is nothing we at Rockaliser are more looking forward to than Big Boi's long-delayed Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. My long-simmering anticipation for this album has nothing to do with subscribing to the rap hype machine and everything to do with the consistent stream of incredible tracks Big has leaked since March 2008, which run the gamut from merely bangin' to extraordinary to extra-extraordinary. Due to a protracted label battle (of which the details still seem sketchy), the album has been the victim of constant delays, and I feared that label disputes might result in a partially-formed, slapdash kind of project.

But everything Big Boi has done so far has significantly allayed these fears. Having finally signed to Def Jam, and with the release date for SLLF:TSOCD finally set (July 6), I thought it might be a useful public service to provide a brief history of all things Chico Dusty, and in doing so, I thought I'd make a few extrapolated assumptions about what the album means for Big Boi and the future of Outkast as a cohesive unit.

I'm not in-the-loop enough to know when exactly Big Boi began sessions for Chico Dusty, nor do I know when the general concept for a solo Big Boi album was first suggested. My guess is that he started working on the album in the summer of 2007, which would have been around the same time that "International Players Anthem," which featured both Big and Andre 3000, was released. He first mentioned the album publicly in December 2007, in an interview with Vibe Magazine (and let it be stated for the record that Vibe makes it a pain in the ass to go looking for archived articles). In that interview, Big Boi was referring to the album merely as Sir Luscious Left Foot. He mentioned that the bulk of it would be produced by Organized Noize, Outkast's regular production team, and there would be twelve songs in total, nine of which at the time he claimed to have already finished. Amusingly, he also said, "I want all the stuff to be '08, everything to be brand new." At the time, I believe, it was assumed that the album would be on Laface/Jive Records, which had been Outkast's label since Southernplayalisticadillacmusik.

The first track to be leaked was "Royal Flush," named after Big's production team, featuring Andre 3000 and Raekwon (the team first featured on Outkast's track "Skew It On The Bar-B" from Aquemini). It appeared in late March 2008, made the blog rounds, and everybody seemed to love it. I did, for sure: as I have written before, it's really defined by Andre 3000's extended, virtuosic verse at the end, but basically everything else about it is great as well. The relative minimalism of the beat (bass + drums, with a little vocoder thrown in) is the perfect tether to keep these three MCs afloat, and the Isley Brothers sample that separates each verse provides just enough breathing time to appreciate more keenly how these rappers basically rise above hooks: nearly every phrase uttered sticks in one's mind as being either immediately repeatable or profoundly truthful. Critics, as far as I know, were unanimous in their swooning. It charted on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop list and was later nominated for a Grammy for "Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group." It lost to the T.I./Lil Wayne/Jay-Z/Kanye juggernaut "Swagga Like Us," not that anyone cared.

In late April of that year, Big Boi gave an interview with MTV News, where he talked about his overall plan for the album. At this point, his goal was to drop Sir Luscious Left Foot in July of 2008, which would be followed by a solo Andre 3000 disc and then a new Outkast album. He also said that the album had "thirteen cuts" (as opposed to the previously-reported twelve), and the official title was now Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Dusty Chico was Big Boi's father's nickname while he served in the Air Force). Most intriguingly, Big talked about an upcoming duet with Mary J. Blige that "will probably be the second single, called 'The World Is Too Big.'" The article goes on to state that the collaboration "addresses the election, poverty, crime and the war."

Big Boi gave another interview that following May to, in which he claimed that the album would be finished "by the end of August." The brief interview also mentioned "The World Is Too Big," and Big Boi uses the interview as an opportunity to describe Chico Dusty's lyrical message in general terms: calling it "a recession special," he said that the album would explore a number of relevant social issues, from "rising gas prices to the election." Interestingly, there was supposed to be a "Royal Flush" video at some point, directed by Bryan Barber, but nothing came of it, due possibly to Andre 3000's scheduling problems.

Between May and July of 2008, "The World Is Too Big" became "Sumthin's Gotta Give" (or, alternately, "Something's Gotta Give"--though I believe the former is how Big Boi spells it, you find that a lot of major publications spell it otherwise). An official video was released not long after the track was leaked in late July. The song is a much different beast than "Royal Flush": its roots are quite clearly socially conscious old-school hip-hop and R&B, more of a think piece really than anything you can jam to. True to his word, Big Boi addresses a bevy of social ills, ranging from the war to urban poverty to empty rap battles between "who can jive talk the best." The video shows Big and Blige rallying disaffected blacks, interspersed with shots of urban blight and decay. So it's obvious what this song's true purpose is, which was to endorse Barack Obama for president. The video starts with an epigraph from Obama and includes these lines from Mary J. Blige: "And the only hope I have to help me deal with this drama/is that maybe in November we'll be cheering for Obama." The question, then: is this song still going to end up on the album, 18 months after Obama has already taken office? Should we expect to see it augmented slightly? Since no one seemed to pay much attention to this song and we've yet to receive a set track list, no one is sure.

Luscious was still aiming for an October 28 release date when Big Boi dropped "Dubbz" to not-much fanfare in September. Again, the conceptual basis of the song, which features the rapper Backbone (of whom I'm unaware), seemed to come entirely out of left field: an asymmetrical synth line trades parts with melodically-similar blasts of compressed electric fuzz. There's some familiar Outkast super-deep vocals, but for the most part the song sounds like the two rappers have a hard time adapting their styles to such a leaden beat, and it's only at the end that the track manage to build up a little momentum.

Several release dates came and went before Big Boi released "Ringtone" in February 2009. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Sir Luscious Left Foot was officially without a release date at that point (there are some signs pointing to the summer of 2009, but I've been unable to confirm that). Despite having no official video and no album to promote, "Ringtone" was a modest radio success, probably due to the relevance of its subject matter as well as its use of autotune. I found that some critics accused Big Boi of catering to mainstream fads, but I don't really see that here: sure, there is some autotune going on, but it doesn't sound like any autotune vocal I've ever heard, and the flamenco guitar interpolations and low-end synth blasts are as Outkastian as it gets.

(It was also during this period that Big Boi began the transition from Jive Records to Def Jam, which I guess took him about a year. While I don't really understand why it took him so long [Big Boi attributed it to "behind the scenes label politics"], there is evidence to suggest that both Big Boi and Andre 3000 were no longer happy at Laface Records after it was acquired by Jive, possibly because the label kept interfering editorially with the kinds of music that the two rappers wanted to create. Though I would love to know, it is incredibly hard to find instances of the kinds of music that Jive didn't want them creating. But it's worth recognizing that at this point Big Boi is done with the album, and delays from here on out are due to protracted label-fighting.)

In July 2009, a two-minute snippet of a track called "Lookin' For Ya" is leaked. The Boi-1da-produced jam includes a chorus sung by serial collaborator Sleepy Brown and a verse from Andre 3000. This leads to some speculation that "Lookin' For Ya" was in fact meant to be on Andre's solo album, but Big Boi later says in an interview with Eye Weekly that it is indeed a Chico Dusty song, and the complete track will contain two verses from each. As such I don't feel it is right to evaluate the song just yet, although it sounds cool from what I can tell. It was also in this Eye Weekly interview that Big Boi revealed that the album would be released on Def Jam.

"Fo Yo Sorrows" followed, after a semi-long drought, on September 24, 2009. An Aphex Twin-ish blunt-rolling anthem, the track featured vocals from George Clinton and a ten-second cameo from Too $hort (appropriately named, in this instance). It caught on in a way that no Big Boi track had since "Royal Flush." Revelatory and endlessly inventive in the best Outkast tradition, one could easily make the case for it being the first single if it weren't entirely about smoking weed. This was followed not long after by the mighty "Shine Blockas" in October. Banking off a Teddy Pendergrass melody line and featuring a more-mealy-mouthed-than-usual Gucci Mane, it became yet another universally-praised instant classic. Nearly six months later, there aren't many days that go by where I don't listen to it at least once. "Shine Blockas" was released a couple days after Big Boi hosted a listening party at Stankonia Studios in Atlanta, GA--at this point, a total of 15 tracks were said to be on the album.

Videos were eventually made for both "Fo Yo Sorrows" and "Shine Blockas," although the latter is conspicuously sans Gucci Mane, who was in jail at the time of filming. Both of them seem to be pretty cheap, and as far as I know, they weren't meant for anything like MTV play. Seeing George Clinton (who might as well be called the third Outkast) act relatively lucid on camera is always a treat, though. Big Boi has stated that he plans to make a video for every song on the album, which certainly is no longer unheard of in the world of rap, but at least we may finally get to see Raekwon, Dre and Big in a room together.

Another truncated track made somewhat less of a splash in January 2010. "Tangerine" features yet another southern rapper, T.I., whose verse must have been recorded before he went to jail this past March. The song has a tribal, Timbaland-ish feel to it, but there's a conspicuous lack of bass in the leak, suggesting that, like "Lookin' For Ya," it wasn't released in finished form.

In late March, it was made official that Big Boi had signed a deal with Def Jam. The label battle was basically over. A release date was set for May 4 (EDIT: I'm reading now that it will be July 6), with a rumored track list of 20 songs, and a few days later Big Boi held another listening party in Electric Lady studios with LA Reid, playing several new songs, including "Shutterbugg," which will apparently be the "true" first single to the album. "Shutterbugg" is also awesome, by the way, especially if you're into syncopated talkboxing and Gary Numan keyboards. Oddly, it was produced by Scott Storch (odd only because it sounds like nothing else I've ever heard from Storch). Listen closely for a reference to "Protect Ya Neck" and an interpolation of Soul II Soul's "Back To Life (However Do You Want Me").

So that about brings us to the present. Big Boi has stated in multiple interviews that he's pretty set on Outkast's current plan--release Big Boi's album first, then Andre's, then get together for a new Outkast album. Since we haven't heard anything from Andre's end about this, it remains to be seen how long it might take for another Outkast album to see the light of day. I'm afraid that Andre's problem is only compounded by the fact that everything Big Boi puts out these days turns out to be gold--but if there's anyone up to that challenge, it has to be Three Stacks.

Speaking personally, my dream would be for an Andre album for summer 2011, and an Outkast album in 2012. Hopefully, this would be their long-rumored "ten songs" project, an album which would be comprised of ten potential singles, no filler or skits, and no guest stars, with everything being coproduced by Big Boi and Andre. However, the large time gap between this album's inception and its release gave Big Boi the opportunity to record another album's worth of music, so we may be seeing another solo album from Daddy Fat Sacks before anything from Dre comes down the pipeline.

I'll be sure to amend this post once I can find a legit track order. And you better believe I will be doing a track-by-track review in July. In the meantime, let's recap with what we've heard so far:

1. Royal Flush (Feat. Raekwon and Andre 3000)
2. Sumthin's Gotta Give (Feat. Mary J. Blige)
3. Dubbz (Feat. Backbone)
4. Ringtone
5. Lookin' For Ya (demo snippet; Feat. Andre 3000)
6. Fo Yo Sorrows (Feat. George Clinton and Too $hort)
7. Shine Blockas (Feat. Gucci Mane)
8. Tangerine (snippet; Feat. T.I.)
9. Shutterbugg

We'll likely hear more new material from the album in the next few weeks; until then, I will content myself with another listen of "Shutterbugg."