My Beautiful Dark Twisted Utterly Predictable Fantasy

Discussion over on ILM about the new Kanye LP. Probably the first real music writing I’ve done since law school started, or at least the first decent music writing I’ve done. the posts are basically a reiteration of my Daily piece circa Glow in the Dark/808s, but nothing’s really changed where Kanye’s concerned. Anyway…Copied&Pasted verbatim for posterity. Plus, at some point in two weeks after exams, I will hopefully have time to turn this into something reflective and coherent. anyway, here it is:
I like this WAY more than I expected to, especially given that Kanye seems to be continuing along the trajectory that started to grate c. Graduation – bigger, less accessible, more ‘introspective’ at the expense of genuine insight, but the album is so generous sonically and so…Kanye…that I like it despite myself.

Like…given that this is 2010 Kanye, this is far more than I ever had reason to expect, and is actually v. good. Still my least favourite Kanye album besides Graduation. Probably on par with 808s, but still contending for top 10 spots with /\/\/\Y/\ et al.

sorry – i wasn’t thinking through what i was writing. sonically bigger and more accessible viz. radio jams/ stadium sound. personally less accessible – it’s kanye at his most oblique, least personal…generalizing himself away from the very connected, almost communal feeling of college dropout and late registration, but before the totally introspective/self-absorption of 808s and MBDTF.

the first two albums had family business & roses & hey mama & never let me down – a sense of family, of neighbourhood, of location, city. and even when they didn’t he had children’s choirs backing him up on we don’t care and gigantic guest lists of people who didn’t seem totally arbitrary. the who’s who of NYC and Chicago rap scenes made it feel a block party hosted by Kanye. the raps are populated by real PEOPLE – not just abstract evil supermodels/whores…his cousin whose job claims “he’s too niggerish now”, his aunt pam, his mom and his grandfather at sit-ins, jobs at the mall, and picking up girls off blackplanet with Talib, and undeclared sophomores with compulsive shopping habits, his homie Mali…hell, even his G.O.O.D. Music interns.

by graduation, his dad gets mentioned on champion, and Jay-Z gets an entire song, but other than that it’s all feel good aphorisms, pump-up Dr. Phil-isms, etc. Homecoming is a billion times less warm and lived in than its initial College Dropout area incarnation w/ John Legend, and the most detailed picture of a non-Kanye person we get is Flashing Lights (which probably holds up the best out of anything on this). the entire glow-in-the-dark tour was this odd paean to kanye’s isolation from the world…him lost in space with a computer and holographic sex-computers. i wrote a piece at the time for my college paper about how ODD it seemed for a hip hop show. the immense ego, pervasive loneliness, and the musical desire to transcend the boundaries of ‘merely’ rap (which, SMH, but whatever). by graduation he was taking pictures at the grammys w Feist and sampling Peter Bjorn & John on Mixtapes and trying to move from ‘rapper’ to ‘pop star’ on his way to ‘icon’

808s he’s already totally isolated, even moreso than graduation, but the robot-with-a-broken-heart thing worked so well that he was more accessible than graduation. kanye broken and dissatisfied with what he spent graduation aspiring to reach. but at the same time, he’s not living in a populated world – his mom is only present as a ghost and all the other characters are women who have done him wrong – objects of lust/fury/scorn

MBDTF is sonically impressive – way more so than graduation in some senses – or maybe just more appealing to me, and it’s nice to see kanye rapping again with some purpose, even if i still prefer him ~Dropout/Registration, but while the posse cuts on his first two albums felt communal and natural – kanye tossing lines and verses back and forth with people he genuinely liked, the guest spots here (even the very very good ones) almost feel like perfunctory appearances, not necessarily connected to his narrative across this album (save perhaps Pusha T). and the themes are total solipsism now. still more interesting than graduation, if only because he has things about himself to genuinely grapple with here, but i’ve always found his issues more interesting when filtered through other stories/experiences/people.

this is poorly articulated, but it’s the best i can do right now.
i think this also plays into the sonic shifts from soul loops to soul loops + jon brion strings (artsiness! ambition! respectability!) to big stadium synths and DAFT PUNK (populist! dancey! outside-the-box for rap at the time!) to autotune + 808s (sad kanye!) to this kind of big-enough-to-absorb-it-all prog rock and Bon Iver and fucking Aphex Twin and Elton John and Gil Scott-Heron.

but yeah. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is so incredibly PREDICTABLE in some senses. musically, lyrically, emotionally, there was never really any other option for Kanye. He was always climbing higher, always in desperate need of both critical AND popular adulation, and always dissatisfied with the things he wanted once he got them.

“Can we get much higher?” is kind of the POINT of Kanye. You can get higher and higher, but you just keep on burning things off. You’re either going to plummet like Icarus or burn off everything human about you and end up on Olympus, but in the end you’re either dead or a god, which may as well be the same thing as far as he’s concerned.

and like…this is why i love this album despite myself. kanye IS the biggest pop star of our era. we get the icons we deserve. six years ago he had things to say – important things maybe, but in the age of twitter and facebook and gossip girl doesn’t it make sense that our real hero is a navel-gazing narcissist who’s self-aware enough to know what’s wrong with himself AND the rest of the world but more concerned with posting hot pictures of models to his blog and worrying about whether or not he hurt George Bush’s feelings back when he was still saying things that made sense? but for better or for worse, he’s ours, and i’m as invested in his ego and persona as he is.

like…fuck Lady GaGa, Kanye was doing life-as-performance art for years. we’re all doing life-as-performance art these days.
yeah – Rev, re: Jon Brion = artsy etc…. I mentioned the narrative, not because i necessarily think it’s valid, but because i think it’s KANYE’s narrative. I think Miri Ben-Ari’s arrangements on College Dropout are frequently way better than Brion’s (with the exception of Gone, which is still one of my three favourite Kanye tracks, if not my absolute favourite. Gorgeous wonderful stuff.) But Kanye has always had a very explicit desire to go ‘beyond’ hip hop (which is stupid, for many many reasons) but him working with Jon Brion comes from the same impulse that leads to sampling King Crimson or Yes or Elton John or working with Bon Iver. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but all of it strikes me as part of that desperation for critical adulation (and popular adulation) that kanye has/had. even now that it’s curdled to some extent.


The Suburbs

C&P-ing this from Hoist the Black Flag just in case Tumblr or Hoist ever go down. My review of The Suburbs from August 5th.

Arcade Fire’s latest album is a sixteen track song cycle about suburban malaise, and this central conceit is both the record’s greatest strength and the source of its weaknesses. In a word, The Suburbs sort of sounds like the suburbs.

Funeral found the band exuberant and vital; its choral chants and kitchen-sink musical approach drew listeners into a snowed-in world of hopeful kids with no parents and no power, creating a sense of community and catharsis. Neon Bible saw them angrily engage with a flawed world; its moral outrage and tension was augmented by production that was murky, claustrophobic and overbearing.

On their third effort, Arcade Fire sound for the first time neither hopeful nor angry, but simply resigned.

The Suburbs is meticulously planned and musically restrained, filled with recurring motifs and repeated phrases that emerge slowly from a landscape that seems both familiar and endless. The title track sets the tone, a loping quasi-ragtime number that announces “I’m moving past the feeling.” While Win still sings of youthful idealism, the passions that characterized the band’s previous work are filtered through a haze of nostalgia, regret and distance. The past tense dominates The Suburbs — Win recalls memories of “the summer that I broke my arm,” staring out his window waiting for undelivered letters and reflecting on promise unfulfilled. When not looking backwards, he dreams about dreaming or about driving to Houston — but never actually does.

Arcade Fire once excoriated children who refused to wake up, but The Suburbs plays out like an extended reverie; its setting isn’t the suburban landscape of the Butlers’ youth, but the half-remembered dreamscapes of Win’s mind, where he fills in the blanks with cliché, tropes and repetition. By ‘Suburban War’, the midpoint of the album, The Suburbs folds back on itself, quoting the opening line verbatim. The subsequent tracks continue to directly lift lyrics from earlier songs, turning choruses into verses, and transforming shouted manifestos into half-time bluegrass shuffles. By the final track, they’re “still driving around and around,” looping back to the beginning with a reprise of the title track.

The music and production embrace the concept with equal success, cloaking The Suburbs in a sepia-toned haze and distancing its songs from their audience — no small feat for a group whose default setting is immediacy and shared catharsis. The record relies less on the band’s tendency to enthusiastically pile instruments atop each other until listeners succumb to the weight of bombast, and instead allows tracks to breathe. The novelty of open space on an Arcade Fire album results in songs with crescendos and broad dynamic variation that still feel strangely muted. This restraint lets the band show off a new command of texture and rhythm, playing with both to subtle effect. In place of the grandeur of Funeral and Neon Bible, these songs frequently build tension without hitting the crest of the wave, and tracks that border on stadium rock in concert are far more subdued on record. The rhythm track on ‘Modern Man’ constantly undercuts the song’s momentum by shifting accent patterns, but in doing so adds colour to an otherwise straightforward number. Similarly, the climax of ‘We Used to Wait’ is delayed until the last possible moment, after repeatedly building to choruses that dissipate at the start of each skeletal verse. It’s not until the penultimate track, ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’, that a true moment of release is granted. Regine’s soft vocals float over a disco backbeat and New Wave synths, climbing to a triumphant key change and a palpable mix of joy and desperation that’s been absent in the band’s oeuvre since Funeral.

By most standards, The Suburbs is a staggering success. Measured and mature, but nonetheless musically varied and rich in texture, it’s a rewarding, cohesive, and self-contained listen. Objectively, it might be Arcade Fire’s strongest album qua album. However, compared to the warmth and passion of their previous work, the record is as isolated from its listeners as the suburbs are from the city. Early in The Suburbs, Win tells us, “In my dreams, we’re still screaming,” but at least on record, Arcade Fire no longer are. After two albums that ambitiously reached outwards, the band have retreated to make a work that is almost hermetically sealed off from the real world. In that sense, the album succeeds at what it set out to do; it strongly conveys an enveloping sense of place, time and character, but one that, for some, will be easier to appreciate than it will be to love.

– AO

Expo ’86 – Wolf Parade

C&P’d from Hoist the Black Flag:

During the pre-release press for Expo 86, Wolf Parade stressed that they were presenting us with a more focused and energetic work than its predecessor, but in their attempt to split the difference between the immediacy of Apologies and the slow-burners that characterized At Mount Zoomer, they’ve wound up with something that confuses ‘planned’ with ‘focused,’ and ‘loud’ and ‘busy’ with ‘energetic.’ It’s a solid album, but it’s more dependable than it is inspired.

The twin heads of the band react to this newfound structure in different ways. At Mount Zoomer saw Spencer Krug abandon the three-and-a-half minute gutpunch in favour of twisting, evolving numbers with dramatic payoffs, like ‘California Dreamer’ and ‘Kissing the Beehive.’ While lead single ‘What Did My Lover Say?’ follows suit, most of Krug’s numbers on Expo 86 churn out interesting (at times brilliant) musical ideas that never really coalesce into songs. Unfortunately, his Midas Touch with explosive choruses manifests itself only on ‘Cloud Shadow on the Mountain,’ turning an otherwise ramshackle song into an album highlight. The greatest disservice done to Krug, however, is the production. If Zoomer’s cleaner sound helped reveal the structure and hooks buried under his proggier tendencies, the vocal reverb and hazy, heavy instrumentals often cause his melodies to get lost. None of it is bad per se, just not up to his usual standards.

Dan Boeckner, on the other hand, despite being buried under the same blur as Krug, seems more adept at melding the looser lessons of the last album with the new aesthetic. Even with heavier guitars and fuller arrangements, ‘Ghost Pressure’ and ‘Little Golden Age’ have more than adequate room to breathe and build, and even steal a page or two out of Krug’s book of choruses. “You were in the bedroom, singing radio songs! Sing ‘em loud, sing ‘em all night, Emily!” Boeckner exclaims in Expo 86’s sole moment of truly vital catharsis, as trilling guitars and keyboards spin around him. Wolf Parade’s sound has traditionally been dominated by Spencer’s eccentricities, but Dan’s exceptionally strong work is the heart of this record.

Expo 86 is the work of a talented band in a holding pattern. Krug and Boeckner have mastered their respective styles and for the first time integrated them into a unified sound, but seem to lack a clear direction for the band. For all their differences, Wolf Parade’s first two albums succeeded due to the strength of Boeckner and Krug’s songs, and sonics were carefully and meticulously deployed in their service. Rather than aiming to create an album that embraces a particular sound, the band would be better off letting their songs remain the focus, because those moments when they are rival anything in their back catalogue.

– AO

March Jukebox?

Note to Self: Don’t let that happen again. Now that law school stuff is officially sorted, I think I’ll have time to write more. For posterity’s sake, here’s the little I churned out in March. Some of these were 12:30AM, half-hour ’til deadline, half-asleep pieces – wish I’d found the time to really get at why I love ‘Lewis’ but I’ve already churned out enough about Heartland over at Hoist – but there are a handful where I think I’m close to getting at something worth talking about (VW and Blake Shelton). Springtime is all about renewal. Time to rededicate myself to doing this properly. (Love and Theft is, in retrospect, totally country shlock and worth maybe a 5 or 6 but not a 7).

Avril Lavigne – Alice [3]
Erykah Badu – Window Seat [9]
Owen Pallett – Lewis Takes Off His Shirt [9]
Vampire Weekend – Giving Up the Gun [10]
Love and Theft – Dancing in Circles [7]
Gary Allan – Today [4]
Blake Shelton ft. Trace Adkins – Hillbilly Bone [8]
Yeasayer – O.N.E. [8]
Miley Cyrus – When I Look at You [4]
The success of ‘The Climb’ has apparently provided Miley with an answer to the question: “What exactly is my career arc once I’m too old to be Hannah Montana?”. This answer is apparently “Flood the market with ‘inspirational’ country-tinged ballads of the Diane Warren variety in a desperate attempt to pin down the Adult Contemporary market.” Cynical? Certainly. Smart? Probably. Tolerable? Barely.

Didn’t have time to review New Boyz – Cricketz but it’s yet another delightful jerk number that’s worth a spin or six.

Blog Neglect, February Jukebox.

The Raveonettes – Bang [7]
Jay Sean ft. Sean Paul & Lil Jon – Do You Remember [5]
The Unthanks – Lucky Gilchrist [4]
Mary J Blige – I Am [8]
Jennifer Lopez – Louboutins [6]
Lady GaGa ft. Beyonce – Telephone [9]
Justin Bieber ft. Ludacris – Baby [3]
Josh Turner – Why Don’t We Just Dance? [7]
Zinc ft. Ms Dynamite – Wile Out [8]
Shiny Toy Guns – Major Tom (Coming Home) [3]
Selena Gomez and the Scene – Naturally [8]
Owl City – Vanilla Twilight [2]
Broken Social Scene – World Sick [7]
Mariah Carey ft. Nicki Minaj – Up Out My Face [9]
The-Dream – Love King [7]
Jason Derulo – In My Head [3]

In Defense of Taylor Swift…

There’s a noxious “feminist critique” of Taylor Swift that a friend of mine posted on facebook that basically ignores any potential feminism in Taylor’s work and goes right for the “she’s blonde and pretty and country so MUST be emblematic of purity rings and Christian values and all that is right-wing and evil” jugular, facts or reality be damned. I’m going to have to write a more refined piece about this soon, but in the heat of initial anger and low blood sugar I churned this out.

That’s nice, but still a load of bullshit. Yeah, she plays with tropes – if originality is our measure than nothing anyone listens to is worthy of the stamp. “Hadn’t earned”? How does one earn a Grammy exactly? If you’re looking for authorship and authenticity GaGa and Swift are both the first in a long while to sell as much as they do while simultaneously writing everything they sing. If we’re arguing that Swift is problematic for feminism…I just don’t buy it. Cherry-pick individual radio singles, fine, but there’s a depth and nuance and realism to a lot of what she’s writing about. Teenage girls writing about their own experience are few and far between in pop music.

Here’s the rub: actual freaks make really awesome music. It’s edgy and complicated and it comes from a yearning, desperate, mixed-up place where pain & happiness have existed in equal parts for almost entire lifetimes. It’s not safe or sexless — it’s ugly, hopeful danger.

And as for “yearning, desperate, mixed-up place where pain & happiness have existed in equal parts for almost entire lifetimes. It’s not safe or sexless — it’s ugly, hopeful danger.” – in other words, Swift’s music. Just because the sex and danger aren’t announced and paraded doesn’t mean they’re absent. The reading of “Fifteen” there is reductive at best and really just misconstrued.

I mean, she’s pretty clear in “Fifteen” — really the only song where Taylor has an actual female friend — that “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy, who changed his mind, and we both cried.”

I’ll spare you the time of listening to the song and give it to you straight: Abigail had sex with a boy, and later they broke up. That’s right. No marriage. She gave him all she had.

That’s right. All Abigail had was her hymen.

“Everything [Abigail] had” is never equated to sex or her hymen. And “the Puritan ideal that girls can only access power by confidently and heterosexually denying access to their pants”? Far from it. If anything, the point of “Fifteen” is that defining “everything you have” as “things that are attractive to boys” is short-sighted, Taylor thought she was gonna marry him someday “but I realized some bigger dreams of mine.” And Abigail’s her actual real-life best friend, for what it’s worth.

See, teenagers do think about sex and that’s part of what makes adolescence so fucking wretched but also hopelessly authentic. Revisiting that paradox as an adult can make great art. It’s not about slut shaming, exalting resistance, extending childhood or demonizing desire — it’s about powerfully wanting things that are REAL.

And as for sexless? Her first album was filled with songs about “driving down back roads at night” with boys who had “one hand on the steering wheel and the other on my…heart.” I mean, does she present herself as wholesome (as in nice?)? Certainly. But definitely not as sexless. And while a lot of her songs are about boys, most of them aren’… See Moret particularly rosy-eyed visions of romance besides “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me”. She has songs about lust and anger and cheating, and songs that have nothing to do with boys – songs about her family and social isolation and personal ambition.

Does she need to broaden her palette by the time she releases her next album? Totally. But the idea of a 16 or 18 year old female songwriter with a damn good grasp on structures and techniques of songwriting, with an ear for detail, articulating her own experiences, and having the buck stop with her in pretty much every way – from lyric writing, to set design, to music and melodies, etc. isn’t a bad thing.

There’s stuff to talk about when it comes to Taylor Swift, and she’s far from a perfect role model, but…I mean. This is like reducing Vampire Weekend’s discussion of class and wealth and sex into “well they’re white and rich and WASPy so fuck them.”

The Return of the Jukebox

First batch of Jukeboxery for 2010.

Young Money ft. Lloyd – BedRock [6]
Vampire Weekend – Cousins [8]
Wiley & Chew Fu – Take That [8]
Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring [9]
Gil Scott-Heron – Me and the Devil [10]
Corinne Bailey Rae – I’d Do It All Again [5]
Daisy Dares You ft. Chipmunk – Number One Enemy [7]
Alicia Keys – Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart [8]
Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind Part II [6]
Marina and the Diamonds – Hollywood [6]
Hot Chip – One Life Stand [6]
Goldfrapp – Rocket [7]
The Bangz ft. New Boyz – Found My Swag [8]
Sade – Soldier of Love [10]
Timbaland ft. Justin Timberlake – Carry Out [3]

It took about 24 hours to realize that Daisy Dares You is totally a 5 or a 6 rather than a 7. The Gil Scott-Heron cover of Robert Johnson really is impressive, but isn’t quite a 10, while Sade’s 10 is definitely merited – one of the stand-out tracks of early 2010. And while Marina’s Hollywood is too problematic to endear itself to me, everything else she’s done is at least an 8.

(Also, I have caved and got a tumblr, if only so I can actually participate in track-backed conversation without having to pull block quotes and hope people read this thing. Anything long form or resembling actual writing will stick around here – we’ll see what the tumblr is actually for once I start using it.)