My Morning Jacket: Z
|Yet another album on our list that so amazingly fails to impress any sort of presence on me that I forget the album exists or is even playing. But if you put that aside and force yourself to pay attention to the album (perhaps you have been tied up a la A Clockwork Orange - "He's cured! He no longer wishes to listen to the radio!"), you notice a few interesting things going on to the music that have are somehow otherwise completely unnoticable. The lead singer of My Morning Jacket manages to express all the personality of a Nature Sounds CD - not to say it's not beautiful, but it's just got this aura of blandness that can be frustrating at some times. At the very least, I would like him to take a little off that huge room reverb he has going and deliver a little more feeling to the performance. |
I am exaggerating a small bit. Many My Morning Jacket songs are basically of the bombastic stadium-rocker Coldplay sound-alike kind, and at times, like for example, on the chorus of "Gideon", he is able to provide the kind of excitement that comes with those bands. One of the bigger problems is when he tries to push those same skills toward more upbeat genres; for example, on the blues-influenced "What a Wonderful Man", they use the same reverb template on his voice, and it sounds out of place and uninspired. "Off The Record" is an exception, where the reverb gets shut off and the band attempts a reggae song (bad idea). It also doesn't help that the song rips off the "Hawaii 5-0" riff (oh but see, it's a little different).
You can perceive another influence coming from the rhythm section of the band, and this comes out on the guitar riffs of "What A Wonderful Man", but it can mostly be heard on the jam band/Built To Spill instrumental outros on "Lay Low" and "Dondante", the album's longest songs. Surprisingly, these were the tracks on the album that really stood out for me and it was all because of the raw skill of the band as a whole - they took a 3 minute instrumental outro and made it more than a guitar wankery "Freebird" fest. "Lay Low" is the best example of the competing forces at work here and their fundamental difference. The first 3 minutes is an entirely forgettable alt-indie-rock song, but the last 3 minutes manages to evoke melodies that are memorable and at once render the previous 3 minutes as noticably inferior.
Overall, while it is tempting to write this album off as yet another mediocre mix of modern music, My Morning Jacket remains superior to most other bands' offerings. As boring as they might be, the tracks are quite listenable, which I cannot say the same about other records. It gives the album a surprising amount of repeat value except for "Off the Record", which can get slightly irritating if listened to too many times. A Top 50 of 2005 album, however, should have a certain amount of intensity and ability to compel the listener. So ultimately, burn this album and put it in a plastic sleeve, because it will end up on the floor of your car for quite some time.
| I think the singer from My Morning Jacket has a little reverb box under his mic with three buttons marked "Radiohead", "Stone Roses" and (for use in emergencies only) "Neil Young." It's another vintage-loving brit-biting rock band, ladies and gents, and the fact that they appear on the Pitchfork list above Spoon pretty much guarantees that they ain't going to be as good. |
This album is notable for two things: first, the 'Verb. It's all over everything, particularly the vocals and the drums, and it varies in character and intensity, which is a good thing in terms of keeping the listener interested and a bad thing in terms of creating a definable character for the band. The second notable thing is how generically rock'n'rolly everything is. They've got style, and when they play breakdowns there's definite evidence of chops, but I don't think it's enough style. We're suffering from a lack of personality here, from a band that doesn't quite have the skill to be a Led Zeppelin but is trying hard by aping every style in that category they can.
Which isn't to say that there aren't some pretty nifty moments. Take "Off The Record", which is shamelessly Clash-y at the top but ends with a wonderfully cool little breakdown section made of vintage keyboard and guitar tremblings, a smooth bass and drum groove, and subtle backward-masked voice crackles. This is followed, however, by an entirely unnecessary song called "Into The Woods" which seems to be a reaction to the Sondheim play of the same name (in the 'stop trying to teach me things' vein) but which more importantly rests on a lurching circus organ figure which has worn out its welcome by the first minute and which persists as the song drags, and drags, and drags. "Gideon", with its ridiculously verbed-out vocals, delay washes and majestic sweeps and swoops might verge on classic if it didn't sound exactly like the Stone Roses. The jammy southern rock of "Lay Low" starts out worrying and goes on way too long, riding mostly on two chords and brushing against some painfully overdriven vocals on the way. And then we verge into all-out country on "Knot Comes Loose", which is the point where you'll be tempted to toss the album gently into the 'maybe I'll listen to this again sometime, possibly' pile. Which is a shame, because the last track turns out to be quite wonderful, even at eight minutes - cool, subtle and grooved-out until it splashes itself out in a spaghetti-western smear of burnt southwestern broodiness.
I'm going to give this album a burn, because there are some very nice moments and I'm cognizant that I'm rewarding them for aping the people I like and punishing them for aping the people I don't. If you're the kind of guy who bemoans the death of the guitar solo in pop music and who wishes people would bring the goddamn rock once in a while, do check this album out, cause it's an old-fashioned band with old-fashioned styles and old-fashioned instruments and old-fashioned chord structures. I just wish they'd bring a little more of the new into the mix, and didn't homage their influences quite so mercilessly, and were willing to be more atmospheric and groove-oriented. These guys could make a fantastic movie soundtrack. The lesson, I suppose, is that rock is on the wane because it's hard to do right-- much easier to write your little songs and hire a genius producer, like the next person on our list...
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Roisin Murphy: Ruby Blue
|Artists like Roisin Murphy confuse me sometimes. Where do they come from? Who decides that they are going to become an artsy, jazz-influenced, electronically-tweaked studio performer? Do they seek a career in production and stumble upon it from working on their own projects? Are they jazz singers that want to experiment and manage to come up with something original? In Murphy's case, she was in electronic duo Moloko, moved from there to lending her vocals to other electronic artists, and finally start recording albums with a producer she had worked with previously. Murphy's musical influences are jazz styles ranging from New Orleans to lounge, mixed with modern electronica and a slight R&B pop influence. |
Flaming Lip Wayne Coyne once said, "If someone asked me what instrument do I play, my answer would probably be the recording studio." Murphy is very much the same way, and I think that you are going to start seeing a lot more artists evolve like that, especially with the advent of cheap digital recording and the Pro Tools era. Murphy, while nowhere near the musical style of the Flaming Lips (though the two groups intersect on the title track "Ruby Blue", which sounds very much like "Free Radicals (A Hallucination of the Christmas Skeleton Pleading with a Suicide Bomber)"), still evokes the kind of playfulness and originality in the studio that Coyne does.
She uses several synthesizers, sampled and tweaked vocal outbursts, and horn sections. Some of the production is understated and subtle: she slides in a backward vocal in the mix for only 15 seconds to establish the mood and pulls it out right away. She slides a saxophone solo in the background on the right channel that is barely perceptible, but it completely fits within the context. On the drunken "Off On It" she samples in someone blurbling in the background. These are just a few examples of the pleasant surprises on this album.
I should also mention that there's not really any unpleasant parts to this album. Unfortunately, however, few of the songs are that great. The best songs on the album include the sultry "Sinking Feeling", which has a meticulously arranged horn section that sounds amazing. For some reason, "Ramalama" really strikes a chord with me, but that could just be my strange taste, and the final song "The Closing of the Doors" is just pretty. The lower points on the album are "Off On It", which is a huge success for achieving its desired effect, but at 5:23, it clocks in way too long for a song that is mostly her singing "it's just a game" and making heavy breathing noises, causing the whole track to sound like a dirty crank call on acid. "If We're In Love", which features the chorus "If we're in love / we should make love / when will be lovers?", sounds like a forgotten track on an Al Green album. The album is fun to listen to in some parts, but the majority of the rest of the album sound like an electronified version of a mediocre soul record, with a touch of New Orleans, as heard on "Night of the Dancing Flame", which to me sounds more like the title of a Sherlock Holmes story.
I think that you should probably skip this album, because there were just too many poor tracks on the album, but some of it is worth checking out, and if your taste is right you'd like it. Personally, the album at some points makes me feel like hanging out with your creepy uncle that is always going to the disco. So I'm going to go with skip, but I recommend those with recording fetishes or a polyester suit to check it out.
| Hmm.. conundrum time. What do you do with an album which has brilliant, top-drawer production but lacks the songwriting chops to back it up? It's like the take-out chinese of music, consumed and vanished fifteen seconds later. This stuff is toothsome but it leaves you kind of empty -- you're not going to be whistling any of the tunes tomorrow. |
On the other hand, the production really is superlative. Whether it's crafting a soulful beat out of a wound-up alarm clock on "Dear Diary" or slapping up an incongruously filthy hip-hop dance groove on "Ramalama", the dude/dudette/coterie behind this album has got chops and intelligence to spare, and isn't afraid to be difficult or abrasive up against Murphy's off-the-shelf soul stylings. I'll come right out and say that the accompaniment here is better than even the more interesting tracks on the Fiona Apple album-- but Murphy's no Fiona, and that of course is where the problem lies. These songs are generic, and the subtlety of the production also means that there aren't any banging, manipulative hooks to latch on to. Stapling bass and drums on to some of these songs might've undermined the programmed-jazz feel that they're trying to create here but it would've made it a whole lot easier to get into the music. Also, Murphy's voice, though it has the inflection and stylings of a soul/jazz singer, doesn't have the raw power or soulfulness behind it to drive things forward on its own. So perhaps even the strength and variety of the production is in itself a weakness... maybe in its complexity it sacrifices the possibility of empathetic connection with the singer.
Still, I can't help but love "Night Of The Dancing Flame", a bouncy, unrelentingly weird groove of which the more identifiable elements are wah-wah trombone, electronic tablas and something which might be a dentist's drill. The songwriting steps up, too, abandoning the usual generic love-stuffery in favor of something a little more tribal and strange. (Although without any madness in the vocals it does come off as a little new-agey, perhaps.) And the aforementioned "Ramalama" is like a slightly toned-down Oingo Boingo, complete with spooky bass line and tiny treble mutterings, which for sheer incongruity on a jazz-pop album gets massive points. Still, when I look elsewhere for highlights I get a lot of boring and a lot of forgettable, despite the best efforts of the orchestrators, who seem slightly uncomfortable trying to get my booty shaking on tracks like "If We're In Love". That last is one of the least sexy let's-get-it-on-songs I've ever heard -- sure, the bass sound is interestingly modulated, but it ain't deep or driving. It's an oddly intellectual approach to the libidinal groove, as is somebody was told how genitals worked but never went and prodded at their own. It just doesn't work.
Skip this, I think. I hope I see the same producer working with a songwriter who would better fit his style.
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Young Jeezy - Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101
|Hoo boy. I've certainly had a crash course in hip-hop doing this project, and we've certainly seen some artists not worthy of the Top 50. De La Soul was just sad, Foreign Exchange confusing, and Ghostface Killah devoid of content, but Young Jeezy is just bad. This album has 19 tracks, and believe me when I say that I had great difficulty listening to this album the requisite two times. True, an album not only titled "Thug Motivation 101" but includes a superfluous superheading (so the album's full title is "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101") is destined to be difficult, but I really couldn't stand this album. |
To start off with, Young Jeezy is probably the slowest rapper I have ever heard. I think the guy from Third Eye Blind could rap circles around this guy. I don't even think that his lines are done in a single take. It sounds like it took him several takes on a single verse to get everything right. I really think that I could do a better job than this guy - the only thing Jeezy has on me is a bad-ass voice and the proper ego to pull off the whole "gangsta rap" thing. The other problem is that he takes "rap affirmations" (you know, 'Yeah' or 'Unh') to a ridiculous extreme. After almost every single line or phrase, Jeezy insists on throwing in some sampled outburst in the space. And boy howdy, does he have a lot of them: "Yeah!", "Yeaaaaah", "Unh!", "Ha-ha!", "Hey!", "Yup", "Dayymn!"; "Ey", "Ehhhhh", and "Eaaayyyyyhhhhh" like he thinks he's fucking Fonzie or something, and my favorite, "Thaaaaassss Riiiiiight." I guarantee you won't have to wait more than a minute before you get an "Ehhhhh" or "Thaaaaas Riiiight." It makes me wonder just how many takes it took to get that "thaaas riight" perfect or if Jeezy was talented enough to nail it in one take. Fonzie jumping over a shark was way cooler than this shit. On one track, he has a "Hey! Hey!" chorus that sounds like a Nazi march or a Marilyn Manson song. These things make the album unlistenable. Let me illustrate.
The rest of the album is pretty much worthless as far as I can tell. Yeah! It is, predictably, ha-ha! about shootin' caps, unh! sellin' crack, fuckin' bitches, daymn! and it seems that every single song seems like a desparate grab to be cool with the target audience; a calculated distillation of all rap up until that point. Thaaaaaas riiiiiight!! Every song is basically an exact copy of the last one, Unh!! and it's evident that no real talent was necessary to make this album. Ehhhhhhh! The beats all Yeahhhhh! came from Thaaaas riiight! - ok, that's en Ehhhh! - no, that's Yeaaaaaah no, stop it!
As I was saying, the beats all seem to come from a CD entitled "100 Hot Beats for "Rap" Music" - they sound like the most generic gangsta rap beats possible. The lyrics themselves are incredibly lacking. In "Let's Get It / Sky's The Limit" he rhymes a word with the same word twice for no good reason: "I see opportunity i'm a opportunist / Nigga you heard what I said i'm a opportunist"; "I commentate the game like John Madden / Cause I played in the game like John Madden". It also includes this line that made me laugh out loud: "Niggers, bitches, bitch-ass niggers, dyke ass hos, black ass, bright ass hos, fag hags and scallywags..." On "And Then What", he says "boom boom clap" along with similar sounding percussion, then later in that same song he says "then I'm gonna hop in one of them cars" like he's a time traveler from 1850. At some point he proclaims that he's a "T-R-A-P-S-T-R" - a trapstr? Did he forget how to spell "gangster"? Is that the name of a new nu metal band? Is he proclaiming his heritage of living in French Canada and hunting beavers for their pelts?
Skip this bullshit and let's all point at Pitchfork and laugh for them trying to look cool.
This (jyuh) is an album by a man named Jeezy (eeeeeeyy) who used to sell coke (jeeyuh) and is sexually aroused by his Jacksons (awwwww yeeah). His current occupation is keeping it real (dayumm) and making funny noises behind rap songs (hey. hey. hey. hey. hey. hey.) Did I mention he used to sell coke? He did. He sold a lot of it. (jyuh. EEEEYYYYY.)
Now I know that m'colleague on the left and I aren't really good at reviewing gangster rap -- call it lack of experience with the genre, liberal squeamishness, or just a cloth-eared disregard for the rainbow of human experience that is selling blow and shootin' niggers. But I for one am prepared to adapt, and thanks to our recent review of the Pretty Toney album I now have a context within which to evaluate the merits of this sort of music. Either an album is better than Ghostface, or worse than Ghostface. This is much, much worse than Ghostface.
The beats are infuriatingly generic and samey and slow so that Jeezy, who sounds perpetually out of breath (he's probably got buckshot in his lungs or something) can keep up with them. One song fades into another without leaving any impression beyond the fact that Jeezy has a lot of coke in his pants, or in his auntie's house, or, y'know, just generally around. And that he's real -- considerably realer than other niggers. He's extremely real. What this means is that he's completely rejected the idea that one's moral universe can be expanded beyond the twin precepts of get yours and make sure the other guy doesn't. None of this crossover shit for him - you'll never catch Jeezy rapping about shit that ain't from the streets, cause the streets made him what he is, and he's from the streets, and he cares about the streets, where he's from. Apparently the streets are mostly about violence and crime plus the occasional barbecue. Keeping it real also means that he can boast, as he does repeatedly, that the real dope dealers and murderers are listening to his stuff. Accept no substitutes.
This is not to say that there's nothing of redeeming value in here. In small doses the stuff (JYUH) is completely hilarious-- you occasionally have a hard time believing that something so thoroughly and unremittingly dumb wasn't calculated every step of the way, that Jeezy didn't sit down before he recorded the album to carefully pluck out every scintilla of nuance, that he wasn't chuckling to himself and making bets with his friends about how many times in a single song he could mention his bricks. And then there're a track like "My Hood", which comes out of fucking nowhere with a hugely upbeat eighties after school special beat, over which Jeezy explains that he is, in effect, keeping it real for the children. For his hood...and for our hoods. And there's Jeezy's omnipresent eeeey-- just imagine a big black fonz. But all this is sort of negated by the fact that the album clocks in at well over an hour and fatigue has set irretrievably in by track four.
This is gangster -- this is dirty south -- this might be crunk, whatever crunk is -- it's the face of Georgia. And that makes me really sad, because I want southern rap to be like Cee-Lo and like Outkast, smart and musically innovative and not dumbed down to the point where even the beats feel like they were made by the special class down at bangin' school. Urgh. A skip for this and everything it represents.
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|I swear, when I heard this album for the first time, I was convinced that someone had mistakenly labeled Kelly Clarkson mp3s as Robyn. I was listening to it on shuffle, but I got pretty angry. Let's get this out of the way right now: Robyn is not good. Not Young Jeezy bad, but still bad. My first reaction to hearing this was to shut down this review completely. Fuck you Pitchfork, skip this album, go buy a Britney Spears album instead. I've already discussed a good pop act, Annie, previously, and I don't feel like retreading that ground. Robyn is not nearly as good as Annie anyway. This album is on the Top 50 as a result of textbook hipster maneuvers. Pop star from 1997 releasing an "independent" album on her own record company, sounds enough like top 40 music but is just unpopular enough that they can get away with liking her and making their own taste seem deep, and fucking Swedish. Sounds like a shoo-in to me. |
I decided to put this to the test. I played her album alongside a Britney Spears album and listened to see which one came out on top. Unfortunately, the Britney Spears album was a "greatest hits" one, so it wasn't quite as objective as I would have liked. In any case, the results were mixed. The first few songs were clearly a victory for Britney, with "Toxic" proving to be a towering victory over anything Robyn has ever recorded. By that point, though, it went back to the older Britney hits, which instead of being bad, like Robyn, are offensively bad. Advantage Robyn. Surprisingly, after those songs end, the two artists are nearly indistinguishable. Only by Robyn's voice are you able to tell the difference.
There are some songs which aren't completely awful. "Should Have Known" which sounds like Annie, actually, and "Crash and Burn Girl", which sounds like a simple house song. "Anytime You Like" and "Eclipse" are also not-so-bad songs, but only because of their sparseness and lack of anything. But the rest is not tolerable. "Who's That Girl" is an excellent Cyndi Lauper impression, "Handle Me" is a sassy Kelly Clarkson song (in which she informs us that we can't handle her. I'm sorry, Robyn), "Be Mine!" is a good study of Britney Spears-style over-production using non-obvious instruments, "Bum Like You" borrows Avril's melodies over Mirah's band (a shame, that), and "Robotboy" is just about the worst song I've ever heard. "Robotboy" sounds like a nerd with no writing skills (like me) teamed up with The Matrix songwriting team. She also suffers from a severe case of Drew Barrymore-like sassiness, and when she has audio skits showing her being the HSIC (Head Swede In Charge) of the production, I don't care if it's accurate; it's annoying.
The lyrics aren't that great either. "Be Mine!" is the biggest culprit: any song with the phrase "and I remember every word you said" clearly suffers from lazy lyric writing. She sings, "It's a cool thing you'll never know all the ways I tried." Why? What's cool about that? She uses the word "cool" like your mom uses it. There's also a cheesy voiceover in the bridge: "I saw you at the station. You had your arm around what's-her-name. She had on that scarf I gave you. And you got down to tie her laces...you looked happy, and that's great...I just miss you, that's all." Such great drama has not been reached on tape since "Car Chase Terror!" or even "But I thought the old lady threw it to the bottom of the ocean..." Well, baby, I went down and got it for you.
So while it's not so horrible, the real thing is better. Skip this and purchase a copy of (Current Hot Pop Star) instead.
|Glory hallelujah. It's about time we got something I can shake my ass to. |
This is purest guilty pleasure and after some of the dreck we've had to wade through it makes me cry tiny little tears of pleasure. It's not unlike that other girl with one name and retro electronic leanings, but Robyn was around ten years ago, and she still sounds less assured and less hipstery. She's just adorable, in fact, in a manipulative and yet entirely plausible way. And she's managed to finagle herself a producer who can make everything smooth and bright and shiny without turning me off. I mean... take "Handle Me". It's an electro pop-R&B song, spare and beat-driven and radio-ready, and then a little extra-reedy cello (patch?) sneaks in, and then the chorus comes in and oh my god with the superclean acoustic guitar chords it's like every song that was on the radio when I was in high school and yet somehow I'm still digging it. This album goes effortlessly over the top again and again but still manages to be spare and to use negative space effectively, keeping everything elastic and tight. As for Robyn herself... well, when her intro track features a man with an impossibly deep, gangstery voice explaining that she invented the AIDS vaccine and was specifically banned by United Nations article 202 from wearing tight sweaters on international flights....
Oh, and she has a song called "Konichiwa, Bitches." And it sounds like M.I.A. with a sense of humor.
It is hard to be objective about this, becuase it's designed to sit right on my pleasure center and kick hard. There's a moment in the already almost too-adorable-for-words song "Robotboy" where to top off a line where she's been singing through a radio filter she gets to do a three-note three-part harmony with herself that's so utterly plasticky and pitch-corrected that it could only lead into the huge boof in the bass drum and the violas and the warm, heroic-pop-moment piano chords of the final chorus. There will be some who will listen to those five or so seconds and remain unmoved -- there will be some who will roll their eyes and wonder how anybody could be so cheesy, so cynical. l I prefer to think of it as swinging for the fence. And the next track, "Be Mine!" is a perfect pop song constructed mostly of staccato string attacks. It's like you took a Britney and injected her with bis. The lyrical content is pretty great, too-- from the opener "Who's That Girl?", a song about how your dream girl only exists in your dreams and you're going to have to end up settling for a human girl, to "Bum Like You", an unexpectedly straightforward four-piece indie rock song about how her man is poor, sketchy and ugly but that doesn't really matter much cause she loves him. The stylistic gamut that the album runs is worth mentioning, incidentally... there's R&B, electropop, indie rock, and "Eclipse", a spare, nearly empty torch song scored for piano, upright bass and a keyboard echoing the chords panned way the hell back and run through a very hard, very quick tremolo, which is the sort of production trick that operates almost subliminally but makes the goddamn song.
The album falls off near the end (almost inevitably-- you can't keep a rack of stylistically diverse pop songs consistent for more than seven or eight tracks without breaking the genius barrier). "Should Have Known" is boring by-the-numbers R&B and "Anytime You Like", although it features some nice atmospherics and squelching, is forgettable sub-Madonna popstuff. But it's a minor complaint, really.. there's more than enough here to keep me happy. Buy, yo.
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