Archive for the ‘R&B’ Category

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Chicago Music Festival Report

April 14, 2010

In 2008, I went to a single day of the Pitchfork Music Festival and all three days of Lollapalooza. In 2009, I did the opposite and went to all three days of Pitchfork and a single day of Lollapalooza. This Summer I’m happy to say I’ll be able to do all three days of both. I have my lovely grandmother who bought me Lollapalooza tickets a a surprise.

A dramatic reenactment of our phone conversation:

“Grandma! Those tickets must have been awfully expensive!”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve been saving up quarters.”

Anyway, I thought I’d give my two cents on both festivals’ lineups.

Lollapalooza has ace headliners this year, and they’ve got the goods to call on legions of rock ‘n roll fans throughout the country.

The more mainstream leaning headliners are very strong. Soundgarden is this year’s alt-rock headliner, and the festival’s older devotees and 90’s rock fans will jump to see one of the band’s first reunion shows. Green Day, though they have lost some indie fans since their glory days, have more than enough star power to fill a stadium, and they will probably change the face of the crowd this year. But the real game changer this year, on a brilliant booking move by Perry Ferrell is the pop juggernaut Lady Gaga, who will sell thousands upon thousands of tickets for Lollapalooza. She’ll attract pop fans, preteens and hipsters alike. It stands that not many, if any other festivals have the means or the balls to pull this kind of headliner.

The indie rockers will be drinking tears of joy this year based on the presence of The Arcade Fire alone, who are due for a tour and a new album. They have been out of the live circuit for a while, but they are more than strong enough of a band to make the headliner slot. The Strokes are also a dazzling attraction. Like the Arcade Fire, they’ve also been out of commission for a long time and they’ll enjoy widespread excitement and ticket sales in response to their headlining spot. But the year’s left field headliner is Phoenix, who due in large part to their 2009 album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” have skyrocketed to the top of the indie food chain, and this slot will be great for Lollapalooza as well as Phoenix, who will consequently get a huge crowd and massive cred regardless of who they go up against in the lineup.

There’s more than enough other shit to keep just about everyone shelling out cash for at least a one day ticket:  Jimmy Cliff and Devo for the older crowd, Slightly Stoopid for the hippies, The Black Keys for the blues fans, AFI for the emos (they’re still around?), Erykah Badu for R&B and funk fans, and Social Distortion and Gogol Bordello for the punks. Perhaps more importantly, there is a large selection of big indie names on the lineup: The New Pornographers, Spoon, The National, Hot Chip, The Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, The xx, Stars, Matt & Kim and, my favorite, The Walkmen.

Lollapalooza may have a lot of great acts, but Chicago’s biggest indie festival The Pitchfork Music Festival is comparable if not greater in terms of amount of sheer talent.

As with previous years, there is a whole slew of artists at the Pitchfork Festival that you won’t be able to see in too many other places this summer. From the start, Pavement was the festival’s big seller, probably being the major reason that three day passes sold out within the week they were available. The band have reunited for a tour in support of their compilation album “Quarantine the Past,” and we all couldn’t be happier to have the chance to see them live. The other two headliners, Modest Mouse and LCD Soundsystem, are also sought after bookings this Summer, and they sealed the deal.

But there is much more to rabble about beyond the headliners. Wolf Parade, Liars, Broken Social Scene and St. Vincent are also strong sellers. Other stuff you’ll hear me making noise about: Sleigh Bells, Alla, Kurt Vile and The Tallest Man on Earth.

The festival’s hip hop lineup this year is as strong as it has ever been, featuring the likes of Raekwon, Big Boi and El-P. You’ll see me in the crowd for all three.

There are some other very special acts that you probably won’t be able to see in many other places this Summer, particularly Robyn, Panda Bear, Dam-Funk, Major Lazer, and Lightning Bolt.

In terms of the past year’s up and coming Beach Pop scene, Pitchfork has nearly half of the major bands covered: Beach House, Delorean, Real Estate, jj, Girls, Neon Indian, Surfer Blood, Best Coast and Washed Out will all make appearances, plus the likes of Local Natives, Free Energy, and The Smith Westerns, who are though not exactly beach pop are closely related in style and popularity.

Lollapalooza will always have the capacity to bring together acts that will sell hundreds of thousands of tickets, and still have a strong selection of indie bands on tap. Though smaller and more geared towards a specific crowd, The Pitchfork Festival’s lineup this year has finally matched Lollapalooza’s in terms of sheer talent and diversity. We’ve got two great major music festivals lined up for the Summer, and I’m excited for both.

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Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

March 12, 2010

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Back in 2001, I experienced the first Gorillaz album in the way that all parties involved may have found ideal: with absolutely no context. I was eleven, and I hadn’t heard of Damon Albarn, Dan the Automator or Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Just about the only thing I knew about Gorillaz was that they weren’t real, but I still struggled to put animated faces to voices, sounds to instruments and some kind of method to the madness. The album was to me the most alien thing I had ever heard, an amalgamation of rock, pop, punk, hip hop, electronic, dub and world music. Nothing could have prepared me for it.

Once again, I was eleven, and mostly used to listening to pop radio, whatever that might have been at the time. Everything changed for me after Gorillaz. “Re-Hash” became my Summer anthem and “Que Pasa Contigo” melted the winter freeze. I stared at my crappy stereo in confusion and wonder during “Sound Check (Gravity),” I daydreamed to “Man Research,” and I nearly shit my pants when I first heard “Left Hand Suzuki Method” (For an idea of exactly how naive I was, I thought the bong hit sample at the beginning was the opening of a can of soda). It’s even still a bit unsettling for me to hear the album now, if only because of my history with it. In a world of its own and on its own terms, it pushed its own boundaries incredibly far, and I’ll always love it.

Gorillaz

By the time I was fourteen, I was in high school and had begun to branch out a bit. I listened to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and my Led Zeppelin t-shirts were starting to develop pit stains. I anticipated the release of Demon Days for months, and when it finally came out I bought it in Best Buy (what seems even for now to be a relatively dated practice). A dark, brooding pop album, it frustrated me as much as it entertained. There were familiar elements, but mostly it was new and uncomfortable, for me an early exploration into dirty, dark hip hop and experimental pop music and a collection of ideas and styles just as diverse as those on the self titled album. Even more strange names were credited in the liner notes, most of which I had not heard of, but I came to associate Danger Mouse with this kind of an edgy, diverse sound. He did Demon Days well, and I wondered for years how it could be followed.

Demon Days

And now, with the release of Gorillaz’s third studio LP, Plastic Beach, I can reasonably expect not just an album of music, but an experience. Of course, the band has relaunched their website and the first of no doubt many music videos. Various release versions of Plastic Beach contain storyboards, videos and other exclusive content, and a story is being slowly spun to outline the virtual band’s current state. In short: All of the world’s trash and pieces of its history have floated to the middle of the Indian Ocean to form a massive artificial island known as The Plastic Beach. Gorillaz, consisting of singer 2D, bassist Murdoc, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russel, have now made it their home and production studio, where they have crafted a new concept album that deals with, among other issues, pirates, consumerism and modern living. It is a big production to keep track of, but it is important to zone in on what is really the vital event here, the release of a new Gorillaz album.

I concede that I was expecting something much different than what I got from Plastic Beach, perhaps something much more sinister, in the vein of the demented Demon Days, but in fact Plastic Beach is far more accessible than either of Gorillaz’s previous studio LPs, smash hits included. Damon Albarn has even said it is the poppiest thing he has ever been involved with; this may be a stretch, but it is easy to see where he is coming from. The album is bejeweled with orchestral strings, melodious pop hooks and whimsical electronic textures. The majority of the victory achieved in Plastic Beach can be attributed to Albarn himself and his penchant for pop songcraft. Many of the album’s best songs are ones that feature him exclusively, and he handles the vast majority of the production work on the album, choosing not to collaborate with a guest producer such as Dan the Automator or Danger Mouse.

But the Gorillaz camp still features an ever revolving cast of guest collaborators, even if it’s most distinguishable feature is its now well established groundwork. De La Soul once again provides playful rhyming and Mos Def makes two appearances: The freestyle massacre “Sweepstakes” and the lead single “Stylo.” “Stylo” doesn’t quite get off the ground and flying like prior Gorillaz hits, but it’s probably much more compelling, featuring a mysterious melody, great work from Mos Def to coincide with his recent comeback and a soaring vocal part from the great jack-of-all-trades Bobby Womack.

Stylo

But the more obscure guest spots are perhaps even more effective. Grime rappers Bashy and Kano kill it on the dual-spirited “White Flag,” the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music provides melodic strings on the same track and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings wonderfully on two of the album’s best songs, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge.” The album seems to hit nirvana on the former, which morphs from gentle seaside guitar strumming into rhythmic ambient techno bliss, while the latter provides a longing, romantic melody, and is the most real this unreal band has ever been. Some of the album’s other guest artists, particularly Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed, seem like novelty inclusions, but they play their parts well and only further highlight the fact that since the beginning, the Gorillaz project has been a whole hell of a lot of fun.

And so we ask, if Damon Albarn wants his projects to feature prominent alt-rappers alongside indie heroes, why not? Behind an animated facade, he can do just about anything without it seeming awkward, and we give his and Jamie Hewlett’s characters the benefit of the doubt, perhaps more than he himself. This accounts for how many curveballs Plastic Beach throws, and how often they hit the mark. From front to back, just about every track here features unexpected elements. The professional orchestrations on “White Flag” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are idiosyncratic but genuinely charming, Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed get silly, and the closing “Pirate Jet” is about the most understated ending imaginable for such a big-thinking album. We trust all these elements because they earn our respect legitimately and are all around pleasures on their own terms.

Which isn’t to say that Plastic Beach as a whole doesn’t deal with some pretty poignant issues, most prominently undercurrents involving consumer culture. This is nothing terribly new for Gorillaz, who have always had the idea of commercialism at their hearts. By the time Plastic Beach is done with its chart assault, Gorillaz will almost certainly have sold over twenty million albums. It’s hard to delegitimize that kind of success, especially now when being a Gorillaz alumni yields much greater profit than simple street cred; it results in incredible rewards and songs that a lot of people like myself hold dear for years and years. Certainly this will be the case with Plastic Beach as well, though it reaches that ends by a much different means. It’s worth exploring why, and we might end up doing that until the next Gorillaz LP, but for now this album is already well on its way to building another legacy.

Gorillaz

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Dam-Funk – Toeachizown

February 6, 2010

I have finally finished listening to, in its entirety, Toeachizown, the massive, 140-minute funk album from L.A. “Ambassador of Boogie Funk” Dam-Funk. I committed myself to doing it over a period of several days, listening to large portions of it while on my computer, playing violent video games, walking to work, during any spare ten minute blocks I had on my crappy new Skullcandy headphones, temporary replacements until I fix my nice Bose pair. Having completed this endeavor, I’ll most likely never do it again. I feel no shame in cherry picking from this collection from hereon out, and although I definitely enjoy listening to it, giving it a run as a full album was more exhausting than other collections of comparable length, such as The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs or Wolfgang Voigt’s Nah und Fern. Still, that I’m not completely sick of Dam-Funk by now says a lot for this album’s staying power.

As for what it sounds like, think early electro-funk, or smooth synthesizer laden R&B, maybe early Prince. Cheesy smooth jazz keyboard melodies over steady, heavy beats and iced with even cheesier synthesizer melodies, sometimes complemented by Dam-Funk’s vocals and cheesy lyrics. All that cheese would be far too much if it wasn’t clearly deliberate, and it wasn’t obvious that Dam-Funk knows exactly what he is doing. Andy Kellman at AMG nails it: “It’s got a good beat and you can drive 15 miles per hour to it.” It’s sexy music, but it isn’t quite love making music. Maybe it’s the soundtrack to a sensual, two and a half hour long back rub.

Even when one of these funk epics sounds fantastically embossed, they are still hardly innovative or revolutionary. Sometimes Dam throws down a pretty sick, creative beat like he does on the opening “Let’s Take Off (Far Away).” On this track as well as many others, the beat really pops out much like the work of Madlib and it makes it a little more understandable why Stones Throw Records picked up Dam-Funk for their roster; although his sound is nothing new, it is well established and has the potential to be a valuable asset. Unlike Madlib, whose productions are often elaborate and metamorphic, Dam’s productions are often relatively stationary, holding down the same strong beat for up to eight or nine minutes. It’s easy to imagine instrumental successes here such as “10 West” being played in future Adult Swim blips. When Dam croons “I put the funk down for you continuously, and I’ve got somethin’ to say to you bay-bee” on “One Less Day,” I find myself not just chuckling but also dropping my jaw a little. It’s kind of amazing how much Dam ends up being able to do with his limited tools.

The first big question on my mind has been, why the length? Dam-Funk compiled the tracklist of Toeachizown from a series of 2009 LPs also titled Toeachizown, and this 5 LP (2 CD) box set only curbs five tracks off of the original series. Why Stones Throw would chose to release the new signee’s first release as such a massive, potentially un-sellable piece like this is anyone’s guess. Also, the original LPs could feasibly have been released, unchanged, in box set form, but clearly Dam thought some kind of editing was necessary, and yet couldn’t bear to cut it down to the length of a single, more concise album. So what we’re left with is a sprawling, exhausting album that seems to be well aware of itself.

Is it superfluous? Absolutely. Indulgent? Necessarily. In fact, it seems like Dam uses the album’s scope to his advantage in an attempt to make this album a monolith of electro-funk, and it sure sounds like he succeeds. Above all else Toeachizown is brimming with highlights that keep it incredibly listenable for how long it is and a continuously rewarding release. There are some truly classic vocal R&B cuts (“One Less Day,” “I Wanna Thank You,” likely several more I haven’t fully discovered), experimental flourishes and solid grooves. Even if you only just like its style, this album will most likely have the gravity to pull you in for further listening. Toeachizown is a late 2009 highlight and a truly essential R&B album in a genre where those are few and far between these days, and yet it will almost certainly not be picked up by any mainstream radio stations and has already dodged most credible indie sources. Here’s to hoping that Dam-Funk will find a new audience as this album serves as the soundtrack to many a lowriding sunset not just in L.A., but across the country as this album gets slowly discovered in the new year and as Summer approaches.

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009