Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

La Nueva Rebelion – Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte

From Josh, a norteño band and some words on everyone’s favorite critical topic…


[Video][Website]
[7.00]

Josh Langhoff: 1) La Nueva Rebelión rocks harder than most rock bands. I apologize for writing that. I intended to broaden the canon and poke a stick into rockist eyes, but instead I ended up using “rock” as a verb. 2) Why do we still do that? Is rock music still central to anything? Why doesn’t anyone say rockers “out-norteño most norteño bands” when they sing about vengeance and hardscrabble origins and that that don’t kill them making them stronger? For that matter, why don’t we say it of Kanye or Kelly? (“Norteño isn’t a verb!” shouts my Mom, but you know what I mean.) The usual suspects — “rockism,” privilege, most music writers not knowing Spanish — can’t explain why my “out-norteño” formulation feels so unlikely. Turning to norteño to make sense of other pop music? Unimaginable! 3) Look, certain segments of the critical population really want Arcade Fire to be a disco band, and I can well imagine some careless strawman critic saying they “out-disco most disco bands.” I can even imagine (I don’t have to imagine!) someone explaining an English-language song as “more K-pop than K-pop.” Disco and K-pop have both “rocked harder than most rock music” on occasion, but they’ve also opened themselves to pillage by other genres. 4) So if rock’s no longer central, if all these different genres are out there grabbing at one another, my question becomes: Why is norteño still so peripheral to the music crit corpus? The answer may be self-sustainability: musically and commercially, norteño bands are doing just fine, thanks, and they don’t need to make concessions to a mystified potential audience. 5) Yet here we have La Nueva Rebelión playing rock music, clearly and without ambiguity. Sure the song’s a waltz. Sure the lead instrument’s an accordion instead of a guitar, but listen to the sloppy virtuosity, the way accordion and bajo sexto don’t quite line up but still keep perfect time; or to those six-bar vocal glissandos over one pounded chord; or, for that matter, to the chord changes, which abandon norteño’s variations on I-IV-V polka patterns in favor of leaning on a flat 7 chord. The newest Rock Hall inductees use flat 7 a bunch. 6) The members of La Nueva Rebelión love to rock so they wrote their own rock song, and if they know how rock works they might also see that it’s a mouldering corpse. But here they are, making the rockist corpse — my corpse — dance with as much unpredictable lightning as I’ve heard this year. They’ve shoved a stick through my eye. It’s making me twitch with pleasure.
[9]

Brad Shoup: I’ve compared some norteño tracks to prog before, but I can’t stop until Dave Weigel checks his Google Alerts. “Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte” launches itself from wall to wall on the back of a bajo sexto emitting flames; the band’s crazy adept at scaling up to the stop and jumping into another gear. The lead singer scrambles over the carnage with a series of words ending on the “ehhh” sound: the result is a conflicted self-portrait, a mosiac built by firing a thousand tiles at a wall.
[10]

Alfred Soto: Sudden chord change and diving down, down — I’ve never heard accordions do what this Mexican band does with them. Take those and the drumming and the results is a track that the Minutemen could have come up with before lunch in 1984.
[7]

Patrick St. Michel: Seems a bit too herky-jerky, like the need to move at a quick pace has resulted in everything feeling a bit jagged. 
[4]

Madeleine Lee: Part of the appeal of compound time signatures is their precision when wielded in unity. In “Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte,” it sounds like each member of the band is keeping track of their own time, which when put together is less like math and more like a drawing session where the individual figures, however impressive on their own, become a mass of scribbles when put together.
[5]

Anthony Easton: Aside from the amazing spoken word section, with an almost manic energy, the vocals slow down substantially, and the sped-up (in all senses of the word) brass takes over. Keeping up without keeping up is a fantastic trick.
[8]

Sonia Yang: Love the tight interplay between the drums, accordion and guitar. Really not a fan of the vocals though. This is definitely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”; songs of this genre sound better to me if they’re instrumental only. Oddly, I have a hankering for a metal cover.
[5]

Thomas Inskeep: Man, this is something else. The crazy double-time signatures make me think of speed metal, as does some of the dissonant bass guitar. Nothing else in the song makes me think of speed metal, but lots of it makes me think of things other than norteño. Also, their accordion player is a fucking badass. 
[6]

Rebecca A. Gowns: This song is bonkers in all the best ways.
[9]

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Wang Rong – Chick Chick

Several years solid, it’s David M. with the CONTROVERSY…


[Video][Website]
[3.79]

David Moore: Some of my most powerful childhood music memories were made possible by my dad. He was early to the Internet, and via his online comedy music networks in the late ’80s gifted us kids the best set of curated Dr. Demento cassettes this side of the exhaustive Dr. Demento’s Basement Tapes. In what would become a lifelong habit, I’d lie on the floor of our living room, ear close to a boombox speaker at low volume, listening to those tapes over and over again, smiling, laughing, getting bored, then getting interested again at some new little cranny into freshly discovered sounds and ideas. It was through those tapes that I learned, among other things, animal versions of popular songs and genres long before I discovered their “legitimate” sources, surveying jazz, punk, disco, new wave and more, all by way of clucks, kazoos and farts. Two standouts from those tapes in the venerable cluck-rock subgenre, to which I’ve turned my attention recently for obvious reasons, are “Psycho Chicken” by the Fools and the poultry rendition of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” by Ray Stevens and the Henhouse Five Plus Two. (Chuck Eddy, who formally examines only duck-rock in his genre-melting Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll, recently shared more chicken noises that might have introduced me to Italo disco, Belgian synthpop, or psychedelia.) This chicken-centric view of popular music squared with what I’d gleaned from The Muppet Show, from my dad’s spontaneous recollections of his own childhood popular culture (in the middle of a long drive, breaking the silence: “Be kind to your web-footed friends / For a duck could be somebody’s mother!”), and above all, from my intermittent, inchoate urges to make chicken sounds and all other manner of horrible din around the house. All of it was normal; all of it was home. My wife and I had our first child in April, so my thoughts are back in that living room, on those tapes, imagining and in some cases revisiting the stupid stuff that united my family, briefly, in shared, unrepentant silliness, even — maybe especially — in dark times. (What else was there to do but laugh?) Now I understand the appeal from the other side: it’s amazing just how silly my days have been these past few months, raising the baby. It turns out you don’t really “raise” a baby; you mostly observe and marvel at him. You lie on the floor, and smile, and laugh, and get bored, and then get interested again at some freshly discovered movement or moment. Sometimes you listen to music — a lot of novelty music, it turns out — and of course, you make lots of chicken noises. Baby laughter is manna. And you wonder: What will we share? What will keep us laughing?
[10]

Crystal Leww: 哎呀,这是给老外看的!
[0]

Iain Mew: Records for the fastest YouTube success for a Chinese-language song all got broken last month — by Jolin Tsai. Kudos to Nolan Feeney at Time for actually covering that one, and with a headline about the year’s best pop video. Meanwhile, because talking about a great pop star performing in a recognisable style but a language other than English is way too much work, far more Western outlets were focusing on an apparent “Internet sensation” that at the time had a fraction of the number of views. That focus came in the form of articles putting Wang Rong being “C-Pop” at the forefront while demonstrating zero knowledge of it — contrast to no one calling Ylvis N-Pop or Norwegian pop stars. Satire, manifestations of different pop culture niches, and probable audience-baiting deliberate weirdness all get flattened into one long “check out this Asian video, it’s so WTF!”. I usually have a policy of not reacting to the responses to a song, but the rudimentary mashing of beat and animal noises doesn’t have enough to it to support anything else.
[2]

Alfred Soto: Or: “What Does The Chicken Say?” Or: Yoko Ono and Cindy Wilson for the “Gangnam Style” age.
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: It took me 11(!) Google search result pages (PAGES!) to find someone who treated this as music and not gawkfeed. (Credit where it’s due: Adrienne Stanley for MTV Iggy.) “Chick Chick” could be the best song of 2014 and it wouldn’t outweigh that.
[2]

Sabina Tang: I last (and first) heard of Wang Rong in 2004, when she had a minor Mandarin hit titled “I’m Not Huang Rong.” Huang Rong, for the record, is the heroine of a famous wuxia novel; imagine a teenpopper named Arden putting out a single titled “I’m Not Arwen” about how she didn’t need a guy as hardcore as Aragorn or as pretty as Legolas as long as he was a suitably romantic boyfriend. The clickbait tendency existed in retrospect, though I still find the older video charming: her nasal voice burbling along out of tempo with the brass’n’b trimmings and — yes — the dinky animal costume. But Wang Rong turns 34 this year, her best-of was released in 2006, and the clickbait’s been honed to a fine point of desperation I have too much context to ignore.
[4]

Brad Shoup: I see this as a backporch annex to Rednex: the provenance don’t matter, and the intention never does. What’s important is the harvest. The screeched bit is the best pop vocalization since Nicki Minaj’s headspinning peak, and as dumb as the melodic hook is, it’s sticky as hell. Sure, they’re way too pleased with the concept, but most people don’t even get the one.
[7]

Josh Winters: *sets as morning alarm*
[7]

Anthony Easton: The sheer bizarre excess makes it my favourite chicken-themed pop song since Brad Paisley did those outtakes sometime in the last century. 
[8]

Cédric Le Merrer: Having as a very small kid been a fan of La Danse Des Canards, and still being guilty of cranking out the Giga Pudding song from time to time, I can appreciate a good novelty song when it has me surrounded. Since I can’t give it both a [10] and a [0], though, a [5] will have to do.
[5]

Edward Okulicz: Chicken noises are not inherently funnier or more ridiculous than the Western alternative, which would be Redfoo. We lived through “The Fox” and “Friday,” so this doesn’t even make me angry, it’s just below-average novelty pop.
[2]

Juana Giaimo: Repetitive songs hammering your head for three minutes are rarely worth listening to more than once — and if they are, 99.9% of the time they don’t involve a chicken.
[1]

Thomas Inskeep: Oh, so that’s what the Chicken Lady‘s been up to since The Kids in the Hall ended its run.
[0]

Jonathan Bradley: This is like the kind of dance song you might hear in a nightclub, except when the hook comes, there are animal noises! It’s very strange, because mostly in pop songs, the chorus is about love or sex or kissing u thru the phone. Usually chart hits have a singer or sometimes a rapper, but Wang Rong has a chicken. That’s so silly!
[2]

Patrick St. Michel: This has been compared to “Gangnam Style” frequently and, ignoring the head-slapping reason why — Asia, it’s all about the same, right? — it isn’t right. Psy’s massive success was an accident — “Gangnam Style” never intended to be a YouTube-breaking hit, Psy just chanced across the perfect song/video combo for the social media generation. “Chick Chick” has far more in common with “The Fox,” the first post-“Gangnam” viral hit to be totally aware of itself. “Chick Chick” is a blatant stab at the same WTF and LOL, while also cashing in on the West’s lingering obsession with “weird” Asia. But it is most notable as the mainland Chinese music industry’s first stab at spreading itself globally, to the point of apparently not being that much of a deal in China. There are definitely better pop singles in China then this, but good luck selling those to the West. But this wins itself points for doing something Psy also did on this year’s “Hangover”: “Chick Chick” revels in how off-putting it sounds, because people aren’t clicking this for the music and Wang Rong maybe knows they deserve what comes out of their laptop speakers. 
[5]

Josh Langhoff: It’s no “Holiday for Strings”!
[6]

Will Adams: Every fall my university offers a lecture about Internet law and culture. A popular option for the final project (read: the easy A) is a group project in which you demonstrate what you’ve learned about fair use and remix culture by creating a “viral” video or meme. Two years ago, my group made a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger clips set to The Wanted’s “Glad You Came” (not linking because I’m embarrassed for myself). This year’s project is a parody of “#Selfie” (not linking because I’m embarrassed for my friends and also fuck that song). These projects end up feeling forced, cynical and ultimately stupid, because they take for granted the accidental nature of viral culture, thinking that trending topics can be divined by scientific procedure. “Chick Chick” sounds like it could have been one of those projects: it’s virtually unlistenable dancepop with excruciating animal sound FX that’s neither interested in musicality nor creativity, but rather WTF and LOL votes. In a classroom, it probably would have passed. As real-life music, it fails.
[1]

Sonia Yang: This is has so thoroughly fried my brain (pun intended) that I don’t even know where to begin. Is it a poorly veiled attempt to birth a viral meme? Is there any social commentary? Or is it just ridiculous? If we’re going by how hard this made me laugh at work, I’d give this a [10] hands down. But from a musical standpoint, I’d rather listen to Regina Spektor make dolphin noises for two hours.
[2]

Zach Lyon: Sorry David =(. No idea if you had designs on it or if the readers beat you at your own game, but “Hey QT” would’ve looked so great here. “Chick Chick” fails. The aesthetics, chickens and all, actually check a lot of my boxes, but they don’t mesh enough to form into anything but a distraction and they don’t de-mesh enough to be loved in slices. The trolling, chickens and all, would — well, it would also raise my score, but this isn’t trolling. It’s just kinda trolling.
[5]

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

IU – Sogyeokdong

Courtesy of Madeleine, we welcome back the Korean singer in her second Amnesty appearance


[Video][Website]
[8.22]

Madeleine Lee: Sogyeokdong is a neighbourhood in the centre of the north bank of Seoul, pressed up between the wall of the rebuilt central palace and a carefully preserved traditional hanok village. During the dictatorship years, it was the headquarters of the Defense Security Command, and this is the time and place where songwriter Seo Taiji grew up, a decade before Seo Taiji and Boys kick-started modern idol pop — a time when anything in your life could disappear overnight without warning. Unlike the areas around the neighbourhood it’s named for, “Sogyeokdong” is a response to the past, and all of the past, not only a recreation of a time when the past was better. The song is not about being a child, but about the memory of childhood. The fragility of both time and memory is captured in IU’s clear, pure tone: sometimes falling in layers like drifts of snow or crystals of frost on a window, and sometimes standing on its own, the only visible and enduring thing in a whiteout.
[10]

Sonia Yang: The lazy comparison is Chvrches, but I feel there’s also a bit of Yoshinori Sunahara thrown in. However, unlike those cases, this song does not go for any cathartic climax or resolution, leaving only quiet sorrow throughout. Appropriate, since “Sogyeokdong” is about the fear and loss writer Seo Taiji and his peers faced growing up, due to the political situation in his hometown. Taiji’s own version is good, but IU’s transparent delivery elevates this to a whole different level.
[8]

Alfred Soto: Javiera Mena, you too can own these synths.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: A thing I love about how damned huge the K-pop universe seems to an outsider is you can meet an artist about once a year and be completely surprised that she’s gone and made a Javiera Mena song. That is to say, a Javiera Mena song that trades off some of the heat and carnality buried under the beats for the more straightforwardly cool surfaces of Brit nu-synth. It works well with IU’s voice; sometimes you want your ice cream with hot fudge and sometimes you don’t.
[7]

Iain Mew: This collaboration with Seo Taiji is quite a way from “The Story Only I Didn’t Know,” and indeed anything else I’ve heard from either of them. Its calm synthscapes are perfect for IU, though: spaced out so you can take in the gorgeousness at leisure, every sigh given its own jeweled setting.
[8]

Brad Shoup: The track is laceratingly languid: the bass bores in and disappears, over and over again; the snares are lashes. IU stays above it all, kicking a carefree close-of-semester melody. I was dismissive of her last Amnesty effort, but I know this would slay as a more traditional ballad.
[7]

Will Adams: God, the synthwork is so beautiful it almost hurts. Any time I feel like the drums might be too sharp, there is a splayed vocal harmony or a sawtooth swipe to pull me back into the world.
[8]

Cédric Le Merrer: That massive supersaw trance synth is always on the verge of turning into something else, something menacing or strange or broken. But much like IU with the words, it just likes to play with the sounds, relishing their textures but never leaving that state of bliss it found. It’s rubbery — resilient because of its very ability to stretch and then get back to its initial form. It’s love, beauty and happiness as acts of resistance in themselves. It’s something incredibly big because it’s incredibly intimate.
[10]

Patrick St. Michel: No one can stop time from marching on, but IU and Seo Taiji, the writer and producer of “Sogyeokdong,” do their best to keep it from being abandoned completely. This sounds like a battle to remember, synthesizers all tumbling over one another, and at multiple points it feels like it’s all just going to fizzle out (one stretch after the first chorus even sounds like someone fiddling with radio knobs, to make sure the signal isn’t lost). Taiji’s take captures this too, but the potential of “Sogyeokdong” is realized with IU’s version. She drifts among the pulses and ripples, latching onto as many small details around her as she can, trying to keep her memories alive. But then the sucker punch: “Everything disappears in such a short moment.” That the whole song refers to the tumultuous ’80s of Seoul only makes it more painful; this isn’t a song simply about time moving on, but about forces larger than the individual forcing them to change in a blink, ordinary people’s lives flipped by future textbook material. “Sogyeokdong” fights against that, and it’s brutal and beautiful all at once.
[10]

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Ana Tijoux ft. Shadia Mansour – Somos Sur

Juana gives us a Latin/Middle Eastern team-up from two regional heroes…


[Video][Website]
[8.10]

Sabina Tang: I’m second-guessing Tijoux’s album for erring on the side of socially conscious 90s sonics (“Lauren-meets-Manu” would be facile but not wrong), and I’ve wished Mansour would team up with a truly stellar beatmaker for as long as I’ve been mad at missing her POP Montreal gig (hint: years). But this track is a near-brush with apotheosis; this track moves feet. I want to hear it in A Tribe Called Red’s DJ set. I want to hear it in Starbucks — perhaps if Nacional could sneak it onto their next cafe compilation. The artists’ politics are inextricable and essential, but so much the better if protest sounds joyful rather than dour.
[9]

Brad Shoup: Hey, it bangs as hard as the second Run the Jewels LP, and no one has to issue warnings to fuckbois. Mansour and Tijoux erect fortifications around the empire of Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Then they launch shells. “Somos Sur” gallops and snaps at intervals; it drips with an irresistible righteousness, and the dudes are here for echo.
[10]

Madeleine Lee: It’s admittedly hard to extricate my admiration of the song’s politics from my admiration for the song itself, but it’s the hypnotic rhythms and deft switching between them that hook me in.
[8]

Alfred Soto: Its political overtones unmistakeable, it doesn’t strand them either: there are enough funny noises, horns, bangs, and things that go bump in the day and night to give M.I.A. and the Bomb Squad headaches. Here’s hoping they keep stepping on imperialism. 
[7]

Iain Mew: “Somos Sur” starts off with a compelling swagger and then somehow turns up and up. Shadia Mansour’s snarling, furious turn seems like it must be the highlight, but then Ana Tijoux still has a large part of the world to rouse and unite. After a breather, the shouts and horns come back in with force to match.
[9]

Anthony Easton: The bumblebee brass ramping into the vocals might be the most fun I’ve had at the Jukebox all year.
[7]

Will Adams: With so much packed in, there’s a risk of overflow. Ana Tijoux and Shadia Mansour are deft performers, sure, but “Somos Sur” has little breathing room, and right when I want some, the beat doubles.
[6]

Patrick St. Michel: A forceful stomper that gets really good when the beat hastens. Whatever the speed, it’s forceful.  
[7]

Edward Okulicz: An angry song to fuck to, or a fucking song to be angry to? My ass doesn’t care.
[8]

Juana Giaimo: Ana Tijoux came back in 2014 with her masterpiece — Vengo is a solid statement against the whole system. But the only song where you can feel her anger is “Somos Sur,” where she tackles neocolonialism with clear, strong images and a smooth flow. While the chorus might be a little bit obvious, it works as a political call to the masses to react. But this song wouldn’t be the same without British-Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour, and with folklore a key element of Vengo, the Arabic music accompanying her fits perfectly. Mansour’s aggressive flow contrasts with that of Tijoux’s, but instead of outshining her, she empowers her. When Tijoux is back, you can feel the hot blood running through her veins, while the instrumentation gets tenser, as if a riot was emerging. “Somos Sur” not only shows the creative explosion that cross-genre mixing can cause, it demonstrates that this isn’t an album only meant for Latin America — Ana Tijoux aims to be heard around the world.
[10]

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Kitty – BRB

David brings us a track from Kitty (née Pryde) and not Kittie, like I first assumed…


[Video]
[7.55]
David Sheffieck: It’s been over two years since “Okay Cupid,” and with “BRB” Kitty is mid-transition between those bedroom-rap beginnings and an apparent future in dance pop. What hasn’t changed is what made her music so worthwhile from the beginning: her razor-sharp lyrics are as strong when describing the loneliness of life on tour as they were when talking about a crush on a boy from her class. “BRB” is a closely-observed portrait of a relationship in a difficult and new place, painted in memories and idiosyncrasies; Kitty uses specific, funny, significant details without losing sight of the universal emotions that inform long-distance love. Her delivery, flexible and playful, syncs with the hushed production, a music box lullaby with trap effects. This is dance music for your dreams.
[10]

Sonia Yang: Bedroom rap not just in the genre sense — it evokes the image of her lying in bed and hugging a pillow while brainstorming reasons to adore that ~someone~. There’s an air of easy intimacy in the stream of consciousness lyrics, and the hazy background makes everything all the more dreamlike.
[7]

Brad Shoup: She’s on her INOJ/Ghost Town DJs now — I’d say Tink, but Tink’s all over the map — but the principle of personality still applies. It’s an ideal pop single: clever without pushing it, lovestruck with an undercurrent of benign control. Also, the track is a lovers’ lullabye. It’s still an exercise, mind, but it’s not a routine.
[6]

Megan Harrington: Kitty dropped two icy and sparkling EPs this year, and “BRB” hails from the first and more transitory, Impatiens. While changing her style from Baby Bruiser rap to Snow Queen dance-pop she sings about a relationship laboring through a similar shift. Kitty’s a master of the tiny details and the production is front-loaded with computer sound effects, the sound of love through a monitor. Kitty matches these kitsch notes with a story about a woman making her name on the road, battling to keep everything together. Everything about “BRB” is sugary except the story Kitty tells.
[9]

Alfred Soto: She finds the right timbre to accompany those beautiful electric pianos, and boy, that production, as much indebted to Annie’s “Heartbeat” as Aaliyah and Tink. It’s a sauna of a record, into which I can unclench my toes for hours.
[7]

Cédric Le Merrer: Less awesomely gimmicky than in the olden days of “Okay Cupid”, Kitty now sounds like a naturalist Grimes. Her Livejournal aesthetic still lets her pull off the embarrassing moments in her raps. And the production is on a BMO gif level of beatific playfulness.
[8]

Will Adams: Recalls that Liz EP from earlier this year in that it seems engineered, via a hodgepodge of signifiers (freestyle beats, breathy Aaliyah vocals, Internet speak), to make twentysomethings swoon in a haze of nostalgia. I took the bait with Liz, but fool me twice etc.
[5]

Edward Okulicz: Call me crazy, but is her phrasing on the first verse more or less exactly like if Peaches decided to write a Sky Ferreira song? There’s a little “Time After Time” in the song’s DNA too. I’m glad for thoughtful and musically smart girls, and even more that they let us inside the thoughts in their heads like Kitty does here.
[9]

Patrick St. Michel: Earnestness and irony are usually pitted against one another, an either/or deal with very little wiggle room. Kitty has always occupied that nebulous middle ground, her songs appearing initially eye-roll-worthy (“Why you wanna fuckin’ undercut me like I’m Skrillex hair?,” a “Call Me Maybe” semi-cover, hanging out with RiFF RAFF) but hiding seemingly honest feelings among the gags (such as an ode to 285 Kent that opens with an Elizabeth Smart reference). Emotions are tricky, and Kitty seems like she’s always trying to play them off as cool. “BRB,” though, is straightforward as she gets, a sweet confessional about how distance is no worry — it just makes the time together that much more important. Pat Lukens’ production, lithe and dreamy, enhances the intimacy further and helps make this Kitty’s most immediately lovely song to date.
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: I remember interviewing Kitty circa “Okay Cupid,” when she was a Claire’s staffer and still called Kitty Pryde, and I was a girl in a stairwell with a job doing a bumbling job at an interview. It seemed like days later that the Internet, ever starved for teens and memes, rushed in with its pressure cooker of gross dudes, rap politics, unending condescension and the need to seriously consider your exact positioning in relation to Vice Media. How she survived that intact, I’ll never know; how her music survived that with charm intact, I think I might. As always, Kitty’s vocal falls somewhere between aspiring technical rapper and Boxxy; the production, somewhere in the vicinity of The Postal Service, trap and a Kirby-themed snowglobe. She calls the album “bitter and toxic and beautiful in bloom,” but I hear very little of that; what I hear is deliberate guilelessness, smart played cutesy, which you could call appeasing her gawkers or following her bliss. In 10 years perhaps the context will shrivel and we’ll hear “BRB” as the latter.
[7]

Maxwell Cavaseno: The fact is, by the point of reviewing this single, Kitty has already moved on to a new style far further into pop than even “BRB” seems from her “cloudy” origins. When she first emerged, I was hoping she might spell a newer development in the realms of female rap, which had remained frigid for three decades, dangerously afraid of revealing that awful softness expected of them. Tragically, she got mimicked by dollar chasers and reduced by lesser talents, and now she’s off making buoyant dance pop and having a blast. So here’s to you, Robo-Kit. It was fun while you were here, but it was never meant to be, huh?
[6]

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Julia Holter – Don’t Make Me Over

From Cedric, a cover of a Warwick classic…


[Video][Website]
[7.00]

Cédric Le Merrer: “Don’t Make Me Over” started as a real life outburst from Dionne Warwick after one more of the songs promised to her by Bacharach and David ended up with a different artist. Hal David shrewdly turned his anger over the recording industry trying to dictate her style into a plea to a (presumably) asshole lover. This was a smash that launched one of the greatest songwriters/performer teams in history, but also a watermark in the history of pop — a declaration of individuality in the age of mechanical reproduction. The first version of “Don’t Make Me Over” I heard was probably a yéyé cover by Les Surfs re-titled “T’en vas pas comme ça”. Or maybe it was a cover “in the manner of Les Surfs” by a bunch of anonymous session musicians who recorded the discount tapes my mother had in the car. Either of those was, if not for the lyrics adapted by Pierre Delanoë, an attempt to replicate the original as possible. Now that every song’s original version is just a click away, there’s very little reason to record such faithful covers (bar the occasional industry foreign market mismanagement that’s seized on by industrious copycats). So Julia Holter’s cover comes at a time when re-arranging is the expectation: you need to project your own aura on a song, for fear of being accused of the terrible sin of karaoke. So the arrangement, more than the performance, is in charge of explaining who’s Julia Holter and what it is we should accept her for. It begins with plucked acoustic bass and brushed drum, two very bourgeois signifiers in 2014 (while, interestingly, the jazzy touches of the 1962 original probably still signified exactly the opposite). Then Holter’s high pitched, reverbed voice enters the scene, and her flat singing is like the blues never happened. It’s all fairly minimalistic, but it does that Isaac Hayes trick of finding some circular melodic lines to progressively build something epic, which will culminate once Holter plays her calling card: her multitracked voice. Here it sings powerful single notes (is she saying “love” or simply “la”?) that seem to counter the line she’s just uttered: we don’t really have her at our command. She’s becoming more and more of an unstoppable force, commanding that we accept her for what she is. Dionne Warwick’s performance showed her strength laying in her emotions. Holter made the song over to show us her own power: bludgeoning us with pure musical prowess.
[9]

Anthony Easton: Somewhere between Julie London and Leslie Gore, this self-esteem anthem is so haunting you assume a layer of disingenuousness. That it might be earnest makes the performance so much more effective. 
[7]

Alfred Soto: Cristina’s take on “Is That All There Is” owns this one-syllable-at-a-time affected anomie.
[5]

Iain Mew: Julia Holter holds up a cracked mirror to nostalgia. It’s unusual and effective, and it feels like there are ghosts hiding in each of the record’s ample silences, but it’s also a bit too distancing to love.
[6]

Brad Shoup: When limning the Velvets, a lot of folks squeeze into the leather pants. Some have decamped for the couch with their acoustic guitars. Holter inhabits the Nicoverse. There’s a distinct Teutonic tinge to her reading, a distancing, toughening effect. The players tear into the stops on the “accept me for what I am” part, a true act-stopper; for the finish, the backing vocals are compressed, like a girl group that barely escaped the black hole. The ending kills me, and has for months: the strings are winding up for another peak, but Holter cuts them out for a single, final ping. The request is made.
[9]

Thomas Inskeep: Like Nico with jazz training, singing Bachrach/David in front of slightly off-kilter production. Also like if those anachronistic covers Jessica Lange sings on American Horror Story: Freak Show were actually any good. This is weird, and interesting. 
[6]

Sonia Yang: Brings to mind a happier Lana Del Rey. I definitely prefer this over the original. There’s still a palpable layer of schmaltz (can’t you see She & Him doing a twee rendition of this cover and adding a glockenspiel?) but what the heck, it’s close enough to Christmas; I’ll take it.
[6]

Patrick St. Michel: A reverent cover of the original; Julia Holter’s voice isn’t quite as strong as Warwick’s, but she makes up for it with the handful of echoes deep in the mix, carrying the song to a strong conclusion.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: For once I prefer the droll, stark and slightly off take, the near-deconstruction, to the reverent choral-and-strings reverie Holter’s “Don’t Make Me Over” succumbs to. Blame my love of Dynamite and People Are Strange. I won’t actually fault her; the song tells me no.
[7]

Josh Winters: An important facet of Julia Holter’s work is how she repurposes her influences in her own music. The original “Don’t Make Me Over” already had a element of theatricality to it, but here she scales her version back and infuses it with body and verve, letting herself simmer as she builds up to a final declaration that is both lavish and understated, like a peacock modestly showing off its feathers. “Don’t Make Me Over” wasn’t included on Loud City Song, but as a stand-alone single, it feels like her grandest statement, the lost encore for her dazzling spectacle of a show.
[9]

Maxwell Cavaseno: You know, at the end of the day, MOR is kinda experimental. Standards are always getting flipped, recycled, reprocessed, to see which version of the same old song will “work” the “best.” I had a treasure trove of covers once on a long deceased external hard drive, and it taught me a lot about how you can stretch a song. So when Julia Holter shows up, after all of her fabulous experimental takes on pop, to do a rendition of a Bacharach song, someone’s going to think it’s a statement, but not REALLY. Because good standards are about experimentation.
[6]

Will Adams: Shame about the chorus effect on Holter’s vocals — it removes her from the song’s realm and creates a tension throughout. The rest is beautifully, classically arranged — those string swells come in at all the right moments — so I’m puzzled by the concession to modernity.
[6]

Megan Harrington: It’s her party and you won’t tell her what to do. 
[8]

Scott Mildenhall: The effect of the strings throughout the back half is very similar to what happens at the end of “Everybody Hurts”: a final swell to both escalate and tie up the grandeur they follow. It’s a stately elegance with a raised head and assertive posture. The title is less a plea than a requirement, and Holter is basking in it.
[7]

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Bright Light Bright Light ft. Elton John – I Wish We Were Leaving

And day one closes with a duet selected by Abby Waysdorf…


[Video][Website]
[6.80]

Abby Waysdorf: 2014 was, for me, the year of Bright Light Bright Light. It’s not only that I listened to him — Bright Light Bright Light is just Rod Thomas, a Welshman based in NYC — more than most, and certainly more than most “new” artists, but that he felt the most like mine of anything that I listened to. It wasn’t something I felt like I had to listen to in order to be relevant or “part of the conversation” or whatever, it was just what I liked — something for me, something kind of personal. His style lends itself to that kind of feeling, bedroom-intimate synth-pop with clear narratives and a lushness and danceability that’s basically all my tastes. “I Wish We Were Leaving” is very much that, a double-vocaled breakup song with a certain specificity of emotion and moment. It’s sometimes gracious, sometimes self-pitying, sometimes triumphant, but always with the sense that a story is unraveling both within and behind the lyrics and earnest, soaring vocals. One of which, of course, is provided by Sir Elton John himself, but to the song’s credit he doesn’t overpower things — this is clearly a Bright Light Bright Light song — and turns in an excellent counterpoint vocal to Thomas. I’m not sure anyone else will respond to this the way I do, but sometimes things are just personal.
[9]

Brad Shoup: It’s not a towering achievement in one-man human centipedery like “Say Something,” but we only need one of those every Olympiad or so. I can actually hear past the self-service in this ostensibly magnanimous portrait of someone who knows it’s over. The boy actually figures here; the synthbells can glimpse his future. Still, the high road’s paved with eggshells. Messrs. Bright Light and John opt for languorous sighs, interrupted with a gorgeous melodic shiver in the refrain. A little bit of sadness might have made this transcendent, but there’s barely a crack in their stiff lips.
[7]

Scott Mildenhall: Bright Light Bright Light has a beautiful tone, one with the dustless quality of Guy Garvey, a pure clarity that aids rather than inhibits expression. The most delicate of movements can tell the story without strain, and that’s made all the easier with such a lyrical song. Adding the interplay with Elton — a man always pleasantly eager to get involved with things he’s interested in, however niche — the result is musical-esque, only in no way tedious. A less showy “I Know Him So Well“; defeat with a breakbeat.
[7]

Patrick St. Michel: An electro-pop approximation of “Someone Like You” with Elton John thrown in presumably as a move to get this more attention. Well, hope it makes somebody happy.
[4]

Josh Langhoff: Turns “God Only Knows” on its head — and it’s almost as pretty!
[8]

Edward Okulicz: The chorus takes little bites from “God Only Knows” though if it had devolved into a long, ornate instrumental section it might have been even better. Actually, that the middle-eight sounds like it’s uninterested in Brian Wilson and very interested in old Disney animated musical films. In a world with aggressive and passive-aggressive songs about love that’s not to be, the novelty of a completely passive-passive pop song on the subject makes it stand out… and I kind of like old Disney movies.
[7]

Alfred Soto: With Elton’s last Odd Guest Appearance on a Kate Bush track about snow, what’s next is a track whose freeze-dried percussion and strings could percolate over the closing credits of one of those late nineties Disney movies you missed. A shame to say this, but it’s true: Elton can’t sing these days without pouring creamed corn over a verse.
[3]

Will Adams: Sounds like a bootleg remix of an Elton John song that wasn’t used for The Lion King. The drums are appreciated, though; think of how histrionic this would be without them.
[5]

Anthony Easton: Sometimes a hack accidentally just collapses into a slump that is so exhausted, that refuses so much previous pleasure, that the mask slips, and some kind of genius slips through. John is so astonishingly good at parasitically connecting to more interesting talent, and has become such a hack, that when something this good comes along, it makes me believe in showbiz again.
[10]

Thomas Inskeep: So early-’90s Pet Shop Boys (the obvious touchstone is Behaviour) in every possible good way. Not to mention that late-period Elton’s voice has gotten warmer and richer, so his vocal here isn’t a cameo; it actually augments and betters the song. Wistful and sad-but-hopeful like the best PSB love songs, but this never comes off as PSB manqué: Rod Thomas has his own distinct identity, crafting a gorgeous midtempo electronic pop song that is absolutely all his. “I Wish We Were Leaving” is heartbreaking, but I want to hear it again and again. 
[8]

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Thumpers – Unkinder (A Tougher Love)

Brad Shoup has us listening to an English indie pop duo…


[Video][Website]
[6.40]

Patrick St. Michel: It’s everyone’s favorite game show, NMWeeeee!, where young vaguely hyped bands spin the big wheel to see what vaguely hyped British bands of the last decade they’ll sound like! Tonight’s contestant… Thumpers! Alright, they’ve spun and… oh, what a combo: it’s early Foals meets Cajun Dance Party with a little Chvrches mixed in! You’ve won the honor of having your name written in 16-point font on the Coachella poster two years from now!
[5]

Edward Okulicz: Argh! Horribly overstuffed, inane, wimpy indie-pop. Infuriatingly catchy indie-pop, too. Like an MGMT I can actually get behind, this is all sunshine and bright primary colours on pants, comfortable in its unstoppable tweeness, going into my heart, my ears, and my brain, and causing hand-claps and air drums. And each vocal line tumbling over each other in the chorus so that I can’t really make either out combines into a blast of pure joy. Could have, should have, been a 2014 “Steal My Sunshine” (or at least a 2014 “Two Princes”). What’s wrong with you, world?
[10]

Thomas Inskeep: If Bleachers were Brits and listened to a bit more Phoenix, they’d sound pretty much exactly like this. Mind you, I like both “I Wanna Get Better” and “Lisztomania,” so there you go. 
[6]

Juana Giaimo: How is it that I’m always caught with regular ’80s-influenced indie pop songs? While the verses pass inadvertently, it’s the chorus that has the strongest impact as the voices scale towards the top but never reach it. 
[7]

Alfred Soto: Remember when Bloc Party were a thing? Oh well. There’s something to be said about a band whose single honors their name.
[4]

Iain Mew: I like the knotty lyrics and multiple layer vocals fine, the more so for the reminding me of Grammatics. The stand out though, is the feedback-swamped instrumental break, the part where they really earn the song’s title.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Less a wall of sound than a smothering blanket.
[5]

Anthony Easton: The production is too busy, the vocals haven’t decided if they want to sing or speak, the heavy breathing is embarrassing, they should have committed to hand claps, the whole thing drags even at a little over three minutes, and the lyrics are facile. 
[2]

Josh Langhoff: The “Unkinder” is a mythick rock ‘n’ roll hobgoblin, along the lines of Debaser or Berserker, here summoned into a synthpop song. Whether Unkinder will tough-tough-toughen up the Thumpers’ synthpop hearts-hearts-hearts remains to be seen. It should, however, be ideal for thumping the tub while bathing a child, assuming you can learn the words — not that that’s stopped me from butchering “Running Up That Hill.”
[8]

Brad Shoup: Whoever Thumpers dressed up as are world-historical terrors: seismic and charged, a giant field coil wound in sinew. They roll through like a wheel on fire: galloping tom and snare, bells like million-dollar pinball bumpers, Marcus Pepperell puffing the word “heart” over and over, a louche forest wind. It’s an assemblage of dread images, lashed to the concept of a band. Or a couple, or just you, but a song rarely makes me want to do more than just listen. But in my better moments, the drums kick in, the piano rings, I look at the blank screen and remember the mark I put on: prepare thyself to deal with a miracle.
[10]

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Tim McGraw ft. Faith Hill – Meanwhile Back At Mama’s

Thomas Inskeep directs us towards an uncharacteristic country hit…


[Video][Website]
[6.75]

Alfred Soto: Fabulous title! Acoustic intro, McGraw and Hill’s voices entangling like vines as sweetly as they did on 2007’s “I Need You.” Consider it one of the more convincing attempts of recent years at early McCartney-McCartney (that’s Linda) domestic tranquility.
[7]

Patrick St. Michel: Although the number I write on visa papers doesn’t show it, this was the year I slid into being an “old,” where my search engine history shifted from “what’s happening Friday night” to “how do I save for retirement.” I’m not sure how hearing something like “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” would have hit me a year ago, let alone two or three — I think I would have appreciated Tim McGraw’s description of a small town like where I grew up, though I wouldn’t have been so eager to revisit it. I probably would have been more interested in how starkly this contrasts with bro-country stomp of the charts, and would probably want to choose a side, but now I’m OK just letting younger people put Drake and Hank on the same tape. And maybe I’d be a bit more weary about the “world gone crazy bit,” the one part that still slips this up a bit, but the vagueness in that line is enough for me to jump right into this one. Now, all I can hear is an achingly sweet pine for simpler times, and I’ve reached the point where that sort of thing really kicks up memories I spent so long moving away from.
[8]

Sonia Yang: I grew up in a suburb half an hour away from a congested major city so I can’t relate to any of the small town anecdotes, but longing for the simple pleasures of life is universal. The best lines are “Funny the things you thought you’d never miss / In a world gone crazy as this,” because the truth is it’s the small, seemingly insignificant aspects unique to one’s life that really spark nostalgia. The arrangement is appropriately sparse and the understated harmonies are pretty. Side note: this is the route I wish Miley Cyrus had gone down.
[7]

Brad Shoup: As a partially reconstructed dirtbag, the parts that stuck out were the beers and the whiskey and the cigarettes. The McGrills are gonna have to do some fumigating, sounds like. It’s the planning that does it: the brand-new truck is set up for the loan-to-own close. You’d think farming would be just as stressful as whatever bedroom community he’s leaving behind, but I guess they’ve thought about it. Tim’s so still and small here, clutching to the meter; Faith is here for moral support, I’d imagine. The dream is compelling, but the production ain’t.
[5]

David Sheffieck: There’s not nearly enough Faith Hill on this song. On his own, McGraw can’t conjure the emotion that the feather-light production needs to take flight. But whenever she drops in — which happens seemingly at random — there’s a genuine sense of pathos to the song. It’d be nice if they had taken advantage of it.
[6]

Anthony Easton: This is very pretty. It’s much better than other recent McGraw tracks, it has some substantial lyrics (the credit/cash line), and how he extends his vocals is a fantastic formal gesture. I wonder if it is a statement about Nashville itself; if the nostalgia is part and parcel of the genre or if it is is arguing against recent innovations. I also think that Faith Hill has been so great for so long that I keep wanting her to return to full force, and her adding minimal filigree to a song that feels competent but unresolved is frustrating at best. 
[5]

Josh Langhoff: McGraw longs for simpler times, when singers could make entire songs out of a couple repeated melodic phrases. (A pre-chorus pokes its head out and quickly ducks away, never to return.) The lyric, though, is a model of Nashville sophistication: “meanwhile” turns into “me ‘n’ you,” the truck in verse one becomes a down payment at the end, and after a while I was invested enough in Mama’s house that the appearance of a “For Sale” sign made me shudder. The words even use that repeated melody to their advantage when McGraw rattles off a list of the things he misses, his sighs of “I miss” tugging against the chorus’s upper range.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: This lovely, hushed ode to a simpler life — of course, from one of the biggest country superstars of the last 20 years, with his equally superstar wife assisting on harmonies — feels like a really radical move from McGraw, especially as the lead single from an album intended to continue his renewed commercial hot streak. Which makes me love it even more. All brushed snares, gently picked guitars, and some of the smoothest vocals I’ve ever heard from McGraw and Hill, they’re singing this like they mean it: which I sincerely suspect they do. The real-life Luke and Rayna have never sounded better than they do on “Mama’s,” and this is hands-down one of not only McGraw’s career highlights, but one of 2014’s finest country singles. 
[9]

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Lydia Loveless – To Love Somebody

We begin Amnesty Week with a country-rock selection recommended by Jonathan Bradley…


[Video][Website]
[7.11]

Thomas Inskeep: Finally, a Lucinda Williams record I can get down with. Reminiscent of early-’80s Carlene Carter, Loveless makes tough, hard country, led by her honeyed whiskey-drinking voice. She sings smart lyrics about people who really exist, about you and me in a Midwestern bar. Another antecedent: this is the record Lone Justice always wanted to make. I’m glad it finally exists, 30 years later.
[7]

Brad Shoup: One of this year’s small pleasures was learning that a segment of Music Twitter remembers Lone Justice fondly. Loveless is a bit more acrid than Maria McKee, but this is one hell of a showcase. She fires sour darts over the “I Will Follow Him” melody, transposed to guitar. The rhythm section leans back, and she just pokes a big ol’ bruise.
[8]

Jonathan Bradley: “To Love Somebody” is a song that aches with ambivalence. “What does it mean to love somebody?” Loveless opens. “Or at least hope they’ll be around?” — as if the two sentiments were equivalent. The arrangement is a drunk alt-country grind, prickling uncomfortably: teardrops on a pedal-steel guitar. I’d spent half the year listening to this before I found out the singer was 24, younger than Taylor Swift; she sounds like she should have a decade on her. “It feels like I’m gonna die if I can’t talk to you,” she lusts, but it’s a restless and melancholic lust, less about the object of the song and more about a nagging loneliness that companionship won’t satisfy. “I want to be on your mind,” is the closest the lyric gets to a resolution; her open wound isn’t only a euphemistic one.
[10]

Sonia Yang: The first time I heard Somewhere Else, I was stuck in morning commute traffic trying not to fall asleep, so it probably didn’t leave the best impression on me. This, however, was the one song that shook me out of my stupor and had me paying close attention. The lyrics talk about wanting somebody, being afraid of having that love reciprocated, and being unable to stop thinking about it all. There’s a loose, raw quality about the vocals, as if she’s lamenting while drunk and her guard is completely down, and it makes the emotional impact greater.
[7]

Patrick St. Michel: The music shambles along, all swagger and confidence. But Lydia Loveless’s singing conveys something far more conflicted, a mix of longing and big-question pondering (“what’s it mean to love someone?”). It reminds me a bit of Jason Molina, whose voice could similarly draw out words and give them a whole new feel. But she’s on her own thing here, and “To Love Somebody” believes in itself even if it doesn’t have the answers for anything else.
[7]

Anthony Easton: I have seen her on both top songs of the year in country and in rock and roll. Without the nostalgia for a time that never existed, her voice veers towards pure rockabilly. I think I would prefer it a bit more with more varied instrumentation, but there is an elegance to her heartbreak, and the questions seem genuine without being earnest. 
[6]

Juana Giaimo: Like its lyrics, “To Love Somebody” is always moving in the same place, going round and round without getting nowhere. Lydia Loveless’s voice sounds honest in the beginning, but maybe it’s a little bit too dramatic for such cheesy lyrics. 
[5]

Josh Langhoff: When she rounds the tops of her phrases she could be Neko Case, but Loveless doesn’t sound so hellbent on enunciatin’. Her words afford her less pleasure than the variety of shapes and sounds her mouth can form. “Honey, let me melt your mouth tonight,” she pleads, stretched out syllables and guitar mantra attaining some nirvana of desperation.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Not the Bee Gees classic: a cruncher drenched in Mellencamp and the Replacements, sung and played by an artist who works at romantic frustrations like she strums her guitar. In other words, tougher than Lone Justice.
[7]