With a second superb album, It’s Not Me, It’s You Lily Allen immediately vaults from an out-of-the-box concept artist with a bunch of great song to a full-fledged flat-out great songwriter. And one who seems to have something to offer nearly anybody who seeks great songs. No, she doesn’t give up the poetry like Bob Dylan — she’s hardly beyond clever and you could say she enjoys using language, but it’s strictly a conduit for getting her points across. And these particular points are her own. Who even to compare her to? Mapping the web of a 20-something woman’s self-definition as it relates to her sexuality and her determination to not get fucked over, including by herself, only a few come to mind — Joni Mitchell, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, Sleater-Kinney, Missy Elliott, who else ya got? And I’ll start right off saying that of those, Allen’s easily got the easiest and richest sense of humor, which goes along with her standing her ground without needing rage, bravado or even much irony. She couldn’t reminisce about some stud she fucked on a Greek island with a straight face, and in general seems to find the jet-setting privileges of popdom disorienting and largely unnecessary (though word is she does love the clothing part of it). And especially on her second album, which does without ska ventures or extra-sharp Professor Longhair quotes, she’s aiming her music at the most unadventurous pop fans this side of Celine Dion, people who enjoy a good tune and some life in the rhythms, but who don’t want to be challenged by noise, sensory overload, or anything else they not already used to. In this, she also separates herself from just about any male singer-songwriter of anywhere close to her level of specificity abnd liveliness. One way or another, they tend to be aesthetes. The only one I can think of is Billy Joel, whom nobody born outside , say, 1950-1975 northeast U.S. understands, and at least half of those don’t even admit that we do. Because one major quality that Allen has over Joel is self-awareness. Not self-consciousness, with its nervous insecurity leading to overly cautious positioning (Joel lacks that, too, very much to his credit), but a sense of how you come off, of where you fit in compared to the characters in your songs, of what it means to write and care about them, to what extent they’re you. Joel, on other hand, well, one reason there’ll never be a biopic on him is that Will Ferrell would be too cruel in his portrayal — his best 20 or so songs deserve better, but Ferrell would get the tone close enough, that fat-headed obliviousness and entitlement.
Last time, when she was 20, Lily Allen was a barhopping bedhopping wiseacre who knew her limits but who also wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to diss jerks who nixed her mortgage application, kept her out of the hot nightclub or who were no good either at sex or those parts relationships that happens with clothes on.
This time, she’s more grounded, more responsible, but never allows that either will mean she’s less spirited or fun-loving. She can start with a song about the hypocrisy and naivete of people who privilege perscription drugs over the street kind and make it sound like another cock-diss, which is also how the anti-Bush one sounds, which is why it works — she imagines him as the jerk in the next booth, and if I’ve had to wait since I was about 12 for a fully commercial-sounding pop song called “Fuck You,” well, Allen makes sure noivelty aspect doesn’t go to waste. Sure, the happy relationship song that welcomes coupling as a respite from the mundane ends with takeout in front of the TV, sure she complains “I spent ages giving head” while lying in the wet spot, this we expect from Allen already, and she still performs well. But the one about stardom’s loss of self is so closely felt I was afraid for a moment that it had actually happened, that she was just singing about loving money and doing anything for fame. “I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless,” sure, I could see that happening. “It doesn’t matter ’cause I’m packing plastic,” oh, not another one. But no, whew, “I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny,” not our Lily, not anytime soon and probably not ever, and that she puts failure of sense of humor into a song called “The Fear” is just one thing I love about her.
Last time she closed with an oompah-beat laugh-a-line well-intentioned mocking of her slacker brother, while this time she breaks her own mold with a completely conciliatory plea which turns out to be for her sister. And makes you realize that she’s not breaking any mold, just delving deep and telling it as she feels and sees it, just like always. If she’s just a lot more perceptive and is brave enough to delve deeper than the norm, she doesn’t see why that makes her any less normal, or at least less understandable by normal people. Which is what I meant by the post title, by the way. Kept meaning to get to it.
Filed under: Lily Allen | 5 Comments
Tags: Lily Allen
Fuzzy sound and lack of rhythmic imagination are generally signs of amateurism and youth, and while they can be infectuous live in the right setting, they are generally dead ends for recording artists. There are exceptions. Scrawl counts as my favorite band that managed to maintain such an apparently amateur sound over a decade and seven records. They did so by relentlessly pursuing the musical implications of a particular, depressive proto-feminist subjectivity, their conviction driven by complicated (but out of tune) harmonies, direct melodies, lyrics driven by smart, meaningful hooks (I think I’m turning into a slut, there is nothing to walk away from, go ahead — take a swing) and a mostly slow, pounding rhythm. Their great punk cover of Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted Snake” is the place to start getting it if you’ve never tried. Without Scrawl, the sound of Sealter-Kinney — an infinitely more varied and virtuosic band — couldn’t have emerged.
Vivian Girls is an arty decendent of this approach. As repetitive to the rock and roll ear as the Saharan music I’ve heard on Festival In the Desert and Group Inerane’s album, but with an up-top harmonic approach straight out of 1966 (think Moby Grape, or early Jefferson Airplane), these are post-Riot Grrrls who sound like they can’t play their instruments as a concept rather then because, well, they can’t play their instruments. (I have no idea whether in fact they can or not.) They also sound like they recorded these songs on 1966 recording equipment. In doing this they come up with a strangely compelling concept, a soundscape that draws you into their world whether or not you “believe in nothing,” as they hook their last track.
I don’t love the record. This is the kind of debut that could go somewhere, or not. Unless you’re 20 and haven’t worked through lots of low fi debut albums before, this one won’t change your life. But it is distinct and original enough to make this fan of Scrawl and Sleater-Kinney think they could have better in them, that something really interesting could come of it.
Filed under: Scrawl, Vivian Girls | 2 Comments
One tension that crops up periodically between David and me is that David listens to music as an aesthete, whereas I listen to music as a fan. We have discussed this off-blog, but it’s time to take it on line. The main comment David has made about this on this site — in different terms — is at the beginning of his “David’s lists” post in the “About” section.
Broadly speaking, what this means is that David approaches each album, and indeed each song, more or less individually, starting from the question of what this particular aesthetic object sounds like. This allows him to say, song by song, I like this one, this one’s boring. From some points of view this makes him a better, more serious listener then me. He is more celebratory of small accomplishments and details, and less forgiving of mediocre music in styles we like or writer-performers who actually only had a few distinct songs in them this time out.
I approach a new Bruce Springsteen album (as a not so random example) as a fan of Bruce Springsteen. I see the record as part of the ongoing story of an individual I have had a pretty intense relationship with over a long period of time. This obviously doesn’t mean that I like everything the man has ever recorded, but it does mean that I listen through stuff I might, in another context, consider boring, and I make extra effort to figure out what the guy is saying at the moment. I stop only when I determine that this extra effort hasn’t paid off.
Bruce is an important example because of how we are likely to address the earliest records, prior to Born In the USA (which is pretty much where we both tuned in — I bought The River, probably in ’81 or ’82 (not when it came out) but at age 14 I didn’t really get it). We both agree that the early records are full of overextended songs and overwrought melodrama that doesn’t fit our punkier aeshetic mode; we both agree that the man is capable of clunkers; we both agree that overall, he’s pretty amazing. The difference in evaluation will come from the fact that when I want to hear Darkness At the Edge of Town, I want to hear all of it, because I actively enjoy and learn from the songs I’m supposed to find melodramatic and overwrought: I’ve given Springsteen the space to draw me in, the way a fan does, and consciously chosen to inhabit his aesthetics for the length of the record. I’m happy to let him push me around, rather then to stand my ground and say “I don’t like this song.”
What I am seeking to do, all too much perhaps (because it may be all too “imaginary”), is create an imaginary community with other human beings, a community in which my interest in a set of sounds, concepts, and ideas, expands and become a matter of social importance. “Fanhood” permits me to do this in two ways — by imagining a personal relationship to an artist, and by imagining a field of social commonality (a common “structure of feeling”) with others who are also fans.
(Note that fanhood is entirely distinct from idolatry, which is an unfortunate outgrowth of fanhood in some contexts. If you imagine yourself as a flawed and imperfect human being, you will imagine the artist you are a fan of that way as well, rather then as an idol.)
The implications of this difference turn out, over decades of listening to music together, to be huge, and can be seen in a variety of places on this blog. The most fundamental place, I think, is going to be on the question of pleasure, which David and I have had numerous exchanges about over the years. David really wants to know what gives him pleasure, an absolutely valid question. I figured out a long time ago that huge numbers of things (musical and nonmusical) can give me pleasure, and I was going to have to have some kind of way of determining which ones were worth following up.
Filed under: How we listen | 2 Comments
- K’naan The Dusty Foot Philosopher (A)
- Randy Newman Harps & Angels
- TV on the Radio Dear Science
- Lil Wayne Tha Carter III
- Orchestra Baobab Made in Dakar
- Honey Honey Loose Boots [EP]
- Drive-By Truckers Brighter than Creation’s Dark
- Girl Talk Feed the Animals
- Sleeping in the Aviary Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel
- Steinski What Does It All Mean? : 1983-2006 Retrospective
- Conor Oberst Conor Oberst
- Black Kids Partie Traumatic
- DJ Yoda Fabriclive 39 (A-)
- Santogold Santogold
- Dan le Sac v. Scroobius Pip Angles
- Menya The Ol’ Reacharound [EP]
- T.I. Paper Trail
- Robert Forster The Evangelist
- William Parker Quartet Petit Ouiseau
- Stew Passing Strange -Original Broadway Cast
- R.E.M. Accelerate
- Hayes Carll Trouble in Mind
- The Roots Rising Down
- Hamell on Trial Rant & Roll: Terrorism of Everyday Life
- Be Your Own Pet Get Damaged [EP]
- Mike Edison I Have Fun Wherever I Go
- Taj Mahal Maestro
- Raphael Saadiq The Way I See It
- El Guincho Alegranza
- Kate Nash Made of Bricks
- Jean Grae Jeanius
- Nas (Untitled)
- The Mighty Underdogs Droppin’ Science Fiction
- Les Amazones de Guinee Wamato
- The Magnetic Fields Distortion
- No Age Nouns
7 0r 8 hip-hop albums in my top 17, my highest count since I don’t know when. But, OK, three of the six are DJ bricolage, more or less invented in 1983 (with some inspiration from Grandmaster Flash) by Steinski, whose collected works I list at #10, not really a new album, but the best of it has never been available legally before, though I’m not who says it’s legal now either). (Girl Talk and DJ Yoda are the others).
It was Lil Wayne’s year, of course, but I’ll take K’naan not just for his far-seeing grace (and humor) under pressure, but for his tunes as well.
Aside from Lil Wayne himself, whose collected works I caught up with and immersed in throughout June, the biggest surprise for me was TV on the Radio. I was pretty skeptical through Cookie Mountain, and never thought than any of the new prog bands would take their music this far or slam it this hard and focused.
My hopes for Suzanne Santo (Honeyhoney) great new singer-songwriter (OK, so the guy does a lot of the writing anyway) have been dashed by a surprisingly dull major label debut — after all this time, why do majors still think the thing to do with a new artist is round off their edges, fade them out through a few runs in the wash. Or maybe they just didn’t have the songs. In either case, their indie debut Loose Boots makes a strong case for the EP as a form. I have three on my list, which probably hasn’t happened since the mid-’80’s, if then. One, Menya’s, possibly the first band in history to gain notice specifically because they happen to be former students of a widely known rock critic, is in the classic record–and-release-what-you’ve-got-now mode of indie debut EPs. But the other one, Be Your Own Pet’s, is weird. With an indie album behind them, they got their major label debut this year, and I was real into it, in fact getting into an absurdly heated argument with Kenny while driving back from the Sierras towards his Central Valley home last summer about how hooky it was or wasn’t (real topic: But what are hooks?). But later I had to sheepishly admit that Kenny was also right, because when I’d set up the playlist in itunes, I’d absentmindedly led the album with the 3-song EP I’d downloaded from emusic. The EP turns out to be an indie release of three songs the major found too “violent,” including “Becky,” a tale of high school murder I found as hilarious as BYOP intended. After the EP, the album never reaches those heights again, hooks included. So the EP is the keeper (including the indie debut, which I found not-quite-there).
The Mike Edison album is rudimentary boogie-rock over shouted tales of mayhem from a former editor of magazines about wrestling, marijuana and porn. I kept coming back to Hayes Carll’s somewhat ordinary assortment of grounded relationship songs and rock life for “She Left Me For Jesus,” which is everything you might imagine and more.
Oh, and Kenny & I came up with our ’08 hip-hop tags independently — mine was a draft in December. Does anyone else think was a standout year for hip-hop?
Filed under: 2008 | 2 Comments
The Rolling Stones are my great separation from core rock and roll addicts. In many respects I’m a Chuck-Beatles-Bruce-Clash kind of guy, which is why Robert Christgau has had such a dominant (perhaps too dominant) impact on my life. But the measure of my differences with the core ‘tude is that I don’t love the Stones. Don’t hate ’em — how could I? — and a few songs, like Get Off My Cloud and Tumblin’ Dice, have long been favorites. But mostly I’ve seen their 25 good pop songs as pretty much that, perfect for listening to on the iPod. Before the iPod I heard them mostly on the radio, on the mixed tapes I used to make for taking long drives, or not at all.
According to an account I write in an email to David a year ago, there are four reasons I can’t get with the Stones:
1. I’m not into middle class white bohemians in black face
2. I don’t sneer or particularly like sneering
3. I don’t consider dick-first the best way to approach women (or men, for that matter)
4. Among the important pre-rock forms, I like jazz more then blues and early R&B more then either, and the specific swamp tradition of the Stones isn’t even my favorite blues — I like Muddy Waters much more in Chicago then in the delta.
Obviously, this isn’t a fair rendering of the meaning of the Rolling Stones, but it does succinctly get at which parts of the core boho, 1960s tradition have seemed easy to leave behind to a politico growing up in the 1980s.
Two weeks ago I downloaded Exile On Main Street. I’ve had it as a 2 LP set since the mid-1980s, but since 2005 or so I don’t have a turntable set up, and if I’ve listened to it since 1990 I don’t remember the occasion. Not even listening over and over to Exile In Guyville made me curious. Yet all of us a sudden — the context was contemplating whether I should read the 33 1/3 book on the album, because I’ve been working my way through some of them (the Murmur book is the best so far) and this album is, after all, by consensus the best core rock album ever — I felt galvanized. I will figure out what this record is about.
Here’s what I heard. The musical context is the southern swamp sound after it’s no longer a discovery, but is a lived practice — finally, we’re not shouting about how hony tonk we are, we’re just being honky tonk. The matching lyrics say: pleasure just ain’t what it used to be. The turns of phrase are felicitous, the band is hot, and you can listen closely three times in a row smiling all the way, if not measurably changed by it.
Of course everyone who cares already knows this, and stopped reading paragraphs ago. You’re only still here if you haven’t listened to the album forever (or you’re David, who will read whatever I write).
So if like me you’re a rock and roller and some combination of young enough or wussy enough to have avoided the Stones, what I really want you to do is to think about going to see Shakespeare in the park. I know you haven’t done that more then once or twice as an adult, neither have I, but you’ve thought it would be modestly pleasurable and you figure you’ll do it again when your daughter is 13 or 14, a year or two before she refuses to see anything with you anymore. You don’t expect it’ll be the best stuff in the world, but it is, I hope this comes out with the full irony intact because Shakespeare was a London boho once too, both kind of a lot of fun and also good for you, wholesome. Gives you a real sense of history & the passing of time, and how much you’ve changed all these years. Now listen to Exile on Main Street and weep.
Filed under: Rolling Stones | Leave a Comment
Haven’t posted here forever because I/we have been rethinking the blog. That’s why this is so late. But I’ve got to get going again, so here it is.
T.I.’s Paper Trail is not my favorite record of 2008, but it’s the one that took me longest to think through, for the simple reason that it’s the first pop rap album since Stankonia that I’ve wanted to spend my time thinking through.
The sequence of songs from (3) Ready For Whatever to 8 My Life Your Entertainment is as remarkable as the best sequences on The Dusty Foot Philosopher (my #1) or Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (my #2). It’s peak in my view is Live Your Life, which of is in part because of Rhianna, singer of the year’s most indelible pop (“Take A Bow” just as much as “Disturbia”), but is just as much because it gives an unusually substantive perspective on why to hate playa hatas. From the best piece of sociology about prison since the Goodie Mob to the depth of explanation of the real reason to brag about money (actually a boast that he cleared up his homeboyz credit ratings!) to the fundamentally descriptive, neither really a complaint nor a boast, but a coming to grips exploration of both possibilities, “My Life Your Entertainment,” the sequence as popwise as the more widely praised Lil Wayne, and a shitload smarter.
The rest of the album is nowhere near on the same level, though there is a surprisingly decent comeback on the last three tracks, which also have the most naturalistic musical sound on the album. In fact, the main problem with the rest of the tracks (aside from the one left there to make sure I was offended at some point, “Every Chance I Get”) isn’t the inferior words, though they of course aren’t as great, but the orchestral constructions, the same things that drive me crazy intermittently on Arcade Fire and consistently with dozens of other “indie” bands these days. And to be honest, OutKast bears some responsibility here.
In the end I made Paper Trail my #9, highest A- of the year, dropping Wayne to 11 in a 8-12 hip hop sequence that goes Feed the Animals-Paper Trail-Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip-The Carter III-Rising Down. With K’naan’s rather unique point of view at #1, this was altogether the best year for hip hop for probably a decade, and owing no assistance to Kanye West, whose presence on Paper Trail is a bore — the only thing the least bit interesting about “Swagga Like Us” is M.I.A., whose album I can listen to when I want to hear that particular hook.
(For what it’s worth I chose “Paper Planes” as my song of 2007, over even my favorites by Wussy, long before it showed up in a movie I haven’t seen or was the P&J #1. Maybe I’m not as unhip as I think.)
Some small other notes before the final list:
The current enthusiasm around Taylor Swift is the result of combining the sensibility of Miley Cyrus with the introversion (and sheer wordiness) of the teenage Ani diFranco, and who I am to complain? I do in fact like “Love Story” and “Fifteen” plenty, “The Way I Loved You” even more, and the album well enough. I’ve come to understand that there are worse role models for my daughter.
I’ve processed Menya, Honeyhoney (First Rodeo) and Chromeo insufficiently to include on this list, and since I’m not redoing the list after today, the just missed my deadline, through obviously no fault of their own. But one listen each, I’d say that Honeyhoney has fully justified my moderate enthusiasm about the EP — the idea these jazzy white chicks haven’t isn’t a bad one, but none of them have the songs, and the only one that has a stand out concept — Amy Winehouse — has an annoying stand out concept. Menya sounded great on one listen, with the identical caveats I’ve previously had about “Loose Boots” — not enough songs to decide whether it’s just a good sound or a real set of ideas. Which brings me to Chromeo. On one listen, I guess I like everything about it that I like about Hall & Oates — and find that their ideas are as self-loving as Hall & Oates’ too, which makes it especially alienating to discover that Christgau’s dismissal of Hall & Oates doesn’t somehow apply to these guys. Of course as you know this is not the highest praise coming from me either, so I can’t see where it will sustain an interest in a whole album.
Here, finally, is the whole list:
1. K’naan, “The Dusty Foot Philosopher” (A+). And let me say I do understand the complaints about the limitations of the repetitions of the “I had it tougher then you” lyrics — even from someone who grew up in Mogadishu, there are only so many times you can find that interesting, so I sure hope the new album has something else to say. But the album doesn’t only depend on the fact that he grew up in Mogadishu — it is musically even more consistent then lyrically. I may not have wanted to listen to it 15 times (as I did Left For Dead, last year), but I can say that the seven or eight I did I didn’t want to turn it off or lose concetration in the middle. When an album retains over an hour of concentration, that’s good enough for me.
2. Drive-by Truckers, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” (A). Most consistent songwriting of the year.
3. TV On the Radio, “Dear Science”. Best soundscape.
4. Conor Oberst, “Conor Oberst”. Last time my favorite song was “I Must Belong Somewhere,” a song about how whatever is must be. This time it’s “Moab”, with the refrain the road will take your troubles away. Both of these ideas are dead wrong. So if I keep believing him when he sings these sentiments, which I oppose at so many other levels, he must actually be a fine poet.
5. Les Amazones de Guinee, “Wamato.” I know my African music geography is fucked up, but it sounds to me like some of the best vocal ensemble work since Mahathalini.
6. Orchestra Baobab, “Made In Dakar.” Along with Youssou N’Dour, OB has emerged as my very favorite African musicians, but the weakness — my weakness not their’s — is that when I don’t have a particular CD of theirs on, I’m not sure which album it’s coming from. It’s one of those things that happens when the musucians are over 50 by the time you learn anything about the genre . . . it all just sounds like the genre.
7. Santogold. The powerpop strain that stretches from Cyndi Lauper through Elastica, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and this is a totally underworked one. I don’t know if I’d admire this record as much if I had as much quality powerpop in my life as a crave. But it fills a niche honorably.
8. Girl Talk “Feed the Animals.” Pure fun, and if there’s any content, really, someone else will have to fill me in.
9. T.I., “Paper Trail” (A-)
10. Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip
11. Lil Wayne, “The Carter III”
12. Roots, “Rising Down”
13. Al Green, “Lay It Down”
14. Jean Grae, “Jeanius”
15. Love Is All, “A Hundred Things To Keep Me Up At Night”
16. Black Kids, “Partie Traumatic”
17. R.E.M., “Accellerate”
18. Raphael Saadiq, “The Way I See It”. As you know, I agree with you that these songs are fine, but don’t establish their necessity. So after all this time, I finally figured out what differentiates it conceptually from Marshall Crenshaw in 1983: Marshall although almost 30 at the time, does a convincing job being a teenager, which is in part because these really were his earliest recorded songs. I know — indeed, I like — that soul supports older adulthood better then rockabilly does, and that Saadiq is not trying to pretend he’s a teenager. But that’s much of why his Tony Toni Tone songs are better — they are more wide eyed. The best one on this album, Falling In Love, is the best because it’s the opposite of wide-eyed; it’s world weary. If you’re doing retro, either you’ve got to get wide eyed right, as Crenshaw did, or you have to do maturity as the concept itself. This album does neither.
19. Ponytail, “Ice Cream Spiritual.” Aretha Franklin for the end of the apocalypse. If things really were that bad, I’m sure this would be higher then #19 on my list.
20. Honehoney, “Loose Boots.” I grant you that the songs are this good.
21. Taylor Swift, “Fearless”.
22. Eryhak Badu, “New Amerykah, Part 1: New World Order”
23. Asylum Street Spankers, “What? And Give Up Show Biz?” — and I do genuinely wish they were as funny as they mean to be, because when the song is right, as with “Breath,” I love them to death.
Filed under: 2008, T.I. | Leave a Comment
Springsteen didn’t come anywhere close to making the definitive 9/11 album — as far as I could tell there wasn’t one. But five years later he did make what will likely stand as the definitive Bush album, at least the only one that sold shit (if Jon Langford was going to break through he would have done it with The Mekons Rock N Roll (1989) , not All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (2004), and it seems all too clear that Todd Snider will never find (regain?) his audience. ) Accusatory, hopeful when he can get to it, mournful when it seems appropriate, cold eyed and not immune to sang-froid, grounded in the everyday, Magic was the first time he’d found the penetrating words he was looking for with the music they demand in 20 years.
16 months later, we remember why Bruce takes his time putting records together. Lotsa hooks, not enough point. The music’s sleek enough to make something listenable an 8-minute western saga, and if “What Love Can Do” tells us nothing about him and Patti, “Life Itself” may. But the one stroke is “Queen of the Supermarket” . The same guy who was gazing at the young females in their seasonal attire last time we tuned in has moved on to a woman who’s perhaps more age-appropriate and certainly a bit more accessible — she notices him back, for one thing, and you can imagine him sheepishly asking if she’d like to share that nice chop she just bagged.
I dimly recall a small r& b (new wave) hit from the early ’80s called “Checkin’ out the Checkout Girl,” but the great supermarket songs have either been metaphor (The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket”) or customers’ meeting place (The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping”). But Springsteen noticed that even though the person at the register is your captive audience, even that fleeting, repeating meeting can be the basis for the community he’s always looking for.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 4 Comments