Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Catching Up

the flow curry/opposite of a snow flurry

How dope is this El joint?

Speaking of which, been on a kinda midwest grind lately. Interviewed Twista and Elzhi for Passion of the Weiss. Both really interesting cats who put me up on a lot of Midwest history, house, the Hip Hop Shop, et al. I also spoke to Black Milk about Album of the Year for Exclaim!

An excerpt from the Twista piece about house music and Midwest rap I found especially interesting:

Do you think the tempo of house music had something to do with the Midwestern rap style?

For sure. Especially in Chicago. People don’t know this but all of my lyrics that’s considered double-time lyrics will fit over house-tempo type tracks. So if the beat is boom-boom-boom-boom-boom [Twista imitates a typical house beat], I can still do [rapping double-time] “look at the dudes owe me, dad a do do me”. It’s the perfect rhythm to fit on the same thing. So it definitely had a big influence.

I've been neglecting this spot while school's taken priority, but I've kept writing elsewhere. Let's get up to speed:

Exclaim! just put threw up their 2010 Year In Review (cop that new issue!) I threw in my thoughts on Lisbon by the Walkmen and Shad's TSOL.

Whew, think that's about it for now. Stay tuned for my own Top 25 for the year.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Periphery In The Center: Or Why We Laugh At Admiral Ackbar Jokes


The other day I had a few friends over for dinner and we ended up watching an episode of Robot Chicken. This is an 11 minute sketch show commercial minus commercials, using elaborate stop motion animation with action figures and occasionally claymation. The show recently did a Star Wars special, which doubled the length of the program to an even 22 minutes. The sketches in Robot Chicken can run anywhere from 4 minutes to 30 seconds and typically center on some form of pop culture reference. The Star Wars episode is essentially double of what you’d get in a standard episode, and stretches this formula even thinner.

Jokes are made about Admiral Ackbar, this tiny wheeled robot in the first movie, and the alien who says something incomprehensible to Han Solo in the cantina bar. If you have any idea what I’m talking about, congratulations, there’s a mini industry dedicated to you! Family Guy just did two full length episodes remaking the first two Star Wars movies. We mutually recognize these tiny, meaningless fragments of cultural zeitgeists like Back To The Future, Star Wars, and now Avatar. And largely we laugh out of recognition. This is not inherently a bad thing but I feel that more than ever, Western entertainment is structured around providing recognition, simply recognizing something being enough to justify spending time with media. Glee’s success is in no small part due to the number of recognizable songs performed on screen. Avatar is getting a retrospective rerelease a year after its theatrical release – so that, as my roommate pointed out, they can incorporate 20 minutes worth of CGI backgrounds. Has our collective recall diminished to the point that we’re willing to accept the same thing reconstituted over and over again?

Back to Family Guy for a minute. Here’s a show whose comedic formula largely boils down to a series of cutaway gags loosely connected by a few strings of plot. These jokes most rely on a strong familiarity with Western pop culture of the last couple of years. The show was cancelled a few years back before gaining a cult audience on DVD. Fox brought the series back and it became ubiquitous. Creator Seth McFarlane then created a new series, American Dad, with a cast of variations on Family Guy’s characters: the boorish, ignorant father, the prudish, well-meaning wife, the socially awkward son, the talking baby/alien. American Dad even uses the same cutaway gag formula. A few years later, peripheral character Cleveland was granted a spinoff, The Cleveland Show. There are now three shows on TV created by the same man with roughly the same humour, voiced by mostly the same people. Have you met someone who’s actively a fan of American Dad over Family Guy? Or openly prefers The Cleveland Show to Family Guy? They’re minute variations on a theme. But again, the humour is based on recognition. A quote from a 80s movie used in a different context. A tongue-in-cheek reference to a minor celebrity. Or even more modern: an allusion to a recent internet meme. When Wikipedia evolves into a mandatory brain implant, we will have no trouble remembering why Brian the talking dog was dancing and singing while dressed as a banana.

And I’m not excluding myself from this either. I love Community, a show which practically demands fluency in pop culture of the last 3 decades to understand what the character Abed is talking about.

What impact is this going to have 5, 10 years down the line? Pop culture parodies are not new – check the Sinatra parody in this Tex Avery short from 1948, mocking his skinniness around this time (starts 3 minutes in):

But we’re definitely coming closer to culture as ourobouros, the snake eating its own tail in an endless cycle. Humour is increasingly dependent on a sense of knowing (Nitsuh Abebe talks about this trend in indie rock much more eloquently than me) and I’m concerned that it dissuades people from writing in a way that appeals to a sense of surprise, instead of appealing to the familiar. More to come on this in a bit.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Adventures of B.O.B. & The Freshman Syndrome at Passion of the Weiss

Wrote a long essay over at Passion today on B.O.B.'s new record, pop-rap, indie rock/rap crossover and the perils of being a major label rapper in 2010. BTW "Nothin' On You" has been #1 on the Billboards for just over 3 months, just got bumped to #2 by that horrific Usher/ song. Click the excerpt below to read the whole ting.

It’s no secret anymore that the genre boundaries between hip-hop and alternative/indie rock are becoming increasingly blurred. Kid Cudi was the first influential rapper to convincingly adopt an indie aesthetic, singing and rapping over songs by Band of Horses, LCD Soundsystem and Vampire Weekend without pandering to the hipster audience; don’t forget his palpable influence on 808s and Heartbreak, the album which brought this aesthetic to the mainstream. Even after everyone and their kid brother rapped over “Paper Planes” and Capo mumbled over MGMT, who would have expected to see a remake of a Vampire Weekend song on a major label rap album in 2010? Sure, the aforementioned “Kids” is a sad waste of Janelle Monae but B.o.B. still does a lot right on this album. His sincere appreciate of Paramore make the Hayley Williams collabo plausible; “Airplanes” is honest, emotive pop-rap, seemingly tailor-made for Facebook profile quotes. “Don’t Let Me Fall” is a great summation of B.o.B.’s rapping and songwriting talents, a rousing risin’-to-the-top tale with enormous hooks.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

"If You Want A Boxer...": The Genius of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man"

Leonard Cohen never really fit the conventional of a singer-songwriter. Not a particularly gifted musician in the technical sense, nor blessed with an especially powerful voice.
Cohen took up music after finding there was little money in publishing his poetry and novels, heading to America to pursue a career as a folk singer.
His light, gentle baritone slowly deepened from the 80s onwards, most noticeably on 1988's I'm Your Man; his slow, methodical singing on the album more closely resembles spoken word than any of his work from the 60s. The musical backing changed with him. He abandoned acoustic guitars and gentle orchestration for synthesizers and keyboards.

'84's Various Positions was the first album Cohen recorded which integrated recognizably synthesized instruments, but I'm Your Man embraced the synth-pop sound wholly. Many other singer-songwriters who recorded their best work in the 60s floundered in the 80s; they struggled to adapt an aesthetic designed for acoustic backing to the then-futuristic sound of drum machines and synths. Where Dylan, Linda Rondstadt, et al. struggled, Cohen soared by wholly embracing the 80s sound. The tackiness of the programmed drums, lite-jazz guitar work and pseudo-symphonic keyboard swells all serves to lend Cohen's newly deepened voice even more gravitas.

"First We Take Manhattan" is the crown jewel of the I'm Your Man, and exemplifies the purpose of the album's production and tacky instrumentation. Narrating from the perspective of a terrorist, Cohen is a prophet of doom; he pronounces the end of the world over music taken from a Reagan-era infomercial. When Cohen intones, "I don't like your fashion business mister/I don't like the drugs that keep you thin", it sounds like a death threat.
Covers of Cohen's 80s output (Buckley's "Hallelujah" aside) miss the point of his musical backing during this era; the cheapness of his surroundings lent Cohen's murmur even more heft as he reports from the eye of the storm. When you strip these songs down to an acoustic guitar and a voice, you're not getting it. R.E.M.'s cover of "First..." actually comes pretty close, though - sadly can't find a link to it anywhere now.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Souls of Mischief Concert Review at Passion of the Weiss

Check out this Souls of Mischief concert review I wrote for Passion of the Weiss. As entertaining as the show was, it was more exciting to me to see 150 people packing a venue to see 3/4s of Souls of Mischief rip shit 20 years into their career. Proves that cats like these can stay relevant into their 30s through touring and hard work. Click the excerpt below for the whole spiel.

Following the meteoric rise of NWA and Dr. Dre, gangsta rap and G-Funk owned West commercial airwaves. Of course, there were alternatives like the Good Life CafĂ©, where the jazz-inspired Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde got their start (also where a pre-Dogg Pound Kurupt cut his teeth). But Souls of Mischief was an anomaly when they emerged from Oakland in 1993, a time when the Bay was ruled by the rolling, bass-driven beats and mack braggadocio of E-40 and Too $hort. Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Souls and the rest of the Hieroglyphics crew were among the first in the Bay to champion the East Coast-style of sampling and complex lyricism. ’93 Til Infinity showcased A-Plus, Opio, Tajai and Phesto’s distinct flows over thumping, jazz-sampled beats. Recorded before any of the group’s members could legally drink, the album has a playful afterschool vibe reminiscent of Pharcyde.

Re: older rappers who've stayed relevant, please read this incredible interview with Too $hort, conducted by the god Noz.

DX: Do you think majors are still a necessity for lesser-known artists?
Too Short: I think the major labels do what they do. They know how to make you a big star. If you're not on your way to being a big star then there's really no place for you at a major. They wait for that lightning in a bottle. If you put a single out and it's a super hit, they're rolling with it. Anything short of that they're not fucking with you.

How many people have we seen, in their own region, build up hundreds of thousands of dollars with independent labels? They run the community, everybody loves them and then they sign with a major and the shit fades away. "So-and-so got a five million dollar deal, they the new shit." Next thing you know, two or three years later and they're gone. It happens so many times. But then on the flip side, Cash Money [Records] and labels like that thrived in a major label system.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Raheem DeVaughn – The Love & War MasterPeace Review at Exclaim!

My review of the new Raheem DeVaughn album just went up at Exclaim! Read it here. Spoiler: I like it a lot. Reminds me a lot of  What’s Going On and Curtis, and not just because “Bulletproof” samples “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”.

Also: Did you know that house/hip-hop pioneer Kenny Dope produced 3/4 of this record? Really interesting to see a producer with feet in so many genres contribute to a mainstream R&B record.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Rob Swift - "The Architect" Review and Interview at Exclaim!

Over at Exclaim!, I've written a review of the new Rob Swift record, which is roughly themed around his explorations of classical music. I also got a chance to talk to Swift about his discovery of classical music and his late colleague, the incredible Roc Raida (you can read a slightly extended version of his Raida reminisces here). Click the excerpt below to read the whole review/interview.

His virtuoso scratching turns eerie minor note violins and driving string arrangements into startlingly effective long-form compositions. The classical influence manifests itself both in The Architect's sound, as well as its structure: "Lower Level" and record highlight "Rabia" both appear as three-part movements, and the album centres upon a number of recurring scratch and sample motifs. "Lower Level" explores more conventional turntablist territory, as Swift expertly cuts vocal samples into blaring horns and soaring strings.

I also penned a review of DJ Babu's new instrumental record, The Beat Tape Vol. 2, which you can read here.

While we're talking about Raida, his '96 DMC routine is still jawdropping. Just watch.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Interview with yU of Diamond District at Passion of the Weiss

Did an interview with the supremely talented D.C. rapper yU for Passion of the Weiss. You might be familiar with Y from his work with DMV supergroups the Remainz crew and most recently, Diamond District, or from his excellent solo record from last year, Before Taxes. Click the excerpt of the interview below to read the whole conversation.

It seems like D.C. hip hop has only recently begun attracting attention on an international level. Where is D.C. at now?

What you’re hearing on a wide scale is about 15 to 20% of what’s going on. A lot of the greats from [D.C.] have been playing for a long time. And a lot of them were stubborn when it came down to certain advantages. A lot of them were slow to [adapt to computers], don’t really want to get online, to blogs and all that. But I guess that people are finally growing up. A lot of our music scene is really coming together now. Like Asheru, he’s been touring and putting albums out for a long time. I would see him at [D.C. hip hop club] Bar None and stuff. But for a while, certain artists weren’t dealing with the younger generation. They had talent but didn’t know what to do business-wise. But the reason you’re seeing more work come from our area is a lot of those folks now are interacting and spreading the wealth. Personally, I’m definitely trying to get with the young people now. They ask me stuff and I help them.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Winter Mixtape At Passion of the Weiss

I've spent 90% of my life in Canada, the top exporter of politeness, snow and mediocre pop-punk, and yet I've never made a winter mixtape before this year. Summer mixes, sure, but a cold weather mix is unexplored territory.
I recently coordinated a virtual murderer's row of music writers to select their favourite wintertime tunes for a mixtape over at the Passion. Thanks to Jeff Weiss, Nate Patrin, Zilla, Douglas, Matt Shea, Dan Love and Renato for picking an amazing tracklist and contributing insightful writeups. Props to Sach O for the stellar mixing and for his excellent picks. You can check the tracklisting and stream the mix below.

1. Boards of Canada - 1969

2. Bang Bang - Two Fingers

3. Pantha du Prince - Stick by my Side

4. Royksop - Remind Me

5. Beach House - Apple Orchard

6. Bjork - Immature

7. Prodigy & Nas - Self Conscience

8. Blurry Drones - Winter Weather

9. Marvin Gaye - Inner City Blues

10. Radiohead - Airbag

11. Wu-Tang Clan - Jah World

12. The Cinematic Orchestra ft. Roots Manuva - All Things to all Men

13. Walkmen - Blizard of 96

14. Real Estate - Fake Blues

15. A Guy Called Gerald - Hekkle & Koch

16. Doves - Black & White Town

17. The Chi-Lites - Coldest days of my life

18. The Grateful Dead - Cold Rain & Snow

You can read the writeups and download the tape here. Please share if you like it!

Monday, 1 February 2010

"I AM NOT A NUMBER!": My Ongoing Obsession with "The Prisoner"

The Prisoner is a 1967 TV miniseries created by Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein. It follows the travails of an unnamed British secret agent who resigns from his position one day, only to wake up in a mysterious village separated from normal society. The Village is populated with people who are referred to only by numbers; the agent goes by Number Six. Six discovers that the so-called Number One is trying to discover Six's reasons for resigning, a task largely carried out by a rotating lineup of "Number Twos". The enigmatic higher-ups utilize a full array of insane technology to monitor Agent Six and force him to confess his motivation for resigning from his position.

Without spoiling anything, let me say The Prisoner is incredibly well-scripted and directed. The ridiculous special effects only add to its charm. This is a series where the greatest threat is a sentient white balloon named Rover that basically engulfs and suffocates anyone who opposes Number One.

Some of the acting and styling feels a bit camp now but Goohan plays it all completely straight and pulls it off. He is perfect for a role he largely wrote for himself, refining James Bond into a kind of impossible cool, complete with kung fu skills and impeccable dress sense. Tell me Pat didn't rock the shawl collar.

I'm only three episodes in and I'm hooked. Scientists: It's 2010, how come our phones don't look like this yet?

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

“Moonlight Mile” – The Subtle Influence of the Rolling Stones on Real Estate

This Real Estate album is frequently compared to Flying Nun pop and early Yo La Tengo, something which singer/guitarist Martin Courtney has copped to and it shows. So I get these comparisons but listening to this record, it striking how much the album’s dual guitar sound owes to the Rolling Stones’ combo of Keith Richards and a rotating roster of guitarist sidemen. The Stones’ influence interests me more because it’s less readily apparent. RE don’t do the uptempo rockers that the Stones could play in their sleep in their 63-79 heyday, but the band's ethereal guitar pop is definitely indebted to the guitar interplay of Mick/Keith ballads.

Listen to “Moonlight Mile” off 1971’s Sticky Fingers. "Moonlight Mile" is a bit unusual in the canon of Glimmer Twin songs, because Keith wrote the guitar riff but doesn’t play it on the record. Here Mick Jagger plays the song’s Oriental-sounding acoustic riff while Mick Taylor spins out fluid electric riffs.

Download: The Rolling Stones – Moonlight Mile

Juxtapose “Moonlight” with Real Estate’s “Snow Days”. Guitarist Matthew Mondanile and Courtney trade off chiming, circular guitar lines that weave thick tapestries around each other.

Download: Real Estate – Snow Days

They employ another sonic tactic borrowed from early 70s Stones, a dense yet never-overwhelming layering of melodies. Listen to the way the strummed guitars intertwine with the double-tracked vocals, how the electric guitar plays off Martin Courtney’s voice. Just beautiful.

Here’s a relevant bit of text from Courtney on his classic radio influences, via Pitchfork:

MC: We try to be influenced by really classic songwriting, so I can see the oldies influence. We try to write songs that are just classic pop songs and then stretch out certain sections of them to make it a little bit jammier or to emphasize things that wouldn't normally be emphasized in your average classic rock song, to try to make it a little bit different or a little bit more up-to-date. You can write a pop song and put a bunch of effects on everything, and it'll make it sound a little bit more modern. We just try to keep everything sounding sort of spaced out and underwater.

Bonus: An incredible version of “Moonlight Mile” by the 5th Dimension. This is much more emotionally direct and bombastic version of the song, but damn, it’s kind of heartrending. Even if they change “the head full of snow” to “sky full of snow”, it just makes the song more seasonally appropriate.

Also, isn’t this alternate Russian cover for Sticky Fingers 10 kinds of awesome?

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