Wednesday, February 23, 2011

That's a Rap.

Recently—especially post-Odd Future entrancement & Avril nostalgia—I've been renewing/reviewing my sometimes fraught relationship with Rap. Or, rather: I've re-reminded myself that considering a microcosm of Less Than Awesome as representative of a genre is the equivalent of judging all Rock solely on the merits of Blue Öyster Cult—or Wispy Indie Ladymusic by the dulcet tones of Scarlett Johannson's 2008 album. (Did you forget that happened, too? Because I just remembered, & it made me giggle.)

My point is, words spoken artfully, rhythmically, to music can be impossibly excellent—which is why, I would imagine, almost every 90s pop song paused for a clunky interlude of them—&, moreover, a quick scan of my music library turned up a veritable slew of tracks, most of which are less than typical, all of which certainly deserve some mention. (Especially the one afforded prime placement. Honestly, you should probably just skip to the end first...)

Holy Smokes—Aesop Rock.

Dynamic, scathing, political, catchy—Aesop Rock is, in my opinion, rather brilliant. His backing tracks are unwaveringly interesting, & his ability to put excellent-sounding words together is really a marvel (e.g., I swallow spores born by the lores of a morbid gluttony; She always said hello to passers-by; they asked her why she passed her time attaching lye to concrete, but she would only smile; on & on).

Wat Pomp? (feat. Jack Parow)—Die Antwoord.

About a year ago, my beloved James St. James posted a video called "Enter the Ninja" by this arthouse South African rap start-up, Die Antwoord—&, though it was odd, even mockable, I found myself listening to it almost constantly. There is no denying that, despite the ridiculousness of a man aggressively re-asserting his status as a "motherfuckin' ninja," the rhythm & syntax he uses for those assertions is, frankly, really good.

So, of course, when $O$ came out late last year, I snatched it up immediately—& what I found remains nothing short of fantastic: part parody, wholly bizarre, a seat-edge hodge-podge spat, unapologetically, in the most intriguing of accents—&, even better, in tongue-tripping Afrikaans.

Also, let's be honest: the beat on this song is insane.

Alexander Hamilton—Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This song was supposedly written my Mr. Miranda (whom you may remember as the annoying guy on that subpar series of House episodes) as part of a forthcoming Alexander Hamilton concept album, which he then performed a piece of at the White House tribute to Spoken Word. More importantly, though, it is, quite literally, one of the greatest raps I've ever heard. I kid you not: at least listen to the first line—low down, piano-backed & snapping: How does a bastard orphan son of a whore & a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, by Providence impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero & a scholar? The collision of syllables is nothing short of glorious—& it only gets better from there.

Also, can we just talk about what a fun party game this would be: pick an obscure historical figure, pick a musical genre, & combine them into a concept album. I mean, Christopher Lee's already playing—Charlemagne, heavy metal. I think I'd go for Joan of Arc & Riot Grrrl. Or Napoleon meets glam.

Massive Attack—Nicki Minaj.
[ Here's the music video; I just happen to think the song sounds insanely stupid censored. ]

The first time I heard Nicki Minaj was, I think, the first time a lot of people did: when she positively slaughtered her two verses on Kanye West's "Monster"—the highlight of which, I think, is the life-encapsulating line, You can be the king, but watch the queen conquer.

&, quite frankly, she has: as her "Monster" verse describes, Nicki became a hot commodity long before she produced anything solo, constantly sought after for guest-spots—verses that are, in most cases, a song's only redeeming feature. Her long-awaited album, Pink Friday, was admittedly a bit hit-or-miss—but she's absolutely beyond vindicated by gems like "Roman's Revenge", featuring a spectacularly-on-his-game Eminem. Aside from being objectively well done, the track is all the more fun for being attributed to one of her many alter-egos, Roman Zolanski, whom Minaj describes as "a gay boy. He's flamboyant, very into himself." (Also note the presence of Martha, Roman's mother / Nicki's fairy godmother, who is British.)

Were all of this not enough, the moment she won me, hook-line-&-sinker, was when I saw this quote in Interview magazine:

I want people—especially young girls—to know that in life, nothing is going to be based on sex appeal. You’ve got to have something else to go with that.
P-R-E-A-C-H, ladyfriend! It's not that respectability comes from performing in a mumu; rather, it's crucial to be dynamic, talented beyond your ability to bodaciously fill out a leotard—which, let's get real, the author of this line undeniably is:

So call me Simba, little mama, 'cause Mufasa couldn't stop a bitch /
I fly in on a chopper just to buy Balenciaga /
It's just me, Mr. Miyagi, & the Phantom of the Opera /
goin' blocka mothafucka, got that big rocket-laun
I mean, the girl can rhyme "As-Salaam Alaikum," for chrissakes. She is, quite simply, ideal.

The Whole World—Outkast.

A classic, pure & simple—never less than eminently wonderful.

Too Heavy for Cherubs—Cage.

WARNING: This song is insanely disturbing—but also insanely well done.

Forest Whitaker—Brother Ali.

My hand to God, this song will brighten any day, lift any spirit—the ultimate anthem for anyone who's ever shaken their head at a mirror. Even sulking down blustery sidewalks—weaving through pedestrians, kicking air towards nowhere in particular—it's impossible not to smile & jive when that final chorus kicks in: I'm'a be all right, indeed, indeed.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Knock Out (feat. Diplo)—T.O.P. & G-Dragon.

Where to begin? This video is, quite simply, fabulous. On every conceivable level. I mean, really: each shot is better than the next—from the well-chopped dancing, to the rhythmic popping of bubble wrap, to the inexplicable interpolation of an adorable dog—not to mention the fact that every single one of these outfits is beyond fascinating & glam-level extravagant. There are Segway capes, for fuck's sake. Segway. Capes.

Also, not to be outdone, the song is virus-catchy—& seems, from what I can tell, to be skillfully written. The patter of their words is dynamic, limb-rocking, & even those without the power of Korean might hear references to "Napoleon," "sweet Medusa," &, my utter favorite—with translation help from a quick lyric Google—a diss about how T.O.P.'s eyelashes are preferable to his competition's "smoky" make-up.

I rest my case.

Monday, February 21, 2011

THF: A Very Jacques Brel Kind of Day.

A resurgence of snow, an avalanche of work, & suddenly it's never been so appealing to curl up with some bitter coffee & a cosmic fuckton of accordion-backed French cynicism. Though I've recently purchased & am now making my way though his 2 CD collection, I've certainly been favoring my favorites—namely, "Amsterdam," which was later covered in English by David Bowie (via Scott Walker). Still, French-speaker or no, there's really nothing like watching sweat-drenched Brel belt to his last breath, shaking, adamant, through bugged eyes & crooked teeth.

Friday, February 18, 2011

THF: Goldilocks & the Folsom Prison Blues.

I was looking at this picture earlier tonight—which is posted, poster-size, at the head of my bed, below the besunglassed Lou Reed—& I started thinking about just how much I like Johnny Cash, & just how funny that is, because nearly every other artist who falls into his genre (re: Country) gives me the overwhelming desire to take to my eardrums with a hacksaw. Still, Joaquin Phoenix aside, Johnny remains brilliant—not only because he can do a mean NIN / Depeche Mode cover, but also because his songs are simple & lovely but never quite cheerful—melancholy, buoyed always by a twang.

There are plenty I could post—"I Still Miss Someone," 
"Ring of Fire," "Cocaine Blues," "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart"—but my favorite-favorite-favorite will always be "Folsom Prison Blues"—the must-have version, of course: live at Folsom Prison.

Still, when I clicked over to iTunes & let this song rocket out across my quiet little cubicle of a dorm room, I was surprised—not quite disappointed, per se, but left wanting. For whatever reason, I had always remembered it slower. Maybe because his is the least blues-y "blues" I know—up-tempo & jittering—but probably because it's just such a beautiful song—a sad song—a song about stasis, prisons literal & self-imposed.

So, with that in mind, I went in search of a cover that did justice to the version I craved, & I found these.

Slim Harpo.

Funkier than what I had envisioned, but no less worth sharing. (Also, I love how this YouTuber calls it "The One About the Man From Reno." It's okay, man: that's my favorite line, too.)

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings.

This version is certainly bluesier—& certainly very good—but it still didn't quite fit the bill...

& then, at last, the knock-it-out-of-the-park, how-on-earth-did-I-find-this, thank-you-Blessed-Internet version:

Amy Black.

This is almost exactly how I imagine the song sung in my head (sans, perhaps, a few of those flares)—how I wish, dear Lord of Vocal Chords, I could sing it, ever & on, to the small square insides of these walls.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Greetings From the Depths of a Sugar Coma.

So, yesterday was, of course, the big Feb-1-4, &, as I've already spewed some vitriol on the subject hereabouts, I won't give my cynicism too much play—suffice it to say that my Valentines Day consisted mostly of a Sunday-through-Monday all-nighter in the library with Immanuel Kant, furiously expounding on the Categorical Imperative, killing the occasional cockroach. & no, that's not a euphemism—though it is, I think, an apt metaphor for a lot of things.

Still, it would be unfair to disregard my evening: after a brief & pseudo-delirious disco nap, I hopped up to celebrate a friend's birthday—which involved pink pancakes & Salt-n-Pepa & all kinds of loveliness—so it wasn't all bad. It's never really all bad, I think.

Anyhow, when I got back to my bed, the sugar buzz hadn't quite worn off, so I spent a little while awake reading poems (because, yes, I'm that kid) & I stumbled on one of my favorites by one of my favorites: a tribute to a saint's day—perhaps not the right one in name, but jiving quite ideal with its (or, at least, my) spirit. (Especially parts II & III. Especially the final stanza.)

Song for St. Cecilia's Day.
W.H. Auden, July 1940.


In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell's abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.


I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play

I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.

I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.

All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.

I shall never be
Different. Love me.


O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain
O law drummed out by hearts against the still

Long winter of our intellectual will.
That what has been may never be again
O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath

Of convalescents on the shores of death.
O bless the freedom that you never chose
O trumpets that unguarded children blow

About the fortress of their inner foe.
O wear your tribulation like a rose

From Selected Poems, Ed. Edward Mendelson, © 2007, Vintage Books.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

It is hopelessly tempting to truck out an entry's worth of really beautiful love songs—Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, the Magnetic Fields, covers of Massive Attack songs that make you weepy—but it's one thing to talk about love, & another to sound like it. This track is one of my favorites from Nomi's unfinished opera, Za Bakdaz—fading & receding, intertwining, invaded by stilted politesse—light without ever fully floating away.

Monday, February 14, 2011

THF: Avril Lavigne Rapping.

[ NOTE: "THF" stands for, you guessed it (or, more likely, you didn't), "Today's Headphone Fodder"—a phrase that accidentally became a standard hereabouts, but that has now stuck, & will continue on to help designate these rapid-fire, "Here's Some Music" posts. ]

It's recently tumbled into my consciousness that Avril Lavigne has a new single/video out—so, more out of morbid curiosity than anything else, I tracked it down: a subtle, soulful ditty, tastefully titled "What the Hell," which certainly doesn't include blatant endorsement of everything I find hateful (including, but not limited to, poser-punkery, product placement, "Emotion is for Losers"-itude, & autotune). In fact, after watching it, I murmured, aloud, in wonderment, "Barftacular." That is how awful it is: I was forced to come up with so barftacular a word as "barftacular" just to begin describing it. In fact, I refuse to post the video in its entirety, because it honestly just saddens me: I used to ROCK. OUT. to Avril in my single digits! Really now, lady! What the Hell happened?! (Zing!)

I mean, I suppose I should have just let sleeping traitors lie: ever since the painfully pathetic "Girlfriend" showcased her Delia's-furnished "punk princess" makeover—the most pernicious application of pink skulls this side of the Resurrection—eons from the girl who hung with sk8er bois at the mall & wore a tie with her t-shirts. (Of course, I recognize that even her tomboyishness was probably the product of corporate styling—but wouldn't you rather have a role model marketed to you in cargo pants than skimpy pink & black plaid?)

In part to eulogize that far cooler incarnation—&, moreover, because literally every time I mention this song, my conversational counterpart gawps like I'm speaking Klingon—here is Avril Lavigne rapping:

The song is called "Nobody's Fool," off her debut—&, clearly, only remotely good—album, Let Go.

[ Full disclosure: I can totally still rap the whole thing. The way my brain chooses to partition its resources is truly fascinating... ]

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Decision.

So. Here's a decision I've made: Henceforth, this Blogling will be comprised of its standard verbose rambles, interpolated with more immediate, "Here's This Cool Thing"-type smatter-entries.

Recently, I've been frustrated with my ever-increasing inability to finish one of the 7 posts I've collected, half-written (& already perilously lengthy) in the Drafts section. Moreover, I've been almost exactly repeating the phenomenon I mocked of my wee LiveJournaling self: I'll sit around & think, "Damn, I have to think of something to write about, so I can post this song at the end!"

This exact feeling is why, I think, many of my contemporaries have chosen Tumblr: it's specifically, aesthetically designed with the expectation that you will let your various videos & pictures simply tumble, free-form, without necessitating commentary. Still, it's nice to have a place to ramble—& that is sort of the point of this outlet anyhow, to keep me writing—so those 7 half-posts will surely make it to light in due course. But, in the interest of staying vital, I predict that there will also be a fair few non sequitur blips.

With that in mind: here are four songs. (Consider it retroactive quota-filling.) Apparently, my taste these days is half live late-19s altrock, half upstart LA rap EPs. Who knew?

Add It Up (Live, 1983)—The Violent Femmes.
Quite simply, one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Wild & impatient, like the best of things.

Buena (Live, 1993)—Morphine.
"I started with one string, so... Progress."

(Apparently, when I was younger, I choreographed a dance to this song—something involving jumps in a very distinct pattern—which I would perform, with grave intensity, every time it played. It still sounds smoothed over sometimes—round bass lines blurred, like nostalgia.)

Luper—Earl Sweatshirt.

This is one of those songs that draws you in immediately, like undertow—that you love, instantly, then more & more—until, without warning, it gets really & suddenly objectionable. If there's one thing that I want to strangle about modern rap music, it's the canonizing & normalizing of really heinous violence-against-women imagery—because, really now. Just stop it. Still, the first 1:45 of this song are so deeply likable, so damn skillfully put together—&, before it gets murderous, it's tongue-twisting, bittersweet, lovelorn. (One might even argue that the violent end serves some artful purpose—but still, I protest, don't.)

Oh, right, also: this kid is 16. Six-teen. !!!

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Yonkers—Tyler, the Creator.

Tyler is part of the same group as Earl—Odd Future, or OFWGKTA—& this is the preview single for their newest release, Goblin. It's also one of the best music videos I've seen in quite a while. Really, artfully disturbing, all the more so for its simplicity; palpable nerves when he can't catch up to his own lyrics. Predesigned chaos with a heart-squeezing backbeat. Yes, please.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Combatting the February Blues.

Days are dark here in slushy Manhattan, dear Reader, & while I will be the first to call (at least partial) bullshit on any diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder (WE ALL HAVE IT), I will also be even before the first—that annoying, clamoring olde-tyme reporter with the flashbulb camera & the card in her fedora who simply will not get out of your face—when it comes to decrying the February Blues. Indeed, I've put together something of a spiel over the years, & it goes a little something like this:

In the beginning, of course, there is January—but not even January-proper. No, every year begins with what I like to call "Trailer January": a Coming Attractions of optimism & accomplishment, a montage of a year that can't not contain the magical fulfillment of your every goal, accompanied, perhaps, by a power ballad or 5. But slowly over that first week, the champagne buzz begins to fade, & you realize that actually sticking to the now-insane-seeming loftiness of your resolutions means, well, actually sticking to it—which, as any human with cognitive ability well knows, is nigh impossible.

So, every time you "forget" to go to the gym or read a book or update your blog, you necessarily feel a pang of guilt—but, rather than direct that frustration inwards, you start to blame it on subarctic temperatures & severe lack of sun. All of your personal shortcomings become the weather's shortcomings: if it were only a few degrees warmer out, you cry, fist shaking at an overcast sky, everything would be better! I could walk those ten blocks to my Astronomy lecture! I could translate the Aeneid into Dutch! I'd find Wonder Woman's invisible plane, goddammit! Once Winter & Failure are so intertwined, the desire to Get the Fuck Out becomes more than just a temperature imperative: it's the quest for life itself—&, wouldn't you know, standing like a giant, inert moose on the highway of your indubitable progress is February, that utterly useless blob of 28 days between you & your freedom from icy catatonia.

Meanwhile, just to fuck with you, February brings fun surprises, like Greeting Card Companies' Valentine's Day, which is situated right smack dab in its middle, providing that one final solar-plexus punch as you're going down, down, down the slope to spring. As we are all no doubt aware, February the 14th is a day of incorrigible evil, forecasting either stress (to impress a loved one) or melancholy (for a lack of someone to stress over), both of which imply too much money spent on too much sugar, & inevitably leave the Valentined in a wake of guilt & headaches & wilting rose petals. Also, what cocky motherfucker of a month gives itself an extra day every four years? Rude, I say. Rude.

My point is: FEBRUARY IS DEEPLY AWFUL, & you have to catch any & all bright spots as catch can—find the diamonds in the rough, to crib from The Cave of Wonders (who, let's get real, is my barometer for all that is good & true).

For example, if you find yourself desperately hacking away at Insomnia with mind-numbing episodes of shows you don't watch anymore (because they've gotten just untenably bad), & still sleep isn't coming, & why do you even bother at this point—you may just find that, lo & behold, here's your very favorite Zombies song "She's Not There" AS PERFORMED BY ACTUAL ZOMBIES.

Excellences upon excellences, indeed. Well done, Glee. I officially return to you exactly 1.5 of the 8,579 kudos I retracted after that Rocky Horror Disasterthon.

Having witnessed me forgive the dreadful Glee this minutest of fractions, you, my canniest Reader, may be wondering if February doesn't deserve some of this clemency—perhaps a reasoned re-viewing through rosy lenses? It's just a month after all—it can't help itself; oughtn't we put aside our past differences & look for the bright spots within February itself?

To which I will answer, emphatically, no, & find the nearest door such that I may slam it in your general direction.

February is simply & profoundly the Worst.

End scene.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

I've never been a huge fan of Muse—if only because I don't know them too well & haven't yet taken the requisite time to explore—but Absolution is one of the albums with which I have passing familiarity, & "Time Is Running Out" has always been one of the songs I liked. That said, I really don't think even a passing familiarity with the original is required to appreciate this truly fantastic string quartet arrangement—dynamic, creative, full of builds & careful interplays, wheedling along the razor's edge of melodies the rock song simply can't quite pluck out. Really, really lovely.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

RIP, White Stripes.

Well, we all knew deep down this day would come. Ever since Icky Thump & embroidered suits—then a hiatus full of Raconteurs & Dead Weather, Jack White spinning ever further into full-sounding pseudoblues, until the simple days of De Stijl seemed almost out of reach—a dream upon waking—& now, it's official. As of Feb 2, 2011, the Stripes have split, so we here at my computer have decided to eulogize this long-fizzing firestorm—to recall the scratchy, scrappy excellence of a duo raised on Motown, with bar chords in their fingers & battery acid for veins.

This break is an especial bummer for me, of course—not only because I'm a big fan of the band, but because I've been one for so long. Still in single-digits, just as I was reaching the crest of my Crap Music Phase (e.g., Britney, N*Sync, Avril)—when I was on the cusp of becoming a real person—my mom & stepdad were in the process of discovering this upstart band from Detroit. Perhaps sensing my readiness to evolve out of corporate pop, they dressed me in a t-shirt with a peppermint on it & played this new music constantly in the car: quick, itchy, like it was bored with itself before it began—& I became hooked. To this day, I credit The White Stripes, White Blood Cells, & especially De Stijl with shaping my music taste—or, at the very least, informing it greatly: teaching me first & firsthand what Platonic perfection there is in the 2-minute song, the wailing guitar, the shouted lyric—simplicity, sincere & so excellent.

In that vein, here are some songs:

When I Hear My Name.

Jimmy the Exploder.


Dead Leaves & the Dirty Ground.

I'm Finding it Harder to Be a Gentleman.

Little Room.

Fell in Love With a Girl.
NOTE: NOT the Joss Stone version. ]

Hotel Yorba.

You're Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl).

Hello Operator.

Little Bird.

Truth Doesn't Make a Noise.

Sister Do You Know My Name.
[ This one might be my favorite. ]

Then, of course, comes the break—or, rather, the break-out: "Seven Nation Army"—a great song, undeniably, & therefore rightly famous, but it's still sometimes frustrating to view the band from 3l3phant on, robbed somewhat of their young garage spark. Icky Thump is especially, well, icky—not categorically, mind you: it's fine if experienced in a vacuum, but when you consider that it represents the latter canon of the band that brought you "The Big Three Killed My Baby," then Perspective, she depresses.

This is why, ultimately, as upsetting as the break-up of a band you love inevitably is, I really respect the Stripes' choice: as reiterated in their letter, they "hope that this decision isn’t met with sorrow by their fans but that it is seen as a positive move done out of respect for the art and music that the band has created." They've mustered the sense to quit while they're (more or less) ahead, to leave done what's done & trust their canonizing to our hands:

The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want. The beauty of art and music is that it can last forever if people want it to.

Amen, utmost, ever & on. So, let's go to it.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Apple Blossom—The White Stripes.

[ Recorded with haste, & (pseudo-)intentionally amateurish—as one ought to be, I think, when covering Mr. White. ]

This was, quite literally, the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar. Am, Dm, E (with the optional G). Plain, adorable, plain adorable—sweet but minor—never saccharine.

ALSO: for fun: The White Stripes cover "Moonage Daydream" quite well, proving themselves fantastic beyond measure.