“The House That Heaven Built” – Celebration Rock
Japandroids’ galvanizing rock anthem “Young Hearts Spark Fire” revolved around a loaded statement: “We used to dream/ Now we worry about dying.” That song from 2009’s Post Nothing brought much deserved attention to the Vancouver duo, but also lent them a certain air of gravitas. Brian King and David Prowse had toiled in obscurity for years, their hopes dashed against the rocks of music industry stubbornness and the fickleness of the indie public. It wasn’t until they announced that Japandroids was breaking up after the Post Nothing tour that Pitchfork picked up on “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” and people took notice. So you can excuse the duo’s healthy dose of skepticism — they’ve earned it.
All of this makes follow-up Celebration Rock’s heart-on-your sleeve enthusiasm and new found vigor so spectacular. At a time when irony is deeply seeded in our culture and “the hipster is our archetype of ironic living”, Celebration Rock is music for hipsters that’s refreshingly genuine (it’s bookended by fireworks, for Christ’s sake). King and Prowse intentionally built more “Oh Oh Oh’s” and “Ahhhs” into these songs, priming them for maximum crowd participation at shows. And it works. This feels like one for the masses, a manifesto whose devil-may-care bravado is forged by long nights of hell-raising, liquor cabinet raids, and self-destruction (King nearly died of a perforated ulcer on tour in 2009), and whose hopefulness is defined by surviving them.
Prowse’s drums still explode and King’s guitar roars with needle-in-the-red saturation, but on the cusp of age thirty, the two can now appreciate the fact that they’re still standing. The album’s pinnacle “The House That Heaven Built” turns the table on “Young Hearts Spark Fire’s” nihilism. Now King shouts: “It’s a lifeless life/ With no fixed address to give/ But you’re not mine to die for anymore/ So I must live.” It’s the sound of a young man coming to terms with his obstacles, his ennui and his mortality while facing the future head on — a massive fuck-you with purpose and a resolve to survive.
“The House That Heaven Built” – mp3
“Genesis” – Visions
You get the sense that Claire Boucher is thinking and seeing things that most of us aren’t. Her self-directed video for “Genesis” is absurdly bizarre — a California desert full of strippers wielding morningstars, sheetmail bikinis, and a white snake that may or may not have been used in an infamous Britney Spears’ VMA performance. (Boucher recruited for the video on Twitter by asking for “hot girls who can dance & r willing to be zombie angels and blow up cars and televisions.”) But her odd indulgences as a visual artist are more than made up for by her ability as Grimes to translate the creative chaos in her skull into sonic constructs that intersect the world of pop, R&B, and experimental electronica. “Genesis” is the foremost example. Its warm synth hook floods under Boucher’s icy vocal lines like a breath of hot air on cold glass, creating a textured, melodic fog that’s equally eerie and elegant.
It was created during a three week period in 2011, when Grimes cloistered herself in the her apartment with the windows blacked out, avoiding all human contact, fasting for two day periods at a time and fucking around with Garage Band. She came out with Visions. The name is fitting, as Boucher explains: “You have no stimulation, so your subconscious starts filling in the blanks. I was convinced my music was a gift from God.” Though the results are a product of complete sensory deprivation, they feel like a maximalist explosion of day-glo K-pop fed through a Pretty Hate Machine filter. Listening creates a similar experience — at first you’re at a loss, repelled like an outsider by the records’ obliqueness, but with repeated exposure, you begin to hear nuances, patterns and compelling new variations on a traditionally limited art form. Grimes has done the impossible — created pop music whose rewards deepen over time.
“Genesis” – mp3
“Ashtray Wasp” – Kindred EP
In an excellent article for Quietus, Rory Gibb aptly noted that London electronic artist Burial (a.k.a. Will Bevan) is the sonic equivalent of so-called “urban explorers” — a rapidly expanding community that enjoys uncovering the buried underbelly of old cities. These people spelunk in old subway tunnels, abandoned factories and other entombed spaces that time forgot, seeking to discover “hidden zones that lie beneath the facade” and “connect with the history of their own environments.” Burial’s work has always been music of the city, filled with the sounds of clinking metals, radio static and footsteps skittering in the dark, but Gibb’s comparison strikes a more literal chord on the Kindred EP. Over the course of thirty minutes, its three songs reveal a complex architecture, filled with oddly connected sonic passageways, false endings and a labyrinthine sense of recursiveness.
Each song’s composition resembles a series of rooms strung together within the catacombs of dance music’s history, littered with the reverential artifacts of techno, jungle, and rave filtered through the modern lens of garage and dubstep. In the context of the 12-minute “Ashtray Wasp,” there are abrupt shifts in tempo and tone, like you’re moving from antechamber to massive hallway to tight corridor and back again, each section draped with unique sonic trappings. “Kindred” begins with an almost hopeful, ambient warmth before plunging into dark swirling 2-step rhythms, only to end with an eerie sense of anticipation. “Loner” delves back into the black with a pounding four-on-the-floor beat, but unexpectedly circles around to the same bright keyboard tones. There’s no live instruments or singing to speak of — everything is digitally constructed — but it stirs uncommon emotion.
As a scathing Quietus follow up article points out, its difficult for reviewers not to engage in artistic “wankery” when describing Burial’s work — electronic music tends to lend itself to associations that are metaphoric at best, and some of the comparisons are patently absurd. But let’s risk it. Because isn’t that what superb music does — make us think and feel things that mere words cannot? Within the crackle and swarm of noise, Burial seeks what all of these explorers of the past do — the lost lessons of those who came before, a connection with his ancestry and, by some extension, himself.
Vocal samples float through these songs like ghosts, whispering phrases that hint at disassociation and loneliness (“I used to belong to you” and “When the darkness comes calling”) even though Burial’s trademark pitch-altered R&B tones imbue them with intimacy. For some, that contradiction hints at the dreary reality of post-millennial anxiety; for others, it’s simply of a microcosm of the club scene itself —- an attempt to find a warm glow in the midst of emptiness. “There’s something out there” whispers a trembling voice at the beginning of “Loner” — the question remains, is it something we are prepared to find? In some regards, amidst the sonic rubble and hidden zones, Will Bevan discovers humanity, although it’s beset on all sides by darkness.
“Ashtray Wasp” – mp3
See also “Kindred” and “Rough Sleeper”
2) Frank Ocean
“Sweet Life” – channel ORANGE
It was sophomoric, backroom humor in the 70’s and early 80’s that R&B’s greatest Lothario had the last name Gaye. What woman didn’t swoon to “Let’s Get It On” or “Sexual Healing” or even this almost carnal rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”? What if Marvin had in fact been gay or bi-sexual? Unthinkable. Fast-forward thirty years and recognize that although acceptance of the gay and lesbian community has risen, in some ways, things remain status quo in rap and R&B culture. Being gay is still considered anathema — save a few outliers, you won’t find any mainstream artists who’ve come out. Quite ironic, really, considering the genre is predicated on the sound of seduction. Just that of the opposite sex.
All this is fascinating, but in the end, Frank Ocean’s courageous, soul-baring letter to the public is significant only so far as the quality of his music allows it to be. Which is to say, tremendous. And while I realize it’s premature to place Frank Ocean in the same zip code as R&B legend Gaye, the parallels are quite striking. Ocean is charismatic, good looking and the best song on his last mix tape was called “Songs for Women.” Even more compelling is his sheer artistic talent and penchant for progressive thinking, characteristics found in the man who famously bucked the singles trend in Motown to release a concept album tackling violence, poverty and environmental destruction. Ocean gravitates toward more personal issues (self-denial, unrequited love, chemical dependency) but he explores them no less incisively, often through a lens tinted by the surreal.
Take your pick between channel ORANGE’s “Pyramids” or “Sweet Life” — either could be song of the year. What’s amazing is that the first is a 10-minute three-part conceptual epic through electro-funk, grinding strip club beats and a John Mayer guitar solo so awkwardly sleazy it’s fabulous, while the second is an effortless, sun-kissed slice of Stevie Wonder-inspired R&B. Sing-along ballads “Thinking ‘Bout You” and “Bad Religion” explore opposing sides of Ocean’s relationship with his mystery man — its touching tenderness and shameful secrecy. The fact that Ocean’s pop instincts are so sinfully sharp only make his meanderings into the weird all the more daring and befuddling. On the album’s closing tracks, he compares a woman’s vagina to a hentai character (“Pink Matter”), likens his aforementioned male lover to Greenbow, Alabama’s favorite son (“Forrest Gump”) and buries one of the album’s greatest hooks in a throwaway skit (“End”). This is a guy who clearly skips to his own beat. What’s remarkable is how he brings you along for the ride.
Therein lies the source of Ocean’s brilliance — a likeable blend of eclecticism and empathy. “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born” isn’t a line I can remotely relate to since I’ve had neither, but that hasn’t stopped me from belting out “Sweet Life’s” catchy chorus all year long. Whether he’s playing the role of a coked-out trust fund baby, shrewd drug dealer or jilted lover, Ocean puts you square in his characters’ shoes and turns even the most far-flung narratives into universal anthems. His quirks become your own. channel ORANGE transmits on its own irrepressible wavelength, and the future feels wide open for Ocean, both personally and professionally. At one point, Ocean seemed heir apparent to the throne of R&B’s greatest ladies’ man. Now, he’s quite simply heir to R&B’s greatest.
“Sweet Life” – mp3
1) Kendrick Lamar
“Backseat Freestyle” – good kid, m.A.A.d city
“Backstreet Freestyle” is delivered from the perspective of a 16 year old ghetto kid — violent, horny and brazen as fuck. He compares his cock to the Eiffel tower, brags to anyone who’ll listen “Man I got bitches/ Wifey, girlfriend and mistress” and demands that you “respect my mind or die in lead shower.” It’s an uproarious, offensive display of skill and verbal command from an MC at the top of his game It’s also one of the many high points on good kid m.A.A.d. city, a concept album about the perils of growing up in Compton, CA and a devastating account of the choices, tragedy and redemption of one Kendrick Lamar.
The 25-year old rapper’s major label debut is a triumph seldom seen in rap music — an album whose sum total exceeds any singles it contains. Through a cast of characters, snippets of spoken dialogue and interlocking thematic elements, Lamar tells the tale of his youth filled with gangbanging, smoking blunts and robbing homes in the most infamous of all California hoods. It’s a modern, soulful adaptation of the tale of inner city blues. His ability to paint an unforgettable portrait of urban life from seemingly mundane details is remarkable. (“Me and my niggas four deep in a Toyota/ A quarter tank of gas, one pistol, and orange soda”) Twisting jazz riffs, foreboding bass lines and sweeping cinematic strings splash color over songs driven by high hats, booming beats and siren-like synths — the menacing G-funk swing is a constant reminder that the city lurks all around you, everpresent and enveloping. Give producer Dr. Dre the credit he’s due for constructing such a compelling aural backdrop. When pistol shots ring out, you can smell the gunpowder and feel the heat of the barrel.
A dizzying narrative zigzags through the tracks; songs refer to one another and unexpectedly tie off the loose ends in each other’s plots. Lamar’s exceptional ability to switch voices among characters is comparable to that of rap storytelling giants Prince Paul, Biggie and Jay Z. He writes convincingly from the perspective of the women in the story (his mother, a doomed prostitute and a grandmotherly neighbor who guides him with prayer), yet he’s just as apt to perpetuate Gangsta rap’s infatuation with misogyny (see “Backstreet Freestyle”). good kid m.A.A.d. city is littered with these sort of juxtapositions — pleasures of the flesh versus purity of the spirit. On “Money Tree,” he lays it out plain: “It go Halle Berre or hallelujah.” Hell, the whole mess begins because 16 year old Kendrick is sweating a neighborhood girl, but by the end of the climatic “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” he’s convinced lust is just like greed, drugs or violence. “What’s my next crave?” he wonders “Whatever it is, know it’s my next grave.”
It’s this embrace of contradictions that makes good kid m.A.A.d. city so rich and compelling. The songs are delivered with a bluster and juicy indulgence that appeals to our darker natures, even as they implore us to spiritually elevate ourselves above these same vices. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a song about alcoholism that’s real easy to get buzzed to. “m.A.A.d. city” points out the evils of gang violence while its “gaak gaak gaak” beat glorifies gunfire. “Backstreet Freestyle’s” intermingling of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech with the image of a priapism the size of France’s most famous monument might seem incongruent, but it’s actually a microcosm of the record — a dabbling in the sacred and the profane.
At the beginning of the gangster film The Departed, Jack Nicholson famously says: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.” He’s referring to the rough and tumble streets of South Boston, a dangerous neighborhood rife with violence, the Irish Mafia, and bad accents. Compton makes Beantown look like a country club. The people in good kid, m.A.A.d city aren’t movie characters either; they’re flesh and blood, and this is their true story. Granted, Kendrick Lamar has seen some tough times. The album cover is a Polaroid of him at age eight in his family’s kitchen, flanked by a jar full of hooch, a 40 oz. and a baby bottle. Another photo shows one of Lamar’s older relatives posing with a double-barreled shotgun. Yeah, Lamar’s shaped by where he comes from. But on good kid, m.A.A.d city, he’s altering the very landscape of rap around him. It’s not just the rap album of the year, but the album of the year period — a story of moral atonement and a monument by an artist who’s formidable talent will be felt for years to come.
“Backstreet Freestyle” – mp3