summer jamz gone awry.

“And yes, I’m settled back at school, and will be blogging more. I mean it this time.”

Er, about that.

Well, the semester has come and gone, and it was my best yet. But that left little time for blogging.

In any case, it’s been a fairly dull year for music thus far, or maybe just for my interest in it. I did really enjoy the Portishead record, especially “Machine Gun” — white dubstep, more or less, which would be a terrible idea for a genre but is a great idea for one (1) song which has easily been my favorite single of the year (and I’m pretty shocked considering how poorly I regard “Dummy”).

In any case, I’ve recently found some stuff which is really exciting. Tipped off by an issue of FACT that I picked up in London over spring break, I checked out Scottish beatmaker Rustie’s myspace. Simon wrote recently of his disenchantment with “beats,” of the sheer safety haunting dubstep’s borderline-museum-culture austerity. I was impressed, then, by the general pandemonium and cacophony of Rustie’s sound, seemingly wrought from an irreverent and passionate desire to make beats dangerous again.

Having been a child for most all of the rave movement, my primary vessel to understand the idea of “believing in beats” is hip-hop. Learning to believe in hip-hop beats was more of an unlearning of the focus on lyrics which drives most people in my race and class position towards the likes of Talib Kweli or Atmosphere — an often noble gesture but totally musically vacant and boring sludge (except for a handful of tunes, like Kweli’s great, Kanye-produced “Get By”; Atmosphere, on the other hand, belong to the bottom echelon of my musical universe, alongside the only two other acts I hate with this much of a passion: Of Montreal and Matisyahu).

Incidentally, while grime’s beats were thrilling jagged and lo-fi, a lot of the danger factor may indeed have come from the lyrical element rather than the beat one. The jagged rhythms of garage-descended MCing posed not only a counterpoint to the hyper-dull tradition of UK hip-hop but in fact to the entire hip-hop tradition. Dubstep, it seems, has been trying to take the beat-based end of grime and trace its mournful lineage back through the entire history of British electronic dance music. It’s yielded some lovely records, but in no way does it feel like a scene, a movement. Rather, it resembles a discrete moment so severed from any sense of history that it may be doomed to remain stationary unless it can point somewhere else, and fast.

Rustie delightfully fucks with the entire scheme of the dubstep and grime sound, and he may be (at least part of) the dance underground’s much needed way out. And sure, his messy conflation of the most enticing developments in hip-hop, techno, and grime/dubstep, brilliantly situated by Blackdown as part of a semi-global “wonky” trend in his Pitchfork column, is pretty thrilling at first. But — and here, there are minute echoes of grime’s crisis circa a couple of years ago — the perverse twist is that a sound like this probably can’t mobilize the social energy which used to catalyze underground music movements without making interventions into, perhaps even without becoming, pop.

Thankfully, in post-MP3 mash-up culture, this is as easy as fucking with mainstream pop tracks, which Rustie has done in his own inimitable style on his remix of Brandy’s “What About Us?” and on his incredible “resmacked” version of Keyshia Cole’s “Shoulda Let You Go,” which you can hear on his myspace linked above. The “Keesha resmak” is probably the most exciting thing I’ve heard in about six months, a lethal ear-demolishing monster with almost no genre coordinates whatsoever.

The original, produced by Darkchild, is a pretty standard ’00s R&B track. I’ve kept myself tuned to R&B not only because it regularly churns out delightful if ephemeral pleasures but because it has been one of the prime sites of pop innovation in the decades since hip-hop more or less swallowed it whole. The feverishly inventive rhythms of R&B’s “Waterfalls”-to-“Bugaboo” late 90s peak may have dried up long ago, but the genre continues to spit out ravishingly perfect flashes of pop futurism and percussive energy — see Amerie’s “1 Thing” and Cassie’s “Me and U” — amidst its routine of mass-producing tame but wondrous pop anthems. Part of what made the Keyshia original great — and, really, part of why I listen to or write about music at all — is because of how it, as a pop-song/culture-machine hybrid, exposes and accelerates the hyperreal social fictions of (taking “Shoulda Let You Go” as the example) Black Womanhood that the Capitalist culture machine has such investment in reproducing, reselling, reinventing and eternally recommodifying. Listening to pop, or to any music, is inseparably both an aesthetic pleasure (or displeasure) and an immanent spectacle of Capital’s structural effects. What makes pop music such an exciting site for this power play is the way that particular sounds — in this case, take Cole’s hysterical melismatic wails — or technologies — Darkchild’s hyper-quantized strings and the thickly smeared layers of post-B-Boys-on-E squeaky clean ProTools production gloss — are revealed as intimately welded to the discursive violence the pop marketplace performs on its own consumers and producers as well as to the agency these consumers and producers can muster against that discursive violence.

Rutie’s version of “Shoulda Let You Go,” then, is something like a phallic modernist assault on Keyshia Cole’s tame, generically feminine original. Indeed, abuse seems to be a key word here — why does Cole get “resmacked” instead of “remixed,” anyway?

Rustie begins and ends the song with an onslaught of chopped female voices, hicupping, coughing, and maybe choking. Convulsive percussion throws us into Rustie’s carnival of pop chaos. Cole’s vocals are pitched up slightly, accelerating the original’s traditional pop melodrama, while the vocal-science dissection of the track’s inorganic female protagonist suggests not so much reconstitution as it does full-on disassembly. Synth-bass roars flood the low end, while the mid-range is an air-raid of disorienting effects. Lyrics like “And we both know you’re wrong/ There’s nothing you can do to ever undo what you done to me” become anguished pleas directed against the violence of the track itself.

Listening to it is an almost exhausting experience, but one that I’ve returned to dozens and dozens of times (really) in the last week. It’s hard to say exactly why, but part of it is that the track seems to interface with a dozen microscenes at once — the already acknowledged fragments of grime and dubstep rubbing up against sounds and rhythms cribbed from hyphy, bassline house, and crunk — negotiating their microscopic similarities and their shared sense of local, culturally specific social energy against the monolithic force of contemporary pop. It’s exciting, even physically wracking, in all of the places that I usually find mash-ups and myspace remixes to be cheap and uninspired. And it will probably fade into the Internet ether, given the nature of an attention-deficient culture where, particularly in the States, the roles of consumers and critics have dissolved into each other and toward a mess of bourgeois dilettantism. But if we’re lucky, it’s a sign that beats may again become something that we — my generation, at least — can believe in.


Pizza Me.

Alright, here it is: the much bally-hoo’d Britney post.

I had originally intended a serious and in-depth post on this album, since it seemed to be extraordinarily interesting how its poor reception in the mainstream press was soon eclipsed, in my very particular and limited realm of reading, at least, by ardent praise, especially from K-Punk and Marcello (with even Simon Reynolds giving it a brief nod). Sam’s deliberately uninformed two cents hit a certain nail on the head: considering their staunch objections (quite well-reasoned at that) to the popist Paris Hilton fever, the surprising valorization of Britney’s latest by K-Punk, et al, smacks of a certain resurgence of popism, as if this is the Paris fiasco, but for the cool kids this time.

At the same time, I have to admit: the record is quite good. While I like “Tromatic Reflexxions,” there is a wide gulf between Mark E. Smith-chopped-vocal catchy and Britney Spears catchy. And given K-Punk’s ardor for electro-pop (not to mention his adoration for Britney’s previous work), I have to wonder what Sam was expecting him to say about the album. After all, “Blackout” really does sound like electro-pop, its routine relegation to the “retro” realm suddenly revealed as a grand cultural myth, has been silently gestating along with hip-hop, R&B, and electronica, absorbing their innovations. And while I’m certainly not listening to the album regularly any more, its peaks — “Piece of Me,” “Freakshow,” and “Gimme More,” the latter something like an infinitely superior counterpart to the jibbering sex-machine electro-funk of “SexyBack” — remain addictive, compulsively listenable ear candy for those of us who like that sort of thing. Even filler tracks like “Perfect Lover” and “Radar” are delectable and contemporary, if awesomely vacant, slices of pop fantasia. As a final (serious) word on the subject, I direct you to Tom Ewing’s superb column concerning “Blackout,” which says most of what I wish I could have said first (though I admittedly don’t rate the album nearly as highly as he does).

And now, for the part you’ve all been waiting for. This is something that I recently described to Rich as “an experiment in laughing, not necessarily understanding or interpreting anything.”

Britney cake

Just how funny is Britney’s album if you imagine that every song is about food? “Gimme More” becomes “Gimme Food,” a perfect tune to sing when you are seized by hunger, while “Piece of Me” becomes either “Piece of Meat” or “Pizza Me” (I prefer the former, but it’s basically cribbed from Tom Ewing’s column linked above).

Of course, this requires no lyrical manipulation on some of the songs. Take “Heaven on Earth,” which for those of us who love food (which obviously includes almost all of my friends from Philly) was always already self-evidently about eating. Or, for those of you who remain unconvinced, the insanely catchy “Ooh Ooh Baby.” Britney works the hunger metaphor from the very beginning: “You know I have an appetite for sexy things.” But the chorus could easily be sung to the cake in the picture above: “Ooh ooh, baby/ Touch me and I come alive” — in addition to being an object of sheer affection, food is after all necessary for survival — “I can feel you on my lips/ I can feel you deep inside.” And all this before the lyrical passage which runs, I kid you not, “You’re fillin’ me up/ you’re fillin’ me up/ you’re fillin’ me up.”

Anyway, this was probably much funnier when I was 1) listening to “Blackout” and 2) hungry while working at my numbingly repetitive winter break job. In any case, I hope this helps your enjoyment of the album. And yes, I’m settled back at school, and will be blogging more. I mean it this time.


ready for a fall

To whatever readers I have,

Sorry about the lack of updates around here. I thought it would be easier to start and maintain a blog during winter break, when I have nothing to do, but what I’ve found is that winter break just brings all intellectual and physical activity to a grinding halt in order to make room for tons and tons of socializing, sleeping, and eating. I think I’ll be much more inclined to write and post when I’m back at school and back in the swing of things.

hot chip made in the dark

In any case, this isn’t any of the posts promised last time, it’s more of an emergency alert that the new Hot Chip record is, just like their previous two full-lengths, truly great. “Made in the Dark” is yet another album that is in turns playful and morose. The beats and grooves are airtight as always, and the group maintains their proclivity for both buzzing, galvanizing hooks and elegiac swaths of delicate melody. The electronic attack that seizes “Shake a Fist” halfway through is a definite highlight, but the group really hits their stride with the “We’re Looking for a Lot of Love.” The track continues the strain of agonized, cracked balladry that they perfected with “Crap Kraft Dinner,” the thematic centerpiece of their debut LP “Coming on Strong,” and continued with “Look After Me” on 2006’s “The Warning.”

“We’re Looking for a Lot of Love” is all funereal organ, tape hiss, digitally clipped falsetto choir, and soft percussion as its throbbing melody kicks in. Vocalist Alexis Taylor plods through the first verse, hushed and sullen, before skittering beats and plucked guitar notes anticipate the lovely chorus: “Every time that we walk the streets/ I try my best to keep up with the beat/ You’re everything that I never could keep/ I hear the sound and it starts to repeat.” These words, and their attendant massive synth washes, fade into a sea of pristine whistling. The song’s muted beats get ever more tangled as the song’s form repeats and finally drifts into a sparse, bleak bridge before returning to the hook, plaintive and resigned as ever.

This chorus beautifully describes the way music is not so much a metaphor for love and life as its completely inseparable fabric. I’ve always loved Hot Chip’s first record for the way that it drapes itself in vacant, seemingly ironic references to contemporary hip-hop and R&B, yet uses these as a motif to a channel a dark yet gently humorous (and very ’00s) brand of youthful malaise. “We’re Looking for a Lot of Love,” then, is a song that strips this technique of its pop-cultural baggage to its skeletal, desperate truth.

The song is remarkable, an early contender for the finest on the record, and may yet eclipse the immaculately idiosyncratic beauty of 2005’s “From Drummer to Driver” to become Hot Chip’s single greatest track. Yet the whole album, and really the band’s whole catalog, is an embarrassment of riches. More tuneful and more willfully addictive than really anything in the mainstream, Hot Chip nonetheless defy the “pop” categorization — their music is too rich with surprises and wrinkles in places that radio pop never hides its eccentricities. Yet to call them “indie” would be a precarious and possibly embarassing choice for any band of the last 5 years working within that label, since none of them could ever dream of getting anywhere close to this level of invention, playfulness, and general excellence. Utterly unique and relentlessly delightful, Hot Chip have cranked out yet another LP of evidence that they are, far and away, the funniest, finest, and most prescient band of the 2000s.


as the pavement whirls

Pleased to see that the Magnetic Fields’ new record “Distortion” is a complete return to form. Stephin Merritt had always drawn upon showtunes and standards for his lyrics and for the construction of his songs, mastering their craft and manipulating it to dizzyingly virtuosic effect, yet his sonic mise-en-scene was generally an indie synth-pop, at once both frail and dense, sourced in records like The Human League’s “Dare” and the ABBA catalogue. On 2004’s “i,” a career nadir, Merritt outlawed synths and turned to a largely acoustic sound which allowed him to explore his affection for the classic songwriting of the early and middle part of the century. This proved a quite lacking backdrop for the tangled web of humor and misanthropy which traditionally colored Merritt’s songs, resulting in a record that sounded unpleasant and showcased some of the man’s most anemic songwriting to date (yet being a Stephin Merritt record about half the songs were still timeless gems).

“Distortion” is something else entirely. The record taps the far richer aural fields of the Velvet Underground and the Jesus and Mary Chain, draping a fine set of songs from Merritt in layers of guitar squall and thunderous echo.

My favorite of the resultant tracks is, of course, a nastly blast of East Coast ressentiment entitled “California Girls,” which complains of the vapid, skinny bimbos that East-Coasters like Merritt (and myself) ridiculously presume to constiute about 94% of the population of the Golden State. “They breathe coke and they have affairs with each passing rock star,” seethes the tune’s narrator, though the blow is softened by Merritt’s decision to have his sweet-voiced drummer, Claudia Gonson, sing the song. Of course, the “blow” in question becomes deliciously literal in the song’s gory climax, in which Merritt pledges, “I have planned my grand attacks/ I will stand behind their backs/ With my brand new battle-axe/ I’ll make them taste my wrath/ They will hear me say/ As the pavement whirls/ I hate California Girls.” For someone who famously wrote “69 Love Songs” (and in reality he’s written at least a hundred more), Merritt remains a fantastic poet of loathing, and “California Girls” can be slotted alongside “Yeah! Oh Yeah” and “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do” as one of his best hate songs.

“Please Stop Dancing,” a Merritt-Gonson duet, is another highlight. Its simple lyrics and addictive melody don’t hinder its pointed rendering of the psychic agony of love lost. “I’ll Dream Alone” is not only one of Merritt’s finest lyrical showings but one of his greatest vocal performances, as he perfectly handles the epic grandeur of his melody even as it is awash in, well, distortion.

The album prompted a long-overdue trawl through the Merritt back-catalogue, the Magnetic Fields having been far and away my favorite band in high school. I discovered that my teenage glee has hardly worn off, and am completely restored in my firm conviction that Merritt stands as a peer among every great pop songwriter living or dead. It’s a travesty, really, that he’s never wriggled his way out of what he himself once described as “the indie rock ghetto.” His is a genius powerfully, almost sickeningly unfit to be mentioned in the same breath as Sufjan Stevens and Of Montreal. These meditations on songwriting genius returned me to one of my favorite of my own pieces of music writing, my review of Christine Fellows’ “Paper Anniversary.” I’ll post it shortly mostly to prepare for a grand revision of nearly every concept I introduced in it, though before I do that I will be very unnecessarily throwing in my two cents on Britney Spears’ “Blackout.” ‘Til next time.