Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In Revue- "Channel Orange"

"What good is a jewel that ain't still precious?" Since Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean arrived on the scene with last year's resplendent Nostalgia, Ultra, his language has been that of loss. Ocean's vocabulary paints pictures of lost youth, lost love, lost time, and lost innocence. The precious hazy days of "Strawberry Swing," are razed by a rude alarm clock. On "American Wedding," Ocean's nubile bride is lost to the summer in a classic case of self-termed "American heartbreak." And Ocean loses himself in a den of drugs and Kubrickian fantasies in the nightmarish "Novacane." Suffice to say, Ocean's "losing lexicon" is communicated with ineffable ease, and nowhere is that language better broadcast than on Channel Orange. 

When the frantic channel surfing of "Start," fades into the sorrowful strings of the now familiar "Thinkin' 'Bout You," we are in Ocean's world. Musically "Thinkin' 'Bout You," is dominated by fluttering drum snaps, with Ocean wondering if he's the only one in the relationship concerned with forever. "Do you not think so far ahead?" is the only question Ocean can muster in his fragile falsetto.  

This sort of tortured self-awareness is broken up by tracks like "Sweet Life," where Ocean lovingly lambastes the twee-set. "You've had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born, the sunshine always kept you warm," Ocean jabs in the soaring chorus. Here the warm sun and the crashing waves are a far-cry from the tumult Ocean is used to seeing. For all the scrutiny, Ocean is entranced by this plastic paradise.

Ocean tastes the sweet nectar of success on "Super Rich Kids." Backed by piano plinks he plays the titular role to a tee, armed to the teeth with "bottles of wine," he can't pronounce and scores of "fake friends." In the scenic first verse, Ocean blends life's minutiae with the "monumental." One minute he's up on the roof taking in his domain and the next he's found kicking his feet up, "pointing the clicker at the tube." The silver spoon is bend beyond repair as Earl Sweatshirt stops by on the second verse to tamper the "Good Times." O.F.'s superior spitter delivers a dazzling verse, littered with mind-boggling assonance and alliteration that sees latchkeyed kids taking out their tempers on daddy's Jag. It's the first crack in the mirror that shatters with Ocean's admission that he's stuck "searchin' for a real love." Even with all his silver and gold, Ocean can never buy that which he longs for the most.

The blissful domesticity of "Rich Kids" is dashed on "Pilot Jones," Ocean quipping "we once had things in common, but now all we share is the refrigerator." Even as Ocean and his love battle for fridge space, he can be found flying high on the drug that is her love. Two songs later, Ocean is free-falling back to Earth as he poses that pivotal question of "what good is a jewel that ain't still precious?"

"Sweet Life"

The question has the same pained rhetorical-nature to it as last year's "what's a God to a non-believer who don't believe in anything?" Ocean knows that this jewel has become a diamond in an inescapable rough and will never again be pristine. Stuttering synths and warped bass breaks guide Ocean as he journeys to the heart of Ancient Egypt to tame the mighty Cleopatra. The sweltering air of the song suggests this is a fool's task and Ocean finds his queen "laying down with Samson." Once the "Jewel of Africa," succumbs to the serpent, the song is bathed in a propulsive dance beat that segues into a quiet storm of keyboards as we fast-forward to the desert of Las Vegas. Here Cleopatra is envisioned as a lady of the night and Ocean her lovelorn pimp that's lost control. "Can we make love before you go," is the only question he can muster as his love steals off into the night. Her love now comes equipped with a price-tag, one that he can never pay.


That utter decimation is firmly felt on "Bad Religion," where Ocean is on the losing side of unrequited love. With a minor-key organ as his only companion, he slides into the backseat of a taxi cab and begs the driver to "out run the demons." As Ocean is buried under the weight of his situation, he comes to the sobering realization that "this unrequited love, is nothing but a one-man cult." To Ocean unrequited love is the ultimate "bad religion," a theology where reciprocity is in short supply, a self-destructive habit akin to drinking cyanide "from a styrofoam cup." When he devours the last of his drink, he's in a state of shock, repeating the melancholic mantra "it's a bad religion, to be in love with someone who could never love you."

Earlier this month when Ocean published his letter to a lost love, he was heralded for his bravery and profound lyricism. Scorned by a man who could never love him, Ocean was left standing alone with his heart in his hands. For three summers, Ocean struggled to keep the rhythm of "the dance," as he drove cross-country trying to escape the pain any way possible. "I wrote to keep myself busy and sane. I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions." Channel Orange is the showcase for those "overwhelming emotions," a springboard for all of Ocean's anger, frustration, and confusion. "I feel like a free man," he writes near the end of that sterling letter. For all of the pain and peril this album is ultimately about Ocean's redemption, documenting his escape from life's wilderness. With Channel Orange as his guide, Ocean is no longer lost.

"Bad Religion"



Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Track Attack- "Up All Night"

Forever. We all dream of forever in its various guises. Of living forever. Of being together forever. Of loving and be loved forever. But forever is a mighty long time, and ultimately fleeting. It's the unattainable. The idea of the eternal has been in pop music's bloodstream since the very beginning. It's there in "Be My Baby," when Ronnie Spector overwhelmed with elation sings "you know I will adore you til' eternity." The idea of remaining young forever is at the heart of the yearning "Thirteen" by Big Star. It haunts the lonely house of The Cure's "Love Song" "however long I stay, I will always love you." And it's inescapable on "Up All Night," the closing track on Best Coast's new LP, The Only Place

The opening guitar figure suggests eternality. A shimmering figure cut from the cloth of Orbison, Nelson & Elvis. In seconds, Bethany Cosentino's guitar-playing paints the picture of a slow-moving summer night, a realm her songs often inhabit. "You and me, too good to be," Cosentino woefully sings. "Too true to see," she continues, trying to convince herself of something that was never there. Finally the thread unravels and she's "too dumb to see," that she was in a romance that couldn't be forever. "Way too lazy to make it work," is the pitiable payoff. And with that Cosentino is left standing at a door never to be opened again, "still alone, still awake, and still afraid."

"I don't know what day it is, cause I've been up all night," is the start to Cosentino's listless journey on the stormy seas of love. Cosentino longs of seeing her former flame "forever and ever," but can never get her wish. Any chance has been squandered. While "Up All Night," initially recalls The Ronettes "Be My Baby" with it's talk of the eternal, a more apt comparison lies in "Why Don't They Let Us Fall In Love." In both tracks there's a sense that something greater than the "enduring" love of two people is at work. It's as if time itself has rightfully intervened, knowing full well no love can ever pass its test.

As the song tenderly ambles on, a violin discretely enters in while Cosentino still wishes. The longing in her voice swells when she makes one last ditch effort for forever, the violin right along for the ride. All out of words to convey her desperation, Cosentino effervescently oohs as each instrument floats away. After weeks of restless nights, Cosentino has given up and gone to bed. And with the resignation, she's become forever's latest casualty.

"Up All Night"


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Frank Ocean Steps Out

"I'm starting to think we're a lot alike," Frank Ocean writes in the letter to himself that appeared on his Tumblr late last night. The letter details a summer of misspent youth for Ocean, who fell for a man that couldn't reciprocate. In a heartbreaking moment, Ocean writes "he wouldn't admit the same," lamenting a love that was entirely unrequited. From there Ocean flashfowards and details the struggle to make sense of something so senseless. "The dance went on," but from the tone of Ocean's letter its clear it was a solo tango. 

The greatness of this admission cuts across many boundaries. It's the logical continuance of a line from "We All Try," which saw Ocean adamantly declaring that marriage is between "love and love." The sterling statement is picture-perfect considering Ocean's affiliation with Odd Future, who have dodged cries of homophobia from Day 1. In an austere show of support, every single O.F. member took to Twitter and expressed support for their big brother Frankie, Earl Sweatshirt laconically tweeting "Proud of frank." Likewise coming from the Rap/R&B community which has had a tenuous relationship with homophobia at best is monumental. Even seemingly intelligent, thought-provoking rappers like Common have stooped to saying "fa***t" on songs before. In a world inundated with hyper-masculinity, Ocean's move is beyond bold.

With Ocean's letter arriving less than 24-hours after Anderson Cooper finally admitted to being a gay man, this is shaping up to be a benchmark week for the LGBT-community in the celebrity-sphere. But therein lies the rub. These are celebrities we are dealing with. I don't have one iota of a problem with the statements themselves, especially Ocean's which was written in the most beautiful and poetical way possible. I take issue with the underlying fact that these are people with reservoirs of good will. Cooper is on a national news program every night of the week and Ocean has had a phoenix-like rise in music over the past year. Ocean and Cooper are two talented individuals whose throngs of adoring fans will stand by them, no matter what their sexuality is. That same cheering section isn't available to everyone. Whereas Ocean and Cooper have the luxury to step outside, many can only call the shadows home. "I feel like a free man," Ocean writes in a celebratory fashion near the end of his letter. Tragically, because of their lot in life many can never know this freedom. While it's not fair to force Ocean and Cooper to lead the march toward freedom, it's a point that must be made. We should celebrate Ocean and Cooper for further strengthening the cause of a much-maligned group. However we must remember that the two speak with voices that ring louder than most. And it's the voiceless that always need the most support. 

"We All Try"

Track Attack- "National Anthem"

"It's a love story for the New Age," Lana Del Rey coos on the bridge to the rousing "National Anthem." Since the career-making "Video Games" dropped a year ago, Del Rey's been offering up her own take on the love song. Del Rey's tracks are The Ronettes with a rebellious sneer, "gangsta' Nancy Sinatra" as she refers to herself. They're the kind of tunes everyone could relate to one minute and despise the next. After the SNL "debacle," Del Rey's performance was called the worst ever and shamelessly manufactured. Then Born to Die debuted and ascended the Billboard charts, stalling at the summit behind pop royalty Adele. For "manufactured music" the album was the perfect product, littered with love songs from the "New Age."

Nowhere is that "New Age" better defined than on "National Anthem." "Money is the reason we exist," Del Rey declares without so much as a snicker in the intro. At first the statement passes as a half-baked joke, or an indictment that misses its mark. But in a time where cash rules everything, its unimpeachable truth. As much as we long for love, we lust after money. It's the ultimate siren. Even as Del Rey shares an intimate moment with her man on the song, she can' help but ask "do you think you'll buy me lots of diamonds?"

Despite the indelible hook and stirring strings, the song would be nothing without the recently released video. The video is tailor-made for the commercialism as patriotism idea Del Rey posits. In typical Del Rey fashion, the visuals are paint-by-numbers where the palette's all sepia. Gone though are the nostalgic "found" videos, replaced with a riveting recreation of the JFK/Jackie O/Marilyn Monroe "love triangle." At the beginning, out trots Del Rey doing her best Monroe and coyly wishing President Kennedy (played by NY-rapper A$AP Rocky) a Happy Birthday. A$APs calm and collected as the round of applause dissolves, replaced by far-off cries from the assassination. 

We soon see Del Rey and A$AP hand-in-hand as the Kennedys out on the lawn enjoying a summer day as the sun beams into the camera. What follows is a montage of: the couple in a makeshift war-room, running along the beach, cutting a rug, and out on the lake. This image in particular is moving, as Del Rey stares into the camera and begs A$AP to call her his "National Anthem." At the time, the heaven in his eyes isn't enough, in a world run by money it's never enough.

Eventually the "anthem" becomes a nightmare for Del Rey as her husband's blood is spilled. "I loved him I loved him I loved," Del Rey affirms as the strings play a funereal figure. All the questions of real and fake are gone for her, the lines no longer "blurred." The blue in the skies means more than green ever could. For all the glitz and glamour, it's Del Rey's love that lasts the longest and has the greatest value. If the song's a love story for the "New Age," it's an aberration, conspicuously cast against type. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"New God Flow"

Kanye West has an unimpeachable record of releasing new tracks at award shows. In 2008, leading up to 808s and Heartbreak, he dropped the drum-heavy "Love Lockdown" at the VMA's. Two years later, he was back with G.O.O.D Music cohort Pusha-T debuting the genre-bending "Runaway." The moment was undeniably huge and the highlight of the night. At the BET Award's on Sunday, Kanye & Pusha linked up again and released a cut from Cruel Summer, the forthcoming G.O.O.D. Music collabo album. It's a far-cry from Kanye's soulful sounds, seeing the Chicago M.C. spitting over a clobbering drum beat. Entering on a Ghostface Killah sample, Pusha-T snarls through his verse, sounding more devilish than God-like. Kanye bids farewell to Whitney Houston, claims to be living the dream of Rodney King, and hilariously re-interprets Full Metal Jacket's "I Don't Know," scene. "From most hated to champion God flow, I guess that's a feeling only me and LeBron know," he quips. With tracks like these, G.O.O.D. Music proves that in a Summer filled with heat, no rap label is hotter.

"New God Flow"