Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Wonderful Everyday" ('Arthur' Theme Song)- Chance the Rapper

(From: Freshness Mag)

Even when Chicago spitballer Chance the Rapper is at his most crushingly bleak, discussing the personal hell of a lonely night eating days-old pizza or the horrifying rise in shootings when summer hits, there's unmistakable beauty in his work. Chance's way of phrasing, "It just got warm out, this the s*** I've been warned about," combined with his inimitable squawk, tugs at your heartstrings. I'll freely admit when I was in Chicago in the middle of the month, I was tearing up as the aforementioned "Paranoia" drifted out of my car speakers. It wasn't just crushing sadness causing it; there was an odd element of joy. It's clear he had seen the worst in people, but still he managed to care for them. Hearing someone remain strong essentially made me weak.

The joy in Chance the Rapper's "Wonderful Everyday," a reworking of the Arthur theme song "Believe in Yourself," isn't hidden at all. From the stately piano keys that open the track to the initial cymbal washes and Chance whispering "it could be wonderful every day," joy abounds in this take on the Ziggy Marley original. Chance has been performing the familiar tune live for a few months now, but the release of the studio track renders prior versions obsolete. Now he's got a phalanx of vocalists from Wyclef Jean to Jessie Ware and Elle Varner to back him up. They closely follow him "walking down the street," and finish the messages that come from the heart. And then, as if climbing a rainbow, the entire group lifts their voices up in dazzling unison to "work and play." Drums pound and horns bellow without raining on the parade one bit. Nothing can hold something so heartfelt back.

Chance the Rapper is playing a hometown set at Lollapalooza on August 3, which you can see here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Self Control"- Kate Boy

Electronic pop group Kate Boy sound like they've been manufactured in a laboratory. Not because the Stockholm based trio lacks a soul, but because 2013 efforts "In Your Eyes" and "The Way We Are" sounded too perfect to be engineered by human hands. Synthesizers would slither without going off course. Drum machine strikes were massive, but not overwhelming. Kate Akhurst's hooks could be infectiously "sweet" and you wouldn't have to worry about a toothache because there was just the right amount of bitter. Ultimately that's what made Kate Boy's earliest work sound so "otherworldly," it was "just right" to the point of being unnerving; wandering around in the valley of the uncanny.

New single "Self Control" seems trapped in the quicksand of that uncanny valley. A few shades lighter and the electronic stomps pass for a rallying Katy Perry track. Backwards whooshes opening "Self Control" recall Frank Ocean's warm epic "Pyramids" more than the desolate landscape of Scandinavia. I'm certain the brief stabs underneath Akhurst's chants of "self-controool," littered countless 80s chart toppers. Everything here seems to be pointing somewhere else. That's not the case though. Mainstream pop artists rarely have the unflappable cool Akhurst does when singing about constantly getting something wrong. "In the end you'll make it right," Akhurst insists in the scaling chorus of mechanical claps. Kate Boy may not have the natural look of pop stars, but who cares when the music is this dazzling?

The "Self Control" single is available now through Fiction Records.

"Wide Awake" ft. Cat Power- J Mascis

On "Every Morning," the first single from J Mascis' new solo album Tied to a Star, the Dinosaur Jr. singer/guitarist was struggling to get through the day; "Every morning makes it hard on me," he depressingly whined. To summon the strength to head out into world he had to softly beg "Oh baby won't you see me?" before leaning into a characteristic guitar solo. You could tell if he had any company at all, he'd make it through. If not, he might sit in bed all day.

Though a guitar solo is absent from the considerately strummed folk number "Wide Awake," and it's a few hours earlier, everything else is intact. Mascis is still sitting up in bed worrying about what the day will bring. "I'm wide awake," he repeatedly intones over a delicate acoustic guitar melody. Listening to Mascis' "slacker" moan in such a sparse setting, you can almost hear his eyelids closing and him sliding further down the bedroom wall back onto the mattress. His sleep, or lack thereof, all depends on someone ending his lonely spell. He's been bad at interactions since the early days of Dinosaur Jr. and now is no different. "Walking by your will," Mascis recounts in a tender duet section with Chan Marshall of Cat Power. It doesn't sound like much, but even standing up and walking is a victory.

Tied to a Star drops August 29 through Sub Pop.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Lemonade"- SOPHIE

On enigmatic producer SOPHIE's latest track "Lemonade," there's what sounds like a balloon slowly deflating throughout the song's all too brief two minutes. Considering the high-pitched double Dutch chants of "Le-le-lemonade" and "Ca-ca-candy Boys" the U.K. artist overlays, it's a fitting sound. "Lemonade" is like a kid's birthday party where nothing seems to be going right. The bouncy house has sprung a leak. The magician is running 20 minutes late. Parents are arguing in the other room. And one child just bit another one. There's unmistakable playfulness in the air, but the gloomy side of the tracks is within sight.

In the case of "Lemonade," SOPHIE's first effort since last summer's "Bipp," the sinister and sunny are wrapped up in the same chorus. His influence on the thriving PC Music crew is unmistakable, poppy fluctuations in mood come fast and furiously. "I've got something to tell you, I hope you understand, I never meant to hurt you, it wasn't in my plans," a head rushing Chipmunk voice confesses with stuttering electronics before low-end bass static interrupts. Like one of the hyperactive kids at that birthday though, the heartbreak is forgotten about in an instant and its back to Fizzy Lifting Drink hiccups and the familiar deflating sound. Falling in and out of love is much easier when you're young.

(The Souncloud link to "Lemonade" currently isn't working, but the "Lemonade"/"Hard" single is out August 5 through Numbers.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

"You Won't Believe What You'll Do"- The Disingenuousness of Pharrell's New Video

Before the excoriation and finger-wagging begins, I want to genuinely praise Pharrell Williams. Forget the legion of hits he's produced in the last 20 years with partner Chad Hugo as part of the Neptunes. In the past year alone he's lent his silky croon to colossal hits "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines," unleashed a firebreathing cleanup verse in "Move That Dope," manned the boards with Hans Zimmer for the Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack and dominated the Billboard charts with the Oscar-nominated "Happy." If the time from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2014 was all we had to judge Pharrell on, his discography would still be unassailable. 

What Pharrell should be criticized for is the bizarre "pro-woman" campaign that's accompanied sophomore LP G I R L. Before the album had been released, Pharrell spoke to GQ about the "Women and girls, for the most part, (who) "have just been so loyal to me and supported me."" The stylized album title then was Pharrell's way of paying tribute to members of the opposite sex that had helped him out so much.  What Pharrell seemed to be forgetting in his tip of the Dudley Do Right hat was using the word "girl" infantilizes those heroic women who had helped him along the way. If you're a man reading this, ignore the "would you call your mother this?" test and think about it this way: if a woman consistently referred to you as a "boy" wouldn't it start to rankle you? I know it would me. The word "boy" connotes a doe-eyed naivety I'd like to think I've pushed past. Boys and girls are people who don't know better; with minds that worry about things like lunch and the time until recess. When you insist on using either to describe someone who has reached adulthood, all you're saying is their mind is set to childish.

If Pharrell's facile campaign had stopped there, I wouldn't be writing this article. Only when he released the video for the clattering funk of "Come Get It Bae" did I find myself compelled to write something. The song itself is undeniably catchy, with rallying handclaps that recall "Iko Iko" and strutting guitar Pharrell might've swept up from the floor of the "Get Lucky" sessions. I wish it was left there and we never had to see Pharrell's grand cinematic vision for G I R L's third single. Instead what we as viewers are provided with is the zenith of Pharrell's ludicrously mixed message. In red block lettering recalling "Blurred Lines," the words "BEAUTY HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE" dominate the first frame of the video. By itself, that kind of hokey "Dove Real Beauty" message is blandly inoffensive. The problem is with who Pharrell trots out to "prove his point." "None of them boys know the first thing about your fantasy," he assures a parade of under-40 women from his director's chair. The supposed lack of a black woman on G I R L's cover is "replaced" by the absence of a woman who has made it past her fourth decade on Earth.

Now I understand when you're casting a video you go with the best, most qualified candidates. It is part of the reason I took offense to the controversy that swirled around the casting for Arcade Fire's stunning "We Exist" video. In the clip, which premiered in late May, Amazing Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield plays a young person struggling with gender identity while living in a small town. For an excruciating six minutes, Garfield's character is leaving home in women's clothes and getting into fights at the local watering hole. Ultimately Garfield's unnamed character steps on-stage with Arcade Fire at Coachella and finds a "home." When Against Me!'s lead singer Laura Jane Grace saw the video she took to Twitter "Dear @arcadefire, maybe when making a video for a song called 'We Exist' you should get an actual 'Trans' actor instead of Spider-Man?" Grace (formerly Thomas James Gabel) has been open about her own personal battles with gender dysphoria and was understandably upset about the exclusion. I don't share her same frustration, a. because I'm "cishet scum" and b. I believe Garfield gave a real portrayal of an extremely disenfranchised minority. The women in "Come Get It Bae," through no fault of their own, fail miserably in conveying the agelessness of beauty. There isn't even an attempt made to capture beauty in its twilight years. No pieces of flab, no grey hairs, and zero wrinkles are shown as striking women nod in approval to the luridly repetitious "come get it bae." 

Not that I personally mind lurid come-ons in R&B. The Weeknd has staked an entire career on being a hedonistic lecher. In "High for This" he's coaxing a woman into popping ecstasy to have better sex. "Enemy" has him doing his horrifying best to make a lover into a rival. Elsewhere in the Indie R&B circuit, Miguel begged "tell me that the p**** is mine," in "P**** is Mine," and came away with one of 2012's most beautifully desperate songs. The difference between those two and Pharrell is they weren't trying to mask their material as The Second Sex. They understood misogyny was under-girding their material, because men can be misogynistic. They know they don't deserve applause for telling a sad truth and they're not looking for any. Despite his assertion being a "feminist" is an impossible aspiration, Pharrell's seeking credit for wearing the sheep's clothing of one. The whole thing is remarkably disingenuous, telling women they can go their own way while ensuring what they need in their life is Skateboard P. "You won't believe what you'll do," he insists in his feathery voice. What's significantly harder to believe is that Pharrell thought any of this could be uplifting.


If you have any questions, comments, or concerns please feel free to leave them below. And if you just want to yell at me and say "you're wrong," you're welcome to do that as well.