Sunday, April 28, 2013
Steady As She Goes
Ten years ago Olive Senior published a stunning poem in this newspaper called ‘Leaving Home’. Like most of her work, it built its way to a cataclysmic ending that the beginning was pointing to all along but one had to be paying keen attention for. The poem analyzed the journey of womanhood, noting presciently the, “cruelty of choice”. She then dropped a mere four words to end it—which remain among the most devastating lines ever penned by a Caribbean writer: “here’s the knife”, “yourself”, “executioner”, “midwife”.
For the women of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, these four words have been shaping up to define them all at varying points in the series. If the first two seasons of the show have set the platform for male egoism to take a sharp fall, then it has stealthily shown the female counterpart of it as set to rise. Season two in particular charted very dedicated courses tied to choices that need delicate balancing acts. None more than the manipulative Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei (Lena Headey) who visits her wounded brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) to glean information as well as to find out if he’s discovered the many lies she’s told on him. Cersei, as the “knife” of this equation dices and shapes policy once it suits her purpose. So far, she’s had to outwit men to get what she wants. No real female has ever stood in her path but now with her son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) taking a wife she didn’t choose. Cersai is for the first time in the show being replaced or, rather, substituted. Joffrey has fallen under the influence of Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), literally a younger, sweeter version of Cersei.
Both women commence battle with each other almost immediately with back-handed compliments about their attire. For once, Cersei blinks first by testing Joffrey’s loyalty. When it fails, Cersei realizes the quicksand she’s standing on and maternal instinct gives way to a state of attrition. This is compounded by Joffrey’s own cruel-based rebellion.
Unbeknown to both women though are the outward forces coming to the kingdom. Lady Stark (Michelle Fairley) has several axes to grind—revenge being her chief concern and she’ll be the “executioner” of the entire Lannister clan if it’s the last thing she does. For the moment though, she too is faced with uncomfortable choices and their consequences. She made a deal with king-slayer Jaime Lannister (Nickolaj Coster-Waladau) and let him escape much to the chagrin of her son Rob.
And crossing the sea with her dragons gaining strength is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) building up her converts as she goes along. Daenerys more than any other character in the show exemplifies “yourself” as she’s had to find inner belief more quickly than the rest. Game Of Thrones has gambled often on the separation of her to the other characters but it has paid off so far even though her wheel is still pretty much still in spinning mode. When her advisor Jorah exclaims that her dragons are growing fast, she retorts immediately, “not fast enough”.
As for the “midwife” persona, several women are in such a transitory state because to yield their power, they have to rely on men for its execution. Season three’s relentless march to power is being matched evenly by the new discourse between these ambitious women. Up to now, they’ve had only men to consider as opponents but as things escalate to another great war, they’re realizing that it is each other that may prove sticky to dislodge. Episode two greatly shows how they approach arguments with the men juxtaposed to when the men are beyond earshot. While Cersei remains tongue-in-cheek as Joffrey continues to alienate her, Sansa (Sophie Turner) is privy to the tart-tongue of Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) in a precious moment of down-time. Olenna is the best new addition to the show, full of authority yet understanding. When she traps Sansa into bad-mouthing Joffrey, she reassures her, “are you frightened, child. No need for that… we’re just women here.”
Yet you can see the reason for Sansa’s concern. She’s still little more than a child playing in the league of older, wiser women. Even Margaery has more cunning than Sansa has charm. After the chat, Sansa sits, eyes lowered, full of defeat and emptiness while the other two women start mentally planning for the way to deal with Joffrey and, by extension, his sadistic streak. Sansa hasn’t yet mastered the exhausting task of being such a woman nor—as she realizes now—will she be. Her fate has already been decided by her choices. She never understood the stubborn quality in her mother yet was kept in awe always of Cersei for the same reason. As she tries to find her new place in the kingdom, both mother and erstwhile mother-in law now yearn for her return to their side. They have different reasons obviously but that she’s a valuable asset is not in question.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Play by Play
One of the great disappointments of this year’s Oscar nominations was the absence of the French film Holy Motors from all the categories. The film had left most critics salivating at the Cannes Film festival and scored rave reviews especially for its unique perspective of its art-imitating-life plot.
It starts subtlety by juxtaposing the cinematic experience as is now—persons silently watching a movie—to how it will be in the futuristic manner director Leos Carax chooses by having our protagonist Oscar (Denis Lavant) literally jump into his ‘role’, seemingly inside the movie theatre. Oscar wakes up; puts on his glasses and forces open a door that leads to a flashing light. He passes through another door and lands right in a stunning shot of him, towering above the movie-goers while a giant dog prowls the aisles. Carax’s homage to film becomes immediate yet lurking beneath this abundance of rich imagery is human passion itself and self-sacrifice, the type that, like the dog, goes unnoticed and unappreciated.
Oscar is an actor who gets chauffeured around to his roles in a white limo that’s driven by Celine (Edith Scob) who clearly doubles as his personal assistant. The limo too serves a double purpose—a dressing room, where he changes costumes, a place to apply make-up and rehearse lines for his next project. We follow as he changes into an old crone begging beside the Seine; a crazed, barefoot troublemaker in an ill-fitting green suit kidnapping an American model (played by Eva Mendes) during a photo shoot and carrying her away as if he were Quasimodo; a hit-man hired to kill his doppelgänger; a father concerned for his daughter's safety; and the cheerful leader of an accordion band performing in a candlelit church.
As with most French directors though, Carax uses everything compressed in Holy Motors to mean something else or serve as a heavy dose of symbolism. The limo ride is clearly the path all actors have to take and Oscar’s many roles seeping into each other exemplifies the interchangeability of an actor’s work. These are the obvious points but one would have to be versed in Carax’s own previous works and influences to pick out the rest.
Just like The Artist before it, Holy Motors is an expose on artistic insight and the metamorphosis that has taken place. The film moves at a sinewy pace, dragging cinematic changes as it goes along to the point where the audience can no longer tell the difference between acting and the real thing. Oscar himself is slowly losing grip on his own reality, a point reinforced when he accidentally runs into a former lover Jean (Kylie Minogue) and the tenderness they share reminiscing. As they roam the street, you realize this is real even if the invisible cameras are never shut out. He quizzes her on her appearance (is is really hers or for a role) and carries her up steps where she belts out a tune before getting into character and jumping to her “death”. Oscar’s sense of reality betrays him after he just barely manages to get out of the scene in time to see Jean’s lover racing up the stairs in pursuit of her. As Oscar strolls out, both bodies are on the ground, Jean’s brains splattered along with blood. He loses it and races for his limo. For a terrifying second, you can’t help but think that, at last, Carax is about to unravel some hidden meaning to Holy Motors but instead it soldiers on fully aware that its appeal is its aloofness.
This aloofness is spurred on by the final two scenes: Oscar reaching “home’ to his pet gorilla and saying goodnight to Celine. She drives away, signaling the end of the day and eventually parks at Holy Motors, which we can see is the hub for the vehicles. She gets out joining the other such drivers, hair down and puts on a green mask. “I’m coming home”, she whispers into a cell phone and strolls out of our sight. As the lights go out to leave us pondering if Celine is unto her own acting adventure, Carax arrests us again with a bit of magical realism. The limos begin to speak to each other and the moral point of the film becomes clear.
Depending on your patience and appreciation for art-house films, this will either spoil or enhance your opinion of Holy Motors. It is visually stunning but life as viewed through Carax’s lens is unending and repetitive. It’s also secretive and resigned to fate, only the limos of the industry grouse openly about where next film will leap to and if it will need them anymore. Already the film shows how, like high definition (HD), enhanced and real the viewing experience is and how much more people want from it. Oscar, like the other weary actors are only starting to suspect what Carax built this gem around: when people get what they want, they never really want it the same way ever again.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Ever since he went solo and teamed up with hip/hop soul visionary Timbaland in 2002, Justin Timberlake has been the widely-accepted standard for white soul. His entreating debut Justified was a satisfying first glimpse at how this planned transition could work and did produce one of the decade’s greatest songs (Cry Me A River). The album, crucially, didn’t fall away in structure if one took that masterpiece out of consideration, owing much to Timbaland’s genius for groove utility. Sure enough then, when Future Sex/ Love Sounds dropped four years later, Timberlake became the hottest piece of white meat in the music industry. It remains a titillating piece of pop candy, full of treats and trademark Timbaland synths and experimental grooves. Coupled with his handling of Nelly Furtado, it remains Timbaland’s last great year as a music producer.
This is an important point to make because, as you’ve become to realize, the state of Justin Timberlake’s music is dependent wholly on what Timbaland brings to the studio and that hasn’t been much in the past seven years. In that long barren stretch we’ve seen Timbaland’s vain attempt of his own career flop and his partner Missy Elliott stop updating Twitter with news of her next LP. Timberlake took to movies, resurrected Myspace and got married to Jessica Biel. He also turned thirty and, more damningly, got ‘respectable’ in the eyes of the pop music-buying market.
Fans expecting The 20/20 Experience to be a continuation of Justin bringing sexy back will be in for a disappointing listen however for all the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph. It is also because the Timberlake/Timbaland pop model has always been part daring experiment and part conformism. Timbaland is an auteur of the highest rank but he’s always wanted to be successful in crossing-over to non-black audiences. Timberlake has sought credibility with critics and black audiences while maintaining his immense appeal to everyone else. If Justified helped Timbaland get a toe-hold into the young white music buyers market, then Future Sex/ Love Sounds was Timberlake’s passport to urban black hipness.
The 20/20 Experience is a totally different phase of their relationship, the kind of equal-needs project that both are looking to use to re-establish their brand. Both men satisfy themselves in weird ways on the album but the concept-model is set from the opening song, Pusher Love Girl, an arcane, over-long idea. Like most songs here, Timberlake puts in a vocally-pleasing effort only for Timbaland to pitch his still-formidable beats long after Justin has ended his contribution. This makes for unchallenging pop music, the type of safe idea that isn’t terrible but far from exceptional. Pusher Love Girl stretches beyond seven minutes but skip the first six to get to the sublime last part, the part where both artists are actively engaged in it instead of respectfully avoiding each other’s flow. Suit & Tie fits more properly into Justin’s new mature approach to pop, marinated nicely with jazzy beats until Jay Z turns up to torpedo it.
It is the next two tracks however that reveal to us that Timbaland isn’t yet back to his peak as a producer. Don’t Hold The Wall sure sounds like a hit but this is all recyclable stuff---dice-rolling beats, Indian sitars—including his own brief vocal work. Timberlake sounds out of synch with the vision here but it’s all pretty jumbled and, at seven minutes, in dire need of editing. Strawberry Bubblegum sounds like 1970s black exploitation and not in a good way. When not prepped up by the right Timbaland beat, Justin’s vocal work and lyrics come off unflattering and here is the weakest point of this baffling album.
Things rebound temporarily with the brilliant Tunnel Vision, a track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Future Sex/ Love Sounds. It’s the first instance on the entire album where Justin’s sex appeal resurrects itself from all the attempts to sanitize it. Timbaland responds by throwing the kitchen sink at it, creating lovely havoc in the background. The album never lives up to its dizzying heights after that though Mirrors comes damn close.
Most disturbing of the rest is Spaceship Coupe as it pretentiously borrows from Ciara’s excellent Promise, a track ironically recorded the same year as Future Sex/ Love Sounds. This is the first time I can openly spot Timbaland copying from another music producer but—along with Timberlake’s terrible stint as lyricist—it confirms that this is an unsuccessful career resurrection for both men. The 20/20 Experience, in spite of getting better overall reviews thus far, cannot compare favorably to his previous two solo albums. Though critics are willing it to be great, there are only three note-worthy pop tracks here and they alone don’t make it a great album. As Bill Sampson tells Eve when she openly solicits him in the brilliant 1950 film All About Eve, “Just score it as an incomplete forward pass.”
Friday, February 1, 2013
Not a great film year but some brilliant, innovative stuff nonetheless. I'm yet to see 'The Master' so that may be a big exclusion to a lot of readers. So, without further ado here we go...
1. Zero Dark Thirty:
there’s a stunning scene in Katheryn Bigelow’s new film where President Obama is giving a press conference deploring water-boarding as a means of dealing with terrorists while a group of CIA agents look on. It takes them all of three seconds to casually turn away and start planning their next move. The point of the brilliant Zero Dark Thirty has thus been made explicitly clear to the viewer, who up to that point had no idea that the new administration was at odds with the methods used. Whereas Bigelow merely scratched the surface of combative complicity with The Hurt Locker, this time around she has struck to the core of the mission to hunt (and kill) Osama bin Laden. Through its feminist hero Maya (Jessica Chastain), the film spirals dangerously from setback to setback before Maya gets the all-important break. The final twenty minutes of the film though is what vaults it into the stuff of greatness: the shots fired at the unmoving bin Laden and the relief when death is confirmed brings Maya, and by extension at entire nation, to a heart-wrenching stop.
2. Cloud Atlas:
the year’s most ambitious film was also the most polarizing…either you got it or you did not. I got it so well that the near three hour film time went by without me even realizing it. Cloud Atlas enthralls because of several reasons. One, it teems with the type of ambition that, no matter your contempt for it, is admirable. The ever-excellent Jim Broadbent sizzles and the myriad stories intertwine smoothly. To its credit too, Halle Berry gets something substantial and doesn’t fuck it up. More precociously though is the look of the film and its air-tightness. We’ll look back on this in a decade and laud its cult status.
Ben Affleck’s steadiness as a director continues with this tense, impressive political saga. At every turn, this is very well oiled machine. Argo retells the story of a hostage situation in 1979 Tehran and the ruse of serious film-making to get them out alive. What the film solidifies though is that despite the Best Director snub handed out by the Oscars; Affleck is a serious director, able to present chilling tales of human frailty and decision-making.
4. Silver Linings Playbook:
before Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) turns up in Silver Linings Playbook, the film was zipping by mildly pleasant. Once she issues the first “fuck” though, things escalate from being a comedic love story to a dark look at love, suburbia style. Like many sleeper hits, this one gathers momentum once we’re fully aware of all the damaged cards each actor is holding: Pat (an endearing Bradley Cooper) inherits his father’s violent restlessness and is trying to recover from being cheated on. Tiffany sees a broken yet kindred soul in him and orchestrates the wonderfully-told tale that unravels. Silver Linings Playbook never overplays its hand and that’s why so many critics are rooting so heartily for its success.
The adult life gleaned in Pariah—as in real life—is one of a homogenized and heterosexual lifestyle in a constant state of unison. It may tolerate male philandering but it hasn’t caught up to homosexuality yet. Alike leaves home fully aware of this and neither parent is strong or brave enough to stop her. They have, with or without reason, based on your own judgment, their own struggles to deal with. You see, they too are caught up in a different time-warp which no one else seemingly can understand or reach out to help...it’s just that they have no alternative destination to escape to.
6. Djanjo Unchained:
Tarantino’s controversial slavery epic somehow manages to engage yet stimulate viewers while pulling in the cash at the box office. What makes it remarkable though---even though it is very flawed—is the willingness to explore the murky side of racist pasts and the revenge fantasies of many, all wrapped up with some spectacular performances. Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson especially bristle with venom and humour but nothing tops the hilarious KKK meeting that breaks up in dispute over ill-fitted hoods.
7. Moonrise Kingdom:
perhaps the biggest disappointment with the Oscar nominations last month was the sole nod for West Anderson’s quirky Moonrise Kingdom. Sure enough, it’s a trademark effort from him but with each film, Anderson is getting darker and darker with his examination of life. Though the love interest story here is between two youngsters, Anderson has aged them with maturity beyond their years, which leads to a type of satire unto itself, the type he’s pulling off in his sleep and adults are yet to catch up to.
a craggy old crime writer wins and losses all the important women around him in Venice, all the while heavily questioning the lush life around him. As only European directors seem capable of doing, Andre Techine lifts the veil of sophisticated life to examine the suspicious truths: lurking between lovers are hidden pasts and insecurities that never get overcome. Francis’ (Andre Dussollier) love for feminine beauty costs him a lot in Unforgivable but he finally learns redemption as well.
9. Holy Motors:
dystopian look at the ever changing state of actor to art, audience to expectancy. Leos Carax’s film remains dry and brilliantly maddening yet its existential points zip by, connecting dots that you may or may not see coming. True, it asks a bit too much of its audience but what is the point of art if it can’t question the viewer? Denis Lavant gives a disturbing, totally compelling turn as the main actor we follow around his many roles, immersed so deeply that at times one loses sight of the fact that this is all acting .
a Russian housewife must choose between her husband and son in this subtle drama of will and family allegiances. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) lives a plain life in fear of her husband Vladimir and fearful for her son, Sergey. The film delves the issue of dependency on several levels: mother-son, father-daughter, etc with only the cunning children understanding the buttons being pushed. Both parents, getting on in age and weary of each other, will themselves to ignore personal plights to criticize the other until the final, desperate act shatters them all forever.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
The final part, not without controversy of course...
1. Kendrick Lamar Good Kid, M.A.A.D City:
a sprawling journal of urban black life in Compton, Lamar’s major label debut excels by re-telling his hardships to everyone who’s played a part in his life. That includes the many women (Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst), street-wise peers and, more nakedly, himself in virtually every song. The stunning thing here is the gut-check on display and even while the guest voices swirl in and out, we’re left with Kendrick’s steady hand and well-orchestrated verses. This is the type of hip/hop Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy paved the way for two years ago: the self-confessional thug life being mercilessly analyzed. In Lamar’s masterful vision though there are no heroes or redemption…just gritty reality and the struggle for a decent life.
2. Frank Ocean Channel Orange:
Channel Orange is a stunning peek into that type of adolescent world of half-grown men and-- if you watch HBO’s brilliant series Girls-- immature women, all who are waking up, or in this case coming out to new, frightening realities. It is the best male R&B album since Rahsaan Patterson dropped Wines & Spirits five years ago, and its way better than that. He could have been a coward and shut the world out of what he was feeling, become a closet case but thankfully, he’s trusted us enough to air his fears and experiences. That’s when the best type of soul music gets done…when something real jolts an artist, opens up their eyes truly for the first time.
3. Grimes Visions:
The truism of Visions is that Grimes has finally conquered her target: completing successfully a triptych by her love of twisting beats and rhythms. Now with the emergence of her voice as a strong point her oeuvre is so strong that she could have recorded bird droppings and still scored best new music scores from any critic. Her sights must now be to fully subvert sound into longer concepts for a few critics have cited Visions as being front-loaded with all the goodies but I wonder how so: the fabulous Skin—the album closer—could have sounded if for once she had foregone the minimalism. Not to mention the scattered Nightmusic, a song that feverishly runs its gamut so effortlessly, one trembles in awe at the thought of what her next album will sound like.
4. Big Boi Vicious Lies& Dangerous Rumours:
releasing an LP mid-December is asking to be ignored but as Big Boi is one-half of the most important hip/hop act in the past twenty years, one ignores him at one’s one peril. Vicious Lies has less appeal than his solo debut two years ago but no one has lyrical chops to match Big Boi—a casual spin of Gossip confirms this. It’s a more stripped-down affair this time but all the trademark flourishes are present and even a few new tricks present themselves: Higher Res is a stuttering electronic move with guest verses by Jai Paul. The album only loses some steam when Big Boi does actual singing and cedes way too much time to his female guests but this is still quite a party.
5. THEESatisfaction Awe Naturale:
if Erykah Badu ever split her musical self into equal halves—one urbanely gay and the other natural-hair & brainy-- then surely this duo would be the product of such a move. Awe Naturale is a stunning debut to behold from Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White who happen to be partners as well. After first rising to prominence last year on Shabazz Palaces great album, the ladies have now confidently stepped out on their own. It’s the type of urban hip/hop poetry one would expect but there’s nothing too deeply militant or forced here, everything swings naturally and terrifically.
6. Schoolboy Q Habits & Contradictions:
while West Coast rap continues its return to prominence, Schoolboy Q reveals intent to take it even further. Habits & Contradictions is a manual to this new versatile path and a stunning album simultaneously, released before Q’s clan leader, Kendrick Lamar put his own LP out to round up the year. Habits & Contradictions sands out mostly with its biting production value---so much so that this sprawling 18 song package heavy on repetition doesn’t suffer. The thug life has been examined to death in gangsta rap but it’s never been this tender and personal.
7. The Lytics They Told Me:
it hasn’t gone unnoticed that hip/hop has undergone a remarkable transformation this year. Many artists now forge a new, personal idealism that overshadows the years of war and thug appeal. The Lytics on their astonishing sophomore is one such band moving ahead but also looking back at the many lessons learned. It’s a tricky move but one they don’t seem intimidated by. Ring My Alarm moves smoothly along with the type of production we haven’t heard since The Fugees. Maybe this embracing of other genres is the latest direction for the genre and if that is so then thank The Lytics for helping to spur the movement on. All they need is for the rest of us to catch up to them and not just in native Canada either.
8. Shearwater Animal Joy:
this opus—filled with the expected Bowie-like vocals by Jonathan Meiburg would still be top-notch even if the lyrics were not prominent…we’d still be left with blistering musical production. The band’s seventh LP is a slow burner but everything is so richly layered that it wins the listener over quickly. Meiburg has been emerging strongly with this moniker for some time now but here (especially the brilliant opening three tracks) that’s now nothing more than past tense. And just to show his fellow band mate Will Sheff who’s the boss, he drops the brilliant You As You Were.
9. Azealia Banks Fantasea:
her “official” mixtape debut, doesn’t breach such celestial heights as 212 but the diversity on display makes clear what purpose the album serves: formal notice to lesser hip/hop stars like Nicki Minaj or legends on the verge of irrelevance like Missy Elliott that she, Azealia, is here now to reign. Azealia finds innovative ways to explore her genre. The title track is the album’s first big statement and the awesomeness never lets up from there. F-ck Up the Fun makes the best Missy Elliott comparison to come her way yet, with its luscious filth and pre-programmed drums. Then there is Nathan, the standout that could have fit comfortably in any of Missy’s great albums, with its super crunchy beats. Nathan starts off a trio of exceptional, career-making grooves: L8TR (‘if it ain’t about a dollar/ I’m a holla at cha later’) is her love-for-money grab while Jumanji asserts her right to be a ‘real bitch, all day’ because at twenty-one she can.
10. Animal Collective Centipede Hz:
a more cooled reaction to the guys this time but maybe the real issue with Centipede Hz is the uncertainty of what it represents for the band and fans alike. The first half sounds like a real team effort while the latter half sounds like Avey and Panda constructed separate mini EPs without any consultation from the other. The sad thing is that those are the songs that hold the collective vision of the band best. You don’t need to be a critic to realize what this subtext means, or where it is, alas, most likely to lead to. You’ll be thinking on that while you hear the poignancy of the closing trio (Mercury Man, Pulley & the stunning Amanita). All three tracks stand among the very best Animal Collective has done in their long and great career. I can’t believe I’m saying this in print so soon after their apex but it’d be a real pity if they become the last three tracks of their immense journey.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
The final part...
1. 212 (Azealia Banks):
there is no shortage of female hip/hop artists out there going filthy for street cred or attention but no one has arrested the spotlight with an independent release quite like Azealia Banks. 212 was released late last year merely to get a toe-hold online but a year later it still holds sway. It could be the propulsive house beats given new life out in the mainstream or the body part most voiced (the female reproductive organ) but nah, its Azealia’s astonishing confidence.
2. I’m Addicted (Madonna):
I can hear the outbursts now: “Madonna isn’t relevant anymore” and “she’s too old to be hip”. Most of this is true and while her album disappointed there were a few gems including this full out rave number where she slyly—and brilliantly—manages to spell out the album’s title mixed with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) towards the end but I bet you hadn’t realized until now. They’ll be stomping to this one in the many gay clubs around the world and remembering just who their boss is.
3. Gangsta in Design (No Concept)(Schoolboy Q):
Schoolboy Q belongs to that emerging class of young hip/hop heterosexual male, which means he’s all about looking the part to attract the ladies. If that includes a little metrosexual primping and gay-bait attention then so be it. He knows the game and will jot it down after conquest.
4. Genesis (Grimes):
a hybrid of pop music and the composition on her keyboard, the opening riff is now ingrained in the minds of all who’ve heard it. Grimes does little more than hum repeated lines in Genesis but its testament to her craft that you’re not aware of this until the dreamy sequences end.
5. Five Seconds (Twin Shadow):
a sublime mix between David Bowie and TV on the Radio, the first track released from Confess is a dirty whirl of winds being filtered through dance-funk.
6. New York (Angel Haze):
spitting verses harder than Azealia, Angel Haze proves that she’s more than just an Aaliyah look-alike with this stunning track, decorated with so many tasty electronic hi-claps and a stunning programming that it dares you not to nod with approval.
7. Pyramids (Frank Ocean):
a ten minute attempt to bind human life and sexual tension from ancient Egypt to modern times. It best reminds us of his brilliant Novocain last year, only it’s far more epic.
8. Dreams Deferred (Five Steez):
the jury is still out if Steez was inspired by Langston Hughes famous poem but the hopeful and hopeless circumstances juxtaposed to Damien’s brilliant production is electrifying.
9. Another Ace in the Hole (Bryan Scary):
surrounded by prog rock, this track stands alone on Scary’s album as a pure rocker and even with fey vocals, the result is instantly gratifying.
10. Nathan (Azealia Banks feat. Styles P):
a stunning gauntlet thrown down but I’m still stuck with one burning question” who the hell is Nathan exactly?
11. You as You Were (Shearwater):
the usual Bowie-like stomper, this one timed to sweet perfection and some hectic drumming. It’s an ode to the past he’s still wrestling with.
12. There He Go (Schoolboy Q):
the usual sexism on display but when he cracks the repetitive falsetto in the chorus, it lifts what could have been a by-the-numbers track into some type of awesome edict.
13. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (Tame Impala):
a pleading, turned upside-down with crunching guitars and their lovely voice directing the action right up to its beautiful yet tragic end.
14. Montreal (The Weeknd):
after an outstanding last year, who knew Abel Tesfaye would save his best—and most defining track—on top of a new year where others would remain dormant. Montreal starts with reverb before his vocals trip in with so much longing and soul-brother testimony that it leaves us dizzy and hoping that he’ll take the girl that did him wrong back.
15. A Simple Answer (Grizzly Bear):
veers close into their tried-and-true territory and isn’t much more than a wily repetition of its one world chorus but the varied instruments used make it fascinating.
16. Goldie (ASAP Rocky):
digging on the cultural fascination with the thug life, ASAP Rocky cuts hard vocally before relieving himself with Lil Wayne-like verses.
17. Yellow Orange Rays (Sam Sparro):
screams Prince without imitating the legend!
18. 1991 (Azealia Banks):
a stunning, versatile offering that chronicles her start to current standing within the hip/house community. As with the rest of her stuff, this is a winner.
19. A New Town (Field Music):
a delicious falsetto affair full of lo-fi programming and doo-wop harmonies that go on for days. The band’s new album is scattershot but this one settles nicely into its groove and achieves maximum effect.
20. Young Man in America (Anais Mitchell):
the stunning title track of her new albums doubles as guide to her heady vision, replete with hypnotizing horns and percussions.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
11. Ava Luna Ice Level:
not many bands tackle several genres simultaneously but Ava Luna never got the memo so Ice Level mixes punk, rock, blues, R&B and soul into one tight setting. Carlos Hernandez grew up in a home where music was diverse and it shows in his pairing with Becca Kauffman. These songs sport huge riffs but just like THEESatisfaction there is heavenly poetry involved. Other musicians and ideas filter through this debut LP but buoyed by Hernandez’s steady hand at craft, it never gets too crazy or goes overboard.
12. Bryan Scary Daffy’s Elixir:
Bryan Scary is a huge throwback to the mid 70s where big-hair rock was emerging across America and everyone was experimenting with drugs to get high. Daffy’s Elixir sounds like genres crossed in some grand flower power scheme. One hears early Bowie and Freddy Mercury in between the musical parts. Songs like Cable Through Your Heart rotate endlessly, as if on ice skates. Ziegfield Station is even better with its fey vocals and power riffs. Elsewhere, Scary lays the guitars on thickly with exquisite fashion, teaching old masters like Bill Corgan new ideas. Diamonds proves that he can rest on his soaring voice alone while Another Ace In The Hole proves he’s no wuss either.
13. Twin Shadow Confess:
inspired after a bike crash three years ago, Forget continues the stunning rise of George Lewis Jr. That means he’s still a great Hispanic Bowie with the synths and 80s new wave riffs. The main difference between this as his 2010 debut (Forget) is the booming effect of melody and reverb. Songs like When The Movie’s Over and The One go for days because of this new confidence. No synopsis of the album can be complete without addressing the brilliance of Five Seconds, a TV On The Radio-esque rave, full of pop/rock references.
14. Killer Mike R.A.P Music:
Killer Mike hooks up with El-P and presents the best protest rap music of the year. It’s pretty unimpeachable and flows seamlessly from style to style and, because everyone wants to know, it’s short for Rebellious African People. That ideal spreads a political message, no more than Reagan, which lambasts the former US president while linking him to everyone since. It’s also an impressive document on the African-American experience, one that the internet age will ignore for Kendrick Lamar but will realize that both reference the same era, both personal and cultural.
15. Sam Sparro Return To Paradise:
it takes a while to warm up (the first three tracks are deceptive) but after that a slow disco fever takes hold of Sparro and never deserts him. This is 1980s club music, conjuring up images of George Michael and Terence Trent D’arby, which is a retro lover’s wet dream. Sparro has modernized these concepts---note the Prince-like riffs that dominate the blissful Yellow Orange Rays and the dirty funk of We Could Fly. Though most critics have already labeled him as a one-hit wonder, Sparro may yet prove them wrong.
16. Mac Demarco 2/ Rock & Roll Night Club:
a pair of debut albums from the Canadian who shift-shapes into so many different categories. If Rock & Roll Night Club is the thrilling one-night stand, then 2 is the after event cup of surprise coffee. On the surface this doesn’t seem capable from the same artist, who, after all, is trying on his girl’s lipstick in one instance and donning his dad’s shirt the next. That’s the crazy cool thing about Demarco though—that sense of not taking himself too seriously. His jangle pop is so convincing that it’ll bring a lot of Bradford Cox comparisons.
17. Of Montreal Paralytic Stalks:
Kevin Barnes and his gang return with the usual bag of tricks and though they’ve done this brand of neo-pop better before, the songs on Paralytic Stalks are no less charming for that fact. The sheer dizziness of the first four songs alone sets a stride that never relents…exposing us to Barnes’ full array of genius. As with everything Barnes touches, the highs are very high and the not so high, well, those tracks are highly experimental. Through his constant questioning of identity though, Barnes never fails to connect to this weird, cool space and titles (Authentic Pyrrhic Remission).
18. Grizzly Bear Shields:
the band that can do no wrong for critics returns with more sweeping, theatrical gestures that only prove how much in the zone they’ve become since Veckatimest three years ago. In Daniel Rossen, the band has a voice that poignantly wades through many different emotions. At times this is stark yet eerily beautiful (the last two closing tracks) and jazzy (Gun-Shy). Rossen, who does work in Department Of Eagles, is a master technician in these moments…a man on a mission to wrap the entire world in melody until there’s nothing else left but its immensity.
19. Amanda Palmer Theatre is Evil:
the eccentric Palmer returns with a glorious pop model, steady tunes and whip-smart grooves. It wouldn’t be an Amanda Palmer project without fanfare: the former Dresden Dolls singer took to the internet to raise a million dollars for the project. A few fellow artists raised alarms but the outcome is a feminist document of her experiences throughout the period. This is pure pop/rock done right; the type Pink has forgotten how to make and Palmer has now perfected.
20. Alabama Shakes Boys & Girls:
after building incredible hype the past two years, the trio finally releases the debut that showcases the brilliant bluesy vocals of Brittany Howard and her good intentions posing as lyrics and therapy relief. It’s a group effort but Howard is easily the star, her voice striking so many moods and impressions. She’s found a balance between genres and her band-mates wisely keep to the background. Boys & Girls thus is a tease—like the neophyte invited to sing in front of potential agents and wowing them enough to see the inevitable down the road.