Monday, December 1, 2008


"...and the winner is?"

Last year was a pickle for my choice of 'artist of the year'; sure, M.I.A had redefined world music/ hip-hop with Kala but there was Panda Bear, who was a part of two innovative records, two feats of electronic ingenuity that I couldn't ignore. That said, M.I.A won because her ideas were bound to wreak more havoc on the music scene as well as the fact that she stands alone now--by way of usurping Bjork--as the artist critics, fans and fellow musicians now think leads the way to which we all respond. That's a heavy-enough mantle for any one person and rightfully so, no one could carry the wave around without broadside help this year.

Still, it was curious who was the defining artist of the year...many names came up, names that blogs have been clamouring to put on their year-end lists. But even if you go by that count, no one person stood out definitively. But something did.....just not any one person.

Perhaps Janelle Monae said it best in a youtube interview I watched a few days, it's ok if you are asking yourself Janelle who (her music was recycled by Bad Boy records from last year) but the point is her words. Monae reiterates that the concept album is not only en vogue but here and now. And we've seen this especially in the last couple of months...Beyonce, Kanye West and Coldplay---three of music biggest names---all tried their hands at concepts that they could have eschewed in order to cash in even bigger than they are currently. This idea of a return to art is not exactly novel but it is refreshing especially for commrecial acts as those I mentioned. It is so easy for commercial success to be met only by commercial success and not exploration of art. It's not easy: too often we as listeners and critics think artists are solely in charge of their careers but there is a direct link between commercialism and the musical effort. That is a fact and it's the rare artist that can escape that with each recorded album.

Which lead us back inexorably to the outcome of this blog entry...but by now you know where I'm going with all this. This year, I choose a concept and not an artist per se as my 'artist of the year'. The concept is, simply put, the return to art. This I feel was carried over from last year and will be brought forward to the new year. Hopefully award shows like the hopeless Grammys will FINALLY recognize the trend and go with that in mind when the nominations are announced in a few days time. I'm not terribly optimistic but we will see, won't we?

Hurricane (Grace Jones) (2008)

“Yes, I Am a Witch”

I’ll admit first up that my caption for this review is lifted from a Yoko Ono remix collection released last year but given the eccentricity involved I think it fits most appropriately. If Ono is singularly the most enigmatic woman ever in pop music then Jones is the woman mostly pigeon-holed right behind her (Bjork fans don’t despair: your favorite Icelander is no doubt third).

Hurricane, her first album of new material in nineteen years, continues the interesting juxtaposition Jones presents to pop music and art. Of course, Jones hasn’t been totally gone the past two decades: twice her return was stalled for reasons unknown but also she has done odds and ends contributions. This has only whet my appetite for her however because as interestingly poised she is globally as a pop star, not many kids are growing up knowing of her actual music even in this youtube era. Let’s face it, if Patra (remember her?) hadn’t remade Pull Up to The Bumper eons ago then Jones would be only a talking point. Hurricane is only nine tracks but these are well mapped-out funk concepts. Williams’ Blood, the stand out, breaks out in hives with each couplet. All the well-tested stylistic tricks are presented by Jones in it, like a ringmaster carefully controlling our rapt attention. One could get lost in the artistry of it but it is the seemingly biographical lyrics that are stunning. Jones isn’t the first artist to hail from our shores to have revealed so much personally on record but given her oddity status it is intriguing. I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears) pays homage to maternity but it is suffused with enough multiple vocal work to pull itself off without sounding too contrite. Sunset Sunrise follows in this vein but its effect is dependent on the strength of her pastiche and its usage.

This brings me to the main kink in the album: its production, or more precisely, its deluxe production. Lead single, Corporate Cannibal is more art than song. In fact, its deftness is in its spoken word matching pace with the minimalistic beats. The video is visually arresting and it will enhance her reputation for always being ahead of the curve but her producers are treating her with the same type of gloves that she was sparring with two decades ago. At the height of her prowess, Jones’ visual oddity was backed up with aggressive vocal work and songs like My Jamaican Guy that totally simmered within its own conviction. As good as Corporate Cannibal is, it lacks the guttural juice needed to wow listeners like her earlier stuff did. Nineteen years ago, perhaps it’d be held as exotic but times have changed. The definition of cutting-edge music is perpetually changing and it’s always a bit odd to see an artist like Jones not in total command of modernistic gimmicks. Ivor Guest and Sly & Robbie are among the main handlers of her sound here so that means a technical excellence that is as consistent as it is unimpeachable. This doesn’t take into account, however, the current state of pop music. Britney Spears’ robotic utterances on Womanizer are horrific punishment on my ears, for example, but the beat is modern and oddly challenging. My point: the beat shouldn’t just thud, it should ‘sell off’, as we say locally. Hurricane is an elegant thing but it could have thawed out more or subvert itself to a more threatening existence. The last three songs are the weakest because the fit with her vocals and the beats are not as tight. They feel slightly like filler.

Artists are expected to evolve always…their sound should be tinkered with until the right combination is found. When they pause too long then that leads to trouble or, ultimately, stagnation. This is partly why Bjork has been usurped by M.I.A in the eyes of music critics as the leading exponent of pop music. Circuitry and insulation have led Tori Amos and, of all persons, PJ Harvey away from the brilliant originality that attracted audiences to them in the first place. This is why Buju just doesn’t seem quite as vital now in spite of the occasional hit. The very reason why I no longer care what Pink has to say.

When Jones’ producers throw caution away then the result is the gorgeous This Is Life, a hybrid of different Jamaican rhythms and syntax that mutates midway into shards of feedback. When Jones yells, ‘this is me/ flying the gate…’ the entire thing collapses lusciously upon itself. I don’t need a lyric sheet to tell me that the production contribution of Tricky (himself enjoying a great comeback year) manifests itself on the title track--which has been mixed around for quite some time now and is an utter delight to hear. It builds slowly and takes off when he trickles in, giving it a nice trippy vibe.
2008 has been big on legends returning with music but in almost all those cases they’ve brought nothing new to their repertoire: Madonna’s Hard Candy sticks in one’s throat rather uneasily. Q-Tip has put out something decent but it’s a sideway thrust not a forward one and even the greatest of them all, our own Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry leaves the listener baffled more than once with his art-meet-pap/pop Repentance. Grace Jones has already earned the right to be considered one of the greatest exponents of popular music and Hurricane is a reminder of that. She succeeds where those aforementioned artists fail because the control panel of her style has never been too residual within her. That’s why team Jones rises to challenges and smoothes over the blimps that limit Hurricane but simultaneously such a PR effort reveals little if anything at all of what is to come. They have however-- to use a weird culinary term—managed to take her out of the freezer but not totally sizzling in the frying pan just yet.