Sunday, October 31, 2010
It happens every year: critic sits down to shape up a best music year-end list, fretting mightily that some new or relatively unknown artist or band will slip through the cracks after months of hearing everything as well as the unavoidable selective listening. It does help that they’re so many other indie-heads out there proclaiming ‘must-listen to’ types but for every FrYars or Jenny Wilson that I’ve unearthed there have been bands like The XX or producers like The Dream that leave me cold with indifference. It’s a fine line but one that most artists either fall into or against right away.
Ninca Leece, however, is a different type of proposition because I’m still not sure where her aesthetic is heading. Her debut begins with the track Touriste, a minimalistic dance number that reminds one of Bjork circa 1993. This is a good thing but the time-line is very important too because that was when our favorite Icelander dropped Debut, a delightfully weird, abstract project, full of great ideas like Human Behavior and Venus as a Boy. She wasn't yet at the height of her genius but at the point where its realisation was obvious. Unfortunately, Leece hasn’t armed herself with such variety here but what she gives off instead is a strong batch of house songs that are homogeneous to the dotted tee. It's a little rough around its edges but something epic is amid all this repetitiveness. Whereas Bjork or even Wilson use dramatic flourishes, Leece throws in electronic programming and children voices (The Uncut Version). There’s nothing edgy here either nor does she have a signature guttural growl but this isn’t comfort music for elevators or Bookophilia-browsing (sake for Love Song). This is la-la club music, at times blurred with techno and propulsive beats that DJs will be manipulating throughout the year. A track like Division, with its groovy one-liner, feels like a smug but deserving victory lap.
When Ninca turns up the amps though then her grooves go for days. On Top of the World introduces guitars and a lovely vocal wrap before the house beats collapse upon everything. Like a Tattoo is her only real head-on vocal workout and it’s gorgeous, replete with synths that enhance the taunt nature of the track. Its way too short but it’s the heralding of a great promise once she adds sensuality to the mix. Funny Symphony throws in fuzzy bass lines and blissful French, just like how her country-woman Camille does and the pastiche effect is strong. You’re Walking in My Head would fit into any club, remixed or not. When she croons, ‘somewhere between coffee and shower/ you’re still there/ wishing I could spend all day with you,’ then inserts the chorus with spray-gun synths, she finally achieves an originality that didn’t seem likely.
For, let there be no doubt, Leece does run into a few stumbling blocks with There is No One Else… because the music is so at odds with her intent. Maybe it is the two-tier genre effort that burdens her sound but techno is by nature monolithic while dance music must mutate constantly for survival. Any attempt to bridge the gap between both must walk that proverbial fine line. At times, it seems Leece scurries back from the challenge: The Beast has to suffer throughout five minutes of tediousness before some life kicks into it: all of fifty-two seconds! Aseptique is a lovely chillwave track but an instrumental piece nonetheless.
That leads right back to the point that maybe what Leece needs more than superfluous execution now is time to master her ideas. She needs time to grow out of her self-consciousness and critics, like myself, eager to pile on the early-Bjork years comparisons. The dance-hippie slant is fraught with many artists this year alone: Glasser, Avery Tare and Nedry can all claim great songs (Apply, Heads Hammock and Squid Cat Battle, respectively) but middling to just okay albums. Ninca doesn’t have that one defining song here but an album simmering with uniformly interesting stuff. I don’t know if that’s something music execs and impatient fans are willing to watch blossom but they should. I do know that it’s fascinatingly indecisive though, just as how Bjork was when she just started out. I need not to remind you how brilliant her career turned out afterwards with back-to-back masterpieces (Post in ’95 and the career-defining Homogenic in ’97). I’m not saying Leece has such an exalted trajectory in store but she’s unto something fantastic here, mark my words. And if she does evolve into the second French version of Bjork (Camille is the first) then I’ll be a genius for pitching it up now when it eventually happens, hopefully somewhere in the not too far future.
Monday, October 4, 2010
Living in America
Beyond the now infamous spat with New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg and the decision by Youtube to ban the video for Born Free, here we are still grappling with M.I.A’s third album just under a month of its release. Her career is at a compelling stage now; that of global provocateur and pop icon assaulting the problematic American terrain after the surprise hit of Paper Planes. The two halves of her persona though are so strongly entrenched that it is with much suspicion that MAYA has been greeted with. The pro-M.I.A faction has resisted it so far because for the first time they’ve started to suspect that the music isn’t what’s foremost on her mind. Any perception of M.I.A’s intentions must state that but it also doesn’t help that MAYA is coming off the back of Kala, a landmark album that saw her usurp Bjork as the leading proponent of pop music while bringing the world into recording studios and Western consciousness.
First up is the brief yet paranoid The Message where M.I.A outlines the connection between Google to an all-intrusive government. It sets the pace for what is a jittery yet enthralling ride. Steppin’ Up is a harsh, industrial-hip/hop rant that throws out the swagger immediately (‘I light up like a genie/ and I blow up on this song’). The album standout Teqkilla runs six minutes and it crashes up against a wall of baille funk, ganga references and alcoholism. It is one creative mindf_ck of an experience, the likes of which she’s never done before. Lovealot rides a stunning ruckus bag rhythm while racking up controversial mileage. When she croons, ‘like Obama needs to love up Chen’, the jarring beats can’t drown out the geopolitical statement but damned if it doesn’t try hard to. Meds and Feds steals the Sleigh Bells single Treats away to inject much needed attitude over the one line, ‘I just give a damn’ for what seems like an eternity but it never gets boring. Tell Me Why pairs electronic beats with chorale music to take a swipe at her critics (I’ve been coming up for a while/ on your radar/ and I know I made it/ just by counting up my haters’). It Iz What It Iz, a seamless cross between blues and pop, warmly reveals the woman behind the music and her struggles. Her vocals here find a range between contrition and sexiness, a combination that I’m not sure even she thought possible but it’s a stunning result… the slinky type of stuff I imagine Aaliyah would be doing were she still alive. Born Free brilliantly takes punk band Suicide’s Ghost Rider apart for her own use to finally give it a weighty rethink after Romain Gavras’ disturbing music video robbed it of any previous relevance.
The album is seriously flawed at points however; something previous M.I.A work was not. This isn’t fatal for most artists but for what M.I.A represents, it’s the stumbling block we’ve dreaded ever since she landed in the American mainstream. For each exciting layer of noise and context sculpted we also notice some lazy-sounding experiments that just don’t gel. Story to be Told sets up an intriguing premise but her vocals stay within a timid refrain so long that the incredible beat is wasted. It Takes a Muscle---destined to be a huge karaoke hit no doubt—takes a decent enough stab at reggae but there’s nothing interesting really going on lyrically. Where MAYA really loses edge though is its final two tracks. XXXO remix is the type of slick, commercial fare that’d be a perfect summer hit for someone else. Jay-Z intercutting with a phoned-in verse only reinforces the cynical panic that M.I.A is changing for the worst. This is within your own perception to judge though because, frankly, it is a fantastic pop song once you’re willing to trust her machinations. Space is three minutes of bland repetition that feels a bit too smug in its production. It’s a waste of collaborative effort and, well, we expect much more from M.I.A three albums in.
Though I believe some critics have gone too far in lambasting the album, I contend that it is to sharply rap the apparent hasty production and not to see her fall into an abyss. Counter-reviews have started to pop up to reinforce two points. The first—which I’ll credit to cokemachineglow’s Calum Marsh—is that while M.I.A’s quest for superstardom in America is ill-timed, the innovation and quality of her music hasn’t eroded to the point of whoring into the money-making Billboard market. The second point, accredited to Nas, is that she is the sound of the future of pop. Whereas her previous work established her on a highly successful personal level, here she is now gathering a mighty colony of producers (Rusko), an independent label (N.E.E.T) and influencing lo-fi/pop music that has dominated the year (Sleigh Bells, Wavves,).
In the process M.I.A has altered contemporary music yet again without caring where the displacement falls. It’s the inevitable move to wean fans off the expected and substituting it for something newer that’ll likely take years to appreciate in value. That’s the kind of risk-taking that makes M.I.A still the most vital yet flawed musician around. MAYA panders too much to expected fame, is an imperfect blueprint, rails too hard to be noticed and bloats on its own excess...all traits that are uniquely American. All M.I.A has done is captured these elements, jotted them down and delivered a Sandburg-esque ode to a country she must surely love and hate in equal measure. Indeed, that is the uncompromising sentiment that hovers around this record. Hate her now but it’s also worth asking that if this is her ‘worst’ album then how comes it’s still ten times more interesting than anything her counterparts can produce even at their best?