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Archive for the ‘Pop’ Category

Lady Gaga and Agoraphobic Nosebleed together at last

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Well, not really, but I’m going to talk about both of them in one blog post, and that’s probably as close as they should ever get to each other. Mostly I just read two excellent pieces of music journalism and wanted to share excerpts.

In this New Yorker piece on Lady Gaga, the pop singer who, as the article points out, breaks the norm by being influenced more by European techno than American hip-hop:

Call it The Question of Endurance. You and your friends are talking about music, and the conversation turns to a popular band. You express support. A friend voices her opinion, maybe as favorable as yours, but appends a qualifier: “I like them, but will they be around in ten years?” You may feel compelled to defend whomever it is you’re talking about, covering the present moment and the future with your positive take. After trying this approach, though, you realize that pop music has no Constitution and doesn’t operate like a de-facto Supreme Court: precedent is not always established, and isn’t even necessary. Pop rarely accretes in a tidy, serial manner—it zigs, zags, eats itself, and falls over its shoelaces.

Even better is Cosmo Lee’s Pitchfork review of Agorapocalypse. This dude also writes for Decibel and runs the excellent Invisible Oranges blog, so he knows his metal. That said, I disagree with his review here, but it’s still a great piece of writing.

As plastic percussion flailed away below thrash and death metal riffs, the various vocalists of Agoraphobic Nosebleed extolled drugs, guns, and fucking. It was the sound of civilization’s decline, sold at Toys “R” Us with hazardous metal parts… This aesthetic culminated in 2003’s Altered States of America, which crammed 100 songs into 20 minutes. It was not an album so much as a temper tantrum.

He concludes that “Agorapocalypse is disappointingly listenable,” a sentiment I understand. I just think he’s off base.

Nelly Furtado @ the Patriot Center

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

My plan to update the site more regularly has been compromised by the fact that since last Thursday, my home computer has been crapping out on a regular basis. I’ve diagnosed it (hopefully correctly) as a problem with my 4-year-old power supply, and a spiffy new one is on the way. But I’ll likely be without a home PC for the rest of the week (since my 7-year-old laptop also ate it a few months ago). Still, I have some new stuff to post and will hopefully be able to get around to it before then.

In the meantime, I should continue to erode my music-snob credibility, and report back on my second big pop concert of the year (and, er, my life): Nelly Furtado at George Mason University’s Patriot Center. This was nothing near the over-the-top spectacle that was the Christina Aguilera concert I saw in April — which shouldn’t really be surprising, since, Furtado and Aguilera are pretty fundamentally different artists. Furtado gets lumped in with mega-produced booty-pop these days thanks to a couple big hit songs with Timbaland, but her background is more of a singer-songwriter one than anything else. The stage show last Friday reflected that.

The most glaring thing I noticed, in fact, was that Furtado didn’t seem especially comfortable with being a pop star. She often avoided the spotlight, singing in the background while her four dancers exuded the stage presence she lacked. I found myself inadvertently watching the dancers more than I watched Furtado. When the show ended, both after the main set and after the encore, Furtado scampered off stage many seconds before the closing note, leaving her band to play the exit music and bask in the audience applause. Also, she played guitar in two songs, and we all know that real pop stars don’t play instruments!

The music itself was surprising — not just the arrangements, but even the musical content of the songs was frequently significant different from the album versions, such that I was continually pleasantly surprised. In keeping with the not-really-a-pop-star theme, Furtado even let her band have a ton of solos (guitar, keyboards, even drums), the highlight of which was a beautiful, nimble acoustic guitar solo in the middle of “All Good Things (Come to an End).” And speaking of the band, they were pretty talented, and played everything live (even the sequenced beats were played live by two keyboardists), and seemed much more relevant to the music than most bands that back up pop stars.

So I guess I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the music in this concert, and by its presentation. The set included five straight slow songs in the middle section, which a real pop musician would never do, but one effect of Furtado’s roots as a songwriter are that her slow songs are much more engaging than your typical pop ballads (”All Good Things” being the best example). The spectacle was definitely low-key — a giant disco ball lowering to stage level to kick off the show was about as over-the-top as it got. Folks coming for the visuals were probably disappointed, but all things considered I was pretty happy with the music.

Quality lyrics courtesy of Avril Lavigne

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Idly browsing through the archives of this blog (reading anything from about 2001 and earlier is kind of painful), I was surprised to come across an entry in which I admitted that I liked Avril Lavigne’s debut album. Heh, I thought I’d kept those kinds of guilty pleasures under wraps until recently. In any case, it’s funny because I recently heard her new album, which is absolutely hilarious. She’s 23 years old now and married, but more than ever she sounds like a snotty 17-year-old. If she was a manufactured and neatly packaged product back in 2003, she’s even moreso now — and judging from her popularity, it’s working.

Well, so, the story of this new album — the title, The Best Damn Thing, is indicative of the attitude within — is that it’s insanely catchy and unbelievably insipid, even moreso than her first album. (I never heard the second album, which was generally panned.) Also indicative is the fact that the packaging of the CD includes no less than a dozen photos of Ms. Lavigne. I’ll let a sampling of the lyrics do the rest of the talking; believe it or not, when sung these sound even dumber than they read on screen:

Hey! Hey! You! You!
I don’t like your girlfriend!
No way! No way!
I think you need a new one
Hey! Hey! You! You!
I could be your girlfriend

…Don’t pretend, I think you know I’m damn precious
Hell yeah
I’m the motherfucking princess
I can tell you like me too and you know I’m right

And that’s just the first song. Ground and Sky: we listen to bad pop music so you don’t have to.

Yes, I did pay $55 to see Christina Aguilera

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

Okay, those of you who just don’t give a damn about my concert reviews can rest easy: this is the last one I’ll do for at least… a week. No shows between now and April 10th, when Zombi and Trans Am hit the Black Cat; in this concert-filled year, that seems like an abnormally long drought for me.

Last night was the big show: maybe the biggest show I’ve ever seen or ever will see. Yes, it was Christina Aguilera at the Verizon Center, with openers Danity Kane (who were terrible) and The Pussycat Dolls (who were worse than terrible). This was only the second stadium concert I’ve ever been to, actually, and the first is hardly worth counting — I saw Phish when I was fifteen or sixteen years old (and amusingly enough, I remember writing a long rant on my then-website about the show, complaining that Phish couldn’t hold a candle to King Crimson as rock improvisers). I went with my housemate, an indie-rock fan with a soft spot for good pop music, and as we approached the venue we were overwhelmed by the amount of makeup slathered over the faces of folks heading into the stadium. I half-expected to see some ironic hipsters in the crowd, but nope, the vast majority was what you’d expect: girls between the ages of, I don’t know, 8-18 or so. Some with parents and some with boyfriends.

My friend and I intentionally missed most of Danity Kane (hearing their album of really atrociously bad pop music makes me appreciate good pop music that much more), and settled into our “cheap” (don’t ask) seats just as they were starting their last song. It was forgettable, of course. Next up was The Pussycat Dolls, a six-piece girl-band taking their roots from a Vegas burlesque show, if I’ve got my facts straight. This was a bit of a weird experience: the stage show made its Vegas roots pretty clear, as the girls were hardly wearing anything and the dancing was, uh, provocative. I would NOT have been comfortable taking my 10-year-old daughter to this performance. Man, I’m getting old. Anyway, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I think The Pussycat Dolls‘ sole studio album, PCD, is actually pretty entertaining (especially the Timbaland-produced songs). This did not translate at all live: their live musical performance was awful and surprisingly, given their roots, so was their choreography and dancing.

Once the main act started, though, it was clear there was a whole different level of production value and talent at hand. Aguilera has a pretty astounding voice, and her over-the-top vocals were complemented by a seriously over-the-top stage show. I mean, there were three outfit changes in the first three songs alone (this puts Within Temptation to shame). The jazzy big band backing her was probably 15 members strong. The songs from the second disc of Back to Basics were accompanied by the most gimmickry — a decadent circus-themed extravaganza featuring guys on stilts, acrobatic stunts, a carousel horse, and more. All this flash made up a little for the fact that the songs off of that disc are terrible: generic backing music with embarrassingly juvenile lyrics.

Her other songs, though, came off pretty well, although she does have a penchant for over-singing. And, refreshingly enough, there was one huge surprise: halfway through the set, the dancers stepped aside and the big band melted into the shadows, leaving just Aguilera and a pianist on stage. Aguilera proceeded to spend what was probably a good two minutes introducing “Oh Mother,” talking about how domestic violence affected her life, and then went into a pretty emotional rendition of the song — backed by a seriously intense video on the enormous screen behind her of a man yelling at his wife, the wife crying, the man shoving and hitting her. It was actually a little over the line, I thought, but simply awesome that this kind of slow, devastating statement song was in the middle of her set. Aguilera may have been in full entertainer mode throughout, but this song was a memorable exception, when music, lyrics and message took the front seat and spectacle was nowhere to be found.

Overall, this show was something that was definitely worth seeing once, if only for the ridiculous, gaudy spectacle of it all, “Oh Mother” excepted. It was really fascinating to see major-label corporate music in all its “glory” — I’ll always be much more comfortable in a dingy rock club or a tiny jazz club, but seeing what the majority of the country thinks of when they think of “live music” was quite the eye-opener.

Henry Cow & Nelly Furtado (a natural combo)

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

For some reason I’ve been listening pretty nonstop to Henry Cow’s Concerts the past couple days (which means there will probably be a review coming soon — that it hasn’t yet been reviewed on this site is somewhat baffling). A favorite moment that just passed me by: some 11 minutes into the fabulous take of “Ruins,” Fred Frith’s ebullient guitar solo slowly stutters into the background, as if pushed backstage by Dagmar Krause as she begins singing wordlessly, imploringly. This stuff is sublime.

And now, since I know readers of this website are probably big fans of modern pop music:

Incongruously, the album that kept me awake on a recent long drive was something rather different — Nelly Furtado’s new one, Loose. I suppose this isn’t all that new anymore. In any case, it’s quite fascinating: the first few songs are pure club fodder, absolutely stinking of Timbaland (that sounds rather negative but isn’t meant to be), with all the lyrical nuance you would expect from songs called “Maneater” and “Promiscuous.” (Though the Steve Nash namedropping is kind of cute, or something. Hey, look! A fellow famous Canadian!) But then we get into some totally different stuff, like “No Hay Igual,” which combines your typical queasy Timbaland synth line with Latin percussion and insistently chanted vocals in Spanish. It’s actually pretty edgy stuff. This is followed by a song “featuring Juanes” that sounds more like a Juanes song than it does a Nelly Furtado song. And then, a little later, we get something that would totally be at home on a Kylie Minogue album: “Do It” is pure Euro dance-pop. Then there’s “In God’s Hands” which sounds more like Mandy Moore than anything else. Finally, there’s the triumphant closing song, an absolutely gorgeous slice of melancholy that is maybe the best pop ballad I have ever heard.

What is one to make of this? Furtado kind of carved out an identity for herself over her first two albums, but now she seems either totally directionless, or brilliantly unhinged, or maybe just a bit plagiaristic (even aside from the whole “Do It” controversy with Timbaland). Not only does Loose not sound anything like Whoa, Nelly! or Folklore, it also sounds nothing like itself, having absolutely no consistent sound. This isn’t necessarily so weird for some artists, but for a pure pop artist, it’s rather more surprising. I still haven’t decided if it’s a good thing or not. Or, for that matter, whether this album is any good or not.

New Yorker: “Does anything need bringing back less than sexy?”

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

I’ve been on a pretty severe music-buying hiatus for a couple months now; the only CDs I’ve bought in recent memory were in a gift-certificate funded order from that included, incongruously, Boris‘ sludge/doom-metal epic Pink and Christina Aguilera’s new double album Back to Basics. Most of this is a function of the fact that I took a pretty expensive vacation this month (also explaining the infrequency of site updates).

In any case, in searching around for reviews of these two albums that I bought, I came across a review of Back to Basics and the new Justin Timberlake album (which I have not heard) in The New Yorker, which is typically, for that publication, well-written and amusing:

Justin Timberlake is under an equally strange impression on “SexyBack,” the first single from his modest but satisfying new album, “FutureSex / LoveSounds,” where he bafflingly claims to be “bringing sexy back.” Does anything need bringing back less than sexy? It’s like proposing to bring back petroleum, or the N.F.L.

In one of the songs on Back to Basics — which is premised as a kind of tribute to old-school R&B and jazz artists — Aguilera name-drops like crazy, giving props to James Brown, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and on and on… the last name made me imagine a Coltrane sheets-of-sound solo inserted ungracefully into a modern hip-hop-based pop song. I actually think that could be pretty awesome: a heavy, hypnotic beat dropping out to make room for a ferocious Coltrane tenor solo? Maybe I’ll go download some mash-up software and make it happen.

On an Island: “resounding bore”?

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

PopMatters’ review of David Gilmour’s new On an Island is probably the best thing I’ve read there for a while, in that I agree with it pretty much 100%.

On an Island sounds exactly like an album by a 60-year-old, semi-retried [sic], Upper Class British multimillionaire guitar legend, recorded with his famous friends—and the wife—on his floating houseboat studio anchored on the River Thames. It’s laid back beyond measure, sparse, leisurely, unforced—that last trait arguably missing from the pair of Gilmour-led Floyd albums. Whether all this results in Gilmour’s most personal, genuine musical statement or a resounding bore is a matter of perspective and personal taste.

Yup. I’m closer to the “resounding bore” side of things, but I do like the album and feel like it might appeal to me more as time goes on. Most of all, though, I echo this reviewer’s sentiment that, though we can criticize the album for being too laid-back, “thank Heaven Gilmour didn’t decide to ‘rawk’”. No shit.

Euro dance pop night wheeee!!!

Monday, March 27th, 2006

So I was on a whirlwind trip to Würzburg, Germany — home of the Freak Show Art Rock festival — this weekend for a cousin’s wedding (and we’ve accumulated an excellent backlog of reviews to be posted this week). I got back yesterday afternoon, along with a housemate who was in Amsterdam for work for an equally brief time; we were both jet-lagged to hell but needed to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime hour, so we decided to go to see Annie at the Black Cat here in DC.

Annie, of course, is the Norweigian dance/electro-pop star whose debut album, Anniemal, somewhat inexplicably garnered rave reviews from the top indie-rock websites like Pitchfork, Stylus, and Tiny Mix Tapes. Pitchfork even ran a feature-length interview with her. Of the major indie web press, only PopMatters gave Anniemal a less than stellar review. I picked up the album and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it became such a hipster sensation. My housemate probably said it best: Annie is for indie kids too cool to admit to liking bouncy, fun pop like Britney Spears. The fact that she’s from Norway and has a bit of Euro-techno in her sound gives her that little bit of street cred that her American culture-industry byproducts never had any chance of having.

So that’s what I thought from listening to Anniemal, anyway. To me the album sounds like girl-pop music with more housey backbeats. Don’t get me wrong, I like this stuff, I just didn’t understand why hipsters who wouldn’t touch girl-pop with a hundred-foot pole would glom onto it so obsessively. The music’s not anything particularly out there and the lyrics certainly aren’t any better than anything Christina Aguilera or Kylie Minogue have cranked out (and are sometimes noticeably worse; check out the line from “Chewing Gum” that goes, “I don’t want to settle down, I just want to have fun / I don’t want to settle down, I just want to chew gum!” — yikes!).

But the live show left me with a slightly different impression. First of all, there was a guitarist. Maybe I totally missed this, but I don’t remember much guitar, if any, on Anniemal. But live, he played a big role in the sound, and he wasn’t just playing cheesy melodies or strumming rhythm either; he was playing some pretty far-out shit at times. Second of all, Annie’s vocals were pretty far down in the mix. If she were really the Euro Britney, that certainly wouldn’t be the case; she’d be front and center. Third, the DJ (who also took a pretty nifty electric piano solo in “Come Together”), while often providing a thumping house beat, was also doing some pretty wild synth flailings. Basically, the music was just a lot more “out” than what’s on Anniemal, which was totally unexpected and kind of refreshing. On the other hand, the mix was pretty bad (the guitarist was drowing everything out at times and I think the vocals could have been higher), and I’m not sure I actually enjoyed the music as much as I do what’s on the album. Still, I have a much better understanding of the indie/underground appeal of this stuff now.

Now, after two weeks where there was literally a show every other day that I was interested in, there’s a bit of a dry spell in the DC live music scene, and things aren’t picking up again until late April. Check out my running list of interesting shows in DC.

Headphone listening

Wednesday, March 24th, 2004

Some preliminary thoughts from my headphone listening the past couple days. Two surprising observations, in particular. First (brace yourselves all ye prog snobs :), “Get Mine, Get Yours” by Christina Aguilera sounds brilliant on the Sony V6s. There’s a separation of instruments I’d never heard before, particularly in the bass, that doesn’t come through in the Grados. Second, “The Package” by A Perfect Circle sounds similarly brilliant on the Grados - the dynamic range is fantastic for a rock recording, and - this is the surprising part - the Grados are well able to reproduce the incredible bone-jarringly deep bass in the early part of the song. It’s not boomy bass; it’s tight and controlled, but still powerful.

On the other hand, Kind of Blue is hiss-and-crackle central. It almost sounds worse on these headphones than on my crappy speakers, if only because I can hear how poorly it’s recorded. And I have the relatively new remastered version, too. Finally, Gorecki’s 3rd (I know, I know, but I like it) is gorgeous on the Grados. These phones do wonderful things with female vocals.

Avril Lavigne: annoying, but not that annoying

Tuesday, April 29th, 2003

AND, one more thing: a couple people named Avril Lavigne as their most annoying music ever, specifically “Sk8er Boi”. Greg Northrup points out that Avril’s image is entirely fake and manufactured and deceptive (as opposed to other teen-poppers, whose images are fake and manufactured, but don’t pretend not to be). This is true, and extremely disingenuous, not to mention incredibly crass given the way she’s been marketed. The music industry at its worst.

All that said, and it pains me to say this, I actually like her album, Let Go. Yeah, “Sk8er Boi” is an absolute travesty and any radio station that continues to play it should be shut down by the FCC. But some of the other songs I actually enjoy. They’re fairly well-constructed and catchy (well, of course they’re catchy), yet have some bite to them. And Lavigne’s voice has this innocent quality sometimes that’s kind of endearing. Sure, the lyrics are pretty embarrassing in places. I wonder who wrote them: if not written by Avril herself, did some schmuck try to write crappy lyrics on purpose so that they would look like the work of a 17-year-old? Hehe… a good question.