Friday, August 28, 2009

Miley Cyrus - "Party in the USA" - Pop Chart Adventure Part 1

Let's talk about "Party in the USA".

Some people, as stupid as it would be, are going to interpret "Party in the USA", as yet another Miley song about growing up or something. It seems like Miley's handlers have been hinting at this almost since she hit the public consciousness, and rightly so: that's pretty much their job. It's the same thing they've already dealt with in the cases of Hillary Duff and Lindsay Lohan (oh my god what do we do when she she's too old to pull of the young and innocent angle?). At first glance, this could be Miley's "Come Clean" - Hillary's moment of transition for Disney tween sensation to almost full on mainstream pop star - and truth be told, it could sound good as a theme song to a better-than-it-should-be reality TV show. "Come Clean" was an obvious ploy, though, in the same way "The Climb" was. It's surprisingly easy to go from tween pop to epic inspirational pop. While the music is slightly heavier and more "adult" sounding, the saccharine sentimentality is the same, and its an easy way to get old people to pay attention to an act that's supposed to be for kids.

"She's talking about the climb? I know all about that! It's like, my job and like, how I went to school and shit? She's not just a kid anymore I think."

But this song has the fucking word "party" in the title, and Miley already did "The Climb". As much as "Come Clean" was a don't even think about it staple of dance parties I attended in 2005-06, it wasn't designed to be a jam, and Hillary never followed it up with much of anything. "Party in the USA" is a perfect follow up to "The Climb", and it works. It's a good enough song, and calculated well enough, to grab the 18-25 year olds that were both too old to get in on the early Miley hysteria and too young to appreciate the syrupy MOR bullshit of "The Climb. Even if my appreciation of its message hinges on a misheard lyric, I'll stump for it.

"I'm nodding my head like yeah" -> "I'm not in my head like yeah"

It's six of one in my book. Miley's songwriters would have written the second if they thought they could get away with it and why? Cause this song's about the ability of music to affect one's mental state and the perception of one's environment. It's a well worn subject in dance music, to be sure ("Music Sounds Better With You" comes to mind), but Miley and her people stumble on it gracefully here. The transcendental, context changing power of music, what I believe to be the primary message of the song, albeit hidden under layers of pop culture reference ("the Jay Z/Britney song was on" - meaning: "look I'm not one of those Jesus freak Jonas kids that doesn't listen to the radio") and standard adolescent unease, what I guess you could unfortunately call emo at this point, the "what am I doing here" shit ("my tummie's turning and I'm feeling kinda homesick").

If you look at the general narrative of the song it goes like this. Miley is going to LA. She feels like she is out of her element. People look different, people dress differently, and she feels self conscious. This partly due to the fact that she finds herself among people she deems to be famous. The only thing that snaps her back into her personal reality is music. She hears songs she knows, songs she can identify with, and she realizes that her current surroundings aren't so different from those she's used to. She is now able to go as apeshit as a caged 16 year old pop star can go (apparently this ends at throwing your hands up, shaking your hips, and doing a couple of other non-disruptive things "like yeah").

This is something we can all identify with, but it ought o be resonate even more for those of us who happen to be in the aforementioned early 20's demographic. Add to that fact that the rock/pop production lends to song some extra credibility and you have a song that might just finally cross Miley over. Kudos.

Unfortunately, it seems like it's impossible to find a version of the track on YouTube that doesn't have some sort of problem. I've chosen the version with the uniformly shitty quality rather than the over the one where the short bitrate results in the oddly distorted mids, or the one with the ridiculously overblown low end. Enjoy.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Summer Jam 2009 Candidate #3 - Medina - Kun For Mig

One of the things I can do at my job that looks like work but isn't actually is keeping careful and obsessive track of the ,iTunes charts. I don't know how familiar you are with the way they do it, but basically you can see, on any day, the top ten songs divided by country. The US charts are rarely all that interesting, but ability to see them against the international charts is a truly fascinating study. You can see the Black Eyed Peas at #1 at almost every country, followed by #2s that are as diverse as the countries actually ought to be. Usually the #1s are somehow identifiable, either as successful songs from internationally appealing artists, or as quickly overturning local hits. Denmark though, had an especially resilient local #1 for a few months this summer - "Kun For Mig" by Medina. I was intrigued, and, after encouragement from the Singles Jukebox, I checked it out.

There's the back story. Now, let's talk about what a great song "Kun For Mig" is, and forget for a minute about Summer Jam status and what have you.

It's a Danish dance track that builds to a chorus but never totally explodes. It runs on a deep, unsyncopated bass and bass drum pattern, synths that wouldn't be out of place anywhere, and some strings. It's clinical and chilly, while being intensely easy on the ears and rewarding on repeated listening, not unlike minimal house with a hook.

It's the second coming of Everything But the Girl's "Missing" as far as I'm concerned. [If "Missing" has already come a second time and I missed it - this is entirely possible, by the way. I'm entirely confident that someone in Italy or Britain has put together a track in the past 15 years that blends understated romantic melancholy with cool, vaguely disaffected yet emotive vocals and subtle, effective house music in a similar way to Everything But the Girl's classic, but I haven't heard it. Anyway, let me know where I can find it if it exists. Otherwise I'll just keep listening to "Kun For Mig".]

Like "Missing", it has a relatively slight and reproducible track, but the vocal saves the track from the banality into which these sort of songs all too easily slip. "Missing" feels like a club track that becomes a pop song just because it's so fucking good - you could take that groove and run it for 10 minutes, building it up and breaking it down into the vocal a few times, segueing it back into something else, bringing it back, and I'm sure there's a remix out there that does this very well. "Kun For Mig" seems to be the opposite, though. Listening to it, you do feel like you want it to go on longer, but it's structure is so entrenched in the ABABCB pop/rock structure that you're loath to concede more time to it. It's a pop song the evokes the feeling of a club, I guess similar to the way that trip hop was a genre built around being club songs you couldn't play in a club. Again, no doubt a remix has already fixed this and it's tearing up European discos as we speak.

Which brings us to the fact that, yeah, she's singing in Danish. Well, let's not deny that there's an exoticism going on here that makes "Kun For Mig" especially attractive to a non-Danish speaker. But this couldn't be farther from "Dragostea Din Tei".

"Dragostea Din Tei" was a joke - an entirely different sort of European dance music vacationism. You could sense that even though the lyrics were in Bulgarian (right?) they wouldn't be important even if you could understand them. The few intelligible parts of the song hinted at a vacuity that was hidden only be the inability to comprehend the rest of the lyrics - "Hallo. Salut." Plus there's no way "myahee myahoo myaho myaha-ha" means anything in any language.

There's nothing to hang your hat on in "Kun For Mig", unless you count the similarity of the Danish word "for" with the English word "for". It may as well be instrumental, if it wasn't for the clarity and purpose you can feel behind the vocal performance. Restrained, sure, but there's a sense of meaning that comes through without lyrics screwing the whole thing up. Where O-Zone (I almost called them O-Town LOL) works in the universal language of empty lyricism, Medina shows that it doesn't have to be like that, even in a pop song.

So yeah, you can get the same voyeuristic, "aren't I cool for liking this obscure foreign song" thrill while singing along to "Kun For Mig", while also identifying with something beyond a catchy keyboard lick.

But how is "Kun For Mig" a Summer Jam?

Fucked if I know. It lacks cathartic power, any reference to summer, any appeal in the realm of "too stupid to think about", and the sound of it certainly doesn't conjure anything particularly sunny. As such, it seems more suited to the Autumn Jam discussion. But it has been the coolest summer on record here in New York, so I chalk its appeal up to that. A cop out? Sure, but this song is totally worth copping out for.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Summer Jam 2009 Candidate #2 - Das Racist - Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell

Do you like this? Do you hate this? It doesn't matter and I don't care. You have heard it or will hear it and that is what matters. Two guys who apparently live in Queens got high a few months ago, thought about how funny the idea of combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell was, put on a drum machine, and said "Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" over and over again in a rhythmic manner for a few minutes (the video above is for a remix that adds a bit of musical intricacy to make the listening experience a little bit smoother, but the original is, for all intents and purposes, the same).

And you listened to it!

Why did you do that? How did you do that?

This is the perfect case of viral for the sake of viral, and I'll admit to getting some kicks from it. It's funny! I do think the idea of a Pizza Hut and Taco Bell is funny. I like it when people decide to make music for fun, which is obviously the case here. I'd rather listen to this than Vespatimesist any day because these guys are fucking having fun. I like it when people try things that sound like terrible ideas and don't care and just try them and sometimes it works. This works, for example, even though it seems like it shouldn't or, maybe you're thinking, actually, no, it doesn't work. I'll say it again - you listened to it (or you will).

I spent a lot of time one summer writing and recording songs like this one in my basement with a friend of mine. We once recorded an improvisational record in about 4 hours. A lot of stuff is terrible to the point of being, like, 4 levels below "Pizza Hut and Taco Bell". But when we had actual ideas, like Das Racist did, the songs actually turned out pretty well. I'd go so far as to say that many of them were better than "Pizza Hut and Taco Bell". But, again, that's not the point. You listened to "Pizza Hut and Taco Bell", or you will, and you haven't listened to "Galavanting Unicorns of Love In Space".

You can look at a garage rock band and be like, these are the everyman. These are the blue collar soul of popular music, where rubber meets the road. But anyone who's been to a garage rock concert in the past two years knows that's not true anymore. Garage rock has graduated from the suburban garage to the abandoned urban garage and become art. Das Racist are the new everymen of music - dudes sitting in their basement with joints and pirated copies of Ableton Live. Think this song is stupid enough that you could have made it? You are exactly right.

There is no artifice, it's just fucking dumb, kind of funny, and frighteningly catchy. If these guys were British the song would be #1 over there already. The stoner's pick for summer jam '09, sure, but also something of a punk rock choice - if you're looking for a snapshot of the state of D.I.Y. in June 2009 you can stop looking.

Do I like it? Do you care? Do I care?

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer Jam 2009 Candidate #1 - Keri Hilson ft. Kanye West & Ne-Yo - Knock You Down

Apparantly UMB Brazil is way cooler than they're North American overlords and have allowed me to embed this video into my blog. If you don't see it, you can do the old fashioned here:

Now, I'm not totally sold on what any of these three people are doing in general. I've got reservations about giving my whole hearted support to Kanye (though I'm close), Ne-Yo, or Keri Hilson right now.

But this track? No reservations at all.

Post Heartbreaks Kanye seems to be living in a sort of bubble where people are so happy he's not trying to sing that his verses once again seem awesome and immediate like they did way back when. His verse here is a good case in point, and I wouldn't be surprised if his next record is a lot like this - competent, almost perfect for the song, but lacking that weird sense of paranoia and persecution that made his early music so interesting. Still great, but it's Kanye without the caps lock, which I think we're all going to have to grow up and adjust to if we want to remain fans of pop music in the next few years.

Ne-Yo, on the other hand, I would've sworn I hated him. "So Sick" is a great song but he really lost it after that. People I respect have been all over Year of the Gentleman, but choosing to listen to "Miss Independent" was something I just couldn't bring myself to do. But I think I get it now - this is what it took. This is arguably the best sing-rapping that anyone has ever done without being R. Kelly. This verse may singlehandedly make it ok for an R&B singer to get a guest spot on a track and not only do a verse rather than a hook, but even deliver it like an MC, but I hope it doesn't, cause I don't think anyone other than the aforementioned Kels or maybe The-Dream could possibly handle that task. The last thing I want to hear is Akon trying to do this shit.

Man, Ne-Yo's verse on this is so good.

Keri Hilson - fine. She's good looking, has just enough personality visually and vocally, but she's obviously overshadowed on this track. And not only by Yo and Ye, but by the beat! It's been a while since I heard a hip hop beat I liked this much on a radio track. The form of it is interesting, splitting each verse in half between lackadaisical paint by numbers bounce and frenetic hi-hat shit for which I am a total sucker.

A little too long, but I'm ok with that in a Summer Jam. 2009 is already shaping up to be better than 2008 on the Summer Jam front. I'm not gonna be surprised if this one wins out.

Oh and yes I do realized I never finished by top ten of 2008. The top three were Portishead - Third, Robyn - ST (yeah I know this came out in 2005 - I like this record fucking sue me), and Mount Eerie, Julie Doiron & Fred Squire - Lost Wisdom. All great records that you should listen to all night. If you wanna know how I feel about em, in particular, get in touch personal like. This shit don't come for free.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Two Thousand Eight - 4. Islands - Arm's Way

Usually, even if I make an act like I don't understand why certain bands aren't huge and famous and popular - the Drones for instance, as Pitchfork noted in their review of Havilah last week, are one of those bands. But really, it ought to be pretty obvious why people wouldn't like them. They're just too bleak, and it's a very heartening fact, actually, that people at large would think that. Life would be significantly worse if everyone went around talking about war and death and being all, "maybe you should just die" all the time. Makes for great music, but not necessarily the type of thinking everyone should try to embrace.

But the quickness with which people lost interest in Islands is something of a surprise to me. The Unicorns' first record was justifiably received as a landmark of idiosyncratic turn of the millennium pop music, and like, girls liked it. Guys liked it. Square people and hipsters both liked it cause it was good pop music that was fun. Turns out, as the story goes, that the Unicorns were so idiosyncratic that they broke up before they could make another record. But when they reformed like Voltron into Islands and put out Return To the Sea, it was well received. I recall people saying things like, "I really like that Islands record".

So why then, did nobody give a shit when Arm's Way came out last summer? I'll admit that when songs get longer and less linear I tend to get skeptical, but it's not like most of the songs on Return to the Sea were straightforward pop songs. There's no "Rough Gem", yeah, so my best guess is that the indie rock listening public saw this record as an example of a band abandoning their true identity in the name of artistic progression.

C'mon though, I mean, and really. Besides certain lyrical themes (death, fear, illness) and odd pop culture references ("Ready to Die", "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby"), there's nothing that really ties Unicorns/Islands together as a style, beyond the mercurial personalities of their members. Whimsy, you could call it, within certain bounds. The real problem, then, is that it's not a complete departure from RttS. It's the continuation of the band's interests away from traditional pop song structures towards something more baroque and composed. The reaction to the record then, can't be a, "wow these guys do something crazy and original every time the come out", which was the mindset up iuntil this record, but that now needs to be modified in the direction of, "ok, here's a band finding their voice". Whims are becoming more explicable, messages are becoming more focused.

This record was not received especially well, I think, because it's a solid record, rather than a revelatory one. Every song on here is very good, but no songs on here are as great as "Rough Gem", "Les Os", etc. That said, Arm has moments of brilliance that equal or exceed any heights Islands/Unicorns have previously reached.


The middle/end of "Abonimable Snow" is right up there with the Hair's "ghost" series in terms of expressing an endearingly naive, weirdly displaced, but very real fear of the supernatural.

"I Feel Evil Creeping In" hints more definitively than any previous Islands/Unicorns song at what, I think, anyone who listened closely enough to their first two records ought to realize: these guys are kind of bad news. They may be scared and their confused, but they've got a real mean streak in them. If you've ever seen an interview with Nick Thorburn, it's pretty clear that the guy is thorny in a way that's certainly different than the way, say, Lou Reed is thorny, or "rock stars" are thorny. You get the sense he's always had this charmingly innate distaste for things that could erupt at any moment.

The last two minutes of "In the Rushes". The main part of the song is sort of plodding and vague. Nothing anyone would be expected to remember or about which a letter would be written or a blog post written. But then - and when I first heard this song at a show in Montreal during February last year I broke into one of those laugh and smile fits that always strikes me when something totally wonderful and unexpected occurs during a show, usually regarding a new song or a song I've never heard before performed by a band for whom I hold a great deal of affection, once they got to this section - they break into an homage to/reimagining of the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" that contrasts with the rest of the song in such a way that you kind of leave your brain for a hot minute. One of the best moments of pop music in 2008.

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