Rihanna – ANTI


RihannaANTI Westbury Road B0022993-02 (2016)

The Limits of Pop Music

Rihanna’s ANTI makes an interesting case study for the limits of pop music.  That is to say the album highlights both the opportunities for what is possible under the auspices of unabashedly commercial, mainstream music and the barriers, constraints and contradictions that go along with commercial, mainstream music.

Much of what pop stardom is about is image and spectacle.  Substantive content is at best a distant second behind the cultural symbolism of the persona represented by the music, and how the audience desires to attain the same persona or just consume it to bolster a different yet coupled persona.  In fact, this has become an accepted way to analyze and review an album like ANTI.  Under this rubric, the ability of a pop star to succeed is all about crafting and manipulating the persona through music to be something other than just a direct manifestation of whatever hedonistic, saccharine, materialistic nugget forms the core of the relevant pop sub-genre.  But there are only certain ways that doing so is possible within the structural constraints of “pop” music as such, before a line is crossed and the music (good, bad or otherwise) is simply no longer “pop”.  One approach is to deploy much of the trappings of commercial pop, especially using ornate and complex production techniques, but to thread through and embed melancholy and subversive messages that reveal a contrary perspective — a classic example being The Carpenters, but The The‘s Soul Mining fits too as does early Scott Walker.  Another is to engage in ironic, cynical distance.  This is epitomized by the highly constructed “bad girl”/”bad boy” image of the likes of Madonna, P!nk, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, etc., which pretends to a kind of rebellion while actually being totally compliant with the demands of a big-business music industry that constructs its own “criticism” so as to be powerless and effectively moot.  There is a degree of sensationalism here, and mostly this approach is self-defeating (or was simply a front all along).  There is also the highbrow intellectual approach, which usually seeks to apply a “respectable” standard from outside of the pop realm to pop music — be it opera, jazz, etc.  Examples abound from Josh Groban to Margo Guryan.  This approach treads a line that often threatens to undermine the notion of being pop music, by subordinating its own standards to an external one and using musical techniques that are less easily identified with “pop” music.  Yet another approach is the “wizard behind the curtain” one, which tries to lift the veil of pop artifice to show the machinations that “really” drive the music.  In this category would be stuff like later Beyoncé.  Lastly, there is a kynicist approach, which take a multivalent reverent/irreverent approach to pop music — artists who reside here are Ariel Pink, The Red Krayola, any of the tropicalists from Brazil, and even early Beck.  Of course, there are other approaches too, but these tend to be some of the most common.

Rihanna’s ANTI cuts across many of these categories.  There is some of the cynical “bad girl” approach, and some of the subversive, contrary messaging.  The former fails in the same way it always does.  That is to say that the music tries to overcome the contradictions of commercial pop music that are at its foundations — like decaffeinated coffee, this is an attempt to have the good without the bad in a way that defeats the premise.  Why even be a commercial “pop” artist at all?  Would a real “bad girl” not be completely outside the corporate media world?  These problems hamper the first part of the album.  There are too many synths and the songs are clunky because they gloss over these issues.  The opener “Consideration” is a throwaway because it dwells in the most mediocre aspects of Rihanna’s past work.  But the latter part of the album shifts towards something that (yes!) is a bit closer to The Carpenters.  This kind of swing between approaches is frankly a bit like Kanye West, who does the Carpenters thing (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and then changes up and does the maniacal version of the “wizard behind the curtain” approach (Yeezus), but he does this kind of thing almost in slow motion.  And for that matter, while the diversion to retro sounds (“Love on the Brain”) has been done a lot (Bruno Mars), it is worth keeping in mind that it was a staple of the Carpenters too (“Please Mister Postman,” etc.).  It allows the music to disconnect from any strict adherence to current fashions and fads. It also suggests there is something — in history — that matters and can be found and taken up again, breaking the tyranny of the present.

The opportunities of pop music are also on display here.  For one, the sense of commonality that underlies pop music grant it the widest possible platform.  Anybody, in theory, can grasp what this music is about.  And there are all sorts of pleasurable musical effect in use.  While “Consideration” tries too hard to use reggae singing, “Work” is much better because Rihanna’s talent for that vocal style is more understated and natural.  “Desperado” is where the album really takes off.  It conveys a sense of hitting bottom but still going on.

ANTI is indeed an album that is better and deeper than it first lets on.  Sure, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is brilliant, and immediately, unmistakably so.  But across the entire album, this reveals itself slowly to be fundamentally aiming for something more than just Freud‘s “pleasure principle” of a past satisfaction repeated, and instead focuses on what Freud called the “reality principle,” the mature reasonableness of the ego that postpones and defers immediate gratification in search of something more contingent. The simple pleasure accrue along the way, just for what they are and no more.  It would be wrong to say ANTI has colossal ambitions, but it has them and they are what the album is really about.

Jamie Lidell – Compass


Jamie LidellCompass Warp warpCD192 (2010)

Compass is Jamie Lidell’s best album to date.  It is also his most adventurous and simply weird one.  He’s still doing the soul music thing (realized most fully on Jim).  He’s also still mixing in electronics (which first garnered him attention with Multiply).  But what is different here is how he pulls those elements together.  There are snippets of melody, and catchy rhythms.  But those don’t dominate.  Instead the music shifts unpredictably.  It kind of denies the easy satisfaction of sticking with any of those elements across an entire song.  Instead, he emphasizes dissonance, demanding adjustments, incongruity, and meanings that are only implied through the dynamic movement of the music.  Even free jazz horn riffs appear briefly.  There isn’t really a clear term for this, but it is the same style used by artists from the Brazilian tropicalistas to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Beck (a co-producer here).

“I Can Love Again” revels in the sort of stuff Prince would do on B-sides and obscure deep album cuts, wandering around a beat, with rambling musings heavily distorted with affected voice modulations.  “The Ring” is more of the same (almost fit for a latter-day version of The Black Album).  “Coma Chameleon” is not only a pun on the old Culture Club hit, it also has the sort of grinding low-end horn charts that fueled Radiohead‘s “The National Anthem.”  “Enough’s Enough” is one of the songs closest to straightforward soul, of the bright, disco-era variety. Hopefully this conveys a bit of the range exhibited by Compass.

Some of this is mediocre (“You Are Waking”).  But for the most part this is more consistent from beginning to end that anything Lidell had done to this point.  As a number of soul music legends ventured into electronica around this time (Bobby Womack, Gil Scott-Heron), Lidell was leading the pack in terms of innovation.

Otis Redding – Tell the Truth

Tell the Truth

Otis ReddingTell the Truth Atco SD 33-333 (1970)

Another posthumous Redding album.  But a fairly good one.  It may not have a trio of songs as good as “I’m a Changed Man,” “Look at the Girl” and “Direct Me,” but on the whole it is better than the immediately prior vault-clearing album Love Man.  The title track is still up there with Redding’s best.  Some songs use an effective tactic of having the low-end bass and organ play slowly, while the vocals and guitar play at a faster tempo, giving the impression of being ahead of everything around them.

Otis was a truly unique pop singer.  He largely avoided both vibrato and melisma.  His style was southern soul.  He took rural elements and made them palatable to urban audiences without undermining the gritty energy that gave his voice such power.  If there is a comparison — pardon how far afield this seems — it might be the actor/dancer Gene Kelly.  Both men had a kind of husky, athletic physical presence that they used in surprisingly nimble ways.  They also both knew showman’s tricks, and were ready and able to dazzle audiences with routines that were entertaining without being condescending.  What both did was also the kind of stuff that, theoretically, anybody could have done.  Singing and dancing just take practice, right?  Of course, they were each uncommonly talented.  But it wasn’t just a raw talent.  They both kind of found their niche.  Which is to say that equal talents that were “out of time” and not in the right place at the right time (or of the “right” race, gender, etc.) would not be known to history like these men.

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – Lick My Decals Off, Baby

Lick My Decals Off, Baby

Captain Beefheart & The Magic BandLick My Decals Off, Baby Straight STS 1063 (1970)

It seems entirely reasonable to look at the career of Captain Beefheart as a microcosm of the entire counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s.  His earliest stuff was warped blues rock, sometimes a little psychedelic and sometimes loose and jammy.  There seemed to be a genuine belief that the music was commercial enough without overtly trying to be.  In other words, it presupposed a market for rock music that openly drew from Afro-American blues without being a part of that tradition.  This was right after the formal, legal end of the Jim Crow era.  By the end of the 60s, though, The Captain released Trout Mask Replica, which was probably the furthest “out” version of what the entire hippie counterculture was about, moving from blues rock into free jazz and abstract non-sequitur.  Into the early 1970s, the abstraction was scaled back, or at least positioned alongside more radio-friendly material.  The Spotlight Kid made overt attempts to hold the weirdness in check and slow everything down.  Clear Spot went so far as to include a soul ballad “Too Much Time” along with stuff that still recalled the late 60s weirdness.  Whether all this was a naive assumption that the counterculture could survive in that rarefied environment, or just a calculated attempt to make some accommodations (with or without sacrificing integrity), is for the listener to decide.  Nonetheless, the early 70s still found The Captain succeeding artistically, even as by the mid-70s he seemed adrift — just like the counterculture that rolled back against the backlash of the business class.  But unlike many of his contemporaries, who never returned to any kind of relevance, Captain Beefheart made some interesting turns in the late 1970s.  Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was a surprising triumph, blending a kind of postmodern panoply of styles that was professionally slick and in touch with contemporary tastes while still remaining inimitably, unwaveringly weird.  It was goofy without sacrificing real wit.  From there, Doc at the Radar Station accentuated the cerebral, more abstract elements of the music.  It accepted a more limited role for this music (even if The Captain was still appearing on national TV to promote the album).  His final album, Ice Cream for Crow, confirmed a role of elder statesman of a kind of music that was obviously losing ground and no longer economically viable even at the fringes.  But there was still some small space to make the music and Captain Beefheart went ahead and did just that.  It was no surprise that the last few albums came along roughly during the punk era.  The Captain was fueled by the same independent ethos, even if his music bore little or no direct sonic resemblance to punk.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby had obvious parallels with Trout Mask Replica, but it also was more streamlined and decisive.  This was music made by a band that knew precisely what it was doing.  The fact that wide swaths of the general population wanted no part of it was beside the point.  The album was the band’s highest charting album in the UK.  While, from a certain perspective, this might be seen as the pinnacle of Beefheart’s Magic Band, and the counterculture as a whole, it also wasn’t enoughJohn “Drumbo” French‘s memoir Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic later indicated that the band was surviving on welfare and allowances from parents.  Hardly a recipe for the lasting victory of the counter-culture.  Nearly fifty years later, this album sounds remarkable for what it saw as possible — the way the album could demand so much concentration from listeners, the way it could afford to revisit a style that was so commercially unpopular on the last album, the obvious aspirations and ambition directed in such a freaky and non-corporate direction, the role of horns and guitars, and the range of material that could cohesively exist on a single album.  Looking back, it is quite a shame that everything this album represented failed to carry the day.  But this music survives, and there is still time.

Yoko Ono – Yes, I’m a Witch

Yes, I'm a Witch

Yoko OnoYes, I’m a Witch Astralwerks ASW 79287 (2007)

Sure, these guest-driven remix albums are always uneven.  Yes, I’m a Witch is no exception.  But Yoko kind of deserved a record like this.  Anyway, the best of what is here — with input from the likes of Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, The Brother Brothers, and Shitake Monkey — is really good.  Outside of Yoko, Tom Zé, and Scott Walker, there are frankly few artists over 70 years old (!) who so convincingly deliver pop/rock music this relevant and up-to-date.  Yoko offered a few more of these remix albums, plus a new version of the Plastic Ono band released some surprisingly good new recordings in the years that followed.

Yoko Ono – Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band

Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band

Yoko OnoYoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band Apple SAPCOR 17 (1970)

The Plastic Ono Band led by Yoko Ono made some startling music that never confined itself to any conventional rock structures. The album is a conceptual work that stays true to Ono’s roots in the visual arts (this is a Fluxus album!). Her piercing wails rarely take the form of words, which would only lessen the creativity.

Ono’s most notable song leads off the album, “Why.” Next she replies with “Why Not.” Ono cuts right to the fundamental question of existence: why? Her answer is as flippant as it is brilliant. Despite her aggressive attack she was always positive. Yoko is like a sunshine day in an urban ghost town. For all the hipster ambitions of the Plastic Ono Band, the bizarre interdependence on R&B grooves make it all the more complex. Yet, the album remains delicate throughout. Call it pretentious, but Plastic Ono Band is among the most provocative albums of its time.

Ono maneuvers through deep psychological recesses, as primal scream therapy prompted both this and John Lennon’s John Lenon / Plastic Ono Band record (recorded at the same time with the same musicians). Yoko’s album as bandleader is far more abstract musically than Lennon’s. She stays away from the intricacies of writing extended lyrics, but instead focuses more on improvisational tactics and pure concept. This is seen on “AOS,” recorded backstage rehearsing with The Ornette Coleman Quartet.  Ono made some more music somewhat like this (Fly, etc.), but always with a little more emphasis on song structure.

It wasn’t a simple thing for a woman to break into the male-dominated avant-garde music scene, but Yoko Ono did it. Back in her Fluxus days she did perform with The Theater of Eternal Music (a/k/a LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate), which is a credential no Beatle had. Her unique vocal style (only comparable to Patty Waters, Linda Sharrock or maybe Mongolian throat singing) is the boldest aspect of the album. Not just some academic theory, Yoko screams out the entire album. This wasn’t music of widespread appeal, but it was important nonetheless (the bass line to “Why” crops up many places, like on Stereolab‘s “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”).

Significant to Plastic Ono Band are John Lennon and Ringo Starr‘s performances. Hardly before had Lennon played guitar so passionately. He proves that as a pure instrumental stylist he can hold his own with anybody. Ringo Starr lays down a thick R&B backbeat here that funkifies this avant-noise powder keg.

This is an amazing album. Years later, after bands like PiL and Flipper, Yoko was proven a visionary. Like the album jacket suggests, listen to it in the dark.