Madonna has had an interesting career. Her self-titled debut album is a classic of early 1980s dance floor electro-pop. After that, though, she focused on the sensational aspects of her public persona. This often meant a hyper-sexualized one. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it often seemed to pander, or at least resort to pandering and filler at album length — she could still knock out great singles. But by the mid-1990s it seemed almost like she was stuck churning out slightly eroticized pop ballads, and she had taken that about as far as she could. So Ray of Light was a somewhat daring turn toward electronica, pairing her with producer William Orbit. The album draws a bit from the down-tempo trip hop scene, but retains a kind of mainstreamed rave dance floor appeal. This turns out to be one of her best album-length statements. Nearly twenty years after release, it still sounds good. Madonna comes to terms with middle age here, in a way. Maybe it avoids some of the exuberance and daring of her early hits, with more brooding and introspective qualities in their place. But at a certain point Neil Hamburger had a point with his joke: “What do you call senior citizens who rub feces on their genitals? Madonna!” Countless musicians have tried to make a mid-career update, to seem more “with it” and adept with current fads. The thing is, Madonna pulls off that feat better than just about anybody here. Nothing about Ray of Light seems like faddish pandering. And she sings as good as ever here — her vocals are much stronger and extend to a much wider array of techniques than back on her debut. Too bad all pop albums aren’t this good!
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 an 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.
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 and Tom Zé, 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.
Here is a forward-thinking recording that combines three semi-disparate styles. There is protest folk, akin to Joan Baez. There is also psychedelic rock, like Jefferson Airplane. Lastly, and most unusually, there are experimental electronics, comparable to The United States of America, some efforts by The Grateful Dead, or maybe even Silver Apples. The songwriting talents are undeniable — Sainte-Marie’s versatility is demonstrated by how she later co-wrote the mega-hit “Up Where We Belong” for the film An Officer and a Gentleman. The musicianship here is a bit raw much of the time. But this music places more emphasis on innovation than finesse. Buffy goes so far as to modulate her voice with electronic equipment. Not surprisingly, this was a commercial flop upon release, but it has nonetheless held on to a doggedly devoted cult following. It is unmistakably an album of the late-1960s, and perhaps one representative of the fundamentally new possibilities opened up in that era, even if only at the fringes. Worthwhile for adventurers in modern music.
Did you know that there are really only two kinds of people? Well, there are. One kind are globalists, who believe in a overarching hierarchy of things, with all people and things with each in its place and, axiomatically, problems arise from people and things being out of place (or unhappy with their place). The other kind are universalists who think that basically everybody is equal, with everyone and everything having direct access to participate in life and society and problems arise when people and things are denied equal treatment. While there are degrees of each, these are very obviously mutually exclusive positions. Guess which side DJ /rupture’s music falls on? The latter, or course. Minesweeper Suite is a DJ mix album that splices together music from around the globe, putting it all on an equal footing. In a way, this is precisely the kind of thinking explored in Michael Denning‘s book Noise Uprising, about music in the early days of electrical recording technology. DJ /rupture (born Jace Clayton) looks for connections between music from different parts of the planet, and opportunities for complementary mappings for the beats and melodies and timbres. So, in a way, this is music that seeks to locate a universal folk music, inclusive of, well, everything (sort-of). It maybe stops short of including all kinds of music — this is mostly the music made by and for the poor, the humble, the minority, and those outside the grip of hegemonic global media, which translates to the music of the Global South. But isn’t that precisely what somebody interested in universalism would do, break from the globalist system that imposes a narrow band of “mainstream” music on everyone else? The alternative to all that that Minesweeper Suite presents is a rootless music that easily floats among many possibilities. Whatever bits of “mainstream” music are included in the mix tend to get no special privilege, but are also treated to honorable and supportive treatment.
In a 2008 essay, DJ /rupture said this about his genre of turntablist music:
“DJed music develops in the great centers: London, New York, Paris. But the artists make much of their living in forays to the periphery. To state culture bureaus, our music sounds like art and the ‘avant-garde,’ a means of prestige. To kids coming of age in a world of technology and unhinged capitalism, our music seems to sound the way global capital is—liquid, international, porous, and sped-up.
Yet our sounds are also a vocabulary for those who detest the walled-off concentrations of wealth, and steal property back: the collectives that build their own sound systems, stage free parties, and invite DJs to perform. The international DJ becomes emblematic of global capitalism’s complicated cultural dimension.”
As for the specifics of the music, there is a lot of Jamaican stuff, Indian, North African, and old and new American R&B and soul. The bass tends to feel loud, to the point of developing a round, liquid and kind of giggling effect, with a noisy, overdriven edge. At times it creates a foreboding quality, almost like the good parts are buried under a impossibly massive and impenetrable deluge, though most of the time the music has a hopeful quality that looks toward promising possibilities.
You can download this album (and others) for free from DJ /rupture’s web site.
DJ /rupture (b. Jace Clayton) is good at what he does. While his acclaimed mix album Minesweeper Suite took a sweeping, big picture look at the possibilities in reorganizing and reconstructing music, Special Gunpowder is his first attempt at recording all the raw material himself. Now his beats hardly ever stay in one place long. The fluid sounds are ever changing, ever evolving interpretations of folk music from around the globe. Maybe that is necessary, as the opening overture recites: “Philadelphia is on fire, and watermelon is all that can cool it.” Direct associations are no longer enough for some climates. In its abstract and irrational state, Special Gunpowder completely avoids the labels “cultural piracy” and “intellectual colonialism” that go along with the appropriation and reuse of folk music. DJ /rupture adds new contexts. He expands the possibilities of individual components by bringing them together in a comprehensive way that allows each to contribute effectively in its own way. It may take some effort embrace this music in all its myriad nuances. Still, making the effort is recommended. The groove — elusive may it be — is there. If Special Gunpowder offers anything for listeners, it’s the opportunity to look beyond the prison of those few experiences and desires close to us. It’s a chance to see all the different parts come together for little while. Plus, it rocks with some sweet dance floor beats
Björk has established herself as one of the more interesting mainstream acts of her era. She is quirky and charming in a way that exudes a convincing innocence and naiveté — if always grounded in a sort of melodrama that keeps her firmly connected to the pop charts. Her time in the spotlight was drawing to a close, but Volta is an interesting record even if it is also an uneven one. The duet with Antony on “The Dull Flame of Desire” is quite nice, and some punchier, more dance-able grooves than usual are elsewhere near the top of the album. But things cool off considerably after the first four songs. The very weakest stuff tends to be the rather straightforward balladry and slower material, where it becomes apparent that anyone who has been listening before has already heard it done better. Still, the best Volta has to offer ranks among Björk’s very best.
ANOHNI’s (formerly Antony Hegarty) solo debut is a resolutely political work inhabiting a space not unlike P.J. Harvey‘s The Hope Six Demolition Project, with many of the same pluses and minuses. Harvey’s album railed with righteous indignation against the Tories and the cold, heartless class war they are waging in England. ANOHNI is from the U.S. and her focus is instead located there. And both deliver blunt, progressive political messages in ways that don’t seem particularly musical, in the sense that the musical backdrops in each case seem almost ready-made and conservative. Hopelessness combines familiar glitchy electronica while the vocals invoke the catastrophes of the contemporary world. “Drone Bomb Me” and “Obama” are direct indictments of murderous wars of aggression and the depraved madness of the political servants of the ruling class. “Four Degrees” is a stark testament of complicity in the environmental destruction of the anthropocene era. This is a juxtaposition of poppy beats, with all the implied escapism and feel-good utility, with grave and discomforting texts, with all their heavy political weight. It is an awkward juxtaposition, and meant to be such. This music is an overt attempt to rattle listeners out of the complacent acceptance of the status quo — to make them confront the banality of evil in their lives. All this may well be true, but is Hoplessness effective? That may be an impossible question to speculate on, but suffice it to say this is a difficult listening experience meant to make the listener uncomfortable. And the problem is the very conceptual nature of the album — often a bit too binary and simplistic and even formulaic (a problem generally avoided by the likes of, say, Laurie Anderson). There should be few doubts about ANOHNI’s good intentions, but those intentions only go so far. Perhaps that’s even the wrong way to put it. The intentions of this album are inescapable, like being confronted by someone doing political canvassing, and often Hoplessness is no more artistically memorable.
Yes! After the successful left-field electronic album Visions, Grimes (b. Claire Boucher) returned three years later with an album that managed to retain all the strangeness from before plus add catchy pop hooks, synthesizing those incongruous elements just about perfectly. These songs have everything, and more. They have deep layers, multiple structural shifts within given songs, and stylistic variation across all of the songs. The best part about Grimes’ wide musical interests is the way she is entirely unapologetic in jumping from one thing that intrigues her to another, as if there are no limits and nothing that can stop her. So she goes from a squeaky J-pop voice to growling death metal scream, then back. And yet, another great thing about Art Angels is the dark and sinister undertone to most of the songs, despite the cheery melodic hooks. “California” has the lines: “When you get bored of me / I’ll be back on the shelf.” The dominant economics of contemporary times preaches a market fundamentalism that admits to no compassion, no safe place, no loyalty; the market picks a winner, who gets all the spoils, then just as quickly there is a new winner and the old one is forgotten. So maybe “California” is a relationship song, but might it be closer to metaphor? Then take a look at “Kill V. Maim,” a sarcastic feminist drubbing of machismo, violence and war. “Flesh Without Blood” is just completely devastating. There is a loose, rubbery, almost surf guitar riff floating around, fuzzed bass and insistent drums with handclap breaks. The lyrics are about artistic integrity and lost love seen in hindsight as never having “really” been love at all — both these things are worked into the same song. The tenor of it all is a search for a transcendental state of unconditional love (a very christian concept worth having around). “Artangels,” “SCREAM” and “Venus Fly” are some other great songs here. But everything on the album is pretty good. There are no dull moments.
I’ve gone through many phases with this album, Earthling. I rather liked it at first, but then later on it felt dated and I couldn’t stand it. Giving it another go during a period of revisiting some Bowie recordings, it seems like one of his better late-career efforts. It’s clear he’s trying, though sometimes he’s trying too hard to seem “with it”. He jumped aboard the electronica bandwagon, deploying industrial drum ‘n bass, or whatever they were calling the microgenre that month. The whole affair seems a bit uneven, and it’s hard to do anything with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” but cringe. Yet there are a fair number of high points, the highest being “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a song that can rub shoulders with any of Bowie’s best songs from any era. Sure, I was probably right when I though this would sound a little dated, but Bowie seems to be legitimately enjoying making this music most of the time (even if “Looking for Satellites,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Seven Years in Tibet” reveal him to be getting lyrical inspiration from watching movies and satellite TV). It shows most in his vocals, which have both an energy and nuance that he hadn’t mustered in while. One last note: isn’t it odd that Bowie’s better work has come during the periods when he’s been married?