Saturday, June 26, 2010

Röyksopp - "Remind Me"

Next in my list of "songs from the 00s that I generally like" is this little track off of Röyksopp's 2001 debut album Melody A.M. Unfortunately this song has been co-opted by insurance company Geiko, but please don't let its use in mainstream television deter you from enjoying it. Röyksopp hail from Norway and have, what AMG calls, a 'chilled-out downtempo electronic' sound. I originally fell in love with this song when I caught the video on Austrian MTV. It very much reminds me (har) of old Richard/Huck Scarry books I poured over as a kid, showing little snapshots of various daily locales and how they function. Once I'd watched the video a few times I began paying attention to the lyrics:
It's only been a week
the rush of being home is rapid fading
Failing to recall
what I was missing all that time in England

Has sent me aimlessly
on foot or by the help of transportation
to knock on windows where
a friend no longer lives, I had forgotten
Melancholy musings and mentions of England? These are the kinds of lyrics (I think) LE would like. There's a definite sense of melancholy throughout the whole album, which is quite good and I highly recommend it. But to go back to where we started, what originally drew me towards this song was the video. I love the style, it's just mesmerizing to watch. I've seen this style used recently in a commercial for some some financial/business firm, but it's most effective here when coupled with good music. Plus it's just kind of cute to watch.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gorillaz - "Dare"

See, Damon Albarn's got the right idea. He knows just as well as I do that the conventional "rock band" is dead. Including...his own. So what better way to subvert the tired old formulas than to create a cartoon band? There's no possible way you can take a cartoon band seriously. Which is a nice change of pace considering the endless parade of new "World's Greatest Guitar Band" pretenders that keep cropping up (or as Zrbo calls them, "the The bands"). Gorillaz is a side project that is more rewarding than most of today's main projects - and they're not even trying!

I really do get the feeling that Damon Albarn just sits around in the studio and invites whomever the hell he feels like inviting onto Gorillaz albums. The great thing about Gorillaz is that it's not even an actual band, so what is a "guest spot" in a fake band anyway? In the case of "Dare," the legendary guest is former Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder, a man who, like Mark E. Smith of The Fall before him, has managed to become incredibly famous without seeming to possess, as far as I can tell, any discernible musical talent. It's been rumored that the song was actually supposed to be called "There," but the way it came out in Ryder's impenetrable Mancunian accent, it sounded like "Dare," so they just decided to call it "Dare." But when the synthesizer riff is that ingratiating, who cares what they call it?

We can thank Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley and The Grey Album fame) for the electro-pop magic. As with "American Boy," "Dare" sounds like a song that I've heard before, and yet I don't believe that I actually have. Maybe it's the World's Great Long Lost Madonna B-side. Like many a dance-pop classic, the track does not appear to make a whit of sense :
You've got to press it on you
You just think it
That's what you do, baby
Hold it down, dare

Jump with them all and move it
Jump back and forth
And feel like you were there yourself
Work it out
What is this, an aerobics video? Who cares. It's catchy!

Note: Half of Gorillaz' claim to fame is their videos, and while I do enjoy the clip for "Dare," would I consider it a "YouTube Clip That Lives Up To My Expectations"? Probably not. When you tout your videos as some sort of extra special deal, I have to say I expect more than an anorexic Japanese ape gyrating around Shaun Ryder's big fat robotic head.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Estelle Featuring Kanye West - "American Boy"

Could this really be? A modern day R&B song that doesn't make me feel like I need to take a long, cold shower after listening to it? Soothing minor key melody, intelligent lyrics - am I dreaming? No, I'm listening to Estelle's "American Boy."

The highest compliment I can pay "American Boy" is that when I first heard it, I thought I'd actually heard it before. "Hmm, that's interesting, an old R&B song from the '70s that I don't immediately recognize." I overheard it again at the mall and I stopped and concentrated on the lyrics so that I could try to download the song later. "Ah, it's probably called 'American Boy'." I figured it was at least a cover, or built around an old R&B sample. According to Wikipedia "the song uses samples from 'Impatient' from's 2007 album Songs About Girls as well as '& Down' by Boys Noize." Neither of those songs appear to be old. Well I'll be damned. Somebody actually came up with a good hook that flows with an effortless grace and they didn't just lift it from some song that was a hit 30 years ago. It reminds me more of something you'd hear in a vintage Earth, Wind & Fire or Kool & The Gang single. So it makes you wonder: is it really that hard, people?

Well OK, I thought, the melody's good but that probably means the lyrics really stink. Not so fast. There's only one swear word in the entire song. The naughtiest sexual reference is actually quite subtle: "I like the way he's speaking, his confidence is peaking/Don't like his baggy jeans but I'm a like what's underneath them." Maybe it's the British touch. In conjunction with the music, the lyrics are a throwback to a classier style of R&B. They exude romance, and I don't just mean in the "boy/girl" sense, but in the "promise of being young and dressing up and going out on the town for an evening in New York City" sense. It invokes the same spirit as Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out":
Can we get away this weekend?
Take me to Broadway
Let's go shopping maybe then we'll go to a café
Let's go on the subway
Take me to your hood
I never been to Brooklyn and I'd like to see what's good
Dressed in all your fancy clothes
Sneaker's looking fresh to death, I'm loving those Shell Toes
Walking that walk
Talk that slick talk
I'm liking this American Boy

Take me on a trip, I'd like to go some day
Take me to New York, I'd love to see LA
I really want to come kick it with you
You'll be my American Boy
It makes visiting New York or LA honestly sound exciting, and when was the last time you could say that? When she switches it around and gives a shout-out to "San Francisco Bay" it makes me feel like I live in some exotic, happening holiday locale. But instead of coming off as hedonistic, the vibe is almost bittersweet. It's as if Estelle just wants to hold on to this feeling of intangible possibility forever, even though she knows that one day it will pass.

Kanye West is not a rapper I find very impressive, but here at least he makes me laugh, and if his presence might have helped the song become a bigger hit, then fine. Unlike Estelle, who exudes charm and mystery, Kanye exudes ego and sleaze, although he does seem to be at least slightly self-aware. I might summarize his main verse as follows: "Hey Estelle, I know you think I'm just a shallow American who's obsessed with wearing fancy designer clothing, but that's what my audience expects of me, and you've got to give the people what they want, right?" Methinks the Kayne doth protest too much.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Boards Of Canada - "1969"

This is a very creepy song about my favorite year in music. I think if I had a stroke, all music would sound like "1969." Boards Of Canada created that unsettling little warble in the synthesizer melody by, so I've been told, deliberately making the synthesizer jam. As John Bush writes in his AMG review, "Boards of Canada specialize in evocative, mournful, sample-laden downtempo music often sounding as though produced on malfunctioning equipment excavated from the ruins of an early-'70s computer lab." And how!

Bush states that "the samples apparently originate from a David Koresh follower," but after perusing the YouTube comments, I believe the sample is from a news broadcast regarding Amo Bishop Roden, a fellow Branch Davidian and rival of Koresh, in which the newscaster says "Although not a follower of David Koresh, she's a devoted Branch Davidian." However, the band took the "David Koresh" portion of the audio and played it backwards. What's unnerving is how this random vocal sample appears to be singing along with the melody. Finally at the end, as if we're not quite creeped out enough as it is, we're treated to a stereophonic pair of menacing, disembodied robotic ladies chanting "1969 in the sunshine." Not exactly taking me back to Woodstock here.

I first heard this song not long after 9/11, and its hypnotic, shimmering dread really matched my sense of that era's technology-driven fear and loathing. What am I talking about; we're still in that era. And this song is one of the few I've heard that really captures my impressions of "now" in a way that most of our current music does not, and none of our older music really could. It conjures up images of a thousand cable news channels constantly replaying videos of terrorist atrocities in a never-ending loop. And it's catchy.

Note: The YouTube video is fan-made, not band-sactioned, but as "xparfum" in the comments puts it, "they [the fan] understood." Also, the AMG reviewer has the same last name as our former president. Coincidence? I think not.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Belle & Sebastian - "If She Wants Me"

Barring some unforeseen critical turnaround, my favorite Belle & Sebastian material will always remain their output from the '90s. Nevertheless, I'll admit that they have managed some gems in the '00s. Simply by virtue of the weak competition, perhaps, even substandard Belle & Sebastian songs probably rank among the last decade's best. Their crap is better than most bands' greatest hits.

At the time, critics hailed Dear Catastrophe Waitress as sort of a "comeback" or a "return to form" for B&S after the inconsistent Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, mostly because Stuart Murdoch reclaimed lead singer/songwriter duties. It's not one of my favorite Belle & Sebastian albums though, and I wouldn't even necessarily say that it's better than Fold Your Hands, come to think of it. Sure, the songs are well-crafted, but can't you hear the craft a little too much? Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the sound of a really talented band with a great record collection not really feeling the need to make particularly consequential music. Stuart sounds like he's happy - which is great, but maybe not for his art.

The band released three singles from the album, but my favorite track, "If She Wants Me," was actually not one of those three. It's not an obvious "standout track." Maybe that's why I like it more than the others.

I believe someone once coined the phrase "retrogressive" to describe Belle & Sebastian, and that phrase is quite applicable here. The song has a wonderful English blue-eyed soul vibe. Witness the funky bass line and rhythm guitar, the jazzy piano, the Philly Soul strings, and the Music From Big Pink-esque organ solo. And yet the song does not sound like a recreation or a facsimile. Belle & Sebastian aren't a "60s revival" band. They are a '00s band with judiciously chosen '60s influences. I must also add that there is one particular note in this song which allows Murdoch to display the loveliest, most delicate falsetto in the whole wide universe.

As with most Belle & Sebastian material, I appreciated the music long before I ever bothered paying attention to the lyrics. I figured they were chirpy and pleasant, like the melody. They're actually rather enigmatic, with a touch of apathy and frustration sorely missing from the rest of the album:
I wrote a letter on a nothing day
I asked somebody “Could you send my letter away?”
“You are too young to put all of your hopes in just one envelope”
I said goodbye to someone that I love
It’s not just me, I tell you it’s the both of us
And it was hard
Like coming off the pills that you take to stay happy
Nice. I'm always a sucker for Stuart Murdoch anti-depressant references. Not so big on the Christianity references however:
Someone above has seen me do alright
Someone above is looking with a tender eye
Upon your face, you may think you’re alone but you may think again
Murdoch has always dropped a Christian turn of phrase here and there, but on this album, for some reason, he decided to go all-out: "At the time I was writing it I thought, well, should I be so overt? Because I've often couched any religious overtones within characters in the past, but this is a bit more out there. And then I just thought, come on, you've been doing this for years, why not? Why not just be a bit more straightforward?"

I can tell you why not. Because it's silly is why not. I sincerely hope Murdoch's faith doesn't rest on the notion of "someone above," which I personally think is a dangerous concept because it encourages people to think that the events in their life happen for some deep, all-powerful reason, which sets them up for a huge philosophical crisis once something terrible and seemingly "pointless" happens. But this is the only, and I mean only, aspect of Stuart Murdoch's art that I don't cherish with every fiber of my being. So like Jesus, I'll forgive him.

Besides, the song's final verse is one of those beautiful Belle & Sebastian verses that manages to say nothing and yet say all there is to really say:
I took a book and went into the forest
I climbed the hill, I wanted to look down on you
But all I saw was twenty miles of wilderness so I went home

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Oddest Songs From The '00s That I (Generally) Like

While my compatriot Little Earl is busy presenting his list of songs from the '00s that he likes, I thought I'd go a slightly different route by showing some of the oddest songs and videos from the '00s that I (generally) like. Some entries might just be a bit silly. Some might be both. I found many of these while living abroad so they might have easily been missed by an American audience, so I'm here to bring them into the light. Our first entry is:

DJ Tomekk feat. Lil' Kim & Trooper Da Don - "Kimnotyze"

Yes, witness the bizarre collaboration between a pair of German rappers and an all-American Lil' Kim singing a strangely twisted cover of a song by Kim's former lover Notorious B.I.G. I can't deny that I enjoy it's already-built-in hook or that I get a kick out of hearing German rap (or any non-English rap really). What I perhaps enjoy most about this video is it's almost spot-on imitation of American hip hop videos, complete with dancing hot girls, crowds partying, expensive displays of bling featuring fancy cars all in some ritzy or exotic looking venue (I think here it's Miami).

On that note it's almost not even really an imitation of a hip hop video, more of an imitation of the stereotype. It's like these German guys watched a slew of late 90s/early 00s Hype Williams videos on German MTV (where they still play videos) and then decided to go make their own. The whole thing feels imitated, no doubt helped along by the song itself being an imitation. Who knows? Just enjoy the video.

Scissor Sisters - "Comfortably Numb"

In his review of Lawrence Of Arabia, Roger Ebert writes:
What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make Lawrence of Arabia, or even think that it could be made. In the words years later of one of its stars, Omar Sharif: ''If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that's four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert - what would you say?''
Likewise, if you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a peppy dance-pop cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" with an opening guitar lick stolen from Stevie Nicks' "Edge Of Seventeen" and a vocal style heavily indebted to Barry Gibb's glory days - what would you say?

I would say you were mad. And yet, like David Lean, Scissor Sisters dared to dream.

Scissor Sisters managed to do something with "Comfortably Numb" I would have never thought possible. They managed to strip the song of all its angst, its passion, its dread. If it weren't for the lyrics, I'm not even sure I would recognize the song at all. And yet, they didn't exactly turn the song into something "happy" per se. Instead it's rather nervous and jittery, like the perfect anthem for today's high-strung Wall Street entrepreneur. It's a little more "cocaine," a little less "morphine. " In other words, while not quite as despairing, it's still on the disturbing side. Let's just say that Scissor Sisters didn't cover "Comfortably Numb" for laughs or irony. They took this weird tangent and they committed to it.

Come on, let's see a show of hands. Who thought this was going to be a good idea? What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make a disco cover of "Comfortably Numb," or even think that it could be made.

Note: Apparently Vevo has blocked the official video for "Comfortably Numb" in my country on "copyright grounds." Here's a remix that at least features clips of the video, if not the original audio. While not bad on the whole, I wouldn't quite say that the video is a "YouTube Clip That Lives Up To My Expectations."