Posts Tagged ‘bizarre’

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Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (album review.)

May 23, 2010

I literally don’t know where to start with this review.  Comparisons have been made to James Brown (the lead single “Tightrope” has a funky, dirty bass and backchat with Monáe’s band), Judy Garland (“Oh, Maker” features a stately purity of voice in its verses, only to give way to a joyful exaltation of a chorus, and is one of the album’s highlights) and even Erykah Badu (Monáe sings with a knowing voice, sometimes sounding wise well beyond her years while not even connected to this cosmos).  But Janelle Monáe is undeniably her own woman: crazy hairstyles, performing in black-tie tuxedos, employing ethereal instruments coupled with double-time beats, composing her material in suites… It would be audacious enough if it didn’t succeed, if Monáe were above her station with this Metropolis, 28th century high-concept shit.  But she’s not.  Although at times The ArchAndroid feels a bit like it’s overreaching, the vast majority of it is exciting, mindblowing and more than a little bizarre.  This makes it one of the boldest releases to come out in quite a while.

I’m not going to attempt any detail of the story behind this album; it’s only vaguely important to the running order of the songs.  In very brief, Cindi Mayweather was an android who fell in love; the cyber-hunters were invited to hunt her down; she has since discovered the ArchAndroid helmet which displays the city of Metropolis on the top – yep, that’s the album cover above! – and has transformed from pariah to messiah for the robot population of Metropolis.  Monáe creates a textured evocation of this hyper-space reality within her music, and it’s appropriate that The ArchAndroid sounds nothing like anything else in current popular music.  However, its melodies are still catchy, its production tricks are still appreciable (although the music sounds far removed from anything Sean “Diddy” Combs would touch, Monáe is signed to his BadBoy imprint, whose releases normally display impeccable production values – if, at times, little else), and the meanings behind the inventive, often poetic lyrics (from “Say You’ll Go” – “Love is not a fantasy / A haiku written in Japanese”) go beyond the specifics of the Metropolis concept to speak more generally of love, society, and human emotions and situations.  In other words, Monáe hasn’t concept-ed herself into oblivion; the songs can still have meanings to each individual listener, which is important because we still need to relate in order to truly engage with the music.

Moving to the specifics of the music on The ArchAndroid, it’s a hefty album, comprising two suites that are much weightier then Monáe’s The Chase EP; that disc had three songs which were swift, exciting and irresistible.  The special edition had two extra non-concept tracks; a plea to the President for social consideration, and a beautiful, restrained cover of Nat King Cole’s “Smile”. Monáe may not be a vocalist in the same way as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, but she has an extraordinary control of her instrument, and displays its versatility when songs require it (similar, in a way, to Toni Braxton or Sade).  On The ArchAndroid, Monáe alternately displays grace (“Oh, Maker”), subtlety (“Sir Greendown”), uninhibited release (“Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)”) and an old-school sensibility that fuses scat, Broadway and Latin rhythms (epic closer “BaBopByeYa”).  Suite II (the first suite of The ArchAndroid) is generally more immediate and accessible to the uninitiated listener: after a classical intro (although its concept hangs together flawlessly for most of the album, the instrumental interludes may be slick but they are still unnecessary filler!), Monáe gets straight down to business with the help of spoken word artist Saul Williams for “Dance Or Die”.  Beats fibrillate below Monáe’s haughty poetry, and before the listener knows it, the song segues into “Faster”, into “Locked Inside”…; before you know it, you’ve reached subdued ballad “Mushrooms & Roses” and Suite II is nearly over.

The seamless melting of one song into the next is a neat production trick, but one that we have seen before.  It has its risks, since the listener has to pay attention to his iPod, CD player or media player of choice in order to determine where one track ends and the next begins.  If the songs are dull, they risk totally going over the listener’s head.  Luckily, the majority of The ArchAndroid has enough memorable hooks, production tricks and bizarre sections to stick in the mind and merit repeat listens.  Suite II is far stronger than Suite III for this however; Suite III, although shorter, is much denser and ethereal. Although Suite II had some lovely slower material (“Oh, Maker” and “Sir Greendown”), Suite III seems weighed down by the lack of upbeat or midtempo songs.  “Make The Bus” is an ok effort but hardly lives up to the breathtaking pace of Suite II; “Wondaland” seems altogether too precious.  However, Suite III comes into its own as it reaches its conclusion: “57821” (the serial number of the robot Cindi Mayweather) begins to engage the listener with its subtle, undulating backing, before the majesty of closing tracks “Say You’ll Go” and “BaBopByeYa” unfurls.  In all, Suite II is stronger and more addictive listening, but Suite III has its moments despite its more downbeat demeanour.

Why does it all work? It’s beyond me, as Janelle Monáe seems to have thrown everything and the kitchen sink into this album – in terms of lyrics, vocal approaches, production tricks, musical genres, concept… It’s a miracle that it doesn’t sound overblown, desperate or self-important, but for the most part – it doesn’t.  Only on “Wondaland”, “Mushrooms & Roses” and “Neon Valley Street” does Monáe sound a tiny bit like she’s faking, stalling while she scrabbles for a new idea with which to blindside us.  The vast majority of The ArchAndroid is not only severely impressive, but sounds genuine.  Which makes Janelle Monáe a hugely talented, innovative young woman, and one of the best new artists to emerge in recent years.  Take a listen to The ArchAndroid and prepare to be both mentally and aurally stimulated.

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stupid?

April 25, 2010

A running joke between me and my friends is the various bizarre/random questions, comments and general synaptic misfires that I make.  Although sometimes they are decent thought-provoking questions, I have only just this last week or so learned the difference between ducks and geese, my UK geography is pretty horrendous, and Cabot Circus is neither a wheeled contraption that might roll away overnight, nor an alien which secretly digests money or shoppers.

I’ve come out with these sorts of things far too often for far too long for it to be false: I will freely admit that I can be a bit ditzy. Or as Mike says, “pretty but dumb”. But part of me has always felt enamoured with the idea of playing up to that: back when I was at school, I hated being intelligent in one way because I knew that I could be perceived as a keener or a geek.  I didn’t want people to look at me that way, I wanted people to see that I had a fun sociable side, so I used to play up to being a bit airheaded for laughs, but also to show people that I do know how to have fun.  And it’s worked – my true friends know that when I make fun of myself, I am in on the joke 😉

However, I would conversely be pretty damn offended when someone who didn’t know me that well would assume I was stupid, because they only knew me socially without seeing how I was in study or in the workplace.  Now, it is judgemental for people to quickly form that opinion of me, let alone incorrect – I know that I am not stupid, and sometimes when I come out with my bizarre little observations or my basic questions, it’s often because nobody told me these things, therefore I ask. It’s not my fault.  But also, if I play up to the bimbo effect, how can I be that mad when people take that at face value? Perhaps this is why I have a soft spot for celebrities like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, because I think that they are terrifically fun but I have a sneaking suspicion that they are definitely in on the joke and not as unintelligent as they portray themselves.  At the end of the day, you still have an amount of control, like a puppetmaster, over the image that you portray to everyone.

Generally, society is against the idea that beauty and brains can co-exist – usually, people are one or the other.  But I learned from a young age that I have had to change everything about myself in order to feel attractive, to feel beautiful or handsome or whatever.  I lost a large amount of weight, I work out (although once I get a damn job I will be re-enrolling at the gym full time!), I cut and dye my hair, I moisturise and diet and although it doesn’t rule my life, my appearance is something I end up dedicating a lot of time to.  I’m not naturally this way – it took and takes a lot of hard work.  Now, if people are willing to study and enhance their knowledge, skills and qualifications, then that’s commended and lauded as intelligence.  If people dedicate time to looking after their appearance and feeling good in their own skin, that’s considered vanity?

Let me tell you something.  I know I’m not stupid, even if sometimes I act it and sometimes I ask silly questions.  I know I’m not ugly, even if I don’t need to spend the amount of time and money that I do on making myself look good.  But I always wanted to be beautiful rather than brainy, because I felt that beauty was something that couldn’t really be taught or learned.  I knew that I already had a decent brain and I know how to make it absorb knowledge – I however also was fortunate to have a decent face that isn’t repellent, so I just had to quest for the body to set it off.  I’m not there yet, and considering I’m near 25, I probably won’t get there in time to fulfil my ambition of becoming a supermodel, but if I can look at myself and really think I am genuinely pretty, I will be happy.  I guess that in a world where most people take looks for granted and value brainpower, I’ve rebelled against that and done the opposite.  Perhaps that’s a little bit stupid or ditzy, I don’t know. Because really, the best thing in the world (and my overarching aim) would be, of course, to have it all.

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sexy fresh.

January 17, 2010

This weekend I haven’t felt particularly sexy or fresh, considering I have a cough like a foghorn and a proper stinking cold (as we say in England).  Yesterday I bought some new jeans from Topman, which are slim fit 32″ light grey.  Before Christmas (in anticipation of the sales) I had been appraising my wardrobe and working out what items I needed, considering I’ve lost a fair amount of weight since starting uni and a lot of my clothes are no longer fitted enough for my liking.  In view of my weight loss, I can’t believe I was ever big enough (read: heifer) to fit into my old clothes.  The problem which is slightly worrying, is that my old clothes were often no bigger than a Medium.  Now I’m a Small, I’ve got a slimmer waist (which still requires toning) and I feel a lot better about myself.  Ironically, swapping my gym membership for an increase in cigarettes and a closer monitoring of my evening snacking post-dinner (and reduction of it) has worked wonders for my frame and for my self-esteem.  But I do question my body image.  Is what we see in the mirror really ever accurate?  How do we know what to trust?

As one of my role models is Mariah Carey, so I can empathise with her desire to flaunt her body.  As a guy, I did this in a slightly different way, but after some really bad fallout from a broken friendship at school, at age 14 over the summer I shed a ridiculous amount of weight due to funnelling my anger through situps.  Suddenly, all my clothes fell off, instead of baggy t-shirts and jeans to hide my figure, I discovered fitted clothes, ways to expose a little bit of skin and just daring to dress more provocatively and wearing clothes and jewellery that my peers hadn’t thought of wearing.  In retrospect, it was perhaps a cry for attention, but I don’t think the emphasis was on “LOOK at me!”; it was more like “Look at me NOW!” For the first time in my life, I felt attractive, and I felt like a normal teenager like those I saw on television, like those who did lots of sports around me and appeared to have no body image hangups.  Between the age of 15 and 23, my weight fluctuated somewhat (again like Mariah 😉 ), but I never allowed myself to get out of proportion or feel “fat” as I had done throughout my childhood.  I learned how to dress and experimented with fashion during my time at university, and now I really like my sense of style, and having shed a lot of weight again, I feel attractive enough to wear whatever I want.

More or less.  I mentioned the grey jeans that I bought from Topman.  They look fine on, but the slim fit needs a slight bit of stretching before I can wear them in public without suffering from whatever the male equivalent of camel-toe is (TMI I know! but I’m getting there more or less, just another day’s wear I think), and pale colours make my legs look elephantine. Except I know that in reality, my legs don’t look massive.  Depending on the mirror I’m looking in, I see a completely different version of myself compared to the one I see looking down at myself.  What do I trust?  I know that my clothes sizes are shrinking down and down, and I can’t ever believe that I used to wear Large sizes, and even Medium sizes are baggy on me – yet I don’t see myself as Small or slim.  I know it must be true, because all the evidence tells me so.  But looking in the mirror, I still see a flabby stomach, a waist and chest which needs toning, situps and pressups (ceasing the gym hasn’t meant ceasing all exercise – I still try and keep fit in my own way), and all the imperfections that were there no matter what size I was.  I don’t know if I’m suffering from body dysmorphia, but sometimes I don’t see myself any differently to how I looked 1, 2, 5 years ago in terms of my body. I do feel better about myself, but that’s mainly from the sizes of clothing I’m buying, people’s nice comments and flattering compliments, and other positive things which have been happening in my life.  Buying a new wardrobe is a lot of fun, and I don’t aspire to go down another jeans size – I’m 6′ tall and anything less than a 32″ waist would look too skinny on me.  Except how would I know?  I can’t trust what I see, I just have to make my best guess.

I don’t know how to explain it any better, so I’ll say this: Before Christmas last year, me and a few of the guys from our careers guidance course ended up going for lunch together in Chipping Sodbury.  Because there was about 13 of us, there initially weren’t enough chairs around the table where we were all sitting, and I’d been upstairs watching Pete & Simon play pool. I came back, and there was a space next to Clare who was sitting on a bay window seat.  I asked if I could squeeze in next to her, and she looked at the space and said “Yeah, you’re only little!” We made a joke along the lines of “how rude!” but I don’t think I’ll ever forget her saying that, even though it was a throwaway comment which wasn’t supposed to mean anything.  I’ve never thought of myself, I’ve never felt “little” in my entire life.  She must see me in a different way to how I see myself.  Lately, people are falling over themselves to tell me how attractive I am, how I’m pretty, how I am sexier than them (even when giving an impromptu presentation at university, which is honestly not when I am trying my utmost to radiate sex appeal).  It’s bizarre, and it’s welcome and flattering because these are compliments and the validation that I’ve been aiming for my whole life (I know that I shouldn’t need it, and I don’t always, but other people’s validation feels awful nice).  I’ve never really felt attractive or sexy before, and now I do. Or at least, I’m closer to that now than I have ever been before.  But it also seems to have come at a price, and I wish that I could look at myself objectively and see what other people seem to see.  Because otherwise, will I truly know when to stop?  I feel that now is probably the time, but I know what improvements I still want to make and I just hope that I don’t go a step too far and mess it all up.  At 24, my looks haven’t come easy, and I don’t want to lose them before I can learn to appreciate them.