Posts Tagged ‘Butterfly’

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Cooking in 2012 – July: Brazilian pork and rice.

July 28, 2012

I must confess that I nearly gave up on my cooking project this month. As July ticked by, I thought “oh, I really can’t be bothered to do this cooking thing anymore. I genuinely hate it, I can’t think of what to cook, so why put myself through it for another 6 months?” Even typing that sentence, the words resonate with me to the extent that I will probably have the same inner monologue for the remaining 5 months.  Luckily, I am fairly stubborn so I’ll probably make it through the rest of the year just to avoid the guilt of not fulfilling a goal I set for myself. Plus it does make me feel more self-sufficient and provider-y. Nevertheless… roll on 2013!

Anyway, the conundrum of what to make this month was finally solved last week when I was in Peterborough with Toby’s parents, who had the Times weekend edition. One of the supplements had a couple of interesting articles – one was about a diet (I don’t believe in diets unless they are sensible enough that they could become a lasting fixture of everyday life – in which case, they probably don’t count as a “diet”. But I digress.) that claimed to boost one’s energy at the same time as helping to shed the pounds. The other was about Brazilian food being “the food of the summer”. There were 6 recipes (plus a couple of cocktails) that all seemed to be pretty appetising – I ended up taking the whole supplement back to London with me, and this weekend I finally decided to bite the bullet for July’s meal and make some marinaded BBQ pork and rice.  Or, as the Times called them, “Brazilian fried biro biro rice” and “Pork tenderloin on a churrasco”. I presume that a “churrasco” is a barbecue; I’ve not the foggiest what “biro biro” refers to (perhaps the crispy shallots?). But anyways, here are the recipes:

I did a few things differently – we altered the measurements, nearly halving everything because I was only cooking for Toby and myself. I didn’t use parsley because I’m not a big fan; I didn’t make the crispy shallots because it sounded like too much effort and I was using the rice as a side rather than a main in its own right; instead of pork tenderloin, I used pork medallions, which meant that I didn’t have to butterfly them (conveniently enough, as I don’t know what that involves). I used white wine vinegar instead of red wine vinegar, and paprika instead of dried red pepper flakes. We didn’t have a barbecue available, so we fried the pork medallions on a gas hob instead.

I suppose it is proof of my slow but acknowledgeable growth in cooking that I was able to take a fair amount of both recipes in my stride. Things that I didn’t know and have now learned include:

  • Pork is cooked when the meat is the same colour all the way through. You don’t want any pink in the meat; unlike a steak, ‘rare pork’ isn’t a thing.
  • The reason why one is supposed to wash rice before cooking it is apparently it makes it less starchy, and thus clings together in the pan a bit less.
  • Washing spring onions is quite an involved job, because mud and earth can hide quite deep down in the stalks.  If, like me, you are impatient, wash the onions quite roughly and thoroughly, and then if there is still residual mud, just cut the damn stalks off too. You’re still left with plenty of decent onion.
  • When frying, the definition of “enough oil” is so that the bottom of the pan is coated in oil.

In the picture above, the last tiny bit of the recipe has been missed off by my camera, so it basically says: melt some parmesan on top of the marinaded pork just as it’s finishing cooking. Then, when you serve it, spritz some lime on it – the lime actually adds a really summery feel to the whole dish. Here is the rice and pork as it was cooking, followed by the finished product:

I was quite pleased with the exotic, yet rough-and-ready aspect of the dish. I also liked that the burnished taste of the marinaded pork added something to the rice as we ate. It was pretty yummy!  I guess that I admit that I am getting better at cooking, and in that sense I am fulfilling the goal of this whole project. My confidence is growing in the kitchen – although Toby still offers me help, support and a sense of urgency as and when required! Next month is Jack and Katie’s engagement party, and we are expected to “bring a plate” (sadly, this means bringing a plate which has food on it for guests to share – I found it odd that one might randomly bring a plate to a party, until Toby explained the concept to me.  I have only hitherto been familiar with bringing a bottle. Perhaps this says more about the kinds of parties I have previously frequented!) – so if I’m smart, I will help out during the preparation of this dish and that will be August done. Let’s see what happens!

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something’s missing.

May 1, 2010

I like this song:

(Brandy – “A Capella (Something’s Missing)”)

The last 8 months have represented the happiest period in my life that I can remember.  I’ve grown so much as a person, I have made some terrific friends, I have started the longest relationship of my life to date, I have lost weight, I have tattoos (it’s my most recent tattoo‘s one-month anniversary today!) and I have finally started learning to drive again. It’s like I was in a chrysalis up until this point, and now I’m finally starting to spread my wings.

However, I can slowly but surely feel that happiness starting to fade a bit.  Perhaps it’s growing pains, because in December I had a tough couple of weeks – maybe I just need to ride it out.  I still have all the things I named above, so I can’t really complain too much.  But my growing discontent I think is largely due to the fact that I’ve not had instant success when applying for jobs.  I haven’t had an interview out of the six jobs I’ve applied to so far.  I won’t give up – I am committed to this new careers guidance career, I want to make a difference in other people’s lives, to young people.  And I want to carve out my own life, get a car, get a job, get a place to live.  I can’t do any of those things without the finances that come from a well-paying job.  So I really need this, and although I’ve had my applications checked and approved my tutors, and my CV was given a glowing review by the UWE Careers Service, I guess it won’t come that easy.

So here’s the part where I start to connect my life at the moment with the song above.  Listen to the words, and things will make more sense. I was complaining to Mike about the fact that I have yet to secure an interview for any jobs, and he said to me “Well, I am sure there’s nothing wrong with your applications and it’s probably bad luck, nothing personal, but I don’t know if we have the skills for some of the jobs you applied for”.  In other words, try not to worry, but don’t apply for such weird stuff.  But I thought that I had a good shot at being capable of the jobs I went for, and the fact I was able to fill out the application without really questioning it means that I didn’t really think that the jobs I applied for were that leftfield.

Then I bumped into Henna (from the Perfume Shop) and her friends in the uni café, and after chatting for a while, one of them turns to me and says “So you did languages at Oxford, why on earth aren’t you becoming a teacher?” I explained that even after my teaching assistantship in Spain, and enjoying teaching more than I expected to, I’d never gravitated towards teaching and it wasn’t ever on my radar. Even though I’m now working towards becoming a careers guidance practitioner and working with young people, it feels quite different to me because I’m instrumental in helping a young person shape their entire life and future, rather than wholly responsible for one component of that.  I just feel that this fits me better, but perhaps I’m missing a trick?  Then I start to think that perhaps I am just running away from the one true vocation I’ve always wanted: music.  Ever since I was a child, I wanted to sing, dance, perform, record and entertain.  I’m good at it; I’ve won prizes for it.  People loved what I did at high school, sixth form and university, and since then I’ve grown as a musician, performer and person.  Why aren’t I following my heart?  Although I release my music online and I have very positive responses, will that ever truly be enough?  By keeping total control, am I sacrificing my dream of making it big?  Is being spurned by employers left right and centre a subtle hint that I can’t really avoid my destiny?

I keep wondering if I’m missing something.  I’ve had other reasons to lately wonder what the hell is wrong with my brain (read my previous post for some of that), and I don’t consider myself so eccentric or out of the ordinary to have made it to age 24 that I haven’t realised.  But sometimes, I look at the way things are and just think, what is going on? Am I on another planet? I do often think I’m an alien, from another galaxy: in Kingswood, I seem to dress like nobody else, have desires for things that just pass everyone else by.  In my family, I have different aims, different values.  I seem to have been only partly informed by my upbringing, and a lot by the media, and my parents say that I am 10% of them, and 90% of something mysterious and random.  Where do I get it from, who am I, and when I find out, where do I go from there? I am glad I am my own person and I wouldn’t change that for anything, but sometimes it gets a bit lonely out here.

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Mariah Carey – Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel review.

September 27, 2009

Finally, it’s here (unless, like me you live in the UK in which case you are expected to wait until NOVEMBER 16TH!!!!  I will be buying the import collector’s version on Amazon, which drops on Tuesday.) – Mariah Carey’s new album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel.  Preceded by the lead single “Obsessed”, which has done very well but not shot to number one (leading certain people to brand it a ‘flop’ all the same), several questions were being asked of this CD: “Is Mariah’s voice really shot?” (No.) “Is it better than Whitney’s album?” (Yes.) “Does the fact that The-Dream and Tricky Stewart produced the whole album make it a bit monotonous?” (No… not really.  A couple of the songs are somewhat repetitive and reminiscent of other The-Dream tracks, but Mariah’s input and The-Dream’s variety are pleasantly surprising.) “Why did Mariah push her CD back? Was she running scared?” (No; she was making a cohesive R&B album and taking the time to make it perfect.)  Listening to the finished product makes this clear – where The Emancipation of Mimi (Mariah’s “comeback” “classic” album, which is possibly her least cohesive effort and contains some fantastic tracks surrounded by the most filler in any of her albums this decade) and E=MC² were literally a collection of songs, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel takes you on a unified journey the way that Mariah’s best 90s efforts, the seminal Butterfly and Rainbow, and yes, even 2002’s Charmbracelet did.

Mariah’s vocals are stronger now than they were on Charmbracelet, though she often employs her whisper voice in place of full belting.  As it did on Butterfly, this gives the songs an intimate feel which brings out the intricate emotions inherent in her lyrics.  Standout “H.A.T.E.U.”, which means “Having A Typical Emotional Upset”, at first sounds like an angry-woman-scorned missive thematically similar to other songs on the album, but it is emotionally vulnerable as Mariah finds herself in a place where she misses her lover, but doesn’t know what to do with herself other than “change her number” and “move away” in an attempt to get over him and begin to move on.  The emotional limbo echoes in the production, which employs a hard-hitting slow beat and a baby’s cries along with Mariah’s whistle register.  Her high-pitched wails are a massive feature of this album, and are present on many of the songs – according to various tweets, Mariah wanted to explore using her upper range as a texture in homage to Minnie Riperton.  Just as on Rainbow‘s “Bliss”, on tracks such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “Ribbon” and “Angel (Prelude)”, Mariah’s stratospheric notes come across less as an opportunity to showboat than as a genuine part of the song’s instrumentation and setting the mood.  At the album’s climax, a tasteful cover of Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”, Mariah lets loose with gospel melisma and ecstatic squeaking to emphasise her joy and rapture in finally finding true love and encountering happiness after the ups and downs and broken relationships explored throughout the course of the album.  The only criticism of this song is that it ends far too quickly, robbing the listener of the climax – as soon as the vocal and musical apex is reached, the track is fading out!!! Here’s hoping that a longer edit of the song will surface.  But the point is that Mariah Carey is using all the ranges of her impressive voice for legitimate reasons – to serve the song and its mood, musical instrumentation, lyrical punctuation and emotional expression.  If there is any proof required that Mariah has grown as a singer, this album is it – even if she doesn’t belt as happily as she used to, her voice serves the songs more.

Having said that, Mariah also embraces radio trends on some of the more uptempo numbers.  Lead single “Obsessed” is one of a few tracks to use auto-tune.  Another question: “Why does someone with Mariah Carey’s voice need to use auto-tune?”  This is a somewhat valid question, but I think that Mariah is just trying to stay current and have fun.  Although some of the album’s slower material is more weighty and emotionally deep, songs like “Obsessed”, “Up Out My Face” and “More Than Just Friends” (which contains some fantastic lyrics such as “Secretly I know you wanna hit it like the lotto / And after that we can ketchup like tomato / We can make love in Italy in the grotto / Fresh off the jet at the Met they screamin’ bravo”) are designed to keep the BPMs up, keep things light and moving briskly, and create songs which have sharper lyrics and fun, bouncy melodies.  The marching band “reprise” of “Up Out My Face” is a fantastic, creative interlude that really knocks, and would have been great as an extended song – it harks back to one of Mariah’s performances of “Shake It Off” (perhaps the Thanksgiving Parade performance? I don’t remember… if anyone knows, feel free to comment!).  “Standing O” is another hard-hitting uptempo track that gathers its intensity as Mariah applauds an ex-lover for breaking her heart – “All you did was pound on it”.  The beats accumulate towards the end of the song, as Mariah’s voice gets more insistent and an almost operatic soprano punctuates her despair.  Although it had to grow on me somewhat, I am really enjoying the track.

There are a couple of tracks where I differ from what I understand to be the general consensus, according to other forum and blog comments, as well as video reviews of the album I’ve seen on Youtube.  “Ribbon” has been garnering comments such as being ‘overproduced’ with its distorted hooks forming part of the music, and more of a crunk beat than other tracks, really hitting hard.  From what I understand, people are saying the track is a bit overcooked and Mariah gets lost in it – I disagree! I love the song, its music is dark and percussive, but Mariah’s syrupy vocals and lyrics “Wrapped up, wrapped up, ribbon with a bow on it” sit on top of all that like the icing on a cake.  It’s actually one of my favourite tracks on the album, and although it is a typical The-Dream track that could have easily fit on his Love vs. Money album, I don’t think that it suffers for that – there’s not another track like it on the album, so it stands out.

Whereas my only weak track, which other people seem to love, is “It’s A Wrap”.  Mariah pours wine at the beginning of the track, so I guess we are supposed to relax into it, but the doo-wop beat and sparse piano forces the song to melt away and become unmemorable.  The lyrics are somewhat lackluster compared to the zingers on other songs such as “Up Out My Face” (“If we were two Lego blocks, even the Harvard University Graduating Class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together again” !!!!!!) and “More Than Just Friends”, or to the emotional heft of ballads such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “The Impossible” and “Angels Cry”.  The only line that “It’s A Wrap” has going for it, IMO, is “It’s going down like a denominator” – and you have to wait for the end of the song to get to that bit.  Just a bit lackluster for me – but other people love it, so you may love it too and we’ll agree to disagree.

Earlier I compared Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel to classic Mariah albums Butterfly and Rainbow.  This becomes apparent during the album’s closing stretch – though on “Candy Bling” and “Inseparable” Mariah offers a relaxed yet absorbing throwback vibe (to former Mariah tracks “Yours” and “We Belong Together”, respectively), and on opening ‘prologue’ “Betcha Gon’ Know” Mariah masterfully weaves an absorbing tale of heartbreak and infidelity just as she wrote spellbinding descriptive lyrics on classic “The Roof” – it’s not until “The Impossible” that we really seem to penetrate into Mariah’s heart.  The sexy R&B feel gives nods to Jodeci and provides a classic texture that once more exemplifies just how much is missing from 2009-typical R&B. Hopefully this is a sign that older R&B values are coming back around – although Mariah popularised the trend of female singers working with rappers, Memoirs does not boast a single collaboration and is all the better for it.  “Angels Cry” is a heartfelt ode to love lost that sounds like classic Mariah, and of course there is the closer “I Want To Know What Love Is”.  These last two tracks really ratchet up the emotional impact of Mariah’s album, where other tracks are lighter and more fun, or restrained slower material – and make sure that it goes out on a high.

Okay, so I am a big Mariah Carey fan, and I am bound to say that I love the album.  For me, it’s a real album that flows (hence the various reprises and little flourishes that help the songs segue together sonically as well as thematically) rather than just a collection of songs.  The lyrics and vocals work together to compliment each song’s mood, content and impact.  And apart from “It’s A Wrap”, I really enjoy every track on the album.  So for me, taking the songs individually, they are winners, but the album as a whole is elevated beyond the sum of its parts to something quite special.  In my opinion, this is why it stands head and shoulders above Whitney Houston’s I Look To You (certainly not an album which has a cohesive feel, and I only like half of the songs anyway) as well as nearly every other album I’ve heard released in 2009.  This is where Mariah Carey is not only a gifted singer and vocalist, but an artist who keeps working at and developing her craft as a writer, producer and someone who envisions how her project should sound from start to finish.  Check the credits: Mariah Carey is Executive Producer, Album Producer, and a producer and writer on every single song (apart from the cover version).  As a singer, a songwriter and an artist, she is what I aspire to be, and Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel is, like Butterfly and Rainbow, an example of her at her very best.

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notorious. (a review of sorts)

September 8, 2009

Yes, I am very late but I only picked up the DVD to Notorious yesterday, because Tesco finally had it on sale and I had been interested to watch but never managed to catch it during its run at the cinema, and wasn’t about to pay £14-20 just to get the DVD straight when it came out.  So I bade my time and finally I watched it tonight.  I’m not going to give a very in-depth review, because we all know the story – Biggie gets into drugs, gets put in jail, comes out of jail, comes close to being put in jail again but his friend takes the rap (hah!) so that Christopher Wallace can fulfil his budding rap talent and become Notorious B.I.G. All goes well as Biggie takes Lil’ Kim along with him for the ride, then meets Faith Evans and wifes her up, all while keeping his first baby mama on the backburner the whole time.  A friendship with Tupac Shakur turns sour, misunderstandings occur and both rappers end up dead, 2pac 25, Biggie 24.  That’s the plot in a nutshell.

I’m not even going to attempt to address the 2pac vs. Biggie controversy.  I have both of B.I.G.’s albums on my iPod (I prefer Ready To Die, but only because I’m much more familiar with the songs – I need to study Life After Death more tbh), whereas I only have one of 2pac’s (All Eyez On Me), which again I have only listened to a couple of times.  Both were influential and towering talents, but I’m not about to compare one to another because I’m nowhere near informed enough to have a valid opinion, and I would need to research more of their material.  Again, I have no conspiracy theory about who shot either of them, nor what role Suge Knight may or may not have played in the whole business – I’m no detective, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to say something on the subject that hasn’t already been said.  The only perspective I have on 2pac and on Biggie is retrospective, because in 1997 I was only 11 years old and barely musically awakening (I received Mariah Carey’s Butterfly for my 12th birthday later that year, which is possibly when I really opened my eyes, ears and heart musically) so I didn’t really have any acquaintance with rap music past what I would hear on the radio and see on MTV and The Box.

I was pleasantly surprised with the film: as I said, I already knew the plot and yet I still found it an interesting watch.  The only character I found unbelievable was Sean “Puffy” Combs, because the guy playing him neither looked nor sounded like Puff Daddy, in my opinion.  I only caught passing glimpses of a resemblance between the two in terms of mannerisms and vocal tics, whereas most of the others nailed it at least a fair amount of the time.  Jamal Woolard did a great, great job playing Christopher Wallace himself; Naturi Naughton was a fiery if inaccurate Lil’ Kim (but more about that in a moment), but Naturi herself did a fine job and displayed a fearlessness in her acting; Angela Bassett was supreme as usual; Antonique Smith was an astonishing Faith Evans, looking the spitting image of her and displaying a similar blend of sophistication and grit.  Not knowing much about Voletta Wallace herself, other than that she played a large part in the creation, vision and focus of the whole film, I found it hard to believe that she was as naive about her son’s imperfections as she appeared to be (confusing crack with mashed potatoes?  Come on now… how long you been living in Brooklyn?). But then again the film was not as rose-tinted as I had heard it was: Biggie displayed extraordinary passion and talent, but he was also a serial womaniser and acted childishly at some points and plain idiotic at others.  So that was somewhat refreshing.

Faith Evans was portrayed as an almost angelic beauty who still kicked one of Biggie’s jump-off’s down when she found out that he’d cheated on her not long after their marriage (again, she really should have known better than to believe he would be faithful to her).  In contrast, Lil’ Kim was similarly painted as naively believing that her and B.I.G. would last forever (his marriage to Faith was quite a sore point in the film as in real life), but her part in Biggie’s life was massively downplayed; she appeared for a fraction of a second in the funeral montage whilst the photo of her weeping with Mary J. Blige outside the funeral service is one of the defining images of that era. Her talent, her look and her persona was portrayed as completely fabricated by Biggie in a post-coital brainstorm, and according to the film, Lil’ Kim was essentially nothing but a slut who fucked for tracks. Her enduring success and establishment as the premiere female MC surely contradicts this portrayal.  To quote the review from Pajiba (who put it much better than me, and in more entertaining language):

“The person who takes it up the ass the hardest is Lil Kim. Lil Kim’s always bukakked with the reputation of being the nastiest bitch, the stripper who’s empowered by her sexuality because she can use her snappin’ pussy to get all the diamonds and the rings and the bling and have any dick she chooses. (Under ten inches — ENNNT — sorry.) In Notorious, she bangs Biggie and asks if he’s got a girlfriend later. Then, her entire rap persona is supposedly imagineered by Biggie, who says men don’t want to hear about gangsta chicks but rather want girls who’ll fuck them with the lyrics. He turns her into a whore, his whore, who turns petty and jealous when he marries the sainted Faith, and basically spends the rest of the movie like a jealous psycho starting fights and trouble. Of course, when Biggie died, Lil’ Kim went into an almost two year depression. Faith Evans and Puffy remixed a Police song and essentially lived off the fatted calf of Biggie’s corpse for the same period. So you do the math. Or don’t. Both Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans have memoir/tell-alls due out sometime in the coming year.”

Being a Lil’ Kim fan, I have appreciated her at her highest peaks as well as in her tackier moments, throughout her up and down surgeries and provocative outfits, and even lamenting her stint on Dancing With The Stars whilst being glad that it was helping to rehabilitate her career.  I wrote a blog about her daring performance of “Time After Time / Lighters Up” with Cyndi Lauper recently. At the heart of it, she is a talented rapper with consistent flow, entertaining lyrics and song concepts, and buckets of sexuality, raw passion and hard-earned grit.  I’d be interested to see her movie and compare and contrast the two portrayals of Lil’ Kim… I guess we’ll have to wait and see if such a project ever materialises.

In short, I enjoyed Notorious more than I expected to.  I didn’t find anything out that I didn’t already know, and I am not educated enough in the music nor in the history of Biggie’s life to have any valuable opinion or counter-opinion.  But there was striking characterisation, solid acting and a couple of sticking points that held my interest and attention throughout.  And it’s got me listening to Ready To Die on my iPod once again.  I guess at the end of the day, even though we’ll never know everything about what happened to Biggie, if such a film gets us to re-appreciate and re-evaluate his music and legacy, and despite his moral and intellectual shortcomings, if we can admire his passion and talent, then that is definitely something valuable.

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90s baby.

August 27, 2009

Okay, I confess, I was born in the 1980s.  But apart from a few songs, the majority of what I grew up with was 90s music.  As you know, Mariah Carey is a massive influence on me, and my mother bought her very first single, “Vision Of Love”, on vinyl back in 1990.  Right through “Dreamlover”, “Without You” and “Fantasy” to the  Butterfly and Rainbow albums which closed the 90s, she was an epic atom bomb dropped on my life.  But if you know me, or you’ve read certain previous entries, you already know that and I’m not going to delve into it further here.

As a preteen and young teenager bearing the combined musical influence of my mother and my school friends, I would listen to songs by the Honeyz, En Vogue, Shola Ama, Backstreet Boys, No Doubt, Solid Harmonie, Peter Andre, Blur *shudder*, Aqua *cringe*, Aaliyah, Monica, Brandy and Usher, to name but a very select few.  The magazines I read (Smash Hits, TVHits, Top Of The Pops) were aimed squarely at teenagers who were of a sunny pop disposition, and although I was much more aware of the charts then than I am now, I still felt a little bit like there had to be something more.  Beyond straightforward manufactured pop (however good a product it may be), I started to lean towards more urban music.  I discovered garage (2-step) music, R&B, rap and hip hop.  Ms. Dynamite, Shola Ama (and the remixes), Honeyz and Kele Le Roc represented British R&B to me, while the American singers such as Toni Braxton, Aaliyah, Brandy, Usher, Monica, TLC and Jennifer Lopez were an emblem of something smoother, sexier and edgier.  Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope opened my eyes to how well an album could be constructed, seguing effortlessly between different moods, concepts and tempos.  Missy Elliott’s Da Real World smacked me upside the head with a combination of weird bassy dark production and super-explicit lyrics that I wasn’t familiar with.  Jennifer Lopez’s video for “If You Had My Love” left me with the undeniable impression that a star was born, from her ridiculous beautiful looks to her insanely polished and expressive dancing.  Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” ended up on my cd player before it dawned on me just how much of a classic that song was going to be.  TLC’s Fanmail sounded like the future.  Aaliyah’s One In A Million album sounded like effortless sexuality, and sounded like nothing and nobody else.

All the aforementioned artists, albums and songs still hold that exact same resonance for me.  Perhaps it’s just the fact that I was growing up and those singers played an integral part in my adolescence, but music just isn’t the same anymore.  Show me a singer as effortlessly sexy and sophisticated as Aaliyah.  Show me a group as fiercely cool as TLC.  Find me a singer with a voice, body and songwriting skills like Mariah’s.  A rapper as off the wall as Busta Rhymes, as influential as 2pac or Notorious BIG.  I mean no disrespect to all the musicians and artists in the game today, because they have a hard job living up to these stars, who to me represent the golden age of urban music.  Ciara, Beyoncé, The-Dream, Electrik Red, Robin Thicke, Pitbull, Lil’ Wayne, Black Eyed Peas all hold down the front line.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m older, but despite their best efforts, I can’t help reminiscing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because I’ve found music in the last 3-4 years to be somewhat dry, I’ve discovered music from that golden age that passed me by the first time round.  Unbelievably, until 2 years ago, I had never listened to a Jodeci song.  Obviously I’d heard of them and their songs must have played very occasionally on the radio or tv, but I’d never really listened. Now I know where Dru Hill got their ideas from!  R. Kelly and his protégée Sparkle crafted some classic 90s R&B.  SWV and Total were some bad-ass girl groups!  Listening to the Notorious BIG’s albums and Puff Daddy’s older output allows me to see where Diddy, Lil’ Kim and Bad Boy Entertainment stand today and plot the journey and progress in between.  The joy of this has been that it is an entirely personal quest, because nobody else, in my past or present, is into the exact same music as me.  I’ve managed to convert some of my friends to some urban music, but I don’t really know anyone in person who’s into in the same depth.  The people who seem to understand most where I come from musically are on the internet, in forums and on urban music blogs.  Quite often, different posts educate me.

And that’s why I get so frustrated at the state of music today.  For one, every song seems to be a recycle of something else.  Beyoncé’s “Halo” = Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” = Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” = Jordin Sparks’ “Battlefield”.  Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” = Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” = Eva Simons’ “Silly Boy” = Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive” + “Umbrella” = a large part of The-Dream’s subsequent output = Electrik Red.  LeToya’s “Not Anymore” = Ciara’s “Never Ever” = Monica’s “Still Standing” = Nicole Scherzinger’s “Happily Never After” = Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” = Rihanna & Ne-Yo’s “Hate That I Love You” = Ne-Yo’s “Because Of You” = Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” = Ne-Yo’s “Mad”.  So damn formulaic.  And as Jay-Z has finally noticed, auto-tune is everywhere.

Another thing: why does music being released right now sound like it is 20 years old?  Aaliyah’s self-titled album sounds like an edgy, modern masterclass nearly 10 years on.  TLC’s Fanmail sounds more futuristic than Keri Hilson’s In A Perfect World…despite the former being released in 1999 and the latter released in 2009.  Whitney Houston’s latest “greatest” “comeback” album I Look To You is an utter mess, because instead of a graceful attempt to keep up with the times as on My Love Is Your Love (a burnished masterpiece) and even Just Whitney (which has held up surprisingly well), she decides to go time-travelling.  The ballads fare well, with “Call You Tonight” a classy modern song, while “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and “I Look To You” are classic ballads which are strong, even without the power of Whitney’s old voice.  “Salute” is the best song on the album for me, because it is pure timeless R&B.  But the uptempos…. oh no.  “Million Dollar Bill” revisits old-school R&B and falls asleep, “Nothin’ But Love” presses the 90s synth button repeatedly, “Like I Never Left” should be titled “Like I Never Left The 80s”.  The major disaster is “A Song For You”, which was performed sublimely by Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera a couple of years ago.  Here, the first half of the song is typically piano led, but Whitney seems to jump through the hoops a little bit.  No matter, it’s not a problem compared to what happens at 1:30.  Hex Hector and Peter Rauhofer must have cried a river when they heard this tepid 90s-dance mess. I listened to this and had to skip to the next track, because Whitney was done a pure disservice with this song.  Words fail me…

Whitney Houston is not the only victim of this dated-modern fad… even on Trey Songz’ fantastic third album Ready, the melodically lovely “Love Lost” boasts a musical backing that sounds like it was created in 1987.  And Monica’s latest leaked song “Betcha She Don’t Love You” sounds like Missy Elliott vomited up an old record and told Monica to sing over it.  (Aaliyah would never have stood for it, I’m sure.) I have no problem with being inspired by the past and appreciating heritage and history.  You can honour the classics in a tasteful way. But when it seems that it’s so difficult for artists to be forward thinking that they recycle old songs and pass them off as ‘new’ or ‘retro-cool’ when in reality they are just lazy, that really pisses me off and makes me rifle through my older CDs, listening to music that is forward thinking, doesn’t sound at all dated, but is timeless.  There’s a big difference between the two that a lot of today’s music industry (both A&R honchos and artists alike) would do very well to learn.

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jagged little pills.

August 8, 2009

It’s hard for me to remember a time in my life or my musical experience before Mariah Carey’s Butterfly album, because that has shaped the way I sing, the music I aim to make and so much more besides; to me, it is nearly the perfect album (I don’t believe there is any such animal).  But before Butterfly, I was obsessed with Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill.  I bought the CD when I was 10 years old and I played it to death.  I don’t really listen to Alanis Morissette anymore, but for a while she opened my eyes, my ears and my vocabulary.  Listening to “You Oughta Know”, I used to think that “going down on you in a theatre” meant that she was going to attack him.  I guess I was sort-of right… It’s things like that that make me really that I was a curious blend of precociousness and naïvety as a child; perhaps that’s true even today… I remember my parents being astonished at the fact that I had decided to cling to this singer so; after all, she was quite controversial and her lyrics included explicit language and sexual metaphors.  My parents have not been shy about swearing in front of me since I was about 7 years old, but thankfully I didn’t hear much about their sex life until I was maybe 11 or 12.  But my parents thought I had good taste (for once), and we used to play the cd in the car and we all enjoyed it.  There was a period during my summer holidays before starting year 6 when I would literally go up to my room after breakfast, slip the CD into my black Sanyo CD player and sing it all the way through.  Every day.  For at least 2-3 months… It was crazy, and I don’t think I have done anything like that since, nor would I want to.

So today I was browsing through wikipedia on the net and I end up reading Alanis Morissette’s album pages.  I remember the situations I couldn’t relate to so much back then have now become fully fleshed-out (when I was younger, I would just connect to the song’s emotion because I had no experience of romantic or sexual relationships).  I understand the Catholic angst of “Forgiven” better now than I ever used to, and that is coincidental because I was discussing religion and Catholicism with my friend Adam today while watching the film Doubt (I caved and bought the dvd).  The concept of living up to being the “perfect child” under pressure from my parents, family and peers has never lessened but my maturity lends new hues to the song “Perfect”.  I remember nearly having an affair with my peer mentoring instructor, drama teacher and counsellor while listening to the song “Hands Clean” (we never had an affair, but I had a crush and we were close.  And all my friends at school kept checking that we weren’t sleeping together, which obviously we weren’t).  Listening to “Joining You” today reminds me of when I was younger and contemplated suicide on more than one occasion, and realising that life really can be that depressing if you let yourself get caught up in it so much.  Sometimes levity and fun are not a bad thing, and in fact vital to our survival.

I wrote a hell of a lot of songs and poems during my childhood as a direct result of Alanis Morissette’s inspiration.  I pray that none of these poems or lyrics come back to light, but perhaps they aren’t as bad as I imagine them to be.  I also expect some of them are a lot more risky than what I produce today, because as I’ve honed my craft, I’ve also made steps on the journey to finding who I am and how I can best express that.  At 11 years old, I knew a lot for my age but I still had so much growing up to do and so the poems I wrote were a mishmash of everything.  I imagine it to be a bit messy and at times laughable, though probably heartrending all the same.  I would never go back in time, because I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons and I don’t want to have to relearn them thankyou.  But at the same time, as unhappy a child as I was, I remember the growing and the learning and the insecurities, I see how far I have come, and although according to R “I put too much pressure on myself”, I can’t help but smile and remember the little boy who was doing all the “right things” and still felt so lost.  And at least I stand here today, and I’m a tiny bit more found than I used to be.  Who isn’t a work-in-progress?  But some progress has been made.

Listening to “Unsent”, I think of the people I have dated, and why it has gone wrong every single time.  Of course, it takes two, and as much as I can blame myself and push myself to learn and to act more rationally and maturely, and as much as I push myself to be more perfect and model-ready, it can’t all be my fault.  I always seem to settle for less, and now with B and with R, I feel caught in the middle of two non-boyfriends who emotionally connect with me but can never give me enough in return, for various reasons.  Last night, R’s boyfriend hijacked his msn and effectively said that R spends too much time talking to me (and other guys) on msn.  This morning, R said that the boyfriend was jealous (I suppose understandably).  I don’t want to be a homewrecker, I don’t want to be the jump-off, I don’t want to be a booty-call or a one-night-stand or a throwaway boyfriend.  I don’t want to be waiting around for B to wake up and smell the coffee, and I don’t want to be caught in the middle.  Like I said before, I can’t even imagine myself not single, and yet I’ve racked up all these nearly-guys.  I suppose I am the stronger and the better for it, but it gets tiresome… however, at least like Alanis, I get some pretty decent lyrical material out of it!  I guess part of being older and gaining experience is that you hurt and get hurt along the way of life.  I don’t really know how to conclude this entry very neatly, but I try not to feel bitterness if I can help it.  I try to stay pretty zen about my relationships, and I don’t think that we need to stay friends with our exes every time, but after a while I don’t want to waste my time hating them either.  The more open I keep my heart, hopefully the more likely someone is to find it who is worth my time and then I’ll prove my self-fulfilling prophecy wrong and be able to enjoy what everyone else seems to without trying to walk the line of perfection to everybody.

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my favourite song – Mariah Carey – Outside.

July 17, 2009

The second song in this little feature that I’m doing is truly one of my ultimate favourite songs from my ultimate favourite singer Mariah Carey.  I remember for my 12th birthday, my nan bought me her new album at the time, the incomparable Butterfly, and I played it to death.  It was my first Mariah Carey album, I pretty much bought all her others as a result, and the way that I sing and my musical taste has been heavily influenced by this woman, and by this album.  My favourite song on this album is the closer “Outside”.

The song is a powerful, personal ballad which has a slow 6/8 time signature and a lush R&B backing (the ending of the electric piano is one of my favourite sounds/instruments) to compliment Mariah’s masterful vocals, which start off by emphasising the fragility of the lyrics and end up soaring over the gospel arrangement of the bridge, at once empowering both the singer and the listener.  I could rhapsodise about Mariah Carey and probably fill a book, but she is, IMO, the consummate singer/songwriter/producer of our generation.  She is a target of blame and a butt of jokes, but at the end of the day she has the best voice around, the most successful track record in popular music, a wonderful body and has no apparent vices or addictions.  On this song, I believe she is at her best.

Looking at the lyrics (included below), the song could be about a multitude of issues that cause people to feel alienated in their lives.  Be it homophobia, feeling insecure about your appearance or your intelligence, relationship troubles in either a romantic or a familial sense, the song encompasses a variety of situations and sentiments.  I believe the song is primarily about racism and the identity quest of being mixed-race, as Mariah has more or less stated this in interviews as well as being very vocal and open about her own racial identity and the prejudice she endured as a mixed-race child growing up in Long Island.  Although being gay I have endured some teasing and prejudice at both school and the workplace (though nothing serious, and I guess I handled it ok), the way I primarily identify with the song, and why it means so much to me (apart from the common sentiment that we’re all alone in the end etc.) is because I am mixed-race too.

Unlike Mariah, I have never endured any direct prejudice because of it.  In fact, to look at me, I am your typical white British male; except that’s not what I am. I am half-Italian and was primarily raised by the Italian side of my family (who came to live in Bristol about 45 years ago).  I’ve always felt more at home with that side of the family, and although I am gay and very in touch with technology, fashion and the media as popular culture, a part of me is still connected to the old-fashioned family values and Catholic traditions with which I was raised.  So there’s both a conflict and contradiction in my identity, and the fact that I fill in “White British” on forms (which quite possibly compounds the problem!) is purely because it is easier than having to explain to people my racial background every time someone raises an eyebrow at me.  After a short while, having to fill every single person in on my backstory and family tree gets very tiring, and I have to field questions such as:

“But you were born in England, so you’re English really.”  Um, I never said I wasn’t English, but if someone was half-Japanese and was born in England, you would probably still call them Asian, right?  Or Asian-British.  But because my mother is a blonde Italian who didn’t manage to bestow on me olive skin nor black curly hair, I must be exaggerating my background and be “English really”. No, not really.

“Wow, you don’t look Italian.” No I don’t.  Nor does my mother, but she was born there.  Appearances can be deceptive.

“Being half-Italian doesn’t make you mixed-race.” This is my ‘favourite’ misconception.  I don’t understand why so many people believe this, because if I were half-Spanish (another Mediterranean country, a very similar language, another very Catholic-centric culture – at least historically) nobody would dream of saying this to me.  I would be hispano-British or “Latino”.  But because it’s Italy, it doesn’t count.  Well, get real – in any case, Latin came from Italy not Spain bish bye.  Race is more than just the colour of your skin.  So rather than being discriminated against because of who or what I am, I’ve experienced a sort of “reverse prejudice” where people aren’t really ready to acknowledge who I am because they look at me and have already categorised me as someone or something else.

So that is why the lyrics of this song are so important and personal to me, and why I identify with it so much.  I used to sing along with the Butterfly album all the time, and time and again I’d tackle this song.  And out of all the songs on the cd, I found this one the hardest because the topics explored, the music and the vocal treatment were beyond my years.  Mariah Carey performs this song so perfectly that I don’t think I could ever do it justice, let alone better her treatment of it.  So I just listen and respect and let my emotions flow whenever I put it on my iPod or my CD player, and I hope that it touches you also.  Please listen to it, read the lyrics, and I hope you enjoy this song because it is very close to my heart.

It’s hard to explain
Inherently it’s just always been strange
Neither here nor there
Always somewhat out of place everywhere
Ambiguous
Without a sense of belonging to touch
Somewhere halfway
Feeling there’s no one completely the same

Standing alone
Eager to just
Believe it’s good enough to be what
You really are
But in your heart
Uncertainty forever lies
And you’ll always be
Somewhere on the
Outside

Early on, you face
The realization you don’t
have a space
Where you fit in
And recognize you
Were born to exist

Standing alone
Eager to just
Believe it’s good enough to be what
You really are
But in your heart
Uncertainty forever lies
And you’ll always be
Somewhere on the
Outside

And it’s hard
And it’s hard
And it’s hard

Irreversibly
Falling in between
And it’s hard
And it’s hard
To be understood
As you are
As you are
Oh, and God knows
That you’re standing on your own
Blind and unguided
Into a world divided
You’re thrown
Where you’re never quite the same
Although you try-try and try
To tell yourself
You really are
But in your heart-uncertainty forever lies
And you’ll always be
Somewhere on the outside