Posts Tagged ‘pop music’

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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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lady gaga & beyoncé – telephone. (video review)

March 14, 2010

At the end of 2009, I rated The Fame Monster at #18 on my year-end album chart.  Although I do stand by that chart and I don’t think I would really change any of the albums that are on there, in hindsight Lady GaGa would actually be somewhere in the Top 10 (possibly quite high up).  I didn’t think so at the time, but the funny thing about The Fame Monster is that it has hidden depths and its songs are actually really enduring.  What’s more, unlike The Fame, the songs are actually about deep topics such as domestic violence (“Dance In The Dark”), intoxication (“So Happy I Could Die”) and poisonous relationships (“Bad Romance”). I find it ironic that I’ve lambasted Lady GaGa for pandering to radio too much with her repetitive nonsense hooks (“p-p-p-poker face / papa-paparazzi / eh eh / ooh la la ga ga ro ma ma” and so on), but now I find myself appreciating her songwriting craft and finding her songs becoming more solid (although The Fame Monster is streets ahead of The Fame, so in a way I’m just acknowledging her artistic progression).  So I apologise somewhat for kinda turning off Lady GaGa and not giving her her due (although her fans / “monsters” are quite off-putting and need to be less militant), although if she could keep off the repetition of nonsensical syllables that would be good.  Because she doesn’t need to do that.

And so we come to “Telephone”.  The song is about suffocating relationships, and Lady GaGa herself has said that it doesn’t just have to be a romantic situation, but could also symbolise the fact that when her telephone rings, it’s always because she has to get back to work in the studio and she can’t escape that.  The song itself is pretty strong, although it’s not as progressive as some of the other songs on The Fame Monster and resorts to the 4/4 beat that has completely oversaturated popular music (and did so about a year and a half ago).  Beyoncé’s feature is a rapid-fire verse over double-time beats and keeps the song interesting.

The video for “Telephone” was released on Friday, and it has become something of a Pop Event.  The hype the video received even before its premiere was immense, and now it’s being hailed by some as the successor to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.  Others however are lambasting it for its apparent sexism and overt lesbianism.  I read in one place that you will remember exactly where you were when you first saw it, and that much is true (at least for me).  I had just returned home from work, it was about 3:30 and after keeping track of the video reviews on Twitter, I decided to give into my curiosity.  Upon the first viewing, I was a tiny bit underwhelmed but could still see the video’s bad and good points (of which my view hasn’t really changed).  I thought that Beyoncé’s appearance far outclassed Lady GaGa, not just because Beyoncé has had some acting lessons but also because Beyoncé is more of an effortless star (not in reality, but she doesn’t look as if she’s trying so hard).  I detested the overt product placement of Virgin Mobile, Chanel & the GaGa earbud headphones – but all the kids are doing it; I just expected Lady GaGa to have more class.  But then why should she? It’s money in the bank, and when your video is 9 and a half minutes long, you need some bank to be able to make that video look and feel effective and powerful.

I’ve rewatched the “Telephone” video a few times now, and each time my estimation of it has gone up.  While not exactly on iconic level (I think it’s far too soon to be throwing that word around; GaGa has only been around for 2 years), it’s another demonstration that Lady GaGa’s commitment to her artistry is strong, defiant and interesting.  The introductory jail scene serves to debunk the rumours of GaGa’s intersex status (duh), allows her to wear a host of outlandish outfits (striped shoulder-padded body suit / yellow police caution tape / super-studded leather jacket and underwear covered in chains) the best of which is undoubtedly the cigarette sunglasses (still smoking!).  The fashion continues with the huge black tricorne hat GaGa sports upon being bailed out of prison; the shredded USA flag (subtle!) clothes in which GaGa and Beyoncé dance in the diner scene; the folded geometric telephone hat and telephone receiver hairdo GaGa wears on her head; the leopardprint body suit à la Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much”; the closing lavender and black body sheets… not all of these ideas work (on a couple of occasions both GaGa and Beyoncé look nothing short of horrendous – for some reason, in the USA flag bikini and bright yellow hair, Lady GaGa reminds me somewhat of Ken from Street Fighter and I can’t shake this association!), but they all capture the viewer’s attention, and more importantly they all leave you with something to say after watching the video.  That’s possibly “Telephone”‘s biggest success – it provokes thought and inspires discussion.  We know this because even the broadsheet newspapers are talking about it.

I stand by my statement that GaGa does seem to be trying awfully hard at being controversial and “artistic”.  She’s made a couple of great videos now, but in view of the numerous costume changes (see above), storylines and scenes, it doesn’t seem to come easily.  For comparison, where better to look than her costar Beyoncé?  For the definition of an iconic music video, look no further than “Single Ladies”; everyone and their mama has seen that video and knows the dance.  The video is in black and white, has no storyline or costumes (other than a leotard and metallic glove), is done in one take and isn’t even an original idea (see Bob Fosse’s choreography on youtube). Most importantly, Beyoncé did it almost as an afterthought to her video for “If I Were A Boy” (which in my opinion is a truly beautiful, excellent video) without breaking a sweat; and yet this is the video that captured everyone’s attention.  Now, of course Beyoncé is not anywhere near as effortless as she appears; but she makes it look easy.  GaGa does not make it look easy, and although it’s admirable that she’s so committed to the symbolism and artistic integrity she conveys (and GaGa is clearly an intelligent and talented woman), I’m scared that because the media and the fans are so interested in her image, her look, and what she’s going to be wearing that they forget that Lady GaGa is actually a singer and a musician – the most important thing should be her music.  Which, as I said at the top, is actually quite good and shouldn’t get lost in all of the surrounding gloss, however layered and substantial that gloss may be.  What happens when Lady GaGa can’t get any crazier?  What about when she wants to strip away all the layers and be more vulnerable and natural?  Will everyone turn away from her then, because they just wanted the fancy clothes and elaborate videos?  Can people not listen to her music, her lyrics without the accompanying visual?  I hope I’m wrong, because if not then that’s pretty sad.

The storyline, just as the lyrics of the song itself, can be interpreted in various ways and I’m not going to get into that here; I think that some of the reviews I’ve read have been hilariously in-depth and I think that GaGa is intelligent enough to play along in pretending to have input heavy symbolism into outfits, storylines and lyrics where there is none; people seem to need to have a meaning to every single thing, whereas I often think that GaGa is just having fun and being crazy.  Which is great!  It’s entertainment.  And the “Telephone” video is certainly entertaining; I hated the product placement, and I don’t feel that the use of the Pussy Wagon was necessary (the Tarantino homages are apparent, with elements of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction included) – but then that’s just because I find the Pussy Wagon unfeasibly garish.  Which, in Kill Bill, was the point, and I understand that.  I really enjoyed Beyoncé’s homages to the “Paparazzi” video in her poisoning the teacup, Minnie Mouse glasses and hand over her mouth when they censored the swearing.  I loved the Japanese cooking-programme style of “Let’s Make A Sandwich”, and the dialogue between Gaga and Beyoncé was intriguingly half-cheesy, half-hard-boiled (although Beyoncé can somewhat act, and Lady GaGa really can’t – yet).  Tyrese and Beyoncé’s subtitled conversation, spoken with only looks and facial expressions, was genius. The Thelma & Louise-esque ending neatly gave closure to the video, but also made viewers wonder what was in store (that “To Be Continued…”) for next time.

Overall, I thought that the “Telephone” video was excellent, and I’m intrigued to see how the music channels edit it down to song length.  It’s a thrilling watch, and while I’m not going to pretend that it is a perfect video, I think that to compare it to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is unfair; “Thriller” is not even Michael Jackson’s best video by a long shot, and Lady GaGa’s video deserves to stand in its own right.  “Telephone” is furiously entertaining, and shows an artist coming into her own, even if at this point the numerous costume changes and persistent homages, product placements and edgy fashion poses betray an artist not quite comfortable enough in her own skin to exude her artistry naturally.  Once it becomes a little more effortless (as it has for Beyoncé, Madonna and all the other greats), that’s when Lady GaGa will be iconic and symbolic of a new musical generation.  But she’s well on her way, and I hope that the media, fans and public will appreciate that, because I myself am learning to, little by little.

ps. If only my “Bad Romance” video treatment had ended in a jail rather than in a mental institution, it would have led perfectly into the “Telephone” video!  Ah well, can’t win ’em all 😉