Posts Tagged ‘tightrope’

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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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Toni Braxton – Pulse. (album review)

May 7, 2010

The first album from Toni Braxton in 5 years comes following an abbreviated residency at Las Vegas, yet more record label disputes, health scares, a neat run on Dancing With The Stars and a separation from long-term partner Keri Lewis.  So one would assume that she has a lot of life material to draw on, material that might be evident in the singer’s new album.  Well, yes and no: Toni Braxton has stuck to her strengths, which are soulful R&B ballads expertly sung.  The lyrical content of these tracks betrays barely a whisker of what the singer has been through in the past 5 years, and to look at the singer she stands stately, sophisticated and stunningly beautiful for a woman of 40 years old.  Indeed, she still has that same sexy body she had 15 years ago, although now it is dressed with a more chic, age-appropriate veneer that effortlessly walks that tightrope between sexy and classy.  Nevertheless, Braxton’s creamy, rich alto has a slight bit more depth to it now; to paraphrase from her interview in Metro this week, she has the ability to channel her experiences (be they joyful or sad) into the texture of her voice, and this is what makes Braxton one of the most enduring and valuable singers to emerge in the last 20 years: you feel her when she sings.  On Pulse this is evident throughout, particularly when her voice is reduced to a low, husky whisper such as at the beginning of “Woman”, a cover of Delta Goodrem’s track from 2007’s Delta that improves on the original because Toni Braxton’s voice brings more depth to the lyrics (although Delta Goodrem’s own version was solid in itself, perhaps making this achievement all the more impressive), and the production ranges from subtle to soaring while never overtaking Braxton’s performance.

After more leaks than Ciara’s Fantasy Ride, it would be unacceptable for Pulse to be anything less than solid, considering the 25+ tracks we’ve heard from Toni Braxton’s recording sessions for the project.  For the most part, Braxton has chosen the strongest songs for the project, although bonus tracks “Rewind” and “Stay” add little value to the album and could have been replaced with successful “Ice Box” soundalike “Clockwork” and particularly “It’s You”.  These are just little personal gripes however, and don’t affect the fact that Braxton sings each of the 11 tracks on her album with impeccable aplomb; her voice cannot be faltered, whether she’s emitting attitude on the sassy “Make My Heart” (which again improves upon Blaque’s / Mis-Teeq’s “Can’t Get It Back”, being based on the same sample) or evoking vulnerability on standout closing track “Why Won’t You Love Me”.  It is surprising that this is the only track on Pulse that gives Toni a significant songwriting credit (“Yesterday” does credit her, but only along with 4 other contributors) considering her credits on The Heat and More Than A Woman; those two albums, while not perfect, were both cohesive and consistent – they felt like albums, not just a collection of songs.

And this is where my only main gripe with Pulse comes in.  Indeed, the album contains some beautiful songs – my personal favourites are first single “Yesterday” (although it sounds like Beyoncé’s “Halo”, it is strong and sincere enough to stand on its own two feet – unlike the version with Trey Songz, which suffers from a change in production that is at once overdone and bland), the aforementioned “Make My Heart” and “Why Won’t You Love Me”, “Wardrobe” with its clever man-as-outfit metaphor that somehow avoids sounding cheesy or forced.  “Lookin’ At Me” is a welcome uptempo that bumps convincingly and brings the sass out of Toni, and perhaps in the closing stretch of the album which is ballad-heavy, another uptempo of this nature might have livened things up.  Finally, “Hands Tied” is an utterly beautiful song in lyrics, production and vocals, and has an outstanding video to match – Toni Braxton dances in front of a troupe of attractive men, stands in an eye-catching black dress in front of an ornately carved table that I would quite like in my house, and locks eyes with the camera, singing and dancing and yet conveying the determination for love inherent in the song’s lyrics.

As I said before, there are no weak tracks, and perhaps my opinion is swayed by the sheer amount of material I’ve heard from the project – unlike classic albums Secrets, The Heat and More Than A Woman, the album feels merely like a collection of lovely songs than like an album.  Previous album Libra suffered from this same problem, although Pulse has more of an identity, hewing close to soulful ballads and eschewing popular production tricks; unlike a couple of Libra‘s tracks, this album won’t sound dated, to its credit. But something intangible makes some albums more than the sum of their parts, and Pulse just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi.  In comparison with Monica’s recent Still Standing (check my review here!), both albums are a welcome embodiment of “real” R&B, both are classy efforts that dispense with unnecessary featured artists and emphasise the singers’ strengths.  Neither album possesses any repellent tracks, and all the material is beautifully sung.  But if I had to choose between them, Monica’s would win out because something about it feels more sincere, more cohesive; something connects with the listener more.  I feel bad that I can’t quite put my finger on what that “something” is, but it means that while Pulse is certainly solid and worth purchasing, as a whole it isn’t  exceptional.  Nevertheless, some of its songs are exceptional, and it is wonderful to hear a singer relying on her vocal ability and strong songwriting rather than gimmicks or collaborations with flavour-of-the-month artists.