the first 9 months of 2007

Sunday, September 30, 2007
1. Sloan - Never Hear The End Of It
2. Parts & Labor - Mapmaker
3. UGK - Underground Kingz
4. Jarvis Cocker - Jarvis
5. Eleni Mandell - Miracle Of Five
6. Kanye West - Graduation
7. Prodigy - Return Of The Mac
8. Ted Leo - Living With The Living
9. T-Pain - Epiphany
10. Travis Morrison - All Y’All
11. Thurston Moore - Trees Outside The Academy
12. Talib Kweli & Madlib - Liberation
13. Swizz Beatz - One Man Band Man
14. Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond
15. Rasputina - Oh Perilous World
16. Foo Fighters - Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
17. Trans Am - Sex Change
18. Rufus Wainwright - Release The Stars
19. Twista - Adrenaline Rush 2007
20. Eddie Vedder - Music For The Motion Picture Into The Wild

This list is 35% different from the last one, albeit mostly different in the lower half, so I've heard a lot of stuff in the last month or so. The luster is fading off the Kanye pretty quickly and will probably continue to do so as half the best songs become singles and I burn myself out on the other half on my own. It's still probably a lock for the top 10, though, just because there isn't as much better than it than I wish there was.

1. Swizz Beatz - “It’s Me Bitches”
2. R. Kelly f/ T.I. and T-Pain - “I’m A Flirt (Remix)”
3. UGK f/ Outkast - “International Player’s Anthem”
4. Linkin Park - “Bleed It Out”
5. Kelly Rowland f/ Eve - “Like This”
6. Fantasia - “When I See U”
7. Keyshia Cole f/ Missy Elliott and Lil Kim - “Let It Go”
8. Playaz Circle f/ Lil Wayne - "Duffle Bag Boy"
9. Maroon 5 - “Makes Me Wonder”
10. 50 Cent - “I Get Money”
11. Cassidy f/ Swizz Beatz - “Drink N My 2 Step”
12. DJ Khaled f/ Akon, T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman and Lil Wayne – "We Taking Over"
13. Kanye West f/ T-Pain - “Good Life”
14. Beyonce - “Get Me Bodied”
15. R. Kelly f/ Usher - “Same Girl”
16. Foo Fighters - “The Pretender”
17. Avril Lavigne - "Hot"
18. Fall Out Boy - “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs”
19. Crime Mob - “Circles”
20. Finger Eleven - "Paralyzer"
21. T-Pain f/ Shawnna “Backseat Action”
22. Swizz Beatz - “Money In The Bank”
23. Paramore - “Misery Business”
24. John Legend - "Another Again"
25. Bobby Valentino - "Anonymous"
26. Mary J. Blige - "Just Fine"
27. DJ Jazzy Jeff f/ Peedi Peedi - "Brand New Funk 2007"
28. The Game f/ Kanye West - “Wouldn’t Get Far”
29. T.I. f/ Wyclef Jean - “You Know What It Is”
30. Hurricane Chris - "Hand Clap"
31. Freeway f/ Jay-Z - "Big Spender"
32. The White Stripes - "Icky Thump"
33. Twista f/ T-Pain - "Creep Fast"
34. Nicole Sherzinger f/ T.I. - “Whatever You Like”
35. My Chemical Romance - “Teenagers”
36. Gym Class Heroes - “Clothes Off”
37. Common f/ Lily Allen - "Drivin' Me Wild"
38. Mika - “Grace Kelly”
39. Young Jeezy f/ R. Kelly - “Go Getta”
40. DJ Unk - “2 Step”
41. Bow Wow f/ T Pain - “Outta My System”
42. Gwen Stefani - "Early Winter"
43. 50 Cent - “Amusement Park”
44. Diddy f/ Keyshia Cole - "Last Night"
45. Ja Rule f/ Lil Wayne - “Uh Oh”
46. Red Hot Chili Peppers - “Hump De Bump”
47. Justin Timberlake - “Until The End Of Time”
48. Beanie Sigel f/ R. Kelly - "All Of The Above"
49. The Fixxers - “Can U Werk Wit Dat?”
50. Fergie f/ Ludacris - “Glamorous”

Not a whole lot of movement here, although it occurs to me that it's been a pretty great year for R&B, at least where singles are concerned. I just wish that Keyshia or some other recent releases sounded good enough to me to make the albums list.

Friday, September 28, 2007
Eddie Vedder - "Rise" (mp3)

Last week I went to the record store, as I'd been planning to since it was announced a few months ago, to pick up Thurston Moore's Trees Outside The Academy. But I had no idea until reading earlier that day that another solo album by probably the frontman of the other most important band in my life circa age 13 was also coming out. So I picked Music For The Motion Picture Into The Wild up on much more of a whim, not really having any idea what it would be like, other than that it was the soundtrack to some movie directed by Sean Penn that I'd barely even heard of either. I probably could've stood to wait and done a little more research before buying it, though, since I might've realized that I could've gotten four (!) bonus tracks if I'd bought it on iTunes.

Eddie Vedder hasn't done a whole lot outside of Pearl Jam that's been particularly memorable in the past, including his contributions to other Sean Penn soundtracks and the solo sets he sometimes has opened for the band with. He's always seemed more like a guy that benefitted from talented bandmates and his solid chemistry with them than someone who'd have made good records under any circumstances. And he only played guitar on a total of two songs on the first two Pearl Jam albums, before gradually taking on a bigger role beyond vocals on later records. When he did do solo tracks on PJ albums, it was goofy joke songs like "Bugs" and "Soon Forget." And that's what makes the modest but enjoyable Into The Wild all the more impressive.

Vedder wrote and played pretty much everything on the album, except for two songs that were written by other people and feature backing vocals. It's mostly acoustic guitar, with a little organ and what sounds like either a mandolin or the ukelele from "Soon Forget" put to much better use on my favorite song on the album, "Rise." But when Vedder accompanies himself on drums, he's pretty good, which I guess shouldn't be surprising since he did play drums in Hovercraft. One of the covers, "Hard Sun," features his best percussion performance on the album along with some great backup vox from Corin Tucker, whose voice I've always really liked despite never being particularly into Sleater-Kinney.

At nine songs in 33 minutes (2 minutes of which are silence before a hidden track), it's a deliberately minor record, made by a guy who clearly has no intention of leaving his day job any time soon. But it's a pretty nice palette cleanser and affirmation of his talent, after last year's Pearl Jam, an album that got mostly positive reviews and even some "return to form" hype despite being, to my ears, by far the worst record the band's ever done. I also got the impression, from some of the interviews Vedder gave for that album, that the album was the result their democratic to a fault approach, letting everyone contribute to the songwriting with perhaps noone taking the lead.

Most of the songs on Into The Wild seem to have been written from the perspective of the film's protagonist, a young guy who decides to abandon society and go live in the wilderness of Alaska, where he eventually dies. But the songs don't really need that kind of context to work, since themes of self-reliance and loneliness and naturalism are pretty much consistent themes of Eddie Vedder's songs and these are the kind of lyrics he'd probably write without the movie to draw inspiration from. But maybe this is the kind of solitary songwriting exercise he needed to recharge his batteries after the last few Pearl Jam albums have suffered diminishing returns of the band's songwriting chemistry. I hope he goes back to the band with as a stronger sense of his own vision, and acts like a bandleader for once.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

So the news started making the rounds last week that the new issue of Scratch Magazine will be its last. As with the previous couple issues, I had a little Boiling Point profile of an up-and-coming producer and their current hit, this time with Cyber Sapp, who did "Freaky Gurl" by Gucci Mane and Ludacris.

But I'm not crying over any future paychecks I could've gotten off the gig, I'm mourning what was by far my favorite music magazine on the stands for the past 3 years. It was a great, unique publication, servicing an audience of industry-savvy rap fans who care about the music itself as much as the controversies that other mags move units with. I think that audience has grown in recent years, but evidently it wasn't big enough to keep an operation like this in the black. But even in the past year or two, particularly after they added the "XXL Presents..." to the title, when they'd include rappers in every cover story along with producers, sometimes pumping up albums that don't actually exist (Detox, Nas/Premo), and the aforementiond Boiling Point section became about nothing but current radio singles instead of just dope songs by major artists, the mag as a whole was still more or less true to its roots and improved in a lot of ways. I made the point recently that these days there are a good dozen or so hip hop producers that are as famous as any rapper these days, and a mag about those producers had a way better chance of surviving in the current environment than it would've at any point in the past, but I guess it still wasn't enough.

Mostly, though, I'm really happy I got to be a part of Scratch at all, even if it was just for the last 3 issues. Big big thanks to Noz once again for giving me the opportunity, it was cool that once one of the hip hop bloggers from the old days (y'know, 3 years ago, the stone age of rap blogging) got a foot in the industry he went back and got some of the rest of us some paper. I had all these cool ideas I'd been putting off pitching to the mag all Summer that I won't get to try to do now. I've thought a long time about doing a rap production blog, maybe this will motivate me to finally put that together and maybe get some other Scratch writers involved. Or maybe I'll just bring back the Producer Series on here. Or maybe I'll finally get off my ass and get some better recording equipment and make the sick beats I've always known I have in me. Thing is, I always wanted to be in Scratch as either a writer or a producer being written about. I got to do one, guess I'll never get a chance with the other.

Monday, September 24, 2007
Havoc - "What's Poppin' Tonite" (mp3)

I hadn't thought about it in a while, and literally didn't even really remember it recently until I had popped Havoc's new solo album, The Kush, into my car's CD player and got halfway through the first song, but I actually interviewed the guy about a year and a half ago. Back when the late great West Baltimore record store Sounds N Da Hood was still open, a few months before they relocated down to Atlanta, I'd been building with the owner, Rome, and he asked me to do some writing for his magazine, The Hook-Up. A lot of major label artists came through to do in-store appearances at SNDH, so Rome was good at networking with them and getting interviews for his mag, he just needed writers to be around to come out and do the interviews. So right around the same time frame in the Spring of last year I did an e-mail interview with Chamillionaire (which I think I only ever mentioned here in passing), and a Mobb Deep feature. That in and of itself was kind of an interesting window into how the unpredictability of rap can really fuck up the long lead times of print mags: when I started working on the issue, Chamillionaire had a recent album on the shelves and Mobb Deep's release date was months away, so it made sense to put Cham on the cover. When I finished the articles, Cham's album had sunk down the charts and Mobb's album was one of the most anticipated of the quarter, so Mobb got the cover. And by the time the issue was actually done, Cham had a #1 single and his album had gone platinum, and Mobb had the biggest bomb of the year.

I don't really know if the issue itself ever came out, or at least I never saw a hard copy of it, I assumed Rome kinda dropped the mag when he moved to ATL. I thought about reprinting the articles or some interview excerpts on here, but for the most part they weren't that interesting, standard press junket questions and answers. Plus I'm not a huge fan of either artist, I mean, I like some songs and have The Infamous and everything, but I'm not gonna geek out over them. I went out to SNDH for Mobb's in-store, but I mostly kinda stood around and talked to Rome or whoever while they were signing autographs and shit, and when they left everyone cracked jokes about their height. After they jumped in their promo van to go off and do some interviews I was given Mobb's manager's cell # to call and do a phone interview that night. It still weirds me out to look in my phone and see a number for "Mobb Deep." I've done dozens of interviews at this point but barely any with musicians who can be considered famous in any mainstream terms. I actually prefer talking to regular people who happen to make music, but obviously I'd be happy to meet more famous people if I had the chance, they just don't tend to be great interviews in my experiences.

Havoc pretty much did the whole interview with me, apparently he tends to handle that stuff and never passed the phone to Prodigy, which was alright with me since I generally like Hav as an MC better and respect him a lot as a producer. The interview was standard pre-release hype, optimistic statements about Blood Money that were still plausible a good 6 weeks before it tanked like "it's gonna turn into a classic, it's an album that can't be denied." It's interesting that at the time Havoc was downplaying both the idea that he'd improved as an MC over the years ("they try to say I stepped up lyrically, so I guess I did") and the possibility of dropping a solo joint anytime soon ("I would like to do a solo album, y’know, one day").

And the fact that a solo album seemed to be the furthest thing from Havoc's mind a year just a year before making The Kush might be the reason why it's a pretty mediocre album. More likely after the miserable failure of Blood Money both he and P were presented with the reality that the G-Unit hit machine wouldn't be providing them with a steady stream of projects to work on, nor would it support their solo and side projects, so they started putting feelers out to Koch and other indies. This has been a pretty prosperous year for producer/rapper albums where the creator indulges as an auteur would for better or for worse (Graduation, One Man Band Man, Shock Value), but The Kush isn't that. It's just Havoc burning off a few half-decent beats with weirdly proggy keyboard samples, and half the tracks are dominated by guest verses, mostly by random Mobb Deep weed carrier dudes (and one appearance by Prodigy). "What's Poppin' Tonite" is pretty much the only beat where Havoc breaks out of his minimalist groove and lets some uncharacteristic Space Invader bleeps squeak in at the beginning of every couple measures and then thicken into white noise at the end of each phrase, and it's by far my favorite track. Prodigy isn't the MC he used to be, and this year could've been Havoc's chance to finally come out of P's shadow. Instead, P got with a more consistent producer, Alchemist, and dropped a much better album months ago, and that one's only supposed to be a warmup for his 'real' album. It's a good thing these guys are gonna be brothers in arms making mediocre records well into their golden years, because if they were in competition, Havoc lost.

In My Stereo

Sunday, September 23, 2007
Thurston Moore - Trees Outside The Academy
Eddie Vedder - Music For The Motion Picture Into The Wild
Rasputina - Oh Perilous World
Havoc - The Kush
Twista - Adrenaline Rush 2007
Talib Kweli - Eardrum
State Of The Arts - Sun Ra Used To Say
Blaq Starr - Raw Starr Mixtape Vol. 1
Monarch - If Children
The New Flesh - Vessel

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New stuff on Noise @ lately: I did a Noise in Brief column full of small Baltimore music news items and links about Bossman, Mullyman, Paula Campbell, The Wire, Blaq Starr, Labtekwon, Monarch, Thrushes, B.O.M.B. and Darkroom Productions. I interviewed DJ Tigga for The Club Beat. I saw a bunch of producers compete at the Beatman Battle II @ 5 Seasons, which was won by B-Banks, and featured some great beats by Comp, Max-A-Million, Dave Da Barber, E-Watts and others. Also, I caught Sonar's "Hip Hop For The Headstrong" night with Flawless, State Of The Arts, J-Optimo, Snapz, and Planet SB, and T.I. and Ciara and T-Pain @ 1st Mariner Arena, Michael McDonald @ Pier Six Pavillion (Bret McCabe to me at the Best of Baltimore party the other night: "so...Michael McDonald, huh?"), and They Might Be Giants @ Rams Head Live.

Thursday, September 20, 2007
The Meat Puppets - "Tiny Kingdom" (mp3)

It's kind of surprising just how little people care about the Meat Puppets right now. There's plenty of very recent points of comparison, 80's indie touchstones who maybe had modern rock radio hits in the 90's, and either never broke up or reunited in the 00's. And while it's not like that new Dinosaur Jr. set the world on fire, it at least got a decent amount of publicity. The Meat Puppets have similiar stats, plus the extra-dramatic backstory of Chris Kirkwood going through hell and back (pretty much literally: drug addiction, death of a spouse, getting shot, jailtime) to work as an angle, and I bet they'd kill for their new album to get even the modest media attention Beyond got.

But then, the muted reaction Rise To Your Knees isn't that shocking, because it's really just not good at all. I was excited by the initial reunion news. I only heard half of the albums Curt Kirkwood made without his brother in the past 10 years they were estranged, and compared to those, this album is a little worse than Snow and just a little better than Golden Lies (it would be pretty difficult to get worse than that). Compared to the original trio's catalog, forget about it. No Joke! is brilliant compared to this. In a way, I really think that the Meat Puppets are, to the detriment of their current career prospects, kind of an anachronism of another era more than a lot of other 80's indie icons. Although I hate to invoke the term 'outsider art,' they were always more a classic rock band with a missing chromosome than born and bred indie/punk. And they're not aging like an indie band, getting progressively more eccentric or even more restrained and tasteful, or honing in on what people liked about them in the first place. I'm not totally sure what they're doing, but I don't really respect their vision, either, because the music is unbearably bland.

Partly it's that just so godawful long, 67 minutes and double the length of some of their best early albums. Almost every song is a midtempo slog, and there's only the faintest traces of the band's defining qualities: bizarrely surrealistic lyrics, gorgeous guitar solos, brotherly harmonies, a country & western streak, wild mood swings. The new drummer, Ted Marcus, is OK, but I miss Derrick Bostrom way more than I'd anticipated. The production is flat but not particularly bad, and "Enemy Love Song" is kind of a highlight by default for the way it returns to the slick, cheeseball sheen of mid-period MP records like Mirage, which is even more jarring in 2007 than it was in the context of their early career. The droning vocal melodies that Curt writes now worked way better in context of the rootsy Snow, and in fact my favorite song is the only that comes closest to that approach. One underused and underrated skill that Cris Kirkwood brought to the band was his banjo playing, and "Tiny Kingdom" employs his 'guit-jo' to great effect, giving the album a little of the twang it's badly missing, among other things.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The City Paper's biggest issue of the year, Best Of Baltimore 2007, is out this week, and I wrote more than twice as many blurbs than either previous year that I contributed to the issue (that was one rough deadline week, believe me). The blurbs I wrote and awards I had a hand in deciding are as follows:

Best Band Web Site: Karmella's Game
Best Singer/Songwriter: Lizz King
Best Male MC: Skarr Akbar
Best Female MC: Jade Fox
Best Hip-Hop DJ: DJ Vicious V
Best Club DJ: KW Griff
Best Club Music Producer: King Tutt
Best Beatmaker: One Up Entertainment
Best Summer Jam: "Chicken Box" by Silohette (which I posted recently)
Best Posse Cut: "I'm So Fly" Remix by Skarr Akbar featuring Bossman, D.O.G., Barnes, A-maz-on, Heavy Gold, and SK (another one I've posted)
Best Doomed Major Label Contract: A-maz-on
Best Music Radio Show: 92Q's Rap Attack
Best Place To Hear Hip-Hop: The (New Turntable Club)
Best New Club: Lo-Fi Social Club
Best Karaoke: Hip-Hop Karaoke at Latin Palace

I haven't had a chance to read through the rest of the issue yet, but obviously, you should pick up a copy for yourself or at least browse all over the site for all the interesting and right on and totally wrong awards I had nothing to do with. The party is on Thursday night and I've tried to contact every winner whose category I wrote to make sure they get their invitations, but there are still a couple of people that we never got an address to mail them to. If any of them still need ad invite, e-mail me ASAP and I'll let you know who to call. Congrats to everyone who won, hopefully I'll see you there.

(cover image by Kevin Sherry)

Monday, September 17, 2007
Swizz Beatz f/ Drag-On - "Bust Ya Gunz" (mp3)

Sometimes I feel like my great crusade as a critic right now is to rage against the incredible shrinking rap album. For a decade everyone bitched about how they were getting too long, that bloated 75-minute albums half-full of skits were killing hip hop. And if the trend had started reversing itself back in the 90's, sure, we might have ended up with a few more Illmatics, but it didn't start until about 2 years ago, spearheaded in large part by Jay-Z's leadership at Def Jam. And by that point, the mixtape market had saturated to the point that every artist put out dozens of tracks every year regardless of whether they dropped an album, and making albums shorter and even less comprehensive of the artist's output is, in my opinion, some bullshit. If anything, the labels should be putting out as much music as possible to keep up with the black market, slapping those promotional mixtapes on as limited edition bonus discs and everything.

Instead, we get shit like One Man Band Man, an album from a guy who's produced and/or appeared on dozens of hits in the past year or, and yet is itself a paltry 38 minutes: 10 songs, plus a remix and an inexplicably pointless voicemail message from Snoop Dogg. Swizz might be a bad example, since he's just barely a rapper and probably the kind of person that people would expect a short, fun album from. But this is just kind of insultingly slight, especially considering that he farmed out most of the beats to other producers, and makes me wonder if he just wasn't willing to use too many beats he could be selling to rappers for six figures and throw them into an album he might not even recoup on. My ideal Swizz album would probably involve a bunch of crazy 6-minute tracks full of circular chants and dance instructions like "Get Me Bodied," along with a dozen more 2-minute bursts of energy like "It's Me, Bitches." Considering the guy's work ethic and how many songs he'll make in a day, it seems kind of shitty to push back an album for half a year and then drop something that he could've put together in a long weekend.

I will say that Swizz at least has great taste in beats, and most of the ones he picks are so consistent with his own aesthetic that you have to check the liner notes to distinguish them from his own beats. I've been thinking lately about how this year might be the point where producers, and specifically producer/rapper/auteurs, have officially started to overpower mere MCs in at least music industry juice. Look at that Forbes "hip hop cash kings" list, where more than half of the top 10 were guys known primarily as producers, or the VMA's last week, where the three hip hop artists who were treated like royalty were Kanye and Timbaland (who have two of the biggest albums of the year) and Dr. Dre (who would have one of the biggest albums of the year if he ever dropped it). Swizz isn't quite in that league, and I don't know if he'll ever be, but he came back bigger than anyone ever expected, and I'm sure as hell more into his album than Shock Value.

The album's best non-single is one of those outsourced beats, by Needlz, and in fact "Bust Ya Gunz" might be one of my favorite beats of the year. Swizz brings out Drag-On, and it's kind of admirable that he seems committed to spreading his current midas touch around to every RR artist he worked with back in the day, whether or not their careers are beyond saving. Drag-On sounds a little different than he used to, but more significantly, he's decided to start pronouncing the "dash" in his name, which we learn when he and Swizz say it 4 times in "Bust Ya Gunz," the first three "Drag Dash"es all in the space of 8 seconds. In a weird way, Swizz does come off humble and self-deprecating enough that maybe after all the artists he's worked with he actually would get geeked out enough about getting a call from Snoop to play it for people or put it on his album. On "Bust Ya Gunz" when he says "you don't know me but Kanye know my name/ Timbo know my name/ Pharrell know my name/ Scottie know my name," I was like wow, does he really think he's not just less famous than Scott Storch, but so much so that he has to namedrop him as a producer he knows? Granted, I was surprised to see how well Storch does in a side by side comparison in Google Trends, but still, Swizz might be selling himself short.

Saturday, September 15, 2007
So I finally realized after a few months of contributing to the Singles Jukebox and posting about it here that I can link straight to entries I've blurbed, but fuck it, I'll still pick out and list my scores here:

Nicole Scherzinger - Super Villain [6/6.2]
Fantasia - Only One U [6/4.25]
Swizz Beatz ft. Chris Martin - Part of the Plan [4/4]
Tiffany Evans ft. Ciara - Promise Ring [4/6.25]
Serj Tankian - The Unthinking Majority [6/4.25]
Kanye West ft. Lil Wayne - Barry Bonds [6/5.75]
The Hives - Tick, Tick, Boom [4/4.75]
Madonna - The Beat Goes On [3/4.17]
Ne-Yo - Can We Chill [3/5.25]
Rihanna ft. Ne-Yo - Hate That I Love You [2/5.86]
Dude ‘N Nem - Watch My Feet [5/5.75]
Kinfolk Kia Shine - W.O.W. [2/4.25]
Jordin Sparks – Tattoo [7/6.33]
Blaqk Audio - Stiff Kittens [2/4.13]
Pitbull ft. Trina - Go Girl [1/2.71]
Disturbing Tha Peace - Celebrity Chick [2/4.75]
Gwen Stefani - Early Winter [7/7]

Netflix Diary

Thursday, September 13, 2007
1. Thumbsucker
My reasons for renting this were completely shallow and in no way led me to expect a particularly good movie (namely, that it was directed by the bassist of a 90's alt-rock supergroup whose album I was really into when I was 14, and that one of the hot blondes from Man Of The House was in it as an even hotter brunette). And I enjoyed it somewhat, mainly due to more seasoned cast members like the always-good Tilda Swinton and the better-than-usual Keanu Reeves, but mostly it reminded me why I tend to avoid coming of age indie movies.

2. Stranger Than Fiction
This had pretty negative buzz all around, which I thought must be a bad sign since the cast and premise were decent and crowd-pleasing enough, but I still wanted to see it for myself to make sure. And hey, it was perfectly alright, and a much better use of Will Ferrell's need to branch out and demonstrate 'range' than, say, Melinda & Melinda. I still don't like Maggie Gyllenballs, though.

3. Hostel
I liked Cabin Fever, so I had moderately high hopes for this, and wanted to rent it before the sequel comes out. I gotta say I was pretty underwhelmed, though. No real surprises or even much in the way of gore or shock, and I didn't even read any spoilers beforehand. I never really felt scared for any of the characters or cared who lived or died, and it didn't get to me in any visceral way like, say, Saw did. I'm starting to really like this guy, though, after his small roles in this and Cellular, he's kind of Piven-esque.

4. Rabbit-Proof Fence
I remember a friend raving about this when it first came out, so I was vaguely game when J.G. put this on the queue. I really don't seek out these kinds of bleak, true-stories-of-global-atrocities type movies, partly because they're usually more interesting and emotionally affecting than they are well made, this being no exception. I mean, it's kind of an amazing story and they do help you understand the historical context and gravity of the situation, but it also makes me wish I just read a book (or at least a Wikipedia entry) on the subject instead. I should give the movie credit for at least leading me to want to read up on things like this, though.

The Keytar: Not Funny Anymore

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A few years back, it broke my heart a little to watch the cowbell, a perfectly good auxillary percussion instrument, become an oft-quoted punchline from a funny-but-not-that-funny SNL sketch. For a while there, "more cowbell" was threatening to replace requests of "Freebird" as the inane call of the concertgoer who thinks he's more clever than he actually is. It even kind of sullied a perfectly good cult-rock band and their biggest classic rock radio staple in the process.

I don't feel quite the same sympathy for the recent irony overkill being showered on the keytar -- it's kind of a goofy half-breed instrument by design, right down to the silly portmanteau name. Still, whatever practical application the instrument had to begin with (and given the fact that keyboards can be made much lighter now than during the Keytar's 80's heyday, there's probably plenty), it's now little more than a punchline, and it's quickly becoming one that's too played out to be funny. I remember having my mind blown watching Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 1995 when John Tesh came out with a keytar and ripped up a Black Sabbath cover with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa. It was completely unexpected and hilarious, partly because Tesh is someone who'd been playing a keytar with a straight face for years at that point. The last couple years, though, have seen hacks of the comedy world and the music world alike run the whole keytar thing into the ground.

There was Borat, of course, but there was also Hellogoodbye's "Here (In Your Arms)", a video completely drenched in late 80's/early 90's signifiers made by a band who's probably too young to even remember the era firsthand. Further proving that a trend is only officially dead once the emo bands have gotten ahold of it, Cobra Starship, who hold the extremely competitive title of the worst band on Decaydance, not only have a keytar player in the band, but give smirky interviews about their "dedication to the keytar."

Last week, Keytar-mania reached critical mass on two consecutive nights of premium cable programming. Sunday was the first season finale of "Flight of the Conchords," an HBO sitcom about a satirical folk rock duo that isn't "Tenacious D." I initially chalked up my inability to understand the show's appeal to perhaps the fact that the New Zealanders were trading in some dry form of native humor that I just wasn't accustomed to. But the more crappy American stand-ups like Arj Barker turned up in guest slots, the more I realized that they're basically dealing in the same so-dry-it-chafes humor that U.S. single-camera sitcoms have been doing to death for the past few years (much in the same way Ricky Gervais increasingly feels more like Larry David redux than some shining example of "British humor"). I'd been giving the show a chance on and off throughout the summer, but this last episode pretty much clinched that I wouldn't be bothering with the second season, partly because of a terribly unfunny plotline featuring Demetri Martin and Todd Barry (mediocre U.S. comics ahoy!) as a keytar/bongos duo.

The next night, HBO aired Justin Timberlake's Memorial Day concert special, which, besides being an incredibly boring spectacle of the singer's self-love (seriously, TWO AND A HALF HOURS? You have two albums, dude, and the whole point of doing a TV concert special should be to edit out the long boring stretches between songs), featured three keytars at one point, proving once again that the guy will pretty much do anything to evoke 80's R&B (instead of, say, 90's boy bands), and is still biting Prince so hard that he must have to bleach the purple off of his teeth. Hopefully, keytar-mania has finally reached critical mass, and we can leave the damn thing to people who really, sincerely just want to play a synthesizer with a shoulder strap. But I'm guessing that as with anything, American pop culture won't be able to get enough of it until it chokes on it, and there's probably already a Will Ferrell-as-a-keytar-player movie on the development fast track (I just googled to make sure that hasn't actually happened already, and it turns out there's an outtake on the Blades of Glory DVD of him playing keytar -- fuck!).

Sunday, September 09, 2007
The following is an e-mail exchange that Dan Weiss and I had this past week, kind of picking up from our earlier conversation about the new Travis Morrison album and touching on our differing attitudes about number/letter ratings in record reviews and a lot of other stuff. It's all extremely nerdy, and probably a bit inside baseball for anyone who isn't a music critic, so you might wanna skip it, but I thought both of us articulated some ideas that were interesting enough to share:

Dan: I didn't realize you liked All Y'All nearly enough for Top 10, so either it grew on you real hard or I missed something from your post. Good list, though, I'm liking Graduation, Epiphany and One Man Band Man a lot myself.
Al: Haha, well to be honest, dude, I think you and I just have vastly different ways of grading records as good or bad, at least judging from your post that implied that you've heard at least 25 A+/A/A- albums so far this year. I think I'd put maybe 3 or 4 albums from 2007 in that range (and not even necessarily my top 4, if that makes any sense), and that's if I'm feeling generous. But then, I'm a grump and kind of stingy as far as ratings go anyway: I gave exactly one 8.0 out of my thirty-something Pitchfork reviews, and nothing higher than a B+ out of at least twice as many Stylus reviews. I don't really like to slap numbers/grades on records to begin with, but when I have to, I tend to do so on a steep curve, just because I think giving out high scores too easily belittles whatever gravity that score carries, y'know? I don't know what All Y'All is yet, it could be a B or a high C or an 8 or a low 6 or something, but it's definitely lower-reaches-of-top-10 as far as this year goes right now, and will probably end up lower-reaches-of-top-20 unless I really start to love it or I hear a whole lot of much better stuff soon.
Dan: I got you. I'm more liberal with grading, but I usually assume most people's Top 10s (I know, I know, this isn't year's end yet) are at least A-. Not many people do this, but I use B+ as the benchmark and consider anything B to below as a failure in some respect. To me, repeated listens are more important than the why. Like, if someone twists my arm on a record and eventually I concede it's a B, but never play it again, does it really have more value than a C- or D+ I'll never play again?

I generally A- anything I get to a ninth or tenth listen of at all, unless it's for research or it's a majorly "important" or acclaimed record I'm really trying to understand. I give a B+ to anything I play that still annoys me in too many places, but A- are generally records I like start-to-finish, or at least records with few annoyances that have turned to mere quirks for me as I've grown accustomed to them. I give an A to things that I'm still listening to long after I have to be, and those usually make up my top 10.

Al: Yeah, I guess that's kind of Christgau's philosophy, anything lower than an A is a failure, right? Maybe I'm the one whose perspective is really warped, because I kinda feel like a B or C can be a record that I really enjoy, but is fundamentally flawed on some level, or can't be enjoyed all the way through. Like, a mediocre album with a great single or a couple great standout tracks could be a C, or say, something that's really derivative or similiar to an artist's earlier works but enjoyable all the same. I agree that repeat listens/replay value is paramount, but there's got to be something more to it, or I'd be able to rate everything based on iTunes play counts.

Also, I feel like like calling something that isn't a masterpiece or consistently listenable or a A/B+/8.5 a "failure" is, in its own way, kind of unnecessarily harsh. I like minor works, I like finding the more elusive pleasures of an artist's catalog from before or after their inarguable peak. I like realizing that the 10th-most famous band or rapper from their scene is actually my favorite even though it's pretty obvious why those 9 other acts ended up more successful and revered. That's the kind of stuff I live for, and not just for the thrill of a surprising obscurity. I'd rather have a hundred records to listen to that are 'merely' good than a handful of great ones, y'know?

Dan: If you read my shit enough, you know I'm Christgau's bitch, so yeah. You make an excellent point about the more-good-records versus few-great-ones thing. It's just that those are the records I consider all B+s...1/3 really good songs, the rest merely good or listenable, maybe a few duds. I'd say most records released every year are B+ (good) or B (competent but for some reason unremarkable). I'm not one for obscurities either; but I like a lot of between-the-cracks major/minor records because I think it's fascinating to watch bands transition into uncomfortable territory and often wrings suprising stuff out of them. Most of my favorite albums this year are pop masterpieces in someone else's clothing: Against Me, Miranda Lambert, Rilo Kiley and Apples in Stereo. I didn't mean like "failure" failure (yeah, it is a bit harsh sounding), just that, the worst thing a band could probably receive is a nice rating that doesn't invoke a lot of passion in one direction or another. Given, plenty of bands are down the middle and deserve to be graded as such. But it's harder to comment on those at all so I'm probably just biased towards the records I can write 300 words on.
Al: Yeah, I'd say you're right that most records are B's (or maybe high C's), unless you're gonna include even the smallest runs of CD-r releases, at which point I think the average starts to drop due to the sheer volume. I think part of my distaste for rating records, and writing for publications that run ratings with reviews, is that the numbers in and of themselves aren't interesting. Like I said, I never gave anything on Stylus higher than a B, and I just gave an overwhelming number of B's out, especially after they started giving ratings based on the review instead of letting the reviewer decide it, which I think was especially bad for me because I do a lot of measured "but" and "however" hedging that makes even records that I think are A's or C's come out sounding like B's. It makes a huge range of different sounds seem like they're all in one tidy category.

I've heard before the argument that a record that gets a middling review is somehow worse than one that gets a really negative review, but I just don't buy it. But again, that might be just my bias because, as I said before, I'm not a fan of stunt-rating moves like giving a goose egg to disappointing or befuddling records like Travistan. Average records make the world go round and, pretty often, they're what people who make great, inspired music end up with when they just don't know how to record/produce it well yet or let circumstancial shit get in the way. I feel more passionate about some flawed but likeable non-masterpieces than I do about just about anything that I hate or think is more or less worthless.

In My Stereo

Friday, September 07, 2007
The Mean - Introducing The Mean
Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick
Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott - Da Real World
Lil Kim - Naked Truth
Ray Cash - Cash On Delivery
The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers
Kix - Midnite Dynamite
DJ Tigga - It's Not A Fucking Game Vol. 21
The Tao of Slick presents Jazz Hall: The Epitome Of Epiphany
Bossman - End Of Discussion / Dollars - The Overdose

Monday, September 03, 2007
So when I wrote about "Last Comic Standing" a couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I'd only seen the audition episodes and wasn't caught up on who the remaining contestants were. So when I finally tuned into a new episode a few days later, I was shocked to realize that I actually kinda know one of the finalists, Amy Schumer (some clips of her on the show here and here). Right now she's one of the final four comics left, and she's been the only woman on the show for a few weeks now, and she's pretty funny. I can't say I know her well, but, well, she was once actually my co-star.

Cabbage Head, an 18-minute short film directed by my friend Mike Bartolomeo, was the first acting performance of Al Shipley (and probably the last, especially since I never got a callback about being an extra in the last episode of "The Wire"). Mike was my roommate at the time and it was his senior film project at Towson University, and we spent the first few weeks of 2003 during Winter break shooting it with a few friends and film department people he knew. I helped fund production and did some small odd jobs, but I was never going to actually be in it until the actor Mike had cast pulled out a few weeks before shooting. It was kind of an everyman role, so it wasn't too much of a stretch for me to play a college student who happened to have the same clothes, car, and apartment as me, whose name was Drew instead of Al. But it was still kind of a fun challenge, and I tried to play it fairly natural, with some comic touches. Most of the rest of the cast were actors from Towson's theater and film departments, including Amy, who kind of played my love interest in the movie. Mike and I were reminiscing about those times recently when we learned about Amy's newfound fame, and I suggested that he put the movie up on YouTube, and it turned out he already had, last year:

Cabbage Head (part 1)
Cabbage Head (part 2)

I don't really know how to describe the movie, other than that it's a sci-fi/horror/romantic comedy. I'm pretty proud of it, though. It won an award at a Towson student film screening, I think it tied 2nd place for the narrative category, and it's gotten a good response most of the times it's been played for an audience. I don't entirely know where Mike got the inspiration for it, although it definitely has nothing to do with the Kids In The Hall "cabbage head" character. Personally, I always thought of it as something of an Eraserhead homage (note my Jack Nance poster in the penultimate scene). Amy definitely had a good sense of humor, but I didn't even have any idea that she was a comic, although Mike says he knew that she'd been doing some stand-up last time he talked to her years ago. But it's pretty cool that she's doing so well on "Last Comic Standing" and I'm definitely going to be watching every Wednesday that she stays on the show and root for her.

Saturday, September 01, 2007
Kanye West - "The Glory" (mp3)

Despite the fact that his two previous albums were pretty much my favorite releases of the years they came out, and I'd been following him as a producer and copping all his mixtapes well before that, my expectations weren't very high for Graduation. That mostly came down to the fact that I hadn't really been impressed by much of his outside productions and guest verses in the past 2 years, and that I really disliked "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Stronger." But I still had confidence that he'd at least make an above average album, and easily a better one than Curtis. That this album has quickly exceeded those modest expectations doesn't say much, but I'm happy with it so far.

Still, the things that I like are still full of small annoyances. The "Kid Charlemagne" sample on "Champion" is dope, but those synths smeared all over it kinda spoil it for me (which means my favorite Steely Dan rap sample is still Freeway and Joe Budden over a "Royal Scam" loop on the Ice City album). Kanye's comparison of "I Wonder" to U2's "City Of Blinding Lights" was intriguing because I really liked that song, but it's probably Kanye's worst vocal/lyrical moment on the whole album, just a bad flow and bad idea in general. I like that it has an "Ambitionz Az A Ridah" kind of thing going on with the snare sound, though. And "Homecoming" isn't nearly as good as the pre-College Dropout mixtape track from which it takes all its lyrics, "Home."

But "Good Life" totally lives up to what I'd hoped it would be, based on the fact that it's Kanye and T-Pain, over a "P.Y.T." sample co-produced by Kanye, Jon Brion and DJ Toomp. That's practically a combination made up in a lab for the expressed purpose of me loving it, and it actually works. I am getting a little tired of that megaphone-type vocal filter Kanye uses on all his uptempo songs since "Touch The Sky," though. My favorite song that isn't and probably won't be a single, though (and I really don't hear any obvious singles besides the three that have already been decided), is "The Glory," which is really almost a throwback to his early solo material: the chipmunk vox sample, the nice relaxed midtempo, all that violin (the return of Miri Ben-Ari, I presume?). "Big Brother" is kind of amazing in its own way, but "The Glory" is the one that I'm really enjoying at the moment.