Reading Diary (33 1/3 Edition)

Sunday, January 29, 2012
a) You're Living All Over Me by Nick Attfield
It'd been a while since the last time I read these 33 1/3 books regularly, but some new ones I was interested have been published lately, and I got one of them as a Christmas gift (thanks, John!). Sometimes it's harder to read the volumes in this series that are about albums that are really important to you and set aside expectations, and I love You're Living All Over Me and occasionally worried that I was judging the album harshly because of that. But honestly I felt like this book had some really interesting insights and stories about the band's history and songwriting (never really thought about the linear structure of a lot of these songs and totally have a new appreciation for them now that Attfield has pointed that out), but the overall tone and the way the guy had to kind of frame every section and point in a self-conscious meta way got a bit wearying.

b) Radio City by Bruce Eaton
I was apprehensive about this book because while I like Big Star and Radio City is my favorite of their albums, I kind of feel like the worship of this band and the mythology around them have become deeply dull cliches of rock writing. So I was pleasantly surprised that this turned out to be an incredibly dense and illuminating account of both how the band and this album came together and how they had the unusual career arc they had, told by seemingly the best suited guy in the world to tell that story.

c) Born In The U.S.A. by Geoffrey Himes
I've been reading Himes for ages and kind of run in the same Baltimore print media circles and write for some of the same paces, but don't know the guy at all. And I really enjoyed this book, a very passionate and well researched look at Springsteen as a songwriter that gets past the usual narratives and into some real granular detail and analysis. One thing Himes does lapse into, which I think is unfortunate and actually kind of rare among 33 1/3 authors, is the tendency to circle back to the assertion that the album at hand is the artist's best and why anyone who prefers a different album is just plain wrong, over and over (he even inserts a critical breakdown of Springsteen's discography at the end of the book, just to hammer that point in one more time). I don't think I'll ever prefer U.S.A. to Darkness or anything, but he certainly put the album in a new light for me, and really made me think hard about not just Springsteen's songwriting but the art of songwriting itself.

Friday, January 27, 2012

This week in the Baltimore City Paper I have a feature about the awesome band The Pilgrim, who are currently raising funds on Kickstarter to release their totally ass-kicking debut album on vinyl.

(photo by Jefferson Jackson Steele)

The 2011 Remix Report Card: The Year-End Wrap Up

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
I've been doing these Remix Report cards for five years now, and for a long time it felt like a lot to keep up with. But it seems like in 2011 the all-star remix trend in hip hop and R&B finally slowed down, or at least stabilized, that there was a lot less to cover last year: I didn't have to do an edition every single month to keep up, and after being able to do a 20 best and 20 worst list in every previous year, this year there weren't even 40 total, so I'm downsizing to top 10s.

The Top 10:
1. "I'm A Boss (Remix)" by Meek Mill featuring T.I., Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Birdman, Swizz Beatz and DJ Khaled
2. "Till The World Ends (Remix)" by Britney Spears featuring Nicki Minaj & Ke$ha
3. "Oh My (Remix)" by DJ Drama featuring Trey Songz, 2 Chainz and Big Sean
4. "Niggas In Paris (Remix)" by Jay-Z and Kanye West featuring T.I.
5. "Motivation (Remix)" by Kelly Rowland featuring Busta Rhymes, Trey Songz and Fabolous
6. "Black & Yellow (G-Mix)" by Wiz Khalifa featuring Snoop Dogg, Juicy J and T-Pain
7. "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) (Remix)" by Katy Perry featuring Missy Elliott
8. "Stay (Remix)" by Tyrese featuring Rick Ross and Faith Evans
9. "Shot Caller (Remix)" by French Montana featuring Diddy and Rick Ross
10. "All Of The Lights (Remix)" by Kanye West featuring Lil Wayne, Big Sean & Drake

The Bottom 10:
1. "Moves Like Jagger (Remix)" by featuring Mac Miller
2. "S&M (Remix)" by Rihanna featuring Britney Spears
3. "Racks (Remix)" by YC featuring Bun B, CyHi Da Prynce, Young Jeezy, B.o.B, Big Sean, Cory Gunz, Cory Mo, Nelly, Trae Tha Truth, Wacka Flocka Flame, Wale, Wiz Khalifa and Yo Gotti
4. "The One That Got Away (Remix)" by Katy Perry featuring B.o.B
5. "Tony Montana (Remix)" by Future featuring Drake
6. "Welcome To My Hood (Remix)" by DJ Khaled featuring Ludacris, T-Pain, Busta Rhymes, Mavado, Twista, Birdman, Ace Hood, Fat Joe, Jadakiss, Bun B, Game & Waka Flocka Flame
7. "Wet (G-Mix)" by Snoop Dogg featuring Jim Jones and Shawty Lo
8. "Party (Remix)" by Beyonce featuring J. Cole
9. "Blow (Remix)" by Ke$ha featuring B.o.B
10. "Body 2 Body (Remix)" by Ace Hood featuring Rick Ross, Wale, Chris Brown and DJ Khaled

A quick note: I'm still sticking to my tradition of only including remixes that were released after a song's chart success, not remixes that were also the song's best known single release, otherwise the Nicki Minaj version of Big Sean's "Dance" would be on the best list and Katy Perry's version of "E.T." with Kanye would be on the worst list ("Tony Montana" is I suppose kind of borderline).

On Beauty Pill's Immersive Ideal

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

About six months ago, I interviewed the Washington, D.C. band Beauty Pill in a theater in the Arlington, Virginia museum/gallery Artisphere where they were recording their next album, as part of an exhibit called Immersive Ideal. On Sunday, I went back to Artisphere for the second phase of the installation, in which you listen to the album in the room in which it was recorded, in gorgeous surround sound, while manipulating three projection screens of photos from the recording sessions (one of which is framed by the same 'control room window' rectangle seen in the above picture of bandleader Chad Clark that I snapped during the July interview).

There is probably no other album I've anticipated more the past few years than the new Beauty Pill, although of course the long wait (almost 8 years since the band's last album, over 5 since the last new song surfaced online) factors into that, as it inevitably does in matters of anticipation. But a lot of that is because I'd long thought Chad Clark was really on the cusp of some really great and fascinating things, both musically and lyrically, that I wanted so much to see realized. And what I heard on Sunday was very close to what I'd hoped for, as well as many other things I didn't expect at all.

The exhibit was open for less than 2 hours on the final day of the installation, and I stayed there as long as I could, listening to the whole cycle on display (7 songs totaling under 40 minutes) three times. Clark has said the band plan on releasing two full albums this year, and that about 20 songs were worked on in the Artisphere sessions. It'd been mentioned on Twitter that "Ann The Word," the song that had been released on the band's MySpace in demo form in 2006 and effectively marks the beginning of the current era of Beauty Pill, was in the Immersive Ideal rotation, but I didn't hear it on Sunday. I don't know if what I did hear is the first album or a smattering from both albums or something else entirely. I don't even know what to call it -- I'll refer to the collection of songs I heard on Sunday as Immersive Ideal since Drew Doucette told me in July that that was one of the potential album titles and they've given it no other name since then, but who knows, really. Whatever it was I heard, I can't wait to own it and play it anytime I want, even if it will never sound as ridiculous and beautiful as it did in surround sound that day. If what I heard is an album, it'd certainly be a very early candidate for my favorite album of 2012. The fact that my trip to hear to the album ended up with lots of complications* just made the whole thing feel more like a pilgrimage, the listening experience being an island of calm in a stressful day.

The first song on the album is "Afrikaner Barista," which was released online a few days ago, before the end of the installation, making it only the second new song Beauty Pill have released to the public since 2004. Since I knew I was going to hear the whole album soon, I resisted listening to the MP3 until afterward. Reaction to the song on the internet has been appropriately enthusiastic, but let me just say this: you really have no idea how good this stuff sounded in that room in Artisphere, sitting in the middle of four towering speakers. It's quite good on stereo headphones, the song itself and the general texture of the production come through, but it's just not so amazingly alive (the Soundcloud page amusingly and fittingly lists songwriting credits as: song (charcoal sketch) by chad clark, music (mural) by beauty pill). Sitting there, it occurred to me how absurd it is that most of us only get a surround sound experience like that when watching an action movie in a theater (or a rich friend's living room or whatever), very rarely is that technology actually used to listen to music. That made it all the more exhilarating to hear not just any music at all that way but a new album, by a relatively unknown band that ordinarily would never get the opportunity to present or even hear their music in that way. Apparently there's talk now of taking the surround sound presentation of the songs to other cities, which if that happens I would of course heartily recommend anyone checking out, regardless of whether you're familiar with the band or not.

"Afrikaner Barista" opens with the sound of a spinning metal bowl, whirring for a moment and then snapping into a crisp kick/snare beat, which is soon joined by a secondary drum pattern, and soon a swarm of melodic textures, many of them warped and bent, darting in and out of view. This sets the stage pretty well for the dominant sonic signatures of the album: fluttering backmasked guitar, multiple drummers locking into playful polyrhtyms (or Devin Ocampo surrounding a thumping loop with jazzy accents), and a water bowl that once belonged to Chad Clark's late dog Lucy, who inspired the song "Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed." That was the song Beauty Pill was working on the day I visited them in the studio, and I actually didn't recognize it right away on Sunday, since so much had been added to the skeleton (Clark's loop with Devin Ocampo and Basla Andolsun playing guitar and bass over it) that I'd heard six months earlier. "Dog" is also the only song I heard in at Immersive Ideal featuring lead vocals by Jean Cook, the member of Beauty Pill who joined after their previous album and sang lead on "Ann The Word"; all other lead vocals were by Clark.

One song called "Drapetomania!" featured no vocals at all in its incarnation at Immersive Ideal -- it's the song the band talked about mutating into a cartoonish "Fat Albert" theme song-like variation in my Splice Today interview, which apparently will be released in its original arrangement with lyrics on one of the albums. And the only reason I knew which song it was, honestly, was because Clark had mentioned on Twitter that it'd be played as an instrumental in Immersive Ideal -- I didn't recognize it as the absurd, strangely funky thing he'd described in the interview because it wasn't actually any more surreal or unusual than most of the other songs it was surrounded by. Try to imagine the creative zone that would lead a person to single out a song as totally crazy without even realizing how crazy everything else they've made sounds by the same standard. So much of the charm of these songs is in how the more audacious arranging or producing ends up too visceral to be inaccessible, too inviting to be indulgent, too fun to be pretentious.

I first heard Chad Clark’s previous band, Smart Went Crazy, in 1998, on a school trip when a friend who apparently knew a member of the band (I still have no idea who) lent me their first album, 1995’s Now We’re Even. I returned home, excited to learn more about this band and hear more, but after searching around on the internet (which was of course a bit harder to do usefully back then than it is now), I learned that they had just broken up, having only recorded one other album, 1997’s Con Art. Like any short-lived band, especially one that disbanded within months of their crowning achievement, Smart Went Crazy left behind a lot of curious new fans who never got to see the band live, including me, which translated to a large amount of free-floating anticipation from whatever would come next eventually, which turned out to be Beauty Pill.

Beauty Pill debuted in 2001 with The Cigarette Girl From The Future, the kind of EP that announces a band to the world with a tantalizingly small amount of music, and none more followed for over two years. First, another EP, 2003's You Are Right To Be Afraid, followed, and then finally the full-length album, 2004's The Unsustainable Lifestyle. Some of the initial interest around the band seemed to have dissipated by the time of those later releases, and these days Chad Clark himself seems to speak of Cigarette Girl as the release he's most proud of, implicitly agreeing with the consensus that perhaps The Unsustainable Lifestyle was a disappointment or a creative failure on some level. But I really grew to love that album, as muted and difficult to get a handle on as it often is, over the last few years that it remained the band's most recent release, and came to see it as a huge step forward in Clark's development as a lyricist.

When you hear a contemporary musician's records in the order they were made in released, whether at the time or after the fact, I think you really get a deeper sense of their artistic progression, because your understanding of them keeps changing. On Now We're Even, Clark seemed like a clever, sarcastic guy who was good at writing vengeful 'sugar in your gas tank' breakup songs, with some occasional gestures toward more literary or impressionistic writing styles. On Con Art, that style intensified and became darker, still very much an angsty breakup record, but one with a lot more wit and intelligence than most of the ones being made by guitar bands in the '90s.

Cigarette Girl presented, along with a sleeker, more groove-driven sound, a slightly more detached and conceptual approach to lyrics for Clark, while maintaining a consistent thread in the overall tone and approach to humor and narrative, and introducing the female vocal foil as a key component of the Beauty Pill sound (Jean Cook is the third member of the band to operate as female vocalist). But it was on The Unsustainable Lifestyle that I really think Clark hit upon a rich vein, looking out into the world more, at drug mules and dictators and assassins and racists, in addition to the more commonplace children and lifeguards and whimsical or Satan as movie studio executive or fantastical cigarette girls from the future that also populated his songs. It really felt like this guy was looking at a much larger cross section of the world we live in, and with real empathy and humanity, in addition to gallows humor and clever lyrical conceits that still abounded, than any other songwriters you might think of as his contemporaries.

That playful and sarcastic but also very humane and soulful way of looking at the world is all over the Immersive Ideal songs, particularly "Steven And Tiwonge," which as Clark told me in our interview, is named for the real life gay couple in Malawi who were arrested and nearly imprisoned for 25 years simply as a consequence of their relationship. The song itself, though is a totally apolitical narrative that uses the situation as a jumping-off point to examine how the different opinions and reactions of two people have to be reconciled or grappled with when those two people are in love, especially then that love itself is being challenged or forced out of existence. Another song about an actor, or at least a metaphorical actor (the only song whose title I don't know) [EDIT: this song is called "For Pretend"], uses an unreliable narrator device to first try to make dark things seem lighter or more innocent to a child, before the whole thing just gets darker and more confusingly warped.

Chad Clark has also mastered one of my favorite lyrical techniques, which is to turn a phrase slightly, from one verse to the next or from one chorus to the next, so that each time it comes back it's in a different tense, or referring to a different thing or person, or means the opposite of what it meant the first time. At least once I wrote down a lyric I especially liked, only to realize the next time the song played that it was a subtle variation on an earlier line, which wouldn't be done justice if quoted out of context. "Near Miss Stories" and "Steven And Tiwonge," in particular, do this really well, as does the one song whose title I'm not sure of (the one about the actor) [EDIT: again, it's called "For Pretend"].

"Near Miss Stories," the only song to acknowledge Clark's life-threatening viral cardiomyopathy that temporarily sidelined the band a few years ago, literally only could have been written after the events that inspired it. But it also contains (probably unintentional) echoes of his Smart Went Crazy lyrics. The opening vignette about seeing a car driving haphazardly on the road immediately brought to mind Con Art's "A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce," while the phrase "you have to laugh," used to deflate tension in a song that contemplates death, goes back to Now We're Even's closing song, "Gold Star." He's always let little flashes of joy and humor and optimism peek through his more morbid lyrics, and here it feels more earned, more sincere than it ever has before.

Immersive Ideal is an album full of rubber and metal, things that bend and wobble and warp, not just in the texture of the manipulated samples and found sounds and instruments (called 'treatments' in Beauty Pill liner notes), but in the way the rhythms and melodies often seem to lurch in seasick cadences. The surround sound especially made it feel like a psychedelic experience, with the Hendrix-via-De La Soul production aesthetic letting all these little difficult-to-identify sounds wheedle around like curious little windup toys. It's a record that sometimes flirts with becoming danceable, but more often than not is content to nervously bump and clang around in a way that's somehow more compelling than repellent. I halfheartedly attempted to write down some notes while listening to the album, and during "Ain't No Jury In The World Gonna Convict You, Baby," I wrote down two words about what I found the most sonically exhilarating song of the whole set: "disorienting" and "favorite."

* Quickly the story of what happened on Sunday when I went to Arlington on Sunday: I drove around to a sidestreet near Artisphere, where I'd found street parking when I was there in July. No spots were open, but there was a parking garage with its doors open, no attendant or ticket-taking machine, and a sign that said "Free parking on Sundays." Tickled by my good luck, I drove right in and parked, and went to Artisphere. When I got back less than 2 hours later, the sign was gone and the garage was completely locked. After about an hour of frantically walked around the building, trying various service phones and trying to get some information about who owned the garage and how to contact them, I finally was told that the garage is kept open on Sunday mornings for a church group, and then closed up shortly after services, and that there was no contact info available for the group or whoever opens up the garage for them, so I'd have to just come back and get my car on Monday morning.

Complicating the above problem was the fact that I'd left my son's carseat in my car, with my wife at home with the baby in Maryland, nearly an hour away, so they wouldn't be able to come pick me up even if I'd asked them. After trying to reach the only people I knew in Arlington to see if I could crash there for the night, I finally gave up after two hours of wandering around in cold, windy January weather and took the Metro back to Maryland, calling my brother-in-law and asking him to pick me up at the Metro and take me home. Obviously, my wife was not thrilled about the predicament I'd gotten myself into, which had nixed some of our Sunday plans. On Monday morning, I got up at 5 a.m., called a cab to take me to the Metro, rode back to Arlington, walked into the garage (open this time but still unattended, strangely enough), and drove my car out without ever paying for parking or being ticketed or even asked how I got in there, and drove back to Maryland, gave my wife the carseat to take our son to school, and then drove further north to Baltimore for a full day of work. That I made this stupid mistake and had to suffer all these consequences in the course of going to hear Immersive Ideal, of course, doesn't make the album/installation at all responsible for my terrible day, it's completely blameless in the affair, but I definitely had dramatic feelings of "suffering for my love of music" that day.

Monday, January 23, 2012

I wrote about Baltimore rapper Caddy Da Don's new version of his single "Cookamonga" with Atlanta rapper Future for the City Paper Noise blog.

TV Diary

Sunday, January 22, 2012
a) "Smash"
My interest in this show stemmed initially from me continuing to just be agog at how ridiculously hot Katharine McPhee is and having thought it was just a tragedy every year since she was on "American Idol" that's passed without her being on TV regularly. But really I have a soft spot for musicals and this show may actually be better in execution than in its ambitious but slightly dodgy concept, since I managed to watch the pilot without thinking of goddamn "Glee" once.

b) "House of Lies"
The usual 'sexy' tripe from Showtime that isn't even particularly sexy, so far beneath everyone involved, especially Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell.

c) "Unsupervised"
The ads for this that FX was running for months and months made it look really unappetizing, but the first episode was actually pretty alright. None of the ads trumpted the actors doing the voices, so I didn't even realize until after watching it that Justin Long and (again!) Kristen Bell and Romany Malco are in it, didn't recognize their voices or anything. It kind of feels like "Beavis & Butthead" in that it depicts a certain type of hopeless teenage dirtbag with a rare amount of perceptive detail, although this show obviously has a little more pathos and realism than, well, "Beavis & Butthead" (and on the other hand isn't as funny).

d) "Napoleon Dynamite"
Seeing this worthless fucking movie done as a cartoon just makes me realize that "Beavis & Butthead" is actually the best thing this could possibly aspire to. Sad thing is it's not even the worst cartoon FOX has tried to shoehorn into the Groening/McFarlane block lately, though.

e) "Funny Or Die presents Billy On The Street"
The idea of a satirical 'man on the street' quiz show seems so dumb and threadbare but really this show is just hysterical and I've been watching it every single time it's on, Billy Eichner is insane.

f) "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!: A Royal Pain In The News"
My wife has become a serious NPR head in the last couple years and has gotten me into this show, so it was fun to see this TV version that the BBC aired as a year-end news review special over the holidays, if only to see what the people from the radio look like. They also did a BBC special version of the "Nerdist" podcast, which was a bit less interesting to me but I watched anyway.

g) "Excused"
It kind of bums me out that while every other mediocre 'sassy broad' standup comic out there seems to be getting network sitcoms, the very funny (and, well, very hot) Iliza Shlesinger who won "Last Comic Standing" a couple years ago is hosting a dating show on VH1. It is a pretty overtly comedic dating show, though, and Shlesinger gets a lot of room to improv -- really the best part of every episode is during the closing credits when they just show a bunch of outtakes of her riffing ridiculous insults about the contestants.

h) "Metal Evolution"
After "That Metal Show" came into its own and VH1 Classic had all the hype about their metal holiday, this mini-series really turned out depressingly bland and redundant with a lot of other stuff they aired.

i) "I Hate My Teenage Daughter"
It seems like at the beginning of the season there were a lot of sitcoms coming down the pike with kind of alluringly blunt titles -- "2 Broke Girls" didn't turn out too well and it'll be a while before we see "Don't Trust The Bitch In Apartment 23," but "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" is actually pretty good. Partly I just like the cast (the sister from "Pushing Daisies"! Cutty from "The Wire"!) but I also like the whole uncomfortable but inherently comedic premise and even if the execution is kind of straightforward and lowbrow there's some pretty good trad sitcom writing going on here.

j) "Work It"
I watched an episode of this cross-dressing sitcom just before it was canceled, because I knew it was gonna be canceled and it's kind of nice to feel like you're part of something that's probably going to be remembered as infamously stupid and wrong-headed for some time (although OK not that many people will really remember it even a year from now, possibly not even me).

k) "Last Man Standing"
Goes without saying that a new Tim Allen sitcom is just total garbage but he has a bunch of daughters on this show

l) "Man Up"
The only one of all of ABC's new misguided 'lol modern manhood' sitcoms that actually wasn't total shit, wasn't great or anything but the cast really worked well together and I kind of love Amanda Detmer.

m) "The Guy Code"
Another show full of moronic 'wisdom' about the culture of masculinity, this time in the form of VH1-style talking head bullshit. This is already apparently MTV2's highest rated original show ever, so look for them to run with this formula for a few years next.

n) "Once Upon A Time"
This show is starting to grow on me, even though the special effects are occasionally distractingly cheap-looking and the plot sometimes feels like it's working on more levels than I'm invested enough to bother figuring out, still pretty fun to watch and of course every woman on this show is really good looking.

o) "Homeland"
I wound up with pretty mixed feelings about this show's first season but it did more well than it did badly. I especially enjoyed how I thought they were going to move the pot forward very incrementally and just hint and what's going on (blame "Rubicon" for my expectations, I guess), and instead they just kept completely taking me off guard with how ruthlessly they'd propel things forward without hesitation, and took the story in some really interesting directions.

p) "Beyond Scared Straight"
I kind of randomly watched an episode of this reality show on A&E because they shot it at Jessup in Maryland, and it was interesting, but convicts shouting at teen delinquents is not the kind of thing I need to watch all the time.

q) "Face Off"
My wife is way more into this show than I am, but it is fun to see movie makeup pros compete, they make some pretty cool, creepy stuff.

r) "Shameless"
I forgot how low stakes this show can be in terms of offering any real compelling drama (and honestly it's not that funny, either), but right now I'm kind of enjoying how this sexy silly family show is kind of like the exact opposite of the shrill first world problem plotlines of "Parenthood" (which I also enjoy, but I'm just saying.

s) "Lost Girl"
Sorta 'new' Syfy show that it turns out has already been airing on Canada for a couple seasons, and is really kind of surprisingly good, in that the whole supernatural angle of the show isn't too cheesy or overly familiar, and the cast is all hot and/or likeable, good dialogue, etc., I'm kind of excited about this show.

t) "Hung"
I was always a little surprised this show made it to 3 seasons, so I can't act shocked that it finally got canceled, but man, they really left a lot of storylines unresolved, HBO should really give them like an hourlong wrap-up special. I liked the direction the show seemed to be headed in, too.

u) "Bored To Death"
Like "Hung," I'm not surprised it didn't last, and it was on a good roll, but I also kinda feel like it had done everything it could do already.

v) "Free Agents"
I decided to watch this Brit series after I enjoyed the short-lived American remake, but apparently the dialogue is very blue and BBC America noisily bleeps out curse words, so the whole thing quickly became kind of annoying and unsatisfying to watch, and I'm not sure I liked it as much as the NBC version anyway.

w) "The Adam Corrolla Project"
Sometimes I forget how entertaining Corrolla could be on "Loveline" back in the day but this goofy show about him getting together a bunch of friends to help him fix up a house is really a good showcase for him to just improvise and say a bunch of silly shit.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

This week the Village Voice ran the results of their annual Pazz & Jop music critics' poll, and I voted in it, as I have for the last 5 years or so (you can see my ballot here, although I kind of regard it as an abridged version of my full top 50 albums and top 50 singles of 2011). Last year, I wrote about the singles poll's decreasing crossover with the Billboard charts, and worked with Glenn McDonald to create the P&J&B database to illustrate that in detail. This year, I wrote about the singles poll, and the surprise of my #2 single, Beyonce's "Countdown," hitting #2 on the poll, in my latest Radio Hits One column for the Voice's Sound of the City blog.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On Splice Today I ran down a list of thirteen albums Lil Wayne probably won't release in 2012.

Monthly Report: December Singles

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

1. The Airborne Toxic Event - "Changing"
This is pretty old at this point but it took me so long to realize how much I liked this song that by the time I did I had already finished my 2011 singles list, which this otherwise would've definitely had been on. I barely even remember these guys' first big hit, which this sounds nothing like and is why I didn't even know who this song was by for so long, and my only knowledge of them is that they're one of those 'fake indie' radio bands that 'real indie' critics write savage takedowns of, which is probably a good thing. But man, this song is catchy as fuck.

2. Rihanna - "You Da One"
I continue to be confounded as "We Found Love" becomes not just another #1 Rihanna single but her longest running and perhaps her biggest hit since "Umbrella." But even more annoying than that stupid half-song with only one vocal melody is the fact that it's kind of steamrolled over its superior follow-up, which was probably released hot on its heels with the intention of both taking turns at #1 like "Only Girl" and "What's My Name?" had a year beforehand. Instead, this weirdly not terrible Dr. Luke foray into reggae pop is both one of my favorite Rihanna singles of recent vintage and by far one of her least successful, and they've already announced plans to move on and start working "Talk That Talk" as the next single.

3. Melanie Fiona - "4 AM"
After I fell in love with her voice last year with lush songs like "Gone And Never Coming Back" and "Fool For You," this cold, atmospheric track felt like not quite what I wanted to hear from Melanie Fiona and maybe even a jump onto Drake's muffled Canadian slow jam bandwagon. But this song is pretty dope, and that little drum'n'bass break that comes in for a few bars towards the end is a nice touch.

4. Bruno Mars - "It Will Rain"
As annoyingly ubiquitous as Bruno Mars is and as insipid as some of his songs are, I do think he's a pretty talented guy and he occasionally lands on a pretty undeniable tune (I still have a soft spot for "Nothin' On You"). I put up a good defense with this song for a while, especially since it's from a fucking Twilight soundtrack, but a couple times it's popped up on a local R&B station and I've realized that it really does work as an R&B song.

5. Jay-Z & Kanye West - "Gotta Have It"
I have no idea what the logic is behind the single choices for Watch The Throne, but I have to grudgingly respect it since "Niggas In Paris," as annoying as I think it is, was undeniably huge in ways I never would've predicted, and the follow-up is an even more surprising choice, while the songs that once seemed like obvious singles ("Lift Off," "That's My Bitch") languish as album tracks. In a way it's like a sequel to "Otis" and even comes directly after it on the album, except even shorter and more devoid of a typical chorus, which makes it all the more strange and enjoyable to hear on the radio. But the single most surprising thing about "Gotta Have It" is that it was produced by the Neptunes, which my brain still doesn't know how to process.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the latest installment of Radio Hits One, I look back on the year in mainstream rock and the preponderance of [blank] the [blank] bands (Foster The People, Cage The Elephant, Young The Giant), and consult Ask Billboard's Gary Trust on the exceptional extent to which AWOLNATION's "Sail" is a slow burning sleeper hit.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

I recommend listening to T-Pain's rEVOLVEr (or RevolveR or whatever asinine capitalization he ended up using) the same day as The Beatles' Revolver to get a good idea of just how unremarkable Pain's fourth album is, but listening to either of his first two albums, Rappa Ternt Sanga and Epiphany, would provide a suitable contrast too. Although my opinion of the guy never totally lined up with popular opinion (I always thought he was more talented as a songwriter and producer than just a guy who caught a lucky break with the AutoTune gimmick, and prefer a lot of his deep cuts to some of his biggest hits), but my decreasing interest in his music coincided with his commercial decline; his last couple albums sold 170 thousand the first week each, while rEVOLVEr only did about 34k. It's possible that T-Pain was never as famous as I thought he was; my wife, who's not a big R&B buff, saw the video for Flo Rida's "Low" today and said "who's the guy singing the chorus who sounds kind of like Nelly?"

T-Pain's flagging career was actually what revived my interest in his music, since I ended up writing a whole column about the six singles he released in advance of rEVOLVEr before one became a big enough hit to get the album a release date, and felt more curious to hear the album after that than I might've otherwise been. And while I wouldn't rate "5 O'Clock" up with the best songs of his peak period, it has turned out to be his biggest hit in years and, unfortunately, easily one of the best songs on a fairly uninspired album.

There are some decent songs on rEVOLVEr; "Default Picture" is one of the best slow jams T-Pain has constructed to date, and there's something kind of enjoyably surreal about a love song written to someone's Twitter avatar (especiall since since the person that wrote it is my Twitter avatar, kind of). But there's a lot of really bland stuff on here, even compared to Thr33 Ringz, which was a step down from his first two albums in quality anyway. The biggest disappointment, though, is that I was always an especially big fan of Nappy Boy Productions, and here T-Pain only did the beats for 5 songs, after producing every track on his first three albums, without any of the outside producers on rEVOLVEr doing much to help the album's quality or variety.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I wrote about a couple new DJ Class songs for the Baltimore City Paper's Noise blog.

Monthly Report: November Albums

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

1. Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu
I usually try to do these monthly reports in a timely fashion and wanted to do this one back in like early December, but then I got caught up in the year-end stuff and am just kinda doing this now for archival purposes. I already put Lulu in my top 10 for 2011, and that was admittedly kind of a rash decision, since it's such a long album released so late in the year that I'm still kind of digesting it. I stand by that decision, though: I genuinely enjoy this long, strange album and think that most of the people heaping "worst album ever" scorn on it were predisposed to say that before ever hearing it, if they even did hear it. As it happens, Lou Reed and Metallica both have kind of brittle, rigid aesthetics that work better together than they have a right too. "Brandenburg Gate" is such a perfect opener and "Iced Honey" and "Cheat On Me" are also favorites.

2. Javier Colon - Come Through For YOu
"The Voice" was a pretty great singing competition reality show, but the thing about the contestants being pretty uniformly good is that it was hard to muster a strong rooting interest in one singer over another. Javier Colon was always my default favorite, though, and I was happy he won. And I started to feel more and more sorry for him after writing this column about the celeb judges on "The Voice" and "Idol" getting more shine than the contestants, especially after "Moves Like Jagger" became one of the biggest songs of the year and Colon's post-"Voice" coronation album sank like a stone, actually debuting on the Billboard 200 lower than his previous major label album did in 2003. But what started as a sympathy listen ended up pretty rewarding, with the second half of the album picking up big time from the so-so first half. "OK, Here's The Truth" is a knockout song and "How Many People Can Say That" has some gorgeous vocal moments.

3. They Might Be Giants - Album Raises New And Troubling Questions
I already proclaimed Join Us my favorite TMBG album in over a decade, so it seemed like a good idea to check out the odds and ends digital album they released a few months later (especially since I preferred 2007's leftovers collection Cast Your Pod To The Wind to its parent album, The Else). This is definitely kind of silly and minor even by They Might Be Giants terms, but it's enjoyable more often than not, at least with quality originals like "Authenticity Trip" and great horn section live versions of early songs like "Boat of Car and "Mr. Me," not so much the webnerd in-joke tracks recorded for Homestar Runner and the Onion AV Club.

4. Yelawolf - Radioactive
Already talked about this a bit in the year-end list, it's by no means band but definitely frontloaded and kind of gently lets the air out of a lot of the things that made Trunk Muzik exciting. The fact that this album has a song that sounds exactly like "Aston Martin Music" is beyond depressing to me.

5. 2 Chainz - T.R.U. REALigion
This tape isn't as good as Codeine Cowboy but it's still pretty good, does a decent job of cementing 2 Chainz's basic goofball appeal and put him in the company of some bigger names but doesn't really feel like the leap forward career move that someone's first Gangsta Grillz tape is usually supposed to be.

Movie Diary

Monday, January 09, 2012
a) Cowboys & Aliens
I had somewhat high hopes for this as big loud, dumb fun, and while it wasn't bad, it just wasn't the John Favreau popcorn movie I was expecting. Part of that might be down to the fact that Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are the two craggiest, most stoic action stars you could ever ask for; there wasn't enough of a contrast for them do bounce of each other, and Sam Rockwell didn't do much to fill that role either. Some cool moments, though.

b) Ceremony
I feel like every single time I have tried to watch a random recent Uma Thurman movie in the last few years I have ended up actively irritated by it, so I didn't have high hopes for this, but it has a certain charmingly loose, rambling rhythm to it that made it much better than such a hoary crashing-a-wedding love triangle plot had a right to be. Lee Pace and Jake M. Johnson in particular filled out the ensemble well and made the movie kind of effortlessly funny. The movie even reminded me how bewitching Uma can be.

c) Peep World
I went into this thinking hey this might be really good, and very quickly began to hate every single thing about it. It's like every contemporary 'dysfunctional family of adult children' show or movie from The Royal Tenenbaums to "Arrested Development" mushed together with a plot that's like a meta riff on Running With Scissors and just 100% eye-rolling and insufferable.

d) Hall Pass
I was almost disappointed that this wasn't the total horndog schlockfest the trailers made it out to be, if only because it's not like anyone cares if a Farrelly Brothers movie secretly harbors a wholesome message about marriage and commitment that does more harm to the comedic value and overall plotting of the movie than whatever conceivable good it does for the world. The highlight was probably Richard Jenkins, who I didn't even recognize in the commercials.

e) Rubber
Totally ridiculous horror flick about a sentient and telekinetic tire who rolls around blowing people's heads up, was probably a little too tickled with its own premise (although how could it not be?) and had some annoying tics of direction and camera focus, but I still kind of enjoyed and admired how shamelessly batshit it was.

f) Due Date
It's kind of amazing how fast Zach Galiafinakis went from seeming slightly above dumb mainstream comedies to starring in some of the dumbest ones ever. This movie isn't quite as bad or as derivative of Trains, Planes & Automobiles as the trailers made it seem, but still pretty strained, and really putting Robert Downey Jr. in a comedy as the straight man is just a waste of resources.

g) My Soul To Take
A decent Wes Craven gorefest with a goofy concept and some really stupid ideas but also an okay cast and a few fun death scenes.

h) You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
It's amazing how every few months, without fail, I will watch a recent Woody Allen movie hoping for the best, and without fail, I will be amazed by how completely incompetent he has become at storytelling, dialogue, humor, symbolism, pretty much everything he was once great it.

i) Charlie St. Cloud
This was about as saccharine and silly as you'd expect and yet somehow not (I was reassured by an early scene between the brothers with talk of "rubbing one out" and "something corrosive in the shit" of geese), mostly I was just watching it for the hot chick, though.

j) Black Death
Very, very bleak medieval horror flick starring Sean Bean that my wife was watching, my son and I were playing with his train set so I don't remember much about it.

k) Please Give
Once again a good cast tricks me into watching another indie dramedy that epitomizes everything I hate about modern indie dramedies.

l) Howl's Moving Castle
My wife keeps watching these Hayao Miyazaki movies that keep confirming for me that I just do not get any anime, even the stuff that's supposed to be kind of respectable.

Friday, January 06, 2012

So I'm turning 30 today! And on Saturday night I'm going to be throwing a big party at one of my favorite Baltimore venues, The Windup Space, with a couple of my favorite Baltimore bands, Soul Cannon and The Water. Those you who are in Baltimore this weekend, whether you know me or the bands, you should really consider stopping by, it's only $5 to get in and we're gonna have a lot of fun. Doors open at 9, music starts at 10.

On a related note, I recently wrote PR copy for some friends that are helping out with the show -- the announcement of Mobtown Studios and the Windup Space's 2012 NOVO Festival, and the announcement of The Water's debut album Scandals And Animals, which is available to pre-order and hear a few songs from now, and will be out in a few weeks.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

On Tuesday night the Baltimore Sun sent me to Rams Head Live to cover an unusual event for the Midnight Sun blog, a 'Gridiron Sing Off' featuring several Baltimore Ravens players and hosted by Ray Rice. It was fun to be in the same room as a few members of the team during such an exciting season, and funny to see Vonta Leach singing "Achy Breaky Heart" and Ray Lewis rapping a few bars of "Hot In Herre."

(photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

The Top 10 Concerts I Saw in 2011

Monday, January 02, 2012
A year ago, I listed the top 25 shows I saw in 2010. I saw less than 20 shows total in 2011, which is a pretty huge drop off from when I was seeing 70 shows a year in '07 and '08, and that drop is due to a variety of personal and professional factors. Plus I've just gotten really good at flaking out even on shows I really wanted to see and/or told people I was going to. But I made up for the low quantity with quality, because here are 10 really awesome shows I saw this year, with links when I wrote about them:

10. The Dismemberment Plan @ The 9:30 Club. Jan 22nd
9. Jumpcuts @ Joe Squared, May 25th
8. The Songwriter Sessions with Cameron Blake, Sea Couch, Sine Jensen and Adam Trice @ The Golden West, Jan. 15th
7. Out Of Your Head Collective with Susan Alcorn, Mike Cerri, Ethan Snyder and Dustin Carlson @ The Windup Space, Jan. 25th
6. U2 @ M&T Bank Stadium, June 22nd
5. Big In Japan with Katrina Ford, the Water, Infinite Honey, and Avocado Happy Hour @ The Ottobar, Jan. 7
4. White Life and Flock of Dimes @ Soft House, May 5th
3. War On Women and Crimes @ The Charm City Art Space, Oct. 9th
2. Mike Watt & The Missingmen @ The Ottobar, April 1st
1. Steely Dan @ Merriweather Post Pavilion, Aug. 2nd

Honorable mentions to the Foo Fighters, Little Feat and the Nels Cline Singers, among others. One thing I noticed while looking over this list is that several of these shows involved people that are now helping me out with my 30th birthday concert coming up on January 7th, which is definitely not a coincidence. Hopefully I can put on a memorable show on Saturday myself. Come out if you can!