Archive for the 'Music' Category


sam amidon, “i see the sign”

The music world is replete with cross-genre cover songs and, as with most songs, some will work well, and most others will fall firmly flat. It’s even become a rather common practice in mainstream hip hop to cull from popular ’70’s and ’80’s rock or pop ballads. Typically this will involve a sample and a re-purposing of the original chorus for the new song’s hook (take Jay-Z’s recent “Young Forever,” a lousy song but a good example nonetheless).

And a number of acts have also covered hip hop songs. But whereas the hip hop artist keeps only the chorus and adds their own lyrics, the alternative artist will typically strip away all but the lyrics. This is where the hipster’s old reliable friend ‘irony’ comes into play. A track like Dynamite Hack‘s cover of Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood” transposes the raw lyrics of ghetto life by singing them softly over a few gentle guitar chords.

Here’s the problem: This is not a musical reinterpretation. They are not adding any of their own thoughts or ideas. This is not a commentary on the rapidly widening disconnect between white suburbia and inner-city slum life. It’s a comedy track. A joke. A shitty one at that; and one that straddles the line between cooky “hey-let’s-cover-a-rap-song” shenanigans and subversive racial insensitivity via a white rock band downplaying the plight of impoverished inner-city blacks by parodying a song which depicts said poverty.

Now clearly that wasn’t what Dynamite Hack was going for, they were just having a laugh and probably never expected the song to be a hit (and I realize that was a rather massive digression and certainly a round about way of opening a review for a folk album). But it’s a good example of the possible pitfalls facing Sam Amidon. His new album, I See the Sign, is composed primarily of covers of traditional folk songs, but also contains a number of soul and spiritual songs, and even an R. Kelly cover.

This is a dangerous thing, rarely is a cross-genre cover greeted in earnest– even if it isn’t meant as a comic reinterpretation (remember Alien Ant Farm’s take on “Smooth Criminal?”). But far from a silly remake, “Relief,” is an album highlight. Amidon takes to the song with the same genuine affection and respect that he brings to all his songs– not with tongue in cheek, but hat in hand. He reshapes it expertly, transforming R. Kelly’s bouncy, optimistic R&B into quiet, yet baroque, folk complete with banjo pickings, piano twinkles, fiddle twangs, cello swathes, just-audible horns, and flighty flute lilts– all accompanying Amidon’s smooth voice singing a slightly-modified version of Kelly’s original– removing a few verses (and allusions to God), and creating his own reverie on life and death and God by adding his own lyrics:

“I’m a long time traveling away from home,

I’m a long time traveling here below,

I’m a long time traveling to lay this body down.”

It’s a gorgeously crafted, and beautifully melancholic, take on the original, and certainly one of the year’s best songs.

The remainder of the album can never quite reach the same lofty heights, but comes close on a number of occasions. Opener “How Come That Blood,” with an equally elaborate arrangement and traditional Americana lyrics, is reminiscent of Bill Callahan’s recent work. And on “Way Go, Lily,” another marvelous cross-genre re-imagining (this time of a Spiritual), Amidon affects Nick Drake to a remarkable, and downright arresting, degree.

Far from making light of the songs he covers on I See the Sign, Amidon plays them with reverential aplomb– breathing new life into old standards and making each his own with the kind of dignity and love that few cover songs are afforded. Let’s just hope he fights the urge to try his hand at “Bump N’ Grind.”

I See The Sign is out now via Bedroom Community. Buy it here. Or produce a three-act play with a cast of hamsters.


new yeasayer video, “o.n.e”

It’s hard to imagine just one music video really encapsulating the experience of listening to a Yeasayer album, but the new video for “O.N.E.,” the second single off of Odd Blood, comes pretty damn close. Featuring crazy multi-colored early-‘9o’s-ish fashions, lasers, shape-shifting aliens and/or robots, dudes in fish tanks, some kind of space-age strategy game with triangles, choreographed Vanilla Ice-like dance routines, and a lip-synced performance from behind a chain-link fence courtesy of the band’s guitarist. It’s exactly the kind of weird/awesome thing that make Yeasayer so great and Odd Blood one of the year’s best albums.

Odd Blood is out now via Secretly Canadian. You should buy it here.  Or learn more about the great nation of Macedonia.


erykah badu goes back to basics with “new amerykah part 2”

Way waaay back in the good old days of 2008 (when the world was still blissfully ignorant of the evil forces of Glee and Justin Bieber) a friend of mine referred to Erykah Badu’s  recently-released, New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War), as being (and this is a direct quote) “on some ‘ol next shit.” As a white person, I had little idea what this meant, but interpreted it to mean “progressive but weird as fuck.” After purchasing the album myself, I concluded that to be a fairly accurate assessment.

Featuring a four minute ’70’s exploitation film-style intro, New Amerykah Pt. One was a bit out there, even by Badu’s standards (“My People,” for instance, features the lyrics “Hold on, my people” on a loop for three and a half minutes), featuring sparse, hip-hop infused beats and politically-charged lyrics, the album strayed farther from the more traditional neo-soul and R&B of Baduism and Mama’s Gun.

Badu’s latest release, New Amerykah Part 2 (Return of the Ankh), eschews the ‘next shit’ feel and features a much more retro, old-school Erykah Badu vibe. The album opens on a much more subdued note than it’s predecessor, with the quiet keyboard arrangement, slow pace, and mild heartbreak that comprise “20 Feet Tall.” The first lyrics of the song, “my love,” hint at the thematic change of direction that Badu is taking from Part 1.

This is an R&B album, pure and simple, and as such the primary focus is on love– whether it be absence from the one we love (“20 Feet Tall, “Window Seat,” “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long), unrequited love (“You Loving Me (Session)”), or a reverie on love and the way it affects us (“Umm Hmm,” “Love”).

There’s a flow here, an almost effortless quality– a feeling that was largely absent from Part 1 (with the exception of album standout “Honey“), an album that was, while forward-thinking and often brilliant, often too capricious and eclectic for its own good. And, to a certain extent, it feels like Badu is having more fun this time around: there’s the catchy and humorous interludes “Agitation” and “You Loving Me (Session),” and album standout “Turn Me Away (Get Munny),” a funky gold-digger-love song complete with sweet-voiced hoochie girl croon and lyrics like “Tickle tickle before stroke, I love your solid golds” and “I’ll be your robot girl, Come into me my world.”

My friend, by the way, loves the new album. “But you loved the lost album, this one’s completely different,” I told him. “Who cares? Shit is smooooth.” No question.

New Amerykah Part 2 (Return of the Ankh) is out now via Universal Motown. Buy it here. Or wash a neighbor’s dog for fun!


gorillaz “plastic beach”

Everyone’s favorite genre-blending virtual musical group has returned after a five year hiatus. This time out, Damion Albarn (former Blur front-man and all around musical legend) has gone it alone on the production duties and further shifted the group’s musical trajectory. Without the hip hop-heavy influences of former co-producers Dan the Automator and Danger Mouse (Gorillaz and Demon Days, respectively), Albarn has ventured deeper into electronic territory, crafting a synthpop album that is more “Dirty Harry” than “Clint Eastwood,” and without a doubt the group’s best work to date. There are still a few forays into hip hop this go round, but they seem almost out of place (with the exception of a couple of brief Mos Def verses), as does the album’s orchestral intro. And yet one the group’s greatest strengths has always been it’s ability to incorporate vastly disparate elements into a cohesive whole (fusing hip hop, alternative rock, and animation for example). And thus a guest-list which features Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, Mick Jones, De la Soul, and Little Dragon not only works, but works to brilliant effect (side note: Could be greatest supergroup ever. We’ll call them P,B &J and the Fun Dip Experience. Gold mine!). And though a few of the albums opening and closing tracks may seem a bit extraneous (ahem, worst Snoop Dogg cameo ever, with all due respect to Starsky & Hutch. This it is not.), the core of the album (tracks 4 through 14) ranks among the best music of the year. An absolute must own. So buy it already. Geez.

Highlights: “On Melancholy Hill,” “Rhinestone Eyes,” “Empire Ants

Plastic Beach is out now via Parlophone. Buy it here. Or eat a delicious english muffin.


new Ok go video, “This Too Shall Pass”

Ok Go have become something of an internet phenomenon since the mid ’00s, known more for their videos than their music. Returning from a lengthy hiatus, the band seemed to have switched gears somewhat with the release of Of The Blue  Colour of the Sky, their best album to date (featuring what is by far their best song). The focus then, would seem to be on the music rather than the visual presentation; a notion which the video for WTF?, the album’s lead single, seemed to have confirmed. The video is interesting, if unexceptional. And while good, it seems more an afterthought to the song (which is also pretty good, by the way).

This is, of course, as it should be, and, for that matter, the way most bands typically do things. It is, however, in stark contrast to Ok Go’s previous work, which– purposefully or not– placed the focus more on the action onscreen. The songs, in those cases, seemed more akin to a soundtrack, added as a means to punch up the choreography rather than the video’s reason for being. Here, for example, is the video for “A Million Ways:”

And the video for “Here It Goes Again,” which was so goddamn ubiquitous it even won a Grammy:

And while these are excellent videos– simple, clever, and original– and they’ve garnered the band millions of Youtube hits, they’ve hardly done much for their reputation as musicians. And though it’s obviously brought them some new fans, the caprice of internet fame is surely no comparison to the quality fanbase that a solid, well-reviewed album and a good tour would bring.

I was initially impressed by Ok Go’s apparent decision to focus less on their video-making. The fifteen minutes of fame had passed, and– it seemed to me– no good could come by trying desperately to recreate past successes.

That was, of course, until I watched their newest video for the song “This Too Shall Pass” and I realized I was completely wrong. Clearly Ok Go have a gift for making brilliant and original music videos and must by all means continue to do so with fervor. They may be a good band, but clearly this is the medium where they truly shine. Not every band can be Radiohead. If you excel at video making (and clearly that is where Ok Go’s true skill set lies) then you must embrace that.

The video, which you can check out at the end of the post, features one of the most complex Rube Goldberg machines I’ve ever seen along with some very intricate camerawork and choreography from the band itself, all culminating in a pretty goddamn awesome climax. It’s a phenomenal achievement and must have taken dozens of takes, and painstaking resets, to get right. ‘Awe-inspiring’ is probably the word for it, though I prefer ‘kick-ass.’

The video– and perhaps even the song title itself– also takes a shot at the band’s past internet successes with a brief moment in which a TV playing the “Here It Goes Again” video is smashed ruthlessly by a sledgehammer; an apt description for what is, in all likelihood, once again headed the band’s way. They’ll be ready for it, let’s just hope it sells them some albums this time.

Of the Colour of the Blue Sky is out now via Capitol Records. Buy it. Or go create a Mr. Belvedere-related meme on 4chan.


New Foals video “Spanish Sahara”

Antidotes, the 2008 debut album from Foals, hinted at good things to come. And it looks like the Oxford band is primed to exceed any lofty expectations if “Spanish Sahara,” the first single off their follow-up album, is a good indication of what we can expect from Total Life Forever.

The song starts out spare and quiet, little more than a whisper. Slowly, torpidly the instrumentation builds: a modest guitar strum, a rising drum beat, a slight keyboard arrangement. It all builds into a crescendo before breaking out, cresting into a driving melody that leads back into the refrain: “I’m the ghost in the back of your head.”

The video, equally sparse and beautiful, boasts gorgeous cinematography and hypnotic visuals of expansive tundra and rolling waves of choppy broken ice. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the song, and without a doubt the best music video of the year thus far. Check it out.

Total Life Forever is out May 10th on Sub Pop.


New Vampire Weekend video is funny, baffling

Apparently when Ezra Koenig and co. aren’t busying themselves crafting effortless-sounding and expertly-crafted pop songs, they’re running with a famous– if mind-bogglingly disparate– crew.

The Brooklyn band’s new video features quite a few unlikely celebrity cameos, and some of the least realistic tennis scenes since the 2004 Kirsten Dunst vehicle, Wimbledon (ok, didn’t see it, I’m just assuming, but I mean they cast Paul Bettany as the lead in a rom-com, how accurate could things possibly be?).

The vid chronicles a tournament of sorts, held in a small white-washed room (tennis court aboard the Nostromo perhaps?), with VW “rockin’ out” to mid-tempo single “Giving Up the Gun” (Not one of Contra‘s highlights in this blogger’s opinion, but a quality song nonetheless).

The protagonist is a spunky young redheaded lass striving to outlast the competition- including a Jonas bro (Can’t tell which, probably the gay one), Jake Gyllenhaal, and even a cocky no-nonsense version of herself (Whhaaa?!!! Howdeydodat??? Thanks technology!) The vid also features the RZA (That’s right, the fucking RZA. In a Vampire Weekend video.) as the coolest/weirdest line judge in history. I should also mention that he’s decked out in full-on Morpheus gear, though I don’t think that’s part of the video, he probably just showed up to the shoot dressed that way. What else would you expect from a dude who’s directly quoted as saying:”Say you’re Bobby Digital, you’re RZA, and your girl fornicates on you—you feel like shit. ‘Who the fuck? How the fuck?’”

The final cameo is less of a head-scratcher (as he was name-dropped in a VW song), and arrives in the form of Lil Jon (dressed not unlike a nautically-inclined T-Pain with smaller hat) as redhead girl’s coach/mentor/inspiration (I mean he certainly inspired these young ladies to display their athletic prowess…salt-shaking FTW!).

Neither the video nor the cameos make a goddamn bit of sense, but it’s certainly never boring, so there’s that. I did have a hard time getting past the fact that the redhead check had clearly never swung a racket in her life, and the even more vexing fact that nearly every effing (i.e. fucking) shot is in slow motion (We get it, you like Wes Anderson, enough already, geez). But Jake Gyllenhaal is legitimately funny, displaying that comic timing that is sure to make Prince of Persia the smash comedy hit of the summer (A white Persian guy with a bad English accent, a mysterious hourglass and a low supply of shirts? Genius!) And props on the RZA cameo, those are usually reserved for Jim Jarmusch films and moderately disappointing Judd Apatow films. Honestly, never in my life did I expect to see the RZA lip-synching lyrics to a Vampire Weekend song. Fucking surreal. Now all that’s left is to wait and see if Lil Jon returns the favor and puts the lads of VW in his next video– they could throw money at exotic dancers in a manner which resembles precipitation! Huzzah!

For comparative purposes, check out VW at their very best with the video for “A-Punk.” It’s simple, infinitely entertaining, and fits the song perfectly: everything a great music video should be. Makes a body downright nostalgic for those good ‘ol days of 2008.

Contra is out now via XL Recordings. You should buy it. You can do that here.

Pop Zeitgeist: A blog about Music, Movies, and other Geekery


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