Archive for the 'Music Reviews' 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.


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.


beach house, “teen dream,” album of the fucking year

I’d like you to take a moment, set aside everything you’re doing and have a listen to “Walk in the Park” off Beach House’s third album, Teen Dream. Buy the album, play it on Lala or iTunes or whatever the hell you want, but just be goddamn sure to sit back, close your eyes and listen.

It starts off simple enough: a slow bass drum beat, a mid-tempo organ melody, some rambling guitar– altogether pretty catchy. And then, that voice– that mesmerizing, throaty, sensual, Shirley Bassey-like voice. It saunters and glides languidly through the first verse, leisurely and yet melancholic: “The face that you see in the door, isn’t standing there anymore.” The voice, of course, belongs to Beach House’s lead singer, Victoria Legrand, who sings on all the songs on Teen Dream, and to similarly astounding effect, but on no song is she more haunting, more sublimely enthralling than here.

And here’s the kicker, that may not even be the best song on what is a nearly flawless album, both musically and lyrically it is an astounding work– breathtakingly gorgeous and downright sumptuous (and I hate that fucking word so you know I mean business). Make no mistake, kids, this is the album of the year thus far (as of my most recent update circa 3/28), and quite possibly the best since 2001 (although there are a few others that could make a legitimate claim to that title), and barring any other masterpieces dropped later in the year (a possibility with a new LCD Soundsystem release looming) Teen Dream will be perched squarely atop my end of the year list. But my opinion is worthless, get ye to a record store (forget iTunes this time, this is an album that must be experienced as a whole) and buy Teen Dream immediately. You’re still reading. Knock it off, asshole, I’m serious, go buy it.

Highlights: “Norway,” “Walk in the Park,” “Lover of Mine” and, every other song on the album

Teen Dream is out now via Sub Pop. Buy it here. Or whistle your own jaunty tune. Your choice I suppose.

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


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