'tis the season!
i DJed for three entirely different sorts of parties in the last week: a house dance party last saturday, a drag pageant after-party this saturday, and a congregational hanukkah party last night. all three were in west philly, all three were benefit events, and they were all a lot of fun and dancing, but otherwise very dissimilar vibes... and i played three quite different kinds of DJ sets.
at the house party, when my software DJ set up was effing up and i had to make-shift it with iTunes when it crashed every 15 minutes (oy oy oy stressache!!! but it worked out...) i played a fairly typical rossy mix of mid-to-up-tempo dance jams, electroni-pop flavored with some heavy soul mixed in and hip-hop sprinkles. left-field highlights incl. of montreal's "elegant caste," "i know what i know," "do wah diddy", and max tundra's batshit "orphaned." requests for kanye, fischerspooner, mgmt and 'retro.'
at miss west philly fabulous, the after-party kicked off in full-on diva-queen spectacle mode, with glitter raining from the ceiling fan as the winners of the pageant were crowned and trophied, and i played "you make me feel (mighty real)" > "hot stuff" > "gimme gimme gimme (a man after midnight)" > "hung up"... [some speaker/soundsystem issues but it got sorted soon enough.] i switched gears to hip-hop and booty beats before too long -- though not before i played don armando's second ave rhumba band's "i'm an indian too" and, of course, somebody had to come up to ask if it was by "an artist who identified as being of indigenous origin" or to that effect... [short answer: um...i'm not sure, i think they were mostly just latino and black... some interesting commentary on the issue here and here though...] tons of requests, more than i could keep up with, tho i tried: beyonce, rihanna, m.i.a., santogold, "no diggity," brothers johnson, kool and the gang, siouxsie/queen/u2 (none of which i had), young leek, busy signal, t.i., and j&mc to close it all out. i kept it pretty hip-hop/dancehall/bmore for a while (the bug, /rupture, ce'cile, rye rye!), but eventually i had to bring it back around to the diva anthems, starting with, i think, "please don't stop the music," then my two current favorite funky disco jams - eddie kendricks' "going up in smoke" and coke escovedo's brilliant, epochal "i wouldn't change a thing" - and then "i wanna dance with somebody" and cece p.'s "finally," into i think "sandcastle disco" woot woot! aw yeah.
and finally, at the hanukka hoo-hah (where i also served double-duty as accordionist for the klez band) i played completely different things from that. only one song overlap with what i played at either of the other parties. it was a sorta pan-ethnic (balkan/afrobeat/parisian/icelandic/bollywood/egyptian/malawian/motown) drums-and- horns-heavy globalized beat odyssey, ethno-techno, with some massive tunes courtesy of the currently unstoppable radioclit, and other travels, and some throwbacks, winding up back around with some old-school (for me) pop and 'lectro faves, and then another of my current obsessions (little boots' "stuck on repeat," which sounded kind of boring actually.) anyway, it was a lot of fun, and i finally got my setup working well enough that i was able to record the whole thing!!
so you can hear it!! - go here to download. it's mostly live; i just made some rough minor tweaks in garageband to nice it up a little bit.
here is the track list:
Kako Kolan Da Se Vijem - Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band
Quand Esct-Ce Qu'on Arrive - Balkan Beat Box
Broken Dreams - Basement Jaxx
Lets Get Wet (Louder Mix) - SoCalled
Bongo Song - Zongamin
One to One - Nomo
Roforofo Fight - Fela Kuti
First Down - Fatboy Slim
Fantatic 6 (Radioclit Remix) - Alphabeat
Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan - Matmos
Le Rhythme et La Cadence - Dimitri From Paris
There's More to Life Than This - Björk
Jimmy - M.I.A.
Tamenouni Enek - Mohamed Hamaki
Sister Betina - The Very Best
Cobrastyle (Radioclit Remix) - Teddybears
Circles - Soul Coughing
Take Me To The River - Talking Heads
Strange Overtones - David Byrne and Brian Eno
End of the Road - Gladys Knight and Pips
Psychedelic Shack - Temptations
Caveman Boogie - Lesette Wilson
Stuck on Repeat - Little Boots
Spare Parts Express - Orbital
my only regret is that i didn't manage to work in ricardo villalobos' fizheuer zieheuer, which would have been a more fitting comedown/finale. (listen to it there on youtube and interpolate it in in your mind.) the big huge honking standout is that radioclit alphabeat remix, which sounds absolutely nothing like the original (which i also love a fair amount) - i think all they took from it was the "whoo whoo!" - but may be the most happy-making piece of music i've heard all year. it just effervesces. sing it with me: ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ah! ah-ah-ah ah! ah! ah! (disco-disclosure: i bugged out to that same track, in the same space, on friday night, as spun by a certain dj ginkgo, a fellow with whom i shall have to have some words...)
so there you go, a little holiday present for you all... enjoy enjoy! and dance dance dance!
more to come too... all of this DJing has got me suddenly really-excited about 2008 music. fueling my fire these days, in particular - in addition to radioclit - are rye rye and yelle, two break-out upstarts (from baltimore and bretagne, respectively) who seem not to be getting the typical amount of love from the predictable places... not sure why that would be. many thanx to xtorrent too, which i've just gotten to start working again.
anyway, the plan now is full-speed-ahead on making a new years mix for '08 - i'd been feeling kinda iffy about it but now i'm pumped. my current thought is that i may also do a stand-alone, unmixed best of 2008, with some track overlap but intended more for listening than dancing per se. my top ten tracks list is coming into focus. (just gotta figure out how to integrate some recenter lovelies.) stay tooned for that.
and in any case, i fully hope to have a maxi-mix ready for revellers in plenty of time for new years - by next sunday, at the latest (and likeliest.) so get hyped for that too.
22 December 2008
'tis the season!
19 December 2008
[eta: here is a MixTube of all the songs discussed in this post. listen as you go!]
i picked up the veronicas' hook me up the other day (good ol' $2.99) and just listened to it again... it holds up very well, which makes me feel better about having written such a glowing review of it a year ago, despite the fact that i've barely listened to it since then. it is, in fact, a pretty great record. i'd forgotten about the how riled up some of us were getting at the time about the somewhat questionable girl-kissing references in "take me on the floor" (and also on skye sweetnam's contemporaneous "[maybe i should] kiss a girl")... little did we know then that that sh[l]ockstress katy perry would come steal that stale thunder and somehow warp it into 2008's most reviled, inanely 'zeitgeisty' pop inevitable.
anyhow, hook me up finally got a u.s. release this year - "untouched" even made it onto the p4k top 100 tracks list (which is notably ho-hum, but in a pleasant way; a low-key list for a low-key year.) not surprisingly the domestic version comes with a bonus track, advertised as such on the cover sticker (but not listed as a bonus): "goodbye to you", which i didn't realize until just now is a cover of a 1982 hit by scandal. hm. not sure what to say about that, since i don't really know anything about scandal. i do have the basic sense that they're not nearly as hip or worthy as tracy bonham, but what i do i know. (they did come from the magic decade, after all. and i suppose we owe them something for being the butt of all those lame patty smith/patti smyth jokes.)
i was gonna say that it's a sort of strange addition to the album, probably the lightest and frothiest thing on there - and an especially stark contrast to the high melodrama of the now-penultimate track "in another life" - generally pretty dispensable, although it's musically in keeping with the rest of the record. indeed it pretty much straight jacks the electro-candy groove from the title track, just sped up a bit. the verse melody is naggingly familiar ("solitary man"? "good riddance (time of your life)"?) but probably just generic; the most notable part is probably the silly squelchy synth solo, which nods almost undeniably to the organ solo from del shannon's "runaway," one of the greatest proto-teenpop hits (surely: who else would run away besides a teen or younger.) turns out that keyboard lick (and of course the melody) are also present in the original version too, so the v's didn't do a whole lot here worth noting except to revive the song for the benefit of weirdball birth control ads and fellow '80s-babies like me who missed out on it the first time. oh-kay.
speaking of teen-pop (because i haven't been, much this year at all), i wanted to mention a couple of my favorite recent jamzz, from artists who aren't quite so teen-centric (or, well, teen-aged) as they used to be, but have been showing a bit of that teeny-boppin' spark, more or less surprisingly.
the new beyoncé record has grown on me a fair amount - now i actually think the premise of splitting it into a ballad half and a banger half was a fairly smart or at least creative move (although it's still silly to split so little music onto two discs and call it an album), since they really are doing totally different things. no dispute that the ballad half is "better," more substantial and actually more engaging ("halo" in particular has been in my head a lot), but my favorite song on the whole package might be the entirely silly "radio."
it's a great and very fresh-feeling gooshy '08 club track production-wise - sounding, it must be said, a good deal like something we'd expect to hear from rihanna - but what makes it especially fun is how far it strays from typical beyoncé territory emotionally. it's beyoncé like we've maybe never heard her; not the mature, scorned-but-powerful icy-perfection goddess diva woman (though we get that again, a bit too explicitly so, in the next track), but an enthusiastic, excitable, slang-talking little kid.
i mean, who over the age of 16 would say something like "i think i'm in love with my radio/cuz it never lets me down." are there still people who actually feel that way? probably so (i hope so!), but the sentiment still feels decidedly like a throw-back, if not to the "golden age" of radio pop (um, whenever that was), at least to ll cool j c. 1985. i also just love the scene-setting opening stanza, in which she establishes her recent-to-current radio-rap cred, in highly un-beyonce-like fashion, by slurring "like erryday" and making sure she's rocking those stunna shades. it's totally preposterous, but in a very different direction from the way b is usually preposterous. and she totally hams it up - to hilarious effect, but at the same time it's an entirely convincing performance.
my favorite jam on the new taylor swift album isn't nearly so out of character for its artist (who after all is still a teen, and a full eight years younger than B), but it is striking for its highly teen-specific setting, as well as for its blissfully bountiful overabundance of melody (seriously, the song has like two-and-a-half separate choruses, and the verse melody is pretty catchy in its own right.) that's "you belong with me" - take a listen.
fearless has gotten a fair amount of ink for its 'maturity' - the song "fifteen" in particular, which does indeed seem like something that could be sung to a 15-year-old from somebody much wiser in years - but it's got plenty of youthful heart, and never more than on this track (the biggest standout for me, but that's probably just a quirk of what i happened to hear first, since plenty of the other songs seem like they're just as good.) "she wears short skirts, i wear t-shirts/she's cheer captain and i'm on the bleachers"... just says it all, no? [nb. "bleachers" rhymes with both "t-shirts" and "sneakers." that's some songwritin for ya.] and you have to love the snarkiness of "i'm listening to the kind of music she doesn't like." [eta: and check out the accompanying image in the cd booklet, taylor as bespectacled band dork while her beloved fawns over the ditzy hussy with her bra showing:
finally, the recently rather quiet paris hilton, whom i and others discussed under the umbrella of "teen-pop" back in '06 even though neither she nor her presumed audience were teen-aged, and her music had a pretty obvious adult slant, has released one of the most teeny-sounding songs in recent memory. (i wasn't at all sure she'd actually get back to making music at all, so this comes as a very pleasant surprise...new album due in 09!) from it's title on down, "my BFF" nods to classic late-90s/early-00s teen-pop. it makes me think, in particular, of toybox and aqua, though the whole max martin parade of poppettes could be invoked as well.
lyrically, unrepentantly g-rated - the conceit is basically the same as "is it you?", except that paris is looking for a friend, not a lover. (it is the theme song from her reality show, of the same premise.) a little silly coming from a 26-year old, ya know? musically too, it's squeaky-clean and peppy, eurodance-style kidpop. so wholesome you want to gag (and it's actually pretty catchy, which might make it better or worse.) and this is paris hilton we're talking about? good one girl.
10 December 2008
Title: Harvest Gleanings
Date: October-November 2008
Packaging: non standardized, as of yet [boo], save for yellow-orange [goldenrod-pumpkin?] sharpie in rounded lower case
 The Pioneers | Tunng
 Zeno of Elea | Kelley Polar
 Parade | The Knife
 Keep Your Silver Shined | Devon Sproule
 If A Song Could Get Me You | Marit Larsen
 Both Sides | Margaret Berger
 Peace Be Upon Us | Sheryl Crow
 Kim & Jessie | M83
 Get What You Deserve | Bertine Zetlitz
 Happy Hour | Britta Persson
 Watch/Watch (Girls) | Owusu & Hannibal
 Forever Utd | The Tough Alliance
 Gimme Love to Give | The Ark
 Strangers In The Wind | Cut///Copy
 Fatalist Palmistry | Why?
 Baby I'm Broke | Lucky Soul
 Mlle. LaBelle | Emily Bate
 Turn Me Towards The Light | Aberfeldy
 Nesso | Hatchback
 Facts of Life | Juvelen
i keep toying around with the idea of re-inserting "goodbye" by dominique leone as track 3, and lopping of the juvelen tune, leaving "nesso" as the closer. (there's not room on a CD for all 21 songs - i tried once and made it work, with a truncated version of "kim & jessie," but that's no good at all.) as it stands, "nesso" is shortened somewhat, and the transitions into and out of it don't have anything like the fluid grace of the track itself. i've been waffling about "facts of life" - it makes for a very different kind of closer; resounding and anthemic rather than amiably trailing off - but it is a pretty great song, and its central sentiment pretty much hits the nail on the head: "this world is crazy but we've got each other to love." i guess it's probably time to leave well enough alone...
the title harvest gleanings came from a bible verse that we were playing around with on yom kippur: "...and the stray gleanings of your harvest you shall not collect." [one working title for the mix was daze of aw, which i still think is a good phrase, for describing the effect of overwhelming cuteness, especially if it has something to do with the high holidays - close but not exactly what i was going for.] apart from the obvious seasonal associations with harvests, it's a decent description of what this mix contains, if you consider my work to be sifting through music to see what i can find (as it is, more or less) - these are the gleanings of my musical harvestings, c. 2008.
even more specifically, all but four of these songs are from releases i have reviewed (or, in two cases, will do soon) for AMG. ten of the twenty are from this year, six from last year, the rest fairly recent too. nine of the twenty are from scandinavian artists - which is actually fewer than i expected, although it's still striking considering that this is not a particularly pop-oriented mix. also notably, nine of them are by female artists, or groups with female vocalists – my mom said it could almost pass for one of the chicks mixes that i make for her, which is true. [n.b. this does not include the artists named kelley and dominique]
so what's on it? a lot of artists i have written about here before (well, almost all if you count the amg roundups), many of whom are quite near and dear to my heart:
tunng, perhaps more than any other artist, sum up the spirit i was going for – i've really enjoyed exploring their albums this year, and am sorry i didn't discover them sooner, but this bloc party cover is actually from a non-album single. the frontiersy subject matter is also thematically appropriate to the harvest idea, not that there's really a lyrical theme to this mix.
kelley polar has made one of my very favorite records of the year, though i have continued to procrastinate actually reviewing it, possibly because i'm afraid i'll discover it's not as good as i want it to be, though more likely because its special strangeness is going to be really tough to put into words. this is a pretty good example. i have no idea what kind of song this is.
swedish synthpop musical all-around heroes the knife at their most folksy and organic, singing (aptly) about tromping around in the wilderness, i think. from their s/t debut, which i only got this year, and is nearly as mindblowingly good as their more celebrated second and third albums. i love this song. keep an ear out for "we raise our head for the color red," lyrics that cropped up later, even less comprehensibly, in "heartbeats."
devon sproule, my darlin', was one of the reasons i knew i had to make this mix. i carried this song around in my head for almost two years, and then for another year after i actually got a recorded copy of it, all so that it could make its way here, and to you. a perfect fall song.
marit larsen, my other darlin', happily popped up with her lovely second album just in time to make it onto the mix. actually this song was the only thing i'd heard from the album when i compiled the mix, otherwise i might have chosen something that wasn't the lead single. but it works out okay, 'cuz anyway you slice it this is an irresistable song right off the bat that only gets better the more you hear it. poppy, to be sure, but not offputtingly so, and rootsy enough to fit in. (at least, i hope those things are true. if not screw it.)
margaret berger is a pretty unlikely candidate for such a low-key mix, being the new queen of disco and all, but this utterly gorgeous ballad from her otherwise relatively unremarkable debut has a comforting calm that just keeps drawing me back in. just so pretty. (for a long time i was looking for a way to juxtapose it with the guy sigsworth remix of mirah's "la familia," which has a strikingly similar bell line, but what's the point really. that remix, by the way, is featured on the practically-finished sleepy mix, which will turn up here v. soon.)
sheryl crow has never meant a great deal to me, though i usually like her singles, but i really enjoyed her album this year - this is the song that got me into it, and it's still by far my favorite. unabashedly earnest and sentimental, corny almost (that goofy chorus), but surprisingly hip and grooving even so.
m83 have usually left me cold in the past (and i haven't been able to get into the rest of saturdays=youth either) but this song is flat-out awesome. as my uncle pointed out, the production is totally over-the-top '80s-mimicry, except that snare drum sound is a lot better. i can't decide if kim and jessie are supposed to be boys or girls.
bertine zetlitz is a [norse] goddess. in order to help spread the gospel, i have prepared a best-of compilation... [contact me for more info.]
britta persson is a strange sorta person. damn she wishes she was your lover. frankly, it doesn't sound like such a good deal to me; she seems kinda insecure and unstable. but she's not bad to listen to, in a '90s-reviving kinda way.
it turns out that owusu & hannibal have more than one obsession-worthy song after all (the one being "what it's about," which i've raved about at least a couple of times.) i'm not quite sure they have more than two, though. (this one has a weird breakdown to silence in the middle, and then builds up into its own semi-remix/reprise, so it sort of counts as one and a half.)
i know i've seen them live, and written their biography and reviews of all their albums and everything, but i still don't really get the tough alliance. like, at all. do people care about them? are they important? did marc hogan at pitchfork singlehandedly manufacture a whole load o' hype that nobody much else (except for me) bothered to follow up on. can't tell. this song's pretty catchy though...
i < style="font-weight: bold;">the ark. this is a silly song, with some very silly lyrics, but it's pretty hard to argue with the message.
cut///copy. hmmph. i think that they are really really really good. i just kinda wish i liked them more. wooosh!
yes. why? "gemini (birthday song)" one of the highlights of the october mix (one of only two artists to be reprised here), and he/they didn't disappoint with the follow-up... starts with a blast and it doesn't let up...lyrics, melody, hook, message, this song's got it all. "i am still alive, in love and wide-eyed in my time." (though the opening stanza is the best.) i think some other folks noticed it too - it was one of the 75 or so prescribed options for "best song of the year" in the ridiculous p4k readers survey.
lucky soul. ohhhhhhh god...... just listen to it, ok? (why is this band not ruling the world yet?)
emily bate. hi emily! she said the other day that it's about "romantic friendship," which is more or less what i would have said. (friendship with roommates, no less.) except for the first verse which is about weird grammar.
aberfeldy are a bunch of sweethearts. those twinkles. those tiny little space-zapper sound effects. those harmony vox. riley's cute lil voice. now this song puts me in a daze of aw.
hatchback is one blissed-out dude. i bet he'd be fun to take a road trip with. make sure he brings along his trumpet.
juvelen is pretty much the man... i might have mentioned him once or twice. this song sorta splits the difference between his dance jams and his slow jams. i already quoted the chorus for ya...
and that's it. didn't really mean to go through all the tracks but i guess i just did. thanks for listening, and let me know if you want a copy.
05 December 2008
i've been listening to kanye west's 808s & heartbreak, and i actually think i might like it. i guess a couple of other people like it too (though not so much my colleague mr. kellman), so maybe that's not so surprising, but i haven't really actively liked any of mr. west's output in a long time. i haven't listened to any of his albums close to their release dates since i guess college dropout (mostly because i've been so turned off by his lead singles; i might have been more slightly more interested in the albums without those, but listening to them has been generally underwhelming.) so there may be some correlation there - not sure how much the appeal of this one stems from lowered expectations, plus actually bothering to care about it. or maybe i am finally learning to hate the single, love the sin.
anyway, 808s definitely has a few things going for it. first of all the title, which is way better than his stupid college-themed ones, and smartly picks up on the 808-'08 connection that you'd really think would have been played up more (notwithstanding the black devil disco album that i'm still too bored by to review.) also it makes me think of decks efx & 909, which i've never heard but always thought was a catchy name.
this is also the first time that i've really engaged with the autotune phenomenomenon. obviously i've heard it, all over the place, but never thought here nor there about it save that it was part of what was making mainstream hip-hop so uninteresting these days. (being that it's one of the dominant things about current hip-hop, and it's gotten really uninteresting; annoying actually.) but this is a little different - it so overdoes the autotune thing that it doesn't come off as a gimmick at all (or maybe it's just so played out by now that there's no way for it to sound novel or even gimmicky anymore.)
instead, it's a bizarre but actually effective expressive choice. not just for the obvious cyborgian/techno-alienation interpretive reasons, but on simple sonic terms too. i'm even less interested in kanye's pain than i am in t-pain, but the robotic sounds are interesting enough (and actually, in subtle ways, varied from track to track) that i don't feel a need to engage with the emotions they're supposedly representing. also, the autotune goes a good distance to masking kanye's voice, delivery, and lyrics, which i've always found pretty much insufferable. anybody could be singing here, it doesn't really read as kanye, per se.
i like how it's continuing and extrapolating modern mainstream hip-hop's love affair with electronica. which is a totally weird love affair in that it's pretty much one-sided and also clumsy, based on samples of varying subtlety (daft punk obv., booka shade, i guess "dragostina din tei" counts), and just lots of signifying synths and vocal efx. i guess it's not so much electronica as electronics in general. (not that that's exactly a new thing for hip-hop) synth-pop (>synth-hop. have people been using that?) also interesting that it seems like mostly a mainstream phenom, not underground? (not sure though. have to check out black milk's tronic, and i guess the people that are really doing it are successful enough that i don't think of them as straight hip-hop anymore anyway - like the hipster-hoppers and the (post?-)grime guys.)
[btw, the other thing mainstream hip-hop has a love affair with these days is m.i.a. and santogold. (not that they're one thing, but in this context they may as well be.) which is also weird b/c it seems like they are not being treated as rappers or even really as artists, just as hip cred-grabs and sonic source material (q.v. the stupid sample on "swagga like us" and santi's nothing vocal contribution to the new jay-z joint, though that does include a rap at least.) i still can't quite believe that "paper planes" was a #4 hit this year... in some ways it seems like the song of the year (again?) more on that later, maybe.]
anyway. the other thing about 808s, though, is that it's not actually a hip-hop album. i guess it's some weird mongrel form of synth-r&b-pop. which may explain a lot of things, like why the autotune is less annoying, and why it's a kanye album i don't really mind - considering that two of the things that annoy me most about him are his dumb-wannabe-clever rapping (as opposed to will.i.am's dumb-wannabe-dumb rapping) and his sore-thumb sampling. the only samples i'm aware of here are a tears for fears song that i don't know (so it doesn't bother me, i guess, but it's also not obvious which part of the song is the sample, which is a good thing) and the beat from nina simone's "see-line woman," which is used fairly subtly and effectively (it's just the beat, not the hook or anything) and is a pleasant reminder of the nina simone sample 'ye used for (both) talib kweli's "get by" and john legend's "i used to love her," which still sounds like some of the freshest sampling he's done.
people are talking about this as a tangent to his main career trajectory, which probably makes sense, even though in some way it's a logical extension of the synths and pop fetish (and lack of heavy hip-hop signification) of graduation. certainly, if he continues in this vein we'll have to reassess just what kind of artist he's trying to be - and that could be pretty exciting; it's territory that hasn't really been staked out yet, maybe. but presumably this is just an oddball, one-off experiment. a lot of weird but distinctive records turn out to be surprisingly durable, especially those that are somewhat confounding at first blush. i'm not necessarily counting on it with this one, esp. as few of the individual songs have really grabbed me as songs, per se - it's definitely cool that kanye is writing sorta straight-ish pop songs, but that will ultimately be less significant than whether he's capable of writing good ones. time will tell, i guess, whether this curiosity will blossom into something more lasting.
03 December 2008
some of my current favorite practitioners of singer-songwriter (which by the way is a genre), all of them from norway (marit, ane kinda) or sweden (everyone else) except for herman dune, who are from sweden and switzerland by way of france and apparently the lower east side or something. (also, herman dune and billie the vision are technically "bands," but we'll let it slide...) so, roughly in order of how good they are (or, rather, how excited i am about them at the moment):
Marit Larsen: Under The Surface and The Chase reviews
Nordic roots-pop starling Marit Larsen scored her second Norwegian number one with "If A Song Could Get Me You, the utterly charming lead single from her sophomore outing The Chase (which itself debuted atop her country's album chart.) In a typically starry-eyed twist on the song-about-a-song concept, the tune finds Larsen proposing to write a song in whatever style it will take to win her beloved's affections: "I could try with a waltz/I could try rock and roll/I could try with the blues." There's no doubt that she's capable but, as it turns out, she doesn't spend much time with those styles on The Chase (though "Steal My Heart" and "I've Heard Your Love Songs" are both waltzes, and lovely ones too; respectively dainty and sumptuous.) Conspicuously absent from that list are pop and country, the two genres that most closely encapsulate her general musical approach. Larsen began her professional career as one half of the teen pop act M2M, and she hasn't strayed too far from that group's trendsetting brand of earnest, accessible bubble-folk - growing into her twenties may have helped her develop a satisfying emotional complexity to accompany her penchant for pop melodicism, but her intrinsic sweetness remains resoundingly undimmed. Meanwhile, her lavish sentimentality, narrative lyrical bent, and colorful instrumental choices (mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and dobro, along with more baroque, orchestral touches) suggest a link with country that was evident on her solo debut and is even more pronounced here (sometime between the two albums, Larsen started a low-profile sideline stint playing in the Oslo-based traditionalist bluegrass band Elwood Caine.)
Of course, there's not necessarily much of a gap between classicist songwriter pop and country music in its chart-friendly contemporary incarnation. It doesn't feel like a stretch, for instance, to describe Larsen as a Scandinavian Taylor Swift, considering that her differences from the rising country star have more to do with geography and vocal inflection than anything musically substantial (though she has a not-insignificant seven years on Swift, experience-wise.) Much like Swift's own sophomore album, which was released around the same time, The Chase is an expertly crafted musical statement that balances rootsiness and polish, leavens its maturity and poise with undeniable flashes of youthful energy, and displays considerable mainstream appeal regardless of genre classifications. Indeed, it exudes confidence, not just musical and writerly, but - this album's most striking difference from its predecessor - emotional as well, as Larsen chides an indecisive new lover ("Is It Love?"), announces her plans to walk out on a sleeping, unwitting partner ("Ten Steps," whose sanguine empowerment marks a complete reversal from the crippling paranoia of the debut's "This Time Tomorrow"), and reflects calmly on the existential strangeness and unsettling simplicity of post-breakup life ("This Is Me, This Is You"), all with an assertiveness and aplomb worlds away from the passivity and hesitance that permeated Under the Surface. Even as it deals with some difficult situations, then, The Chase is far from a downer; and when things are working out in Larsen's favor - as on the light-hearted title track and preposterously giddy new-love ode "Addicted" - it's absolutely effervescent.
(bad cover art alert in effect for everything that follows except maybe maia hirasawa)
Ane Brun: Changing of the Seasons review
The title track of Ane Brun's fourth studio album (only her second U.S. release), "Changing of the Seasons" makes reference to all four -- "the relief of spring, the intoxication of summer rain, the clearness of fall, how winter makes me reconsider it all" -- but there's no question that this is music for the more pensive and bittersweet of seasonal shifts: the onset of autumn, the drift into winter. As we often do when the weather draws us inward, these poetically tender songs contemplate the comforts and challenges of togetherness and solitude, reflecting on relationships with a mix of resignation and sweetness, a mature emotionalism that is no less poignant for its reassurance and composure. Brun's keenly observed relationship songs turn on touchingly deployed metaphors (love as a jigsaw puzzle; a faded daydream of tree house domesticity; the emotional armor of a reticent lover turned tangible and rusty) and moments of subtle emotional shifts: restless disenchantment dispelled by a waking lover's instinctive embrace; the difference between asking someone never to leave and realizing that the asking is irrelevant. She invests isolation with a comparable complexity, variously plucking up her bruised confidence ("Raise My Head"), honing in on the fleeting seconds of unexpected calm amid bouts of anxiety ("Ten Seconds"), surrendering to find solace in the recordings of Gillian Welch (and Norwegian ambient producer Biosphere), and offering a curiously soothing fatalism in the lovely "Lullaby for Grownups." Befitting the ruminative tone of the words, the music strikes a balance between sparsity and lushness, augmenting Brun's acoustic guitar with touches of marimba, bouzouki, and piano as well as elegant, enveloping string arrangements, many of them by rising star Nico Muhly. At the center of it all is Brun's curious and affecting voice, conveying the blend of expressiveness and restraint that these songs seem to invite, and recalling vocalists as disparate as Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos, sometimes all at once. A thoroughly captivating work from an undeniable talent.
Herman Dune: Next Year in Zion review
Next Year in Zion reportedly marks the first album that head Herman Dune David Ivar has written while he was happy. It certainly shows, as many of these songs are practically bursting with love and good cheer. In other hands, unabashedly lovestruck fare like "On a Saturday," "My Best Kiss," and "When the Sun Rose Up This Morning" might come off trite, but the Dunes approach them with such warmth and unaffected sweetness that it's easy to be won over. Not everything here is so unrelentingly sunny, but there is an endearingly shambolic, lived-in quality to David-Ivar's sappily prosaic narratives and quirky slant rhymes that reflects a persistent, modest optimism in the face of irrational fears ("Baby Is Afraid of Sharks"), awkward roommate situations ("Afternoon Dance Party"), the fugitive criminal lifestyle ("Lovers Are Waterproof"), and even environmental devastation ("Poison in the Rain.") The music reflects that lyrical positivity with a laid-back, infectious charm that draws on American folk forms (with occasional calypso, mariachi, klezmer, and flamenco accents) and also harkens back to '50s and '60s pop in way a reminiscent of Jonathan Richman and Jens Lekman. Beyond the Richman/Lekman-esque core duo, Next Year in Zion is fleshed out with percussion from El Doctor Schönberg, girl group backing vocals by the Babyskins, the N'awlins flavor of the Jon Natchez Bourbon Horns, and electric guitar solos courtesy of the Wave Pictures' Dave Tattersall. Though it initially comes off as fairly slight, this reveals itself to be a rewarding, idiosyncratic effort that bears repeated listens; a pleasure from start to finish. [no clue about the title.]
Billie the Vision and the Dancers: bio and I Used to Wander These Streets reviews
The fourth album from the lovable misfits in Billie the Vision & the Dancers doesn't offer any significant changes from the three that came before it; it's just another easily enjoyable batch of sweet, playful, sincere ramshackle twee pop. There are still plenty of love-lorn lyrics centered around the fictitious everypeople Lily and Pablo, though Lars Lindquist also pens some particularly personal narratives, recounting his childhood move from Denmark to Sweden in "Stuttering Duckling," tenderly delving into candid sexual realism in "You're Not Giving Up on Me," and detailing an eye-opening, guilt-ridden experience in London's queer nightclub scene in the poignant "Swedish Sin." Other highlights include the bright, sunny pop of opener "Lily from the Middleway Street," the shuffle-ska "Groovy," a guest vocal from Annika Norlin (of Hello Saferide) on "I Belong to You," and a surprisingly effective Guns N' Roses interpolation on the break-up ballad "Liar and a Thief."
(from here on, we can play connect the dots from artist to artist...)
Firefox AK: Madame, Madame! If I Were a Melody reviews
As suggested by the shift from the bright yellow-orange of Madame, Madame! to muted violet on the cover of If I Were a Melody, Andrea Kellerman's second album as Firefox AK is a markedly moodier affair than her first, simultaneously darker, edgier, and more subdued. It actually encompasses a broader emotional range, from lush, mellow material like "The River" and the nearly beatless "Shero" to the aggressive thrust of first single "Winter Rose" -- a duet with her husband Rasmus Kellerman (aka Tiger Lou), who wails the chorus hook ("Give me some pleasure/Give me some joy/Just give me something I can destroy") with a blank-eyed electro-clash angst -- and the pummeling hard house of the well-named "Techno Tears." Still, the overall effect is less immediate, and more understated, than the infectiously scrappy Madame!, which may have something to do with the relative absence of gritty, rock-styled guitars. The word "mature" feels slightly incongruous, but if nothing else Melody is more accomplished and self-assured from a musical and production standpoint -- none of it was recorded in a bedroom this time out, and it shows. Kellerman and her production/programming accomplice, Viktor Ginner, spent several months in Berlin working on the album, and they clearly soaked up a lot of inspiration from the electronic dance scene there, resulting in a decidedly modern-sounding collection of more refined (not necessarily more relaxed) beats and pieces that recall the sophisticated techno of Ellen Allien and the Kompakt stable, as well as the electro-pop of the Junior Boys (whose Matt Didemus mixed the album) and Kellerman's countrymen the Knife. None of this comes at the expense of her sumptuous way with vocal hooks -- this album has plenty of them, amply showcasing Kellerman's sublime vocals, which were either much better recorded this time or else have developed considerably (probably both). They resonate with unusual warmth against the synthetic austerity of the arrangements, especially on the poignant "Pushing," with its stirring chorus shift from minor to major, and "Flutter of a Wing," which comes closest to the simple pop pleasures of the debut despite an unsettling lyric inspired by the lack of birds during Kellerman's time in Berlin. Although it may take a few more spins to sink in, Melody is a dramatic step forward from its predecessor, a complex and rewarding effort that places Firefox AK right at forefront of modern electronic pop.
Hello Saferide: Would You Let Me Play This EP 10 Times a Day and More Modern Short Stories From... reviews
Hello Saferide's second album is called More Modern Short Stories from Hello Saferide, in perhaps self-effacing but apt reference to the literary qualities of journalist/frontwoman Annika Norlin's frequently verbose songwriting. Coincidentally or not, the most inspired moments here, musically as well as lyrically, come when she dresses up her typically autobiographical/confessional mode with an injection of creative fiction: the martial "Overall," wherein she and producer Andreas Mattsson role play concerned parents fretting over their neo-Nazi son (shades of XTC's "No Thugs in Our House"); the rocking "Middle Class," which indulges in Bonnie and Clyde fantasies about a complete stranger; and standout first single "Anna," which imagines the charmed life of an overacheiving daughter she could have had with an ex. Of course, it's not too hard to hear Norlin's neuroses and insecurities playing out in these flights of fancy, but at least they offer a bit of psychological distance that's missing from slightly cringe-worthy fare like "25 Days" (Norlin as needy new girlfriend), the teenage sex diary "X Telling Me...," and "Parenting Never Ends," in which she asks her mother to take her back into the womb (Norlin clearly has parenting on the brain.) It's not that she lacks the verbal facility or pop sense to make this material worthwhile, but engaging with Hello Saferide means engaging with Norlin's personal psychodramas and emotional fatalism, and not every listener will feel comfortable or invested enough to do that. For those who are, Modern Short Stories offers a somewhat more mature, less giddy, but no less charmingly complicated version of the young woman who was introduced on Introducing, with couple of lovely Swedish folk-pop ballads ("Lund" and "Arjeplog") to boot.
Maia Hirasawa: Though, I'm Just Me review
Maia Hirasawa first gained notice as a backup singer for Annika Norlin's Hello Saferide, and fans of that band will certainly recognize a similar brand of sweet, intimate, folksy pop on the Japanese-Swedish singer/songwriter's humbly titled debut album. That said, Hirasawa does carve out a strong identity for herself here, one that's sometimes whimsical but not as overly cutesy as her former band (school children vocals notwithstanding); if anything more prone to overeager sentimentalism, but not so earnestly straightforward in her expression of it. Drawing musically from a palette of jazz and broadway-style piano ballads as well as folk and pop, she's generally inclined toward muted, wistful reflection, frequently undercutting even her bubblier, more optimistic seeming pop tunes with shades of lyrical uncertainty and ambiguity. That's especially true of the album's two biggest-sounding moments -- the bouncy full-bore pop single "And I Found This Boy" and the jazzy "Crackers," which features a brass section and a vocal duet with cabaret-pop starlet Miss Li. Some of the calmer numbers, like the string-laden waltz-ballad "Gothenburg" and the charming opener "Still June," with its intoxicatingly lush self-harmonies, offer glimmers of genuine hope, all the sweeter for being unanticipated. Throughout, Hirasawa displays an unusually versatile and expressive voice, reminiscent of Regina Spektor in its distinctive personality and emotional range, which is a large part of what makes Though, I'm Just Me so effortless and pleasurable. A quiet gem of a debut.
(and, for those who wonder if i ever write negative reviews...)
Miss Li: bio; Late Night Heartbroken Blues , God Put a Rainbow in the Sky, and Songs of a Rag Doll reviews
Miss Li's debut album introduced her scrappy, exuberant, modern take on classic cabaret-style jazz-pop. It's definitely not the sort of music you'd expect from a Swedish twenty-something, which makes this, at least initially, a very striking release, and it's undeniably a blast of energy, though there is something vaguely bland and tiresome about it in spite of its zesty exterior. The basic M.O. is established right off the bat, in the brief title track, with its handclaps, swingin' oompah rhythm, and brassily belted barstool tale of a night of boozing (the opening count-off turns out to be the number of beers she's drinking) leading to a desperate, meaningless one-night-stand, complete with spoken aside. From there on we get hot 'n' bothered torch ballads ("Give It to Me"), slinky shuffles ("Backstabber Lady"), jokey piano ditties ("I'm So Poor Won't You Lend Me Some Money"), and so forth; a survey of show tuney styles that doesn't come off as self-conscious pastiche so much as earnest if amateurish genre work. Fortunately - crucially - Li does have the pipes to pull it off, and perhaps even more importantly, the attitude: she attacks the material with a gusto that can't help but be a little infectious, clearly having too much fun to worry about whether she sounds corny. It's a perfectly apt approach for such unabashedly theatrical music, but it's a little hard to shake the notion that this is just a girl playing dress-up, and despite some seriously accomplished instrumental contributions from her bandmates, Li's rather hamfisted piano playing creates the sense that she's still in rehearsal.
Miss Li's second album appeared a mere six months after her first, and it's cut from similar cloth, with ten more songs of the mongrel musical theater pop that's this impish Swedish songbird's version of cabaret jazz. The most notable differences this time out are a couple of unconvincing stabs at political/social commentary -- the snarky "I'm Glad I'm Not a Proud American" and "Kings and Queens" (sample lyric: "Rich men in pretty suits aren't meant to make up all the rules/when all they really care about is guns and bombs and bigger boobs") -- and a few halfway decent ballads, which could almost be affecting if Li had a bit more vocal restraint. Her charm, such as it is, stems from her campy amateurism, which is infectious enough to sell hammy numbers like "I'm Sorry, He's Mine," an ode to stealing a friend's man that one could imagine Lily Allen sinking her snide little teeth into, and bouncy trifles like "All I Need Is You." But frankly, unlike the similarly precocious (and prolific) Nellie McKay, with whom she shares more than a few influences, Li doesn't really seem to have the originality, songwriting talent, or charismatic spark to make you care when she tries to get a bit more serious.