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Archive for April 2008

Sam Sparro – Complex or Confused? (Part I of II)

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Sam Sparro is an intriguing character. Everything about him seems not exactly mysterious, but at least somewhat cloudy: his name, age, heritage, sexuality, religious influences, musical pedigree, lyrics, intentions, and sense of humor are all cloaked in one way or another. Even his album cover is a bit disguising.

And then there’s his music.

Don’t even try to define that.

House?…Soul?… Spoof?…Funk?

Electro?…Disco?…Religious?…Pop?

Electro-soul spoof-disco-pop mixed with religious- funk-house??? It’s enough to make you crazy.

Or maybe it’s just plain fun. Because when you get past Sam Sparro the man, and instead just focus on his music, things can get extremely enjoyable. But whether or not Sparro wants his listeners to ignore his upbringing, lifestyle, and motivations in order to just hear his music is up for debate. Though I think he’d like us to be able to understand him, I’d still love the chance to ask him how he feels. But there is one thing about Sam Sparro that is neither mysterious nor cloudy, complex nor confused. In fact it’s not even remotely questionable:

“Black and Gold,” the first single off Sparro’s just-released eponymous first album (Island 2008), is absolutely and completely undeniable. It is currently sitting at Number Two on the UK Singles Chart, bested only by the musical atrocity that is “4 Minutes” from Madonna and Justin Timberlake. (What? Bitter? Who, me? Nahhhhhh.) Sparro’s voice is remarkably dark and soulful, especially for a young, white, hipster-looking kid. He sings with a tinge of yearning and palpable sense of urgency — when Chaka Khan first heard Sparro sing years ago she’s said to have exclaimed, “Damn! That white boy can sing.” — and the accompanying beat is utterly infectious. It seeps slowly into you, and doesn’t leave easily.

Now I’m not claiming “Black and Gold” is a great song, or even a good one, though I happen to think highly of it. It’s just that you can’t deny it. It’s insistent. Kind of like “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John — you may not even like their music (I don’t) or the song itself (meh), but there’s just something about it that ropes you in a little bit no matter what you do. The same is true of Sparro’s “Black and Gold.” You don’t have to be a loyal customer of whatever kind of music it is that Sparro is selling, you just can’t help but buy in, even if only for a second.

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Written by Jonathan

April 30, 2008 at 12:52 pm

Quick Hits: TQ – Paradise

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So tomorrow, April 29th, marks the long-awaited (by some) return of crooner TQ to the R&B game, as he releases his 4th official album, Paradise (EMI 2008). To remind those who may have forgotten — or to inform those who weren’t paying attention — it was 1999 when TQ burst onto the R&B scene with his first single, “Westside,” a soulful homage to the West Coast hip hop scene and its most representative rappers, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and Tupac Shakur.

TQ was a rather unique commodity when he first arrived in ’99, one of the few proprietors of what might best be described as “Thug R&B,” paving the way for artists like Jaheim. His lyrics told street-worthy stories and used street-worthy language to do so. In fact, it was likely the hip hip vernacular TQ employed on “Westside” that kept the street anthem from climbing the U.S. charts. In other words, TQ was quite the departure from the then-popular R&B of K-Ci & JoJo, Usher, and Next, who hit big with “All My Life,” “You Make Me Wanna,” and “Too Close,” (aka the bane of high school principals everywhere) respectively.

After a few early spins of Paradise, it’s clear that TQ hasn’t abandoned his signature Thug R&B style, which is good to hear, as the album opens with the title track, “Paradise”: I grew up in the middle of a war zone, in a place where all reasoning was long gone / California dreamin’ was nightmares, and it shook a nigga straight to the bone. The second track, “Soulja,” follows the same road: This is the story, of a soldier / Cuz it takes one, just to know one / And it’s no fun, gotta fight on, like the Trojans / Come on holler if you hear me tonight. And of course, there are thug ballads too, including “Ebony Eyes” and “Ain’t The Same,” both of which are astonishingly honest and frank for a “thug.”

But two of the best, and most intriguing, tracks on Paradise are TQ’s renditions — or perhaps “appropriations” is the better word — of “Proud Mary,” which was written in 1969 by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and “A Little Bit of Love” by New Edition circa 1986. Of course TQ puts his thug spin on both tracks, and somehow, both songs just…work, which is really quite a feat considering neither CCR’s nor New Editions’ styles were anything like TQ’s.

It will be interesting to see how Paradise is received by an R&B marketplace now dominated by the soft-core likes of Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Mario, T-Pain, and, well…..Justin Timberlake. Yikes. Personally, I’m glad to get back to some good old-fashioned, grown-man R&B about man stuff, and away from the scrawny, eighteen-year -old, manufactured pop sensations who can’t be bothered to write their own material.

But will anyone else be?

TQ’s Official MySpace

– Jonathan

Battles Live: Human After All?

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Despite all the acclaim their debut album, Mirrored, received last year, math rock outfit Battles still has their share of detractors. To some, listening to Mirrored was a cold, dead experience as their music lent almost very little, if any, soul or emotion. Fair, I say, but that does not make it any less of an incredible recording.

If anything, the vocals that multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton (son of Anthony, the legendary saxophonist) lends to the songs makes their latest material far more accessible to the listener than the purely instrumental material released almost 4 years ago on the EP C and B EP records. His vocals may be indecipherable, but it adds a human quality that was lacking before. If you were familiar with the band before Mirrored, you were in awe of how precise and monumentally dense the performances were on record, you swore it had to have been done by robots. Daft Punk, eat your heart out.

My first experience with Battles was about 4 years ago when they supported The Icarus Line (remember when Penance Soiree was the shit for about a month?) on tour. Being new to the band when I first saw them, their performance blew me away with how simply incredible they were as musicians. You had to be there: my jaw hit the floor when Braxton and Ian Williams played the exact same melody on their keyboard while fingerpicking their guitars at the same time. John Stainer was an absolute beast on the drums. Watching them was like staring in awe at an enormous machine run like clockwork. But all the while the band hardly addressed the semi-hostile crowd, with the only acknowledgment coming in the form of garbled vocals from Braxton in between songs.

Fast-forward to last Wednesday night as Battles performed for a private audience at 86 in Hollywood as a warm-up for their Coachella gig that coming weekend. Fresh off their newfound fame from Mirrored, they breezed through a set off the album, including “Atlas,” “Leyendecker,” and the monstrous “Tonto.” Having seen them before I was knew what I was getting, but what amazed me most was how loose the band looked despite their music’s call for precision. Despite all the hopping around by Williams and Braxton, the notes came exactly when they were supposed to.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the night came when Braxton greeted the audience with an unadulterated-by-knobs salute of “Wassup LA!” Battles had tore down the facade once and for all, and showed us that underneath the mechanized output was just some regular guys like you and me. That’s when you took a big sigh of relief and realized to yourself that you had made it out of Uncanny Valley.

Written by Carman

April 28, 2008 at 12:16 am

A Belated Look: Mary J. Blige – Growing Pains

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I’ve been keeping Mary J. Blige’s latest album, Growing Pains (Geffen 2007), at the bottom of my record pile for months — unopened, unheard. I must confess this was not a matter of simple oversight, nor a case of procrastination.

I just didn’t want to hear it.

See, it’s borderline sac religious for a hip hop and R&B fan not to like Mary J. But despite her being a near-constant presence in the New York music scene for the last fifteen years, I’ve just never been able to get into the so-called “Queen of Hip Hip Soul.” She doesn’t have Whitney’s pipes — I’m referring to vocal cords here, people, not crack paraphernalia — Mariah’s range, Jill Scott’s soul-food soul, or India Arie’s earthiness. And she damn sure doesn’t have Janet’s dance moves. In fact, Mary J. Blige is one of the most awkward, out of sync dancers I’ve ever seen. She makes Dame Dash look like Savion Glover.

Now, I’m not saying she doesn’t have talent (she does), or charisma (definitely), or marketability (8x platinum, anyone?), but it has been her human vulnerability and open honesty (concerning her bouts with drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships, not to mention being molested at age five) that has driven her record sales for the last ten years. Her music is real and it is genuine. And this is a good thing — I like that in an artist. But I’ve always thought Mary was…well, in a word: overrated. Historically almost all of her best songs have been collabos/duets: “Real Love” (Remix) with Biggie, “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By” with Method Man, “Love Is All We Need” with Nas, “Back 2 Life 2001” with Jadakiss, “Family Affair” (Remix) with Jadakiss and Fabolous, and “911” with Wyclef Jean. Not to mention everything with Jay-Z. The list goes on.

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The Grateful Dead You May Not Know

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Hippies. Potheads. Tie-dye shirts. Endless jamming. These are few of the things that come to mind when someone mentions the Grateful Dead. To many people, the band’s name itself is a pejorative term, something associated with bums, drugs, dropping out. This is an unfortunate legacy for a band that was unequivocally great but terribly misunderstood.

Yes, the Dead were a traveling circus for many years. Towards the end of the band’s and Jerry Garcia’s lives, a Dead show meant a sold out football stadium or arena and a city full of Volkswagen Microbuses and broke, ticketless Deadheads holding up hopeful fingers in search of that “miracle” ticket. The aftermath of a Grateful Dead concert meant parking lots full of garbage and the lingering stench of patchouli and stale beer.

More positively, The Dead were community builders. Their loyal fans were mostly peaceful, well-behaved, and always idealistic. This idealism and desire for freedom (and drugs) of both the fans and the band have since spawned a new musical genre and touring style. But that’s a whole other article.

The kind of social impact The Dead had is pretty obvious and well documented but the band’s musical impact and place in the American musical tradition is now, and has always been, sorely misunderstood. In short, the group’s style has largely overshadowed its substance. Its jams have, according to the accepted story of American music, overshadowed its songs. Its countercultural tendencies have overshadowed its ties to the deepest roots of American music, not to mention its origins as a jug band.

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Written by JustJake

April 20, 2008 at 8:15 pm

Quick Hits: Maps & Atlases- Tree, Swallows, Houses

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So one of my new assignment at work is to go through band pages on myspace (long story). This sounds great, but really there is more crap music in this world than you probably realize. After going through hundreds of pages though, I did come across a few winners. One of the bands I stumbled across was the Chicago Math-Rock based band Maps and Atlases. I noticed they were on the same label as Tera Melos-Sargent House, so figured to check them out. After hearing only three songs from the album Trees, Swallows, Houses that I [yes illegally] downloaded- I ordered the vinyl online. That good. In fact this youtube video sold me.<- That is insane- the acoustic harmonics, the whole tuning at the end. That just makes me wish I actually had some skillz with that six string in my room. These guys are insanely talented, and the singer has a really interesting voice. To me I hear Paul Simon with a frog in his throat. Anyhow, If you enjoy some fun math rock this is for you. If you’ve never heard it, this could be a great introduction. [Math rock is typically full of very challenging technical parts, along with frequent changing time signatures.] I’m really having trouble listening to anything else. Before you know it, you’ll be singing along and clapping your hands at crazy times.

For a good starter-check out “Every Place is a House”

Or their myspace for songs www.myspace.com/mapsandatlases

-m

Written by RocksRocksRocks

April 20, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Record Store Day

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While its difficult to overlook the fact that the undoing of the modern recording industry is largely a decline initiated by their own hand, it coincides with the more unfortunate decline of the independent record store. I have no qualms with seeing Best Buy or Wall-Mart sacrifice CD’s to gain additional floor space for other, more profitable media formats, such as the Larry the Cable Guy’s Big Ol’ DVD Box Set of Yuks Yuks and Cheese Farts, or a bargain bin full of Left Behind video games. But I find it disheartening to see indie record shops fall like a series of dominos. It seems likely that an entire generation of music listeners will acquire records from the sterile, human-free interfaces of services such as iTunes, never knowing that unique smell that lingers in the air of a basement record store, the intermingling scents of cellophane wrapping and dust rising off box after box of used LP’s.

But all is not lost yet. Today is Record Store Day! Indies from coast to coast are featuring special in-store performances and giveaways. So shut off that BitTorrent client, eject that iPod, and head to your local indie and experience what one day might be a nostalgia exhibit a la Colonial Willaimsburg.

Written by Ignatius

April 19, 2008 at 7:28 am

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