Is it just me, or does it seem that suddenly everyone is far more aware that the end of summer is near? We have more than two weeks left until September begins, most students are back in class, and “the fall” officially kicks off a new season, and yet everyone I talk to is rather suddenly aware that the end is nigh. I for one am attempting to live in the moment of these last summer days, not only because I’m not going back to school, but because I don’t want to think about what comes next.
With that in mind, here’s what I’ve been listening to this week…
Something Old: “The Bridge” is the title track from the very first record that my redhead bought me, Sonny Rollins 1962 album, The Bridge. One of these days I will have to write about the whole album, because it’s possibly one of the most underrated jazz classics ever recorded. For now, this one track captures some of the urgency and busy-ness of the summer, trying to hurry to not miss anything, while still finding moments to appreciate the beauty around us. This video is chopped off at the beginning, but I figured posting a live performance of one of the world’s greatest improvisors might be a good idea.
Something New: My favourite thing about Toronto in the summer (so far) is free festivals and music, and right now thanks to the PanAm and ParaPanAm games, there are some especially fantastic free shows available as long as your willing to stand in a crowded square for a couple of hours. This weekend I had the pleasure of seeing two of my favourite live acts right now, The Roots and Janelle Monaé! Monaé’s Wondaland collective is set to release a compilation EP tomorrow, so consider this my plug, and don’t be surprised if I share another song or two from The Eephus in the future. For now, here is the video for “Yoga”, the infectious dance track that had all of Nathan Phillips Square grooving and singing along.
Something Borrowed: Apparently there is a loose jazz theme running through today’s post, since I feel like sharing the 90’s R&B “Rain”, in which SWV directly borrows their melody from Jaco Pastorius’s theme from “Portrait of Tracy”. The melodical bass solo has been used in a number of hip hop tracks, but likely the trend began with Ghetto Children’s “Who’s Listening?”. So you might want to check that out too.
Something Blue: Yep, I agree that it’s a little ironic to have a lesbian list a song called “I Need a Man to Love” as one of her favourite blues tracks, but it just is. I love how Janis Joplin sounds both incredibly cool and desperate at the same time. I just wish I could find a decent video of her performing it as well.
I have a giant a soft spot for Cee Lo Green.
I have become especially aware of this since the show, The Voice, has returned. While my friends are mostly creeped out by Cee Lo’s evil looking cat (named purrfect), or his tendency to flirt with his female teammates, I am utterly charmed. Not because I am won over by his celebrity, or want to imitate his unique sense of style. I am simply attracted by the fact that Cee Lo Green is a quirky guy who is not afraid to show it, nor is he ever notably threatened by others’ eccentricities. There’s room for everyone’s brand of odd.
However, ironically, I’ve decided to write about his most widely accessible album to date, The Lady Killer, which is intentionally so, as he admits it’s his attempt to broaden his fan-base. To some extent, Cee Lo quiets his eccentricities in order to release some billboard-able singles, and not only did he achieve just that, but created a solid r&b album that sounds both retro-nostalgic and fresh at the same time. Success. The best part is, he doesn’t really put his personality on hold for this record, but casts himself in two hard-to-hate roles as international spy and underdog. Still, even while, as the underdog, he’s singing about pain and frustration, it always comes across as downright playful.
When I first bought this album, it was stuck on repeat for a couple months, but it has been a while since then. I decided to throw it on in anticipation of his new album that’s supposed to drop later this year (along with a Goodie Mob reunion album). This week was the perfect opportunity, since the surprise snow inspired me to bus, and therefore have a bit more time for headphones in my day. Also, I find the regular use of Bari Sax incredibly helpful in cold situations.
So let’s begin at the start, with the slightly creepy “Lady Killer Theme Song”, which sets a very James Bond-esque tone as Cee Lo smoothly warns that “when it comes to ladies…. (he has) a license to kill”. Although “Bright Lights Bigger City” isn’t a perfect transition from the theme, it hangs on to a few Bond-sounding themes, especially violins that sit on high notes before tumbling back down to earth. I don’t know about you, but it gives me an especially espionage-tastic feeling, and I find myself itching for an entourage to escort me downtown for some weekend nightlife. I will wear shades, of course.
There has been plenty said about “F*** You” already, but two things stand out to me as worth risking repetition: First of all, coining “Forget You” as the censored version is some of the most creative censorship in radio-version history. We basically get two songs for the price of one. Secondly, lyrically, the entire thing is built on cursing out an ex that’s treated him badly, and yet it is one of the most confident and fun songs of all time, full of sass and sarcasm. Cee Lo is dancing though his heartache, making “F*** You” an ironically appropriate place for a bit of gospel music. Example number one of Cee Lo’s underdog status as well, building up our sense of sympathy.
“Wildflower” is probably lifted straight out of Cee Lo’s flirting repertoire. He pulls out every stop – horns, strings, piano, and lots of notes held forever. I’m not going to lie, he caught my heart instantly with the line, “sexy is season”. Who can argue with that? He might be a weird, little man, but he takes his job seriously as a professional charmer.
“Bodies” and “Love Gun” are together the album’s primary nod to the never-fully-established 007 theme. After songs of full blown volume and instrumentation, “Bodies” hits us with minimalism, supported primarily by finger snaps, a snare roll, and some muted trumpets. It goes on slightly too long for my taste, and I’m always pleased when “Love Gun” brings us back with gun shots and a little more swagger. I think the best thing about this duet is that, at the point we most expect to hear The Lady Killer himself feature prominently, a female voice (Lauren Bennett) is given space for the first time on the album. The one thing that would highly improve this song is having someone like Janelle Monae du-et. (hehe – sorry I couldn’t resist). I can’t help but think they would make a sweet cat-and-mouse music video together. What’s done is done, but can this collaboration please happen sometime?
The next several songs on this album are super solid. “Satisfied” has some more of that vintage happy-clappy energy, and in un-lady-killer-like fashion, he just wants to satisfy his girl. “I Want You” is most of the time my favorite song on this album. Although he starts out trying to sound like a cool player, he ends up letting everything go for his desire for his woman. The song makes a full circle to the point that he is downright charismatic in his thankfulness to God for his relationship. Also, I think it has to do with the arrangement of horns and strings, but “I Want You” makes me feel as though I should be walking a red carpet instead of cement on Venables St.
“Cry Baby” is another retro-fabulous fun, breakup song that stars not so much Cee Lo, as it does the Bari Sax. Here’s the music video, and yes, that is Jaleel White from family matters, looking like a character somewhere between Steve Urkel and Stephan Urquelle. I mostly just want to dance with them.
“Fool for You” (which brought home the best R&B song Grammy this year) has a truly classic R&B feel and sound, and features regularly smooth transitions between the punchy, beat-driven verses and the chorus which hangs on the vocals and drops all percussion with the exception of some cymbal brushes. At this point I’m wondering which is the act: is Cee Lo the Lady Killer, who pretends vulnerability to lure his prey, or is he an underdog dressing up to convince himself. Either way, he has become a man of mystery.
“It’s OK” sounds to me like the little brother of “F*** You”. It has the same, dance-through-the-pain kind of attitude and groove, but is less in the anger stage of grief, and more in the acceptance stage. They say grief is less linear and more like a spiral, so I suppose Cee Lo is in the midst of a healthy recovery from rejection. In other news, “It’s OK” has the least viral, but possibly best video of Lady Killer.
“Old Fashioned” is true to its name, harkening back to a 50’s ballad with soul and class. Oddly, it pairs well with the indie Band of Horses cover, “No One’s Gonna Love You Like I Do”. In songs, the album ends on a mellow, slightly reflective and certainly heartbroken tone, which is why I feel the return to the loud and obnoxious “Lady Killer Theme” sounds terribly out of place. But perhaps it is meant to draw attention to the juxtaposition of Cee Lo’s underdog status with his lady-killer persona. In the end, it’s all about winning over the ladies. As a follow up to his last solo record in 2004, Lady Killer might as well been titled Cee Lo Green is a Charm Machine.
I have trouble knowing exactly how to understand the two Suites found on The ArchAndroid. What really throws me off is that the first Suite (Monae’s album The Chase) and presumably her fouth/last Suite are albums to themselves. Why has she put the middle two on one epic album? Are they incomplete without each other, or was it simply practical?
Although the two Suites are distinct from one another separated by their overtures, the album is listened to in its entirety. Never have I thought to myself, ‘well, I think I’ll just listen to the third suite of The ArchAndroid now’. The album is divided, but it’s still one album: If Monae really wanted separate listening experiences, she would have turned it into a double disc at least.
And so here we are where I left off: The third Suite’s overture chiming in, interestingly enough not only foreshadowing the melodies to come, but also picking up on themes provided primarily by the final song of Suite II, “Mushrooms and Roses”, further evidence that there is something more substantial linking these particular two Suites.
“Neon Valley Street” moves directly out of the Suite III Overture with a much smoother transition then that of Suite II. It feels almost like a song meant to give you a bit of time to remember where and when you are in the performance, and settle into your seat for the second act. “May the song reach your heart” beckons the listener back into the story, and by the time Janelle’s robotic rap starts up I am hooked again. The speaking outro could just as easily be the intro to “Make the Bus” which abruptly begins with Of Montreal’s Kevin Barns voice which is totally creepy, and works super well with the whole science-fiction vibe.
In fantastic form, Monae proves that she can indie it up, and then move into “Wondaland”, whose melody is reminiscent of the catchiest of an Earth Wind and Fire track. I find myself humming it when I’m walking around work, or waiting for a bus on a regular basis.
The next two tracks are on the mellower side, “57821” (the number referring to Cyndi’s droid number) points to her chosen-ness. Sir Greendown is both her lover, and biggest believer in her being a Messianic figure, and it seems that this song suggests that even her droid number somehow prophecies that Cindi will indeed be the one to save Metropolis. Musically, the song layers harmony with Monae and Deep Cotton, and reminds me of something that Fleet Foxes would do. (Have I mentioned that her genre diversity literally blows my mind?) “Say You’ll Go” is haunting and beautiful, and comes across to me as a duet between Janelle and the piano.
Finally, “BaBopBye Ya” which transitions through a whole bunch of varied sections, and yet always makes me think of the James Bond movie songs that scroll during the opening/closing credits. You know, like this: It allows the album to end while still holding an intrigue and mystery as to what is to come with Suite IV. I’m ready for it, Janelle Monae!
The ArchAndroid, though only the middle of a story, has a lot to say. About love, freedom, race, and boundary crossing. And it is definitely worth a listen.
2010 was a pretty incredible year for music. And I know it’s a little late for any best-of blogs, but part of my hiatus here has had to do with an onslaught of good new music to listen to. It’s time to pay homage to one of those distractions, and although there are several to choose from, none of the records from last year have demanded attention like Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid. It’s insanely ballsy, diverse in genre and mood, and yet cohesive in both its bizarre concept and polished production.
The album needs a rather large introduction since the only real way to listen to it is within the context of its concept. The ArchAndroid is composed of 2 Suites, each propelled and punctuated by an overture (at tracks 1 and 12). This is why I’ve decided to break this blog into two parts, and will discuss each Suite separately. Also, there’s just way too much to say!
There is a serious overlap of music with drama as Monae theatrically presents the suites (actually the 2nd and 3rd of what will be a total of 4) as work of the futuristic character of Janelle Monae, who was forced to leave her home year of 2719, and is imprisoned as a patient in Palace of the Dogs in the present. Much of her music regards her sort of alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android (and THE Archandroid whom the album is named for) built with Monae’s DNA who is a messianic figure of Metropolis. Yes, a somewhat complicated story. But one that adds layers to the listening experience as The ArchAndroid unites Science Fiction to Reality and Past to Future. Even as the story presents itself as distant from our world, the liner notes name inspirations for each track to be familiar icons of our present and past culture, from “Princess Leia’s cinammon (sic) buns hairstyle” to Salvador Dali.
Certainly Monae isn’t the first to produce and promote an album through the use of an alter-ego. Many have gone before, and certainly comparisons have been made – most clearly to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust – yet it seems worth mentioning this is the first by an African-American woman (no, Sasha Fierce does not count). The significance of a protagonist of a beautifully crafted Futuristic setting being an African American woman cannot be lost. I know I’m no Science Fiction buff, but I can think of very few black women in the genre of Science Fiction at all (Nyota Uhura from Star Trek is not exactly a household name), much less as the central figure on whom hope rests. This album is a statement, or at the very least, a new option of hero for an up-and-coming generation.
Musically, Monae pushes through countless boundaries, as each track seems to hop from genre to genre without feeling disjointed or sacrificing the continuity of the album. Whether it’s funk, soul, rap, progressive or experimental rock, she sounds at home, and ready for company. She breaks divides by doing collaborations with not only the somewhat expected Big Boi (she’s worked with Outkast in the past), but also with the offbeat indie rockers, Of Montreal on “Make the Bus”. On top of it all is her fabulous on stage image, dancing like James Brown in her “uniform”comprised of a black suit with a skinny tie and saddle shoes. Not to mention the gravity defying poof on her head.
Ok, let’s freaking listen to this thing! As I mentioned before, the album kicks off with an introduction to the 2nd Suite, which picks up on a few melodic themes from songs to come. Somehow she manages an effortless transition from orchestral overture to rhythmic, upbeat, bassy and beepy “Dance or Die” which launches Janelle into energetic rap-sing verses (that tends to remind me of Missy Elliott) hoping for heightened freedom, over a beat which is established with Saul Williams’ poetry. It sets the stage, and like any good setting, it’s hard to notice when something new has begun, which is exactly how “Faster” begins. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt as though it was the second part of the same song. Still, it adds to the tension of the story as we’re reminded that our hero is a fugitive. Again, “Locked Inside”, which continues themes of captivity and the hope and fight for freedom, begins without drawing great attention to the fact that a new song has begun. The first three tracks launch us into the tension and urgency of the story, and work as a single unit – kind of like the first act of a play.
Then, probably because of a fade out, Sir Greendown slows down and reflects on the primary romantic relationship at hand: Cindi Mayweather and Anthony Greendown, first introduced to us during Monae’s first suite called The Chase. Greendown’s love gives our hero the motivation and power to persevere, even though the next two giant songs of funk and melody, “Cold War” and “Tightrope” lyrically find the work difficult. Still, the groove in each is enough to feel as though she can do anything, and dance right through it. “Cold War” makes me nod my head without fail, and “Tightrope”, well, it makes me want to perfect my tightrope dance. Again, grounding us from this dance interlude, Monae slows it down with a backward recording on “Neon Gumbo” allowing us to reflect where we are in the story. It also bridges into the at first acoustic-sounding “Oh Maker”, one of my favorite non-dance tracks on the album.
Abruptly we find ourselves in two songs linked by their names and perhaps their use of electric guitars, but otherwise could not be more different. “Come Alive” is fantastic, bizarre, and sometimes angry, while “Mushrooms and Roses” can only be described as the sex scene of the album (if albums can have sex scenes…), which ever so gradually fades out, and thus appropriately ends our second Suite. But not the album, of course! Here’s a link to ArchAndroid Part II (and the third suite of Metropolis).
Peace out for now,