Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Otis Redding: Very Best Of (1962-68)



You'll find no challenge in this household, uh, blog if you wander in and announce that Otis Redding is the finest male singer in the pop idiom. We might in our hearts say similar things about Sam Cooke and John Lennon but really, there's no way to challenge you on this basic point: he was a master vocalist, a brilliant composer, and a ball of energy as a performer. He was also a consummate artist who, in a painfully brief recording career, laid down a rather shocking amount of stellar material; along with the Beatles, he may be the only major rock & roll performer who isn't best introduced with a greatest hits compilation. Not one best-of I've heard gives any real hint to his versatility, or to the depth in his catalog.

Case in point is this serviceable enough Rhino collection from 1992, part of a large series collecting various important performers' A-sides of the '60s. The offerings here couldn't be better, of course; "That's How Strong My Love Is" into "Mr. Pitiful" into "I've Been Loving You Too Long" into "Respect" makes a Voyager I-worthy case for Redding's immense gifts and the reason he looms so large in any survey of midcentury music. If we're strictly grading a compilation like this on musical content, well of course this rates an easy A+. And really, chances are that if you're reading this you're somewhat familiar with Redding's catalog, but if you're not: you can do so much better than this. Start, let's say, with Otis Blue, universally regarded as a classic and still one of the most wondrous albums of the '60s or ever; then tackle a personal favorite of mine, The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, then grab one of two oddities: the magnificent posthumous classic The Immortal Otis Redding or the searing Carla Thomas collaboration King and Queen, unsampled here aside from the lively "Tramp." Or go chronologically and gather up Pain in My Heart, Sings Soul Ballads, and The Soul Album. Trust me, once you've started you'll want them all.

But Redding is not unique in his genre or era in regard to being an album artist; Motown albums were mostly filler in the '60s, but travel outside of that circle and you'll find Wilson Pickett, for instance, churning out consistently high-quality and robust full-lengths, yet I'd still advise you to kick things off with a Pickett compilation. What's different about Redding? Mostly it's that the aforementioned grandness and versatility of this catalog doesn't pare down well to a format like this; the Beatles analogy is the easiest one -- how do you explain the Beatles in forty-five minutes? Every comp I've heard is fixated upon Redding as balladeer, and sure, he was a great one, one of the best. But ballads don't dominate the performance mastery and songwriterly expertise inherent to his body of work, certainly not in the way they define, say, Gene Vincent or even Marvin Gaye, whose world was always so passionately contained. Redding was a cut-loose-and-move-free performer; you get a taste of it in the cover of "Satisfaction" included here, wherein he comes to own the song so thoroughly that I don't recommend you hear it if you deeply love the Rolling Stones' version, because it will never sound anything but quaint again. Redding's own songs were great but his dominance over the material he covered, his ability to tower over and transform it, was above reproach, and our only real hints here are "Satisfaction," admittedly a great choice, and the relatively conservative "Try a Little Tenderness."

Again, these are all essential cuts, but vocally Redding would go on these astounding near-wordless tangents like on "Satisfaction" wherein he seems to nearly lose control of his singing, he's so wound up, and his relationship to the music becomes so blisteringly powerful and complex, and it's as if he's creating some wide-scope canon of American art in real time with nothing but the whims and tics and fiery blowouts of that fearsome instrument of his. That's what I think of when I think of how much I love this man's work. I think also of the natural gruffness and swagger of "Hard to Handle," the a cappella explosion on "Love Man," the cocksure simmer of "Knock on Wood," none of which are here.

But the issue with Very Best Of isn't simply that it doesn't contain enough material, it's that it's unable to really justify its own existence. On the theory that the prospective buyer will end up eventually acquiring all of Redding's albums, the Carla Thomas collaboration, and the first two posthumous LPs (the first of which, Dock of the Bay, is often listed as a proper studio album), there is but one cut on this disc -- the buoyant "I Can't Turn You Loose" -- that won't be duplicated. Each and every one of those other CDs is more essential than this one, and is at least its equal as a primer on the man's work; even his weakest LPs, The Soul Album and Pain in My Heart, are stronger educations. You'd think that placing Redding's most shining classics all together would be some sort of a revelation, putting an overwhelming glow around his body of work, but Redding's moment was so short that to chop it up seems like a dilution or skewing of a coherent narrative. And hearing the slow ones all end to end with a few relieving bits of rollick and bombast isn't representative, nor is it much fun, except maybe for sex, then have at it. But being totally honest: get the albums and everything else, go to iTunes and get "I Can't Turn You Loose," and adore all of it for the rest of your life. Skip this. Satisfaction (!) guaranteed.

Otis Blue (1965)
The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966)

A$AP Rocky: LongLiveA$AP (2013)



You remember that interview Paul McCartney gave announcing his break from the Beatles, wherein among other things he noted the way that Let It Be had become an old record before it even came out? This comes to mind a lot when we spend time with LongLiveA$AP, an album that even in its title suggests the iconography of a comeback -- but it's the dude's first LP. It seems like so long ago already that this record's first hot single "Goldie" showed up and already seemed to signal that one of hip hop's youngest golden boys was starting to sound a little exhausted -- his unwavering, consistent flow as smooth as ever, yeah, but now stunted by expectation like he's already on the defense about a mythology he long since established succinctly, one that already made itself familiar to us before we could buy a note of his music. Produced by Hit-Boy with a sort of goofily strident Jack in the Box toy of a hook, "Goldie" is engagingly brief but also overblown ("to complement the mink") and just doesn't have the presence of a big memorable radio moment. And it still trades a few yards further ahead of the curve than the Skrillex cameo "Wild for the Night," which mixed in with its wheat-thin revision of some of the most determinedly annoying sequencer trills of R&B radio circa 2004 is like this bonkers signal of what a weird world popular music has really become by now. And yet A$AP Rocky himself, the supposed star of this production, seems scarcely to be doing much to assert his control over it.

A couple of years ago, I was one of many enamored with A$AP Rocky's autumn 2011 mixtape LiveLoveA$AP, not to be (read: inevitably to be) confused with his oft-delayed debut album LongLiveA$AP, which now sits before us at last. We've learned since then that he's a bit of a dickbag; did you read the interview in which he asserted that he wanted to have sex with Lana Del Rey less after he came to respect her, thus offering some pandering old-world values on both femininity and sexuality in one fell swoop? But we can choose to avoid brutish dudes who say and do misogynistic shit in our culture and then we can spend the rest of our lives avoiding James Brown and John Ford, so the point's somewhat moot. But if we come to LongLive with a bias, what supports it is not Rocky's less-distinctive-than-before lyrics but the rocky bounce between malaise and caffeinated drive in his performance style. The excitement over his rapid-wealth burst onto the scene has long faded now, and what's technically a first album comes to feel like a grab at redemption already. The record opens what seems almost an obligatory feeling of hazy drift-off in its ambiance, Rocky struggling to announce himself as fate swallows him. He's dying in prison, but he still has to rant and rave -- none too originally, but passionately -- about hypocritic Christians and, uh, Santa. And by the time the first fade comes, he's won us over again at least in part: that lively brew of tricks and alter egos and general feverishness he calls forth when he feels like it, when he wants to make his strongest impression, is actually worthy of Kendrick Lamar. But Rocky has far less to say, cause he's still just a baby.

That baby is one who decided to make himself a career in hip hop just for the hell of it, and we can tell by his pay stubs that he was justified in the endeavor. But maybe easy is too easy sometimes -- throughout this record, lethargy sets in as soon as Rocky asserts himself, often leaving others like Lamar or Schoolboy Q or (memorably) Danny Brown to pick up his slack. His relative apathy isn't even of the smoked-out variety like Curren$y's charming trippiness, but in this case at least it seems almost conceptual, a kissoff posture to prove a point; LongLive is a surprisingly drab affair, which isn't fully a negative criticism. "PMW" holds a familiar fusion of bigness and snails-pace sound and center-stages a sense of welcome desperation in A$AP's voice, and it's just a strange and lumbering enough grind to be intriguing and infectious. But as will prove typical, he dilutes it with a tired roll call of clichés; he's still a pretty motherfucker, lest you forget, but "pussy money weed / yeah" recalls nothing so much as that dunderheaded hook at the center of Limp Bizkit's "Nookie," something I never wanted to relive (can't speak for you kind folks). I slightly prefer the Zen-like "ungh, pain" that drives the lounged-up trip hop "Pain," or even "lights camera action" ad nauseum. Anything. But the most compelling rapping here is all on the rather quaint (in both form and content) all-star lineup "1Train," which says a lot. Laid up against that, I actually don't mind a bit of arrogant prickishness. I'm in luck cause there's plenty, and though the hungover dance music of "LVL" is already just as in danger of sounding outdated as the bizarre Skrillex track, it is bewildering enough to be a singular experience. And stretch-skewed, slowed-the-fuck-down A$AP is really more fun at this point than whatever else he's doing.

When the breakneck-impossible skill demonstrated on Rocky's old mixtape bullhorn bursts through the dross and weird, there's genuine artistry to be found here, and mixed in with the oddity of what remains we have to count this record as something of a victory. Three cuts in particular fuel the starmaking potential of the record: my personal choice for the full breadth is "Hell" -- a stunning, troubling spiritual of sorts, a cartoon tour of an infernal dark night with disorienting, miserable echoed vocals and chilly vastness suggestive more than anything of Cab Calloway's cycle through the afterworld in the Fleischers' cartoon "Snow White." Rocky is wallpaper here, but so what? He's bold enough to know how rich this is and gives it up to Clams Casino's brilliantly unsettling production and, maybe more importantly, a shattering chorus by Santigold. I'm nearly as enamored of the glorious hi-NRG throwback "Fashion Killa," on which A$AP seems to surrender to the widescreen seduction with full force enthusiasm; that as well as the piece's surprising warmth make it the most utterly infectious thing here, except for...

Well, you know the one. "Fuckin' Problems" is maybe the song of 2013 so far, and to Rocky and his far-flung cabinet's eternal credit, it's a thoroughly unique creation despite its myriad throwbacks and influences, a pun-heavy and wicked classicist-nutzoid groove evoking Stan Freberg by way of Ice-T. It's here that everything suddenly snaps into gear better and brighter than on Rocky's first tape; the track's evil and vicious, dumb even, but its mad-scientist groove is so deliciously clever that even its deplorable sarcasm resonates, and there's something magnificent on a "Lola" level about how the central couplet winds up: "I love bad bitches, that's my fuckin' problem" -- and wait for it -- "and yeah I like to fuck, I got a fuckin' problem." You dig? The chrome to your dome make you sweat like me? Come on. And this isn't "Ms. Jackson" or anything, but take your pick on whether the complete absurdity of "I'm the nigga / The nigga nigga" (forever? for ever ever?) or "Stare up at the stars and put the Beatles on" makes you gladder to be alive. Hey, Kendrick's here; it's fun. Drake's even here and he also fucking produced the thing, by far his greatest cultural accomplishment to date.

That Drake would provide the most indelible, mysterious beats and track here -- its chorus a monster, its verses heart-flippingly shapeless -- is one of the many surprises A$AP's offered in this fragmented but highly worthwhile mess. Danger Mouse contributes too, and his track "Phoenix" is so much a symbol of his own tastes and his own now-fading era that it's like, who decided what belonged here? The words are added to the heap of vaguely nonsensical rants about "Illuminati lies" but Danger acts like he's unsure if he's on top of the Geto Boys or Coldplay, casting Rocky's tonguetwist -- which, by the way, is weirdly and surely unintentionally reminiscent of the midsized '70s Beach Boys hit "It's OK," only too appropriate given how good a time Mike Love and A$AP Rocky would have discussing "bitches" -- against, uh, gospel? Gangsta's lament circa '93? The organic piano and beat and the in-vogue distortion? What the fuck is he doing? Danger Mouse's mere presence here, much less the terrifying Frankenstein creation he conjures up once he arrives, is the major outlier here and yet also a microcosm of this bizarrely put-together album.

It never really falls into place, not except those few seconds on "Fuckin' Problems" when everyone in the galaxy is having a beachball-bursting good fucking time, but I'm still not sure I'm actually criticizing this record. I might forget a lot of things but I doubt the genuine originality and unnerving strangeness of something like creepy-crawly finale "Suddenly" will leave me anytime soon. This one has A$AP cleverly deconstructing himself over a freaky-deaky vocal sample that's probably not actually that discomforting but is repeatedly drilled down into wispy horror and stretched weirdness heading out to oblivion. What's happening here is actually an old DJing trick, the stop-start of a familiar bite of a celebratory song or moment as last-call approaches, as people are drunk enough to sing along and lose themselves a bit. But it's turned on its head like some spotlight cast on all our drunken indulgences, and somewhere behind the turntables Rocky stands there laughing knowingly with an evil look in his eyes. Dunno what he'll do now but I'm slightly afraid of it.

LiveLoveA$AP (2011)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

One-sentence reviews #5

I lived through high school once, I don't really want to do it again.

Fashion Nugget

!! CAUTION !! - Bought this in seventh or eighth grade primarily because all my friends bought it and I wanted to be cool too, then by the time I actually did so it was considered passe -- but I ended up a great fan of the band for a time anyway; sadly, like fellow ironic-detachment titans Beck and Ben Folds, Cake is now unlistenable to me, and this is their worst record of all: smarmy and smug and care-ful-ly en-un-ci-at-ed deadpan, badly sung and performed by people who kinda seem to hate rock music, excluding solely the serviceable rockabilly "Stickshifts and Safetybelts" and strange meander "Italian Leather Sofa" and yes this really is one sentence.


!! CAUTION !! - Distinctly of-its-time trip hop might pass on quaintness except its actual content, as opposed to its production, is just so fucking inept compared to the many practitioners of this genre whose trend-mongering was less explicit; do you prefer the obnoxious attempted Stax invocation "If Lovin' You Is Wrong" with its comic book panel of sensuality or the bad-breath charmer "Dirty Ol' Man"?

The Joy Formidable
Wolf's Law

As throwback major label arena rock bands go in 2013, this is probably stellar and certainly eclipses the similar glitziness of Florence and the Machine melodically and vocally, but this person with a onetime soft spot for Muse has lost whatever connection would let him admire any band whose primary touchstone seems to be Queen; if you feel otherwise, I advise you to listen to this.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career (2009)



The lengthy lapse since the last post here has been for a variety of legitimate and pathetic reasons, not the smallest of which is that I set a goal for myself -- with the recent announcement of new work from long-quiet Camera Obscura -- to tackle this album full bore to try and figure out why it's one of the biggest disappointments of recent vintage for me. Because my reaction seems inexplicable; more than one critic pointed out that at a glance, it's a carbon copy of Let's Get Out of This Country, the record that made me love them to begin with. I put up Country and Underachievers Please Try Harder as touchstones of a certain type of modernist baroque. The follow-up doesn't really fuck with the formula, so what's wrong?

I still don't know, hence how long it's taken me to actually write this. There are two songs on My Maudlin Career that I sort of like: "James" is like the Go-Go's at a funeral, delicate and pretty, and "Other Towns and Cities" employs a disorienting starkness a la "Morpha Too" behind its circular tune. The latter is impressive because it's a stretch for the band, the only such moment here, and the former because it exhibits something like warmth. If I have to name what's missing to account for the dropoff in affection, it's maybe that... but that's still a "maybe."

Camera Obscura's sound is still an irresistible commodity for me, and on this outling Björn Yttling's string arrangements are often glorious -- to the point that their entrance just before the fade on "French Navy" feels like a major tease and letdown. The production of Jari Haapalainen is equally inspired, as before, but this is all a lot of fuss over a near-total absence of actual songs, at least songs that sound more than half-complete. There are more hooks just in "Teenager" than on the entirety of My Maudlin Career, which might well be all right if the band's crucial stylistic commitments didn't fail so completely to lend themselves to a more nuanced composition style. I mean, let's give it up for the band -- those guitars on "Honey in the Sun" sound great, and they swing a little on "Swans," but it's like we don't really know these people. All plastic, the impersonal posturing of record collectors goofing around in a studio, and that's a feeling that honestly doesn't come across on the two prior albums. (Of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, I cannot speak as it remains to be heard in its entirety by me.) What's more, these already labored tunes nearly all stretch over four minutes, which inevitably thins out the charm.

Somewhat less easy to forgive, for me, is Tracyanne Campbell's vocal performance -- the depth she exhibited was always what kept Camera Obscura from being one big gimmick, and here she's in surprisingly weak form, which is lethal when she's front and center like in the a cappella intro of "You Told a Lie," but hardly less troubling in near-monotone on "Away with Murder" and thinness and mumbling ("away with mutter" indeed) all around. It's not always just a question of her failing to assert her command over the proceedings; she belts out "French Navy" as though it has some direction that it doesn't and nearly convinces, but with all the bombast drowning her out on the cowboy cartoon "Forest and Sands" you get that she's doing her best, going on and on and on and on with one of the album's many bizarrely convoluted, rambling vocal lines, with what amounts to just bland material, and her labored coolness on this round seems only to add to that problem. She never seems to really rise and she can't truly sing when the songs themselves don't offer the chance; it's like the whole record is a dirge pretending to be pop music. Write a dirge, fine, but go all the way. (Weirdly, I keep thinking of the Magnetic Fields' EP The House of Tomorrow, which attempts and sometimes succeeds to wring mainstream pop beauty out of droning repetition; inevitably, the songs here just don't stack up.) Spector sound requires Spector drama, to put it in annoying crit-speak.

That doesn't mean some won't respond immediately to the dusty library of girl group cheeriness and goopiness here, all these lovely arrangements in search of hooks, but the infectiousness that made Camera Obscura so immediate at their best is lost in these "ooh-ooh"s, even when a point is scored like "I'm goin' on a date tonight / To try to fall out of love with you." That line's buried in the wheezy Skeeter Davis sympathy party "The Sweetest Thing," the uninspired melody and clipped, cut-short chorus of which illustrate the songwriting wall the LP hits again and again: these are weak echoes of old things rather than witty evocations of them. At a different point in their, uh, career, maybe the group's new fixation on country music -- the clip-clop on "Away with Murder" is more Paint Your Wagon than Stagecoach -- might have been an interesting coup for them, but their painful C&W showpiece "You Told a Lie" is like the Carpenters vacationing in Nashville, or a bottom-tier Connie Francis b-side at best. The song (like many here) is a straight, unwavering line that finds no catharsis or outlet, and as for the performance and vocal... maybe the most telling thing I can say about it is it reminds me of the worst output of She & Him, whose entire motif is a dilution of Camera Obscura's dilution of the Shangri-Las, Lesley Gore, et al.

I'm still excited for new material from Camera Obscura -- this sounds distinctly like a fluke to me, and maybe I've just been in the wrong mood. For, uh, the last four years. Plus I can hear something happening in "Swans" -- it opens on a major up-note, you must think it's someone else, and despite another weak bridge and chorus it does have a certain lilt about it in which everyone gives their best. For this specific moment, though, the group stagnates; meeting something nifty like the simple piano trill on the title cut, they give it a big huge backdrop and a completely dull song and that's the M.O. for whatever reason. Even when something builds up like the mostly painfully slow "Careless Love," it's just so twee and "cute" and boring -- emotionless even, and that's a problem. The production and performances and arrangements are still solid as ever, but Career is a cloud of joyless fluff from people who sound like the lifers they aren't quite yet (though they're getting scarily close). It runs together and sounds tired and makes you long for the past, and maybe the grand error is that that last part of the effect is kind of close to what they might have been going for.