Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hip Hop Lives

My old high school friend Nep recently returned home to the East Coast from Cali. Last night he sang backup for underground hip hop staple Chali 2na.

2na was a member of seminal West Coast underground hip hop collective Jurassic 5. The set (augmented by a live band) was tight, well paced and high energy. Due to the quality of the PA system, it was hard to make out 2na's words, but his flow was consistent and his vocal timbre was strong. He was essentially another instrument in the band, which was actually cool. 2na also had a relaxed and confident stage presence that really put the crowd on his side. Instrumentally, the band clearly knew their past and present funk, which gave some stylistic weight to the material. The songs were also intermittently split up with DJ breaks of "old school jams", which helped create an ebb-and-flow for the set and added another historical layer to the music. Onstage, 2na had a great rapport with both Nep (who interjected soulful phrasing into the songs) and another mc/sideman who helped out with some hook lines and call-and-response, which is always great when well-rehearsed and done with more than simple repetition of a few words.

Prior to 2na, former Freestyle Fellowship member Aceyalone gave a totally pro (that's a compliment), wholly entertaining set of his own.

Armed with only a DJ and mic, Aceyalone immediately owned the stage and reminded me that a creative MC with solid tunes can be totally engaging and just as exciting as a band. He was also flowing over some deep samples taken from 60's r&b records. That's underused source material for hip hop and I was really glad to hear it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Benefits of Extremity

On Thursday, I went to a show in Williamsburg to see the band of the regular Tuesday night bartender at Botanica (where I occasionally work as a DJ). The band is called Dead Stars, and the music was thoroughly enjoyable, 90's-style indie rock (check out "Break the Tide" on their myspace page). The tunes had strong hooks and surprisingly compelling extended jams in the vein of Dinosaur Jr. After their set, I was pretty psyched to be out hearing good music and relaxed with a G&T buzz.

But that did not prepare me for the next band, the Marionettes of Satan.

The music started out well with (what I thought was) a trio that played an avant noise variation of 60s psychedelic rock. The drummer in particular was very good. He obviously had some training and maintained a deep pocket that reminded me of Mitch Mitchell. He was bookended onstage by a headband-wearing guitar player and a lanky mini-organist. The guitarist had the most trebly tone I've ever heard. It was uncomfortably piercing, but rightly reminiscent of the thin-fuzz tone of the psych-rock era. He played a combination of feedback, atonal melody and riffage while the organist made a Ray Manzerack-like ruckus of surf/blues vamps.

Then the singers came out, and the music abruptly shifted into an aggressively abstract southern revival meeting, with primeval urge as the object of worship. The first singer was a theatrical, gay(ish) fellow in jean cutoffs, a white t-shirt with artfully placed holes, face paint and a minor's light on his forehead. The other was a fetching young woman with long black hair and a blank stare who looked a bit like Chan Marshall. They both sat cross-legged on the stage and screamed/wailed in soulful long tones, staring at each other with vague sexual intensity. This strange cacophony continued uninterrupted for about 15 minutes. The crowd stood in complete astonishment, including me. Stylistically, the band made no sense. But the music was tirelessly listenable. My recollection of their set is a series of 7-10 minute songs that eventually climaxed into a mashup of "Billy Jean" and "Light My Fire".

Seeing this band reminded me that I need more opportunities to chance upon transgressive musical encounters. I use the word transgressive, because these encounters are not meditative exercises in "losing oneself", like a deep listening experience with Satie or Coltrane. It's more like sublime confusion through an intentional aural dislocation of time and place. I've been keeping a short mental list of concerts that fall under this category, where my predominate feeling has been "What the fuck is happening?" (usually in a good way).

The list includes (with it's most recent addition):

Peter and the Wolf (Symphony Hall, Boston, 1983)
Ornette Coleman and Prime Time (Berklee Performance Center, Boston, 1994)
Sonic Youth (Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC, 1996)
Arab on Radar/Wolf Eyes (Knitting Factory, NYC, 2000)
Rhumba in Havana Vieja (Havana, Cuba, 2003)
Marionettes of Satan (Public Assembly, Brooklyn, 2009)

Interestingly, this sense of dislocation was reproduced in a different context on Saturday night while watching the film "Bruno".

Now haters have been reviewing "Bruno" as "Borat-Lite". I had similar concerns that the film would simply be a variation of the previews and promo appearances, i.e. Sasha Baron-Cohen provoking hicks, minor celebrities and right wing politicos with gay fear-mongering. In essence, Baron-Cohen would be substituting xenophobia with homophobia. Which he does end up doing. But the methods by which he does so are still both ruthlessly explicit and deeply psychological. Every stunt both provokes and reflects upon the theoretical benchmarks of our society - safety, comfort, truth, etc. Through extreme comedy, Baron Cohen dislocates the viewer from the comfort of familiarity. His actions are so aggressively removed from the cultural norm that they rupture our own established boundaries of belief and behavior, thereby thrusting us (via laughter) into an alternate reality of ironic absurdity and extreme prejudice. It was a cinematic analogue to the "what the fuck is happening?" musical experience and I was happy to be there (again).

Monday, July 13, 2009

For Your Reconsideration: Kenny Loggins

(I recently finished a post for the blog Video Pop. Couldn't wait to see it up, so I'm double dipping)...

Over the last year and half, I have become slightly obsessed with Soft Rock. Now this is not some post-ironic, Yacht Rock kick. This is the real deal. And I'd like to share with you some of the artists/albums that go down smoother than a 2005 Le Clos Jordanne Chardonnay.

To get things started, I wanna get you down with my man Kenny.

Now many people may associate him with this:

Or this:

But the fact is, Kenny is a seriously killing songwriter. Particularly in the late 1970's, he had a winning combination of pop songcraft, jazzy arrangenents and a voice reminiscent of a white Stevie Wonder. Stevie actually lent him a Yamaha C-80 keyboard for the record "Keep the Fire". Prior to that, Kenny recorded the 1978 album "Nightwatch" with producer/keyboardist Bob James.

James is best known for the tastefully funky, frequently-sampled song Nautilus and the painfully smooth jazz label, GRP. But with "Nightwatch", Loggins and James got just the right balance of cheese and genuine blue-eyed soul.

"Nightwatch" starts out with a moody, bass-driven title track that effectively combines Kenny's meticulous songwriting with James's delectably questionable take on faux-noir atmospherics and "session" musicianship. You can practically hear James holding a glass of Ridge Monte Bello and saying "This tune is a dark, romantic groove. Turn the lights down low Kenny, I want you to really feel this one". It's so obvious, but sometimes cliches work if done with some creativity and total commitment.

Other notable tracks include Wait a Little While and the classic duet with Stevie Nicks, Whenever I Call You Friend. Record geeks will also note that the album contains the song What a Fool Believes, which Kenny wrote with Michael McDonald. McDonald would (smartly) re-record this song later with the Doobie Brothers. It's interesting to compare each version, which ultimately shows that Kenny didn't quite have a handle on the vocal delivery and James should have helped more with tightening up the arrangement. As a side note, I recently just found another version with Aretha Franklin singing lead. McDonald still wins. He just owns that shit.

More gems can be found on Kenny's aforementioned 1979 follow-up record, "Keep the Fire"

which has his most famous soft rock hit, This is It.

But my favorite track is Who's Right, Who's Wrong, featuring backup vocals by a young Michael Jackson. The song has a surprisingly complex arrangement that takes some unexpected turns (in a good way). In addition, the title track is great and demonstrates how Kenny can really rock out while maintaining a soulful croon when needed.

In the 1980's, Kenny dramatically shifted his sound to stay relevant in a youth-driven pop marketplace. But check out his 1970's discography. The songs mentioned in this post can be found here. Hold from the tip, give a light twist, smell the aroma, and then taste the richness of the soft.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Look of Love

Watched "9 1/2 Weeks" on cable at my parent's house in MA tonight...

I was psyched to watch it for three reasons:

Mickey Rourke is the shit
Sex Scenes
Adrien Lyne's style

The first two are obvious, so let's talk about the third.

Lyne was one of a few very influential British tv commercial directors who came over to the States in the early 1980's to make Hollywood films. Two other prominent directors from the Brit commercial invasion were brothers Ridley and Tony Scott. Together, they largely defined the glossy, highly stylized look of 1980's major studio films. The hazy, soft focus (often achieved through literally smoking up a room and then diffusing it with light) and fine attention to specific color palettes (white, grey, blue and brownish-orange are often the most important - there's actually a great article about the color palette of "9 1/2 Weeks" here) created an instantly recognizable aesthetic that was both artistic and accessible.

Looking at their collective body of work, a set of style-defining films emerges: "Flashdance", "Blade Runner", "The Hunger", "Top Gun", "Fatal Attraction" and the aformentioned "9 1/2 Weeks".

Some critics say that these films sacrifice character development for aesthetics. In his review of "9 1/2 Weeks", Vincent Canby wrote:

"In '9 1/2 Weeks,' [Lyne] has created a work that might well qualify as a truly nouveau film. Here is a movie in which actors impersonating characters are blended into the decor so completely that they take on the properties of animated products, no more or less important than exquisitely photographed strawberries."

While Canby does have a valid point, ultimately I don't care. These films are gorgeous and visually innovative, operating in a similar manner as Kinetic Eye Candy, although with a different intention. Kinetic Eye Candy is about adrenaline and sensory overload, whereas these films are concerned with creating an atmosphere of sensuality built from elements of contemporary design, fashion and/or music.

Here are some examples:

On a personal level, these films have definitely informed my songwriting, production preferences and guitar sound. Maybe I'm just seeking a musical identity through displaced nostalgia, yearning for an adulthood in a different era. Whatever the subconscious logic, it just feels right.