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What matters in the world of popular music.

Posts tagged “commentary

ARMED THROUGH TRUTH: Calle 13’s “Multi-Viral” a call-to-arms in a disinformation age

Not every band has the balls of Puerto Rico’s Calle 13. Most bands don’t come close.

But it takes a special brand of righteous courage to get out there with a message this intense, packaging an ear-catching blend of incendiary rock with a message of moral certainty in an age where we often can’t trust anyone, particularly media gatekeepers. Yet they don’t stop there. The song is built around multiple languages, featuring Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran, and even with barely a rudimentary understanding of the Spanish language (and no understanding of Palestinian) the underlying message comes through loud and clear.

From NPR:

Speaking to the group’s lead singer, Rene Perez Joglar, on the phone recently, he told me the goal of the song was to discuss how “media is controlling everything, even people’s minds, everything. Here in the U.S. it’s worse, it’s like a bubble … It’s important to have the right information, and you are not going to get that from one newspaper or one TV show. You have to look for that. In order to get the full picture, you have to read a lot and look for yourself. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a war that you think is a good idea, but it’s not for a good reason.”

If you’re still hiding within that media-protected bubble prior to listening to “Multi-Viral,” prepare to have it burst spectacularly.

Calle 13 has proved through the last decade to be the most daring Puerto Rican band of its generation in any genre, and this single proves they’ve got no plans to give up the fight. From the assassination of Puerto Rican independence activist Filiberto Ojeda Rios by the FBI to their vitriol toward the Vatican, nothing’s off limits. Still, there’s always the understanding that there’s more to the band than simply pushing limits. As Alejandro A. Riera writes on his blog culturebodega:

You could tell there was something special about Calle 13. Here was a lyricist/vocalist (René Pérez Joglar “Residente”) who could actually rhyme (unlike so many reggaetón stars) and could use the tools of poetry to create vivid images in the listener’s imagination, and a musician (Eduardo Cabra “Visitante”) who is as much a musical omnivore as David Byrne.

Yes, the band has graduated well beyond the shock-rap which built their reputation early (see “Atrevete Te Te”) and picked up the mantle of righteous indignation laid down years ago by Zach de la Rocha. And those who appreciate protest music where the message and the music are equally worth hearing — and sharing — would be remiss if they ignore the music of Calle 13.

Indeed “Multi-Viral” deserves to become precisely that.

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AMERICAN APPROPRIATORS: “Best Day Of My Life” shamelessly duplicates Imagine Dragons’ hook and no one cares

For the last two months I’ve been having a sense of musical deja vu, from the moment I first heard American Authors’ “Best Day Of My Life” and started wondering how it is that the hook which the song is built upon sounds so much like Imagine Dragons.

Not in the sense that it’s “hey, here’s the new Imagine Dragons!” or something of that ilk, something the band could hang its hat on as a badge of “honor.”

No, I’m hearing almost carbon copy similarities between the hook of Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” and the breakthrough of American Authors. The former has been a hit since mid-2012 and has spawned more than 55 million YouTube views, while also becoming the most sampled track for movie soundtracks and Hulu Plus advertisements. The latter came out in October and hasn’t built up nearly the same level of ubiquity, though it also seems set to live on in advertisements for years to come thanks to spots for Lowes and Hyundai.

 

 

“It’s Time” was produced by Alex da Kid and Brandon Darner, while I cannot find definitive production information for “Best Day Of My Life” for comparison. So I cannot be certain that this was a situation similar to when Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson were provided the same beat with minor edits by Ryan Tedder. Still,when so many specious arguments are made regarding potential plagiarism (“One Direction” sampling the opener to “Baba O’Riley” anyone?) it’s disheartening that two songs so similar can be released within the space of eighteen months and no one seems to be pointing out just how derivative this track by American Authors truly is.

If it’s not an outright ripoff, it at the very least signifies the band can’t separate its influences from its own sound. And it doesn’t bode well for the state of radio in 2014 if we’re willing to play along.


ALL YOU EVER DID WAS WRECK ME: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” as an examination of teenage hypersexuality

So, in the wake of the VMAs and Miley Cyrus’s unfortunate Twitter-bait bomb which was Twerking It 2013, you think she’s undeserving of any pop respect. And on first glance the video for “Wrecking Ball” stands to reiterate that. But give it a second look / listen. What, I have to wonder, is wrong with a teen sensation growing up and taking creative and artistic risks, even if it means perhaps alienating her from today’s crop of tween pop followers? Bear in mind Cyrus came to instant fame years ago and has aged alongside her audience — is there not room for a young woman to make her own moves in a male-dominated industry?

Here Miley pushes to take control of her own body, claiming her sexuality as her own as a backdrop to a song which, lyrically, crushes her beneath the memories of a relationship left in ruin. And while you may object to the video’s seemingly casual nudity and the often awkward sexual juxtapositions as Miley sings of taking to love like a wrecking ball only to be wrecked by the very love she so desires, bear in mind — she doesn’t owe you anything. Beyond giving pop fans a hook-filled melody, which this song does repeatedly and with gusto, her job as an artist in this pop era is to produce hits. And “Wrecking Ball” is a hit to anyone with ears. Whether her personal life is a mess, or her decisions as a young woman violate your personal sense of “shame,” I say resoundingly“So what?” In that case she’s probably not singing this song in your direction anyway.

All that should and does matter is the song itself. Imagine getting this single sent to your inbox without a name attached, without the baggage of the video, and listen. Better yet, load the video and then turn your screen off, then press play.

Walk around the room and listen to that plaintive opening verse, a hook unto itself. Then the chorus hits, taking the song from plaintive pop to full-on anthem. “I came in like a wrecking ball / I never hit so hard in love / all I wanted was to break your walls / all you ever did was wre-eh-ehck me! You wre-eh-ehck me!” This is everything Lady Gaga still wishes she could put out there, every inch of what Katy Perry’s “Roar” can’t reach.

Love really is war, and when you lose you spend so much wasted time blaming yourself for the failings, to the point of self-destruction. That’s where the twisted sexual imagery of the video comes to bear. Yes it’s disjointed, creepy, desperate and disturbing, but it’s a view into what many of our young teenage women grow up thinking they have to do to win in love. Robin Thicke can put out a song like “Blurred Lines” which all but endorses the “I can treat you like an object because deep down you really like it” mentality, and yet we publicly scorn only the women who take part in the video, not the men who take credit for the song itself. Miley is a slut for twerking it onstage while Robin Thick plays the role of R&B referree.

And when our sisters, our daughters, fall in love and have their hearts broken, they’re left reeling, wondering what they didn’t do that could have kept the man in their life from wrecking them. Far from glorifying young women and open sexuality, as the Guardian obliquely opines, the video implies the opposite. The whole world tells me I should be this way, how could I be the only one who’s wrong?

I never meant to start a war
I just wanted you to let me in
And instead of using force
I guess I should have let you win

What message do we send when we trash the messenger — in this case an overly sexualized music video — when the message within is that in a world where everything’s hyper-sexualized, it’s okay coming from a man but when a woman claims even a touch of that sexual power, it’s off limits? I’m sure Miley Cyrus isn’t worried too deeply about this debate as she pushes “Wrecking Ball” toward what’s almost certain to be mega-hit status. But while she didn’t write the song, she uses the video to hint at the pain and hurt which lies below both the lyrics and the nudity in her video.

All of which warrants a second listen if you’ve chosen already to write the song off as meaningless … or worse, mere filth.


Bleed American: When Tragedy Strikes, Pop Matters

I remember September 11, 2001 starting out just like any other day. I’d overslept, just like on most days, so I’d taken a rushed shower and was trying to catch up on the news while toweling off, before I’d take my 1.5-mile trek across IU’s campus to class. I had CNN on mute, but recognized the World Trade Center with smoke coming from the tower. Mute was quickly removed as I saw footage of the second plane hitting, and I immediately had to call my mother to see if she was watching.

An hour later I sat in the front row of my massive Criminology lecture, crying openly along with my classmates as we watched developments on the classroom’s gigantic video screen. None of us knew how to process this, developments seeming so far away on a sunny September morning, yet still right there on top of us nonetheless. I recall stumbling through the rest of my classes that morning (including Calculus, wherein the heartless teacher made us continue working even as one girl nearly had a breakdown — her father was a NYC fireman) wondering just what our world was coming to.

I couldn’t continue to watch the news and become numb to developments. I saw that happening to friends of mine in the dorms, watching the news with their red eyes, jaws clenched, minds reeling. I had to get out and walk. I walked that afternoon to the local record store, where several like-minded students browsed the aisles with equally impenetrable stares. We had to find something we could listen to which would pull us out of the mess current events had sucked us into. I recall picking up a copy of Ben Folds’ Rocking The Suburbs, an album I’d already pilfered via Napster, as well as one by a band I’d never heard, Jimmy Eat World.

Bleed American, the title read.

Months later that album would simply be Jimmy Eat World, since the band feared people weren’t understanding that the title was not an attack on America but rather a claim of ownership. We, as Americans, needed to take on that identity and bleed American through and through, celebrating our lives in all their craziness and absurdity. “I’m not alone, ’cause the TV’s on …” the album opened, before encouraging us to clear our thoughts with Speyside, something I wished fervently at the moment that I could do. Forget what was happening now and just let music take over. Even for a few minutes.

I caught a lot of flack in the coming weeks from students who thought I wasn’t taking the events of September 11th seriously. I was among the vocal few on campus encouraging people to fight the terrorists by getting back into our routines, bleeding American in the best way we could at the time, by simply living our lives and telling the terrorists we wouldn’t be destroyed by them. I caught grief for protesting against the “banned songs” list Clear Channel put forward to protect us from music that wasn’t “patriotic” enough. Many felt I was wrong when I suggested turning off the news and living again.

But I stick by my belief that, when tragedy strikes, the music you love matters. The things in your life which give you hope matter more than watching tragedy unfold via 24/7 instant news. And when our soldiers went to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight for our country and to prevent, hopefully, another attack like this from ever happening, they too took solace in music and culture, the very American identity they’d sworn to protect.

So as you remember the fallen from September 11th, twelve short years ago, please also remember to celebrate the good things we have in life that those who died would surely die again for, those things we so very often take for granted.


(Re)Defining Paramore, Fall Out Boy reunites for the sake of Rock and Roll

Two bands, opposite directions.

Paramore – Paramore

In a publicized dispute December 2010, Josh and Zac Farro left Paramore and didn’t go quietly. From their viewpoint, the entity that is “Paramore” is a crooked mess. Summing up Josh’s post, it’s Hayley Williams – and those guiding her – using the band as a mere vessel for her own solo project. Which is odd, because I’d argue that the band has been to her detriment, at least musically.

With a handful of exceptions, Paramore suffers from “Lady Gaga syndrome”: addictive choruses (“YOU TREAT ME JUST LIKE…”) and dull verses that make dryer lint seem thrilling. This is because Williams, who has a shimmering set of pipes, and the band’s style of music doesn’t always fit. Remember “Airplanes”? That’s some good stuff. She needs to be more of a singer, not a rocker, so that our eardrums have time to recover from that incessant piercing. Despite the band showing some growth on each album, the same conundrums persist: Is Paramore a synthetic product of the industry who’s sole purpose is to promote Hayley? And, how can Hayley’s voice exist in the confines of a “rock” band?

We have one answer. The self-titled Paramore was named as such because the band felt born-anew after the recording process and this is their “reintroduction.” Yeah right. We all know that this is the ultimate slap in the face to the Farro brothers. This is the first album without them, and they were the ones who founded the band in the first place. You may call it a coincidence, I call it irony. But even with all this squabbling, we don’t really know the truth. All we know is Hayley took some time to herself in LA and got a new producer for this album. But it’s not like you care about that anyway. Music is music. As long as a record gets put out, why bother with the semantics of its creation? So, as painful as it might be to hear, this is Paramore’s best album.

Paramore speaks to angsty young-adults coming of age in a tumultuous world (there’s a song called “Grow Up” and an interlude titled “I’m Not Angry Anymore”). They are on every Twilight soundtrack for a reason. But there are 17 tracks here that add up to more than an hour of ambitious songwriting, so we’ll focus on the new Paramore rather than the handful of throwbacks.

When the first interlude came on, I about lost my mind. THIS is what Hayley Williams should be doing all the time. Strip the instruments around her to bare essentials and let her voice carry those songs to the moon. Use Ingrid Michaelson as a template for how heavenly that could sound. Luckily, we get more than that little sample in the three short-but-sweet interludes.

“Ain’t it Fun.” Listen to it, seriously. It’s not a “Paramore” sound by any means, but that song exemplifies how far they can deviate from the cookie-cutter sound of their past. I can’t imagine how much Chaka Khan listening it took to inspire this. Oh, that gospel chorus. “Part II” bridges this new sound and the former sound: catchy chorus and enthralling verses, keeping the skip button at bay. The ballads smell a lot less cheesy this time around, too. “Last Hope” and “Hate to See Your Heart Break” show an emotional maturity anyone can tolerate.

And that is sort of how this album breaks down. Chances are, unless you are a true Paramore fan, you won’t like the entire album but there will be something playlist-worthy for your music taste. Evolving bands can alienate fans in the process, but this one seems to do more of the opposite. Hayley Williams can thrive in this band when they step out of that punk-rock quagmire and when the need for screaming is at a minimum. Even so, whether the industry is pulling the strings or not, this album retains what Paramore has always been about: Hayley.

Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll

Pete Wentz said that he and Patrick Stump started writing songs just for the heck of it and one of them gave him chills. That just about says it all. They reunited the band and started recording this album in secret. No song in recent memory has made me want to run head-first into a brick wall more than Fall Out Boy’s comeback single, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.” But there is a whole album to account for now. Please, please, don’t be a one-track wonder. When the group disbanded in 2009, who mourned? By that time, Fall Out Boy had eroded into an odd semi-hit pop-rock concoction. And though their music evolved, it was kind of bleh. I listened to Folie à Deux in preparation for this album, thinking my ear-buds had changed and there would be a hint of what was to come. Wrong on both accounts.

The Save Rock and Roll claim is a bit of a stretch, but this record may have saved the band. That “secret” album Stump and the boys created is full of SICK BEATZ and arena-caliber explosives. Big Sean, Courtney Love, Foxes and, yes, Elton John all make appearances but they are merely afterthoughts. From the get-go, “The Phoenix” reintroduces the band by knocking you flat on your rear. “Just One Yesterday” and “Death Valley” all have that “MSKWYDITD” ferocity, which is perfect. The album can’t be all crazy, but you can’t leave us hanging after that first single either. Old school fans can find vintage FOB in “Young Volcanoes,” an anthem for the adolescents, just like the good ol’ days.

The hiatus and side projects have seemed to do wonders, but perhaps the best change for Fall Out Boy was creating an album solely on its own accord. They had fun making this album and it shows. We might not have missed them when they left the first time, but it’s feels good that they’re back.


The “Lion” Sleeps Tonight: The evolution of Snoop won’t please fans of rap or reggae

The evolution of Snoop Dogg from hip-hop to wannabe Rasta is hands down the most frustrating musical development of 2013 thus far. There’s nothing about this music which isn’t both over-calculated and under-inspired. It isn’t surprising that Snoop would gravitate toward the American idea of Rasta culture, being that he’s made a career out of loving all aspects of weed society, but crossing that over into his music means we’re inundated with every faux-reggae cliche.

“No Guns Allowed” fails in every aspect, drawing on cliches at every corner, decrying gun violence and a society where “money makes the man,” while mixing the message. “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” is the implicaton, but there’s also the idea that if we were all rich, we’d spend more time with our children and keep them from choosing violence. That, and “the District Attorney could use a conviction … they can’t wait to get you in the system.” So which trope should we latch onto?

At least “Lighters Up” and “Cali’ Livin'” play to Snoop’s strength, trying to get us all to unite, “east side, west side, north side, south side unified” — nothing can divide us if we just light up with Master Snoop. But the beats lack inspiration, drawing on a sound which brings weak UB40 Casio-reggae hooks together with weak iterations of early-90s Snoop gangsta, pleasing fans of neither in the end. It remains easier to unite behind bashing this material as a crass cash grab than to find any real musical impetus behind its reason for being.

Meanwhile, the less said about his collaboration with Miley Cyrus, “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks,” the better, as we al raise a glass to what used to be Snoop’s “career.”

At the very least, the most successful of these singles — “Cali’ Livin'” — makes me long to hear the Mamas and the Papas and perhaps “Nothin’ But A G Thang,” while I pretend I never heard any of this Snoop Lion nonsense. I suspect April 23 will prove I’m not the only one leaning in that direction when Reincarnation rightly bombs.


FIRST IMPRESSIONS: One Republic goes Native, plus the Strokes and New Kids on the Block

This week we’ve got new music to talk about, but first I need to get something off my chest. I attended my brother’s local rock music awards show last weekend and, through all the performances and drunken acceptance speeches, goodness gracious, the profanity.

Though I don’t frequently resort to cussing, I have a high tolerance for it. But this was outrageous. These young adults would interrupt their own set to give a soliloquy about how “effing cool” it was to play in front of us and how they couldn’t “effing hear us effers” when met with a smattering of applause. They forced it so much that when you broke down the parts of speech, it turned out to be a useless glob of babble.

It was awful. Subjects and predicates of the same sentence were some conjugation of “eff.” My family members were offended, and you should hear them watching KU basketball games.

To put it simply, something about being on “the stage” makes people strive to be cooler than they need to be.

My advice: “Do your show.”

You can work the crowd and use any word you want to, but let it flow like a normal human being. The mic isn’t a magic wand that takes your flurry of f-bombs and turns them into something daring or groundbreaking. [Editor's Note: "Unless you're the reincarnation of Lenny Bruce. Then work blue all you want."] As I was sober that night, perhaps I wasn’t the target audience. But I’m a civilized human being who enjoys good, clean fun. Treat me like one.

Back to business, though … here are your reviews, presented in full without the Parental Advisory sticker.

OneRepublic – Native

Despite being a mainstream pop band, One Republic remains vastly underrated despite the fact that lyrically gifted frontman Ryan Tedder has had his hand in the creation of so many gold-plated pop hits — everything from Beyonce to Backstreet Boys and Adele — it’s astounding. And within the confines of the soulfully beat-driven OneRepublic, we have a band who actually plays and writes their own music in such a way that listening seems guiltless no matter your musical preference.

Native, the band’s third album, is their most complete and definitive to date. Today’s pop music industry is saturated with the same equipment and same writers recording for the same dozens of artists, so it’s truly a spectacle to come out of it as “original.”

The first single, “Feel Again,” is infectious while retaining that “Good Life” vibe (Another track, “Burning Bridges,” though a mellower song, has the exact same beat as “Good Life”). There’s a Jason Mraz-like feel on Native, buzzing with about positive vibes (“Preacher”, “Something I Need”) and the affirmation anthem, “I Lived.” I want to post so many amazing one-liners, but the delivery wouldn’t do them justice. Let’s just make it clear; Their songs are more vibrant than ever, turning OneRepublic from an occasional hit into a feel-good band whose albums play like a greatest hits record from start to finish.

You can’t go wrong there.

The Strokes – Comedown Machine

Angles came out in 2011 and I still wasn’t ready for a new Strokes album. But it worked out because halfway through Comedown Machine, I had forgotten to whom I was listening. If you are a Strokes fan, you may still be trying to decipher what this is exactly. It’s not necessarily a “fun” album, which is kind of how this band has thrived over the years. It’s more outlandish and definitely experimental. A little too much of Julian Casablancas’ solo influence, maybe?

Nonetheless, let’s tackle Comedown Machine without any preconceived notions about what this band should sound like and determine it’s true musical merit. The album starts off with “Tap Out,” which is a groovy tune to dance to if you don’t like expending a ton of energy. Next is “All the Time,” which is as close to vintage Strokes we get. Let’s get back to that lack of energy. The rest of the album has some appealing pop beats but it’s like each song is masked in a sepia filter, void of true color. It’s really odd. Tracks such as “Welcome to Japan” and “Happy Ending” have the hook to deliver a serious butt-kicking, except you’re met with an inflated Socker Bopper to the face. The true value of this album comes in the droney riff-tracks, where the Strokes’ vast instrumental spectrum is explored in full. “Chances” is a winner.

Some people would prefer a pillow fight over a boxing match, and that’s perfectly OK. But this is a deviation from the Strokes’ usual throwback rock-and-roll style, so temper expectations accordingly. There’s an experience to be had here, but it’s going to be with headphones, not Phil Spector’s wall of speakers.

New Kids on the Block – 10

Imagine my bewilderment when I first saw this. It’s like a live-action Evil Dead, and be warned that Nick Lachey and the boys might be coming to your backyard, too. No disrespect, but the Backstreet Boys are the boy band supreme (with another album on the way!) and Justin Timberlake is doing his thing. I don’t even consider those One Direction tweeners part of the discussion.

My calendar says it’s 2013 and Joey McIntyre is 40 years old. But if you even think about calling NKOTB an “man band,” not so fast. This is a boy band in every sense of the term and even though they’ve been around for DECADES, they have transitioned seamlessly into today’s top-40 scene. If you enjoy streamlining pure pop music into your veins like myself, this album is pretty good stuff.

Hearing that “Remix (I Like The)” song for the first time felt like a caffeine rush. So exhilarating. Tragically, Donnie Wahlberg only waved his pen around during “Miss You More.” Listen long enough and you’ll get that sultry emo-rap. Luckily, Joey has a couple writing credits. ALWAYS look for a McIntyre credit. Those are usually gold. In this case, it’s album’s ultimate ballad “Back to Life,” and I expected nothing less. He helped write “Now or Never,” too? Not as good, but solid.

Bands like this should never die. With all the garbage we have to endure by a premeditated “next-best-thing,” it’s nice to have  the presence of something that was the next-best-thing. NKOTB is lightyears away from the “Hangin’ Tough” boys from yesteryear (because, hey, the industry has different needs). I pray this reemergence puts an end to the tween poppers, but it might give rise to even more phonies. Hopefully, New “Kids” on the Block will continue to slay them.