The God-daughter-bot of Soul

Ladies and gentlemen, the hardest-working dancing android in show business, Janelle Monáe.


Every once in a while I see something that just makes me glad I live in the future. If it weren’t 2010, how else could you see a mash-up of Metropolis, 70s glam rock, 70s prog rock, 40s musicals, disco, millennial hip hop, and James Brown?

Well, if you were more hip than I am, you could’ve seen all that in 2008, apparently, with Metropolis: The Chase Suite from Janelle Monáe. It was a concept album EP about Monáe’s alternate identity Cindi Mayweather, a rogue android who — actually, the liner notes explain it better than I could:

The year is 2719. Five World Wars have decimated the earth. To escape from the ecological destruction, mankind has banded together to create one last great city named Metropolis. Under the rule of the evil Wolfmasters, the city becomes a decadent wonderland known for its partying robo-zillionaires, riotous ethnic, race and class conflicts and petty holocausts….

Into this turbulent world is born Android No. 57821, an Alpha Platinum 9000 named Cindi Mayweather. Unlike other androids, Cindi’s programming includes a rock-star proficiency package and a working soul….

And the videos “explain” the brilliant nonsense better than that. In particular: the “short film” video for “Many Moons” from the Metropolis EP., which handles all the introductions:

She’s doing a big push for “suites II and III” of the story, her new album The ArchAndroid, and that includes a great performance of “Tightrope” on Letterman.

And ArchAndroid is pretty much awesome; it’s tough to think of a musical style she doesn’t touch on in there — funk to big band to Hendrix-style psychedelic rock to straight-up disco. And I liked one of the comments in the Amazon reviews, that described it as somehow sounding even more cinematic and theatrical than a genuine soundtrack.

Big Boi of Outkast is a collaborator and executive producer on both records, and in fact you can’t hear the song “Violent Stars Happy Hunting!” (yeah, that’s the real title) from Metropolis without being reminded of “Hey Ya!” But more than that, I can’t watch or hear any of this stuff without being reminded of how “Hey Ya!” seemed to come out of nowhere — again, for the less hip among us — and blow me away.

But this is like if you took that and added robots!

Best of 2009: Music

I just don’t get the noise the young people listen to these days.


As far as I can make out, my taste in music got locked in around 1999, along with my clothes. I’ve got friends — friends my age, even — who seem to understand what’s popular on a level that just baffles me; for me, the highlight of my musical year was a terrific concert by The Pogues and another by the Pixies, both of which were just a couple hours hearing music I loved in college.

According to my research, I’ve heard exactly six of the albums released in 2009:

  • Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future by The Bird & The Bee
  • Middle Cyclone by Neko Case
  • The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
  • Sad Man Happy Man by Mike Doughty

and the only two that I thought were worth putting on a “best of” anything list:

1. Actor by St. Vincent
I’ve already confessed to having a huge crush on Annie Clark now, but I want to say it again: this is some of the best music I’ve heard in years. Best track is either “The Strangers” or “Black Rainbow,” take your pick.

(Incidentally, apparently I had it wrong, and Clark doesn’t call herself St. Vincent, but it’s the name of the band. The name is a reference to St. Vincent’s hospital in New York, which she calls “the place where poetry goes to die.”)

2. The Music of JG Thirlwell for The Venture Brothers
This was just bad-ass and you can also get it on vinyl. And it counts as an album instead of just a soundtrack, because I never really noticed the music that much during the series but I think it’s amazing here. If you can hear “Tuff” and not totally rock, rock out, then you’re a robot.

(And if you like the Venture Brothers music but haven’t heard Thirlwell’s other recordings as Foetus and Steroid Maximus, you should check out Ectopia, the track “Chaiste” in particular.)

Paint the Black Hole Blacker

St. Vincent has actually managed to get me interested in music recorded within the last decade.

I didn’t hear about St. Vincent (Annie Clark) until someone posted a link to her video to “Actor Out of Work” and commented that she was a lovely woman who was opening her mouth so wide she looked unsettlingly anaconda-like.

A catchy song and a creepy video? Reason enough for me to try out the whole album, Actor. But it’s been at least five or six years since I’ve gotten really excited about music, so I didn’t listen to it more than a couple of times, and I didn’t think much other than “it’s interesting enough.” (And still, I’d occasionally find myself whistling some tune that had lodged itself in my subconscious, but I couldn’t quite place it).

Fast forward a few months to October, when I catch this performance on “Austin City Limits”:

I was completely captivated. And when she and the band segued into “Black Rainbow”, it was downright creepy: I knew this song; I’d been hearing it bounce around my head for months.

I think she’s just fantastic, the perfect antidote to everything boring and predictable about popular music. She composed the whole album in her apartment, so it’s not as predictable and soulless as the over-produced pop that has taken over everything. She’s not a pop star who picks up the guitar for a song or hops over to the piano for her big power ballad; she really knows music. And she’s clearly intelligent, but without making a show of it: you don’t get any sense of twee self-important irony that you get from musicians who are presenting themselves as an antidote to pop. Plus, the videos and live performances I’ve seen are every bit the bizarre bursts of creativity you get from musicians like, for example, Bjork, but she can turn it off and be perfectly unassuming and sane. Obviously, I’m completely smitten.

There’s a good interview from TV Guide where she talks about the process and her influences when writing songs. An even better and more insightful interview from ABC News describes her music as “sweetness and creepiness,” which is perfectly appropriate. The interview makes the great point that her music could come across as “precious” — Clark lists the orchestrations of Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty among her inspirations — but that she can also “truly shred on the guitar.” I don’t think the contrast is quite that simple — sweet-sounding songs with sinister lyrics is an easy gimmick, as Lily Allen’s remaining 3 out of 15 minutes are proving — but it’s a big part of what makes it work.

It becomes even clearer when you watch this acoustic performance of “Black Rainbow” with just Clark on guitar and Andrew Bird on violin. It’s a great melody that still sounds epic and cinematic even when stripped of all of its extra layers of production; it doesn’t depend on a gimmick to make it work. As orchestrated for the album, though, it turns into the pop song equivalent of the Winchester Mystery House: ending with St. Vincent tearing it up on an electric guitar in a climax that just keeps building before cutting off abruptly, like a staircase that leads to nowhere.

The title of this post is from my favorite song off “Actor,” the first track, called “The Strangers.” The album version really is best, since you get the background vocals and the keyboards and the full effect of the production, but this live acoustic version is almost as great:

One After 9-9-09

The Beatles Rock Band really is Harmonix’s masterpiece, and should be required for anyone who still doubts the appeal of grown-ups playing with plastic guitars.

beatlesrockbandframegrab.jpg
I can tell you the first CD I ever owned: it was the White Album, and I got Abbey Road at the same time, but I opened the White Album first because it was my birthday, and I wanted to hear “Birthday.” It was 1987, and the CD releases of the Beatles catalog were being promoted as A Very Big Deal, with people going on about all the subtle nuances they’d never been able to hear before.

I can also tell you when and where I first bought Revolver: it was at Downtown Records in Athens, GA, around 1991, and I bought it on cassette to listen to in my car, and I was convinced that I’d gotten hold of some super-exclusive collector’s edition with an all-instrumental version of “Taxman” until I realized that it was just that the right speaker on my car stereo had given out again.

I’d only call myself a “moderate” fan of the Beatles — I’ve listened to the White Album and Abbey Road about a billion times since 1987, but there are still plenty of songs by the group that I never heard before tonight — and I can still vividly remember all the details about my first exposure to each of their albums. There are bands I like at least as much — Led Zeppelin and the Pixies, to name two — but I couldn’t tell you anything about the first time I heard Physical Graffiti or where I bought my copy of Surfer Rosa.

And the reason for that is the Beatles have always been presented as a phenomenon more than as a band. People have been going back and forth on the merits of their music for as long as I’ve been alive: for everyone who claims that they’re the greatest musicians of the 20th century, there’s somebody else who complains that they’re just an overrated pop group that in 2009 have become completely irrelevant. Whatever you think of their music — and personally, I’m closer to the “brilliant composers” end of the spectrum than the “overrated pop band” end — it’s only part of what makes the band such a big deal, still relevant 40 years later. Because the Beatles were talented musicians, ridiculously talented and versatile composers, and innovative geniuses (with George Martin) at audio engineering. But I’d say their real genius was in self-promotion.

The current round of hype is over the release of The Beatles Rock Band and remastered versions of all the Beatles’ albums. There are already CD releases for all the records, plus the red & blue greatest hits compilations, plus the number 1 records compilation, plus the Love remixes. And of course, people don’t really buy CDs anymore, and for the past couple of years, websites have been predicting the imminent release of the entire catalog as downloadables any second now. So the question is what the NPR music blog asked back in April when the remasters were first announced: does anyone other than Baby Boomers and obsessive Beatles fanatics really care?
Continue reading “One After 9-9-09”

Ahh! Wow! Oh, Bobby!

“The P.I.S.S is by far the most together group in the show biz.”

I’ve already linked to this elsewhere, but it makes me sad to think there are people out there who haven’t seen it. Presenting the Best Video On The Entire Internet, “Kiss Shreds” by the inimitable St Sanders (presumably):

“The P.I.S.S is by far the most together group in the show biz.”

Ooomooodaaakaaa

Omodaka’s already-outstanding videos get even cooler when pushed through the Yooouuutuuube filter.

kokirikobushimosaic.jpg
Wired’s Underwire blog recently did an article about YooouuuTuuube, the site that takes YouTube videos and stretches individual frames out across your web browser. The most popular hit so far has been this mash-up video using samples from Alice in Wonderland.

I was playing around with it using my favorite videos from Omodaka. They work great and yield some pretty cool effects, since the videos already do a lot with symmetrical frames. If you play around with the frame sizes, you can get the full-page effect to match up with the beat of the music.

Here are my favorites:

  • Kokiriko Bushi: probably the best of the bunch, a screen full of skeletons and 80s disco lights.
  • Kyoteizinc: the mirroring effects in the original video get replicated dozens of times
  • Cantata No. 147: a screen full of weird singing heads

Thru You

Kutiman’s YouTube mash-up project “ThruYOU” is simply brilliant.

Thanks to Chris Remo for letting me know about ThruYOU, an online album from Israeli musician Kutiman. He made the project by remixing and resampling YouTube videos; the result reminds me of Emergency Broadcast Network, with more focus on the music than the video.

In case the main site’s down, you can see the videos on Kutiman’s YouTube Channel, or this compilation page compiled by a fan at innerlogics.com.

It really is phenomenal. It would’ve been impressive enough if even one track had worked, but he somehow managed to compile seven songs without a single dud. And even more impressive, it works as a complete album. My favorite is “Babylon Band”, but I’m embedding the first track, because you really should listen to them in order.

Two of the YouTube comments as of right now are “mindblowing” and “Dear God in Heaven. This is stupendous.” They’re not exaggerating.

Beat Bachs

A post on Boing Boing was the first I’d heard of Omodaka, a collaboration from a Japanese electronic musician putting out some of the most amazing videos I’ve ever seen. (You can read more about the artist on this modern Japanese music guide).

He’s got six videos available on YouTube, and pretty much every one is going to be something you haven’t quite seen before.

Kokiriko Bushi is a fantastic video that sums up everything distinctive about the music: a combination of 8-bit videogame music samples with traditional Japanese folk and pop vocals. (As Boing Boing points out, the track is an electronic version of a Japanese folk song).

I was a little surprised that my favorites were the ones that didn’t play up the retro-videogame angle. The Omodaka version of Bach’s Cantata No. 147 is just wonderful:

But my favorite (possibly my favorite music video ever) is Kyoteizinc. I love this so much I want to make another Voyager probe just so I can put this on the disc:

I’m hoping that a DVD of the videos makes it way to the US sometime, because this stuff is just amazing.

Her & He

she_autumn.jpgI feel like I’m late to the party with this one, but: She & Him: Volume One is just a great, fun record. (Evidence that I’m late to the party: I’m still calling them “records.”)

Like just about everybody else who saw the movie, I’ve had a crush on Zooey Deschanel since she sang “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Will Ferrell in Elf. No surprise there; that’s exactly what the scene was designed to do. I read an interview with Jon Favreau (or maybe it was the commentary for the movie?) where he said the scene was inserted after hearing Deschanel sing at a party and being blown away by how well she sings.

So now there’s a new record out and you’d expect it to be more of the same, another album from an actress trying to make a music career on the side. But you can already tell this is different, since they promote themselves and the record just as another duo; it’s only when reviewers and musically clueless people like myself start writing about them that anyone draws attention to the fact she’s a movie star.

Even better, you don’t get the sense of anyone sticking to a comfort zone, or trying to make an important artistic statement. It really just feels like a couple of people who love the music they grew up hearing. I’d been expecting more of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” where Deschanel sounds like she’s channelling a late 50s/early 60s movie musical actress. There’s a little bit of that on the track “Take It Back,” but the rest of the record is all over the place. A lot of their influences are listed on their band site; I’m not knowledgeable about most of that music, but even I can totally hear The Ronettes and Linda Ronstadt. And there are several that sound to me like Cass Elliott crossed with Karen Carpenter. But you don’t get the sense that it’s just impersonation or self-conscious parody, but someone who sincerely loves this music and wants to make more of it.

Best tracks are: “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?”, “Sweet Darlin'”, “Black Hole,” and “This is Not a Test.” But the whole thing just makes you feel like summer’s about to start and it’s time to get the car and just drive somewhere for no reason.

Also: I’ve listened to the new B-52’s record, Funplex, and it’s fairly forgettable, but worth it just for the song “Juliet of the Spirits.” Considering how much time I spent driving around Athens in a POS VW Bug listening to “Whammy!” over and over again in college, all this music is making me feel plenty nostalgic.

Also: If you think I just listen to girly music, shut up, who asked you? I listen to plenty of guy music, too. I can’t think of what it is now, since my “most recently played” list is all Amy Winehouse, Neko Case, Allison Krauss, Norah Jones, and now She & Him, but I know it’s in there.

More Doughty than a Fan Can Handle

goldendeliciouscover.jpgMike Doughty’s got a new album out, it’s called Golden Delicious, and I was already hooked just from hearing the 30-second samples.

I’m a monstrously big fan of Soul Coughing. My first take on Haughty Melodic (Doughty’s first “real” solo album) was unfair disappointment that it didn’t sound like Soul Coughing, but over time it burrowed its way down into my brain. My gut reaction to Golden Delicious is that it’s halfway between Haughty Melodic and an over-produced version of Irresistible Bliss (“More Bacon than the Pan Can Handle” might as well be a previously-unreleased track from one of the Soul Coughing records). It’s a little bit more experimental than the last record, but lacks that one’s consistency.

But then, there’s a reason I don’t write much about music.

He’s going on tour very soon, and will be in San Francisco at the Fillmore on April 29th, and I’ve already bought a couple of tickets. (At least I hope I did; the website seems to still be in transition).

Savvy record-buyers should be aware that there’s an extra exclusive track on the iTunes version of Golden Delicious. I still went with the Amazon MP3 version, because Amazon’s MP3 Downloads section is excellent. I’ve never been one of those shrill and obnoxious anti-DRM people, but obviously, getting something without DRM is better than with it. Plus, Amazon’s stuff is cheaper, it’s indistinguishably well-integrated with iTunes, and their customer service is excellent. I’m still an Apple fan and all that, but my loyalty is cheap and can be bought with only $1 per album.