Semi-New Song Sunday: Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka’s 2019 album is so full of epic, swelling soul that I wish I had more frame of reference to describe it.

I’d stumbled on the video to Michael Kiwanuka’s “You Ain’t the Problem” last year, and while I like that song a lot, I wasn’t enthused enough to dig any deeper.

My mistake was assuming that this was music you could full appreciate from a couple of singles. While checking out the whole spatial audio business, I saw that the album KIWANUKA was given the Dolby Atmos treatment, and I listened again. This really demands that you sit back and give the whole album a listen, because it’s an experience. Songs flow into each other, call forward and back to each other, pick up bits of melody; it feels like an epic, swelling concept album, with its amazing string arrangements throughout.

It’s undeniably a kind of homage to early 1970s soul, but it doesn’t feel like just a throwback or a pastiche, but a contemporary album building on that music. It actually makes me wish I listened to more soul, so that I had a better frame of reference than just What’s Goin’ On? and the Grand Theft Auto soundtracks.

“Hero” is another powerful song from the album, with a powerful video, but to me it makes it feel a little bit “smaller” than it actually is. As if it were little more than a callback to earlier music, instead of part of a new album that should itself be influencing musicians 50 years from now.

One song where the video does help, in my opinion, is “Home Again” from his 2011 debut album of the same name. (Which is a good bit lighter than KIWANUKA, and also pretty fantastic). It’s kind of a visual indicator of what the music is doing: taking a fairly straightforward and repetitive base and layering these fantastic arrangements on top of it to make something epic. Don’t make the same mistake I did, and assume that everything great about Kiwanuka’s music can be contained in a few singles.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Scary Pockets

Oooo, whatcha cover

Not much to say about this week’s semi-new song Sunday: a funk cover of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” by Scary Pockets featuring Swatkins. It’s corny as heck but I think it’s a lot of fun. (They also did a roof-top cover of “Harder Better Faster Stronger”, because if you’re gonna go to the trouble of getting a talkbox, you might as well get use out of it).

I also recommend watching the original version if you haven’t yet. I hadn’t heard of it before a couple of years ago, and I only knew it from the “ooo whatcha say” sample. Which is a shame, because knowing only the sample dumbs down and over-simplifies a genuinely unique contribution to 21st century pop music. If you’re going to dumb it down and over-simplify it, you should at least have fun with it.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Lord Huron

Lord Huron’s ominous and atmospheric music may not need such an elaborate framing device, but I’ll allow it

I can tell I’m getting older, because my reaction to Lord Huron over the past couple of days has been that they don’t have to try so hard. They could just keep releasing pretty, Beck-ish songs like “Mine Forever” and we’d all be perfectly happy with them. It doesn’t all need to be framed in layers of supernatural-60s-TV-country-and-western visual treatments.

Which is a little sad, because I used to go nuts for that shit. You could show me a black-and-white globe and fictional broadcast call letters, and it’d set my heart aflutter.

I don’t know when I became such a spoilsport. Especially when it’s let them take the live-from-home COVID-concert trend and turn it into a web series of broadcasts called “Alive From Whispering Pines,” with vaguely Chris Isaak-meets-surf-guitar songs like “The World Ender”.

And it’s churlish of me to begrudge a band wanting to apply some showmanship to songs that would make for an amazingly creepy and atmospheric road trip, at a time when we’re all stuck at home.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Thundercat

I’m embarrassed I’m only just now finding out about Thundercat.

There’s usually no shame in the Semi-New Sunday series. After all, the whole point is for me to acknowledge that I’m out of touch with what’s going on with music, and I’m making an effort to broaden my horizons. But I’m genuinely embarrassed that I’m only just now finding out about Thundercat.

Because he’s straight-up hilarious, and I am 10000% behind this new weird genre of Nerd Funk that he’s created. Plus he’s made what might be the best album cover ever.

I feel like I’ve seen the video to “Dragonball Durag” before, but I just assumed it was some Adult Swim thing, and I didn’t think much of it. Thinking of it as just a weird comedy video, I didn’t appreciate that he’s so brilliant at playing the bass and coming up with a groove that he doesn’t need to take anything all that seriously. He can treat it as just a vehicle for him to be weird and write songs about his cat and playing Diablo, and making a video of himself trying to hit on women and getting turned down repeatedly until he finally gets some traction with Este Haim.

This NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert from 2017 gives a better idea of what a great bassist he is.

That talent — combined with what seems to be a total lack of concern about looking uncool — results in a kind of freedom that I think is just amazing and inspiring to see. It feels like unapologetic, unfettered enthusiasm. Without hesitation, or self-censorship, or fear of being too earnest.

For instance: the video to “Them Changes”, which you know is about a samurai simply because he thinks samurai are cool and wanted to dress up as one. And the video is set up like a gag, but there’s no wink to the camera. There’s no line where the gag stops and the earnest part begins. It’s not using something silly to hide a serious message; it’s kind of suggesting that everything is always cool and dumb and silly and sad and serious and funny, all at the same time.

That story is continued in the video to “Show You the Way,” which also has Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, also simultaneously a stunt and an earnest appreciation of their music. There’s a feeling of celebration in all of it, even the melancholy parts. I know that funk and R&B have a long history of being weird and funny, but this is the first time I felt like I’ve really connected with any of it.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Quakers

Quakers is a sprawling hip-hop sampler, and the samples are my favorite part

A decade old but new to me: Quakers, with “Fitta Happier.” The project is three producers, including one of the guys from Portishead, with a rotating line-up of MCs. The track uses samples from a marching band medley of Radiohead songs.

I’ve never cared much for Portishead or Radiohead, and I only tend to like the most pop/rock-oriented hip hop, but this track is fantastic. It’s from the first album from 2012, which is full of some amazing samples.

They released a sequel last November, but so far it hasn’t grabbed me like the first one. “Test My Patience” isn’t bad, though.

Edited to add: If you’re curious, here’s the marching band performance that’s sampled in “Fitta Happier,” from the 2006 Pride of Arizona. (If you’re as impatient as I am, it starts around 6:00).

Semi-New Song Sunday: Aaron Frazer

Even the most faithful recreations of “vintage” music can add something new

The video to Aaron Frazer’s “Bad News” is remarkable: a fascinating dance performance around a section of Brooklyn, set to a song that’s such a faithful recreation of 70s R&B that you’d wonder if the dance was the entire point, not the music. Which I think is a bold move for a singer making his solo debut.

As I understand it, Frazer was drummer and occasional singer with Durand Jones & The Indications, a band that Jones started with three of his classmates. I keep seeing that band’s music, as well as Frazer’s solo album, described as “vintage” and “nostalgic,” which can come across as a tactful way of saying “looking backwards without adding anything new.”

And since I’ve never been a particularly big fan of R&B or soul, it does kind of blend into the background for me — I like it quite a bit, but I need some kind of hook to make me genuinely interested. Here, there’s an undercurrent of activism and social consciousness; it’s not accidental that it calls back to the music of the Civil Rights movement. It’s a reminder that music can be more than just escapist and commercial, but an agent of change.

The bigger hook for me with Frazer’s music, though, is the variety of arrangements. I first heard of him yesterday courtesy of a live performance of five songs for KEXP, which makes every one 10 times more interesting than the album versions I’ve heard so far.

Honestly, as soon as I saw a young man sit down with an acoustic guitar and start singing in a high falsetto, I was reminded of James in one of the greatest scenes in Twin Peaks. But the string quartet, and the earnestness of it, won me over quickly. The second track seems to lean even harder into the Twin Peaks vibe, with a clean-cut guy singing at a mic in what seems to be an annex of the Roadhouse. But with each song, they change up the instrumentation a bit and show a different side of the music.

It all calls back to R&B and soul from around 1960 to 1977 or so — I’m not musically literate enough to pinpoint it better than that — but instead of feeling like just a slavish recreation, it feels more like a celebration. I started out skeptical, but over the course of five songs I became a fan.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Miike Snow

“Discovering” super-popular bands is part of the whole reason for this weekly series

The video for “Genghis Khan” has over 48 million views on YouTube, so stop me if you’ve heard this one. I first saw it last week after being reminded of St. Vincent’s “Fast Slow Disco” and wondering why I never see as slickly-produced videos made by actual gay men. A google search for “gay videos” turned up a list including this one, which is either tone-deaf or insulting, I haven’t yet figured out which.

I like the video — which is about a super-villain and secret agent who want something more from their relationship — a lot, but calling it “gay” is dumb, because it’s played entirely for laughs. One of my continued annoyances is that people seem to be unable or unwilling to tell the difference: it’s like whenever someone would post a meme showing Trump & Putin making out, and people would get all up in arms calling it “homophobic.” The point isn’t that they’re two men, the point was that they had a relationship inappropriate for the supposed leaders of two rival nations.

Anyway. “Genghis Khan” is a good video, and the two performers carried on, coincidentally, as the peace-loving leaders of two rival Cold-Warring nations in the video for “My Trigger,” which is almost as good.

But the band isn’t new, and as it turns out, they’re not even new to me. I’ve been a fan of “Animal” for a while, but never knew the name of the band. Ever the trend-setters, they were wearing masks long before COVID-19 even became a thing.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Arlo Parks

Poet and musician shows that “calming & relaxing” can have some amount of substance

I’ve had good luck with the algorithm this week: just five minutes ago, I checked Apple Music to see if there were any interesting recommendations, and it offered up Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks. “Hope” is a standout song because it’s the mission statement of the album: uplifting music about a topic with substance.

It first reminds me of Morcheeba, probably because that’s the only frame of reference I have for a British woman singing over a lofi electronic track. Parks’s music isn’t as musically complex or unusual as even Morcheeba’s (which deliberately is about “chill”1In quotes because using chill as an adjective is a huge pet peeve for me more than challenge) but the lyrics are much more complex.

I also like “Portra 400” from the same album.

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    In quotes because using chill as an adjective is a huge pet peeve for me

Semi-New Song Sunday: Ana Tijoux

French-Chilean rapper and singer Ana Tijoux makes politically-conscious music (even for those of us who can’t understand it)

This week’s new-to-me music comes courtesy of Neko Case’s Instagram account. Ana Tijoux is a Chilean singer and rapper, born in France, where her parents had fled after Pinochet’s coup d’etat.

Even though my Spanish is limited to counting and identifying pencils, I could tell that “Antipatriarca” is a political song. (I used context clues). What the video makes clear is that the idea of separating art from politics isn’t “conservative;” it’s absurd. It’s only because people have spent decades encouraging an insulated and uninformed middle class — which, to be clear, absolutely includes me — that we’ve even got the notion that political decisions don’t have much of an impact on “normal people.”

And this is a great example of the old idea that music is universal. I know even less about Chilean politics than I do about Spanish vocabulary, but pairing the images and the messages with music means that more people like me are going to be seeing it and hearing it for the first time.

The most recent performance by Tijoux that I can find is this video from KEXP, in which she performs 5 songs. It’s kind of a tough sell for me to listen to 20 minutes’ worth of songs in a language I don’t understand, but this is really a showcase for what a fantastic singer she is, as well as being a talented rapper. And she not only seems to effortlessly slide between singing and rapping, but she combines the two at key moments. It’s completely captivating.

My favorite track so far is the title track from her album 1977. Based on the title and the video, I’m guessing it’s her life story. The focus is on her rapping, but I love the samples just as much. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever heard before.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Jon Batiste

Jon Batiste’s new dance-filled video is a lot of fun… I think?

Jon Batiste seems to be in the middle of a promotional blitz lately; I’m assuming it’s because of his work on Pixar’s Soul? Part of that is the video for “I Need You,” which is a lot of fun.

I mean… I think it is? There’s something about it that makes me think it’s as authentic as one of the old Gap commercials. Which, to be clear, I loved at the time, but then felt bad about it afterwards. As if I’d let my guard down and let myself be charmed by something completely insincere.

I suspect the reason I haven’t heard of Batiste before is because I don’t watch the Stephen Colbert show, for similar reasons. It seems to come from the same place as a lot of the stuff I want to like — D&D, Lord of the Rings, David Byrne, unconventional music-video presentations — but somehow makes them feel completely inauthentic. It’s this weird dissonance; I don’t doubt that Colbert was genuinely into D&D, or that Batiste genuinely loves jazz. But when I see one doing a play-through, or the other doing a dance video, it comes across as forced sincerity.

I’m a lot less conflicted about the video for “Don’t Stop” from 2018. It’s just a pared-down song and a similarly sparse dance performance on a New York rooftop, and it feels a lot more genuine was a result.