Song 341: Janelle Monáe (feat. Big Boi), “Tightrope” (2010)

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I could listen to this song, and watch its video, all day long. I’m usually not sure what to do with songs whose dynamics—tempo, volume, etc.—hardly change over the course of its running time. “Tightrope” is a locomotive, powering ahead with no intention to stop. What makes the song interesting, and what gives it an edge, is Janelle Monáe’s unbelievable, James Brownesque singing. It’s also a locomotive, but one that lists to and fro, constantly at risk of falling off the tracks.

It never does, of course, and that’s why I find this song endlessly entertaining. The video, with its forbidden-fun plotline and goofy dancing, is nothing short of delightful. I knew Monáe was a committed performer and artist (her Archandroid record is subtitled “Suites II and III,” and it’s part of a Metropolis-themed series of albums), but I had no idea she was so silly. Without the video, the song is fantastically propulsive, but the video adds an infectious, delirious edge.

Big Boi guest verse is, predictably, great. His delivery—simultaneously laid-back and rapid-fire, full of wordplay and cheek—is a perfect match for “Tightrope,” and for Monáe’s sensibility. As another song on Archandroid chirps, “faster, faster, faster.” And, with music this good, Janelle, never ever stop.


Song 301: Das Racist, “All Tan Everything” (2010)

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The great thing about mixtapes is that they often include things that the artist could never have gotten away with if the album was offered for purchase (not without paying a fortune, anyway). In the case of Das Racist’s track “All Tan Everything,” that means sampling Jay Z.

The fact that the song is credited to “Das Racist (feat. Jay-Z)” is a typical bit of humor from Das Racist, a trio so committed to taking their jokes seriously that the mixtape in question (the excellent Sit Down, Man) features a song on which they sing, “We’re joking, we’re not joking…” They’re not trying to confuse you with that lyric, they just don’t really care whether or not you think they’re joking.

That indifference gives Das Racist a commitment to their craft that many “serious” rappers could use. I first heard Das Racist by clicking on a link that was tucked in a PR e-mail I received. Because of my various writing interests, I get these e-mails all the time, and only sometimes do they contain anything interesting. When “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” started playing, I stopped whatever I was doing and looked around, as if someone was pranking me. It was part chaotic silliness, part social commentary, part indictment of corporate America. And it was amazing.

That Das Racist produced other work as silly and serious as “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” is equally amazing. The group broke up last year, but before they did, they left the Sit Down, Man mixtape as an insanely stupid and brilliant parting gift. My favorite thing about “All Tan Everything” isn’t that they somehow change Jay Z’s “all black everything” boast into a different phrase altogether (though I’d love to know how they did that), but that they rattle off a stream-of-consciousness list of references so inspired that it would make the Beastie Boys jealous. Among the touchstones making an appearance: Patty Duke, Mellie Mel, Mia Farrow, Yentl, Danny DeVito, Levar Burton, Peggy Noonan, Ann Coulter. Jay-Z’s repurposed line, interspersed between silly verses, makes clear that this is part of who Das Racist are, racially, culturally and otherwise. Silly references are everyone’s references.

America!


Song 295: Lady Gaga (feat. Beyoncé), “Telephone” (2010)

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Lady Gaga obviously has the aesthetic thing down. Even aside from the meat dresses and creepy dancers, Gaga has an amazing visual sense. Consider the song “Telephone,” which conjures images of club strobe lights and cell phone displays through sheer production. The synths and beats fall heavy, and the vocals—often twitchy and hard to make out—are just barely human.

As usual, technology is making it hard to understand each other, and anyway, all Gaga wants to do is dance. Can I stretch it so far to say that the song represents a conflict between the physical and the tangible, the natural and the man-made? I was an English major, so I can stretch anything I damn well please.

I’m a sucker for a song that sounds like the scene described in the song—which is a weird subgenre to love, but it’s a surprisingly common gere. In terms of a club song about being bothered at the club, it reminds me of They Might Be Giants’ song “Man, It’s So Loud In Here,” in which John Linnell sings about not being heard above the DJ. The song itself is a pitch-perfect dance track. Did I just compare Lady Gaga to They Might Be Giants? Yes. English major!

Let’s talk about Beyoncé’s appearance in “Telephone,” one of the rare guest verses essential to the final product. Gaga’s verses are complaints, but Bey’s lines are pure fury: “The way you’re blowing up my phone won’t make me leave no faster/Put my coat on faster/Leave my girls no faster/I should have left my phone at home cuz this is a disaster.” Gaga’s annoyed; Beyoncé is pissed. It’s good cop/bad cop, id and superego, Abbott and Costello.

The pair are just as natural in the song’s video, a Tarantino homage that treats the narrator’s need for liberation as a prison break. You’ve probably seen the clip by now, but if not, watch it. It’s glorious.


Song 284: Big Boi, “Back Up Plan” (2010)

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For the longest time, I thought of Big Boi as the more serious half of Outkast. When he put out Sir Lucius Left Foot, I was surprised at how original and funny so much of it was. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all; this is, after all, the writer of lines like “Drip drip drop here comes an eargasm,” among many gems. Just because Andre wears fancy suits and tells you to shake it like a Polaroid picture doesn’t mean his colleague isn’t capable of some crazy stuff of his own.

My favorite part may just be the song’s central line, that silly “Boo I got a backup plan to the backup plan to back up my backup plan.” It’s just funny, it’s quick, and it’s a good foundation for a funny, quick hip-hop song. Like many Big Boi joints, this one’s pretty filthy, but he commits to its filthiness in a way that’s clever and musically impressive. And it’s a perfect closing track to an album that’s eclectic and masterfully arranged, the rare long-delayed record that’s worth the wait.

And on a final note, always remember, readers: put your back into it like your grandma do it.


Song 173: Free Energy, “Free Energy” (2009)

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Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I was still in school. This feeling mostly comes at the end of June, when that itch for freedom starts. When school ends for the summer, the possibilities seem endless, the future seems unending. The whole world is out there for the taking, and September will never come.

I think the desire for that feeling isn’t about wanting to be young again (though I certainly do), or about wanting to be free of responsibility (that would mean not having my wife and daughter, which is unimaginable). No, it’s really about wanting that want, about feeling the pull that comes from warm (but not hot) weather and the days getting longer.

Nobody captures that feeling better than Free Energy, a band that seems devoted to recreating the emotions that come with possibility. Every song of theirs sounds like it’s coming from the radio of a car with the windows rolled down, on a road with few stoplights but plenty of streetlights. It’s the sound of motion in the face of obstacles.  To do this, Free Energy uses the musical vocabulary of other bands that make us think of car radios: T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Boston, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

It’s not that Free Energy is derivative, or that they’re making references for the sake of making references. No, they’re using the universal language of power chords, cowbells, harmonized guitar solos, and handclaps to remind us that the things we love about summer vacations and road trips are always possible, if not accessible. That aching tug for independence doesn’t have to go unrequited, but sometimes the tug is enough.

Free Energy’s song “Free Energy” (from the album Stuck on Nothing) is a perfect choice for the first track of the band’s debut record, because it’s basically a thesis statement. This song, with its shaggy solos and clockwork rhythm section, is the band at its best. The record was produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, whose touch here is light but identifiable once you’re aware of it. The drums sound like the beats Murphy provides for his main gig: thick but light, strong enough to support the mighty distortion and nimble enough to maintain the momentum.

It’s the sound of June 23.


Song 172: The-Dream, “Yamaha” (2010)

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I try to steer clear of backhanded praise on this blog, and I don’t always succeed. What I probably haven’t emphasized is that “dumb” songs are often better than ones that try, and fail, to reach lofty conceptual heights. Should there be bonus points for artists who attempt something new and creative, whatever the result? Sure. But there should also be bonus points for the artists who know what they’re doing, even if what they’re doing is low-concept. Sometimes songs just work because they work.

Take, for instance, “Yamaha” by The-Dream. It’s the very definition of low-concept—this dude’s girl is like a motorcycle because he likes to ride her; cue the wince-inducing engine metaphors already perfected by Springsteen and R. Kelly—but Terius Nash pushes it so far that it becomes almost absurd in its commitment. “Clutch, brake, get this motherfucker running,” he sings, backed by the humming synths out of an ‘80s movie’s end credits. You can picture the sunset.

Nash is a prominent songwriter: he had a major hand in the immortal Rihanna hit “Umbrella,” Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Accordingly, “Yamaha” is (like yesterday’s post) a Prince hit that never was. Its relationship to “Little Red Corvette” is implied, but not to the point of distraction. After all, not even Prince would try a line like “police hate us ‘cause they’ve never seen a girl with an ass so fat.” R. Kelly, on the other hand…


Song 127: Hot Chip, “Alley Cats” (2010)

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I love it when a songwriter takes an age-old theme and explains it in a new way. There’s arguably nothing new to say, but there are still millions of way to say those old things, and there’s something reassuringly democratic about that. We don’t all have the talent, but we all have the opportunity, and some people grab that chance with both hands.

Hot Chip does it pretty often, and they did it very well with “Alley Cats,” from their excellent album One Life Stand. One of the best recent trends in indie music is the growth of bands who make dancey pop from a singer-songwriter perspective. LCD Soundsystem is probably the best example of this, and Hot Chip is their perfect complement (which is why their collaborative live album was so good). Both bands have songs that set personal stories to synths and beats, as if they’re inviting us to take part, physically and emotionally, in their heartbreak and joy.

In the case of “Alley Cats,” the title animal is a metaphor for a relationship, one that requires maintenance and attention–more than the people can provide. It’s a good premise, but one that doesn’t lend itself to a five-minute song, so the analogy shifts to household flowers, and then it becomes both more general and pointed: “The other night you said you might try to kill that thing I love.” Damn.

Whether it’s a housecat, a houseplant, or a thing encased in glass and stone, preservation requires care.