Friday, April 29, 2005

Finally heard Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)," and that shit is sick, yo. As in bananas.

Holy shit. This looks like one of the best websites ever. Thanks, Nate.

You know, it's not a great album overall, but about half of Fantasia's debut Free Yourself actually is pretty great. It's dragged down a bit by the not-so-great (Jazze Pha's "Don't Act Right" should've gone to Ciara, and the American Idol dreck of "I Believe" and ill-advised cover of "Always On My Mind" don't help), but songs such as the new single, the album's Missy Elliott-produced midtempo title track, are super. "Baby Mama" is fun if you take it with an unintended wink, "Truth Is" is a lovely slice of sorta-old soul, and the Rodney Jerkins creation "It's All Good" is marching band-tastic. Fantasia smolders on "Ain't Gon' Beg You" and opens up on "This Is Me," which is a really marvelous primer on the reigning AI champ. If you're a fan of contemporary R&B - particularly the kind that's not mucked up with lots of guest rappers (Jazze and Missy each toss in a verse, but that's mercifully it) - this is a fine example of, at its best, how good the genre can be. And Fantasia's voice continues to be a marvel. B

Every time I listen to it, I'm impressed by what a complete album John Mellencamp's Whenever We Wanted is. Definitely his strongest work, this is the sound of a man moving into his 40s with two divorces under his belt, increasingly soulful (and soul-searching) but not so much so that he doesn't still know how to kick out the jams. "Get A Leg Up" is one of the best, most unsung singles of Mellencamp's career, possibly because it was a nonstarter on the charts; this was John's first album in a decade not to spin off at least one top 40 single. Maybe it's just too good.

Opener "Love and Happiness" is explicitly political, taking on war, the cost of oil, and censorship, among other topics - it came on the cusp of Bush I's Iraq war. It also features a perfect blast/burst of crazy trumpet courtesy of Pharez Whitted (who'd later cut some jazz records for Motown). "Now More Than Ever" is a classic slice of Mellencamp, talkin' 'bout relationships, while his band backs him as sturdily as ever. They sound the tightest of his career, in fact, on Whenever, another reason this album still sounds so superb 14 years later. "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" and "They're So Tough" feature cowbell - what more do you need to know?

"Last Chance" is one of the most tender selections in the Mellencamp catalog, a simple tale of a man with nothing left - to lose, or otherwise. It's a sad, sad song, given perfect accompaniment; the bright slash of a guitar riff in the chorus is just the right punctuation to John's sentiments. He gets all kinds of late-'60s soulful on "Melting Pot," completely letting loose as the song riffs out, almost yelping, letting his emotions get loose and messy. That's the essence of great rock'n'roll, isn't it? [Its use of metaphor is fine, too.]

As it happens, the cover shoot for this album (and the accompanying "Get A Leg Up" video) were the first time John met model Elaine Irwin, who'd later become the third Mrs. Mellencamp; they're still together, and it looks like forever. And the album's artwork prominently features John's paintings for the first time, as well. To my ears, John had already grown up politically, but Whenever We Wanted was the album on which he really showed us his growth emotionally, his growth as a man. And for that, it's easily his finest album-length work. Island Def Jam's reissuing remastered version of his entire catalog - this one's part of a batch coming out in May - so you don't have any excuse. Thank me later. A

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A true legend of televisual political reporting, Judy Woodruff, has announced her retirement later in the year. She won't be gone completely, thank God, but she won't be a regular presence on CNN for the first time in 12 years - and I remember fondly her stellar work for PBS in the '80s before that. She'll be missed.

Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? is a must-read for anyone trying to understand why so many red-staters vote against their own financial self-interests. It's also just a flat-out fascinating political book, and a true snapshot of these times we live in. Of a completely different ilk is The Order of the Poison Oak, young adult author Brent Hartinger's sequel to his great novel Geography Club, which dealt with the pain (and joys) of being a gay teenager in Anywhere, USA these days. Oak is even better than what preceded it, a touching, thoughtful, and often very funny tale of the sumemrtime trials and tribulations of Russel Middlebrook as he counsels a camp cabin full of 10-year-old burn survivors and discovers quite a bit about himself in the process. Both are highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Source has a long and rich history of treating women like shit, but they've really gone too far this time. It's time to call 'em on it.

Subjects for further review: "Got To Find Me Somebody" by Inner Life

This 1982 funky jazzy dancefloor gem is a fairly astounding record, with a lead singer who sounds like Jocelyn Brown's deadringer - she's got the lungs. But why is it so obscure, so unknown? This would fit in ever so nicely in a Masters At Work DJ set, an all-the-way-live track that could've only come from that early-'80s period when disco was mutating into house. Funky like Roger Sanchez, not Cameo, and frankly nearly perfect, from its loud keyb squelches to its strong-independent-woman lyrics ("I'll give my love to somebody who'll give love back to me"). Nate, you're a genius for unearthing this (on this amazing comp).

Monday, April 25, 2005

Subjects for further review: "Let's Get Blown" by Snoop Dogg

Yes, again, but here's why: That whining synth in the back of "Let's Get Blown" - the one I called icy earlier? - I've finally figured out where it's from, in a manner of speaking. Pharrell totally ripped it from (more accurately, it's likely his homage to) Cameo's "She's Strange." Listen to 'em side-by-side, and tell me I'm wrong.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Comments are back, due to popular demand. Play nice or I'll take 'em away again. Don't make me pull this car over.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Subjects for further review: "Signal Crossing" by Dykehouse

If the Ocean Blue had been shoegazers, this would've been their foray into MTV's Buzz Bin.

Friday, April 15, 2005

I know, it seems like I'm all up on Snoop's jock these days. "Drop It Like It's Hot" was my #1 single of 2004, I'm raving like Shut Up and Dance about R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece, and now he's got not just one but my top 2 singles of 2005 (updated, finally!). But it's all legit, folks. The Neptunes make, in the mid-'00s, as natural a perfect fit for Snoop as Dre did a decade ago - maybe moreso. Snoop Dogg's not a gangsta, is the thing; he's no 50 Cent. He can talk the talk, and it sounds convincing, but if you think about it, you know that that's just not Snoop. He's the guy who records hits like "Beautiful." He is, dare I say - and I mean this as a compliment - a softie. [Mind you, the kind of softie who says things to women like "You remind me of the time when I had a ho."] Accordingly, Chad and Pharrell's production is a buttery leather glove hugging Snoop's hand. "Let's Get Blown" is so sneakily easy, the kind of track I wouldn't fault you for thinking the Neptunes bang out in their off time. But listen more closely, and hear that early-'80s late-night-radio whining new-wave-starting-to-go-pop synth rearing its head here and there, all icy underneath a fairly warm rhythm track. And be reminded of what a great rapper Snoop is, truly making it sound effortless; still, few have the pure skills Snoop does. This is a masterful record, one that'd easily be my favorite record of '05 thus far - except that he topped it himself.

"Drop It Like It's Hot" is the superior record, art at its finest, but "Signs" might well bring me more pure pleasure. It's Snoop making a full-fledged dance record, one which will get booties shakin' coast-to-coast - and can you imagine how sick the remixes could be, just pure out-and-out blissful house? And they'd work, without sounding awkward. Other reasons "Signs" is a great single:
1. Justin Timberlake singing that hook so, so sweetly.
2. And singing "don't fuck with me." Process that for a moment. If it helps, recall JT's old group. Take a second, think about it. Ting!
3. Snoop keeps giving Charlie Wilson (lead singer of the Gap Band, c'mon!) work, and Charlie keeps earning it.
4. That bassline damned near coulda been stole from a Gap Band record.
5. A "tone"/"cologne" rhyme, sung by Snoop.
6. 25 years ago, this could've about been a classic Earth, Wind and Fire single.
7. Snoop references Ibiza! Raving I'm raving, indeed.
The bar for 2005's been set. I'll be very happy if Snoop gets topped - because that means even more killer music - but I won't bet on it, honestly.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

I've spun off Gaz's Cassette Rack as its own blog. Because, you know, I don't have enough blogs. [Who loves ya, baby?]

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Snoop Dogg's R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta) - The Masterpiece has now reeled off one-two-three killer singles: "Drop It Like It's Hot" the world-beater, "Let's Get Blown" the logical followup which inexplicably stiffed (it's got Snoop singing!), and now the Justin-featuring "Signs," which would be a #1 single is it was Justin f/Snoop, a superdelicious slice of disco-kissed heaven. And as if that Neptunes-assisted trio's not enough, the album's "Can I Get A Flicc Witchu" interpolates Davy DMX's "One For the Treble." AND features Bootsy, baby. The rest of the elpee's good enough to make this the D-O-double-G's finest full-length since Doggystyle. This one's a gimme, folks. He's focused (again), man. A-

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

I'm published. I'm published! This review of the new Deana Carter album is my first for Stylus, but won't be the last; my take on Brandy's Best of should be posted later this week. Life is good, folks, when goals are achieved.

Monday, April 04, 2005

You think Lee Ann Womack wishes she'd heard "When I Think About Cheatin'" before Gretchen Wilson did? It's an archetypal Womack song, one which would've fit fine on her brand-new-you're-retro There's More Where That Came From. This album's quite the impressive balancing act, with songs which sound mostly contemporary (mainly in their writing) produced to sound like a great unsung 1970 country classic. There are gaps - "One's A Couple" is given away by its drums, especially - but for each of those, there are two like lead single "I May Hate Myself In The Morning," which gets it so, so right. This one aches just like it should, with Womack's tender, creamy vocals perfectly complementing a song that Tammy Wynette would've given her eyeteeth for. All of the elements are here: the steel guitar crying, the strings swelling, the male backing vocals (an unfortunately lost fine tradition of country in the '60s, having men back the women), and that little quaver in Womack's voice which often reminds me of Bobby Goldsboro on "Sunny" - don't laugh, he nailed that shit. Womack even assists on songwriting duties on the brilliantly titled "Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago," which dips into the lyrical cliché well a bit more than it should, but gets you nonetheless - especially when its string-laden bridge swells up like a catch in your throat. Ask about anyone who cares about country music, and they'll tell you that this is the album they've been waiting for Womack to make for her whole career, and hallelujah! She's done it, and she's done it right. Her voice deserves a collection of songs this good ("Painless" will get covered by the Alanis of 2010, and "Stubborn" is already a classic in Nashville circles), and like few major-label country singers, Womack knows what to do with 'em.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Here's another older piece, which I wrote at the very end of last year, and then polished and added to last month. I like it. And this is no April Fool's joke.


Oh, Michael. So often, you just can't leave well enough along. I'm reminded of that (but that's not all - patience, we'll get there) listening to your recent, recontextualizing boxed set (about time!), The Ultimate Collection. For instance, take "Unbreakable," from '02's D.O.A. album Invincible. Cowritten and coproduced with Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins (who most recently reminded us that he's still got it via Destiny's Child's "Lose My Breath"), this is a spectacularly lean and muscular R&B track. You give a great, gritty vocal on it, one of those through-gritted-teeth performances that come so naturally to you these days, and which fit your favorite lyrical tone of the past decade - paranoia, that'd be - so nicely. Yeah, it sounded a bit late-'90s when it was released just over two years ago, but with a tight edit, I think it could've still been a hit. But you had to mess with a good thing, mistakenly thinking you were buying yourself insurance, didn't you? I understand that having the Notorious B.I.G. lace HIStory's "This Time Around" was sensational, MJ, I do. But using a rap of his lifted from another record - let alone it being a friggin' Shaquille O'Neal record which was a single - should've smelled bad at the idea stage. Maybe there's no one left in your orbit to advise you against such moves anymore, Michael. Is there? Or are you truly now surrounded with only "yes" men? Come back to the five and dime, Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson.

See, here's the sad truth, Jacko (I know you hate that nickname, but it's got worldwide currency): people don't realize, anymore, how brilliant you're capable of (still) being. They realize instead how irrational you're capable of being. Exhibit A: "You Rock My World," also from Invincible. The easy, breezy, beautiful counterpart to "Unbreakable," also made with Jerkins' assistance, is a masterful single. Or would've been, at least, had you released it the year you made it: 1999. Instead, it sat on a shelf for three years, by which point it was sadly outdated, and the public knew it. So "World" and its attendant album flopped; they deserved much better.

Of course, it doesn't help that you've tried so desperately to regain pop relevance in the past decade-plus that you've hopped into bed with almost any hot producer you found willing. [Be honest, Mike: you've called Dr. Dre, haven't you? How about Pharrell?] It doesn't have to be that way, though. I was shocked to discover, while reading The Ultimate Collection's fine liner notes (written by no less than Nelson George), that '87's "Michael's back, bitches!" ballsy first salvo from Bad (to the haters: who else could announce his return, following up the biggest-selling album of all time, with a midtempo ballad?!), "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," was actually recorded in 1982. Yet it still sounded fresh, still sounds timeless, and certainly sounds nothing (much) like the contents of Thriller. That's what you're capable of, Michael. Think about that.

And that's just a beginning, one of a myriad of potential jumping-off points offered by this boxed set. There are, of course, the strings of stunning singles from Off the Wall and Thriller - "Billie Jean," for one, sounds just as sparkling and shiny today as it did some 22 years ago. There's the first flushes of you feeling out your identity as a writer and producer, such as on "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," the smash you wrote with your little bro Randy for the family gang: that sinuous, sexy piano riff hitting it straight outta the park from the first note. The awesomely machinistic tracks you were making circa Dangerous are (nearly) all here, too. And there's the previously unreleased material you've gifted us with here, some of which is extremely eye-opening.

Foremost among these is "In the Back." You produced this one all by yourself, even with layering the work of some 20-odd musicians on it, and it's stunning. It provides an eye into your creative process - with presumably unfinished lyrics, you spend some of the song just "dut-dut-dut"ing. The muted trumpet here is gorgeous, too. But ultimately, this one comes down to its swirling, ominously luscious music on the chorus, a virtual orchestra of faux-woodwinds (I assume it's all keyboards), strings, and keyboards themselves, laid against a stark percussion track. This isn't remotely house, but I wonder how much Masters at Work would love to get their hands on it, just to play. I'm sure they'd love the demo version of "P.Y.T.," a take which bears almost no resemblance (save its chorus lyrics) to the version which ended up as one of Thriller's seven top 10 singles. This version's cowritten by James Ingram and has completely different lyrics and music - and is scads better. You get to spend your time cooing and singing in that rich high register you've got, Michael, taking your time and luxuriating in it, from the sound of it (the tempo here isn't near the frantic pace of the released version, either, much more midtempo). And you make it sound so effortless.

That's not to say that this 4 CD/1 DVD (of a great late-period [i.e., '90s] concert you gave in Bucharest, of all places) set is nothing but an embarassment of riches. Let's be honest: most of the unreleased ballads, from "Scared of the Moon" (pretty [and] vacant) to "Beautiful Girl" (nothing new to see here, people, move along), should've stayed that way. And in case three words attached to "We Are Here to Change the World" - "from Captain EO" - aren't embarassing enough, the song's surprisingly awful music certainly should be, Mike. But to hear all of your classics - and there's a good two discs' worth here - alongside, at long last, the cream of your work with your brothers (from "The Love You Save" to "Lovely One" to the delightfully silly Jagger-assisted "State of Shock"), augmented with rarities which, while not always successful, are nearly always at least interesting (and speaking of creative process, as I was earlier, the spare, voice-and-piano [is that Lionel?] demo of "We Are the World" is fascinating), makes this a boxed set to cherish. But can you beat every single odd and come back as a force, either artistically or commercially, let alone both? I hope so, though the odds aren't so great, Michael. [Let's be honest, okay?] In which case, if nothing else, thanks for the memories.

Here's another 100 songs you might catch me in a clinch with:

"Steppin' Out," Joe Jackson
"No Motion," Dif Juz
"The 3rd Time We Opened The Capsule," Kitchens of Distinction
"I Can Still Make Cheyenne," George Strait
"Rainy Night In Georgia," Brook Benton
"Chocolate City," Parliament
"Kiss and Tell," Bryan Ferry
"Can We Talk," Tevin Campbell
"Olympian," Gene
"Cigarettes and Alcohol," Oasis
"The Diamond Sea," Sonic Youth
"You Sexy Thing," Hot Chocolate
"All Things (Just Keep Getting Better)," Widelife featuring Simone Denney
"Tempermental (Wamdue Project Remix)," Everything But the Girl
"Beethoven (I Love to Listen to)," Eurythmics
"We Will Not Be Lovers," the Waterboys
"Sara," Fleetwood Mac
"Star Guitar," Chemical Brothers
"My Old Piano," Diana Ross
"At Last I Am Free," Chic
"Driving Your Girlfriend Home," Morrissey
"Promised You A Miracle," Simple Minds
"Early In the Morning," the Gap Band
"Encore," Cheryl Lynn
"Nobody's Supposed To Be Here," Deborah Cox
"Barely Breaking Even," the Universal Robot Band
"Girl You Need A Change of Mind (Part 1)," Eddie Kendricks
"The Unforgettable Fire," U2
"Valley Girl," Frank and Moon Unit Zappa
"Forever My Lady," Jodeci
"Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken," Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
"A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
"Welcome to the Occupation," R.E.M.
"Forbidden Fruit," the Pursuit of Happiness
"The Sweetest Chill," Siouxsie & the Banshees
"Stakes Is High," De La Soul
"Highwayman," Highwaymen
"Portland, Oregon," Loretta Lynn with Jack White
"Nothing Has Been Proved," Dusty Springfield
"Losing My Mind," Liza Minnelli
"Jet," Wings
"I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," Paul Young
"North Star," Robert Fripp with Daryl Hall
"Aja," Steely Dan
"Yoo Doo Right," Can
"I Love A Man In Uniform," Gang of Four
"Radio Ga-Ga," Queen
"Dance Commander," Electric Six
"If Only You Knew," Patti LaBelle
"The Walk," The Time
"Let Her Cry," Hootie and the Blowfish
"Eminence Front," the Who
"No Me Ames (Ballad Version)," Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez
"Otro Dia Mas Sin Verte," Jon Secada
"I Love Your Smile," Shanice
"Thank You (Untouchables Remix)," Boyz II Men
"Mermaid Smiled," XTC
"99 (Remix)," Cassius
"No More Tears," Ozzy Osbourne
"If I Ain't Got You," Alicia Keys
"U Don't Have to Call (Remix)," Usher featuring Ludacris
"Cross the Border," Icehouse
"Keep On Movin'," Soul II Soul
"Sexual Guarantee," Alcazar
"Cherish the Day," Sade
"September," Earth, Wind & Fire
"America: What Time Is Love?," The KLF
"Turned Away," Chuckii Booker
"Summerhead," Cocteau Twins
"Burn," Jo Dee Messina
"burn," nine inch nails
"Burning Down the House," Talking Heads
"Just Between You and Me," dc Talk
"Let Me Ride," Dr. Dre
"Drop It Like It's Hot," Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell
"To Be With You Again," Level 42
"On Our Own," Bobby Brown
"I Love You Always Forever," Donna Lewis
"Something In the Way (You Make Me Feel)," Stephanie Mills
"Your Smile," Rene & Angela
"Separate Lives," Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin
"Your Secret's Safe With Me," Michael Franks
"Everlong," Foo Fighters
"Baby Got Back," Sir Mix-A-Lot
"Jump," Kris Kross
"Give It 2 You," Da Brat
"Friends," Jody Watley with Eric B. & Rakim
"When You Were Mine," Crooked Fingers
"Cut Your Hair," Pavement
"Tractor Rape Chain," Guided By Voices
"Bela Lugosi's Dead," Bauhaus
"de-luxe," Lush
"Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five
"Sunset Grill," Don Henley
"Soccer Practice," Johnny McGovern a/k/a the Gay Pimp
"Everyday Struggle," the Notorious B.I.G.
"Remedy," the Black Crowes
"So May It Secretly Begin," Pat Metheny Group
"My Life," Mary J. Blige
"Fragile," Sting

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