Thursday Classics: Prince & the Revolution – Purple Rain

•November 12, 2009 • 1 Comment

Prince designed Purple Rain as the project that would make him a superstar, and, surprisingly, that is exactly what happened. Simultaneously more focused and ambitious than any of his previous records, Purple Rain finds Prince consolidating his funk and R&B roots while moving boldly into pop, rock, and heavy metal with nine superbly crafted songs. Even its best-known songs don’t tread conventional territory: the bass-less “When Doves Cry” is an eerie, spare neo-psychedelic masterpiece; “Let’s Go Crazy” is a furious blend of metallic guitars, Stonesy riffs, and a hard funk backbeat; the anthemic title track is a majestic ballad filled with brilliant guitar flourishes. Although Prince’s songwriting is at a peak, the presence of the Revolution pulls the music into sharper focus, giving it a tougher, more aggressive edge. And, with the guidance of Wendy and Lisa, Prince pushed heavily into psychedelia, adding swirling strings to the dreamy “Take Me With U” and the hard rock of “Baby I’m a Star.” Even with all of his new, but uncompromising, forays into pop, Prince hasn’t abandoned funk, and the robotic jam of “Computer Blue” and the menacing grind of “Darling Nikki” are among his finest songs. Taken together, all of the stylistic experiments add up to a stunning statement of purpose that remains one of the most exciting rock & roll albums ever recorded.

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The Cribs – Ignore the Ignorant

•November 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The Cribs stretch their lineup and music on Ignore the Ignorant, adding Johnny Marr as their fourth member and adopting a more polished sound. This isn’t a coincidence — Marr’s stint with Modest Mouse also saw that group tighten its playing and production on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. His influence, along with producer Nick Launay’s, is felt immediately on the dark, driving opening tracks “We Were Aborted” and “Cheat on Me”; later, “Ignore the Ignorant”‘s melancholy bounce bears more than a passing resemblance tothe Smiths’ classic “Panic.” Even brash moments such as “Victims of Mass Production,” “Hari Kari,” and “Emasculate Me” have notably more sophisticated songwriting than any of the Cribs’ previous work, but the band spends most of Ignore the Ignorant testing its boundaries. The big, unabashed pop instincts that have lurked close to the surface sinceThe Cribs are the focus of these songs, particularly on the swooning guitars and harmonies of “Save Your Secrets” and “Nothing”‘s smooth chug. Ignore the Ignorant is full of pretty moments that take a while to savor fully, especially compared to the fist-like immediacy of the Cribs’ earlier work. However, they also push their sound in more challenging directions, like the slow-motion finale “Stick to Yr Guns” and the epic “City of Bugs,” a rangy six-minute workout that uses the band’s dual-guitar lineup to its fullest and recalls “Be Safe,”Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever‘s standout collaboration with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. While Ignore the Ignorant isn’t perfect — Gary and Ryan Jarman’s guileless vocals don’t always jell with their slick surroundings — it is unquestionably some of the Cribs’ most accomplished and diverse music. Fortunately, the Jarmans didn’t have to sacrifice too much of their punky energy to gain the versatility and nuance they have here.

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Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – Xenophanes

•November 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Talk about prolific. As both a member and co-composer of all the Mars Volta’s recordings, and as a solo artist, it appears Omar Rodriguez-Lopez doesn’t sleep. Xenophanes (named for the Greek poet) is his thirteenth solo project since 2005, and his eleventh since 2007! With that schedule it’s a wonder he managed to record four albums with Mars Volta between 2005 and 2009 as well as tour. While many of Rodriguez-Lopez’s recordings have been more about sonic experimentation, culture-clashing arrangement, and song structure — as well as delivering a couple of soundtracks — such is not the case with Xenophanes. The band here is a variation on the one he’s used forever with bassist Juan Alderete de la Peña, drummerThomas Pridgen, and keyboardist/percussionist Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez. Additionally, the album includes contributions from Mark Aanderudon additional keyboards, but doesn’t (unusually) contain fellow Volta member Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals. This time out, the guitarist-producer-composer-arranger has chosen to use his own vocals treated by a ton of effects, and with the assistance of Mexican singer/songwriter Ximena Sariñana on backing and duet vocals. What’s more, the album is sung entirely in Spanish.

Musically, this is the most accessible album, non-English lyrics and all, Rodriguez-Lopez has yet to issue. These songs are tightly composed along psychedelic rock lines with his guitar, vocals, and drums way up front. The production is fat and layered like crazy, and there are wonderful dynamic variations on tunes such as “Dessarraigo,” where after an intense five-minute sonic attack of screaming guitar and drums, the piece closes out with the ghostly sounds of a gently played toy piano and reverb. The melodies at work in tracks such as the brief instrumental “Sangrando Detrás de los Ojos,” with its airy, loping bass flutter, wow ambient space, and scudding drums are simply lovely. His own guitar-playing walks the path between Frank Zappa’s more beautiful interludes and Jimi Hendrix’s penchant for painterly psychedelic beauty. The sideways futurism of ” Amanita Virosa” is infectious, as walls of guitar feedback, keyboard skronk, and syncopated drums offer a distraction before the tune’s melody asserts itself in the din. On “Ojo al Cristo de Plata,” the clash between the jagged forward thrust of his echoing vocals, and Sariñana’s counterpoint melody clash against backmasking tape manipulations and shuddering keyboard sounds, but meet at the seam for an explosion of the kind of psychedelic funkiness we’ve come to expect from him. The stop and start, sheet-rock heaviness in “Flores de Cizaña” is offset by its gorgeous vocal chorus that provides a brief but necessary rest amid three, perhaps four, different melodies at work in the instrumental backing.

Xenophanes is proof that even as he reins himself in a bit, Rodriguez-Lopez cannot help but to push the envelope; this time it’s as a rock & roll songwriter who knows too much to keep it simple, yet understands the instinct to draw the listener in, time and again, with layers of subtlety, powerful emotions, sleight-of-hand aural magic, and sheer power, as well as sophistication.

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Ryan Leslie – Transition

•November 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Leave it to overachieving wiz kid Ryan Leslie to release two albums within a year. His self-titled album released merely nine months prior, he returns with “a collection of songs inspired by a summer of secret love.” For someone who documents so much of his life, it seems almost implausible that he could maintain that kind of privacy. Maybe the relationship was a George Glass situation (i.e., made up), or perhaps Leslie produced a clone to make public appearances so he could sneak off with his woman. Whatever the case, Transition offers a set of songs that is undeniably more focused than that of Ryan Leslie, and that comes through even more clearly after re-sequencing the material to suit the rise and fall of the relationship. The highs, however, are not as high as they are on the debut and, if less surprisingly, there is nothing as weird as “Gibberish.” “You’re Not My Girl” is the album’s standout, working a snappy disco-funk rhythm aided by synthetic harpsichord and xylophone (triggering a flashback to the S.O.S. Band’s “Take Your Time”). “Never Gonna Break Up,” the mood-setting opener — which would actually make more sense as the album’s finale — is not far behind, with its softly lancing synthesizers accenting Leslie’s fragility after being kicked to the curb. Apart from a couple subtle wrinkles, Leslie’s sound has not changed much and continues to resemble the Neptunes’ candy-coated bounce, like he is theMonte Moir or Jellybean Johnson to Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. “Something I Like,” in fact, could be slotted in the middle of Clipse’s Neps-produced Hell Hath No Fury, even if it didn’t happen to feature a verse from the duo’s Pusha T. At times, his voice seems to be lacking in conviction, but those moments do tend to occur when he’s spitting game; post-breakup, that could be the most difficult material to pull off. And while he is not a singer like a John Legend or Usher, he can be an effectual vocalist, exemplified most on the closing “I Choose You,” where it sounds like he’s trying his best not to not come across as deflated but is too wounded to help it.

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Amerie – In Love & War

•November 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

After “1 Thing” hit the Top Ten of the Hot 100 during the spring of 2005, Amerie was basically invisible. A follow-up single only grazed the Hip-Hop/R&B chart. Released in 2007, the adventurous Because I Love It, the singer’s next album — and, ironically, best work — wasn’t even issued in the U.S., possibly because its lead single slid off the chart within two weeks. Now on Def Jam, Amerie returns with In Love & War, an album that is much more creative than its title indicates while also playing out a bit like Because I Love It redux. Even with a few recycled ideas and the unlikeliness that she’ll have another “1 Thing,” the singer has made a second excellent album without the help of Rich Harrison. She works with another assortment of co-producers and co-writers, including Eric Hudson, Sean Garrett,Warryn Campbell, Rico Love, Jim Jonson, Bryan-Michael Cox, and even Teddy Riley. As on Because I Love It, all the high-energy material is packed into the first half, where Amerie lays down the law, accosts, and flirts, and she even manages to seem in control when she falls into a romantic trap. “Why R U” is a reminder that no one is better when it comes to breathing new life into a familiar breakbeat, while “Higher” is surprisingly rocking, reined in just before spinning out of control. The first half is even better when it cools down a few degrees, as on the rewrite of Mint Condition’s “Breaking My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),” featuring Trey Songz, and “More Than Love,” where Amerie rides more Kool & the Ganghorns and gets into an amusing spat with Fabolous. “Swag Back” through “Dear John” is all subdued and deals mostly with the war side — accepting a lost cause, escaping “a living hell,” and recovering from it — though “You’re a Star” and “Red Eye” provide a reprieve, with the latter the album’s only true slow jam. Its alluringly bleary synthesizer cleverly enhances Amerie’s half-awake mile-high-club state of bliss. Heartbreak ballads like “The Flowers” and the “Paint Me Over”-like “Different People” might put off those who have an aversion to melodrama, but they are as well constructed as anything earlier in the set.

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Little Dragon – Machine Dreams

•November 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Lest you believe Little Dragon lack an aesthetic spine, their shift away from low-key left-field hip-hop, plaintive piano ballads, and acoustic jazz — a combination that helped make their debut a cult classic — seems more natural after a couple spins. There’s no way around the fact that most of Machine Dreams is icy electro-pop, but it is not as if the truly singular Yukimi Nagano, an enamoring vocalist, has switched to drone mode, forsaking her grounding in R&B. She has kind of perked up, in fact, with her hooks carrying more lift to suit her band’s rubbery rhythms and liquid synthesizer patterns. Just as “Twice” was the standout on Little Dragon, the songs here that resonate most, however — the opening “A New,” “Thunder Love,” and the closing “Fortune” — are this Swedish group’s version of (electric) quiet storm, deceptively intense and even sensual.

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Weezer – Raditude

•November 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

If Weezer’s 2008 eponymous Red Album was all about singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomocoming to terms with heading into middle age, then 2009’s Raditude finds Cuomo looking back upon his own carefree, dirt bike-riding youth and writing songs about it, but filtered through the eyes of Weezer’s younger fans. In that sense, Raditude comes off as a kind ofBig Chill-esque concept album for Gen-Y kids who grew up in the ’90s. To these ends,Cuomo packs these largely poppy and rockin’ songs with concrete images and cultural references that are just slightly warped and out of phase with his own generational timeline. As on the driving, ’60s-soul inflected opening track “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” Cuomo croons to his teenage girlfriend, “Your Slayer t-shirt fit the scene just right” and later, “We watched Titanic and it didn’t make us sad.” The Titanic reference is clearly a touchstone for any Gen-Y kid, and even the Slayer shout-out — though an ’80s metal band — seems to imply a ’90s teen wearing her older brother’s worn-out t-shirt. At first, the song seems to be a sophomoric and jokey make-out track hinging on the line, “So make a move ‘cuz I ain’t got all night.” However, the song ends with the teen couple staring at each other as grown-ups in a troubled marriage with nothing left to say to fix their problems but, “make a move ‘cuz I ain’t got all night.” The ironic ending only backs up the notion that Cuomo, having worked through his own mid-life crisis on the “Red Album,” now has his aging Gen-Y fans and their issues on his mind. Musically, Raditudereally sounds like vintage Weezer, but never in a pandering, played-out way. In that sense, we get the band’s now-classic mix of old-school ’50s pop with big, hooky ’70s rawk guitars, and tracks like sublimely power poppy “I’m Your Daddy,” and the cheeky glitter rock-inspired anthem “The Girl Got Hot” are as sparkling with creative enthusiasm as anything the band has done since “Buddy Holly.” Similarly, tracks that include the slight hip-hop and R&B touches the band has favored in recent years fit perfectly into the sound of an album crafted for an audience who came of age in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Even the much anticipated party-rap song “Can’t Stop the Partying” featuring rapper Lil Wayne is a dark, minor-key rumination on the downside of living it up on the party circuit and is the furthest thing from white-guy novelty-rap goofiness. Ultimately, it’s Weezer’s deft mixing of immediately hummable rock with lyrics that reveal Cuomo’s own melancholy gaze on the pop landscape that makes Raditude a passionate surrender to growing up and a throw-your-arms-up-and-scream ride down the other side of the mid-life roller coaster.

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