August 6, 2010

Don't Be an Adam Downer

Arcade Fire put out The Suburbs, their third album, on Tuesday. I picked up my copy from my local Post Office this morning. I've spun it twice. A few more spins and I'll write about it. I'm going to say extremely warm things about it, because it's an astounding album. I'm surprised by how many critics are actually saying smart, positive things about it, given the oft-realized critic's temptation to rip apart an "anticipated" third album.

Now here's a guy who is not saying smart things about it, or saying anything smart at all, though a smartass he is, tried and true: Sputnikmusik's Adam Downer. You can access his review of the album here. I've read reviews with which I strongly disagreed, like anyone who reads reviews. I've read reviews which have pissed me off. I've never read a professional review so stupid as Downer's piece on The Suburbs. Every thing he says is wrong, and then two steps beyond wrong: many of his statements are inexplicable. His writing ain't worth writing home about, either. Look at his capitalization when he writes that the album "has a lot of Very Fine Things to say," which continues, "usually about the horrors of apathy, and that's fine in and of itself." Drop the "in and of itself." Then check out these two sentences, real winners: "If Butler weren't so intent of flipping everyone off, the album could have been the important, mammoth commentary on modern hipster culture it's intended as. Instead it just sort of exists as this sour shadow of a band that was once described as 'hopeful.'" It's embarrassing those sentences exist.

His statements about the album are vague, impossible to follow, and without supporting evidence, poor English aside. When he does provide evidence, it works against his ideas, the ideas of a man very insecure about Arcade Fire, and much, much more so, Win Butler. "He hates being in the Arcade Fire because he hates Arcade Fire fans--which, seeing as Arcade Fire fans mostly suck, is pretty legitimate," Downer wrote. "He hates that he fronts a polarizing indie megaband and not an iconic Americana band whose audience will just eat whatever shit it feeds them." Butler apparently finds The Suburbs a "nebulous purgatory," reacting by "casting his audience as pricks." Butler, asshole that he is, even sings, "They build it up just to burn it back down"--according to Downer, a Seventies cliche. The sneaky bastard is even having an existential crisis across The Suburbs. What's his deal? Downer: "Basically, he hates that he's not Bruce Springsteen." Don't we all?

Downer does discuss more than Butler's obnoxious deficiencies. "Neon Bible sounded like an Arcade Fire Record and Funeral actually was one," Downer states, and yes, those are his italics. "Funeral actually had something of consequence to convey." What that is, Downer will never reveal, of course. He chides Neon Bible for its "pseudo-political babble"--eww, "pseudo-political," gahk--and suggests The Suburbs's lyrics are "bitter and deeply resentful, partially because of who Butler's become, but mostly of who we, his audience, aren't." (No, please, Mr. Downer, let me. The issue is less who Butler's become, and more who he hasn't: Bruce Springsteen.)

What's he really trying to say about the album? "It's a shame, really, because even with a theme this confrontational, it could have been much more relatable." "Sure, there are some wonderful songs here, songs where Butler focuses on something that isn't the idiocy of indie bloggers," the veiled topic at the heart of all-too-many of this album's songs. Downer's final sentence: "And with that comes the creeping idea that maybe, underneath Funeral's perfection and Neon Bible's hugeness, they're not all that interesting." I don't know you, Mr. Downer, but I read your piece about The Suburbs. And with that comes the creeping idea that you're a fucking moron.

July 3, 2010

R.I.P., Consumer Guide: The Gradebook Closes

Robert Christgau is the greatest critic in the history of popular music. His writing is impeccable, his sentences exciting, his style unmistakable. A Christgau piece emanates intelligence the likes of which I've found in the work of very few critics, not least of all because Christgau has always expressed his opinion, no matter how radically different it might be--and often is--from the General Opinion. He's a brilliant man, an extraodinary writer, and the most important voice in pop music criticism. He's best known for his Consumer Guide columns, which can be found at his website, in which he reviews a stunning amount of new releases, grades them on a scale of "A" to "E," and then writes a brief spiel about each record. Following the sentences in Christgau's Consumer Guide is like following the flame toward a stick of dynamite--and the best part is the explosion happens in one's own mind. He's been writing these Consumer Guides every single month since July 1969.

I have no shortage of praise for this guy, obviously. I admire him like I admire few writers, and I love every second of his writing. Christgau published his final Consumer Guide, July 2010, two days ago via MSN. That's it. He's done. He still writes a column for Barnes & Noble, and records pieces for N.P.R., and he writes delightful pieces for the N.A.J.P. blog, but his magnum opus, the Consumer Guide--it's done. I highly recommend you check out not only this month's Consumer Guide, but that you visit Mr. Christgau's website as well, via the link above, and read as much of his writing as you can. If you visit his work loose-of-mind, I think you'll be the better for it.

May 28, 2010

Arcade Fire Releases Two New Songs, Which Put Off Heat But Don't Simmer

I’ve been listening to the belches of thin air spewed forth regarding Arcade Fire’s third album for a while. So far as I could tell, all we knew about the album was that it was planned for release around the end of the summer, and that the band was working with Markus Dravs again. Now the details have dropped: The Suburbs, that’s the title, and it’s coming out August 3 in the U.S. I like the cover art. But more important than the artwork are the two fresh songs they’ve pressed on a 12-inch single, “The Suburbs” and “Month of May,” which you can listen to here.

I’m a strong supporter of the band at this point. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard their debut—album, that is; I’m not in any rush to get to the E.P.—but I think Neon Bible is a tremendous album, the kind of album Radiohead thinks they’re recording, noir-rock like the Doors advertised and sporadically delivered. Only Neon Bible is better than any album the Doors ever released. So far as my ears, heart, and mind can tell, it’s one of the best albums anyone’s released since the Y2K. I could devote a piece to Neon Bible, as my gushing suggests. That’s old news.

This new material is much more interesting. On the Needle Drop, where I found the songs streaming, there are three comments from users covering the whole spectrum of possible reactions: “It’s weird: I usually hate Arcade Fire, but these songs are alright;” “ ‘The Suburbs’ is … sleepy but not bad and not the best. ‘Month of May’ really surprised me and I love it,” and “This is VERY weak and lets HOPE that the rest of the album isn’t.”

The first comment accords with one of my observations, that the songs are much more listener-friendly, for those listeners frightened, repulsed, or just plain turned-off by the paralyzing fear and manic paranoia of Neon Bible. I’m with the second commenter. I don’t think “The Suburbs” is sleepy. There’s too much in Win Butler’s vocals. But nice as it is, and, as usual, as interesting as the lyrics are, especially the bit about why he wants a daughter but’ll settle for a son toward the end of the song, “Month of May” is the more immediately gripping. Its lyrics do seem uneven, but it’s the drive of the song that appeals to me, the chopping guitar, like an X record played at half-speed. “Month of May” feels thinner after repeated listens, whereas “The Suburbs” seems to add new layers of emotion and meaning the more I play it. I’m pleased with these new songs. I’m not riveted by either song, which may be a sign of things to come, or it may mean nothing at all. I’m intrigued, and I’m eagerly anticipating the new album. And that reaction is the exact purpose of a single. I guess we would call this a success for Arcade Fire, so far as I’m concerned.

I leapt at the chance to break my silence without organizing a full-fledged article, since I’ve only written one, which to the extent of my knowledge remains unread by anyone save myself, and that was more than a month ago. I’d planned to start my proposed “Calendar Girls” series, but a turbulent finish to the semester and the lame-duck that is MGMT’s Congratulations imploded that aspiration. Then my girlfriend was assailed by excruciating pain, today revealed to be a fractured rib, which canned our plans to attend the PiL concert in New York—and, in the process, cancelled my promised piece on PiL. There is more coming, I promise, readers or lack thereof be damned.

April 12, 2010

My First Mixtapes

"I'm warnin' you we on the move/Bunch o' female dogs and garden tools," pronounces Lil Wayne on his freshest mixtape, No Ceilings, released last Halloween and, by Carter's own statement, "priceless--which is why it's free."  No Ceilings almost convinces me, almost, so close, that Lil Wayne is the greatest rapper alive.  If so that doesn't make him the greatest hip-hop artist in the biz, necessarily.  In my opinion he's yet to release a Kala or a Late Registration, maybe even a College Dropout.  Despite that criticism, I love No Ceilings, which was the second of my first two mixtapes.  I might venture that it's more immediately impressive than his masterpiece, 2008's Tha Carter III, even if it isn't ultimately so rewarding.

Not sold on Lil Wayne?  I don't blame you, but I might suggest you loosen up.  Carter's language is, even to an individual raised on a diet of rawhide rock 'n' roll, almost repugnantly vulgar.  I wouldn't waste my life counting how many times he expounds on popping that pussy--not my choice of sexual vernacular any day (or night)--or boasts about fucking all sorts of women, single or otherwise, all night long or even a hundred times in a row, the former something I could do on right nights with the right woman putting me in the right mood, the latter something I'm sure as hell I'll never be able to do.  Beneath the vulgarity, I detect a moving sincerity and sentiment, which came across strongest in "Wayne on Me," where Lil Wayne answers Shanell's calls for a daddy by declaring, "I make that pussy happy," "I like to kiss, she like to kiss/I deep stroke and make her bite her fist:" reads crass on paper, or the Internet, but in the context of the music it reveals something deeper.

Beyond his sex-isms, Carter's lyrics are loaded with exactly the misogynistic, thug stereotypes Haters cite as the root of hip hop's evil.  In Carter's case, his stereotypes are more accurately described as archetypes: archetypes which he fills with his more-than-clever rhymes and stories and expands into ideas.  Maybe this began as gangsta rap, but Lil Wayne's music has long since grown out of that.  There are ceilings, as Carter may or may not be figuring out behind bars, but his music makes one believe otherwise.

You can download a copy of No Ceilings on Lil Wayne's official site, or on sites like DatPiff, which is where I downloaded mine.  Check out the "Sweet Dreams Remix"--man, can Nicki Minaj spin a verse!--or "I Got No Ceilings," where I was happy to find Weezy had sampled the best pop album since 1990 (the B.E.P.'s).  Or "Single," my favorite of the 21 tracks, descriptive words in my mind being "hot," "smoky," "moodfest."  I never understood just how sexy Lil Wayne is until I heard "Single."  After checking out these tracks, play the title track: is it just me or does it sound a heck of a lot like Kanye West's "Slow Jamz" off College Dropout?

Bringing me to, in terms of my listening, the first of my first two mixtapes, Kanye West's Can't Tell Me Nothing, released at the end of May way back in 2007.  My love of Mr. West doesn't render me so delusional as to think this is better or even comparable to Mr. Carter's No Ceilings, but is it ever fun.  Weezy actually shows up on the eleventh of the mixtape's 25 tracks, "C.O.L.O.U.R.S.," with Bentley and Pimp C.

Can't Tell Me Nothing was put out for West to showcase talent he'd signed to his G.O.O.D. Records, capitalizing on the anticipation for his third album, Graduation, which came out that September.  There are snippets of Graduation on this mixtape, snippets of little consequence to anyone now, great as they are.  "Us Placers," which samples the title track off Thom Yorke's The Eraser, was planned for inclusion on Graduation but removed at the last minute.  It introduces Child Rebel Soldier, according to Wikipedia a "hip hop supergroup" composed of West, Lupe Fiasco, and Pharrell Williams.  I'm lightly impressed by the song, more impressed by Rolling Stone's notes on the song, which proclaimed, "... hip hop isn't dead, and neither is rock.  They're quietly invincible."  Which makes sense to me.

There are pieces on the mixtape that, as West intended, encourage me to seek more.  "Stay Up" by 88-Keys, off his debut concept album (?!), chiefly for ambience.  Maybe a couple tracks by Common ("Southside" by name).  But the tracks that absorb me are the tracks with appearances from the Man in Charge, and not just because I'm a fan.  The only songs I play regularly are the Unholy Trinity kicking off with track 19, Kanye's remix of Ne-Yo's "Because of You," a soft- and translucent-as-water modern R&B single which I like because I'm a softy for such things.  I also have a soft spot for simpleton T-Pain, whose "Buy You a Drank" gets remixed next.  Sound advice therein, courtesy Mr. West: "Fuck a drink, I'mm'a buy the bar if you're worth it."

It doesn't take a college degree to recognize West's ingenious remix of Rich Boy's "Throw Some D's" is the crown point of the mixtape.  One of the reasons I love Kanye West is the wacky, neurotic routes his mind travels: here he takes a lame-as-a-flat-tire thug rap about giving a guy's car some Dayton rims--the titular "D's"--and re-interprets it as an anthem for breast implants.  To the young woman whose "face got potential" with a "waist like a pencil," West asks, "Why you spend your money on that shallow shit?/Why won't you buy some bigger tits?/Something that'll last you?"  Upon meeting a Beyonce fan: "Say she love Beyonce/Let me 'Upgrade U!'"  "She ain't pregnant but about to have twins," he notes.  Then he explains his respect for Alicia Keys.  I love every minute. 

After climaxing over Kanye's "D's," the mixtape deflates rapidly.  The Tony Williams song is a pleasant throwaway, the Really Doe piece really forgettable and really not helped by the then-increasingly-irksome and now-increasingly-forgotten Jennifer Hudson.  It ends with PM's unextraodinary "Hater Family."  The dullness of these final tracks leaves the listener plenty of time to think about the mixtape as a whole.  It's scatterbrained, uneven, and long.  It's also consistently fun, at its highest points a blast.  I recommend it as fervently as Kanye endorses breast augmentation.

During the next two weeks I'm beginning a monthly series called "Calendar Girls," in which I'll review one new album released within that month, the album being the calendar girl.  It's a loose concept.

Next month I'm seeing Public Image Ltd. at Terminal 5 in Hell's Kitchen.  I intend to be appropriately versed in the band by that time.  I'm going to post a column dedicated solely to the band, their discography, and, most important, my feelings about the band and their discography, sometime before I see them at the Terminal 5.  I've already heard Second Edition a number of times, and it was good enough for me to suggest you bring it to class next time we meet.  No extra credit for the overachievers packing Metal Box.