Monday, January 12, 2009

For Emma, Forever Ago

Band: Bon Iver
Album: For Emma, Forever Ago
Best song: "Skinny Love," "For Emma" and "Re: Stacks" are the album highlights.
Worst song: "The Wolves (Act I and II)" is ambitious, but, ultimately falls short.

For Emma, Forever Ago was recorded and self-released in 2007 originally, but it saw (sorta) wide release in 2008, so, let's include it in my 2008 retrospective month (aka "January 2009").

As anyone with a computer knows, Bon Iver is the work of former Mount Vernon member Justin Vernon, the state of Wisconsin, a cabin and, presumably, a fair amount of introspection. He spent three months in a cabin in the Northern part of that state, essentially alone with his recording equipment and his own mind. All the record was written and recorded during this time and in this way, with tape hiss, hand claps and all evident in the recording.

The record has been praised for its intimacy and the recording style is certainly to blame for that. Indeed, the album is mostly Vernon and his guitar, though "Flume" features Nola's Christy Smith on drums and "For Emma" features a trumpet. His falsetto is interesting, though not overused and his normal whisper vocal is stronger than most of his ilk. He's not an intricate guitar player on the level of Elliott Smith, but he's not the mediocre strummer that Mark Kozelek tends to be.

Melodically, the album isn't a revelation, but Vernon does what he needs to. On "Creature Fear," Vernon's cooing of monosyllabic onomatopoetic "fa" make for a pleasant listen. Lyrically, the album is sparse and full of workable metaphors evident of his recording environment. Again, the record was recorded last winter and winter in Wisconsin ain't bright. It's grey. Grey grey grey grey grey. So, on album-ender "Re: Stacks," Vernon's voice is fluid when he intones "I've twisting to the sun I needed to replace/The fountain in the front yard is rusted out/All my love was down/In a frozen ground." The forlorn "For Emma" is a full-band treatment that shows off Vernon's abilities. An easy guitar bit is repetitive, but catchy and Vernon's single-tracked vocal line sounds full and evocative. Really, the combination of Vernon's voice and his unchallenging lyrics is wonderful.

As such, the album's highlight, "Skinny Love," Vernon is able to make an easy checklist into desperation
I told you to be patient
I told you to be fine
I told you to be balanced
I told you to be kind

The song's desperation is showed in Vernon's double-tracked vocals on the song. The record's fullness is astounding, considering the low fidelity of its work and the composition of it.


The singer-songwriter thing is, no doubt, frustrating and overdone. And, to be honest, For Emma, Forever Ago has been a little overpraised by just about anyone with a keyboard and broadband. Indeed, I'm reminded of the first Iron & Wine record. Without an experience to tie to the album -- these type of records soundtrack breakups, graduations, etc. better than, say, the Fleet Foxes record -- I'm sort of left as just pleasantly surprised. It's a nice record in an genre that is one in which it is nearly impossible to succeed without better context.

Friday, January 9, 2009

808s & Heartbreak

Band: Kanye West
Album: 808s & Heartbreak
Best song: "Love Lockdown" is pretty good. "Say You Will" is pretty good.
Worst song: The end of the record trails off and repetitiveness is a problem.

Kanye West is wonderful producer. He's a decent rapper on his own stuff. He's not a singer.


You must know those things in order to fully digest 808s & Heartbreak.


I've posited this theory before, but I don't know if I've put it down on paper/the Tubes just yet. It's the George Lucas theory of art. It revolves around something I adore: Star Wars.

You see, for the first three Star Wars movies, George Lucas was trying to prove himself within a system that was relatively -- certainly for A New Hope in '77 -- hostile to his vision. As such, Lucas really needed to work with and around other people and needed to be edited or budgeted. He was often told "no."

That last sentence is key. If Lucas had an idea that wasn't plausible, someone at Fox said "no."

Of course, since then, Lucas has had an army of sycophants and yes-men telling him everything he wants to hear. Awful racial stereotypes thinly disguised as aliens? Of course. More CGI than you can shake a stick at? Why not? No one tells him "no." Not the studio, not his other writers, not the directors. He's George Fucking Lucas. He created Luke Goddamn Skywalker. And Chewbacca. And Admiral Ackbar.

It happens whenever someone is hailed as a genius or amazing at a certain age and continually believes him or herself to be an artist. Because these people are successful enough (and, often, visionaries), their underlings and those around them just mainline ass-kissing to them.

It happens most often to athletes. Mike Vick was surrounded by friends that neverhad the sense or balls to say, "hey,buddy, let's not kill those dogs" because the meal ticket might get pissed. Eventually, you start to listen to your own press.

Look at Madonna (well, don't really look at her. She currently looks like a goblin on Winstrol). She's such a luminary that she has an army of fat chicks and gay dudes defending her every action, including when she steals a baby from Africa. Or when she falls into Onion-parodying-Manson territory, jumping on a cross whenever someone stops looking at her.


Kanye West, of course, falls into that territory, to a weird point. It's maybe tough to criticize West for thinking that he's God's gift to music. He didn't come onto this recently. West thought of himself as some combination of Dr. Dre, Tupac and James Brown from the time he got into the game with his first -- admittedly brilliant -- record. But, West's temper tantrums are notorious. He always feels slighted whenever someone wins an award he doesn't.

I touched on this Monday, but Kanye West is certainly one of the untouchables in the music press. People can mock his personality, but nearly no one knocks his skills as an artist. This is, largely, deserved. Again, he's a strikingly good producer who knows how to incorporate different sounds -- Eurodisco on his last album, for example -- into rap. He works with great people. He's a serviceable rapper with a smart, introspective syle evident from "All Falls Down."

808s & Heartbreak has gotten a lot of positive reviews, and understandably so. West's best traits bubble up throughout the record. The Pitchfork end-of-year piece praised the album as having West "[beating] emo at its own game." (Pitchfork, by the way, is so far n the tank for West, it's sopping wet.) And Pitchfork isn't wrong. West's mother died last year and he broke up with his fiancee, so his emo-ness is understandable.

And it's well-done. Lyrically, the album is forlorn and introspective. "Welcome to Heartbreak" paints a picture of a man overshadowed by his material accomplishments in search of actual happiness. It's catchy and very West. "See You in My Nightmares" is an angry tell-off to a woman, as is "Heartless," a flangy, pretty thing.

And the production, of course, is nearly flawless -- save for one thing (more on that in a bit). "Love Lockdown" has the thumping drumline beats of a high school marching band. "Paranoid" is all Italian disco. "Say You Will" is almost slowcore in its build.

With that said, the criticisms of the album are absolutely fair. West's complaints of first-world-Robin-Leech problems are, at best, foolish and more likely, incredibly insulting. I'm tired of hearing about how consumerist he is; just stop buying houses, dickwad, and give a bunch of money to the Red Cross.

The original Pitchfork review sloughs off his fallback onto the Auto-Tune a some sort of part of his oeuvre. The review psshaws the idea that he's a bandwagon-jumper as foolish, being that all futuristic music manipulates vocals. The final point is a fair one, though the results remain the same: West is relying too heavily on the Auto-Tune becaus he can't fucking sing.

Indeed, West has always sounded overmatched when singing. Yes, the Auto-Tune is a staple of urban radio in 2008; the Lil Wayne record has Auto-Tune all over it and it is used to a nice degree on that album. But, West seems to use it to cover up for the fact that, as a crooner, he lacks chops. Unlike his flow, which is masked by great lyrics, his singing of hooks is just mediocre and to T-Pain it up only shows that he has no singing talent. In Lil Wayne's case, Lil Wayne uses it to manipulate. West uses it to cover up his lack of range.

West is certainly a wonderful artist and one that deserves most of the accolades he receives. But, clearly, the music press gives him carte blanch. That's crazy. He's got enough yes-men, critics shouldn't be in that club.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Band: Portishead
Album: Third
Best song: "Machine Gun" and "Plastic" are amazing.
Worst song: I actually like every song on this record.

Coming in at no. 419 on the RS 500 list, Portishead's debut album is a classic among classics. Indeed, to say that Dummy is the definitive trip-hop album and a joy. I'm not a big fan of electronic music, though I guess calling Portishead "electronic music" is kind of silly.

(Indeed, the term is about as descriptive as "rock music.")

And, maybe this is forced, but I did want to spend January of 2009 writing a little about the best albums of 2008, or, at least, the most talked-about albums. So, earlier this week, you got Lil Wayne and this month will feature Kanye West, Fleet Foxes and The Daylight Brigade.

Third took 11 years to come out, though it's not a Chinese Democracy situation. Instead, Third is simply a fantastic album showing a band departing from the sound it helped create. It's not a downbeat record in the way that Portishead or Dummy are, though, it's hardly a Daft Punk record. Beth Gibbons' voice remains the best part of the band, but her sorrow is lessened and somehow, more effective than previous efforts. One listen to the album's opening track (sample lyric: "Did you know what I lost?/do you know what I wanted?") will quell any fan's hunger for her sultry vox and sad-sack lyrics.

The group's reliance on samples is pushed to the background and the band takes a more functional approach to songwriting. The album's highlight, "Machine Gun," uses a rapid-fire drumbeat, soothing organ and hard electronics to back up Gibbon's oddly-scaled vocal track. The song takes a middle-section detour onto a different key, but remains a dynamic ride. "Plastic" has a wobbly lead line, movie-soundtrack heaviness and start-stop vocals, all sounds that Portishead eschewed in the past. It is, of course, brilliant.

The album flows with acoustic guitar, theremin and oh so many odd-styled drumbeats. If the band wasn't so amazing and so stylized, it would be tough to recognize the sound, yet it still sounds like Portishead. A difficult feat, but the Bristol trio has accomplished it.

Rarely does a band expand on its sound while still keeping with the band's signatures. The album's final track could have been on the band's previous two albums. I can hardly explain well as to why this album is great, but I can say this: It was worth waiting for.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tha Carter III

Band: Lil Wayne
Album: The Carter III
Best song: Oh, man, pick it. Just about every song on the record is amazing, from the long political tome "DontGetIt" to the standard club jam "Got Money" to the introspective romance (yes, romance) song "Prostitute 2" to the slow jam of "Lollipop." I could go on.
Worst song: "La La" isn't as good as the rest of the record and has a pretty typical David Banner beat.

Hip hop has a strange relationship with the (mostly white) music press. While the vast majority of opinion makers are bent toward a certain brand of music -- independent rock, for the most part -- hip hop gets different treatment.

Take the simple topic of consumerism. If any rock artist talked about Rolexes, Bentleys and the like in a song, Pitchfork and Stereogum reviewers would tear them a new one. Just destroy any rock artist like that. There wouldn't even be a question.

Hip hop has a different relationship, for various reasons. Of course, hip hop is still experiencing growing pains as a genre and a culture (which is not to excuse the cultural issues. Sexism and homophobia isn't OK.). Moreover, the simple fact that the hip hop equivalent of independent rock -- what is known as "backpack" -- isn't all that great. Mos Def put out one good (OK, Black on Both Sides is great.) record and did the Black Star record with Talib Kweli. Pharaoh Monche is wonderful.

So, when "mainstream" hip hop artists show some level of introspection, knowledge and intricacy within their music, they are fawned over. Jay-Z is wildly talented, but, lest we forget, he made a whole fucking lot of money on songs like "Big Pimpin'." Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac both carried on the tradition of gangster rap (which is too complex to recount here), but also showed some level of knowledge of their mortality. Therefore, royalty.

As such, certain artists get extreme treatment. Tupac and B.I.G. are looked at as gods, when they both did their fair share of promoting violence. Jay-Z is considered the best in the game. And Eminem, well... To quote myself:

But, the B.I.G.s and Jay-Zs of the world toss around "faggot" somewhat often and we all know that a gun takes a starring role in their songs more often than it should. And, come on. "Money, Cash Hoes" was one of Jay's singles. "Big Pimpin'." That sort of thing.

So, I hate to go down this path, but do we hold Eminem to a higher standard because he's white?

That's how the music press sees hip hop, sadly. Eminem -- who, regardless of skin color, is talented -- is looked at as a homophobe, while Jay-Z is a luminary.

Which brings us to Lil Wayne's sixth album, Tha Carter III. Let me first say that I adore this album. It's weird. Like, very weird. Like Kool Keith weird.

But, amongst his claiming he's an alien ("Phone Home"), the album is full of hooks and some very very weird vocal cadences. It has introspection, social consciousness and even Lil Wayne's own terrible guitar playing. It features some of the hottest producers around and, as such, a whole fucking lot of Auto-tune. Which is fine by me.

That's not to say that I'm probably falling prey to the same issues I've outlined above. The singles from Tha Carter III -- mostly the best songs, by the way -- are not free from the regular issues in hip hop. "Lollipop" is a song about, well, oral sex. "Got Money" is about Lil Wayne's most infamous lyric ("make it rain") and literally throwing money around. "A Milli" is the worst of the bunch, but still a fun song, while "Mrs. Officer" is an awesome run through Wayne's bizarre mind. But, again. The song is leering and sort of sexist.

With that said, Lil Wayne's an exceptional rapper. Like, exceptional. He's strange and smart and rapid-fire and, boy, does he pick the right producers. Kanye West -- an unparalleled producer, but a mediocre rapper -- contributes three stellar tracks, while David Banner has three, as well. Play-n-Skillz bring out Wayne and T-Pain's interplay on "Got Money" and whoever Maestro and Deezle are, they give Wayne the room to play on "Prositute 2," a strikingly good track. Something called "Rodnae & Mousa" use Nina Simone's version of "Misunderstood" to back up "DontGetIt," another song that lets Lil Wayne stretch himself.

Indeed, "DontGetIt" and West's "Tie My Hands" show Lil Wayne doing the most with the important issue of his hometown, Katrina. "Tie My Hands," well, addresses it pretty bluntly:

They try tell me keep my eyes open
My whole city under water some people still floatin'
and they wonder why black people still voting.
'Cause your president still chokin',
Take away the football team the basketball team
Now all we got is me to represent New Orleans.
No governor, no help from the mayor
Just a steady beating heart and a wish and a prayer.

The song's sweet ease of West's production has Lil Wayne finessing his lyrics through, while still sounding affected and sensitive. It's a really sincere record and one that fits West' new direction.

"DontGetIt" is more troubling, if only because it's about six minutes too long at nearly 10 minutes. With that said, the final few minutes are occupied by Lil Wayne recounting his political viewpoints in a spoken-word -- not rap, by any means, as there is little in the way of rhythm-- section that varies from the prison population ("You see one in every 100 Americans are locked up/One in every nine black Americans are locked up") to the inherent racism in the system ("We probably only selling the crack cocaine because we in the hood"), while the actual song again addresses the storm:

Please slow down hurricane
The wind blow, my dreads swing
He had hair like wool, like wayne
Dropping ashes in the bible
I shake em out and they fall on the rifle

Again, the song openly takes from Nina Simone, but it remains a passionate bout of intelligence and introspection.


Like the best rappers, Lil Wayne understands his mortality. Despite his age -- he's 26 -- he references his own life and legacy several times, including when he was shot in 2001 (The album opener "3 Peat" has the bit "Two more inches I'd have been in that casket/ According to the doctor I could've died in traffic."). In typical bombast, he outlines his skills on "Mr. Carter" in saying "Blind eyes look at me and see the truth" and compares his skills to being hated by the seasons, for some reason in a bit of amazing wordplay.

Swiss Beatz provides the production on "Dr. Carter," a concept song in which Lil Wayne uses the doctor/patient metaphor to outline the problems with modern hip hop. Over a Tribe-esque beat, he treats three patients. In an odd twist, (spoiler alert, I guess) he only saves one. It's just another in the twisting nature of Lil Wayne's current skill set as he takes hip hop on a different route.


As strange as the record is, the album's pop highlight remains the thoroughly standard "Got Money." The song's evident hook is infectious, as are the varying verse enders that Lil Wayne brings out (when the beat drops out and he says "Bitch, I'm the bomb, like, tick tick tick" or his recitation that he's "Lil Wayne on the 0s, Mr. Make It Rain On Them Hoes"). T-Pain's lovely computer-assisted hook is wonderful. And, of course, even a standard hip hop song about money can't contain Lil Wayne's weirdness as he grunts and make David Lee Roth-esque noises over T-Pain's hook.

"Lollipop" is a close second, if only because of the "He's so sweet, she wanna lick the (w)rapper" bit.


Two of the album's extra tracks -- one taken off because of a lawsuit and one that was included on the digital copies -- are among the album's best. "Playin’ With Fire," produced By Streetrunner, was the subject of a lawsuit from Abkco, which owns the rights to the old Rolling Stones' songs. Being that the song isn't parody, the suit made some sense, though it also features more Lil Wayne weirdness: He plays guitar a lot on the song and, more importantly, he talks about how he's, uh, the same as Dr. King:

When you're great it's not murder, it's assassinate.
So assassinate me, bitch
'Cause I'm doing the same shit Martin Luther King did
Checkin' in the same hotel, in the same suite bitch, same balcony.

Um. Bizarre, but great. Really great. And memorable.

"Prostitute" has the confessional quality of an old R&B number, but with Lil Wayne taking a complete 360 on the subject of sexual mores. The song's key is that Lil Wayne has no interest in a girl's sexual history, because, after all, love rules. As the hook sings:

I wouldn't care if you was a prostitute,
And that you hit every man that you ever knew.
See, it wouldn't make a difference if that was way before me and you girl,
And you don't ever have to worry about me as long as you keep it real,
Whatever is on your mind, speak on how you feel.

The song is long -- almost six minutes -- and amazing. But, Lil Wayne's tenderness is sweet and sincere, as he finalizes the verses with a final bit, professing his final love:

And I'm trying to share the rest of my whole life with you
And if it gotta be a thong, so be it baby,
And if your friends cant understand.

It's an odd about-face for a guy who denounces Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" on the Babyface-assisted (and West-produced) "Comfortable" by saying that "If you don't love me, somebody else will." Still, it's striking and pretty and sweet and, well, amazing.


Like Eminem's best work, Tha Carter III brings up more questions than it answers. Is Lil Wayne really so into himself to think that he can cure hip hop, as in "Dr. Carter?" Is he so strange that he thinks that his skill set is so alien, as in "Phone Home?" Why does he use every vocal cadence possible, including a nasal drone (that, oddly, sounds like a Richard Pryor's version of a white guy's voice)? Is the album an homage to B.I.G. and Nas or, simply, mocking them? Is he a sexist ("making it rain") or a man who puts women on a pedestal ("Prostitute 2") or something in between ("Comfortable")? Does he really think he can play guitar?


It is sounds like Tha Carter III hits a lot of places, it does. It's a bizarre cavalcade of Lil Wayne's mind, both the highs and lows. It's almost-sexist -- though, I don't think homophobic in any way, a nice change -- and sings the praises of thugs and money. But, it's also aware of the plight of Katrina, the black male in America and the complexities of relationships. It addresses hip hop's deficiencies and, quite frankly, corrects them. It is, in a word, weird. But, also, wonderful.