Saturday, June 30, 2012

album review: 'looking 4 myself' by usher

Short version: a very good collection of singles about sex that unfortunately lack the coherence to be a truly great album. Still, outside of a few hiccups, Usher does a pretty great job singing elegantly minimalistic songs about sex, sex, and more sex. Also, sex.

When Michael Jackson stopped making pop music, there was immediately a race in the pop culture scene for his replacement, and while a number of artists were aspiring for the crown, it very quickly came to pass that only two artists would have a chance in hell of rising to the occasion.

The first contender was Justin Timberlake, and with Timbaland, he found his Quincy Jones. And for a while, Justin Timberlake seemed to have the race sewn up convincingly. Emerging as one of the few surviving artists of the boy band collapse in the early 2000s, Timberlake had the right mix of swagger, charisma, bombast, and sexuality that made him a good contender, and his release of Futuresex/Lovesounds in the mid-2000s cemented his dominance as a pop star. 

Now granted, I've never liked the majority of the music that Justin's produced in his solo career. With a few exceptions, Justin Timberlake's music has lacked the soul necessary to assert dominance in the pop star world. And maybe it's just me, but Justin Timberlake has never seemed to try all that hard. He lacks the rawness that made so many of Michael's singles and albums work so damn well. To him, a genuine triple-threat, music and stardom came naturally, and thus I've always been disappointed that Timberlake has never pushed himself in his experimentation. Now granted, he has experimented, but never in a way that I found particularly compelling - it's all too slick, all too controlled, and never quite achieves the epic scale that he should.

Well, it seems like Justin himself agreed with me, because after doing a few jokey (albeit brilliant) videos with The Lonely Island, he seems to have departed the pop star universe to pursue roles in movies, where he's established himself as a pretty damn great actor. And that leaves us with only one candidate for Michael's throne: Usher.

Okay, I've got to be honest here, I've always really liked Usher. The man has a great voice, is a superb dancer, and a ton of charisma. Even with his early songs, the man always sounded genuine, and that earned a lot of points with me. He's confident without the need to brag, and he's always deserved his spot in the pop star A-List, at least in my opinion. Of course, it's also helped that the man solidified his claim to pop stardom with the fantastic Confessions album in 2004, but I bought into him earlier with his hit 'You Remind Me' in the early 2000s, which won me over with some slick production and Usher's genuine charm. Overall, I was all set to support Usher all the way through the rest of the decade.

And then... something happened. Some have blamed his marriage, some have blamed a lack of ideas, some have blamed his repeated collaborations with Black Eyed Peas frontman and wannabe-auteur/hack, but in the end, I'm not sure of whom the blame truly lies (I'm fairly certain it's, though). What I do know is that for a period of about six years, from 2005-mid-2010, Usher stopped being good in a shockingly immediate way (I blame Part of it, I will admit, was the embrace of Autotune, and while I'm not against the use of Autotune in ways to enhance one's personality (Ke$ha, T-Pain) or to convey specific themes and styling (Kanye West), I don't like it when good singers feel the need to use it, or when lazy singers (see Jason Derulo and Katy Perry) use it to cover up their inability to hit a note (or, you know, So like the Backstreet Boys, Usher began using Autotune, and like my favourite boy band, his music suffered for it, reaching a low with 'O.M.G.', featuring, one of the clumsiest and stupidest songs to come out of 2010 (which I'd argue was a really, REALLY bad year for music - thank you so much,

However, I will give Usher some credit, in that his 2010 album Raymond v. Raymond wasn't terrible. It wasn't great - the abundance of bad singles completely overlooking the fact the album was a breakup album didn't help matters - but there were a few gems in the pile. And upon closer examination, I was rather psyched when I heard the opening singles for Usher's new album that dropped a few days ago. Not only had Usher opted for a more mature, complex style, he'd also dumped the autotune and bad production, and looked prepared to engage in some pretty serious themes. 

And then the opening song was a club song courtesy of production from, and Usher was singing with Autotune. Fucking wonderful.

And believe you me, 'Can't Stop, Won't Stop' is fucking horrible. Arguably worse than O.M.G., the beat is recycled garbage the Black Eyed Peas would have embarrassed to put out, and the lyrics are fucking wretched, to the point where I refuse to type them in this note on the fear that they'll make my readership collectively stupider by reading them. Suffice to say, it failed cataclysmically as both a dance song and a sex song, and considering this is coming from one of the most successful singers about sex since Prince, that's saying something.

And it's clear from the opening tracks that Looking 4 Myself (and yes, that's the title of Usher's brand new 'single-and-loving-it' album) that this album is going to be chiefly loaded with songs about sex - but to be fair, this isn't a bad thing. I made the Prince analogy earlier, and the reason it fits is because Usher, like Justin Timberlake, can sing about sex and make it sound adult and sexual instead of juvenile and pornographic (unlike, say, Chris Brown, who feels the best way to sing about sex is write a song called 'Wet The Bed' - dear god, I wish I was kidding). 

So after the horrible opener, Usher immediately hits two hits straight out of the park with 'Scream' and 'Climax'. The first song is a club sex song, but it works pretty much because the lyrics aren't stupid and Usher can carry a song like this in his fucking sleep. And honestly, it's probably one of the best club sex songs I've heard in a long time. However, his latter song, 'Climax', is fantastic not just because it emulates Prince-esque falsetto, but because the restraint on the song gives Usher a chance to make a song that's pure sex. This is one of the few times where sexuality can carry a song, an object lesson to every R&B singer in the industry now.

In fact, 'Climax' contains two important traits that symbolize the entire album: overarching themes of sex, and constrained minimalism. Fortunately, unlike the era of minimalist R&B (2002-2005), Usher's production is modulated to precisely the right scope to nail the theme of the track. So while 'Climax' and 'Dive' are epic in their broad emptiness, quieter tracks like 'What Happened To U' use their stillness to create a much more contrained atmosphere. Part of this is aided by Usher's impressive layering of harmonies - instead of relying on heavy overproduction to create a wall of sound, Usher uses a much more delicate touch, overdubbing his voice multiple times to create a powerful chorus that still manages to fit the atmosphere of the songs.

Now, granted, the minimalism does slip at points, but even the more heavily produced tracks like 'Scream' or 'Numb' have an impressive air of restraint, blending modern synths (with a thankful lack of dubstep drops) with a feel that's more analogous to Prince's Purple Rain than anything produced by anyone else in the industry. What's more, when Usher does choose to use instrumentation, he doesn't shy away from raw electric guitar or keyboard, tightly constrained to create the potent sound he wants. In an era where raw silence and pacing is abhorred by the music industry, it's a welcome change. The big exceptions to that trend are the first track and the Euro-trash house-inspired final track 'Euphoria', which was produced by the Swedish House Mafia (and it shows), but I'll even give it some points for having more restraint and class than most modern house music.

Do I have any complaints about the instrumentation? Eh, the reverb is abused on a few tracks, but I can forgive it for the reason that it's used to augment the empty minimalism that aids the album's atmosphere. Less easy to forgive are some of the unnecessary synth choices, the most glaring was the choice for a really annoying electronic plinking that bleeds over 'Lessons For The Lover' and detracts from a pretty impressive multi-part harmony on the chorus. 

But moving away from the instrumentation, what can I really say about the lyrics or the themes of the album? Surprisingly, not much - namely because this isn't as much of an album as a series of sexually charged singles. The majority of songs seem primed to be played in the bedrooms of young couples looking for ambient sex music (with the exception of 'Sins Of My Father', which is an odd standout that has a bit more lyrical complexity and a real noir feel, but the sweet bass line and multipart harmony means it's still useable in the ambient-sex-music role as well). Some of them are danceable enough, but in a way that seems to imply explicitly sexual dancing that translates into sex later. 

Now I've made the argument that sexuality isn't an excuse for artistic creditability, and that I've castigated bands like the Pussycat Dolls for simply playing on sex appeal to sell songs. So am I a hypocrite for then not having much of a problem when Usher publishes an album that is effectively the soundtrack for sex in 2012?

Well, here's the point that redeems Usher in my eyes: quality. On the majority of songs on this album, Usher's production is top-of-the-line, and the man is seriously vocally talented, with the technical skill to manage a multi-part harmony on his best tracks. There is so much constraint and control on the album, not a single wasted moment on his better tracks, and there's an elegance that's impossible to fake. Compare to, say, the Pussycat Dolls, or Chris Brown, both who sell explicitly sexual material. The problem is here is that while the production is okay on some of their tracks and the vocals might be decent, there's no artistry or creativity, nothing to distinguish the Pussycat Dolls from Girlicious or Chris Brown from any one of his imitators. It also helps that Usher has dignity and poise for his sexual anthems that add a welcome layer of maturity that I'd even argue Ludacris and Lil Wayne don't have. 

So yeah, am I going to say that I'm a little disappointed Usher didn't experiment with differing themes besides sex, sexuality, and more sex in his lyrics, or explore a more coherent overarching theme for the album as a whole? Yeah, a little bit. Am I annoyed that the album isn't quite as strong as it could be, due to its lack of broader experimentation besides flirtations with minimalism, constraint, and multi-part harmony? Yeah, a little bit. 

But I can't deny the truth of the matter: in refining his craft on this album, Usher has probably produced one of the best albums that's universally about sex in a long time, and with songs like 'Climax', he's got it down to an art form that outstrips his nearest competitors by miles. Definitely a step in the right direction, and definitely the right - if explicit - step for Usher. He's still got work before he's ready to take on Michael's vacant throne, but he's getting there.

Move over, Justin Timberlake: in 2012, Usher's bringing sexy back.

Friday, June 29, 2012

album review: 'strange clouds' by b.o.b.

Short version: a promising album with moments of true brilliance, but hampered by unnecessary guest stars, compromised production, studio interference, and B.o.B.'s lack of creative assertion. Overall, a good album, but it could have been a great one.

Today, I'm going to talk briefly about the breakdown of regionalization in rap music. 

Now, as utterly pretentious and completely boring as that might sound, it's actually something that says a lot about the evolution in hip-hop and rap music over the past twenty to twenty-five years. Considering most of you reading this probably weren't alive or old enough to care about this sort of thing, let me make this very explicit: back in the 80s and 90s, it mattered where your hip-hop and rap came from, and each region developed their own distinctive style. 

The first two regions that really grew were the East and West Coast. Driven by developments in New York and L.A., this was where the first real differences in the genre grew up. On the East Coast, lyrical dexterity was prized, with multisyllabic rhyming and complex wordplay. This is the coast that spawned Biggie and Jay-Z and Public Enemy and Nas, politically charged poets that greatly elevated their craft. On the West Coast, we had the explosion of gangsta rap and G-funk, driven by marijuana and great beats, inspiring artists like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur. Suffice to say, the highly charged mid-90s were rocked by the feud between both coasts, escalating to a peak with the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac within months of each other. 

But in the mean time, we also had the growth of rap across other sections of the United States. The first big growth was Midwest hip-hop, driven by N.W.A. and the gangster rap explosion, but the broader diversity of the Midwest led to greater experimentation, such as the speed rap pioneered by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Twista and the horrorcore experiments of Eminem, Insane Clown Posse, and Three 6 Mafia. But I'm not here to talk about Midwest rap, or indeed any of the coastal rap movements.

Nope, today we're going to be discussing Southern rap, which is where the artist I'm reviewing today hails from. It's the youngest of the movements, and it also tends to be one most dismissed by critics (unfairly so, but I'll get to that). Granted, there have been a few critical success stories to emerge from 'the Dirty South', like Ludacris, T.I. and Lil Wayne, but most of the genre tends to get dumped upon for not nearly being as intelligent or interesting as their counterparts. It also doesn't help matters that crunk, the 'purple drank' movement, and Miami bass all came from the region - say what you want about the music of those movements, they weren't particularly lyrically dextrous or all that interesting outside of the initial fad. It also tended to be interesting to see how artists would distance themselves from the Southern scene as they got older. Lil Wayne has never rapped about the 'Dirty South', and while Ludacris and T.I. have always had some vestige of a connection to their roots, their later music had a much more pronounced West Coast vibe. It didn't seem that many rappers really wanted to embrace the southern style and culture with any intelligence or gravitas.

Except for one band: OutKast.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

album review: 'what we saw from the cheap seats' by regina spektor

Short version: a frustrating album with some interesting ideas and a few stand-out tracks, let down by some annoying production, haphazard lyrical quality, and questionable delivery. Still, it's worth a look. Also, I deliver a lengthy diatribe about two genres of music I generally dislike. If you like rants, this is a good one. Long version...

There aren't many artists that I can say I despise. On that list... well, we have Jason Derulo, Chris Brown, the Pussycat Dolls, Evanescence, Rick Ross, Slipknot, Foster The People, 3OH!3, 3 Days Grace, Creed...

Okay, maybe the list is a bit longer than I thought, but my point is that there is a set of three artists that I despise for different reasons than those in the list above, and all three of these artists have a first name beginning with J.

Yes, I'm talking about Jack Johnson, John Mayer, and Jason Mraz.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

album review: 'the flaming lips and heady fwends' by the flaming lips

Short version: it's incredibly weird and the mix of the psychedelic and avant-garde will throw some people off, but in terms of beautifully coherent and powerful art, you're not going to find a better album this year. Highly recommended.

Have you ever contemplated the end of the world?

It may seem like a vague, strange, almost-silly question, drenched in unfortunate implications and terrible pop culture (particularly in this year), but it's something that's fascinated the thinkers, great and small, throughout time. Everyone wonders what the end of the world would be like, what will happen to this tiny planet suspended in the galactic cosmos. Less often is the question of what one would do at the end of the world, and outside of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, a Steve Carrell/Keira Knightley movie that's currently one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, most people don't have good answers to the question. Why?

Well, perhaps because the question is loaded, because you're not only forced to contemplate your death in the question, but the chance that everything around you, everything you've ever cherished and loved, will be gone with you. No memories left behind, no fond recollections, no legacy, no... nothing. It was what Melancholia tried (and arguably failed) to capture - the possibility that everything you've ever done will amount to precisely nothing as everything you define as existence collapses and vanishes around you - ultimately, what does everything mean then?

The closest I've ever heard to capturing this vision was the prog/space metal epic from Ayreon 01011001, but that album's themes were more linked to the greater questions of human existence and the significance of life, lacking the necessary focus to truly contemplate this question in any significant detail. I'd also argue the album, while very strong, didn't quite nail down the necessary emotions to truly encapsulate what makes this question so significant. That album, loaded with bombast and intensity, didn't quite capture the little emotions, the quiet thoughts that were necessary to make the question truly resonate. Because, like it or not, not all of us have the courage or force of will to stare straight into the apocalypse with open arms.

The Flaming Lips have the courage, and with their newest album, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, they probably do the most thorough and deep exploration of the question that I've ever heard, with collaborators on every track to lend additional facets to the digression.

And it's glorious.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

opening post

Greetings, everyone.

This online journal is a place where I might comment on music, TV, movies, video games, novels, or anything else that suits me. I cannot promise the posts will mean much, or will attract attention beyond those curious about my ramblings, but it only takes an instant to start a pulse, and in a society such as ours, a pulse can change the world.

I have no aspirations for such lofty goals, but you never know what might happen. As it is, please don't hesitate to read and comment freely - I'm always interested in whatever people say. 

Welcome, folks, to the spectrum pulse. Let's make it count, folks, it's going to get loud.