Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West

It is a difficult thing, in this day and age, to release an album as an event. It used to be easy, even a bit of a given, as the album was impossible to hear ahead of time, and often the best taste you could get was a single, released a month or two before. In modern times, with albums leaking as a regular course of events, the actual release is typically seldom more than a formality. The artists try to keep their albums a secret, but it doesn't work.

Kanye West has taken a different, very intriguing approach to making My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy an event; instead of hoarding to the best of his abilities, he has released a song every week for the past several months. Not all of them are on this album, but they were all produced in the same session, and a number of them are indeed featured here. The quality of the tracks was such that anticipation ratcheted up with each song, until finally this week the album was released.

The danger West faced in this tactic, of course, was that we would get the album and find that they put all the funny bits in the trailer. It was crucial that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in order for it to truly do well critically (commercially, West is at the peak of his powers, so there was no danger there, unless it was horrible, which, thanks to the inclusion of "Power" and "Monster," it couldn't be), make these songs work well together. I think the most impressive thing about this album is the feeling of an arc. When it finishes, you feel everything come together as a cohesive whole.

West's greatest gifts have always been in producing. His first big success was the track he made for Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," which relied on a sample of "I Want You Back" by The Jackson 5. An obscure sample it wasn't, but his utilization was great. The most interesting part of any West album, 808's & Heartbreak aside, has been the tracks. His skills as an MC have improved, certainly, but there are dozens of better rappers out there. I don't listen to Kanye West for how he rocks the mic. I listen for what's going on behind him. And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy provides some of his best. The sample of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" thrills me every single time I hear it. West leaves the first blast of saxophone after the vocal in, to propel the song into the next verse. It's perfection itself. His programming on the drum machine transforms Bon Iver's "Woods" from an intimate experiment in harmony into a behemoth of a tune, and it sends a chill down my spine every time those drums kick in. "All of the Lights" is the other standout, with a world-straddling horn loop.

As far as the verses go, the best ones are consistently provided by the guests, which brings me back to my belief that West shouldn't be an MC. But here's where the disappointment in this album lies. Previous West albums have had songs about faith, about trying to visit his mom in the hospital, about things that aren't common to rap. They were what made his otherwise-mediocre rapping interesting. Not what he was saying, but why he was saying it. If the sound of this album now soars above those previous releases, and it does, then he's made the words less essential. I've never liked that rap sticks to braggadocio so insistently, and I like it less when it's inserted itself in songs by a man whose statements have never been humble, but whose music has always sought elsewhere for inspiration. It works in one spot, on "Monster," because Nicki Minaj is so off-the-wall bats that she's wildly entertaining. But it wears thin on the rest of the album.

To summarize: The music on this album, straight through, is brilliant. Most of the songs are too long, and by several minutes at that, but the tracks are all fresh, inventive, and harbor great samples. With some aforementioned exceptions aside, the rapping will decide for you if this is a masterpiece, or just another example of why Kanye West should be the biggest producer, and not the biggest artist, in Rap.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Body Talk

Body Talk

At last, it is here.

At the beginning of 2010, Swedish avante-pop star Robyn announced that she would be releasing three albums over the course of the year. It had been five years since she released the kooky masterpiece Robyn, and she was ready to flush out the vaults. The albums, titled Body Talk Pt.1, Pt.2 and Pt.3, would be staggered over five or six months, and each would be a mini-album. The nine songs on Body Talk, Pt.1 were released to general critical praise in June, and it was the pop album of the summer. Not, you know, for the greater population, but those of us who were "hip" to it spent the summer dancing away to "Dancing On My Own," one of the best pop songs to come out of the last ten years. No joke. Pt. 2 dropped in September, and if its eight offerings didn't quite hold up as well, it was still a great EP.

It was announced about a month ago that Body Talk would be the name of an album, cherry-picking the five best songs from each of the first two mini-albums, and adding five more. That Robyn actually did pick the five best from each of the previous portions was a miracle in its own right. When the songs she chose were confirmed, it was a case of the new songs making or breaking the album. Considering the modern pop album, where there are typically four singles, one or two ballads, and six or seven inoffensive fillers, an album with nine killer (and I mean killer) tracks and one arguable filler (I don't have strong levels of affection for "Love Kills," but it's enjoyable enough), this was already going to be better than most, and possibly great. She could only fuck up.

Body Talk runs at an impossibly fast, taught 61 minutes, and it's packed to the point of bursting with radio smashes. That is, of course, if they get played on the radio, which they may not. Robyn doesn't make album tracks, really. She's here to make singles, and the efficacy with which she accomplishes her task is dizzying. It should be this easy for everyone. Pop is a formula known for not taking risks, and if Robyn isn't as inventive as she was on her self-titled offering back in 2005, she's certainly not resting on her laurels.

Highlights are impossible. This album feels like a Best Of collection. I haven't heard an album this calculatedly perfect from start to finish in a long time. The only disappointment is the Max Martin-penned "Time Machine." Considering that Martin has regularly provided the standout pop songs of the last 15 years ("Baby, One More Time," "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," "Show Me Love" for Robyn in her late-nineties incarnation, "Since U Been Gone"), "Time Machine"'s status as the second weakest track on the album is truly a disappointment. The momentum was in favour of it being a masterpiece. Ah, well.

Each of the Body parts has a standout track. The first album had "Dancing On My Own," which is, I reiterate, the best thing to happen to dance-pop in the last ten years. The second album had "U Should Know Better," which hearkened back to the quirky and experimental nature of Robyn. "Dancing On My Own" could have been released by any artist, which is often my problem with pop music, the lack of individuality. "U Should Know Better," which, by the way, featured a brilliant guest turn from Snoop Dogg, could only come from Robyn. I was ready for the next addition to the trinity to be "Time Machine," but it's "Call Your Girlfriend." The way the melody stretches on, "And the only way her heart will mend/is when she learns to love again", defies description. It's four minutes of utter dance-floor bliss.

In short, Robyn has unleashed a masterwork that balances her natural tendency towards the odd with an unflinching eye for massive pop hooks and choruses. That she manages to still sound like Robyn throughout is a tribute to her talent, and her willingness to explore complex emotions and situations within the idiom of the pop hit. This album won't make Robyn the biggest pop star on the planet. But it really should.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Odds 'n Sodds 2

I received an exciting item in the mail today.

Jack White has always impressed me, though I'm not quite as enamored with him as I think I should be. I do respect his label, Third Man Records, and I like all the random releases they put out. I discovered last week that Laura Marling had released a limited edition single, and as I'm still in love with this woman's voice, I picked up a copy through the Third Man store.

It's a 7" with covers of "Blues Run the Game" and "The Needle and the Damage Done." They are more sparse than her records, both tracks stripped down to just an acoustic guitar and that voice. This is all fine with me, as her voice is the reason I'm head-over-heels for the woman. You can listen to both tracks here, courtesy of Pitchfork.

I'm sorry for the lack of real reviews in recent months, but I've found a lack of albums to review. Whether this is my failing or not is probably open to quite a bit of debate. Avey Tare, member of Animal Collective, has released a solo album, Down There, which I have listened to, but I'm still digesting it. The new Girl Talk album came out this morning, which I'm listening to now. Again, give me some time.

Robyn's Body Talk trilogy comes to a close today with the release of Body Talk. Originally expected to provide a third collection of ten new songs, Robyn has instead delivered a full album, comprising of ten tracks from the previous 2010 releases Body Talk, Pt. 1 and Body Talk, Pt. 2, in addition to five spankin' new songs. Most of the ten chosen holdovers are great (I'll express my disagreements when I review the album in the next week), and from what I've heard of them, the five new songs are very respectable. I saw Robyn play at the Metro on Saturday night, and she was brilliant. They oversold the venue, so there was no room to dance, but, had there been, it would have been every bit as good a show as when LCD Soundsystem tore the roof of the Aragon Ballroom two weeks ago. They were fucking great. No other word for that.

Finally for now, I've spent the last two weeks working my way through Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat, a collection of the lyrics for his shows featuring his comments, notes, and stories. It's been a highly entertaining, informative, instructive, valuable read. If you're into musical theatre or the technique behind lyrics, you should give it a look.