Affection through Attrition: Me vs. Tears for Fears

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My partner and I disagree of very few matters of taste. Such is their rarity that these tiny rifts have been upgraded to perennial inside jokes. My loathing for post-Gabriel Genesis, my general distaste for 80s pop production––such is the glue from which lasting relationships are forged.

The first time I listened to Tears for Fears was because of a challenge; both of us were “assigning” music we liked but that the other didn’t know and gauging the reaction. Back then, I thought their titanically popular Songs from the Big Chair felt like a synthetic, operatic, and emotionally oversaturated album injected with irritating 80s production. That’s more or less the same evaluation I have now, except that my value judgment has changed. A number of explanations for this shift suggest themselves:

  1. My partner is a persistent and patient taste-manipulator who is slowly taking control of my very faculties of perception.
  2. I’ve mellowed out and allowed my taste to either broaden or become more lax and lazy, depending on my mood and your perspective.
  3. Tears for Fears’ old records were transfigured through some kind of divine intervention.
  4. Metal Gear Solid V’s constant stream of 80s music tapes have chipped away at my resistance to 80s pop and synth-heavy music in general.

I would accept at least three of these explanations as plausible “prime movers” in my shift in perspective.  Perhaps the deepest one, however, is the fact that, compared to three years ago, my entire emotional landscape has transformed. Partly because of the stresses of gender transition and partly because of getting older and more tired, I’ve become more receptive to works that are melodramatic/operatic. Yes, Metal Gear Solid V acclimated me to 80s pop over many hours of listening to it while dispatching fascist South African mercenaries with RPGs. But without this more basic internal change, I would probably just have ignored all those tapes and listened to ambient noise instead.

Once I had given Tears for Fears another real chance, downloading Songs from the Big Chair on a whim and listening to it under the moonlight (and the roof: it was raining outside). I came to the second track, “Working Hour:”

One of the most irritating trends in 80s pop music was the blatant abuse of the saxophone, both in its incorporation into songs and in the production process. During the decade of Sting’s solo work and Kenny G, saxophones, which I tend to welcome in songs from other decades, often feel as though they’re being used for cheap emotional ploys. And, indeed, this was my initial impression of “Working Hour,” which begins with a brief instrumental intro featuring a saxophone solo. Not only this, but it’s paired with harps and bright synth atmospherics. The introduction suddenly shifts at one point as the rhythm of the song itself takes hold and the song builds up layers of instrumentation until it takes full shape just before the vocals kick in at the two minute mark.

Everything that follows is somehow more resonant to me now, especially the sense we get that the narrator is held back and confused by fear, fear that originates from some vague point in space or time that we can’t grasp immediately. You could also read the song as a cryptic allusion to the alienation of wage labour, albeit presented in a misty fashion. As always, songwriter Roland Orzabal’s lyrics are are sung with clarity and intensity but don’t immediately make sense or, I would argue, need to convey their semantic meaning. Most of Tears for Fears’ appeal is about performance and drama, and in this regard “Working Hour” proves its quality.

To cautiously generalize my observations on this topic:

Taste, like desire, is clearly a highly variable facet of someonee’s personality, strongly affected by close relationships, family history, and their implication in larger class, cultural, and national structures. It has the capacity to change unexpectedly in response to a whole swathe of events and interventions, but curiously remains one of the ways in which people try to stake out identities for themselves. My encounter with Tears for Fears and my transition from a hater to an admirer is one small stream in the larger processes of culture and class formation going on all around me. Best not to take too much specific insight from it, but it’s a fun example of how changes in taste are usually part of larger changes in a person’s or community’s life.

Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow

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I met my future significant other at a Shearwater show in February, 2012. Technically, it was a Sharon Van Etten show, but I was there for Jonathan Meiburg and company. They opened with a set of songs from Animal Joy, their latest release at the time, and cemented themselves as one of my favourite working rock bands. Amid the general exhaustion of rock music’s vitality in both the mainstream and underground scenes, Shearwater has endured and evolved to produce numerous creative successes. Jet Plane and Oxbow proves that rock can still support more than endless recreations of cherished old sounds and introspective banalities.

Of course, the album is still partly an exercise in period-piece revivalism. Specifically, Meiburg has said in interviews that Jet Plane evokes 1980. The opening of that disastrous decade certainly boasted a set of landmark musical releases that would define pop going forward. Peter Gabriel III introduced gated reverb to listeners in its opening track, Brian Eno and David Byrne produced one of electronic music’s blueprints in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while the latter also released Remain in Light with Talking Heads. Jet Plane channels these influences in its use of analog synths, peculiar percussion instruments like rototoms, and, on tracks like “Filaments,” grooves that clearly nod in Byrne’s direction.

Beyond all these 80s stylistic signifiers, of course, is Meiburg’s writing and vocal delivery. His voice has always been dramatic and unnerving, his lyricism drawing on his scientific work with birds and ecosystems to produce songs that sweep over their subjects with broad brushstrokes. Like many rock lyricists with an interest in “big” subjects, Meiburg prefers a suggestive and indirect approach to songwriting, using words that are specific enough to affect listeners without articulating his own point of view in much detail. This is especially evident because his writing in Jet Plane is more overtly politicized than I can remember it being before. From “Quiet Americans,” we have this stanza:

“Shake the memories off, hide the evidence under
Piss on the world below
Like a dog that knows its name
Where are the Americans?”

It’s far from the Marxist particulars you would get from The Coup, Bambu, or Pete Seeger,  but this is as explicit as the invective gets on Jet Plane. Meiburg clearly expresses his antipathy for American arrogance and entitlement, but carefully couches these thoughts to avoid sloganeering or calls to action. When he’s successful, he can produce remarkable results like this bit from the end of “Pale Kings:”

“You know how sometimes
You’re so tired of the country
Its poptones and its pale kings
And its fences like knives
But in the same breath
Your heart breaks with the feeling
With love and with grieving
For its irrational life.”

Spread out in the context of the song, with its dense production and complex rhythms, these words convey ambivalence and heartbreak. At other times, the vagueness can feel evasive, as if Meiburg is uncomfortable with naming names. Ambivalence is not necessarily a useful or even a beautiful or truthful emotion when protesting violent dispossessions and enclosures. More often than not, though, the songs work for me because I appreciate the way the songs contextualize these half-formed protests in vast landscapes. “Glass Bones” captures a shifting geography “anchored in rust, erasing the wilderness,” captures a sense of paranoia and loss connected to the environment. Nature has always been at the core of Shearwater’s work, and the words and music here are much better at capturing the awe and sad spectacle that define our current relationship to nature than they are at articulating our political situation.

Without overblowing its significance, I can say that Jet Plane and Oxbow is another strong release from Shearwater. If nothing else, it reminded me what intelligent and well-written rock albums can achieve given a bit of ambition, and I imagine I’ll be enjoying this album long into the year. As our bizarre winter winds itself down, maybe a calm spring will follow.

Tiger’s Year in Music 2015

Two trends marked 2015 for me.

  1. Listening to less music than I have in several years, especially new music.
  2. More emphasis on listening to artists and albums from decades gone by.

Availability has always been an important driver of my musical taste. When I was primarily buying my music on eMusic Canada, for example, albums were priced based on how many tracks they had regardless of the length of said tracks. This incentivized buying jazz, classical, and avant-garde albums that had few songs but still boasted an LP length. Why spend $15 per month on one album when you could get five with a little creativity?

Lately, however, my main sources of music have been streaming sources and more stringent download stores like iTunes. Trends one and two both stem largely from this shift in availability. Streaming services that interrupt your listening with ads are tolerable for listening to singles and short albums, particularly in the pop genre, but tend to ruin the experience of a jazz album for me, with classical simply being a no-go; I never want to be listening to Mahler when decontextualized ads hurt my years between symphonic movements.

A more hectic and harried lifestyle also contributed to this shift, which tended to push me towards “comfortable” music that did not demand as much attention from me. I spent far less time isolated and listening to music for its own sake than in previous years, which meant that I gravitated to more immediately flashy and striking work, ignoring, perhaps, the value of less explosive music.

Despite these two trends, however, I can still look at 2015 as a year where music had a considerable impact on my life and defined many of my key emotional moments. For this post, I’ll highlight three of the more powerful pieces I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this year below, bringing especial attention to those that I feel have been either neglected or obscured by buzzier competition. Enjoying music should never be a frazzled and consumption-driven activity, bent on following tends or keeping up with the rapidly-evolving conversation, and I hope to become a bit more disengaged from the hype machine in 2016.

Polar Bear: “The First Steps”

British band Polar Bear is new to me, but has been producing eclectic genre explorations within a loose jazz framework for many years. Same as You, the album from which this is taken, consists of six tracks that use sparseness and, occasionally, vast amounts of time (with a long average track length) to explore dub and ambient music at a relaxed pace. Grooves and simple saxophone lines coexist with drones and a bevy of percussive ticks and snaps, lending the album a great deal of coherence despite it being difficult to pin down. Pushing onto some of the same territory that post-rock bands like Chicago’s Tortoise have previously explored, the feeling on “The First Steps” is nonetheless a much warmer and more inviting one, taking the listener to strange places but with a firm and reassuring hand.

Dâm-Funk: “Just Ease Your Mind From All Negativity”

Invite the Light has the rare quality of being 90 minutes long and endlessly re-playable. Around the same time this record dropped, I dug into 1970s Stevie Wonder for the first time, and found they generated similar emotional spaces. Dâm-Funk’s productions and lyrics radiate positivity, often without much subtlety. It’s music that’s conscious of life’s difficulties but attempts to deal with them with an easygoing attitude. Encouraging a more optimistic and affirmational approach to life––certainly not my normal M.O.––this track stuck with me all year as ear candy that wasn’t just “think positive” claptrap. It’s simple and direct, relatively grounded, and impossible to stop listening to once it starts.

Kamasi Washington: “The Rhythm Changes”

For a time this year I worked a job with an excessive commute. Most of the time, I would listen to music and read on the bus to pass the time. When I checked the statistics at the end of last week, Kendrick Lamar’s “Institutionalized” was my most frequently-played track, but by far my favourite song to put on while sitting for hours on the bus or standing in the cold waiting for said bus to arrive was “The Rhythm Changes.” Every track on The Epic is full, often combining it soul-jazz revival instrumentals with rousing choral or individual singing and political speeches. Whether this year’s one jazz-pop crossover hit portends better things for jazz labels and artists in the coming year is anyone’s guess, though I have my doubts. What is sure is that Kamasi Washington will not be soon forgotten, and “The Rhythm Changes” in particular has become permanently lodged in my brain. It’s an anthem about both embracing fluidity and seizing fast to what is worthwhile in life, a message we cannot ignore here in the bleak times we inhabit.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: Stretch Music

Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes)

Stretch Music is the third album that the 32-year-old bandleader has composed using his “forecasting cells” technique. Framed by its creator as a means of structuring musical conversations by providing better context for improvisation, this method is the practical means Scott has used to further his goal of stretching the boundaries of jazz to cover as wide a spectrum of musical traditions and dialects as possible. Most immediately, that means that though his core training and vantage point is tied to jazz, his music strives to incorporate R&B, hip hop, and modern pop music into its vocabulary.

Such eclecticism is common to an entire array of artists in contemporary black music. Those who, like Scott, have approached the question of integrating music from different genres include Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, and newer players like Kamasi Washington––not even mentioning Badbadnotgood and more traditional jazz bands with a knack for pop interpretation like Mehldau and The Bad Plus. Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat form a complementary pole within pop music, and it’s no surprise that almost all of the men I’ve listed have all collaborated or at least covered each other’s work. What distinguishes Scott from these others, besides his love of engineering his own instruments, is the fact that he’s given his approach a systematic treatment.

At the core of this fairly loose and accommodating system is the concept of communication. Scott defines his music’s success or failure by the clarity with which it communicates emotions and ideas. Forecasting cells, the technical framework through which he works out collective improvisations, are supposedly meant to aid his bands in communicating specific sentiments through sound. In essence, they’re a way for Scott and his band members to engage in mutual criticism, forcing each other to reshape their playing to establish a more disciplined and rigorous form of mutual “discussion” during performances. The same spirit extends to Scott’s feelings on written or verbal criticism. He writes, in a manifesto of sorts for stretch music:

“In my view, a necessary step in the maturation of any artist is the development of the ability to be objective about someone else’s reaction to their work. I feel a wider vision and understanding of music, and oneself, can be gained if artists allow this concept to become part of their artistic process.”

Essentially, in order for a form of music to avoid stagnation, it has to keep a lively critical dialogue going, inclusive of artists and listeners. Incorporating lessons learned from what others feel about your music, Scott suggests, is an important step in self-improvement and in avoiding empty repetition. If music is about communication above all else, it makes sense to gauge the reactions of the people listening. Combined with Scott’s outreach efforts like an app designed to help people break his album apart, make remixes, and learn to hear and play music better and his work in high school music programs and tutoring work, and it looks like at least the outlines of a comprehensive project. It’s not making music and just responding to the decisions of the market as if they’re actually honouring the needs of real people, and it’s not music-as-academic-gesture that could make some important breakthrough but fail to communicate to anyone outside a tiny sphere.

It’s this dedication to working with and through other people and introducing new elements into his music and his band––note the young age of most of his collaborators here––that tempers his voracious eclecticism and makes it something more substantive than merely playing trumpet over a hip hop beat and calling it a new synthesis. This is not to say (at all) that those who have been less vocal or systematic about their approach have not achieved some significant successes, but just that it is useful to have a rough outline of a greater project where music, education, and thoughtful reflection can all be mutually reinforcing.

With all that said, there is not much to add in the way of a traditional review. Scott’s own playing has not advanced considerably past his work in 2012’s Christian aTunde Adjuah, which is to say that it remains excellent. On “Tantric,” he projects strikingly clear tones into space over snare-heavy drums. It’s certainly reminiscent of hip hop in its rhythms, but what marks this track as a standout is the way it evokes a vast space, mysterious without being alienating. Its the polar opposite of “West of the West,” which explores much knottier terrain, particularly with the aid of bassist Kris Funn. It might fit best into a “fusion” category, integrating electric guitars and a recognizable melody with a very dense beat laid down by the rhythm sections.

The person I noticed the most in the first ten listens or so is Elena Pinderhughes, a flautist who gets an “introducing” credit in the title of the album on iTunes. Though she’s been fairly well known for a flautist for long enough that that she’s hardly being introduced here, she makes a powerful impression. The first track, “Sunrise in Beijing,” sees her working a duet with Scott, and her playing certainly distinguishes Stretch Music from its predecessors more strongly than it would have. She fits in well, though I have difficulty describing precisely how, and I hope to gain more insight with further listens.

To conclude, I would only say that the rhythm section here is magnificent, especially the two drummers who are able to inject fascinating contrasts into the base of the rhythm itself, particularly on songs like “Tantric.” I’m not sure that this album will occupy as much of a place in my life as Christian aTunde Adjuah, especially since I have less time to listen to music, but I feel that this is a quality addition to Scott’s body of work and another exciting confirmation that he’s onto something significant in jazz. I hope he and his collaborators benefits from the recent surge of interest in the space between jazz and pop music.

They Might Be Giants: Glean

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Marketing for Glean pitches the album as a cross-section of the band’s Dial-a-Song output. They Might Be Giants coined the name Dial-a-Song for their answering machine service in the 1980s. Fans or curious neophytes could call a Brooklyn-based number and listen to a song play over the line. The band has now existed for over three decades, and its promotional techniques have always been almost as charmingly forward-looking as their music, which has been consistently entertaining since their debut. One problem that might result from cherrypicking the output from their new Dial-a-Song incarnation could have been incoherence, but eclecticism has always been a virtue in itself on TMBG records. Glean is therefore neither a step forward or backward for this long-running band, and its songs more or less stand on their own terms. Mostly I would like to justify analyzing some of my favorite songs on their own merits. As for the album, I’ll leave my judgment right here: it’s worth getting for fans––well beyond the near-mediocrity of their early 2000s work––and a serviceable introduction for those who are just getting into the band, though last year’s Nanobots is a much better record overall. It’s a cabinet of wonders approach to pop music that emphasizes esoteric subject matter, catchy melodies, and wordplay. It’s TMBG again.

Song Rundown: The Highlights

“Music Jail, Pts. 1 & 2”

A two-part song that begins with a shrill violin riff before transitioning into its bouncy main theme, driven by a sax rather than a bass. Part 1 is an invitation to come to the Music Jail, which is vaguely defined but somehow involves “taking a stand.” The tone is a typical TMBG mix of sinister and upbeat, bringing in the violin at moments of climax before transitioning to the second part. Here, we get more of a wind gust, with clarinets dubbed over a guitar-driven rhythm section. John Flansburgh, the glasses-wearing one of the pair, does one of his best vocal performances of the album in this part, pining for someone to post his bail. Music Jail looks much less appealing in the second part.

“I Can Help the Next in Line”

I have an irrational affection for bass-driven songs, and this two-minute ditty features John Linnell, the pretty boy of the group, singing in the role of a clerk of some kind. His persona alternates between warm invitations and threats, asking for the customer to keep his hands visible at all times. “Next in Line” is another song to feature trembling string sections, which is a departure from the norm for TMBG. It closes with a pleasing round between Flansburgh and Linnell, dissipating the tension of the song after a more aggressive guitar bit. Good stuff.

“Unpronounceable”

Ever since joining up with a full rock band in 1994 or so, They Might Be Giants has rocked much harder, not always to good effect for their clever but often slight novelty concepts. “Unpronounceable” is an example of a rock song that preserves the fun eccentricities They Might Be Giants thrive on. Its subject is the narrator’s inability to pronounce someone’s name, which feeds into the style of the song as well: take, for example, the staccato guitar rhythms and the digital distortion added to the song in the bridge. Voices break up and crack, literally destroying pronunciation as we know it. “Unpronounceable” is appealing and melodically sound despite being one of the more conventionally arranged songs on the record.

“Hate the Villanelle”

Having been forced to write villanelles in school, the paranoid hate mongering for complex poetic forms in this song is cathartic. Its lyrics are complex imitating the form it is mocking. Synthesized voices and echoing guitars help Linnell narrate his descent into an inferno of scholarly anxiety. At under two minutes, it’s succinct and threatening, a song that requires little explanation but is probably the most ambitious track here in terms of writing.

“Let Me Tell You About My Operation”

After finishing the last of their children’s albums, TMBG has gotten back into making “adult” records on a regular basis, and the last three they’ve produced have all shared in some patterns. For instance, they all start with rollicking narrative-based songs––”Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” “You’re on Fire,” “Erase”––and, towards the middle of the second half of the record, feature the most daring and, invariably, best song on the album. For Join Us it was “The Lady and the Tiger,” and for Nanobots it was “Darlings of Lumberland,” one of the creepiest and best songs they’ve ever made. “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” is not up to that calibre, but it is without question the best song on the record. Its theme is medical crisis meets urbane swing dance. Jaunty, piercing horn stings, and Flansburgh’s vocal charisma carry this song into my favorites with ease. Even the instrumental breaks manage to impress.

Flying Lotus: You’re Dead!

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Electronic music’s earliest artists distinguished themselves by a certain purity. They had only a few simple synthesizers, editing instruments, and samplers with which to compose, giving their music a stark minimalism. Digital tools have caused a profound shift in how electronic music gets made, and Flying Lotus is one of the prime examples of this trend. His music can be best described as jazz reinterpreted as sound collage. Chaotic and eclectic, his music thrives on jagged transitions, surprising clashes between sounds, and a playful, even mystical futurism. His new album is entitled “You’re Dead!” and packs nineteen frantic tracks into 38 minutes. Bewildering even when the mood becomes chill and calm, it is a delightful adventure for those willing to accept a storm of ideas that often remain unfinished.

Flying Lotus’ most distinctive musical hallmarks are firstly rhythmic. As heard in tracks like “Cold Dead,” “Turkey Dog Coma,” and “Tesla,” the bass and percussion often take the lead. Overlapping rhythmic elements create a denseity of sound that aims for overwhelming. This instability makes it difficult to approach “You’re Dead!” from a cerebral point of view, and impossible to put it on as background music. Even where the album diverts into quieter songs, the songs maintain the unease characteristic of his work. “Descent into Madness,” which features the bass and vocal work of frequent collaborator and virtuoso Thundercat, would be calm if not for the way the vocals and guitar track mirror each other. With vague titles and few discernible vocals other than occasional rap verses, the songs stand or fall on how impressive their sounds are. On that count, “You’re Dead!” rarely stumbles.

Speaking of rap verses, Flying Lotus contributes his own vocals as well as production here. His rapper persona is Captain Murphy, named after a character in the Adam Reed parody show “Sealab 2021.” Like everything in his music, his rap style is highly abstract, being either barely intellgible as in “The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep” or comical and absurd as in “Dead Man’s Tetris.” The latter track also features a contribution from Snoop Dogg, who arrives after one of the album’s most explosive bursts of sound. He and Kendrick Lamar, who has a stunning rap in the jazzy “Never Catch Me,” represent the more “pop” aspects of this project. Needless to say at this point, they are anomalies, swamped by the more experimental side. After the halfway point in the album, these more accessible elements tend to be dissolved in the chaos of sound. The final track, “The Protest,” brings energetic piano playing and a choir singing “We will live on forever and ever” like a mantra.

Death is indeed one of the album’s overriding themes, though it makes no definitive statements on the topic. Instead, it’s content to let moments of frenetic activity, grinding fear, and insecurity swirl and mix. Because it switches between sounds and ideas so quickly, the album is restless. Intentionally mysterious and often abrasive, “You’re Dead!” is a successful fifth outing for Flying Lotus, who has shown himself to be one of the few artists capable of using computers in a way that consistently produces great music.

Prince: Art Official Age

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Last year, Prince appeared as a guest artist on Janelle Monáe’s album “The Electric Lady,” and at the time I took it as a sign of how far Prince had declined relative to his own legacy. His work since 1990 has been solid but mostly uninspiring, subtly updating the same 80s style Prince pioneered but which has since been surpassed by successors like André 3000 and the aforementioned Monáe. Now Prince has released two albums at once, “Plectrum Electrum” with his all-woman 3rdEyeGirl band and “Art Official Age,” a solo project. This review is of the latter only, because though they can be considered companion pieces in some ways, they are also very different works. “Art Official Age” is a strong release, remolding Prince’s signature eccentricities in the image of 2014 pop.

Wrapped in a gauze-thin sci-fi concept, “Art Official Age’s” direct predecessor is the 1987 album “Sign O The Times,” which similarly took a futuristic look at present troubles. Politics always takes a backseat to the erotic with Prince, though, which means the songs here tend to be about personal ambivalence toward technology and communication. “Clouds,” for example, contrasts the spontaneity of personal interaction with the distance of online interaction, especially in a world of web-produced mini-celebrities.  Nothing here is polemical, which is remarkable considering Prince’s well-known past aversion to the Internet.

As the title suggests, the album considers the ways that people find themselves caught in limiting roles they cannot escape. Well-worn territory for Prince, this title should remind us of Prince’s ugly battles with Warner Bros. in the past, when he used to go to public events with the word “slave” taped over his mouth. These themes emerge in the romantic ballads as well as the sharper tracks. The music bears a strong resemblance to Monáe’s last two albums, albeit without most of the orchestral grandiosity Monáe likes to employ. Guitar work is generally stellar,  and everything from “Gold Standard’s” horn stabs to the title track’s astral arrangements sound pristine. Resemblances to earlier Prince songs are easy to spot. “Breakfast Can Wait” strongly recalls “Starfish and Coffee” while “Funknroll” borrows the demanding dance floor vibe of “Housequake.” Still, nothing sounds dated or sterile in any of the thirteen tracks.

“U Know” uses synth-heavy production, backwards vocals, and a surprisingly strong beat to deliver an elliptical song about a difficult relationship. While the verses have Prince using a robotic speaking style, the choruses showcase his wide vocal range and capability for tenderness. The language of contracts works its way into the song as well, further linking this song about love with careerism. While Prince is not always so successful here–– “This Could Be Us” has bright moments but stretches its meme-based premise too far––a combination of terrific musicianship and skillfully produced grooves make it far more enjoyable than Prince has been in too long.

“Funknroll” represents the other, more ferocious part of the album. From the outset, it’s uncompromising, putting a foreboding beat under this record’s most biting vocal performance. Claustrophobic yet danceable for most of its running time, it bursts its dense coils in the last ninety seconds. It’s a thrilling breakdown leading into the end of the album.

Prince’s output since 1990 has been alternately criticized for trying too hard or slacking off. That’s understandable when much of that output was either driven by contractual obligation or packed into gigantic triple albums. “Art Official Age” certain has ambition, and it showcases Prince’s characteristic quirks, but it is still highly enjoyable. It makes one optimistic for the future of spaced-out funk in the coming years.

Moodymann: “Desire”

Detroit techno veteran Moodymann has teamed up with José James to deliver this intimate dance piece. Ornamented with quiet piano chords and driven by a bass-heavy beat, the song feels like a natural extension of both James’ and Moodymann’s previous work. Clearly rooted in soulful, minimalist techno, it was released the same year as James’ new album, which has continued to dig deeper into the world of R&B and even rock. It’s the perfect song for saying goodbye to the summer.

U2: Songs of Innocence

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As U2’s career drags into another decade, it starts to resembles a papacy than a typical tenure in the rock business. I doubt Bono would shrink from such an honor, given that his band has reigned unopposed as the “world’s biggest rock band” for more than twenty years. For at least that long, it has remained almost rigorously committed to the same religious and aesthetic principles. The band has deviated from its arena rock template on occasion––1997’s “Pop” comes to mind––but Tuesday’s surprise iTunes release “Songs of Innocence” is no deviation. It’s not even a gentle swerve despite the guidance of producer Danger Mouse, planting itself firmly in the mainstream of U2’s canon. In a rock genre stuffed with successive U2 heirs and imitators, it fails to convince this listener that 2014, or any future year, needs a new U2 record.

Though the record is thoroughly boring, it deserves more than a word of appreciation as well. Producer Danger Mouse’s contributions, including his signature distorted keyboards and sharply defined mixing, make enough of a mark to be noticed. His work doesn’t change the typical U2 formula. The echoing guitar “chimes,” marching drum beats, and titanic Bono vocals still remain, and the entire album still projects to the cathedral ceiling.

Relationship songs “Song For Someone” and “Every Breaking Wave” are perfect examples of this. Bono’s voice has stayed remarkably sharp and powerful as he ages but the effect has worn thin. The band fares much better on “Cedarwood Road,” which, tellingly, mines Bono’s memories of his youth to portray a sense of menace and distress. Youth and the past are primary themes in “Songs of Innocence,” but as usual in U2 it is difficult to parse specific events or themes from a tidal wave of universal appeals and vague gestures at questions of faith and global “issues.”

Most of the times the album deviates from the band’s anthemic template is to quote U2’s influences. “California (There Is No End To Love)” begins with a quotation from the Beach Boys, and tributes to Johnny Ramone of the Ramones and Joe Strummer of The Clash also appear. The latter song, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” could easily support a case that U2 differs from The Clash primarily in being blander, less rhythmically arresting, and vaguer.

One lyrical standout is “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” whose music and words skewer religious hypocrisy in the church. Even there, Bono’s use of his screeching falsetto seems intended to unsettle but merely annoys. “Songs of Innocence,” then, is not without enjoyments or technical precision, but those merits get lost in songs that usually fail to come alive. They’re so plagued by ambivalence and gazing backwards that they fail to justify their own existence except as a continuation of “the world’s biggest rock band’s” career.

“Songs of Innocence’s” primary virtue and undoing is its consistency from the outside in. This digital album’s cover is a mostly blank LP cover, perfectly encapsulating its mix of sentimental nostalgia and digital disposability. No one needs to listen to this album, and, as if to drive that point home, U2 and Apple have given it away to hundreds of millions of customers. Like U2 descendant Arcade Fire, this Irish band obsesses over its own youth and the loss of innocence that aging entails. What’s missing from both of those bands is forward thinking or any attempt to overcome the confusion and mistiness that plague their music. Instead of honesty, we get platitudes like “a broken heart is an open heart” or worse, “free yourself to be yourself.” Though its production is sharp and its marketing campaign ironclad, “Songs of Innocence” mostly muddles the issues it addresses, both personal and political, and ends up being just another U2 album. Fans will no doubt appreciate it and its tributes to the band’s predecessors, but for anyone else this record is utterly inessential.

Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty

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Recently, some rumors circulated to the effect that I am not a tiger. They go on to claim that I am in fact a human masquerading as a noble beast for the purposes of a blog gimmick. Allow me to allay any such concerns with a cleansing palliative. I am a tiger, albeit an unusual one. Those who want to continue propagating this rumor can direct their conspiratorial ramblings to my editor. That said, I only bring this up because the arrival of Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty marks an important milestone for this humble publication. The Tiger Manifesto––then under the name Memoirs of a Culture Stalker––began on August 7, 2012, meaning that yesterday was the second anniversary of my only successful blogging project. On August 12 of 2012, I reviewed Shabazz Palaces’ first album Black Upand I enjoy the synchronicity enough to publish this a few days before that.

This blog has undergone much renovation in two years, moving from a scattershot blog featuring reviews and scattershot ramblings to a more focused Marxist theoretical blog. We’ve gotten almost 20,000 hits since then, leading me to hope that there are at least a few of the original readers still sticking around.

With that backward gazing out of the way, let’s turn our eyes to the skies. I’ve written about my distaste for apocalyptic fetishes and the No Future mope that has crept into so much bourgeois American music and film these days. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I’ve gravitated toward futurist music, especially Afrofuturism, since they tend to hit my sweet spot somewhere between political activism, embrace of modern technology, and psychedelic forms. Lese Majesty lands right on target in this regard, combining a confident improvisation in lyrics with rigorous editing an track arrangement. In that way, the album sounds ceremonial, harnessing spontaneity within strict limitations that focus and concentrate it. Compared to my other favorite Afrofuturist musical act, Sun Ra, Shabazz Palaces has a far more concise method of communicating its spacey concepts. Where Sun Ra’s compositions provided enough temporal space for lengthy instrumental improvisations and deep-space excursions, the music of Lese Majesty is compressed and intensely verbal. The album has the efficiency of a They Might Be Giants album, packing eighteen tracks into forty-five minutes.

Most of these tracks are under three minutes in length, and cannot or will not stand on their own. In particular, tracks like “Solemn Swears” sound more like mantras than songs, impeccably produced but cut short before they can develop. Another song sweeps in to fill the gaps, and the album proceeds in this staccato fashion for most of its runtime, pausing for one of the seven longer tracks once in awhile. It would be fair to call much of this album sketchy or even incomplete if not for its mastery of flow and surprise. The songs are split into seven suites, which are described in the booklet that comes with the iTunes and CD versions of the album (perhaps among other versions).

Though the lyrics are hardly a tertiary concern for the album, as they’re quite pointed and even militant at times (especially against the superficiality and narcissism of mainstream hip hop), they don’t weave into an overall concept. Instead, the music itself functions as the album’s connective tissue, tying the disparate fragments and tracks in a sort of web that keeps enough consistency to ground the various tangents and diversions the album confronts you with. There’s plenty of ornamentation here, incorporating more synthesizers and reverb into the mix, but it’s never ostentatious, and it’s hardly the point in any case. This are space grooves, and there’s no point in visiting outer space if you’re not going to take an awed look around once in awhile. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this “the future of hip hop,” since it’s right here with us now, but if it is a prophetic glimpse into the future, I’d have to call it one of the most hopeful glimpses I’ve seen in a long while.